Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Metropolitan Opera - Giordano's Andrea Chenier. April 7, 2007.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center - Grand Tier, Seat G20 ($150).

Conductor - Marco Armiliato; Carlo Gerard - Mark Delaven, Maddalena de Coigny - Violeta Urmana, Bersi - Maria Zifchak, Andrea Chenier - Ben Heppner, The Incredible (a spy) - David Cangelosi, Roucher - Charles Taylor, Madelon - Irina Mishura.

Story. Andre Chenier is a poet during the time of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. He is introduced in the opera composing a poem mocking the aristocrats invited to a ball by Maddalena's family. Gerard, a servant in the household, quits his job, joins the French Revolution and rises up in its ranks. He falsely accuses Chenier of betraying the cause. Maddalena, who is in love with Andre Chenier, pleads for Chenier's life and promises to marry Gerard if Chenier is saved. Her plea to Gerard describing how her mother was killed and how she and her servant Bersi had to hide from their persecutors wins Gerard over. Despite Gerard's admitting that the charges are trumped up, the tribunal still sentences Chenier to die. Before the execution, Maddalena bribes the prison guard to let her be disguised as another condemned woman prisoner. Maddalena and Andre spend their last moments together before going to the guillotine.

The aria “La mamma morta”, sung by Maria Callas, was made famous in the fireplace scene of the movie Philadelphia with Tom Hanks describing the aria, especially the cello part. It was largely because of my fascination with this song that we went to see the opera. The other interesting thing is there is a causal clothing brand in Hong Kong named Giordano, legend has it that the company founder named the company after the opera composer.

I enjoyed the opera. The sets were elaborately and nicely constructed. The opera also called for a large number of chorus members in scenes such as the ballroom dance and the mob. The music was generally pleasant. What I have read about the opera seems to indicate there are a couple of familiar arias. I only knew the one from Philadelphia, though.

Violetta Urmana is no Maria Callas. She had a different take on the aria than the Callas soundtrack I have, nonetheless it was beautifully performed. Ben Heppner, whom we also saw earlier this season in Idomeneo, was a bit weak. The acting in general was only so-so. The supposedly scene-stealer aria of Madelon, a blind old woman offering her only surviving son to the revolution, was not all that captivating.

Nonetheless, it was well worth the time. The appreciative audience seemed to agree. I also got to review a bit of my European history. Andre Chenier was a historical character. The love story with Maddalena, alas, was made up. The macabre in us made us wonder if they would show a guillotine in the last Act. What they did was cast a shadow of one in the background.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

New York Philharmonic - Sir Colin Davis, Conductor; Radu Lupu, Piano, Thomas Stacy, English Horn. March 31, 2007.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center - Third Tier Box 10R6 ($30).

Piano Concerto in B-flat major, K. 595 (1790-91) by Mozart (1756-91).
Lemminkainen Suite, Op. 22 (various) by Sibelius (1865-1957).

We attended tonight's concert at the suggestion of our friend. He claims Radu Lupu plays great Mozart. The other part of the program was going to be Sibelius's Lemminkainen Suite. I had heard a movement from the Suite about a year ago and was not particularly impressed. So there was both anticipation and dread towards the concert.

The Mozart piano concerto was written less than a year before Mozart died, although scholars doubt very much it indicates any knowledge of the composer's sad demise. The concerto contains the traditional movements (Allegro, Larghetto, and Allegro). Indeed Lupu played very well. Compared to Uchida, whom I heard a week ago, his phrasing was crisp, and the use of pedal was minimal (I detected it only during the cadenza). Now, I am no pianist, nor am I a Mozart scholar, so I honestly can't tell one great performance from another. Nonetheless, both a doctoral student at Julliard and her mother tell me the phrasing and balance are just exquisite. I will have to take their word for it. In contrast, the orchestra was a bit sloppy. No doubt more rehearsal time with the guest conductor Colin Davis would have helped.

The Lemminkainen Suite consists of four movements composed during various times. They are: (i) Lemminkainen and the Maidens of the Island (1895, rev. 1897/1939), (ii) The Swan of Tuonela (1895, rev. 1897/1900), (iii) Lemminkainen in Tuonela (1893, rev. 1879/1939) and (iv) Lemminaiken's Return (1895, rev. 1897/1900).

I enjoyed the Suite much more this time than the last, which I characterized as “forgettable.” Perhaps it was due to the seat. Although we sat in a third tier box and had only a partial view of the stage, the acoustics was quite good. Another factor could be when the entire Suite is played, there was more context to understand the music with. Even the Swan movement came across quite well. Although we had to lean forward to see Thomas Stacy, the sound of the English Horn came through very well. Overall, the music is quite uplifting, especially by Sibelius's standard.

A word on the conductor. He is about 80 years old (born 1927), and still stands straight and conduct vigorously. Impressive.

The Metropolitan Opera - Strauss's Die Agyptische Helena. March 31, 2007.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center - Dress Circle, Seat F24 ($125).

Conductor - Fabio Luisi; Aithra - Diana Damrau, Helena - Deborah Voight, Melenas - Torsten Kerl, Da-ud, Garrett Soreson, Altair - Wolfgang Brendel.

Story. The traditional Helen of Troy story has Helen carried away by Paris and marrying him. This story presents the alternate legend that it is actually a facsimile of Helen that is carried off, while the real Helen remains in Egypt. She has to convince Menalas that she has always been faithful. When given the choice of a lotus potion that will eliminate all the bad memories or a potion that will bring back remembrance of those bad times, Helen chooses the later. Still, they manage to overcome the pain and are reunited with their child Hermione.

I chose this Met performance because Deborah Voight is in it. I had read many reports on Voight who is proclaimed as a great Wagner soprano. My interest was really piqued when she was dismissed from a London performance because she was too overweight, and her subsequent decision to have her stomach's size surgically reduced.

That this opera was composed by Richard Strass was a bit of a deterrent. We saw his Capriccio (NYC Opera) in 2005 and I came away puzzled. Alas, this sentiment is repeated with this opera.

The premise of the story is interesting enough, although with the way the plot unfolds in the opera, there is not much suspense or drama. The set is minimal and not very interesting, especially by the Met's usual elaborate standards. The costume was modern – dresses and suits, no togas.

Both Damrau and Voight have great voices. Voight supposedly had to hit a C#, I missed it, probably because she did it so effortlessly. I was a bit surprised that Voight's timbre was a bit on the harsh side, maybe that's why it carries so well? Damrau's voice is very pleasant. In comparison, the tenor Kerl's voice was weak.

A few interesting notes. The elves all wear sunglasses and dresses, but they all have beards. There is also a group of men in white suits carrying black briefcases that have light bulbs in them. They remind me of the “agents” in the Matrix movies. Also, they made Aithra lie on the stage at the end of Act I and before Act II for quite a while. The sets of Acts I and II are mirror images of one another.

Opera News magazine had a couple of articles on Diana Damrau and the Met production of this opera. Perhaps these writers have a better appreciation of the opera.

The Met put this opera on soon after it was written in 1928. It wasn't repeated until this series. One wonders when the opera will be produced again!

New York Philharmonic - Sir Colin Davis, Conductor; Mitsuko Uchida, Piano. March 24, 2007.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center, Seat DD19 ($59).

Symphony No. 85 in B-flat minor, "La Reine," Hob. I:85 (1785?) by Haydn (1732-1809).
Piano Concerto in F major, K. 459 (1784) by Mozart (1756-91).
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, "Tragic," D.417 (1816) by Schubert (1797-1828).

Since we had quite a bit of time between the Opera and this evening's concert, we went to the pre-concert talk. It was given by the Philharmonic's scholar-in-residence Charles Bornstein. He had quite a bit of praise for how effect Colin Davis was as a conductor. He also remarked that all three composers in tonight's concert died in Vienna. Someone pointed out Schubert actually died at age 31, even younger than Mozart. To think Schubert could be writing timeless music while a teenage is sobering. Although Bornstein did point out the music sometimes would drift on for a bit too long.

We saw Colin Davis last year, the soloist was also Uchida, whom we have heard several times already. She is generally known as a great Mozart musician, although I find her playing a bit sloppy (too much pedaling?). I am very familiar with the concerto, having played it in the orchestra while I was in high school, and thoroughly enjoyed it. The movements are Allegro, Allegretto, and Allegro assai.

The Haydn symphony is in four movements: Adagio – vivace; Romance (Allegretto); Menuet (Allegretto – Trio); and Finale (Presto). Schubert's symphony is also in four movements: Adagio molto – Allegro vivace; Andante; Menuetto (Allegro vivace – Trio); and Allegro.

By the time I write this (April 6, 2007), I have forgotten most of the concert already. Having to write four reviews in a row doesn't help. I should learn to jot down my thoughts sooner, for what it's worth.

See the New York Times review.

New York City Opera - Rossini's La donna del lago. March 24, 2007.

New York State Theater at Lincoln Center - First Ring Right, Seat D6 ($112.50).

Conductor - George Manahan; Elena - Alexandrina Pendatchanska, Malcolm - Laura Vlasak Nolen, Uberto - Barry Banks, Rodrigo - Robert McPherson, Duglas - Daniel Mobbs.

Story. Elena, of Loch Katrine, is in love with the warrior Malcolm, but her father Duglas would rather she marry Rodrigo, the leader of the insurgent Highland army. Elena encounters Uberto and provides him with shelther; Uberto mistakes this kindness for love. When Uberto finds out Elena's true feelings, he gives Elena a ring that he claims will guarantee the King's aid and protection if she needed it. Rodrigo overhears this and challenges Uberto to a duel; Rodrigo is killed and the conflict is escalated. Duglas is captured and Elena goes to ask King James to pardon him. She discovers Uberto is actually King James of Scotland; he pardons both Duglas and Malcolm. The story ends with the marriage of Elena and Malcom being blessed.

This was a so-so opera. The staging was simplistic, the story was straight-forward, and the singing was only okay.

Three layers of broken city walls represent the ruins of the Highlands. If you don't use your imagination that there is a boat on stage, you won't know there is a lake involved, despite the title. Some free staging advice: a blue sheet or some sort of lighting will have given the effect of a shimmering lake.

The first act is basically used to introduce the main characters: Elena and her three suitors. There is no drama, no comedy, and barely a story in the act. The only action is Elena and Uberto climbing onto this contraption called a boat and appearing at Elena's home. The second act is interesting only when compared to the first one.

The singing was generally okay, the orchestra played well. But you expect that of Rossini's music anyway. The role of Malcolm was played by a woman, which is probably a necessity given the voice range expected. Unfortunately for me, I got terribly confused at times.

See also the Financial Times review.