Friday, April 30, 2010

Tu es le diable, Carmen!

I learned something last night: Carmen is a popular opera. Yes, I knew this at some level, but showing up more than four hours before the release of rush tickets to find oneself behind 120 other people does rather drive it home. (Not to mention mercifully-abortive manifestations of rhythmic applause, and even Toreador-humming, during the performance. Oh dear, I'm turning into an elitist. Sorry.) I would be remiss in opening my account of this much-anticipated event without an "Euch werde Lohn" for the charming Zerbinetta due to whose kind offices and timelier arrival I was able to be present at all! Ich kann sie nicht vergelten! (For a probably more-sophisticated review, head to her blog.)

Bizet's superb music, of course, is always a treat, and the orchestra under Alain Altinoglu played with increasing verve from Act II onwards. While I had some quibbles with the Richard Eyre production (images, with the season's first cast, may be found here) I will say that having a fairly clear concept working throughout is no small thing. The sets were massive, dwarfing, and seeming to at times cramp, the singers; the world of this Carmen was dirty, sensual, and brutal. In Act I, the monstrously ineffective garrison, at the front of the stage, was separated from the population they were nominally policing by a chicken-wire fence, and when they did emerge, could not even execute the changing of the guard without being disrupted by the chorus of urchins. What did they do with their time? Grope nice girls like Micaela and ogle the factory workers, obviously. Lillas Pastia had an appropriately dingy interior, curiously open to the sky, with a dais for all that gypsy dancing. More monumental stone indicated Smuggling in the Mountains, and Act IV, of course, took place in the shadow of the enormous arena. The atmospheric colored lighting worked well, I thought, and the balletic intervals before Acts I and III were interesting, if not breathtaking. Altogether, while not entirely won over by the production (why, for instance, is the cigarette factory under the stage? and must we use turntables so much? must we?) I was impressed with Eyre's efforts to support and comment on the drama. Doom, I must say, was impending from the first opening of the scarlet-slashed curtain, the production itself as fatalistic as Carmen: out of such an environment, it seems to suggest, there is no other possible outcome.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Ein höchst gelung’ner Spaß

Thanks to Zerbinetta at Likely Impossibilities, I have discovered a wondrous thing: a Twitter contest to summarize opera plots. (Rules here; explanation here; last year's winners here.) I'm not a Twitterer, but fortunately this is also a spectator sport, described by Charlotte Higgins as "the most fun opera nerds can have in 140 characters!" In my own fascinated contemplation of the almost-constantly-updating entries, I have discovered subgenres of pastiche, e.g. IreneVartanoff: "I'll build a castle in Paradise, I'm going to get there at any price; Stand aside, I'm on my way (Wotan, apologize to Gershwin)," and rhyme, e.g. ClassicalReview: "Notion. 'Potion'. Commotion. Emotion. Devotion." While savoring the more arcane entries, I have to say I have a special place in my heart for the irreverent:

ClassicalCritic: #operaplot I don’t love that silly girl. I’m too cool for this. Shoot, there goes my friend. Wait, maybe... But it is too late, too Russian.

Gtheule: Cigarettes are unwise and bullfighting is nuts, but a mezzo has them beat for crazy any day of the week. #operaplot

JoseSPiano: He sings. He schemes. He lies for the lovers. He steals keys. He evades arrest. But does he actually cut hair? #operaplot

Pauljz: 3 protagonists enter. 3 cries of “Turandot.” 3 gongs. 3 riddles. 3 correct answers. 3 ministers lament. 3 “Vinceròs!” 3 Acts end. #operaplot

thoscarpenter: Let's all try to figure out why the King of Sweden was assassinated in Boston. I think it has something to do with the censors. #operaplot

And in honor of irreverent, erudite opera summaries:

In the river Rhein! IN it! (Since you can't have just one: Hunding plays the French horn, Siegfried's Classic Understatement, and the whole world burns up.)

Tomorrow, with any luck, I will be experiencing firsthand Anna Russell's dictum that the beauty of grand opera is that you can do anything as long as you sing it. I've tried a number of recordings, I've read the libretto, I've pored over the score... and I still haven't connected with Carmen (sorry, Bizet.) I've been impressed. I've been moved. But part of me never stops thinking "Drôles de gens! Drôles de gens!" Will Kate Aldrich and Jonas Kaufmann ignite Richard Eyre's staging in a way that suddenly makes sense? Am I expecting too much? On va voir.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Voi che sapete

On Thursday morning, I opened an e-mail from Carnegie Hall, detailing the concerts included in this week's student ticket program. The first listing was for that very evening: the farewell recital of Frederica von Stade. I called (no, they weren't sold out! your loss, other students of New York!), I went, I purchased. On the one hand, I felt a bit shy, as if I were trying to be part of something I hadn't earned by attending a tribute to a career I hadn't been around to follow. On the other hand... I knew her recorded Cherubino as a thing of beauty, and, in a carpe diem sort of mood, I decided that if there could only be one night when my opera-going and Frederica von Stade's singing coincided, then one night there would certainly be.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Se non vi spiace, un poco di lezione

Gentle (and long-suffering) Readers, I am actually capable of writing a post that is not the length of a smallish novella. Herewith some operatic miscellany from the time I've spent in Tosca-recovery.

Firstly, I spent a thoroughly enjoyable and very instructive hour on Saturday afternoon sitting in on the voice lesson of a new acquaintance. When in the line for rush tickets for Traviata, I overheard the man two places behind me saying that he was going to be singing Florestan in the city next year... being the Fidelio fangirl I am, I of course ditched propriety and customary timidity in favor of breathless enthusiasm and the only slightly mendacious claim that I "couldn't help overhearing." This led into a three-hour conversation (ah, opera line bonding!) So, yesterday, I had a bit of an aural education as I sat and listened to him make a sound... and then his voice instructor would say "Yes, that is good; now do this," or "More air!" or "Drunken, drunken, he is drunken with love here!" and he would do it again, and I would think, aha! Fascinating.

Furthermore, I encountered Christof Loy via Joyce DiDonato's most recent blog entry, and felt not only illuminated about the behind-the-scenes mechanics of acting-in-opera (or lack thereof,) but inspired to research Mr. Loy, whose name I keep hearing without gaining more than a vague impression of "adventurous opera director?" I soon figured out that one of the reasons his name is so familiar is that he is the patron saint of the Handel-worshiping Purity McCall... and finding his website, I found out that he was responsible for "my" 2007 Simon Boccanegra in Frankfurt. Very exciting!!! This production had long been my token anecdote wielded in argument with opera-listeners whose sensibilities incline towards the exclusively literalistic in set design. The set furnishings for this, as I remember, consisted of an iron staircase and a velvet curtain (sometimes with view of the sea). Characters were dressed in black or white (with a red robe for the Doge.) And I thought this worked brilliantly for the convoluted plot, and I had an absolutely marvelous time. While some stills from Loy productions cause me confusion, a surprisingly exhaustive list of his opinions (convictions might be more apt) on drama and its staging, also on his website, I find quite stimulating.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ecco un artista!

Photo credits to Cory Weaver and the Met via the New York Times; Opera Chic has ferreted out some others, including a great one of Terfel's Scarpia. Update: YouTube has been plundered for audio excerpts from the 24 April performance. Scroll down for links! Update II: the Met has posted pictures!

So. Tosca. While I've been trying to pull myself together, professional reviewers have made their contributions, which I don't want to simply rehash. And I've been soul-searching: what am I doing here? why am I commenting? Well, in this case especially, as a cathartic personal exercise; I remember this performance and my pulse quickens, my hands tremble. I try to start writing and end up huddled muttering "My God my God my God..." I need to try to explain that. I want to share my joy in what I experienced, knowing how I hang on the words of other opera-lovers as they describe this or that performance that held them spellbound. And even in this strange medium simultaneously obscure and public, I want to pay tribute to the artists who gave me this. I will take as encouragement the words of a nice older man named Bruce, who turned to me as we sat on a bench waiting to take our standing room places for last year's Siegfried: "And do you also know opera?" he asked. I stammered that I didn't think I could claim that, but that I certainly did love it--oh, I certainly did love it, and I was trying to learn. He patted me on the shoulder in avuncular fashion. "If you feel that way about it, young lady," he said, "you know it. Or you will." So, with no further authorization, Tosca.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Mia Tosca idolatrata

At the risk of losing all credibility by enthusing effusively for two successive operas, I have to say that Wednesday's "Tosca" was an extraordinary experience. I am firmly and passionately in the camp that argues for "Tosca" as intelligent, effective drama. There are so many moments in it which leave me in awe of Puccini--how did he know to do that?--and I am a happy believer in Tosca and Mario and Scarpia as complex, passionate people. So, my susceptibility (but also the choosiness that is based on love!) having been established, onwards.

To be honest, I can't quite say "ogni cosa in te mi piace" about the Met's current production, but let me try to follow the King's advice from Alice and begin at the beginning (and, when I come to the end, stop.) Luc Bondy's stark new production, and the Met audience's reaction to it, have both achieved notoriety by this point. But having seen it twice now (in standing room for the glamor--and, as it turns out, for the boos--of the season premiere) I think I can honestly say that... it's hit and miss. In Act I, the image of the Virgin at which Tosca prays is invisible to the audience. The space in which the action of Act I takes place is simply a stark, slightly untidy work space. Act II is... well, I still think it's ugly. Scarpia's walls are mustard-yellow and chocolate brown; he has aggressively magenta sofas, large maps on the walls, a writing desk (of course!) and a tiny table with one straight chair and one armchair for his "povera cena." And a throw rug which looks like something from IKEA gone wrong, which I was mercifully spared this time by standing in the orchestra instead of at the top. Act III is, again, stark, monumental. No angel, but a sheer staircase leading up to the battlements on the right, and a hatch in the center for the soldiers' entrances and exits. It's a comfortless, exposed place; the production as a whole does not seek to distract from the bleak realities of the plot. The approach is mostly naturalistic, with a few exceptions in lighting (stark spotlights on Angelotti's entrance, an ominous, hospital-bright glow from the off-stage room in Act II) and blocking (there's no plausible reason for Scarpia to enter the church and climb a staircase so that he overlooks the entire set... but it sure does make an entrance!) I think the first and third acts work well; I don't think a sensualist like Scarpia would have an ugly study! but there. More images from the whole thing here.

Monday, April 12, 2010

O sorella in pio lavoro

The fabulous Puccini-loving professor strikes again! This morning's topic in the hagiography seminar was high medieval female spirituality, and our lively discussion brought us around to the subject of miracles related to pregnancies, usually miraculous terminations of (yes, you read that right; found in lives of St. Brigid, the Cantigas de Santa Maria, and an Icelandic bishop's life, among other places) and the relationship, or perceived relationship, between chastity and holiness. Which of course brought us to Suor Angelica, in a brief professorial aside. This made me giggle--I am so glad I'm not the only one occasionally distracted by operatic analogies to seminar topics--and also elicited a general "Huh?" which was answered with admirable brevity and verve.

Of course, this meant that my afternoon tea break was devoted to wandering the byways of YouTube for the exquisite "Senza Mamma." Scotto acts it beautifully (albeit with badly synchronized sound) in this video. Virginia Zeani gives instant-lump-in-the-throat anguish, while Renata Tebaldi gives an almost unbearably beautiful rendition. Caballe lingers on each tragic phrase to heartbreaking effect. The recording I'm familiar with (yes, that is a veiled Really Shameful Confession: recording, singular) features Cristina Gallardo-Domas, whose girlishness I find very touching. Victoria de los Angeles' Angelica is radiant even on YouTube; getting my hands on the classic Trittico which includes it will be a personal objective. You will have gathered by now that my romantic sympathies are fully engaged by the pathos of this aria. So many Angelicas, so many great sopranos (and others whose omission doubtless constitutes a crime), but I have to confess that this is the version which invariably makes me want to telephone my mother. The first time I heard it--in this collection--I actually did, alarming her no end, apparently, by spontaneous mid-week confessions of love and gratitude, despite reiterated assurances that I was really fine. Oh, opera, what you do to us.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Prendi, quest'è l'immagine

Squeezed into sold-out standing room at the top of the Met on Wednesday night, I finally made it to "La Traviata" (photo New York Post)! Update: production photos may be found here. My opera glasses were virtually glued to my face... except of course for when I was plying my handkerchief. The production was, often almost-too-literally, dazzling (I was reminded again of how much Franco Zeffirelli likes glitter.) ETRO was credited in the program for providing fabrics for Violetta's apartments... and it showed. I coveted her pillows like anything. (Perusing their website did not reveal a "Buy Traviata pillows here!" link; clearly an oversight!!) I do like Decker's production; "the old order changeth, yielding place to new, / lest one good custom should corrupt the world" and all that, but I am glad to have seen this in all its borderline-kitschy resplendence. The gowns were a sight to behold, but Alfredo's costumes were gorgeous. I want his blue coat! And his boots! Maybe when I am an eccentric professor. Also, I have no quarrel with ornate 1850s demi-mondaine apartments and country houses. Oil portraits in Act I vs. watercolor landscape medallions in Act II; hazy, gilt-framed mirrors vs. natural light pouring in from the garden... nice touches, I thought. Here is a collage of musical excerpts, with pictures.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Les plus sages sont les fous

Monday night's performance of Ambroise Thomas' "Hamlet" set me reeling, and not just--not even mostly--because I have the Shakespearean text quasi-memorized, its complex dramas held close to my heart. For one thing, I was taking in much of the music for the first time; NOT ideal, but what's a girl to do when the NYPL collections are non-circulating? For another, the Caurier-Leiser production was making a lot of interesting choices which kept me busily thinking. For another, the elegantly stylized costumes were making similarly provocative choices; Hamlet, for instance, was initially dressed in white (appropriately vulnerable and disheveled, pale as his shirt, but not in the trappings and the suits of woe), and Gertrude's hair and makeup were strongly reminiscent of a caricatured 1950s trophy wife. For another, there was the pungent, unmistakable smell of burning shortly before the interval... disquieting, especially when accompanied by the growing rustle of several hundred people shifting and whispering, the disturbance of several dozen people self-evacuating, and the businesslike, unanticipated activities of ushers in the darkness. The New York Fire Department was in evidence at the interval, but we were told that a light cover had begun to smoke and smolder but had been quickly doused with no danger to the public. A non-event, but added still further to the disquiet of the evening!

For it was a disquieting evening. The battlements of Elsinore might have been an innocuous stone gray slightly overgrown with moss, but their streaky color increasingly came to look like something stagnant, putrid... yes, rotten. The initially innocuous-seeming, even welcoming interior walls, with rosy brick and white paint gently netted with pink (suitable to Vaguely 19th Century setting) began first to look as though dripping with blood, and then began to inch closer to the protagonists, once literally swinging across to bar Hamlet's exit from a scene. "Denmark's a prison..." No liberty in this nutshell. This, the stark lighting, and the spare choreography made the whole thing a rather Brechtian (to use the term loosely) experience of being encouraged to sit back and think rather than lean forward and lose oneself. The banquet, appropriately in my view, formed the dramatic highlight of the evening, brilliantly staged with the "Murder of Gonzago" an obscene, offensive farce, shadows of dumbshow-king and dumbshow-queen looming grotesquely over the seated Claudius and Gertrude. When Keenlyside then leapt up onto the banqueting table and started scattering glassware, I think I stopped breathing, as he shouted and gibbered and repeated, chillingly, snatches of the drinking song he had earlier shared with the players. Here he is wrapped in the wine-soaked tablecloth. Different from Shakespeare. Shocking. Absolutely effective.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

et resurrexit

I love Bach. But then I've said that before. I love the humanity of this, a boundlessly joyous celebration of the end of fear. A lot of this week has been spent thinking about the fear, violence, and hatred in the world... and it's painful to contemplate. But then there's Bach. Easter resolution: to work for joy, hope, and love. Joy, hope, and love, people!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Domine, ne in furore

For me, this is a week of much church, and also, therefore, a week of much music. Bach has been predictably checked out of the library, as has Brahms. The magic of music blogs has also been forthcoming, with an extraordinary recording of "Herr, unser Herrscher" shared at Dich, Teure Halle; the video has Renaissance art galore, for extra terror and beauty. And the recording from which it is taken is astonishingly cheap! Oh, the temptation of impulsive classical music purchases! (Parenthetical anecdote: in a far-too-good-for-me experience, I first heard the Johannespassion in a concert given at the beginning of Lent in the Elisabethkirche of Marburg. I was smitten.) Back to this year's Lent, though... I have even already taken a sneak peek at Easter with "I know that my Redeemer liveth" shared at Se Vuoi Pace. But before we get there really, there is a lot more music to be appreciated.


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