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Archive for October, 2008

It is not that I am in a disliking-mood – to start with, I have found Mary Zimmermann’s staging of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor silly and cheap-looking from the moment-one, when Natalie Dessay was the selling-feature of this production. It remains so – it is particularly annoying to have extra twenty minutes in the theatre due to problems in the change of such uninspiring sceneries. In any case, the reason for my second visit to this Lucia was Diana Damrau. I have to confess that it was rather the curiosity to see how she would deal with a role which is, on paper, unsuited to her voice.

Before I am thrown stones at, I rush to say that I like Damrau – I find her extraordinarily intelligent and creative, but I wish she could transcend this coloratura-label. Because she does dispatch some amazing fioriture, one tends to indulge the snags, particularly the alternately overmetallic and unfocused quality of her vocal production.  In other words, this is a voice without the hallmark morbidezza an Italian soprano is supposed to have, especially in ingénue roles. As far as we are speaking of mezza voce, this German soprano is adept in producing effortless soft phrasing in every register, but the rest of her singing comes forth as rather harsh and unable to pierce through.  Most of Regnava nel silenzio was a guessing game for the audience and, most inexplicably for a high soprano, she tended to be overshadowed by her partners in duets and ensembles and some of her in alts, true in pitch as they were, could be barely noticed. If I am blunt about this, it is only in the hope that such a serious artist be able to fix these minor but noticeable drawbacks before it is too late.

But let’s speak of the positive aspects in Damrau’s Lucia. First of all, even if Natalie Dessay pulled out a far more polished and coherent performance, I must say I could connect more to Damrau’s work, particularly because of its sincerity – somehow she embraced the character without any “added” attitude or underlying comment. I would say more – in spite of Dessay’s acknowledged talent for acting, I find the newcomer even more compelling in comparison.

When on stage, Damrau is not expertly repeating carefully throught-through and rehearsed routines, but very much “alive” there – reacting to the actual situation of being on stage in a way only experienced actors do.  She also has excellent intuition for finding stage meanings for musical ideas and has personality and vivaciousness to make all that work. It is only a pity that she did not receive enough attention from a director – sometimes she would try too hard and spoil the effect of a good idea by overusing it or doing it in the wrong moment. It is the task of the director to review and correct this, what makes it doubly regrettable that such a skilled performer could not benefit from that.

The problem was particularly bothersome in the mad scene, without any shadow of doubt the highlight of the whole performance (as it should be). There,  Damrau could go beyond the Romantic lyricism and let through just the necessary ounce of nastiness to transform something merely beautiful into something touching. But at moments when she should invest in some repose, to let the effect work, she would try something else or repeat a bit of what she had just done to semaphoric effects.  From the musical point of view, the lighter orchestral accompaniment enabled her more comfort to play with tone colouring and also add a sense of story-telling through phrasing alone. Only in the very end, she could not avoid some hardness and shrillness, but by then she could twist the audience around her little finger.

Her Edgardo was tenor Piotr Beczala, whom I knew from healthy but rather unsubtle Mozart performances. At first, he is more at ease in bel canto repertoire. His voice is pleasant, light but compact. He has considerably elegant phrasing and is sensitive to the text. I can see a Nemorino there, but not much beyond that – Bellini would be too high for him, Rossini would be too fast and, although he has been singing Verdi, I find it heavy for his voice. In any case, Edgardo is a good fit for him – and, even in the closing scene (where the demands were a bit hard on him), he never showed himself other than in an elegant manner. He also interacted beautifully with Damrau in their act I duet and looked believably dangerous in the wedding scene.

In the role of Enrico, Vladimir Stoyanov displayed a velvety middle-size baritone that would work to perfection in a smaller house. At the Met, some of his high notes sounded a bit pale. As in his Leporello, Ildar Abdrazakov’s bass seems to be shorter on both ends this day. The timid low register was particularly problematic. 

As for the musical direction, Marco Armiliato showed us the cliché of a Donizetti performance – lively tempi, unpolished phrasing, noisy ensembles and a general idea that the expressive aspects are the singers’ responsability.

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I have probably written here about Chekhov’s The Seagull more than any other play. I find it structurally difficult, especially because the last two acts tend to mirror somehow the actions of act one and two – and if the director and cast do not find the shift in tone that makes those repetitions illuminating rather than tautological, the play tends to sink to the bottom of pointlessness very fast.

I tend to be hard to directors, but this time I won’t. I’ve truly found Ian Rickson’s direction in his staging for the Royal Court Theatre (now revived on Broadway) faultless. The text (in Cristopher Hampton’s new version) sounds fluid, the actors understand exactly the shifts in mood, the gestures are beautiful, poetic and yet believable, Hildegard Bechtler’s costumes and sets are beautiful, expressive and intelligently used, Stephen Warbeck’s music is subtle and effective – the potential for perfection is such that you feel upset that some key pieces of casting leave something to be desired.

This has been sold as movie actress Kristin Scott Thomas’s experiment with classical theatre – the Playbill lists only two plays in her resumé. I would say, however, that this would hardly be the most challenging theatrical experience for someone who has successfully played the title role in Racine’s Bérénice in France… in French.  The fact is that this British actress does not need the title of “movie actress” before her name in her theatrical ventures – her credentials speak for herself and the fact that she won an Olivier for this performance only proves it.

I have seen “movie actors” tackling theatre and know all the traps awaiting them – and Kristin Scott Thomas never comes close to falling in any of them. She has intelligence, presence, charisma, an excellent voice and is very much mistress of the situation on stage. However, technically accomplished as her portrayal is, something is missing.

Arkadina is a favourite role among actresses – not only because the character is an actress herself, but I would dare to say that the reason is that Chekhov has lovingly left in purpose lots of open opportunities for the performer to fill in the blanks with their own experience. The characters in this play are not finely paint, but there are rather white spaces between the brushstrokes laden with meaning. The problem in Kristin Scott Thomas’s performance is that these white spaces are just unpainted areas. If I had to use a musical term, I would say legato – there is a clear absence of legato going on here. In moment A, she is light and gay and in moment B she is furious and the lightness and the fury are expertly done, but there is no binding between both. Most of Arkadina’s sudden shifts of mood seem to come out of nowhere. If I could bet why this is happens, I would say that the missing part is energy. I have read her London performances were far superior to the New York ones – and I guess maybe her heart is already out of this production.

I cannot say the same of Carey Mulligan – it is not difficult for an actress playing the role of Nina to steal the show (it is probably the character with less “white spaces” in the plot) – but I have to say this right away – Mulligan is one of the most talented young actresses I have ever seen. Her Nina made me rethink the way I understood this character. There is a sense of pride and self-confidence thinly disguised by girlishness in this Nina that explains the reaction of all other characters towards her. When Trigorin compares her to the seagull, the underlying idea is almost as if he envied the fact that she can fly (and that is why it would be tempting to cut her wings and bring her to his level). Her final encouter with Konstantin is made more revelatory by this approach – she has lost her fortune, her dignity, her youth maybe, but not her pride. And that could explain why her presence triggers Kostya’s tragic ending – he has just shaken hands with the man who has “stolen away” both his mother and the woman he loves.  As usual, perfection eludes descriptions – so I guess you would have to see Carey Mulligan to understand it.

Zoe Kazan’s Masha is too heavily underlined, but somehow she uses that to her favour and ultimately brings to the fore many a hidden possibility in Chekhov’s text. The whole concept could be more finely tuned – but is not devoid of efficiency.

When it comes to the actors, I am afraid that Peter Sarsgaard is a serious blemish to the proceedings. Trigorin is displeased by the fact that his books are considered, in spite of their success with the readers, nothing but “charming and clever”. However, Trigorin himself must be something – in lack of a better word – chic. He is an object of desire for both Arkadina and Nina because he is something like an elegant piece of property, something you can dazzle with by showing off. Sarsgaard’s poorman’s version of John Malkovich-like acting never goes beyond affected and shallow, but affectation is the keyword here. Some scenes are so artifficially pulled out that you are really sorry for the embarrassment.

Mackenzie Crook avoids the manic approach to his Konstantin and finds a touching gravitas to the role that makes sense for a character that is actually depressive. His act IV is particularly praiseworthy and the sort of ritual preparation for suicide was truly chilling.  If I don’t single out any other member in the cast, it is only because they are uniformly very good.

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I have seen wonderful performances at the Met and occasionally some bad ones – but tonight’s Don Giovanni is probably the most lacklustre I have ever seen in that prestigious opera house. Frankly, I left the theatre wondering why it was found necessary to stage it at all.  I understand that the selling feature is supposed to be Erwin Schrott’s Don Giovanni – but again is it still something surprising enough to justify a second-rate staging in which Schrott’s manic Don Giovanni seems entirely ill-at-ease?

In any case, Erwin Schrott is still the shining feature in the whole staging. He has the voice, the attitude and the physique du rôle. More than that, his almost frantic approach fits the part (I wouldn’t say the same of his Figaro, though). He knows Da Ponte’s text and is free to explore the many theatrical possibilities it allows. When the Leporello is available for this interaction, the whole show gains a lot from that – and Ildar Abdrazakov established a good partnership with his Don Giovanni. It is only a pity that his voice seems to have shrunk both in volume and range since last time I saw him. On the other hand, I felt sorry for Susan Graham, who seemed a bit disturbed by Schrott’s ad libs. She missed her line twice because of that and I believe it is somehow ungracious to unbalance a colleague like that on stage.

In any case, Graham had other problems to deal with. I have written that before – casting a mezzo as Donna Elvira is a troublesome affair. Truth be said, she was probably the less unsuccessful example of this rule I can report so far. She has exemplary control of divisions, floats lovely high pianissimi and has attitude to spare, not to mention that few singers in my experience showed such understanding of the role’s mezzo carattere nature. That said, the tonal quality was pale, legato was mostly nonexistent and pitch was approximative. Mi tradì did not sound comfortable, even with the adjustments, but emotionally tame and vocally only correct.

Krassimira Stoyanova’s Donna Anna was something of an irritating experience to me – up to a high g, her performance was exemplary – her voice was once firm, forward, clear and flexible – everything a Mozartian voice must be. Above that, if we are not talking of her lovely floated pianissimi, the tone was otherwise constricted, bottled up, not truly in pitch, unfocused. We got the Waldseligkeit-version of Or sai chi l’onore with enough mezza voce to make Montserrat Caballé envious. Non mi dir fared a little bit better (and I must acknowledge that she brought more spirit into it than many a famous prima donna), but the recessed tonal quality of her high register seriously needs rethinking.

Matthew Polenzani used to have an almost Wunderlich-ian voice and I had great hopes in him. I don’t know if the frequentation of heavier works is to blame, but the juice in his tone is mostly gone. He still leaves a positive impression with his elegant phrasing, ease with softer dynamics and good taste. I cannot say the same of Monica Yunus (a replacement for Isabel Leonard). Her hallmark role is Papagena – and one could guess that from the metallic, unfocused sound she produced throughout. Unfortunately, Phillip Ens’s Commendatore was too rusty and curdled.

If Don Giovanni was a divertimento,  Louis Langrée’s conducting would be exemplary. Everything exuded elegance, the accompanying figures in the orchestra had an admirable cantabile quality and the structural clairity was something to marvel. The house band accordingly produced a light, supple sound. However, Don Giovanni is not a divertimento – and I expected more from someone who can offer theatrical accounts of Mozart’s sacred music…

Marthe Keller’s production is discrete to the point of being indifferent. Everything looks beige, the closing scene is an anti-climax, the costumes are idiossincratic… Really, Peter Gelb’s “new Met” could do better.

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The fact that Thea Sharrock’s staging of Peter Shaffer’s Equus on Broadway is such a huge success does not puzzle me, but rather depresses me. I won’t beat around the bush – everybody seemed to be there just to see Harry Potter naked. I believe that there must have been someone there who may have heard that this play featured the great Richard Burton (and also Anthony Hopkins and Anthony Perkins) and Peter Firth (as well as Tom Hulce) in the original London and New York productions – Burton and Firth would also make into the film version. But nothing about that today – the whole show was about Harry Potter’s nude scene, the only one to deserve absolute silence during the whole performance.

I don’t intend to fault the staging itself. Thea Sharrock has had many interesting ideas – especially the use of actors with metallic horse heads and hooves expertly coreographed by Fin Walker. The stage itself had an arena-, temple-like structure, with semi-circular niches of stalls around a central altar-like space alternately depicting the psychologist’s office, the Strang’s home and the stables. I am not sure, though, if I enjoyed the way flashback scenes were staged – the transitions seemed a bit confuse and some actors, uncomfortable with them.

I don’t want to sound mean about Daniel Radcliffe’s performance. It is hardly his fault that he was cast in a role that requires a more experient and/or talented actor. From the financial point-of-view, his casting is hardly a misstep – it made the producers lots of money, to start with. The point is that the whole venture is so beyond his abilities that it seems perverse to say anything about it. Playing the role of Dr. Dysart, Richard Griffiths, on the other hand, is an experienced actor, extremely comfortable with what he had to do. Although his acting is beyond any criticism, I felt that maybe he could be less comfortable, as the plays suggests. However, considering that the audience was not there to see him, I would understand his choice. Among the minor roles, Kate Mulgrew (Hesther Saloman) should be singled out – she is the kind of actress who masters the art of interacting both with her colleagues and the audience. I found it also endearing to see Anna Camp as Jill Mason, a role so different from the one she had on The Scene, when I first saw her.

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Reading about director Simon McBurney’s impressive accomplishments, I’ve prepared myself for a breathtaking account of Arthur Miller’s All my sons on Broadway.  In an interview on the Playbill, the leading actor, John Lithgow, says he was not tempted by this play until he was finally convinced – and I can tell you why. It is a devilish difficult play for actors – all characters are terribly ambivalent, the action developes too fast in order to adjust each character’s different facets and the level of tension increases steadily to the almost over-the-top closing scene. It is the sort of thing that even great actors can mess up, for this one of those texts that require a director’s thorough control of his actors – even if they are monstres sacrés who technically could do anything.

My first impression on the staging was really positive. Tom Pye’s set is simply brilliant – we are shown a large square lawn, some fences, a porch’s door surrounded by the naked backstage. The cast came forward, Lithgow explained that we were going to see Miller’s All my sons, read the first stage instruction and then the play began while the members of the cast visibly sat in the wings waiting for the entrances. The use of film projection is also very intelligent – and the sound effects are simply perfect.

However, a play has to be about the actors – and actors sometime simply are not in the mood. That happens – some nights, one really has to go the end of the play exclusively by technique, because the real feelings are not there. The curious phenomenon is that, this saturday, both leading actors in the cast seemed to be in that state of mind. For example, the usually excellent Dianne Wiest has her hallmark detached approach that could fit the role of Kate Keller, a housewife who grabs to a fantasy in order to survive the horrible truth about her family. The role requires a balance between almost fanatical energy and frailty – but Wiest remained distant and could not shift to the sheer violence of the close scene. John Lithgow is a most congenial actor and shows Joe Keller’s amiable outer personality to perfection, but the darker side beneath seemed unnatural, almost exaggerated – the comedy version of a tragedy.

In another expressive universe was Patrick Wilson – a theatre actor to the bones. Generally, leading men dislike those good-fellow parts, but Wilson brought such enthusiasm and energy to it that, in the end, when his character assumes an almost central role in the story, this comes through really naturally. I also believe that his influence on first-timer Katie Holmes was very positive. I disagree that she has no talent for the theatre – she has it only in a very incipient stage. First of all, she falls on the trap of underlining every word too strongly, stressing every coma in the text as if were playing the school-theatre version of Antigona. She has also a rather stiff attitude on stage, but her ability to boost dramatic tension in the closing scene took me by surprise.  And that is indeed promising. Damian Young, Becky Ann Baker, Danielle Ferland and Jordan Gelber proved once again the motto that there are no small roles, but small actors.

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Jürgen Flimm’s production of R. Strauss’s Salome for the Met was first shown in 2004 with Karita Mattila in the title role. Four years later, the Finnish soprano tackles again in New York this uniquely challenging role in New York in the same production – but things have changed somehow since last time.

When I write about changes, I am naturally refering to musical aspects, since I was not able to attend the original run of performances, but only to listen to one of them on the radio. I remember back then that I had doubts about Mattila as Salome. My experience is that the part is pretty unsingable for any soprano without a slightly metallic edge to help the voice to run into the auditorium over a dense orchestral sound without resorting to extremes of loudness throughout. That description does not apply to Mattila’s velvety tonal quality, but she could at her prime nonetheless conjure the necessary lightness and stand up to the taxing high dramatic notes that sit in the limit of her resources.

Not anymore, I am afraid. Although the floating quality of her voice remains taylor-made for Strauss, the loss of tonal sheen makes her performance small-scaled in terms of volume. The closing scene left me in the end of my seat for the wrong reasons – I was actually wondering if she would make it to the end, since her voice has lost entirely tonal quality in forte passages and exposed Spitzennoten were quite wayward by then. In compensation, her portrait of the perverse princess has become a bit more complex. I find it particularly commendable the way Mattila centers her approach around a sense of intoxication. Her main prop in the show is a bottle of champagne and, in the closing scene, the many instances of repeated text or questions to herself are made to recreate a drunken person’s emphatic way of speaking.

Despite the strain and lack of cutting power, it is still a presentable performance as a whole – a tour de force by an admirable singer actress unfortunately a bit past her prime in vocal terms. From a distance, Mattila still looks very well for her age. Although one would not think of a teenager, the most important point is that she remains an immensely attractive woman who can be proud of her five seconds of nudity in the end of her dance. Speaking of that, I don’t know if its tentativeness was made on purpose, but actually she does not dance. She does some steps and then walks and runs about a lot. It is true that Salome is not a professional dancer as some productions suggest, but there could be something more presentable anyway.  As a matter of fact, I don’t know if that was on purpose, but she actually made more dance steps everywhere else but in her proper dance number.

Although I could get used to Santo Loquasto’s nouveau riche sceneries, it is a bit cramped and the action had litte free space to develop. I don’t believe that the updating did the plot any good – the religious aspect seemed a bit lost in context, unless you could think that the story takes place in today’s Asia, but the women were not dressed accordingly if that was the idea. However, the black-clad angels of death were the silliest idea in the whole production. No – maybe that final scene, where Salome exposes her breast defiantly to the soldier’s executional sword. That just does not go with the music, which portrays her being killed by spears. In one word, I do think that a stronger concept in stage direction is seriously missing – actors throwing themselves to the ground seemed to be the only expressive tool available – when Narraboth kills himself, it is difficult to know who actually is dead after all, since so many people are lying down at that moment.

As for the musical aspects,  Patrick Summers did a beautiful job with the more lyrical passages, offering a basically acceptable transparent and multicolored orchestral sound, but the truth is that things got rather slack and pointless in more complex and/or declamatory passages. I suspect that a lack of acquaintance with the descriptive and motivic reference structure in the score is to blame. I must acknowledge, though, that the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra’s strings proved to be in good shape. The same cannot be said of noisy and unnoble brass. The principal victim of the messy approach was the Herod’s long interventions before the closing scene. Kim Begley knows what is required from him, but he is too lightweight for the vastness of the Met. As a result, we got tangled orchestral sound while this gentleman was saying something in the background.

I don’t know what to say about Juha Uusitalo’s performance as Jochanaan – first because I could barely hear it. I felt really sorry for him for the embarassment of listening to his voice more clearly when he was supposed to be lying in the bottom of a cistern (apparently equipped with a high-end amplification system) than on stage right in front of us. As for Ildikó Komlósi, she sure has powerful top notes and understands what is required from her, but her German is rather inert, what makes most of her part pointless. She was also sabotaged by a direction who made her do nothing while her daughter seduces her husband, kisses a man’s severed head etc. Finally, I must single out Joseph Kaiser’s lyrically sung Narraboth.

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Back to New York

As you may have noticed, I am back from Tokyo, but with a New York-intermezzo. I wish I had more time to write more about Tokyo, but – in a nutshell – this was the most interesting trip I have ever made in my life. Tokyo fulfilled all my expectations and even surprised me. It is a place where you learn a new thing every day and, if you allow it, it could change you forever.

I hadn’t taken photos with my Nikon D-40 for a while and the result is that my “dialogue” with it was problematic – that is why the photos are below standard. But in any case – you just have to follow the link to your righr to take a look at them.

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