Thursday, March 26, 2009

More turnover

Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, tenor Rolando Villazon -- in, it seems, another vocal crisis -- is out of the season's first two performances of Elisir next week opposite Angela Gheorghiu. In, for the moment, is the cloddish and raw Massimo Giordano. (Who knows? Maybe the foolish but good-hearted Nemorino is of particular enough interest that he can make something of the role.) I'm a bit surprised the replacement's not Gheorghiu husband Roberto Alagna, other engagements or no. Perhaps he'll do the later ones. As long as Joseph Calleja sings at least the one performance for which he's scheduled I'll be happy.

Calleja, incidentally, reprises his Duke of Mantua beginning Wednesday.

More confusing is Christine Brewer's cancellation from her scheduled Ring performances as Brünnhilde. She is being replaced by the debuting Iréne Theorin -- sort of. Brewer and Lisa Gasteen -- whom I liked despite a very short top in last season's Valkyrie -- were supposed to alternate entire cycles, but Gasteen pulled out injured weeks ago. Brewer was assigned one of Gasteen's cycles and the standalone Valkyrie, and Linda Watson -- a sub last year in Tristan for Katarina Dalayman's Isolde -- the other cycle. Now with Brewer also out with an injury, the three cycles are going to be split among three sopranos: Theorin, Watson and Dalayman.
Cycle 1 (matinees): Theorin, Theorin, Dalayman
Cycle 2 (week of April 27): Dalayman, Watson, Dalayman
Cycle 3 (week of May 4): Watson, Watson, Watson
Theorin will also sing the standalone Valkyrie on April 6.

In other news, the AP still doesn't know the difference between "crescendo" and "climax".

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Dead or alive, update

(Original post here.)

Apparently, the President last night personally defended his proposed massive cut to the federal arts subsidy. I'm not sure what the odds of its ultimate passage are now, but this certainly isn't a good sign.

And not a peep (that I've seen) from the arts press.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The birthday

Metropolitan Opera 125th Anniversary Gala -- 3/15/09
many many singers / Levine

All-star potpourri galas like last Sunday's tend to cruise comfortably along until a solo performer drops the hammer with some outrageously great performance that inflames audience attention and both inspires and challenges those who come after.

In the 2006 Volpe gala, it was Natalie Dessay's electrifying "Ah! non credea" (a triumph retrospectively tarnished by what she's had a hand in putting on stage for it this month) -- which came reasonably early in that show's first half. At Sunday's anniversary bash, the stakes didn't so rise until Joseph Calleja's golden "Che gelida manina" arrived... well into the second half of the evening. This kicked off a truly memorable gala close after much that was worthy and pleasant but nonetheless unexceptional.

*     *     *

It began with a missed opportunity: an evocation of the company's very first night -- Gounod's Faust. Donald Palumbo's Met chorus sang well in the Act II opening number, but despite their recreated 1883 costumes and projected retro frame, the garish blue-violet tinge to the lighting made clear that efforts to induce true time-bridging double vision would be spotty at best. Ditto John Relyea, who in similar lighting sang Mephistopheles' aria from that act wearing, interestingly, a replica of the original costume on which his Damnation of Faust devil outfit this season was based.

It was not their fault, of course. But the next number highlighted a performer's sort of anachronism, for it turns out that it's impossible to imagine Angela Gheorghiu's art at a point before WWII, much less all the way back in 1883 before the dawn of verismo. Of course diva acts and shaped dramatic artistry have been around forever, but Gheorghiu's particular method -- the concatenation of small, disparate, audibly discrete gestures -- and the appreciation thereof is in the postwar modernist vein kicked off by Fischer-Dieskau, Schwarzkopf -- and, yes, Callas. Even Gheorghiu's out-of-character diva business seems assembled in this manner. In any case, Marguerite's famous Jewel Song was not the best showcase for her talents, requiring more bel canto ease than she's ever really commanded.

The Faust sequence ended with a much more satisfying bit: Relyea, Gheorghiu husband Roberto Alagna, and Sondra Radvanovsky in the opera's closing trio. The men did well enough, but the whole was dominated by Radvanovsky's stunning voice as Marguerite. Hearing her in this context was a double thrill: of course for the sound itself, but not less for what it represented -- the thread of palpably significant vocal sound that, whatever the vagaries of performance fashion, has always been strong (and particularly strong at the Met) from the very beginning of opera.

The projection for this trio had the painting (if I'm not mistaken, it's of the Met's first night and it's on display in the cabinet near List Hall) of an audience watching the final scene from Faust zoom in until the performers in the image were congruent to the performers onstage. A neat effect. Even closer to the "time-bridging double vision" mentioned above was the scene for the next selection, from Puccini's Fanciulla del West: all the miners gathered around and over Dick Johnson, about to hang him but paused as he sings his great aria "Ch'ella mi creda". This was patterned after a photo (which, having Minnie in it, was actually of a moment somewhat later in this last act) from the 1910 world premiere here with Caruso. The visual did in fact link our day and Puccini's -- but only for an instant. With the start of the music the spell was broken, for Placido Domingo sang this aria quite poorly -- not only nothing like Caruso, but nothing like his former self. It was dry, undistinguished, and old-sounding (and not merely from the transposition). Not knowing that he'd improve later, I was shocked.

Stephanie Blythe was -- as always of late -- an excellent antidote. She will, it seems, be the next in the line of excellent Amnerises the Met has boasted. Maria Guleghina's typically forceful but blunt singing wasn't on the same level.

His other parts were filled by singers already in the gala, but the lately much-canceling Rene Pape allowed (by his absence) John Tomlinson to take part. The English bass sang Boris Godunov's death scene -- and quite well, too -- with a bit of help from boy soprano Jesse Burnside Murray.

The Aida (1908-09) and Boris (1913) costumes were lovely attempts to recapture the magic of ancient detailed originals, shown off here in front of fairly abstract ahistorical sets, but the next number -- "Va pensiero" from Nabucco -- signaled a change. The chorus wore the costumes from the 2001 production (the most recent thing referenced on the evening) and sat on a series of risers evoking the general shape (but not color) of the original set. Unfortunately the black risers and backdrop made the somewhat abstracted costumes look shabby. The chorus sang well, but not well enough to consider the famous encore...

There followed a number of evocations of productions from around 1950 (with costumes from various eras). These came off quite well -- the clean lines and spaces of that day is clearly closer to director Phelim McDermott and associate director/set designer Julian Crouch's sensibilities than 19th century stuff. First, the finale of Carmen, with Waltraud Meier wearing a version of the amazing (and totally un-Zeffirellian) bullfighter-inspired high-fashion outfit Valentina made for Rosa Ponselle's 1935 attempt. Ponselle, for all her vocal glory, was -- as we can hear -- a poor choice for Carmen, and Waltraud Meier isn't much better. Meier can sing the part, but why? It was an odd gala choice, given the flop she made as Carmen in 1996. The temperament still eludes her.

Not Alagna, who was the Don Jose here. His voice -- often variable -- sounds like it's seen better days (a Rondine I caught had him in noticeably better sound), but he had all the guts, passion, and agonized fire of an ideal Don Jose. Hope he's as impressive next season.

Juan Diego Florez followed with "La donna e mobile", dressed as Enrico Caruso circa 1903. Of course, Florez is about as far opposite of the golden-voiced baritonal tenor legend as any excellent tenor can get, but he made a big stir in this showpiece with his endlessly held final C. I'd hate to see him wear out his voice competing with orchestra and larger-voiced singers in complete performances as the Duke, though.

The 1950 sequence closed with another Verdi aria: James Morris singing Philip II's lament from Don Carlo, in a 1950 costume and inside a small study evoking the 1950 production. He too sang well.

The Rosenkavalier trio was less happily done. Though wearing outfits based on the 1913 US premiere, Deborah Voigt and Susanne Mentzer were awfully miscast as the Marschallin and Octavian. Voigt's loud but unrefined post-weight-loss voice is just the opposite of what the Marschallin demands, while Mentzer's charming lyric mezzo at this point lacks the force to be heard as Octavian. Lisette Oropesa did well as Sophie, but Strauss was not well served (Levine has never done well with Rosenkavalier either).

Probably the low point of the entire gala was during Mariusz Kwiecien's number -- Don Giovanni's drinking song from his eponymous opera. His actual singing was entirely overshadowed by portrait photos projected onto the back wall of these women: Albanese, Marian Anderson, Caballe, Callas, Flagstad, Freni, Melba, Milanov, Moffo, Nilsson, Pons, Price, Rysanek, Sills, Stevens, Sutherland, Tebaldi, and Te Kanawa. As one can see, it is an odd mix of those indelibly associated with the house and famous names who were barely Met artists at all -- a list more about which singers two British guys had heard of growing up some decades ago than celebrating the greatest stars (e.g. Farrar, Jeritza, Ponselle, Bori) of the Metropolitan Opera's 125 years. Naturally, the aria ended with all the photos darkened except for one, and that of... who else? A soprano who sang parts of just three seasons at the Met, but on whom it's often socially safe to lay even the most absurdly hyperbolic praise. Yes, Maria Callas got pride of place despite being a blip in actual Met annals, and though I wasn't looking at the exact moment I believe her picture may have winked as Kwiecien turned around to offer her a toast. Ha ha. Give me a break from this all-purpose Callas monomania already! Here it was just disgraceful non sequitur.

The first half did end on a better note: specifically the final scene of Wagner's Parsifal. For some reason Wagner inspired much more historically evocative treatments by the gala's production team than his Italian colleagues. The costumes, and the projected Grail-castle interior (on both -- for some reason -- backdrop and the drop curtain) designs -- both from the non-Bayreuth premiere of the piece in 1903 -- were stunning, really suggesting a prior era. Thomas Hampson was a terrific, movingly human Amfortas in 2006, and he was similarly good here. Unfortunately Domingo -- his Parsifal here -- was not, though he did sing better than in Fanciulla.

*     *     *

The second half began with a very clever animation of the various elements in Chagall's prominent Grand-Tier level mural ("The Triumph of Music") to the orchestra's zippy account of the Magic Flute overture. But this celebration of the new house preceded a long return to the past. First was an aria from the other Puccini world premiere at the Met: 1918's Trittico. The current Met staging does it no great favors, but it's rather better than the swaying furniture cutouts (from, apparently, no particular production at all) that did their best to distract from Maija Kovalevska's charming and graceful "O mio babbino caro".

I've defended Dmitri Hvorostovsky as recently as last month from the claim that he's singing roles too big for him, but his version of a piece actually associated with him -- Yeletsky's aria from Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades -- had me wondering. While his handling of words and music was remarkable, his sound seemed for the first time overblown and overly driven. Perhaps he's in transition, or perhaps it was just me. I had similar reservations when I went back to Trovatore after this. (The audience still loved him as di Luna, as they had in this gala bit.) Odd.

Domingo, of course, "isn't a Verdi baritone" either -- yet. He previewed next season's foray into Simon Boccanegra with the recognition duet from that opera. Here Domingo sang yet better than before, though the character seemed half-formed. It was his Amelia here, though, who really shone -- Gheorghiu, in fact, here put in a 1932-ish set and costume. The longer phrases Verdi demands got her to use more of that aching dark sound that I always enjoy in her singing, and reminded me happily of her work in the wonderful Boccanegra revival two years back.

The last real duet of the night followed: again Wagner, evoking the very first American Ring from 1889. Neither Voigt nor Ben Heppner were in best voice for the great final-act duet from Siegfried, but the visual of it made the singing almost impossible to register anyway. As for the Faust bits the projected old proscenium framed them, but this time in ancient (and still somehow primally familiar) Wagner costumes and before a projected sepia-ish (photo-based?) backdrop the pair of long-famous Wagnerians seemed transformed, or the audience transported into the past. The two singers' essentially stand-and-sing body language, familiar but a bit disappointing in current shows, there became something different -- something absolutely right and fitting and perhaps indispensable. Amazing.

Then came three tenors, in interestingly minimalist recreations of famous Zeffirelli sets (with his drawings for them projected behind) -- the only current-house material of this half. Joseph Calleja was Rodolfo, and though I've made much of him since hearing his 2006 debut Dukes of Mantua (he returns to the part when Rigoletto begins again in a week or so), I suspect most of the audience had not yet heard him in person. His voice is a lyric one, but the strongest sense one gets is of its expansive, enveloping presence wrapping around all one's senses -- an unmistakable standout even in an all-star lineup. "Che gelida manina" was an aural feast from beginning to end, with a remarkable (and I think untransposed) C at the end. I feel like I'm jinxing him by saying this, but at this point I can't not: if he doesn't crash, Calleja is the next Bjoerling, the next Pavarotti.

Aleksandrs Antonenko, an impressive debutant this month in Rusalka, sang "E lucevan le stelle" well and strongly, if perhaps a bit too heartily. Marcello Giordani followed with his usual workmanlike job, here in "Nessun dorma" -- he does have occasional great moments, but this wasn't one.

The next set was of chandeliers -- I'm not sure if they represented the old house or the new. In any case, they brightly backdropped Natalie Dessay in Bidu Sayao's 1930s costume as Violetta. She sang La Traviata's Act I finale ("Ah, fors'e lui... Sempre libera") with her usual control and flexibility -- and, of course, a big interpolated high note at the end. Very good, though not the huge triumph of her Sonnambula bit at the last gala. Calleja sang Alfredo's offstage part.

And at last it turned out that Domingo's voice hadn't disappeared. He came out to sing Otello's death scene, in 1909-based costumes and set (and was that Radvanovsky playing Desdemona's corpse?), and somehow himself turned back the clock, sounding not only a different singer from the one who'd sounded finished in the first half, but different from (and noticably stronger and better than) the Domingo who had appeared to sing Otello complete a decade ago. Here he had power, focus, squillo, and dramatic presence: the things that made him a star before his unflagging professionalism and endurance made him ubiquitous. We heard an unqualifiedly great singer for the scene's duration.

Finally, despite any worries her Rusalka may have inspired, Renee Fleming too can still summon a great vocal performance. She sang "Glück, das mir verblieb", the big tune of Korngold's late-late-late-Romantic opera Die Tote Stadt. As Kiri te Kanawa did at the Volpe gala, Fleming sang both parts of what's in the opera a tenor-soprano duet (you can hear the 1924 Tauber-Lehmann recording of it here) herself. The music is overripe and somehow both full-blooded and melancholy at the same time: ideal material for both her voice and temperament. Fleming came out in a copy of Mizzi Jeritza's 1921 Met premiere costume, and in front of a plain lit curtain gave one of her best Met performances, fully delivering both sonic glamor and a moving, heartfelt connection to the moment and audience. If Rusalka is no longer an ideal fit, maybe -- as the Wellsungs suggested -- we'll get a full Tote Stadt (with, if Gelb has any sense at all, Klaus Florian Vogt as Paul) as compensation.

One last scene -- the end of Das Rheingold, of course, as the gods enter their new home. Again we were taken back to 1889 for the first American Ring, but even more strongly. For the first and only time of the night, it seemed that the singers -- Garret Sorenson as Froh, Yvonne Naef as Fricka, Kim Begley as Loge, and (quite appropriately) James Morris once more as Wotan -- had not only been dressed in historic costumes but trained in an alien plastique (a sort of flexible but decidedly rooted version of stand&sing) evoking those long-gone days. The effect (and I admit not knowing how much, if any, historical basis there was for this) was even more stunning than in the earlier Wagner bits, and definitely made one wish it had been seen at the beginning of the show. Still, it was a fitting (and nicely sung) close, and as the orchestra played the last measures the projections became the faces of dozens and dozens of Met artists filling the entire curtained space. Then endless applause and curtain calls.

*     *     *

My apologies for a report that may have lasted nearly as long in the reading as the gala itself. As Pascal put it, I didn't have the time for a shorter one.

Incidentally, why on earth were people grabbing up piles of programs? There actually ended up being a shortage.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Yes, there will be a Gala report

But it won't be until tomorrow. On the whole, I found myself agreeing with others' impressions, so it didn't seem as urgent to post immediately.

Marcelo Alvarez, incidentally, is still listed as singing Manrico tonight. Fingers crossed.

UPDATE (3/21): Alvarez did sing, and either the illness or the rest therefrom actually seemed to have opened up his top (compare the production's first night). A very impressive performance.

UPDATE 2 (3/22): It will be up today (Sunday), and very long.

The fallen idol

Easy shallow cynicism notwithstanding, Vincenzo Bellini and Felice Romani's La Sonnambula concerns a truth both open and deep in opera: the unavoidable danger and precariousness of prominence, gained voluntarily or not -- and even (especially! -- consider the fates of Carmen, Riccardo/Gustavo, and Desdemona, among others) when joined to love. Amina is beloved not only by Elvino but the town, and yet on her wedding eve a quick storm of deceptive happenstance allows an envious enemy to turn both on her, to near-disastrous effect. How quickly all abandon what they should long have known of her! But fortune and public opinion are fickle, and their long praise to start suggests a fury to come.

Composer and librettist set it masterfully. Elvino is -- as he beautifully sings -- personally jealous even of the breeze, but the crowd is no less agitated by the imminent prospect of yielding their mutually shared possession of the village mascot to Elvino's exclusive embrace. And so of course it is Amina's own joy at the next day's marriage (and perhaps excitement from the earlier festive congratulation) that drives her to the particular fateful sleep-walk that night. In tragic self-correction, acclaim and happiness create their own limit.

Of course the piece doesn't end that way: in a cute Enlightenment-flavored twist, a little scientific knowledge on the Count's part serves to clear things up as mere misunderstanding. And yet, lest we forget the truth of Amina's peril, she is not finally cleared and saved until she bodily enacts it at length, crossing blind and in agony over a high precarious bridge. How close a thing it is, and how lucky when one in such a position finishes whole and happy...

*     *     *

Essentially all the good in the current Met production is in its handling of the personal and intimate aspects between the leads; the bad is in (not) providing social, more populated context. The production team (and I hesitate to single out director Mary Zimmerman because I wonder how much of a hand Natalie Dessay -- who apparently vetoed the original proposal of a literal staging -- and others had in these choices) deliberately trivializes the chorus of villagers at every turn: the opening love-fest with Amina is made pro forma, part of a rehearsal; their merciless blame and anger at the first act's close just Rossini-style nonsense; and of course all are shoved into maximally ridiculous Swiss peasant costumes and dances at the end. And of course the main conceit -- by making them a backstage chorus, co-operators and subordinates to Amina rather than spectators and actual people -- shows them as even more boxed-in, will-less and toothless. But the turns and reversals the villagers make through the piece aren't signs of insubstantiality. Quite the opposite: they embody the tempestuous relationship between all crowds and their favorites, between the two of which lies always much risk and uncertainty.

It's sort of amazing that the production got this so wrong, when even a shoddy Eurotrash vision (with, say, Amina as a young pop star and the villagers as her Amina-t-shirt-wearing fans) could have nailed the dynamic in a second. Because of course crowds are never merely toothless, contemptible, and silly, and to suggest so is -- well, not only to trivialize opera itself but to invite a mass demonstration of the reality. Which, at the production's opening, it got.

*     *     *

Wednesday night's performance was the last before this Saturday's matinee moviecast, and was mostly unchanged from the show's first night. But there were some small edits. As mentioned elsewhere, Amina no longer writes "Aria" on the chalkboard before launching into her great final aria -- she writes "Elvino" instead. Less distinct -- but still, I think, present -- were some changes to the setting of Amina's great subsequent cabaletta (despite earlier reports of no change). The offensive final dance number remains, but the extent and busyness of Dessay's dancing in front has, if memory serves, been cut down a bit. Was this designed to soften the blow? Perhaps. The actual effect you may judge for yourself if you see it, but do realize that the first wave of reviews were upon seeing something a bit different.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


Before I go on and on at length about the Gala, may I have a moment to talk about Sondra Radvanovsky? Whatever trace of rumored indisposition was upon her at the season's Trovatore prima (where, of course, she nevertheless had a huge triumph with her second aria) has now passed, and her all-too-short vocal demonstration Sunday is played out in full in her Leonora. There was, last night, no sense of conserving a bit to get to that last-act aria: just a huge, focused, and flexible (including, of course, a trill) voice reveling in its capacities -- easily filling the huge house and our ears with ample, supple sound at all volumes. Yes, folks, voices are supposed to do all of that.

Another display was put on by Luciana d'Intino, who actually debuted opposite Radvanovsky in Don Carlo four years ago. At the time I found her sound a bit white and less-than-Dolora Zajick-sized, but the years seem to have reversed things. The firm and even security from top to bottom, the vocal control, and her way with a Verdian phrase now guide a sound that's full and has real reserve power. The comparison may be unfair -- Zajick, from whom d'Intino has taken over the part of Azucena, also had some rumored indisposition when I saw the prima -- but on the whole I think d'Intino is an improvement over her now-frayed-on-top predecessor.

Not so is tenor Philip Webb, though he did a creditable cover job in his first full performance at the Met. Webb apparently made his debut Friday, when original tenor Marcelo Alvarez couldn't continue after the first two acts. Brought back from the start yesterday, Webb has some nice sound in the middle voice. Unfortunately, he's constricted on top (leading to a long but not-too-audible climax to "Di quella pira") and lacks the nobility of phrase and plangent sound Alvarez brings to Manrico, the mama's boy troubador who nevertheless has stature.

Let's hope Alvarez recovers in time for Radvanovsky's last Trovatore of the season this Friday: her Leonora here is a sensational assumption that deserves the best support. Who knows -- maybe it's in fact brought this American soprano's popularity and recognition to the critical mass that even Europhile Met GM Peter Gelb can't ignore...

Sunday, March 15, 2009

March of the penguins

This evening, of course, is the 125th Anniversary Gala (minus Rene Pape) at the Met. If you can't be there in person, there will be a live internet broadcast beginning at 6PM EDT.

A full report will, naturally, follow.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Rusalka -- Metropolitan Opera, 3/9/09
Fleming, Antonenko, Blythe, Sigmundsson, Goerke / Belohlávek

That Renee Fleming may be the weakest vocal link in the current Met revival of Dvorak's most famous opera is no reason not to see it. In fact, she's not at all bad: just surrounded by a remarkably good supporting cast, and not the force she was for the show's last appearance five years ago.

Time, as they say, is an odd thing, but I'm honestly shocked to hear the Fleming magic -- which one might have thought ineradicable -- already audibly diminished. Not that it's gone: it comes into focus at times, and when listening for it one senses the old character of her singing underlying its current version, but one is no longer forcibly seized -- rather harder than one might have liked, sometimes -- by its unmistakable star character on what seemed like every high-lying climax. Perhaps we, accustomed now to listening for the special character of her voice, will have to work harder and harder for it (not without reward: one could hear a trace of the former golden tone in Pavarotti's sound through the very end) until some day the adulation becomes inexplicable to a newcomer.

Of course we are not there yet. It's too early to write an obituary on Fleming's career -- she did quite admirably in Thaïs, and the diminished success in this part may be the result of a now-less-fitting role, an off night, or the like. But she was so fit for Rusalka last time, and to be this relatively drab on even a poor night in an ill-fit part would have been unthinkable in years past. And even in Thaïs her top -- where so much of her power and appeal has been -- was difficult, an effort not just on the hit-and-miss Ds but elsewhere, in producing her characteristic luxe sensuality.

Her singing took time to congeal last time, too: somehow she's never quite made a unity of the famous Song to the Moon with which her character begins, different parts of her voice sticking out in different directions through its various turns. And in fact she later sang quite well Monday, through the truncated confrontations of Act II. But Act III offers another long solo and a great duet (well, dialog) in which she utterly triumphed in 2004, and these too -- though solidly sung and expressively phrased and acted -- lacked the sonic magic one would expect from Renee Fleming.

*     *     *

It is difficult, of course, for anyone to shine these days next to Stephanie Blythe. Blythe's amazing mezzo is here simply loosed upon the score: singing with an earthy fury and zest, catching both the demoniac force and rough humor of the witch Jezibaba, she even eclipses what Dolora Zajick brought to the part last time (which was itself amazing).

Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko (as the doomed Prince) was one of two singers debuting on the night. He made an excellent first impression: dark but rounded in tone; on the whole forceful and virile without crudity or excessive effort. I can't wait to see what he makes of "E lucevan le stelle" at Sunday's gala.

Both had iffy high note moments, but Christine Goerke and Kristinn Sigmundsson also did well, their full and full-bodied singing giving weight to the conflicting fire of the human (Goerke's Foreign Princess -- Rusalka's rival) and spirit (Sigmundsson's Water Gnome -- Rusalka's father) worlds. And the cast was strong even down to the bit parts, with Lindemann grads Kate Lindsey (again in a pants role) and David Won doing well as the Kitchen Boy and (offstage) Hunter, plus two notable Wood Sprites: Brenda Patterson, very pleasant in her Met debut as Sprite #2, and soubrette Kathleen Kim (who debuted a season ago as Barbarina), who as Sprite #1 was delightfully clear and winning -- maybe the most notable soprano singing of the evening.

*     *     *

Even the casual observer will note this story's resemblance to... Lohengrin, with its beloved human (Elsa) who, in an all-too-human world, cannot quite keep faith. OK, OK: more will think of The Little Mermaid, and it's interesting to see how differently the story plays when the disruptive force is not the witch's grasping villainy (Jezibaba is terrifying but basically helpful and fair) but the nymph's own desire -- for the prince specifically and for humanity in general.

The movie is Rusalka's story recast into the contemporary villain-focused popular mode. But before she was Disney's mermaid, the poor half-spirit and her hunter-beloved were very much figures of the Romantic period: we have seen them before, most unforgettably as Odette and Siegfried in Swan Lake, and we see them again at Romanticism's very end -- at last married, but still dangerously mysterious to each other -- as the Empress and Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten.

Of these it is Tchaikovsky's ballet that this Dvorak opera most resembles, with its lively strains of rhythm (which carry the piece along as the fairly static drama does not), succession of set-pieces, and character segments. Czech conductor Jiri Behlolavek makes (unsurprisingly) much of these virtues, bringing an elemental vitality to the music throughout. (Small coordination lapses, as with James Courtney's Gamekeeper, should sort themselves out as the run continues.) It is a great and easily lovable score, and though the more ballet aesthetic of the drama may not please all, I'm surprised the piece isn't done more often.

The gorgeous traditional production (only the Swamp Thing costume for the Water Gnome needs work) is another plus. I'd remind you to see it, except the entire run appears already sold out.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Dead or alive?

I had assumed this would just be DOA, but actual confirmation of its axing seems slow in coming.

Dress it up with whatever surveys you like, but any change in the multibillion dollar federal tax subsidy to the arts (that is, any cut to the deductibility of private contributions) would be devastating to the opera world. It's either amusing or horrifying that fans are making nary a peep after going ballistic over the possible non-materialization of a much smaller-scale handout last month. In any case, if this proposal actually passes we'll all feel the effects.

No change

By all Friday reports the prime offending portion -- that is, the ending -- of the Met's La Sonnambula production remains, though a more minor offense has been edited.

Perhaps the offended might now consider booing Dessay for her part in this...

Friday, March 06, 2009

The incomparable

As one may remember, the Met was supposed to have done Bellini's La Sonnambula at the beginning of this decade -- for superstar mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli. That fell through, apparently for cast and director issues, and thus the events of this Monday and Tuesday: Sonnambula at the Met, in a production far from anything Robert Carsen or Olivier Tambosi would have dreamed up, followed by Bartoli at Carnegie, in one of the occasional sold-out one-woman-shows that have been the limit of her New York appearances since then.

Of course, it's not just that Bartoli hasn't appeared at the Met in over ten years: she rarely appears in staged opera at all outside the friendly confines of Zurich. Its small house suits her, conditions and colleagues are to her liking -- why not? To the record-buying public it makes little difference: new releases continue as ever, and her name is still ubiquitous. But the deprived operagoer might be forgiven for wondering how much Bartoli is preserving her rare commercial status by restricting herself to projects in which her work literally cannot be compared. Meanwhile the program for this particular tour does invite comparison... to one of the legendary divas of yore, Maria Malibran (1808-1836).

For the occasion Bartoli brought Zurich's house with her, in the form of its "La Scintilla" HIP orchestra. In accompaniments and interspersed instrumental pieces they played with an admirable liveliness, though (as is generally the case), the efficient precision they offer is more of a modernist than "historical" phenomenon. Concertmaster/leader Ada Pesch shone in her playing of a violin concerto movement by Malibran's second husband, but I found an earlier cello obbligato rather too much revealing the color limitations of "historical" tone.

What, then, of Bartoli herself? Unfortunately, it's apparent that she has good reason for avoiding Met-sized houses: her voice doesn't scale well. It's quite audible in Carnegie Hall's ample space, but she can't really open up the sound past mf for a climax, making for an odd sort of real-life "clipping" effect. And the expressive range of her tone seems similarly compressed, perhaps from being near her limits of volume and carrying power. She used piano and pianissimo effects well, of course, but even these did not tell as they might against a stronger basic sound.

Her virtues, too, were unmistakable: audience command, solid and confident musicianship, and an unshakable technique that stays balanced and buoyant no matter how many divisions she (or the composer) happily piles on. But they told best in the most familiar piece -- Cenerentola's "Non piu mesta", which she in fact sang twice, once as an encore and even freer in elaboration. The more obscure Malibran-related selections sat well neither for Bartoli's voice (taxed by the higher-lying climaxes) nor her interpretive preferences (lying opposite the more overtly "dramatic" thrills Malibran apparently commanded). Commendable but hardly thrilling.

Perhaps the absence of drama hurt. It's certainly valuable for someone of Bartoli's fame to bring less familiar music to light on record and in concert, but I don't think it coincidence that she came most to life in a signature stage role's music. She has been singing the Malibran stuff for a while now, but it feels still not yet lived-in: star concerts and scholarship (and even hometown productions) have nothing on the risk of conventional opera performance. It may be that Bartoli's narrowly circumscribed career is stifling her growth...

But I certainly wouldn't criticize her final encore: after the long diet of bel canto, she sang a touching and expressive "Non ti scordar di me", more happily and colorfully shaded than most of what had come before. She knows well how to receive -- and, perhaps, return -- an audience's love.

*     *     *

In Zurich's small space, perhaps Bartoli is incomparably the greatest. Here, well... Not to be too glib, but her best work was in "Non piu mesta", and Joyce DiDonato did it better just a few weeks ago.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The blunder

La Sonnambula -- Metropolitan Opera, 3/2/09
Dessay, Florez, Pertusi, Black / Pido

Mary Zimmerman's new Met production of Sonnambula is an interesting, engrossing, happily sung, mostly subtle, sometimes brilliant effort undone by its concluding spit in the audience's face.

Like her Lucia, Zimmerman's basic method was to translate the scenic elements to those more vividly graspable by modern audiences. For the Donizetti that meant moving 17th century Scotland to the Victorian era; in this Bellini piece she took the more drastic step of shifting the action from a Swiss village of its time to an urban rehearsal space today, with the participants somehow mounting a traditional peasant-costumes-and-all production of La Sonnambula while enacting its exact emotional to-and-fro among themselves in life.

This conceit makes less sense the more one looks at it, but for all that it basically works. The pastoral genre is now more or less alien, so why not -- as Zimmerman has done -- substitute (or, rather, blend) the backstage piece? It's a familiar enough genre these days, and though not quite an obvious substitution, the well-crafted and very specific personenregie it allows here suffuses the proceedings with a disarmingly daffy -- and appropriate -- charm.

Best, I think, is the work the setting does for the two leads -- and their characters. Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez has never, I think, been well fit for the alternating swaggering and buffo tenorism that have made the bulk of his previous parts: his presence seems to me too slight in the former and (therefore) too easily reduced by the latter. But this part (Elvino), in this production, engages him in the most winning and emotionally powerful way yet seen -- and in fact I believe this, not last season's gimmicky Fille, was his finest hour here.

Like Dessay, Florez appears onstage first as a star -- one of the luminaries of the production-within-the-production. He's mostly his usual charming self, with tweaks making him a bit cool (the well-fit leather jacket of the first scene is a nice contrasting look for him) and a bit starched (plain pants, shoes, and white shirt) as well. But these more recognizably masculine signs dovetail nicely with the remarkable zest and conviction with which he sings as the emotions pile up, from the first scene's closing farewell duet on. Elvino runs through extremes of adoration, jealousy, perceived betrayal, hurt, vengeful anger, and regret, and though these dramatic states (comparable to the trajectory of, say, Edgardo in Lucia) at times touch the limits of his voice's light-lyric coloration, Florez carries them -- and their attendant floridity and high notes -- off with such strong and admirable panache that, caught up in his suffering, one forgets that half the opera is about Elvino's bullheadedness.

Natalie Dessay's part is even more -- and cleverly -- tweaked to her own persona. The extreme... unassertiveness of Amina's (waking) nature is not only a potential audience hurdle but far from the soprano's own self. So Zimmerman has adjusted the "performer" Amina as well, giving her a coat, accessories, and a comic version of Dessay's own unflappable spunky energy. The tweaks let Dessay shine as Amina in her own persona -- a nice and valuable touch.

She, too, sings well. The voice remains what one heard in Lucia and Fille, and if it's not as shiny as it long-ago was, Dessay's ability to spin out Bellinian lines -- not least in concert with Florez, with whom she has a great rapport -- is undimmed. The real test comes at the end: the opera's most well known excerpt, Amina's final sleepwalking aria, "Ah! non credea". And here the magic one remembered from the Volpe Gala returned in full, with Zimmerman darkening the lights on all the production-business mundanities, leaving only a tiny lit model of the rehearsal space at stage rear and Dessay spotlit on an extension over the pit to mesmerize the audience.

*     *     *

And if things had so ended! But La Sonnambula rightly closes not with the soprano's heartbreaking lament but her cabaletta of ecstatic joy ("Ah! non giunge") when her believed-impossible wish is fulfilled. And Zimmerman, who has done so well putting herself in the background and Dessay out front just before, now squashes the moment -- the close and fulfillment of the entire opera -- by putting on a derisively elaborate dance number with derisively literal Swiss country costumes, with Dessay at the head, busier dancing than singing. Grotesque.

The cabaletta form is not just outmoded nonsense from the bad old days of pre-Wagnerian opera. It's an ideal vehicle for a sort of expression not much -- if at all -- attempted in new opera these days, much to our loss: joy, order, the thrill of onrushing energy neither sinister nor ridiculous. In this Bellini opera, Amina's ecstasy frees and neutralizes the darkness of her suffering -- on her and on the audience -- making for an indispensable and, when properly done, utterly captivating close.

It is bad enough that composers continue to fail us by not reviving some version of this form. For a director to draw some ironic quotation marks around arguably its greatest example -- for her to claim that this music is a part of the opera that we today can't get straight -- no, absolutely not. The booers were right.

(But perhaps a Peter Grimes-style edit could fix much.)

UPDATE (4:50PM): Mike Silverman's on-target review for AP notes that it was Dessay who nixed a more traditional setting in the first place (see also this tidbit). Perhaps she was also the one who wanted to flip off the audience at the end? Or perhaps squashing Dessay's big moment was Zimmerman's revenge... Or not. In any case, the finale was a ruinous misjudgment.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Met Council Finals 2009

Sunday, February 22, was the 2009 edition of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Grand Finals Concert. Eight finalists -- fewer than usual -- sang. As last year, each offered one aria -- in this order -- then, after the break, all sang another. Patrick Summers and the Met Orchestra provided excellent accompaniments.

Anthony Roth Costanzo (countertenor, 26)
"Rompo i lacci" (Flavio)
"Stille amare" (Tolomeo)

Noah A. Baetge (tenor, 28)
"Fra poco a me ricovero" (Lucia)
"Pourquoi me reveiller" (Werther)

Kiri Dyan Deonarine (soprano, 24)
"Piangero la sorte mia" (Giulio Cesare)
"The trees on the mountains" (Susannah)

Paul Appleby (tenor, 25)
"Dal labbro" (Falstaff)
"O wie ängstlich" (Abduction)

Sarah Mesko (mezzo, 24)
"Svegliatevi nel core" (Giulio Cesare)
"All'afflitto e dolce il pianto" (Roberto Devereux)

Sung Eun Lee (tenor, 30)
"Ah! leve-toi, soleil!" (Romeo & Juliette)
"La donna e mobile" (Rigoletto)

Nadine Sierra (soprano, 20)
Juliette's waltz (Romeo & Juliette)
"Ruhe sanft" (Zaïde)

Jessica Julin (soprano, 28)
"Non, cet affreux devoir... Je t'implore" (Iphigenie en Tauride)
Lisa's aria (Queen of Spades)

Costanzo, Appleby, Lee, and Sierra were chosen as winners.

It's a truism that disappointing years at the Council Finals alternate with exciting ones, but not so much this time. 2008 offered one outstanding singer and some pleasant but unexciting compatriots; in 2009 -- despite a high overall standard of professionalism and competence -- none really set the heart racing.

This was no particular fault of Costanzo's. He was easily the most musical of the bunch, impressively engaged and showing a good sense of rhythm, phrase, word, and dynamics. He's also, however, a countertenor, and there's only so much that clever dynamic variation can do to compensate for the essentially unvarying and limited colors inherent in the voice-type. I admire his skill, but have no interest in seeing him in anything besides, say, Midsummer Night's Dream.

Baetge gave perhaps the most vocally impressive of the day's performances in the Lucia aria. Werther went less well, however -- did this cost him a prize? His languages could use work.

Deonarine probably wasn't one of the best performers on the day, but I thought she might have the most potential. Her interpretive skills aren't mature -- though the Floyd was done with nice sincerity -- and the sound could use a bit more polish but there's a core of steel in her lyric soprano that should serve her well in big houses like this one. (Also, she's attractive, which doesn't hurt.)

Appleby was an odd choice. Something in his high note production struck me as off even after he settled down his pitch issues in Fenton's excerpt. He has a generally pleasant enough sound and the Abduction was certainly fluent, but I'm not sure what earned him winner status.

Mesko has the core of a nice mezzo voice but the top is a bit edgy and not quite integrated. Her first selection, unfortunately, heavily highlighted this issue.

Lee is a broad-shouldered Korean guy who sounded, in Romeo's aria, uncannily like Roberto Alagna -- timbre, pronunciations, everything. (I suppose he's studied the records...) His phrasing and onstage manner were efficient, decisive, and controlled -- not exactly inspiring, but effective. I'm not sure how reliably securely his high notes will come out over the course of time, but he pulled out a nice one to close the Rigoletto selection.

From looking at Sierra's resume I was sure she wasn't actually 20, but it turns out that she is. She already seems to be approved by the right people, so her winning here should be no surprise. That said, I couldn't stand her voice. The bottom is recessed even for a high soprano, and there's a graininess to the sound on top that's unappealing. Where Lee was controlled and minimalist, Sierra was the opposite: effusive and helterskelter. She is, of course, young -- nowhere near the finished artist that 21-year-old Lisette Oropesa showed herself in 2005.

Finally, Julin has an appealing fire-eating manner and performed the heck out of the Tchaikovsky scene (I would have been much happier to have heard her in it than loud soprano Maria Guleghina last fall), but the climactic notes showed an uncomfortable amount of vibrato under pressure. Some people I spoke to thought her "really" a mezzo, which might explain something...

*     *     *

After a well-schooled but basically magic-free lineup like this, I wonder if more interesting singers weren't eliminated through different selectors picking for different qualities over different rounds. Too bad. I hope for better next time.