Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Met takes a bet on a new Rigoletto

The Met has been turning out productions that look like they belong in Vegas for decades. I guess that it makes a certain amount of sense that they would eventually, in the their quest for theatrical creativity that will still satisfy the rather conservative audience, come up with something that is actually set in Vegas. But while the Met’s usual goal seems to be something like The Venetian, or, hell, Cirque de Soleil (hello, Robert Lepage), this here Rigoletto is an update set in historical 1960s Vegas, which means dangerous and sleazy stuff rather than Zeffirelli’s dancing cows in Traviata. Rigoletto, a story about an absolute ruler who abducts and rapes an innocent girl, whose father then takes out a hit on him, could be dangerous and sleazy? My stars, look at what they’re doing at the Met these days. So shocking.

To be fair, the audience seemed to realize that nothing very alarming is going on in this tame, relatively entertaining production. From my seat the boos were surprisingly few. The real problem is, fairly unusually for a Met new production, some seriously mediocre music-making.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Special knight's offer

A dear friend of mine has had to cancel her trip to New York and is selling two tickets to the Met's Parsifal premiere on February 15, 2013 (this performance). These are two excellent very front orchestra seats--if Tony Pappano were conducting, they would come with a grunting advisory. (I cannot provide any information on Daniele Gatti's sound effects or lack thereof.) Please email me at likelyimpossibilities [at] gmail [dot] com if you're interested and I'll put you in touch with her.

A brief word of warning, however: nearly six hours of operatic chastity promotion may not be the best idea for a belated Valentine's Day date night.

UPDATE: The tickets have been sold.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Jonas Kaufmann's miller in Jersey

A number of New Yorkers stopped making fun of New Jersey for long enough to go hear Jonas Kaufmann sing Die schöne Müllerin in Princeton last night (at least judging by the small mob headed towards the Dinky at the end). It was worth it: this was a really great performance, and surprisingly  different from his recording of a few years ago. On the whole, this one was far more interesting (and the recording is not bad!).

Monday, January 07, 2013

French Revolution defeats Roberto Alagna

I went to see Andrea Chénier at the Opera Orchestra of New York and I wrote about it for Bachtrack.

Yesterday I went to see a convoluted story about French revolutionaries, as belted out at top volume to serviceable but hardly creative ballads. No, I didn’t go to the Les misérables movie. I went to see Roberto Alagna in Opera Orchestra of New York’s concert presentation of Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier.

Read the rest here. This was bad, people. Roberto Alagna had barely learned the music, had no conception of the role, and seemed not quite present all afternoon. Alberto Veronesi is not a master conductor and didn't offer anything to make up for this deficit, nor was he probably the ideal choice to lead someone unsure through this rhythmically tricky music for the first time. Kristin Lewis had some issues and this role was a little more than her voice can handle right now, volume-wise--at least with Veronesi's insensitive conducting, in the unfriendly surroundings of Avery Fisher--but the sound is interesting, and I would like to give her another chance under happier circumstances. George Petean was the real pro here, and turned in a thoroughly decent performance, though not as scene-stealing as Rosalind Elias.

But a sad spectacle. I like Alagna (sometimes, it seems, inexplicably), the guy still has an attractive voice and considerable charm, but this was embarrassing for everyone. Maybe it's personal issues, maybe he just didn't take this gig seriously, but I hope this is just a temporary slip.

Photo copyright Stephanie Berger.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Best Performances of 2012

"You aren't about to leave Serse off your Best Performances list, are you?"
I felt like I had a disproportionate number of "almosts" this year--plenty of wonderful singing, playing, conducting, directing, etc., but almost every performance came with a serious caveat that some other element was seriously lacking (e.g., I loved Christopher Alden's production of Così at the City Opera, and the cast was overall quite excellent, but the orchestra was oy). So it usually goes in opera. While my "best performances" list is short, tons of great stuff didn't fit in here here--Nina Stemme's Brünnhilde! Christian Gerhaher! The Makropulos Case! But if you want to see what I have to think about any of them, well, read the archives of this blog, because if I relived everything this would be really long. On that note, I had best proceed.

Best Performances of 2012
Serse (Komische Oper): Who knew that Regietheater wizard Stefan Herheim would turn into Mel Brooks when attempting Baroque opera? This production had a joyous and knowing attitude towards opera, and super performances from the Komische Oper ensemble. Some of it was a little recycled, but that was kind of the point, and I’ve actually found myself describing it to explain how Baroque opera works, it’s that spot-on. This production needs to be on DVD, so I can watch it whenever I’m feeling sad about life. 

Der Ring des Nibelungen (Bayerische Staatsoper): A modest Ring for unsure times, it suggested that in the end all we need is love. Fair enough, for the Ring. While sometimes too minimal for me to have strong opinions about (until a somewhat discordant, blaringly ideological Götterdämmerung), it did have a quiet poetry, and some achingly earnest performances from Anja Kampe, Nina Stemme, and Wolfgang Koch, and the entire cast did the text and drama proud. Even without directly comparing it to the Met’s DOA Lepage Ring, it had palpable life.
Lulu (Semper Oper Dresden): A scintillating performance by Gisela Stille in the title role, Cornelius Meister’s eloquent conducting, a marvelously committed cast in… another Herheim production, this one with some seriously scary clowns. I know I'm boring by just praising him all the time, but his work has a way of growing and gaining coherence in your memory as time passes, as you make sense of it for yourself.

Excellent Musical Performances: Wozzeck in concert at Avery Fisher Hall (not reviewed, sorry), La clemenza di Tito (Met), Khovanshchina (Met)

Excellent Productions (new or relatively new): Così fan tutte (Christopher Alden, City Opera), Mitridate, re di Ponto (David Bösch, Bayerische Staatsoper), Wozzeck (Andreas Kriegenburg, Bayerische Staatsoper)

Best Individual Performances
Anja Kampe (Sieglinde, Die Walküre, Bayerische Staatsoper) Such raw, vivid expression! My offer of a year or two ago to found an Anja Kampe Fan Club still stands. 
Anna Netrebko (Mimì, La bohème, Salzburg) The perfect role for her lush voice and earnestly vivacious presence.
Elina Garanca (Sesto, La clemenza di Tito, Met). I never thought I would say that! Very elegant.
Simon Keenlyside (Wozzeck, Wozzeck, Munich and Bayerische Staatsoper) Terrifying.
Classing Up the Joint, AKA Fabulous Performances Under Questionable Circumstances:
Bryn Terfel (Wotan, Ring, Met) There was more to one of his monologues than to whole acts of Lepage.
Waltraud Meier (Waltraute, Götterdämmerung, Met) There was also more to hers. A cameo that nearly redeemed the whole evening.
Anna Caterina Antonacci (Cassandre, Les Troyens, ROH) Maybe the Trojans didn’t believe her Cassandra, but the audience definitely did.
Jonas Kaufmann (Bacchus, Ariadne auf Naxos, Salzburg) Great singing with shamelessly bonkers acting.

Best Conductors
Esa-Pekka Salonen (Wozzeck, not reviewed)

Names to Watch
Guanqun Yu (Leonora, Trovatore, Met)
Jennifer Rowley (Orasia, Orpheus, City Opera)
Jamie Barton (Agnese, Beatrice di Tenda, Collegiate Chorale)
Hannah Hipp (Anna, Les Troyens, ROH)
Paul Appleby (Hylas, Les Troyens, Met)
Ryan Speedo Green (The Mandarin, Turandot, Met)

Least Awful New Met Production
Un ballo in maschera. It seemed like a decent production with a few issues, unlike most of the rest, which were issues without the potential for goodness. (Runner-up: Manon.)

Most Interesting Performance That Wasn’t Actually Good 
Fidelio (Dresden). The singing ranged from bad to really bad (Evelyn Herlitzius can be epic, but on this night she wasn’t), but this production has been hanging around since 1989. That’s a momentous date, particularly when you’re talking about Fidelio.

Best Trend
Video streaming on the internet from European opera houses. Unlike the Met HD broadcasts, these free, not that high quality productions (meaning the quality of the recording, not of the performance--the picture isn't high def, the stage lights aren't brightened for the occasion, and the sound can be a little tinny) aren’t aiming to replace the live opera experience (which is my biggest problem with the Met program, it teaches us to be numb to the virtues of liveness), and they make great, unique stuff accessible worldwide to people who would otherwise not see them. The leaders in this category are Brussels’s La Monnaie and Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper. The TV channels Arte and Medici also produce webcasts, which tend to be very high quality but often have regional restrictions (though sometimes you can find these, ahem, elsewhere--big thanks to those kind souls who disseminate things like the Bayreuth Parsifal and La Scala Lohengrin, both of which I loved).

Worst Trend
Assuming that you audience is uninterested in complexity and depth, both intellectual and emotional. The Met's worst efforts this year--the Ring and Enchanted Island--presumed the attention span and maturity of a 13-year old (or less). Dumbing things down left us with shows that were insipid, shallow, and actually pretty boring. While not everyone has a great knowledge of opera, operagoers are generally educated and curious people accustomed to films and books that are drastically more sophisticated that the kinds of things going on at many American opera houses. They can be spoken to like adults. (Some of them may find this surprising, OK, but they can learn.)

Let's hope for a great 2013!

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Maria Stuarda loses her head on the eve of 2013

"I had a dream my gala would be/So different from this pilgrim dress I'm wearing..."
One of the less-noted trends of the Peter Gelb era has been the renaissance of bel canto (and bel canto-adjacent) opera at the Met. So far we have had new productions of Anna Bolena, L’elisir d’amore, La fille du régiment, Lucia di Lammermoor, La sonnambula, Armida, Il barbiere di Siviglia, and Le Comte Ory (as well as Don Pasquale just before Gelb’s regime began). To this list you can now add Maria Stuarda, the middle installment of a Donizetti “Queens” trilogy directed by David McVicar. (This began with Bolena last season, the final entry will be Roberto Devereux, reportedly featuring Sondra Radvonovsky next season.)

I think bel canto has proven compatible with two of Gelb’s artistic priorities: star casting and slick but literal-minded storytelling (the latter often in the guise of “accessibility”). Most of these productions have been sold on the fame of their casts. Many of the operas themselves have colorful settings and no obvious complicating social or metaphysical angles (Mary Zimmerman’s high-concept Sonnambula was an exception in this regard). They are primarily showpieces. But for this rep to be anything more than routine and mundane you need real star quality singing and charisma. Unfortunately only a few of these productions have found the people capable of that.

Maria Stuarda is OK, but there’s still a certain fire missing.

Donizetti, Maria Stuarda. Metropolitan Opera, 12/31/2012. New production premiere directed by David McVicar with sets and costumes by John Macfarlane, lights by Jennifer Tipton, and choreography by Leah Hausman, conducted by Maurizio Benini with Joyce DiDonato (Maria Stuarda), Elza van den Heever (Elisabetta), Matthew Rose (Talbot), Joshua Hopkins (Cecil), Maria Zifchak (Anna).
I guess you have to give David McVicar some credit. Unlike quite a few Met directors, he definitely knows what he is doing and rarely produces the giant “WTF?” moments many other recent stagings have induced. But he hasn’t been very inspired recently, either, and this production is no exception.

McVicar’s Maria Stuarda production is more colorful and flashy than last year’s Anna Bolena, but otherwise similar. The costumes are exaggerated period with some tweaks of design and color, the sets minimal and austere. (Both are designed by John Macfarlane.) We open with a big old party, a convenient place for McVicar to stick his compulsory acrobats. But almost everyone is wearing pure white, which cuts down on the bacchanalia factor.

The rest of the evening is less busy, with about one striking thing per scene while the rest is by the book. Queen E wears a wide red skirt that opens like curtains to reveal pants (performing masculinity oh so subtly) while her rival Maria Stuarda (Mary Queen of Scots) and her cohort dress in plain black. There are a few strong images: the tiny windows of Mary’s prison, the backdrop filling with the orders she wrote when she was queen, and her sad end, in which she reveals a red dress for her final ascent to a giant executioner. (This executioner is, by the way, fully clothed--where is the McVicar of yore?)

McVicar and the cast create a stark contrast between serious, gracious, and feminine Maria and cranky, assertive Elizabeth, the latter adopting a lurching gait and little royal dignity. (I don’t remember the opera’s Schiller source, which I saw in an excellent Donmar Warehouse production a few years ago, as nearly this unsubtle.) Maria is meant to excite the most sympathy, but is shorted on exposition and backstory, and in this production rarely appears more than mildly perturbed. Elisabetta is a far more interesting character, and here developed much more vividly. She has a country to run and alliances to make. Who really cares for this plain imprisoned lady who only occasionally works up a decent curse?

The production is, as a backdrop, perfectly OK. It would be fine as a frame for brilliant and passionate performances. Unfortunately we didn’t really get those and it remains kind of weak sauce. Both ladies are miscast and neither projected on the grand scale required.

This was conceived as a vehicle for Joyce DiDonato. While the role of Maria Stuarda is usually sung by a soprano, some transposition makes it workable for her mezzo. There’s a long history of this kind of transposition, I don’t object (though in the final scene having a true soprano floating above is more effective), but DiDonato just doesn’t seem right even when it has been lowered. While she sings the notes with exemplary musicality, expression, and taste, her sound is more thin than plush, which in this kind of thing is a problem. Under pressure her tone acquires a pronounced bleaty vibrato, at soft dynamics the vibrato disappears entirely. And her intonation is (or was in this performance, at least) highly problematic, tending flat towards the ends of phrases and in cadenzas wavering all over the place. Sometimes she caught it and corrected but I found it a constant distraction preventing me from ever becoming immersed in her performance.

I wasn’t terribly convinced by her acting, either, which seemed too mild to play up to me in the Family Circle. A few big moments--that curse--were staged as Dramatic Actions, but then her voice didn’t really back her up. Maybe it was more convincing closer up, but she never convinced me of her star-ness. I’m sorry to pile on but these are pretty serious issues for a major singer in a new production.

Elza van den Heever gives a striking performance as Elisabetta, with a variety of impressive costumes, but her hip-swaying is more Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth than it is Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth. I did appreciate her spirit, though, and she takes far greater dramatic risks than DiDonato appears to. Her voice lacks the sheer tonal beauty and evenness between registers to be ideal for this repertoire, and has a very prominent vibrato. But it’s certainly an interesting and compelling instrument, very powerful at the top and well-controlled (impressive coloratura for such a large voice), and it will be interesting to see how she develops (possibly in a Wagner-Strauss sort of direction?).

Matthew Polenzani is better as Leicester than he was as Nemorino in the fall. He is vocally impeccable, with a far wider tonal palette than either of the ladies, and the voice is just the right size. The older, more established Leicester is a better fit for his personality and age than goofy young Nemorino was. But the role is basically standard tenor posturing, and he never really got a big star moment. The supporting cast was competent but bland, with none sticking very strongly in my memory. The chorus, though, was fabulous, and made the music sound far better than it deserves to (bel canto choruses are, I must admit, a pet peeve of mine--so boring!), and Maurizio Benini’s conducting seemed perfectly fine to me, certainly better than his work in Elisir.

But there’s nothing here that holds a candle to Anna Netrebko in Anna Bolena. I’m sure it will satisfy Joyce DiDonato fans, because there is indeed a lot of Joyce DiDonato, but to me it was rarely more than middling. Since bel canto is not really my preferred variety of opera, my standards for enjoyment may be unduly high, but this one didn't draw me in.

Maria Stuarda runs through January, with the inevitable HD broadcast on January 19.

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