Monday, October 17, 2011

Metropolitan Opera – Verdi’s Nabucco. October 15, 2011.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Balcony Seat A7 ($109.50).

Story.  Nabucco is attacking the Israelites but his daughter Fenena is captured and held hostage by the Israelites.  Fenena is in love with Ismaele, nephew of the King of Jerusalem.  Abigaille, Fenena’s half sister, gains entry into Jerusalem, but her profession of love for Ismaele isn’t reciprocated.  When Nabucco confronts the Israelite Priest Zaccarias, Ismaele disarms the priest and releases Fenena.  Fenena is then appointed regent by Nabucco.  Abigaille finds out she is actually the daughter of a slave and vows to gain control of the kingdom.  The High Priest of Baal brings news that Fenena has converted to the God of Israel and freed all the captives.  He hatches a plan with Abigaille to usurp the throne by claiming Nabucco has died in battle.  As she is about to be crowned, Nabucco appears and declares himself to be god.  For his blasphemy he is struck by a thunderbolt, and Abigaille becomes queen.  Abigaille wants to have Fenena and the Israelites killed.  When the insane Nabucco wanders in, she tricks him into signing the death warrant, and also tears up the document indicating her ancestry.  Nabucco watches as Fenena and the Israelites are being led to execution; his sanity is restored after he prays for forgiveness.  He rushes in before the executions take place.  The story ends when Abigaille asks for forgiveness and commits suicide and Nabucco freeing the Israelites.

Conductor – Paolo Carignani; Zaccaria – Carlo Colombara, Ismaele – Yonghoon Lee, Fenena – Renee Tatum, Abigaille – Maria Guleghina, Nabucco – Zeljko Lucic, High Priest of Baal – David Crawford.

The plot description above is one of the longest I have written, even though the story is quite simple.  Somehow the story develops in such a way that I can’t simply summarize it in a short paragraph.  Perhaps it is this Mark Twain effect of “not having time to write a short summary” (paraphrasing), orperhaps it is just a convoluted story.

The opera is inspired by the Biblical account of Nebuchadnezzar.  The Program Notes claims there is no conflict with what is in the Bible, but Verdi (or rather his lyricist Temistocle Solear) has taken quite a bit of liberty with other characters.  I know the Nebuchadnezzar described in Daniel, and none of the other characters exist, except for the generic High Priest of Baal.  The Israel Priest Zacchariah didn’t have any overlap with Nebuchadnezzar, so I assume the Zaccaria in the opera does not refer to him.

Anne and I saw this opera in Los Angeles quite a few years ago (around 2003).  At that time we were flying back and forth between the two coasts, and I distinctly remember her sleeping through most of the performance.  She remembers liking the costumes (longer dresses) and the Hebrew slave song.  I remember a bit of the staging (a huge staircase) and also the slave song.  The slave song is of course one of Verdi’s most famous works, and was performed at his funeral, conducted by Toscanini.  I wish I had kept a blog then (well, that would be anachronistic) so I have some idea how I enjoyed that performance.

While the opera is titled “Nabucco,” its main character is actually Abigaille.  This is true in terms of the amount of singing she does, and in terms of hers being the most complex character.  However, the character is presented in such a way that she doesn’t provoke a strong feeling from the audience.  I don’t think the audience hates her (ala Scarpia in Tosca), nor do they feel great joy or great sadness when she dies.  None of the other characters are developed fully, and the audience consequently isn’t greatly vested in how their fates turn out.  Supposedly Verdi was discouraged after his first attempts at opera, and started composing again after he saw the libretto of Nabucco.  I can’t imagine why.

On the positive side, the chorus plays a more important role in the opera.  Even here the role can be developed a bit more fully.  This is an opera that probably would benefit from being an hour longer to allow more time for character development; or a lot of the repetitions can be cut out.

A few words on the sets.  They are quite massive, tall, wide, and occupy the entire stage.  By rotating the platform, quick scene changes can be effected.  There are also many staircases.  Some of the design is puzzling, but they generally serve the purpose.  As far as I could tell, the Palace looks like the Temple of Baal, with a grotesque figure towering over the throne; and the “Hanging Gardens of Babylon” looks suspiciously like the Palace.  I was all ready to see how this wonder of the world might look like, at least in someone’s imagination.  They do need the huge sets to accommodate all the singers.  A couple of gallows were in the set depicting the impending execution; I am quite sure that wasn’t the means by which the condemned died then.

Renee Tatum is in the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and she started beautifully.  Her voice was strong, although not as strong as some of her colleagues (more on that later).  However, at the end she must have felt nervous as her voice became a bit unsteady.  Tamara Mumford, who sang the role of Smeaton in Anna Bolena, certainly did a better job.  Coincidently, she also performed as a Rheinmaiden in the Ring Cycle (also as Flosshilde, with SF Opera).

The young Korean Lee sang a strong role as Ismaele.  Lucic, from Serbia & Montenegro, was excellent as Nabucco, he was particularly good with the low notes.

The Met revived Nabucco in 2001, and Guleghina sang the role of Abigaille then.  Certainly her experience showed during tonight’s performance.  However, most of the time her volume is set on high.  It actually started and remained loud for so long that I wondered if she had any other volume setting.  Turns out she does, and it is really regrettable that she doesn’t do that more often.  Ten years as Abigaille, on and off I suppose, haven’t improved her acting skills that much.

I did a little counting, I have seen at least 10 of Verdi’s operas.  Several of them more than once.

Anne went to Flushing early afternoon, drove the car into Manhattan, and found off-street parking that cost us $2.50 only.  I took the train in.  We had dinner at China Fun.  The opera ended at about 11:20 pm and the ride home was quite smooth.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

New York Philharmonic – Lorin Maazel, Conductor; Rober Langevin – flute, Nancy Allen – Harp. October 14, 2011.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat V105, $70.)

Symphony No. 38 in D major, Prague, K.504 (1786) by Mozart (1756-91).
Concerto in C major for Flute and Harp, K.299/297c (1778) by Mozart.
Jeux: Poeme danse (1912-13) by Debussy (1862-1918).
Iberia, from Images for Orchestra (1905-08) by Debussy.

After a two-year hiatus since his retirement from New York Philharmonic, Maazel came back to conduct the orchestra.  His bio in the Program Notes says he will be leading the Munich Symphony starting next season, good for him.

Our concert starts at 2 pm, a rather unusual time.  It would mean coming back to NJ during the start of the commuting rush hour, so we decided to take the train in.  Everything worked reasonably smoothly, we caught the 11:30 am train up, and got back at around 5:30 pm.

The first part of the program consisted of two 30-minute works by Mozart.  The Symphony was composed when Mozart was in Vienna, and premiered in Prague, where it was well received.  Apparently that’s enough reason to call the Symphony by that name.  This symphony is not the most familiar of Mozart’s symphonies, although we did listen to it at last year’s Mostly Mozart Festival.  With the exception of the second movement which was a bit mechanical (and a bit long), it was a delight.  The orchestra was not as precise as I expected it to be, but this minor flaw was easily overlooked in the overall performance.  The Symphony is comprised of three movements: Adagio – Allegro; Andante; and Finale: Presto.

The Concerto appears to be standard repertoire for a flute and harp dual concerto, if there is such a thing.  It was last performed by the same artists (conductor, orchestra, and soloists) in 2007.  The music is nice, but I have a bit of problem with the overall balance.  Considering the sizes of the instruments, there is no reason why the flute should sound so much louder than the harp, but most of the time it did.  The other balance issue is between the soloists and the orchestra.  Supposedly orchestras of those days were small, and the Program Notes mentions the Prague Symphony premiered with an orchestra of about 20 people.  The music score specifies 11 woodwind and percussion instruments, that would leave about 9 string players: 2 in each section plus one bass, perhaps.  Even with a reduced orchestra, I counted about 6 first violins.  And today’s violin is probably much brighter sounding than violins of Mozart’s day (just go to any concert with period instruments to find out).  If that doesn’t mess up Mozart’s intent, I don’t know what would.

There were some technically challenging episodes (at least to a non-player), including the cadenzas, that were played well.  The movements of the Concerto are Allegro; Andantino; and Rondeau: Allegro.  The cadenzas were written by Karly Hermann Pillney.

The two Debussy pieces were unfamiliar to me, and each had (somewhat) a story-line associated with it.  Jeux was envisioned by dancer Vaslav Nijinsky as ballet music where the eventual scenario had one man and two women playing in a park, kissing, and then disappearing after a tennis ball is thrown at them.  How that story can become a ballet escapes me, what is more intriguing was that the original line had three men frolicking in the park interrupted by a plane crash.  While it was difficult to imagine the story unfold as the music is played, that there is such a storyline helped immensely in the appreciation of the music, which was whimsical at times.

Debussy never visited Spain for any length of time, having crossed the border for a few hours once, but managed to write Iberia in a convincing Spanish manner, without using any actual folk melodies.  He supposedly was a bit conflicted as to whether there is a story associated with the music, saying on one hand “it is useless to ask me for anecdotes about this work,” but on the other describing the transition from the second to the third movement as “things waking up … a man selling watermelons and urchins whistling.”  Indeed one can easily envision the scenes associated with the three movements: (i) By the Highways and By-ways; (ii) Parfumes of the Night; and (iii) Morning of a Festival Day.

The full orchestra was used for the Debussy pieces, and the effect was great.

One cannot help but wonder if Gilbert is an improvement over Maazel.  Certainly Maazel held his own with today’s concert, and I suspect he will be equally commanding with a complex symphonic work.  At 81 he may need to conserve his energy a bit, but today’s concert was about 100 minutes in length, on the long side.

Another observation.  This Orchestra is simply a well-oiled machine, you can throw anything at it and it will spit it out readily.  Contrast that with the Orpheus where complex pieces leave you sitting on the edge of your seat.

On 10/18/2011, I found this review from the New York Times.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with Gil Shaham, violin. October 13, 2011.

Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, Section Parquet Right (Row Y, Seat 14, $25).

Fair Melusina Overture, Op. 32 (1833) by Mendelssohn (1809-1849).
Memorium (2011) by Cynthia Wong (b. 1982).
Symphony No. 73 in D Major, Hob. I:73 “The Hunt” (1782) by Haydn (1732-1809).
Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77 (1878) by Brahms (1833-1897).

Anne couldn’t go to this concert, so I took the train by myself.  I got to the Concert Hall at about 7:45 pm and didn’t have time to sell the ticket; there were quite a few sellers, anyway.  The concert was well-attended, though.

Tonight’s performance was a bit of a mixed bag.  The piece by Mendelssohn is quite short at about 10 minutes.  It describes the story of Melusina, a beautiful girl cursed to turn into a mermaid one day a week.  Her husband, despite her warning, looked at her one fateful day, and she disappeared, leaving behind her sound of wailing.  The music paralleled this story line well enough.  And the beginning of the performance showed a lot of promise; it had a spirited start, and the dynamics were great.  I would quibble a bit with how fast they took the “water” theme.

Cynthia Wong is one of the four young composers commissioned by Orpheus as part of Project 440, and this performance is the piece's world premiere.  The background of the piece was compelling: her father was checking into hospice care after she barely began this work.  The description in the Program Notes is such that you want to root for her, and her music; but I ended up being relieved that it was over.  There were parts that were nice (e.g., the ending), but overall the message (compassion, per the composer) didn’t come through.  There is “gibberish” written into the piece that left me scratching my head.  The lead violin had quite a few lines, but it was barely audible, despite her pronounced movements.

The Haydn symphony is named “The Hunt” because the last movement was composed as the overture to an opera which begins at a temple to Diana, the goddess of hunting.  It also quotes a hunting call by another composer (Jean-Baptiste Morin).  The movements are (i) Adagio – Allegro; (ii) Andante; (iii) Menuetto; and (iv) Finale: Presto (The Hunt).

The music is simple enough, and easy to enjoy.  The Orpheus Programs Notes is moving to a new format this season: simplicity is the word.  For this symphony it contains some pointers to the listener which are quite useful.  For instance, you know the rhythm in the Minuet is interesting, and the Program Notes explains why.  For some reason the audience decided to applaud after each movement, which is somewhat annoying.  The last movement has a coda which reminds me of the “Joke” quartet: it surely got many people to applaud before the music really ended.  On the other hand, if these folks had read the Program Notes …

The Brahms violin concerto is a piece in the “standard” repertoire of a concert violinist, and much has been written about it.  The Program Notes conjectures how Brahms and Joachim may have cooperated in the writing of this piece.  I don’t have a lot of use for this kind of unverifiable speculation, but – to be charitable – it is at least thought provoking.

Not very long into the performance, I found myself asking the questions: Is this Gil Shaham the violinist?  Is the violin a Strad?  And is this Carnegie Hall?  I have heard Shaham several times before, all in Avery Fisher Hall, and he was always dependable, with a few quibbles from me here or there.  He didn’t botch the Brahms concerto, far from it, yet the performance left much to be criticized.  The sound of his violin didn’t carry well, even with a reduced-sized orchestra that had 11 violins, total.  One is supposed to hear every single instrument on the Carnegie stage, and the orchestra’s sound was at times only one big blob.  The music is complicated, so some of that is expected, and this again raises the question of whether a conductor would have shepherded the program along better.

Which brings me to another genuine question.  Do the orchestra musicians study the entire score so they know how the pieces fit together?  In a regular orchestra that usually is not necessary, other than in the broadest terms.  In a concerto of this complexity, the give and take of the soloist and the orchestra is an important aspect that won’t just happen.  I don’t think anyone was using the full score during the performance (otherwise there would have been a lot of page turning).

Shaham played an encore that was very familiar, but I don’t remember what it is called, or who composed it.

I rushed out afterwards to try to catch the 10:18 pm train, and ended up missing it by about 2 minutes.  So instead I took the 10:38 pm to Metropark, and got home reasonably early.

Monday, October 03, 2011

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor. October 1, 2011.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 3 Center (Seat HH111, $46.50).

Quintet in A major, D.667, Trout (1819) by Schubert (1797-1828).
Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70 (1884-85) by Dvorak (1841-1904).

Quintet: Michelle Kim, violin; Rebecca Young, viola; Carter Brey, cello; Satoshi Okamoto, bass; Anne-Marie McDermott, piano.

This was the first New York Philharmonic concert for us this season, and I was rather looking forward to it.  If I am in the mood to listen to music, but not sure what I really want, the Trout Quintet would be one of the possibilities.  I haven’t listened to that many of Dvorak Symphonies (Eighth and, of course, Ninth) and the concert would broaden my exposure to this composer.  Turns out we heard the seventh symphony in early 2006, I will get back to that later.

Schubert’s quintet was written while he was vacationing in Steyr in Upper Austria.  It was played by his friends in private, and wasn’t published until after his death.  Despite its being characterized as one of the most popular pieces of chamber music, I remember only hearing it once, when I was a graduate student, at Sage Chapel, played by a student quintet.  I also have a 1996 CD with the artists Emanuel Ax, Pamela Frank, Rebecca Young, Yo-Yo Ma, and Edgar Meyer, which I have listened to numerous times.  Yes, it is the same Rebecca Young.  The five movements of the piece are: (i) Allegro vivace; (ii) Andante; (iii) Scherzo, Presto – Trio; (iv) Thema.  Andantino – Variazioni I-V – Allegretto; and (v) Allegro giusto.  Only the fourth movement is based on the eponymous earlier work of Schubert, which tells of a story of a fisherman's eventual successful attempt at catching a trout.  The variations were in turn led by the violin, the piano, the viola, and then jointly by the cello and the bass.  We then lost track as the last part of the movement saw all the instruments taking part in the lead initially.

After all these years of enjoying the piece either on CD or in my mind, there is now probably an idealized version in my head.  And alas, today’s performance didn’t quite meet that standard.  The instruments sounded flat and heavy-footed, the violin every now and then had a (slight) intonation problem, and the piece generally lacked the playfulness I came to expect of it.  Technically the performance was close to flawless (again, only gripe was the intonation problems), and it is a relatively easy piece to perform.

I had no recollection at all of Dvorak’s Seventh, and initially had thought we were listening to it for the first time.  Most people think of the New World when the words Dvorak and Symphony are thrown together.  In that work melodies abound, and the movements all show their distinct characteristics.  The Seventh, however, sounded like one huge continuous canvass, even though distinct movements exist (Allegro maestoso, Poco adagio, Vivace – Poco meno mosso and Allegro).  If I didn’t know it was Dvorak, I would have guessed Mahler.

Even though the orchestration calls for relatively few non-string instruments, the size of the orchestra was huge; the stage was filled from side to side.  The coughing between movements was a bit much, and – perhaps for that reason – there was only minimal pause between the third and fourth movements.  I guess the flu and cold season already started.

After writing the above observations on the Dvorak Symphony, I went back and read my impression after hearing it in January 2006, and discovered that I had a completely different take of that performance, agreeing with the “taut and rigorous” description by the Program Annotator.  I also put Dvorak in the "definitely-no-Mahler" category.  Perhaps the conductor does matter?  Also, there was no pause between the last two movements either, so my theory about it being triggered by all the coughing is incorrect.

Some other interesting tidbits about the work: it was commissioned and first performed by the Royal Philharmonic, and Dvorak himself was quite pleased with it.

By the way, the Port Authority recently raised the tolls to New York to $12, which now makes the trip into NYC quite expensive.  On the other hand, we have managed to find less expensive parking in the area, so things are balancing out somewhat.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Metropolitan Opera – Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. September 30, 2011.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Balcony Seat D7 ($71.50).

Story.  Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, falls out of favor with the king.   Meanwhile, the King is in love with Anne’s lady-in-waiting Jane Seymour and decides to charge Anne with adultery and incest, allegedly committed with her former lover Percy and brother Rochefort respectively.  Anne is condemned to death and goes to her execution during the wedding of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour.

Conductor – Marco Armiliato; Jane Seymour – Ekaterina Gubanova, Anne Boleyn – Anna Netrebko, Henry VIII – Ildar Abdrazakov, Lord Rochefort – Keith Miller, Lord Richard Percy – Stephen Costello, Sir Hervey – Eduardo Valdes, Mark Smeaton – Tamara Mumford.

This was the first concert of the season that we attended, and I had high expectations for it, with Anna Netrebko headlining the cast and all.  I wasn’t disappointed.

The synopsis is a bit more complicated than the story line given above.  Smeaton was a secret admirer of Anne Boleyn and tried to help by lying about their relationship, in doing so he managed to get himself tortured and condemned to death.  Hervey is a court official who hangs around a lot, doing what court officials do, such as pronouncing the guilty verdict of various characters.

The opera is in two acts.  The program says there are three scenes in the first act, but I counted four: (i) Greenwich Palace, outside the queen’s apartments; (ii) inside Jane Seymour’s bedchamber; (iii) Greenwich Park; and (iv) a hall in the palace.  The program considers (i) and (ii) one single scene.

The overture is a bit on the long side at about ten minutes.  It started quite ominously, but soon turned sunny and bright, moving into a major key quickly.  Not quite what I expected.  Overall the orchestra sounded crisp and precise.

The set design was functional, but not grand (even though our subscription this year is a “grand spectacle” series).  The last scene happens at the Tower of London but the setting looked more like the Taj Mahal than the menacing structure on Tower Hill; and we didn't see any chopping block.  At the end of the opera, the execution is represented by a masked man holding a long sword.

The roles of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII, and Anne Boleyn were sung by Russians.  Perhaps that’s why there were many Russian-speaking audience members.  (We saw many Chinese when The First Emperor was performed, even though there were few Chinese artists in it.)

The role of the young male musician Smeaton was sung by the mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, whom we saw in Das Rheingold swimming in the Rhine suspended by a harness.  Her singing role was certainly more substantial in this opera; and she did great.  I never understand why young men are generally casted using women (the other one would be Cherubino in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.)  This somehow confuses me to no end.

Tenor Stephen Costello, as Percy, did a reasonable job.  His voice is not as rich as the first-tier tenors but manages to get across even with a strong orchestral accompaniment, most of the time.  The role may be a bit taxing for him as he had to resort to falsetto (at least once) and lost his voice a bit towards the end.  He certainly has some impressive engagements this season, let’s hope his stamina holds up.

The Program Notes says basses like the role of Henry VIII despite the lack of arias.  To me the lines contained many nice melodies, even though they may not be readily hummable.  I also disagree with the assessment that the King’s role was elegant, menacing, and complex; it simply came across as someone who wanted to accomplish an end regardless of the means.  Nonetheless, Ildar Abdrazakov did an admirable job.  His lowest notes were a bit on the weak side, though.

Jane Seymour, sung by Ekaterina Gubanova, had an important role in the opera also.  She basically had Act 1, Scene 2 all to herself.  I don’t know Gubanova’s background, and most of her engagements this years are in Europe.  Characterized as a mezzo-soprano, roles available to hear are perhaps a bit  limited.  If she can reach the high notes required of Anne Boleyn, she can do a great job as Anna Bolena, I am sure.  Right now her roles seem to be along the lines of someone like Stephanie Blythe.

Anna Netrebko, whom we heard in Don Pasquale, had a strong voice that carried well in the auditorium.  She could be clearly heard while seated, lying on her side, and – most impressively – with her back to the audience.  Having seen a few mad scenes, including the one in Lucia di Lammermoor, I was curious how this would turn out.  Instead of the feared embarrassment of over-emoting by the singer, I found it done just right.  One feels sorry for the character.

We could see the singers reasonably well with binoculars.  And every time I looked, Netrebko had a scowl on her face, or her eyebrows were knotted together.  Even during the mad scene, where she resolved to not condemn the new couple so she could obtain grace from God, she still looked mad.  She sang “forgive, forgive, forgive,” but her face said “curse, curse, curse.”  I don’t know if it is because she doesn’t quite know how to act (I heard quite a few people murmur that sentiment,) or the director wants it that way, but I think the overall performance will greatly improve if different emotions are incorporated.  I can easily imagine wistfulness, regret, and other aspects thrown into the mix.

This is the first time the opera was produced by the Met, which is quite unexpected.  On the other hand, if you read the articles in the playbill, you would think this is one of the greatest operas ever written, with phrases like “masterpiece of operatic insight” sprinkled all over.  That would lead to the question of “why is this only discovered by the Met more than 180 years after it was premiered?  A bit of hyperbole, no doubt.

Overall, I stand by my earlier statement that this performance met my high expectations.  I believe tonight’s performance was the second, and there will be another nine – the Met is certainly planning to get a lot of mileage from it.

The opera was on the long side, starting at 7:35 pm, and we got out at around 11:20 pm.  It was raining, and we only had one umbrella, so I went to pick up the car from the garage and returned to Lincoln Center to pick up Anne.  Traffic, especially close by the Lincoln Tunnel entrance, was quite congested.  We didn't get home until way past midnight.  We will do this again tomorrow, to see a New York Philharmonic concert.

There are quite a few references in the newspapers about this program.  One example is from Financial Times, which gave it 3 stars out of 5.  The reviewer manages to be pickier than I am.