Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Best of 2011

I saw a lot of exciting stuff this year! Later I might ruminate about why most of it was during the seven months of the year I spent in Europe rather than during the five I spent in New York, but first here are some highlights.

Friday, December 23, 2011

The music of The Enchanted Island

The Met has released a list of the music used in their upcoming pasticcio, The Enchanted Island. The selection ranges from well-known ("Agitata da due venti" is apparently David Daniels's or possibly Danielle De Niese's 11:00 number, and "Endless pleasure" from Semele is set as a quartet [?]) to relatively obscure items. Handel dominates, and the French music provides most of the dances. Placido Domingo will arrive as Neptune to the strains of "Zadok the priest," best known to British people for its use in coronations and as the "Champion's League" theme song.

In case you were wondering, the plot will combine The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream. You can read a synopsis here (PDF). It sounds a little complicated?

I spent some time on the YouTubes and put together these playlists of the originals. The first contains the music of Act 1 and the second Act 2, in the order they will appear. (Remember that in the pasticcio they will be contrafacted, that is given new texts.) I wasn't able to find everything but did locate most of it. Some of the videos are longer excerpts of which the pasticcio will use only a part. A few of the interpretations here aren't ideal, but many are outstanding, reminding us how far Baroque performance has come in the last decade. (Keep an eye out for our favorite Simone Kermes, who brings her best dance moves to Vivaldi's "Dopo un' orrida procella." Sadly, her Met debut is yet to be announced.)

Previously: Enchanted Island and baroque opera

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Have yourself a bombastic operatic Christmas

If you want to escape the tyranny of pop singers cooing Christmas music, how about opera singers bellowing Christmas music instead? Sure, you could go for the Messiah, or Jessica Duchen's tasteful and highbrow selections, or the glory of Alex Ross's Messiah on Crack, but you know you really want chimes, children's choirs, harps, and Roberto Alagna singing in German. Here follows the worst and a few of the best attempts of opera singers celebrating Christmas. (For some reason these selections seem to hail disproportionately from German-speaking countries. I cannot imagine why.)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Faust, or, You Only Live Twice

I went to Faust at the Met again last night and found it much more enjoyable that the opening night I saw a few weeks ago. This was in part because without exception the cast was more assured and in better voice, but it was in part because I knew what to ignore. Des McAnuff's chaotic production does not improve upon a second viewing; it is still confused and confusing in points both large and small. If Faust, here a nuclear scientist with a heavy conscience, is going to back to try to live a better life, why does he behave like such a schmuck? (My original idea was that his rejuvenation was merely a flashback to the life that made him so sadface in the first place, but according to McAnuff this isn't so.) Why does the chorus spend so much time filing through doors? Why is there a swordfight in 19-whatever? Can I find Marguerite's Act IV getup at Urban Outfitters? I have no more answers now than I did at the prima.

But setting that aside I found much more to appreciate in the cast. First, the best thing going remains Yannick Nézet-Séguin's conducting, which has such grace and lyricism and so little sugar and bombast that even a Gounod-aphobe like me can like it. The orchestra was on excellent form. Jonas Kaufmann sounded much freer and more assured in the title role and it's really exciting singing if somewhat unidiomatic (excellent high C this time). Acting-wise his Faust still doesn't add up but at least his temperature has risen a few degrees, less deadly serious, more cynical, and working his seduction of Marguerite like a courtesan whose rent is overdue. René Pape's Méphistophélès remains understated, a dapper and wry mischief-maker, and his voice has such ease and silkiness that you'd take any offer he made you pretty quickly.

The biggest change for me was utterly falling for Marina Poplavskaya's Marguerite this time, though more in an acting that vocal sense. Her guilelessness and isolation in her opening scenes, her never self-pitying hopelessness in the later ones and finally her delirium at the end all convinced. How good could this production have been if it were about her story? (Way better.) Vocally, she got through the opera more solidly this time, though her hollow and uneven tone is not pleasant, and the last few minutes were rough. Russell Braun again provided warm and mellifluous but not especially memorable support as Valentin, Michéle Losier was an excellent Siebel (as a recent Parterre review noted, she looks like an escapee from Newsies), and Theodora Hanslowe as Marthe got off to an unsure start but was quite funny in her scene with Pape (she was subbing for Wendy White as Marthe after the latter's fall off the set on Saturday night--thankfully she is alright but of course is taking a break).

I've been writing about a lot of new productions recently, where I really try to take everything as a piece (because that's how they should function). But many performances are easier when you appreciate the good and leave out the bad--it's a shame this Faust falls into that category even upon its first run of performances, but I actually am glad I saw it again. Also, can someone give me Faust's lab's red wine-dispensing water cooler for Christmas? Sometimes it'd make work much nicer. Thanks.

Performances remain with different casts--Roberto Alagna leading on December 23 and 28 (I have been there already this year, cartweels, ukulele, and all) and Joseph Calleja in January (utterly beautiful voice, allergic to acting).

Gounod, Faust. Metropolitan Opera, 12/20/2011, cast same as listed here except with Theodora Hanslowe as Marthe.

Some videos from the recent HD simulcast:

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The NY Phil's cabaret for the end of the world

Last night’s New York Philharmonic Contact new music concert conducted by Alan Gilbert at Symphony Space featured free beer and an alarming number of people under 35. I fit right in for once!

Composer HK Gruber introduced his greatest hit, Frankenstein!! (1979) saying he didn’t intend to write a party piece. Honestly it seems like that is sort of what he did, albeit a party for Weimar revivalists eager to witness Pierrot Lunaire as rewritten by Edward Gorey. It’s a setting of twisted children’s poems set for a wild array of orchestral and toy instruments including kazoos, hoses (spun over the head), and exploding paper bags. Above all this was Gruber’s own voice, a Sprechstimme “channsonier” reminiscent (at this advanced point in his career) of Ernst Busch, intoning in accented English about John Wayne or rats or whatever. It’s great surreal fun and has some lovely moments and some genuinely intense ones too, a cabaret for the end of the world. As the Zwölftöner assured me, it’s a piece you have to hear once. (Apparently Frankenstein!! will be on at the Konzerthaus in Vienna soon, too--auf Deutsch, natürlich. I imagine it is better that way, but it really does have to be in the language of its audience.)

In fact each piece was preceded by the composer saying something about it. This struck me as a good idea because it puts a face to the music and the composers, while a little awkward, seemed friendly. But this introduction is a powerful thing in directing your listening of the subsequent piece, particularly when you are only an occasional new music listener like me.

This was particularly notable in the first half. Brazilian composer Alexandre Lunsqui introduced his piece “Fibers, Yarn and Wire” (premiere) as inspired by two photographs and talked about ideas of handcraft and weaving. The subsequent piece somehow didn’t sound like what I expected (I didn’t expect the heavy use of pan flute-like whistles, for one thing), bu I was still hearing it in terms of these images. It’s an engaging quasi-minimalist journey with steady rhythmic pulse and vaguely jazzy tone and structure. The quiet (unraveling?) ending is surprisingly nice.

Magnus Lindberg introduced his Gran Duo (2000) in far more technical terms, describing metronome markings and contrasting material and transformation between the wind and brass sections. (It’s not a duo at all but written for the winds and brass sections of a large orchestra, and owes a debt to Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments.) I ended up listening to it wondering if this was the part he was talking about where fast music was played slowly and whether we’d gotten yet to the spot where the metronome markings stop increasing and start decreasing. The writing is well crafted and virtuosic but I ended up finding it very "PhD music" and not too interesting, or perhaps just too dense to appreciate on a single hearing. The Philharmonic brass sounded great, though.

New York Philharmonic, Contact! series at Symphony Space, 12/17/2011.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Hansel and Gretel at the Met, not just for the kids

Revival may have dulled the edges of Richard Jones’s Hansel and Gretel, but this Met production still has a lot to recommend it. It’s got good and some great singing (thank you, Aleksandra Kurzak), a super score played very well by the orchestra, and Jones’s alternately harsh, grotesque, and sweet production is the most fully conceived and realized evening I’ve had at the Met this season.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Bavarian State Opera to conquer the interwebs

Following the example of Brussels's La Monnaie, the Bayerische Staatsoper (Bavarian State Opera) has announced a test program to stream video of their productions over the internet. The first two productions will be their delightful steampunk post-apocalyptic Elisir d'amore (pictured) on Saturday, January 7 with Pavol Breslik and Adriana Kucerová (which I saw about a year ago). The second will be--you might want to sit down--Don Carlo on January 22 with Jonas Kaufmann, Anja Harteros, René Pape, and Mariusz Kwiecien with Asher Fisch conducting and what looks like a rather traditional production by Jürgen Rose. It's not stated that the broadcasts will be archived online for later viewing (as La Monnaie's or Arte Live Web's are), so you might have to be there live. Thankfully they are both on weekend afternoons for those of us in the Americas.

Since this happens to be my very favorite opera house and I've missed my regular trips there this season, I think this is pretty good news. Also, don't forget that in late March we will get Stefan Herheim's miraculous Rusalka from Brussels.

The Bay Staats's press release is here.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Daniel Harding and Joshua Bell with the NY Phil

I know Bell would prefer HIS picture be here but he didn't earn that.
I went to hear Daniel Harding conduct the NY Phil in Le sacre du printemps, also featuring Joshua Bell playing the Chaikovsky Violin Concerto, and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.
For one of the most iconic works in the art music repertoire, The Rite of Spring actually isn’t performed very often. This week it made a welcome appearance on a New York Philharmonic program under the baton of British conductor Daniel Harding. It turned out to be the main event of an otherwise routine evening.
You can read the full review here. The Sacre was mighty impressive, the best I've heard the Phil play in a while. I don't think it was my favorite angle on the piece--I'd prefer something more extreme in one direction or another--but the precision and committment were extremely satisfying. I haven't heard Harding conduct in some time (last and only other time was the Chéreau Così in Vienna, I think) and he's going on my list of Good Young Ones along with Andris Nelsons and Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

I cannot say the same for Joshua Bell. He gave us all the notes (in record time, possibly) and put a glam sheen on them too, but there was precious little music. I've heard him play much better performances than this one, I know he has it in him, so this superficiality was disappointing.

In Stardirigent: The Movie, Daniel Harding will totally be played by Damian Lewis, don't you think?

Photo copyright Deutsche Grammophon/Harald Hoffmann.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Opera as Repertory Drama, or, What is a Concept?

 Your opera house is putting on a new production of repertory staple opera X. It’s on the schedule because Diva Y wants to sing the leading role, because your old production resembles a diorama in the Museum of Natural History and was condemned by OSHA, whatever. You call up a director and design team and they show up at your office to pitch their idea.

The director says, “This is a story about forbidden love in a time of chaos, authoritarianism, and paranoia. We’re going to set it in China during the Cultural Revolution.”

Your response is
a) We were thinking of going in a more traditional direction; there’s nothing about China in the libretto. Besides, Diva Y wants to wear a bustle.
b) Great! That’ll look nice on the bus stops and maybe we can get a new audience out of Chinatown. After all, they’re our future overlords. (awkward chuckle)
c) If that’s what the opera is about, what is your production about?