Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Metropolitan Opera – Massenet’s Werther. February 25, 2014.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center – Balcony (Seat C119, $113.5.)

Story.  Werther falls in love with Charlotte, who is engaged to Albert.  Werther goes away for a while at Charlotte’s insistence.  He comes back during Christmas and for a brief moment the two declare their love for one another.  Charlotte rejects Werther, who then borrows a pistol from Albert and commits suicide, and dies in Charlotte’s arms while carols are being sung to celebrate the season.

Conductor – Alain Altinoglu.  Werther – Jonas Kaufmann, Charlotte – Sophie Koch, Albert – David Dizic, Sophie – Lisette Oropesa, The Bailiff – Jonathan Summers.

When Anne asked me what the story was, I told her “Werther falls in love, and commits suicide.”  That, actually, captures most of the plot.  The writeup at the beginning of this blog is a bit more detailed, and the synopsis in the Playbill contains a blow-by-blow account of the action on stage, but neither adds a lot to the plot.

There lies the huge issue.  I had stated many times the music makes or breaks an opera.  But I have not come across an opera with great music but a paper thin plot, until now.  There is much to like about the music.  And the sets are quite cleverly and tastefully done, morphing from one scene to the other smoothly at times.  Yet I can’t shake the thought that the story just drags on, and on, and on.  It could have ended after Act I, or Act II.  In Act IV Werther shoots himself, and the opera could have been put out of its misery right there (or soon afterwards.)  Yet it takes a long time for Werther to die, even after a bullet through the heart that splashes a lot of blood on the walls, and then Charlotte has to have this long lament afterwards.  The opera is based on a novel by Goethe, no less.

In the Playbill we read that Massenet was very popular in his day, but his style has fallen out of favor because of its sentimentality.  I am in no position to debate that, but I do want to note I enjoyed both Manon and Thais, and in neither instance came away with the thought that the story was incidental to the music.

How was the singing?  Uniformly good, but not as good as expected.  Kaufmann is of course the headliner.  I had heard him singing the roles of Parsifal, Siegmund, and Faust (the Gounod version), and wasn’t particularly impressed in any of those instances.  I was hoping singing a “romantic” role would highlight aspects of his singing that would change my opinion.  Not that he did poorly, but the performance was still not quite up to the expectation, or the hype.

Both leading ladies (Charlotte and her sister Sophie) are sung by mezzo-sopranos, a bit of a rarity.  I have always been impressed with Oropesa; one of those days she will get a lead role.  Sophie Koch as Charlotte did very well in her debut.  It is quite amazing how the Met finds all these artists from all over the world (e.g., only Oropesa is from the USA.)  One misgiving I have is that neither mezzo seems to have a “soft” in their volume dial.  In that regard Kaufmann has a wider dynamic range.

Back to my earlier sentiment: it was the music that carried the opera, making the relatively short work quite enjoyable.  I know the aria “Pourquoi me reveiller” quite well, but didn’t realize that it was so dark.  “Why awaken me, oh breath of spring?”  “They will find only mourning and suffering! Alas!”  Other than that, the music was new to me, although it was generally easy to like.  Charlotte has a couple of solos that deserve the applause she got.  The orchestration calls for a lot of lovely solo and ensemble playing.

One more thing.  Perhaps I have watched too many detective stories, but I still cringe when actors shoot or stab themselves or each other.  It is always a relief when the “victims” begin to move afterwards.

Anne is staying at Jersey City this week with Ellie, so I drove up and picked up takeout food from Chili’s and we ate at Ellie’s apartment before heading out to NYC.  ICON seems to have discontinued discount pricing, but we found off-street on 70th.  After dropping Anne off at Jersey City, it was close to midnight when I got home.

The New York Times reviewer loved Kaufmann’s performance, sparing no superlatives in his review.  He also goes into a lot of detail about all aspects of the opera, providing details that may obscure but not hide the emptiness of the plot.  I am glad he doesn’t like the suicide scene either, even though it is for different reasons.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Opera Australia – The Turk in Italy by Rossini. January 31, 2014.

Sydney Opera House, Circle N21 (A$110.)

Story.  Fiorilla, wife of Geronio, has many lovers, one of whom is Selim the Turk.  Selim also has many lovers, including the gypsy Zaida.  The comedy basically describes the convoluted relationships between these people.  Eventually Selim stays with Zaida, and Fiorilla stays with Geronio.  Thrown into the mix is the poet/writer Prosdocimo who is looking for a plot for a comedy he wants to write, and he also serves somewhat as a narrator/commentator.

Conductor – Andrea Molino.  Narcisco – Luciano Botelho, Fiorilla – Emma Matthews, Prosdocimo – Samuel Dundas, Geronio – Conal Coad, Zaida – Anna Dowsley, Albazar – Graeme Macfarlane, Selim – Paolo Bordogna.

During the time I will be Australia, Opera Australia is staging two operas: The Magic Flute and The Turk in Italy.  I decided to go with the one that I had not seen before.  Stephen and Ruth, Tim and Alyson, and Wally and Ling – who are visiting from Brisbane – joined us.  We had a simple meal at SuperExtra at the Circular Quay train station before the show.

There are few cheap seats at the Opera house (by my standard, anyway), and there are few bad seats in this relatively small auditorium.  Our seats are in the second to last row, but offer a good view of the stage, and – it turns out – are good acoustically.  While I didn’t find the music particularly compelling or complicated, it was nonetheless enjoyable.  The orchestra’s performance provided a good setting for the activities on stage, and the singers’ voices carried well to where we sat.  Emma Matthews as Fiorilla had to contend with quite a few high notes.  She made them comfortably, but there was some harshness in the delivery.  Rossini had quite a few ensemble numbers that were quite enjoyable.

Overall, I thought the music and the singing provided a pleasant 2 ½ hour experience, but not so that one goes away “wowed” by the virtuosity of the singers or the complexity of the score.  But I am okay with such an experience.  This is the Chinese New Year season, and we were just having a family outing, after all.

As to the overall opera experience, my reaction was quite different.  It actually evolved from the initial “why am I here” to “I’m glad I came” by the time the opera ended.  A surprising turn of opinion for me since I am the type that tends to stick to initial impressions.  The best way to describe my transformation is to give a chronological account of the evening.

There was not a curtain hiding the set when the show began.  The set reminds me of an NYCO production of The Elixir of Love: here a diner called Bar Geronio on one side of a relatively small stage.  As the overture was played, a bunch of beach goers came out, wearing (perhaps) 60s style swimming suits (e.g., ladies wearing bikinis that would be considered prudish today.)  The ladies were sitting in beach chairs, the men helping them put on sunscreen.  While some may say this created an interesting visual effect, to me it was just the designer (Gabriela Tylesova) showing off what she can do, and has nothing to do with the story.

Photo used to promote the opera by Opera Australia.  It has nothing to do with the story.

The initial half an hour was spent on what I would call “setting the stage:” introducing the characters and explaining their relationships.  It felt quite disjoint, with the cast going through mechanically the different recitatives, arias, and ensemble numbers.  While I wouldn’t have trouble sitting through another two hours of this, I thought I would be groaning every now and then.

The story doesn’t depend on the period or the location (could be “The Irish in the UK,” for instance), so I have no major quibble with the setting they chose.  But why?  The traditionalist in me would like to see what Rossini originally intended.  I may be able to understand the wish to try something new for a familiar opera like Tosca or La Boheme, but for a work that is seldom staged I would rather go with the original interpretation.  So after the superfluous initial scene, the disjoint performance, this was the third strike.

I go back to something I have said many times before: for me how good an opera is begins and ends with the quality of the music.  The performance improved as the show progressed, and I found myself at some point enjoying it.  The sets and costumes continued to be somewhat cheesy, the humor continued to elicit groans rather than laughs, but I began to think of them as clever and funny (let’s not overstate it, though.)

There was a masquerade party scene that started Act 2 where multiple people disguised themselves as Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.  For good measure the music score included an Elvis tune (Wally tells me it is “Love me tender love me sweet.”)  Makes me wonder if there are other blasphemous modifications to the score.

Lest the reader may think this is on the level of (say) Mary Stuart, be rest assured it isn’t.  It is more a case of if you lower your standards enough, you will be able to enjoy things you otherwise may not.  The question is if settling is the proper attitude to adopt for life (or concert going.)