Thursday, November 29, 2007

Metropolitan Opera – Mozart's Die Zauberflote, November 17, 2007.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Dress Circle, Seat D2 ($125).

Conductor – Kirill Petrenko; Tamino – Joseph Kaiser, Papageno – Stephane Degout, Queen of the Night – Anna-Kristiina Kaappola, Pamina – Diana Damrau, Sarastro – Reinhard Hagen

Story: Three ladies kill the serpent that was chasing after prince Tamino. They tell Tamino they are followers of the Queen of the Night. Tamino eventually finds out the Queen of the Night is evil. He seeks after Pamina who is captured by the Queen. After passing the three trials, Tamino and Pamina are married.

Well, the story is much more complicated than that. For starters, there are Papageno and Papagena. The bird catcher Papageno has a lot of face time in the opera, although his is a secondary character. Papagena, on the other hand, speaks – with a squeaky voice - most of the time, and has only a couple of arias to her credit. And there is the good King Sarastro and his staff. However, one doesn't go to this opera for the story, but for the production and the songs.

This was an enjoyable concert. No so much for the story, which is a bit too complicated and a bit loose at the same time, but for the funny scenes and the enjoyable music. The most notable aria is the one sung by the Queen of the Night. It is only from reading the program notes that I realized the highest pitch was a C. I didn't know people could reach that high!

The many changes in scenes are a technical challenge, which the stage crew pulled off without a hitch. The Program Notes listed 10 scenes for Act 2, although it was more like a continuously changing scene. The use of people to animate the different animals (birds, lions – which I thought were bears) was also ingenious.

This is an opera one attends to have an enjoyable time but not to be moved by the story or gripped by the drama. It's worth the time, though. And one has to give the artists and production crew great credit as it is not a simple feat to pull off; which the Met did flawlessly.

This opera was of the last ones completed by Mozart, and he died soon after its premiere. I have seen quite a few (at least 4) of Mozart's operas, I have yet learn how to enjoy them as a complete work of art. I always find something wanting. In this case, there is not much of a story, even for a comedy.

A couple of additional remarks. The use of trios (as in three ladies, three spirits) and the many triangles is interesting, but best left to musicologists and Free Mason experts to decipher. Mozart's operas tend to be questionable in today's PC climate (treatment of women in particular). Somehow I have not heard people protesting loudly about this.

We moved across the street the day before the concert, and in the process misplaced the tickets. Since I bought them as a subscriber, all it took was a phone call to the box office and duplicates were waiting for us when we got into New York. Quite convenient.

See also the New York Times review of a later performance - here Damrau actually sang the role of the Queen. I was wondering why she would consent to do the role of Pamina, which while rich, is a bit sparse. Little did I know she would do both. She also retired her role as the Queen, so I won't get to hear her doing the crazy tune, that's too bad.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

New York Philharmonic – Xian Zhang, Conductor; Vadim Repin, Violin. November 10, 2007.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, First Tier Center (Seat CC14, $59).


Fanfare and Announcement from Three Pieces for Orchestra (1998, 2000) by Huang Ruo (b. 1976).

Symphonie espangnole for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 21 (1874) by Lalo (1823-92).

Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 (1811-12) by Beethoven (1770-1827).

The piece by Huang (I'm sure that's his last name) was 12 minutes long, with a clear demarcation between the fanfare and the announcement. The fanfare was reasonably easy to follow and, perhaps, to enjoy. The announcement, however, got to be a bit too out there for me. The composer evidently is highly regarded; he is now a doctoral student at Julliard and teaches composition at SUNY-Purchase. Let's hope he doesn't unleash hundreds like him onto the music world – one of him is plenty. I quote from the Program Notes the composer's words, “Everything has an end, and the end is a new beginning. It is true that these two pieces for orchestra are completed, but in an incomplete way. What is before, after, and beyond, is left to the listeners.” I am as puzzled today as when I first read this. The orchestration is quite interesting, though. There is this thing that made a wind-like noise when twirled (it would be the “rain stick”).

I didn't know Lalo was French, although I know the piece very well. In my defense, he was descended from a Spanish family; his ancestors were in France as early as the 16th century, though. Most people who listen to this would call this a violin concerto, especially since it is considered a virtuoso violin piece. It's structure is not classically concerto-like as it has five moments of about equal length. The movements are: Allegro non troppo; Scherzando: Allegro molto; Intermezzo: Allegretto non troppo; Andandate; and Rondo: Allegro. Repin played the piece well, his Guarnerius violin soared above the orchestra. Curiously there is no clear cadenza in the piece that I could discern, although there were many challenging passages. My overall impression with this piece, however, is that it is not trying to go anywhere except to show off the violinist and provide many enjoyable tunes. These are not bad qualities for a piece to have; but not quite satisfying in this instance.

I got to really like Beethoven's 7th symphony from listening to the slow movement in the Dearly Beloved soundtrack. It is a great and moving movement. The rest of the symphony is equally enjoyable. The four movements are: Poco sostenuto - Vivace; Allegretto; Presto; and Allegro con brio.

Zhang is surprisingly energetic. Most of the time she had full movements of her arms, and jumped around quite a bit. I am sure she will calm down as she matures – otherwise it would be difficult to still be conducting at age 75 (a good 40 years away, maybe?) She is quite short, even in heels, standing on the podium, she is still shorter than Repin. I wonder if that would affect how far she can go in her career. I do want to root for her, though.

See also the New York Times Review on the program.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities ... the musical. November 6, 2007.

Asolo Repertory Theatre, Sarasota, Florida – Mezzanine, Seat D17 ($56).

Book, music & lyrics - Jill Santoriello; Director - Michael Donald Edwards; Sydney Carton – James Barbour, Charles Darnay – Derek Keeling, Miss Pross – Katherine McGrath; Lucie Manette – Jessica Rush, Madame Therese Defarge – Natalie Toro, John Barsad – Nick Wyman.

Story. Dr. Alexander Manette is released from the Bastille after a 17-year imprisonment and returns to London with his daughter Lucie and faithful banker Mr. Lorry. The young man Charles Darnay they meet is arrested as a spy on the word of Barsad; Darnay is however cleared by the brilliant defense put up by Sydney Carton. Both Darnay and Carton fall in love with Lucie but Darnay eventually marries Lucie while Carton remains a friend of the family. Darnay has to return to Paris to save a friend, but is arrested, again on the word of Barsad, who has changed his name after faking his own death. Darnay is condemned to the guillotine when Madame Defarge shows the crowd Dr. Manette's letter hidden in the Bastille, revealing Darnay as the nephew of the hated Marquis Evremonde. Carton gets Barsad to arrange a switch (of Carton) with Darnay in prison, and goes to the guillotine in his stead.

One reason we came to Sarasota this week was to see the world premiere of the musical “A Tale of Two Cities.” I have heard about this Dickens' book since I was a school kid but had never read it, and didn't know much about the story. I looked for the book when I was in Hong Kong and managed to buy an abridged version. The original is very long (it's Dickens, after all), so I am glad a digested version exists. The disappointment is the shortened version doesn't begin with the famous line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It does contain Carton's famous last thoughts, though.

The show is going to be at the Asolo Theater for about four weeks. It has sold most of the tickets (17,000 total), ranging in price from $16 to $56. We noticed some companies were making this an event where employees and guests get to enjoy cocktails before the show. The local marketing people are doing a great job.

Including the 20 minute break, the show lasted 2 hours 50 minutes, which is a bit long. Act I was quite long at about 85 minutes, good thing the theater has adequate restroom facilities.

The company of actors numbered about 40, which is a bit large for the 500 seat auditorium. Similarly the sound system and attendant audio effects were a bit overwhelming. Since the Sarasota run is a preparation for (hopefully) a Broadway engagement, I can see the production staff agonizing over these issues.

The sets were more appropriate for the Asolo Theater, but the 2-story frames still managed to fill the entire stage. The design is generally elegant, at times ingenious. They need to be spiffied up considerably for Broadway, in my opinion. Comparisons with Les Miserables are inevitable, and the Tale pales in this instance.

Madame Defarge and Sydney Carton both put out impressive performances. Other actors/singers were okay, though not spectacular. Musical actors use mikes, this is the first time I see these small mikes protruding from the hairlines, quite interesting.

The story, especially at the beginning, appeared a bit disjoint from scene to scene. This may be due to how it was written, or how it was performed – I'm not sure. The storyline is remarkably close to the book, much to the writer Jill Santoriello's credit.

There are a few quibbles with the show, though. The most memorable song of the show “Out of sight, out of mind” is quite moving and done very well by Madame Defarge. However, to have the antagonist sing your best song is unfortunate. The typical theater-goer would like to walk away humming an uplifting song rather than how the rich enjoy not knowing the poor suffer. The only instance I can think of where this comes to close to working is Delilah singing “Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix” in Mendelssohn's Samson and Delilah, and it is a love song (even though the singer is insincere). The character of Sydney Carton could be developed a bit more. He has a lot of singing parts, but the transformation of the character is not well defined in the show.

It is beyond my literary capacity to compare Dickens with Hugo. Both stories involve social injustice, revolutions, love triangles, redemption, sacrifice, the list goes on. There is even the Tale's Little Gaspard to Les Miserables's Gavroche. In most, if not all, instances, the Musical Les Miz develops the character more fully; and the Tale certainly has enough running time to do so. Similarly, Valjean quickly becomes a sympathetic character; I believe the audience feels for Carton only towards the end. Les Miz also took more advantage of its catchy tunes, reusing them quite often.

It is clear the production staff is tuning the show. I actually went to a practice session in New York where they were rehearsing the Christmas song “Round and Round”. It is a nice tune, but it was deleted from the show we saw. Anne remarked the grave robber's song “No Honest Way”, while funny, wasn't necessary either. She also said there were some instances of humor that were incongruent with the mood.

Now to be as successful as Les Miz may be asking for too much. Even in its present form, I think the Tale ranks up there as one of the great musicals I have seen (and I have seen quite a few).