Thursday, February 28, 2008

Metropolitan Opera – Verdi's Otello, February 22, 2008.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Grand Tier, Seat E28 ($140).

Conductor – Semyon Bychkov; Cassio – Garrett Sorenson, Iago – Carlo Guelfi, Roderigo – Ronald Naldi, Otello – Johan Botha, Desdemona – Renee Fleming, Emiliar – Wendy White.

Story. Iago is bent on revenge after the Moor Otello promotes Cassio instead of him. Cassio gets into a fight and is demoted by Otello, and asks Desdemona to help with getting his job back. Iago uses this to stoke the jealousy in Otello by making this into a case of infidelity. Otello is convinced of Desdemona's guilt because she cannot produce a handkerchief he gave her. As Desdemona prepares to go to bed, Otello strangulates her. Iago's plot is revealed and Otello stabs himself and dies next to Desdemona.

The plot, exploring the dark yet powerful human emotion of jealousy, is a great one. My son, who majored in English at Cornell, says this is his favorite Shakespeare play. We saw another Verdi/Shakespeare opera, Macbeth, recently, and that explores hunger for power. These human emotions are timeless. Another lesson: get out of a relationship as soon as it becomes abusive. In this opera it starts with a slap and ends with murder.

We took the train up because there was fear of more snow that evening. Turned out there was no snow. On our way up, our train was stuck behind a disabled one for an hour, so we missed the first act. We did see part of it in a theater, without subtitles we didn't understand anything (and I didn't read up on the story before we went), except people were fighting with swords.

Our seats were okay, with an unobstructed view of the stage. The sets were quite impressive, with these giant paintings as backdrops for the castle scenes. The lighting was certainly “adequate” most of the time.

As with Macbeth, there were not that many singable tunes in the opera, which is mostly carried along by the plot. The fact that it was a compelling performance would mean the lyrics (or translation thereof) and the acting were good.

Desdemona didn't get to sing much during the first 3 acts, and we thought Fleming was a bit weak in some of the arias. She really shone during Act 4 singing the Willow Song and Ave Maria. High notes, soft voice, and she still managed to soar above the orchestra and captivate the audience. I found the combination of the two songs a bit much, though. You only want to hold the audience's attention for so long in one sitting, and the work might be better served by having Desdemona sing the two arias in two different scenes.

I wonder if there are more Shakespeare plays turned into operas. I saw Hamlet in London a few years back, and it was also enjoyable.

The New York Times review is mixed on Botha, partially attributing the lack of dramatic depth to his weight. The reviewer had reservations about the conductor also.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Opera Australia – Bizet's Carmen, February 7, 2008.

Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House – Seat Stalls S33 (A$ 195).

Richard Hickox – conductor; Kirstin Chavez – Carmen, Don Jose – Rosario La Spina, Escamillo – Michael Todd Simpson, Micaela – Sarah Crane.

Story. See previous blog.

I have seen this opera quite a few times already, but went again as this was the only show that worked out with our schedule during this trip. This also must be the 3rd or 4th opera I have seen at the Opera House, and I never realized that it was so small, seating perhaps (by my estimation) 1500. The seats are quite comfortable, though. We had quite a crowd: Anne, Steven, Ruth, Tim, Alyson, and me.

Carmen is always enjoyable. This was no exception. The staging is not quite as elaborate as the Met production we saw, but was quite substantial nonetheless.

The best singing was put out by Don Jose. He was quite heavy and I worried with all the falling down whether he would have trouble getting up. Turns out he must have practiced quite a bit as he had no trouble at all.

Carmen's voice was not as rich as some other mezzo-sopranos I have heard. And she tended to take things a bit too slowly for my taste. I always wonder if that's the conductor or the singer.

Micaela did quite well though. I think Bizet put in the part to contrast her moral character with those of the other actors. I have never felt that click, and this is no exception.

Escamillo is very athletic, jumping onto and off tables with ease. His entrance was on a (real) horse and his singing was weak and a bit out of tune. I initially attributed it to the fear of animals (who wouldn't be, having to stand on the stirrups.) Eventually I decided his athleticism isn't matched by his singing ability, which is too bad as the toreador's song is one of the best tunes around.

All in all, this was enjoyable, although not as good as it could be. See the Sydney Morning Herald review for a different take on the opera – they are much kinder than me.

Metropolitan Opera – Wagner's Die Walkure, February 2, 2008.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Grand Tier, Seat Box 30-5 ($115).

Conductor – Lorin Maazel; Sigmund – Clifton Forbis, Sieglinde – Deborah Voight, Hunding - Mikhail Petrenko, Woten – James Morris, Brunnhilde – Lisa Gasteen, Fricka – Michelle DeYoung.

Story. Sigmund falls in love with Sieglinde, who is married to Hunding. Hunding challenges Sigmund to a duel. Woten sends Brunnhilde to help Sigmund, but is later forbidden by his wife Fricka to do so. Sigmund is killed and Brunnhilde is punished by Woten for disobeying him. Woten nonetheless puts a wall of fire around Brunnhilde to protect her.

This opera is the second in Wagner's famous Ring Cycle, and the story is quite a bit more complicated. Among other things, Sigmund and Sieglinde are twins, and yet they get married and Sieglinde is pregnant. (She later gives birth to Siegfried who marries Brunnhilde, which complicates things even further: but that is another opera.) Woten seems to be the father of everyone, including the two protagonists and all the “Hildas”. Yet his wife defends the sanctity of marriage.

This is a rather long opera at 4 hours 45 minutes, yet Loren Maazel, who can seem lethargic when conducting the New York Philharmonic, was very energetic. While he used the score, but he was undoubtedly very familiar with the music. We could see him cuing and singing along with the soloists. Alas, there is only one familiar tune: The Rides of the Valkyries.

The singing was excellent. I can understand why people say Voight is a great Wagnerian soprano as her voice indeed soared above the orchestra. Since I didn't have a good view of the stage, I can't comment on the acting. The staging was okay, the fire scene was not as spectacular as I expected, but they should turn on more lights so we could see better.

Maazel had an interview in one of the magazines (probably New York, but I am not sure) which talked about his return to conducting the Met. He made the observation that Wagner, who wrote his own lyrics, wasn't that good a lyricist. Since I have forgotten all my German from my college days, and I depended on the subtitles to understand what was going on, I couldn't tell.

In any case, this was all-in-all an impressive performance. Some people still found reason to boo during the curtain call, though.

See the New York Times article on the return of Maazel to the Met podium. The review is kinder than usual, bordering on a rave.

Friday, February 01, 2008

New York Philharmonic – Riccardo Muti, conductor; Radu Lupu, Piano. January 26, 2008.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat G8, $59).


Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 54 (1841-45) by Schumann (1810-56).

Symphony No. 6 in A major (1879-91) by Bruckner (1824-96)

Just a few remarks about tonight's concert. We are seated in the seventh row from the front, on the right side. So we had a great view of the viola section, including the guy who played with great gusto. Seldom do I hear the violas that well ...

I am not familiar with the (supposed popular) Schuman concerto. It is about 30 minutes long, in three movements (Allegro affettuoso; Intermezzo: Andante grazioso; Allegro vivace). It is a pleasant piece, and the audience's applause was enthusiastic afterwards. The program notes talk about Schumann characterizing his dual musical personality as fiery Florestan and dreamy Eusebius, and this piece is more on the dreamy side, which (supposedly) was quite unusual for music of that period as composers tended to write for the virtuoso. I think back on what Joshua Bell said about virtuoso versus “deep” music during the New Year's New York Philharmonic concert (parts of which we saw on TV): the distinction is artificial, and both kinds of music should be treated with respect.

The Bruckner Symphony is rather long at about 60 minutes (it was certainly longer than the 53 minutes listed in the program notes). The program notes made a big deal about this being the L. Nowak 1952 edition. I suspect if I listen to this many times, I'd care. And how many in tonight's audience had listened to this symphony (or any Bruckner symphony, for that matter) enough times to care? Sometimes the pretentiousness of the program annotator (in this case James M Keller) is a bit much. The four movements are (i) Majestoso; (ii) Adagio: Very solemn; (iii) Scherzo: Not fast – Trio: Slow; and (iv) Finale: Moving, but not too fast. I also wonder why Bruckner would state his tempo in Latin and English :)

Muti is a well-known conductor, and we have seen him a couple of times. He looks younger than I would have thought. He seldom (if ever) laughs, but I assume he enjoys the music.

See the New York Times review. I am not sure what the reviewer is saying about the Bruckner sympony.