Friday, April 22, 2016

Midweek Opera - Meyerbeer's "Les Huguenots" - Australia Opera

     I have for some time now wanted to enter into the world of Giacomo Meyerbeer.  I have heard selections from his operas here and there, and there is an excerpt from "Les Prophets" which appears in the 1st Gekeler Oboe Method book and which I have heard students play for years.  But until now have never sat through an entire Meyerbeer opera.  And so the opportunity has come since I recently happened on a YouTube recording of "Les Huguenots" from Australia Opera.  And this is no run of the mill performance though.  This was Dame Joan Sutherland's final farewell performance at Australia Opera, so it is an important event in opera history.  She plays the Queen of Navarre who is not a major character and who disappears from the opera after act 3.  But even so she has some very spectacular singing and Dame Joan turns in a wonderful performance.  As always, her husband, Richard Bonynge conducts.

     I found the entire (long) opera to be a mixed experience.  A lot of it was the production and the singing.  Aside from Dame Joan and the tenor, the rest of the cast were mixed.  A couple I think were included because they had some connection or friendship with Dame Joan and her husband even though they were way past their prime.  The chorus and orchestra are however terrific.  But the other reason for my mixed reaction is the production itself.  This production is traditional.  Very traditional! Excessively traditional! And I found it completely tedious.  Maybe I am not so used to such traditional productions anymore, but I can see why this kind of traditional staging is no longer popular.  I would actually love to see this opera staged by a creative current director who could get at the core of the meaning of the opera and minimize all the distracting fluff.

     But of course the fluff is a part of the opera.  This is yet another problem with this opera: the libretto is tiresome.  I realize that in the mid-19th century there had to be a love plot.  But this love plot is so irrational and tedious that I found it at times unbearable.  At the heart of this opera is the horrific massacre of the Huguenots - 300 French protestants murdered by Royalist Catholics in the 16th century - a  religious crime against humanity!  And a theme that is unfortunately timely as our world continues to see crimes of this kind perpetuated in the name of God by several different groups of religious fanatics - including Christians!  This is the heart of this opera and this is what needs to be emphasized.  Perhaps it is impossible to redeem this opera, but a production that could focus on that would be worth seeing.  But, IMHO, the love plot needs to be cut drastically.  For example: the scene at the end of act 4 - Valentine (the Catholic daughter of the leader of the Catholics) and her beloved Raoul (a Huguenot) have just overheard the plot and then Valentine spends the entire rest of the scene preventing and imploring Raoul to not do anything to save his fellow Huguenots.  Her selfishness and lack of compassion I found hard to stomach.  Right, it's an opera.  But it is not a great opera and that scene needs to be cut or reduced. Also, the confusion about her relationship with the Count of Nevers which leads to all of the conflict is also rather tedious.  Of course we don't turn to opera to learn history, but really, the massacre does not have roots in a confused love triangle.  And in a way it kind of trivializes this crime against humanity.

     For me, I guess the fact that our world is wracked with such horrible violence, and much of it religious violence, makes me less tolerant of the tedious shortcomings of this libretto. Certainly other operas do the same thing, but this one seems particularly bad and besides, as I said above, it is not a great opera musically, so I was rarely swept along through the difficult scenes by the music. Certainly there is some great music in this opera, but they are moments or short sections or scenes rather than entire acts.  Raoul's aria in act 1, accompanied only by a viola (viol d'amore in the original) is one of the highlights of the opera.  Also the conspiracy scene and the blessing of the swords in act 4 is a terrific scene.  I also liked the music for the massacre scene.  The Queen's Page has a great aria (accompanied by horns) and there is a terrific extended bass clarinet solo.  But out of an opera that is 3 and a half hours long that doesn't amount to much.  Still I think this opera might have a life if it is edited and refocused.  Maybe...

     I am not done with Meyerbeer, yet.  I would like to watch "Les Prophetes" next.  And then maybe a couple of the others which have been revived lately - "Robert le Diable" and "L'Africaine."  But they are long, so it may take me a while.  This is worth watching for Dame Joan and to ponder the issues of religious violence.  In closing: The Count de Saint Bris tells his men that they are compelled to this act of violence because it is ordained and approved by God.  Too many use the same argument down through history and into our own times.  And they are all wrong.  They have misunderstood and projected their own hate and fear upon God and the result will be, as it is for Saint Bris in the end of the opera, a complete loss of everything that is beautiful, and indeed a loss of one's humanity!

Monday, April 18, 2016

Sunday at the Opera - Vienna's "Parsifal" - Opera Platform

     Parsifal is an opera that I have grown to love over the years.  The music is amazingly and achingly beautiful.  The plot is complex and a bit odd.  One the one hand it utilizes so much Christian symbolism that you might think it is Wagner returning to his Christian roots, but no.  There is little, in my view, that reflects orthodox Christianity in this libretto.  The Good Friday liturgies in acts 1 and 3 are frankly unrecognizable to any of us who actually celebrate the Triduum.  To look at this as a Christian work one would have to see the Pelagianism which is embedded in the libretto. But Parsifal does not reflect or derive from Christian theology, it is more reflective of Buddhism I think.  I am no expert on Buddhism, but I have deep respect for the faith. What I know is that at the heart of Buddhism is the journey towards self-awareness and completeness.  A part of this journey is self-denial.  All of this is embedded in Parsifal.  When seen in this light I think it makes more sense, and I experience it as a much more profound reflection of the struggle of life's journey.
     Another problem with this opera is that for reasons I do not completely understand stage directors within the last 30 years or so always want to emphasize the broken down and even apocalyptic dimension (which I think is not there actually - there is nothing apocalyptic about this opera!)  My very first Parsifal was at Lyric Opera in Chicago over 10 years ago.  It was sung beautifully, but the setting was depressing.  It was the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust.  It was very tiresome. Within such a setting even the Buddhist themes are subverted. I absolutely loved the new Met production and I found the Berlin production to be also outstanding, though it focused on some other things as well. This Vienna production I think is somewhere in the middle.  It is not awful, but it is not great.  It is however perplexing. One wonders exactly what this stage director is trying to convey.  And it is a mixed bag.  I found act 2, for example, very effective.  Act 3 was ok, but not all that great.  And act 1 was totally confusing.  For example, exactly what is the point of making all of the residents of Montsalvat into members of a fencing club?  I just did not understand why everyone was dressed for fencing, had the swords and practiced their fencing throughout act 1.  And then it is dropped for acts 2 and 3.  And was that a human sacrifice with the shirtless boy?  Why?  And if not, what was it all about with the boy and the knife? And why is Montsalvat so run down?  Is it really necessary?  In general the production is just bland and nonsensical.  It is not worth watching for the production, frankly - IMHO.

     But the singing is another story.  This Vienna Parsifal is beautifully sung and (mostly) beautifully played.  Violeta Urmana is stunning as Kundry, one of the best I have ever experienced.  And Michael Volle sings Amfortas with such beauty and phrasing that it brought tears to my eyes at time. Stephen Gould is a good Parsifal and Falk Struckmann does a nice job as Gurnemanz, though he doesn't really have the gravitas in his voice that I have come to expect in this role.  Still he is a fine singer and musician and a good actor. Boaz Daniel also does an excellent job as Klingsor and brings a vocal beauty to this role that is sometimes missing.  He is also quite the dapper Kingsor!  The orchestra was mostly good.  As usual the Vienna Philharmonic is a mixed bag.  Interspersed with moments of great beauty, like the act 1 prelude and the Good Friday Spell music (beautiful oboe solo) we then had to put up with the usual false attacks in the winds and kacks from the horns.  One expects better of this orchestra.

     If you are anxious to see a variety of different Parsifal's it is worth watching and musically it is over all very fine.  The production however leaves much to be desired.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

My 3 Opera weekend at the Met!

     I don't get to go to the Met very often since I live in Southern Illinois. It is therefore rather expensive and difficult to get to NYC, even though Lincoln Center is my favorite place on earth. But I made the pilgrimage and binged on Met opera this past weekend. Friday: Roberto Devereaux; Saturday afternoon: Simon Boccanegra; Saturday evening: Madame Butterfly! The last one was a spur of the moment decision as I had not originally planned to see that, but as I found myself free on Saturday evening I thought, well, why not!
     Many folks complain about so-called "modern productions" even though all productions being performed would be modern productions. I have alway had a difficult time understanding the complaint. As an art form opera needs new ideas and a steady flow of re-imaginings. Otherwise it becomes a museum piece and it will die. Of the 3 productions I saw the middle one: SB was the most conservative with opulent period sets and costumes. The Butterfly was a magical production utilizing elements of Japanese theater and the RD was seemingly very traditional yet with an interesting concept of the play within the play. Politics and personal relationships all intertwining and playing out on a public stage where it is all watched and observed by many who hang around. I loved each and every one of these productions.
     Vocally I got to experience some of my favorite singers: Sondra Radvanovsky who I adore; Mariusz Kwiecien who withdrew from the Don Giovanni I had hoped to experience in Chicago; Elina Garanca and Matthew Polenzani; the Great Placido Domingo and Furuccio Furlanetto; Joseph Calleja; Krisina Oppolais; Dwayne Croft, Maria Zifchak and Tony Stevenson. The amazing Met chorus and orchestra. (Beautiful playing from the winds as always BTW) And then James Levine conducting SB! It was fantastic. All the singing was terrific, IMHO. Musically each opera was very strong and the acting was top notch. I found SB to be the most powerful and moving of the 3 operas. Not sure why I wasn't more moved for Butterfly.
     In many ways I think the HD broadcast of Butterfly was more engaging. Seeing the whole stage enabled us to see everything that was going on at once. And at times this was wonderful. But at other times I think this opera is so personal and there is so much interaction of the cast that the close ups were able to bring out details that I simply was too far away to see in the house. I will say however the mirror worked a lot better in the house. The mirror did not read in HD for me but in the house the choreography utilized this reflection and was very effective and moving, the scene with the birds for example.
Much has been said about Domingo's ability to pull of these baritone roles and much had been said by me. I have always been a major fan of his, but he really is not a baritone and the voice is just not right for these baritone roles - I really didn't like his Di Luna and Don Carlos (in Ernani) or papa Germont. And even in SB there are times where his tenor is just not the right voice. However, seeing it live was quite different from listening alone. Domingo was Simone! His command of the stage, his acting and his entire inhabiting of the role was quite remarkable. It was a riveting performance. And when you add Furuccio Furlanetto and Calleja and the rest of the terrific cast it was a remarkable performance and experience. When the curtain rises on the council chamber scene with Domingo sitting on the throne regally costumed surrounded by the council it was a stunning image. And then when the chorus begins the insurrection.... Well, it doesn't get any better than that!
      I have no complaints about RD. I loved every minute. The cast, led by Sondra, was terrific. I personally loved the production. This is not history! The plot of this opera is so far removed from the actual historical events that led to the execution of Essex that there is no correlation at all. (Love and jealousy were not factors! Essex's idiotic and poorly planned and executed insurrection was what led to his execution. E1 was actually pretty magnanimous considering how many others she pardoned!) So it's not historical, so remember that and just take it on its own terms. I loved Sondra as Elizabeth. I do not find her voice harsh, but she has power and she commands the stage, as she needs to in this role! I am looking forward to seeing it in HD this coming weekend.
     I probably will not have the opportunity to go to the Met 3 times in a weekend again for a long time. It was a wonderful weekend and I truly loved every moment! And on top of it I got to meet some wonderful folks for our Met Opera in HD Fans page. This was a wonderful extra. It was great to meet all of you who were in the house and it was great to meet and chat with Will Berger for a little while. All in all a great time.