Thursday, October 30, 2014

Joyce, the Enchantress

Handel’s Alcina
Carnegie Hall
October 26, 2014

Photo credit: Richard Termine
Stepping into Carnegie Hall for Handel’s Alcina recital starring Joyce DiDonato in the title role, I couldn’t help but think about Mariella Devia’s Roberto Devereux we saw here back in May. It turns out that the two shows had more in common than just the venue: in both cases a world class singer - a “queen” in her field - delivered a stellar performance bringing the house down and making the rest of the cast look and sound like pale mono-dimensional bystanders. I was also surprised by just how much the two characters have in common, as both Alcina and Elisabetta sing their way through a veritable roller coaster of emotions, where the main tension is between the vulnerability and tenderness of a powerful woman in love and the terrifying wrath the same woman can unleash when betrayed. Alcina is a sorceress who conjures underworld spirits and has a Circe-esque reputation for transforming her ex-lovers and rivals into wild beasts, while Elisabetta is a queen leading armies and signing death sentences, but at the end of the day their dramatic complexity is very much alike. Who knew that Donizettian crazed queens and other “assoluta” roles had such clear-cut precursors in baroque powerful leading ladies.

Photo credit: Hirouki Ito / The New York Times
DiDonato, sporting a counter-intuitively glamorous mohawk and a witchy Vivienne Westwood gown, embodied the many emotional nuances of Alcina brilliantly. Her vocal agility, expressivity and sheer power behind her precision are simply exhilarating. In her opening aria Di’, cor mio, quanto t’amai where she reminisces about her first encounter with Ruggiero she sang pure and tender love, with a touch of nostalgia. Like Elisabetta in Devereux, after an initial lovey dovey moment, Alcina’s emotional temperature rises quickly at the first suspicion of betrayal from her lover: in Sì, son quella, / non più bella, / non più cara / agli occhi tuoi, the sorceress becomes manipulative as she tries to lure Ruggiero back into her embrace. DiDonato delivered this aria with a beautiful purity of sound, which was rendered all the more heart wrenching by the spare accompaniment of a lone cello that only served to heighten its menacing edge. 

Photo credit: The Observer
Alcina’s fury fully explodes in Act II once she realizes that Ruggiero is indeed slipping away from her, after consternation (Ah! mio cor! schernito sei!), awareness of her power kicks in (Ma, che fa gemendo Alcina? / Son reina, è tempo ancora), and DiDonato here switched from wailing despair to fierce vengefulness with such force that I could hear the air vibrate (and we had gallery tickets). The sorceress then insults Ruggiero a bit more (though not as colorfully as in her Donizettian counterpart), and proceeds to scarily invoke underworld spirits (Del pallido Acheronte spiriti abitatori, / e della notte ministri di vendetta, / cieche figlie crudeli, a me venite!) to cast another spell and retain her lover. Interestingly, Alcina’s magic wand does not work and her demise begins. However, she does not go down without a bang: in the raging and fiery Ma quando tornerai / di lacci avvinto il piè, / attendi pur da me / rigore e crudeltà, she warns Ruggiero of her revenge once he’ll inevitably crawl back to her. Here DiDonato was all fireworks, perhaps also because she has been singing this particular aria in steady rotation since it was featured on her Drama Queens album and tour last year.

Photo Credit: Mark Allan / Barbican
 The sorceress ultimately acknowledges her fate of loveless powerlessness in her final aria, Mi restano le lagrime, that exudes frailty, melancholy and, ultimately, humanness. This is where Alcina differs from Elisabetta: in Handel, when the supernatural enchantress falls in love she loses her power and her magic reign crumbles, while in Donizetti things are a bit more complex (the queen uses her royal will to cause the beheading of Roberto, and loses her desire to reign as a result).

Photo Credit: Mark Allan / Barbican
Alcina’s character is so fascinating and her music is so good, particularly when performed so sensationally by DiDonato, that I kept hoping she had more arias to shine in. Unfortunately the rest of the cast was just not up to the level of the leading lady, with a couple of exceptions: mezzo Alice Coote as Ruggiero had some very nice expressive moments (though she never managed to play the Carnegie space as well as Joyce) and soprano Anna Devin as Oberto, while having a miniscule role, really matched Alcina’s fury in Barbara! with an exhilarating tirade of insults and threats.

I found the rest of the cast to be on the bland side: soprano Anna Christy as Alcina’s sister Morgana had a charming chirping presence, but her higher registry was on the strident side, mezzo Christine Rice (Bradamante) was just not incisive enough, tenor Ben Johnson (Oronte) lacked airiness and bass Wojtek Gierlach (Melisso) did ground the opera with some manly tones but came across a bit muddled.

 The English Concert lead by Harry Bickert, however, was a force to be reckoned with. They were truly magnificent both as an ensemble and in a couple of showstopper solos by cellist Joseph Crouch and first violinist Nadja Zwiener. Today I was reminded of how amazing baroque opera can be and I left longing for more of it to be performed in fully staged settings. Particularly if, like Alcina, the libretto offers up so many fantastical elements for a visionary director willing to play with them.

- Lei & Lui

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Flute Lost its Magic

Die Zauberflöte
A singspiel by Wolgang Amadeus Mozart
Met - October 11, 2014

Photo credit: Met
I was so looking forward and ready to like this Die Zauberflöte. It had a lot of good things going for it on paper. For starters, it was finally performed in its original German version, very welcome news after the Met butchered this opera over the last few years by offering a reduced English version as a Christmas holiday treat for families. I (somehow) get the need to sell tickets but please please Mr. Gelb do not tamper with Mozart ever again. It’s really perfection as originally conceived and, also, English translations of any opera sabotage its musicality. Honestly, how hard it is to push the little subtitle button in front of you? Thank goodness this year the “approachable” English kids show is Hansel and Gretel (which I don’t care for). I was also excited to catch Adam Fischer doing Wolfie again (loved his semi-staged Nozze a couple of summers ago), not to mention bass René Pape as Sarastro and soprano Pretty Yende as Pamina.

Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
Tonight, however, it was one of those rare times where no matter how solid the musicians and singers, the production managed to negatively affect the whole experience. The biggest problem was the lack of cohesion throughout. True that the Flute is a hodgepodge of improbable elements: we’re in a mythological age and magic land where there are wild animals, African slaves, professional bird-catchers, classical temples, Egyptian gods and western music. This opera, however, also offers the opportunity to an imaginative director to create a wonderful magic world and unfortunately Julie Taymor’s production just missed the mark. The supposedly unifying theme was provided by giant transparent structures in the shapes of triangles, circles and squares, functioning as the core of the sets framing each scene. While maybe a good idea in principle, these things felt like clunky cheap worn out plastic, badly illuminated by neon and also disturbingly noisy, squeaking and creaking at every scene change. Some of the choral scenes in the last act felt unfinished, with a plastic temple so far back that I almost felt the Met’s stagehands peeking behind it and what looked like bright white plastic tent material on the floors and walls. The Papageno/Papagena reunion happened over a (noisy) mobile plexiglass staircase. When squeaky plastic seems to be the dominant theme of a production something is wrong.

Photo credit: Met
Costumes, too, were disappointingly all over the place, some of them refined and elaborate (the Queen of the Night and Tamino, both Japanese-inspired), others put together at the last minute by a team of children armed with scissors and cardboard (the temple chorus, at times even sporting a ridiculous rainbow across their chest), others again out of a Mexican lucha libre match (Monostatos, who also wore inexplicable high heels, essential to rape maidens?).

Photo credit: Met 
I enjoyed only a handful of special effects in Taymor’s production: the kabuki puppetry (particularly in the dinner scene, where shiny food magically appears floating in the dark), the trials by water and fire (with the loving couple going up and down through a fluid sheer silk column) and the spirits’ different appearances (now floating on a flying bird, now on the shoulders of other characters).

Photo credit: Sara Krulwich / The New York Times

Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
While generally singspiel is not my favorite, it does work with the complicated symbolic plot. All singers were, though not extraordinary, consistently solid across the board. Mozartian tenor Toby Spence as Tamino delivered convincing expressions of pure love and virtue. Baritone Markus Werba as Papageno had good comic presence and was entertaining, at times silly (I could live without the “my name is Geno, Papa-Geno” gag, that’s definitely not Mozartian) but all in all pleasant. Too bad poor Papageno was wearing a green ill-fitting pyjama that had nothing to do with the rest of the costumes (and seemed to have been recycled from a different production). René Pape, today on double duty impressively switching from Verdi (as Banquo in Macbeth’s matinee) to Mozart, as Sarastro in the Flute’s evening performance, was simply glorious, exuding charisma every time he was on stage, with his commanding and seductive bass. I just felt really bad for Pape having to wonder around the stage looking like a huge yellow piñata with a Japanese hat on. I get the sun metaphor, but still...

Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
Soprano Ana Durlovski as the Queen of the Night had good technique but her voice was just not strong enough for the Met, which is a shame because the whole show shines a bit less brightly if her big second act showstopper “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzendoesn't blow the roof off the place in a super-human fit of vengeful rage. Young soprano Pretty Yende was the loveliest Pamina, with a beautiful clean sound and at times really soaring and filling the Met, way more than the Queen of the Night. Yende did share with Pape the prize as worst dressed of the evening, with an ill-fitting electric blue gown plastered by a color block apron stripe in the front. I felt relief for Pamina when in the final scene she finally ascends to the temple in a simple elegant white tunic. 

Photo credit: Met
The boys performing the three spirits (Connor Tsui, Sebastian Berg and Andre Gulick) delivered some unbelievable singing, eery and powerful. It was truly impressive (and slightly uncanny) to hear these piercing sounds from such young singers, whose costumes, for once, kind of worked with the characters (white body paint, diapers and long white beards). The three ladies (Amy Shoremount-Obra, Renee Tatum and Margaret Lattimore) were also vocally strong and had good comic presence, though at times Taymor had them mess around too much with masks sitting on top of their fully dyed blue faces and one single oversized hand - go figure.  

Die Zauberflöte’s score is fantastic, multi-faceted and expressive through a broad range of characters: illuminated priests, lusty slaves, pure innocent love, raging evil queens, happy bird-catchers and a variety of spirits and fairies. Ivan Fischer’s conducting was brilliant - if I closed my eyes it sounded all blissful, wonderful and inspiring, unfortunately the production and costumes just did not work as well as they could have given the world of  possibilities that this opera offers.

Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met

- Lui & Lei

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Even More Indie Fall Opera!

Just when we thought that we had uncovered all indie operatic goodies for this fall and planned our calendar accordingly, new intriguing shows are popping out left and right. To those who say that opera is a dying and expensive art form for a geriatric audience: do come to NYC and experience first hand how opera is not only alive and well but also young and hip. Rossini is performed in a loft, Fidelio is a BYOB show, rare Donizetti is sung in a jewel box space in Cobble Hill and Die Fledermaus gets a commedia dell’arte spin. Also, the spirit of Halloween will be conjured with a séance-like opera and a Fairy Queen drag costume party.

Matisse,  La leçon de musique
oil on canvas, 1917
Who can resist rare bel canto arias performed by a fiery mezzo-soprano in a quirky space behind a little unassuming red door? Surely not us. As part of its recital series Miniatures Behind the Door, Vertical Player Repertory shows Stella Nemica Infausta, described as “an evening of treasures plucked from the dusty attic of Italian opera and polished to their former luster.” The program will feature works by Donizetti and Mercadante but also Nini, Pacini and Ricci. Mezzo Hayden de Witt, whom we were lucky to discover in last year’s pastiche by Opera Feroce, will perform. October 30 – 7:30PM at 219 Court Street, 

Image Credit: Heartbeat Opera
This summer we were blown away by Louisa Proske's take on Salieri’s Fasltaff. This impressive young director just founded Heartbeat Opera, a new company that has the most enticing mission statement: “What if it were possible to experience opera classics, with the singers only feet or even inches away from you, and the miracle of the operatic voice happening so close you could feel the vibrations of a great aria pulsating on your skin? What if the dramatic performance matched musical mastery, with acting that was bold, and specific and unafraid of comparison to great theatre acting? This is what we propose for our new opera company – work that is intimate, powerful, physically and emotionally committed.” To discover more about their upcoming new season (and contribute to the cause), one can go to their Halloween benefit drag extravaganza, with performances of excerpts from Purcell’s Fairy Queen, music, dancing, champagne, raffle prizes, glitter, and more. October 30 – 7:30PM and 10PM shows at the Cotton Candy Machine (235 South 1st Street, Brooklyn).

Image Credit: The Secret Opera
In a creepier Halloween fashion, Secret Opera will stage Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium, an opera commissioned to the Italian-American composer by Columbia University and first performed on May 8, 1946. Menotti was inspired to write and compose this work after attending a séance in the small town of St. Wolfgang (near Salzburg, Austria) in 1936 during which he was struck by the séance attendees’ powerful desire to communicate with lost loved ones. November 1 – 8PM at 353 Studios (Studio 1), 353 West 48th Street, NYC; November 8 – 8PM at Community Congregation Church, 200 Hartshorn Drive, Short Hills, NJ.

For those who like their Beethoven with a side of booze (and, seriously, who doesn’t?), Opera Company of Brooklyn offers Fidelio as part of their BYOB Opera Series. November 8 – 7PM at 353 Studios, 353 West 48th Street.
It looks like NY Opera Exchange is revamping its brand with an impressive display of social media savvy and a sexy new website. If their performances prove to be as hip as their online presence, we’ll sure be in for a treat. NY Opera Exchange’s season opens with an intriguing Die Fledermaus set in Venice with a commedia dell’arte twist. Strauss’ work will be sung in the original German but with dialogues in English (which seems like a very bearable and welcome compromise to us). November 7 (7:30PM), 8 (2PM and 7:30PM) and 9 (3PM) at 310 East 42nd Street.
Image Credit: NY Opera Exchange
Loft Opera found itself in the spotlight earlier this month for its collaboration with Joyce DiDonato in the NYC launch party of the diva’s new album, Stella di Napoli. The party served also as teaser for this indie company’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia and we were told by reliable sources that Loft Opera’s performers were a very pleasant surprise (even after Joyce). We look forward to verifying this first hand. November 11, 12, 18, 19 and 21 – 8PM at The Green Building (452 Union St. Brooklyn).
Lei & Lui
Photo Credit: Loft Opera