Götterdämmerung: Zu End’ ewiges Wissen, and other endings

Why do we still want to see and hear the Ring? It’s not because of the dwarfs, the spells, the sword, or the gold. The Ring includes an unfair quantity of the greatest music ever written, and it’s expressing something a lot more profound and ambiguous than the novelty of seeing a dude in a bear suit. We want the Ring because in it we can hear love and rage and hope and evil amplified into the most glorious, mysterious sound. This is something Robert Lepage never seems to have grasped in his Met Ring Cycle.

To quote the First Norn, “ein wüstes Gesicht wirrt mir wüthend den Sinn.” Götterdämmerung is the weakest link of Lepage’s cycle. If there was redemption in this final performance of the Met’s Cycle 2, it was through the talent and hard work of the performers.


Wagner, Götterdämmerung. Met Opera Ring Cycle 2, 5/3/2012. Production by Robert Lepage, conducted by Fabio Luisi with Katarina Dalayman (Brünnhilde), Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried), Iain Paterson (Gunther), Wendy Bryn Harmer (Gutrune), Hans-Peter König (Hagen), Karen Cargill (Waltraute), Richard Paul Fink (Alberich), Maria Radner (First Norn), Elizabeth Bishop (Second Norn), Heidi Melton (Third Norn).

If you take the Ring literally, it’s pretty silly. So much of it’s supernatural, the causality of some events can be muddled (the Ring ends up back in the Rhine, so why does the Götterdämmerung proceed apace anyway?), there are a few weird plot holes (dead Siegfried shooing Hagen away from the Ring), and all sorts of other ridiculousnesses. Of course you can “solve” these problems–but in the larger picture to take the Ring so literally is idiotic. It’s myth, and it functions on a symbolic level and speaks to us in terms more ambiguous and timeless than the specific events that are being portrayed.

Robert Lepage, for all his talk of “fantasy,” has given us the expected, the swords and breastplates that confine the story to a picturesque storybook. The Machine dwarfs the singers and imposes its overwhelmingly simplistic scene-setting upon every moment. The characters, the emotion, and music that carries them all seems like an afterthought, because we have mountains to look at here, dammit. The Machine does not open up possibilities but preclude them, it threatens to make bland and tame all it touches.

Lepage reaches new heights of vacuity in each act of this Götterdämmerung. First the Norns stand still as the Machine wiggles. Then Brünnhilde incomprehensibly enters from the opposite side of the stage as Siegfried and equally incomprehensibly wields Nothung. This leads to nonsensical character work in Act 1 (Hagen and Gunther and Gutrune are just one big happy family… wait, what?), and then Hagen delivers his entire monologue sitting still in a chair. I suppose he could be sitting still with menace. But really, he’s not.

That seems minor compared to the problems of Act 2. It begins with the Hagen-Alberich scene in which Hagen remains still behind a big shield that looks like a speaker’s podium. We had a last-minute replacement Alberich, Richard Paul Fink (not pictured), and I was sure he was just wandering onstage in his street clothes. It turns out he was in fact wearing the costume–minus, of course, Eric Owens’s hair (pictured above on the left) (which on Fink would have been a disaster far greater than Frank van Aken sporting Jonas Kaufmann’s hair last weekend was). It’s just not the most inspired costume design, suggesting Alberich has spent his spare time away from the world of the rest of the production, perhaps becoming a new music conductor.

Later, the conspiracy trio involves a pair of angled chairs (seen above) that look like a setup for William Berger to ask Jay Hunter Morris a few more questions about working in roller skate rental, and the act concludes with a small crowd of vassals waving teeny streamers and creating a traffic jam near the undersized stage left exit to the flurry of smash-bang triumphant-scary music (sorry, Wagnerian German inspires such collocations).

But the end of the opera remains the worst thing (skipping over the scene where the Rhinemaidens slide down the wall, climb back up it, and slide down again ad infinitum*). Siegfried’s pyre flickers meekly and slowly trundles upstage, Brünnhilde gets on Grane (props to Katarina Dalayman for managing this by herself with relative grace, an improvement over being lifted into place as seen earlier) and follows, and the machine rotates to enact a transformation to the Rhine. Hagen briefly runs after the Rhinemaidens, ending in a freeze-frame with his arm stretched back as if poised to grab them, but he doesn’t do so and they hold this for several seconds and then all slowly descend on an elevator. We get a lot of visible stagehands apparently helping the statues of the gods to gently crumble, as if centuries are passing seen through a time-lapse camera. An inglorious end to an infuriating project.

It may have been promoted as the Wagner Event of the Century (and I can’t blame the Met for doing this, they have to sell their tickets), but it’s best treated as a revival of a 20-year old production to which each singer brings their own strengths and weaknesses. When I managed to forget the hulking mass of the Machine and concentrate on the performers, I enjoyed it the most. This means to give up hopes of a unified dramatic conception, but there has never been one here. Forget Lepage, take and leave each individual performance for what it offers. (This is not a Gesamtkunstwerk.)

Katarina Dalayman was a noble Brünnhilde of considerable dramatic stature and power. Her voice remains shrill and uncontrolled at the top, but her presence and vivid way with the music had grown considerably since Walküre. Her raw emotion was the only thing worth watching in the big betrothal scene, and her Immolation had a generosity and large-scale expression that almost made the silliness around her recede. I wish I could understand her German better, but I feel like she knows what she’s saying even if her diction isn’t that great.

Jay Hunter Morris had a more successful evening than at the premiere. He got off to a scratchy start in the Prologue, but warmed up to his customary bright and clean singing (though skipping the C). He never has the power to really fill the house, but paced himself extremely well and was still sounding fresh through the torturous death scene. He has a likeable, friendly presence, and Siegfried is hardly a complex character, but I could use more acting-wise in the final scene. (If one can ever ask for that without being very nasty. It’s a hard thing to sing, to say the least.) I hope he can next work on this interpretation somewhere in Europe where he’ll be singing in a smaller house and get some good direction.

Karen Cargill had big shoes to fill replacing Waltraud Meier as Waltraute, but if she isn’t Meier’s rival in textual insight (who is?) her giant chocolately voice was a considerable pleasure. Iain Paterson is an interesting Gunther, aware and frustrated but resigned to his status as a beta male, and a fine singer of this rather thankless role. Hans-Peter König’s Hagen is an enigma: astonishingly well sung with an enormous, black bass, but so utterly lacking in menace that he might as well be Baron Ochs. In the remaining roles, Wendy Bryn Harmer kept up her duties in the Help! Help! fach, Heidi Melton’s Third Norn is the great Wagner soprano of the future, and the Rhinemaidens were less shrill and more evenly balanced than before. The chorus was excellent.

I’ve run out of words to describe Fabio Luisi’s conducting. It’s competent, fluent, perfectly sufficient and at most points falls a bit short of being profound. The brass didn’t have the best night, but I’ve heard far worse.

The Ring is so special, even a mediocre Götterdämmerung has the power to leave you sort of a mess at the end, but still I can’t picture myself going to see this production again in a hurry. It’s too distancing, too boring, too ugly. With a major stroke of casting genius–Christian Thielemann or Nina Stemme come to mind–we’d talk, but when it comes to next year’s line-up I don’t think I’ll be alone in giving it a miss.

I went back to see the first thing I wrote about this Ring. It was this:

I am a Robert Lepage skeptic. He seems more interested in creating
images than narrative, and more taken with gadgets than characters.  And
a Ring Cycle without an overarching sense of narrative would be
dire.  This will be an important moment for the Met, and let’s hope that
it turns out well.  As if that weren’t enough, add a complicated set, a
very fragile conductor, and a dangerous number of unreliable and/or
role-debuting singers and you have… enormous potential for backstage
drama. 

To which I say this.

I’m putting the Wagner back on the shelf for now but not for long. I’ll be returning to the Ring in July for the Bayerische Staatsoper’s Cycle B.

*Also in this stretch: Gunther washes Siegfried’s blood in the Rhine, turning a large part of the Machine red. This reminded me of the end of Herheim’s Bayreuth Parsifal in reverse, but I really doubt Lepage has seen it.

PREVIOUSLY in order of appearance:
HD broadcast, Die Walküre
Siegfried prima
Götterdämmerung prima
Cycle 2 Das Rheingold 
Cycle 2 Die Walküre
 
A few more photos, all © Ken Howard/Met:

 

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Met’s Makropulos Case lives on

Elina Makropulos is a woman as old as opera.


Janáček, The Makropulos Case (Věc Makropulos). Metropolitan Opera, 4/27/2012. Production by Elijah Moshinsky, conducted by Jiri Belohlávek with Karita Mattila (Emilia Marty), Emalie Savoy (Kristina), Richard Leech (Gregor), Johan Reuter (Prus), Tom Fox (Kolenaty), Alan Oke (Vitek), Matthew Plenk (Janek), Bernard Fitch (Count Hauk-Sendorf).

Note: Spoilers, as they say, ahead. If you don’t know anything about this opera and are thinking of going to see it–as I encourage you to do!–be aware that it is one of the only operas that actually works well as a suspense thriller. So you might not want to read the rest of this until later. And not think about that first line too much. (Of the two friends I saw this with, one knew the big plot twist and one didn’t. The one who didn’t loved the mystery aspects. The one who did know also enjoyed it, though.)

Elina Makropulos is a woman as old as opera. A little older, in fact: she was born in 1585. And she is, of course, an opera singer. By 1922, when the opera is set, she’s tired. But as tempting as it is to read The Makropulos Case as an allegory for music history–Opera, as we all know, is a woman, and one of dubious virtue at that, and as for the date when she died, 1922 is not a bad candidate (just ask Slavoj Zizek)–taken to its literal end it doesn’t get you very far. The best evidence against it is The Makropulos Case itself, an utterly unique work that seems to expand the idea of what an opera can be.

Opera, and Elina Makropulos, know how to have a good time, but the weight of the cumulative past eventually becomes overwhelming. When she finally lets go and dies, we can get on with it and have The Makropulos Case, something new. It’s a kind of gothic legal thriller, a mystery populated by ordinary people trying to deal with one extraordinary one, set to a flickering, dark score that erupts in moments of lyric beauty. And it’s a wonderfully urbane and creepy piece, twisty and explicit in ways you would not expect, but without the intense neurosis of, say, Elektra. All from a composer most famous for his sympathy for Moravian peasants.

The Met’s Elijah Moshinsky production is avowedly set in the twentieth century–I suppose in the 1920’s, though it looks a little bit more recent. It’s a staging of broad strokes, from a giant portrait of E.M. staring at us to a tall wall of windows and another of file cabinets to a painfully obvious and yet somehow still fabulous giant sphinx in Act 2. (Could this mean the E.M. is mysterious, and old? Nah, it probably means she just finished singing Aida.) It’s a good-looking production, and the revival direction is detailed and sensitive. While rarely inspired and rather unfocused, it works.

The biggest disappointment of the evening was the sloppy and pale playing by the orchestra. Jiri Belohlávek’s tempos were fine and everything held together in the big picture, but textures were muddy and the entire evening seemed low in energy. Considering that this performance was on the night between Rheingold and Walküre, it may have suffered limited rehearsal and/or many subs in the pit. It’s too bad, because the orchestral writing of this opera is fantastic.

But the reason to put on The Makropulos Case is because you have a diva. And Karita Mattila fits the bill. Her recent outings at the Met have found her badly miscast; she doesn’t have the tonal breadth or earnest sincerity for Manon Lescaut or Tosca. And her most recent Salomes, while terrifically acted, showed a fraying voice. But she has always been great in Janáček, and Makropulos finds her in her element both vocally and theatrically.

She sounds great, and sings Janáček’s tricky rhythms with a spontaneity that suggests they are just being written. Her Emilia Marty/etc. is a woman who has had the time to figure out what she wants and what she needs to do get it–until she discovers, to her surprise, that she doesn’t want it anymore. She doesn’t so much approach the line of camp as much as not acknowledge its existence, striking languorous poses and draping herself over various pieces of furniture, singing all the while. In the hands of a lesser performer she would be Lilli von Schtupp, but Mattila has the charisma to get away with a lot. It is unquestionably her show.

The supporting cast was fine but overshadowed. As Gregor, Richard Leech sang unrelentingly loudly with a throaty sort of tone. Johan Reuter acted well as Prus, and mostly sounded good too, though it is not a large voice and I am slightly concerned as I am seeing him as Wotan this summer. Emalie Savoy made an excellent Met debut as Kristina. Bernard Fitch was a little more voiceless than one would expect old Hauk to be voiceless.

This is one of the performances of the season. Go see it.

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The Met’s Traviata: She’s fallen and she can’t get up

The Met’s first revival of Willy Decker’s production of La traviata brought us the fragile charms of Natalie Dessay in the title role. Did she conquer the sofa that made Anna Netrebko (in Salzburg) a star?


Verdi, La Traviata. Met, 4/18/2012. Production by Willy Decker (revival), conducted by Fabio Luisi with Natalie Dessay (Violetta), Matthew Polenzani (Alfredo), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Gérmont).

Since I was away last season, this was my first time seeing the production live, though I knew it from the famous Netrebko/Villazón Salzburg DVD. I like it very much and I can’t help but cheer to see Met people lined up around the block to see a production where a man in a dress and a mask suggestively rubs the minute hand of a giant clock, you know? It warms my heart. Also, it is just a really, really good staging.

Decker’s is a stylized, bleakly unsentimental interpretation, pared-down and extreme. It’s the opposite of the old Zeffirelli production, whose heavy upholstery tended to dampen any excessive displays of emotion and absorb even the most charismatic of singers. Here, Violetta is starkly isolated, her red dress the sole splotch of color among the anonymous hoards of men who pursue her. Maybe the giant clock counting down Violetta’s days and the hovering figure of Dr. Grenvil (AKA Death) aren’t subtle, but the imagery is striking and beautiful. (I’m not going to summarize it in any more detail because its virtues are, by this point, well known.) The staging requires real presence in this title role, and yet rewards a star Violetta in a way that Zeffirelli’s production never did.

Natalie Dessay was getting over something and by all accounts had a better outing last night than she did at previous performances during this run. She got off to a rough start, sounding tentative and having trouble staying with the inevitable Fabio Luisi and the orchestra. By “È strano,” she had stabilized. But her voice is still a thin and silvery thread, limited in its scope and color. Her only real variation is a breathy quality, which gets old quickly. Floaty high notes made the letter aria her best moment; the coloratura of “Sempre libera” was fast but not overly accurate. But in the ensembles and everyone’s favorite outburst, “Amami, Alfredo,” she came up well short in volume. (She did sing the high E-flat at the end of Act 1, and it was far too long and loud. I like this interpolation at times, but the fermata was way over the top.) She got to the ends of the phrases but rarely sounded more than wispy, and sometimes rhythm and phrasing, and even intonation, seemed slapdash.

Her acting was similar in tone, a damaged Violetta only barely making it through rather than the physically weak but psychically joyous interpretation Netrebko brought to this production. Netrebko’s voice spoke to Violetta’s strength of spirit, Dessay’s voice speaks to the decay of her body.

Maybe this is appropriate for Violetta. It’s a special and poignant kind of pathos when the failings of the singer become the failings of the character. (Begin theoretical digression:) Regular readers of Critical Inquiry may remember Carolyn Abbate’s article on analyzing opera in performance that used a similar incident as an example of a highly charged performative moment, namely the cracktacular Ben Heppner’s struggles to get through the Prize Song. His heroism to stand up in front of an audience while his vocal apparatus repeatedly failed him, according to this argument, sort of put the Helden- in Heldentenor.* Traviata is a little different: Violetta’s frailty and Dessay’s own weakness are complementary while Walther isn’t supposed to be struggling. But I don’t buy this argument. Poor Heps’s first few cracks might have been something special, but if they kept coming eventually a crack is just a crack, not a transformative performative act. An opera can have these moments, but it also has a narrative arc that extends through the evening. (End theoretical digression.) And a Violetta whose sole affect is fragility is too one-sided an interpretation to convince me. It’s a rich, complex character, and I found Dessay not varied enough.

Matthew Polenzani sang Alfredo wonderfully, with inventive phrasing and consistent beauty of tone. But acting-wise he’s awkward. This could work for the character (I’ve seen it done intentionally by others), but it’s a problem of this sort of production: it was originally designed for the more shameless and impetuous Rolando Villazón. Polenzani is obliged to follow this mode, and he wasn’t selling it.  As Papa Gérmont, Dmitri Hvorostovsky radiated stolid gravitas. Vocally, he has the range of about a fourth in his voice that sounds just spectacular, from around an A to a D at the top of the staff. Below that sounds growly and above it forced, but a lot of “Di Provenza” sits right in that velvety sweet spot and he has got the legato and it sounded wonderful. Unfortunately the duet with Violetta is a little lower, and didn’t sound as good.

Fabio Luisi conducted a self-indulgently slow prelude (as an old teacher of mine said, “you’re supposed to make them cry, not point out to them that they’re supposed to be crying”) but mostly kept the orchestra in line for Dessay, entertained Polenzani’s unusual staccato approach to the beginning of “De’ mei bollenti spiriti,” and was elsewhere not too sugary. The orchestra didn’t have any problems, and the chorus sounded fine with only a few mild coordination hiccups. The stage direction of said chorus is not quite as tight as it could be, but I’ve seen far worse.

Despite this less than completely convincing assumption of the title role, I’m still very glad I finally got to see this first-class production. Somehow I doubt the Met will ever be able to originate a production of a warhorse opera that is this of this quality, but I’m glad that it made it to New York eventually.

 La traviata continues through May 2.

*Yes, this is the same article I cited in both my Spring for Music entries. It’s going to be for me what Seamus is to Gail Collins.

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Manon at the Met marche sur quelques chemins

The Met’s new Anna Netrebko vehicle production of Manon stands out in the desert of the Met as a rare beacon of competence. Laurent Pelly’s production isn’t great–the tone is uneven and it generally fails to cohere–but most of it is smoothly executed and there’s some interesting stuff in there. Above all, it has Anna Netrebko as Manon, and her epic soprano that overwhelms everything around her.


Massenet, Manon. Metropolitan Opera, 3/31/12. New production by Laurent Pelly with sets by Chantal Thomas and costumes by Pelly, lights by Joël Adam. Conducted by Fabio Luisi with Anna Netrebko (Manon), Piotr Beczala (Des Grieux), Paulo Szot (Lescaut), David Pittsinger (Count des Grieux), Christophe Mortagne (Guillot).

First, if you can take a second and vote for me in the second round of the Arts Blogger Challenge, I would appreciate it. If I were to win I would be able to bring you more writing funded by my oodles of prize money.


Pelly sets the opera in the Belle Époque, around the time of its composition. The central idea is compelling: male voyeurism, and Manon alternately controlling and being controlled by the male society she fascinates. Netrebko’s Manon might start off young, but she’s both hot to trot and fully self-conscious from the beginning. On every step of her journey from country girl to living-in-sin Bohemian to kept woman, she knows what she wants and how she’s going to get it–it’s just the society that enjoys her so much has to condemn her in the end to satisfy their nineteenth-century morality. For Netrebko, this is a great interpretation, fitting her modern, forthright sexuality as well as her lustrous, big voice. Playing Manon as a wispy innocent would be both dramatically and vocally futile for her.

The production’s execution of this concept, though, leaves something to be desired. Chantal Thomas’s plain, cardboard-y sets, with some off-kilter angles and exaggerated perspective, look unfinished and incongruously small in the vast space of the Met’s stage. (This production was first seen in the much smaller Royal Opera House in London.) There’s an obsession with multiple levels and ramps, and everything is white and looks kind of the same until we reach the casino. The costumes are more elaborate though the color palette is limited.

Pelly doesn’t seem to have entirely decided about where he wants to take the piece, mixing cute jokes with some pretty heavy duty stuff and thus undermining both. While his attention to personal interaction is admirable, the characterization is not entirely consistent, and realism and surrealism mix uneasily. Tiny houses and freeze frames in the chorus recall Pelly’s cutesy Fille du régiment, but it’s hard to think that the crowds of men spying on Manon at every turn are a joke.

In the Saint-Sulpice scene, Des Grieux’s bed appears to be located in the nave of the church, which makes sense if you think about it as abstract, but the sets so far had been more literal about their sense of place. And when Manon rips off his cassock, it can’t help but be over-the-top silly. Her action–seducing a priest-in-training after his sermon–is itself ridiculously melodramatic, but the ironic tone sits awkwardly with the sweet staging of their romance in the first half of the opera.

When Pelly really goes for the abuse heaped on fallen women, I’m still not sure if I can take him seriously. A ballet with intently-watching Jockey Club men seems like a knock-off of the Giselle parody in David McVicar’s Faust (actually, in some ways this whole production is a bargain basement version of that one). There’s an air of half-assedness around it. It’s a shame, because it could have worked had Pelly taken a few more chances.

But even if it rarely lifts off, there’s a lot to offer here, first and foremost Netrebko. Most people would say she’s well past the Massenet-Manon fach and should be singing Puccini’s more full-throated Manon instead, but she brings a lot to Massenet as well. Namely, she fills (and occasionally crashes through) the phrases with such a gorgeous, thick, sexy sound that they seem to glow, at least some of the time. She’s most at home in the legato of the entrance aria and the table farewell, while the ornate faux-eighteenth century writing and Ds in the Cours la Reine scene aren’t easy for her (the first D worked pretty well but the second not as much). Overall it’s a beautifully full-blooded performance, with vitality and passion to spare.

Piotr Beczala tends to indicate more than inhabit his roles, but his Des Grieux was the most convincing acting I’ve seen from him, with straightforward naturalism that generally eludes him. Unfortunately all was not well vocally for his Italianate lyric tenor. He’s a very musical singer and some phrases were gorgeous, but he struggled with intonation the entire evening, often singing slightly sharp. Louder phrases, including much of “Ah! fuyez..” were pushed and lacked resonance.

The supporting roles were fine, with Paulo Szot making the most of his likeability as Lescaut. His voice is on the small side but he sounds good enough in this role. Christophe Mortagne was funny as Guillot, though I’m not sure if funny was quite what was required all the time. David Pittsinger is always a welcome presence at the Met and was an excellent Count (his entrance in the Hôtel de Transylvanie scene makes you remember how very much like Traviata large portions of this opera are).

Fabio Luisi’s conducting was intelligent and well-coordinated and on the more deliberate side of things. I wish it had been flashier. Actually, that’s what I would have liked of the whole production.

If you haven’t read La Cieca’s piece on Netrebko’s characterization of Manon, I recommend you do. I have one thing I’d add, though. While there is no single Manon, we can say with some confidence what the 19th-century Manon would have been, and we can say what audiences today expect as well. Based on the reaction, the latter is something much daintier than Netrebko. I think that for rhetorical purposes La Cieca understates the difficulty of contravening this tradition. The score is all we have, but people are attached to their usual ways of thinking about a piece, and you need to be stronger and more consistent than Pelly is here to convince them otherwise.

Still, the production is worth seeing, if somewhat disappointing.


Manon plays through April and she will suffer her inevitable HD broadcast on April 7.

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met

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The enigmas of Khovanshchina at the Met

Khovanshchina is an imposing confusion, a solemn tragedy with the solemnity and stature of Greek tragedy but none of the clarity. Musorgsky’s music is so damn good, and the musical values in this Met revival are so high that you’re hanging on every word, even though they haven’t done anything to sort out the drama, or even really bothered to portray it.


Musorgsky, Khovanshchina, orchestrated by Shostakovich with final scene by Igor Stravinsky. Metropolitan Opera, 3/1/2012. Production by August Everding (revival), conducted by Kirill Petrenko with Anatoli Kotscherga (Ivan Khovansky), George Gagnidze (Shaklovitïy), Olga Borodina (Marfa), Ildar Abdrazakov (Dosifey), Misha Didyk (Andrei Khovansky), Vladimir Galouzine (Golisïn), Wendy Bryn Harmer (Emma).

Khovanshchina was left unfinished upon its composer’s untimely death. The conductor’s note in my recording says this:

Khovanshchina is a massive canvas of many conflicting tragedies, fears, ambitions and hopes for Russia. The additions of Stravinsky and Shostakovich, for all their musical interest, are comments on Russian history… and they result in a political emphasis to the opera which cannot be justified by Musorgsky’s own scores and letters. The very ambiguity of Khovanshchina makes is an opera of great contemporary relevance; to polarise or clarify is, I feel, to reduce its effect, especially in the Russia of today.

The conductor who wrote this was none other than Valery Gergiev, in Gorbachev-era late Soviet Russia. (The Gergiev of today, however, would fit in perfectly among the shady schemers of the opera’s libretto.) The point that Shostakovich’s and Stravinsky’s additions to the incomplete score constitute an ideological reworking is absolutely correct. But it’s impossible to know—and to my mind difficult to believe—that a Khovanshchina finished by Musorgsky would have lacked a strong political message (though evident disagreements between Musorgsky and his librettist Vladimir Stasov may have muddled things).

As it is, Khovanshchina acquired a sort of accidental modernism, a fragmentation and polyvalent quality that is a relic not of intention but of process, of a work left in pieces and given its shape by others. The basic plot deals with the power struggles between Ivan Khovansky, head of the Streltsy militia and his semi-allies the schismatic Old Believers versus the Boyars (aristocrats) versus and the regent Sophia, and the offstage rumblings of Westernization from the teenage future Peter the Great. Khovansky might want to use his unruly militia to overthrow Sophia? Or does the scheming boyar Shaklovitïy just want to get him out of the way? Does the regent not like the diplomat Golisïn anymore? What makes it so confusing is that Stasov condenses many events into a short time period and, disallowed from showing any Romonovs onstage, much happens through proxy. Khovansky falls and the Old Believers immolate at the end, paving the way for Peter the Great, and it’s unclear if the opera thinks this is good for Russia or not.

Unless Russian history is your job or hobby, it’s probably best to forget about trying to follow the plot in close detail. In any case, the Met’s rickety and faded August Everding production doesn’t do anything to make it interesting or compelling. (Tellingly, you can barely see the set in the production photos, found at the bottom of this post.) What you have is the music, the main event in this performance. The score’s “broad canvas” of schemers express themselves with a noble lyricism that is quite different from the rough realism of Boris Godunov, and the music has an austere beauty that is uniquely beautiful, whatever its message.

The Met has assembled a largely Slavic cast for this opera, and an impressive group it is, with many more beautiful and fewer steely or worn voices than your average straight-from-the-Kirov crew. This diversity may be because Valery Gergiev was, for once, not conducting. Instead we had Kirill Petrenko, whose leadership was more refined and layered, less white-hot and loud, befitting this surprisingly elegant score. The orchestra sounded excellent—particularly when I escaped the rear orchestra overhang after the first intermission—and the chorus had its moments of greatness but some wobbly circa-2005 ones as well.

Olga Borodina was the star of the evening as Marfa, an Old Believer/maybe-witch/spurned lover who ties the plot together in various improbable ways. Her mezzo has been headed south over the past few years, adding a deep resonance to her already well-known velvety richness. (One wonders how she will manage Amneris next season.) And while her acting wasn’t much (no one’s was, really), she can tell the story with her voice.

Most of the rest of the roles belong to lower-voiced men. Anatoli Kotscherga must be getting on in years but Russian basses are a durable article and he has both cavernous sound and a good amount of charisma. George Gagnidze’s baritone was impressive in Shakovitïy’s Scene 3 lament for the pains of Russia—even if no one quite knew what he actually wanted to happen to Russia. And Ildar Abdrazakov matched Borodina for vocal warmth and depth as the Old Believer chief Dosifey. In the higher categories, Misha Didyk was ardent and promising as Andrei but this yelping sort of role doesn’t offer many opportunities to really hear the voice’s quality. Former Andrei Vladimir Galouzine sounded very baritonal as Golitsïn but still has the notes and the voice is in good shape. Supporting roles were strong, particularly John Easterlin’s well-characterized Scribe and Wendy Bryn Harmer’s bright-voiced Emma.

The Met is using Shostakovich’s completion, supposedly based on Musorgsky’s original score before the inevitable Rimsky-Korsakov got his hands on it. But Petrenko has edited it a bit in ways to dilute the Peter the Great-positive message imposed by Shostakovich and Rimsky (edits similar to those found in Claudio Abbado’s recording). At the end of Act 2, Petrenko ends with an unresolved chord, leaving out Shostakovich and Rimsky’s Peter-positive postludes (Musorgsky had imagined a big concertante but no one has composed it). More drastically, Petrenko has adopted the final scene completion by Stravinsky, a quiet and ghostly ending as the Old Believers burn up.  Shostakovich had ended with a big reprise of the Dawn prelude hailing the glorious future of Peter the Great’s reforms, while Stravinsky seems to take the dire forecasts of the Old Believers more to heart, a (1872) Boris-like conclusion.

I wish the Met’s production rose to the challenges of the opera as much as the cast did. Even if you agree with Gergiev that political neutrality is the way to go, you could do something, anything to make it visually compelling. From the flat sets to the indifferent direction (including a very boring dance from the inevitable Persian slave girls), it saps a lot of energy and grandeur from this great opera. But the music is fantastic, and considering how rarely the Met ventures into this territory at all (there is not a single Slavic opera on the schedule for all of next season), that’s still something to be thankful for.

For a compelling modern DVD of this opera, check out this Dmitri Tcherniakov production from Munich.

Khovanshchina continues through March 17.

Photos (copyright Ken Howard/Met):

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Madama Butterfly shines on

This production of Madama Butterfly was Peter Gelb’s first opening night of the Met and remains the most beautiful production of his regime as General Director. This was the third time I had seen it and while on the outside it is still gorgeous I have grown more wary of its glossy surfaces, just as I have of Gelb’s artistic mission.


Puccini, Madama Butterfly. Metropolitan Opera, 2/17/2012. Production by Anthony Minghella (revival), conducted by Placido Domingo with Patricia Racette (Cio-Cio-San), Adam Diegel (Pinkerton), Laurent Naouri (Sharpless), Maria Zifchak (Suzuki).

(Obligatory n.b.: this production, directed by the late Anthony Minghella, was first seen at the English National Opera.)

Perhaps my intellectual hackles were raised because I was never able to fully immerse myself emotionally in this performance, something I hadn’t had any trouble with on previous outings. This was primarily due to Placido Domingo’s pale and shapeless conducting, which did the score’s intensity and complexity a great disservice. Honestly, that major companies hire him to conduct is a disgrace. Under a different conductor this would have been a very different experience. But Placido gave me a V-Effekt and it didn’t stop.

This was particularly a shame because Patricia Racette’s Cio-Cio-San is really marvelous. She’s a naturally sympathetic singer, and brings a believable youthfulness to the part along with the needed vocal power. Her wide vibrato can sometimes obscure her pitch, but her sweet tone and solid chest voice matched with her unbroken sincerity and soulfulness makes her a touching Butterfly. I only wish the orchestra had matched her portrayal.

Racette with puppet son

Adam Diegel deputized for the ill Roberto De Biasio as Pinkerton, so I’ll cut him a break on his stiff acting. His voice has a pleasant bright quality and freshness, but he lacks the ringing high notes to really score in Puccini, and sometimes failed to fill the house vocally. I missed hammy Roberto Alagna, the last Pinkerton I saw in this production, who is fantastic in this role. It’s hard to believe that this evening marked Laurent Naouri’s Met debut (to anyone who watches European DVDs he is a familiar presence, particularly in Baroque repertoire), but he was an excellent Sharpless, with a deeper-than-average voice for the role and very sensitive and complex acting. Maria Zifchak was again Suzuki and was again great; other supporting roles were fine. We seemed to get the chorus’s B team, who in their first entrance sounded especially winded from their climb up Butterfly’s hill.

I’m not going to describe the staging in great detail because it is well known at this point and available on DVD. You can see a trailer at the bottom of this post. It’s elegant, with a spare set and extravagant costumes, with a plethora of sliding screens and a falling flower petals and paper lanterns. It does not challenge Puccini’s text. This is, after all, the Met, one of the few theaters in the world where a giant mirror onstage serves no purpose beyond producing a pretty reflection. Minghella and co. offer a modern continuation of Puccini’s well-intentioned Orientalist mission. They explore a strange “Other” culture–attempting research and presenting their results as something enchanting and different whose very appeal lies in its foreignness, its stylization, surface decoration and essential unknowability. Butterfly’s son is represented by a Bunraku puppet, who receives his own program note.* Is he, ripped from his native theatrical context and created by the British group Blind Summit Theatre, anything more than a modern version of the Chinese music box Puccini supposedly used as a source for Turandot? And, as a non-Japanese person myself, do I have any right to be offended on behalf of a people I likewise didn’t consult?

Attempts to challenge the exoticizing elements of Butterfly are numerous, notably by two of my favorite directors, Stefan Herheim and Peter Konwitschny (read those reviews, they’re really interesting and by a critic whose knowledge of Japanese culture vastly exceeds my own), but I think anything along these lines at the Met would probably cause a riot. Minghella treats his characters with respect, as does Puccini, and with a performer as heartfelt as Racette it would be easy to let these concerns recede. But I can’t do that in good conscience. The spectacular irony of having a white soprano as Cio-Cio-San and an Asian tenor as Pinkerton (Diegel is Korean) only underlined the fact that we can and should do better than treat another culture as a curio. Next time remember that Butterfly stages Puccini’s own Westernness, or ask a Japanese person before you do it (provided you are not already one yourself).

*“Western audiences are accustomed to seeing puppets used in the spirit of provocative comedy… or as homespun, educational entertainment for children… The puppets featured in the Met’s Madama Butterfly, on the other hand…”

Trailer (previous cast, same soprano):
 

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The Met’s Götterdämmerung: This is how the world ends

If nothing else, I thought, Robert Lepage will know how to make things blow up real good. But the end of his Götterdämmerung last night just sort of fizzled out. Some flames and water were projected onto the now familiar planks, some wee statues crumbled. It was–complete with the misplaced hope that this had been a technical failure in lieu of a more spectacular effect, which it was not–an inglorious but apt ending to a project that always promised something more interesting than it delivered. Musically, things were much better, but the Ring reduced to literalism is a Ring enfeebled.

Wagner, Götterdämmerung. Metropolitan Opera, 1/27/2012. New production premiere directed by Robert Lepage, sets by Carl Fillion, costumes by François St-Aubin, lights by Etiene Boucher, video by Lionel Arnould. Conducted by Fabio Luisi with Deborah Voigt (Brünnhilde), Jay Hunter Morris (Siegfried), Hans-Peter König (Hagen), Iain Paterson (Gunther), Wendy Bryn Harmer (Gutrune), Waltraud Meier (Waltraute), Eric Owens (Alberich)

From a design and mechanical perspective this is the strongest installment of the cycle (disclaimer: I have not yet seen Rheingold). The machine clanked a bit but not as much as in Siegfried, and the dreaded trench in the middle of the stage has finally been banished. The projections were less distractingly mobile and fussy. Lepage even seemed to be trying to make the singers move around more, particularly in Act 2. But the two central problems of the cycle remain: he tells the story through the set rather than through the characters, and his work is illustrative rather than interpretive. It was probably too late to do anything about those.

There weren’t any dumb shows or shadow plays to illustrate backstory in this installment, but the focus didn’t always shift to the storyteller. The Norns wove some giant ropes in the shape of a tree, aided by the Machine, and when they broke the Machine wiggled but the Norns themselves didn’t react physically at all, merely screaming “Es riß!” The only person who managed to overpower this narration problem was the indomitable Waltraud Meier as Waltraute, who was transfixing from her first moment to her last. You could see that she could see what she was narrating, and what she thought of it at each second. But I think that came from the previously well-established truth that Waltraud Meier is the Best, not from Lepage.

The production’s Personenregie failings were felt most acutely in the drama-prone House of Gibich, here represented by a projected wood backdrop and a big table. I should note that I was sitting in the Family Circle so some detail may have escaped me, but this was a very placid and bland bunch. Conventionally, Hagen is the evilest of evil, described by the chorus as “grimmer Hagen,” here he was a complete blank (and Gutrune, weirdly, seemed to really like him). I always have trouble caring about the Gibichungs, here where their affairs were so boring it was nearly impossible. They are not alone: Brünnhilde is severely underdirected in her wedding scene, seeming more mildly upset than traumatically outraged. Just because the direction is less static doesn’t mean it actually conveys dramatic meaning, unfortunately.

But the production is still filled with missteps small and large. One could just make a list. The projections make the geography of the fire mountain quite confusing. Why does Brünnhilde enter the Prologue with Nothung, and alone? (That’s Brünnhilde from Walküre, not Brünnhilde in Love.) Why does the action never seem to respond to the music? Why must so many entrances be made slowly and unceremoniously from the sides–the speed I assume is due to some stairs just offstage–which just isn’t dramatic. Waltraute needs to storm on, not stroll.

But the biggest problem is the Immolation. Here’s what happens. A funeral pyre of logs is built upstage. Brünnhilde lights it up and at the very end mounts her mechanical Grane (who reportedly closely resembles the horse of War Horse) and is rolled slowly towards it. The Machine rotates so we don’t see her burn, and the wall of planks is covered with projections of flames. These slowly give way to water so Hagen and the Rhinemaidens do the Zurück vom Ring bit. Three Five very little statues of the gods, previously seen in the Hall of Gibich (these statues are mentioned in the libretto, I think) appear at the top of the Machine and crumble, an effect that would be put to shame by a provincial production of Samson et Dalila. (From the Family Circle, some stage crew people were visible at this point.) We are left with just the water for the final exchange between the Valhalla and Redemption Leitmotives. It’s a massively anticlimactic staging of the least anticlimactic ending in music. It’s impossible to live up to that music (see: Peter Konwitschny’s ending in his Stuttgart production). But how could you put in so little effort?

Of course the music tells the story, but the staging deflates it and reduces something symbolic to something childishly literal. Still, the musical performance had much to recommend it. Fabio Luisi is an excellent palate cleanser after years and years of Levine. Where the latter can be ponderous and thick, Luisi is lean and dramatically attentive. But I am beginning to think he’s more a rebound relationship than someone I want to marry, Wagner-wise. He gets truly wonderful and sometimes downright luminous playing from the orchestra, the balance is generally good, but I miss the raw excitement, intensity, and weight of other conductors. I actually wanted to hear the orchestra more, for them to be unleashed.
(I am, practically speaking, probably wishing for Christian Thielemann.)
Even the Funeral March was oddly restrained.

Deborah Voigt was in better voice than she had been for any of the previous installments, particularly in the Prologue. Her high notes can be lush, and her middle was more consistently supported this time around. Her German is incomprehensible, and she shows no attention to the text or much musical variety, but in terms of pure voice this was a great improvement. If only she had gotten some better direction in Act 2. Jay Hunter Morris is a very likeable Siegfried, and has a healthier and sweeter tone than many of his breed. His voice is rather small, and towards the end of Acts 2 and 3 showed considerable strain, but what Siegfrieds don’t? In these roles I think both Katarina Dalayman and Stephen Gould of later casts will be worth hearing.

Vocally, the star of the show was Hans-Peter König’s Hagen, whose enormous if not especially dark tone was by far the loudest thing going (rivaled only by Eric Owens’s Alberich, in a memorable duet). If only he had managed to create a character. Wendy Bryn Harmer was a good Gutrune with excellent high notes and the bright tone you usually associate with this role. Waltraud Meier was, as already mentioned, a force of nature as Waltraute, to an extent that you don’t care about her slightly drying voice. Iain Paterson was fine as Gunther, though the production doesn’t seem to know what to do with him. In the smaller roles, Heidi Melton was a marvelous Third Norn and certainly has a big career ahead of her, and Elizabeth Bishop and Maria Radner were excellent as the Second and First ones as well. The Rhinemaidens, however, sounded screechy and often failed to blend, possibly due to a strenuous staging of continuously climbing up and sliding an inclined Machine. The chorus sounded fantastic.

But for better or for worse, every opera performance is the sum of all its parts, a Gesamtkunstwerk of whatever ends up happening. And on that front Lepage badly disappoints, giving us little more than a literal, often clumsy and boring visualization of the story that speaks so simplistically that it tames the drama to literal representation. Music is evocative, and the Ring is magical because it suggests things larger and more powerful than itself, things larger and deeper than our ordinary lives. Lepage’s staging makes us ask, is this all there is?

Götterdämmerung continues in February and will be presented with full cycles in April.

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La fille du régiment marches again

Laurent Pelly’s whimsical production of Donizetti’s fluffy La fille du régiment is impossible to dislike. I unexpectedly went to the last performance of its current Met run last night and was again charmed. The plot of an army mascot in love and her many protective parents (both the entire regiment and her newly-rediscovered blood relations) is sweet, the music is bouncy and tuneful, and the characters are so good-hearted and adorable that they remain likeable through the heavy layer of schtick conferred by Pelly’s production. When I saw the premiere cast in 2008, I found the show a little on the slick side (here is my review from back when I was a baby blogger), but this time I think it’s a winner through and through. The choreography keeps things cute and fast-paced, and the gags work, but Pelly never forgets to use them to define the characters first–when the haughty Marquise de Berkenfield thinks the praying peasants are saluting her, or when Marie bounces onstage wearing suspenders. The set of maps is vaguely representational and fills the stage, everyone dances periodically, and the soldiers are the most harmless lot you’ve ever seen. Lord knows what war figures in this slightly updated production, but does anyone really care?

Unlike the premiere’s Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez, the current cast doesn’t have the slightly empty look of people who have rehearsed very, very well, and they are a little more sincere. That’s a gain, but unfortunately the same star power just isn’t there. Nino Machaidze sang serviceably, but her laser-bright tone was unvaryingly loud and she lacks the agility to make the coloratura sparkle rather than just come out. Her Marie doesn’t have the quicksilver gamine quality of Dessay, but her more forceful, brassy acting worked well too. If only her spoken dialogue had resembled French.* Lawrence Brownlee made a suitably adorable and boyish Tonio and his warm and round sound has more appeal than Juan Diego Flórez’s, though he lacks some of the latter’s charisma–his final entrance on a tank in particular just didn’t have that incredible sense of ridiculous triumph. I’ve never really understood the appeal of the famous string of high C’s in “Pour mon âme” (when it comes to extreme tenoring, give me a good “Vittoria!” any day**), but Brownlee dispatched them with élan. Elsewhere, Ann Murray was hilarious as the Marquise of Berkenfeld, though her voice is showing its age and is very uneven. Maurizio Muraro was an amiable Suplice. Kiri Te Kanawa displayed her underrated comic skills as the Duchess of Krakentorp and still sounded like herself in an aria from “Le villi”. I missed Marian Seldes’s “he’s on the bobsled team!” line, though.

The orchestra and Yves Abel got off to a rough start in the overture, with a lone violinist coming in smack in the middle of a dramatic pause and some other coordination issues, but the rest proceeded smoothly enough.

Between this and today’s webcast of L’elisir d’amore from Munich (in David Bösch’s surprisingly poignant production), it’s the Weekend of Adorable Donizetti, apparently.

*However I do recommend her Lobiani recipe in Die Oper kocht. It is excellent.
**After writing this I went back and looked at my review of the premiere cast and I said just about the exact same thing. At least I’m consistent!


Donizetti, La fille du régiment. Metropolitan Opera, 1/6/2012. Production by Laurent Pelly (revival), conducted by Yves Abel with Nino Machaidze (Marie), Lawrence Brownlee (Tonio), Ann Murray (Marquise of Berkenfield), Maurizio Muraro (Sulpice), Kiri Te Kanawa (Duchess of Krakentorp)

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Enchanted Island: No man or woman is a…

 Contrary to anything you may have read, the Met’s The Enchanted Island pasticcio does not feature a cameo by a wisecracking René Pape as the Skipper.* But it’s got just about everything else. Everything, that is, except a reason for us to care. An all-star cast belts out top Baroque tunes in a beautifully designed production, but thanks to Jeremy Sams’s insipid, self-indulgent libretto, most of it ends up being much ado about nothing. Why can’t we have actual Baroque opera instead?

Various, The Enchanted Island. World premiere pasticcio, Met Opera, 12/31/2011. Assembled by Jeremy Sams, conducted by William Christie, directed by Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, sets by Crouch, costumes by Kevin Pollard, lights by Brian MacDevitt. With David Daniels (Prospero), Joyce DiDonato (Sycorax), Danielle De Niese (Ariel), Lisette Oropesa (Miranda), Luca Pisaroni (Caliban), Placido Domingo (Neptune), Layla Claire (Helena), Elizabeth DeShong (Hermia), Paul Appleby (Demetrius), Elliot Madore (Lysander), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Ferdinand).

The Enchanted Island has hitched itself to the eighteenth century pasticcio tradition, a conglomeration of old music set to a new story. But it’s a 21st-century creation through and through, as I think its creators would readily acknowledge.** Jeremy Sams is responsible for the libretto. In a rewrite of The Tempest, Prospero is situated on the titular island (which makes whooshing noises identical to the one on Lost) and must confront the challenges of age, Ariel, and his lady-rival Sycorax (who is already dead in the Shakespeare). But rather than the intended Ferdinand, the honeymooning four lovers from A Midsummer Night’s Dream wash up instead. While Prospero’s responsibilities to the island and Ariel seem to be the central plot problem, most of the work’s time is spent with these four, who along with Miranda and Caliban go about doing what Shakespearean lovers do best: fall in love with the wrong people.

The music selection (here is a list) has some nice pieces and the sung texts are relatively smooth, but the shifts between the eight different composers selected can be rocky. Handel dominates, but the bits of French stuff harmonize poorly, and some of the Vivaldi sticks out as well. Many da capo arias’ B and A’ sections have been lost at sea, and some (presumably newly-composed) recit is pretty stylistically wonky (and I’m not sure where all the chamber-scored bits and accompagnato came from). More severe is the feeling that much of the music was chosen largely at random and shoehorned into the plot just as forcibly as the Midsummer lovers were. Some transpositions of duets and arias up and down octaves are quite peculiar (most strangely Vivaldi’s coloraturific “Dopo un’orrida procella” given to a baritone Lysander and “Arise ye subterranean winds” given to a soprano Ariel), and the expression doesn’t always line up either. Baroque music often was retexted back in the day, but that doesn’t mean that any sentiment goes.

Old story, old music–it’s less a story than a simulacrum of a story, the pale imitation of something we’ve all seen done before, and better. It unfolds bumpily and shapelessly, aided by the magical character’s spells in the service of a librettist who seems to think himself exceptionally clever. Yet there’s little genuine wit on display, and even less adult emotion, and sincerity, nor a clear emotional trajectory. These are all things you can find Baroque opera, but in the pastiche-ing they’ve been misplaced.

This was all the more dispiriting because the production is simply gorgeous, with lush costumes and projection scenery on a screen behind an elaborate second proscenium. (There are many more photos at the bottom of this post.) The visual style is original and whimsical and poetic and unfortunately rarely tries to upstage the action. Only a few Disney-ish moments of sparkle seem cheesy. The other effects are lovely, though I wish the rest of the audience hadn’t started applauding over the music when the ship sank.

But the island is disenchanted. We’re told that the superficiality proudly espoused by this work constitutes “fun.” We don’t have to wonder why Prospero is obsessed with making everyone move piles of wood because they’ve left that weird bit out! But, three-quarters of the way through Act 1 I found myself, probably aided by a certain degree of sleep deprivation, in the throes of an existential crisis that had been building up all season. If Enchanted Island was a failure, an attempt at a fun romp that ended up sort of tangled, then too bad, maybe the next one will work. But what if it was, on its terms, a success? What if this is our fun now? What if now all we desire of opera is this exquisitely crafted nothing, smug and regressed to childhood and utterly irrelevant to anything that makes us human? Why are we creating “art” that in many ways isn’t art at all? Maybe I should pack it in and start going to the movies more. Then I wouldn’t be asking all these damn rhetorical questions.

Two things happened that while not up to salvaging the evening at least made me stop contemplating das Ende. The first was the biggest coup de theatre of the production, the entrance of Placido Domingo as Neptune. He arrives on a seashell flanked by ranks of mermaids to the strains of “Zadok the priest,” robed and wearing a gigantic beard. It’s an image of sufficient outrageousness and novelty as to overpower the fact that his subsequent scene does not advance the plot and our tenor appeared to have not looked at his music ahead of time, kept getting behind Christie, and didn’t know the words (compounded by the juxtaposition of Handel, Rameau, and Vivaldi in close quarters, one of the evening’s least felicitous moments of pastichery). The staging had finally upstaged the far inferior text with sheer audacity.

The second moment was in the second act and can be described as Caliban’s coming of age, when Helena leaves him for her recovered Demetrius. With his mother Sycorax’s revival, Caliban’s status in the plot is kind of unclear. Also he’s a monster in KISS tribute makeup. But the sting of his rejection is the most comprehensible emotion we’ve seen yet and Luca Pisaroni played him with such sweetness and honesty that I found myself, for the first time, in a real story. Joyce DiDonato’s Sycorax, to this point a scenery-chewing caricature, turns human and three-dimensional. The following masque-style dream sequence, set to French music, has a plot that seems to be misplaced from the Great Courtesans of History ballet excised from November’s Faust and features some strangely aerobic choreography from Graciela Daniele, but the change of pace is welcome–more dance would have been great. Unfortunately Caliban is more or less dropped as a character after this.

Such is one’s fate in a work whose cast is the operatic equivalent of Love, Actually so prepare for a list discussing the singers. We’ve already covered Placido, and Pisaroni, who sings as well and expressively as he acts, and DiDonato, whose coloratura is great and stage presence significant but whose singing has this kind of constant tension that keeps her sound edgy and tightly wound, including in some places where that isn’t ideal. Danielle De Niese managed to make the very annoying Ariel not that irritating, though he (Ariel) bears the brunt of the plot mechanics. She (De Niese) engaged in some approximatura at inadvisably fast tempos in Act 1 but carried off the popular Vivaldi showpiece “Agitata da due venti” surprisingly well–though, it must be said, the aria is cut down to only its first section.

The most beautiful tones of the evening were from the lyric sopranos Lisette Oropesa as Miranda and Layla Claire as Helena, both of whom I hope I will be hearing lots more of in roles where they can develop characters. Mezzo Elizabeth DeShong was great in “Where shall I fly” from Hercules, I mean here she was Hermia. David Daniels was in the nominally central role of Prospero but did not make a strong impression and sounded thin and effortful, though his singing is musical. Stronger was the powerful countertenor of Anthony Roth Costanzo in the Fortinbras-like role of Ferdinand, who made the most of his one aria and duet. As Demetrius and Lysander, Paul Appleby and Elliot Madore were fine but made less of an impression than the women.

William Christie must, for better or worse, must bear much responsibility for this affair as well. As for his conducting, it was good. It was, as one would expect, very fast. This had a much less percussive and crisp effect with the Met’s modern orchestra than it would have with a historical practice one, and sometimes the singers were challenged. Still, he knows the style and got the orchestra sounding more Baroque than I would have expected. The instrumentation was small but not so small as to sound dinky.

But the entire thing left a bitter taste, a dumbed- and watered-down evening that is for the most part not actually that fun. I suspect this was a one-off experiment, and it’s not one I would be eager to repeat. Can we give a real Baroque opera a shot next time, please?

*It also lacks a cameo by Jean-Paul Fouchécourt crying “Ze plane! Ze plane!”
**See also Text and Smacked, I mean, Text and Act.

More photos:

 
 

 
 

Photo copyright Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

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Faust, or, You Only Live Twice

I went to Faust at the Met again last night and found it much more enjoyable that the opening night I saw a few weeks ago. This was in part because without exception the cast was more assured and in better voice, but it was in part because I knew what to ignore. Des McAnuff’s chaotic production does not improve upon a second viewing; it is still confused and confusing in points both large and small. If Faust, here a nuclear scientist with a heavy conscience, is going to back to try to live a better life, why does he behave like such a schmuck? (My original idea was that his rejuvenation was merely a flashback to the life that made him so sadface in the first place, but according to McAnuff this isn’t so.) Why does the chorus spend so much time filing through doors? Why is there a swordfight in 19-whatever? Can I find Marguerite’s Act IV getup at Urban Outfitters? I have no more answers now than I did at the prima.

But setting that aside I found much more to appreciate in the cast. First, the best thing going remains Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s conducting, which has such grace and lyricism and so little sugar and bombast that even a Gounod-aphobe like me can like it. The orchestra was on excellent form. Jonas Kaufmann sounded much freer and more assured in the title role and it’s really exciting singing if somewhat unidiomatic (excellent high C this time). Acting-wise his Faust still doesn’t add up but at least his temperature has risen a few degrees, less deadly serious, more cynical, and working his seduction of Marguerite like a courtesan whose rent is overdue. René Pape’s Méphistophélès remains understated, a dapper and wry mischief-maker, and his voice has such ease and silkiness that you’d take any offer he made you pretty quickly.

The biggest change for me was utterly falling for Marina Poplavskaya’s Marguerite this time, though more in an acting that vocal sense. Her guilelessness and isolation in her opening scenes, her never self-pitying hopelessness in the later ones and finally her delirium at the end all convinced. How good could this production have been if it were about her story? (Way better.) Vocally, she got through the opera more solidly this time, though her hollow and uneven tone is not pleasant, and the last few minutes were rough. Russell Braun again provided warm and mellifluous but not especially memorable support as Valentin, Michéle Losier was an excellent Siebel (as a recent Parterre review noted, she looks like an escapee from Newsies), and Theodora Hanslowe as Marthe got off to an unsure start but was quite funny in her scene with Pape (she was subbing for Wendy White as Marthe after the latter’s fall off the set
on Saturday night–thankfully she is alright but of course is taking a break).

I’ve been writing about a lot of new productions recently, where I really try to take everything as a piece (because that’s how they should function). But many performances are easier when you appreciate the good and leave out the bad–it’s a shame this Faust falls into that category even upon its first run of performances, but I actually am glad I saw it again. Also, can someone give me Faust’s lab’s red wine-dispensing water cooler for Christmas? Sometimes it’d make work much nicer. Thanks.

Performances remain with different casts–Roberto Alagna leading on December 23 and 28 (I have been there already this year, cartweels, ukulele, and all) and Joseph Calleja in January (utterly beautiful voice, allergic to acting).

Gounod, Faust. Metropolitan Opera, 12/20/2011, cast same as listed here except with Theodora Hanslowe as Marthe.

Some videos from the recent HD simulcast:

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