Monday, October 31, 2011

Mariusz! Mariusz! Mariusz!

“Oh, Mr. Kwiecien, you have seduced and abandoned me but I love you still. You are exciting, dangerous and compelling. You are in control. Nothing diverts you from your purpose in life. You are a Don Giovanni for our age.”

Watching and thrilling to this year’s version of Don G. at the Met I realized that if anything is going to “show me something new” about any given opera, it is going to be the cast and the conductor, not the director. Much has been written about the disappointment of Michael Grandage’s production and its failure to say anything new. Whatever new that can be said about this opera was “said” by Fabulous Fabio Luisi’s crystal clear conducting which brought forth new delights by limning inner voices with astounding clarity. Whatever new insights that could be found were discovered by the sensational international cast who made each character believable.

Not only the Polish Mr. K. but, in no particular order, Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas’ stalwart Don Ottavio who expressed his devotion to Donna Anna with meltingly legato llines; Latvian soprano Marina Rebeka’s Donna Anna, Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli’s angry and frustrated Donna Elvira, Venezuelan bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni’s comic Leporello (made more so by Don G’s seriousness), the adorable German soprano Mojca Erdmann’s coquettish Zerlina, equally adorable Australian bass Joshua Bloom as her understandably angry hubby Masetto, and Slovakian bass Stefan Kocan as the murdered Commendatore. This United Nations of Singers said it all and said it well.
I don’t think Mr. Grandage owes us any apologies. It is true that the sets and costumes, credited to Christopher Oram were not exciting, but they permitted all the attention to be focused on the excellent singing. They were not nearly as egregious as Don G’s I have seen that were set in front of tenements or in church basements or funeral homes. When did opera become a director’s medium? Let the singers and conductors reclaim the art form! I wish to see and hear what the composer and librettist had in mind, not the “concept” of some director who wants to impose his vision on a revered work. Let us not repaint the Mona Lisa!

Please comment whether you agree or disagree.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Oh, Oh Obradors

A selection of songs by early 20th c. composer Fernando Obradors were given a splendid performance at the Morgan Library in collaboration with The George London Foundation for Singers by the gifted young soprano Ailyn Perez. When the recital by Ms. Perez and her equally gifted young tenor husband Stephen Costello was announced, I was filled with anticipation, having enjoyed her performance as Marguerite (in Gounod’s Faust) so much last summer in Santa Fe, and having enjoyed Mr. Costello’s performance as Lord Percy at the Met just a few days earlier. My very high expectations were met and perhaps exceeded. Ken Noda as piano partner contributed enormously to the success of this recital. He is always impressively attuned to the singers he accompanies.

Ms. Perez used her thrilling voice and her acting chops in the program opener--”Salce, salce” and “Ave Maria” from Otello. So committed a performer is she that my mind conjured the set as if I had just then seen the entire opera. Mr. Costello followed with some songs by Paolo Tosti; the two sung in Italian “Ideale” and “Non t’ami piu” were especially affecting, as sung in a beautiful Italianate style. The other two were settings of English and it seemed to me that the English language does not lend itself as well to beautiful vocal lines. Such was also noted in the premiere of Mr. Pasatieri’s “Bel Canto Songs”, taken on by Ms. Perez. These settings of texts by William Blake, according to the program notes “employ a pure bel canto aspect in the vocal line but which also feature a contemporary harmonic palette in the piano part”. Okay, that may have been the intention but it did not come through in the execution, in spite of Ms. Perez’ excellent technique. Mr. Pasatieri writes beautifully for the piano but the vocal line did not hold interest, and for this I blame the poetry--lovely to read on paper but in no way singable the way Italian is.

The program closed with a charming scene from Mascagni’s “L’Amico Fritz” a duet between Suzel and Fritz in which nothing is discussed but birdsong and cherry ripening; BUT, the lyricism of the vocal line tells us more than words could how these two people love one another. Noting that Ms. Perez and Mr. Costello both won awards from The George London Foundation in 2006, I wondered whether they had met one another at that time and fallen in love. Hearing such a romantic duet certainly prompts romantic fantasies! The only thing that might have added to this satisfying recital would have been more duets. More duets please!

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Burnin' down the house!

There was lots of fire at the Met’s revival of the Elijah Moshinsky production of “Nabucco”: fire coming from the pit with Paolo Carignani’s spirited Italianate conducting of Verdi’s lavishly melodic score, fire from the gifted cast and real fire as the Bad Babylonians burned down the temple of the persecuted Judeans.

From the opening fanfare of trombones, one knew that a treat was in store. The overture alone was packed with enough tunes to keep one humming for weeks; the Met orchestra rewarded Maestro Carignani with luminous playing and the audience rewarded both orchestra and conductor with thunderous applause. This is early Verdi, composed when he was just 28 years old and marked a distinct departure from the bel canto style of mid 19th c.
Here we have some interesting characters in a rather stock situation. The vindictive Babylonian princess Abigaille is in love with the Judean Ismaele who is in love with Abigaille’s sister Fenena and seems to betray his country. The deluded Babylonian king Nabucco is drunk with power and declares himself to be not king but god. He goes mad and Abigaille seizes the crown; but his prayers to the Hebrew god restore his sanity and he reclaims the throne. It is easy to see how many opportunities this tale offers for impassioned singing and tender prayers.

This may be soprano Maria Guleghina’s best performance ever. She chewed up the scenery and spat it out. She easily leaped from chest tones to high C’s and dazzled with her virtuosity. Second year Lindemann artist mezzo Renee Tatum painted a believable portrait of Fenena with her fine supple voice and lovely appearance. So outstanding was her prayer in Part Four, one might wish that Verdi had written more for her. This is her largest role at the Met so far and we are looking forward to hearing much more from her.

Baritone Zeljko Lucic delivered his customary fine performance in the title role and was quite affecting in each of his many moods, from arrogance to pathos. Bass Carlo Colombara did full justice to the role of Zaccaria, the high priest of the Judeans. Tenor Yonghoon Lee in his second appearance at the Met was compelling in the role of Ismaele; he has a fine substantial voice that makes one yearn to hear more.
Perhaps more than in any other opera, the chorus is of critical importance and they did not disappoint. Their performance of “Va, pensiero” could make one weep. One cannot help thinking of the current upheavals in the Middle East--peoples trying to create or defend a homeland, nations struggling to redefine themselves. Not much has changed in two and a half millenia.

This is one production that the Met should keep in its repertory; one shudders to think how badly the opera could be damaged by some director’s “concept”. “Nabucco” belongs to the conductor and the singers who bring it to life. John Napier’s sets and J. Knighten Smit’s direction may be called “old-fashioned” but they are absolutely perfect. There is no elaborate stage business to distract one from the story-telling and the singing. The only false note was the presence of two gibbets in the final act. One doubts whether hanging was a biblical method of execution. Without knowledge of what people wore 2500 years ago, it is difficult to criticize the costuming of Andreane Neofitou. One could only say that the armies looked military, the Judeans looked only slightly drab, Ismaele looked just right to play Calaf, and the two women looked absolutely gorgeous.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Friday, October 7, 2011


Why rush to see yet another Barber after having seen it well over a dozen times? The best reason is to witness gorgeous talented Isabel Leonard make the most out of the role of Rosina. Having followed her career with delight after hearing a student recital at Juilliard, I am delighted to report that she is fulfilling her promise in spades (and diamonds for her sparkle and hearts because you will love her too). She has a sumptuous mezzo and flawless technique both in the legato and in the coloratura passages with precision of articulation not often heard. It was a pleasure to see her in a dress, and Catherine Zuber’s costumes were most becoming, as was the wig, something we cannot take for granted.

I wish I could say the same for Mexican tenor Javier Camarena, making his debut at the Met in the role of Count Almaviva. We loves us some Mexican tenors but this performance did not make the grade. In his Act I serenade “Ecco Ridente” coloratura passages seemed rather muddy and high notes felt strained, although he improved in Act II and in the ensemble work. He just doesn’t command the stage as, for example, Juan Diego Flores does. Towering over him by virtue of talent and height was Swedish baritone Peter Mattei who had enough stage presence for both of them. His generous baritone and ease on stage are always a pleasure to watch and his chemistry with Ms. Leonard far exceeded that of Mr. Camarena.

Bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro sang the role of the foolish possessive Dr. Bartolo with great style and humor. Georgian bass Paata Burchuladze sang the role of slimy music teacher Don Basilio and Lindemann graduate Jennifer Check did just fine in Berta’s Act II aria, as did another Lindemann graduate John Moore who portrayed Fiorello in Act I. Rob Besserer garnered lots of laughs as Dr. Bartolo’s elderly servant.
Maurizio Benini conducted with vigor and lyricism this opera which is nearly 200 years old, composed when Rossini was only 24 years old. Melodies just poured out of the young Gioachino, melodies that perfectly match the charming libretto by Cesare Sterbini based on the play by Beaumarchais. No wonder that “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” has survived for nearly two centuries and remains in the repertory of so many companies. Audiences love it and this production met with thunderous applause at the time of curtain call. One wishes that Rossini had written more than the 30 gems he left us with.

I personally am not fond of the Bartlett Sher production or Michael Yeargan’s sets. The stage is rather bare but cluttered with doors and one second story balcony achieved by staircase. There is entirely too much distracting business in the direction and a burro led onstage for no apparent reason. I don’t see much point in Figaro being “loved up” by hordes of women, some of whom are put to work pulling his beauty salon on wheels. I would have preferred to have seen the burro do the pulling and the women do the singing. However, I must be in the minority because all the pratfalls brought forth peals of laughter from the audience and it certainly is a pleasure to see an opera audience having fun!

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Red Bed and Yellow Jacket

Aside from the gorgeous singing (more on that in a moment), what stands out in this monochromatic production of “Anna Bolena” is The Queen’s Red Bed and The King’s Yellow Jacket. Set Designer Robert Jones has given the production a castle with moveable walls, much like the sliding shoji seen in Japan. The costumes of Jenny Tiramani are absolutely accurate in their period detail, down to the undergarments. (Don’t ask how I know this.) However, the consistent use of black and white against the grey walls is fatiguing to the eye which yearns for some color. Fortunately, the astute lighting of Paule Constable goes a long way toward providing some atmosphere.
The production by David McVicar could best be described as static. Granted that not much happens in the opera. King Henry VIII has tired of wife #2 who has borne only a daughter and has his eye (and both hands) all over Jane Seymour, Anne’s lady-in-waiting. His method of dealing with this situation is to invite Lord Richard Percy (Anne’s great love whom she left to marry Henry) to return from exile and to thereby entrap Anne and get her convicted of adultery and dispatched by The Lord High Executioner of Titipoo, sorry, England. He implements the plot by manipulating Smeton, Anne’s pet musician who is also in love with her.

The Met’s superstar soprano du jour Anna Netrebko also has the entire audience in love with her. Well, most of the audience. She makes a huge impression with a weighty voice and some nice squillo at the top; she is ravishingly beautiful in spite of the recent “baby fat” and she chews up the scenery with a succession of emotions--pride, indignation, despair, jealousy, rage, terror, forgiveness, you name it. But something undefinable is missing. One has only to listen to some youtube recordings of Callas or Sills (from the New York City Opera’s mid 1970s heyday) to feel the goosebumps missing from Netrebko’s performance. Detracting still further was her poor diction in Italian and a bit of sloppiness in the coloratura. It wasn’t a bad performance, it just didn’t thrill the soul.

American tenor Stephen Costello was affecting as the lovelorn Percy, a role of daunting tessitura, and his Italian was far easier to understand. Ildar Abdrazakov was a virile and intimidating Henry. In the trouser role of Smeton, Lindemann graduate Tamara Mumford was outstanding. Her acting was completely convincing and her mezzo absolutely gorgeous. Ekaterina Gubanova sang Jane Seymour with a metallic edge to her voice that made it difficult to empathize. Keith Miller and Eduardo Valdes were fine in the smaller roles of Lord Rochefort and Sir Hervey.

Marco Armiliato conducted Donizetti’s dazzling melodies. There was one exquisite moment when Smeton is playing the lute for Ann, rather doing an excellent job of miming, while harpist Deborah Hoffman (I believe) is playing the actual music.
Having seen both the HD and the live performances, I wanted to close by reiterating a point made after attending 8 HD performances last month. The HD director has a large contribution to make and nowhere in the program was credit (or debit, in this case) given. The HD was even darker than the production itself and long shots were used when closeups were called for, and vice-versa. Opportunities for “reaction shots” were missed. I can only guess that the HD direction was somehow given short shrift or insufficient rehearsal. Or perhaps because it was filmed live during an actual performance. If any reader knows more, I welcome your comments. Also, if you agree or disagree on anything, please leave your comment.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider