Puccini and His World

puccini and his world

The Bard Music Festival (at Bard College, which is on the Hudson River well north of New York but south of Albany) starts this weekend and this year focuses on Puccini. As the festival’s introduction put it, Puccini is a composer whose enormous popularity with audiences today tends to efface his controversial past:

Critics derided Puccini for not being Italian enough. He was accused of courting vulgarity and exploiting cheap sentimentality. He was seen as facile and lazy. He failed, with the possible exception of Fanciulla, to match the profundity and subtlety of Verdi, the grandeur of Wagner, and the dramatic virtuosity of Richard Strauss. Even Toscanini, with whom Puccini quarreled despite their closeness, harbored serious reservations. After Puccini’s death, this criticism blossomed into a tradition of intellectual and academic snobbery marked by condescension and neglect.

At the heart of this so-called Puccini problem rests the shifting place of musical culture in the 20th century. Puccini rose to fame as opera struggled, with declining success after 1918, to maintain its preeminence as a cultural and political instrument in the face of the advent of recorded sound, the popularity of photography, motorboats, automobiles (three of Puccini’s obsessions), and, most of all, film. Though Puccini succeeded where others failed, his success was ascribed to various theories of the decline of culture and standards of taste.

As usual the festival’s concerts are an overwhelming montage of Puccini’s music along with that of his contemporaries and successors. Operas include Il tabarro, La Navarraise, Le villi, and the Busoni Turandot as well as excerpts from many more. If you can’t make it in person you can read the whole program book online (I wrote the program note for Program Five, which is Le villi and La Navarraise).

Also as usual, the festival is accompanied by an edited volume of essays exploring Puccini and his legacy, published by Princeton University Press. You can read Emanuele Senici’s introduction to the volume here. If you get the whole thing you can read my account of the composition and initial reception of Puccini’s La rondine, a strange story in which Franz Lehár figures far more prominently than you may suspect.

The festival also figured in a recent Slate article about whether a certain presidential candidate’s favorite aria is politically apt. I think the last scene of Turandot is probably extremely apt but that this presidential candidate probably prefers Phantom of the Opera.

I’ll be at the festival this weekend but I won’t be reviewing it here because…. it seems like a lot of conflict of interest. I already went to see Bard’s production of Mascagni’s Iris last week, which is an extremely weird opera well reviewed by others. If you’d like to listen to Mascagni’s bizarre mix of Symbolism and verismo exploitation for yourself, you can hear no less than Sonya Yoncheva sing in on this recent broadcast from Montepellier (not Bard).

Next summer at Bard: Chopin!

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Manon Lescaut at the Met

Puccini’s Manon Lescaut has to be one of the least sympathetic leading ladies in opera: insufficiently malevolent for a villain, too shallow and materialistic to be a heroine (her escape from her rich “patron” is foiled because she refuses to leave without her jewels, jewels she is inexplicably slow at gathering up), and too passive to be an interesting mix of the two. That doesn’t mean her story isn’t worth following, though. She’s a perfect storm of many of the nineteenth century’s least appealing ideas about women and Puccini’s score is loaded with enough high octane drama to keep your attention. With the right production and cast, it can work! Unfortunately the Met’s tepid, confusing new production doesn’t pull it off.

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Opera groups: Rossini wants you to post
production photos on the Internet!

The stars must have aligned, and they must favor Rossini. All three of Philadelphia’s opera groups have presented his work this fall. I loved Opera Philadelphia’s goofy Barber of Seville, but as it happens the other two opera companies are schools. Of course, the Academy of Vocal Arts and the Curtis Institute are two of the very best training grounds for singers in the country. But when I saw AVA’s L’italiana in Algeri and Curtis Opera Theater’s La scala di seta this week, I was frequently reminded just how difficult this music is. Approximatura, wildly out of tune and/or strained high notes, and white-knuckle Rossini crescendos galore–not the kind of thing you usually hear from students of these extremely distinguished institutions. I’m sure these were educational experiences for the singers, you have to start somewhere, but as an audience member it wasn’t all smooth sailing. I’m going to accentuate the positive here; if I leave some major role out that means I thought the singer wasn’t ready for prime time yet. (AVA, by the way, insists their “resident artists” are professionals, but based on this performance they are all very much works in progress.)

Let’s start with the awesome, and not-Rossini, part: Curtis followed the short La scala di seta with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Granted, Gianni Schicchi is a hard act to top with anything, but this one was the most uproarious hour of opera you could imagine. Together with the Curtis’s crack orchestra (conducted by Lio Kuokman), it was loud, energetic, and dramatically alive. Stephanie Havey’s production is a cartoonish farce, taking place in a bank vault, the floor littered with coins and various signs of wealth all around. (The sets are by Brandon McNeel and look great. How Curtis manages to consistently surpass the production values of many regional-level opera companies beats me. It also baffles me as to how I am unable to find any photos of these excellent designs!) The production was updated as well as aggressively localized, with the surtitles moving Signa to Jersey, mentioning cheesesteak, giving poor Buoso a casino in Atlantic City, making Schicchi a Democrat from the suburbs, and so on. It’s cute, funny, and, together with the manic committment of the cast, really works.

The cast included several singers who really stood out: Sean Michael Plumb was a youthful Gianni Schicchi with the look and apparent guilelessness of Andy Dwyer, only smarter, and sang with a medium-sized, exceptionally musical baritone, really making something special of his brief monologues. Evan LeRoy Johnson as Rinuccio has a sweet and ringing lyric tenor, and Kirsten MacKinnon’s smoky lyric soprano sounded intriguing as Ciesca and I wish she had sang more. (Note: most roles are double-cast and I saw the November 21 performance.)

Curtis preceded this with Rossini’s La scala di seta, which was new to me. The set gave us a steampunk confection of old scientific instruments, gears, and a mixture of present and historic images. I couldn’t figure out a logic behind this, but it looked nifty. More importantly, Havey and the cast kept a good balance between comedy and character development. Seemingly minor characters like servant Germano (sung by Dogukan Kuran) became big comic hams, failed suitor Blansac a dandy short on self-awareness, and Giulia a popular girl who knows how to get what she wants. Singing-wise, none of the cast members were totally consistent, though all had some strong moments. Johnathan McCullogh as Blansac seemed the most suited to Rossini, as well as showing excellent comic timing.

The Academy of Vocal Arts’s production of L’italiana in Algeri was less happy. AVA has a very distinguished record of producing famous singers–relatively recent grads include Angela Meade, Michael Fabiano, and Stephen Costello–but despite some great voices their shows are rarely as polished as Curtis’s. They trade in the kind of über-traditional productions which dare you to suggest that opera is about anything other than la voce, and tend to produce exclusively warhorse operas. The repertoire makes sense for the students, but I can’t help but wonder about the stogy stagings. Dorothy Danner’s schtick-heavy production trapped the cast in convention and cliché, and none of them appeared to connect to the drama and to each other in the organic way the (mostly less experienced) Curtis singers did.

Perhaps I am being overly harsh, because at this performance circumstances conspired against everyone. After their main run in Philadelphia, AVA brings their productions out for a single evening on the Main Line, which was the performance I attended. Heating problems necessitated a last minute change of venue from the Haverford School to Bryn Mawr College’s Goodhart Hall. Goodhart is possessed neither of orchestra pit nor surtitles but is endowed with a cavernous cathedral ceiling which did nothing for solo voices. It also positioned the orchestra behind the singers, and lacks a Maestrocam-type monitor–meaning the singers had no eye contact with the conductor, hence the aforementioned white-knuckle Rossini crescendos. For the audience, the loss of the surtitles was the gravest blow. This is a funny opera, but most people were barely following the plot and no one was laughing at the jokes. This took a lot of air out of the proceedings, and I wished they’d simply postponed the opera until they could perform it properly. I liked that the orchestra went to the length to find a mezzaluna, however I wished its sounds had been as impressive as its looks. It loomed over the orchestra yet produced the sound of a few decorative jingle bells hung on a door.

I doubt this weird venue showed the singers at the best. Nonetheless, I enjoyed Hannah Ludwig’s performance in the title role. She has a deep, chocolatey mezzo and a likeable stage presence. Michael Adams was impressive as Taddeo, and André Courville, as Mustafa, showed an excellent lyric bass, unfortunately combined with a rather stiff stage manner. (AVA is also mostly double-cast; I saw the November 18 performance.)

Winter in Philadelphia will be less Rossinian: AVA performs La bohème in February and Curtis does Ariadne auf Naxos in a co-production with Opera Philadelphia. Curtis will finish their year with The Rake’s Progress, and AVA with, in warhorse fashion, Faust.

Rossini, L’italiana in Algeri. Academy of Vocal Arts, Goodhart Hall at Bryn Maw College, November 18, 2014
La scala di seta and Puccini, Gianni Schicchi. Curtis Opera Theater at
the Prince Music Theater, Philadelphi, November 21, 2014.

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Turandot and the culture industry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Turandot on ice. No, really.

Would you like your opera to include

a) A game of hockey onstage. On actual skates.

b) Breakdancing

c) People waving baguettes

d) All of the above… IN 3D! Get out those Bay Staats-branded red and blue glasses, kids.

If you answered d), this production of Turandot from Carlus Padrissa of La Fura dels Baus is for you. Yeah, Turandot, an opera that is already This Close to being irredeemably kitsch. Some would try to retreat from this line, this production runs over it with a Zamboni. It’s like Zeffirelli, with B-grade scifi and LSD instead of brocade and crockery. Musically… eh. The singing and characters are about as important to this thing as they are in Zeffirelli, unfortunately. They did try their best, though.

Puccini, Turandot.  Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/26/12.
Musikalische Leitung Dan Ettinger

Inszenierung Carlus Padrissa – La Fura dels Baus
Bühne Roland Olbeter
Kostüme Chu Uroz
Video Franc Aleu
Licht Urs Schönebaum

La principessa Turandot Jennifer Wilson
L’imperatore Altoum Ulrich Reß
Timur, Re tartaro spodestato Alexander Tsymbalyuk
Il principe ignoto (Calaf) Marco Berti
Liu Ekaterina Scherbachenko

I gather from the program book that this production is about Europe in 2046, when it has been bailed out by and is now controlled by China. This political dimension was not so evident from the production itself, which is just generically futuristic Chinese. It was, Padrissa claims in the program note, inspired by a visit by La Fura dels Baus to China. Padrissa seems blissfully unaware that he is taking Orientalism Central and making it into Futuristic Orientalism Metropolis, so maybe it’s good that he didn’t actually attempt to pursue this political theme. If you are curious about cultural implications, you can read an essay entitled “China through the eyes of occidental poets. A literary-historical foray through contrasting topoi of violence and powerlessness, grandeur and submission, multitude and individual”* in the program. For that matter, you could also watch Rush Hour 2.

The entire thing is ridiculously over-the-top and utterly straight-faced. Padrissa takes the Ice Princess idea really literally and the entire stage is an ice rink, populated at various times by figure skaters, hockey players, and at one point guys with brooms like curlers (Spanish dude tragically neglected Bavarian curling, though, which doesn’t have brooms). The color palette is largely black and white marked by splotches of red, orange, and yellow. Descending at times is an enormous gong on a platform with a hole in the center, where Turandot makes her dramatic entrance and most of the 3D projections also happen. Just in case you though I was joking about the 3D glasses, I wasn’t:

3D is not used often in theater because live people, certain tenors excepted, generally possess three dimensions already. Here, it was just another trippy gimmick in a staging full of them, but I can’t deny that it’s kind of a fun trick. Shame that the projections themselves weren’t that interesting, mostly resembling a spirograph or maybe a screensaver from the Windows 95 era. (The surtitles showed a little glasses symbol when 3D was approaching, and there was a rustle in the theater of everyone putting on their glasses. It was maybe four or five times over the course of the opera, for a few minutes each time.)

Padrissa doesn’t have much to say about the story or characters, and most of the staging is as strong as the spectacle. The big scenes work, the intimate ones don’t so much. Personally I found the whole thing totally ridiculous (I offer this caveat because I think other audience members took it entirely in earnest) but a blast in a “so bad it’s good” sort of way. The reasons for many of the effects—a lot of business with an undulating carpet of skulls for Ping, Pang, and Pong, various spinning acrobats, a crowd of children in white-hooded robes like a small KKK army, what I still swear were baguettes at some point during Act 2—completely eludes me, but it’s kind of fun, no? Not that I can imagine ever wanting to see it again.

There is one significant bit: Padrissa ends with the score as Puccini left it, with Liu’s death, without the big love duet. It is abrupt and musically rather unsatisfying, but for the Konzept, it had to be thus. Liu dies via “bamboo torture,” with a tree growing through her, and we go into a Verwandlung that is nominally Taoist but seems lifted from Daphne, with nature melting the ice and the evil Chinese people getting back in touch with their natural roots. Or something.

The music’s purpose in this staging is principally coloristic. Maybe if I had been closer to the stage I would have had a better sense of the drama, but the enormous costumes and largely park-and-bark blocking for the singers meant that I wasn’t overly involved in their plight. Dan Ettinger led a solid though very loud account of the score. The orchestra sounded good, though some of the singers seemed less than confident about the tempos. As usual, Liu more or less walked off with it. Ekaterina Scherbachenko has a delicate but full lyric soprano and sang with more emotion that she could physically express here, hers is a voice I want to hear again. Marco Berti made a stolid yet solid Calaf, producing a lot of strong, healthy sound and rarely overpowered by the orchestra. But he does very little to shape the music or character. Jennifer Wilson was adequate but somewhat disappointing as Turandot, her large voice sometimes turning shrill though she can sing all the notes. Supporting characters were fine, and in this scheme didn’t make too much of an impression.

This was… something else, that’s for sure. Call it a popcorn opera. You can’t fault the Bay Staats for their commitment, even when the thing they’re committing to is bonkers.

* “China im Augen abendländische Dichter. Ein literaturhistorichesr Streifzug durch Topoi des Kontrasts von Gewalt und Unmacht , Größe und Unterwerfung , Masse und Individiuum”Photos copyright Wilfried Hösl.
Video, more photos follow:

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Tosca jumps again

The Met and the Bayerische Staatsoper might not have much in common but one thing they do is a certain Luc Bondy production of Tosca, hated just as much by the Müncheners as the New Yorkers. I was going to skip it but upon further reflection decided that missing a Bryn Terfel Scarpia would be a crime. So I got a ticket but being tardy it was one that afforded almost no view of the stage. While I love seeing Terfel ham it up, considering the imbecility of this production I do not consider this as great a loss as usual. I cannot offer you any assessment as to how the set looks on the smaller stage of the Nationaltheater, whether Scarpia groped the Madonna or simply flipped her off, or what attitude Tosca assumed while fanning herself at the close of Act 2 (um, for a production we all think is awful, this one has developed quite a few iconic moments, hasn’t it? just saying…). Here’s what I wrote about this production when I last saw it at the Met. In relation to tonight, let’s talk about the singing!

Marco Armiliato conducts Tosca with the verve of a lukewarm glass of beer. He keeps things together and this was a fairly clean reading, except for almost losing the chorus just before Scarpia’s Act 1 entrance. It unfolds nicely in lyrical sections but in the exciting bits it never rises to the occasion, lacking intensity, drama, and weight. The brass played with laser-bright tone that wasn’t my favorite color, but the strings had a nice depth to their tone in the introduction to “E lucevan le stelle.” But how can one of the most perfectly paced of all operas feel so slack and matter of fact?

Luckily the cast had two excellent singers. Catherine Naglestad is a fine Tosca. Her sound is big and just on this side of being blowsy, with a wide vibrato that sometimes turns dry. While she doesn’t have a lot of variations of color, her duskiness feels just right for this role and her top notes are easy and reliable. (Her chest voice, however, is a little funky, not the best thing for a Tosca.) Most importantly, she sings with refined and yet natural musicality, making a grand and impressive, yet still expressive Tosca. Her “Vissi d’arte” had a lovely swell on the final note and an expertly tapered quiet ending. As Scarpia, Bryn Terfel was his usual self, this portrayal is by this point well known. His voice can turn rough and barky at patches, hurting him most in the opening of Act 2, which sounded ragged. But in the declamatory passages his voice is imposing and firm, and he relishes the evil with audible (as I could not, for the most part, see him) glee.

Workmanlike lyric tenor Massimo Giordano sounded overextended as Cavaradossi, and despite generally singing on pitch with acceptable sound his too-small voice and relentlessly flat-footed, unnuanced phrasing kept his Mario from ever developing into an audible character. He has a habit of approaching high notes from a running start of a third or so below, sliding up to the actual pitch (even on Vittoria!), which I assume is supposed to be stylistic, probably also is a technical aid, and definitely is irritating. The smaller roles found the Staatsoper’s usual solid Slavic-tending crew, notably Goran Juric a well-projected Angelotti.

I can offer a few random notes on the staging. The jump at the end was timed better that I have seen it at the Met, but that blackout has to be much blacker for it to be convincing. When the victory cantata’s Starbesetzung is announced in Act 1, the Munich children yelp “BRAVO!” while the New York ones go “OOOOO!” Also, Mario’s painting, in classic Bay Staats fashion, appears to be a blotchy impressionistic rendering of the same image that appeared in New York in far more realistic form. Can’t keep a creative scenic artist down.

Absent some star casting, I’m hoping not to see this particular Tosca again anytime soon.

Puccini, Tosca. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/24/2012.
Musikalische Leitung Marco Armiliato

Inszenierung Luc Bondy
Bühne Richard Peduzzi
Kostüme Milena Canonero
Licht Michael Bauer
Chor Stellario Fagone

Floria Tosca Catherine Naglestad
Mario Cavaradossi Massimo Giordano
Baron Scarpia Bryn Terfel
Cesare Angelotti Goran Jurić 
Der Mesner Christoph Stephinger
Spoletta Francesco Petrozzi
Sciarrone Christian Rieger
Stimme eines Hirten Tölzer Knabenchor
Ein Gefängniswärter Tim Kuypers

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La Bohème: Your hand is cold

The Munich Opera Festival part of the Bayerische Staatsoper’s season rolled on with a shot at what is known in these parts as a Sternstunde–famous names being providing luxury singing to gratify your pleasure principle. But for this to work you need more than glamorous singing, there has to be a real connection among the cast and with the audience too. That wasn’t happening so much last night. Angela Gheorghiu and Joseph Calleja are a beautiful match in terms of pure sound, and both have the voices for these roles. But theatrically they are a disaster, encouraging each other’s worst qualities. Gheorghiu only loves Gheorghiu, and I saw few convincing signs of Calleja loving anything at all.
I remain an enormous fan of Gheorghiu’s sound, which has a uniquely beautiful silvery smokiness and sounds perfect in this music. Would that we could hear more of it. When she finally sung out in Act 3, it was glorious, but up to then she had maintained her characteristic 75%–never quite inaudible but not loud enough either. Her self-conscious diva persona would never work so well for Mimi, but she was at her most self-absorbed this evening, reacting only for her own and our benefit and never interacting with the cast around her. She apparently got some new dresses for this production, which seemed to be of the upper middle class rather than of a simple seamstress (which sticks out because the costumes of the rest of the cast are actually fairly faithful to class), but also followed her usual preference of displaying maximum cleavage during her death scene.

Joseph Calleja also has a beautiful sound, and sang the music with much more straightforward musicality than Gheorghiu, who tends to be capricious in regards to phrasing. On a CD, his “Che gelida manina” would be a real winner, with easy high notes, smooth legato, and that golden tone with its distinctive fast vibrato. But he never does anything to make it interesting. He did more to engage with his fellow Bohemians, but his acting remains a series of indications rather than a character, and in terms of chemistry he and Gheorghiu are not so happening.

The supporting cast was mostly drawn from house locals and sounded more Eastern European in style than Italian, but were great company and way more fun than our leads. I wondered if light soubrette Laura Tatulescu had been cast as Musetta as to present minimal competition to Gheorghiu (and their timbres do make a good vocal match–they’re both Romanian, if that means anything), but while her voice is small she projected consistently and effortlessly, and managed to be full of character without overacting, a rare thing in Musettas. The pick of the Bohemians was Levente Molnár’s big-voiced, lively Marcello, showing great life and warmth, but the others were fine as well. Alfred Kühn’s bio has the telling debut date of 1963, and I suspect he has been singing repertoire like Benoit the whole while. I will just say that he is a local favorite and at least he wasn’t cast as Mime.
Dan Ettinger conducted like someone who knows his way around this tricky score, managing the remarkable tasks of rarely covering up Gheorghiu and also staying with her wayward beat. The Act 2 chaos was reasonably clean and if the orchestra was, as I suspect, playing this on little to no rehearsal, I am very impressed. Ensembles were oddly balanced and scrappy but hey, this is the Festival, with Angela Gheorghiu.
Otto Schenk’s production is a traditional job with none of the opulence of the Met’s Zeffirelli extravaganza. I have to say I like it a lot more than that one. Like Ettinger, it doesn’t try anything fancy but it puts things where they need to be to give Angela Gheorghiu something to bounce her voice off. (We’ll leave the actual productions for another day.) Act 2 is busy without ever losing track of the protagonists, the garret could arguably use some sprucing up (how long has this production been going? a while, I’m guessing) but I guess looking like that is the point of a garret. The snow scene is the most artistic of the sets, but still doesn’t dwarf the main characters. The opening of Act 4 was unusually clearly directed. I do wish that opera houses would realize that their rubber fishes are all embarrassments, though.
Admittedly, this has never been one of my favorite operas (I’m not exactly sure why), but this one left me exceptionally dry-eyed. Considering the musical merits, a disappointment. In a few weeks I’ll be seeing the new Salzburg production with Netrebko and Beczala, which I hope will have more to offer.

Photos copyright Wilfred Hösl.

Puccini, La Bohème. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7.17.2012.
Musikalische Leitung Dan Ettinger

Inszenierung Otto Schenk
Bühne und Kostüme Rudolf Heinrich
Chor Stellario Fagone

Mimi Angela Gheorghiu
Musetta Laura Tatulescu
Rodolfo Joseph Calleja
Marcello Levente Molnár
Schaunard Christian Rieger
Colline Goran Jurić 
Parpignol Dean Power
Benoît Alfred Kuhn
Alcindoro Tareq Nazmi
Ein Zöllner Tim Kuypers
Sergeant der Zollwache Peter Mazalán

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Madama Butterfly shines on

This production of Madama Butterfly was Peter Gelb’s first opening night of the Met and remains the most beautiful production of his regime as General Director. This was the third time I had seen it and while on the outside it is still gorgeous I have grown more wary of its glossy surfaces, just as I have of Gelb’s artistic mission.

Puccini, Madama Butterfly. Metropolitan Opera, 2/17/2012. Production by Anthony Minghella (revival), conducted by Placido Domingo with Patricia Racette (Cio-Cio-San), Adam Diegel (Pinkerton), Laurent Naouri (Sharpless), Maria Zifchak (Suzuki).

(Obligatory n.b.: this production, directed by the late Anthony Minghella, was first seen at the English National Opera.)

Perhaps my intellectual hackles were raised because I was never able to fully immerse myself emotionally in this performance, something I hadn’t had any trouble with on previous outings. This was primarily due to Placido Domingo’s pale and shapeless conducting, which did the score’s intensity and complexity a great disservice. Honestly, that major companies hire him to conduct is a disgrace. Under a different conductor this would have been a very different experience. But Placido gave me a V-Effekt and it didn’t stop.

This was particularly a shame because Patricia Racette’s Cio-Cio-San is really marvelous. She’s a naturally sympathetic singer, and brings a believable youthfulness to the part along with the needed vocal power. Her wide vibrato can sometimes obscure her pitch, but her sweet tone and solid chest voice matched with her unbroken sincerity and soulfulness makes her a touching Butterfly. I only wish the orchestra had matched her portrayal.

Racette with puppet son

Adam Diegel deputized for the ill Roberto De Biasio as Pinkerton, so I’ll cut him a break on his stiff acting. His voice has a pleasant bright quality and freshness, but he lacks the ringing high notes to really score in Puccini, and sometimes failed to fill the house vocally. I missed hammy Roberto Alagna, the last Pinkerton I saw in this production, who is fantastic in this role. It’s hard to believe that this evening marked Laurent Naouri’s Met debut (to anyone who watches European DVDs he is a familiar presence, particularly in Baroque repertoire), but he was an excellent Sharpless, with a deeper-than-average voice for the role and very sensitive and complex acting. Maria Zifchak was again Suzuki and was again great; other supporting roles were fine. We seemed to get the chorus’s B team, who in their first entrance sounded especially winded from their climb up Butterfly’s hill.

I’m not going to describe the staging in great detail because it is well known at this point and available on DVD. You can see a trailer at the bottom of this post. It’s elegant, with a spare set and extravagant costumes, with a plethora of sliding screens and a falling flower petals and paper lanterns. It does not challenge Puccini’s text. This is, after all, the Met, one of the few theaters in the world where a giant mirror onstage serves no purpose beyond producing a pretty reflection. Minghella and co. offer a modern continuation of Puccini’s well-intentioned Orientalist mission. They explore a strange “Other” culture–attempting research and presenting their results as something enchanting and different whose very appeal lies in its foreignness, its stylization, surface decoration and essential unknowability. Butterfly’s son is represented by a Bunraku puppet, who receives his own program note.* Is he, ripped from his native theatrical context and created by the British group Blind Summit Theatre, anything more than a modern version of the Chinese music box Puccini supposedly used as a source for Turandot? And, as a non-Japanese person myself, do I have any right to be offended on behalf of a people I likewise didn’t consult?

Attempts to challenge the exoticizing elements of Butterfly are numerous, notably by two of my favorite directors, Stefan Herheim and Peter Konwitschny (read those reviews, they’re really interesting and by a critic whose knowledge of Japanese culture vastly exceeds my own), but I think anything along these lines at the Met would probably cause a riot. Minghella treats his characters with respect, as does Puccini, and with a performer as heartfelt as Racette it would be easy to let these concerns recede. But I can’t do that in good conscience. The spectacular irony of having a white soprano as Cio-Cio-San and an Asian tenor as Pinkerton (Diegel is Korean) only underlined the fact that we can and should do better than treat another culture as a curio. Next time remember that Butterfly stages Puccini’s own Westernness, or ask a Japanese person before you do it (provided you are not already one yourself).

*“Western audiences are accustomed to seeing puppets used in the spirit of provocative comedy… or as homespun, educational entertainment for children… The puppets featured in the Met’s Madama Butterfly, on the other hand…”

Trailer (previous cast, same soprano):

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Turandot: Love bug

So, you have an opera with a frankly barbaric score and libretto. Say, Turandot. What is a violent, dangerous setting for this that doesn’t imply that Chinese society is prone to these kinds of things? I know, insects! They’re vicious, right?

This is the most spectacular production I’ve seen at the Volksoper, and orchestrally one of the best as well. And the basic idea of setting Turandot with bugs is kind of nifty. Unfortunately, it’s the only idea director Renaud Doucet and designer André Barbe (the team responsible for last fall’s Rusalka) seem to have had. Sure looks cool, though!

Puccini, Turandot. Volksoper Wien, 3/28/2011. Production (revival) directed by Renaud Doucet, sets by André Barbe. Conducted by Enrico Dovico with Anda-Louise Bogza (Turandot), Mario Zhang (Caláf), Melba Ramos (Liú).


The production starts off rather well. We’re in some community consisting entirely of insects of various types and statuses. Some are workers, some guards, some officials, and some leaders. The costumes are colorful and spectacular, and the dark backdrop and dim lighting gives it a scary air. A tall black figure with enormous talons appears early in Act 1 and it seems implied that she is Turandot, but it turns out that Turandot is actually a much less interesting fuzzy white figure. The talon lady is Death or something (having some role in Prince of Persia’s execution, and later Liù’s method of suicide), but like most things in this production she exists more as a visual gesture than a dramatic one.

It’s all quite intimidating and inhuman and ceremonial, and while it feels perfect for the music’s violence, the inhumanity also proves to be the production’s biggest stumbling block. Despite the visual impact of the big moments, the staging doesn’t do a very good job of telling the story and exploring the characters. I don’t think this was inevitable consequence of the buggy-ness of it all, but it’s how it turned out. The overwhelming visuals, monumental costumes, and static blocking don’t enable the singers to emerge from the atmosphere as personalities, and the concept is too static to pick up the slack. Barbe’s choreography (I assume, there is no other choreographer credited) was a weak point, as in Rusalka, and even when performed by bugs resembles Jazzercise. So despite a promising start, the production proved disappointing as it failed to develop over the course of the subsequent acts. There are many nice visual touches, though.

Liù and Calaf

The Volksoper orchestra, conducted by Enrico Dovico, tackled the score with enthusiasm and significant decibel count, sounding bigger and more polished than they usually do. None of the singers had the power to compete. Anda-Louise Bogza has a large though not enormous Italianate soprano with a broad vibrato and warm if sometimes spread tone. She had some exciting moments and to her credit mostly sang and did not scream, but lacks the cutting high C’s to be a truly memorable Turandot. Mario Zhang’s dark and muscular sound and stiff phrasing did little to bring life to Calaf, who I’m pretty sure now is the actual villain of the piece. Melba Ramos had a shaky start as Liu but mustered the best overall singing of the cast with a slightly covered, smoky lyric soprano and good dynamic control. Supporting roles were adequately sung, though the Emperor headed south over the course of each phrase, ending each painfully flat.

With some more focused Personenregie (to be fair, it is a revival) and more Konzept for Acts 2 and 3 (sorry, there are some things you really need German for), this could have been a lot better. Pittsburgh residents should note that Barbe and Doucet are currently in your town with a second, much more traditional Turandot. They recently compared the two productions in an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The US gets a more traditional version, because opera with bugs apparently falls under the category of Shit We Americans Really Can’t Handle. (The Neuenfels Nabucco with bees would probably go over badly as well. And isn’t there a Claus Guth Barbiere with bugs in Leipzig?)

At the Volksoper, two performances remain, on April 7 and 10. You can also see a short video on their website.

Photos copyright Volksoper Wien.

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