Wednesday, January 25, 2006


Despite Steve Smith's prediction to the contrary (not, mind you, that I blame him), Sunday's New York premiere of Ainadamar was most definitely amplified. Not only for effects and emphasis, but some poor soul seemed to be riding the gain on all principals from start to end, lest -- horribile dictu -- the audience inadvertently hear a true piano. I've no idea who (assuming, as I understand it [UPDATE: apparently incorrectly, see below], that the work was originally staged sans mikes) decided on this, but it shows a depressing lack of musical understanding. Even -- particuarly! -- if it was the skilled, well-educated Osvaldo Golijov himself.

But that's not fair: Golijov understands quite well what he's after. That just happens to be, instrumentation notwithstanding, the popular musical aesthetic. Composers have flirted with this before, of course, whether in a libretto or certain stylistic borrowings or whatnot. But such popular elements usually sit uneasily with the more classically high-cultural* parts of the whole. Not here: if Ainadamar was ever done unmiked, it was because the piece had not yet become truly what it is.

[*Not necessarily used to denote value, but, I think, an accurate description of the difference in vantage between the two aesthetics.]

It is no accident that popular music exploded in popularity with the advent of the microphone. Athletic and remarkably well-trained as any particular one may be, the live voice is a limitation: it (with its sibling, the physical stage presence of one body) ensures that characters in opera remain at a recognizably human scale even as they're kings or heroes -- or gods. This fits naturally with the aesthetic of high culture, which characteristically explores the (tragic or amusing) limitedness of individual man, his inability to throw off mortal bonds from even the highest point. (Even Wotan has such problems.) But popular art, which indulges such fantastic desires for the put-upon mass, is less happy in a natural breath. It's become immeasurably more effective as technology's let it scale to not one individual facing his destiny but to the mass audience itself, source and place of its intoxicating energy.

David Henry Hwang's libretto hits the familiar pop-story notes: oppression, freedom, the impermanence of death, oppression, revolution, the long-suffering "people", the glorious future to come, etc. The designated oppressor-figure is, of course, onstage for most of the action but gets not a single word (just menacing gestures with a rifle). After a seemingly-endless death scene, one main character promptly gets back up and sings himself into transcendence. The whole thing is -- like the script of, say, Braveheart -- fairly heady to one caught up by it and entirely ridiculous to one who's not. In either case, it's a purely populist confection.

Of Golijov's music, one bit seemed to call for actual classical performance (minus mikes and gain-riding) -- Lorca's invocation of Mariana Pineda at the first segment's end. The rest? The composer's note states his desire to make a reapproachement between "popular and serious":
Popular is serious on the continent where I was born and raised, where first acts of dictators when seizing power included cutting the fingers of popular guitarists, imprisoning singers, and sending songwriters into exile, among other acts of fear that were answered by some of the most tender and long-lasting music created in the last century.
In that, he's been successful: Ainadamar is popular. It's also serious. But it's not opera.

(And I'd been hoping to hear one of my favorite bloggers in one of those...)

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This isn't to say that an opera can't put electronic resources to a high-cultural end. The classic modernist use has been to expand the sonic palette with more alien, denatured tones. But that's very far away here -- for all talk of new emotion or experience, pretty much all one makes out is the roar of an incited crowd.

Friday, January 20, 2006


The Met brings this not meritless Domingo vanity vehicle back to the house next week. My guess is anyone reading this blog has already found out by email or some other contact, but please note that Monday's dress rehearsal has been moved from 2:30PM back to the usual time of 11AM. My desire to see one of these absent the bizarre spectacle of well-off adult patrons squabbling over lunch seats like grade schoolers at a cafeteria -- mind you, the actual schoolkids at rehearsals are quite well-behaved -- won't, it seems, yet be sated.

I probably won't attend an official, reviewable performance, but the principals remain the same as last year's.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Manrico: lover or momma's boy?

Geoff Riggs has an interesting analysis at his all-too-infrequently updated blog.

Artificially-flavored opera product II

In a recent interview, new San Francisco Opera director David Gockley mentions some of the innovations -- already, it seems, in use in Houston -- he intends to introduce to the house.
Q Will you install those giant plasma screens in the balconies?

A Yup. Soon. We're scoping out locations. We have deals to be made with our unions, which I don't see any real problem with. And we've got to get some technology in our disposal. But there will be a lot of that during my time here, a lot of outdoor casts, OperaVision in the theater, Webcasts, iPod casts. The like. We're going to move into the 21st century of high definition, audio-video technology.
Technological replication and dissemination certainly extracts something from an operatic performance, often something valuable -- how bizarrely fortunate are we to have a (watery) fragment of Muzio's Tosca from the very opening of the War Memorial Opera House? To have webcasts and podcasts from all major houses is long overdue.

But the unique quality of opera -- what, I believe, guarantees its market life as a niche luxury for as long as companies remain true thereto -- is what can't be so reproduced and extended: the costly, laborious, and very human live presentness of operatic performance. To substitute some technological facsimile for this presentness -- because I very much doubt that the screens will be unobtrusive enough to ignore -- subtracts essential value from those balcony seats affected. People therein will, it's true, hear the unmediated sound and remain within the dramatic circle of feedback, but the visual (and visual-dramatic) element will be substantially denatured -- much more than by the distant addition of a supertitle screen. It is important we see a person at risk, not a mere glow on glass.

The experience in the more expensive seats won't, I'm sure, change. Until, perhaps, audiences selected by and accustomed to video assistance decide those expensive seats aren't so good without it...

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But maybe someone who's actually sat in Houston nosebleed can tell what it's actually like. The venture makes me wonder if Gockley much did himself.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The year of Levine

Looking over my notices from the two half-seasons since the Met began its last winter break, one thing stands out. As the house conducting roster has been infused with more interesting young blood than it's seen in decades (meanwhile -- Rizzi, Santi, et al.: not missed) and as a massive overhaul of a long-underperforming symphony orchestra was supposed to eat into his energy, James Levine had a great 2005 here. From the Met Orchestra's terrific Das Lied von der Erde last January to the high points (Berg and Wagner) of their hit-and-miss latest Carnegie Hall afternoon, a remarkable proportion of the company's twelve-months' successes have been his.

He still presides for more evenings than anyone else, of course, and deserves credit even when not for building the remarkable orchestra. But by my count, three of the five annual local operatic highlights were such because of -- not merely with -- his conducting: Clemenza, Falstaff, and -- and I'm with Maury in reckoning this the event of the past year -- as great a performance of Cosi as I may ever see. (Sans Levine came Don Carlo and An American Tragedy.) Nor did any visiting conductor show off the Met Orchestra in some novel and remarkable glory, as Christian Thielemann so memorably did in 2001's Die Frau Ohne Schatten. (The much-praised Fabio Luisi I found too unsympathetic to the singers and unwilling to let the orchestra phrase; perhaps he'll show better after the long rehearsal of a new production.)

Levine has of course been conducting these three operas for decades. Has he changed?

Without a vertical comparison of broadcasts and in-house tapes, I don't think I can give anything like a complete answer. But it seems to me that while Levine has remained, in essence, who he is -- a conductor first interested in regularity and quality of sound, and therefore endlessly frustrating to listeners mostly listening for something else (dramatic effect, the ebb and flow of time, romantic refinement of gesture, and/or whatever) -- his maturity has, as it's done for many, allowed him to incorporate some amount of other, antithetical qualities into his work as well. The top-down architectural view he likes to take has come to embrace more and more life-giving detail and phrasing, making him, among other things, a great Mozartean. -- I now wish I hadn't skipped last February's unexcitingly-cast Figaros.

The recent New York Magazine profile of Levine doesn't, I think, shed much new light on him or his development, but it touches on both the recent Clemenza and Falstaff as well as more general matters. It's worth a read.

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I'm sure it reflects on my taste and manner of experiencing opera that the most memorable singers' performances of the year came on nights that I wouldn't count among an overall top five. Nevertheless I shouldn't let this sort of post go by without mentioning Marcelo Alvarez in Manon, Sondra Radvanovsky in Cyrano (which returns this month), and Giuseppe Filianoti in Lucia. They themselves were easily worth the price of a ticket.

Monday, January 09, 2006

What they said

There's a long post-review on Renee Fleming's career itching to be written, but not today. Meanwhile I'm in more or less entire agreement with Maury and the Wellsung Alex about yesterday's concert.

Fleming's always been good in Berg, though -- her Seven Early Songs with the Met Orchestra some years ago were delicious. I think his inherent trickiness prevents her from getting in her own way.

UPDATE (4:15PM): Forgot to mention -- I was a bit disappointed that oboist Elaine Douvas, whose expressive phrasing highlighted the Met's last full performances of Onegin, only played the second half of the program. Eugene Izotov -- who incidentally is leaving next season for the Chicago Symphony -- was, to these ears, less soulful in the letter scene.


A reader and fellow blogger has asked me to help plug this event, which seems interesting enough:

Long Beach Opera will be doing Jonathan Dove and Graham Vick's reduction of the Ring (into 10 hours over two evenings) the next two weekends. At least one of the cast seems to have had a recent local success as Parsifal...

California-based readers may wish to check it out.

Thursday, January 05, 2006


The secret, apparently, to getting comments is to stop posting.


Ah, no. Posts will resume soon.