Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Fireworks Get Visceral in Rossini's Otello

Rossini’s Otello
Lightspace Studios, Brooklyn
March 25, 2017

Rossini fireworks with feeling
Photo credit: Robert Altman
When we discovered Rossini’s Otello at La Scala a couple of years ago, we came out pretty exhilarated by all that testosterone in its bel canto form (we were lucky to get the stellar Kunde-Florez tenor duo), but were not particularly moved by the Desdemona character (Peretyatko) nor by the overall opera per se. At the time we were still believers that Rossini usually has a dazzling effect, yes, but his operas are hardly ever truly emotionally gut-wrenching.

LoftOpera’s production of this same work changed my mind forever about Rossini’s soul-stirring powers. By the time the performance was over on Saturday night, I was an emotional wreck, weeping inconsolably. I came out of the venue pretty distraught after crying for good part of Act III. This time, in addition to the expected bel canto vocal fireworks, visceral dramatic tension built up throughout the performance, and really exploded in the last act, culminating in the chilling finale.   

Explosive drama comes home in Rossini's Otello
Photo credit: Robert Altman
Even in the improbable hands of the tuneful Rossini, this particular performance delivered the inevitability of Shakespearean tragedy with a force that knocked me off my feet and left me feeling desperately sorry for the characters who were unable to save themselves. This type of cathartic and deeply human experience is the ultimate reason why we go to the opera.

Rossini’s version of Il Moro di Venezia is very rarely performed. Having been eclipsed by Verdi’s take on the same material, it is also very difficult to line up a cast capable of tackling it. The opera requires really at least three solid bel canto lyric tenors, one agile bass and one extraordinary soprano. Being so rare, it is also hard to find singers who know it. The cast lined up by LoftOpera was impressive, strong throughout and with unbelievable peaks (Desdemona, Otello and Iago). Remarkably, this performance was a terrific role debut for everybody on stage. In addition to inhabiting their characters masterfully and tackling the difficult bel canto score, all of the singers displayed excellent Italian diction, so much that I did not have to look at supertitles at all – virtually unheard of with non-native speakers.

Iago oversees the battle of the tenors
Photo credit: Siobahn Sung
One of my favorite features of this opera is the over-abundance of tenors constantly battling and out-singing each other, in a display of bel canto manliness that can be a true treat. Bernard Holcomb was an excellent Otello, with clean musicality and effortless high notes. The title role is a particularly demanding one and Holcomb effectively displayed the ample range of colors and emotions required, from triumphant heroism to belligerent jealousy, from defeated heartbreak to defiant resolution and destructive desperation. Holcomb’s tenor is strong and manly but also has a graceful freshness, a purity even, that brought Otello’s vulnerability, innocence and ultimate humanity to the fore.

Blake Friedman was a sensational Iago, with a fluid, warm and beautiful sound, which made his innate evilness all the more treacherous. His acting, though, left absolutely no doubt about his character being the villain and mastermind pulling all the strings to trigger the drama. He was a real smooth operator with his blond hair slicked back and his three piece suit and ascot always looking the part. Apparently channeling Steve Bannon, Friedman carried himself with deliberately slow and calculated movements, which he endowed with a sardonic, unctuous mellifluousness. His stage presence was so commanding that it was impossible to take your eyes off him every time he was on. Vocally, one of his most memorable moments was the duet with Otello in Act II (L’ira d’avverso fato), one of those delicious and exhilarating battles of tenors that make this opera so enjoyable.

Rodrigo seizes his slimy opportunity
Photo credit: Robert Altman
As Rodrigo, Thor Arbjornsson delivered a solid and competent performance. His tenor is very high, but with nasal and metallic undertones, that gave an interesting spin to his character, almost snarly at times (which is at odds with the nature of his music but works with the character, especially since he effectively plots with Iago against Otello). Arbjornsson does not have a big or particularly swooning voice, but the intimate venue worked in his favor and his technique was spot on as he tackled the most show stopping and challenging arias in the whole opera. He was at his best in the pleading Ah come mai non senti / pietà dei miei tormenti, and his thrilling duet with Otello, Ah vieni nel tuo sangue.  

Last but not least in the tenor roster, John Ramseyer was an unbelievable gondolier - a minor but important character who sings for probably two minutes tops. When he appeared in a ghostly Venetian mask and delivered his canzone, he had a lyrical gravitas that exuded longing and nostalgia, with a heartbreaking depth that left the audience gasping (and this writer crying). It was one of those magical moments when time stopped as Act III switched to a more intimate and reflective mood. Nessun maggior dolore / che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria (there’s no greater pain / than remembering happy times during miserable ones). The verses are lifted verbatim from the tale of the doomed lovers Paolo and Francesca in Dante’s Inferno and, as used by Rossini, trigger Desdemona’s ultimate descent into the darker, lonelier side of the opera.

The tenors triangulate around one object: Desdemona
Photo credit: Robert Altman
All of the tenors were impressive, but with them alone Otello is just another Rossinian display of bel canto fireworks. The singer who truly stole the show, becoming the beating, emotional heart of the opera was Cecilia Violetta Lopez. Hers is a beautiful, warm soprano that mastered Desdemona’s demanding and multi-layered bel canto role, carrying every duet, trio and ensemble piece with effortless grace, lyric power and agility. She absolutely owned her show-stopping solo arias, particularly the tumultuous mad scene in Act II and the Canzone del salice in Act III, when her heartache was so palpable that it was impossible to hold back tears.

Forever faithfully the wife of Otello
Photo credit: Robert Altman
Her performance was so convincing that she did not simply portray Desdemona, she was Desdemona. Lopez’s heroine is not a wishy-washy limp little victim (as was the case with Peretyatko at La Scala), but rather a fierce woman who knows who she loves and will not go down without a fight. In the Act I finale, when all hell breaks loose because it is discovered that she and Otello have already eloped, she is defiant about it (Giurai! – I swore myself to him!), even when her father throws her on the floor cursing her. When the plot thickens (i.e., Iago orchestrates the Rodrigo/Otello rivalry) and she needs to deal with Rodrigo’s amorous advances, she slaps him (right after his climactic high C) and storms away. It was really something.

Uccidimi se vuoi!
Photo credit: LoftOpera
During her mad scene, fearing for Otello’s life, her love for him explodes from out of the words, music and her singing. She was so distressed that her hands were visibly shaking and she threw herself against the wall. She brought this passage of the score forcefully to life, lending deep meaning to her madness. In the final confrontation with Otello, Desdemona’s desperation reaches yet a new high, as she dares him to kill her, fiery and passionate until the end, with an intensity that did justice to the powerful libretto (Uccidimi se vuoi, perfido! Ingrato! – Non arrestare il colpo / vibralo a questo core / sfoga il tuo reo furore / intrepida morrò).*

Cecilia Violetta Lopez is an exciting singing actress. She delivered one of the most sensational and explosive performances I’ve ever seen live. We were very lucky to have caught her in such an intimate setting while LoftOpera still can afford her. Ms. Lopez seems to have what it takes to hit international operatic stardom very soon.
The excellent cast was completed by bass baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala, as Desdemona’s father Elmiro, and mezzo Toby Newman, as her confidante Emilia. Musik-Ayala pulled off a mature Marcello Mastroianni look (Fellini references abounded) and was particularly memorable as a grounding force in the various ensemble pieces, as well as a nasty fatherly figure, brutalizing poor Desdemona at every turn.

Fellini's Le notti di Cabiria greets you
Photo credit: Caterina De Bianchi
The production concept of stage director John de los Santos moves the action to the 1950s, the economic boom in post-war Italy known as the “miracolo italiano.” A silent screening of Fellini’s Le Notti di Cabiria before the show helped frame the cultural period, and costumes and stage props had a glamorous 1950s look. This directorial take worked most of the time. While it did not detract from the content of the story, it did not add much either. All in all, it made great use of the intimate space and had some clever touches.

One interesting idea was to have a little vignette immediately before the overture, where Desdemona tenderly kisses Otello goodbye in her bedroom and the two say to each other, mi serba intatta la fè (be faithful to me). This is a line Otello will later say as an aside to his beloved in the group scene at the end of Act I, when chaos ensues after he reveals that he and Desdemona are already secretly married. While this little prelude is not part of the original libretto, it does help frame the backstory that Otello and Desdemona were genuinely in love and expressed serious vows of faithfulness to each other. The strength of their love is otherwise not so directly displayed in the rest of the opera. They spend their time fighting everybody who wants to draw them apart (as well each other’s demons) so the addition was a lovely touch.

This is rare, difficult material – it takes guts, passion and mastery to pull it off. The bel canto expertise, dedication and leadership of music director and conductor Sean Kelly shone through every detail (casting, conducting, Italian and musical coaching, balance between orchestra and singers). In the hands of maestro Kelly, Rossini is not only entertaining vocal gymnastics but also true, colorful emotional expression. So alive and mind-blowing.

Maestro Sean Kelly at the helm
Photo credit: Robert Altman
In the past we’ve harped on and on about how the genius of this company lies in the way they bring raw operatic experiences to unconventional venues that appeal to the under-30 crowd. This time it felt a little different. The venue was less of a cavernous industrial space and more of an intimate photo studio with a hip art gallery feel to it, and the crowd was a bit more grown up and sophisticated than at other shows. Still, the evening kept the magic of going to the middle of nowhere, looking for the O P E R A sign and entering into a parallel universe populated by 300-odd people eager to sit through (and go wild for) an epic performance of a rare Rossini opera.

All six performance dates sold out pretty quickly and I’m sure that if they had extended the run they would have had no problem whatsoever filling those seats. As always, there is something that feels awfully right about what LoftOpera does to the art form, with the perfect balance between artistic excellence and unassuming cool. Next up, a baroque medley of Pergolesi and Vivaldi in June.

– Lei & Lui

* Kill me if you wish, evil one! Traitor! - Don’t hold back / Strike me in the heart / Unleash your wicked fury / Fearless, I will die.

LoftOpera vibes all around
Photo credit: LoftOpera

Friday, March 31, 2017

Puritani in the Right Hands

Bellini’s I puritani
Metropolitan Opera
February 22, 2017

A puritana in the right hands
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Bellini’s I Puritani is the one where two young lovers are separated by politics. Wait, that could be any number of stories that we have caught of late: Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, Rossini’s Tancredi… This time the couple in love is situated on opposite sides of the English civil war divide and, thanks to the mercy of the winners, it actually all works out happily in the end.

Having caught this opera during its previous run at the Metropolitan Opera, it left us lukewarm to say the least. It is not the tautest opera in terms of plot and dramatic tension, but Bellini manages to endow it with some of the most beautiful and unforgettable music. When sung by great singers, as it was tonight, it is somehow transformed into a downright exciting opera, absolutely thrilling.

Tenor Javier Camarena and soprano Diana Damrau had me seeing Puritani in a whole new light. Camarena has a sound that is honest and sincere, effortlessly exuding nobility, purity, goodness. He is entirely round sounding and harmonious, nothing jarring. This tenor has something of the dashing crooner to his vocal style, the way he mellifluously glides along Bellini’s long vocal lines. It is distinctively Latin in its warmth and ardor.

A bubbly, bouncy Damrau
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
When he sings his opening number late in Act I, the immortal quartet, A te, o cara, it becomes abundantly apparent why the young Elvira melts before him – because Camarena’s singing melts us too. He sounded so smooth and seductive that it is no wonder the heroine has fallen like a lovesick puppy for him. And so it rings true when later she laments his absence in her descent into madness and attempts to beckon him back saying, qui la sua voce soave. Oh, so very suave he was indeed. The feelings resonate in profound ways; ways that don’t always register when lesser singers embody the role. When the score clicks with the singers, the innate value of the underlying motivations become clear.

Damrau has a kinetic stage presence and her acting is wonderfully captivating. Under her tutelage, the smitten Elvira is a bubbly, bouncy, giddy little girl in her sane phase so that her breakdown is felt through the lens of being crushed in the full blossom of that young love. I found this embodiment of the character more effective than the more solemn good little church girl approach you typically see. Vocally, Damrau is at the top of her game. She has power, volume, ability, control. It was always a pleasure any time she sashayed up to the front of the stage and belted out her long Bellini bel canto lines with fluidity and poise filling the house so effortlessly, like her co-star.

So the curtain drops on a happy ending. The plot dissolves in victory for the revolutionary cause of the Puritans against the evil adversary represented by the Royalist die-hard followers of the recently decapitated King Charles I. All the traitors are pardoned and Elvira is able to marry happily across party lines.

A fair maiden driven mad
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Fast-forward just a couple of years in historical reality and everything is no longer peaches and rosy cream. The deposed king’s son, Charles II will soon be restored to power, and he will ruthlessly put these rebel Puritans in their place. And there will be blood. Neither the opera nor the Met production with all of its period detail hint at the darker side of what will soon follow in the historical reality of the situation (the way Louisa Proske's recent production of Agrippina did at Juilliard).

As a worldly, no-nonsense friend of ours casually baulked at the Puritans’ final forgiveness of Camarena’s character the last time we saw this opera: “They let him off the hook?!? Just like that?! No, it can't be.” Our principled friend may have a point. If the particular moment in history can teach us a lesson it is this: “Once a traitor, always a traitor.” We shouldn’t be fooled by the appearances of anything else.

– Lei & Lui

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