Friday, November 30, 2012

O don fatale: a holiday gift guide

Presents!
Searching for an opera-related gift for someone? Here are some ideas. The Times suggests that you get them a Ring Cycle, a Ring Cycle, or a Ring Cycle, the so I’m not going to suggest that (er, is the "super-deluxe" Solti set really worth $318? Does it sound different from the $120 version that includes all the other mature Wagner operas too--which is probably a far better gift, though it may lack libretti?*).

I don't get any $ from you clicking on these links and I know they are US-centric, but it's the easiest way of doing it.

Stefan Herheim’s La bohème (DVD) (not pictured above): The Norwegian doyen of phantasmagorical Regietheater has been criminally neglected on video, but luckily that has begun to change. This is a deeply sad, very beautiful look at death and memory. Highly recommended, particularly for Christmas. You can now get his Eugene Onegin as well (which I wrote about here). (Bohème, Onegin)

Opera Glasses: Those dainty little ones work if you have fancy seats and want to see your favorite singer sweat, but if you're stuck in the Family Circle these suckers mean business and still don’t take up too much space in your bag. (B&H Photo)

L’incoronazione di Poppea
(DVD): Monteverdi’s Nero gets away with murder, adultery, and more in an impassioned, lush, R-rated opera that gives Lulu a run for her money in depravity. This recent performance of David Alden’s vintage production, conducted by Harry Bicket with Sarah Connolly and Miah Persson, is probably the best video around. Hey, does anyone recognize this particular staging? (It’s in Alden’s Ballo “Eri tu.”) (Amazon)

Carolyn Abbate and Roger Parker, A History of Opera (book): I am excited to see this book by two of the most important and provocative opera scholars around, which should be very interesting. I haven’t read it yet but am still recommending on general principle. (Amazon)

Tosca (DVD): Antonio Pappano’s fabulous conducting, plus the ideal cast of--bear with me--Angela Gheorghiu, Jonas Kaufmann, and Bryn Terfel make this a Tosca not to miss. I know Angela and Tosca may not seem like a natural fit, but on this video at least she’s wonderfully musical and the voice sounds terrific, and her acting also convinces. Both the men are super. Only the Regie is a little bit lacking. (Amazon)

Karen Engelmann, The Stockholm Octavo (book): This entertaining historical novel is based around the historical assassination of Gustavus III of Sweden--i.e. the events of Un ballo in maschera. Only this version involves way more fans and, fortunately, no Oscar. (Amazon)

Prima Donna, Karina Gauvin (CD): Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin is unfortunately something of a best-kept secret among Baroque fans, but her silvery tone, impeccable phrasing, and vivid expression should work for everyone. This CD is one of those historic diva tribute albums, the diva in question being Anna Maria Strada and mixes some familiar music (Alcina) with less familiar. (Amazon)

Patrick Carnegy, Wagner and the Art of the Theatre (book): This isn’t a new book, but I have to recommend it anyway because it’s absolutely terrific--overall, the single best opera book dealing with opera staging. You’ll learn a tremendous amount about stage technology, changing notions of operatic aesthetics, and landmark productions. It’s pricey but it’s a very substantial, well-illustrated volume. (Amazon)

La bohème (DVD): This is the Salzburg production with Anna Netrebko at her very best (the Act 2 consumerist frenzy is pictured at the top of this post). I enjoyed this one quite a lot, and would like to see it again with Piotr Beczala actually singing. I'm also hoping there's a Special Feature from the crazy performance I attended. That's what DVD extras are for.  (Amazon)

Also can someone get me a few of these and throw in a round-trip flight? Happy holidays and don't forget to listen to some bombastic operatic Christmas music. I'll be back from Beatrice di Tenda next week.

*Note to my mom: don't get this for me. I have the Solti Ring already.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Tucker Gala blasts it out

Only excerpts allowed!
The Tucker Gala again brought a lineup of the Met’s current roster (plus some extras) to Avery Fischer Hall on Sunday in support of grants for young artists as well as in support of having a big party where everyone sings arias really loud. The choices can be unusual.

One moment I am introduced to the wonderful mezzo Jamie Barton, who I had never heard before and found stunning. Then the next moment Dmitri Hvorostovsky is singing Wagner in a sequined tuxedo, and I do not think that he should do either of these things (sing Wagner or wear a sequined tuxedo) outside a gala (or, possibly, anywhere), but it’s still somehow enjoyable. While I found this year’s group less exciting than last year’s, Bryn Terfel and his pockets full of beer bottles can’t always be in town at the right time. This year’s program had the advantage of a large number of singers who I had never heard before, and some of them were really great!

You can watch an edited version of this gala on PBS on December 13 (they might have a hard time dealing with the clap-happy audience). Here’s the rundown.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Turandot and the culture industry

It is a little-known fact that when Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote in Dialektik der Aufklärung that “amusement always means putting things out of mind, forgetting suffering, even when it is on display… at its root is powerlessness,” they were thinking of Franco Zeffirelli’s Met Opera production of Turandot. Despite it being performed year in and year out, this Friday was the first time I have seen this ridiculously outsized spectacle, because I try to avoid things that I know will make me angry, afraid that I will be compelled to unleash the blogging equivalent of the Incredible Hulk. But on Friday to the Met I went, and it was just about as bad as I feared, if not worse.

Turandot’s China, as composed by Puccini, is a vast, cold machine, its people an anonymous mob and its princess ice. But who should appear but quasi-European Calàf, who manages to, like Don José, conquer the resistant feminine Other. (Think of Liù as Turandot’s Micaëla.) Zeffirelli’s vast stage machines, the sets massive and gratuitously detailed and crowded with scurrying extras, leave little space for human feeling and individuals. Perhaps Turandot’s realm is actually his ultimate achievement as a director. It fits the music in a way where his Traviata was merely ridiculous, but it exacerbates the problems of the score.

That Viennese Turandot where all the characters were insects was onto something--if you hang onto the Chinese setting, it’s hard to do so in a way that doesn’t feature a) awful cultural appropriation and b) the direct portrayal of the Chinese as soulless savages. If you don't see what's wrong with this I recommend you read this. And Zeffirelli’s kitsch is dire in this regard. I might add that the last scene, where Calàf comes pretty close to raping Turandot before she decides she wants it at the last second, makes me really unhappy. While I find ending the opera with Liù’s death (the point where Puccini’s score ends) overly abrupt, maybe it has more going for it than I realized when I saw that version in Munich last summer (that production that is not the last word in self-consciousness but in comparison to this one is positively enlightened).

Anyway, Zeffirelli's theme park visuals still get applause, particularly the epic Act 2 set, but this is the sort of opera that I feel like I always need to apologize for: visuals that beat the viewer into submission, casual racism, and careless treatment of the characters and story. The Emperor and Turandot begin Act 2 so far upstage that they are rendered nearly inaudible, and it’s often hard to pick the leading characters out of the masses onstage. It has, when combined with the vivid banging of the score, an undeniable potency, but it’s not something I want anything to do with. The audience seemed to think they had gotten their money’s worth, but if you want to see something artistic I recommend redirecting yourself to Un ballo in maschera.

Musically this production was satisfactory, and in that respect I enjoyed it, though I wish the sets had not swallowed the singers’ voices as well as their presences. Conductor Dan Ettinger knows his Turandot--he conducted the Munich performance I saw last summer as well--and except for a few snafus with the chorus (and an unfortunate trumpet crack right before "Straniero, ascolta,") the orchestra was strong. The vocal highlight was debuting soprano Janai Brugger as Liù. Granted, it’s easy for Liù to steal Turandot, but Brugger’s crystalline yet full lyric soprano was beautifully controlled and expressive, portraying a rare moment of vulnerability in this tank of a performance. Less happy was Marcello Giordani as Calàf. This incredibly uneven singer had a night that was more bad than good. While some high notes still can ring out with power and squillo, all but the top few notes are sour and hollow, and even a few notes sounded like yelps. As Turandot, Iréne Theorin had sufficient power (though the set wasn’t helping her), but I found this less impressive than her Brünnhilde last summer. Her vibrato seemed unwieldy and her tone often turned shrill. But she is a lovely actress in a role that is usually just stood through. James Morris was a horribly wobbly Timur, Dwayne Croft was a fine Ping but Tony Stevenson and Eduardo Valdes were unfortunately less than audible as Pang and Pong, as was Bernard Fitch as the Emperor. Ryan Speedo Green made an impressive Met debut in the small role of the Mandarin, a bass-baritone ringing out through the crowds.

But you’d have to pay me to go see this again.

Friday, November 09, 2012

David Alden hosts a Ballo in maschera at the Met

The Met’s taut, spooky new Ballo in maschera is the best new production this house has seen in some time. David Alden has finally brought his trademark surreal, minimalist film noir aesthetic to New York. Welcome to the early 1990’s, Met-- the age when we all were scandalized by David Alden and thought he was crazy (not including me, because I was in elementary school and not going to the opera yet,* but you get the idea). But a production like this is always welcome, however belated, and compared to most of what we see at the Met it seems very fresh and modern. There’s nothing particularly shocking or radical about it; it’s certainly watered down from his European work, but it's good drama and it would be a shame if the plentiful time-delay boos present at the premiere (I suspect due to the production's deficit of horses and bayonets) detracted from its very real merits. The singing isn't uniformly fabulous but it's probably one of the better casts that can be assembled for this opera, and they are trying very hard.