Saturday, April 30, 2011

Warhorses Expertly Ridden

There are reasons why middle-period Verdi is so popular with the opera-going public. The stories are larger than life, dare we say “operatic”. Verdi’s music propels the story sans longueurs and limns the characters in Shakespearean fashion. His melodies wraps themselves around our hearts and linger in our brains forever after for future savoring. We have intense arias that tell us what the characters are feeling, impassioned duets, complex ensembles and stirring choruses that comment on the action and fill in the backstory. What’s not to love?

We can enjoy these so-called warhorses when they are adequately sung, but when they are superbly cast and sung we are transported. As a Verdi lover I enjoyed back-to-back performances at the Met of Rigoletto and Il Trovatore. The Otto Schenk production of Rigoletto transports us to 16th c. Mantua with such respect for time and place that we forget we are in an opera house. Zack Brown’s sets and costumes appear completely authentic. One feels very protective of this 1989 production and hopes it won’t be discarded in favor of some post-modern deconstruction with the Duke being fellated onstage!

We are in a palace in the middle of a wild party attended by the degenerate courtiers of a licentious Duke (nicely sung, except for some strained notes in the upper register, by tenor Giuseppe Filianoti); he gets his jollies by seducing their wives. Misshapen in body and spirit, the humpbacked jester Rigoletto (sung with great intensity by baritone Zeljko Lucic) derives whatever power and status he has from the Duke. So when the Duke seduces the innocent young daughter he keeps hidden away (exquisitely performed by soprano Diana Damrau), he has no course but to plot his revenge. In this he is aided by the paid assassin Sparafucile (effectively sung by the powerful bass Stefan Kocan). He is defeated by the curse of Monterone, one of the courtiers he has insulted (sung by Quinn Kelsey). The very sexy sister and accomplice of Sparafucile was sung by rich-voiced mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera.

Under the baton of Fabio Luisi, the Met orchestra gave their all. From the very first theme of the overture sneaking in under the lively party music we know there is tragedy coming down the pike. We do love us some Verdi!

And we loved us some Verdi the following night when Marco Armiliato conducted a riveting performance of Il Trovatore. This was a different cast from the one reviewed several months ago and, admittedly, it is harder to hate the nasty Count di Luna when sung by the glamorous Dmitri Hvorostovsky than it was when Lucic sang. It is a testament to his ability to act with his beautiful baritone that we can accept him as a villain. And it is a testament to the tender tenor arias of Marcelo Alvarez in the role of Manrico that we can accept Leonora choosing him over the sexy DH. Sondra Radvanovsky has a big beautiful soprano that fills up the entire house and we just love her wherever and whenever. Dolora Zajick makes a compelling gypsy Azucena. That generous bass of Stefan Kocan reappears as Ferrando who is responsible for introducing the backstory in the opening scene. More credit to him for making this implausible story comprehensible.

The revolving set is grey and spare, serving as castle wall, interior and prison. Only the gypsy camp has visual interest as a setting for the famous Anvil chorus, stirringly sung by the estimable Met chorus and amply decorated by some bare-chested men swinging the anvils. Eye candy for us ladies! David Vicar’s production is only two years old and one expects it to be around for awhile.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Thursday, April 28, 2011

SATB Spells Delight

There is something incredibly fulfilling about four voices in perfect harmony and that is exactly what filled the air in Carnegie Hall Monday night when soprano Sylvia Schwartz, mezzo Bernarda Fink, tenor Michael Schade and bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff lent their voices to a performance of Brahms’ romantic Liebeslieder-Walzer composed in the late 1860s and the somewhat darker Neue Liebeslieder-Walzer composed in the early 1870’s. The second cycle of songs were purportedly affected by the young Brahms learning that Clara Schumann’s nubile daughter, for whom he nursed an attraction, was elsewhere engaged.

Both cycles include songs about every aspect of loving. And did those singers ever love those songs! Their rapture spilled over the stage and into the audience who appeared enthralled. Ms. Schwartz was particularly moving in “An jeder Hand die Finger” and the following “Rosen steckt mir an die Mutter”. “O die Frauen” allowed Mr. Schade and Mr. Quasthoff to harmonize beautifully and the female voices did likewise with “Vögelein durchrauscht die Luft”. All four voices came together for the charming “Ein kleiner hübscher Vogel”.

We were also gifted with Robert Schumann’s Spanische Liebeslieder composed in 1849. Especially remarkable were the paired but separated songs “O wie lieblich ist das Mädchen” and “Weh, wie zornig ist das Mädchen” performed by Mr. Schade with great style and drama. The program also included some other lesser known quartets by Brahms.

Mr. Quasthoff contributed some amusing off-the-cuff comments and introduced the two encores which comprised his favorite “folk songs” which were absolutely ravishing in their deceptive simplicity. He seemed to enjoy himself enormously, particularly when exercising the bass end of his range. He and Mr. Schade are well known to New York audiences but, if the lovely ladies have sung in New York, I am sorry I missed them. And I strongly hope they will grace our welcoming stages once again.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Friday, April 22, 2011

Enough Fluff - Le Comte d'Ory at the Met

The exuberant costumes by Catherine Zuber engaged my eye and my ear was charmed by the vocally perfect performances of the charming soprano Diana Damrau, the equally charming tenor Juan Diego Florez and the delightful mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. So why the tedium? Was it the lackluster conducting of Maestro Maurizio Benini or, dare I say this, could it be that this is not Rossini at his best? Quite a bit of the music was recycled from his piece d’occasion Il Viaggio a Reims. It was said in the program notes that the French language does not lend itself to the florid vocal ornamentation as does Italian. This is simple to understand, but to this pair of ears, there was ornamentation aplenty.

Perhaps it is simply the case of an uninspiring libretto by Eugene Scribe et al. Not much happens here. The licentious Comte Ory is bent on seducing women, but particularly the desirable Countess Adele who is cloistered in her castle while her brother is off in the Holy Land to fight in the Crusades. In Act I he disguises himself as an hermit in a ridiculous beard; in Act II he disguises himself as a nun, along with a troop of knights in similar garb. Disguises are usually fun. One thinks of the Count in Il Barbiere di Siviglia disguising himself as a drunken soldier and as a music teacher. Somehow in that opera there is a lot going on. There are lots of funny characters doing outrageous things and getting into much mischief. But in “Le Comte Ory” it just didn’t tickle my funny bone.

In the penultimate scene the Count winds up in the Countess Adele’s bed along with his rival, his page Isolier, sung ardently by Joyce DiDonato, quite convincing in a pants role. This reads pretty funny but the scene was clumsily handled, even for comedy. Perhaps the direction was flawed. Perhaps it looks better on HD. The audience laughed; was it embarrassment? In this day of casual menages a trois this fully clothed trio did not strike me as amusing at all.

There were some arresting musical moments, especially at the climax of Act I when Rossini gives us an a cappella septet. Secondary roles who added their voices to the mix were Susanne Resmark as the Countess’s companion, Stephane Degout as the Count’s buddy, and Michele Pertusi as his tutor, all roles well sung.

The “concept” of Bartlett Sher’s production was to present the opera with the accoutrements of a 19th c. production. Chandeliers were hand-cranked in emulation of the Met’s own chandeliers. The audience was able to glimpse what goes on backstage before the opera itself begins. This was mildly interesting. As mentioned above the costumes for the women were spectacular, sticking largely to a rosy palette but varying in period. I spied some Empire gowns and lots of 18th c. ones. Extravagant head dresses suggested the Middle Ages.

It appeared that quite a bit of money went into designing and casting this opera. It seems to me that the money could have been better spent on a different opera. There are so many excellent operas languishing for want of discovery!

-- (c) Meche Kroop for The Opera Insider

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Masterpiece Theater

It’s a hit, it is, Stephen Schwartz’ “Seance on a Wet Afternoon” at New York City Opera. If you love opera, go see it. If you don’t love opera, go see it. It could change your mind. So much contemporary opera is tedious and you only go because the critics make much of them (not this critic); you go and TRY to get involved but leave feeling empty and quite sure you never want to see them again. Sometimes the story is a good one but the music doesn’t add anything; worse yet, it detracts. Vocal lines are missing in action and sung dialogue sounds pretentious.

Not so here. Mr. Schwartz’ music, conducted by the reliable George Manahan, will make your ears happy with its compelling melodies and rich orchestration. Characters actually have arias that underscore their emotions. Even the sprechstimme and sung dialogue follows the rhythms of the English language, convincing me that perhaps English is not as unsingable as I suspected. Moreover, it does its job of emphasizing the psychological undercurrents and painting with sympathy some pretty monstrous characters. The libretto was adapted by Schwartz from a 1964 British film which was, in turn, based on a 1961 novel by Mark McShane. It is a disturbing psychological thriller about a talented medium who yearns for greater recognition and involves her devoted husband in a horrifying plan.

As performed by the incomparable soprano Lauren Flanigan, this pathetic and monstrous woman, so needful of love and devotion, is made completely believable and worthy of our sympathy. LIkewise baritone Kim Josephson fills out the character of the husband so we care equally for him as he vacillates between his desire to please his wife and his weakening moral sense. Tenor Todd Wilander and soprano Melody Moore turn in fine performances as a concerned set of parents. Children Bailey Grey and Michael Kepler perform their roles without a shred of self-consciousness. A chorus of journalists is introduced by jazzier music.

The story moves along briskly, thanks to the nimble direction of Scott Schwarz, son of the composer, who directed the work at its Santa Barbara premiere a year and a half ago. A most attractive and functional set was designed by Heidi Ettinger. Set behind a curtain of chains is a revolving two-story Victorian townhouse in San Francisco. We have visual access to living room, kitchen, foyer and bedroom. David Lander provided eerily effective lighting. Seances took place in front of the chain curtain. Costumes by Alejo Vietti were completely appropriate to the early 60’s.

It seems clear that Mr. Schwarz the elder, composer of such musical theater hits as “Godspell”, “Pippin” and “Wicked” has used his extensive Broadway experience to create a work that thrills and entertains but is never shallow. May he write many more such works for our delight. Get thee to New York City Opera without delay. You snooze you lose.

(c)meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Ridiculous Trumps Sublime

Two operatic experiences this week left me with radically different feelings. The very worthy production of the very worthy Wozzeck left me feeling empty and depressed. The man in the balcony box next to me said it is his favorite opera; Maestro Levine loves this opera and conducted with verve and enthusiasm that belied his physically compromised condition; an opera-loving friend of mine tells me that over the years she has come to appreciate it. But it isn’t something she would choose to listen to at home, nor would I. It is rare for me to miss my Saturday afternoon worship at the shrine of the Met Saturday broadcasts but I did.

One cannot fault the casting or vocal performances. Venerable baritone Alan Held turned in a truly dedicated performance as the titular (anti)hero while the estimable Waltraud Meier did the same as Marie, Wozzeck’s common-law wife. Wozzeck is the troubled soldier living in penury and exploited by his captain, sung by tenor Gerhard Siegel and humiliated by the doctor, sung by bass Walter Fink. The playwright Georg Buchner, on whose play the libretto is based, would have us believe that these conditions, amplified by Marie’s infidelity, culminated in Wozzeck’s madness. To me it seems that other soldiers survived similar conditions and that Wozzeck was off the wall from the start. He is a pitiable creature in either case but not someone a member of the audience can identify with, at least not this member.

Berg’s twelve-tone music is devoid of melody and tonality, a turn I wish classical music had never taken. It falls harshly on the ears; perhaps it is meant for the brain and not the heart.

Sets and costumes by Robert Israel are appropriate to the period, drab and spare. Direction by Gregory Keller is apt in this Mark Lamos production which one could call passionate and dramatic but not enjoyable.

Now, what about the second experience? Never having seen Oscar Straus’ (not from the famous Strauss family) “The Chocolate Soldier”, and fearing never having another opportunity, we dragged ourselves up to The Liederkranz Opera Theatre on a miserably rainy night. We arrived wet, windblown and grumpy and we left smiling and happy. No one famous sang and the “orchestra” comprised a piano and percussionist (Ben Krauss and Luke Short). The room is most unsuitable to operatic performance and the sightlines are apalling.

So how to account for the joyous feeling? For starters, Mr. Strauss wisely used Shaw’s “Arms and the Man” as a source for the libretto by Rudolf Bernauer and Leopold Jacobson. That’s almost as good as using Shakespeare. The libretto has been adapted into English by Philip A. Kraus and Gregory Opelka with further adaptation and revision by Elizabeth Hastings, the musical director of the Liederkranz Opera Theater. Having enjoyed her work in the past, I have a feeling that she is responsible for much of the success. The libretto hews rather closely to the play until the end, but the departure is not significant in terms of making the point that in making romantic choices, women are often dazzled by appearance and reputation and need to be shaken out of their poor choices. In this case the foolish woman is Nadine, daughter of the Bulgarian Colonel Popoff, who is engaged to the pompous conceited Major Spiridoff but eventually won by a Swiss mercenary in the Serbian army, with whom the Bulgarians are at war.

It is 1885, a period remote by a quarter century from the time this operetta was composed, which is an entire century removed from today’s audience, but the work is presented with sincerity and totally without irony, so we believe it 100%. The performers all did justice to their roles but special mention must be made of Nicholas Wuehrmann who convincingly seduced all three women in the household and thereby the audience. Charlotte Detrick sang Nadina and Mascha portrayed her flirtatious naughty cousin Mascha (a servant in the original play) with style, charm and a clear bright soprano. Papa Popoff was sung by C. David Morrow who injected generous humor into his portrayal. Mama Aurelia was sung by Barbara LeMay who sang well but appeared too young and beautiful to have a marriageable daughter.

A troupe of Keystone Kop-like soldiers were led by Captain Massakroff, sung by Cory Clines, and hilariously choreographed by Roberta Cooper. In spite of a tiny stage, the direction by Corin Hollifield made everything work. The only fault one could find was the timing of the second intermission which left the third act with nothing but a denouement.

Now, what about the music? It is lavishly tuneful and completely satisfying. What more could one want? Although my preference is for German, the English worked extremely well with the music. There were many similarities to works by Gilbert and Sullivan with clever rhymes in abundance. Altogether a most satisfying performance. I’ll take the ridiculous over the sublime.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Friday, April 15, 2011

One Man's Caprice - Capriccio at the Met

Merriam Webster defines “caprice” as something sudden, impulsive, unmotivated and unpredictable. Does Strauss’ cleverly thought out, well-reasoned and predictable opera named “Capriccio” meet those criteria? Not! Better they should have stuck with the title “Prima la musica, poi le parole”. What we have here is a slightly dramatized aesthetic debate being held among allegorical characters, each representing a different aspect of the art form we call opera. It takes place during The Enlightenment with references made to Gluck’s stripped down modernity replacing The Baroque. Here we have eight characters in search of a grinding-stone for their axes.

First we have the charming young composer Flamand, perfectly cast and sung by the appealing tenor Joseph Kaiser; next we have the poet Olivier sung by the warm-voiced Russell Braun; both men are vying for the affections of the Countess. We have the charming Danish baritone Morten Frank Larsen debuting at the Met in the role of the entertainment loving brother of the Countess and we have the always lovely Renee Fleming in a role she is deliciously suited to--that of the Countess herself who is being fought over by the composer and the poet. The British mezzo Sarah Connolly perfectly overplays the part of a famous actress; Olga Makarina and Barry Banks represent the forces of the vocal talent, and powerful English bass Peter Rose takes the part of the impresario who brings everyone together and, as he points out in his prolonged aria, without whom the show could not go on. Oh, and I almost forgot number nine, the prompter, sung by Bernard Fitch. There are also two non-singing dancers to argue their case terpsichorialy. All very formulaic, no?

Unlike other Strauss operas, the massive forces of the orchestra, skilfully conducted by Andrew Davis, are here used almost as a chamber group. There is lots of talk, yes, lots of talk with music but not OF the music. There are a few highlights, one being the composer’s setting of the poet’s sonnet which demonstrates the richness music can add to words, in spite of the poet’s belief that his sonnet has been ruined.

Another highlight is the Impressario’s long aria with his rather convincing argument for what Wagner called Gesamtkunstwerk; no one art can claim opera as its exclusive province. We need the music, the singers, the librettist, the acting ability, and--WHOA--what is left out here??? No character represent the set designer which in the case of this production deserves much credit for recreating a lavish European drawing room in 18th c. style. Updating this opera to the period entre les deux guerres is a mistake, especially with all the chat about the modernity of Gluck’s music.

Another highlight occurs at the end of the opera when Ms. Fleming sings a beautiful aria about her indecision in choice of a lover. She appears to be accompanying herself on the harp and this is beautifully done. But there are these longueurs in Strauss’ final opera--too much argument and not enough story to hold one’s interest. Too much allegory and not enough flesh on the characters’ bones. No wonder it is not often performed.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Thursday, April 14, 2011

An evening in Carthage

An evening inspired by the creative imagination of director Sarah Meyers was presented by the Juilliard Opera Workshop and Juilliard Historical Performance. Stories from Virgil’s “Aeniad” were combined to make a most entertaining evening entitled “Dido in Context”; this comprised a prologue of Purcell songs dealing with love and war followed by five episodes related to the history of Dido and Aeneas composed by Claudio Monteverdi (a prequel if you will) and finally the compact opera “Dido and Aeneas”, the only opera composed by Purcell.

The renowned early music group Juilliard 415, conducted by Kenneth Weiss (heard a couple days earlier in Carnegie Hall accompanying Dorothea Roschmann and David Daniels) put forth a performance for which to be grateful as did the young singers, all undergraduates at Juiilliard. The soprano role of Dido was given its full measure by soprano Raquel Gonzalez, especially in her final aria “When I am Laid in Rest” which is frequently heard in recitals

John Brancy gave a most moving performance as the Trojan prince Aeneas, particularly in his lament. Having given a flawless rendering of Prince Hamlet’s “O vin, dissipe la tristesse” at the George London finals, it appears that this gifted young baritone is destined to be a prince of the opera stage.

In the fourth episode of Part II tenors Vincent Festa and Christopher Yoon joined forces with baritone Sanghun Han in “Eccomi pronta ai baci” as the sailors departing from Troy. Their voices blended beautifully and made me think how much more “singable” Italian is than English. At times, surtitles would have been helpful for the English.

Much praise can be heaped on Haley Lieberman who designed costumes that were just right in suggesting this ancient epoch. Choreographer Patricia Weiss made sure that the performers employed apposite balletic gestures that prevented the opera from feeling static. The minimalistic set by Elyse Handelman was most appropriate and did not distract from the singing. It is amazing what one can do with fabric and some boxes, especially with the contributions of lighting designer Daniel Ordower. The Met could take a page from this book!

--meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

To live without beauty...

What must it be like to live without beauty? I have asked myself this question for years. You can argue of course there is beauty in every little thing on this earth, but what of the thousands of children across the world who grow up in a world devoid of colorful flowers, chirping birds, or simply the silence of peace?

I know I've been spoiled. My images of mountains are based upon the majestic Rockies out west. My images of beaches are those of my home in Hawaii. My images of forests are those of the lush German landscape where I grew up. I am spoiled. But I am also grateful every day for having known not only the beauty of things I can see with my eyes but also for knowing what a rose smells like... compared to a hyacinth or a plumeria blossom. I am grateful that I know what the haunting melodies of Mahler sound like versus the charm of 1930s swing or the power of an African drum beat. I am grateful that I can recall the simple sweetness of a ripe peach or the rich and varied tastes of my mother's delicious bolognese sauce. These sounds, smells, images, tastes: they are all so beautiful.

I have been glued to the news these past few weeks as we all have, and I have diligently read my Economist cover to cover on the train to work, and I simply cannot make sense of anything. At a benefit concert last Sunday given by the excellent One World Symphony, I wept uncontrollably at the beauty of the music, thinking how pure and simple those moments were and how there were so many millions of people suffering at the hands of those who choose not to preserve beauty and harmony but rather to destroy it or stop its coming back. How, after all, can someone choose to destroy his country's people and infrastructure, history and culture simply to attempt - we hope, vainly - to remain in power? How can a supposedly God-loving "patriotic" American burn the holy book of the Islamic faith when he surely would have plenty to say about the desecration of his holy and beautiful book?

What is all the point of this (possibly badly-constructed-stream-of-consciousness) talk? I'm getting there. A friend guided me to a very special segment on NPR this morning, which I urge you to listen to. About ten years ago, a gentleman living in the ruins of Kinshasa (the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo) just after the brutal civil war, which killed approximately three million Africans, decided that he was not going to sit back and accept the desperation and destruction around him. His answer? Why, create an orchestra of course! Not only that, but it has 200 (yes, TWO HUNDRED) musicians. The Kinshasa Symphony (or Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste) has now been playing for about a decade and the film of the same name will open at the NY African Film Festival this week in Manhattan. (Click here to see a trailer for the movie!)

A very wise woman once said to me in a moment of utter despair: "just because beauty is more elusive does not make it less vital to life." I urge you to take a moment and find some beauty. It won't be easy, at least not in New York where it's freezing and pouring, but look around and find something beautiful. And hold onto it.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Take me to your Lieder

An opera lover addicted to Sturm und Drang, massive sets, big voices and lots of action might find the Lieder recital to be a bit minimalistic. But, and this is a BIG BUT, all depends on the artistry of the singer and the piano partner, not to mention the skill with which the composer interprets the poetry and the worthiness of the poet whose work is being set When they are true artists the scenery and the story-telling take place in the listener’s mind.

This was made perfectly clear in a flawless recital given by baritone Jesse Blumberg and pianist Audrey Axinn as part of the Salon/Sanctuary Concerts, a series created by Artistic Director Jessica Gould. The overall program spanning the 18th and early 19th c. was well thought out in terms of variety and pacing. The lovely warm round timbre of Mr. B’s voice was used to great effect; phrases and words were beautifully colored. Each song became a mini drama. Particularly notable were Thomas Arne’s setting of Shakespeare’s “Where Daisies Pied” sung with great wit and humor; Mozart’s “Abendempfindung” communicated with great depth of feeling, and Beethoven’s “An die ferne Geliebte”, a cycle dripping with sehnsucht.

Again on a lighter note was Beethoven’s delightful ditty “Der Kuss” and the “Flea Song” from Goethe’s Faust. The simple rustic comfort of “Der Einsame” and the psychological terror of “Der Doppelganger” were effectively depicted in Mr. B’s Schubert selections.

In every case, Ms. Axinn used her skills at the pianoforte to convey wind, rain, crickets and such. During the Flea Song one could imagine the fleas bouncing from key to key. What a pleasure to hear two artists complementing each other so sensitively and the audience complementing the artists by being totally silent and attentive, being individually and collectively enraptured.

--meche kroop for The Opera Insider