Friday, January 27, 2017

A Benchwarmer’s Barber

Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia
Metropolitan Opera
January 21, 2017

The Barber forever lurks in the Rossini repertory
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
In terms of expanding our Rossini horizons, this last year or so in opera has been a boon. Bare Opera brought us one of his earliest youthful works, La cambiale di matrimonio. The Met simultaneously presented his first big breakout success, L’italiana in Algeri, and his final masterwork, Guillaume Tell. Bel Canto at Caramoor bestowed Aureliano in Palmira upon us over the summer. La gazza ladra landed alongside the lake at Glimmerglass; and a most memorable Turco in Italia at Juilliard not too awfully long ago. Opera Philadelphia has Tancredi in store for us next month. After lavishing its racy take on Le Comte Ory on us last June, LoftOpera is about to tackle Otello, another masterful rarity.

So much of Rossini’s back catalog has been ransacked of late that the uber-canonical joys of Il barbiere di Siviglia begins to feel less like the monolithic central altarpiece in the temple of bel canto worship and more like a quaint relic, easily overlooked, far from the main stage languishing as a sideshow somewhere. However, when the likes of Peter Mattei is slated to sing it… now that’s an opportunity that’s hard to pass up. What else are we going to hear the golden-tones of the great Peter Mattei in this year at the Met if not this?

Mattei's absence unsettles us in our seats
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Promptly taking our seats well in advance of the curtain, we were flummoxed to find that Peter Mattei had taken ill. What a bummer that little slip of paper in the program was! Our spirits sunk so low that we almost gathered our things and hit the road. But yet, something kept us there. We made a pact to sit through the first act and give the benchwarmers a chance. We vowed to decide whether to stay for the rest or not at intermission. So we settled back in. And, boy, are we glad we did.

Figaro's mobile bottega arrives bearing a surprise
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
The biggest disappointment of the evening turned into one of the greatest surprises. The sun began to shine again through our clouds of doom and gloom from the moment Edward Parks, Mattei’s substitute, was wheeled out on the roof of Figaro’s mobile bottega by his bevy of damigelle. To say Parks came out strong in his opening number, Largo al factotum, is an understatement. His round manly sound, reminiscent not of Mattei but of a more virile Erwin Schrott, instantly redeemed the evening. 

Edward Parks covers for Mattei
Parks has a handsome instrument and great stage presence. He is naturally playful and hunky. In fact he would make a perfect Don Giovanni. He’s more brutal in his attack on the notes than Mattei. He’s not as lyrical as the man we came to see and doesn’t savor the words in Mattei’s inimitable way, but it is, nevertheless, great to see a benchwarmer rise to the occasion and shine like this, considering the shoes he had to fill. Parks isn’t your average panchinaro. He is obviously a formidable talent in his own right. That’s why it’s always worth giving the back up a day in court. You never know what’s in store.

Soprano Pretty Yende is lighter and flightier than your typical Rosina. She has a way of eating up her musical line with killer agility and piercingly beautiful high notes. She expanded famous numbers like Io sono docile in her own unique virtuosic way, imbuing her tempos with more space and lengthening the time between her notes. It’s a treat to get a singer who really relishes the opportunities afforded by Rossini’s bel canto compositional style. Making the part her own, slowing certain passages down, taking extra rubato high notes, dishing out moments of pure vocal genius. She is one of the great singers at the Met at the moment. And tonight she was on fire.

Pretty Yende owned the orchestra as Rosina
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Dottor Bartolo was replaced with panache by Maurizio Muraro. His booming bass-baritone resounded through the Met with forceful self-assurance. But he is old hat in this role at the Met, so we were less worried about his ability to so fully channel, body and soul, the spirit of the dirty old tutor. As ever, Muraro was a pleasure to watch in this role.

Often sung by an older mezzo, Karolina Pilou played a youthful Berta and really showed off her acting chops. She was always in character. I kept my eye on her through my binoculars every time she was on stage. She filled the space with her big voice, which is naturally graced with fluidity and agility. She also made her vocal presence forcefully felt in the ensembles, in which she really delivered.

Muraro is Bartolo, body and soul
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
The tenor, however, was the weak link. Dmitry Korchak came out a bit cold and only finally warmed up in the second half of the first act. He just wasn’t bright or sparkly or bubbly enough for this kind of repertoire, particularly if you’re sad to have missed a Camarena night of the run. He’s not unpleasant but he’s not exciting enough, which is what this kind of Rossini demands of its singers, at the intersection of bel canto and opera buffa.

Though we had both seen this production numerous times in the past, it was a pleasure to revisit it. It is full of clever touches from the ballet of doors to the giant anvil that drops in the Act I finale as the sextet drones on about an incudine sonora. Bartlett Sher’s direction is clear, imaginative, faithful to the mood of the piece and fluid.

When done right like this with great singers Rossini’s Barbiere is a sparkling opera. The kind of night out that leaves you feeling refreshed with your spirits lifted. And the score achieved its maximal frizzante flair under the baton of Maurizio Benini. The Met orchestra sounded tight, popping out Rossini’s staccato rhythms, classical guitar, harpsichord and all, and yet remained flexible enough to allow a stellar diva like Pretty Yende to spread her wings and take her own sweet time, from time to time. Despite the sorry absence of our much beloved Mattei, what’s not to love!

Lui & Lei

The wool goes over the eyes of the unsuspecting victim
Photo credit: Marty Sohl

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Love Is Elsewhere

Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin
Metropolitan Opera
December 17, 2016

Love is elsewhere, until it isn't.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
From the very beginning, with its in medias res amorphous opening, the uncanny score of Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin throws you into a dream-like universe. Lush and atmospheric, the Finnish composer’s music suspends the listener over an indistinct watery expanse. Eschewing an overture or prelude of any kind, the first bars conjure a brine-laden formless and foggy seascape that only slowly comes into focus the way distance lies out over the ocean.

Susanna Mälkki conducted an exceedingly smooth reading of this uncanny score with the utmost polish. Interestingly, in recordings with other conductors the same score seems more flush with jolting surprises from jarring horns and more pronounced cacophony from the percussion. The mood created by Ms. Mälkki was more suggestive, more oneiric. It came off to my ear more of a dreamy Debussy dream (à la Pelleas et Melisande), with some of the quirkier Messiaen eccentricities that punctuate its aural landscape toned down and mellowed out.

Bands of light imitate the sea.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Director Robert Lepage’s luminous production provided a fitting counterpoint to the mellifluous score. Lepage and his team focused on the ineluctable and seemingly insuperable obstacles that separate us from one another in any relationship; the daunting gulf that so often divides two people and impedes connection. The staging at the Met was dominated by some two-dozen bands of light that represented the central figure of the sea in the story over which he suspended a mobile crane that could become a stairway with a platform on either end. The effect of the bands of light was hypnotic, particularly when they were made to fluctuate, rise and fall, imitating at one point the movements of a gentle yet unsettling storm at sea. But like many of this visionary director’s productions this one was kind of a one trick pony, which in this case was not entirely off base. It matched the spectral, minimalist nature of the music, and it heightened the dreaminess of certain moments in the story, especially when Rudel dreams and the idealized object of his affections (played by a dancer) materializes over the bands of light, diving through the waves in a dolphin-like fashion.

Also effective was the way the chorus was deployed. Strategically placed beneath the “water” toward the back of the stage, where they could only just barely be seen allowed them to lend their voices to the majestic and almost mystical heightening of the singers’ voices throughout the opera. It created a haunting and often imperceptible embellishment of the sound of the individual singers and an almost spiritual elevation of the emotions. Less compelling was the peek-a-boo choreographies they were made to do, poking their heads up over the “surface” of the water in certain nightmarish moments.

The chorus makes its presence known.
Photo credit: Sarah Krulwich
Based on a very brief romanticized account of the life of the Provençal troubadour Jaufré Rudel, the plot of L’Amour de Loin can be summarized as follows: a prince is bored with his womanizing life and decides to devote his energies to love more deeply; a pilgrim passing by tells him about this incredibly beautiful woman who lives across the sea in enemy territory; prince gets very excited about the idea and starts singing lovely poetry about the woman as the perfect idea of love; pilgrim tells the woman about all the fuss she’s created overseas and she’s not sure how to take it; prince decides to make the trip across the sea to finally meet the object of his desire but when he gets there he dies from the hardships of sea travel; woman finally sees the love and gets all combative about the whole ordeal.

A lyric lady of love breaks through to the other side.
Photo credit: Met Opera
This is an opera composed by a woman about a man looking at a woman who in turn finally gets her voice in the act of looking back at that man. Despite the seemingly traditional underpinnings of the romantic story itself, the triangulation of these various gazes, nevertheless, packs a radical punch.

Scores of lyric ladies have appeared over the millennia in the amorous and elegiac poetic tradition from Catullus, Propertius and Ovid to the troubadours, Dante and the centuries of Petrarchists who continue to write right down to our own time. In the history of this patriarchal literary trope, rarely are the female objects of these poets’ affections ever afforded the agency of speaking for themselves, seldom are they granted a voice of their own.

If you read the libretto divorced of the score and its staging, you come away with the impression that Clémence is quick to respond to her suitor’s advances in kind. But the way the end of both Act II and Act III were staged by LePage show that something slightly deeper may going on here.

Clémence steps down from her pedestal.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
The most powerful of these moments occurs at the end of Act III. Throwing a mini-conniption fit, Clémence steps down off the pedestal, on which even the director has placed her, thus breaking the illusion of the show, and stands between two of the bands of light, in the middle of the “water,” as though the make-believe were over and it was no longer “water.” She is indeed brazenly standing up and making herself heard as a living woman and not an idealization. She defiantly no longer wants to play the game of representation and fantasy anymore. If she has a say in the matter, she isn’t going to allow herself to be loved in an idealistic way by someone who has never even met her. In this take, Clémence transcends her status as passive object of desire. For a fleeting moment in the story, she’s not going to humor a distant love like this. She is a human being just like he is and thus wants a love that is human.

In the role of the lover from afar, Jaufré Rudel, was bass-baritone, Eric Owens, from whose booming imperious voice I expected more. He left me feeling a little lukewarm. Other singers that I have heard in this role have imbued the character with a slightly more irascible, angrier reaching quality that makes the desire of the poor bereft troubadour soar a little more. Owens sounded more resigned in the chesty depths of his longing, coming across as a lover who is more languidly lethargic than energetic in his desire.

The messenger scene.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Beset not only by the obstacle of the sea, the two lovers in this opera, which is set in the eleventh century against the backdrop of a holy war, are positioned on opposite sides of enemy lines. The figure of the Pilgrim, here sung by mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, is deployed as a conduit for the lyricism of the troubadour to pass from one character to the next. The flights of poetic inspiration with which the opera opens belong to Jaufré. He sends his lyrical spirit along via the Pilgrim who has been charged with the task of embodying those inspired verses for his beloved which then in turn inspire her to embark on flights of lyric fancy of her own.

Like Sancho Panza in an analogous messenger scene in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the Pilgrim rather humorously forgets most of the content of the poetic missive from Jaufré to Clémence. He manages to transmit nothing more than the gist of the message after garbling the end of the song he was sent to sing on behalf of his master. It is a light-hearted moment in an otherwise rather stolid evening at the opera. Fortunately Mumford didn’t ham it up but rather she played the humor with subtlety and tact. She pushed the ethereal sound of her instrument throughout. And equally used her mezzo to soar on amorous pinions in ways that Eric Owens’ instrument simply did not, at least the evening that we heard him. Interestingly, the Pilgrim’s arias are the only portions of the opera that sound like they belong to the era the plot is set in, with a style reminiscent of medieval madrigals.

Don't shoot the messenger
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Soprano Susanna Phillips, in the role of Clémence, was simply stunning. She embodied the tricky tempos and other idiosyncrasies of the score beautifully and she nailed all the soaring high notes that gave angelic wings to her unattainable beauty. Phillips made the show, as both the empowered woman with a say in things and the impressionable young pushover that this character’s duality encompasses. Because, of course, by the end she does indeed eventually embody the cardinal virtue suggested by her symbolic name.

The poet sets out to cross the sea.
Photo credit: Sarah Krulwich
Once Jaufré musters the wherewithal to cross the sea, the journey takes its toll on him. He arrives only to collapse at the feet of his beloved and rather anticlimactically dies in her arms. There is nothing particularly moving about this sudden and almost mechanical turn of events. Instead, the climax is saved for Clémence’s response to what she is forced to endure. Seeing that God has struck down a man so good and so sincere in his love, she lashes out in frustration at the injustice underlying God’s moral universe.

The lovers briefly meet across the chasm.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
The outcome of this brief but profound long-distance romance leads her to take up another call to arms. This time Clémence turns to another “lover,” one who rather ambiguously is either God himself or the deified spirit of her lost lover. To remedy one distant love she turns to another even more impossibly distant love. Depending on how you take this spiritual turn in the story, the end of the opera either undermines or reinforces the notion that there is something about true love is always only ever elsewhere.

And this is where L’Amour de Loin, while it may be set in the middle ages, is the product of a more modern and intellectual, almost aseptic, sensibility. This is not an opera that unleashes emotions or visceral reactions of any sort. The dramatic tension is somehow there, yet it does not explode in any traditional way. There is a lot of exploration of ideas about love, but the story as told by the music never gets to your heart.

– Lui & Lei

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Patriotism Goes Biblical at the Met

Verdi’s Nabucco
Metropolitan Opera
December 16, 2016

Grand opera at the Met.
Photo credit: MetOpera
The revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Verdi’s Nabucco brought us pleasurably back to grand, grand opera at the Met. For works like this one, where the historical context plays such a central role in the plot, sticking to traditional sets (especially those as spectacular as the Met’s here) is a necessary choice. I’m all for modernizing and streamlining productions, but for certain operas, dazzling historical pomp is just what it takes. Once we saw a minimalist Aida with an alien-futuristic take by Fura dels Baus and it was beyond grotesque. But back to Nabucco: not only did this production that debuted in 2001 prove itself a timeless classic with stunning temples and gorgeous costumes but we were also lucky to assist a remarkable star-studded cast bring the whole thing to life with none other than the inimitable James Levine at the helm.

Abigail moves in for the kill.
Photo credit: MetOpera
Mezzo Jamie Barton played Fenena, Nabucco’s daughter. I always jump at the opportunity to her her sing especially since I was completely blown away by her Adalgisa in Norma last year in Los Angeles. But after hearing Barton in Nabucco it became clear to me that Bellini’s writing for Adalgisa just suits her voice in a whole other way. Here it was like listening to another artist, a perfectly fine singer, just not as transfixing. The same goes for tenor Russell Thomas as Ismaele, nephew of the King of Jerusalem. We were bowled over by him in that same L.A. Norma. Here he was good, just not as extraordinary as when we first got to know him. True that both Fenena and Ismaele are not as meaty when compared to other roles in Nabucco.

Soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska as Abigaille, Nabucco’s eldest daughter who discovers she’s of slave descent, was a force of nature to be reckoned with. Her sound is incredibly powerful though her Italian was often a bit muddled. From the beginning, however, she came across musically and theatrically as a woman on a mission, a power hungry animal in pursuit, a rebel with a cause.

Bass Sava Vemić as the high priest of Baal, an evil character pushing Abigaille to power, was making his Met debut. We first encountered this young singer in a Roberto Devereux where he played the most minor role but was the best and most powerful singer on stage after Mariella Devia. It was great to see him again. He sounded good but not quite as forceful as we remember him that late winter day. His voice came across a bit too young for the role, perhaps he still needs to figure out the Met’s acoustic. On the other hand, baritone Dmitry Belosselskiy as Zaccaria, high priest of the Hebrews, was a discovery, which is a testament to just how solid this cast was overall.

Tenor turned baritone steals the show.
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
Which brings us to the highlight of the night. The legendary Placido Domingo was strikingly expressive as Nabucco. I’m not sure that what we heard was necessarily a baritone, but he sounded full and raw, and played the emotional core of the opera like an open wound. Still going strong at his age, Domingo exceeded my expectations on every level. While some say that Placido should just stop pretending to be a baritone, after hearing him here, I cannot but disagree with them since, at least here, in a way, his lyrical expressivity as a life-long tenor translated very well into the baritonal role. No other singer on stage conveyed character as effectively as Domingo. He portrayed the journey of the hubristic king who falls into madness only to subsequently convert and become an enlightened ruler with a heart-wrenching humanity that found me tears more than once over the course of the evening.

Father-daughter dynamics turned on its head.
Photo credit: Marty Sohl
At the center of Nabucco is a father-daughter drama, around which revolves a series of satellite dilemmas that help to motivate and shape things the larger story of the captive Hebrew population and their desire for freedom. This is one of those rare operas in which the role of the villain is played not by an alpha male of one kind or another, but rather by a jealous, vindictive, power hungry woman. Who said that the history of opera was only populated by stories of men doing awful things to women?

And it all comes to a head in Act III. The individual threads come colliding together when Nabucco, the now disenfranchised father descends into his deepest darkest cave. Having lost his throne and his position as the patriarch of his people, he makes an incredibly moving reflective prayer-like plea. Having hit rock bottom, he touches a kind of madness that I can only liken to that of Shakespeare’s King Lear who suffers a similar fate at the hands of two of his daughters. Then of course, all of this is followed by Verdi’s big show-stopping patriotic choral interlude Va’ pensiero. Beautifully executed, it is staged in a golden halo of transcendent light that is as uplifting and gilded as the melody the terrific Met chorus gently sings. It is truly gorgeous stuff and perhaps the most stunning ode to nationalistic longing in the history of opera.

Biblical patriotism comes suffused in a warm halo of light.
Photo credit: MetOpera
In just the past few months we have encountered several of the most important and moving patriotic bits in the nineteenth-century Italian canon. Last October two of Rossini’s political hymns graced the stage in the same week in both L’italiana in Algeri (Isabella’s aria Pensa alla patria) and Guillaume Tell (the final chorus À nos accents religieux). In Macbeth, which LoftOpera so brilliantly brought to us in December, we got to hear Verdi’s breathtaking moment of collectively displaced reverie in Patria oppressa.

It has been a season rife with Risorgimento undertones, as all the great classics in the nationalist songbook were here. With the election cycle rattling away through it all in the background like an obnoxious New York radiator in the dead of winter, it has somehow felt fitting. If only today we were so lucky as to be blessed with a populism that sounded so melodious.

– Lui & Lei
The great king crumbles, moves us to tears.
Photo credit: MetOpera