Thursday, December 31, 2009

'Tis the season

A reader emailed some days ago to ask if I had information on Rachele Gilmore, who made her unscheduled Met debut substituting for Kathleen Kim (Olympia) in the pre- and post-Christmas performances of Hoffmann. I've no personal experience, but YouTube does tell the tale:
Kim has recovered, but last night found illness knocking out the most important part of the cast: tenor David Pomeroy (who'd actually sung most of the dress rehearsal) made his official Met debut as Hoffmann himself in place of star Joseph Calleja. Pomeroy seems to have done OK, but let's hope Calleja is better by Saturday's final performance.

Meanwhile, as you may have heard, tenor Roberto Alagna -- also ill -- failed to get through Monday night's dress rehearsal of Carmen and merely acted the latter part of the show. Whether he'll recover to sing in tomorrow's production premiere/New Year's Eve gala (the cynical might think this the least bloodthirsty audience the house could arrange for a risky production) -- well, who knows? It's that time of year.

Friday, December 11, 2009


Elektra -- Metropolitan Opera, 12/10/09
Bullock, Voigt, Palmer, Nikitin / Luisi

When I say that debuting soprano Susan Bullock is missing the one essential thing required for an effective Elektra, I don't really mean the scope and force of her instrument. It's true that her voice can't happily cope with the high portions of the role and really only showed well in her actual recognition bit ("Orest! Orest!"), but I've heard worse sounds turn into more. No, what Elektra needs is to be the main character, to dominate the proceedings in some way (vocal or not) so as to make unmissable the raw nerves, near-hopelessness, and -- at the end -- pent-up joy from this princess' ten years of dogged, degrading, exhausting, all-consuming, and -- unmistakably, as we hear one of the servants proclaim at the start -- grand refusal to make peace with outrage (her father's cold-blooded murder and the usurpation of his kingdom). What's fatal is not the smallness of Bullock's voice but the smallness of her persona, lacking abandon and inner life in the character's expressions of extremity. Though (or because) well-schooled, she's just too much an untragic and unheroic vessel even to approximate this tragic heroine.

That said, Bullock is let down by a number of others in the production. First, I suppose, was stage director David Kneuss. Besides botching the recognition scene (and more on that in a minute), he or whoever it was who worked with Bullock on the dance bits failed to come up with something that didn't look unintentionally awkward (and most unrapturous) when executed by her.

Second was Evgeny Nikitin, the Orest. He sang reasonably well in yet another Rene Pape role (Pape sang the part with Schnaut and Voigt in the last Met revival), but his acting was from a different (and definitely not German) operatic genre altogether, and not a compatible one. Whatever one might think about his un-authoritative, skittish take on Orest on its own (it seemed interestingly to highlight the character's youth, but definitely lost an opportunity to compel compared to the more assured character Pape and Alan Held presented), it failed in its key purpose: he and Bullock generated about as little chemistry and mutual awe in the all-important recognition scene as one could have imagined.

And finally, Fabio Luisi. He drew out a wonderful and fascinating tapestry of sound from the orchestra, but if ever a cast and night called for the conductor to take command of drama and forward motion, this was it. He didn't: in fact he continued to give phrases and textures space, as if to heighten the contrasting impact of a mega-climax at the end. Of course no such climax happened. As with Kneuss, perhaps what Luisi was doing would have encouraged and enflamed a different cast, but by this opening he surely knew what he had.

Things weren't all bad, of course. Felicity Palmer was a gripping Klytemnestra and Deborah Voigt -- the Chrysothemis -- sounded better than she ever yet has with her new (post-fat) voice. But unless and until Luisi decides to make this Elektra run his show or Peter Gelb steals Katarina Dalayman from Sweden (is this her role debut tomorrow?), I'd avoid it.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Verisimo redeemed

Il Trittico -- Metropolitan Opera, 12/09/2009
Racette, Blythe, Licitra, Lucic, Corbelli, Pirgu / Ranzani

(Trying to keep this short, because like apparently everyone else I know I'm going to Elektra tonight.)

This was a satisfying revival of Puccini's triptych, certainly better than the 2007 premiere at which Jack O'Brien ducked his director's bow like a coward. Even not in pristine voice (though I think she just doesn't have that top note for the Suor Angelica climax), Patricia Racette brought a life and theatrical presence to the soprano leads as her predecessors really had not. It wasn't quite the electrifying success one might have wanted, but not every night gets there.

In Tabarro, tenor Salvatore Licitra was as energetic as usual (as he was in stealing the show at the premiere) in verisimo, but also not in strongest voice. Meanwhile Željko Lucic's habit of downplaying the harsh, baritone-villain element of his characters has a more interesting effect here than it does in Verdi operas: paired with a more emotionally subtle than usual Giorgetta in Racette, their relationship as a couple takes on a surprising realism. Of course, with his (mostly) less-than-brutal jealousy a certain impact is lost, though as always listening to Lucic's voice is a pleasure.

Suor Angelica was well-sung -- by Racette, force-of-nature Stephanie Blythe, and the rest of the habit-clad cast -- but the all-too-literal appearance of the child at the end looks as schlocky as ever, and after the excellent singing this time is even more jarring. I don't think I'll ever be able to enjoy this opera in this production.

Finally, Gianni Schicchi revealed a really promising new singer: Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, whose house debut was in this run. Time will tell whether Pirgu has the endurance and variety of sound to triumph in a full night's role, but as Rinuccio he was near-ideal. More, please. I think I'm finally warming up to Alessandro Corbelli's self-effacing Schicchi (though the opposite would certainly be welcome), and the piece also brought conductor Stefano Ranzani's best work: detailed and lively here, where in the previous installments he was detailed and perhaps insufficiently visceral.

*     *     *

I'm always a bit perplexed when I hear the not-so-rare sentiment that more opera these days should be in the verisimo mold. The general formula -- "low" setting plus extreme emotional outcries -- does its best to make its characters into slaves of their outsized (often near-pathological) desires (a view of humanity also seen in later, more self-conscious forms of modernist work -- see, as its greatest operatic example, Berg's Lulu). But man is more than a tortured beast, or strives to be so, and as characters in story even more so: stories began with divine (or quasi-divine) protagonists and it is a very late thing indeed that this has been forgotten enough to make a "realist" or "veristic" goal seem plausible or even natural. And so as Trittico moves forward in its realization of man's godly aspect -- first as religious longing and frenzy, then with the thorough divine laughter that even breaks the fourth wall -- it moves (in Puccini's original settings) backward in time, from the 20th century to the 17th to the 13th, closer and closer to the liberating first truths of story. Puccini, fortunately, could not be a verist for long. (Which, incidentally, is why Mimi's imagination is so crucial.)

Friday, December 04, 2009

Hoffmann (after)

Les Contes d'Hoffmann -- Metropolitan Opera, 12/03/09
Calleja, Lindsey, Held, Kim, Netrebko, Gubanova, Oke / Levine

The true value of the Met's new production of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann may take several revivals -- and, perhaps, a tenor less spellbinding than Joseph Calleja -- to reveal itself, but after last night's premiere I would call it at the least the greatest (and perhaps the first) native triumph of Peter Gelb's term as General Manager. (Butterfly, Trovatore, and others were imports that played to much acclaim before arriving.) And certainly when one includes the cast contribution, this is the event of the season so far. If you can't get tickets, at least see the (unfortunately to-be-censored) movie version later this month.

*     *     *

His Met debut Barber of Seville was antiseptic, but that seems to have been a trial run for director Bartlett Sher. His work for Hoffmann retains some of the tics of that Barber (door frames, etc.) but this time shows a fittingly operatic imagination lacking in that first try.

Sher's Hoffmann opens with a tableau of ruinous desire: mostly-nude women sprawl -- as if mannequins, or in the aftermath of a debauch -- on the floor and on the benches that will, when the scene turns from vision into reality, become Luther's tavern in Nuremberg. (Seriously: I'd never expected to see a passel of pasties prominently featured at the Met -- wasn't it just yesterday that the skin content of Moses & Aron had to be tuned way down?) Meanwhile Hoffmann's writing desk sits, covered with papers, downstage left, where it will remain for all but the Antonia act, for which it's temporarily displaced by Antonia's own piano -- also covered with papers.

This is the basic schema of the opera -- doomed-to-fail desire versus the artistic recompense for its failure -- and Sher sets it out strikingly. The initial women stir, others (clothed) appear -- unidentified, but later shown to be visions of Stella, Olympia, Antonia, and Giulietta -- and in the poet's corner the Muse goes to sing her intent: she will wean Hoffmann from his ruinous attachments and lead him to success in art.

And in a sense the three Hoffmann stories within this frame tell of desire's basic perils: Olympia (the doll) is about the possibility of bestowing love on someone worthless and ridiculous; Antonia (the too-frail singer) about the awful potential consequences of desire's consummation (though yes, she is ultimately done in by the singer's desire for glory and not romantic desire per se); and Giulietta (the courtesan who steals Hoffmann's shadow) about the possibility of grasping both of the previous perils and yet choosing ruin.

The art, of course, is in the telling itself, both by Hoffmann within the story and by Offenbach, his librettists, the cast, and the production team in our world. In this case Sher, set designer Michael Yeargan, and costume designer Catherine Zuber have, as most predecessors, found varied and striking elaborations for the various settings and acts while maintaining a unifying base: the black floorboard space that underlies all locations, the artist's paper-strewn surface, and Hoffmann's dark suit and coat (the outfit -- though thankfully sans hat most of the time -- much seen in ads).

Sher writes of his first inspiration for the production being Kafka, but there is no trace of that left in what's actually onstage. The 1920s do get a decent airing -- the half-dressed half-sinister decadents are more than a little Weimar, and one might associate Hoffmann's outfit with Chaplin or Magritte, who both flourished in that decade -- but there's no Kafka. The other stated influence -- Fellini -- is fairly present in spirit, helping the stunning and fantastic stage pictures Sher creates in the Olympia and Giulietta acts (the latter with another -- this time applause-inducing -- surprise display of flesh). In between, oddly enough, is what seems to be an homage to Carsen's great Onegin here, with a field of white, characters seen by their shadows, and minimal scenery...

Sher et al. do add one thread, or rather raise it out of subtext: Hoffmann's difficulty fitting in (and eventual ejection from all the milieus outside the tavern), as Offenbach had had difficulty as an artist and a Jew. This got a bit too cute at the end, with Hoffmann picking up the white cloth the revelers had been using to act out Kleinzach and himself wearing it to evoke a tallit (he does take it off at the very end when he sits down to his art), but other elements -- like the separate space created by his desk in each scene -- work well.

More on the production when I see it again soon.

*     *     *

The cast was the side that had the most upheaval, but one wouldn't have known it from this premiere. Rolando Villazon for Hoffmann became Calleja -- who, though prodigious in gifts, had never sung the part before in his life. Anna Netrebko as all the heroines became Kathleen Kim as Olympia, Netrebko as Antonia/Stella, and Ekaterina Gubanova as Giulietta. Finally, Elina Garanča for the Muse/Nicklausse became Kate Lindsey and Rene Pape as all the villains became Alan Held. James Levine, after recent back surgery, did recover in time to conduct the premiere as scheduled.

Calleja first. I've had huge expectations of him since his 2006 debut, and while his bit in the 125th Anniversary Gala created yet more believers, he's still only 31 and had never sung a role of nearly Hoffmann's weight or length before anywhere, much less at the Met. And yet, while I agree with Maury that he -- particularly at the beginning of the night -- was a touch cautious and didn't show quite the freedom and rhythmic/expressive mastery one has heard from him in Italian pieces and from others here, Calleja makes the show, and would make it a must-see even if Sher's staging were leaden. When he sings -- which is much of the long night, and he makes it through without issue, even sounding strongest and most free at the end -- the show is about little else but sitting there and taking in his implausibly spacious golden-age sound. It's the sort of experience that justifies the otherwise-laughable tenor cult and all its otherwise-inexplicable trappings, the sort that makes me regret not having been able to take an opera novice or two to this performance.

Calleja, as in his Elisir, also does well conveying the straightforward, earnest love and desire of his character. (It is the addition of this true-feeling central character that transforms the hijinks around him -- much of which might otherwise fit in the frothy operettas that long made Offenbach famous -- into serious and even sinister stuff.)

His ladies did reasonably well, though as perhaps appropriate for this unified production telling Hoffmann's story none were able to really compete with the hero. Kathleen Kim came the closest, but Olympia's dazzling aria has often taken the laurels (not least for Natalie Dessay in 1998). On the strong and full-voiced (as opposed to delicate/elegant) side among Olympias, Kim pulled off her showpiece well, particularly the end. This plus the charm she showed in making a splash in Rusalka has me excited to hear her Zerbinetta later this season.

Netrebko, fairly wisely, stuck to the regular soprano part (Olympia is high-soprano and Giulietta a mezzo) among the heroines. After sounding surprisingly poor and even old -- ungainly, unsteady, with pitch issues and little distinguished sound beyond the huge high notes -- in the initial aria ("Elle a fui"), she improved through the act to a pretty good (and quite loud) climax (though the repeated clutching and re-clutching at the papers as she died was a bit much).

Gubanova sang quite well in the least grateful heroine part (Giulietta). The real mezzo part in the opera is, of course, the pants role of Nicklausse. Kate Lindsey was, as ever, excellent in male attire and, as ever, sang with admirable style and panache. In this opera her instrument isn't on the same dominant scale as, say, Calleja's, but that fits: Nicklausse is Hoffmann's sidekick, not the other way around.

Alan Held did well as the villains, musical and plausibly menacing despite his not-so-dark basic sound, but didn't make much of his big Venetian solo ("Scintille, diamant"). Alan Oke sang very well -- not least in Frantz's song parodying Antonia's musical ambition -- but probably didn't get as much applause as he deserved because he blended in to the other bit players at curtain call.

Levine's firm hand was welcome in this kaleidoscope of moods.

*     *     *

There is a lot in this production and in this opera, almost too much to take in at once. Fortunately, it runs until January 2. Unfortunately, it's pretty much all sold out. Still...

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Watch this space

To be posted this week(end): reviews of some Mozart performances and that premiere tonight.

Not to be posted this week, or perhaps ever: review of Dorothea Röschmann's Carnegie Hall recital, which has been postponed to April 12. Yes, that's the night of the Armida premiere at the Met -- a poor rescheduling choice for a vocal event. I'll see which I end up attending in the spring.

The happy recitalist

Recital (Brahms, Wolf, Hahn, Mahler) -- Alice Tully Hall, 11/29/09
Kirchschlager / Jones

Perhaps it was Warren Jones (for Malcolm Martineau), perhaps the greater notice that it was to be a solo recital, perhaps something else, but Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager's performance yesterday was quite the opposite of the uncomfortable forced march she led through Romantic song three years ago. On this Sunday both she and her program were poised, forward, and lively -- a much happier combination.

Not that the atmosphere was wholly placid: in fact, the whole event was charged (particularly at the start) with a certain nervousness that contrasted interestingly with the calm sonic appeal of Kirchschlager's singing. And yet at every point she seemed bent on turning this energy into an impeccable joy -- and it mostly worked. Even the coughing that prompted an awkward admonishment from her last time this time prompted a joke, as she spoke of wanting to cough herself between songs and then actually doing so (to much laughter).

Instead of -- as last time -- a long jumble of Schumann followed by a long jumble of Schubert, Kirchschlager and Jones did four later-Romantic groups of songs: 7 by Brahms, 6 by Wolf (from the Mörike set), Hahn, and Mahler (from Des Knaben Wunderhorn). The Brahms was well-sung but perhaps a bit too insistently presented to capture his full appeal, but the rest of the program suited Kirchschlager's strengths as a performer.

Her best expressiveness, I think, is musical: she's game for all sorts of turns and elaborations on her pleasant sound. Her acting is well-judged, well-shaded and hardly inhibited but more self-effacing than overpowering either in her own persona or in the characters'. And the words are -- well, perhaps this was the cause of some nervousness. For whatever reason she seemed to be battling them a bit, not only changing (from, I assume, memory lapse) but blurring the German from time to time, if not quite swallowing the text wholesale in the sometime manner of Matthias Goerne.

On the whole, despite both word slips and a certain unease on high notes, Kirchschlager served the late Romantic program well. The highlight, I think, was in the Wolf songs, where she perfectly caught the mix of reverie and ecstasy of "Auf einer Wanderung" to begin a set that finished with his more single-mindedly rapt (than Schumann's familiar version) setting of "Er ist's".

She finished with two encores, though I'm afraid I've the first has already slipped my mind. The second was Brahms' famous lullaby, a fine send-off. Warren Jones, with whom Kirchschlager seemed to have good rapport, was as ever both an expressive and delightfully precise accompanist.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Unamplified again (2)

As previously suggested here, Tommasini took a victory lap for the new City Opera acoustical arrangement.