Thursday, December 27, 2012

Metropolitan Opera – Berlioz’s Les Troyens. December 21, 2012.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Balcony, Seat B114 ($97.50).

Conductor – Fabio Luisi; Cassandra, Trojan Prophetess, daughter of Priam – Deborah Voigt; Coroebus, engaged to Cassandra – Dwayne Croft; Aeneas, Trojan hero - Marcello Giordani, Dido, Queen of Carthage – Susan Graham; Anna – sister of Dido – Karen Cargill; Narbal, Dido’s Minister – Kwangchul Youn; Iopas, poet at Dido’s court – Eric Cutler; Ascanius, son of Aeneas – Julie Boulianne.

Story.  The first part of the opera (Acts I and II: La Prise de Troie) talks about how the Greeks invaded Troy by leaving a wooden horse behind.  Cassandra warns her father King Priam and her fiancĂ© Coroebus to flee the city, but she is ignored.  The Trojans bring the wooden horse left by the Greeks into the city as a way to appease Athena, the Greek deity.  The ghost of Cassandra’s brother Hector visits Aeneas and asks him to flee to Italy.  As the Greeks overrun the city, Cassandra and many other Trojan women commit mass suicide instead of being submitted to rape and enslavement.  The second part of the opera (Acts III, IV, V: Les Troyens a Carthage) centers around events in Carthage after the Aeneas and other Trojans arrived in Carthage.  Seven year prior, Queen Dido – whose husband was murdered -  and her people fled from their native Tyre and settled in Carthage.  They take in the Trojans after they are shipwrecked in a storm.  When the Numidians attack Carthage, the Trojans help the Carthaginians to repel them, thus earning their gratitude.   Aeneas and Dido eventually fall in love, and Dido begins to neglect her duty as Queen.  However, Aeneas is reminded of his mission by Mercury in a vision, so they set sail for Italy, leaving Queen Dido behind.  When she realizes what has happened, the queen ordered a pyre to be built to burn everything that reminds her of Aeneas, and she also commits suicide by stabbing herself on the altar.  Before she dies, she predicts Hannibal will avenge her against Italy.

The headline artists of this performance are Deborah Voigt and Susan Graham, both well known for their respective roles as a soprano and a mezzo-soprano.  I also generally enjoy Berlioz’s music, in particular his Symphonie Fantastique and Faust (which I also saw as an opera).  My expectations for the evening were thus quite high.

This is a long opera, lasting about four hours, five hours with two intermissions. Worried about gridlock during the holiday season, we got into the city quite early, and managed to find free off-street parking!  Dinner was at East Szechuan.  Our trip home was equally smooth.

I didn’t get to write this blog until today (December 26) because we spent Christmas in Boston with family, so I will probably end up with some very general observations.  The first thought that comes to mind was the opera didn’t have to be this long.  This is particularly true of Part II.  There were just many dance numbers that take up a lot of time (to illustrate how Dido and Aeneas are enjoying themselves).  The dancing was probably of high quality, and so was the music, but they didn’t add a lot to the drama.  Someone defending the work would say they added a lot to the overall experience (which I won’t argue with), but to me they do not add to the story much.  I guess it’s a debate similar to the one in Strauss’s Capriccio: is opera about music or about drama?  To my considerable surprise, I was quite awake for the entire performance, and actually quite enjoyed it.

The other surprise was that Deborah Voigt didn’t sound as strong as I expected.  She actually sounded weaker than Dwayne Croft (Coroebus) who according to the announcement at the beginning of the performance was still recovering from a cold.  Voigt was adequate, and actually was quite convincing as Cassandra.  Susan Graham, on the other hand, sang extremely well, her voice carried well into the balcony.

One main voice that spans both Parts was that of Marcello Giordani, playing Aeneas.  He could have shone as the anchor of the show but unfortunately was not quite up to the task.  I found his acting skills a bit on the wooden side also.

Most of the “supporting cast” did great jobs.  Eric Cutler, as Iopas the poet, got quite an enthusiastic applause from the audience.  Karen Cargill and Kwangchul Youn as Dido’s sister Anna and minister Narbal sang clearly and beautifully.  I also like Ascanius, son of Aeneas, as sung by Julie Boulianne.

The production calls for a large chorus.  I counted as many as 160 people on stage at the same time (probably under-counted, if anything.)  At the beginning of the show, they were all lying on the ground, and as the music progressed slowly moved about and eventually all got up.  I thought that was really effective.  The chorus appeared on multiple occasions and I enjoyed their singing.

Despite my opinion that there was too much extraneous dancing, the dancers actually did a great job, and the dances well choreographed.  The color theme for the Carthaginians was white, and the white clothes on the dancers certainly made for a beautiful sight.  Strangely, many of the dances were “unisex” in that the pairings were not always boy-girl.

The staging had as its foundation a nest-like structure built of slats, with a second level platform that served multiple functions, such as the path the Trojan horse was brought into the city, or the cave where Dido and Aeneas declared their love for one another.  Overall, the staging was effective and interesting.

The orchestra put in a great performance.  The music is quite pleasant, but as with my other Berlioz experiences, I probably will enjoy it more as I get more familiarized with it.

Overall it is an enjoyable experience.  However, the overall performance doesn’t quite live up to the grand scale that one would expect given the story and the length of the opera.  Contrast this with my experience with Prokofiev’s War and Peace or even the Broadway show Les Miserables, which brings to mind the word “epic.”

I found both a New York Times review that says the score lasts 4 ½ hours and is quite critical of many aspects of the performance - comparing it with Levine's performance in 2003; and a Huffington Post review that gives quite a bit of detail of Les Troyens history at the Met.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

New York Philharmonic - Juraj Valcuha, conductor; Andre Watts, piano. December 11, 2012.

Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat T103, $72.)

Overture to Oberon (1826) by Weber (1786-1826).
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18 (1900-1901) by Rachmaninoff (1873-1943).
Symphonic Fantasy on Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) (1946) by R. Strauss (1864-1949).
Suite from Der Rosenkavalier (1909-10/1944) by R. Strauss

Having returned from Hong Kong the day before, I wasn’t sure I could last through the whole evening without succumbing to jet lag.  Turns out I did, and during the piece I am most familiar with; more on that later.

In any case, I picked Anne up at 4 pm, after she was done with her class for the day.  Traffic was light into the city, and we actually found off street parking after circling the block a couple of times, total cost for parking on 67th ended up being $5.50.  A quick dinner at Ollie’s gave us enough time for coffee at the Rubenstein Atrium.

Three of the pieces for the evening are opera-related.  Two of them, according to the Program Notes, are from operas that weren’t too popular.  I do have some prior knowledge of Die Frau ohne Schatten, from an LA Opera promotion CD dating back about 10 years ago.  And Anne insists that WQXR uses a theme from Der Rosenklavalier quite frequently.  All three operas have interesting stories, although I am not sure that fact is germane to tonight’s program: the music doesn’t necessarily follow the plot of the opera.

Carl Maria von Weber is mostly known as an opera composer, and Oberon was his last.  It was a commission from Covent Garden that may have sapped his strength before he died of tuberculosis. He died less than two months after the premiere.  The Program Notes describes the music quite well, and it was pleasant to listen to, though not memorable.

Over the years, we have seen quite a few of Strauss’s operas (not the two on tonight’s program, though.)  One unifying theme about them: they are all difficult to understand, and the tunes aren’t quite singable.  The two pieces we heard tonight, while not very singable, were quite easy to grasp.  And it turns out what Anne is familiar with is the waltz within Rosenklavalier, having little to do with the main story.  And an interesting fact, it is an anachronism as the story took place about a century before waltzes came into being.

The headliner for the evening was definitely Andre Watts playing a Rachmaninoff piano concerto.  I have liked Watts since I began listening to his recordings while I was in college in the 70s, and Rachmaninoff concertos also work out well for those that can pull them off.

The Program Notes mentions there is always a “take-away” tune with Rachmaninoff’s concertos, and tonight’s was to be in the third movement.  I actually think there is one in each of the three movements (Moderato; Adagio sostenuto; and Allegro scherzando).  Too bad I was feeling a bit drowsy during the performance.  From the parts I was awake for, Watts certainly did a great job with it.  Too bad I didn’t listen to enough of it to know how well he strung them together.  The applause at the end was surely enthusiastic, but my prior experiences with the New York Phil audience tell me it’s more about the performer, not necessarily about the performance.

A few words about the Slovakian conductor Valcuha.  His movements are a bit exaggerated, though not animated, but I didn’t the orchestra was particularly responsive.

Another advantage of off-street parking is the easy get-away after the concert.  We were home before 11 pm.

The New York Times reviewer loved the concert, thinking the conductor was extremely effective.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Hong Kong Philharmonic - Jaap van Zweden, conductor; Christianne Stotijn, mezzo-soprano. December 8, 2012.

Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall.  Stall 1 (Seat E10, HK$300.)

Program - Jaap's Mendelssohn
The Hebrides (Fingal's Cave) by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847).
Sea Pictures, Op. 37 by Edward Elgar (1857-1934).
Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56 Scottish by Mendelssohn.

I am staying in Hong Kong for about two weeks, unfortunately there are not many concerts during this time of the year.  While I am not familiar with any of the pieces on the program, I am certainly interested in checking out how the new conductor, and Mendelssohn is a dependable composer.  Not an “art song” person, I don’t know what to expect from the Elgar piece.  I went to this concert with Ling and Wally, who coincidentally also went to another concert in this “Jaap’s Mendelssohn” series.

Our seat at HK$300 per person (Ling even got a 50% senior discount) are not expensive.  They are on the front left part of the orchestra section, the view of most of the orchestra being blocked by the first violins.  If you look at the layout of the concert hall, there are not really that many good seats (at least as far as view is concerned).  Acoustically our seat is okay, we were able to hear different parts of the orchestra clearly.

According to the Program, the inspiration of the two Mendelssohn pieces came from his visit to Scotland in 1829, while The Hebrides came out soon afterwards, the Scottish Symphony wasn’t completed until 12 years later: Mendelssohn made a remark that he would never forget what the place looked like (barren, rugged, unforgiving), and how the people acted (unfriendly, drinking all the time.)

To my ears the two compositions sounded similar.  The Hebrides last about ten minutes, and portrays the bleakness of the Cave that Mendelssohn actually.  My expectation having been set by what I have read in the Program Notes, the music didn’t sound as bleak or desolate as I would expect.

The Program contains a good description of the four movements: (i) Andante con moto – Allegro un poco agitato; (ii) Vivace non troppo; (iii) Adagio; and (iv) Allegro vivacissimo – Allegro maestoso assai.  Mendelssohn chose not to supply a program for the music, so the listener needs to supply his own commentary and to correlate different sounds with different phenomena.

Sandwiched between the two Mendelssohn pieces is the Elgar composition.  Elgar set to music the following five poems, all related to the sea: (i) Sea Slumber Song by Roden Noel; (ii) In Haven (Capri) by Caroline Alice Elgar; (iii) Sabbath Morning at Seat by Elizabeth Barrett Browning; (iv) Where Corals Lie by Richard Garnett; and (v) The Swimmer by Adam Lindsay Gordon.  Elgar suggested that “it is better to set the best second-rate poetry to music, for the most immortal verse is music already.”  And he was true to form here: the only poet I knew from the group is Browning.  In Haven (Capri) was written by his wife.

The songs were first performed by Clara Butt who was dressed in a way that suggested a sinuous mermaid.  Interesting, and appropriate; except today’s performer Stotijn was dressed in a way that would take more imagination that I have to evoke any images of the sea.  Her voice was generally weak, which can’t all be attributed to acoustics since we sat so close.  And the dynamic range was quite limited, in this case always somewhere between mp and mf.  Since I have heard some very strong mezzo-sopranos, I don’t think it was a case of my ears not tuned to hear this range (as appears to be the case with violas.)

The music overall was pleasant enough, so I didn’t feel like I suffered through the 30 or so minutes of this work.

Van Zweden appeared to be much more clean cut than his official portrait would look like.  And he isn’t tall like most of the Dutchmen I know.  It took me a while to reassure myself that it was indeed him conducting.  He certainly conducts with a lot of energy, we could hear him grunt as he urged on the orchestra.  Evidently he is a violinist, having been the concertmaster of The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, and will turn 52 later in the month.  He also leads the Dallas Symphony.

Still, I must say calling this series of concerts (I don’t know how many) Jaap’s Mendelssohn is a bit preposterous.  To me, there should be something special about the interpretation before one can so designate a performance.  Despite my unfamiliarity with the music, I can say definitely that there was nothing special about the performance, pleasant as it was.  I see in the Program there is an upcoming “Jaap’s Mahler.”  One probably cannot become a conductor without a huge ego, but one also needs to know in what echelon of conductors one belongs.

I have said quite a few times that I am quite impressed with the level of playing of the Hong Kong Philharmonic.  And today’s performance did not change that overall opinion.  However, the program may also test the limit of their capability.  In my experience, even if you sit close to an orchestra – as I have done on several occasions – the individual sections still sound like one voice.  One will have to listen carefully if one is to pick up a specific player’s playing.  The end of the Scottish Symphony calls for rapid runs from the orchestra, and I certainly could hear several different first violins, without straining my ears to do so.  Not as bad as my recent New Jersey Symphony experience, but certainly surprising.

Since I am in a critical mood, let me take up the Program Notes, written by a Dr. Marc Rochester (I guess Program Annotators have egos also).  The two Mendelssohn write-ups were by-and-large uncorrelated, it is as if he wrote them on two separate occasions and didn’t bother to do any edit for the evening.  It would have been much more informative if he had taken some time to describe the two pieces together, in the context of Mendelssohn’s visit to Scotland.

Overall it was an enjoyable concert, and I am glad I went.  I just expected a perfect evening, that’s all.