Saturday, January 21, 2012

Opera Australia – Puccini’s Turandot. January 21, 2012.

Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House.  Dress Circle (Seat P20, A$115.)

Story.  See previous post.

Conductor – Arvo Volmer.  Liu – Daria Masiero, Timur – Jud Arthur, Calaf – Rosario La Spina, Ping – Andrew Moran, Pong –David Corcoran, Pang – Graeme Macfarlane, Turandot – Susan Foster.

Six of us (Anne & myself, Ruth & Stephen, and Ling & Wally) went to see this opera after a simple lunch at Peking Dumplings in Chinatown.  Our row is the very last one in the theatre, but we are reasonably close to the stage.  Actually Anne and I moved up a few rows after Act I as there were quite a few empty seats.

Despite my impression that I was familiar with the opera, I had only heard it live once at the Holmdel Arts Center, as a concert.  And despite my not having seen this before, the opera felt very familiar.  Perhaps it is the simplicity of the plot, or perhaps it is because the melodies (some based on Chinese folk songs) are very familiar to me.

Bottom line: the overall performance was disappointing.  My major complaint is that it was sloppy, resulting in a muddled sound most of the time.

One performer that shone was Daria Masiero.  Her voice is not particularly strong, but she manages to convey well the emotions of Liu: her love of Calaf, and her willingness to sacrifice for him.  As a story, the sad part is that Calaf really didn’t have a lot of use for her, even though she made the ultimate sacrifice to save him from being executed.  Her two songs in Act I and Act III were the ones that came close to moving the audience.

Susan Foster as Turandot is basically a “shouter.”  She can belt out her notes clearly across the theatre, but without much drama.  Her explanation of why she was the way she was bordered on incomprehensible, and her change of heart wasn’t done with a lot of conviction either.

Most people have heard Pavarotti’s rendition of Nessum Dorma in the Three Tenors CD, and use that as the standard by which to measure performances by others.  This was poorly done by La Spina, not by the “gold” standard, but even by the standard of the amateur production I heard at the Holmdel Arts Center.  To be fair, La Spina was quite okay up to that point; but we expect the great ones to nail the difficult pieces, which he didn’t.

The stage is a bit small for the number of people they put on; you worry about them running into one another.  To their credit, no mishap occurred.  (It’s not always a given, I still remember a dancer at Madama Butterfly falling down, hard.) The color schemes are nice, but after a while you come to the conclusion that the design really doesn’t have a unifying theme to it.  Art for the sake of the artist showing off, not as part of a whole.  For my taste there was a bit too much smoke and mist.

In case you think the bashing is done, I have yet come to the orchestra and the chorus.  Here they needed to work on the most basic of orchestral and choral music: precision.  Other than for the simplest of passages (such as the song adapted from the folk song “Flower Song”), stray notes were all over the place, and imprecision was the norm.

There was very little applause during the Acts, only exception being after Nessum Dorma.  The applause at the end was quite enthusiastic, though.

I found today (23 Jan) a local review.  Another case of the reviewer needs to go out more.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Metropolitan Opera – Jeremy Sams’ The Enchanted Island. January 14, 2011.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Balcony A6 ($109.50).

Story.  Prospero asks the spirit Ariel to shipwreck Ferdinand’s ship so he can arrange for the marriage between Ferdinand and Prospero’s daughter Miranda.  Ariel makes a mistake and shipwrecks a ship with the couples Demetrius & Helena and Lysander & Hermia instead.  This starts the messy relationships that ensue: between Miranda and first Demetrius and then Lysander, and between Caliban and Helena.  Caliban is the son of Sycorax who was in love with Prospero but abandoned by him eventually.  Helena eventually comes to her senses and leaves Caliban, and Ariel brings together Miranda and the two couples and set things straight.  Ferdinand and Miranda falls in love, Sycorax forgives Prospero, and all is well.  Neptune comes out on a couple of occasions, once to help with the search for Ferdinand, and once to exhort people to do the right thing.

Conductor – William Christie; Prospero – Anthony Roth Costanzo, Ariel – Danielle de Niese, Sycorax – Joyce DiDonato, Caliban – Luca Pisaroni, Miranda – Lisette Oropesa, Helena – Layla Claire, Hermia – Elizabeth DeShong, Demetrius – Paul Appleby, Lysander – Elliot Madore, Neptune – Placido Domingo, Ferdinand – Jeffrey Mandelbaum.

First a few words about the genesis of this opera.  The front of the program says “A Baroque fantasy in two acts.  Devised and written by Jeremy Sams.  Inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Music by George Frederic Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Andre Campra, Jean-Marie Leclair, Henry Purcell, Jean-Fery Rebel, and Giovanni Battisa Ferrandini.”  To my understanding, this means the opera is a pastiche compiled by Jeremy Sams using parts of operas written by the long list of composers listed above.  Sams provided the libretto, and (probably) on occasion also adapted the music (he cites a sextet – the one sung by Ariel and the five confused lovers – based on a Handel quartet.)  The libretto is a made-up story combining elements of The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The premiere of the opera is at the end of 2011, and though I try to avoid reading a review of a performance I am about to see, I couldn’t help but read the writeup in the New York Times.  I will re-read that later, but for now remember it as being very positive, except for the fact the Domingo needed a lot of prompting (and even there the reviewer wasn’t being particularly harsh.)  While I try to make this my own writeup, I am sure I will be influenced by what I read there.

I don’t follow the singers world to see who is famous and who is not, so it is natural that I don’t recognize most of the people in the roster, with the exception of DiDonato and, of course, Domingo.  Indeed many of the artists are young, many are either in or a graduate of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.  Recently there has been a flood of them on the Met stage, and most of them do very well, a tribute to how successful the program is.

When I was reading the synopsis, I told myself it was going to be very confusing, and there was no way I could track the relationships since (given where we sat) everyone would look the same anyway.  Turns out I could follow the different characters with relative ease; probably a case of different parts of my brain work differently.

The staging is baroque-esque (so the Program Notes says) but enhanced with modern day projection techniques.  The sceneries are mostly 2-dimensional but work quite well.  There are harnessed mermaids swimming when Neptune comes out, and many sea nymphs with body suits and sea-shell bikinis (probably answering an earlier question I had for Das Rheingold).  The raindrops are quite realistic, and a bit of magic is involved, including fire eruptions and sparkle.  All in all an effective backdrop for what happens with the singers.

The stand-out in the cast has got to be Danielle de Niese singing the role of Ariel.  Not only is her singing superb, she also steals the show with her acting.  Good writing, undoubtedly, but she managed to pull it off.  There are some very demanding rapid runs that she pulled off without a glitch, and her voice carries well.  Some of the more comic moments are her coming to see Neptune in a diver’s outfit, and her carrying a small case when she leaves the scene.  A Melbourne native and a graduate of the Lindemann program, I suspect she will spend a lot of time outside her home country.

There are many examples of someone filling in a role at short notice and hits it big.  One has to wonder if that would be the case with Anthony Roth Constanzo who filled in as Prospero for a sick David Daniels.  Constanzo is listed as Ferdinand, whose role is limited to a couple of arias.  As Prospero he is a main character with a lot of exposure.  He was a bit unsteady at times and missed several words, but he improved tremendously as the show progressed.  He aria towards the end, begging Sycorax for forgiveness, earned one of the longest applauses I have seen at the Met.

The role of Neptune is well-suited for Domingo, someone close to the end of his singing career but still commands quite a presence.  (Let’s hope Domingo’s career as a conductor continues to succeed.)  We heard Domingo as Emperor Qin in The First Emperor and enjoyed his singing, even though the music was inscrutable. By that measure tonight was a disappointment: he was a bit mechanical and his diction was wildly off.  I don’t know if he was still looking at the prompts, or these professionals hide it very well.  Since he has sung close to 140 roles, I think giving him a pass is the reasonable thing to do.  Question is: does he want one?

I have mentioned on many occasions my puzzlement when women singers are used in the roles of young men.  Ariel, whom I understand to be a male spirit, is another one of those examples.  In this case things are not that bad, she has wings and is not really a person, anyway.  However, using Countertenors and their high voices in the roles of Prospero and Ferdinand is inexplicable.  I got very confused when Prospero and Sycorax were singing this duet, and sometimes DiDonato’s voice was lower than that of Prospero and I thus couldn’t tell who was asking for forgiveness and who was doing the forgiving.

If I have to characterize this story, it would have to be a comedy.  A comedy that works quite well, actually.   Memorable examples are the antics of Ariel and Lysander and Miranda discovering that their names rhyme.  Nonetheless, there are some poignant moments, in particular the one where Caliban has to come to realize that love isn’t in the cards for him.

In the Program Notes Sams laments the fact that there are too many good melodies and he could incorporate only a limited number in this work.  For instance, he uses nine from Vivaldi and claims there is at least 20 more he could have used.  Indeed at close to 3 hours (not counting the intermission) this is a long opera, but there are many repeats, several of which are “twice.”  Perhaps he could cut those repeats and make room for additional arias?  We are making this up anyway, so breaking the norm of doing repeats would be legitimate.  Of course that would involve additional orchestration and scenes, which I suspect is another factor in this.

I certainly enjoyed this more than I would have expected, but not so much as the New York Times review would lead me to believe.  The real test is what happens to this opera as time wears on?  Will it make its way to the genre’s standard repertoire, or will it eventually fade away like a ripple on a pond?

Before this, my attendance at operas based on Shakespeare’s plays always helped me understand the plays better.  No luck this time, though.  The characters are similar, but I couldn’t quite get if that’s what Shakespeare had in mind.

Anne mentioned to me as we were leaving that the Opera reminds her of Handel’s Messiah, and I said nothing of the sort, I didn’t hear any “I know that my Redeemer liveth” or anything similar in it.  And what is in the first paragraph of the Times review?  The finale is lifted from Handel’s Hallelujah chorus.  Not from the Messiah, but from “Judas Maccabaeus.”

Saturday, January 14, 2012

New York Philharmonic – Zubin Mehta, conductor. January 13, 2012.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat X104, $70.)

Symphony No. 8 in C minor (1887/90; ed. Nowak, 1955) by Bruckner (1824-96).

If you read the Playbill a bit further, you will read under “Work composed” the words “1884-August 10, 1887; revised April 1889-March 1890; correspondence reveals that Bruckner dedicated this symphony to Emperor Franz Joseph of Austra.”  Evidently Bruckner’s work endures several characteristics.  One is his self-doubt could cause him to revise his work, often extensively; the other is that several of his students modified his music rather extensively, either at his request or on their own initiative (with the composer’s agreement, apparently).  To decide what was what probably is a musicologist’s dream, for the average audience member who may listen to any particular work once every few years, it may not matter very much.  For the record, the Nowak edition brings us back to the “Bruckner original,” or does it?

That, it turns out, is my critique of the Program Notes for this concert.  Long on historical facts, but little on what informed Bruckner when he wrote this, and whether this music broke new grounds.  The conductor Hermann Levi, to whom Bruckner sent the first manuscript, was baffled by the symphony.  Perhaps our annotator is, also?

Looking over my blog, it turns out this is the fourth Bruckner symphony I heard since I started recording these events in 2005.  The ones I heard earlier are the sixth, seventh, and ninth.  So for me it is four performances in six or so years.   I must say this is the least baffling one, if my recollection of my prior encounters serves correctly.

I always think of Bruckner’s symphonies as being very long, and this is one of the longest at 83 minutes total (both advertised and in actuality).  And everyone in the orchestra showed up (I did notice both Cynthia Phelps and Eileen Moon were not there, so it’s a bit of an hyperbole.)  The percussion section is relatively small, with only the timpani, the cymbals, and the triangle.  There are two harps, though.

There is quite a bit of brouhaha on a recent New York Philharmonic performance where Alan Gilbert halted the performance because of a cell phone alarm.  Today the lady in front of us was quite annoyed at the rustle of page-turning by the lady next to me.  Thus I wasn’t about to dig out a pen and scribble notes onto a pad.  There is no way I can do an analysis of the music, but I did try to remember something about each of the movements.

One would think the first movement (Allegro moderato) will be the longest, as with most symphonies; and one would be wrong.  It is not short, at 20 or so minutes, but not particularly long.  It contains quite a few themes that are tonal, but there is no development, climax, or any of the traditional progression one may find in a symphonic movement.  Most interestingly, the movement ended on an upward flourish that isn’t particularly dramatic.  If you didn’t know the second movement is marked “Scherzo.  Allegro moderato – Trio.  Slow. Scherzo da capo” you wouldn’t have called it a scherzo and trio movement.  But the divisions are easy to find, and one can stretch and call the scherzo a scherzo.  It is overall a very enjoyable movement.  The third movement (Adagio.  Solemnly slow, but not dragging) is the longest at around 30 minutes.  Even though the tempo is measured, it is the most dramatic movement with the music building up to clear climaxes.  It also has some of the wandering elements that so characterize Mahler’s music.  Interestingly I have not come across much on how Mahler and Bruckner influenced each other.  They were both Austria-born and had a lot of overlapping years.  But I digress … The last movement (Finale.  Solemn, not fast) sounded to me like a recap of the earlier movements, with new elements thrown into the mix.

Sitting in my seat, not being able to move much (or lacked the courage to do so), it was still a rather quick 80-plus minutes, even though I had to fight the urge to doze off every now and then.  Anne’s back was acting up and was a bit uncomfortable.  Mehta is in his 80s and didn’t show his age at all.  Not only did he conduct without the music, he also did it without the railing at the end of the podium.  He moves his body and arms quite a bit, but his feet seem firmly planted.

The applause was quite enthusiastic.  I noticed that Mehta shook the hands of the violists (Young and her neighbor) but seemed to ignore Dicterow and Staples.  Did I miss it, or were there some ill feelings from Mehta’s tenure as the Orchestra’s music director?  Cosmic order was restored when Mehta patted Dicterow on the back at the third curtain call.

The New York Times review is very positive on the performance, and references some of the problems when Mehta was leading the New York Philharmonic.  It also has a good storyline (mountain trekking) for the symphony.

Today was one of the coldest days of this so-far warm winter season.  The actual temperature was around freezing, but felt much colder with a stiff breeze that gusts to over 40 mph.  We drove in; the several blocks from the parking garage to the restaurant (Eastern Szechuan Garden) wasn’t easy.  Good thing we didn’t hit much traffic either way.