Archive for February, 2008

Sorry – it is awful to hate things, but it must have vent or inward hating will consume me. Now that I have a proper blog, I have to say I like proper booklets – with photos of the production so that I can remind how much I liked/disliked it, erudite tests about Nietzsche and  opera that I am never going to read and some advertisement by EMI or Deutsche Grammophon about a disc I am probably not going to buy. They are also shaped like books and fit perfectly in your shelf – your friends can look at them and say “So you’ve been to the Vienna State Opera…” and other very useful things.  So I feel happy for actually paying to have them.

On the other hand, Playbills are given away and have to be cheap therefore. They also feature make-up and fragrance ads – they have thousands of pictures about every other opera and play in New York BUT the one you’re currently seeing and they have those cool articles in which you learn that Renée Fleming only uses her iPod to help her to learn by heart the stuff she’s working on…

But the worst thing about Playbills is that they stick to your hand. I won’t say my hand, because I keep it away from it in order not to produce that awful cracking noise when you try to pull your hand away. But it seems everybody needs to fidget with their playbills as if their lives depended on it. I remember one particular Mahler 2nd at Carnegie Hall during which there was so much noise with Playbills that I felt as if I was listening to an old LP cracking throughout.

But I’ll tell you the real reason for my bad humor. I have hundreds of playbills here and I don’t have the courage to throw them away, because I would like to keep record of what I saw at the Met. I have tried different storage solutions and a visit to Muji finally gave me the solution for my problem. I bought some small binders and now I am in the process of unstapling each one of my Playbills, keeping the center pages (related to the performance), throwing away the ads and the Renée Fleming/Anna Netrebko articles, re-stapling the remaining two or three folds and storing each one in an individual plastic thing in the binder. It should be a wonderful pastime for an obsessive-compulsive person while listening to music, I reckon.

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Confronted with accusations of out-of-dateness, I have decided to yield myself to the general opinion that I should have a “proper” blog. This decision was delayed by the horror story of a friend who lost all her posts on a crash or something like that at Blogger.  So I would still like to know how to settle this thing to e-mail me the content as a backup (any ideas?).

A second reason for this change is my intent to post from my Spanish/Portuguese vacation starting on Friday. Without a computer office (as in New York), it would be a bit difficult to use the pre-historical .doc system I have used so far. So let’s see how it works. In any case, please bear with me until I make final decisions about layout, commenting, posting etc etc.

A final comment: The old blog never had a title simply because I could never found one. I’ve tried some “clever” stuff, such as using verses from libretti or a jeu de mots on some Latin expression… Then I thought of a nonsensical title “Fermata prenotata” – I believed this sounded vaguely like something musical and made me remember the tram in Milan – but then it was nothing but  something you would find in a train or a bus… Then there was the idea of using Webseligkeit…. because of Richard Strauss’s song on Dehmel’s verses Waldseligkeit. But again it was too crafty, difficult to pronounce in any language but German and too silly.  “I hear voices” is also silly – it occured to me during an intermission at the Met when I thought about M. Night Shyamalan’s movie The Sixth Sense (don’t ask…).  I might change that as soon as I finally realize it is a stupid idea.

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The Homecoming is one of Harold Pinter’s most famous plays and deservedly considered a “modern classic” in theatre literature. In 1965, its element of épater la bourgeoisie probably caused many an eyebrow to raise, but today the characteristically dry dialogues and the still efficient volte-face may suggest it is rather a black comedy. Maybe this has misled director Daniel Sullivan to allow a rather charicature approach in two actors in key roles, what finally unbalanced the whole concept of this production. Both Eve Best and Raúl Esparza are incredibly talented actors – especially he, whose alertness on stage keeps you at the edge of your seat throughout – but I could understand neither his Dr. Strangelove-imitation for the character of Leonard nor her overpoised artifficial-on-purpose Ruth. Their acting clashed with the naturalistic approach adopted by the remaining members of the cast and the final result had a certain schyzophrenic feeling about it. Both Ian McShane’s barely repressed violence and Michael McKean’s embittered subsiveness were portrayed with mastery, as one should expect from such experienced actors. Gareth Saxe survived the danger of a too mannered and/or restricted palette for his Joey, but I am afraid I found James Frain’s Teddy rather blank. Maybe there was a point in showing no change in his attitude after the dramatic shifting in the relationship between the other characters in the second part of the play, but I could not get it. I must finally point out Eugene Lee’s convincing realistic and detailed sets.

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Although I dislike the pastel-coloured Seville recreated by Franco Zeffirelli for the Metropolitan Opera, I thought that maybe Olga Borodina could add some zest to the proceedings and tried my luck this evening. I am an admirer of this Russian mezzo-soprano, but I had the impression she might be too formidable for the role. However, as this truly special artist has done with many roles not easily associated with her voice and personality, she made it her own.

I don’t want to sound ungracious, but Borodina doesn’t have the figure and the legs of some singers previously featured in this production, such as Nancy Fabiola Herrera or Denyce Graves – but that does not faze her at all. As portrayed by Borodina, Carmen is neither flirtatious nor sluttish, but rather an affair of panache. Her forceful attitude, her appetite for life, her independence of character makes her rather a conqueror than a seductress – and that is a very good psychological point. It is also true that Borodina’s earthy mezzo-soprano has nothing French about it, but its endless repertory of resources is entirely used to make sure that both the music and the text are dealt with with intelligence and sensitivity. She handles the often abused grace notes with accuracy, scales down for velvety mezza voce when this is required and has amazingly clear French vowels. If I had to be critical about her singing, I have noticed since her last Amneris at the Met a certain harshness in her forte top notes that didn’t exist a couple of years ago.

The role of Don José fits Marcelo Álvarez’s dulcet yet strong tenor. Although his approach is a bit lachrymose (that was a bit of a turn-off in the Flower Song), he can hold an elegant line and, whenever he does it, it is always really pleasant in the ear. He is not a bête de scène, but – maybe because he comes from Argentina – he does rather well his macho routine.

Maija Kovalevska has a rather pretty sweet voice, a basic requirement for Micaela, but I have the impression she was a bit overparted. Some high-lying phrases sounded a bit tense and she had to compensate it a bit with “acting with the voice”. Truth be said, she was one of the most energetic Micaelas I have ever seen – I almost thought that nothing really scared her.
Lucio Gallo’s baritone has become rather juiceless these days, but he was able to keep focus in the role’s low tessitura, what is always a challenge to high baritones. All minor roles were excellently taken and ensembles certainly benefited from that.
From bar one in the overture, one could see that Emmanuel Villaume’s idée fixe was making it fast and exciting – in the end I’ve only really got the lack of polish. Some of Carmen’s most “colourful” pages do require a more sophisticated approach – otherwise it may – as it did – sound like small-town band music.

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Last time I saw Renée Fleming, Johan Botha and Semyon Bychkov together was in 2005 and the opera was R. Strauss’s Daphne. Although the opera this evening was Verdi’s Otello, there was more than a splash of Strauss in the proceedings, which I found quite refreshing, to say the truth.

To start with, Bychkov offered an elegant account of the score, rounding many a sharp angle in Verdi’s writing and producing ripe, dense orchestral sonorities, sometimes at the expense of his singers.

You all know I am not an unconditional admirer of Renée Fleming, but I cannot deny it is a pleasure to hear her in a role entirely convenient to her voice and attitude. She eschewed the ingénue cliché and offered a quasi-Arabellian aristocratic, proud and feminine Desdemona. Not only was her acting finely shaded, but also she was in excellent voice. Except for some mishandling of passaggio in her act II duet with Otello, she sang effortlessly and expressively throughout. Her Willow Song/Ave Maria combo aria excelled in ethereal floating creamy mezza voce and spiritual concentration.

In the title role, Johan Botha does not boast neither a dark nor Italianate sound, but his unusually pleasant Heldentenor filled Verdian phrasing with purity of line and musicianship. At this stage of his career, the role is not a stretch for him and he dealt with difficult tricky passages such as his opening Esultate! quite commendably. Although he lacked the emotional depth and the weight of sound to do full justice to moments such as Sí, pel ciel, he compensated that with sensitive and tonally varied accounts of scenes such as Dio, mi potevi scagliar. A subtle and touching performance.

Carlo Guelfi was more conventionally cast as Iago. Moments such as Credo in un dio crudel showed him operating a bit close to his limits, grey and woolly top notes involved, but his is idiomatic quality is one of his strongest assets. Among the minor roles, Wendy White’s firm-toned vehement Emilia is worthy of mention.

I had not previously seen Elija Moshinsky’s rather generalized if inoffensive production, but the costume designer deserves praises for the costumes created for Johan Botha.

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I cannot say I am really surprised that Tom Stoppard’s new play, Rock’n’Roll is everything but organic. As other plays by the same author, we are shown a fast succession of vignettes that only make sense in a very generalized way and his characters seem rather puppets for the purpose of making points. The plot outline is very simple – Jan is a Czech student in the 60’s who studies in Cambridge with something like the British Ur-communist intellectual. Back to Prague, Jan only feels like listening to his Pink Floyd LP’s but even if you have a very innocent hobby, a totalitarian State might find a problem with that. The backdrop involves the story of real-life Czech band Plastic People of the Universe, which became a symbol of that country’s campaign for freedom of expression. All that could amount to an interesting and touching play, but the truth is that you are not made to care about these characters and in the end you just admire some high-level acting by Brian Cox and Sinéad Cusack. In the leading role, Rufus Sewell was so hoarse and yodeling that I had a bad time trying to understand his words and I am afraid this spoiled a great deal of the fun to me.

Considering the text’s fragmentary quality, it is difficult to judge the directing’s quality. I could see some effort to give unity and some clever stage contraptions and expert make-up and wigs to help that, but I am afraid that this was a lost cause, except for Cox, Cusack, some interesting if tangential discussions and for a great soundtrack.

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From the first bars of today’s performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre, one could say what a difference a new conductor makes. Donald Runnicles’s fast tempi and extremer dynamic effects would replace Maazel’s more balanced and organized approach to the score, crowned by true nobility of orchestral sound. I don’t imply that this was better than that or the other way round; only it is fascinating to compare. In any case, Runnicles’s more extrovert theatricality seemed to have a positive effect on Lisa Gasteen, who offered a more nuanced Todesverkündung today.

Cast only for the last performance, Simon O’Neill (Siegmund) offered a less baritonal and also less powerful voice than Clifton Forbis’s. Indeed, the newcomer’s tenor tends to be open and metallic, but his feeling for legato is most welcome – also his enthusiasm, which managed to draw some commitment from the otherwise sleepwalking Deborah Voigt (whose indifferent delivery of the German text reached its apex with a verse composed by her carelessness: Erschaffung quick ich). The remaining members of the cast were consistent with their previous performances, only a bit more tested by a louder orchestra today.

Unfortunately, I could not stay for the third act. Thus, I missed the opportunity of checking how Runnicles would deal with the Valkyries and if Gasteen would similarly offer a more varied dialogue with Wotan in their last scene.

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