Monday, February 20, 2006

Metropolitan Opera – Saint-Saen’s Samson et Dalila. 2/17/2006.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Dress Circle, Seat D19.

Conductor – Emmanuel Villaume; Samson – Clifton Forbis, Dalila – Marina Domashenko, Abimelech – James Courtney; The High Priest – Jean-Philippe Lafont; An Old Hebrew – Kwangchul Youn.

Story: Samson leads the Hebrews in a successful rebellion against the Philistines. Dalila, spurned by Samson, conspires with the Philistines to find out about Samson’s secret and subsequently renders him powerless. When Samson is brought out to the temple of Dagon, he asks God for strength and topples the temple by bringing down a pillar.

This is a familiar story with a major twist. In the opera Dalila (Delilah) was motivated more by unrequited love than by her allegiance to her people. This should make for a more treacherous plot, but somehow it didn’t come through in tonight’s performance. Whether that was due to the opera, the performers, or my lack of perception, I cannot tell.

The overture to Act I led to a long choral number. The singing was a bit unsteady at first, perhaps understandable given the large number of singers involved. The program notes compares this to the oratorios of Handel and Mendelssohn, indeed the choral music sounded complete and had climaxes of its own. The stage set for Act 1 was very simple, although the corn field at the end of Act 1 was cleverly designed. We don’t understand why Abimelech’s clothes had all these hand prints on them; nor do we understand why his nails were so long – but they made for an interesting spectacle. Dalila appeared about 30 minutes into the opera. The trio sung by her, Samson, and the old Hebrew on temptation and resistance was at times a bit confusing. At the conclusion of the Act, I found myself agreeing with one of Saint-Saen’s critics (as quoted in the program notes): “Never has any drama so completely lacked melody as this one, ….” Nonetheless I found the Act quite fascinating. Forbis had a good voice; Domashenko’s was a bit weak in the lower registers.

The setting for Act 2 was strange. The main props were three tepees or cones of unknown significance. In sharp contrast to Act 1 where the chorus had a major role, Act 2 was mostly taken up by Dalila, Samson, and the High Priest; the only exception was the Philistines approaching Samson stealthily at the end. The supposed scheming, hatred, and vengefulness were not quite there. Dalila didn’t appear tormented enough; actually the famous aria “Mon Coeur s’ouvre a ta voix” was wistful and pleasant, and sounded more out of love than treachery.

There was a long intermission (more than 30 minutes) between Acts 2 and 3. Scene 1 was very simple, with Samson turning the mill by himself. Act 2 took place inside the temple of Dagon. It began with a dance by a large troupe accompanied by the Bacchanale which is quite well-known. The choreography is modern, and was pleasant enough to watch – but there was a bit too much falling backwards though. The program notes contrasts the lack of dignity in “Dagon se revele” with Samson’s prayer for strength. To me the former sounded like Ravel’s bolero. When Dalila mocked Samson, she recalled many of the motifs in the love song in Act 2. Eventually the music turned quite ominous as Samson was led to the column and brought it down. I thought the collapse could have been more spectacular, especially since this was a Met production.

Perhaps that is a fitting description of tonight’s performance: everything was good, but you just thought they could have done a little better.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

New York Philharmonic. The Magic of Mozart Festival. Lorin Maazel, Conductor. 2/11/2006.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. Prime Orchestra, Seat W4.

Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major, K. 543 (1788) by Mozart (1756-1791).
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550 (1788).
Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551 (1788).

2006 marks the 250th birthday of Mozart (born January 27, 1756), and the New York Philharmonic put out a three-week celebration of the event. Tonight’s performance comprised of his last three symphonies. They were all composed within a span of three months, averaging one movement every five days or so.

The first movement (Adagio – Allegro) of No. 39 began with a stately adagio opening, which seems a popular way for Mozart to start his compositions. I thought the orchestra sounded a bit too heavy for the light-hearted theme. New York Philharmonic usually doesn’t have the precision of, say, a Boston Symphony Orchestra, but I thought tonight it was sloppier than usual. The second movement (Andante con moto) had the Andante but not the “con moto”, it seemed a bit slow. The third movement (Menuetto – Trio) was delightful but still sounded a bit on the heavy side. Perhaps the impending snowstorm weighed on the orchestra? (Turns out over the next day or so NYC had record snowfall.) I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t catch the “alpine melody” described in the program notes. The last movement (Allegro) sounded unsteady at first but ended up being quite pleasant.

By this time we noticed that the lady behind us had fallen asleep. Her sleep was briefly interrupted by the applause after the conclusion of this symphony. Don’t despair, she promptly went back to her light snoring at the start of the next symphony. Is there a proper etiquette in situations like this? Is it okay to drop something so the noise would wake her up?

The orchestra did much better with No. 40. The movements are: Molto allegro, Andante, Menuetto, and Allegro assai. Maazel can go through a Mahler symphony without breaking a sweat, but tonight’s gestures seemed a bit too animated for the music. Anne also pointed out this viola player that was so into it (his face was red) that we thought he might collapse from the excitement. The second movement had many nice phrases of Mozart’s trademark repeated notes, but dragged on a bit. The program notes mentions this 12-note (minus the key note of G) short passage in the last movement. I am glad I caught it; but it was a bit like listening to the entire opera Turandot to catch the 3-minute aria Nessun Dorma.

Of the three symphonies, the Jupiter must be the most popular of all. The first movement (Allegro vivace) contained a lot of descending scales in addition to the repeated notes. The strings were muted for the second movement (Andante cantabile) which contains several pleasant melodies. The last two movements (Menuetto and Molto allegro) brought the performance to a good (but not great) ending. Even at their most complex, Mozart’s symphonies still sound simple because of limited use of woodwind and brass instruments; and there is one percussion instrument – the timpani. I say that despite the presence of a “breathtaking display of quintuple counterpoint that renders the listener slack-jawed” (paraphrasing the program notes). Although it is quite seldom that double basses get to get in the act as they did in this instance.

Due to the popularity of his music, it’s difficult to write about a Mozart performance unless it is a botched one. There certainly was not any major botching tonight, but I did find quite a few problems with the performance. I am of the opinion that Mozart should be played lightly and crisply: think a piano sonata played without any use of the pedals. Tonight’s performance did not quite live up to that standard.

And there is this thing about too much of a (good) thing. Each of the three symphonies would be a delightful piece to listen to; but all three in a row …

Oh, one other thing. I have concluded there is not one perfect seat in the entire Avery Fisher Hall. Tonight we were in the Prime Orchestra section, so we have a good view of the players, but the woodwind, brass, and percussion sections were invisible. In the tiers (First and Second) one gets a good bird’s eye view, but is seated too far back so binoculars are needed.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Opera Australia - Puccini's Madama Butterfly. 2/1/2006.

Sydney Opera House Opera Theater. Seat Stall B30.

Conductor – Andrea Licata; Madama Butterfly – Elena Prokina; B. F. Pinkerton – Rosario La Spina; Suzuki – Sally-Anne Russell; Sharpless – John Pringle; Goro – Graeme Macfarlane.

Story: Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) marries B. F. Pinkerton, a U.S. naval officer. Butterfly takes her vows seriously and patiently awaits Pinkerton’s return with her son and her servant Suzuki. When he returns 3 years later, he brings with him his new wife from America. Butterfly commits suicide so her child can be brought to the U.S. to be cared for by Pinkerton.

This is the second time I saw Madama Butterfly in Sydney. While the sets remain by-and-large the same, the stage acting was quite different. Most productions have Butterfly committing suicide off stage, but this one had her doing the sad deed front and center. They didn’t bother to use artificial blood though.

Athough the story is admittedly over-the-top melodramatic, I have to say I really enjoyed the opera. In anticipation, I brought along the score to study on the plane ride over, and listened to the entire opera once again on my iPod walking around Sydney. I went with several other people, and they all enjoyed it.

This time we were seated in the second row, so we had a good view of the stage and the orchestra (the Australia Opera and Ballet Orchestra). Conducting by Andrea Licata was precise and intense, accompanied by heavy breathing on the up beat. I wished he would calm down for some of the passages though. As it was, the orchestra often drowned out the softer arias. I was quite disappointed at the way the humming chorus was rushed through, though. A downside for being close is we nearly all got whiplash tilting our heads up and down to see the subtitles (Australians call them surtitles).

It should have been a real stretch for Elena Prokina, who appeared to be in her late 30s (let’s be charitable), to play a 15-year old Japanese Geisha, somehow I overlook that as the opera progressed. Her voice was pleasant, and I really enjoyed the soft passages, but she seemed to have trouble reaching some of the high notes (B-flat or C, I am not sure). Nonetheless, she managed to put in a performance strong enough to make this a memorable production. Rosario La Spina, who played the role of Pinkerton, had a strong voice. Unfortunately, he seemed more intent in showing off his own singing talents and didn’t mind drowning out other people.

The Opera Australia Chorus was a bit shaky and off-key when they first appeared with Cio-Cio San. Otherwise they were quite solid.

Both Suzuki and Sharpless (played by Sally-Anne Russell and John Pringle respectively) put in strong performances. The duets Suzuki sang with Butterfly were well done. Sharpless added one of the few light moments in the evening by feigning how difficult it was for him to sit on a mat.

The staging, while cleverly designed, was a bit too simple. In some other productions I have seen of this opera, they at least bothered to haul Yamadori around in a rickshaw! More elaborate staging definitely would have added to the production.

In contrast to Sydney concert audiences (see my earlier blog on the Nigel Kennedy concert), tonight’s audience was extremely reserved. They applauded sparingly during the show (one noted exception: after Butterfly sang “un bel di vedremo”, an aria I wish she had taken more slowly and more wistfully). Given how enthusiastic they were after each act, they were undoubtedly very appreciative. The actors and musicians put everything they had into the opera. One of the dancers slipped on the rose petals but recovered quickly. I am sure he had bruises on him from the fall.

Madama Butterfly is a sympathetic figure and Puccini’s music is as usual extremely nice to listen to, although at times I wish he had put in a few more of the great melodies he was capable of. Even though tonight’s performance had some considerable flaws, it was nonetheless very enjoyable.

See also the Sydney Morning Herald review of the opera.