Monday, December 12, 2016

All Hail, This Macbeth

Verdi’s Macbeth
LoftOpera
MAST Chocolate Factory, Brooklyn Navy Yards
December 10, 2016

All hail, LoftOpera's Macbeth
Photo credit: Robert Altman
The LoftOpera experience is always an extreme one, in abandoned industrial spaces that are steaming hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. But that is also one of the elements that makes this company so radically bold and unassumingly cutting edge. There is something subversive and secret-society-like about walking your way through deserted urban wastelands to look for an “OPERA” sign, of all things. Once you finally get into the venue, the contrast between the rawness of the surroundings and the superb artistic quality and sophistication of the performance is a thing of sublime beauty – and this time more than ever as they tackle their most ambitious project to date.

That comforting secret society sign
Photo credit: Allegri con fuoco
The indie company had initially announced Kurt Weil’s Mahoganny as their December show, but thank goodness something made them change their minds and they switched to Verdi’s Macbeth instead. Weil is interesting but Verdi is just grand.

But how do you do grand opera in a factory on a budget and still deliver? We could describe the sets, costumes, clever use of the space, projections, staging ideas, which were all very nice, but what truly made this show memorable was the music, performed by a stellar cast and a tight orchestra, led by maestro and music director Sean Kelly. Every singer on stage was extraordinary, from the leads to the chorus. I don’t know how they managed to assemble such a top-notch group across the board. Even big houses like the Met usually cast a mixed bag of singers where if you’re lucky the good ones make you forget the mediocre or bad ones. In this case LoftOpera truly orchestrated a perfect musical storm.

Born to be Macbeth
Photo credit: Robert Altman
Baritone Craig Irvin embodied Macbeth body and soul and rendered him as a man completely and utterly possessed. With a clear, handsome sound and impeccable Italian diction he intoned the Scot’s musical lines with dark and commanding delivery that boomed through the cavernous space. Irvin is a powerful singer-actor and from the moment he opened his mouth he had me hooked and drew me into Macbeth’s downward spiral of power, ambition and self-destruction. From our seats in the second row, he was Macbeth in his eyes, the way he carried his brow, in his mouth framed by a very fitting beard, down to the core of his being. This is not an easy role and Irvin not only delivered it but he also made it his own in a raging, almost diabolical way. It seems like this run is a role debut for him, which makes it even more impressive that he could embody it so brilliantly.

In director’s Laine Rettmer’s take, the tables are turned from the more common interpretation where it is Lady Macbeth who pushes her husband to evil deeds. This production introduces, during the overture, a backstory where the Macbeths lost their young son, which seems to suggest that grief and childlessness are some of the propelling forces here, and perhaps Lady M bears more of the burden than her husband. 


The sexual politics are reversed
Photo credit: Robert Altman
In fact, here it is Macbeth who pushes his wife to suicide during his Pietà, rispetto, amore. In this pathos invoking aria of realization and reflection on his guilt and the futility of his plans, he pushes a huge rock across the rear of the stage space, with his wife perched on top in the midst of her final breakdown. She commits suicide while he reflects on the vicissitudes of his fate. He came across as the more diabolical one, which was reinforced by other little directorial choices. Rather than focus on the indelible stains on his hands, this Macbeth wore Duncan’s blood stained stole as a royal accessory (instead of the traditional crown). As a symbol of his bloodguilt, the stole becomes a voluntary reminder that he could easily get rid of, yet he wears it with a certain hubristic pride. The deep dark pride of Irvin’s voice also vividly elevated this characteristic take on the story, not to mention his profound acting chops.

Lady Macbeth responds to the letter
Photo credit: Robert Altman
Soprano Elizabeth Baldwin as Lady Macbeth was vocally electrifying and delivered her several show-stopping scenes with gusto, power and agility. Her soprano has dark undertones and the wide range required for this role. In her opening Vieni t’affretta she truly gave it her all and held certain final notes for what seemed longer than usual, in an impressive virtuoso display. In the drinking song Si colmi il calice she was delightful and graciously balanced the joyful tune with the efforts to reign in her hallucinating husband. And her sleepwalking aria Una macchia è qui tuttora was cookoo and almost child-like. Generally, Baldwin’s acting came across as less aggressive than usual for this role, in line with the production’s take where she lost her child and her husband is the more evil of the couple.  

Bass Kevin Thompson as Banco was spectacular and possibly one of the most handsome and effortlessly powerful bass voices I have ever heard live. He reminds me of Rene Pape but with warmer and sexier undertones. Thompson’s instrument is smooth, deeply melodic and just hypnotically enthralling. And strong, oh so strong. I was sad to see him die so early in Act II as I just could not get enough of him. He was a commanding grounding force in the initial duet with Macbeth and delivered his last aria Come dal ciel precipita before getting assassinated with heart-wrenching and chilling effects. He also strikes a humble, caring presence when he dons the hat of father to his son in the culmination of Act II. This is a singer to watch out for.

The ensemble cast was killer
Photo credit: Robert Altman
Another terrific singer I wished had more to do was tenor Peter Scott Drackley as Macduff. While he had truly only one big aria, Ah, la paterna mano, he delivered it as though his life depended on it while he grieved over his family murdered by Macbeth. With perfect Italian, soaring expressivity and a clean sound, he created one of those moments where time stopped, and tears streamed down my face.

The chorus of witches unleashed
Photo credit: Robert Altman
The chorus was top notch, too, particularly in the Act I finale Schiudi inferno where it asks God to punish Duncan’s death. You could feel the emotions tingling in the soles of your feet, in your legs and running up your spine. It was spectacularly chilling, just as a true Macbeth should be. And in Act IV’s opening Patria oppressa, the chorus was magnificently moving in this patriotic bit Verdi snuck in (nothing to do with the Shakespearean original but hey it’s the Risorgimento in Italy).

Lady M tries again to wash her hands clean
Photo credit: Robert Altman
When it came to staging, the production made a great use of the MAST chocolate factory cathedral-like space. The sets per se amounted to little more than two rock-like structures strewn with moss, but the stairs that led to the upper level of the facility were equally used, as were the walls (for projections, mostly in the prophecy scene). Also, I particularly enjoyed how the group of witches emerged from the cavernous back of the “stage,” literally as ghostly figures emerging from darkness. A simple yet very impactful effect.

Yes, the venue lacked heating (I felt for Lady M when she poured a carafe of bloody water over herself in Act IV), but as we walked out into the industrial navy yard with the skyline glistening under the snow, we could only feel exhilaration. Because when Macbeth is done so well it’s just so damn good.

Lei & Lui
Is that a dagger I see before me?
Photo credit: Robert Altman

Rossini’s Two Faces

Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri (1813)
Metropolitan Opera
October 15, 2016

The bey has eyes for any and every dame
Photo credit: Met Opera
Going into Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri, I was ready for some pure escapist entertainment. It is, after all, Rossini in all of his early opera buffa glory. What I didn't brace myself for was the absolute timeliness of the piece. In it, an ultra wealthy man abuses his power and status to grope and fondle any woman he wishes. The plot was all too close to the scene unfolding on the national political stage.

The production takes us back to the good old days with Ponnelle
Photo credit: Met Opera
But it was still an unplug-and-have-fun kind of evening, nevertheless. Just let the music and vocal acrobatics wash over you. Silly, yes, but so pleasurable. Like a bubbly, exotic cocktail you can’t get enough of. The Met’s long-standing easy-breezy production dates back to the more traditional (but no less boisterous) days of the great Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. It is minimal enough in its period detail to provide many fluid changes of scene, but the elephantine stage felt too big for the charming scale of the mad-capped action.

Ildar steals the show with his sultanesque shenanigans
Photo credit: Met Opera
The outstanding Russian baritone Ildar Abdrazakov as the bey Mustafà stole the show – not only was he hilarious, but he sounded great too. He literally chewed the scenery to shreds with his zany take on the crazy sultan, right down to his feverish finale as a new recruit to the ranks of the illustrious Pappataci. I've never seen such an energetic performance on stage at the Met. He was straight out of a cartoon and clearly having a lot of fun playing the self-absorbed, sex-driven, capricious, exuberant bey.

Lindoro holds fast to his romantic ties
Photo credit: Met Opera
Tenor René Barbera filled his role as the pining lover Lindoro with warmth and grace (which was particularly appreciated after hearing the tenor in Tell). His Languir per una bella caught me off guard as it often does – the tender hearted nucleus of the first act that it is. So nice.

Soprano Marianna Pizzolato was vocally solid too, though she seemed to be missing that certain sparkle and maybe came off bit too matronly, though in many regards she is the one figure who actually grounds the piece. The other three male leads are merely satellites in orbit around her gravitational pull. So the matronly may not be entirely misguided.

The matronly gravitational center of the piece exerts her pull
Photo credit: Met Opera
You could not help but smile and often just burst into bellyful laughs. Billed as Rossini’s first big breakout piece, L’italiana is truly irresistible bel canto. I rather prefer Il turco in Italia – with its more dynamic, less schematic plot – but come on, really, who can resist Rossini when he’s at his opera buffa best?

It's back to the beloved patria for these wayward souls
Photo credit: Met Opera 

* * *

Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (1829)
Metropolitan Opera
October 21, 2016

Time for a very dramatic change of pace, but this is still Rossini
Photo credit: Met Opera
Less than a week later and we found ourselves back at the Met for another helping of Rossini's genius. After seeing his first big hit, it was time to see the last opera he would ever compose, the august and profoundly dramatic, Guillaume Tell. You really couldn't conjure a starker opposition. These two operas are really like night and day.

The Met’s new production by Pierre Audi was neither here nor there. Guillaume Tell is a timeless story about a marginalized people rising up against oppression but the costumes were all over the place and made it distracting to really get into the emotions of this story that is so full of hope. Guillaume looked like Obi Wan Kenobi from the initial Star Wars franchise and together with the abstract sets it seemed like maybe they were going for a sparse modern Druid à la Norma kind of thing, in Ikea-looking raw lumber framed houses. But then some bits were futuristic. Costumes ran the gamut from Shakespearean wench to nineteenth-century garden-party dandy to dominatrix to Nazi officer. Then all of a sudden the world was divided into those who wear linen and those who wear black leather. The whole thing was hard to pin down. With visual touches that were added as mere symbols like the hull of the boat that recalls the shape of the bow that Tell will use to save the day. All in all, the production did very little for me.

The new production is all Star Wars meets Ikea
Photo credit: Met Opera
In the title role, Canadian bass-baritone Gerard Finley came out a little cold for me. He didn't have the forceful muscularity that I look for in his duet Ou vais tu in the first act. His accompaniment should give Arnauld a basso ostinato ground that is deep and full against which the young lover can dance his fanciful ear-candy melody. It is one of my favorite duets in the opera, not least of all because it bears certain similarities with a number from Rossini’s earlier Otello, which I rank as one of the greatest overlooked gems at the top of his oeuvre. But by Act III, Finley had warmed up. His Sois immobile (to his son, right before aiming at the famous apple) was extremely moving.

The lovers meet across enemy lines
Photo credit: Met Opera
Soprano Marina Rebekah as Mathilda was out of this world. She is bright and agile and strikes a commanding stage presence. Tenor Bryan Hymel may have been proficient technically but he has a high-pitched sound that I found grating and annoying. I cringed when he opened his mouth for most of the evening. It sounded like he had a frog stuck in his throat. Maybe it wasn't his night, though he seemed to be quite warmly received by the rest of the audience. He really wasn't doing it for me.

It's all linen versus leather, all of a sudden
Photo credit: Met Opera
Rossini’s use of the chorus is utterly striking. In the first half of the opera the chorus is all hippie happy in their celebration of their provincial lifestyle as an open-air mountain loving people. The joy is palpable in those first movements, which is what makes it extra poignant that Rossini’s third act ballet takes the form of an exhibition of dominatrixes and domination. The female cronies of the Habsburg tyrant lash and whip the poor peasants forcing them to party till they drop. The palpable choral joy of the previous acts gets pushed to exhaustion, crisis and collapse. Many people sitting in our section thought it was too long, overly extravagant, done to death. But that is exactly the point. Rossini very effectively does the poor oppressed peasants to death.

Tell puts young love in its revolutionary place
Photo credit: Met Opera
As the great bel canto composer’s swan song, Guillaume Tell is grandiose, complex, deep. It's hard to believe that less than two decades later Tell could come from the same pen that produced L’italiana in Algeri. Little Gioachino is all grown up. There are just so many more layers at play here. Melody and vocal acrobatics are not just virtuosic ends in themselves but are actually used to express emotions and to tell a compelling story of profound socio-political importance. Its pervasive nationalistic sentiment provides another link to a brief jingoistic interlude toward the end of Litaliana in Algeri. The same spirit will go on to pervade the works of the later Verdi as well. In fact, Rossini’s use of the chorus as a true character of the opera made me think of some of the innovations Verdi brings to his haunting and unique Giovanna D’Arco.

Sois immobile! In other words: Be still!
Photo credit: Met Opera
And of course the Tell overture is such a blockbuster and so much fun and electrifying, that I could just not sit still. So much so that when it was pouring rain after the show, we had to forego our usual stroll home and took the subway instead. On the platform, the resident sax player was bringing down the post-show house by playing bits from that very same overture, which was more joyous fun. I was still shaking it to the endlessly recycled melodies of Rossini’s immortal genius.

All in all, the opera was very long but it was nevertheless pretty action packed so it never felt weighed down. Actually, the first act kind of sets the stage and after that there was a whole slew of plot developments that kept me on the edge of my seat. So much going on in the narrative, so many musical ideas and so much dramatic tension. It is a very enjoyable opera. I only wish the production delivered on its new Met production promise.

– Lei & Lui
The last will be first.
Photo credit: Met Opera

The apple of daddy's eye
Photo credit: Met Opera

Evil is really, really evil in this one
Photo credit: Met Opera


Salome as a Normalized Monster

Richard Strauss’s Salome
Metropolitan Opera
December 8, 2016

Salome reels her crazy in.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Richard Strauss’s Salome is a rollercoaster ride of a sexual coming of age story. The eponymous heroine is a spoiled brat who refuses to return the love of the captain who throws himself at her feet. She is burdened by the misplaced erotically charged attentions of King Herod, her stepfather. Yet she gets all caught up in an unrequited love story with the king’s prized prisoner, Jochanaan, or John the Baptist. In the current cast at the Met’s revival of a production that dates back to 2004 and the dawn of the war in Iraq, Željko Lučić sings him with mellifluous prophetic power (and not, as the character is more often portrayed, as a brutal monster).

Salome takes us to a deep and dark place with her longing to have her affection returned and then with a subsequent desire for senseless revenge. In the Bible, the wishes of her mother are what she is seeking to fulfill. In Strauss’ opera, thanks in large part to Oscar Wilde, the perverse “coming of age” of a twisted young woman, who grew up in an immoral court of self-indulgence and general dissolution, is what blossoms massively to the fore. The Salome of the opera is a privileged little lady who is accustomed to getting what she wants particularly from the men in her life. She is the apple of every man’s eye (or so she thinks) and so when she meets a man who refuses to give her the time of day she ends up feeling particularly spurned.

The Dance of Seven Veils in drag.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Her desire for revenge leads her to disobey her mother’s orders and agree to perform a spirit-lifting strip tease for her lascivious lord and stepfather. Here her “Dance of the Seven Veils” is a gender bending Marlene Dietrich-inspired choreography. Salome comes out in drag – a very Wilde a move. Dressed like a man, in a top hat, tuxedo vest and pants, she taunts her easy audience with her titillating routine. From our cheap seats it was far from clear how revealing she went, but apparently she went all the way. Which is only fitting for the symbolic gesture it is meant to represent. Herod gave his word and if she expects to hold him to it, she needs to stick to hers.

Salome always gets her man.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Patricia Racette isn’t the huge Wagnerian soprano you might come to expect for a role that has to sing out over Strauss’s superlative orchestration. She is seductive, though more fickle than impulsive and more nonplussed than obsessed as the spoiled young princess. She gave us both a physically revealing performance as well as an emotionally raw one between the dance of the seven veils and her slow, steady decline over the head of her conquest once her wish is granted. Nevertheless, her emotional range was dainty and more delicate about her obsession, and she was far from maniacal (as the character is more typically depicted). As a result, Racette’s Salome came off less unhinged and more out of touch with the reality of her actions and their consequences. In my book it is still a valid reading and a strikingly fresh one. The whole score comes off sunnier and more palatable. Some of the truly dark and dingy takes on the piece can really take you in a jaunt through the gutter of the female psyche. This Salome was slightly more relatable, if that is even possible, almost as a normalized monster.

Gerhard Siegel as Herod is that big forceful Wagnerian voice you might expect. He was both commanding and pathetic. He could project out over the orchestra especially in his moments of desperation.

Under the direction of Johannes Debus, the orchestra brought Strauss’s picturesque score vividly to life. He evinced cinematic sounds from every twist and turn of the musical landscape with its exotic oboe motif. The score is very interesting and it has a continuous flow that keeps you on the edge of your seat. But tonight’s performance greatly toned down the frenetic oddities of the score, the weird stuff that has often made Salome seem like a strange mess to me. The whole take on the opera was more sober.

The pastiche of a production.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Jürgen Flimm’s production isn’t entirely convincing as it really is a hodgepodge of disjointed elements. On one end there are futuristic stairs that seem to have been borrowed from the neighboring Apple Store. On the other half of the stage, desert hills that are cartoonishly majestic. The decadence of Herod’s court is coded as decisively colonial if not downright western. The prisoner is kept in an oil well? A mine shaft? Or just a well for water? The captain kills himself with a firearm. The revelers all swill champagne from bottles that bear contemporary labels that could have been bought at any nearby liquor store. The revival of recent experiments in Euro-trash levels of Regietheater like this one, which hasn’t aged terribly well, is a testament to the transitory nature of this directorial style. No matter how open I am to stimulating new takes on the classics, it begins to feel like our Regietheater days are numbered at the Met. Investments in longer lived concepts may be in order so long as the life span of a new production has to be as long as a decade or two.

– Lui & Lei

The Seven Angels of the Apocalypse look ominously on.
Photo credit: Ken Howard

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Passion Italian-Style in WWII Paris

Puccini’s Manon Lescaut
Metropolitan Opera
November 25, 2016

Manon reminisces about simpler times
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Met Opera
The Met’s new production of Puccini’s first big breakthrough opera from 1893 is back for its second year in a row with a new cast. When we saw this production on the opening night of its run last winter, Roberto Alagna had stepped in to save the day due to an “unexpected” cancellation by the chronic canceller Jonas Kaufmann, opposite the gorgeous Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais. Back then it was our first Manon Lescaut and we liked it fine, though we did not feel it was something worth writing home about. This year, maybe because of the new (superior) cast or due to some Wagnerian exposure, we actually liked this Puccini highly melodramatic opera much better.

Manon unleashes her diva
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Met Opera
With the new cast, the dynamic tension between the characters shifted ever so slightly. Carlos Alvarez brought out his rich and lyric tenore spinto. His voice is vibrant and fits squarely in the Puccini canon. He played a cocky, headstrong des Grieux, with his male assertiveness coming across in his brutal attack on certain notes in key dramatic moments. His No, pazzo son in the climax of Act III turned out to be one of the most moving moments of the evening. I found that the threat of separation between the two lovers tugged on my heartstrings. Alvarez’s performance was gripping and the fact that I was virtually moved to tears completely blind-sided me. I usually find Puccini too sentimental, too saccharine, too sappy for my tastes, and yet he still manages to sneak up on me especially during scenes like this one that feature big bursts of muscular emotions set to music.  

When it comes to Anna Netrebko, it seems like she was born to sing this role. There is something about the way she embodies Manon that seems at first blush to be entirely out of character but that ultimately brings to the fore elements that you don’t usually see from other singers. While Netrebko and her voice seem a touch too mature for the Act I incarnation of this innocent country maiden who is on her way to a convent, she played her Manon as a fresh faced ingénue who was completely unaware of the innate diva-esque powers of seduction that she naturally possesses. It was a revelation in many ways, not least of all because she owned the role vocally, even while only feigning innocent naïveté. So by injecting her larger than life diva quality even in these nascent moments of Manon’s early blossoming, Netrebko endowed the character with something very special, not to mention fitting for what this young woman may in part also be deep down.

Manon possesses her inner diva
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Met Opera
In the first act, she discovers what she is capable of. In the second, she finds herself in a quandary of sorts. Having been forced by her opportunistic brother to leave the man whom she really loves, she uses her natural gifts to carve out a very posh niche for herself in the rarified Parisian world of the rich and famous in which she seems to serve as little more than a glorified whore. Clad in her plush full-length furs and surrounded by a slew of Art Deco luxuries, Netrebko dreamily croons In quelle trine morbide about missing the simpler life she enjoyed with des Grieux, her more passionate lover, the man whom she abandoned without even saying goodbye. She pines for those times when she had fewer toys but soaked up a whole lot more love, long kisses and amorous embraces.

In this case, Manon is actively a trickster. She knows exactly what she is doing when she manipulates des Grieux back into her embrace in Act II. She is a dangerous seductress using the only weapon in her arsenal as femme fatale, and that is her antico fascino che accieca. Poor des Grieux immediately falls for it, to his own knowing chagrin. Netrebko plays the moment beautifully. A slippery snake who knows the power she holds over men. Des Grieux then really sees through her deceit and artifice when she reverts back to her opportunistic materialist self after they are alerted that her arrest is imminent. Rather than high tail it out of there, she goes back to her boudoir for the jewels and the gold, and Alvarez breaks into one of his most heart wrenching numbers in the first half of the opera, Ah, Manon, mi tradisce il tuo folle pensier, which he belts out with a manly desperation. She continues to play him and he is distraught. It is in moments like this one that makes me think that Puccini really nailed it. This whole movement in the music and the narrative very concisely captures the spirit of Prévost’s novel, in which Manon is a cold blooded heartbreaker and des Grieux let's his crush get the better of him at every turn, yet he just can't help himself, and so he always goes back for more. Crazy he is indeed.

The Column of Trajan and the painting visible in the boudoir backdrop
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Met Opera
Set against the backdrop of a Nazi occupied France, Richard Eyre’s distinctive take on the opera opens in Amiens, France, only this time the year is 1941. The village of the original has been transformed into a provincial French township and the fashion has been adapted to match. On the whole the updated setting enlivens the story, despite initially feeling like another futile experiment in the modern history of operatic Regietheater. Upon further reflection, however, some of these directorial decisions do in fact add several insightful layers to the story as it stands. Not only does it come off completely sexed up – the costumes and sets look great – but it also introduces deeper motivations for such plot points as to why Manon is headed to a convent in Act I and as to why the arrival of the gendarmes in Act II is extra heartbreaking, not to mention the deportation twist in Act III.

Manon flirts with her sugar daddy
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Met Opera
Talking with a scholar of French literature and culture during one of the intermissions, I was taken by a particular insight that sheds some light on how we might go about decoding some of the liberties Richard Eyre took with this concept, especially considering the bold decision to set the opera in a France under German occupation in the year 1941, rather than the late 18th century (the novel is set in the first half of the 18th century, Puccini moves it to the second half of that century). The suggestion is that Manon is Jewish and like many rural Jewish girls of the time she is being shipped off to a convent in order to escape persecution – a relatively common occurrence. Then in Act II when the soldiers burst in to abscond with her, it is because Geronte has not merely denounced her for lechery, but rather that he has reported her Jewishness to the authorities. And so in barge the Nazis. A particularly cruel form of revenge for having found her in the midst of a tryst with her former lover and his prior rival. It’s a very powerful reading, and it very likely is what the director and his team were going for.

Not every aspect of the production fits into this reading and for it to work at all you have to use your imagination, particularly in Act IV. But the broad outlines of this notion seem to be there, and the direction makes every attempt to make it all mesh. The Act III role of the prostitutes and prisoners who are being shipped off as slave laborers to the new world would then seem to provide a parallel to the rounding up of individuals to be sent off to concentration camps. In fact, they are all systematically stripped down one-by-one during the humiliating roll call portion of the act and dressed in sad gray smocks with numbers stenciled on them, so Holocaust references would not be a stretch.

The Nazi deportation forces cart her off to the camps
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Met Opera
By the time we get to the final act, however, Eyre’s staging of Act IV only functions on the level of metaphor. The lovers find themselves in a wasteland, both the work of their all-consuming passion and of the war that has been raging on in the meantime. This is one of the main points in which the words being sung in the Italian are incongruous to the action on stage, and I usually find this practice harder to condone. The long slow death of the beloved nevertheless plays out against the backdrop of a war-ravaged cityscape and, when sung by the likes of Alvarez and Netrebko, it is a harrowing experience for all involved. An appropriately Wagnerian finale, a Liebestod in the Italian fashion, as Puccini intended it.  

The slithery snake sneaks up on her prey
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Met Opera
Rob Howell’s signature rotund set design (with striking similarities to his work in the Met’s current productions of Carmen and Le nozze di Figaro) cleverly includes in Manon’s courtesan quarters in Act II a mock up of the Column of Trajan in Rome that features an array of Kama Sutra poses and a screen with an enormous image of Cupid pinching Venus’ nipple from the iconic painting by Agnolo Branzino, The Allegory of Venus and Cupid. The part of the painting that is on full display includes the right side of the composition in which the monstrous figure of Temptation holds forth in one hand the promise of love and pleasure in the form of a honeycomb; in the other she holds the menacing prick of her scorpion tail. These elements provide a kinky backdrop against which Manon's big courtesan scene unfolds. It displays clues to the pain that will inevitably follow in the wake of love's great transitory pleasure, especially as these two lovers sing of lips that wound and heal – dolcissimo soffrir, indeed!

The set for this act must also include a great big bed and this makes Puccini powerfully unique. The libretto and the writing are among the most Dionysian outside of Wagner, but Puccini is Italian and so the quality is distinctly more warm-blooded. Just to read the text for the big love scene when des Grieux and Manon are reunited is to go on a trip to Venusberg that is not otherworldly, but profoundly of the here and now. It’s deep, if you let it work its magic on you. It can be a bit misleading for its verismo undertones, but to understand Manon Lescaut, it seems to me that you have to know not only Cavalleria rusticana, but also Tannhäuser and maybe even Tristan und Isolde, which makes it a perfect pairing for this season at the Met.

The wasteland provides the backdrop for the final movement
Photo credit: Ken Howard/Met Opera
Manon Lescaut’s Act II contains one of the deepest most Dionysian expressions of operatic abandonment in the Italian canon that I have seen. And it is only thanks to Wagner (of all people) that I have come to this understanding. This opera can take you places if you let it and it does contain raw bits of the Puccini works to come. The beginning gives you a glimpse of what is to come in the first act of La boheme. Act III gives you a glimpse of the winning formula that brought us the E lucevan le stelle movement in Tosca. And there are other prolepses of what is to come in Puccini’s later work. But his attempt to descend into the Dionysian in the second half of Act II and what happens in Act IV all amount to something very deep. This is not Verdi, and it’s not Wagner, nor is it the later Puccini. Richard Eyre’s production does not entirely disappoint.

– Lui & Lei

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Looking for Wolfie in Outer Space

Heartbeat Opera Drag Benefit
Queens of the Night: Mozart in Space
National Sawdust, Williamsburg
October 31, 2016

Queens of the Night
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
On Halloween night, Heartbeat Opera held its annual drag extravaganza benefit, an event traditionally used by this young company both as a fundraiser and a “gateway drug” to introduce young opera virgins to the artform. While this is a noble cause, I was concerned that Wolfie may get too dumbed down in this format. I should not have worried, because we were in for a delicious surprise: the whole show was a sparkly, absurd, irreverent, playful pastiche but also grounded by a very clever setting and concept.

Ready for lift off. Heartbeat gonna take you higher!
Photo credit: Jill Steinberg
National Sawdust looks like a spaceship so why not set the show as a futuristic quest for Mozart in outer space? Constanze Mozart’s voiceover narrates the action by interacting with “Robot” (dancer and choreographer Emma Crane Jaster). As we “take off,” the ensemble (donning wigs, sparkly outfits, extreme makeup and high heels irrespective of gender) played the explosive and boiling overture from Così fan tutte, while Robot very cutely and slowly moved back and forth to simulate space movement. And of course the musicians were led by Captain Ashworth and Captain Schlosberg (the brilliant co-music directors of Heartbeat Opera, in tails and sequins, respectively).

The parade of planets
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Once we were in outer space, a series of aliens and other odd characters in some futuristic space gear make their entrance. First up, an astronaut in an all-silver outfit (baritone Taylor Ward), singing Papageno's introductory aria from Die Zauberflote, waves an old school phone with a curly-cue cord as he scans extraterrestrial life (with digital sounds courtesy of pianist Dan Schlosberg) instead of the traditional “flute” in the score.

Robot and Papageno look for the cosmic creative spirit
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
He is then followed by a very angry creature sporting a colorful mohawk, a geometric black and white bodysuit caged in a wire corset and a healthy dose of raging vengeance (mezzo Kristin Gornstein). She is an upset Donna Anna and of course is singing Ah, chi mi dici mai (with the astronaut playing both the Don and Leporello).

Kristin Gornstein
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Two mellower lady aliens enter next (sopranos Jamilyn Manning-White and Marie Marquis), arms linked like Siamese twins and sinuously moving around while they deliver Nozze’s Canzonetta sull’aria, with ethereal and enchanting effects, so much that the Constanze voice observes, “That was beautiful, we must be very close [to Wolfie].” The four aliens then engage in a lovely ensemble rendition of Così’s Soave sia il vento all while gracefully carrying around sparkly balloons (representing planets?).

The journey continues as we are introduced to yet more characters. We’re back in Zauberflote land when a very muscular yet lurex-dress donning Pamino (tenor Jordan Weatherstone Pitts) is chased by a spectacular and scary Drag-ooon (get it?) and then poked and prodded at by the three petulant lady aliens (and a deadpan-faced Robot). The ensuing vignette was a hilarious Papageno-Papagena duet between the astronaut and one of the alien ladies, who engage in some sort of strange sexual interaction that climaxes with the joining of elbows (instead of the traditional bird-like groping). Welcome to outer space!

The elbow sex is fantastic
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Next, in a stroke of genius, the cross-dressed Pamino delivers a Non so piu cosa son, cosa faccio in his regular tenor voice. By having a man dressed like a woman sing with a tenor voice this aria that is traditionally sung by a woman dressed like a man with a mezzo voice, Heartbeat embodied the extravagant and irreverent spirit of opera (and of drag shows) in the most subtle yet effective of ways.

A space-age Queen of the Night then makes a dramatic entrance with her Dragoon creature and breaks havoc delivering her showstopper Der Hölle Rache, effectively knocking out all of the characters on stage and inducing wild cheers from the public.

To me, however, the revelation of the evening, the moment when time truly stopped was what followed the Königin der Nacht. The stage was dark, all the characters had passed out on the floor due to intergalactic interference, and some indistinct static music erupted from the orchestra. Suddenly, an alien holding a sax (Michaël Attias) slowly walks in and the music morphs into Mozart’s Requiem, while the alien starts playing a jazz rendition of the Lacrymosa movement. Using an alto sax in place of the original chorus voices was the happiest of choices, with a delivery that was surprisingly intimate, expressive and utterly moving.



Requiem for an alien
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
This is what Heartbeat does best, making you think about classics from a different and most visceral angle, even in the midst of a playful drag show. Also, pairing Wolfie with jazz is not as absurd as it may sound, as the composer was known for his improvisational skills, and isn’t jazz all about Mozartian riffing? I found the Lacrymosa choice particularly meaningful within the evening’s plot of looking for Mozart in space, since this is one of the Requiem parts that was left incomplete.

After such a magnificent moment, it seemed like the team ran out of Mozart juices as the show shifted inexplicably to a lip-sync rendition of  Puccini’s Nessun Dorma by the Dragoon (Taurean Everett) channeling Aretha Franklin. Which was spectacular, yes, but had little to do with the rest of the narrative. The evening then quickly wrapped up with some nice remarks about Wolfie’s genius being based on love and Mozart’s particles fluctuating all around us.

The show was a heartfelt homage to Wolfie with a dash of irreverence, yes, but also freshness, fun and musical as well as theatrical competence. In a way, I enjoyed far more this drag version of Mozart’s greatest hits than the star-studded but uninspired Illuminated Heart show at Mostly Mozart back in August. Heartbeat confirmed once again its knack for distilling opera to its joyous and visceral essence, and we cannot wait to see their take on Butterfly and Carmen later in the Spring.  

– Lei & Lui

Cherubino gets more than a make over
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Dragoon channels the Queen of Soul
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
The fundraiser: a call for money
Photo credit: Russ Rowland

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Cleopatra Crashes Havisham's Would-Be Wedding

A Double Bill of Monodramas:
Argento’s Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night
Berlioz’s La mort de Cléopâtre
On Site Opera
The Harmonie Club
September 30, 2016

A bold pairing: Aurelia and Cleopatra
Photo credit: On Site Opera
It was a misty evening. The street glistened and traffic was backed up down Fifth Avenue under an incessant drizzle. When we arrived at the historic Harmonie Club on East 60th Street, I half expected Dorothy Parker to greet us, or Eleanor Roosevelt to take my coat. We were ushered through the elegant lobby and up to the second floor ballroom, where the ceiling was all rosette studded wood inlay and the chandeliers exuded the old New York refinement of another era. We were showed to our table that was set in grand fashion for a multicourse dinner service. It was as though we stumbled into a proper wedding reception. Though at the same time, something wasn’t right: cobwebs covered the wedding cake, the mantle pieces on either end of the salon were caked in dust, and the floral centerpieces on each of the tables were beautifully arranged but all the flowers were withering (artfully) away. Waiters came around with red and white wine and the feeling of excitement was palpable. It was after all Miss Havisham’s much anticipated wedding night (with a nod to Dickens).

A haunting stage is set and you're in it
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
First up, Berlioz’s La mort de Cléopâtre – an intense soliloquy in music. I came in wondering how they might carry it off in a space like this. The score takes us on the whirlwind of emotions that buffets the great fallen queen during her final moments of life.

Gaissert goes Cleopatra á la Alma-Tadema
Photo credit: On Site Opera
In the role of Cleopatra, mezzo Blythe Gaissert moved violently yet gracefully about the room as if possessed. She embodied Berlioz’s heroine with fervor. It’s such a moving piece especially when in the middle passages the cellos kick in and send the emotions into the lower more guttural range of the mezzo’s voice – deep and sad and chesty. It tore at my heart. There were at least three moments in the twenty or so minute long piece in which I found myself on the verge of tears, if only the tempo allowed me the catharsis. Instead the piece pushes on and we move into the next movement of the emotional rollercoaster that is Cleopatra’s demise. So moving, so beautiful.

Who got the snakes out?
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
We were privy to Cleopatra’s in extremis breakdown. And she sang it as if we weren’t there. Amazing. And if the moment before the suicide was not dramatic enough, Ms. Gaissert pulled out a real snake! The live-reptile move definitely helped shake up anybody in the audience who may have drifted off and served to refocus their attention on Cleopatra’s every syllable (and gesture, god forbid she lose her grip on the snake). The scene played out like an Alma-Tadema painting. It had me tingling all over. And left me wanting more.

Gaissert showed us her stuff. She sounded deep and powerful, like a woman who is used to being in control. And she moved about the room with self-assurance and pride, but on the verge of annihilation. It was frenzied, yet totally called for. 

Berlioz’s setting of this text was composed in 1829 for a competition during his apprenticeship, when he was up and coming in the music world. I have always found it dramatically satisfying. I was curious to see how they might adapt it not to a recital or a proscenium but to a site-specific ballroom space. It was intriguing. Though we were all seated in a wedding dinner fashion, it was as though we were silently eavesdropping on her. Very dramatic. 

Here comes the bride
Photo credit: On Site Opera
While I wasn’t worried about the musical qualities of the Berlioz, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the second piece on the bill, this more recent and completely unknown work by Dominick Argento, Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night. On my way there under the rain, I had prepared to brace myself for anything, but after Cléopâtre my guard was down and I was open to whatever might come.

Madness sets in
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
And come she did. Miss Havisham burst into ballroom where we were all seated for her cake and champagne reception, though she was more of a nervous wreck than her predecessor. She scurried around the room, like Cleopatra, as though we weren’t there – skittish, delusional and disturbed. Soprano Leah Partridge sounded great, with very dynamic, at times almost syncopated singing.  And even looked the part, as she vaguely resembled her Helen Bonham-Carter incarnation from the famous movie based on the same Dickens novel with a slight Julianne Moore thing going on there too. She was striking both as an actress and vocally. Her instrument was happily strident to match the shrill madness of the character but also full and expressive, pliant and versatile so as to better flesh out the many twists and turns poor Miss Havisham undergoes over the course of reliving her wedding night meltdown (presumably years after the fact).

A love lost but not forgotten
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Argento’s score was surprisingly pleasant from start to finish, all while rendering musically the character's violent mood swings. Thank God he didn’t feel the need to go over the top in terms of the setting of the human voice against the orchestration just for the sake of being weird. Instead I feel like he adhered much more closely the mode that I came to appreciate in David Lang’s recent visionary operatic character study. Thanks to The Loser I came to think of Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night as more of a dramatic monologue – this after all is the story of one of literature’s real losers, in a manner of speaking. The orchestration helped the soprano to achieve a sort of soliloquy that was expressive of a range of emotions that ran the gamut from delusion to anticipation and then from despair to the return of hope and back again. Though the overall takeaway was schizophrenic, the music remained contained and took her state of mind seriously throughout. Argento's approach was compassionate and humanistic and so ultimately even more tragic which is the nature of the poor Miss Havisham character in the novel, a woman who still nevertheless commands our sympathies despite her overarching eccentricities. It is a very subtle setting on the part of the composer, which was very tightly and tactfully interpreted by the orchestra under the baton of Geoffrey McDonald.

A lavish affair
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Both singers were of the utmost refinement, not to mention impeccably made up and dressed, and the space was truly next level. Eric Einhorn's direction was solid and made a good use of the space. In a stroke of genius, towards the end of Miss Havisham's delirious performance, he had Cleopatra come back in and have tea with the the crazy bride, almost as if the Egyptian queen was one of the many hallucinations of a disturbed mind. The ballroom of the Harmonie Club was decorated to perfection and the wood paneling provided great acoustics, too. And the lighting, oh, the lighting was phenomenal. It subtly shifted as the piece slowly shifted tones from desperation to the return of hope and back again. The shadows they cast as a result were strikingly suggestive. It was haunting yet grandiose, beautiful and unsettling all at once. On Site Opera spared no expense on this one and every detail was meticulously executed and visually stunning. Even the program was cleverly conceived of as that of Aurelia Havisham’s wedding to one Matthew Compeyson. This ranked up there with the most successful of On Site's efforts. The whole package was just of such extraordinary and extravagant polish that it was clear that this company has money (and from time to time knows how to use it). The wilted centerpieces, silk lace tablecloths and four glasses per guest alone must have not been cheap, not to mention insurance for that live snake! The attention to detail in creating such an immersive parallel universe is definitely praiseworthy, especially when all other key aspects of the production are equally solid. 

Set dressings caked in cobwebs
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Of everything we’ve seen from them this ranks right up there with the Paisiello they did at the Fabbri Mansion last year, only in that case there were even more moving parts. But like tonight there they also stuck to the exotic European language of the original, which is an absolute must. I only wish they would take a hint from successes like these and give us Mozart’s La finta giardiniera, which they announced for the spring, in the original rather than another bastardized English translation. The public is not that dumb, there is no need for English adaptations! Please give us La finta giardiniera in the original! Nevertheless, the company’s first-ever original commission will be a community-oriented piece that is to be performed in the dinosaur wing of the Natural History Museum. Not to be missed!

Lui & Lei