Don’t Ash, Don’t Tell

You will only see select parts of this from the Family Circle.

All I wanted was to see a production of Guillaume Tell which didn’t become a major news event. But I went yesterday, and the performance ended without Act IV but with me giving interviews to both the Times and the AP.

The interruption and eventual cancellation was caused by, it turns out, an audience member scattering a late friend’s ashes into the orchestra pit. It was, obviously, utterly bizarre and ill-advised. You have to be a complete idiot not to realize that this was going to end with a counter-terrorism unit surrounding the besmirched timpani and an awful lot of your fellow opera fans justifiably angered by your idiocy. But opera fans often pride themselves for their distance from the modern world, and this is such a typical opera fan gesture: ridiculous, morbid, sincere, and anachronistic. So much of opera is about something that is lost, and grief is not reasonable.

So I have only three acts of Guillaume Tell to write about. This is disappointing. I didn’t get to hear the big tenor number or the final chorus, two of the best parts of the opera, and it’s highly unlikely that I will be able to return to the Met for another go at it. So let’s do this now. (Also, I missed Tristan und Isolde due to my Amtrak train running over two hours late. This season has been terrific so far!) But this production has a really great cast!

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Guillaume Tell in London

“Staging opera means interpreting a score’s ambiguities, and each
performance must bridge the space between operatic history and the
present. Inevitably, modern anxieties and prejudices fill the gaps. And
few issues are more personal and contentious than the representation of

I wrote about the Royal Opera’s production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell for the New York Times. You can read my piece there, or in the July 19 Arts and Leisure section.

photo copyright Clive Barda

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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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The Barber of Philadelphia


Opera Philadelphia’s production of The Barber of Seville is an everything-but-the-castanets Spanish extravaganza. Loosely inspired by Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, it largely sustains a manic, self-consciously kitschy style, anchored by Jennifer Holloway (Rosina) and Kevin Burdette (Bartolo), two singers with excellent comic skills.

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Mostly Mozart takes on Rossini’s Stabat Mater

disclaimer: ad for a different concert.

I promise I won’t start this Mostly Mozart review with a note that their recently-vaunted innovation is, in most concerts, invisible. This hook has proven awfully popular.

This was a concert of Rossini and Beethoven. (This year’s theme: Mostly Mozart and Beethoven. It’s… sorry, almost got pulled by The Hook again.) There was a preconcert concert by the Dover String Quartet, which featured the daring choice of Beethoven’s Op. 59/2. Further innovation!

Sorry, Mostly Mozart Festival. You just make it so easy. And the Dover Quartet was excellent, with a nice lightness and dynamic range. The first violinist’s super-bright E string seemed distractingly unblended at times.

Anyway, the main concert. It was conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, who seems to be Italy’s cosmic conducting recompense for Daniele Gatti. Together they average out into normal tempos–Gatti is glacial, Noseda just drank a whole case of Red Bull. But Noseda got considerably more out of the orchestra than Louis Langrée did at the opening concert. The orchestra’s sound still lacks body, but in the opening Beethoven Symphony No. 2 (hey, at least it was slightly obscure Beethoven!) they played with much greater accentuation and color. The Larghetto was more like an Andante, and the winds made some welcome contributions. The final two movements were also breathless, occasionally a little scrappy but excitingly so.

The main body of the program was Rossini’s Stabat Mater. It’s a grand piece of music, and not one set to a text you’d expect to be so red-blooded, but that’s the most obvious thing to say about it and I don’t really have any wisdom to impart on this matter. Noseda didn’t seem to feel any need to make it sound like Palestrina, it was big and loud and fast and not very subtle but on the whole quite good. The chorus was the Concert Chorale of New York and they sounded fantastic, with better blending and ensemble than the orchestra by a long shot.

The soloists were a good group. Soprano Maria Agresta has a glamorous sound with a fast vibrato, consistent and very Italian with strong high notes. (This reminds me how infrequently we actually hear Italian sopranos today.) But she lacks a degree of refinement, tending to sing everything forte with minimal phrasing. The Inflammatus is pretty loud, and the high notes made it exciting, but I could have used something more nuanced at times. Also in the brutal force category, Gregory Kunde belted out the Cujus animam and landed square on the high note with great strength. But his tone is leathery and unpleasant.

The lower voices were more satisfying. I may have gone to this concert mostly to hear mezzo Daniela Barcellona, after liking her so much in La donna del lago at the ROH. Actually, I totally did. And she was great, with a dark, plangent sound, of course less fiery than she had been in the other Rossini but singing with great expressive intensity. Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen sounded excellent in the Pro peccatis and the recit, booming out with impressive power. I wish he got better casting at the Met.

So on the whole a satisfying concert, though I wish Noseda had stopped to smell the flowers occasionally.

Program Notes Smackdown
I haven’t done one of these for a while but there are a few bits of Andrew Shenton’s notes with which I have to take issue. On the Rossini:

“It is too tempting to be engaged with the drama of the music and the virtuosity of the singing and playing rather than the meaning of the text.”

Yes, the perceived disparity between text and expression is an interesting, if obvious crux. Why don’t you discuss it instead of scolding your audience for doing it wrong? (Is it just me or does this sound like a Calvinist sort of complaint? This music is Catholic!)

On the Beethoven, he quotes Maynard Solomon calling the symphony “both retrospective and progressive.” Then he says how:

“Its retrospective elements are the orchestral form… four movements with a slow introduction… its prospective features begin with the arresting introduction, marked Adagio.”

Wait, what?

Also, this program is getting out of control with regard to sections. There’s a note on the preconcert concert, a welcome to the festival from the artistic director, a program note on the whole festival, a one-page “program summary” note and then the proper program notes. If you got that far. This has been another episode of Program Notes Smackdown.

 Mostly Mozart Festival, 8/14/2013, Avery Fisher Hall. Gianandrea Noseda, conductor, Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra with the Concert Chorale of New York (directed by James Bagwell).

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Farcical aquatic ceremonies: La donna del lago at the ROH


According to the Royal Opera House’s new production of Rossini’s La donna del lago, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. But while the production’s vague juxtaposition of barbaric highlanders and European-style courtiers doesn’t really work, there’s a lot of exciting singing, Joyce DiDonato as the titular aquatic lass, and Juan Diego Florez in a kilt.
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Mosè in Egitto at City Opera

I went to see the New York City Opera’s production of Mosè in Egitto at City Center , and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

In recent seasons, the New York City
Opera has largely limited itself to chamber operas. Its newest
production marks a renewed ambition: Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto, a
proto grand opera that ends with nothing less than the parting of the
Red Sea. Fortunately this scrappy but worthwhile performance showed that
the company can tackle large-scale works on its own terms, albeit with a
few stumbles along the way.

You can read the rest here. It was a frustrating afternoon: some very talented performers and interesting production ideas (Harry Kupfer’s Rossini video game) that ultimately didn’t quite make a full show. I still think it’s worth seeing, though: it’s a unique spin on an unusual piece, and that’s something in itself.

A few other notes, though. I wish City Opera would show some care with its presentation. (Their website doesn’t even give the address of the theater where they’re performing. I had to Google it.)  This performance was trumpeted as the “original version.” Putting aside the problematic construction of “original” and its implied superior status, that can’t be true: the third act of the first version was lost, as you can read in the introduction of the critical edition. (This production didn’t even use that critical edition; the program credits Hendon Music/Boosey and Hawkes.) I would have liked some program notes, but maybe I’m alone there. If you’re going to claim scholarly status, you have to do your homework.

But enough of that, the actual performance did exceed my expectations. The LED video (more like a TV than projection scenery) occasionally looks like the VHS version of the Met’s Parsifal Blu-Ray. Jayce Ogren isn’t a Rossini conductor but the orchestra is sounding much better than it did last season and it’s good for the City Opera to have him on board as music director. There’s some good singing. So still recommendable, if you like Rossini.

Photo copyright Carol Rosegg.

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Cenerentola and the incredible Americanness of Joyce DiDonato

Nice People Win
Last Monday
I went to Cenerentola at the
Bayerische Staatsoper. I’m sorry I didn’t write about it faster but lots of
work and this fast-track six day Ring
have limited my blogging time. (I expect the shorter operas of this week as well as the imminent departure of my drinking buddy will make keeping up easier soon.)  Also I had
one of those crappy limited-view seats of which this opera house has so many, and I missed a
lot of the action. So here are some brief thoughts on what I heard and managed
to see.

Rossini, La Cenerentola. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/9/2012.
 Musikalische Leitung Antonello Allemandi
Inszenierung Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
Bühne und Kostüme Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
Don Ramiro Lawrence Brownlee
Dandini Nikolay Borchev
Don Magnifico Alessandro Corbelli
Clorinda Eri Nakamura
Tisbe Paola Gardina
Cenerentola Joyce DiDonato
Alidoro Alex Esposito

Ponnelle’s production has classic status here. It’s a storybook style with highly
choreographed action and giant costumes befitting the opera’s bouncy,
repetitive music as well as its over-the-top villains and manic action. This is the
treatment this opera almost always receives, but this production is old enough
it may have been what others copied. (Personally I love Achim Freyer’s production–which is similar except for the whole Achim Freyer part.) It’s charming enough, and from what I
could see of it this revival was neatly directed and the physical production is
in good shape.  In exchange for getting to see so many big-name casts in such a short period of time at these Festival performances one must be prepared for a degree of sloppiness, but this cast did a full run in May and most of the rehearsal
seemed to stick. The orchestra showed signs of underrehearsal, but nothing too dire. One clarinet had a little
too much squawky fun in the overture. Antonello Allemandi (a wonderful surname for an Italian conducting in Germany) led ably with appropriate zippiness.

The big draw
was Joyce DiDonato in the title role. She is possibly the most quintessentially
American of major opera singers. She has a bright, modern, and very relateable presence onstage; she could be that outrageously successful friend of whom you would be very jealous if she weren’t just so darn nice and
unconceited. DiDonato’s vocal success is a triumph of effort, of polished
technique and preparation. It’s not that the kind of virtuoso coloratura she
sings necessarily requires more technique than any other kind of singing. But when you’re singing all those quick runs. the technique is in the foreground to an unusual extent. Presence plus technique plus looks, she’s one of
those singers the media would call a “complete package.” But there’s something
missing: a distinctive and attractive basic sound. When not singing fast notes,
her voice sounded tense, fluttery and in higher registers screechy, or at least
that was the case on Monday night. What strikes you is not her sound but her mastery of the notes.

and hard work are the most American of virtues, mystery is not. Sometimes
incredible voices emanate from disconcertingly ordinary people, other times the people onstage seem not quite human, otherworldly, possessed. DiDonato contains
no such surprises, she just does what she should in an exceptionally gracious
and accomplished fashion. Cenerentola is the perfect role for her because it makes her play, more or less, her offstage persona: it’s
about a normal person who is rewarded for being nice and hard-working. Isn’t it
sweet to see someone so deserving get her prince and attendant big poofy dress? To be honest I would
prefer to see something whose result I didn’t already know. That Joyce DiDonato as Joyce DiDonato will get a happy ending is pre-ordained.
Her Prince was Lawrence Brownlee, who I first saw sing this role in Philadelphia in 2006 or so. He
sounded fabulous then and sounds even better now, and picked up a lot of confidence and flair in the intervening years too. For some reason I find him
more genuinely charming onstage than DiDonato, perhaps because he didn’t seem so pre-plannned in every particular. In the rest of the cast, Alessandro
Corbelli has the perfect personality for Don Magnifico but, based on this and
his recent Dulcamara, his voice has exited stage right while he remains on the boards.
He was often unaudible and speaking through the patter.  The rest were better, particularly Alex
Esposito’s resonate Alidoro. Nikolay Borchev was sometimes blustery as Dandini
but warmed up well. (Doesn’t this opera seem to feature one more low male voice than it
should?) As the sisters, Eri Nakamura and Paola Giardina camped it up, with
Giardina in particular having some genuinely funny moments.
As a Festspiele
performance, this was perfectly as advertised.

Photos copyright Wilfred Hösl.

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La Cenerentola: Una volta c’è un pagliaccio

Last time I checked in with Achim Freyer, I was seeing his wild Ring in Los Angeles. My enthusiastic and prolific blogging on this topic earned me a high place in English-language Achim Freyer Google rankings (a competitive field, to be sure), so when I saw his Cenerentola was approaching at the Volksoper, I knew I had to defend my beat.

Luckily, the feel of this Cenerentola, first staged at the Volksoper in 1997, is quite different from his Ring.  But I liked this one a lot too! It’s colorful and fun, and the cast has a few real winners.

Rossini, La Cenerentola. Volksoper Wien, 2/1/2011. Production by Achim Freyer (revival). Conducted by Andreas Schüller with Adrineh Simonian (Angelina), Jörg Schneider (Don Ramiro), Noé Colin (Don Magnifico), Dominik Königer (Dandini), Yasushi Hirano (Alidoro), Mara Mastalir (Clorinda), Tina Hörhold (Tisbe)

Freyer’s style is stiff and surreal, Robert Wilson meets Brecht. Odd, long-held poses, mechanical movements, clown makeup, and giant costumes are de rigueur.

(You think Rolando Villazón came up with the idea of clowns in Werther completely by himself? He and Freyer go back to a Berlin production of Onegin.)

But while this is visibly the same style as the Ring, here it’s all in simple fun. The sets are plain solid backdrops with doors while the costumes are giant, colorful, and surreal (the wicked sisters sport conical cotton-candy hair). There are a few spectacular effects, most amusingly the Prince’s many-legged, chorus-powered horse, but mostly the focus is on the characters.

Freyer’s blocking is closely attentive to the rhythm and structure of the score. The comic sisters, Don Magnifico (the opera’s version of the wicked step-mother, a wicked step-bass), Dandini (instead of a fairy godmother, Cenerentola gets a fairy god-baritone), and Alidoro bear the brunt of the choreography while Cenerentola and the Prince are allowed to emerge as more naturalistic characters. Ensembles are the most stylized, and sometimes it can be jarring to hear such energetic music performed for such long stretches of visual stillness. But at other points this is used to exceedingly good effect, such as in the opening ensemble, in which Cenerentola is forced to run rapidly between the members of her frozen, demanding family.

The execution is generally well-coordinated and thorough (this is a Wiederaufnahme, a revival that promises it rehearsed, honest), though at some points the frozen was not quite as frozen, nor the movements quite as controlled as they could have been. Ah well, pretty good. Blessedly, the Volksoper performs this work in Italian (most of their operas are in German, other exceptions include Tosca and La Traviata). All that patter in German would have been awkward.

Andreas Schüller conducted with good ensemble and an excellent performance from the orchestra, but sometimes lacking in an indefinable sparkle. The cast was one of the best I have seen at the Volksoper (I have been there more often than my blogging implies; I don’t like writing negative reviews). The Volksoper has a great find in Adrineh Simonian’s Angelina (pictured). She got off to a slightly shaky start, but warmed up to a light, well-supported sound with absolutely super coloratura and a great deal of charm and flair, and brought down the house with her rondo. As Don Ramiro, Jörg Schneider (not pictured) was fighting a cold, and while his thin Germanic Mozart tenor has the notes for the role, he seems a bit too austerely detached. Also, and I know this is going to sound mean, he struggles as a tenor with the body of a basso buffo. His illness was a major issue in the second act, and it’s too bad the Volksoper couldn’t have found him a replacement; it must be terrifying to have to go onstage when you’re so out of sorts.

The highlight of the supporting roles was Yasushi Hirano’s wonderfully-sung Alidoro, with a warm and even bass-baritone and pinpoint coloratura. Mara Mastalir and Tina Hörhold were an excellent pair as the sisters with clearly-projected voices and some of the most controlled and consistent Freyer moves of the cast.  On the other hand, Dominik Königer’s Dandini sounded good in slower music but fudged many of the quicker notes, nor did his high notes always project. Noé Colin sounded somewhat muffled as Don Magnifico, though sounded much better once I escaped the overhang for a better seat in the second half of the opera.

This is what the Volksoper should be good at, a fun and fantastical performance of a modest opera. It’s not world-class, but it’s a perfectly delightful evening out.

Five performances remain, on 7 14, 17, 20, and 22 February, some with an alternate cast.

Photos copyright Volksoper Wien.

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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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