Picnic in the Harem, or, Die Entführung aus dem Serail at Glyndebourne


My trip to the UK has been a weird crash course in postcolonial studies. First I saw Lakmé, a veritable celebration of British colonialism, in posh Holland Park, at an opera house whose tickets contain a note about where to position your pre-opera picnic. Then I went to Glyndebourne, an elaborate imperial picnic venue which also happens to perform opera. And there I saw, of all things, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, an older and less Britain-centric exotic relic, but, still. (Then there was Guillaume Tell, which was less site specific.)

Rest assured that I did not plan this–but, since the other operas on at present include Falstaff and Aida, I likely would have ended up in the same place even if my choices had been somewhat different.

Anyway, I arrived in Glyndebourne with my friend and our picnic and I enjoyed the gardens and sheep and the fancy dresses of everyone else who was out in rural England for opera in the middle of a Thursday afternoon. It really is a beautiful and relaxing setting. I don’t think that Calixto Bieito’s Entführung (an example I use altogether too frequently but what else would work here?) would be at home. It’s not that provocation and leisure are incompatible, and the Glyndebourne model in fact offers ample time for reflection. But, on another level, how pleasant does your sex slavery Singspiel have to be for it to go with your picnic?

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The Met’s new Figaro

The Met narrowly dodged a labor dispute to open their season last week with Richard Eyre’s new production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. While the irony is inescapable, this production wouldn’t spark a revolution even if it were July 13, 1789. Its heavy, serious visuals belie an upbeat, action-packed, superficial staging with no discernible focus and no evident relationship to the music, and the mostly undistinguished musical performance isn’t enough to redeem it.

Le nozze di Figaro. Metropolitan Opera, 9/27/2014. New production directed by Richard Eyre, sets and costumes by Rob Howell, lights by Paule Constable, choreography by Sara Erde. With Ildar Abrazakov (Figaro), Marlis Petersen (Susanna), Peter Mattei (Count), Amanda Majeski (Countess), Isabel Leonard (Cherubino), Susanne Mentzer (Marcellina), Robert Pomakov (Bartolo), Ying Fang (Barbarina)

The setting is updated to 1930s Spain. Rob Howell’s exotically tinged set is a cluster of cylinders, some of which sit on a turntable (the effect is something like a castle built of paper towel tubes with holes in their sides). (Unfortunately you can’t see it very well in any of the pictures I’ve found–the Met rarely distributes full-stage photos.) The cylinders are a very dark, decoratively carved wood which I believe is intended to represent Moroccan design. It’s a World Market, “unique” alternative to the old production’s Restoration Hardware neutrals. The lights work overtime to make it improbably illuminated, but the effect is still dark and hulking, exacerbated by the dull palette of the costumes. The turntable makes the transition between scenes quite smooth.

“Non più andrai”

But, as Intermezzo said about some other rotating stage, “the only thing that is revolutionary about it is that it turns around.” The design never establishes any connection with the story, and the whole updating seems completely superficial. Why are we in the 1930s, why are we in quasi Morocco, and what does this have to do with anything? One could put the cast in eighteenth-century costumes and the effect of the blocking and characterization would be exactly the same. (Does Team Marcellina start bopping up and down near the end of the Act II finale where they sing “che bel colpo, che bel caso”? Yes, of course they do.) When I was discussing this production with my colleague Lucy, she noted that the sets are strangely bereft of media–newspapers, magazines, books, anything–and indeed, this house doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything happening in the greater world of the 1930s. And for me, absent any plausible dramatic connection, something about the production’s visual world seems profoundly tone deaf to the score it inhabits. Mozart’s language is one of structural clarity, harmonic transparency, and linear development, and the set’s dense surfaces and circular figures don’t work against the score in a productive way, they’re just wrong. It strikes me as a set for a Baroque opera, not Mozart. (I thought of Karol Berger’s study Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow here.)

Like the set, the staging favors the accumulation of detail over narrative precision. There is always something to see, but the “business of the house”–servants bustling around doing their jobs–does not contribute to the whole. Also, Cherubino’s hormones have infected the whole cast with a lust so urgent that Susanna’s pickiness really does seem anomalous. (This sort of “roll in zee hay”-type Figaro was also evident in the last revival of the old production.) This is present from this new production’s opening gesture, in which a naked lady rushes downstage and quickly covers herself up. It doesn’t seem to matter who she is or where she’s coming from–though she appears ashamed–just that there she is, shirtless. Eyre’s production is suffused with casual eroticism (the type that is marketed as “look! opera is sexy!” to a skeptical public), but an unbuttoned quality leaves little space to stage the hierarchical relationships which drive the plot, from Figaro’s relationship with Marcellina to Barbarina and beyond. When Figaro becomes a sex comedy, it loses all its edge. After all, the Count and Susanna’s would-be relationship is obviously not about sex but about power.

“Voi che sapete”

In short, the production is the rush job that we know it was. In the Times, Eyre described himself as choosing from the “opera supermarket” of the cast’s previous experiences, and that recycled, collage approach is very evident. Eyre is competent, and it’s never unwatchable or even as dull as Michael Grandage’s Don Giovanni. But the production packs no punch at all, never aspiring to gravity or significance beyond the farce, and that’s profoundly disheartening. A new production is not only a time to replace aging costumes but also to rethink a work’s meaning, to present a sharp and focused point of view, and the latter half of that equation does not seem to have occurred to anyone. (It wasn’t evident in Eyre’s Werther last season either.)

A stellar cast and musical performance could have made this disappointment less acute, but it was pretty middle of the road. James Levine’s conducting was worryingly erratic, sometimes picking beautiful textures from the orchestra, and in the finales building quite nicely, but more often losing all momentum altogether. In all, this was a very slow performance. The tempos seemed to stress out some of the singers, and certainly sapped the dramatic energy. The very enthusiastic continuist attempted to make up for this single (well, double) handedly with torrents of notes in the recit, but that wasn’t the best effect either. (Would it kill the Met to use a fortepiano sometime?)

Count and Susanna, I mean, Countess

While the cast didn’t seem to have many united goals, there were some standouts. The best was Peter Mattei’s Count, a known quantity to me. This was the same interpretation I saw him do in the old production–on a power trip, and dangerous–which isn’t the point of a new production, but it works. His voice is as velvety as ever and his “Contessa perdono” is the most beautiful in the business. Marlis Petersen’s Susanna was also successful. Vocally, she’s a somewhat odd casting choice; she’s spent most of her career in the stratospheric range of Lulu and this sounds like it may be uncomfortably low for her. Sometimes the tone became a bit unfocused and spread. But she is refined and elegant, and a good actress.


Amanda Majeski’s Countess (her debut) tended to stay in the shadows, showing little of the passionate characterization so evident in her Philadelphia Donna Elvira earlier this year. But her singing is interesting and promising: an unusually distinctive sound, cool and reedy with a slightly fluttery vibrato (she reminds me a little of Anne Schwanewilms), very nice up to a slightly underwhelming top. Her “Dove sono” was successfully meditative, but the phrases lacked the last bit of direction–probably because of Levine’s funereal tempo.

Two of the singers had obvious appeal to the audience but I found them puzzling. Ildar Abdrazakov’s Figaro was likeable enough but one-dimensional and generalized. His singing is perfectly reliable and clean (he even sneaked in some ornaments near the end of “Se vuol ballare,” the only cast member who managed as much as a passing tone), but he’s not very complex or magnetic. And I just didn’t get Isabel Leonard’s Cherubino. She was the victim of several of Levine’s stranger conducting decisions, and she stayed with him, but her dry and biting tone is unattractive and her acting was irritatingly over the top, more mugging than portrayal. In the smaller roles, Ying Fang was a smashing Barbarina who sounds like she’s ready for bigger things, Susanne Mentzer was unusually tasteful as Marcellina, and substitute Robert Pomokov was perfectly fine as Bartolo.

This wouldn’t be bad for a third revival, but for opening night it’s unfortunate.

My Beaumarchais beat goes on tomorrow night at Opera Philadelphia’s Barber of Seville. (I last blogged about Figaro and Barber too, oddly enough. Oh well, can’t really beat ’em.)

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met.


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You say you want a revolution (Figaro times two)

Like the ending of Don Giovanni, the finale of Le nozze di Figaro restores order and hierarchy. But, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that this peace between master and servants is a tenuous one, and only a few years later the underclass would not be so placated. Today, its title characters’ suggestions of insurrection may be less incendiary than they were at the opera’s premiere but they are instead indexical—well, sometimes, at least. The Ghost of French Revolutions Future occasionally haunted the two Figaros I saw recently*: the McCarter Theatre’s production of Beaumarchais’s play in Princeton and the Royal Opera House’s revival of Mozart’s opera in London.

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Don Giovanni hits on Philadelphia

“Maybe choosing this particular lady wasn’t one of my best ideas”

Don Giovanni never reveals what is going on inside his head. As he tears his way through the opera bearing his name he never stops to explain himself. His only important solo moments are extremely brief: the Act 1 “champagne aria” and Act 2 serenade. He is the opera’s mysterious center, but he also can, sometimes, more or less disappear. Such is the situation in Opera Philadelphia’s current production, which boasts a fine musical performance with a few first-rate singers, a dubious production, and not very much Don.

Don Giovanni. Opera Philadelphia at the Academy of Music, 4/25/2014. Production by Nicholas Muni, conducted by George Manahan. With Elliot Madore (Don Giovanni), Joseph Barron (Leporello), Michelle Johnson (Donna Anna), Amanda Majeski (Donna Elvira), David Portillo (Don Ottavio), Ceceila Hall (Zerlina), Wes Mason (Masetto), Nicholas Masters (Commendatore)

Ottavio and Anna

Nicholas Muni’s production is period-minimalist, the set only a few sliding walls. He seems to want to keep the sight gags and comedy of a lighthearted work, but also wants to focus on Catholicism (there is also an anachronistic painting motif in the set, whose significance escapes me). The result is rather shallow, and doesn’t really do anything to place the Don himself. The production’s best moments are the most straightforward storytelling ones, some of which make the characters really come alive. I liked, for example, the point when Donna Anna rushes back to her father’s body as Don Ottavio promises to be her father too. Donna Elvira gets the best character arc, going from a trouser-wearing lady of vengeance to a Catholic redeemer. But the frequent brandishing of crosses feels heavy-handed at best, and much of the action is far too cluttered and has little relationship with the music (particularly the confusing staged overture).

Muni also supplies Don Giovanni with a number of nameless onstage conquests, many of whom are unlikely (an old woman, a nun, etc.). It is clearly meant to be funny. But by using women as mute props–and by suggesting we laugh at their unlikely ravishment–the production isn’t only telling us something about Don Giovanni. It’s also validating his view of the women as silent, disposable objects, and moreover it is built on the assumption that the women are themselves grotesque. This is unfortunate. Similarly, I am on the record as a major non-fan of suggestions that Donna Anna has a candle burning for Don Giovanni, and this production ticks that box too. A few of the production’s other failures are merely logistical: the Commendatore’s tomb appears in the cemetery scene and then stays there, making the singer’s entrance both redundant and not very terrifying. And one should not describe the descent down to hell, which is simply cheesy.

This production, however, is worth seeing for the three women alone, all of whom gave compelling performances. Amanda Majeski has just the right incisive precision for Donna Elvira, though her tightly focused soprano thinned out a bit at the top. She made “Mi tradì” a real story instead of an obstacle course. Michelle Johnson, as Donna Anna, has a glamorous, rich voice, and might be a star in the making. Her “Or sai chi l’onore” was big and exciting. She seems, however, more of a verista than a Mozartian at heart, and her phrasing was sometimes wanting in elegance, particularly in “Non mi dir,” which is not her home turf. And while I am not normally on Team Mezzo Zerlina, Ceceilia Hall was a model of graceful musicality, and her acting was sympathetic without being cloying or cutesy. She and Wes Mason’s likeable, well-sung Masetto were the only convincing couple onstage (OK, this might have been intentional).

Teh peasants

The men were not as strong. As Don Ottavio, David Portillo has a sweet tone, can vary the color nicely, and unwound some good long phrases, though he sounded more at home in “Dalla sua pace” than in “Il mio tesoro.” (I enjoyed getting both of these arias, though.) Joseph Barron was a competent but unmemorable Leporello, and the sight gags of large corsets (and a really tiny corset–which, um, yay? haha?) and a really massive list stole his big number.  Unfortunately I have left Elliot Madore’s Don Giovanni for last. While the character may be a mystery, Madore’s wide-stance, eyebrow-wiggling antics never transcended frat boy petulance or suggested anything more than a bro on a bender. His deepish baritone is fine for the role, though I wish “Deh vieni” had floated a bit more. While he was always energetic, the interpretation seemed haphazard–the production could have done a lot to help him out here.

The orchestra mostly sounded clean and clear. George Manahan’s tempos tended towards the leisurely and coordination wasn’t always perfect, but the finales were well-paced. More than in most operas, it was a real shame to lose the stage bands, who here were heard from the pit. Despite its dramatic faults this is a performance that is worth hearing.

Don Giovanni continues through May 4.
Photos copyright Kelly and Massa.


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Lovers schooled

On Thursday night, the Washington, D.C.-based group Opera Lafayette graced the Rose Theater with a double bill of French opera… sort of. The first half consisted of Così fan tutte in French, the second François-André Philidor’s opéra-comîque Les femmes vengées, which slightly predates Mozart. It was ambitious and creative production that put a new spin on some very familiar material.

Nick Olcott’s production’s conceit is that Così makes more sense if you consider it as part of an eighteenth-century French tradition. The text is a vintage translation in verse, the recitatives are, like an opéra-comîque, made into spoken dialogue. The entire thing takes place in an artist’s studio, which brings up
some vague things about appearances and reality and also includes a
silent artist figure who became important in the second piece.The set is a basic set of walls and in period dress. There are a few novelties (the Albanians are now Canadians–not sure if that was the translation or a new idea but this is one production that takes the mustaches really seriously) and has the tone of a comedy of manners along the lines of The Rivals or The School for Scandal (to give some familiar English-language examples).

It proposes that the drama gradually moves from something very superficial and mannered (the staging uses many quasi-eighteenth-century poses) into more serious and sincere territory. Correspondingly, the finale contains a twist and the lovers end in their new pairing (Fleurdelise/Fernand and Dorabelle/Guillaume). The cast is engaged and enthusiastic, the Rose Theater is intimate enough to see all the detail, and this concept works pretty well. In fact, I think it probably would have worked equally well with the usual Italian text–perhaps that is missing the point, but the reason it works is that it finds an interesting angle on the text of Così, not because it says something about French theater.

It’s also nice to hear Mozart performed with a period orchestra, which
doesn’t happen very often in the US. The orchestra’s playing, under
music director Ryan Brown, was on the rough and ready side, particularly
in the winds, but it had a freshness and vigor that excuses some
messiness. The cast was mostly Canadian and French. Pascale Beaudin was a
wide-eyed, naïve Fleurdelise (Fiordiligi), and her voice is quite small
for this role, restricting the possibilities of her “Come scoglio.”
But, like Susanna Philips at the Met last fall, her “Per pietà” was
simply gorgeous and emotionally honest singing, much of it spent sadly
embracing the back of an empty chair. It was the highlight of the entire
evening. (I’m going to name the arias in Italian, because I didn’t
write down the French and it’s easier for you too.) 

Staskiewicz and Dobson

Blandine Staskiewicz was a perpetually guilty-looking Dorabelle with fruity tone and excellent comic timing. As Fernand, Antonio Figeuroa’s compact, somewhat nasal tenor made “Un aura amorosa” relaxed and almost disarmingly easy, but he didn’t seem to embrace the period style as fully as the rest of the cast and came across as quite modern. Alex Dobson was a natural comedian as Guillaume, if not always an elegant singer. As Delphine (Despina), Claire Debono had a chance to be witty and unaffected before everyone else, and her bright, focused soprano was one of the only I could hear working in a large opera house. Bernard Deletré’s Don Alfonso got some of his theatrical thunder stolen by Jeffrey Thompson mute artist.

The production’s second half was Les femmes vengées, a 1775 comic opera by François-André Philidor (today better known for his chess moves). It has a somewhat similar plot but predates Così by 15 years. An artist and his wife help two local ladies avenge their straying husbands (both of whom want to sleep with the artist’s wife). The staging made this story happen to the same characters from Così, only several decades later, sort of like the women’s revenge for the trick played on them years ago. (Regency fashions indicated that the French Revolution had transpired in the meantime, but no political references were made.) The artist was the silent figure from Così, now married to Delphine, and the two troubled couples are, of course, the lovers, who are now married.

The opera’s libretto, by Michel-Jean Sedaine, is surprisingly subtle in its development of the characters–well, subtle according to the standards of sex comedy, at least–but the problem is that the music isn’t. Philidor’s arias are charming and bright and pretty, but there’s little happening between words and music, and the kind of dramatization that makes the Da Ponte operas so incomparable is basically absent. (You can look at a first edition of the score online here if you’d like to see what eighteenth-century French engraved sheet music looks like or check out the score.) The same cast sang well and acted with rather more slapstick than in the Mozart. Debono’s role as the artist’s wife was more or less the central one, and her rhythmic acuity made the music come to life. As the artist, Jeffrey Thompson sang with a very slender but flexible tenor.

Beaudin and Figueroa

So it is supposed to be a lustiges Nachspiel, but it doesn’t quite work. The contrast isn’t between comic and serious (like in, say, Ariadne auf Naxos) but rather two separate styles of composition. It’s also all rather long: two operas in one evening, neither of which are short, is just more than one really needs. One is loathe, however, to cut any more of Così–the recits cut off some time, and we already lost Dorabella’s Act 2 aria and all of the optional Ferrando ones. (I unfortunately missed the end of Les femmes vengées, and I apologize for this, but the press person gave me a running time that proved to be incorrect by well over an hour. I stayed an hour longer than I expected until imperatives of public transportation compelled me to sneak out. Had I known the proper time I would have been prepared.)

Opera Lafayette doesn’t have the resources to operate on the level of a European group like Les Arts Florissants or the Theater an der Wien, but it’s nice to see an American ensemble trying something ambitious and creative in the pre-1800 realm.

Program Notes Plaudits
(the opposite of a Program Notes Smackdown): Nizam Peter Kettaneh’s notes are excellent.

“The French Così.” Mozart, Così fan tutte and Philidor, Les femmes vengées. Opera Lafayette at the Rose Theater, 1/23/2014. Conducted by Ryan Brown

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All the ladies are doing it

I rolled my eyes a little bit when James Levine was recently described in the Times as “somebody who may be the greatest opera conductor in history.” But after last night’s Così, the fourth performance in his triumphant return to the Met, I can at least understand the thinking behind it (though I still don’t agree). He’s an institution here, and Mozart at the Met hasn’t sounded anywhere near this good in years. It was impeccably clear, energetic, and paced, imbued with an air and light that no one else gets out of the Met orchestra. Everything is phrased and shaped, and yet it all sounds spontaneous and fresh.

The rest of the performance bore the signature of some of the less happy legacies of the Levine era: a boring production and singing that was fine but not quite star quality. The production is particularly egregious. Leslie Koenig’s 1996 staging is cartoonish, unsubtle, and offers much unfunny comic business, making a very poor contrast to the sublimity of the music. It flattens this ambiguous, intense libretto to its lowest common rom-com denominator. (Such a seemingly low opinion of the libretto has a venerable history in Così reception, but this sort of staging seems to proceed from an a priori assumption of triviality, and never constructs a coherent relationship with the overqualified score.)

It’s also just bad theater. The look is traditional, and the blocking in the first act frequently mirrors both the sisters and the men–problematic, I think, for a production already short on dramatic differentiation. Its brand of comedy involves having the Albanians spend an awful lot of time twirling their robes around. One great thing about Da Ponte’s libretti is how they always begin in media res. But while the men are obviously in the midst of a heated conversation when the curtain rises, here they lounge still and wordless for the whole introduction.

(I’m sorry to sound like a broken record here, but you have 70-some days left to watch the Michael Haneke production of Così on the Arte website, and if you haven’t yet, go do it now because you owe it to yourself. It’s a brutal and chilly take on an opera that I’ve (as you may have surmised) never found very funny.)

The cast offered some lovely moments, but none overshadowed the conducting, quite. Fiordiligi is a fiendishly difficult role and Susanna Philips handled many of the technical challenges with aplomb and a silvery soprano. But she isn’t a natural comedian or a big personality, and lacks the bravura to make “Come scoglio” really take off. Where she excelled was “Per pietà” and onwards, where she traced Fiordiligi’s descent with simplicity and honesty. Maybe she’s just more of a Mimì type. As her sister, Isabel Leonard was not impressive, sounding rather vinegary and showing little in the way of stage presence.

As Despina, Danielle De Niese had the most acting sparkle in the cast, but didn’t have much to play off against, and the performance ended up seeming a bit effortful. Her singing tended towards the raw and more Mozartean elegance would have been nice, but Despina’s music isn’t “Dove sono.” She was certainly a brighter presence than Maurizio Muraro was as Don Alfonso, who started off as a low energy Dulcamara and went downhill from there. This is a plum role and not difficult to cast, why not find someone with a little more wit?

The other men were much better. Matthew Polenzani remains a superb Mozart tenor with sweet tone and great musicality, and did the most glamorous singing of the evening. He can actually make “Ah! lo veggio” sound like the walk in the park that, in the libretto, it literally is. Rodion Pogorossov was a fine Gugliemo and almost funny, though this role always seems to have drawn the short straw.

Despite great unevenness, the conducting alone was enough to make this a gratifying performance, and I recommend you go if you can.

Mozart, Così fan tutte, Metropolitan Opera, 10/5/2013.

Photos copyright Marty Sohl/Met.

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Figaro at the Mostly Mozart Festival

I went to see Le Nozze di Figaro at the Mostly Mozart Festival and I wrote about it for Bachtrack:

In his program note, conductor-director Iván Fischer describes his Mostly Mozart Festival production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro
as a staged concert. His agenda sounds serious: “This is my attempt to
bring theater and music closer to each other, to create a new natural
harmony.” He asks for a new era in opera production, seeking “organic
unity” between music and theater. Admirable intentions, but this has
already been the goal of opera since roughly 1600. His production
doesn’t reinvent the wheel, its virtues are familiar. But a detailed,
engagingly performed, and musically excellent Figaro is never unwelcome.

You can read the whole thing here. The photo gives you a good idea of the setup. That’s Fischer on the right.

This was worlds better than my other two most recent Figarosthis Met one and another one I didn’t write about because I left at intermission. (Apparently in that latter production I missed Bartolo singing “My Way” in Act 3. Oh, Germany.) The Mostly Mozart effort does suffer from not being a full production: the costume concept is decent but applied somewhat haphazardly, and a set would really help clarify the action. But there’s a lot to enjoy, particularly in the operatic desert of summer.

This was, unbelievably, the Mostly Mozart Festival’s first ever performance of Figaro. I know their focus is usually symphonic and choral works, but it still is surprising.

Photo copyright Gordon Eszter (or possibly, in English, Eszter Gordon?).

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Mostly Mozzzzzzzart

The Mostly Mozart Festival! More like Mostly Doze-art, amirite? Sorry, that’s cruel, but neither was I convinced by this Times piece about how Lincoln Center’s July/August celebration of the familiar is innovative now because they have a small new music series in a tiny theater. It’s easy enough to get a hundred or so people to come over from Roulette, call me when they put their money where their mouth is, that is, change the central, large-scale program. Because the main theater is again hosting programs of mostly Mozart, along with a celebration of a composer who is, compared to Mozart, unusual and underrated. You know. Beethoven.

Also, call me when I can get a ticket to the David Lang piece in the tiny theater. Because that thing is seriously sold out. So I ended up in Avery Fisher Hall for the opening program of Mozart. And Beethoven. This concert was seriously not sold out. Tons of empty seats. Draw your own conclusions.

On the other hand, if this is an improvement, how somnolent did it used to be? Geez. Because, to be honest, this concert was mediocre. (When your programming is this bland, so-so performances don’t even have the virtue of novelty.)

The Festival Orchestra, as conducted by Louis Langrée has a decent, warm sound and plays with energy. But in this concert they skated over the surface of the textures. The strings seem unable to produce a crisp, sharp attack, and there were places, particularly in the opening Coriolan Overture, where a good deal more weight and darkness would have helped. Perhaps this is in part the Avery Fisher acoustic, but it all sounded rather soft focus. This proved particularly fatal in the many repeated sequences found in Beethoven’s development sections. There was no tension or shift of dynamics, it was like jogging on a treadmill. You’re working away, but you aren’t going anywhere.

The Mozart portion of the concert was supplied by Alice Coote, who sang “Ch’io mi scordi di te” and “Parto, parto.” She was the best thing about spring’s Giulio Cesare at the Met, but her full, rather thick mezzo seemed a little out of place here. While the orchestra was breezy, Coote is unwaveringly intense, which can be disconcerting when dealing with two brief concert arias rather than a whole opera. To my taste, she made a few too many sacrifices of elegance and clarity of line for the sake of dramatic emphasis. While exclamations like “Stelle barbare” and “Perché!!!” had focus, a little more bravura and flair would have been welcome.

The rest of the program was Beethoven. I’m not a good judge of pianists, so I’m not going to say a lot about Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s performance of the Piano Concerto No. 4 and the piano part in “Ch’io mi scordi,” but I wasn’t all that impressed. He’s got a crisp sound that matches the orchestra, but his middle-range playing rarely projected to my rear orchestra seat, with muddy passagework in all except the highest registers. The phrasing in the second movement was more graceful. The program closed with the audience-pleasing Symphony No. 7, which seems to be on every program ever. This account was fine but not anything special–fleet and light, but lacking in rhythmic Schwung.

Some of the rest of the festival looks more promising: I hope to catch the Rossini Stabat Mater with Noseda and the awesome Daniela Barcellona, and the highlight will surely be the Figaro with the fab Budapest Festival Orchestra and a promising cast. Let’s hope it improves.

Meanwhile, I’ve come up with some ideas for improvements on Mostly Mozart:
Almost Mozart: music from the late 18th century by everyone except Mozart
You Think You Know Mozart?: music Mozart wrote before the age of 13. don’t make this annual.
Mostly Nope-Zart: concerts that are 90% very loud and non-gentle music
On Twitter, LJC suggests the additions of Staggeringly Stamitz and Drastically Dittersdorf. Sure sell-outs! Add your own in the comments if you like.

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Die Entführung aus dem Serail, or, Men Who Hate Women

Martern aller Arten

I had a few extra days in Europe, so I decided to hop over to Berlin for Calixto Bieito’s production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail, which I’ve wanted to see for ages. If your reaction to this decision is not along the lines of “well, of course,” then continue reading with some caution.

For staging fundamentalists, this production and its supposed desecration of Mozartian purity have become a synecdoche for all of Regietheater. This is basically dumb: you can’t reduce so much diverse work by so many people to one production, and while I haven’t actually seen Calixto Bieito’s do-do list I doubt that “despoil our sacred cultural heritage” is the first thing on it. So I want to talk about this production, not its reputation. But before seeing it I assumed that none of its critics had actually seen the thing, since their litanies of complaints have the snapshot quality of description obtained through photos and others’ reviews rather than seeing an actual performance. But after seeing it myself, I’m not sure this is necessarily correct.

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Die Zauberflöte at the Komische Oper

I went to see Die Zauberflöte at the Komische Oper Berlin as directed by Suzanne Andrade and Barrie Kosky and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

Die Zauberflöte is a work whose
outward simplicity masks internal complexity and even contradictions.
Mozart’s music is childishly tuneful and yet reaches for the classically
sublime; Emmanuel Schikaneder’s libretto alternates a magical quest
story out of a German storybook with Masonic claptrap and secondhand
Voltaire. For a children’s opera, its message occasionally goes off the
rails; for Enlightenment philosophy it seems silly (and its treatment of
race and gender hardly progressive). Contemporary stage directors
approaching this piece have many options, as well as challenges.

You can read the whole thing here. It’s a delightful production, colorful enough for kids and sophisticated enough for adults. This is the second Weimar cinema-inspired production I’ve seen, the first being the more chronologically appropriate Cardillac at the Wiener Staatsoper. This Zauberflöte was less literal and far prettier.

I don’t know how the video and musical sides were coordinated or cued. The situation varies here–the Met made a big deal about how the videos of their Damnation de Faust responded to the music rather than the other way around, while I saw a L’enfant et les sortilèges in Munich with some severe coordination problems. In Berlin, everything seemed to function smoothly, but I don’t know to what extent the timing of the video was fixed and to what extent it was being triggered on the spot. It’s amazing to think of how far this technology has advanced in just a few years.

I’ve heard better singing at the Komische Oper, but everyone was perfectly competent. Highly recommended if you’re in Berlin.

More photos below.

All photos copyright Iko Fresse / drama-berlin.de

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