Elektra at the Met


The late Patrice Chéreau’s production of Elektra is surely the highlight of this season at the Met. We’ve known that it was going to be for a while. It arrives a known quantity; acclaimed from its European performances, the fame of its director and cast, and its DVD. There’s something off about a “new production” which has already been available on video for a year and a half and whose director died in 2013.

Yet I suspect this is how the Met prefers it. As Peter Gelb stated repeatedly in a brief interview during the Manon Lescaut HD broadcast, the Met is in the masterpiece business (he even used this descriptor when discussing new opera, which is a whole different problem). When we roll theater and production into the operatic experience, as Gelb has tried to do, this makes new productions tricky to sell: though new, they also have to embody some of that timeless masterpiece solidity. And importing a brand-name, already-acclaimed Masterpiece from somewhere else (this Elektra is from Aix-en-Provence), is simpler than forging your own from scratch. Lest you think I’m spending too much time thinking about what is essentially marketing copy, let me remind you that this discourse shapes the way much of the Met’s audience thinks and talks about opera (I hear it from students all the time).

It’s not that Chéreau, surely one of the most important and influential directors of opera of the past 50 years, doesn’t deserve honorifics or a respectful tribute. It’s that “masterpiece” is a blunt instrument primarily used to confer status. When you’re discussing Elektra, a shabby little shocker with lurid orchestral colors and bodies that are rotting from the inside, that sacred cultural capital becomes even stranger.

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Götterdämmerung: Euro crash

Andreas Kriegenburg’s Munich Ring is about society and community. How do people treat each other, how do large groups organize themselves, and how do we tell our own stories? The Ring, he suggests, is about what happens when people stop seeing each other as, well, people, and lose our connection with the natural world. Götterdämmerung is of a piece with this narrative, but in other ways weirdly unrepresentative, specific in its setting and clunky in its narrative where the others had been elegantly abstract. But fortunately this performance had a great cast, most of all Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde and Kriegenburg’s sure hand with the characters didn’t leave him, at least. Is that enough for a whole Ring?

Wagner, Götterdämmerung. Bayerische Staatsoper Ring-Zyklus B, 7/15/2012. 

Musikalische Leitung Kent Nagano
Inszenierung Andreas Kriegenburg
Bühne Harald B. Thor
Kostüme Andrea Schraad
Licht Stefan Bolliger
Choreographie Zenta Haerter
Dramaturgie Marion Tiedtke
Olaf A. Schmitt.
Chor Sören Eckhoff

Siegfried Stephen Gould
Gunther Iain Paterson
Hagen Eric Halfvarson
Alberich Wolfgang Koch
Brünnhilde Nina Stemme
Gutrune Anna Gabler
Waltraute Michaela Schuster
Woglinde Eri Nakamura
Wellgunde Angela Brower
Floßhilde Okka von der Damerau
2. Norn Jamie Barton
1. Norn Jill Grove
3. Norn Irmgard Vilsmaier

Dropping the mortals of Götterdämmerung into the world of decadent capitalism is nothing new (I think I may have even saw Peter Konwitschny in the audience). It’s also the logical continuation of the earlier installments—Rheingold’s pagan idyll interrupted, Walküre’s tribal combat, Siegfried’s Bildungsroman. But it is strikingly different in several respects. For one thing this Götterdämmerung is set in a very specific time period with a lot of specific references while the other installments worked with vague suggestion. For another, that time period is our own.
The use of the space is also very different. Instead of the beautifully irregular piles of supernumeraries we have a massive and severe modern edifice, a multilevel bank lobby of metal and glass with moving walkways and various office drones working in the background. One assumes that this is Frankfurt. Nature, in the form of a potted tree, a coat of amour and handy spear, and a Damien Hirst-like horse, is literally kept under glass. The people stare into their cellphones instead of at each other and spend the entire wedding taking pictures rather than watching.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We open with a great Norn scene that might have been the highlight of the whole evening, theatrically speaking. First we see projected on the proscenium a garbled second of CNN-like news, none of the visuals or sounds decipherable. Then the score starts. In a small, plain room, sit a group of people who apparently are survivors of a nuclear catastrophe. (Terror over the possibility of nuclear disaster is something of a German national pastime.) Rescue workers in protective suits wave Geiger counters at them and confiscate their radioactive family photos. The Norns, in their robed blonde god-wear, weave in between this scene with a ball of red yarn (a play on the German “roter Faden,” literally “red thread” but meaning the through-line or continual thread of a plot). The people aren’t looking at each other, they’re looking at their photos. Their homes, their families, their communities have been lost. This is the closest we will, in fact, get to seeing the Götterdämmerung, right here.
The mountaintop scenes are problematic, taking place in this small barn-like room in the middle of the stage. The giant main multilevel set is too big to shift, and the previous elegant, fast scene changes are no more. The many people onstage file around awkwardly, and later bring in with pieces for the main set, through narrow doors and with little of the grace seen earlier. This clunkiness might be part of the point, thematically speaking, but theatrically it’s a major drawback. Once we’re in the scene it’s alright. Nina Stemme and Stephen Gould are a much more mature-acting couple than Naglestad and Ryan in Siegfried, and “Zu neuen Taten” was, appropriately, more conventionally romantic and less youthfully exuberant, though still directed with a fine sense of detail.
Then we move into the glitzy-sleazy world of the Gibichungs, complete with giant projected ads on the set. The big unit-ish set means that the action departs literal representation much more frequently than it had previously (where we got almost every written stage direction in recognizable fashion), most notably an out-of-nowhere “Zurück vom Ring!”, but Siegfried does row his way over the backs of some capitalist drones. Meanwhile, Gunther gets a blow job, Gutrune is a slutty slut (who may have a dubious relationship with her brother—but since they’re rich moderns this one isn’t romantic), and the chorus appears as identically addressed slaves to the Euro.
Siegfried arrives in olden time clothes and gets redressed (as he does in the similar Konwitschny production) and his first loving vision of Gutrune finds her astride a giant €-shaped rocking horse. Siegfried has traded love for money. This may be just a touch heavy-handed, but the overall concept still kind of works. I get tired of the Capitalists are Evil schtick when we fail to acknowledge that the world of opera is itself firmly enmeshed in this system (less so in Europe than in the US, but I still didn’t see any of the Bay Staats sponsor BMW’s ads being mocked during the Rhine Journey), particularly when the person proffering it offers no substantive Plan B. And Kriegenburg doesn’t. But considering recent financial events, it feels remarkably topical.
Back at chez Brünnhilde, Waltraute displays a variety of nervous twitches suggesting that Valhalla is beginning to resemble an insane asylum of shut-ins. Siegfried straightforwardly arrives in Gunther’s blue suit with the Tarnhelm draped over his face, and almost seems to remember Brünnhuilde and realize what he’s about to do. But he doesn’t, and proceeds. In Act Two, Alberich shows up to find Hagen asleep with some hookers (who he later pays, proving he is not quite as completely evil as previously supposed), and we remember that the dwarf was the first person in the cycle to wear a modern suit, way back in Rheingold when he started enslaving people. Maybe capitalism is his fault? Hagen gets his cell-phone-wielding guys together and the wedding  celebrations proceed around a giant Euro sign. Brünnhilde is the only one who seems aware of her surroundings and what is happening, yet is unable to stop it.
Act Three takes place not in the country but in the wreckage of the wedding. It’s here that the concept becomes surprisingly unclear, as previously Kriegenburg has never done something like fail to provide a reason for why Siegfried is talking about a hunt. I’m not saying he needs to all the time but consistency is nice and the production seems to run out of steam at this vital point, while the moment-to-moment Personenregie is still exemplary. The actual conflagration itself is at first treated in very literal manner (with the exception of raining paper suggesting that the era of stories is ending), with a pyre just in the back of the set. During much of Brünnhilde’s heavy-duty singing, Gutrune distractingly tries to tote Gunther’s corpse upstage. Siegfried’s arm-raising to shoo Hagen away from the Ring is treated absolutely straight, but with Siegfried positioned stage center, feet pointing downstage, and with a creepy lighting effect, this most dubious of moments actually felt totally convincing. The rest, though, is debateable. As previously mentioned “Zurück vom Ring!” comes from nowhere, with Hagen panicking stage right over nothing in particular. Flames rise around Brünnhilde, she hands the Ring off to the Rhinemaidens (I think–this was in the upstage corner of the stage I could see less well), and then we are left with the panicky Gutrune. She is surrounded by some of the white-dressed picnickers from Rheingold and Siegfried, who embrace her in an affirmative meditation circle. If we can rediscover each other, we can create a new and more promising world. I think?
Gutrune is an odd character. In this production she starts off as an irritating vamp, but then in her solo scene, maybe one of the weirdest bits of the whole Ring, she transforms into a figure of some stature and possibility. As one of the only characters to survive the thing (THE ONLY of the mortals? I mean, the Rhinemaidens don’t really count?) and also one of the only ones to really grow and change, maybe she’s a logical choice for this gesture. But on the other hand, the Ring is not about poor Gutrune! Brünnhilde and Siegfried are grand, larger-than-life heroes, their love saved the world.
Waltraute: wrong about the give
back the Ring thing
Except, maybe, it didn’t, because everything is still burning up. Wagner’s ending is tricky, isn’t it? There’s tragedy in the plot and there’s hope in the music, and there’s ambiguity in the actual causes and consequences of the depicted events. Most directors, thankfully, are resistant to putting Fukushima or, if you want to be local, Dachau onstage to be followed by the music’s rebirth and redemption. I’m not sure if that’s something you could manage in a morally acceptable way, even it’s the direction in which the Vorspiel led. But putting Gutrune in the center seems like dodging the issue.
The circle of supers surrounding her encapsulate many of this project’s strengths and weaknesses. They look inward, to a closed system that could just as easily be a circular firing squad. What makes the faceless supernumeraries good, when we have seen that so many of the actual characters in this cycle are bad, even when they remember their human loyalties? To see the main characters so totally stripped of their metaphysical baggage, as people rather than symbols, can be refreshing. But it gives them individuality without symbolic stature, and meanwhile the anonymous masses somehow get to stand in for Universal Goodness. While the cycle creates many beautiful small moments, it tends to come up short in the big ones and leave us with little to hold onto,and the tender signs of humanity become an apologia for the lack of a larger vision. Gutrune may be minor, but there has not been a lot to say why Brünnhilde and Siegfried and Wotan and Fricka and all of them matter more. In the end I found the cycle’s minimalism frustratingly coy. It suggests and provides atmosphere, but despite many intriguing ideas it doesn’t have a strong and consistent connection to the central plot. Maybe that’s the point, that life is an unsolved and undirected puzzle and our only consolation is in each other, but that’s really unsatisfying.
The ideological sign-waving of this final evening felt like an attempt to inject some dramatic weight into something that almost floated away, but it leaves the cycle oddly misshapen.  Even without the Euro signs this production would have felt topical. Not only does the army of extras provide employment for a large number of freelance Müncheners, but its austerity is a fitting gesture in the current austere economy where few want to see the German government paying to reinforce the Bay Staats’s stage (even if they are still underwriting the daily business). And it has integrity of a sort: the indictment of bankers would ring far more false had this production not been an obviously low-budget affair. As a bang-for-its-buck enterprise, it exceeds other Rings to an exponential degree. In a confusing time it doesn’t presume to know the future.
But isn’t that the artist’s job, to tell us where we should be going?
Now for the music, if you’re still reading or if you are skipping to where I write about how Nina Stemme is the best. She is, in fact, the best.  She began somewhat tentatively but was soon letting out phrases of devastating size and power with a bronze, dark tone that is simply big. She is an unusually sympathetic and nuanced actress with clear diction, a great fit for this production, and made Brünnhilde a figure first of real joy and then of tragic rage and despair. The greatest weight of her voice is in the middle, and she has a habit of pausing before firing off her high notes (which are clearly her least favorite part of her range—this role lies very high for her), which tripped her up in phrases like this big one in the trio
But mostly just adds to the thrill. Her immolation found her audibly reaching her vocal limits but just pushing beyond them and never failing to find more somewhere. It’s a very moving effort, the more so because we all know it won’t last forever. I cannot imagine there is a better Brünnhilde today, I certainly haven’t heard one.
Stephen Gould has a weighty sound that matches Stemme’s well, and he makes a good effort musically speaking. His greatest asset is his scrupulous pacing, which left him still singing decently by the end of this very long role. His tone sounded managed, more pinched than usual, and he struggled with the high notes and skipped the “Mut” C entirely, but as Siegfrieds go it was an excellent performance. He is not as vivid an actor as Lance Ryan was in Siegfried but followed the directions ably. I have found him better in less strenuous roles, which is perfectly understandable.
Iain Paterson seems to be the world’s Gunther of choice at the moment. He sings it with great nuance and attention to the text, and in this production a wimpy sort of character (rather different from his more heroic take at the Met—I believe he is the only person who was in both the Munich and Met Rings). Anna Gabler has a round and darkish sound for Gutrune that was an interesting choice but didn’t always project. Eric Halfvorsen was a late replacement as Hagen (he is actually the fourth bass this production has seen in this single role–I guess we know which part of this Ring seems to be cursed) and sounded authoritative if not bone-crushing. His solo scene was appropriately malevolent, though the scene with Wolfgang Koch’s again excellent Alberich was perhaps less tense than usual. The Norns were not tquite first-rate with the exception of the second, Jaime Barton, a voice that would like to hear again and I probably will. The Rhinemaidens were much better and blended very well. It was nice to finally hear the chorus, who made up for three operas of absence by chest-thumping through this one with enthusiasm.
Kent Nagano’s conducting worked in this installment. The pacing can be slack and he seems far too laid-back to make enough of an impression in big pieces like the Funeral March, but like Kriegenburg he found a certain groove. The orchestra had its best night of the cycle and played very well, particularly the strings and lower brass, both of whom have real dense substance to their sound when required. I enjoyed his elegiac, chamber music approach to the Norns’ and Rhinemaiden’s music, and though he could have milked the ending for a bit more the last 30 seconds were exquisite.*
This was in many ways an impressive and beautiful cycle, and one with a remarkably good cast with real dramatic imagination and committment. But modesty may not be a virtue when working with the Ring, and Nagano and Kriegenburg could have both stood to show a little more vision, however lovely their miniatures were. While Kriegenburg took small-scale stage directions directly, he showed little interest in the larger trajectory of the characters, nor did he create one of his own that incorporated them in a convincing way. I’m willing to believe that our fascination with technology is a gateway to the Apocalypse, but I wish I had a better idea of what Siegfried had to do with it.


*One unsung hero of this cycle is the curtain-puller (so to speak). Every sing act has ended with a curtain of absolutely impeccable timing and perfect speed. This is NOT an easy job. I also want to thank the audience for taking a nice few breaths of silence at the end before clapping. Maybe community isn’t dead after all!

Photos copyright Wilfred Hösl

More photos:

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Nina Stemme comes out ahead in Carnegie Hall’s Salome

I went to Salome at Carnegie Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra and Nina Stemme and Eric Owens and Franz Welser-Möst and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

“When I looked at you, I heard secret
music,” says Salome in her monologue to the severed head of John the
Baptist. Richard Strauss’s opera trades in the unseeable and the
unknowable—from the range of metaphors applied to the moon to the nearly
impossible staging of a ten-minute striptease performed by a dramatic
soprano—which makes it unusually well suited to concert presentation.
Strauss’s high-octane, atmospheric music can seem all the more lurid and
mysterious when its subjective visualization is left to the imagination.
When the stage seems to agree with Herodias and show that the moon is,
in fact, merely the moon, things are rather less interesting than the
swirl of images in the orchestra.

In Thursday night’s presentation by the Cleveland Orchestra at
Carnegie Hall, these depths were reached only sporadically, and the
performance served largely as a showcase for the stunning performance of
Nina Stemme in the title role.

You can read the whole thing here. Stemme was magnificent and Welser-Möst disappointing. Do all the conductors now consider swiftness and textual transparency the absolute highest virtue (HIP birds coming home to roost?)? Or have I just overdosed on Fabio Luisi? I’d kind of like to hear someone try something dense and thick for a change. Stemme could certainly handle it. Most of my recent Salomes have been lyrics with ambition and I found a real dramatic voice refreshing, particularly Stemme, who is loud but at the same time still so nuanced. I am greatly looking forward to hearing her sing Brünnhilde this summer.

photo © Roger Mastroianni

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Tristan! Isolde! in Munich!

This performance was a wonderful surprise. I went to see Nina Stemme’s Isolde, expecting not much more than the usual Festival mishmash out of the rest and worried about the prospects of Ben Heppner as Tristan. But we got a real, properly put together Tristan, and a damn good one at that.

Wagner, Tristan und Isolde. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/27/2011. Production by Peter Konwitschny (revival), conducted by Kent Nagano with Nina Stemme (Isolde), Ben Heppner (Tristan), René Pape (König Marke), Ekaterina Gubanova (Brangäne), Alan Held (Kurwenal).

Peter Konwitschny’s production presents an eclectic, ambiguous aesthetic. The costumes are a mix of modern and medieval garb while Act 1 takes place on a modern (or at least twentieth-century) ship, Act 2 in front of a painted fairy-tale backdrop and on a silly yellow floral couch, and Act 3 in a stark modern space with a slideshow of photos from happier times. But the larger point is crystal clear. The upper, upstage part of the stage is the characters’ “reality” while Tristan and Isolde step forward, off this platform onto the apron of the stage to enter their own fantasy world. To illuminate their night in Act 2, visible Brechtian lights descend from above. The staging aims to be plausible and spontaneous and dramatic, downplaying the love potion and Marke’s wrath in favor of human empathy. It’s not that much to look at, but the thing is, it works, drawing you in at every moment.

This is thanks to the greatest asset of any Konwitschny production, the meticulous Personenregie he coaxes out of his premiere casts. The movement traces the motion more of the music than the text, giving his work a wonderful fluid quality. These details often can’t be quickly reconstructed for revivals, and my expectations for this festival revival were low (it premiered in 1998). But from the start I noticed that there was something happening with the direction. Bless the Bayerische Staatsoper, they actually got Konwtischny to come and rehearse a bit with this cast (he even took a bow at the end), and you could tell. From Brangäne flipping the pages of a magazine as the sailor sang his song on, it was elegant and integrated with the score. It was not as fearlessly physical as his Traviata, but this is Wagner singing.

(different cast)

The staging’s most unusual moment is during the Liebestod, where Isolde steps to the front of the stage and is joined by a revived Tristan. They both wear black. While Isolde might die in the text, in the world of the music and night she lives united with Tristan, and that’s what we see. The image had been foreshadowed with two English horn players at the beginning of the act. Wordless musicians, they also exist beyond the confines of the upstage space.

Kent Nagano conducted the excellent orchestra with restraint, clarity and controlled volume, a fine reading but a somewhat self-effacing one. The cast was about as all-star as it is possible to get. Nina Stemme is an astonishingly good Isolde. Her huge, dark voice is weighted towards the middle, but her high notes also cut through, she sings with an unwavering sense of the text and meaning of the music, and is an excellent actress. I doubt there is a better all-around Isolde today.

Ben Heppner is surely past his best days of singing, but pulled together a credible performance. I wouldn’t call it the triumph that a few Tweeters seemed to hear–at a half dozen or so spots everything threatened to fall apart in gurgly cracks, and he somehow derailed a bit of the Act 2 duet (skipping a phrase, I think?), making Stemme miss her next entrance. But he managed to recover each time and made it through to the end. That’s a higher compliment than it sounds like.

The biggest applause of the evening actually went to René Pape’s generous, honey-toned König Marke, who due to the usual Nationaltheater sightline problems I couldn’t see at all but sang with the kind of resonant authority and majesty that threatens to steal the opera. Ekaterina Gubanova as Brangäne got off to a muffled start but warmed up to be excellent if extremely Slavic in tone. Alan Held was a very good Kurwenal as well. A class act, all around.

This production is available on DVD with a different cast.

Photos copyright Bayerische Staatsoper/Wilfred Hösl (showing the cast from the DVD)

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Ariadne auf Naxos: I’m voting you off the island

Around a year ago, I saw Ariadne auf Naxos at the Met, a performance that, while not bad, was mostly worth seeing for Nina Stemme’s powerful Ariadne. The city might have changed in the meantime, but the Ariadne has not. One Nina Stemme as Ariadne in the midst of much mediocrity, coming right up… this time courtesy of the Wiener Staatsoper.

Strauss-Hofmannsthal, Ariadne auf Naxos. Wiener Staatsoper, 3/7/2011. Production by Filippo Sanjust, conducted by Michel Güttler with Nina Stemme (Ariadne), Julia Novikova (Zerbinetta), Stepanie Houtzeel (Der Komponist), Burkhard Fritz (Bacchus), Wolfgang Bankl (Ein Musiklehrer), Alexander Pereira (Der Haushofmeister), Daniel Schmutzhard (Harlekin)

Perhaps the large number of debuts kept everyone on their toes, but this was tidy and engaged, as Staatsoper rep shows go. But other than La Stemme, there’s nothing I will remember about it.

You may have seen Filippo Sanjust’s production on this 1978 DVD. As it is today, it’s fine if dull, attractive but neither witty nor transcendent. The Prologue set is the hideous desert island set seen from the back, and it’s on the cavernous side for such intimate music. The blocking was not bad, but compared to Harry Kupfer’s weird Theater an der Wien production of last October it lacked humor and detail. The lighting is crepuscular, and disconcertingly dark. The mood seems to call for something brighter. The Opera takes place on an elegant Greek amphitheater-style desert island. If we want to be literal, I can point out that the libretto makes it clear that the Richest Man in Vienna does not have a private theater like the one shown here. Just saying that these productions that are seen as ultra-traditional take liberties with the letter of the libretto too.

Conductor Michel Güttler, a late substitute for ailing Jeffrey Tate, was not debuting. But there were issues of coordination, balance, a lack of differentiation, and the whole thing was flat.

Nina Stemme sang Ariadne with powerful, beautiful tone (a little heavy on the vibrato), including wonderful low notes. And she is a fantastic actress, strangely making Ariadne into the only character I cared about in the entire performance (as you can guess, I usually find her a bore). But this time around I doubted the suitability of this role to her at present; sometimes more flexibility would have been nice. I did get the feeling she could have eaten the orchestra for breakfast, though.

Julia Novikova was a poor Zerbinetta (in fact my third disappointing Zerbinetta in a row–and I am raising my opinion of the first, Kathleen Kim, with each successive effort). Her voice is simply far too small for this role in the Staatsoper, and lacks an incisive cutting quality. The higher notes projected more clearly, but were shrill and thin. Her stage business consisted of the matronly coquetry that was created for and should be the sole property of Edita Gruberova, this production’s Zerbinetta of record. With tiny, youthful, enthusiastic Novikova, the miniature straw hat, twirling of a ruffly umbrella, and literal hand gestures (waves, balancing scales) were like a 14-year old dressed up as her dowdy grandmother, and the effect was cloying.

Elsewhere, Stephanie Houtzeel seems to have Straussian style. But her voice, despite considerable volume, lacks substance and depth, all vibrato and no core. I’ve pretty much given up on hearing decent Bacchuses–Botha excepted–and Burkhard Fritz proved no exception, which muffled, underpowered tone. Some smaller roles were better, notably veteran Wolfgang Bankl’s clearly enunciated Musiklehrer and Staatsoper debutant Daniel Schmutzhard’s solid Harlekin. The Nymphs were a bit unblended. They and the Commedia folks hit their blocking marks well enough, but the stretch between Zerbinetta’s aria and Bacchus’s appearance felt interminable.

The presence of incoming Salzburger Festspiele intendant Alexander Pereira in the spoken role of the Haushofmeister was pure stunt casting. He’s no actor, but I actually enjoyed this part played without the usual insufferable archness. His delivery of the dictum that the comedy and tragedy would be combined was rather funny, clearly coming from a dumbass who has convinced himself that this is the best idea in the world.

Maybe I have overly high standards for this opera but I’m pretty sure that this one was not, for the most part, any good. Oh well, kam die neue Ariadne gegangen, hingegeben war ich nie stumm.

Several performances remain: 7, 9, 12 March.

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Ariadne auf Naxos: All hail Nina the Great

Strauss-Hofmannsthal, Ariadne auf Naxos.  Metropolitan Opera, 2/4/2010.  Conducted by Kirill Petrenko with Nina Stemme (Ariadne), Kathleen Kim (Zerbinetta), Sarah Connolly (Komponist), Michael Hendrick (Bacchus).  Directed by Laurie Feldman, after a production by Elijah Moshinsky.

As you can probably guess, in the whole Ariadne v. Zerbinetta stakes of this opera, I’m usually on the side of the trilling, coloratura’d one.  But last night was not usual.  Nina Stemme as Ariadne was the only singer in this cast who makes things more than routine.  More than that, she is FANTASTIC.  New fan here.

The Vorspiel was disappointing.  The production is overstuffed with Merry Antics from Zerbinetta’s troupe, the stage cluttered.  Nothing zoomed or zinged or zipped, it just sort of ambled.  The orchestra seemed asleep at their scores.  (Though I think the chamber scoring of the whole score is a bad fit for the Met’s size, and I suspect a lot of detail was lost.)  Sarah Connolly’s Komponist was respectably and musically sung but without vocal breadth or glamour.  Jochem Schmeckenbecher a well-sung but dully characterized Music Teacher.

The Oper was better.  Petrenko seemed to connect with the orchestra, everything balanced out a bit more.  But the big thing is Nina Stemme’s Ariadne, which is magnificent.  She has a giant, darkish, round sound with bright top notes, very expressive and beautifully musically sung.  We so often make compromises with dramatic voices:

  • “The voice is huge but so ugly”
  • “Big sound, but no musicality at all.”
  • “Nicely sung but the voice isn’t really large enough”
  • Our favorite: “Decent singing but what an immobile lump onstage.”

Nina Stemme requires no compromises, she’s got pretty much everything.  Beautiful singing and a good, convincing actress to boot, with what this production gives her.   She was quite funny in the prologue, and magisterial in the Opera.*  Shame that Petrenko rushed through “Es gibt ein Reich,” I wish we could have heard those high notes held a bit longer–OK, I should go hear her as Brünnhilde or Isolde, I know.  I hope she will be singing more at the Met in the future, it’s really shameful that up to this point her only credit is a Senta from ten years ago.  (Side note to those who know me: She’s Swedish.  I continue to insist that everyone and everything that comes from Sweden is AWESOME.)

I enjoyed Kathleen Kim’s Olympia in Hoffmann last December very much, but as Zebinetta she didn’t offer Stemme much competition in the vocal compare-and-contrast.  She’s cute and has a sweet voice, but not nearly the magnitude of personality or variety of expressive colors to make Zerbinetta more than a caricature. Compared to Stemme’s march through rage, vulnerability, excitement, and more rage, she was just bubbly.  She’s in the songbird mode, and while Zerbinetta’s aria demands chirping it also requires a much wider emotional range, and quicker changes between moods.  The more lyrical parts of the role had little impact, particularly the Vorspiel duet with the Komponist.  There was some fudging in the last section of the big aria, and her trill isn’t particularly good, but it’s a marathon.

Tenor Lance Ryan was out sick, and unfortunately cover Michael Hendrick was sick too, but bravely went on.  Poor guy, it wasn’t the most pleasant experience for anyone concerned, but he sounds like he has a good voice, and I hope to hear him under more favorable circumstances at some point.

(Does anyone else think the nymphs’ lengthy hyping of Bacchus’s appearance is unfortunate?  Has there EVER been a hot heldentenor Bacchus?  Couldn’t they go on about how great his spirit is or something instead?  We can acknowledge that most heldentenors aren’t lookers and get on with it but the text just reminds us.  Repeatedly.)

The Rhinemaidens, I mean the nymphs, by the way, were beautifully sung, particularly Tamara Mumford’s Dryade.  This production has them rolling around on these high dress things, and the ladies have to emote solely with their elbows.  But prettily done.  Zerbinetta’s backup singers were unobjectionable, if occasionally inaudible.  I could have done with less mugging but I guess that’s the production’s fault.  I wasn’t sure if all the comic stuff was really supposed to be funny (which it wasn’t, but this business is hard to pull off) or intentionally dumb and annoying, in which case it wasn’t ridiculous enough.  I think the intentionally dumb angle belongs to another production, one with a more radical perspective on the piece.

The production, originally by Moshinsky, is traditional in the prologue and a little more fanciful in the opera.  It involves many of those sliding panels we know and hate from Bartlett Sher’s Met productions.  And who should the set designer be but Michael Yeargan, who designed Sher’s Barbiere and Hoffmann as well (he also designed the current Don Giovanni, which probably featured sliding panels but I’ve blocked that particular night at the Met from my memory).  Oh well, the panels slide endlessly to no clear end but the final tableau with Bacchus is nice, and the colors are beautiful (an attractive color scheme in a Met production! what a concept!). 

Confession: once I got the measure of things, secretly I was hoping for the other Ariadne, the one in which it rains, the fireworks are canceled, and the two shows are performed separately.  Then I could leave before Zerbinetta and her team came out.  But I landed in the wrong timeline where the plane DOES crash and got the usual crazy smashed-together one.  No Desmond in my timeline, very disappointing.  Also, aren’t we all glad Lost is back?  Three cheers for surreal desert islands.

Next!: I’m not sure!  The Met is quiet this month.  I may write about The Bridge Company’s Tempest shortly!  Otherwise, Attila!  Do you know Pierre Audi?  If you do, you will know why I am very intrigued to see this!

*However, I didn’t like how the production has Ariadne drop back into the persona of the Prima Donna from the Prologue when Zerbinetta first enters.  The Opera is something much more interesting than just an extrapolation of the Prologue’s events, and going back into the Prologue mode breaks the mood.

Video Bonus: Nina Stemme sings the Liebstod

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