Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Metropolitan Opera- Hansel and Gretel

Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel is an opera for all ages, as proven by all the children sitting in their parent’s lap tonight. Children are the only people who can whisper or even talk during a performance at the Met without being hushed. This is not to be mistaken for kid’s theatre, as the music pleases both amateurs and musicologists alike. This beautifully mature yet playful music is Wagner-like, without the exhaustion and the apocalypse. Humperdinck’s tutorage from Wagner is evident by his use of leitmotifs, though he did not use nearly as many as Wagner. This production, (directed by Richard Jones, with sets and costumes by John Macfarlane) is a beautifully creative fairy-tale. Forest characters with tree-trunk heads, a doll-like home that utilizes only a fraction of the Met stage for the first act, a tenor playing the Witch, ridiculously bloated chefs, junk food galore - this is a production designed to please and spur the imagination. There is no tragedy, no bombastically overwhelming music, no emotionally wrenching arias. Yet this is no frivolous yet stylish operetta. Both Miah Persson as Gretel, and Angelika Kirchschlager as Hansel sang beautifully as their voices soared over the orchestra with a childlike conviction that is unique to this opera. Remember when we were children and legitimately thought we could do or be anything? This opera almost makes us believe that again. It is no wonder that Hansel and Gretel was the first complete opera to be broadcast on radio, and the first to be transmitted live from the Met. Humperdinck’s most memorable work has held a strong place in the opera repertoire since its’ premiere, and with the help of this production there is no sign of if fading anytime soon.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Metropolitan Opera- Les Contes d' Hoffmann

At a time when Wagner was composing emotionally exhausting and apocalyptic dramas, and Verdi was writing beautiful melodies that were unifying a fractured Italy, Jacques Offenbach’s operettas were making people laugh. Though laughter might not be considered deep enough for ‘high art’, it is important to not always take yourself so seriously. Offenbach’s operettas helped Parisians forget about the rather grim conditions around them. The largely complacent and hypocritical Second Empire of Napoleon III had let living conditions become disgustingly bad in a city whose population had doubled between 1851 and 1881. Rightly so on an evening out, people wanted to forget about the hardships of life and enjoy themselves. Paris was a “smart permissive society dedicated purely to pleasure, full of people whom a society hostess would pick up in the course of some short lived intimacy, where a duke rubbed shoulders with a crook…People wanted one thing only: to have fun” (Michael Steen).

This was the atmosphere in which Offenbach’s operetta company, Théatre de Bouffes-Parisiens, thrived. Audience members would show up late to the theatre, chatting during the overture. The theatre smelled like a combination of gas and females’ unwashed undergarments. Through all of this, people laughed, clapped, and wanted to dance. After reaching his peak in the mid-1860s, the 1870 war with Prussia left Offenbach- a German, in a difficult position, forcing him to flee to Bordeaux, Milan, and later San Sebastian. After touring to New York City in 1876, he returned to Paris exhausted. Though he could still command and impressive box office, for Offenbach “the soberer atmosphere emerging in France’s Third Republic rekindled the uneasy sense of being an outsider” (Thomas May). His longtime collaborator, Ludovic Halévy wrote in 1875 of being exhausted- “we have done too much.” Offenbach had composed an average of one operetta act every six weeks- a workaholic by any standard. Though he still composed, he also wanted to create something of more ‘artistic’ quality.

Les Contes d’ Hoffmann is Offenbach’s Magnum Opus. In it he achieved something deeper and more lasting. His operetta base grew to include a refined lyricism, examples of which are common in today’s repertoire. Many have also elaborated on the suggestion that Hoffmann is Offenbach’s doppelganger. This is the point of view taken in Bartlett Sher’s production. In the opera, Hoffmann is rejected by three successive women, each time convinced he has found the right one. It is almost masochistic how he allows others to manipulate him in this dreamlike fantasy. Offenbach himself was a foreigner, never accepted in the highest Parisian circles. This sense of being an outsider was the basis of Mr. Sher’s at times over-the-top production.

I too found myself an outsider during this production. Most of it was darkly lit and with the exception of Olympia’s almost slapstick scene in Act I, the action was restricted to a very small part of the stage. From the back of the Family Circle I felt out of the loop. Even with all the glitter and provocative overtones, I had more fun closing my eyes and listening to the star quality singing. Kathleen Kim nailed the part of Olympia with pitch perfect acrobatics. Kate Lindsey sang beautifully and enchantingly as The Muse of Poetry and Nicklausse. Joseph Calleja gave his all as a passionate Hoffmann, and Anna Netrebko was a silky smooth Antonia, yet very hard to understand. The loudest applause goes to maestro James Levine, who made his return to the podium after a two-month recovery from back surgery. He transformed Offenbach’s light and playful music into something original and refreshing. Les Contes d’ Hoffmann shows us that light music certainly has its' place.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Metropolitan Opera- Il Trittico

This has been my most enjoyable evening at the Met all season. Il Trittico- three one act operas- Il tabarro, Suor Angelica, and Gianni Schicchi, combine to form an emotionally well-rounded night of opera. Il tabarro is vivid and immediate in its portrait of adultery and murder. The orchestration makes the story come alive through a mysterious, honest, and at times horrific character. Many even consider this opera the composer’s finest work. Douglas W. Schmidt’s set reminded me of post-industrial Brooklyn, past its prime yet still beautiful. Suor Angelica is much more penetrating with it’s raw sentimentality. The story revolves around a nun in a convent who is robbed of her inheritance, shocked by the unexpected death of her son, and eventually takes her own life. Puccini thrives with the one act format and packs in some of the most emotionally mature music ever written. Mr. Jack O’Brien’s production is a beautiful sight. The set, lighting, and staging collectively made this finale one of the most beautiful that I’ve experienced at the Met. Gianni Schicchi is the composer’s only comedy. The clever musical characterization by Puccini brings to life this hilarious comedy. Mr. Schmidt’s set reminded me of the board game Clue, with its mysterious and disheveled look. Schicchi is especially refreshing coming after the first two heart-wrenching operas. Alessandro Corbelli gave us a hilarious Master of Ceremonies as Gianni Schicchi.

All three female leads were beautifully inhabited by the soprano Patricia Racette. In Il tabarro she was shockingly vulnerable as Giorgetta. As Sister Angelica she squeezed all the possible emotion out of the music and performed like one of the best. She has the ability to communicate at such an intense emotional level with the audience, and bare her soul on stage. As Lauretta in Gianni Schicchi, Ms. Racette gave us an intelligent and original version on the classic “O mio babbino caro”. Other cast members were memorable as well. Stephanie Blythe gave us her solid, warm, and huge tone along with some very nice acting. In Il tabarro, the tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko sang beautifully as the lover of Giorgetta. Stefano Ranzani’s conducting was excellent. The restrained lyricism coming out from the pit always supported the action no stage. He never gave too much. I must end by talking about the production. As beautiful as the sets were, (they each prompted applause when the curtain rose), they never detracted attention from the music and drama on stage. This was an evening without pretentiousness or divas- each element seemed to contribute towards a combined beauty.

Brooklyn Academy of Music- Kepler

Philip Glass has long ago established himself as an effective minimalist composer. His music has the power to enter ones' subconscious through overly repetitive patterns that collide with blunt and direct dissonance. Mr. Glass has shown that this style works great as film music: where its’ purpose is to dramatically enhance the visual action. The Hours is one of the saddest and most beautiful movies of the past decade, due in large part to Mr. Glass’s score. As a two-hour opera however, this becomes an easy recipe for boredom. Opera is by nature supposed to be dramatic. Drama can of course come in a variety of doses and forms, but it eventually manages to deliver. This evening reminded me of why I do not go to church- it's boring. Come on! Labeling your piece an opera entails that it will touch people’s emotions. The New York Times said that Kepler would have worked better as an oratorio. Knowing at least that, we would be sure to drink coffee before going.

The cast was formidable, and nothing more. The lead soprano was called in that evening as a replacement and read from the score for the entire performance. Nothing against her, as she did well considering the circumstances, but can the Brooklyn Academy of Music please be sure to supply proper understudies? The Bruckner Orchestra Linz seemed uninspired, and is evidently much better than they showed us. Following the performance, the audience rose to their feet in applause like a quacking herd of geese. I just woke up from my slumber and adjusted my dry contacts. Nothing more.