Monday, December 27, 2010

A Tale of Two Conductors

Conducting calls attention to itself when it is truly awful or excellent. This week two different conductors in two quite different houses employed their batons equally effectively for two very different operas. On Monday at the Met, Simon Rattle did battle and totally conquered Debussy’s dense orchestration of Pélleas and Mélisande. The score totally “made sense” as he brought out the shimmering harmonies and textures; thick velvety strings underpinned snatches of nascent melodies from the winds. The harp was properly ethereal. Altogether one felt the mystery of the inexplicable story. It is a strange tale; the symbolism is murky and no motivation is given for the characters’ behavior. Several themes kept reappearing: darkness vs. light, hair falling down, arms reaching up (and down), aquatic bodies (fountain, pond, and swamp). But there is nothing that a psychoanalyst could make sense of. Perhaps a mystic could.

The singing was glorious and the acting seemed fine in view of the fact that nothing is comprehensible. Much credit to Magdalena Kozena, Stéphane Degout and Gerald Finley who did their best to make the characters sympathetic. But more credit to Maestro Rattle for making the score tell the tale. In light of its Medieval nature, the late Victorian costuming appears inapposite, although Mélisande’s wig was perfect; she looked like Rapunzel and even when Golaud tried to drag her around by the hair, the wig stayed on her head. The set was ugly and anachronistic, revolving like the rooftop restaurant of the Holiday Inn in Southfield Michigan. There was much talk of being in a dark forest with lots of trees but the set had only one skinny little specimen; the forest scene from Don Carlo was better by far. The pond where Mélisande meets Golaud is devoid of water. The lighting in the last scene seem to indicate the sun setting in two directions. Clearly they were not going for realism here. But the furniture in the castle was quite realistic, going for an “Upstairs, Downstairs” look with lots of uniformed servants and chandeliers, not to mention parquet floors where rough-hewn stone would have served better.

On Tuesday Christopher Fecteau gave a luminous reading of a Humperdinck opera; he apparently made a reduction of the score for a chamber group of seven musicians who must have rehearsed quite a bit to have everything sound so distinct yet so unified. “Königskinder” lacks the singable melodies of “Hänsel und Gretel” and the story is a tragic one, definitely not one for the kiddies. The Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble was wise in their choice of this gem and must be admired for giving New York the opportunity to hear an opera absent from New York stages for nearly a century. The Lynch Theater at John Jay College is a good size for chamber opera. Costumes, set and staging were of the bare bones variety and I would decline to comment on the singing with the exception of soprano Katherine Wessinger who was a most affecting Goose Girl. Her flock of geese were imaginatively created by the four arms of two performers. She and Maestro Fecteau ensured that it was a most well-spent evening. Let’s have more chamber opera in New York City!

-- Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Music cures a stammer

I went to see the exquisite film 'The King's Speech' last night. Yes, on Christmas. Ok, so let's be super honest here. We (my mother and I) actually went to see 'Little Fockers' but as it finished we realized that 'The King's Speech' was just starting at the next theater... so we ducked in and stole a couple seats down front.

If you haven't seen it yet, and it just came out so you may well not have, run to the cinema now. Of course most young women know Colin Firth (who plays King George VI, or "Bertie") from his portrayal of Darcy in "Pride and Prejudice" or perhaps as Mark Darcy in "Bridget Jones's Diary." This is an acting challenge of some significant measure, and he carries it off brilliantly.

Early on in the film Bertie makes his first visit to see Lionel Logue (played superbly by Geoffrey Rush), an Australian-born speech therapist, and wanna-be actor. He despairs as his stammer continues throughout the session. Logue asks him to put on some earphones and recite Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech into a microphone that is recording his own voice. Into the earphones Logue projects music. What music, you ask? Nothing less than the overture to "Le nozze di Figaro." Of course it could have been any music at all, but perhaps the undoubtedly familiar tunes of that music would have made Bertie feel more comfortable than a piece of music with which he might have been less familiar with. I had to smile as the music swelled and of course we later find out that he has spoken the words of Hamlet eloquently and without fault because his mind was occupied with rather more agreeable things than worrying about his stammer.

If you have a spare moment this Boxing Day, or coming into the New Year's Eve long weekend (for some of you at least I hope) do make a visit to your local cinema to see this riveting film.

Friday, December 24, 2010

A new heavenly constellation

Yes! And the sun is Thomas Bagwell, one of the most sensitive piano partners in the firmament. Under the auspicious auspices (Yikes!) of the Lotte Lehmann Foundation, the divine Mr. B. presented the first of a series of three art song recitals at Christ and St. Stephen’s Church, not far from Lincoln Center. I have already entered the dates for the next two on my calendar and so should you! NOW! March 13th and May 15th.

Soprano Martha Guth lent her full-throated soprano to some lovely Schubert songs, one of which was actually new to me and quite moving...”Die Abgebluhte Linde”. The poet writes of time passing, changes and aging. The gardener still loves the tree even when the west wind has stolen her blossoms.

Baritone Jonathan Michie (previously praised in a prior review for his performance in Santa Fe as the Vicar in “Albert Herring”) gave us some stirring interpretations of Schumann songs. I was particularly impressed by his “Widmung” and “Die Beiden Grenadiere”.

I was pleased to hear a composer previously unknown to me, the 19th c. German Peter Cornelius. I hope to hear more of his songs someday. His contribution to the program comprised two love duets. The voices of the two singers blended beautifully.

The second half of the program included a song cycle by a contemporary American composer Stephen Paulus, who was in attendance at the recital. He chose to set poetry by Kooser. His piano writing was completely evocative of the loneliness and isolation of the poetry. I could hear the dog barking and the snowflakes falling. Nonetheless, I could not find anything to hold onto in the vocal writing. A Frost poem set by Juhi Bansal produced the same feeling, as did the Tom Cipullo songs. If you have read my prior columns, you already know I am a melody person. I keep trying to like contemporary art songs but I would just as soon listen to the piano part with an actor reading the poetry. Or not.

Fortunately for my well-being, the evening ending with a charming duet by Brahms (now there’s a tune for ya’!) and another duet by Mrs. Amy Beach entitled “A Canadian Boat Song”, a setting of a poem by the 18th c. Irish poet Thomas Moore. How wonderful to leave a recital having been exposed to something new that you actually like! And how wonderful that there are people working to keep the art song tradition alive. Viva Thomas Bagwell and the Lotte Lehmann Foundation!

--Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider

Monday, December 20, 2010


“Yo, Pollo, whazzup?”

“I told ya’ Frank, call me Willy, and I’mma major bored.”

“Ya just tired of blowing smoke rings, huh?”

“Any ideas Frank?”

“Let’s write an opera, WILLY. Let’s make the homies crazy like.”

“I’m in. What about?”

“Well, since the war, women aren’t having babies”.

“Right. They enjoyed working in the munitions factories too much.”

“Shut up! What if men had the babies?”

“Oh we wouldn’t have one or two at a time. We’d figure out a way to repopulate the world”.

“Keep goin’ dude.”

“So, we could turn the wife into a man and her husband could have lots of babies”.

“I love it. How would we stage that?”

“Hmmm. She could have balloons for boobs, tied on with a string, and she could cut the string and the boobs would float away!”

“Yeh, and we could put the husband in a dress”.

“We are amazing. We are righteous. We are THERE! We’ll have music schools producing this for generations to come. What’ll we call it?”

“How about...The Boobs of Berthe?”

“Nah, what about ….Les Mamelles de Tiresias? She starts out as Terese and becomes Tiresias. That’s got more class”.

“You are a genius!”

And so...Francis Poulenc and Guillaume Apollinaire came up with a totally outrageous but charming opera and Juilliard Opera gave it an appropriately wacky production. Set and costumes were perfect. Timothy J. McDevitt was a hoot as the husband in a dress (or his tutu was too-too) and Meredith Lustig was an adorable Therese. All roles were delightfully performed and Emma Griffin directed with consummate style. Who says opera isn’t fun???

--Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cosi fan tutti

That is not a misprint, tutti must include the men as well as the women who made this production at the Met a complete success. What great fortune and casting wisdom to have six superb singers onstage at the same time. Not only were they superb singers but they were also convincing actors who made this silly story believable and moving.

You see, we the audience are joining in the fun of the manipulative Don Alfonso (William Shimell) and disgruntled maid (Danielle de Niese). Only the four main characters are unhappy, confused and conflicted. Sisters Fiordiligi (Miah Persson) and Dorabella (Isabel Leonard) are tricked into cheating on their respective partners Guglielmo (Nathan Gunn) and Ferrando (Pavol Breslik) who have been “called off to battle”. And who do they cheat with? The same two guys disguised as Albanians (in this production, looking more like Berbers). It is to the credit of the performers and the production team that we can suspend disbelief. Persson and Leonard are quite believable as sisters reluctantly tempted to try out a new romance while their lovers are away. Gunn and Breslik are equally convincing as the two lovers--each alternatively enjoying the fun of trying to seduce the other’s beloved but horribly pained to learn that this own lover has promised herself to another.

It’s a crazy plot and I have never seen these 18th century hijinks made as believable as in this production. One is allowed to laugh along with Don Alfonso and Despina at the same time as one “feels the pain” of the four main characters who have so much to learn about life and love. Mozart and Da Ponte laid it all out for us with a worldly wise libretto and music that suits each character. Our ears are treated to the most gorgeous arias, duets and ensembles. We can hear foreshadowing of Donizetti’s frothy comedies and witness stock characters illuminated by the genius of Mozart and Da Ponte. These are people we can care about.

The sets place us squarely on the seaside of Naples with the two drafted military men sailing away on a most realistic boat. The color palette is washed out in the nature of a seaside community in sunlight. The costumes are gorgeous and authentic. And for once, the wigs are perfect; this is not always the case, therefore doubly appreciated.

Let us hope that the Met does not replace this charming production with some cinematic post-modernist monstrosity in the years to come.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Don of another color

Having given us a silly Don last month, the Met now gives us a tragic one--Verdi’s masterpiece Don Carlo based on Schiller’s play. Don Carlo (the crown prince) travels to France to get a glimpse of his intended bride, Elisabeth of Valois, daughter of the French King Henry. They meet cute in the forest of Fontainbleu after a shooting party, as the skies are darkening. Poor Elisabeth is frightened but Carlo volunteers to protect her, having identified himself as a messenger from the Spanish court. She is curious about her intended match and Carlo shows her a portrait of himself. Bingo! Both are instantly and deliriously in love. After their joyful duet all goes downhill. Canons announce a Franco-Spanish peace to be sealed by nuptials and the orchestra erupts with climactic bursts of sound. And who is wedding Elisabeth???? Surprise!

Carlo’s father has decided to take Elisabeth for his own bride, thus unleashing four more acts of friendship, sacrifice, betrayal, thwarted love, honor, rejection, self-delusion, disgrace, and an auto da fe. The four and a half hours fly by in waves of gorgeous melodies and apt orchestrations propulsively conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin. Horns are a constant presence and the entire brass section keeps our attention on red alert. There is no down time.

This is a more balanced casting than the one I saw some years ago that was dominated by the charismatic Dmitri Hvorostovsky. In this production the role of Rodrigo is sung by Simon Keenlyside who definitely could have put a bit more pizazz into the role. On the other hand, Roberto Alagna was everything he was supposed to be and more. I could completely believe him as the neglected and unloved son who cannot let go of the now-forbidden love for Elisabeth. Marina Poplavskaya is equally convincing as the honorable queen who is trying to do the right thing but carries her secret love in her heart and Carlo’s portrait in her jewel case. This leaves the door open for the jealous Princess of Eboli (ably interpreted by Anna Smirnova’s dusky mezzo) to betray her queen and to set in motion a chain of events that is tragic for everyone. Rodrigo has walked a fine line between loyalty to Philip, who has expressed gratitude for his support, and his loyalty to Carlo, born of friendship. He gives his life for Carlo but dies in vain. He never achieves his goal of freeing the beleaguered Flemish people from Philip’s tyranical rule, nor can he save Carlo from the envy and contempt of his father.

The surprising thing about the characterizations is that one can feel sympathy for each player in this sad tale. Philip is a lonely aging man despairing over his inability to win the love of his young queen. His aria (“Ella giammi m’amo”) is heartbreaking, particularly so as sung by Ferrucio Furlanetto who certainly has the “garlic”. He is terrified of losing power to Carlo and must ask the Grand Inquisitor for permission to kill him. The G.I. himself (in a terrific piece of acting and singing by Eric Halfvarson) is blind and feeble but wields unquestioned power over everyone. He assures Philip that he can sacrifice his son, Just as God sacrificed HIS son. The tragedy of living in a state of paranoia in a totalitarian nation is driven home over and over again.

The chorus was as potent as usual. I was pleased to recognize some favorite young singers onstage: Here is Layla Claire portraying Elisabeth’s page! Oh, and then there were Donovan Singletary and Christopher Schaldenbrand among the Flemish Deputies. That’s always fun.

So....dream casting, excellent performances, passionate conducting of gorgeous music and a stirring story. Can I find anything to complain about? Sure. The production seems threadbare and minimalistic and doesn’t add anything to the storytelling. The setting of the first act in the forest of Fontainebleu is the exception. We are in a cold snowy landscape with a visually arresting pathway snaking through; the chill is relieved when Carlo lights a (real) fire to warm Elisabeth. This works. But afterward we are frequently treated to bare walls with squares of color which I supposed were meant to look like shafts of light but looked to me like a geometry puzzle. The designers seem to favor a color palette of red, black and gold. In the Queen’s garden, the women of the court are dressed in black and wave red fans. This is visually compelling but steals drama from the Princess Eboli singing a song about a veiled woman deceiving her husband ( as in Nozze de Figaro) which foreshadows the veiled Princess Eboli herself appearing to Carlo. And what is that strange red piece of “street furniture”? It suggested to me either a wastecan or a portapotty. Well, at least the furniture didn’t sing so let’s give it a pass.