muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Nuphy called Don Quichotte "the season's weakest link" and perhaps that's what it will turn out to be. After all, it was by all accounts an impressive Lucia and I can personally attest that we had a solid Rheingold. I'd take a mediocre version of either of those over a top-rate Massenet most days and I'm so dang excited about finally seeing Les Troyens in a week that I'm giving it a gentleman's B no matter what. But if it is the weakest, then that will be testimony to what a strong season we'll have had.

Lyric's staging is a happy family. The main weakness is the opera itself, primarily the score: barely two hours of music and only one standout melody. I was implicitly warned about how bored Nuphs expected to be at dinner when I warned him against a second margarita with, "You don't want to fall asleep during the first act," to which he responded, "Oh yes I do!" But he didn't after all. At intermission, he confessed that part of the difficulty the previous time was the lack of supertitles, which is a significant issue with an opera which relies as much on its text as this one does.

(Speaking of text, there were title cards before each act featuring English translations of quotes from Cervantes' great work. Which is a lovely idea, except some dildo lazily laid them out in Papyrus. Are you fucking kidding me?)



Where was I? Oh, right--weak score, good libretto. Fittingly, we had solid but not outstanding singers with terrific diction. Clémentine Margaine, our Dulcinée, is actually French so she had better be en pointe, but our Italian male leads sounded kosher, too. They were also perfectly cast, Furlanetto with the stick legs and a slightly shaky past-prime timbre that made for a convincing Quichotte and Alaimo with natural bulk and comic energy. Together they made the final act more touching than I was prepared for from such a trifling treatment of a weighty work. Margaine had the right amount of languor, both physically and vocally, and the supporting case managed to uphold a standard without anyone standing out.

The other thing which kept Nuphy awake was the quality of the production. Very traditional, but it had good flow. (Contrast it to Rheingold, where the stage was too busy to the point of losing the focus at times.) Visually, the most striking sequence was during the windmill-tilting scene, where moving props are overlaid with projections which multiply until you begin to feel the madness gripping Quichotte before he charges. (Unfortunately, on the weakest aspect of the set design: a static wooden horse on rollers.)

As expected given the period and subject, there's a lot of marching the chorus on and off to satisfy the requirements of the score. I'm always looking for ways to inject this with some naturalism, but I confess there's not much the stage director can do in this case with as few measures as Massenet gives him. A bit more in the way of instrumental interludes between arias and you'd have a shot at something more naturalistic, but instead it's all about efficiently exiting a hundred or so choristers. The dance numbers--such as they are--suffer from a lack of real choreography and there's a crowd scene where the clapping is so sloppy that I was gripping Nuphy's knee in agony for it to be over. (Hopefully that's an opening-night problem that it's still possible to iron out.)

So a happy family, but not a jubilant one. An a welcomely compact one: we were out by 10 p.m., in plenty of time to catch the express bus home for a change. Our UofC seat mate was trying to flog a half-baked idea about the opera's relationship to early modernity that none of us was buying, but we all felt good-natured enough to hear him out. If I weren't such a lightweight, it would've been a great opportunity for nightcap; instead I had to make sure I got my mood-enhancer in early.
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Opera season technically opened for us last weekend, but it was only Lucia and Nuphy wasn't going to miss a major playoff game just for that and I wasn't going to go to it without him so we found a good friend (Diego) to pass our tickets on to. I would've been more hesitant about agreeing to this if it weren't for the fact that I knew we'd catch Rheingold last night come hell or high water or even the Cubs clinching the NLCS.

I told Nuphy I simply couldn't face the prospect of yet another Thai meal so he generously treated me to dinner at Rivers beforehand. They seem to have upped their game somewhat, but still made some odd missteps. Like making their brussel sprout salad more enormous than all but the most ardent fans of brussel sprouts could stomach. Or serving all their desserts with "seasonal berries"--including the pumpkin tart. As you'd expect, even with too much panko Nuphy's scallops were better than my whitefish. Service was terrific. This may go down as the first time I've ever told a server not to fill my water glass during a meal. (We had 2½ intermission-free hours ahead and were strictly controlling our fluid intake.)

Nuphy wisely told me in advance about our temporary displacement--our regular seats had been sold to others (probably at a premium) so we were three rows back--so that I was able to avoid the upset of the Awful Russian Lady across the aisle. The usher had to gently coax her to move back, prompting outraged rants about having occupied the same seats for 20 years and яда яда яда. Wagner brings out the serious operagoers, so no leaners or whisperers or phone-users in front of us, making our interim seats were hardly worse than our usual ones.

Now, to the production. It was a completely different direction from the minimalist stagings I'm used to. As usual when you switch it up, some things worked and some things didn't. I think maybe the point of all the visible stage machinery (there were stagehands in view almost constantly) was to reinforce the notion of unseen fate driving the events, but that may be a reach. In any case, this was more effectively conveyed simply by making use of the Norns, who were the first characters on view. I found having them appear with mop and pail to clean up after the bloody mutilation of Alberich odd, but Nuphy argued that their mending the fabric of destiny is a kind of housekeeping. We both loved the symbolism having them on the roof of Erda's box when she rose up out of the ground.

Those boxes though...they were used sometimes to great effect and sometimes for pure spectacle. Like when Loge and Wotan visit Nibelheim, a couple of them pop up two or three times for no real reason. The same goes for the huge pieces of stage machinery representing the Æsir and Jötnar. At one point, Fasolt's mighty face was turned stage left whereas the singer inside faced stage right, making it confusing where the character's attention was really directed. The platforms for him and Fafner were also located very high above the stage which inhibited their ability to project to the balcony. This was painfully noticeable at their entrance, where their voices sound thin contrasted to the swelling orchestra and the booming bass of Eric Owens as Wotan.

And they aren't thin voices--particularly Tobias Kehrer as Fafner, as was demonstrated later when they were allowed to descend or at least come far enough downstage to mitigate the dampening effect. There weren't any weak voices in the whole cast, though the particular standouts were newcomer Samuel Youn as Alberich and the scene-stealing Štefan Margita as Loge. Or weak actors. I thought some of the clowning was a bit much--I can't remember the last time I heard this much laughter at Wagner--but some of the choices Nuphy found weird (like giving Freya a bit of Stockholm syndrome during her captivity in Riesenheim) I found interesting.

Davis conducted so well I forgot it was Davis. He's good at Wagner provided he doesn't go too slowly and, if anything, he went too far the other way. (Nuphy opined that his take on the Creation was roughly double time compared to Solti's.) The orchestra got an enthusiastic round of applause at the end, so my impression that they played very well seems substantiated. The whole atmosphere--despite anxieties about curtain--was very festive. Any misgivings I had about resubscribing have been allayed.
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)
There's not much to say about last night's performance of Rosenkavalier except that it was the story of a happy family. I could find things to quibble about if I really tried (e.g. Sophie Koch's voice isn't as masculine as you might want for an Octavian), but there's little point when everything just came together so well. Nuphy said it might be the best production of the opera he's seen live. Certainly it was the best of the three I've seen at the Lyric.

Somehow I still managed to doze off during Act One, but drifting off to Majeski's glorious voice and having it lull me out of sleep was almost as lovely an experience as being alert for the whole performance would have been. I can't understand it--I literally sleep 11 hours between Friday and Saturday in order to make up for a tiring week and yet it wasn't enough. But I made it to the end with flying colours, despite how Act 3 threatens to outstay its welcome at times.

We didn't have Davis conducting and Nuphy noted that he'll be around less than usual next year. That combined with some refreshing picks (at long last Les Troyens!) is making the upcoming season look very appealing. Technically, there's one more opera left in our subscription for this year but we sold it to the Snore King so he could take his niece. I guarantee you she will get more out of Gounod's treacly insult to Shakespeare than I would.
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)
I feel remiss for not writing full reviews for the couple of recent opera performances I saw. I was under the weather both times, but I wish I could've been sicker for The merry widow than for Wozzeck rather than the other way around, since obviously a serious drama about the exploitation of the proletariat requires just a bit more concentration than a romcom.

First the Lehár. I'm amazed I didn't fall asleep during the first half. Not because it was exceptionally boring but because I almost always do during the first act of a romantic opera. In fact it was only moderately boring. Fleming still has a good voice, if nothing as enchanting as it was during her peak, but I don't recall her being so wooden as an actress. There seemed to be no modulation in her speaking voice at all. You'd think it would sound totally changed after that moment in Act 2 where she realises Danilo loves her after all but you would be wrong.

Fortunately Hampson takes up all that slack and then some. He's a bit long in the tooth, too, but that works rather well given how the plot is all about second chances. Frankly, any non-musical scene without either him or local talent Jeff Dumas--who absolutely kills as Njegus, the comic relief--is a waste of time. I ranted to Nuphy about how pedestrian the direction was, reminiscent of a high-school production. The scene where Fleming sings "Vilja", for instance, is completely static. Sure, the focus should be on the singer, but you've got the entire chorus on stage. You can't think of any stage business to give them that would reflect or comment on the action in some way? Get back to theatre school. Or, you know, stop cutting corners, Lyric, and hire a director and a choreographer instead of making the latter do both jobs.

Susan Stroman has a background in Broadway musicals and it really pays off during the big numbers. The opening scene at Maxim's, for instance, is a show-stopper, and not just on account of the grisettes. The set change is simultaneous with the dancing, so while the ladies are pirouetting walls are swooping in and out and decoration is dropping from the ceiling. And such decoration! Maxim's was gorgeous, and the other sets were much enhanced by detailed lighted cityscapes of Paris in the background.

Speaking of Paris, our performance took place the day after the assault, so we were all asked to stand for a performance of the "Marseillaise". I reacted about how you'd expect I'd react if asked to sing the "Star Spangled Banner" the day after the Boston Massacre, which is to say with resignation and discomfort. It just reinforced for me how thoroughly and successfully the situation is being exploited by rightist elements but at home and abroad.

One more reason why it would've been infinitely preferable to have had Wozzeck then rather than a week earlier. It's possible you could miss the anti-military and anti-nationalist message of Berg's masterpiece, but you'd have to be pretty thick indeed. Unfortunately its impact was blunted someone by Davis' rushed conducting, which flattened the high points of the score. Tomasz Konieczny is perfectly cast as the title character and, as good as he and Denoke were, they would've been even more shattering with better musical direction.

I didn't see where Nuphy was coming from with his criticisms that the sets weren't realistic enough. Yes, there's some stylisation (notably in the square which marks the centre of the settlement), but there are also ingeniously detailed contraptions in most every scene reinforcing the theme of mechanicisation of society and stark lighting emphasising the bleakness of existence for those bearing all the burden of industrialisation while accruing few of the benefits.

I thought it was particularly good how the handled the many scene changes--fourteen of them in the space of 90 minutes! Instead of scrims, they used low rods hung with heavy curtains which could nonetheless be pulled back with alacrity by invisible runners. I found it added to the edginess inherent in the music and plot; Nuphy just found it annoying.
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)
So if you want to know where the inspiration for the garish pastels in the costumes of Barbara Gaines' production came from, look no further than here:


I have one of my seat partners, a music prof at UofC, to thank for this observation. He also remarked that this was "the Mozart who gives rise to Rossini, not the Mozart who rise birth to Wagner". That is, the staging was reaching back into the commedia dell'arte tradition of physical comedy rather than looking forward to the 19th-century of grand opera. Which is a fine thing to do, but to pull it off (as your man also pointed out) you need a cast of fine comedians as well as fine singers. And--with the prominent exception of Luca Pisaroni as the Count--that's something we didn't have.

This was most noticeable with the character whose name is in the title, Figaro. Adam Plachetka's voice a bit small for the vast interior of the Lyric, leading him to get drowned out by the orchestra a couple of times. He's got the size to bumble about, but he needed to work on timing. Everybody did, which leads one to hope that the final performance will be much more assured than this, only the second in the run. From the sound of it, guest conductor Henrik Nánási will need that much time to get a handle on the orchestra, which wasn't as together as it should've been. Add in some turgid sections and you've got yourself quite a draggy first act.

But things picked up noticeably in the second, thanks in no small part to Pisaroni. Rachel Frenkel acquitted herself nicely with "Voi che sapete", but whether through her stiffness or poor direction, that number didn't come off nearly as well as it could've. (As Cherubino sings, the Countess keeps trying to distract him with playful caresses and teasing gestures. But he ignores her singlemindedly--despite the fact that only minutes before he was literally throwing himself around with distress at not being able to see her!) Gaines' decision to set all of the action on the tremendous bed of the lady of the manor works very well in this scene, but makes less sense later when a gardener(!) marches in and stomps all over it, followed by all and sundry.



I must say, the production grew on me. At first, the huge blonde wood-textured swoop making up the centre of the stage looked to me like nothing so much as a moulded Scandinavian console from the 60s (a resemblance only heightened when a panel in it slides away bizarrely to reveal the peasant chorus). In the next seen, it acquires a touch of transparency and comes to resemblance an elabourate valence instead. The garden in Act Four is almost completely abstract, just sculptures and koi pond, but the lighting makes it magical.

The singers grew on me, too. At first I thought Amanda Majeski's tall willowy Countess was too poorly matched to Christiane Karg's Susanna for their substitution to make sense even in a dimly-lit space, but clever costuming and hair convinced me. Whatever my friends might think, Keith Jameson's Basilio was way too Wilberforce Humphries for my taste and I was glad I didn't have to suffer through his late aria, which ended up on the cutting-room floor alongside Marcellina's. Again, Katharine Goeldner's voice grated less on me then than it did in Act One, but I still wasn't looking forward to the prospect of a deep drink of it.

So, yeah, iron out the problems of timing etc. in both the stage action and the music and you'll have one terrifically fun romp here. (When all's said and done, it's the most indestructible of Da Ponte's libretti.) It's not enough for me to have another look in a couple weeks, but I'd like to hear from those who do.
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Blondie seems to think that I don't like musicals. Y'all know that's not true. I don't like most musicals. And I don't like seeing musicals presented on an opera stage, because it only invites invidious comparisons. If I'm watching a musical on DVD, I'm comparing the soundtrack to that of other movies I've seen and thinking, "There are some pretty good songs here." If I watch it at the Lyric, I'm comparing it to scores of great operas I've seen there and thinking, "This sounds pretty weak."

Given that handicap, Carousel actually did really well on the musical axis. Some reviews have called it the "most operatic" of musicals (or at least of classical musicals or Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals) and it's impressive how durchcomponiert it is in places. There are still lots of "numbers", but the songs don't feel shoehorned in they way they often can. Instead, the dialogue feels carefully inserted between the musical bits, which are the meat of the matter.

But, Jesus God, the characterisation. I know all about the past being a foreign country. Still, there's only so much I can do to keep my second-wave feminist sensibilities in check during an extended scene of sexual assault played for laughs (at the expense of the naïve soubrette, natch). And even that was peanuts to the constant domestic abuse apologetics culminating in the equation of striking a young girl with giving her a kiss. Ew, ew, ew.

Nuphy and I almost got into a fight over it afterwards. He grew up with Carousel, the songs are woven into the fabric of his childhood, and he kept urging me to take the ugly bits "in context". I argued that that was exactly what I was doing: the context was one of normalising sexual abuse. From his protests, I feel like he didn't understand what that really means. Yes, it's all meant to be enjoyed as light entertainment. That's exactly what makes it so awful. We're so comfortable with exploitation and abuse of women we're going to do a cute little dance number about it. (Maybe follow that up with an uptempo number about darkies knowing their place? Oh, wait, no, different musical.)

Even despite that, I found the show genuinely affecting. I teased Nuphs about his watery eyes afterwards, all the while hoping he didn't notice the tear tracks on my own cheeks. At some point during "You'll Never Walk Alone" I began thinking of that grim future where I won't ever again have [livejournal.com profile] monshu to come home to and then it was all over. Is this how I'm going to be from now on? How tedious.

The production was terrific. Great sets, solid choreography. The Second Act interlude feels endless though. A couple in front of me got up to leave right as it finished and I was like, Where you going? You just made it through the worst part! The only thing that really bothered me (beyond, you know, the rampant sexism) was the lighting. For some reason, most of the action takes place around sunset regardless of whether that makes any sense. It's very pretty to have those pinkish hues glimmering on the scrims, but it doesn't lend any coherence to the action at all.

We also came very close to missing curtain for only the second time in my history with the Lyric. Somehow both Blondie and Nuphy managed to look right at the tickets and not see that the show started at 1:30. The former and I arrived at the theatre about 1:24 expecting to meet Nuphy there only to find out from a phone call that he was relaxing across the street. I expect that kind of ditziness from Blondie, coming from Mr Semper Clamo it's a surprise. I made it to my seat just as the lights were dimmed; they managed to slip in during the overture and moved up after the first intermission.
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Our opera subscription this year includes two opening nights, and somehow I've managed to dress down for both. My excuse this time was that I didn't even remember I had an opera until 10 a.m. this morning. In fact, I didn't even remember then; I texted Nuphy to invite him to join me at the Christkindlmarket and he was like, "I thought we'd stop by before Anna Bolena tonight." I asked him why he hadn't reminded me and he was like, "I sent you the dates." Yeah, you did, but that was seven trips to the hospital ago.

I still had time to dress up, of course, but my need to see my best pair of slacks ruined by some yahoo's mug of Glühwein was far too small--as small as my desire to see my wool topcoat smeared with sour creme, so I wore my parka. As it happened, neither of these misfortunes took place. Murphy's Law has something to say about that, I think.

I haven't seen Maria Stuarda, but I haven't on good authority (i.e. Nuphy) that Anna Bolena is no Maria Stuarda. It's the libretto that's to blame, it seems. Maria has the advantage of being based on Schilling. Anna is based on the works of two minor Risorgimento poets. You won't find any drama in it, only melodramma. When the score isn't flat, it's laughably obvious (I think "Weeping, she suffers!" may deserve an award for Least Necessary Line of Dialogue in a Grand Opera) or just laughable (Henry's "I'm outraged!" drew chuckles from the crowd; as Nuphy commented, "That isn't a good sign").

But bel canto opera is all about the singing, right? And we did have singers. John Relyea is strong and menacing as Henry VIII. I spent the first fifteen minutes of the opera pining for male voices, so his entrance came like a bracing splash of aftershave. Nuphy's secret boyfriend Hymel made less of an impression. Excellent technique and tone, but a voice a bit too small for this house. (Honestly, the opera is a bit too small for the house, but that's the Italian repertoire for you.)

I was genuinely fooled by Kelley O'Connor's trouser role. Nuphy had to check the programme to confirm that, yes, this was a female singer in drag and not a countertenor. Not only is her build remarkably masculine, but even her voice sounds more boyish than womanly. Jamie Barton as Seymour was never actually shrill, but she got too close for my taste, despite singing well throughout.

But the opera belongs to Radvanovsky as the eponymous heroine. She sings almost the entire three hours and--as per usual--needs to keep a good bit in reserve for her final scene, which she absolutely nails. I would've fallen asleep at that point if not for her. Nuphy cavilled that she didn't sound like she was really suffering, but you could've fooled me. One of her more piercing cries made me start in my seat.

The less said about the production, the better. As usual, we challenged the UofC professor with us to find some sense in it, but he made only a few half-hearted stabs, calling it "safe" and "practical". There was a certain elegance to the minimal staging and he admired the Rembrandtesque tableaux in which the chorus was arranged and lit, but to me that only emphasised the staticness of the action. The lighting seemed harsh in places and I caught at least one outright error. From our angle you could see the tape marks on the stage and, as usual, many scenic choices didn't work (such as the use of narrow bands of colour upstage).

Am I glad I saw it? Well, it was a break from the usual warhorses. Would I pay to see it again? Not really. More than anything, watching it made me want to rent a copy of The Lion in Winter to curl up with on the couch with [livejournal.com profile] monshu.
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Ages ago now, Nuphy and I went to see la Gran Scena at the Athenaeum in Lakeview. Vera Galupe-Borszkh, alter ego of the group's founder Ira Siff, was the first person ever to attempt to explain the plot of Il Trovatore to me. "Even eef you understant Trovatore," she warned, "you don't understand Trovatore. Nobody understants Trovatore!" That line got a big laugh, and I love to repeat it, but I acknowledge that it's not actually true. As our seatmate pointed out Saturday evening, the plot does make sense--provided you accept the ludicrous central conceit of a woman so maddened by grief she would cosign the wrong infant to the flames.

More importantly, however ridiculous the plot, the emotions are true and Verdi supports them 100% with his incredibly tuneful score. (I remember at one point in Act 2 thinking that, in many a lesser opera, Azucena's second aria would be a standout. Here it hardly leaves an impression, coming soon after the famous Anvil Chorus and right before Il balen del suo sorriso.) The action also moves along at a good clip, rendering my worries about being able to stay awake after my restless nights a bit silly.

Part of the reason for that is the production, which makes use of a revolving stage in order to expedite the many scene changes. Since this was my second time seeing Edwards' stage scenery, I was less bowled over by it and could focus on the parts I found wanting. For starters, why is it so ugly? The buildings are all Brutalist concrete slabs with minimal ornamentation, the ground is blasted rock and dust, and upstage right is dominated by a forest of charred poles. I kind of liked that, actually, since it recalls the death of Azucena's mother and the pall it casts over the entire proceedings, but even Nuphy was at a loss to explain the huge crucifix in the middle--nor why all the costumes are Regency. (Leftovers from another production? Lyric has to cut corners somewhere, I guess.)

The barrenness of it all also complicates McVicar's job as director. Leonora's first scene with her maid has the two of them running inexplicably around their featureless box--it's hard to add stage business with no props but neither can you let the performers remain static. But the next scene is even odder, with di Luna standing outside a wall which suddenly turns out not to be a wall at all before arranging himself into puzzling configurations with Leonora and Manrico. The men don't do a convincing job of trying to get into a fight, and she does an even less convincing job of trying to separate them.

But all this faded under the brilliance of Verdi's composition as conducted by Asher Fisch and sung by a cast adequate to the challenge. Caruso is supposed to have said that all you need for a successful Trovatore is the four greatest singers in the world. Obviously we didn't have those, but there wasn't a bad voice in the bunch. Sure, the mezzo and the soprano didn't have the sweetest voices I'd ever heard, but when it comes to Azucena, that can be passed off as characterisation, and for our Leonora, I'm just glad she could hit all the notes without getting screechy. Our old standby Silvestrelli sang Ferrando and Ryan Centre alumnus Kelsey was the Count, so there was no risk of being overwhelmed by the orchestra even when it was blasting away. Most impressive, however, was our Manrico, Yonghoon Lee. His acting may be stiff (something which worked better when he played Don Jose four seasons back than it does now), but cuts a striking figure and his voice is impeccable.

It was fortunate that Nuphy had his opera glasses because the chorus was even more toothsome than usual. He'd heard about the beef working the anvils on stage and was not disappointed. I was most impressed by the convent scene (even if it was somewhat incompetently blocked--how is it that only gypsies have flintlocks?). Forming the backdrop to the interior is a chainlink fence several stories high and the supernumeraries hanging off of it hold their poses for the duration of the scene. That's more impressive to me than wielding a big hammer, no matter how shiny you are.
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Every year I consider dropping my subscription to the opera. As Nuphy reminded me yesterday, this is my 20th year. I've seen all the major works at least twice and, in many cases, the chances of the next production being superior to the last are minimal. (No way, for instance, am I ever going to see a better Nozze di Figaro than that one with Fleming, Terfel, Futrelle, and Graham, all at their peak.) At least when Lyric was commissioning a new opera every year, I was assured at least one work a season that I had never seen before, but that commitment didn't survive the recession. I think of all the live theatre or concerts I could be attending instead, but I remember that there's simply no way I'll go out without being coerced and I'd never subscribe to anything unless I had a partner willing to wield the upper hand, like I have in Nuphy. So why do I still send him a fat check and drag myself out for eight performances a year? It's because every now and again I have on of those evenings where I am absolutely enraptured by what's taking place on the stage. Yesterday was one of those evenings.

The opera was Richard Strauss' Capriccio, which--as it happens--was the very first one the Nuphy took me to. Not the first one I'd ever seen (that would be Così fan tutte, unless you're inclined to count The beggar's opera), but definitely my first one at the Lyric. It's also one of his absolute favourites. Which is hardly surprising, given that it's regarded as "an opera connoisseur's opera" due to the sheer density of its references and its abstruse subject. He's not only studied it but taught it as well (and developed his own slightly nutty theory regarding the ambiguous ending). And he confirmed that this production topped the previous one in every way.

First, I need to give full credit to Davis, who I normally never have a kind word for. He's better the more lyrical the material, but Nuphy's standing complaint is that he wants everything "pretty" at the expense of drama and definition. For whatever reason, though, he was completely on point yesterday and he never felt sluggish in his tempo or too mushy in his direction. When notes were meant to sound harsh, they sounded harsh. (Which isn't often--it's one of the most beautiful scores in opera.)

The performers were magnificent. I can hear a little roughness creeping into Fleming's tone, but she still has one of the single best soprano singing voices I've ever been lucky enough to hear live. Everyone else killed, with the sole exception of Annie Sofie von Otter as Clairon, who was overwhelmed by the orchestra at one point and made tepid porridge of her grand entrance. Of course, I have to single out Peter Rose, whose bottom was one of the real joys of Midsummer night's dream four years ago. I'm sure last time I heard La Roche's big aria, it seemed rather grandiose and longwinded; this time it was a showstopper. Iversen was making his debut and I don't recall Burden's performance from Lulu, but Skovhus was as solid as always.

The real challenge of Capriccio is staging. It's all one extended drawing room argument, and keeping that visually interesting for two hours drives directors to distraction. I'm really impressed with McClintock's work. He may have been following Cox' production closely, but I don't recall the middle section being so entertaining. The ballet sequence in particular was deftly handled, succeeding equally well as both dance performance and light comedy when it would've been all to easy to err on the side of slapstick.

The only real problem with it--and the chief complaint of Nuphy's--is that there's no mirror. Far from being a minor point, this is crucial to the climax, since the Countess' final aria is addressed to her reflection. Cox makes the house the mirror (which is true to the spirit of Strauss' allegory) by lowering a frame downstage centre for this bit. McClintock decided to do without it while positioning Fleming in the same place. As someone who remembers the previous production, this caused me no problems, but I wonderful how confusing it might've been for first-timers. Even just having a servant air-polish the space in the scene before (or the tragédienne check her coiffure) would've take care of this (though then you'd be left with the puzzlement of why La Roche addresses many of his arguments to his reflection rather than his opponents in the room).

These are things I noticed, but they are not details that diminished my enjoyment in any way. I was a little sleepy, having had a beer at dinner, but whenever I began to find myself drifting, I found that the music brought me right back. (Again, thanks to Davis for that.) I left giddy with enjoyment. (If only it were easier to preserve that emotion on the long el ride back north.)
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Normally, when I seen an opera, the only person to get a full breakdown is [livejournal.com profile] monshu since, though he loves them, he very rarely accompanies me. I'll talk through some aspects with Nuphy and whoever else I run into at intermission, but that's about it. Talking something through is a good thing in that it helps solidify my thinking, which makes it easier to do a write-up. But too much of it and I tend to lose the will to compose an entry. I did so much talking about the Lyric's Don Giovanni over the weekend that I'm weary of it. Nevertheless, I still intended to do an entry yesterday evening, but the time I'd set aside for that got taken up by a reprise of my breakdown to Nuphy over the phone. Uncharacteristically, he did something I think he's done that at most twice before in all the time I've known him: he bailed halfway through. That's how much he hated Robert Falls' staging.

I think he was a victim of his expectations. I don't know Falls from Adam, so I had none. The Lyric doesn't have a great track record with original productions. Being a staid institution, they favour conservative ones. Often when a director does try a novel take, it seems they fail to think things through completely, creating a muddle. So I wasn't the least bit surprised to see that happen here. The coat check clerk called the production "crazy". I've been favouring the term "incoherent". To give you an idea: Before we went, Nuphy told me what the setting was, and I remember being intrigued by it. At the end of Act I, I turned to him and asked, "When was this set again?"

In Falls' notes, he said he was attracted to the period because it had a distinct lower, middle, and upper class. To underline this, he dresses the principles like urban playboys and the peasants like Andalusian villagers. I legitimately wondered if Lyric had sought to economise by simply borrowing the costumes from another production with a 19th-century setting. And just about the only thing in the entire production which says "Spain" to me is the mantilla worn by Donna Anna when she's in mourning.

"But she's in mourning for most of the opera, isn't she?" Yes, but it's easy to get confused given the number of costume changes. Those together with the crazy number of light cues (I counted more than a dozen in a single chapel scene alone) really mess with the chronology. Traditionally, it's considered to take place over the course of a day and a night, or sometimes a day and two nights. Hard to say what the intention is here: it's dark, then it's bright, then dark again. At the Don's party, his enemies are wearing garish fancy dress; in the very next scene, they've all changed back to what they had on before. Don Ottavio wears uniforms of two different colours for no discernible reason. When the Commendatore comes to diner, Leporello is suddenly clad in outlandish livery, like something from a Hollywood club.

If I had to choose another word to sum up the production, it would be "excessive". There's too much of everything. A whole cart of flowers for the wedding scene. The huge ornate metal coffin for the Commendatore (which somehow requires two fewer pallbearers than the number of people required to remove the actual corpse in the opening scene) groans under the weight of them. Later, Leporello has to climb an entire mountain of floral arrangements to read the inscription on the statue in the cemetery. It's like Lyric kept throwing money into the production budget until it attained a fitting grandeur for their 60th anniversary gala. (A similar lack of restraint was on display in the main lobby.)

Which would all be fine, of course, if it made some sense. But too often it felt at cross purposes. The scene outside the Don's villa, for instance, is dominated by tremendous shrubberies. Yet when Masetto decides to hide in order to spy on him he goes downstage left where there's nothing at all and ends up tucking himself behind the proscenium arch. As ornate as her father's coffin is, it doesn't seem to draw the attention of Donna Anna until her aria requires it to. When it's not undercutting the action, this excess is underlining it to an almost insulting degree. In the penultimate scene, just in case you hadn't yet figure out what a total prick Don Giovanni is, Falls has him pelt Dona Elvira with food before dumping a carafe on her. It made me feel so sorry for Martínez, who deserved better than that after her terrific vocal performance.

I could go on and on--really, most of the reason I avoided writing this entry was that I didn't want it to be nothing more than a laundry list of complaints. On the plus side, the vocal performances were terrific. Silvestrelli killed in the last scene (and then was hustled off stage so anticlimatically that I completely missed his exit). Kwiecien and Rebeka were fantastic, as was Ketelsen despite a few opening-night problems keeping in synch with the orchestra. Davis robbed the music of dramatic punch, but otherwise didn't mess it up badly.

It was simply hard to concentrate on what was working with all the distractions. The best explanation I heard for the stage business of the second half was, "Do you think they were high as kites?" (The Don is shown sniffing something from a small bag at various moments, and at least once offering some to Leporello; I took it for snuff, but given the period it's quite likely it was intended to be cocaine.) I spent most of a scene trying to figure out whether a half-naked bound figure lying stage left was unconscious, dead, or merely metaphorical.

All in all, a memorable experience, but not a transcendent one. The crowd felt like an extension of the spectacle. Nuphy and I actually ended up on the edge of the red carpet trying to flog our herniaed seatmate's ticket and given ample opportunity to photobomb glitterati in our Obama jeans and off-the-rack finery. Quite a few of them must've been first time opera-goers judging from the surge of applause which cut off the end of one of the most famous arias in all of Mozart. I do have to wonder, given the production, how many of them will ever be coming back.
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)
I'm awfully thankful I had that opportunity nine years ago to see a minimal staging of Der Kaiser von Atlantis at Emanuel Synagogue in Lakeview. Because if yesterday evening's performance by Chicago Opera Theatre were my first exposure to the piece, I'd most likely consider it a justly-forgotten novelty opera rather than something of lasting value.

We had numerous issues with this production starting with the fact that it was in English. I hate to sound snobbish, but translating rhyming verse is difficult to do well even when it's not being set to music, and neither [livejournal.com profile] bunj nor I thought this translation had been done well. Since the story is modern fairy tale told in a somewhat fragmentary fashion, a choppy libretto makes following the plot even more of a challenge. I could tell from the expression on [livejournal.com profile] monshu's face that he was having to strain at times to link up developments.

A major mistake was the casting of Cassidy Smith as the Drummer. She didn't have the pipes, and the orchestra simply overwhelmed her major dramatic opera, which is critical to the piece. And we felt the production did the work no favours. It was scarcely more elaborate than the minimal staging at Congregation Emanuel; if we didn't know better, we'd've thought we'd walked into a college production rather than a performance by one of the most respected opera companies in the Midwest.

I'm sure the COT crew were hampered by the space. Because of work being done on their home venue, they've been forced into DePaul's Merle Reskin Theatre, which is built on the model of a nineteenth-century provincial European opera house. The stage is tiny and shallow (unless walling most of it off was a conscious decision of the production designer). The arrays are squeezed into the boxes flanking the stage (the techs were working in full view barely fifteen feet from our seats), which helps explain why the lighting was so inadequate in spots. I valued the intimacy, but it made the mezzo's inability to project even less excusable.

Still, they could've come up with a better set than two staircases connected with a walkway. This had the effect of reducing the performance area still further, and [livejournal.com profile] monshu pointed out that having to navigate stairs while singing probably cramped the singers' range of movements, making for a rather static production. Bernard Holcomb's Harlequin was one of the least mobile I've seen and the puppeteering associated with the role of Emperor (sung well by Andrew Wilkowske) seemed an afterthought.

Holcomb's singing also came off as inexpressive. I know I've heard him do better on the Lyric stage. The only truly outstanding voice, in fact, was Emily Birsan, who had the lesser role of Bubikopf in Kaiser but shone as the title character of Die Kluge. Paul Corona, another Lyric graduate, did very well in both his roles, though I fail to understand why he was paired with Neil Edwards as the Loudspeaker (originally a single baritone role), who didn't have the strength, timbre, or the diction to match him.

All in all, the impression we had was that Die Kluge was the opera they really wanted to do, since that's where we saw the most effort and creativity on display. They kept the stairs, but the awkward space underneath the walkway was occupied by three large sheets on rollers which were used for projections (both front and rear) and sliced into to create windows, passages, and the like.

Moreover, the roles were better matched to the voices--even if I thought Holcomb was still weak as the Donkeyman. His plaintive mid-act aria could be a showstopper in the right hands, but I was simply bored. Corona reappears as one of three "vagabonds" who team up with a muleteer to defraud the Donkeyman, and their ensemble singing and hijinks were delightful. Any one of their numbers had more choreography than was in the entirety of the first opera.

The translation was still mediocre, but because the plot has a classic fairytale structure, it was easier to connect the dots. It's a tuneful work, with nods to cabaret and even a hint of jazz. But despite the connexions some have drawn between the mad tyrant (again voiced by Wilkowske) and Germany's mad dictator at the time, it doesn't seem to have anything much to say about the nature of power in the way that Kaiser comments on the absurdity of war. Perhaps in another decade, the latter will get a performance that truly exploits the full potential of the piece, but I doubt we'll see it in Chicago.
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)
I have to confess that, when it comes to folkloric water maidens, I definitely prefer the Celtic model. You don't make the rules of the romance; she does. And if you break them, there is no, "Sorry, I'll make it up to you." She is out the damn door and her kids--your kids--are right behind her. It's not out of magical obligation that these women don't talk things out; it's out of choice.

And perhaps if more women than men were writing playscripts and libretti a century or so ago, it would be their stories which would spring to mind first and not those of the Little Mermaid and her wild-eyed silent kind. At least you can't say that Kvapil, Dvořák's librettist, didn't put his own stamp on the legend. As if to prove that the Scandinavians have nothing on him and his countrymen when it comes to melancholy gloom, he strips out all pretense of a happy ending. There is no redemption for anyone at the end of opera. Not for the Prince, who simply dies, let alone for "poor pallid Rusalka", who is severed for all time from both the mortal and the fairy worlds, equally unable to live or to die.

It takes some damn fine music to make a tragedy like this palatable, but fortunately Bohemia's most gifted composer is more than up to the task. Rusalka has such fine music, it's really a puzzle why it isn't performed more regularly. Yes, there's the matter of the language, but that' more an excuse than anything. Singing opera in the local vernacular is as acceptable in Europe as dubbing movies, and even in the States, it's more of an affectation of the snottier houses than anything. (First two times I saw Barber of Seville in Chicago, it was in English, not Italian.)

Not to oversell Lyric's new production, but if you've got any interest whatsoever in this work, you should see it. Nuphy was very guarded going in because of the dull and dreary Met broadcast, but it seems everything they did wrong Lyric got right. The chief difference appears to be David McVicar's direction. Sir David knows drama. He's not content to let the music do all the work and he understands how to support the score instead of working at cross purposes to it.

One small example: Ježibaba's entrance. I can see how, in the wrong hands, this Czech answer to Baba Yaga could come off as nothing more than the ultimate Crazy Cat Lady. To forestall this, McVicar gives her three kinaesthetic crow-men servitors. Even so, they--with their Heckle-and-Jecklish top hats and heads--could easily have come off more comic than creepy were their moves not disturbingly lifelike. There's one moment in particular where they splay their wing-tips in a fashion so eeriely inhuman that it gave me chills. Their prancing frees Jill Grove to give her wise woman character some comic touches without diminishing the sense of menace which keeps us invested in the scene and in the scenario.

Grove is (as anyone who remembers her as the Witch in Humperdinck's holiday opera would expect) a delight. The same could be said of almost everyone in the cast, from Daniela Mack as the hapless Kitchen Boy to Brandon Jovanovich as the heartless Prince. But even in such a cast, I still think Ana María Martínez stood half a head above them as Rusalka, delivering achingly melodious arias from even the most uncomfortable of positions. It's got to be tough for a singer to spend so much time on stage without being allowed the use of her voice, which may be key to what gives her performance in the second act such poignancy.

Naturally, there are some cavils. The guests at the ball should've been a bit more unsettled by Rusalka's uncanny antics in that act than they were and the some of the Foreign Princess' wanderings upstage make little sense. Nuphy and our seat partner thought Eric Owens as Vodník was lacking some power in his lower ranges, but it was nothing that my poorly-trained ears could perceive. The set is pitched a bit too much to the floor; sitting in the balcony, you end up seeing a lot of trapdoors opening. The forest is awfully dark in Act I, but I enjoyed the effect and thought it contrasted powerfully to the bleakness of the same set in Act III.

Grim as it is, even the plot isn't as dire as it sounds. Operas, like romantic comedies, are often driven by the appalling stupidity of the protagonists at various key junctures. But here it's hard to find anyone to blame. It's all just a tragic mismatch, a metaphor for how man is inexorably drawn to nature but incapable of embracing it on its own terms, leading both to his own destruction and her irreversible injury. It's all there in John MacFarlane's claustrophobic alienating sets, whose combinations of natural and man-made elements only serve to highlight the clash between them, and underscored by McVicar's sure-handed direction.

I sometimes feel at a loss for words about the best opera productions because, like all happy families, their stories are somewhat the same. This one I feel like I could keep on babbling on about, but, if you're local, it would be far better for you to simply get out some night soon and see it.
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)
We have a surprising number of opening nights in our subscription this year, and last night was one of them, so I'm feeling even more pressure than usual to post a review of Lyric's Barbiere. People were dressed up, too. Not me! I dressed for the weather. In fact, I even broke one of my own stuffy rules and wore jeans for a change. They came in handy when I arrived a full forty-five minutes early to dinner and killed the time by taking a stroll up through Montgomery Ward Park and back.

To cut to the chase: We all loved it. Good conducting, good singing, good acting, good (new) production. No one in our troika had a problem with any of the staging but me. Our seat neighbour shared my reservations about the tenor, but these were minor. It's lively, colourful, and fun. If you're not sure whether you'd like opera or not, this would be a good one to take a test ride on. (I told one of my coworker's what I was seeing and his reaction was, "Oh, the Buggs Bunny one?" When I relayed this to Nuphy, he said, "Looks like Buggs had a role in the staging!")

So, details. The only ringers in the cast as far as we were concerned going in were Nathan "Where's My Shirt?" Gunn and veteran Italian comic baritone Alessandro Corbelli. Of the other principles, only Isabel Leonard was making her Lyric debut, but I didn't remember the others impressing me as much as they did this time around. Alek Shrader, our Almaviva, is still a bit green. He needed to warm up and I was struggling to express what I didn't like about his vibrato until Neighbour summed it up as "his timbre is inconsistent". Nothing that can't be fixed with more practice, and he has a lovely tone, which can't be acquired by any means short of seeing an undersea sorceress. Kyle Ketelsen boomed as Basilio and had a great physical presence, too. But the standout singer was definitely Leonard. Opera in general--but particularly bel canto opera--is about making hard work sound effortless, and she does it. Everyone's acting was good; nobody stayed in place and you never had any doubt what anyone was up to.

It was a simple set, but a lovely one. I had a problem with the lighting, which was too garish at times. (Yeah, the action is cartoonish, but that doesn't mean you should make it look like a colourist slopped ink everywhere.) I would say it was artful the way they repurposed the courtyard set for the interior scenes if this hadn't been done by means of an ostentatious set change in full view with no accompaniment. This also brought in a centre stage pool which was poorly designed and had difficulty justifying its presence. It also brought on a cadre of...well, I'm not sure what they were, and that's where I have trouble with the staging.

When you first see a large group of people in trim costumes entring under the cover of semidarkness, the obvious assumption is that they're stagehands. Even if they're posturing themselves stiffly as part of some choreographed set change, they're still stagehands. But when they reentre bearing furniture after Rosina's made her entrance, she gazes over the room and seems to take notice of them. Wait, are they servants after all? They must be because Bartolo gives them orders later. But he only seems to ever address a couple of them while ignoring the rest. So are some of them visible to the characters and others not? Then why are they all costumed the same? As I say above, none of this confusion bothered my seat partners in the least, but there's postmodernism and then there's just sloppy stage direction. I saw nothing to convinced me this was the former rather than the latter.

But the minions are all but absent from Act II, so there's nothing to interfere with the enjoyment as we hop from one ludicrous plot point to another. And since it was another Davis-free evening (how I treasure them!), Mariotti, our young Italian conductor, kept the orchestra hopping along with them. The only misstep was a shockingly flubbed oboe solo in the overture. I guess even professionals get opening-night jitters.
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)
I'd like to write a longer review of Fledermaus, but I've got to be up in a little over six hours from now to prepare for my trip home for Christmas. So to save time, I'll start off by saying that I agree with what [livejournal.com profile] bunj had to say about the sets and costumes, but not about the dancing, which was, in a word, amateurish. Quick scratch test: If you're not synchronised, it's not ballet; it's simply a lot of flopping about the stage. Oh, you've got a guy who do backflips. Better use him a lot so no one notices that you're about a dozen rehearsals shy of being ready for curtain.

I also agree that Banse's failure to hit the high note at the end of the czardas was a major low point. (Act 2 in general was very weak; on top of the bad dancing was the worst blocking the night--though a lot of the entrances and exits in Act 3 don't make much sense either.) Her singing was alright otherwise. Fally looked and acted the part, but her pretty little voice is simply too small for the hangar-like dimensions of the Lyric. It's a damn shame [livejournal.com profile] bunj didn't get Spyres because he's a perfect Alfred. Skovhus is a solid Eisenstein, just as he was last time, and ditto for our British baritone. I really enjoyed our Viennese Dr Falke, Adrian Eröd; he had some real 1. Bezirk flair.

I understood a good chunk of the German, which was nice because--as my brother says--they slipped in some jokes nur für unsereins. When Frosch turns to a broom and says, "Broomhilda!" it gets a laugh from everyone. But when he follows it up with "Wann kehrst du wieder?" only cognoscenti got the pun a verb which can mean both "come back" and "sweep". The non-native speakers didn't bother me as much as the fact that only Fally and Eröd sound Austrian. There's a lot of physical comedy that works in that scene and some which doesn't.

Overall, I enjoyed it all but wished it hadn't been so long; we didn't get out until 11 p.m., which seems unfair for an operetta. Despite the lashing rain, we persisted in our plan to hit the Christkindlmarket first. I don't regret my first Germknödel, but I wish I'd known what not to eat in order to avoid this acid reflux.
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)
As late as Wednesday morning, I was still trying to get Nuphy to find someone to give away my ticket to Traviata to. It's my third or fourth since I began subscribing to Lyric, and I simply couldn't work up any enthusiasm. On top of that, I'd been through three days of inflamed haemorrhoids followed by two days of the flu (or rather, one day of flu and one day of recovering from not having any anything in over a day). The thought of having to endure an opera I was indifferent to unwell was too odious to contemplate. Or so I told him. But he's nothing if not tenacious when it comes to getting his way. In the end, he convinced me. Am I glad I went? Yes--but with reservations.

Violetta is a demanding role. Each act calls for a different sort of soprano, so finding someone who can do equal justice to them all is a nearly impossible order. Marina Rebeka comes very close to fulfilling it. Our seat companion for the night (a music student from Italy) was disappointed she didn't interpolate the E♭ over high C at the end of Act I. I'm just amazed she made it that far without tripping over any of the coloratura passages. There's nothing I hate more than a screechy soprano, so the first couple of times she had to reach for the upper end of her range, I tensed up. But once I realised she was never going to cross over the line into shrillness, I could relax and enjoy.

If only the tenor had been a match for her, it would've been quite a memorable performance. But sadly, Joseph Calleja (a Maltese, in accordance with the EU's new operatic work quota for islanders) didn't live up to his hype. I was satisfied with him in Act I, where he plays a modest role, because I figured he was saving up for the opening of Act 2. But when his passionate resolve to leave for Paris at once barely registered over the sound of the orchestra, I knew we were in trouble. Worse, the Italian criticised his "goaty" vibrato during the first intermission and so whenever he opened his mouth for the rest of the evening that was all I could hear.

And then there's Quinn Kelsey as the elder Germont. He was a Ryan Centre member for several years so we've heard him in a number of smaller roles and always appreciated his booming baritone. But he's just not up to the demands of this one. Some reviewers criticised his harsh demeanour, but I think that's perfectly in keeping with the character. For me the issue was that he just sounded dull (and--according to Nuphy--at times even flat). As is usual these days, the rest of the cast was filled out with current Ryan Centre performers. They all sounded equally adequate to me, though Nuphs singled out Richard Ollarsaba (as Grenvil) for particular praise.

By some reckonings, then, that's only one bad principle out of five, right? But even with the full cooperation of my body, it was still an evening to be endured. When the drinking song started up in Act I, I found myself engulfed in a warm glow of nostalgia, like you might get from being served something familiar your grandma used to make. But soon I found myself impatient for the duet with the elder Germont. And as that limped by disappointingly, I began fighting sleep and longing for the death scene.

So besides Rebeka, what was good about it? Nuphy thought the conducting was good; the Italian called it "impersonal". I was just happy it moved along at a sprightly pace. The production was a new one at last, and Nuphy got my hopes up a bit by describing it as "minimal". It wasn't. Maybe he said that because the set is fairly constant (a wide circular room, screened off in Act II Scene 1 by a backdrop of trees) but the furnishings and costumes are lush and period, particularly in the party scenes. For the first, the attendants are wearing 18th-century dress with the addition of realistic oversized hares' ears. It took me a while to notice that under the wigs they were all female. Cute, very cute. For the second, the space above is stuffed with a splendid array of richly-coloured lighted balloons and the bulls are represented by enormous and fantastical puppets, which get reused in Act III to great effect. (As the sounds of carnival erupt, coloured silhouettes are projected onto the curved back wall. Unexpected and effective.)

As far as the staging, the missteps were few and mostly involved that clunker Calleja. For starters, can someone explain to me why he, out of the whole cast, could not be fitted with shoes that didn't squeak on the parquet? When he began to sing, I thought he had a whistle in his voice. It took a bit of observation to deduce that the sounds only appeared when he spun on his heel (which unfortunately the staging had him do often). He was also strangely aloof in scenes he shouldn't've been. At Flora's party, he strides downstage right past Violetta not as if he's snubbing her but as if he genuinely isn't aware she's right where he fixed his eyes on her a moment ago. And in the death scene, he waits a full half a minute after being told "Come closer" before he even reacts, much less rushes to Violetta's side.

Our seatmate says he keeps coming back to Traviata because it's so laden with potential. He's never been to a performance that lived up to it on all measures, but he lives in hope. Maybe if I see enough, they'll merge in my mind so that I retain the best from each and construct a Platonic memory that supersedes any of the actual performances I've attended. Last night brings me a couple steps closer to that.
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Having finally gotten around to reading [livejournal.com profile] bunj's review of Otello I'm going to repay the compliment he paid me regarding Parsifal. He says pretty much what I would've said about the performance[*], down to expressing thanks that we got Forbis rather than Botha (after the final scene, Nuphy turned to me and asked, "Can you imagine Botha getting through that?"; I cringed with my entire upper body) and that he forwent blackface, and I agree that Struckmann was the real standout in the cast. At first his voice seemed too light to represent Iago's unalloyed evil, but then he totally nailed "Credo in un Dio crudel" and my confidence in him was shored up. Nuphy also pointed out that part of the reasons for Forbis' weakness in the early acts was that he pacing himself, which paid off well in Acts 3 and 4.

He's kinder than I am in labeling the incoherent staging "a missed opportunity". Once again it's like the designer had just two half-baked ideas: Shakespeare = Globe Theatre and colonialism = Victorian Britain. Reconciling them is awkward; it wasn't until I saw the ceiling fan in Act 2 that I realised the second element was even meant to be present. The surrounding Globe set is a scenographic straightjacket that adds zilch to our appreciation of Verdi's work. Also, if you really want to comment on colonialism, Cyprus itself was a freaking British colony from late Victorian times until just over a half-century ago. That seems to push beyond "missed opportunity" into "huge blindspot".

Overall a good production and on the whole better than the last one despite the lesser voices since you didn't have Andrew "No Dramatic Sense" Davis bolloxing it all up. But not the kind to make me sit up and say, "Dayum!", so I'm fine with the fact that I led off this years summaries with Parsifal instead.


[*] His insights regarding Shakespeare and Verdi are his own. I don't disagree with them, but they probably wouldn't've ended up in a review even if they had occurred to me independently.
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Okay, so I blew off writing a review of Otello last weekend. (In case it ain't obvious, I haven't been feeling the LiveJournal love much of late.) But I feel I can't get away with doing the same for Parsifal for a couple of reasons: For one, it happened to be opening night. For another, it could very well be the best opera I see at the Lyric this season.

Nuphy and I held our expectations in check because after all it was Davis conducting. So the first thing which needs to be said is that he managed the tempi well. In the past, he's generally taken Wagner too slow. That's never a plus with his operas, but it's much worse for some than others. As Nuphy said at the outset, "A bad Parsifal is a snore." But this wasn't a bad Parsifal by any means. Davis kept it stately, but varied, providing a dollop of energy when it was needed to move things along. There were a couple of sour notes at the beginning (including a cringe-inducing French horn misstep during the overture) but the orchestra got over its shakiness and went on to play heroically.

Speaking of heroes, I regret not getting to my feet for Korean bass Kwangchul Youn. I'm not sure if Gurnemanz has the most lines in this work, but it certainly felt that way. Youn managed to sustain his force throughout three-and-a-half hours of opera, and that really does deserve a standing ovation. (Perhaps I can make it up to him with a mash note.) In contrast, Thomas Hampson was sounding weak as Amfortas (and by that I mean weaker than his characterisation demanded). He's sung very well for us before, but Wagner is obviously in a different league even from late Verdi.

I've got no complaints with Paul Groves as Parsifal, though I can't say he ever really wowed me. He certainly looked the part to a t, which is a plus. Tómas Tómasson looked fantastic as Klingsor and sounded fantastic. On the other end, we had the mismatch between Rúni Brattaberg, who sang Titurel, and the supernumerary who depicted him--the former a husky, jowly Faeroese bear and the latter so frail and emaciated that the papier-mâché prop which replaces him in Act 3 actually looks more robust. Good singing, though, even from well offstage.

But the demands of the role of Kundry really make Daveda Karanas' performance stand out. She has to be by turns feral, slinky, and beatific and be convincing each time. She was. It felt overblown in the first act, but in retrospect it's what's required of one of the more curious roles in grand opera. According to David, I've seen Malfitano in the role but I can't summon up a memory of it. I think I'll remember Karanas.

One thing I certainly won't forget is the staging. Where the previous production was gray and absurd, this one was eye-popping and bold. Impressively, everyone I talked to loved it. Well, I think one holdout needed some convincing about the staging of the Flower Maidens, but the rest of us were swooning. It's a tough line to walk. Grand opera calls for grand gestures (and with Wagner more than most, you want to provide something to arrest attention for the length of an hour-long scene), but you never want to upstage the singing.

A couple of times, I felt they wobbled over the line onto the side of rock concert absurdity. Amfortas' long gaunt face and shaggy locks was already reminiscent of Alice Cooper before he stepped into the spotlight at the edge of the stage and revealed the sparkliness of his fuzzy overcoat. A surfeit of sequins also threatened to undermine Klingsor's menace, so flawlessly established the moment the curtain rises over Act 2.

But these were missteps, meaning that everything else worked. I was a bit dubious about the use of black-clad dancers to embody the sorceror's dark forces until our seatmate the professor suggested symbolic ramifications of the choice which had eluded me. There were very few times when I felt the appearance of non-singers on stage was gratuitous or added nothing. Same story with the props. I could've done without the plexiglass breadboxes in the communion scene, but I loved the conceit of the giant lens for viewing Parsifal's progress into the castle, even if it did cause some confusion with the blocking.

It's not often that I single out the lighting for particular mention in these reviews, but what they managed with an array of gels, stencils, and electrified scenic elements was extraordinary. [livejournal.com profile] mlr said that, from the floor, the neon tubes were a bit overwhelming, but they worked really well for us groundlings in the upper balcony. Even with a rather minimal (albeit impressively mechanised) set, we were never in doubt as to whether we were inside or out, in the woods, in the waste, or in an enchanted garden.

I was worried about recovering in time from my sudden cold, but sleepiness turned out not to be a problem. Instead, distraction came from a completely unexpected source: a stabbing heartburn pain that suddenly appeared at the start of Act 3 and persisted for hours afterward. Even with that in the mix, the evening set a bar that I don't expect to see exceeded for quite a while.
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)
On my way to bus stop last night, I overheard a bit of an exchange about the character of Gilda in Rigoletto. "I guess she was just stupid," said a young woman. Had I not been rushing to catch the next express, I might've stopped and explained why she might have a bit more sympathy for someone who is, after all, a teenage girl who's led a very sheltered life. Sure, it seems pretty harebrained to throw away your life for someone who deceived you basely and cast you aside without a second thought, but when your whole existence has been as the captive pet of a spiteful and frustrated old man, well, the opportunity of sacrificing yourself has got to seem positively inviting.

It's Rigoletto himself who I have more trouble empathising with. In some ways, you could say he has himself to blame for everything that happens to him. By isolating his daughter, denying her the human intercourse which would educate her how to make wise decisions, he leaves her vulnerable to the first smooth-talker who inveigles his way into her dwelling. By cruelly mocking all those around him, he finds himself friendless in his hour of need. And by indulging his thirst for revenge rather than listening to Gilda's pleas to forgive, he destroys the one thing most precious to him.

Of course, it's Society which is ultimately to blame. Jestering is clearly not a natural calling for him, and makes him a slave to whims of an immoral bastard who feels no more loyalty to him than he would to an insult dog handpuppet. And between the Patriarchy which damns women for the predations of men and a class hierarchy which literally lets the better off get away with murder, he's well and truly screwed.

At first I thought Željko Lučić was too dark for the role of a professional jester, but when you keep in mind how Rigoletto ended up where he is, it falls into to place. It also doesn't hurt at all that he's a fine actor and a terrific singer. He's got to be to hold his own against our Gilda, a young Russian with the fabulous name of Albina Shagimuratova. Listening to her float notes lying stretched out on a cot as if it were no harder than breathing had me almost faint with pleasure.

Really, it was a fine cast all around with one unfortunately prominent exception: the lead tenor. Giuseppe Filianoti was fine throughout most of his range, but he just didn't have the high notes. Far from floating, you could hear him struggling to reach them like a desk jockey clinging to a rope ladder. I should be on the edge of my seat because of the tension in the scene, not because I'm worried the next D♭ will come out as a squawk.

Just in case anyone needed lessons on how to fill an airplane hanger with your voice without breaking a sweat, Silvastrelli was on hand again as the best Sparafucile you're likely to get in an American production. He was well matched with Nicole Piccolomini as his troublingly affectionate sister. I liked our Monterone as much for his burly body as his deep baritone, and the usual faces from the Lyric Opera Centre filled out the minor roles very well.

Fortunately, it wasn't Davis conduction, so I have only good things to say about the orchestra. The production was the same solid traditional staging we saw before with its impressive rotating set, matching Verdi's compositional style for elegance and efficiency. New stage director, though, and I wasn't as taken with his efforts as Nuphy. It didn't help that I read his notes before the opera, particularly his soft-minded claim that "the Duke [is] maybe also trapped in his role as a serial philanderer. I feel he'd actually like to be the poor student and have a pure, sincere love."

Hogwash. I see nothing in Piave's text to support that interpretation--and even if there had been, I don't know that Filianoti would've been able to bring it to the fore. Even Nuphy described his exaggerated reactions to Gilda's dreamy musings in the prelude to "E il sol dell'anima" as "campy", though overall he praised Barlow's direction as "lively". Her carrying on is understandable--as I said at the start, she's a teenager in love for the 1ST TIME EVAHHHH!!!11!! But he's a jaded pleasure-seeker, it'll take more than a silly girl from the provinces to make him all gooey inside.

Funny thing happened on the way to dinner: Nuphy forgot to make reservations at La Scarola so, seeing as we were both already on the Halsted bus, we converged on Greek Islands instead. At first I was bummed--I'd had my heart set on vegetables that weren't cooked beyond all recognition--but it didn't last. A homey place which is nevertheless run with the glorious efficiency of a grand hotel, there aren't many restaurants around that can pull off that combination. The controlled chaos of a Saturday rush there still fills me with admiration while the grey-haired busboy's hand casually at my back as he calls me "my friend" charms me for days.

Somehow, despite arriving at the restaurant crazy early, we ended up having to take a taxi anyway. Despite being named "Mohammad", our cabbie looked and sounded like an ordinary Guido. He asked what we were seeing and when we told him, "Rigoletto" he said, "Oh, right, da one about da sad clown?" "No, it's the one with the song that goes..." and I launched into my rough but recognisable approximation of "La donna è mobile". As we stepped out, I heard him doot-doot-dooting it to himself, and he turned to us and said, "Now ya got da cabbie doing it!"
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)
La Bohème is a stupid opera. Puccini has all the subtlety of Skrillex and throws in some numbers which serve no purpose except to provide work for choristers. Rodolfo is a tool and Mimì could give Midwestern housewives lessons in guilt-tripping men. It brings out the worst kind of opera crowd, one that applauds whenever the music stops, keeps chatting whenever it starts, and bombards the last act with sniffles.

Let's try that again.

Puccini knows how to write good tunes. His melodrama is undeniably effective if you simply give in and stop trying to fight it. There are at least two arias in Bohème which, if sung extremely well, are worth the price of admission. There's enough lighthearted comedy to leaven the heaps of treacly tragedy and as an antidote to the central romance, there's the on-again off-again hijinks of Marcello and Musetta--often in the same scene.

So was worth going tonight? Yes. Will I be able to distinguish this production of Bohème from the others I've seen at the Lyric? Probably not. We didn't have Davis, so the conducting was better than average--too loud in the first act or two, but someone obviously said something to Villaume and he dialed it back. Of course, Netrebko--the reason we agreed to do in the first place--rose above it without any trouble, but most of the rest of the cast wasn't strong enough.

Calleja, the hot Maltese tenor that everyone's spunking themselves over at the moment, was a real disappointment. I found it hard to say exactly what made him unpleasant to listen to until Nuphy point out that he wasn't following the conductor. Why should he? He obviously knows better how he should sing in any scene. You can see it from his profile in the programme: a head shot that oozes smugness, and an extended quote about how his relentless self-promotion will be the salvation of opera that I almost couldn't finish reading. On top of that, he sounded strained and weak--the closing phrase of "O soave fanciulla" was painful to the ears.

Something has happened to Elizabeth Futral's voice. Her profile talks around it, but the beautiful quality that has made her such a joy to listen for years is gone. Sad. Lucas Meacham was a bit soft, but as long as (a) the orchestra was kept in check and (b) he didn't have to match Netrebko, he sounded fine--and looked even finer. Joseph Lim impressed Nuphy much more with a smaller part, and Silvastrelli--well, I've already praised his talent, so his "Vecchia zimarra" was a highlight.

The production looked like pretty much every other production of Bohème you've ever seen (unless you live in Europe and you're used to seeing it staged on the deck of the Enterprise or during the Fall of Saigon or some other nonsense), but with some slick touches, like an exploding proscenium around the garret to hammer home the love duet (something I've seen done more effectively with a more effective love duet in Tristan und Isolde--but that's a road we're not going to go down). The blocking was decent within the confines of the libretto, with its typical 19th-century need for arbitrary chorus entrances and exits.

So there you have it. Nuphy was happy that he'd had a chance to hear Anna Netrebko sing live. Maybe that's something I'll be bragging about in twenty years' time, who knows? I'm glad of the places my imagination took me as I watched four fairly hunky men jostle against each other in a cozy one-bedroom under the eaves. And we're both glad that we were on our respective ways home shortly after ten p.m., particularly the night before Spring Forward.
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muckefuck: (zhongkui)
On a linguistic note: Between acts and after the opera, there was some discussion of the proper translation of Flieder in Wagner's libretto. The word is old--so old that the first element is obscure, though the -der is considered cognate with English tree. Originally it designated the elder (Sambucus nigra). But in the mid-16th century, the common lilac[*] (Syringa vulgaris) was introduced to Central Europe, probably via a Hapsburg ambassador to the Ottomans of Flemish origin.

On account of the similarities between the species, the name Flieder became applied to both, albeit with some qualifier for the upstart such as "Spanish", "Turkish", or welscher. (Nothing to do with Wales; this was an adjective applied indiscriminately by the mediaeval Germans to all non-Germanic, non-Slavic peoples they came into contact with.) The standard language has dispensed with this, taking advantage of its ability to borrow from multiple dialects by reserving the synonymous Holunder (formerly subject to the same ambiguity) for elders.

The mid-16th century also happens to be the time the opera is set. So I think two facts speak against a lilac: First, that seems a bit soon for the trees to have made it out of the gardens of the rich and well-connected and into the yard of a simple cobbler like Hans Sachs. Second--and more importantly--the action takes place on the eve and the day of Midsummer, i.e. the 23rd and 24th of June. At that latitude, lilacs blossom in April and May; it would be damn unusual for one to still be in bloom that late. (Although perhaps this would've been much less unusual during the Little Ice Age.) But elders flower from May into July. So, on the whole, it was most likely correct of the Lyric to use "elder" in the supertitles.

(The actual phrase is "the scent of elder", which made me titter. At the next intermission, I told Nuphy, "They must've meant Old Spice.")

[*] In case you're wondering, the common English name comes from Arabic ليلك līlak via Romance intermediation. Cf. French lilas, Italian lillà.

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