Friday, February 20, 2015

NYC Indie Opera Wintry Mix

Baby, it’s cold out there – thankfully these brave NYC indie opera companies offer plenty of shows to keep us warm and entertained over the next month:

One can never go wrong with Wolfie and the newly formed Opera Cooperative (“opera by the artists”) opens its first season with a Così Fan Tutte. In case one needed extra incentive, “cabaret table” tickets are available, with a bottle of wine included in the admission…February 17-28 at Park Avenue United Methodist Church, 106 East 86th Street. 

Photo Credit: Opera Cooperative
We were impressed by NY Opera Exchange’s Die Fledermaus earlier this year and look forward to seeing how they tackle Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Seriously, who does not want to get some bel canto and a murderous bride delivering one of the most famous crazy scenes in opera? February 27-28 and March 1 at Church of the Covenant, 310 East 42 Street.

Photo Credit: NY Opera Exchange
Image Credit: Pastore Vito
For a lighter hearted Donizetti, Opera Company of Brooklyn offers a BYOB Don Pasquale, performed in a private apartment in Inwood (“exact address is given after tickets are purchased”). The whole affair feels very much like a secret musical salon, we’re intrigued. March 7 somewhere in Inwood.

Image Credit: Regina Opera
We are fans of the work of Regina Opera since discovering them with an indie Rigoletto last summer, be sure to check out their Barbiere di Siviglia. Trust us, this company’s work is worth the trip to Sunset Park. March 7-8 and 14-15 at the OLPH Catholic Academy of Brooklyn, 902 Sixth Avenue (between 59th and 60th Streets).

Image Credit: Heartbeat Opera
Heartbeat Opera (co-founded by the super talented director Louisa Proske) is offering an interesting double bill festival. First goes Kurtag’s Kafka Fragments, a 1985-6 opus where a mezzo soprano and a violin explore forty “fleeting moments” based on Kafka’s letters to Milena Jesenska, ranging from ironic observations to philosophical musings, to fantastical visions. Followed by the New York premiere of Offenbach’s operetta Daphnis & Chloé, a raunchy story of two innocent country youths who are initiated into the art of love by the lecherous God Pan and a horde of rowdy Bacchantes. March 18-22 at Sheen Center Blackbox, 18 Bleecker Street.

- Lui & Lei

Sunday, February 1, 2015

From Darkness to Light and Back

Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta & Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle
Metropolitan Opera
January 29, 2015

Opening night (after snow delay)

After surviving a false alarm of a snowstorm and dodging a handful of anti-Putin protesters picketing the Lincoln Square, we made it to the Met for the opening of a double bill of two dreamy one act operas in two unique new productions at the Met.

Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta

Iolanta: Eyes are only for crying
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
The story of a blind woman who has never been informed of her condition. This is Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. She has been kept in isolation by her dominating father and has lived her whole life up to now thinking that we have eyes only for crying. When an unsuspecting stranger stumbles upon her home in the forest and he spills the beans about the beauty of sight, she is overcome by shock. It is a woman’s journey from darkness into light, with extremely poetic passages, such as the need to know what to desire before being ready to receive it, as well as love’s transformative force and a lot of nice stuff about the wonders of nature made even more wonderful by the force of light. We are repeatedly reminded that light was God’s first creation, and so religious symbolism is also very present, though I wonder if it is significant that the doctor who performs the miracle of restoring Iolanta’s sight is a Muslim gentleman. The opera is a cosmopolitan affair, set in France, sung in Russian, and featuring a Moroccan doctor who invokes Allah, go figure.

Seeing the light with her heart
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
The cast was pretty solid across the board. Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as the evening’s prince charming Vaudémont was strong and expressive, though his higher register is not the most soaring. Yet I generally prefer Beczala’s Russian performances (think last year’s Onegin) to his Italian roles (think Alfredo or the Duke), where his articulation does not always feel so natural. Russian baritone Aleksei Markov, as his friend Duke Robert, who is betrothed to Iolanta but in love with the sultry Mathilde, was the best male singer on stage. We discovered him as Germont in La Traviata last week and were really impressed by his instrument. Here his role was much more relaxed and carefree and his acting fit right in with his joyful, ardent singing as someone who is young and in love. And of course Anna Netrebko starred as Iolanta. She embodied the heroine with a remarkable innocence with her chesty voice that really flows with an effortless fluidity in Russian. It was impressive to see her succeed in this frail, tender, pure role after her uber-evil, unbridled force of nature performance as LadyMacbeth earlier this season. While the Russian soprano was vocally superb, particularly in her soaring duet with Vaudémont on the beauties of nature and light, I could not help but thinking that her voice is a touch too womanly for such a child-like character. Bass Alexei Tanovitski as the intransigent King Rene and baritone Elchin Azizov as the Moroccan doctor Ibn-Hakia were both solid grounding forces of the opera, though not particularly impressive.

The skiers arrive
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
In Tchaikovsky’s hands (and under Valery Gergiev’s baton), sung Russian is phenomenally beautiful, melodic and smooth. And considering its late romantic date (it debuted in 1892), the composer still gave us a number of moving melodic numbers, including several dramatic arias and a couple of memorable duets with tunes that really stick in your head. So much of it is really very dreamy and poetic, to the point of being a bit soporific as it plods along at a somnolent clip, despite the action packed second part of the short opera. In many ways, it reminded me of the dreaminess and symbolism of Debussy’s impressionistic masterpiece, Pelleas et Mellisande.

Trelinski's idea of paradise
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
The Mariusz Trelinski’s production was a bit disjointed, in the sense that it seemed to be set in a desolate wasteland of a space in the mountains or in the woods with uprooted trees strewn about around Iolanta’s little boxy wall-less house. So the general vibe was a stark kind of sadness, yet characters entered the scene remarking what a paradise the place is. I didn’t get it. It just didn’t work. Also, what was Prince Charming doing in that get up? Beczala shows up in leg warmers and a Uniqlo ultra-lightweight futuristic ski jacket and he just didn’t seem to fit in the otherwise 1930s mountain cabin setting. Not only that but he comes toting merrily a pair of skis, even though there isn’t a lick of snow anywhere to be found. He seems to have stepped not only out of the future (a future with high-tech affordable Japanese apparel) but also out of a different season. His winter to her spring. Finally, when Iolanta is cured and happily marries, the director’s idea of a visually exuberant and joyful ending is having uprooted trees get grounded and a massive chorus of waiters pop out. Maybe I don’t get Eastern European modern sensibilities, but that really did not work as a grand finale.
Iolanta's apotheosis
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
I understand that there is some kind of profound spiritual symbolism underlying Iolanta’s trajectory from darkness and spiritual insight into the light, no matter how disappointingly stark reality is once you can actually lay your eyes on it, but I just don’t see the full extent of these concepts very compellingly played out in this particular staging of it. Maybe it’s true what Anna Netrebko says about the opera in the liner notes to her recent recording of Iolanta for Deutsche Grammophon, namely, that it is not actually necessary to stage it. The beauty comes through in just a concert performance. The music says it all. Seeing with the heart, or, in the audience’s case, with the ears, is more transformative than seeing with the eyes, especially when what we have to look at is some half-baked trendy staging. A good production should heighten the sense of the libretto and the score, it should guide the audience to a deeper understanding of the subtleties and the storyline, highlight the ideas, elevate the emotions. When a production muddles the sense it can be most distracting.

Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle

Judith steps into darkness
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
Bluebeard’s Castle could also be considered a story about a woman overcome with the desire to see, the desire to know everything about her lover whom she follows obsessively into his scary castle, abandoning all light and hope behind her, almost in a Dantesque Inferno-entering manner. Through the dark woods she traipses. Judith’s journey from light and freedom into darkness and captivity is perfectly opposite Iolanta’s, neatly justifying the Met’s choice to present these two works together.

Bluebeard's enthralling power
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
German soprano Nadja Michael was stunning as Judith. She had dynamic stage presence, was very agile (not surprisingly since she was once a competitive swimmer), and managed to bring this character to life largely through her tormented and slightly possessed acting chops. Nadja Michael didn’t always have music to sing through which to express her character. Because the score is so relatively spare, she had to rely on her physical presence on the stage to tell the story. Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko as Bluebeard himself was strong too. While we first discovered him as Galitsky in Prince Igor last season, here he looked and sounded like a completely different (and much better) singer: darker, thicker, manlier and definitely scarier.  Bartók’s score does not necessarily give either of Judith or Bluebeard a lot to work with in terms of emotional vocal palette, however, they created the unsettling atmosphere of the piece in a way that I found riveting.

The journey through the castle begins
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met

Welcome to my torture chamber
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
The production was very unusual. Mariusz Trelinski and his design team went for a horror film look that incorporates projections and electronic interludes that felt a little uneven but made for a very unique evening at the Met. A welcome change of pace. Though here too what was staged was often at odds with what is being stated or sung or declaimed in scary voices on and off stage, I found this take much more captivating than this same director’s approach in Iolanta. Bartók’s score lends itself to the creepy and campy and horror of Trelinski’s imaginative, often surreal staging. It had a very cinematographic feel, opening with a car approaching in the distance and stopping at the edge of a forest at the very back of the stage. A tall blonde woman, wearing a glamorous aquamarine silk backless evening gown, steps out of the car and follows a moody, dark-haired mystery man, wearing a tux with an undone necktie. They get through a dark, garage-like entrance, with glass walls dripping with rain (the walls are crying), and from there the downward spiral journey begins. We follow Judith in her quest through Bluebeard’s castle, from an art deco elevator suspended on the side of the stage, to a butcher-like torture chamber, a dreamy bathtub (supposedly representing the treasury, go figure), a Hitchcockian dining room with blood stained flowers, soaring views of a woodsy kingdom, a claustrophobic room tiled like a crossword puzzle (a lake of tears?!?) and the final other-worldly scene in which Judith encounters her own burial in the third person and the spirits of Bluebeard’s ex-wives.
An homage to Hitchcock's Rebecca
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
The Lake of Tears
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
The seventh chamber
Photo credit: Marty Sohl / Met
The singers, especially Nadja Michael, really sold this surreal and scary take. She had me on the edge of my seat the whole time. She really got bodily into the role of the possessed wife who as it turns out seems already to have died around the time that she ended up at Bluebeard’s castle, where it was already her destiny to end up a prisoner with the rest of his corpse brides and ex wives. And so her morbid curiosity to dig deeper into her new husband’s pathological secrets after penetrating his blood stained torture chamber and corridors with walls that cry suddenly makes some kind of sense once we get to the end. Though the ultimate allegorical force of the whole thing is never really fleshed out or spelled out. Trelinski gives us an out of body experience in an almost Lynchian key, rather than a meditation on the horrors of Europe in the midst of the Great War, which is the key in which I have heard it read in the past. The continent had been through so much that no one any longer wanted to see. In Bartók’s piece, a woman’s morbid curiosity pushes past the point of widespread denial, in what was definitely the scariest and most unusual opera we’ve seen so far.

 - Lui & Lei

A Polarizing Traviata

Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata
Metropolitan Opera
January 24, 2015

Yoncheva triumphs as Violetta
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lei: We were not planning on seeing yet another Traviata this year, but when the Met announced that Sonya Yoncheva was replacing Marina Poplavskaya in the January run of the show, we immediately got tickets. This Bulgarian soprano was a great revelation last year, when she bewitched us as Gilda in Rigoletto (where, again, she was stepping in for Aleksandra Kruzak) and since then we’ve been looking forward to catching her again in action. Our high expectations were not disappointed. Yoncheva really stole the show and delivered a truly memorable Violetta, with fluid colorful singing and acting ranging from sensual to frail. I was excited to see her succeed like this and to hear that her next role at the Met will be as Desdemona in next season’s opening night Otello, a very well deserved step-up from her usual being called last minute to replace another soprano.

The soprano on top of her game
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lui: Yoncheva was lyrically forceful and effortlessly filled the Met, despite the fact that she just plain skipped one of the last coloratura phrases of the big act one aria, Sempre libera. Nevertheless, she had sass and was tragically playful in the role of Violetta. She added a touch that I’ve never seen any of the other singers do in this role and in this specific production: in act two Yoncheva mimicked Alfredo’s Io vivo quasi in ciel almost as if to show that deep down she is profoundly cynical. Her embrace of the folly of everything is consummate. We get a glimpse of the fact that Violetta is aware of her escapist behavior and that her choice to be with Alfredo for his exuberant boyish naive optimism is just more escapism. She actually sees through it all. Which to me is a persuasive reading of the story. It is an opera about death, yes, but it is also prominently features a character that represents the carefree party lifestyle always in search of the easy pleasures in life (Violetta and her mob of friends); and on the other hand a character who represents all the bright eyed, optimism that sees everything through the lenses of his flowery poetic language and rose colored glasses. It doesn’t take much to realize that Alfredo is not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed and it doesn’t make a lot of sense why Violetta runs off with him. Her meditations on this sudden rediscovery of love are enriched by the cynical take Yoncheva’s acting lent the character in Act II. After I first fell under the spell of her singing and stage presence as the demure and girlishly naive Gilda in last year’s revival of Rigoletto in Las Vegas, the fact that she so fully embodied the hardened cynicism of Violetta here is truly a testament to her versatility as an actress.

Violetta revels in the folly of everything
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lei: From the very moment that Russian baritone Aleksei Markov as Germont opened his mouth I was impressed. His is a very exciting voice: deep, effortless, Met-filling, with a smooth legato, expressively tender but also manly. Markov’s reminds me a bit of Hvrostovsky (though without the evil edge) and his vocal rendition of Germont was truly dominating. However, his acting was not very convincing, most of the time he just stood stiffly there moving his arms a bit for emphasis and pacing back and forth. Also, he seemed too young and hot for a Germont, the costume folks should have got him him a walking stick and greyed up his hair a bit as it just did not make much sense when he sings stuff like Oh, malcauto vegliardo. Though again, when singing is so good as Markov’s, everything else can be secondary.

Demuro has a moment
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lui: Francesco Demuro does not have the most handsome tenor voice and his performance as Alfredo was a bit uneven, oscillating between full heart-wrenching moments and getting drowned by orchestra and other singers. His Libiam nei lieti calici was weak and I was afraid we had stumbled upon yet another tenor who just is not up to snuff at the Met, which is disappointing because Demuro is Italian and I was really hoping for more. Then he stepped up and delivered an Un di felice eterea that really moved me, as he found the sweet spot on the stage and bolted out Alfredo’s signature naïveté with emotive expressivity. Demuro also did have good stage presence, not exactly charismatic or terribly exciting but definitely better than the average male tenor we usually get at the Met for this role.
The dumb show at Flora's party in Act II
Photo credit: Ken Howard 
Lei: I particularly enjoyed Marco Armiliato’s conducting as I felt that he chose to put the voices more front and center than usual. Maybe this was also thanks to the stark and minimalist sets by Wolfgang Gussmann that not only were (mostly) visually stunning but also did wonders for acoustics. The party scenes are the most effective in Willy Decker’s production, with crowds of black tuxedoed people sharply contrasting against the circular white backdrop as they gravitate around Violetta in her red dress, at times even lifting her on a read leather sofa. At the same time, however, this stunning visual effect is achieved by having all chorus members and party characters (including Flora) dressed and coiffed like men, regardless of their gender. For some reason I did not notice this the other times I’ve seen Decker’s production, I guess that the party scenes are so gorgeous that I just got carried away. While the voices are clearly male and female, I really had to squint through my opera glasses to figure out where the female voices were coming from. While I get Decker’s idea of a polarizing tension between a male dominated society and Violetta, it’s an interpretation that’s on the verge of being too far fetched.

A hairy-chested Violetta parodies the love affair
Photo credit: Tutti Magazine
Another unscripted twist was the whole part of Flora’s party in Act II where, during the gypsies/matadors singing and dancing, a balding, hairy-chested man wears Violetta’s red dress and mimics her entire acting routine of the Act I party. Again, while I get the point of showing that in Alfredo’s mind his love story at this stage seems a mockery, the whole lengthy sequence had nothing to do with what was being sung and at points even got a bit creepy.

Violetta dies alone
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lui: As much as Decker’s production is gorgeous and visually exciting in the party scenes, it is depressing and unengaging in Act III, where really the viewer is not given much to work with other than few darkly dressed characters moving slowly through the dimly lit white stage (with the exception of the quick party interlude). Sure, there is still the omnipresent black and white clock as memento mori but even that at some point is taken away. At the end of the day, however, Decker is definitely successful in making La Traviata’s finale as devastating as possible, enhancing the sense of emptiness and despair when Violetta dies alone (as opposed to the more traditional Alfredo’s arms) in the middle of the white empty stage, with the other characters looming insignificantly in the background, again polarizing the heroine versus everybody else.  

– Lei & Lui

Yoncheva moves us as Violetta
Photo credit: Javier del Real