Sunday, May 27, 2007

Apparently, it's a trend

I was wondering why the search engine hits for "Karita Mattila nude" were up again: it seems her tour of Flimm's Fidelio production -- mind you, she's not nude in this one -- has taken her to London. (And if you haven't seen it, go.) Hence pieces like this interview, in which we discover a certain similarity to Renee Fleming:
I ask for her future plans – only to hit a surprise. "I’m working on a jazz project," she beams, "Four concerts, with the best Finnish resources."

Incidentally, until the Met and DG get on the ball and release the Salome DVD, those looking for nude shots from that production will have to buy this book.

Thursday, May 24, 2007


The 2006-2007 Met season has come to an end (and I'll have one catch-all post with most of the things I failed to post) but its successor begins in four months.

As much as one might question the direction of Peter Gelb's managership on the whole, its changes may, in this transitional period when the names and habits of old continue next to the new, make for a most enjoyable 2007-2008 season. As one perceptive Opera-Ler has observed, one of Gelb's policies appears to be to ride his stars until they drop. This may prove unwise in the long run -- it is, for one thing, part of the homogenization discussed in the previous post -- but its short-run appeal is obvious. We will see Natalie Dessay star in two new productions, Renee Fleming in two Verdi revivals, and so on. Even La Boheme is cast with Angela Gheorghiu and Ramon Vargas (who also stars in a revival of Clemenza) for its entire run, and the most "why are they bothering?" production -- a new Macbeth with Andrea Gruber -- has an interesting lineup of men including a later cast of Joseph Calleja, Carlos Alvarez, and Rene Pape.

Almost all productions have, in this manner, a star or two to grab one's interest. Only, I think, the Norma has nothing to recommend it but the surely-to-be-abused music. That is, barring ill health... Dessay's cancellation from last Sunday's Met Orchestra concert (where Michelle DeYoung filled in admirably) got me to wondering what Gelb might do if she had to withdraw from one or more of the new productions. Let Anna Netrebko massacre another half-learned bel canto role, perhaps? Let's hope we don't find out.

As for myself, I'm most looking forward to Lucia (opening night is the "event", but the later combination of Dessay and Giuseppe Filianoti should be explosive) and Ernani, wouldn't miss Röschmann's Countess or Mattila's Manon Lescaut, and will probably end up seeing everything else besides Romeo (note the "conductor"), Norma, First Emperor, and Satyagraha.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Reflected tastes

If Peter Gelb has made a watchword of the "theatrical", it's only to be expected. It's after all of a piece with his own tenure at the Met. He himself has had the leading role, strongly present while battling the Bad Old Days on the scene of... well, not necessarily the physical house, but the virtual Metropolitan Opera that exists in the newspapers and in the mind's eye of many never even there. And so he has given Natalie Dessay more prominence than ever, despite her post-surgical instrument; kept faith with Karita Mattila, including (apparently) a Luc Bondy Tosca for 2009; and has perhaps raised the energy level on the audience side of the house (though the relative dearth of new bloggers may suggest the opposite).

But if actual implementation of Gelb's stated goals has at times shown itself to be skin-deep or counterproductive, that too is of a piece. For as I noted from the beginning, Gelb has used and needed the appearance of change more than actual change. So when actual change, too, turns out to be about appearance, why not? (But let me be plain: neither plastic beauty nor advance reputation are "theatrical". Theater, as I've noted endlessly from this blog's third post, is a matter of presence, not surface or history, and trying to pass the latter off as the former shortchanges new operagoers.) In this vein, for example, the nominally audience-building ventures of moviecasting and rush tickets turn out to be principally enjoyed by old, often retired men and women of long acquaintance with opera and the Met who, though perhaps enjoying some frisson from participating in the putative future of opera, are by no means themselves that future. (Incidentally, I wonder if attendance has actually increased by more than what Agnes Varis and Karl Leichtman's gigantic subsidy prompted.) The productions turned in by Broadway imports Bartlett Sher and Jack O'Brien were undramatic clunkers. (I do, mind you, expect much better from Mary Zimmerman for the season-opening Lucia.) And so on.

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And yet it seems true that Gelb is de-emphasizing singing per se. For the moment it is tempered by the fact that his aesthetic ideas remain subordinate to financial reality -- that is, the need to accomodate audience-drawing legacy stars of Stimme -- but I believe it will grow more pronounced over time. Would a Stephanie Blythe (rightly singled out by Alex Ross as a counterpoint) ever in fact get a Met debut today? How about in 2012, if it's still Gelb's house?

From one broader perspective, this may simply be the end of American (that is, Met) exceptionalism in operatic aesthetics. Of course a generalization doesn't capture every production or every year over time, but the long-discussed truism that the Met has, compared to the great European houses, been rather more interested in physical sound than dramatic-theatrical elements seems, on the whole, fair. Part of this was the houses (both huge), part -- in a bit of touching irony -- the last mass media framework (the Texaco broadcasts), part the sort of singers more often grown here. But it goes deeper, I believe -- after all, vocal-theatrical legend Olive Fremstad was American, and forced out of the Met by Gelb's greatest predecessor Giulio Gatti-Casazza long before broadcasts began (though not long before Gatti-Casazza went on to dump Claudia Muzio, the greatest vocal dramatist we can hear on record).

For while opera was -- and still, largely, remains -- a court or governmental institution in Europe, it has been here a private enterprise, subject to the individual tastes of ticket buyers and donors and subsidized by government mostly indirectly through those tastes (the tax deduction).

Now it should come as no surprise that the circles of bureaucrats, intellectuals, and elite tastemakers in charge of state-backed opera have, collectively, tastes and priorities rather distinct from those in the broader and not-much-overlapping group of people who spend their own privately-earned money -- often quite a lot of it -- to support the art here. (Of course, this apparently has come as a big -- and nasty -- surprise to many a Euro-mandarin who's come to head an American arts organization, most recently Pam Rosenberg in San Francisco, so maybe it's not so obvious.)

What is different is not, I think, the range of tastes within a group -- every view in my original taxonomy is held, I think, everywhere -- but their balance. Many people come to the opera, give money, and stay loyal to the art because they just love the physical pleasure of the right voice. These are not, except perhaps for Jay Nordlinger, the people who end up writing opera reviews, not least because this sort of pleasure is too elemental to be verbal. I know a bunch of people like this: they may thrill to Jenufa as much as anyone, but in the end what they really want is to hear an echo of some particular primal tenor/soprano/whatnot sound that means "opera", preferably in a comfortingly familiar piece.

This perspective on opera is not, as I say, well represented in the official discourse, though it sort of runs amok on Opera-L (and the wierd hair-splitting and absolutism on such matters reinforces my sense of the futility of talk thereon). But something like it is probably held by most of the domestic audience. Here, where administrators are accountable, that has mattered -- what has been on stage has generally reflected this public taste.

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And yet this singer-centric traditionalist view has never sustained the Met on its own. There have always been additional draws, and additional threads: glamour, novelty, one sort of musico-dramatic rigor succeeding another. The house has needed all of these to stay afloat.

But none before Gelb have proposed to set one of these principles above singing, to Europeanize the house and its sense of opera. For though Gelb is American, with a much better understanding of American institutions than Gerard Mortier is likely ever to show, and though he may make odd bragging pronouncements about European houses, his respin of this house and its values clearly reflects a European sensibility. His imported new stars (Damrau, Netrebko, Gheorghiu), the emphasis on looks and versimilitude, and not least his taking for granted or worse the wishes of his core audience speak for themselves.

Now the reason for all this is clear: the core audience is stuck and -- with the post-9/11 drop in foreign tourism -- insufficient, while the marginal audience is the group that loves novelty, both real and imagined. But as a politician who keeps his eye always on putative swing voters may find himself abandoned by his base, so Gelb may find a nasty surprise in his house's future. Maybe not -- perhaps the repeated boom cycles of the "new economy" have created a entire class of novelty-loving arts-lovers-with-money -- but then it would just be opera that suffers.

In this thicket Gelb may be hampered by his sincerity. Why shouldn't he, as he seems to, believe in theatricality -- the true live charge of opera -- as its true being? As you may have noticed from reading this blog, I pretty much do myself. And yet the other perspectives on opera are also true, and there's no reason seasons shouldn't cater to all, in sequence or together. A man of his press savvy can surely sell all of opera's truths. The art is too big, too varied for a global monoculture, particularly one against the wishes of so many enthusiasts.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Tongue tied behind his back

Sometimes I wonder if it wasn't to tweak his prominent teacher-predecessors, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the late Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, that Matthias Goerne has taken such a haphazard approach to song texts. Even at his best he's been at times mealy-mouthed, and if last night's Carnegie Hall appearance showed him in reasonably good diction, it introduced a new element: bits of paper inside the piano, from which he seemed to study the words between and even during songs. (He still botched some.)

For despite putting aside their obsession with word and word-effect, despite himself fumbling with cue cards and word-memory lapses, Goerne illuminates the poems set by the great lieder composers at least as well as his forebears. Last night his uncannily beautiful instrument precisely registered every textual image and turn in mood, without giving any moment priority over the song's whole or losing the line of musical or dramatic focus. It is this latter, I think, by which he excels even Fi-Di: shorn of the odd postwar obligation to represent the institution of song, Goerne can uncompromisedly embody, e.g., the whole void with which Brahms' songs stoically cohabit. Next time, for a bigger challenge, might he start singing everything to "la la la la la" a la Rossini?

Christoph Eschenbach, ill-treated by the Philadelphia set, provided both measured and sympathetic accompaniment. The evening was a feast of collective focus, after which it seemed the crowd might call the players endlessly and happily back for ovations.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Welcome new readers

To all clicking through from Manhattan User's Guide, welcome. I doubt any short post can sum up opera, its current state in the city, or even this blog, but my first two years' favorite posts may give some sense of -- well, at least the latter.

Please also note the other opera blogs listed on the sidebar; they're written by listeners, professional critics, and singers, and done in all sorts of styles.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Orfeo cast change watch

Please note: I have no reason to believe this will happen. However, should anyone hear of David Daniels cancelling any performances in this new Met production, please leave a comment on this post or send me an email (at the sidebar address). His cover seems to be Tamara Mumford -- the woman I felt should sing the part in the first place -- and I would not like to miss any Orfeos she may do.

Meanwhile the Euridice of the staging is now the lovely and talented Maija Kovalevska. Did the originally scheduled Lisa Milne, I wonder, fall afoul of some Gelb weight directive? Milne did, at any rate, seem an odd choice for a physical Mark Morris production from the start, and though I enjoyed the sound of her Met debut, Kovalevska is no slouch there either.