Saturday, February 25, 2017

Glittery Saturated Baroque at Juilliard

Handel’s Agrippina
Juilliard School of Music
February 16, 2017
A sickly Claudius who just keeps refusing to die
Photo credit: Richard Termine
I never pass up an opportunity to catch some staged fiery baroque opera. Agrippina, Handel’s semi-serious farce on the slow setting of the sun on the emperor Claudius’s reign, is one of those oddities that you just never know what to do with. It presents a slew of emotionally gripping serious musical moments which are then juxtaposed to many of the classic opera buffa tropes, some of which will make their way into Beaumarchais’ Figaro trilogy and from there into Mozart and Da Ponte’s Nozze di Figaro.

Whereas Agrippina reigns supreme
Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito
Yet, Juilliard’s production of Agrippina was a beautifully crafted and richly detailed little package delivered with explosive flair. Which should come as no surprise since the show was directed by Heartbeat Opera’s Louisa Proske, who has been rapidly building a solid track record of detail-oriented, thoughtful and irreverent productions. The opera was staged in the Wilson Theater, one of the small black box venues buried deep in the labyrinthine studio space of the Juilliard School. The audience sat around a small sunken set covered in overlapping red-hued oriental rugs and the orchestra played from a platform above the rear of the “stage.” This setting provided a highly intimate experience with excellent acoustics, where the few lucky spectators could really focus on the action and the several show-stopping arias that are really the best part of this opera.

The whole cast was impressive for being so young in terms of their ability to nail this virtuosic baroque material with almost flawless Italian diction. They all handled the highly melismatic coloratura of the score with poise and skill and none of them were breathless in their pursuit of the period orchestra under the direction of Jeffrey Grossman, which sounded great yet not as muscular as my favorite renditions of Handel’s score.

Poppea (left) despairs before the Empress Agrippina
Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito
Particularly impressive highlights were soprano Samantha Hankey (as Agrippina) and the countertenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski (as Ottone). Ms. Hankey reigned over the entire production grounding it in some semblance of seriousness. She embodied a fiercely scheming, power-hungry woman who is unstoppable in her aspiration of situating her son Nerone on the throne. Vocally, she was impressive, particularly in Pensieri, voi mi tormentate. Mr. Orlinski was particularly expressive and beautifully musical, all while displaying a kinetic stage presence. At one point he literally did three back flips consecutively in place that emphasized his exuberant joy when he realizes Poppea does return his love. I guess that when you have a breakdancing countertenor on hand, you have make the most of it.

Roman regalia meets baroque pomp meets steampunk strange
Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito
The cast sported mostly awe-inspiring, eccentric costumes, sort of a cross between ancient Roman regalia and high baroque swank, with some extra glitter for good measure. Goth and steampunk elements were also slipped in under the radar adding an odd note to the mix. Also, while I get the importance of the many sexual tensions peppered through the plot, perhaps a giant hand-shaped sex toy used by Poppea’s suitors to express their arousal was probably a tad too much. On the other hand, Nerone crawling constantly out from behind his mother between her legs made more sense as it was semi-sexual but also emphasized his forever childishness which worked with plot and character.

All hail the Caesar!
Photo credit: Voce di Meche
And so yes, Handel’s Agrippina is a farce masquerading as semi-serious opera. With its tidy conclusion, it is a comedy of sorts. Some have even called it an antiheroic satirical comedy for its reported commentary on court intrigues of the time, most of which is lost in us now, as is the goofy way that certain moments of operas like this one inevitably play out. So much of the music is so visceral and so grave and so serious but many story elements and several plot points don’t really rise to the occasion to match.

Agrippina (right) deploys her powers
Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito
The story hinges on a series of lies, with intersecting plots carried out secretly. Everybody is tricking everybody else at one point. Much like the count in Le nozze, the emperor Claudius has designs to cheat on his wife Agrippina with the loveliest lady-in-waiting, Poppea, who is in turn desired by both Ottone and Nerone. In order to get the emperor to regain his focus Poppea, Agrippina and just about everybody else all choreograph their own overlapping plots and schemes to achieve their various desired outcomes. The shakedown and its accompanying recognition scene only come late and it is a happy ending with divine reconciliation piled on heavy.

Except for the fact that Louisa Proske and her team decided to taint it with a quick flash of blood red light once Nerone grabs the scepter of power in the end, foreboding of what’s to come under the emperor’s childish rule. And perhaps that was the moment where the political satire made itself felt for audiences today – an extra flourish added by the production team that portends terrible things when the emperor is little more than a man-child.

– Lei & Lui

Court intrigue is the order of the day
Photo credit: Hiroyuki Ito

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Love in the Time of Faction

Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette
Metropolitan Opera
January 28, 2017

Our pair of convalescent lovers
Photo credit: Met Opera
It was (again) one of those evenings when the stage manager appears at the front of the stage to a palpable gasp of despair from every corner of the house. “Diana Damrau is recovering from a cold [pregnant pause] and so is Vittorio Grigolo…” A ripple of shock swept through the audience: No! The announcement continued, “and so they will be singing anyway. Enjoy the performance.” Thank goodness these two lead singers are normally exceptionally strong, which meant that despite their various states of convalescence, they sounded great both individually and together. Since they often sing together, the chemistry between them is evident.

Grigolo strikes his Romèo pose
Photo credit: Met Opera
Tenor Vittorio Grigolo is one of the most thrilling super divos to grace the Met stage of late. As per his usual, he chewed up the scenery, or rather he climbed all over it. There was hardly a pillar or a platform or a column that he didn’t run and jump and ramp up on. He literally bounced off the sets embodying a romantic super-hero with a voice to match his exuberant physical prowess. That soaring quality that we look for in a great romantic tenor was definitely there, but his voice was deeper this time out, chestier than I remember it. Perhaps that was due to the cold and if so it had a pleasantly manlier side effect.

Grigolo chews up the scenery
Photo credit: Met Opera
Grigolo had several moving moments, however he really took me by storm, emotionally, when he bounded pensively across the stage toward Juliette’s balcony in Act II to cry out, L’amour, l’amour!… Ah! lève-toi soleil. Young love is at the center of the opera and this moment puts its earliest gushing red flush in words, sets it to music. Grigolo’s boyish Neapolitan charms were on full display. He’s also just a pleasure to watch, gigioneggiando hither, thither and yon.

Soprano Diana Damrau often strikes the figure of a stately dame on the operatic stage with an equally stellar vocal technique. She is a master. Somehow in order to play the star-crossed young lover Juliette, she came off as fully rejuvenated, fresh faced and bubbly. She threw herself into the role energetically and with spunk. Even her costumes look great and were very flattering of her figure. In one way or another every time she breezed across the stage a cloud of muslin and gauze floated in a flurry all around her. This Juliette was celestial also thanks to the aura of lightweight fabric that always accompanied her. Damrau’s singing was also top notch, despite the cold.

A grand dame rejuvenated
Photo credit: Met Opera
Juliette’s famous waltz in Act I, Je veux vivre, was self-assured, defiant and flirty at the same time. She intoned with exuberance the verses in which she muses on girding herself against the assaults of love in favor of living life on her own terms. Laisse-moi sommeiller / Et respirer la rose, / Respirer la rose / Avant de l’effeuiller (Let me sleep and smell the rose, before despoiling it). The imagery of savoring the rose, rather than seizing it, poses a subtle affront to the classic carpe diem trope that has so often been employed by young men to coax their ladies into love. Damrau’s body language very cleverly sent one message while her words communicated another.

Mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez sang a charming if not naïf rendition of Stéphano’s one big aria in the second half of Act III. With its refrain of Gardez bien la belle!, her take had less of an edge of assault, and instead came off as more of an innocent, playful taunt. The contrast was nevertheless felt inasmuch as it serves to introduce the climactic duel that closes the act and ends in deaths on both sides of the factional divide.

Stunning Italianate sets update the action to 18th Century Verona
Photo credit: Met Opera
This is, of course, the time honored story about the tragic star-crossed lovers of Verona. It’s first iteration dates back to Matteo Bandello’s novella, which was probably written between 1531-1545 and which had already been widely translated and imitated. Placed among his early works, Shakespeare’s own version dates to the end of the 16th century, which then provides the basis for the 1867 opera by Charles Gounod with a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré.

At first encounter with the immaculately detailed sets designed by Michael Yeargin for Bartlett Sher’s new production, it would seem that the purists in the Met audience are finally getting what they always long for: a hyper-realistic period piece with all the fixings. And they really allow you to revel in the beauty of the scenery on stage. As you file into your seat the curtain is already up so you can feast your eyes on the beautifully detailed depiction of a very Veronese piazza with its palatial facades and abundant traces of Roman relics including a single column set up in the middle of the square.

Love in the time of factions
Photo credit: Met Opera
Once the show gets going, however, it becomes clear – primarily only through the costuming decisions made by Catherine Yuber – that the action has been set not in the early Italian Renaissance but rather it has been updated to the 18th century. The Capulets are dressed in coats and stockings that make them look more French, like the Bourbon monarchs who held power in Italy and elsewhere in this period, than like Italians of the time. The Montagues are dressed decidedly different. Romeo and his gang of hoodlums come off as belonging to some kind of rebel class of slightly later Jacobin revolutionaries sporting leather coats and frilly shirts unbuttoned (showing off hunky pectorals). But aren’t we supposed to still be in Italy? What does this production accomplish by setting the story of these two timeless lovers against the tensions of later (French?) political classes?

A world in which poetry and violence collide
Photo credit: Met Opera
The program notes tell us that the choice was to set the story in a “mythical Verona” that would represent “a beautiful but dangerous world where poetry or violence might erupt at any moment.” There was also some intended reference to Fellini’s Casanova but did not seem to fully work with the overall plot. While the sets may have been Italianate, the costumes were decidedly French. They seemed to pit the ancien régime off against a clan of Jacobin-looking revolutionaries, Capulets and Montagues, respectively.

The Met orchestra sounded terrific and from the moment that it launched into the big tragic chords of the overture to Gounod’s romantic masterpiece under the baton of Gianandrea Noseda, the turmoil and tumult rocking the world outside slowly faded away. Mind you it doesn’t turn out well for anybody involved. While in the play the tragedy leads to the reconciliation of the feuding families, Gounod’s version closes on the couple expiring together, which is a more definitive and dramatic ending, certainly more fitting for the operatic form.

– Lui & Lei

The couple expires and the story ends
Photo credit: Met Opera

Friday, January 27, 2017

A Benchwarmer’s Barber

Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia
Metropolitan Opera
January 21, 2017

The Barber forever lurks in the Rossini repertory
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
In terms of expanding our Rossini horizons, this last year or so in opera has been a boon. Bare Opera brought us one of his earliest youthful works, La cambiale di matrimonio. The Met simultaneously presented his first big breakout success, L’italiana in Algeri, and his final masterwork, Guillaume Tell. Bel Canto at Caramoor bestowed Aureliano in Palmira upon us over the summer. La gazza ladra landed alongside the lake at Glimmerglass; and a most memorable Turco in Italia at Juilliard not too awfully long ago. Opera Philadelphia has Tancredi in store for us next month. After lavishing its racy take on Le Comte Ory on us last June, LoftOpera is about to tackle Otello, another masterful rarity.

So much of Rossini’s back catalog has been ransacked of late that the uber-canonical joys of Il barbiere di Siviglia begins to feel less like the monolithic central altarpiece in the temple of bel canto worship and more like a quaint relic, easily overlooked, far from the main stage languishing as a sideshow somewhere. However, when the likes of Peter Mattei is slated to sing it… now that’s an opportunity that’s hard to pass up. What else are we going to hear the golden-tones of the great Peter Mattei in this year at the Met if not this?

Mattei's absence unsettles us in our seats
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Promptly taking our seats well in advance of the curtain, we were flummoxed to find that Peter Mattei had taken ill. What a bummer that little slip of paper in the program was! Our spirits sunk so low that we almost gathered our things and hit the road. But yet, something kept us there. We made a pact to sit through the first act and give the benchwarmers a chance. We vowed to decide whether to stay for the rest or not at intermission. So we settled back in. And, boy, are we glad we did.

Figaro's mobile bottega arrives bearing a surprise
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
The biggest disappointment of the evening turned into one of the greatest surprises. The sun began to shine again through our clouds of doom and gloom from the moment Edward Parks, Mattei’s substitute, was wheeled out on the roof of Figaro’s mobile bottega by his bevy of damigelle. To say Parks came out strong in his opening number, Largo al factotum, is an understatement. His round manly sound, reminiscent not of Mattei but of a more virile Erwin Schrott, instantly redeemed the evening. 

Edward Parks covers for Mattei
Parks has a handsome instrument and great stage presence. He is naturally playful and hunky. In fact he would make a perfect Don Giovanni. He’s more brutal in his attack on the notes than Mattei. He’s not as lyrical as the man we came to see and doesn’t savor the words in Mattei’s inimitable way, but it is, nevertheless, great to see a benchwarmer rise to the occasion and shine like this, considering the shoes he had to fill. Parks isn’t your average panchinaro. He is obviously a formidable talent in his own right. That’s why it’s always worth giving the back up a day in court. You never know what’s in store.

Soprano Pretty Yende is lighter and flightier than your typical Rosina. She has a way of eating up her musical line with killer agility and piercingly beautiful high notes. She expanded famous numbers like Io sono docile in her own unique virtuosic way, imbuing her tempos with more space and lengthening the time between her notes. It’s a treat to get a singer who really relishes the opportunities afforded by Rossini’s bel canto compositional style. Making the part her own, slowing certain passages down, taking extra rubato high notes, dishing out moments of pure vocal genius. She is one of the great singers at the Met at the moment. And tonight she was on fire.

Pretty Yende owned the orchestra as Rosina
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Dottor Bartolo was replaced with panache by Maurizio Muraro. His booming bass-baritone resounded through the Met with forceful self-assurance. But he is old hat in this role at the Met, so we were less worried about his ability to so fully channel, body and soul, the spirit of the dirty old tutor. As ever, Muraro was a pleasure to watch in this role.

Often sung by an older mezzo, Karolina Pilou played a youthful Berta and really showed off her acting chops. She was always in character. I kept my eye on her through my binoculars every time she was on stage. She filled the space with her big voice, which is naturally graced with fluidity and agility. She also made her vocal presence forcefully felt in the ensembles, in which she really delivered.

Muraro is Bartolo, body and soul
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
The tenor, however, was the weak link. Dmitry Korchak came out a bit cold and only finally warmed up in the second half of the first act. He just wasn’t bright or sparkly or bubbly enough for this kind of repertoire, particularly if you’re sad to have missed a Camarena night of the run. He’s not unpleasant but he’s not exciting enough, which is what this kind of Rossini demands of its singers, at the intersection of bel canto and opera buffa.

Though we had both seen this production numerous times in the past, it was a pleasure to revisit it. It is full of clever touches from the ballet of doors to the giant anvil that drops in the Act I finale as the sextet drones on about an incudine sonora. Bartlett Sher’s direction is clear, imaginative, faithful to the mood of the piece and fluid.

When done right like this with great singers Rossini’s Barbiere is a sparkling opera. The kind of night out that leaves you feeling refreshed with your spirits lifted. And the score achieved its maximal frizzante flair under the baton of Maurizio Benini. The Met orchestra sounded tight, popping out Rossini’s staccato rhythms, classical guitar, harpsichord and all, and yet remained flexible enough to allow a stellar diva like Pretty Yende to spread her wings and take her own sweet time, from time to time. Despite the sorry absence of our much beloved Mattei, what’s not to love!

Lui & Lei

The wool goes over the eyes of the unsuspecting victim
Photo credit: Marty Sohl

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Love Is Elsewhere

Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin
Metropolitan Opera
December 17, 2016

Love is elsewhere, until it isn't.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
From the very beginning, with its in medias res amorphous opening, the uncanny score of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin throws you into a dream-like universe. Lush and atmospheric, the Finnish composer’s music suspends the listener over an indistinct watery expanse. Eschewing an overture or prelude of any kind, the first bars conjure a brine-laden formless and foggy seascape that only slowly comes into focus the way distance lies out over the ocean.

Susanna Mälkki conducted an exceedingly smooth reading of this uncanny score with the utmost polish. Interestingly, in recordings with other conductors the same score seems more flush with jolting surprises from jarring horns and more pronounced cacophony from the percussion. The mood created by Ms. Mälkki was more suggestive, more oneiric. It came off to my ear more of a dreamy Debussy dream (à la Pelleas et Melisande), with some of the quirkier Messiaen eccentricities that punctuate its aural landscape toned down and mellowed out.

Bands of light imitate the sea.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Director Robert Lepage’s luminous production provided a fitting counterpoint to the mellifluous score. Lepage and his team focused on the ineluctable and seemingly insuperable obstacles that separate us from one another in any relationship; the daunting gulf that so often divides two people and impedes connection. The staging at the Met was dominated by some two-dozen bands of light that represented the central figure of the sea in the story over which he suspended a mobile crane that could become a stairway with a platform on either end. The effect of the bands of light was hypnotic, particularly when they were made to fluctuate, rise and fall, imitating at one point the movements of a gentle yet unsettling storm at sea. But like many of this visionary director’s productions this one was kind of a one trick pony, which in this case was not entirely off base. It matched the spectral, minimalist nature of the music, and it heightened the dreaminess of certain moments in the story, especially when Rudel dreams and the idealized object of his affections (played by a dancer) materializes over the bands of light, diving through the waves in a dolphin-like fashion.

Also effective was the way the chorus was deployed. Strategically placed beneath the “water” toward the back of the stage, where they could only just barely be seen allowed them to lend their voices to the majestic and almost mystical heightening of the singers’ voices throughout the opera. It created a haunting and often imperceptible embellishment of the sound of the individual singers and an almost spiritual elevation of the emotions. Less compelling was the peek-a-boo choreographies they were made to do, poking their heads up over the “surface” of the water in certain nightmarish moments.

The chorus makes its presence known.
Photo credit: Sarah Krulwich
Based on a very brief romanticized account of the life of the Provençal troubadour Jaufré Rudel, the plot of L’Amour de Loin can be summarized as follows: a prince is bored with his womanizing life and decides to devote his energies to love more deeply; a pilgrim passing by tells him about this incredibly beautiful woman who lives across the sea in enemy territory; prince gets very excited about the idea and starts singing lovely poetry about the woman as the perfect idea of love; pilgrim tells the woman about all the fuss she’s created overseas and she’s not sure how to take it; prince decides to make the trip across the sea to finally meet the object of his desire but when he gets there he dies from the hardships of sea travel; woman finally sees the love and gets all combative about the whole ordeal.

A lyric lady of love breaks through to the other side.
Photo credit: Met Opera
This is an opera composed by a woman about a man looking at a woman who in turn finally gets her voice in the act of looking back at that man. Despite the seemingly traditional underpinnings of the romantic story itself, the triangulation of these various gazes, nevertheless, packs a radical punch.

Scores of lyric ladies have appeared over the millennia in the amorous and elegiac poetic tradition from Catullus, Propertius and Ovid to the troubadours, Dante and the centuries of Petrarchists who continue to write right down to our own time. In the history of this patriarchal literary trope, rarely are the female objects of these poets’ affections ever afforded the agency of speaking for themselves, seldom are they granted a voice of their own.

If you read the libretto divorced of the score and its staging, you come away with the impression that Clémence is quick to respond to her suitor’s advances in kind. But the way the end of both Act II and Act III were staged by LePage show that something slightly deeper may going on here.

Clémence steps down from her pedestal.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
The most powerful of these moments occurs at the end of Act III. Throwing a mini-conniption fit, Clémence steps down off the pedestal, on which even the director has placed her, thus breaking the illusion of the show, and stands between two of the bands of light, in the middle of the “water,” as though the make-believe were over and it was no longer “water.” She is indeed brazenly standing up and making herself heard as a living woman and not an idealization. She defiantly no longer wants to play the game of representation and fantasy anymore. If she has a say in the matter, she isn’t going to allow herself to be loved in an idealistic way by someone who has never even met her. In this take, Clémence transcends her status as passive object of desire. For a fleeting moment in the story, she’s not going to humor a distant love like this. She is a human being just like he is and thus wants a love that is human.

In the role of the lover from afar, Jaufré Rudel, was bass-baritone, Eric Owens, from whose booming imperious voice I expected more. He left me feeling a little lukewarm. Other singers that I have heard in this role have imbued the character with a slightly more irascible, angrier reaching quality that makes the desire of the poor bereft troubadour soar a little more. Owens sounded more resigned in the chesty depths of his longing, coming across as a lover who is more languidly lethargic than energetic in his desire.

The messenger scene.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Beset not only by the obstacle of the sea, the two lovers in this opera, which is set in the eleventh century against the backdrop of a holy war, are positioned on opposite sides of enemy lines. The figure of the Pilgrim, here sung by mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, is deployed as a conduit for the lyricism of the troubadour to pass from one character to the next. The flights of poetic inspiration with which the opera opens belong to Jaufré. He sends his lyrical spirit along via the Pilgrim who has been charged with the task of embodying those inspired verses for his beloved which then in turn inspire her to embark on flights of lyric fancy of her own.

Like Sancho Panza in an analogous messenger scene in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the Pilgrim rather humorously forgets most of the content of the poetic missive from Jaufré to Clémence. He manages to transmit nothing more than the gist of the message after garbling the end of the song he was sent to sing on behalf of his master. It is a light-hearted moment in an otherwise rather stolid evening at the opera. Fortunately Mumford didn’t ham it up but rather she played the humor with subtlety and tact. She pushed the ethereal sound of her instrument throughout. And equally used her mezzo to soar on amorous pinions in ways that Eric Owens’ instrument simply did not, at least the evening that we heard him. Interestingly, the Pilgrim’s arias are the only portions of the opera that sound like they belong to the era the plot is set in, with a style reminiscent of medieval madrigals.

Don't shoot the messenger
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Soprano Susanna Phillips, in the role of Clémence, was simply stunning. She embodied the tricky tempos and other idiosyncrasies of the score beautifully and she nailed all the soaring high notes that gave angelic wings to her unattainable beauty. Phillips made the show, as both the empowered woman with a say in things and the impressionable young pushover that this character’s duality encompasses. Because, of course, by the end she does indeed eventually embody the cardinal virtue suggested by her symbolic name.

The poet sets out to cross the sea.
Photo credit: Sarah Krulwich
Once Jaufré musters the wherewithal to cross the sea, the journey takes its toll on him. He arrives only to collapse at the feet of his beloved and rather anticlimactically dies in her arms. There is nothing particularly moving about this sudden and almost mechanical turn of events. Instead, the climax is saved for Clémence’s response to what she is forced to endure. Seeing that God has struck down a man so good and so sincere in his love, she lashes out in frustration at the injustice underlying God’s moral universe.

The lovers briefly meet across the chasm.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
The outcome of this brief but profound long-distance romance leads her to take up another call to arms. This time Clémence turns to another “lover,” one who rather ambiguously is either God himself or the deified spirit of her lost lover. To remedy one distant love she turns to another even more impossibly distant love. Depending on how you take this spiritual turn in the story, the end of the opera either undermines or reinforces the notion that there is something about true love is always only ever elsewhere.

And this is where L’Amour de Loin, while it may be set in the middle ages, is the product of a more modern and intellectual, almost aseptic, sensibility. This is not an opera that unleashes emotions or visceral reactions of any sort. The dramatic tension is somehow there, yet it does not explode in any traditional way. There is a lot of exploration of ideas about love, but the story as told by the music never gets to your heart.

– Lui & Lei