The Met’s opening Onegin

Last night’s Met opening gala premiere of Yevgeny Onegin rendered the opera being performed more or less incidental in the face of multiple protests and technical snafus. It was four and a half hours long and only a little over half of that was taken up by music.

Nonetheless, let’s try to start with that opera. It’s hard. Because despite some distinguished singing, it’s difficult to make something so routine the centerpiece of this unusually eventful evening.

Eugene Onegin. Met opening night gala, 9/23/2014. Production by Deborah Warner, directed by Fiona Shaw. Conducted by Valery Gergiev with Anna Netrebko (Tatiana), Mariusz Kwiecien (Onegin), Oksana Volkova (Olga), Piotr Beczala (Lensky), Elena Zaremba (Madame Larina), Larissa Diadkova (Filippyevna), John Graham-Hall (Triquet), Richard Bernstein (Zaretski), Alexei Tanovitski (Gremin)

Deborah Warner’s traditional, realistic production looks like an aspirational BBC miniseries, and outside the scenic happy peasants it’s about equally Russian in its sensibility. It’s realistic and gratuitously detailed. In Act 1, set in a farm workshop kind of place (sets designed by Tom Pye), a bevy of servants bustles around endlessly, which keeps some motion onstage even as the main characters often stand still. The same set–which has windows looking out over a field and a lot of clutter inside–is the setting of Tatiana’s epistolary adventures, as well as her subsequent rejection. The Act 2 ball takes place in a modest parlor-like setting, the duel in a wide open foggy field bisected by a dead tree (the shooting features very large guns for some reason), and the final act in a far grander, colonnaded ballroom. In the final scene, this room apparently is outside, because people are wearing coats and it starts snowing.

will be happy to see that Warner doesn’t seem to have any big original
ideas. The acting comes in and out of focus. (Maybe this is due to its often-absent director.) There is dancing, and there isn’t anything big that you wouldn’t expect. The last scene is by far the most compellingly
directed part of the production, though that might be because it’s one of the
only places in the drama where both the leading characters express strong feelings at the same time. For once both singers seemed to be feeling
it and it was appropriately tense. When the text is less clear, the staging tends to do less, and when there is music without singing no one really does much at all. This is most
egregious in the first act, which is very generic. Onegin in
particular is a notoriously under drawn character, and neither Warner
nor Mariusz Kwiecien have done much to give him any substance. He is,
however, more flirtatious than usual with Tatiana, which seems to make her
infatuation a little more explicable but his rejection less.

Onegin in Amstersdam
Stefan Herheim/Mariss Jansons
 Onegin in Vienna
Falk Richter/Michael Güttler

Actually, there is one dramatic action that is added. Or rather two. After rejecting Tatiana, Onegin gives Tatiana a brief peck on the lips. She returns this in dramatic fashion at the very end of the opera, stopping the music for an awkwardly long makeout session. I didn’t like either addition, which struck me as running violently against the relatively faithful period atmosphere of the rest of the staging, not to mention creating an awkward caesura at the end of the score, a point when its momentum is all-important. There has been nothing to imply that Tatiana’s concern for her marriage and honor were anything less than genuine. It feels impossibly modern and Hollywood. Forbidden love! She shows him what he cannot have! Etc., etc., etc.

It’s a safe, unimaginative production that marks no improvement on the 1997 Robert Carsen production that it replaces. The Carsen had what I consider a respectably long run, but it’s a shame to replace it with something that is less interesting and overall less effective. Carsen also used traditional dress, but the stark setting of an empty box (with birch trees) allowed for the kind of large-scale images that registered in the giant theater. Warner’s eye is more cinematic and problematically intimate. What originality there is is small moments character work that is hardly visible in this large a space. It was best seen through my opera glasses (I was in Orchestra Standing; many seats are far more distant).

Musically, last night lacked the kind of polish one would expect from a premiere. Largely at fault was Valery Gergiev’s weirdly ponderous conducting, which stressed the singers out and often made the action drag. He has infinite experience with this piece, but much was sloppy, and he found none of the brilliant radiance that Mariss Jansons did the last time I heard this opera. The orchestra sounded good at points but out of sorts at others.

The leading roles are strongly cast, the supporting less so. Like every opening night, it was the Anna Netrebko Show. She is ideally cast as Tatiana, singing in her native language and finally find a role that often suits her ardor without straining her agility. But in the first two acts she seemed mostly concerned with appearing modest and disappearing, lest she release the diva before her time had come. This did not help create a character. It was in the Letter Scene and third act where she could show her capabilities, which include a lustrous, rich, tone and a startling immediacy and intensity of expression, as well as a variety of color she doesn’t always find in Italian or French. Sometimes she struggled with Gergiev’s slow tempos, but such vivid singing is always worth it.

Mariusz Kwiecien makes a handsome Onegin, though I didn’t see him doing much to solve the character’s essential vacuity. His singing was handsome too, with a pleasantly smooth, moderately-sized lyric baritone and short on his usual tendency to bellow. Only a soft high note at the end of the Act 1 arioso almost cracked. I’ve already heard Piotr Beczala as Lensky at the Met, and besides Netrebko he did the best singing of the night, sounding the best he has in a while. At his best he has a plangent and well-controlled tenor, and sang the aria with exemplary musicianship. He did not show great interest in acting.

The supporting roles were uneven. As Olga, Oksana Volkova mostly acted with her hips, her singing accurate but grainy and unglamorous of tone. Alexei Tanovitski was an unmemorable Gremin. Richard Bernstein was, as always, an outstanding Zaretski and should be singing leading roles. John Grahm-Hall was an inept Monsieur Triquet and sang with an awful wobble that some singers would pass off as a trill. The chorus sounded a bit spotty.

Now to the rest. The gala audience was more interested in chatting than operagoing, and the whole thing ended almost an hour late due to a late start and long intermissions. There is no place on this or any planet where the 2.5 hour opera Onegin needs to take 4.5 hours (I was standing, which made me very aware of this). One lighting pause after the Letter Scene was mistaken for an intermission by a large portion of the audience, who rushed out and then tried to get back in during the next scene. (Bad house management. I think the Met will have a headache dealing with these gala-goers.)

More importantly, to protest Russia’s laws against LGBT people there was a small picket line outside the theater, and a shouted protest inside before the National Anthem before the performance. The protestors were aiming for visibility and symbolism, and that’s a testament to the Met’s prominence. But I have to wonder what exactly they wanted out of the non-Russian Scrooge McDuck of arts organizations. Peter Gelb’s statement on this matter was asinine, but perhaps all one could expect from someone who is running a gala where many of the seats cost more than my first car. Targeting Netrebko individually seems particularly off-key. What could she safely do? Probably not much. (I am in agreement with La Cieca on this matter.) Moreover, why restrict yourself to symbolic protest and involve Netrebko and the Met when Valery Gergiev is conducting? He is a far more powerful figure and has done several things that could legitimately be cause for a more focused protest (see also: Georgia). Russia’s human rights abuses are not limited to those against LGBT people.

On a lighter note, it’s time for another episode of Program Notes Smackdown. I am, I hasten to add, neither a Pushkin nor a Chaikovsky expert, but I have a few complaints against Gavin Plumley’s notes.

“Its [the novel’s] success was no doubt due to the immediacy of Pushkin’s tale and his ability to draw the reader in to the emotional trials and tribulations of its characters.”

The verse novel is actually famous for its irony and the sardonic tone of its narrator. That’s one of the biggest differences between it and the opera.

“[Chaikovsky] relies on the universal power of recollection, triggered by pithy but persuasive musical ideas…”

The phrase “universal power” makes me nervous. More pointedly, Chaikovsky’s score evokes a wide variety of musical genres and melodic forms that Russian audiences would have recognized and associated with certain contexts (even including a quotation in the opening quartet). That’s far from universal, and it’s one major reason why this opera is part of the Russian national canon.

continues through the fall. The November performances feature a second cast with fantastic Onegin Peter Mattei, and iffy Marina Poplovskaya (Tatiana) and Rolando Villazon (Lensky). The HD is on October 5.

Photos copyright Ken Howard.

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Met takes a bet on a new Rigoletto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dates and tickets here.

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

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

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Jonas Kaufmann crashes Anna Netrebko’s Bohemian party in Salzburg

I went to a
Very Special Performance of La Bohème
at the Salzburg Festival and I wrote about it for Bachtrack:

When Salzburg Festival intendant Alexander Pereira stepped onto the stage of the Großes Festspielhaus last night to announce that one of the cast members of La bohème was sick and unable to sing, he faced a chorus of hisses from the audience… Piotr Beczala had decided a mere ten minutes earlier that his vocal cords would not be up to singing Rodolfo that night. We would have to wait forty minutes for a replacement. Further hisses. Fortunately Pereira had an ace up his sleeve: the replacement would be another star, Jonas Kaufmann.

You can read the rest here. This review
has everything: Anna Netrebko. Special surprise Rodolfo Jonas Kaufmann. Me
saying nice things about the Wiener Philharmoniker. You’re not going to believe

A few more thoughts and photos below.

If you go to
as many performances as I do eventually you’ll see something crazy like this. As
I said in July when I wrote about a very different Bohème, this opera has never been one of my particular favorites.
That performance didn’t change my mind. But this one may have. The set design isn’t
great and doesn’t do much for the drama, but the Personenregie is remarkably nuanced. The characters were less idealized than usual, but for me that made them much more sympathetic, because they seemed real. As for the big cast change,
the singer/actor split is never a good thing but this staging is never static
and there would have been no way in hell to work anyone new into it on short
notice without severe damage. And I’m glad that they didn’t do that.

The scene at
this performance was incredibly glitzy. It’s a Salzburg irony: the festival
glories in the red carpets and paparazzi, yet many of the productions that draw
this crowd (before we even consider the smaller or more niche events) are far from
a Zeffirellian celebration of opulence for its own sake. (Think of the Decker Traviata. Or Frau ohne Schatten.) This was a case in point: the audience looked
far more glamorous than anyone onstage, except maybe Musetta.* (Including, however, Kaufmann, who really did
look like they had pulled him off the street, though not the same street these
Bohemians were occupying.)

And this
ridiculously last-minute slapped together substitution added a further human
touch and charm to something almost too fancy to bear.  There was widespread hissing when Pereira
announced the delay, because these are people who don’t like to wait, and then not
long after we’re all happily watching Jonas Kaufmann emerge stage left with his
shirt untucked, look slightly confused, disappear again, and return dragging a
very large chair. Getting a big-name replacement is a Salzburg sort of luxury, and the
singing was certainly of that class, but I loved how the trappings were pure
(Though if
Beczala was feeling ill all day, as Pereira said, shouldn’t they have started
scouting for a replacement Rodolfo a little earlier? Or at least given Kaufmann
a chance to be warned that with Gatti “Che gelida manina” was going to be a special preview of the Parsifal they’re doing together at the Met next year? Seriously, doing
this without rehearsal must have required nerves of steel in the first place
but when one of the weirdest conductors in the business is involved it’s even
worse. On an absolute scale there were coordination issues but under the circumstances I’m going to say it was damn good.)
This was far
from the Bohème that I expected but
it was certainly a Bohème to
remember. That’s all for me in Europe this summer, but this was an excellent finale.
*Except for
me. It had been raining buckets and while it everyone else had seemingly arrived
by helicopter, their outfits perfectly intact (not really, but as press
I got a nice seat), I had walked from the Neustadt and despite having an
umbrella resembled a drowned rat.

Curtain call:

Spot the non-Bohemian

Production photos, copyright Silvia Lelli

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Manon at the Met marche sur quelques chemins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met

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Der Rosenkavalier in Munich: Die schöne Musi!

The Marschallin seems like a role that the elegant, meticulous soprano Anja Harteros was born to sing. She finally did it at the Bayerische Staatsoper this season, and repeated it with the fabulous Octavian of Sophie Koch at their Festspiele this Saturday (the July “Festspiele” consists of a few new productions plus a retrospective of the season with most of the same casting, fancier audience members, fewer rehearsals, and higher prices–fun but a little unpredictable). While Otto Schenk’s production would benefit from a good fumigation and energy injection, the all-star cast made this worth it.

Strauss, Der Rosenkavalier. Bayerische Staatsoper/Münchner Operfestspiele, 7/23/2011. Production by Otto Schenk, conducted by Constantin Trinks with Anja Harteros (Marschallin), Sophie Koch (Octavian), Lucy Crowe (Sophie), Peter Rose (Ochs), Piotr Beczala (Tenor).

This Rosenkavalier is an Otto Schenk extravaganza, similar but more opulent than Vienna’s Schenk. This run was originally planned as a new production this season, but intendant Nikolaus Bachler decided to keep the Schenk at the last minute, supposedly a bone thrown to staging conservatives. While the sets and costumes are in fine physical shape, age is still a problem. Most seriously, the Personenregie has gaps: there are many points where the singers simply stand still while the music cries out for stage action. As the Marschallin would point out, you can’t stop time.

Visually, the cluttered aesthetic is not to my taste–the von Faninals seem to gunning for a record for the largest china collection outside the Hofburg. But the level of detail (such as the inclusion of visible and detailed antechambers behind the main set) is impressive if you like that kind of thing. The Act 3 inn is more convincingly seedy than some other productions’, though the action in the opening was not as clearly laid out as it could have been. If you want to see this production in action back in its glory days, such as they were, you can do so on this excellent DVD conducted by Carlos Kleiber with Gwyneth Jones as the Marschallin.

I can’t really comment on many of the acting details of this performance, because, as is often the case at the Nationaltheater, my view of the stage was hopelessly bad. I could see the set and, once in a while, the singers, but as for most of what they were doing beyond the big rote blocking action you get in a standard issue Rosenkavalier (which is what this was), I’m not too sure.

Late replacement conductor Constantin Trinks (GMD in Darmstadt) seems like a good find, particularly when you allow for the limited rehearsal time of these festival productions. It wasn’t the most precise Rosenkavalier I have ever heard, and both stage-orchestra coordination and the faster orchestral business were off at times. But the light spirit, indulgently slow ending, and general sense of shape and dramatic timing worked really well, with a clear path through a score that can meander. Balance was something of an issue in Act 1, when the orchestra overpowered the singers, but improved over the course of the evening.

Anja Harteros has a wonderful way with the text, with beautiful diction and wit, and a conversational musicality that sounds both natural and graceful. Her voice is a little smoky and grainy, in a good way that makes her sound unique, and her middle voice has the strength needed for this role. Most notable is the detail and musicality she puts into every phrase, which is particularly good for Straussian style. Once or twice she sounded studious, but she is already my pick for the Marschallin of today.

Sophie Koch is an experienced Octavian. Like Harteros, she tends towards the aristocratic side of her role, welcome after too many slap-happy, excessively hormonal productions. But she is still convincingly youthful and masculine, funny in Act 3 without being over-the-top, and sings with expansive, lustrous tone, only sometimes sounding a little thin on the very top notes (Octavian did, after all, start as a soprano role).

The rest of the cast was perhaps not quite their match, though Lucy Crowe’s Sophie was very good, sung with richer, fuller sound than the thin twitterers you sometimes get, and acted with confidence but never brattiness. Unfortunately the pitch of her high notes wavered occasionally. Peter Rose’s Ochs is one of the better ones out there, more bumpkin than lecher and sung with style and fluidity, but his voice is rather hollow at both top and bottom. Supporting roles were universally solid and well-rehearsed.

In a delightful bit of luxury casting, Piotr Beczala appeared and knocked the Italian Tenor aria out of the park. Sure, it’s a kitschy bit of music, but given such a luscious rendition, it’s the best two minutes of tenorial bliss you could ask for.

Despite the boring production (which I couldn’t see too well anyway), a festival-worthy performance.

Photos copyright Bayerische Staatsoper.

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Lucia di Lammermoor: Mad about you

So generous of the Wiener Staatsoper to throw in an opera along with that mad scene, no?  But considering the spectacle of hopeless conducting and pathetic staging that surrounded Annick Massis’s moment of Crazy–and Piotr Beczala’s decent tenor aria–I kind of wish they hadn’t.  That thing I said the other day about wanting boring productions to blog about instead of tricky stuff like Herheim?  It was only a joke, but I TAKE IT ALL BACK.

Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor.  Wiener Staatsoper, 1/14/2011.  Production by Boleslaw Barlog, conducted by Bruno Campanella with Annick Massis (Lucia), Piotr Beczala (Edgardo), Eijiro Kai (Enrico), Dan Paul Dumitrescu (Raimondo).

Bruno Campanella conducted with some nice differentiation of color but soporific tempos, which crippled the singers at many points.  They ran out of breath in the slow parts, they got ahead in the fast parts.  Sometimes he pulled dramatic accelerandos at the ends of numbers, which were exciting, but didn’t excuse the snooze that had preceded them.

Stage direction was nonexistent, with park and bark scenes and indulgence in semaphoric gestures of the worst sort (“O Ciel’!” proclaims Raimondo, raising both hands towards the sky).  Eijiro Kai has a solid, gravely, somewhat forced-sounding baritone, and was a stiff Enrico with little shading or expression.  Protagonists Annick Massis as Lucia and Piotr Beczala as Edgardo are both experienced exponents of their roles and made much more of them than the rest of the cast.  Unfortunately they had the chemistry and affection of two people who met that afternoon in the standing room line, but you can’t have everything.

Massis’s Lucia was delicate and neurotic, her incipient madness clear from her first entrance.  Her characterization was detailed and natural, but unfortunately her small, colorless voice didn’t make nearly as good an impression.  Her sound is thin and quavery, and she was often lost under the orchestra or in ensembles.  Her ornamentation and acuti were good, though Campanella’s tempo in “Quando, rapito in estasi” was tortuously slow.  But she pulled out all her stops for the mad scene, for which I suspect she had been saving her voice (and the orchestration is lighter), with more sound and creative, involving acting (including stepping off the main set to the very edge of the stage, almost literally leaving the world behind).  The coloratura was perfectly accurate and the high Es, with the exception of the final one, secure.  I’m not sure if she quite deserved the extent of the rapturous ovation she got, but in comparison to what had preceded the scene, it was understandable.

Beczala was said (unofficially) to be recovering from something or other and sounded off his best, singing with a reduced dynamic range of loud, loud, and loud, with a somewhat congested tone and strain on the high notes.  His Edgardo is filled with conventionally gallant acting details.  While this doesn’t quite create a rounded character, it beats standing still. Supporting characters were OK.  The chorus sounded really good, I can say that. 

Boleslaw Barlog’s ancient production begins with a few shabby, wrinkly drops that nonetheless necessitate 5-minute half-light scene changes every 20 minutes.  (With 18th-century stage technology, they could have switched out those suckers in 15 seconds.)  The Staatsoper understandably declines to provide photos of any of these sets on their website–the only photo they have that isn’t horribly blurry is the one above.  In the first scene, a background painting of a wild forest is augmented solely with a mysterious tree stump kindly placed on the center-left hot spot, so Normanno can be both seen and heard.  Things improve a bit when we go indoors, with some moderately impressive paneled rooms (pictured).  Oh, and Edgardo’s avi miei are buried in some sort of crypt (again, the pallbearers were considerate enough to set Lucia’s corpse down right next to the center-stage right hot spot, so Edgardo could off himself in acoustic favorability).  The costumes are also drab, and Massis was swimming around in a nightie that could have fit Joan Sutherland.  Come to think of it, it probably did.

Also, there were bows after every scene.  Not every act, every scene.  Strange reception at the end: extremely enthusiastic but very brief applause.  Vienna’s not the place of the Gesamtkunstwerk, though, and people are very willing to overlook massive deficiencies in some areas if there’s something they like elsewhere in the performance.  I’d prefer something that shows a group effort.  This wasn’t exactly my night.  Take me back to Germany, please.

Next: I got some Schenk wrapping-up to do, and am braving a return to the Philharmoniker tonight for Jansons and Shostakovich and Berlioz.


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