Saturday, November 15, 2008

Metropolitan Opera - Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust, November 14, 2008.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center - Dress Circle, Seat E17 ($111.50).

Story. See previous blog. Only item to add is the redemption of Marguerite at the end of the opera.

Conductor - James Levine; Faust - Marcello Giordani, Mephistopheles - John Relyea, Brander - Patrick Carfizzi, Marguerite - Susan Graham.

It was only 2 weeks ago that we saw this piece in Chicago, with Charles Dutoit conducting. The performance was done with singers and a rather large chorus. I enjoyed it.

Reading the synopsis would lead one to think this work is not easily amenable to being staged. Indeed the MET program notes indicated that view has been held by most until recently. Robert Lapage, the director, decided to give it a try. We saw the first performance of this new production. The results are quite remarkable.

While the costume is period-indeterminate (Faust as a legend was around in the 16th century, I am sure the devil didn't wear tight-fitting latex then), the staging was definitely modern. I am a traditional when it comes to these matters, but have to say this time it worked very well, and probably was the only way it could work given today's technology.

The main structure is several levels (four) with repeated patterns. Projectors are used to generate images on screens. Quite a few notable ones such as the library at the start, trees turning into deadwood when Mephistopheles walks towards Faust with the scroll, and Faust and Mephistopheles galloping towards hell. There was considerable stagecraft also: dancers dropping into water; Faust falling into hell; cables suspending soldiers as they marched, and devilish figures as they moved about the stage. The use of Marguerite's image as the backdrop while she sang the Romance (accompanied by the English horn) was also very interesting: I thought the image was pre-recorded, Anne – backed by the program notes – said it was live. It is also quite interesting how the soldiers marching up and down the meadow (suspended by wires) would disturb the parts of the video images where they marched. I assume it is from precise choreography rather than super-smart technology, but who knows.

I do have a few minor quibbles. There is this propensity to walk backwards that I find puzzling. It's okay, but don't seem to add to the visual image. They had five people on crosses at one point (they must be acrobats that flip from behind the trusses), but the words were about the risen Christ! And often the imagery reminds me of Fantasia – and Levine conducted the second one. I have only seen TV advertisement images of Cirque du Soleil, but people hanging from wires remind me of those ads; I found out later that Robert Lepage worked on one of the Cirque shows.

Sometimes I thought the staging was a bit too close to being blasphemous (crosses being one example). However, this work is about bargaining with the devil and going to hell for it, so may be it is necessary. I also have been studying the Book of Revelation in preparation for my Sunday school class, and the imageries there are even more challenging. Indeed Anne thought the representation of hell could have been a bit more graphic.

That was quite a writeup on the staging. How was the musical performance? I'm glad I asked.

Levine still sat down during the show, but he certainly showed a great deal of energy, and the orchestra reflected that. Of course since my senses were spread quite thin by the staging, the lighting, the chorus, the singers, the video images, and the action, my observations on the orchestra were limited. However, the music blended very well with other elements of the performance. The soloists were all great. The only weak voice was by Brander who sang the Requiem for the Rat. Marguerite was especially well done.

A few more observations. While the CSO program notes talked about the salvation of Marguerite, there was only orchestra playing during that “scene” and it didn't leave enough of an impression on me to write that salvation down in the “story” part of that blog. The Met had her climb up a long flight of stairs, straight up. I was a bit worried about whether she would fall off. The Met performance started with Faust as an old man reminiscing in the library, which I didn't get from the CSO performance either. (A question: how did he manage to get out of hell?) Even though I heard this only two weeks ago, it felt like a completely different performance. Also, I would say the difference between tonight and November 1 is a great argument for why opera is so different from a regular concert. (Well, opera tickets are also quite a bit more expensive.)

I am glad we got to go to both performances, even though it was mostly due to coincidence. See the New York Times review of the same performance.

Monday, November 10, 2008

New York Philharmonic - Christoph Eschenback, conductor; Lang Lang, piano. November 8, 2008.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 2 (Seat D16, $54)

Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (ca 1795/1800) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Symphony No. 9 in D minor (1887-94; ed. Orel, 1934) by Anton Bruckner (1824-1896).

We attended this concert with the Yangs. Had dinner at sushi-a-go-go across the street. We managed to get 3 pre-concert talk tickets for the 4 of us, so I (being the knowledgeable one, just kidding) went to Starbucks and had coffee by myself. The Program Notes for today's concert are not that informative, more historical than musical. It talks about which was really Beethoven's first piano concerto, and that Bruckner died before completing the 9th symphony (although he had written about 200 pages of notes for the last movement). Interesting, but didn't add to my appreciation of the pieces.

Beethoven's concerto had a strong hint of Mozart to it, which is to be expected given when it was written. The three movements are Allegro con brio; Largo; and Rondo: Allegro. It's an enjoyable piece. I was a bit disappointed at Lang Lang's performance, especially since we heard Andre Watts play the piece several months ago. I was very impressed with how Watts brought out the structure of the piece. Lang Lang failed to do so, which is made worse, in my opinion, by his penchant for showmanship. The cadenza he chose was written by Beethoven (I am not familiar with it), it just sounded too long and I actually wished that it would end earlier than it did. The second movement's lead in by the piano was wandering and unfocused. Nonetheless, the crowd gave the performance a standing ovation, which I attribute to "name-recognition" rather than true appreciation. In any case, Lang Lang the musician isn't quite at the level of Lang Lang the virtuoso yet.

The Bruckner symphony's three movements are (i) Feierlich, misterioso; (ii) Scherzo: Bewegt, Lebhaft; Trio: Schnell; and (iii) Adagio: Langsam, Feierlich. Since I don't know Austrian (I'm not sure there is such a language), and have forgotten most of my German, I needed google-translate to know (a) feierlich = solemnly; (b) misterioso = mysteriously (not even a German word); (c) bewegt = with movement; (d) lebhaft = vividly; and (e) langsam = slowly. The actual performance was longer than the advertised 59 minutes; imagine what it would be like if Bruckner got to finish it. Anne and I were quite sure we heard this before, played by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, but the piece sounded unfamiliar. And I probably will say the same thing when I listen to it next time. Not that it was unpleasant, just that I didn't quite get what Bruckner was trying to say. In any case, the piece calls for four Wagner Tubas, which (according to on-line resources) is a brass instrument somewhat like a horn and a tuba combination. It evidently comes in different sizes and pitches.

The Wagner Tuba (in F)

Eschenbach is an energetic conductor. He did both pieces without music, I guess he is another of those whose mind remembers millions of musical notes. He seems to concentrate on one section at a time, and expects the rest of the orchestra to know when to begin and end a note or a phrase. Overall it worked fine, but every now and then the orchestra sounded sloppy. He is German but has had many prestigious international appointments.

This would have been a great concert had I not have such high expectations of it. The New York Times gave a mostly positive review of Lang's performance, calling the cadenza "beyond reproach", although the reviewer thought it was at times excessive also. We didn't get the encore performance the review did the previous evening.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Chicago Symphony Orchestra – Charles Dutoit, conductor. November 1, 2008.

Symphony Center, Chicago. Upper Balcony Center Left (Seat Q103, $59)

The Damnation of Faust, Dramatic Legend in Four Parts, Op. 24 (1846) by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869)
Part I: Plains of Hungary
Part II: North Germany
Part III: Marguerite's Room
Part IV

Story. Mephistopheles arranges Faust and Marguerite, who are in each other's dreams, to meet. They fall in love, and then part ways. Marguerite is condemned to death because she accidentally killed her mother. Faust signs over his life to Mephistopheles to save Marguerite but is transported to hell instead.

Susanne Mentzer, Mezzo-soprano (Marguerite)
Gregory Kunde, Tenor (Faust)
David Wilson-Johnson, Baritone (Mephistopheles)
Jonathan Lemalu, Bass (Brander)
Chicago Symphony Chorus – Duain Wolfe, director
Anima-Young Singers of Greater Chicago – Emily Ellsworth, director

We booked these tickets for our short trip to Chicago. The CSO, which began in 1891, is quite famous, having been led by such luminaries as Fritz Reiner, Gerog Solti and Daniel Barenboim. The building is named after the first director Theodore Thomas. The current director is Bernard Haitink who is now about 80 years old. The concert hall is also quite impressive, it reminds one of Carnegie Hall, except it's probably quite a bit bigger (we had to walk up to the fifth floor to our seats.) Both visibility and acoustics are good: we had a good view and could hear clearly. Orchestra members arere seated on multiple levels, making them clearly visible to the audience. There were quite a few empty seats in our section.

The orchestra, like any large orchestra, has 90 to 100 members. The chorus was quite big with 150 members, and at the end another 50 young children joined in. So there were altogether about 250 performers. Two sets of timpani (4 drums in each set) played at times by four people and brass instruments in the background make for interesting spectacle.

The work is quite long, 2 hours and 15 miinutes of actual performance. We were a bit worried about having to take the subway back to the hotel; it turned out okay though.

The program notes talk about some of the unforgettable sounds (and I quote): the brazen swagger of the Hungarian March; the flash that brings Mephistopheles and blinds Faust to all reason; the drunken “Amen” fugue sung over the demise of a rat; the remarkably sensuous, yet icy tone of Mephistopheles's lullaby, uncannily accompanied by cornet, trombones, and bassoons; the brilliant clash of two simultaneous choruses – the soldiers singing in B-flat major and in French, the students in D minor in Latin. Or the stirring heartbeats in Marguerite's music; the plaintive voice of the solo viola in her “The King of Thule” or the heartbreaking English horn solo of her Romance; Mephistopheles's Serenade, with its grand guitar strumming; Faust's noble, impassioned Invocation to Nature; the lone, ominous call of hunting horns that precedes Faust's downfall; the wild, reckless, galloping Ride to the Abyss; the final horrible babbling of the damned. We caught most of them. I am embarrassed to say the only piece familiar to me is the “Hungarian March.” The gibberish (“Has has”) sung by the chorus of the damned was quite entertaining.

For a dramatic legend, the performance wasn't particularly dramatic. They did put up subtitles in English (sung mostly in French), but the program notes don't have a copy of the libretto. The story is a bit strange, but I don't know if it is faithful to Goethe.

Not a bad concert, but not a great one either. Perhaps it was the flat dynamics, or perhaps the tenor, who had most of the singing role, wasn't that great. I am glad to have a chance to see the orchestra though. Loren Maazel and the New York Philharmonic have nothing to be ashamed of.

It turns out we booked “Faust” tickets as part of our Metropolitan Opera subscription. James Levein will be conducting, and the work will be staged. I wonder how the performances would compare.

The Tribune critic was impressed.