Sunday, August 17, 2008

Opera Australia – Verdi's Otello, August 16, 2008.

Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House – Seat Circle L25 (A$135).

Simon Hewett – conductor; Dennis O'Neill – Otello, Cheryl Barker – Desdemona, Jonaathan Summers – Iago, Kanen Breen – Cassio, Jaqueline Dark – Emilia, Andrew Brunsdon – Roderigo.

Story. See previous blog.

I had the choice of picking either Otello or Lucia di Lammermoor to see today. I picked Otello because it was a matinee and Ruth didn't want to stay up late for the evening show. I like the performance I saw at the Met also, so wouldn't mind seeing it again. Also we were late for that performance and missed the first act. This knowing full well the opera is not quite singable and the drama is the element that carries the performance along. In addition to Ruth and Steven, Ling and Wally also saw the opera with me.

I was disappointed at tonight's performance. It wasn't so much it was a bad performance, but rather it didn't succeed at any of the elements that make a performance great.

First, the whole performance felt disjointed. The “dialog”, the music, the acting, they all seemed to move from element to element without much continuity. I felt this way from five minutes into the show, and the feeling remained till the end. My experience at the Met was a compelling story propelled along by a great sense of doom and urgency.

The staging for Act I was okay. They used many steps as both the deck of a ship and the square where the fight between Cassio and Roderigo took place. It got monotonous when they used it for Act II, Act III, and then Act IV! More ridiculous than minimalist. Staging is part of what makes an opera enjoyable, but evidently the stage manager wasn't aware of that. People were dressed in non-period specific costumes. The brown uniforms worn by the soldiers remind me of Nazis, which probably isn't the intention of the designer. It's a matter of debate whether one should “modernize” these works, and I am a traditionalist when it comes to this matter.

Otello traditionally is painted with a black face to show his Moorish heritage. This wasn't done at today's performance. Probably political correctness carried to an extreme. I am Chinese, and I wasn't at all offended at Domingo being portrayed (and made up) as Chinese in the First Emperor. I am sure there are few people as sensitive as the Chinese ...

I do not know the singers, so didn't know what to expect. Desdemona seemed only capable of reaching the higher notes by belting them out. Even though I “enjoyed” the Willow Song and Ave Maria, I wish she had whispered them rather than shouted them (well, she wasn't that bad). Nonetheless, perhaps to have the same expectations of Cheryl Barker as Renee Fleming is unfair – to Fleming. Otello's voice was quite weak, and he was a bit on the stocky side. Don Jose of Carmen was another Opera Australia person that was a bit on the heavy side – do we have a pattern here? Anyway, Otello seemed to manage the stairs without a lot of difficulty, good for him.

The orchestra played reasonably well, but there wasn't much drama to the music, a real pity for “unsingable” operas.

I am quite amazed at how different the levels of performance is between a production by the Met and one by Opera Australia. Something that seems to come out with ease from the Met appears to be very difficult to piece together by a lesser company, even though the story is by Shakespeare and the music is by Verdi, both acknowledged masters in their genres.

I bought a program for AUD 15 since there were 5 of us, against my "principle" and better judgment. There was very little additional information in it. It does contain one article contrasting how Verdi and Shakespeare treated the different characters, worthy of a college paper. As I suspected, most of the pages were advertisements.

The Sydney Morning Herald gave the opera a raving review. (I hate to sound snobbish) Perhaps the reviewer, Peter McCallum, should go out more often.

Benefit Concert for China Earthquake Victims – Yi Heng Yang, piano; Gloria Vasconcellos - harp; Max Zeugner – double bass, August 3, 2008.

Lincroft Bible Church Sanctuary, Lincroft, NJ.

L'Egyptienne by Jean Phillipe-Rameau; Gloria Vasconcellos, harp.
Toccata by Nicolas-Charles Bochsa; Vasconcellos.
Fantasy pieces, Op. 73 by Robert Schumann; Max Zeugner, double bass & Yi-heng Yang, piano.
(Zart und mit ausdruck - Lebhaft, leicht - Rasch und mit feuer)
Scherzo no. 4, Op. 54 by Frederic Chopin; Yang.
Etude in C-sharp minor, Op. 10, no. 4 by Frederic Chopin, arranged for double bass by F. Sevitsky; Zeugner & Yang.
Tango by Jean Michel Damase; Vasconcellos.
Une Chatelaine en sa tour by Gabriel Faure; Vasconcellos.
Argpeggione Sonata, D. 821 by Franz Schubert; Zeugner & Yang.
(Adagio - Allegretto)
Lullaby by He Lau-Ting; Zeugner, Vasconcellos & Yang.

In May of this year, a huge earthquake (close to 8 on the Richter scale)) occurred in Sichuan Province, causing many deaths and much property damage. The three musicians today performed a concert at which they collected good will offering for disaster relief.

I have never been to a concert where these three instruments were featured together as solo instruments. Actually I have never heard the double bass as a solo instrument. The program was quite long (may be totaling 1 hour 15 minutes or so), most of the pieces would be what I call occasional, light music (doesn't mean easy to play) composed by the likes of Chopin and Schubert.

About 100 people attended, by my estimate. The auditorium can pack in maybe 400 people, so it felt a little too cavernous. Nonetheless, the performance was quite enjoyable. There was some discussion about the acoustics. Instead of holding the concert at MCCC (which sponsored the concert), LBC was chosen because it should work better for the harp. However, the relative loudness of the instruments would still work differently at different locations.

Yi Heng and Max came to our boat for a ride on the Navesink river afterwards, and we talked some more about the concert. Most (if not all) of solo music for the double bass is transcribed from music written for other instruments. The “double” in “double bass” denotes the propensity for composers (especially before the romantic period) to simply write a part that is an octave lower than the cello: it is very obvious if you watch an orchestra play. I believe the New York Philharmonic simply call them the bass section.

Max played the double bass standing up, and had to reach down to get the high registers. This can't be easy on the back. Most bassists play the instrument sitting on a high stool, less stress on the body, but more limiting in range of motion. It actually sounded very like a cello, which may be the ultimate praise (or insult) to a bass player. And they do carry them around from performance to performance. No small cars for these musicians, oversize luggage for airplanes.

The last piece by a Chinese composer was written for the piano and another instrument (I forget which) which they transcribed for the bass, and then asked the harpist to add something to it so the three of them can play together.