Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sunday Night at the Opera - Evgeny Onegin - Opera Platform

     Opera Platform is offering a performance of Eugene Onegin from the Komische Oper Berlin. This is an overall very good production and performance. The production by Barrie Kosky itself was fairly traditional, the setting for Acts 1 and 2 being a lush green outdoor setting, a meadow on the edge of a forest. This setting was effective for a lot of these scenes, but not for all.  Tatiana's letter scene was a stretch for me. I couldn't quite understand how a teenage girl would be allowed to simply wander around outside in the middle of the night (her grandmother knows she is there).  The canning of raspberry jam was a nice touch, but it was a device that got a little old after a while.  The other problem with the letter scene is that Tatiana had no paper, so she had to resort to tearing pages out of her book and writing on those pages.  This powerful scene lost some of its power due to this setting I felt, despite the beautifully acted and sung performance of Asmik Grigorian as Tatiana.

     But we are not done with this setting. The duel happens here too.  That is fine and I won't give it all away except to say that I felt that a couple of the director's choices for this scene robbed the scene of its emotional power. It is ironic because on the one hand the performance of the principals was really outstanding, both in terms of their singing and acting.  Lensky was portrayed as more troubled than is usual, and I felt that really worked.  Well, so was Onegin actually and his final scene with Tatiana was powerfully performed.  But I get ahead of myself.  Now, we are in the theater so I can make the shift in my mind that the meadow in the last scene of the last act is not really the same meadow as the first two acts - in fact it is not supposed to be.  Tatiana has married Prince Gremin and they live in St. Petersburg in act 3. And for a production as basically traditional as this one this was certainly my assumption.  But then how is it possible that there in the grass they find the glass jar with Tatiana's letter in the very last scene of the opera.  That was a major disconnect for me. Years have supposedly gone by.  Onegin has been wandering around Europe in an effort to deal with his terrible guilt for having killed Lensky and Tatiana has gotten married and is now the Princess Gremin and the center a some major social activity in St. Petersburg, but yet here is that letter.  But aside from those kinds of little things, there is much that works very, very well.  I loved the rain, for example.  It added to the power of the last scene of the opera. I liked that the male characters were less restrained and had more depth.  I loved the way Grigorian played Tatiana.  She was not played as shy so much I thought as just bookish and introverted, but nevertheless a girl capable of intense feelings.  I also loved the interaction of all the women leads in act 1.  This is a loving family - these 3 generations of women have genuine affection for one another and it was beautifully played.  Into this then comes these damaged and difficult men.  Lensky with his brooding bad temper and alcohol problem and the arrogant Onegin. And when we finally do meet Prince Gremin we discover that Tatiana has not settled, but has found a man who genuinely loves her and she loves him back. And she is now not quite as withdrawn.  The lovely gown she wore was representative I think of this transformation.  She is now a woman - responsible and mature and strong.  Onegin has no hope and his advances came off as pathetic.  It was very effective.

     I really liked Asmik Grigorian as Tatiana a lot.  There was something about her performance that really touched my heart. Vocally she was secure I thought and exceptionally musical, but her embodiment of the character I felt was very moving.  Günter Papendell was very effective as the arrogant and then desperate Onegin and the Czech tenor Ales Briscein was terrific as Lensky. The rest of the cast, the chorus and orchestra were all excellent. The conductor, Henrik Nanasi kept the opera well paced through out.  I was disappointed I must say in the lack of dancing and dancers.  This score contains some of Tchaikovsky's most wonderful dance music, which for the most part was performed as orchestra solos and moving music.  There was very little dance - this is too bad.  On the other hand, I should also say that one of the things that made this production work with its (for the most part) single setting in the meadow was the excellent lighting by Franck Evin. The lighting effects were simply gorgeous at times.  This is a over all a fine Onegin and worth watching.  Highly recommended.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Gabriel Fauré - Pénélope - Strasbourg

     When we talk about opera it is usually understood that there is a canon of the top, most popular and most often performed operas (Carmen, Boheme, Traviata) and certain composers who are the primary popular opera composers - Mozart, Verdi, Puccini and some others.  But who decided this. Probably no one decided it formally.  Certain composers, like Verdi, composed so many operas and a large number of them were pretty big hits so they have passed through the ages as the operas everyone should know.  And I certainly am not suggesting that the top tier operas should not hold their places.  But, the works and these composers were not the only great composers to write great operas.  And I have had the opportunity within the last few years to become acquainted with a number of great operas by so-called lesser composers.  Operas which are just as deserving as any other operas, in my view.  An example of this would be "La Juive" by Halevy.  This is a magnificent opera.  Powerful, dramatic, moving, thought-provoking with beautiful music.  it deserves to be performed much more often than it is.

     Another work that is deserving of more notice and productions is Gabriel Fauré's one and only opera "Pénélope" based on the return of Ulysses to his home from Homer's "Odyessey." After having spent 10 years (I think) attempting to return home and having many unusual adventures, Ulysses finally returns home from the Trojan War to find that since he has been gone so long everyone thinks he is dead (except his wife, who holds on to her hope).  Consequently poor Penelope has been besieged with suitors.  This is where the opera starts. And these suitors are particularly odious in this opera.  They are wretched men, selfish, lusty, power and wealth hungry.  They are also violent and cruel. Fauré's fine librettist spends a fair amount of act 1 helping us to get to know these guys.  So that by the end of the opera we have no sympathy for them - they get what they deserve.  Musically the opera is such a wonderful combination of various styles - we have French romanticism (Gounod and Massenet), Impressionism and even a little Wagner all mixed together into a wonderfully unique style that Fauré makes his own.  What he gets from Wagner I think is particularly interesting - there are a series of musical motifs that he weaves into the fabric of the score and like Wagner the opera is in a declamatory style - no arias, ensembles, recitatives - it all flows together and it flows together beautifully.  It is very captivating dramatically and the music drives it forward.  The orchestration is beautifully colorful.  His use of the orchestra reminded me more of Saint-Saens, or even Debussy in places.

     The production I watched from the Opera of the Rhein in Strasbourg, France I felt was very well done.  The cast was excellent.  All of them.  I particularly appreciate when a company makes an effort to cast the smaller supporting roles with good singers and actors, and they did that here.  And a good thing too.  Those creepy suitors needed to be good singers AND actors, and they were.  One grew to dislike them intently! The women were also excellent, as was the chorus and orchestra. Anna Caterina Antonacci took on the role of Pénélope and was glorious, I felt.  I loved her performance. She was both vulnerable and calculating, a strong woman who had learned, with difficulty, how to manage these interlopers who were camping out in her home (the suitors).  Marc Laho takes on the role of Ulysse and the great Jean-Philippe Lafont sang the role of Eumée.  I really liked the production. The set was magnificent and consisted of several sections that revolved in and out.  There was water, a horse, the goddess Athena and all kinds of extras here and there.  A really fascinating production.  One of my favorite touches occurred in act 2, while Ulysse and Pénélope and Eumée are conversing behind them dancers are enacting the trials of Ulysses - the sirens, the cyclops all if it is there.  Very well done.  I also liked that this production restored the character of Telemachus.  Fauré had cut this character for some reason during the composition process.  But this production restores the character as a silent dancer. He added a lot.

     In summery, I really enjoyed this opera and this production.  It is beautiful work.  It deserves more productions.  The story is timeless and I commend it to all.  Here is the link - the stream is near the bottom of the page:

Mozart - Mitridate - Paris

     When one thinks of Mozart operas usually the first works to come to mind are the 3 buffo operas that Mozart composed with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte (Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte). Next perhaps one's mind might drift over to the Singspiel operas - Abduction from the Seraglio and Magic Flute and finally, last but not least, one might consider the seria operas - Idomeneo and Clemenza di Tito.  But there are more operas.  Mozart composed several other operas most of which are not performed very often.  This list includes the opera Mitridate, re di Ponto. This opera was composed by Mozart when he was 14!!!! And once you get over the fact that he composed it when he was 14 - did I say he was 14 when he wrote this opera - you can begin to see why it is not very often performed.  The plot is convoluted and rather, well, ridiculous - typical I suppose of seria, but still.  The young Mozart seemed to really like revenge arias because the opera is packed with them - if you know Idomeneo think of Elektra's arias and multiply by, well, enough to fill 3 hours. Everyone it seems has a reason to sing a revenge aria.  There are a few non-revenge moments which are slower and more introspective, but they usually are set in the middle of fast and furious. This could become tedious - except for the absolutely amazing singing by the Paris cast, but I get ahead of myself.  But at the same time, young Mozart exhibits an amazing knowledge of the voice and seems able to compose for it very well. And there are all kinds of little hints of great things to come - the range leaps for example will appear in Cosi's Fiordiligi.  One element that is missing is of course the one operatic element which Mozart came to develop to such a high degree, and that is the ensemble. There are no ensembles in Mitridate to speak of.  There is a wonderful duet at the end of act 2 between Aspasia and Sifare ("Se viver non degg’io") - brilliantly fast and furious by the way.  And then there is a very beautiful aria sung by Sifare with obligato horn ("Lungi da te").  There is also a final ensemble which is very brief.  It is not surprising that there are no ensembles, Mozart was obviously imitating what was current and popular in the seria world, and ensembles were few and far between.  Not until Mozart himself develops and uses the ensemble to brilliant effect in the Da Ponte arias do they become a standard part of the operatic form.
     This brings me to this performance at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, and the singing is absolutely terrific by the entire cast:  Michael Spyres - Mitridate; Patricia Petibon - Aspasia; Myrto Papatanasiu - Sinfarne; Christope Dumaux - Farnace; Sabine Devieilhe - Ismane, and an unlisted tenor as Marzio and an unnamed soprano as Arbate.  Note that there are no low voices in this cast at all.  The original cast consists of 2 tenors, 2 female sopranos, a countertenor (alto castrato) and 2 soprano castrati.  Thankfully there were no castrati in this cast.  Christophe Dumaux was the lone counter-tenor and he is spectacular.  The other male soprano roles are taken by women.  And the level of musicianship, style and singing beauty could simply not be higher.  It is worth watching just to glory in the incredible singing by every member of this cast.  Thankfully the long and probably tedious recitatives were drastically reduced, but every accompanied Recit and aria was included.  The period orchestra is the Ensemble Concert D'Astrée and is conducted by Emmanuelle Haim.
     Now to the production.  I simply did not get it.  I read the synopsis and tried to follow the libretto but found the setting and production very confusing.  It seems to be (at first anyway) set in an old theater in which a group of folks have assembled to put on a play and Mitridate becomes the play.  But it is not at all clear and was terribly confusing.  What I was reading in the libretto and what I was seeing on stage bore no resemblance to each other at all.  I am still not sure who the two children were supposed to be and why they kept wandering around and why the boy child was given a crucial line near the end.  I am also not quite sure why they all kept changing clothes - out clothes only - putting on and taking off a character?  Was the story line supposed to parallel their personal lives and the relationship problems they (we) all have.  Lovers, parents, children - all in conflict - all struggling with betrayal.  So then what is the connection with the Roman army in all of this.  Admittedly part of the problem is the confused nature of the original libretto, it is not a good libretto and I certaibly have no problem with the stage director trying to do something to make it sensible.  But, he didn't.  He made it worse.  And he was greeted with a deafening chorus of boos when he walked on stage. I think he might have had an interesting idea or two, but it was just so unclear.
     I recommend watching this production just for the incredible vocal artistry of the cast.  You can find it in two places:
Or if that doesn't work - try this:

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Vienna State Opera - Rusalka

Last weekend I had a chance to watch the Vienna State Opera production of "Rusalka." It stars Klaus Florian Vogt as the Prince, Camilla Nylund as Rusalka, Jongmin Park as the Water Gnome and Monica Bohinee as Jezibaba. The score is delightful and very evocative. After having spent most of my life as a professional oboe/English Horn player Dvorak is a composer I really enjoy in part because his wind writing is so interesting and evocative. Rusalka is no different, the score is filled with beautiful music, wonderfully orchestrated with lots of wonderful woodwind writing. And, in the performance, the Vienna Philharmonic plays beautifully. On the whole I enjoyed the singers also, especially Jongmin Park as the Water Gnome and Monica Bohinee is Jezibaba - maybe it is because I think those characters are really cool and clever creations. But I thought that Park especially was terrific, vocally and in terms of his acting. I usually like Vogt and I have seen him in a number of various European productions, but I have to say that to some extent he just didn't seem engaged. He sang well, but he didn't really put himself into it - I don't know, there was just something missing. Nylund though was quite outstanding and I felt she was a very sympathetic Rusalka who really embodied the rather pathetic dimension of the character. Jezibaba was particularly blood thirsty in this production which made for some creepy moments - but Bohinee played them with full commitment and sang beautifully. I found the staging as a whole to be rather a mixed experience. There were some shocking moments which were offset by a lot of static standing around and doing nothing, especially with the chorus - this of course seems to be a trait of the Vienna State Opera stagings: some off the way settings with little stage motion - it cuts down on rehearsals I suppose. The best moments were those when the principals were taking the lead. There were several disconnects for me - I didn't get the connection between Jezibaba and ravens - Is she channeling her inner Wotan here? The 2nd act was just too static for me but I thought the the dancers trying to have (and not succeeding) to have sex while poor Rusalka looked on in horror was effective and made the issue of her passionlessness rather stark. It would have been more effective if the Prince had been a bit more passionate himself. All in all I enjoyed the production and the performance - I like the Met's better frankly - but the cast and orchestra makes this production work and the music is so glorious.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Sunday Night at the Opera - Anna Bolena - Met on Demand

     In preparation for the Met's new production of Roberto Devereaux I have been revisiting Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda.  This past Saturday I listened to the live broadcast of the Maria Stuarda from the Met with Sondra R in the title role.  It was a stunning performance.  I had seen it in HD a couple years ago when it was streamed with Joyce Di Donato in the title role and I intend to revisit that performance in a couple weeks.  But I had had to miss Anna Bolena when it was first broadcast now a number of years ago.  So, this evening I watched it and I loved it.  It is a terrific production and the singing is glorious.  The opera stars Anna Netrebko as Anna Bolena, Ildar Adbrazakov as Henry, Stephen Costello as Percy and Ekatarina Gubanova as Jane Seymour.
     I have read comments from others that are critical of Netrebko in this role, but frankly I don't understand the criticism.  I thought she was spectacular.  Not only is she a glorious singer, but she is a magnificent actor.  She embodies the role.  I loved her in this role.  Ildar is a great Henry, and Stephen Costello sounds great as Percy as does Gubanova as Seymour. The supporting cast is also excellent, as usual.  The production directed by David McVicar is fairly traditional but very effective and Marco Armiliato conducts the always excellent Met orchestra and chorus.  Hats off to Pedro Cosme Diaz for the gorgeous English Horn obligato in the last scene of the opera.
     As I have mentioned in other posts one should not look to opera for historical information and this opera is certainly filled with historical problems - but that is not the point. Donizetti and his librettists were attempting to tell as story of love and passion and politics and succeeds very well.  Anyway, I loved this opera and now on to Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereaux!

Monday, February 15, 2016

Sunday Night at the Opera - Opera Lyons - "Carmen" - Opera Platform

Sunday Night at the Opera - a day late because of Valentine's Day. This week - the Opera Lyon production of "Carmen" currently available (for free) to live stream on the Opera Platform site (see below for the link). So if you are wondering what Regietheater is then this is a good opera to watch to get a sense of it. The opera is very well known and this production completely re-imagines everything. The Spanish setting - gone, we are now in Paris; no bull ring - we are in a strip club; soldiers in act 1 - gone, corrupt police instead; children's choir of pretend soldiers - gone, not sure what they were, maybe trick or treaters. The dimension of sleaze and human degradation is emphasized and the opera is turned into a kind of parable. (Be warned - this production definitely gets an R rating for nudity and adult situation and violence).
The is not to say that it was not entertaining. At times it was very entertaining and a lot of it worked, at least in the broad sense. The downward spiral of Don Jose is a part of the opera and the production brings that out. Much of the credit goes to Younghon Lee as Don Jose. He is the strongest member of the cast by far and puts in a terrific and fully engaged performance. What doesn't work is that much of the small details are muddled and don't make any sense. Why does Micaela need a guide to find DJ in act 3 when he is still at the same location he was in in act 1; Did DJ go to jail at the end of act 1 and if not, then what exactly is act 2 all about; why didn't he just get fired from the police force; how many police forces use trumpets to call the members of the force together for roll call, and on and on... But if you can buy into the larger premise the production will make more sense. If you start to nit-pick on these kinds of details then it begins to fall apart, IMHO.
I wish I could tell you that the cast was excellent, but alas, they were not. They were decidedly a mixed bag. Younghon Lee is terrific and is by far the strongest member of the cast. The Carmen of José Maria lo Monaco is also very strong. The production is at its best when Carmen and DJ are the focus. Their last scene in act 4 is a good example. It was almost as if they left the setting behind and finally were able to engage each other personally. I finally in this scene got a glimpse of the Carmen I have come to know over the years. But what was up with the Dancairo and Remendado in drag? Vocally they were ok, slightly better were the Francesca and Mercedes. I am sorry but I did not like Micaela - Nathalie Manfrino - I am not sure why exactly but something about her voice was strained and pushed. And the Escamillo of Giorgio Caoduro was quite difficult to listen to. He went sharp every time he went above the staff. I was never quite sure who he was supposed to be anyway, and the way Micaela is disposed of in the end is quite absurd. This production just had to find a repulsive way to dispose of all the characters I suppose. The Zuniga is simply poor (and quite a wretched human being in this production) but I quite liked Morales - Pierre Doyen.
I should say that I do not object to Regietheater. On the contrary I appreciate well thought out re-imaginings of great opera, even if they don't work 100%. This production I am rather divided about. On the whole, I found the production entertaining, but yet it was a little lost. I felt that it spent most of the time trying to force an extreme interpretation of the plot arch. It did not work completely for me. I will say that I do like Opera Platform in that they provide quite a mix of productions from very traditional to very Regie it does provide a nice snapshot of the opera world.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Sunday at the Opera - "The Dialogues of the Carmelites" - Metropolitan Opera - Met-On-Demand

     Near the beginning of Act 2 Mother Marie of the Incarnation encourages all of the women of the community to agree to take an oath of martyrdom.  There is some talking the circumstances and the fear that has gripped France.  One of the nuns makes the comment that fear is contagious just like pneumonia or cholera.  She is right!  We see this in our own time in profound and terrifying ways. An epidemic of fear had gripped France in the late 18th century and fanned and exploited by some brought death and misery to many.  Fanned and exploited in our own times, by those who we look to be our leaders, fear is an epidemic in our own time and is leading to more and more cowardly violence and terror - and I am not talking about foreign terror - we have our own home-grown terror right here that is racist, misogynist and hateful.  This opera, The Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc is in many ways a meditation on fear and I think is very timely.  Will we allow ourselves to be ruled by fear and to be controlled by the fear-mongers who want to divide people by building walls, who want to deport all of those "other" people who they determine are not like us; who constantly incite violence; who want to enrich themselves and their wealthy friends and donors at the expense of the poor and working class.  Fear was an epidemic and it led to the terror of the French Revolution and fear is an epidemic that has increased the terror in our own times.  Shall we hide like Blanche de la Force?  Or confront it with courage?
     There is little I can say about this production and the performance.  It is one of the great productions and performances of the Met.  From 1987 it is available to stream on - find the link for their Met-On-Demand service.  The performance stars Maria Ewing as Blanche; the incomparable Regine Crespin as Madame de Croissy; Betsy Norden as Sister Constance; the magnificent Jesse Norman as Madame Lidoine and a magnificent performance by Florence Quiver as Mother Marie of the Incarnation.  This is opera at its best.  The John Dexter production is very powerful and I found myself in tears throughout the performance, especially during the powerful and moving conclusion.  This performance is one that should not be missed.  It is sung in English, in accordance with Poulenc's specific wishes that the opera always be sung in the language of the audience.

     I had a few technical problems with the stream, but they were minor after I restarted my laptop.  There is no way to alter the resolution which is too bad and it is also a shame that the Met does not include a complete cast list on the page.  There were some outstanding performances in small roles and I would like to know who was singing.  But this is a masterpiece - one of the great operas of the 20th century and this production and performance is also a masterpiece.  Here is a taste - Jesse Norman in her last scene with the sisters as they wait in prison for their execution.