Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Cleopatra Crashes Havisham's Would-Be Wedding

A Double Bill of Monodramas:
Argento’s Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night
Berlioz’s La mort de Cléopâtre
On Site Opera
The Harmonie Club
September 30, 2016

A bold pairing: Aurelia and Cleopatra
Photo credit: On Site Opera
It was a misty evening. The street glistened and traffic was backed up down Fifth Avenue under an incessant drizzle. When we arrived at the historic Harmonie Club on East 60th Street, I half expected Dorothy Parker to greet us, or Eleanor Roosevelt to take my coat. We were ushered through the elegant lobby and up to the second floor ballroom, where the ceiling was all rosette studded wood inlay and the chandeliers exuded the old New York refinement of another era. We were showed to our table that was set in grand fashion for a multicourse dinner service. It was as though we stumbled into a proper wedding reception. Though at the same time, something wasn’t right: cobwebs covered the wedding cake, the mantle pieces on either end of the salon were caked in dust, and the floral centerpieces on each of the tables were beautifully arranged but all the flowers were withering (artfully) away. Waiters came around with red and white wine and the feeling of excitement was palpable. It was after all Miss Havisham’s much anticipated wedding night (with a nod to Dickens).

A haunting stage is set and you're in it
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
First up, Berlioz’s La mort de Cléopâtre – an intense soliloquy in music. I came in wondering how they might carry it off in a space like this. The score takes us on the whirlwind of emotions that buffets the great fallen queen during her final moments of life.

Gaissert goes Cleopatra á la Alma-Tadema
Photo credit: On Site Opera
In the role of Cleopatra, mezzo Blythe Gaissert moved violently yet gracefully about the room as if possessed. She embodied Berlioz’s heroine with fervor. It’s such a moving piece especially when in the middle passages the cellos kick in and send the emotions into the lower more guttural range of the mezzo’s voice – deep and sad and chesty. It tore at my heart. There were at least three moments in the twenty or so minute long piece in which I found myself on the verge of tears, if only the tempo allowed me the catharsis. Instead the piece pushes on and we move into the next movement of the emotional rollercoaster that is Cleopatra’s demise. So moving, so beautiful.

Who got the snakes out?
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
We were privy to Cleopatra’s in extremis breakdown. And she sang it as if we weren’t there. Amazing. And if the moment before the suicide was not dramatic enough, Ms. Gaissert pulled out a real snake! The live-reptile move definitely helped shake up anybody in the audience who may have drifted off and served to refocus their attention on Cleopatra’s every syllable (and gesture, god forbid she lose her grip on the snake). The scene played out like an Alma-Tadema painting. It had me tingling all over. And left me wanting more.

Gaissert showed us her stuff. She sounded deep and powerful, like a woman who is used to being in control. And she moved about the room with self-assurance and pride, but on the verge of annihilation. It was frenzied, yet totally called for. 

Berlioz’s setting of this text was composed in 1829 for a competition during his apprenticeship, when he was up and coming in the music world. I have always found it dramatically satisfying. I was curious to see how they might adapt it not to a recital or a proscenium but to a site-specific ballroom space. It was intriguing. Though we were all seated in a wedding dinner fashion, it was as though we were silently eavesdropping on her. Very dramatic. 

Here comes the bride
Photo credit: On Site Opera
While I wasn’t worried about the musical qualities of the Berlioz, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the second piece on the bill, this more recent and completely unknown work by Dominick Argento, Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night. On my way there under the rain, I had prepared to brace myself for anything, but after Cléopâtre my guard was down and I was open to whatever might come.

Madness sets in
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
And come she did. Miss Havisham burst into ballroom where we were all seated for her cake and champagne reception, though she was more of a nervous wreck than her predecessor. She scurried around the room, like Cleopatra, as though we weren’t there – skittish, delusional and disturbed. Soprano Leah Partridge sounded great, with very dynamic, at times almost syncopated singing.  And even looked the part, as she vaguely resembled her Helen Bonham-Carter incarnation from the famous movie based on the same Dickens novel with a slight Julianne Moore thing going on there too. She was striking both as an actress and vocally. Her instrument was happily strident to match the shrill madness of the character but also full and expressive, pliant and versatile so as to better flesh out the many twists and turns poor Miss Havisham undergoes over the course of reliving her wedding night meltdown (presumably years after the fact).

A love lost but not forgotten
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Argento’s score was surprisingly pleasant from start to finish, all while rendering musically the character's violent mood swings. Thank God he didn’t feel the need to go over the top in terms of the setting of the human voice against the orchestration just for the sake of being weird. Instead I feel like he adhered much more closely the mode that I came to appreciate in David Lang’s recent visionary operatic character study. Thanks to The Loser I came to think of Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night as more of a dramatic monologue – this after all is the story of one of literature’s real losers, in a manner of speaking. The orchestration helped the soprano to achieve a sort of soliloquy that was expressive of a range of emotions that ran the gamut from delusion to anticipation and then from despair to the return of hope and back again. Though the overall takeaway was schizophrenic, the music remained contained and took her state of mind seriously throughout. Argento's approach was compassionate and humanistic and so ultimately even more tragic which is the nature of the poor Miss Havisham character in the novel, a woman who still nevertheless commands our sympathies despite her overarching eccentricities. It is a very subtle setting on the part of the composer, which was very tightly and tactfully interpreted by the orchestra under the baton of Geoffrey McDonald.

A lavish affair
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Both singers were of the utmost refinement, not to mention impeccably made up and dressed, and the space was truly next level. Eric Einhorn's direction was solid and made a good use of the space. In a stroke of genius, towards the end of Miss Havisham's delirious performance, he had Cleopatra come back in and have tea with the the crazy bride, almost as if the Egyptian queen was one of the many hallucinations of a disturbed mind. The ballroom of the Harmonie Club was decorated to perfection and the wood paneling provided great acoustics, too. And the lighting, oh, the lighting was phenomenal. It subtly shifted as the piece slowly shifted tones from desperation to the return of hope and back again. The shadows they cast as a result were strikingly suggestive. It was haunting yet grandiose, beautiful and unsettling all at once. On Site Opera spared no expense on this one and every detail was meticulously executed and visually stunning. Even the program was cleverly conceived of as that of Aurelia Havisham’s wedding to one Matthew Compeyson. This ranked up there with the most successful of On Site's efforts. The whole package was just of such extraordinary and extravagant polish that it was clear that this company has money (and from time to time knows how to use it). The wilted centerpieces, silk lace tablecloths and four glasses per guest alone must have not been cheap, not to mention insurance for that live snake! The attention to detail in creating such an immersive parallel universe is definitely praiseworthy, especially when all other key aspects of the production are equally solid. 

Set dressings caked in cobwebs
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Of everything we’ve seen from them this ranks right up there with the Paisiello they did at the Fabbri Mansion last year, only in that case there were even more moving parts. But like tonight there they also stuck to the exotic European language of the original, which is an absolute must. I only wish they would take a hint from successes like these and give us Mozart’s La finta giardiniera, which they announced for the spring, in the original rather than another bastardized English translation. The public is not that dumb, there is no need for English adaptations! Please give us La finta giardiniera in the original! Nevertheless, the company’s first-ever original commission will be a community-oriented piece that is to be performed in the dinosaur wing of the Natural History Museum. Not to be missed!

Lui & Lei

Monday, October 3, 2016

Guilt, Alienation and Other Wagnerian Disorders

Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde
Opening Night Gala
Metropolitan Opera
September 26, 2016

An Isolde for our times
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lei: As for every yearly outing to the Met opening gala, I strutted to the Met all dressed up, but unlike other years, my sense of anticipation was somewhat tamed. More than excited, I was bracing myself for five hours of Wagner. Talk about a sparkly beginning to a new season! Still, I’m for trying everything once, Wagnerian operas included, so here we go.

Lui: In the category of best-dressed female attire at the Metropolitan Opera gala, it was a rather lackluster soiree (present company excluded). As far as I could tell the men took the evening. I saw a number of fabulous, colorful tuxedo jackets that ultimately outshined the feminine fashion on display – and one of said tuxes was even paired with a big blue feather fan.... I mean, really, where have all the ball gowns and tiaras gone? Please, please come back to me.

Metropolitan Opera in grand fashion
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lei: Seriously, when at a gala the gentlemen sport more eccentric attire than the ladies something’s wrong. But back to Wagner: from the very start of the overture we knew we were in for something very dark and stormy. We were presented with projections, as though through a periscope, of a modern-day tempest-tossed ship at sea. Through the arc of the opera things do not getting any lighter: we are brought into the ship (in a claustrophobic, dollhouse-like Act I); to the deck of the ship and an adjacent shipyard storehouse (at night, in Act II); and finally to a dark medical room, with occasional trippy excursions into Tristan’s gloomy hallucinatory neuroses that include a burned-out childhood home and a profoundly guilty conscience (in Act III).

The somber alienation of modern love
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lui: Mariusz Trelinski’s was a very somber, dark, shadowy production, with tones that felt film noir-y. I would place it temporally some time in the late twentieth century, given a fixation on a series of modern technologies like some kind of sonar radar, without a bleep anywhere to be found on the event horizon. In act III the stage featured vital life signs monitors and a huge projected electronic grid. Definitely not the latest technology, not contemporary world stuff, but close. These seemed to represent all the rational systems of weights and measures modern scientific thought attempts to impose on reality – the very reality that our two love-drugged protagonists want nothing more than to escape.

The stairwell in the dollhouse set
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lei: The director definitely added a whole layer of Tristan’s tormented psyche by using recurring projections of a little boy suffering trauma (parents’ death caused in his mind by a fire he was somehow responsible for) and a recurring figure of a man in a white uniform (representing possibly the consoling surrogate father figure of King Marke that will also be a cause of grief since Tristan is in the thick of “stealing” the unsuspecting king’s bride-to-be Isolde). While the projections were a bit distracting, they did have their sense in terms of giving us the director’s take on what’s wrong with Tristan. A massive guilt trip makes sense as a force pushing him to just get away from reality and take his lady Isolde with him. Her character is a little bit more linear, even though one would wonder why any woman in her right mind would fall for a tortured suicidal mopey guy as Tristan, love potion or no love potion.  

Lui: By Act II it becomes clear that it the story of a couple under the impression that the world is will and idea until the world reveals itself to operate on its own rules. And so they opt for complete retreat into the only world that is the true embodiment of will by the ultimate act of will. So these two lovers desire nothing more than infinite night, which seems to be more than a mere death impulse. Love pushed them to the brink not only of life but also of consciousness. Tristan goes beyond any simple desire for death or suicide as in Act III he goes on a voyage into his soul, an inner personal exploration of his mind and his past into what it seems to mean to possess a self. Which leads me to believe that Wagner (and this director in turn) mean to suggest that there may be more to the mysteries of existence than this life lived in the moment under the sun’s shimmering light of day has in store.

The eclipse of sun and moon
Photo credit: Met Opera
Lei: That’s all very deep and soul-searching, but Isolde and Tristan showed very little physical chemistry in this production. Sure, their singing was sublime and their duets at times truly wonderful. But their acting did not mirror either the absolute love or the all-consuming, irresistible passion that the music and the libretto denote. Stemme and Skelton looked like they were on an awkward first date at best, but definitely not as if they couldn’t live without each other. When in Act II they are surprised by the King’s men, there is nothing scandalous or outrageous about their being together. From the libretto it sounds like they were found half naked with their limbs intertwined but here they were just hanging out in a hangar full of toxic waste barrels – oh yeah, Tristan emphatically took his tie off and Isolde got rid of her coat, whoooa, sexy times!

All hands on deck: Romance on the bridge
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lui: It seems to be suggested that they engage in some kind of intimacy when the translucent scrim comes down at the end of Act II, Scene I, but the seduction of Wagner’s music is so hampered by this bit of stagecraft that all of his hard-core Dionysian sensibilities are completely muted. The nookie nookie on the ship’s deck behind the projections of the sun eclipsed by the moon was potent symbolism, but it took the audience away from the moment. What’s with this prudery? They want to blot out the light of the dutiful sun with the indulgence that the dark side of the moon promises, but the magic of what makes Wagner great is gone. The composer opens up this Venusberg-style space for us in his music and demands our indulgence in it; especially considering absolutely excessive decadent length he forces us to endure of it. They just did it better in the chthonian 1970s and early 1980s productions, which are much closer to the spirit and the music if you ask me. In Trelinski’s take the lovers seemed alienated not only from the world but also from themselves and each other. Maybe this is a sign of the times: the Wagnerian condition of alienation is also a uniquely modern one.

Lei: On top of the total lack of sexual tension, costumes by Marek Adamski were particularly ugly and uninspired. The production is already dark and stark with not much to watch. It lasts forever. Why not give the poor public something to engage the eye a bit more? I get the modern vibe, but still. All men were in either military uniforms or indistinct workmen, sailor-like garb. Isolde wore shapeless PJs in Act I, and an ill-fitting double-breasted trench coat in Acts II and III. Granted, in the so-called outbursts of passion, the ugly coat was taken off to reveal a plain unflattering velvet gown. And she wore combat boots with it. I get the Birgit Nilsson line that the secret weapon for a Wagnerian soprano is to wear comfortable shoes but still… At least Isolde had a luminous bright blonde wig – the only ray of sunshine in the whole stark thing.

Hot and steamy? Amidst the toxic waste
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lui: It was heartening to hear some of the New York audience boo the production. But it was pretty clear that the ones in our section were just the old stick-in-the-mud purists. I’m not sure that type of operagoer is willing to do the heavy lifting it takes to decode this kind of experimentation, with the emphasis on “willing.” We’re not Wagner types and so it is already an imposition to get us to sit through five hours of his work. So it’s all heavy lifting for us. A little less, a little more when it comes to trying to wrap your mind around the mental masturbations of the director never did me any harm.

Lei: It is a majestic opera and easily my favorite Wagner outing to date (Die Meistersinger and Tannhäuser being the first two). I’m starting to see how Wagner imbues his plots with less emotion and more cerebral concerns. There is very little in the way of viscerality but he sure knows how to explore an idea or two through music. I can see why he blew the minds of so many poets and artists. You sit and trip out on his slow but steady jaunts through a big cosmic theme. These operas are anything but action packed, but the intellectual punch they pack is considerable.

Lui: Which is why I’m surprised that so many Wagner diehards are offended when a director rises to the challenge of raising Wagner’s game with an honest new setting of his pieces. Wagnerian operas are ripe for it and beg for further intellectualizing elaborations in their settings. This composer adds layers of metaphor and philosophical reverie to his core narrative material and then dramatizes not the action but the abstraction he has imposed onto it. And then we all sit through it, with only a portion of the superhuman endurance it demands of its orchestra and singers.

Eros and Thanatos with Isolde in the hospital ward
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lei: The singers all sounded great and they all carried out their Herculean tasks admirably. Nina Stemme is undeniably a little powerhouse, a force to be reckoned with from beginning to end, sounded particularly lovely in her duets with Tristan and her final Liebestod was pretty spectacular in its exalted lyricism. Tenor Stuart Skelton had many wonderful moments, especially when he threw his little conniption fits. Bass Rene Pape is always good, and as King Marke here he was guttural, stern but round sounding, human but commanding.

Wagnerian love, a modern condition
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lui: My only wish every time I see Wagner is that there isn’t more sheer pleasure taken in the singing as an aesthetic end in itself. Rather than poetry he is a prose composer. What he demands of his singers is sizable force and endurance rather than lustrous beauty and finesse. Although these operas seem to consist of a lot of yelling in German over a lot of music, I nevertheless come away feeling that most of that music was ineffably gorgeous and abundantly pleasurable, despite the fact that I never come away humming any of the tunes themselves. Tonight’s musical takeaway though was the Tristan chord and several of the other stock phrases or mottoes that very unambiguously punctuate this piece. It is said that the music was born first, and then the words, which I can believe since the musical ideas really guide you through the plot far more than the words or even the story.

Lei: Based on a superficial exposure to no more than three or four different recordings of this opera, Sir Simon Rattle seemed to favor a rather languid, or dreamy take on the score. His tempos often felt slowed down, drawn out, as though to match the pacing of the orchestra to the oneiric vision of the stage direction and seamless flow of the set transitions from one convoluted early scene to the next. The transitions during the long semi-conscious death sequence in Act III were also sufficiently dreamy. Everybody involved had us all hanging on the cusp of consciousness.

Betrayal of the "father" by the son
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lui: Wagner is definitely not in a hurry to get anywhere. And so why should we be? If there is one thing he is good at it is dilation and delay. Or as Rossini said in a letter to Emile Naumann in 1867: “Monsieur Wagner a de beaux moments, mais de mauvais quarts d’heure.” In Tristan und Isolde by the end he truly makes his points effectively, but by no means economically. Our Monsieur is long-winded but breathtakingly beautiful, I’ll give him that. He takes a very long time to make his points. All the better if a director gives us a little something to work with while we get there.

Lei: After seeing Tristan und Isolde I do finally get Wagner’s lure. I am not a convert by any stretch but I see how it could be someone’s piece of cake. There’s something about these waves of beautiful complex intense music that wash over you and carry you places for several hours. The sung-through business though leaves me more lukewarm, it’s definitely a challenge for singers and impressive to hear and does have some peak moments. But also so much space-filling fluff in which characters go on and on elaborating on themes and ideas. Wagner’s work is so wordy and cerebral. I prefer concise, to-the-point visceral passion, less words but more effective and memorable ones. But that is the bel canto lover in me speaking.

Wagner goes noir
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lui: This was more satisfying by far than last year’s Otello though. Despite its liberties, I left feeling exalted and stimulated by such an intense evening at the Met. Wagner may be a bit wordy in his orchestrations and overly verbose in his libretti, but tonight came off like a tightly clenched fist. A city like New York deserves its edgy fresh takes on the classics, if nothing else then to prove the value of the traditionalists’ approach. A healthy balance of this slightly more intellectually challenging fare plays well against big period pieces in tights and powdered wigs, cuirasses and broadswords does the city and most of all the art form a world of good.

Lei: Fair enough – now that I checked the Tristan box, it’s time for some real pleasure: I am definitely extremely excited to get my Rossini fix with Italiana in Algeri and Guillaume Tell this month!

– Lei & Lui
Of alienation and modern love
Photo credit: Ken Howard