Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ophelia is dead

[Pardon the delay -- Blogger ate an earlier draft of this review.]

Hamlet -- Metropolitan Opera, 3/16/10
Keenlyside, Petersen, Larmore, Spence, Morris / Langree

If Verdi's Attila shows a still youthfully vigorous operatic Romanticism, Ambroise Thomas offers quite a later thing with his so-called Hamlet. It's the hapless and doomed Ophelia of which this Second Empire piece makes much: her presence onstage ignites the music and drama, climaxing in a mad- and death-scene tour de force that makes up the entire fourth act (except the ballet, which this production omits). Hamlet's own spirit, despite Simon Keenlyside's best efforts, is distinctly absent -- a circumstance fatal to any literate English-speaking listener.

The crushed innocent girl is, of course, a classic Romantic-opera trope: most perfectly put to music in 1835's Lucia di Lammermoor, we see her appear over and over in this period, whether not-quite-tragically as La sonnambula's Amina or in Verdi's own hand as Luisa Miller. (By Maeterlinck and Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande she reappears transformed: no longer crushed -- though still too fragile to live -- and perhaps no longer quite innocent either -- though she's definitely not guilty.)

But compare Lucia to Ophelia. Lucia, though a pawn in her brother's political struggle, is an active (if coerced) agent of her destiny, shaping the story twice by decisive deeds: first in accepting the marriage arranged for her (and abandoning her love Edgardo), and then again in murdering this husband before herself falling into madness and death. Poor Ophelia falls in love with Hamlet but remains so far from the central struggle and the forces buffeting him that she never even finds out what's going on, much less influences it.

This is fine in itself -- and the otherwise uninspired import production by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser does well in highlighting her impotent isolation by leaving all of the peasants offstage for the whole mad scene, which Ophelia therefore sings solo more-or-less in her own head -- but we have moved very far along the Romantic career. Of that aesthetic's two characteristic themes -- "the infinity and then the infinite uselessness of human subjectivity and individuality", as last month's post put it -- the latter has here become so dominant that only she at the furthest remove from action is endowed with real vitality: the rest is depressingly conventional. Thomas, as we may remember, came to prominence turning another literary masterwork into a piece about its innocent and hapless girl (though it's true that Mignon is a much more memorable character than Wilhelm Meister himself, and that her songs have inspired settings from Goethe's younger contemporary Schubert to the present day); his imagination's preference for worldly impotence seems -- whether because of 1812, 1848, 1851, some more specifically cultural-aesthetic evolution, or his own personal taste -- to have been characteristic.

*     *     *

Shakespeare's Hamlet is himself not exactly an action hero: he is, as most tragic protagonists, one caught in a situation where his particular virtue only leads him more surely to doom. But if Hamlet's quick, dissatisfied, hyper-aware spirit keeps him too long from his deed, it nevertheless dominates and illuminates the show, the great bulk of which is -- no less than the play he stages within his play to expose Claudius -- the very product of Hamlet's dilation, and thoroughly colored by the character that caused it. As much as he tries to use it, the tragic hero's virtue isn't effective -- but it is interesting and significant.

There is nothing of this in Thomas. In every bar and line of music and text his Hamlet is enmeshed in a conventionality and Second Empire syrupiness that even the most energetic performer can't pierce. The mercurial, hyper-articulate prince is made into a leaden, lovesick mooner, and while this sort of bastardization is pretty effective for German Romantic figures -- e.g. Faust and Hoffmann (both written by the same librettist team of Jules Barbier and Michel Carré that did this very opera) -- it makes utter nonsense of Hamlet, happy ending or no.

*     *     *

All the performers did well, although perhaps a really exciting conductor like Nézet-Séguin (Louis Langree, you may recall, once made Don Giovanni boring) could have made more of the score. Perhaps the out-from-illness Natalie Dessay could have provided a stronger star turn in Ophelia's big scenes, but I doubt that would have made an overall difference. Though his interest and inspiration was only in Ophelia, Thomas kept in all the other, less interesting (to him, and -- as set by him -- to us) bits from Shakespeare's play, and they weigh down the whole something awful. If he, anticipating Stoppard, could have cut everything out from the play that's not Ophelia, Thomas might have had a masterpiece... Alas.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Met Council Finals 2010

Perhaps it was the return of conductor Marco Armiliato: he led the last exciting edition of the Council Finals (the much-seen 2007 version). Perhaps just luck. But yesterday afternoon's event more than made up for the lackluster 2008 and 2009 Metropolitan Opera National Council Grand Finals Concerts. Pretty much all of the participants this year were impressive, some extremely so. But more than that -- and more than in previous years when just one or two singers electrified the house on their own -- they all, particularly in the second half of the show, seemed to feel and feed off of the occasion, delivering a string of frankly inspired performances that made this an event I'll long remember.

Although the singers sang one aria each in both halves of the program, I'll list and consider both together below. The order of the singers remained the same.

Haeran Hong (soprano, 28)
"Je suis encore tout étourdie" (Manon)
"Deh vieni" (Figaro)
Hong is a very good version of the cute soprano, charming of form, manner, and voice, though the sound has a bit more meat than ethereality for her particular type. The Juilliard grad is well-schooled musically as well, and only lacked a bit of... magic, for want of a better word.

Maya Lahyani (mezzo, 27)
"Deh! proteggimi" (Norma)
"Près des remparts de Séville" (Carmen)
I really liked what I saw from this Israeli mezzo. Her firm & even instrument is pleasing in a standard sort of way, but at the service of her wonderful musical sense (and/or ability to follow Armiliato -- does it matter which?) and intense seriousness it's quite something. Lahyani may have hurt herself with her aria choices, though -- the Adalgisa scene is a revealing slow selection but lacks a contrasting cabaletta, and though the Carmen bit showed off her rhythmic facility it's still short and not hugely ambitious.

Rena Harms (soprano, 25)
Nedda's bird song (Pagliacci)
"Tu che di gel sei cinta" (Turandot)
I found Harms' voice uneven, and unsatisfactory when tested at the bottom in Nedda's aria. She did do well in delivering Liu's aria, though.

Nathaniel Peake (tenor, 28)
"Ah, la paterna mano" (Macbeth)
"O paradis" (L'Africaine)
Hear Peake sing one note and you're pleased and impressed: he has real force and some money notes. Hear him sing a series of notes and you wince: he puts them out one by one with little apparent sense of line or phrase, and with a really unstylish bit-by-bit overemphasis in the Verdi. He's got the sound production, but isn't 28 a bit late to start becoming a musician? The big YAPs he's done -- with, incidentally, companies (SFO, Houston) represented on the judging panel -- don't seem to have helped.

Lori Guilbeau (soprano, 24)
"Toi qui sus le néant" (Don Carlos)
"Give me some music" (Antony and Cleopatra)
Guilbeau managed to bore for 3/4 of Elisabetta's heart-rending aria (in French!), but woke up for a rousing end. Barber's languorous music for Cleopatra was a better fit for this young singer, alive from start to finish and more satisfying, I think, than Lauren Flanigan's effort in the full concert version last year. Guilbeau's voice is strong, compact, and focused though not, at this young age, quite expansive. Very interested to see what it becomes in ten or so years.

Hyo Na Kim (mezzo, 27)
"Smanie implacabili" (Cosi)
"O mon Fernand" (La Favorite)
The rendition of the Dorabella aria was one of the two most impressive performances of the day (the other being also from Cosi -- see below). Kim has a voice to savor: flexible, of course, but more naturally and effortlessly large-limbed and expansive than any other of the day, the sort of sound that loves a big house and vice versa. And though she doesn't seem a natural actress (at least as Dorabella -- the tragic grandeur of Leonore seemed an easier fit) Kim did show well-developed musical understanding in both pieces, with an excellent sense for phrase and line. You can see her as Dorabella in full with Mannes May 6 and 7, but she should really be singing big parts at big houses.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen (soprano, 25)
"Einsam in trüben Tagen" (Lohengrin)
"Come scoglio" (Mozart)
Willis-Sørensen has a hint of a quick vibrato underlying her voice, less audible at top, more audible -- and helpful in making an impact -- at the bottom. It's an interesting, effective sound that should work for many parts. She took a bit to warm up to the interpretive side of Elsa, but when she came back for the second half in Fiordiligi's aria she really seized the moment. The voice has character, yes, but it also passes all of Mozart's cruel tests: strong through the range, surprising in flexibility, and (not least because of its character) very effective at conveying strong emotion. Willis-Sørensen went all-out, offering not only virtuosity and gripping seriousness but flashes of humor, and though she nearly ran out of gas on the last high notes it worked: the audience rightly wouldn't stop clapping even long after she'd gone offstage, though a competition like this certainly won't allow a curtain call.

Elliot Madore (baritone, 22)
"Batter my heart" (Doctor Atomic)
Largo al factotum (Barber of Seville)
Curtis student Madore is an energetic and game performer, and though I can't help sensing something a bit put-together in both his sound and stage manner, they're both very impressive and well-developed for a 22-year-old.

Leah Crocetto (soprano, 30)
"Ernani involami" (Ernani)
"Ch'il bel sogno di Doretta" (Rondine)
Yes she can, in fact, sing "Ernani involami" -- impressively well, too. She can even sing the cabaletta, which the audience didn't expect -- again, pretty well and with some big top notes. How many sopranos can say that? Crocetto has a big figure, but not as big as Angela Meade (the last notable dramatic coloratura in this event) and perhaps her large head helps with the on-stage thing. The voice, though full top to bottom and more excitingly dramatic-coloraturaish than Meade's, isn't quite finished: Crocetto's vibrato can get away from her at times, particularly at the end of phrases, and she unfortunately only fakes a trill. And Madga's aria was a mistake: the final high notes are impressive, but for all its flexibility Crocetto's instrument hits for power, not finesse and romantic wistfulness.

*     *     *

After the finalists had sung, there was a bit of a nostalgic interlude. Met legend Frederica von Stade has only been a Gala presence since the 2000-01 run of the Merry Widow, but she called an official end to her singing here with a couple of arias. Her voice has, of course, aged much in the 40 years since her company debut, but here she didn't at all embarrass herself in reprising the Werther aria that helped her in this very competition before even that. She gave a short speech, finished her part with a lighter selection from Offenbach's "La Perichole", and accepted praise and a first edition of Cendrillon from Peter Gelb. Brief but touching.

*     *     *

Unfortunately, an event headlined by two mezzo legends (Marilyn Horne emceed in place of the stuck-in-London-due-to-weather mezzo great Joyce DiDonato) finished with both worthy mezzo-sopranos getting the short end of the stick as Peake, Guilbeau, Willis-Sørensen, Madore, and Crocetto were selected as the official winners. The sopranos certainly impressed, but I would have selected both mezzos before the men and certainly Kim over Peake.

That said, time will tell, and all who sang yesterday will surely get their chances.


A guest post on the premiere of the William Kentridge production from reader&commenter Straussmonster follows below. My long write-up of yesterday's Met Council Finals will be posted later today.

*     *     *

It was a packed house for the Metropolitan Opera Premiere of "The Nose", and a great buzz throughout the house. Listening in to conversations, a lot of people there were primarily Kentridge/art fans, so they didn't really know what they were getting into, musically...

And, well, Nose is not the easiest musical thing on earth. Much of the music is practically atonal, and on the spiky side even for Shostakovich, lacking the expansive lyricism that would later surface in Lady Macbeth, especially in the grim fourth act of that piece. Nevertheless, the fundamentals of his better-known works are all present: the tendency to pair very high and very low instruments, prominent lines for solo wind instruments, the love of the jaunty and tonally somewhat off-kilter, the world as seen through a cracked mirror. Tons of percussion, especially tuned--there's even an interlude entirely for percussion, which only Ligeti would later one-up with the opening toccata for car horns in Le Grand Macabre.

The production, accordingly, is a perfect match of director to material. It looks like an experimental Soviet film brought to life on the Met stage. The work is given without intermission (only a short break for retuning before the third act), and the set is fluid so no pauses need to be taken between the many scenes of the opera. The dominant theme is newsprint in both Russian and English. Projections done in the style of old Newscasts of the World (scrolling over the globe) describe changes of locale. Some of the action is a little obscure if you don't know the plot, but the outlines are always easy to follow. The musical side of things had a few bumps on opening night, but the orchestra (as always) sounds great and plays the score with both verve and swagger. Szot is great in the title role, only showing a few audibility problems in the cathedral scene--but he's very funny in all of the different moods required from Kovalyov, which matters more in this kind of piece. Other top vocal honors go to Andrei Popov in the Astrologer-high role of the Police Inspector, and always a pleasure to see Vladimir Ognovenko back, playing the hapless barber and other roles. Costumes are a mix of straightforward, slightly surreal, and really surreal, but all contribute to this late 1920s vibe, which works well for the piece (technically set in 1830). I wish I read Russian, because many of the costumes are also festooned with writing, making the characters into extensions of the same aesthetic of the sets. The skill with projections and video is top-notch, and the flexibility that they can add to a staging is really superb.

Opening night the production team received huge acclaim at the curtain call, and all of them were there--Kentridge took a solo bow, got cheered for, and then everyone else came out and got cheered loudly as well. The opera is a bit of a curate's egg, but I can't imagine a more fun and thoughtful production of this piece. A real pity it's not being HD broadcast to delight and confuse out in the hinterlands.

Sunday, March 07, 2010


Since it seems that some of this blog's feed-based readers have not received the previous post, a short miscellany to update the feed.

First, as you've likely heard, Natalie Dessay is ill and has cancelled the entire Met run of Hamlet. Marlis Peterson, scheduled to make her debut late in the season as Lulu, will sing most of the performances. Let's hope Dessay recovers well for next season's Lucias.

Second, while I'm still personally boycotting Gergiev, this blog may soon offer a firsthand guest report of Thursday's Nose premiere.