28 January 2009

Wintry mix

[Rain is now washing all the snow away; I'm staying in.]

1. Here's an interesting pictorial summary of the Bush presidency.
2. Today is the deadline for video submissions to the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. Winning musicians will get to add the first 21st century reply to the age-old question "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"
3. How convenient for Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon that tomorrow's scheduled Sirius satellite radio broadcast of Lucia di Lammermoor has been "postponed" to Tuesday next week. (Read the note about the schedule change at the top of Sirius's website.) We all know why.
4. OONY needs a bailout too.
5. There's nothing going on in Chicago in 2009-10. San Francisco, on the other hand, has some curiosities: among others, Nadja Michael's Salome and Deborah Voigt's Minnie. We in New York won't see Michael till the 2011-12 season, as Lady Macbeth; hopefully she'll still have some voice left. And regarding Voigt, it seems she's sticking to the German rep. in town, wisely keeping the disasters elsewhere.
6. I'm having my biggest Valentine yet.
7. Ouch! YouTube has Netrebko's sad Mad Scene and Villazon's so-called "dramatic coup" (according to Tommasini) from that Lucia.

27 January 2009

Nine full seconds of high drama

There are a number of crotch scratchers in Anthony Tommasini's Met Lucia puff piece, but this one is by far the itchiest:

At one point he turned an aborted high note into a dramatic coup. It came during the wedding scene, when Edgardo denounces Lucia for her faithlessness in an unaccompanied phrase. Mr. Villazón, a compelling actor, broke off the note he was struggling with, looked at Ms. Netrebko menacingly in silence, cleared his throat, then sang it again, this time with vehemence.
With a spin so audacious it would make Dick Cheney warm inside, Tommasini graciously throws Rolando Villazon's career a crucial lifeline. But since Tommasini has little credibility, we'll just file this one under "what crap", burp, and move on to more pressing matters of the day.

A Lucia to forget

Donizetti LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR, Met 26.I.2009; c. Armiliato; Netrebko, Villazon, Kwiecien, Abdrazakov.

That was weird. The house was packed, but the usual four gays making really delicious "dumplings" weren't up at their perches. Sirius wasn't there either. Was there an advance agreement to not document this disastrous evening? It was, after all, the return of beloved Rolando Villazon, after nearly two years of absence at the Met, as well as the return of also-beloved Anna Netrebko, after a one-year break to spawn. The dumpling makers sure missed one hell of an evening.*

Rolando Villazon will be studied for years to come as an example of how not to build a career. A beautiful light-lyric tenor of immense expressive quality, but owned by one who thought it could do more: so we arrive at this teetering place, an early precipice for such a young man. To be fair, much of his allure stems the kind of old-school intensity he brings to any role, always leaving the audience rabidly thrilled to witness a singer double down and win. The problem, of course, is when the singer loses. During last night's performance, in Act II, after the lovely sextet and just before the rousing chorus that ends the act (the one Verdi nicely stole for his Nabucco), Villazon lost, in a falter most raw and naked.

Disaster struck at "Ah! ma di Dio la mano irata vi disperda". As written, the "ta" in "irata" is an A-natural, but tenors usually linger in a discretionary fermata, and lunge up stylishly to a B-flat (?) for effect, before collapsing down to earth. When done correctly, the effect is extremely virile and exciting, especially because the orchestra, on this note, is completely at rest. The tenor is alone, cursing in his dramatic masculinity. Thus, you can imagine the pin-drop hush that occurred when Villazon, already showing much strain in the voice up to that point, held the A for a couple of seconds, attempted to lunge up but failed, instead cutting for a cough, and permitting a silence that lasted a full nine seconds. My binoculars were trained on Villazon at this moment: I saw nothing but a petrified face staring at Anna Netrebko's shocked face. After the eternity of nine seconds, Villazon then restarted with the A-natural "ta", but opted to just descend the staff to complete his line, defeated.

Peter Gelb came out before Act III to announce that "I'm sure you've heard this evening that Rolando Villazon is not feeling well, but he doesn't want to disappoint you, so he bravely agreed to sing the final act, blah blah blah ..." Sure enough, as it always happens after such indulgences, the singer comes out renewed. The first scene happened without grave incident, save for a couple of rough top notes and a skipped line here and there. Villazon's tomb scene, however, sizzled with the kind of heat few tenors can manufacture. He ended the evening OK, the underdog-loving American audience rewarding him with a rousing ovation. I sure hope, however, that this doesn't become de rigueur for a Villazon evening.

Anna Netrebko, on the other hand, ended disastrously, receiving no love from the audience, beyond the routine bravas from standing room. Which was strange, because (a) I thought she's finally maturing as a singer, and (b) she improved on Natalie Dessay's grossly hyperkinetic and schizophrenic Bollywood Lucia from this production's premiere season. Her top, however, is in distress: the high D's and such were all high D-flats and such, and none of her cadenzas flirted with the upper register to any satisfying degree. Also, the aggregate volume of her voice appears to now be substantially smaller. She used to inhabit the space between forte and fortissimo, rattling the chandelier crystals even in such delicate roles as Mimi and Gilda. Last night, there was a discernible scaling back, which took away the visceral thrill I experience in witnessing superhuman powers, but replaced by a new appreciation for her wider emotional and dramatic range. Her pianos were heartrending, and her floated F's, G's and A's ravishing. Nonetheless, Lucia is so much about confident acuti and fioriture, which Netrebko just didn't (doesn't) possess. And unfortunately, the Mad Scene ended embarrassingly, with a loud whirr masquerading as a top note, eliciting perhaps the shortest and quietest ovation given to a soprano after a Mad Scene. It was sad. The three men who were supposed to carry her limp body slowly back up the grand staircase during the (expected) ovation didn't even get a chance to make their first ascending step. After a few seconds of applause (oh, I can't bear the shame!), it was unanimously agreed that the evening move on to the final scene.

*ADDED NOTE: apparently, there's a fifth gay that I don't know about.

Met Futures: 2009-10 season falling into place

We bring some more updates to the 2009-10 Met season from our intrepid research team of Brad and Wilber. (Formal announcement of the upcoming season is reported to be earlier than expected--sometime in February, rather than March.)

For Tosca, George Gagnidze joins Juha Uusitalo and Bryn Terfel as Scarpia. Uusitalo will be Scarpia on opening night. Also, Marcello Giordani will join the cast in later performances as Cavaradossi.

For Il Trittico, Stephanie Blythe reprises Frugola/Principessa/Zita, while Heidi Grant Murphy reprises Suor Genovieffa.

For Stiffelio, Angela Marambio has been added to the cast as Lina.

For Armida, the six tenor roles have been assigned as follows: Lawrence Brownlee is Rinaldo, Bruce Ford is Goffredo, Jose Manuel Zapata is Gernando, Barry Banks is Carlo, Kobie van Rensburg is Ubaldo, and Javier Camarena is Eustazio.

In addition, the 2010-11 Met season gets the following updates: For Le Comte Ory, Stephane Degout sings Raimbaud, while Michele Pertusi has been assigned the role of The Tutor.

21 January 2009

Day 1

Is he really, really sitting in that chair? Seriously, no one wake me up from this dream.

20 January 2009


No words, just song.

19 January 2009

Met website now a better tool for the obsessed

If you're like Sieglinde, you're absolutely obsessed about where to sit at the Met. Good news! The Met has upgraded their online ticketing service. Online buyers now have the opportunity to purchase tickets for the exact seats of their choice. Instead of giving you "best available" seating (sez who, I say), you'll now be presented with a chart of the section your salary can afford, along with an up-to-date map of available seats. (For instance, pictured above is the map of the balcony and balcony boxes for next week's Orfeo.)

Click on a performance and give it a spin. The system hasn't been stable lately, as they're probably ironing out minor technical glitches. But isn't this exciting?? Yet another website to stalk every single day! (Meanwhile, Sieglinde suggests the next upgrade should be a more detailed map indicating the location of candy-unwrappers and retirees who only occasionally bathe.)

You got a few minutes for Sieglinde?

So first, go check out Renée Fleming's stellar performance at the Obama concert at the Lincoln Memorial yesterday. Isn't she just the national treasure that Angela Gheorghiu is not?

OK, so if you had four minutes for Renée, I'm sure you can spare a few more, this time to help cure diseases that have plagued our favorite soprano roles in the repertory. Seriously now ...

With hundreds of billions of dollars being dispersed among failed banks without much discussion, and with the cost of unnecessary wars escalating to unfathomable proportions, I'd be surprised if you don't fall off your chair (or bed, or pedestal, wherever) when I tell you that the National Institutes of Health, the primary source of funding for medical and biological research in our nation's universities and institutes, only has an annual budget of $29 billion. While medical challenges have multiplied, the NIH budget has not grown significantly in the last five years. Moreover, this sum diminishes dramatically as soon as it's partitioned among the many research goals currently under way, including efforts to cure cancer, AIDS, and other diseases, as well as promising avenues such as stem-cell techonologies, genomic and biomolecular studies, and other basic science investigations.

Obama's Economic Stimulus Package calls for an increase of $3.9 billion in the NIH budget, which, while larger than in previous years, still falls short of Obama's promise to reinvigorate science and technology in America. Various advocacy groups, with the support of Senator Arlen Specter (of Pennsylvania), have called this the right time to "think big", calling for the NIH to be a key element in stimulating the economy by supporting our financially imperiled universities, while making the right long-term investment in our intellectual infrastructure by ensuring that current and future scientists are supported and nurtured. The increase for the NIH budget that Senator Specter will be requesting in the Senate bill is $10 billion.

I strongly urge all of you to contact your senators and representatives by phone and/or e-mail to voice your support for Senator Specter's call for an increase of $10 billion for the NIH. It's really, really easy. You can use the automated system that the Society for Neuroscience (SfN) has set up to identify your representatives based on your zipcode and send already formulated e-mails to them directly. Believe me, these legislators pay some attention to the volume of e-mails, letters, and phone calls their offices receive when they deliberate on these things. Be counted as a supporter of science and research, and make sure your congressional representatives know.

18 January 2009

U-huh yeah, we need one more recording of that one

Angela Gheorghiu records Madama Butterfly in the studio, a role she's not sung on stage. (Can you just hear her say "Eat that, Renée".) There's a promotional YouTube from EMI (via Mostly Opera), where you'll see Gheorghiu's extravagant hand gestures and hear Callas in stereo. (Truly.) You'll also see tenor/porn star Jonas Kaufmann looking totally spicy in jeans. (I mean, who doesn't want to have a baby with his virile Pinkerton, I'd like to know.) My only question: in the dying age of studio recordings, who did Maestro Antonio Pappano threaten to sleep with to buck the trend?

The emancipation of Gilda

Fun Sunday fact:

Not yet 3 years old, Mariah Carey overheard her opera singer mom rehearsing Verdi's Rigoletto and replicated it herself. "I missed my cue, but Mariah didn't," says Patricia Carey. "She sang it – in Italian – at exactly the right point."

16 January 2009

Recession reaches operatic proportions

(The Met's) once-mighty endowment of more than $300 million has dropped by a third, to a point where it cannot be drawn from; donations are down by $10 million this season; and ticket sales are expected to be off by several million dollars from what was expected, Mr. Gelb said in an interview.

Mr. Gelb said that he and senior staff members have taken a 10 percent pay cut and that the rest of the staff would do so at the end of the fiscal year, which concludes after the season. He said at least four expensive productions have been canceled or replaced next season as well.

The good news? The Met has scrapped plans for a cumulative 8 percent increase in ticket prices. “We think people can’t afford them,” Mr. Gelb said. Ticket prices now range from $15 to $375. But the decision also means less revenue.
Another potential good news: the recession may also force the Met to reinstate some subscriber perks lost this season, including free and instant ticket exchanges upon signing up for full subscriptions. And perhaps another: we may not see a line this crazy for a number of years. (I was there.)

15 January 2009

Met Futures: the dead of winter edition

First of all, brrrrrrrrrr!

Meanwhile, it's looking like the schedule for the next Met season is nearing completion. I have updated the Met Futures Page to incorporate Brad Wilber's new information. Here's a summary of the many changes:

For Die Zauberflöte, the conductors will be Bernard Labadie, in his Met debut, and Adam Fischer.

For Aida, Marianne Cornetti and Ambrogio Maestri have been deleted from the cast (as Amneris and Amonasro respecitvely); Carlo Colomara will sing some Ramfis; Kings of Egypt will be Stefan Kocan, in his Met debut, and Keith Miller. Paolo Carignani will share conducting duties with Daniele Gatti.

For Turandot, Salvatore Licitra will now share the role of Calaf with Giordani and Poretta; Marina Poplavskaya will do some Lius.

For From the House of the Dead, Willard White has been tapped for the lead role of Goranshikov; Richard Paul Fink has been deleted from the cast; Eric Stoklossa is singing Aljeja in his Met debut.

For Elektra, Susan Bullock will debut at the Met as Elektra, with Deborah Voigt reprising the role of Chrysothemis. In addition, Felicity Palmer will sing Klytamnestra, and Alan Held will sing Orest. Maestro Fabio Luisi conducts the entire run.

For Carmen, both Brandon Jovanovich, in his Met debut, and Jonas Kaufmann have been added as Don Jose; Kate Royal has been deleted from the cast list (as Micaela); Teddy Tahu Rhodes has been added as Escamillo.

For Ariadne auf Naxos, Nina Stemme takes the title role, while Zerbinetta will be Aleksandra Kurzak, the Komponist will be Sarah Connolly, and Bacchus will be Lance Ryan in his Met debut; Maestro Kirill Petrenko will lead.

For La Boheme, Gerald Finley replaces Marcus Kwiecien as Marcello.

For Hamlet, Toby Spence will debut at the Met as Laerte.

For Armida, Eric Cutler has been removed from the list of tenors. Currently, the six tenors are Lawrence Brownlee, Bruce Ford, Juan Manuel Zapata, Barry Banks, Kobie van Rensburg, and Javier Camarena (in his Met debut), but we do not yet have firm information on specific role assignments; Keith Miller has been added for the role of Astarotte.

For Der Fliegende Hollander, Stephen Gould will be the lone Erik, deleting Johan Botha from the cast; Wendy White will be Mary and Russell Thomas will be Steersman.

For Lulu, Michael Schade has been added to the cast as Black Man/Painter.

14 January 2009

Plebeian opera

Opera lovers hope Mr. (George R.) Steel’s arrival (as general manager and artistic director) will quell the turbulent plotlines at what many consider the nation’s second most important house. Founded in 1943, with help from Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia, as the “people’s opera,” City Opera has the mission of offering accessible, affordable, innovative productions hospitable to young American singers.
I'd like to know who the "many" are who consider the City Opera as the nation's second most important opera house. But more than that, the notion that the City Opera is the "people's opera" (vs. the Met) is now myth. For instance, I considered attending the City Opera's concert performance of Antony and Cleopatra, but was discouraged by the price of the minimally acceptable seats at Carnegie Hall. I absolutely hate the acoustic quality of the rear balcony ($25), and can barely suffer the front balcony ($55, cf. the Met's comfy side box seats at $16.50). Are they kidding? I would need some of them TARP funds to do this one.

Hard to swallow

Puccini LA RONDINE, Met 07.I.2009 and 13.I.2009; c. Armiliato; Gheorghiu/O'Flynn, Alagna, Oropesa, Brenciu, Ramey/Courtney.

The absence of the diva in last night's La Rondine revealed just how little there is in this Puccini work, as well as in this particular production. La Rondine's plush melodies remained beautiful, but without a multi-dimensional Magda they fell mostly to the saccharine ranks of operetta. More accurately, the need may be for a multi-dimensional diva to imbue Magda with at least some flavor and mystery. Angela Gheorghiu, whom I saw last week (pictured above), is right for the role, and I can appreciate why she thinks it her mission to take it on a tour of the world's opera houses. Gheorghiu, in silence, can still command your attention, effectively steering you away from the gaps and uninteresting trivialities, composed mainly by the supporting cast. (I will not enumerate; you know who they are.) I exclude Roberto Alagna, whose voice isn't quite holding up, but whose sex appeal and swagger still win my heart every time.

But last night, cover Maureen O'Flynn stepped in for an ill Gheorghiu (and she better be really, really ill, and not just resting from the high-stakes HD simulcast over the weekend). I've heard O'Flynn a number of times throughout the years. The first time was Gilda, back when she still had resplendent top notes, masterfully accurate and resonant. I was there when she subbed for an ailing Natalie Dessay in Romeo et Juliette; I actually preferred her soft Juliette to Dessay's usual elaborate overbearing excess. There was a Violetta or two, at par with the extensive roster of singers that have sung it at the Met in the past decade. Currently, however, it seems to me that her top notes have begun to lose their sheen. It's thinned out considerably, at times labored and pushed. Her middle range, unmemorable to begin with, is devoid of any complexity or weight, struggling to rise above Puccini's rich orchestra.

When people say that role X fits diva Y perfectly, as if the composer wrote specifically for her, I roll my eyes. But in this case, it's a true characterization: Angela Gheorghiu is the perfect Swallow (feel free to now roll your eyes). Her top notes remain brilliant, but it's the rest of her voice that performs the magical task of sustaining interest throughout the opera. Stage presence, histrionics, mannerisms all worked to perfection. The natural melancholic tint of her lyrical voice provided the welcome pathos. And her interaction with her husband is a further layer of thrill, stoking the voyeur in everyone.

Maestro Marco Armiliato led with overflowing life and joy, boisterous as a young lover, naive and sentimental. He conducted without a score (as his usual practice), but this time, on the podium desk rested two little heart-shaped paper cutouts, which during breaks in the music he studiously put side by side if they ever got out of position. After the last note of the opera was played, he picked both up and threw them lightly in the air.

13 January 2009

Still here

With a promise to end my exile, soon.