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Posts Tagged ‘Metropolitan Opera House’

Patrice Chéreau was a stage director of legendary status, his final production of R. Strauss’s Elektra a co-production of the Metropolitan Opera, the Teatro alla Scala, the Festival d’ Aix-en-Provence, the Finnish National Opera, the Lindenoper in Berlin and the Liceu in Barcelona. Although many reviewers tend to prefer original productions (especially when the “imported” one is preceded by a video release, as in this case), the whole venture is such a candidate for an entry in the history of operatic performance that audiences all around the world seem eager to see it live in their cities. The Met decided to make it more alluring by featuring Nina Stemme’s Elektra, a role added to her repertoire only last year in Vienna.  The DVD (with Evelyn Herlitzius in the title role) has shown the production for Straussians all over the world, and I can do nothing but confirm Chéreau’s masterly Personenregie (here revived by Vincent Huguet) and his unprejudiced view of these characters, finding palpable feeling in a tragedy that often tends to the monumental.

Nina Stemme declared that she learned from Kristin Scott-Thomas’s performance in the Old Vic’s staging of Sophocles’s Electra. That was a very intelligent exercise – Scott-Thomas built her character not on increasing tension, but around a delicate mix of scorn, frustration, sarcasm and, most importantly, the strife for restoration, for making things right again. Her Electra had to kill the woman Clitemnestra had become to have back her mother as she was and should have always been. Stemme is no Birgit Nilsson – her voice lacks the steel and the flashiness to portray an unrelenting fury. This Elektra is more comfortable wailing for her father, trying to lure her sister and regaining her vulnerability in her encounter with Orest. Although it is big enough a voice, this role exposes its essentially lyric, warm-toned and soft-grained quality. Although she hit her two high c’s commendably, exposed dramatic notes often required some preparation and sounded forced compared to the moments in which she could attack softly and soar in high-lying cantabile. Her low register was often cloudy and the text was not always crispy, but this was offset by the expressive quality of her phrasing. For instance, the last ” duet”  with Chrysothemis never sounded so touching as this evening, both sopranos floating her high registers as Arabella and Zdenka would do some years later: these sisters were finally sisters again.

Adrianne Pieczonka was an intense, solid Chrysothemis. Her high register could sound effortful and, from some point on, raspish, but she refused to let her character sink in the background (as it often happens). My ten or eleven readers know that I do not think that Waltraud Meier has the voice for the role of Klytämnestra, in spite of her dramatic intelligence and pyshcological awareness. However, vocally speaking, this was probably the best performance I’ve heard from her in this role. The low register had a little bit more color than usual – and that makes a lot of difference in this role. I don’t think, however, that those in the Family Circle could really HEAR that. Burkhardt Ulrich  (Aegysth), too, had some trouble piercing through. That was definitely not a problem for Eric Owens’s admirably dark-toned, voluminous, grave yet surprisingly clear-eyed Orest. Minor roles had plenty of enderaing surprises – an intense, firm-toned Fifth Maid from Roberta Alexander (I’ve really cherished the opportunity of finally seeing her live) and Susan Neves showing what dramatic high notes really sound like as the Aufseherin.

Although this was an interesting cast, this performance was really special because of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s exemplary conducting. First, he truly understands the musical-dramatic effects and its internal relations. Second, the optimal level of balance (in the orchestra and with his singers) allowed him absolute transparence. While one felt as if reading the score, he or she would also be costantly surprised by how eloquent and powerful this score is. Third, Mr. Salonen never resorted to loudness, abruptness and grandiloquence. The Met orchestra rarely sounded so crystalline and flexible.

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Unlike the Bavarian State Opera or the Vienna State opera or the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, the Met has no “state”  in its name. That does not necessarily mean that they don’t get any money from the government, but it means that someone still has to pay the bills if the budget is not enough. This is where the patrons (both in the sense of private sponsors and the regular opera-goer) make all the difference of the world.

As one can easily guess, the expression ” eurotrash”  was not invented in Europe. Many among these patrons understand that there is a dichotomy in what regards operatic stagings: the traditional ones with their crinolines and wigs in which the story is really being told and the degenerate ones where some crazy European director has everybody in the wrong costumes or with no costumes at all, his mental derangement standing for the plot. As everything else in this world, the situation is more complex than this.

Faithfully telling the story is not just a matter of sets and costumes. It involves the serious intent of telling the story, i.e., why Otello so readily believes Iago, why Desdemona refuses to see what is going on around her, why Iago is not happy just to have some influence over Otello (let’s remember, he insists that Desdemona should die a violent death). When the Met announced a new production by Bartlett Sher, I wondered why exactly one would like something new by a director who is happy to keep things as decorative and superficial as possible. Here the whole concept is – the staging is updated to reflect the time of the creation of the opera. Hmmm… Why exactly? The soprano could have big dresses and Otello does not need to be blackfaced. Even if the fact that racial prejudice is basically is the Schwerpunkt of the story: if he were Italian, Desdemona’s father probably would not mind her marrying him, Iago would not feel so offended to be his subordinate in command etc etc. Of course, one can always find way to avoid the injurious practice of blackfacing (unfortunately, this is not as easy in opera as it is in movies, since there are many actors who could portray Shakespeare’s Othello for the cameras, while only a few tenors can sing the role as written by Verdi ). For instant, many refugees in the coasts of Spain, Greece and Italy are perfectly similar in appearance to the Mediterranean Europeans who insist that there is a big difference between them. Not in this production, I am afraid. These people just wander around plastic architectonic models and among fancy sea-image projections on screen.

As Sonya Yoncheva sang the role of Desdemona in the première, reviewers praised her acting abilities against a backdrop of theatrical void. This is unfortunately not the case with Hibla Gerzmava, who seems little concerned with drama. Although her soprano is on paper fit for the part, she sang it in too businesslike a manner: her diction is unclear, the low register is a bit guttural and her approach to mezza voce is hit or miss, not to mention that a great deal of her singing in most exposed passages is hooty and piercing. If one checks her old performances on Youtube (a Letter Scene from Evgeny Onegin, Mozart’s Laudate dominum (K. 339)), one will hear a lyric soprano of great potential,unfortunately not fulfilled. If there is a moment for serious rethinking, this is now. Aleksandrs Antonenko has important assets for the role of Otello: his tenor is big and forceful, the high notes flash all right in the auditorium and he is not insensitive to softer dynamics. It is not an Italianate voice, though. The whole method lacks the mastery of portamento and colouring a tenor truly acquainted with the style would have. One could always say that he also avoids the vulgar turns of phrase some Italian tenors would wrongly employ in Verdi, but after two acts of emotionally detached singing in this of all roles, the audience as ready for some feeling, even at the expense of elegance. It was a pity that, during act III, Mr. Antonenko started to fight with his high notes that – truth be said – showed some instability since the beginning. Most alarmingly, this difficulty developed into hoarseness. We have to thank Italian tenor Francesco Anile for voicing act IV from the wings to the Antonenko’s ” acting” on stage.

Although Zeliko Lucic’s baritone used to be more insolent in both ends of his range, it is still admirably rich and warm, not to mention that he phrases with musicianship and good taste. He is also hardly electrifying as a performer, but that can be an interesting dramatic point in the role of a schemer such as Iago in the context of an otherwise thrilling performance. Not this afternoon, I am afraid. In this sense, Lucic was very much in the same mindset of his conductor. Adam Fischer offered a Verdi of Mozartian grace and poise, transparent and forward-moving. At first, this seemed refreshingly valid, until a sensation of sameness and lack of building tension prevailed. In the end, nobody on stage and in the auditorium seemed to really care.

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Last time I saw John Dexter’s 1979 production for the Metropolitan Opera House, that was the Met’s 67th performance of the opera. Eight years later, I am to discover that this evening’s performance happens to be… the 69th. I wrote then that the Met could not produce a soprano like Margaret Price, a tenor like Francisco Araiza or a bass like Kurt Moll as in the good old days, but the cast gathered for the occasion was probably the best available in 2008. I am not sure that I can write the same today. For instance, Pavol Breslik is a superb Mozart tenor. My experience of seeing his Belmonte in 2009 was that it was impeccable. Even if he had become less impressive in this role almost a decade later, he would still be superior to Paul Appleby. To start with, the American tenor’s voice is basically grainy in sound and unfortunately not ingratiating per se. He does have easy high notes, can produce clear runs and seems to be having fun (what is always important in this repertoire). However, his singing is emphatic, short in legato and his phrasing turns around fussy pronunciation, explosive top notes and the kind of graceless ardour one never expects in this repertoire.

In her opening aria, Albina Shagimuratova sounded a bit metallic and vibrant in a way one used to associate with Slavic sopranos. But that was a first impression. Her soprano is unusually full and radiant and, once she warmed up, she proved capable of sculpting her phrases with poise. Although the expression is generalized and her German is not truly spontaneous, she sang Traurigkeit with affection and produced many stunning moments in Martern aller Arten. There, she found some trouble with the (very) low notes and needed extra breathing pauses, but one can excuse her all that: her voice has extraordinary projection, she is not afraid of in alts and produces her coloratura a tempo with relatively little blurring. By the end of the opera, she had the audience on her side. Kathleen Kim too has bright and firm high notes, but her German is sketchy and her intonation can be problematic in the middle register. Both sopranos blended well in ensembles.

Hans-Peter König’s voluminous, glitch-free voice and talent for comedy made him an almost ideal Osmin. The superlow notes in his big aria were true in pitch, if recessed, and yet the fioriture did not truly work, though. With theatrical flair, he turned this in his favor and, if we consider that there is nobody remotely close to Kurt Moll these days, one could say that he has little competition in this role. He made a good stage partnership with debuting tenor Brenton Ryan (Pedrillo). His voice is a bit thick and dark, but he managed to do fine in both his arias.

James Levine can do little wrong in Mozart. His tempi were animated, coherent with both musical and theatrical demands and, even if the orchestra was a bit rough-edged, he could keep textures always clean and structurally transparent. As always (and very understandably with these extremely difficult vocal parts) he made concessions to his singers, but without spoiling the fun for the audience.

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Maybe inspiration did not last long, but Rheingold is by far Robert Lepage’s best effort in his staging of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen. Here we find the best use of the “machine” and, maybe because there is so much going in the plot, singers have more to do and look less left alone (as in the remaining installments). Seen live, the effects are even more impressive than in the movie theatre.

The fact that Rheingold’s music is very “busy” may explain why Fabio Luisi is more comfortable here than elsewhere. There are lots of “micro goals” for him to concentrate on while most scenes have a clear rhythmic lead to follow. The orchestra was in very good shape and, except for the fact that some scenes lost steam and energy has to be built from scratch. Erda scene, for instance, was low valley to build up from and the closing scene resulted less climactic than it should. All in all, a good performance, strongly cast.

Replacing an indisposed Stephanie Blythe after having appeared as Mère Marie in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmelites, Elizabeth Bishop proved to be a first-rate Fricka, actually more varied, especially in what regards acting, than Blythe herself.  Wendy Bryn Harmer is a full-toned Freia and Meredith Arwady is a forceful but not fully idiomatic Erda. As he did in Munich, Stefan Margita was clearly the audience’s favorite as Loge. He actually was in better voice here than at the Bavarian State Opera, his singing smoother and even more fluent. He also made far more of the staging than Richard Croft on the telecast. Robert Brubaker was probably the loudest Rheingold Mime I have ever heard. Considering that he has sung the Emperor in Frau ohn Schatten (in the Deutsche Oper Berlin, for instance), this is a curious piece of casting. Richard Paul Fink’s Alberich finds the role of Alberich a bit low and heavy for his voice, but he is a good actor and has good diction. Greer Grimsley has never been a noble-toned Wotan, but a very powerful one with exciting high notes. Although Franz-Josef Selig is still a commendable Fasolt, it is sad to see how his beautiful voice has been deteriorating. In his brief contributions, Hans-Peter König (Fasolt) proves to be again a great asset in the Met’s Ring. One cannot forget Dwayne Croft’s firm-toned Donner.

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Götterdämmerung is the most Italian among the Ring operas – we have a love duet, a revenge trio, a (double) wedding scene, a chorus and a mad scene (sort of). Is that the reason why Fabio Luisi was more at ease here than in Siegfried? To start with, either my ears have been unblocked or there were some large-scale orchestral sound to speak of this time. Strings still leave something to be desired, but I wonder if this is not a result of the conductor’s myopic approach: there are many interesting details in tonal coloring and highlighting of generally obscure motivic references, but the parts too often do not add up to a coherent result. There are micro-objectives – highlighting woodwind here, showing a propulsive rhythm there, helping singers somewhere else but if you try to see the big picture, it will probably be quite blurred.

For instance, this evening, the first scene in the prologue was about color and textual clarity at a funereal tempo, but the ensuing duet most commendably had a whiff of Il Trovatore in its athletic grace. Siegfried’s Rheinfahrt was athletic too, but in a rather clumsy way. The Gibichungenhalle scene had a refreshing conversational pace, but you could hear the space between every syllable during Waltraute’s Narration.

There was something Italian too about the way the orchestra tackled the accompanying figures in act II – bright, articulate sounds from the violins and clean, theatrical attacks, but the energy level was variable and tension had rather a peaks-and-valley than a upwards curve graphic. Act III opened to a rather unatmospheric scene with the Rhinemaids before it settled to a sensitive death scene for Siegfried, followed by a rushed account of the Trauermarsch.

Katarina Dalayman is a warm-toned, elegant Brünnhilde. Some high notes are tense and shorter than in the score, most of them however quite exciting in their sheer volume. She is a subtle performer who offers a dignified, womanly approach to the role. Jay Hunter Morris is predictably more comfortable here. Technique is still irregular and he has too many unfocused, undersupported and pushed moments, but he does have stamina. Sometimes, when all elements are well-coordinated, he produces some exciting high notes.

The low voices shined this evening – Hans-Peter König is a very powerful Hagen, Eric Owens again a dark-toned, frighteningly vehement Alberich and Iain Paterson is a noble-toned Gunther.

Karen Cargill is a capable Waltraute with a strong low register and beautiful mezza voce, but her high notes are not very forceful and she can be a bit fussy. Wendy Bryn Harmer is a reliable Gutrune and the Norns were very well cast (especially Elizabeth DeShong and Heidi Melton).

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Michael Mayer’s “rat pack” new production of Verdi’s Rigoletto for the Met could be seen on the telecast, but it won’t be very difficult to summarize it for those (like me) who did not go to a movie theatre: the action is set in the 1960’s in Las Vegas. The rest is pretty conventional. I cannot say that the updating has brought any special insight into any character or the plot itself. I don’t mean that the idea is not good a priori – those were days when casino big shots acted as if they were beyond the grip of law and a story more or less like that could have actually happened. But you have to add at least some psychology into the proceedings, because this is how people try to understand situations since good old Siegmund Freud spoke of id, ego and superego. When I was leaving the theatre, I overheard someone saying “What was that guy shouting ‘the curse!!!’ in the end? That was ludicrous!”. Well, not for Rigoletto – but there is a serious point here – what kind of person in 1960 would shout “The curse!” over his dead daughter’s body? And if there is an opera with plenty of Freudian elements, this is definitely Rigoletto – there is a father/daughter situation to start with. This is an opera in which the soprano has a nameless father and sings her big aria about how she loves her sweetheart’s NAME as soon as he invents one for himself (actually, he has no name either in this story).

There is a problem about the staging itself too. Many productions of Rigoletto turn around the opening scene, when the audience is supposed to see something spectacular. The problem is that the action develops in other directions after that – we have dark streets, the garden of a modest house, an antechamber in a palace and a tavern. But all this generally has to be adapted to cope with the opening scene. So you end up with an impressive set for a largely atmospheric scene, while the plot has to evolve in make-do sceneries. Here for instance. The curtains open for a complex, beautiful casino hall, but later you have to believe that: a) Rigoletto decides to hide her daughter in the very place where he wants her NOT to be seen (i.e., the casino); b) Rigoletto negotiates Sparafucile’s services in front of a barman; c) Gilda trills in the end of Caro Nome 20 cm away from a bunch of guys with masks who are ready to kidnap her; d) Rigoletto and Gilda are supposed to be alone for her to tell that she was deflowered (let’s use this word) by the Duke shortly before that, but here everybody just turn their backs to her and now she feels comfortable to explain all this to her father; e) the Duke almost bumps into Gilda and Rigoletto when he enters Sparafucile’s house; f) there is a huge storm outside, but Maddalena just goes out in her baby-doll and dressing gown to help hiding Gilda’s body and comes back free from the action of the elements. I may sound picky here, but again: those are basic elements of a staging.  You cannot place a wall on stage and expect the audience to pretend that sometimes it is not really a wall.

The musical aspect of the evening showed far more care. Marco Armiliato knows Verdian style and the importance of respecting propulsive rhythms, of orchestral effects and of a brighter, more flexible orchestral sound. He cared for his singers, helping them at key moments, but did not allow them to impair rhythmic coherence for narcissistic vocal displays.

Lisette Oropesa’s soprano is on the light side for Gilda. In act I, her gleaming high notes, seamless legato and sensitivity helped her to portray beauty, youth and loveliness most adeptly. In Caro nome, she displayed impressive technical abandon and musicianship. In the remaining acts, she did retain these qualities, but did not find enough leeway in Tutte le feste, for instance.

Vittorio Grigolo is a convincing, Italianate Duke, but his phrasing may be emphatic and his high notes a bit tense. George Gagnidze’s grainy baritone lacks punch in his high notes and he himself is a bit generic about interpretation. Enrico Giuseppe Iori’s bass is dark and spacious enough for Sparafucile,but Nancy Fabiola Herrera had some problem with following the beat in the quartet. Finally, I have always understood that the choristers should sing the “wind effect” in act III bocca chiusa. It did not sound like that this evening.

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Reading what I wrote about the telecast of Wagner’s Siegfried from the Met, I cannot help wondering how flattering these microphones can be. Even if it is not fair to compare two different performances, the forces involved are more or less the same and the impression could not be more different.

First of all, after having seen the telecast, I wrote that Fabio Luisi had shown his Wagnerian credentials and have mentioned even a sense of “rhythmic alertness”. The same cannot be said this evening, I am afraid. To start with, the house orchestra’s string section sounded so recessed and/or colorless that the only positive side one could mention is that you could indeed hear the beautiful playing from woodwind throughout. The pace was generally slow and, in the context of thin and modest orchestral sound (the introduction to act III could be described as downright clumsy), one could feel how slow it could be. In the defence of Maestro Luisi, he was extremely considerate with his singers – his leading tenor lacks power and had some false entries (Wotan was sometimes “creative”, especially with the text). The moment when the conductor stopped  being nice to his cast, things actually became more effective (we are talking about act III…) – the final scene was actually quite exciting with some instances of beautiful articulation from the violins.

In the telecast. Jay Hunter Morris sounded like a light, slightly metallic yet plausible Siegfried. This evening, I would not use these words. The sound was often unfocused, sometimes raw and often lacking slancio. His German is accented and sometimes his personality is too likable for boorish Siegfried. There are moments, especially in act III, when one can see his heroic potential in some firm and full high notes, but I would say that jugendlich dramatisch roles sound more reasonable for his voice, provided he tries a more elegant approach to phrasing.

Actually, one tends to be harder on the Siegfried when the Mime displays such firmness, power and volume as Gerhard Siegel has this evening. I would add that, when he stays away from Spieltenorish placement (let’s call it like this), one perfectly believes that this German tenor has sung roles such as Florestan and Tannhäuser (and maybe should sing them more often). He is also a very imaginative and charismatic actor, stealing the show this evening.

The Siegfried’s Brünnhilde will never be Katarina Dalayman’s best friend – and she had to resort to the usual adaptations (shortening note values and disregarding dynamic markings when things get high – and they tend to STAY high in this part) to make it happen. That said, she was in very good voice this evening. Although her acuti were unvariedly forte and often tense, she sang warmly and sensitively most of the time. Moreover, it is always a pleasure to hear such a big velvety soprano voice in the theatre.

I’ve heard Mark Delavan sing richer high notes as Wotan in Berlin, but this evening he showed deeper understanding of his role, singing spiritedly and with flair. Also, his voice is noble and ample as required. He seems to need some extra rehearsals in this productions, one could notice. The contrast to Eric Owens’s Alberich was quite telling. If there is something in the telecast that is truly consistent to reality is the American bass-baritone’s performance. This is truly a Wagnerian voice of outstanding quality – large, forceful, rich, dark and quite flexible. Among the non-native speakers this evening, his was by far the best German, not only in terms of pronunciation but also in what regards declamation. He has an intense stage presence but, differently from Rhinegold, the director gave him here nothing to work from.

As a friend said this evening, Hans-Peter König is one of the rare Fafners these days whose voice sound large even when it is NOT offstage. Meredith Arwading has impressive deep contralto notes while coping with the mezzo area of the Siegfried Erda, but her diction is imprecise – not enough to disguise a strong accent. As for Lisette Oropesa’s Waldvogel, this is a bit tricky, especially when you sing it offstage (these days, directors tend to put the soprano ON stage), but this evening the impression was especially pale.

As for the production, there is very little to add to what I have previously written. One often reads about how Robert Lepage’s production does not go beyond the “machine” and how there is no Personenregie. Well, I would say that even in what regards the machine, there is still some space for improvement. The dragon in act II is almost funny and the  sets in the closing scene is far less impressive than the way they looked in the end of Die Walküre, for instance.

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