She’s on a boat

On Tuesday I went back to my old stomping ground, the Wiener Staatsoper, a return not particularly highly anticipated by me nor, I assume, by anyone else. With the Staatsoper you roll your dice and you take your chances—even the most formidable casts can be undone here by a total lack of rehearsal. But sometimes you get lucky (and not always at the performances with all the famous people). And despite having only one shot, this time I did.  This dark, dreamy Pelléas, a “new” production by Marco Arturo Marelli, is surprisingly worth seeing.

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The Tempest: Oh timid old world

Thomas Adès’s 2004 opera The Tempest arrives at the Met with a relatively lengthy pedigree of major productions around the world,* a score that is
recognizably modern but consonant and conventionally pretty enough to
play to a Met audience, and a libretto based on a familiar play.
Actually, it’s the Met’s second newish Tempest opera in as many years.
While it’s altogether more credible than the other one, and has some
lovely moments, it still never quite takes off, and remains undramatic
and timid. Robert Lepage’s random and cheesy production doesn’t help

Adès, The Tempest. Libretto by Meredith Oakes after Shakespeare. Metropolitan Opera, 10/23/2012. New production premiere, first Met performance of this opera. Production by Robert Lepage, sets by Jasmine Catudal, costumes by Kym Barrett, lights by David Beaulieu. Conducted by Thomas Adès with Simon Keenlyside (Prospero), Isabel Leonard (Miranda), Audrey Luna (Ariel), Alan Oke (Caliban), Alek Shrader (Ferdinand [Debut]), Kevin Burdette (Stefano), Iestyn Davies (Trinculo), Toby Spence (Antonio), Christopher Feigum (Sebastian), John Del Carlo (Gonzalo), William Burden (King of Naples)

Unfortunately, most of the operas produced today are really old, and most are also, at least to a certain portion of their audience, really familiar. This means that the few new operas that happen inevitably end up being defined, at least in part, in relation to what is happening on all the other nights of the week. For a production of The Tempest, one that Robert Lepage has put in a theater-in-theater setting of Milan’s La Scala (a trick we have never, ever seen before, not once), this would seem to present provocative symbolic possibilities to tell The Tempest as an allegory for opera. Prospero’s magic happens on an island (opera house, isolated from the real world), informed by learning in old books (scores), and when the problems are resolved we have to return to reality outside the magic theater (la commedia è finita). But while some other directors might have pulled this off, Lepage’s succession of effects without causes or expression leaves the setting meaningless–and the story pretty much meaningless as well.

My friend wanted this to be ironic. Wishful thinking.

For all this metatheatrical stuff Adès is not a postmodernist at all but rather a straightforward, mild-mannered modernist who seems to have an agnostic view of operatic history. The production also includes a great deal of alarmingly kitschy images including a couple actually walking off into a beach sunset (video art by David Leclerc), the comically enormous court showing up in giant crinoline skirts and other vaguely 18th-century-ish (of the Slutty 18th Century variety) garb, and some downright embarrassing “tribal” dances choreographed by Crystal Pite (with costumes that feature, er, more bare ass than I expected–not that I have a problem with asses, but I prefer their context and representational baggage to be less, um, racist), making those of a certain recent Les Troyens look almost good. The various elements–music, libretto, theater setting, otherwise straight faced eigthteenth-century-set Tempest, never seem to be speaking to each other. It’s awkward at best and almost unwatchable at worst. I’m not even going to relate the purported coups-de-theatre but will say the best one is the first five minutes, see below.

Not the music and libretto are without faults. Personally I prefer my modernism gnarlier, but at least Adès’s music is a good cut above the sugary movie score-like commissions more common in the US. It’s a slightly prickly tonality but not particularly dense, ethereal and beautifully orchestrated. The best parts where Adès can get into a groove, such as Miranda and Ferdinand’s duet and a very brief lament for Alonzo. The problem is that the score often lacks variety, and ends up being rather undramatic. Adès doesn’t seem to have a good strategy for conversational, connecting passages, which pass incredibly slowly, and despite apparently wanting Stefano and Trinculo to be comic there is nothing funny about their music. The default Adès mode is meditative, distant, static, and very pretty. It would be nice to hear in a concert suite, but as storytelling it doesn’t do much to narrate. Each character has to some extent a characteristic style, but a fair amount of the writing is not at all vocally idiomatic, and ends up sounding more ungainly than expressive, with a bonus of much of the text rendered incomprehensible. As you can see in some of these pictures, there were literal subtitles on the edge of the stage.

The libretto is another issue. Meredith Oakes’s text preserves only hints of Shakespeare. It’s also not very good, as verse goes, tending to be mundane and vague. As my distinguished colleague resoundingly declaimed in the lobby during intermission:

“Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell
Hark! now I hear them,–Ding-dong, bell.”

That was Shakespeare. Here is Oakes’s version:
“Five fathoms deep
Your father lies
Those are pearls
That were his eyes
Nothing of him
That was mortal
Is the same
His bones are coral
He has suffered
A sea change
Into something
Rich and strange
Sea nymph hourly
Ring his kell
I can hear them
Ding dong bell.”

Here it is with Thomas Adès’s music, as sung in concert by Audrey Luna, the Ariel of this production:

I can appreciate that Shakespeare is thick stuff to be sung, but if it’s going to be as incomprehensible as most of Adès’s settings are, one could at least wish for more melodious titles to read. More seriously, I can appreciate that they wanted to reinvent the story but this version is more like an abridged, watered-down version than an interesting new one. Character development takes a hit, particularly Caliban. Perhaps in an attempt to avoid nasty racist stuff (the choreographer didn’t seem to get that memo), he has been rendered a harmless pathetic and his large amount of stage time seems kind of unnecessary. In general, the verbal style is so neutral and distant that the many characters and their emotions are never really defined, and it just seems like so much talking or vaguely nice singing.

“This look does nothing for me, dammit. I looked better as $#@*ing Wozzeck.

The cast is more or less fine, though none really stand out. Simon Keenlyside as Prospero appeared in the premiere and uses the words most expressively (and articulates them with admirable clarity), but his voice sounds rough at times, and the production makes him more an eccentric tattooed uncle than a magician despite his considerable dignity. Mezzo Isabel Leonard and tenor Alek Shrader sing quite beautifully as Miranda and Ferdinand, and their duet is a musical highlight. The best tenor of the cast, however, is definitely William Burden as Ferdinand’s father Alonso, the king of Naples. It’s odd that Adès set both father and son as tenors, particularly when Burden’s incredibly sweet and warm tones radiate, in conventional opera semiotics, youthful ardor (belied by his Civil War general look). Fellow tenor Toby Spence had flair as Antonio, but the tessuitura is high for him. Audrey Luna floated and yelped Ariel’s stratospheric music on pitch very cleanly and displayed formidable technique, athleticism, and stamina, though I’m not sure I would recognize her voice in a lineup should she sing below a high G.** As Caliban, Alan Oke sounded awfully nasal.

There are shadows of something interesting and exceedingly modernist here: a hall of mirrors of representations (Oakes restates Shakespeare as Lepage reveals our opera house, all about Prospero’s magic). Unfortunately the suggestions of an opera about fragmentation and distance are evident only fitfully themselves, and that failure is not so much modernist as just sad.

The Tempest runs for a while longer.

Photos by Ken Howard, who seems to be using the wings’-eye view not seen by any audience members in the theater but endemic to the HD broadcasts. The Machines are taking over!

*Promoted as “the Met at its adventurous best!” I will not dispute that claim, but would like to note that if taking on something produced in London in 2004 and at many other opera houses since qualifies as their most adventurous venture, that says something.

**You know that thing about Isolde and/or Salome being women crushed by composers’ orchestras? Sometimes I think there’s a similar thing going on with post-WWII composers and coloratura sopranos, see also Die Soldaten, Lear, etc., etc. Either that or all their orchestration textbooks have reversed the section marked “soprano” with the one marked “piccolo.”

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La traviata: Death on a summer night

My last
night at the Munich Opera Festival ended happily. Elusive Anja Harteros
canceled her first Traviata, but she
showed up for this one, her second. The other two leads, Ramon Vargas and Simon
Keenlyside, both sounded the best I’ve heard them sing in ages, and the three work
together beautifully: not exactly Italian, but dramatically sensitive and musically
stylish in a way that made for a moving performance. The production is tired
and the conducting was unfortunate, but with Traviata the cast can get you a long way.

Verdi, La Traviata. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/31/2012.
Musikalische Leitung Omer Meir Wellber

Inszenierung Günter Krämer
Bühne Andreas Reinhardt
Kostüme Carlo Diappi
Licht Wolfgang Göbbel

Violetta Valéry Anja Harteros
Flora Bervoix Heike Grötzinger
Annina Tara Erraught
Alfredo Germont Ramón Vargas
Giorgio Germont Simon Keenlyside
Gaston Francesco Petrozzi
Baron Douphol Christian Rieger
Marquis d’Obigny Tareq Nazmi
Doktor Grenvil Christoph Stephinger
Giuseppe Dean Power
Ein Diener Floras Tim Kuypers
Ein Gärtner Peter Mazalán
Alfredos Schwester Demet Gül

production leaves no corners uncut, with vague minimalist settings that either
confuse or just don’t do anything (Act 1 features lots of doors, Act 2 a
children’s playground?). The setting is black-and-white (except Violetta’s red flower) Belle Epoque, with the ladies of the chorus wearing beaded shower
caps and the gentlemen in penguin suits. Act 1 features an inexplicable
multiplicity of conga lines. Sometimes the economy hurts—the ballet consists of
nothing more than the chorus gently bobbing up and down on the beat—but for the
most part it is just an absence. Act 2 Scene 1 features a visit from Alfredo’s
sister, but another problem is that the production keeps the action largely
confined to small areas of the stage. This is fatal in a theater with such poor
sightlines, and I saw almost nothing for this entire scene. I suspect the
people on the other side of the theater saw almost nothing in Act 3, but that’s
not the way to balance it out. Given some decisive Personenregie it might not
be too bad, as it is now it left the singers to their own devices.
Regal Anja
Harteros is a Violetta that anyone could take home to their parents. (I have
seen her sing the role once before, at the Met in 2008. I thought she was
better tonight, and the rest of the cast infinitely better.) As Act 1’s party
girl she doesn’t really convince, though the production has her do nothing more
debauched than twirl around some champagne glasses. In Act 2 her poise and
majesty is of a degree that would certainly impress Germont, but collapses into
a vulnerability that is very touching. She hadn’t shown many signs of weakness
in the first two acts, but apparently this Violetta went downhill very quickly,
and her hacking up of a lung in Act 3 is raw and brutal, with a technically
impressive amount of singing from a horizontal position (unrealistically luxe
pillows providing a suitable angle). Her voice is big but flexible, with a
dark, woody texture that isn’t really Italianate fullness but is uniquely
beautiful in its own way. For someone with a large sound she navigated “Sempre
libera” exceptionally well, but again it’s in the rest of the opera where she
really shows her strengths, with an almost too-slow “Dite alla giovine” and
letter aria sung with long phrases, and “Amani Alfredo” filling the house.

Ramon Vargas
and Simon Keelyside as the Germont family were both much improved from their
earlier Verdi essay in Vienna’s Don Carloin June. There’s something a little gummy about Vargas’s voice, possibly just
wear, but he’s so meticulously stylish; not a note comes out carelessly. (He knows
his limits—no high C. Harteros didn’t try that annoying E-flat, either, thank
goodness.) Simon Keenlyside also sounded more at ease, and developed Germont
with great passive-aggressive nuance, weighing his words and singing with a far
greater variety of color than he did as Rodrigo or Wozzeck (that this has been
my Summer of Keenlyside is purely accidental and unplanned).
Alas, there
was a hitch, and that was Omar Meir Wellbur’s conducting. It was improved over
his Vienna Rigoletto which was maybe
the closest I’ve ever heard to a train wreck in a major new production (FYI, that production of Rigoletto is not, after all, going to be the Met’s, it was, in fact, that bad), but
there were lots of little wrecks (the most obvious being getting a few beats
off  from Harteros in the Act 1 duet and
staying there for a measure or two). He pushed the orchestra into expressive
phrases, but sometimes the various sections didn’t really stay together, even
the usually ironclad strings. More problematic were his speed demon tempos. He
would strike up each cabaletta at a mean clip and the singer or singers would
enter at a slower tempo and a tug of war ensued (Harteros and Vargas won their
battles, Keenlyside seemed to cede defeat and regrouped after the end of each
phrase). Other times, singers seemed perfectly content in holding their high
note fermatas while the orchestra would prematurely reenter and obviously take
them by surprise. You can’t fault him for energy, but there was obvious
disagreement afoot.
Despite the
faults—and not being able to see much of any of Act 2 Scene 1—this was really a
lovely Traviata. Harteros is a frequent canceler and can be hard
to catch, but she’s worth tracking down if you can. This was a fortuitous combination of
three singers with great taste and similar styles. Given how much opera I see
with wildly mismatched casts I suspect it’s a fluke, but a rare and lucky one.

The Festival ends tonight with Rosenkavalier but I’m a little Rosenkavaliered out and am skipping it. See you this weekend from Salzburg, where I will be reporting on Ariadne (DUH) and La bohème.

Photos copyright Wilfried Hösl.

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Wozzeck: Drowning

Wozzeck is a
nasty, brutal, and short opera. Producing it requires balancing the human and
the inhuman, where a murderer is maybe the most sympathetic figure (unless
you’re counting the little kid). Andreas Kriegenburg’s acclaimed Bayerische
Staatsoper production—it’s what got him the Ring
job—does this expertly, and more, its characters splashing around in ankle-deep
water with no sign of relief.
While putting on a single performance of Wozzeck for a festival is unusual (it
not being known as an audience-pleasing star vehicle that is easy to put together without much rehearsal), when you can get
Waltraud Meier and Simon Keenlyside to do it, you probably should, and the Munich audience seemed to like it as much as I did.

Berg, Wozzeck. Bayerische Staatsoper, 7/22/2012.
Musikalische Leitung Lothar Koenigs

Inszenierung Andreas Kriegenburg
Bühne Harald B. Thor
Kostüme Andrea Schraad
Licht Stefan Bolliger
Choreographie Zenta Haerter
Chor Sören Eckhoff
Dramaturgie Miron Hakenbeck
Kinderchor Kinderchor der Bayerischen Staatsoper

Wozzeck Simon Keenlyside
Tambourmajor Roman Sadnik
Andres Kevin Conners
Hauptmann Wolfgang Schmidt
Doktor Clive Bayley
1. Handwerksbursche Christoph Stephinger
2. Handwerksbursche Francesco Petrozzi
Der Narr Kenneth Roberson
Marie Waltraud Meier
Margret Heike Grötzinger€

Note: the photos show two previous casts in this production.
Waltraud Meier is in some of the pictures (the other Marie is Michaela
Schuster), the Wozzecks are Michael Volle and Georg Nigl.
This production is, like the Ring, deceptively simple and never strays too far from convention,
and yet its subtle invention is quietly amazing. Much more than the Ring it creates a concentrated visual
language and world for the work. From the opening projection of AKT 1, the
guiding spirit is Brecht. The setting is vague, and doesn’t really
matter.  A enormous, dingy cement cube hovers
over a stage filled with water. Some of the action takes place in this box,
some in the water. The box itself moves upstage and down seemingly of its own
accord. Wozzeck and Marie and their son are relatively normal-looking people,
everyone else is a grotesque, white-faced caricature out of Georg  Grosz. The Captain is disgustingly fat and
naked while the doctor wears a contraption similar to the instrument of torture
he straps Wozzeck into. Many of the minor male characters are exactly the same
variation on Frankenstein’s monster. It is, it seems, the world as seen from
Wozzeck’s own eyes, with Marie as the only refuge among the expressionist monsters.
The child oversees much of the action and learns to make
sense of it, writing PAPA over the father who never acknowledges him, later
adding GELD (money) and HURE (whore).  He
is, we can see, going to turn out exactly like the father who ignores him. That
father seems, unlike the oblivious other characters, hyperalert, and yet
entirely uncomprehending. The Personenregie is not particularly musical, at least not in an analytic sense. I doubt Kriegenburg could tell you much about Berg’s symphonic forms, and he seems to care more about Büchner’s fragmentation than Berg’s cohesion. Much of the opera is delivered in a presentational
style, right out to the audience. It’s simultaneously an alienating tactic and
an apt reflection of the characters’ own alienation.  In another Brechtian
touch, the stage music is played by an onstage ensemble in modern concert
dress. A gloomy crowd of black-clad unemployed watch and occasionally provide
physical support to the action, with platforms for the Drum Major and the
orchestra literally on their backs, in a way similar to the Ring supernumeraries.
But it’s a classical staging as well, just as reluctant as
Kriegenburg’s Ring to take on a
specific social context. This is, that is to say, like the first three parts of
his Ring, not the last. The unemployed
in their coats, the water, the blank cement all speak to a timeless, placeless misery. It
operates on a level of simple images that resonate with the music and
story on a deep level. Except for the splashing through the water, there’s
never any friction between the two. It’s not quite as simple as it looks—and I
expect the Personenregie was considerably tighter on the 2008 premiere than
this one-off revival—but simplicity is its greatest asset.
I don’t think Simon Keenlyside has sung in this production
before, but he seemed to fit in well. Vocally, this role is, like much of the music he
sings these days, a size too big for his lyric baritone. When he struggles to
be heard he tends to sound pressured and grainy. But he seems to have the part
in his bones, and makes a twitchy yet disconnected Wozzeck. Waltraud Meier’s
Marie is the only character who seems to have any life left in her, miserable
as she is. Meier’s voice is still very strong in the higher registers, and she
sings this music with passionate earnestness.
Lothar Koenig’s conducting tended towards the beautiful,
tragic side of thinsg, finding its vocal counterpart in Meier’s almost Romantic
Marie. (He seemed very preoccupied with giving cues to everyone, I suspect this
one-off was not so thoroughly rehearsed.) The orchestra played with sustained
intensity that was, at times, just a touch messy, particularly in the winds. As
might be expected, the strings turned in a Mahlerian rendition of the Act III
interlude. The singers of the supporting roles sang more dramatically than
beautifully, but that’s only in fitting with the production. Having endured his
Aegisth twice I am not fan of Wolfgang Schmidt’s yelpy tenor, but for the
Hauptmann it is just right. Roman Sadnik sounded underpowered as the
Tambourmajor, but had a commanding presence, as did Clive Bayley as the Doctor.
Overall I found this production devastating, while the Ring rarely went beyond nicely poignant. The concentrated intensity of Berg and Büchner are perhaps a better match for Kriegenburg’s austerity, and while when staging the Ring a grand historical vision is non-negotiable, in a 90-minute piece it might be too much. I must admit this was my first time seeing Wozzeck live; it is not often played.
(I have hardly avoided it. In college I studied it in music, German, and
theater classes, at one point making me suspect I was actually majoring in Woyzeck/Wozzeck Studies. For comparison,
I didn’t study Lulu once.) This
performance sold out and received a sustained, enthusiastic ovation, heartening
for a work considered so audience-unfriendly. Kriegenburg’s pitch-perfect
production plus local factors (local language, the relative levels of general musical
literacy in Munich versus New York) have made that rare thing: a high art popular

Photos copyright Wilfried Hösl. More follow after the video.

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What a day for an auto-da-fé (Don Carlo in Vienna)

Don Carlo is a notoriously difficult opera to cast, but this new Wiener Staatsoper production looked promising on paper, including René Pape, Krassimira Stoyanova, and Simon Keenlyside. I’m rather baffled at how the result turned out to be so aggressively, mind-numblingly boring on nearly every level. Intendant Dominique Meyer’s Regieprobleme aren’t getting any better.

Verdi, Don Carlo. Wiener Staatsoper, 6/22/2012. New production directed by Daniele Abbado, “Bühnenkonzeption” by Graziano Gregori, sets by Angelo Linzalata, costumes by Carla Teti, lights by Alessandro Carletti. Conducted by Franz Welser-Most with René Pape (Philipp II), Ramón Vargas (Don Carlo), Simon Keenlyside (Rodrigo), Krassimira Stoyanova) Elisabeth von Valois, Luciana D`Intino (Prinzessin Eboli), Eric Halfvarson (Il Grande Inquisitore), Valentina Nafornita (Stimme von oben)

The Staats is using the four-act Italian version, which
starts awkwardly with the Monk calling out to Carlo and then the duet with
Posa. Reminiscences appear without their antecedents, the Italian text is far
inferior to the French, and it’s a lot of development of something for which we
never had exposition.

Franz Welser-Möst
got the actual Philharmoniker to conduct (Rattle has been touring with the
second string), and you could tell from the showiness of the playing.
But while it was something, it wasn’t like any Verdi I’d ever heard before. Welser-Möst may have been proud of getting this
bunch at the Staatsoper, but he never seemed to notice the singers or the
drama. Crashing effects alternated with gratuitously picky dissection of
the orchestral fabric. The singers struggled against the volume and
inflexibility emanating from the pit, and ensembles showed a wide variety of tempo
choices simultaneously. (The choruses were generally better.) It really didn’t
“Why this awful lighting? WHY????”
None of the singers succeeded in developing any kind of
characters, which is rather remarkable considering their amount of talent. The
first problem was that Daniele Abbado’s production (yes he’s Claudio’s son) lights them almost entirely
from behind, and even then only sparsely. They could have been the best film-style actors in the world and I
wouldn’t have been able to tell, because their faces were almost never illuminated.
The rest of the production doesn’t do anything else either. A series of sliding walls (Bartlett Sher
writ large) slightly alter an empty, barn-like unit set. The setting is, for no
particular reason, the early nineteenth century, with simple costumes that for
the women resemble the ball dresses still so loved in these parts. While Abbado
has nothing to say about this piece and what it’s about, with good
Personenregie it still could have been effective drama of a sort. Alas,
everyone basically stands still. Even would-be exciting bits, like Carlo being
sucked up by the Monk at the end, were botched (moving far too slowly and well
before the gesture is indicated in the score and libretto). The gesture of
choice seemed to be, tellingly, a shrug. The only good things I’ve heard from anyone about this production is that it will be very easy to revive. Who knows, if they fix the lights maybe some later singer can bring something inspired to it. But it won’t ever be a complete drama. I would give more details but honestly most of it has flown out of my head already.
The most distinguished performance of the evening came from
René Pape as Filippo II, whose honeyed bass-baritone was at full force despite Welser-Möst’s unhelpful tempos. Still, he was much
better in the role back at the Met in 2006, which was a tired revival of an old
production but still gave him something to work with. Simon Keenlyside is a
singer I like a lot but he made very little impression here, adequate
and nothing more. He appeared to have drawn the hotness card among this cast
but I really think one should button up one’s shirt in the presence of the
King. Krassimira Stoyanova was announced as indisposed, which was a shame
because I think she could sing a fine Elisabetta. This one had some fine
moments but was short on volume at the top and only sometimes came into focus.
Her best quality onstage is a sweet simplicity, which for a queen is a little
“Flanders? Nah, I’m sending you back to the new Probebühne.”
Luciana D’Intino’s Eboli was a showcase for her fearsome
deployment of chest voice.While the lone representative of Italy among the
cast, she doesn’t do much with the language, and her presence is more queen
mother than king’s mistress (her costume was not doing her any favors). Somehow
I have left Carlo for last, which is not entirely unusual. This role is a
graveyard for lyric tenors (from what I heard Piotr Beczala was originally cast
in this production but wisely decided not to attempt it and is here singing in Lucia instead–maybe he chatted with Villazon or Filianoti). Ramón Vargas is too
smart to be done in by its demands but doesn’t exactly conquer it either. He
lacks the spinto heft at the top and his tone tends to turn pale and weak above
the passaggio. Some middle-range phrases had full tone and phrasing but like
Keenlyside he seemed to mostly struggling to be heard and stay with the
orchestra. Valentina Nafornita was a bright spot as the Voice from Above. She won Cardiff
a few years ago and certainly deserves better casting than this.
I love this opera and generally find something to enjoy
in it even in flawed performances, but this one was uniquely boring, possibly
one of the most confounding evenings I’ve had at the opera in a while. The argument seems to be we’re
the Wiener Staatsoper and hence we put on opera at a world class level. But drama needs some impetus, some reason why we’re here
seeing this thing, and most of the time last night I wished I were somewhere
else. It might be a bad way of putting it, but someone needed to provide a
photos copyright APA, because the Staatsoper site is less than forthcoming.
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Hamlet: More than kin but less than kind

Ambroise Thomas, Hamlet.  Metropolitan Opera, 3/16/2010.  Conducted by Louis Langrée with Simon Keenlyside (Hamlet), Marlis Petersen (Ophélie), Jennifer Larmore (Gertrude), James Morris (Claudius), Toby Spence (Läerte), David Pittsinger (Ghost).  New production premiere by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser.

In last Sunday’s Times, directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser defended Ambroise Thomas’s operatic Hamlet’s “dramatic integrity” and lack of sentimentality and bombast.  That’s one way of looking at it.  For my taste, despite some good set pieces and two compelling leading roles, the ratio of banal to memorable music is far too high, and Thomas’s dull score wears out its welcome well before the end of this (sometimes interminable) work.  Caurier and Leiser’s production has some sincere and compelling acting.  But visually it ranges from unmemorable to ugly, and is marred by some unnecessarily silly touches that could well be cut.  While I enjoyed some of the performances a great deal and don’t exactly regret that I saw it, I feel no need to see Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet ever again.

Of course for English-speaking audiences in particular this opera stands in the long shadow of Shakespeare’s play, which we all have studied and seen many times.  Comparison is kind of interesting but tells us more about ourselves than it does about this opera.  For my part I really miss Shakespeare’s supporting characters: Polonius and Horatio are there but not important enough to qualify as characters, and forget about Roz and Guil.  More interesting is the loss of Fortinbras, which reduces the plot to basically a family drama.  Thomas’s Hamlet notoriously lives at the end, as is standard in French opera of this time.  He doesn’t in this production, we’ll get to that.

Caurier and Leiser’s production is abstract, and the sets a few dingy rotating walls.  Thus continues the reign of beige or beige-ish (these were pink) at the Met this year.  These are some of the least compelling of their species, and to little other than give the singers something (ugly) to stand in front of.  Maybe they looked better in one of the small opera houses from which this production originated?  (This production has been around.  It’s already on DVD.)  Costumes are generic royal with occasional surreal bits.  I guess the best thing about the design is that it brings the focus to the characters.

Simon Keenlyside gives a real tour de force in the leading role, and is probably the best thing about this production.  Thomas gives Hamlet mostly austere music, with the exception of the notorious rollicking drinking song (if you know anything out of this opera, it’s probably this).  Keenlyside does an excellent job capturing Hamlet’s shifts between ambivalence, grief, and rage, and is probably one of the best actors you’re going to see in opera today.  His voice has also gotten warmer and rounder than I remember, and seems ideal for this music.  He can pull off most of the production’s more audacious ideas, including an over-the-top quasi-mad scene that enlivens a dull chorus and reprise of the drinking song.  But even he can’t sell Hamlet running into a wall at the end of the otherwise exciting Hamlet-Gertrude duet.  (I remember this being a dumb moment in the DVD.  Why hasn’t someone cut it by now?)

Marlis Petersen is new to me.  I suppose this production was put on mostly for Dessay, but she is more than an adequate substitute, and in this high stuff probably far superior than Dessay these days.  Her voice is slightly dark in color, unusual and interesting for a coloratura type, but clear and in tune (mostly).  She doesn’t have much legato in her singing, which I didn’t mind here, but I can see why she specializes in German roles.  Compared to Keenlyside, who can make a great deal of a small gesture, her performance was sometimes a bit blank, but considering that as a late substitute for Dessay she barely got a chance to rehearse at all and was probably really jet-lagged, she was impressively coordinated with everyone else.  And her mad scene, given a bloody and dramatic staging involving (I think) a phantom pregnancy, was excellent and one of the highlights of the evening, the staging occasionally serving to distract from some strained high notes.  The musically innovative coda, in which wordless offstage pre-Daphnis et Chloé nymphs coax Ophelia into the river, however, seemed dramatically unnecessary and only served to remind me that I missed Lost AGAIN.  Also that I would rather be seeing Rusalka.

But Caurier and Leiser?  When you speak admiringly of Thomas’s restraint and then stage a mad scene that involves a lot of self-mutilation and another that involves your protagonist pouring wine over his own head I begin to doubt your stated opposition to silly effects.  Anyways, spicing up the boring parts is entirely justified, and desperately needed.  The mixture of melodrama and sensitive lyricism is probably the most interesting thing here, even if the melodrama occasionally slides into the ridiculous and the lyric into the dull.  These kinds of contrasts are, after all, the stuff 19th-century French operas are made of.  (Oops, wrong Shakespeare there.)

Jennifer Larmore was best in Gertrude’s melodramatic moments, particularly her scene with Hamlet.  (There is one circumstance in which I would see Hamlet again: Waltraud Meier as Gertrude.  Not that that will ever happen, so I’m safe.)  James Morris seriously needs to retire.  He was wobbly but not horrible in Simon Boccanegra, but his singing here pained the ears.  Toby Spence was a tenor, that’s about all I have to say, I could hear him but he is somewhat pale of voice.  Läerte doesn’t give one much to work with, I seem to recall an aria at the beginning but can say nothing of it.  David Pittsinger as the Ghost outsang Morris by a mile, they should swap roles.

As for that ending?  Thomas’s Act V takes place at Ophelia’s funeral (after the gravedigger’s episode, though there is no Yorick) and does not resemble Shakespeare very much.  Apparently inspired by the previous year’s premiere of Verdi’s Don Carlos, the libretto gives the ghost a reappearance.  Thomas later wrote an ending in which Hamlet dies.  This production uses some parts of that ending, and, SPOILER, in a very short sword fight Laertes and Hamlet manage to kill each other.  I did not find it convincing, but was glad that the opera was finally over.  (It is three hours 20 minutes with only one intermission.  Sorry, but that is too long when you’re Ambroise Thomas.)

Some booing at the end, surprisingly for conductor Louis Langrée as well as the directors.  The conducting did not strike me as anything special, but neither did it seem that bad.  There were quite a few clams from the brass in Act 1, but I don’t think that was Langrée’s fault.  As for the production team boos, well, that seems to be our mode of opera(tion) these days.

Next: Emmanuelle Chabrier infamously quipped, “There is good music, there is bad music, and there is the music of Ambroise Thomas.”  We will consider this statement further after a performance of Chabrier’s L’Étoile at the City Opera on Thursday.  (It is thoughtfully given an early curtain, so I might be able to get home in time for Project Runway!)

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