Saturday, February 24, 2007

Eugene Onegin in Portland


Eugene Onegin....Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Tatiana.................Renée Fleming
Lensky..................Ramón Vargas
Olga....................Elena Zaremba
Prince Gremin......Sergei Aleksashkin

Conductor...............Valery Gergiev
Production..............Robert Carsen

This is what opera is about. Those of us who go to opera whenever we can are waiting to see this: Eugene Onegin from the Metropolitan Opera with Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Onegin and Renée Fleming as Titania.

The reason everyone thinks Renée Fleming isn't doing any of her interpretive quirks in this opera is because this is the style her quirks are designed for. This is Renée Fleming at her very best. She also brought out the best in Dmitri, getting him fully engaged in the action. The opera was involving and heartrending.

Juan Vargas as Lensky and all the other singers were also very fine. And need I mention that Valery Gergiev was wonderful? It was the best that opera has to offer.

The production was a kind of compromise minimalism that worked for me. There were no real sets. In the scenes in the first act, through the scene where Onegin rejects Titania with an absurd arrogance, the set consists of some suggestions of trees, a trap door in the stage and piles of leaves. In the second half chairs suggested scenes.

This style of production focuses the attention on the actors. When they deliver, it works, and this time it was perfection. The costumes were period and very beautiful. Dmitri in particular looked gorgeous. He is such a beautiful man.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Mahagonny


Leocadia Begbick (head gangster):  Patti LuPone
Jenny (prostitute):  Audra McDonald
Jimmy McIntyre (lumberjack):  Anthony Dean Griffey

Kurt Weill is the European composer closest to American idiom, bringing us a European vision showing elements of jazz style. His orchestra emphasizes winds much like the orchestra for an American musical.

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny by Weill on words by Berthold Brecht is from 1931, before both Weill and Brecht were run out of Germany and before Weill's American period. It is intended to be an opera, an opera that parodies and subverts opera.

Here opera disintegrates into a series of short scenes made up of songs and fragments. It is true opera because any spoken dialog is accompanied by orchestra, often covering and obscuring the dialog. Surtitles showed the sung but not the spoken text which was generally completely not understandable.

The music is in a style that feels familiar and comfortable, not at all distancing like Berg, for instance. It could be ours.

Theatrically it is something else again. Clearly Brecht was alienated from life as he experienced it. Life is about eating, loving, fighting and drinking. Mahagonny is like San Francisco or Reno, a boom town for the newly rich. Except it's in Alabama, up river from Pensacola, I guess. The geography is a bit odd. All the women are prostitutes, and Jenny is the high priced one.

Brecht wants you to dislike everyone, to hate the life they create and presumably long for the glories of communism. Alienation is more than the outcome, it is the objective.

Does it work? And did it work here in the production by the LA Opera?

I kept mentally comparing it to Cabaret and wishing for a more intimate environment where the singers balanced better with the orchestra. Or [shudder] were miked.

Handel's integration of chorus into opera seria does not impede the development of the characters or the flow of the drama. The chorus in Mahagonny takes over and becomes an abstracting, annoying bitch. The characters never become human and apparently aren't intended to.

There is a court scene where Leocadia Begbick, the founding mother of Mahagonny, judges and sentences Jimmy, found guilty of a wide variety of crimes. The penalties are deliberately the opposite of any real value. Killing is considered a victimless crime since no one can come forward to complain. For that he gets a week. For touching Begbeck's pool cue without paying he gets the death penalty. Jimmy was sung very well by Anthony Dean Griffey.

"Moon of Alabama," sung fabulously by Audra McDonald in the role of Jenny, is as close as this work gets to a hit tune. It isn't close enough. Audra is a performer on an entirely other scale from ordinary mortals, transferring easily from Broadway into this much more operatic score and completely conquering it. Patti LuPone, in contrast, seemed a little out of her Fach singing Leocadia.

This is a work which could be written about for hours. It is full of attractive jazzy music and disgusting people and events. One character dies from overeating, one dies in a boxing match, one is executed for not paying his bar tab. It's hard to make into a clear message.

And the production didn't help at all. Everything was kept at a level of cold abstraction that completely dehumanized the entire work. Can this be what Brecht wanted? It was cold, cold to the point of shivering. I say bring them to life and let us be disgusted by their actions. Give us the chance to hate them instead of being merely indifferent.

Why hire Audra McDonald and turn her performance into an abstraction? I don't think Brecht was going for a mere polemic, a chorus of lecturing nags and people with no personalities. He would have wanted active hatred.

I am imagining a production for this. In my production it would begin exactly as this one did with a broken down truck and a bare stage. But instead of staying bare and drab, a city like Las Vegas would rise in the desert. Isn't Mahagonny Las Vegas, the sin capital? I want to see glitter and glamour rise in the desert. Instead the stage stays bare. A few signs are wheeled on and off. The message seems to be that sin is drab and unattractive.

I didn't buy it.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Blogging

This week I am in Los Angeles going to museums: LACMA, Getty, Huntington and Norton Simon. The last is the only one I haven't been to before, and it appears to be the best. The best pictures are those selected by Norton Simon himself. He had a special taste which is apparent in every painting. He likes bright, clear paintings in any period. There is too much Degas, but what can you do. I personally hate Degas, so I spend time looking for Degas paintings that don't look like Degas.

LACMA is a very nice museum. It was showing Magritte. At the Getty were icons from Sinai, including one from the sixth century.

Tomorrow we are going to the LA opera to see Mahagonny. That should be fun, but we haven't figured out how to get there yet.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Natalie

I am somewhere where I can see YouTube and am gorging myself on Natalie Dessay. There is a terrific selection.


Duet from Lakme. This film looks to be pirated from a live performance. The style is excellent.








Natalie Dessay and Laurent Naouri (her husband) perform "Il m'a Semble sur mon Epaule (The Fly Duet)" from Offenbach's Orphae aux Enfers. The guy is dressed like a fly, Natalie is not, and they appear to be making love.

I'm beginning to get the idea of Dessay. She has a marvelous presence in everything she does. At home I have her only in the Alceste with nude men where she is not very significant.

It is discouraging to read the comments. Perhaps I should stop doing it. Should I carp about the sound of her voice as they all do? Every singer in there gets dissed by someone. There's even a guy who says he likes the duet from Lakme performed by flutes. Spare me! I am watching Dessay to try to see what other people see in her. She is a complete performer, something that opera is getting to be about as we get further into the 21st century. Go with the flow.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Blogging

I am in Portland (don't ask) and bought a couple of opera quiz books at Powell's:

The Ultimate Opera Quiz Book by Kenn Harris, 1982
Father Lee's Opera Quiz Book by M. Owen Lee, 2000

These books are tough. My brain simply doesn't collect trivia, though I did guess a few of the photographs. I wish I had been at the La Boheme from whence came the photo of very young Pavarotti and Freni. Or perhaps I was and have forgotten. I know I saw quite a bit of Mirella Freni in San Francisco. I have no excuse for not guessing Jose Carreras.

Not trivia: Leontyne Price once related that, while browsing through Saks Fifth Avenue one wintry afternoon, a shopper walked up to her, stared and finally said, "You're Joan Sutherland." "Oh, no, I'm not," purred Miss Price. "I'm Beverly Sills."

Things you ought to know:

1. What was Wagner's first opera?
2. Name Wagner's first wife.
3. Name Wagner's second wife.

The second book is completely impossible.

Imagine the questions when the answers are:

Didone, by Cavalli
Turandot by Busoni
Zampa by Herold

Unfortunately there are no trivia questions about La Leggenda di Sakuntala. I would get that one.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

I Puritani revisited

I went to see the rebroadcast of I Puritani from the Metropolitan Opera last night, and it was just as wonderful the second time. The costumes are all wrong, but Anna's dresses are beautiful, and she is beautiful.

I noticed this time how the tenor got lost in the recitative in the first act and how the prompter shouted at him to get him back on. In the bows at the end of the act it was Anna who reached down and shook her hand. One knows it is a she from the shots from back stage.

Anna jumps up and down and acts the fool between acts. She is a joy. I found her singing all the more awesome the second time.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

L'Elisir d'Amore


I have finally gotten my hands on a copy of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore from the Wiener Staatsoper with Rolando Villazon and Anna Netrebko. This fabulous cast also includes Ildebrando d'Arcangelo as the doctor and Leo Nucci as the flirtatious sergeant.

With his short pants and curly hair Rolando makes the perfect adorable village idiot. He juggles, he dances. What else could a woman want? Anna in her normal persona easily projects the bookish Adina who feels herself too good for the humble Nemorino.

The elixir, which the doctor confesses is bordeaux, makes Nemorino suddenly self-confident and attractive. He flirts with other girls, and jealousy reminds Adina that she does indeed love him.

This filming includes something I have never personally experienced. At the end of Rolando's exquisite performance of "Una furtiva lagrima" the audience goes absolutely wild with shouting. Rolando stands waiting for the ovation to die down, and when it doesn't, he nods to the conductor. The conductor whispers to the orchestra. Papers are shuffled. So it is still done in the rarefied atmosphere of the Vienna State Opera--"Una furtiva lagrima" is encored! And it's even better the second time.

They are simply unbelievably adorable, and this is their most perfect casting. They were born to play these parts. They are so cute you want to go up and pinch their cheeks and say "You are soooo cuuuute!" Old ladies can do these things.

The sound is a bit disturbing, at least at the beginning. The chorus is quite loud in comparison to the soloists and it's necessary to keep cranking the volume up and down.

Don't resist it.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Doggies

On the cover of the issue of the New Yorker for February 5, 2007, is a picture of a dog inside a coffee shop reading a newspaper and sipping his espresso while his human waits outside in the snow tied to a tree.

This reminds me of the doggie movie. In the late seventies when I moved to San Francisco, there was a Doggie Diner on Van Ness Avenue across from the MacDonald's. The rest of the block was empty. This is the spot where Sam’s Opera Cafe now stands. The look of this diner in the middle of the empty space created an extended fantasy of a movie that I would film there.

The dog always resembled a German Shepherd and would sit at the table eating while the man stood by waiting. In the doggie movie the doggies were in charge and the human beings only escorts, so a Doggie Diner was a diner for doggies instead of the ordinary hamburger stand it was. There would be a scene with a human guide for a blind dog. In another scene the dog would sit watching the movie in the theater while the human lay on the floor waiting to go home.

So the doggie in the coffee shop would fit right into this movie. His human looks anxious. Philip Glass would write the score.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Manon Lescaut

At last a concept production at the Wiener Staatsoper! I thought I wasn't going to get one. Apparently in Puccini's Manon Lescaut the road to perdition is paved with couture! High fashion will lead you to destruction.

The opening scene where Manon, De Grieux and Germonte all meet takes place in the street in front of a fashion house department store with large windows filled with mannequins dressed to the nines. Thin women in business suits walk by and ogle the outfits in the windows. Manon and De Grieux escape in a Mercedes sedan.

In the second act Manon is seduced by expensive outfits. She longs for both love (good) and fashion (evil). This scene takes place in Germonte's house, and the windows show a view of what might be Central Park.

The concept is best in the third act. Women's names are called to list the women who will be deported to America, thus beginning a parade of high fashion models in designer dresses with their hands handcuffed together in front. Each model does her catwalk strut across the stage, showing off her unique outfit, ending with the traditional wedding dress done in red. How many fetishes does this cover? High fashion leads to crime, prison and handcuffs.

Act IV takes place in the deserted set of Act I with the same windows full of couture. Manon is dying from lack of water, water clearly not provided by high fashion dresses. She dies declaring her love.

Production designer says to self, "I get to do opera productions, but darn, I never get to design my own fashion line. Manon Lescaut is my opportunity." My advice is don't give up your day job. The couture idea works well enough and is just short of completely irrelevant.

Manon Lescaut is Puccini's first big hit, his most lushly romantic opera with some of his most beautiful music, played beautifully by the orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper under the direction of Miguel Gomez-Martinez.

Someday, perhaps soon, Anna will sing this and she will be able to do the supermodel strut, which our excellent soprano, Daniela Dessi, was not. She will also look delicious in the photography scenes. The opera seems to play out in front of the production without paying much attention to it.

In this production Manon sings the madrigal herself when the group of four backup singers appears. Sweet.

Advice for all of them: your voices are right for these roles, but you need to relax into the phrases. Let it flow more easily. The audiences in Vienna are very sophisticated and praise only the very best.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1890-1910]

Monday, February 05, 2007

La Favorite

I am at the Wiener Staatsoper to see Donizetti´s La Favorite.

It is only recently that women have broken out of their categories. Before that there were good girls and bad girls, angels and whores. It makes a whole opera plot that a whore is mistaken for an angel. You can't always tell, you know.

In opera angels are sopranos and whores are mezzos. We realize there are exceptions, such as Manon, but generally whores are mezzos. Carmen, Dalila, Maddalena, and Leonor in Donizetti´s La Favorite. She is the king's mistress, and when Fernand falls for her, she refuses to tell who she is. She deliberately lets him think his whore is an angel.

The opera has a simple beginning--a priest who has not taken his final vows falls for one of his parishioners--and a simple ending--she saves him from hell by dying. In the middle it gets pretty complicated. The king wants to divorce his wife to marry his mistress in spite of the pope's opposition. Fernand also wants her, and when the king promises to grant him any wish, Fernand wishes for Leonor. The courtiers still consider her a whore and tell Fernand now that it is too late and he has married her that he has lost his honor. From there everything just goes to hell.

We could ponder social ostracism for a while, the past's most certain method of keeping people in line.

Or we could ponder Donizetti, the man between Rossini and Verdi. Donizetti is at the beginning of the tenor as romantic lead. Rossini's women who play men are gone and Mozart's lyric tenor now has to be stronger, more melodramatic while still carrying a bit of coloratura. He has heavier parts to carry. Jose Bros as Fernand is light but not as light as Florez. He has a forceful high C.

I wonder to myself if Leonor has to be this kind of heavy Verdi mezzo as represented by Luciana D'Intino or if she might perhaps be more like a Rossini mezzo. In Verdi she would be excellent.

This plot with straying priests did not pass the censors in 19th century Vienna either.

Sontag

I went to mass in Stephansdom yesterday. I´m old enough to remember before Vatican II when masses were musically interesting, and was relieved to see the ordinary was a little mass by Michael Haydn, Franz Josef´s older brother.

Called the Heironymus-Messe, it dates from 1777. The unusual feature of this mass is that there are no strings, just oboes, bassoons, trombones and continuo. It is a symphonic mass, which means each mass section is a single movement with solos integrated into the choral texture. It is a sweet little mass very much in its period. The music was done in Latin and the rest of the service in German.

Michael Haydn is considered neglected. Lots of people are neglected. The vast majority of composers are neglected. The giants composed in contexts created by others.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Exclusiv

This very nice magazine, Wien Exclusiv, has Anna Netrebko on the cover and an article inside. I see that it's from last March and tuck it in my suitcase.

"The strongly impressive voice, the charm, the stage personality and not last, gift for hard work--the now 35 year old singer certainly has everything required for a great career. Though she always says she learns her roles very quickly, there is still a lot to do. So many roles to work on, so many opera houses to visit.... She works almost constantly. ´Two months of vacation a year, like many singers naturally have, is future music for me. I´ll do that once I´m a real star,´she says with a smile."

This worries me. My advice is to cool it a bit. Do fewer roles and spend more time with each one, live with each role a little longer, and maybe people will stop saying she´s superficial.

She has apartments in St. Petersburg, Vienna and New York.

The same magazine has some lovely pictures of Bryn Terfel in his Falstaff costume and says his name is pronounced ter-vell, emphasis on the end. Imagine that. His real name is Jones. Of course.

Falstaff

I have dropped from heaven into Bryn Terfel's Falstaff at the Wiener Staatsoper.

Verdi´s Falstaff is a one off. Verdi hadn´t written anything since Otello, and his style of opera in the purely Italian tradition was out of favor. Wagner and leitmotifs ruled the day. So the old man wrote his only opera buffa just to show what he could do. Falstaff is a symphonic opera with leitmotifs and all, but not to worry. Just sit back and enjoy. It won´t remind you of anything else by Verdi. Mozart? Or Pergolesi, perhaps.

I have seen lots of Falstaffs--Shakespeare's play, Nicolai's Merry Wives, Verdi's opera and last year´s Sir John in Love--but this was by far the best. The production used a hydrolic platform to change scenes quickly. When the platform is raised, we are in Falstaff's tavern. When it is lowered, we are in the world of the women he is trying to seduce, or the forest. The wait between scenes was minimal.

Only one thing was mildly disturbing--Falstaff and his hangers on were dressed in clownish pink and orange clothing, in sharp contrast to the formal fin de ciecle outfits of the wives and their husbands. Admitedly one would not have wanted to miss the bizarre courtship outfit of our hero, done in pink stripes. Falstaff becomes a kind of comedia del arte figure here, and not what he sees himself as--a nobleman, war hero and former companion of the king.

We would never have imagined such delicacy, such teetering/tottering on the edge of magnificence, such hideousness of figure combined with such nobility of spirit. The thing about great weight is that you need to balance it over your feet so as not to fall over. We will not divulge from where this knowledge comes. Bryn built an entire characterization from this, making him seem deliciously silly. And, of course, as a singer Bryn can do no wrong. This portrayal was magnificent and sweet.

Obviously he should pursue Dame Quickly, Janina Baechle. She is the woman for him. For the first time I noticed that at the end Falstaff sings "Reverenza" to her.

It was a very professional ensemble cast with pleasing performances by the young couple Fenton, Saimir Pirgu, and Nanetta, Ileana Tonca. The conductor Asher Fisch seems to have thought Pergolesi, too.

It was the most completely satisfying Falstaff I have seen. My luck is definitely improving.

[See Kinderkuchen History 1890-1910]

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Wien

I have not been to Vienna for over 30 years. At that time it was dark and gloomy, with large institutional buildings. The buildings are still there, but now they are bright and lively. Things are going well in Vienna.

When I was here before, I came to audition for the opera. Chris came with me, and since there was nowhere I could leave him, he came with me to the auditions and sat in the reception. I had bought him a red suit which made him look adorable. He was too young to be embarrassed by this. The secretaries all loved him.

I sang the aria from La Favorita, a virtually never performed opera, and made a good impression. They smiled but did not know what to do with someone who sang La Favorita, sort of Verdi without the high notes and therefore perfect for me. Someone should have whispered in my ear, "You need to have high notes. There is really no place for a singer with no high notes."

I came to Vienna this time because they are doing La Favorite in French, Philip Gossett´s preferred version.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Rome

While in Rome I visit musical performances in the two Anglican churches, Peter and Paul inside the walls and All Saints. This time it was for a performance of La Traviata at All Saints. Worth mentioning were Marina Di Marco as Violetta, a light coloratura style Violetta who seemed reluctant to turn away from the conductor.

In a real opera the bald guys would wear wigs. Or haven't you noticed that there are never any bald men on the opera stage? Here there was no budget for wigs, so the bald guys appeared as themselves, including the tenor Alfredo, Sandro Ferri. He has a very heavy sound and might want to consider lightening up a bit.

The churches make lively performance spaces for relatively small forces. The orchestra and chorus were surprisingly loud. You must arrive early to see well.

At 10:00 the Metro shuts down, even on a Saturday night.