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[Little did you know that my Poppea review was the first entry in a SERIES!  This series, it is called “Going for Baroque.”  It will involve several other (hopefully) fine DVDs and CDs!  Because I adore Baroque opera but don’t hear it very often in New York.  So summer gives me some time to catch up on some recordings, new and not so new.]
Royal prologue
Cavalli, Ercole amante.  DVD, Opus Arte.  De Nederlandse Opera, 2009.  Conducted by Ivor Bolton, production by David Alden with Luca Pisaroni (Ercole), Veronica Cangemi (Iole), Jeremy Ovenden (Hyllos), Anna Maria Panzarella (Deinira), Anna Bonitatibus (Giuone), and Marlin Miller (Licco).

Today’s entry in Going for Baroque is more fun than a barrel of monkeys: Francesco Cavalli’s Ercole amante (Hercules in Love), in a production by David Alden for De Nederlandse Opera from 2009.  Cavalli was a student of Monteverdi and his eventual successor as music director at San Marco in Venice.  Most of his works are of more or less the same genre as Poppea, written for public theaters in Venice with a very small orchestra.  But Ercole amante, from 1662, is not one of these.  Italian opera was quite popular in France at the time, and Cavalli was commissioned by none other than opera-fancier Cardinal Mazarin to write an opera for Louis XIV’s marriage to Marie-Therese of Spain.  Naturally, a royal wedding called for a big whopping opera, one big enough that a new theater had to be built for it (the Salle des machines in the Tuileries, at the time the largest theater in Europe) and all sorts of fancy scenery constructed (and a big orchestra, choruses, ballets, etc.).  Of course, not everyone finished on time, and the wedding got an old Cavalli opera, Xerxes, instead.

The extra large opera Ercole finally premiered two years after the wedding, after Mazarin's death, and it went over rather badly.  The giant new theater had catastrophic acoustics and no one could hear anything, it was six hours long, and most of the French nobles present couldn’t follow the Italian text even if they could hear it.  Besides, this kind of French court spectacle inevitably presented an encoded political message, here a somewhat ambivalent one from Mazarin to the King.  Two years late, the wedding-centric allegory was stale, and kind of weirdly negative if you take it seriously.  After a few months, Cavalli’s opera disappeared entirely, not to be revived until 1979--though the original sets were recycled by Quinault, Corneille, Molière, and Lully with their opéra-ballet and Ercole imitator Psyché in 1671.

I hope that background is interesting; I think it’s helpful for understanding this rarity, which hails from a composer and era who have not had nearly the exposure they deserve and whose background gives it a unique mix of Italian and French styles.  (If you want to see a more typically Italian Cavalli opera, I highly recommend this DVD of La Didone.)
Yes, that's a kick line including a giant baby, a cardinal, Sonno, and lord knows what else.
It is a pleasure for me to return to the work of director David Alden, who introduced me to seventeenth-century opera five years ago when I saw his production of Il ritorno d’Ulisse at the Bayerische Staatsoper.  Alden’s style is easily described as postmodern, but for once the label is accurate.  Here he mixes extravagant period dress with various equally extravagant modern eras, Baroque machinery with modern effects, and generally is more concerned that each scene is a good time than creating any kind of grand vision or coherence.  We get our expected jokes: Ercole totes giant six-packs of Heineken mini-kegs (De Nederlandse Opera, remember), there is a giant dancing baby (something I think every opera needs, really), there are big dance numbers, and various allusions to Hercules’s labors crop up in amusing ways.
Venus has a magic couch.
The plot is drawn from Ovid, and concerns nasty bully Ercole’s infatuation with a lady by the name of Iole, despite her love for his son.  Of course the gods get involved--Venus thinks it’s swell, Juno wants Ercole back with his wife.  Complications ensue, involving scheming servants and magical couches and zombie armies of vengeful dead people and accidentaly deadly shirts and jumps from towers into Neptune's stormy waters and fish subsisting on a diet of countertenors.  That sort of thing.  You can read a summary here.  All is framed by a prologue and epilogue of big choruses and ballets identifying it as dedicated to Louis XIV.
Muscles, I haz them.
In the prologue, Alden stages the royal wedding itself, making the allegory explicit as the King becomes Ercole and the Queen Deianira.  As we transition from prologue to the main opera, Venus gives Louis/Ercole a more impressive physique and distinctive outfit in the form of a ridiculous giant plastic muscle suit (he is, more or less, an action figure).  Poor Deianira has been abandoned.  Their (rapidly acquired) insipid teenaged son Hyllos carries around a cell phone and wears jeans and a puffy shirt.  Most of the women are more conventional seventeenth-century types, with a certain amount of random oddness.  A Mazarin stand-in invades occasionally.  All this happens before a feathery purple wallpaper worthy of Richard Jones.

Like many seventeenth-century Italian operas, the tone is a mixture of comedy and tragedy that can be puzzling today.  Much of the romantic intrigue is played for comedy, but there are serious moments too--including many of the laments for which Cavalli was particularly known--and the opera culminates in a harrowing death scene for Ercole.  However, this is undercut when it is revealed that Ercole didn’t exactly die and is hanging out in heaven with a new ladyfriend. 
It has tentacles and it isn't very friendly.
The eclecticism of Alden’s style is ideal for this mixture.  I think trying to make the whole thing hang together would just make the gear shifts between comedy and tragedy awkward; Alden just goes for what seems right at any given moment.  The comedy is ridiculously comic, the tragic perfectly serious.  Along with the visual pastiche, it all works by a kind of gleeful free association that is better seen than described.  Emotional depth?  Not really, but I don’t think a less unhinged approach would get that either.  Alden isn’t focused on character development, but neither is Cavalli.
Beware the zombie army.
But both are focused, fortunately, on glorious music.  And have a musically fantastic cast and orchestra to back them up.  This is a beautifully melodious score with a lot of range between the large-scale ceremonial pieces, some surprisingly big ensembles, and the regular recit/aria thing (I will warn you though that some people find Cavalli something of an acquired taste--as with any style, if you haven’t spent a fair amount of time with seventeenth-century opera the subtleties can be hard to hear).  Luca Pisaroni is a fabulous Ercole, acted with enormous panache and humor and sung with amazing sensitivity considering the onstage antics.  He is joined by Anna Bonitatibus as a powerfully loud and dramatically exciting Giunone (Juno), Anna Maria Panzarella as Deianira, Veronica Cangemi as Iole and Jeremy Ovenden as Hyllo, who sings with a care and dignity directly opposite to his character’s silliness.  Ivor Bolton, a Baroque specialist, conducts the Concerto Köln in gloriously opulent form (compared to the spare instrumentation of most seventeenth-century operas).  This is another DVD I would like to also be available on CD, not out of production deficiencies this time but just because I would like to listen to it on my next long trip.
Sunny finale
Yes, it’s kind of long (as is this review, sorry!).  But Ercole amante without incidental scheming pages eaten by fish and giant dancing babies just wouldn’t be the same.  Take comfort in that it isn’t six hours, and enjoy.

The DVD has a few extras, including a rather adorable documentary with Pisaroni, in which he rides his bike to the opera house and his golden retriever swims around in an Amsterdam canal.

7 years ago |
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One of the greats.  I was lucky to hear him conduct Kat'a Kabanová at Covent Garden in 2007.
7 years ago |
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Metropolitan Opera Summer Recital Series in Central Park, 7/12/10.  With Nathan Gunn, baritone; Susanna Phillips, soprano; Michael Fabiano, tenor; and Julie Gunn and Jonathan Kelly, pianists.

Several other bloggers and I packed up a picnic and headed out to Central Park last night for the annual Met concert.  The weather was threatening, our picnic was derailed by a long line to get in and the confiscation of our vino, but it didn’t actually rain, there was opera, and we ate the food eventually, so all was more or less well.

The Met used to present an entire opera in concert with an orchestra for this event; this is the second year that we’ve been having recession-friendly recitals with piano instead.  And it’s too bad.  Piano accompaniment is fine in a small venue, but amplified through the giant Summer Stage?  Not so much.  And whoever thought that “Hai già vinta la causa” is a smashing idea for an opening number should never program a concert again.  But the singers were winning and despite some unevenness and persistent feeling of economy, it was a pleasant evening.

Nathan Gunn was the biggest name here, joined by his wife Julie Gunn on piano, and he was best-suited of the three to the park format, questionable Mozart opener aside.  He was at his best in English, including a somewhat cloying translation of “Ein Mächen oder Weibchen” that he made cute, and the final number, an intense but not over-the-top rendition of Weill’s “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”  His storytelling abilities were put to excellent use in three of Bolcom’s Cabaret Songs--which I embarrassingly discovered I have not heard many of the words of for years (sadly, he did not include “Amor”--“even philosophers understood how good was the good cuz I looked so good”).

Gunn was joined by tenor Michael Fabiano and soprano Susanna Phillips, both of whom were new to me.  Phillips has a gorgeous lyric soprano with a beautifully natural feel for the musical line, put to excellent use in Donna Anna’s “Non mi dir” (with some cool ornamentation).  I found her “Je veux vivre” somewhat short on sparkle and trilling, but that might be a hard number to pull off in concert (though she did wear cowboy boots for it--I had to take her word for this, because I could not see her feet).  Her “Can’t Help Loving That Man” was maybe not the best example of opera singers tacking musical theater, and could learn something from Gunn about understatement and good arrangements.

Tenor Michael Fabiano is famous for being a hothead but I found him the least interesting of the three.  He definitely has a big talent and the voice is beautiful and solid, but I wasn’t captivated.  Perhaps picking repertoire other than inevitable tenor chestnuts “Una furtiva lagrima” and “La donna è mobile” would have helped?  I’m not a big fan of either aria, honestly.  He also suffered from overselling in his musical theater entry, “Be My Love.”  None of the singers managed very much dynamic variation, which I blame on the amplification system.

There were ensembles too!  These were entertainingly semi-staged, though given no introduction as to plot or anything (only Gunn talked about any of his numbers--I think they all could have benefited from a little friendly exposition).  “Au fond du temple saint” is going on the top of my new list of Numbers That Should Never Be Performed Without an Orchestra Under Any Circumstances, because I’ve never heard this lovely duet sung so well and be so underwhelming.  “Sulla tomba” was awkwardly sandwiched between Bolcom and the musical theater set, but sounded good if comparatively stiff and static after the animated, casual Bolcom.  Preceeding them was a sweet “Bei Männer, welche liebe fühlen.”  The first half included a charming “La ci darem la mano” and the similarly charming Nemorino-Adina-Belcore duet from LElisir d’amore (they played the sweet and charming card many, many times in this program).  As an encore we got the one piece I was surprised to not see on the initial program, the Traviata Brindisi.

I hope to see Philips in a staged opera soon, I remember that Gunn is totally fun, and I wish we had been able to drink the wine ahead of time.  But all in all a nice night out.

Similar programs will be happening in other boroughs in the next few weeks, check out the program here.

Video: Susanna Phillips sings "Non mi dir" (why couldn't she have given this intro last night?)
7 years ago |
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Monteverdi, L'incoronazione di Poppea.  DVD, Decca.  Glyndebourne Festival 2008, conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm, production by Robert Carsen.  With Danielle DeNiese (Poppea), Alice Coote (Nerone), Iestyn Davies (Ottone), Tamara Mumford (Ottavia), Paolo Battaglia (Seneca) and Marie Arnet (Drusilla)

This DVD of L'incoronazione di Poppea, taken from the 2008 Glyndebourne Festival, pointedly opens with scenes of the monied classes engaging in the legendary ritual of the Glyndebourne picnic over the credits.  Then, in the prologue, glittery evening-gowned Fortuna proceeds to squabble with nun Virtù over a seat in the first row.  Subtle it ain't.  This depraved world of Poppea and Nerone, it's yours.  Good evening, privileged assholes!

Eh, except not really.  Maybe director Robert Carsen didn't want to give the impression of biting the hand that is feeding him, because what follows is not debauched but classy, somber, elegant and sexy in an oh-so-tasteful way.  Never has Nero's amoral Rome been so beautifully boring.
The action takes place in front of a plain red curtain, and billows of red cloth periodically flood the stage.  They are frequently joined by the allegorical figure of Love from the prologue (can we PLEASE declare a moratorium on omnipresent Love figures NOW?  they are always cutesy and never help us understand anything).  But this isn't an opera solely about love: it's about the deadly nexus of love and politics, it’s about power run amok, it’s about the costs of moral victory and of revenge.  Carsen’s lack of interest in the larger moral and social world of Rome, his reduction of the plot to a domestic drama, makes this a much less interesting, and much less funny, opera than it can be.  Poppea and Nero’s relationship is sexy enough, but it has no context.

The key figure in this is the most confusing one: Seneca, arguably the only moral character in the whole opera.  Is the old philosopher a compass or a charlatan, an outdated relic or a brave voice of reason?  Here he is an absent-minded professor of unclear authority or importance, his world an empty (love-red cloth bereft) stage littered with books, a dramatic blank, and is greeted by a general shrug by everyone.  His death--the dramatic turning point of the opera when everything starts really going to hell--is visually striking but emotionally empty.  Similarly, Ottavia storms mightily but her proximity to the bed Poppea and Nerone just vacated identifies her as a spurned wife, not a deposed empress.   Servants run around carrying clothes in nearly every scene, Drusilla carries the dress she will give to Ottone at her first appearance, but I have no idea what this is supposed to mean, because power is a real commodity here, not a matter of external appearances.

Non morir, Seneca... actually none of us really care if you die or not.
The general aesthetic of generic mid-century propriety, while pretty, seems like an odd choice in itself.  Nerone rules a world of inebriated excess and uninhibited id, not such austerely tailored precision.  This tidiness is telling, as Carsen seems happier to ignore the opera’s stranger ambiguities than confront them.  Nerone and Poppea’s relationship is pure sweet love, the violence in Nero’s personality segregated to other people and Poppea lacking in any ulterior motives.  This is a production that goes to the trouble to costume a tenor Nutrice as a Margaret Thatcher look-alike and then for much of the opera fail to see that there is comic potential in this.  Even Drusilla’s propensity to burst into “Felice cor mio” at inappropriate moments, an obvious joke if there ever was one, isn’t played for the laughs.  By making everyone noble, Carsen robs them of their humanity.

Love, Seneca, maid, Nutrice, Ottavia
It is in the Nerone-Lucano scene, a homoerotic non-sequitur whose weirdness is of an extremity that is impossible to paper over, that Carsen takes one of his only risks and manages to come up with something interesting.  It starts as a deranged bachelor party, and eventually ends up with torture and death by drowning in a bathtub.  It’s disturbing, I’m not really sure what to make of it, but it’s definitely Nero and it’s right for this opera.  Unfortunately it’s the only scene I can say that of.

I remember why I left you for Poppea, Drusilla.  You're too damn prim.
Except for that pesky lack of vision, there is much to enjoy.  The acting is strong and detailed, the singing is generally idiomatic and good.  Danielle DeNiese’s Monteverdi stylings have occasionally been touched by the goddess Céline Dion, and her voice sits too high for this almost-mezzo role.  While her Poppea is a somewhat one-dimensional saucy flirt, without many secondary characteristics such as self-doubt or ambition, she makes up for her lack of musical and dramatic subtlety with her considerable charisma.  Much better is Alice Coote’s impulsive and psychopathic Nero, the definite highlight of the performance, whose rage unfortunately never seems to interact with other characters.  Tamara Mumford (who I have seen excel in many smaller roles at the Met) is an impressive Ottavia who the production similarly never allows full, well, reign.  Iestyn Davis a vocally fabulous and typically wimpy Ottone, and Paolo Battaglia as Seneca sings fine but is dramatically completely unmemorable.

I have no idea how the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment follows Emmanuelle Haïm’s vague hand-waving, but it does the trick for this most glorious of opera scores.  The mix of lutes, theorbos, and harpsichord in the continuo is well-judged and colorful.  Tempos tend towards the slow but not excessively so.  The orchestra is augmented with recorders and cornettos but is still small.  Unlike many Poppeas I have no issue with cuts or with deployment of roles--mezzo Nero and countertenor Ottone is my preferred arrangement,* and there are very few cuts--so it is a shame that the production falls so short, as this is an ideal DVD is many other ways.

Poppea is like Don Giovanni: so much going on that it’s hard to find one where everything is right, and the safe ones are the most boring of all.


*This is often a key issue.  I generally don't like countertenor Neros, it's meaty part that sounds better with the meaty voice of a mezzo, more "manly" than any actual man (now there's some gender trouble!).
7 years ago |
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Wagner, Lohengrin. DVD, Decca. München Opernfestspiele/Bayerische Staatsoper 2009, production by Richard Jones, conducted by Kent Nagano with Jonas Kaufmann (Lohengrin), Anja Harteros (Elsa), Wolfgang Koch (Telramund), Michaela Schuster (Ortrud), Christof Fischesser (Heinrich).

This DVD has been getting much attention on the internets, but I’ve tried to avoid reading about it as to offer you a somewhat uninfluenced opinion.

This production from the 2009 Munich Opera Festival (produced by the Bavarian State Opera) features an absolutely exquisite musical performance with compelling lead singers. Unfortunately the production, by Richard Jones, is an interesting failure with a few too many nifty ideas that never really develop.

The staging of Lohengrin usually emphasizes the Romantic, spiritual, dreamy elements of the music and plot--as in competing DVD productions by Nikolaus Lehnhoff (an elegant, timeless minimalist job) and Peter Konwitschny (with an ornate play-within-the-play structure). Or refer to the “Kutten und Kettenhemd” (robe and chain mail shirt) production of your choice.  None of that for Jones, whose Lohengrin is extremely political and modern. The cover photo is deceptive, there are no knights in shining armor here, and there certainly is no praying.

Heinrich and Telramund center, Elsa right, Ortrud obviously up to no good far left, Herald observing right (click to enlarge)
The Brabantians wear uniforms of a vaguely 1930’s sort and are enthusiastically directed by the be-overalled Elsa in the building of a house onstage, which is all very neat to watch but also a REALLY BIG OBVIOUS SYMBOL for her quest to build a new Brabantian society--she and her new husband move into the house at the beginning of Act III. This society seems to be of a happy egalitarian sort. Telramund, Heinrich, Ortrud, and co. wear regular suits with a bit of the traditional German thing going on, capitalists or Westerners or the old guard or something contrasted with Elsa’s new workers’ collective. Their scenes take place on shallow stage room with old-fashioned coats of arms, when Elsa holds sway we have a bare stage with the construction site upstage. Judging by costume, Lohengrin comes from my neighborhood, or somewhere else circa 2010 where people are obsessed with working out all the time. Ortrud wears a man’s suit, suggesting that while Elsa is trying to rule through a new system, she is working for the restoration of the old one.

Jogging all the way from Monsalvat was just training to help lay your bricks, Elsa.
Elsa and Lohengrin’s wedding gives them the old-fashioned dress, the old-fashioned institution of marriage, the old-fashioned specter of Christianity in the form of a cross on the table with the marriage contract (in a too-cute touch, Lohengrin signs with a check mark) and, of course, Elsa acquires an old-fashioned need to know that her new husband has social standing. In marriage, she leaves behind her revolutionary tendencies along with her blind faith in Lohengrin's goodness, turning the power over to him even as she doubts him.  And her mysterious knight may not be the innocent figure he appears. While seemingly good at house-building, Lohengrin doesn’t seem to be entirely on board with her reorganization strategy. He is at first too entranced by his new position with the Brabantians to notice that she is still being harassed by Ortrud and Telramund, and by Act 3 he has converted the Brabantians from Elsa’s brown uniforms to his own blue T-shirts. And after he leaves them, they proceed to shoot themselves en masse. Personality cults are BAD, people.  Should have left the woman in charge.

I should have known better than pick Ortrud as Maid of Honor.
I hope that isn’t too confusing. You can probably see that while there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on--Lohengrin as a cult leader, Elsa as a revolutionary, maybe a critique of marriage?--it’s hard to figure out exactly what Jones is trying to say here. While I think a Lohengrin without Christianity and hardly a trace of 19th-century morales is a cool idea, at least as it’s practiced here it fails to dramatize too many parts of the action. Ortrud is reduced to a plot device, whatever is happening between Telramund and Heinrich is confusing and the ending renders Gottfried hopelessly muddled. Did I mention that Lohengrin is carrying an animatronic swan--actually I thought this was pretty good, it emphasizes his status as an outsider and gets the plot point in without the schlockiness of a swan boat--and there is some really complicated symbolism going on with the flowers mentioned in the Act III duet?*  Also, much of the design is unnecessarily drab and ugly.  You don't have to go back to armor to make something look striking.

So much for *that* chance at wedded bliss.
The most redeeming element of the production is the unconventional and sympathetic interpretations of the two main characters, and the two fantastic lead performances. Elsa is determinedly idealistic, not the usual wilting maiden in need of rescue and Lohengrin is friendly and not particularly noble, seemingly desperate for the place in society and domestic life that Elsa can offer him. In one of the production’s best moments, he uses his super magic powers to kill Telramund by waving at him and then seems absolutely horrified at what he did, realizing that he really can’t be like everyone else, he’s created a big mess, and he better get going back to the Grail (I think I remember a similar moment in Spider-Man 2, but it actually is quite poignant). He then sets the new house--his domesticity, Elsa's new society--on fire.  “In fernem Land” is delivered not as a proud proclamation but an apology.

Before I go my swan has something to tell you.
I don’t have much commentary on the musical performance other than that I think it is AWESOME. Kent Nagano’s conducting floats along delicately, even in the heavy rhythmic stuff never stomping. Both Anja Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann in the lead roles have dark, complicated sounds that work well against this lightness. Harteros is one of my favorite sopranos, I have never found her less than glorious in person but recordings seem to flatten her voice out. This is the first one I’ve heard that seems to do her justice. Kaufmann sings everything with a gorgeous smooth legato rarely heard in this rep, as well as enormous dynamic range. And they both act very well, almost making the usual plethora of closeup camera angles not regrettable. The other parts are also all very solidly sung, overall everyone is on the lyric rather than dramatic side of things.

This is musically the best Lohengrin I’ve seen on DVD, but if you want an interesting modern production I recommend the Peter Konwitschny one from the Gran Teatre del Liceu. But Jones is definitely worth a watch, if perhaps not the $40 list price. For that I could go to standing room in Munich three times. (Or twice in New York, or, um, ten times in Vienna.)  But if I get a chance to see either of these two leads live in these roles, I will jump at the opportunity. (RELATED: Still accepting donations of Bayreuth tickets.  Apply to likelyimpossibilities [at]

Video: Act III duet.  (continues here)

*A typically over-complicated gesture from this production: the flowers spell out “HIER WO MEIN WÄHNEN FRIEDEN FAND WAHNFRIED SEI DIESES HAUS VON MIR BENANNT.” (Here, where my imaginings find freedom, “Imagine-Free” [think a Siegfried kind of compound here] this house shall be called.” So when Lohengrin sings about the flowers, the flowers show that this means finally found peace? Not just that! Wahnfried is Wagner’s house in Bayreuth, he put this epigram over the door. Also, it’s a bitter pun: “wähnnen” means to imagine or dream, but it can also mean to be deluded, to believe something that is not true--Lohengrin hasn’t really found any peace here with Elsa. Aren’t you sorry you asked about that?
7 years ago |
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I'm proud to introduce the fully redesigned Likely Impossibilities, now even more probably impossible, with pretty new logo and more white space.  If you're reading this in an RSS reader, please click over too see it!

Also, increased functionality.  I again invite you to click on the Google Follow button in the column to the right if that's your preferred blog-reading method.  Next to that is an RSS subscribe button if that's more your style.  There are also new buttons at the bottom of each entry to send the post as an email or add to Facebook and Twitter and such.

I would like to provide you soon with some Real Content but a) I am currently busy with many work-related activities and b) New York does not currently seem to be very busy producing opera.  I know y'all probably want to read about the new Lohengrin DVD from our Tenor of the Many Blog Hits (seriously, just typing his name instantly attracts 50 new visitors, to do so here would be false advertising) so once I can face listening to more Wagner and can find the DVD I'll take a look.

In honor of the upcoming retirement of Placido Domingo (our Tenor of the Fairly Significant Number of Blog Hits), here he sings a surprisingly convincing "Dies Bildnis is bezaubernd schön."  Re: the retirement, DID I NOT SEE THIS COMING?  Like when I heard his Siegmund two weeks ago?  Sort of, at least.

(EDITED to ADD:  Or, um, maybe he isn't retiring?  Oh well, you don't need an occasion for a little Mozart.)

7 years ago |
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Waste time on the internet!  Maybe you'll learn something!
The blog redesign: it is still in progress, this is not the final version. I was derailed by going to LA.   But living with it for a few weeks has helped me make some choices, such as getting really tired of the tan parchment side things already and reevaluating my font stacks (font stacks = SUPER FUN).  Hopefully I will finish soon!

*The FT reviewer strangely compares the production to "Schnitzler's Eyes Wide Shut."  Wha?  Stanley Kubricks's self-indulgent, creepy, misogynistic mess of a final film is indeed based on Schnitzler's Traumnovelle.  But there are some significant differences between Schnitzler and Kubrick including, um, a totally different title (Traumnovelle = Dream Novella).
7 years ago |
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Relive the deconstruction: Ring Cycle 2 at the LA Opera
Das Rheingold
Die Walküre

I’m back from the beach and ready to offer some closing arguments.
The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with its two presiding eminences, Placido and James Conlon.
Achim Freyer’s Ring staging is, in my opinion, a masterpiece.  It has an utterly unique aesthetic and dramatic interpretation that is thought out and realized with total conviction and thoroughness.  To see Götterdämmerung on Bloomsday was apt; Freyer’s vision is an essentially Modernist one in its split subjectivities, quasi-primitivist visuals, and Brechtian leanings.  Instead of placing the Ring in a familiar setting in order to make the characters as relatable as possible, he goes back into myth, shearing Wagner of much of his historical baggage by simply making it irrelevant.  The characters become utterly foreign and unreal (a Brechtian sort of effect), but they operate in a world of instincts and symbols that feels familiar.  The aesthetic is high-tech and low-tech all at once, vaudeville mixed with stuff that would make Robert Lepage drool, machine blending into handmade craft, mixing highbrow and lowbrow, circus and passion play, deadly serious and totally silly.  Above all, Freyer is a master of the abstract, visualizing the often illusive metaphysical workings of the plot in a way that makes them seem vital, comprehensible, and relevant to the more concrete action of the characters. 

Blogwise, this production inspired greater flights of rhetorical fancy than are usual for my snarky self as well as more ambitious feats of interpretation.  Maybe my interpretations are totally “wrong,” whatever that means.  But I think Freyer intended much of the production to be open-ended, suggestive rather than prescriptive, and that it spoke to me in a significant way meant that it seemed to work, for me at least.  As I’ve said before, the more I end up thinking about something the happier I am with it, and this production had a feast of food for thought. (Maybe you think I’m full of shit, though.)

Musically, with a few exceptions everything was good, a few moments and individual performers were fantastic.  But it was something short of great, and I don’t think that’s entirely because of problematic acoustics or because the Regie was taking all my attention.  But speaking of that problem: I think Freyer is indeed more concerned with image than music, however Wagner’s music is so inherently illustrative that his often-static approach actually serves the score extremely well.

So I am very happy I went.  This feeling is closely followed by seething rage.  I’m sorry if I’m about to sound overly defensive, but I have encountered some pretty virulent opposition to this production in conversation here and on the internet, much of it from people who have not seen any of it, and I feel like I have to defend it.

Edited to add: it doesn't merit a post by itself, but typical is this reaction, from Daniel Wakin's piece on the cycle in the 6/20 Times:  “Apparently it’s pretty god-awful,” said Kit Gill, the vice president of the Wagner Society of New York. “I’m not such a traditionalist, but I don’t like wacko things either. "  Now THERE is some real critical intelligence at work.  It does not seem that Gill actually has seen the production. Can I have his/her Bayreuth tickets?

Since when have we condemned arts companies for taking on big, challenging projects?  I know that America has a venerable tradition of reactionary conservatism when it comes to opera, but can’t we go see the thing and recognize a self-evidently important piece of art when we see it?  Yes, it ended up being a fiscal disaster, but it was not intended to be such, and we rarely hold other, non-arts organizations that receive some public money--let’s say college sports--to such standards of frugality.  Is supporting the arts when they're producing something particularly important and complicated a bad thing?  It is with challenging productions like this that the arts earn the right to their public funding, not with the tenth revival of Bohème.  And sometimes ambitious projects end up financially problematic, particularly when they involve opera.  Particularly when they are the #!*@ing Ring.  And most things that are challenging aren't going to make everyone happy.  That’s just the way it works, and I'm somewhat depressed to live in a country where artistic experimentation and ambition are so vilified.

I’ve tried not to comment on these off-stage issues in my reviews, because I think they are irrelevant to the production’s artistic merits.  The cycles have not sold very well.  Given the negative national media coverage and lack of an established Wagner fan base in Los Angeles, this doesn’t surprise me.  Since when have we measured artistic ventures, particularly challenging ones, by their power to sell tickets?  Then there is the matter of the singers complaining to the LA Times.  I don’t know the whole story here, this looks like a challenging production to appear in, and if this offends you don’t buy a ticket, but it is a real shame these matters had to overshadow what audiences are actually seeing.  About which they are seemingly very enthusiastic!
Conlon explaining something enthusiastically.
I have already written about the Ring Festival, but there is another extra-production event I should mention.  James Conlon gave a 45-minute lecture before EVERY performance.  Before he conducted a 5-hour Wagner opera.  Really.  I didn't go to all of them because sometimes I was fortifying myself with burritos, but for the parts I was at he summarized the plot and music (playing lots of leitmotivs), with both insight and a lot of humor (apparently the Rhinemaidens remind him of his dog), though he really should cite Anna Russell when he quotes her.  You can listen to his lectures on the LA Opera website, though I don't think he was following his script very closely when he was talking.  He isn’t my favorite Wagner conductor, but that is a truly amazing commitment to audience outreach.  And if you just want to learn a bit more about the Ring they're worth your time.
Hofbräu München umbrellas.
Also, there’s a temporary biergarten in front of the opera house.  Hofbräu isn’t my favorite (Hacker-Pschorr is the beer of any true Straussian), but it’s good.

A few final things I learned while in Los Angeles, mostly dealing with matters of the stomach:
  • I will never complain about the restaurant situation around the Met ever again, for LA is much, much worse (especially annoying when there is so much wonderful and cheap food found elsewhere in the city).
  • Should you be in Westwood, the best cafes to blog from are Bobaloca and Espresso Profeta.
  • Never drink a beer before Götterdämmerung.  Prologue and first act are two hours. I figured this out before I drank the beer, luckily.  Also not before Rheingold, but that's a little more obvious.
  • Amoeba Music is basically the best place in existence.
  • Saw two red carpets and one reality TV show filming.  Am told this is above average.  Did not stop at any of them.
I hope you've enjoyed reading about my Los Angeles trek, I certainly had a good time.  If there is any earthly or unearthly way you can get yourself to Cycle 3, which starts tomorrow (Friday) night, DO IT.  I'm headed back to the East Coast tomorrow, I don’t know when I’ll be going to the opera next, maybe I’ll watch a DVD or something.  Also, there’s this.  If I see it and am not too stunned with horror to write about it, maybe I’ll write about it.  See you... sometime soon.

All photos by Zerbinetta.
8 years ago |
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Wagner, Götterdämmerung.  LA Opera, 6/16/10. Production by Achim Freyer, conducted by James Conlon with Linda Watson (Brünnhilde), John Treleaven (Siegfried), Alan Held (Günther), Eric Halfvorsen (Hagen), Jennifer Wilson (Gutrune), Michelle DeYoung (Waltraute)

Achim Freyer’s Ring ends less with a bang than a crash and a clatter.  Many of the motives of the previous evenings return in twisted and fragmented form, the absence of the gods leaving us with a remixed chaos in human form that finally, as we know it’s going to, goes up in flames.  It is a fitting conclusion to the biggest and most complicated of the Ring operas.

Another night at the Ring, another shape.  This time: triangles!  The Norns, encased prisoners of their balls of thread, are positioned at the three points of a giant one.  When we enter the Hall of the Gibichungs, the stage is marked by a tessellation of triangles, and even without the prompt of the program notes we get that time here is repeating and fragmented.  The program notes also mention the trinity of past, present, and future, I couldn’t help but also think of the many triangular relationships that lead to such disaster in the plot.  In the absence of the World Ash Tree, and the heroism of Siegfried, like time, power is fragmented (time is perhaps Freyer’s secret protagonist, and control over time is equated with earthly power throughout the cycle).

Loge hovers with the three glowing white fragments of Wotan’s spear, echoed in the random pattern of white beams positioned along some of the lines on the floor (Nothung, the Tarnhelm, and other objects also hover, always present even when not in use).  The entire stage at first is divided diagonally into two triangles, with the Gibichungs downstage left and Brünnhilde’s rock upstage right.  What was once under Siegfried’s sole control is now split, multiplied, and seen from two perspectives at once.  Because when not on the rock Siegfried doesn’t prove quite so adept in the ways of the world.
Siegfried with the Gibichungs
It occurs to me that I came to a weird conclusion in my Siegfried review, namely that, due to being doused in red, Siegfried and Brünnhilde’s love is not creative but destructive.  Because in Wagner love redeems, it doesn't destroy!  Siegfried and Brünnhilde are Wotan’s hope for saving the world!  Yet in the color symbolism of the Freyer-verse, my counter-intuitive idea seemed to make sense.  I unfortunately did not find a whole lot of support for this idea in Götterdämmerung.  Though love leads Siegfried to give Brünnhilde the ring, and then makes her so possessive of it as to initially ignore Waltraute?  Or am I taking the color stuff too seriously?  Is red not destruction but simply fire, both destructive and cleansing in equal measure (as in the Immolation)?*  Then why were the curse, Hunding, and the gold-less Rhinemaidens all red?  Help me out in the comments if you have any ideas here.

Freyer does not seem to be working against Wagner’s Brünnhilde and Siegfried as triumphant super-people and the Gibichungs as a problematic bourgeois society.  Most intriguingly, the Gibichungs seem to have attempted to create themselves in the image of the gods, another example of parallel and repeating histories.  They may have only achieved a sort of grotesque parody, but the bickering is exactly the same. The Gibichungs stand in a stiff line in Brechtian presentational mode, positioned behind waist-high cutout silhouettes of themselves that echo the statue-like costumes of the gods in Rheingold.  They are downstage, extreme upstage appears a neat line of statues of the gods on pedestals.  The Gibichungs are mostly green, a color we saw in Siegfried as Siegfried left Mime and began to enter the society of men.
Hagen and Alberich
The Gibichung chorus is a faceless mass organized in neat lines (granted facelessness is hardly a rare characteristic in the Freyer-verse), waving their glowing white swords--like the remnants of Wotan’s spear, but now in the absence of Wotan the hopeless men get the godly color of white--in neat patterns that recall the formations on the floor.  Hagen, here a dwarf (isn’t he usually normal size?) wields a bright gold-yellow spear, a parody of Wotan’s, that he orders to descend on the victims of his choice.  He also has a remote control that he can use to manipulate the Gibichungs, the lights, and even the music.  He is positioned on a throne made of a raven and a grotesque female figure that looks very much like the woman implied earlier to be his mother, and aided and abetted by occasional appearances by Alberich.  When Siegfried and Brünnhilde enter the Gibichung world, they get their own cutouts and places in the line too, and lose their identities as saviors. 

I believe this may be the most static staging of the cycle, and some moments do seem to suffer because of this.  Brünnhilde’s horror at the wedding does not come off terribly well.  The Waltraute scene, while musically fantastic, felt flat.  The set pieces--Siegfried’s Rhine Journey and Funeral March--are generally unspectacular.  Maybe this is Freyer being contrary, but it was nice to focus on the music a bit (or, in the Rhine Journey, the usher near me telling people loudly to move so he could seat latecomers). And I liked the simple staging of Siegfried’s death, like the Siegmund-Sieglinde relationship lacking in histrionics.  In death he reveals his kinship to Wotan, a single eye appearing on his back, where he was stabbed, and turning black, the color of Fallen Wotan.
Brünnhilde and Waltraute
The Immolation is not culmination but destruction.  The score gives us a rush of leitmotivs, Freyer gives us a dismantling of the stage world, a flood of flying props and twirling lights. It’s effective and makes sense, but I found it emotionally somewhat unsatisfying, partly because much of it was hard to see from my seat waaaay in the back.  The ravens covering the prompters (never completely covering them if you were sitting in the rafters like me) fly off, revealing in Brechtian fashion to all the true messengers of the cycle.  The last few moments in total darkness are devastating.  We are left with an empty space in which to build a new world.

One note: in an interpolation, at the very end Hagen yells, “ZURÜCK VOM RING.” That’s what the surtitles said, in German, in all caps.  As an interpolation it is interesting, but why the title in German? (And not "AWAY FROM THE RING"?)   Many people don’t speak it, why the sudden barrier?  Or, as the dude in front of me asked, “What was that?  Zurich voom ring?  What?”  Once you’ve gone through the whole thing you don’t deserve to be given this confusion in the last moment.

Musically things were pretty good.  Linda Watson’s Brünnhilde has really grown on me, and I liked her a lot this time around, her steely volume seemed just the thing we needed and she can really act in the constricted Freyer style.  John Treleaven again had many rocky moments and the voice isn’t the most impressive sound, but he had a few moments of power and got through Siegfried’s death scene with impressive endurance.  Michelle DeYoung and Eric Halfvorsen, definitely the MVPs of this cycle for number of roles undertaken, both sounded fantastic.  And both Alan Held’s Günther and Jennifer Wilson’s Gutrune had Wotan and Brünnhilde voices respectively--and I have already heard Wilson sing a great Walküre-Brünnhilde several years ago, and hope to hear her do the rest at some point.  Gutrune didn’t give her enough to do.

I was not dissatisfied with the orchestra and conducting this time around.  The Rhine Journey, Funeral March, and Immolation all came off well.  They are at the mercy of a bad acoustic, but still sound more than respectable.  I am perhaps spoiled by the Met Orchestra, and know this music can be more monumental and exciting.  Musically the cycle has not been quite as transcendent as the staging is, but it didn’t disappoint very often.  I haven’t often mentioned the supporting people like the Rhinemaidens but they have all been excellent.

Wow, I feel vaguely hung over, I think I need to take a nap.  I will write some kind of wrap-up post in the near future.

*Obligatory Tolkien reference, I think Bilbo tells Gandalf at one point that the Ring “feels like fire.”  I’m pretty sure if you heated up the Ring in Freyer’s cycle it would say “ZURÜCK VOM RING.”  In all caps.  In German.  Probably in Helvetica.
8 years ago |
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Wagner, Siegfried.  Los Angeles Opera, 6/13/10.  Production by Achim Freyer, conducted by James Conlon with John Treleaven (Siegfried), Graham Clark (Mime), Linda Watson (Brünnhilde), Vitalij Kowaljow (Wotan), Richard Paul Fink (Alberich)

Siegfried is definitely the most challenging installment of Achim Freyer’s Ring so far.  Even less than the previous operas it’s not going to explain itself to you.  But the more you think about it the more interesting it is.  Like most Siegfrieds it has a big musical problem in the middle, but for the most part sounded very good.  Technically I am still amazed by the stagecraft on display.  (How amazing would a backstage tour with the tech people be?  I'm dying to know how they're running all of this.)

The circles of Walküre have been replaced with glowing parallel horizontal lines, at first a track for Siegfried’s race towards maturity (he actually begins the opera crouched as if on starting blocks), encouraged by Mime to go to a mysterious Ost (East).  The lines are intersected by vertical ones on the projection scrim, which the program notes say portray mortality.  Uh, OK.  I wasn’t sure where we were going with this for most of Act 1.  The turntable reappears during Mime and Wotan’s game of Twenty Questions, momentarily pausing time as the events of the previous evenings are reenacted in the background.
Now we're parallel and objective...
But it gets better.  By reforging Nothung, Siegfried takes these parallel lines and twists them into new angles, visually giving us a vanishing point and transforming an objective view that could be taken from any position to a subjective one oriented from one particular point, or, as the program notes put it, “Siegfried destroys the old time structure and forges perspective time... aimed against nature and toward the victory of man(kind).”  Translated out of European program note-ese--and I didn’t read the notes until afterwards--I took this to mean that Siegfried, now in possession of Nothung (a glowing stick like the lines onstage), becomes master of the universe.  He finds that he has the power to rearrange the natural order into a world governed by his perspective, and he can do whatever he wishes.  We see subsequent events as they appear to him, the one who knows no fear.  This is why Fafner the dragon appears not as a frightful horror but as a comic toy.  It’s Siegfried’s world now, Mime just lives in it, a problem remedied soon enough. (I tried to find a picture of the dragon, people!  But failed.)

Now we're not.
But the tiny (and adorable) dragon is also part of an increasingly important Brechtian agenda, one that has been lingering in the background for a while through the handmade and sometimes comically homemade quality of the visuals.  Mime repeatedly takes off his mask, first jokingly to show the stakes of his riddles with the Wanderer and then later when Siegfried hears his inner thoughts.  Siegfried himself is a comic book superhero of the sillier sort, with a bright blue muscle suit, bear (wolf?) skin pants and bright yellow hair, often flexing his muscles.  He cues and then is clearly disappointed in the squeaky offstage double reed that is his own call to the Forest Bird (both this and the dragon were legitimately funny moments).  The alienation effect makes his heroism ridiculous, and we can contemplate his complex place in the Freyer-verse without the danger of any sentimental strings attached--and with less reminder of how un-rounded a character he is.
Uh-oh, we're getting redder.
Siegfried’s status as a free agent seems questionable.  The Forest Bird is nothing more than Wotan in disguise, whose missing eye hangs over the proceedings, slowly traveling the width of the stage until it finally disappears with its former owner.  Was Wotan's Siegfried plan doomed to failure from the start?  When Wotan lets go and Siegfried shatters the spear--another of the neon beams of which Siegfried is now master--we can already see things going to hell.  The radiant final duet is given a glorious staging with Brünnhilde slowly unveiled center stage, but she is gradually revealed drenched in our old destructive friend the color red.  Likewise Siegfried, inflamed by newfound lust, turns red (he had earlier acquired a single red glove after killing Fafner--blood? but also problems).  This romance, as glorious as the music makes it, is not going to end well.  Enjoy the moment, but the shadow of Götterdämmerung already looms.  As Siegfried crosses the fire, the Tarnhelm hovers upstage, reminding us that he will do this again with less pure motives.  Love, again, destroys.

I am continually impressed by how Freyer manages to portray Wagner’s more abstract concepts in the realization of more concrete incidents of the plot.  In Walküre we had the Ride of the Valkyries with Wotan at the center.  In Siegfried we first and foremost have the Forging Song, in which we don’t actually see the sword being put together at all but the world order itself--the neon beams--being taken apart and reassembled as the hero comes into his own.  Freyer isn't afraid to skip out on a big visual like the anvil, and often trusts the music and words to do their narrative thing while making a different, broader point with the staging.  It’s abstract, sometimes it takes some thought to work out, you don't get to see an anvil, but it tells you much more about Siegfried than a sword and an anvil would.

Musically, I was much happier with James Conlon and the orchestra this time around.  Perhaps it is because of the exuberant and light nature of much of this score, but it sounded pretty great, sparkling and energetic.  The singing and individual performances were mostly quite good too, with the return of Richard Paul Fink’s fantastic Alberich and Graham Clark’s manic Mime, who manage to both be the most interesting figures onstage and actually are convincing brothers in their body language alone.  Vitalij Kowaljow’s Wotan continued to be excellent, and Linda Watson was more enjoyable as Brünnhilde, she does regal grandeur well and sounded clear and loud.

Unfortunately that leaves our title character, John Treleaven as Siegfried.  He got through it, which is saying something big.  But his voice is neither particularly powerful nor is it beautiful, and he is often off pitch.  Additionally, he did not seem quite part of the world of the production, without the stillness or dramatic gestures of the Freyer style.  Perhaps this is appropriate for this somewhat apart character.  But I found him mediocre at the very best.  I know, it’s an impossible role, etc.

Götterdämmerung on Wednesday, post Thursday.  I was going to write this one in the heat of the post-matinee experience, but obviously it’s a little later than that.  I was at a friend’s place eating cake and drinking wine needed some time to digest it.  I will catch up with all your emails by tomorrow evening (thanks for the warm welcome, LA!). 

Photos: Monika Rittershaus/LA Opera
8 years ago |
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