Saturday, July 31, 2010

Der ferne Klang: Opera in the age of mechanical reproduction

Schreker, Der ferne Klang.  Bard Summerscape, 7/30/10.  American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein, production by Thaddeus Strassberger with Yamina Maamar (Grete), Mathias Schulz (Fritz), Corey Kern (The Count/Rudolf), Susan Marie Pierson (lots of parts), Matthew Burns (Innkeeper/Policeman), lots more. Full information and tickets here.

Act 1, with World War I backdrop
 Every year, the Bard Music Festival, located on the rural Bard College campus around 100 miles north of New York City, and its accompanying “Summerscape” events focus on the works of a single composer “and his world.”  ([Sic], no “her” yet.)  This year the composer is Alban Berg, but as usual the major opera production is a work of a lesser-known contemporary, here Franz Schreker’s 1912 opera Der ferne Klang (The Distant Sound).  It’s an amazing score most memorable for its incredible orchestration, but this iteration of it, despite an interesting production and strong singing, has too many musical weaknesses to do more than hint at Schreker's strengths.

The semi-protagonist, a composer named Fritz, leaves his girlfriend Grete in search of said sound.  But it turns out that the plot is really more about the havoc this causes on Grete than it is about Fritz at all.  Ten years later (Act II), she’s in a Venetian bordello and he’s horrified to run into her, five years after that (Act III) she’s a common prostitute and he’s a composer still one elusive sound short of a successful opera.  But an encounter with Grete is all he needs to realize that her love was the sound all along.  Awwwww.  Unfortunately Fritz starts thinking about this--I left the sound to look for the sound!--and perhaps it’s the effort involved in figuring out this circular logic that kills the poor dude in Grete's arms before he can add the sound to his opera.  Lucky us, we heard it back in the overture (it involves a celesta).  Don't think about the meta-ness too much, you might end up like Fritz.

Despite being flip about the plot, I think this is a really underrated opera.  But that’s not because of the libretto, which Schreker wrote himself and possibly shouldn’t have.  It’s because of the music, which sounds like a bipolar and slightly stoned Richard Strauss, only better.  It’s tonal-ish, with the collage of found music and timbral effects of Mahler and the delicacy of later Berg.  It’s overly intense, overstuffed, overripe, and overpowering.  The orchestration is almost limitlessly colorful. 

Unfortunately, last night’s performance only suggested its richness; you might say Schreker's sounds remained somewhat distant.  As led by Leon Botstein, always a better musical evangelist than he is a conductor, the orchestra sounded ragged and unfocused.  Very few details ever emerged from the complexity of the score, the entire account lacked shape and momentum.  Sometimes it worked, just because this music is so good, but it was despite the performance, not because of it.  (And reducing one of the best passages, the interlude in the middle of Act 3, to table-moving music was unfortunate.)  The positioning of the Venetian act’s stage bands directly above the pit completely ruined the multi-perspective effect of this amazing soundscape.

Grete in Act 2

However, much of the singing was very good.  Yamina Maamar as Grete has a big, solid voice, her bio describes her as a former mezzo but her upper register sounds great.  Mathias Schulz was less pleasant as Fritz, but sang forcefully if without finesse.  I think both have sung these roles before, and seemed very confident even through the overall mush of the orchestral performance.  The large cast of supporting characters were all well sung and most of the German diction was fantastic.  (Note: when you’re sitting near the front of the orchestra, it’s a loooong way up to those surtitles. Once I remembered I speak German I didn’t have much trouble understanding it, though.)

In the program, director Thaddeus Strassberger notes that his production was inspired by the rough parallels between the opera and Schreker’s own life. So that’s how he set it.  It’s an interesting concept.  We start in the middle of World War I as Fritz leaves to look for the sound, when we get to Venice we’re in the decadent 1920s, for the final act we’re approaching World War II (don't do the math).  Fritz’s inability to hear the sound, his Romantic quest, becomes a symptom of modernist alienation and the much more concrete social breakdown of the interwar period.  (Remember, the opera dates from 1912, so this is a speculative concept, not that I have a problem with that.)

In Act 1, we are greeted by a projection of an old photograph of birch trees: not the experience of nature but its representation. After Fritz’s departure, Grete also runs away to escape her dreadful family and, as the libretto has it, experiences a vision of sorts by the side of a lake.  Here, it is instead in a movie theater, again only a representation of nature.  But is it an authentic vision?  According to Schreker, yes, but not Strassberger, and he has a point because it is what leads her into the 1920s Venetian bordello of Act II.  Here she and the other ornamentally-attired ladies of the establishment (entire costume budget used to appropriately tacky effect) are reflected in arrays of mirrors, dizzying and deceptive, as some events from Act I seem to replay themselves.  In Act III, around 1935, we have an endless hall of mirrors stretching backstage into infinity as events repeat yet again.  Strassberger transforms some actual events of the libretto into Fritz’s fevered imagination, a very effective tactic.

I could take or leave the bits of Schreker biography (also: far from the first production that has tried this sort of thing), but the concept problematically seems to put the sound itself in the background.  I am not sure about the loss of the Romantic longing that seems to underlie Fritz’s quest, the transformation of a spiritual crisis into a social one.  Maybe this is partly Schreker’s fault by spending so much more time with Grete than Fritz, and ineffable crises are pretty hard to put on stage.  The source of the sound is Grete’s Eternal Feminine self (as seen in her ecstatic forest experience that is missing here), but here the gloomy all-enveloping modernity of war and sin has seemingly eliminated any possibility of transcendence.  The decadence of the 1920s has baggage that Schreker’s 1912 did not (I think it's fair to be this picky since the production is trying to establish something so specific).  A very interesting concept, but I’m not sure if it is entirely successful.  It comes across as a shadow of Lulu rather than something different and interesting in its own right.  Ha, Berg festival.  I see.

Unfortunately, as a whole I felt that this evening represented something of a missed opportunity.  The glory of this opera is its score, and when you have this much trouble hearing it, you’re missing most of the point.

Video: More Schreker! Excellent DVD of Die Gezeichneten from the Salzburg Festival

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Next year at the Met: what I'll miss

I will not be around the Metropolitan Opera next season.  I’ll switch to covering the wonders of Central Europe and its many prospects shortly, but first I wanted to preview what at the Met I will miss most, by way of recommending y’all go to it, even if I can't.  Because tickets are going on sale soon!  So here are some of the Met productions I think look most intriguing.  The links on the titles go to the Met website's listings.

Full Season Press Release (note: there have been a few changes since...)
Live in HD Broadcast Schedule

New Productions (apparently I consider all of them highlights)
Photo gallery
Some short videos of new productions
The Ring will supposedly look something like this.
Wagner, Der Ring des Nibelungen: Das Rheingold, Die Walküre.  I am a Robert Lepage skeptic.  He seems more interested in creating images than narrative, and more taken with gadgets than characters.  And a Ring Cycle without an overarching sense of narrative would be dire.  This will be an important moment for the Met, and let’s hope that it turns out well.  As if that weren’t enough, add a complicated set, a very fragile conductor, and a dangerous number of unreliable and/or role-debuting singers and you have... enormous potential for backstage drama.  The only person sure to benefit from this one is La Cieca.  (Though the Sieglinde, Eva Maria Westbroek, seems to be pure awesome.)

Musorgsky, Boris Godunov. I saw superbass René Pape do this role last summer, he was utterly fantastic, hopefully the production will work.  Great director Peter Stein has mysteriously left, replaced by Stephen Wadsworth as of last week.  Not sure what to make of that.  Wadsworth is responsible for the Met’s Iphigénie (pretty good) and Rodelinda (pretty bad). Sorry to start this off on such a sour note, I'm just a cynic. (Video of Pape as Boris in the 1869 version, from Vienna--shame they put the mics next to the prompter)

Verdi, Don Carlo. Roberto Alagna is a most excellent Carlos... oops, that was almost 15 years ago, and it was in the far superior French version, not the Italian one on offer here.  But I still think he’ll be solid.  Hytner isn’t going to reinvent anything but the word from London, where this production has already played, is mostly good.  Furlanetto will be a memorable Filippo.  Nézét-Seguin is intriguing.  I might go to the HD of this one, it’s one of my favorite operas. (Watch the Act IV quartet from this production's London incarnation with the Met's future Filippo, Elisabetta, and Rodrigo (different Eboli))

It isn't the Zeffirelli Traviata, thank God.

Verdi, La traviata. You’ve probably seen Willy Decker's minimalist production on DVD with Anna and Rolando. Despite the scrappy singing, you can pry that DVD from my cold dead fingers; I love it.  But its wild success was closely linked to Netrebko’s own diva image and the 2006 Salzburg Festival setting.  The Met’s Violetta will be Marina Poplavskaya (who is also in Don Carlo), who is not really equivalent, the cast of Polenzani and Dobber is somewhat uninspiring, and I'm not sure if the apocalyptic excess of the production will have quite the same resonance In These Economic Times.  But at least New Year’s Eve is good timing for this one.  (Clip of Poplavskaya in this production in Amsterdam)

Adams, Nixon in China
. Honestly, I am not much of a minimalism fan.  But this is overdue from the Met, and good for them for getting Sellers and Adams and HD’ing it. (Good because we've been dealing with video of this quality so far.)

Rossini, Le Comte Ory.  This is an adorable opera (there's a male chorus dressed up as nuns!), and Juan Diego Flórez and Diana Damrau will be very cute in it (and bonus Joyce DiDonato!).  Hopefully Bartlett Sher will rein in the sliding panels and not overdo the shtick.  Don't count on Damrau's presence, though, she's about to have a baby and might disappear.  (JDF does his nun thing in an old production)

Revivals (potential highlights, according to me)

Sondra Radvanovsky should not
missed in Trovatore

Verdi, Il trovatore. David McVicar: the director who can get even Marcelo Alvarez to act, more or less.  This production, from the 2008-09 season, is straightforward, smart, effective, and features lots of shirtless muscly guys hitting anvils.  The April performances will feature all four original leads (Radvanovsky /Zajick /Alvarez /Hvorostovsky), who I thought were mostly terrific.  People who say Gelb's Met can’t successfully stage warhorses always manage to forget this one.  (Watch a bootleg of the Azucena-Manrico scene.)

Chaikovsky, The Queen of Spades. I love this opera, I love the Met’s stark production of it, and Vladimir Galouzine and Karita Mattila will provide the raw vocalism to make it happen.  In the more refined category, Peter Mattei will rock that beautiful Yeletsky aria. (Video of this production from 1999, with Placido and Hvorostovsky)

Puccini, Tosca.  I cannot recommend Luc Bondy's production, but April showed it can be somewhat redeemed by the right cast.  Sondra Radvanovsky should be a really exciting Tosca, unfortunately no one else in any of the casts next season looks terribly promising (and the ones with Licitra and Morris should probably be avoided).  To be fair, I've never heard Falk Struckmann. (Sondra Radvanovsky sings "Vissi d'arte")

Debussy, Pélleas et Mélisande. Simon Rattle’s Met debut and the appearance of this rare, challenging, and gorgeous work make this a real event.  Has the potential to be stunning.  (Sad face.) (Here is Magdalena Kozena, the Met's Mélisande, in a different production.)

The Met's Cosí: nothing unexpected
Mozart, Cosí fan tutte.  It’s on this list because of William Christie’s conducting debut, which should be worth hearing, but it also looks to be this season’s leading contender for the coveted Most Pulchritudinous Cast award.  Bring your opera glasses. (Watch marvelous Miah Persson, the Met's Fiordiligi, from Glyndebourne)

I may go to one or two of the HD broadcasts next season.  But they cost 30 Euros each, and when I could see an obscene number of actual live operas for that amount of money, and enjoy something that I can’t get at home in New York, I’m not going to be a regular.  Have fun!

New production photos: Met Opera press site
Revival photos: Met Archives

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Pastoral interlude: Met recital in Central Park

Metropolitan Opera Summer Recital Series in Central Park, 7/12/10.  With Nathan Gunn, baritone; Susanna Phillips, soprano; Michael Fabiano, tenor; and Julie Gunn and Jonathan Kelly, pianists.

Several other bloggers and I packed up a picnic and headed out to Central Park last night for the annual Met concert.  The weather was threatening, our picnic was derailed by a long line to get in and the confiscation of our vino, but it didn’t actually rain, there was opera, and we ate the food eventually, so all was more or less well.

The Met used to present an entire opera in concert with an orchestra for this event; this is the second year that we’ve been having recession-friendly recitals with piano instead.  And it’s too bad.  Piano accompaniment is fine in a small venue, but amplified through the giant Summer Stage?  Not so much.  And whoever thought that “Hai già vinta la causa” is a smashing idea for an opening number should never program a concert again.  But the singers were winning and despite some unevenness and persistent feeling of economy, it was a pleasant evening.

Nathan Gunn was the biggest name here, joined by his wife Julie Gunn on piano, and he was best-suited of the three to the park format, questionable Mozart opener aside.  He was at his best in English, including a somewhat cloying translation of “Ein Mächen oder Weibchen” that he made cute, and the final number, an intense but not over-the-top rendition of Weill’s “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”  His storytelling abilities were put to excellent use in three of Bolcom’s Cabaret Songs--which I embarrassingly discovered I have not heard many of the words of for years (sadly, he did not include “Amor”--“even philosophers understood how good was the good cuz I looked so good”).

Gunn was joined by tenor Michael Fabiano and soprano Susanna Phillips, both of whom were new to me.  Phillips has a gorgeous lyric soprano with a beautifully natural feel for the musical line, put to excellent use in Donna Anna’s “Non mi dir” (with some cool ornamentation).  I found her “Je veux vivre” somewhat short on sparkle and trilling, but that might be a hard number to pull off in concert (though she did wear cowboy boots for it--I had to take her word for this, because I could not see her feet).  Her “Can’t Help Loving That Man” was maybe not the best example of opera singers tacking musical theater, and could learn something from Gunn about understatement and good arrangements.

Tenor Michael Fabiano is famous for being a hothead but I found him the least interesting of the three.  He definitely has a big talent and the voice is beautiful and solid, but I wasn’t captivated.  Perhaps picking repertoire other than inevitable tenor chestnuts “Una furtiva lagrima” and “La donna è mobile” would have helped?  I’m not a big fan of either aria, honestly.  He also suffered from overselling in his musical theater entry, “Be My Love.”  None of the singers managed very much dynamic variation, which I blame on the amplification system.

There were ensembles too!  These were entertainingly semi-staged, though given no introduction as to plot or anything (only Gunn talked about any of his numbers--I think they all could have benefited from a little friendly exposition).  “Au fond du temple saint” is going on the top of my new list of Numbers That Should Never Be Performed Without an Orchestra Under Any Circumstances, because I’ve never heard this lovely duet sung so well and be so underwhelming.  “Sulla tomba” was awkwardly sandwiched between Bolcom and the musical theater set, but sounded good if comparatively stiff and static after the animated, casual Bolcom.  Preceeding them was a sweet “Bei Männer, welche liebe fühlen.”  The first half included a charming “La ci darem la mano” and the similarly charming Nemorino-Adina-Belcore duet from LElisir d’amore (they played the sweet and charming card many, many times in this program).  As an encore we got the one piece I was surprised to not see on the initial program, the Traviata Brindisi.

I hope to see Philips in a staged opera soon, I remember that Gunn is totally fun, and I wish we had been able to drink the wine ahead of time.  But all in all a nice night out.

Similar programs will be happening in other boroughs in the next few weeks, check out the program here.

Video: Susanna Phillips sings "Non mi dir" (why couldn't she have given this intro last night?)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Poppea DVD from Glyndebourne: A Rome too dull to burn

Monteverdi, L'incoronazione di Poppea.  DVD, Decca.  Glyndebourne Festival 2008, conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm, production by Robert Carsen.  With Danielle DeNiese (Poppea), Alice Coote (Nerone), Iestyn Davies (Ottone), Tamara Mumford (Ottavia), Paolo Battaglia (Seneca) and Marie Arnet (Drusilla)

This DVD of L'incoronazione di Poppea, taken from the 2008 Glyndebourne Festival, pointedly opens with scenes of the monied classes engaging in the legendary ritual of the Glyndebourne picnic over the credits.  Then, in the prologue, glittery evening-gowned Fortuna proceeds to squabble with nun Virtù over a seat in the first row.  Subtle it ain't.  This depraved world of Poppea and Nerone, it's yours.  Good evening, privileged assholes!

Eh, except not really.  Maybe director Robert Carsen didn't want to give the impression of biting the hand that is feeding him, because what follows is not debauched but classy, somber, elegant and sexy in an oh-so-tasteful way.  Never has Nero's amoral Rome been so beautifully boring.
The action takes place in front of a plain red curtain, and billows of red cloth periodically flood the stage.  They are frequently joined by the allegorical figure of Love from the prologue (can we PLEASE declare a moratorium on omnipresent Love figures NOW?  they are always cutesy and never help us understand anything).  But this isn't an opera solely about love: it's about the deadly nexus of love and politics, it’s about power run amok, it’s about the costs of moral victory and of revenge.  Carsen’s lack of interest in the larger moral and social world of Rome, his reduction of the plot to a domestic drama, makes this a much less interesting, and much less funny, opera than it can be.  Poppea and Nero’s relationship is sexy enough, but it has no context.

The key figure in this is the most confusing one: Seneca, arguably the only moral character in the whole opera.  Is the old philosopher a compass or a charlatan, an outdated relic or a brave voice of reason?  Here he is an absent-minded professor of unclear authority or importance, his world an empty (love-red cloth bereft) stage littered with books, a dramatic blank, and is greeted by a general shrug by everyone.  His death--the dramatic turning point of the opera when everything starts really going to hell--is visually striking but emotionally empty.  Similarly, Ottavia storms mightily but her proximity to the bed Poppea and Nerone just vacated identifies her as a spurned wife, not a deposed empress.   Servants run around carrying clothes in nearly every scene, Drusilla carries the dress she will give to Ottone at her first appearance, but I have no idea what this is supposed to mean, because power is a real commodity here, not a matter of external appearances.

Non morir, Seneca... actually none of us really care if you die or not.
The general aesthetic of generic mid-century propriety, while pretty, seems like an odd choice in itself.  Nerone rules a world of inebriated excess and uninhibited id, not such austerely tailored precision.  This tidiness is telling, as Carsen seems happier to ignore the opera’s stranger ambiguities than confront them.  Nerone and Poppea’s relationship is pure sweet love, the violence in Nero’s personality segregated to other people and Poppea lacking in any ulterior motives.  This is a production that goes to the trouble to costume a tenor Nutrice as a Margaret Thatcher look-alike and then for much of the opera fail to see that there is comic potential in this.  Even Drusilla’s propensity to burst into “Felice cor mio” at inappropriate moments, an obvious joke if there ever was one, isn’t played for the laughs.  By making everyone noble, Carsen robs them of their humanity.

Love, Seneca, maid, Nutrice, Ottavia
It is in the Nerone-Lucano scene, a homoerotic non-sequitur whose weirdness is of an extremity that is impossible to paper over, that Carsen takes one of his only risks and manages to come up with something interesting.  It starts as a deranged bachelor party, and eventually ends up with torture and death by drowning in a bathtub.  It’s disturbing, I’m not really sure what to make of it, but it’s definitely Nero and it’s right for this opera.  Unfortunately it’s the only scene I can say that of.

I remember why I left you for Poppea, Drusilla.  You're too damn prim.
Except for that pesky lack of vision, there is much to enjoy.  The acting is strong and detailed, the singing is generally idiomatic and good.  Danielle DeNiese’s Monteverdi stylings have occasionally been touched by the goddess Céline Dion, and her voice sits too high for this almost-mezzo role.  While her Poppea is a somewhat one-dimensional saucy flirt, without many secondary characteristics such as self-doubt or ambition, she makes up for her lack of musical and dramatic subtlety with her considerable charisma.  Much better is Alice Coote’s impulsive and psychopathic Nero, the definite highlight of the performance, whose rage unfortunately never seems to interact with other characters.  Tamara Mumford (who I have seen excel in many smaller roles at the Met) is an impressive Ottavia who the production similarly never allows full, well, reign.  Iestyn Davis a vocally fabulous and typically wimpy Ottone, and Paolo Battaglia as Seneca sings fine but is dramatically completely unmemorable.

I have no idea how the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment follows Emmanuelle Haïm’s vague hand-waving, but it does the trick for this most glorious of opera scores.  The mix of lutes, theorbos, and harpsichord in the continuo is well-judged and colorful.  Tempos tend towards the slow but not excessively so.  The orchestra is augmented with recorders and cornettos but is still small.  Unlike many Poppeas I have no issue with cuts or with deployment of roles--mezzo Nero and countertenor Ottone is my preferred arrangement,* and there are very few cuts--so it is a shame that the production falls so short, as this is an ideal DVD is many other ways.

Poppea is like Don Giovanni: so much going on that it’s hard to find one where everything is right, and the safe ones are the most boring of all.


*This is often a key issue.  I generally don't like countertenor Neros, it's meaty part that sounds better with the meaty voice of a mezzo, more "manly" than any actual man (now there's some gender trouble!).