Friday, April 27, 2012

Il destin così defrauda le speranze de' mortali

Last night I attended the first performance in the New York Opera Exchange's run of Così fan tutte. Their production, directed by Cameron Marcotte, not only uses the Mozart/Da Ponte work to underline contemporary assumptions about class, gender, and virtue, but offers a look at the perils of lives revolving around the poles of Starbucks and social media. Don Alfonso is an unrepentantly exploitative financier, Ferrando and Guglielmo two arrogant and ambitious Ivy Leaguers in his pay. Despina is the PA whom he admits to underpaying, Fiordiligi and Dorabella sorority sisters (and "trust fund babies," in Despina's scornful phrase) hired as window-dressing. The young men disguise themselves as Occupy protesters (an identity as farcically foreign to, and flimsily maintained by them, as that of Albanians.) In the end, Dorabella and Ferrando part ways, while Fiordiligi and Guglielmo are reconciled and reunited; but how their future will unfold remains uncertain. This reimagining of the opera's relationships was explained to the audience in English dialogue substituted for the original recits (and for Despina's opening aria.) The audience was appreciative of the topical humor, also present in projected titles which frequently took such translation options as "Promise to Skype me every day!" and "You expect loyalty from businessmen?" As I've whined before, I find partial translation distracting, myself; a curiosity of yesterday's performance was that, without exception, the singers acted better in Italian.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Götterdämmerung: Fliegt heim, ihr Raben

It's all over. Although Lepage's production has been modified, I still feel that it lets the Ring down badly in its cataclysmic conclusion. The plaster statues of the gods now crumble into the Rhine instead of exploding above the hall of the Gibichungs, which I find dramatically and theatrically more felicitous. But while the music is driven on by the momentum of all that has gone before, the production drifts. The orchestral performance was remarkable. The sound could occasionally seem unfocused, but the Beloved Flatmate were almost directly over the pit in a Family Circle box, which may have affected my perception. The dense tapestry of leitmotivs was given vibrant color; the score's movement towards an inevitable conclusion was thrilling with tension at every turn. The close connection to the singers which has characterized the rest of the cycle under Luisi was still apparent, especially effective in evoking the clash between Siegfried and Hagen. The Trauermarsch was of a shattering intensity, silence and sound alike pushed to the limits of the bearable. The long threnody of the immolation was handled with emotional nuance, and the Erlösungsmotiv over the Rhine was radiant. If only the production had made a bolder claim about the whys of this music.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Siegfried: Mut oder Übermut

Jay Hunter Morris, Deborah Voigt in Siegfried's final scene. Photo (c) Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

With inexorable momentum, Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk rolls on at the Met. Saturday's performance of Siegfried was remarkable for its emotional immediacy, a musically and dramatically exciting experience. I am still frustrated that Lepage's approach to the staging of the Ring is descriptive rather than analytical, but the performers did an admirable job. The humanizing approach to the Ring, while it may be the best approach to working with Lepage's sets, does not serve all the relationships of Siegfried equally well. The staging's implication that Mime is an unreliable narrator remains unexplored, but there was more detailed characterization of his relationship with Mime, which worked well. Siegfried's abuse of Mime is thus adolescent pique. The dwarf's interactions with the Wanderer further establish that Mime's disagreeability is personal, not part of a larger scheme of value; his refusal of Gastfreundlichkeit is shrugged at by the old man who dries his own boots at the fire. The orchestral performance was better-coordinated than at this cycle's Walküre; there were one or two moments where the brass sounded slightly unfocused, but matters were much improved. The horn and woodwind soloists distinguished themselves, and the forest murmurs were dreamily lovely. Whether it was the result of added experience or simply an example of a performance "clicking," I found myself more convinced and engaged by Fabio Luisi's Siegfried on this second hearing. Flexible dynamics and responsiveness to the singers made it a lively, but not a lightweight account. The orchestral playing in the final scene was so radiantly sensual as to border on the obscene; from my perspective, this counts as warm praise.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Il Sogno di Scipione: con lieto sembiante

The Dream of Scipio (Raphael) 
A Roman general's allegorical dream, and portents of his future glories, might not initially strike contemporary audiences as engaging matter for an evening at the opera house. The same might be said of a young man's anxieties about romantic liaisons and professional ambition (or lack thereof.) Dexterously interweaving these narratives, however, Christopher Alden's production of Il Sogno di Scipione for Gotham Chamber Opera is a sleek, savvy, and quite funny take on this early Mozart opera. Appropriately, the lines between reality and fantasy are frequently blurred, and the most fantastic occurrences-- dead ancestors emerging through an Ikea wardrobe--could carry a weight of real psychological significance. The heroes of the heavenly realms are reimagined as a chorus of the down-and-out, forgotten men and women whose uncompromising courage offers an object lesson in how to treat Fortuna and Costanza. The latter, here, are two attractive and powerful women, strongly characterized. My one serious quibble with the production was its reliance for the basis of these characterizations on somewhat tired "bad girl"/"good girl" stereotypes for the women's use of their power and sexuality. Sigh. The third female personification of the evening, Licenza, was here a confident and good-natured, if slightly ditzy woman. Scipione is a rather hapless young man struggling to define his place in the world; it is a tribute to Alden's production that his eventual success carried Everyman resonance.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Della traviata sorridi al desio

Willy Decker's Traviata--intelligent, elegant, and brutally direct--is, to my mind, one of the most satisfying productions I've seen at the Met. The rigidity of social convention against which Violetta and Alfredo are pitted was particularly apparent in this iteration, but more on that anon. I was very pleased to note positive reactions to the production from older opera-goers around me, as well. The indefatigable Fabio Luisi led the orchestra in an account which was admirably responsive to the singers. The prelude to Act I was leisurely, but tempi quickened thereafter. This rapidity served the ensembles well, working with the tone of the production to give a sense of unresting activity, if not of inexorable fate. The feverishly intense gambling scene was an orchestral highlight. In Act III, both for "Largo al quadrupedo" and "Prendi, quest'è l'immagine," the orchestra was forcefully ominous, almost to a fault. The woodwinds distinguished themselves, with the oboe part in "Addio del passato" beautifully done. The clarinet solo in Act II as Violetta is writing her letter to Alfredo actually made me tear up. A quibble would be that I could have wished a greater sense of dramatic continuity from the orchestra, but  the effect of this vignette-oriented approach is one I am still mulling.

Among the heartless party guests, Kyle Pfortmiller distinguished himself as the Marchese d'Obigny, with a distinctive, richly-colored sound. Luigi Roni's Grenvil had forceful presence, and nuanced the tone of his silent interactions with Dessay well; it caused a shiver when he finally sang. Maria Zifchak was a vocally solid and sympathetic Annina. Dmitri Hvorostovsky did not seem to be at his effortless-sounding best but still sang a charismatic, vocally rich and dramatically nuanced Germont père. His interpretation offered chilling insights. A question begged by the libretto is, if Papa Germont knows how great the sacrifice he asks of Violetta is, if his opinion of her is transformed, what keeps him from reconsidering? Hvorostovsky answers this question: he really doesn't believe her. All Violetta's utterances are interpreted through what he "knows" about her already. He laughs at her--laughs!--when she says she's dying; for him, speaking of her sacrifice is a charade of good manners, helping her maintain a polite fiction of virtue. It is only at the very end--"Addio"--that his confidence is shaken, as he turns for an instant to regard her, his hat already in his hand. His scene with Alfredo I found very moving. Hvorostovsky's pause at the threshold, contemplating the stripped furniture, raised the possibility that he had come back to stop Violetta; at the least, he's surprised to find her already gone. "Di Provenza il mar il suol" was luxuriant, with the radiant sun of Alfredo's native soil in his father's voice. Not without reason, Germont is convinced that his plea to his son cannot fail. This aristocratic assurance was equally apparent in the finale of Act II, and aptly shaken in Act III, although the dignity of his bearing and authority of his sound were undimmed.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Die Walküre: Wunder und wilde Märe

I know it's irresponsible to play favorites with the Ring operas, and of course nearly impossible to really choose, but I love Die Walküre a lot. Wearing flat shoes and armed with chocolate, the Beloved Flatmate and I stood for Friday's performance at the Met. Very fine singing made it an emotionally intense experience. Robert Lepage's production contributes little except a dramatically useful forest for pursuer and pursued in the staged overture and second act. There was a malfunction with the projections in the final act which I mention only to say that although it shouldn't have happened, I didn't feel it was a disastrous distraction; I was prepared for Terfel and Voigt to carry the confrontation in front of a fence instead of an avalanche. More worrisome to me were the lapses in the Met orchestra's customary precision. One brass quaver may be regarded as a misfortune; two looks like carelessness. In Act I the orchestra seemed occasionally ahead of the singers, a problem which was swiftly rectified. Fabio Luisi is currently doing the work of several, and I'm not sure how much time there was for the orchestra to rehearse with him. Overall, however, it was a fine and sensitive performance. This was Wagner on a human scale, with the singers' emotions leading the expression of the orchestra throughout. The coming of spring was beautifully handled; the lovers' embrace was interrupted with a crash, but thereafter the textures of the orchestra were delicate as moonlight. Similar dynamic contrasts were used effectively in the confrontations of Act II. The overture seemed to be played from Siegmund's perspective, the fury of the storm and the threat of echoing horns taking second place to the rhythms of racing blood and hard-won breath. The orchestra found melancholy tenderness for the Wälsungs, an almost breezy tone for Brünnhilde's entrance, and gave a fiercely exuberant Ride. The Valkyries, in this most (in)famously excerpted moment, contributed exceptionally good work. This wild music was sung with beauty of tone, vivid characterization, and good handling of text, making the formal phrases sound like sisters' chatting.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Rheingold: Vollendet das ewige Werk

Last Saturday evening saw the auspicious beginning of the Met's first complete Ring cycle in the Robert Lepage production. On every level (except that of the production) I was enormously impressed. Revisiting the production, I did feel that my initial Ring-optimism had not been entirely unwarranted: this Rheingold, complete with functional rainbow bridge, does contain some powerful theatrical images, and uses space in ways which can at least be overanalyzed as alluding to the complex and precarious networks of power within the work. But it remains, in the end, primarily a backdrop for the performers.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Mozart on life and death: Orchestra of St. Luke's at Carnegie Hall

Thursday night saw the Beloved Flatmate and me at Carnegie Hall for the last in a very satisfying series of subscription concerts. Following Beethoven's Missa Solemnis and Bach's Johannespassion, Thursday's concert showcased Mozart's Requiem, performed in its completed version, and paired with his Symphony No. 34 in C Major. This was my first time (hopefully the first of many) hearing the excellent Orchestra of St. Luke's live. The presence of Iván Fischer on the podium was another gift; his apparently boundless enthusiasm for the composer gives Mozart a welcome vitality and freshness. The Thirty-Fourth Symphony was joyous and graceful, with subtle changes in dynamics like shared merriment, exuberant fanfares, and interwoven musical themes like dancers in a brightly-lit room.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Patricia Racette: Diva on Detour (and right at home)

"Would you be interested in attending a live recording session for a cabaret album Patricia Racette is doing?" is a question admitting of only one answer. And so, Gentle Readers, I found myself yesterday at the studio of GPR Records, in an atmosphere fizzing with champagne and cheerful anticipation. Eventually, we settled ourselves, obediently applauded for sound technicians, and then Craig Terry took his place at the Bechstein, and Racette entered and took possession of the room. The contrast with the physical space of the Met could hardly have been more dramatic (the diva flattened herself against the piano in mock alarm) and the smoky smolder Racette brought to the evening's program was a far cry from her Tosca. But it turns out the soprano has a voice for Piaf, as well as Puccini, and she sang the cabaret program with the same emotional directness that has won me over in the opera house. The evening was opened with an energetic medley of "Get Happy" and "I got Rhythm," filled with a joy mirrored in audience cheers when Racette sang "I got rhythm / I got music / I got my gal..." The follow-up of "Here's that Rainy Day" was given with an unrestrained tenderness pointed up by pianistic melancholy.  Racette performed Vernon Duke's "Not a Care in the World" with exuberant flair for jazzy syncopations. With the smoky sensuality of "Angel Eyes," we were all drawn into the painful aftermath of a relationship's disintegration. Necessary respite was accorded as Racette invited us to laugh with her as she sang "I'm calm (I'm calm, I'm perfectly calm.)"

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Manon: l'homme est très observateur

Manon and the male gaze
Photo (c) Ken Howard/Met Opera
Massenet's Manon, an opera about sex, scandal, and social status--oh, and true love--revolves around the character of its title heroine, and around others' perceptions of her. Manon is described as a sphinx even by her lover Des Grieux, and treated as a creature of caprice, but Laurent Pelly's production makes her a passionate young woman who pursues her own goals, playing perilous games with a hypocritical society. Maybe it was partially the updating to the 1880s which made me see the Manon of this production as a figure parallel to De Maupassant's Georges Duroy (Bel Ami): a provincial set on conquering Paris, an individual of insignificant antecedents but extraordinary personal beauty, for whom sex is not only a sensual pleasure, but a weapon of social conquest. The tone of Pelly's production seemed, like the opera's heroine, to hesitate between laughter and tears without quite knowing why. The voyeurism of male(-dominated) society was highlighted, as were Manon's resolute attempts at self-assertion within that society. But despite the near-ubiquity of sinister flâneurs, the trio of Poussette, Javotte, and Rosette were played as straightforwardly comedic, and even Guillot and de Bretigny were relatively non-threatening. In short, the production, while not devoid of style or ideas, did not always seem to have the courage of its convictions.

Fabio Luisi's leadership of the Met orchestra was light of touch, and sensitive to the quicksilver undercurrents in the score. Even when Massenet's characters dissemble, his orchestra reveals what they are thinking and feeling; Luisi and the Met forces did so with subtlety nearly always, and with well-timed escalations of passionate intensity. I especially appreciated the nuanced handling of the frequent ostinati in the strings, and the fine work of the woodwinds throughout. Anne-Carolyn Bird, with an agile, bright soprano and vivid presence, made a memorable Poussette. The Guillot of Christophe Mortagne was another standout: Mortagne sang with bright tone and assured diction, and acted with comic opera flair. David Pittsinger sang the Comte des Grieux with consistently elegant phrasing and rich, expressive sound; his Act III scene with Beczala was notable for its emotional nuance. Paulo Szot sounded somewhat grainy, but made a charismatic (and thoroughly caddish) Lescaut.


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