Saturday, January 23, 2010

Simon Boccanegra: I Can Still Sing, But I Never Could Fence Properly

Verdi-Piavo/Boito, Simon Boccanegra.  Metropolitan Opera, 1/22/10.  Conducted by James Levine. Placido Domingo (Boccanegra), Adrianne Pieczonka (Amelia), Marcello Giordani (Adorno), James Morris (Fiesco), Patrick Carfizzi (Paolo). Directed by Peter McClintock after a production by  Giancarlo del Monaco.

Oh, better far to live and die
Under this baritone's flag I fly,
Than sing an odd modulating part,
With an aging voice if a tenor's heart.
Away to the cheating world go you,
Where other tenors transpose too;
But I don’t care which fach I sing,
I’ll live reborn as a Baritone King.

Apologies to G&S.  (I hasten to remind you that Simon Boccanegra was a semi-pirate before becoming Doge.  You don't know how hard it was to not write a lot of pirate jokes into this review, mateys.)

This opera is pure gold, y’all.  Yeah, the plot is a bit convoluted, but the score is absolute perfection from start to finish. And maybe it’s partly because I’m so partial to this period of Verdi but this was one of the most musically satisfying performances I’ve seen at the Met in a while.  Sure, there are some perplexing things (like “age”) happening to the voice of our dear Placido Domingo, which I will discuss!  And the staging is pretty as a picture, a picture painted many centuries ago, and about as mobile as a painting too (coming from me, this is not a compliment)!  And yet I highly recommend.

Let’s start off with the most important thing, and that would be James Levine.  When I see him conduct like he did last night I feel that most of the time I am insufficiently appreciative of his skill, because it was awesome.  But I honestly haven’t heard him conduct a performance this majestic, this finely colored, this exciting in a while.  There are a few little orchestral interludes that ended up being a little conductor-showy--I swear part of the intro to Amelia’s aria was sounding like a Klangfarbenmelodie--but all to fantastic effect.

Adrianne Pieczonka sang Amelia, the only female role in the opera.  She had a slightly iffy start, the entrance aria doesn’t sit in the prettiest part of her voice (an aria Krassimira Stoyanova hits out of the park, actually her Amelia is generally fantastic).  But after the aria Pieczonka was fantastically consistent.  By which I mean, musically perfectly precise, refined, and controlled.  That’s not something you hear in this rep very often.  Her voice itself is very lyric, clear, and even in color and yet big, projecting marvelously, an interesting combination that makes me think she would be good as the Elisabeth of your choice (Carlos or Tannhäuser).  Really gorgeous, I would love to hear her more at the Met.  Get on that, Casting Department!

She was somewhat oddly matched with the infuriatingly inconsistent Marcello Giordani as Gabriele Adorno.  He’s got something that not many tenors have, a certain sound and fearlessness that makes things work in an exciting way.  But his voice can turn sour on occasion, and next to a singer as tasteful as Pieczonka he sounds somewhat musically sloppy and coarse, she somewhat too restrained (JJ in the Post referred to her as “primly musical,” which is harsh but also true).  But mostly it was a good night for him, this role a much better fit for his unsubtle style than most--Adorno is such a hothead--than, well, Faust in Damnation de Faust.

In what often resembled Senior Night onstage, James Morris as Fiesco had the unenviable effect of making Placido Domingo (see below) sound young.  I realize in years he is somewhat fewer, but all those Wotans have had their costs.  He has gravitas, yes, there’s a lot of sound left too, but it’s wobbly, and his low notes have deserted him more or less completely.  He’s not quite in Ramey territory yet, but approaching it (look behind you, you may see a hill).  Also, the sword fight between him and Placido in the Prologue was rather pathetic, I’m not sure if this was due to a lot of arthritis or insufficient rehearsal time or what, but it did not live up to the ferocity of the score in any way.
OK, now onto Placido Domingo.  Let’s forget about the questionable management of opera companies and conducting for a moment.  Miraculously, at his age and in this tessitura, he still sounds like Placido Domingo, more or less.  And that would be a tenor sound.  Ironically, he may have finally proven to all those critics who said he’s a baritone that he’s been a tenor all along (a criticism whose logic I fail to see--he was a baritone who had a very long, very healthy career as one of the best tenors ever? really???).  In case this isn’t already clear, I LOVE Placido Domingo.  I have heard lots of his recordings, if I need a recording of an opera and one by him is available and the thing isn’t in German I will almost always pick him, I’m not a completist because generally I’m not like that and besides being a Domingo completist would be IMPOSSIBLE, but I’m very familiar with what his voice sounded like in his prime.

Which makes seeing him in this opera just a little surreal at times.  Because he is, inarguably, still Placido Domingo, and still sounds like it.  But the age and tessitura disguise him a bit, like watching Sean Connery in a movie today after having seen lots of James Bonds.  But there’s no way he sounds like a baritone, he sounds like Placido Domingo singing low, and while there is a certain loss of that Verdi baritone sound in this opera, there’s a lot of gain because it is Placido-freaking-Domingo.  The very audible prompter did have a big job last night (not the first time), but still, he gets the nobility and generosity of this character just right, even with the occasional wobble.

No whining about the plot, folks, sure, it's too complicated and has some holes but I actually like it, and find it much more involving than many other works of similar convolution, maybe because the music is so good.

I feel obliged to comment on the production, but don’t have much to say about it.  It is pretty, the prologue and Council Chamber especially so.  It has a few functional issues, namely sometimes it’s a little creaky in the most literal sense and the offstage chorus behind the Council Chamber isn’t the most audible.  The statue that is pulled down in the Prologue is a silly-looking effect (apparently the Genoese equip their statues with hinges for smooth toppling and removal).  The Act 3 set is set very far upstage in a way that I believe facilitates a faster scene change but seems like a slightly spiteful screwing of those of us who are already sitting pretty far from the stage.  The Personenregie wasn’t out to make any statements, the only interesting thing that happens is in the last act, when Fiesco sits in Simon’s chair, which actually is a good kind of point.  If you want a fancypants Regie Boccanegra it does exist on the YouTubes, and looks intriguing.

So yeah, go if you can, you won’t regret it.

Next: A plane carrying a commedia dell'arte troupe crashes on a tropical island inhabited only by a lamenting woman, some unhelpful nymphs chanting mysterious numbers, and a cloud of smoke with a bad attitude.   Let us now say thanks that the prima of Ariadne auf Naxos does not fall on the same night as that of Lost.

I won't be seeing Il Mondo della Luna at Gotham Chamber Opera, though appears to be something right up my alley it is sold out and I failed to remember to buy a ticket earlier.  (Gotham Chamber Opera!  Call me!  I will write about it!  Not that you seem to have any problems selling tickets, but, well, I'm totally an opster!)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Rosenkavalier: Time stole my high notes

Richard Strauss/Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Der Rosenkavalier.  Metropolitan Opera, 1/15/09.  Conducted by Edo de Waart, stage director Robin Guarino.  With Renée Fleming (Marschallin), Susan Graham (Octavian), Christine Schäfer (Sophie), Kristinn Sigmundsson (Ochs), Thomas Allen (Faninal), Eric Cutler (Italian Singer).

OK, folks, I know I said that Il Simone was going to be my next review, but sorry, I lied.  I went to Rosenkavalier last night.  I saw it back in October, but why should I turn down an opportunity for an additional, uh, almost five hours with my buddy Richard Strauss (AND I got to sit down this time)? I saw no reason.

So you can probably guess from that and from my current nom de blog that I LOVE my Rosenkavalier.  But I’m kind of protective towards it.  It’s a delicate thing, you know?  If the comedy and pathos and energy and lyricism aren’t all balanced just right, it stops casting its spell and begins to resemble the kitsch object that the haters claim it always is.

This performance was pretty good, and Act 3 was close to perfect.  Kudos to Edo de Waart for conducting a sprightly, non-bombastic, and yet touching account of the score, which never dragged or got overly sentimental (even when Mariandel did).  But some other things weren’t quite so on the dot.  Act 3 was indeed very special but most of the dramatic meat of the piece is found in the first two acts, which were musically nice but theatrically… off, if just by a bit.

The comic stuff in Act 1 between Ochs and Octavian was WAY overdone, far too broad.  We had nowhere to go for Act 3, which should be a descent into something, but we were already at some kind of lowest denominator.  Besides, for an opera that is all about propriety I feel like Ochs would have the sense not to do anything so offensive in the Marschallin’s presence.  Also, it just wasn’t funny, because there was so much of it and it came as so little of a surprise, ever.

Act 2 seems to me to be all about stillness and motion, between Octavian and Sophie’s ewigkeit and all the busy and fleeting affairs, er, activities of the Faninal household.  I still got that, but a certain element of contrast between the two was missing because the fighting and rudeness wasn't anything new, it was just Act 1 all over again—again, the crassness of Ochs was drawn so early on that there was nowhere to go.

Renée Fleming’s Marschallin is in theory ideal, but I found her curiously uninvolving.  She has all the musical and dramatic notes right there, but they seem underplayed.  On some level this criticism makes no sense, the Marschallin is nothing if not subtle, but somehow for me Fleming failed to capture the simultaneous artifice and pure humanity that makes Marie-Therese Tosca’s cousin.

Vocally, there were some issues as well.  She might actually have the most ideal Strauss lyric soprano voice ever, but she sounded kind of small, sometimes covered by the orchestra and rarely soaring over it.  Renée and I don’t go way back so I’m  not sure if this is a recent development or the usual state of affairs, or if it was just part of her whole restrained interpretation.  The pianos are gorgeous, but there were many places where I wanted more volume, particularly in the top register (“Ich hab’ ihn nicht einmal geküßt!”).

No one in this cast was a good friend with their upper extension, actually.  I’m not sure if Sophie is quite in Christine Schäfer’s voice.  She’s really a fabulous singer, but it seems like the Sophie train may have left the station a few years ago.  In the fall, Miah Persson sang this role with an effortless silvery tone that just floated up high so easily, Schäfer’s sound has more body but doesn’t project quite as well.  Schäfer seemed to have to work to keep the high notes under control, and I have to give her a lot of credit because none really got away from her and some of them were just lovely, but the effort was there.

Kristinn Sigmundsson as Ochs, as you may gather, was guilty of a lot of unfunny business and mugging through the whole show.  I’m not sure quite why he wasn’t that funny, but he wasn’t.  I think Ochs has to be at least a little sly about his manly Trip to Gropetown (yes that link is safe for work, it's just a feminist blog), not quite this unaware of himself.  Vocally, Sigmundssson’s voice didn’t really back him up, the high notes and the low notes had volume issues, the middle was OK but not exactly cavernous.

Susan Graham’s voice was far and away the largest of the three women, and this caused some balance issues, particularly with La Fleming.  It’s not the most lush mezzo sound you’ve ever heard, but it’s very strong and has some drama.  Like everyone, she showed a little strain up at the top of her range.  But I found her eager, self-centered, well-intentioned Octavian (and hilarious Mariandel) to be the strongest portrayal in the cast.

Also worthy of note was a cameo by Thomas Allen as Faninal, who might not have much volume left but made a usually forgettable character almost complicated.  Among the rest of the Cast of Thousands, Eric Cutler was a decidedly American-sounding Italian Singer—where’s my star cameo?  Looking at the schedule we could have had Cura (eh, maybe we wouldn’t want that), Giordani (Italian he is), Alagna, or assorted Calafs.  (Shame we didn’t get Beczala.  No, really, click on the link, it’s AMAZING.  This is from the updated Carsen production, which is quite amazing itself.)  Or Placido singing it an octave down.  Hey, why not?

Rodell Rosel was funny as Valzacchi, and Wendy White was a mostly well-sung Annina that kind of annoyed me with her constant waltzing.  I know this is the director’s fault, not hers, but at some points I was pretty sure she should not be hearing the music she was dancing to, in the Abbate sense.  One moment of that kind of slippage would be neat, so much of it just felt dumb.

As for the production, it's very pretty.  Hofmannsthal's libretto already has so many layers of symbolism and time that a traditional staging already has some of the qualities that many adventurous stagings attempt to bestow.  But go watch the Carsen production from Salzburg if you want more food for thought, it's fantastic and really smart.

Too much, not enough, where’s my Goldilocks Rosenkavalier?  Ach, so it goes, I can live with this one for now.  Thanks to operatic partner in crime AH, who heard most of this already and maybe said some of it first.

Next: Your second-rate blogger goes to the second performance of Simon Boccanegra.  Review in approximately one week.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

La blog que tu m'avais jetée

Georges Bizet, Carmen. Metropolitan Opera, January 5, 2010. New production conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and directed by Richard Eyre. Elina Garanca (Carmen), Roberto Alagna (Don José), Barbara Frittoli (Micaëla), Mariusz Kwiecien (Escamillo), and absolutely no mules, dogs, or horses because we got rid of another Zeffirelli, hurrah.

Well, I'm not sure why I'm inspired by Richard Eyre's new production of Carmen to take up blogging again, but I thought I would give it a shot. To tell the truth, I haven't been inspired by all that much this season, with the enormous exception of From the House of the Dead, which I liked so much I'm not sure if I would write a very good review of it. After some time in Europe that didn't involve blogging but did involve many crazy Regie productions, most of what I've seen at the Met this season seemed under-thought and tentative.

I didn't like all the crazy European Regie, much of which was conspicuously over-thought, but you can't accuse them of not going for it, even if you're not always sure what the "it" they're going for is. But the Met's Tosca? Meh.* Hoffmann? Meh with a side of huh, except yay for the Olympia act. Fabio Luisi conducted a fabulous Elektra but I didn't write about it. But I told a friend I would tell her what I thought of Carmen and pretty soon I had something that was more a blog entry than a little email. Actually, it's EPIC. So here goes.

Meh. Meh meh meh. It is the year of tan brick walls at the Met, isn't it? After all those advent calendars (Doctor Atomic, Grimes, Damnation de Faust), I guess a change is welcome. The Carmen set, like most of the production, gets the job done well enough, even if it is without real distinction or star quality or magic or something. Sorry, I don't care enough to decide on one, maximally precise word. The lighting is better than that of Tosca, which gives those walls a classier, less bargain-basement look. And it fills the giant stage but focuses the action in the appropriate places well enough. The turntable also facilitates a one-intermission show, like that of Trovatore. As a resident of the 'burbs, I approve. The setting is 1930's, which means none of the expected corsets and big coats. But that's about all it seemed to mean.

Carmen seems like a show you can barely screw up, though Zeffirelli managed (my review of the Zeff's last outing here, I was not a fan). This performance, like its set, worked well enough for me. The best parts were mostly brought to you by Roberto Alagna as Don José. I have mixed feelings about Alagna, and his voice does seem to be past its best days. The sound is a little pinched and wobbly. But his French is gloriously French, and his dramatic command all there, particularly when his Don José acts like a hormonal 16-year old, which is a fair amount of the time.

He did try that much-debated piano B flat at the end of the Flower Aria at an actual piano. It sounded falsetto and Not Good. There was not much of an ovation. I am all about weakness on this note in dramatic terms--if you haven't read Susan McClary's analysis of this thing in her book Feminine Endings you need to, she says that this, José's supposed tenorial triumph, is actually his moment of greatest weakness, and his submission to Carmen's demands--but I recognize that this sort of weakness might not have been what Bobby was shooting for.

Below: Toreador Song.  At least Frasquita and Mércèdes (right) have attitude.

Oh, but this opera is called Carmen, you say? Right. Elina Garanca is, as you may have read elsewhere, quite a cool customer as the titular gypsy. I like the idea of a chill and detached Carmen. It could make a lot of sense. Carmen's allure is often over-acted, and seems desperate. Carmen isn't desperate at all, she doesn't have to expend any effort to make men fall for her. But you need something in place of all that hip swinging and boobage and meaningful eyebrow action and all those other Carmen tricks that most mezzos haul out. If Carmen is going to be still her stillness needs to say something, something that shows she's the 19th century's worst (albeit sexiest) nightmare, and Garanca just seemed too inexpressive and inert. This is rather like her Charlotte and Dorabella I saw in Europe. She's just not much of an actress.

Her voice is all you could wish for in a Carmen, and fully up to the Met's size. Her tone is rich and even, her intonation right on, and her French is pretty good. But as a singer she also seemed to lack some character. Her phrasing is generic, there isn't much variation of color, and I couldn't pick her out of a vocal lineup based on any individual characteristics. I hope she improves, because she has it all except that spark. She could also use some better hair. It looks like they gave Karita's heinous Tosca wig a perm, with equally disastrous results. Scandinavian and Baltic divas cannot be transformed into Mediterraneans so easily.

One thing that wasn't inert was the conducting. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and yes I looked that spelling up after initially typing Néguin-Sezet but I shouldn't complain, in spelling terms he's no Ekaterina Shcherbachenko, and Nézet-Séguin probably sounds lovely when pronounced in the proper French that I no longer have at the tip of my tongue and La Juntwait doesn't have either.** Anyway he likes this score zippy and light. And I liked it too. The melodrama recedes a bit, but it works (I like melodrama). The prelude was really really fast, and the rest not quite so extreme but certainly on the fast side. Some interesting colorings in this score's fantastic orchestration, generally tending towards textual transparency. It was opéra-comique in a way that the be-recitative-ed text most definitely was not. Grrrr. See below for whining.

One interesting thing: a little while back I watched this DVD of Carmen from Covent Garden, a recent Francesca Zambello production. I recommend it. What was funny was all the stage business lifted directly out of that production and into the Met one, mostly stuff for Don José and Carmen. I looked at the libretto and most of it isn't in there, or not in such detail. Garanca and Alagna sang together this fall in the Zambello before coming to the Met for the Eyre, and it seems they brought some stuff with them, namely the Seguidilla, the duet prior to the Flower Aria and a few parts of the finale. Hmmmm. I call shenanigans.

Speaking of that finale, it's probably the most exciting part of the opera but is most certainly the most exciting part of this staging. The big red slash on the curtain that migrates to Carmen's dress and the (spoiler) unsubtle dead bull at the end (though the more you think about that one the less sense it makes) both have wandered over from December's Elektra, or was that a horse? Anyways, I thought this staging was tense and fantastic. I would not have Don José pull the knife out quite so early, I can't quite believe that Carmen would stick around while he's waving it around, she's brave but not stupid, but that's a fairly minor point.

As for the other singer people, Mariusz Kwiecien seems to be in over his admittedly pretty head. Most Escamillos seem to be miscast, though, the tessitura is weird. I'm all in favor of barihunk Escamillos, but well, do we have any bass-barihunks around? Barbara Frittoli is not ideal either, but I did enjoy her Micaëla. Her vowels and phrasing hail from the Italian part of France, her high notes are hard on the ears, and her vibrato is wide. That sounds bad, but I still thought her phrasing was beautiful and musical (if not idiomatic) and she was charming and innocent in the required Micaëla style.

Christopher Wheeldon's interpolated dances are good as dances go but they seemed dramatically unnecessary, too short to go anywhere much. I really liked the choreography for the usual dance at Lilias Pastia's though. But, and this isn't dance, the procession at the top of Act 4? Seriously unspectacular. This seemed to be a function of stage space, but there must be some better way of arranging people for a more dramatic parade. Come on, has Aïda taught the Met nothing?

I suppose this production will be trotted out very frequently in coming years, and I don't think that's a bad thing. It's certainly better than the Zeff. It seems modeled on the Trovatore of last season, which I happened to love--slightly updated, turntable set, somewhat innovative but mostly traditional. What made the Trov great was the cast and McVicar's work with them, something I didn't think quite was on the same level here. But it seems to give future Carmens and Don José's enough space to hopefully make it something memorable. If I have time and money in April, I will pay a repeat visit to find out if Angela Gheorghiu's lower range is audible I mean see my imaginary boyfriend sing José I mean, see how the second third cast is faring.

Oh, that lack of spoken dialogue that I ranted about in my earlier Carmen review? It is still MIA. I still don't approve. I still think this edition is a travesty and the lack of dialogue screws up the plot in some places--where are you, thing before the Act II quintet? You almost make that quintet worth it but here it erupts in all its Offenbachian finery for no clear reason. And then they keep some of the dialogue in Act III and it's weird, because there hasn't been any at all up to this point but now there's talking. Can't we at least have consistency here? But judging from the Hoffmann and the persistence of Don Carlo over Don Carlos we can't hope for decent editions at the Met anytime soon. This does not mean I will stop whining. That's why I have a blog.

Next up: Yo ho ho, a baritone's life for me. Placido Domingo in Simon Boccanegra.

*I was lucky enough to witness the performance where Gagnidze mimed Act 2 and Carlo Guelfi sung from the side of the stage. It made it more interesting. Gagnidze's delayed reaction to the death rattle provided by Guelfi was the most radical thing in the whole production. But some German director has probably done that already.

**My French isn't the greatest. I could understand Garanca. Therefore, in my book, she has OK French.