Written on Skin in NYC

Unusual for a new opera, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin arrived in New York with its reputation preceding it. It has been making the European rounds since 2012 and has been praised to the skies almost everywhere. Its three Lincoln Center Festival performances last week marked its untimely staged US debut.

And it’s hard to imagine that Written on Skin could have been developed and premiered by an American opera company. Certainly not, at least, by one of the behemoths. Martin Crimp’s libretto is a simple story which becomes complex in its telling; it doesn’t have a celebrity historical personality as its protagonist, isn’t based on a hit film or book, and makes no clear claim to cultural importance. The subject isn’t, like many American operas, aggressively checking off boxes like genres suggested by Netflix. (Cold Mountain? Hmmm, Literary Fiction Set in the Civil War With Strong Female Characters.)

Written on Skin
is instead purposefully elliptical. It’s filled with symbols, fragmented narrative frames, and characters speaking in the third person. Its score is, though at times lyrical, rather thornier than the film music style which has become most popular in American premieres. It has also eclipsed most if not all of those works in its acclaim and popularity.

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Orninthology: “Yardbird” in Philadelphia

That Yardbird, Daniel Schnyder and Bridgette Wimberly’s new Charlie Parker opera, should begin with its famous subject’s death is not surprising. Opera is often fixated on greatness and endings. Like Oscar, Opera Philadelphia’s other new opera this season, Yardbird concerns not its celebrity protagonist’s achievements but rather his legacy and renown. The subject—Oscar Wilde or, in this case, Parker—is a kind of synecdoche for American regional opera as a whole. His cultural authority is asserted rather than argued. His creations lie in the past while his descendents squabble over ownership of his life.

It’s a shame that this opera doesn’t work dramatically, because musically there is much to enjoy, and the performance is excellent.

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Wilde at Heart (“Oscar” in Philadelphia)

Opera Philadelphia has made an admirable committment to commissioning and performing new opera. They have programmed two new works this season and are developing more for the future. One reason this is admirable is because it comes with great risk: the road to successful new operas is littered with unsuccessful new operas. Unfortunately I must put their current production, Oscar, into the latter category. Based on the final years of Oscar Wilde’s life, the opera was previously seen at Santa Fe but is now receiving its regional premiere, again with David Daniels in the title role. But it is not a satisfying work. Theodore Morrison’s bland, anonymous music fails to elevate Morrison and John Cox’s uneven hagiography of a libretto.

Theodore Morrison,
Oscar. Philadelphia premiere, Opera Philadelphia, 2/6/15. Directed by Kevin Newbury, sets by David Korins, costumes by David Woolard, lights by Rick Fisher, conducted by Evan Rogister with David Daniels (Oscar Wilde), Heidi Stober (Ada Leverson), William Burden (Frank Harris), Dwayne Croft (Walt Whitman), Reed Lupalau (Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas), Wayne Tigges (Justice/Isaacson), lots more.

The opera begins with Wilde–or Oscar, as this chummy libretto calls him–already convicted but awaiting the reading of his charges and his sentence. The first act is largely static, with Wilde confined by public opprobrium to a nursery in his friend Ada Leverson’s house. The second act finds him imprisoned, subject to inhumane treatment by the obligatory sadistic prison guard, and finally a brief scene shows him in Paris. We are guided through the plot by the specter of Walt Whitman, who occasionally reads from Wilde’s Wikipedia entry (not really, but that’s what it sounds like) and Wilde’s lover Bosie, played by a dancer in the opera’s most obvious gesture to Britten’s Death in Venice.

The story of Oscar Wilde’s fall from wit to prisoner is a compelling one (particularly if we include Salome along the way), but it’s not the story this opera tells. Wilde is solely a noble martyr, no wit involved, and the result is not very interesting. Wilde’s trial and sentence on charges of “gross indecency” was an outrage, and one he suffered with as much dignity as one could. But as a story the opera is broadly drawn and obvious. The other characters are either deeply sympathetic friends of Oscar who want to save him (these include Leverson and local tenor Frank Harris as well as a friendly prison guard) or they are sadists who want to see him suffer (the jailor, the judge, various short roles). It’s not just black and white, it’s also that the only available character attributes are goodness, sympathy, and evil, all defined vis à vis attitudes toward Oscar.

It seems ridiculous to write a Wilde opera with no more than a few one-liners and the drama relies too much on telling rather than showing. I’m not sure if writing faux-Wilde would be advisable (and this libretto sounds thoroughly American, a single random Cockney prison guard excepted), but why eliminate the voice that made him famous? This voice and his downfall have already coexisted in Moises Kaufmann’s play Gross Indecency: The Trials of Oscar Wilde, but the opera prefers a cardboard saint who says things like “I am moved by your chivalry and nobility as a friend.”

When Wilde’s writing does appear (a letter to Bosie, a setting of a bit of The Ballad of Reading Gaol), it is immediately obvious for its razor-sharp command and intensity. But the libretto isn’t without some moments of dramatic possibility itself: the moment when nursery’s toys come to life to reenact part of his trial (why the majority of it is related by Frank rather than seen is less clear), and the scenes of Wilde performing his pointless labor and later conversing with a guard in the prison infirmary. Unfortunately the finale, in which Wilde is promoted into immortality like a reverse Don Giovanni, is just ridiculous.

But whatever the libretto an opera lives or dies based on its score, and on that account Oscar disappoints. Morrison’s music never creates dramatic momentum and leaves the libretto’s bold, contrasting colors in wan pastels. It’s tonal and the words are fairly easy to understand, and it is mostly content to simply be pleasant. Morrison relies nearly exclusively on ostinato accompaniments (very short patters repeated over and over) to create tension and the effect becomes monotonous. The vocal writing is angular and, perhaps inspired by Daniels, involves some baroque coloratura. Daniels gets some big solo moments, notably an aria about beauty in Act 1 and one beginning with baroque-like waves in Act 2, and these moments of stillness, along with some of the choruses, are much more rewarding than the dialogue. The orchestration is playable but unmemorable. (Many contemporary opera composers are absolutely brilliant orchestrators—Adès and Benjamin, just to name two—so this really sticks out, perhaps disproportionately.) It is, in all, a very modest, unambitious score and never makes a big impression.

This project is a labor of love for Daniels. His Wilde suffers nobly but mopes endlessly, surely the fault of the material but nonetheless a problem. His countertenor audibly separates him from all the voices surrounding him (and if only there had been some kind of major concertante using this with the prisoners in Act 2!) and he can sing with great directness and sincerity, even though the tone sometimes sounds very thin. Of the cast I liked Heidi Stober’s high soprano best. Not only is her tone clear and precise, she also sang with a beautiful range of color and dynamic range, and she’s a good actress too. William Burden’s sense of line is not as fine but his tenor still is easy and sweet–alas his character, Frank Harris, was so boring despite being repeatedly described as “rowdy.” Wayne Tigges boomed menacingly as the judge and prison chief. As Walt Whitman, Dwayne Croft spoke nearly as much as he sang, but he did sound fine. Conductor Evan Rogister kept excellent balance between voices and orchestra (this is one advantage of Morrison’s orchestration) and kept things moving relatively quickly.

As Bosie, Reed Luplau dances very prettily in somewhat balletic fashion (the choreography is by Seán Curran), but the effect isn’t quite enough to convince me of the transcendent power of beauty, probably because the dances seem more like interludes than dramatic development. Kevin Newbury’s production is efficient and classy, doing a lot of realistic scene-setting with a single set of looming walls, from a library in the opening to the cluttered nursery to the dreary prison. It all moves seamlessly and the blocking and direction of the singers does as much as it can. There is, unfortunately, only so much it can do.

Opera Philadelphia’s next new opera will be Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, music by David Schnyder and starring Lawrence Brownlee, in June. Next season will include, as already announced, Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain, also starting at Santa Fe this summer.

Photos copyright Opera Philadelphia/Kelly & Massa.


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Two Boys at the Met

A young composer premieres an opera at the old Met about how young and old people don’t understand each other. There’s something poignant about it. Your reaction to Nico Muhly’s Two Boys is going to be inflected by your expectations of opera as an art form (or lack thereof), from musical structure to choice of subject to language. I sat, rather perfectly, between a hipster carrying his bike helmet and an older lady carrying a Chanel purse. But that doesn’t mean that all criticism is just a case of Well, You’re Just Listening Wrong. And Two Boys is, in many ways, an unsatisfying work.

Nico Muhly, Two Boys. Metropolitan Opera, 10/25/2013. Production directed by Bartlett Sher, sets by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lights by Donald Holder, projections by 59 Productions, choreography by Hofesh Shechter. Cast: Paul Appleby (Brian), Alice Coote (Anne Strawson),
Christopher Bolduc/Andrew Pulver (Jake as baritone-Jake as boy soprano), Caitlin Lynch (Cynthia), Jennifer Zetlan (Rebecca), Judith Frost (Anne’s mum), Sandra Piques Eddy (Fiona)

As you probably have already heard, the plot of Craig Lucas’s libretto concerns a violent crime in England in 2001 involving the titular two boys. They meet in a shadowy corner of the sketchy sketchy internet, the younger one ends up stabbed, and a detective has to unravel what happened. We see the events as she figures them out, which conveniently happens in chronological order. Brian, the older boy, seems to be drawn into a plot involving a sexy spy, a dangerous gardener, and more. But nothing is, as they say, as it may seems. (We see their online conversations in transcription on projections while the singers  sing them and carefully avoid looking at each other.) A friend’s theory is that the whole thing is a gloss on The Turn of the Screw, which makes a good deal of sense–the characters even match up pretty clearly.

Muhly’s music is ghostly. Repetitive figures in the orchestra are overlaid with lyrical vocal arioso that proceeds at more or less the same tempo for the entire piece. The vocal writing is in basically the same style for every character. The music is often beautiful but it is rarely rhetorical or dramatic, seemingly unaffected by the intent of the scene or words. The most memorable moments are in the choruses depicting the chaos of the internet, whose layering of short motives owes something to John Adams, Britten, and, particularly in the first act’s church scene, Tallis. That church scene might be the best part of the whole score. It’s the first time we hear Jake, the younger boy, singing in a pure boy soprano (in several scenes he is sung by a baritone), and Muhly seems to be in his natural element.

Elsewhere, there seems to be a puzzling mismatch of libretto and music. Muhly’s static score places him squarely in the school of the presentational, post-dramatic opera of Glass and Adams, but the libretto’s Law & Order: SVU plot seems to demand chiaroscuro and tinta of a more directional and narrative sort of composition. (I don’t mean the libretto demands tonal organization–just look at Aribert Reimann.) The disparity of pacing between libretto and music produces a hazy, distancing effect. There’s something interesting about setting the thoughtless, headlong exclamations of hormonal teenagers in slow motion (these kids don’t even take the time to type whole words), but ultimately it only calls more attention to the libretto’s obviousness and implausibility as a crime drama. And much of the music feels rote.

The opera’s reluctance to get into its character’s heads ends up feeling like a dodge, at least to me. At least the singing was universally strong. As Brian, Paul Appleby sang with warm lyric tone and excellent control, and was about as convincing as a teenager as anyone around 30 could ever be, but the scenes with Jake (the unusually reliable boy soprano Andrew Pulver) were unavoidably awkward–I wondered if it would have been better to have worked in Christopher Bolduc’s baritone incarnation of Jake a little more. Jennifer Zetlan sounded youthful and bright as Brian’s older sister, Rebecca. The Met chorus also was in fine form, though my seat in the front of the house (I can rarely say that! thanks, ticket discounts!) did not allow for a good blend. David Robertson’s conducting was excellent.

Coote and Appleby

The only character who seems to be provided with any background is Detective Strawson, the investigator. Alice Coote is an incredibly honest singer and her substantial, dark mezzo was as impeccable as ever, but the writing is thoroughly misogynist: she’s a lonely middle-aged woman who can’t handle dealing with children ever since she gave up a baby years ago, and is hectored at length by her aging mother about her inability to dress like a lady and find a man. (Presumably if she had put on makeup and kept her baby, none of this would have happened, so thanks, Detective Strawson, for being career-minded and dowdy and giving us this opera!)

The setting is in the just-past where we can be very critical because most of us remember it. I recall my 2001 internet–when I was also a teenager–consisting mostly of AOL Instant Messenger with my friends and The Clarinet Pages. I guess it had fewer reputable uses back then, but the opera’s fears of constant connection and absorption seem more contemporary (witness Evgeny Mozorov’s essay in this week’s New Yorker, for example), which makes the more 2001-era elements seem a little hokey. Bartlet Sher’s production is gloomy and for the most part very good and smooth (shockingly so, for him–maybe all he needs is a near-contemporary setting to cure his case of the cutes). The only major misstep is the execrable dancing internet, a group of writhing dancers in the choruses.

Muhly’s opera is admirably less burdened by the sense of worthiness that has plagued many recent efforts at the Met. He doesn’t seem to feel the need to produce a huge national and cultural monument, for one thing. And he has a real compositional voice. But I’m not convinced he’s a dramatic composer, and I wonder if an oratorio or more abstract opera would suit him better than this (and his previous opera Dark Sisters’s) topicality and realism. Maybe he should call Bob Wilson or Peter Sellars?

Two Boys continues through November 14.
Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met

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Matsukaze at the Lincoln Center Festival

Remember me? I went to see Toshio Hosokawa’s Matsukaze at the Lincoln Center Festival and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

Toshio Hosokawa’s opera Matsukaze
is in many ways a model of modern cross-cultural creation. Premièred in
Brussels in 2011, it sets a story from the traditional Japanese Noh
theater in a more or less Western operatic framework. And the text is in
German. But unlike some other recent efforts to merge Asian and
European traditions (such as Tan Dun’s The First Emperor), it
is a fully-formed and rewarding work of art rather than a self-conscious
experiment. Despite a pedestrian production, Lincoln Center Festival’s
presentation is a valuable opportunity to hear Hosokawa’s impressive

You can read the whole thing here. I have been absent recently due to a) too much work and b) a certain absence of material. I have a few plans for August but things will be quiet for a while. I am sorry to have missed Michaels Reise um die Erde, also at the LCF, but it’s too bad they scheduled two of their most interesting events for the same three nights. I went to Matsukaze on the first of the three, and the other two I spent at a wedding.

One thing I didn’t mention was the casting of two Asian (Korean) singers in the roles of the sisters. Maybe this wasn’t intentional, there are lots of fine Asian and Asian-descent singers out there, but I wasn’t sure what to make of it. If it was intentional, it seems to me to be unnecessary and possibly problematic. If it wasn’t, well, I’m glad I didn’t mention it.

Also, I liked Paul Griffiths’s program notes. I wish certain other NYC opera groups would follow suit.

See you from the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s Figaro, if not sooner.

Photo copyright Olivier Roset.

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The Tempest: Oh timid old world

Thomas Adès’s 2004 opera The Tempest arrives at the Met with a relatively lengthy pedigree of major productions around the world,* a score that is
recognizably modern but consonant and conventionally pretty enough to
play to a Met audience, and a libretto based on a familiar play.
Actually, it’s the Met’s second newish Tempest opera in as many years.
While it’s altogether more credible than the other one, and has some
lovely moments, it still never quite takes off, and remains undramatic
and timid. Robert Lepage’s random and cheesy production doesn’t help

Adès, The Tempest. Libretto by Meredith Oakes after Shakespeare. Metropolitan Opera, 10/23/2012. New production premiere, first Met performance of this opera. Production by Robert Lepage, sets by Jasmine Catudal, costumes by Kym Barrett, lights by David Beaulieu. Conducted by Thomas Adès with Simon Keenlyside (Prospero), Isabel Leonard (Miranda), Audrey Luna (Ariel), Alan Oke (Caliban), Alek Shrader (Ferdinand [Debut]), Kevin Burdette (Stefano), Iestyn Davies (Trinculo), Toby Spence (Antonio), Christopher Feigum (Sebastian), John Del Carlo (Gonzalo), William Burden (King of Naples)

Unfortunately, most of the operas produced today are really old, and most are also, at least to a certain portion of their audience, really familiar. This means that the few new operas that happen inevitably end up being defined, at least in part, in relation to what is happening on all the other nights of the week. For a production of The Tempest, one that Robert Lepage has put in a theater-in-theater setting of Milan’s La Scala (a trick we have never, ever seen before, not once), this would seem to present provocative symbolic possibilities to tell The Tempest as an allegory for opera. Prospero’s magic happens on an island (opera house, isolated from the real world), informed by learning in old books (scores), and when the problems are resolved we have to return to reality outside the magic theater (la commedia è finita). But while some other directors might have pulled this off, Lepage’s succession of effects without causes or expression leaves the setting meaningless–and the story pretty much meaningless as well.

My friend wanted this to be ironic. Wishful thinking.

For all this metatheatrical stuff Adès is not a postmodernist at all but rather a straightforward, mild-mannered modernist who seems to have an agnostic view of operatic history. The production also includes a great deal of alarmingly kitschy images including a couple actually walking off into a beach sunset (video art by David Leclerc), the comically enormous court showing up in giant crinoline skirts and other vaguely 18th-century-ish (of the Slutty 18th Century variety) garb, and some downright embarrassing “tribal” dances choreographed by Crystal Pite (with costumes that feature, er, more bare ass than I expected–not that I have a problem with asses, but I prefer their context and representational baggage to be less, um, racist), making those of a certain recent Les Troyens look almost good. The various elements–music, libretto, theater setting, otherwise straight faced eigthteenth-century-set Tempest, never seem to be speaking to each other. It’s awkward at best and almost unwatchable at worst. I’m not even going to relate the purported coups-de-theatre but will say the best one is the first five minutes, see below.

Not the music and libretto are without faults. Personally I prefer my modernism gnarlier, but at least Adès’s music is a good cut above the sugary movie score-like commissions more common in the US. It’s a slightly prickly tonality but not particularly dense, ethereal and beautifully orchestrated. The best parts where Adès can get into a groove, such as Miranda and Ferdinand’s duet and a very brief lament for Alonzo. The problem is that the score often lacks variety, and ends up being rather undramatic. Adès doesn’t seem to have a good strategy for conversational, connecting passages, which pass incredibly slowly, and despite apparently wanting Stefano and Trinculo to be comic there is nothing funny about their music. The default Adès mode is meditative, distant, static, and very pretty. It would be nice to hear in a concert suite, but as storytelling it doesn’t do much to narrate. Each character has to some extent a characteristic style, but a fair amount of the writing is not at all vocally idiomatic, and ends up sounding more ungainly than expressive, with a bonus of much of the text rendered incomprehensible. As you can see in some of these pictures, there were literal subtitles on the edge of the stage.

The libretto is another issue. Meredith Oakes’s text preserves only hints of Shakespeare. It’s also not very good, as verse goes, tending to be mundane and vague. As my distinguished colleague resoundingly declaimed in the lobby during intermission:

“Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell
Hark! now I hear them,–Ding-dong, bell.”

That was Shakespeare. Here is Oakes’s version:
“Five fathoms deep
Your father lies
Those are pearls
That were his eyes
Nothing of him
That was mortal
Is the same
His bones are coral
He has suffered
A sea change
Into something
Rich and strange
Sea nymph hourly
Ring his kell
I can hear them
Ding dong bell.”

Here it is with Thomas Adès’s music, as sung in concert by Audrey Luna, the Ariel of this production:

I can appreciate that Shakespeare is thick stuff to be sung, but if it’s going to be as incomprehensible as most of Adès’s settings are, one could at least wish for more melodious titles to read. More seriously, I can appreciate that they wanted to reinvent the story but this version is more like an abridged, watered-down version than an interesting new one. Character development takes a hit, particularly Caliban. Perhaps in an attempt to avoid nasty racist stuff (the choreographer didn’t seem to get that memo), he has been rendered a harmless pathetic and his large amount of stage time seems kind of unnecessary. In general, the verbal style is so neutral and distant that the many characters and their emotions are never really defined, and it just seems like so much talking or vaguely nice singing.

“This look does nothing for me, dammit. I looked better as $#@*ing Wozzeck.

The cast is more or less fine, though none really stand out. Simon Keenlyside as Prospero appeared in the premiere and uses the words most expressively (and articulates them with admirable clarity), but his voice sounds rough at times, and the production makes him more an eccentric tattooed uncle than a magician despite his considerable dignity. Mezzo Isabel Leonard and tenor Alek Shrader sing quite beautifully as Miranda and Ferdinand, and their duet is a musical highlight. The best tenor of the cast, however, is definitely William Burden as Ferdinand’s father Alonso, the king of Naples. It’s odd that Adès set both father and son as tenors, particularly when Burden’s incredibly sweet and warm tones radiate, in conventional opera semiotics, youthful ardor (belied by his Civil War general look). Fellow tenor Toby Spence had flair as Antonio, but the tessuitura is high for him. Audrey Luna floated and yelped Ariel’s stratospheric music on pitch very cleanly and displayed formidable technique, athleticism, and stamina, though I’m not sure I would recognize her voice in a lineup should she sing below a high G.** As Caliban, Alan Oke sounded awfully nasal.

There are shadows of something interesting and exceedingly modernist here: a hall of mirrors of representations (Oakes restates Shakespeare as Lepage reveals our opera house, all about Prospero’s magic). Unfortunately the suggestions of an opera about fragmentation and distance are evident only fitfully themselves, and that failure is not so much modernist as just sad.

The Tempest runs for a while longer.

Photos by Ken Howard, who seems to be using the wings’-eye view not seen by any audience members in the theater but endemic to the HD broadcasts. The Machines are taking over!

*Promoted as “the Met at its adventurous best!” I will not dispute that claim, but would like to note that if taking on something produced in London in 2004 and at many other opera houses since qualifies as their most adventurous venture, that says something.

**You know that thing about Isolde and/or Salome being women crushed by composers’ orchestras? Sometimes I think there’s a similar thing going on with post-WWII composers and coloratura sopranos, see also Die Soldaten, Lear, etc., etc. Either that or all their orchestration textbooks have reversed the section marked “soprano” with the one marked “piccolo.”

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Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters

Nico Muhly is one of the most well known and prolific names in the American under-40 compositional set, with major premieres and CDs all over the place. His first opera, Two Boys, was seen this year at the English National Opera (and will be coming to the Met in the future), and his second, Dark Sisters, was just premiered by the Gotham Chamber Opera (along with the Music-Theatre Group co-producing). Everyone else has already written about it and new music isn’t quite my fach, but I did see it so I thought I should register my thoughts. It’s an honorable effort but less than fully satisfying.

The plot deals with a police raid on a polygamous household somewhere in the West of the type associated with Warren Jeffs. We open with the five wives, and the only other cast members are one daughter and the husband–so there’s a lot of Rosenkavalier trio-ing going on, particularly since all except one of the women are sopranos of a more or less lyric sort (and the exception is a lyric mezzo). There is rather less variety in their vocal writing than in, say, Poulenc’s in Dialogues of the Carmelites. Compounding this problem is Stephen Karam’s largely static libretto, which shies away from staging dramatic events in favor of lots of meditations and kindly conversations. While the women are eventually developed as characters, the action is awfully thin and several dramatic events stay unnecessarily offstage. I like this idea for an opera–it’s a contemporary topic with a lot of emotional punch. But it’s underdeveloped here.

Muhly’s music is often compared to that of his mentor Philip Glass, but he’s not such a strict minimalist, and the influence of Renaissance English music in all its consonant contrapuntal glory is quite audible. The repeating figures are largely kept to the orchestra (a chamber ensemble of around a dozen players). So I’m going to describe it as Janacek only with Tallis in the place of the folk song. Most of it is at an andante con moto tempo, mezzo forte. It’s very beautiful, but it’s often underwritten and lacking in character, and lacks contrast in a drama already suffering from sameness.

One other strength of the opera is its scale, which has a nice intimacy befitting Gotham Chamber Opera. Rebecca Taichman’s production is really excellent, balancing naturalistic acting and more poetic images in a way that flows naturally. (It’s not a fair comparison, but it’s better than any direction we’ve seen at the Met so far this season.) The simple production emphasizes a harsh natural world that fits the music, though its symbolism is never really echoed in the libretto (the wives seem to suffer less from an empty world than a crowded and confined one). The cast is also excellent, particularly Caitlin Lynch’s even, rich tone as the most resistant of the wives, Eliza. Jennifer Check, who often sings small roles at the Met, showed a beautiful piano and luminous color as Almera. There wasn’t really a weak link in the cast, which also included Jennifer Zetlan in the Soeur Constance role and Kevin Burdette as both the husband and a TV interviewer in the second act. (The composer and librettist could have helped him make the former a more complex figure, though.)

Muhly is be in a difficult position. He’s gotten so much attention so early on that expectations are very, perhaps unreasonably, high. (One thinks of Dudamel.) Don’t write him off, but I’m not convinced he’s there yet.

One performance remains, tonight, November 19, then the opera travels to Philadelphia in the spring.

Nico Muhly and Stephen Karam, Dark Sisters. Gotham Chamber Opera/Music-Theatre Group, 11/12/2011. Production directed by Rebecca Taichman and conducted by Neal Goren. Full cast listed here.

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Wolfgang Rihm’s Dionysos in Amsterdam

While in Amsterdam, I went to Wolfgang Rihm’s Dionysos and wrote about it for Bachtrack, and you can read it here.

This was tricky to write. It was a stellar performance of an excellent production of an opera with stunning music… and a libretto that I strongly disliked. I’m glad I saw it–I always like seeing something new to me, and the music really was good–but I personally had misgivings. Just not my style. And not just because I am suspicious of any work where the women consistently wear so much less clothing than the men. (That’s a bad indicator, though.)

The Gashouder, however, is a very impressive space. It’s a giant old gas storage tank located in the Westergasfabriek, a former factory complex in the northwest part of town that now hosts performance spaces, galleries, restaurants, that kind of thing. I wish I’d gotten a chance to look around a little more, but, as you can see, it was raining (this is a frequent problem in the Netherlands).

Production photo © Ruth Walz

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Anna Nicole: All power to boobs

That’s a quote from the libretto. There’s an aria about them. Boobs, I mean. Big fake ones.

As you may be aware, there’s an opera about the late not-so-merry (or was she?) widow Anna Nicole Smith playing at the Royal Opera House in London at present. I went and saw it, and found it fascinating, brilliant, and infuriating. Herein I will attempt to write about it. Not about how it relates to operatic history or what its media attention means for the world of opera. Because while we might have a publicity circus around this opera, what we’ve got onstage is a circus already.

Mark-Anthony Turnage–Richard Thomas. Anna Nicole. World premiere production, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, 26 February 2011 (fourth performance). Production by Richard Jones with sets by Miriam Buether, costumes by Nicky Gillibrand, lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin and D.M. Wood, and choreogrpahy by Aletta Collins. Conducted by Antonio Pappano with Eva-Maria Westbroek (Anna Nicole), Susan Bickley (Virgie), Gerald Finley (The Lawyer Stern), Alan Oke (J. Howard Marshall II), Peter Hoare (Larry King).

This opera has been all over the news and blogosphere, so describing it feels a little superfluous, but here are the basics.

Anna Nicole in her young, semi-innocent days.

Possibly due to rumored legal threats, the opera presents Anna Nicole Smith’s life in documentary fashion. In Act 1, we see her early life through the reportage of a chorus of TV journalists. As events unfold, Anna Nicole’s family and friends comment on the action. In Act 2, things turn more personal as the reporters morph into sinister silent black figures with cameras for heads, the only allusion to Anna Nicole’s reality TV show. They observe her at every second, eager to know everything for reasons that are never clear. The sole voice of conscience is Anna Nicole’s mother, who occasionally interrupts to protest that “it so didn’t happen like that” and condemn the world to which her daughter has submitted–or that she is squeezing dry. Or both.

The plot, roughly speaking, moves from Anna Nicole’s miserable childhood in rural Texas, early marriage and motherhood, divorce, career change to stripper, career ascent as stripper via fake tits, marriage to an oil billionaire, his death, her decline into helpless drug addiction, dependence on a sleazy lawyer, her son’s death, and finally her own death at 39. We see her at her stripping job, we see her get her new boobs, and meet her decrepit consort, but increasingly, in Act 2, she disappears into her own isolated world.

Virgie, Anna Nicole’s mother

This is, more or less, a number opera, though the music flows continuously. The libretto is, like Anna Nicole herself, determinedly obscene. Thomas’s ear for American speech is good enough that the few mistakes stand out (we don’t say “car park”). It also is of a flashiness that, for the first act at least, largely eclipses the sparky, energetic music. It’s not that Turnage lacks a voice, and the jazzy, slightly dissonant, angular sounds are fun. But much of the time the score just doesn’t assert itself. In Act 2 things get more interesting, including a wonderful intermezzo just as the proceedings become more serious and eventually tragic (as Anna Nicole’s son dies, there is, I think, a Kindertotenlieder reference–oh no you didn’t). Anna Nicole delivers something like a lament at the end, before tiredly climbing into her own body bag.

He’s rich.

But the very obscenity is part of the reason why this work, for all its brilliance, is somehow unfulfilling. Simply put, there’s a shortage of dramatic conflict. The excesses of American culture are skewered at every opportunity. I’m OK with this, I realize we’re a big fat target. (Sometimes I wondered if the British audience realized how much of the “satire” was simply truth–y’all know that Wal-Mart really does have an obsession with smiley faces? They didn’t make all that shit up.) The problem is that Anna Nicole the character is set up as too much a product of her culture and not enough in opposition to it. The chorus pronounces her fabulous, but she seems like a passive object of the plot, with few moments of genuine autonomy. This makes her, as a heroine or as an anti-heroine, lacking.

The text’s perspective is relentlessly male, right down to the descriptions of domestic violence and rape. Anna Nicole, proclaimed for all her obvious dumbness to be somehow street smart, never has a real moment of self-insight, something equivalent to Carmen’s fortune-telling, Violetta’s “È strano!” or even Lulu’s instinctual self-perception, and we never get a good look inside her head, empty though it may be. In her brief final monologue, she condemns America as a “dirty whore,” but it’s too little, too late, and too male again. The libretto suggests a few times that she was both victim and master of American culture, manipulator and manipulated. But it’s only an occasional theme, mostly voiced by the poignant but unintegrated character of Anna Nicole’s mother. It seems like this is where the real substance and center of the story should lie.

Cameras are intruding

The libretto’s naughtiness aspires to subversive glee. But is that possible for a production as elaborate and accomplished with as many patriarchal roots as this one? It might have worked in a gay community center’s basement during some Fringe Festival, but on the stage of the Royal Opera House, written and directed by famous and sophisticated men, there’s an uncomfortable undercurrent of exploitation. Is this another group of the privileged taking advantage of Anna Nicole Smith yet again? The (as yet empty) threat of a lawsuit from self-avowed Anna Nicole babydaddy Larry Birkhead against the Royal Opera House is fitting, and suggests the opera has now become not just a telling of her sad life but itself another strange coda to it.

I suppose that sounds like a severe condemnation, but despite its disappointments I actually enjoyed it a lot. The stagecraft on display is dazzling and full of wit, even if making fun of Texas hicks is something like shooting fish in a barrel. (I’ve never been to Texas, by the way, though I’m from a rural area not too far from Appalachia, so I have the general idea. We make meth jokes too.) It’s not always too original. The opening scene, in which a row of reporters tells us they are going to present the story of Anna Nicole, repeatedly declaiming her name at top volume, is a blatant rip-off of the opening of Sweeney Todd, right down to the staging. Also, those uniform-ish reporters plus a little house on stage, well, Jones’s Bayerische Staatsoper Lohengrin, anybody?

The Lawyer Stern thinks he’s the dad

But as a show a lot of it is brilliant, action-packed, funny (sometimes awkward funny), full of panache, and every bit as tacky as the libretto. The orchestra under Pappano sounded, as far as I could tell, great, and the cast is all top-notch and can’t be faulted for their commitment (or for their English diction). The production is a fast-changing of colorful but minimal settings with garish detail, from a strip club (with acrobatic actual pole dancers) to a Wal-Mart to Anna Nicole’s tacky final living room, and the transitions are seamless and perfectly timed.

Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Texan accent swam in and out, but as Anna Nicole she gave a star performance, and she was never less than fabulously present–or appropriately out to lunch on Anna Nicole’s distant planet–and she gave the character more heart than the libretto ever did. Vocally, she doesn’t get too many chances to use the full force of her large voice, and I can image more lyric sopranos also succeeding in the role (especially considering the light amplification). But she sounded great; her sound is truly luminous. Gerald Finley’s lawyer–a role rumored to have been rewritten when his guilty verdict in Anna Nicole’s wrongful death giving Anna Nicole drugs was overturned last month (corrected–I was not a devoted follower of Anna Nicole Smith news, sorry)–is unfortunately something of a nothing role and a waste of his talents. Alan Oke as Anna Nicole’s aged second husband got better material, sung with verve. Susan Bickley as Virgie, the mother, was almost too poignant in an opera of caricatures.

Something of a disappointment compared to what it might have been, but an interesting one. I hope it gets picked up by another house, with revisions, because it has the polish of something big with the seeds of something far more poignant. Right now, despite the awkward bits, it’s still rampantly entertaining.

There are a few more performances, but it’s quite sold out. Queue early in the morning for day seats.

Video from CBS News–not an option you get with most operas, though it’s not embedding correctly:

Photos copyright by Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House.

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Il Postino: You’ve got mail

In Daniel Catán’s opera Il Postino, currently receiving its European premiere at the Theater an der Wien, the postman always rings… well, only once each time he visits, but you shall know him by the hazy seventh chords in the strings, lush and yet tastefully not too lush.  This is perhaps underscored with some understated, vaguely Spanish-sounding dance rhythms. (It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that this opera’s island setting is actually in Italy.  The text is in Spanish, I’ve never seen the movie, and I didn’t buy a program.)  Aribert Reimann, Catán ain’t.  And the libretto, also by Catán and based on the Italian film of the same title, isn’t Medea in terms of dramatic conflict.  It’s pleasant and lovely and easy to listen to.  Unfortunately, I also found it mind-numbingly dull.

But Plácido Domingo is in it, so, you know, there’s the main attraction.

Daniel Catán, Il Postino, Theater an der Wien, 12/14/2010. New production by Ron Daniels, sets and costumes by Riccardo Hernández, lights by Jennifer Tipton. Wiener Symphoniker and Arnold Schoenberg Chor conducted by Jesús López-Cobos with Plácido Domingo (Pablo Neruda), Israel Lozano (Mario), Amanda Squiltieri (Beatrice), Cristina Gallardo-Domas (Mathilde).

If you like your Puccini put through a Copland sieve, you’ll love Daniel Catán’s score.  At first, it sounds rather nice.  Actually, the whole thing sounds rather nice.  It is extremely consonant and gentle, the vocal lines are, sorry, Puccini-esque.  The lyricism is cut with a lightness, a slightly impressionistic, slightly Applachian Spring open fields/open stack of thirds quality that saves it from irredeemable sappiness.  It has rhythmic swing, and a few good moments of found music (diegetically provided by a cutely dinky little onstage military band, and an accordionist).  But after a little while, the lack of contrast becomes grating.  Almost the entire opera hangs in a warm, slightly animated torpor of niceness.  Puccini’s chiaroscuro is missing.  It’s like listening to “Che il bel sogno di Doretta” over and over and over.

The libretto seems like a good idea in its basic outlines:  young mailman Mario strikes up a friendship with avuncular local exiled Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda, who gives him relationship advice via poetry lessons.  He gets his girl, a lovely barmaid of no distinctive qualities, with minimal problems.  In the second half, political events take over the plot.  These developments had only been clumsily hinted at in the first half, and it feels tacked on.   And I’m not sure why the libretto needs to tell of its most dramatic event, Mario’s tragic last poem, through the intermediary of a narrator.  The music finally turns more dramatic, but not, to me, convincingly so (add an enigmatic sea incident with a healthy dose of Debussy, though).

The libretto is an effective mix of quasi-arias and larger ensembles.  I don’t speak Spanish and can’t comment on its literary qualities, though the several inserted Neruda poems are very good as sung texts even when I was reading them in the German titles.  However, I quickly tired of the libretto’s simplistic harping on the idea of a metaphor, particularly when illustrated by projections in a way that made me think of that classic of American pedagogical video, “Schoolhouse Rock.”  Also, I have grown instantly suspicious of any opera staging that puts its love duet in the midst of a starry firmament.  This is the second one I’ve seen this month to do so, and both times the effect was pure kitsch (I’m looking at you, Les Troyens).

For the most part, though, the production by Ron Daniels is relatively spare.  The stage is covered in bright blue tiles, and many scenes take place in front of projections or a blank screen, or on small rolling set pieces center stage (which probably make this co-production easy to adapt to stages of different sizes).  The very good lighting (by Jennifer Tipton) is a breath of fresh air after last weekend’s Don Giovanni fiasco.  The whole thing is straightforward and not bad, though not particularly memorable, either.  Sometimes the blocking turned static, but most of it is convincing, as these things go.

This opera exists more or less as a Plácido Domingo vehicle, and as that it works.  The role of Neruda was clearly tailored to his current vocal estate, which is still remarkably good.  The sound is still sizable, secure, and has a lot of tonal beauty, though smooth might not be the right word at this point.  The wise old man role is a good one for him at this point, he can project authority while still being endearing in the Ask Grandpa Pablo sections.  As the Postman, Israel Lozano sounded ardent but occasionally labored, yet was endearing.  However, the character is underwritten, and I found his political sacrifice in Act 3 wholly implausible.  Among the women, Amanda Squitieri has a warm, full soprano (which I initially identified as a high mezzo), occasionally tending flat, and was a charismatic presence in another underdefined role (she is a pretty barmaid who loves Mario and… that’s it).  Cristina Gallardo-Domas’s voice has taken some beating, but she did her best as Neruda’s wife Matilde.

Unfortunately, the Wiener Symphoniker, conducted by Jesús López-Cobos, didn’t seem to be having the best night, and sounded out of tune and uncoordinated all evening. 

It is a perfectly pleasant opera, and refreshingly lacking in grand pretensions, but its mushiness is beyond my tolerance, I’m afraid.  You can hear it for yourself on ORF’s oe1 on Saturday.

Also, I have discovered the purpose of Twitter! And it is to trade Parsifal jokes in imaginary pidgin catspeak with prominent Heldentenoren.  Just what I need, more ways to waste time.  Join in here.

Edited to add: I unconsciously ripped off this post title from Mr. Out West Arts.  He thought of it first, and I read his review of the opera’s LA incarnation and probably remembered it!  Credit where it is due!  It is such a very good title.

Photos copyright Armin Bardel/Theater an der Wien.
Video from the LA Opera premiere (same production, slightly different cast):

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