30 September 2008

The transformation is complete

A great number of you have e-mailed Sieglinde to ask where the heck is Sylvia Sass these days. OK, I'm kidding. But if you're wondering where she is, the internet found her! She's taking on a new yet painfully familiar role:

"It was not easy to convince Sylvia Sass to assume the role of a woman whose memory disturbed her own career and life as a woman ..."
Which role is it? Duh. If you're still as clueless as Sarah Palin is about, uh, anything, you'll find the answer here.

Peter Gelb is number 5

For many years, hospital leaders dominated the top ranks of The Chronicle's salary survey (of executive pay in nonprofit organizations)... This year, [... a] hospital executive claimed the number-one spot in the survey. James J. Mongan, chief executive of Partners HealthCare System, in Boston, which includes Massachusetts General Hospital, earned $1,371,399 in total compensation.

University presidents and arts executives took the next four spots of highest-paid chief executives in The Chronicle's survey. Henry S. Bienen, president of Northwestern University, took the second spot, receiving $1,342,595 — nearly twice his 2006 compensation of $690,333. [...]

Mr. Bienen was followed on the list by John E. Sexton, president of New York University, who earned $1,291,525. Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in Washington, took the fourth spot, with $1,017,690 in compensation. Fifth was Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera, who received $1,000,002.

29 September 2008

Paul Krugman, sage:

So what we now have is non-functional government in the face of a major crisis, because Congress includes a quorum of crazies and nobody trusts the White House an inch.

As a friend said last night, we’ve become a banana republic with nukes.

Opening night at parterre

The Lady asked for Champagne, but the television crew had roped off the path to the nearest bar so that Martha Stewart could do an on-air interlude. When I finally made it to the bar by a flanking maneuver, I was told that Ms. Stewart had got the last of the Louis Roederer. Her half-empty bottle was right beside me, but with two television cameras rolling, it seemed an inopportune time to make my debut as a Champagne thief. Even great institutions have their weaknesses, and at the Met, it’s the house sparkling wine ...
Upper box denizens like Sieglinde are amused that a foreign world exists a mere few levels down.

26 September 2008

The blind leading the cast

Ponchielli LA GIOCONDA, Met 24.IX.2008; c. Callegari (d); Voigt, Borodina, Podles, Machado, Guelfi.

What an unusual evening. As Steve Smith correctly noted, two minor roles garnered the bulk of the ovation. First: Ewa Podles, of course, in the role of La Cieca (pictured above), who hasn't been seen on this stage since, oh, I was closeted and in elementary school. Podles's primary talent is to sound like she's singing a full octave lower than written, and with a volume to match any cavernous space: queens like that sort of thing. The other crowd favorite: ballet superstar Angel Corella (and his girl partner what's-her-name), whose primary talent is to have the roundest buttocks ever, and the rare ability to uplift Ponchielli's music into a rousing twirlfest: queens like that sort of thing too.

But the highlight of my evening was Olga Borodina. I've never truly raved about this mezzo. Borodina has been churning out lovely, polished and professional performances, but till recently, her sound, to my ears, had been a tad turbid and muffled, at times charcoal grey if it were a color, never catching my devoted fancy in any role, save perhaps the Dalila. Indeed I may be developing tumors in my ears (how you wish), because how is it that she sounds like a different singer today? I first noticed the change in the Verdi Requiem for Pavarotti last week (yes, I found a way to sneak in; I may get to writing about it, if I don't get too drunk this weekend). Then in this Gioconda, my observation has been bolstered: her current sound seems to have developed a spine, a more direct, cutting line that could enunciate the tune more effectively. Add to that her innate musicality and dramatic intelligence, and we now have a formidable mezzo to carry on from Dolora Zajick.

As tradition dictates, let's now state the obvious: Deborah Voigt, we love her, but she does not have the right sound or temperament for this role, or any Italian role for that matter. So the most she could try for is a clean performance, which she delivered with some tension but with solid gusto. Why she's not pouring her efforts exclusively into roles like Elektra or Brunnhilde (which will happen eventually, but why not this season??) may be more about economic positioning-- like dear Karita Mattila choosing to waste her time on silly but lucrative things like Manon Lescaut and Tosca. But anyway, a strong Gioconda is absolutely needed to distract us from the opera's majestic emptiness-- for instance, an Aprile Millo (who was spotted sitting in the director's box by a friend! what could it mean?) or somesuch. Even Violeta Urmana from two years ago made a far better impression.

Nonfactors: Aquiles Machado and Carlo Guelfi. The conductor, Daniele Callegari, debuted with a soporific reading of the score. Not good for a performance ending after midnight.

Operatic duets

Sieglinde plays the role of "Fleming flapper" eagerly, and with absolute joy; La Cieca zealously plays hers. (I'll leave you to conjure creative names for it.) So no news, no surprises, let's move along ... to the the inaugural issue of Sieglinde's version of the *yawn* Regie quiz! Which opera would the following scene be, if it were an opera production in Paris or Dresden?

24 September 2008

This season's Salome: low-calorie, less fat, and with no artificial sweeteners

Strauss SALOME, Met 23.IX.2008; c. Summers; Mattila, Uusitalo, Begley, Komlosi, Kaiser, Glassman, Schaufer.

Anyone know what happened to Mikko Franck, that Finnish conductor born after you and your friends and everyone else on earth (1979!!)? Because we need him badly. Because Maestro Patrick Summers, chosen to replace him on the Salome roster, is god-awful b-o-o-o-o-o-r-i-n-g. Why did Mikko cancel? Or was he forced out? Anyway, Summers' work was superficially bombastic but lacked any real ecstasy or urgency. Maestro Valery Gergiev, who led when this production premiered with Karita Mattila a few years ago, brought a sense of spine-tingling thrill of a very sacrilegious sort, such that when the woodwinds trembled, you did too. No matter how many times I'd seen it, I still shivered every time Gergiev hushed the orchestra to an eerie hum. But last night it was karaoke night at the Met, with an utterly faceless, routine soundtrack emanating from this huge, inexplicable hole at the foot of the stage.

Karita Mattila was more sensational in the first half of the opera. During her one-way courtship with Jochanaan, I was floored by the sheer magnitude and force of her voice, and excited for what's to come later in the evening. Her final scene, however, was not as overwhelming as before. I recall her heaving and panting during her frightening exclamations over Jochanaan's head in this production's prima season in 2004, while still keeping the level of steel and edge in the voice throughout the entire scene. I remember, because I was also heaving and panting in my seat. This time, however, I had the impression that she was holding back. This may be quibbling, so feel free to ignore me. Perhaps she set the bar too high, that's the danger of virtuosity. But then even comparing with the intensity and power in the voice earlier in the evening, I thought there was a noticeable diminution. The energy deficit in the pit didn't help. (Meanwhile, all seven "veils" were shed exactly like before, in case you're interested.)

Kim Begley's Herod lacked sufficient madness. Allan Glassman, who was on stage as the First Jew, should have been picked for this role. Glassman, who has the right kind of neurotic tenor, made a great impression when he filled in for Siegfried Jerusalem in the previous cast. Begley sounded too rational and kind, not the qualities we like in this role. Ildiko Komlosi was a sufficiently unbalanced Herodias. Morris Robinson comes back as the best First Nazarene in the universe, wonderful news! Joseph Kaiser and Lucy Shaufer, as Narraboth and the page respectively, provided welcome excitement, with truly superb voices and full commitment. Debutante Juha Uusitalo, as the guy who sparked all the insanity, was just ok.

23 September 2008

Quick roundup before moving on to Salome

A quick survey of our local bloggers reveals Sieglinde may be the only one actually inside the Met on opening night. Even Sarah, an unqualified Renée devotée, sat in front of some giant screen. (Where were you, dear?) La Cieca was all over the place, except inside. Alex Ross, who's usually outdoors with the masses on opening night, is understandably busy figuring out what to do with half a million dollars. Meanwhile, AUV went to the movies. He didn't like the Capriccio scene at all, the very scene I thought was the highlight of the evening. This is the problem with simulcasts: things like repeated close-ups of an awkwardly vogueing diva can steal the focus away from the music and the voice. Add the souped up acoustics, which boosts any sound and denies any reward for true fortes, and you get a distorted view. The live performance is, indeed, a unique thrill. Was Opera Chic there? If so, she (or an accomplice) had access to a press pass, to explain her exclusive paparazzi shots, which appear to have been taken from a press-only vantage point (cf. Sieglinde's photos taken from among the middle class gawkers.) We especially love the Austin shots.

UPDATE: Turns out Opera Chic's "exclusive" paparazzi shots are nothing but Getty Images photos. More can be found here.

Renée Fleming's Really Huge Opening

Metropolitan Opera Opening Night Gala, starring Renée Fleming. Verdi LA TRAVIATA, Act II; Massenet MANON, Act III; Strauss CAPRICCIO, final scene; Fleming, Vargas, Hampson, c. Levine, c. Armiliato, c. Summers.

Five scenes of spectacular singing, despite bad hair. To begin: at Violetta and Alfredo's country house, Renée Fleming felt obliged to show off all her skill and sheer vocal beauty immediately, so she mostly wallowed in self-indulgent sighing and sliding and honey-on-caramel vocalization. No character development here: it's a show for the show. But we still gladly ate it up. The first surprise: last night's "Amami Alfredo" is her best yet. Levine stretched it out and modulated the dynamics to Wagnerian proportions. Renée responded accordingly, the voice cutting through the tremulous strings with a ravishing bloom. By Flora's party, she's back to form, distilling beauty and emotion into a more quiet vocalization. The magnificent Christian Lacroix for this scene was the sole couture winner of the evening.

At the Cours la Reine, Renée tried to channel Anna Netrebko, with little success. It's a brainless scene anyway, so she's entitled to appear brainless. The aria, however, was delivered with customary precision. At St. Sulpice, however, she pulled it back together, reminding me why she's a once-in-a-generation Manon. With a capable sparring partner in Ramon Vargas, Renée caressed Massenet's sensual tunes with uncommon style, so that it was easy to ignore the monstrous Karl Lagerfeld drapery and that hair. (Whoever formulated those wigs must really hate Renée's guts.) Anyway, if Vargas were a bit hunkier and a bit taller and a lot more handsome, he's be such the perfect leading man for Renée: with that sweet voice, and that voice alone, he deserved to open the Met season too. Bottom line: St. Sulpice remains among Renée's greatest creations.

The final scene of Capriccio was the highlight of the evening. Two things distracted a bit: again, the John Galliano frock, especially that awful coat, and again the hair; and Renée touching herself way too much. Granted, it's a monologue with significant orchestral interludes, so that the Gräfin, lost in thought, is left raw and exposed to inhabit the big mansion of a set. When Dame Kiri did Capriccio the last time she and it were on the Met stage (for a full opera, that is), she chose simply to stand in various places and look out to the invisible horizon in contemplative poses, and what little self-touching she did conveyed much more sensuality than Renée's completely tasteless stage direction. It may have been that Renée was compelled to physicalize what should have been obvious had the audience seen the entire opera. But even so, it was just too much. Honestly, I thought she was going to masturbate on stage.

But the soaring Strauss, and a voice that is just perfect for it, made up for all that silliness. Maestro Patrick Summers has complete rapport with Renée, pushing the orchestra to the hilt, and taking her up to the stratospheric fortes with such ease. At certain points of the monologue, I thought, wow, this girl could sing Salome's final scene. No, not the whole opera, just the final scene. In concert, a la Leontyne Price. Renée, when properly warmed up, has just the juice for these kinds of things: the combination of sweetness and soaring power, with an uncomplicated instinct for Strauss. This voice is just made for Strauss.

Roll out the red carpet, they will come

I stood by the carpet for only ten minutes. About seven minutes prior to the published curtain, I rushed to the get in. Ebullient Regis Philbin, arm in arm with wife Joy, was in front of me, doing a schtick about needing a cocktail now! Hey, that's my schtick too, I thought.


To Alex Ross, genius.

11 September 2008

Issue 1

What actually happens when one puts lipstick on a pig? NPR is on the case.

10 September 2008

End of the world

Has the Large Hadron Collider destroyed the earth yet? Answer can be found here. (If "lipstick on a pig" is the biggest political issue of the world today, then maybe we need to generate a much bigger black hole to swallow us all.)

08 September 2008

Peter Gelb, be cursed

I didn't win the Requiem lotto. It's easily the stupidest thing Gelb's team has done so far: to shake it up and allow randomness to determine the audience of a rare operatic event. There are fanatics who would sacrifice a day to be first in line for Barbara Frittoli's Libera Me (namely me), but Gelb decided to ignore the truly devoted for some version of random democracy. Mr. Gelb, fetishism and fanaticism ain't democratic, stop f*cking with it.