Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Massenet’s Stab at Sturm und Drang

Massenet’s Werther
Metropolitan Opera
February 20, 2017

Goethe's romantic hero gets a Massenet make over
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Werther is one of those operas that I always want to like more than I eventually do. Based on Goethe’s slender little epistolary novel that took the world by storm when it first appeared, Massenet’s opera is just too laden with humdrum moments of musical fluff to really feel like it’s worth my while. The composer takes ages to set the quotidian tone of each scene and the big orchestral flourishes, which he primarily reserves for Werther’s emotional outpourings, as too few and far between. The rest of the story points are just not propped up in any satisfactory way.

The sorrows of the young poet
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Seeing so many operas both in the mainstream repertory as well as the occasional rarity, revival or outlier really leads one to an appreciation of what makes an opera a canonical masterpiece. And, at least for me, it comes down to dynamic, multi-layered dramatic tensions couple, of course, coupled with tight, wonderful music (think Norma, for example). In the case of Werther, it’s just not there. The main drama here is that Werther loves Charlotte who is too stuck up to love him back and as a result he kills himself. Everything else is mostly filler. The music has a couple of terrific moments but otherwise it is rather unexciting. In those moments when the orchestra rises to sweep the eponymous hero off his feet into some sturm und drang, the tenor does find a little fodder to feed his fire and ours.

What brought us back to revisit the opera this time was the opportunity to see what the hit tenor Vittorio Grigolo would do with the role. And he certainly made for an ardent lover. He played the archetypal tragic romantic hero as an exuberant madman of sorts, the bright flame that burns itself out. Fast.

An ardent lover on the prowl
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
The pleasure of watching Grigolo perform is partly the warmth of his instrument that is often let to wander off the leash a little bit, which is what lends him an air of the dangerous or the unpredictable. It is expressive and so very Italian. And at the same time he often comes off as a bit of an over-wrought caricature of a romantic hero, which is perhaps both a limitation but also a part of his charm. On the one hand you cannot take him too seriously, but on the other Grigolo is terribly endearing because he is, in his over the top divo way, so in character.

In any case, he threw himself into the role of the tormented unrequited lover with a Neapolitan flair, devouring all of that male emoting like a drama king. Grigolo’s gripping breakdown in Albert’s study was forcefully gut wrenching. He brought an almost violent physicality to the scene that really left everyone involved shaken, including the audience.

The fiery little tenor was all uncontainable passion
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
As per her usual, Isabel Leonard struck a handsome figure on stage, though to my ear she lacked in volume singing Massenet’s French score. I don’t always find that to be the case with her. Regardless, she emoted beautifully, if regally, in her big moment in Act III. This is where the female lead gets to have her moment in the moody spotlight of the opera. She also carried the protracted death scene in Act IV with sentiment and conviction. When she picks up the pistol and pauses after Werther definitively gives up the ghost, you really are left wondering, just before the curtain drops, “Is she going to do it?”

Charlotte is all composure and restraint
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
At our last outing with this opera back in 2014, when the production debuted, Jonas Kaufmann sang Massenet’s tragic hero. Being one of the few times he actually showed up to sing on a night that I had tickets to see him, I recall being a little underwhelmed by his lack of volume and the underwhelming power of his voice. Though dramatically as an actor he was riveting, from all the videos I have seen of him in action I had expected his voice to be more compelling. Instead it hardly projected from the stage.

In Kaufmann’s hands the young poet is ostensibly more disturbed from the start. He wears his destiny on his person. It’s in his demeanor, the look in his eye, the way he walks and it’s in the way Kaufmann sings, the consummate solipsist, all closed up in himself. From the moment he steps onto the stage you are aware of the fact that this probably is someone capable of suicide. With Grigolo, who is more of a wild card, you really don’t know what it would take for some so ardently passionate to commit such an extreme act of aggression against his own person.

Indoor space rights the angles of the great outdoors
Photo credit: Metropolitan Opera 
The sets of the “new” production are quite stunning. Rob Howell’s designs incorporate a brilliant use of geometric architectural elements that either came into alignment or separated and went slightly askew to allow the natural world to break into the sphere of the civilized world. It nicely mirrors the eruption of the uncontainable passion of full-blown German romanticism into the rational order of enlightenment society. It is the Dionysian that encroaches on the Apollonian. All of the scenes in nature are pleasantly catawampus whereas those that play out indoors are dominated by the rationality of straight lines – all the angles get righted.

The poet goes down in a redemptive blaze of storm and stress
Photo credit: Ian Douglas
And so the pieces of the set slide apart and come together from one scene to the next until the space collapses into the claustrophobic bohemian apartment of the tortured poet. In the final scene that’s where we end up. As we magically zoom into his sad little room, the relatively simple stagecraft effects are mesmerizing. Werther is like a caged animal, restless, unsure where to turn, consumed by his own emotions. Here, momentarily, he is all storm and stress. The way the whole thing is orchestrated visually is uttering ravishing of all of the senses. Charlotte barges in on him once the shot has been fired. As the children’s voices chime like tinny bells of redemption in through the window singing their signature carol, in her embrace at last, he slowly expires. Ultimate defeat has never seemed so redeeming.

– Lui & Lei

The man who made suicide a "thing"
Photo credit: Marty Sohl

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

A Shoddy New Rusalka

Dvořák’s Rusalka
Metropolitan Opera
February 17, 2017

Rusalka reunites with the lover of her dreams
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Lui: I had a unique experience with Rusalka at the Met. Settling into the opening bars of the overture, Mark Elders’ subdued rendition of Dvořák’s score lulled me into a state of relax in which the outside world slowly faded into the background. Although I was really ready for a darker, more uncanny take on this rather visceral and often folkloristic soundscape that is as leavened with joy as it is laden with portentous foreboding, nevertheless I found myself immersed in a parallel musical universe. No passage embodies these dynamic dichotomies more than the prancing chorus of water nymphs with their refrain of “Ho, ho ho!” that is both appealing and strange. In any case, the peaceful salve of the luscious music hit the spot.

I wish I could say the same thing for the staging as it proceeded to set the tone for the story. Mary Zimmerman’s new production really left me lukewarm in the First Act. Rather than a naturalistic set, Daniel Ostling’s design presents the woodland grove of the water nymphs as a claustrophobic rectangular room with the sky and trees painted on the walls. The hardwood flooring did nothing to suggest an outdoor environment and the lake of the water sprite was nothing more than a rectangular opening in the floor. The only even semi-realistic detail is the tree in the middle of the stage on which Rusalka will perch during her Song to the Moon. The blatant staginess of the overall design made this lone naturalistic detail seem out of place.

I see a starkness
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Lei: Zimmerman’s production looked like the Met ran out of money from the get go. The first act is all about the setting in the woods, lakes and rivers. While I do not necessarily need something overly naturalistic, plopping a tree in the middle of a hardwood floor with an uneven hole and scattering a bunch of round plastic water lilies came across as a glorified rehearsal, with hand me down props.

The Natural world housed in a room
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Water is such an important plot element. Rusalka is a nymph made of water and falls in love with the Prince while he’s swimming the lake she inhabits. In this production, we need to believe that the lake is that spot where a handful of floorboards came off. To make things worse, when the Water Sprite comes out of the “lake,” poor Eric Owens had to jump awkwardly on those plastic leaves and then roll himself on the ground back to the hole in the floor. Again, it looked like a rehearsal in a run down theater, really painful to watch. Hardwood floor scattered with yellow plastic flowers was also all we got for the supposedly romantic encounter between the newly transformed Rusalka and the Prince. I’m not against minimalism, but this one seemed to lack any concept.  

Rusalka invokes the moon
Photo credit: Sara Krulwich
Lui: One of the clever touches, though, was the dress Rusalka wears when we first encounter her. Before she makes a deal with the witch Jezibaba to get her legs, she is burdened by a long trailing “aquatic” dress covered in water lilies that she struggles to move in. And indeed she is forced to swing it around ponderously until her transformation occurs.

I really only began to give the production the benefit of the doubt in Act II, when the ideas behind certain conceits revealed themselves. The action has now moved to the Prince’s palace. The same rectangular space including the same wide wide beam hardwood floors, that once “housed” the natural setting, now redressed, stands for a modest princely parlor.

They are still skimping on the flourishes of grandeur, but the parallel shape of the space seems significant. In one corner is a heaping mound of deer and antelope skulls all with glorious antlers that stand like a neglected pile of hunting trophies, denoting an abusive human attitude toward nature. The thematic tensions begin to emerge. In Zimmerman’s take this seems to be a story about the relationship between human society and the natural world.

Lei: It is true that the Act II sets looked a bit more together and engaged more the eye but I don’t see how they conveyed any strong vision. I did not necessarily got the man vs. nature theme, seems like a lot to ask from a pile of antlers.

Rusalka is out of her element in the human world
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Lui: Having gained a human form but having lost her voice in the process, Rusalka is now out of her element amidst the humans. Austin McCormick choreographed an extended dance scene that plays out during the ballet interlude in which we see Rusalka struggling to find her place in this new world. She wavers between fascination and terror as she takes in the opulent display of a dozen or so male and female dancers decked out in elegant evening wear who enact all the rituals of human courtship with its formal introductions, posing and posturing, seductions, and being swept off your feet by the consummation of love. Rusalka has a hard time finding her footing in the machine-like rapture of the social system that drives the human world, which the choreography beautifully enacted through movement and dance.

The water nymph has trouble fitting in
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
I finally warmed up to an interpretation of the idea behind the production as a whole in the Third Act, which I found most moving of all. Although I wouldn't call it terribly compelling theater in terms of spectacle, I nevertheless came to appreciate the subtle ways it posed an interpretative problem with which to engage.

All is askew and in tatters by the end
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
We now return to the woodland glade that has been disfigured almost beyond recognition. The set, which have been reduced to nothing more than a set, is now intentionally crooked. The walls with their painted forest scene have been shredded revealing the raw two-by-fours of the set’s skeleton, an intentional metatheatrical nod to the fictiveness of the space of the stage dressed with the simplest of sets.

The suggestion is that the destruction of the sets reflect Rusalka’s subjective perception of the world she once called home. Everything has changed now since she has been disabused of her illusions. In fact, in retrospect, in Egan to think that her subjective understanding was projected onto the natural world from the very beginning. When she sang to the moon in Act I she conjured the grand lunar body in the sky with a wave of her hand and she could even stop it temporarily in its slow march across the backdrop as she sang. However, at the same time, we find out from the Water Sprite in Act III that the damage was caused by a human. The Met’s supertitles render his explanation to the nymphs: “A human has spoiled our waters.” This is what I picked up on to explain Zimmerman’s transformation of the opera into a subtle commentary on the human ability to sully nature and bring ourselves down in the process.

Natural decline and the demise of humankind
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Following the touching demise of the prince who dies in the arms of his beloved nature goddess, I couldn't help but think of the timeliness of the message for the world today. So much for the escapist pleasures I experienced when the opera began. I was suddenly confronted with one of the most pressing issues we face.

There is only one way to break the curse
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Lei: I found the Third Act sets as the most irritating at all. The sets here were just utterly trashed and dimly lit, as if they got abandoned or vandalized. Seems a little bit of a stretch to me to put so much emphasis on the line about humans spoiling waters, frankly. The idea there is that the Prince spoiled Rusalka (who used to be a nymph made of water). Other than Rusalka being distraught, the plot does not really justify a trashing of the sets. I usually like it when the production demands some extra thinking from the audience, unraveling interesting interpretations of a work. Take, for example, Zimmerman’s take on Sonnambula, which I personally love.

The problem with this Rusalka production is that it seemed to have some metatheatrical ambitions that were never fully realized or fleshed out with any sort of conviction. The result was a half-baked, cheap-looking staging. What a waste!

Lui: As one of the divas whom the Met is currently pushing, Kristine Opolais is a stunningly beautiful singing-actress. She is a pleasure to watch. After seeing her in several roles over the last couple of seasons, however, she hasn't showed me that she a voice suited for the grand hall of the house. It may very well be that she can vocally captivate an audience in some of the smaller European houses that are more intimate in scale. I have yet to be wowed by her sound here. She tackled the famous Song to the Moon modestly well but it wasn't transporting, as is often the case with the other roles in her repertory at the Met. As an actress she is more compelling. The way she played the final death scene here was as moving as I have ever seen her. It plays out much like the conclusion of the Manon Lescaut we saw her in last season, only here I found her performance more emotionally riveting.  

The irresistible charms of the Foreign Princess
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Lei: Agree. I don’t see the fuss around Kristine Opolais. She is definitely stunning but voice-wise she yet has to convince me. In this case, however, it didn't hurt that she had a strong leading man to play off against. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich as the Prince was excellent. He carried the longing of this man who gets drawn into an unusual relationship with ardor and vigor from beginning to end, but also convincingly showing other colors. This Prince is also fickle and quick to change his passions when they don’t go how he expects, falling for the easier to understand “Foreign Princess.” He represents the human race as unreliable and untrustworthy. But, he also comes back strong with heartfelt desperation as he realizes his true love and dies in Rusalka’s arms. Soprano Katarina Dalayman as the Foreign Princess was impressive, exceedingly loud in the face of Rusalka’s silence, she displayed an exuberant larger-than-life vocal performance, with fire and aggression that were a pleasure to hear.

Jezibaba conjures cures and curses
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Lui: Another impressive singer was mezzo Jamie Barton in the role of the witch Jezibaba. This lady has a sound that is luscious, enveloping and rich and this role seems to be written for her voice, menacing yet so melodic. She also seemed to embody the harsh witch with gusto and panache and just stole the show every time she was on stage.

The Water Sprite holds court in the woodland glade
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
As the Water Sprite, bass-baritone Eric Owens was thundering and authoritative, but suffered from poor costume choices, as he was sporting a frog-like outfit that came across as a caricature, at odds with the seriousness of his role.

The Met's previous production had a lushness this one lacks
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Lei: Mary Zimmerman’s production is decidedly minimalist when compared to the lush Otto Schenk production it rather unnecessarily replaces. It seems like a shame to have retired it. Was it worn out or did that one belong to Renee Fleming, for whom it served as a vehicle to her own notoriety as the great reviver of this otherwise neglected masterpiece? In order to launch a new generation of rising stars is perhaps explains why we needed something new, just not this one.

Lei & Lui

Jezibaba goes steampunk
Photo credit: Ken Howard

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Rossini Discoveries in Philly

Rossini’s Tancredi
Opera Philadelphia
February 19, 2017

A man goes down in this Rossini innovation
Photo credit: Opera Philadelphia 
We can never get enough bel canto, so when we heard that Opera Philadelphia was staging the rare Rossini opera seria Tancredi with an intriguing cast, we seized the opportunity and made a Philly weekend getaway out of it. When it comes to satisfying high quality opera tourism near New York City, it turns out that Philadelphia is an excellent destination. It’s a highly walkable city with great museum (Barnes Foundation!), a robust food and drink scene and a well-balanced, quality opera program. The 2016/2017 season at Opera Philadelphia includes two contemporary works (Mazzoli’s Breaking the Waves and a modern adaptation of Verdi’s Macbeth – same libretto but new music by Fabrizio Cassol), two classics (Turandot and Nozze) and the revival of a forgotten Rossini gem, Tancredi.

The Academy of Music
Photo credit: Geoffrey Goldberg
In a burst of nerdiness, we got to the Academy of Music one hour before the show, to catch an introductory talk, that also gave us ample time to take in the stunning theater. Relatively small and beautifully decorated, it felt like stepping back in time and being swept to a historic European opera house. Interestingly, the 1857 theater is claimed to be the oldest venue in the U.S. still used for its original purpose. Opera Philadelphia seems to be doing a good job of luring crowds that are beyond the usual octogenarian upper crust opera public. We are glad to report that the Sunday matinee we attended had a very diverse set of patrons of all ages and from all sorts of backgrounds. A lot of families with teenage kids, too – gotta start them young!

Miscommunication belies the plot
Photo credit: Kelly & Massa
Now, about Tancredi. First things first, a summary of the little known plot that isn’t exactly the tightest. (Though to be fair it isn’t that crazy). Amenaide, a Siracusan Juliet-type, sends a letter to her exiled love interest, Tancredi (who is traveling and never receives the letter). Meantime Amenaide’s father makes peace with the opposing family in town and betroths her to his previous enemy in an act of good faith. She is reluctant to go along with the feudal arrangement, when the letter that never arrived is intercepted near the external enemy’s camp and is taken as proof of her treachery against her fatherland and family. Even Tancredi (who suddenly pops up in Siracusa) takes it as such. Amenaide is sentenced to death for treason (by decree of her own torn father!). However Tancredi won’t abide by the sentence. He steps up to challenge her accuser and betrothed in a duel to defend her honor. But getting her off the hook isn’t enough to satisfy the stubborn and fearless Tancredi.

After defeating the evil internal villain, Orbazzano, Tancredi takes his fight to the external enemy, the unseen Muslim invader Solamir. Amenaide is desperate to express her gratitude and explain the whole mix up of the mislaid letter but Tancredi won’t hear it. He’s on a mission to win glory against the Saracens. And although (at least in this version) he is mortally wounded in the skirmish, he nevertheless emerges the victor. As the savior of the day, he dies triumphantly in his beloved’s arms and the opera comes to an abrupt dramatic end with the quiet expiration of its eponymous hero.

The action has been transposed to the early 20th Century
Photo credit: Kelly & Massa
A co-production of the Opera de Lausanne and the Teatro Municipal de Santiago, in the vision of Spanish director Emilio Sagi, the action has been transposed from the Middle Ages to the post-WWI era in Europe. Costumes are all flashy military coats and flowy early twentieth-century gowns, sets are dominated by a grandiose palace, all marble and mirrors with the occasional art-deco flourish, all very handsome.

From the first notes of the overture, the orchestra, under the baton of Corrado Rovaris, sounded tight and well versed in Rossini’s fiery melodies that are always such a pleasure to hear, notwithstanding the deja vu sensation at inevitably accompanies the experience (given how much the composer recycled bits of his works, particularly the overtures).

Blythe takes the whole thing up a notch (or two)
Photo credit: Kelly & Massa
Just as I was thinking in the opening movements of the opera that the sets looked great and that the supporting cast seemed solid, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe made her entrance as the hero Tancredi and everything changed. She effortlessly elevated everything to a whole other level. Her instrument is fluid, effortless and deeply melodic, particularly in the lower range that borders on a contralto sound at times. While Rossini has lots of mezzos in its operas, it’s pretty rare to see them in pants roles, let alone as leading heroes. Blythe’s tessitura is impressive in terms of power, color and agility. Her expressivity, too, was utterly moving. Time stopped every time she opened her mouth, embodying the wronged noble loving Tancredi with truly heroic tones. And could she ever fill the space with her voice. It was stunning.

Argirio orchestrates peace for family and patria
Photo credit: Kelly & Massa
When the leading singer is so strong, everybody else in the cast gets dwarfed a bit, no matter how good they are. Tenor Michele Angelini in the role of Amenaide’s father Argirio, sounded technically accurate with a handsome enough sound, however he never let his vocal line really soar in the upper range and often came off as a bit restrained, which is a pity as the beauty and excitement of bel canto tenors lies also in those high explosions of emotions.

Amenaide unwillingly betrothed to the vile Orbazzano
Photo credit: Kelly & Massa
Soprano Brenda Rae as the heroine Amenaide had some excellent moments, particularly when interacting in duets with other characters, however she seemed to have a bit of a hard time with some of the higher notes in her solo showstopping arias. Bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs as the villain Orbazzano was a great grounding force, particularly in the ensemble pieces, and took perhaps a bit too much pleasure in uttering an evil laugh each time he walked off stage. Mezzo Allegra De Vita displayed expressive agility as Amenaide’s friend Isaura.

All in all, Tancredi was a thoroughly enjoyable bel canto opera. Perhaps not the most compelling plot (all dramatic tension would dissipate if only Amenaide would have just told Tancredi about the letter he never got) but it was definitely a great pleasure to hear, with several exciting vocal moments. Through the introductory talk, we discovered one important bit of opera history: who knew that this was the first opera to end not with a summation finale with the sextet and chorus, all out on the stage commenting on the action, but rather with a slow fade into death with its abrupt dramatic resolution? What a discovery. I had recently been reflecting on this shift in taste. Rusalka, Manon Lescaut, La Bohéme among other gems in our recent outings all end in this fashion, whereas L’italiana, Don Giovanni, the list could go on and on, all close with a choral metanarrative moment. When did it all change? Turns out it was Rossini’s Tancredi when the composer was only 21. Who knew?!

- Lei & Lui

The climactic death after which opera would never be the same
Photo credit: Kelly & Massa