|Knight at the opera
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|Khovanshchina is a Russian smoothie March 1, 2012
Khovanshchina now playing at the Metropolitan Opera is a blend of Russian music centering on the country’s political turmoil of
the late 17th century. Although it bears Modest Mussorgsky’s byline for writing much of the libretto, the music was composed
posthumously by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Igor Stravinsky with a little help from Maurice Ravel.
The title translates roughly as the Khovansky affair. Prince Ivan Khovansky aimed to install his son Prince Andrei as tsar, wresting
the reins from a young royal named Peter, later known as “The Great” so you know they didn’t get far with that cabal. A boyar
Shaklovity tipped off Pete’s family, and was one of two on-stage principals to survive the show, since the royalty made no
appearances. The other was a scribe, who made comedic but pivotal points throughout the opera. Prince Vasily Golitsyn, once a
suitor of Pete’s sister, was shuffled off to exile. Marfa, Prince Andrei’s lover until he developed a crush on a younger lady in the first
scene, was allied with religious “old believers.” They were targeted for massacre by the royals. Rather than die at the hands of the
tsar’s forces, the monks and nuns, led by cleric Dosifei, martyred themselves on a pyre, making it a contender for the deaths in a
single opera record. Marfa and Randy Andy joined the bonfire that closed the show, thus becoming united forever in death.
Despite so many great chefs making the broth, it was an odd borscht. Composition by committee didn’t sound like Mussorgsky, but
was a nice blend of musical thought. Starting with Rimsky-Korsakov’s version for the opera’s 1886 premiere at St. Petersburg,
Mussorgsky’s unfinished libretto was expanded and sliced as each genius overhauled the work. Old and new believers sang
passionately throughout the four-hour work about how their faith was the salvation for the nation’s political despair but the
committee failed to interweave the lines into a heartfelt plot.
This is a rare opera in which a bass is a hero. Ildar Abdrazakov’s deep voice lent a calming quality to spiritual leader Dosifei. Olga
Borodina’s rich mezzo soprano added depth to Marfa who exudes Dosifei’s goodness as a secular female. Misha Didyk, making his
Met debut as Andrei, had the light tenor to portray the wishy-washy son of Prince Ivan Khovansky. Bass Anatoli Kotscherga had
the boisterous roar to pull off Ivan, who led the Streltsy forces that brutally oppressed the populace. George Gagnidze’s baritone
underscored Saklovity’s power as Boyar. Jeffrey Mosher’s tenor was sweetly contemplative as Prince Golitsyn. Tenor John
Easterlin had the voice and acting to pull off the public scribe whose comedic moves underscored the dangers faced by emissaries of
literacy in a largely illiterate world.
Ming Cho Lee’s sets were spare for the commoners and opulent for the wealthy. John Conklin’s costumes similarly defined the
haves from the have-nots in a brutal political / economic time. Russia-born Kirill Petrenko knew how to lead an opera written by a
roundtable of his countrymen with a French twist. The Met staging this in an election year is well timed. As politicians one-up
themselves as the most pious Christian in the race, Khovanshchina is a poignant reminder of how mixing religion and politics can
lead to murder and mayhem in the name of God.
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|Met's Faust is Devilishly Good January 5, 2012
The Metropolitan Opera took on a new production of Charles Gounod’s Faust tonight and the audience won despite two
teammates being on the disabled list, including the tenor in the title role who succumbed during the performance. The plot is Faust-
lite compared with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s weighty philosophical tome. Except for the aging Faust selling his soul for the
youthful vigor to once again have a romp in the sack, it’s basically a love story of a guy falling in love, abandoning his lover and
coming back too late to correct his mistakes. Of course, he knocks up Marguerite, who kills their baby and loses her mind. Faust’s
return to patch things up leads to a duel with her brother Valentin, which the war veteran loses with a little help from Faust’s buddy,
the devil. Val dies cursing his pregnant sister. The sight of the devil causes Marguerite to die of fright, but she gets a free pass to
heaven because of her sincere contrition and love of God. Faust, presumably, isn’t so lucky after he poisons himself as the final
curtain drops. Nowadays a little Viagra might’ve saved his soul. However that wasn’t an option in 1859 when the curtain rose at
Paris’s Theatre Lyrique on the work that became Gounod’s first operatic hit.
What made it a hit at the Met were the performers. Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto was as suave and wicked as you could ever
hope for as Mephistopheles. Russian Marina Poplavskaya pulled off an amazingly innocent acting Marguerite with a soprano voice
that sounded richly mature beyond the role. It’d be wonderful to hear that voice in Wagnerian opera. Our lead-off Faust, Malta
native Joseph Calleja, had the tenor timbre to balance Poplavskaya before he stepped aside at the first intermission with Canadian
David Pomeroy filling in fairly seamlessly. In the other substitution of the night, Theodora Hanslowe sounded as capable as Wendy
White as Marguerite’s friend, Marthe. Paris native Alain Altinoglu knew how to conduct a French score. That it went a little over,
time-wise, just made it a lingering dalliance in the lush beauty of Gounod’s score. So French.
Des McAnuff, who managed the new production, set the opera in the early 20th century instead of the usual 16th century Germany.
Set designer Robert Brill and costume designer Paul Tazewell helped to bring the fantasy into the 20th century, despite a few
incongruent elements like videos evoking an atomic bomb blast, and psychedelic shows of flowers and cloudy skies behind
speakeasy flappers, swains and World War I soldiers. After overcoming these gaps in reality, having a couple cast mates drop out
probably isn’t much of a problem for these pros.
|La Bohème: The Eve of Destruction December 8, 2011
Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème adds a special aura to the holiday season at the Metropolitan Opera, since the plot begins Christmas
Eve, when a group of starving artists gets a surprise gift of money and head out to spend it on merriment. All of the group that is,
except for writer Rudolfo, who promises to join them later after finishing an article. A frail but comely neighbor intrudes on his
diligence seeking a light for her candle and ends up kindling the love affair that becomes the plot.
Balancing the lovebirds is another pair, Ruddy’s roomy Marcello who has an on and off again affair with Musetta. She comes off as
an egocentric flirt in sharp contrast to Mimi’s wholesome innocence. Seesaws of emotion typical of young relationships advance
character development. Ruddy really realizes his deep love for Mimi as she ebbs to death of a respiratory ailment, a common
problem in 1896 when this opera opened at Turin’s Teatro Regio. At the end of the dance, Musetta hocks her earrings to buy Mimi
a muff for her cold hands, so she really does have a heart. Ruddy’s other roomies pitch in: Colline, a stalwart philosopher, gets
money to buy Mimi some medicine by selling the warm coat he wears throughout the opera, evoking what may be the only aria to a
coat. Schaunard, a musician, spends earnings from his last gig to bring a meager repast. All become so busy doing things to help
Mimi they don’t notice when her nap slips beyond earthly existence to become maybe the most overlooked death in opera.
Except for legend Paul Pliska in buffoonish appearances as landlord Benoit and sugar daddy Alcindoro, our cast was an up-and-
coming crop of singers. For bass Matthew Rose, it was a well-sung met debut as Colline. Those with debuts in the 2000s included
Mimi Hilbla Gerzmava, Rudolpho Dimitri Pittas, Musetta Susanna Phillips and Marcello Alexey Markov. Schaunard Patrick Carfizzi
is from the class of 1999. All delivered awesome moments, especially when they found the Met stage’s sweet spots. However their
balance was spotty with each other and with the orchestra, ably led by Louis Langrée.
Franco Zeffirelli sets and Peter Hall’s costumes transport the audience back to the Latin Quarter of Paris, and created a very fond
appreciation for operas that so far have escaped General Manager Peter Gelb’s quest create productions aimed at Xbox gamers.
Melodrama king Pucinni’s score evoked a more modern twist too in the wake of the Lord Of The Rings. Composer Howard Shore
might consider giving credit to his Italian predecessor for the score that turned the trilogy into a Hollywood blockbuster.
|Why not to be a teenager in love March 3, 2010
William Shakespeare’s teenaged lovers managed to screw up love to operatic proportions fortunately, for it gave Charles Gounod
plenty of material for his version of Romeo et Juliette. Bad enough the kids came from feuding families, but by eloping Romeo
manages to ice his new brother-in-law, Tybalt, after trying to be the peacemaker in a fight between Ty and Romeo’s bud, Mercutio.
For that he’s sentenced to exile. Capulet, Juliette’s dad, tries to console her apparent sorrow over her brother’s death by arranging
a marriage with Count Paris, which really throws her into a tizzy. Rather than owning up to her unavailability, Frere Laurent, who
married the kids, offers a potion that’ll make Juliette appear to be dead, figuring the couple will reunite when she wakes up and they’
ll live happily ever after and end this silly family feud. Had the good priest been an opera buff, he would have known plots don’t
work that way. Romeo finds her apparently dead and takes poison to join her in the afterlife. As he’s ebbing she awakens, curses
that her hubby chugged all the toxin and finds his dagger to commit hari kari, happy to die with him.
Those attending the Metropolitan Opera’s first performance of the season on March 3 had better luck than the stars. Angela
Gherorghiu, who was scheduled to play Juliette, was ill, so the role was sung by Hei-Kyung Hong. Angela no doubt does a boffo
Juliette, but Hei-Kyung is a seasoned soprano with incredible range, stamina and vocal warmth. She really acts the role too, with a
waifish stature that makes her believable as a teenager in love. Her Romeo, Piotr Beczala, maybe should have called in sick. He
wasn’t in his best voice and painfully bungled his high-C exit after dirking Tybalt just before the third-act intermission. That prompted
bemused and hopeful speculation in the audience that he would switch for the remainder of the show with the conductor, Placido
Domingo. Piotr recovered well and Placido continued his wizardry with the wand. Dwayne Croft’s Capulet, Lucas Meachem’s
Mercutio, James Morris’ Frere Laurent and Jeff Mattsey’s Paris were well sung and acted. Romeo’s page Stephano was powerfully
played by Julie Boulianne in her Met debut year. She’s also Diane in Iphigenie en Tauride making it a double header year for this
soprano, who’s putting Canada on the map for something other than hockey and ale.
First shows of a season can be a work in progress with a new cast and there’s a good bet this one will jell better after a few nights
of killing each other. Johannes Leiacker’s sets gave a New Age angle to Shakespeare’s 1597 fantasy overrun with players dressed
to kill for their 1867 premiere at the Theatre Lyrique in Paris. Gounod’s Romantic music blossoming with every turn would have
been perfect for similar flow and movement on stage. Surely for at least one ballet since this is a French opera. Sean Curran limited
choreography to nearly concert setting throughout much of the production, with turntables and sliding sets expected to convey the
illusion of movement.
|It’s nuts to miss Lucia February 24, 2011
Falling madly for the music of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is a sane reaction to the Metropolitan Opera’s rendition
of the opera, performed last night for the first time this season. Based on Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor, it tells
the tale of Lucia being driven bonkers by a marriage arranged by her brother, Lord Enrico Ashton. She consummates the nuptials by
dirking her hapless hubby, Arturo. The murder unravels her fragile state until she dies of heartbreak, singing one of opera’s most
noted mad-scene arias in the process. When her true love, Edgardo, learns of her fate, he opts to not wait for death by duel with
Enrico and uses his own dagger to hasten rejoining Lucia in heaven.
Going nuts is a condition with which Donizetti developed substantial expertise. As he wrote this widely acclaimed opera he was in
the early stages of syphilis, which led to full-blown dementia culminating in his death in 1848 at the age of 51. However, he was in
full command of his musical faculties while writing Lucia, filling it with a rich tapestry of solo, ensemble and choral vocal music whose
florid beauty offsets the tragedy that unfolds on the stage. His colorful orchestration likely was studied by Giuseppe Verdi, then a
music student in Milan. Conductor Patrick Summers paced the presentation on stage and in the pit for maximum dramatic effect,
allowing for uproarious audience acclaim to solo and ensemble virtuosity while keeping timing so tight that it seemed like it could’ve
been used to check the pace of the National Bureau of Standards’ atomic clock.
Singers are what make the show in the Belle Canto style of the early 1800s. Without a top-flight soprano, this opera dies long
before Lucia does. Natalie Dessay was up to filling the blood-stained bridal gown that’d been worn by the likes of Maria Callas,
Lily Pons and Ruth Ann Swenson. Her true love Edgardo was sung by Met up-and-comer Joseph Calleja, whose rich tenor meshed
with Dessay’s warm yet agile coloratura. Matthew Plenk’s tenor seemed appropriately stiff and thin as Arturo, whose short
appearance is just to satisfy a marriage contract instead of true love. Ludovic Tezier was Lucia’s heartless brother Enrico. His
commanding size and dense baritone voice were perfect to bully his sis and outrage Edgardo. Raimondo, a cleric, counseled Enrico
and Lucia in a solid bass voice. Theodora Hanslowe supported Lucia as a maid and as a soprano.
Daniel Ostling’s sets were a bit stark at times, but appropriate to carry a stark plot. Where sets seemed a little too modern, Mara
Blumenfeld’s costumes transported the mind’s eye back to Teatro San Carlo in Naples, Italy, in 1835, when the curtain rose on the
|Have a bender at the Met Dec. 3, 2009
Jacques Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann became the latest victim of general manager Peter Gelb's drive to freshen the Metropolitan
Opera's repertoire. When Bartlett Sher's new production debuted last night, the drama on poet Hoffmann's three failed love affairs was
fast-forwarded to the 1920s for the most part. Some characters didn't get the memo and mingled in costumes ranging from the 17th
century to 2009 pole dancing attire. Hoffmann bought his suit somewhere in the 1940s. Gratuitous modern-metaphorical sets were lowered
and raised at various times, replacing cast action that had propelled earlier productions with mere scenery movement. Yet mixed costuming
and colorful mechanical stage changes might make sense to a besotted poet telling his woes to the regulars in Luther's Tavern.
What saves the show is the power of Offenbach's genius realized by top-flight musicians.
Tenor Joseph Calleja as Hoffman was wonderfully matched with his leading ladies: Kathleen Kim as Olympia the mechanical doll; Anna
Netrebko as Antonia the dying diva and Stella the prima donna in her prime; and Ekaterina Gubanova as the courtesan. Baritone Alan Held
was powerful as Hoffmann's nemesis as Coppelius the optician whose glasses made the mechanical doll seem real and Dapertutto, who
spurred the courtesan Giulietta to steal Hoffmann's reflection. Unfortunately the production deprived Held a chance to be a truly diabolical
Dr. Miracle in killing off Antonia. Better luck next rewrite. Netrebko's awesome power as Antonia was to die for. Kate Lindsey, who sings
Hoffmann's Muse throughout, was at the opposite end of the Met volume knob, yet she's belted some powerful Wagner roles for the
company. The balance this pro achieved worked. The love interests in each act are supposed to be centers of attention. The Muse is an
inner voice that floats throughout. She might not even physically exist, yet the Muse observes and tweaks scenarios until she nudges poet
Hoffmann back to his typewriter after his night of debauchery on the town. Now there's a plot every freelancer can understand. James
Levine led a flawless orchestra. If this cast is recorded, buy the CD.
|Life after House of the Dead Nov. 12, 2009
It's a good idea to read Fyodor Dostoevsky's From the House of the Dead or at least the Cliff Notes on it before taking in Leos Janacek's
operatic adaptation of the novel. The work debuted at the Metropolitan Opera on Nov. 12 and will be shown in theaters on March 20.
Janacek truncates the story, but reading it first helps in following the plot of Dostoyevsky's stint in a Siberian prison in the 19th century.
Being sentenced to these hard-labor prisons was truly a fate worse than death, which was adequately portrayed by Patrice Chereau's
production amid Richard Peduzzi's bleak set. Alexander Gorianchikov, Dostoyevsky's character, was more of a presence than a leading
role. He is flogged to near death shortly after his first-act arrival for telling the commandant that he is a political prisoner, and set free by a
drunken commandant at the end. Prisoners Luka, Skuratov and Shishkov advance the plot by telling tales of why they're in jail in
sprechstimme. There are no melodies to whistle heading home from this opera, but Janacek's orchestration will keep ringing in your ears.
The stark but complex score was directed by Esa-Pekka Salonen in his Met debut. Identifying the leading players was at times difficult in a
stage filled with men creating mayhem while wearing the ragged costumes designed by Caroline de Vivaise. However that only seemed to
extend the woes of the leads to lesser players. Although the setting and prisoner tales were grim, a sense of love of mankind and life itself
prevailed as it does in the novel.
Dostoyevsky considered his time in prison for involvement in a liberal group as a defining moment that helped him appreciate that every
person deserves respect or at least understanding. In one hour and 35 minutes, this rarely performed opera will help to reset one's moral
|A bloody good show at the Met Jan. 7, 2010
Turandot, Giacomo Puccini's tale of an ice princess, was warmly received at the Metropolitan Opera. This production has yet to undergo
general manager Peter Gelb's drive to modernize the repertoire, so the audience was treated to Franco Zeffirelli's sumptuous sets and Anna
Anni's and Dada Saligeri's intricate costumes.
Turandot holds a grudge against men and challenges princely suitors to answer three riddles for her hand in marriage. Those who fail are
tortured and executed. By the time our hero, Calaf, arrives the princess has planted dozens of bodies in the royal cemetery. Despite urging
of everyone from his dad, a slave who truly loves him named Liu, the emperor of China and his clerics, Calaf takes the challenge. The lusty
lad not only solves the puzzles, but wins her true affection.
The production's biggest flaw ironically kind of worked drama-wise. Despite his ample frame our Calaf, tenor Philip Webb, was easily
overpowered by sopranos Maria Guleghina as Turandot and Marija Kovalevska as Liu. Yet the drama is about women with deep emotions,
Liu's intense love and Turnadot's equally intense hatred. Calaf is just another guy who carries his brain between his legs. He's the kind of
shallow fellow who deserves the ice princess he gets instead of the real prize, Liu, who ends up being just another cadaver.
To pull off so many deaths, the opera has two harps to accompany souls to the afterlife and a big hit squad of brass. Besides horns in the
pit, there are backstage sections and ones in the top rows of the audience providing an antiphonal effect. You can't hear this at home
through the TV. Written in the late '20s, the score orders saxophones, colorful woodwinds like a bass clarinet and bass bassoon, lots of
percussion from bells, chimes and gongs, plus an organ. All this extra firepower did not work in Webb's favor in tutti passages.
Puccini did not have the pleasure of hearing his final opera. It was finished posthumously by Franco Alfano, a successful opera composing
contemporary. He was Puccini's competition on the Billboard chart. Considering what Alfano pulled together that's now beloved under
Puccini's name, it would be nice to hear what he wrote and produced under his own imprimatur.
|Waltz up at the Met Oct. 22, 2009
Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier may be nearly 100 years old, yet it'd seem right in place in any supermarket tabloid gossip rag. It kicks
off with a cougar enjoying a dalliance with a lad who ultimately meets the age-appropriate girl of his dreams when he's called upon to
deliver a silver rose – a symbol of betrothal – on behalf of a Baron Ochs. Sophia, the lovely lass, is repulsed by the fading Don Juan,
especially after melting at first sight of Octavian, the rose bearer.
Various subplots of family matters, royalty mixing with bourgeois, and points of honor and legality combine with finely orchestrated hoaxes
with lots of visual and verbal gags. Four and one-half hours after conductor Edo de Waart dropped the baton, the young lovers are united,
her dad gets the cougar Marschallin and the lecherous baron ignominiously gets the door. Drama queen Lindsay Lohan and her staff of
flacks couldn't have generated more scandal.
Strauss cast Octavian as a mezzo-soprano, who sings many a duet and trio along with the two female leads, lending a shrill timbre to the
vocal score. Kristinn Sigmundsson put as much bottom to the sound as possible as Baron Ochs. However even this powerful bass can do
only so much against some of the highest octane sopranos at the Metropolitan Opera gas pump: Renee Fleming as Marschallin, Miah
Perrson as Sophia and Susan Graham in the pants role.
What kept it from turning into a screech competition was the lush orchestration that swirls the plot along with waltzes by the Viennese
master composer. The audience didn't mind that the dance form wasn't around in the mid-1700s when the plot was set. It just floated from
the grandeur of Vienna recreated in Robert O'Hearn's sets and costumes, across Lincoln Center Plaza and into the New York City subway
as if on a dance floor under the stars.
|Rigoletto is sweet revenge April 9, 2009
Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto seems so moralistically righteous that it's tough to fathom what censors of his day saw wrong about this
adaptation of Victor Hugo's 1832 play Le Roi s'amuse. After all, the cursed misshapen misfit in the title role gets serious comeuppance for
his mean streak and unbridled desire for revenge when his plot to kill the sex-crazed duke who deflowered his precious daughter, Gilda,
backfires with her murder by the very assassins he'd hired to kill the duke. But dramas that included assassinations and trysts developing
from flirtatious winks during Catholic Church services weren't taken lightly in the mid-1800s in the politically divided land mass we now
call Italy. Censorship led to at least four variations of the opera circulating simultaneously during Verdi's lifetime. Being a freelancer, he was
happy to collect royalties on all of them. Fortunately enough of the original notes were saved to provide us with the classic we enjoy today.
Joe Green never disappoints musically and nobody stages opera like the Metropolitan. It's one of their warhorses that never grows stale, not
even at the N.Y. company's 824th performance of the score. Zack Brown's sets and costumes transported listeners to Renaissance times, a
period grudgingly accepted by Verdi to get his work staged after censors panned contemporary France. The opera gave conductor
Riccardo Frizza his first gig with the Met. The Brescia, Italy, native paced the performance to a tee, wrapping it up on time and on budget
at 11 p.m. Apparently Met execs know enough to factor rapturous outbursts of applause into timing a performance by a cast and orchestra
that delivered wonderfully. Our Gilda was German soprano Diana Damrau, who's brought many roles to life at the Met. Our Rigoletto
(Roberto Frontali), Duke (Joseph Calleja), and assassin Sparafucile (Raymond Aceto) homogenized well with Damrau as Met vets.
Sparafucile's sexy sister and partner in the murder-for-hire business, Maddalena, was sung and very realistically acted by newcomer
Viktoria Vizen. Hopefully this delicious raven-haired mezzo-soprano will have more reasons to come to New York from her Kecskemet,
There was only one disappointment of the evening, but it's a big one. It was the last show of the regular season unless I spring for another
ticket or two. Hmm. This is conductor James Levine's last scheduled stint of leading Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle.
|Rondine is a lot to swallow Feb, 26, 2009
Giacomo Puccini's rarely performed confection La Rondine is as lush and beautiful as it is disturbing. Somehow this rich dessert becomes
less satisfying as it's consumed.
Courtesan Magda is Rondine, French for swallow, who dares to fly toward the sunny emotion of true love, only to have underlying morality
quash the dream she shares with her soul mate, Ruggero. The plot conjures thoughts of La Traviata. Unlike Violetta's death to tuberculosis
that puts a tear-jerker end to Giuseppe Verdi's masterpiece, though, you feel like shooting this prostitute for breaking the heart of her true
love to return to the flesh trade.
This is a mature work for Puccini. Riffs of Magda's swallow song waft throughout much like the love song of Chio-Chio San, another
Puccini courtesan reaching for true love, in Madama Butterfly. What keeps Rondine from being as cloying is comic relief by her maid and a
poet who aspires to marry into wealth. Puccini's stint in Vienna, home of operettas and waltzes, added a light step to the music.
Romanian Angela Gheorghiu is as desirable of courtesan as any guy could ever hope for. She nails Magda with a voice and bod as
voluptuous as her acting. It fairly matched her Ruggero, Giuseppe Filianoti. Romanian tenor Marius Brenciu, making his Met debut as the
poet Prunier balanced with New Orleans soprano Lisette Oropesa as, coincidentally, Lisette the maid. Met vet Samuel Ramey seemed as
classy yet aloof as you'd expect a wealthy courtesan-hiring lothario like Rambaldo to be.
Enzio Figerio's sets made you wish to be transported to pre-World War I in Paris and Nice. The bustle and décor of Bullier's, the bistro
where Magda and Ruggero fall in love, is so romantic and chaotic. It's where the ballet that must be in every French opera occurs and it left
no doubt about the pulsing vibe of this pickup bar. Late romantic orchestration adds richness to the sweet melodies with spritzes of
disturbing harmony that hint of 20th century sounds, which were coalescing as this opera debuted.
It was odd seeing this opera revolving around the excesses of the wealthy, dredged up by the Met to celebrate Puccini's 150th birthday, as
we battle a recession. La Rondine debuted at the Met 80 years ago and played only a few seasons as the "big depression" rolled in. The
disinterest in staging has been blamed on the downturn. Or was it a growing sense of a lack of substance as the plot unfolds.
|Faust vs. the Met? We won! Nov. 25, 2008
One hell of a job is all I could think while walking home from the Met's Damnation of Faust. Two weeks after seeing them try to turn
A-Bomb builder Robert Oppenheimer into a Faustian figure in the largely forgettable Dr. Atomic, it was a real pleasure to see Hector
Berlioz's treatment of the classic plot with the devil for youth and love, written by Goethe among others.
For all its rich material, it's an opera that doesn't get dusted off very often. The current production is the Met's first staging since 1906. It's
essentially a montage of sketches on a Faustian theme that Berlioz composed and presented over several years that he glued together into an
opera. It didn't fly in his day and getting all the parts to fit apparently has bedeviled opera companies since.
Interactive videography and some seriously athletic staging orchestrated by production manager Robert Lepage and designer Holger Forterer
really helped to pull together the mash-ups of emotions in the plot. Set changes at the twist of a video dial were the easy miracles. Demons
scurried up walls. Heavenly seraphim floated in. Faust and his beloved Marguerite float in an on-screen dream world or become consumed
with emotional fire on the big 3D screen that filled the stage behind them. Although it bordered on a Music Television Video show, it
effectively allowed the twisty plot to logically unfold.
What better conductor for a score that changes directions more often than turns at Le Mans than James Levine, who drove the production
like a well-tuned Porsche. With only four singers, the real work was done by the pit crew, and coordinating those instrumentalists with the
Berlioz literally wrote the book on orchestration and he didn't disappoint in the opera he'd hoped would define his career. A Wagnerian-sized
orchestra with all sections fully staffed, plus four harps and extra percussion, barely squeezed into the pit. Not surprisingly, the army of
instruments was used sparingly for just the right tone color to portray the emotions on stage. A diabolical little serenade Mephistopheles
uses goad Marguerite into falling for Faust, for instance, sounds like it could be plucked on a guitar, which was Berlioz's instrument. All
strings plucking away in pizzicato turned the orchestra into one hell of a big guitar. A simple ominous gong marked the signing of the
contract that damns his soul.
Baritone-bass John Relyea projected well as the devil himself, lithe and oily with no goal but the fun of trapping some hapless mortal's soul.
Susan Graham was the kind of soprano any tenor could love, absolutely voluptuous in sound and appearance. She had the nerve to be
presented on big screen in Part IV and sing the ending aria while scaling a ladder above the stage curtain to enter heaven in the epilogue. Our
Faust Marcello Giordani had the notes nailed but seemed a little preoccupied on the acting end. It is one of those epic singing roles for
tenors, and he's also doing Verdi's Requiem, Pinkerton in Butterfly for the Met this season. Plus he's Romeo in Vienna, Gabrielle in
Barcelona and Calif in Budapest. That's a lot of shifting gears in roles not to mention flights and hotel rooms.
Thank heavens Marcello and the rest of this huge cast of singers, instrumentalists, dancers and supporting crew can get together to present
this classic reminder of human frailties that can lead to damnation.
|A bomb of nuclear proportions Nov. 5, 2008
Dr. Atomic became my season opener at the Mets last night. That's the N.Y. opera house, not the ball team. The development of the atomic
bomb surely was a milestone of operatic proportions and presenting Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who spearheaded the U.S.
effort, as a Faust-like figure seems inspired. Where composer John Adams fell flat with this 2005 work that is debuting at the Metropolitan
this season, is character development. Had the plot extended to after the war, when Oppenheimer rued the misery his invention created, or
better presented some of the sensitive side of this genius, it might have stirred feelings that his miserable soul was worth saving. Instead the
entire action revolves around the tension in the few weeks leading up to the test at Los Alamos, N.M. Cookie-cutter characters are
bellowing like reality TV stars over rhythmic pulses of a Phillip Glass-like score. Quotes from Oppenheimer's and his wife, Kitty's, favorite
poets are woven into a libretto that consists largely of text extracted from documents of the day. However, the angular, unmelodic lines
convey little emotion except vexation. One has to admire the singers and the orchestra for pulling off this demanding score with
accompanying tape and off-stage singers and instrumentalists. Conductor Alan Gilbert's Met debut was truly a trial by fire! The pit had
interesting effects instruments like a contrabass clarinet, contra-bassoon gamelons and other special percussion effects. Sets effectively
propelled the mind back to a 1940s Army base. The sense was completed with costuming civilian men in broad fedoras and suits, women in
midi-length dresses of the day and soldiers in replicas of mens' and womens' World War II uniforms. Oddly, it had two acts, the traditional
structure for comic operas. Maybe composer Adams plans to add the third act that'd turn this farce of an opera into a serious work of art.
|Peaceful season closer May 1, 2008
My 2007-08 Met Opera series sputtered to a close tonight with Satyagraha. Named for Mahatma Gandhi's peaceful resistance movement,
the opera was based on his life while developing the protest method as a young lawyer in South Africa in the early 1900s. The topic surely
has depth worthy of operatic treatment. Alas it was trivialized with Philip Glass's mind-numbing New Age score for Constance DeJong's
Sung in Sanskrit, a language as dead as Latin, the work was performed without the benefit of a translation being available to the audience.
Occasionally chestnut sayings of Gandhi or Tolstoy, with whom he corresponded, were projected on the scenery, sometimes in English and
others in Sanskrit. Paper machete monsters wandered the stage from time to time. A few times they obviously represented action of the
plot, but mostly they their symbolism was a mystery. The gargoyles and an active stage crew that raised and lowered miscellaneous props
from the ceiling provided some movement. Otherwise, staging was nearly as static as a concert performance of an opera.
Glass orchestrated Satyagraha with a small ensemble of strings and woodwinds – no horns or percussion – to blend seamlessly with an
electric combo organ, which also was present to fill in possible gaps when wind instrumentalists caught breaths. There was virtually no
change in timbre as they played rapid arpeggios that rarely strayed from a few chords surrounding do. This busy repetitive matrix drifted
below a descant of reliably dramatic fortissimo vocal lines that could be understood by all the Sanskrit speakers in the audience. Glass's
signature sound gave refreshing twists in collaborations with Glam Rocker David Bowie and fellow New Ager Brian Eno. But after nearly
four hours of trance music, I was glad to go OM.
|Go nuts at the Met March 27, 2008
Prokofiev's version of Dostoyevsky's The Gambler just packed my senses. What a production! No less than 31 solo singing roles and an
orchestra pit packed so tight it's a wonder it didn't burst when they inhaled in unison. With that big of crew, it's no wonder it doesn't get
staged too often. Too bad, although many might pass on it since it doesn't leave an audience with a tune to whistle on the way to the
Local regulars who were peddling their ducats outside the Met had no problem selling them to tourists with pockets packed with euros.
English was a second language in the audience, with Russian and German predominating.
Nearly all singers and the conductor, Valery Gergiev, were Russian. Bringing out the best in Prokofiev and Dostoyevsky was a matter of
nationalistic pride and deep-felt sensitivity to the social norms that contributed to the plot and orchestration. Prokofiev's experiment with
what Germans would call sprechstimme – speech-song – meshed wonderfully with the angular bombastic orchestral parts to convey the
dizzying madness of waning aristocrats losing their dwindling fortunes to their addiction to gambling. All singing and instrumental parts
seemed impossibly demanding, making sense only in an ensemble setting.
Costuming was early 20th century, when this was written. The sets capture casino glitz with an earlier flair, but touch on casinos today
with lighting effects and movement. The cast acted up a storm, especially our lead gambler Alexei, played by Vladimir Galouzine. This
energetic role would've left Pavarotti clutching his chest early in Act I of IV.
An unfortunate stage accident is the only way death could be introduced to the plot, oddly. Characters threaten mass mayhem. People try to
commit suicide. Duels are challenged. The orchestra includes a full "hit squad" of three trombones and a tuba, plus two harps to transport
souls beyond. What a waste of good talent. The stage was ripe for a pile of bodies, but these losers can't pull it off.
They just go mad.
|Love this Romeo and Juliette Dec. 20, 2007
Romeo and Juliette died about an hour ago, but the Met's show just revved me up. It was the second time I'd seen Gounod's tale of the
star-crossed teens. Last year I swapped tix to a warhorse show to see something different, and was glad to see it on the regular series this
year, especially with a real cast upgrade.
Tenor Placido Domingo, who'd sung Romeo in past years, conducted. He's hyper-sensitive to singers and the drama. It was the first time
I'd seen Joseph Kaiser, as Romeo. He has hunky youthful looks and almost enough power to balance Juliette, sung by Anna Netrebko. She's
a drop-dead gorgeous Russian soprano, and the two were fully capable of acting as well as Tony and Maria in West Side Story, while
effortlessly belting out songs. Anna surely must have titanium vocal folds because Juliette is singing almost non-stop in five acts and she
didn't seem to get warmed up until the lines approached double fortissimo and the stratosphere. Yet when she was cranking out sound, her
face reflected the mood of the moment. Even during a deserved applause of over a minute, she held character.
Gounod's score is somehow lush yet spare. The orchestration is sumptuously rich French romantic but without extra color instruments
Italian Verdi might've used like a bass clarinet for pathos or a piccolo for levity. Bagging four bodies with a hit squad of only two trombones
and no tuba seems light; but French horns in low register doubling bass fiddles gave a brassy bottom at crucial death scenes. This might've
been the only French opera I've seen without a ballet, and the program notes say one exists that usually isn't performed.
There was plenty of movement to compensate for a lack of dance in Johannes Leiacker's set. It melds a sense of alchemy and religion of
the time with modern effects. Period oil paintings of Verona as the overall backdrop gounded the drama and Jorge Jara's costumes.
Tonight's 320th Met performance of this opera was live-cast on Sirius Satellite Radio channel 85. Hmm. If good stuff is available on this
medium, maybe it's time to consider it?