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Editor's Desk

The Distancing Effect

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Listening) Permanent link

When the 2012 Grammy Award nominations were announced recently, Ian Bostridge's name was prominent on the list — in the category of Best Classical Vocal Solo, for his EMI CD Three Baroque Tenors. It's Bostridge's twelfth Grammy nomination, and he's won twice before — a remarkable achievement for an artist who spends most of his artistic life quite outside the classical-music mainstream.

I heard Bostridge most recently on November 28, when he appeared in recital at Carnegie Hall accompanied at the piano by composer Thomas Adès. It was a strange — also strangely memorable — evening that I'm still puzzling over to some extent. Bostridge has always spiked his recitals with peculiar poses and lurches about the stage that often make it difficult to determine exactly what his specific motivation might be. He did so again at the Carnegie Hall performance, and he was matched moment by moment by Adès, who attacked the keyboard almost ferociously at times, punching out individual notes rather than sculpting phrases. One odd detail about Adès's playing: he often picked up one hand from the keyboard and stared at it momentarily, as if he was surprised that it had shown up for the performance. The overall effect was that the music sometimes seemed pulled instead of merely allowed to take shape. This unnerved me most of all during their performance of Schumann's Dichterliebe which has to go down as one of the most eccentric performances of this cycle I've ever heard. The entire recital was built around the theme of loss and personal isolation, so many of their choices made sense dramatically. Yet underneath it all, I had a strong feeling — which I'm encountering in performance more and more these days — that the artists onstage weren't particularly interested in bringing the audience into the experience of portraying alienation. For me, the high point was Dowland's magnificent "In Darkness Let Me Dwell." I couldn't help but wish that more of the recital had managed to be so chillingly desolate and illuminating at the same time. spacer 


The Classics Laid Bare

(Observations, Oussama Zahr, Performances, Keeping it Local, New York City, Theater) Permanent link

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Derek Jacobi as Lear in Michael Grandage's production, currently at BAM
© Johan Persson

Perhaps the best way to preview Michael Grandage's new production of Don Giovanni, due at the Met this fall, is to see his staging of King Lear, playing at BAM until June 5. The works have some things in common — the necessity of vivid, meaningful ensemble work; a descent into wildness as night falls halfway through the show; and a seminal place in each artist's oeuvre in competition with a sometimes more widely esteemed work (Le Nozze di Figaro, Hamlet). Of course, both protagonists spend a good deal of time with their shirts unbuttoned, too, though for admittedly different reasons.

Don Giovanni and King Lear share a common pitfall, too: they can both fall victim to pageantry. Grandage strips the stage naked for his Lear, leaving rows of planks upon which the action unfolds. The play benefits from quick, seamless transitions between scenes, thanks to the unit set, which puts a burning emphasis on the interaction between characters.

But that doesn't necessarily mean the Don Giovanni will go without eye-popping designs. The Donmar Warehouse, where Grandage is artistic director, has shown another way to humanize a classical work. For its sizzling Broadway production of Mary Stuart from 2009, the battling queens were sumptuously attired in period fashions — a visual feast against a spare background that threw into relief both the costumes and Schiller's ornate language.

Either way, if Grandage brings this kind of depth and humanity to Mozart, Met-goers are in for a real treat. spacer 


Memory Play

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances) Permanent link

The Queen of Spades is one of my favorite operas, and I was very happy to attend the Met's revival of its Elijah Moshinsky production on March 15. But one thing kept nagging at me throughout the performance: why cast Dolora Zajick as the old Countess? I think this was a blunder, for reasons that don't have to do with Zajick's abilities. She certainly sang the role well — particularly in the second act, when the Countess recalls a few lines from Grétry's Richard Coeur de Lion. But Zajick is still in excellent vocal shape, still performing leading mezzo roles — she is still very much a force to be reckoned with on the international stage.

I think this is key to the casting of the Countess: as Mark Thomas Ketterson touches on in his "Coda" in the March issue of OPERA NEWS, the audience's memories of the star singing the role should bring with her a certain gravitas, an emotional connection from the past that matches up with the Countess's own sad, backward glance. We need to be aware that it is really is an older woman up there — not a healthy, vibrant woman in her mid-fifties. It's what gives the role its real punch: our feelings about the aging singer and what she gave us over her long career play into the performance itself. I'm reminded of Elaine Stritch's observation that women in their forties and fifties have no business singing Stephen Sondheim's "I'm Still Here."

My choice for the Countess would have been Renata Scotto: she has more magnetic glamour than ever, and even though she's seventy-seven, I'll bet she could have sung the role superbly. Any other suggestions? spacer 


Around the Town

(Performances, Louise Guinther, Keeping it Local) Permanent link

For a music-lover, it's always a kick to re-encounter the figures who, in an earlier stage of one's life, were inspirational and influential in shaping one's passions. In January, I dropped in at Symphony Space, where Richard Wilson — head of the music department at my alma mater, Vassar, and my all-time favorite professor — was conducting the staged premiere of his only opera (so far), Aethelred the Unready. I had heard it in a concert version a few years back and was more than curious to see what a director could do with the very fanciful story line of the Anglo-Saxon king whose unfortunate sobriquet so irritates his wife throughout their afterlife together that she prods him to appeal to the Muse of History to have his reputation adjusted for posterity. The score is on the prickly side, with its jagged vocal lines defying any impulse toward lyricism, but felicitous strokes of humorous orchestration abound throughout, and the libretto (Mr. Wilson's own) is imbued with all the wit and whimsy I remember from his lectures. In a performance such as the one at Symphony Space, where the diction was almost miraculously comprehensible and the simple, straightforward and clever staging further clarified the plot, the antics of the helpless Aethelred as he visits a Publicist and a Hypnotist in preparation for his appearance before the intimidating and memory-challenged Muse kept the audience thoroughly engaged.

On a more recent weekend, an invitation from a fellow Vassar alum, who was the most dedicated and instinctively musical of the Madrigal Singers when we were in school together, drew me to the Aaron Copland School of Music, to see what the Queens College Opera Studio was up to this season. The young voices in a David Ronis's tidy, attractive staging of Dominick Argento's Postcard from Morocco were strikingly well prepared and, under the tutelage of music director James John, more than up to the considerable challenges of Argento's tricky rhythms and rangy, harmonically difficult vocal writing. 

It's tempting for New Yorkers like me, who have the privilege of regularly attending live performances at the Metropolitan Opera, to allow their view of the city's opera-life to become entirely Met-centric. But these two recent forays into smaller-scale operatic ventures have whetted my appetite for more. Instead of paling by comparison with the productions of the big house on Broadway, I find each enhances my appreciation of the other. spacer 


Vintage Domingo

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther) Permanent link
Watching Plácido Domingo as Oreste on the recent opening night of Iphigénie en Tauride at the Met (Feb. 12), I could not help wondering whether the opera world will ever again have a superstar so utterly dedicated to serving the music at hand as it has in its current “grand old man.”

In late-career, Domingo has wisely relinquished most of the familiar roles with which he was closely associated in his prime and sought out lesser known areas of the repertoire that don’t tax his vocal resources but do give him scope to display his undiminished gifts for shaping expressive phrases, coloring his sound and pouring himself into a role with unstinting passion and intensity. 
Oreste is by no means a show-off role, musically or dramatically: there are no prolonged high notes, no long, lyrical melodies to spin, and the character, mired in the agony of his unhappy destiny, has no moments to display the sort of crowd-pleasing romantic heroism that has been Domingo’s trademark. Even when the focus is on him, this is a character living so much inside himself that it would be working against the dramatic current for the performer to do anything flashy to grab the spotlight. Yet there is a depth to Domingo’s portrayal, an artistic honesty and integrity, a complete absorption in the Gluckian ethos and a willingness to be a true ensemble member — in some ways even a supporting player — that places his performance, for me, on the same pedestal as some of his greatest mid-career assumptions. To watch him, in the final pantomime, respond to Susan Graham’s Iphigénie as the conflicted princess alternately repulses, pummels and embraces him; to see how he flinches, waits, yearns, despairs and ultimately freezes, suspended in time at the instant of her yielding, before folding her in his arms with wondrous tenderness — all this without ever distracting from her performance — is to understand what a stage partner is meant to be.
I was struck, at the end of the very well received opening, by the somewhat reserved response to Domingo at the curtain call. One might expect an artist of his calibur and his long and illustrious history in the house to be greeted with the operatic equivalent of rock-star hysteria whenever he appears, but here, while he received warm applause, there was no outpouring of mass gratitude and reverence such as have greeted other iconic performers toward the end of their careers. One almost got the sense that Domingo’s very seriousness of approach somehow heads off such demonstrations. Or perhaps the reserve of the reformer Gluck tends to rub off on his fans. But I find myself hoping it was merely an aberration, as I, for one, would like to see this great master given his full due. spacer 


Personal Best

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Listening) Permanent link

It's been a season of great losses in the opera world, the most recent one being Margaret Price, who died of heart failure on January 28 at her home in Wales. She was only sixty-nine. Why does her relatively early passing make me so sad? Maybe it's because her career never quite seemed to reach the heights that many of us thought it should. I don't mean to suggest that Price was underrated, certainly not by anyone who ever heard her live — at least not by anybody I knew. But she never maintained a highly aggressive approach to her career, and her appearances in the U.S. were relatively rare. She always left us wanting more.

I was there for her Met debut in 1985, as Desdemona. The company was chastised for not having her sooner; after all, she had made her professional debut twenty-three years earlier, as Cherubino at Welsh National Opera. Belated or not, her Desdemona was widely discussed as one of the most important Met debuts in years — another being Jessye Norman in Les Troyens in 1983. Price gave a superb performance. The sound she poured out was ample yet with an exquisite fragility and femininity. She was all we could ask of a Desdemona, and even though she loomed large onstage physically as well as vocally, I don't remember anyone I knew saying a word about her size. Her degree of vocal artistry made it seem crass even to suggest that she was too hefty to be "convincing." 

She returned to the Met in 1989 as Elisabetta in Don Carlo. This is the performance of hers I will always carry with me. She was a study in torment as she sang "Tu che le vanità," her ravishing voice filling the house. In the years that followed, I remember thinking it was odd that this performance wasn't commented on more feverishly when people I knew were recalling great performances. Perhaps this was simply her own shyness and reticence coming through to the rest of us. Perhaps we perceived somehow that she didn't want us to demand too much of her: she just wanted us to listen and leave her alone. spacer 


That Old Puccini Magic

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther, Cinema, Listening, Soundtracks) Permanent link

The other night, I attended a performance of La Bohème at the Met in the iconic Franco Zeffirelli production. For one of my companions, it was the very first time; for me, it is a familiar ritual by now — I think I must have seen this show a dozen times at least. It's always interesting to watch how differently the Bohemians play the comic shenanigans in Act I, and what new bits of shtick come and go over the years, depending on the artists' personalities and the amount of rehearsal time accorded to the production in a given year. It's also fun to feel the thrill of the newbies in the audience when the curtain opens on those amazing sets, which still draw bursts of applause and sighs of wonderment every night. (One amusing side note: the recent multiple blizzards in New York seemed to have dampened appreciation for the beautiful Act III snow scene outside the tavern, which was greeted with silence last week for the first time in my experience, though Acts I and III elicited as many gasps as ever.)

Over the years I have discovered something about this opera: no matter the variations — even with the occasional subpar exponents in the leading roles, lackluster conducting or staging miscues — the final moments never fail to make their effect. I mean NEVER. Of course, the Zeffirelli touch helps, as does the generally superlative level of casting at the Met, but they are really icing on the cake. Even on a bad day, when my mind is elsewhere, those last pages of the score invariably move me to tears. 

This phenomenon is born out strikingly by a perfectly dreadful old movie called Mimi, based on Scènes de la Vie de Bohème. Its plot is only loosely connected to that of the opera, and despite a starry cast led by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as Rodolphe and Gertrude Lawrence in the title role, the characters here emerge as singularly self-centered, dippy and unsympathetic, so that by the time poor Mimi lies on the brink of death, one is ready to roll one's eyes and say, "Not a moment too soon" — until, somewhere in the background, rise the strains of that final scene from Puccini's score. For a brief second, I caught myself thinking cynically what an injustice is was to the composer to drag him into this mess of a film at the eleventh hour, but in the next moment, my face was streaming with tears. It didn't make the movie any better, but it certainly provided testimony to the extraordinary, enduring and instantaneous power of this masterly few measures of music. spacer 


Renée Fleming at Carnegie Hall

(Observations, Oussama Zahr, Performances) Permanent link

On Tuesday evening at Carnegie Hall, at the end of a lovely program of music from fin de siècle Vienna, Renée Fleming thanked her audience for coming out despite the threat of a snowstorm. "I was afraid no one would come," she said, which prompted loud expressions of disbelief, at least from the narcoleptic man in my row. To prove her appreciation, she offered a wish list of encores, including Strauss's "Zeiugnung" and a devastatingly beautiful account of Marietta's lied from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt, complete with effortlessly floated pianissimos. (When she announced the latter, reverential "oh!"s and sighs swept like a wave across the audience.) After a spirited if awkward go at Bernstein's "I Feel Pretty," Fleming sent everyone home with all best wishes for better weather tomorrow, singing Strauss's "Morgen!"

Check out the clip below of Fleming singing Marietta's lied from a 2006 Moscow concert. spacer 


Keeping Quiet

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Leonard Bernstein) Permanent link

It's the midway point of New York's opera season, and the other day, while I was crossing Lincoln Center Plaza, I suddenly realized something: of all the staged productions I've attended since September, only one has really made any impression on me — New York City Opera's new Christopher Alden production of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Wadsworth's A Quiet Place

This was the first time I'd heard the opera onstage; I had become interested in it, years ago, on the basis of the 1986 Deutsche Grammophon recording. Back then, I thought it was a fascinating mess. I still think so. Parts of Wadsworth's libretto — particularly parts of the ending — are painful, like undigested thoughts and memories thrown out randomly in a therapy session. I can understand why my companion denounced the whole thing as "dreck." And I don't think that it quite works to integrate Trouble in Tahiti into the middle of the work. I grasp the idea of a simpler time versus a more complex one, but it seems to me that Trouble in Tahiti simply interrupts the spell cast by Act I of A Quiet Place and reminds us that it has better tunes than the later work. 

And yet — the damned thing moved me even more than it did when I first listened to the recording all those years ago. Bernstein contributed some wonderful writing to A Quiet Place — the warring eighth and sixteenth notes of the strings do a marvelous job of conveying Sam's tormented state of mind, and I love the oddball harmonies of the trio "Dear Daddy" and the prelude to the final act. I think Bernstein and Wadsworth must have felt a mutual need to create a tribute to the American family in all its inarticulate glory. A Quiet Place is no well-made musical play: it's much closer to a Robert Altman movie, showing the way real families function — we miss each other's points, say the opposite of what we mean, don't notice when people are reaching out to us. At the time of its unveiling, The New Yorker's Andrew Porter was one of the few critics who understood this. 

I think A Quiet Place means even more to me now because it's really about something we can all understand. It isn't a dry literary transcription of a book we were forced to read in high school or college. It's a real, American, contemporary story — something that's always a rarity on the opera stage. Perhaps if it had been more successful originally, its example might have led to more of the same. Perhaps not: it's amazing how insistently the world has ignored the example set by Bernstein, in so many ways.

I don't know what Stephen Wadsworth thought about this production. He's a fine stage director himself, so I'm sure he had strong opinions about it. I couldn't help thinking, however, that Alden had made an excellent case for the piece. I gasped when the lights came up on Andrew Lieberman's funeral home set at the beginning: everything looked exactly how it should have looked, to the degree that I was deeply uncomfortable.

It's probably too much to expect an NYCO revival anytime soon, but kudos to the company for having taken a chance on it at least once. spacer 


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