Friday, January 25, 2013

Norwegian National Opera – The Rape of Lucretia by Benjamin Britten. January 20, 2013.

Oslo Opera House, Second House, Oslo, Norway (Row 10, Seat 12, NOK450).

Conductor – Magnus Loddgard; Lucretia – Katjia Dragojevic, Female Chorus – Marita Selberg, Male Chorus – Brenden Gunnell, Tarquinius – Espen Langvik, Bianca – Ingeberg Kosmo, Lucia – Silvia Moi, Collatinius – Magne Fremmerlid, Julius – Yngve Andre Seberg.  The Norwegian National Opera Orchestra.

Story.  A group of soldiers find out that during their absence their wives have been unfaithful, with the exception of Lucretia, Collatinus's wife.  Tarquinius, the son of the foreign Rome ruler Tarquin, decides to visit Lucretia and then rapes her.  Lucretia asks a message to be sent to Collatinus asking him to come home.  When he get home, he discovers Lucretia has already stabbed herself; she dies in his arms.

We would be in Oslo for fewer than 18 hours, getting in at around 4 pm on Sunday, and leaving on Monday’s 11:45 am flight.  Most of the museum would close at about 5 pm, so we were left with this opera as about the only choice if we wanted to do anything.  I certainly would want to visit the Oslo Opera House, but was a bit hesitant because of the specific opera involved.  While I am okay with Britten’s music, I certainly don’t know how two hours of it would feel.  Also, the subject matter is quite dark, especially since Lucretia ends up committing suicide.  I actually wonder why the Norwegians would put out something like this in the dead of winter, during which time everything was dark and gray.  Yet here we were.  And to jump to the conclusion, it was an okay experience.

First, the story.  It is based on the Shakespeare poem “The Rape of Lucrece” written in 1594.  While the plot in the opera is quite straightforward, it is reasonably gripping drama as realized in the opera, to my surprise.

The Second House is a small concert hall, with fewer than 400 seats in my estimation.  Tonight there were about 300 people in attendance.  The opera will have a 7-performance run.  At NOK450 (about $80) one would have to conclude this is a “reasonable” price, especially considering how expensive things are in Norway.  Our regret is we don’t get to see the main hall.

 The Oslo Opera House is built on the waterfront.

Inside of Opera House building.

Since the venue is so small, acoustics isn’t a problem.  Although the orchestra is billed as the Opera Orchestra, its size is that of a reduced chamber orchestra.  Britten’s music is generally okay, although not remarkable on this first hearing.  Oftentimes he had the melodies – such as they are – in the orchestra, with the vocalists singing the “accompaniment.”  Except the accompaniment is often just a “pedal point” in that it is the same note throughout the phrase.  It sometimes gives the impression the singers are just speaking, as in a drama.

The singers generally have a strong voice; only exception is Lucretia who was weak at times. Norwegians speak very good English, and they actually have English subtitles (LED panels at each seat), so the story was easy to understand.

The staging and costume are all modern, which is a bit incongruous as the singers are talking about Rome at around 500BC.  I am generally for period costumes anyway, in this case particularly so as there is a historical aspect to the story.  So at first I thought Lucretia kills herself by downing a lot of pills.  It turns out she does it the traditional way: stabbing herself in the sink and drawing a lot of blood.

One other note, the male and female choruses each consists of one singer.  They also get into the act but do not interact with the characters in the opera.

An interesting experience.  For a small town like Oslo (1.3 million in metropolitan area), they certainly put out a lot of concerts and operas.  I am glad we went.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Metropolitan Opera – Puccini’s La Rondine. January 11, 2013.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Balcony, Set D101 ($77.50).

Conductor – Ion Martin; Prunier – Marius Brenciu; Magda – Kristine Opolais; Lisette – Anna Christy; Rambaldo – Dwayne Croft;  Ruggero – Giuseppe Filianoti.

Story.  Magda is the mistress of the rich banker Rambaldo.  While she enjoys her life of ease and culture, she also yearns for true romance.  Rambaldo’s friend son Ruggero visits Paris and is told to visit the dance hall Bulliers to get a taste of Paris night life.  Magda impulsively decides to disguise herself and visit Bulliers.  Ruggero and Magda get to know each other, fall in love, and decide to start a new life together, eventually ending up in a hotel in Nice.  The two are running out of money, so Ruggero writes his family to ask for money, and also asks their permission to marry Magda.  When Ruggero’s mother writes back with her blessings, Magda decides her past makes it impossible to marry him and leaves.

When I went to exchange our Maria Stuarda opera tickets from last week to this week, the only reasonably priced tickets were up in the family circle.  I used the balance to buy two balcony tickets for tonight’s performance.

We left around 4:30 pm for New York City, and I was looking forward to a reasonable meal around Lincoln Center.  When we left our house, the delays at both the Lincoln and the Holland tunnels were around 10, 15 minutes.  We decided on the Lincoln, and what a mistake!  We probably caught the center tube traffic changeover for the evening rush hour, so it ended up taking over an hour from the time we left Exit 16E on the Turnpike to the time we emerged from the tunnel.  What was really puzzling was that there was little traffic in the City itself.  The upshot is the trip took over 2 hours, and we had time only to eat at Europan again.

Tonight’s performance was the first for this opera for this season.  It was also the debut of the Latvian soprano Opolais.  In the past I had always been amazed at the depth of Met’s talent, and I expected a similar experience.

Overall this was only a so-so experience.  Let’s start with Opolais.  She hit all the notes, and had good volume.  But there was not a lot of stage presence, and coupled with the rather wooden delivery of her lines, this was probably not the greatest start to a Met career.  Let’s hope she gets better in subsequent performances, or more importantly, gets roles that match her better.

The leading and supporting men also did only okay (Filianoti as Ruggero, and Brenciu as Prunier).  Their voices, especially that of Prunier, did not carry that well.  Ruggero’s role calls for some high notes which Filianoti hit with falsetto.

A few words about the sets.  The set for Act 1 worked quite well.  However, Act 2 was a bit elaborate for a bar (Bullier) supposed frequented by the common folk and tourists.  The set and the people milling around invoked the image of Renoir’s “Le Moulin de la Galette” for me; Anne thought Renoir’s painting was more colorful (true.) The set for Act 3 had the look of the Mediterranean hotel that it was supposed to be, with columns decorated by mosaics.

The opera is billed as a tragedy, and is indeed one in the sense that Magda and Ruggero ended up separating.  However, most of the opera had a strong comical flavor to it.  As drama the comic parts are a bit incongruent with where the story is going.  That may reflect life, but we go to operas to escape life for a couple of hours, don’t we?  In any case, the audience may end up not be emotionally invested in the protagonists and may end up thinking, “so she ends up leaving him, what’s the big deal.”  As the Program Notes points out, no one dies in the opera; Anne added that she didn’t become a nun either; so maybe there can only be limited sadness in this anyway.

I am particularly disappointed at the end of Act 3 where Madga and Ruggero belted out a rather long duet.  I thought it would have been much more effective if they had done it softly.  They were not so much mad at one another, but instead came to the realization that being together wasn’t going to be possible for the two of them.

The title “La Rondine” is a bit mysterious.  Its first reference is when Prunier predicted that Magda would fly south in pursuit of love and happiness like the swallow.  That is only a part of the story, as far as I am concerned.  I would have expected a bit more similarity between what happens to Magda and what a swallow does, but perhaps that is asking for too much.

The Program Notes has any case of oversell again – no doubt overcompensating for the overall weak story and music.  It goes as far as saying “Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso” can make a valid claim to being the single most gorgeous tune this composer ever produced.  It escaped me altogether.

Since this is the first performance, I am sure there are no published reviews yet.  [Note added 1/25/2013: New York Times has this background piece on the opera that is quite interesting.]

Friday, January 11, 2013

New York Philharmonic – Christoph Eschenbach, conductor; Pinchas Zukerman, violin. January 9, 2013.

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

Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26 (1864-67) by Bruch (1938-1920).
Symphony No. 6 in A major (1879-91; ed. L. Nowak, 1952) by Bruckner (1824-96).

CS and Shirley came by at around 4:30 pm, we went to Jersey City to drop off Shirley and pick up the NY Phil player to get into the city.  There was not a lot of traffic on our way in.  We got there in time to grab a bite at Europan before the concert.

For a mid-week concert, the attendance was quite good.  I am quite sure Zukerman being the soloist had something to do with it.  The piece he played was well known to concerto goers, especially those who have an interest in violin music.  This is a technically challenging piece which Zukerman polished off reasonably well.  He did particularly well with the more difficult passages.  However, his intonation was a bit off during some of the technically easier passages.  Since it can’t possibly be a case of the nerves for the experienced performer, I must attribute to either lack of practice, or his concentration is not as good as it used to be.

In the past I complained about Zukerman’s violin (a Guarnerius, I recall) as not a proper instrument for a performance in a large concert hall against a large orchestra.  It sounded great tonight, which I assume has to do with the seats we had.  Also, Enschenbach struck a good balance between the soloist and the orchestra.  Overall, this was an enjoyable performance.  The 25 or so minute work consists of three movements (i) Prelude: Allegro moderato; (ii) Adagio; and (iii) Finale: Allegro energico.

I have only limited familiarity with Bruckner’s work.  His symphonies are generally quite long, and don’t get played frequently enough even for someone who hits over 40 concerts a year.  One overarching adjective that seems to describe all of them is that they are loud; in tonight’s case, very loud.  Bruckner didn’t have a particular large brass section in this symphony, yet I sometimes felt I needed a set of ear plugs.  We noticed many musicians covering their ears while not playing, and one kept trying to reinstall the ear plugs that kept falling off.

This one-hour long work has four movements: (i) Majestoso; (ii) Adagio: Sehr feirelich (Very solemn); (iii) Scherzo: Nicht schnell (Not fast) – Trio: Langsam (Slow); and (iv) Finale: Bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (Moving, but not too fast).  I must say Bruckner’s sense of tempo is very different from mine.  One would think movement iii would be quite quiet and relatively slow, but I certainly didn’t find that to be the case.  Were it not for the limited-scherzo nature at the beginning and end of the movement, I would have thought the piece continued to the fourth movement without pause.  The way the tempos are specified reminds one of Mahler; indeed Mahler while not a student of Bruckner actually admired the older composer greatly.  Both of them were from upper Austria, a region I visited several months ago.

There was a time I listened to Bruckner’s ninth symphony enough that I began to appreciate it (it’s been a while since I last heard it, so the appreciation is but a memory).  I wonder if I get to listen to this one more often if that would happen.  While I characterize Mahler’s symphony as wandering on, and finding new vistas, Bruckner’s work seems to be more concentrated around a number of themes, and in that regard more traditional.

On the way back we got a little of “inside baseball” talk about the orchestra.  Also a word about the Program Notes.  It goes into quite a bit of background about the two pieces, but there is not a lot of discussion on the music itself.  I am sure many in the audience could have used some help in trying to grasp the music.

The New York Times review is also on the mixed side, a complaint being the conductor and the orchestra may not have quite jelled.  The reviewer also thought the horns blasted a bit too loudly.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Metropolitan Opera - Donizetti's Maria Stuarda. January 8, 2013.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center - Family Circle, Seat J217 ($22.50).

Conductor - Maurizio Benini; Maria Stuarda - Joyce DiDonato; Elisabetta - Elza van den Heever; Roberto Dudley, Earl of Leicester - Matthew Polenzani; Giorgio Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury - Matthew Rose; Guglielmo Cecil, Lord Burghley - Joshua Hopkins; Anna Kennedy - Maria Zifchak.

Story.  First, some background is in order.  The threats against Mary, Queen of Scotland, were such that she fled to England and sought protection from Queen Elizabeth, her first cousin, once removed.  Since Mary was a threat to Elizabeth’s reign as Queen of England (Mary being Roman Catholic, and Elizabeth being daughter of Anne Boleyn, accused of being an adulterer by Henry VIII), Elizabeth decides to jail Mary.  The story is based on the last few days of Mary Stuart’s life.  The plot of the opera revolves around a (fictional) encounter between Elizabeth and Mary, which seals Mary’s fate.

The opera begins with Elizabeth entertaining a marriage proposal, and worrying about what to do with Mary.  It also happens the Earl of Leicester admires Mary and wants to plead for her life’s being spared.  He convinces Elizabeth to have a meeting with Mary; Elizabeth is to go on a royal hunt, and Mary is to be allowed to go outside her prison.  Despite the Earl’s pleading, Mary loses her temper with Elizabeth and insults her, thus sealing her own fate.  Mary is indeed executed, but before she goes up to the scaffold, she takes off her coat to expose the red dress she wears as a badge of Catholic martyrdom.

We had prime balcony seats for a performance of this opera last week.  Because of our trip to Boston, we moved the date to today.  By the time I went to the box office to exchange the tickets, only seats in the upper reaches of the family circle were available.  (Well, $200 tickets were still available.)  So here we were.

Our trip into the city was quick until we hit the 20s on the Westside Highway.  The tie-up was not that bad, mostly because of buses trying to turn into the Port Authority.  We also found off-street parking along Amsterdam Ave.  To our surprise, Ollie’s was closed.  There is a posted sign saying it moved a few blocks away, but we couldn’t figure out where it was, so we decided to go to East Szechuan Garden instead.  In reading up on Ollie’s, there was a fire on January 4, and the location would be indefinitely closed.  There is no mention of this new location.  Makes one wonder exactly what happened … good thing no one was hurt.

Back to the opera.  Let me first say this was as perfect an opera as I can expect, or have experienced.  The story was compelling, the singing was generally exquisite, the music was easy to like, the sets did the job, and – despite or because of our location in the house – the acoustics was good.  Let me elaborate on each of these aspects.

Each of the five scenes (over two acts) was compelling in its own right, but the most dramatic one has to be Act 1, Scene 2, where Elizabeth had this encounter with Mary under of the pretexts of a royal hunt and a stroll in the forest next to the prison.  The plan cooked up by Leiceister was for Mary to beg Elizabeth for mercy, but instead she lost her temper due to the insults and prodding of the Queen, calling the Queen the sorry descendent of Ann Boleyn and a “vile bastard.”  Even though it was a tense moment that (according to the opera) sealed Mary’s fate, the exchange brought a chuckle to the audience.  Here you really cheered for Mary’s choice of honor over life, but you also wished that she made a different choice.  Of course, a minor detail is that this incident never happened.  The last scene (Act 2, Scene 3) where Mary was led to her execution also stood out for Mary’s defiance and willingness to forgive.  It was high drama when the red dress she was wearing to symbolize Catholic martyrdom was revealed before she went up the scaffold to meet her death.  A side remark, I was puzzled why Mary did her curtain call with white hair.  From what I read, when her severed head was held up, her head fell off its wig (red hair) and it was revealed that she had short white hair.

Joyce DiDonato was perfect for the role, at least for someone sitting at the back of the house.  First her singing was just great.  Her soft high notes just floated clearly across, carrying with them the wistfulness and regret of her situation.  She also has a very strong low register voice as befits a mezzo-soprano.  I have to contrast her acting skills with those of Anna Netrebko.  I remember remarking when Anne Boleyn was saying “forgive forgive forgive” her face continued to show “hate hate hate.”  Here I thought DiDonato got all the emotions right, even though I don’t see why she should find any forgiveness in her heart given how the story unfolds.  I heard her recently singing the role of Sycorax in The Enchanted Island, but in the opera Danielle de Niese singing the role of Ariel stole the show.  We saw Matthew Polenzani doing a great job as Nemorino in The Elixir of Love.  Here he also did great as Earl of Leicester, a much older figure.  Other principals did well also, portraying their characters well.

Like several other Donizetti’s operas (Anna Bolena comes to mind), there are not many singable tunes in the opera.  However, nice-sounding music dominates, even though most of it is in support of what is happening on stage.  And the orchestra appeared to be a reduced size one.   As I observed after the last Donizetti opera (L’Elisir d’Amore), this opera also contains a lot of ensemble music (duets to sextets).  The South African Elza van den Heever did a great job as the cold and vengeful Elizabeth.  She sang with clarity and forcefulness, and exuded animosity towards Mary.  History is kinder to the actual Queen, considering her a great Monarch.  Also, as with the Elixir performance we saw, Maurizio Benini was the conductor.  There was not a lot of chorus work, but the song that started the last act, from a group of Mary’s supporters lamenting her fate, was full of anguish.  Not quite to the level of the Hebrew’s Chorus in Nabucco, but great nonetheless.

The sets were on the simple side, but the changes in scenery within the same act were done seamlessly and quickly.  I do wonder a bit why such a simple setup was chosen for this new production.  Perhaps the Met spent too much on the Ring?  To satisfy the macabre-inclined, I must describe this scene with the executioner standing next to a block.  Mary has to walk up a staircase (alone) and the curtain comes down when she is half-way.

A few other remarks on what I have learned about Mary Stuart.  It seems the verdict is still out on whether she really plotted to have the Queen assassinated.  Her ultimate “revenge” was her son actually succeeded Elizabeth and reigned as ruler of England and Scotland.  There is no mention of Earl of Leicester in what I have read, much less the possible romance between them.  Also, evidently in Italian the word is pronounced “lei-ces-ter” instead of the simple “lester” in English.  Finally, this series constitutes the premiere performances of the opera at the Met, which I find somewhat surprising.

At the risk of repeating myself, this was simply a great performance.  I am glad we went, even though we didn’t have the best seats (at least as far as view is concerned.)  I have no complaints about the acoustics, though.

I have located several reviews of this opera.  This New York Times review also sings praises to DiDonato and the performance, it also talks about how van den Heever shaved her head to accommodate the wigs she has to wear.  The New York Post review was a bit harsher, using the word “skimping” for DiDonato where most would call “effortlessly floating.”  It made the interesting remark that several scenes had their keys lowered to suit DiDonato’s voice.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Emerson String Quartet. January 7, 2013.

Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, Section Center Balcony (Seat E115, $19).

String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 51, No. 2 (ca. 1865-1873) by Brahms (1833-1897).
String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36 (1864-1865).
Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op. 34 (1862-1865).

Emerson Quartet - Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violins; Lawrence Dutton, viola; David Finckel - Cello.
Yefim Bronfman, piano.
Paul Neubauer, viola.
Colin Carr, cello.

This is the first concert for the year for us.  We had a couple scheduled for last week (Met and New York Phil) but couldn’t go because of an unscheduled trip to Boston.  I went into the city to exchange those tickets for events this week.  We will end up with four concerts this week, with Thursday the only day “off,” so to speak.

Tonight’s tickets were purchased by CS, at half-price “Black Friday” deal.  I was quite sure I had seen the Emerson Quartet before, but since there is no reference of that in my blogs, I have to say I am mistaken.  This group has had the same musicians since the early days of its founding; they will have a new cellist for the next season, though.  For the second piece they were joined by an additional violist and a cellist, the third piece was a piano quintet.

The structures of the three pieces are remarkably similar.  For the quartet they are (i) Allegro ma non troppo; (ii) Andante moderato; (iii) Quasi Minuetto: moderato; and (iv) Finale: Allegro non assai.  For the sextet: (i) Allegro no troppo; (ii) Scherzo: Allegro non troppo – Presto giocoso; (iii) Adagio; and (iv) Poco allegro.  The quintet’s movements are (i) Allegro non troppo; (ii) Andante un poco adagio; (iii) Scherzo: Allegro; and (iv) Finale: Poco sostenuto – Allegro non troppo – Presto non troppo.  “Non troppo” evidently was one of  Brahms's favorite terms.

I will be brief in my remarks.  My first reaction was that this is a long concert, the three pieces (per Playbill) would each take more than 30 minutes, with the sextet taking close to 40 minutes.  Indeed it was 10:25 pm or so when the concert concluded.  The seats in the balcony are not the most comfortable, I am glad my legs didn’t complain.

The programming for this all-Brahms concert is a bit odd in that the pieces were performed in reverse chronological order.  The quintet was started by Brahms as early as 1862, and the sextet completed as late as1873.  I don’t know Brahms’s work well enough to know if his style evolved a lot during this period, but I certainly find the first piece more difficult to grasp than the last piece.  Of course having some familiarity with the quintet (though not a lot) certainly helped.  Programming like this also has the effect – intentional or not – that my brain probably was sharper earlier in the evening, and thus able to understand the music a bit more.

Since my exposure to chamber music is limited, I can’t comment intelligently on how well the musicians worked together.  On the other hand, all three compositions showed a lot more give and take among the instruments that “your” typical chamber work where I complaint is usually a piece of work for the first violin with accompaniment by other instruments.  To my surprise, the viola had a lot to say in all three pieces.  While not very singable, some of the melodies were very enjoyable.

There is a remark about the quintet in the Playbill that the composition had at one point existed as a Sonata for Two Pianos.  It makes me wonder how a quintet should be viewed in general: is it a piece for five solo instruments, or is it a sonata for piano and quartet?  In this case I lean towards describing it as the latter; for Schubert’s Trout Quintet, however, it sounds more like a collection of five instruments.  I wonder if this is a topic of discussion at all.

The acoustics in Carnegie Hall is such that all the voices came across clearly to where we were sitting.  However, I was a bit disappointed at the rather limited dynamic range exhibited by the musicians, especially with the first piece.  What I don’t know is whether that was the acoustics, or how the pieces were performed, or how the music is written.  The Brahms pieces that I am more familiar with all have wide dynamic ranges.

One interesting thing about the two violin players: they seem to alternate their roles as first and second violins.  I guess there is no reason why other quartets don’t do that, as I am sure the second violins in those are quite competent, but in actuality this is the first time I noticed it.  Also, the “extra” viola player used to be the principal New York Philharmonic, starting at age 21.  Since I had never heard of him before, I imagine he had left for a long time.

We stopped by Jersey City so CS can drop something off for her daughter, and got to see her new-born Thomas.  The trip was smooth until we got off Holland Tunnel: we hit a lot of traffic in mid-town, so we managed only to gulp down burritos at Chipotle before the concert.  The trip home was relatively smooth, but it was close to midnight when we got home.