Wednesday, January 30, 2008


There are no explosive audience-reaction moments in the Met's revived Manon Lescaut, but it is quietly and cumulatively devastating in a way almost beyond applause. Absolutely recommended.

A post on the piece will follow; performance details may or may not be included (if not, expect yet another post after Friday's performance).

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Valkyrie notes

Lorin Maazel's account of Die Walküre is nothing if not detailed, though from the first measures of Monday's performance one might have guessed that was all it would be. Every footstep, raindrop, surge of breath in Siegmund's stormy pre-curtain flight was independently audible in the prelude -- but not the flight itself, its sweep of urgency and desperation. Would this, then, be one of those trees-hiding-the-forest performances with which (fairly or not) Maazel is associated?

For much of the evening it seemed that it might. As clearly as he drew forth Act I's textures and details, so did Maazel leave its overall thrust murky: what large-scale concept he showed was coolly measured, at odds with the Wälsungs'* hot and spontaneous pathos and therefore ineffective. The moments failed to add up.

[*That is, for non-Wagnerians, Siegmund and Sieglinde -- the children of "Wälse".]

Yet Act II, on this night, brought a new focus. The three key dialogues -- Wotan-Fricka, Wotan-Brünnhilde, and Brünnhilde-Siegmund -- were each wholly of a piece, and increasingly effective as both sound and musical drama. After that, whether by the night's inspiration, increasingly simpatico music, or some other cause, Maazel led a remarkably unified and emotionally communicative account of Act III as one grand whole, and no less clear in texture and details for that. It may have been the best Met conducting of the season, for which Maazel deserved all bravos.

*     *     *

The cast did their bit. Adrianne Pieczonka is in the lighter, lyric tradition of Sieglindes, quite expressive vocally though without climactic power. She is excellently responsive onstage as well, whether in motion or standstill, though the fact that her acting is more or less school-of-Mattila conjures some (unfairly) unflattering comparisons. Her Siegmund, Clifton Forbis, is sonically an unobjectionable example of a groanentenor, but he does much with this resource, showing a deep-felt dignity that works to great effect in this part. (Domingo has always been too transparently demonstrative.)

The Valkyrie herself, Lisa Gasteen, was announced as suffering a sore throat. This, I hope, explains the very short top with which she worked -- not even trying the high notes in her entrance "Hojotoho" -- but her performance was still, on the whole, a success. Gasteen sings with a firm tone, not dark but effortlessly grounded in the chest, and a natural feeling for the musical line. These provide her great expressive resources for her dialog with Siegmund (the so-called "Todesverkündigung", death announcement) and final encounter with Wotan. She used them to heart-rending effect.

Gasteen and Forbis are on the same vocal-emotional page, and it shows. So are Gasteen and James Morris. The latter's detractors will, I suppose, note his refusal/inability to try blasting over the orchestra (which Maazel never really reigns in, for both good and bad) and near-crooned pianissimos, but in character and phrase he is more engaged and dead-on than ever.

*     *     *

While premiered in 1870, Wagner's Walküre was composed in the mid-1850s, not long after the premiere of Verdi's La Traviata. Monday's performance, featuring the aurally splendid, passionately-articulated Fricka of Stephanie Blythe, brought this to mind -- for don't both operas turn on a middle-act argument of respectability vs. love, where the former wins not by its own claims but by almost incidentally puncturing the latter's self-delusion?

One does better, I think, seeing the Ring operas separately: human-scale touches like this (and Siegmund's nobility, and the particulars of sibling, marital, and filial pathos) then aren't swamped by the grandiose big-picture mess.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

In the news

I've wondered how much the Gelb-era uptick in Met attendance has been driven by the low dollar. Yesterday's NY Sun notes that exchange rates have at least raised overall city tourism figures quite a bit.

*     *     *

I may be the only person in operaland who cares about this, but City Journal's recent puff piece on Abu Dhabi (as urbane and reform-minded as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan might be, his relatives have famously sponsored the worst sort of hate-filled filth) does offer this somewhat-reassuring non-news:
[Abu Dhabi] has approached New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center about a partnership, though executives say that no deal is imminent.
It also discusses some of the opposition to such name-lending projects.

*     *     *

[Turandot, at Domingo's WNO] will be conducted by Keri-Lynn Wilson, wife of the Met's General Manager Peter Gelb, in her company debut.
Never heard her perform, myself.

Also, Radvanovsky's singing Lucrezia Borgia there.

UPDATE (10:20PM): Maury notes that Dallas Opera has a two-season announcement up, including a new Jake Heggie version of Moby-Dick. Success in such an adaptation seems wildly improbable to me, but if anyone can pull it off perhaps it's Gene Scheer, whose libretto of An American Tragedy was masterful.

In the beginning

Unlike ACB, the Tonier of the Steve Smiths, and the apparently in-from-London Intermezzo, I wasn't at last Monday's season-opener of Valkyrie. (I have much to say on the 1/14 Wagner performance -- a review will soon follow this post.) Instead I took in the fruit of American Lyric Theater's first "Composer/Librettist Development Program".

Of the organization itself I know little, but while I find their account of opera's history debatable their goals and methods seem worthy. For this project ALT matched four would-be librettists (mostly from the theater world) with five composers, and had each work up a short piece under the guidance of librettist and composer Mark Adamo (who seems to be a friend of the company).

Both Adamo's remarkable debut opera, Little Women, and his ambitious, stimulating, and sensually arresting -- if ultimately unsuccessful -- version of Lysistrata are to his own words, making him the rare composer with the linguistic and theatrical awareness to be successful also as librettist. As such, he's a natural for this kind of program, and in fact seems to have done it before.

*     *     *

In this case, Adamo asked the five teams to all work on the same scenario. By his account, he's learned to begin work by setting out the gestural-dramatic skeleton of the piece (sort of an intertitle-less silent-movie storyboard -- half-jokingly identified with Busoni's notion of "gestus"), on which he sets both music and text. In this case, the skeleton he gave the participants was derived from the Adam and Eve story in Genesis. Though audience members were not given a copy of this outline, the gist (minus some of the emotional cues, I'm afraid) seemed to be something like this:
Scene 1 -- Adam is tempted by the apple. Eve comes and they argue. Eve ends up with the apple.
Scene 2 -- Eve pushes the apple on the Snake. The Snake refuses it and tempts Eve. She tastes it, with ecstatic result.
Scene 3 -- Eve tries to tempt Adam with the apple but fails. He rejects her for consuming it and they are not reconciled.
What might seem a fairly restrictive outline was in fact quite permissive: though the relationships had more or less to be maintained, the guidelines allowed "Adam", "Eve", the Snake, and even the apple to appear in any guise. One team had the "apple" as a perfume bottle, another a Thomas Hardy poem. (Two did, however, write about actual apples.) Settings varied from a mental hospital (pre-empting, of course, any European production of the piece...) to a surreal edition of Kafka's Prague.

*     *     *

Both the method and the actual scenario show, I think, Adamo's deep and deeply dramatic understanding of opera. There are, of course, other ways to work up a successful piece, but the ground of exhibited and changing relationships onstage is a terrific one on which composer and writer can meet, foregrounding both the fact of dramatic presence (only thinly considered in most concert music) and the deliberate scenic pace and method of opera (very different from spoken drama). The subject, too, is close to the heart of things, enacting the pattern of not-quite-to-be-fulfilled desire that grounds not only much opera but perhaps human culture altogether -- and in the form of the theme's first remembered appearance in Western story.

*     *     *

Of the librettists, two -- Quincy Long and Emily Charlotte Conbere -- really seemed to seize upon the essentially operatic possibilities of a scenario foregrounding desire, while one -- Deborah Brevoort -- missed the mark entirely with a thinly imagined and disappointingly un-operatic (no desire, thus no honest conflict) bit of political theater. The fourth, Royce Vavrek, did two libretti, each with interesting ideas that seemed not at odds with but a bit orthogonal to the opera-dramatic interest.

Of the textures -- both musical and textual -- I'm afraid I saw and heard rather too little (particularly when the musical settings were not all finished, some setting as little as one scene) to offer interesting commentary, though composer Aleksandra Vrebalov does deserve credit for making something interesting of the least grateful text.

Of the (mostly young and rising) performers, all did well -- particularly on incredibly short notice -- but special kudos goes to soprano Amanda Pabyan, who, in these under-half-hour pieces, gave her two characters natural and unmistakable life.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Somebody had to say it...

Wälse! Wälse!

(Some interesting stuff on the mechanics of such attraction in the comments there.)

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Slightly off-topic notice

One of these seems to pop up more frequently than you might expect, but the New York Sun alerts us that a complete Messiaen organ series is in the offing here over the next months, played by Gail Archer.
Sunday [January 13], 4 p.m. (Church of the Heavenly Rest, 2 E. 90th St. at Fifth Avenue, 212-289-3400).

February 3, 4 p.m. (First Presbyterian Church, 12 W. 12th St. at Fifth Avenue, 212-675-6150).

February 24, 4 p.m. (Rutgers Presbyterian Church, 236 W. 73rd St. at Broadway, 212-877-8227).

March 8, 8 p.m. (St. Paul's Chapel, Columbia University, 117th St. at Amsterdam Avenue, 212-854-0480).

April 20, 3 p.m. (Church of St. Vincent Ferrer, 869 Lexington Ave. at 66th Street, 212-744-2080).

May 29, 8 p.m. (Saint Patrick's Cathedral, 460 Madison Ave., between 50th and 51st streets, 212-753-2261).

One look back

Though I'm inclined to look to events particular and present, nothing opera-related in 2007 struck near as deep as the death of Luciano Pavarotti. Yet of course the event, as significant (if weirdly under-marked) as it was, released him into the date-unbound present of history: in the future it will always be some time around the 1970s for him, and the particular year he died may not be much remembered.

In fact, one might speculate, perhaps there's some child lately born whose appearance will be the true operatic event of 2007? But such a thing, of course, was not in my experience of the year.

To be honest, the most memorable Met performance I saw may have been at Carnegie Hall, when violinist Christian Tetzlaff gave a most Beethovenian performance of Beethoven's concerto. (Whether or not it's evident, I loved "classical" concert music long before I loved opera.)

In the house? 2007 was the year I realized how great an opera Jenůfa (well, "Její pastorkyň" if you like) is. I'd seen and heard it before, of course, and in some excellent renditions, but it was not until everything went right for Jiri Bělohlávek and his superlative cast that I discovered that it is not just a very good less-performed opera but one of the cultural landmarks of the last century: not just dramatic and terrible but ultimately triumphant, and throughout as indomitably alive and varicolored as its ever-present river. Many other works have seemed weak echoes of Janacek's masterpiece since. (Oddly enough, about a week after the last of these Met Jenufas I saw Cilea's L'Arlesiana, which actually does tell a similar, if gender-inverted, story... Though it ends in death, not reconciliation, and is so much the more sonically and emotionally monochromatic for it.)

2007 was also the year I was reminded how great Mozart's Figaro is, by a terrific and well-matched cast. But "remind" may not be the right word -- even mention of Figaro can remind my brain, but the joy and high spirits in these performances recalled Mozart to my limbs, heart, and blood.

Oh yes, and I saw maybe the greatest assumption of Lucia ever. But I've bracketed that in my head until March.