He came, he saw, he sang a da capo aria: Giulio Cesare at the Met

Put on your dancing shoes and/or take off your shirt, there’s a new David McVicar production in town. I use “new” advisedly, since this Giulio Cesare was first seen at Glyndebourne in 2005. But it’s still a clever and often delightful piece of work, and as Met Handel goes it’s pretty convincing. The cast is a little patchy, but it’s still a good time.

Handel, Giulio Cesare. Met Opera, 4/12/2013. Sort of new production directed by David McVicar, conducted by Harry Bicket with Natalie Dessay (Cleopatra), David Daniels (Cesare), Alice Coote (Sesto), Christophe Dumaux (Tolomeo), Patricia Baron (Cornelia)

It seems tiresome to recount the details of this production, since it has already been out on DVD for so long and been seen in multiple opera houses, so I’ll be brief: it casts Caesar’s Romans as late-nineteenth century British imperialists and the Egyptians as Indians. The set shows traces of eighteenth-century design (including an old school wave machine) and also the more recent phenomenon of Bollywood. It sets up the characters well–Sesto and Cornelia are identified by their very British looks as Romans, something that some productions don’t make very clear–and it’s pretty entertaining, though rarely asks to be taken seriously or complicate this political construction any further than I’ve already explained it. You can take a more serious approach and have it work (for example I like this Francisco Negrin production), but the comic tone is fine with me too, it fits the artifice of the genre.

You do have to have some tolerance for cutesiness, though. There are vaguely Mountie-looking British soldiers periodically bopping on the beat, some groaners (Cleo puts out her cigarette in Pompey’s urn), and a lot of dancing. If you’ve seen McVicar in goofy mode before (we haven’t at the Met, really–his Trovatore and Bolena and Maria Stuarda are all dully earnest) you know what I mean. I think he’s at his best at this kind of self-conscious genre stuff–his Faust is the only production of that opera I’ve seen that I think really works as theater–and when he tries to be Important he tends to be respectable but boring. This production succeeds in making Baroque opera fun and accessible to a far greater degree than last year’s Enchanted Island. The story moves along, there is enough visual splendor (notably colorful drapery and a very sparkly outfit for Cleo’s “V’adoro pupille”), and the da capos are mostly staged through, giving them a continuous narrative flow. (They are, also, there! Text-wise, I have no objections at all, and the ornamentation is fine.)

That being said, I think it probably worked better at Glyndebourne. The Met stage is far, far bigger, and the set is plopped in a small portion of the middle of it. The space narrower than the Met’s full width, but appears to be using most of its depth, meaning the wave machine is around as far away as the Hudson and the whole thing looks like a hallway. The setting is also obviously more personal for a British audience (particularly aristocratic Glyndebourne) than an American one, though I hope most everyone at the Met understood what was going on. (Some of them had never heard a countertenor before, though. Ahem.)

Natalie Dessay was in far better voice for this performance than she was at last year’s Traviata, but I still don’t think this is quite her role or her production. Her voice sounds flimsy, with very little core or bite, and while she can act cutesy in a gamine sort of way, this production was intended for a Cleopatra far brasher and brassier and, well, Danielle DeNiese isn’t a great singer but she sold this production on the DVD. Dessay does it all OK but doesn’t own it in the same way. When Cleo became down on her luck partway through Act 2, however, Dessay seemed to come to life, suddenly becoming a much more interesting actress and singing a spectacular “Se pièta” that was actually very moving.

I’m sorry to say that David Daniels also is sounding rather worse than he did in earlier years, though he is an excellent musician and sometimes things clicked. His Cesare was effectively acted if not particularly charismatic or insightful, and sang unevenly. “Presto omai” was kind of hollow and hooting, as was some of “Va tacito” “Se in fiorito ameno prato” (in which David Chan was an absolutely superb violin soloist). The fast arias like “Quel torrente” went very, very fast, where Daniels’s coloratura still works well but he lost some volume and sometimes needs extra breaths. He also has a way of swaying back and forth when singing coloratura that made me want Peter Sellars to swoop in and give him a finicky prop to manipulate while singing.

The vocal star of the evening, as far as I’m concerned, was Alice Coote as Sesto, whose viola-toned mezzo sounded firm and solid throughout, including a beautifully spun-out, quite slow “Cara speme.” Sesto might not be a character who gets a lot of theatrical variety, but she did the shell-shocked thing well. As Sesto’s mother Cornelia, Patricia Bardon had a unique, vinegary sort of tone that doesn’t appeal to me very much, but it is unique. As Tolomeo, countertenor Christophe Dumaux had a more beautiful tone and more variety than Daniels, including some impressive high notes in “L’empio, sleale.” He also managed some impressive feats of athleticism that vaguely made me wonder if countertenors at French music schools need to often defend their machismo.

Harry Bicket seems to be the Met’s Handel conductor of choice, and you can see why: he makes it still sound like Handel, but also manages to fill up the house to a reasonable degree. It’s not terribly inventive leadership but he does a very tricky job smoothly. It’s also great to hear the theorbo/lute/guitar in the pit (Dan Swenberg, who also played Eliogabalo). The supporting characters I can’t be too enthusiastic about: Rachid Ben Abdeslam sounded almost voiceless and mugged as Nireno in a fey characterization that McVicar and he should have thrown out long before 2005. Guido Loconsolo was a unagile and growly Achilla, but may just have been miscast.

It’s a shame that the Met couldn’t put on a fresher production, but it’s nice to finally see some more spirited work from McVicar here, vintage or not. Baroque lovers should be relatively satisfied (probably close to as much as we can expect of Handel performed by a company unsuited to it in many ways), and this production is fun enough that it might even make some new ones. Who will hopefully write the Met demanding new productions of Ariodante or something. Well, maybe not, and if they did I doubt anyone would listen, but a girl can dream.

 Further dates here.

Photos copyright Ken Howard.

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Spanish Inquisition arrives as expected (Don Carlo)

I kid, I kid. Don Carlo (better yet, Don Carlos) might be Verdi’s grandest tragedy, it also might be my favorite Verdi opera. This current Met revival unfortunately features turgid conducting and a cast that, with the exception of Ferruccio Furlanetto as Filippo, is adequate at best. But I have to give them some credit, which should be shared with Nicholas Hytner’s production. This is a work that easily slips into Bad Opera Comedy. You know: we’ve got a fainting tenor, a veil swap, an abduction by dead emperor, and the nineteenth century’s idea of incest. (The Met titles seemed particularly sensitive about the latter point. Whenever Elisabetta or Carlo said “figlio” or “madre,” they just didn’t translate it.) But this performance never went into laugh zone and stayed tragic and dignified. While rarely inspired, it’s basically credible and unlike the Carlo I saw in Vienna in June, never threatened to put me to sleep.
Since I might be the last person in the world to see Nicholas Hytner’s production (which is also in London), I’m not going to describe it in detail, though this was my first experience of it. I don’t mean to damn it with the faint praise of “effective,” but that kind of pared-down traditional, vaguely modern, no really big ideas style is kind of its thing. The sets are simple and stark, the costumes mostly black, white, and red. Everything moves along quickly and it’s handsome without being indulgent, which is good. The Personenregie tended towards the cliched at many points, but there were enough original touches to suggest it was once better. The production doesn’t seem to have particularly strong perspectives on any of its characters, so there was that. And I’m not sure why the priest in the auto-da-fé scene was quite so chatty. And I wish the final Carlo ex machina had been preseved instead of the monk instead just appearing and looking scary. But the story is told in a straightforward, uncluttered way and for the Met this is an achievement.
So if we’re going to give up on Big Ideas, and we’re going to have to (I’m going to only say it once, but Peter Konwitschny’s production of Don Carlos was one of the major things that got me into this whole racket, and if you haven’t seen it you owe it to yourself), let’s get onto the performances. With more good ones this production could be really grand. All were hampered by the lugubrious baton of Lorin Maazel, who never met a tempo he didn’t want to slow down. The orchestra had, sometimes, an impressive solidity, but mostly it just seemed to wander, and the singers struggled to stay with it. Since the first run of this production at the Met was conducted by speed demon Yannick Nézét-Seguin, I vaguely wonder if Maazel was obliged to restore the cosmic balance of the Don Carlo continuum. I’d have preferred if he hadn’t. The orchestra did fine, the cello solo was excellent, but the chorus sounded out of sorts and there were some major coordination issues.
Overall I found Ramon Vargas’s Don Carlo more convincing than his take on the role last June, but nature gave him the voice (and face) of a lyric tenor, and ultimately I don’t think that makes a Carlo. (He couldn’t help but play “yeah, that’s a picture of me, HI” for laughs.) Carlo’s singing is mostly in the ensembles, and he just didn’t power through the other voices, particularly in his upper range. He’s always stylish and never exactly inaudible, but never particularly compelling either. As Rodrigo, Dmitri Hvorostovsky sported some unfortunately vintage (though not the correct vintage) facial hair–which does not appear in the official production photos–and didn’t sound that great either, a considerable step downwards from when I heard him sing this in around 2006. The sound is forced and gravelly, somehow squeezed.
On the ladies’ side, listening to Anna Smirnova do her best with the Veil Song is a bit like watching a football player attempt yoga. It’s not really in her very loud, metallic mezzo’s skill set. I guess “O don fatale” is, but then you notice that the voice is quite shrill. She brought decibels, but not much in the music or acting departments. Barbara Frittoli probably knows how Elisabetta should sound, but I don’t think she’s got the voice to deliver it anymore, and sounded awfully wobbly, particularly at louder volumes and higher pitches. She was also not an actress of insight in this particular production.
That leaves us with Ferruccio Furlanetto, the best thing about this performance bar none. He was the only one who has created a complex character. His Filipo is not entirely happy to be king, but doesn’t want to follow in Carlos V’s footsteps either, and is very very lonely. His entire “Ella gianmai m’ammo!” was incredibly introspective and vulnerable, yet sung with true basso depth and warmth. (This was a particular contrast to René Pape’s take on the aria last June, which was, despite the claims of the text, a declaration of vocal supremacy. Listen to how amazing my legato is!) Eric Halfvorsen was a chilling Grand Inquisitor, and their scene together was a highlight. Supporting roles were uneven, with Miklós Sebestyén a weak monk and the Voice from Above following up on the Parsifal Voice from Above’s act by being exceptionally out of tune.
I’m glad I saw this because I’m almost always glad to see this opera, but a more convincingly lifelike conductor would have helped a lot. If you want to talk about how this opera is even better when it’s in its proper French, we can do that in the comments.
Don Carlo runs through March 16. Photos follow the break.


Don Carlo, Met Opera, 3/6/2012. Production by Nicholas Hytner (revival), conducted by Lorin Maazel with Ramón Vargas (Don Carlo), Ferruccio Furlanetto (King Philip II), Barbara Frittoli (Elisabetta), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Rodrigo), Anna Smirnova (Princess Eboli), Eric Halfvorsen (Grand Inquisitor)

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met

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Parsifal: the Met’s knights to remember

The most enthralling section of Met’s new production of Parsifal is a portion that, in most productions, is the most dreaded: the first two-thirds of Act 3. Too often it’s a bore, but here it’s hypnotic, sinking the audience deeply into the ritualistic and the very slow, from the music to the movements onstage. It is drama like this–grave and mysterious–that this production does best.

In many ways this performance was a big win for the Met. This is a musically outstanding Parsifal with great performances that balance the human and the mythic. There are many disturbing and sad things in it. The production is beautiful and has some striking visual moments. But these moments aren’t quite enough to make an interpretation, and I was left moved but with some big questions.


Wagner, Parsifal. Metropolitan Opera, 2/15/2012. New production premiere directed by François Girard, conducted by Daniele Gatti with Jonas Kaufmann (Parsifal), René Pape (Gurnemanz), Katarina Dalayman (Kundry), Peter Mattei (Amfortas), Evgeny Nikitin (Klingsor)

The setting of François Girard’s production is quite abstract. Before the performance, an undulating reflection of the opera house’s lights on the curtain informs us that this is a story about us. The staged prelude shows a lineup of anonymous men and women. Only Parsifal stands out, smack in the middle but not participating. The men take off their jackets and ties and separate from the women. This is not very much to occur during the 14 or so minutes of prelude (bless you, Gatti), and it goes by, like the music, with ceremonial gravity.

 
The lights come up on a brown-orange desert wasteland bisected by a dried-up river (Michael Levine is the set designer). On the cyc, projections show, for now, a serious of scary storm-is-a-comin’ clouds. These evolve later into a series of planets, vague plumes of smoke, and what looks like extreme closeups of naked skin (the Met should hire the designer, Peter Flaherty, to do a makeover on the Lepage Screensavers). The men form a single tight circle on the right, the women loiter on the other side of the river on the left. All the male knight characters emerge from this circle; Kundry never crosses the river.

(actually Act 3)

The stage pictures are fairly static but the acting gives the characters real humanity and vulnerability–Amfortas is dragged around by two knights, unable to stand alone, and Parsifal collapses when he hears of his mother’s death (whether Parsifal should have as much Mitleid for the swan and Act 1 Amfortas as he shows… well, I’m not as sure about that). But there’s also a ritual quality to the knights’ choreographed prayer movements and occasional simultaneous reactions, preserving (along with the abstraction of the setting) a sense of mystery. This combination is the best thing about the production. Other things are quite traditional: Kundry is given a conventional crazy lady interpretation, and the grail is a glowing golden goblet in a box. The swan is a swan, though also a symbol of femininity, brought on by a Flower Maiden and kept only on the women’s side of the stage.

At the end of the act, the dried-up river opens up into a chasm and Parsifal looks down into it. In Act 2, we’re down there, and it’s Klingsor’s lair, and it’s also Amfortas’s wound, which we get because of the enormous pool of blood covering most of the stage (the looming walls with a gap upstage center it also look like a giant vagina–somehow Act 2 of Parsifal is the locus classicus of vaginal set design). While the first act mixed the aesthetic with the symbolic, here the aesthetic takes over nearly completely. Klingsor is a bloody version of the knights, the flower maidens a mixture of dancers and singers with knee-length black hair and white dresses and their own spears (the very effective choreography is by Carolyn Choa). Everyone splashes around in the blood, Kundry attempts to seduce Parsifal (none too sexily here, it comes across as maternal if anything) on a conveniently appearing bed that also starts seeping blood, and finally Parsifal claims the spear with a gesture that I couldn’t quite identify and a straightforward grab from Klingsor.

Act 3 returns to the wasteland, this time pocked with waiting graves for the dying knights. Parsifal reappears, first as a decrepit, unidentifiable (meaning that he is wearing a cloak over his face, in lieu of armor) pilgrim, walking only with the assistance of the spear, then gradually turning into a (shirtless) ecstatic mystic. He also, after baptizing Kundry, crosses the magic river onto the women’s side, and gets the white shirt that marks him as a Grail knight. The return to the Grail Temple reveals knights who can no longer stand together in a circle (or apparently notice the male-female divide). Amfortas ends up in Titurel’s grave, when Kundry (!) finally appears with the Grail box. Then Parsifal shows up, indicates to the women to intersperse themselves with the men, restores the Grail’s power by sticking the spear into it. He lifts up the grail, Kundry collapses lifeless (Wagner says “entseelt”–her soul has finally departed), and all are blessed. (No dove.*)

So it is in many ways a very moving production, with Peter Mattei’s agonized Amfortas and Jonas Kaufmann’s messianic Parsifal taking acting honors. Some of it feels familiar from Syberberg and Lehnhoff (particularly the post-apocalyptic atmosphere), but that’s OK. It is, for the most part, enthralling to watch. But I have to say I have grave doubts as to the Meaning of it All. I think preserving a sense of mystery and wonder is crucial to Parsifal’s appeal. But this production does make several big gestures towards having a vision of the drama’s allegorical meaning, too. They aren’t plentiful, as a maximalist who has watched the Herheim Parsifal too many times I find it intellectually quite sparse. Since it doesn’t venture too much, I’m not inclined to cut the production a lot of slack for things that don’t make sense, and I think it has some big issues.

The production’s thesis seems to be that the world–as exemplified by Monsalvat– is out of joint, the men and women separated and the knights closed into themselves. By making them mix it up and giving Kundry a role in the Grail ceremony, Parsifal restores balance. But by choosing gender as the signifier of spiritual imbalance, Girard makes things very hard for himself. The production ignores the really crucial and pernicious portrayal of women in Act 2. Inside the wound or not, they’re still women. (It’s a too infrequently noted hypocrisy of Parsifal that the opera argues that women are the source for the evil from which the knights have to be purified, and yet indulges the work’s audience in a prolonged scene of women singing together and besieging the male hero. Lord, make me chaste, but let me spend a long weekend at the Venusburg first.)

Girard’s idea of the women’s exclusion from society as the source of the knights’ problems really appeals to me. But I’m afraid that if you stage Act 2 as a conventional male gaze sensual extravaganza, which he does, it doesn’t really convince. Parsifal is a confusing work, sure, but it has some central themes that are pretty clear: the knights have been tainted by sensual temptation. Redemption can only come from a pure fool (Parsifal), who first needs to learn compassion. He becomes a sexual ascetic after refusing Kundry’s seduction. So Girard’s idea of inverting this demands some serious intervention in the portrayal of seduction as the source of the knight’s problems as well as Parsifal’s awakening to asceticism, something that he does not do.

The production is largely, sorry, redeemed by the strength and humanity of its performances, and the music. Conductor Daniele Gatti gave a lyrical, mournful rendition of the score, with very slow tempos (a bit faster than his even slower Bayreuth ones). Gurnemanz’s Act 1 monologue, Amfortas’s Act 3 speech, and “Nur wine Waffe taugt” were particularly extreme: the first static, the second spent, the third majestic. “Hier war das Tosen”–the first Flower Maiden section–was, on the other hand, hard-driven. Gatti impresses more through his subtlety than his brilliance, but this was a rendition with a great deal of dramatic gravity. The orchestra sounded better than they have in some time, with the exception of some unfortunate clams in the brass, including a very prominent one in the prelude.

The cast is probably one of the best you could assemble today. Jonas Kaufmann is a fantastic Act 3 Parsifal and an excellent Act 1 and 2 one. He sings and acts this score with remarkable subtlety and musicality, evolving from a bright-sounding and curious boy to an exhausted and finally triumphant mystic, the latter with remarkable stage presence and a darkened sound in which the years between Acts 2 and 3 were audible. He was audibly pacing himself, but sounded great at the biggest moments, most memorably the final section of “Amfortas! Die Wunde!” (you can see a video of the first part of this below). Peter Mattei is a highly unusual Amfortas. This role is usually barked and spat out, but he sings it with warmth and somewhat Italianate style, and acts it with enough agony that never became aimless flailing. He also can cope with Gatti’s extreme tempos, and make them meaningful. René Pape is a Gurnemanz of depth and honeyed tone, who makes those monologues go by as quickly as they could, and with rare authority and nobility.

Katarina Dalayman as Kundry had a rough Act 1, with a rather unruly dramatic soprano that didn’t always sound quite when it needed to. But lack of control isn’t always a bad thing in a Kundry (nor is trouble with high notes, and she had that as well), and she actually managed the lyrical moments in Act 2 very well, building up to the dramatic high points with excellent timing. It’s a shame that the production didn’t do more with her character. Evgeny Nikitin (he of the Bayreuth tattoo scandal) was a suitably nasty Klingsor. As Titurel, debutant Rúni Brattaberg sounded cavernous, but it’s hard to judge as I believe he was amplified from above. The Flower Maidens were a good group, and the minor knights were fine. The Voice from Above experienced some intonational issues.

It is well worth seeing, first and foremost for the music. The production provides an engrossing sensory experience that should be accessible for those not familiar with the opera, but more experienced Wagnerians may be somewhat troubled by the logical gaps and selectivity of the production. It remains, however, a big win for the Met.

More photos below the video. Parsifal continues through February and early March; the inevitable HD broadcast is on March 2.

*Wagner literalists: I want to see someone stage Amfortas’s vision exactly as he describes it in the libretto, with the letters in the air.

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met. 
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Met takes a bet on a new Rigoletto

The Met has been turning out productions that look like they belong in Vegas for decades. I guess that it makes a certain amount of sense that they would eventually, in the their quest for theatrical creativity that will still satisfy the rather conservative audience, come up with something that is actually set in Vegas. But while the Met’s usual goal seems to be something like The Venetian, or, hell, Cirque de Soleil (hello, Robert Lepage), this here Rigoletto is an update set in historical 1960s Vegas, which means dangerous and sleazy stuff rather than Zeffirelli’s dancing cows in Traviata. Rigoletto, a story about an absolute ruler who abducts and rapes an innocent girl, whose father then takes out a hit on him, could be dangerous and sleazy? My stars, look at what they’re doing at the Met these days. So shocking.

To be fair, the audience seemed to realize that nothing very alarming is going on in this tame, relatively entertaining production. From my seat the boos were surprisingly few. The real problem is, fairly unusually for a Met new production, some seriously mediocre music-making.


Verdi, Rigoletto. Metropolitan Opera, 1/28/2013. New production premiere directed by Michael Mayer, sets by Christine Jones, costumes by Susan Hilferty, lights by Kevin Adams, choreography by Steven Hoggett. Conducted by Michele Mariotti with Zeljko Lucic (Rigoletto), Piotr Beczala (Duke), Diana Damrau (Gilda), Stefan Kocán (Sparafucile), and Oksana Volkova (Maddalena).

Conventional opera fan wisdom had written off this production by Michael Mayer as a total train wreck before anyone even saw it. He’s a Broadway director with no opera experience, and that often goes badly. But let me say before I start to criticize it: it’s not great and has basically no emotional payoff, but it’s still pretty much watchable, and I’d take it any day over several other recent productions–Elisir, the Ring and Faust, just to name a few.

The setting is 1960’s Las Vegas, den of sin. We don’t see terribly much sin–David McVicar’s Rigoletto is far more debauched–but there are enough shiny suits to know that none of these courtiers are up to anything good. There’s about ten seconds of pole dancing at the start of Act 3, which was enough to get the audience buzzing but come on, guys, this is the modern world, it’s not much. The Duke is a vaguely shady sort of Sinatra-type singer, who apparently has his pick of the ladies (or “good-looking dolls,” as the subtitles put it) and does “Questo o quella” as an elaborate production number involving some showgirls with feathers. This is, it turns out, the most complicated aria staging in the whole production by a long shot, and the Met has helpfully put a video up on their website and you can watch it here. (Considering that Piotr Beczala is singing the Duke, here we have another sort of Pole dancing.)

Christine Jones’s sets are big and colorful and deal ably with the excess space. She alternates large spaces with smaller ones defined only by light frames–effectively so in Act 3 but more confusingly in Act 1. It uses lots of neon to decent effect, including some palm trees in Act 1 and some flashy lighting bolts in Act 3. Monterone is an Arab, supposedly an outsider, but since his introduction is right after some casino Egyptian kitsch I was unsure whether he was supposed to be taken seriously, because he looks pretty silly in those surroundings, honestly, and it robs the moment of its power. There’s clever stuff too–I liked Sparafucile and Rigoletto meeting at a sad late night bar, and the set’s elevators doors get people on and off helpfully. But there’s certain carelessness with details that gives a few bits a somewhat amateur touch. The Duke’s elaborate break-in to Rigoletto’s house by way of the garden wall makes no sense here (I’m not saying you have to do it the way the libretto says but you have to come up with some reason they’re singing what they are), and the passed out drunk chorus all waking up together just in time to sing the chorus after “Parmi veder le lagrime” (with a nice light change) is unintentionally hilarious.

This is basically a traditional Rigoletto in updated dress. The story is told fairly clearly with no major logical gaps or problems. It goes, and Rigoletto is such an expertly paced work that it never feels too slack. But the design concept and the characters never connect with each other, and the characterization is catch as catch can. Rigoletto is some kind of outsider jester figure in an ugly cardigan, but his relationship with his surroundings is never clear, and the performance here becomes a major problem (more on that in a second).

More seriously, Mayer never demands us to take the material seriously. That’s OK, but nor does he seem to find enough fun in the over-the-top nature of his setting to make it intense in a different sense either. The smartass Damon Runyon titles, which elaborate and interpolate (most memorably a line about making sure Rigoletto has enough gas in his car to get to the river, once he has Gilda’s body in the trunk) constantly take us out of the drama. The whole thing is PG at most, with no real sense of danger. (OK, Monterone gets knocked off. There’s that. But I want to see Gilda’s kidnapping for once be really frightening, not bordering on unintentional comedy. She gets stuffed into an Egyptian sarcophagus here.) For all its garish color this production is kind of bland and lacking in oomph. It entertains well enough, but it never punches you in the gut, it’s too slick and superficial for its own good. It needed a little more dirty, scary melodrama to get under our skin.

One major issue was the lack of focus in the performances and conducting. The cast is basically up their doing their standard Rigoletto characterizations, with little that connects them to the setting or each other. Also putting a lid on everything is Michele Mariotti’s tired, endlessly unexciting conducting. Seriously, he makes Richard Bonynge sound like Giulini. I was sitting in rear orchestra, which is a bad place acoustically, but I was amazed at how quiet and unexciting the whole thing sounded, with no snap or energy whatsoever. The first diminished seventh chord had no sting, slow tempos were very slow and not flexible, and fast ones had no drive. I have to wonder how Mariotti got this job with such poor results. The orchestra sounded fine, though.

The biggest casualty otherwise was Zeljko Lucic in the title role, who also seemed to be having a poor night vocally. His Rigoletto was undersung and underacted, with little stature, soul, or edge. His lyric voice has fine warm tone and he was never inaudible, but nor did he have the force or heft that would make him the main character. Something big was missing here, particularly in the seriously underwhelming “Cortigiani.” The “Si, la vendetta” triplets got away from him, but the lack of bite was more serious.

Piotr Beczala wasn’t in quite his best voice either, sounding a little congested around the middle of his range. But that’s only according to his very high standards, and his Duke was still beautifully sung, with sweet tone and fine musicality and just enough freedom of rhythm to make the character. Acting-wise he is more animated than Lucic and did everything with enthusiasm and good spirit, but at least from rear orchestra he never quite vanished into the role. He’s a little bit too much of a nice, modest sort of guy, more naturally Gualtier Maldè than Duca. One needs, strangely enough, a more self-regarding tenor here. (The second cast has Vittorio Grigolo, just saying.)

Diana Damrau was the finest actor in the cast, her Gilda a compelling portrait of insecurity, curiosity, and helplessness. This is a totally unbelievable character, but she plays up the sheltered aspect enough to make it kind of make sense. After two babies her voice has newfound warm and luster, and she’s not a tweety bird Gilda. Sometimes she sings just under or over the pitch, which irritates me a bit, but this was still a complete portrayal. If only the various performances had seemed to have a little more to do with each other! Some parts kind of work but it seem like it’s mostly by chance, at times everything falls into static park and bark.

In the smaller roles, Stefan Kocan showed excellent feeling for the concept as a greasy Sparafucile, and sang loudly enough if not particularly cavernously. I remember my friend Scott saying of the Maddalena in an old Met Rigoletto video (I believe this one), “I wonder how it feels to be the breasts of the production.” In this case the relevant body parts are the legs and they belong to Oksana Volkova but she also does a perfectly OK job singing one of the most thankless roles in Verdi.

The best thing is that I can see this production working much better with a cast and conductor that can get it together a little more. There’s no grand concept here, but it makes a big visual impression and with more energy and magnetism from the performers it would be a lot more exciting. The second cast has, as well as ideally egotistical Grigolo, super Rigoletto George Gagnidze and wonderful Lisette Oropesa as Gilda, so it might be worth checking out. Unfortunately it also has Mariotti. Mariotti is replaced by the always adequate Marco Armiliato, who in this case should be an improvement. The inevitable HD broadcast features the first cast and will be on February 16.

Dates and tickets here.

But it’s ironic, isn’t it? We’d all dismissed the production when it turns out that the music should have been our concern all along.

The only photos I can find so far are just of the sets with techies and no singers, but here are a few to give you an idea of the look. All copyright Ron Berard/Metropolitan Opera.

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Maria Stuarda loses her head on the eve of 2013

“I had a dream my gala would be/So different from this pilgrim dress I’m wearing…”

One of the less-noted trends of the Peter Gelb era has been the renaissance of bel canto (and bel canto-adjacent) opera at the Met. So far we have had new productions of Anna Bolena, L’elisir d’amore, La fille du régiment, Lucia di Lammermoor, La sonnambula, Armida, Il barbiere di Siviglia, and Le Comte Ory (as well as Don Pasquale just before Gelb’s regime began). To this list you can now add Maria Stuarda, the middle installment of a Donizetti “Queens” trilogy directed by David McVicar. (This began with Bolena last season, the final entry will be Roberto Devereux, reportedly featuring Sondra Radvonovsky next season.)

I think bel canto has proven compatible with two of Gelb’s artistic priorities: star casting and slick but literal-minded storytelling (the latter often in the guise of “accessibility”). Most of these productions have been sold on the fame of their casts. Many of the operas themselves have colorful settings and no obvious complicating social or metaphysical angles (Mary Zimmerman’s high-concept Sonnambula was an exception in this regard). They are primarily showpieces. But for this rep to be anything more than routine and mundane you need real star quality singing and charisma. Unfortunately only a few of these productions have found the people capable of that.

Maria Stuarda is OK, but there’s still a certain fire missing.

Donizetti, Maria Stuarda. Metropolitan Opera, 12/31/2012. New production premiere directed by David McVicar with sets and costumes by John Macfarlane, lights by Jennifer Tipton, and choreography by Leah Hausman, conducted by Maurizio Benini with Joyce DiDonato (Maria Stuarda), Elza van den Heever (Elisabetta), Matthew Rose (Talbot), Joshua Hopkins (Cecil), Maria Zifchak (Anna).

I guess you have to give David McVicar some credit. Unlike quite a few Met directors, he definitely knows what he is doing and rarely produces the giant “WTF?” moments many other recent stagings have induced. But he hasn’t been very inspired recently, either, and this production is no exception.

McVicar’s Maria Stuarda production is more colorful and flashy than last year’s Anna Bolena, but otherwise similar. The costumes are exaggerated period with some tweaks of design and color, the sets minimal and austere. (Both are designed by John Macfarlane.) We open with a big old party, a convenient place for McVicar to stick his compulsory acrobats. But almost everyone is wearing pure white, which cuts down on the bacchanalia factor.

The rest of the evening is less busy, with about one striking thing per scene while the rest is by the book. Queen E wears a wide red skirt that opens like curtains to reveal pants (performing masculinity oh so subtly) while her rival Maria Stuarda (Mary Queen of Scots) and her cohort dress in plain black. There are a few strong images: the tiny windows of Mary’s prison, the backdrop filling with the orders she wrote when she was queen, and her sad end, in which she reveals a red dress for her final ascent to a giant executioner. (This executioner is, by the way, fully clothed–where is the McVicar of yore?)

McVicar and the cast create a stark contrast between serious, gracious, and feminine Maria and cranky, assertive Elizabeth, the latter adopting a lurching gait and little royal dignity. (I don’t remember the opera’s Schiller source, which I saw in an excellent Donmar Warehouse production a few years ago, as nearly this unsubtle.) Maria is meant to excite the most sympathy, but is shorted on exposition and backstory, and in this production rarely appears more than mildly perturbed. Elisabetta is a far more interesting character, and here developed much more vividly. She has a country to run and alliances to make. Who really cares for this plain imprisoned lady who only occasionally works up a decent curse?

The production is, as a backdrop, perfectly OK. It would be fine as a frame for brilliant and passionate performances. Unfortunately we didn’t really get those and it remains kind of weak sauce. Both ladies are miscast and neither projected on the grand scale required.

This was conceived as a vehicle for Joyce DiDonato. While the role of Maria Stuarda is usually sung by a soprano, some transposition makes it workable for her mezzo. There’s a long history of this kind of transposition, I don’t object (though in the final scene having a true soprano floating above is more effective), but DiDonato just doesn’t seem right even when it has been lowered. While she sings the notes with exemplary musicality, expression, and taste, her sound is more thin than plush, which in this kind of thing is a problem. Under pressure her tone acquires a pronounced bleaty vibrato, at soft dynamics the vibrato disappears entirely. And her intonation is (or was in this performance, at least) highly problematic, tending flat towards the ends of phrases and in cadenzas wavering all over the place. Sometimes she caught it and corrected but I found it a constant distraction preventing me from ever becoming immersed in her performance.

I wasn’t terribly convinced by her acting, either, which seemed too mild to play up to me in the Family Circle. A few big moments–that curse–were staged as Dramatic Actions, but then her voice didn’t really back her up. Maybe it was more convincing closer up, but she never convinced me of her star-ness. I’m sorry to pile on but these are pretty serious issues for a major singer in a new production.

Elza van den Heever gives a striking performance as Elisabetta, with a variety of impressive costumes, but her hip-swaying is more Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth than it is Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth. I did appreciate her spirit, though, and she takes far greater dramatic risks than DiDonato appears to. Her voice lacks the sheer tonal beauty and evenness between registers to be ideal for this repertoire, and has a very prominent vibrato. But it’s certainly an interesting and compelling instrument, very powerful at the top and well-controlled (impressive coloratura for such a large voice), and it will be interesting to see how she develops (possibly in a Wagner-Strauss sort of direction?).

Matthew Polenzani is better as Leicester than he was as Nemorino in the fall. He is vocally impeccable, with a far wider tonal palette than either of the ladies, and the voice is just the right size. The older, more established Leicester is a better fit for his personality and age than goofy young Nemorino was. But the role is basically standard tenor posturing, and he never really got a big star moment. The supporting cast was competent but bland, with none sticking very strongly in my memory. The chorus, though, was fabulous, and made the music sound far better than it deserves to (bel canto choruses are, I must admit, a pet peeve of mine–so boring!), and Maurizio Benini’s conducting seemed perfectly fine to me, certainly better than his work in Elisir.

But there’s nothing here that holds a candle to Anna Netrebko in Anna Bolena. I’m sure it will satisfy Joyce DiDonato fans, because there is indeed a lot of Joyce DiDonato, but to me it was rarely more than middling. Since bel canto is not really my preferred variety of opera, my standards for enjoyment may be unduly high, but this one didn’t draw me in.

Maria Stuarda runs through January, with the inevitable HD broadcast on January 19.

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Troy again

 Les Troyens is a wonderful, unique, and rare opera (also REALLY BIG), but it’s not one that sells itself. Without an equally strong and unique cast and production–from each of the principals to the chorus and choreography–its five and a half hours can become a bit of a slog. While there are some considerable virtues in the Met’s current revival, it’s only an intermittently satisfying affair.


Berlioz, Les Troyens. Metropolitan Opera, 12/17/2013. Production by Francesca Zambello (revival), conducted by Fabio Luisi with Susan Graham (Didon), Deborah Voigt (Cassandre), Marcello Giordani (Énée), way too many more, see here

Francesca Zambello’s production is fairly traditional, with a few Virgilian Easter eggs and non sequitur insertions that pass for vision. Maria Bjørnson’s multi-level George Tsypin-esque set is neither particularly effective nor intrusive, though its textured strips of metal make it resemble a high-end corporate lobby. (The sight lines are bad, too. In Act 2 I couldn’t see the ghost of Hector at all.) The costumes are traditional colorful robes and armor in the Troy portion and in the Carthage half consist of lots of all-white robes and royal purple. Zambello tends towards the heavy-handed and cluttered. Some plot points are underlined and circled, such as Ascagne taking Dido’s ring and Andromache’s screaming, while other developments seem quite badly timed, such as Dido and Aeneas finding love at the beginning of the Hunt kind of robs the rest of the act of its point.

After having seen three different productions of this opera live (this one, David McVicar’s in London,* and David Pountney’s in Berlin), I have come to three conclusions (besides that Troy is far, far easier to effectively stage than Carthage):

    1.    The Carthaginians don’t have chairs. They lounge on cushions.
    2.    The Carthaginians always look like the members of a New Age cult. White robes, little in the way of gender differentiation (apparently a side effect of having a queen?).
    3.    The dancing is usually awful, and goes on for far too long.

I actually liked Doug Varone’s choreography of the Chasse royal a lot, where he has a chance to build the drama to some developmental music, and wished Dido and Aeneas hadn’t been providing visual distraction as well as premature macking. But the insertion of dance at other points, such as Iopas’s song and the jazz hand-filled Laocöon ensemble, is irritating, and the long dance sections of Acts 3 and 4 outstay their welcome. Overall, at least as revived here it’s a generic, uninspired production–in Carthage considerably less egregious than David McVicar’s recent effort but also far less visually arresting in Troy. I must say that this production’s moderately-sized, literal horse is far less impressive than both McVicar’s steampunk fire-snorter and the Pountney production’s take, where giant feet kicked at the Trojans from overhead.

The problem with a lackluster Troyens is that you become acutely aware of how uneven the piece is. It’s not that much of it’s bad (I think it’s 98% genius, and the 2% is mostly the Dance of the Nubian Slave Girls), but it doesn’t fit together without consistent energy and vision. In this performance, I was not convinced that we really needed two peripheral beatific tenor arias, plus, well, I adore the whiny soldiers in Act 5. They’re my second favorite whiny soldier duo in opera, beat only by Nero’s guard in Poppea. The glance into their lives, plus the respite of Hylas’s music, are what gives the opera its epic quality. But if they don’t have some spirit you just want to get on with it.

next up: Dance of the Campaign Pollsters

The best thing about Fabio Luisi’s conducting is that it kept everything moving. I liked his work in the quieter music best, such as the lovely Didon-Anna duets, where he found a nice gentle flow. And the processions and choruses had a good solid momentum, with only a few coordination issues early on. The chorus, by the way, might be the real star of Les Troyens, and while I found the Met chorus somewhat less impressive than the ROH’s last summer, it was still a strong showing. Where I thought Luisi was less satisfying was in the quirky stuff that makes Berlioz so special, stuff like the ostinatos, the irregular phrases, the sudden turns. Stuff like this moment. Luisi has a tendency to make it all sound like early Beethoven, and pleasantly bland early Beethoven at that. More lurching energy, more neuroticism was needed.

Besides the chorus, Susan Graham is the star of this production. Her Didon is absolutely beautifully sung and acted, with more depth and intensity than I remember in her performance on the Châtelet DVD. She expertly balances musical grace with the text, giving her Didon dignity and stature, convincingly regal but also human. Her voice is bright but also slightly grainy, a perfect size for this role and by the end she becomes a real tragedienne at the end. Her only issue is high notes: the big and prominent B flat in “Chers Tyriens” simply entirely failed to come out both times, leading to a somewhat anticlimactic end. I’m guessing there isn’t a lot of time with Octavian in her future (which is a shame, because she is otherwise outstanding there!).

I wonder if Marcello Giordani took the widespread rumors of his imminent replacement personally. (How could you not?) For the first three acts he seemed to be giving it his all, and managed a little better than I expected. His voice is aging, the high notes extraordinarily loud but not very pretty, the disconnected lower range hollow-sounding and weak. It was in Act 4 where the problems really began to show, with a can belto “Nuit d’ivresse” that completely drowned out Graham’s more appropriately nuanced efforts, and his Act 5 “Inutiles regrets” were indeed regrettable, involving something resembling a high C and some B flats but also a lot of vaguely rhythmic, somewhat pitched shouting towards the end. His acting is acceptable but not exactly dashing or charismatic. I would not at all be surprised if he were sent packing to, uh, Italie before the HD broadcast (“he’s not Italian! he’s Sicilian!” -my relatives, my family comes from southern Italy). The rumored replacement is Bryan Hymel, who, with indisputable competence if not terribly much beauty, sang the role earlier in London this year.

Deborah Voigt’s wan, poorly sung Cassandre made me long for London’s brilliant Anna Caterina Antonacci. Voigt was always a Chrysothemis, someone who plants themselves in front of the conductor and makes a glorious sound. Cassandre is a role that requires the charisma and madness of a mystic, which Voigt has never possessed. What’s more, the sound is gone, the voice small and sour, a shadow of her past. She vocalizes through the music with rather unpleasant tone and unclear French, rarely looking at her Coroebus. Very disappointing.

The army of supporting cast was strong, for the most part. Karen Cargill’s warm, rich low mezzo as Anna was a highlight, and she made an excellent contrast to Graham. Paul Appleby sang Hylas with a sweet tenor and honest, simple phrasing. In contrast Eric Cutler was a Iopas with a large but uneven voice and fussy phrasing (with a fussy staging from Zambello), somewhat miscast and unaware that less is sometimes more. Julie Boulianne sounded clear as Ascagne with some strange flirty direction. Stephen Gaertner stood in for Dwayne Croft as Chorèbe and showed a strong, full dark baritone. The two most prominent basses, Kwangchoul Youn (long time, no see!) as Narbal and Richard Bernstein as Panthée, were both excellent.

There’s great stuff in this production, but it requires patient waiting through considerable quantities of not so great stuff to get to all of it. Still, recommended under the general “come on, it’s Troyens” rule.

Les Troyens continues through December with an HD broadcast on January 5.

*Like the set of David McVicar’s London production, this Met one (which
came first) also features, in the Carthage set, a raked circular thing center stage
that has little buildings on it (these look more like building blocks
while McV’s were very clearly a city). Unfortunately I have no pictures
of the NYC incarnation; here is the London one:

Coincidence? Errrrr.

Photos copyright Met.

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When you needa Aida

“He’s alive!” “You’re toast.”

Nearly every year the Met schedule contains innumerable performances of Aida. This being a difficult-to-cast opera that sells without big names, the singing is often not that great (Latonia Moore’s Aida last season was an excellent exception, though I heard her only on the radio). This year the Egyptology made the HD broadcast schedule, and for two performances in the run–the broadcast and the one before it–the cast aligned into Liudmyla Monastyrska, Roberto Alagna, and Olga Borodina, what you could possibly call an all-star Aida. Unfortunately it ended up being a little too cautious to be exciting.

Verdi, Aida. Metropolitan Opera, 12/12/12. Production by Sonja Frisell, conducted by Fabio Luisi with Liudmyla Monastyrska (Aida), Roberto Alagna (Radames), Olga Borodina (Amneris), George Gagnidze (Amonasro), Stefan Kocan (Ramfis).

I went to see this last Wednesday (sorry not to write earlier… shit happens), but the HD cameras were already everywhere (they record the performance before as a backup). This was, overall, a strangely bloodless and small-scale performance, and I seriously think the singers were playing to the scale of the movie screen’s close-ups, not the big theater. From my spot in the orchestra standing room during Act 1, the acting was strangely muted and blank. OK, so this is often a park and bark opera, but lots of important and dramatic plot happens and the visuals of the production are so Cleopatra (the Liz Taylor one) that you hope for some big melodramatic acting too. Then a gentleman who was not feeling well left at the first intermission and gave me his seat in row H center, which is ridiculously close to the action, and while I could see many more details in the acting and in some ways appreciated its subtlety, I still found it underplayed. (The sound is a lot better there than in standing room, too.)

Of course another factor was Mr. Smooth, Fabio Luisi, on the podium. On the one hand, he doesn’t go for cheesy bombast and always keeps things moving swiftly. On the other an Aida that sounds more like Mozart is, outside a few of the more ethereal moments, not very exciting. This was, as always, professionally done, with Monastyrska particularly tuned in to his work. (Some of the other singers, not so much, which I will get to shortly.) The orchestra was fine, as was the chorus, but it was all a little too held back to be fully involving.

Soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska has risen to the big leagues almost overnight and it’s easy to tell why. She’s got the killer combination of tremendous volume, solid technique, and decent musicality, and made real music out of a part that is often struggled through. The voice is more notable for its volume than its beauty, but she varies the color more than many in her fach. What she lacks, so far, is a personality as big as her voice, and a sense that she is making the role her own. Still, she was rock-solid, untiring, and the favorite note of Aida-fanciers, the high C in “O patria mia,” was impeccable.

This was Roberto Alagna’s first Radamès of this run, though he has sung it at the Met before. Some lack of security was evident between him and Luisi.  I was glad that his voice was more controlled than the last time I heard him, and while the tone is duller than in years past he is still a solid singer. But Radamès is not a happy role for him, and he has to undersing and strategize to get through the evening. I am belatedly convinced that the loggionisti in Milan were correct, even if they were not very polite. He didn’t give that notorious “Celeste Aida” ending a shot, instead singing a lower variation (preceding it with some unwelcome falsetto), and he was also strangely restrained in the acting department, his usual exuberance tamed. We can be thankful for small favors–he seems to have lightened up on the bronzer since I last saw him in this, and also covered up his chest this time. (The Met should be ashamed of the audible Velcro on that armor, though. Audible Velcro is the Scourge of Opera.)

Olga Borodina got a fair amount of grief for this Amneris from other audience members, and I agree that like Alagna she is past her strongest years. The high notes are perilous and the high Bs in the Judgement Scene were cut off abruptly. But I found a great deal to enjoy in her singing; the rest of her voice has incredible depth and richness. And she was more engaged and animated than some of her colleagues. Finally, bug-eyed baritone George Gagnidze provided his usual reliable villainous snarling. The guy is not exactly a star–there’s not a lot of vocal glamor there–but damn if he doesn’t always get the job done in fine style. Supporting roles were on the underpowered side.

The production, well, on the bright side, I’m glad they’re now using way less blackface than they did on this old video of it. And Alexei Ratmansky’s dances, an addition from a season or two ago, are a good cut above average (though the execution left something to be desired). But overall the thing looks like a costume party in the Met Museum where everyone is doing the Ancient Egyptian equivalent of Civil War reenactment. It’s too familiar and clichéd to be more than mundane, and not over the top enough to be fun. Time for a new production here, I think. Should the budget not allow, I have an idea. Inclined to agree with Edward Said that this opera represents the authority of Europe’s vision of Egypt of the 1860s, I suggest finding a Verdi lookalike, putting a pith helmet on his head, give him a sheaf of manuscript paper and a shovel and set him loose on this production. For once it would kind of make sense.

Photo copyright Met (no name attached).

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Met Opera shows audience some clemency

I was late on the Met’s revival of La clemenza di Tito, but I did go on Thursday and thought I would briefly recap. As many others have already written, this is one of the best evenings at the Met so far this season, and in the Mozart department specifically worlds better than the dire Figaro (and, from what I hear, the current Don Giovanni as well). The conducting and direction are detailed, insightful, and precise, and the cast is excellent. Conductor Harry Bicket is associated with HIP performance and here gave a swift and light yet still dignified interpretation, and the orchestra sounded pretty great. (As much as I like HIP Mozart, having the superior intonation of the modern clarinet in Tito is always a blessing. But fortunately here a harpsichord replaced Figaro‘s piano in the recits.)

The cast is led by android mezzo Elina Garanca as Sesto. This was the first time I’d heard her since she’d had her baby, and her voice, always a secure and smooth instrument, seems to have become warmer and richer, a definite improvement. She is a lovely Mozart singer–while her exactitude and cool temperament can come off as overly detached and anonymous in other repertoire, here they are elegant, and she is much better-suited for seeming noble and conflicted than she is at pretending she’s a dirty and passionate gypsy. She stayed almost entirely on the tracks in the obstacle course portion of “Parto, parto,” and did something astonishing in “Deh, per questo istate solo,” Sesto’s lowest and most vulnerable point–she acted quite well! This was, along with her appropriately distant Charlotte in Wien, the most convincing performance I’ve seen from her, and vocally definitely the best.

Barbara Frittoli’s voice may not be quite refulgent–the high notes have a wobble, and the tone is not quite velvety–, but she’s a real artist and imbues this difficult music with expression and finesse. She threw herself into the production’s rather undignified conception of Vitellia with humor, and has excellent comic timing. She seems to have borrowed her fruity “Non più di fiori” chest voice from Karita Mattila, which is not good, but vocal imperfections are forgivable in crazy lady music, particularly when you sing it with this kind of conviction. Debutant Lucy Crowe (once an excellent Sophie in München) sounded gorgeous as Servilia, with a sweet and peachy tone with just a bit of an edge to it, and impeccable musicianship. She is also a fine actress. Kate Lindsey has a leaner voice than Garanca, giving her Annio some contrast, and while her singing is classy it was somewhat less glamorous than the rest of the women.

This leaves us with Tito, the only male role of importance. Russell Thomas took the second half of this run this performance only (replacing Giuseppe Filianoti). He’s got a sweet tenor voice and can more or less handle the strenuous coloratura of “Se all’impero,” but the lower notes tend to be unstable in pitch and projection. He is a decent actor, starting off with something more interesting (slightly insecure and nervous) than he ended up with at the end. While a good enough performance, he was overall not on the same level as the women and I kind of wish I had seen Filianoti.

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production dates from 1984, and everyone seems very enchanted by its elaborate lighting plot (sometimes unnecessarily showy–slow down those crossfades! or can the dimmers not handle it?) and clean white drapery. I wonder if all the petticoat-fanciers recognize that it is the intellectual grandparent of Stefan Herheim’s Serse. The costumes combine eighteenth-century motifs with quasi-Roman ones, and Tito’s Forum is already a cracked ruin (no less than Stanley Sadie criticized this decision upon the premiere–“in Tito’s time the Forum was still quite new”–to which I say, no shit, Sherlock, and Servilia wasn’t dressed like Donna Anna back then, either). Vitellia is a deposed noblewoman, Tito’s hereditary power is maintained solely due to strength of character–and he wonders if even that will be enough. The sense of something being extended past its logical expiration date is a commentary on the opera’s place in history, an outdated opera seria composed in 1791, an anachronistic tribute to both a musical logic and a political power that no longer promised the certainty they once did. It’s a fine production and has been revived well here, though the burning of Rome is not the best effect ever.

There’s only one more performance but I encourage you to catch it if you can, and the HD should be on PBS at some point.


Mozart, La clemenza di Tito. Metropolitan Opera, 12/6/2012. Production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (revival), conducted by Harry Bicket with Russell Thomas (Tito), Elina Garanca (Sesto), Barbara Frittoli (Vitellia), Lucy Crowe (Servilia), Kate Lindsey (Annio), Oren Gradus (Publio).

Video: Elina Garanca sings the opening of “Parto, parto”

Photo copyright Ken Howard/Met.

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Turandot and the culture industry

It is a little-known fact that when Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote in Dialektik der Aufklärung that “amusement always means putting things out of mind, forgetting suffering, even when it is on display… at its root is powerlessness,” they were thinking of Franco Zeffirelli’s Met Opera production of Turandot. Despite it being performed year in and year out, this Friday was the first time I have seen this ridiculously outsized spectacle, because I try to avoid things that I know will make me angry, afraid that I will be compelled to unleash the blogging equivalent of the Incredible Hulk. But on Friday to the Met I went, and it was just about as bad as I feared, if not worse.

Turandot’s China, as composed by Puccini, is a vast, cold machine, its people an anonymous mob and its princess ice. But who should appear but quasi-European Calàf, who manages to, like Don José, conquer the resistant feminine Other. (Think of Liù as Turandot’s Micaëla.) Zeffirelli’s vast stage machines, the sets massive and gratuitously detailed and crowded with scurrying extras, leave little space for human feeling and individuals. Perhaps Turandot’s realm is actually his ultimate achievement as a director. It fits the music in a way where his Traviata was merely ridiculous, but it exacerbates the problems of the score.

That Viennese Turandot where all the characters were insects was onto something–if you hang onto the Chinese setting, it’s hard to do so in a way that doesn’t feature a) awful cultural appropriation and b) the direct portrayal of the Chinese as soulless savages. If you don’t see what’s wrong with this I recommend you read this. And Zeffirelli’s kitsch is dire in this regard. I might add that the last scene, where Calàf comes pretty close to raping Turandot before she decides she wants it at the last second, makes me really unhappy. While I find ending the opera with Liù’s death (the point where Puccini’s score ends) overly abrupt, maybe it has more going for it than I realized when I saw that version in Munich last summer (that production that is not the last word in self-consciousness but in comparison to this one is positively enlightened).

Anyway, Zeffirelli’s theme park visuals still get applause, particularly the epic Act 2 set, but this is the sort of opera that I feel like I always need to apologize for: visuals that beat the viewer into submission, casual racism, and careless treatment of the characters and story. The Emperor and Turandot begin Act 2 so far upstage that they are rendered nearly inaudible, and it’s often hard to pick the leading characters out of the masses onstage. It has, when combined with the vivid banging of the score, an undeniable potency, but it’s not something I want anything to do with. The audience seemed to think they had gotten their money’s worth, but if you want to see something artistic I recommend redirecting yourself to Un ballo in maschera.

Musically this production was satisfactory, and in that respect I enjoyed it, though I wish the sets had not swallowed the singers’ voices as well as their presences. Conductor Dan Ettinger knows his Turandot–he conducted the Munich performance I saw last summer as well–and except for a few snafus with the chorus (and an unfortunate trumpet crack right before “Straniero, ascolta,”) the orchestra was strong. The vocal highlight was debuting soprano Janai Brugger as Liù. Granted, it’s easy for Liù to steal Turandot, but Brugger’s crystalline yet full lyric soprano was beautifully controlled and expressive, portraying a rare moment of vulnerability in this tank of a performance. Less happy was Marcello Giordani as Calàf. This incredibly uneven singer had a night that was more bad than good. While some high notes still can ring out with power and squillo, all but the top few notes are sour and hollow, and even a few notes sounded like yelps. As Turandot, Iréne Theorin had sufficient power (though the set wasn’t helping her), but I found this less impressive than her Brünnhilde last summer. Her vibrato seemed unwieldy and her tone often turned shrill. But she is a lovely actress in a role that is usually just stood through. James Morris was a horribly wobbly Timur, Dwayne Croft was a fine Ping but Tony Stevenson and Eduardo Valdes were unfortunately less than audible as Pang and Pong, as was Bernard Fitch as the Emperor. Ryan Speedo Green made an impressive Met debut in the small role of the Mandarin, a bass-baritone ringing out through the crowds.

But you’d have to pay me to go see this again.

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David Alden hosts a Ballo in maschera at the Met

The Met’s taut, spooky new Ballo in maschera is the best new production this house has seen in some time. David Alden has finally brought his trademark surreal, minimalist film noir aesthetic to New York. Welcome to the early 1990’s, Met– the age when we all were scandalized by David Alden and thought he was crazy (not including me, because I was in elementary school and not going to the opera yet,* but you get the idea). But a production like this is always welcome, however belated, and compared to most of what we see at the Met it seems very fresh and modern. There’s nothing particularly shocking or radical about it; it’s certainly watered down from his European work, but it’s good drama and it would be a shame if the plentiful time-delay boos present at the premiere (I suspect due to the production’s deficit of horses and bayonets) detracted from its very real merits. The singing isn’t uniformly fabulous but it’s probably one of the better casts that can be assembled for this opera, and they are trying very hard.

Verdi, Un ballo in maschera. Metropolitan Opera, 11/8/2012. New production premiere directed by David Alden, sets by Paul Steinberg, costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuehl, lights by Adam Silverman, choreography by Maxine Braham. Conducted by Fabio Luisi with Marcelo Àlvarez (Gustavo), Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Count Ankarströrm/Renato), Sondra Radvanovsky (Amelia), Kathleen Kim (Oscar), Dolora Zajick (Ulrica). 

I can’t describe this opera better than Alden did himself in a recent interview: “the bizarre combination of serious political material, high Italian melodrama based around the hackneyed stuff of marital infidelity, and an almost operetta-like lightness of being, is experimental and dislocated and sets this apart from his [Verdi’s] other masterpieces.” Ballo is an opera much beloved by the scholarly set (and also Luigi Dallapiccola), who celebrate its radical mix of styles and apparently impressive motivic integration. I’ve always had an “mmmkay” reaction to this because Ballo has never convinced me onstage–the mixture of comic and melodramatic styles seems like a bad idea and it’s never had any emotional resonance, possibly because its characters don’t get much exposition. The music is frequently brilliant, but Amelia is a hysteric, King Gustavo a well-meaning doofus, Renato a bore, and smug coloratura soprano page Oscar one of the most annoying characters in all of opera. It has not been an opera to attract many Regie types, either, with Calixto Bieito’s notorious toilet production (which I haven’t seen) being a notable exception. At the Met, Alden’s replaces a traditional, heavy production by Piero Faggioni whose most memorable moment was, when I last saw it, Dmitri Hvorostovsky getting tangled up in his own cape.

Alden’s production does an impressive job with the first issue, coherence, but I’m afraid still nothing on the emotional front. Maybe it’s just that sort of opera. The “it’s all a dream!” trope might be, er, tired but for an opera this jumbled it’s a smart move and Alden deals with the changing tone with aplomb. We open with King Gustavo, dressed in a vaguely 1930’s/40’s suit, dozes off in a chair. An enormous Baroque painting of Icarus falling from the sky hovers over the stage, and Oscar enters flapping a pair of white feathered wings. This is kind of ingenious, because he evokes so many things–the painting above, Cupid (remember that Alden has directed a metric ton of Baroque opera in Europe), and the death figures who will finally appear in the finale. The walls are covered in hypnotic wallpaper (Alden and set director Paul Steinberg are wallpaper connoisseurs second only to Richard Jones), the stage steeply raked. The time and place are ambiguous, and never become any clearer. (This seemed to bother lots of people but I’m OK with it?) Gustavo and some other characters will hang out in this chair periodically–also genius because Alden has given any tenor his dream: a chance to sit down, take a break, and have a drink of water while onstage.

The dreary setting constantly threatens to break, with the music, into exuberant comedy. Office drones sit at stainless steel desks but Oscar incites them to dance; a worried group of citizens visits crazy old lady Ulrica only to have some fun-loving sailors bring the thing to life. (Ulrica later pulls a memento mori skull from her purse to show Amelia.) Sometimes it doesn’t really make sense, but Alden can also keep the action straightforward and tight when need be. Renato and Gustavo’s relationship is clearly drawn early on–Renato is worried that his friend might be a little dim– and Renato’s dismissal of Ulrica’s prophecy has a clear undercurrent of denial. Purists will probably be offended at the lack of any gallows in Act 2, but the Personenregie is engrossing and the entrance of the conspirators from various trapdoors and upstage genuinely creepy. Act 3 begins in a claustrophobically tiny white room, featuring a physically intense confrontation between Renato and Amelia–the photo of Gustavo on the wall might seem kind of cheesy, but it makes the thing work. The ball features, on Met standards, remarkably OK dancing, and the ending suggests that everyone is still trapped.

While it still didn’t quite convince me that Ballo is a masterwork (I know, I know, but I don’t feel it), it’s a compelling ride with the appeal of one of those crazy old B-grade noirs where all sorts of random stuff happens and none of the characters are terribly complex but it still keeps us involved. (Have you ever seen Detour? It’s bananas. Something like that.) I’m not sure if the Icarus stuff really adds the symbolic heft that is intended–OK, so Gustavo is a king who is taking increasingly treacherous risks, but so what?–but it doesn’t hurt and adds a note of fantasy to the  disjointed nature of the setting. Alden gets impressive performances from his cast, most of whom are not quite known for their nuanced and natural acting abilities but convincingly make a real show here.

Marcelo Alvarez worked hard all evening in the long and difficult role of Gustavo, concentration written on his face. He managed to act (and dance!) pretty well, only occasionally slipping into the cliched gestures that usually constitute his entire performance, but the effort expended was a little too obvious. Similarly, his lyric tenor was pushed to its limits, producing an often-pleasant bright sound at the top but unstable and unsure of pitch in the lower reaches. He has a short musical attention span, tending to sing in words and phrases rather than paragraphs and lacking a long legato line. This was not a problem of Dmitri Hvorostovsky, but he was also pushing his voice and frequently sounded blustery. His voice has an absolutely glorious, velvety sweet spot around middle C, but the rest of the range sounds strained. The final section of “Eri tu” was his strongest singing of the evening–one suspected he had been saving his voice–and showcased his excellent phrasing. Acting-wise he was suitably intimidating and more nuanced than his usual cape-twirling, and also managed to completely outclass his tenorial colleague in looking good wearing a fedora.

On the ladies’ side, Sondra Radvanovsky sang a knockout “Morrò, ma prima in grazia,” which sits in her English horn-like lower range and built beautifully over the course of the aria. I wish the rest of her singing had been as musical, but like Alvarez she often sounded somewhat raw and blunt. Her distinctive vibrato makes her tone instantly recognizable, and her intonation only occasionally sagged flat. Amelia is a hard character because we never know who she is, and Radvanovsky didn’t really solve this problem, but she did seem earnest. Kathleen Kim sounded sweet and bright as Oscar and darted around as demanded. I find this character insufferable but she almost made Oscar bearable, not leaning excessively into the tra la las. Dolora Zajick ,Queen of Chest Voice, made a mighty noise as Ulrica and didn’t really act too much. I do want to carry around a skull in my purse too, though.

Fabio Luisi conducted like someone who doesn’t mind being left to the end of the review. I am always wishing for Pappano in this repertory but Luisi was perfectly able, keeping things efficiently moving if not always nail-biting. I wished for juicier melodrama and more contrast but it was clean and competent and the orchestra sounded really excellent.

It might not be a reinvention, and if you’ve seen any of Alden’s work before you basically know what to expect from this one, but it’s a solid production that makes sense of the piece, and I hope the Met audiences give it a fair chance.

Ballo continues through December.

*I made my first acquaintance with David Alden when visiting Munich at the tail end of the Peter Jonas era at the Bay Staats. Baroque mayhem!

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