Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Metropolitan Opera- La Damnation de Faust

The past few hours have just been a fantasy travel through time and place thanks to Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust. Originally composed as a concert piece, this légende dramatique consists of twenty loosely connected scenes that Berlioz himself thought could not be successfully fused together on stage due to the limited production techniques of the time. In fact, during his lifetime it was only produced as an opera once (in 1846), and due to complete neglect by the Parisian musical world, once was it. Faust’s great popularity did not begin until after the composer had died. At the MET it had only been staged once, in 1906. It then fell out of the repertoire until a concert performance in 1996 by James Levine and now the current production, which was developed last year. It is a shame that such beautiful music has been neglected for all these years, but thank God for a lack of established performance standards because for once the director has the freedom to start from scratch without being hounded.

Large sections of this opera are choral and others are purely orchestral. This does not make them any less brilliant than the soloist sections, but it does take the work of a creative director to keep the audience hooked. After all, so much of opera is visual. Robert Lepage certainly pulled it off with his creative use of three-dimensional video projections, dancers, chorus, and his interplay between live and projected people. One of the most beautiful moments is when live ballet dancers leap into video-screened water and automatically turn into 3D video projections. (This reminds me of actors intermingling with animation in Roger Rabbit, except this is all live.) One by one they leap and toss around under water to the accompaniment of only a few wind instruments. One of the beauties of Berlioz is that he knew when to be grand and forceful in his music but he also knew when to turn intimate and float the melody between only a few instruments, giving the effect of more approachable chamber music.

I do believe the magic of this evening was due in large part to the conductor James Conlon. Not only did he hold the singers and orchestra together almost seamlessly, he brought out all the different instrumental colors from this monstrous orchestra through such a detailed and invigorating reading. Ramón Vargas as Faust was intensely emotional, powering through from the very beginning. Ildar Abdrazakov as Méphistophélès was especially conniving as he pulled Faust deeper into hell through great acting and a fully engaged bass voice. Olga Borodina gave us a dark/full toned, and especially lonely Marguerite. Through the course of her aria “D’amor l’ardente flamme”, a slowly burning projection of her live image withers away to nothing while she awaits the return of her love, Faust. Simply beautiful.

Berlioz is considered to have been musically ahead of his time. His compositions are fusions of contemporary musical thought from all over Europe. Not one for impressing the Parisian musical masses (which included the leading composer Cherubini), he thought Rossini was mere surface-layer music, and he refused to adhere to French musical tradition. He drew on a plethora of European musical forms and greatly expanded the size of the orchestra. He published a Treatise on Orchestration, which is part of any modern composer’s study. Rarely able to survive on his compositions alone, he earned a living by writing weekly critiques and essays for the local Journal des Debats, and was part of the broader European music intelligencia. He composed five operas: a grand opera, an opera semi-seria, an opéra comique, a ballad opera, and a medieval drama. Faust was not considered one of these. It was labeled as a concert opera, and like many of his other works was never fully enjoyed during his lifetime. Berlioz died thinking it was the greatest failure of his life. As with other true masterpieces, one generation’s failure can be another’s success. It is now over 150 years since its composition, and with the help of modern technology and first class musicians, the masses are finally enjoying it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Metropolitan Opera- Der Rosenkavalier

Renee Fleming singing Strauss is like a fine American chardonnay- buttery, luscious, and silky smooth. You never hear her effort. Her tone blends into the ensemble in such a natural way that there seems to be a utopian Gesamtkunstwerk, (an amalgam of various art forms creating a more complete experience for the audience) at work. Susan Graham as Octavian was at home singing Strauss, not to mention a comical firehouse playing the chambermaid. During the magical moments, such as the Act I finale duet and the Act III trio, Romantic expression reaches its pinnacle. The combined intensity of the three sopranos during the trio, (Ms. Graham, Ms. Fleming, and Ms. Miah Persson) would touch the heart of any human being. It is hard to find more emotionally drowning music than Strauss. I found myself wanting to cry but was too absorbed in the multiple layers of musical texture to outwardly express anything. The best moments of Strauss can cause sensory overload- like seeing the grand finale of a fireworks display or to put it bluntly, having a really great orgasm. You get sucked into the fabric of the music and therefore naturally hesitate on outward expression.

Edo de Wart conducted a stylistically pleasing, if sometimes overpowering orchestra. The famous waltz tune transported me back to aristocratic Vienna in a brilliant and stylistically conservative manner. The Vienna Philharmonic has certain unspoken standards as to how Strauss and other composers should be played. This of course has merit given that Strauss was their music director for a few years. Having heard them perform more than a few times I am repeatedly puzzled by their mix of world class virtuosity and square interpretations. This begs the question- does Strauss sound best when it is played with little artistic liberties on the part of the conductor? Do the recordings we have conducted by Strauss himself limit the room for modern spins compared to composers like Mozart, of whom we of course do not have recordings? In this sense, it sounded the other night like we were listening to the Vienna Philharmonic itself. On the flipside, there is certainly nothing stylistically conservative about an orchestra like that of the MET that can adapt so convincingly to different musical styles and different conductors while still managing to find the brilliance. The whole evening lasted close to five hours. It was well worth every minute.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Metropolitan Opera- Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Rossini is not particularly emotionally deep or heart wrenching. It therefore takes especially gifted singers who seem to be playing with the music in order to have a visceral effect on the audience. It is also very easy to sing it poorly, as was evident on October 10. Barry Banks gave us a bright toned and headache causing rendition of Count Almaviva. His thin and motor vibrato voice was an easy recipe for falling asleep. Rossini is considered bel canto singing, meaning beautiful voice. When sung well it can be light, delicate, well controlled, pleasurably dramatic, and a chance for singers to show off their vocal technique. It certainly should not include superficial acting or forced vibrato. When the listener can't tell the difference between melodic embellishments and a heavy vibrato, we have a problem. Joyce di Donato was the only thing resembling enjoyable bel canto singing. Thank God she was solid in the role of Rosina. Practically everyone else either tired me out from searching too hard for their melody or bored me with their predictability in doing so. Bel canto singing is like a trapeze artist- The performer either makes it through the routine ending on his or her two feet, or they fall flat on their face and get injured. There is no faking here. That is not to say there is no room for a little improvisation. That certainly would have kept me awake.

A conductor should not rush tempos in Rossini. There is no need. All the drama is there, waiting to be exploited if the proper time is taken between phrases. Bel canto music used to be my favorite to play on clarinet because it was the only time I could be a true diva when playing. All was mine for the ravaging. There are so many interpretive choices in the music that it never has to be played the same twice. Maurizio Benini led the orchestra brilliantly, making great use of the ‘Rossini crescendo’ and the richness of the strings. His tempos were at times too fast though, the singers sometimes stumbling to keep up.

Bartlett Sher’s production kept the opera fresh and entertaining, at times doing a better job at pulling out the sarcastic humor than the performers were doing. I left after the first act, having had enough of the screaming tenor.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Metropolitan Opera- Le Nozze di Figaro

Emma Bell is one of the sexiest (vocally speaking, of course) new singers I have heard in a while. Her warm and silky tone reminds me of the ‘golden age’ singers from the 1970s and 1980s who sang for the perfection of their art form, not because they were simply pretty. (That last thought is for a discussion to be had at another time). Ms. Bell’s technical control and sustained tone color, even when singing softly, had the audience melting in their seats during ‘Porgi, Amor’ and especially ‘Dove Sono’. During the later, she literally sang half the aria at an emotionally charged pianissimo, hypnotizing the audience with her instrument. You know those moments when certain musicians seem to have control of the audience’s mind? Times when you could hear a pin drop because nobody in the audience is breathing? Performances like this make you surrender your conscious and forget about what lies outside the double doors behind you.

The rest of the cast was formidable. Danielle de Niese gave us a sprightly and chipper Susanna. Her acting kept the part alive from 8pm to midnight. Wendy White provided a comical and well-sung portrait of Marcellina. Together, they gave us fine ‘opera buffa’ that brought out the subtleties of this revolutionary work. John Relyea, Isabel Leonard, and Bo Skovhus were solid as Figaro, Cherubino, and the Count, respectively. Dan Ettinger led a very energetic orchestra and communicated well with the singers. His tempos at times bordered on too brisk to tap your foot to. Having been lucky to get student tickets, I was right behind him and could hear strange noises coming from the pit. During the overture I thought for a second there was an instrument malfunction before I realized it was his grunting.

The costumes here can be called ‘period’. The set however could have been called ‘period respectful’. What the director Jonathan Miller and set designer Peter J. Davidson have done is take old structures and age them. So instead of a bright country house we see paint coming off the walls and something resembling decomposing wood. The message revealed is actually very bold. Opera might be old compared to the exciting, action-packed thrillers being pumped out of Hollywood every month, but that doesn’t make opera any less relevant to our time. A newcomer to opera would probably be amazed by how simply humanistic and approachable most of them are. “Figaro’s” whole deal is that relationships are rarely what one anticipates or hopes for and never just black and white. Quite down to earth actually, especially for being 223 years old.