What's Opera Doc?

What's Opera Doc?

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Who's the Real Villain? Opera in the Age of #MeToo

With all the news about James Levine, it’s been a rough few months at the Met, although you wouldn’t know it from the Live in HD series. I’ve been to four of the five broadcasts since the new year (I missed La Bohème), and they seem to be drowning their sorrows in the elaborate and expensive productions that have been their calling card for the last fifty years or so. Don’t get me wrong—the money is mostly well-spent. Sir David McVicar’s new Tosca meticulously recreates early nineteenth century Rome right down to the statue of St. Michael atop the Castel Sant’Angelo, who towers over the third act like the Angel of Death, passing judgement on the miserable lives of characters below. Bartlett Sher’s effervescent 2012 production of L’Elisir D’Amore still holds up, and Phelim McDermott’s new Coney Island-themed Così fan Tutte mostly makes good use of the carnival setting, albeit with some unnecessary gimmicks and distractions. Only John Copley’s Semiramide was a disappointment. Despite Angela Meade’s thrilling turn in the title role, the production served as a reminder of how far opera has come since the park-and-bark days of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s (beautiful singing, terrible staging). The lavish costumes and gigantic sets of Semiramide rendered an already slow piece even stiffer.

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Set design for Tosca, Act III
Still, opera is so mired in historical sexual politics, I couldn’t help but watch these broadcasts with recent events in mind, and not just those surrounding Levine. With the advent of #MeToo, we have been flooded with revelations of rampant sexual misconduct (although for most women, this is hardly breaking news). Perhaps better than any other genre, opera distills and crystalizes patterns of sexual abuse. So how could I not remember Lupita Nyong’o’s account of Harvey Weinstein demanding sexual favors as I watched Scarpia negotiate with Tosca for Cavaradossi’s release? An older, powerful man holds a young actress’s fate in his hands; all she has to do is surrender control of her body. I admit I took no small pleasure in watching Tosca get her revenge, even if it was short-lived.

But Scarpia is a red herring. He’s what we picture when we think of a sexual predator: leering, unrepentant, and utterly irredeemable. In real life, it’s not so easy. Not all predators go around singing “Ha più forte sapore la conquista violenta che il mellifluo consenso” (“For myself, the violent conquest has stronger relish than the soft surrender”). To find the real villains—that is, the realistic villains—we have to look somewhere more disturbing even than the shadowy world of Tosca. We have to look at the comedies.

Despite a charming production and delightful performances from Pretty Yende, Ildebrando Archangelo, and Matthew Polenzani, I sat through L’Elisir D’Amore with a feeling of profound discomfort. As Nemorino insisted on pursuing Adina despite her firm objections, all I could think was that he needed to back off. Even Polenzani’s hauntingly beautiful performance of “Una Furtiva Lagrima” couldn’t dislodge the uneasiness in the pit of my stomach. I know “Una parola, o Adina” is supposed to be romantic, but in this day and age I felt the tug of a threatening undercurrent. Yes, in this particular story, Adina is just playing hard to get. But what if she wasn’t? What if she really isn’t interested in Nemorino? How far does he push this? We’ve definitely seen women killed for saying “no” before. Given that rape is a near constant threat for women in opera, the line between comedy and tragedy in this one seems dangerously thin. We may not like to admit it, but Nemorino has the potential to be just as much a predator as Scarpia. The trouble is that from the woman’s point of view, it can be almost impossible to tell the difference.

Then there’s Così. Although in the eighteenth century this was probably seen as an unproblematic indictment of women, in twenty-first century performances no one comes out looking good. Ferrando and Guglielmo look like jerks for seducing the women under false pretenses, and Dorabella and Fiordiligi look like bimbos for falling for it (Don Alfonso and Despina just look like vindicated cynics). More to the point, over and over Così presents us with women saying “no,” and men barging ahead anyway, sometimes using extreme tactics to get their way. When Ferrando threatens to kill himself if Fiordiligi rejects him, I always cringe. That’s not seduction. That’s not even romantic. That’s emotional blackmail. At least Scarpia is honest with his intentions. Yet most productions calmly let it slide. And who can blame them? “Fra gli amplessi” is one of Mozart’s most breathtaking duets, so beautiful that it distracts us from what’s really going on. Therein lies the danger of opera. It mesmerizes us with beautiful music and astonishing stagecraft, seducing us into accepting unconscionable behavior as normal, even desirable. If we aren’t careful, it chips away at our common sense of right and wrong.

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Susanna Phillips as a miserable Fiordiligi in an previous Met production of Così 
Being a feminist and an opera fan has never been easy. Often, I can chalk up the misogyny to the “bad old days,” or at least smile when predators get their comeuppance. But for L’Elisir and Così, right now they hit a little close to home in ways that make them difficult to dismiss. As the Met’s website attests, the ending of L’Elisir “is as much a foregone conclusion as it would be in a romantic comedy film today.” Contemporary love stories constantly tell men that “no” is code for “try harder.” Gestures that are framed as romantic in modern-day literature and film make my blood run cold, and can’t help but come to mind as I watch these operas unfold. The Met claims that “the joy is in the journey” of these romances, but who is really taking pleasure in these stories? We like to think that we’ve come so far, or that all villains are baritones that sing arias cluing us in to their intentions. But opera reminds us that it’s never that simple, and that just because the tenor can melt your heart doesn’t mean he’s a “good guy.” Just ask Fiordiligi.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Casting Divas: Norma Review

Let’s start with a thought experiment.

Based on the clip above, which generic operatic chorus just marched on stage?

  1. The servants of the house
  2. The military regiment
  3. The king and his entourage
  4. The oppressed villagers/slaves

If you answered 1, 2, or 3, you should have a sense of why I have trouble with bel canto opera since the answer is actually 4. (And if you guessed that without knowing the piece, you probably cheated. Shame on you!) This clip accompanies a coven of Druids as they prepare a ritual to decide whether to fight their Roman oppressors. Much of bel canto is like thisthe musical language is almost 200 years old, and often doesn’t translate well. For a listener in 1831, this may have signified mystery and gravitas, but to my twenty-first century ears, is sounds more like the Salvation Army band. I almost expected Sarah Brown to come out singing “Follow the Fold” rather than Norma’s “Casta Diva.” Given that so much of our contemporary dramatic music is descended from Wagner and Puccini, it’s no wonder that pre-1850 operatic music can seem stiff or emotionally opaque.

The more dramatic bel canto pieces particularly suffer from this phenomenon. While the effervescence of comedies like Barber of Seville easily translates across the centuries (thanks Looney Tunes!), our musical gestures of solemnity and urgency are entirely different (thanks again, Looney Tunes). Consequently, a lot of directors try to make up the difference with stark, dark, and gloomy sets and over-the-top staging, like the Swiss villagers bathing in blood in Damiano Michieletto’s Guillaume Tell for ROH.

David McVicar’s new Norma for the Met exemplifies this problem. To post-Wagnerian ears, this music reads as light, airy, and almost frivolous, but the libretto is grave and somber. The Druids suffer under Roman occupation and Pollione contemplates his affairs all to the tune of delicate flutes and violins. Meanwhile, McVicar’s cobwebs, skulls, and overworked fog machines try to convince us that This Is Serious Business. I normally like his dynamic, atmospheric sets and his attention to detail in the staging, but this one misfired for me. Watching Pollione slice open his hand as he swears up and down (and this is bel canto, so I mean that literally) his love for Adalgisa seemed to be trying too hard.

Robert Jones’s set for Act II of David McVicar’s Norma

But in other ways, this production overcame this disconnect between nineteenth and twenty-first century musical language. In this, Sondra Radvanovsky’s performance in the title role was critical. Her instrument seems made for Norma: strident and forceful with an acidic bite, yet guided by an acute and sensitive dramatic intelligence (unfortunately not the same production). La Rad’s high notes can blaze through the fluttery strings, or delicately melt into the soft, whispering woodwinds. Such exacting control is crucial to Norma given how quickly she moves between different shades of despair and determination, particularly in “Dormano entrambi.”

Yet for all that Radvanovsky boiled over with power and strength, she also projected warmth and tenderness. This brings me to one of the great delights of Norma—the musical relationship between the two women. Radvanovsky’s duets with Joyce DiDonato’s Adalgisa had a gentle shimmer that I wouldn’t expect from two such powerful voices. (This is a new role for DiDonato, so there are unfortunately no good quality clips.) DiDonato has never been one of my favorites; I’ve found her sound a little harsh for my tastes. But Bellini seems to have a mellowing effect on her timbre. He is a little more languid than his contemporaries Donizetti and Rossini, which may have allowed DiDonato to temper the steeliness of her voice just enough so that she blended with Radvanovsky. In my favorite recordings of this opera, Adalgisa’s sweetness softens Norma’s razor-sharp edges. But I like how DiDonato and Radvanovksy seemed to soften each other, and their shared passage work was crystal clear, which isn’t always the case when the voices don’t match as well.

Joyce Didonato as Adalgisa and Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma

To be honest, the two women had such good chemistry that I wanted them both to kick Pollione to the curb and to raise the kids on their own. Pollione is inherently pretty despicable, and Joseph Calleja made the most of the character’s brutish carelessness. With a hulking scowl worthy of the skeaziest of baritones, he stalked around the stage, menacing Norma and Adalgisa alike. But although I liked his take on the character, I’m still not wild about his voice. His mid-range is nice enough, but his high notes sound somewhat gummy, though admittedly that could be the mics. Still, he pulled off a convincing redemptive transformation at the end, which is difficult for such a deeply unlikable character.

It’s interesting to me that spinto singers who specialize in later Italian rep tend to gravitate towards Norma along with more typical bel canto vocalists. Both Radvanovksy and Callas are/were terrific Toscas, but you don’t see a lot lyric sopranos—Mozarteans, etc.—singing these kinds of meaty bel canto roles (and possibly why Anna Netrebko gave up on it; she seems to be going for pure dramatic soprano rather than spinto). This may have something to do with that odd temporal disconnect in the musical language. I suspect lighter voices may be more historically accurate (though admittedly I am not a bel canto expert, that’s a gut feeling), but would only worsen the dramatic problem. So unless I can invent a mental time machine, the historically “incorrect” choice is actually the right one.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Idomeneo, re di Creta ossia Naomi e Mozart

Even when it premiered in 1781, Idomeneo was old-fashioned. Nearly 50 years earlier, Pergolesi’s La Serva Padrona swept through Europe and changed the face of the operatic world. The old opera seria with their jealous kings, vengeful demi-gods, and conniving sorceresses suddenly seemed archaic and flat, and the simple humanity of the new opera buffa was all the rage. In many ways, Mozart was the one who put the final nail in opera seria’s coffin. Even though he continued to use the form until his death, his masterful combination of the musical drama of seria with the humanist sensibility of buffa in his collaborations with Lorenzo Da Ponte (FigaroDon Giovanni, and Cosí) led to the near erasure of the distinction between the two, at least as far as musical style was concerned. Consequently, to hear a Mozart piece that is a fairly straightforward opera seria is a little jarring.

Which is why I’m glad the Met decided to revive this classic staging of Idomeneo. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production is older than I am, and bears all the marks of the Met in the 1980s: elaborate and grand, but also a bit stiff. Set changes were accomplished via drops rather than the mechanized wizardry we’ve come to expect in recent years, and the costumes, while stunning, were not designed with movement in mind. But given how old-fashioned Idomeneo is in the first place, I think this kind of old-school production works well with its dated musical forms and styles. We were experiencing Idomeneo as its first audiences might have: as a throwback to an earlier era.

Idomeneo by Jean-Pierre Ponelle

But for all of Idomeneo’s archaisms, musically it is still looks to the future. This is Mozart’s first mature opera, and you can see him playing around with all the techniques that make his later compositions so magnificent. His unparalleled small ensemble writing is on display in the famous Act III quartet, but what struck me most was the way the music's relationship to the drama foreshadows his more well-known works.

For all that we think of Mozart as part of the light and airy late 18th century, his gift for irony is part of what makes him my favorite composer. One of his tricks is to put characters in impossible emotional situations, and then have them not sing about it. Instead, he surrounds moments of anguish with some of his most serenely beautiful or triumphant sounds. In Idomeneo, the title character realizes he has inadvertently sworn to sacrifice his own son just as a grand triumphal march welcomes him home, and early in the second act, the princess Ilia tries to coax him out of his funk by appealing to his fatherly instincts, completely unaware that those sames instincts are the cause of his misery. These kinds of moments anticipate “Deh vieni” in Figaro, or “Fra gli amplessi” in Cosí. Even at this relatively early point in his adult career, Mozart understood that sometimes drama is in what you don’t—or can’t—say.

Also evident in Idomeneo is Mozart’s gift for understatement (highlighted perfectly by the fabulous James Levine). Mozart seems to be the only opera composer who knows when to dial it down rather than up. Other composers would have Idomeneo reveal his disastrous vow in a tortured aria with all kinds of dizzying vocal pyrotechnics. But Mozart sets it as accompanied recitative: small, quiet, and intimate. Even the Act III quartet, in which all four principles declare their suffering, is remarkably quiet, which makes it all the more heart-breaking (at least for me). It all presages one of my favorite moments in Figaro: after flurry of activity that is the Act III sextet, the two couples are left onstage alone, and contently muse about how happy they are. It’s not the music itself that makes these moments so wonderful, it’s how they’re set-up.

It's always a delight to discover a new opera that you love, and doubly delightful when such an inspiring and talented cast brings it to life. Alice Coote in the trouser role of Idamante (Idomeneo’s son) was perhaps my least favorite, playing the character a little sniffley for my taste. Still, vocally she was superb, with a rich yet flexible instrument that can handle anything Mozart throws at her. As his true love Ilia, Nadine Sierra was more much forceful that I would expect from a Mozart ingénue. It bugged me a bit at first, but by the end of her first aria I was on board. Her voice has a lot of muscle and burnish for a lyric soprano, which made the first aria—an Aida-esque meditation on captivity—a powerful moment. I suspect she might end up moving on to more dramatic roles as she matures; I’d love to see her take on one of the meatier Verdi women like Lady Macbeth or Abigaille if her voice goes in that direction.

Nadine Sierra and Alice Coote as Ilia and Idamante
Of course, Idomeneo wouldn’t work at all without a superb, well, Idomeneo. Fortunately, Matthew Polenzani was available. His voice sounds so natural and unforced that music just seems to flow out of him as easy as breathing. Dramatically, Idomeneo is tricky. He goes from anguished to more anguished to even more anguished, which is difficult to sustain over four hours (take that Wagner!), but I was riveted. He clearly understands what Mozart understood: sometimes the quietest moments are the most poignant, and his pianissimos were simply heart-breaking. Not that he can’t storm and rage with the best of them—he sang the runs and tricks of “Fuor del Mar” with ease (this is the dress, he sounded even better in the broadcast!).

Matthew Polenzani as Idomeneo
But as good as Polenzani was, Elza van den Heever’s Elettra stole the show. The character is a distant cousin of Mozart’s later batty sopranos; she’s Donna Elvira with 50% more crazy, or The Queen of the Night with 60% fewer high notes. Van den Heever combined the best of both. The harsh edges in her sound made her passage work crystal clear, and with the help of her elaborate costume and over-the-top make-up, she commanded the stage every time she appeared. Her delightfully loony rendition of “DOreste, dAjace ho inseno i tormenti” (the link is unfortunately a different production) provided the perfect opportunity for a cathartic giggle after most harrowing scene of opera.

Elza van den Heever as Elettra 

In short, this opera was everything I love about Mozart with some of the best Mozarteans in the operatic world today. I dearly hope the Met decides to revive it more often.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Skip to the End! Don Giovanni Review

I’ve always wrestled with this opera. As Bonnie Gordon writes at Slate, the legacy of Don Giovanni—and particularly its title character—is complex to say the least. He tears through the opera leaving a trail of broken lives and bodies in his wake before finally being dragged to hell by the ghost of one of his victims. He ravishes a woman then kills her father; seduces a bride and attempts to rape her when she resists; beats a man half to death; and carelessly flings his wingman into harm’s way for his own amusement. Yet for all this, generations of writers and philosophers have lionized Don Giovanni as a heroic figure, one endowed “with every quality that can exalt humanity in its closest approach to the divine,” and whose “amorous encounters” constitute “a blasphemous slap in the faces of the creator and mother nature,” to quote nineteenth century writer E.T.A. Hoffmann.

To be clear: I’m pretty sure Mozart and Da Ponte would vehemently disagree with this assessment of Giovanni. Mozart generally bestows the best music on the characters he deems most sympathetic (the Contessa in Figaro, Fiordiligi in Cosí), and for all his bluster, Don Giovanni is limited to two rather short arias. But two centuries of reception history are hard to ignore. It would be easy to dismiss this reading of Don Giovanni as a vestige “the bad old days,” but this was how I learned the opera in college not that long ago, and Simon Keenlyside described his approach to the character by spouting the same line: Don Giovanni represents absolute freedom, from religion, from nature, from you-name-it. But the story looks very different from the point of view of the other participants in those “amorous encounters.” To put a twenty-first century feminist spin on the historical reading of Don Giovanni, the women are merely pawns, casually used and discarded in his war on the laws of man and God. Or to paraphrase Anita Sarkeesian (and others), in the game of Don Giovanni, women aren’t the opposing team; they’re the ball.

Simon Keenlyside as Don Giovanni
I might have an easier time with Don Giovanni if I thought it was a better opera. I know I’m in the minority on this one, but I think Don Giovanni—generally considered the greatest of the Mozart/Da Ponte collaborations—is actually the weakest. It lacks the emotional complexity of Cosí, or the profound humanity of Figaro. True, Don Giovanni includes some of Mozart’s most astonishing music; the overture and the penultimate scene are peerless, and many of the arias are Mozart at his finest. But at least for me, that doesn’t make up for gigantic dead spot in the middle of the opera. Between the end of the Champagne aria and the astounding finale lies a gaping chasm in which almost nothing happens. Narratively this section resembles nothing so much as a Bugs Bunny cartoon, with Don Giovanni and Leporello playing the Roadrunner to everyone else’s Wile E. Coyote, escaping their clutches in evermore implausible ways. With the exception of Zerlina and Masetto, there’s almost no character development. Leporello continues to threaten to leave Giovanni (but doesn’t), Elvira continues to be ambivalent, Donna Anna continues to seek vengeance, and Don Ottavio continues to moon over Donna Anna while we’re all twiddling our thumbs, waiting for the Commendatore to show up.

Perhaps this historical baggage and these dramatic flaws are what inspires so many strange productions of Don Giovanni which, for all its many faults, is still a musical masterwork. Even in traditional versions such as the current Met production (designed by Michael Grandage), the various elements of the opera seem to sit uncomfortably with each other. At least that was true of this afternoon’s broadcast, which felt like a whirlwind of slapstick comedy, high tragedy, melodramatic romance, and morality play all at once, despite the uniformity of set, costumes, staging, etc

Part of this came from the interpretations of the singers. Malin Byström’s Donna Elvira was right out of Baroque tragedy. With twisted lips, outstretched arms, and a ramrod straight spine, she stormed about the stage, commanding attention with her strident voice* and blazing eyes. For all that it was somewhat jarring, I appreciated Byström’s approach, which is supported by the score. Elvira is deliberately written to sound like a figure out of the older opera seria style, that is, old-fashioned. Her jerky rhythms and sudden outbursts resemble no one so much as the various incarnations of the Baroque favorite femme fatale Armida. Donna Elvira is a difficult character; I always want to sympathize with her, but her music is so strange in context that I have trouble finding her emotional wavelength. Byström’s stylized performance was so over-the-top that I felt free to see her as Mozart saw her: as someone out of place and trying to navigate a strange world in which she didn’t understand the rules.

Simon Keenlyside and Malin Byström as Don Giovanni and Donna Elvira

If Byström seemed like a figure out of Handel, Hibla Gerzmava (Donna Anna), Serena Malfi (Zerlina), and Paul Appleby (Don Ottavio) overshot Mozart and ended up in a Verdi opera. All three have big voices, which worked really well for the more dramatic moments. Gerzmava in particular was devastating in “Or sai chi l’onore” and the moments leading up to it, and most of “Non mi dir” was similarly wrenching. But occasionally her tone drifted from silky to fuzzy, and she struggled with some of the passage work at the end of her second aria. I get the feeling both she and Malfi are used to a stronger orchestral foundation; they both oversang and times, and some of their high notes came out a little too forcefully for Mozart. Malfi has a gloriously rich and creamy voice, but I’m not sure it’s suited to such an innocent character. Paul Appleby’s tenor is all glow and power, but lacks nuance. He has a good dynamic range, but he has yet to develop the subtler shades of his voice. But he’s young, and I’ve liked what I’ve seen from him thus far, and I look forward to seeing how he progresses.

Paul Appleby and Hibla Gerzmava as Don Ottavio and Donna Anna

Three singers did remember that this was Mozart: Adam Plachetka (Leporello), Matthew Rose (Masetto), and of course the veteran Don Giovanni Simon Keenlyside. Both Plachetka and Rose were delightful. Most of the humor in Don Giovanni comes from Leporello, so Plachetka played up the loveable loser side of the character, and didn’t let him descend into a nastier, less charming version of the Don (which I’ve seen happen before). His voice is flexible and expressive, and he was not afraid to throw in a little growl and swoop for comic effect. Rose played Masetto as a somewhat clumsy but ultimately loveable simpleton, which is a nice change from the way he’s usually portrayed (oafish, boorish, and prone to violence). Keenlyside was right at home in Don Giovanni’s skin. He resisted the urge to smirk his way through the role, as many younger Don Giovanni’s do, but rather swung from boyish delight to devastatingly charming without making it seem like he was playing two different characters. His tone is sweet as syrup and smooth as glass, which is perfect for Mozart’s most affable monster. I think he may have replaced Peter Mattei as my go-to Don Giovanni.

All and all, the performance resembled the opera itself: some profound flaws but also some extraordinary high-points. Maybe one day a director and a cast will solve Don Giovanni, but until then I look forward to more companies attempting that Herculean task.

*Unfortunately I couldn’t fine a clip of her singing Donna Elvira, so her Donna Anna will have to do.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Too Good for This World: Roberto Devereux Review

Will someone please write an opera for Mariusz Kwiecień that gives him a good solid chance at getting the girl? The man is beautiful, charismatic, and he has one of the most infectious grins this side of Tom Cruise, but because he had the misfortune to be born a baritone, you only see it in the backstage interviews. Instead, he spends most of his onstage time as the sidekick, or moping, or being generally sketchy. You know, normal baritone stuff. Most recently you can find him prowling around the stage of the Met as the Duke of Nottingham in the company’s premier of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, and it’s more of the same; he fights with the tenor, glowers at the ingénue, and throws his lot in with the wrong person. But while he has a grand, booming quality to his voice, he also has a silkier side that would be wonderful in a romantic hero. With that voice and that smile, you just can’t help but root for him, even when he’s playing the heel.

Kwiecień offstage
Kwiecień offstage with Elīna Garanča
While I’m at it, I might as well ask for a part for Matthew Polenzani, who played the title character. He’s apparently good friends with Kwiecień, and that chemistry comes out in their performances together. Although Nottingham dominates their only real duet in Roberto Devereux, Polenzani remained an intense presence on the stage, reflecting and refracting Kwiecień’s tortured performance back at him to create beautiful dramatic moment. Polenzani’s voice is nothing to sniff at either; he has a nice clarity in his sound, but isn’t overly bright like many of the current crop of bel canto tenors. He also doesn’t lose his polish in more intimate moments, which is crucial to this introspective opera. This isn’t the best I’ve heard him, but he’s been sick, so all things considered today’s performance was pretty impressive.

Operatic best buddies Mariusz Kwiecień and Matthew Polenzani

Sondra Radvanovsky would make a great villain in this hypothetical opera. Although this is my first experience with her, I’ve heard that she’s a somewhat polarizing figure. I can understand why; she combines Joyce DiDonato’s acidity with Deborah Voigt’s rough edges for a sound that is more powerful than beautiful, but it is a good match for the role of the aging Queen Elizabeth. That striking tone and pinpoint dynamic control coming out of that bloody red gash of a mouth (props to whoever was in charge of make-up, by the way) made for a grotesque take on the character, which was enhanced by her lurching gate and trembling hands. This was Radvanovsky’s show all the way—the final jewel in the operatic triple crown that is Donizetti’s ‘Tudor Queens’ trilogy, and she relished every moment of it. I’d be a little wary of her Anna Bolena (the first of the trilogy) given that role is more innocent, and I’m not sure how much I would like her in her more usual Verdi and Puccini roles, but Elizabeth is a role she seems born to play.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Queen Elizabeth
You might as well round out this cast with mezzo Elīna Garanča, who played Sarah, Elizabeth’s rival for the love of Devereux, and the unfortunate wife of Nottingham. Garanča has a gorgeously rich tone that doesn’t vary much, but is complex enough that she blends well with a variety of voices. Her romantic duet with Polenzani brought out the glossier side of her sound, while standing against the raging Kwiecień the depth of her tone emphasized the nobility and strength in the character. Her voice is a mite heavy for bel canto, but with such a lush sound I didn’t mind.

Oh what the heck, we might as well get Sir David McVicar to design and direct. I’ve always admired his ability to keep up the intensity in relatively slow moving operas, and that goes double for bel canto, which is possibly the slowest kind of opera. He also has the ability to keep everything period-appropriate without getting too stale. Roberto Devereux is a pretty angry opera, which McVicar and his design team brought out with a filigreed black and gold set and heavy brocade fabrics in black and burgundy, set against pale faces and elaborate wigs. The costumes in particular were spectacular, and clothing Sarah in cooler greens and blues against the rest of the cast was a welcome change, and made me want to see her as much as every other character in the opera just for relief from the heavy atmosphere.

The reason I hope someone writes this new opera is that, despite the terrific cast and the luxurious  production, I didn’t care this one. Admittedly, Roberto Devereux had an uphill battle to win me over given how much I dislike bel canto in general, but there are a few that have made me come around. This wasn’t one of them. The music was nice enough, but there was very little about it that was memorable. There were no surprises, no show-stopping moments, no flash or bang, just a steady plod through a predictable story with characters who aren’t particularly compelling. This may be the fault of Maestro Maurizio Benini, who lingered in some beautiful cantabilés, but rushed the caballettas which meant the singers didn’t have much a chance to show off their passage work, but I think it goes deeper than that; Roberto Devereux is your average bel canto opera, no more or less, and I just don’t find that very interesting. Usually I need a moment or two to recenter myself after the end of these broadcasts, but after this one I just got in my car, drove off, and turned on the baseball game with no emotional transition needed, and that says something.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Just in Time for Cherry Blossoms: Madama Butterfly Review

I can’t be sure, but I think the last time I saw Madama Butterfly was about fifteen years ago. I was in my early- or mid-teens and it was put on by the defunct Baltimore Opera Company. I was probably with my cousin, and we were sponsored by my maternal grandmother, who for several years got us subscriptions to fan the embers of our budding love of opera. Although I will be forever grateful to my grandmother for those trips, I seem to remember not liking Butterfly very much. I have hazy memories of the love duet, the flower duet, and the final tableau, with the singer playing Butterfly collapsed in a striking heap of fabric on the stage, but a patina of “boring” and “sexist” hangs over these dim recollections. Since then, Butterfly has remained one of those big warhorses that I learned early on but haven’t had a chance to revisit, although I admit I haven’t tried very hard.

I couldn’t ask for a better production or a better cast as a re-introduction to this opera. The late Anthony Minghella’s 2006 staging combines traditional Japanese theatre like Bunraku with the modern Western sensibilities, resulting in a veritable ballet of fans, silk, and the most gloriously expressive puppets I’ve ever seen. The diaphanous fabrics were dimly reflected in the mirrored stage and overhang, lending a hazy, dream-like atmosphere to the opera, like an abstract water-color painting come to life. The staging of the Act I love duet was absolutely magical, as cherry blossoms fluttered down from the rafters and a corps of dancers circled and swept around the couple with paper lanterns that bathed the stage in a saffron glow. 

Set by Michael Levine, costumes by Han Feng
I also liked the fact that much of the stage magic was accomplished not by technology as the Met is wont to do, but by these black-clad dancers and puppeteers. It made the setting come alive in deeply human way that is so important to this piece. Normally in exoticist opera, the score breathes life into the setting, whether it be the traditional folk songs in Turandot or the “Spanish” numbers in Carmen,* but with the exception of a few moments in the opening scenes (and the “Star-Spangled Banner” moment for Pinkerton), Butterfly’s score is pretty much standard-issue Puccini, and pretty languid Puccini at that. The dancers and puppeteers darting around the stage gave the opera a graceful fluidity.

Bunraku puppetry in Madama Butterfly

Minghella also had a meticulous attention to detail that extended from the mise-en-scène to the movement and blocking of the singers. The way the Japanese characters moved was markedly different than the American characters—their steps were smaller, they held their hands closer to their bodies, and their postures were not quite as loose. Operatic productions are built to be performed by a rotating cast of stars who swoop in, sing a few performances, and sweep out, often with little to no rehearsel, so details like movement can get lost, but it wasn’t just house regulars like Maria Zifchak (Suzuki) and Dwayne Croft (Sharpless) who were faithful to Minghella’s original direction (which Zifchak and Croft spoke about in the backstage interviews); even headliner Kristine Opolais, who came to this staging after Minghella died, adopted the same physicality, speaking to its importance in this staging.

The cast was also well-suited to this opera. Opolais sang Cio-Cio-San (aka Butterfly) with a soft, clear tone that brought out the character’s extreme youth and naiveté. She used none of the dark polish I heard in her worldly Manon two years ago, instead opting for a headier, slightly flutier sound. That delicate touch made “Un bel di” shimmer with a devastating artlessness, and the flower duet similarly glowed with tragic innocence, although I wish she’d let a little more earthiness into the more dramatic moments like “Ah! M’ha scordata.” Her utter lack of guile made also made the love duet a little creepy, particularly given Roberto Alagna’s appropriately oafish performance as Pinkerton. Although this is one of the great romantic moments in all of opera, it is worth remembering that Cio-Cio-San is a) only fifteen and b) essentially being sold to him. Despite the stunning fantasy of the staging, I felt my skin crawl a little bit.

Speaking of Alagna, I think this might be the only role he can sing. His technique is sloppy, his tuning is hit-or-miss at best, and he has no ability to sing softer than mezzo-forte, but all that helps make his Pinkerton deeply unlikable, which is exactly what that character should be. He steamrolled his way through “Dovunque al mondo”—Puccini and conductor Karel Mark Chichon be damned—just as Pinkerton clumsily tramples all over Japan, destroying Cio-Cio-San in the process. His hammy acting that so annoyed me in Aida worked with well with this quintessential ugly American.

Kristine Opolais and Roberto Alagna during the love duet
So a beautiful production and stellar performances all-around, but could it convince me to like the opera? Unfortunately, not really. Maybe it’s just my mental space these days, or some bad pacing on Chichon’s part, but with the exception of “Un del di” and the end of the flower duet, I just don’t like the score. It lacks the contrast of its closest cousins: Turandot has the austere cruelty of “In questa reggia” and the show-stopping thriller that is “Nessun dorma” amidst all that pentatonicism, Aida has the patriotic fervor of “O patria mia” set against the romantic “Celeste Aida” and strange mysticism of all those temple scenes, and even La Bohème (which I admittedly don’t like) has Musetta and Marcello to give us some relief from Rudolfo and Mimi. But with the exception of Pinkerton’s first aria and the wedding scene, Butterfly is all droopy Puccinian lyricism from start to finish. Then there’s the story, which I wouldn’t even call it tragic; it’s not dramatic enough to be tragic. There are no boiling passions or raging fits of love, jealously, or all the other over-the-top emotions you typically find in opera. Instead, the audience is put in the position of Sharpless right from the beginning—we’ve seen a million Pinkertons wreck the lives of a million Cio-Cio-Sans, and we’re resigned to the fact that there’s nothing we can do to prevent it from happening again. The whole thing is just deeply, inexorably, relentlessly, and stupidly sad, which is difficult for me to sit through.

Maybe in another fifteen years I’ll feel differently, but for now this one is going back in my “big warhorses I don’t particularly like” box.

*The habañera is actually a Cuban genre, but never mind.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Firestorm: The Pearl Fishers Review

This marks the second time in a row I’ve gone into a production of a “lesser” opera by one of the great composers with some trepidation, and the second time I’ve come away completely converted. It isn’t always so; there’s a reason Manon Lescaut only gets trotted out when a major star gets interested in the piece, but La Bohème usually shows up at least once a season at the Met. Then again, there are also long-forgotten works that have been reduced to one or two famous numbers in the popular consciousness that deserve to be dusted off and placed on the shelf beside their more famous contemporaries. Long overshadowed by its younger sister Carmen, the Met has decided that after 100 years, it was time to give Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers another look.

And what a look they’ve given it. Penny Woolcock’s gritty new production is bound to become a classic of the repertory. Woolcock’s rickety shanties and watery projections brought out the complex relationship between the villagers and nature; the placid ocean provides their livelihood, but it can also destroy everything at any moment. Playing the part of the ocean were Maestro Gianandrea Noseda and the Met orchestra, who fashioned a swirling maelstrom of an opera out of Bizet’s characteristically lush writing. Bizet’s music sparkles like the sun on the water one moment, only to roar into a raging tsunami the next, and Noseda rode every wave perfectly.

Dick Birds set of grungy corrugated metal and Kevin Pollard’s modern costumes were a stark contrast to Noseda’s tempestuous conducting, and drew attention to the yawning chasm between Bizet’s fantasies and the reality of life in the east. As the opening chorus sang of black-eyed girls with flowing tresses dancing the late into the evening, Woolcock had the villagers making fishing nets and offerings to the priestess in direct contradiction of the libretto, highlighting the painfully out-of-date exoticism of the opera. Although I’m still a little uncomfortable with white singers playing characters of color, I recognize it’s necessary at this stage (although it does mean we should do a better job supporting singers of other races), and the nod to the gap between the orientalist imaginary and the actual existence of global poverty was well-placed.

Penny Woolcocks production

Against the grime, the elemental passion of the story was as fierce as the forces of nature threatening the village. It’s a classic operatic love triangle; village leader Zurga is head-over-heals in love with the mysterious priestess Leïla, but she only has eyes for his best buddy Nadir. In a twist on the formula, the tenor Nadir is the one who proves treacherous, betraying his solemn oath to Zurga to stay away from Leïla for the sake of their friendship. This makes Zurga far more sympathetic than most operatic baritones, and indeed, it is he who ultimately proves the hero of the story. The fervent prayers of the villages punctuate this romantic tangle, producing the perfect mix of spirituality and sensuality in the score. It’s everything you could possibly want from an opera: fantastic settings, rousing choruses, boiling passions, and some of the most beautiful orchestration out there.

I suspect this opera is good enough musically that a production could survive less than stellar performances from the leads, but fortunately that was not an issue. Mariusz Kwiecień as Zurga, Matthew Polenzani as Nadir, and Diana Damrau as Leïla were all magnificent. All three sides of the triangle were drenched in chemistry from the very beginning. The smoldering rendition of that most famous of operatic bromances “Au fond du temple saint” was achingly beautiful, and so throbbing with passion that and I half expected Polenzani and Kwiecień to make out at the end. Polenzani’s radiant tenor matched Damrau’s fluttery soprano perfectly in their two duets, and when Kwiecień finally got his paws on Damrau in Act III, they practically set the stage alight.

Each also got their own moment to shine. Polenzani blazed his way through a swashbuckling performance, delivering his first aria—a rousing tale of adventure, complete with tiger wrestling—with a radiant bravado that distracted me from just how much of a heel Nadir actually is. I wasn’t quite as happy with the more lyrical “Je crois entendre encore,” which sounded a little vocally dull, but that pianissimo high c at the end was perfect. Damrau is quite a bargain at three singers in one: a coloratura, lyric, and dramatic soprano. Her effervescent passage-work in “Oh Dieu Brahma!” was flawless, but the second act calls not for shimmer and fizz, but tunefulness and grace, which she provided in spades. In the third act she displayed more depth and shadow in her voice than I’ve ever heard from her, which makes me wonder if she might be the one to take up the mantle of Lulu now that Marlis Petersen has retired—she certainly has the vocal flexibility and musicality for the role.
Diana Damrau and Matthew Polenzani as Leïla and Nadir
If the first act belonged to the dashing Polenzani, the second to the chameleonic Damrau, the third act was all Kwiecień. Under that perpetual baritonal scowl lies a voice as smooth as silk and as powerful as a hurricane. Zurga is a difficult role dramatically speaking; he has to move from regret to rage to shock to desperation over the course of a single (relatively short) act, an arc that encompasses more emotions than some characters get in entire opera. Kwiecień, however, was utterly convincing. His voice was like liquid gold in “O Nadir, tendre ami,” but turned into molten lava during “Je suis jaloux,” and his interpretation of the emotionally and spiritually ravaged character in the finale was one of the finest pieces of operatic acting I’ve ever seen.
Mariusz Kwiecień as Zurga

The Met has asked a lot its HD audiences so far this season. Aside from the season-opening romp through Il Trovatore, we’ve had Bartlett Sher’s psychologically dense (if disappointing) Otello, Otto Schenk’s archaic slog through Tannhäuser, and William Kentridge’s extraordinary but challenging Lulu. We (or at least I) needed an old-fashioned, pulpy, pot-boiling romance, and Pearl Fishers hit the spot perfectly.