Friday, September 28, 2012

Metropolitan Opera – Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. September 27, 2012.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Balcony, Seat C111 ($97.50).

Conductor – Maurizio Benini; Adina – Anna Netrebko, Nemorino – Matthew Polanzani, Belcore – Mariusz Kwiecien, Dulcamar – Ambrogio Maestri, Giannetta – Anne-Carolyn Bird.

Story.  See previous post.

There are a few singers whose appearance on a program would get me to buy a ticket for the performance.  Anna Netrebko is one of them.  While her voice isn’t the smoothest, it is always radiant, carries well, and enjoyable.  Her acting skills could still use some improvement, though.

Great acting skills aren’t necessary for this opera.  It is a comedy with interesting dialog and a ton of pleasant tunes.  As long as you don’t give it too much scrutiny, the story moves forward at fast enough a pace, and there are enough comedic moments to propel the relatively short program forward (2 hours 15 minutes, plus an intermission).

We saw a New York City Opera performance in 2006, so I don’t remember much about that occasion.  I do remember the setting was relatively modern (say 1940s) and all the action happened inside and around a diner.  Tonight’s performance was set in 1836.  I don’t understand why it needs to be so precise, except perhaps to explain why the soldiers have these interesting caps.  The sets are a bit more complicated than what we saw at the NYC Opera performance, and they work quite well.

The last Met opera we saw was in April, and I don’t remember the acoustics at our seats for being this good.  Most of the singing came across clearly, and both Netrebko and Polanzani put in great performances.  The other two men (Kwiecien and Maestri) were a bit spottier.  There were some high notes that Netrebko barely made, though.

Donizetti put in quite a few quartets in the opera.  I recall in Lucia he also had quite a few ensemble pieces – including the famous sextet.  Now I wonder if this is something he did regularly in his operas.  He wrote about 60 operas, and I have seen about five of them, so we have a ways to go yet.

Of course the best known aria is “Una furtiva lagrima” sung by Nemorino.  As far as I can tell, it isn’t the most technically challenging tune in the opera.  And when placed in the context of the opera’s plot, it is a bit out of place.  But by golly, it is just a great tune.  The wistfulness expressed is just perfect against the bassoon accompaniment.  The downside is it may end up being the opera, thus overshadowing all the other arias.  I have to say Polanzani did a superb job, the last few notes just floated across softly and effortlessly into the hall.

Before the concert, Anne and I met up with my former boss Marc and his wife Ellen for dinner at Atlantic Seafood Grill.  I certainly enjoyed catching up with him after all these years (although we do see each other every now and then), and the food was great.

The New York Times reviewer describes the story in quite a bit of detail.  He pans the Met for putting out Netrebko and Donizetti as the season opener, but then proceeds to sing praises about every aspect of the performance.  He has some interesting observations about Netrebko and Polanzani’s voices.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

New York Philharmonic – Alan Gilbert, conductor; Leif Ove Andsnes, piano. September 22, 2012.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra 1 (Seat T106, $69.50.)

… quasi una fantasia … for Piano and Groups of Instruments, Op. 27, No. 1 (1987-88) by Gyorgy Kurtag (b. 1926).
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 (1796-1803) by Beethoven (1770-1827).
Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) (1911-13) by Stravinsky (1882-1971).

This is the first week of the New York Philharmonic season.  Adding to that excitement is that the son-in-law of our friends will be starting his season with the orchestra, which is a big deal: hundreds of musicians audition for a spot on the roster.  I am sure quite a few tickets were sold to this cheering section.  Ellie and Kuau came along for the occasion also.  The four of us had dinner at LUCE prior to the concert, reasonably priced entrees that were quite good.  The restaurant is a stone’s throw from Lincoln Center; somehow we never noticed it before.

A few days prior I met up with my former boss Marc, another regular at these New York concert events.  We were talking about the “new” music that Gilbert is trying to introduce into the Philharmonic’s repertoire, and Marc said he doesn’t get it.  My response is I don’t appreciate it very much either.

Today’s opening piece is an example.  First of all, I have problem with these fancy titles coined by these modern artists.  Instead of simply calling it a fantasy, he had to call it by a more complicated Italian name, with dot-dot-dots in front and after the title.  The piece consists of four movements played without pause: (i) Introduzione (Largo); (ii) Presto minaccioso e lamentoso (Wie ein Traumeswirren) [Like a Nightmare]) (Molto agitato, sempre ppp); (iii) Recitativo (Grave, disperato); (iv) Aria – molto adagio (Lontano, calmo appena sentito [Distant, calm barely perceived]).  Why they need Italian, German, and English, I don’t know. The instrumentation consists of a long list of instruments, including several “echo” percussion pieces – whatever that means.  When we walked into the hall, we noticed two groups of percussion instruments at the rear, each with four chairs: evidently they hired many extras. There are other instruments on the first and second tiers also, in fact the only people on stage were the conductor, the solo pianist, and the timpanist.  I think there were like six or seven drums, some tuned closely in pitch (a semitone, maybe.)

In the Program Notes there is a reference to a poem being introduced by the fourth movement.  As if that isn’t bad enough, the last line of the poem isn’t complete!  I am embarrassed to say I didn’t get any of it.

There are a couple of redeeming features to the piece.  Foremost among them is the brevity, at only ten or so minutes.  My remark that for some pieces it takes longer to read up on than listening to applies here also.  The second is the music generally follows the markings listed in the program, so there wasn’t a lot of head scratching.  Third is the “stereo effect” generated by the placement of the instruments was interesting at times.  I wonder if these modern compositions (and composers) would ever get anywhere beyond an occasional performance here or there.  I would not actively avoid going to a concert if this piece is on the program again, but I suspect even if I wanted to, it would be difficult to find another performance.  [To provide a counter-argument, an obscure piece I heard in Hong Kong was actually played in Carnegie Hall.  In that instance there is a common element: Edo de Waart.]

The Beethoven piece was quite enjoyable, as any good rendition of the work would be.  The balance between the soloist and the orchestra was great at our seats.  The three movements are Allegro con brio, Largo, and Rondo: Allegro.  Ah, the simplicity.  For some reason Beethoven took a long time to complete this work, and the cadenza wasn’t completed until 1809.

A few days ago Chung Shu sent me several Youtube links to a Rite of Spring performance conducted by Boulez, with the assignment to delineate where each of the “movements” begins and ends.  The piece is thirty-some minutes in length, and is in two parts.  Part One: The Adoration of the Earth consists of 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), and Dance of the Earth.  The Second Part (The Sacrifice) consists of Introduction, Mystical Cycle of the Young Girls, Glorification of the Chosen One, Evocation of the Ancestors, Ritual Action of the Ancestors, and Sacrificial Dance (The Chosen One).  I also found a Boulez performance of the ballet on Youtube.  After working on it for a morning, I did manage to complete the assignment.  The ballet performance is interesting in that there was some spectacular horsemanship, but puzzling as you wouldn’t think it follows the plot at all – such as it is.

To my great dismay, I couldn’t quite follow the music during the actual concert itself.  What I should have done is to bring my homework write up with me.

Chung Shu posted a link to the New York Times review on an earlier performance, which I haven’t yet read: I don’t want to be biased by these influential critics.  I couldn’t avoid his posting saying the Rite of Spring was the highlight of the evening, though.

My experience isn’t nearly as sanguine.  The piece started okay, with the lovely mysterious tune played by the bassoon that made this piece so famous.  It however eventually degenerated into simply a competition between the sections to see who could play louder.  And given where we sit, they were pretty loud.  I had mentioned in a prior blog (when they were playing a Tchaikovsky symphony) that Gilbert seemed to be able to put an appropriate restraint on things.  He either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do that tonight.  This is the third time I have blogged about this piece, and I thought the other two times, conducted by Harding and Mehta, were better (this is from my blog entries, I certainly don’t remember the specific performances.)

So, the season for me isn’t off to a great start, although I am sure it’ll improve.

The New York Times review goes into a detailed description of Kurtag’s piece.  It is one of the most positive pieces ever written by a Times reviewer in recent memory.  We evidently listen for very different things.