Otello at the Met

The Met has opened this season with a slightly belated acknowledgement that a lot of blackface is not a good look for a big mainstream American institution. Unfortunately the resulting pale production of Otello, which opened on Monday and I saw on Thursday, doesn’t have anything else new to say. The production does, however, have a major selling point, one that hasn’t been nearly as widely discussed: Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s electrifying conducting.

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Leonard Bernstein’s Mass in Philadelphia

At first, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s production of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass seems like an answer to lots of questions no one has ever bothered to ask. Questions like, “What would happen if you mixed the Symphony of Psalms with Jesus Christ Superstar?” “Who knew that Verizon Hall has an orchestra pit?” “Why don’t all masses have bongos?” “What would it take to get Yannick to conduct wearing a t-shirt?” OK, someone from Marketing probably has already asked that last one.

But while I can’t shake the feeling that something about this piece is inorganic, it’s also, at times, amazing, and the last half hour or so is absolutely brilliant. I doubt a better case could be made for it than this ambitious, inclusive, and extremely polished production.

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Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Berliner Philharmoniker

On Saturday night I caught up with the Berlin Philharmonic
at the Philharmonie in a concert led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin of music of
Berio, Chaikovsky, and Ravel. This was my first visit to the Philharmonie and
one of the first times I’d heard the Philharmoniker live conducted by someone
other than their current music director Simon Rattle. My impression of their last performance with Sir Simon (in Carnegie Hall) was decidedly mixed, of technical brilliance
lacking in any perceptible heartbeat. This was also the first time I’d heard
Nézet-Séguin conduct outside the Met, and he, the orchestra, and the concert
hall all left me very impressed indeed.


The program opened with Berio’s Sequenza IXa for solo
clarinet, and odd choice but apparently they are gradually performing the whole
cycle of Sequenze. The Philharmonie’s wonderful acoustics allowed lone clarinetist
Walter Seyfarth to resonate clearly even at the softest dynamics. I know this
piece from, um, playing it (only casually), and Seyfarth’s account was
technically impeccable and extremely clearly thought through. Clarinet
multiphonics (the closest we can get to a double stop) are unreliabe and wheezy
at best but Seyfarth’s were rock solid.  Motives
and structures were clearly defined, but nonetheless it was a bit more an
austere plateau than a collection of giant hairpins.  

Perhaps they chose the clarinet sequenza because the next
piece, Chaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet
Fantasy Overture, opens with a clarinet solo. I don’t know. Anyway, this
Chaikovsky was magical, taken with big ultra-Romantic pathos and rubato and
schmaltz and all that kind of thing that I like in Chaikovsky and occasionally find
suspect in Korngold. Nézet-Séguin took a glutinous approach to the transitions
that made the piece more smooth than exciting, but the orchestra’s considerable
virtuosity and precision in the fight portions was exciting enough. After my
recent spate of neat freak conductors it was nice to hear someone really go for
the emotional payoffs, and the horns’ countermelody was a thing of wonder.

Maybe it was the remnants of jet lag but I have to admit my
attention drifted at a few points during Ravel’s complete Daphnis et Chloe—not that it isn’t very beautiful music but I might
be in favor of performing the suite versions in this case. The orchestra here
sounded more like the one I knew from Rattle, light and precise (even in the
trickiest passages in the winds, including wonderful wind solos and one
slightly wonky violin one), and yet, when required, very very loud.
Nézet-Séguin showed the same flexibility as in the Chaikovsky but also the
needed delicacy. The ahs emanating from the Rundfunk Chor Berlin were also
excellently balanced with each other and the orchestra.

I find many modern concert halls alienating, but the
Philharmonie’s nooks and cranies were fun. It’s like hearing a concert in a
retro spaceship!

This concert is included in the Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall and will soon be available ondemand if you’d like to see it yourself.


Berliner Philharmoniker, Philharmonie, 6/16/12. Yannick
Nézet-Séguin, conductor; Walter Seyforth, clarinet, Rundfunk Chor Berlin.
Berio, Sequenza XIa; Tchaikovsky/Chaikovsky, Fantasy Overture on Romeo and Juliet; Ravel, Daphnis et
Chloe (complete ballet)


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Faust, or, You Only Live Twice

I went to Faust at the Met again last night and found it much more enjoyable that the opening night I saw a few weeks ago. This was in part because without exception the cast was more assured and in better voice, but it was in part because I knew what to ignore. Des McAnuff’s chaotic production does not improve upon a second viewing; it is still confused and confusing in points both large and small. If Faust, here a nuclear scientist with a heavy conscience, is going to back to try to live a better life, why does he behave like such a schmuck? (My original idea was that his rejuvenation was merely a flashback to the life that made him so sadface in the first place, but according to McAnuff this isn’t so.) Why does the chorus spend so much time filing through doors? Why is there a swordfight in 19-whatever? Can I find Marguerite’s Act IV getup at Urban Outfitters? I have no more answers now than I did at the prima.

But setting that aside I found much more to appreciate in the cast. First, the best thing going remains Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s conducting, which has such grace and lyricism and so little sugar and bombast that even a Gounod-aphobe like me can like it. The orchestra was on excellent form. Jonas Kaufmann sounded much freer and more assured in the title role and it’s really exciting singing if somewhat unidiomatic (excellent high C this time). Acting-wise his Faust still doesn’t add up but at least his temperature has risen a few degrees, less deadly serious, more cynical, and working his seduction of Marguerite like a courtesan whose rent is overdue. René Pape’s Méphistophélès remains understated, a dapper and wry mischief-maker, and his voice has such ease and silkiness that you’d take any offer he made you pretty quickly.

The biggest change for me was utterly falling for Marina Poplavskaya’s Marguerite this time, though more in an acting that vocal sense. Her guilelessness and isolation in her opening scenes, her never self-pitying hopelessness in the later ones and finally her delirium at the end all convinced. How good could this production have been if it were about her story? (Way better.) Vocally, she got through the opera more solidly this time, though her hollow and uneven tone is not pleasant, and the last few minutes were rough. Russell Braun again provided warm and mellifluous but not especially memorable support as Valentin, Michéle Losier was an excellent Siebel (as a recent Parterre review noted, she looks like an escapee from Newsies), and Theodora Hanslowe as Marthe got off to an unsure start but was quite funny in her scene with Pape (she was subbing for Wendy White as Marthe after the latter’s fall off the set
on Saturday night–thankfully she is alright but of course is taking a break).

I’ve been writing about a lot of new productions recently, where I really try to take everything as a piece (because that’s how they should function). But many performances are easier when you appreciate the good and leave out the bad–it’s a shame this Faust falls into that category even upon its first run of performances, but I actually am glad I saw it again. Also, can someone give me Faust’s lab’s red wine-dispensing water cooler for Christmas? Sometimes it’d make work much nicer. Thanks.

Performances remain with different casts–Roberto Alagna leading on December 23 and 28 (I have been there already this year, cartweels, ukulele, and all) and Joseph Calleja in January (utterly beautiful voice, allergic to acting).

Gounod, Faust. Metropolitan Opera, 12/20/2011, cast same as listed here except with Theodora Hanslowe as Marthe.

Some videos from the recent HD simulcast:

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New Met Faust bombs

You can’t accuse Des McAnuff’s new Met Opera Faust of the interpretive timidity that has plagued the house so far this season–we have atom bombs, manic dancing, time travel, and other things that suggest this is a “bold” production. The problem is that it’s incoherent and has minimal contact with this mostly lovely rendition of the opera’s score. Even the cast can’t save it, and it’s a strangely incomplete show.

Gounod, Faust. Metropolitan Opera, 11/29/11. New production premiere directed by Des McAnuff, sets by Robert Brill, costumes by Paul Tazewell, lights by Peter Mumford. Conducted by Yanick Nézet-Séguin with Jonas Kaufmann (Faust), Marina Poplavskaya (Marguerite), René Pape (Méphistophélès), Russell Braun (Valentin), Michèle Losier (Siebel).

Staging this opera is a challenge. It’s a light revue of romanticism and religious claptrap without the kind of metaphysics or ontological beard-tugging we expect from the Faust legend. Gounod’s plot and music never aspire to evoke anything beyond what can we can see and hear, even though his subject seems inherently symbolic. McAnuff clearly wants to reintroduce the philosophical and symbolic side of the Faust legend. His Faust is an atomic scientist with a guilt complex about all that he has wrought, and in the moments before he kills himself, a version of his sorry life flashes before his eyes. Innocence is corrupted and the world goes to shit and so on–truly an offer from Méphistophélès that he cannot refuse. Méphistophélès, a lot of mirroring and identical suits suggest, is just part of his own psyche.

But once Faust has gone back to his youthful state, this concept doesn’t do much for the plot. Newly young Faust sees Marguerite as the innocent world that he can’t help but destroy. But establishing her as Faust’s projection isn’t very helpful when her very Catholic downfall and eventual redemption are at the center of the plot. And why does this earnest guy abandon her in the first place (the eternal difficulty of reconciling a sex life with the pursuit of a PhD in the hard sciences)? There’s also the matter that the war the soldiers are leaving for and returning from is World War I, which produces nothing more horrible than some limps and jumpiness. Without starting the Genocide Olympics I don’t think you get to play the atom bomb history card and then just ignore that you have also drawn the World War I one–the era of gas, famine, and mass warfare without penicillin. Good times.

The execution is rather clumsy. The blocking is OK but not at all musical. The metal unit set makes the entire setting lab-like with spiral staircases and multiple levels of walkways, justified by the idea that it’s all in Faust’s head, and the white coats of the lab occasionally reappear. It’s functional enough but the sight lines aren’t great and it’s ugly, made more so by the attempt to soften things up with some roses in the love duet (see below for many more pictures). Lighting is harsh and some cues were badly mistimed. Crowd scenes are cluttered and include some incredibly awkward dancing–why Méphistophélès does the Robot during the “Veau d’or” beats me. Some giant projections of Faust and mostly Margeurite’s faces on the scrims are confusing and seem lifted out of Robert Lepage’s Damnation de Faust. (And why her visage first appears during Valentin‘s music in the prelude is a puzzle.)

Yet other things are totally old school, like the surprisingly not bad sword fight between Faust and Valentin. There is also a giant soldier puppet, and one of Death? (Just saying.) By the Walpurgisnacht we are back in the World War II era, with an appearance by your obligatory writhing demons, here apparent nuclear bomb victims. The bomb finally goes off, via a projection, and there is also a chorus of scientists with those mushroom cloud glasses I remember from Doctor Atomic. The final scene is minimalist and Marguerite is saved by running up a lot of stairs into the sky. Old Faust reappears and finally gets to die properly. There you go.

Perhaps I should stop trying to explaining it. It’s not without ideas but it’s an attempt at abstraction that never adds up. What does Faust want, anyway? He’s totally passive here. Adding the science seems to make too many other things not work, and fails to show Gounod’s sometimes flimsy score to best advantage. The music has charm and gentle lyricism, but the production isn’t interested in what’s on the surface.

Unfortunately this really held back the strong cast, none of whom seemed to be feeling it. Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s conducting was very fine and the orchestra sounded great. He’s something like the Fabio Luisi of French repertoire, transparent and stylish and fleet (with a few exceptions that got drawn-out tempos such as “Salut” and the love duet). The HIP aesthetic seems to have gone mainstream, huh? I wish the staging had been half as elegant.

Among the cast René Pape was the only person who seemed to be engaged and having any fun, playing Méphistophélès for laughs and singing with suave strength and wit. He’s not really evil, but he’s certainly up to no good. (Nuclear bombs, those mischievous little buggers.) The “Veau d’or” was taken at an energetic tempo, giving this moribund evening some life.

Jonas Kaufmann was a strangely distant and underplayed Faust; the assignment to play a skirt-chaser as a moral philosopher seemed to rob him of charisma and personality. Except for a few moments of poignant detachment he looked to be on autopilot. I have to wonder if someone with less taste and more smarm would be more effective here.* After getting off to a somewhat intonationally suspect start (perhaps a reaction to his heinous mustache as Old Faust, who knows) he did some really luscious singing, particularly in the love duet, with incredibly long breath and natural phrasing. His is a heroic voice for this lyric role, but he still managed a respectable high C in “Salut” and the weight in his lower register helped in Act 1.

This was the first time I had heard Marina Poplavskaya since her 2007 debut in War and Peace. She’s now something of a Gebrauchsdiva for the house (and for the ROH) but that belies her peculiarity, and she seems miscast as Marguerite. Her acidic, often hollow-sounding voice varies enormously in color from note to note, she doesn’t really do legato, and tended to coo in the love duet with some seriously strange phrasing (and weird French). A few high notes, notably the As in the Jewel Song, were just shrieks. Her husky tone plus standoffish presence don’t play well as virginal innocence, and she only looked really at home when she put on an enormous tiara from the jewel box and cast a Turandot look. (And she only sometimes remembered the weight of her eight-months-large pregnant belly later on.) Her prison mad scene, though, was actually quite affecting and intense despite extremely uneven singing. She’s not boring, I’ll give her that, and I was glad this performance included the Spinning Song, one of the score’s best moments.

Russell Braun had solid tone and style but a very wide vibrato and uneven production as Valentin. Michèle Loisier was a bright spot as Siébel, with a big and bright mezzo. The chorus sounded fine, though they almost lost Nézet-Séguin in the waltz.

All in all it is a disappointment, and strangely unfulfiling. Gounod’s score is so modest; there’s just no compelling dramatic centerpiece.

It seems to me that the Met imported the wrong London Faust. This one is from the English National Opera, but David McVicar’s Royal Opera production is a delight that does a great job reading the piece, so check that one out on DVD. If you want to see this Met one I won’t stop you, it runs until January 19 including second cast Faust Roberto Alagna and third cast Joseph Calleja.

*Roberto Alagna will be singing a few performances in December.

Video (pictures below):

Way more pictures. That none show Valentin while alive is the fault of the Met photographers, not me:

 All photos copyright Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

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