Sunday, December 30, 2012

My most popular posts of 2012

I haven't had much time to devote to blogging recently, but promise I will come up with a best of 2012 piece soon. In the meantime, here are the ten most popular posts that I wrote in 2012, as measured by Google Analytics. Nine out of the ten most popular events were viewable on video internationally, either as part of the Met's HD broadcast series or via the Internet (the exception was Jonas Kaufmann's I'm-not-dead Winterreise, which attracted great interest for another reason).

This reminds us how greatly the experience of opera has changed in only a few years, shifting a form seen primarily in live performance or as audio only to one very often seen on video. On the whole I think this is a great thing, bringing new audiences to opera while moving it away from the voice fetishism that primarily aural experience encourages and into the realm of the Gesamtkunstwerk. But there are concerns as well. Video always loses the aura of live performance, and no closeups can substitute. And it can also have a stifling effect on, well, any opera company that can't grab a piece of the video pie.This list is dominated by the Met, though Salzburg also appears. (The Wiener Staatsoper's Don Carlo, which was not taped, was No. 13.)
  1. La bohème, Salzburg Festival: Anna Netrebko was so awesome as Mimì that she got both Piotr Beczala and Jonas Kaufmann as Rodolfo. Simultaneously.
  2. Götterdämmerung, Metropolitan Opera. "[It] just sort of fizzled out."
  3. La traviata, Metropolitan Opera. "A Violetta whose sole affect is fragility."
  4. The Enchanted Island, Metropolitan Opera. That's not a Baroque oboe, it's the sound of your soul getting sucked out of your chest by this revue.*
  5. Die Walküre, Metropolitan Opera. "No one has their own story to tell, nor the imperative to speak it."
  6. Jonas Kaufmann, Winterreise, Bayerische Staatsoper. Simple, honest, effective.
  7. Un ballo in maschera, Metropolitan Opera. "The best new production this house has seen in some time."
  8. Otello, Metropolitan Opera. "A simulacrum of drama that’s less convincing than Iago’s case for Desdemona as the Sluttiest Slut of Cyprus."
  9. L’elisir d’amore, Metropolitan Opera. Sorry, you were saying? I dozed off there for a second.
  10. Ariadne auf Naxos, Salzburg Festival. A dubious vision ran amok, bulldozing irony in the process.
You may notice that many of these assessments are negative. Only one of the performances on this list made my favorite performances of 2012 list, which may be why I run a blog and not a giant opera company, alas.

*The performance was in 2011, but I wrote about it in 2012.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Troy again

 Les Troyens is a wonderful, unique, and rare opera (also REALLY BIG), but it’s not one that sells itself. Without an equally strong and unique cast and production--from each of the principals to the chorus and choreography--its five and a half hours can become a bit of a slog. While there are some considerable virtues in the Met’s current revival, it’s only an intermittently satisfying affair.

When you needa Aida

"He's alive!" "You're toast."
Nearly every year the Met schedule contains innumerable performances of Aida. This being a difficult-to-cast opera that sells without big names, the singing is often not that great (Latonia Moore’s Aida last season was an excellent exception, though I heard her only on the radio). This year the Egyptology made the HD broadcast schedule, and for two performances in the run--the broadcast and the one before it--the cast aligned into Liudmyla Monastyrska, Roberto Alagna, and Olga Borodina, what you could possibly call an all-star Aida. Unfortunately it ended up being a little too cautious to be exciting.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Met Opera shows audience some clemency

I was late on the Met’s revival of La clemenza di Tito, but I did go on Thursday and thought I would briefly recap. As many others have already written, this is one of the best evenings at the Met so far this season, and in the Mozart department specifically worlds better than the dire Figaro (and, from what I hear, the current Don Giovanni as well). The conducting and direction are detailed, insightful, and precise, and the cast is excellent. Conductor Harry Bicket is associated with HIP performance and here gave a swift and light yet still dignified interpretation, and the orchestra sounded pretty great. (As much as I like HIP Mozart, having the superior intonation of the modern clarinet in Tito is always a blessing. But fortunately here a harpsichord replaced Figaro's piano in the recits.)

The cast is led by android mezzo Elina Garanca as Sesto. This was the first time I’d heard her since she’d had her baby, and her voice, always a secure and smooth instrument, seems to have become warmer and richer, a definite improvement. She is a lovely Mozart singer--while her exactitude and cool temperament can come off as overly detached and anonymous in other repertoire, here they are elegant, and she is much better-suited for seeming noble and conflicted than she is at pretending she’s a dirty and passionate gypsy. She stayed almost entirely on the tracks in the obstacle course portion of “Parto, parto,” and did something astonishing in “Deh, per questo istate solo,” Sesto’s lowest and most vulnerable point--she acted quite well! This was, along with her appropriately distant Charlotte in Wien, the most convincing performance I’ve seen from her, and vocally definitely the best.

Barbara Frittoli’s voice may not be quite refulgent--the high notes have a wobble, and the tone is not quite velvety--, but she’s a real artist and imbues this difficult music with expression and finesse. She threw herself into the production’s rather undignified conception of Vitellia with humor, and has excellent comic timing. She seems to have borrowed her fruity “Non più di fiori” chest voice from Karita Mattila, which is not good, but vocal imperfections are forgivable in crazy lady music, particularly when you sing it with this kind of conviction. Debutant Lucy Crowe (once an excellent Sophie in München) sounded gorgeous as Servilia, with a sweet and peachy tone with just a bit of an edge to it, and impeccable musicianship. She is also a fine actress. Kate Lindsey has a leaner voice than Garanca, giving her Annio some contrast, and while her singing is classy it was somewhat less glamorous than the rest of the women.

This leaves us with Tito, the only male role of importance. Russell Thomas took the second half of this run this performance only (replacing Giuseppe Filianoti). He’s got a sweet tenor voice and can more or less handle the strenuous coloratura of “Se all’impero,” but the lower notes tend to be unstable in pitch and projection. He is a decent actor, starting off with something more interesting (slightly insecure and nervous) than he ended up with at the end. While a good enough performance, he was overall not on the same level as the women and I kind of wish I had seen Filianoti.

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production dates from 1984, and everyone seems very enchanted by its elaborate lighting plot (sometimes unnecessarily showy--slow down those crossfades! or can the dimmers not handle it?) and clean white drapery. I wonder if all the petticoat-fanciers recognize that it is the intellectual grandparent of Stefan Herheim’s Serse. The costumes combine eighteenth-century motifs with quasi-Roman ones, and Tito’s Forum is already a cracked ruin (no less than Stanley Sadie criticized this decision upon the premiere--“in Tito’s time the Forum was still quite new”--to which I say, no shit, Sherlock, and Servilia wasn’t dressed like Donna Anna back then, either). Vitellia is a deposed noblewoman, Tito’s hereditary power is maintained solely due to strength of character--and he wonders if even that will be enough. The sense of something being extended past its logical expiration date is a commentary on the opera’s place in history, an outdated opera seria composed in 1791, an anachronistic tribute to both a musical logic and a political power that no longer promised the certainty they once did. It’s a fine production and has been revived well here, though the burning of Rome is not the best effect ever.

There’s only one more performance but I encourage you to catch it if you can, and the HD should be on PBS at some point.
Mozart, La clemenza di Tito. Metropolitan Opera, 12/6/2012. Production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (revival), conducted by Harry Bicket with Russell Thomas (Tito), Elina Garanca (Sesto), Barbara Frittoli (Vitellia), Lucy Crowe (Servilia), Kate Lindsey (Annio), Oren Gradus (Publio).
Video: Elina Garanca sings the opening of "Parto, parto"
Photo copyright Ken Howard/Met.