The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

HGO: Donizetti's Maria Stuarda (new) - first for company. Joyce di Donato. Katie Van Kooten. Patrick Summers. Kevin Newbury. 27.4.12.

Houston Grand Opera, in its fifty-seven year history has not until this time put on a production of the second opera in the Donizetti Tudor Queen trilogy, Maria Stuarda. Dame Joan Sutherland, during the sunset years of her career, had HGO provide her a staged revival of Anna Bolena. This event, HGO’s first Anna Bolena, automatically carried with it a sense of grandeur, just in anticipating Sutherland taking on this peak role for the first time, both in concert at Lincoln Center and on stage here. The Metropolitan Opera is amidst a Donizetti Tudor trilogy of its own that Peter Gelb had originally planned to have star Anna Netrebko throughout; Netrebko eventually reckoned it more prudent to commit only to Anna Bolena (seen on cinema screens last fall) thus far. Enduring operaphiles can still recall Beverly Sills taking on all three roles for major New York City Opera revival forty years ago.

Our new Maria Stuarda, originally to have been staged by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, proved only halfway convincing as new role for Houston favorite Joyce di Donato – anticipatory of her repeating the role for this opera’s first showing at the Met next season. Not terribly great theatrical excitement could necessarily have been expected from Caurier and Leiser, but at least probably a better sense of scale, and more elegant set design than we have had from who has come in instead.

Kevin Newbury’s production, with ponderous sets by Neil Patel, and mostly stylish costuming by Jessica Jahn, all making their HGO debuts, proved very ordinary.
While sticking to traditional blocking, and mostly reasonable interaction between cast members, Newbury remained on safe ground. His production also proved short on taking any risks. Statuesque childhood profiling of two queens involved at stage rear during Act One orchestral introduction proved inconclusive. Perhaps the audience needed visual stimulation until time for real action to begin. Such proved additionally insipid for pantomime of Elisabeth during an abridged and choppily performed Inno della morte – often instead haunting choral number three-fourths through Act Three.

Slow descending blocks of set design proved cumbersome - all eventually emulating some perverse obsessing over large objects. Regal emblem gift-wrapped looking block pillars took the cake. Both queens, while adopting a still posture on stage started to look statuesque themselves several times. Having the Elisabetta of Katie van Kooten perched, standing upon high pedestal for her first aria proved stilted, obnoxious. Joyce di Donato descending a plain metal rolled on staircase seemed hardly less clumsy.

Most routiniere however were the musical results for what some of us might have reckoned an important revival here. Maria Stuarda, from near the very beginning, has not had the happiest performance history on record, neither that nor quite a recorded legacy up to what this work deserves. For starters, the orchestral writing reveals Donizetti at his very best at it, composed for orchestra at Naples (though premiered at La Scala) that under Rossini’s eight years there had further established a fine reputation. Seeking out how to emulate the meditative tone of the Schiller tragedy, on which this opera is based, this is the most inward looking of actually Donizetti’s four Tudor queen operas (the other being Il castello di Kenilworth). What love interest gets explored in Maria Stuarda is of limited scope, and not very convincing.

The title role is written in a slightly but noticeably lower tessitura than other Donizetti heroines – as having been written for Giuseppina Ronzi de Begnis (though created by Maria Malibran), a famous Donna Anna, Norma and also Rosina (Barbiere) of her day. Imaginatively, the finale (Aria del Supplizio) for Maria, to the opera as well is comprised of two major slow sections, eschewing the brilliance of other aria finales of the era. It has only been fairly recently, outside Italy, that this work and its merits have become more deeply appreciated.

Most notably Janet Baker and now Joyce di Donato have further revealed how tempting the title role, with its slightly atypically low tessitura is for mezzos to sing. Interpolating high notes, even while transposing much material for Maria down alternatively a half and whole step, di Donato managed with ease. Di Donato indeed sounded compelling during her opening aria “O nube che lieve”, taken a half-step down, sung with a lightly inflected mezza voce, including good trills. Its melodic line anticipates “Des quells transports” from Don Carlos for Maria’s friend Elisabeth de Valois and Carlos; both are in D-Flat Major, each in context of prevailing C Major overall And this happens likely to similar psychological effect – of reliance upon some delusion to maintain good peace of mind.

Although similarly floated phrases occurred elsewhere, some awkwardness of approaching Maria as a mezzo became unavoidable – but hardly so for an aging Janet Baker thirty years ago – as emulated by di Donato early on and employing all the very same transpositions down Baker had. Affectation of humility at start of ‘Dialogue’ with Elisabetta Di Donato handled well, as also her rage spilling over during same developing confrontation. Di Donato’s agility for this music is mostly secure; her mastery of other facets of her vocalism though is subject to doubt.

One expects more suppleness for role of Maria Stuarda than for Elisabetta. Di Donato sang Elisabetta in Geneva five years ago - very successfully. Lately though, even with valiant effort to achieve a free and light soprano top, some tonal hardness, stiffness has developed around the break – evident here, plus curiously bland middle register. Pitch accuracy intermittently also became problematic. More audible from di Donato today too are shifts between registers, tendency almost to aspirate phrase openings. With partial attempt to rein in and relax the chest voice, legato also gets compromised.

Vulnerability of this beleaguered queen of did not fully register. Light red dress attire further underlined some lack of nobility during final scene(s). Such qualities seemed more run aground by leaving exposed technical hurdles, encompassing Maria’s florid lines, moreover by a generic countenance and approach to this character together with her music. Ultimately, pathos regarding Maria’s plight did not quite seize the day, perhaps for di Donato being of customary (post-)modern mindset of needing to fit in.

Matching cardboard quality of the sets was the unstable Elisabetta of Katie van Kooten, quite effective an Ellen Orford in recent Peter Grimes here. Van Kooten here however sounded out of her element. For starters, while being incisive with certainly well understood text, her vocal production seldom came across Italianate. Considerable push and strain at achieving spinto tone - agility only mildly compromised - damaged tone quality, from weak low notes, through vinegary tone in-between to shrill top - some squall right beneath. Van Kooten especially sounded heavily miked at the Wortham; the resulting harshly bright metallic effect downstairs verged on ear-splitting. Her highly questionable intonation then seemed irrelevant.

This Elisabetta, all very two-dimensional, came up then very short on noble bearing – hardly then seeming of any real power with which to reckon. Van Kooten managed to restore Elisabetta some composure, warmer legato for several lines starting Act Three – hardly sufficient to make up for much else.

Leicester, musically written well, seldom becomes dramatically effective. In Geneva, opposite a cold, but fully rounded Elisabetta of di Donato, Eric Cutler stood his ground as a musically even, gracious, deferential Leicester - of naturally drier resources than several other tenors. This go-around he opted to wear his heart on his sleeve. Like Stephen Costello (Dallas’s Leicester in 2007) as Percy in the Met’s Anna Bolena recently, Cutler made the very epitome, with much bleating, of a kicked puppy as Leicester. Pleading Third Act duet with Elisabetta became most embarrassing. There were still lines remindful of Geneva, his fine Tamino here four years ago too, but not supplying the prevailing impression this time.

Catherine Martin somewjhat too briefly supplied a warm, steadying presence as Anna. Oren Gradus contrasted well his dark-toned, slightly worn sounding Lord Cecil, while demonstrating fine bearing, with Talbot of Robert Gleadow. Gleadow appeared sympathetic, ingratiating, musically conscientious, with lower register dry, then reticent for filling out some of Talbot’s lines.

For his fourth Donizetti piece here, Patrick Summers conducted. From an authentic practice perspective, also of what bel canto conventions establish, Summers demonstrated some understanding here. However, sense of real aesthetic encompassing such a work, also of especially how Maria Stuarda breaks free of convention, came across only tepid, and therein exists the challenge. Inhibitions his singers encountered were likely partly due to a frequently stiff, unyielding beat. Places to make various forms of accelerando, piu mosso, frequently came across jerky, choppy - not inculcated well into overall flowing line. Fawning over particular lines from di Donato eventually sounded contrived. Grandeur, solemnity implicit to two important Third Act choruses (the Preghiera included) sounded short-changed

Extensive numerous cuts, many of them to repeats, became customary. Clipping of phrasing, rhythms undercut, in addition to extensive cut therein, dramatic stretta finale to Act Two to point of sounding frivolous. Clpping also occurring during highly theatrical dialogue between two queens central to three-part demarcated finale to Act Two made the dramatic apex of Maria Stuarda merely virtual diminution thereof. Similarity to Lucia arises in that similar sextets open both Act Two finales. What desperation and nastiness di Donato and Van Kooten could muster - also generating annoying audience laughter downstairs due to weak buildup to such a big moment – helped rescue this episode.

Much want of grandeur, of rich color and intricacy Donizetti made substantiate such remained to the end, seldom got satiated. Here we had Maria Stuarda made diminutive, auspiciously minimized – upon special occasion of its HGO debut.

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

HGO: 1886 Don Carlos (plus 1867 extracts) performed in Houston for first time in French. Patrick Summers. John Caird.15.4.12.

In 1985 DGG released first ever commercial Don Carlos – French 1886 version conducted by Claudio Abbado, starring Placido Domingo among a mostly Italian cast. Appendix includes ballet plus five other Paris extracts (1866) Verdi soon removed and did not replace. Most popular option recently should any of this get inserted – even if only following 1866 - Carlos’s angry declamation and Carlos-Philippe duet together following death of Posa appears as only one among above-mentioned extracts.

At the time the Abbado got released, specialized press mentioned 1972 BBC concert rendition (now on four Opera Rara discs – 2006 release) of the complete 1866 version (erroneously labeled 1867 for year of Paris world premiere). In-between we’ve had Pappano’s Paris recording /dvd (very preferable not only for its being in French to recent Pappano at Convent Garden) – though this Don Carlos edition-wise a mishmash.

At least the Pappano did not claim near as much as has Houston Grand Opera for what they just put on at the Wortham. Neither did Welsh National Opera, when John Caird’s production first opened there. Rodney Milnes, in Opera (U.K.) credits it as having been the 1886 revision with restoration of Paris extracts implanted back in (excluding the ballet) including Carlos-Philippe duet ”cannibalized for the Requiem” (Milnes). This is curious; as of 1867 neither any requiem was in the works, involving Verdi, nor had impetus for one arisen yet. Recall of Milnes’s comment almost compelled me - Cai Mingbo, fine assistant at founding this blog, can testify - to input some error here; having Julian Budden on hand then fortuitously intervened.

As recently as 2005, Milnes esteemed both getting Don Carlos performed in French, and circumspectly how (implied) ‘Paris extracts’ got restored as each “a heroic act;” perhaps so. Houston Grand Opera has claimed to have taken things further. ‘Original’ as in ‘original version’ shows up eight times in Houston Chronicle preview of Don Carlos, then ‘authentic’ twice. Had this been twenty-plus years ago, a near fully synonymous claim could still be responsibly made for much of what transpired here. Restoring the 1866 or 1867 edition might then have been reckoned venture arcane or recondite, not to mention procuring corresponding orchestral parts, expense involved. It however this past decade is fait accompli, just not as of yet in Houston, Texas. What got played here instead was entirely 1886 - plus (almost) four interpolations from 1866-67,

‘Trims’ occurred outside of what “we knew Verdi wanted to take out” – Summers adding to how Verdi might “wield the knife”, despite much sanctimonious espousal of Verdi’s wishes. One can surmise the 1886 Don Carlo might only be based upon a ‘rushed’ Italian translation. Perhaps the Italian did get rushed, but what then have we had here? The music was clearly 1886, lest anybody one day become incredulous at true ‘original version’ that before chronologically John Matheson, Ingo Metzmacher, Bertrand de Billy, and Maurizio Benini have conducted - latter three at major European houses – and with it in French.. De Billy (Vienna) is available on both compact disc and dvd. Revisions from the ‘original’ French, the historical record asserts, became laborious between Verdi and surviving French librettists (a temporarily offended Camille du Locle, then as auxiliary, Charles Nuitter). Du Locle and Joseph Mery were the original librettists.

Heavy cuts got taken to banda scored music during the auto-da-fe, alongside staging-wise (as even Houston Press claims) selling short grandeur of both music and spectacle therein. No version, as occurred here, authorizes Act Three to begin with Carlos’s ‘”A Minuit” (“E mezzanotte” - recitative). 1884 haunting orchestral prelude makes sole alternative to exchange-of-veils duet for female leads to open Act Three.

Cut of ‘magical’ twenty-plus seconds with which to conclude “Des quels transports” (duet) remains inscrutable. Youtube snippet on HGO’s website early made me aware of this, thus it had me apprehend dastardly cut of “L’heure fatale est sonnee” (just past Thibault’s interjections at Fontainebleau about fateful shift in plans), then of ‘O prodige” from Act Two duet; fortunately my fears were unfounded. Quasi-Gounod high wind scoring at Fontainebleau ‘magical’ to Budden might inhibit Summers – music out of sync with lofty 1886 passages or anachronistic with Verdi’s ‘Wagnerian aspirations.’ Verdi, perhaps benightedly, always declined to cut any of this passage himself.

Verdi’s ‘Wagnerisms’ have become lofty considerations at one local corner of the blogosphere. Oddly enough, doing the 1866 or 1867 version straight (latter without Carlos-Philippe duet), with freedom to cut all the ballet, might most comfortably fit Summers’s more natural predilections. Not however with Verdi’s aspirations to Wagnerian ideals might then such a decision adequately take to Verdi’s loftier instincts, mind you, his desire to compose like Richard Wagner. Even in mind of many later improvements to have transpired, case now fully suffices for doing, even unabridged, the flexible, frequently stylistically consistent original version.

John Caird’s production, heavily set (Johan Engels) with pervasive Cross motif, is glibly noir, second tier melodramatic. Neon magenta lit crosses adorn bleachers on both sides on monotonous unit design for closing scenes. Some lassitude or malaise fills space where any physical action seems very unlikely. Previn’s “Brief Vacation” (2009 - Caird’s HGO debut) was much easier for him than has been Don Carlos.

Interaction between characters, their ability, inability to connect, looked stiff. Eye contact between lovers at Fontainebleau was weak. Situating Carlos and Elisabeth at opposite corners of outspread heavy sheet indecisively set stage for their Act Two duet Carlos outstretching his hands to compel Elisabeth near turned haunting portion of final rendezvous completely banal.. Lighting (Nigel Livings) was equally off, i.e. spectral night opening Act Two gardens (with web shadowing of obsessive Cross design).

With benign consequences certainly unlikely on one occasion, violence on stage was something, with no trace of irony to anything, to seemingly occur at random, i.e. how could Rodrigue in Act Two get away with starting to turn brief altercation with Philippe physical? Carlos being thrown to stage floor by guards to open the prison scene was gratuitous, all off in intonation with simple gravitas with which Verdi opens this scene. Intimations of torture, tight confinement of inmates towards stage rear began to resemble something lifted from Monty Python - as did quasi-KKK decked Inquisitor to enter all the way on stage to run Rodrigue through, then to very similarly dispatch Carlos at the very end – in case we missed how previous impaling got carried out.

Certainly risible was the major confrontation during the auto-da-fe scene Contemporarily decked out guards had their machine guns trained, for Carlos to then, not apprehended, armed with just one long sword, challenge the King. Even with Carlos having just turned over his weapon, these guards still then rush off, leaving madman free behind. (Spirit of) Charles V, open ugly sarcophagus thereof both blocking access to stage rear at the end contradicted more than Carlos being slain itself (from which some escape could still perhaps occur) final pronouncement by the mysterious friar. Quick procession of monks across the footlights to help start Act Two also looked awkward.

Rampant emotionalism further emphasized a pervasive lack of irony and lack of trust for one’s audience. Thoroughly diminished was tone to illuminate themes explored here - with any subtle sense of what complexity is involved. Anybody having attended Fidelio last fall could not have honestly received much of this Don Carlos well.

Brandon Jovanovich made his role debut as Don Carlos. Positive before here as Turiddu, in Austin as Sergei (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – Texas premiere), and as Boris in Kat’a Kabanova in Chicago, the awkwardness of Verdi’s writing and anonymous character of the staging especially affecting his part effaced him here. French diction sounded mildly coagulated, tone often curdled in negotiating everything. A handsome, affable presence on stage, even while matters improved vocally for him as the evening wore on, ultimately proved less than sufficiently decisive. This engagement resembled more (temporarily) a miscasting than it did any worrisome sign of vocal decline.

Tamara Wilson returned here for her second major Verdi role; her Ballo Amelia several seasons back proved very heavy sailing. Her sympathetic countenance was pleasant – if as though a wallflower perhaps. Up though until the last two acts, musical results proved tenuous. Farewell to Countess of Aremberg emerged all beneath pitch. Tremulous passsaggio, beneath freely floating top was evident, habits also to reach low notes from above and to swallow consonants. Wilson’s gift for lyric Verdi became clear during Act Four, then for securely spun out Act Five aria, with fine expressive legato.

Christine Goeke, to qualified success, made her role debut as Eboli. Veil Song sounded unnaturally heavy, dark, and sour with intonation. She then developed into an incisive tigress of an Eboli for trios in Act Three, and then blended well with Wilson for rarely sung “J’ai tout compris” in Act Four. With much savvy and ringing top Goeke robustly commanded the stage for “O don fatal.” Loading the stage with ladies-in-waiting of considerable girth for her opening scene did not favorably complement having both Wilson and Goeke on stage together moments later.

Two looking most committed to this production, partly from having sung this at Cardiff in 2005 were Scott Hendricks and Andrea Silvestrelli. They also proved the musically and arguably histrionically the most lacking. Hendricks offered mild hope early on he might tone down playing Rodrigue too proletariat. Act Two romance emerged unattractively dry, but tastefully. Much hectoring, forcing then held sway during long duologue with Philippe. Rude manhandling of Eboli made Hendricks, with his costuming, resemble having just walked on off set design for Il Tabarro. Prison scene, especially an overacted “O Carlos, ecoute” emerged graceless, hectored, non legato.

Silvestrelli made a bludgeoning, quite unmitigated ruffian of a Philippe, frequently out of tune. His voice carries very well, but proved inflexible handling sixteenths admonishing Flemish deputies during the auto-da-fe. Raising jewelry box to close “Elle ne m’aime pas”, then to shove it in Elisabeth’s face to begin their confrontation together looked sophomoric; climax out of inevitable insult got derailed. Motivation to deeply probe the king’s frustrations though remained clear.

Rhetorically overpowering Silvestrelli was the Grand Inquisitor of, at seventy, Samuel Ramey, uniquely revealing sterling command of the stage plus alacritous sense of where the king’s vulnerabilities, curiosities, close ties lie. Ramey can be seen from La Scala (1993), holding forth there very authoritatively as Philippe (as with here eight years later) – with Silvestrelli very responsibly cast as the Friar. Ramey’s voice and ever unflinching countenance here emerged steady, firmly implacable. Mark Diamond (Forester), Boris Dyakov (De Lerma), plus a vivacious Lauren Snouffer as Tebaldo stood up to very eloquently represent Houston Opera Studio, plus longstanding HOS alumnus in an ever sonorous Oren Gradus (Friar).

When Patrick Summers conducted Don Carlo here eleven years ago, his stick technique looked tentative, but he was more circumspect for task at hand then. Emilio Sagi’s production provided him wholesome perspectival depth, fine illusion of grandeur, if abstractly, to much better couch or envelope what emanated from the orchestra pit plus all around than, for instance, something halfway resembling Broadway could do so. Sense of continuity throughout was fine, but also tendency to rush through passages needing more shape or nuance - to avoid brash sounding brass during Veil Song ritornelli, then for soloists to expand out on their lines (during “Si l’on repand encore” refrain to Elisabeth’s last aria - very strictly calibrated its light barcarolle accompaniment through its reprise). Very cool streamlining of royal couple’s entrance at San Just significantly undercut grandeur obvious there. Calibration between pit and stage notably slipped during getting slightly rushed the Third Act Flemish deputies’ concertato.

Solo oboes, trumpets sounded unfocussed; Barrett Sills’ cello solo starting Act Four was eloquent. Summers showed some lyrical ear for color within the Act Two duet - partly missing subtle change in tinta for ‘O prodige’ over gilding so much - approach that also dragged “J’ai tout compris” (Act Four Elisabeth-Eboli duet). Tone overall elsewhere started to sound anemic; choral work was less than up to expected ensemble standards (from Richard Bado). Summers proved quite adept though in achieving proper scale through most of Act Four Some affinity for Don Carlos also became evident during ‘Fontainebleau’ – also toward building fine atmosphere with which to open next scene at San Just. Pervasive sense of grandeur still seemed lacking from equation overall.

In order to de-cannibalize portions of Don Carlos, we should next assign George Romero to stage this. The ‘smoked’ (not quite fully immolated) heretics could walk off the pyre, then later stalk their persecutors toward the end of Act Four. Plot outcome might change somewhat even as might tempt Peter Konwitschny, to frighten traditionalists more, but they lost faith in him a long time ago anyway. Some other blogger previewing our production got caught up with discussing self-immolations, their making a comeback - as inspired by many Tibetans protesting oppression abroad. Some of the socio-political message of Don Carlos has certainly remained timeless until now, just as has that of Beethoven’s Fidelio. For sole unabridged ‘original’ Don Carlos on dvd, the De Billy/Konwtischny from Vienna (2004 - Arthaus), starring Ramon Vargas (Don Carlo – HGO 2001), staging included, comes highly recommend.

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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Met in HD: Manon (Massenet) - in new chilly updated perspective. Anna Netrebko. Fabio Luisi. Laurent Pelly. 07.4.12

Wrapping up Trebs trilogy of reviews for 2011-2012 has appeared a new Laurent Pelly production of Massenet’s Manon at the Met. Anna Netrebko may be familiar as Manon to dvd collectors from Berlin in production by Vincent Paterson, in which Manon in 1950’s milieu - all as though adopting starring role in her own story before cameras - or some kind of fantasy along these lines. Concept sounds Fellini-esque, but setting up plush atmosphere much its own likely suiting Jules Massenet’s music very well.

That a drier approach can work, can be applied with a frequently deft touch, demonstrates itself very well, in still one of David McVicar’s best productions, filmed in Barcelona (also seen in Houston in 2003, starring Elisabeth Futral) The new Pelly production, while competent, fell short of communicating such ability, beyond animated interaction especially among lesser personae – Guillot, Lescaut, de Bretigny, three Andrews or Lennon sister prototypes – Poussette, Javotte, Rosette. (Das Rheingold predates Manon by about twenty years).

Anna Netrebko both looks and sounds slightly heavier now than when she got filmed as Anna Bolena from Vienna a year ago. The voice shows a little wear and tear from further onslaught of Anna Bolena runs at the Met and run as Donna Anna in Milan. The promise of Netrebko delving deeper into heavier repertoire seemingly looms before us – Lohengrin Elsa for Dresden in 2015 and Norma at Convent Garden soon thereafter.

Were not Anna Bolena and Donn’Anna heavy enough? Fortunately doing these parts did not quite derail Netrebko’s return to lighter fare with Manon. Mostly to sensitive ears would it have been clear what toll previous forays this season have taken. Anna is certainly not quite long in the tooth for singing or playing the part of Manon, albeit that her having developed rounder figure physically might have made it seem quite so.
Diction and tone tended to a certain prevailing thickness, but handling of most acuti free, open and light (apart from two or several approached slightly from below).

For opening scene Netrebko played just mildly distraught (especially at point of ‘Voyons, Manon – sad song soon before she meets a just entering Des Grieux), but also with eyes fully open for bewildering world – looking thus far as though all an intimidating military fortress – at Amiens - to have now encompassed her. Opening ‘get-to-know-Manon’ aria, though slightly thick sounding, she characterized well. Farewell to table during Act Two was hauntingly poignant, but in midst of mildly disconcertingly losing engagement with Des Grieux before this scene wrapped up. Netrebko then entered the Cours-la-Reine in sumptuous dress, looking, sounding very well the Russian empress as Manon with, affecting her Gavotte, particular coolness, imperious manner to match; perhaps even Catherine the Great once entertained similar fantasies.

Vulgarly carried out seduction scene at St. Sulpice - more on this momentarily – introduced an arch, quasi-Straussian accent into this, in effect catching one off-guard. Musical and dramatic confidence however returned for final two scenes – at casino with singing and acting in grand style, then engrossing involvement for the final scene. For Netrebko in lighter voice and persona we have from five years ago the DGG Berlin dvd.

Piotr Beczala made an ever ardent, vocally fulsome Des Grieux, matching Netrebko in strength for climactic meeting places during the gambling casino scene. Slavic tone, diction tended to enhance considerable languor vocally, tonally, especially standing next to Netrebko. Engagement with recitative, spoken dialogue was very convincing, as was a sung on the breath ‘La Reve’ during Act Two. Beczala later negated positive effect of singing softly, deftly shaping start to ‘Ah fuyez, douce image” by unpleasant forcing toward projecting full-out by conclusion thereof. Vittorio Grigolo in London opposite Netrebko there got cited too for, alongside his ardent, handsome demeanor, some most forceful vocalism there too. Recovery for seduction scene, quite overheated passion encompassing it, was nearly complete, heartfelt engagement for final scene also.

Gravitas for first half of the St. Sulpice scene, for expressing concern right before (and then moral opprobrium later) David Pittsinger as Comte Des Grieux supplied in full, with fine tonal roundness, depth, fine acting, and convincing diction. Especially in regards to Des Grieux fils (Beczala), his part in all this, Pittsinger for a spell provided fine relief from the detached feel, distancing chill of Laurent Pelly’s production.

Even with some Slavic ripeness to match two others here, Paulo Szot made a nimble, savvy case vocally, dramatically for the ever shrewd, enterprising Lescaut. Bradley Garvin brought fine voice, tall confident charm, swagger to the mostly thankless role of de Bretigny. Christophe Mortagne, also Guillot at Convent Garden two years ago, had the crusty look, though with fine diction, vocal gruffness to unveil potential menace as Guillot. It must be for the wealth and riches of this dandy that he can offer, promise ladies anywhere nearby that any might ever come close. Mortagne’s looked, sounded slightly short on ability to close the sale, so to speak. Thoroughly vivacious charm of the ladies’ trio (Anne-Carolyn Bird, Jennifer Black, Ginger Costa-Jackson) helped relieve the dreary look of much about, including that of a very droll Guillot. (The recently deceased Philip Langridge had originally been planned upon to sing Guillot for Royal Opera),

One London critic expressed wariness as to how the wider Met stage might fit Pelly’s production. Much sensation of void, as limned by chain-link fence, multiple ramps for the Cours-la-Reine flattened out, with sets by Chantal Thomas, what charm suggested thereof. Hotel de la Transylvanie looked especially wonky, when it emptied of all people except for several leads, making it obvious how much its shell construction resembled, its dull green painted walls, the basement of a research lab building. A large round ball, perched along rear crossing balcony put one in mind of NBA playoffs only weeks ahead.

Alternating ramps, (metal) stairwells, imposing walls perhaps provided some form of symbolism – cluttered to clotted psyches of the corrupt demi-monde with action here having been updated to time Manon was composed and/or soon thereafter. Seeing the apartment for Act Two as cramped compartment up several metallic staircases proved quite disorienting. Gray, streetlight illuminated Le Havre for the final scene suggested to one critic at Convent Garden a pulling down of any veil of rose or pink coloring to have illusively gilded earlier scenes. I somehow missed noticing any similar gilding to have transpired at the Met. Still, the lighting (Joel Adan) proved evocative for Le Havre - of more searing tragedy, as acted out at the Met, than Massenet may have reckoned.

Psychological metaphor of this Manon finds a parallel in Pelly’s production of Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande. Using a rotating stage, metaphor employed for this Pelleas saturated thereof already worked more fluidly therein than for Manon. More comedy likely informed the Convent Garden stage, within its moderately more intimate space. Some good comedic touches fortunately still surfaced at the Met.

If nothing else, Massenet’s music provides epicurean cover for what seedy aspects of the story and of what world gets portrayed this way. Stripping action, feel of this piece of its well-rounded corners, of luxuriating within comes with its risks. Updating the action can further help infuse this music of an at least fleeting nostalgia for perhaps better world left behind, while taking care not to overly sentimentalize action or scenario involved. Numerous ways exist to expose the hollowness at the core of engaging in such nostalgia – and certainly hinted at here. There is still further Pelly could go in replacing much cold abstraction with a little more intimacy, simplicity. Such again may have been a little better the case in London. Smaller space in London likely made more of surreptitious lurking about, voyeurism perhaps of numerous extras on stage various times – supporting cast also well involved.

Incidence during Act Three became most suspect. More camp than Massenet was formally attired male chorus line ogling Manon during her Gavotte, before stiffly played following neo-Baroque written ballet sequence. Intermezzo blog refers to ‘rapacious’ descent by these men upon, metaphorical devouring of ballerinas on stage as though “fluffy white chicks.” Similar imagery quickly occurred to me as well. Light elegance of touch to what earlier the Cours-la-Reine (promenade) scene contains one furtively sought in vain, for better than minimal fulfillment thereof.

Set-up of simple chairs in rows on stage behind down curtain felt apropos for St. Sulpice, such activity could make the case for being integral to succeeding action here. Gossip among older women fawning over their new priest played itself out very nicely. Bed to left front corner was simple, but still It was a bed. Mariandel noticing conspicuously large bed at dingy inn to help along tryst Baron Ochs has set up in Strauss could not avoid coming to mind. Manon lifting up her dress for Des Grieux and audience to see – supposedly compelling him to succumb to her wiles turned anything sublime here to just vulgar and absurd. The two lovebirds then went at it further toward excessively explaining matters. Charm, allure to seduction scene, also to relieve frequently noticed slightly contrived feel to Des Grieux’s ‘Ah fuyez” all went for naught. Grandiosity to closing Fourth Act ensemble sequences at the Hotel de la Transylvanie very well restored focus to proceedings – well maintained for engrossing final scene.

Fabio Luisi conducted, amidst busy schedule also involving forays into Wagner. At obvious junctures he provided fine lift, sense of esprit Massenet’s score, its celebration of life and of Paris exudes. Luisi’s impetus seemed more involved with the big cantabile line, where it shows up. In an understated way, somewhat lumbering about at times, Luisi’s feel for Massenet was broad, partly seeking to achieve fine grandeur that where obviously necessary he and his Met forces did. Ample support for his singers and reasonable sense of proportions was hardly ever in doubt. Intimacy, febrile anxiety for Le Havre fully won his sympathy.

More flexible hand toward fully engaging with lightness Massenet percolates forth was all one missed. A suffusing mood of nostalgia however did seem to form lightly applied cowl over this music. Equally contributing to flatness overall, at the Met, was this still relatively new production. One left attending this not so empty-handed, as just feeling loosely alienated, distractible.

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Thursday, February 9, 2012

HGO: Rape of Lucretia (debut). Striking, elusive finale to Britten series. Michelle De Young. Rory McDonald. Arin Arbus.

Houston Grand Opera has just opened its first formal staging of Benjamin Britten’s first chamber opera, Rape of Lucretia - written shortly after first real lyric stage success, Peter Grimes. The image of Lucretia, all ramifications of heroism, sacrifice implied, captured the imagination of many artists, painters - also inspiring earlier musical settings. Britten and his librettist, Ronald Duncan, looked to Andre Obey’s play, Le Viol de Lucrece, as their source. Partly due to toll war took on resources, Britten decided to write here then for smaller forces. His ear, already adept toward making sonorities of chamber music delicacy come to life, meant that choice this way contributed only little to his operating at somewhat of a strain here. His having to deal with dramaturgically difficult subject matter, static character thereof, plus difficult and verbose librettist contributed more this way. Toward keeping Rape of Lucretia viable work of art, Britten made psychological use of growing tonal palette ultimately toward making something elusive, distanced thus his setting of this story to music.

Michelle DeYoung, very successful Brangane at both Met and La Scala quite recently, played the title role. Anthony Dean Griffey, after successful rendition of Peter Grimes here last season, provided Male Chorus. Rory McDonald, apprenticing recently under Antonio Pappano (Royal Opera), made with Rape of Lucretia, his HGO debut, replacing Patrick Summers on relatively short notice, due one guesses apparently to administrative backlog pressing upon Summers nowadays. Arin Arbus, in her HGO debut, though little experienced in opera thus far, revealed good theatrical and aesthetic sense, all in part product of making healthy inquiry regarding this art form. Far better is this than conceit of producers too self-assured not to regard as first and foremost repertoire they will stage - instead of contribution they reckon primarily important.

Andre Obey relates Lucretia’s suicide as instrumental toward cleansing what corruption which prince Tarquinus’s wanton act has inflicted upon Rome. Loss to the Etruscans of tyrannical hegemony over Rome five centuries before Christ quickly became inevitable. For message Britten seeks to convey, political considerations get relegated well to the background. Duncan, Britten’s librettist, hardly compelling advocate for brevity, saw Lucretia’s suicide sufficient with which to end the piece. Britten however, not for musical purposes alone, perceived the need to less abruptly, thinly frame such incident. Inclusion of Christian symbolism, most of all dealing with the death of Christ, served for Britten clear purpose – universalized figure thus thereof superior at personifying atonement, sacrifice central to natural internalization of guilt, then on behalf of excusing the actions of others.

Breaking things down more, Britten as Clare Seymour has explaied, was not primarily interested in gender relations near as much as issue to do with the act of seduction itself, and division between pure beauty or chastity and desire or lust. In perceiving happenings among heterosexuals, some homosexual ideation certainly comes into play - eventually toward linking Lucretia with Billy Budd, Aschenbach in Death in Venice – considerable task to fully decode, elucidate. Otherness about Lucretia does not much emerge on the surface such as with antihero Peter Grimes. She is already viable leader in her community, blending in well, clearly unlike Grimes. Suicide in the Britten becomes her means to absorb some of the guilt involved for action in which she is truly innocent. Lucretia subconsciously, half consciously to us, significantly draws Tarquinius in, ultimately toward compromising, threatening her still worse. Tarquinius, less intriguing to Britten than Lucretia, has an undeniable passivity, also as depicted musically, even while turning violent. Junius, practical sidekick of his early on in Act One, is practically Tarquinius wannabe, and experiences similar drives but conscience restrained from ever (ideally) fulfilling them. All men, especially while at drink, are equally liable to getting drawn in thus, similar to Tarquinius. Unblemished feminine beauty, purity is, interpreted here, further incitement to lust. Quintuplet figures, representing Lucretia, litter the score, abundantly fill out extended vocal lines.

Mirroring between agent(s) and recipients of seduction became impetus, engine behind how Bob Carsen staged Mozart’s Don Giovanni at La Scala two months ago – some of which blocked by excessive infusion of additives - device, obsessing over such. Such device thus often became front and center, obstructing attention from action on stage and music to portray such, drive action forward, fill out either normally expected or surprised emotional reaction. What can obstruct maintaining healthy focus with Lucretia is the excessively verbose libretto of Ronald Duncan, deleteriously empowered thus, should one opt for an excessively purist or pristine either musical or dramatic approach.

Decision by Ariin Arbus and Rory McDonald, working in fine tandem was, if to err, to err then on the side of simplicity. Musical rewards, with taking such an approach, became abundant, in drawing out Britten’s rich, even if chamber forces subdued tonal palette. One can not draw out of twelve players, regardless how fine, what atmospheric compass, sweep Peter Grimes almost automatically provides.

Michelle DeYoung, enjoying first HGO visit since playing Venus in Tannhauser ten years ago, made a healthily voluptuous Lucretia, physically and vocally. She, though, for spinning scene first entrance, showed prudence to restrain opening out too much, thus revealing how internally aware Lucretia is of her station in life. Arioso, ‘How cruel men are” incisively evinced firm moral reproach, anticipating well taut response to Tarquinius’s assault - latter with defining moment, expressed darkly, incisively, ‘You, In the forest of my dreams.’ Anxiety, urgency expressed during garden scene was firm, distraught – but also while evoking hysteria for production to turn mildly blowsy, putting Lucretia’s value upon pure marital bliss slightly subject to doubt. The more pristine Brit approach might convey more authority – though leaving behind doubt of Lucretia’s ability to draw Tarquinius in. Two ringing acuti comfortably above the break distinguished one or two tense passages. Fine poise, dignity characterized much DeYoung contributed, even if perhaps quasi-verismo in approach at times.

Character contrast between Lucretia’s maidservants was abundant, between Lauren Snouffer’s pert, gracefully charming Lucia with alternatively light and clarion ringing top and Judith Forst’s earthily conscientious Bianca. A little fraying at the edges vocally became evident here from Forst. After stellar appearances in Turn of the Screw and Pique-Dame here two seasons ago. Gutsy urgency toward delaying, preventing Collatinus’s arrival in Act Two was telling. Forst, still conveying much ring of authority with text and all-knowing look on stage seldom seemed seriously encumbered by any vocal considerations. Leah Crocetto, with voice seemingly hybrid between mezzo and soprano, well conveyed look of moral authority, strong witness as Female Chorus, but toward higher reaches in the part mildly squally in tone and diction. Crocetto matched Griffey mostly well in unisons together and strutted forth in firm chest voice, with taut chutzpah marcia of ‘So here the grumbling Romans’ - memorably so. Additional lines within similarly confident reach also well got message across.

Contrast between sparring trio of in effect frat boys Collatinus, Junius, and Tarquinius, all quite similarly voiced here was at first, perhaps on purpose, hard to pick out. Ryan McKinny provided fine swagger, suave line, and in final scene with Lucretia, well attenuated empathy as Collatinus, if slightly lacking full tonal depth toward limning general’s lines more authoritatively. Guileless sense, naivete regarding what Lucretia might become up against elucidated well where perhaps some of Lucretia’s vulnerability may lie. Joshua Hopkins made ideal match vocally for Junius, capturing identifiably well the lad’s conscience stricken frustration restraining him from Tarquinius like conquest of Lucretia himself - almost always otherwise one seemingly merry, guileless lad. Jacques Imbralio, 2007 Cardiff finalist for auspicious HGO debut, with finest diction and phrasing of this lot, made earlier taunting, then suavely lascivious, ultimately consumed Tarquinius – with almost unrivalled fun and aplomb from amidst gang of three.

Thoroughly splendid was Male Chorus of Anthony Dean Griffey, providing illusion of this part being as dramatically engaged as, played eloquently here by Griffey before, Lennie and Peter Grimes. Diction - equally fine Imbrailo’s - was so distinctive, suavely conveyed that if not warned beforehand, hardly would it be credible that Griffey isn’t British. He made perfectly musical, astutely alert all spoken line anticipating Tarquinius’s approach to Lucretia’s inner chambers. Enveloping honeyed melos for stretching out lyricism was always at the ready to make point as specific as with furious reproach – nothing ever cloying. Some mystery remains how none of this conspicuously verbose part never seemed one line too long. If only Wagner could have made Gurnemanz a lyric tenor! Bravura for vocalized ‘ride to Rome’ interlude (Act One) was salaciously complete. Solo framing line (to unison of both choruses) such as ‘Christ, heal our blindness we mistake for sight’ hovered far beyond the footlights toward conveying universally extended balm, sublime bliss.

Arin Arbus, upon relatively simple set framed by Roman columns and steps, discreetly adorned by brick, stone, and garment (Jean-Guy Lecat), with named characters in traditional garb, Choruses in modern, displayed fine discretion and flexibility in drawing out fine, well nuanced realism from all cast members on stage. Interaction from Choruses with characters, first situated in-between, reckoned entirely well when to lend climactic stations during narrative in progress good, meaningful emphasis. Lighting (Michael James Clark) through dark chiaroscuro for night scenes, bright sunlight to enhance pastel colors on stage, pastels as well from the orchestra pit, fine half-lit silhouetting of Roman characters anathematizing the Etruscans was of very high quality toward providing both sonic and visual picture fuller body.

Rory McDonald provided fine leadership, making all overlap of contrasting, frequently suggestive sonorities flow well, rhythmic life and emphasis pulsating within. Lightly harp adorned muted strings provided night scenes fine patina thus. Duet of alto flute and clarinet helped provide warm down into which to sink, while making intimate distinction of Crocetto’s poetic lullaby for Lucretia asleep on stage. More stringent accents characterized spiky, steadily ‘Chorus’ led chorale prelude interlude framing traumatic action on stage having just transpired, then firmly held in check, magisterial passacaglia finale to entire work. Bach Passion inspired obbligato by Elisabeth Priestly Knight on English horn to elaborate simply intoned lament between Lucretia and Collatinus was highly expressive.

While evoking fine scale for this work’s elusive proportions, McDonald made enfold contrasting pastels and darker sharp keys – latter especially evoking knowledge Britten likely picked up from Verdi. Flow between contrasting passages - consoling solace for sleeping Lucretia, encroaching, seemingly ubiquitous menace occurred seamlessly, unimpeded – all as though peeling back contrasting, revealing layers of consciousness. McDonald only trusted slightly too much stewardship provided percussion - some tendency toward over-emphasis, helping clot several nodal points - lines to tightly rein all in becoming cramped instead. Insightful though, McDonald’s attitude well manifest toward modernism here was unflinching. McDonald should return here soon - eventually for well-varied repertoire.

Sadly then and quite elusively, HGO’s Britten cycle has drawn slightly early to a close. It opened with Billy Budd in 2008, providing single installment all four seasons since. Gloriana was next season to provide grandiose finale to this always superbly probing illuminating series. Audience response to this shorter piece – arguably most elusive and difficult thus far - was highly favorable, suggesting perhaps that HGO soon take on still more challenging progressive repertoire from this past century – with hope for improvement to orchestral forces toward achieving worthiness for such assignment.

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Carmike (EP): La Scala. il dissoluto punito (?) Don Giovanni ossia the Temptation of Robert Carsen. La Scala, Milan. Daniel Barenboim. 07.12.11.

... reporting from Nacogdoches, TX.

Momentous current events over this past year concerning Italy, Europe seemed to provide Robert Carsen invitation both to go a little over the top, affect high seriousness doing so with indeed quite an important event – opening of new season at La Scala. There seemed much to offer with this new production of Don Giovanni, including a well diversified international cast and this Canadian producer – having rightly earned respect for good handful of operatic projects so far. Daniel Barenboim is an experienced Mozartean with strong reputation for choosing excellent modernist productions; traditional repertoire effectively emerges on the cutting edge this way. Scare up for instance his fine (and underrated) Nozze di Fgaro on dvd from Staatsoper Berlin. Needless to say, little went well here.

Barenboim disapproved of previous Don Giovanni that never had musically leading it anybody strong leading it toward filling out lopsided perspective it provided. In fact, several of Mussbach’s ideas got taken slightly further here with Carsen than Mozart’s music would ever invite them. Carsen thereby narrowed perspective in place of broadening it instead. Impetus behind how characters interact in Mussbach’s dark vision - with Don Juan wannabe of an Ottavio and as according to other writers, Leporello sole likable character (presented with much savvy by Ildebrando d’Arcangelo - in second cast this season as the Don) is sexual - neurotically so with the motor scooter riding Elvira. Mussbach had though, insightfully, with Da Ponte’s text, double meanings abound; he also trusted Mozart’s music, its suggestive power, to leave open room for mystery to fill in perspective, involving both Don and much else.

Judgment of situation into which to cast Mozart’s Don Giovanni never really factored in, for muddle before us here. Libertinism of the Don, or for that matter of anybody else really became open to question, with game of make-believe engaged in that any solution can be found to such, toward answering what abuses on different social levels occur. Situating Kwanchul Youn in Mario Monti’s box to answer the Don’s invitation to supper thus became insipid.

This new production of Don Giovanni billed itself as ‘a tribute to La Scala', with its traditional curtain, varied portions, assortments thereof omnipresent its major prop. The libertinism of the Don is entity to have engulfed society, sent its inhabitants down into its vortex – through ever apparent narrowing of perspective. How the other characters would engage with this world varied from Leporello’s ruffian, clumsy, vulgar emulation of being the Don himself, and being clearly attracted, like the women, to the Don as well - through Zerlina’s sadomasochistic games with Masetto – likely also inevitable between her and the Don.

World then before us is one self-perpetuating bunga-bunga party, quite misogynistic at that and almost looking like the action of this could have all taken place on a long frozen sheet of ice. All three female leads here are totally complicit with the Don in being reckless. Chambermaid the Don serenades, looking well underage, seated with him practically from prompter’s box perspective for action onstage with him through grand sextet, is found right afterwards stripped completely naked quickly making her exit. Classical Iconoclast (blog) mentions the situating of the three maskers during Act One finale for their sublime trio along center auditorium aisle as empathetically with us taking (unclear what Carsen might have dreamt up) some moral stance. After ‘Penn State’, what then is one underage prostitute?

The Commendatore has the ability ‘to live beyond the constraints of death’ - as both Classical Iconoclast and (implicitly) Carsen has explained - thus becomes sole challenge to the Don. Carsen, in pandering his new production of Don Giovanni as tribute to La Scala equivocates the Commendatore with what hopes might be for position new prime minister might take, regarding progress to eventually come. I am not particularly optimistic. The fear of death, thus of judgment is something Carsen explains interviewed better to live without, lest it paralyze any of us. Humanly then it is possible to live with total sexual freedom, just as long as each one among us takes responsibility – without necessity to fear there being consequences.

Obstructing the way however is Mozart’s music, regarding such a thoroughly unfunny, unsexy, dramatically flat-line production of Don Giovanni. Musical tension building up through assault on Zerlina toward end of Act One is negated by there being inserted in effect a giant ‘so what.’ The Act Two sextet becomes a great concert-in-costume for the Don and his gratifying child service to applaud right afterwards. Charred image of La Scala’s auditorium arises at end of scene in which the Don is stabbed – to only as learned from the Commendatore live beyond suffering same mortal wound as the Commendatore himself. Society that has made La Scala possible is also expendable, perhaps La Scala itself as well. The other six characters descend below, in Don Giovanni’s place. After much equivocation, our condemnation – in world of constantly ratcheted up sexual tension – is to remain here the living dead.

One ‘out’ is for there to be more irony with what Carsen presents - some frisson to develop then not only with Da Ponte’s libretto (partly accomplished) but with Mozart’s music. In the music, as much tension develops, most of all in interaction between the characters, there is always a sense of eventual resolution to provide it meaning. Note the chromatic lines that undergird a giocoso passage, such as trio between Elvira, Don, and Leporello early in Act Two, for how Mozart interweaves dramma and giocoso. Carsen’s world of ongoing games played between well dehumanized individuals might better be served by a Philip Glass soundtrack.

Peter Mattei was the elegant playboy for the title role, no less a monster for being so sleek, suave. He sang much of his part close to his usual high standard, barring scooped opening to several lines of ‘Deh, vieni.’ Sotto voce taking on serenade’s second verse this time unfortunately thus emerged affected. What nobility, emulation of restraint thereof, poise all came across as pointless. Any sense of menace mostly waited until opening of the final supper scene with Leporello to emerge. Mattei’s acting here, for so little expected overall, was competent, including light pointing of irony, i.e. during Act One banter with Elvira. One among numerous varied screwing machines on stage for this, Mattei at least seemed to have more fun at it than Donald Sutherland as Casanova in late period Fellini.

Suppurating frequently open injury was the Leporello of Bryn Terfel, who almost emulated being as stiff as the above. Other than softly singing several lines during the Catalogue aria that Donna Elvira silently played as nymphomaniac touchy-feely psychodrama duet with him, Terfel sang the part dry, choppy non legato, with little charm. Hard to tell what might have been worse – his unmusical, dramatically unresponsive portrayal of the Don (now on dvd) from the Met, or this vulgar Leporello. Terfel has before been one of the best Leporello’s around - likely occasionally too an effective Don Giovanni. New lows were reached here with Leporello salaciously in duet with the Don for Champagne aria tacitly practically drooling over the Don singing it, or the two 'getting it on’ during recitative opening the ‘graveyard’ scene.’ At least, other recitative banter between the Don and Leporello came off quite effectively.

Anna Netrebko, beginning Donna Anna as urging ahead the Don’s opening assault, started the part by singing it quite evenly, but acting same passage conscious of how the camera must be picking up how both outrageous and enjoyable Netrebko wants to make it look. She conscientiously held voice back to blend well with her colleagues mostly through Act One, but the greater hurdles of ‘Or sai’, then moreover of a loudly sung ‘Non mi dir’ completely out of tune, with bench pressed two note figures fully detaching the line toward its conclusion, increasingly grated upon the ear. Her assignation to top line through epilogue practically made it a howling fest of sorts. What loggionisti of yore might have made their voices heard to answer all this seemed absent without leave. This Donna Anna, as an aside, made it evident how well she suspected from start of quartet during Act One that it might be her father’s assailant greeting her and Ottavio – concept as derived from recent Cosi Fan Tutte productions, nothing original here.

Barbara Frittoli vocally provided qualified success at singing Donna Elvira and excess of ridiculously acting the part, called for here. Nuerotic tendency to strip down to dark colored negligee became prevalent; red velvet garb she often wore enhanced her posterior a little much as well. Idea of ‘divertirci’ in confronting the Don in front of Zerlina had to do with how Zerlina might compete with her for the Don’s sexual favors. All of such a moment could have been halfway clever, had Carsen’s hand been lighter. Some of the middle register of Frittoli’s voice has hollowed out by now, compromising intonation wise several lines during ‘Mi tradi.’ Still, she provided some of the more supple agile singing and acting one encountered here.

Anna Prohaska almost made it a complete lie how sluttish, kinky a Zerlina she presented acting wise by how very well she sang the entire part. She never disallowed Mozart’s music from working its own charm even while being disallowed acting it with any. Power of suggestion in place of making too blatant the S&M between her and Masetto for the always musically consoling ‘Vedrai carino’ thoroughly escaped Robert Carsen; given how well Prohaska sang everything, this number only halfway succumbed to such degradation.

Giuseppe Filianoti as Ottavio offered a more conservative countenance than other members of this cast. He sang most of this with good lightness, shape phrasing it, other than perhaps partly to emulate Netrebko’s heavy vocal production, a heavily underlined ‘Dalla sua pace.’ Among all the men here, Filianoti emerged with fine musicality and very supple acting, even well emulated noble profile. ‘Il mio tesoro’ emerged with mostly fine shape, halfway decent agility for its lengthy runs, and well inserted dramatic accents.

Stefan Kocan was the animated, dark-toned Masetto, acting the part well. He fortunately got his only aria ‘Ho capito’ taken up a whole step to its original key (of G Major), just as Michele Pertusi did twenty years ago on Erato (see below). Kwanchul Youn (Commendatore), the very fine Bartolo on Barenboim’s underrated Berlin dvd of Nozze, emerged with fine nobility, sense of choked outrage at the outset, yet waiting several lines into appointment with the Don to achieve sufficient fortitude, firmness to make it what confrontation it should be.

Facing much interference - frequent reconfiguring the set (only effective with major prop relegated to outer left and right edge of the stage, emphasizing dark deep void far back, mirrored that way too), changes of garb, supernumeraries given increasingly cliched tasks - the then equivocated musical leadership remained up to Daniel Barenboim.

Erato release of Barenboim Don Giovanni I purchased two decades ago revealed best his eclectic mix of the Romanticism of Wilhelm Furtwangler and heavy, more stoical approach of Otto Klemperer, letting in where readily obvious the sunlight of what appreciation especially Furtwangler had for the Italianate lyricism therein and for deep psychological probing of the human psyche available as well. Several friends of mine would remind me I was buying Mozart not quite ‘period’ up-to-date; not to be intimidated, I shrugged them off – and am still glad I did.

Tempos at La Scala still tended to be slow, but with Barenboim less decisive, perhaps more deferential than ever before. Luster, especially from La Scala woodwinds, emanated very well, sweetly from the pit, abetted by lush strings, their nuance. Half the time however, things tended to course along flat-line, disengaged, likely distracted by much traffic moving back and forth onstage – and occasionally threatening how well in sync orchestra pit and stage remained. Important transitions, contrasts within the great Act Two sextet glibly got somewhat smoothed out. Both Terfel and Barenboim lacked firm grip through its vigorous coda, recapitulation. Though La Scala’s orchestral forces seldom embarrassed themselves, their playing to (help) define all at stake here came up short, at least until closing scenes of Act Two. One by pure happenstance got reminded here of (not always) sluggish late-career Bohm with Mozart. Barenboim’s sudden affectation of grandeur with Elvira’s In quail eccessi' came across very stodgy.

Egregious here though was woodwind band playing from the orchestra pit instead of onstage to accompany supper just past full orchestra vigorously opening the final scene. Barenboim, very qualified to put together a well performed Don Giovanni, should withhold rights toward publishing this one. For what maybe got billed as ‘tribute to La Scala’, we received La Scala tribute to Robert Carsen instead.

The evening in a very weakly attended cinema finals week in charming college town of Nacogdoches, started off with watching Santa Claus imbibe a Coke Zero to Italian national anthem being played to help ease us into what would follow. Two things to believe in, according to Woody Allen, are sex and death, " ... but at least after death, you’re not nauseous." Better yet perhaps this Woody Allen quote: “Hey, don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.”

This all resembled quite an undertaking.

Special thanks to both Emerging Pictures and Carmike Cinema for making this presentation, others from La Scala possible.

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Sunday, November 6, 2011

HGO Fidelio: Wild, unqualified triumph marking heroic return of Karita Mattila - Met production revival (Jurgen Flimm). Michael Hofstetter. 05.11.11.

Common sports lingo might deem this having really hit one out of the park. Such could be very accurate in assessing Houston Grand Opera’s first production now of Beethoven’s Fidelio in twenty-six years. At somewhat an intuitive level, this Fidelio quickly near its outset and for numerous passages to follow had a way of leading its own way - working out by what even to whomever naïve appeared to follow a certain inscrutable and inexorable logic.

One major contributing factor was certainly HGO’s hosting of celebrated producer Jurgen Flimm - in production we borrowed from the Metropolitan Opera. BBC broadcast of Flimm's production ran last summer from London, starring a mildly tentative Nina Stemme and mediocre Florestan - Endrick Wottrich notorious for dissing Pierre Boulez, accompanying producer for their controversial, most interesting recent Parsifal together at Bayreuth. For casting deficiency or two and last minute need to replace on podium Kirill Petrenko with Mark Elder, things did not quite mesh, catch fire as readily as they did at the Wortham Center the Saturday evening, third performance, of this run.

Leads for HGO’s run on this occasion were Karita Mattila and Simon O’Neill. In 1985 they had been Hildegard Behrens and worthy of special note, the underrated Polish tenor Wieslaw Ochman – from whom eighteen months later we picked up a most suavely neurotic Herod – part somebody should have definitely made him record to supplement his Narraboth’s for Bohm and Karajan. Karita Mattila last appeared here in 2006 for Manon Lescaut - with cool Nordic penetrating tone, delivery scoring a considerable vocal and histrionic triumph then.

From several moments into time curtain was up on opening singspiel scene to Fidelio, one could sense something already in the air – even with just merely HGO studio member and returning alumnus Brittany Wheeler (Marzelline) and Norman Reinhardt (Jaquino) on stage, preoccupied as much as their habitual sparring conversation for the day as with polishing the jail office’s firearms arsenal. All, through Marzelline’s aria expressing her perplexity with conflicting romantic entanglements, came across with fine melos and charm without ever stepping over line to turn anything cloying. Especially anybody slightly more than casually familiar with Flimm’s work could pick up his very close manner of having prepared his cast to draw both his audience in and singers amongst themselves. Kristinn Sigmundsson, both figure and voice of ample girth on stage, played a very warm, convivial Rocco, achieving for later more dramatic scenes all on verge of fine gravitas for crucial interaction therein and genuine compassion for leading protagonists (and also never insipidly cowering fear of offending Pizarro).

Hard to locate, highly underrated Nozze di Figaro Flimm staged for Zurich reveals how – in close-up upon simple change of countenance turn to internal strand of the plot can be forced to happen, as though on a dime. Contrast this, if you will, with excess clutter accompanied heavy mug and blither while not blank feel characterizing David McVicar’s over-rated production of Le Nozze. There is more sexual, dramatic. musical tension on cusp of exploding between Eva Mei and Rodney Gilfry – partly for effort to have dropped many useless clichés – than to be seen the other night between a glib, blank-faced Anna Bolena and good Enrico VIII from the Met.

The very fine Falk Struckmann provided Pizaaro sinister mature weight for Met incarnation of Flimm’s production nine seasons back, vis-à-vis notably youthful, almost naively visionary appearing Rocco of Rene Pape. Dynamic between these two shifted for Houston Grand Opera now between Tomas Tomasson (Tomsky - Pique-Dame, 2010) and Sigmundsson. One might detect a little of suavely delivered (and vocalized) proto-Scarpia aspects of Rodney Gilfry’s brilliant portrayal of Almaviva in Tomasson’s Pizarro. With slightly gravelly voice, but determined line, forza infused encompassing of wide range, here was the picture of blind, youthfull choleric ambition, handsomely packaged – dangerously at the ready to close the sale toward dispatching of Florestan – and then eventually anyone else in his way. Such dynamic again between these two may have garbed itself in more conventional format than at the Met, it seemed, but really at only one end of running dialogue – and equally compellingly. Struckmann and Pape always remain a hard act to follow.

Striking contrast to the villainy of Pizarro, an equally dapper looking Kyle Ketelsen provided Don Fernando’s closing weighty benediction with fine shape and profile, artistically meriting equal approval from the hall – even almost as though unawares of sinister goings-on surrounding rear scaffolding – deep clouds hovering above – purposefully clearer and more disturbing to visual and dramatic perspective than as seen on digital video (dvd).

With even dramatic shift of power, even seemingly into the right hands, element in society can still persist toward trying to recover its way or holding of sway – perhaps more potently now than before – and as realized here also a little more violently – completely without overkill. Witness the sometimes arbitrary police berating of Occupy Wall Street, related protesters across our own fair land. So well articulated in having both Pizarro and Fernando both decked out in three-piece suits, is timeless long by now – since robber baron, wealthy bureaucrat decked out giants and gods respectively of Patrice Chereau’s Ring – oh, not to mention how efficiently laptop, fax machine, water cooler accommodated Alan Titus’s Wotan was for Flimm at Bayreuth two decades later. Very efficient timelessly modernized sett design (Robert Israel) in deep browns and grays, wall of tiered cells distinctively to the right with arms sticking out plus costuming (Florence van Gerkan) and lighting (Duane Schuler) were spot-on.

Couched by the fine simplicity driven musical leadership of Hofstetter, honed to near perfection all evening long - delivered with sufficient weight - long passionate high G from (visually) darkness enshrouded Florestan of Simon O’Neill starting his opening Act Two monologue rang out with compelling force and projection, but leading into fine shaping, encompassing of well nuanced lyricism of the part as well. For more dramatic utterances, O’Neill’s tone is not found the most ingratiating, but the certainty and ferocity of his delivery was sufficient to perhaps recall sometimes a hardly more tonally ingratiating James King on a good night as Florestan. The feel he provided for imploring Fidelio and Rocco for remote chance to see Leonore, his wife, again, through both spoken dialogue and song became deeply moving here.

Helping alongside Flimm and Hofstetter stitch all together was the magnetic Leonore of Karita Mattila, at first sighting stumbling onto stage carrying bag of groceries – as though still learning the steps of being a boy – but then this time perhaps bailing on daily potassium intake; perhaps Wortham Center pantry backstage or distributor was short on supply of bananas. Perhaps a Jurgen Flimm Wozzeck brought up to date, selenium or quercetin intake delivered or sitting around might also come handy – but then Wozzeck’s rage might turn out less violent and then the play would no longer be the same. (I could not help tonight but note Flimm’s place of birth being Giessen – site of Buchner’s alma mater).

Fidelio marked heroic return by Mattila to the Wortham Center stage. Shift of registers, making reach for high notes, sustaining line up to them is all such for which she has lost a little ease during the past several years. Within picture of quietly intense, flexible shaping of all that occurred here, depth of feel, perspective Flimm provided – Mattila recovered some of the above with fine malleability, color, flexibility, even some of the bloom of former years.

Between Mattila and Flimm, this Fidelio proved how great stage direction, production of opera requires a good ear on part of the producer - in addition to on part of who may be conducting. With Mattila fully understanding, encompassing very compelled, commanding line, filling much subtle nuance therein – through the challenging hurdles of ‘Komm, Hoffnung’ and elsewhere – dramatic impetus Beethoven’s music opens out, compels forward became complete, filling out all Fidelio is about. This was work matching highest current international standards for both directing and singing Fidelio – and especially from Karita Mattila, both always looking very comfortable in her own skin and thus filling out Leonore with most magnetic, engaged self-effacing warmth. One could not help but be moved.

Why much mention of Wozzeck above? One might guess and very reasonably that part of Marie Met – could figure before long within Karita Mattila’s sights. Given all the dramatic excitement happening on stage, the classic grosse pause Alban Berg parodied during Act One seduction scene thereof got slightly over-stepped here. There is still opportunity to ameliorate matters, fully recover the mother of all dramatic pauses in music history – to supplement good handful of pregnant, dramatically rife pauses interjecting earlier dialogue, interaction. Apart from that, Hofstetter, in pacing Fidelio, flexibly filling out its lyricism very seldom put a foot wrong. Mild prudence accommodating one or two slightly strained voices during Act Two may have slightly undercut dramatic tension, quasi-period abrupt accent or two may have slightly broken line - churlish to mention any of this.

Choral preparation (Richard Bado) is still fine, yet in this context I intermittently found several lines during Prisoner’s Chorus slightly louder in volume than might provide most moving results. Note however the hush, spaciousness with which Hofstetter infused slowly ascending strings to implore men sideways – and then prudent spacing, weight provided, underpinning them throughout and through sometimes aimless extending out through through-composed dialogue to follow –everybody’s attention rapt instead – toward poised, gently drifting off conclusion to Act One. Luminous warmth, achieved by HGO orchestra winds, alacrity infused witty pointing of opening singspiel, anticipatorily hushed Act One quartet (‘Mir ist wunderbar’) and highly spirited uplift infused finale to Fidelio marked Hofstetter’s return as very compelling (since good 2008 Beatrice et Benedict – featuring excellent Benedict of Norman Reinhardt) – always toward very clear goals in mind. He should soon get invited back.

This Fidelio is such necessity to go see, should anyone reading this be in the area - anything no longer important months, years later can get put aside for this opportunity. Houston Grand Opera has scored an unqualified triumph this week. Certainly for local yokels but perhaps for visitors from away to reckon HGO entity of true international standing - was occasion to feel very fortunate to be alive to witness this.

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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Met in HD: Austerely set, dark Slavic cast Anna Bolena (Met debut) opens 2011-12 season. Anna Netrebko. Marco Armiliato. 15.10.11.

A first ever production of Donizetti’s tragedy Anna Bolena, with some pomp, opened the Met’s 2011-2012 season September 26th; repeat October 15th became first presentation in new Met in HD season to cinemas nation, worldwide – also toward showing off hometown girl made good to cinemas in Russia for its first season there. Domestically, Anna Netrebko introducing her Anna Bolena to the Met was much anticipated, following successful role debut last spring in Vienna (now on DGG dvd).

There is some grandiosity, real splendor to anticipate, at least hope for in attending any performance of Anna Bolena. Even with shortcomings of how the Met has presented this, it was still valuable to have attended this, just for what work it is – that alone erasing doubts I sustained until day before the November 2nd repeat viewing of October 15th.

Peter Gelb, interviewing Netrebko before first curtain, spoke of Anna Bolena as part of a trilogy, hopefully to also have Netrebko star as Maria Stuarda and as Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux. Given how varied, challenging are each of these roles, it likely is prudent Netrebko has thus far declined to commit to any more than just Anna Bolena thus far. David McVicar, plausibly in awe of having picked up Netrebko at least for this, has produced it, having prepared doing so quite substantially as star vehicle for her. Along with narrow perspective provided, this perception may have become crutch upon which rest several other shortcomings.

Windsor Castle appeared an oppressively dark, austere place in which to conduct affairs. Luxurious pillows Anna reclines upon with young daughter Elisabeth and accompanying courtly frolic, gossip helped provide early fleeting moment of relief. Tower of London cell in Act Two got better lit than several socially prominent gatherings. Striving here aimed for emotional truth, simplicity by stripping away much bark, good enveloping, so to speak. Stodginess perhaps became a little greater for only getting to see little of world dramatis personae here inhabit, according to any greater expectations, moreover to unabashed Romanticism into which Donizetti’s music - still following somewhat closely model of Rossini - invites us. Persona of the diva Donizetti indeed makes center stage also got compromised, with Anna Netrebko decked out very often in awkwardly fitting, assembled garb. James Jorden’s exhaustive column on practically this issue alone makes highly amusing (and insightful) reading.

Sets for Peter Genovese’s production at Staatsoper Wien were quite austere too, but with practically luxuriant lighting chiaroscuro - vernally accented silken gowns for Netrebko and Elina Garanca (originally announced Seymour for the Met), complementing very well both figures, to match. Men costuming wise at the Met, Smeton (Tamara Mumford) on down, were better accommodated. Increasingly Holbein style appearance of Enrico served very well, then also of Hervey (the always reliable Eduardo Valdes). Enrico, affecting sexual assault on Giovanna Seymour early on during Act One, toward getting his way with her, looked simultaneously vulgar, timid, confused.

Gray inlay solid firm, weathered brick filled out heavy canopy of wood and stone - best one could make out through the dim lighting. Meager light for opening scene shimmered through narrow thinly slatted window panels. Opening out of set at stage rear for Windsor Castle park offered some relief – launch pad in effect for royal entourage to embark on hunting diversion or operatically affect doing so. Giant, lean, steely cold tree stalks descended from the ceiling, with then two giant poodle hounds accompanying entourage. Next thing you know, some giant (genetically mutated?) banana, grapefruit or celery stalk might then roll out , should anyone complain early on of getting famished - such as Miles Monroe very readily offers a chronically bitching abducted Diane Keaton in classic 1970’s sci-fi parody.

Organization of people moving about was all reasonably effective. Past silly moment between Henry VIII and Jane already mentioned, no further gaffes became too memorable. However capable individual cast members were of acting their parts, determined how effective interaction was at any given point – without glaring sense of major figures on stage being left to their own devices. Reasoning I hesitate to resort to however is that even in this very modern (and austerely budgeted – often selectively) day and age, what affects the eye can also affect the ear, including for singers on stage. Getting past that, attention can now turn to artist taking center stage – Anna Netrebio.

With good looks diminished more than how one recalls seeing Netrebio before, October satellite beamed matinee emerged better however than opening night. Acting, compared with how she appeared in Vienna, looked stiffer – toward reliably reflecting narrow world, perspective inhabited, as David McVicar offers us. Vocal production last spring was more open, fluid, employing more legato – resulting in significantly better intonation than in this first Met run. Equally unyielding as the set design was the often rigid, intermittently clumsy conducting of Marco Armiliato – particularly unyielding to singers at good handful of critical junctures.

Gaetano Donizetti makes Anne Boleyn quite a multi-faceted character. His music offers effectively, quixotically an Anne girlish naïve, anguished over personal guilt in her having had to take Catherine of Aragon’s place, defiantly incisive for defending her honor – especially while confronting Enrico but also midway incidentally during private audience granted Jane Seymour. Noble heights then should get reached for potentially heartrending pardon of Giovanna, then moral resolve in accepting her fate while insisting on defending her honor - toward phase of Anna’s wandering in and out of lucidity – such dramatically that Netrebko interpreted halfway well, perhaps still somewhat generically

Donizetti never came up with a more moving heroine, one filled out with more nobly achieved, yet comparatively simply adorned lyricism – especially during final scene – than Anne Wide psychological and musical range any soprano must encompass to sing this makes it unlikely that Donizetti offered divas any greater challenge. The more inward turning Maria Stuarda, more evenly sublime, comes across as some respite, while still being very aesthetically demanding.

Netrebko’s countenance overall generically looked unsettled – for brief reflection on how sad and taciturn Jane first appears and for affection towards Enrico upon first greeting him. Impetus here was to attempt building upon previous achievement across the pond – toward infusing Anne with more tragic weight, gravitas. Extra effort applied tended more to obscure than to illuminate matters however. Opening pair of arias best exemplified problems to afflict Netrebko most of the way through Act One. Thick production, wodge right around the break, and unstable reach for what lies above seriously compromised both phrasing and intonation. Things here started out way too heavy, especially given the natural lighter timbre of Netrebko’s voice, seriously compromising grasp of Donizetti’s internally varied melodic cantabile that on its own, builds, through variety of nuance, much character. Much snatching of extra breaths demonstrated much lapse in good judgment here. Semaphoring to Percy to discourage his doing anything rash and impetuous embrace of Enrico both looked stiff, awkward.

‘In quegli sguardi, cantabile during Act One extended finale, de-tethered both intonation and phrasing wise, but fortunately hardly any awkward moment occurred after that. Forceful cabaletta to this finale and then ‘Coppia iniqua’ that both meant rough sailing opening night became better focused, forceful this time. Netrebko fortunately restored some measure of poise, dignity for the equally challenging Second Act. Scene, trio with Percy, Enrico, especially in terms of confronting Enrico registered focused, dramatically succinct. Lyrical cantabile’s during extended finale, albeit without intonation being one hundred percent, brought out best the qualities that distinguished Netrebko’s Vienna run from this run at the Met. Establishing, making ring true the emotional journey Donzietti embarks his heroine upon during scena with Giovanna Seymour became muted here.

Stephen Costello, for which press had generated higher hopes, turned in for especially the first half a disappointing Percy. Written for Rubini, legendary for his brilliant Rossini, Donzietti supplied him the acuti, but perhaps not as much the opportunity for display – replacing it with more forceful rhetoric – as might have best flattered Rubini’s gifts. His Act One pair of arias always gets transposed down, putting much of its tessitura right below the break – where Costello sounded most comfortable entire evening long High notes carried sufficient ring, but right below, tone became thin, phrasing stiff – runs somewhat raw and poutish appearance hardly more ingratiating. Netrebko and Costello did not succeed in matching voices well until into Act Two terzetto together. Recitative into prison scene with Rochefort fortunately sounded less comprimario than such during Act One, as did Vivi tu’ flexibly molded, securing more convincing dramatic stance for Percy’s last important appearance on stage. Keith Miller made sympathetic, but hardly authoritative presence needed as Rochefort.

Ekaterina Gubanova proved perhaps slightly miscast as Giovanna Seymour. Agility over many florid runs was good, singing in middle register(s) always even, but until Act Two, upper reaches produced a bit glassy in quality and low notes somewhat swallowed, weak. Playing Seymour slightly disproportionately as fully sympathetic, as very sincere Gubanova is, registered awkwardly – and motivated especially through gran scena with Netrebko something approaching an incipient whine, distracting focus. Elina Garanca, even with somewhat glib, guarded countenance, issued forth more convincingly Jane Seymour’s complexity, in a way moreover the quite openly duplicitous character of her emotions. Anne’s pardon of Jane, also for the more compelling simplicity of Netrebko’s manner in Vienna to then match with both Garanca and Evelino Pido’s better filling out of accompaniment, became something more meaningful there. Through heroically approached, conquered Act Two (mostly) solo scena, Gubanova achieved an attractively compelling, successful Second Act.

Some baggage this new production carried along with it that may have encumbered even Gubanova hardly afflicted the Enrico (Ildar Abdrazakov) and Smeton (Tamara Mumford) at all. Abadrazkov made up for dry tone obstructing some of his efforts almost fully by imaginative phrasing, most of all good acting, and sufficient agility to make, insinuate very well runs, arpeggios to fill out line between much stern declamation, and conniving much subtly declaimed insinuation as well. The handsome swagger, utter haughtiness, cruelty while keeping intact Enrico’s humanity – was always compelling - menacingly with ‘In separato carcere’ - big moment helping usher in stormy cabaletta (Netrebko) ending Act One among handful of good ones.

Tamara Mumford, as boy Smeton –good model for Ratmir in Glinka’s Ruslan (that Irina Verbitskaya sensually made smolder from early postwar Bolshoi what can easily otherwise sound distracted) – best approximated emulating Verbitskaya here. Mumford might plausibly become the Met’s next Seymour several seasons hence. Coltish, boyish charm carrying forth, unencumbered lightness, insinuatingly nuanced agility Mumford invested fully made the case for Smeton being both musically and dramatically relevant. Smeton entering during second Act Two chorus had Mumford appear as though having just been let out from Abu Ghraib – but not stealing dignity from how Mumford infused her closing lines moments before ‘Coppia iniqua’ sallied forth.

Obtrusive, not so much pretentiously, more than helpful was Marco Armiliato’s stiff, unimaginative leadership. Mild sympathy for the idiom manifested itself with competent ability to keep things moving, maintain ensemble. Such however, even though common, does not really suffice at making the case. Abetting having Costello slam into the arioso (‘Ei vive’) anticipating his First Act arias was however one really awkward moment.

Compartmentalizing downbeat and pacing undercut great scene making confront two divas - then great equalizer of sorts, so to speak. Pido, better elucidating grasp of form, of Donizetti’s striving to break free of strict allegiance to pre-established bel canto procedures again provided better framework. Donizetti’s final revision of this scene revealingly made it, dramatically, potentially very riveting. Likewise, opening chorus to final scene – listen to Gavezzeni set (with Callas) for how intensely moving this can be – thanks both to stiff podium and tremulous Met women, came off flat-line shallow sounding instead. Otherwise, as tragedy inexorably deepens, Armiliato adopted a more yielding stance, better responsive to situation at hand for much of what remained.

With Netrebko, one can not entirely fail to find her musically and dramatically gifted, almost sufficing some self-critical acumen as well, but it seems a nagging complacency can often take over – after reaching a certain point with what she accomplishes – ultimately in regard to her vocal health as well. And this was a little more conspicuously her show than her earlier Vienna run.

Discouraging toward attending this ‘live’ was auditioning ‘Non v’ha sguardo’ from Met opening night alongside Renata Scotto’s (from early 1970’s Philadelphia broadcast). For serious vocal production issues addressed earlier, they were practically identically alike. Never mind Netrebko speaking of finding her own way once having checked out Callas and Leyla Gencer No doubt much got invested here – effortful too – with inflexible vocal presence always lurking beneath the surface matched with stiff podium - austere visuals over the long haul affecting stage demeanor as well. One had to have been impressed by what Netrebo accomplished, but through all this somehow seldom moved.

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Monday, May 30, 2011

DR Kultur: Bamberg SO, Jonathan Nott LIVE. Mysteries of the night - all toward clamorous blaze of day. Ives Three Places. Mahler Seven. 24.5.11.

Jonathan Nott continues quite a successful Mahler cycle both in concert in Bamberg's warm Keilberth-Saale and on disc with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra Nott now has playing comparably well to numerous leading orchestras in Europe. His Mahler first caught my attention with a Fourth played by Bamberg at the 2006 BBC Proms, turning this music on its dark side while framing such with strong linear and textural clarity.

If any previous Mahler interpreters serve as example to Nott, it may be Pierre Boulez; differences too between both stand out. Simultaneously arguably most controversial of Boulez’s Mahler interpretations, favorite of mine from among them is of the Seventh Symphony. The slightly heavy, yet dry – near end of the peak of the Dohnanyi era – approach to Romantic music, Mahler included, of Cleveland balances well with Boulez’s ironic, dour wit, fire for the Seventh – brisk pace notably through second Nachtmusik. Getting past quasi-Brucknerian terracing of contrasting episodes, buildup through the first movement, Boulez and Nott both recall to mind Hermann Scherchen’s way with Mahler. Especially memorable his 1965 Toronto broadcast of this (especially for having popped it on a first time one hour after pseudo-Furtwangler slog Christoph Eschenbach made long ago here through a stellar cast Don Giovanni (Mattila, der Walt, Thomas Allen, Fleming as Elvira, Cachemaille).

Boulez’s interpretation of the Seventh repeated over PBS last year recorded live from Chicago; some of Boulez’s more obvious interpretative decisions got smoothed out, making all seem less decisive, driven home than before from Cleveland (on DGG - though on wit, risk-taking still a bit shy next to Scherchen).

Bamberg now certainly has an orchestra for Mahler with which to reckon. Burnished melos from their winds, buttery lower strings - good if not quite alone definitive qualities, Nott has helped make distinctive toward utterly specific expressive, interpretative purposes. A pervasive nostalgic air characterizing the Mahler Seventh, elusively so for most notably the second Nachtmusik Nott had his forces fully intimate - revealing how in Mahler’s sonorities, conceptualization thereof, some of the bottom has fallen out – hollowness, exposed gaps left in its wake. Gone is some of an acerbic, (proto-)neo-classical, practically Stravinskian quality like from Boulez, but not completely – instead more subtly reckoned intimation of the same. What has been (exaggeratedly) assessed as clinical detachment characterizing the Boulez is equally revealing. Pool out of which Mahler draws references to the past is deep. What references occur, with what detachment, irony, distortion, other device Mahler applies gain their elusive, ephemeral quality thereby – with no single exemplary way to illustrate this.

Nott opened this program with masterpiece by comparable genius transcendentalist Charles Ives – Three Places in New England – Mahler more sophisticatedly effective at it in his Seventh, Ninth, Das Lied than in his Third Symphony. All one might have sought from Nott and his forces playing Ives was a little more earthiness than emerged here. Mahler admired Ives to extent he carried back a copy of Ives’s Third Symphony back to Europe with him, with it in mind getting it performed there. Nott’s grasp of Ives’s music seems complete, except perhaps in one area – its frequently brash qualities, utter plethora of vernacular sources. Swagger for middle movement comedic Putnam’s Camp – study, likely, for large Ives Fourth Symphony scherzo - its march rhythms from ‘Marching Through Georgia to the British Grenadiers - was good, if less uninhibited than might be ideal. Deeply intoned syncopations, limned by harmonics above, provided broad shape for long moment of stillness, for it rapt intensity as well.

Diaphanous, languid sense of mystery to open most extended picture among the three, the ‘St Gaudens in Boston Commons’ was complete – all groping to form out of several intervals good intimation of Afro-American ‘spiritual’ – deeply expressive Bamberg woodwinds helping carry to satisfying closure idea deeply suggested here. Empathy Ives feels for plight of black regiment during the Civil War, musical comment on such is hardly equaled elsewhere. Direct simplicity from principal chairs compensated well for incidental Bambergeois smoothing out of more extravagantly scored passages. Stretto from differing strands of material to combine, also clash with each other Nott supplied rhythmic shape, acuity, even some earthiness from his strings – if intermittently less freedom than is preferable.

Tempos for all three pieces were slightly slower than usual. The most evocative piece of the three, and abstract, the Housatonic at Stocbrdge – found Nott the most at home with what he confronted here. The textural density of this music and its subtly compressed quality are such Nott can not anymore find daunting. The Romantic appeal of landscape both pointedly and evocatively described in words (simply written down, not performed at all) found Nott completely at ease – comparable to what a mature Bartok or Ligeti accomplished years later – with interwoven melismatic chromatic descant very flexibly, limning broad melodic line – fully evoking Nature, inhaling mists all about. Stretto toward eventually arriving loud dissonant climax formed very effectively organically from what preceded it – with most inhibition at last put aside. Out of the swirls, rushes of the Housatonic might form a lake comparable to what next composer listed might have then rowed or swam across.

Nott, oars ready to traverse lake about, invited his players to openly, warmly resonate all before them, clarinets sticking out to further enhance color, warmth - stringent upper winds and strings to profile craggy rock, cliffs aloft. Remainder of the way Nott marked deliberately, with strings, winds, bellicose trumpets on cusp of breaking out, anticipating the Exposition. Equine upbeats to proceeding march step got vividly, lightly marked, brightly lifting sense of forward motion going. Natural shaping of rubato, sonorities underneath, eschewing unmarked slowdown, provided ascending second theme superb elasticity. Marking of tuba line helped tighten up return of the first theme. Reminiscence of second theme semitone lower (B Minor) occurred with continual forward motion - pizzicato, woodwind cries eerily punctuating the night air.

Atmosphere remained spectral for coolly approached strands of first theme - marked timpani accenting then spurring all on forward. In the hands of somebody less adept, eschewing sturm und drang here might suffice to throw off center of gravity – no issue for Nott. Pastoral episode entered all forest mercurial - as though lost, from ‘another world.’ Full flowering out of ‘sehr breit’ reprise of second theme, for refusal to distend it earlier had it emerge fresher than normally one can anticipate. High entrance on violins getting transition to recapitulation going had Nott observing the ‘a tempo’ written in there instead of – too commonly – docking it. An earthier, lustier vigor then arose through especially the strings, forest immersed fire then coursing way through the rest, picking up most sturm und drang along the way, but without excessive bombast or empty banality Mahler already provided the means to avoid.

Nott favored, compared with fleeter Boulez, moderate pace for Nachtmusik I. Contrast of sonorities, still allowing much acerbity, fit here warmer approximation of Knaben Wunderhorn motifs. Gradual at building atmosphere, all naturally opened out - toward march refrain in violins being cadenced on rattle (trills) on low register clarinets. With moderate breeze coursing through first trio section, Nott became attentive to dotted rhythms being precise contrasting with how violins drowsily spin out the rest. Groping lower strings enveloped then remotely placed reprise of main section. Spectral second trio (F Minor), with ‘irdisches Leben’ plaintive winds purposefully came off acrid, less sublime. Light descending terraced winds helped dissemble memory of cellos’ klezmer refrain to same idea,, all preparing surreptitious tone for brief transition back to forthright refrain, despondently so. Reprise of first trio passed by more urgently – as though intended fleeting, passé thereby. Main march motifs made final sheepish return - false or precarious step always right around the corner - with all then spinning off into a void.

Nott became closest to Boulez on central scherzo - ‘Schattenhaft.’ It became distinctively so for Nott with less projected, more resonant Bamberg forces to make stand out its garish, acrid, shuddering occurring throughout, then to more potently extrude to abet ubiquitous menace, do greater harm from within. Measured step starting out was perfectly adept, followed by blunt sudden capture of foreground for descending rapid run in dark woodwinds – as having emerged out of nowhere. Icy, tremolo like runs in the strings sharply cut through mists, nebulae about. Strings then attacked waltz refrain with schmaltzy, confident abandon. Insistence to avoid oboe led trio turning mawkish Nott staged by having violins eerily match in their descending trailing off wiry tone from the oboes. Besotted accenting from viola solo Nott made to infect violins and timpani. Nott prevented all through bumpy ride back into scherzo from stabilizing until plaintively reply from oboes in minor-key Neapolitan. Hole dug out of warm Bamberg sonorities only grew deeper, still more so from then on.

Fragility within warm glow Nott had infuse Nachtmusik II became quality less to forefront than subtly pervading it all instead. Obvious sensation got provided by pungently marking this music’s well varied acrid dissonances, but all as though having percolated out of the twilit Romantic glow. Even while fully inhaling nocturnal fragrance all about, there was more than just this means by which Nott set up some aesthetic distance; Mahler’s music does here itself. Nowhere did doing so provide greater dividends than with Nott’s shaping of song like middle section – no obvious places excessively lingered over – with natural rubato rendering line its normal shape. Comments midway through the trio section maintained their reticent, dour character intact. Reprise of ‘’Traumerei’ opening enhanced overall relaxed air, followed, contrasted then by stringent push through violins’ led stretto, fleshing out high and dry their internal dissonances – without breaking line. Atmosphere about got deeply absorbed during process of all fading away – all in beautifully rounded perspective – anticipatory as much as nostalgic.

Conventional way with similar finale to the Fifth Symphony is to reward its formal complexity with broad pacing, providing all its fugue and chorale a Brucknerian weight, portentousness – such as one encounters on the old Barbirolli recording. Treating similarly the finale to the Seventh is judged to be riskier, given its brightly lit color, its surface wise more obvious banality – its superficially light weight harmonically and extensive parody, Rapid, tight interlocking of harmonic progressions working their way through Nott invoked toward working a spell over all his players – with the Stravinsky of Petrouchka, Symphony in C - pan-diatonicism with the latter - imminent.

Pacing things broadly, Nott, increasingly interwove much subtle terracing into Mahler’s scoring – confident to expose where Mahler has intentionally left gaps, places where voicing does not get doubled properly. Lift to ebullience, all pomp, the overtly festive character here hardly ever got minimized at all. Brass and strings strongly competed amongst themselves at serving up lusty fervor to Meistersinger and other popular tune refrains. Suspected academic quality to Nott’s interpretation, instead of denying the comedy infusing all this, deepened it, provided it more savor than crudely underlining it can. Busoni’s music fleetingly came to mind, ‘’higher knowledge’ to be derived thereof, and then with for instance widely spaced low trombone underpinning ‘sextuplet’ spinning forth laendler in the strings, the first especially of the Ninth’s two central scherzos.

Shock of what gets encountered earlier found at last rich fulfillment in treating the finale to the Seventh with much deserved respect, thus making first movement ‘caravan’ episode toward the end sound less like location where things might have suddenly derailed, to instead psychologically have been likely eventually all along.

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