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.