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.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The clown

L'Elisir d'Amore - Metropolitan Opera, 2/1/2014
Netrebko, Vargas, N. Alaimo, Schrott / Benini

In a season with the profound pleasures of Frau and Falstaff, there's also been room for delicious guilty enjoyment. And as great as Hvorostovsky's "hey, I get to be ugly!" Rigoletto was in that vein, Erwin Schrott's work in Elisir deserves particular mention. He's been disappointingly empty or worse in dramatic parts, but between his masterful physical-vocal reactiveness as Leporello last season and his channeling of Johnny Depp as Dulcamara here, well... I'll recommend the Uruguayan bass in any comic role, no questions asked. (With luck, next season's new Figaro will leave room for him to indulge the ex-barber's farcial side.)

Schrott's predecessor, Ambrogio Maestri, was of course an indispensable part of Levine and Carsen's Falstaff triumph, but Maestri's humane forthrightness the launch this show a season ago was perhaps not exactly the best fit for the opera's nonsense. This time Schrott's wild Dulcamara provides contrast to the as-ever-heartfelt work of Ramon Vargas, who despite an announced cold made the show succeed. He has been around a while -- that 1999 Edgardo opposite Swenson's Lucia was the other recent sensation in that part -- but it was not, I think, until about that 2007 run of Onegin that Vargas really became who he is: not just a near-ideal phraser and characterizer in his lyric parts, but the colleague par excellence, who inspires his sopranos to their best, most heartfelt selves. And so, though Anna Netrebko is no longer a bel canto singer (and her assault on Adina's soubrette solos the least happy part of the evening), she was as alert, straightforward, and sympathetically honest here as she never was in the new Onegin.

As Belcore, Simone Alaimo's nephew Nicola blustered with more force than I remember his uncle ever having. A surprisingly successful evening.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The 2014-15 Met season announcement, annotated

Let's take a bit of time on this snowy afternoon to look at yesterday's season announcement. As usual, productions are listed by first appearance. Some off-cast combinations may be omitted.

Figaro (new Richard Eyre production)
Abdrazakov, Poplavskaya, Petersen, Leonard, Mattei / Levine (September-October)
Schrott, Majeski, 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.

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, TBA, Kwiecien, Arduini, Soar, Del Carlo / Frizza (January)
Wait... Gheorghiu is back!? (I still suspect her Mimi will be too much Musetta, but...)

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, Selig / 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.

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)
Moore, 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.

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
Reuter, Dasch, Botha, Appleby, Cargill, Kränzle, König, Rose / Levine (December)
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)
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.

Hansel and Gretel (childrens' version in English)
Schäfer, Rice, Martens, Brubaker, Croft / Davis (December-January)
I still have never gotten around to seeing this. Sorry.

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 / TBA (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.

Tales of Hoffmann
Grigolo, Gerzmava, Lindsey, Hampson / Abel (January-February 5)
Polenzani, Luna, Phillips, Maximova, Deschayes, Naouri / Levine (February 28-March)
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, Bisaroni, 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, January 22, 2014

The unauthorized premiere

Eugene Onegin - Metropolitan Opera, 11/23/2013
Mattei, Poplavskaya, Villazon, Maximova, Kocan / Vedernikov

Director of record Fiona Shaw was visibly present in the audience of this first November Onegin -- and why not? For the new conductor and cast made of this Chekovian "realist" production what she, Deborah Warner, and the rest of the team surely envisioned when they signed up for a season premiere. The chronological premiere, with Netrebko and Gergiev, frankly stunk... but this night put right everything that was wrong then, and viewing it as the real first night seems proper.

Russian conductor Alexander Vedernikov seems a throwback: compared to his countrymen this season, he has neither the striking looks and hair of Vladimir Jurowski nor the personal presence of Gergiev. But Vedernikov, unlike his more famous predecessor in this show, has lost no interest in Onegin, and offers exactly the intense, engaged, fully lyric and dramatic -- with scene building upon scene -- account one would expect from the (former) head of a great Russian company.

I feared that Marina Poplavskaya's humorlessness might sink this show as it did Faust, but -- like Vedernikov -- she brought credit to the notion of Russian cultural patrimony. In full contrast to Netrebko's abominably slack faux-Tatiana, Poplavskaya's heroine is terribly, inescapably alive: if she's nearly as dumbstruck in company as her predecessor, the torrent of sensibility lurking therein and at last released in private makes for a much different whole. That moment when, after having shooed her nanny from her room, she barricades the door so that she may uninterruptedly expand her soul into that space... it's a lightning bolt that not only defines her character, but almost makes sense of the sterile, over-civilized physical fussiness with which this show has replaced the previous production's lyric suggestions.

On this opening night Poplavskaya was in less-than-prime voice: perhaps from winter ailment, the top notes were somewhat raw and uncontrolled. But this Tatiana was nevertheless her greatest Met triumph to date.

Peter Mattei was no less great. The role of Onegin, like Don Giovanni, shows off -- and subverts -- his personal charisma in a way that seems, as much as Vargas' Lenski, just definitive. In the first acts he's commanding and affable with a substratum of ice, as careless with his charm as he isn't with his person -- "that cold dandy penetrated to the marrow with worldly bon ton" (Tchaikovsky's words) in the flesh. In the second, his natural unreflective confidence wobbled by the duel, he's as heart-rendingly direct as in that Amfortas when the recognition of love fells Onegin entirely. Between him and Poplavskaya the musical-dramatic charge built to such a level that the production's mirroring conceit -- having Tatiana kiss Onegin and run off at the end, as Onegin had kissed her and (rather more jauntily) left at the first act's close -- had some force this time, despite a spectacularly ill-timed cell phone intervention.

*     *     *

Though this run triumphed where the September/October original had failed, it also fell short where that first cast had succeeded. Most notable, of course, was the Met return of tenor Rolando Villazon after his career-upending trainwreck in a Lucia five years ago. Villazon made a New York return in fall 2012 at a Carnegie Hall Verdi Requiem, where he showed a still perilously-fragmentary voice. He was better in this Lenski -- and he may have improved in subsequent performances after the hurdle of the official house return -- but this was not a particularly pleasant listen. The voice is now more-or-less coherent, though inconsistent and even more recessed on top than his pre-crisis form (and his top notes were not that impressive even then); the breath that used to be his glory now comes and goes, and doesn't work on high notes. But the nervous charge that made Villazon so interesting on stage seems to have turned on itself (and like his newly-limited breath cuts off longer expression), so that instead of a poet chopped down too soon (reasonably impersonated by Piotr Beczala earlier in the year) we see a malcontent neurotic pressing to an inevitable doom. (The curse and rebuff of Onegin at the end of the party comes here not from a slow-burning sense of having been hurt or wronged, but from a paroxysm of resentful rage.) This does make a sort of awful sense of the character -- though it sits poorly with the reflective strain of "Kuda, kuda" -- but it demands an Onegin that can hold full audience interest. Fortunately, this show had one.

Besides Beczala's Lenski, the other strength of the September/October cast was Oksana Volkova's distinct and lively Olga. Elena Maximova was a good enough replacement, but, as has usually been the case with Olgas here, not particularly interesting in her character's ordinariness.

Stefan Kocan was as impressive as always -- here as Gremin. With apparently no attempt to make him look old, the balance of the story changed unexpectedly. With a less interesting Onegin this too would have been fatal.

*     *     *

Filled with an ordinary or dull lead pair, the elaborate social details and act-ending conceits of Shaw and Warner's production seemed just fussy. But as scene and contrast to the explosive, year's-best confrontations between Poplavskaya and Mattei, the fussiness worked well enough, and even the transposition of the last meeting to an outdoor snowstorm made sense. Still not as satisfying as the previous Robert Carsen production, but then we did get another great Carsen show soon after.

Monday, January 06, 2014

The past year: performers

A soprano triumph in Norma seems to me a bit like a baseball player's Triple Crown: any measure or measurer that judges this rarity not the most significant individual accomplishment of the year has lost all historical perspective. (Just don't ask me to explain Cabrera's win this season.) That's a general view, though. The particulars of Sondra Radvanovsky's thrilling, all-out, high-wire, and shockingly fine-calibrated Norma -- and, though less so, of its follow-up Tosca -- in any case still loom large in my mind, and should resound through the rest of her career.

Not to forget anyone else. Martina Serafin, too, had two excellent runs, in the Lotte Lehmann parts of Sieglinde and the Marschallin, and showed in her Met debut year a truly welcome transparency of sound and emotion -- as did Christine Goerke in the most taxing of Lehmann parts, the Dyer's Wife. Mark Delavan finally got to do Wotan here (opposite Serafin)... and he was really quite good. Peter Mattei has long been familiar, but who would have expected that a transcendently pained (though unfailingly eloquent) Amfortas would almost overshadow the second (after, of course, Don Giovanni) of his born-to-sing-it definitive assumptions, Onegin (full post soon)? Indeed there are many to praise, from the above repeat players to stalwart low-voice wonders Stephanie Blythe, Stefan Kocan, and Richard Bernstein to the one-offs and backups who -- and I'm not sure whether it's more to the house's credit (for hiring) or discredit (for not originally featuring) -- significantly improved Les Troyens (Bryan Hymel), Frau (Meagan Miller), and the aforementioned Tosca (Ricardo Tamura).

But in a year when the ambitious revivals of Troyens and Frau were more or less (with Troyens being the way more before Hymel took over) let down by tenor limitations, I suppose I should also single out the one leading man who not only sang impressively but thoroughly suited his part and production. It's true, Jonas Kaufmann had a Parsifal show not just seemingly but literally made for his performance, but the unique and fascinatingly significant core he gave to the piece -- the transformation of his fragmentary persona therein, under director Francois Girard's guidance, into a vessel of sacred emptiness -- was a rare tenoristic wonder.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

The past year: posts

December 12 was the ninth birthday of this blog. As usual, some of the more interesting posts from its previous year:

Amber Wagner in Ballo
On the struggle against time in Les Troyens
Review: Maria Stuarda and a DiDonato recital
On the Francois Girard/Met Parsifal's Parsifal, cast, conductor, physical production, and meaning
On the entrance of story into the Ring in The Valkyrie
Sondra Radvanovsky in Norma

(A full compilation from the blog's beginning is on the sidebar.)

I have, this season, tried to write less but more interestingly. I'm not bored yet -- and neither, I hope, are you.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The catfish king

Two Boys - Metropolitan Opera, 11/14/2013
Spence, Coote / Robertson

Nico Muhly's much-lauded and -promoted piece isn't all bad -- there's about half an act of impressive music. But it's not very operatic, and the libretto stinks.

The good has been much praised, and accords with Muhly's pre-operatic experience: the choral interludes, mostly in the first part... sonically interesting, well-constructed, etc. But they carry no drama, and Muhly seems to shy away from more individual writing elsewhere. For named characters he does nicely emulate the po-faced dryness of classical recitative, but the personal, moment-seizing expression of aria appears -- unfortunately -- not at all.

If the music is a mix, the drama is all bad.
Craig Lucas (librettist here) is no stranger to writing for the stage -- his work over the decades spans plays, musicals, and screenplays of more than a little success. But this piece seems more the result of a bet or dare than a considered attempt at operatic drama. How -- the creators might have jokingly speculated over a boozy brunch -- how might one present child sex on stage without getting in trouble for it? Well, one would make the child the aggressor, of course, and the adult in law barely one in fact. One could then smokescreen with suggestions of adult-adult sex, gross and explicit ones at that. And then at last the deed... well, must (even if pointedly) black it out, though the figures remain on stage from before to after. And if any complain? Ahh, a true story. Can't argue with truth!

In fact the above circumstances and arrangements do substantially blunt the issue... but it's still, inescapably, a story centered around child sex. And all the qualifiers are neutralized and more by the actual presentation on stage: the younger (13-14 in actual life) is played by a boy soprano who looks about ten, while the elder (16) -- here played by debuting tenor Nicky Spence though from all accounts Paul Appleby's presentation in the rest of the run wasn't materially different -- is made up unmistakably as the 30something he is, in this case rather resembling Philip Seymour Hoffman circa Happiness. Utterly repellent.

Perhaps even more offensive is the libretto's half-baked affront to storytelling. The overall setup of the show in the middlebrow form of the age -- police procedural -- could actually have gone somewhere. But what starts out as a dark, hyper-serious procedural in the vein of The Killing and Broadchurch spontaneously and inexplicably transforms midstream into an episode of Castle, as the detective's batty mother gives her the big climactic clue to the case. On seeing this bathetic turn I didn't know whether to laugh, facepalm, or spontaneously boo. I suspect all three at once would have been the proper response... could a vet like Lucas have actually meant this seriously? (But if not, what was such a joke doing in this show?)

The piece's transposition of the action backwards a year and a half from its real-life date -- from late 2003 to early 2001 -- is an odd sideline. 2001 was many, many years into the A/S/L era, and a year after the AOL-Time Warner merger that put the burgeoning internet into headlines everywhere. It hardly seems long enough ago to qualify as the halcyon era of ignorance.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The diva

Tosca - Metropolitan Opera, 12/17/2013
Radvanovsky, Tamura, Gagnidze / Armiliato

I know she's been working on them in parallel, with performances of this part around the world since the last Met run, but it's near-impossible at this point to view Sondra Radvanovsky's current run as Tosca separately from her triumph this fall as Norma. Those Normas made her stardom quite, quite visible, and so the backstory to her character here now needs no explanation -- Tosca appears, she's the diva, and that's that. But Radvanovsky has improved the active part of her performance, too, and quite thoroughly. The shapes, colors, and vocal stresses of Puccini's music, seemingly still new to her three years back, now sound from her throat as naturally and idiomatically as Verdi always has.

It's a tremendous whole: she's become the great Tosca her sound and character suggested from the first. Almost as satisfying, though, is how Radvanovsky continues to work and improve well into her international career. The full-grown dramatic sense she showed in Norma (and again in this), the continued sharpening of her vocal control, the comfort outside her bel canto roots here... what a welcome contrast to others who've audibly regressed as their fame has grown.

Opposite her Tosca on this night only was the Cavaradossi of new Brazilian tenor Ricardo Tamura. Tamura has actually covered at the Met before, but this was his first actual performance. His bio shows him having spent much of the past five years singing Otello, which given his rather short big-house resume had me concerned. But in fact his voice showed no real signs of early blow-out, and it turns out that -- perhaps due to his voice type and/or an early career change from natural science -- he's actually about the right age to be singing that stuff.

In any case, it seems an awful waste --- both to have had him sing so much of his career in small European houses and to have so much of this run (including this Saturday's matinee broadcast) sung by Marcelo Giordani. For Tamura has a naturally spacious voice that blossoms in the cavern of the Met, along with a fluidity of sound and production that Giordani hasn't shown since before he was a house regular (I really liked his sound in those early years, though). It took Tamura much of the first act to settle down in this debut, but he did pretty well going full blast cheek-to-cheek with Radvanovsky... and one can't say that about most. I'm not suggesting Kaufmann and Yonghoon Lee should fear for their bookings (and I'm as thrilled as anyone at the prospect of a Radvanovsky/Lee Ballo next season), but instead of covering the Met's utility Italian tenor, Tamura should at least be that guy. But I'd also really like to hear his Bacchus.

George Gagnidze's Scarpia was similar in its virtues to the one with which he opened this production. That lizard coat seems to have disappeared along with the floozies' more risque miming, though. Marco Armiliato is, as ever, solid and good with shape and singers.

Those who read the previous post about Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Emperor may note that the proto-modernist foregrounding of compulsion in Tosca (and Puccini generally, though it's a comic sideline in Boheme) makes the "bad guy" Scarpia more the central/action-carrying male figure here...

Saturday, December 21, 2013

High and low

Empirical experience with the world tells me that it's not typical that I've always found Hofmannsthal's Emperor a more naturally familiar figure to my understanding than, say, Cavaradossi, but things of that sort sometimes slip my mind as I solitarily draft and write these notes. So it was only upon discussing the Met's rather stupendous Frau revival with a friend that I hit upon its main flaw: whoever is responsible for its direction now (I believe this is, as discussed before, revival director J. Knighten Smit) has an excellent and detailed grasp of the lower world, but no such clarity about the upper. So the Barak family and their dynamics are impeccably in focus, while the Emperor and Empress are just in the hands of their performers, parts without an overall whole.

Torsten Kerl -- the Emperor -- is probably most affected by this, for notwithstanding his general aural appropriateness he's a bit too regular dude for the part. This is where the revival's cut of the Emperor's horse really hurts: with neither that big visual cue nor much clarity of personal interpretation, and with an unusually firm and forthright Barak in Johan Reuter, the distinction between Emperor and everyman -- their different roles in the story/allegory -- is lost. But Schwanewilms isn't helped either: the arm-waving she really really seems to like (her return show after Miller's appearance erased any doubts about that) needs to be either reigned in or connected to other elements on that side of the show, and there's no one to do that.

Meagan Miller, on the other hand, found in the lack of overall Emperor-Empress conception the opportunity to shape the show herself. Her alternate-cast Empress last Saturday offered a much clearer character trajectory than Schwanewilms' in the other performances, with the shock of having to become a morally responsible being coming, rightly, in bits through to the agonized spoken climax (where Schanewilms, relentlessly flighty before, incongruously springs a fully-trained philosopher-cum-rhetorician -- and yes, this is partly Hofmannsthal's fault, but one must make sense of it). And so though she sort of crashed into tough high stuff (like the D) where Schwanewilms more artfully ducked, and though her voice had some unsettlingly broad vibrato/wobble like Irina Lungu the night before (I don't remember this quality in Miller's Danae at Bard a few years back, so was she perhaps improperly compensating for the big house?) Miller was simply a more successful Empress than Schwanewilms, one around whom the show better and movingly built.

*     *     *

The difficulty Kerl, the director, and some of the less-gruntled viewers may have had stems from the fact that the Emperor, despite his title, is a LESS worldly figure than Barak, not more. Barak and wife are, despite the fantastic setting, rather familiar figures from the world -- you may recall their spinoff opera, Intermezzo, which Strauss wrote immediately after FroSch. The titled characters, despite such titles, aren't. For there is never a question of the Emperor ordering Barak or anyone else (besides the Nurse) around, nor any suggestion that he's a good, bad, indifferent, or indeed any kind of ruler: his title and position are only there to insulate him from everyone else.

What the two couples embody isn't so much positions in the world as positions of the world. For the Dyers it's all-too-close, and their faults arise therefrom: Barak too much mistakes his wife for the (rest of the) good in the world, and she mistakes him for the bad in it. For the Emps it's far off, vague, and so their troubles are more unmixedly within -- and in the immense space between even lover and beloved that Hofmannsthal's symbolist colleagues (and he himself -- note the lovers' quarrel in Rosenkavalier Act I) had worked so hard to open out.

And indeed there is -- and should be -- more Rilke than Siegfried to Hofmannsthal's Emperor. He is, near-fatally, something like the ideal appreciator of the Empress as she is, his hunt spiritual & symbolic -- the play (as he states up front) of his desire for her. What intoxicates him is that he can continue to pursue her, seemingly without limit: despite nightly consummating their union she remains... not virginal, exactly, but mysteriously integral without end in her pre-lapsarian perfection. (Last time I called the Empress sister of the Marschallin, Countess Madeleine, et al., but she is, to start, perhaps even more akin to Maeterlinck and Debussy's Melisande -- opera's most strikingly evasive amoral heroine.) It was, we may note, the Falcon's temporary breach of this perfection that angered the Emperor even though it had thereby won her for him.

It's Ariadne auf Naxos (going one opera backward in the Strauss canon instead of forward) rather than Intermezzo that illuminates the trouble here: if the magic of transformation is, as the Composer there unforgettably sings, the secret (mystery) of life, that is also what the imperial couple have rejected in their endless honeymoon. The Empress mentions a shape-changing talisman, lost in the "drunkenness of that first hour", but it was not only her form that was in that moment fixed. Both of them have cooperated to prolong that decisive hour indefinitely -- through to the start of the stage action proper -- down to their set roles therein: he in pursuit, she passively content after the rush of flight. (Compare, incidentally, how the action opens on Lulu and Dr. Schoen's marriage -- n.b. her animal metaphor!) The world threatens to eclipse the Dyers' individual selves, but their counterparts above allow their present selves to eclipse the world -- the perogative, for a while, of the rich or solitary.

But in life as in this story, it takes more than mortal resource to continue the same way forever. Only the divine and aesthetic may do that -- for mortals the only permanence is death... or ossification. In the terms of the tale, the Falcon's swipe had already brought Keikobad's daughter over to the side of the mortal/transient/disintegrable, and it was foolishly blind of the Emperor to continue to pay her homage as if it had not, as if she could have been brought into his grasp any other way (that is, in her original mythical form). Nor can the daughter/Empress, as she perhaps hopes upon hearing the deadline, go back to flitting in animal form while still retaining her husband, no more than her fixer could in any non-abominable way arrange for her to have the sign of mortal transformation (the shadow) without (as the Nurse so strongly advocates in their Act III argument) in fact changing anything else. The entire stage action occurs, for the married pair, in the hyper-prolonged moment of their decisive meeting, with the identities of Keikobad's (more or less divine) daughter and the (more or less mortal) Empress temporarily and unstably coexisting... so that resolution requires one to take the fore. And so she becomes the Empress proper, embracing transformation for both herself and her husband...

*     *     *

But the Symbolist angle tells us something else -- perhaps a why. If Emperor and Empress are recognizable, in their respect for mystery and inner space, as the symbolist poet and his ideal, their story seems not only exploration of a particular personal dynamic but critique of an aesthetic that Hofmannsthal famously mastered and even more famously (in English-speaking countries, anyway) left by forswearing lyric output for the stage.

Symbolist output of course has its own internal logic, but from our distant vantage it's perhaps most usefully viewed as a late station in the history of Romantic subjectivity -- or rather the scenes thereof. For the Romantic self was born in the Edenic no-place-in-particular which one might call "nature" by day and "night" by dark. But it had, after a while, to find its place in the world, and within mere decades had settled into alliance with the "civilized" against the proto-modern developments that were transforming the great and small facts of not only American but European life at the time. (This long-ago-forged inclination to the side offering to save collective meaning from the cold, alienating forces of arithmetic and cause&effect unfortunately continues to stultify and impoverish creatives to this day.) So as resentful and pessimistic as the portrayals of this late 19th-century milieu and its fantastic cousins became, there was, for these late Romantics, no getting away from it for long.

It's at this late juncture that we find the symbolist move -- to strip away the temporal elements of the scene. That meant, of course, the recognizably contemporary elements could be dropped, but not only those: in more sophisticated works place and time themselves fade from the scene as do even, at the limit in Mallarme et al., the particular identities of poetic self and its object. And so in, for example, Maeterlinck and Debussy's symbolist masterpiece Pelleas and Melisande, we see subjectivity's last form before it would return both bolstered and permanently sidelined (compare Alwa to Pelleas, Wozzeck to Golaud) by modernism... alive, as at its early-Romantic birth, in a no-place-in-particular, but now one in which interpersonal communion (or even, with Yniold or Hofmannsthal's Lord Chandos, communication) is infinitely difficult rather than Edenically obvious -- and the distance and stasis thus sustained is simultaneously despair, glory, and protection from the modern(ist) tide.

And yet this timelessness, too, was an artefact of its time, of the deep backwards leisure sustained in Vienna or willed in Paris, and could no more sustain itself indefinitely than the Marschallin could by stopping her clocks. So whether it was aesthetic, philosophical, or historical (it was, as many note, a WWI work, premiered in 1919) reasoning that brought Hofmannsthal to its birth, Die Frau ohne Schatten shows -- finally -- not just the melancholic presentation/renunciation of this anti-temporal perspective (Der Rosenkavalier, 1911) nor its transformation by stage-magic from the negative permanence of death/isolation to the positive of literal divinity (Ariadne auf Naxos, 1912/1916) but its full re-entrance into the change and renewal of mortal existence, bringing the Empress from beloved and bride to wife and mother and the Emperor from seeker to father. (Wernicke's restoration/glorification, at the end of the original production, of the Emperor's desire-in-action -- the Falcon, who precipitates the action of backstory and story -- brought this strongly to the fore, and its cut by Smit in revival was a huge loss.)

*     *     *

Whatever flaws this incarnation had, a good FroSch is unique in the canon of not only Strauss and Hofmannsthal but opera generally. With luck we won't have to wait another ten years for the next revival.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Fall and rise

Falstaff - Metropolitan Opera, 12/9/2013
Maestri, Oropesa, Meade, Cano, Blythe, Fanale, Vasile / Levine

As many around the world may discover today, there have been few shows in Met history as thoroughly joyous and satisfying as this one. James Levine seems again miraculously at the peak of his powers, the cast -- particularly Ambrogio Maestri and the women -- is a treat for the ear both solo and in ensemble, and director Robert Carsen, whose first Met masterpiece (yes, that just-retired Onegin, though it was even better before the changes for broadcast) never quite got him the esteem he deserved, responds to Verdi and Boito's blend of humanity and clever construction with his own surplus of both. The play of his images of more-or-less-civilized plenty within a scene-for-scene visual symmetry worthy of some great Lulu staging makes for the finest production of Peter Gelb's tenure.

(Notice, that is, that Carsen's main visuals reprise themselves in reverse order around the central scene of the bourgeois Eden -- that is, the Ford family kitchen -- from which the fat knight is ejected. What we first see as Falstaff's bed, the stag's head at the restaurant entrance, and horse pictures on the club walls become... well, you'll see, but the fact that his grand white bed has not yet reappeared reminds eye as well as memory that Falstaff's trial -- and perhaps the only weak sequence of the show -- is but temporary.)

On this second night, the short Serban Vasile (in his Met debut!) cut an amusing but not inappropriate figure as Ford. Not sure how the originally-scheduled Franco Vassallo was supposed to look.

If you ever thought that Falstaff was dry, or that the modern Met couldn't do comedy, or that one would never hear a commanding Levine evening again... go and rejoice in how wrong all that was.