Sunday, November 14, 2010

Don Pasquale - Met HD - Another Winner!

Well the Met has done it again. The "Don Pasquale" which was broadcast this past weekend was really terrific. I liked the production, the direction, and the cast. The 4 principals were really outstanding and worked very well together. This was another first for me, so I cannot compare this production with any others. But I liked it a lot. The Met orchestra is always complemented on its versatility and certainly this was much in evidence in this production. The overture was performed so beautifully and throughout this orchestra gave a stylistic and beautiful reading of the score. Bravi in particular to the Piccolo and Principal Trumpet. There is nothing worse than having a piccolo player who plays out of tune - not that I expected that from a member of the Met orchestra (she wouldn't last I suspect if she couldn't play in tune) - but this piccolo player not only is spot on with intonation, but her ability to blend and be a part of the whole ensemble is really remarkable. I was really taken with her playing in the overture. And then the chorus, which is pretty incidental in this opera just about stole the show. I should mention that the patter song was really fun and very well done. I was glad it got an encore!

Ok - I want to reflect a little on the plot. I actually found the plot line a little bothersome - as entertaining as it is at times - Norina and Malatesta really are very cruel to poor old Don Pasquale. Anna Netrebko actually alluded to this in her interview between the scenes of Boris. She told the HD audience that for her taste the "joke" is a little cruel - and she is right. What was it about the early 1800's that found making fun of old men so funny. Now, I suppose Bartolo has it coming - he is greedy and mean (he actually lets us know that he is really only interested in Rosina's dowery). Ok, so he gets what he deserves. But Don Pasquale is (as a friend of mine put it)a "dopey, dishevelled, well-meaning old man." As wrong as he may be about Ernesto (and I am not so sure he is all that wrong about Ernesto who strikes me as a childish, immature and sulky free-loader) he seems to be trying to do the "right thing." He just doesn't deserve to be treated like that. I hope Malatesta pays off all those bills!

I particularly loved Anna Netrebko and John Del Carlo in the scene where she slaps him. It was a moment in this comedy that almost provoked tears. Del Carlo was truly hurt and despondent and Netrebko reacted with guilt, regret and sorrow to her own behavior. It was beautifully done and added a really human touch into what could easily (in the hands of a less competent director) be a cruel farce. (John Del Carlo deserves special praise for creating a very sympathetic character in Don Pasquale).

Of course making fun of old people is a great tradition in some kinds of musical theater. For Donizetti and the Opera Buffa crowd it was the old rich man on the prowl for a young girl who bests him. And later in the 19th century W.S. Gilbert seemed particularly drawn to making fun of older women with fading charms and bulging waistlines. The two most obvious and most offensive examples - in my view - are Ruth in "Pirates," and Lady Jane in "Patience." (We might include "Little Buttercup" from "Pinafore," but that plot has a fatal flaw in it which is directly related to this character. I would not include "Katisha" from "Mikado" mostly because she has other attributes to make her, well, an acquired taste - her bloodthirstyness comes to mind). Thanks to Sir Arthur Sullivan who finally put his foot down and refused to compose any more operas with Gilbert that had that kind of character in it. So finally we get a wonderful character like Dame Carruthers ("Yeoman") for whom Sullivan writes one of the best songs in the show ("When our Gallant Norman Foes").

So, should we bench "Pirates" or "Don Pasquale" for being politically incorrect. No. They are wonderful works which need to be performed. But we need to be up front about their compositional context and be honest about their problems. The way Del Carlo and Netrebko handled that scene is a good example of one way to deal with it as it raised the issue. I think there are ways of doing this with Ruth an Lady Jane as well (like, let's get rid of the silly bass fiddle for Lady Jane!) I don't have solutions, but the issue was raised for me in this Pasquale and I wanted to reflect on it a bit.

Still, if you missed it last Saturday be sure to catch the encore presentation or wait for it to run on PBS. It is a wonderful performance and a very entertaining production!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Boris Godunov - Met H.D.

It has been a long time since I have been to see an opera that I did not know to some degree. But heading to the movie theater last night for the Encore Performance of the HD broadcast of the Met's new Boris Godunov I knew that I was in for a unique experience on several different levels. For one thing, I did not know the opera - that includes the music or the plot. I had planned to read through the synopsis but time got away from me and I didn't get to it. I had also heard raves about this production. My former roommate from college is a member of the Met chorus and he had written to me to say that this production was outstanding and not to be missed. He was right.

But I want to stay with the experience of seeing something for the first time. A number of years ago I attended a production of "Marriage of Figaro" at Lyric Opera in Chicago. This was not a first for me, for if there is one opera I know it is Nozze. But sitting next to me was a young woman who was, I think, not only seeing her first Nozze but I am pretty sure was attending her first opera ever. Now, the plot of Nozze has some odd twists and turns and you really have to stay with it. But those of us who have seen it 100's of times loose sight of this I think. We know, for example, that Figaro is going to discover that Bartolo and Marcellina are actually his long lost parents. It is a silly and unexpected turn in the plot, but Mozart gave us this incredibly beautiful sextet to move through this plot twist. Well, so there I was sitting there, "sua madre." And when they got to that line in the recit that immediately preceedes the sextet the girl next to me let out a whoop of surprise and amusement and joy. She hadn't expected it. And it completely filled her with delight. Me too, I was moved that this novice opera goer was so moved and entertained and filled with joy because of the brilliance of Beaumarchais, DaPonte and Mozart.

Fast forward to Boris. Boris is also a brilliant work - albeit very different than Nozze. I was captivated from the beginning. Even though I didn't understand everything that happened in the first scene (who was that guy who was all bloody? And there was a baritone in a green top who sang off and on who I could never figure out exactly who he was) but it didn't matter. The terror and violence conveyed in the first scene set up the rest of the opera. The Holy Fool almost became my guide through the events to come. I experienced the story more viscerally than I would normally. The wonderful surprises in this production for me were as follows: Boris' monologues where he progressively get crazier and crazier. I knew Rene Pape would be good - but he was fantastic in this role. The scene in the Inn was dramatically captivating. The council chamber scene, also. And the final very violent closing scene which took place after the death of Boris, was unexpected and really was shocking for its violence. I really expected the opera to be over when Boris died. That last scene came as a complete surprise.

I could now tell you what a fantastic cast performed in the production, or how amazing the chorus was, or how incredible the orchestra is - all of that is true. But other reviewers have stated all of that much better than I. So let me say that what really stuck me in addition to these outstanding performances put in by the entire cast I would lift up some other elements of this production. 1st and foremost - the costumes - wow! I was also really impressed with the work of the supers. They could act and they added so much to the dramatic intensity. I loved how the director choreographed his crowd scenes and how he was able to maintain dramatic intensity through the entire opera. I loved the large book, with the cyrillic lettering. I loved the authenticity of the props - for example, they paid attention to details like the difference between the Russian Orthodox Cross and a Roman Cross and it made a difference. I also loved the orchestration and the use of woodwind color.

Finally - the boy who sang the child Feodor was outstanding (I haven't read any other reviews that mention him). And in closing I want to note that I thought it was way cool that Mussorgsky begins the opera with a bassoon solo in the upper register of the instrument and then the very last sound you heard at the end of the opera is the the sound of the bassoon, now in the low register. Fantastic!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Gilbert & Sullivan Clip for Halloween

I love G & S.  Ever since "when I was a lad" of 10 or so I have been addicted to Gilbert & Sullivan.  I devoured Martyn Greene's book and I memorized all of the shows - and I mean all of them.  When I was 12 I could sing all of the patter songs with all of the words from memory - especially "When I was Awake" from "Iolanthe" and "To Sit in Solemn Silence..." from "Mikado."  (I can still do the latter - and fast too!!!).  Over the years alas, my memory has dimmed and I can no longer call them up, unless I am listening to recordings.  I have always been partial to "Iolanthe" and "Yeoman of the Guard" and "Ruddigore" (in that order).  A few years ago I had the opportunity to conduct a G & S opera for the late Opera Illinois.  We talked about doing "Sorcerer" but the general feeling was that it might not attract an audience - I am sure that was probably right.  So we did "Pinafore" and I loved every moment.  We had a wonderful cast, a small but hard-working and determined chorus and a smaller but also hard-working orchestra and I thought we put on a great show!  It was an honor and one of those life experiences for which I am so thankful.

I am therefore always interested in catching G & S wherever I can, and there are not many places to do this.  I have purchased some DVD's.  They are mixed.  There is a series of 3 (Iolanthe, Mikado and Pirates) from Stratford in Canada which are pretty good.  The casts are good for the most part (the singer who plays the Mikado in Mikado is worth the price of the set - he is terrific).  Maureen Forrester (may she rest in peace) is a wonderful Fairy Queen in Iolanthe.  But there is way too much updating and in particular the popular practice or re-orchestrating Sullivan's music is particularly in evidence here.  Gosh I hate that - I cannot find the words without resorting to language that would be inappropriate to describe how I feel about all of these re-orchestration efforts - none of them work.  Why!  Because Sir Arthur was a brilliant orchestrator, that's why and there is no need.  We don't need harps or electric guitars or boogie woogie beats to make the music work - it works on its own!  I understand that sometimes there is no money for an orchestra and so I have heard performances with piano and a couple instruments.  That is not what I am talking about - and yes, I extend this criticism to the broadway Pirates.  As much as I liked it and thought Kevin Klein was the a great Pirate King, the re-orchestration did not work!  For the Opera Illinois "Pinafore" we rented a reduced orchestration which, when I received it made me sick - so I completely re-worked it so that Sullivan's orchestration was restored. (Hint - a trombone does not sound like a bassoon and it is not effective to use clarinets to cover every part that you feel you need to cut out of the score!)

Other media - well there is a series from England of all of the G & S.  This series is not worth the money.  Most of the performances are very poor.  The "Yeoman of the Guard" is particularly poor - why?  Joel Gray never seems engaged as Jack Point and they have cut half of the score.  Amazingly they even cut Fairfax's two arias, along with the trio with Leonard Merrill and the wonderful duet "Rapture, Rapture / Doleful, Doleful."  Each of these performances has some famous personality in one of the leads.  Vincent Price plays Sir Despard in Ruddigore, for example.  But most of them don't seem to get G & S and so it doesn't work.  It would have been better to have engaged John Reed.  The only exception to this criticism is the "Princess Ida."  This is the only one of the entire set which stands out as an excellent performance.  Frank Gorshin (of Riddler fame) plays King Gama and he is terrific.  He totally gets it and is very good.  The rest of the cast is good.  The production has its quirks but by and large it is very good. 

By far the best G & S on DVD that I have found are the performances from Opera Australia.  In particular the "Patience" and the "Gondoliers" are excellent.  Anthony Warlow is terrific as Grosvenor as is Dennis Olson as Bunthorne (he is less effective as Don Alhambra) and I loved Heather Begg's Lady Jane - (she actually plays the String Bass - badly - but she plays it!).  In "Gondoliers" the stand outs for me were Fiona Maconaghie as Casilda and Graem Ewer as the Dutchess of Plaza-Toro.  He is great.  The one negative was the cut of the Gavotte from Act II - makes no sense to me.  Don't cut G & S!!!  I wish they would perform and release "Yeoman" and "Iolanthe."

This brings me to YouTube and Halloween.  I was perusing YouTube the other day and, "oh joy oh rapture" I found clips from "Ruddigore," "Yeoman" and "Princess Ida" from the Houston G & S Society.  Now most G & S clips on YouTube are either D'Oyly Carte recordings with a picture of Martyn Greene on the screen the whole time or well intentioned amateur productions - either community theater or high school.  And I would not say anything bad about them, they do their best.  So imagine my surprise to find clips from a professional company - a professional company that is good!  The clips which are posted are top notch - well sung, professional, the chorus is large, extremely well-trained and sounds sumptuous and the orchestra is full and outstanding (no 1 string player per part here).  Listen to the violins in the "Yeoman" clips - this is not a walk in the park and these are pros.  Anyway - below are a couple clips that I love.  The "Ruddigore" is in honor of Halloween.  The others are because I love them.  There are others.  There is a clip from "Princess Ida" of "This Helmet I suppose."  It is not posted here, but you can find it.  It is pretty well done until the singer begins to try to ornament.  Now, I don't mind this in theory.  My feeling is that "Princess Ida" is Sullivan's homage to Handel and the score is very Handelian in many places.  But this singer, try as he might, does not seem to know how to ornament.  So it doesn't really work.  Too bad he didn't coach this with a Baroque expert - it had potential.  Anyway - here are the clips - enjoy and Happy Halloween.

Tower Warders from "Yeoman"
See what I mean about the chorus and orchestra!!!

Here's another:
 "Yeoman" Act I finale

And Happy Halloween:
"Painted Emblems" through "When the Night Wind" from "Ruddigore"

Sunday, July 11, 2010

"Ring Disaster in LA"

I invite my readers to read the following article at Huffington Post:
How Do You Loose $5,960,000 on an Opera?

Then - check out these YouTube Videos of this production:

Ok - now.  I love the Ring Cycle - I would consider myself what the writer of this blog calls a "Ring Nut."  But I have also had experience on the inside of an opera company and I know that opera is very, very expensive and that the overall financial health of the institution must come first.  This Ring has been doomed from the start.  It has gotten nothing but bad press.  At one point I considered going.  But the 9 day spread plus the absolute weirdness of the production put me off.  Also, and for me most important - principal singers from this production were quoted in the media as complaining that this production was THE most unsafe production they had ever appeared in.  This is absolutely beyond the pale.  I am amazed that Domingo did not step in here and put an end to this or at least insist on modifications.

I am a big Domingo fan.  As a singing actor and as an artist he is unmatched in the 20th century, in my view.  But, perhaps he needs to ask more advice of Peter Gelb, who is by far the finest opera general manager I have ever observed.  I cannot disagree with the writer of this blog when he faults Domingo for this.  The top executive is ultimately responsible for both successes and failures.  This is true at banks, car companies, insurance companies, churches and opera companies.  The buck has to stop with at his desk.  I do think that the comment about Simon Bocanegra was a cheap shot however and not really relevant to his basic argument.

In conclusion, we need new productions of the Ring.  But we need responsible productions.  It is possible.  In my years with Opera Illinois we had a financial crisis during our production of "The Ballad of Baby Doe."  We had to cancel the set and the costumes.  What to do?  Our inventive and creative stage director created a production with set pieces, props and projections at a fraction of the cost of the original.  It continues to be one of my most cherished operatic memories.  It was fantastic and it goes to show that it is possible to be creative and clever and inventive and not have to spend 6 million dollars to do it.

Friday, July 2, 2010

St. Louis Opera Theater - Eugene Onegin

One can never have enough opera and with Meistersinger and Marriage just a bit before we went to our last opera of the summer (alas) again to St. Louis Opera Theater's last performance of the season to see Tchaikowsky's "Eugene Onegin."  And it was wonderful.  I loved it.  We had gone to see their "Marriage of Figaro" and while musically it was a wonderful performance there was a lot of weirdness on stage that made no sense, to me at least.  But not here.  The staging was straight forward, faithful to the score and the libretto.  It reminded me a little of the Met production, but the key to the production were these movable walls in the back that could be put into a variety of configurations and they were used to great effect.

The orchestra was, as usual, very good.  Barbara Orland nailed every one of those low C#'s and played very beautifully throughout on 1st oboe and Tod Bowermaster played especially beautifully on 1st horn.  Also (and in Tchaikowsky this is important) the strings were sensational.  Conductor David Agler managed the performance very well.  Never did there appear to be coordination problems and on the whole the balance was good.

For me though, the star(s) of the evening were the chorus, which are made up of the Young Artist apprentices.  I loved the sound they made.  Chorusmaster Sandra Horst deserves much applause for her wonderful work with these young voices.  As a former chorusmaster I know how hard it is to get solo voices to blend into a unified choral sound.  One wants to allow the singers to sing out and be comfortable, but a group of soloists sometimes don't make a very good chorus.  Not so here.  The chorus was great!  My only quibble is that some of them need, perhaps to take some acting classes.  Nevertheless, I loved the sound of the chorus in this production.

The cast was excellent.  I was smitten with Sean Panikkar, who played Lensky.  What a beautiful voice and what a fine actor.  He made a likeable, affable, if immature Lensky and his death scene was exceptionally poignant - as it should be.  I am anxious to follow this singer.  I think he has a wonderful career ahead.  I also loved Christopher Magiera as Onegin - a fine actor and a beautiful voice.  Dina Kuznetsova did a beautiful job a Tatiana.  I enjoyed Andrew Drost as Trinquet and Oren Gradus as Gremin was, I suspect, luxury casting.  Oren Gradus is one of the finest basses working today and he was mesmerizing for the brief time he was on stage.  All of the smaller roles were sung and acted very well.

I didn't mind the English language translation as much for Onegin as I did for Marriage of Figaro.  Perhaps it is because I know no Russian at all.  I still object to this policy of this company.  I want to see their Pelleas next season, but I know I will have a difficult time getting past the fact they will be singing this in English instead of French.  (Thank you for allowing Triquet to sing in French during Onegin though!)  As I continue to live in this area I suspect this will be the primary reason that I will absent myself from performances of St. Louis Opera Theater.  Well, that and the terribly uncomfortable seats (see my Figaro comments).  It was fine for Onegin, barely fine for Figaro.  Pelleas and Fille du Regiment - in English - groan!  Not to mention Traviata or Boheme or Aida or Rigoletto or (can you imagine) Rheingold! and on and on - in English!  This is heresy!  I will not go to those productions if they are going to sing in English.  Besides, the policy makes no sense.  You can't understand the English anyway coming out of the mouths of the singers and so you are reading the supertitles.  So what difference does it make?  Except the artistic difference which favors the original language.

Anyway, I loved Onegin.  It was a beautiful performance of a beautiful opera!  We all need more Tchaikowsky in our lives.

Here's the Met doing the Onegin Waltz: Eugene Onegin

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Magnificent Meistersinger in Cincinnati!

Well, the Cincinnati Opera really knows how to throw a party!  In honor of their 90's anniversary they began their summer season with a magnificent production of Wagner's "Die Meistersinger."  And I must say that this performance will be added to my short list of the finest live operatic performances I have had the opportunity to attend.  Everything about this production was sensational.  The singing - the orchestra - the chorus - the acting - the set... absolutely everything.  The time flew by and never once did I feel a temptation to look at my watch.  I was captivated the entire time.

This production had been plagued by several problems early on.  James Levine was scheduled to conduct (this is his hometown after all).  But unfortunately Mr. Levine has had some health issues which has sadly caused him to withdraw not only from this production but he did not conduct at the Met for the last part of last season (all the best for a speedy recovery!)  He was replaced by John Keenan, who I actually have worked with at Sugar Creek a few years ago.  He did a brilliant job.  The opera was paced very well and the orchestra was sensational - it is the Cincinnati Symphony after all, but even so.  Everyone did a great job but I want to give a shout out especially to the tuba player for playing that great tuba part with style flair and musicality = BRAVO!!! 

This is one of the few performances I have attended recently where the audience seemed actually to want to be there and were attentive, polite and supportive of the performers.  No excessive noise, no talking throughout the show.  The young lovers in front of us had big heads - but they seemed as engaged as the rest of us.  The lovely lady who sat next to us told us that once Jimmy Levine had canceled several singers - especially for the Gala (which I did not attend) - had also canceled.  She was upset and felt that it was pretty reprehensible for these singers to pull out and leave the company holding the bag just because Jimmy was not going to be there.  Now, I have no way of knowing who she is talking about or if this is actually true.  But I will say that IF it is true that some singers pulled out ONLY because Jimmy was not going to conduct then I agree with her.  How unprofessional and selfish!  But the info I received on the cast changes for Meistersinger indicated that the cause of the changes were health and personal issues and I am content to accept that explanation.

The cast was stellar: James Johnson sang Hans Sachs and he was fantastic.  Why is he not singing at the Met.  He was a captivating actor and he sang beautifully.  This role is not a walk in the park, but never once did we sense any fatigue.  Twyla Robinson sang Eva and she was so good I almost believed she was an adolescent girl - her acting was great, and what a beautiful voice.  I have been a fan of Maria Zifchak ever since I saw her perform  Suzuki in "Butterfly" in the Met HD broadcast.  She was wonderful.  John Horton Murry was a fine Walther as well.  If I continued like this I would have to list then entire cast.  There was not a weak link among them.  From Sachs the Night Watchman the cast was superb.  I need to mention two others though who just about stole the show: Norbert Ernst as David and Hans-Joachim Ketelsen as Beckmesser.  They were both terrific.

The sets were from Dresden - Cincinnati now owns them and I guess will rent the production out.  It was a traditional production and the sets were glorious as were the costumes.  I loved the staging.  Here are a couple of my favorite moments: the girls flirting in church, Beckmesser the marker in Act I; the Beckmesser serenade along with the riot which clears off just as the Watchman enters was very well done and the image of poor Beckmesser dragging his broken Lute down the street as the curtain comes down on Act II was really great.  The best moment was 2nd scene of Act III.  For the interlude they brought down the curtain and sent dancers out to do some mime, then the flower girls came through the audience handing out flowers.  When they finally got to the entrance of the Masters they all entered through the audience and in this way the audience was drawn in to be participants as the Master's waved at the crowd.  It was stunning!!!  And I can't forget the chorus which was supplemented by a split chorus in the upper balcony.  What a sound - wonderful!

I have nothing negative to say at all.  I loved this performance. Happy Birthday Cincinnati Opera!

Krips - the Entrance of the Masters

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

In the mood for excerpts from "Nozze"

Here are some wonderful clips I found of selections from "Le Nozze di Figaro" on YouTube....

Non piu andrai - Philadelphia - Richard Bernstein 2006

Sul'aria - Cecilia Bartoli & Rene Fleming - Met 1999

Dove sons - Rene Fleming - Glyndebourne 1994
This is incredible!!!

No so piu - Fredericka von Stade - Paris 1980

La vendetta - Enzo Dara - Firenze 1979

Friday, June 4, 2010

"Marriage of Figaro" - St. Louis Opera Theater

There are lots of operas that I love very much.  But if pressed with the impossible to answer question "what is your favorite" I would probably have to respond, "Le Nozze di Figaro."  I never get tired of this opera.  It is musical perfection.  Mozart's mastery as an operatic composer is completely on display here.  The 2nd act finale is one of the most amazing feats in the history of music - in my humble opinion.  So, I am always happy to experience a new production/performance whenever I have the chance.  So with a fair amount of excitement and anticipation my wife and I attended our first St. Louis Opera Theater production.

Bravos all around!!!  We came away over all very impressed.  They did an excellent job.  Vocally it was very strong and the St. Louis Symphony was outstanding.  The production essentially used a period setting for the work.  I am not sure if there are no flies in the this theater - but they didn't use any.  Even the curtain was drawn across the stage.  It worked great.  The set pieces - for the most part - were functional and very effective.  The set for Act II was the best.  The set (if you could call it that) for Act IV was the worst.  I am sure there was meaning attached to all the statues and other junk laying in the garden but I didn't get it.  We'll come back to this.  It is hard to actually lift up some singers over others in this production - they were all excellent.  I loved Edward Parks as the Count, Christopher Feigum was a great Figaro (I have seen him at LOC and he is a fine singing actor).  All the the women were excellent - Maria Kanyova as Susanna, Jamie Barton as Marcellina, Jamie Van Eyck as Cherubino, Amanda Majeski as the Countess.  At some point during the evening they all stole the show at the appropriate time - their arias were all beautifully sung.  Matthew Lau was quite outstanding as Bartolo (of course I knew he would be when I saw his name in the program.  I have worked with Matthew at Sugar Creek and he is a wonderful bass.)  Also the smaller roles were done well, in particular I really liked Antonio played by Bradley Smoak and Barbarina played by Elizabeth Zharoff.  Vocally I liked the Basilio of Matthew DiBattista, but his acting was disappointing - he just wasn't slimy enough for my taste.  And vocally I thought John Matthew Myers was fine as Don Curzio, but again the acting left me cold.  In his case though I think that might be the fault of the stage director - why, was Curzio's stammer eliminated?  I realize it might not be politically correct, but if you are going to eliminate a character quirk like that then you need to replace it with another quirk.  By eliminating the quirk, Mr Director, you left us with a very uninteresting bit part character.  The chorus was very good and I already mentioned how much I loved the orchestra.  The conductor seemed in control at all times and kept the balance with the stage really very good.  The tempo of "Dove sono" seemed a bit quick to me, but it was ok and that was the only time during the evening I wondered about a tempo.  I give the production an A- - but the musical performance an A+.

I should add that the entire second act was the high point of the performance for me.  It flowed perfectly and the great Act II finale was brilliantly staged and performed.  I have no reservations or complaints about anything in act II.

Quibbles.  Well the production was not perfect.  There is always some weirdness that creeps in that makes no sense to anyone but the director and this production was no exception.  My biggest complaint is this - the Count did not fall to his knees at the denoument in the last act finale.  I have never seen a production where the Count did not kneel before the Countess.  It is a little thing, but Edward Parks is a lot taller than Amanda Majeski and it just didn't work for him to make his beautiful apology looking down at her.  This beautiful moment was ruined for me and Parks seemed uncomfortable during it.  He just was not believable as being penitent.  I wouldn't have forgiven him if I had been the Countess.

2. One of my pet peeves - The chorus makes their silly entrance in the first act singing the praise of the Count.  They are bearing flowers to present to the Count.  They expect him to bless Figaro and Susanna's betrothal, but he doesn't.  Then the Chorus all get miffed and throw the flowers at the Count in a huff.  Wait.  These are Peasants.  He is a Spanish Aristocrat.  That is a good way to end up dead.  It is so far beyond the pale that it doesn't work for me.  Peasants in the 18th Century would not have dared treat their Lord with such obvious disrespect.  And it was over the top here - just like it has been in other productions and I hate this bit of business.  They can show their disappointment without being respectful to their lord.

3. The tree at the end?????  What was that about?  Antonio drops a very large tree in the last bars of the opera right in the middle of the stage so that the cast just to jump over it during curtain calls.  It made no sense.  The junky garden made no sense to me either.  Ok - I get the crack in the plaster in Act I - but the mess in the garden was too much.  And what is the deal with that bed in Act I - I thought I had accidentally walked into a performance of "Once Upon A Mattress."

4.  I know it is all the rage now to begin the acting during the overture with some kind of business with the cast.  And the cracked plaster thing was clever and all.  But, this overture is so magnificent that I was distracted from the music by all of the goings on.  For all it's cleverness, the staging is not more clever than Mozart.

English only.  Well, I knew going into this that St. Louis Opera Theater has some kind of commitment to doing opera in English and never performs in the original languages.  I have seen "Figaro" in English in other places and so I was ok with it.  Even so, I found it hard to get used to in places - instead of "Cinque"  we had "Four Feet."  (groan).  But I got used to it and because of the English much of the humor in the libretto actually played in the house much better than usual - for example Antonio's scene during the Act II finale was very funny, and it wasn't just the fine performance and the stage bits - it was the dialog.  But I missed the Italian especially in the arias - "Dove sono," "Porgi amor," "Deh vieni," "Voi que sapete," "Non piu andrai," "La vendetta."  None of them had the same poetry and beauty of text in English.  Another example - during the Act II finale there is a rage and power conveyed in Italian when the Count addresses the Countess as "Rosina" and she responds: "Crudele, piu quella non sono!"  This line looses its power in English.  Next year SLOT is going to perform "Pelleas and Melisande" and "Don Giovanni."  I think I will miss the original French and Italian much more with these operas.  I do not agree with them on this and would be more enthusiastic about the company if they performed in the original language.  To me, it is a little like changing the color of the Mona Lisa's eyes to fit the expectations of the viewers.

One last complaint - The Major One!  My last major complaint has nothing to do with the production.  It has to do with the theater and I realize that this is not easily fixed.  But we sat up in CC and the seats were INCREDIBLY uncomfortable.  I think this theater was built for people 5'4" and shorter.  We were squeezed in the row and by the time we left we both had back pain and felt physically miserable.  I don't know what they can do about this.  But if I were to have second thoughts about attending a performance it would be because of this primarily (and the English secondarily).

On the whole, though, this is a fine company and they have great singers.  If you can stand uncomfortable seats then by all means do not miss this fine production.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Traviata in the Mall

On this Memorial Day - thank you to all those who have served in our armed forces - especially to those who have paid the ultimate price.  And since this is a day of not only remembrance but celebration.... enjoy this YouTube clip of the Brindisi from "Traviata" performed in a public space:

Thursday, May 27, 2010

La Scala "Rheingold" - Opera in Cinema - May 26, 2010

Das Rheingold is one of my favorite operas.  It is a masterpiece in every respect.  Wagner sets out the prologue of his massive Ring Cycle in a very concise manner (and that is saying something for Wagner) and we meet some of the important characters and are introduced to some of the major leit motifs of the opera.  For example - when the Rheingold becomes visible the Rheinmaidens sing this glorious "hymn" to the gold - "Rheingold, Rheingold..."  It is brilliantly orchestrated (listen to the strings and the timpani).  This motif will follow the course of the Ring through the rest of the cycle and by the time we get to Gotterdamerung it will have morphed into the blackest and darkest motifs in the cycle.  Wagner weaves these motifs together in a magnificent patchwork over the 18 or so hours of the cycle and his orchestration is fantastic.  Of course the singers are called on for some major feats too - singing Siegfried or Brunnhilde or Wotan is not a walk in the park.  Some of my favorite moments from Rheingold include the aforementioned "hymn" to the Rheingold; the opening in the depths of the river (the waters of chaos perhaps?) with the horns; the entrance of the giants; the descent into Niebelheim and the closing of the opera (with the Rheinmaidens wailing in the distance).

So whenever there is a performance of any part of the Ring - but especially Rheingold - I move heaven and earth to go see it.  So we attended the HD broadcast of a live performance from La Scala Wednesday, May 26.  In a nutshell it was an excellent afternoon at the theater (movies?).  There was a moment in the beginning when it seemed like technical problems were going to ruin the experience but somehow they all disappeared for the remainder of the performance.  The production was a high tech production and I thought that worked pretty well.  The lighting/projections added to the feel of the opera.  The stage itself was a bunch of blocks upon and between which there was water - little pools in some cases.  The stage looked treacherous to me and at curtain call time all of the cast seemed to be walking on stage gingerly to avoid stepping in a pool of water or worse.  The water was an interesting element and worked very well in the first scene of course.  But it did not wear well.  I wondered what the point of the water was in the heavens during the scene with the gods.  Another odd thing to me were the props (or lack thereof).  I will come to the dancers - but instead of a Ring the director/designer had Alberich and Wotan wearing a sequined glove that looked like something out of Michael Jackson's collection.  I thought that was silly.  So when Fafner gets hold of it he just tossed it on the pile of gold bricks like a dirty sock.

Now, if you know much about Wagner you now that he and dance had a strange relationship.  He inserted ballets into Tannhauser to placate the Parisian opera-going public.  But those efforts were a dismal failure (despite the fact that Tannhauser is a masterpiece).  For Wagner dance was French and he loathed the French.  One can only imagine that had he seen this production he might have absolutely hated it because of the dancing.  There were dancers everywhere all the time.  The dancers shadowed the cast, they danced during the orchestral interludes, they became the props.  Three hours of dancing - the poor dancers must be exhausted (just wait until Gotterdamerung!).  Now there is a note on the blog Opera-Cake from a viewer who hated the dancing.  I, however, did not hate the dancing.  True, Wagner would probably have hated it - but the piece doesn't belong to him anymore.  I liked it.  I  thought in some cases it was profound and beautiful.  In some cases, however, it seemed excessive!  I particularly loved the dancers in the 1st scene and I really thought using the dancers to play the roles of some of the props was ingenious.  The dancers were the Tarnhelm - and it worked - here - in Rheingold - mostly.  Throwing the tarnhelm on the gold pile was not the most inspired part of this.  (It does make you wonder how he will continue this through the rest of the cycle though - when the tarn is used to turn Fafner into the dragon or when Siegfried uses it to turn himself into Gunter in order to betray Brunhilde).  I liked the dancers as Alberich's throne; I especially liked the dancers as Alberich's chains.  At other times they just seemed to be in the way.  Why have them shadow Wotan and Fricka during their duet?  It was distracting and even the singers seemed distracted by it.  I did like it when Loge would enter the choreography - that was kind of fun.

Another interesting bit of technological magic occurred with the giants.  Fasolt and Fafner wore black and dancers (?) projected on the screen behind them were 3 times larger (see the photos at the links below).  I thought that worked and I suppose the singers enjoyed not having to walk on stilts or any of those other tricks that have been used over the years in other productions.  Another fun trick was Erda's entrance.  Most of the time the singer playing this role only has to do costume and make-up from the waist up - she could wear jeans if she wanted and no one would know.  Not here.  Erda was like Elphaba at the end of act I of "Wicked" during "Defying Gravity."  The final entrance of the gods into Valhalla, however, was disappointing.  Maybe I am just so in love with the Otto Shenck production with the rainbow bridge and all - but here they just exited and Loge and Wotan were left in this bleak and wet environment - the lights and projection got bright but, so what.  It was anti-climactic and a disappointment.

Musically the production is a success.  Daniel Baremboim conducted the excellent La Scala orchestra and the orchestra was excellent - especially the brass - though I think the La Scala strings are really good too!  The standouts in the cast for me were, of course, Rene Pape as Wotan.  He is one of my favorite basses.  Ever since I first heard him years ago sing the bass solos in "The Creation" I have loved his voice and his Sarastro and King Marke and Rocco are unparalleled. He is a magnificent Wotan - vocally.  The other singers I liked were Stephan Rügamer as Loge and Kwanchul Youn as Fasolt.  As Alberich, Johannes Martin Kränzle was stunning.  It is so great that the Alberichs of this generation are singing this role and not just barking their way through it.  He was fantastic.  And in the small role of Mime, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperracke stole the show for the brief time he was on stage.  This is not a very interesting role, but this singer made Mime captivating and not only that but Alberich and Mime and Loge were the only members of the cast who really did much acting.  It is hard to know if this was the director or not.  I suspect so.  I have seen Rene Pape in other roles and he is a fine actor.  So why so wooden here?  The precarious stage?  The director's concept?  All of the above?  Perhaps.  This lack of acting was really obvious with Donner and Froh and Fafner.  Those three really did nothing that even remotely resembled acting.  Vocally they were all solid (though Fafner's voice seemed young or somehow not right for this part).  Donner was a particular disappointment.  He kind of looked like Ron Jeremy in his wig and costume and during his great moment all he did was stand and sing - and (I hasten to add) there were no effects during this!  All his hotheaded picking fights with the giants was not believable (the giants would have clobbered him - hammer or no hammer).

On the whole it was a musical success - an A+, the production gets B- from me.  I cannot imagine how this director will take this concept into the rest of the cycle.  The use of the dancers and the static set and the strange stage (with water?) - all of these elements which worked more or less pretty well in Rheingold do not bode well for the future operas.  Will he use the dancers to play Nothung? Or the Ash Tree?  Or Mime's Forge?  And what about Fafner the dragon - it makes me sad to think of what he might do here.  So it should be interesting.  Nevertheless Rheingold was a success and well worth seeing.

Here are a couple site with photos from this production:
The Blog Opera-Cake
Teatro La Scala

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Met Armida

Here in Southern Illinois I am a little late in coming to various things - such as the Met HD transmission of Armida.  I missed it when it was first broadcast because the movie theater was without power, and even though they opened 10 minutes late I did not want to come into it late.  So I had to wait for the Encore presentation.  Well it was worth the wait.  I loved it - I thought it was both a musical success with wonderful singing (and playing) and a visual success.

Mary Zimmerman's "antique" approach worked very well I thought.  The set was sparse but there was still much to see.  A special bravo goes to all of the dancers - especially the young girl who danced the role of Amore.  Even though this was added to the production by the director, I thought it worked very well and I enjoyed her performance very much.  My only negative comment: why wasn't she allowed a solo bow?  I thought it was unfair that she was stuck in the first row of the chorus and not allowed to have a solo bow as a principal dancer - booooo to whoever made that silly decision. 

As always, the Met Chorus was brilliant!  There was so much to sing for them and they accomplished it with flair and musical excellence.  They are probably the hardest working group of artists at the Met and they still manage to always set the bar high for opera chorus performance both as a vocal ensemble and as actors.  This production is worth seeing JUST to see and hear this chorus.

The same is to be said of the orchestra.  The Met orchestra is my favorite orchestra in the world and I think they are the finest orchestra in the world - which is saying a lot since there are some pretty darn good orchestras around (Chicago, Berlin, Vienna are my three favorites).  The last two HD operas have really shown off the winds.  "Hamlet" (which I didn't write about because, well, I didn't know what to say - what an odd opera!  I could not get myself beyond the fact that there is nothing Shakespearean about this opera except character names) - The score to "Hamlet" featured some wonderful woodwind playing and so does "Armida."  Special mention to: Horns, Piccolo(s), clarinets, bassoons - also the concertmaster had several beautiful solos as did the wonderful principal cellist.  Anyway, I love the Met orchestra and they were brilliant.

There have been some tiresome articles suggesting that Rene Fleming is beyond being able to sing this role - but I do not agree.  I thought she was fantastic.  I loved her performance vocally and as an actor.  Also, Lawrence Brownlee was magnificent!  The same can be said for all the rest of the tenors (7 - count 'em 7 tenor roles and sung by 6 tenors!)  I also enjoyed bass Patrick Miller's brief moment as Astaroth (and the interview with him was fun).  I am looking forward to hearing him as he progresses to larger and larger roles at the Met.

In short - Armida was a great production in every way.  If you missed it look for it on PBS or watch the MetOpera website for it to be posted on their Met player and watch it.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sad Day for Opera

I received my Opera News yesterday and as usual I read it through from cover to cover in one sitting. The shocking information was contained on the last couple pages. Two great artists have died within the last 2 months. The magnificent Philip Langridge and the brilliant John Reed.

Philip Langridge, tenor, was one of the great artists of the 20th/21st century. His musicianship was fantastic. All you need to do is listen to the links below of the two movements from the Britten Horn Serenade to see what I mean. His mastery of Britten in particular, but contemporary music in general was amazing. On the stage he was a thoughtful, but effective singing actor. See the clip below from the Met's "Hansel und Gretel." It is ironic that this role, in this production was his last appearance on stage - January 2. A performance I listened to and enjoyed. He plays the Witch, by the way. But for me his Captain Vere, from Britten's "Billy Budd" was his most enduring and powerful performance. I have seen this opera on many occasions - I saw it at the Met with Peter Pears, at LOC with Kim Begley and then a couple different productions on video with Philip Langridge and there was a depth and intensity and power to his portrayal of this role that I have never experienced with anyone else. Find a recording of him singing "I Accept Their Verdict" and watch him become progressively more lost and frantic until he disappears into the cabin to meet with Billy accompanied by Britten's amazing series of triads. I have also seen, hear and enjoyed his performances of Loge (Rheingold), Aron (Moses & Aron), Basilio (Nozze), Idomineo, Laca (Jenufa) - to name a few of his great roles. I will miss his artistry and musicianship and the depth of his dramatic performances. He was only 70 when he died.  Requiescat in Pacem...
YouTube videos - From Britten's Horn Serenade - Elegy and Hymn (the other movements are also available at YouTube).
Serenade - Elegy
Serenade - Hymn
As the Witch in Hansel & Gretel - The Witch's Ride:

Humperdinck - Witch's Ride

John Reed was the last of the great commedian / patter artists with the D'Oyly Carte Company in London which for over a hundred years specialized in performing Gilbert and Sullivan.  With this company he played all of the patter roles: The Judge, Sir Joseph Porter, John Wellington Wells, Major-General Stanley, Reginald Bunthorne, The Lord Chancellor, Ko-Ko, King Gama, Jack Pointe, The Duke of Plaza-Toro and Robin Oakapple (I think I got all the major ones - leaving out Thespis and the Grand Duke).  He was funny, great timing and performed the patter songs deftly.  But he was also capable of moments of great tenderness - see the clip of him below as Ko-Ko singing "Tit-willow" from "Mikado."  I actually had the opportunity to see him live in Wilmington, Delaware (of all places) when I was much, much younger in a performance of "Mikado."  D'Oyly Carte was on tour.  Many of the principal artists did not come on tour - understudies covered those roles.  But John Reed was there and he was great.  I thought he stole the show and his "Little List" brought down the house.  He was 94 when he died.  Requiescat in Pacem.
Enjoy this wonderful clip which is posted on YouTube:
Tit-Willow from "Mikado"

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Der Rosenkavalier

Last Wednesday we went to Carbondale to see the HD encore broadcast of Rosenkavalier from the Met.  Unfortunately I missed the live transmission but I wanted to see it so made arrangements to be free.  I was not disappointed.  The Met Rosenkavalier is a beautiful production and the performance and cast were spectacular.  I loved every moment.  This is not the first time I had seen this production.  Back, many years ago (I can’t even remember when – late ‘70’s or early ‘80’s) I went to the Met during the Christmas holidays and saw this wonderful production with Kiri Te Kanewa, Tatiana Troyanos, Judith Blegan and Kurt Moll (I think).  It was magical – I was totally transfixed.  We had seats down in the orchestra so I was close and it was like being immersed.  An added benefit to this amazing performance was the playing in the pit of the then new principal oboist Elaine Douvas.  Elaine sparkled and it was some of the most beautiful oboe playing I had ever heard.  So last Wednesday, Elaine was back in that chair and she played just as beautifully.

When you talk about Strauss you cannot ignore the orchestra.  I have actually played some of Rosenkavalier.  I have played the suite of waltzes, which Strauss arranged and I had the unfortunate and unhappy opportunity to play the last act of Rosenkavalier with the Illinois Symphony a couple seasons ago.  I say unfortunate and unhappy because it was a horrid performance.  1st – we never actually played through the entire act in rehearsal.  Amazing for such a difficult score.  And then in performance the conductor could not keep up with all the meter changes and made several major mistakes which just about caused the orchestra to crash.  It was terrible.  But Wednesday evening the orchestra again demonstrated that they are one of the world’s great orchestras (despite a glaring wrong note in the trumpet during the presentation of the rose scene – so, they are human and they do make mistakes – rarely).

I am not going to compare the casts – the Te Kanewa cast to the Fleming cast.  They were different, but both were sensational.  I was moved to tears at times by Rene Fleming and Susan Graham.  And Kristinn Sigmundsson was absolutely magnificent as Baron Ochs.  And, as usual, the compramari and the chorus were terrific.  I especially liked the Duenna, Annina and the Police Captain.  The choristers who were part of Och’s retinue in Act II were GREAT!  Nice job John!

I love a lot of different operas.  But there is a short list of works which are truly profound in that both the music and libretto is brilliant.  Some great operas have lesser librettos (Trovatore comes to mind).  But Hoffmansthal is in the same category for me as Lorenzo da Ponte.  Mozart’s opera are incredible musically, but the libretti are also masterpieces – think of Nozze or Don Giovanni.  Rosenkavalier has a deep and profound libretto by a master writer.  In my view part of the power of the work is in the libretto.  The Marschallin brings us to tears at places, not only because Rene Fleming or Kiri te Kanewa are such wonderful sopranos, or because the music is sublimely beautiful – but because of the text.

Rosenkavalier, in this production, is a wonderful experience.  If you haven’t seen this production watch the Met online service for when they post it and then watch it.  An added benmefit is that the te Kanewa performance is already posted.  Hopefully they will put up the Fleming performance so we can watch them both.

Here is a clip from the te Kanewa production – Act III trio:

And my favorite scene - the presentation of the rose - from Covet Garden - Barbara Bonney and Anne Howells:

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Epiphany Post...

This clip has nothing to do with Epiphany, it's just that today is that Festival.  Anyway, here are two clips of the "Der Hölle Rache" from the Magic Flute.  Clip 1 with Diana Damrau in a very colorful production from Salzburg 2006. Damrau is a great actress and the long dialog clip before the aria is very captivating.  She sings the aria gloriously - except that the tempo is slow and I get the feeling that she is uncomfortable, as she seems to always be rushing.  It is too bad that this conductor took this so slow.

Ok - clip two - is not nearly as well acted.  It is from a very traditional production and the Queen is sung by Elena Mosuc.  The coloratura is beautiful - very bell-like.  The tempo is much, much better, in my view.  Well done....  enjoy...

Finally - to balance - Matti Salminen sings the aria "In diesen heil'gen Hallen"  I am a big fan of his.  His voice is so smooth and beautiful.... Enjoy...