Monday, April 26, 2010

Links worth reading

Excuse me, I have to go back to work so I can conceivably justify the amount of time I'm going to spend in the Carmen rush line on Wednesday.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Armida: I loved a sorceress and all I got were these lousy poppies

Rossini, Armida.  Metropolitan Opera, 4/12/2010.  New production premiere directed by Mary Zimmerman, conducted by Riccardo Frizza with Renée Fleming (Armida), Lawrence Brownlee (Rinaldo), John Osborn (Goffredo), assorted other tenors.

Sadly, in Mary Zimmerman’s new production of Rossini’s 1817 opera Armida, we have another clunker.  I know this was widely seen coming, but this production is weak sauce in so many ways.  And now for Part Two of "It’s Raining Tenors!" (See here for Part One, on Partenope.)

I should have known it was going to be trouble from the picture of Renée Fleming wearing a hot pink dress and waving a wand on the Met website.  Enchanting!  Astonishing!  Magic! was promised.  But  Armida is a Saracen sorceress who seduces and abducts upstanding and heroic Christian crusaders.  She’s Carmen in the Holy Land with magic, or Thaïs without the reform (the latter Renée should understand).  Renée Fleming in this production is a grown-up Disney princess whom her chief conquest Rinaldo would never fear to bring home to his mother.  In a nutshell, the production is fatally unsexy.

The trope of knights seduced by heathen women is more fully explored and clearly stated in Monty Python than it is here.  The knights are a random assemblage of dudes in uniform, their internal power struggles given no gravity or significance at all, Armida’s lair is populated by generically exotic women who seem nice enough.  Armida’s demons, to whom Rossini gives some quite creepy music, are just embarrassingly silly with their tails and devil ears and slinky choreography.  My companion pegged their look as straight out of Cats.  Armida is not supposed to be scary and evil because she has poor taste in mega-musicals.

Armida’s magic isn’t just literal magic, it’s a stand-in for a threatening Other of female sexuality threatening good Christian soldiers.  But this production completely ignores this in favor of sparkles.  The production has its pretty moments but is completely without bite.  Rossini’s final scene, as Rinaldo escapes Armida's grasp, has some intense music, but it just feels tacked-on here due to the low emotional stakes.  The superfluous allegorical figures of Love and Vengeance wandering around don't help give things any gravity, either.

You can’t accuse Zimmerman of not listening to the music.  Every change of tempo and meter is marked with a clear stage action or lighting cue.  The effect is redundant and lifeless, because even though the music moves in blocks the dramatic flow should transcend the sectional construction.  Just because the story is told in numbers doesn’t mean the numbers themselves are the story.  The stage action references the music too directly and too frequently to assume any kind of life of its own.

Every single time we have an inner monologue or ensemble in which the participants are not supposed to hear each other, the lights dim to spots telling us what is up, you know, they can't hear each other!  It insults the intelligence of the audience as well as being boring.  The arias suffer the from some horribly static stagings (with decisive walking in the orchestral transitions).  I know this is complicated music to sing and we are dealing with lots of tenors here, but it’s dramatically just flat.  Zimmerman manages to find much more emotion and narrative in the duets, but the directing of the chorus is mostly aimless milling about on the production’s dull unit set.

Armida, with its many magical transformation scenes, seems a poor candidate for such a unit set, and we never have much of a sense of place.  (I think projections would have worked better.)  Here we have another curving wall, this time off-white rather than beige, it’s pretty enough but doesn’t add any effective atmosphere.  There is "stage magic," meaning birds and stuff, pretty but forgettable and without dramatic purpose.  The giant spiders I was excited about, by the way?  Very disappointing.  There are lots of poppies in the last act, though soporifics are the last thing the audiences needs at this point.  (Seriously, guys, cuts.  Look into them.)

The ballet in Act 2 was somewhat entertaining, Graciela Daniele's choreography a questionable mix of semi-ballet and cutesy hip-shaking.  The point, a central male dancer corrupted by many lady dancers, was clear enough, but the dance's dramatic status was unclear, it was not positioned as a fantasy sequence but rather as a diegetic entertainment for Armida and Rinaldo, but it was unclear who was staging this for them or what it was supposed to mean.

Perhaps I would have been more dramatically convinced had the musical performance been more compelling.  Renée Fleming sketched most of the coloratura, skating over the little notes instead of articulating them clearly, and she just doesn’t have the kind of fearless abandon in this kind of music that makes it virtuosic rather than dutiful.  She didn’t have volume problems except on some of the low notes, and the voice itself is gorgeous. I didn’t notice too many of the lapses in taste for which she is so infamous, but she simply is miscast here.  (Based on her amazing Colbran CD, I would loved to have heard Joyce DiDonato in this role.)

Now for our many tenors.   Lawrence Brownlee was fantastic in Rinaldo’s more lyrical music, and he tossed off the coloratura with impressive ease and precision.  I like his sweet and round tone, which projects just fine, but didn’t find it quite right for this role, where I think a certain degree more heft and heroism is required.  Too soon for him?  Perhaps John Osborn, who sang Goffredo, would be better suited to Rinaldo, though his tone is less beautiful it has a ringing strength that seems appropriate.    He was excellent in the smaller role of Goffredo, though.  Joining Brownlee in the infamous tenor trio were Barry Banks and Kobie van Rensburg as two more knights, both sang well but the piece didn’t quite add up somehow.

Riccardo Frizza conducted a very clean and precise reading from the orchestra that was maybe a bit short on dramatic weight and mystery--or maybe that’s just the production.  The instrumental solos, particularly the cello and violin, were excellent.

I know that my impressions of this production are heavily colored by a different Armida that I saw last summer, or rather an Armide.  (The plot, an episode from Torquato Tasso's Gerusalemme Liberata, has been set not only by Rossini but also Lully, Handel, Haydn, Gluck, Salieri, Dvorak, and others.)  This was Gluck’s opera of 1787, it was at the Komische Oper Berlin in a production by Calixto Bieito (NSFW clip and interviews here repeat not really that safe for work).  I honestly find Gluck’s opera much more interesting than Rossini’s, and Bieito’s production, which positioned a determined, modern Armida in a business suit against an army of naked male prisoners, um, made an impression.  It had all the danger and violence that this one lacked, perhaps all too much danger and violence, but Armida’s powers were clearly drawn.

(I thought, since I know the Gluck I would be fine not reading about Rossini before I went.  FYI don’t do this, the plots are not the same AT ALL.)

We’re getting a revival of this Rossini next season, good lord.  Can I petition to either bring Bieito’s Gluck Armide over from Berlin (come on, it would get the Met in the news for sure! I CANNOT picture Renée Fleming going anywhere near a Bieito production but vocally the Gluck would probably suit her voice much better than the Rossini) or maybe get William Christie to bring Les Arts Florissants to do the Lully Armide instead?  I acknowledge the complete infeasibility and impossibility of this but I just want to say that you can do much better with Armida than this current specimen.

Next: Tosca, sei tu!

Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Video: NOT ROSSINI.  Lully's Armide (1686), Les Arts Florissants

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Partenope: It's raining (counter)tenors, part one

Handel, Partenope.  New York City Opera, 4/3/2010.  Conducted by Christian Curnyn with Cyndia Sieden (Partenope), Iestyn Davies (Arsace), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Armindo), Stephanie Houtzeel (Rosmira), Nicholas Coppolo (Emilio).  Production by Francisco Negrin, directed by Andrew Chown.

Now that we have finished our Shakespeare unit we are starting the reverse-Blumenmädchen part, that is some ladies who have entranced--either by their natural charms or their magical charms--a large number of hapless high-voiced men.  Most of these ladies are named Armida, and we will soon encounter the Met's example of this, but today we will be discussing the all-natural, no magic required Partenope, in Handel's opera of the same title.*

This is a somewhat obscure opera, though this isn’t its first time at City Opera, and this production is a revival.  NPR World of Opera has a nice plot summary and introduction here.   Partenope is a comedy, more or less, which means that the constant comedy applied by directors to most Handel opera actually is appropriate this time.  Francisco Negrin’s production, revived by Andrew Chown, however, doesn’t push the outrageous button very many times, and manages to impart a good deal of humanity to the characters.

The orchestra was modern, and since I mostly listen to Handel as performed by period orchestras, this was a bit different (not in a good way in my opinion, I love my HIP). The result is fleet rather than springy, and in the first act I felt like conductor Christian Curnyn’s tempos were far too fast to allow the music to breathe or have any shape.  But either he calmed down or I got used to it because the second two acts seemed much better.

Francisco Negrin’s setting is modern abstract, and like L’Étoile, the characters kind of color-coded.  The single set is a set of moving white and turquoise walls that resemble a less run-down version of wherever the Met's Hamlet was set, and appear to be built for a smaller stage than the one on which they currently reside.  However in Personenregie it is mostly naturalistic, no choreography for the arias, the fanciful elements are limited to the costumes and occasional ambiguously symbolic objects appearing onstage.

Sometimes Negrin (Chown?) stages a da capo aria as a single continuous narrative, sometimes the da capo (the A’ of the ABA’ structure) as a variation of the first A, echoing the musical structure.  Particularly considering the realistic staging of most of the other action, I thought the first strategy considerably more effective. The lighting design also acknowledges the structure of the music, mostly very effectively--a shame there was so much ugly pink light.

Most of the singers had no trouble with the quick tempos.  Cyndia Sieden as Partenope zips through everything at warp speed with her laser-bright soprano, and also float nicely on the slow stuff.  She may lack a certain degree of charisma or glamor or something, she seemed a bit too nice, but was always a pleasure to hear.

As Rosmira, a woman disguised as a man who sings in the same range of the countertenors (oh, Handel, you trickster!), Stephanie Houtzeel was very good, with a rich and warm sound and excellent high notes, and was fun onstage.  Her coloratura is excellent but her low notes didn’t seem that big, I see in her bio she’s headed to Strauss repertoire, where she’ll probably sound great.

The two countertenors were both excellent and a study in contrasts, which is good when you have two major characters in the same fach.  Iestyn Davies has a clear, bell-like sound with a lot of pure beauty, but also of considerable virtuosity, particularly in the ridiculous “Furibondo spira il vento” (see video below).  Anthony Roth Costanzo as Armindo is more nasal and heavier on the vibrato (also sounded best on his high notes, I wonder if this role is low for him?).  Nicholas Coppolo as lesser suitor Emilio (tenors not enjoying the starry status of castrati in Handel’s day) sang just as much coloratura with a pleasant Mozart-tenor ish sound.

The production ended up being a nice break from the madcap and the wacky, there was none of the sensory overload that some Handel stagings can produce, the plot was easy to follow, it was funny when it should be funny, and we got to concentrate on the virtuosity of the singing.  Could it have been a little sexier?  Yeah, probably, but sometimes moderation is a good thing.

City Opera has declined to provide any photos of the current cast, so I attempt to evoke the glory of Handel’s London period below:

Cool Handel

Next:  I may drag myself to the Armida prima if I can find companionship, because I hear there are going to be GIANT SPIDERS and as someone who has read and watched Lord of the Rings an unseemly number of times I do love a giant spider.  Can't wait for Tosca because OMG Patricia Racette and Fabio Luisi!  This ticket's value seems to be increasing rather than decreasing with the substitutions.  Just don't mess with my tenor and we're good.

*Yes, this is one of the many things in opera that pisses off a feminist.  These lady-learns-a-lesson operas always grate.  Lady is always so much more boring after she is reformed and married off.  But I can usually ignore it and deal.  (My gender politics are always up for a good Fidelio, though.  ALWAYS.)

“Furibondo spira il vento,” Philippe Jaroussky (sorry, Iestyn, you aren’t on the YouTube!)