31 March 2006

Leonore, Therapist

10:51pm, 28 March 2006, Met stage door. Karita Mattila charms Dean Lois Kirschenbaum and entourage.

09 March 2006

Debbie Does Callas

Verdi FORZA DEL DESTINO, Met 28.II.2006 & 07.III.2006; c. Noseda; Voigt, Licitra, Delavan, Komlosi, Pons, Ramey.

Of the current run of La Forza del Destino at the Met, I've seen two so far. I came away from the first one, on February 28, severely troubled by Deborah Voigt's current vocal condition. I spent the intervening days wondering how a voice that was so celestial, so enjoyably self-assured, so butter-easy could decay into an amorphous, turbid mass of sound, troubled from bottom to top. (Why is she postponing her Brünnhildes? Who talked her into those Salomes? How shrunken is her stomach, and can her system contain enough nutrition to last her through the brutal Convent Scene? Crisis.) All that anxiety evaporated by midnight of March 7, however, when Voigt took her curtain calls amidst a thunderous ovation, after what must be the most exhilirating performance I've seen her give since the Met Frosch revivals from two seasons ago. Rough patch, slight cold, insane mild/frigid cycle in temperature, too much Olympic curling on TV, residual Forza curse-- whatever the reasons are, fans of La Voigt can now exhale and rebook those Szszszsalome flights to D.C. and Chicago (and plan on being there for the Isoldes and the Brünnhildes), for the Debbie we know and love is still in the throat of that slim Nancy Grace figure ...

Well , not exactly. There are significant changes, to be sure, but none of the career-ending kind Brewer partisans have been praying for. The voice has shed some of its 'fat' (for lack of a better word), and while there's still an abundance of richness and cream, it's considerably more supple than before. Because a minor shrillness has infiltrated that patent mass of liquid sound, a capacity for dramatic nuance (the nature of spinto) is now more than possible. (Alas, she is human, after all.) Paradoxically, the Italian repertory is no longer a means to an end for her (i.e., to maintain the intrinsic agility and freshness of her voice, she says, as she slowly descends into the hardcore German dramatic repertory), but is now a legitimate artistic field of play. By shedding her body's excesses (via gastric bypass), she has become more exposed and vulnerable, more sensitive to the romantic sensibilities of women, and is therefore more game, both vocally and theatrically, to languish in the depths of the tragedy of a scorned lady. Her "Pace, pace, mio Dio" is an authentic, heartrending essay of high Verdian elegance.

Ariadne, the Empress, Sieglinde, Elsa, Elisabeth, Chrysothemis: her successes in the German repertory, these roles are simultaneously mythic and human, and they all benefited from the extreme celestial/ethereal/extraterrestrial quality of her young voice, the same feature which made her early Aidas, Ballo Amelias and Toscas mostly stale, stiff, and unmemorable. Now, however, there is more frailness to the vocal construction (for whatever reason), and to witness her push against Verdi is an exciting thing indeed. On the flip side, we may never experience the same orgiastic thrill in the German roles; she is an artist in transition, and that's the unavoidable trade-off.

While the Forza Leonora presents a more "mature" artist in Voigt, it also highlights two things: (a) the extreme vocal challenge of this role in particular, and (b) the unfortunate fallout of diminished "weight", as far as her top notes are concerned. Leonora is both a short and a long role for the soprano: short, in that she disappears from the stage for half of the opera, and long because she does 22 minutes of the most difficult Verdian soprano music nonstop (in the Convent Scene, with Guardiano and Melitone providing only the tiniest of breathers), and then comes back onstage at 11:30pm with a formidable aria to finish it all off. The duet with Guardiano that caps the said Convent Scene ends with Leonora frantically lunging up to exposed (and fermatad) top notes repeatedly, and a superhuman kind of stamina is needed to pull them off, after many, many minutes of singing jagged lyrical lines that span the full dynamic range. Voigt fails a handful of those notes in a big way, slightly flat and with a harsh screaming crescendo (though more so in the first than in the second evening I attended), and a number of them seemed to hurt her physically, as much as they hurt my ears. However, I wouldn't worry about the future of her Isolde and Brünnhilde, at least on these grounds, for while demanding his heroines to linger up above the staff, Wagner wrote with more gentle transitions and minimal register leaps (with the exception of the Hojotohos! and a small number of other instances). Verdi is unforgiving that way. What would be exciting to hear is how she navigates the impending Salomes, which demand both lyrical agility and Wagnerian thrust. It may be the most difficult test of her career.

This weekend's broadcast will be received by Voigt fans as an assurance that she's not on the fast track to retirement; by Italian/Verdian purists as a so-so venture or a mild affront into the most holy Italian repertory by an impostor (not since Milanov ...); by German partisans, who hoped for a darkening of Voigt's timbre instead of a decisive move to spinto, as a delicate conundrum; by opera lovers as a surprisingly admirable performance. As support, Maestro Gianandrea Noseda leads a nuanced, vivid, and consistently exciting account, and the rest of the cast is surprisingly above par. Salvatore Licitra's voice may show patches of dryness and laziness (especially in Act I), but he knows how to work it when it matters most (Act III). The brilliant Met orchestra has outdone itself once again.

07 March 2006

Mazeppa comes to the Met

Tchaikovsky MAZEPPA, Met (opera premiere) 06.III.2006; c. Gergiev; Guryakova, Diadkova, Balashov, Putilin, Burchuladze, Glassman.

Mazeppa doesn't have the lyrical polish associated with Tchaikovsky's more renowned operas Eugene Onegin and Queen of Spades. In the hands of the gruff Maestro Valery Gergiev, the opera reaches the Met with a thoroughly Russian flavor: dour, gray skies looming over every scene, nonetheless bombastic and brimming with fight. Gergiev transforms the usually urbane Met orchestra into a rusty farm tractor, which in this instance is not entirely inappropriate. The relentless rough and tumble energy emanating from the pit is exciting if a bit exhausting.

The title role of Mazeppa is sung powerfully by Nikolai Putilin, easily his best work at the Met to date. Likewise, the basso Paata Burchuladze, unmemorable elsewhere, turns in an affecting Kochubey. The home "turf" advantage continues with Larissa Diadkova, who as Lyubov produces a creamy, even grade A dramatic mezzo with more healthy heft than in recent outings. Oleg Balashov has a pint-sized tenor, which doesn't make an impression till the third act, when he achieves a surprisingly sympathetic Andrei, via a voice overcome by sweetness and desperation. As Maria, Olga Guryakova showcases an exquisite lyric soprano with a significant dramatic bent: expressive, beautiful, smooth and solid as a polished pearl, appropriately sized, easy top held up by an honest lower middle to chest: unlike a significant number of Russian singers populating the rosters of many major companies, she deserves the international career she has (and more). The Met should engage her in lyric Verdi (e.g. Luisa Miller, Trovatore Leonora).

Finally, the design team, led by Yuri Alexandrov (who debuts with this production), put together the worst thing I've ever seen on the Met stage. (See some photos here.) There are columns and huge carpets and statues and a faux proscenium whose top moves up and down to signify nothing but the lack of ideas and any sense of beauty. I've never seen so much red and gold in my life, for sure: folks in red costume in a red set flooded by red light (and the same for gold). Beyond Broadway, even. Moreover, the choreography and stage direction are amateurish and mostly meaningless, and detracted from the seriousness and majesty of Tchaikovsky's brooding masterpiece, as well as from the cast's magnificent vocal performance. Certainly a tremendous waste of Met resources and talent. That kind of utter crap isn't for this stage and this company. The design team should have gotten much louder boos than that.


From the blogosphere, Maury writes a more enthusiastic and thoroughly hilarious report about the production: "All I can say is it was like you were playing a Ukrainian history themed pinball machine and you hit the ball in the little hole all the way up top and got 100,000 points." Depends, of course, on how much pinball you like in your opera. I don't; some do. Meanwhile, Alex Wellsung argues passionately for another look: "(T)he connections are often dim, the colors are impetuous and sometimes maddening, the textures veer wildly between the opulent and the cheap...did I mention we're in Russia? Exactly. This is stagecraft that smuggles itself piece by piece into your brain then suddenly congeals and steps on all your neurons at once." I can't argue with any of that, except that I personally don't like anything congealing in my neurons without my permission.

As for the print media, mild-mannered Tony Tommasini of the NYT lets out his inner queen and fillets the production like I've never seen before: "(I)t is cluttered with symbolism and, for all its pomp and glitter, rather trashy looking. Seemingly intent on showing the story as a parable for the continuing sectarian strife of greater Russia, Mr. Alexandrov has given the opera an intergalactic gloss. Was George Lucas a design and concept consultant?" And over at the NY Sun, Fred Kirshnit tells of "a decapitation wherein the head of the paterfamilias is bounced the entire length of that slanted set and caught with the agility of a soccer goalie by our heroine, Maria. (If she had missed, the noggin might have ended up in the bell of the tuba.)," and goes on to say that "(a)ll that was missing were the Rockettes. In fact, a patron could watch this entire show and never once be distracted by the music."

An interesting cartography of the murky border between failure and flop appears in David Patrick Stearns' review in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "The production isn't a failure so much as it's a flop. As defined by theater historian Ken Mandelbaum, flops have their brilliant streaks that make bad decisions look worse, and often the purity of good intentions. This isn't some gleefully perverse take on an opera, but a sincere, if Donald Trump-style, effort to bring an undeservedly obscure opera to mainstream audiences." Therefore, in true Donald Trump-style, someone has got to get fired for such a "spectacular flop."