Thursday, April 29, 2010

Metropolitan Opera – Rossini’s Armida. April 27, 2010.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Dress Circle Seat D4 ($102.50).

Story. The Crusades are marching onto Jerusalem to try to free the city. Their leader has recently died and they elect Rinaldo as the new leader. The sorceress Armida together with her uncle Idraote disguise themselves as the rightful ruler of Damascus and her attendant and approach them, trying to enslave some of the soldiers. When Armida sees Rinaldo, she realizes he is the one she has been in love with. Gernando, jealous of Rinaldo’s promotion, insults Rinaldo as a womanizer. The two duel and Rinaldo kills Gernando. The soldiers turn against Rinaldo and he flees with Armida. The two then go to a ghastly forest which is transformed by Armida into a pleasure palace. Rinaldo is completely enchanted by Armida and decides he won’t leave even after Armida tells him of the plot. Meanwhile, the two knights sent to rescue Rinaldo find him after warding off nymphs trying to seduce them. They convince Rinaldo to leave with them. When Armida reaches the three soldiers, she pleads with Rinaldo, even agreeing to go into battle with him. But Renaldo eventually decides to leave. Armida then has to choose between love and vengeance; she chooses vengeance.

Conductor – Riccardo Frizza; Armida – Renee Fleming, Rinaldo – Lawrence Brownlee, Goffredo (commander of the Crusades) and his brother Eustazi – John Osborn and Yeghishe Manucharyan, Idraote – Peter Volpe, Gernando – Barry Banks (substituting for Jose Manuel Zapata, who is ill), Ubaldo – Kobie van Rensburg, Carlo – Barry Banks.

The story I summarized above is quite long, so is the opera. With two 25 or so minute intermissions, the program was 3 hours and 45 minutes. We thought we would be able to make it home by midnight, but they were fixing the helix and we had to make a longish detour, so it was close to 12:30 am when we got home. Nonetheless, it was a good opera to see.

Surprisingly, this was the first time the Met produced this opera. Tonight’s was the fifth performance. I am sure, just as with Rusalka and Thais, this was done because Renee Fleming could do it. And she did demonstrate her capability as an opera singer. We heard some people complain her voice was at times a bit weak, but I thought she had the right dynamics, managed to convey a full range of emotions, and great voice range and technique. I wish I had read the program notes beforehand as it talks about how difficult it is to do a crescendo on an ascending scale. And her appoggiaturas were handled with ease. I am sure many of the things I find amazing are within the grasp of a talented and hardworking singer, but she did put them together in one of her better than usual performances. Indeed during some instances it was tough to hear her above the orchestra or the chorus, but her voice in most instances managed to come through. I still caught a couple of instances she had to test a note (for pitch, I assume) before stressing it.

Her acting abilities were not quite up to her singing abilities, though. Now this is a pretty unusual opera in that there is only one female soloist against many male soloists (with Rinaldo being the lead). Female voices were limited to a couple of choruses. Fleming is thus called upon to carry a great chunk of the opera along, doing quite a few solos along the way. Sometimes her acting would be nothing more than waving her arms around this way or that way. I can’t fault her too much for this as the demands on her are great.

Brownlee is a young tenor from Youngstown, Ohio who did very well. If you just listen to him, you will think he is a seasoned artist, he actually debuted at the Met in 2007. Sometimes you feel he is not quite comfortable with someone with Fleming’s star power and thus acted awkwardly especially during the more intimate scenes. That will definitely improve with maturity.

One can quibble here or there, but the other singers (all male) all did quite well. I could with binoculars see how thick the conductor’s copy of music was, and it was in two volumes, if I am not mistaken. He spent as much time turning the pages as he did with waving the baton. The orchestra was at time unsteady, the solo violin during Act III was quite shaky.

The set was a bit too simple, especially by Met standards. It basically consisted of this wall with arches. To remind us the pleasure palace in Act II was only an illusion, they had a giant spider hanging on the wall. Flowers were represented by bundled up silk cloth on sticks. The only thing that looked real was the coffin of the dead leader they brought out at the beginning. The ballet scene in Act II was a bit long. Perhaps Rossini wanted to show he could write ballet music (I certainly wouldn’t have doubted him), but it didn’t add a lot to the story.

The ending of the story didn’t bring the story to a satisfying conclusion. While it showed Armida struggling between love and vengeance - represented by a dancer (Cupid) in a red dress with a bow and arrow and a bare-chested man with a scorpion’s sting as his head gear – we are not sure what the actual choice means. Will Armida pursue Rinaldo and destroy him, or will she be consumed with hatred and end up self-destructing, we are left wondering.

Overall the opera is very enjoyable with much of the music hummable. I continue to wonder why it isn’t done more often. I am sure they are many equally competent sopranos who can get the job done.

The New York Time review also describes Fleming’s performance as cautious, although the reviewer cited different examples. He is quite positive on the singers overall, but quite critical of the production. I am a bit confused as to his opinion as he called it “fanciful” at the beginning but calling the tone “unclear” later in the review.

Monday, April 12, 2010

New York Philharmonic – Antonio Pappano, Conductor; Joshua Bell, Violin. April 10, 2010.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 2 (Seat Z13, $59).

Symphony No. 31 in D major, Paris, K.297/300a (1778) by Mozart (1756-91).
Scottish Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 46 (1879-80) by Bruch (1838-1920).
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1884-85) by Brahms (1833-97).

On our way to New York we were listening to one of Mozart's later symphonies on WQXR, and I remarked that it was a bit long for Mozart. I was “vindicated” by tonight’s Symphony as it was only 16 minutes in length per the program. It was actually a bit longer than that, perhaps a whopping 17 minutes.

Tonight’s conductor is with The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, and is the youngest person to have been appointed to that position. Per Wikepedia, Pappano was born in December 1959, making him only 50 years old.

I had never seen anyone conduct Mozart with as much gusto as Pappano. He was very into it, waving his arms, shaking his legs (no kidding), moving briskly from one side of the podium to the other. The orchestra responded with a very spirited rendition of the piece. I somewhat doubted whether he needed all the motion to get the sound he wanted. However, it was a very enjoyable performance.

This symphony was written when Mozart was in Paris. In deference to French taste (I guess), the concerto has only three movements: Allegro assai, Andante, and Allegro. There was this interesting discussion on whether the second movement was the original one (which everyone had assumed until 1981) or the one revised at the request of Jean Le Gros, the director of the Concert Spirituel. I guess for someone like me the issue would be how does the other one sound like. Mozart wrote this when he was 22, after a hiatus of 3 ½ years; since this is Symphony No. 31, that means he had written 30 before he turned 19!

The Program Notes mentions that Bruch’s most famous violin work is his concerto in G minor. Since I have never seen this piece being played at the New York Philharmonic (or anywhere else for that matter), the question is why go with the Scottish Fantasy?

In any case, Bruch wrote this while he was angling for a job in Great Britain. He used may famous Scottish folk songs as the basis for this piece which is divided into four movements (or five, depending on how one counts the first one): Prelude: Grave – Adagio cantabile; Allegro; Andante sostenuto; Finale: Allegro guerriero. Perhaps it is where we sat, I found Joshua Bell and his Strad to be a bit on the weak side, not so much that I had to strain to hear him, but nonetheless I wish he had sounded clearer. This is undoubtedly a difficult piece, including a lot of double stops and harmonics; every now and then I detected an intonation problem. Looking back at my other blogs about his performances, I find out I had similar problems with him before also.

The Program Notes also contains an interesting discussion on the rivalry between the two eminent violinists of that time: Joachim and Sarasate, and that Bruch dedicated the piece to Sarasate even though Joachim was the one that gave him the most advice. One more fact, the piece when published was called “Fantasia for Violin with Orchestra and Harp, with Free Use of Scottish Folk Melodies.”

I didn’t recall what Brahm’s Fourth Symphony sounded like until I heard the opening phrases. I am quite sure I had played the piece before, but I am embarrassed to say the fourth movement didn’t sound familiar – perhaps I fell asleep during rehearsal? Pappano quieted down during the Bruch piece, but his energetic movements came back for this, which was way more appropriate than during Mozart. The Program Notes had an unusually detailed description of the movements: (i) Allegro no troppo: soaring and intense; (ii) Andante moderato: by turns agitated and serene; (iii) Allegro giocoso: first time Brahms included a real scherzo in a symphony, in contrast to the lighter allegretto intermezzos that had served as the third movements of his first three; and (iv) Allegro energico e passionate – Piu allegro: Brahms unleashes a gigantic passacaglia, a neo-Baroque structure in which an eight-measure progression (derived from the last movement of J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 150) is subjected to 32 variations of widely varying character. The last movement looks interesting on paper, except I didn’t quite hear it that way.

The audience showed a lot of enthusiasm afterwards and gave Pappano a long applause. Speaking of which, the Program Notes seems to say during Mozart’s day people would make remarks as the music was being played; unimaginable today.

The New York Times has an insightful review of the performance, although I am not sure I am in full agreement with the reviewer’s points of view.