Thursday, October 15, 2015

A suddenly promising show

So, as you may have noticed, the Met's Tosca casts through November 2 now look rather different. Out: Massimo Giordano and (crucially) excellent-singer-turned-bad-conductor Placido Domingo. In: Roberto Aronica and Paolo Carignani, the latter taking this on between runs of Turandot and Boheme. The four shows led by Carignani (the start of the revival tomorrow night has Marco Armiliato, who's been less than inspired in two shows already this month) include Angela Gheorghiu's two scheduled nights at the Met this season. Gheorghiu was absolutely inspired in her two Puccini nights last season, and though I suspect it won't be the same without Michael Fabiano (her tenor partner for those Bohemes), October 29 and November 2 are probably now deserve a hearing.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Connective tissue

Il Trovatore - Metropolitan Opera, 10/7/2015
Lee, Netrebko, Zajick, Bilyy, Kocán / Armiliato

Funny thing about this revival: the big questions posed in the season preview turned out well... but the show was still hit and miss, probably not as satisfying on the whole as the relatively star-free casts of 2012-13.

Leonora is actually a very good role for Anna Netrebko, who has long been too unrefined for bel canto but nevertheless can't quite fill real lung-buster roles like Lady Macbeth. Here the technical demands seem both liberating (there's none of the self-indulgent stage business with which she occupied herself in her lighter-role days) and quite manageable, and the scale of her sound is just right. Dolora Zajick, after a rough debut run in the new production, is singing within her limitations and after decades of owning the part still interpretively delivers a near-authoritative Azucena. Meanwhile the remaining voices are strong all around, including Ukrainian baritone Vitaliy Bilyy, who has a more conventionally-shaped Verdi baritone sound than Hvorostovsky. But whether because of the conductor, the revival director, the specifics of the cast, or all of the above, the whole lacks the charging-ahead quality that has been the defining appeal and connective matter of this McVicar production since its 2009 premiere.

My guess is that it's not revival stage director Paula Williams, who's previously handled successful Trovatores including fall 2012 and winter 2013. More likely responsible is Marco Armiliato, whose always competent, singer-friendly regularity does not mesh well with the particular aesthetic of this production, and in fact threatens to turn Trovatore from the most essential of operas back into the jolly/silly collection of famous tunes that has for a long time been its caricature in the public mind. Most hurt - or, to put it another way, most needing a more urgent hand in the pit - are bass Stefan Kocan, known more for his long eloquence than the narrative impetus that is Ferrando's part here, and Anna Netrebko, who (like Renee Fleming) doesn't maintain a strong underlying sense of time in her slower singing. And so the great, driving, confrontational ensembles of the first acts never quite caught fire.

What did work unqualifiedly was Act III, where tenor Yonghoon Lee nailed the back-to-back benchmarks for the Verdian spinto: slow, eloquent, and melancholy in "Ah, si ben mio", and driving with (militarily unwise) rage in "Di quella pira" - where he skipped the repeat, but with such grand high notes (he sang both syllables of "all'armi") that it would be foolish to complain.

Friday, October 09, 2015

The last moment of innocence

Anna Bolena - Metropolitan Opera, 10/5/2015
Radvanovsky, Barton, Costello, Abdrazakov, Mumford, Crawford / Armiliato

A star vehicle - which this opera is, though it's full of moments for all leads - doesn't quite reveal itself until a revival like this, with a soprano equipped for extremes of sound and drama and the large-scale deployment of both. As it did in Norma, however, Sondra Radvanovsky's presence can expose the shortcomings of those who are nevertheless pretty good.

Not that Radvanovsky herself was perfect. She didn't really warm up until the last scene of Act I, seemingly as uneasy as Anne herself while she waits for the other shoe to drop. But as the trap springs, and the opera transforms into a series of duet/confrontations, both she and her voice lock into the awful course of events with stupendous effect. Act II begins with Radvanovsky outshouting Jamie Barton and ends with a tour-de-force of quiet singing (topped off with, of course, more fireworks) in a mad scene that makes little sense absent the moment-seizing tragic charge and tragic finality that was the reason for this opera's birth. (Giuditta Pasta, the first Anna Bolena as well as the first Norma, was as famous a tragedienne as one can find in operatic history.) A good start to her star Met season.

Stephen Costello, as in the original run, was more impressive for his well-textured middle part of his voice than his higher forays, though whatever ailment forced him to cancel the previous performance may still have been afflicting him. The other returning singers make as fine an impression as last time: Abdrazakov's firmness as Henry VIII actually won him some villain boos at curtain, and Tamara Mumford is still a glorious clarion sound for the small role of Mark Smeaton. David Crawford as Anne's brother doesn't quite have Keith Miller's presence, but was strong in his small part.

The main change was this year's Tucker winner Jamie Barton as Jane Seymour. She actually already sang the part opposite Radvanovsky's Anne in Chicago last year, and their Act II duet was the barn-burner you'd expect. But as thrilling as it is to have an obvious next woman up in the lineage of big, loud American mezzos, Barton underdelivered in the starring opportunity that follows. Here Jane - pleading for Anne's life to an unsympathetic Henry, and reacting to his refusal - gets to show genuine pathos, regret, and command of both a long slow line and the more elaborate displays of the finale. Barton had - as on the rest of the night - a big sound, but the nuances of rhythm, line, and feeling were lacking.

I think conductor Marco Armiliato has to take some of the blame, though. Sometimes his solid, singer-sympathetic conducting is just the thing (he gives Radvanovsky a nice solid base to make the twists and turns of the final scene hold together), but for certain parts of the evening - particularly this scene and the following between Percy and Anne's brother Rochefort - Armiliato's insistence on regularity of tone, rhythm, and phrase just steamrolls the deeper communicative potential of Donizetti's music. He was probably better for this than for Trovatore (more on that elsewhere), but I'm glad that Riccardo Frizza is conducting the next installment in this series.

*     *     *

What we see in this vivid representation of the story is this: Anne begins the opera fretting about the future with good reason... she doesn't really have one. Instead she is pushed backwards in time, put face to face again with her old flame Percy and then with her own act of usurpation (from the first wife, Catherine of Aragon). Finally, at the end no longer a participant in the slow-motion mortal combat of the court but its helpless victim, she returns - if only briefly - to the last point of innocent joy, or rather just as she fatally steps away from it and towards ambition. But to hear that lost joy sounded - even in madness and memory - at the end by as significant a voice as Radvanovsky's makes all the gloom before and after worth it... to us if not to her.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Violetta's out-of-town getaway

As interesting as some of the start-of-the-Met-season offerings are and promise to be, I'm maybe most looking forward to renewing live acquaintance elsewhere with an old, absent friend: Verdi's La Traviata. With the abominably foolish and bathetic Decker production monopolizing the local stage since 2011, it seems up to Opera Philadelphia, director Paul Curran, and Met Council winners Lisette Oropesa (2005) and Alek Shrader (2007) to actually tell Verdi and Piave's story (visually updated to 1950).

The show opens tomorrow and runs through next Sunday.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The exploiter

Otello - Metropolitan Opera, 9/21/2015
Antonenko, Yoncheva, Lučić, Pittas / Nézet-Séguin

My guess before opening night wasn't far off: everyone pretty good, only Lucic really better than that among the singers, in a production that does a lot of what the previous one did but in Gelb's house aesthetic.

Antonenko has the right (big) physical presence for the part and warmed up nicely for the latter acts, but the first act really demands more ease with high notes than he has. (The brighter instrument of Botha really worked there.) Yoncheva is lovely and hit all her musical/dramatic cues, but is a trifle cool to really triumph in the last acts.

Sher's production, too, is good enough and without any huge flaws. The fluid scene changes from Es Devlin's moving set elements are nice, though when the bed first appears (Act 2, I think?) it's not secured to the ground - Antonenko almost rolled it around when he sat down in a daze. The clean-but-busy physical spectacle highlights Iago's role as a rather impressive plotter, which suits Lucic well. In the program-book piece, Sher talks about incorporating Ibsen and the conflict between "the old, Christian way against the newer, scientific way of thinking"... and it's Iago who represents the latter. Unburdened by moral scruples or categories, he's able to see how some relatively innocuous deceptions can be strung together into a massive system failure. So one expects him to be cool and fluent and mellifluous in company, which Lucic (the best voice of the group) is, and more nihilistic than purely enraged even in his private hatred, which certainly suits Lucic's temperament.

The odd projection before Act III seemed pointless, but wasn't harmful, while borrowing Carsen's letter scene setup for Act IV was actually a really good idea. Nezet-Seguin guided the ebb and flow and climaxes of the score very well. Let's come back to this with an outstanding Otello or Desdemona.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The 2015-2016 season in preview

So we begin tonight. I've tried to write out all the multiple-night casts, but there may be one-offs not listed here.

Otello (new Bartlett Sher production)
Antonenko, Yoncheva, Lučić, Pittas / Nézet-Séguin (September-October)
Antonenko, Gerzmava, Lučić, Dolgov / Fischer (April-May)
Moshinsky's grand old production of this late-Verdi tragedy finally gives way to yet another Bart Sher show. But though Sher and Antonenko and Yoncheva (and indeed Nezet-Seguin) may not end up hitting their respective nails on the head, they'll almost certainly do basically well. On the other hand Zeljko Lucic, who's been inclined to duck the harder, villainous side of his characters, seems a boom-or-bust choice for Iago. Let's hope for boom tonight.

Goerke, Álvarez, Gerzmava, Morris / Carignani (September-October 3)
Lindstrom, Álvarez/Eyvazov, Crocetto/Gerzmava, Morris / Carignani (Late Oct-November)
Stemme, Berti, Hartig/Crocetto, Tsymbalyuk / Carignani (January)
Besides the above medley of casts in this famous, over-the-top Zeffirelli production, there are one-off performances by Jennifer Wilson and Hao Jiang Tian on November 12. Liu seems an odd debut role for 2010 Met Council winner Leah Crocetto, but the stand-and-sing show might suit her powerful, flexible soprano.

Il Trovatore
Lee, Netrebko, Zajick, Hvorostovsky, Kocán / Armiliato (September-October 3)
Lee/Palombi, Netrebko, Zajick, Bilyy, Kocán / Armiliato (October)
Giordani, Meade, Zajick, Hvorostovsky, Youn / Armiliato (February)
Plusses: spinto sensation Yonghoon Lee in a new part; Hvorostovsky's determination to sing di Luna between courses of brain cancer treatment; a pair of excellent Ferrandos; McVicar's always-welcome production. Question marks: Netrebko in Verdi again (to be fair, Leonora is not the brute sing that Lady Macbeth was); an older Zajick reprising the signature role of her prime (though she actually did better in 2012 than in the 2009 production premiere).

Anna Bolena
Radvanovsky, Costello, Abdrazakov, Barton, Mumford / Armiliato (September, Oct. 1&5, January)
Radvanovsky, Stayton, Abdrazakov, Nikolic/Barton, Mumford / Armiliato (Oct. 9&13)
The showdown that should have happened but didn't in Norma two years ago appears every night but one here, as Sondra Radvanovsky and Jamie Barton take up the parts of Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour. The rest of the cast basically returns from the original season for this first of Radvanovsky's three-queen season.

Botha, DeYoung, Westbroek, Mattei, Groissböck / Levine (October)
It's been over a decade since the last revival of this early Wagner opera (with DeYoung as Venus then too), and almost two decades since the last revival with Levine. Very strong cast this time, not least Peter Mattei as Wolfram.

Dyka, Giordano, Frontali/Lučić / Domingo (October)
Gheorghiu, Giordano, Lučić / Domingo (Oct. 29, Nov. 2)
Guleghina, Giordani, Lučić/Morris / Domingo/Colaneri (Nov. 6&11)
Dyka, Giordani, Morris / Colaneri/Domingo (November)
Monastyrska, Aronica, Vratogna / Colaneri (Nov. 25&28, Dec. 1)
Well, it looks like this is the revival that Domingo's way-below-par conducting will deflate this season. Too bad, though no tenor/soprano combinations really stand out either. (Wasn't too pleased with Monastyrska as Aida, but the nervous character of her sound could suit Tosca better.)

Gagnidze, Peretyatko, Costello, Leoson, Kocán / Heras-Casado (October-November)
Lučić, Peretyatko, Beczala, Leoson, Kocán / Heras-Casado (November)
Lučić, Sierra, Beczala/Borras, Herrera, Ivashchenko / Abbado (December)
Olga Peretyatko returns after a successful debut in Puritani, sharing the soprano part with 2009 Met Council winner Nadine Sierra. While Beczala and the two baritones have featured in this hit production before, these are Stephen Costello's first Dukes at the Met.

Lulu (new William Kentridge production)
Petersen, Reuter, Brenna, Graham, Groves, Grundheber / Levine (November-December)
Great cast (Marlis Petersen has already succeeded as Lulu), a second Kentridge production, Levine in the pit... Artistic triumph wouldn't be a surprise, but commercial success with this glorious score would be a real coup. (American tenor Daniel Brenna debuts as Alwa.)

La Bohème
Frittoli, Martínez, Vargas, Molnar, Lavrov, Van Horn, Del Carlo / Carignani (November-December)
Agresta/Hong, Phillips, Hymel/Borras, Kelsey, Pershall, Sim, Del Carlo / Ettinger (January)
Agresta, Pérez, Hymel, Molnar, Arduini, Tagliavini, Del Carlo / Ettinger (April-May)
Maria Agresta (who seems to be a dramatic coloratura) crosses the Atlantic for the first time to debut in Zef's evergreen Boheme (sharing Mimi with familiar veterans Barbara Frittoli and Hei-Kyung Hong). I'm not sure why Bryan Hymel is back in this, though: as great as he was in the heroic part of Enee, he's no lyric tenor, and last season's Rodolfos didn't flatter him at all. (Perhaps midseason reshuffling will bring us more Michael Fabiano appearances.)

Die Fledermaus
Phillips, Spence, Crowe, Pittas, Graham, Szot, Opie / Levine (December-January)
I'm not sure even James Levine's conducting and Susan Graham's Orlovsky can save this dog of a production, which conflates old Vienna with inter-war Weimar and various Yiddish tropes in a confused, unfunny mess. Perhaps if Susan Stroman (whose well-oiled machine of a Merry Widow was last season's surprise) gets dragged in to rewrite and re-direct the whole damn thing... Susanna Phillips wasn't so great in the original 2013-14 run, either - not sure whether it was the time (she was fantastic in her appearances last season) or the part.

La Donna del Lago
DiDonato, Barcellona, Brownlee, Osborn, Gradus / Mariotti (December)
Last season's cast with Brownlee in place of Florez. Could be fun.

Barber of Seville
Madore, Leonard, Portillo/Stayton, Lanchas, Pomakov / Walker (December-January)
Pershall, Costa-Jackson, Stayton, Lanchas, Pomakov / Walker (Dec. 29&Jan. 1)
If serious Rossini isn't to your taste, this comedic Rossini will be done in a "Holiday" (kids') edition this season, abridged in English.

Les Pêcheurs de Perles (new Penny Woolcock production)
Damrau, Polenzani, Kwiecień, Testé / Noseda/Walker (Dec. 31-February)
I haven't much enjoyed Mariusz Kwiecien's work of late, but he and Polenzani did, a decade ago, give us one of the great Cosi runs. Not sure Damrau's chilly/studied manner will suit the soprano part, either. Amanda Woodbury, a glorious Tebaldo in last season's Don Carlo revival, will get one show in place of Damrau on February 4.

Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci
Urmana, Lee, Maestri, Frittoli, Alagna, Gagnidze, Lavrov / Luisi (January-February)
Monastyrska, Lee/Tamura, Maestri, Frittoli, Alagna, Gagnidze, Pogossov / Luisi (February)
This excellent McVicar production from last season is revived with more stars... though I'm surprised Ricardo Tamura (whom I did like as Cavaradossi) got brought back after his Don Carlo nightmare this spring.

Maria Stuarda
Radvanovsky, van den Heever, Albelo, Carfizzi, Youn / Frizza (January-February)
This second installment of the Donizetti trilogy from McVicar was a great success on its debut. I don't doubt that Radvanovsky can command the ecstatic length of concentration that made DiDonato's triumph on the part, but her collaborators here are mostly different. Most notably, new tenor Celso Albelo makes his house debut as Leicester and Riccardo Frizza (in the pit for that Norma run) conducts.

Manon Lescaut (new Richard Eyre production)
Opolais, Kaufmann, Cavalletii, Sherratt / Luisi (February-March)
Finally, a really suitable part for Opolais - watching her youthful ambition try to play middle-aged nostalgia in La Rondine some seasons ago was painful. She and Kaufmann make a most promising lead pair for Puccini's dramatically brilliant modernizing of the old-French story.

Madama Butterfly
Hong, Giordano, Zifchak, Rucinski / Chichon (February-March)
Opolais, Alagna, Zifchak, Croft / Chichon (March-April 2)
Opolais, De Biasio, Zifchak, Croft / Chichon (April)
Baritone Artur Rucinski and conductor Karel Mark Chichon make their Met debuts among more familiar faces in this familiar production.

Le Nozze di Figaro
Petrenko, Hartig, Willis-Sørensen, Leonard, Pisaroni / Luisi (February-March)
Petrenko, Hartig, Majeski, Leonard, Pisaroni / Luisi (March)
Last season's season opener returns, with both of the impressive American substitute Countesses reappearing, Willis-Sorensen with a more emotionally responsive presence and Majeski with a grander voice. Luca Pisaroni (a notable Leporello and Figaro) finally gets promoted from servant to nobleman with a swap to the Count this time. I think I've (unintentionally) continued to miss Anita Hartig appearances, which should, barring illness, end here...

Don Pasquale
Maestri, Buratto, Camarena, Molnar/Lavrov / Benini (March)
Perhaps debuting soprano Eleonora Buratto can bring the humanity to Norina (and this opera) that Anna Netrebko never did. Ambrogio Maestri in the title role is inspired.

L'Elisir d'Amore
Kurzak, Grigolo, Plachetka, Corbelli / Mazzola (March)
Kurzak, Chang, Plachetka, Spagnoli / Mazzola/Colaneri (April)
The last revival of this recent Bart Sher production was stolen by Erwin Schrott's comic genius, but this editions may bring it more back to basics. Enrique Mazzola joins the parade of debuting conductors this season.

Roberto Devereux (new David McVicar production)
Radvanovsky, Garanča, Polenzani, Kwiecień / Benini (March-April)
McVicar's multi-season direction work and Radvanovsky's single-season traverse of these Donizetti operas in his productions finishes with this excellent cast.

Simon Boccanegra
Domingo, TBA/Haroutounian, Calleja, Furlanetto / Levine (April)
There's a good chance that, as in last season's Ernani, the combination of now-baritone Domingo and Levine (with two other first-class men) will provide the most classic Met experience of the season. As exciting a Verdi soprano as Lianna Haroutounian already is, I'm surprised that she hasn't been engaged for all the "TBA" dates as well. Unless Mattila or Harteros come back or something, I don't see any superior alternatives.

Elektra (new Patrice Chéreau production)
Stemme, Pieczonka, Meier, Owens / Salonen (April-May)
The cast should say it all, no? Perhaps this Elektra run will be as good as the last one was bad.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Shagimuratova, Kim, Appleby, Bliss, TBA, König, Stegmann / Levine (April-May)
Levine in Mozart with fresh principals and a big bass. What's not to like?

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The retro moderns

Written on Skin - Mostly Mozart Festival, 8/15/2015
Purves, Hannigan, Mead / Gilbert

There was a lot of hype in Mostly Mozart's marketing of this US (staged) premiere. Not a shock, of course, but the degree to which George Benjamin's music and Katie Mitchell's staging lived up to this hype was both surprising and gratifying. Martin Crimp's libretto was the sticking point, though not a fatal one.

The strength of Crimp's contribution is its dual-time setting: as Benjamin's interview in the program notes suggests, this framing/distancing element releases the characters and action from the (relatively) recent obligation of versimilitude into the "spontaneity and dramatic immediacy" of story. The individuals who act are vaguely medieval (the sense of chronological/social distance is strong, the specifics - despite the illumination motif - not nearly so), while the observing "Angels" comment in the favored cant of today - pessimistic, feminist, against shame, obsessed with past infamies... This all-too-recognizable perspective risks turning the show into a smug sermon (gaining, in all likelihood, more praise now in exchange for quick oblivion later), but that outcome is deflected by a couple of additional factors. First, Mitchell's direction and Vicki Mortimer's set&costume design render the "Angels" with their own distancing specificity, as workers in a sterile office that rather amusingly recalls the Maloja Snake revival set from Clouds of Sils Maria (which I do realize the opera's Aix premiere - in this same production - pre-dates). Second, Crimp's authorial voice does come out pretty strongly, but it's not in the anachronism/ahistoricity of the frame nor the victimary resentment of the commentary, both of which seem like surface adaptation to suit more recent trends (which I'd call early and late postmodern respectively) in taste. What actually tells is the libretto's dead-serious engagement with classic modernist concerns: compulsion (particularly sexual), the artist's perogatives and his formalist foregrounding of ugly and/or awful material, etc., all of which make the 1900s more significant to this piece than the 1200s. Crimp is essentially faithful to this retro-modernism, avoiding the fate of the last modern/postmodern boundary opera I saw Alan Gilbert conduct in the city, which undermined itself with its self-refuting aesthetic mashup. This particular whole suggests nothing so much as a partially re-dressed Wozzeck - a bit antiquated now but a functional enough skeleton for musical drama.

The wonder, of course, is that Benjamin - a composition student of Messiaen - actually wrote a score that can stand comparison to Berg's masterpiece. One hearing (I haven't yet acquired the recording) can hardly unravel the specifics, but what most struck me was where Benjamin doesn't fail: the score lacks neither textural (common) nor rhythmic variety (depressingly uncommon); the vocal lines suit humans, "avoid[ing] the 'zigzagging' cliche of much contemporary vocal writing" (Benjamin's own words); and the scenes and interludes each have their own, strongly marked character. Benjamin finds interest where the libretto suggests cliche (the Protector, who could be dully one-dimensional, becomes the most interesting figure in the first parts because he alone, until Agnes's climactic declarations near the end, offers the confident pleasure of forward-moving rhythmic accompaniments) and adds unexpected bits of invention throughout while building the climaxes and turns the story demands.

Cast, orchestra, and conductor were excellent. I wouldn't hail Written on Skin as the great opera of today when it's so clearly in the aesthetic of a century ago... (Even the postmodernism with which its text flirts is long played out by now.) But it is a stunning piece of music, and a mixed but basically successful piece of theater.

Thursday, July 16, 2015


Daphne - Cleveland Orchestra, 7/15/2015
Hangler, Schager, Ernst, Maultsby, Anger / Welser-Möst

Remember the city's last notable concert presentation of Strauss, wherein Andris Nelsons and the Vienna Philharmonic brought not only a triumphant account of Salome, but revelatory new soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin in the title role? Well, this show wasn't really like that. An excellent night at the opera? Yes. Instant stardom? Not for the soprano, anyway...

Regine Hangler isn't, mind you, bad: in fact she has just about the right voice for Daphne, a sort of oversized clearish lyric instrument that recalled the great middle-European Strauss singers of old. But if timbre and scale are near-ideal, the rest isn't so great. Perhaps recalling the not-so-good side of the old days, Hangler's pitch on high notes started off dicey, firmed up in the middle, and unfortunately started to wander again near the end. Bearable, but her lack of musical/theatrical presence made things drag. Obviously Joseph Gregor didn't give Daphne the libretto support Hofmannsthal or Clemens Krauss would elsewhere provide, but Strauss's heroines still have to be the most interesting figures on stage, whether by voice or person or (ideally) both. Hangler made a decent tree, but not a very inspiring feminine ideal.

Norbert Ernst (Leukippos) was similar - decent enough, but not particularly interesting. He did set up a very amusing contrast with the other tenor Andreas Schager (Apollo), however. Ernst, as the shepherd stuck in Daphne's friend zone, is sort of short and not physically preposessing... while Schager, tall and striking, actually looks the part of Apollo. Nevertheless it was Schager's voice - specifically the thrillingly firm, youthful-dramatic tone of its middle - and not his appearance that was the highlight of the show. (I see he's already done Tristan and the Twilight Siegfried, which seem way premature. Let's hope he gives us the Strauss and lighter-Wagner parts for a while.)

*     *     *

It turns out that a Daphne where the most compelling of the three leads is Apollo works pretty well, as the setup complements the dramatic arc. Apollo's arrival in the story galvanizes the action as Schager's arrival on stage galvanized the performance, and when he leaves, the tension of the piece relaxes into tranquil transfiguration. Welser-Möst did well shaping the overall arc of the piece, and with the skilful help of the visiting Cleveland Orchestra, the local Concert Chorale of New York, and lively supporting singers who outshone two out of three principals (mezzo Nancy Maultsby as Gaea and bass Ain Anger as Peneios were particularly notable) brought out the glorious colors and moods of Strauss's pastoral.

*     *     *

One can see both the sonic and story lineage in this piece go backward and forward in Strauss's ouvre... As far as the latter goes, compare the woman/god/man triangles in Ariadne auf Naxos (1916), where the man has departed beforehand and the god entirely wins Ariadne to death-become-life; in this piece (1937), where man and god directly compete though both are rebuffed, leading to the man's death, the woman's transformation (in neither death nor life), and the god's renunciation; and in Die Liebe der Danae (1940), where man and god collaborate but the woman chooses the man, prompting the god's renunciation and the mortals' happiness in poverty.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Off topic: the sleeping prince's awakening

It's been five years since I wrote more than a line here about this publication's official off-topic topic: ABT's Veronika Part.

In that time, all too many of Part's lead performances have been dragged down by the use of New York native and recentish (2011) principal Cory Stearns as her primary ABT partner. As absent as she was present, as callow as she was wholly formed, Stearns -- whose actual steps and jumps, to be fair, have certainly gained focus -- left the balletic tragedienne little-or-nothing to work with. Most of her successes have been in her irregular pairings with Gomes, Bolle, et al.

So it was one of the biggest shocks to find that the man who, in last night's Swan Lake, catalyzed as thorough and profound an expressive triumph as Part has ever had was, in fact, this same Cory Stearns. Or maybe not the same: the man on stage certainly shared a name and body with his predecessor, but he has what that predecessor did not -- a self, a presence, a being on stage fit for the tragic story and its heroine. And it showed even before he began to dance: his bearing even in mime (and now I wonder -- was it his work with Ratmansky in the Russian's new/old Sleeping Beauty that awoke this spirit?) is now simply his own, free from the self-doubt and puppyish wanting-to-please that made him an impossible partner for Part. His Prince Siegfried is still (as he should be) in over his head, but he acts decisively on his own desires, as a man -- even one just come of age -- should.

And with this Siegfried Part's Odette shared her awful secret with a depth and fluidity of expression she has never (as far as I can recall) surpassed. As in a great opera performance, it was the extended spans of concentration that impressed most, as Part wove every gesture and every choreographed step of the couple's Act II and Act IV pas seamlessly into two grand spells of love and loss. In between, Part's Odile played Siegfried with the irresistible shamelessness and confidence she's shown at least since her 2009 promotion.

With the company's most sympathetic conductor -- Ormsby Wilkins -- in the pit, Tchaikovsky's music did its excellent part despite an oboist in a hurry. And if Marcelo Gomes weren't so good as a leading man, I'd want to see him as the villain every time. This season not only his non-swamp Rothbart here but his Carabosse (!) was a big success.

Part is now 37. It's good to know that the company now has a suitable non-guest partner for her, with whom she can give one of those performances that justify a company and art form's existence.

Friday, April 17, 2015

A Verdi soprano

I wanted to wait until I finished a full review of the several Don Carlo performances I've seen in the past weeks, but that may take a while to get to. So, a quick word on Wednesday night's house debut of Lianna Haroutounian.

Simply put, she is a real Verdi soprano -- already the most exciting and appropriate in these middle-weight parts besides Sondra Radvanovsky (who has other mountains to climb next season). Haroutounian is not yet (and may never be) the tragedienne Barbara Frittoli is and was as Elisabetta, but from start to finish the scope and physical thrill of her voice was revelatory, if not quite heartbreaking. And I don't want to short-change her non-vocal abilities: she was actually quite a good actress, and if her phrasing to start was a bit disconnected and cautious, she warmed up over the course of the night to one of the most electric accounts of "Tu che la vanita" I've heard live. (The high notes she unleashed throughout this last act didn't hurt.)

Now there have been other sopranos who've had big success here in non-Traviata Verdi (not least Amber Wagner), but most lack either the vocal weight/size (like Frittoli!) or flexibility or just the temperament (Angela Meade) to make for an ideal fit over multiple roles and runs. Haroutounian has all of the above, and perhaps the most essential thing besides: those free, spacious high notes that arc out in perfect sonic representation of the Verdi heroine's longing and sorrow. None besides Radvanovsky deliver in this way.

Oh yes -- as I overheard some attendees noting during intermissions, Haroutounian is also attractive. And with mostly Verdi booked (apart from a Tosca in SF), she seems to know what she's good at.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The suitors

I've been absent for a while, so let's go backwards.

Ernani - Metropolitan Opera, 3/20/2015
Meli, Meade, Domingo, Belosselskiy / Levine

The presence of superstar tenor turned embarrassingly amateur conductor turned hit-and-miss baritone Placido Domingo is no longer the most notable thing about a production. But perhaps he catalyzed what struck me so strongly on this night: the palpable attention, long familiar here but absent from shows I've seen this season, of the Met audience that recognized itself as such. The sounds and silences (and you can sense it best in the quiet) of a crowd sure in its tastes getting the excellent performance it craves and appreciates... that's something.

The excellence of the opera (and the straightforward & handsome production) was no surprise. But the drama enacted this time wasn't the same as in that memorable 2008 revival. There, all the singers shared the youthfully pessimistic spirit of this first Verdi/Piave collaboration. Here, the cast split perspectives. Angela Meade, whose fateful Met debut came while covering Sondra Radvanovsky in that run, doesn't actually do much with Elvira's tour-de-force opening solo. In fact, Meade seemed uncomfortable: not only with the vocal-technical hurdles -- though the coloratura was hardly clean and she had some noticeable dropped notes -- but even more with the range and unequivocal force of the emotional expression. But the rest of the night didn't put Elvira so front-and-center, and Meade did very well therein as an ensemble instrument for Levine. As such she doesn't (as Radvanovsky did) vocally rush forward with her suitors towards fate but provides the opposite sentiment: caution, (justified) fear of disaster, and the pain of one who values happiness. Meade is the bright, audible sound of normalcy that her suitors can't help but disrupt.

This time, it's the tenor who carries the main dark emotional charge of the piece. I wrote in the season preview that the revival's success would "largely depend on tenor Francesco's Meli's ability to survive the punishing title part", and so it's proved: for not only did he survive the revival opener, his plangent sound and go-for-broke Italianate expressiveness ensured the show's success. Meli has been moving deliberately into these middle-weight Verdi roles from the lighter end, and on this evidence the voice and spirit are already perfect fits.

Dmitry Belosselskiy was an excellent firm low-voiced counterpoint to Meli, matching the tenor in fire and giving an even darker contrast to Meade. Sadly, the most famous of the ensemble offered the least: whether from lack of practice in the part or lack of breath control due to age, Domingo couldn't navigate or string together Carlo's phrases with any musicality. Nor does his timbre now sound particularly familiar or individual, whether one recalls his tenor or prior baritone incarnations. His fame did assist his assumption of his character's (initially hidden) fame and command, but that's about it.

James Levine conducted this and the final night of Hoffmann back-to-back with no sign of mental overwork. In fact, this month's shows have been the closest to classic Levine I've seen since his return. This Ernani is probably the show of the season so far, and though after Friday's dress I expect much from Don Carlo tonight... well, the more Verdi the better.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Met Council Finals 2015

The program is above. Singers discussed below in order.

Deniz Uzun (mezzo, 26)
This German (by way of Indiana University) singer, like most of this year's lineup, showed a quite promisingly expressive timbre, solid from top to bottom (where she directed a number of her elaborations) with threads of quick vibrato. The performance, though, was a bit herky-jerky, both in body -- it seemed that most of the singers had decided to flap their limbs around on stage -- and, more worrisomely, in phrase. The Rossini just seemed uncoordinated, phrases going hither and thither, but the Carmen aria suggested something more deliberate and interesting... perhaps within her is a throwback to the dawn-of-recording exponents of wild phrasing. In either case, it didn't sit well with Luisi's cool and controlled accompaniment.

Jared Bybee (baritone, 28)
The outstanding singers of the past two Council Finals programs have been AVA students, so I was expecting much. But from the Californian's lean figure came a lean sound with little of note in the Count's aria besides a decent trill at the end. The Rossini was a much better listen -- perhaps it was nerves in his first selection?

Kathryn Henry (soprano, 22)
Like Uzun, the most appealing thing about Henry was her sound, which has a nice, again vibrato-borne timbre in its midrange. She was also rather more moderate in her presentation than the first two, and she can and did sing a lovely Puccini tune. But she's not fully developed (as one would expect at her age, though ten years ago an even younger Lisette Oropesa seemed already entirely herself), and the more various demands and moods of the Jewel Song seemed a bit much at this point: it was reasonably well sung, but not particularly coherent or glittering or thrillingly articulated.

Joseph Dennis (tenor, 30)
The Texan, apparently en route to joining the Vienna State Opera's ensemble, was one of the big crowd favorites... and no wonder, because his baby-spinto sound and strong high notes are pretty impressive even now. But he's not quite finished, with both too few colors (even adjusting for the different, more squillo-based presentation of a spinto sound vs. a more lyrical one) and too many (with stray colors creeping into some high notes, particularly in the Faust) for my unqualified liking.

Allegra De Vita (mezzo, 26)
I'm not quite sure what to say about De Vita: she didn't, I think, thrill in any particular way to demand the judges' prize, and yet nevertheless she may have been the most satisfying performer of the day. Her performances had a thorough coherence that the others mostly only touched.

Nicholas Brownlee (bass-baritone, 25)
Unlike the next finalist, Brownlee is not related to the current Met singer with the same last name. (Besides voice types, this one is tall and white, not short and black.) He was very much of everything -- expansive sound, bodily action to the point of hamminess, and a big presence on stage -- and in an undeniably effective way. One can't help but enjoy and pay attention to his singing, even while noting that he's overdoing it or that his Aleko aria, though presented in a big way, lacked the depth of feeling of, say, 2013 winner Brandon Cedel's. Brownlee seems to have a natural rapport with the audience that should serve him very well as his career moves along.

Marina Costa-Jackson (soprano, 27)
Younger sister to mezzo and Lindemann alum Ginger Costa-Jackson (and elder sister to a third singer, Miriam), this AVA student brought the house down with Lisa's last scene from the Queen of Spades. The broader elements of Costa-Jackson's performance were pretty astounding: a full-house-filling sound, dynamic range covering "really loud" as well as just "loud", a charged dramatic conception of the whole scene that's surprising in its intensity until one sees that she's just come off some Russian concerts with Hvorostovsky... The details weren't perfect -- in particular, the vibrato seems to get dangerously away from her on certain soft high notes -- and I'm not sure why she sang Mimi, but the ability to work on the emotional and sonic scale of this Tchaikovsky is near priceless.

Virginie Verrez (mezzo, 26)
I'd have been surprised if the mostly-Met judging panel had not selected a singer they'd already accepted into the Lindemann program as winner in the company's own competition... but in any event, she needed no special consideration. Verrez is a super find for the house: definitely a lyric mezzo, but one whose voice carries and expands in the big space as if it were the most natural place in the world. The basic sound reminded me a lot of Susan Graham's, and though Verrez's Sesto wasn't at the 1988 Council winner's exalted level, the degree of concentration the Juilliard student already shows in these weighty arias suggests she might (might) get there.

Reginald Smith, Jr. (baritone, 26)
The barrel-chested Atlantan (by way of HGO's studio) was another crowd favorite, singing with commendable intensity in both Ford's famous aria from Falstaff and the lesser-known one from the (Met-premiered) opera after O'Neill's play. But in contrast to that of Verrez, Smith's sound had substantially less impact in the house than one would expect given his size and timbre and evident vocal strength.

*     *     *

The judges -- again numerous, this time four from the Met, one from SFO, one from Santa Fe, and Francesca Zambello from everywhere -- picked Dennis, Brownlee, Costa-Jackson, Verrez, and Smith as winners. This was basically fair, though I'd probably have only picked the former four (and if pressed for five, might have given it to De Vita instead of Smith).

During deliberations, we got a Casta Diva (no cabaletta) from Angela Meade that quite outdid the ones from her actual Norma performances last season (and her solos from Ernani on Friday, which is nevertheless the show of the season so far). It helps not to have to conserve energy for further hours' singing, I suppose...

Fabio Luisi drew lovely sounds from the orchestra, but I've never seen a Council Finals conductor zig when the singer expected him to zag so many times in an afternoon: I think almost every contestant had that happen during the first set of arias.

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


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.