Monday, January 25, 2010

Metropolitan Opera Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

How lucky am I to be in NYC during this day and age? There are not enough adjectives out there to describe how alive I felt during the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra concert yesterday at Carnegie Hall. Sublime is the best I got. Maestro Levine unleashed such free-spirited beauty from Carnegie Hall, making me willing to argue that today, this orchestra is the finest in the world. That statement is obviously very subjective, but judging from the captivated audience and the overwhelmingly rousing ovation following every piece, I’d be hard pressed to find an audience moved to such an extent as this one. During Beethoven’s 5th Symphony I didn’t quite know whether to cry or hold my breath. Maestro Levine is a true master of Romantic expression, never hesitating to luxuriate the music with rubato and always letting the musicians shine with emotion. Some people might find his interpretations a bit too liberal and different from how the composer intended, but no one can deny their freshness and easy appeal. Classical music was never intended to be pondered over, or over-analyzed during a concert. Being a performer myself, I can tell you that over-thinking is the last thing you want to do when on stage. The reason Beethoven’s 5th has become the leading sound of classical music isn’t because of the ingenious composition that has been dissected by scholars for decades, but instead because of its immediate captivation by the trained and untrained ear, alike. The opening short-short-short-long motive can be misconstrued as cliché when heard in commercials, movies, and other vices of uncontrolled capitalism. But when heard live, it rudely awakens the listener and captures their entire Self for approximately 35 minutes.

The concert started with Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, the Unfinished. Maestro Levine gave free reign to the strings, making the most of their dynamic swells and climaxes. Reflecting the title later attached to the symphony after Schubert’s death, this piece leaves the listener unsettled, as if there is something unfinished about themselves. It was the perfect way to begin a concert in NYC, where people are constantly moving, changing, and never ever finished. The final E major chord at the end oddly does not have a concluding feeling.

The coloratura soprano Diana Damrau followed in the concert, singing eight orchestral songs by Richard Strauss. Some were from Strauss’s early years, others from when he was older, but they all had that undying and unmistakable romantic expression. Ms. Damrau floated above the orchestra like a little dove, sometimes letting herself fall into the orchestral texture, and other times soaring high above. After the intermission she sang a diva worthy performance of “Grossmächtige Prinzessin” from Ariadne auf Naxos. She utterly yet positively ripped the music apart, playing and laughing throughout- the sign of a true Diva.

It is a shame that with the exception of a few concerts each year, we only hear this orchestra form inside a pit. They sound exceptional from there too, and their night-to-night performance is bound to change slightly with the impressive menu of conductors they offer, but there is something special when they are led by Maestro Levine. Maybe it is because his work brought this orchestra up to the level it is today, maybe the orchestra subconsciously gives more when led by their paternal figure, or maybe Mr. Levine is a magician. It’s probably a combination of all three. Yea, I like magic.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Metropolitan Opera- Simon Boccanegra

Has baritone repertoire always been suited for Plácido Domingo? In 1959 he certainly thought he was a baritone when he auditioned for the National Opera in Mexico City, only to be proven wrong by having one the longest opera careers in history, as a tenor. If his wild and trend setting tenor voice has waned over the past decade or so, his baritone voice has simultaneously ripened. Yes, it is probably a sign of age, but who cares? - especially for a man who made his Met debut in 1968 and who probably has the most impressive opera career in memorable history, (not to mention his managing two opera companies, simultaneously). There is a certain quality he has that is lacking among new talent today. His total mind and body commitment on stage was so different than Pavarotti’s ‘park and belt’ habit, (they were the two star tenors for decades). A prime example of longevity, his tone, diction, and deliverance were as beautiful tonight as they are in that famous Zeffirelli Traviata film of 1982, (the first opera LP my grandmother gave me). As far as I’m concerned we should be blessed to still be hearing him, no matter what range he sings in.

Simon Boccanegra took two trials to develop into a solid Verdi opera. It first premiered at La Fenice, Venice in 1857, after being commissioned by the theatre following the popular success of Il trovatore. Collaboration between the librettist, Maria Piave, and Verdi was difficult due to Verdi’s long absences in Paris. The opera turned out to have one of the worst librettos ever written, with too gloomy a plot and uninspired music.

Fast-forward to 1880, the librettist Arrigo Boito was in the middle of writing Otello, but Verdi had yet to commit himself to writing the music. His publisher, Guilio Ricordi had the idea of putting composer and librettist together for a trial run in a slightly less momentous opera like Simon Boccanegra. Along with minute changes throughout, Boito’s major revision was in creating a new second scene for Act I. Verdi’s admiration for the way he did that not only inspired him to “revise everything in sequence, just as if it were a matter of a new opera”, but gave him the reassurance he needed to collaborate on Otello.

Maestro James Levine led an energetically nuanced reading of the score. Long ago having championed the Verdi style, (he conducted the 1982 Zeffirelli Traviata), one could sense his comfort in the music tonight. He knew when to hold back and when to lash out with waves of expressive sound, all done very organically. The rest of the cast sang wonderfully, but I’m afraid they were overshadowed by the veteran’s triumph. The house erupted when Mr. Domingo came out for the curtain call, cheering even louder when joined by Maestro Levine. Mr. Domingo is 69 and Mr. Levine 67. Their careers have lined up countless times over the decades, and judging from the invigoration with which I left after this performance, neither is done yet.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Bleecker Street Opera Company- Barber of Seville

What a refreshing evening! After thirteen productions so far this season at the Met, I almost forgot the luxury of being able to see performer’s facial expressions. This absolutely genuine cast reminded me that opera, and it’s performers, are not simply fantastical creations that exist beyond the daunting orchestra pit. Just like their music, they are emotional and relatable.

Though many of our beloved operas were written for smaller audiences like this one, a modern norm has developed for huge ritzy houses like the Met, which combined with standing room holds 4,019 people. 19th century Paris, where what we term ‘classical music’ was a much more integral part of culture (Barber and countless other operas grew to fame there), had many more theatres, each with separate purposes and aspirations. The Opéra was dedicated to the advancement of French lyric art, the Opéra-Comique integrated sung and spoken dialog, and the Théatre des Italiens performed only Italian opera, not to mention many lesser-known theatres that came and went throughout the century. Today, seen amidst a much larger spectrum of entertainment and high art, opera is often perceived as an arcane and dying art form. It is forced to rely on wealthy patrons, and therefore pomp and glory just in order to survive. Furthermore, to the degradation of audience members, squinting, opera glasses, and claustrophobia have become norm. The majority of people have been reared to accept that this is how opera is supposed to be seen.

The Bleecker Street Opera Company invites people to experience the vitality, breath, and intimacy that the Met lacks. Located in a basement that looks like a jazz club, the black-box theatre does not seat many more than a hundred. As director of this playful Barber, Teresa K. Pond took advantage of this wonderful atmosphere quite effectively, (with what looked like a minute fraction of money compared to the current Met production of Barber). Bleecker Street has a down-to-earth quality to it that makes one feel right at home. Both Figaro and Count Almaviva (played by Garth Taylor and Anthony Daino, respectively) were probably past their vocal prime, but gave magnificent performances and were in sync with the audience throughout. They made eye contact with us, physically interacted with us, even walked around us. During Figaro’s first entrance, he rubbed an audience member’s bald head and even picked up an elderly couple from their seats while singing about love’s energy. Even if they cracked a note or missed a line, nobody cared. That wasn’t the point. The incredible Jordan Wentworth, who sounded better than singers I’ve heard at the Met, sang Rosina with fierce energy and tremendous power, reminding me of Cecilia Bartoli. Her 'Una voce poco fa' was ravishing, and prompted the first applause of the evening.

The chamber ensemble orchestra of 12 players was noticeably full of talent and was thoroughly led by my friend, Daniel Curtis. He showed high intensity throughout, and let the ‘Rossini crescendos’ shine without breaking the tempo speedometer. Improvising during the basso continuo that accompanies the recitative was much more popular in the 19th century than it is today. Breathing life into this performance, David Rosenmeyer on the piano was playful and full of modern character with his improvisations, even throwing in some jazz riffs. Nothin’ better than keepin’ it fresh!

Before the opera began, David Rosenmeyer (who is also the company’s music director), told the audience that The Barber of Seville is about people finding creative ways other than monetary ones to pursue their love and ambitions. He went on to add that the same could be said about The Bleecker Street Opera Company. In the capitalistic society we live in, the Met will always take center stage. However, The Bleecker Street Opera Compay showed tonight that it is just as fabulous.

Monday, January 11, 2010

I finally figured out how to post videos.

Wild, sexy, minimalist set, faithful to the score, and musically brilliant...

HERE is a live recording of the Carmen performance I saw. You can see a photo of the red crack in the curtain with the dancers. Ms. Garanca sounds fabulous with her dark, sensual tone...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Metropolitan Opera- Carmen

From the first note in this production of Bizet’s Carmen I could tell it was going to be an exiting evening. Yannick Nézet-Séguin opened the overture (for his Met debut) at a bracing pace, reminiscent of Dan Ettinger’s breakneck conducting this past October of Le Nozze di Figaro. Is there a current trend developing among up-and-coming conductors in which well-known overtures are taken at an uncontrollably fast tempo? Cool, I guess. Regardless of speed, Mr. Nézet-Séguin was vivaciously responsive to the singers throughout, giving them ample room for personal interpretation.

Richard Eyre directed this incredibly sensual production. While staying in a mostly traditional style (he only updated the opera one century- from the 1830s to the 1930s), he managed to inject such an intense level of visual passion and sensuality (reminiscent of the 2005 Salzburg Festival’s La Traviata), that the spine-tingling and horrific finale blew away every other Carmen I’ve seen. In the overture, following the march section when the music goes minor- injecting into the audience a sense horror and impending doom- Mr. Eyre and the choreographer Christopher Wheeldon inserted a sex-charged pas de duex. The bright red vertical crack in the curtain- seen since before the opera started, and also on Carmen’s last dress of the opera- opens up, revealing the two dancers surrounded by smoke and dark-red lights. The moment is captivating, an apache, and very sexy.

The basic set for the entire opera centers around two high rings of damaged brick wall that revolve to serve different functions and locations. Through the magic of lighting, the brick rings serve effectively as a cigarette factory, a tavern, a mountain hideaway, outside a bullring, and inside the bullring. Mr. Eyre must have had a firm understanding of the varying moods presented in the music in order to match his scenic choices perfectly. The tavern scene, that traditionally has colorful and proud flamenco dancing, was more tribal than usual, including clapping, stomping, street clothes, and dark/mysterious lighting. It was a little rough, circus-like, and even primitive for this usually very elegant scene, but was a nice contrast to the countless reproductions of the same superficially cheery dancing.

For me, the final scene when Don José murders Carmen is incredibly thrilling. The duality in the music alone is enough to move anyone without seeing a staged production. The lover’s theme is heard interspersed over the matador’s song, as if attempting to hack through while Don José stabs Carmen following her refusal of love. In this production, Carmen’s black dress shows that long red crack seen at the beginning, by now obviously representing blood. After the murder by knifing, when Don José is walking away from the dead Carmen, the set rotates to show the inside of the bullring at the moment of the kill- everyone frozen, including the bull, in dark red lighting. Accompanied by the musical climax, it left me frozen as well.