Saturday, March 27, 2010

Metropolitan Opera – Thomas’s Hamlet. March 27, 2010.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Dress Circle Seat F15 ($127.50).

Story. King Hamlet, Prince Hamlet’s father, was poisoned by his brother Claudius with the help of Queen Gertrude and Polonius (Ophelia’s father). As Claudius prepares to marry Gertrude, the King’s ghost appears to Hamlet to ask him to avenge his death. Hamlet stages a show during the banquet during which Claudius’s reaction convinces Hamlet that he is guilty. Bent on taking revenge, Hamlet ignores Ophelia who then commits suicide. As Ophelia’s funeral procession occurs, Hamlet kills her brother Laertes and is himself wounded. He manages also to kill Claudius before he dies from his wounds.

Conductor – Louis Langree; Claudius – James Morris, Gertrude – Jennifer Larmore, Prince Hamlet – Simon Keenlyside, Ophelie – Marlis Petersen, Laerte – Toby Spence.

I saw this opera by Ambroise Thomas several years ago in Covent Garden, and really liked it. So I jumped at the opportunity to see it again. It didn’t disappoint this second time around. My overall reaction is that the opera began a bit too slowly, but the pace picked up nicely after the intermission.

The story is based on the Shakespeare play depicting how being consumed with revenge can result in alienation and destruction. The “story” above doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the plot of the opera, and the opera itself changes and edits out many aspects of the play. We still get some of the more famous lines such as “Get thee to the nunnery” and “To be or not to be.” Of course I only found out about these lines from the subtitles as I don’t understand French.

The sets are quite minimal by Met standards. They are basically variations of two wall constructions that act as props for a castle and various rooms. Ophelia committed suicide by a river/lake, but there was no water. This is the only opera I recall that uses blood during the death scenes. While I don’t remember much of the Covent Garden performance, I do recall Ophelia bled when she died.

From where I sat, most of the singing was only adequate. The one exception is Ophelia whose voice carried well, even during the softer passages. When we saw Attila several weeks ago, we were seated a few rows closer to the stage, and wondered if there was sound enhancement. Well, today’s Program Notes says “without electronic devices”; that settles it for me. Another noteworthy thing is that none of the principal singers was overweight (well, Claudius a bit on the heavy side), so they worked quite well as actors also.

During the Covent Garden performance I thought the Ophelia “mad scene” during Act IV was a bit too long, even though it was quite moving. This time I didn’t think it was too long, but my reaction was less emotional. Perhaps knowing what is coming helps.

This opera premiered in Paris in 1868, and by the Met in the 1883-84 season (on tour in Cincinnati, and sung in Italian). It was last performed in 1897, more than 110 years ago. Given the quality of the composition, and how well-known Hamlet is, it is difficult to understand why. Changing taste of the audience alone doesn’t explain it. Indeed nowadays one can find Hamlet performed at various venues; herd mentality at work?

The New York Times review goes into quite a bit of detail about the various characters.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Mariinsky Ballet – Minkus's Don Quixote. March 23, 2010.

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre – Seat Stalls V31 (HK$493).

Story. Don Quixote and his aide Sancho Panza go about the world in search of heroic quests. They come to the aid of Basilio and Kitri whose love for one another is thwarted by Kitri’s father Lorenzo who favors Gamache. Basilio in a fight pretends to be dying and gets the blessing of Kitri’s father. He then marries Kitri. Don Quixote then goes in search of another quest.

Music – Ludwig Minkus; Choreographer – Alexander Gorsky after Marius Petipa; Gypsy and Oriental Dance Choreographer – Nina Anisimova; Libretto – Marius Petipa based on the novel by Miguel de Cervantes.

Conductor – Alexei Repnikov; Kitri – Anastasia Matvienko; Basilio – Denis Matvienko; Mercedes – Ryu Ji Yeon; Queen of Dryads – Tatyana Tkachenko; Don Quixote – Vladmir Ponomarev; Sancho Panza – Stanislav Burov; Lorenzo – Audrey Iakovlev; Gamache – Soslan Kulaev.

Our friend KS had a ticket for this concert but couldn’t go, so I gladly took her ticket. I had never gone to a ballet by myself, but since I was free that evening, I thought I would give it a try. As I reported in my previous posts, ballet is an art form I have yet to understand. I can appreciate the athleticism associated with the dancers, and much ballet music can stand on its own, it’s just I haven’t quite gotten how the two combined would qualify as a music performance. Alas, tonight’s program didn't help.

The music, by a composer I had never heard of, is light-weight and inconsequential. It reminds me of much film music; it provides background mood and, in case of ballets, the beat for the dancers to dance to. While the orchestra was quite sizeable, the music did not sound substantial at all. Just a collection of saccharine melodies.

I don’t know the full story very well. I am sure (and surely hope) the story told in this ballet is only a small snippet of the entire plot. It is written in such a way that there are lots of excuses for the dancers to do their thing. This includes the dream sequence with the dryads, which in my opinion salvaged the entire ballet as it offered a chance for a classical routine, complete with women dancers in tutus.

If I recall correctly, we actually went to the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Peterburg in the early 1990s and saw the Kirov Ballet perform. At that time we were quite impressed with how precise the dancers were: all their movements seem to be in sync. My subsequent exposure to ballet has been mostly to the NYC Ballet and the ABT, and a couple of performances of The Nutcracker during the holiday season. My observation, influenced heavily by what I hear and read, is that American ballet is more about the individual and thus the group performances are a bit lacking. After seeing this performance, I would say the ABT has nothing to worry about in that department. On the other hand, the individual dancers from the troupe are quite impressive. I counted at least 32 revolutions by Kitri, and 28 or so by Basilio. As I said, I have always been impressed by the dancers’ athleticism.

The show was about 2:45 hours in length. They had to put in two intermissions of about 30 minutes each (billed as 25 minutes), one of them after a 25-minute performance. Many in the audience thought they could have moved on at a faster pace. The sets and costumes were quite elaborate. They even had a white horse appear twice. During the second intermission I had to go to the 7-11 down the street to buy a sandwich, and saw the white horse being carted away in a jockey club trailer.

Overall, Don Quixote is like Le Cosair. Both are written so dancers can have excuses to show their craft. Except in the case of Don Quixote, the comparison with the Broadway show “The Man from La Mancha” is inevitable. We saw this a few years ago, the story is quite forgettable, with Don Quixote also holding forth his sword/lance in a rather asinine fashion. However, in the musical there are at least several nice tunes, including the well-known “To dream an impossible dream.”

This performance was part of the 38th Hong Kong Arts Festival. I wonder if it is worth it to visit Hong Kong during this time next year?

China National Symphony Orchestra – Michel Plasson, conductor. March 14, 2010.

Concert Hall at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing. Seat Level 1, Row 10, Seat 25 (CNY280).

Symphony in D minor by Cesar Franck.
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, by Ludwig van Beethoven.

We are in China to visit a charitable organization, and found this concert which fit our schedule. David was with us also; he was the one who bought the tickets at the box office the day before. There are several reasons we could find this concert interesting: we have never seen the China National Symphony Orchestra; this is a relatively new concert hall, completed in 2007; my last experience at a Chinese Concert was quite interesting in that the audience felt free to chat during the performance; and the program is interesting. That a reasonably seat could be had for less than US$50 didn’t hurt either.

The Beijing Performing Arts Center (国家大剧院)

The Concert Hall is one of three auditoria in the Beijing Performing Arts Center. The main hall is the Opera House, and there is another auditorium for theater. All three are enclosed in this dome affectionately called “The Egg.” The Concert Hall, seating about 2000, has the orchestra in the “pit” surrounded by the audience, and feels rather intimate. The seats were quite comfortable. For tonight’s concert the hall was about 70% to 80% full by my estimation.

The orchestra members are by and large on the young side. Given the recent history of China, it is not surprising that there are not that many middle age players as it would be considered bourgeois for them to be playing western musical instruments during their teenage formative years. Which is a great pity. Another unexpected thing is the French conductor who is now leading the orchestra. The Program Notes would lead one to conclude he is now the Orchestra’s principal conductor; however, there is no mention of this fact either at the CNSO website, or the Wiki entry for Plasson. In any case, he was quite energetic for someone in his mid 70s (born October 1933).

I am reasonably familiar with Franck’s violin music, but this was the first time I heard the symphony. It sounds similar in that the themes are pleasant, but get repeated quite often. The dynamic range could be broader, though. The three movements are (i) Largo; (ii) Allegretto, ma non troppo; and (iii) Allegro non troppo.

The slow movement in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is made famous, deservedly, by the movie “Immortal Beloved.” The movement sounds very melancholic to me, with the violas playing a prominent role in the beginning. The entire symphony was done very well. The movements are (i) Poco sostenuto – Vivace; (ii) Allegretto; (iii) Presto; and (iv) Allegro con brio.

The acoustics, while okay, is surprisingly bland for such a new concert hall. I don’t know how to describe it except as lack of character: the sounds are clear, but not brilliant; the dynamic range is narrow (perhaps the orchestra?); and one doesn’t come away impressed. The applause from the audience was so tepid that I felt bad for the conductor. At least there was minimal talking during the performance, a great improvement from my last experience.

Someone was trying to use his cell phone to take a picture of the stage during the performance. A laser pointer shining on his device put an end to that rather quickly. A reminder of where we were.

They were also punctual. Started a few minutes after 7:30 pm, and the intermission was reasonably short. Overall I was glad to have attended this concert.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

New York Philharmonic – Riccardo Muti, Conductor; Andras Schiff, Piano. March 5, 2010.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Tier 1 Center (Seat DD07, $59).

Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 (1858) by Brahms (1833-97).
Symphony in E-flat for Large Orchestra (1940) by Hindemith (1895-1963).

This was our fourth concert for the week, which must be some sort of a record for me. I still enjoyed the concert, but writing about it could get a bit tedious. We will see.

As I said in my last blog, Muti is spending about three weeks in Lincoln Center conducting Attila and a couple of New York Philharmonic concerts. We originally had tickets for the series next week with Repim playing the Beethoven violin concerto, but had to switch to this one as we will be away.

Brahms wrote two piano concertos, to me the more familiar one being the second with a serene opening. The first movement of tonight’s concert (Maestoso) began with a much faster paced statement and longish introduction by the orchestra, with the piano working its way in quietly about four minutes into the 23 plus minute movement. Having just heard a concert in Carnegie Hall, one immediately notices the difference in acoustics between that renowned concert hall and Avery Fisher. In the former you can hear each section (perhaps even instrument) clearly, here everything sounds a bit muddled. Orchestra seats may have better acoustics, but then all you see are the musicians seated in the front. In any case, Schiff was clearly in command of the music and the interplay between the soloist and the orchestra was very good. There were a couple of passages where he sounded weak and a bit flat, though. Probably because I slept through its playing (or skipped over it when heard on a CD), the second movement (Adagio) didn’t sound familiar at all. The Rondo – Allegro non troppo, began by the soloist, then followed in turn by various strings, got me back on track to enjoying the performance. While the piece was quite enjoyable overall, I didn’t quite get the excitement one should when one takes into account what the music could sound like.

Joachim, whom I knew collaborated with Brahms on his violin concerto, also helped with reassuring the composer that he had a good thing going. He also conducted the premiere of the work with Brahms as the soloist.

When I studied music theory at Cornell, the textbook we used (forget whether it was first or second year) was written by Paul Hindemith. I was sure he taught at Harvard, turns out it was Yale. The Program Notes has an interesting discussion on his background (fled Germany with the ascendancy of the Third Reich,) his ability to play many different instruments, and how the Minneapolis Symphony got to do the premiere because of hemming-and-hawing on the part of Boston Symphony. Commensurate with Hindemith’s decline in popularity, this symphony was last played by New York Philharmonic in 1967.

The symphony lives up to the description of being a “classically structured, four-movement symphony.” The first movement (Very lively) began with a brass introduction that sounded steady and assured, and proceeded at a very lively pace. The second movement (Very slowly) had the oboe and clarinet repeating many times what passes as a tune. The dominance moved to other parts of the orchestra, including horns and flutes. The third movement (Lively) saw the use of the rute which (I think) sounded like a whipped leather belt. The playing got crisper as the movement continued. But at some point the music began to wander – to be fair, it may be my mind that was doing the wandering – and eventually we knew we were in the fourth movement (Moderately fast half-notes) that ended in a march-like manner.

Muti was quite in command and seemed to get the response he needed from the orchestra. I wonder how I would enjoy the concert if the program had contained a more familiar piece than the Hindemith Symphony instead.

The New York Times reviewer was swept away by the Hindemith piece, despite his dislike of the third movement. He characterizes the New York Philharmonic performance as “brilliant.” Wow, wonders never cease.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Metropolitan Opera – Verdi’s Attila. March 3, 2010.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Dress Circle Seat B102 ($147.50).

Story. Attila is laying siege to Rome and captures a group of Roman women including Odabella, daughter of the Lord of Aquileia. Attila is impressed by Odabella’s courage and gives her his sword. The Roman General Ezio offers to split the empire with Attila but is rejected. Odabella’s fiancée Foresto is with a group of Aquileian refugees. He mistakes Odabella’s decision to stay with Attila as a betrayal. During a banquet hosted by Attila with Ezio, Odabella and Foresto attending, the attempt by Uldino – Attila’s slave – to poison Attila is foiled by Odabella who wants to kill Attila herself. Foresto flees Attila and laments Odabella’s marriage to Attila. As the wedding preparation is underway, Odabella meets up with Foresto and Ezio. Attila happens upon the three and accuses them of disloyalty and ingratitude. Odabella stabs Attila to death.

Conductor – Riccardo Muti; Attila – Ildar Abdrazakov, Uldino – Russell Thomas, Odabella – Violeta Urmana, Ezio – Giovanni Meoni, Foresto – Ramon Vargas.

We exchanged tickets for some other opera for this because of scheduling conflicts. I didn’t know much about it until the afternoon of the concert when I got to read up the synopsis on the Met website. The story is straightforward enough, and I was expecting a straightforward experience, given this is one of Verdi’s earlier operas (9th out of 28).

Muti, who will start his CSO appointment next season, seems to be spending a lot of time in New York. We will be seeing him Friday conducting the New York Philharmonic, and he will conduct at least another New York Phil series the following week.

I was somewhat surprised by the opera. When the curtain was drawn up after a very nice but relatively short overture, what we saw was Attila standing amidst massive and brightly lit ruins. In front of the ruins were what I initially thought were dead bodies who ended singing a chorus. Impressive, even though I didn’t know people were using re-bars to build city walls during Attila’s time (5th century). That was one indication of how the designers wanted to make the staging “timeless.” Since Attila is a historical person (although this opera takes a lot of liberty with historical facts), having people wear jeans and heavy parkas just looks weird, not timeless. The other thing is his head gear actually had a group of small lights so it glows in the dark. Interesting, not sure it is germane or necessary.

Towards the end of the prolog, the entire set was raised and Foresto showed up with fellow Romans in the space below. The Met employed a similar technique in Aida (also Verdi) and it worked quite well there also. For subsequent scenes we had this as a regular arrangement. In a couple of them you have this wall of plants with holes on each side where the singers were, and a space underneath for the masses. From where we sat, with our poor eyesight, we couldn’t tell whether the plants were real, fake, or simply projections on a screen. My best guess is a combination as the holes were circled by some leaves, and yet the entire scene moves ala Damnation of Faust. My overall opinion is the overused the effect.

Per the program notes, this is the only Verdi opera where the protagonist role is sung by a bass. The bass Abdrazakov made the best of the opportunity. Although weak in some places, he in general sang well.

Urmana as Odabella needed some suspension of belief on the audience’s part. I have to comment on her hair which was made into this huge beehive (ala Marge Simpson), that, combined with her stature, made her more like a Brunnhilde rather than a princess. And she seems to have one volume setting: extra loud (I guess the proper term is fortissimo) while many passages call for much softer singing. Anne insists there were a few occasions in which she did that; I must have a different definition of “soft,” or simply fell asleep.

The Ezio role was sung by Meoni who substituted for the scheduled tenor Carlos Alvarez. He did well. While not outstanding, his performance was dependable and of uniform quality.

Several years ago Ramon Vargas seemed to be a fixture of the Met, playing quite a few roles. He has not appeared in any of my blogs which I started in 2005, so it’s been a while. I used to wonder why people thought he was good enough to sing regularly at the Met, now after a few years I think he has improved quite a bit. His voice is strong, and steady for the most part (that was my biggest complaint a few years ago.) However, his smallish stature, especially next to Obadella, also strains credibility.

Anne and I had a long discussion on whether a sound enhancement system was used. We base our question on several factors. The singers sounded very loud. We were relatively close to the stage (second role center Dress Circle), but not that close. There was a noticeable difference in the quality (loudness and timber) of the voices when the singers move from the right side of the stage to the left side. It was a bit disturbing as the changes were abrupt. I also wonder if the sound got reflected from the roof as it got louder if I tilted my head up. We couldn’t find any loudspeakers, though. And I thought people used to swear professional opera singers seldom used microphones and speakers.

Overall, while the opera lacks the dramatic effects and historical accuracy compared to the best in the genre, it is still a great Verdi work that can be enjoyed as a musical composition. This is the first ever series of performances of this opera at the Met. And we saw the third show. I enjoyed it, and wonder about how opera houses decide on what to produce.

The New York Times has an interesting article (I couldn’t find a review) on this opera. The Bloomberg review is quite interesting to read. It calls the libretto nonsensical, uses beehive to describe Urmana’s hair, and adds some insight into Muti, the Met, and La Scala.

Today (March 6) I found the New York Times review. The reviewer is very enthusiastic about Muti, various singers, and the opera. He also describes Odabella's hair as "Marge Simpson-y," and is a little critical of the set designs. No mention of the acoustics, though.