Saturday, November 07, 2015

Lulu at the Met

The Met’s new production of Lulu reminded me of something that might seem only a detail of the opera's overstuffed plot: Dr. Ludwig Schön owns and edits a newspaper.

In the fin-de-siècle, newspapers were the ultimate and ubiquitous marker of bourgeois respectability. They shaped their readers’ daily experience of the world. We see this in Lulu: Lulu’s dance career is made by Schön’s paper, and news frequently arrives via newsprint. The Acrobat insults Schön’s paper as a “Käseblatt” (literally “cheese paper,” meaning poor boulevard press) but I imagine it must be a middlebrow broadsheet, part of Schön’s own facade of propriety. These are the papers that critics like Karl Kraus—whose scowl looms over this production at one point—condemned as pernicious and hypocritical, an instrument of the powerful which concealed more than they reveal.

Chopin Without Piano

Barbara Wysocka and Michał Zadara’s Chopin Without Piano, which was performed at Philadelphia’s Fringe Arts last week, begins like an ordinary orchestral concert.  A conductor and a soloist bow in front of an orchestra; the soloist sits behind a grand piano, and the orchestra begins to play Chopin’s e minor piano concerto.

But, as its title suggests, Chopin Without Piano takes a turn when the piano would enter. Instead of playing, the “pianist” begins to declaim the piano part, words replacing the piano’s voice. What follows is a wide-ranging reflection on Chopin’s life, legacy, and place in official Polish culture--as well as, of course, consideration of the concertos themselves. The text, by Wysocka (who performs it as the “pianist”) and Zadara (who directed) is assembled from Chopin’s letters, writings about Chopin, writings from Chopin’s day, and more contemporary work.

Saturday, October 17, 2015


Christine Goerke, Andris Nelsons, Gun-Brit Barkmin
Does a concert Elektra dance? Does she stash her axe under the podium?

Elektra is performed in concert relatively frequently, and for good reason. (So is Salome, for the same reasons.) Strauss’s scores showcase a major orchestra and conductor to thrilling and very loud effect. It also has a drama whose decadent horrors—particularly the constant invocations of bodily decay and disease in Hofmannsthal's libretto—can effectively be left to the imagination of the listener, an approach sometimes superior to the inevitable disappointment of ratty costumes and a dim unit set of suspiciously styrofoam rocks.

Productions of Elektra almost end up as screaming, over-the-top camp extravaganzas. And despite its comparatively minimalist visuals, this concert presentation with the Boston Symphony Orchestra was actually no exception! I mean that, however, in the best possible way. Andris Nelsons and Christine Goerke made the kind of epic, high octane, extremely loud, occasionally touching opera that you don’t see nearly often enough. It’s the kind of excess that works because it’s done with utter conviction.

Even though there was no set, this was not an Elektra that left everything to the imagination. None of the singers used scores and it would be more accurate to call it semi-semi-staged. In the first scene, when Elektra glowers at the maids without saying anything, there’s no musical reason for her to appear onstage—and yet there she was, loitering between the first and second violins. Most of the stage directions were present in so much as to make the text intelligible—Chrysothemis raises her hands before Elektra asks her why she is doing so, and, yes, the performance ended with a fine stomping Elektra dance. There was, however, no axe, and the Fifth Maid escaped Maids #1-4 unscathed.

The floorplan was smartly devised: two clear areas on either side of the podium. (This put Nelsons further from the orchestra and he seemed to be relying on his baton rather his usual frequently hands-only style.) The amount of space was limited but allowed for Elektra and Chrystothemis to start their scene on either side of the podium, and then Elektra and Klytemnästra, and eventually Elektra and Orest, and well, for the most part Elektra doesn’t like being near anyone, really, and this was a good way of doing that. It also probably assisted in the performance’s exceptionally flattering balance. The singers were nearly always audible, even without the pit. (It is a far preferable setup to the platforms behind the orchestra that you sometimes get at Carnegie Hall.)

The center of the performance was Christine Goerke’s formidable Elektra. Wearing a tomato-red dress, she made Elektra crazed from the very beginning. Fortunately she has the vocal goods to back this up, singing with a huge, rich middle and lower voice. She doesn’t just sing this score tirelessly but also musically! The ending of the Recognition Scene, the moment of some of the role’s most lyrical writing, was both expressive and sung with a beautiful legato line. Her top notes are not as large as the rest of the voice but nonetheless have a piercing intensity.

It’s a performance that embraces the tradition of demented excess. When you start the opera at 11 you arguably don’t have anywhere to go but Goerke has the resources to sustain and vary that intensity for the whole opera. Her moments of sanity tended to be snarky: her asides to lovelorn Chrysothemis, some of her comments to her mother. At times, however, I wondered what a more internalized portrayal would look like, probably because I watched the Chéreau production on DVD (the one that is soon coming to the Met) before this performance. Without going into detail about that, it made Goerke’s approach seem a little Ryan Murphy, a little gothic. But commenting that Elektra is too much probably means that Elektra is not your thing.

As Chrysothemis, Gun-Brit Barkmin had a vibrant way with the text and the clearest diction in the cast. I could understand all the words and they sounded unusually spontaneous. Her voice is lean, focused, and pretty big, but I would have preferred more warmth and plushness in the sound in this particular role. Her top notes sound squeezed rather than open, and the end of her opening monologue didn’t really quite come off as it should. She is a striking performer (and her 1920s outfit was fabulous) but I don’t think it’s a beautiful voice.

As Klytämnestra, Jane Henschel was powerful, but sometimes her singing seemed more a collection of special effects--growls, whispers, sudden breaks into the upper register--than an organically coherent performance. Her Klytämnestra was a relatively by the books madwoman, effective but not as convincingly original. On the male side, Gerhard Siegel made a vivid cameo as Aegisth, establishing an oily character in no time and then vanishing almost as quickly. (Longtime comprimario all star Mark Schowalter did something similar in the even shorter role of the Young Servant.) In the longer role of Orest, James Rutherford got off to a nice, deep, Wagnerian sort of start but failed to build through the Recognition Scene as Goerke ran off with it. The gaggle of maids was solid and I was impressed by Mary Phillips as #3 (I don't know the score that well but they were helpfully lined up in numerical order) and I happy to see and hear Nadine Secunde as the Overseer.

But the other major star of the performance was, of course, Nelsons and the orchestra. He is a major conductor and this was very exciting, tense conducting, perfectly milked at the climaxes and not afraid of the crunchier moments. He can get real texture in the intimate moments, notably the fluttering winds in Klytämnestra's monologue. The brass sounded terrific, but I do think there’s a missing ingredient from Nelsons and the orchestra’s Straussian recipe: something about the strings. They were there and they were doing their thing, but Nelsons’ Strauss is almost all glower and no glow. That radiance has to peek out occasionally, and it’s usually in the violins. Perhaps this is because I still have the sound of the Wiener Staatsoper faintly in my ears, but I wish he had found more of those moments that gives some light to this violent score.

Nelsons and co. repeat this Elektra tonight in Boston and in New York next week and you absolutely need to see if it you can. The Met’s Elektra this spring is going to be very different. And did anyone else notice this YNS Elektra later this fall? Hmm.
Strauss, Elektra. Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall, Boston, 10/15/15. Conducted by Andris Nelsons with Christine Goerke
 photos copyright Boston Symphony Orchestra/Liza Voll

Sunday, September 27, 2015

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.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Met's new season by the numbers

As I was putting together my Met preview post, I thought to myself, “so much Donizetti!” So I fired up Excel and made some charts. The above pie chart shows numbers of productions by composers.

There is a lot of Donizetti. He and Puccini are tied for first by number of productions. I like Donizetti just fine and the Three Queens Not-a-Trilogy (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, Roberto Devereux) is a one-off special occasion. But I’m not sure if he merits more than twice the number of productions than Richard Strauss and Wagner put together.

Donizetti operas must sell, though I suspect this is not based on the composer's name recognition. These operas are either star singer vehicles (the Not-a-Trilogy) or frothy comedies (the other two, Don Pasquale and L’elisir d’amore). Also, they’re far cheaper to produce than Strauss and Wagner.

You know what else sells? Puccini. If you count performances rather than productions, you will find that Puccini is occupying the Met for many more performances than Donizetti.

Bohème, Turandot, Tosca, and Butterfly all get runs of over a dozen performances each, while the Donizettis average around seven each. (Verdi also gets some longer series.)

Both Puccini and Donizetti—along with Verdi, who is next in line after these two—represent a mainstream American idea of what opera is. Not the most interesting idea, in my opinion, and one that would benefit from including more music from other time periods and traditions.

Here is a chart showing things by language. I love Italian opera but this is ridiculous.

The Pearl Fishers is the only French opera onstage this season! And neither of the English-sung operas were written in English; they’re an Italian opera and an Austrian operetta given in translation (Barber, for families, and Fledermaus, for Jeremy Sams superfans).

Just to reiterate some absences I’ve already noted: there’s nothing composed after 1935 (all due respect to Friedrich Cerha, the completer of Lulu) and no Slavic repertoire.

If you look at dates of composition, you get this. Only Mozart, Turandot, and Lulu fall outside the “long nineteenth century”:
Notes for the pedantic: Simon Boccanegra is accounted as the second version, Tannhäuser is the Paris version, Cav/Pag dates are averaged to 1891, and Lulu is dated at 1935 because that’s when Berg stopped writing it and putting its date off until the three-act premiere in the 70's seemed excessive. Turandot, however, is given by its premiere date of 1926 like the rest. If you find this grossly unfair, make your own chart.

How can you build a diverse audience with such a skewed repertoire? The Met, probably more than any other major opera house, proclaims itself to represent opera in toto. But, even given their limitations of space and structure, opera is a far wider and more varied art form than what they're giving us.

"Productions by Composer" is corrected because my first version unintentionally excluded Rossini. Data from 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Met Opera, 2015-16

"So glad I got this newsprint instead of the Olivier Py Lulu."
Hello, Met-goers! The Met put its tickets on sale in June this year, several months before their recent custom, and I missed writing my usual preview because I have spent the intervening months trying to figure out how to use the Met’s new website otherwise occupied. But we still have a week before things start and it doesn’t look like much has sold out yet (though the Saturday matinees are, as always, the hottest tickets) so I believe this is still timely.

Programming note: As I mentioned earlier, I'm now based in western Massachusetts, where I'm a postdoc at Smith College. (Ask me about my spring semester opera history class!) I'm still only a bus ride away from New York but it's become a somewhat longer bus ride. I'm closer to Boston and should be there periodically as well.

This year has a few exceptionally interesting operas among the new productions while most of the revivals are on the routine side. But perhaps some fortuitous casting will revive a previously moribund production (as happened to multiple operas last season). The season skews nineteenth century, with no Baroque and Lulu (1935, third act completed 1979) the most recent composition (second place: Turandot, premiere 1926). Also, this is a year without any Slavic operas at all—no Janacek, no Tchaikovsky, no Musorgsky, no nothing. When will we get the production of The Excursions of Mr. Broucek that we’re clamoring for?

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Written on Skin in NYC

Unusual for a new opera, George Benjamin’s Written on Skin arrived in New York with its reputation preceding it. It has been making the European rounds since 2012 and has been praised to the skies almost everywhere. Its three Lincoln Center Festival performances last week marked its untimely staged US debut.

And it’s hard to imagine that Written on Skin could have been developed and premiered by an American opera company. Certainly not, at least, by one of the behemoths. Martin Crimp’s libretto is a simple story which becomes complex in its telling; it doesn’t have a celebrity historical personality as its protagonist, isn’t based on a hit film or book, and makes no clear claim to cultural importance. The subject isn’t, like many American operas, aggressively checking off boxes like genres suggested by Netflix. (Cold Mountain? Hmmm, Literary Fiction Set in the Civil War With Strong Female Characters.)

Written on Skin
is instead purposefully elliptical. It’s filled with symbols, fragmented narrative frames, and characters speaking in the third person. Its score is, though at times lyrical, rather thornier than the film music style which has become most popular in American premieres. It has also eclipsed most if not all of those works in its acclaim and popularity.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Bayreuth from Wieland to crocodiles

Audience members headed to the Bayreuth Festival weren’t happy. The train route from Nuremberg, the principal way to reach this small town in northern Bavaria, was suspended because of construction. They would have to take a bus instead. It would be slow. It would be uncomfortable.Yet much of the renown of the festival, which runs through Aug. 28, has been rooted in its inaccessibility, in its steadfast resistance to speed and comfort.

I wrote about the Bayreuth Festival for this Sunday's New York Times Arts & Leisure section. For the record, I took the bus out of Bayreuth and its seats were more comfortable than those of the Festspielhaus.

I do plan on writing about the rest of the Ring here, but I have been busy with this and other deadlines, as well as moving into a new apartment in a new state (hi, everyone in Northampton, MA!). I am also going to Written on Skin this weekend. More later.

Friday, July 31, 2015

There Will Be Wälsungs (Castorf Ring, 2)

After an animated Das Rheingold, Frank Castorf’s Bayreuth Die Walküre is a rather flat affair. There are rumblings of a larger plan, but as expected they’re more like suggestions of themes than anything systematic. For one thing, the narrative isn’t linear. We’ve gone from an indeterminate trashy American motel in Rheingold back to the 1880s. The 1880s in--you guessed it!--Baku, Azerbaijan. (Sorry if you did not, in fact, guess it. Perhaps it is helpful to remember that Castorf is from East Berlin.) There’s an oil drilling boom and once again people/gods/dwarfs/singers are destroying everything. The Wälsungs Siegmund and Sieglinde, however, don’t have any real place in this ecosystem, and this turns out to be a problem. Musically, though, this was a very strong installment, making the cleft between sound and stage ever wider.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Real Housewives of Valhalla (Castorf Ring, 1)

Many of Bayreuth’s audience members can tell you about Ring cycles going back decades. They know the Ring very well. Not only that, but when we--and now I mean all of us--go to Bayreuth we engage with Wagner in a certain way: immersed, initiated, as part of a thread of history.  We are here to contemplate, to chew over things. We see the Ring as a work whose meaning and presentation has changed through the decades, as works with life cycles and symbolic significance. And of course the works themselves construct their own, internal networks of meaning.

The challenge of Frank Castorf’s Ring, now in its third year, is that it cannot be read in those terms. It rejects those premises. The more you ask what it “means,” the less you will see what it is.

Here are a few thoughts on Rheingold.