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Archive for October, 2007

The Zoo Story is Edward Albee’s first success and dates from 1958. This one-acter has an intriguing story full of unusual details, but recently the playwright thought it important to give a bit more information to the audiences and wrote a first act to it, premièred only recently. In the New York first production of the revised version, renamed Peter and Jerry, director Pam MacKinnon rightly chose a staging concentrated on the actors. All scenic elements are reduced to the minimum and the audience had all the time of the world to savour the optimal level of acting offered here. As Ann, Johanna Day brought an extremely likable personality and an excellent voice. As Peter, Bill Pullman was naturalness itself, his character entirely built on subtlety. He score many and many points in the difficult Central Park scene, in which most of the text is given to the role of Jerry – brilliantly performed by Dallas Roberts. It is difficult to describe perfection and I will not try – Roberts was just perfect, one of the best pieces of acting I have seen in a long while.

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The Met’s Aida is a monumental affair, and those who have seen it with monumental voices know how effective it can be. It sounds really empty when the huge sceneries have to work the magic alone while the orchestra is muted to accomodate small-scaled voices. This saturday a debut in such a fearsome role was scheduled with a singer whose accomplishment were at least to me mysterious. I cannot say how much of a good surprise Micaela Carosi is – but I am convinced that the surprise is somehow good. She has a voice in the good old Italian style – there is a faint touch of Gabriella Tucci in her lirico spinto. However, maybe because of her debut, the instrument was sometimes awkwardly handled. Act I was particularly messy – the low passaggio was clumsy, top notes fluttery and the pitch was suspect. From act II on, she found a better shape, treated her gear change more gently, focused her top notes and would now and then pull out some stunning things. Fortunately, most of them in act III. It is a pity she deemed unimportant to see to her mezza voce in the closing scene – she had sung some beautiful floating tones before that.

Olga Borodina was clearly not in a good day as Amneris. Until mezzo forte she seemed pretty much herself. Forte passages in the high register found her bleached-toned and laborious. Granted, her large velvety mezzo is not exactly the one for Amneris, but in her good days she certainly is able to prove she is more than Ersatz in this opera.

Replacing an ailing Marco Berti, Stephen O’Mara had a rather testing debut as Radames. Although his voice generally stands the heavy demands made on it by Verdi, his tenor seemed to have been beefed-up for German operatic purposes. As it is, the sound is coarsely dark and secure but top notes tend to be tense and there is very little sensuousness in it. Juan Pons may have the world’s record in the role of Amonasro. At this stage in his career, he has to disguise the strain with studied overemphasis, in which he succeeds to a certain extent. Both Vitalji Kowaljow as Ramfis and Reinhard Hagen as the King have spacious beautiful voices.

Kazushi Ono presided over an elegant performance in which he clearly was trying to make his singers’ lives easier. As a result, there was a certain economy with fortissimos and unfortunately also less impact. It must be pointed out that the ensembles were unusually clean and transparent, what is always praiseworthy considered the scale of the event.

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Flesh vs. spirit

Christian Gerhaher’s baritone is obviously beautiful and he has made a reputation as a Lieder singer (and Schubert lookalike). For his Carnegie Hall recital he chose to sing the composer’s song cycle Die schöne Müllerin. I have to confess to be surprised that his very good intentions were impared by a vocal method that could seem spontaneous at first, but in fact might be the final outcome of the confrontation of an exceptionally generous vocal nature and probably inadequate schooling. As it is, his clear baritone received a rather heavy-handed treatment in order to acquire a darker hue it does not naturally have. The main victim of this method is legato. Forte notes are marred by flutter and he seems to shift to an entirely different placement for mezza voce. Whenever Schubert spins a sweet melody, it was served chopped phrasing that drained it of sweetness. More animated passages sounded like hectoring in a style similar to the almost-retired Fischer-Dieskau (nota bene – at Gerhaher’s age, Fischer-Dieskau sang these songs as an angel). The only moment in which the approach seemed to make sense with the music was a forceful and energetic Der Jäger.

There is no doubt about the singer’s intelligence, sensitiveness and musicianship. These qualities always saved him in the last minute, but one cannot help thinking of what he would be able to do if his technique would rather enhance than compromise his accomplishments.

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I cannot recall a program so exotic as the one proposed by the New York Philharmonic – Beethoven’s 2nd Piano Concerto and Zemlinsky one-acter Eine florentinische Tragödie. I had no experience of conductor James Conlon in the Classical repertoire and he surprised me positively with an elegant, forward-moving and sensitive account on Beethoven’s early piano concerto. The Philharmonic played in state of grace and their soloist, Jonathan Biss, is someone to watch – his nimble and yet generous playing involved marvelous fluent scales and tone-colouring worthy of a singer.

As for the Zemlinsky, as a friend of mine uses to say, if you have to be explained something before it happens, brace yourself. After the intermission, the conductor got hold of a microphone and explained what an injustice it was that Zemlinsky’s music has fallen into oblivion. I am not a specialist in Zemlinsky, but I have found nothing memorable in Eine florentinische Tragödie, but for the composer’s talent for orchestration. There is not one phrase in the whole opera close to cantabile, there is no dramatic timing – it sounds like people talking in strenuous tessitura over a huge showcase of orchestration technique. The Philharmonic did its part brilliantly, but the singers here involved were not really up to their ingrateful tasks. Maybe great singers could have saved the day – I have my share of doubts. As it was, Tatiana Pavlovskaya should be warned that whatever she is doing, she should not go on. Her amazingly artifficially covered sound will not allow her a long career. If I say that bluntly, it is because it would be a pity for a singer to be a victim of improper technique. Anthony Dean Griffey’s forward vocal placement seemed a blessing in comparison, but there is more than a splash of Charaktertenor in him to cause the right impression in the role of the young dashing tenor. James Johnson had the lion’s share in the music and the fact that he was really overparted was not of great help.

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In a series of concert with the Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst chose for his second program Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, a piece the main difficulty of which in live performances seems to be awake genuine enthusiasm in the musicians while keeping the complex ensembles functional and transparent. The Austrian conductor certainly succeded in eliciting elegance and clarity. But truth is that the performance rarely went beyond politeness. Those accustomed to Bernstein’s intense approach could even found it dull – the translucent strings did not produce the volume of sound one expects in this this music and did not blend very well with a brass section that sounded as if those instruments could have caught the flu. The Westminster Symphonic Choir, on the other hand, poured forth smooth well-balanced sounds. It is a pity that the climactic last movement did not take off – there had not been the necessary building tension to pave the way for it. Unfortunately, both soloists were rather small-scaled for the venue – Malin Hartelius’s ill-focused singing did not carry into the auditorium and the usually excellent Bernarda Fink failed to float her high register and had to distort her vowels to make for the demands on soft dynamics.

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In a sort of celebration of Sir Colin Davis’s 80th birthday, the Lincoln Center offered two concerts with the English conductor leading his London Symphonic Orchestra and Chorus. I was able to attend the first program – Mozart’s piano concerto no. 27 and Requiem. Imogen Cooper offered elegant Mozartian playing without the music-box approach so many Mozart pianists are fond of. In both pieces, Sir Colin lived for his reputation of specialist in this repertoire and the LSO offered beautiful translucent playing – only the brass section did not blend with the rest of an orchestra aptly reduced in strings. The chorus had a beautiful smooth sound, but the tenors were not always very tidy in their runs. In any rate, the Requiem was a good example of powerful yet structurally clear music making. The solo singing was nothing above efficient. Among them, Swedish soprano Marie Arnet was the most interesting, but her charming voice tends to loose focus in the upper reaches.

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Before I say anything, I must be sincere about my dislike of Edmond Ronstand’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Beautiful as Ronstand’s verses are, the “what” never was a novelty and the “how” is marred by colossal lack of timing – the comedy scenes take ages to take off and the dramatic scenes are rather sentimentalised. In order to make it work, a director needs to impress an unfailing sense of rhythm to the proceedings and concentrate on extracting from his actors the last ounce of charisma available. And I am afraid David Levaux failed on that – the general impression is at most workmanlike. It is thus particularly problematic that Tom Rye’s beautiful sceneries are too spacious and a lot of noise echoes there while actors are reading their verbose lines. The result is that you can hardly hear what most of them are saying… In this sense, Concetta Tomei deserves praises for her king size voice and personality unfortunately bestowed on small roles.

Among the leading actors, Kevin Kline predictably stands out – he is a technically accomplished actor who gives life to his lesser utterance and knows how to seize the opportunities when they present themselves. Unfortunately, they rarely did so considering the rest of the talents involved.

Much of the play’s interest lies on Cyrano’s dialogues with Christian. The problem is that Daniel Sunjata is simply miscast – he is neither good-looking in a way Rosanne could have noticed (with the impossible wig he is made to wear, he looks like The Rock in The Scorpion King, i.e., there is nothing poetic about him) nor produces the impression of good-hearted stolidness – self-consciousness at most.

The fact that Jennifer Garner has limited theatre experience makes me more tolerant about her shortcomings. She has received excellent coaching – and the bad news is that this is evident. Gestures and inflexions are all in place and correctly done – but there is very little spirit behind all that. It all looks like well-rehearsed routine. Maybe experience will enable her to do the trick – she does have a good voice and a most graceful figure and that is already something.

Minor roles are dealt with in the way operatic direction deals with comprimari – they are given one defining trait and you’ll notice them if the actor or actress has natural charisma. In one word, a missed opportunity.

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Sarah Treem’s A Feminine Ending tells the story of Amanda, a young graduate of music who wants to be a composer, but is confronted with a world where there is not necessarily a place for a woman. This seems not to be a problem for the playwright herself: Treem’s masters the art of intelligent and insightful dialogues and some of the images evoked in her text are extraordinarily sensitive, although some twists in the plot seem contrived and rushed, such as Amanda’s mailman “old flame”‘s explanation of linguistics or the too-perfect-to-be-believable parallel between mother and daughter’s artistic gifts. That said, if one overlooks the sharp angles, there really is a lot to enjoy in “A Feminine Ending”.

As usual in casts in which older and younger generations of actors are together on stage, the veterans do overshadow the newcomers. Both Marsha Mason and Richard Masur offer disarmingly spontaneous and touching performance as Amanda’s parents, adding naturalness often missing in the lines written for their roles. Gillian Jacobs tends to underline her dramatic gestures too heavily in the kind of self-explanatory acting often found in American theatres, but it cannot be denied she has an engaging presence, an excellent voice and is also really cute. I do hope to see her again on stage. Alec Beard has the difficult task of portraying the rather cliché-ed role of the rock-star-to-be fiancé. The lack of depth and predictability of this character is actually the weak-link of the play, and only a more experienced actor would have found variety where there is none. Joe Paulick has more luck with the mailman boyfriend from high school days, bue he also succombs to the sitcom acting-style.

Blair Brown’s direction is praiseworthy in its directness and economy of means. One can see he gave his actors all the space they needed, what is particularly positive in the case of Mason. Cameron Anderson’s simple but effective sceneries offer smart solutions fo the different settings.

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Maybe because she comes from Argentina, director Lillia Groag was able to portray the rotten charm of corruption without falling either in the trap of moralising or draining away the nastiness to make it funny. But that does not explain entirely the success of the New York City Opera production of Agrippina – Ms. Groag is a brilliant director for actors, making the cast not only act with unfailing comedy timing but also in an uniform coherent stylistic approach. It is only a pity that she could not get better set and costume designers. The gowns seemed to belong from styles ranging from the 1920′s to the 1940′s, while the sceneries had a certain 1970′s approach to classical stylisation. I can hardly see how this could work – and the immediate impression is that the whole thing looks dull and kitsch. When it comes to Agrippina’s costumes, they were often plainly speaking ugly – and this was particularly harmful since Nelly Miricioiu is some decades older than the caracter as portrayed by Grimiani. The audience could feel puzzled by the fact that this frumpy old lady was getting so much attention. That said, an alluring voice could have done the trick, but I am afraid those days are over for Miricioiu.

The Romanian soprano’s middle voice has become rather colourless and not entirely connected to a juiceless low register – and her top notes are invariably hooty. A random approach to pitch allied to clouded diction resulted lifeless recitatives – and one knows how recitatives are important in this of all operas. Considering this singer’s past achievements, it is sad to realize only her intense acting and ease with passagework survived her bel canto days. Next to her, the beautiful Heidi Stober sounded even more pleasing than she naturally is. Her lyric soprano is creamy and flexible and she has feeling for Handelian phrasing. Only her top register still neeeds more freedom and smoothness. If she succeeds in rounding up this problem, she will certainly go places.

In the role of Nero, the aptly androgynous and really young-looking Jennifer Rivera caused a flashing impression with her warm mezzo and impressive coloratura. She definitely belongs in this repertoire. David Walker’s gentle countertenor worked to perfection in Ottone’s laments and arie d’affeto, some of the best moments in the afternoon. João Fernandes’s knowledge of baroque style and resonant low notes helped him to create the necessary gravitas for his Claudio, but his ascents to high notes were often woolly. Marco Nisticò was a forceful Pallante and David Korn’s countertenor has particularly velvety top notes.

Ransom Wilson offered a reliable if quite monochromatic view of Handel’s multi-faceted score (edited for the theatrical purposes in this production). His orchestra had a shaky start but raised to the occasion during the performance.

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Mary Zimmerman’s new production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor has been chosen as the symbol of the Met’s 2007/2008 season. Natalie Dessay’s face is posted at every bus stop and subway station in Manhattan over the slogan “You’d be mad to miss it”. However, I would say that the whole production team may have exaggerated their focus on madness. Sure Lucia’s theme is the loosening of the title’s role mental health, but as shown in the Met there was madness written all over the place from note one – and that leaves very little space for development. As a result, the audience is perfectly used to Lucia’s drollness in the first act – the rest seems her just another extravagance.

In the Met’s old production, Lucia was first shown as the dictionary definition of the Romantic heroine – lovely, radiant, innocent. Her long scene with Enrico pictured her vulnerability, rather a prey of a dilemma because her brother was not portrayed as a gruesome psycopath but rather a passive-aggressive selfish but not entirely insensitive fellow. The wedding scene revealed a gigantic barely unbearable effort to “do the right thing” until we finally saw the shattering of the Romantic image into semi-grotesque in the mad scene. Although Elizabeth Futral was permanently struggling with her notes, her acting was able to convey all that. Although the production was far from brilliant, it allowed her to do all that. I do not know if Zimmerman’s direction allowed Natalie Dessay to do something of the kind. I have to confess I found her stage performance rather mannered, if skilled and neatly done. I would say more: I could only “get” Dessay’s Lucia from the musical point of view.

Although the French soprano’s high register has seen more focused days, her voice is still lovely and her descent to the lower reaches is now perfectly mastered. Her coloratura remains truly impressive and she can toss in alts whenever they are required. However, what makes her so admirable is her enormous musical imagination and endless tonal variety. Because of that, the wandering of Lucia’s mind were touchingly portrayed in the mad scene – a remarkable feat, especially in a big theatre. All that said, a singing-actress like her should know that bel canto requires tonal variety dictated by the weight of every word in Italian text, a lesson taught by Renata Scotto and observed by Patrizia Ciofi in her video of the French version of this opera. Dessay’s diction is too generalized for that.

As Edgardo, Marcello Giordani did not seem to be in his best days. His tenor was a bit bottled-up and his phrasing rather unflowing and prone to lachrimosity. In the closing scene, he produced all-right impressive high notes, but legato was still largely absent. He definitely could not dispel the memory of Giuseppe Filianoti’s expressive Edgardo, sung in dulcet voice.

Marius Kwiecien’s forceful bairtone was in healthy shape as Enrico, but his singing was rather one-dimensional. John Relyea offered a far more sensitive performance, but his bass can be somewhat colourless. Stephen Costello, on the other hand, displayed a dark-hued but light tenor that sounds really promising. Provided he is not tempted to sing big lyric roles too early, he will be someone we are going to hear about often.

James Levine proved that Donizetti’s music has plenty to offer in the hands of a great conductor. He provided rich sounds without drowning his singers, opted for sensitive tempi and offered amazing increase in tension in the sextett, one of the best I have ever heard. His partnership with Dessay in the mad scene (done with glass harmonica) was particularly positive.

As to the staging, again I cannot see why the fuss – the solutions for the opening and the Wolf Crag scene are downright cheap, the little comical touches throughout simply distracting and the sceneries could look provincial (especially in the mad scene). Although the old sets did not show an ounce of imagination, their claustrophobic interiors and evocative outdoors produce the right effect more immediately than the new ones – at least for me.

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