Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Attila the underdone

Verdi, Attila.  Metropolitan Opera, 2/23/2010.  Conducted by Riccardo Muti and no one really cares about anything else.  No, wait, it was a new production by Pierre Audi with Violeta Urmana (Odabella), Ramon Vargas (Foresto), Giovanni Meoni (Ezio) and Ildar Abdrazakov (Attila) with sets and costumes by Herzog, de Meuron, and fat-phobic Miuccia Prada.

The story of this show, for good and ill, begins and ends with Riccardo Muti.  The good is that the music had tremendous style and shape, the orchestra sounded fantastic, and the singing was variable but committed.  The bad is that Muti wields his power over directors in ways not necessarily conducive to dramatically exciting productions.  The most important thing seems to be that the singers have an uninterrupted view of Signor Muti at all times.  I got the feeling that the director and designers were very aware of this and were trying to make the restrictions part of their concept, but it backfired a bit.  They might have been aiming for the formalism of Greek tragedy, but the blocking was so sparse it just ended up static and stiff.   Not a successful collaboration, but the production has redeeming qualities, and I enjoyed it.

Purely as looks, I liked a lot of the design.  It’s certainly more visually striking and original than many other endeavors this season (e.g. Carmen, Hoffmann, Tosca).  The prologue begins on an enormous pile of rubble, most of the other scenes are staged against an enormous curtain of greenery.*  But both provide little space for movement.  The costumes are vaguely steampunk post-apocalyptic something, including a scary Marge Simpson/Bride of Frankenstein ‘do for Odabella, but even from my seat around a third of the way back in orchestra (thanks, lady who rescued me from standing room!) only some of the details read--namely the car-wash fringe on Ezio shoulders and the occasional LED lights.  Most of it was too dark.  Also, all the hems were too long, everyone was holding up their skirts and capes all evening.

The blocking was, to put it gently, minimal, clustered in the stage’s limited spaces, all of which coincidentally were near Muti.  There were some efforts to be static with ATTITUDE, most successfully by Urmana, but generally everyone just stared out at the audience at Muti.  A sympathetic interpreter would say that the concept is that the characters are caught in a destroyed (rubble) and wild (forest) world where human connections are impossible, Attila’s army is nothing more than a faceless mass (in fancy t-shirts).  A less sympathetic one would say that this distant approach is a poor fit for a work that has a lot of passionate relationships, both of love and hate.  I’m somewhere in between these two.

OK, now for the music.  The orchestra sounded fantabulous from the first bars.  The strings had an amazing gauzy quality, I was never once conscious of there being oom-pahs, though I know there were, I have never heard a less bombastic and bangy account of early Verdi.  Or most middle Verdi.  It was loud, there was a lot of dramatic contrast, but nothing was underlined solely for flashy effect, it felt right.

The singers similarly showed subtlety and sensitivity--in early Verdi terms that is--though their instruments weren’t ideal.   I liked Violeta Urmana’s Odabella quite a lot despite some obvious problems.  She owned the role and production more than anyone else in the cast, and tore into the music and its considerable quantity of notes.  But her high notes were shrill, her middle voice better but not always opulent, and her chest notes loud enough but not exciting.

Ildar Abdrazakov should have been the star of the show.  The problem is that he wasn’t.  He wasn’t bad, his sound is warm and biggish, he looked scary, but he lacks charisma and star power.  It seemed like Attila’s part is somewhat dull, which I’m sure in the hands of a star bass it isn’t.  The production didn’t help by depriving him of the opportunity to show his power over the troops--the chorus being caught in the set’s underworld.  Unmemorable.

Ramón Vargas is a tenor of great musicality and cruised through lots of the music with a nice legato.  But he lacks the heroic heft needed for this part, he was audible but the voice is just too lyric for an opera this fierce.  I think there is strain, his tone is developing an unfortunate flutter similar to Alagna’s in recent years.  Finally, Giovanni Meoni subbed for Carlos Alvarez as Ezio and did a fine job with a large, round, pleasant sound, though he lacked something in dramatic attitude I can hardly fault a cover for that (and everyone except Urmana needed an attitude injection, really).

As for the booing, I talked to a bunch of people in intermission and afterwards, and their major complaints all seemed to be about the abstract sets.  OPEN YOUR MINDS, people.  As long as we’re all whining that the Big Wall o’ Green Stuff is not a legitimate visualization of a wild forest, we’re never going to get to get to Level 2 of Abstract Regie, at which point we consider that the forest could perhaps not even have trees and still be OK (GASP).  It’s not that there weren’t problems here, but don’t be ridiculous.

To catch up with the news, Prada’s skinny replacements for the fired supersized supers were superfluous, though skinny.  Also, Robby Duiveman is credited as “Associate Costume Designer” and gets a picture and bio in the program, which makes me wonder as to the extent of Prada’s involvement with the production.

There are some memorable scenic effects, most of all some rotating gobos that made the wall o’ green stuff come alive, which made me remember that I missed Lost last night.  Do we know if Sayid is a zombie yet?  No, don’t tell me.  Also, can Daniel Faraday show up wearing Attila's  kickass spiky helmet?  Because that would be awesome.

Next: Have you seen my Nose?

*The wall serves to remind us to visit the David Rubenstein Atrium down the block, which has a very similar albeit smaller green wall designed by the same dudes--also, have a sandwich there, they're delicious if a bit pricey.  Unless you're in danger of being fired by Miuccia Prada, that is.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Ariadne auf Naxos: All hail Nina the Great

Strauss-Hofmannsthal, Ariadne auf Naxos.  Metropolitan Opera, 2/4/2010.  Conducted by Kirill Petrenko with Nina Stemme (Ariadne), Kathleen Kim (Zerbinetta), Sarah Connolly (Komponist), Michael Hendrick (Bacchus).  Directed by Laurie Feldman, after a production by Elijah Moshinsky.

As you can probably guess, in the whole Ariadne v. Zerbinetta stakes of this opera, I’m usually on the side of the trilling, coloratura’d one.  But last night was not usual.  Nina Stemme as Ariadne was the only singer in this cast who makes things more than routine.  More than that, she is FANTASTIC.  New fan here.

The Vorspiel was disappointing.  The production is overstuffed with Merry Antics from Zerbinetta’s troupe, the stage cluttered.  Nothing zoomed or zinged or zipped, it just sort of ambled.  The orchestra seemed asleep at their scores.  (Though I think the chamber scoring of the whole score is a bad fit for the Met’s size, and I suspect a lot of detail was lost.)  Sarah Connolly’s Komponist was respectably and musically sung but without vocal breadth or glamour.  Jochem Schmeckenbecher a well-sung but dully characterized Music Teacher.

The Oper was better.  Petrenko seemed to connect with the orchestra, everything balanced out a bit more.  But the big thing is Nina Stemme’s Ariadne, which is magnificent.  She has a giant, darkish, round sound with bright top notes, very expressive and beautifully musically sung.  We so often make compromises with dramatic voices:
  • “The voice is huge but so ugly”
  • “Big sound, but no musicality at all.”
  • “Nicely sung but the voice isn’t really large enough”
  • Our favorite: “Decent singing but what an immobile lump onstage.”

Nina Stemme requires no compromises, she's got pretty much everything.  Beautiful singing and a good, convincing actress to boot, with what this production gives her.   She was quite funny in the prologue, and magisterial in the Opera.*  Shame that Petrenko rushed through “Es gibt ein Reich,” I wish we could have heard those high notes held a bit longer--OK, I should go hear her as Brünnhilde or Isolde, I know.  I hope she will be singing more at the Met in the future, it’s really shameful that up to this point her only credit is a Senta from ten years ago.  (Side note to those who know me: She’s Swedish.  I continue to insist that everyone and everything that comes from Sweden is AWESOME.)

I enjoyed Kathleen Kim’s Olympia in Hoffmann last December very much, but as Zebinetta she didn’t offer Stemme much competition in the vocal compare-and-contrast.  She’s cute and has a sweet voice, but not nearly the magnitude of personality or variety of expressive colors to make Zerbinetta more than a caricature. Compared to Stemme's march through rage, vulnerability, excitement, and more rage, she was just bubbly.  She’s in the songbird mode, and while Zerbinetta’s aria demands chirping it also requires a much wider emotional range, and quicker changes between moods.  The more lyrical parts of the role had little impact, particularly the Vorspiel duet with the Komponist.  There was some fudging in the last section of the big aria, and her trill isn’t particularly good, but it’s a marathon.

Tenor Lance Ryan was out sick, and unfortunately cover Michael Hendrick was sick too, but bravely went on.  Poor guy, it wasn’t the most pleasant experience for anyone concerned, but he sounds like he has a good voice, and I hope to hear him under more favorable circumstances at some point.

(Does anyone else think the nymphs’ lengthy hyping of Bacchus’s appearance is unfortunate?  Has there EVER been a hot heldentenor Bacchus?  Couldn’t they go on about how great his spirit is or something instead?  We can acknowledge that most heldentenors aren't lookers and get on with it but the text just reminds us.  Repeatedly.)

The Rhinemaidens, I mean the nymphs, by the way, were beautifully sung, particularly Tamara Mumford’s Dryade.  This production has them rolling around on these high dress things, and the ladies have to emote solely with their elbows.  But prettily done.  Zerbinetta’s backup singers were unobjectionable, if occasionally inaudible.  I could have done with less mugging but I guess that’s the production’s fault.  I wasn’t sure if all the comic stuff was really supposed to be funny (which it wasn’t, but this business is hard to pull off) or intentionally dumb and annoying, in which case it wasn’t ridiculous enough.  I think the intentionally dumb angle belongs to another production, one with a more radical perspective on the piece.

The production, originally by Moshinsky, is traditional in the prologue and a little more fanciful in the opera.  It involves many of those sliding panels we know and hate from Bartlett Sher’s Met productions.  And who should the set designer be but Michael Yeargan, who designed Sher’s Barbiere and Hoffmann as well (he also designed the current Don Giovanni, which probably featured sliding panels but I’ve blocked that particular night at the Met from my memory).  Oh well, the panels slide endlessly to no clear end but the final tableau with Bacchus is nice, and the colors are beautiful (an attractive color scheme in a Met production! what a concept!). 

Confession: once I got the measure of things, secretly I was hoping for the other Ariadne, the one in which it rains, the fireworks are canceled, and the two shows are performed separately.  Then I could leave before Zerbinetta and her team came out.  But I landed in the wrong timeline where the plane DOES crash and got the usual crazy smashed-together one.  No Desmond in my timeline, very disappointing.  Also, aren’t we all glad Lost is back?  Three cheers for surreal desert islands.

Next!: I’m not sure!  The Met is quiet this month.  I may write about The Bridge Company’s Tempest shortly!  Otherwise, Attila!  Do you know Pierre Audi?  If you do, you will know why I am very intrigued to see this!

*However, I didn’t like how the production has Ariadne drop back into the persona of the Prima Donna from the Prologue when Zerbinetta first enters.  The Opera is something much more interesting than just an extrapolation of the Prologue’s events, and going back into the Prologue mode breaks the mood.

Video Bonus: Nina Stemme sings the Liebstod