Thursday, February 25, 2010

Metropolitan Opera- Le Fille du Régiment

Le Fille du Régiment on Monday night was a thoroughly enjoyable and totally hilarious surprise. Gaetano Donizetti wrote in the ‘bel-canto’ (beautiful singing) tradition. Along with Bellini, he epitomized Italian romantic music before Verdi came along. Le Fille’s premiere came at a time when Donizetti was well on his way to conquering the European musical capital of Paris. After a series of successive hits at the Théâtre Italien, such as Lucia di Lammermoor and L’Elisir d’ Amore, Donizetti decided to try writing an opera in French. While working on a couple grand operas for the Opéra, Le Fille developed as a side project. It premiered at the Opéra Comique on February 11, 1840, when something of a fiasco took place. Some, such as the composer/critic Hector Berlioz, were upset about Donizetti’s increasing popularity. In his Journal des Débats, Berlioz vented his frustrations:

“Two major scores for the Opéra, Les Martyrs and Le Duc d’Albe, two others at the Renaissance, Lucie de Lammermoor and L’Ange de Nisida, two at the Opéra Comique, La Fille du Régiment and another whose title is still unknown, and yet another for the Théâtre Italien; will have been written or transcribed in one year by the same composer! M.Donizetti seems to treat us like a conquered country; it is a veritable invasion. One can no longer speak of the opera houses of Paris, but only the opera houses of M. Donizetti.”

As is usually the case, eventually all the huff-and-puff defused, and Donizetti’s new opera came to be regarded as one of his best. Musically, Le Fille is a showcase for singing virtuosity that only the best can pull off. Marie’s Act I aria “Chacun le sait” and Tonio’s Act I aria “Ah, mes amis”, with its notorious nine high Cs, are only two moments of vocal brilliance in a score that includes a plethora of them. The musical style bounces between military marches with chorus (some of which have become famous), ingeniously witty and light comic music, and sincere lyricism that rarely reaches the level of cliché. In addition to the music, the libretto is ingeniously crafted, accurately depicting human interactions through both light and dry humor. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an opera as funny.

The production, by Laurent Pelly, exploited the comic plot to great effect. For the entire opera the action takes place on top of large maps arranged in a topographical manner, similar to the Alps. This feature plays on the traveling Regiment and on Marie’s transitory state in life. Even the Duchess’s house in Act II is placed on top of these hilly maps, underlying where Marie really wants to be- back with her Regiment. Tacky, blown-up postcards of early 20th Century couples are lowered down to the set during a few touching moments, highlighting the ridiculousness of scenes. This, for me was slightly degrading to the opera, and took attention away from the touching music.

Mr Pelly’s greatest achievement is in drawing fantastic acting out of the cast. Diana Damrau is one of the foremost coloratura sopranos today, and she sang a nearly spotless yet risk-taking performance. Her character Maria is basically an army brat, raised by her Regiment in the mountains. She has little education, does basic chores for the Regiment, and calls them all her ‘papas’. In return, they pick her up and throw her over their shoulders, even flipping her upside down in the middle of her singing. She plays the part of a big child till the end, when she salutes the audience and then dramatically curtsies for her bow. During the spoken-dialog, (being a necessary inclusion in all operas at the Opéra Comique) all the performers stood out for their comic acting. Ms. Meredith Arwady, playing the Marquise, over-enunciated her French almost to the point of ridiculousness. She drew laughter from the audience with nearly every line. The tenor Juan Diego Flórez, reprising his role of Tonio, nailed all nine high Cs, and sang with amazing lightness throughout, never showing sign of strain. After his famous aria “Ah, mes amis”, you could tell the audience wanted an encore. The legendary soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, played the Duchess. During her entrance at the start of Act II, her vocalizing made the crowd swoon. Included in her subsequent spoken dialog were comments about Marie’s future husband being away at Olympic duty and some shouting at the butler in English, all of which made for a refreshing performance.

The beauty of spoken dialog is that because there is no music attached to it, it is easier to update with the times. Small additions like this remind modern audiences that opera is alive and tangible, which is frequently forgotten when it is in a foreign language. Doing this without degrading the opera to a point of ridiculousness is one of the challenges that opera directors face for the future. Mr. Pelly’s production was one of the most comically captivating operas I’ve seen, and made certain that no one in the audience dozed off.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Metropolitan Opera- Elektra

Back in December I saw Elektra at the Met. At the time I didn’t really have strong opinions about the production, so I didn’t bother reviewing it. Lately though, I’ve been thinking about what draws me specifically to opera as opposed to orchestral, choral, chamber concerts, etc. Most obviously it is the drama. Composers naturally choose stories for adaptation whose morals have potential to be more poignant through music. These over-the-top plots lend readily to wide ranges of musical expression.

More telling, however, is the unmatched value of a new production. Since an overwhelming majority of operas staged today were composed by dead people, it is a thrill to see how modern artists bring these works back to life. Whether or not one agrees with the artistic/stylistic choices (visual or musical) made today, no one can deny that seeing a new production stimulates the senses and intellect, possibly more than any other classical music activity. At the start of this Met Opera season, a new Luc Bondy production of Tosca was greeted by massive ‘boos’ and horrible reviews, mostly by people who had grown to love the Franco Zeffirelli production. Nonetheless, as Alex Ross said in his review, opera made the evening news. The more times that opera penetrates through popular culture, the better its chances of survival are though the next generation.

Back to Electra. The reason this opera did not stick with me was because of its antiquated production, by Otto Schenk. The music is some of the most startling of 20th Century music, and the performance was splendid, so that certainly was not it. As little money as I spent on the ticket, I would have rather saved it and listened to the Saturday afternoon radiobroadcast. The set looked like a replica of Troy, a once majestic city that had been neglected for a thousand years. There’s no more to say about the production because that’s all there was to it. I cannot stress how important updated productions are.

With the new Artistic Director, Peter Gelb finally in complete control of programming operas, the Met is on the right path. This season has been plenty exciting already, with two Met premiers still to come. Tomorrow is the Met premier of Verdi’s Attila, with sets by the architectural firm Herzog and de Meuron, and sets by Miuccia Prada. Some might see this as selling out to commercial society, but I see it as vital. For any opera lover, it is important to learn the traditions and experience the present equally, with an open mind. If not, you’re acting as old as today’s average audience looks. So get with it.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Metropolitan Opera- Ariadne auf Naxos

Throughout the history of music there has always been a separation, sometimes more forced than others, between ‘high’ and ‘popular’ art. In opera, the heavy and apocalyptic dramas of Wagner or the emotionally wrenching operas of Verdi exist on a different plane than the light operettas of Offenbach or the comic operas of Rossini. Both these extremities affect people in different ways, and it certainly makes no sense to belabor ones superiority over the other as ‘true’ music. Audiences that enjoy musicals today are certainly no less human than those that enjoy 15 hours of Wagner. The concentration level is just different.

What strikes me as brilliant is an opera I have never heard all the way through. Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is a clever hybrid of opera séria and opera comíque. Throughout the history of opera in Italy, France, and Germany, a distinction has always been made between comic and serious opera. With few exceptions (Mozart’s DaPonte operas), they remained separate entities until the early 20th Century. The plot of Ariadne is about a new dramatic opera by a young composer that being staged at the house of a wealthy 18th century Viennese. After the arrival of a comic troop, and because of time constraints, it is demanded that both groups perform their works simultaneously. After scoffing at such a ridiculous idea, the ‘mash-up’ in the second act ‘Opera’ is pulled off in a witty, dramatic, and beautiful manner. The balance is spectacular. Just when Ariadne’s music is getting too heavy, Wagnerian, and frankly depressing, the comic troupe peeks in to say, ‘cheer up, everything is going to be okay’ (more or less). Their music is light, bouncy, and no less captivating than the warm, lush sounds of Ariadne and her three nymphs.

There are three leads in Ariadne, all female and each with beautiful music. The Composer sings for a majority of the ‘Prologue’ with ravishing music, sung exquisitely tonight by Sarah Connolly. More than her immense vocal power, shown throughout this exhausting music, her dynamic control and contrast was beautiful. Her phrases seemed to linger on forever, her notes held out beyond their full length while her piano bacame pianissimo. Her volcanically busting ovation was completely deserved. The music of Ariadne and her three nymphs is some of the most atmospheric in the opera repertoire. Never overbearing, each character passes the melody along to the next with Grecian tenderness. Nina Stemme sang a fittingly lush and warm Ariadne. Sinking into my seat, I fell victim to her lullaby. Kathleen Kim sang Zerbinetta, the leader of the comic troupe. Mostly on pitch during her incredibly difficult coloratura aria, “Grossmächtige Prinzessin!” Ms. Kim always remained light, bouncy, and funny- a wonderfully fit. Though I preferred Diana Damrau’s show-stopping performance of this aria at the Met Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall last month, seeing Ms. Kim in an effective production made a world of a difference.

Elija Moshinsky’s production from 1993 augments the dichotomy between comic and serious, fantasy and reality. The result is a magical world where nymphs float high in the air and old-fashioned scenery slides open to reveal a happier world. The makeshift ‘mash-up’ of two operas within an opera is seen with a light heart from the start. Before the curtain even opens for the evening, two actors goof around with props downstage. One is putting on makeup and the other (with a hunchback) is pacing back and forth among the props. The comic nature of the subsequent ‘Prelude’ is balanced out by Strauss’s naturally melodic music, adapting to each character’s personality throughout. Harmonically, Ariadne is not nearly as avant-garde as Strauss’s Salome, where he anticipated Shoenberg’s atonality. That is not to say however, that Ariadne is any less modern. Employing a scaled back orchestra of only 37 players, Strauss is able to convey both Mozartean intimacy and full-blown Tristan-esque romanticism. Ariadne auf Naxos is an opera that satisfies multiple palates.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

Due to my out of body experience last time at Carnegie Hall, I just had to go back for more. This time was the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the helm of, guess who… James Levine. It ended up being however, a very different Carnegie Hall experience.

Music and artistic observations are clearly my focus in writing, but this time I need to start by talking about the audience. I love old people, I really do. They’re wiser than us, my grandmother was one of them and she introduced me to opera. Quite frankly, if they’re into the arts then they probably have some dough. Many of these treasured institutions like the Met or Carnegie Hall would simply not exist without their generous contributions. That said, when you’re attending a concert at the most famous hall in the world where the acoustics are especially magnificent, please turn down your hearing aid!!! Instead of giving my entire attention to the BSO last night, I (and I suspect many other audience members as well) was continuously disturbed by the high-pitched beeping of a hearing aid coming from somewhere in the audience. Even after two successive announcements by Carnegie staff regarding electronics and hearing aids specifically, this persons ear kept on tweeting. It’s not right for me to get so angry. My grandfather wears hearing aids, and I love him. I would also not hesitate to rip them out of his ears if they started going bonkers at Carnegie Hall.

The program for the evening was energetically high. It started out with a clunky, disjointed, yet rhythmically driving performance of Elliott Carter’s Dialogues, for piano and orchestra. The rhythmic vitality continued during a somewhat monotonous account of Hector Berlioz’s Harold in Italy. Yet full of energy and dramatic dynamics, I still felt unsettled, mostly because of this faint yet pervasive beeping sound coming from the audience.

Fresh from winning a Grammy Award for a recording of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, the BSO and James Levine reached their zenith during the second half. Ravel’s Piano Concerto for Left Hand was romantically and subliminally performed by the French pianist, Pierre-Laurent Aimard. The climax came during Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2. The technically challenging wind parts seemed nothing more than a fleeting dream to the orchestra players, while Maestro Levine gradually and steadily increased the dramatic throttle. The closer we got to the end, the less it seemed like we were floating on clouds and the more it seemed like a speed racer straight out of Star Wars. The orchestra performed with the elegance of a matador and the raw energy of Serena Williams. Finally, the orchestra was playing loud enough to cover up that beeping.