Sunday, October 30, 2011

Epic Met Lieder from Jonas Kaufmann

(Not at the Met.)
Just because one can sell almost the entire giant Met singing an arty Lieder program, as Jonas Kaufmann managed to do this afternoon, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good idea to do so. That being said, he showed up, hair decorously tamed for the occasion, and is singularly equipped to succeed in this format. He has the elegance and musical refinement to sing art songs but never quite loses the large-format emotionalism of a singing actor. I had trouble shaking the feeling that I was watching from Central Park, but a good concert it was.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Siegfried at the Met: Old swords in new forges

 The third installment of Robert Lepage’s new Ring cycle planted itself on the Met stage last night. This was the first of the three that I have seen live (I saw Walküre in a movie theater), and I am a little confused as to how so many computer screensavers projected onto a spinning picket fence help tell the story. And Lepage doesn’t really seem to have any idea of how to stage Wagner’s music as opposed to the words. But musical values were very good. That’s life at the Met.

Lepage's Siegfried and baby thievery

Not Lepage (Parsifal in Bayreuth)
Later I'll have much more on last night's premiere of Siegfried from the Met. But I wanted to deal with one point independently, because if I explained it fully in my real review it would hijack the whole post.

In Robert Lepage's new production, we see Mime find the infant Siegfried during the Prelude. He sneaks up on the dying Sieglinde, grabs her baby, and runs off. (Please correct me if I missed something here, I was in the Family Circle and it was dimly lit. But that's what I saw. It was quick.) This directly contradicts his later accounts of Siegfried's birth, where he says Sieglinde also gave him the pieces of Nothung the sword and told him to name the baby Siegfried (and also presumably the identity of Siegmund, which Mime does not tell Siegfried). OK, Mime is plausibly an unreliable narrator and found those things out in other ways. But Lepage never does anything else to show or explore the implications that Mime is lying when he is talking to Siegfried about his birth, it's left hanging.

But much more severe is the implication that Mime is not an accidental adoptive father but rather a baby snatcher. The character of Mime is already a locus of several topoi of antisemitism: greediness, a whining voice, a hunched walk. The idea of Jews stealing (Christian) babies is part of blood libel (a short history of the term is here), the accusation that Jews will use their blood in some ritual, historically one of the nastiest myths of anti-Semites. I may be hyper-aware of this particular idea because it was self-consciously presented by Stefan Herheim in his Bayreuth production of Parsifal. Kundry, dressed as a nurse, steals the baby Parsifal from his mother Herzeleide (see photo above).
I am honestly rather shocked that Lepage did this. There is no Get Out of Jail Free card when it comes to antisemitism and Wagner, you absolutely have to be aware of the issues and either avoid presenting racist stereotypes at all or clearly foreground them (as Herheim does above). (Following three sentences added later to clarify:) Lepage's lack of dramturgical context makes the moment interpretively messy, but more grievously he replicates the dog whistle way that these topoi work. It seems like a random insertion if you aren't familiar with the ideology, but if you know anything about the history of antisemitism you will make the association right away (Mime = Jew = bad). And I don't think that this is an association that needs reviving.

I'm sure that this is cluelessness or naivité from a director who shows that he doesn't know much about Wagner, but that no one else pointed it out is distressing.

Updated to add: my regular Siegfried piece is here.

More on the rest later today. Thanks to the Zwölftöner for his lecture on Mime and antisemitism when we saw Siegfried in Vienna last April.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Don Giovanni in the Trees

A forest is a dangerous place: a symbol for the unknown and the unconscious, both the embrace and the threats of nature and a natural state. In fairy tales, characters enter the forest to find themselves, but they inevitably find peril as well.

In this 2008 Salzburg Festival production on DVD (Amazon), Claus Guth stages Don Giovanni in just such a forest, a group of pines that rotate on a turntable to disorienting effect. Is there a world outside of it? Sometimes mist rises threateningly in the background. But despite the presence of a bus stop and Don Ottavio’s car, there’s no exit. Don Giovanni and Leporello are a mortally wounded and drug-addled Vladimir and Estragon who are waiting for... something.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

On DVD: Medea kills again

Last year the Bayerische Staatsoper unearthed Giovanni/Johann(es) Simon Mayr’s 1813 opera Medea in Corinto and gave it a production by Hans Neuenfels, now available on DVD. It was worth the effort: this is a really good opera. The performance is worth seeing too.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

DVD Update, Anna Edition

A few productions I’ve written about here are now available on DVD or will be soon. The links go to my reviews of their live incarnations. Our name of the day is "Anna." Or "Anja."

If you’re intrigued by the problematic charms of Anna Nicole, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera about Anna Nicole Smith for the Royal Opera House, you can see her on DVD. If you’re an Anja Harteros fan, and what opera buff is not, you can see her in Alcina from the Wiener Staatsoper. The excellent Les Musiciens du Louvre under Marc Minkowski are this production's other main attraction. I’m guessing not too many of you made it to Graz to see Peter Konwitschny's brilliant La traviata, with a heartbreaking performance by Marlis Petersen in the title role. (I did, obviously.) Luckily it will be released on DVD on November 15! A note to British readers: this production is likely headed to the English National Opera in the future. If you missed Atys in France or at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, you can see it on DVD too. The cast includes Stephanie d’Oustrac as Cybéle and Bernard Richter in the title role, both of whom should be improvements over the BAM singers. Soon you will be able to see Anna Netrebko’s first salvo at Anna Bolena, made in the company of Elina Garanca at the Wiener Staatsoper last April. Watch it and see why I thought David McVicar's Met production was a model of fine Personenregie. The Vienna costumes were far shinier, though.

US Amazon listings:
Anna Nicole (Opus Arte)
Alcina (Arthaus Musik)
La traviata (Arthaus Musik) (not on Amazon yet, but CD Universe has it)
Atys (FRA Musica)
Anna Bolena (Deutsche Grammophon)

Friday, October 14, 2011

Don Giovanni at the Met

The Met has rounded up a good cast for this Don Giovanni premiere, particularly stellar late replacements Fabio Luisi conducting and Peter Mattei in the title role. It's a shame that despite a lot of excellent singing the evening rarely rose above lukewarm. Michael Grandage’s fearsomely homogenizing and tame production bulldozed any personality in its path.

The Advent calendar's revenge

This is a model of Christopher Oram's set for the Met's new production of Don Giovanni (I wasn't able to find a shot of the real thing, which has more railings.) It represents the return of 2008's favorite set design fad: what I call the Advent calendar set (also known as Hollywood Squares). This set has multiple levels of little rooms, whose doors pop open and reveal people in them doing stuff. Here is a look back at its predecessors:
 Le Damnation de Faust (2008)
 Orfeo ed Euridice (2007) (no doors, but the same idea)
Peter Grimes (2008)
Doctor Atomic (2008)

The problem with these sets is that the little boxes don't allow for enough room to do much of anything in except stand still, and the looming wall often leaves a shallow amount of stage floor. It's a striking look and does more with the enormous vertical space of the Met's stage than some other designs, but it often doesn't help the drama.

Edited to add: I don't think I invented the "Advent calendar" quip and was curious as to who did, particularly because Anthony Tommasini uses it in his Times review of Don Giovanni. The earliest example I can find is by the always-pointed Anne Midgette, in her 2008 Washington Post review of Grimes.

More on Don Giovanni later.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Mariinsky, Gergiev and Daniil Trifonov

On Tuesday I went to see the Mariinsky Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. To quote anonymous advisors of Rick Perry from a week or so ago, we've got a tired puppy (I mean the orchestra, not somewhat puppy-like pianist Daniil Trifonov, who was not tired at all). But they were still exciting! I wrote about it for Bachtrack. You can read it here.

The orchestra's sound came as a bit of a shock after all that Viennese refinement. I think I like it, but I may be allergic to that soft-reeded sound of Russian woodwind sections.

Off to the Don tonight.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Giuditta’s Pasta

Since I haven’t been waiting in line for standing room every night (though I promise I will be at Don Giovanni this Thursday), I’ve had some time to indulge one of my other hobbies: cooking! So here’s some operatic food. It’s not from the infamous Die Oper kocht, but rather Pasta alla Norma, supposedly renamed in honor of the opera of the same title (whose title role was first given by Giuditta Pasta, pictured). Like Bellini himself, it is popular in Sicily. And it tastes amazing.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Donna Anna Wore a Short Skirt

“The fire of a superhuman sensuality, a glow from Hell, had cast its reflection over her senses and she was powerless to resist. Only he, only Don Juan, could awaken in her the erotic madness which she lavished upon him.”
-E.T.A. Hoffmann, “Don Giovanni” (1812), trans. Chistopher Lazare (A.A. Wyn, 1946)
[“Das Feuer einer übermenschlichen Sinnlichkeit, Glut aus der Hölle, durchströmte ihr Innerstes und machte jeden Widerstand vergeblich. Nur er, nur Don Juan konnte den wollüstigen Wahnsinn in ihr entzünden, mit dem sie ihn umfing, der mit der übermächtigen, zerstörenden Wut höllischer Geister im Innern sündigte.”]

“Towards all her fellow-creatures [Donna Anna] presents a coldly correct personality... it would be beneficial to her personal growing-up if she had been pleasantly raped by Don Juan.”
-William Mann, The Operas of Mozart (1977), page 468.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Carmen in Philly: Another mantilla bites the dust

Last night the Opera Company of Philadelphia opened their 2011-12 season at the Academy of Music with Carmen. For the first time the performance was broadcast to a big screen out on Independence Mall for an audience of reportedly 5,500 people. They got a standard Carmen elevated to memorable by a few great performances, namely Rinat Shaham’s fantastic gypsy and Ailyn Pérez’s gorgeous Micaëla.