Monday, May 08, 2017

Butterfly at WNO

I wrote about WNO's Madame Butterfly for Parterre.com:
Opera warhorse overload can happen to the best of us, and going into Washington National Opera’s final presentation of the season, Madama Butterfly, I feared that I might be geisha’d out. My most recent encounter just six months ago (a Vienna State Opera production with Kristine Opolais) was well done but left me thoroughly cold, a sign that a personal moratorium on this particular chestnut might be in order. 

Read the whole thing here...

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Fidelio at Washington Concert Opera

I wrote about WCO's Fidelio for Parterre:
While even committed opera enthusiasts can find Beethoven’s Fidelio a chore, a hardy few wonder why we can’t have more Fidelio. Washington Concert Opera maestro  had these completists in mind last weekend with a presentation of the original 1805 version of Fidelio, aka Leonore, oder Der Triumph der ehelichen Liebe.

Read the whole thing here...

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Champion at WNO

I wrote about the premiere of Champion at WNO for Parterre:
Washington National Opera continued a focus on recent works this season with Terence Blanchard and Michael Cristofer’s 2013 opera Champion on the life of boxer Emile Griffith. Though many of the stumbling blocks one might expect are no doubt present in this first attempt at an opera from Blanchard, there is also much to appreciate in this ambitious work.

Read the whole thing here...

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Dead Man Walking at WNO

Thoughts on WNO's new production of Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking at Parterre...
In the program notes to Washington National Opera’s new production of Dead Man Walking, composer Jake Heggie notes that the premiere of a new opera was a “rare occasion” in 2000, when this piece first appeared in San Francisco. Since then, it has flourished in a way few contemporary operas have, garnering nearly 300 performances across the globe. But having finally seen it this past Saturday in DC, I’m afraid this work’s popularity may be a result of first-mover advantage more than anything else.  

Read the whole thing here...

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Götterdämmerung in Toronto

Shiloh Battlefield, Tennessee. Camera: Minolta Hi-matic. Film: Ilford HP5+.

Last Thursday we found ourselves in Toronto for the premiere of the final installment in Canadian Opera Company's Ring Cycle (aka, the COC Ring), featuring no less a momentous event than Christine Goerke's first outing as the Götterdämmerung Brunnhilde.

This long anticipated assumption is the culmination of perhaps THE major Brunnhilde assumption of the decade, and certainly the most consequential assumption by an American in some time. Goerke continues to offer an uncommonly beautiful take on this music, fully realizing the score at a level only available to a few singers today. Big climaxes were thrilling, especially a stunning Dawn Duet that elicited the rare intra-act Wagner applause, while Goerke's luscious, expressive middle register shone in stretches like the Waltraute scene and Immolation lead-up.

Beyond sheer vocal beauty, Goerke makes a strong dramatic impression too, introducing some compelling ideas about the character that are sure to mature over time. This is not the blazing Brunnhilde of a Nina Stemme, who plays the warrior princess (marvelously) as a furious powder keg, touched off by the sight of Siegfried and Gutrune. Goerke seems to be after a more vulnerable, wounded Brunnhilde, who comes to her anger at Siegfried reluctantly, from a place of emotional pain.

The first night performance seemed perhaps a bit cautious, as might be expected of a maiden Götterdämmerung, with careful navigation of the some of the trickier passages sometimes slowing down the overall momentum. Also, around the top of the middle register she sometimes goes into an unpleasant swallowed sound to get a note across, a tic we've heard before but seemed especially evident here. Quibbles aside though, y'all need to book your Chicago and Met Ring tickets ASAP. In 30 years North American Ring fans are going to fall into two buckets: the lucky ones who saw Goerke in her prime and the pitiable ones that missed out.

Andreas Schager's Siegfried was a welcome surprise and yet another reason to think that we are living in at the start of a mini-Siegfried renaissance. Schager has a huge, very attractive voice, indeed almost gratuitously loud at times, despite generally unsympathetic dynamics from the pit, and showed almost no wear by the climactic death scene, which was eminently secure and affecting. His characterization leans towards heroic doofus in a Siegfried Jerusalem vein, though again, that death scene brought out some unexpected layers.

Other cast highlights included mezzo Karen Cargill, turning in a ravishing, high drama Waltraute to balance Goerke's Brunnhild and making this scene one of the highlights of the evening. Estonian bass Ain Anger offered up a unexpectedly hot Hagen, backed by a vast, rangy instrument that conveyed the unhinged menace of the role, for instance in a reckless and terrifying call to the vassals. Norns n' Maidens were all very strong, with special recognition going to the wonderful contralto Lindsay Amman, reprising her role from the DC Ring.

COC maestro Johannes Debus offered a strong hand and some persuasive ideas about the score, including as a brutal, ecstatic Siegfried Funeral March, though speedy tempi could cross the line from energetic to glib at times. At least on opening night, the Canadian Opera Company Orchestra wasn't always prepared to execute on Debus' ideas cleanly. Strings generally shone but even with the requisite Ring cycle handicap, the brass committed too many pitchiness and entry flub sins for comfort. Hopefully as the run goes on the polish level will improve and do justice to Debus' dynamic approach.

As for the production, the COC Ring shares a common designer but each installment has been given a different director, here Tim Albery. The modern dress, minimalist design can deliver some arresting images, such as the dreamlike setting for Brunnhilde's mountaintop, set on the dark, largely bare stage, punctuated by the odd light and prop that seems to float in the ether. But the production isn't really inventive or strict enough to keep this aesthetic interesting. For instance, the following Gibichung palace just looks like a basic sparsely furnished living room that might be found in any production. While strong direction might have made up for this, Albery serves up an exceedingly conventional, undistinguished Gibichung scene. Say what you will about Zambello, modern dress isn't just a neutral aesthetic in her Ring, but a component of a richly layered (if not always advisable) interpretation.

More successful moments included the Siegfried death scene mentioned above, as well as Gunther/Siegfried's taking of Brunnhilde. Gunther, in suit and trenchcoat, paces deliberately around Brunnhilde and her modest dining table throughout most of the scene before suddenly exploding in violence. Tapping contemporary images of home invasion and domestic violence, Albery powerfully illustrates the terror and violation inherent in this scene.

Unfortunately the finale, in which the residents of Gibichungville place the shattered pieces of a model Vahalla around the stage, slowly walk to the front of the stage, then slowly walk to the back of the stage, is just terribly boring. You don't have to have spectacle for the end of the Ring but if you're not ready to accompany the end of the Gods with some minimally credible stage spectacle, then you better have a good reason why not.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

American Opera Initiative at WNO

I reviewed WNO's American Opera Initiative for Parterre:
Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative, now in its 5th year, keeps the opera flame alight at the Kennedy Center during the long winter stretch between mainstage WNO productions. With four short works on offer over the course of two nights, it is also a welcome chance to peruse how a variety of young composers are addressing the challenges of contemporary opera.
Read the whole thing here...

WNO Announces

Mt. Pleasant. Camera: Pentax Spotmatic. Film: Portra400.
After something of a post-Ring cigarette break of a season this year, WNO teased a more ambitious 17-18 lineup this past Monday in a presentation at the Kennedy Center. Playing percentages is sort of silly with only 5 shows, but the trend is generally more Italian red meat after this year's heavy investment (2 out of 5 shows) in contemporary works. Strong casting throughout the year keeps the overall interest level high.

The opener is Francesca Zambello's "graffiti Aida" production that premiered in San Francisco this year. I'll have to go back and read the reactions to the production, but the takeaway here is some especially deep personnel across both A and B casts. Aida is shared by Tamara Wilson and Amber Wagner, Amneris is shared by Ekaterina Semenchuk and Marina Prudenskaya (these are new to me), and Radames is shared between Yonghoon Lee and Carl Tanner. Gordon Hawkins shows up as Amonsaro.

Next up is Handel's Alcina, a rare baroque foray for WNO. Casting is intriguing again, with Angela Meade returning after her celebrated turn in Norma a few years back, plus Ying Fang, Elizabeth DeShong, and Daniela Mack. The location will be the more intimate confines of the Eisenhower theater, a wise choice for Handel. This is a new production by theater director Anne Bogart, who also did that Norma for WNO, which was nondescript but pleasant enough.

The big project for the year is a new production of Don Carlo (with Philadelphia and Minnesota) conducted by Phillipe Auguin and featuring a very badass cast of mostly young singers including Leah Crocetto, Jamie Barton, Russell Thomas, and Eric Owens. The one-off cover (?) performance is no slouch either with Latonia Moore, Domingo Cafritz young artist MVP Daryl Freedman, and Rafael Davila for one night only. Sorry Carloheads, no word on cuts/language in the press release...

And then, to fill whatever budget hole that new Don Carlo dug, we get a Barber of Seville production. So, I don't like Barber that much. If I had the power to take one uber-chestnut that is produced constantly and bump it down to, say, Idomeneo frequency, I'm definitely going to say Barber. Directors aren't very good at making 19th century farce actually funny not just "fake laughing at opera" funny. Audiences enjoy the music in a Tom Petty's greatest hits way, not a meaningful way.

But that's just me. There are some bright spots in the staffing: sounds like there might be an interesting American debut (Andrey Zhilkovsky), Isabel Leonard sings Rosina, bass Wei Wu (who has made a strong impression in the young artist program) sings Dr. Bartolo, and we get Maestro Maurizio Benini making his WNO debut.

The season closing musical is back again, this time Candide, a tie-in with the KC-wide Bernstein centenary jamboree. Yes, it hurts a bit to give up one of only 5 slots to a musical production which is always a bit of a dicey artistic proposition. I'm also always skeptical at whether these musicals really pack the house more than a regular offering would. But of anything in the musical realm Candide of course feels most at home in the opera house, and I actually have never seen the whole thing, so I guess that's okay.

Season extras are a family holiday-time production of The Little Prince, revived from a few years back, and the annual American Opera Initiative festival, notably headlined by "Breaking the Waves" team Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek.




Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Les Troyens at Lyric Opera

DC Metro. Camera: Canonet QL-17. Film: Trix400.
Got to experience my first live Troyens over Thanksgiving weekend, thanks to Lyric Opera of Chicago's new production...

The headline casting coup here was the one-two punch of Christine Goerke and Susan Graham as Cassandre and Didon. Goerke's vocalism towered over the Troy acts, the part a great fit for her voice and a showcase for how she can convey urgent drama while maintaining that beautiful rounded tone throughout. Companies thinking about dipping their toe into Troyens need to get on it stat to give her more opportunities to sing this role, which could very well be a signature part for her.

Graham, a late replacement for the originally scheduled Sophie Koch, has has of course owned Didon for a decade now, and her portrayal remains an essential assumption, especially in Didon's harrowing breakdown over the course of Act 5. Her middle voice is perhaps a bit less plush than I remember from the HD broadcasts in 2012, but the her soaring, powerful top remains an incredible vehicle for Didon's passion and rage.

The third punch (?) was supposed to be Brandon Jovanovich's Aeneas, but he cancelled shortly before curtain time due to illness, and the production's Helenus, Corey Bix, went on in his place. Now before making any critiques, I want to make clear that people who cover Aeneas deserve our gratitude, are assured a place in heaven, etc. And moreover, people that can create a full-fledged, musically satisfying performance and essentially save huge stretches of the show like Bix did Saturday night are to be especially praised.

That said, Bix didn't get too far beyond checking the (admittedly pretty extraordinary) boxes for this part. The voice is loud, but somewhat colorless and lacks the heroic styling and timbre that would take the vocal portrayal to a more rarefied level. In softer music (like the love duet), the essential attractiveness of the voice is clear, but once the demands get more intense a sort of curdled sound takes over and the focus turns to getting through the music (again, no small task) rather than making something more with it. Bix has now replaced Issachah Savage in Virginia Opera's "Der Freischutz" in February, and while I am very bummed about missing another chance to hear Savage, will look forward to hearing Bix under friendlier conditions than the most intimidating cover situation possible (though I hear he also filled in for a number of Hymel dates in SFO--apparently he makes a habit of this grueling task).

Breaking down the rest of the endless cast in detail would get pretty tiring but here's a quick shout out list: as Iopas, tenor Mingjie Lei turned in a very beautiful Ceres song; Okka von der Damerau made a lot of out her turn as Dido's sister using her very dark, interesting mezzo voice; young artist Jonathan Johnson made a good impression in Hylas' Act 5 opening ballade; and Bradley Smoak brought a fine rich bass to Hector's ghost.

The production design is hit or miss. A large curved wall revolves to create different spaces in the cities of Troy and Carthage. Filled with rubble that provided a variety of playing spaces during the two Troy Acts the set looked great and served as a vehicle for some effective design moments like the huge projection of the Trojan horse drifting across the front of the ramparts while Cassandre sings her heart out from the top of the ramparts.

Unfortunately, after cleaning up the rubble for the Carthage part, things got considerably less visually interesting. The production tried to solve this with projections onto the huge expanse of the back wall of the set, but these often fell prey to the old crappy projection syndrome (CPS). A bit with stars and bad looking planets moving across the wall during the love duet was especially risible. In Act V they just stopped trying and most of the action was played out against a generically lit whitewashed wall.

Direction of the principal's scenes and crowd management during the big ensembles was fine I guess, but c'mon--with all the great inventive productions of greek and greek-adjacent theatre over recent decades this is the best we can do? I don't know if the goal was something understated, if they ran out of money, or if they just ran out of ideas, but this felt like a poorly conceived production and something of a missed opportunity given the tremendous canvas Troyens provides.

Costumes were nondescript modern dress, but sometimes confusing, as with an extremely unflattering schoolmarm skirt suit for Graham in Act III which was tried and failed to indicate "head of state." Graham's elegant "nondescript classical period" blue robe for the final Act was much more in line with what you'd expect for Troyens but it's hard to explain how it existed in the same universe with the earlier getup.

The orchestra and chorus, led by Andrew Davis, set a very high musical bar for the evening. I'll admit I had lost track of my opinion of the Lyric band and assumed it would be solid but nothing special, but was promptly put in my place by the big, exciting sound that poured from the pit. Davis served up some truly thrilling climaxes, for instance, Act 2's suicide chorus, one of those special moments where the drawbacks of the theater fall away and you are only aware of what a spectacular melding of chorus, soloists and monster orchestra you are witnessing.


Herodiade at WCO

I wrote about Washington Concert Opera's presentation of Herodiade for Parterre:
Operatic history can be cruel where multiple works with the same subject are concerned, generally consigning all but one example to obscurity, or at best the fringes of the regular repertory. In the case of Massenet’s 1881 Hérodiade, it isn’t hard to see how the work’s gentle melodies and crowd-pleasing Orientalism became hopelessly uncool in the wake of Richard Strauss’ blockbuster treatment of the Salome story a quarter century later. Yet, as demonstrated by a committed, strongly cast performance by Washington Concert Opera this past Sunday, these judgments can be unfair.
Read the whole thing here...


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Jenufa at the Met

Budapest. Camera: Minolta Hi-Matic. Film: Trix400.



For the record, just a few comments about the final Jenufa I saw back on November 17th.

Let us not mince words about the importance of what Karita Mattila has done here. Ten years after defining the role of Jenufa at the Met in the maiden voyage of the Tambosi production, her assumption of the Kostelnicka has single-handedly dispelled the kneejerk view of this role as shrill, unmusical, and bordering on camp.

Mattila's Kostelnicka is a deeply sympathetic character, expressed through soaring music of great beauty and immediacy. Indeed, the gravity of her portrayal and the attention she focuses on the Kostelnicka's music seems to reweight the entire opera. The ease with which the opera makes sense by locating its heart in the Kostelnicka's Act II struggle is quite the revelation, and when the Kostelnicka's time on stage ends somewhat abruptly with her being led away in Act III, one really feels as though the dramatic thrust of the story has come to a close. The work's original Czech title, translated as "Her Stepdaughter," finally makes sense.

It didn't hurt that the Met production's Jenufa, Oksana Dyka, suffered by comparison with memories of Mattila's Jenufa. Oh, how I wanted to find something to like in what Dyka was doing. Her Jenufa emphasizes the character's battiness and trashiness, a valid choice worth supporting. But it's not enough to compensate for a fundamentally unpleasant vocal performance that can't express the musical beauty in a part that really demands it. At base I think it's a fairly unattractive sound, though capable of very focused forte high notes that are solid on their own. But frequent scooping and unsteadiness bedevil the rest of the performance; Jenufa just sounds a bit tipsy throughout. Jenufa's beautiful moments of stasis, the musical and emotional anchors of the opera, just don't really land, and the cost to the overall impression is high.

WNO's recent Siegfried Daniel Brenna showed up here as Laca, with mixed results. I went back and forth on whether that big old bear of a voice, so useful for Siegfried, was wrong for Laca or simply an acquired taste. While Laca's resentment and fury were powerfully realized, the exquisite texture of  Janacek's music was often lost. Between Brenna and Dyka, this was a decidedly rowdy and unsubtle version of the Act I ensemble "All young couples have chesna." Joseph Kaiser has a suitably beautiful voice for Steva, and the looks to match, though he seemed to be marking in the first and third acts during the final performance for some reason.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Fille du Regiment at WNO

Thoughts on WNO's new production of La Fille du Regiment at Parterre:
Washington National Opera offered a shellshocked D.C. some much-needed diversion Saturday night, with a new production of La Fille du Regiment. Though a fairly basic take on Donizetti’s featherweight 1840 comedy, a solid cast and nimble direction made this a rewarding evening for locals willing to sober up/crawl out from under the covers for the first time since Tuesday. 

Read the whole thing here...

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Lawrence Brownlee at the Kennedy Center

I wrote about Lawrence Brownlee's KC recital for Parterre:
This past week brought the first installment of the new “Renee Fleming’s VOICES!” series at the Kennedy Center. The bad news is that this is not the name of a new drag revue she is curating. The good news is that the first concert was devoted to the exceptional artistry of Lawrence Brownlee.
Read the whole thing...

Saturday, October 01, 2016

New Tristan at the Met

Rock Creek Park. Camera: Pentax Spotmatic. Film: Ektar100.


Yes, yes, this happened last Monday, but FWIW here are some thoughts about the new Met Tristan...

Nothing (save Norma) brings out the haters like high profile Wagner, and there has been a lot of mixed opinion on the leads, especially Stuart Skelton’s Tristan. Frankly, it all seems like an awfully precarious position to take in an era when we still don’t have the technology to reanimate the corpse of Vinay or Melchior. 

Skelton’s Act I was touch and go for a bit, with a pleasant enough sound but some bellowing issues too. Act II found Skelton locking into gear with a warm, lyrical contribution to the (annoyingly truncated) duet. Yes, he sacrifices cutting power for beauty at times, but given the alternative, this feels like a fair choice. 

I think the basic test for Act III is not consistent beauty of sound (which would seem at odds with any dramatically worthy performance) but whether the singer comes off as owning the music or being owned by it. Skelton far surpassed this bar, giving us a fully realized reading of Tristan's lament without ever letting it get the best of him. 

Nina Stemme needs little introduction, especially for DC audiences still swooning over her single cycle of Brunnhildes last spring. Stemme's vocal performance here was full of moments to appreciate, always passionate and present yet beautifully sung at the same time. She felt a bit cautious for opening night, giving an additional beat here and there to make sure an attack landed truly, but nothing that detracted from the overall impact.

Her Isolde is devoid of the haughtiness that singers sometimes look to in order to make sense of this character. As with her Brunnhilde, Stemme finds the driven, type-A core of Wagner's heroine. Yet her Act III was also sensitively felt, her reunion with the dying Tristan appropriately pitiful. Stemme focuses relentlessly on the union of voice and text rather than overwhelming sound and line, and, fair enough, this is not everyone is looking for in their Isolde. But one would be hard pressed to deny that this is one of the great Isolde assumptions available to us on the stage today.

Rene Pape did his duties as King Marke (between this and the 'Manz one feels like he is always lecturing Met audiences about something), with his usual penetrating intelligence. I'll say this felt just a tad less special than his assumption in the last (second to last?) run of the Dorn production that I saw a number of years back. King Marke's monologue needs to exist in the same suspended time as Wotan's Walkure Act II speech, and something about the staging here seemed to distract from that.

Ekaterina Gubanova was a stunning Brangane; by turns tender and argumentative, she reminded the audience what a satisfying role this can be in the right hands. Evgeny Nikitin offered a committed Kurwenal, though a somewhat hollow sound failed to make much of a vocal impression. Neal Cooper sang an odd Melot, with a put-on nasal villain character voice a la Mime. I'm assuming his straight voice doesn't sound like this, but it was a weird choice.

Simon Rattle made undeniable magic in the pit, driving the gorgeous Met orchestra in a vibrant, emotionally compelling reading. Rattle worked the score intensely, ensuring each small moment boiled with intensity, and never afraid of pushing a rawer sound in favor of emotional impact, though it was all thunder and flash. Rattle demonstrated an enviable intelligence in accompanying the long Act III monologue and quiet moments of heartbreaking poignancy throughout. If there's a quibble here, its that two big showpieces--the overture and love duet--didn't quite achieve the slow burn and release one would like. Clearly Rattle knows far more about this score than I, but if we're going to tally brute payoffs, they didn't quite happen.

Markus Trelinski’s production has a lot of compelling moments and design elements going for it, but is also trying to do...a lot. Cutting out 2 or 3 of its big gestures would go a long ways towards creating something more successful.

Things kick off with a prelude accompaniment video, here a pinging radar with video of a choppy sea and images hinting at Tristan's backstory. I am not opposed to a choreographed prelude, but I do have a healthy skepticism for overture projections (i.e. videos, not staged business), especially in Wagner, where one needs to be REAL SURE one has something valuable to add. I think part of the problem is that opera production money is just not enough money to effectively realize a director's vision for CGI projections at this point. With rare exceptions, what we get almost invariably feels a bit chintzy and cobbled together, regardless of how slick the subsequent production is. The projections in this production were better than some but still felt like an unnecessary distraction, giving us dull, literal imagery that just feels petty when the music is trying to unlock our collective subconcious. 

The hulking military ship set for Act I is quite impressive, sort of a grim version of the vessel from "Life Aquatic." The lighting is shockingly dim throughout (the ENTIRE show is played behind a scrim), certain to annoy some, but it hauntingly reinforces the contrast between bleak reality and the wanton excess of the characters' desires. The drinking of the potion is especially effective, realized as a desperate suicide pact that plays out deep in the bowels of the ship. Tristan and Isolde are ultimately left in pitch blackness, as though they could have stayed deep underwater forever, but instead find themselves cruelly thrust into the light.

Unfortunately, with so many fun rooms to play with, Trelinski feels the need to really give the set a workout, and the staging becomes overly busy with constant location changes that sometimes make it challenging to really dig into the long scenes of Act I.

There is also the small matter of Tristan executing Morold in cold blood, who apparently didn't die as expected but has been taken aboard the ship as a hostage. I suppose one could have built a meta-storyline around this that plays on a bloodthirsty Tristan, but it mostly feels shocking and out of character. This is the first in a series of ill-advised libretto embellishments from Trelinski that have a sort of passing novelty but fail to really add anything to the text.

Act II's design nicely pursues the dark industrial military theme, with Isolde waiting for Tristan's return on the ship's bridge, a foreboding air traffic control/prison watchtower-type space. Once the love duet begins, however, things deteriorate quickly. First, there is that cut, about 7 minutes before "O Sink Hernieder," which I was prepared to accept but it ended up being pretty jarring in practice. Then, just as things are getting down to business, the curtain goes down during Brangane's interlude (which she has to do miked offstage) and comes up on a vast industrial bay, where I suppose T n' I are planning to bang once the song is done?

Aimless blocking during the next 15 minutes takes them all over the warehouse for little discernible purpose, but worst of all is the giant projection of a smoky space orb that appears on the scrim. I think this can be chalked up to the same impulse that got the Machine Ring into such trouble--fear that people will be bored with what every Wagner opera comes down to in the end: humans standing around singing for what feels like an inordinately long amount of time. Trelinski solves the "problem" here (though shows restraint elsewhere) by introducing a scenic element that feels wildly out of place with the grim practical world created so far.

Act III stages Kareol as a modest hospital ward, which finds Tristan comatose on a gurney placed center stage, the pinging radar projection reused as a heart monitor. Midway through Tristan's big scene, he steps through one of the hospital walls and finds himself in (I think) his burnt down childhood home, and young Tristan emerges to reenact its destruction.

I have two problems with this. First, invented backstory is not the same as providing new ideas to support a text. Did anyone come away from Monday saying "Oh OK i get why Tristan did it now!"? Especially in Wagner, adding invented context for the characters beyond whatever ambiguous hints are contained in the libretto seems very useless. The hard work is creating a production that evokes the themes in the text at a deeper level while leaving the surface story intact.

Second, meta-material needs to serve the dramatic impact of what's happening onstage in addition to giving us something to think about. The burned out home satisfies this to some degree, but one can't help but think about how much more effective this staging might have been if it had tried to unify its bonus ideas with the musical angle Skelton was trying to work at the same time. As it currently plays out, he just seems kind of annoyed by the superfluous stage business he has to execute while gasping for breath.

The end is well done, with a faceless army of flashlights advancing on Tristan und Isolde in their fleeting moment of reunion. Isolde is seen slashing her wrists here, neatly explaining her later sinking to the ground "transfigured." I'm not sure if this is really necessary, though as an explanation of that inexplicable ending this seems understated and fine.

At the end of this scene, the stage goes dark and when Marke and Brangane enter its as if the lovers were never there, an eerie effect that underlines how both are already unbound from the earthly world. Once this interlude is done, Isolde reemerges and sings the Liebestod to a ghost (?) of Tristan sitting calmly downstage on a bench. There was something awkward about having Stemme pad about the corner of the stage for the whole song, when at that point we really just wanted her to plant center and SERVE IT.

Bottom line--this show can't be missed for the impressive cast and conductor it offers. The production is not ideal, but when its good it is effective and interesting and when it is bad it is at least bad in interesting ways. And hey, Tristan opening night FTW right?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Butterfly at Weiner Staatsoper



Made my maiden voyage to the Weiner Staatsoper last Wednesday, the same day of Johan Botha's untimely passing in Vienna. GM Dominique Meyer appeared in front of the curtain prior to the performance and spoke at length in German about Botha. I could only pick out so much, but he spent some time talking about Botha's extensive career at the Staatsoper, and so I gather from later reports, discussed the company's sadly unrealized plan to award Botha the prestigious Kammersanger title.

Though I have always appreciated Botha virtually, I only saw him live once, in his fine showing as Walther in last spring's Met Meistersingers. The voice was the real deal, and whatever his dramatic limitations we have lost one of the few folks on the planet that can overwhelm a house the size of the Met with Wagner's music as it should sound. It's a massive loss and one that will be felt acutely.

As for the show itself, my disappointment at missing Monday's Lohengrin with Klaus Florian Vogt was somewhat assuaged by the opportunity to finally get to see Kristine Opolais' Butterfly live. Her cool, smoky timbre isn't a typical sound for Butterfly but she employs it to unique affect, especially in the great statements of the second and third acts, though it doesn't quite have the beauty needed for a truly memorable first act. Unfortunately our seats in the Galerie (several rows back at the edge of the center section) were decidedly partial view and it was hard a bit hard to fully engage.

Piero Pretti's Pinkerton was a bit generic but valiantly sung, with a big true sound especially in a ringing climax for "Addio, fiorito asil." Mezzo Bongiwe Nakani, in an auspicious Staatsoper debut, turned in an attention grabbing Suzuki, with a rich, authoritative lower register. Among the gallery of dudes trying to solve Butterfly's problems, Boaz Daniel stood out with a pleasant, earnest Sharpless. 

The 1957(!) production by Josef Geilin was everything I could have asked for in a throwback Staatsoper experience. The head on pictures with Japanese painting inspired backgrounds are actually pretty attractive, but from the upper balcony (1957 designers did NOT give a shit about the cheap seats) the quaint set is delightfully reminiscent of one of those 1950s live TV movie musicals. For the second and third acts, the interior of Butterfly's little shack improbably opens up into a generous open plan ranch house, with a decor looks a little like the view inside the house you get on that Japanese cat care cell phone game. It's great.

DC's own Philipe Auguin, who will conduct Butterfly at WNO in the Spring, seemed to relish the glorious sound of the Staatsoper band, driving the volume to 11 as soon as the singers took a break and then quickly dialing things back down (for the most part, he was guilty of swamping the singers on a few occasions). If a bit less subtle than what I remember from his Butterfly outing here a few years back, the results were pretty exciting, especially an exuberant Act III in which Butterfly did its best impression of an exuberant passage from Die Frau Ohne Schatten, a reminder of how rich these scores can be in the right hands.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

The NSO Season Ahead

Seven years is a curious amount of time in the life of a symphony orchestra: long enough to feel like the past is a distant memory, too short to comfortably assume the rose colored glasses that obscure recent misgivings. Perhaps that is why Christoph Eschenbach's final season with the NSO doesn't look like much of a victory lap, but rather a continuation of the NSO's last few years, characterized by a healthy smattering of interesting programs but few of the exciting investments we saw earlier in Eschenbach's tenure.

The "themes" for the season probably won't drive anyone into the concert hall: "Shakespeare" (a good year to use that one I suppose) and folklore (I mean, c'mon). At the least one would hope these themes were tied to an ambitious project or two, but mostly they seem to be justification for a lot of filler programming.

In the Shakespeare bucket, most of the material is new to me and may turn out to include some interesting curiosities (Smetana did something inspired by Richard III? There's a Korngold score for a Much Ado About Nothing film?) but none of it is likely to generate broader excitement. The folklore lineup provides a pretext for chestnuts from Rimsky-Korsakov and the like (though I will definitely be going to hear the suite from Cunning Little Vixen).

One of Music Director Designate Gianandrea Noseda's two appearances for the year (and definitely the choicer of the two) crops up under one of the Shakespeare headers: a complete reading of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet ballet. Noseda's lesser evening will find him proving he can hack it in Americana in the NSO's big Kennedy tribute evening, a program that will include John Williams' music from Lincoln and JFK, Copland's Lincoln Portrait, Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue, among other crowd-pleasers.

A more fruitful line of programming is the celebration of the 90th anniversary of beloved former maestro Mstislav Rostropovich's birth, offering a welcome emphasis on Russian works and a brief tour to Russia  featuring cellist Alisa Weilerstein. Highlights include Eschenbach conducting Shostakovich Symphonies 1 and 8 and the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1, and James Conlon leading Shostakovich Symphony 5 and Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 1 with Lise de la Salle.

Soloist wise, a number of big names from recent years return next season, most notably Joshua Bell, who will take up a residency in February, much of which will be devoted to new works or TBD crossover programs. Lang Lang (opening ball something something), Emanuel Ax (Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1), Gidon Kremer (Weinberg Violin Concerto), and Hilary Hahn (Mendelssohn Violin Concerto), all turn up as well for a roster that is respectable, if not brimming with must-see soloist and repertoire combinations.

Missing from the line-up are any forays into concert presentations of dramatic works, often a highlight of the Eschenbach years, though there will be a few evenings requiring larger forces. These include Eschenbach's final NSO encounter with Mahler (Symphony No. 2), and the requisite Beethoven 9 torch song (featuring, FWIW, a strong cast including Joseph Kaiser and J'nai Brugger).

If one fact stands out about the season, it is the impressive line-up of new commissions, world premieres, and recent works new to the NSO. The Kennedy Center is paying a lot of lip service to new and/or American work as part of the JFK centennial year, and the NSO is doing its part with no less than 5 new commissions or co-commissions. This is a commendable thing, though whether it translates to enjoyable nights in the hall is yet to be seen. For instance, we're going to be getting a whole lot of composer-in-residence Mason Bates next year, which is good or bad news depending on how much you enjoy a techno bonus track on top of you regularly scheduled symphony.

Earlier this year, upon news of Noseda's appointment Ionarts' Jens Laurson offered some crucial thoughts on where the NSO goes from here:
The NSO cannot be fixed without its audience improving. Anyone familiar with the Washington classical music scene will have noticed a strange disparity between the uncurious, unenthusiastic, fair-weather crowd that goes to the Kennedy Center (the Washington National Opera crowd being the worst, but the NSO audience, which gives standing ovations only to reach for the car keys, not far behind)… and the world class chamber music audience, which is curious, excitable, stands in long lines to hear new acts or unknown music and which is discriminating and extremely knowledgeable. You find them in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Freer Gallery’s concert stage, at the Phillips Collection, at the National Gallery of Arts, at various embassies and residencies. How can these latter music lovers be coaxed to take a stake in the NSO’s future and presence?
The chamber music scene Laurson describes builds on DC's considerable cultural advantages: 1) a smart, deep pocketed audience attracted by the government and its attendant industries; 2) foreign institutions providing support for and ready connections to international culture; 3) the prestige that ensures DC remains a destination for international artists; and 4) proximity to federal largesse.

While the NSO leverages #2, #3, and #4 pretty well, it has indeed failed to really capture the crucial loyalties of #1. For these audiences the NSO exudes a drab institutionalism, a good enough band for a good enough city, but not the kind of cultural asset which inspires a feeling of ownership. Changing this narrative will require taking some chances, thinking hard about what role the NSO wants to play in the cultural life of the city, and moving away from the bet-hedging of the current season.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

HD Handwringing

Hello there.

I read Anne Midgette's balanced check-in on HD broadcasts back in July but didn't say anything about it. Lisa Hirsch has brought it up again, however, so I guess I'll take a crack.

The complaints about the HD casts (of which I am an occasional consumer) have always struck me as both excessively gloomy and unsupported by any credible data. The question of whether HD is cannibalizing live attendance at the Met or other venues is vastly more complex than, say, whether Fage is cannibalizing Chobani. A live opera performance and an HD cast are vastly different products with vastly different "transaction costs" and uptake of the HD casts over the same time period as Met ticket sales have been hurting proves nothing.

Francesca Zambello's alarmist statements in that article aside, my experience with HD in the DC area suggests a plausible story that doesn't involve cannibalization. The elderly crowds that turn up for the broadcasts bear some resemblance to the crowd in the Kennedy Center, but I highly doubt would turn up for live WNO performances. They are the lazy elderly (not a knock, they are still showing more initiative than demographics half their age) for whom a drive downtown and dealing with parking, especially on a weeknight, is not an experience on which they want to spend several hundred dollars. The choice is not between a live show and an HD cast, but between a live show and staying home. The HD cast is gravy.

As for the actual live operagoers I know, the HD casts very clearly reside in a separate bucket. These are folks who have a clear quota of live performance attendance, some of which may be spent on opera, some of which may be spent on straight theater or other music. They gauge their interest in the WNO's offerings for the year and decide how much of that quota is going to opera. If they also head to an HD cast on a Saturday afternoon, its a very different type of activity.

But whether or not there is really some substitution going on here, I can't quite get over the very clear artistic-moral imperative for the HD casts. This is going to sound like the Met press releases I fear, but the HD casts need to be thought of in the context of the Met radio broadcasts in the 1930s, which was truly one of the most important milestones in the history of high culture in the 20th century. The dividends it has paid in the longevity of opera and in lives touched and moved by art is incalculable.

Now, there are some clear differences between the radio broadcasts and the HD program up to this point. At $25 or so a pop, the price is cheaper than a live performance but still a lot more than "free," and there are only so many seats in the movie theaters where the broadcasts occur (and apparently PBS only thinks the tristate area (maybe Boston?) is worthy of classical performance programming). Barriers to entry are also relatively high for the wonderful HD on demand streaming service. Anyone who has agonized about the Met's business predicaments can certainly understand the logic to turning a profit on these services, but it is an important distinction with the truly accessible radio broadcasts.

Yet the alternative, of not charging forward with this new way of distributing the art form, seems unthinkable. Opera companies, or any institution that primarily present the art of the past, have a special mandate to focus on preservation and education. While this may reasonably take a back seat to immediate considerations for many companies, an institution as grand as the Met cannot escape this duty so easily. With the technology to make opera available to those who will never set foot in the live theater with vastly greater immediacy than radio, it would be a dereliction of duty to refuse based on miserly concerns about marginal audience attrition.

I can sympathize with fears of a dystopian future in which empty opera houses occasionally distribute a performance feed to movie theaters filled with elderly opera-goers who can't be bothered to make the trip anymore, the younger audience long since repulsed by the bland experience of secondhand live performance. But I also don't think that is very likely. The continued viability of opera is, as always, a touch-and-go situation, but the HD casts, whatever their growing pains may be, are most certainly a bright spot in that landscape.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016