Saturday, December 13, 2014

Eva outside Paradise

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg - Metropolitan Opera, 12/02 & 12/09/2014
Morris/Volle, Dasch, Cargill, Botha, Appleby, Kränzle, König / Levine

This revival, which has three more shows after this afternoon's moviecast matinee, is simultaneously an unmissable representation of Wagner's masterwork and a relative disappointment that leaves out much significance. Which aspect is more evident will, of course, depend on your familiarity, expectations, and priorities.

The success is, I suppose, more remarkable. The Met managed - on rather shorter notice than usual - to find not one but two excellent Hans Sachses. James Morris has excelled in the part before, first in the landmark 2001 run (on DVD) and in two less starry revivals since... but the last of those was in 2007, and his last major Wagner part here was five years ago. Still, in his 45th season at the Met, not long before his 68th birthday, Morris remains a match for this titanic part. There's a bit more wear on his sound, but the scale and basic character remain (and, as ever, he's a new man in Wagner compared to his Italian outings). The acclaim for Sachs at the end could not be more apt.

Michael Volle, singing this afternoon, debuted this spring as Mandryka - a success, but on a smaller scale than required by Sachs. But the leap to Meistersinger brought no problems, as his voice and character remained strong and clearly delineated throughout. He's a more temperamental Sachs than Morris, less genial and more inclined to give David a thrashing, which is a nice counterpoint to Morris' wise man.

The other brutally hard part here is Walther, and Botha - in stronger form than I remember from his past attempts - makes it seem easy. There's not much to be done with his physique and uncompelling stage presence, but that should be and is secondary given the role.

So the hard roles are done well, but the one that should be (and historically has been) easiest to cast - requiring not much more than a lyric soprano with some life in her - lets the proceedings down. Annette Dasch made her Met debut five years ago and was frankly bad: her agent deserves a prize for getting her a return engagement in this big revival. Here she doesn't have noticeable pitch issues, but it's perhaps because her voice barely makes an impact against this cast and orchestration, lapsing into inaudibility for what should be her vital moments. Worse, Dasch is either complicit with or the main victim of the show's overdirection: revival director Paula Suozzi (assisted by Eric Einhorn and Stephen Pickover) has tuned the action heavily towards a certain kind of comedy, so that all but the two main men are flattened a bit by/into the tics of a certain type. This works for some things - the bit-part Masters have some amusing dynamics going on, with Zorn exasperated by Pogner's long-windedness and so forth - but for Eva it's annihilating. The Plautus/sitcom/wherever-you-want-to-source-it tics reduce Eva to a small, flailing teenager, and like Damrau's too-clever Gilda the change is psychologically insightful but artistically destructive. For Eva is not only a girl struggling with an intolerable arranged marriage prospect: she's also - within the literal plot - the muse for Walther's unexpected poetic outpouring and - within the symbolic story - the bearer of all value within society (as Walther is the bearer of value without, which Sachs successfully and improbably reconciles), Sophie and Marschallin in one.

This does not require the explosion of vitality and spirit that Karita Mattila (as ever) brought in 2001 (never more so than in the unfortunately untaped November 27 show), but it does require more than the small commonplace figure Dasch and her directors are giving us. With Evas like this there would never have been any Walthers.

One more note about the direction: two bits of the final scene are changed for the worse. First, instead of dropping the paper almost immediately, as Wagner's stage directions specify to get around the problem of Walther changing (for the better) his prize-song lyrics from their initial appearance in at the start of the act, the Masters pass it around as he's singing, apparently in discussion or disputation. This unnecessarily raises the issue Wagner deftly avoided in order to have more action going on (which the audience shouldn't be looking at anyway because all focus should be on the song). Second, Eva breaks immediately after the close of Walter's song to give him a huge smooch (before giving him the crown). This not only further flattens her into an uninteresting appetitive teenager, it undercuts the glorious quiet climax that Wagner actually wrote: entranced by the song's spell as much as all others present, Eva gives a simple, rapt echo of the crowd's acclaim that "no one can woo as well as you" while presenting the wreath, adding a delicious long trill that seems to encompass all joy (interestingly, this was apparently improvised during rehearsals by the original Eva). Act 3's first scene ends with a moment of pure joy and harmony in private - "Selig, wie die Sonne" - which this second scene has expanded to encompass the entire social universe. But we should learn from this one quiet line (not so well sung here, though Dasch at least attempts a sort of trill) that the original perfect moment of suspension has persisted... The kiss must be after.

*     *     *

That said, much of the show does not involve Eva. And the other parts are quite well handled: Hans-Peter König is near-ideal as Pogner (he doesn't have to be threatening in this part), Matthew Rose (impressive as Talbot two seasons back) a standout as the Night-Watchman, and Karen Cargill (who played Anna a bit too much like Lene) of particular note. Johannes Martin Kränzle, who debuted on December 2, seems to be an excellent character singer, and though I'd prefer a more humanizing Beckmesser a la Thomas Allen, Kränzle's sharply-drawn antagonist better suits the flattening tendency of this production. In fact all the men are good, particularly the entirely new (vs. previous revivals) lineup of Masters.

With Meistersinger, there are so many pieces and so many difficulties that an ideal run can hardly be expected. (The 2001 revival, so impressive on video, had in its live shows Ben Heppner fighting cracks in the third act each time.... the ones since then had Botha in lesser form and a merely passable Eva.) That Sachs, Walther, and the orchestra/ensemble are in good hands this time is much, particularly if you haven't seen the show in person yet - its ambition is sui generis within the genre. But for those to whom Meistersinger is familiar, this run probably plays better on radio.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Midlife

Macbeth - Metropolitan Opera, 9/24/2014
Lucic, Netrebko, Calleja, Pape / Luisi

This was, despite what seems to be generally positive press, a dispiriting night at the Met. It hasn't been that long since Anna Netrebko was the wonder of the Mariinsky's 1998 tour, a bel canto soprano of limitless beauty and promise (as one can hear from Gergiev's Bethrothal in a Monastery and Ruslan & Lyudmila recordings), but that silver-voiced singer never really sang with this company -- at least not past her official debut in 2002's War and Peace. Netrebko returned in the late-Volpe/early-Gelb era a different woman, having found her stardom and characteristic manner in the 2005 original Salzburg run of Decker's (abominably bathetic) Traviata: now not only beautiful but glamorous, getting lead roles at last, and still performing bel canto... but with ever-more-coarse acting and singing that was at odds with this repertoire. This is the form in which most recent operagoers know her.

Now, after almost a decade of that Netrebko, the new rep and blonde wig of this show seems to announce her third incarnation, one where she's finally embraced what the previous one was becoming. And that is... well, Maria Guleghina, basically. With the visibly-accumulated years and pounds Netrebko's visual appeal is no longer significant; there's no false pretense of refinement whatever; and the ambitious force of sound and person that underlay these trappings is thus now foregrounded. So points for honesty! But Lady Macbeth isn't quite the ideal fit for her either.

No one quite fits the brutal Verdi part comfortably. In this case, what was Netrebko's outstanding strength when she was trying lyric roles -- force and volume -- is, in this more demanding part, insufficient: the first act finds her top uncomfortably pressed and wobbly. Like most of her predecessors, she fares better vocally in the latter acts, particularly in the soft end of the sleepwalking scene, but her need always to do something as an actress is unvarying and offers no contrast between the conscious ambition of the start/middle and the subconscious revelation of this end. Not intolerable, on the whole, but not really an improvement on, well, Guleghina.

The years have also brought change for Netrebko's male colleagues, who dominated the 2008 revival of this very show. Superstar bass Rene Pape is now 50 and his physique too looks finally to have been affected by middle-age bloat. The voice isn't quite dimmed, but neither was it, on this occasion, the revelation it was in that initial Banquo (or, in fact, in his 2013 Gurnemanz). Perhaps he was preoccupied by last weekend's solo recital. Tenor Joseph Calleja (Macduff), on the other hand, may be going through a vocal transition of the sort Netrebko has completed. The naturally fat, golden, effortlessly expansive tone with which he announced his arrival has become more standardized, less vibrato-driven, as has his formerly old-school swashbuckling with the bel canto phrase. Perhaps the latter more shows the difference between James Levine and Fabio Luisi, and perhaps Calleja too how has other concerns than a one-aria outing now that his world career is established, but I feel that as he enters the back half of his 30s (he turns 37 in January) we do not quite know what the mature Joseph Calleja will offer, whether he'll fulfil his promise as Netrebko has not. The spring run of Lucia, which four seasons ago showed him in masterful form, will tell much.

About Zeljko Lucic and Fabio Luisi there is rarely doubt. Both were very good, and the sometimes inappropriate not-quite-hardness of Lucic's onstage character more or less suits Macbeth. 2009 Met Council finalist Noah Baetge made a nice impression as Malcolm. That said, as the foolish booing of Adrian Noble at curtain call confirmed, this is a show for the low-information operagoer.

Monday, September 29, 2014

High life

Le Nozze di Figaro - Metropolitan Opera, 9/22/2014
Abdrazakov, Petersen, Majeski, Leonard, Mattei / Levine

After a less than memorable closing run two seasons ago for Jonathan Miller's production of Figaro (which served the house well long after the director banished himself in a snit about Bartoli's airing of alternate arias), the Met opened 2014-15 with another Englishman's production. Richard Eyre's attempt isn't much better or worse than his predecessor's. It will probably serve the house in much the same way through casts both better and worse than this one.

The physical production won't surprise anyone who's seen Eyre's other Met efforts: the rotating unit set recalls the first act of his Carmen, while the last act's tree/structure juxtaposition was already seen in his Werther. Probably there's too much repeating latticework as the set's top part, which suggests a bit too much the overly abstracted Spain of Hytner's Don Carlo. But it's decent enough. (And it sounds like the Lincoln Center renovation finally got around to de-squeaking the turntable.)

Eyre has, I suppose unsurprisingly, moved the figures forward to the first part of the last century, so that they're recognizably not from some legendary Spain or the French revolution, but from the familiar modern myths of Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs, Gosford Park, etc. In itself this is no particular innovation, but it does allow for the show's one interesting juxtaposition: in one of the scenes in the staged overture, we see the well-pressed order of the morning servants' assembly interrupted as Barbarina rushes in after her tryst with the Count. Here for once we see not just the familiar social-emotional disorder of Mozart, Beaumarchais, and da Ponte's creation, but the fragile orderliness in which it was born. The desire enacted and reflected in the story disrupts the peace not only of each person and the pre-Revolutionary world as a whole, but also of the household, that intermediate-scale space in which most of life is lived... and it's nice to see a tableau showing that perspective before we delve into the familiar close intimacy of the opera itself.

The musical side, too, is more impressive in its ensemble bits. But that, I think, is less by design than the vagaries of casting. Neither Ildar Abdrakazov (previously impressive as Prince Igor, Don Giovanni, the Hoffmann villains, and Mephistopheles) nor Marlis Petersen (a notable Lulu and Ophelia) is particularly flattered by the particular demands of Figaro/Susanna, so that each was decent enough but a bit colorless. Isabel Leonard was better -- admirably precise and lively -- as Cherubino, but doesn't quite achieve the level of vocal (most recently, Joyce DiDonato) or physical (Kate Lindsey) characterization needed to steal the show in this part. The Bartolo and Marcellina -- John Del Carlo and Susanne Mentzer (who was the original Cherubino of the previous production) -- showed a shocking degree of age, sad to those of us who recall their many good Met evenings not too long past.

And so, as happens at times, it's not until the Count and Countess appear that the emotional temperature of the evening rises. Perhaps the Met, after that unforgettable Amfortas, finally realizes what it has in Peter Mattei? The Swedish baritone is unequivocally the star of not only the upcoming Don Giovanni revival (which, as I've said from his very first show here, he should get every single season) but of this new Figaro -- both vain and wounded, commanding and self-pitying, heartless, jealous, and loving... and sounding terrific throughout. His foil is debuting American soprano Amanda Majeski, moved to the first cast from the second after the cancellation of the frankly bizarre original-choice Countess, Marina Poplavskaya (yes, she and Mattei made an amazing conflagration together in Onegin, but...). Majeski's not as ideal a fit for Mozart as Mattei -- the voice and vibrato seem to demand a larger scale -- but she's never less than interesting, and is potentially a wondrous find for the house going forward. It's not quite as titanic, but Majeski's vibrato-borne sound recalls that of another Illinois soprano, who's now conquering San Francisco with her Norma: it's an instrument that should open out naturally in heavier parts, and the fact that Majeski has mastered it even to navigating the long delicate lines of Porgi amor bodes well for her future here. It wouldn't surprise me at all if she's the next American superstar... but forget that, I'd just like to hear her Eva this December.

Did I go through the entire review without mentioning James Levine? With any luck, Met audiences can go back to taking his natural, singer-friendly, eloquent pit work for granted.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The 2014-15 season, at its start

This is a revision of the original preview post from February. Changes are in bold and discussed [in brackets].

Figaro (new Richard Eyre production)
Abdrazakov, Majeski, Petersen, Leonard, Mattei / Levine (September-October)
Schrott, Willis-Sørensen, de Niese, Malfi, Kwiecien / de Waart (December)
Levine opens the season, as he should, with an excellent male cast and a somewhat odd but not impossible female cast for this new Figaro. As for the second bunch, I've knocked Erwin Schrott's Figaro in the past, and still have little hope for dramatic parts, but his excellence in comedy since then offers hope. Edo de Waart conducted some of the best Figaro performances that the last Met production had.
[A bit of shuffling makes for two promising Americans as the Countess: Amanda Majeski, a real find for the roster, sings this month while 2010 Met Council winner Rachel Willis-Sørensen makes her debut in the second run.]

La Boheme
Scherbachenko, Papatanasiu, Hymel, Kelsey, Lavrov, Soar, Maxwell / Frizza (September-early October)
Opolais, Papatanasiu/Phillips, Vargas, Salsi, Arduini, Rose, Del Carlo / Frizza (November/early December)
Gheorghiu, Phillips, Vargas, Salsi, Arduini, Rose, Del Carlo / Frizza (December 10/13)
Opolais, Yoncheva, Borras, Kwiecien, Arduini, Soar, Del Carlo / Frizza (January)
Wait... Gheorghiu is back!? (I still suspect her Mimi will be too much Musetta, but...)
[January's tenor, originally TBA, is now Jean-François Borras who apparently subbed for Kaufmann in Werther this spring.]

Macbeth
Lucic, Netrebko, Calleja, Pape / Luisi (September-October)
Wait... Netrebko is singing Lady Macbeth!? Nice cast the rest of the way around.

Carmen
Rachvelishvili, Antonenko, Hartig, Cavalletti / Heras-Casado (September-early November)
Garanca, Alagna, Pérez, Bretz / Langrée (February)
Garanca, Kaufmann, Pérez, Bretz / Langrée (March)
Rachvelishvili has the beefy Aleksandrs Antonenko opposite her this time, while Garanca gets the tenor star power. Hei-Kyung Hong spells both primary Micaelas (Anita Hartig and 2012 Tucker winner Ailyn Pérez) for a performance each.

Magic Flute (not the kids' version)
Yende, Durlovski, Spence, Werba, McKinny, Pape / Fischer (October)
Persson, Lewek, Spence, Werba, McKinny, Kehrer / Fischer (October-November)
2013 emergency debutant Pretty Yende and 2009 definitive Sophie Miah Persson split this return of the Magic Flute into adult-show circulation. [Tobias Kehrer debuts as Sarastro in place of Franz-Josef Selig.]

Death of Klinghoffer (new Tom Morris production)
Martens, Panikkar, Szot, Opie, Allicock, Green / Robertson (October-November)
After selling child sex (in Robertson's last show in the pit), surely the scapegoating murder of an American Jew won't be a big deal for the Met.

Aida
Monastyrska, Borodina, Giordani, Lucic, Belosselskiy, Howard / Armiliato (October-November)
Wilson, Urmana, Giordani, Dobber, Belosselskiy, Howard / Armiliato (December-January)
Dyka, Urmana, Berti, Lucic, Kocán, Orlov / Domingo (April)
I mean, it's interesting to see that Urmana is singing Amneris now, but all of these casts are irritatingly flawed. 2006 Met Council winner Marjorie Owens is, incidentally, doing one performance (January 2) in place of 2000 winner Latonia Moore. [Well, now it's 2004 finalist Tamara Wilson doing those shows instead of Moore. This might be interesting -- I assume since she's neither famous nor skinny nor black that Wilson was hired because she can actually sing the part.]

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
Westbroek, Jovanovich, Very, Kotscherga / Conlon (November)
Remember when Graham Vick shows were a thing? Actually, this should be an interesting revival.

Barber of Seville
Maltman, Leonard, Brownlee, Muraro, Burchuladze / Mariotti (November-December)
I'm not sure Christopher Maltman is much more of a natural Figaro than Peter Mattei was, but at least they aren't wasting Mattei. Leonard and Brownlee make for a very nice young lead couple though.

Meistersinger
Morris, Dasch, Botha, Appleby, Cargill, Kränzle, König, Rose / Levine (December)
Volle, Dasch, Botha, Appleby, Cargill, Kränzle, König, Rose / Levine (December 9, 13)
[Perhaps the most important cast alteration was made without mention on the cast change page: in place of Johan Reuter (Barak in last season's FroSch revival), we get two shows of Michael Volle (Mandryka in the recent Arabella) and five with the man who should have been headlining in the first place... James Morris. At 67, unless Gelb brings back the old Valkyrie set for a much-deserved gala, this will surely be the great Wagnerian's last big run. A success as profound and definitive as his last Valkyries here in 2009 may be too much to expect, but the event is too much to miss even if Annette Dasch does unfortunately sing.]
On the one hand, Levine conducting Meistersinger is self-recommending. On the other, the one and only run of Annette Dasch at the Met showed her unfortunate inability to sing in tune. Somehow, even after her 2012 scheduled Donna Elviras were taken over late by Ellie Dehn, her agent has gotten her this prime return booking. What on earth? There are many, many excellent German lyric/jugendlich-dramatisch sopranos.
Perhaps as sad is the lack of the old star power that carried these shows. Not just Mattila (who opened this production) or James Morris (but seriously, where's James Morris?) but the greatest David I've heard live or on record -- Matthew Polenzani -- is missing this time.

La Traviata
Rebeka, Costello, Tézier / Armiliato (December)
Rebeka, Demuro, Tézier / Armiliato (December-January)
Poplavskaya, Demuro, Tézier / Armiliato (January)
As hard as the Met might try to top it, this is still its worst, most bathetic production. Don't see the show until there's a new one.
[Looks like Poplavskaya took a few of these shows to make up for dropping out of Figaro.]

Hansel and Gretel (childrens' version in English)
Kurzak, Rice, Martens, Brubaker, Croft / Davis (December-January)
Stober, Rice, Martens, Brubaker, Croft / Davis (January)
I still have never gotten around to seeing this. Sorry.
[Christine Schäfer is out, replaced by Aleksandra Kurzak, Heidi Stober, and (for the 1/8 performance) Andriana Chuchman.]

The Merry Widow (new Susan Stroman production)
Fleming, O'Hara, Gunn, Shrader, Allen / Davis (New Year's Eve through January)
Fleming, O'Hara, Gunn, Shrader, Allen / Nadler (January)
Graham, de Niese, Gilfry, Costello, Opie / Luisi (April)
Yup, that's Broadway's Kelli O'Hara making her Met debut as Valencienne for the winter run of this operetta. Given that importing Paulo Szot from Broadway has worked a lot better for Gelb than importing directors and librettists therefrom, I suppose I should be worrying about Stroman's ability to adapt Julian Crouch's wild visual ideas. Her staging couldn't possibly be worse than the last Merry Widow here, though.
[The January TBA conductor turned out to be pit vet Paul Nadler.]

Tales of Hoffmann
Grigolo, Morley, Gerzmava, Rice, Lindsey, Hampson / Abel (January-February 5)
Polenzani, Luna, Phillips, Maximova, Deschayes, Naouri / Levine (February 28-March)
[Almost as disappointing as the Meistersinger change was exciting: Hibla Gerzmava's attempt to do all the heroines, probably the main reason to see this initial cast, is now off. She's back to just singing Antonia/Stella, with Erin Morley and Christine Rice filling the higher and lower parts.]
The Met is making a huge bet on as-yet-unimpressive/unproven media hype beneficiary Vittorio Griogolo, though it's obviously no sure thing he's still singing this when this surprisingly good Bart Sher show returns. He gets the more interesting supporting cast, with Hibla Gerzmava -- who sang just Antonia/Stella in 2010, now getting free reign to try the other two heroines as well, Kate Lindsey as Nicklausse, and Thomas Hampson as the villains. Matthew Polenzani gets Levine in the pit but a less well-defined supporting group (and no moviecast).

Iolanta / Bluebeard's Castle (new Mariusz Trelinski productions)
Netrebko, Beczala, Markov, Azizov, Tanovitski; Michael, Petrenko / Gergiev (January-February)
Musically, a great double bill. Production and performance... may turn out to have great moments, but I think the Bartok in particular is betrayed by externalizing the action.

Don Giovanni
Mattei, Pisaroni, van den Heever, Bell, Lindsey, Korchak, Plachetka, Morris / Gilbert (February-March)
As I've said, the Met should have Mattei do Don Giovanni every season... perhaps now in rotation with Onegin. This time Alan Gilbert strolls across Lincoln Center Plaza to conduct, perhaps bringing the fire that too many of his early-music focused predecessors have lacked.

La Donna del Lago (new Paul Curran production)
DiDonato, Barcellona, Flórez, Osborn, Gradus / Mariotti (February-March)
Great job by DiDonato getting this Rossini opera finally onto the stage of the Met.

Manon
Damrau, Grigolo, Braun, Testé / Villaume (March)
Damrau as the fragile, indefatigably-charming Manon? I really don't see it, not even in this modernist-izing production.

Lucia di Lammermoor
Shagimuratova, Calleja, Capitanucci, Miles / Benini (March-April)
Calleja's last (2011) run as Edgardo was the bel canto tenor performance of a generation. Go. See. This.

Ernani
Meade, Meli, Domingo, Belosselskiy / Levine (March-April)
James Levine conducts most of the revival of this wonderful, under-appreciated opera that gave Angela Meade her debut. I suppose this is being revived for Domingo to attempt the baritone part of Charles V, but the success will largely depend on tenor Francesco's Meli's ability to survive the punishing title part.

Don Carlo
Frittoli, Gubanova, Lee, Keenlyside, Furlanetto, Morris / Nézet-Séguin (March 30-April)
Frittoli, Krasteva, Lee, Keenlyside, Furlanetto, Morris / Nézet-Séguin (April)
Rumor had it that this was going to be the French version this time, but no such thing is indicated. In any case, the cast and conductor are pretty great, even if the old production will still be missed. Though lead Yonghoon Lee is about the best spinto tenor going, it's nice to see Ricardo Tamura (who sang a Cavaradossi here last year) getting another Met performance.

Cavalleria Rusticana / Pagliacci (new David McVicar productions)
Westbroek, Álvarez, Lucic; Racette, Álvarez, Gagnidze, Meachem / Luisi (April-May)
Marcelo Alvarez had his acting seriousness turned against him by David Alden's dumb-as-dirt Ballo a season ago, so it's nice that he'll get to work with the brilliant McVicar in this new show.

Un Ballo in Maschera
Radvanovsky, Stober, Zajick, Beczala, Hvorostovsky / Levine (April-May)
No Yonghoon Lee (despite rumor) in a match of vocal-moral force vs force, but Beczala's easy charm and Levine's conducting may make a musical whole out of what, in its original run with Alvarez and Luisi, was less than the sum of its parts. (But oh what parts Radvanovsky and Blythe provided even then!)

The Rake's Progress
Claire, Blythe, Appleby, Finley, Sherratt / Levine (May)
Levine gets a brief revival of another 20th century classic.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Some other show

Monday, facing out from the Met Plaza...

These protesters were probably right, but they were also a month too early.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Day one

Although I've been snarky about the latest news, the announcement last month that the labor talks threatening to derail the season had successfully concluded pleased me rather more than I'd expected.

It should not, perhaps, be news that an institution is determined to function, that it's set on carrying out its mission despite the human failings of its management, employees, performers, audience, supporters, and critics - Ich selber exkludier' mir net! - but given the endless parade of counterexamples that now greets the eye - not least in the opera-free zone across the plaza - it apparently now is. And so - at least before the show! - I am thoroughly glad to be taking my small part in the annual rite of this persistently integral company.

Tomorrow, a report and a season preview repost incorporating cast changes.

Friday, September 12, 2014

"Finally! Now people working in high paying jobs can score these tickets!"

What a friend (in a high paying job) said upon seeing this story on the death of the rush ticket line. (Replacement: more lotteries.)

There has, in fact, been an issue over the last few years with some professional line-sitters abusing the system for profit. But this seems rather ill-judged even if it does kill that business.

Friday, May 02, 2014

The forgiveness story Gotham needs

Arabella - Metropolitan Opera, 4/3, 4/11, 4/19 & 4/24/2014
Byström/Wall, Banse, Volle, Luna, Saccà/Sorensen / Auguin

This final Richard Strauss/Hugo von Hofmannsthal collaboration is, disconcertingly for the foolish or first-time listener, a piece of two halves. The first act is thoroughly Hofmannsthal: germinated from his prewar story "Lucidor" -- in which the characters now called Matteo and Zdenka were the leads and Arabella herself a cutout -- it draws his characteristic passive/reflective heroine at a point of crucial suspension and ambivalence from/with a rather more "vulgar and dubious" social order than the Marschallin's rococo Vienna. From this vantage, Arabella's story is one of survival -- of her self (the romantic concern), her family (the aristocratic) and, implicitly but crucially, her civilization (the artistic-philosophical). It is the last that sticks out, for better and for worse. As excellent a stage figure as Mandryka now cuts, he, as the circa-1927 addition to the tale, looks on a broader view awfully like the deus ex machina for not only Arabella's fate or family, but for her world as well, the last version of which was looking awfully dicey in those days of hyperinflation and paramilitary streetfights. For Arabella is, like all big civilizational tales (including Rosenkavalier and Frau, but also of course Meistersinger) a story of succession and renewal... only now it is not the melancholy blessing from on high of the Marschallin nor the fantastic struggles of FroSch's fairyland couples that we get but the frankly desperate last-minute pleas of an insolvent family in a colorful but profligate milieu. In such a tale Mandryka seems to bear the weight of not only the characters' desperate faith in a lurking regenerative power but the author's, and it is crushing to realize that the (former) Empire's backwater lands and woods had, by the time of the opera's conception, no such reserve of honest vitality -- only its opposite. Whatever hopes Hofmannsthal may in fact have held were, in any case, dashed as he finished revising this act: his son commited suicide, he himself had a fatal stroke while dressing for his son's funeral, and his death at least spared him from having to see just how much further his countrymen could sink.

It's fortunate, then, that two latter acts suggest a different perspective. Their scheme is in fact the work of Strauss himself, who, dissatisfied with early drafts (and after offering some wild and wacky suggestions that were not accepted), proposed the moral crux of these acts in one letter to Hofmannsthal (July 23, 1928) and Act II's overall structure in another (August 8). From this vantage it becomes a piece about forgiveness, not fate, making it the genders-reversed followup to their immediately previous collaboration, The Egyptian Helen. Mandryka, whom Hofmannsthal had intended to be steadfast and doubtless throughout, by Strauss' twist becomes complicit in the general moral bankruptcy. (Though it was surely Hofmannsthal who found the echo of Desdemona herein.) He delivers the most unkindest cut of all, taking Arabella to be both less good and more ordinary than she miraculously is, and piling on insult upon insult to such effect. From this low it takes two recognition scenes to settle things for the better: the first, as one has expected, comes between Zdenka and Matteo, but in the second, Arabella and Mandryka do not quite recognize each other before they mutually recognize the third presence that frees them from their dead end. It's this presence -- which one might call grace, or happiness, or love, or transformation or (to be maximally literal) the sound of one of Strauss' greatest orchestral introductions, that accompanies Arabella down the steps and makes her solo, intensely private procession with the glass as momentous as the grand panorama of Meistersinger Act III.

*     *     *

Still, for all the glories of each part and perspective, the combination may be hard to swallow as a whole. For what kind of fate poses, to a young woman navigating through a minefield of the merely- or ruinously-hedonistic, the question of what happens if even the longed-for last chance man is -- or can be -- as cheap and faithless as the rest? A rather nastily ironic one, in better times, but in darker days the failure of virtue and of the belief in virtue is a question of general and continuous interest, as the worse part of human nature seems everywhere ascendant. So it was in 1929.

(Incidentally, it seems to me that the tradition in some houses -- after Clemens Krauss -- of running Acts II and III together is an attempt to meld the two parts of the opera by just minimizing this latter part's significance, blending its setup and resolution into a blur of Viennese color and incident. This makes for a more fairy-tale, less contemplative version, in a hurry to get to the musical highlights... as was probably wanted during the moral midnight of the Nazi era and the fragile restoration of normalcy that followed.)

It is not now 1929 -- barbaric mobs in civilized countries are so far only trying to wreck people's livelihoods via the internet -- but the tide of moral nihilism has risen even higher of late than is usual. Awareness of this has leaked even into the popular culture, as the last two years' more serious forays into the superhero movie genre (The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel) each turned on the question of whether we the people are in fact worth the trouble of saving. Like Mandryka near the end of his story, we watch those films knowing that the deserved answer may well be "no", yet hoping for some happier outcome nonetheless. And if that grace fails in real life... ah well! At least we're again in a state to savor this opera.

*     *     *

The light and the serious sides of Arabella run through the title part too. For Malin Byström they encompassed two different faculties: as in her debut Marguerite, the voice is rich and mezzo-colored and ideal for, e.g., the semiocomic gravity of Act II's kiss-off of the suitors as well as for the pain and glory of the final Act. But again as in that Marguerite, her top notes (though they improved through this run) are workmanlike, not light... and therefore she made her contrasting impression with physical work alone. The balance varied from show to show and seat to seat: from closer locations one noticed that despite her blend of classic-Strauss-soprano features, Byström has a rapid-fire mobility of facial expression that's less familiar in these roles. This wasn't a bad correlative to Arabella's flightier moods, but in the April 11 performance -- with the cast seemingly bouyed & relaxed by a shared sense of the night's magic -- it was threatening to spill over into more serious action.

The more classic Arabella was Erin Wall's on the last night of the run. The Canadian soprano was free from whatever caused the odd tonal coloration of her 2009 house debut, and delivered the full lovely measure of Strauss-heroine sound and composure. With Wall, as with her great predecessors, the lighter aspect of the character is always accessible in the silvery float of her high notes, while the serious aspect never quite disappears from her phrases and bodily bearing. Though a longer run could have helped -- Auguin, seemingly accustomed to letting Byström push the pace in latter-act solo interjections, didn't wholly adapt to Wall's more deliberate approach -- the one show Wall had was still in any case a big success. I'd love to see what she can do in Strauss with a full set of rehearsals and performances.

The other split role was Matteo. Originally assigned to debuting German-Italian tenor Roberto Sacca, it was taken over (wholly, in 4/19, and for the final act the -- unreviewed here -- performance before that) by Lindemann alum Garrett Sorenson upon Sacca's illness. They, like the Arabellas, presented hugely contrasting perspectives: Sacca -- intense, short, and unusually weighty of sound -- was a worrisome, perhaps slightly deranged dead-serious Matteo, while Sorenson -- taller, more rotund, and more straightforwardly boyish -- kept a giant-puppyish cuteness even in suicidal despair. Sorenson was certainly easier to like, with Sacca making the confrontation at Act III's start truly squirm-worthy. Both were, in any case, good.

Equally good, if not better, were the constants in the casts. Michael Volle, making his Met debut, looked a bit too old for Mandryka -- couldn't the house have provided better hair? -- but his size and hearty physical manner definitely fit. The sound was full and excellently phrased. Juliane Banse, also making her Met debut (as a fairly late replacement for Genia Kühmeier), was a perfectly-acted and nearly-perfectly-sung Zdenka: I only missed the way some sopranos have been able to color "Licht" and "Dunkel" (at the center of the big duet "Aber der Richtige") with wonderfully contrasting timbres. (The pants-aspect of the role, incidentally, was on Kate Lindsey's level. Does she sing the Composer?) And I can't praise enough the wonderful character-acting (and singing) of Austrian bass-baritone Martin Winkler as the girls' father and English mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers as their mother. They too, were making their debuts, as was the first of a surprisingly strong and stage-present set of three suitors: Brian Jagde (Elemer), Alexey Lavrov (Dominik), and the always notable Keith Miller (Lamoral). High soprano Audrey Luna's pyrotechnic success as Ariel in Ades' Tempest, however, was more of line than articulation, and that manner didn't fit as well with Fiakermilli's yodeling.

I've found conductor Philippe Auguin less than impressive in the past -- his dry pit work was about the only imperfect thing about that titanic and truly stunning 2006 Lohengrin revival -- but he was the heart of this glorious run, building the show act by act to a heartbreakingly direct final scene. The bizarre thing is that on the first night -- when, with the singers getting their legs under them, his was undoubtedly the most complete success -- some jackass from the upper sections booed him like crazy at curtain calls. As I've mentioned before, I'm actually pro-booing, but this sort of foolishness makes the practice look bad. The only justification I can think of is for presenting a cut version of the score... but Auguin actually restored one of the Act II cuts from Thielemann's 1994 premiere run -- the Countess/Dominik bit -- though he did keep the snip to Mandryka/Milli in that act and Arabella/Zdenka in the Act III climax. On the whole, he may have shown a better sense of Straussian shape and phrase than even the very good Vladimir Jurowski, and I now wonder whether Auguin himself wouldn't have improved considerably on his own (again dry) FroSch from 2003.

*     *     *

This capped an excellent anniversary season for Strauss in New York. Unfortunately none of the shows were Peter Gelb productions, and thus none were transmitted for moviecast or recorded for Blu-Ray release.

I hope my readers saw -- or at least remotely heard -- some.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The wound

I Puritani - Metropolitan Opera, 4/18/2014
Peretyatko, Brownlee, Aniskin, Pertusi / Mariotti

When one sees Bellini's final opera, it's hard not to draw comparisons with 1835's better-known mad scene masterpiece, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. British civil strife, lovers from opposite sides, political machination, an interrupted wedding resulting in madness, etc. But where Donizetti and his librettist Cammarano (later librettist for a number of Verdi operas including Trovatore) perfectly and tautly draw the forces of im- and interpersonal necessity that crush Lucia, Bellini's attempt to drag his dramatically undistinguished librettist Pepoli to triumph is less than complete. Still, there's a surprising payoff to Pepoli's weakness: the poor focus and flimsy construction of Puritani's dramatic bits leave the field free for its Romantic-lyrical solos to set the tone without much competition, in a way almost unheard in the rest of the operatic canon.

The show is, of course, bookended by the tenor's arias of satisfaction and harmony, the first of which ("A te, o cara") may be the only part of the opera familiar to most listeners (or at least those raised on tenor highlight albums). But for all the wonderful opportunities these present, the bulk of the show's musical and scenic interest is in Elvira's lamentable state. This abandoned bride, like Lucia or those other fragile operatic madwomen, finds herself in terrible disharmony with the world... but fortunately for her and for us, the crushing forces in her opera are not so swift and insistent and final as in others'. Instead they pause and withdraw and even listen in as she -- and Bellini -- spin out the timeless lament of Eden (here in its fragile Romantic guise of personal romantic communion) lost. How quickly other concerns here are dropped at the onset of these sounds -- like those of a lost, oblivious Orpheus -- to reappear transformed at the end of the act in the affirmative tones of patriotism...

Much depends, then, on the soprano, and newcomer Olga Peretyatko (wife of this run's conductor) is a pleasure to hear in the part. The control and range of her voice are extremely impressive, the tone and timbre less so but good enough. As one might expect with her husband in the pit, she does quite well with Bellini's lines and phrases... what she doesn't have is the direct from-the-heart eloquence for which Elvira's part seems to beg. But Peretyatko's virtuosity, though perhaps better heard in a sharper-edged role, still does much here. (The last revival of Puritani unfortunately featured a soprano who couldn't sing it in tune at all.)

Lawrence Brownlee, better than I've ever heard him, was the main star, and the main reason to see this show. Not only did he match Peretyatko for virtuosity and musial focus, but he did so with a tone that would now be the envy of most tenors who can't touch that ridiculous high F in the finale, not to mention all of those who can. I sort of wish there'd been some operatic version of the Leo Messi youth HGH treatment that could have made Brownlee an even bigger (both literally and otherwise) star, but vocally there's not much more one might hope for.

Belorusian baritone Maksim Aniskin also debuted, filling in reasonably well but unexcitingly for the ailing Mariusz Kweicien. Michele Mariotti, as in his debut two years ago, conducted in a sensitive and singer-friendly way.

Not Norma, but still a treat.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Soldier and servant

Wozzeck - Metropolitan Opera, 3/17/2014
Hampson, Voigt, O'Neill, Hoare, Bayley / Levine

While writing my account of Matthias Goerne's first and only Met Wozzeck, I did wonder several times whether the novel perspective I was crediting to his particular interpretation was not perhaps something that had been present in the other Wozzecks I'd seen, just in a form that I'd had no eye for then. Seeing Thomas Hampson sing the part soon after, however, cured that nagging doubt. For here was that familiar downtrodden Wozzeck again in life, and with him the terrible airless version of the tale familiar from modernist tradition.

That's not to say that Hampson doesn't have a particular idea of the character. He's an odd fit: by temperament he comes from the perspective that the genesis of Wozzeck omitted, having neither the apocalyptic early-romantic absolutism of Büchner (1830s) nor the deliberate modernist brutality of Berg (1920s). Between their two eras reigned the accord between civilized society and late-romantic art that, for better and for worse, continues -- though the institutions (not least the Met itself!) and attitudes born in that time -- to shape our experience of the aesthetic. (I've written a fair amount about this accord in recent years, from its resentful mid-course expressions in Tchaikovsky and Wagner to its vaporization, just before the opposite force of modernism crashed fully in, within the symbolist abstract of Debussy/Maeterlinck and Hofmannsthal.) One would have aligned Hampson with this accord even if one did not know his biographical course: in performance, from his earliest years, he's been beautifully refined and balanced to the point of noticeable artifice, a manner he's kept as his baseline even as he's integrated direct stark expression. That he turns out to have lived as an expat in Vienna for many years, and that his recent renewal of familiarity with local stages turns out to coincide with the legal storm that overtook his more-or-less aristocratic spouse -- these are just (interesting but gossipy) confirmation.

In any case Hampson gave us a Wozzeck bounded by uprightness and servility, suggesting his Germont (or, OK, his Germont's valet) fallen into a most shabby state. If Goerne's Wozzeck retains long-forgotten residues of romantic night-communion, Hampson's continues -- no matter how bizarrely and cruelly trampled -- to bear ineradicable traces of the dignity of service, most movingly in offering his wages to Marie. This persistent orderliness is, in a sense, military and therefore appropriate for Wozzeck's place in the world, but it's at bottom civilizational, and fits oddly with the story as told. For when the Fool brings the motif of "blood" to the beergarden scene -- anticipating the jealous murder to come -- it's generally no surprise: for Berg's overheated modernist humanity blood is never far, and lurking everywhere... but to this impersonal doormat of a Wozzeck it's neither lurking nor inevitable but basically stumbled-upon. In Hampson's rendition, all of Wozzeck's relationships make sense, but his crime doesn't.

*     *     *

Two very different leads told very different stories on stage, but James Levine was the key to the success of each. Here it was not only the beauty of sound he characteristically gets from the Met Orchestra nor his familiar command of larger- and smaller-scale forms that mattered, but also, above all, the sense of numinous significance he imparts to all moments of his favorite works. Backed by Franz Welser-Möst's matter-of-fact accompaniment Goerne's Wozzeck fell flat, but with Levine and the Met one saw him in his properly contrasting element. And if Hampson offered an unusually bloodless Wozzeck, the orchestra filled in that crucial element throughout.

The rest of the cast, too, was excellent each time -- not just Deborah Voigt hitting Marie's contrasting moods nor Simon O'Neill hitting the Drum-Major's one, but all the character work, including two of the Met's "what are they doing here in such small parts" recurring treasures: Richard Bernstein as the first drunk apprentice and Tamara Mumford (again, bizarrely, in a less-than-virtuous role) as Margret. Less familiar but also impressive were Englishmen Clive Bayley (debuting here in the Goerne performance) as the Doctor and Peter Hoare as the Captain, whose alternately hectoring and fearful bullshit about the "guter Mensch" suggests, incidentally, that Büchner would not much have liked the long civilizational accord he did not live to see quite inaugurated.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Met Council Finals 2014


The program is above. I'll discuss the singers in order.

Christopher Lowrey (countertenor, 29)
The Brown- and British-trained Lowrey made a decidedly flat impression in the Partenope selection. Despite the acoustically friendly wood backing behind the singers and what seemed like particular efforts by Armiliato to keep the orchestra down, Lowrey's voice just didn't sound out well over the orchestra. Divisions, phrase, and the rest were unobjectionable but also undistinguished. Lowrey did much better in the slow Rodelinda bit, though the sound was still a bit cloudy. Sort of a trill.

Rexford Tester (tenor, 24)
Great name, and in contrast to Lowrey he did sound clearly into the house, but the well-defined sound and focus of his lightish-lyric instrument was the only thing I particularly liked from Tester. The rapid coloratura bits weren't quite on pitch in the Rossini... this wasn't an issue in the Stravinsky, but in that one he showed his current limitations in force versus the busier orchestra.

Amanda Woodbury (soprano, 25)
In Donna Anna's scene the Kentuckian showed all the elements of a successful big-house dramatic coloratura of the lighter sort -- breath, all the notes, enough steel in the sound to carry well, sort of a trill -- but didn't put them together into much of an overall performance. Perhaps she, like the other singers to this point, was nervous? In the second half Woodbury scored a huge and hugely unexpected success with Ophelia's Mad Scene: trills for days, dramatic clarity, and an even more impressive coloratura display. (It seems petty to note that she went through a few different high note productions in the intro here before settling into a nicely integrated sound by the end.) I'm very curious as to what she'll end up actually singing/turning into.

Patrick Guetti (bass, 26)
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
What, you need words? Like Sydney Mancasola last year, the most obvious winner was an AVA singer, who in this case already has a bass instrument as full-limbed as he is -- not to mention an already-developed sense of how to use its full dynamic range. The Met could drop Guetti into a Simon Boccanegra revival tomorrow and his Fiesco would not embarrass its predecessors (most recently James Morris and Ferrucio Furlanetto). And he's comfortable out there, having way more fun as Basilio than you'd expect at a pressure-packed event like this. Incidentally, Guetti showed both impressive low-note and high-note climaxes in the respective pieces.

Rafael Moras (tenor, 26)
I liked the Texan's basic clear open coversational sound, but he seemed to go out of tune and was overphrasing in the Donizetti. As Romeo the phrasing was better, but pitch issues remained.

Nicole Haslett (soprano, 25)
The local (NJ by way of NYU and the Manhattan School of Music) soprano was one of the most impressive in the first round, where she sounded more than a little like the Met's recent wonderful Nanetta, 2005 winner Lisette Oropesa. But the rhythmic glitch Haslett quickly got over to start the Verdi turned into full-blown recurring imprecision in the Strauss, which was probably a poor choice anyway: it's really hard to just launch into the aria without the recit (not sure whether this was her idea or the judges' requirement), and she doesn't really have the trills or trick high notes Zerbinetta requires.

Yi Li (tenor, 29)
This first of two Chinese singers presented a stronger, larger-scale sound than the two other tenors', but it was also unremittingly... strong and effortful-sounding despite his periodic efforts to lighten it for lyric effect and contrast. His less-than-great legato didn't help. The Traviata worked anyway, because of Verdi's basic rhythmic regularity, but the Werther aria really highlighted his less appealing points.

Julie Adams (soprano, 26)
The soon-to-be-Merola singer brought the only real rarity of the afternoon, an aria (the mother's) from Debussy's one-act student piece on the Prodigal Son. Adams actually seems to have done a production of the work already in school, but it showed off well her dramatic concentration and the way both her phrasing and sound can shift seamlessly between gleaming focus and more languid suspension. Mimi's familiar third-act-of-Boheme aria was fantastic, one single long moment of character... as it should be.

Ao Li (bass-baritone, 26)
I was and am of two minds about this younger Chinese singer (by way of San Francisco Opera). On the one hand, he was one of the stand-outs on the performing side of this lineup. Musically he shapes lines strongly, has very nice diction, and uses the words -- both in Italian and in Russian -- terrifically to enhance the effect of his phrases and phrase-turns. He's a really enthusiastic actor, going for it perhaps a bit too hammily as Leporello but making the Aleko scene more dramatically engaging than both of last year's attempts combined. On the other hand, I'm not sure the actual size and quality of his voice matches his ability to use it... it's certainly pleasant, but enough to carry him to a big career? Not sure.

*     *     *

Woodbury, Guetti, Yi Li, Adams, and Ao Li were picked as winners by a larger-than-usual judging lineup (four Met people plus folks from SFO, Utah Opera, and Houston). (Again like last year, the most obvious winner -- Guetti this time, Mancasola then -- was left hanging as the last one to be announced.) This seems mostly fair -- I'd probably have only picked Woodbury, Guetti, and Adams, but Ao Li certainly did well. Yi Li seems like the Blake Bortles of this Council Finals -- a big-voiced prospect who may or may not get his stuff together. (The Met loves this sort of project, though.)

Who knows, though, how anyone will develop in the full-staged-operas phase of a career? Perhaps one of the Regional winners who wasn't even picked for this Finals round will turn out to be the biggest star... though I don't see how Guetti could miss.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The forgotten Romantic

Die schöne Müllerin - Carnegie Hall, 3/5/2014
Goerne / Eschenbach

Wozzeck - Metropolitan Opera, 3/6/2014
Goerne, Voigt, O'Neill, Hoare, Bayley / Levine

Thomas Hampson's illness (which continued through the following performance) brought together this strange but fruitful sequence of two evening performances at the start of the month.

Matthias Goerne gave his recital five days after a concert Wozzeck on the same Carnegie Hall stage, but neither he nor his audience knew, at the time of this Schubert performance, that the next day would bring him to a reprise of Berg's opera in a full Met staging. There was something nevertheless a bit of the dark later flavor to his Schubert. He and Eschenbach seemed from the start disinclined to a straightforward tracing of the cycle's course as they led off with little of that joy in rhythm and forward movement celebrated by its first song. Instead it was deep rapport with the brook -- river, it seemed here -- that quickly shaped the show, with the poems' external event and effect more incident and obstacle to the central element than their true carrier. And in that center was the recurring core of Goerne's lieder-singing greatness: his expression, in exquisite tones and breaths, of unqualified Romantic subjectivity itself. But here, with Goerne, the subjectivity doesn't -- as the song-cycle does on its face and as many have successfully performed it -- wish to adopt (or hide behind) the youthful naive manner of its protagonist, but instead presents & recognizes itself as coeval with the creation of the world, with the timeless water itself. If, say, Dorothea Röschmann embodies -- even in recital -- the tragic subjectivity of man in the onrushing moments of the story, Goerne embodies -- or at least is never without -- the prophetic subjectivity of man in the eternal moment of the storyteller.

It seemed a bit stark in the Schubert, but Goerne's similar work the night after brought out a surprising Romantic strain in Berg's Wozzeck. In sonic aesthetic, of course, it's no surprise: the beauty of Berg's writing has long been recognized, and with James Levine in the pit the orchestral background is an ever-present treat for the ear. In story, though, the proto-modern fragments of Büchner -- as turned into a newly coherent piece of modernist stagecraft by Berg 80+ years later -- have generally just been rendered as stark tragic compulsion: the human forces (and only, except for ironic purposes, the basest and most violent) on and of the poor title figure amplified by the natural ones of lunacy and death. With Goerne, however, Wozzeck's abjection does not quite efface his core innocent subjectivity, which periodically appears in flashes to make of him something like a Romantic wanderer in his own ruin of a life, or in the long-forgotten ruins of the Romantic itself. Here again he finds nature as the contrast and antidote to human perfidy, and if the water now only offers him the peace of death, well -- that's basically all that the miller boy got even back in the day. That nature has gone from babbling beloved confidante to eeriely and opaquely unfathomable presence is not, in Goerne's presence and singing, so much: he and it still seem to recognize each other as fellows, no matter what modes they now adopt.

It occurs to me that this hint of past perspectives is probably in fact more true to Büchner and Berg, each with the fire of Romantic subjectivity in him despite the expressions they felt compelled to adopt, than is the usual pathetic/compulsive reading. But more on the piece and the other performers after I see Hampson's version tonight.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Renewal

Salome - Vienna Philharmonic, 3/1/2014
Barkmin, Konieczny, Henschel, Osuna, Siegel / Nelsons

The Richard Strauss revivals leading up to his 150th birthday this June have brought real success at the Met, which perhaps will continue through Arabella in the spring. But if no other tribute had been offered, this Carnegie Hall concert of Salome would have more than sufficed.

It was, as much as anything, a demonstration of the art of conducting Strauss. Andris Nelsons has done some good at the Met -- most recently a the pit portion of a magnificent Queen of Spades -- but in neither that nor the Turandot machinery he guided beforehand did he manage to show the mastery of color and mood he demonstrated in the first five minutes of this Salome. The previous night's Wozzeck (set to be conducted by Daniele Gatti before shoulder injury forced his cancellation) had an excellent cast undermined by the oddly relaxed quality Welser-Möst brought to even Berg's most harrowing turns, but Nelsons' work was notable for its breadth of expression. Nelsons immediately conjured from the Vienna players the prodigious Strauss soundscape -- with so many of the moods, turns, and juxtapositions famous (in different combination) in his later output already present -- and led them through phases of tension and relaxation -- keeping a grip on the mood when he relaxed on the playing -- that built to a tremendous and frenzied Dance (with rather amazing "Schwung") and final scene. Neither of the two Met runs of the last decade -- as great and as landmark as they were -- offered the like, with Gergiev (2004) ever a bit nervous and Patrick Summers (2008) edging, outside of the grand moments, to the clinical.

But the night was also the revelatory introduction of soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin to New York. This is the German's first year singing on the world's great stages, but -- if this calling-card role is any indication -- far from her last. Barkmin's voice isn't obviously forceful, but it has an edge that carries at least its higher part over the orchestra. The rest was near-ideal: unfussily lyric timbre (still with the lightness of youth), suitable looks (particularly in her turn-of-the-century outfit), and an uncanny impersonation of a teen absolutely corrupted by absolute spoiling (even within the limited stage aspect of a concert performance) all combined for an extraordinarily classical Salome, one seemingly performed -- even without the Dance -- just as Strauss had imagined her. (Yes, for those who have seen Karita Mattila inimitably render the final scene as the simultaneous expression and meltdown of all human want and satisfaction... Barkmin didn't deliver that. But she was nevertheless a wonder.) I've no idea what she might sound like in more "regular" roles, but when Barkmin already sings Ariadne and the Janacek rep, who really cares? Let's hope this accelerates her Met debut.

Also impressive was emergency debutant Tomasz Konieczny, who replaced the ill Falk Struckmann as John the Baptist. Konieczny, already a Vienna State Opera regular, has a nice focus and ring to his bass-baritone sound, and a youthful appearance that gave his exchanges with Salome a novel cast. In fact the only weak point in this imported-from-Vienna ensemble was the First Nazarene, where young Adam Plachetka can't yet summon the force and authority of Morris Robinson (who nearly stole the two Met runs).

A resounding triumph for players, singers, and conductor. If only concert performances offered proper solo curtain calls at the end...

Friday, February 28, 2014

The beloved

Werther - Metropolitan Opera, 2/18/2014
Kaufmann, Koch, Oropesa, Bižic / Altinoglu

Recital (Schumann, Wagner, Liszt, et al.) - Carnegie Hall, 2/20/2014
Kaufmann / Deutsch

I hope -- and it does seem to be the case -- that Jonas Kaufmann enjoys being a star. Because on last Thursday's evidence, it's quite unlikely that he'll now find an audience willing to treat him as anything else.

It didn't have to be so: the last opera-celebrity moonlighter daring Dichterliebe at Carnegie was Rene Pape, and that 2009 recital was not only the greatest live performance of the lieder-summit I've witnessed, but quite possibly the greatest I've encountered anywhere, live or on record. But that was a different time, a different audience. Perhaps it was that the listeners for Pape's recital conditioned by one of the great half-season runs in the city's musical history to be attentive, present, playing their part in an indelible musical moment. But perhaps the difference is Kaufmann himself, for it was just at the start of February (at the English Concert's Theodora) that I was privileged to be part of a truly great Carnegie Hall audience, one that was at least as afflicted by the current winter bugs as last week's group but nevertheless achieved a rare rapt hush through the long da capo forms of Handel's oratorio.

Kaufmann's audience was, it turned out, excellent at one thing: showing and bestowing love, affection, and appreciation on the tenor. And so, in classic celebrity recital style, the real interest arrived with the encores, of which there were six (with regular bows in between, btw, no charging ahead into consecutive offerings) -- four by Richard Strauss for his anniversary, one more Schumann, and a cute Lehar wrap-up -- each delivered to, if anything, ever-intensifying audience enthusiasm that could have kept Kaufmann there all night. But before that earnest outpouring, during the actual artistic content of the night, it was as abominably bad an audience as I've witnessed in New York: ostentatiously coughing, fidgeting, rustling programs, letting cell phones go off for their full duration twice (and I mean you, gray-haired woman in second tier, far house right), and on the whole unable or unwilling to concentrate or let Kaufmann concentrate for more than one -- at most two -- song(s) at a time. What they wanted was easily-digested celebrity recital, and they weren't going to settle for more.

For his part, it wasn't only his fame that made Kaufmann the center of this sort of event. He sang with an increasingly impressive tone, his characteristic dark timbre, a surprisingly impeccable coherence of phrase (on a per-song basis), and remarkable sensitivity... but without one big thing: the command needed to make the show about him or his music rather than the audience and its love. Whether it was the desire to please or not to offend or simply to mirror audience sensibilities within the bounds of his pre-chosen program I don't know, he followed what one might call a decisively nineteenth-century course, adhering to Romanticism's compact with the mannered (of which I recently traced the last phases) with a surprisingly milquetoast Dichterliebe interpretation -- all songs rapt, touchingly felt, nicely formed... but quite drained of the bitterness and anger that show this subjective self's sterner side. (I call it nineteenth-century because twentieth-century modernism rediscovered and highlighted and even gave pride of place to this forceful strain, though of course it was ever present and accessible within the original.) Where Pape balanced tenderness and rage, intensifying the truth of both in their contrast, Kaufmann, shrinking the latter, delivered a whole no bigger than his audience was willing to easily take.

One wondered, in fact, if he was going to end up in a celebrity recital, making all-too-salonish use of his dark grand timbre, why Kaufmann bothered programming the serious stuff at all. Was he unaware of the actual atmosphere in which he'd sing, or is his pretending not to notice part of his charm? I doubt I'll see enough of his solo shows to come to a definite answer.

*     *     *

Perhaps, in fact, the problem was the opera that currently has his attention, which dictates a role for the Romantic outsider quite of a piece with the one he filled two days post-premiere. In Massenet's Werther, adapted very prettily to the opera-composer's era ([pre-]Impressionism and all) by Richard Eyre et al., the main character is a walk-on fantasy blank. Turning Goethe's direct epistolary form on its head, here no one cares -- or, with the one great exception of the show's big aria, even finds out -- what's going on in Werther's head. "Oh yes", one might recall as the big tune starts, "that Ossian baloney." But aside from that one brief glimpse, Werther's actual self is shut out of his own opera. He has, in fact, been turned into the fantasy Man Not Taken -- that daydream of the married since women had time to dream -- whom one might be glad (and sad, but mostly satisfiedly glad) to see still in one's orbit, reminding one of what is not but perhaps could have been. Because he's just a fantasy figure, the Man is incompletely fleshed out, his attention unnaturally fixed in the only angle in which it's interesting for the daydreamer to see him -- that is, directed to his non-possession of her.

As this fantasy figure, called upon to be compelling while allowed to show no actual character, Kaufmann scores what must be recognized as enormous personal success -- not least in singing with beauty, force, and coherence throughout. He is, in fact, very good at being interesting as nothing... one only wishes he could bring himself, despite his admirers, to be interesting and something at the same time.

*     *     *

The show -- and indeed Werther -- might have acquired more depth with a clear Charlotte, but Sophie Koch, filling in at rather long notice for Elena Garanca's pregnancy cancellation, provides no such thing. Her sound was pleasing and full enough, but as character she's as nondescript as Massenet's Werther is written. Charlotte actually provides a couple of angles one might take in making something of her fateful rejection -- wilful, perhaps, or people-pleasingly weak -- but none of them are essayed here. It's an unfortunate contrast to Lisette Oropesa, whose two post-Runner's World interview parts (Nanetta in Falstaff and Sophie here) have shown energetic and precise delineation of her soubrette characters... and no fall-off in voice from her newfound slimness. David Bizic makes a nice debut as Massenet's even-more-cardboard-than-his-Werther Albert.