Thursday, March 25, 2010

Fantastic, fantastical Fairy Queen at BAM

Purcell, The Fairy Queen.  Glyndebourne Festival Opera as presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, 3/23/2010.  Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie.  Directed by Jonathan Kent.

Bless thee, Bottom!  Thou art translated!  This week’s desecration of the Bard is a particularly delightful one, Purcell’s exceedingly obscure semi-opera The Fairy Queen. It’s a spectacular, epic, and magical production from the Glyndebourne Festival, but leave the Glyndebourne dress code at home and find a plaid shirt, it’s at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

It’s an unusual piece, and BAM astonishingly does not provide any program notes (the Les Arts Florissants discography is nice, but a few paragraphs of history would be better).  But luckily I did my homework so here are the basics.  Semi-operas were popular in London in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, before Handel and Porpora moved in and converted the British to full-blown opera.  They consist of a full spoken play performed by non-singing actors which is periodically interrupted by songs and extended masque-like interludes in which singers and dancers appear and do their thing, somehow prompted by the plot.  The music and dance don’t advance the story, they add atmosphere.  So these pieces are somewhat slow-moving and LONG.  This one is more or less uncut, and runs around four hours, around 50/50 semi- and opera.  If you saw Mark Morris’s production of Purcell’s King Arthur at the City Opera a few years ago, you just saw the music, the play was eliminated entirely.

The Fairy Queen, dating from 1692, despite all appearances, is not based on Spenser but a much more familiar source, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The play, though, was rewritten by an anonymous late seventeenth-century playwright: the Greek references are removed, it is somewhat condensed (so long, Hippolyta), and somewhat rearranged.  But most disconcertingly if you know that Shakespeare, many of the lines have been changed to regularize the meter, take out the obscure references, and sometimes un-Shakespearize it.  If you know the play, it’s weird to hear familiar lines mixed with new ones.  For example:

You spotted snakes with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen.
Newts and blindworms, do not wrong.
Come not near our Fairy Queen.

becomes

Now joyn your Warbling Voices all,
Sing while we trip it on the Green;
But no ill Vapours rise or fall,
Nothing offend our Fairy Queen

As you may guess, a common criticism of semi-operas are that the plays aren’t any good, despite the delight of the music.  That was what Mark Morris said when he cut Dryden’s play entirely from King Arthur.  Also, that they don't hold together.  But a semi-opera is a complete work in some form, not just blocks of music alternating with blocks of text.  Even though the two don’t interact in Rogers and Hammerstein fashion, they still comprise a whole of a sort--one that this production proves is theatrically viable.  Seeing a semi-opera with both play and music in place is rare, and would be worth seeing even if this one weren’t so good in itself.

**

Another reason semi-operas died out was they were so expensive to produce. The Fairy Queen apparently was always quite an endeavor to put on, as the Prologue notes:

“But that this Play may in its Pomp appear
Pray let our Stage from thronging Beaux be clear.
For what e’re cost we’re at, what e’re we do,
In Scenes, Dress, Dances...”

The set descriptions show where some of this money went:

The Scene changes to a great Wood; a long row of large Trees on each side: A River in the middle: Two rows of lesser Trees of a different kind just on the side of the River, which meet in the middle, and make so many Arches: Two great Dragons make a Bridge over the River; their Bodies form two Arches, through which two Swans are seen in the River at a great distance.

Sorry, that was just an excuse to quote more 1693 English.  Kent and Christie have swans, but no dragons.

**

Jonathan Kent and William Christie’s production isn’t relentlessly faithful to the original text (it Shakespeares it up somewhat, for one thing), but its liberties aren’t great.  Its remarkable achievement is how it balances well-acted text and well-sung and danced music and creates something that is both coherent and entertaining.  The lovers are initially period (17th-c), the Mechanicals out of Keeping Up Appearances, the fairies somewhat more current but with wings. 

In the forest, the lovers lose their big clothes and, as in Midsummer, enter the world of irrationality--which, broadly speaking, is the world of music.  The semi-opera doesn’t allow them to sing, but they do, masque-like, become part of the show.  The role of the Drunken Poet in the First Masque is given to Bottom, making the First Masque almost a plot event marking the Mechanicals’ entrance into the forest.  The Second Masque puts Titania to sleep, the Third Masque is on seduction, the Fourth on the new day and seasons (yeah, this one is the most tangential), the Fifth on marriage.

The masques are like a ballet in their plot, sometimes narrating a bit but mostly just on the way to the next delight.  And the staging is endlessly inventive, steadily building in outrageousness and silliness from the relatively tame early masques to crowds of giant amorous rabbits,  trailer trash couples (anti-masquers!), and more surprises that I should not ruin for you.  The final Masque of Marriage contains a lament ("O let me weep") that reminds ups how screwed up marriage was back then.  FYI, Kent’s "Adam and Eve" was originally a Chinese couple (their Daphne was "Xansi"), who have apparently disappeared for a less offensive, more nekkid, more Cranach-y alternative.

So it’s a lot to take in, and occasionally overwhelming.  The actors are all, as far as the program indicated, British, and very good, giving an entertaining, bawdy rendition of this somewhat crooked Dream with appropriately youthful lovers and most of the usual highlights--short jokes, chasing, etc.  As any good Bottom, Desmond Barritt is a highlight, the Mechanicals in general a hilariously dim bunch, and their play a truly epic disaster.  The play is good enough to not wish we get straight to the music, and that’s saying something.

The music.  Les Arts Florissants are an institution, and this piece displays them to great advantage.  The orchestra is large and amazingly colorful, and Christie's tempos are quick.  The soloists doubled various roles in various masques and were universally good (and stylistically accurate, of course), but my favorites were Emmanuelle de Negri as Night and the lamenter, and Andrew Foster-Williams in a variety of bass-baritone roles.  There is also a lot of dancing, which I haven’t yet mentioned because I found it the least interesting part of the show, the choreography (by Kim Brandstrup) struck my uneducated eye as dully athletic.  But you get lots of glorious dance music.

The set isn’t quite as extravagant as the above description, but it’s full of surprises.  We start in a period study lined with cabinets of curiosities, this room expands to become the forest, the fairies emerging from the cabinets and through the windows and floor.  The mini-dramas of the masques are staged like different strange things pulled out of the cabinets too, without adherence to any particular period or theme.  It’s elegant and moves smoothly between play and music, and is technically very impressive (nice flying). 

So does it tell a story?  Eh, not quite, but that isn’t the point.  It’s a spectacle, and is appropriate spectacular and diverting, and frequently delightful.  Tommasini seems to think that the glam and current touches that make Christie’s productions so exciting is somewhat disreputable, tarting up (he says ”juicing up“) something which is perhaps more properly buttoned-up and without bunny orgies.  Nonsense.  This is supposed to be exciting stuff, we know people found it exciting then, and to frump it up today when we could be having fun is doing the material a disservice, not to mention the audience.  So go enjoy without guilt!

Next: I don’t know!  Partenope if I can make it, especially after the encouragement of the commenters below, or possibly nothing until second-cast Tosca on April 17--noch einmal with Luc Bondy.  Yes, Armida will also be happening, but probably not until after that!

Jonathan Kent on the staging in the Guardian
William Christie on the music:

Saturday, March 20, 2010

L'étoile: Star treks

Emmanuel Chabrier, L'étoile.  New York City Opera, 3/18/10.  Conducted by Emmanuel Plasson with Julie Boulianne (Lazuli), Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (King Ouf), Jennifer Zetlan (Laoula) in a production by Mark Lamos.

In New York, you can currently hear two very different examples of 19th-century French opera.  Last Tuesday I saw Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet at the Met, and on Thursday Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’étoile next door at the New York City Opera.  Compared to Thomas’s stern austerity, Chabrier is all bubbles.  Got to say I prefer Chabrier.  This is a score of considerable musical sophistication and refinement, but also not above a long ensemble about tickling.  (Hi, Eric Massa!)

And this production is a fun night out.  The plot is pure Offenbachian silliness: a king is looking for a victim for his annual celebratory public execution, but his astrologer warns him that his choice’s horoscope is closely linked to his own, and should he carry out the execution the king himself will die within a day.  Meanwhile the would-be victim, Lazuli, falls in love with the King’s fiancée.  Hijinks ensue.  How can you not love an opera that has a “Song of Impalement”?  Such non-stop goofiness would become tiring, though, if there weren’t a fair number of lyrical moments as well, and if the music weren’t so consistently inspired.

The City Opera’s production, by Mark Lamos, goes for the goofy end of things, it’s surreal, brightly colored and with a lot of choreographed musical numbers--think a great deal of bobbing up and down.  It’s entertaining and effective, and fits the character of the music very well.  Even the many choruses get entertaining choreographic treatment.  The empty white stage is subject to much bricolage, in the old movie musical sense.  The story is cute enough but often an excuse for flights of musical mischief and parody, which the production treats with suitable fantasy.  It’s a revival, and while it’s the first time I’ve seen it, I suspect the first iteration may have been a little bit dramatically tighter, and maybe more attuned to the poignant moments in the score.  But it’s still great fun.

The orchestra sounded great (conducted by Emmanuel Plasson, son of Michel Plasson), and the singing was mostly strong.  This was my first experience with the new acoustics of the unfortunately-named David Koch Theatre, but I had only been to the old version two or three times so I can’t make a detailed comparison (love those aisles, though!).  But I think it’s an improvement, everything is clear if not the most resonant.  Julie Boulianne sounded great as Lazuli, but was sometimes covered by the orchestra in the faster and lower parts of the role.  Jean-Paul Fouchécourt sounds like he is past his best tenorial days, but he’s still hilarious and stylistically perfect.  Jennifer Zetlan was bright and mellifluous as the Princess Laoula.

So the City Opera isn’t the Met.  We know this.  But this is a great opera (one I doubt the Met could stage successfully), and the production, despite some sketched-in bits, is cheery and silly and inventive and visually more interesting than a lot of things you see next door.  So why the rows and rows of empty seats?  This company is in a bad place, or rather hopefully getting out of a bad place, and they need your support.  By all means go and admire Simon Keenlyside’s biceps singing over at the Met, but please consider a visit to City Opera too.  You’ll get an entertaining night at the opera, and help to ensure that this company stays with us in the future.  They need you!  And you might not realize it, but you need L'étoile too--it will cheer you up, at least.

Their remaining two productions this spring are a revival of Mark Lamos’s lovely minimalist production of Madame Butterfly and a production of Handel’s Partenope by the fantastic Spanish director Francisco Negrin.  I’m hoping to go to the latter.

Next: This William Christie fangirl sees her idol in person for the first time.  Fairy Queen at BAM!

Photos from the New York Times/Sarah Krulwich.  Sorry, Times, but I couldn't find any of the current cast on the City Opera website.

City Opera trailer:

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Hamlet: More than kin but less than kind

Ambroise Thomas, Hamlet.  Metropolitan Opera, 3/16/2010.  Conducted by Louis Langrée with Simon Keenlyside (Hamlet), Marlis Petersen (Ophélie), Jennifer Larmore (Gertrude), James Morris (Claudius), Toby Spence (Läerte), David Pittsinger (Ghost).  New production premiere by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser.

In last Sunday’s Times, directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser defended Ambroise Thomas’s operatic Hamlet’s “dramatic integrity” and lack of sentimentality and bombast.  That’s one way of looking at it.  For my taste, despite some good set pieces and two compelling leading roles, the ratio of banal to memorable music is far too high, and Thomas’s dull score wears out its welcome well before the end of this (sometimes interminable) work.  Caurier and Leiser’s production has some sincere and compelling acting.  But visually it ranges from unmemorable to ugly, and is marred by some unnecessarily silly touches that could well be cut.  While I enjoyed some of the performances a great deal and don’t exactly regret that I saw it, I feel no need to see Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet ever again.

Of course for English-speaking audiences in particular this opera stands in the long shadow of Shakespeare’s play, which we all have studied and seen many times.  Comparison is kind of interesting but tells us more about ourselves than it does about this opera.  For my part I really miss Shakespeare’s supporting characters: Polonius and Horatio are there but not important enough to qualify as characters, and forget about Roz and Guil.  More interesting is the loss of Fortinbras, which reduces the plot to basically a family drama.  Thomas's Hamlet notoriously lives at the end, as is standard in French opera of this time.  He doesn’t in this production, we’ll get to that.

Caurier and Leiser’s production is abstract, and the sets a few dingy rotating walls.  Thus continues the reign of beige or beige-ish (these were pink) at the Met this year.  These are some of the least compelling of their species, and to little other than give the singers something (ugly) to stand in front of.  Maybe they looked better in one of the small opera houses from which this production originated?  (This production has been around.  It’s already on DVD.)  Costumes are generic royal with occasional surreal bits.  I guess the best thing about the design is that it brings the focus to the characters.


Simon Keenlyside gives a real tour de force in the leading role, and is probably the best thing about this production.  Thomas gives Hamlet mostly austere music, with the exception of the notorious rollicking drinking song (if you know anything out of this opera, it’s probably this).  Keenlyside does an excellent job capturing Hamlet’s shifts between ambivalence, grief, and rage, and is probably one of the best actors you’re going to see in opera today.  His voice has also gotten warmer and rounder than I remember, and seems ideal for this music.  He can pull off most of the production’s more audacious ideas, including an over-the-top quasi-mad scene that enlivens a dull chorus and reprise of the drinking song.  But even he can’t sell Hamlet running into a wall at the end of the otherwise exciting Hamlet-Gertrude duet.  (I remember this being a dumb moment in the DVD.  Why hasn’t someone cut it by now?)

Marlis Petersen is new to me.  I suppose this production was put on mostly for Dessay, but she is more than an adequate substitute, and in this high stuff probably far superior than Dessay these days.  Her voice is slightly dark in color, unusual and interesting for a coloratura type, but clear and in tune (mostly).  She doesn’t have much legato in her singing, which I didn’t mind here, but I can see why she specializes in German roles.  Compared to Keenlyside, who can make a great deal of a small gesture, her performance was sometimes a bit blank, but considering that as a late substitute for Dessay she barely got a chance to rehearse at all and was probably really jet-lagged, she was impressively coordinated with everyone else.  And her mad scene, given a bloody and dramatic staging involving (I think) a phantom pregnancy, was excellent and one of the highlights of the evening, the staging occasionally serving to distract from some strained high notes.  The musically innovative coda, in which wordless offstage pre-Daphnis et Chloé nymphs coax Ophelia into the river, however, seemed dramatically unnecessary and only served to remind me that I missed Lost AGAIN.  Also that I would rather be seeing Rusalka.

But Caurier and Leiser?  When you speak admiringly of Thomas’s restraint and then stage a mad scene that involves a lot of self-mutilation and another that involves your protagonist pouring wine over his own head I begin to doubt your stated opposition to silly effects.  Anyways, spicing up the boring parts is entirely justified, and desperately needed.  The mixture of melodrama and sensitive lyricism is probably the most interesting thing here, even if the melodrama occasionally slides into the ridiculous and the lyric into the dull.  These kinds of contrasts are, after all, the stuff 19th-century French operas are made of.  (Oops, wrong Shakespeare there.)

Jennifer Larmore was best in Gertrude’s melodramatic moments, particularly her scene with Hamlet.  (There is one circumstance in which I would see Hamlet again: Waltraud Meier as Gertrude.  Not that that will ever happen, so I’m safe.)  James Morris seriously needs to retire.  He was wobbly but not horrible in Simon Boccanegra, but his singing here pained the ears.  Toby Spence was a tenor, that’s about all I have to say, I could hear him but he is somewhat pale of voice.  Läerte doesn't give one much to work with, I seem to recall an aria at the beginning but can say nothing of it.  David Pittsinger as the Ghost outsang Morris by a mile, they should swap roles.

As for that ending?  Thomas’s Act V takes place at Ophelia’s funeral (after the gravedigger’s episode, though there is no Yorick) and does not resemble Shakespeare very much.  Apparently inspired by the previous year’s premiere of Verdi’s Don Carlos, the libretto gives the ghost a reappearance.  Thomas later wrote an ending in which Hamlet dies.  This production uses some parts of that ending, and, SPOILER, in a very short sword fight Laertes and Hamlet manage to kill each other.  I did not find it convincing, but was glad that the opera was finally over.  (It is three hours 20 minutes with only one intermission.  Sorry, but that is too long when you’re Ambroise Thomas.)

Some booing at the end, surprisingly for conductor Louis Langrée as well as the directors.  The conducting did not strike me as anything special, but neither did it seem that bad.  There were quite a few clams from the brass in Act 1, but I don't think that was Langrée's fault.  As for the production team boos, well, that seems to be our mode of opera(tion) these days.

Next: Emmanuelle Chabrier infamously quipped, “There is good music, there is bad music, and there is the music of Ambroise Thomas.”  We will consider this statement further after a performance of Chabrier’s L'Étoile at the City Opera on Thursday.  (It is thoughtfully given an early curtain, so I might be able to get home in time for Project Runway!)

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Dude where’s my nose

Shostakovich, The Nose.  Metropolitan Opera, 3/5/2010.  New production premiere by William Kentridge, conducted by Valery Gergiev with Paulo Szot (Kovalyov), Gordon Gietz (his nose), Andrei Popov (police inspector), many many other people.

Whew!  That was quite an evening.  Shostakovich’s first opera is an odd one, and William Kentridge’s new production at the Met is visually fantastic and appropriately individual.  The AP seems to think it’s “daunting” for its few and brave audience members, but really it’s nothing of the sort, and y’all should go see it because you’ll love it.

But it is obscure, so maybe some background is in order: Shostakovich was only in his early twenties when he composed this, his first opera. The libretto is a fairly direct adaptation of the Gogol story of the same title with the exception of some added scenes in the second half of the opera.  It premiered in 1930, at the tail end of an experimental era in Soviet art, just before the crackdown that infamously condemned Shostakovich’s second opera, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.”  Read Laurel Fay’s excellent, unsentimental biography for more.

The plot concerns a man who wakes up one day to find his nose is missing.  He chases it all over St. Petersburg.  It’s utterly absurd, and Shostakovich’s chaotic, mostly non-tonal score is equally non-sensical, at least on the surface.

The Met’s production is dominated by Kentridge’s animations, projected onto the cyclorama behind the action.  They mix drawings with newspaper clippings and archival footage.  The use of newspapers throughout the production is ingenious, replicating the stance of Gogol’s narrator, who is only a reporter of events he can’t quite believe.  The interior scenes take place on small rolling set pieces, the exterior ones on the empty stage in front of the cyc (the projections sometimes provide suggestions of our locale, sometimes not).  The animations also include a great deal of text, both in English and Russian: some enigmatic but vaguely relevant epigrams, some titles for the sung text, and some straightforward scene setting letting us know where we are.

As you can guess, it is all very busy.  The animations are often the center of attention, especially when you are sitting far up like I was and they are so much bigger than the people onstage.  Sometimes I found them distracting from the music, and it may be honest to say this is more Kentridge’s Nose than Shostakovich’s,* but for the most part I thought they added rather than detracted, and pick up on the montage qualities of the score.  In general, both the animations and the direction of the singers showed a lot of attention to the music, even if they occasionally overshadowed it.  Also, it all looks really cool.

The only character of real significance is Kovalyov, he of the missing nose, sung here by South Pacific's Paulo Szot.   He’s got a pleasant, not particularly memorable baritone that isn’t quite big enough for the Met in this role and was inaudible occasionally.  But he’s very sympathetic and likeable in what is more or less the passive reactionary (as in reacting) role, and once he (spoiler) regains his nose celebrates with a lot of charming semi-dancing that makes me wish he had been given a more dynamic role in the rest of the opera.

Szot wasn’t alone in having some musical issues.  The orchestra for this opera is small, and not small but big like Ariadne, but actually small.  Gergiev made it colorful and snappy like he usually does, but it all got a bit lost in the barn, and everything sounded much more distant than usual.  I think the audibility problems may have been due to the projection screens, which may have been absorbing sound--all the singers sounded a bit muffled, despite the small orchestra.  Things in the small downstage rooms were acoustically much better.

The many other soloists were good as well, including Andrei Popov’s very very high notes as the Police Inspector and Gordon Gietz’s almost as high notes as the Nose itself.  On the female side, Erin Morley’s mini-letter aria was really lovely (and will surely sound familiar to all you Onegin fans--both are going for the romance genre). 

Kentridge’s big scenes included some fantastic (in the uncanny sense) characters with masks and odd proportions whose purpose I didn’t really understand, but I’ll chalk it all up to “this is absurdist.”  (See above photo.)  Szot’s nose never goes missing in a literal way, which gives the reactions to its absence a sinister quality--and the giant paper-mache nose running and dancing around is also a little scary.  While the story is set in Imperial Russia, the political elements of this production point at an ambiguous later era.  Despite all the Russian in the animations and the occasional image of Stalin or Shostakovich, it’s very generalized, dealing with paranoia, rumor-spreading, bureaucracy, and mob mentalities that could be anywhere and any time.   It’s “Kafkaesque”--Kovalyov could be Josef K.--in a way that actually feels appropriate and informative for the work, unlike, um, say, Les Contes d’Hoffmann.  It’s abstract but creates a coherent world for the work in a visually compelling way.  So it's a winner for me.

A few words about the “daunting” bit espoused by the AP: AP, you are WRONG.  For an audience whose only cultural consumption is Rigoletto, the musical and dramatic language of The Nose is challenging.  But for anyone even vaguely familiar with modern literature, theater, or film it is probably a heck of a lot more accessible than Lucia di Lammermoor.  Culturally literate people who think opera is not for them should all see this, it’s entirely unstuffy, it’s funny, it’s short, it’s visually memorable.  Seriously, I don’t get it, AP (but thanks for all the pictures, which I stole).  The Awl has a good piece explaining why you should go see this, if I haven’t convinced you.  Really, go.

Next:  Too many premieres recently, I’m tiiiiired.  Off next week, but after that, Hamlet or not to Hamlet, that is the question. Answer is unclear.  I like Keenlyside but think the opera is pretty boring.  Shame it's getting an HD broadcast and not The Nose. If not, until L’Étoile at the City Opera.

*According to the piece on Kentridge in The New Yorker, the nose IS in fact modeled on Kentridge’s own, so there.

Photos by Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press.