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.