Thursday, December 22, 2011

Nights at the Opera: 2011

Time blurs strangely together towards the end of the academic term, and I can't quite believe it's late December already... but I seem to have seen my last opera of the year, so it must be true. To cheer the longest night of the year, here's 2011's non-hierarchical, gleefully subjective round up of some of the past year's highlights: great nights, standout performances, and exploring the city's many opportunities for opera.

5 Great Nights

Not without difficulty, I've picked out a handful of the nights that reminded me of opera's glorious possibilities, by surprising me with their musical excellence and emotional immediacy. In alphabetical order:

Atys, Brooklyn Academy of Music. I saw this glorious gem in September, and it set a standard that the rest of the autumn never quite reached. The ensemble work of Les Arts Florissants was precise, elegant, and passionate, evoking seventeenth-century splendor and creating timeless enchantment. The production is now available on DVD.

Bluebeard's Castle, with the New York Philharmonic. Including a concert performance may seem like bending the rules, but so much of Bluebeard is about perception and imagination that I thought it worked well. Lighting was used well, and the musical values were superb. Esa-Pekka Salonen drew fiery and subtle playing from the orchestra, Gabor Bretz was a charismatic Bluebeard, and Michelle DeYoung a stunning Judith, emotionally rich and vocally luxurious.

Don Giovanni, with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. This production, seen at the Mostly Mozart festival, has been the year's most talked-of among my friends, often to the detriment of more costly and less creative endeavors. Ivan Fischer was behind the idea which had the cast clad in contemporary evening dress, moving among dancers who formed the sets, reflecting the titular antihero's view of the world. There were allusions to classicism and romanticism, there was very fine singing, especially from Laura Aikin as Donna Anna, and Fischer led the BFO in a hair-raising, fire-and-brimstone reading of the score in its Prague version.

Die Walküre, at the Met under James Levine. I'm breaking a bigger rule here, and ignoring the (non-)contribution of the production. But the performances I saw gave me a list of indelible moments--the twist of anguish in grüße mir Wälse, for instance--and their dramatic sweep was irresistible. The orchestra gave of their best under Levine's leadership, and the performances were deeply moving, from Siegmund and Sieglinde's first entranced encounter to the finale through which I sobbed. Twice.

Wozzeck, another highlight of Levine's curtailed spring schedule at the Met, a stunning, searing performance of Berg's claustrophobic masterpiece. All of the singers inhabited their roles fully, and sang them excellently.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Rataplan, rataplan! Fille du Régiment returns to Met

Machaidze, Brownlee, ensemble (c) Met Opera/Marty Sohl
The good old Twenty-First is back at the Met this winter, lifting spirits as always. Laurent Pelly's production flirts with kitsch, but I'm fond of it; its slightly off-kilter whimsy is a good fit for Donizetti's lighthearted, lightly caricatured hijinks. Yves Abel led the orchestra this time around, in a reading which was sympathetic to the characters' emotional troubles, but always seemed to know there was another joke around the corner. Maurizio Muraro reprised his turn as Sulpice, and was joined by Ann Murray as the Marquise, Lawrence Brownlee's ardent Tonio, and Nino Machaidze as the titular heroine. Kiri Te Kanawa was present as an irrepressible Duchesse de Krakenthorp.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Harmonie du soir: Karita Mattila at Carnegie Hall

Karita Mattila's Saturday night recital offered an evocative selection of sensual art songs from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (full listing here.) Partnered with Martin Katz, Mattila spun hypnotic melodies of fin-de-siècle seduction. I was bewildered, however, both by the number of empty seats and by the behavior of those who were there. In the first half of the program, applause from all levels came after each song, persistent, but sounding almost perfunctory. There was welcome silence during the Sallinen set, and then applause after two of five songs by Joseph Marx. I wanted to tell the applauders to take a glass of absinthe and relax, and let Mattila and Katz work their magic uninterrupted.

Poulenc, date unknown
The first half of the recital was devoted to cycles by Poulenc and Debussy, both structured around the texts of a single poet to whose work the composer was specially drawn. Poulenc's Banalités, with texts by Apollinaire, comprised a series of vignettes united by wry wit rather than mood, from the lightly satirical "Chanson d'Orkenise," to the sensually languorous "Hôtel," through the poems to place that are "Fagnes de Wallonie" and "Voyage à Paris." The last song in Poulenc's cycle, "Sanglots," moves the furthest from realism, taking the listener through a series of romantically morbid images. The virtues of Katz' sensitive accompaniment were on full display here, as he let single notes and richly rolling chords convey equal intimacy of despair. Debussy's Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire, setting poems from Les Fleurs du Mal, continued our odyssey into impressionistic treatments of romantic love. Although Mattila's voice sounded somewhat exposed and fragile at the top, she sang with beautiful coloration of tone throughout, and admirable attention to text. (I was glad of having the texts open on my lap, for I didn't catch every syllable, but she treated the many examples of wordplay or extended metaphor with intelligence.) Here, too, Katz was her worthy partner in drawing out the expressive richness of Debussy's harmonies.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Quello freme, questa è pazza: Barber of Seville at Amore Opera

After Mozart and Mercadante earlier this autumn, Amore Opera's "Fall Figaro Fest" is concluding with the beginning of the story, and Rossini's indefatigable factotum. The staging all but winked at the audience, treating the fourth wall like a curtain to be pulled aside to say: isn't this all a glorious joke? It is, of course. The orchestra played energetically for Richard Owen, but sounded unfocused and ragged at points (an opening night liability, perhaps.) The humidity was a problem for the string players, but they battled it valiantly, retuning at the interval. One aspect of the performance which struck me as peculiar was that it was performed in Italian and English, with recitative in English and the rest in Italian; the easy flow of Rossini's music resulted in a number of non sequiturs in bilingual conversations. (Apparently this performance tradition endures from Amato Opera.) The supertitles broke partway through, and my neighbors seemed to be grateful for the English, which had a "cask of Amontillado" joke but left out the cheese and macaroni. Still, Barbiere's conspiratorial ensembles, conspicuously exchanged letters, and silly disguises don't strike me as particularly dependent on word-by-word comprehension. I have special respect for the singers dealing with the mental gymnastics of using two languages in rapid alternation. Amore Opera's mixture of veteran and up-and-coming singers gave broad, engaging performances, and to judge by the reactions of those around me in the audience, good times were had by all.

In smaller roles, Sanford Schimel made a fine Fiorello, and Pavlina Horakova brought an expressive, distinctive mezzo to Berta. Alan Smulen was a slightly dry but solid Bartolo, aptly fussy and unafraid of making the deluded doctor openly ridiculous. Jörg Schnass sang Don Basilio with fine diction and vivid theatricality; "La calunnia" was given with appropriately oily glee. The Rosina of Elizabeth Treat was pert without being precious, using her bright, agile soprano with confident flair. She had fine chemistry both with her ardent suitor and with the charming Figaro. Andrew Whitfield sang the role of Almaviva with vivid engagement (giving just a hint in the first act of the wandering eye and weak will which lead to such grief later on... but letting the audience forget that in the charm of the rest of the performance.) Whitfield has a warm, pleasant timbre, and he sounded freer as the evening went on, interacting well with the other singers. Scott Lindroth's Figaro was often covered in the outdoor scenes with the Count, but this was rectified subsequently. Lindroth was appropriately cheeky, conveying sly self-satisfaction through well-shaped phrases. It all ended with half the population of Seville in Rosina's room, celebrating successful conspiracies and joyful prospects. The opera runs through January 1.

Curtain call photos:

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sunday Special: Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland

This Sunday Special, Gentle Readers, is brought to you thanks to my Aunt Dorothy, through whom I have discovered a Berlin-based vocal ensemble reinventing Christmas carols. But before I get to the Berliner Solistenchor, there is Bach. Don't tell the liturgical police, but I'm a week late, as this cantata was written for the first Sunday in Advent, to celebrate the beginning of the new church year. Still, I am a believer in Bach at all times:

Isn't it lovely? The useful Bach Cantatas website has extensive information on it here. In considerably simplified form, it survives in many Protestant hymnals, making it a candidate for the creative talents of the Berliner Solistenchor.


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