Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Il Trovatore Rerun

Conductor:  Marco Armiliato
Production:  David McVicar

Leonora:  Anna Netrebko (soprano)
Azucena:  Dolora Zajick (mezzo-soprano)
Manrico:  Yonghoon Lee (tenor)
di Luna:  Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone)
Ferrando:  Ĺ tefan Kocán (bass)

This is the performance of Verdi's Il Trovatore where Dmitri Hvorostovsky steps forward and is showered with white roses from the orchestra.  Since he originally sang this Met Live in HD performance, he has died.  I cried in the theater today.  Everything is simply wonderful.  It plays again in the evening so be sure to see it.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Die sieben TodsĂĽnden

Die sieben TodsĂĽnden [Seven Deadly Sins], 1993, by Kurt Weill with text by Bertolt Brecht, directed by Peter Sellars, represents the intersection of two of my obsessions:  Weill and Sellars.  One will probably run out soon, but the other is forever.  This work is called a ballet with song.

Conductor:  Kent Nagano
Director: Peter Sellars
Choreographer:  Donald Byrd

Anna I     soprano, Teresa Stratas
Anna II dancer, Nora Kimball
Brother baritone, Frank Kelley
Mother bass, Peter Rose
Father first tenor, Howard Haskin
Brother second tenor, Herbert Perry

A:  Prolog  Anna I sings, she is from Louisiana.
1:  Sloth    Family sing.
2:  Pride (Memphis)   Anna I sings, Anna II dances.
3:  Anger (Los Angeles) Family sings, Anna I and II are arrested.
4:  Gluttony  (Philadelphia)  She writes her family.  One of the guys is wearing an As jacket.
5:  Lust  (Boston) They are hooking, Anna II has a pimp and gives him her money.  Strife.
6:  Avarice  (Baltimore) She's a celebrity?  Golf.  Family sing.
7:  Envy  (San Francisco)  Anna sings.  Wrath is kindled by injustice.  Definitely San Francisco.
Z:  Epilog  They're home, but they don't look happy.

This is fun, the music is nicely played and sung but one grows tired of the endless closeups which seem always too close.  One might wish to see it in a theater.  I get the impression this was originally performed as a ballet in Lyon 6 years earlier.  I might have preferred that.  Faces without context don't make a story.  I will need to see other versions.


Friday, June 22, 2018

Giulio Cesare alla PS

Forgive me.  I approach everything from the perspective of obsession and am watching Peter Sellars' take on Handel's Giulio Cesare from 1993.  There is no indication of a live audience.  Jeffrey Gall is Caesar, my fourth countertenor experience in this role.  He has a brighter sound than Scholl, Daniels or Fagioli.  His coloratura is impressive.  One of the firsts for me here is Lorraine Hunt en travisti as Sesto.  I would not have gone in quest of Peter Sellars if it weren't for the hidden treasures of Lorraine.  This is filmed somewhere in Europe.

Tolomeo, Cleopatra's brother, is sung by Drew Minter, Cleopatra is Susan Larson and Cornelia is Mary Westbrook-Geha.  My point of departure for the role of Cleopatra is Cecilia Bartoli, and Susan Larson sounds nothing like her.  I don't know how much of this I can watch.

I am mentally reviewing the versions of this opera that I have seen and can only conclude that it is regarded as a comedy.  In Zurich the Egyptians wear striped boxers.  In Salzburg Cleopatra rides a rocket.  At the Met we have wandered into a Bollywood movie.  It's hard to take any of these seriously.

This one is also not serious.  Caesar is president of the United States, apparently, due to seal of the President on the podium.  Tolomeo most resembles a punk teenager.  We have begun to notice that Peter Sellars' version of Regietheater moves every opera to somewhere American.  This is what he knows, so this is what he does.  The first person who appears representing Tolomeo and delivering Pompey's head is dressed a bit like Fidel Castro.  This at least is serious.

Caesar and Ptolemy are negotiating, and after a while Caesar starts throwing cups and felt tipped markers at Ptolemy.  Caesar has a lot more pens in his pockets and he throws them.  Then he opens the water bottles, spills water all around, and exits smiling.  He's always smiling.  Sellars seems to have anticipated our current administration.

By now I am used to the musical quality of the Bartoli GC.  Perhaps I am spoiled forever.

In Act II both Ptolemy and Achilla are harassing Cornelia.  They are laying it on pretty heavy.  So far she just frowns.  Ptolemy wraps her in a garden hose.  Sesto plans to accompany his mother into Ptolemy's harem where he can exact his revenge.  I am watching this for curiosity.  It isn't redeeming itself.  Only Lorraine is outstanding.  She waves her machine gun around menacingly.

They go with comedy all the way to the end.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018


I apologize for not making it to the final two operas of The Ring in San Francisco.  I haven't been feeling well.

I am continuing my investigation of Peter Sellars.  It turns out that two of my unwatched DVDs are directed by him:  Weill's Seven Deadly Sins and the DVD with Tchaikovsky's Iolanta and Stravinsky's PersĂ©phone.  This will give me an excuse to watch them.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Die WalkĂĽre

Conductor Donald Runnicles
Director Francesca Zambello

BrĂĽnnhilde, Wotan's daughter:  IrĂ©ne Theorin
Wotan:  Greer Grimsley
Fricka: Jamie Barton
Sieglinde, Hunding's wife:  Karita Mattila
Siegmund, Sieglinde's lost brother:  Brandon Jovanovich
Hunding:  Raymond Aceto
Siegrune, Valkyrie:   Laura Krumm
Grimgerde, Valkyrie:  RenĂ©e Rapier
Ortlinde, Valkyrie:  Sarah Cambidge
Gerhilde, Valkyrie:  Julie Adams
Rossweisse, Valkyrie:  Lauren McNeese
Schwertleite, Valkyrie:  Nicole Birkland
Helmwige, Valkyrie:  Melissa Citro
Waltraute, Valkyrie:  RenĂ©e Tatum

I have always considered Die WalkĂĽre my favorite part of the Ring.  Some scenes are the best part of the Ring while others are just endless talking.  As the years have passed, I increasingly see Wotan's long winded explanation to BrĂĽnnhilde as a self serving excuse for his screw ups.

But the opening scene is a joyous occasion.  Karita Mattila and Brandon Jovanovich are marvelous as the twins reuniting after a long separation.  I think modern audiences feel that a woman who never wanted to marry in the first place is fully justified in running off with an attractive almost stranger.  "Du bist der Lenz" is a gorgeous love song well sung here by our Siegmund.  Ok, I'm happy with him as a heldentenor.  They made a great pair.  The staging for this scene is excellent.  Except one minute there's no tree and the next minute there it is.

I enjoyed very much IrĂ©ne Theorin's entrance in act II.  Her "toi-jo-to-hos" were impressive.  This was followed by the spectacular tantrum of Jamie Barton's Fricka.  She is very put off by the twins thing.  Wotan drones on but completely messes up.  What is his "will" supposed to make of the fact that first he tells her to make Siegmund win the battle, then completely reverses himself to please Fricka.  She knows what his true will is and does that.

Then we have a scene under a freeway like a modern homeless couple.  Or another opera seen recently.  Sieglinde is having difficulties.  Here occurs the scene where BrĂĽnnhilde fulfills the Valkyrie's main role--she offers him eternity in Valhalla.  He refuses because Sieglinde will not be there.

The battle between Siegmund and Hunding has BrĂĽnnhilde fighting for Siegmund and Wotan against him.  Wotan wins, but BrĂĽnnhilde spirits Sieglinde away to save her unborn child.

I thought all these scenes went very well.  The highlight of this production is the Valkyries flying in on a wire with their heroes.  This is a piece of fun.  BrĂĽnnhilde walks in like a sensible person but has no hero.  Then follows the greatest scene in all the Ring:  Wotan's farewell.  He makes her into a mere human as punishment.  The music is very beautiful and was well sung by Greer Grimsley.

The quality of the singing is very high.  The staging sometimes works and sometimes doesn't.

A small additional comment:  at every possible opportunity the audience gave the orchestra and maestro Runnicles a huge ovation.  He was very popular here.

Das Rheingold

Conductor Donald Runnicles
Director Francesca Zambello

Wotan, head god:  Greer Grimsley
Loge, god of fire:  Ĺ tefan Margita
Alberich, Nibelung: Falk Struckmann*
Fricka, Wotan's wife:  Jamie Barton
Erda, goddess of the earth, Ronnita Miller
Mime, Alberich's brother: David Cangelosi
Fasolt, giant: Andrea Silvestrelli
Fafner, giant: Raymond Aceto
Donner, god of thunder: Brian Mulligan
Froh, god:  Brandon Jovanovich
Freia, goddess of the apples;  Julie Adams
Woglinde, Rhinemaiden:  Stacey Tappan
Wellgunde, Rhinemaiden:  Lauren McNeese
Flosshilde, Rhinemaiden:  RenĂ©e Tatum

One wishes for Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen to be significant.  The teeming Rhine surging in the orchestra in the orchestral intro to Das Rheingold signals something deep.

So tourists on a cruise ship was a bit disconcerting the last time I saw this.  But the lighting is transformed, the pastels are gone and every orchestral transition includes projections of water and landscapes.

As always, Donald Runnicles is the man you want for Wagner.  For the epic poem he is the one.  Remember he was great in Les Troyens as well.

And what an incredible cast.  Big Wagnerian voices are everywhere.  Falk Struckman, our Alberich, was the only SFO debut.  The force of his portrayal makes Alberich the main character here.  He convinced in his transition from lover to tycoon to reprobate.  We realize what he does not--his loss of the Ring only affects his self confidence, not his authority.

Ĺ tefan Margita's Loge was also outstanding.  He lords it over Wotan at every turn.  Only Wotan seems not to notice. 

My reaction to this whole opera is that when a voice dominates the ensemble, that character dominates the narrative.  That's why it comes out different each time.

Das Rheingold exists only to set the stage for the next three operas.  The Rhinemaidens have lost their gold and their charm; Alberich has lost his authority and love; Fafner has killed his brother but gained the ring, a trinket he has no idea how to use; and Wotan has his Walhalla and his Fricka.  Only Erda sees tragedy coming.

The changes to the production promise significant events to follow, not just fun on a cruise ship.

Monday, June 04, 2018


I never know how things are until after I do them.  So now I have posted my PS essay and find that there is much more to know before forming permanent conclusions.

And already I find there is a Giulio Cesare production by him which also has Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.  I have ordered it and will report.  By now virtually everything by Lorraine is published.

Then they tell me that in 1992 he directed Saint François d'Assise at the Salzburg Festival with Dawn Upshaw.  I am fascinated.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Peter Sellars --- Extended

Over the life of this blog I have been trying to figure out the director Peter Sellars, and after all these years I want to try to do a full essay on him.  It turns out there are two of him:  Peter Sellars the opera director and Peter Sellars the librettist.  He has directed other things not opera, but this discussion will limit itself to Peter Sellars in the classical music world.  He is America's foremost representative of the Regietheater movement.

To briefly review, the principles of Regietheater involve:
  • moving the action to another time period, including costumes which usually look modern
  • more sex than strictly necessary
  • creating an interpretation that emphasizes modern day issues.

Peter Sellars the Regisseur of other people's operas

I am attempting to reconstruct my own experience of his work and find this hard going for the operas staged before the beginning of this blog.  I now believe that my experience of his stagings began with the 1987 PBS presentation of John Adams' Nixon in China with Alice Goodman as the librettist.  I especially enjoyed the comic Henry Kissinger.  Who knew Nixon was funny?  I liked Madame Mao's aria, the play within a play and the portrayal of Pat Nixon.  I enjoyed its proximity to real life.  The time frame is not changed because it's already modern.   (film)

It might be important to remember that as an undergraduate he did a puppet version of The Ring.

My next experience with the work of Peter Sellars the opera director probably dated from his 1990 filming of the Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy which played on PBS.  In the Sellars' Don Giovanni we are among the American urban lower class in the 60s.  People shoot drugs and sniff cocaine.  You may and probably should view this herehere, and here.  I should probably watch it again myself for Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Donna Elvira if nothing else.  Leporello and the Don are played by twin brothers.  At the time it was very shocking and caused an enormous stink.  But isn't that the problem with Don Giovanni?  That it just isn't shocking enough.  The other two operas in the trilogy were not nearly this shocking.  

So I did.  You should too.  Lorraine is fabulous, but what else could she be?  The filming is a bit heavy on the close ups but otherwise completely brilliant.  When these guys act like they will kill one another, you believe them.  Every scene rings true.  How often does that happen?  There is a lot of kissing and snuggling but no fake sex.  The hero strips down to his briefs a couple of times.  At the end, after the Don has descended to hell, it appears that the sun has begun to rise.  This is actually more timely today than when it was originally done.  (film)

I attended a performance of Adams' The Death of Klinghofferlibretto by Alice Goodman at San Francisco Opera in 1992, shortly after its premier.  When the opera was withdrawn from the HD season in 2014 for political reasons, I discussed it in the blog.  It was trying to be even handed about a terrorist attack, which I found difficult.  One side are terrorists, the other tourists.  What's even about that?  The direction by Sellars was not remarkable. (live)

L'Amour de Loin ("Love from afar,") (2000) Music by Kaija Saariaho, seen later in 2005 on a DVD from Finland, was also directed by Sellars with a kind of mysterious simplicity.  I simply wanted to see and hear this work.  A shallow pond of water representing the Mediterranean Sea covered the stage, and on each side was a winding metal staircase.  On the left staircase was Dawn Upshaw in France, and on the right was Gerald Finley in Lebanon.  A messenger in a boat brings their communications back and forth.  I found everything about this fascinating, including the music and the fabulous singing stars.  The story comes from the mythical past, but everything here seems modern.  It was a deep and wonderful experience.  (film)

In 2011 the Metropolitan Opera revived Adams' Nixon in China and kept the original director, Peter Sellars, making his Met debut.  This new Met version ended with enhancements bordering on pornography.  I didn't see the point.  The Met also used some of the same singers who were then older.  I still prefer the Houston version.  (HD)

My next encounter with Sellars wearing only his director hat was Vivaldi's Griselda at Santa Fe.  I also attended his lecture here and agreed with him that Griselda is a terrible opera.  The most notable thing here was that the always smiling Isabel Leonard never smiled once.  They look rather like people from the 60s.  I don't know if this opera could be saved.  How about staging it like PlatĂ©e with a man in the title character?  (live)

After all these years of hearing about but always missing it, I came upon Peter Sellars direction of  Bach's Saint Matthew Passion from Berlin.  A religious work became a ritual, an aspect of religion that cannot be disparaged, at least not by me.  I was deeply moved by this enhancement to a long loved work.  The wonderful musical performance also helped.  A glimmer of light began to appear. (film)

Then in 2017 came Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito from Salzburg.  This story about ancient Rome became a modern racial encounter.  The encounter was emphasized through the use of cast members who belonged to the suggested races.  Sellars added some other music (which he also did in Griselda) from a mass by Mozart to enhance the sad parts.  I found this entire production profoundly beautiful.  Two home runs in a row.  How was I to explain this?  It made me think that he is actually capable of the truly profound and should work harder.  As usual, the costumes are modern.  I saw as never before that this was an opera about forgiveness and reconciliation.  It may possibly be Mozart's greatest opera.  (film)

I followed my curiosity over to an easily available film of Handel's Theodora from Glyndebourne in 1996.  Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Dawn Upshaw are also in this.  It turned out to be a much earlier example of his true gift:  the portrayal of large, significant issues.  This is an oratorio with a story rather than an opera, and consists of a lot of very beautiful music suitably staged in modern settings.  I recommend it.  (film)

Can I write about stagings I have not seen?  After his wildly popular, at least in Europe, Mozart-da Ponte trilogy, he staged Saint François d'Assise by Olivier Messiaen at Salzburg in 1992.  There's a film about this but not of it.  He says,  "Anything that finally matters doesn't appear in the plot synopsis.  So this history of staging the plot synopsis is one of the things that has made opera so intellectually inert and dull and expressively limited.  And opera becomes incredibly expressive just as soon as you forget about the story and try and stage the music."  I would go with a statement that said:  what does this opera express?  Stage that.

Don Giovanni expresses exploitative sexuality; Nixon is just people out of their context; Klinghoffer expresses that terrorists are people, too; L'Amour is about love conquering all; Griselda is about men treating women badly, or maybe it's just about singing; Matthew Passion is about the life and death of Jesus; Clemenza is about forgiveness; Theodora is about the life and death of a Christian; Saint François is basically the same with vastly more complex music.  Clearly the staging works best where the message is clearest.  You may feel free to hate my simplified summaries.

This vision statement I quoted above may explain everything.  I think if you are staging an existing opera, you need to focus on enhancing its musical expression within the delineated characters.  But generally when you are composing an opera, the libretto is usually slightly ahead of the music.  There must be a vision of the opera before the composer can write it.  That's my idea anyway.

Score card:

Great things:  Mozart La Clemenza di TitoHandel TheodoraBach Matthew PassionIolanta / PersĂ©phone
Hits:  Saariaho L'Amour de LoinMozart Don Giovanni, Nixon (1st)
So so: Mozart Figaro, Giulio Cesare
Misses:Vivaldi Griselda, Adams The Death of KlinghofferNixon (2nd)

This is an excellent record for any director.  I will add to this list where I can.  Next is Giulio Cesare.  Clearly he follows the first rule of Regietheater:  everyone will wear post WWII clothing.  Stuff you can buy in a department store or thrift store.  They will look like people you know.  This is key.

There is one thing that he does that I can think of no one else who does.  Claus Guth took all the spoken dialog out of Fidelio and replaced it with groans and sound effects, but he left the music alone.  We are living in the era of reconstructing old scores to accurately represent their eras and original condition.  Doctor Gossett called this a critical edition.  Peter Sellars consistently changes the score, sometimes adding from somewhere else, sometimes cutting sections, in order to reflect his vision.  Academicians will object to this, especially the adding part.

Peter Sellars the Librettist and regisseur of his own operas

Which brings us to the other Peter Sellars, the librettist.  After the stink that surrounded The Death of Klinghoffer, Alice Goodman abandoned her career as an opera librettist, or it abandoned her.  Her libretto for Nixon in China was very successful, but no one was willing to forgive Klinghoffer.  She began working on Doctor Atomic with Adams, but withdrew after a while.  Adams was used to working with Peter Sellars by then, and he took over the task of librettist.

As a librettist, it is not possible to add or subtract from the score or the original theatrical concept because one is the person creating it.  One may do what one wishes.

The John Adams/Peter Sellars operas are El Nino (2000), Doctor Atomic (2005), and Girls of the Golden West (2017).

I began blogging about his direction with the premier of John Adams' Doctor Atomic at the San Francisco Opera in 2005 where Sellars wore both librettist and director hats.  Some of the work was done by Alice Goodman, but she bailed somewhere around mid way.  Perhaps around the beginning of Act II.  Added to this trio of collaborators was the boss Pamela Rosenberg who thought of it as a Faust play.  I think it is this mish mash of influences that muddies the plot here.

Other people's ideas about Faust seem to be different from my own.  It's true that Faust was an intellectual, a scientist, but his soul was clearly not threatened by this fact.  It was threatened by the fact that in old age he began to regret wasting his life with serious efforts instead of having fun.  The devil immediately pops in to offer other activities that might attract his attention.  In short:  science is the good path, seducing women and debauchery is the path to hell.  Please, Faust, take one of these and love it.  Wearing lab coats is irrelevant.  But this is a side issue.  Apparently Rosenberg did not win the argument.

For me the production was a bomb hanging in the air, a bomb which looked nothing like the photos of the bombs that were dropped on Japan.  Contrary to my comments, the bomb used in the production looked just like the experimental version of the bomb that was exploded in New Mexico.  I ranted, "I attended Peter Sellars' lecture before Doctor Atomic where he enthusiastically raved over what a great opera it is and what a great production he had invented. I don't care if the opera sells when you're talking about it. I don't care if part of it came from John Donne. I only care if it plays while I'm watching it. Do the characters matter? Does the drama draw me in?  Or is it all BS?"  I got carried away.   (live)

In the first half people came out and spoke to the air.  The first part of the opera was OK if somewhat static, but the entire second half was empty.  We waited and waited, and there wasn’t even an explosion at the end.  This was supposed to represent time moving slower and faster, but remember I am the person who never reads the program before.  If that's what it means, show me.

My next encounter was with a film of another John Adams work:  El Nino (2000)also with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson and Dawn Upshaw, which I reviewed in 2006.  I couldn't stand how the film switched constantly from filming the performers and showing still pictures of other people.  I rejected it for its film direction, but it is also a work where Peter Sellars wears both librettist and director hats.  I really wanted to see this but could not stand looking at it.  A live performance would probably have been easier to deal with.  Even a split screen would have been better.  I offer no opinion of the work itself. (film)

Doctor Atomic was significantly changed when it played at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008.  This version was directed by Penny Woodcock.  The empty act II was filled out with action.  So here Sellars wore only the librettist hat.  I am still unclear about the meaning of this opera.  What does it mean that a man reads John Donne who searches for God while simultaneously developing the largest bomb ever seen on earth, a bomb destined to kill thousands in Japan.  This is the story I wanted to see and did not.  I wanted to see the conflict of good and evil.

This season I saw in San Francisco Girls of the Golden West .  The text is yet again assembled around a structure provided by letters of Louise Clappe with the pen name Dame Shirley.  There are many other sources.  I was again missing a sense of clear narrative, though this doesn't seem to have been fatal.  Dame Shirley is telling stories about her experiences during the gold rush, which is a kind of narrative.

If there are other operas by John Adams on librettos by Peter Sellars, I have not seen or reviewed them.  I didn't get the impression from anything I have read or heard about these works that Peter Sellars actually wrote any of the words sung from the stage.  I believe he only selects and assembles them.  So if you get the impression that no one is speaking to anyone else, it's because the words came from something written down by people not named Peter Sellars and never attempts to simulate conversation.  Glass successfully writes operas in Sanskrit and ancient Egyptian and still does not make you feel lost without a sense of narrative.

What does this opera express?  Then include structures and text that accomplish that.

You may also have noticed that the narrative never quite gels.  An Oratorio like Messiah can be assembled, but no staging is implied.  Assembling a text in English, generally the language of the audience, made up of literary texts never intended to represent conversation or action is a problem.  No amount of moving people around is going to make up for the fact that the words were never intended to be theater.  For me this requires that the action be absolutely clear.

Clearly Mr. Sellars' operas haven't given me the sense of genius that his work on other people's operas have.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Life Ball 2018

This is Jonas Kaufmann in costume for the Life Ball in Vienna, an annual AIDS charity.  Papa Jonas?  Extensive research reveals that the theme of Life Ball this year is The Sound of Music.  Everyone seems to be pondering a Parsifal as Life Ball Sound of Music production.

I cannot resist adding this second picture posted by the artist.

"About to marry @ConchitaWurst and Herbert Föttinger. 💍💕 @lifeball" This is only fun if you know who Conchita Wurst is.