Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Metropolitan Opera- From the House of the Dead

After a critical ‘beat-down’ following Luc Bondy’s new Tosca, the Met shined tonight with the company premiere of Leoš Janáček’s opera, From the House of the Dead. Both the Director, Patrice Chéreau and the Conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen made their long overdue Met debuts with this near perfect production, in which they seemed to march lock-step the entire way. Both have long ago established themselves as visionaries, but tonight we saw the beauty of a perfect artistic match.

In music, we often get caught up with the desire to label or categorize a composer. Janáček can be seen as a staunch Czech nationalist. He despised Hapsburg rule, spoke Czech and Russian when they were unpopular, published volumes of peasant folk songs, and notated simple speech melodies of children. Nonetheless, we should not look at this opera as an anthology of glorified folk songs. Being labeled a nationalist composer often has the effect of boxing them in, leaving their music incapable of comparison with romantic or 20th century composers. Clearly, it deserves more. From the House of the Dead’s music is not lushly Romantic or shockingly modern. Instead, it is as bare and naked a representation of the beautiful human soul as one can get.

This opera has no climactic plot like other operas. Its composition is a series of day-to-day events and monologues that take place during a relatively hopeless prison life. Grim yet beautiful, horrifying yet hysterically funny, this blatantly paradoxical composition was enhanced through honest direction and conducting. Mr. Chéreau showed us how people are able to at least temporarily enjoy themselves in prison, and how quickly that can all be taken away. Peter Mattei led a cast of performers that were all excellent. The entire cast seemed physically and psychologically committed to exploring the precariousness of life. Though most visible through confined environments like prison, it is something that everyone can benefit from understanding.

Mr. Salonen brought out the brilliance of the Met Orchestra. They played confidently, always balancing and never overpowering the singers. Rich, warm, and sometimes virtuosic textures came and went through this fragmented yet beautiful score. This music does not have the overpowering romantic effect that many might desire at the opera. There are no thirty-minute long build-ups. Instead it is honest, making no attempt to cover up life’s imperfections and representing every prisoner for who they are.

Mr. Chéreau and Mr. Salonen appear to have worked tirelessly at making sure their intentions lined up seamlessly and without disruption. Mr. Chéreau’s decision to project supertitles on different parts of the stage was contrary to Met practice, (the Met has personal title screens on the back of every seat) but it worked well with keeping the audience hypnotized within the bleak prison set, designed by Richard Peduzzi. The set was comprised of three tall concrete walls, resembling World War II towers. The costumes, by Caroline de Vivaise, were not prison uniforms, but plain underwear, shirts, and slacks. Both elements were timeless. We could have been in Soviet Russia, Hilter’s concentration camps, or Guantanamo Bay.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Metropolitan Opera- Turandot

Tonight was a simple reminder that Franco Zeffirelli still has a place at the Met. Beautifully flowing melodic lines, simple orchestration, use of a large chorus, emotionally touching music, traditional Chinese culture- all of this worked very well with an over-the-top production. Though very stereotypical in its costumes, sets, and even choreography, it certainly was a beautifully grand creation by Zeffirelli. In Act 2 when the Emperor’s temple is revealed, the audience always erupts into applause, and rightly so. It makes sense why the intermission before is 30 minutes long. It takes time to construct a temple on the Met stage. With all the stunts that take place, the glitter, the choreographed movements of over 100 people on stage, this production may seem like a Broadway show with an unending budget. Puccini was, after all a huge influence on musicals. Not only did Turandot’s 1926 premiere line up perfectly with the heart of Vaudeville shows, Minstrel shows, and the movie-musical, but musically speaking you can hear a new genre arising. His soft harmony and gentle orchestration play right into the development of Broadway and the West-End. Puccini had no pretensions to high art like Verdi or Wagner did, but there is no questioning that his melodies are accessible to anyone who want to listen, and go straight to the heart.

Call me crazy, but I went to see this production twice because of different sopranos in the title role. The first one was Maria Guleghina, who sang with the most distraction wobble, covering up much of the emotional brilliance in the music. The second Turandot was Lisa Lindstrom, making her Met debut with the role. She, on the other hand sang with a piercing lyrical flow, nailing all the high notes. Her slightly brittle tone was a perfect match for an emotionless princess. Marina Poplavskaya was perfect as Liù. Her warm tone, gentle lyrical lines, and breathtaking pianissimos earned a much-deserved ovation at the end. Marcello Giordani has become known as a ‘hit-or-miss’ singer at the Met. His high notes have the capability to sound like Franco Corelli’s, but he often lacks the heart-wrenching singing needed in Puccini. The first time I saw him he was more successful with his high notes than the second time, however bland singing marred the rest of his performance. He lacked emotional expression and lyrical line. His “Nessun Dorma” was too fast, and during the second performance he was audibly flat on the climactic note. Just like Verdi, Puccini is willing to offer us some of the most beautiful moments in music if the singer is willing to take the time and enjoy them. For such a musically accessible opera like Turandot, this grandly beautiful Zeffirelli production is a perfect match.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Metropolitan Opera- Aida

Verdi’ Aida is one of those magnificent operas guaranteed to sell seats. Pomp and glory, a heart-wrenching story, emotionally poignant and grand music- what more could an audience want? Fortunately for performance’s sake, it still takes an A-list cast to make a magical night. There were moments of Romantic glory in this performance, but on an overall whole it was an unmemorable evening. Dolora Zajick as Amneris and Violeta Urmana as Aida both put forward energetic performances. Their duet moments had drive- one’s performance seemed to inspire the other towards reaching new vocal heights. They were like animals feeding off each other’s energy. Though Ms. Zajick’s deep voice sometimes overpowered everyone else’s on stage, she presented the most intense character and was without a doubt the only memorable performer of the evening. The conductor, Paolo Carignani, did little to inspire a feeling of ensemble. He rarely seemed to have control over an unmotivated orchestra and cast, and certainly did not add any flare or personal interpretation of his own. Richard Margison as Radamès gave us a less than inspiring performance. His wobbling and superficially forceful voice was certainly not genuine enough for a prince who is considering abandoning his homeland in the name of love.

One of the most beautiful Verdi arias is Aida’s “O Patria Mia”. Leontyne Price commanded this aria in the early 1980s. Watch her 1985 farewell performance on youtube and you will be hard-pressed not to have an emotional reaction. Then watch Montserrat Caballé sang the aria. Every moment is tender, certainly not rushed, and as heavenly as an atheist can describe. Unfortunately for the present time, Ms. Urmana did not live up to the grandness of the title role. Her performance was too fast, (party because of the conductor’s neglect as well) with at best nonchalant emotions. Granted it is a difficult aria for any soprano to sing, but that should not scare the singer away. She is singing about her homeland being conquered by the Egyptians! One should relish in the music and work to improve their technique even in only for the purpose of this aria. Live performances are so much more exciting when the singer’s technique is strong enough to allow ample room for emotional involvement, maybe even an added fear factor. I’d rather hear a singer crack than not even try for beauty. Can you imagine an opera audience actually on the edge of their seats mesmerized with anticipation? Certainly some performers today possess these wonderfully hypnotic qualities on stage, but more should. The reality of it is that the Met has one if not two operas performed 6 days a week, nine months out of the year. Not everyone is going to knock your socks off. That is why we have recordings.