Friday, December 30, 2011

Metropolitan Opera - Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. December 26, 2011.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center - Balcony F116 ($52.50).

Story.  See previous post.

Conductor - Robin Ticciati; Gretel - Aleksandra Kurzak, Hansel - Alice Coote, Gertrude - Michaela Martens, Peter - Dwayne Croft, The Sandman - Jennifer Johnson Cano, The Dew Fairy - Ashley Emerson, The Witch - Robert Brubaker.

We attended this opera with our children and their spouses.  Everyone is quite up to it, except for Joe whose love of Broadway musicals doesn't seem to extend to operas.  H&G isn't my first choice as an introductory opera (that would be Carmen, La Traviata, or one of Puccini's), but the other available choices are Faust and La Fille du Regiment.  Joe and Jess went up to New York earlier that day (they would stay the night there); Anne, Ellie and Kuau drove up at around 4 pm and had dinner in the area; and I took the 5:15 pm train from Metropark and met up with the five of them at the Opera House.  I stayed behind to ensure Joe and Jess's dog Ruby was okay; she had just spent the prior night at a Vet Emergency Hospital after ingesting two bars of dark chocolate, which is evidently quite toxic to dogs.

We saw H&G put out by New York City Opera in 2006.  Those were my early concert blogging days (it was number 43 or so out of the two hundred plus I have done so far), so I look back at my review with a certain degree of amusement.  Unfortunately, this review isn't going to be that much more insightful than the one I wrote five years ago.

First the sets.  One would assume the sets put out by the Met will be quite a bit more elaborate than those by NYCO.  It is debatable in this case.  The Playbill provides an interesting insight into the three kitchens designed for the three acts.  Act 1 happens in a D.H. Lawrence-inspired kitchen setting, Act 2 in a German Expressionist one, and Act 3 is in a Theater of the Absurd.  Good on paper, and brilliant perhaps to someone into this sort of stuff, but for someone like myself, nothing of the sort.

This is my assessment. Act 1 takes place in a kitchen, of unknown period.  Both the simplicity and the grayness can be attributed to the family's being poor and don't need to have anything to do with D.H. Lawrence.  (Since I don't know much about the subject, I did a web search of his paintings, and still have no idea how this kitchen relates to him.)  Act 2 is basically a long dining table inside a larger room.  There are trees that move, I assume they represent ghouls Hansel and Gretel encounter.  The 14 angels are represented by overweight cooks who would strike fear in anyone who sees them.  And what is the fish doing there?  Perhaps these are elements of German Expressionism?  The only thing absurd about Act 3 is the food fight that starts with the Witch's head pushed into a pie and his face is all covered with icing afterwards.  To me resorting to physical comedy of this sort smacks more of desperation than genius.

The music is generally easy to understand.  While Humperdinck adopted many of his mentor Wagner's techniques, it is much easier to trace how his themes are developed as the Opera unfolds.  The overture was crisp and pleasant, but there are times the music got a bit muddled, which is a bit surprising given that it doesn't sound that complicated.  Joe was marveling at how clear the singing sounded without the aid of a sound system, and in general that is quite true: the singing comes across very well.  It is interesting when the singers are in front of a curtain, their voices don't carry too well, probably because the curtain material doesn't resonate well.

We again have a woman singing the role of a young Hansel.  I guess it doesn't matter who is singing which part, and since Hansel is a young boy, his voice is probably in the treble range anyway.  We heard Alice Coote in Elijah before; she didn't leave a lasting impression then, and she didn't leave one today either.  To confuse the audience further, a man played the witch dressed in woman's gear.  The advantage is that it allowed the choreographer to put in a few crude comic moments (yes, I used the word "crude.")

I am a bit surprised at how negative I end up being with this performance.  Perhaps it is due to my high expectations going in: this is the Met, so it has to be much better than what I remember of the NYCO.  Another reason for disappointment is one would think after reading the Playbill that this will be an impressive opera at many different levels.  Instead I find it wanting at many different levels.

The New York Times review is very enthusiastic.  The performance reviewed had a different singer playing Hansel.  I attribute the enthusiasm at least partially to a charitable holiday spirit.  Who wants to say "There is no Santa Claus" this time of the year?  The reviewer also pointed out that the 28-year old conductor Ticciati is one of the youngest to debut at the Met.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Metropolitan Opera – Gounod’s Faust. December 20, 2011.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Family Circle D208 ($37.50).

Story.  The aging scientist Faust makes a deal with the devil Mephistopheles to recapture his youth in return for having Mephistopheles as his master in the world below; this after Faust sees the image of Marguerite conjured up by Mephistopheles.  While Valentin, Marguerite’s brother, and Wagner are preparing to go to war, Mephistopheles shows up and predicts the death of Wagner in battle, of Valentin by someone close to Mephistopheles; and that any flowers Siebel picks up will wither.  Mephistopheles then brings Faust to see Marguerite.  Siebel gathers flowers for Marguerite and they wither, holy water however restores them.  After leaving a box full of jewels for Marguerite, Mephistopheles helps Faust to seduce her, and she becomes pregnant.  When Valentin returns from battle, he fights with Faust and is killed, with Marguerite watching.  Marguerite kills her baby and is condemned to death.  Faust and Mephistopheles go to the prison to see Marguerite who dies.  Faust and Mephistopheles go down to the underworld but Marguerite is saved.

Conductor – Yannick Nezet-Seguin; Faust – Jonas Kaufmann, Marguerite – Marina Poplavskaya, Mephistopheles – Rene Pape, Wagner – Jonathan Beyer, Valentin – Russel Braun, Siebel – Michele Losier, Marthe – Theodora Hanslowe.

I heard the ending of this opera when listening to WQXR’s opera broadcast.  The announcer gave a very vivid description of the ending where Faust and Mephistopheles descended t hell and Marguerite climbed up a staircase.  She also talked about the people in lab coats becoming angels during the last scene.  When I read the New YorkTimes review, I was less impressed.  The review wasn’t all that positive, and the setting was between world wars when Faust was a scientist developing a nuclear bomb.  Eventually curiosity got the better part of us, and reasonable good seats in the Family Circle were available.

Jonas Kaufmann must be the tenor-du-jour for the Met this year (or is it tenor-du-annee?), there is no escape if you pick up a recent copy of the Playbill, and his picture is plastered all over inside and outside Lincoln Center.  This is also a reason I wanted to see this opera.  I remember a similar situation with Dudamel the conductor, in that case I was quite impressed with him.  Alas, that is not the case here.  His voice for the most part did not carry well into the rear of the opera.  Sometimes this could be attributed to the acoustics of the specific seat; but every now and then he would do okay, and many others' voices came through clearly.  To be charitable, perhaps tonight he was a bit (or way) off.

Rene Pape is a dependable bass and did quite okay.  There are quite a few grotesque figures in the opera, so there was no intention of white-washing the evilness of Satan; yet Pape didn’t sound or look menacing at all.  One can go overboard trying to play the bad guy, but it is a greater failure if the audience doesn’t feel the slightest bit of disgust at the devil’s deviousness, as was the case tonight.

I enjoyed Marguerite’s voice.  As with Pape, her acting did not elicit the expected emotion.  Her role is someone caught up in other people’s actions and had no escape except for the final redemption scene.  I felt no pity, no horror, and no relief when she in turn was abandoned by Faust, killed her baby, and ascended to heaven.

Siebel, a young pupil of Faust, was sung by a mezzo-soprano.  Not having read the Synopsis carefully before the show, I actually thought for a long time he was Marguerite, and got very confused when Marguerite first appeared.  This tradition of having a young man’s singing to be done by a woman continues to confuse me to no end.

The staging works well for the scenes called for in the opera.  The spiral staircase and walkway on either side of the stage provide a natural place for singers to linger and observe, and for the chorus to congregate.  Beyond that it does not make much sense.  When one hears of “nuclear bomb laboratory” and “Faust” one might think the bargain with the devil is to create this weapon of mass destruction.  If this is indeed the intention, the director and set designer fail spectacularly: there is amusement and puzzlement, but no horror.  If this is not the intention, they what the heck …  I really felt cheated when the “ascension” scene came along – Marguerite simply walked up a stair case, complete with landings at the turns.  The WQXR narrative made it so mesmerizing, but it was just someone in a haggard dress climbing up to the catwalk.  The few “magic tricks” (e.g., withering roses or how Marguerite transformed from being pregnant to holding a baby in her arms) were unnecessary.

The music is generally pleasant, which may not be the adjective you want associated with Faust.  This opera when it first came out was extremely popular.  Indeed what we saw was the 740th performance by the Met.  We also heard it in French, evidently versions in other languages exist.

For me, anyway, the comparison of this with Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust is unavoidable.  The latter was not composed for the opera but I thought the Met did a good job with it.  It is interesting to note that Gounod’s work premiered in 1859 while Berlioz wrote his in 1846.  I wonder if there was any rivalry between the two composers at that time; there was no reference of it in the Playbill.

I just reread the New York Times review.  The reviewer is very positive on the singers, while I am not.  For me, how good an opera is starts and ends with the musical performance, the rest is gravy.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Metropolitan Opera – Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment. December 15, 2011.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Family Circle C220 ($37.50).

Story.  Marie, an abandoned infant, is adopted and raised by the soldiers of the 21st regiment.  She falls in love with the Tyrolean Tonio, who, though an enemy, saved her life.  Tonio looks for Marie but is captured instead.  His life is spared after Marie pleads for his life.  Their plan to get married is rejected by the soldiers as Marie must marry a soldier from the 21st regiment.  Tonio decides to join the regiment so they can get married.  Meanwhile, the Marquise of Berkenfield, who abandoned Marie out of shame because she was born out of wedlock, claims Marie to be her niece and brings her back to the Berkenfield Castle.  The Marquise also arranges Marie to marry Scipion.  Marie initially objects, but relents after she finds out that the Marquise is actually her mother.  The soldiers storm in but Marie remains obedient to her mother’s wishes; however, after Marie sings of her debt to the soldiers, the Marquise gives her permission to marry Tonio.

Conductor – Yves Abel; Marie – Nino Machaidze, Tonio – Lawrence Brownlee, Sulpice – Maurizio Muranro, Hortensius – James Courtney, The Marquise of Berkenfield – Ann Murray.

I must say at the outset I didn’t prepare for this opera at all.  All I know was that it is a comedic opera written by Donizetti.  Whether it was the lack of sleep the last few nights, or it was concert overload (five so far in December, and two more to go, for a total of eight), I just felt very tired at the beginning and had trouble staying awake after the rather pleasant overture.

Yet the show held for me several surprises …

My first surprise was Marie.  From where I was sitting, even with binoculars, I couldn’t get a good look at her, so I thought she was a middle-aged singer trying to pass herself off as a young lady.  Searching the internet during intermission corrected that misconception: she is from the Republic of Georgia, and is another of those who quickly rose to prominence a few years ago.  To have a Met debut at age 28 (as Gilda earlier this year) is certainly no small feat.  She could certainly sing, be it a soft passage or a high note.  Since she is supposed to be a tom-boy (being raised by a bunch of soldiers, after all), she tends to jump on people every now and then.  She is not small, and it was a bit worrisome when she jumped on the slightly built Tonio (sung by Brownlee).

We saw Brownlee as Rinaldo opposite Renee Fleming in Armida (April 2010).  He was quite good then, but I thought a bit on the nervous side which I attributed to being young and singing with a renowned soprano, and “predicted” that he would improve.  He certainly did very well tonight, and perhaps singing with a younger soprano helped.  His voice was a bit weak at times, though he had no trouble hitting the nine high Cs.

When the royally regaled Duchess of Krakenthorp came out at the beginning of Act 2, there was a huge applause from the audience.  I couldn’t understand why.  Then I said to Anne the Duchess looked a bit like Joan Sutherland; Anne reminded me that Sutherland is dead.  The Playbill solved the mystery: it was Kiri Te Kawana.  She had some dialog, but did no singing.  We heard her in Carnegie Hall a while back and wondered what she would be like at her prime.  [On Saturday I drove around town with the radio tuned to WQXR.  They were broadcasting Madama Butterfly, but during the intermission were interviewing Te Kawana, who shed some additional (but not much) light on her cameo appearance.  I thought she said there was a small singing part, but I certainly didn’t catch it.]

Yet another surprise was that the opera is in French.  I don’t speak French or Italian, but at least could tell the two languages apart.  Evidently French was the original, but there are versions in German, Italian, and English.  In my opinion most operas sound better in Italian, but with its many love songs, it works quite well in this case.  From this opera, I couldn’t tell if Donizetti was a Francophile or he was making fun of them.  A patriotic French song closed the opera, and a banner with a cartoon rooster (Chanticler) was lowered as a backdrop, which puzzles Anne and me greatly.

The Program Notes also mentioned that Berlioz was a music critic then and panned the opera as being too "sugary" given all the tunes in it.  I say "the more the merrier."

The script (or is it the director) calls for a fair amount of comedic actions.  Marie’s ponytails, the maids cleaning at the beginning of Act 2, and the tank that Tonio drove in to save Marie, are examples of this.  Many in the audience appreciated them, but I haven’t been turned into a great fan of the genre yet, and physical comedy doesn’t appeal to me.

Most of the arias were done well, with the appropriate amount of dramatic effect.  The trio (by Tonio, Marie, and Sulpice) calls for rapid notes and was a bit disappointing.

Today being a gridlock alert day, we decided to drive in early.  What was a 10-minute wait at Lincoln Tunnel when we got started turned into a much longer wait.  We had wanted to spend some time at the Museum of Biblical Art on Broadway but decided we wouldn’t have enough time.  So we took a stroll down to Columbus Circle and then to Carnegie Hall, having dinner at Lili’s 57 across the street.  We also waited for about 10 minutes inside the Time Warner Building for the “Light Show” which turned out to be a great disappointment.

The concert was not well attended.  Chao Ming went to the box office to buy one more ticket and got “upgraded” to Prime Orchestra (all the way from Family Circle).  We did take them back to their car parked in South River, so it was about 12:30 am when we got home.

Here is the link to the New York Times review.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

New York Philharmonic – Peter Schreier, Conductor. December 14, 2011.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 4 Left (Seat QQ11, $35.20).

Messiah (1741) by Handel (1685-1759).

Soloists: Ute Selbig, soprano; Nathalie Stutzmann, contralto, Steve Davislim, tenor, Peter Rose, Bass.
Westminster Symphonic Choir – Joe Miller, director.

Feeling very much in the holiday spirit, and because Goldstar had discounted tickets on sale, we decided during our Houston trip to purchase tickets for tonight’s concert.  Today wasn’t a gridlock alert day, but an accident in Lincoln Tunnel and a water main break in Weehawkin really caused Hudson crossing and mid-town traffic to snarl up.  While the path we took didn’t involve the reported 90-minute delays, the spillover traffic was so bad that it took us close to two hours to get to the parking garage.  After picking up tonight’s concert tickets and buying several opera tickets, we had just enough time for take-out at Ollie’s.

I don’t remember having heard any of the soloists before.  And Peter Schrier evidently was a tenor from his debut in 1959 to his retirement in 2005.  The choir comprises students at Westminster Choir College.  I must have heard them before since it collaborates with this orchestra quite frequently.

As familiar as the oratorio might be, I still find some new information about the composition that I didn’t know about.  First, while it was first performed in Dublin in April, 1742, it was written in London the year before.  During the first few decades of its existence, it was more an Easter tradition than today’s Christmas tradition.  There are many versions of this work, many of the revisions were put in by Handel to accommodate the specific needs of a performance.  I couldn’t quite get what the Program Notes say about tonight’s performance, but it seems several “less popular items” were taken out from the score.  I wonder which ones, and how long would the piece last if performed in its entirety.  Tonight’s concert was 2:40 hours with a 25-minute or so intermission.

The oratorio has three parts.  Part I relates to the prophecy of Christ’s coming and the circumstances of his birth; Part II to his life on earth; and Part III to the events surrounding the resurrection and the promise of redemption.

I was quite impressed after hearing the overture, the recitative and air by the tenor, and the first chorus by the choir.  The orchestra is small (6 first violins), the choir also relatively small at 70 or so members.  Nonetheless, the voices were clear and crisp, and the acoustics for this last row in the orchestra section was good.  The bass’s first appearance (a recitative) was also good.  Then the contralto came on, and that was a great disappointment.  I still remember the last time we heard this Chung Shu likened the bass as a singer with a rock in his mouth.  I am not that good with analogies, but the sound was strange it seemed to lodge in the singer’s throat unable to come out.

Unfortunately, the contralto didn’t improve as the evening progressed, and the crispness of the choir eventually began to make us wonder about the choir.  Anne pointed out the choir simply stressed the notes a bit too much (there is a musical term that for now escapes me.)  While this technique works wonders during the 16th note runs, it is not quite appropriate for the slower notes.  Since we are quibbling, the high notes (I think it gets to a G in this piece) also sounds a bit harsh at times.

The audience stood up for the Hallelujah Chorus (I was wondering if it would) at the conclusion of Part II.  Many people started to leave after that: some undoubtedly think it was a second intermission, but many never came back (or were not allowed to).  Which is too bad as the next Air (I know that my Redeemer liveth) was quite enjoyable.

For an orchestra like the New York Philharmonic, this must be a simple piece to perform.  And it started very well.  Surprising there were quite a few miscues later on.  Some of that may be due to working with a new conductor, some of that – I think – is simply due to lack of rehearsal time.

Perhaps it is the holiday spirit, and perhaps I feel forgiving towards a choir consisting of young men and women, I enjoyed the overall concert.

There will be altogether five performances.  I am quite impressed the concert is actually so popular, if tonight’s attendance was any indication.

New York Times has a review that is much kinder to the chorus than I am.  The reviewer made similar remarks about the contralto (impenetrable).  It also reminded me of how great the trumpets sounded.

Traffic was very light on our way home.  So I am glad we drove in.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

New York Philharmonic – Daniel Harding, conductor; Joshua Bell, violin. December 9, 2011.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 3 Center (Seat GG106, $70.)

Flourish with Fireworks, Op. 22 (1988/93) by Oliver Knussen (b. 1952).
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 35 (1878) by Tchaikovsky (1840-93).
Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) (1911-13) by Stravinsky (1882-1971).

Because of our recent travels, I didn’t pay much attention to this concert until I got to Avery Fisher Hall.  Actually I thought it was going to be a performance of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony!  I was pleasantly surprised when I found out about the details of tonight’s program – not that I would mind if indeed Mahler was going to be on the program.

The first piece was written by Knussen to celebrate Michael Tilson Thomas’s first performance as London Symphony’s principal conductor.  There is not a plot to the music, just a virtuoso piece to show off the conductor’s (and the orchestra’s) skills.  It serves that purpose quite well, as there is a cacophony of sounds that connoted a joyous celebration.  On the other hand, I have forgotten most of it as I am typing this blog two days later.  I wished I had read the Program Notes earlier and had known that the theme is based on the notes LSO-MTT (that would be A-E flat-G-E-B-B).  The sequence is atonal enough that I couldn’t get it in my head as the piece was being performed.   The Program Notes says the piece is three minutes long, I think it lasted close to four (not that it matters.)

I have heard Joshua Bell many times before, and while I by-an-large enjoyed his playing, I often found reason to quibble with his performances; sometimes I complained about his intonation, sometimes I complained about the sound of his Strad.  Tonight wasn’t one of those nights.  While Bell would (or should) be the first one to say it wasn’t a perfect performance, it came close.  And I may have finally found a seat in Avery Fisher that is perfect!  At least that’s how I felt after the first movement (Allegro moderato – Moderato assai).  The movement is among the best balanced live performance of a concerto I have ever heard, with the violin and the orchestra both coming across clearly.  An interesting thing about the concerto that I didn’t know: the premiere soloist Adolf Brodsky actually worked on it for more than two years before the first performance, and Leopold Auer – the original soloist Tchaikovsky had in mind – after first pronouncing it unplayable eventually became a believer.

This concerto is always a safe choice if you can pull it off technically.  Kind of like Eschenbach and the Houston Symphony choosing Mahler No. 5.   The demands on the artists are great, the effect ismesmerizing, and the melodies are captivating.  The audience broke out in applause after the first movement, which doesn’t happen that often.

Perhaps unfortunately for the performers, the first movement is a hard act to follow.  Indeed the second and third movements (Canzonetta - Andante; Finale – Allegro vivacissimo) don’t elicit nearly the same sense of awe.  There were balance problems here and there, and the violin was overwhelmed at times.  If these comprised the entire concerto, it would not have been as exciting an overall experience.  I do have a bit of quibble with the cadenza, which is extremely difficult: it dragged a bit.

I think I was a sophomore in college when I first heard the introductory bassoon theme to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring.  It hit home how an atonal line that is close to unsingable can be so catchy.   I am quite sure I have heard the suite several times, although most of it still sounded new.  But I am certain I have never seen it staged as a ballet (or was even aware of a ballet performance); I wonder why, the story line is not nearly as controversial or sensational as when the ballet was first staged in Paris where it caused a near-riot.

In any case, I enjoyed the performance and had fun trying to match up the music with the different scenes described in the Program Notes.  For completeness they are as follows.  Part One: The Adoration of the Earth: Introduction; Augurs of Spring (Dance of the Adolescent Girls); Mock Abduction; Spring Rounds; Ritual of Rival Tribes; Procession of the Sage; The Adoration of the Earth (the Sage); Dance of the Earth.  Part Two: The Sacrifice: Introduction; Mystical Cycle of the Young Girls; Glorification of the Chosen One; Evocation of the Ancestors; Ritual Action of the Ancestors; Sacrificial Dance (the Chosen One).  The Program Notes provides further help with a description of the choreography.  To me these constitute a plot, despite the statement “the piece has no plot.”

This is the second time we heard Harding conduct.  His movements are quite exaggerated, but he manages a good sound.

Today was a gridlock alert day, so we took the train in.  Everything worked well, we had a few minutes to spare when we got to Penn Station for our return trip.

The New York Times review is a bit on the lazy side, in my opinion.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Houston Symphony - Christoph Eschenbach, conductor. December 6, 2011.

Jones Hall, Houston, Orchestra (Seat V118, $65.50)

Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911).

Anne had a class during the evening, so I went to the concert by myself.  I heard Eschenbach a couple of years back, with the New York Philharmonic, but don't remember much of that event.  The tickets are "reasonably" priced; I got one in the middle price range.

Eschenbach was the director of the Houston Symphony for over ten years (1988-1999), and from the enthusiastic applause of the audience when he first stepped onto the stage, appears to be very popular with tonight's crowd.

For this evidently highly anticipated event, picking Mahler's Fifth was a safe and somewhat timid choice.  The symphony is always a crowd pleaser, as long as the brass section holds up.  And tonight the brass section acquitted itself quite well.

Jones Hall, like Brown Theater, is a large building.  It has a lot of common areas so people don't bump into each other during intermission.  But there was no intermission tonight, the 70-minute work was performed without one.  The orchestra is pretty large, I counted 15 first violins and 8 basses, for instance.  The acoustics of the auditorium is not as crisp as it could be, but quite acceptable.  The sometimes muffled sound from the orchestra could be a result of that, or the orchestra was sloppy at times.  The seats are comfortable, with lots of leg room.  It even has a bit of recline to it.

Inside Jones Hall, home of Houston Symphony.

In general it was a very enjoyable concert.  The last time I heard Mahler's Fifth was with Dudamel conducting the New York Philharmonic, which I raved about.  I don't think this is quite at that level, but still very good.

Even though I played this piece with the Cornell Symphony during my college days, I am still amazed that there are parts I didn't fully appreciate until the current hearing.  I especially appreciated how the horns led in the last movement.  Eschenbach's interpretation was a bit on the mechanical side.  I would like to have more graceful phrasing at many of the instances that a distinct downbeat was heard.  I went back to my blog about the last concert of his that I heard, the same remarks (energetic, seems to concentrate on one part at a time) also apply here.  At that concert I heard Beethoven's First Piano Concerto (Lang Lang as soloist) and Bruckner's Ninth Symphony.

The applause at the end was thunderous, and Eschenbach made four (I think) curtain calls.  I wonder if the Houston Symphony gets this kind of response every time.

When I wrote about the Houston Ballet a couple of days ago, I was musing about how the classical music scene in Houston compares to that of Hong Kong, my home town.  I was quite sure Hong Kong would not be able to stage a ballet to the level of the Houston Ballet, and I am also quite sure Hong Kong's orchestra - although quite good - isn't quite at the level of the Houston Symphony.  So, sad to say, it is settled.

I thought I lucked out again when I found an off-street parking space.  When I came out of the concert I found a parking ticket stuck to my windshield, a $70 fine.  The offense is "tow away zone, bagged meter."  The closest signs at the street corner say nothing of the sort.  I have yet to decide whether I want to appeal it or not ... A blemish on an otherwise nice evening, even though I was by myself.  On the other hand, my evening would really have been ruined if they had towed away my car.  [Note added 12/13/2011.  So I did access the Houston Parking website and appealed to the City's sense of fairness.  I just heard back from them that I am not liable.  As my son said, "huzzah."]

Metropolitan Opera – Philip Glass’s Satyagraha (M. K. Ghandhi in South Africa). December 1, 2011.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Family Circle E221 ($37.50).

Story.  This opera is mostly based on some of the events that happened to Gandhi while he was in South Africa (1893 – 1914).  The vocal text is by Constance DeJong and is adapted from the Bhagavad Gita, a Sanskrit text from a religious epic (Mahabharata) dating mostly probably from 5th century BC to 4th century AD, and is a philosophical conversation between the warrior prince Arjuna and the divine Lord Krishna on the eve of a great battle.  Act 1 Scene 1 describes some of this dialog.  The rest of the opera relates how Indians living in South Africa struggle for their civil rights.  The Sanskrit word satyagraha means “true force” which was adopted by Gandhi and others as their ideal.  Act 1 Scene 2 (Tolstoy Farm, 1910) discusses how the satyagraphis pledge to resist the European’s racial discrimination, and they set up the Tolstoy Farm to draw people to the satyagraha ideal of “fight on the behalf of Truth consisting chiefly in self-purification and self-reliance.”  Act 1 Scene 3 (The Vow, 1906) predates Scene 2, it describes the adoption of Black Act (registration and fingerprinting of all Indians) and as a consequence people attending a rally organized by the satyagrahas pledge to honor a resolution to resist.  Act 2 Scene 1 (Confrontation and Rescue, 1896) describes how Gandhi is attacked after his speeches and meetings in India are published; he is saved by his European friend Mrs. Alexander.  Scene 2 is about the publication Indian Opinion (1906) which grows in circulation to 20,000 in South Africa.  Scene 3 (Protest, 1908) describes how Indians burn their registration cards to protest the arrest of those who disobey deportation orders.  Act 3 (New Castle March 1913) describes how the government tries to impose new restrictions on Indians and how they try to organize a march to the Tolstoy Farm to force the government’s hand.

Conductor – Dante Anzolini; M. K. Gandhi – Richard Croft; Prince Arjuna – Bradley Garvin; Lord Krishna – Richard Bernstein; Miss Schlesson, Gandhi’s secretary – Rachelle Durkin; Kasturbai, Gandhi’s wife – Maria Zifchak; Mr. Kallenbach, European co-worker – Kim Josephson; Pari Rustomji, Indian co-worker – Alfred Walker; Mrs. Alexander, European friend – Mary Phillips.

I heard Philip Glass’s music once, his violin concerto, having avoided his music given his reputation of being an ultra-modern composer (turns out he belongs to the Minimalist school.)  I found the piece quite easy to listen to, so I was ready to tackle tonight’s 3 hour 45 minute (including two intermissions) opera.  Then I read the one-sheet insert in the Playbill, which is translated text of the Sanskrit.  When I came to the sentence “My very being is oppressed with compassion’s harmful taint,” I began to have my doubts.  Then I read the “In Focus” section of the Playbill and its description of Glass’s music being “entirely accessible” made me ready again.  So I was quite curious how it would all turn out before the first note was played.  I don’t quite know how to describe the opera, I must say.  And it is quite unlikely I will go see it again.

The opera is part of the “Grand Spectacles” series.  I am not sure the sets live up to that billing.  They are reasonably large and indeed some acrobatics and magic are involved, but not quite on the scale of being “grand.”  There are some clever ideas, some (such as the newspaper publication process) make sense, and some are nice visuals (such as the tapes being brought across the stage) but not quite obvious.

The choice of events included is also a bit puzzling.  Most of them make sense, but they all seem to involve protests of some sort.  I am sure Gandhi did much more than just that.  Glass mentions there are many to choose from, so it is unfortunate that the choices reflect (undoubtedly) only a small part of Gandhi’s actions and accomplishments during his years in South Africa.  Act 3 has as background a figure representing Martin Luther King Jr. on a podium.  Which brings up an issue and a question: issue – King and Gandhi are not contemporaries; question – blacks were oppressed, perhaps even more so, than Indians at that time, why was there no mention of this in the opera?  Even more puzzling was Act 1 Scene 1 where we have mythical figures talking to each other.  Finally, the story ends as describes above, with absolutely no resolution.  I guess I have made my feelings clear on what I think of the story.

Having heard Glass’s music once, the opera’s musical elements didn’t surprise me.  The “minimalist” aspect of it makes it not challenging to grasp.  The flip side, however, is that the many repetitions Glass thinks are necessary to move the story forward gets tiresome, very quickly.  For me it got so tiresome that I nodded off several times.  The singing was generally fine, given the vocal parts were not particularly difficult.  The most challenging part probably is to keep the meter correctly, from what I can tell, there is a great tendency to change from one meter to another rapidly.  Rachelle Durkin (as Gandhi’s secretary) is also a graduate of the Lindemann Young Artist program.  While she had no trouble reaching the high notes required of her part, her voice was a bit harsh.

For the reader who gets to go to this Opera, a couple of suggetsions.  First read the synopsis to get some idea of what is going on, because despite the reassurances in Playbill, the actions are not self-explanatory.  For the most part the words projected on the sets can be ignored.  But if desired they can be read up in advance to get some idea of the philosophical statements being made.  The opera may make a bit more “real time” sense if these steps are done ahead of time.  Otherwise one has to resign to try to enjoy the music and action as they unfold.

On thought I had after seeing Nabucco was that the story could be developed a bit fuller.  My view of Satyagrapha is quite the opposite.  Despite Glass’s claim that his music tends to develop slowly, I felt many parts of the opera were repeated way too often.  Case in point, the last “aria” by Gandhi consisted of a motif of three identical upward scales starting with the mediant; and this trio of scales got repeated so many times that I lost count.  And as far as I could tell, the words are the same.  When Gandhi’s voice began to break into a falsetto, I thought all the singing finally got to him.  Instead the curtain came down, so now I am confused whether the falsetto was planned.

On the way home, I listened to Glass’s violin concerto for a second time.  It was exactly as I envisioned it (I didn’t remember much of it, though), except the demands on the violinist are quite substantial.  The first two movements were quite all right, and the last movement a bit repetitive but at about 15 minutes relatively painless.  One conclusion that can be drawn from this?  30 minutes of Glass is bearable, 3 hours is a bit much.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Houston Ballet - Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. December 4, 2011.

Brown Theater at Wortham Theater Center, Houston, TX - Grand Tier Section D (Seat E2, $51).

Conductor - Craig Kier.  Sugar Plum Fairy - Amy Fote, Nutcracker Prince - Jun Shuang Huang, Snow Queen - Katherine Precourt, Clara - Allison Miller, Dr. Drosselmeyer - Christopher Coomer.

Anne and I came down to Houston to spend a few days, so far the trip has been somewhat of a disappointment.  We also looked into the classical music scene here and find it to be slim pickings.  Only performances that are on during our stay is a Houston Symphony concert, for which I bought a ticket yesterday, and several performances of the Nutcracker by Houston Ballet.

Today we got back into town a bit before six and decided to see if we could get tickets for the evening Nutcracker show.  We did.  Turns out there are very few restaurants in the area, and those we saw were a bit too formal for our taste, so we stopped by a cinema cafe and ordered a sandwich.

The venue - Wortham Center - certainly is impressive.  I was somewhat surprised to find out the Brown Theater had a capacity of only 2150 or so, it felt as cavernous as the Met.  The building's architecture is on the grand side inside and out, commensurate with "everything is bigger in Texas."

Inside the Houston Wortham Theater.

I have seen this ballet a couple of times before and wasn't that impressed.  Thus my expectations for the evening wasn't that high.  I ended up enjoying it immensely.

First, the sets.  They were quite ornate and elaborate.  Even though the stage is huge, there are sets that filled up the space nicely, and there are enough people flying around to make things interesting.  If I had not seen the Christmas tree transformation before I may be quite impressed with the growth scene.

The dancers put out an energetic and enjoyable performance.  I can quibble a bit that the slow movements are not as poetic as they could be, but there is not a lot of poetry inherent in the Nutcracker.  The athleticism of the male dancers is quite impressive.  The group dances all painted very pleasant pictures.

The choreography felt very fresh to me.  Perhaps they do the same thing year after year, but for me it is interesting and at times genuinely funny.

I usually don't pay a lot of attention to the costumes but find them quite enjoyable (if that is the right term).  The colors are bright and Anne thought border on the gaudy side.  My reaction was "well this is Houston.".

On our drive from Galveston to Houston I remarked to Anne that the classical scene in Houston is similar to that of Hong Kong, thus insulting both cities at the same time.  I have to revise that statement and say I have not ever seen anything so good in Hong Kong.  I will have a possibly firmer opinion after seeing the Houston Symphony on Tuesday.

The evening was "perfect" in yet another way: we parked right in front of the theater.  Our small rental car (Nissan Cube) was just the right size for this tiny space. Since it was Sunday, we didn't have to pay a dime.

Today (Thursday 12/8) I found this review of the Ballet on line.  The reviewer is absolutely in love with this production.