Wednesday, November 30, 2011

New Met Faust bombs

You can’t accuse Des McAnuff’s new Met Opera Faust of the interpretive timidity that has plagued the house so far this season--we have atom bombs, manic dancing, time travel, and other things that suggest this is a “bold” production. The problem is that it’s incoherent and has minimal contact with this mostly lovely rendition of the opera’s score. Even the cast can’t save it, and it’s a strangely incomplete show.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Long weekend reading

Don't go near that mall, Americans (and non-Americans)! Waste time on the internet instead!

The Wiener Volksoper has revived Stefan Herheim's 2004 production of Madama Butterfly. Here's a review by the Zwölftöner. (Bachtrack)

(If you are interested in music in Vienna, you should be reading his excellent blog, Von heute auf morgen.)

Also Viennese: Franz Welser-Möst talks to the Salzburger Nachrichten about life at the Wiener Staatsoper, in German. (Salzburger Nachrichten, thanks to Intermezzo for the tip)

Arte Live Web is streaming the Bolshoi's grand reopening production of Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski and directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov. I haven't gotten a chance to watch it yet but I've heard very good things and am looking forward to it! FYI: no subtitles. (Arte Live Web)

John at Opera Ramblings has some interesting thoughts following up on my "Opera Isn't Theater" post. (Opera Ramblings)

This article on concert presenters in Berlin is interesting if you read German. (Otherwise it will be pretty incomprehensible.) (Tagesspiegel)

Not shopping? Not quite on topic, but if you like Jeremy Denk's piece on content and gadgets you should also check out Maria Bustillos's on Apple's design philosophy. (Think Denk, The Awl)

Here are some caricatures based on the Bay Staats's current Contes d'Hoffmann, courtesy of Rolando Villazón. (Bayerische Staatsoper im Blog)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Honegger's Joan of Arc at Carnegie

I rarely miss a concert with a really big and really obscure piece of music. Naturally I went to see Marin Alsop conduct Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher, and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.
The short life and terrifying death of Joan of Arc are the subject of Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher ("Joan of Arc at the Stake"), a curious masterpiece of an oratorio dating from 1938. The nearly-forgotten work received a well-deserved resurrection by Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Saturday night.
You can read the full review here.

Addendum: It's a peculiar work and I'm not sure if I'm really inside the style yet, but I'm glad that I heard it. I'm reluctant to pass strong aesthetic judgement on it because I don't have a very firm grasp on Honegger in general, but I'm inclined to put it more in the category of intriguing curiosity than important rediscovery.

According to this from the Baltimore City Paper, the orchestra-overpowering chorus was around 120 strong.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Nico Muhly's Dark Sisters

Nico Muhly is one of the most well known and prolific names in the American under-40 compositional set, with major premieres and CDs all over the place. His first opera, Two Boys, was seen this year at the English National Opera (and will be coming to the Met in the future), and his second, Dark Sisters, was just premiered by the Gotham Chamber Opera (along with the Music-Theatre Group co-producing). Everyone else has already written about it and new music isn't quite my fach, but I did see it so I thought I should register my thoughts. It’s an honorable effort but less than fully satisfying.

The plot deals with a police raid on a polygamous household somewhere in the West of the type associated with Warren Jeffs. We open with the five wives, and the only other cast members are one daughter and the husband--so there’s a lot of Rosenkavalier trio-ing going on, particularly since all except one of the women are sopranos of a more or less lyric sort (and the exception is a lyric mezzo). There is rather less variety in their vocal writing than in, say, Poulenc’s in Dialogues of the Carmelites. Compounding this problem is Stephen Karam's largely static libretto, which shies away from staging dramatic events in favor of lots of meditations and kindly conversations. While the women are eventually developed as characters, the action is awfully thin and several dramatic events stay unnecessarily offstage. I like this idea for an opera--it’s a contemporary topic with a lot of emotional punch. But it’s underdeveloped here.

Muhly’s music is often compared to that of his mentor Philip Glass, but he’s not such a strict minimalist, and the influence of Renaissance English music in all its consonant contrapuntal glory is quite audible. The repeating figures are largely kept to the orchestra (a chamber ensemble of around a dozen players). So I’m going to describe it as Janacek only with Tallis in the place of the folk song. Most of it is at an andante con moto tempo, mezzo forte. It’s very beautiful, but it’s often underwritten and lacking in character, and lacks contrast in a drama already suffering from sameness.

One other strength of the opera is its scale, which has a nice intimacy befitting Gotham Chamber Opera. Rebecca Taichman’s production is really excellent, balancing naturalistic acting and more poetic images in a way that flows naturally. (It’s not a fair comparison, but it’s better than any direction we’ve seen at the Met so far this season.) The simple production emphasizes a harsh natural world that fits the music, though its symbolism is never really echoed in the libretto (the wives seem to suffer less from an empty world than a crowded and confined one). The cast is also excellent, particularly Caitlin Lynch’s even, rich tone as the most resistant of the wives, Eliza. Jennifer Check, who often sings small roles at the Met, showed a beautiful piano and luminous color as Almera. There wasn’t really a weak link in the cast, which also included Jennifer Zetlan in the Soeur Constance role and Kevin Burdette as both the husband and a TV interviewer in the second act. (The composer and librettist could have helped him make the former a more complex figure, though.)

Muhly is be in a difficult position. He’s gotten so much attention so early on that expectations are very, perhaps unreasonably, high. (One thinks of Dudamel.) Don’t write him off, but I’m not convinced he’s there yet.

One performance remains, tonight, November 19, then the opera travels to Philadelphia in the spring.

Nico Muhly and Stephen Karam, Dark Sisters. Gotham Chamber Opera/Music-Theatre Group, 11/12/2011. Production directed by Rebecca Taichman and conducted by Neal Goren. Full cast listed here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

On “Enchanted Island"

photo Grove Music Online
I should be writing about Dark Sisters right now but to quote Rick Perry I stepped in it on Twitter this morning regarding the prospects for the Met’s new Baroque pasticcio, The Enchanted Island, and I wanted to explain a bit more without the constraint of 140-character installments. While I tend to be pessimistic, condemning a piece before it even premieres is rather mean-spirited and I should probably avoid doing it. But I can’t shake the feeling that this won’t be doing Baroque opera (a field in which I have had, sigh, some degree of involvement) any favors and here’s why.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Fabio Luisi and the Wiener Symphoniker in NYC

Of course I couldn't miss a chance to reunite with the Wiener Symphoniker on Sunday. (known in these parts as the Vienna Symphony Orchestra--where the "orchestra" came from, I know not). I wrote about it for Bachtrack.
The Italian conductor Fabio Luisi has become an increasingly familiar and welcome face to New York audiences. Recently appointed Principal Conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, he is primarily known here as an operatic conductor. But he has also been the chief conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (known as the Wiener Symphoniker in German) since 2005, and on Sunday the Viennese joined him in Avery Fisher Hall. While the warhorse program recalled the taste of the city’s other major orchestra--the arch-conservative Vienna Philharmonic--it was a fine afternoon.
Click here to read the whole thing. I like Luisi a lot but I was really going to this concert to hear Schmidt's fantastic Symphony No. 4, which was swapped with Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, a piece the Symphoniker could probably play in their sleep. (The obvious explanation is that this change had to do with the amount of time Luisi has been spending at the Met.) I was quite disappointed.

It's interesting how Luisi's reputation in New York is so much better than it is in Vienna. He keeps canceling Symphoniker gigs to conduct at the Met, which doesn't endear him to the Viennese, but most of the people I talked to managed to both be pissed about his absenteeism and denigrate his conducting skills. In my experience he is a better opera conductor than a symphonic conductor, and he doesn't conduct opera in Vienna much (as one of the many, many conductors who doesn't get along with the Staatsoper), but he's still a fine musician, far above average, and I was surprised at how low Viennese audiences rated him. I think there might be some national prejudice here--his repertoire overlaps to a dangerous extent with Christian Thielemann's. But anyway, Vienna, New York is happy to take Luisi off your hands.

I'd prefer you send him over with Schmidt next time, though.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Gheorghiu and Kaufmann turn violet again in Adriana Lecouvreur

(Not in concert.)
I went to see the ever-elusive Angela Gheorghiu and the happily ubiquitous Jonas Kaufmann in the Opera Orchestra of New York's concert Adriana Lecouvreur at Carnegie Hall last night and I wrote about it for Bachtrack:
“I will return! I want to again be intoxicated by the triumphant smile of art!” proclaims the actress Adriana Lecouvreur in the extravagant opera of the same title. With this role, the soprano Angela Gheorghiu returned to New York in the first performance of the Opera Orchestra of New York’s Carnegie Hall season. After financial difficulties the company itself has been making a comeback as well, under new musical director Alberto Veronesi. For over 40 years, the group has produced concert performance of lesser-known operas with outstanding casts, and this evening was a fine continuation of that tradition, with strong performances from Jonas Kaufmann, Ambrogio Maestri, and Anita Rachvelishvili in the other major roles.
Click here to read the full review.

I saw them in this last year in London and then I was conflicted between being overwhelmed and oddly not-quite-whelmed. In concert, this opera actually seems to work better. The music isn't quite top drawer but it has a kind of sincerity and directness that can be both beguiling and exciting. This came through more clearly without having to think about the silly plot or David McVicar's futile attempt to give the happenings some symbolic substance. The opera has emotional power but it lacks strong dramatic syntax, and it's better when you focus on the former strength rather than the latter weakness. (It should be noted, though, that Angela's couture for this concert was most impressive as well, both dresses very 1970's, the first resembling a disco ball and the second a low-cut nightgown with a rhinestone belt and attached cape.)

This didn't stop me from writing down some silly surtitles, though:
  • Love is a flame, friendship is its ashes.
  • I love him with the fiery recklessness of one who has had her heart taken for the first time.
  • You're the sun that gilds the eternal Arctic night.
  • Their eyes flash like pairs of blades, showing no mercy.
  • Our love defies fate, eludes death in golden dreams.
Nevertheless, I was totally crying at the end, go figure.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Richard Tucker Gala: The stars are loud

Some of the stars came out for the Richard Tucker Foundation’s annual gala at Avery Fisher Hall on Sunday night. With a program dominated by 19th-century Italian meatballs (despite a complete absence of actual Italians onstage), there was much drinking, cursing, praying, pleading to Mama, and other traditional operatic activities as sung by loud voices such as Dolora Zajick, Stephanie Blythe, Bryn Terfel and Jonas Kaufmann. The recipient of this year’s award was Angela Meade, who also sang, but in my following write-up, everyone gets a prize.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Opera Isn't Theater

Our Hero, Walter Felsenstein (bust at the Komische Oper)
First, if you haven’t read James Jorden’s excellent piece at Musical America about the ailing Gelb regime at the Met, please go do so!

I want to look at one specific aspect of the issue. Peter Gelb thinks the way of bringing new blood into opera is to hire theater directors. But many of his recent imports--such as Michael Grandage (Don Giovanni) and Robert Lepage (the Ring, who granted has a somewhat longer history in opera)--seem utterly at a loss when confronted with opera. (The same goes for Dominique Meyer's choices at the Wiener Staatsoper like André Engel and Eric Génovèse.) What makes the work so different?