Monday, June 08, 2015

Orninthology: "Yardbird" in Philadelphia

That Yardbird, Daniel Schnyder and Bridgette Wimberly’s new Charlie Parker opera, should begin with its famous subject’s death is not surprising. Opera is often fixated on greatness and endings. Like Oscar, Opera Philadelphia's other new opera this season, Yardbird concerns not its celebrity protagonist’s achievements but rather his legacy and renown. The subject—Oscar Wilde or, in this case, Parker—is a kind of synecdoche for American regional opera as a whole. His cultural authority is asserted rather than argued. His creations lie in the past while his descendents squabble over ownership of his life.

It’s a shame that this opera doesn’t work dramatically, because musically there is much to enjoy, and the performance is excellent.

Friday, May 29, 2015

TB is cured—La traviata in London

I spent last weekend in London at a seminar discussing canon formation in opera. When, how, and why have some operas become canonic while others have not? Who gets to decide? It’s a complicated question (and one we will attempt to tackle in a book). But it was only fitting that while I was in town I saw La traviata, today one of the most canonic of all operas. (The other operas on were, go figure, La bohème and Carmen, but my schedule precluded attending either of those.)

I love Traviata, but I’ve seen it a million times. It’s the kind of opera that I go to see if a singer or conductor or the production particularly appeals to me, or if I feel like I just want that nice familiar feeling (that's canonicity from an audience's perspective). In this case,  the novelty wasn't the production: the Royal Opera House has trotted out this Richard Eyre production on the regular for more than 20 years. It was actually my first experience of Traviata, in the form of the DVD with Angela Gheorghiu; I’d never seen it live before. I signed up because I wanted to see Sonya Yoncheva, because she’s the latest hot singer and when it comes to hot singer bandwagons I am eager to hop on (or tell you that you should not hop on) as early as possible. (In this case I arguably already missed the boat.) She cancelled and her replacement was Marina Rebeka, a singer I’ve heard before and think is only OK. Bummer.

I probably should have given Marina Rebeka slightly more credit. Technically speaking she is an extremely accomplished singer: exceptionally accurate and possessed of the wide arsenal of skills to sing all three acts of Violetta with equal strength. Her coloratura was good in Act 1’s “Sempre libera” (and she sang the final interpolated E-flat), she’s plenty loud in Act 2’s dramatic outbursts, and she’s tasteful and graceful enough for Act 3’s letter aria. Her sound is slightly metallic with a dark sheen, attractive if not immediately memorable. As an actress, she did all the production asked her to do. The problem was that she is not gifted in showing us her character’s inner life. Most obviously, she did very little to suggest Violetta’s illness until Act 3 and even there it was rather spotty. For all its accomplishment, her performance remained curiously unmoving.

The last time I wrote about Traviata I was dealing with Natalie Dessay, a singer whose vocal fragility at times merged with her character’s bodily decay. Dessay was obviously dancing on the edge, pushing her voice places it didn’t want to go. That was a dangerous game and musically there was a price to pay. But her performance had an undeniable depth, even tragedy, which Rebeka’s heartiness never approached. This isn’t an either/or proposition--vocal health is, in general, a good thing and it didn’t really get in, say, Anja Harteros’s way--but it’s nonetheless an interesting question. Rebeka’s vocal wholesomeness ended up being, well, a symptom of her larger disinterest in vocal acting. Your voice doesn’t need to be falling apart, but you need to somehow use it to suggest your character is. A production this bland needs a stronger presence at its center.

Rebeka didn’t really have any help from Marc Minkowski in the pit, who made the fast parts very fast and the slow parts extra, extra slow. He did, however, in his customary HIP fashion, open up many of the opera’s customary cuts, including all the cabalettas (it felt like some of the cabalettas had their own cabalettas) and the second verses of “Ah! fors’è lui” and “Addio del passato.” His prelude was the quietest and slowest I’ve ever heard, a very thin thread of sound which eased into the (still slow) waltz. Later in Act 1 there were some unfortunate coordination issues with the chorus.

Elsewhere in the cast, Ismael Jordi was an energetic, bouncing Alfredo. His voice is bright and fresh and also kind of uneven. At times he micromanages his phrasing and color to discontinuous effect, he bops between registers, and his intonation wasn’t always accurate. That being said, all the effort Rebeka didn’t expend, he definitely did. My pick of the cast might have been Franco Vassallo’s Gérmont, to which he gave a highly sympathetic interpretation. He’s got a real Italian sound and made the text sound more spontaneous than any of his castmates.

I don’t know if there’s a lot to say about the production, which is itself locally canonic. It’s not, however, particularly iconic; the most well-known image is probably Violetta’s Act 2 Scene 2 dress (right). It’s nineteenth-century period, the sets are relatively spare (lots of circular elements), and if you are looking for a symbolic interpretation of the gypsies and bullfighters you are definitely barking up the wrong production. I don't think this production invented the so-called “victory lap,” in which Violetta takes a triumphant jog around the stage before she dies, but given Rebeka’s blooming health I think it’s safe to say that this was not its most cathartic iteration.

The production continues for 200 more performances this spring and summer and another 750 next season. (Click on the link if you don’t believe me.)

I will be back at the ROH in July for Guillaume Tell. As much as I like London this again has far more to do with academic conferences than anything else. Why aren’t there more conferences in Berlin? But first I will be seeing Yardbird back home in Philadelphia, where I have already returned.
Verdi, La traviata. Royal Opera House, 5/25/15. Production by Richard Eyre (nth revival), conducted by Marc Minkowski with Marina Rebeka (Violetta), Ismael Jordi (Alfredo), Franco Vasallo (Gérmont)
photos copyright Catherine Ashmore/ROH

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Rake progresses at Curtis

Often I dislike schtick in opera staging. A mannered, heightened non-reality frequently leads to cliché: a reliance on a narrow vocabulary of gestures and expressive possibilities and thus a fussy and old-fashioned style of opera. I’d rather see something new and real. But there are many exceptions and I think Stravinsky and Auden's The Rake’s Progress is one of the few operas where some sense of schtick is sort of necessary. Because this is a postmodern piece, an opera which operates self-consciously and at a degree of remove from itself. It dryly, dispassionately, brutally enacts cliché in the form of musical forms, styles, and plot devices long thought dead. That ain’t recitative. That’s ironic recitative.

With Rake, what you see isn’t exactly what you get. And when you collapse those layers the result isn’t very interesting. Such is the result of this Curtis Opera Theater production, at least, probably the first disappointing production I’ve seen from this formidable school. I admit that this was the first time I’d seen Rake live in a theater (I would have liked to see the Met production but my giant pile of grading forbade it), so my experience is rather limited. But while the production was musically quite rewarding, something was a little off.

Jordan Fein’s production rarely stops moving and tells the story in good style. But it also openly courts sympathy and humanity in a way that is difficult to reconcile with this cold, dry text and its angular music--or at least one that didn’t quite come off. It’s hard to feel much for a character stupid enough to believe, as Tom Rakewell does, in a machine that turns rocks into bread. But the principals act with relative naturalism, their action less tightly controlled and carefully choreographed than, say, last fall’s manic Gianni Schicchi

Amy Rubin’s attractive unit set provides one surreal element, a single unchanging room whose curtains occasionally billow inwards, propelled by some sinister wind. (This and the staging also suggest that the whole thing might have been a dream. Which, as a Konzept, doesn't really pass.) Assorted chairs and tables make up the rest of the set; Ásta Hostetter’s colorful costumes are also on the schticky side, particularly among the chorus, who are characterized with broader strokes. Anne Trulove, appropriately, remains steadfast in the same dress for the whole opera. (Sorry, I haven't found any photos.)

Anne is the character who comes off best here, though I suspect that is often true. Rachel Sterrenberg has a sweet and light soprano which carries well. The character doesn’t have a lot of depth--such is the peril of attempting a straight-faced staging of a postmodern piece--but Sterrenbrg made her sincere and honest. In the title role, French-Canadian tenor Jean-Michel Richer sounded very impressive: a substantial, musical lyric tenor which sounds destined for Faust and Alfredo. His tone is a little denser and, er, richer than one might expect to hear in English-language rep. The effect was not at all bad, though in a few places his English was. But there are more standard rep operas in French than in English, after all. As Nick Shadow, Thomas Shivone was loud and deep but occasionally sounded more buffo than menacing; the staging didn’t really help him out with the menace either. Lauren Eberwein was a glam, silent film-star style Baba the Turk (who didn’t seem to deserve the treatment she got) and made every work intelligible--even though the text-setting in this opera intentionally confounds intelligibility. (I saw one of two casts; I was there on Saturday night.)

Curtis doesn’t train choral singers, and the chorus was made up of a small number of obvious soloists (only around 10). The result was poorly blended and not great, and there is a fair amount of choral singing here. The orchestra, however, was much improved over March’s Ariadne, and Mark Russell Smith’s conducting kept things taut and energized.

Not Curtis’s best, but nonetheless an impressive showing for any school.
Stravinsky and Auden, The Rake's Progress. Curtis Opera Theater at the Prince Music Theater, 3/9/15.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

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.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Don Carlo in Philadelphia

Don Carlo is a big and ambitious opera for Opera Philadelphia, even in the four act version. I’m happy to report that with this production the risk has paid off: the cast, led by Eric Owens and Leah Crocetto, does the best singing I’ve heard from Opera Philadelphia in years. Tim Albery’s generic period production is rather bland, but it’s well-acted and appropriately dark. In a city which has long been dismissed as “not an opera town,” this is a production any regional company would be proud to perform.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Death Clown for Cutie (Cav and Pag at the Met)

Men are sensitive and easily injured souls, as ten minutes in any internet comment section would tell you. Such is also the gist of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, the august double bill of verismo which presents us twice with the even more august situation of baritones interfering with soprano-tenor relationships and it all getting very bloody. In the Met's new production, Fabio Luisi makes these high octane scores sound quite classy, but otherwise the two diverge: a dreary, clunky Cav is followed by a fun and punchy Pag. Oh, one other thing in common: for better and for worse, Marcelo Alvarez is the tenor. I shouldn’t be putting that last, which might give you an idea of what is going on here.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Upcoming Events

Obligatory Don Carlo photo
Hi everyone! I have been buried in work recently but I promise I have not been skipping lots of opera in Philadelphia. Philadelphia simply hasn’t been providing much opera.

That being said, when it rains it pours. In the next few weeks everyone has new productions:

Upcoming Opera in Philadelphia:
  • Don Carlo at Opera Philadelphia, April 24-May 3: this production has a really great cast (including Leah Crocetto, Michelle DeYoung, and Eric Owens) and I am looking forward to it a lot!
  • Faust at AVA, April 25-May 5: I will probably skip this because I can do without this opera even when I’m not busy. 
  • Bernstein’s Mass with the Philadelphia Orchestra, April 30-May 3: OK, it’s not an opera, but it has a lot of singing and is directed by Kevin Newbury, conducted by YNS. Strangely, the singers are still TBA.
  • The Rake’s Progress at Curtis: May 7-10: Going to Curtis Opera Theater is never, ever a bad decision.
Opera Philadelphia has also announced their 2015-16 season and it’s a good one, including Traviata with the excellent Lisette Oropesa and the local premiere of Cold Mountain by Jennifer Higdon.

I will not, however, be there! I had a great year in Philly (I didn’t go to as many concerts as I would have liked but this was what I expected) but I am moving elsewhere for the fall, because I am an early career academic and this is how it works. I will tell you about that sometime later but for now if you are an opera person in Boston and can tell me about what is happening there please do!

But before that I will be going to Europe this summer, where I will be going to some conferences, seeing the Ring in Bayreuth, going to the Bregenzer Festspiele for the first time, and probably some other things, which are, like the singers in Philadelphia’s Bernstein Mass, TBA.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Norman Lebrecht to host Fox News show

Confidential sources tell us that, following the blazing success of Piers Morgan, British import Norman Lebrecht will be joining Fox News. The British novelist, blogger, and Google Alert adept will host a weeknight talk show entitled "Norman Baits."

"Lebrecht will bring a fine appreciation of fine culture to our viewers," said Fox News chief Roger Ailes. "He just told me about this Mahler guy! I'm having all our shows open with different sections of the Symphony No. 5 starting next week!"

Lebrecht's show will consist of several regular features, among them "Classical Music Death Watch [People]," "Classical Music Death Watch [Institutions]," "Nazi Watch," and "Totally Not Disingenuous Segments About Hot Women (Not) in the Wiener Philharmoniker."

The second half of the program will consist of interviews with a guest panel. Planned guests include Jackie Evancho, Heather MacDonald, Alexander Pereira, Rufus Wainwright, Lorin Maazel, Alan Gordon, and lots of people from Opera-L. While many of these guests will be new faces for Fox News audiences, we are assured that they will make for a fresh and lively debate.

One roadblock has already been surmounted: Lebrecht's chosen genre of classical has tested poorly with audiences. Thus all musical examples will be replaced by covers of the same repertoire performed by Kid Rock. This will also increase Kid Rock's audience by 1000%, a goal which has apparently been on the Fox News agenda for some time.

The set of Lebrecht's show will reportedly resemble a large study. It will be full of LPs ("but not new ones"), books (rumor has it that many copies of his book Maestros, Mysteries, and Madness languish unsold due to legal action), cigars, and his priceless collection of great conductors' spitoons.

Reports that Lebrecht's show has been underwritten by the Koch brothers could not be confirmed at press time.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Ariadne auf Philadelphia

Prepare yourselves, for Curtis Opera has given us the Gilligan’s Island-themed Ariadne auf Naxos we’ve all been waiting for. But while that might be this production’s most memorable feature--we always have a tendency to identify productions by a signature, the [opera] with the [gimmick], like “the Così with the hippies” or “the Bohème with the UFO”--it’s hardly the production’s only feature.

This is a co-production between Opera Philadelphia and Curtis, but the performers are Curtis students (with one alum, no prizes for guessing which role). The 600-seat Perelman Theater is an ideal space for this opera and for these singers. Like most Curtis productions, the performers are enthusiastic and all at different points in their development. And, like most Curtis productions, it’s inventive and more than the sum of its parts.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Wilde at Heart ("Oscar" in Philadelphia)


Opera Philadelphia has made an admirable committment to commissioning and performing new opera. They have programmed two new works this season and are developing more for the future. One reason this is admirable is because it comes with great risk: the road to successful new operas is littered with unsuccessful new operas. Unfortunately I must put their current production, Oscar, into the latter category. Based on the final years of Oscar Wilde’s life, the opera was previously seen at Santa Fe but is now receiving its regional premiere, again with David Daniels in the title role. But it is not a satisfying work. Theodore Morrison’s bland, anonymous music fails to elevate Morrison and John Cox’s uneven hagiography of a libretto.