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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French Revolution defeats Roberto Alagna

I went to see Andrea Chénier at the Opera Orchestra of New York and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

Yesterday I went to see a convoluted
story about French revolutionaries, as belted out at top volume to
serviceable but hardly creative ballads. No, I didn’t go to the Les misérables movie. I went to see Roberto Alagna in Opera Orchestra of New York’s concert presentation of Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier.

Read the rest here. This was bad, people. Roberto Alagna had barely learned the music, had no conception of the role, and seemed not quite present all afternoon. Alberto Veronesi is not a master conductor and didn’t offer anything to make up for this deficit, nor was he probably the ideal choice to lead someone unsure through this rhythmically tricky music for the first time. Kristin Lewis had some issues and this role was a little more than her voice can handle right now, volume-wise–at least with Veronesi’s insensitive conducting, in the unfriendly surroundings of Avery Fisher–but the sound is interesting, and I would like to give her another chance under happier circumstances. George Petean was the real pro here, and turned in a thoroughly decent performance, though not as scene-stealing as Rosalind Elias.

But a sad spectacle. I like Alagna (sometimes, it seems, inexplicably), the guy still has an attractive voice and considerable charm, but this was embarrassing for everyone. Maybe it’s personal issues, maybe he just didn’t take this gig seriously, but I hope this is just a temporary slip.

Photo copyright Stephanie Berger.

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When you needa Aida

“He’s alive!” “You’re toast.”

Nearly every year the Met schedule contains innumerable performances of Aida. This being a difficult-to-cast opera that sells without big names, the singing is often not that great (Latonia Moore’s Aida last season was an excellent exception, though I heard her only on the radio). This year the Egyptology made the HD broadcast schedule, and for two performances in the run–the broadcast and the one before it–the cast aligned into Liudmyla Monastyrska, Roberto Alagna, and Olga Borodina, what you could possibly call an all-star Aida. Unfortunately it ended up being a little too cautious to be exciting.

Verdi, Aida. Metropolitan Opera, 12/12/12. Production by Sonja Frisell, conducted by Fabio Luisi with Liudmyla Monastyrska (Aida), Roberto Alagna (Radames), Olga Borodina (Amneris), George Gagnidze (Amonasro), Stefan Kocan (Ramfis).

I went to see this last Wednesday (sorry not to write earlier… shit happens), but the HD cameras were already everywhere (they record the performance before as a backup). This was, overall, a strangely bloodless and small-scale performance, and I seriously think the singers were playing to the scale of the movie screen’s close-ups, not the big theater. From my spot in the orchestra standing room during Act 1, the acting was strangely muted and blank. OK, so this is often a park and bark opera, but lots of important and dramatic plot happens and the visuals of the production are so Cleopatra (the Liz Taylor one) that you hope for some big melodramatic acting too. Then a gentleman who was not feeling well left at the first intermission and gave me his seat in row H center, which is ridiculously close to the action, and while I could see many more details in the acting and in some ways appreciated its subtlety, I still found it underplayed. (The sound is a lot better there than in standing room, too.)

Of course another factor was Mr. Smooth, Fabio Luisi, on the podium. On the one hand, he doesn’t go for cheesy bombast and always keeps things moving swiftly. On the other an Aida that sounds more like Mozart is, outside a few of the more ethereal moments, not very exciting. This was, as always, professionally done, with Monastyrska particularly tuned in to his work. (Some of the other singers, not so much, which I will get to shortly.) The orchestra was fine, as was the chorus, but it was all a little too held back to be fully involving.

Soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska has risen to the big leagues almost overnight and it’s easy to tell why. She’s got the killer combination of tremendous volume, solid technique, and decent musicality, and made real music out of a part that is often struggled through. The voice is more notable for its volume than its beauty, but she varies the color more than many in her fach. What she lacks, so far, is a personality as big as her voice, and a sense that she is making the role her own. Still, she was rock-solid, untiring, and the favorite note of Aida-fanciers, the high C in “O patria mia,” was impeccable.

This was Roberto Alagna’s first Radamès of this run, though he has sung it at the Met before. Some lack of security was evident between him and Luisi.  I was glad that his voice was more controlled than the last time I heard him, and while the tone is duller than in years past he is still a solid singer. But Radamès is not a happy role for him, and he has to undersing and strategize to get through the evening. I am belatedly convinced that the loggionisti in Milan were correct, even if they were not very polite. He didn’t give that notorious “Celeste Aida” ending a shot, instead singing a lower variation (preceding it with some unwelcome falsetto), and he was also strangely restrained in the acting department, his usual exuberance tamed. We can be thankful for small favors–he seems to have lightened up on the bronzer since I last saw him in this, and also covered up his chest this time. (The Met should be ashamed of the audible Velcro on that armor, though. Audible Velcro is the Scourge of Opera.)

Olga Borodina got a fair amount of grief for this Amneris from other audience members, and I agree that like Alagna she is past her strongest years. The high notes are perilous and the high Bs in the Judgement Scene were cut off abruptly. But I found a great deal to enjoy in her singing; the rest of her voice has incredible depth and richness. And she was more engaged and animated than some of her colleagues. Finally, bug-eyed baritone George Gagnidze provided his usual reliable villainous snarling. The guy is not exactly a star–there’s not a lot of vocal glamor there–but damn if he doesn’t always get the job done in fine style. Supporting roles were on the underpowered side.

The production, well, on the bright side, I’m glad they’re now using way less blackface than they did on this old video of it. And Alexei Ratmansky’s dances, an addition from a season or two ago, are a good cut above average (though the execution left something to be desired). But overall the thing looks like a costume party in the Met Museum where everyone is doing the Ancient Egyptian equivalent of Civil War reenactment. It’s too familiar and clichéd to be more than mundane, and not over the top enough to be fun. Time for a new production here, I think. Should the budget not allow, I have an idea. Inclined to agree with Edward Said that this opera represents the authority of Europe’s vision of Egypt of the 1860s, I suggest finding a Verdi lookalike, putting a pith helmet on his head, give him a sheaf of manuscript paper and a shovel and set him loose on this production. For once it would kind of make sense.

Photo copyright Met (no name attached).

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Manon: Don’t put your hand there

I probably should have known better than to go to this typical Staatsoper revival with Roberto Alagna and Norah Amsellem, but I did anyway. Allow me to advise you of its content before you let this happen to you. Andrei Serban’s production seems rather interesting, but what is onstage is more an impression of a production than a production. Musically things were plausibly French, but they were not plausibly very good.

Massenet, Manon. Wiener Staatsoper, 5/16/2011. Production by Andrei Serban (revival), conducted by Jesús López-Cobos with Norah Amsellem (Manon), Roberto Alagna (Des Grieux), Tae Joong Yang (Lescaut).

Andrei Serban’s production is set in the 1930’s Paris, with frequent references to film (hanging posters) and some surreal touches. In what could be unprecedented Staatsoper cost-cutting and time-saving, the chorus mostly sings from the pit and some of the supernumeraries are cardboard cutouts of various film celebrities, but they’re a part of Manon’s world of artifice and isolation (oh, the ever-popular “modernist alienation” card). Act 1 takes place in a train station, Act 4 takes place in a Moulin Rouge-type place with a claustrophobic mirror reflecting gambling tables, and Act 5, where the hopes of glitz promised by the movies has vanished we get a bare stage with some vaguely relevant projections of the simple truths of grass and water. (The projections during the set changes include one night scene with disconcertingly modern cars in it.)

With the right Personenregie and casting to go with this atmosphere, I could see it working pretty well, but it didn’t come together this evening. The Manon/Des Grieux scenes are intended to be intimate while the bigger ones are more stylized and choreographed, but both were messily executed. I got the impression that bits like the Act 2 guardsmen were actually originally witty, but only a few hints of this remained. (They had around four or five days of rehearsal for this, we have documented proof.) Also, it is except for the movie posters monochromatic, but apparently all Staatsoper productions are like this. Some atmospheric melodramatic old movie-style acting was still had from Roberto Alagna (who sang in the premiere of this production a few years ago), but for the most part it was generic.

The biggest problem was Norah Amsellem’s Manon. The production is designed for a Manon with a confident, modern sexuality (who could this have been? hint: she suffered a wardrobe malfunction in front of the German press earlier this week) but prim and thoroughly unglamorous Amsellem doesn’t seem the type to leave a half-full wine glass next to her bed, or to stumble around in Act 5 in a full-length beaded evening gown. She went through the motions, but something was missing; a more conventional romantic interpretation may have worked better for her. Manon is a problematic character who is pretty much going to annoy me no matter what, but this didn’t seem to be a way of solving the problem. Amsellem’s singing was stylistically strong but her thin, quavery tone is not easy on the ears, her coloratura is poor, and she held the high notes in the Cours la reine for a lot longer than I wanted her to.

Roberto Alagna gave a strongly acted performance as a convincingly youthful Des Grieux (Alagna is going to be working the “youthfully impetuous” thing straight up to retirement, I think). Sometimes he slipped into tenorial schtick, most grievously in “Ah, fuyez, douce image,” but mostly was the most engaging element of the performance. Vocally he was uneven as well, at best strong and passionate and confident. Unfortunately he lost the orchestra in several places in “Ah, fuyez,” and tried to float “En fermant les yeux” but it didn’t work very well, with a tenuous sound aspirating up to the G natural, and the final high A sung in falsetto. Both singers did best with the St.-Sulpice scene, calling for the most full-throated singing. (This is actually the first time I have seen this opera live. I’m not sure how I know the score as well as I do. Huh.)

After I gave them credit for being good just recently, the orchestra was at its worst and turned in a very sloppy and unbalanced performance. Jesús López-Cobos’s conducting lacked flexibility and rhythmic life, as well as those coordination issues. The supporting cast was OK but uninspired. Extra credit, however, for Caroline Wenborne as Javotte’s delightful little dance break at the very end of Act 3 Scene 1.

Several performances remain. Also, if you are interested in the production, much of it is on YouTube with Alagna and Netrebko (it was broadcast on TV, but is not available on DVD). Here’s a bit:

Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper

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Faust and the ukulele of Satan

Opera can be a rather silly art form, but I’m usually good at suspending disbelief. I wrote an earnest review of a Turandot about insects, you know. But I find Gounod’s sappy Faust to be difficult to take seriously in the best of circumstances. At some point a few minutes into last night’s revival of the Wiener Staatsoper’s so-called “production,” after Roberto Alagna had trundled around for a while wearing a bad Halloween old person mask, after Erwin Schrott un-Velcroed part of a curtain with a resounding pshhhhht to reveal himself in scowling demonic form, which apparently means looking like a shirtless member of Green Day circa 1993, while I was watching a distracted bass player in the orchestra dreamily sway along with the music, my companion nudged me to look at the translated titles:

[Roberto Alagna:] Give it to me now.
[Erwin Schrott:] So now you want it!

And I gave up. Musically it was fine and not too memorable, but dramatically this performance occasionally achieved a level of campiness that wasn’t the awkward and trying-too-hard kind you often get from opera, but rather rare, transcendent, La Puma ridiculousness. Excuse me, but I was unable to take any of it remotely seriously. I’m in the midst of my Easter marathon, between Dialogues des carmélites and Parsifal, cut me some slack here. I had a great time, but maybe not in the way that I was supposed to.

Gounod, Faust. Wiener Staatsoper, 4/23/2011. Production after an idea by Nicolas Joël and Stéphane Roche, conducted by Alain Altinoglu with Roberto Alagna (Faust), Erwin Schrott (Méphistophélès), Alexandra Reinprecht (Marguerite), Adrian Eröd (Valentin), Sophie Marilley (Siébel).

The Staatsoper’s Faust was in its 17th performance since its 2008 premiere. It is unquestionably a disaster. No director’s name appears on it, it is “after an idea by Nicolas Joël and Stéphane Roche.” What idea that would be escapes me. The deal was that partway through the production process original director Joël had a stroke, the set designer died, and what constituted the production went onstage anyway. This means crowds of dimly lit people dressed in gray period costumes standing still in front of a group of rotating translucent walls, a few trees, a bench and some barrels. Méphistophélès’s party is some red light. The hulking pipe organ in the church scene perhaps ate up a good deal of the budget, but to little effect. This is the kind of production where the lights compliantly brighten on the line “O nuit d’amour, ciel radieux.” If you think Gounod’s opera already has something of a problem with dramatic stature, this dinky, empty staging doesn’t help. The text is complete with the exception of no ballet.

I maintain an inexplicable affection for wobbly ham Roberto Alagna, and was happy to see his Faust. The voice is past its best, with a nasal, raw quality and a restricted dynamic range of mezzo forte and forte, not suited to the delicacy of this music. He does have a high C, though it is not that pretty nor is it piano. But he knows the style, is quite musical, and sometimes can get it together for some excellent phrases. Vocally this was good if not overpowering. He also offered a cartwheel at the end of Act I (!). Acting-wise his Faust was disappointingly generic and low-key. Alagna tends to play everything with boyish charm, which doesn’t help this production raise the stakes, particularly because he was oddly lacking in intensity. He premiered this production (with Angela!), but in this case I doubt that made a difference, rehearsal-wise. In a better production, he probably would have done more for me.

Single-handedly attempting to spice things up was Erwin Schrott’s Mephistophélès. Vocally he did nothing to disgrace himself, sounding solid, loud enough, and moderately dark but smooth of tone. I could not understand his French well. But mostly he offered theatrical entertainment as a very fey devil, prone to moonwalking and doing the Robot. The production inexplicably equips him with a bright red fan (maybe that was Joël’s idea?), which Schrott used for such highlights as feeling up Marthe’s boobs while fanning himself to the orchestra’s tremolos (though it must be added that there was a lot of one-sided Mephistophélès/Faust homoeroticism going on here as well). For serenading Margeurite, he swapped the fan out for a ukulele, strumming and cackling manically. It was a self-conscious performance, and more or less the same performance Schrott always gives, but I somehow don’t think he intended it to be quite as hilariously ridiculous as I found it. I may have set a record for suppressed inappropriate giggling during this evening.

Yes, that’s Angela in the prima, as a blonde.

I mean, anything to keep you interested in something like this, right? Alexandra Reinprecht’s Marguerite was a respectable effort with some nice piano singing, her tone wavering between shimmery and unfocussed and shrill. Adrian Eröd’s Valentin also lacked tonal allure and legato despite musical refinement. Sophie Marilley’s slightly grainy Siébel was pretty good. Alain Altinoglu’s conducting was also good, not too sweet or overly dramatic and well-paced. But honestly, despite a good amount of talent I found myself mostly there for the LOLs, of which there were an alarming quantity.

It can’t be Parsifal every night–though it is in fact Parsifal tonight for me. One performance of Faust remains, on Tuesday.

Photos copyright Wiener Staatsoper

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