Tuesday, November 07, 2006

New York City Opera – Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. November 4, 2006.

New York State Theater at Lincoln Center – First Ring Left, Seat B13 ($112.50)

Conductor – Steven Mosteller; Gretel – Jennifer Aylmer, Hansel – Jennifer Rivera, Mother – Cheryl Evans, Father – Michael Chioldi, The Witch – Jessie Raven.

Story. This opera is based on the Grimm Brothers story. The brother and sister Hansel and Gretel are sent out to forage for food after they ruin the dinner their mother was preparing while horsing around in the house. They get lost and spend the night away from home. The witch gets a hold of them, locks up Hansel to fatten him up to eat, and gets Gretel to work for her. Gretel tricks the witch into opening the oven door and shoves her into the oven. Many other children are freed together with Hansel.

Except in today’s production, the story didn’t take place in a medieval German forest; the setting was turn of the (20th) century New York City (1893 being the year the opera premiered). Hansel and Gretel were German immigrants, which allowed them to switch between singing in German and English. They lived in the lower East Side, the forest is the Central Park, and the witch’s house is a mansion on – where else – the upper West Side.

My first reactions to the opera were not positive. For whatever reason, the voices of Hansel and Gretel didn’t project very well, which is inexcusable for a sound-enhanced stage. I have always thought English is not a good language for the opera, so I don’t understand why NYC Opera decided to translate the libretto into English. And the chintzy rhyming really drove me up the wall.

Although the program notes say there are many well-known folk tunes, the only one I am familiar with is the aria “When I go to sleep, angels watch over me.” In general the tunes are pleasant. My understanding is German operas tend to run as continuously stories, so there are not too many natural pauses for the audience to applaud.

NYC Opera tends to use younger, up-and-coming artists. Thus you don’t often get 40 year old women trying to play the role of Cio-Cio San (a teenager). Today’s singers are by-and-large age-appropriate (well, the two Jennifers aren't children, for sure), except you can’t make a case of Gretel and her mother’s being underfed.

One final note. Engelbert Humperdinck the rock singer, who was all the rage when I was a young man, actually named himself after EH the opera composer. I guess nowadays both are not that well-known. Adelheid Wette, the librettist, was the wife of the composer.

Despite phrases like “the company deserves praise,” New York Times also has a so-so review of the opera.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

New York Philharmonic – Jonanthan Nott, conductor; Peter Serkin, piano. October 28, 2006.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Second Tier Center, Seat AA109 ($60).

Overture to Konig Stephan (King Stephen), Op. 117 (1811) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Lontano, for Largo Orchestra (1967) by Ligeti (1923-2006).
Piano Concerto No. 1, BB 91 (1926) by Bartok (1881-1945).
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1804-08) by Beethoven.

The first part of the program was a Hungarian affair. Per the program notes, the program was presented to mark the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. King Stephen, the subject of the 10-number Beethoven work, was the founder of “modern Hungry” (and we are still talking late-10th-century here). Gyorgy Ligeti, who recently passed away, migrated to Germany in 1956. Bela Bartok, of course, is a well-known Hungarian composer.

The Beethoven overture began with a stately trumpet statement, followed by a light passage. The form is classical, and the piece finishes with a flourish.

Ligeti pieces have been used extensively in Stanley Kubrick’s films, including 2001: A Space Odessey and Eyes Wide Shut. Lontano was used in the horror film The Shining, and created – with other pieces - the creepy background in the film. Although I tried to listen for that effect, I couldn’t quite get it. The piece began with the flutes playing a long note and joined by dissonant strings. There was extensive use of tremolo passages in the strings. The tuba and trombone, together with harmonics in the violins, did generate an image of a “glob” or a “thing.” The music gradually built up to some level of controlled chaos, and then gently faded away. Interestingly, considering this piece as being for a “large orchestra,” there were no percussion instruments (not even the timpani).

Percussion was very much in play in the Bartok piece, which began with the timpani followed by the trombone and then the trumpet. The program notes mention this concerto highlights the use of the piano as a percussion instrument, and it is indeed true. The first movement (Allegro moderato – Allegro) was definitely a virtuoso piece, and there were some melodious interludes. Some sections in the middle were a bit difficult to appreciate, though. The movement ended with a flourish. The second movement (Andante) showcased the percussion nature of the piano with a march-like passage. It also had an ethnic sound to it. The construction of the movement was actually quite simple. The snare drums and the brass that started the third movement (Allegro molto) woke up those who had dozed off. The running passages gave the soloist another opportunity to display his virtuosity. Of the contemporary composers, I have found Bartok an easy composer to understand.

A word on Peter Serkin, a tall fellow with a gawkish manner about him. People will always associate him with his famous pianist father Rudolf. He needed the music for this performance, and the pace kept the page turner busy. I haven't heard enough of him to form a strong opinion, but I am quite sure he is a great pianist in his own right.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, whose first movement (Allegro con brio) begins with the famous notes for V, is one of his most well-known compositions. Tonight’s performance was a bit sloppy, with some players jumping in early on quite a few occasions. Avery Fisher Hall has a reputation of being a poor concert hall, and tonight the playing sounded particularly hollow. The cellos began the second movement (Andante con moto), followed by the violins. On the whole the simple movement was pleasantly done and enjoyable. The cellos again began the third movement (Allegro). The French horns made a pleasant appearance. The movement climaxed to lead to the last movement (Allegro) where an earlier theme showed up. The coda was a bit out of control, with the strings struggling a bit with intonation. Nonetheless, Beethoven delivers.

We saw Jonathan Nott earlier this year and I wrote a review of that concert. He seemed to move his wrists less than the last time, and generally put in a good performance.

New York City Opera – Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love. October 28, 2006.

New York State Theater at Lincoln Center – First Ring Right, Seat B10 ($112.50)

Conductor – George Manahan; Adina – Anna Skibinsky, Nemorino – John Tessier, Belcore – Paulo Szot, Dulcamara – Jan Opalach, Giannetta – Erin Morley.

Story. Nemorino is in love with Adina but receives a cold shoulder when he tells her about it. So Nemorina uses all his money to buy this potion from the traveling salesman Dulcamara. Dulcamara claims this is Tristan’s elixir but won’t take effect for a day, so Nemorino plays it cool when Adina approaches him. Thus angered, Adina agrees to marry the soldier Belcore immediately. In desperation, Nemorino enlists in the army so he can get the money to buy more potion to accelerate its effect. Meanwhile, Nemorino’s uncle passes away and leaves him a huge inheritance. Girls thus flock to Nemorino, making him think the elixir is working since he doesn’t know about the inheritance. When Adina finds out from Dulcamara that Nemorino is actually in love with her, she buys back his enlistment contract. They then find out about Nemorino’s inheritance, and everyone rejoices.

This is the first Donizetti opera I listened to. I am somewhat familiar with a couple of arias in Lucia di Lammermoor. Donizetti wrote over 70 operas, quite a few of them are still popular today. I have a long ways to go yet.

The opera begins with a traditional overture. While the themes are pleasant enough, somehow I find the parts not quite fitting together as a coherent piece, there were some flute passages that seemed particularly out of place.

The production is “modern,” the setting being a 1950s diner complete with leather jackets and a motorbike. It reminds me of Grease or the TV series Happy Days. Even the subtitles tend to mirror language used at that time, such as referring to girls as “chicks” and using phrases like “one hell of a …” Dlcamara’s entrance was in a convertible Ford Sunliner. I am not a fan of this sort of revisionism, evidently NY Opera feels the need to do so to appeal to a wider audience. Surprisingly, this production was first created for the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm. I wonder if they used American dollars at the diner there? The advertisements for this opera cite elaborate praises of the production; I wonder who the reviewers are.

In general the singing was very good. Many of the arias are pleasant, but few are memorable. The notable exception is “Una Furtiva Lagrima,” sung by Nemorino when he realizes joyfully that Adina is actually in love with him. The audience was appreciative, although the applause was a bit overdone in my opinion.

This was an overall pleasant experience. The story was a bit loose, even for an opera. I probably would have enjoyed a more traditional setting (a horse drawn wagon instead of a car?), but the new production was okay.

See also the New York Times review of the performance.