Sunday, November 23, 2014

Rossiniana

Opera groups: Rossini wants you to post
production photos on the Internet!
The stars must have aligned, and they must favor Rossini. All three of Philadelphia's opera groups have presented his work this fall. I loved Opera Philadelphia’s goofy Barber of Seville, but as it happens the other two opera companies are schools. Of course, the Academy of Vocal Arts and the Curtis Institute are two of the very best training grounds for singers in the country. But when I saw AVA’s L'italiana in Algeri and Curtis Opera Theater’s La scala di seta this week, I was frequently reminded just how difficult this music is. Approximatura, wildly out of tune and/or strained high notes, and white-knuckle Rossini crescendos galore--not the kind of thing you usually hear from students of these extremely distinguished institutions. I’m sure these were educational experiences for the singers, you have to start somewhere, but as an audience member it wasn’t all smooth sailing. I'm going to accentuate the positive here; if I leave some major role out that means I thought the singer wasn’t ready for prime time yet. (AVA, by the way, insists their “resident artists” are professionals, but based on this performance they are all very much works in progress.)

Let’s start with the awesome, and not-Rossini, part: Curtis followed the short La scala di seta with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Granted, Gianni Schicchi is a hard act to top with anything, but this one was the most uproarious hour of opera you could imagine. Together with the Curtis’s crack orchestra (conducted by Lio Kuokman), it was loud, energetic, and dramatically alive. Stephanie Havey’s production is a cartoonish farce, taking place in a bank vault, the floor littered with coins and various signs of wealth all around. (The sets are by Brandon McNeel and look great. How Curtis manages to consistently surpass the production values of many regional-level opera companies beats me. It also baffles me as to how I am unable to find any photos of these excellent designs!) The production was updated as well as aggressively localized, with the surtitles moving Signa to Jersey, mentioning cheesesteak, giving poor Buoso a casino in Atlantic City, making Schicchi a Democrat from the suburbs, and so on. It’s cute, funny, and, together with the manic committment of the cast, really works.

The cast included several singers who really stood out: Sean Michael Plumb was a youthful Gianni Schicchi with the look and apparent guilelessness of Andy Dwyer, only smarter, and sang with a medium-sized, exceptionally musical baritone, really making something special of his brief monologues. Evan LeRoy Johnson as Rinuccio has a sweet and ringing lyric tenor, and Kirsten MacKinnon’s smoky lyric soprano sounded intriguing as Ciesca and I wish she had sang more. (Note: most roles are double-cast and I saw the November 21 performance.)

Curtis preceded this with Rossini’s La scala di seta, which was new to me. The set gave us a steampunk confection of old scientific instruments, gears, and a mixture of present and historic images. I couldn’t figure out a logic behind this, but it looked nifty. More importantly, Havey and the cast kept a good balance between comedy and character development. Seemingly minor characters like servant Germano (sung by Dogukan Kuran) became big comic hams, failed suitor Blansac a dandy short on self-awareness, and Giulia a popular girl who knows how to get what she wants. Singing-wise, none of the cast members were totally consistent, though all had some strong moments. Johnathan McCullogh as Blansac seemed the most suited to Rossini, as well as showing excellent comic timing.

The Academy of Vocal Arts’s production of L’italiana in Algeri was less happy. AVA has a very distinguished record of producing famous singers--relatively recent grads include Angela Meade, Michael Fabiano, and Stephen Costello--but despite some great voices their shows are rarely as polished as Curtis’s. They trade in the kind of über-traditional productions which dare you to suggest that opera is about anything other than la voce, and tend to produce exclusively warhorse operas. The repertoire makes sense for the students, but I can’t help but wonder about the stogy stagings. Dorothy Danner’s schtick-heavy production trapped the cast in convention and cliché, and none of them appeared to connect to the drama and to each other in the organic way the (mostly less experienced) Curtis singers did.

Perhaps I am being overly harsh, because at this performance circumstances conspired against everyone. After their main run in Philadelphia, AVA brings their productions out for a single evening on the Main Line, which was the performance I attended. Heating problems necessitated a last minute change of venue from the Haverford School to Bryn Mawr College’s Goodhart Hall. Goodhart is possessed neither of orchestra pit nor surtitles but is endowed with a cavernous cathedral ceiling which did nothing for solo voices. It also positioned the orchestra behind the singers, and lacks a Maestrocam-type monitor--meaning the singers had no eye contact with the conductor, hence the aforementioned white-knuckle Rossini crescendos. For the audience, the loss of the surtitles was the gravest blow. This is a funny opera, but most people were barely following the plot and no one was laughing at the jokes. This took a lot of air out of the proceedings, and I wished they’d simply postponed the opera until they could perform it properly. I liked that the orchestra went to the length to find a mezzaluna, however I wished its sounds had been as impressive as its looks. It loomed over the orchestra yet produced the sound of a few decorative jingle bells hung on a door.

I doubt this weird venue showed the singers at the best. Nonetheless, I enjoyed Hannah Ludwig’s performance in the title role. She has a deep, chocolatey mezzo and a likeable stage presence. Michael Adams was impressive as Taddeo, and André Courville, as Mustafa, showed an excellent lyric bass, unfortunately combined with a rather stiff stage manner. (AVA is also mostly double-cast; I saw the November 18 performance.)

Winter in Philadelphia will be less Rossinian: AVA performs La bohème in February and Curtis does Ariadne auf Naxos in a co-production with Opera Philadelphia. Curtis will finish their year with The Rake’s Progress, and AVA with, in warhorse fashion, Faust.
Rossini, L’italiana in Algeri. Academy of Vocal Arts, Goodhart Hall at Bryn Maw College, November 18, 2014
Rossini, La scala di seta and Puccini, Gianni Schicchi. Curtis Opera Theater at the Prince Music Theater, Philadelphi, November 21, 2014.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Death of Klinghoffer

When a media circus gathers around a performance, or a film, or an artwork, the eventual performance often fails to equal the furor that preceded it. “That’s it?” someone ends up asking. But the opposite happened at The Death of Klinghoffer: the protest was zealous but the work emerged wiser and braver than I thought it would be. This was the most intense performance I’ve ever seen at the Met, almost a tinderbox. But the opera itself, despite its unevenness and a production which, in some respects, troubled me, is far more than invective.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Tucker Gala strikes again

The annual Tucker Gala always promises an evening of old-fashioned big singing by people who are opera famous and people who are soon to be opera famous. Usually, it’s also a prime example of the hoary journalistic cliche about opera drama playing out backstage as well as on-. This year was no exception: the event fell on my fall break so I made a trip up to see it, only to discovered that four of the singers had canceled, including Anna Netrebko, the one I wanted to see the most. The remaining program was somewhat underwhelming, honestly.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Die schweigsame Frau broadcast from the Bayerische Staatsoper

Contrary to appearances, not a Herheim production
 This one is short-notice: the Bayerische Staatsoper's free internet video stream series continues today with Strauss's Die schweigsame Frau, starting at 6:00 pm Munich time (noon on the US East Coast). This opera, dating from 1935 with a libretto by the currently trendy Stefan Zweig, is rarely produced (I've never seen it) and not available on DVD. Pedro Halffter (?) conducts, the cast includes Brenda Rae, Franz Hawlata, Daniel Behle, and Tara Erraught. Barry Kosky's production, as visible above, contains a Herheim-esque parade of operatic notables, who have a rather more obvious place in the plot than usual. (How many can you identify?)

Check it out here. The streaming series will continue with The Makropulos Case on November 1.

Photo copyright Bayerische Staatsoper

Friday, October 03, 2014

The Barber of Philadelphia

 
Opera Philadelphia’s production of The Barber of Seville is an everything-but-the-castanets Spanish extravaganza. Loosely inspired by Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, it largely sustains a manic, self-consciously kitschy style, anchored by Jennifer Holloway (Rosina) and Kevin Burdette (Bartolo), two singers with excellent comic skills.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Met's new Figaro

The Met narrowly dodged a labor dispute to open their season last week with Richard Eyre’s new production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. While the irony is inescapable, this production wouldn’t spark a revolution even if it were July 13, 1789. Its heavy, serious visuals belie an upbeat, action-packed, superficial staging with no discernible focus and no evident relationship to the music, and the mostly undistinguished musical performance isn’t enough to redeem it.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Met rush ticket policy update

beware, lest you be compared to a Red Sox fan
In recent seasons, the Met has sold $25 rush tickets for weekday performances beginning two hours before the curtain. Long before that, a line forms in the parking garage below the theater. This season, the company is switching to an internet lottery system—a system already in place for performances on Friday and Saturday.

This is, in my opinion, a good choice. The line required an investment of time which many people—e.g. those with jobs—are not able to make. Generally, you had to devote a good portion of the afternoon to sitting in line. The line is, or rather was, primarily populated by local retirees, tourists, and some students. (There are, however, already independent discount programs both for seniors and for students.) As a grad student, I was able to wait in line occasionally. Since each person in line was able to buy two tickets, I always gave the other ticket to a friend with a more regular job.

The new policy allows a much broader group of people to access these tickets. But for major opera fans, this is not necessarily a more equitable solution: the line allows the most dedicated fans to always get tickets while more casual fans might only occasionally commit to waiting or only be able to nab tickets to unpopular performances (when the line forms later in the day), while a lottery eliminates commitment and leaves things to pure luck. I'm not sure if it's fair to judge one's dedication to opera by the ability to take time off from work, particularly in light of the state of American labor laws, but that's the argument. The new policy is also less suitable for tourists, who may not have the chance to win a lottery when they're only in town for a few days. (Personally, if I were only visiting New York, I wouldn't want to spend a whole afternoon in a parking garage, but that's me.) Also, if you lack internet, the public library located next to the Met does not require a library card to use a computer.

Don't get me wrong, I'm one of the diehard fans. I've waited in some pretty epic lines myself. Once I was interviewed by Austrian TV while waiting in line at the Wiener Staatsoper. (They asked me whether I preferred Elina Garanca or Anna Netrebko, who were both singing that evening. Dumme Frage, I replied! Just kidding, I said Netrebko.) Once Dominique Meyer, the Wiener Staatsoper's general director, handed me a croissant and winked at me, which was perhaps a line experience I could have done without. (The wink, not the croissant. Croissant was vital.)

But while the most dedicated operagoers may not find this policy change to be entirely an improvement, I don't think that they're the sole group for whom rush tickets are intended, and arguably not even the primary one. Opera is often seen by the uninitiated as inaccessibly expensive and difficult, and rush tickets make things affordable and (in the new incarnation) easy. The truly committed are going to find a way to go to the opera no matter what. This policy change vastly improves the situation for a far larger group of vaguely interested people who are not able to or inclined to spend their afternoon sitting on a stone floor in a dimly lit tunnel. The Met needs to expand its local audience base, and this is a step towards doing that. Finally, the rush ticket policy is only a relatively recent innovation at the Met--it began early in the Gelb era, I believe in 2006 or 2007--so they aren't making a major historical change here.

If you really want to queue, there's still a line for standing room tickets. Every single morning.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Metropolitan Opera, 2014-2015

Artist's rendering of what has happened at the Met over the summer
Met single tickets go on sale to the general public tomorrow, and while the season's start still is a major question mark due to seemingly intractable labor disputes I think we’ll hopefully have some opera at some point or another? Because of this uncertainty I don't imagine a whole lot of people will rush to the box office tomorrow, but I have written a preview of everything that is currently scheduled to happen anyway. I have, spoiler, moved to Philadelphia--more on that later--so I won’t be going to a large number of these, but I will nonetheless offer my suggestions as to what you should get yourself to the Met to see, what the world would not miss should it not occur, and so on.

(Side note: I write this from bucolic Annandale-on-Hudson, where I am dramaturging for the Bard Music Festival. I’m working on a Schubert jukebox operetta (as well as a genuine Schubert Singspiel) which a) exists and b) is going to be performed tomorrow at 5:30. It is a charming program and the cast is lovely, please stop by.)

Anyway, on to the Met! You can peruse the full offerings with dates and such here. The HD broadcast schedule can be found here; productions with these broadcasts are marked HD.

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.