Monday, April 27, 2015

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra – Christoph Konig, conductor; Stefan Jackiw, violin. April 25, 2015.

Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank, NJ.  Rear Balcony (Seat E20, $37.)

The Veil of Pierrette, Op. 18 (1908-09) by Ernst von Dohnanyi (1877-1960).
Romance in F minor for violin and orchestra, Op. 11 (1873-77) by Dvorak (1841-1904).
Tzigane (1922-24) by Ravel (1875-1937).
Symphony No. 5 in F major, Op. 76 (1875, rev. 1887) by Dvorak.

When I saw Dohnanyi as the composer on tonight’s program, I naturally wondered if it was Christoph whom I know as a conductor.  Then I saw the first name, so I thought it must be the father.  The Wikipedia entry clears it up: Ernst is the grandfather of Christoph.  So a family with a long musical tradition.

“A dark tale of infidelity and poisoning, with a powerful mad scene” is how the Program describes this piece.  The plot is about Pierrette’s unfaithfulness to her lover the painter Pierrot.  She abandons him for the wealthy Harlequin.  Consumed by guilt, she goes back to Pierrot and the two make a suicide pact.  Pierrot dies, she survives because she is too frightened to take the poison.  She goes back to the wedding, but forgets her veil.  Pierrot’s ghost returns it to her, and Harlequin finds out about her infidelity.  She breaks down completely and dies.  Dohnanyi told the story with five movements that add up to about 25 minutes: (1) Pierrot’s Complaint of Love; (2) Walzer-Reigen (Waltz Round Dance); (3) Lustiger Trauermarsch (Jolly Funeral March); (4) Hochzeitswaltzer (Wedding Waltz); and (5) Pierettens Wahnsinnstanz (Pierrette’s Dance of Madness.)

The music was quite pleasant, and followed pretty much the description in the Program.  However, the fourth movement flourish ending was such that many in the audience, thinking that it was the end, started to applaud.  Instead of showing annoyance, Konig turned around, picked up the microphone, and explained that the ending was unfortunately tragic.  I was a bit disappointed that the promised madness wasn’t all there, though.

Before the concert began, the assistant principal violist Elzbieta Weyman talked about the violin soloist Stefan Jackiw.  They were in the same youth orchestra, and basically Jackiw’s playing convinced her she should opt for the viola instead.

Jackiw is young (mid 20s?), tall, and thin.  A graduate of Harvard, and an Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient, he has performed with several major orchestras already.

Romances are melodic pieces that are typically quite short, so they don’t get programmed very much in live concerts.  Dvorak’s is no exception, although there are several passages that can be called virtuoso.  It was a good performance, but I was left with two thoughts: his stance reminds me of the violin player in Fiddler on the Roof, and he needs a better violin.  The first remark refers to how he keeps his legs apart, and often arches forward; as to the second remark, his violin certainly has the volume (helped no doubt by a small auditorium), but doesn’t have the brightness of a Strad or the warmth of a Guarnerius.

My first encounter with Tzigane was in Alice Tully Hall with Vadim Repin a few years back.  Even though he botched it quite terribly, I still enjoyed it, thinking that the piece was close to unplayable anyway.

The piece started with a long and difficult violin solo; you could hear the collective breath of the audience when the orchestra came in.  I must say technically Jackiw did a much better job, and Tzigane is for all purposes a show piece anyway.  Zigeunerweisen by Sarasate is the other “gypsy” air that comes to mind.  While (probably) less demanding technically, Sarasate’s piece certainly is more entertaining: you get to enjoy the tunes while on the edge of your seat.  With Ravel it is all about the edge of your seat.

Clearly there are few technical challenges that Jackiw cannot meet, it would be interesting to see how he grows as a musician.  He lives in New York City, so I imagine there will be opportunities to see him again.

After the intermission, Konig again talked to the audience, saying this time we will have a traditional program, and joked that a good time to nap would be the slow second movement.  It turned out to be advice some would take to heart.  Brahms famously was reluctant to write symphonies because he heard “the footsteps of a giant.”  Evidently Dvorak wasn’t intimidated by Beethoven at all, since his first was published in 1865 (the fifth ten years later.)  Of course a musicologist might explain how German and Eastern European schools evolved overtime, the point is I didn’t hear much grandness in it.  Not having a good ear for Bohemian melodies, I didn’t catch how Dvorak wove them into the narrative.  I do agree there are some “pastoral” elements in the work (there, reference to Beethoven in the Program,) and enjoyed the large scale fourth movement (Finale: Allegro molto.)  The other three movements are (i) Allegro ma non troppo; (ii) Andante con moto; and (iii) Scherzo: Allegro scherzando.

Konig is a young German conductor.  In the past I have always complained that the NJSO does poorly under a guest conductor.  Though not inspiring, tonight I thought they did okay.

The was the last of the 5-concert NJSO classical series in Red Bank.  I was disappointed at the number of empty seats in the concert hall.  In any case, NJSO has a sale on for next season, and I bought the one for Red Bank.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Metropolitan Opera – Lehar’s The Merry Widow. April 24, 2015.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Balcony (Seat C115, $121.50).

Story.  The (fictitious) country Pontevedro is about to go broke, and Baron Zeta wants to ensure the new rich widow Hanna Glawari will stay in the country instead of moving to Paris.  To do so, he elicits the help of various Pontevedrians to court Glawari, among whom is her former lover Danilo.  Additional comedic elements in the plot are (i) the love affair between Camille – a Frenchman – and Zeta’s wife Valencienne, (ii) a fan of Valencienne’s with words “I love you” and “I am a respectable wife” written on it, and (iii) Danilo’s aide Njegus, who often lets the wrong words slip out.  Glawari actually loves Danilo and would marry him if he only would say “I love you” to her. Upon finding out from the fan that his wife is unfaithful, Zeta divorces her and proposes to Glawari.  She tells him her late husband will has a stipulation that she won’t get the inheritance if she remarries.  Upon hearing that, everyone loses interest.  When Danilo then declares his love, Glawari adds the inheritance will actually go to her new husband.  Valencienne shows Zeta the other words on the fan and they reconcile.

Conductor – Fabio Luisi; Baron Zeta – Alan Opie, Valencienne – Adriana Chuchman, Camille – Stephen Costello, Njegus – Carson Elrod, Hanna Glawari – Susan Graham, Count Danilo – Rod Gilfry.

I am quite sure when I got this as part of my season subscription, Renee Fleming was going to be in the cast.  A ticket exchange later, the performance we saw had Susan Graham in the cast.  We heard Graham before as Dido in Les Troyens and as Marguerite in La Damnation de Faust, and enjoyed the two performances.

The Playbill describes this as an operetta and a precursor of the Broadway genre, and I am quite sure the remarks are meant as compliments.  Indeed Susan Stroman, a Broadway veteran, was brought is as the director and choreographer.  Also, both Julian Crouch (set designer) and William Ivey Long (costume) have strong Broadway credentials.

The sets are elaborate enough.  The word that keeps coming to mind, however, is symmetry, particularly for Act I (The Ponteverdrian Embassy in Paris) and Act III (Chez Maxim.)  To a lesser extent it applies to Act II (a garden); there, except for a silhouette of Sacre Couer, the image evoked is the garden scene in The Sound of Music.  I must give credit to how smoothly the sets transitions from Act II to Act III.  How the sets look isn’t a big deal for me, although I thought with an equivalent budget they should be able to do better.

Curtain Call with Chez Maxim set.  "Symmetry" is the word that comes to mind.

I can’t decide whether there is more spoken dialog than singing – it certainly felt that way.  That is particularly true with Act I.  There are stretches that I thought I was watching a play, and the orchestra members simply sat there, and Luisi actually had his arms crossed.  Opera singers know how to project their singing voices, but I am not sure they can use the same technique for spoken dialog.  Indeed I had a lot of trouble, and my seat was such the brightness of the stage interferes with the close caption panel.  The tunes are nice, and a couple quite familiar, including the popular“Merry Widow Waltz.”  A particular nice aria is “The Vilja Song” sung by Glawari; as a story told by her it is not quite germane to the main plot.

The singing was generally okay.  Gilfry as Danilo sang adequately, but his voice doesn’t have the richness of a top-tier tenor.  Chuchman as Valencienne did very well.  I thought Susan Graham was a mezzo-soprano (indeed labeled as such in Playbill), so was wondering how she would do, or if they would lower the pitch for her.  I couldn’t tell if the musical signatures were changed, but she certainly seemed to get to some of the very high notes without problem.  I don’t know how Renee Fleming would have done, but I thought Graham did very well.  Alas, that applies to the first two acts only, perhaps up to The Vilja Song, where her voice soared above the orchestra, and her whisper effortlessly lifted to the balcony.  Towards the end her voice was difficult to pick up; the folks next to us also agreed she lost her voice.  Which is too bad, though not as bad as Don Carlo where I thought they should have taken Lee out after the first act.

The orchestra did a great job.  In addition to the pleasant overture, I also enjoyed the solo instruments – especially the violin – that accompanied some of the songs.

For some reason the libretto is often translated from its original German into English for this opera.  And the Met uses a translated done by Jeremy Sams.  I don’t know how the opera would sound in German, but in English – with the rather coerced rhyming – it sounded sappy a lot of times.

This, together with the dialog, the costumes, the choreography, all contributed to my feeling that this is more like a Broadway show than an opera.  Nothing wrong with that, except that I can go to Broadway and watch a show that meets my expectations.

The New YorkTimes review praises some aspects of the performance (Andrew Davis as the conductor, and the choreography) but overall pans the show.  The reviewer also suggests operettas with much spoken dialog don’t quite work at the Met (he used the clever title “Talking (and Talking) About Love.”)  Microphones were used for the dialog, and may explain why I heard some of it – still not good enough though.  He also pointed out that Davis composed some music that was played off-stage on a piano during some of the dialog; no wonder we couldn’t find the piano in the pit.

We left NJ early enough to get into the city.  However, a problem on the Turnpike wreaked havoc on traffic leaving New York, which in turn meant a lot of congestion in Manhattan.  I had to drive on the opposite lane on 57th (following other cars) to turn onto 11th Ave.  I managed to find a place to park on Amsterdam (also congested); Anne got off earlier to buy dinner from a street vendor.

The return was straight-forward, we stopped at a Turnpike Rest Area for a quick snack before going home.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Metropolitan Opera – Verdi’s Don Carlo. April 15, 2015.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Orchestra (Seat Z22, $25.)

Story.  Elisabeth, daughter of king of France, is betrothed to Don Carlo, son of King Philip II of Spain.  However, to seal a peace treaty between the two countries, the French king decides to have Elisabeth marry Philip instead.  Meanwhile, Rodrigo, a good friend of Don Carlo, asks Carlo to ask Philip to make Carlo the governor of Flanders, hoping that this will lessen the oppression of the Flemish.  The king refuses, and Carlos is hauled off to jail.  While visiting Carlos in prison, Rodrigo, who has taken up the blame of the Flemish rebellion, is shot on order of the Grand Inquisitor.  As Carlo and Elisabeth then meet at the St. Just Monastery to express hope for happiness in the next world, Philip and the Grand Inquisitor show up to arrest them.  The story ends with the ghost of Charles V (Philip’s father) showing up.

Interwoven in the main story (as I see it) are two more major elements.  The first is a second love triangle where Princess Eboli is in love with Carlo.  Rejected by Carlo, she informs Philip that Elisabeth keeps a portrait of Carlo in her jewel box.  Another element is the persecution of heretics during the inquisition.

Conductor – Yannick Nezet-Seguin; Don Carlo – Yonghoon Lee/Ricardo Tamura, Elisabeth – Lianna Haroutounian, Rodrigo – Luca Salsi, Philip II – Ferruccio Furlanetto, Princess Eboli – Nadia Krasteva, Grand Inquisitor – James Morris.

CS asked us if we wanted to try to get rush tickets for this performance.  This was my first foray into trying to do so, and I am happy to report that we were successful.  More on that later.

A few words about the story as I put it together is in order.  The overall plot is easy enough to follow, if one has some sense of the historical context.  I couldn’t quite incorporate all the subplots (two love triangles, the Inquisition, the political landscape, and the shadow of Charles V) into one “straightline.”  There are still some parts that I don’t understand: where Rodrigo’s loyalty lies, what happens to Carlo and Elisabeth at the end, are two examples.  Per Wikipedia, Carlo was actually mentally unstable, and died six months after being imprisoned by Philip, Elisabeth married Philip when she was 14, and there is no reference to any romance between Elisabeth and Carlo.

I happened across the Opera Philadelphia website earlier today, it contains what I would consider an excellent description of the story (calling it a “synopsis,” as the website does, may be incorrect as it is not a condensed version of the “play-by-play” story.)

There was a small slip in the Playbill that says Lee will replace Tamura as Don Carlo for today’s show. Since I had not heard either of them before, I had not preference.  Before the performance began, a gentleman came on stage and asked for the audience’s understanding as Lee was just recovering from a cold.  The opera started with first a monologue and then a duet by Lee, and my reaction was “wow, if this is how the guy sounds like when he is not well, I can’t imagine how good he would be if he is healthy.”  As the first part (Acts 1 and 2) came to a close, I began to notice his voice was fading – and I am an amateur when it comes to the voice.  I told Anne during the intermission that they should for his sake take him out; I couldn’t imagine continuing would be good for his voice.  He continued with Act 3, and he was really struggling, with his voice drowning out by his co-stars and the orchestra constantly.  Sure enough, after the second intermission, it was announced that Lee couldn’t continue and would be replaced by a singer’s name I didn’t get. I was admiring the depth of Met’s roster when I neighbor told me she heard it was Tamura who was scheduled to sing.  She may well be right, but then I am disappointed at how he did, he wasn’t as clear in the singing, and not as convincing in the acting.  Surprisingly, all this didn’t quite detract from the flow of the opera, or my enjoyment of it.  Of course I am left to wonder what a “flawless” performance by Lee would have been like.

While the Armenian soprano Haroutounian would never be mistaken for a 14-year old, she was a credible Elisabeth.  I was particularly impressed with Furlanetto as King Philip, his bass voice has such a heft befitting the role.  If I may be again so bold as to compare singer, he reminds me of James Morris who played the role of the Grand Inquisitor this evening.  We heard James Morris as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger recently, there he put in a command performance, here is role is better characterized as a cameo appearance.

I am writing part of this review while in Providentiales, Turks and Caicos, so some details may escape me as I don’t have Playbill with me.  Although the sets are quite new – debuting a couple of years ago – they are quite traditional in appearance.  A gate is a gate, for example.  They are also cleverly designed.  Even though some props were huge, there was little interruption – if any – between scenery changes.  Most scenes closed with a curtain coming down with Carlo left exposed on stage.  I don’t get the message behind it.

This opera is considered one of Verdi’s most ambitious works, and contains many nice musical numbers.  However, the subject matter is so grim that few of them have found their way into the popular repertoire.  For instance, “Auto-da-fe” is a powerful chorus number, but which chorus will reprise a song that is associated with the public parade and burning of condemned heretics?  The only happy moments are to be found at the beginning of the opera wherein Carlo and Elisabeth declare their love for one another.  The other fact is the opera premiered in Paris, in French.

One more thing.  Opera Philadelphia’s production also boasts famous singers such as Michelle De Young and Eric Owens.  The performance is 3 hours 7 minutes, with a 20 minute break.  So the performers have better stamina, and they have more bathroom facilities.

This is the second time we sat in the Orchestra section, and the voices were all clearly heard (with Lee’s problems noted.)  However, I found to my disappointment that the orchestra sounded a lot more muffled in our seats.  Here we could see the conductor, but no one else.  I was so looking forward to the orchestra music, as the Playbill describes it as a foundation that allows the vocal parts to “go crazy.”

It was very late when we were done, and I drove CS’s car back to New Jersey.  I am glad I got a chance to see this, and cost is only a small part of the equation.  The New York Times review is glowing, especially in the way the review describes how well the conductor and the orchestra did.  He had a lot of praise for Lee, and also points out that Furlanetto is 64, younger than Morris by only a few years.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Metropolitan Opera – Verdi’s Ernani. April 8, 2015.

Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Balcony (Seat C105, $104.50).

Story.  See previous blog.  The “… demands the life that has been promised to him” at the end of the synopsis leaves open the possibility that no one dies.  Nonetheless we have the same ending, Ernani kills himself, and Elvira follows suit.

Conductor – Paul Nadler; Ernani – Luc Robert, Elvira – Angela Meade, Don Carlo – Placido Domingo, Don de Silva – Dmitry Belosselskiy.

When we first got tickets of this opera as part of our season subscription, I was going to swap the tickets for another opera.  We saw this a few years ago (in 2012) and while I was impressed with my first encounter of Angela Meade, the overall experience wasn’t so overwhelming that I wanted to see it again.  I was then told Domingo would be in the cast also, and decided to keep the tickets.  In fact I thought Levine was going to be the conductor, but that might have been for some selected performances.

In any case, I wanted this opera to “succeed” for several reasons.  One was that CS told me the New York Times review wasn’t all that great, panning both Domingo and (if I remember correctly) Levine.  The other was I was impressed with how Domingo did in La Traviata as Germont, and would like to see him continue that with this role.  I came away feeling just okay, which means some level of disappointment.

Let’s start with Domingo first.  His voice was the weakest among the principals in the cast, even allowing for my usual problems with picking out frequencies in the tenor-baritone range.  Even with having sung over 140 different roles in his career, this was the first time he did this particular one, and he was wooden in the delivery most of the time, and (I think) had to constantly refer to the prompter.  As an indication of how good things could have been, he delivered a great soliloquy at the beginning of Act III, it is too bad that was the exception rather than the rule tonight.  Of course if you account for his age (74), it would be very impressive; I am sure he would be the first to say age shouldn’t be a mitigating factor.  We also noticed that he couldn’t quite bow during curtain calls, so he might have some problems with movement.  (He had no problems walking up and down the staircases, though.)  As a side remark, he is conducting the current production of Aida at the Met.

Angela Meade again sang impressively as Elvira.  I didn’t notice any of the misgivings I had last time (harshness, trills.)  Perhaps it is where we were seated, or perhaps even great singers work to improve their technique.  I was also impressed with how powerful she sounded with the lower register notes.  There is no need for additional remarks on her considerable size, except it is amazing she could move about as much as she did.

The other two suitors put in great performances.  The Playbill mentions three voices are vying for Elvira: tenor, baritone, and bass.  I am not sure I agree with the writer’s remark that the chorus is used sparingly: I thought they sang a lot in the opera.  And they did well tonight.

The set is the same used in the run we saw.

The Financial Times review isn’t the most complimentary, saying that Levine’s conducting is the one good thing in the three elements required to make Ernani successful: a stellar set of principals, an inventive director, and an inspired conductor.  The New York Times review is indeed brutal, suggesting it is time for Domingo to retire.  The reviewer does have a great analysis of the problems with Domingo’s performance, such as “he often seemed preoccupied with the techniques of singing.”  The harshest review I found is the Observer piece with the headline “Domingo Bombs as Baritone.”  A much friendlier review is from the Latin Post.