Monday, August 31, 2015

Caesar's Clarion Call

VivaldiCatone in Utica
Libretto by Metastasio
August 1, 2015
Glimmerglass Festival

Caesar in love.
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
We were initially not so sure we wanted to hit the Glimmerglass Festival as the over four-hour drive upstate scared us a bit. But, three words won us over: Vivaldi and John Holiday. We can never get enough of Vivaldi’s operas, so rarely performed, and we were bewitched by the Operalia-winning countertenor when we discovered him at the Spoleto festival earlier this year. And so we rented a car, booked a B&B and embarked on the most wonderful weekend trip through pristine farmlands and charming lakes, all blissfully off the cell grid. I was surprised by how much the Glimmerglass Opera house perfectly blends with its surroundings, as it really looks like a big barn tucked away by a pond. There was nothing rural about the performance though, and we definitely did not regret the trip upstate to catch it.

Caesar shows us what he's made of.
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Though singing not the title role but that of an impetuous young Cesar in love, countertenor John Holiday dominated Vivaldi’s Catone in Utica. He had it all: control, power, musical ability, agile expressivity and a fullness of sound so rarely found in even the best of today’s countertenors. Holiday completely transcends questions of gender when he sings. You don’t think: “Ah, this is a man singing like a woman,” or “Why is Caesar being sung like an effete man?” Holiday is just so transfixing and almost superhuman that it only makes sense for someone with his voice to play the most powerful character of this opera. The angelic sound of his instrument and his virtuosic handling of it carries you away and leaves you wanting for more, without knowing exactly what hit you. Like never before by listening to Holiday I understood why castrati (the closest sound to today’s countertenors) were the rockstars of their time and why they got the best roles.

Catone maneuvers for relevance.
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
While Holiday’s Caesar stole the show, the evening’s tragic trajectory belonged to Cato, at least on paper. However, the particular setting of the opera performed here with its highly abbreviated first act, the original of which is not extant, actually configures the story in large part around the betrothal and courtship of the hand of Marzia, Catone’s beautiful daughter. Her father has in mind a politically expedient union with Arbace, chief of the North African Numidian tribe that has sided with him in his treacherous affront to Caesar’s rise. But, ironically enough, Marzia is already in love with none other than her father’s sworn enemy, the great Julius Caesar himself.

Arbace's marriage of political expediency.
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Vivaldi’s Catone is the perfect example of the baroque propensity for casting countertenors as young men in love. Both Arbace and Caesar are the two contenders for the hand of the lovely Marzia, despite the waning political influence of her father. The central love triangle of the story is crisscrossed by another pair of lovers – Fulvio, Ceasar’s lieutenant, falls for Pompey’s widow, the stunning and vengeful Emilia (here played by the excellent mezzo Sarah Mesko). Then of course, there is the overarching plotline of the political intrigue between the stoic Cato (the last stubborn bulwark of the republic) and the rising emperor.

Early in Act I we get parallel peacocking seduction arias. Arbace, sung by countertenor Eric Jurenas, is the first to woo his “betrothed.” He pushes himself on his reluctant prey as he sings S’andrà senza pastore. The Numidian prince – whose Mad Max-inspired garb fits his desert lifestyle, it’s post-apocalyptic chic! – is a bit too overbearing and brusque with the object of his affections. Marzia shuns and spurns him and plays hard to get while he chases her around the stage like a wild animal on the hunt, or like a shepherd trying to catch a wayward member of his flock.

Arbace woos his reluctant betrothed.
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Caesar’s introductory aria, on the other hand, his parallel song of seduction, was genuinely moving. In Se mai senti spirarti sul volto lieve, he busts out with some major male grandstanding, which forces his beloved Marzia to admire him in all his splendor, rather than force himself on her. She comes to him and he doesn’t have to make the effort to even so much as lean in toward her. In fact, in his vocal preening, posing and posturing, he is so taken with his own perfections that he almost seems to be more in love with himself than with her. And the aria in Holiday’s hands is mellifluous magic, pulling the attention of the house into his orbit, melting everyone around. She fawns over him and is just as taken as we are with his talents and gifts as a singer. This is what the power of song is about. Holiday shows us what a great operatic moment can do. The seduction of the music imbues the narrative with its Orphic power but yet also transcends the narrative. It is like coloring so vividly inside the lines that its force radiates out from it.

Caesar puts on his game face.
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
In a change of tone, Caesar’s second big aria, shortly thereafter, is precipitated after a confrontation with Catone who taunts him with threats of war. Guerra mi piace (“I like war”), says a headstrong Catone. E guerra avrai (“and war you’ll have”), retorts the emperor in his fury. A sudden flood of red light washed over the scene, intimating the bloodshed of war. Caesar is seeing blood and so are we. The quip provokes him to launch into his great yelps of war aria, Se in campo armato. He doesn’t sound girly or effeminate at all. Instead, he comes off counter-intuitively as powerful and manly. His voice has an agile power and a dynamic expressivity. Pacing the stage slowly and deliberately, Holiday seemed more regal than boyish. The full bodied way his voice dropped as he prepared each time to launch into his barrage of little yelps, as he moved from a chesty countertenor to his head voice, were unforgettable. They came off as little conniption fits that gave you whiplash of the ear. That night at Glimmerglass we heard the clarion call of Caesar’s imperial revolution.

Catone barks orders at his minions.
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
When we signed up for Vivaldi at Glimmerglass this is precisely the kind of musical experience we were looking for: fiery Venetian baroque operatic fireworks. The fact that the bill included John Holiday, one of the big winners at this year’s Operalia competition, was the icing on the cake. He and most of the rest of the cast that featured an exciting mix of young artists (mezzos Megan Samarin as Marzia and Allegra De Vita as Fulvio) and seasoned veterans (tenor Thomas Michael Allen in the title role and mezzo Sarah Mesko as Emilia) pushed Vivaldi’s vocal score to its expressive limit in many key moments. After Holiday, the most impressive singer on stage was Ms. Mesko, who attacked Emilia’s vengeful arias with a fury and passion worth of Vivaldi. 

Emilia and her game face.
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
I wish I could say the same for the orchestra. While the singers were fleshing out the ends of their lines with bright full colors and emitting fiery vocal effects into the intimate theater from the stage, there were fewer sparks to be heard from the orchestra pit. What I love about a good Vivaldi score are ferocious strings, especially the violins that demand to be passionately attacked with a Mediterranean animality. Here there were very few Vivaldi fiery Italian flourishes. The orchestra under Ryan Brown’s direction just didn’t seem to rise to the level of the singing. They were tight though slightly academic sounding, more restrained, and more English in disposition than uncontainably Southern European.

I found Tasewell Thompson’s production to be extremely effective in its sophisticated simplicity. The staging presented a brief introduction of each of the characters during the overture. The stage was visible through a translucent scrim and each of the singers in full classical garb strutted out onto the stage one at a time. Their character’s name and a brief description of what they represent was projected onto the scrim to ease us into this world. The costumes were grandiose. The setting was the North African desert in Numidia where Cato has fled. Over the course of the evening an ominous big full moon was alternatively projected on the backdrop along with a portentously setting sun. Gold-encrusted “Roman ruins” (or ruins of the declining Roman republic?) were strewn about in heaps around the stage. An arc du triomphe framed much of the action, as if to signify that the ineluctable march toward empire is under way.

A brighter day is promised in the imperial silhouette.
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Another brighter day is promised in the form of a series of incisive projections featured at the rear of John Conklin’s set design. Silhouettes of architectural elements appear against the solemn sunset of the backdrop: a Corinthian column, the outline of the Coliseum as it stands today. The gloaming of the dusky sky is offset by a brighter world. Ironically though, some of the silhouettes are rather ominous, portents of later decline, like the that of the Coliseum already in the ruins as it appears today, which I suppose is a proleptic fast forwarding to the eventual fall of Roman imperial glory altogether. Civilizations rise, and even the greatest fall. Here is the story of one man’s convictions and his attempt to get out of the way of the inexorable storm and surge of the locomotive of Caesar’s imperial project, to whose ineluctable rise even the senate back in Rome has already succumbed.

A daughter grieves.
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
And, of course, succumb even Cato does. I was eager to see how Vivaldi or at the very least how this production would treat Cato’s final definitive gesture. Attitudes toward tyranny are at stake in how Cato’s clinging to the moral high road is staged. His is the ultimate study in conviction. Thompson’s production again gives us an abbreviated finale. Foregoing the grand finale choral passage featured in at least one version of the score, Thompson leaves us with what is perhaps the most memorable image of the evening. The lights go up on the final scene to reveal a Cato slumped over in his throne with his back to the audience. His arms hang lifeless and red streamers run from his wrists like streams of crimson blood across the stage on either side. Rather than a final flourish of vocal fireworks, the orchestra gives us a majestic oboe solo that is both haunting and incredibly moving at the same time. Simply magnificent.

Lui & Lei

Marzia ponders her personal political predicament.
Photo credit: Karli Cadel

The Glimmerglass Opera House.
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco

A Monk, His King and Their Mistress

Gaetano Donizetti’s La Favorite
Bel Canto at Caramoor
July 11, 2015

The monk and the object of his affection.
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio
Bel Canto at Caramoor is truly one of the great operatic summer pleasures. We discovered this festival last year with an electrifying Lucrezia Borgia and have been huge fans since. Beyond the charm of the overall pre-show experience (picnic on the villa’s idyllic grounds, stimulating afternoon recitals by young artists, interesting topical talks), the quality of the evening’s pièce de résistance – the actual opera – is incredibly high across the board. Caramoor is all about the music. The orchestra and singers are so successful in creating a vivid bel canto world that one almost forgets that the opera is not staged. This summer was no exception with the rarely performed La Favorite, Donizetti’s take on Parisian “grand opera.” While this work fits the strict form requirements of this French genre (historical subject, grand scenes, ballet piece, showcase arias), it is also unmistakably Donizetti big dramatic bel canto. Beautiful singing is front and center here and the plot is full of juicy (and irreverent) twists and turns.

The young monks pines.
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio
Our romantic yet clueless hero is a monk who falls for a mysterious, angelically beautiful young lady. It turns out that the angelic lady is the king’s favorite mistress, who manages to keep this detail a secret from the pining monk and to pull some strings to make him a war hero dear to the king. The king meanwhile is sick of his wife and pressures the Pope to concede him a divorce so that he can marry his mistress. The Vatican responds with a big “no,” topped with a thundering curse on the adulteress mistress. At the same time, the king discovers that said mistress has betrayed him with the monk-turned-war-hero and takes his revenge by allowing the two to marry. Once the ex-monk learns that his angelic new wife is really a Vatican-cursed courtesan he loses it, dumps her, goes back to his monastery and retakes his vows. The ex-favorite mistress shows up at the monastery very sick and begs the monk to forgive her, he of course welcomes her back into his heart with open arms and reaffirms his ardent love for her, but it’s too late and she dies in his arms. All monks pray. Curtain.

The Vatican emissary holds forth.
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio
The various dramatic tensions here were masterfully delivered by a great cast. Argentine tenor Santiago Ballerini as the monk-in-love, Fernand, was the revelation of the night. This young singer (not yet thirty years old) embodied the romantic hero with soaring outbursts of pure ardent love, his singing was lyrical and fluid and displayed a sincere passionate beauty and agility that was utterly moving and exciting. In his first arias the power of his convictions to leave his calling at the monastery to pursue his feelings for the mysterious woman shined through brilliantly as his voice soared into the upper reaches of the tent at Caramoor and up into the night sky. He carried his chest with the haughty pride of someone with convictions, certain in his love, and made a convincing war hero too. Manly and agile. I definitely look forward to hearing more from him.

The favorite of king.
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio
The title role of La Favorite was successfully portrayed by French mezzo Clémentine Margaine. Hers is a complex and tormented character: she may initially come across as distant and double faced (all lovey dovey with the monk while sleeping with the king!) but when the drama explodes her emotional core comes out as she fights for one last glimpse of happiness with her loving monk. Ms. Margaine has a clear, clean-edged purity to her sound and was particularly convincing in the heart-wrenching finale and in her raging duets with the king, played by baritone Stephen Powell who exuded an arrogant, manly power.

Bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs as Balthazar (prior of Fernand’s monastery and Vatican emissary) delivered the night’s most chilling and terrifying highlight when he denounced the king’s adulteress and leveled a curse on her with all the wrath of the lord behind his booming voice – or is he really the devil? The ferocious intensity he unleashed against her was nothing short of diabolical and Mr. Mobbs was nothing short of memorable.

Maestro Crutchfield in action.
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio
Under the baton of maestro Will Crutchfield, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s gave an inspired performance. Particularly impressive was their rendition of the ballet music during which the first violin in particular was given ample room to shine. I don’t know what Crutchfield’s secret is, but he always manages to bring the best out of his performers. We’re definitely looking forward to whatever he has in store for next summer.  

Lei & Lui

Where all the magic happens.
Photo credit: Caramoor

Tenors Battle Over Desdemona

Otello, ossia il moro di Venezia
Gioachino Rossini
Libretto by Francesco Maria Berio di Salsa
July 7, 2015
Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy

Desdemona and the battling tenors
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Lui: Milan’s Teatro alla Scala commissioned Jürgen Flimm’s new production of Rossini’s Otello as part of the city’s many offerings to visitors in connection with the Expo 2015 world’s fair. Maybe not the most obvious choice as it’s all too easy to think that Rossini’s opere serie have been surpassed in one way or another despite the Renaissance of interest in Rossini buffo, but his Otello, nevertheless, has much to recommend it.

The victor returns.
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Lei: I was impressed by the complexity and sheer enjoyability of this Otello all while noting Rossini’s “recycling” habits: the overture here is almost identical to the one in Il Turco in Italia, and several arias (including showcase pieces such as Che ascolto? and Tra tante smanie e tante) are very similar to bits that he will go on to recycle in Cenerentola and La Donna del Lago – I may even be missing some additional references here as I am not familiar with the entire universe of Rossini’s myriad works. The composer popped out operas at a very fast pace, still I cannot help but smile at one famous Donizetti comment referring to his colleague as “awfully lazy.”

Why so much indecision?
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Lui: Rossini’s Otello differs from the more popular Shakespearean version of the story on many counts, the most relevant one being the more central role of the characters of Rodrigo and Desdemona’s father Elmiro. Here Otello’s jealousy is triggered by his belief that Desdemona is betraying him with Rodrigo, chosen by Elmiro as his daughter’s husband (unbeknownst to him, she already secretly married the Moorish general). Also, as in La Donna del Lago, Desdemona is the object of desire of three men (Otello, Rodrigo and Iago), which is a very welcome occasion for having a tenor bel canto feast. These details aside though, the main themes and dramatic impact of the work remain the same, particularly in the chilling finale with Desdemona’s murder and Otello’s desperate suicide after he is told that it was all Iago’s fault and Elmiro and Rodrigo would be happy if he married Desdemona.

Good night, my love.
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Lei: I was surprised by how radically different the three acts of the opera are, both dramatically and musically. I found Act I to be a bit flat as it set the stage for the different themes, with the action picking up collectively in Act II (Rodrigo’s pleading with Desdemona, her confession to already being wed to Otello, Iago’s scheming and the furious confrontation between Otello and Rodrigo). The drama explodes and peaks more intimately between Desdemona and Otello in Act III (her lyric despair, his murderous jealousy and ensuing desperate suicide).

Lui: The first act in particular feels perhaps the most methodical. Rossini’s treatment of the libretto feels at times formulaic in the dueling duets between the tenors, each taking turns repeating the same lines or slight variations thereof. But it turns out that this was all just exposition because in Act II the fireworks really begin, with the Otello-Iago duet, L’ira d’avverso fato (that by the way was picked up by Verdi in Rigoletto’s Vendetta), and the Otello-Rodrigo face off, Ah vieni, nel tuo sangue. The third act is indeed more subtle and focused on individual feelings and tensions between Otello and Desdemona.

The casualties are counted.
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Lei: There’s something quite irresistible about extraordinary tenors outsinging one another, when done right one simply cannot get enough of it – it’s exhilarating and addictive. Rossini knew that and used the dueling tenors trick in Otello and in later works as La Donna del Lago, Ermione and Armida. Interestingly, these Rossinian works marked the switch for male leading roles from the more sexually ambiguous castrato and contralto musico to tenors, made possible by the Compagnia del San Carlo in Naples available to Rossini at the time. These duets are truly a feast for the ears if great tenors are available, which seems to be one of the reasons why many of these serious operas are so rarely performed (when compared to the buffas). Otello calls for three challenging tenor roles (the title character, Rodrigo and Iago) and tonight we were lucky to have singers who were up to the task.

The tenors duke it out for Desdemona.
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
The world class cast was overall very strong, with exciting peaks. Juan Diego Florez as Rodrigo was his usual sensational self, delivering bright, exciting fireworks but also highly lyric and moving moments (Ah come mai non senti / pietà dei miei tormenti). His performance left me wanting for more, too bad that the Rodrigo role does not have more lines. Gregory Kunde’s Otello was impressive, particularly for a tenor in his sixties. His is a baritonal tenor, with a beautiful timbre, manly and agile. The duets between Florez and Kunde were among the most exciting operatic moments I’ve witnessed all year.

Iago spars with Rodrigo.
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Tenor Edgardo Rocha as Iago was pretty strong both vocally and as a stage presence, holding his ground next to Florez and Kunde. He was always convincingly evil to the core. Bass Roberto Tavaglini as Elmiro exhibited his powerful instrument that filled the space more than anybody else, with fluid phrasing and strong almost violent expressivity as Desdemona’s despotic father. Mezzo Annalisa Stoppa was also pretty impressive in the secondary role of Emilia, with a powerful and expressive instrument.

Soprano Olga Peretyatko as Desdemona had beautiful stage presence and displayed great acting chops. Vocally, she delivered a solid and accurate performance though not particularly exhilarating on the emotional level. Her articulation at times reminded me a lot of Netrebko’s dark chesty undertones, must be a Russian singer thing. Peretyatko carried the show as the emotional focus and core of all men involved, however, singing-wise the fellas were way more impressive, except maybe for her rendition of the Canzone del Salice (the famous Willow song) in Act III, when time stopped as Desdemona heart-wrenchingly sang from a gondola with the accompanying harpist slowly floating by in the background as though passing like two ships in the night on one of Venice’s many canals.

The ravishing Olga Peretyatko in her feathers.
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Lui: Upon our first intimate glimpse of Desdemona in Act I, she is seen on the beach brushing up on her Arabic and studying the teachings of an oversized copy of the Koran with her lady-in-waiting, Emilia. It is presented as the story of a double assimilation: Otello’s Venetian social integration and Desdemona’s religious and cultural conversion. Her intentions initially seem to be good; her convictions seem strong. But none of that seems to last very long, at least not in this singer’s take on it. She is suddenly blowing like one of Dante’s lustful souls in the wind of an infernal storm. Repentant over Rodrigo’s and her father’s every last whim when in the subsequent scene she falls into their ambush that is framed in this production as a covert wedding.

Flimm's stark Otello on the "shore."
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Lei: Jürgen Flimm’s production moves the action to the Lido, the Venetian seashore: the stage floor is surrounded by white curtains and covered in sand and rows of white Fermob chairs lined up or scattered around in different formations depending on the scene. The costumes were a hodgepodge of different eras: from nineteenth-century black and white formal wear with top hats, to black tunics with Elizabethan ruffled stiff collars and Renaissance-like armor making an appearance in the duel scenes.

Like a feather in a storm of men.
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Lui: Desdemona stood out among Elizabethan-looking ladies, as she was dressed in an elegant gown covered in feathers. I wondered about the symbolism of her pronounced costume. It seems that they derived her characterization from source material of the lines that are quoted in the libretto from Canto V of Dante’s Inferno: Nessun maggior dolore / che ricordarsi del tempo felice / nella miseria. And in fact like the shade of poor Francesca, this Desdemona is blown around from one man to the next between her father, Iago, Rodrigo and Otello. She is like a plaything tossed about in capriciously in the wind of these men’s whims. Which is perhaps what the loggionista was referring to when he called this Desdemona “scemaaaaa!” For a character that is usually perceived as innocent, pure and good to a fault, an interpretation that casts her as so fickle would seem to go against her most prominent traits. Her heart bleeds for everybody and she seems to go along with what every man expects of her. It’s no wonder that Otello might misinterpret her faithfulness. She is putty in everyone’s hands. To some extent the libretto leaves room for this interpretation (the famous Dante quote, her willingness to abide by the mistakes of her father, etc.). But it goes against the essence of Desdemona’s fundamental goodness. She does not come off as the portrait of consummate conviction that she usually is, but rather as a plaything of all the men. And the loggionisti in our section weren’t having it! “Listen to the score! Study the music!” they shouted.

Desdemona aflutter in the wind.
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Lei: Flimm’s production did not always make complete sense to me (why is he moving the finale to a futuristic looking take on NYC’s Park Avenue South with 1950s-looking billboards and characters sporting modern day clothes?) but all in all it was generally eye pleasing. At no point did it detract from the action and always allowed the drama to unfold powerfully, which is sufficient production-wise, particularly with such a great cast.

The harrowing tragedy of intolerance.
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Lui: For a Milan that was in the throes of an immigration crisis when we arrived just a few weeks earlier, Rossini’s Otello was a timely offering, not least of all considering its opening scene which has no analog in its Shakespearean source material. Namely the scene in which Otello asks for the reward of citizenship in exchange for his heroic deeds against the Turks on behalf of his adopted patria, Venice. Of course, the story that ensues is one of close-minded intolerance and the systematic rejection and exclusion of the newly named figlio d’Adria, which everyone knows ends in tragic hoodwinking and the deaths of the two most innocent and well-meaning characters in the whole story. What kind of message is La Scala sending here in presenting such a poignant tragedy of intolerance? Simultaneous to the gesture of acceptance from his adopted fatherland, Otello is at one and the same time rejected and excluded from the very community that has just accepted him. The conspiracy descends upon him from the highest echelon of the city, Desdemona’s father, and seconded by the slimy Iago, who here is given explicit motivation as one of Desdemona’s previously spurned lovers, and Rodrigo, here her father’s favorite suitor for the hand of his daughter.

Desdemona sings the Willow Song.
Photo credit: Matthias Baus
Lei: We had tickets in the nosebleed Galleria section and experienced first hand the ferocity of (some of) the Milanese public. Folks sitting next to us shouted furiously stuff like “Regista studia la musica!!,” or, “Questa Desdemona è scemaaa!!,” or else, “Il direttore è noioso!!,” to then launch themselves at intermission into animated soliloquies on how the opera should have been staged or sung, with an obsessive folly in their eyes that was highly entertaining to watch (if a bit scary). These people take opera not only seriously but also very personally. The booing is also a particularly La Scala phenomenon, unleashing hooligan-like shouting matches of boos and “bravi.” This time soprano Olga Peretyatko got a few boos (that only seemed to exacerbate the “brava” shouts from the majority of the public), while conductor Muhai Tang was not so lucky and was pretty much crucified by a vast portion of the audience shouting all sort of insults. The public was unanimous though in its uber-enthusiastic appreciation of tenors Juan Diego Florez and Gregory Kunde. No doubt opera still stirs wild passions (more or less justified) at La Scala, which is a great thing, still my heart goes out to all artists who dare perform in this theater.

– Lui & Lei