Saturday, April 24, 2010
Saturday, April 17, 2010
Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Sunday, April 11, 2010
This was only my second time at City Opera and my first time seeing a live Handel opera. Though Partenope (dating from 1730) is a Baroque opera comprised of the sometimes monotonous recitative/aria form, Friday night's performance was luxuriously sung and entertainingly directed. Two of the roles were written for castrati (emasculated men who maintained their high voice after puberty), though since castrating men is no long in vogue, trained countertenors now sing these parts. The voices of the castrati were said to be sublime, combining the elegance of women with the forcefulness of men. In 1957 Harold Schonberg wrote that "the castrati, and apparently all other singers of the day, had a technique that would be impossible to duplicate... no harder music exists for singers." Who can possibly know if that is actually true? Unfortunately, the only castrato to make a solo sound recording was Alessandro Moreschi, the last Papal castrato, who died in 1922. Granted the recording quality is not great, but his choir trained voice is evidently nothing remotely representative of the pop star icons that enchanted opera houses for centuries. Still worth a listen.
Given that we'll never know what the most famous castrati sounded like, on Friday night the countertenors Anthony Roth Constanzo and Iestyn Davies sang to the best of my imagination just like them. Mr. Davies (playing Arsace), is a fast-rising British countertenor and Mr. Constanzo (playing Armindo), is his American counterpart. Mr. Davies's voice is warm and powerful, with unending and tasteful musicality. His projection reminded me of the commanding mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. Mr. Constanzo's voice is much lighter, and floated the melody beautifully. Every now and then he unleashed the power, but most of the time restrained his dynamics and size to better serve the music. His small physique was exploited wonderfully by the director, who played on the irony that his part was a brave prince. Instead of using a sword during the battle scene in Act II, he took off his glove and threw it at the enemy, promptly scurrying away.
With such a stilted plot, Handel operas have become the perfect match for experimental and liberal productions. Even though Partenope is an opera seria, an imaginative director can easily make comedy out of the libretto while staying truthful to the music. Francisco Negrin's production was light, satirical and entertaining throughout. Christian Curnyn led an inspired orchestra and communicated seamlessly with the singers. Perhaps a Handel opera is not dramatic or real enough for the more famous opera houses of the world, and I will admit that I dozed off into a hypnotic slumber a few times, but no one can deny the raw energy or lyrical beauty found in Partenope and other Handel operas.
Friday, April 9, 2010
Last night I made my City Opera debut, attending a highly moving production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Without the larger budget of their neighbors, the Met Opera, Mark Lamos's production was understandably spare, yet no less colorful or emotionally effective. The David H. Koch Theatre is much smaller than its neighbor opera house, and has historically been troubled by uneven acoustics. The farther a singer moved upstage, the more his/her voice got lost in the rafters and the less audible they became. (Before recent renovations, supplementary microphones were often used). There were however, some added benefits in comparison to the Met. The seats were wider with much more leg room, student tickets are $12 instead of $25 and seem to be plentiful (therefore cheaper than going to the movies), and the orchestra pit projects much, much more sound.
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
Graciela Daniele, the choreographer of the upcoming production of Armida, talks to Arts Beat about choreographing for the Met. See article. A veteran Broadway choreographer, she seems to be having no trouble adjusting to Rossini's light and playful music. The director of this production is Mary Zimmerman, whose previous Met projects include Lucia di Lammermoor and La Sonnambula. Both were subject to mixed/negative reviews. On Monday night premieres Ms. Zimmerman's third attempt at a Met success.
Monday, April 5, 2010
The New York Times chief music critic, Anthony Tommasini, talks about the past and present of Verdi conducting styles in his article, Verdi Chops Are Tested by 'Traviata'. Recently a hot topic of discussion following Leonard Slatkin's disastrous performance of La Traviata at the Met (see review bellow), Mr. Tommasini compares legendary recordings by Toscanini, Giulini and Kleiber.
This very informative yet slightly depressing article, "End of the aria", talks about the economic state of opera companies around the world and their desperate measures to survive. In the US, dwindling private donations are the worry, while European companies are at least temporarily comforted by state funding.
Thursday, April 1, 2010
Chances are that most people even remotely interested in opera have heard selections from Verdi’s La Traviata. The opera’s fame grows from its amalgam of romanticism and realism, an Italian trend depicting more explicit human emotions. Verdi transformed these emotions into some of the most heart wrenching and technically challenging vocal music in the repertoire. Violetta has been and continues to be a calling card for the best sopranos of the generation. Equally so are the roles of Alfredo and his father, Giorgio Germont. These three leads demand not only the technically best but also the dramatically superior. The role of Violetta is so special because it is constantly open to different interpretations. In the famous Zeffirelli film, Teresa Stratas portrayed Violetta as introverted and emotionally unstable, with at times almost speech-like singing. At the 2005 Salzburg Festival, Anna Netrebko turned the role into a warm, sexy, and powerful woman. The list goes on…
In the current production at the Met that opened on Monday (also by Zeffirelli), the Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu was intent on doing something new. She used rubato to its maximum capacity, rarely singing in strict meter, and enunciated everything with perfect diction, sounding like a native Italian speaker. On a number of occasions she held her final note for a second after the orchestra had already cut off, maximizing the drama. Most importantly, her interpretive choices led to more musicality in places I hadn’t heard before. The audience absolutely loved her and exploded with cheers during her curtain call.
Making his Met Debut was the dashing tenor from New Jersey, James Valenti. His voice is not as big as some of the tenors who have championed Alfredo in the past, but his lyrical sound has just as much conviction and was never lacking in Italian style. Like Ms. Gheorghiu, he used rubato as a means of maximizing expression. The audience adored his singing and oh so handsome looks.
The veteran baritone, Thomas Hampson sang his calling card role Giorgio Germont like he was born to. He filled the hall with a big sensual sound, and seemed to feed off the energy of Ms. Gheorghiu and Mr. Valenti. I know I’ve only been at this for a year or so, but the singing last night was so beautiful that it made me tear up and loose my breath more than once.
I hate to dwell on the unfortunate, but for a complete review I must discuss the conductor, Leonard Slatkin. To start, American classical music owes a debt to him for championing new music, bringing the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra up in the world, and leading the National Symphony Orchestra in DC for over a decade. Here however, he was a mess. Unfamiliar with the music, his plan was to feed off the experienced singers for interpretation. The result was a pit totally unconnected to the stage. “I have seldom heard such faulty coordination between a conductor and a cast at the Met,” Anthony Tommasini wrote in his review for The New York Times. Come on! Why accept the engagement if your idea is simply to follow? Given his performance, his applause was surprisingly restrained. There were only a few boos.
Forced to survive on their own, without inspiration from the orchestra, Ms. Gheorghiu, Mr. Valenti, and Mr. Hampson thrived. They raised the bar for the next generation of singers, and reminded me of the beauty that humans are capable of producing.