Thursday, May 22, 2014

You say you want a revolution (Figaro times two)

Like the ending of Don Giovanni, the finale of Le nozze di Figaro restores order and hierarchy. But, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that this peace between master and servants is a tenuous one, and only a few years later the underclass would not be so placated. Today, its title characters’ suggestions of insurrection may be less incendiary than they were at the opera’s premiere but they are instead indexical—well, sometimes, at least. The Ghost of French Revolutions Future occasionally haunted the two Figaros I saw recently*: the McCarter Theatre’s production of Beaumarchais’s play in Princeton and the Royal Opera House’s revival of Mozart’s opera in London.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Don Giovanni hits on Philadelphia

"Maybe choosing this particular lady wasn't one of my best ideas"
Don Giovanni never reveals what is going on inside his head. As he tears his way through the opera bearing his name he never stops to explain himself. His only important solo moments are extremely brief: the Act 1 “champagne aria” and Act 2 serenade. He is the opera’s mysterious center, but he also can, sometimes, more or less disappear. Such is the situation in Opera Philadelphia’s current production, which boasts a fine musical performance with a few first-rate singers, a dubious production, and not very much Don.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Das war in Ordnung, Mandryka

I am sorry not to blog; I have been facing major academic deadlines and decisions every day. When I finish working, I have found myself too spent to consider writing something else. But I saw Arabella at the Met last Friday, and I have thoughts. I enjoy this opera a lot, probably more than it strictly merits. The beatific parts like the Act 1 soprano duet, Act 2 love duet, and last five minutes are, for a Strauss fan, just so good in their extraordinary concentration of what we love about Strauss opera. And even the talkier passages are enlivened with brilliant orchestral details. Hofmannsthal’s libretto is an interesting, subtle allegory of Gründerzeit Austro-Hungarian politics (Austrian Arabella needs to reconcile with Mandryka, the uncouth East). This is something that almost no one seems to notice--probably because it tends to be concealed by the color and expressive directness of Strauss’s music. But I’ll stop. As may be obvious, I’ve “worked on” this piece (as academics say), and you can read that essay later (it isn't out yet).

This Met revival is, alas, not a particularly good Arabella. It has the odd misfortune to get the single most difficult role unusually right--that would be Michael Volle’s excellent Mandryka--and have issues in the comparatively easy lyric soprano department. Word was that this revival was originally scheduled for the phenomenal Anja Harteros, who withdrew a while ago. Her replacement in the title role, Swedish soprano Malin Byström, was new to me. She certainly has a lovely, warm tone, and the voice is very big in the middle. But her registers are unbalanced, and the warmth stopped around the F sharp at the top of the staff. Alas, Arabella is a role that really depends on easy, beautiful high notes at the big moments, and there Byström suddenly sounded insecure and thin. She is a decent but generic actress, lacking a certain glamor and vulnerability to bring this part off (my friend thought she was matronly--she certainly didn’t seem like the flirt Zdenka calls her).

She didn't have much help from the pit or rest of the cast. Philippe Auguin’s busy conducting had little sense of the work’s flow, nor did those beatific bits glow as they should. Juliane Banse was a later replacement as Zdenka, and was unhappily cast. I’ve enjoyed her singing in other roles, but honestly her Zdenka days are past her by a decade or so. Her grainy, dark, smallish voice sounded labored, particularly in the higher ranges, which have to be even sweeter and easier than Arabella’s. This is not a difficult role to cast and I wonder why the Met could not locate someone more suitable, even on short notice.

Roberto Saccà similarly sounded underpowered and worn as Matteo. He was nearly sung off the stage by Brian Jagde as third-in-line suitor Elemer. Jagde is a powerful Heldentenor-in-training. I’m not sure if he could sing Matteo--it’s rather high--but I certainly would like to hear him in something where he has more to do. The other supporting roles such as Adelaide, the Fortune Teller, and Waldner were uniformly poorly sung. One suspects that all the good Arabella supporting players are in Salzburg at present. I feel sorry for anyone who is obliged to sing chirpy Fiakermilli, but I still should report that Audrey Luna sounded very nasal.

"Mandryka, you look dehydrated."
The main redeeming singer, however, was Michael Volle as Mandryka. This is an awfully difficult role and almost no one sings it well. (I say this having seen the opera a few times and having seen every Arabella DVD in print and several that aren’t in print. See above, academic work.) Volle does it with ease and character, a solid warm tone and good diction. He’s a bit too comic for my taste--his Mandryka is very much a bumbling, fumbling bumpkin--and reads on the older side (he’s not Bernd Weikl in the Schenk TV movie), but he gives the character texture and life, and his singing has real dignity.

The Otto Schenk production can perhaps be blamed for the dramatic blandness. Productions of this opera tend to tilt towards Strauss’s opulence rather than Hofmannsthal’s grit, and this one is no exception. If the Waldners are so broke, I would suggest to them that they still have a lot of knickknacks they could put in hock. The staging of Act 3 in particular is cluttered and over-busy. (I also think this act also benefits from some cuts--I think this might have been the least-cut Arabella Act 3 I’ve seen.) When a lighting gel fluttered down from the flies during Arabella and Mandryka’s love duet, it would have been a Verfremdungeffekt if we were in certain German opera houses, but here it really wasn’t.

I don't think I've yet seen a fully convincing production of this opera, one which balances the alternating enchantment and motor-like energy of the music with the hardheaded, operetta-like libretto--is it too foolishly optimistic to suggest that the Met try to come up with one should they produce it again? Or to some other opera house: has the often-underrated Claus Guth directed this one yet? He has a real eye for this period, and for the thin line between fantasy and reality. I think he might be your guy.

I also have thoughts about Platée from the other week. More precisely, I want to write about Simone Kermes, because she is something else. Maybe soon!

Strauss, Arabella. Metropolitan Opera, 4/11/14.

Photos copyright Marty Sohl/Met.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Met plans "old media" outreach

While HD cinema broadcasts are generally considered to be the signature achievement of Peter Gelb’s Metropolitan Opera intendancy, the Met announced today that they will be launching several new “old media” initiatives. “Classical music has been fixated on finding a ‘new audience’ via Facebook and Twitter,” Gelb noted, “but most of our audience members don’t know what a Twitter is.” This project will include a number of publications such as books, sheet music, a TV miniseries, and LaserDiscs. “Maybe we’ll pick up some hipsters while we’re at it,” Gelb noted optimistically.

Forthcoming is Gelb’s History of Opera, a 300-page book to be published in May. Gelb’s history promises an easy-reading, contemporary perspective on why we love opera, particularly for those who find Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker’s monumental recent history insufficiently focused on the nineteenth century. (Readers are advised that the five pages devoted to the seventeenth century deal solely with the furnishings of Handel’s birth house.) For example, we discover that Mozart is great because conductors love him and a reasonable number of people can sing his work (though Gelb does not explain why he manages to locate these singers only occasionally).

Gelb’s chapter on star image through bel canto opera is innovative, though purists may object because he doesn’t mention Maria Callas and/or Joan Sutherland in every sentence. The chapter on Wagner is less successful, betraying a fascination with the technology of Bayreuth without clearly noting why we should care. London readers will be happy to find the chapter on production concerns solely the Royal Opera House and English National Opera. Reports that the book was ghostwritten by a snarky, underfunded musicology grad student could not be confirmed.
A recommender is rumored to be a new addition to the Met's website
The second major project will be a TV miniseries, to be hosted by Met favorite Danielle De Niese. It is promoted as a combination between recent hit Cosmos and The Real Housewives of New Jersey, providing both a glimpse into the glamor and drama backstage (focused on De Niese’s own performance in the major diva role of Despina) and a 4D visualization of the Met house, promising an enhanced audience experience that is unmatched by any actual visit to the opera house. (Also, no one will make a cursory search of your handbag.)

Subsequent episodes will feature Diana Damrau’s hilarious Meryl Streep impression, stand-up opera comedy by Matthias Goerne, and a workout video led by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Anja Harteros has unfortunately withdrawn from the series for personal reasons; she will replaced by Angela Gheorghiu, who is sure to be a reality TV star. Judges Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be playing the roles of Statler and Waldorf.

Additional elements of the old media project includes branded sheet music, which Gelb heard really raked it in for a certain Viennese theater back in 1908. An opera karaoke machine is also planned. When asked if this karaoke might be part of the Met’s contingency plan in the event of a strike in September 2014, Gelb grimaced and said, “no comment. Have you always wanted to sing Cherubino, by any chance?”

Previously:
Met plans outreach, new Ring Cycle
Met announces new initiatives

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Werther or not

Massenet's Werther has always been a slow burn opera for me: it’s modest, quiet, it starts slowly. But at some point I notice that it’s got me, and it doesn’t let go. This Met production takes far longer to exert its pull than it should, but it more or less gets there anyway.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Prince Igor at the Met

Director Dmitri Tcherniakov’s highly anticipated Met debut is a new production of Borodin's Prince Igor. It seems a safe corner of the repertoire to cache a potentially incendiary production—a rarely-produced, textually unstable work from Russia, a nation that has generally been considered peripheral to the operatic tradition as a whole. In other words, it’s not an opening night production of La traviata at La Scala, where Tcherniakov was, er, not exactly warmly welcomed. In contrast, this Prince Igor is subtle, unflashy, and sometimes as fragmentary and elusive as the opera text it stages. It’s musically strong, if not overwhelming, but in all is quietly radical.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Lovers schooled

On Thursday night, the Washington, D.C.-based group Opera Lafayette graced the Rose Theater with a double bill of French opera... sort of. The first half consisted of Così fan tutte in French, the second François-André Philidor’s opéra-comîque Les femmes vengées, which slightly predates Mozart. It was ambitious and creative production that put a new spin on some very familiar material.

Nick Olcott's production’s conceit is that Così makes more sense if you consider it as part of an eighteenth-century French tradition. The text is a vintage translation in verse, the recitatives are, like an opéra-comîque, made into spoken dialogue. The entire thing takes place in an artist’s studio, which brings up some vague things about appearances and reality and also includes a silent artist figure who became important in the second piece.The set is a basic set of walls and in period dress. There are a few novelties (the Albanians are now Canadians--not sure if that was the translation or a new idea but this is one production that takes the mustaches really seriously) and has the tone of a comedy of manners along the lines of The Rivals or The School for Scandal (to give some familiar English-language examples).

It proposes that the drama gradually moves from something very superficial and mannered (the staging uses many quasi-eighteenth-century poses) into more serious and sincere territory. Correspondingly, the finale contains a twist and the lovers end in their new pairing (Fleurdelise/Fernand and Dorabelle/Guillaume). The cast is engaged and enthusiastic, the Rose Theater is intimate enough to see all the detail, and this concept works pretty well. In fact, I think it probably would have worked equally well with the usual Italian text--perhaps that is missing the point, but the reason it works is that it finds an interesting angle on the text of Così, not because it says something about French theater.

It’s also nice to hear Mozart performed with a period orchestra, which doesn’t happen very often in the US. The orchestra’s playing, under music director Ryan Brown, was on the rough and ready side, particularly in the winds, but it had a freshness and vigor that excuses some messiness. The cast was mostly Canadian and French. Pascale Beaudin was a wide-eyed, naïve Fleurdelise (Fiordiligi), and her voice is quite small for this role, restricting the possibilities of her “Come scoglio.” But, like Susanna Philips at the Met last fall, her “Per pietà” was simply gorgeous and emotionally honest singing, much of it spent sadly embracing the back of an empty chair. It was the highlight of the entire evening. (I’m going to name the arias in Italian, because I didn’t write down the French and it’s easier for you too.) 

Staskiewicz and Dobson
Blandine Staskiewicz was a perpetually guilty-looking Dorabelle with fruity tone and excellent comic timing. As Fernand, Antonio Figeuroa’s compact, somewhat nasal tenor made “Un aura amorosa” relaxed and almost disarmingly easy, but he didn’t seem to embrace the period style as fully as the rest of the cast and came across as quite modern. Alex Dobson was a natural comedian as Guillaume, if not always an elegant singer. As Delphine (Despina), Claire Debono had a chance to be witty and unaffected before everyone else, and her bright, focused soprano was one of the only I could hear working in a large opera house. Bernard Deletré's Don Alfonso got some of his theatrical thunder stolen by Jeffrey Thompson mute artist.

The production’s second half was Les femmes vengées, a 1775 comic opera by François-André Philidor (today better known for his chess moves). It has a somewhat similar plot but predates Così by 15 years. An artist and his wife help two local ladies avenge their straying husbands (both of whom want to sleep with the artist’s wife). The staging made this story happen to the same characters from Così, only several decades later, sort of like the women's revenge for the trick played on them years ago. (Regency fashions indicated that the French Revolution had transpired in the meantime, but no political references were made.) The artist was the silent figure from Così, now married to Delphine, and the two troubled couples are, of course, the lovers, who are now married.

The opera’s libretto, by Michel-Jean Sedaine, is surprisingly subtle in its development of the characters--well, subtle according to the standards of sex comedy, at least--but the problem is that the music isn’t. Philidor’s arias are charming and bright and pretty, but there’s little happening between words and music, and the kind of dramatization that makes the Da Ponte operas so incomparable is basically absent. (You can look at a first edition of the score online here if you'd like to see what eighteenth-century French engraved sheet music looks like or check out the score.) The same cast sang well and acted with rather more slapstick than in the Mozart. Debono’s role as the artist’s wife was more or less the central one, and her rhythmic acuity made the music come to life. As the artist, Jeffrey Thompson sang with a very slender but flexible tenor.

Beaudin and Figueroa
So it is supposed to be a lustiges Nachspiel, but it doesn’t quite work. The contrast isn’t between comic and serious (like in, say, Ariadne auf Naxos) but rather two separate styles of composition. It’s also all rather long: two operas in one evening, neither of which are short, is just more than one really needs. One is loathe, however, to cut any more of Così--the recits cut off some time, and we already lost Dorabella's Act 2 aria and all of the optional Ferrando ones. (I unfortunately missed the end of Les femmes vengées, and I apologize for this, but the press person gave me a running time that proved to be incorrect by well over an hour. I stayed an hour longer than I expected until imperatives of public transportation compelled me to sneak out. Had I known the proper time I would have been prepared.)

Opera Lafayette doesn’t have the resources to operate on the level of a European group like Les Arts Florissants or the Theater an der Wien, but it’s nice to see an American ensemble trying something ambitious and creative in the pre-1800 realm.

Program Notes Plaudits
(the opposite of a Program Notes Smackdown): Nizam Peter Kettaneh’s notes are excellent.
"The French Così." Mozart, Così fan tutte and Philidor, Les femmes vengées. Opera Lafayette at the Rose Theater, 1/23/2014. Conducted by Ryan Brown

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Dissertation Completion Hiatus


I have to finish up my dissertation and am going to put this blog on hold for a few months. I will be covering Opera Lafayette's Mozart/Philidor program, The French Così, this week, and then I will return in the spring a PhD (or at least one waiting for her defense). I reserve the right to state my opinions on the new Met productions of Prince Igor and Werther, but probably nothing else. The timing is poor because there are many interesting events coming up but, alas, the semester is short and the dissertation is long.

I recently received a request for "more GIFs." Here you go.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Maus Haus

I spent last week in Vienna working on my research and avoiding the Wiener Staatsoper (you remember what happened at our last reunion?). So it was a little funny to return to New York only to go see that most echt-Viennese of works, Die Fledermaus, now in a new production at the Met. There was, however, very little Viennese about this performance--which isn’t a problem in and of itself. The problem is that it is boring, unfunny and musically not very good.

Friday, January 10, 2014

La forza della Bavaria

Was it mere coincidence that both operas I saw during my holiday weekend in Germany both considered free will and fate? Or was it.... something more? Meh. There’s none of Hans Neuenfel's ambiguity on the fate question in the Bayerische Staatsoper’s production of La forza del destino. For director Martin Kusej, fate as explication--particularly when wielded by organized religion--is a handy tool of oppression by the powerful. It’s an interesting production, and more notably this was an unusually excitingly sung production of an exceedingly tricky opera.