Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Metropolitan Opera – Verdi’s Ernani. February 25, 2012.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Family Circle (Seat H106, $45.50).

Story.  Elvira is in love with Ernani, who has become a bandit after losing his royal title as Don Juan of Aragon.  Elvira is in turned loved by Don de Silva, a Spanish grandee, and Don Carlo, the king of Spain.  When Ernani and Don Carlo (in disguise) happen to be in Elvira’s room together, Silva walks in on them.  After Don Carlo’s identify is revealed, he allows Ernani to leave.  As the preparations for the marriage of Elvira and Silva get underway, Ernani shows up in disguise.  He confronts Elvira who then tells him she intends to kill herself at the wedding.  When the king enters, Silva saves Ernani’s life by hiding him; they also agree to join forces to kill the King.  Ernani in turn pledges his life with his hunting horn, promising Silva that he will kill himself when the horn is sounded.  While the conspirators are planning the assassination of Don Carlo, the king of Spain is elected the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.  The Emperor then decrees the noble rebels to be executed and the commoners imprisoned.  Ernani reveals his identity as a nobleman.  Elvira's pleas make the Emperor pardon everyone.  As Ernani is about to marry Elvira, Silva sounds his horn and demands Ernani kill himself.  After Ernani plunges a dagger in his own heart, Elvira pulls it out and kills herself with it.

Conductor – Marco Armiliato.  Ernani – Marcello Giordani, Elvira Silva’s niece and betrothed – Angela Meade; Don Carlo, king of Spain – Dmitri Hvorostovsky; Don Ruy Gomez de Silva, a Spanish grandee – Ferruccio Furlanetto.

The synopses both at the Metopera website and in the playbill are pretty bland.  And in general it reflects the story which requires a lot of filling in of the background by the audience member. The Story above has elements in the opera but not in the synopses. What I didn’t expect was that Elvira would also kill herself, and that the scene would end with Silva standing above the two dead lovers proclaiming the power of revenge.  In some sense that last scene reflects this opera, it has great potential, but that potential wasn’t fulfilled.

The performance started at 1:00 pm and ended at around 4:30 pm.  However, with two intermissions (about 35 minutes each) and two changes of scenes (at about 5 minutes each), the actual performance felt quite short.  As with Nabucco, I wish the characters and the storyline are developed a bit more fully so I didn’t have to supply a lot of imagination.  On the other hand, this is one of Verdi’s earlier operas (fifth out of 28), and melodies abound.  They are not as singable as those in, say, La Traviata, and I didn’t know any of them.  As the Program Notes describes, the orchestra’s role is mainly accompaniment.  Nonetheless it put in an excellent performance.  While the sound of the horn brought on the dread that Ernani had to kill himself, it was very effective.

Angela Meade must be part of the Met’s future.  Looking over her biography in the Playbill, one may come to the conclusion that she is positioned as the next Anna Netrebko.  Her voice is strong throughout her considerable range, but is a bit on the harsh side in the “high-loud” area, and she had a lot of trouble with the many trills that are called for in this opera.  But her “high-soft” is just exquisite, it floats graciously throughout the theatre (we were seated in the mid-Family Circle area.)  She certainly held her own against the three male singers. She can't quite compare with Netrebko when her back is to the audience, though.

Other principals (the three suitors) did quite well also.  Hvorostovsky as Don Carlo was weak at times.  (Disclosure: it may have been Furlanetto as Silva.)  The chorus was unexpectedly weak, which is unusual; perhaps somehow the sound didn’t carry well to our area?

The sets are quite massive, and serve their purposes well.  That makes the scene changes a bit unwieldy, and most likely contributed to the time it took to complete.  I find it amusing that there are all these steps people have to walk up and down, must be quite exhausting.

The audience was very enthusiastic and applauded on many occasions.  Many well deserved, some a bit doubtful.  Perhaps that this performance was broadcast live added to that enthusiasm.  We had coffee at the Rubenstein Atrium after the concert, before we drove down to Jersey City to have dinner with Kuau and Ellie at Amelia’s.

Today was a windy day (gusts reported to be up in the 50 mph range) and we had trouble walking on the streets.  It actually snowed a bit, even though the temperature was in the 40s.  No accumulation though.

The New York Times reviewer saw another tenor in the role of Ernani.  The review has some interesting background information on the set and Angela Meade.  And he would agree that the story, based on a play by Victor Hugo, is a bit contrived.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Piano. February 11, 2012.

Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, Section Parquet Right (Seat Y14, $25).

Divertimento on "Sellinger's Round" (1954) by Michael Tippett (1905-98).
Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, Op. 35 (1933) by Shostakovich (1906-75).
   Louis Hanzuk, Trumpet
Pastorale d'ete (1920) by Arthur Honegger (1892-1955).
Serenade for Strings in C major, Op. 48 (1880) by Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).

Today’s concert had a somewhat unusual start time of 7 pm.  We left at around 5 pm, and got to the parking garage in less than an hour.  We actually had time to walk around a bit after a quick dinner at Lilies 57.

In general I don’t understand how a concert program is put together, and in today’s case it is even more puzzling.  Inclusion of the two pieces by Russian masters is obvious enough, but how the pieces by Tippett and Honegger fit in escapes me.

Not that there is anything wrong with either of them.  To celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, Benjamin Britten asked six composers to contribute to the Variations on an Elizabethan Theme, with the theme a famous tune (Sellinger’s Round) from the time of QEI.  Tippett wrote the second variation, A Lament.  He then went on to write additional movements to generate a complete piece.  Each movement quotes another British composer: (i) Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625): Fantasia for Strings; (ii) Henry Purcell (1659-95): “Dido’s Lament” from Dido and Aeneas (this is the movement in the QEII tribute); (iii) Thomas Arne (1710-78): “Preach me not your musty rules” from Comus; (iv) John Field (1782-1837): Nocturne in D minor; and (v) Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900): “I have a song to sing, O!” from The Yeoman of the Guard.  Since I do not know any of the quoted pieces, I cannot say how direct the quotes are.  The music is interesting, but not awe-inspiring.

The inclusion of the Honegger piece is even more puzzling.  Honegger, whom I also had never heard of before, was anointed as a member of “Les six” in 1920, the year he wrote this “Summer Pastoral,” by a French music critic Henri Collet.  At seven minutes it is a short piece.  It is generally quite slow, with the composer trying to paint a picture of a lazy, relaxed summer morning.  Nothing wrong with that, but again not awe-inspiring.

One would expect a full orchestra (say 12 first violins) to accompany a solo work of one of the modern masters such as Shostakovich.  For tonight’s performance we have a total of 25 of so musicians, five first violins.  With a large orchestra I often complain about the piano being overwhelmed, with a small one the opposite result would be expected.  Indeed that turned out to be the case, although the overall effect was okay.  Compared to the Brahms violin concerto I heard them play last, the group was much more together, even though the music can be characterized as being more chaotic.  Go figure.  The concerto itself is quite short at an advertised 21 minutes, and consists of four movements: Allegro moderato, Lento, Moderato – Allegro con brio.  The third movement was very short and continued as the fourth without pause.  As the Program Notes says, the piece contains a plethora of ideas and does not follow a standard concerto form.  I find it quite interesting, although I wonder how it would come across if it had a larger development section to it.  In any case, the overall effect was more traditional than I expected.  Even though he needed the music in front of him, Thibaudet turned in a delightful performance.

Another interesting aspect of the concerto is the quotations from Beethoven.  I could hear the one form the Appassionata Sonata well enough , but have to defer to Anne when she said she recognized the one from The Rage over a Lost Penny.  There is also a significant trumpet part in the concerto, though no so much to warrant an equal billing with the piano.

After the intermission a WQXR announcer (Elliott Forrest? I am not sure) came on the stage and interviewed a couple of the musicians about the Tchaikovsky piece.  One relayed that they did a spontaneous performance at Chicago O’Hare when they were snowed in at that airport; the other said he had played at every chair for this piece, and how things were always a bit different every time. (Turns out he led this performance.)  I know this piece very well, having played a movement of it as member of my high school orchestra at a competition (which we won, hands down: my school has dominated the orchestra category for at least 40 years.) The four movements are (i) Pezzo I forma di Sonatina; Andante non troppo – Allegro moderato; (ii) Valse: Moderato (Tempo di Valse); (iii) Elegia: Larghetto elegiaco; and (iv) Finale (Tema Russo): Andante – Allegro con spirit.  The piece is easy to listen to, and evokes the spontaneity with which Tchaikovsky composed it.  The performance was enjoyable, but I am not sure it was that much better than when our school orchestra played it.

The concert was reasonably well attended.  Interestingly, quite a few people left after the first half, and more did after the first piece of the second half.  I can understand leaving after Thibaudet’s performance, but continue to scratch my head why they didn’t stay for the Tchaikovsky piece.

After the concert we drove to Jersey City to visit Ellie and Kuau in their new apartment overlooking the Hudson and Manhattan.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Metropolitan Opera – Wagner’s Gotterdammerung. February 3, 2012.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Balcony Seat B10 ($71.50).

Story.  See previous post.

Conductor - Fabio Luisi.  Norns - Maria Radner, Elizabeth Bishop, Heidi Melton; Brunnhilde - Katarina Dalayman; Siegfried - Stephen Gould; Gunther - Iain Paterson; Hagen - Hans-Peter Konig; Gutrune - Wendy Bryn Harmer; Waltaute - Waltraud Meier; Alberich - Eric Owens; Rheinmaidens - Erin Morley, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Tamara Mumford.

This is the last of Wagner’s Ring operas.  We saw the new production Das Rheingold and Die Walkure last season at the Met, but we couldn’t see Siegfried because it was on during our Australian trip, so we will only manage a “broken ring” this past year.  Of course a Ring purist would say a real ring cycle must fall within the same week anyway.

We got back from Australia a few days ago, although I didn’t have severe jet lag, I was nonetheless getting very little sleep the last few days.  As I feared, I had quite a bit of trouble staying alert throughout the 5 ½ hour program, although I didn’t once doze off (that I am aware of.)  Anne had similar problems; only in her case she did doze off.  Awake or not, we both thought the opera could move along at a faster pace.

First, a few words about the set.  Remember, this is the super-expensive (latest figure $16 million) Robert Lepage production based on 24 planks.  From what I remember of the first two operas, even though I didn’t think it was worth the money, I at least grudgingly agreed that it worked to a certain extent.  For this opera, however, it didn’t work very well.  The planks by-and-large just served as a projection screen for different backgrounds (fire, bucolic scenes, castle, etc.)  Yes, every now and then they would be configured into various structures, but those were both simplistic and artificial.  Anne did wonder if the concentric rings we saw a lot of were “inspired” by the fact that this is a Ring opera.  They wouldn’t be that pedestrian, or would they?

Several interesting props were used.  The first one was Brunnhilde’s horse Grane.  It is a metal shell in the shape of horse on a dolly, but its moves were so convincing that I had to look at it again and again with my binoculars to make sure.  The final scene of the funeral pyre and self-immolation is probably one of the most anticipated scenes in opera.  I remember it as being very disappointing at Seattle, so didn’t quite know what to anticipate.  What happened was they built a pyre of (fake) logs which glowed with so much smoke that eventually not much was visible.  After Brunnhilde brought Grane to the pyre, the planks covered them up.  Finally, the very last scene was Valhalla being destroyed (or it was self-destruction, I am not sure).  Anne said she saw the statues were “pre-cracked”; I saw several people hiding behind the planks, probably backups who were called on to do their backup job.

When the opera began, there were three “Norns” weaving these heavy ropes that dislodged from the planks as the story-telling unfolded.  We were worried somehow things would get tangled up, but to their credit nothing did.  Also it is amazing how people (especially the Rhinemaidens) could move so agilely up and down (mostly by sliding) these slopes.  We were a bit worried that the four “pallbearers” of Siegfried would drop him from the make-shift carrier made from his coat and two spears; and it had to be quite uncomfortable for Siegfried.  Another major difference is harnesses were not used at all in this opera.  The Rheinmaidens were no longer suspended

So those are the physical aspects of the program.  How about the music?

The good news is after listening this many times to the Ring operas, we are getting familiar with the motifs.  I was waiting for the Valhalla motif, and (as far as I know) it came on only towards the end.  And there were many broken Brunnhilde variations which I would prefer to be more straightforward.  While I was happy to pat myself on the back every time I recognize a theme, I thought the Nothung theme was used a bit too much.

We didn’t get to hear Deborah Voigt this time.  Katarina Dalayman sang the role of Brunnhilde.  Her voice when it came through was great, but the volume was inconsistent.  The Rhinemaidens, all graduates of the Lindemann program, did a great job – having the planks right behind them certainly helped.  I assume there are no easy Wagner roles, so to everyone’s credit they made things look relatively easy.  Another standout was Waltrud Meier singing the role of Waltrude (same name, practically).

In the writeup on Das Rheingold I noted the six harps but wasn’t sure they ever did play all at the same time.  This time around I am sure they did.  The sound didn’t come through very clearly, though.  In general the orchestra did very well, especially compared to what I remember of the Seattle experience.

It was August 2009 when I first (and last) saw this opera.  I don’t recall much of that, but don’t remember it as being a particularly memorable program.  I at least found several episodes of tonight’s performance moving.  I have come to a conclusion that many people see operas (or movies, or plays) again and again for various reasons.  One is that the context is so rich that several shows are required to fully absorb the whole experience.  The other, I suspect, is few people can stay alert for the entire length of the program.  I said after August 2009 that it is unlikely I will sit through a Ring cycle again.  I may want to revisit that statement.  The test would be whether I will pick a Ring opera over some other opera.

One word about traffic (vehicular, that is).  The concert started at 6 pm, so we left a bit after 4, thinking we would beat the traffic.  The upshot is never try Lincoln Tunnel at switch over time.  The delay went from 5 minutes when we left the house to over 30 minutes by the time we got there.  We managed to park in the Lincoln Center garage ($36) with only enough time to spare to go to the restroom before the performance began.  They were also fixing the Turnpike late that evening, so we got hung up a bit in traffic also.  It was way after 1 am when we got home.

The New York Times reviewer saw Deborah Voigt in the role of Brunnhilde and Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried.  I actually first mistook her photo for that of Dalayman, a tribute to the make-up artists, perhaps.  The review began with the remark “(this) is the most theatrically effective staging of the four works” but went on to say “Mr. Lepage has simplified the staging and used fewer of the capacities of (the) 45-ton set.”  Isn’t that another way of saying a $16 million projection screen works very well?  The reviewer also had a lengthy discourse on how Voigt’s voice had fared the last few years.  Finally, she evidently rode on Grane in the immolation scene!

I did check the Met website about the three Ring Cycles later in the year.  Many of the sections are already sold out, and the prices are outrageous.  The least expensive ticket (Family Circle, partial view) costs $95 each!

Driving in Upstate New York the following afternoon (Saturdya), we heard Fabio Luisi being interviewed during a break in the Met broadcast.  He remarked that a conductor has two souls at work, one wants to go wild with the music, the other needs to exert control.  (Or some words to that effect.)  Overall he did a great job, especially if I compare what I saw Friday with what I remember of the Seattle Ring experience.  There was also this interview with Anna Netrebko where she did say she had to play an “angry” Anna Bolena, so the constant scowl on her face was intentional: not that I agree with that approach.