Friday, October 28, 2005

The crisis of opera in Italy

Via the zoo of r.m.o comes this Independent article on the funding crisis of Italian opera-houses.
The culture minister, Rocco Buttiglione, has warned of the possible "death of opera" as the nation's 13 deeply indebted opera houses try to find ways to survive a 30 per cent cut in government subsidies, announced in the new budget.
Buttiglione, who has previously threatened to resign over these cuts, seems to take a realistic line:
But politicians and administrators agree that the crisis facing the Italian opera is "desperate," in Mr Buttiglione's words. He warned the opera houses: "None of them can hope that, whatever happens, someone will bale [sic] them out. Any of them could go bust, none is exempt from doing their accounts. All of them are dramatically in debt."
The cuts -- from a subsidy of €496 million to about €332m within three years -- are part of the larger effort to fit the traditionally free-spending and free-inflating Italian government into the fiscal and monetary straitjacket of the Eurozone. The companies themselves, however, may be particularly alluring targets.
[W]hile many companies continue to stage superb productions, managers are political appointees. Back offices are swollen with friends and relatives.
Prime Minister Berlusconi himself singled out La Scala:
"One thousand people work at La Scala," he claimed of Italy's best-known opera house, "when 400 would be plenty."
This is, of course, controversial. Less so, perhaps, is the decline in public interest:
This highlights an even more fundamental problem - that the Italian public appears to have fallen out of love with "la lirica" (the opera). A generation ago, the goings-on at La Scala were of intense interest to everyone in Milan. Any Italian taxi driver could hum the most famous arias, and Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stefano were the celebrities of their day.
But today, thanks to pop music and the Berlusconi-peddled TV diet of soaps, quiz shows and old American movies, Verdi and Puccini have gone out of style. The opera has become the diversion of the rich, the old and the corporate as much as anywhere else - perhaps even more so, given the failure of Italian opera houses to make a pitch for the patronage of their country's youth.
*     *     *

I don't pretend to understand either Italian politics or its art-administrative offshoot (though reading this article helped). But two things are evident.

First, the amount is fairly small. €164 million of a €400 billion budget is less than .05%. A sufficiently vocal or significant constituency interested in reversing the cuts may well succeed (as CPB saved itself from the axe here).

Second, a budget win, if the houses achieve it, may give only short reprieve. That the cuts have been proposed at all show opera's current distance from the Italian public. A system of direct public subsidy isolates a house from accountability to the greater or smaller public, but not permanently; at some point the houses and the public will come into alignment. If, for example, Italians continue to grow indifferent to opera, will there be any constituency for saving it the next time cuts are proposed? But lack of smaller-scale accountability means it'll take pure luck for the houses to nurse a public more sympathetic to their art (or an art more sympathetic to their public).

Ultimately, none but the Taliban can undo the flowering of choice in a country -- the new leisure options blamed on Berlusconi above. Unless the world falls, live opera must find its market niche (and I think, as I've said, it'll likely do so, in a way not unlike organic local produce or artisanal cheese: the essential complement to a baseline of commodity farming or free-floating digital music). The 1999 profile linked above showed a La Scala adapting to such realities, seeking private funding from corporations and the like. Such a financial shift is by its nature a step towards more accountability, as unhappy corporate donors can walk away rather more easily than a government.

Whether or not the post-Muti La Scala is still on such a path, the only long-term solution for it and its sister houses may be for their government to turn public arts support more to the American model, where the bulk of the (substantial) government arts subsidy is in tax provisions that amplify and encourage private support. Accountability would very much be a reality, if still an imperfect one (donors are not audiences, though the two are related). The problem here, of course, is that we end up with just the cultural institutions we deserve... But that's bound to happen in the end anyway.

In case you missed it

If you want some more specific idea of what this and this were describing, New York magazine had a six-segment fashion feature on this year's Met opening night.

I should note that the most striking people and dresses of the evening weren't represented in this thing.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The triumph (?) of Ariane

Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, Paul Dukas' sole opera, is a prequel of sorts to Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. But while the latter is (despite legions of detractors) widely loved and performed, the City Opera run of Ariane that ended last Saturday is notable for its having happened at all.

Why the difference? We might ask Leon Botstein, conductor of the City Opera run and a 1999 concert performance of the piece. Back then, he wrote:
We always want to believe that the standard repertory reflects the enduring best of music. If something is not standard and popular, we often assume that there must be a good reason. But that is frequently not the case. The truth is that in the performing arts, particularly music, what remains in the standard repertoire is the result of habits and tastes that have as much to do with convenience and prejudice as with anything we might call quality. If we listen to Ariane, we might have difficulty in finding enough fault with either the music or the libretto of this masterpiece to warrant its disappearance from the stage.
This is, I think, half-right as to the Dukas. The music is certainly interesting -- a more straightforward take on the post-Wagnerian elements in Pelléas, one which nevertheless reaches some depth of mystery in, e.g., the offstage chorus of the first act. Were it easier on the voice, this music alone might've earned Ariane some fringe status in the operatic canon.

But it's hard to grasp how the author of Pelléas, one of the great literary peaks in opera, came up with this clunker. The joke about Maeterlinck & Debussy's masterpiece is that nothing happens (...and then Mélisande dies). Yet at every moment something is struggling to happen. Characters reach towards each other as strongly as those of Don Carlos; their failure, as the Schiller/Verdi characters' failure, is the drama and pathos of the piece. And more than that: that the space between these people can't be overtly pierced by them makes it the mystery of the world, a space in which the opera's flowery "symbolist" text and subtle musical shadings float as longed-for explanation, not obfuscation. It's an ideal marriage of schema and style.

Ariane et Barbe-Bleue is the opposite. The action goes straight forward, but it's the lack of impediment that makes the evening dramatically inert. Ariane neither suffers nor is threatened nor even really doubts -- she simply marches down as she came to do, brushing off token opposition from the Nurse and Bluebeard, and frees the wives (including "Mélisande"). Soon after, the wives decide they want their bondage back and Ariane, apparently unperturbed, walks off. Her only struggle is with the score.

Whether Maeterlinck's post-Pelleas concoction works as allegory (of women's lib perhaps, or wedding-night insanity?) or perfumed poetry, this dramatic nullity's been pretty much sufficient to keep Dukas' work off the stage. Nonetheless NYCO failed to make the best case for Ariane, using an overly literal, poorly lit, and too-often silly production in which serious and mysterious elements could find little foothold. Paul-Émile Fourny of Opéra de Nice did little with this City Opera directing debut.

I'd enjoy listening to the musical portion of the opera at home, in a good recording. But what first-rate soprano would bother with the killer title part? Vaness replacement Renate Behle tried gamely but was overstrained and overmatched. Ursula Ferri showed a stronger voice as the Nurse, but couldn't cope with the high parts of her big door-opening sequence. The wives sang what little they had well, as did Ethan Herschenfeld as Bluebeard. Botstein advocated impressively from the pit.

But if all these forces had been arrayed for an Ariane-as-black-comedy, set by the young Hindemith... That would've been something.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Wait, this seems like a job for Barbara Bonney

Via oboeinsight comes word of a forthcoming opera on Hans Christian Andersen and Jenny Lind, by indie rock icon-cum-crossover composer Elvis Costello.

(Another much-praised indie icon, Stephin Merritt, put on his own staged rendition of Andersen at this summer's Lincoln Center Festival. I -- most interested in seeing Fiona Shaw -- had to miss it, but reviews were mixed.)

What's interesting is that what Costello has so far finished is "a 70-minute song cycle with 10 numbers that will form the backbone of the full-length piece". Is he still on the other side of the lyric/dramatic border? Opera is not song, as Schubert's attempts show. It may prove a more troublesome crossing than pop to classical.

Return of the off-topic diva

In his ABT at City Center preview, Joel Lobenthal of the NY Sun writes of star soloist Veronika Part:
But no ABT dancer is more avidly watched at the moment than Veronika Part. At 27, Ms. Part has already lived two artistic lifetimes. In 2002 she left the Kirov Ballet, where she had quickly become one of its most prominent young stars. After a difficult period of adjustment, she has now established herself at ABT. She is tall, voluptuous, and glamorous, and she has impeccable academic credentials. What is most gratifying about her work, however, is the way she molds shapes, lines, and images in a most personal way. She reminds us anew of the way in which strict, severe ballet can be a vehicle for emotional and supra-verbal communication.
It's a sort of communication I'd like to see from more singers.

Part will dance October 26-29 and November 5.

UPDATE (11/1): Much more of Lobenthal on Part in yesterday's Sun.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

It's all true

The Met's website reports that Bryn Terfel is out for the season's last Falstaff (tonight), to be replaced by Louis Otey, about whom I know little. That's too bad. Otey may yet triumph, but what everyone -- most eloquently the NYC Opera Fanatic -- had said about the original lineup was true: it was a near perfect cast, in a near perfect revival.

Last Saturday's performance (because Fleming and Strauss: two great tastes that don't taste great together) had almost the same players as the production's original 2002 "refurbishing", but everything was improved. Racette for Mescheriakova, Polenzani for Turay: big plusses. Frontali and Zifchak added a certain earthiness of character above the success of their predecessors. And even the strongest point of the 2002 revival -- the clear and oh-so-charming Nanettas of Camilla Tilling and Lyubov Petrova -- found, last week, Three Name Soubrette Heidi Grant Murphy in as good a form as I've ever heard her.

But the story wasn't really of improvements, whether among new cast or by Levine, Terfel, Blythe, or the orchestra. Everything fit; everything was savored. Warmth and good feeling all around. A great human success.*

*except for the cell phone going off at the finale's most quiet moment

I should post more

What "Maury D'Annato" has turned out in the couple of days since the launch of his charmingly-titled Fisher-Price My First Opera Blog makes me feel quite the old tortoise.

Needless to say, he's insightful as well as quick.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

New paths

More or less recent discoveries in blogdom:

Third Avenue, a British expat's general blog (found via the Big Apple Blog Festival). Besides some leftish thoughts on UK politics, it offers regular crisp reports on the author's full-blown if less-than-year-old Met-going habit. Nice to have a perspective from outside the usual NY opera scene. For what jaded local would write anything like this?
Sometimes, brash, modern New York can easily outdo old-world London or Paris in its sheer aristocratic extravagance. Tuxedos, ballgowns, pearls, diamonds, pearls, rubies, pearls and a few more pearls assaulted the eye from every corner. Munificent donors to the Met's coffers strutted their stuff, the occasional Dutch surname bearing witness to the fact that their ancestors were eyewitnesses to the Netherlandish beginnings of this city. They saw and were seen. The spectacle was superb.

Canadienne, Erin Wall's fantastically honest and eloquent performers' blog, currently from Paris where she's Fiordiligi in a troublesome production of Cosi. I've never heard Erin, though I nevertheless wonder if I'm one of the scornful, ignorant reviewers she's derided of late. Best not to ask, I guess. Still, if she's as expressive onstage as in her entries, I'd love to hear her work.


Peter Davis' recent column ably recaps the first weeks of the Met season. But he, like others, oddly passes over perhaps the most notable event of the period: the arrival of Marcelo Alvarez as the star tenor he was supposed to be seven years ago.

As you may recall, Alvarez took over in the fall of 1998 for the production-allergic Roberto Alagna, who with his wife withdrew from that first run of the still-current Met Traviata. (She finally will star in it this winter -- sans husband.) He was supposed to partner Renee Fleming, who herself pulled out -- to be replaced by Patricia Racette.

Alvarez had, fortuitously, just released his first album, and there was much hype in the local press. But both the album and the Alfredo showed him as good, well-schooled, but a touch boring. No star. One informed wag suggested that "Mr. Alvarez was making his Met debut a good five years too early." Maybe he was.

Subsequent appearances brought almost the opposite: a singer whose hamminess and tendency to push, though exciting, was compromising the lyric beauty of his instrument. What next? This year's Manon, it seems. His des Grieux was impassioned, tortured, and sweetly tender; vocally and physically both well-judged and intense. He and Fleming had two stars' easy rapport with each other and the score, only somewhat hindered by López-Cobos' bludgeoning accompaniments. But Fleming's virtues are not news.

Why the media laxness? Perhaps it was his (according to my friends) less distinguished first night, when critics showed up; perhaps an old face can't get a new hearing. Perhaps he'll be noticed in the spring. Whatever the case, Alvarez seems now the finest Latin tenor around.

*     *     *

Massenet's Manon itself calls forth many reactions, from wonder to disdain. What dangers it sees in love: this long, tortuous, colorful thing that one's perhaps never quite out of... Perhaps the run's empty seats show desire for a cleaner, more disposable view? Today we have trouble with Forza, too.