Saturday, October 27, 2012

Crudel! Perché finora farmi languir così?

Last night’s Figaro at the Met was a really distressing experience, perhaps in part because it has some undeniable assets but they’re overwhelmed by ham-handed acting and lamentable singing. Let’s start with the good: Gerald Finley is an excellent Count, precisely and attractively sung and acted with three dimensions, hardly a power-hungry caricature. In the very difficult aria he balanced rage and frustration and still sounded musical. And David Robertson’s conducting is classy--moderately paced but never slack, with some cool details in the orchestra (though as a fan of historically informed performance I sometimes longed for crisper attack). Coordination, though, was not so great, as you will see.

Jonathan Miller’s production combines a set suggesting the Almavivas aspire to a shabby chic look (with beautiful lighting design) but adds garish, constantly changing costumes (Susanna at one point wears a dress with a green petticoat and pink underskirt reminiscent of a watermelon), to no terribly clear effect. Those costumes blur the social distinctions that are so key to this opera, a problem made far, far worse by the Personenregie of this particular revival. In Figaro, making out with someone is a political act, and as we see at every turn of the plot, not everyone’s desires receive equal opportunity. So having everyone indiscriminately roll around with everyone, as this revival does, totally screws stuff up. Susanna with Cherubino, the Countess with the Count, Susanna and the Countess, almost. Someone seems to have mistaken lying on top of someone for sexiness. Unfortunately in this case the two are mutually exclusive, and no one seems to enjoy much of a connection with anyone else. The effect of the real comic high points is diluted by all this dumb interpolated slapstick.

The evening’s biggest disappointment was Maija Kovalevska’s Countess. I understand the impulse to make the Contessa a Rosina rather than letting her sink into dowdiness, but Kovalevska’s eyelash-batting, simpering, hip-swaying portrayal was a Countess who was always looking on the bright, Carmen-ish side of life, and her perky “Dove sono” failed to have any emotional effect whatsoever. Her steely voice has a kind of unique grainy texture but the basic sound remains kind of ugly, as I’ve thought before. But while her Tatiana basically convinced, she lacks the breath or purity of line to sing Mozart, and even at quick tempos she wasn’t making it through the ends of the phrases in the arias. She lost the orchestra at (many) times, and seemed to be straining for the high notes, which I hadn't heard from her before. Similarly, Mojca Erdmann’s Susanna always seemed more concerned about the audience looking at her than engaging with the other characters, and her tremulous, shrill voice was harsh on the ears and pitch seemed uncentered. The dramatic weight of a Figaro cast can land on either of these characters, but here neither showed any sincerity.

Cherubino is an odd role choice for Christine Schäfer, a former high coloratura, but I found her oddly convincing. Vocally I miss the depth of a mezzo sound, and Schäfer sounds thin and light. But she gave us an interestingly anxious and awkward Cherubino instead of the impetuous norm, and I wish she had fit this more fully into the production. Ildar Abdrazakov’s burly, not terribly flexible voice also sounded vocally miscast as Figaro, but he did the best he could with surprisingly credible results, and made a likable character with more restraint than most of his colleagues. Supporting roles were OK if not particularly notable with Margaret Lattimore’s Marcellina as the only standout.

In my opinion this is one of the richest of all operas, and it's sad to see it reduced to such a mundane farce. I’m a Figaro fanatic so I couldn’t stay away but I advise you to think twice about this one.
Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro. Metropolitan Opera, 10/26/12.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Tempest: Oh timid old world

Thomas Adès’s 2004 opera The Tempest arrives at the Met with a relatively lengthy pedigree of major productions around the world,* a score that is recognizably modern but consonant and conventionally pretty enough to play to a Met audience, and a libretto based on a familiar play. Actually, it’s the Met’s second newish Tempest opera in as many years. While it’s altogether more credible than the other one, and has some lovely moments, it still never quite takes off, and remains undramatic and timid. Robert Lepage’s random and cheesy production doesn’t help either.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Il trovatore: Cecily, how could you have ever doubted that I had a brother?

The old canard is that all you need for Trovatore is the four best singers in the world. That’s stupid on a number of levels, one of which was illustrated in this Met revival, which is super excellent despite being a rep night with only one known name. It was the best of what you can expect from a non-Event performance: an old favorite (Dolora Zajick’s Azucena) with an exciting newcomer (Guanqun Yu as Leonora) and a few more workman-like performances that nonetheless had much to enjoy. Even Daniele Callegari’s conducting was pretty good! However, this production is so bland that you almost wish David McVicar had made a frame narrative about the singers we are seeing this evening. Nah, not really.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Are you not honest, Otello?

When the subject of opera and blackface comes up among non-opera fanatics, I end up mumbling something wishy-washy about people of color being woefully underrepresented among classical singers, about Otello being a major role that dramatic tenors want to sing, about Moors not being sub-Saharan Africans. Then I feel terrible, because that’s a superficial answer to a complex, important question.

But have no fear, this Met revival exists in that alternate operatic universe where these things don't matter. (Not uncommon. Last season only the chance casting of an Asian Pinkerton and a white Cio-Cio-San let any reality into Butterfly.) It deploys the semiotics of operatic drama—the singers waving their arms and stepping downstage, or fainting; the chorus looking collectively shocked; the stage elevator doing its thing—while hardly ever creating the resonance that makes actual theater. It’s a simulacrum that’s less convincing than Iago’s case for Desdemona being the Sluttiest Slut of Cyprus.