Der Rosenkavalier at the Met

That’s no silver rose, that’s a whole silver rose shrub.

The Met’s new Rosenkavalier is a pleasant surprise. It’s good and you should see it, but maybe not for the reasons you expect.

While much heralded as Renée Fleming’s farewell to the operatic stage, she’s not its primary attraction. She’s fine and deserves a nice send-off for a distinguished career, but she is too pallid to be this production’s star. Yet the Met has, seemingly accidentally, ended up with something way more interesting and harder to achieve than a Marschallin showcase. Robert Carsen’s production is a creative and coherent interpretation of a piece which is often more exhumed than directed, and the Met has found something I didn’t even know existed: Günther Groissböck’s actually good take on Baron Ochs.

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A not so merry widow

By some measures The Merry Widow was the most popular piece of musical theater of the twentieth century. At its best it’s tuneful, sexy, funny, and touching. Unfortunately, this is rarely evident in Met’s disappointingly flat new production. And for a show directed by old Broadway pro Susan Stroman, it is bizarrely lacking in razzle dazzle.

Franz Lehár,
Die lustige Witwe/The Merry Widow. Metropolitan Opera, 1/6/14. New production directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman with sets by Julian Crouch, costumes by William Ivey Long and lighting by Paul Constable. English version by Jeremy Sams. Conducted by Andrew Davis with Renée Fleming (Hanna Galwari), Nathan Gunn (Danilo), Kelli O’Hara (Valencienne), Alek Shrader (Camille), Sir Thomas Allen (Baron Zeta), Carson Elrod (Njegus).

As an operetta specialist, I was really looking forward to this production. It was a chance for a piece I’ve spent considerable time with to get a lot of attention and a big, expensive production with a big, expensive cast. Unfortunately I think that this production is going to do more harm to a modern revival of operetta than help. I will try not to be pedantic with my review; I think this production’s problems are simple and obvious enough to prevent that.

The Met seems to have deemed last year’s overstuffed, smug Fledermaus a mistake. Gelb even has even hinted such in print. The solution in this production has been to retain all of the elements of Fledermaus–most notably Jeremy Sams’s words, a lot of shiny ball scenes, and some random homophobia–only to dial their volume down to a level where the effect is thoroughly bland. The result is perhaps less grating but no more entertaining.

“Can I sing again yet?”

I think one problem is simply how Gelb and others are talking about operetta. Opera people often think of the spoken dialogue in Singspiels like Fidelio and Zauberflüote as a problem to solve, avoid, or minimize. Dialogue conveys important information, but it’s something to be dispensed of as quickly as possible in order to get to the part we actually like: the singing. But that doesn’t work with operetta. When these pieces were written the dialogue was an opportunity, not a liability. The performers were known as actors and personalities more than they were known as voices, and the plots, while sometimes hokey (you become inured to “devices” like letters, lockets, miniature portraits, and fans), were assessed for the cleverness with which they deployed their usual tricks. It’s rather like watching an episode of Law & Order.

Today, many seem to have concluded that while operetta’s music retains charm these plots and dialogue are dated and not fit for the acoustic of a large opera house like the Met. Gelb describes dialogue in the link above as “the less, the better.” But this is not easy to do because there’s no way to cut operetta dialogue down to nothing without completely mucking up the plot and characterization. I can understand the criticism: these librettos not great literature. Middlebrow culture doesn’t necessarily age well! We aren’t going to Sardou plays anymore either and I’d be surprised if people are watching Law & Order in 2100 (unless it’s still running, which is possible). But if your production plows through poorly directed and brutally cut operetta dialogue just in a rush to get to the next song the effect is leaden, off-balance, and irritating for everyone. You need the right performers to approach it with enthusiasm and wit. I have seen clever productions where things work and are charming or ironic or otherwise effective. This Widow is not one of them.

This pre-production preview photo seems to be
false advertising, aesthetically speaking

The Met, being the Met, has put Jeremy Sams on the case. As we know from previous Sams translations/adaptations/contrivances like The Enchanted Island and Fledermaus, this writer seems to be paid by the syllable, or possibly by the simile. He packs too many complex words into each line (even compared to the original, which is, remember, in German), slowing the tempos to a crawl.  He likes lines which have “sycophantic” and “romantic” as internal rhymes and also likes rhymes that are slanted at best. He has a penchant for alliteration which makes me morbidly curious as to what would happen if he were to be set loose on Götterdämmerung. He has little control over register, veering from modern colloquialisms to faux archaism to Sondheim lite at every opportunity.

Yep, that’s more like it.

He trades in misogyny, making a passage of the harmlessly confused “Wie die Weiber” septet describing a parade of ladies with different hair colors into a group of Sphinxes, children, and minxes (he also does something weird with the Vilja-Lied). He also plain mistranslates a lot. How did Danilo’s refrain of “So I can easily forget the dear Fatherland” become “Dearest Pontevedro, I do it all for you”? (By the way, I do agree that in the US this piece must be performed in English. There are, however, much better options than this translation.)

But in some ways the text isn’t the main problem, because, like in many operettas, much of the tension lies in the gulf between what is said and what is meant. Valencienne spends an entire song flirting with Camille as she sings a text about how she is a respectable wife. Here is where Stroman and the cast really have failed: there is virtually no innuendo or subtext. This production has, in the words of my friend, “less sexual tension than The Sound of Music.” The cast also, sadly, has zero comic timing. While this kind of acting does not often come easily to opera singers, one would hope that the director could have given them a hand here. The only spontaneous humor happened after a half-hour interruption mid-Act 3 due to technical problems: when the curtains opened to reveal the dancers hoisting up Valencienne (the tableau seen in the photo below), Kelli O’Hara proclaimed, “they’ve been holding me up for half an hour!”

Renée Fleming’s Widow Hanna is an unassuming type, closer to the Pontevedran farm girl than sophisticated Parisian lady. That’s a fine interpretative option, but what is missing is the part where she’s merry. She seems quite toned down and proper and over it, which isn’t much fun at all. Her top notes sound lovely, which makes me wonder why she chose a role which relies on her weaker middle register, but she was audible throughout. I have to take exception to her interpolation of “Liebe, du Himmel auf Erden” from Paganini into Act III, which is late Lehár and stylistically like sticking Desdemona’s Willow Song into the middle of Nabucco, but it did give her a chance to sing out. Living Gaston avatar Nathan Gunn seemed to me like a good choice for Danilo, but I was disappointed. He sounded blustery and lacking in the kind of gentlemanly smoothness and suavity this music demands, nor did he embrace Danilo’s vulnerable, melodramatic side.

Broadway import Kelli O’Hara as Valencienne, besides her priceless ad lib, seemed somewhat miscast. She sounded perfectly sweet, but her appeal is a sort of down-home approachability (seen in musicals like South Pacific, Carousel, and Light in the Piazza, where her characters tend to the fresh and all-American), not the soubrette flirt she was playing. I actually think she would be a better choice for Hanna, where her charm would be a good fit. As her persistent suitor Camille, Alek Shrader sounded very uncomfortable with his role’s high tessitura, and I feared for the top notes. (I highly recommend the Opernhaus Zürich’s production of this piece on DVD, where you can see a young Piotr Beczala as an excellent Camille).

The production’s greatest asset was Thomas Allen (not pictured anywhere, apparently) as Baron Zeta. Allen (Sir Thomas, I think) classes up every production in which he appears. His character’s self-delusion regarding his wife’s intentions somehow became the fulcrum of the plot because it was the strongest thing on display. It is a shame he didn’t have more to sing because he still sounds excellent. On the other hand, Carson Elrod played Njegus as a fey homophobic stereotype simultaneously obsessed with the Grisettes, which was very unfortunate. (Remember the Sams version of Orlovsky in Fledermaus? Apparently this is mandatory.)

Andrew Davis’s conducting is fine but tended towards the slow, maybe for textual intelligibility. Stroman provides a relatively rousing kolo in Act II and a cancan for the Grisettes in Act III (which is relocated from Hanna’s house to a respectable sort of Maxim’s*). But her choreographic talents are otherwise underused. Visually, the production is fairly generically glossy. Sams removes the toast to the Pontevedran Fürst in the opening, and in general we don’t get much of a sense of place or time. (I think there’s a lot of potential to do funny stuff with Pontevedro’s lack of money and great enthusiasm for folk customs and displays of patriotism–great Austro-Hungarian satire there, by the way–but they don’t go there.) The effect of Crouch’s flat drops is storybook and simple, which seems problematic for a piece which is trying hard to be sophisticated and adult.

Or maybe this one isn’t going for that, which might be part of the problem. In 1905, a lot of Die lustige Witwe’s success could be attributed to its novel blend of the cosmopolitan, the exotic, and the sentimental. Unfortunately this production doesn’t strike so many different dramatic notes; indeed, it doesn’t find many at all. A big operetta revival seems tantalizingly imminent, but there are still many challenges to getting this material onstage.

The Merry Widow runs through January and the HD broadcast is on January 17.



*Pendantic footnote: Librettist Victor Léon said that he didn’t think 1905 Viennese operetta audiences were ready to see a scandalous establishment like Maxim’s on the stage of the respectable Theater an der Wien. Yet audiences who themselves would not step foot into such a club nor even see its replica in a bourgeois theater could nonetheless thrill to the sight of the Grisettes when the dancers were brought out of their customary habitat. This prohibition seems to have reflected local conservatism; directors of very early productions in Paris and London set Act III in Maxim’s itself.

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met except preview photo, which is copyright Brigitte Lacombe.

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Are you not honest, Otello?

When the subject of opera and blackface comes up among non-opera fanatics, I end up mumbling something wishy-washy about people of color being woefully underrepresented among classical singers, about Otello being a major role that dramatic tenors want to sing, about Moors not being sub-Saharan Africans. Then I feel terrible, because that’s a superficial answer to a complex, important question.

But have no fear, this Met revival exists in that alternate operatic universe where these things don’t matter. (Not uncommon. Last season only the chance casting of an Asian Pinkerton and a white Cio-Cio-San let any reality into Butterfly.) It deploys the semiotics of operatic drama—the singers waving their arms and stepping downstage, or fainting; the chorus looking collectively shocked; the stage elevator doing its thing—while hardly ever creating the resonance that makes actual theater. It’s a simulacrum that’s less convincing than Iago’s case for Desdemona being the Sluttiest Slut of Cyprus.

Verdi, Otello. Met Opera, 10/13/2012. Production by Elijah Moshinsky (revival), conducted by Semyon Bychkov with Avgust Amonov (Otello), Renée Fleming (Desdemona), Falk Struckmann (Jago), Michael Fabiano (Cassio), Renée Tatum (Emilia)

To be fair, Otello is a difficult opera to pull off. Verdi’s late masterwork is a mighty but chilly affair, its slippery score containing few big tunes and rarely letting us inside the heads of its characters. The thing moves vertiginously fast, with little exposition or time for introductions, and we spend a disconcertingly large amount of time with the chorus. So a production has to establish some perspective on the characters very quickly, and find a dramatic function for that chorus.

Elijah Moshinsky’s cluttered Met production does just about the opposite. It stages the thing as a grand opera full of spectacle and effects, filling the stage with large sets and characters that lack any kind of dramatic focus. There’s a large amount of very lame and very purposeless dancing, seemingly just to take up space with the signifiers of spectacle. The principals parked and barked, and sometimes walked over somewhere else and barked some more. The block-like approach, heavy fabrics and relentless ornamentation proclaim the opera’s status as a luxury product, and are so unknowingly at odds with this lean, mean work that you wonder if the designers thought they were actually staging a Meyerbeer opera.

I don’t doubt that Semyon Bychkov has something to say about this score: there’s interest in the pulsing rhythms of the accompaniments, in the monumentality of some of the larger bits. But much of this was lost in a kind of scrupulous slow motion that sounded like a practice tempo, where you are trying hard to get everything just right. The orchestra was, for the most part, very good, and coordination was OK too, but it completely lacked the edge-of-your-seat quality that is absolutely essential in this opera.

Johan Botha was sick and our Alternotello was Russian Avgust Amonov. (These photos show Botha.) Einspringer in this role are usually bad news because most of the good singers in this sparsely populated fach are out singing, not understudying. Amonov began with a gargled “Esultate!” sounding like one of those Chinese houses that has a decorative third story. The program said tenor, but there aren’t any stairs going up to the top floor. Things improved gradually, and he found some of his upper register, if not all of it. He’s got a substantial voice but its thick, leathery quality is not attractive, and there was precious little music in this singing, nor was there any real character onstage. His intonation was often flat. I guess he’s more mobile than Botha, though maybe not that much more expressive. For a sub, could have been worse. I in fact have seen worse—imagine an Otello where both your Otello and Desdemona are sick, and not only are the replacements vocally dire but they also have no idea how to find their way around a very complex Regietheater production that involves inflatable beach toys and dozens of handkerchiefs falling from the flies—but this was not good, and was also less entertaining than that one.

I am on the record as a fan of Renée Fleming’s Desdemona, but I found this outing overall less successful than her Parisian effort. The kitsch quality of the production left her, often an emotionally unengaged performer, under glass until the Willow Song. That, and the Ave Maria that followed, were the highlight of the evening. Fleming’s voice still has a beautiful burnished quality and flexibility, and she sang this with a straightforward expressivity that made it some of the only real honest music of the whole thing. Elsewhere she tended to be drowned out. She again did the thing where her death throes included pulling her nightie over her knees so she would not be lying on the bed bare-legged for the rest of the opera. Modest, and relatively smoothly executed, yet still distracting.

The only performer who consistently made drama of the music was Falk Struckmann. This was more or less the Bayreuth Bark Jago, I don’t think legato is exactly an option for his tough, dark baritone. But he actually seemed to be consistently expressing something, even if that was fairly generic oily villainy, it made everyone else look a little lazy. I’m not sure what was up with his repeated fencing pose, but it gave him some visual profile.

The supporting cast was fine. Michael Fabiano’s bright tenor again showed promise as Cassio, though I similarly found him to have more personality in Paris. I wonder when we will be seeing him in bigger roles? To be honest, personality-wise he would have been a far better fit for the opening night’s Elisir production that Polenzani, though he is a less mature singer. On the other hand, it’s weird to see James Morris in such a small role as Lodovico, however considering his current vocal estate we may not want to wish for more. Renée Tatum was a finely sung, alert Emilia, and avoided doing that thing where the ladies-in-waiting always clasp their hands horizontally and for that we thank you, Renée Tatum.

But mostly this performance never met an operatic cliché it didn’t unthinkingly adopt, resulting something closer to mass ritualized enactment than living art. Three performances remain this fall; I wouldn’t call this a must-see, particularly with Amonov. Perhaps wait for the spring run, conducted by up-and-comer Alain Altinoglu (with whom I’ve had mixed experiences, but he seems to be going places) and the marvelous Krassimira Stoyanova as Desdemona.

P.S. Sorry about the sporadic blogging, I have been busy at work and have had the dismaying feeling that I have not actually missed very much!

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met.

You can see a video of Renée Fleming singing the “Ave Maria” here.

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Otello at the Opéra Bastille

I’m in Paris! And I went to Otello at the Opéra Bastille with Renée Fleming and Aleksandrs Antonenko, and I wrote about it for Bachtrack. You can read it here! Surprise: La Fleming was great. Not a surprise: Marco Armiliato was boring.

One thing I didn’t mention in the review: while doing her death throes, Fleming slid off the bed and her nightgown began to head north. She managed to push it down in a relatively natural-looking way before we saw her knees. That’s some stage experience.

This was my first visit to the modern and giant Opéra Bastille, and I kind of hated it. It’s an airport with good acoustics, astonishingly cavernous and soulless. I was expecting something like the Deutsche Oper Berlin but bigger, but it is so much worse. But once the opera starts you stop noticing, and the sight lines and acoustics are excellent. And the seats are very comfortable.

The same can not be said of the Théatre des Champs-Elysées, where I saw Idomeneo last night. It is a pretty theater with, from where I was sitting, bad sight lines and problematic acoustics. More on that in a bit. The Idomeneo, not the sight lines and the acoustics, that is.

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Armida: I loved a sorceress and all I got were these lousy poppies

Rossini, Armida.  Metropolitan Opera, 4/12/2010.  New production premiere directed by Mary Zimmerman, conducted by Riccardo Frizza with Renée Fleming (Armida), Lawrence Brownlee (Rinaldo), John Osborn (Goffredo), assorted other tenors.

Sadly, in Mary Zimmerman’s new production of Rossini’s 1817 opera Armida, we have another clunker.  I know this was widely seen coming, but this production is weak sauce in so many ways.  And now for Part Two of “It’s Raining Tenors!” (See here for Part One, on Partenope.)

I should have known it was going to be trouble from the picture of Renée Fleming wearing a hot pink dress and waving a wand on the Met website.  Enchanting!  Astonishing!  Magic! was promised.  But  Armida is a Saracen sorceress who seduces and abducts upstanding and heroic Christian crusaders.  She’s Carmen in the Holy Land with magic, or Thaïs without the reform (the latter Renée should understand).  Renée Fleming in this production is a grown-up Disney princess whom her chief conquest Rinaldo would never fear to bring home to his mother.  In a nutshell, the production is fatally unsexy.

The trope of knights seduced by heathen women is more fully explored and clearly stated in Monty Python than it is here.  The knights are a random assemblage of dudes in uniform, their internal power struggles given no gravity or significance at all, Armida’s lair is populated by generically exotic women who seem nice enough.  Armida’s demons, to whom Rossini gives some quite creepy music, are just embarrassingly silly with their tails and devil ears and slinky choreography.  My companion pegged their look as straight out of Cats.  Armida is not supposed to be scary and evil because she has poor taste in mega-musicals.

Armida’s magic isn’t just literal magic, it’s a stand-in for a threatening Other of female sexuality threatening good Christian soldiers.  But this production completely ignores this in favor of sparkles.  The production has its pretty moments but is completely without bite.  Rossini’s final scene, as Rinaldo escapes Armida’s grasp, has some intense music, but it just feels tacked-on here due to the low emotional stakes.  The superfluous allegorical figures of Love and Vengeance wandering around don’t help give things any gravity, either.

You can’t accuse Zimmerman of not listening to the music.  Every change of tempo and meter is marked with a clear stage action or lighting cue.  The effect is redundant and lifeless, because even though the music moves in blocks the dramatic flow should transcend the sectional construction.  Just because the story is told in numbers doesn’t mean the numbers themselves are the story.  The stage action references the music too directly and too frequently to assume any kind of life of its own.

Every single time we have an inner monologue or ensemble in which the participants are not supposed to hear each other, the lights dim to spots telling us what is up, you know, they can’t hear each other!  It insults the intelligence of the audience as well as being boring.  The arias suffer the from some horribly static stagings (with decisive walking in the orchestral transitions).  I know this is complicated music to sing and we are dealing with lots of tenors here, but it’s dramatically just flat.  Zimmerman manages to find much more emotion and narrative in the duets, but the directing of the chorus is mostly aimless milling about on the production’s dull unit set.

Armida, with its many magical transformation scenes, seems a poor candidate for such a unit set, and we never have much of a sense of place.  (I think projections would have worked better.)  Here we have another curving wall, this time off-white rather than beige, it’s pretty enough but doesn’t add any effective atmosphere.  There is “stage magic,” meaning birds and stuff, pretty but forgettable and without dramatic purpose.  The giant spiders I was excited about, by the way?  Very disappointing.  There are lots of poppies in the last act, though soporifics are the last thing the audiences needs at this point.  (Seriously, guys, cuts.  Look into them.)

The ballet in Act 2 was somewhat entertaining, Graciela Daniele’s choreography a questionable mix of semi-ballet and cutesy hip-shaking.  The point, a central male dancer corrupted by many lady dancers, was clear enough, but the dance’s dramatic status was unclear, it was not positioned as a fantasy sequence but rather as a diegetic entertainment for Armida and Rinaldo, but it was unclear who was staging this for them or what it was supposed to mean.

Perhaps I would have been more dramatically convinced had the musical performance been more compelling.  Renée Fleming sketched most of the coloratura, skating over the little notes instead of articulating them clearly, and she just doesn’t have the kind of fearless abandon in this kind of music that makes it virtuosic rather than dutiful.  She didn’t have volume problems except on some of the low notes, and the voice itself is gorgeous. I didn’t notice too many of the lapses in taste for which she is so infamous, but she simply is miscast here.  (Based on her amazing Colbran CD, I would loved to have heard Joyce DiDonato in this role.)

Now for our many tenors.   Lawrence Brownlee was fantastic in Rinaldo’s more lyrical music, and he tossed off the coloratura with impressive ease and precision.  I like his sweet and round tone, which projects just fine, but didn’t find it quite right for this role, where I think a certain degree more heft and heroism is required.  Too soon for him?  Perhaps John Osborn, who sang Goffredo, would be better suited to Rinaldo, though his tone is less beautiful it has a ringing strength that seems appropriate.    He was excellent in the smaller role of Goffredo, though.  Joining Brownlee in the infamous tenor trio were Barry Banks and Kobie van Rensburg as two more knights, both sang well but the piece didn’t quite add up somehow.

Riccardo Frizza conducted a very clean and precise reading from the orchestra that was maybe a bit short on dramatic weight and mystery–or maybe that’s just the production.  The instrumental solos, particularly the cello and violin, were excellent.

I know that my impressions of this production are heavily colored by a different Armida that I saw last summer, or rather an Armide.  (The plot, an episode from Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, has been set not only by Rossini but also Lully, Handel, Haydn, Gluck, Salieri, Dvorak, and others.)  This was Gluck’s opera of 1787, it was at the Komische Oper Berlin in a production by Calixto Bieito (NSFW clip and interviews here repeat not really that safe for work).  I honestly find Gluck’s opera much more interesting than Rossini’s, and Bieito’s production, which positioned a determined, modern Armida in a business suit against an army of naked male prisoners, um, made an impression.  It had all the danger and violence that this one lacked, perhaps all too much danger and violence, but Armida’s powers were clearly drawn.

(I thought, since I know the Gluck I would be fine not reading about Rossini before I went.  FYI don’t do this, the plots are not the same AT ALL.)

We’re getting a revival of this Rossini next season, good lord.  Can I petition to either bring Bieito’s Gluck Armide over from Berlin (come on, it would get the Met in the news for sure! I CANNOT picture Renée Fleming going anywhere near a Bieito production but vocally the Gluck would probably suit her voice much better than the Rossini) or maybe get William Christie to bring Les Arts Florissants to do the Lully Armide instead?  I acknowledge the complete infeasibility and impossibility of this but I just want to say that you can do much better with Armida than this current specimen.

Next: Tosca, sei tu!

Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Video: NOT ROSSINI.  Lully’s Armide (1686), Les Arts Florissants

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