30 September 2006

A Most Stylish Curtain Call

Opinion on Cristina Gallardo-Domas's Butterfly has been divided. The Diaries is firmly on the pro side of the debate. But Sieglinde is off to the matinee today for a second hearing, this time without the fog of opening night, prima-evening jitters, shiny people that divert attention, or a conductor uncommitted to this Puccini. Her report will come by early next week. One point of agreement may be the graceful curtain call, most certainly choreographed by the director Minghella. The video above is from opening night.

29 September 2006

Balance restored

Mozart IDOMENEO, Met 28.IX.2006; c. Levine; Röschmann, Makarina, Jepson, Heppner, Francis.

James Levine leaves the tumultuous Puccini behind and returns to what he does best. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's classic production, sans severed heads, is a clear and quiet mirror, reflecting the brightness of this Mozart work unfiltered, and by doing nothing more, goes straight to its heart and then to all our hearts. Levine in Mozart is the word balance: he is vibrant in a quick Baroque style, dark in anticipation of Mozart's later works; and he lets melancholic passages breathe, gliding just above the Romantic realm where he probably shouldn't be. But it all sounds right, and he dependably guides them back to symmetry. In that sense, Ben Heppner is his ideal hero; with an innately beautiful tone, always tastefully expressive deportment, a full-bodied texture, and, on good evenings (which this one was), only a slight quivering in the top register (adding a sort of gravitas), he is Mozart's human face. He was magnificent in the virtuoso "Fuor del mar" aria. (Recent pattern suggests he'll encounter problems during the latter part of this run; but I, inexplicably, am always ready to forgive him. He is just a beautiful singer.) A long time ago, I read a description of the (early) Carol Vaness voice as ruby-colored. I didn't fully understand that description till Dorothea Röschmann: she sounds like dark jewels breaking white light into many cuts of exquisite colors, and with the ping of fine porcelain and the resonance of seasoned wood. What a devastatingly gorgeous matter. And she sings with such sensitivity and intelligence; oh Sieglinde is a lesbian in love! Meanwhile, Olga Makarina is a fitting Elettra, always with a comforting technical accuracy but seasoned with lots of red pepper flakes. She is unfailingly exciting to hear. Jeffrey Francis, who debuts this season as Arbace, held his part of the opera with polish and elegance. Young Kristine Jepson, as the hero(ine) Idamante, would have been the highlight of any other evening, but with such a formidable cast alongside her, she shined as much as a luxurious broach on a Mercedes Bass or an Imelda Marcos. I would have preferred a thicker mezzo for this role, but yes, this is a spoiled brat talking. The nearly full house surprised me, for this was (a) a lesser-known Mozart and (b) the beginning of the season, when nothing sells well. Peter Gelb scores another point, but it's a long, long game.

28 September 2006

Met Opening Night Video: Part II

[First intermission] Starring Peter Gelb, Mercedes Bass, Jude Law, Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts, Joe Volpe, Renee Fleming, Barbra Walters, and a hundred of New York's glitterati. Yes, lighting levels aren't the best, and shots are a bit shaky. But this is pure guerilla filmmaking (total budget = $75 box ticket + roundtrip subway fare), so deal. There may be a Part III, who knows.

27 September 2006

Bathroom Break

Ponchielli LA GIOCONDA, Met 26.IX.2006; c. de Billy; Urmana, Borodina, Mishura, Machado, Lucic, Burchuladze.

The Met Opening night's hyperelegance was cleansed away thoroughly by last night's La Gioconda, and not just because of the opera's libretto. Sitting a box away were three of the smelliest people I've ever had to smell for more than a minute. I mean, literally bathroom smelly. And they didn't know one another. The stench was competing big time with the Ponchielli, which just has to be everyone's guilty pleasure, and which is just so putrid they give you three intermissions to make an embarrassed exit. But despite the fetid swamp of an evening, I didn't move from my seat, and neither did my three best friends. Meanwhile, the production is from the first season of the new Met (1966), which saw Tebaldi, Corelli, Dunn, MacNeil, and Siepi: so grotesque it captures The Venetian perfectly (or the real Venice a few days after acqua alta, when things start to get really interesting). I mean, an elevated four-poster curtained death bed in the ballroom.

Violeta Urmana (Gioconda) is the new Marton. One of my three best friends was grumbling soon after "Enzo adorato", but seriously, even Milanov herself couldn't pass the now well-established Milanov pianissimo test, which is: if you can still hear something, anything, you're no Milanov. She does extremely well with expansive phrases (e.g. Suicidio), but an unstable top register betrays her during barreling jagged lines (e.g., the catfight with Laura "L'amo come il fulgor", which Maestro Bertrand de Billy treated with much indifference and a hopscotch tempo). The mezzo-to-soprano makeover is still a work in progress. (The bonus you get from such women is the ever rich lower middle/bottom.) Olga Borodina (Laura) is such a paragon of elegance and taste it seemed like she was singing another opera entirely. Her tone is gorgeous: monotonously gorgeous, she almost sounds like an American. Irina Mishura, on the other hand, is just the kind of mezzo you'd want in a Cieca: her forbidding intensity (and perfectly crafted wobbles) stole Act I. Aquiles Machado (Enzo) sounds like a Tenor, graceful and masculine at once; I look forward to his future outings at the Met. Zeljko Lucic had an accomplished debut evening, and won the favor of the entire house.

On the whole, it's what you'd want from an evening of La Gioconda: some fearless singing, some instability, more than a dose of stench. And, I almost forgot, you get a serving of buns too. The handsome and brilliant Angel Corella, on loan from the American Ballet Theatre, has really really nice ones. I'm going back for more next week.

26 September 2006

From Subway to Seat

I'll try to put together a Part II, which I'm provisionally calling "From Curtain to Curtain Call", if I find enough energy later today or tomorrow. In the meantime, I gotta get into a trashy groove for tonight's La Gioconda, my first.

Met Opening Night

Puccini MADAMA BUTTERFLY, Met Opening Night, 25.IX.2006; c. Levine; Gallardo-Domas, Giordani, Zifchak, Croft.

Yesterday as I was lamenting the shift in vision at the Met, I overlooked the one thing that can stop them all. No matter the diamond wattage of the glitter audience, soon enough the chandeliers dim and the golden curtain rises, and as the orchestra prepares the silver platter, the veiled soprano opens her mouth. Watch as everything else around her wilts at her slightest breath. The walls of the old opera house shiver the strings' resonance, heartstrings are tugged, eyes closed. Lost amidst the massive blitzkrieg in the months leading to this opening night was tiny Cristina Gallardo-Domas, reduced to a Mingella poster here, half a Butterfly face there. Tonight, however, order was restored when the spotlight turned the other way: tiny indeed, but her voice carried the force of a thousand flashing bulbs, finding the farthest point in the ceiling and the deepest cuts in the skin. Colorful as Mingella's stage, with a Soviero throb and an Albanese cut, Galladro-Domas's beautifully frayed soprano is now a member of the vocal pantheon of the Sirius generation. Marcello Giordani is Domingo with Pavarotti's lustre. Frequently unwieldy but consistently effective, his voice tonight had a perfect combination of control and rough elegance that would make you forgive Pinkerton, even at the sight of Butterfly's innocent blood. Maria Zifchak sustained a superb Suzuki, while Dwayne Croft relied on his creamy baritone to offset any deficiency in volume or expression.

I'm grateful to see Maestro James Levine at the podium this evening, heading another great season of music. My admiration is no secret. But among his most recent works, this Butterfly may be his least complete. The production's thrust was a Butterfly that moved as if she knew her fate very early on, and Levine seemed to underline the darkness of her inner torments with a extra-fat Wagnerian Sharpie. In fact, there were moments in the third part of the evening that resembled the meditative scenes of the third act of his Parsifal. Puccini is melodrama of the Miss Saigon sort, with tensions as open and direct as can be, and so, in my view, any serious attempt to "heighten" the drama by enunciating every phrase with historic accuracy and highlighting the naked woodwinds a la Parsifal can only stoke the opera's wet rag longueurs. In other words, no need to break out the fine china for Chinatown pork chop. Elsewhere, however, his mastery of controlled sentimentality benefitted tear-jerker scenes to great effect: Act I's love duet was truthful, while the letter scene was perfectly measured. Levine may never conduct another Butterfly in his career (if in his long career he hasn't conducted a repertory stalwart, chances are he doesn't like it), and so it was an interesting exercise. (Asher Fisch takes over the rest of the gazillion Butterflys this season.)

Anthony Mingella produced a dazzling Spectacular spectacular: my comments will come at a later time (perhaps after my second or third Butterfly). Also, I took little video snippets of the circus. I'll figure out the best way to package and YouTube it tomorrow.

Reports from other seats: Sarah was at the Plaza. So was Alex. And Mama Cieca. JSU was in Times Square. While Maury was also inside.

24 September 2006

The Fall Season

The digital innovations that Peter Gelb has launched this season (plans for multiplex simulcasts of a handful of Saturday afternoons, Sirius satellite broadcasts of four performances per week, beginning tomorrow) seem at first blush revolutionary, but taken in the larger context, are mere incarnations of the story of opera’s migration out of the opera house, begun about a century ago. Before the era of recorded music, opera belonged firmly within the gilded walls of the opera house, locked in time, dead by curtain’s fall. Then it became a thing (a cylinder), and morphed into other things (a record, tape, laserdisc, CD, DVD, mp3, YouTube), made immortal, and a thing to own, private and portable. These days, it lives in my hard disks, my video iPod, the FM airwaves, in the ether of the net, and very shortly, at the mall and circling in outer space. Apart from the changed landscape of the economics of opera distribution (from the megacorporations down to the mom-and-pop pirates of family circle), nothing else of the essence has been altered. The many refractions of opera have been in distribution since before yo mama was born, so Sieglinde just has to get with it. (And she got Sirius today; more later.)

The Met is large enough, singers great enough, and die-hard fans die hard enough, to withstand the relentless packaging of the Met’s magic as readily consumable items for the pop aisle. This is my better hope. The paradox, however, is that it is the Met footprint’s sheer size that makes its every stomp register decisively in the wider world’s cultural Richter scale. All the talk about “opera as a whole theatrical experience” to me is code for things like: (a) Deborah Voigt’s gastric bypass being, in hindsight, genius, and Jane Eaglen born a generation later would have little chance of cultivating the Met career she had; (b) more Kristin Chenoweth, less Soile Isokoski; (c) regietheater of an American sort (i.e., corner of Broadway and Hollywood), etc. etc. (Interestingly, Renee Fleming, ever durable, fits both models.) We’ll see how hard Peter the Great will push; I'm deeply suspicious and regrettably skeptical. Meanwhile, the red carpet, Liz Smith, Times Square: the marketing of opera as social currency, beyond the power of the notes and the words, is a kind of a return to opera’s former self. Glamour and intrigue, made accessible to a casual public, craving headlines, so ready for any form of mutation and consumption. If there ever was a golden age of opera, opera as the realm of the voice above all else, it may have been what we just had.

14 September 2006


Handel SEMELE. New York City Opera, 13.IX.2006; c. Walker; Futral, Genaux (d), White, Sylvan, Hauman, Breault.

I used to go to the City Opera quite regularly, back when I could legally get those $10 student rush tickets, often for first row orchestra seats. My first Boheme, my first Turandot, my first Mathis der Maler... Then I happened upon a couple of tickets to a Die Zauberflöte across the plaza, with James Levine at the podium, and the rest is history. Since the great migration, I've only been back to the New York State Theater once, for Lauren Flanigan's hot Roberto Devereux, till last night. I was starving, and who can wait 2 more weeks for a fix, and a Semele couldn't be that bad if the likes of Elizabeth Futral and Vivica Genaux were headlining, right. From my balcony-box-equivalent seat (they lovingly call the fourth ring, as in Dante's Inferno), I felt like I was having a jelly sandwich on stale white bread (and I hate jelly). It was a three-hour jelly sandwich. I know we're absolutely prohibited from viewing at the City Opera in the same light as the Met (i.e., "NYCO: we're the Mets to the Met's Yankees"), and we're tired of discussing the auditorium's shameful acoustics, so I'm stopping this train right here because I'm just grateful to find Die Tote Stadt in New York's calendar this season.

Elizabeth Futral is a favorite of these Diaries because she is insane, and she came close to the expected level as Semele. But what truly makes baroque singing orgasmic is keeping true to the rapid runs while maintaining an evenly beautiful tone through the many minutes of da capo and still sounding like you could go for more, no sweat. Futral, however, has just enough talent (buttressed by magnificent balls) to pull off the notes, and was therefore too busy to worry about other things. Semele is a killer role, we should all agree to leave it to virtuoso baroque/bel canto specialists, and so Futral gets a "get out of jail free" card on this one. What she lacked in vocal style, she made up for in theatrics. Her Marilyn Monroe (or was it Christina Aguilera?) cavorted like she was the last jelly sandwich in the world. (I don't know what that means, it just sounded apt.) Vivica Genaux, debuting at the City Opera (if that counts for anything) as Ino/Juno, has a well-schooled, if a tad plain, contralto. A sort of Susan Graham-lite. I'd like to hear more of her (and in a different venue, please). The one singer who rose above the bland acoustics was Matthew White, whose buoyant countertenor alighted with a first-class softness, killing the subpar curve set by the rest of the cast. Maestro Antony Walker led with neither distinction nor fault, tolerating the cadaver-cold support of the continuo from the pit. (To paraphrase the Secretary of Defense, "we go to war with the orchestra we have, not the orchestra we want.")

Meanwhile, the "repackage and sell" operation across the plaza continues:

06 September 2006

Nessun dorma

For an art form that rests on centuries of repertoire and well-established tradition, the recent march by the Met (read: Gelb) towards new digital media is nothing short of revolutionary. Sieglinde, just emerging from summer slumber, can't keep up. (She can't even keep track of her tickets.) Here's a list of links; comments and thoughts to follow later this week (or next).

Met reaches groundbreaking agreements with unions and develops range of media partnerships [Met press release]
Met to broadcast live operas into movie theathers [NYT]
La Cieca: Tech talk [parterre.com]
Met announces plan to simulcast opera [AP]