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!