Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The question

The question of the week (or month, or decade): does New York really want a neo-modernist, reductive, deliberately graceless and anti-humane Eurotrash production of La Traviata, one that replaces all of Verdi's moods and relationships with cartoonish brutality and compulsion?

The Met has done Willy Decker et al. a favor by improving on the original Salzburg cast, and -- as it did for Richard Eyre's Carmen last season (a differently-flavored and quite good show) -- protected the premiere by giving it the audience most inclined to react favorably or at least politely: Friday's New Year's Eve gala.

But the question remains. One would hope that the impulse that (wrongly, I think) rained boos upon a more appropriate and psychologically acute revision of Tosca would here put itself to good use in laughing or booing Decker's one-dimensional travesty off the stage, but perhaps some will be cowed by the show's famous European success.

We'll see soon enough.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Year six in posts

I admit, when I reread posts from more than a year ago I sometimes wonder that I had such interesting and clear thoughts. When I read more recent writings, I more often bore of my own current tics and tropes. But since, dear readers, you don't have to live inside my head, I offer some of the highlights here since last December:
Review -- Carmen
On Riccardo Muti and Verdi's Attila
On Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet
Review -- Rossini's Armida
On the April revival of Tosca
On Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre
OT: a week of Sleeping Beauty at ABT
Review -- Robert LePage's Opening Night Rheingold
On OONY's Mascagni/Massenet double-bill
On Verdi's Il Trovatore in revival
On Strauss' Intermezzo at City Opera
On debuting tenor Yonghoon Lee as Don Carlo

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Pelléas et Mélisande -- Metropolitan Opera, 12/17/2010
Kožená, Degout, Finley, White, Palmer / Rattle

I hate to turn away from the thorough musical triumph of Friday night (and last week's roster of guest conductors was stupendous, perhaps unprecedentedly so), but my pleasure in listening was offset by dissatisfaction with the eponymous couple's characterization.

What Stephane Degout (Pelleas) and Magdalena Kozena (Melisande) -- who both sang well -- lacked was innocence. Degout is a more red-blooded Pelleas than usual, and there's something hinky from the first about his presence around Melisande. Kozena, meanwhile, sounds beautiful but is visibly sulky and all-too-evidently engaged in a silent war with her spouse and/or the world. Together with a more-morally-forceful-than-usual Golaud (Gerald Finley, magnificent here), they tell the story that's the shortest distance between their three points: Pelleas and Melisande are getting it on (or something), Melisande is miserable with her marriage and lies ever-intentionally to Golaud, and Golaud does the obvious thing by finally running his rival half-brother through with a sword.

This reading is psychologically coherent and even sensible, and if it was stage director Paula Williams who encouraged it of the cast (Jonathan Miller, I assume, was out of the question for this revival of his original) she showed some insight. Nevertheless, it (perhaps from being too sensible) squashes the interest out of Maeterlinck and Debussy's story, which has rather different occupations than its verisimo contemporaries. For Golaud's scene at her window is not a Philip-II-finds-Carlo's-picture moment (though I still think Don Carlo[s] an interestingly similar opera to Pelleas): it's a rejection of the possibility of having that moment at all. The distance between people is too great, in this space, for the revelatory truth certain to be seized like that -- whether it's of betrayal or love. So it comes out in the fourth act that Pelleas has never, to that moment, spoken love to Melisande... It's not exactly coincidence that he's killed soon after.

Together with the suggestions of guilt is a repeated thread of innocence: Golaud dismisses the hair business as childish; Arkel goes on about Melisande's essential innocence; and after the killing Golaud himself again seems (at least partially) of that view. The current revival laughs it off (or inspires the audience to, at least in the middle acts), but the thread is prominent in the performance history. At the Met, for example, casting of Melisande from the first (Lucrezia Bori, who monopolized the part for a decade) has been largely the province of great delicate and charming singers -- e.g. Sayao, Blegen, von Stade, and, surprisingly ideally in 2000, the suggestive blankness of Dawn Upshaw. And so we've seen Melisandes who are not merely indeterminately guilty/innocent -- Schrödinger's soprano -- but actually, to the limit of their strength and life, beyond those categories altogether. This, too, is a psychological type, and not merely among sociopaths or the self-serving.

This alternate pre-lapsarian dimension, like the mystery of the ultimate truth -- both shortchanged this go-round -- is no accidental feature of Pelleas. The playwright and composer felt the call of the coming modernist Zeitgeist as strongly as any verist, but went the other way (even though their musical and dramatic techniques were themselves innovative): less "real", less straight-line, less psychological, with the subjective individuals -- no longer fit to be subjects themselves in the plain -- adapted for the new age with an enfolding, elaborated wrap of opaque mystery impenetrable even (and especially) to the classic modernist trope, sexual compulsion. To strip the characters of this rare symbolist wrap and show them as, well, sexually-compelled figures of modern psychology misses the point. (And now that modernism itself has become boring, it's stale.)

But again, the musical side is fantastic. I've never been Simon Rattle's biggest fan, but he, the singers, and the orchestra deserve a thorough listen.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


While the notable birthday of the weekend was Fanciulla's 100th, this blog did complete its sixth year of posting on Sunday. I've actually been too tied up in operagoing to compile the usual "year of posts" -- which should follow soon -- but I did wish to thank my readers without further delay.

So my thanks to all of you who continue to read the impressions and meditations I have at the opera. I hope they remain as interesting reading for you as the process continues to be for me.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Because a friend asked for ten words...

Modernism is authority.  Postmodernism is anti-authority.  Each has its absurdities.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

My California

La Fanciulla del West -- Metropolitan Opera, 12/6/2010
Voigt, Giordani, Gallo / Luisotti

It's a success that might have pleased Arturo Toscanini, conductor of the world premiere a century ago this Friday: not the greatest cast, not a showy production, but a conductor's triumph in summoning not only the sound but the spirit of a Puccini masterpiece -- here, the underappreciated Fanciulla del West (Girl of the Golden West). SFO Music Director Nicola Luisotti has made this undersold revival an event to equal or better the season's big-name extravaganzas.

That's not to knock the cast, who all come through to find the story's heart. The singing is all good enough, sometimes better, but that's almost beside the point. Forget that Deborah Voigt's post-fat voice still has its issues -- Minnie is a role she was born to play, the first big character that really seems to fit her own. She's so naturally fresh and bright even as she handles a barful of hard-drinking men, and there's nothing overwrought in her outburst at the newly-revealed Ramerrez: it's the wounded cry of love's first deep hurt. Marcello Giordani is in fine sonic form, but more impressive is the desperate sincerity his sturdy character shows in the solo moments. Even Lucio Gallo was decent vocally (less good on high notes), and managed to catch the not-quite-villainous menace of Rance. The miners were strongly cast, not least Dwayne Croft as Sonora and recent rat-king Keith Miller as Ashby, and forged a convincing communal space for the opera.

But everywhere and in everything was the incredible tapestry of sound Luisotti wove from this score. He got, as in his last appearance (a more famous Puccini -- Boheme), amazingly sensitive playing and texturing from the Met Orchestra, but this time outdid himself in a proportioned control of phrase, line, and ensemble that seemed to hold every performer infallibly in the flow of Puccini's magic. So supported, "good enough" from each was more than enough for the music to shine and the story to tell.

It is, of course, on the whole a tale about redemption -- the motif for which is the first tune to materialize in the prelude -- but for the principals there is first transgression. Sheriff Rance and Minnie between them hold the camp's destinies in hand: he protects the miners' worldly existence, while she ensures their civilized and moral aspect. But neither sticks to the part. Rance tries to use his mastery of what is (he commands law, guns, and money...) to buy what's not properly for sale or mastery -- Minnie's favor. And when Ramerrez/Johnson (whose initial intention to rob the camp sets off the crisis) arrives, Minnie not only minimizes and begins to abdicate her moral guardianship (talking down her place in life and falling in love with the outsider who will take her off), she outright cheats Rance to save Johnson's life -- and avoid having to marry Rance.

But while Minnie first brings redemption into the opera proper -- its music plays as she gives her early Bible lesson, that no one is beyond it -- Johnson's the one who precipitates the resolution as well. The redemption tune appears again as he changes his mind and vows to protect the miners' gold at Act I's end, and yet again as he agonizedly confesses himself to Minnie in Act II. The latter plea doesn't win her over immediately, but when he's subsequently shot Minnie begins to protect him from Rance despite knowing what Ramerrez/Johnson has done.

And she's perhaps right, if you look at the thing: having reformed, Johnson's no longer a worldly threat to the miners but a moral one -- the agent of their mine community's potential dissolution -- and therefore of Minnie's jurisdiction and not Rance's. But her first method can't be right... And at last, in Act III, Minnie (and Puccini -- Belasco does it differently, at least in his post-hoc story version) hits upon the masterstroke: appealing to their better natures, she offers the miners in lieu of herself -- no longer able to guide them in any case -- the opportunity to participate in a great and indelible moment of forgiveness and humanity. When Sonora takes it up, Johnson calls the men his brothers, and Minnie (with Puccini) makes a full invocation of redemption and love, it's as overpowering a finale as there is in opera, recalling the not-entirely-dissimilar end of Jenůfa. And, in fact, Jiri Belohlavek's 2007 work in that opera may have been the last guest effort to equal Luisotti's last night.

I feel sad for anyone who comes out of this remarkable revival with little but knocks on the score, vocalism, or whatever. My only knock is that the Met can't force Luisotti to stay in town and perfect the run of La Boheme.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

The prince

Don Carlo -- Metropolitan Opera, 12/3/2010
Lee, Poplavskaya, Smirnova, Keenlyside, Furlanetto, Halfvarson / Nézet-Séguin

Alexei Tanovitsky (the friar/ghost) this time struggled through his Act II opener, but otherwise Friday's performance was rather similar to the production's opening night... Except, of course, for an entirely different leading tenor.

One difference between Yonghoon Lee and the other Carlo, Roberto Alagna (the two are alternating through the run), was apparent before the Korean newcomer, in his second night at the Met, opened his mouth: Lee is much taller (he's also, the ladies seemed to think, fairly handsome). But the sound is even more different. For while there are certainly other qualities (generally appealing) to it, the initial impression (also appealing) of Lee's voice is that it's nothing but squillo. There's a base of dark (but neither baritonal nor Jonas-Kaufmann-super-dark) tenor sound at the core, but it's the ringing emanation that hits the ear on pretty much every note. Those starved for a real spinto tenor in this great lyric tenor era should be thrilled -- and, judging by a curtain call that outdid even Furlanetto's, they are.

The squillo also, unfortunately, swallows most of Lee's diction, and the near-conversational musical eloquence that Alagna commands here in both large and small touches is also lost. In fact, though Lee certainly can sing softly and even has a trill, the less all-out parts of Carlo's role are hit-and-miss: conversational exchanges went for nothing, the bottom of the voice could disappear, and though he handled Act V's closing duet with Elisabetta with wonderful softly-sung concentration, Lee was unable to sustain the long lines of Act III's (mistaken) serenade of the veiled Eboli. But that's mostly just to say that Lee doesn't also have the virtues of a lyric tenor. He does, in full measure, have the essential trait of any worthy spinto: the ability to shape and hold the grand phrase, to feel where and how Verdi put his tenors' impassioned climaxes -- and to deliver them.

*     *     *

Lee's acting was equally distinct. His starts a vainer prince than Alagna's, one spoiled by the admiring unrealities of a court. Alagna's Carlo waits sincerely for Elisabetta's reaction on first revealing his portrait, but Lee's indulges a pleased flourish of "here I am!" before she looks. And so it seems that the disappointment of Fontainebleau (where the ladies' outfits look more and more ghastly each time out) was the first real thwarted inclination of this prince's life, and he accordingly takes it at first with petulance and hurt vanity -- not the existential angst with which the trauma hits Alagna's prince.

But we see it ripen and take root into something real. The scene with Keenlyside is again (as for Alagna) strong, but the dynamic is interestingly different: Alagna is eloquent but ever about to spiral inside himself, while Lee is just as nervous as his baritone -- making the contrast now one of a man who has mastered his neuroses (Rodrigo/Posa) vs. a man who is at last feeling their true sting (Lee's Carlos). By the time Lee reappears in the next scene to confront Poplavskaya (Elisabetta), he's a pretty convincing wreck, with his (characteristic, and therefore never-quite-gone) note of self-regard now supplemented by a bitter, desperate, and somehow still-noble self-pity.

By this point Lee's bodily movement has picked up as well... Though he's a tall man and doesn't try to duplicate the amount of activity of a small one, Lee isn't afraid to fly and stumble across or off the stage as his character's emotional state seems to demand. As with his singing, when he's not animated by full passion the body stuff doesn't always click and can be a bit stiff, but when Lee is so charged it all works.

*     *     *

Everything written last time about the production, conductor, and remaining cast still applies. As for the tenor options, both deliver excellent performances of different types: you can't go wrong unless you've a blind spot for one sort of singing or the other.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The bohemians

La Boheme -- Metropolitan Opera, 12/1/2010
Stoyanova, Calleja, Dehn, Capitanucci, Tiliakos, Groissböck, Plishka / Rizzi Brignoli

This second of four La Boheme casts this season is what the previous was not: a beautiful and convincing telling of Puccini's ensemble piece. Much credit to two supporting members of the ensemble -- debuting singers Dimitris Tiliakos (Schaunard) and Günther Groissböck (Colline) -- whose characters were clear, distinct, and lively from the moment each stepped on stage. That they don't necessarily better their predecessors vocally (I found Tiliakos appealingly mellifluous, but Groissböck's coat aria wasn't the highlight Shenyang's was), doesn't matter: they make the show work.

Against this more telling backdrop I saw Fabio Capitanucci -- who debuted with the previous cast -- more clearly. Here what was general dissatisfaction last time has revealed itself to be a specific complaint: Capitanucci's Marcello is all good-nature, without even a bit of the darkness that should make his fiery romance with Musetta go. His way is appealing enough, but it's not clear what the two see in each other. One might make a bit of the same complaint against Ellie Dehn's Musetta, but the 2005 Met Council Finalist used her looks, her quick manner, and her now nicely-polished soprano instrument to sell the familiar character well.

The leads are no surprise: Joseph Calleja has, as ever, his magnificent sound, diction, and sense of line, and fits in very well with the boys in their antics. His classicist sense of proportion (despite, unfortunately, taking the high note for Act I's finish) seems to apply to his role, as well, and he doesn't try to take over the entire ensemble show. Nevertheless he does some pretty good agonized acting in Act IV...

Puccini's show is properly Mimi's, and Krassimira Stoyanova does strongly -- even better, in snowy Act III: she gets Mimi in extremis wonderfully & movingly well. The outer acts weren't quite at that level, but very good. Stoyanova sings with real understanding and feeling throughout, but too often here it's overlaid with a set of more conventional emotive and fidgety gestures that tell a less interesting story.

Rizzi Brignoli now has the Met Orchestra and a surprising amount of the new cast on the same page as his conducting, but I still think his constant shifts of time and tempo are doing more harm than good. No, it doesn't get in the way of long concentration in the slow meditations of Acts III and IV, but the more extroverted exchanges need a firmer, more consistent base, and touches like holding off on Mimi's death chord for ages seem just needlessly cutesy.

*     *     *

Despite the successfully tear-jerking performance, what many will remember from Wednesday's show is the extra half-intermission. At first, the pause between Acts I and II dragged long... and then a woman came out to explain that there was some technical issue and they'd be continuing soon. Time dragged on again... and she came out again, with another call for patience. Time dragged on yet again... and she popped out again, the lights came up, and something about "having the intermission now" was announced.

Of course, the Act II/III and Act III/IV transitions are really too elaborate to do without further intermissions, so after less than 10 minutes (probably the amount of time it took to fix whatever needed fixing) the intermission-end-warning chimes (there are two at the Met, usually at 8 and 4 minutes before time) began to sound. As the Grand Tier restaurant had not, apparently, been warned of this, however, a bunch of people had just been brought their intermission meal/dessert. A torrent of chimes and usher requests did not (as you can imagine) manage to get these people into their seats before something like the full 25/30 minutes had passed. (So why did the house bother to try cutting the intermission short? No idea.)

In any case, Act II went on, none of the singers were too thrown from having to warm up some extra times, and the night -- after two subsequent scheduled intermissions -- simply ended rather later than it was supposed to.

UPDATE (2:45PM): I forgot to mention the audience, which is even more full of tourists and opera newbies than the usual Boheme. I must admit I take nearly as much pleasure in the harumphing of the (insufficiently) scandalized Eurosophisticates at Zeffirelli's literalistic masterpiece as I get displeasure from the shocking amount of flash photography at the start of the first two acts.