Sunday, April 23, 2006

New York State Opera – Handel’s Acis and Galatea. 4/22/2006.

New York State Theater at Lincoln Center – First Ring, Seat C18.

Conductor – Ransom Wilson ; Galatea – Sarah Jane McMahon, Acis – Philippe Castagner, Damon – Nicholas Phan, Polyphemus – Jason Hardy

Story: Galatea and Acis are blissfully in love, but Galatea is killed by the jealous Polythemus. Galatea transforms Acis into a stream that flows for eternity.

Anne couldn’t make the concert, but Ellie was in town, so Ellie and I went to see this rather short opera (at about 2 hours with intermission.)

The opera was disappointing on many levels. First, there was not much of a plot (the two line description above did the story justice), so the entire first act was spent describing the bliss experienced by the two young lovers. Second, the music reflected the lack of drama in the story, even though the program notes gallantly described it as “remarkably theatrical, given the essential simplicity of the dramatic parameters.” (Speaking of big words for little thoughts.) Third, NYC Opera in its wisdom decided to dress the singers up in “contemporary” clothes (although the women’s clothes can be passed off as togas), which seemed extraordinarily incongruent with the music and the story. I kept thinking of “The Pirates of Penzance.” The miner’s outfit of Polyphemus was funny, though. Fourth, English probably isn’t a good language for the opera; my ability to understand the language made the plot seem even more pointless, the repetitions more superfluous, and the pace more glacial. Fifth, the set was way too simple. I thought they could at least put out a real stream. Sixth, this was the first opera Ellie got to see in a theater (she had seen Turandot at the New Haven Green), and I am not sure this was a good introduction to the rich world of the genre.

If one digs deep, one can find some good things to say about the opera. The singing actually was quite good, although there were not too many stand-alone hummable melodies. The music was pleasant enough, the recorders were delightful. One other highlight was Polyphemus whose attire and acting added a degree of comedy to the show. Indeed Ellie remarked to me there was more action during the first couple of minutes of his appearance compared to the entire first act. The miniature, identical scene within a scene was quite clever, also.

New York City Opera is trying to revive the Handel Operas (there are over 50 of them) and now has about 10 in the repertoire. I would suggest there is no need to break their back to try to get to all of them. They may be interesting research projects, but I suspect there is not a lot of clamoring from the audience for them. We saw Orlando last year, it was more enjoyable.

We had bought an extra ticket for $120, not knowing Anne would have a business meeting on that day. So I sold the ticket on the plaza. This was the first time I ever did something like this, so when the lady said she couldn’t afford $40, I quickly offered it to her for $20, first tier center. She got a fair deal; that’s how much the concert was worth.

See the New York Times review here.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Metropolitan Opera – Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. 4/15/2006.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Dress Circle, Seat G105.

Conductor – Maurizio Benini ; Don Pasquale – Simone Alaimo, Dr. Malatesta – Mariusz Kwiecien, Ernesto – Juan Diego Forez, Norina – Anna Netrebko, A Notary – Anthony Laciura.

Story : Don Pasquale plans to disinherit his nephew Ernesto because he is displeased with Ernesto’s plan to marry Norina. Instead Don Pasquale plans to get marry himself to produce an heir. Upon learning this, Norina teams up with Malatesta to trick Don Pasquale into marrying her, disguised as Malatesta’s sister Sofronia. Don Pasquale’s life is made so miserable after the marriage that he is glad to have Norina marry Ernesto after she reveals to Pasquale her true identity.

The Wall Street Journal had a review of an earlier performance of this opera, published on April 5, 2006, which I read before I went to the show. The review was not kind to the soprano Anna Netrebko, and it colored my view of the performance.

I have never heard Donizetti before. I thought he was one of the earlier Italian opera masters, and was therefore surprised to find out this opera premiered in 1843. In any case, the opera is very classical in the sense that the harmony is traditional and the arias are generally melodic.

The settings are simple: Don Pasquale’s house, his garden, and Norina’s terrace. But the stage designs were elegant and bright. The audience gave an appreciative applause when the curtain first went up. There seemed to be some problem with the column inside the house, and it had to propped up with a 2x4 stud. The New York Times review attributes this to the state of decline in Don Pasquale’s fortune.

The orchestra played with precision, which was probably not a great challenge for this work. The singers’ voices all carried well, better than most other concerts. Norina’s voice at first sounded a bit unrefined, but it eventually developed into a smooth enjoyable sound. Her acting skills actually were quite good, especially compared to other opera sopranos; not being overweight also helped a lot. The other characters also put in an excellent performance. Perhaps she toned it down after the WSJ review, perhaps the WSJ was overly critical, or perhaps I just have a different standard, but I didn’t think Netrebko’s acting dominated the play at all.

There was a mad scene in Act II that was quite interesting. The love song in Act III Scene 2 was very nice. However, there were not that many songs so lovely that people would hum along.

Overall, this was a great performance of a nice opera that showcased some good singing. I am not a great fan of comedic operas, and Don Pasquale is no exception. The moral that older men shouldn’t be going around chasing young women made many in the audience chuckle, although I am sure it also made quite a few people uncomfortable. I am more bothered by Ernesto’s readiness to call off the marriage when he found out his uncle’s plan to disinherit him, though.

The New York Times evidently went to the same performance as the WSJ reviewer (they both reported the “allergic attack” suffered by Florez). The reviewer was kind to Netrebko, and surprisingly described in some detail the plot of the play also – perhaps he also found little else to write about?

Sunday, April 02, 2006

New York Philharmonic – Lorin Maazel, Conductor. 4/1/2006.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center: Third Tier Box 21R, Seat 7.

New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt, Director. Fiorenza Cedolins, Soprano; Luciana D’Intino, Mezzo-soprano; Franco Farina, Tenor; Orlin Anastassov, Bass.

Requiem Mass (1873-1875) by Verdi (1813-1901).

Tonight’s concert was well attended. We bought our tickets late and could only get these seats on the top tier. These side seats have only a partial view of the stage: we had to lean forward if we wanted to see the two woman soloists. Surprisingly, the acoustics was excellent at this corner of the concert hall. Anne remembers it being much better than at the center of the third tier where we had to cup our hands to our ears if we wanted to hear well.

I had performed the Faure Requiem with the Cornell Symphony Orchestra a while back, and remember being told requiems follow a standard script. So I did some research on the web and indeed found this to be true.

Verdi composed this requiem for performance on the anniversary of the poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni’s death. That Verdi was an atheist didn’t stop him from composing a great piece of religious music, and one could also enjoy the piece as a choral work.

The soloists all have impeccable credentials, and they all sang well. Farina was a last minute stand-in for Ramon Vargas, whom we have heard in a couple of Metropolitan Opera roles. The bass sang without the music, which made him look a bit incongruent with the others. At times the tenor was a bit unsteady and the bass was drowned out by the orchestra, though.

We have heard the New York Choral Artists quite a few times before. I thought they could work a bit on their precision. Perhaps due to their location on stage, they sounded a bit muffled at times also. But the sound was generally good.

Maazel also managed the 85 or so minute piece without music. There were a few miscues at the beginning soft string passages, but after a while the orchestra settled down. There were a few interesting passages: the four trumpets in the second tier during “Tuba mirum” of “Dies irae”; a very pleasant flute and clarinet accompaniment for “Lux aeterna” which sounded very much like one of Verdi’s opera pieces, complete with a recitative-like beginning. The requiem ended with “Libera me” which was sung by the Soprano and the chorus – the other three soloists just sat there looking at their hands. Perhaps that is what the mass calls for, but you wish everyone could join in the action.

It was overall an excellent concert. At $26 a ticket it was a (relative) bargain.