Monday, November 26, 2012

Metropolitan Opera – Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. November 24, 2012.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Balcony, Seat D117 ($92.50).

Conductor – Fabio Luisi; Count Ribbing – Keith Miller, Count Horn – David Crawford, Oscar – Kathleen Kim, Gustavo III – Marcelo Alvarez, Count Anckarstrom – Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Judge – Mark Schowalter, Madame Ulrica Arvidsson – Dolora Zajick, Cristiano – Trevor Scheunemann, Amelia – Sondra Radvanovsky.

Story.  King Gustavo III and Amelia, wife of his friend and secretary Anckarstrom are in love.  Amelia seeks out the fortune teller Arvidsson for advice.  Arvidsson says Amelia should go to a cemetery to find a herb that will rid her of her desire.  She runs into Gustavo III there while a group of rebels led by Ribbing and Horn are also pursuing the king.  The king asks Amelia to put on a veil, and asks Anckarstrom to take her back to the city while the king escapes.  The taunting of the group goads Amelia in removing her veil, thus making known the fact she was with the king.  Feeling betrayed, Anckarstrom joins the rebels and gets selected to assassinate the king.  The king throws a masquerade ball and the three co-conspirators attend the event.  After getting the page Oscar to point out the king’s costume, Anckarstrom stabs the king to death.  Before the king dies, he tells his friend that Amelia has always been faithful, and pardons everyone.

After La Clemenza di Tito, CS and I had coffee at the Rubenstein atrium while we waited for Anne to show up after her CCHC lunch in Flushing.  We sat there, chatted a while, and then decided to go down to Whole Foods for a simple dinner.  Usually Whole Foods in the Time Warner Building is very crowded, it was busy, but we manage to find a place to sit down to enjoy our meal.  We then walked around the shops in the building – it seems there have been quite a few changes since we were last there.  Very soon it was time to head back to Lincoln Center.  CS bought a ticket for the New York Philharmonic, Anne and I headed to the Opera House.

I was wondering whether I was overdoing it after the Opera started.  I felt quite tired and had trouble keeping awake.  Eventually I woke up, got quite caught up with the piece, and really enjoyed this performance.

I said in my prior post that the Mozart performance was technically great but didn’t quite grab me.  One could find more flaws with this performance, but my overall reaction was quite different.

First, the action is faster paced.  Verdi’s music simply propelled the story along to its inexorable conclusion.  Even though I knew how the story would unfold, having read the synopsis, I was still very caught up with the development of the plot.

This opera was written by Verdi when he was in his 40s, after having completed his “trilogy” of Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Il Trovatore, and before Verdi turned to more dramatic and continuous (and to me less melodic) works such as Otello and Falstaff.  This opera has a lot of pleasant and singable arias, but also has a heavy dose of continuous dramatic action.

The orchestra really got into the music, providing a wide range of dynamics, from soft harp passages to heavy drum beats.  There are some woodwind (I think one of them is an alto clarinet) passages that are just splendid.

The set was interesting and simple.  One can think of all the action taking place inside a box which is configured to be the different scenes.  There is a mural showing Icarus falling backwards from Apollo, with his wings breaking off.  Anne and I aren’t sure whether this has anything to do with the story or not.  I suspect one can always make an argument for a connection, but that argument is not obvious.

A lot is asked of the singers also.  All three principals (Alvarez as Gustavo III, Hvorostovsky as Anckarstrom, and Radvanovsky as Amelia) sang beautifully. There are some tongue-twisting quick passages that weren’t perfectly executed; but not so much that it would take away one’s appreciation of the singers’ skill. Their acting skills aren’t shabby either.  While the opera doesn’t provoke the same emotion as a La Traviata or a Tosca, I did find myself sympathizing with the principals, and wishing things would turn out differently (not that they ever do.)

The role of Oscar is sung by a woman, in this case the Korean soprano Kathleen Kim.  She was made up in a somewhat comical and slightly grotesque way, wearing a goatie and sprouting wings every now and then, often with a cigarette dangling from her mouth.  This evidently is one of the few instances Verdi uses a woman to play the role of a male character.  Her voice is great, and I am sure would be more appreciated if she had just been more traditionally costumed.

Speaking of costumes, I am sure people in Denmark didn’t dress like that in late 18th century.  Since the story doesn’t really hinge on the specific people or era, the dresses, suits and ties weren’t too detracting.

In my opinion, the Program Notes oversells the work a bit.  For instance, the singing that grows from a solo to a quintet in Act III, while nicely “engineered,” isn’t as ingenious as the Notes would lead one to believe.  Similarly, the laughing chorus at the end of Act II isn’t as sinister as the Notes suggest.  That doesn’t mean the genius of Verdi as an opera composer doesn’t come through; but he does that routinely in his operas, not just this one.

There are two intermissions, which make the entire program last until 11:35 pm.  It also took a while for our car to be retrieved from the garage, so it was close to 1 am Sunday that we got home.  This weekend may not have been as tiring as our Seattle Ring foray, but it was tiring enough.

The New York Times review has a lot of good things to say about the opera, but is quite critical of the production.  Here we do get an explanation of how Icarus parallels the king.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Metropolitan Opera – Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. November 24, 2012.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Family Circle, Seat H220 ($45).

Conductor – Harry Bicket; Vitellia – Barbara Frittoli, Sesto – Elina Garanca, Annio – Kate Lindsey, Tito – Giuseppe Filianoti, Servilla, Lucy Crowe, Bublio, Oren Gradus.

Story.  The emperor Tito falls in love with Servilla (Sesto’s sister) but she is in love with Annio.  Servilla is brave enough to tell Tito her true feelings and gets the blessing of the monarch.  Vitellia, daughter of the emperor overthrown by Tito, loves Sesto but vacillates between wanting to kill the king to wanting to marry him for the power.  She convinces Sesto, who is a good friend of the Tito, to assassinate him.  Sesto starts a rebellion but relents about killing the emperor.  Sesto is condemned to death, but is granted clemency by Tito after much deliberation on his part. Sesto and Vitellia marry each other.

The story above quite accurately describes what happens in the opera, but is not a synopsis as the story unfolds along multiple parallel lines.  The synopsis in the Program is quite interesting: it basically contains a brief description of each aria and recitative; it works quite well, though.

We had Thanksgiving dinner with the Yangs, and CS told me he bought a single ticket to this Saturday performance in the Family Circle section.  Since Anne was going to be going to lunch with her CCHC group, I decided to also buy a Family Circle ticket ($35, plus $10 handling charge.)  Anne and I were planning to go to another opera that evening (see following blog.) That would mean in about 28 hours I will have been inside a concert hall for more than 8 hours.  I felt quite ready for it at that time.

The Saturday turned out to be a rather long one.  We left our house at about 10:15 am so Anne could make her lunch in Flushing, I then stopped by KFC for a quick bite, and got into the Westside at around 12:30 pm, giving me enough time to pick up the ticket, and to exchange the couple of La Clemenza di Tito tickets we already had (you read it right) for another concert: we couldn’t make this one anyway as I expect to be out of town.  We were done with the evening at about 11:45 pm, and didn’t get home until close to 1 am Sunday morning.

An objective listener would say it was a great Mozart performance.  The orchestra sounded crisp, the way I like Mozart to be played.  The voices were all great.  The set was quite interesting.  They had the same foreground (steps) that could be transformed into different scenes with the right staging.  They had a moving ship to transport Berenice away, the whole scene took all of perhaps one minute.  A bit overdone, in my opinion.  I also appreciated the period costumes the singers wore.

On the other hand, I am not a fan of Mozart (not in heavy doses, anyway.) And this is an opera perhaps only a Mozart lover would adore.  The story itself is okay, but doesn’t deserve the 2 plus hours it lasts.  The second half is especially problematic for me.  They have already caught Sesto in his act, so the entire Act is spent on Tito making up his mind, changing it, signing the death warrant, and then tearing it up.  It reminds of this daisy petal “he loves me he loves me not” process.  Just decide and get on with it already!  For me the most aggravating thing is using women to sing the roles of young men (Sesto and Annio.)  In Annio’s case they also changed the color of his wig which added to the confusion.  Given where I sat, I often couldn’t tell who was doing the singing, and I was hopelessly lost when the two men sang with Vitellia at the same time.

A case of a perfectly executed performance not appreciated by someone looking for something different.  In that regard I am glad I “saved” the more expensive seats for another opera.  I did move to Row D for the second half since the two seats next to CS were vacant.

The New York Times review contains some interesting information on the background of the opera.  It also goes down the list of singers and basically says each does well.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra - Hans Graf, conductor; Augustin Hadelich, violin. November 24, 2012.

Richardson Auditorium, Princeton, NJ.  Seat Front Parquet (L44, $77).

In Autumn, Op. 11 by Grieg (1843--1907).
Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47 by Sibelius (1865-1957).
Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90 by Brahms (1833-1897).

Anne was going to a Thanksgiving dinner with her Sunday School students, and there weren't too many interesting programs on TV.  Instead of sitting home and vegetate, I decided to buy a ticket to this concert.  The attraction for me is the Sibelius violin concerto.  Even though I am quite familiar with it, I would love to hear it again.

I bought the ticket earlier today, and was quite surprised at the cost (second most expensive at $74, plus $3 in handling charges.)  I have been to Richardson many times before to attend the free Princeton summer chamber music, usually getting there early enough to get rather good seats.  The seat I got for this concert is on the right side, quite close to the orchestra (reminds me of our Vienna seating.)  Since the stage is a bit higher, I could only look at the feet of a few second violinists.  There were several empty seats to my left, so I moved a couple of seats in, and the view there was a bit more reasonable, still poor, though.

The Grieg piece is relatively short at 12 or so minutes.  It is quite traditional in both sound and format, and quite pleasant.  This so-called concert overture started as one of Grieg's early large orchestra compositions, then got arranged as a piano piece, and got re-orchestrated by Grieg some twenty years later into tonight's form.  The history is interesting, but somewhat irrelevant as we would hear only one version (the later one.)

This piece in some sense set the tone for the rest of the evening.  The piece is pleasant to listen to and interesting musically.  But you wish the orchestra would do a better job with it.  Maybe it's the acoustics, or maybe it is the orchestra, the sound just wasn't quite what I expected.

We heard Hadelich perform with the New York Philharmonic last month.  We were seated in the first tier of Avery Fisher and I was not particularly impressed with how the performance went, opining that it lacked the intensity and passion one would expect from the Lalo composition.

Today's more intimate setting made a huge difference.  The violin certainly sounded great, as one would expect of a Strad.  I liked how the more virtuoso first and third movements were played.  Even though in today's Program Notes there is no mention of Sibelius's not succeeding as a violin player, that fact (or myth) is indelibly etched in my mind, and I would always think of the concerto as a way for the composer to come to terms with it.  Certainly I got the frustration of the first movement, and the acceptance of the third.

The second movement was not at the same level as the other two.  I got the impression the soloist is trying to get through it, and the balance with the orchestra was wanting.  Overall, I enjoyed this performance more than the Lalo piece.

As if the concerto wasn't difficult enough, for encore Hadelich played Paganini's Caprice No. 24.  It is just an amazing piece, and he did a flawless job, the broken hair on his bow evidently didn't bother him the least bit.  The audience showed their appreciation with their enthusiastic applause.

I was surprised that I wasn't familiar with Brahm's Third Symphony (except for the third movement.)  It is relatively short at about 35 minutes, and has the distinction of having every movement end on a soft passage.  This was written during Brahms' mature years (he was 50 years old), and reflects a bit of his melancholy despite being in the key of F major.

The piece is easy to like, and I enjoyed it.  That despite the rather sloppy performance by the orchestra.  I remarked to Anne there were 12 second violins, and I could hear all twelve of them playing during some of the faster runs.

Overall, I am glad I went.  This is a case of sloppy performance being saved by great compositions.  I was a bit surprised at the number of empty seats in the auditorium, an entire second row was not occupied.  And I am still a bit miffed at how expensive a ticket is.  For $70 I can get a decent seat at Lincoln Center, and the 46 Euro seats we got in Vienna certainly were more interesting.

This was the first of three performances of this program.  Let's hope they get better in the next two.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Vienna Philharmonic - Andres Orozco-Estrada, conductor; Rainer Honeck, violin. November 5, 2012.

Golden Hall at Musikverein, Vienna, Austra.  Seat Orchestra 1 (E46).

Program: A concert of the Society of the Friends of Music in Vienna
Overture in G major by Luigi Cherubini.
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra by Stranvinsky
Symphony No. 4, C minor, D 417 ("Tragic") by Schubert

We are in Vienna with our friends David & Ruby, whom we have known since our college days.  One should never visit Vienna without going to a concert, so here we are.  The big names are of course the Vienna Philharmonic and the State Opera.  The State Opera has tickets only in the E250 range, which is a bit too much for us.  When I found out we could get contiguous seats at E46 each, I got them right away.  Notice the seats don’t have a row number.  We found out they are actually a few chairs they put out on the side, right behind the violas, right next to the cellos, and right in front of the basses.  Anne and I just had to make sure to suppress the cough we had, and good thing we did.

The acoustics of the hall isn’t quite up to what I recall of Tonhalle in Zurich, but certainly quite adequate, perhaps because we are so close to the players.  The first violins, quite far from us, were quite easy to hear.  On the other hand, I had trouble hearing the violas, which were right in front of us.  For some reason, my ears are simply not tuned to its pitch range and its timbre.

Riccardo Muti was supposed to be the conductor, but he had to withdraw because of illness.  Andres Orozco-Estrada, a young conductor of another of the many orchestras in Vienna, stepped in.  Since I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the original program, I am not completely certain (but quite sure) that the program was changed.  Similarly, the solo violinist is the Orchestra’s concertmaster; and I am sure he wasn’t the originally-scheduled soloist.

Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) was an Italian composer who spent most of his time in France.  I had never heard of him before, and thought his music sounded quite baroque.

The Stravinsky violin concerto was a first-time listen also.  It is quite long at about 30 minutes, not extremely difficult as far as I could tell.  On the other hand, it is easy to like, and I am sure I will enjoy it more as (if) I get to know it better.  There are some interesting effects.  For example, by having the piccolo doubling the violin, it sounds like harmonics are being used.  The solo violin’s sound was quite good, but didn’t project as well as I would like.

I am still not sure if I have heard the Schubert piece before - I do have that on my iPod.  Nonetheless, in one regard it is very Schubertian: the themes get used so many times that by the end the piece simply sounded very familiar.  The sound of the orchestra was crisp, and dynamics was great.

These last minute substitutions sometimes can make an artist.  Orozco-Estrada is a young man (may be early 30s?) and did a credible job.  I am not sure this event would make him, though.

One other surprising thing about the concert hall is how worn things look and how small the stage is.  The orchestra for tonight wasn’t particularly large, but there was not much spare room on stage.  The conductor’s dais is pushed all the way to the edge, and it is a good thing there is support behind him.  The wood of the stage could use a new coat of varnish, a long time ago.

Finally, we noticed that some double basses have 5 strings.  Need to do some research on that.

All said and done, we were all happy that we could see this event.