Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Unchaste Priestess, Beware!

Bellini's Norma at the Met
October 18, 2013

All photo credits: Met
Lei: An unchaste Druid priestess has a secret love affair with an enemy Roman soldier and bears his two children (that she hides from her Druid community). The Roman soldier gets tired of the priestess and cheats on her with her young disciple. The young slutty disciple confesses to the unchaste priestess her doubts about her own religious calling because of a love interest. When the priestess discovers that she is being cheated on, hell breaks loose (temporarily): she almost kills her kids to take revenge on the treacherous Roman soldier and unleashes the Druid army on the Romans. In the end, however, the priestess admits her own long-time double-faced unchaste conduct to her Druid community (including her baffled father) and voluntarily immolates herself on a pyre as human sacrifice to appease the gods. Once he sees what an extraordinary principled woman the priestess is, the treacherous Roman soldier falls back in love with her and joins her in the fire to die together in atonement. The slutty disciple regains her faith and the priestess’ baffled father agrees to take care of her soon-to-be orphaned children. Curtain.

Lui: Loosely following the main plot lines of the Medea, Norma transcends her source material in the most redeeming ways, mainly because she decides to spare her children and face her own death, which is what makes Norma a character of truly heroic dimensions. The emotional range of her role runs the gamut. She exudes the fortitude of an astute political and military strategist in "Sediziose voci"; the mystic melancholy of a powerful priestess in "Casta diva"; the all-too-human sadness of regret in "Oh! Rimembranza!"; the ability to forgive and forget in the name of feminine friendship in "Deh, con te, con te li prendi"; the sincere mercy of a truly loving mother in "Dormono entrambi"; and the violent conviction of a warrior in "Dammi quel ferro."

And so, Norma is a more heroic representation of a powerful female figure than Medea, albeit also an extremely tragic one. Both women go out in a blaze of glory. Having leveled her revenge and killed her children, the king and his daughter along the way, Medea takes her triumphant leave: a holy terror on Helios' flying chariot led by dragons. Having spared her children and owned up to her hypocrisy, Norma goes to meet her death triumphantly – a "sublime donna" with her sins redeemed and her integrity intact.
Lei: Operatic drama hardly gets more multi-layered than this. If one adds to that Bellini’s lively bel canto score dripping with with romantic passion and one of the most beautiful and challenging soprano "assoluta" roles ever written, it is surprising that Norma is not performed more often. This season there are only 6 fully staged productions of Norma being performed worldwide (New York Met, Knoxville, Paris, Toulon, Chemintz and Dusseldorf) and 3 concert performances (Lyon, Vienna and Budapest). If one does the same search with Traviata the results are over 50 (source: Opera Critic Search Suite). And that's not just because Traviata is standard repertoire and an all time public favorite, it's mostly that if one does not have a soprano capable of tackling the lead role, it just does not make sense to stage Norma at all.
Sondra Radvanovsky was impressive. The moment she started singing the air was transformed, not only because she was so powerful one could literally feel the air vibrating (even in family circle) but mostly because the sheer purity of the sound of her voice and her mastery of the technique and breadth of range required for this role were terrific. I saw Radvanovsky a couple of times before, in Trovatore and Ballo in Maschera and back then I thought she was technically very solid but lacked that extra warmth and sweetness to convey the emotional depth of her characters. That was not always the case in Norma, though I generally felt she was pretty composed and could maybe have unleashed some more emotion. I will be interested to see how she evolves in this role since she clearly showed she has the technique to carry it – and that, in itself, is a rarity.
Lui: Indeed, technically proficient but not enough emotion, however, I found myself transported by the power of this strong female lead. And Radvanovsky owned it. Her voice swooping and diving over the low droning chorus in "Casta diva" cast its spell on me. In my opinion she was in full possession of the stately solemnity of the role. More emotion would only help to round out what is such a refreshing female character. And Radvanovsky embodied all of Norma's transcendent strong feminine qualities with grace and self-assurance. I found her to be a thrill even with the stiffness and paucity of her emotional release.
Lei: Other singers did a fine job. I had mixed feelings about the tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko as Pollione, he went flat a couple of times in the first act but then got better and sang with warmth and a well rounded articulation, even if not that powerful. Kate Aldrich’s Adalgisa was not bad and her duets with Norma were lovely though next to Radvanovsky everybody else sounded pretty weak.
Lui: Though Radvanovsky carried the two spectacular duets between Norma and Adalgisa, these were, nevertheless, among the few moments in which Kate Aldrich as Adalgisa really shined. Their first duet, "Oh! Rimembranza!," is a tender moment of understanding and empathy that really highlights the feminine friendship and comraderie that lies at the center of the story. The musical texture of their interaction is rich and varied. Their voices rise and fall and break up into little staccato phrases, surging together and then apart. Dangling, a capella, out in the void, they sound both vulnerable but also intransigent, drawing strength off of one another. Little do they know at this point that they are both infatuated with the same man. In her earlier appearances in Act 1, singing on her own, I was less convinced by Aldrich's Adalgisa. If character is communicated through music and especially singing in opera, she did not seem to have the strength or the stature to be a believable contender for Pollione's affection opposite the sheer dynamism of Radvanovsky's Norma. It was just unclear what her Adalgisa had to offer that Norma was lacking.
Lei: Staging was some odd combination of sleek modern black walls and floors with a few ancient looking stone elements, such as the platform for the religious rites, the back wall of Norma's house and a giant disc with Druid-like decorations that descends from the ceiling when Norma unleashes the army in "Guerra, guerra!". The sets were not particularly visually engaging, other than a big moon changing shape and color in the background that reminded me of James Turrell's Aten Reign installation recently at the Guggenheim. True that the singing was all in all quite good and staging is secondary when that's the case, however this production could really benefit from some extra bright touches, it's very dark and even the costumes (except for Norma's blue and red outfits) are all pretty somber and almost disappear into the black sets. At a minimum, the Druids could use some white tunics so that the chorus appearance can match its musical liveliness and Adalgisa should definitely get rid of those old maid rags and wear some livelier color to emphasize the youth (and sluttiness) of her character.
Lui: John Copley's no frills production was a stark outing. Largely shrouded in darkness, the staging and set does little to distract from the music, and thank goodness because the singing in an opera like this one truly deserves to be the the main attraction. It does not matter much where you set the opera. Give me good singing and you can do whatever you want with the staging. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

A Nose on the Run!

Shostakovich’s The Nose at the Met – October 8, 2013

All photo/image credits: Met

Lui: Originally written between 1835 and 1836, Nikolai Gogol's short story The Nose is an absurdist whodunit fantasia, part bureaucratic thriller, part social satire, set in the same St. Petersburg as Pushkin's 1833 Eugene Onegin. Scouring the streets of the imperial Russian capital in search of his missing nose, Gogol's noseless protagonist Kovalyov could very well have crossed paths with Pushkin's cast of aristocratic characters, if it weren't for their difference in class. For, Kovalyov is hyper-aware of the hierarchies of Petersburg society.

William Kentridge's signature 2010 Met production of Shostakovich's 1930 operatic adaptation moves the action of the story to the St. Petersburg of the Soviet futurists in the early twentieth century. His staging features a profusion of paroliberismo, animation and live action video projected onto mobile set pieces, scrims, screens and curtains. The stage at the Met is a whirling frenzy of activity for virtually all of the swift hour and forty-five minutes of the modernist composer's fleet-footed score.

Lei: The terrific music was definitely the main character for me. The Met orchestra sounded more alive and electrified than ever under Gergiev’s lead, rendering Shostakovich’s score a pure and super-kinetic delight. I was so taken with the orchestra that I would have been content just with the music and Kentridge’s dada-futurist animations. These projections worked very well with the musical tempo and served both as part of the set and as narrative tool. The sequences where the human-size nose goes out and about, engaging in all sort of activities (from running and ballet dancing to typing and horseback riding) were just hilarious and conveyed perfectly the absurdity of the plot.

Lui: I tend to feel the same way. I could watch Kentridge's imagination riff on this material for a long time. It is so incredibly pleasurable. Still, the man at the center of the show is collegiate assessor Kovalyov (but you can call him "Major"), who is dramatically aware that the mysterious and absurd loss of his nose will doom his much desired escalation of the social ladder. In his adventures with and without his olfactory organ, Kovalyov measures himself up to everyone he encounters. He constantly scrutinizes the buttons on their uniforms, their noses, even their whiskers. When it turns out that his nose is on the loose and has somehow sprouted legs of its own and become as big as a man with a higher title than his, Kovalyov is suddenly unsure of how to address his superior. Perplexed before his nose – now State Councilor! – the Major comically struggles to convince it to resize and go back to where it belongs, on Kovalyov's face.

Lei: This production chose to display the confrontation between Kovalyov and his Nose as an exchange between two men, with a wobbly shadow of a nose projected onto the wall behind the higher ranked character. Rather, this should have been a confrontation between a man and his absurd overgrown nose. To me, this directorial choice missed the point entirely, especially since the big papier-mâché nose was always so effective throughout the rest of the opera. This is after all one of the key moments in the story that brings Kovalyov's complex to the fore. In the context of his bureaucratic and social insecurities, if he's talking to his nose we want to see a big nose, not a little man who sounds gracious, all too soft spoken and elegant. Also, tenor Alexander Lewis was not a convincing Nose, since he sounded too delicately high-pitched to the point of almost coming across as melancholic. I found this rendering to be at complete odds with the Nose’s character – a snob and brisk State Councilor who does not want to have anything to do with the lower-ranked Kovalyov.


Lui: Once his nose slips through his clutches, our dutiful civil servant then humorously weighs his bureaucratic options for seeking assistance in his plight – whether to file an appeal with the Board of Discipline, where the Nose now works, to take an ad out in the local newspaper or turn to the police. We are immersed in the world of protocol and arcane hierarchies. It is a satire of the corrupt inefficiencies of the bureaucratic chain of command, and it's outrageously surreal.

Lei: The staging conveys very vividly the dwarfing of man by the bureaucratic and social machine. In all the interior scenes (such as the barber shop, Kovalyov's apartment and the newspaper office) the action takes place in shoebox-like sets that occupy only a very small portion of the stage. The rest of the space is filled with projections of magnified newspaper articles and fast clips bursting with of all sorts of social choral situations, from crowds marching to clerks typing and audiences watching phantom shows of their own, with a terrific set-within-the-set effect.

Lui: It's rare to find an opera that so fully represents the social sphere in all its dynamic, overlapping layers. Shostakovich's score is bristling with frenetic energy and Kentridge brought it all to life. He gives us the crowds in the square, in the cathedral, in the park, at the newspaper office and in the police headquarters. Even poor Kovalyov's modest apartment is seething with social life as it is where scenes unfold with everyone from his live-in lackey, to the police commissioner, to a doctor living in the building who bursts in to make a house call. There is no privacy for our poor civil servant.

Another scene that really worked for me was the duet between Kovalyov and the mother of his some time love interest. The Major blames her for the loss of his nose and accuses her of witchcraft. The mother disregards the absurdity of the nonsensical accusation and reiterates the offer of her daughter's hand in marriage, should he still be so inclined. They exchange correspondence and sing the contents of their respective letters, one superimposed directly onto the other. Rather than achieving communicative clarity, the effect is a confusing hodgepodge of two people talking at and over one another. It is a piece of virtuosic genius the solution the composer comes up with to represent the social economy of their epistolary-marital commerce. Rather than give us the direct courting of the love interest through a seductive aria or a lovey-dovey duet, Shostakovich gives us a pushy mediator and turns the pseudo-love story into yet another negotiation straight from the sphere of the social.

Lei: The opera has lot of Russian recitatif, which was often quite funny given the absurdity of the story and the wittiness of the libretto; also, the subtitles were projected onto the set, sometimes even as part of the animations, which made the business of following the Russian fun and easy. Even so, after a while all the talking got a bit tiresome and I just craved some melody.

When it came to real singing, baritone Paulo Szot did a good job as Major Kovalyov, sounding powerful enough and displaying the comic vein required of the role. I also liked the musicality of Sergey Skorokhodov as the Major’s servant Ivan, who provided a rare moment of palpable emotion when he cozied up with a balalaika singing a simple folk ditty, showing the musical eclecticism of the visionary breadth of this opera. Barbara Dever as Mme. Podtochina and Ying Fang as her daughter brought some (at least for me) much-needed female melody to the piece, it was a relief to hear some soprano trilling after the prevailing manly Russian declamations. I was not particularly impressed by the rest of the singers, who many times were just so dwarfed by the music that it was just hard to hear them.

Lui: As one of the most experimental stagings that I've seen at the Met, it made me nostalgic for the kinds of cutting-edge productions NYC Opera has brought is over the last couple of years. Seeing The Nose made more poignant the imminent loss of the institution that brought us, for example, that visionary Moses in Egypt last year that won't soon be forgotten. Along with Satyagraha, The Nose ranks up there with the most unique operatic spectacles that I have experienced at the Met.

Lei: I am not sure The Nose it’s my piece of operatic cake, however I enjoyed it as an entertaining absurd futurist piece. And I very much look forward to seeing more Kentridge-like productions around.

Friday, October 4, 2013

A Così without Fangs

September 28, 2013 - Così fan tutte at the Met

Levine’s Back! 

Lui: Excitement was in the air at what seemed like a full house at the Met as James Levine was back in the pit directing a revival of a production of Mozart's Così fan tutte that debuted in 1996. Mr. Levine's Così kept a lively tempo, the way it should be, pushing the singers briskly through their recitatives without compromising a word of Da Ponte's delicious language. 

Photo Credit: Marty Sohl/Met
Lei: It was indeed exciting to finally see James Levine back on the conductor’s podium after an absence of two years due to a spinal cord injury. I was craning my neck from our family circle seats hoping to get a glimpse of him coming in but could not see anything. Somehow he magically appeared on the podium (I later read that it happened thanks to a special lift built expressly for him) because all of a sudden I could see the top of his head and his little arms reaching out and then the overture exploded into the opera house, as fierily joyful as only Wolfie can be. 

At the end of Act I, Levine turned swiftly to greet the cheering public and it was then clear to all that he had been conducting from what looked like a high tech wheelchair that included a bar across his chest to keep him stable. The cheering roared even louder to salute and honor his bravery in getting back to conducting (and doing it so beautifully), despite not being able to stand on his feet. This time, too, I was moved to the edge of tears, though not by a singer performing some aria but rather by the extraordinarily inspiring Maestro Levine. 

Photo Credit: Marty Sohl/Met

An Overly Classic Production

Lui: This third and last of the Mozart/Da Ponte collaborations holds a special place in my heart, not least of all because it is the first opera that Zerlinetta and I first bonded over. Needless to say, I have almost every word of Da Ponte's libretto indelibly written in my mind. So I'm always eager to dig my teeth into any production I can get my hands on.  

Photo Credit: Marty Sohl/Met
Lei: Being so close to an opera to basically know its libretto by heart has its pros and cons. While, on the one hand, I have fun singing favorite arias in the shower at the top of my lungs (La mia Dorabella capace non è fedel quanto bella il cielo la fe’ – La mia Fiordiligi tradirmi non sa / uguale in lei credo costanza e beltà – È amore un ladroncello / un serpentello è amor etc.), on the other, I tend to take it personally when I feel that this wonderful Mozart/Da Ponte material is not realized thoroughly. I saw this production a few years ago and seeing it again now reminded me of just how plain and straightforward it is. In 2013, the Met should and could produce a more dynamic Così. From the sets to certain directorial choices, this rendition misses a myriad opportunities present in this great though often under-rated opera.

Lui: This year's revival of the Lesley Koenig 1996 production, with sets and costumes designed by Michael Yeargan, does present a slavish, classic take on the material. Although it may be flat in execution, it nevertheless features, like many classically-styled Met productions, several effective stage elements like the ship that comes and goes from one scene to the next. Utilizing much of the far reaches of the stage, it seems to lie out on the bay through a scrim of coastal fog out in the distance. While it may not present the sun-drenched Naples that some productions give us, it does have its suggestive moments.  

There were many clever staging conceits and directorial decisions in some of the nuances of the action. For instance, in the aria In uomini, in soldati, when Despina lectures Dorabella and Fiordiligi on the finer points of courtship, she takes their lockets from them. After she bestows such kernels of wisdom as: "Uno val l'altro, perchè nessun val nulla," she intentionally gives them the wrong lockets back so they have to exchange them again – foreshadowing the big mix up. The world of these naive young lovers starts to veer toward the topsy turvy. Men for Despina are just as interchangeable as women are for Don Alfonso. Despite the feminine gender bias of the opera's title, the battle of the sexes is waged on two sides.

Photo Credit: Marty Sohl/Met
Other directorial decisions also struck me in this production. Moving in unison as though connected at hip throughout most of the ensemble-heavy first act, Dorabella and Fiordiligi embodied in their acting style the baroque-psychedelic core of this drama of kaleidoscopic symmetries. Sung like siamese-twins, their duets were fabulous. They sang off each other, intertwining their voices into each other, beautifully depicting the fact that these two young woman still derive most of their individual strength from their sisterly collective. In fact, most people have a hard time distinguishing the two female characters and keeping them straight. This production seems to have deliberately added to the confusion. In the first act they not only have the same hair color but they are even wearing virtually the same dress, rendering them almost entirely interchangeable. After slowly emerging over the course of the first act, their individual identities do finally blossom in Act II, at which time, of course, their sturdy facade of certainty also begins to crumble. As cliff sides battered by the waves gradually succumb to the sea, so our chaste maidens give into temptation.  

Photo Credit: Marty Sohl/Met
The Singing Swingers Party

Lui: Susanna Phillips' Fiordiligi carried the show for me. I really got into her character arc in the second act. She has some of the great female arias in this piece, and she led me to see Fiordiligi's wavering through fresh eyes. Matthew Polenzani was also very strong and carried the drama alongside with Phillips. Though his Aura amorosa was too throaty, and neither warm nor round enough for my tastes, he, nevertheless, struck a forceful presence.

Lei: Though not warm or sweet enough, Matthew Polenzani was a fine Ferrando, with a clear powerful voice and good articulation. I liked him better than in last year’s Elisir but remain not fully convinced by his ability to melt me from the inside – the test of a true tenor for me. Baritone Rodion Pogossov as Guglielmo was generally a good actor but not a bold enough singer, plus his recitatives were often off Italian-wise. In the role of Don Alfonso, Maurizio Muraro’s singing and acting were not powerful or incisive enough and generally felt too slow. I will say, however, that all singers sounded almost muffled through Act I but seemed to have warmed up with renewed energy in Act II. The ladies dominated the singing: soprano Susanna Phillips was wonderful as Fiordiligi, mezzo Isabel Leonard was a fiery Dorabella, and the always excellent coloratura soprano Danielle de Niese offered the most charismatic acting as a vezzosetta Despinetta.  

Photo Credit: Marty Sohl/Met
Where Are the Fangs?

Lei: Don Alfonso is the key character of the opera, being the mastermind behind the affront to feminine fidelity that initiates the flurry of tricks, treachery and the trading of partners between the two couples. In this rendition he comes off as a jovial old fellow merely amusing himself by setting up the young lovers for deceit. Otherwise, he does not seem particularly endowed with much in terms of his background and motivation. There are many ways he could be played, with nuances ranging from bitter to cynical to ironic to love-master, and this production simply misses the opportunity to give Don Alfonso (and Così) some depth.

Lui: The problem with playing Don Alfonso so straight leads to a number of issues. Taming him into a benign old man may seem to make for a more harmless finale: a simple "lesson in love." Yet if no one ends up hurt at the end and you take Don Alfonso's fangs away with the original couples being restored no questions asked with little or no sweat off anyone's back, then you end up with a story that resolves on a note that love does not exist. Don Alfonso's lesson in love suddenly becomes a lesson the art of the swinger party. This week you hooked up with each other's girl, next time we can see if they have any cousins, get another couple of couples involved in this thing, and we'll all trade partners again!

Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg/NYC Opera
Back in Spring 2012, Christopher Alden's Così for the New York City Opera proposed a creepy, park-dwelling Mephistopheles-style mentor for the naive young men at the center of the story. He was a shadowy figure who wore a Count Dracula cape and borrowed moves from a silent-film era Nosferatu. This shadowy street urchin version of Don Alfonso may have seemed a startling interpretation of Da Ponte's character but it provided food for thought. If you take away all of Don Alfonso's cynicism and strip the old man of his apparent malice, the force that his elaborate burla can potentially have on the young men and women alike is lost. In the finale of Alden's more malicious take on the story, all four of our young lovers are left shipwrecked against the rocks of betrayal in a sea of heartache and pain. Counter-intuitively, this not the cynical take at all. On the contrary, the palpable residue of hurt that remains at the end of Alden's production is the very proof that love exists. As it turns out, Alden's production is perhaps the most optimistic way to stage Così of all.

Even better yet, in my mind, is the rare production that stages, just before the curtain goes down, a last-minute switch from the original pairs back to the new coupling that transpired over the course of the opera. In this case, Don Alfonso's lesson will have doubled over as a formative journey of self-discovery by means of which all four of the young lovers will have learned not only a thing or two about themselves and each other, but they also will have experienced the pleasure of seduction. They come out of the wringer of Don Alfonso's dirty trick having found their voices as budding sexual beings and enjoyed the challenge of having had to work to attain the object of their desire. When they switch back, their former partner lacks that original luster of first love and they find that in the meantime they actually have fallen – in a more profound and now slightly more grown up way – for the person whose affections they were forced to win thanks to Don Alfonso's dirty dealing. This simple unscripted move at the end of the opera casts a whole new light on the story as it is typically told.
Photo Credit: Marty Sohl/Met
This year's Met production is solid and pleasurable as Mozart always is, particularly with Levine conducting, but lacks some of the fireworks that could ignite this otherwise deceptively light material.

Lei: Now that Levine's back (and NYC Opera is going bankrupt) it seems like the right time for the Met to rise to the occasion and start producing operas that dare to get deeper and fresher than this Così

Playbill of the first Così performance, Vienna (1790)