With this first column of Out and About, the Editor has given me an opportunity to share with you news and a perspective on opera, which comes not only from the major houses in New York, but from important New York recitals, from performances in the smaller venues in the city where new or rare works are done, and from events outside of New York City. Upcoming columns will be devoted to recent important productions in the mid-West, and to a new opera in Boston starring male soprano Michael Maniaci. I also look forward to reviewing works and recordings which have passed undeservedly from the public eye, as well as offering some general reflections, musings, and, inevitably, complaints, about the state of opera in general. I hope a good time will be had by all.
Metropolitan Season Announcement
The big news this week comes from the Metropolitan Opera, which on Monday announced its plans for the 2010-2011 season, which includes two Met Opera Premiers (John Adams's Nixon in China and Rossini's Le comte Ory), five additional new productions, including the first two parts of an awaited Robert Lepage Ring, 11 HD transmissions, Music Director James Levine's celebration of his 40th Anniversary with the Company, a tour of Japan and, buried a bit deeper in the fine print, an increase of 6% for subscriptions, and 11% for individual tickets. Among the most enticing offerings of the season look to be Das Rheingold (with Bryn Terfel, Richard Croft and Stephanie Blythe) and Die Walküre (with Jonas Kaufmann, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Deborah Voigt, Terfel and Miss Blythe), both under Levine's direction, a new production of Boris Godunov under Valery Gergiev, with René Pape and Ekaterina Semenchuk, Bohèmes alternating Vittorio Grigolo, Joseph Calleja, Piotr Beczala and Ramón Vargas as Rodolfo, and featuring Peter Mattei in some of the performances, a William Christie-led Cosi fan tutte, Yannick Nézet-Séguin in the Royal Opera House Don Carlo, with a cast including Roberto Alagna, Marina Poplavskaya, Simon Keenlyside and Ferruccio Furlanetto (who will also appear in our Simon Boccanegra, with Dmitri Hvorostovsky), Pelléas et Mélisande under Simon Rattle, with Stéphane Degout, Magdalena Kozena and Gerald Finley and a revival of Capriccio, starring Renée Fleming, Sarah Connolly, Joseph Kaiser and Russell Braun under Andrew Davis.
The day before the Metropolitan's announcement, General Manager Peter Gelb participated in an interview at The Juilliard School with Juilliard President Joseph W Polisi, as part of Juilliard's annual Alumni College and Career Expo. If the questions were neither particularly penetrating nor unpredictable, still Gelb seemed to be speaking off the cuff. There is no question that Gelb has done some excellent things for the Metropolitan during his tenure, but listening to him speak about the technicalities of the HD broadcasts and his fascination with new media in general, made clear that while Gelb is devoted to the art form generally, his heart lies with the magic of broadcasting, rather than in a devotion to opera for its own sake. Gelb is justifiably proud of his record in bringing operas to the Metropolitan which have not been done here before, and he has a clear and sincere interest in expanding the audience for opera, even if he is perhaps overly optimistic about the loyalties of those who are drawn to the house only for the blockbuster events or the rare appearances of superstars.
Gelb clearly feels that the time has come to bring a new kind of opera experience to the New York public, and he has brought a number of productions to the house, good and bad, in equal measure. There is perhaps no arguing with taste, and so Gelb continues to defend the small-beer Bondy Tosca - it was obvious from his comments about Franco Zeffirelli that Gelb felt more than annoyed by Zeffirelli's pot shots - and if the catastrophic Metropolitan Sonnambula seems to have been read out of history much like an inconvenient Soviet leader in the bad old days, still Gelb's successes, most notably the recent triumphant Carmen, must be taken seriously and credit given where credit is due.
But if there is a fly in all this ointment, it may well be that Gelb sees the art form not on its own terms, but against the lingo and background of modern media. In common parlance today, the worlds of television and internet are divided into 'content providers' and 'service delivery systems'. If, at a very basic level, this isn't much different than the distinction between 'writing plays' and 'performing plays', or between 'producing television shows' and 'broadcasting' them, still the change in language denotes more than a change of fashion. The critical element in the modern age is to feed the kitty, and frankly, any content will do. Once a media delivery system is in place, be it internet or iPhones, then that system must be fed with more and more content, of any kind, to keep the consumer happy and engaged or at least busy. The actual production of the content becomes secondary to its easy accessibility, and, thus, reality television, home cooking shows and twenty-four hour news and weather. It is ALL content, and all, in a sense, equally fungible. The mind may be blank, but the screen can never be.
I suspect that, for Gelb, and giving all due honor to his interest in expanding the repertoire, and in obtaining for the Metropolitan the finest cast and creative teams he can, mere stewardship for the art form has taken second place to the need to make 'something' modern and new available for the HD broadcasts, for the Metropolitan Sirius transmissions, and for every other media outlet which Gelb can imagine and foresee. The uniqueness of opera is no longer determinative, or even, perhaps, viable; what is important is that the 'content' be digestible in the new media. In doing so, the risk is that the very cream of the art - the communication and characterization inherent in great singing and in acting with the voice - will be transformed into homogenized milk sold at every corner store. If, for Marshall McLuhan, the medium was the message, in the new media age, the message is now nothing more than a medium.
What disturbed most though, throughout the afternoon's discussion, was a subtle but obvious tendency on Gelb's part to polarize a state of affairs between the 'past and the 'future'. He is obviously impatient with the reaction of critics to his general approach to new productions, which I would characterize as novelty in search of meaning. Of audience reaction, he seems less concerned, making a joke about those who could not sleep at night for fear of 'Regie' productions which, if funny, told the tale of a general director adverse to much of his subscriber base. In his approach to singing, the life-blood of opera, Gelb has emphasized in his tenure a certain kind of acting 'style' which is most compatible to television and other audio-visual transmissions, and he tends to deride the value of what he called on Sunday the "stand and sing" school of acting that characterized such primitives as Caruso, Flagstad, Björling, Tebaldi and Sutherland, among others. The Metropolitan would be lucky indeed -as would any house - if it could have half of the singers who allegedly 'stood and sang' fifty years ago. If there is no such thing as a magical Golden Age of singing, still, change for the sake of change is not always progress either. Turgenev, anyone?
While it may be, as a practical matter, that Gelb will have to pull his horns in over the next few years in terms of the kinds of productions he would prefer to see at the Metropolitan, he impresses as wanting to be less a taste-maker and an educator than a 'leader' in the eyes of those whom he regards as his peers, even at the cost of alienating what should be his natural constituency. Though neither his sincerity nor his devotion to the house is in any doubt, it is nonetheless fair to ask whether so assiduously putting old wine in new bottles can really turn teetotallers into oenophiles, or whether, in stirring up the sediment on the bottom, the brew may become ultimately undrinkable for the committed wine lover.
February 25th, 2010
Out and About in New York and Philadelphia
New Yorkers hungry for rare repertoire tend to be dependent upon our local conservatories, ambitious small opera companies and the occasional guest troop to leaven our steady diet of Mozart, Verdi and Puccini, although, truth be told, even our conservatories tend towards the tried-and-true in their public performances. However, if the listener is willing to take either a chance on what may be sketchy performances, or a short trip by train, there is more than enough to be found to supplement our musical Axis of Evil.
Perhaps the oddest event of the month so far has been the reappearance in New York of soprano June Anderson, a singer I was fortunate enough to encounter first at her New York City Opera debut in I puritani (also the debut of Chris Merritt here) almost three decades ago. If she was never a fully satisfying stage performer, I have had great admiration for the artistic choices she has made throughout her career. Her chief virtue has always been a certain integrity of performance - she never panders, either to her audiences or her composers - and in her younger years, she boasted a flutey soprano capable of significant flexibility and ease in the upper register. Both by temperament and phrasing she was often seen here as a Sutherland epigone, although Miss Anderson has lacked, or perhaps deliberately eschewed, the Australian’s capacity to thrill an audience, or for that matter to play to it. The George London Foundation for Singers hosts three concerts yearly in the auditorium of the swanky Morgan Library and Museum, pairing one established artist and one younger performer. On February 7, Miss Anderson in one of her rare New York appearances, shared the stage, if little else, with Sean Panikkar, who has been heard frequently with the San Francisco Opera, and more recently with the Metropolitan Opera. Rumors flew after the concert that Miss Anderson had been unhappy with her appearance with Pannikar, that there had been minimal rehearsal for their one duet (from Les pêcheurs de perles) and that the possibility of an encore featuring the two singers had been scotched. Whatever the truth of the stories, this was an afternoon in which truth was stranger than fiction.
Heard in a mixed program of arias and songs by Rossini, Bellini, Duparc and Kurt Weill (including "Giusto ciel" from Maometto II and "Dopo l’oscuro nembo" from Adelson e Salvini, along with the operatic La ricordanza), the Anderson voice itself was still firm and of good size, without any wobble or notable weakness (she continues to appear occasionally in opera throughout Europe), although intonation, very rarely, could fall slightly off pitch at the end of sustained notes. Sadly, what marked and marred the performances, was a completely consistent moroseness of character (Weill’s "My Ship", from Lady in the Dark, was given the most somnolent reading imaginable), and she and her accompanist Jeff Cohen, never met a tempo which they couldn’t drag. The musical impression was only reinforced by Miss Anderson's podium presence. She was inexpressive of face and gesture, and almost wraith-like in manner. What might have been with the smallest spark of life, a triumph, or at least a cause for rejoicing, became an uncomfortable curio.
Pannikar has been featured prominently in Opera News, the magazine of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, but he seemed as unprepared as one could imagine for a solo recital, even a shared one, at this point. The timbre of the voice itself is a pleasant but entirely anonymous tenor, and for a young man with so little insight, to venture Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte or songs of Hubert Parry did no favors to himself or to the composers. One hoped for better in his rendition of "Kuda, kuda", accompanied as he was by the experienced Ken Noda, but the aria went for nothing. Pannikar was badly advised to prepare an afternoon concert, when the ultimate impression was that of listening to comprimario material, but without the specificity of characterization which informs the best of these artists.
A somnambulist of a very different sort was offered by the Curtis Institute for Music on February 18th at the Prince Musical Theatre in Philadelphia. Philadelphia is an important vocal training center on the East Coast now, and Curtis shares with the Academy of Vocal Arts the distinction of launching a number of important voices into professional trajectories today. The intense pleasure of this semi-staged performance of La sonnambula lay in the baton of Benjamin Shwartz, the guest conductor of the truly excellent Curtis Symphony Orchestra (this should be no surprise), who gave us an evening of Bellini conducting of which I had only dreamed for decades: fluid, taut of line, and yet filled with the nuances of a singing rubato. Shwartz was able to judge and convey the emotional climaxes of the music, most importantly in Elvino’s lines at the conclusion of Act I, "Voglia il cielo che il duol ch'io sento", which expands the great concertato, and in Amina’s great transformation from "Ah non credea" to "Ah, non giunge" in Act II. He has just finished three years as resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony (working increasingly throughout America), and will be making European debuts next year with the BBC Symphony, the Tokyo Symphony and other orchestras. He is certainly a man to watch - in a crop of handsome, young conductors, he comes close to the top - but much more so he is a talent to listen to, head and shoulders over most of his young competition.
The vocal performance which gave the greatest pleasure was, interestingly enough, the Lisa of Kirsten MacKinnon. This seconda donna role must be frustrating for any singer. Lisa is frequently on stage, but plays a completely unsympathetic character whose big chance to stand out: "De’ lieti auguri", is one of the more difficult moments of the opera. The aria is filled with as many vocal booby-traps as anything else in the work, alternating quick, unprepared trills with wide vocal leaps, and with the likelihood that the entire effort will go for naught if the basic sound of the voice is unequalized in the exposed upper register. Miss MacKinnon, who seems to have done little more so far, other than supporting work for Curtis productions, and some concert solo work in Spoleto (Italy) and Vancouver, British Columbia, far exceeded my experience of this work in the recent Metropolitan Opera attempt on Bellini's artistic life, and if some of the notes above the staff, at this point, are more steely than one wishes, the rest of the voice has a richness which suggests the possibility of a real career. The rest of the singers handled their assignments at least with aplomb. Elizabeth Zharoff sounds more of a lyric or lirico-spinto soprano with some impressive acuti, than a burgeoning coloratura; good enough in the florid writing, she missed her opportunity to enchant in "Ah non credea". Diego Silva had all the notes for Elvino, up to an E flat in alt in his Act II cabaletta, but only in the extreme upper range and at higher volumes, did he manage to push the sound into the masque, and so most of the evening was somewhat blunted tonally. Joseph Barron was a dramatically benign, but vocally rich Rodolfo.
Washington DC's very estimable Opera Lafayette, which presents several rare 17th and 18th Century operas every year, brought Gluck's Armide to Lincoln Center earlier this season, and while the opera lacks a sleepwalking scene, the uses of sleep and enchantment are rife in the text. Armide has had a very spotty history in New York City. Almost twenty-five years ago a concert performance was given in Carnegie Hall by the now-defunct Friends of French Opera under Robert Lawrence, an evening most notable for the spellbinding performance of Bianca Berini as La Haine. The New York City performance by Opera Lafayette was semi-staged, with convincing period dancing (the opera was done virtually complete, with all the dance music) by the very capable New York Baroque Dance Company, and if the casting of some of the lead roles was no more convincing than it ever seems to be in concert performances of French works of the period, the entire evening was the kind of audience success which left one asking why there is no place for Armide on stage, particularly in an age when all of the complexities of stage craft and dance are available to any house of stature. Gluck's work, very much a matter of reverence to the libretto of Philippe Quinault (and perhaps a challenge to Lully), depends on the articulation of the classic text, and Robert Getchell in the secondary role of Artémidor, stood out for his pungent use of language, combined with a 'reedy' French tenor that seemed ideal for the part. Dominque Labelle was our Armide. The basic sound was rich enough, but she was far too anchored to reading the music off the page to have the imposing personality that any actress needs for the role, and when at all free to express herself, she made Armide into the girl next door. William Burden sang Renaud with an instrument perhaps a bit worn from better days, but still had the style down pat and did as much as he could with a character who reminds one mostly of Dudley Do-Right.
Sleepwalking may be one of the few psychological ailments not alluded to in Transformations, a 1973 opera by Conrad Susa, with a libretto credited to Susa and the American poet Anne Sexton, and based on a series of poems written by Miss Sexton derived from the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Miss Sexton, who had, as the program notes charitably put it, "complex mental illnesses", killed herself in 1974; her poems intermingle the classic outlines of the tales with more contemporary concerns and issues (in the Hansel and Gretel episode, casual reference is made to a 'final solution' ,and each of the poems incorporates any number of contemporary references, for example to Thorazine, an anti-psychotic drug), meant to forcibly bring a psychological interpretation of the tales into the foreground. Susa's music meets the poems on their own terms; he weaves popular modern idioms (including American Be-Bop) into the score, but to his great credit there is very little sense that he is writing down to his audience musically, and some of the musical themes have a classical beauty which linger in the mind long after the opera is over. The evening's difficulty lies in the fact that the ten tales do not give the listener any sense of a journey or a particular progress from one point to another. The director, Edward Berkeley, provided textual notes suggesting the various 'underlying themes' of the poems (Iron Hans shows "our ambivalence toward the insane", Rapunzel, "the need of women for each other" and Sleeping Beauty "the ambivalent relationship of father and daughter",) but while this guide for the perplexed might suggest a gloss to the tales, it couldn't help with the basically wandering direction of the libretto. There seemed to be neither rhyme nor structural or dramatic reason as to why certain stories were much lengthier than others, or placed in the order they were, and Berkeley's direction, which emphasized overacting and a certain archness, conspired to yield - very little in the way of a 'pay off' to the final completion of the journey. This seems a shame, since the piece itself has the raw materials, musically and in the text, to be a major work. Any such hope however, is probably justifiably sidelined nowadays by the lack of a structure which can continuously involve the listener.
Not much unfortunately, was helped by the diction of the student cast heard on Monday, February 15, an almost incredible state of affairs in a black box which didn't seat more than 200. Some of the singers have promising instruments - Emalie Savoy, who played the role of Miss Sexton, will be a Lindermann Young Artist at the Metropolitan this year, and has already begun to have important professional engagements - but seemingly the better the instrument of the singers, the less clear the diction, and the critical last twenty minutes of the opera, in which the Sleeping Beauty story becomes most clearly autobiographical as to the poet, were virtually incomprehensible.
One had almost the exact opposite experience earlier in the year at Manhattan School of Music, which presented Fauré's Pénélope under the very skilled direction of Laurent Pillot and with the staging of Lawrence Edelson. If neither the orchestra nor the soloists there rose to anything close to the level of The Curtis Institute for a work both influenced by, and reacting against, the influences of Wagner, MSM presented one of the most gorgeously simple sets seen on the New York lyric stage in years, a series of open towers and geometric designs intermingled with scrims and backdrops, and both Martin T Lopez, for the sets themselves, and Josh Epstein, for the magnificently dramatic lighting, must be credited for making the opera move as well as it did. Very much the story of the faithfulness of Pénélope, the opera, which has been well enough served in recent recordings, lacks for any sense of forward movement until late in Act II, and none of the characters really break free of the narration, too closely anchored in the Homer, to begin to express themselves dramatically. The work, characterized by Fauré initially as a tragédie lyrique, comes across as much more of an oratorio. Laurie Guilbeau, our constant heroine, was the finest voice among a decent but not memorable cast. Much of her stagecraft was reminiscent of plastique and hand-on-ample-heart gestures, but there is richness particularly in the lower part of the voice, which suggests she may be a spinto soprano in the making. It is difficult to imagine the work having a steady place in the repertoire other than with the magic of a Créspin. Perhaps a few years ago Susan Graham might have been a great exponent of the work had she been so inclined; today, one might hope for a Sarah Connolly, although this would still leave us with the persistent problem of finding a heroic French tenor, Alain Vanzo perhaps being the last of the breed.
February 24th, 2010