Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Norma Takes Los Angeles

Bellini’s Norma
Los Angeles Opera
December 10, 2015

Norma has Pollione right where she wants him.
Photo credit: L.A. Opera
This holiday season we decided to pack in some extra opera travel. First up was a trip to California to catch Bellini’s Norma at L.A. Opera, starring the much raved about Meade-Barton duo (that we missed at the Met in 2013 as they were the second cast). Opera going in L.A. is a unique experience, especially for car-averse NYC residents. While we had a vehicle, we parked it 6 blocks away from the opera house so that we could grab dinner at one of the few inspiring restaurants within a decent distance from the venue (Little Sister – delicious). That was a bad decision as six L.A. blocks are definitely not as pedestrian friendly as the equivalent in New York, particularly if half of that is on a steep hill (and one of us is wearing jeweled high heels and it’s suddenly raining – isn’t California going through a drought?!?). But we could not afford to risk driving to the show, not find a parking spot nearby and miss the beginning of the opera! Once we got to the opera house, albeit flustered and soaked, we took in the spectacular setting as this particular stretch of North Grand Avenue is packed with majestic yet thrillingly modern buildings (the MOCA, the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the most recent fantastic-looking museum, The Broad, and, of course, L.A. Opera), lending this stretch the air of a grandiose canyon of culture.

Norma occupies a sacred place all her own.
Photo credit: L.A. Opera
Once inside where it was dry, the opening bars of the overture whisked us away to Bellini-land. Norma is truly one of the most complex and multi-faceted female characters. Throughout the narrative arc of the opera she navigates her issues in her role as a mother (almost kills her kids to spite her ex-lover), daughter (hides her relationship and kids from her father), priestess (breaches all vows to her gods), lover (humiliated by her man), mentor (betrayed by her naive mentee) and political leader (decides to wage war or not depending on the ups and downs of her private love interest). After all her mistakes, though, Norma’s final repentance and self-immolation in atonement redeem her and transform her journey into a most humanly cathartic and tragically empowering story. Opera rarely gets better than this.

Norma transitions into her domestic self.
Photo credit: L.A. Opera
The spectrum of emotions of Norma is so broad and the bel canto vocal demands to express them so challenging that there are very few singers in the world capable to tackle this soprano assoluta role. Soprano Angela Meade is one of them and she delivered a terrific performance, riding the emotional rollercoaster of the Druid priestess with control, agility and fire. While I was not blown away by her Casta Diva (accurate but lukewarm), Meade really rose to the challenge from Oh rimembranza onwards, i.e. when Norma discovers Pollione betrayed her with Adalgisa. From that moment on, her emotional temperature rose and kept rising throughout, Meade’s Norma shined best when she got angry and released her fury. Her singing was electric, expressing waves of rage and hurt that kept the audience on the edge of their seats. Meade’s ability to switch from swooningly tender to thunderously furious was impressive. This soprano perfectly embodied Norma’s conflict between private feelings and public power, which is the essence of Norma’s “soprano assoluta” character. I found Meade’s acting improved, too. This production did not have her move much but she mastered small expressive gestures with high impact (such as disdainfully refusing Adalgisa’s touch at the end of Act I or else throwing the child-murdering-dagger away in Act II).  

A little girl talk with her protégée Adalgisa (right).
Photo credit: L.A. Opera 
Mezzo Jamie Barton as Adalgisa was mesmerizing. I expected her to be great but the liquid velvet of her voice and her magnetic stage presence were quite extraordinary. When Adalgisa made her entrance with her first aria Sgombra è la selva, she embodied young naive love torn between pleasure and duty with a freshness and a bright eyed joy that was utterly moving. Not only are Barton’s vocal control and agility impressive (particularly when she switches swiftly from low to high register), but her acting chops are pretty serious too, from her facial expressions to her body language, she truly is a complete artist. Her charisma is special, she is one of those singers who manages to hook you right at the chest and draw you into the beautiful melody she’s singing, leaving you hypnotized and content. This mezzo’s sound is plush and seductive by itself, but when intertwined with Meade’s creamy soprano in the many Norma/Adalgisa duets, it was pure operatic bliss, the air vibrated and the result was insanely beautiful.

Adalgisa opens up space and time.
Photo credit: L.A. Opera
There were a couple of revelations tonight. Jamie Barton was definitely one of them. Finally seeing her live did not disappoint. Vocally the colors of her mezzo soprano are utterly unique. I wasn’t ready for her fresh, bright sound. It has a throaty fullness. She came across so clear and strong and her enunciation in Italian was always solid. But what really struck me was her singing stage presence. She really opened up certain moments with confidence the way she really slowed down, took her time in unfolding the story of her love affair with Pollione, really savoring the emotions of the moment musically. This is a transcendent quality for a singer of her young age to possess. It’s diva quality but she doesn’t exude any of the other haughty star qualities. She seems so down to earth.

Pollione in the moving finale.
Photo credit: L.A. Opera
Tenor Russell Thomas was another of the revelations of the night. Not only did he prove me wrong on my “tenor famine” theory but he also led me to see the Pollione character in a radical new light. Thomas’ sound is powerful and manly yet warm, ardent and desperate yet round with feeling, and he can hit his high notes with the heroic certainty of a Roman general. His performance during the final act, in particular, moved me to tears. When are you ever supposed to feel for Pollione? He is the perfect male jerk, shallow, fickle, always going for the younger woman, here today, gone tomorrow, faithless, in denial of his fatherhood. But when he is sung with feeling and pathos, the finale takes on another twist. His downfall suddenly becomes moving. When Pollione finally sees Norma’s greatness (she acknowledges her own hypocrisy, spares Adalgisa, saves her kids and faces bravely death by fire for her own mistakes), he falls in love with her all over again:

Ah! Troppo tardi t’ho conosciuta!

Sublime donna, io t’ho perduta!
Col mio rimorso è amor rinato,
Più disperato, furente egli è!
Moriamo insieme, ah, sì, moriamo!
L’estremo accento sarà ch’io t’amo.
Ma tu morendo, non m’abborrire,
Pria di morire, perdona a me!

The intensity of Thomas’ rendition of this particular moment was raw, desperate and heartwarming, changing forever the way I think about Pollione. When in the right hands, Bellini’s music really redeems him, too, at the end. When he comes around and recognizes again his love for Norma and they go hand in hand to their shared funeral pyre, they truly go down in a blaze of glory. It was all thanks to Thomas’s visceral embodiment of Pollione. He was just that moving.

Ite sul colle, o Druidi!
Photo credit: L.A. Opera
Oroveso was played by Bass Morris Robinson, a big man with a big thundering voice. I was particularly moved by his final duet with Norma when he switches from furious (she hid from him her relationship with the enemy not to mention her offspring) to moved (he’s a grandpa!).

Priestesses grace the stage.
Photo credit: L.A. Opera
When it comes to director Anne Bogart’s choices, however, I was not too impressed. The sets were dominated by a hilly hardwood floor, with a corporate-looking building on the right (symbolizing the Roman force of order and conquest) and a bunch of ill-arranged pieces of lumber vaguely recalling a forest of two-by-fours propping up the left wall (representing the fortress of the nature-loving Druids, I suppose, though looking more like an Ikea advertisement). In the middle there was a circular space used for the Casta Diva ritual and Norma’s family time with her kids. Nothing too exciting except for the use of lighting with the moon rising during the war chorus Guerra guerra! (chorus that, incidentally, lacked the necessary fire).

Costumes were uneven, with the two leading ladies wearing wonderful gowns with jeweled corsets but the rest of the Druids were really in rags. Also, why on earth Pollione was sporting a nineteenth-century military coat and his wingmen traditional Roman armor and red capes? Finally, quite some time was spent on choreographies by a group of lovely dancers, however the dance numbers did not really work with the rest of the staging, and looked more like an afterthought.

Invocation of the moon. Awaiting the war cry.
Photo credit: L.A. Opera
But, when the cast and the orchestra (lead by maestro James Colon) are so sensational, these production missteps are really minor flaws as they did not detract to an otherwise spectacular and all too rare performance of this Bellini masterpiece.

– Lui & Lei

Full moon on the rise.
Photo credit: L.A. Opera

* Too late, too late
I have known you –
Sublime woman, I lost you,
With my remorse Love is reborn,
A madder, more desperate love.
Let us die together, yes, let us die:
My last word will be that I love you.
But you, in dying, must not hate me.
Before you die, forgive me.  

Monday, December 7, 2015

Viennese Operetta Gets Some New York Glitter

Die Fledermaus
Johann Strauss, Jr.
Metropolitan Opera
December 4, 2015

Die Fledermaus is nothing but festive fun.
Photo credit: Ken Howard / Met
Lui: That holiday feeling is now officially upon us. There is nothing that says seasonal cheer like Die Fledermaus. Bursting with catchy waltzes and bubbling over with champagne, Johann Strauss, Jr.’s scintillating operetta really can’t help but put you in a good mood. The air is redolent with the sweet festive fragrance of schnapps. I never thought I would be as fond of this crowd-pleaser as I immediately became upon our first encounter

Prince Orlofsky cordially invites.
Photo credit; Metropolitan Opera
Lei: Last year we fell in love with this Viennese operetta when we saw it performed by indie company NY Opera Exchange, that opted for a hybrid approach of having the dialogues translated in English and leaving all songs in the original German. I thought that was the perfect balance of respecting the musicality of the original and making the dialogue-dense operetta more approachable. And so, softening up my purism about respecting the original, I got to the Met’s production with a relatively open mind, notwithstanding the fact that critics pretty much crucified the show when it opened back in 2013.

Time keeps ticking, ticking away.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lui: Having heard such dismissive remarks about the English adaptation of the original German libretto, especially when it comes to the extended dialogue passages, I was ready to be irked. But instead many of the jokes were actually funny and the lighthearted laughter was infectious. Truly contagious. Only a few of the comedic interludes drug on a bit too long. But even then, just when you thought it had gone on too long, a zinger of a line grabbed you and you’re back into it. Laughing and letting go.

Dressed for jail, Eisenstein bids his wife farewell.
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Lei: The revised libretto was modernized and Americanized, with puns galore (“Breakfast Epiphanies”) and some truly hilarious lines. Think of Alfred the tenor who, when accused of doing only “Second rate productions of third rate operas,” retorts: “But hey I just got booked for a Death of Klinghoffer in Kuala Lumpur.” A particularly laden joke, since the lead here sung in the Met’s controversial revival not too awfully long ago. Or else, when the jailer Frosch, looking into the first rows of the orchestra, says, “You know what’s it like to work for a living. [beat.] no actually maybe you down here don’t. But you up there.” Gesturing to the peanut gallery. Yes, none of that was in the original German libretto by Carl Haffner and Richard Genee but boy I laughed hard, probably way more than if I had to listen to German recitatif and read a translation on the little screen. 

Frosch cracking eggs like jokes.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
When it came to the lyrics though, the English translations just did not work for me. Sung English is just not as musical and does not work as well with the score as the original. Also, the translation was often choppy in an effort to force the rhyme and resulted in a way less fluid result than if it had been sung in German. While it is true that operettas are closer to musicals than grand opera, Jeremy Sams’ production turned Die Fledermaus into something that sounded way too much like a Broadway musical for my operatic taste.

The dashing Prince Orlofsky.
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Lui: The cast was top notch. During the last run, I remember reading that the role of Count Orlofsky was sung initially by a countertenor which apparently added to the irksomeness of the English bastardization. This time mezzo soprano Susan Graham sang the role and she was much more palatable displaying not only great vocal power but also incredible acting chops. Pretty amazing to see her shift from the tragic role of the lesbian countess in Berg’s Lulu a few weeks ago to the extravagant Russian royal with such comedic ease

The Bat drinks to the sweet taste of his revenge.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot was a jovial Dr. Falke, aka Die Fledermaus, and displayed his usual charismatic stage presence and strong vocal expressivity. Tenor Toby Spence as Eisenstein moved well on stage and shined vocally, particularly in his duets and trios with other characters. Actor Christopher Fitzgerald was hilarious as Frosch the jailer. Even when you started to think he was taking it a little over the top for standard operatic taste especially at this venue, he went and turned things ridiculous and had you laughing. If you didn’t like tonight’s Frosch you have problems: living, laughing, letting go, loving.

Rosalinde carries the show.
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Lei: Soprano Susanna Phillips as Rosalinde carried the show. More than everybody else on stage she displayed terrific comic timing while also delivering some delicious musical numbers. Particularly memorable were her rendition of the “Hungarian Countess” aria and her many trios with other male characters. Soprano Mireille Asselin stepped in at the last minute as Adele, replacing Lucy Crowe and shining brightly in the show stopping arias of the coquettish maid turned actress. Dimitri Pittas as Alfred, Rosalinde’s ex-lover, was full voiced and hilariously ardent in the stereotype of the Italian tenor, sadly the revisions to the libretto took out most of his cameos of blockbuster Italian arias (which I find super funny in the original ‘Maus).

New York gets a little dose of Viennese glitz.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lui: Jeremy Sams production with sets and costumes designed by Robert Jones is both simple and opulently elegant all the same time. Like few recent productions at the Met, this one really seems to have struck the right balance. Its minimalism is used to create maximalist effects. Certain aspects are all effervescent glitz and fin de siècle glamour, like the elaborate gold leaf inverted dome at Prince Orlofsky’s ballroom and the Eisenstein’s abode, others, like the jail and the make-shift promenade-the-garden space, duly set the scene with just a few scenographic brush strokes. An excellent model on which to build. The orchestra under James Levine waltzed through Strauss’s ear candy score with grace and poise. So many catchy tunes. So many greatest hits.

The Vienna of Klimt looms large over the Eisenstein abode.
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Lei: All in all a night of great fun at the opera. A tad on the musical-theater end of the spectrum but the score is so pleasant, the production so spectacular, the cast so hilarious and the dancing so delicious that I could not help but give in, enjoy the fun, dance in my seat and hum Die Fledermaus’ tunes on my way home.

- Lui & Lei

Alfred puts the moves on his old flame.
Photo credit: Marty Sohl

Ida shines in the spotlight.
Photo credit: Ken Howard

Rosalinde on the verge of renewing her vows.
Photo credit: Ken Howard

A troupe of Hungarian dancers completes Rosie's farce.
Photo credit: Ken Howard

Saturday, December 5, 2015

William Kentridge Takes New York

William Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour
Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)
October 23, 2015

Alban Berg’s Lulu
Metropolitan Opera
November 14, 2015

The professor is in. William Kentridge holds forth in Refuse the Hour
Photo Credit: BAM
William Kentridge is not only a monster of energy; he is an inexhaustible fount of ideas. Refuse the Hour, his experimental opera for spoken voice that was featured in this year’s Next Wave Festival at BAM, is so bursting with ideas that it was almost difficult to keep up with its highly conceptual barrage of visual inventiveness and playful intelligence. The dynamic production starred the artist himself reading a text that at times waxed poetic, at others told a story, other times preached, others still lectured, and featured dancers, singers, actors, mimes, an unconventionally orchestrated live band as well as a number of other Duchamp-inspired contraptions, including an automaton mechanized percussion section that dangled decoratively from the ceiling. Not to mention the ever-changing projections that were full of familiar Kentridge touches. 

Language and its vicissitudes take center stage.
Photo Credit: BAM
Onto three proscenium-sized screens were projected a visual collage of video, drawings, charcoal sketches and animations. The projections employed his signature charcoal sketches and animations predominantly drawn onto pages from a dictionary. And here the dictionary trope was very tightly thematically linked to the work as a whole. Many of the vignettes were about language. One particularly memorable vignette dramatized the concept of entropy through the enact of speech acts falling apart, disintegrating over time and then slowly recomposing themselves through the thought experiment of reversing time.

Lulu living in a supersaturated world.
Photo Credit: Ken Howard / Met
Kentridge does something similar in his production of Alban Berg’s Lulu, which debuted at the Metropolitan Opera this fall. Dressing her in a boxy canvas-white smock, she is quite literally a canvas onto which the men around her can project their desires for a good portion of the show. Like the words in the dictionary pages or in the entropy vignette in Refuse the Hour, her beauty is deconstructed, broken down into its constituent parts, quite literally represented by abstractions of her body parts. Only this time rather than playing exclusively with language, Kentridge takes up the challenging musical landscape that Lulu inhabits and seems to in part recast elements of her feminine charms into the symbols of musical notation. For example, the breast that she wears pinned onto his canvas-like smock like a tail pinned onto a donkey at a child’s birthday party is quite simply an inverted fermata sign borrowed from the musical lexicon.

Lulu deconstructed.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
And of course, Berg’s score is notoriously challenging, for the orchestra and singers as well as for the audience. There is nothing straightforward about the singspiel-esque vibe of the whole piece. Unlike Wozzeck, which eschews the limitations of his mentor Schoenberg’s twelve-tone compositional technique, Lulu is Berg’s great dodecaphonic masterpiece. The development of each of its characters as well as the sequence in which they appear and disappear in the score is all determined by charts organized around a predetermined sequence of twelve tones. Where Berg deconstructs his characters musically, Kentridge deconstructs them visually though the signs and symbols of the music, at least in certain details, like the abstraction of his heroine’s body parts.

Lulu's charms are irresistible.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
After seeing her in other video recordings of the opera, Marlis Petersen is on the top of her game as Lulu. In fact, I can hardly picture her being played by any of the other world class sopranos that I know. Petersen just has all the right moves. Her stage presence is magnetic, she embodies the innate Germanness of the character, she is playful, youthful, sexy, strong and yet vulnerable, out of control and riding the wave, controlling and yet acting impetuously, nonchalant and uncaring yet needy, desperate for affirmation, attention, affection, appreciation. However, I also can't help but thinking at almost every minute she is on stage that her talent isn't being somehow also at the same time wasted. She sang such a transcendent Susanna in last year’s gala production of Le nozze di Figaro that it seems like a shame not to have her embodying musically richer tapestries of sounds rather than all this cacophony.

Like a blank canvas, she's everything you want her to be.
Photo credit: Metropolitan Opera
Who is this Lulu? She is a broken girl. Only on the verge of womanhood. She is an object of desire. She is a blank canvas onto which men of all ages, walks of life, shapes, and sizes project their fantasies. She is a commodity. At one point, she is even traded like a stock on the stock market. Shares of an entity or publicly traded company called Jungenfrau (literally Youngwoman in English) are booming in the beginning of Act III, though the Kentridge production never plays it up the way other productions do. (Since she isn’t even on stage during the buying and selling of this hot property, the link between the shares and the physical person of Lulu is only left abstract.) She is a seductress and a murderess and a lover and a muse and an infatuation and a sex kitten. But is she really a femme fatale? Not particularly. When she finds herself making fatal decisions she hardly does so maliciously of her own volition.

Dr. Schön gets worked up.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Everything falls apart for her after she loses/murders the only man whom she really loves. Does that make it some kind of cautionary tale? Violence is not the solution. Like everything else she does she seems to pull the trigger even innocently. Not aware of the consequences of such a decisive decision. The same seems to happen with the way she toys with all the men in her life. Sex is virtually meaningless to her. But she thrives on all the attention and affection she gets from them, as though she is still an unformed person, not sure of herself, incapable of loving herself first. Towards the end Schilogen says that she is trying to make a living through love, but love is her life. Just minutes later, however, we see her desperately groping for sustained attention from a father looking or at least a man old enough to be her father. "Will you come back to see me again," she says in desperation. Without Dr. Schön she is truly missing the only father figure, lover, partner, spouse she ever really had. He was her everything. There was hardly a role he didn’t play for her. Since she never had anyone else to fill those roles, without him she is truly an empty vessel – the famous blank canvas onto which men project their desires freely. Lulu herself also demands to be painted on and projected upon. She can be anything they want because she is nothing without their desires.

An assassin is born.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
At the same time however Lulu is equally incapable of returning the affection of those who really do love her. The rejected lesbian countess then ponders suicide. She is in the throes of the disease she contracted on Lulu’s behalf and is hurt that Lulu won't ever love her back. “Her heart is cold as ice,” she says but in a hopeful turn abandons the plan to take her own life and instead resolves to make one last attempt, one last plea at her heart.

Lulu with her precious portraits.
Photo credit: Ken Howard 
In a stroke of signature Kentridge genius, after Jack the Ripper stabs both Lulu and the Countess he frantically searches for a rag to wipe the blood off his blade. When he finds nothing better, he picks up one of Lulu’s portraits and wipes her blood off on it like nothing more than a mere rag. This is the fate of all commodities in this consumerist world. Art like stocks like all human capital can be worth millions one moment, reduced to scrap paper the next.

And so perhaps it's a parable about the commodification of art in the first half of the twentieth century – an opera about commodification of women who is a musical abstraction in her own right, set to the music of atonality, which was conceived as a reaction to the traditional bourgeois commodification of music. Remember the opera opens with a circus master hawking admission to his spectacle starring a woman whom he has configured as the most horrific of serpents, a sight you just can't take your eyes off, a veritable box of Pandora.

Sad but true and Lulu amounts to little more than this: a beautiful flash in the pan, a scrap of paper to be taken up and then discarded.

And the world rages on.

– Lui & Lei