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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Les Arts Florissants bring Campra to BAM

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In 1697, the Comédie-Italienne almost managed to make fun of the court of Louis XIV but were forcibly disbanded for their trouble. In 1710, André Campra’s opera-ballet Les fêtes vénitiennes tried to bring the italianisme and the politics back to Paris.

Last weekend, Les Arts Florissants brought it to New York.

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I’ll tickle your catastrophe

I think it was W.C. Fields who said that sharing the stage with children and animals is a bad plan. The Met could well have listened. Their new Falstaff is nearly stolen by a placid, grass-eating horse, whose blithe equine indifference to his surroundings is a proper illustration of Falstaff’s character. The rest is, pace my Shakespearean headline, hardly catastrophic–Levine is Levine and this is one of his favorites, the hard-working cast sings pretty well, and Robert Carsen’s production is thoroughly professional–but the horse is the closest we get to the soul of wit. (I’m basically saying what Intermezzo already did. As usual, she’s right.)


Verdi, Falstaff. Met Opera, 12/6/2013. New production premiere directed by Robert Carsen, sets by Paul Steinberg, costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuehl, lights by Carsen and Peter Van Praet. Conducted by James Levine with Ambrogio Maestri (Falstaff), Angela Meade (Alice), Stephanie Blythe (Quickly), Lisette Oropesa (Nanetta), Paolo Fanale (Fenton), Franco Vassallo (Ford)

Carsen is the ultimate internationalist; he’s everywhere and can be trusted to put on a “modern,” competent show that (with the exception of his Candide) won’t, um, startle the horses. He’s certainly a director with visual trademarks: he likes the 1950s, giant beds, dramatic shadows, lots of chairs, and carefully tailored costumes. (See this and this.) Some of his productions can be very beautiful and insightful, but this unfortunately isn’t one of them. The 1950s setting makes sense: Falstaff is a fallen, anachronistic aristocrat and the Fords and Pages are new money. Each scene contains food: the tavern, a chic restaurant for the ladies (where Fenton is a waiter), a men’s club, Alice’s giant kitchen, and finally a banquet in the woods. A wooden wall looms behind most of the scenes, and it’s in general a handsome production. But for an opera already weighted down by a lot of fat jokes, it’s unclear what this culinary focus really adds. It’s kind of one-note in a tiresome way, for an opera that is anything but. (There’s something about a gastro-centric postwar setting–feast after a time of famine, etc. Look at Albert Herring. But Falstaff isn’t Hänsel und Gretel.)

Fortunately, Carsen gets the giant bed out of the way in the first scene of this one. Falstaff starts the opera in it. Exactly what that bed is doing in the middle of a tavern escapes me, which points to the production’s larger problem of tone and setting. The opera turns on a dime between slapstick, romance, and poignancy, but the production, while good-natured, isn’t so agile. There are some funny bits–most notably when Ford leads in a giant crowd of men to search and trash Alice’s kitchen–but this is a production with surprisingly little wit or wisdom, unsure of what it is about. The characters have little shape and it’s just not that funny. Even obvious joke moments like Ford and Falstaff walking through the door together and Falstaff sneaking up on Alice don’t land as clear punch lines. (There’s also some bad blocking–Nanetta keeps having to get up from her seat in the restaurant and cross behind Alice so she can see the conductor.) There’s no magic in the bare wooden walls and stage of the forest, and it’s unclear why the chorus is an army of be-antlered Falstaff doubles. It ends with lighting the house for the fugue. Raising the house lights to go “YOU TOO!” is the cheapest Brechtian shortcut a director can pull, and here it’s too little too late. It moves along, but all the Carsen tropes are dressed up without anywhere to go.

(I must note that I vastly preferred Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production, which I saw in May and unfortunately didn’t have time to write about. It’s also set in the 1950s, but is decidedly more surreal, inventive, and funnier, including things like a running joke involving a cat and a giant cabbage patch. The characters are given real personalities and the craft fair magic of the fairies is beautifully human.)

Falstaff is a James Levine signature piece and he brings a bounce and light to the music that was missing from the production (particularly in the last act). It’s quick, light, and transparent, but quiet when it needs to be. That being said, there were a few ensemble coordination issues in Act 1, particularly between the two sides of the stage (men on one side, women on the other). Things improved.

The cast is reasonably strong. Ambrogio Maestri, however, was not a particularly interesting Falstaff. He’s got the big round voice for it, and the round shape, but while musically fine it was a one-dimensional characterization, little more than a teddy bear.* He made little of the “una parola” section of the “Onore” monologue, and seemed reluctant to play the forrest scene for anything but laughs. This was definitely the first time I’ve seen Ford as the more interesting character. Franco Vassallo was genuinely funny in the Signor Fontana scene (wearing a cowboy outfit), and managed to make the final scene something of a Figaro-Count junior version. His singing was solid and warm-toned, but sometimes drowned out by the orchestra. As Fenton, Paolo Fanale had a very beautiful sound in the serenade in Act 3, but was completely drowned out in the ensembles.

As Alice Ford, Angela Meade put in a valiant effort, acting-wise, and this was by far the most animated performance I’ve seen from her. She doesn’t seem to have much in the way of comic timing–she needs to go way bigger in her reactions–but the production didn’t give her much to work with. Vocally, it’s kind of a thankless role and doesn’t show off all she can do, but she has a sweet and youthful tone and managed to punch out the staccato bits strongly. In contrast, Nanetta’s music is a gift to any light soprano, and the Met has fortunately cast Lisette Oropesa, possibly the best singer they have in this Fach. She sang “Sul fil d’un soffio etesio” with beautifully light, clear, crystalline tone, and her high notes hang in the air forever. On the low side, Stephanie Blythe as Mistress Quickly sounded like a very loud trombone. This role is her ideal Fach as well–she’s much better here than she is in higher Verdi stuff. The supporting roles were fine, with one of the tenors sounding really honking nasal loud in the fugue (I think it was Keith Jameson as Bardolfo, who was pretty loud the whole way through).

This production is an import from the ROH Covent Garden. This is the third new production this season and all three have been imported from London–Onegin and Two Boys both came from the English National Opera. This seems like a bit much. Why can’t the Met develop its own aesthetic rather than import another city’s wholesale? That being said, apparently Des McAnuff was originally slated to direct a new Falstaff, and this one was swapped after his disastrous Faust (which was itself an import form, yep, London). So I guess we dodged a bullet here.

See you at Feuersnot next week. I’ll add more photos to this post when I can find them, you can see photos of the London cast over at Intermezzo.

*[Insert Harold Bloom critique of Merry Wives here.] Someday I’m going to direct a production of Falstaff that is set in an academic department, with Falstaff as a Bloom-like figure, Alice a clever full professor, Nanetta as a grad student, and Mistress Quickly the stalwart department coordinator.

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Dialogues des Carmélites, nun too easy

Vienna is currently awash in Easter-tangential operas. I’m going to Faust and Parsifal this weekend. But first: Poulenc’s Dialogues des carmélites is probably the most appropriate of the lot for the meaning of Easter as I understand it. The Theater an der Wien’s production is very worth seeing, though more for dramatic than musical reasons.

Sorry, I mean you can read my review of this production here at Bachtrack.

But I have a few more things to say here. Namely, how this is a great and moving opera, so I wrote about it as such. Most operas would kill to have one scene as theatrically effective as the Old Prioress’s death at the end of Act 1 and the final scene of the opera, and Dialogues has them both. And the characterization really is wonderful. I found this performance uninspiring musically, largely due to Bertrand de Billy’s functional conducting. But the Personenregie here is great. It’s also that rare Robert Carsen production that features neither a giant bed nor a herd of straight-backed chairs.

You can feel the but coming, and here it is. I have serious, irreconcilable problems with this piece. I don’t think dying for religious faith is at all a noble or admirable act. I’m not a religious person but I can even less see myself believing in any god who would demand that of adherents. Much of what makes Dialogues and made this performance of it in particular so good is the very human sense of self-doubt and uncertainty the nuns feel. They aren’t perfect saints. But ultimately they are heroines because they sign up for martyrdom, and that is the message of the piece. It’s a much stronger message than those of less serious or single-minded operas, and it feels correspondingly harder for me to ignore despite the work’s obvious strengths. It’s far too persuasive musically and dramatically for me to not be moved while I’m seeing it, but I feel deeply ambivalent about it in the end.

You know what I’m going to say next, which is that Regietheater has another answer. Yes, and I want to go there. Dmitri Tcherniakov’s fascinating-sounding Munich production of this opera has recently been released on DVD. You can read about this production on Opera Cake. I hope to watch it soon and will write about it if I have something to say.

Another (presumably) Regie Dialogues will be premiering this summer at the Komische Oper Berlin, directed by Calixto Bieito. This is an interesting prospect. If all goes as planned I will see it in July.

Here is the end of Act 1 in the Carsen production that I wrote about (in the La Scala video, different cast):

Here is the trailer for Tcherniakov’s production:

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Semele: Cecilia Bartoli we shall adore

Staging an oratorio like Semele is itself a questionable endeavor.  The music is wonderful, but dramatically it does more telling than showing and there are many static stretches.  Except for a few moments of wit and visual beauty, Robert Carsen’s elegantly restrained production is nothing more or less than unobtrusive.  However, tearing through all that dull dignity is Cecilia Bartoli, an irresistible one-woman hurricane of something or other.  Oh, and William Christie!

Handel-Congreve, Semele.  Theater an der Wien, September 17, 2010.   Les Arts Florissants conducted by William Christie with Cecilia Bartoli (Semele), Charles Workman (Jupiter/Apollo), Birgit Remmert (Juno), Malena Ernman (Ino), David Pittsinger (Cadmus/Somnus), Arnold Schoenberg Chor.  Production by Robert Carsen, choreography and staging by Elaine Tyler-Hall.

Yes, this evening was very much the Cecilia Bartoli Show.  Stage appearances by the rumored new Salzburg Whitsun intendant are rare, and she is extremely popular in Vienna.  Despite the fine playing of Les Arts Florissants and some excellent performances from the rest of the cast, the audience and production’s attention was pretty much in one place.

Carsen’s minimalist production (originally created in Zürich and staged here by Elaine Tayler-Hall) is fairly strong in the Personenregie and does a good job of telling the story and developing the characters in a straightforward way without ever coming up with anything particularly interesting.  The look is generically classy mid-century British.  The spare settings amount to virtual visual quotations if you’ve seen a lot of Carsen.*  I wish that Carsen’s impeccably coiffed and gowned ladies and tuxedoed or khaki-suited men would find clothes with a little more individual flair, but it looks pretty without getting in the way, which in this case is the salient point.

Getting in the way of Cecilia Bartoli, that is, who is anything but generic.  She brings a kind of personal energy and charm that is hard to describe but bulldozes over most of the dullness in her path.  Her voice is small and seemingly takes a while to warm up, however she was always perfectly audible and sings with a palpable joy that I think you have to be a true grump not to appreciate.  She bubbles through all sorts of ornamentation with glee, she floats through slower stuff, and can even suggest, in “Endless pleasure,” endless smugness, in voice alone. 

I know Bartoli has many detractors, but I found the usual complaints inapplicable.  Aspirated coloratura?  Slightly, but we’re not talking Deutekom here.  Unsupported tone and obtrusive breaths?  Nope.  Her “Myself I shall adore” was taken slowly, which made me suspect that we were going to get some really crazy shit in the da capo.  Indeed we did, and in the da capo she stumbled and did a full face-plant onto the stage.  Then there was an audible gasp–I’m not sure if it was her or costar Remmert–and she got right up and started singing again, having missed only about a bar of music.  Brava.

Also, “Myself I shall adore”? “Endless pleasure”? “You’ve undone me”?  Does any opera (er, oratorio) have more suggestive aria incipits?

Charles Workman sang beautifully as Jupiter with a smallish but well-projected and refined lyric tenor.  Neither Malena Ernman as Ino nor Birgit Remmert as Ino and Juno are contralto boomers and both seemed slightly miscast vocally, though Ernman had some impressive very low notes and Remmert indeed boomed in a few Wagnerian mezzo upper-register bits.  Yes, that Malena Ernman.  The tessiatura, though, seemed off for both of them.  But Ernman acted her somewhat thankless role with striking emotional poignancy and Remmert, dressed as Elizabeth II look-alike and given the most comic business in the cast (along with Kerstin Erkman as Iris), showed fine comic timing.

The production has some lovely visuals: Sommus (sung with authority by Met regular David Pittsinger, who also sang Cadmus) rising from an evenly spaced sea of sleepers, Juno surrounded by a majestic cape, the stiff but beautifully coordinated choral masses (who occasionally, to indicate amorous moments, break up their statuesque observation to start making out with each other, could have done without that).  It also has a few funny ones, best of all the staging of “Iris, hence, away,” with formidable Juno finally proffering a British Airways ticket.  The Arnold Schoenberg Choir sounded excellent but I couldn’t understand a damn word they were saying.  The principals’ English diction was excellent.

William Christie and Les Arts Florissants sounded fantastic, as usual, and the quiet moments of the score had intimacy and delicacy that would have been impossible in a larger theater, though a few experiments in really quiet singing barely made it up to me in the third ring.  A few tempos in interludes seemed almost gratuitously fast, but the orchestral virtuosity is as thrilling as all the vocal doodads found elsewhere, and since this isn’t a piece with a ton for the orchestra to do it was nice to hear a group this good get to show off what it can do, if briefly.

Not exactly your average opera, but a great night out.  This production is available on DVD in its Zürich iteration with some of the same cast.

All photos copyright Armin Bardel (from the Theater an der Wien’s excellent press site)

Video of this production, “Myself I shall adore”

*Dude has an aesthetic, at least.  Though Cavaradossi’s painting is nowhere to be seen, the opening church looks a lot like his Tosca, and the giant diagonally placed bed with billowing sheets… well, that’s a general kind of setting, but it’s exactly the same as his Poppea.  Something was also ringing bells from his Capriccio, but it’s been too long since I’ve seen that one to remember exactly what.

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Poppea DVD from Glyndebourne: A Rome too dull to burn

Monteverdi, L’incoronazione di Poppea.  DVD, Decca.  Glyndebourne Festival 2008, conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm, production by Robert Carsen.  With Danielle DeNiese (Poppea), Alice Coote (Nerone), Iestyn Davies (Ottone), Tamara Mumford (Ottavia), Paolo Battaglia (Seneca) and Marie Arnet (Drusilla)

This DVD of L’incoronazione di Poppea, taken from the 2008 Glyndebourne Festival, pointedly opens with scenes of the monied classes engaging in the legendary ritual of the Glyndebourne picnic over the credits.  Then, in the prologue, glittery evening-gowned Fortuna proceeds to squabble with nun Virtù over a seat in the first row.  Subtle it ain’t.  This depraved world of Poppea and Nerone, it’s yours.  Good evening, privileged assholes!

Eh, except not really.  Maybe director Robert Carsen didn’t want to give the impression of biting the hand that is feeding him, because what follows is not debauched but classy, somber, elegant and sexy in an oh-so-tasteful way.  Never has Nero’s amoral Rome been so beautifully boring.
The action takes place in front of a plain red curtain, and billows of red cloth periodically flood the stage.  They are frequently joined by the allegorical figure of Love from the prologue (can we PLEASE declare a moratorium on omnipresent Love figures NOW?  they are always cutesy and never help us understand anything).  But this isn’t an opera solely about love: it’s about the deadly nexus of love and politics, it’s about power run amok, it’s about the costs of moral victory and of revenge.  Carsen’s lack of interest in the larger moral and social world of Rome, his reduction of the plot to a domestic drama, makes this a much less interesting, and much less funny, opera than it can be.  Poppea and Nero’s relationship is sexy enough, but it has no context.

The key figure in this is the most confusing one: Seneca, arguably the only moral character in the whole opera.  Is the old philosopher a compass or a charlatan, an outdated relic or a brave voice of reason?  Here he is an absent-minded professor of unclear authority or importance, his world an empty (love-red cloth bereft) stage littered with books, a dramatic blank, and is greeted by a general shrug by everyone.  His death–the dramatic turning point of the opera when everything starts really going to hell–is visually striking but emotionally empty.  Similarly, Ottavia storms mightily but her proximity to the bed Poppea and Nerone just vacated identifies her as a spurned wife, not a deposed empress.   Servants run around carrying clothes in nearly every scene, Drusilla carries the dress she will give to Ottone at her first appearance, but I have no idea what this is supposed to mean, because power is a real commodity here, not a matter of external appearances.

Non morir, Seneca… actually none of us really care if you die or not.

The general aesthetic of generic mid-century propriety, while pretty, seems like an odd choice in itself.  Nerone rules a world of inebriated excess and uninhibited id, not such austerely tailored precision.  This tidiness is telling, as Carsen seems happier to ignore the opera’s stranger ambiguities than confront them.  Nerone and Poppea’s relationship is pure sweet love, the violence in Nero’s personality segregated to other people and Poppea lacking in any ulterior motives.  This is a production that goes to the trouble to costume a tenor Nutrice as a Margaret Thatcher look-alike and then for much of the opera fail to see that there is comic potential in this.  Even Drusilla’s propensity to burst into “Felice cor mio” at inappropriate moments, an obvious joke if there ever was one, isn’t played for the laughs.  By making everyone noble, Carsen robs them of their humanity.

Love, Seneca, maid, Nutrice, Ottavia

It is in the Nerone-Lucano scene, a homoerotic non-sequitur whose weirdness is of an extremity that is impossible to paper over, that Carsen takes one of his only risks and manages to come up with something interesting.  It starts as a deranged bachelor party, and eventually ends up with torture and death by drowning in a bathtub.  It’s disturbing, I’m not really sure what to make of it, but it’s definitely Nero and it’s right for this opera.  Unfortunately it’s the only scene I can say that of.

I remember why I left you for Poppea, Drusilla.  You’re too damn prim.

Except for that pesky lack of vision, there is much to enjoy.  The acting is strong and detailed, the singing is generally idiomatic and good.  Danielle DeNiese’s Monteverdi stylings have occasionally been touched by the goddess Céline Dion, and her voice sits too high for this almost-mezzo role.  While her Poppea is a somewhat one-dimensional saucy flirt, without many secondary characteristics such as self-doubt or ambition, she makes up for her lack of musical and dramatic subtlety with her considerable charisma.  Much better is Alice Coote’s impulsive and psychopathic Nero, the definite highlight of the performance, whose rage unfortunately never seems to interact with other characters.  Tamara Mumford (who I have seen excel in many smaller roles at the Met) is an impressive Ottavia who the production similarly never allows full, well, reign.  Iestyn Davis a vocally fabulous and typically wimpy Ottone, and Paolo Battaglia as Seneca sings fine but is dramatically completely unmemorable.

I have no idea how the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment follows Emmanuelle Haïm’s vague hand-waving, but it does the trick for this most glorious of opera scores.  The mix of lutes, theorbos, and harpsichord in the continuo is well-judged and colorful.  Tempos tend towards the slow but not excessively so.  The orchestra is augmented with recorders and cornettos but is still small.  Unlike many Poppeas I have no issue with cuts or with deployment of roles–mezzo Nero and countertenor Ottone is my preferred arrangement,* and there are very few cuts–so it is a shame that the production falls so short, as this is an ideal DVD is many other ways.

Poppea is like Don Giovanni: so much going on that it’s hard to find one where everything is right, and the safe ones are the most boring of all.

Trailer:

*This is often a key issue.  I generally don’t like countertenor Neros, it’s meaty part that sounds better with the meaty voice of a mezzo, more “manly” than any actual man (now there’s some gender trouble!).

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