Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sunday At the Opera - "La Clemenza di Tito" - Mozart on Opera Platform

     Mozart completed "La Clemenza di Tito" only two months before his untimely death.  The opera was a commission for the coronation of the new emperor Leopold II and so focuses on the aspect of mercy as being a central characteristic for an enlightened monarch.  Thus the libretto can be a bit heavy handed and at times a little ponderous.  It is interesting to note that the libretto which was set by Mozart is an adaption of a libretto which had been around for a while and had actually been set by several composers with more or less success - actually much less success than Mozart as his is the only setting of this libretto that is regularly performed.  However, there is even a setting by Gluck and I own a recording of this and have listened to much of it and studied it a bit.  I actually enjoy the music quite a lot, but it is very different than Mozart. For one thing it contains far fewer ensembles and is also much longer.  But I digress...

     Opera Platform has made available a 2013 performance from La Monnaie.  The performance is conducted by Ludovic Morlot and features the following cast: Kurt Streit as Tito Vespasiano; Véronique Gens as Vitellia; Simona Saturová as Servillia; Anna Bonitatibus as Sesto; Anna Grevelius as Annio and Alex Esposito as Publio.  The cast is excellent, especially the women. Véronique Gens is stunning as Vitellia, especially her final aria is beautifully and powerfully perfomed.  Anna Bonitatibus is equally stunning as Sesto and she executes both of her arias brilliantly.  I should add that both the clarinet and basset horn solos are beautifully played and it is too bad there is no mention of those artists from the orchestra.  The rest of the cast is quite good, though I felt that Kurt Streit had his difficulties especially in his long act 2 aria.  But musically this performance is worth watching.

     The production by Ivo van Hove sets the action is a hotel and updates the action to present day.  At first I found the setting tiresome, but as the performance progressed it grew on me.  The production brought out the focus on the interpersonal relationships among the cast.  Probably more so than in a traditional production the almost "soap opera" plot of act 1 is emphasized by the close intimate setting but as the conspiracy takes off and act 2's judgment proceeds we see the imposition of the outside world - everything is photographed and video-taped and live streamed, there are always people milling around both functionaries, crime scene investigators and journalists.  Tito can simply not escape from the scrutiny of the outside world.  But yet he chooses the hard path - the path of clemency and mercy (this is a spoiler, but it is in the title so it shouldn't be a surprise!)  There was a reality show/"soap opera" quality to the production that I felt actually worked pretty well and a political statement about the pressures of leadership also.  It really was an interesting production.  But you have to stay with it, it took me most of act 1 to catch on. I think it is worth watching, especially if you have seen the opera before.  If you like your Roman emperors in togas then you should probably pass on this.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Lyric Opera of Chicago - Nabucco - January 27, 2016

     I have seen Nabucco three times now, but never live until last night at Lyric Opera of Chicago and I have to say that it was a wonderful experience.  Not only was the opera and performance musically wonderful, but the production was also very enjoyable.  This is probably the most enjoyable LOC opera I have seen for a while.
     Nabucco is very early Verdi and he is still bound to the forms of bel canto.  But there is still much that is distinctly Verdian - his use of the chorus, for example, I think is quite unique and remarkable. Not only does the chorus comment on the action but the chorus IS a character in the action of the plot.  And the LOC chorus was really remarkable last night.  From the softest pianissimos to the loudest fortissimos the chorus was always vibrant and solid.  And the famous chorus "Va pensiero" was one of the highlights of the entire performance.  The chorus is worth the price of admission alone.  But they are not alone.  The cast is also outstanding.  I have had the wonderful opportunity to have experienced Zeljko Lucic before in several productions streamed in HD or on the radio, but this is the first time I have experienced him live and it was a memorable experience.  He has a gorgeous voice - so sweet and warm.  He can spin out a line so beautifully and then when he wants to he adds the power.  He is a brilliant artist.  But his colleagues were equal to him - Dmitry Belosselskiy was outstanding as Zaccaria the High Priest as was Sergei Skorokhodov as Ismaele.  Tatiana Serjan was equally outstanding in the demanding role of Abigaille, as was Elizabeth DeShong as Fenena. Rounding it all out Carlo Rizzi had complete control of the excellent orchestra.  And I have to give a shout out to Bob Morgan - English Horn, Calum Cook - cello and Marie Tachouet - Flute.  These artists had wonderful solo moments and played beautifully.
     The production was really interesting.  I loved the color scheme and I loved the fact that especially with the Babylonians each and every costume was a little different.  The set was not complex, but the stark colors made it work and I enjoyed the device of the juxtaposition of the Hebrew and Cuneiform texts.  From an action standpoint the opera is a little static, but it did not bother me and I prefer that extra action is not imposed for the sake of having more action.    The only criticism is that in this day and age it is hard to understand why it takes so long to change the set between scenes.  But I did note that LOC has started a capital campaign to raise money to update their equipment so maybe this will solve the problem
     All in all - I loved Nabucco! It was a great night at the opera. Having said that I cannot end without saying that in general my experience with the audience was certainly better than in the past, which has been very, very negative.  But still it was quirky.  From the 4 Russian women with the strong perfume who could not figure out where to sit, even though they were standing in front of 4 empty seats, to the guy a few rows in front of us who kept recording parts of the opera and taking photos with his phone (even though he had the screen light almost at zero it was still visible) to - my personal favorite - the mother/daughter who sat in front of the Russian women for the first act but moved over in front of us for act 2 because the perfume was too strong and how was it possible that these women had no sensitivity to others!  But yet the daughter (a women in her 40's) nevertheless wore a hat that one had to look around and seemed totally oblivious to the fact that really, all things considered, wearing a hat that blocks the view of those behind is much more obnoxious than wearing perfume.
     Lastly - I realize that one should never try to learn history from opera libretti.  And that opera plots are usually notoriously bad history.  In fact, I can't think of a single opera where the historical plot gets the history right completely.  But Nabucco is particularly bad history.  I was really surprised actually that the libretto kept referring to the Babylonians as Assyrians.  No! That is not correct! Nabucco or Nebuchadrezzar is NOT an Assyrian King, nor is Abigaille an Assyrian Princess.  The Assyrians were a completely different empire who were defeated by the Babylonians.  The Assyrians attacked and destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel in and about 720 BCE - the Babylonians then overran and defeated the Assyrians and eventually attacked and destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BCE. The Babylonians themselves were defeated and replaced in 539 BCE by the Persians under the leadership of Cyrus the Great.  It was Cyrus who repatriated the Judean exiles back to Palestine and allowed them to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and the temple.  The opera Nabucco gets all of this wrong.  In addition, there is no evidence that the historical Nabucco suffered from mental illness or that he converted to Judaism.  The book of Daniel in the Old Testament includes both, but Daniel was written during the Greek period much, much later and is generally considered to be a-historical. Lastly, I found it rather funny to see Abigaille waving around a letter and then ripping the letter up. They would not have had paper during the Babylonian times.  They used clay tablets.  Anyway, this is pretty picky and doesn't detract from the incredible beauty of the opera's music or the outstanding production and singing.  But it is a reminder that it is best not to get one's history from the theater.  It is a nice encouragement to explore, but whether it is Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti or even Shakespeare the point is really not historical accuracy.  With opera it is about the emotions, the fears, the feelings of loss which are conveyed so gloriously by the music.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Winter Opera St. Louis – Cosi fan tutte – January 22, 2016

Probably the most important requirement for any group desiring to mount a production of Mozart’s wonderful Cosi fan tutte would be to have 6 outstanding singers who not only have the vocal and musical excellence required to sing Mozart, but also have the acting ability to bring the characters to life.  And on this Winter Opera scores a triumph.  Six top notch singer/actors have come together for this mid-winter production, and to that add the brilliant (and I mean really incredibly brilliant) set design, clever staging by Corrine Hays and good musical leadership of Nicolas Giusti and you have a winner of a show.  Bravo to Winter Opera.  This was an excellent Cosi and I enjoyed it very, very much.

Winter Opera’s artistic director Gina Galati led this cast as Fiordiligi and did a wonderful job.  I especially loved her performance of “Per pieta” in act 2.  Act 2 begins a slow transition for this character and by this aria Fiordiligi has lost her “As a Rock” shielding and becomes very vulnerable.  Gina did a great job of this transition.  The Dorabella of this production was the outstanding Sarah Norton who is simply one of the finest performances of this role I have seen.  Vocally ravishing she nevertheless energized this spirited character by deftly balancing the cathartic anger and fear which motivate her – this was all contained in her scena “Ah, scostati… smanie.”   The Ferrando of Daniel Gerdes was outstanding.  What a beautiful voice and what great stage presence.  And Christopher Holmes did a fine job balancing Guglielmo’s playfulness in the first act with his increasing anger and betrayal in act 2.  One of the real treats of this production was the inclusion of Guglielmo’s hardly ever performed aria “Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo.”  I am not sure that I have ever experienced this aria live before.  It was composed by Mozart for the Vienna premier of the opera but then replaced before the performance.  It is a curious aria.  It is long and reminded me a little of the aria “Non piu di fiori” from “  Clemenza di Tito.” Nevertheless it was a real treat to hear it performed, especially by this excellent Guglielmo.

Rounding out the cast we had Kevin Wetzel as Don Alfonso and Lily Guerrero as Despina.  Both were excellent actors and fine singers.  It was nice to experience a Don Alfonso who was not so serious all the time and who seemed to be enjoying the joke he is playing.  And Lily Guerrero had enough feistiness to ensure that you were never quite sure what she was going to do next.  Her characterizations of Dr. Mesmer and the Notary were highlights of the performance.  And hats off to the chorus, who have not a lot to do in this opera, but did their few parts very well.

I have to say that the one thing that always amazes me with Winter Opera is the excellence of their sets.  They have a treasure in Scott Loebl.  His sets – not just this one – are always models of simple beauty and practicality.  He was able to turn the excellent interior into a beautiful garden in no time at all and without long set change waits.  And also I should add that this set was beautifully lit by Sean Savoie.

As much as I enjoyed the performance and loved the artists I do have a couple quibbles.  Conductor Nicolas Giusti did an excellent job with the harpsichord for the recits, but I had a hard time understanding why there was cello continuo a few times and none at others.  There were also pacing and tempo problems that caused the cast and the pit to separate on more than one occasion.  Mostly I would say it seemed that Maestro Giusti wanted slower tempi than did the singers.

There were, of course, cuts.  This is inevitable, I suppose.  And for the most part, I thought that the cuts were very smooth and appropriate.  There were only two times I felt that the cuts were a problem.  1st, was the unfortunate cut near the end of the first act finale.  As it only cut about 30 seconds or so, I’m not sure why that was necessary.  But the cut that disappointed me the most was a cut to the recitative in scene #10 of act 2.  This exchange:
What are you saying?
Don't you spare a thought for the unfortunates
Who left us this morning?
For their grief?
Have you forgotten their faithfulness?
Where, where did you learn
Such barbarous feelings?
How have you so changed your nature?

Listen: are you sure
That our former lovers won't be killed
In the war? What then?
We'll both be left high and dry.
There's always a big difference
Between one in the hand and one in the bush.

And then if they come back?

If they come back, too bad for them!
We'll be married by then
And far away from here.

Now I am certain I didn’t miss it, because I was looking for it and I also suppose it is possible that the translation they used in the titles obscured it.  But I don’t think so. I think this recit was cut on purpose which is really too bad.  Dorabella’s response (in bold face) is essential for understanding the motivations of the women.  They are not being capricious, in the context of their time and culture they are motivated at least in part by fear – the fear of ending up alone, which within their context would have been a disaster for them.  This cut I’m afraid is very unfortunate, especially for an audience, the majority of which probably do not know the opera at all.  For more on the interpretation of this opera see my article: In Defense of Cosi.

My other major concern has to do with the reduced orchestration.  Now I certainly understand that a regional company such as Winter Opera needs to be frugal and responsible with their money, which comes mostly through donations.  I get that and I applaud them for the seemingly excellent job they do with this too.  So, I know that the decision to reduce the orchestra is done in order to be financially responsible.  However having said that I feel compelled to point out that Mozart is not like other opera composers.  Cutting winds from Mozart’s orchestration has a major impact on the sound of the orchestra.  And in Cosi one instrument in particular made a huge different: the choice to use only 1 bassoon instead of two.  This opera in particular uses paired clarinets and bassoons, along with paired horns throughout for a particular effect and this is constant throughout the entire opera.  I’m sorry, but re-writing the lines and including an oboe here, and a clarinet filling in for the missing bassoon simply did not cut it.  I was constantly bothered by the missing bassoon during the performance and no where in the score was it more obvious that in the incredible ensemble “Secondate.”  I also missed the trumpets.  I know they are tacet a lot but when they play they are essential.  I really do not understand why at least the 2nd bassoon and 1 trumpet could have been added to the orchestra.  This would have made a huge difference.  Yes I also missed the 2nd flute and the 2nd oboe, but not as much – the beginning of the 1st act finale in particular for the 2nd flute, partly because the clarinet which filled in for the missing flute did not balance with the flute very well.  And the 2nd oboe was missed here and there.  But the orchestration for Cosi puts a lot of weight on the pairs of clarinets, bassoons and horns, so simply adding one bassoon and one trumpet would really have made a big difference.  For more on the orchestration and to hear clips read my article: More on Cosi.

Finally, I want to end this with a question to ponder.  Is Despina complicit with Don Alfonso throughout, or is she also somewhat of a victim herself and is she being used against the girls without her understanding what she is doing?  It seems to me there are three possible answers: 1. Yes, she is complicit from the beginning or at least from some time during act 1.  I have seen productions that have Despina make it clear she recognizes the boys right away.  2. She is a victim and is also tricked.  This is the interpretation embodied by the performance of Danielle de Niese during the Met HD performance of the opera a couple years ago.  In it she makes it quite clear at the end that she has been had too.  3.  The answer is a non-answer and is totally ambiguous.  I would say that is the tact taken by this Winter Opera production and their fine Despina, and to be fair this is the way it is mostly performed I think.  It is a valid way to go.  My personal view is that #2 is completely wrong and is not supported by the libretto.  Indeed it is hard to justify Despina’s behavior, especially as the Notary, if she in fact has no inkling of what Alfonso is up to. Exactly what did she think she was doing when she pretended to be the Notary?  For me #1 makes the most sense, but I am ok with #3.  I do not think it is overtly clear in the libretto though.  So it is something to ponder.

This was a really fine and outstanding performance of one of the great masterpieces of the operatic repertoire.  Bravi tutti to Winter Opera!

Monday, January 18, 2016

More on Cosi fan Tutte...

The plot of Cosi doesn't resonate very well with 21st century folks.  The attitudes towards relationship and "love" and issues of a woman's being free to pursue her own calling and destiny are now all terribly removed from the upper class Vienna of the late 18th century.  The fact is that the enlightenment had emerged from a long period of time when women, especially upper class women, were commodities and property to be disposed of by the men in her life.  Descartes and others presented a view of the place of women that raised them up on to a pedestal as the sacred guardians of virtue and family.  It is at this time that the whole distinction between virgin/whore emerges - not that it wasn't there before but it becomes a stronger emphasis.  The whole point is that a woman's life was considered incomplete if she were not married with a family.  This is true of men too - marriage to a faithful, loving wife was the entire point of life.  Look at Mozart himself, marriage at all costs.  He was so desperate to get married he married the sister of the woman he wanted to marry.  It is important to note that the women themselves of the time embraced this, as it was an improvement over being pawns of their fathers and brothers (not that this was completely eliminated).  There was also more of an emphasis on "love."  But it is hard to distinguish love for lust, or love from the fear of being alone.  This all explains the plots twists of Cosi:  the guys are certain of their girls devotion and fidelity, but they don't know them at all since getting to know the girl was really irrelevant,  all they wanted was to get married to these perfect female persons.  So the women start out on this high pedestal.  Alfonso is simply trying to bring the men to the point where they see that the girls are human beings, flawed human beings just like them.  For their part the girls are terrified of ending up alone.  For a more detailed discussion of this read: In Defense of Cosi.

As far as musical clips: the trio "So soave il vento"  is perhaps the most sublime and gorgeous of Mozart's works.  Also, I would point out that from an orchestration standpoint there is an emphasis on the winds, which are very prominent throughout.  The duet "Ah guarda sorella" is interesting (note the use of the clarinets) for at this point these girls have no personality, they are bored and they are like dolls.  Only when the boys leave do they come to life.  I love Dorabella's recit "A acostati," which is followed by her wonderful arietta "smanie implacibili" - note the weeping figures and the desperation.  For my money Isabel Leonard totally captured this aria in her HD performance a year or so ago.  Then there is Come scoglio - again, listen for the winds - Mozart is like a kid with a new toy.  Certainly he uses the winds in DG and Nozze but not like in Cosi.  The first act finale is tremendous and a great example of Mozart's now well worked out ability to create magnificent ensembles - I particularly love the part where they wake up and wonder if they are dead and in heaven then the fast finale.  Great!

Act 2 begins with a lovely arietta by Despina - "Una donna a quindici anni."  Note how Mozart keeps extending it, it never wants to end, and again the use of the winds.  Then, once the girls decide to give these "Albanians" a hearing we have the "date" and what does Mozart use - winds - clarinets, horns and bassoon in ensemble, to which he eventually adds the chorus - "Secondate." Then Guglielmo manages to break Dorabella in the gorgeous duet  "Il cor vi dono" (again, I can't say it enough - listen for the winds - specifically the clarinets and bassoons - incredible orchestration - this duet makes me cry, it is so beautiful, especially when they notice their hearts beating!  Then poor Ferrando strikes out with Fiordiligi and she sings Per pieta - we now have a featured horn solo!  Also, compare and contrast come scoglio with per pieta - "Like a rock!" but now she is completely exposed and vulnerable, this is why the horn is such a perfect instrument as it all feels so vulnerable (it is also wicked hard for the horn).  Also listen for the clarinets, bassoons and especially the horns at the very end. Then the boys come together to lick their wounds and Guglielmo sings that cute arietta complaining about women "Donne mia, il fate a tanti," (winds) but it is hard to be sympathetic with him at this point (In the clip that is linked Thomas Allen sings the arietta as an angry diatribe, which I think is exactly right).  I don't think Mozart was, this is why this arietta almost sounds like Papageno, and Guglielmo sounds like a whiner.  Also, unlike Nozze, where the arias complaining about the sexes are balanced (Figaro complaining about women and Marcellina complaining about men) this arietta is not deserving of a valid response, he has no valid complaint and deserves everything he is getting. Then we are into the finale of act 2 - which ends under a cloud - especially Guglielmo cannot come to grips with his anger, and Ferrando just says that he is never going to question fidelity again, it isn't worth it.  Ultimately there are no happy endings for these couples.  But it is important I think to note that it is not the women's fidelity that has been called into question,  it is the attitudes, perhaps the entire worldview of the two boys. And this is more serious, Ferrando I think can move forward, Guglielmo, not so much.  Finally, I did not like the way the Met HD production had Despina react at the end - it is obvious from that that ultimately the director did not get this plot.  I think Despina knows and is completely complicit throughout.  

Cosi is a masterpiece - both musical and the libretto.  Enjoy this complete performance of the opera:

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sunday at the Opera - Pelleas et Melisande - Berlin Philharmonic

You can find this performance of Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande" here: 
There is a fee - and there are also titles in English and German.

     For some reason I have never had the opportunity to see this opera before.  So this is my first time and I found it mesmerizing.  It did not hurt that the performance is outstanding.  The incomparable Berlin Philharmonic is joined by the equally incomparable Gerald Finley as Golaud; Magdalena Kožená as Mélisande; Christian Gerhaher as PelléasBernarda Fink as Geneviève; Franz-Josef Selig as Arkel) and an un-named outstanding boy soprano as Yniold.  The cast was terrific.  Beautiful singing from everyone, but Gerald Finley's Golaud was the tour de force performance here.  As usual the orchestra was incredible.
     This is a semi-staged production, staged by Peter Sellars, and as such it is sparse, but uses all of the available space, including audience space and through the orchestra.  it was very effective.  There was no stand and sing here - the cast completely inhabited their characters.  The only scene that was a bit odd was the scene with the shepherd.  I didn't get what that was about in this staging and did not understand the handcuffs.  I also felt that the handcuff on Golaud in the last scene were unnecessarily constraining.  But those are very minor quibbles.
     I found the work quite moving.  The music is lush and gorgeous, almost too beautiful for such a painful and violent story.  It seems to me that there is a sub-plot about violence against women here.  Melisande is abused.  She is found alone in the woods because she has run away and was obviously traumatized and abused.  And then she is emotionally abused by Golaud and even Arkel.  This is the bequest she leaves to her infant daughter at the end of the opera.  The men are caught in a cycle that they cannot seem to break.  Golaud recognizes that Melisande is a victim, but cannot keep himself from victimizing her further.  For all of the impressionism and romantic sweep of this opera this underlaying cycle of violence and abuse are what struck me most intensely.  I will try to watch a staged version of the opera and compare at some point in the future.  But, even so, this is a story that needs to be told.
     Musically this is a glorious opera.  It is hard to believe that it is so underperformed.  It deserves to be better know.  

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Sunday at the Opera - Sonostream

I am going to take the opportunity to review both operas currently available on a service called Sonostream.  The first opera I watched (about a month ago) was the Theater-an-der-Wien's outstanding production of Der Fliegende Hollander.  Tonight I watched the Glyndebourne production of the Handel Oratorio "Saul."  I'll start with the latter.  Here is the link for Sonostream - note that there is a small cost to be able to watch their operas.  Also there are no titles.

     Handel didn't invent the oratorio, but adapted it to suit his purposes.  It was a clever way to circumvent the law against operatic performances in Lent.  This is no opera - he could say - there are no sets or costumes or make-up plus the stories are all from the Bible.  Handel composed a number of these.  Curiously enough his most famous oratorio is the one which does not fit the pattern.  "The Messiah" really has no plot.  But the rest of them do: "Israel in Egypt," "Judas Maccabeus," "Samson," and "Saul" all have plots and characters.  In essence they are operas.  The one element which sets the oratorios apart from the operas of Handel is the use of the chorus.  The oratorios of Handel contain glorious choruses.  I believe it was this basic operatic feel which inspired the director and the Glyndebourne festival to mount this oratorio as a fully staged opera.  And this production has it all: beautiful costumes, elaborate make-up, sets, props, staging, a glorious and well-staged chorus, excellent dancers and a brilliant cast and orchestra.  Musically this production is superb.  Christopher Purve takes the title role and gives an incredibly physical performance of the King who sinks slowly into madness.  Vocally he was strong, though he had some trouble with the runs, but his presence on stage and his acting were outstanding.  Paul Appleby was a wonderful Jonathan, Lucy Crowe was glorious as Saul's daughter Merab and Sophie Bevan was equally glorious as the other daughter Michel.  For me it was countertenor Iestyn Davies who stole the show with his beautiful clear voice and his impeccable sense of style and musicality.  His aria near the end of act 1 was perhaps the highlight of the performance for me.  It doesn't hurt that it is one of Handel's most beautiful arias. Benjamin Hulett did a nice job, though I was never sure exactly who he was supposed to be, and vocally and musically John Graham-Hall was excellent as the Witch of Endor.  The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment was brilliant and conductor Ivor Bolton did a fine job.
     The production itself is hard to describe.  Director Barrie Kosky was obviously attempting to present an interpretive representation of Saul's decline and destruction.  But for me it was too much. Certainly it was colorful and at times really interesting.  But I found act 2 in particular difficult to sit through.  Nothing really made sense to me - what was with the candles? And who exactly was Benjamin Hulett supposed to be playing?  He was a cross between Rigoletto and the Stage Manager from "Our Town."  I really don't mind Regie productions, but I get bothered when things just don't make any sense.  And for me at least most of act 2 made little sense.  Why was everyone in their underwear in act 2 for example?  And the scene with the Witch of Endor - which is musically one of Handel's greatest achievements - was almost impossible to watch.  It was offensive and gross - which I think is what the director was going for.  The choice of using a tenor for that role I found perplexing, though I thought having Saul sing Samuel's part was really insightful and clever.  THe bottom line is that I did not like the production as a whole, though some of it worked, not all of it did in my view.  But musically this was a terrific performance.
     I word about the score.  Of all of the oratorios I think Handel's score and orchestration is really interesting in this work.  We have bells, harp and an extended organ solo (almost a concerto).  And the staging of the organ concerto was great.  I really enjoyed watching him play even if it was a little dizzying.  And the use of the bassoons in the Endor scene is really fun.  Too bad it was hard to listen to because of what was going on on stage.

On to Flying Dutchman:
"Der Fliegende Holländer" from the Theater an der Wien watched on Sonostream - BTW this is not free there was a small minimal cost to watch - 4.99 Euros - well worth the cost.
     This is perhaps one of the most interesting productions of Flying Dutchman I have ever seen. It is a Regie production, but I think it is one of the best of that genre. This was an immensely creative, powerful and provocative production. First of all, they used the very original version of the opera from 1841, and this version actually predates the opera's Dresden premiere for which Wagner made some changes. Although I have seen this opera on multiple occasions I do not know the score well enough to have recognized any major musical changes - except for the very last scene - the excellent double chorus of sailors seemed a little more extended - which is a nice way of saying it seemed to go on and on (this is the section before the Ghost sailors join in). The other major changes were in character names - instead of Daland and Erik we now have Donald and Georg and the setting is now in Scotland and not in Norway. Other than that I didn't feel that there was anything that was substantially changed.
     The performance itself was a musical feast and a triumph. The entire cast was terrific as was both the chorus and orchestra. For me the major stand-out was Bernard Richter as Georg (Erik). Now that is something, when the Erik is so good that you find yourself wishing he actually had more to sing! But he was absolutely tremendous. What a gorgeous, full voice. He almost sounded lyric to my ears, but he had the power that he needed. I was blown away (an apt metaphor for this opera I think) by this tenor! This is not to say there was anything wrong with anyone else - everyone else was top notch even down to the Steuermann and Mary. The magnificent bass Samuel Yuon sang the Dutchman with power and authority, though he wasn't overly sympathetic, which I think was intentional, he was harsh and damaged, on the edge of being violent. Ingela Brimberg was no wilting flower as Senta - gone from this production is the almost pathelogical savior complex that seems to go with this character. She was easily the best Senta I have ever experienced both vocally and acting. Lars Woldt was a fine Donald (Daland).
     Now the production - where do I start? First, the set is unbelieveable, it is perhaps one of the most complex sets I have ever experienced. I can't even begin to describe it. So - SPOILER ALERT - I can't talk about this without giving away the really creative ending at least a little. So stop reading if you want to be surprised. At the beginning there is a dancer - a Satan/Ghost character of sorts - other dancers join him and one writes the word "Erlösung" on the set - Redemption which is a key theme in this opera. The Dutchman is desperately seeking redemption. But in this production Senta is also seeking redemption and she is not going to find it in the closed, stifling and claustrophobic world of Georg (Erik) or in her father's greed. This production is then a journey for both of them towards redemption - self-actualization perhaps. I have always hated the ending of this opera. Wagner's ending has always really bugged me - Senta throwing herself into the sea and all. Not in this production - both of them find redemption and in the end we discover that there is a new word written on the set - "Erwartung" - Expectation. It is simply brilliant. Yes, this is a Regie production, but it is one of the best Regie productions I have ever seen and this director's interpretation provides (at least for me) some redemption of what I think is a rather weak and tiresome plot. Did I get it all - not on your life. There was a lot in this production and I probably missed a fair amount of it. I would probably need to watch it multiple times - which I actually might. This is an outstanding production.
     Finally, I had little hang ups with the stream itself (with both operas) - was that them or my rural internet? Probably the latter - I don't quite understand how I can watch like the Berlin Phil and YouTube and never ever have a streaming problem but then the Vienna Staatsoper and Sonostream hang up a lot - especially the Staatsoper. Anyway, it was worth putting up with because of the brilliance of the production.  (By the way - there are no titles).


Sunday, January 3, 2016

Sunday at the Opera - The Magic Flute - Norske Opera on Opera Platform

For 2016 I am beginning what I hope will be a series of posts each Sunday of a review of an opera performance viewed online.  For today - January 3, 2016 - The Magic Flute performed by by Den Norske Opera and Ballet, and available on Opera Platform from now until June.

First - this review will probably contain some SPOILERS - so if you want to watch it first, do.

      The Magic Flute is a wonderful opera, but the plot has always been a bit confusing and remote.  There are lots of seeming contradictions and in a way it appears that the librettists were headed in one direction and then go off in another.  (See my post below for more specifics).  One thing that we can say for sure is that the opera is deeply rooted in the late 18th century enlightenment and in Viennese Masonry.  If you have some understanding of that, and the production doesn't cut so much of the dialogue as to make the plot incomprehensible then you can follow it.  But this is the problem: most folks don't have the background and just want to enjoy a night at the opera.  Luckily despite the strange plot the music is sublime and most productions (example - the current Met production by Julie Taymor) are so colorful that the opera is very entertaining.
    So, the Norske production: You do not need to know anything about Magic Flute, Mozart, or 18th century Vienna.  The plot has been completely re-written.  We are now in the world of "Star Wars."  It is very clever and they obviously dedicated a lot of resources to this.  The sets and especially the costumes and make-up are very well done and quite intricate.  Prince Tamino, a member of the Star Wars rebellion, crash lands on a strange planet and a new adventure begins.  Obviously there are resonances with the original plot, but it is very different.  One the face of it - we have an intergalactic marital separation between Sarastro and the Queen of the Night and a custody fight (yes, in the original they were never married, but they were here and here they are Pamina's parents).  But that is not what it is about - it is much deeper than that.  What does it mean to be a real man?  Is a real man one who suppresses his feelings and can remain stoic and unmoved in the face of pain and sorrow?  Is being "rugged individualists" what it is all about?  For me one of the best moments of the production was Pamina's aria "Ah, Ich Fühls" (beautifully sung by Mari Eriksmoen - in Norwegian with titles). She sings this with Tamino and Papageno on stage and after she leaves in sorrow, Papageno's response was the highlight of the entire production for me, and in that response we catch a glimpse of what this production is trying to say.  SPOILER - Meaning and life are to be found in love, in forgiveness and in community!  It was a very timely and important message.
     I really don't mind that they completely rewrote the plot.  I thought it worked - for the most part and was extremely entertaining to boot.  The star of the show was without a doubt the Papageno of Atle Antonsen, who is not an opera singer.  He is a Norwegian comedian, and in this he stands in the tradition of Emanuel Schickeneder, one of the librettists and Mozart's first Papageno.  Schickenader was not a singer either, but was very successful.  Antonsen was excellent - annoying at times, but very effective with all of his dialog (yes they have English subtitles - and a good thing it is too otherwise one would completely miss the point).  It is Papageno - along with Papagena (who in keeping with the intent of this production now has a much larger role) that interrupts and affects the conclusion.  The cast was all very good - but the Pamina and Papageno were the standouts.  Mari, Pamina, has a gorgeous voice and I loved listening to her sing.  So the production is fun, entertaining with a good and comprehensible message.
    But, I have to say that I did not at all like what they did here and there with the score, and it was, in my view, completely unnecessary to make all of those cuts, interruptions  and changing the order. I would have personally enjoyed this production much more if they had left the score alone and performed it as written, even with the new libretto and plot changes.  Throughout there were all kinds of synthesizer noises, which were fine during the dialog but please not during the music.  Also, significantly, there was no glockenspiel!  In fact, Papageno dismisses the glock player from the pit early in the opera.  The glock is replaced by....  wait for it ... SPOILER ALERT.... Maracas.  Yes, Maracas - I hated that with a passion.  It ruined all of those wonderful moments in the opera.  And for what?  A cheap laugh. Totally unnecessary IMHO. Then there was the re-ordering - in the first act finale, but the worst came during the trial scene.  This also ruined that scene for me - plus there was only one trial, not two.  Again, not necessary.  The musical tinkering was really the major negative for me and almost ruined the performance for me.  Except that I found the rest of the production rather captivating, especially as we got closer to the end.  And I enjoyed the 3 Spirits (who were obviously not boys so why call them boys?).  I need to add that I felt that the orchestra and chorus were all too heavy.  The conductor needed to lighten up the musical performance a lot.
     Opera Platform has made available a number of really interesting productions from around the world.  I have seen almost all of them and have enjoyed them.  I would encourage you to explore their site and check out some of the other performances.  In conclusion, I enjoyed this.  It was fun and well done.  I wish these folks would leave the score alone, but I thought the rest of it worked - for what it was.  Go into it expecting a transformed "Magic Flute."

Check out other Opera Platform productions here!
A really interesting conversation ensued on Facebook regarding my comment above about Sarastro not being Pamina's father in the original libretto - he is her Uncle.  The Queen of the Night was married to Sarastro's brother.  Here is the original speech that preceeds the Queen's aria "Die Hölle Rache:"
The Queen to Pamina:  "Your father, who was the Master here, voluntarily cast off the seven-aureoled solar emblem of the Initiates of Isis. Another now bears the powerful solar emblem upon his breast: Sarastro. Shortly before your father's death, I reproached him about this matter. Then he said to me severely: 'Woman, I am soon going to die; all the treasures that were my private property I leave to you and to your daughter.' 'And the Solar Circle, which encompasses the universe and penetrates it with its rays, to whom do you leave that?' I asked sharply. 'Let it belong to the Initiates,' was his reply. "Sarastro will be the manly guardian, as I myself have been up to this day. Ask me not one word more. These matters are not accessible to your woman's spirit. Your duty is to submit yourself completely, and your daughter also, to the direction of these Wise Men.'

And here is a magnificent performance by Natalie Dessay that includes this speech:

Finally, The comment was made about the sexism and racism that is a part of this libretto - actually the word used was "misogynist."  Here is my response:

I also think that the current trend of trying not to offend and to make the various plots acceptable to 21st century tastes and attitudes is a bad idea. We need to always recognize where we have come from. MF definitely had a view of women that we no longer accept. But can we say it is misogynist when we are applying our values on a work that was created a couple centuries ago when attitudes were different? It might be for us, but is it fair to accuse them of that? There were all kinds of other issues going on. In fact, the resolution of this opera finds Pamina successfully going through the trials with Tamino. That would have been pretty progressive for the time. So, Sarastro is a sexist (by our standards), but he is not ultimately successful in making his daughter submit to his authority. Monostatos is more offensive and I do think current productions need to modify some of the harsh rhetoric around him. But it is instructive for us to see and be reminded of these attitudes as they might give us insight into our own problems. The fact is that we might not have moved so far away from these attitudes after all.