Thursday, October 17, 2019

Le Nozze di Figaro from the San Francisco Opera

Marcellina, Bartolo, Count, Curzio, Figaro

Conductor Henrik Nánási
Director Michael Cavanagh
Set Designer Erhard Rom

Figaro Michael Sumuel
Susanna Jeanine De Bique *
Count Almaviva Levente Molnár *
Countess Almaviva Nicole Heaston *
Cherubino Serena Malfi *
Doctor Bartolo James Creswell
Marcellina Catherine Cook
Don Basilio Greg Fedderly
Don Curzio Brenton Ryan
Barbarina Natalie Imag
* San Francisco Opera debut

The new production of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro at the San Francisco Opera is made for me, or perhaps for anyone who for all their life has experienced architectural dreams.   My mind invents buildings that don't exist in reality.  The building of this new production is in the style of American colonial Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the time of the Revolutionary War.  Because it's Pennsylvania, a colony founded by Quakers, and not Virginia, I think we may presume that the servants are not slaves of the Count Almaviva.

The American Revolution concept only occurs occasionally.  In one scene the Betsy Ross flag is unfurled quickly, and when Cherubino is assigned to the army, he appears in a George Washington style army uniform.  The Count appears in a variety of colors including red, so we are not quite sure which side he is on.


In the pre-talk the host mentioned that this opera observes The Unities which require a play to have a single action occurring in a single place and within a single day.  I learned about this in school long ago and have not heard of it since.  Observing the unities doesn't happen very often in opera.  I'm tempted to make a list.  The place is in and around the Count's house. The action is getting Figaro and Susanna married, and this is accomplished in a single day.  There is an irrelevant subplot involving the Count's page Cherubino and his sudden, overwhelming interest in women.  The staging suggests a pairing with Barbarina, but we know he will go on in this direction.
 
Susanna, Cherubino, Figaro

We were treated to conceptual continuity throughout.  The handling of all plot elements was smooth and painstaking.  The production contributed to this by providing curtains decorated in the architectural style and easily movable scenic elements.  The curtain comes down, and we quickly move to the next scene. There was great attention to detail. 

Obstacles to the wedding are many.  The count has become interested in Susanna and moves forward with his desire to force himself on her.  He threatens to refuse to allow the marriage.  He also helps Marcellina in her desire to marry Figaro who has borrowed money from her.  Spoiler alert:  she turns out to be his mother.  I enjoyed that my rule of colorblind casting was observed.  A comic element was added to the story when the two white actors, Marcellina and Don Basilio, were found to be the parents of black Figaro.  "Suo madre?"  This obviously long time couple were included in the wedding ceremony.

By far my favorite bit of this production was the Count.  He was the biggest asshole I've seen in the part.  He gets his comeuppance in the end, or you might find he has gone too far.

I had a strong impression toward the end that this opera might be thought of as a symphony with the voices orchestrated into the texture.  I don't know if I could explain this.  I might be describing the conducting which was done by a man who previously led Strauss' Elektra here.  The singing was consistently excellent and blended more than usual with its accompaniment.

It isn't my favorite, but for overall quality and a complete lack of confusion about the plot it wins.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

MeToo Operas

This has to be regarded as a short list of operas about the oppression of women by powerful men, the basic theme of the MeToo movement.  There is no order.  In our own era the powerful men are generally employers.  If I am paying you money, I can do what I want with you.  In the past it was more a case of members of the Lordly class assuming that everyone in a lower class could be abused at will.

Rigoletto by Verdi is rather an unusual case.  The Duke is the person of highest rank in the story, but he seems to be completely indiscriminate in his choices of women to prey on.  In the court all the ladies seem to be targets, even wives of his main subordinates.  If their husbands object, they are banned from the court.  These wives are the only true MeToo characters I have found, but they aren't enough for the Duke.  He wanders the streets in disguise looking for women who would never come into the court.  The Duke successfully pretends to be lower class when pursuing Gilda, Rigoletto's daughter.  Maddalena from the last act is a professional and therefore does not count as exploited.  Strangely, he seems to like her best.  We begin a pattern when it is the exploited Gilda who dies and not the exploiter Duke. Unlike the standard MeToo victim, she loves the man who has exploited her and offers her own death to save him.

Tosca by Puccini involves a man in a position of political power who has something to offer a famous woman, not his employee.  Tosca is not the sort of woman to allow herself to be used sexually and instead kills her would be tormentor before he has a chance to do anything.  At the end she also dies.  We could hardly ask any of our MeToo women to do these things.

Il Trovatore by Verdi may not count.  This is more your love story plot.  A count loves Leonora, one of his subjects who would actually make a suitable mate.  The count frowns and looks unhappy all the time.  She instead loves a gypsy who sings love songs to her.  The count doesn't get his way and kills them.  Everyone dies.  I'm not sure if this fits the MeToo scenario.  We can't go around requiring people to die to avoid sex.

Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart involves a married count who was the hero of a previous opera but now has lost interest in his wife.  She expected happily ever after but instead got this.  His current interest is in one of his wife's servants, Susanna.  This is sort of a Downton Abbey plot.  In Downton Abbey one of the daughters is interested in and marries the chauffeur.  In Nozze Susanna is engaged to the Count's valet, Figaro.  The count has two kinds of power in this situation:  he can deny them the right to marry at all and/or he can revive the ancient right of the Lord to sleep with the bride of a servant.  The women plot against him and win in the end.  Everyone lives happily ever after at last. This is a successful thwarting of the MeToo scenario.

Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss involves a father with money wanting to acquire a royal title by marrying his daughter to a baron.  Someone not part of either side of this transaction, Octavian, intervenes to prevent the marriage.  He could not accomplish this without the help of his girlfriend The Marschallin.  Again we may presume a happy ending.  It seems that Count Octavian will marry the heiress instead of the baron.  This is another instance of exploitation thwarted.

Luisa Miller by Verdi describes a young nobleman who wanders around the countryside in disguise looking for girls, very much like the Duke in Rigoletto or the King in La Donna del Lago.  He knows that makes him a shit, but does it anyway.  Unlike other operas, both the exploiter and the exploited die.  Does no one explain to these nobles that they are required to marry in their class?  In the modern world this hardly makes a plot.  Prince Harry married an American actress.

This is turning out to be interesting.  Our opera stories must be regarded as in praise of women.  Except for the wives at court who may be roughly comparable to employees who could lose their status, our purported victims resort to murder, self-sacrifice, and plotting to avoid any actual sexual exploitation. 

Don Giovanni by Mozart may possibly represent the usual MeToo story.  During the opera the Don pursues Donna Anna, Zerlina, and an unknown woman seen through the window.  He flees Donna Elvira since he no longer is interested in her.  Leporello explains to Donna Elvira that she is just one in a long line of lovers.  Afterward Anna goes to Ottavio.  Zerlina returns to her new husband and begs him to beat her.  We aren't exactly sure what happens to the Don at the end, but I think he is supposed to end up in hell.  Has anyone lost anything?  The Don kills Anna's father who in the end gets his revenge.  The women presumably give in because they are genuinely interested in Giovanni, though it is possible that Donna Elvira thinks she is his wife.  It's too complicated to draw any general conclusions.

This turned out to be more revealing than I imagined.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Turandot in HD


Conductor...............Yannick Nézet-Séguin
Production..............Franco Zeffirelli

Turandot................Christine Goerke
Calàf...................Yusif Eyvazov
Liù.....................Eleonora Buratto
Timur...................James Morris

Today the season for the Metropolitan opera in HD began with a performance of Puccini's Turandot.   I think it was also Yannick Nézet-Séguin's first HD as the Musical Director of the Met.

The plot to this opera must be considered iffy.  It isn't exactly a MeToo opera (I'm thinking of making a list) because the abusive power figure is a woman.  She uses her position as heir to the Emperor of China to destroy as many men as possible for something that happened to one of her ancestors.  One isn't sure what the right response would be.  Becoming Emperor of China might be a greater temptation than the princess.  Calaf is an idiot, but he can hardly be blamed for the unfortunate results of his desire for Turandot.  The ending must be considered happy.

It was nice to spot James Morris under his very heavy makeup. This is going to sound strange, but I thought that the lead role sounded rather light in Ms Goerke's voice.  I thought the hit performance of the evening was the Calaf of Yusif Eyvazov.  He carried himself with dignity and confidence.  I have started to like him.

Yannick brought us a beautiful opera.  I hope to see more of him, but the only HD he is scheduled for is Wozzeck.  Sigh. They did curtain bows after all three acts.  I haven't seen that in a long time.

Porgy and Bess on Broadway


Bess - Audra McDonald
Porgy - Norm Lewis
Sportin Life - David Alan Grier

I am watching a “non-television” film of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess from the 2012 Broadway production.  Until I saw this, I did not realize that there are actually 2 so very different versions of this work.  Until now I have only been aware of the opera version where all the text is sung and accompanied by a standard opera orchestra, the original version from 1935.

The Broadway version is substantially shorter and includes spoken dialog written for this production.  The sound of the recording isn't good enough to understand most of this.  As an opera fan and musician, I very much miss the sound I am used to.  I'm getting more of a swing band sound here with a lot of brass, or perhaps it should be described as a pit band.  If there are violins, I'm not hearing them.  The singing is pretty good, but the backup kind of leaves them hanging.  I haven't kept in touch with the Broadway sound in the 21st century. Audra is classically trained, but I don't believe the others are.  This is just my opinion.

The aim here isn't opera but is instead to produce a realistic, life-like view of southern black culture.  It is felt that presentations by large opera companies don't achieve this.  There is a lot of realistic acting, occasionally approaching actual abuse.  I've seen Audra in a full length work before, live for Mahagonny, and she is astounding here.  She quit the run early because of illness.  I can see now that she spends a lot of time shouting, not a good idea for a singer.  I remember well going to sports events as a teenager and its effect on the voice.

Though Porgy and Bess has always been controversial, my own perspective doesn't really have anything to add to this argument.  Many count the entire story to be racist. Edwin DuBose Heyward who wrote both the libretto and the novel it is based on was southern white and of the planter class.  Read Audra McDonald's take on racism in Porgy and Bess here.

This is mind altering, not at all the Porgy and Bess of memory, but still one knows that it does not exist without Gershwin.  This particular version doesn't exist without Audra McDonald.  The general impression is one of intense raw power.  It's rather frightening.

I think it is regrettable that there is no commercial film of this.  I feel glad I saw it at all, but a commercial film would result in clearer sound, making the dialog easier to understand and the music more beautiful.  It did not woo me away from my operatic version.  I could almost count this as a new opera.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Favorite Verdi Performances

In honor of Verdi's birthday I have selected a list of my favorite performances throughout the life of the blog.


We must begin with Anna Netrebko in the Willy Decker production of La Traviata in 2006.  She is the only one I have truly loved in this production.  An abstract production requires active and exciting performers in the lead roles, which we certainly had here with Anna and Rolando Villazon.


I got very excited over Macbeth in 2008 from the Met with Maria Guleghina.  This was a new production, and I think perhaps I still prefer Maria in this role.


That same year was a great excitement when I saw Aida at the Arena di Verona.  Amonasro was Ambrogio Maestri, but everyone else I did not know.  No matter.  The thrill of the Arena di Verona lies in the space itself.  Such massive scale for Aida cannot help but be thrilling.

Other Aidas have been excellent.  In 2017 Netrebko's version from Salzburg was in an unusual production which moved us to a modern middle eastern country.  That same year featured Netrebko and Anita Rachvelishvili in the standard Met production.  They were gorgeous together, but the performance was marred by some very bad singing from Aleksandrs Antonenko.  Casting Verdi is difficult.


The Met brought us a regie production of Un Ballo in Maschera in 2012 which starred Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Sondra Radvanovsky, Marcelo Álvarez, Stephanie Blythe and Kathleen Kim. This would be a very hard cast to top.  The singing was spectacular.


The Verdi bicentennial in 2013 brought many wonderful performances, but my favorites starred the fabulous duo of Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros.  From Salzburg we saw Don Carlo performed with "intensity and excitement."


The other Verdi with Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros came from Munich.  This was the best production I have seen of La Forza del Destino with all the confusing action very carefully laid out.  Our stars have great stage rapport.



The final great performance of 2013 was the magnificent Falstaff from the Metropolitan starring Ambrigio Maestri.  Sir John is staying in a hotel with beautiful rooms.  Ambrogio is the person you want for the role of Falstaff, and the supporting cast were all excellent.



I seem to have failed to include an Il Trovatore.  My favorite seems to be Anna Netrebko and Dmitri Hvorostovsky at the Met in 2015.  This is some of Anna's best singing and also one of Dmitri's last performances.


My last great Verdi performance for this particular list must be Otello from the Bayerische Staatsoper in 2018 with our duo of Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros.  Gerald Finley, a great singing actor, rounded out the trio.  This is the most serious Otello I have seen.

Most of these selections are either available from Met on Demand or can be purchased as DVDs.  Enjoy.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

I masnadieri


Conductor Michele Mariotti
Staging David McVicar

Massimiliano, Count Moor..Michele Pertusi, bass
Carlo, his elder son......Fabio Sartori, tenor
Francesco, his younger son..Massimo Cavalletti, baritone
Amalia, his niece........Lisette Oropesa, soprano
Moser, priest...... Alessandro Spina, bass
Arminio, servant..Francesco Pittari, tenor
Rolla...Matteo Desole, baritone

This year Verdi's I masnadieri (The Bandits) was presented at La Scala.  We have taken notice because the female role is sung by Lisette Oropesa.

This traditional production completely violates my rules of portraying a plot.  The director's primary job is to explain the plot.  So who the hell is this guy in the military uniform that wanders around the stage in all these scenes?  Carlo before he became a bandit?  Francesco before he became a shit? Who?  Carlo is the fat guy.  So perhaps the director didn't like him and gave all his stuff to someone else.  Sigh.  I hate that.  He carries around a notebook where he occasionally writes, so the speculation is that he might be Schiller, the original writer of the story.

Lisette is spectacularly good in this, moving gently away from her soubrette Fach into full lyric repertoire.  I like her sound, her technique, her phrasing, anything else I can't think of.  She is developing into a truly wonderful singer.  This role was written for Jenny Lind who appears to have been a lyric soprano.  There is a lot of bombastic early Verdi singing throughout this opera, but the soprano is sweet and lyrical throughout.  It is an excellent role for Lisette.

The bandits seem to be having a lot of fun except for Carlo.  They leap and dance around. Francesco repents but the priest refuses to forgive him.  The silent writer comes to life and kills Francesco.  Then Amalia comes out and says that whether Carlo is an angel or a devil, she will always be his wife.  So then he kills her.  This plot is basically BS.

The male singers are all on the same page with the big Verdi sound.  The most applause was for Pertusi, Sartori and Oropesa, all well deserved.  I never have to see this opera again.  Just listening and ignoring the action is always an option.



Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Metropolitan Opera in HD for 2019-2020 - Cast changes


Turandot by Puccini (October 12),  We open our season with Christine Goerke.  This should be fantastic.
  • Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin
  • Production: Franco Zeffirelli
  • Turandot: Christine Goerke
  • Liù: Eleonora Buratto
  • Calàf: Yusif Eyvasov
  • Timur: James Morris