Sunday, April 19, 2015

Death Clown for Cutie (Cav and Pag at the Met)

Men are sensitive and easily injured souls, as ten minutes in any internet comment section would tell you. Such is also the gist of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, the august double bill of verismo which presents us twice with the even more august situation of baritones interfering with soprano-tenor relationships and it all getting very bloody. In the Met's new production, Fabio Luisi makes these high octane scores sound quite classy, but otherwise the two diverge: a dreary, clunky Cav is followed by a fun and punchy Pag. Oh, one other thing in common: for better and for worse, Marcelo Alvarez is the tenor. I shouldn’t be putting that last, which might give you an idea of what is going on here.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Upcoming Events

Obligatory Don Carlo photo
Hi everyone! I have been buried in work recently but I promise I have not been skipping lots of opera in Philadelphia. Philadelphia simply hasn’t been providing much opera.

That being said, when it rains it pours. In the next few weeks everyone has new productions:

Upcoming Opera in Philadelphia:
  • Don Carlo at Opera Philadelphia, April 24-May 3: this production has a really great cast (including Leah Crocetto, Michelle DeYoung, and Eric Owens) and I am looking forward to it a lot!
  • Faust at AVA, April 25-May 5: I will probably skip this because I can do without this opera even when I’m not busy. 
  • Bernstein’s Mass with the Philadelphia Orchestra, April 30-May 3: OK, it’s not an opera, but it has a lot of singing and is directed by Kevin Newbury, conducted by YNS. Strangely, the singers are still TBA.
  • The Rake’s Progress at Curtis: May 7-10: Going to Curtis Opera Theater is never, ever a bad decision.
Opera Philadelphia has also announced their 2015-16 season and it’s a good one, including Traviata with the excellent Lisette Oropesa and the local premiere of Cold Mountain by Jennifer Higdon.

I will not, however, be there! I had a great year in Philly (I didn’t go to as many concerts as I would have liked but this was what I expected) but I am moving elsewhere for the fall, because I am an early career academic and this is how it works. I will tell you about that sometime later but for now if you are an opera person in Boston and can tell me about what is happening there please do!

But before that I will be going to Europe this summer, where I will be going to some conferences, seeing the Ring in Bayreuth, going to the Bregenzer Festspiele for the first time, and probably some other things, which are, like the singers in Philadelphia’s Bernstein Mass, TBA.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Norman Lebrecht to host Fox News show

Confidential sources tell us that, following the blazing success of Piers Morgan, British import Norman Lebrecht will be joining Fox News. The British novelist, blogger, and Google Alert adept will host a weeknight talk show entitled "Norman Baits."

"Lebrecht will bring a fine appreciation of fine culture to our viewers," said Fox News chief Roger Ailes. "He just told me about this Mahler guy! I'm having all our shows open with different sections of the Symphony No. 5 starting next week!"

Lebrecht's show will consist of several regular features, among them "Classical Music Death Watch [People]," "Classical Music Death Watch [Institutions]," "Nazi Watch," and "Totally Not Disingenuous Segments About Hot Women (Not) in the Wiener Philharmoniker."

The second half of the program will consist of interviews with a guest panel. Planned guests include Jackie Evancho, Heather MacDonald, Alexander Pereira, Rufus Wainwright, Lorin Maazel, Alan Gordon, and lots of people from Opera-L. While many of these guests will be new faces for Fox News audiences, we are assured that they will make for a fresh and lively debate.

One roadblock has already been surmounted: Lebrecht's chosen genre of classical has tested poorly with audiences. Thus all musical examples will be replaced by covers of the same repertoire performed by Kid Rock. This will also increase Kid Rock's audience by 1000%, a goal which has apparently been on the Fox News agenda for some time.

The set of Lebrecht's show will reportedly resemble a large study. It will be full of LPs ("but not new ones"), books (rumor has it that many copies of his book Maestros, Mysteries, and Madness languish unsold due to legal action), cigars, and his priceless collection of great conductors' spitoons.

Reports that Lebrecht's show has been underwritten by the Koch brothers could not be confirmed at press time.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Ariadne auf Philadelphia

Prepare yourselves, for Curtis Opera has given us the Gilligan’s Island-themed Ariadne auf Naxos we’ve all been waiting for. But while that might be this production’s most memorable feature--we always have a tendency to identify productions by a signature, the [opera] with the [gimmick], like “the Così with the hippies” or “the Bohème with the UFO”--it’s hardly the production’s only feature.

This is a co-production between Opera Philadelphia and Curtis, but the performers are Curtis students (with one alum, no prizes for guessing which role). The 600-seat Perelman Theater is an ideal space for this opera and for these singers. Like most Curtis productions, the performers are enthusiastic and all at different points in their development. And, like most Curtis productions, it’s inventive and more than the sum of its parts.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Wilde at Heart ("Oscar" in Philadelphia)


Opera Philadelphia has made an admirable committment to commissioning and performing new opera. They have programmed two new works this season and are developing more for the future. One reason this is admirable is because it comes with great risk: the road to successful new operas is littered with unsuccessful new operas. Unfortunately I must put their current production, Oscar, into the latter category. Based on the final years of Oscar Wilde’s life, the opera was previously seen at Santa Fe but is now receiving its regional premiere, again with David Daniels in the title role. But it is not a satisfying work. Theodore Morrison’s bland, anonymous music fails to elevate Morrison and John Cox’s uneven hagiography of a libretto.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

A not so merry widow


By some measures The Merry Widow was the most popular piece of musical theater of the twentieth century. At its best it’s tuneful, sexy, funny, and touching. Unfortunately, this is rarely evident in Met’s disappointingly flat new production. And for a show directed by old Broadway pro Susan Stroman, it is bizarrely lacking in razzle dazzle.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best of 2014

This was a big year for me personally: I finished grad school and started my first real academic job. But this took a toll on my operagoing, and this list is a bit thin this year. Without further ado, here is what stuck with me.

Best Performances
La forza del destino (Bayerische Staatsoper):  Perhaps it is disappointing that my No. 1 for the year happened on January 6, but opera doesn’t work on a film schedule. Despite some sizable drawbacks--lackluster conducting and a production which was only occasionally brilliant--it still seemed to be operating on a drastically higher level than virtually everything else I saw this year.

Verdi Requiem (Orchestra and Chorus of Santa Cecilia): I didn’t write about this one here, but it was on May 18 at the Royal Festival Hall in London, conducted by Antonio Pappano. A great performance with excellent solo contributions by Hibla Gerzmava and Joseph Calleja.

The Death of Klinghoffer
(Met): The most electric, urgent performance I’ve ever seen at the Met.

Best Individual Performances

Anja Harteros, La forza del destino (Bayerische Staatsoper)
Anna Netrebko, Macbeth (Met)
Michael Volle, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Met)

Achievement in Worthwhile Production of Relatively Obscure Opera
George Enescu's Oedipe (Oper Frankfurt) 

Achievements in Comedy
The entire cast and production team of Gianni Schicchi (Curtis Opera Theater)
Kevin Burdette, The Barber of Seville (Opera Philadelphia) 
Michael Fabiano, Die Fledermaus (Met)

Achievements in Production-Related Kitsch
Werther and Die Fledermaus at the Met (tie)

Achievements in Unmemorable Productions of Le nozze di Figaro
Met and Royal Opera House (tie)

Achievement in Crazy
Simone Kermes, Platée (Les Arts Florissants). I'm never sure if we're laughing with her or laughing at her. That's a post I wish I had written.

DVDs
Elektra (Aix-en-Provence Festival)
Rusalka (La Monnaie) (my review of this production from Dresden)

Will there be more in 2015? We shall see! I will be at the Met next week for Die lustige Witwe.

Photo: I have no idea where I got this GIF but it's always a big, um, hit.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Merry Widow at the Met

Hanna's wealth obviously went into her Pontevedran Tracht wardrobe.
Merry Christmas, everyone! Looking ahead, this year's New Year's Eve premiere at the Met is Franz Lehár's Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow). As you may know, Viennese operetta is my research specialty, and I was happy to be quoted by Zachary Woolfe in the Times preview of this production. A video from the production appears below. I'll be going early in the New Year and look forward to writing about it here. There's a long tradition of Broadway-style Witwes and it looks like this is going to be in that vein. I'm a bit ambivalent about another Jeremy Sams translation, but it makes sense to do it in English.

If you'd like to hear more about the operetta's history, you can also read my academic article on this very topic, "Die lustige Witwe and the Creation of the Silver Age of Viennese Operetta," which appeared in the summer 2014 issue of Cambridge Opera Journal. Here is the opening of my piece:
When Wilhelm Karczag first heard Franz Lehár’s score to Die lustige Witwe, he supposedly exclaimed, ‘Das is ka Musik! [That ain’t music!]’. The setting was Lehár’s own apartment on the Mariahilferstrasse in Vienna in the summer of 1905, a little before the operetta was to premiere at Karczag’s Theater an der Wien. This anecdote, not celebrated in print until 1924 and disputed by several of those who claim to have been present, makes Karczag the butt of a joke, for Die lustige Witwe was the music that would rule operetta for the next two and a half decades.  Karczag’s Hungarian accent—he had moved from Budapest only four years prior—is rendered phonetically, marking him as an outsider who could not hear what the rest of the Vienna later recognized.

Lehár’s audition for Karczag became an iconic event in Die lustige Witwe’s narrative as an underdog success. The operetta’s purportedly hostile initial reception, including not only the resistance of the theatrical management but also its ostensibly lukewarm opening night, positions it as a ‘Naturkind’—so radically different in tone from Karczag’s operetta habits that he was unable to recognize it as music. Against all odds, it emerged to conquer the theatrical world and launch what would become known as the Silver Age of Viennese operetta. This was a story told over and over again in Viennese newspapers. The shifting details in the retellings of this anecdote by those involved in the original production were, in large part, reflective of a dispute over ownership. Everyone—composer, librettists, impresarios, and actors—was eager to claim credit for (and preferably also some of the profits from) the greatest theatrical success of the time.
Continue here (PDF in Google Drive). If you have access to Cambridge University Press journals online (if you are reading this from a college or university network, you might), you can see the properly typeset version here.

Also on the operetta front, I hope to write an overdue post about Piotr Beczala and Jonas Kaufmann's dueling attempts to resurrect 1920s operetta and Schlager, AKA the Eduard Künneke revival we've all been waiting for. (I don't know about you, but I've been waiting.) See you soon.

Video:

Photo copyright Ken Howard/Met

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Nuremberg's Got Talent

If the Met’s performance Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg of last Saturday were one of its own characters, it would be Veit Pogner. Pogner, Eva’s father, is aging, jovial, traditional, filthy rich (he is, after all, a goldsmith), not a great thinker, and maybe hasn’t quite thought through all of the implications of his grand plans. This was a solid Meistersinger, and it was a pleasure to have Wagner back at the Met after too long an absence. Most of it was good and a few things were more than good. Except for Michael Volle’s fascinating Hans Sachs, it was not daring and it was not exciting, but some meat and potatoes Wagner like we haven’t gotten in a while.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Rossiniana

Opera groups: Rossini wants you to post
production photos on the Internet!
The stars must have aligned, and they must favor Rossini. All three of Philadelphia's opera groups have presented his work this fall. I loved Opera Philadelphia’s goofy Barber of Seville, but as it happens the other two opera companies are schools. Of course, the Academy of Vocal Arts and the Curtis Institute are two of the very best training grounds for singers in the country. But when I saw AVA’s L'italiana in Algeri and Curtis Opera Theater’s La scala di seta this week, I was frequently reminded just how difficult this music is. Approximatura, wildly out of tune and/or strained high notes, and white-knuckle Rossini crescendos galore--not the kind of thing you usually hear from students of these extremely distinguished institutions. I’m sure these were educational experiences for the singers, you have to start somewhere, but as an audience member it wasn’t all smooth sailing. I'm going to accentuate the positive here; if I leave some major role out that means I thought the singer wasn’t ready for prime time yet. (AVA, by the way, insists their “resident artists” are professionals, but based on this performance they are all very much works in progress.)

Let’s start with the awesome, and not-Rossini, part: Curtis followed the short La scala di seta with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Granted, Gianni Schicchi is a hard act to top with anything, but this one was the most uproarious hour of opera you could imagine. Together with the Curtis’s crack orchestra (conducted by Lio Kuokman), it was loud, energetic, and dramatically alive. Stephanie Havey’s production is a cartoonish farce, taking place in a bank vault, the floor littered with coins and various signs of wealth all around. (The sets are by Brandon McNeel and look great. How Curtis manages to consistently surpass the production values of many regional-level opera companies beats me. It also baffles me as to how I am unable to find any photos of these excellent designs!) The production was updated as well as aggressively localized, with the surtitles moving Signa to Jersey, mentioning cheesesteak, giving poor Buoso a casino in Atlantic City, making Schicchi a Democrat from the suburbs, and so on. It’s cute, funny, and, together with the manic committment of the cast, really works.

The cast included several singers who really stood out: Sean Michael Plumb was a youthful Gianni Schicchi with the look and apparent guilelessness of Andy Dwyer, only smarter, and sang with a medium-sized, exceptionally musical baritone, really making something special of his brief monologues. Evan LeRoy Johnson as Rinuccio has a sweet and ringing lyric tenor, and Kirsten MacKinnon’s smoky lyric soprano sounded intriguing as Ciesca and I wish she had sang more. (Note: most roles are double-cast and I saw the November 21 performance.)

Curtis preceded this with Rossini’s La scala di seta, which was new to me. The set gave us a steampunk confection of old scientific instruments, gears, and a mixture of present and historic images. I couldn’t figure out a logic behind this, but it looked nifty. More importantly, Havey and the cast kept a good balance between comedy and character development. Seemingly minor characters like servant Germano (sung by Dogukan Kuran) became big comic hams, failed suitor Blansac a dandy short on self-awareness, and Giulia a popular girl who knows how to get what she wants. Singing-wise, none of the cast members were totally consistent, though all had some strong moments. Johnathan McCullogh as Blansac seemed the most suited to Rossini, as well as showing excellent comic timing.

The Academy of Vocal Arts’s production of L’italiana in Algeri was less happy. AVA has a very distinguished record of producing famous singers--relatively recent grads include Angela Meade, Michael Fabiano, and Stephen Costello--but despite some great voices their shows are rarely as polished as Curtis’s. They trade in the kind of über-traditional productions which dare you to suggest that opera is about anything other than la voce, and tend to produce exclusively warhorse operas. The repertoire makes sense for the students, but I can’t help but wonder about the stogy stagings. Dorothy Danner’s schtick-heavy production trapped the cast in convention and cliché, and none of them appeared to connect to the drama and to each other in the organic way the (mostly less experienced) Curtis singers did.

Perhaps I am being overly harsh, because at this performance circumstances conspired against everyone. After their main run in Philadelphia, AVA brings their productions out for a single evening on the Main Line, which was the performance I attended. Heating problems necessitated a last minute change of venue from the Haverford School to Bryn Mawr College’s Goodhart Hall. Goodhart is possessed neither of orchestra pit nor surtitles but is endowed with a cavernous cathedral ceiling which did nothing for solo voices. It also positioned the orchestra behind the singers, and lacks a Maestrocam-type monitor--meaning the singers had no eye contact with the conductor, hence the aforementioned white-knuckle Rossini crescendos. For the audience, the loss of the surtitles was the gravest blow. This is a funny opera, but most people were barely following the plot and no one was laughing at the jokes. This took a lot of air out of the proceedings, and I wished they’d simply postponed the opera until they could perform it properly. I liked that the orchestra went to the length to find a mezzaluna, however I wished its sounds had been as impressive as its looks. It loomed over the orchestra yet produced the sound of a few decorative jingle bells hung on a door.

I doubt this weird venue showed the singers at the best. Nonetheless, I enjoyed Hannah Ludwig’s performance in the title role. She has a deep, chocolatey mezzo and a likeable stage presence. Michael Adams was impressive as Taddeo, and André Courville, as Mustafa, showed an excellent lyric bass, unfortunately combined with a rather stiff stage manner. (AVA is also mostly double-cast; I saw the November 18 performance.)

Winter in Philadelphia will be less Rossinian: AVA performs La bohème in February and Curtis does Ariadne auf Naxos in a co-production with Opera Philadelphia. Curtis will finish their year with The Rake’s Progress, and AVA with, in warhorse fashion, Faust.
Rossini, L’italiana in Algeri. Academy of Vocal Arts, Goodhart Hall at Bryn Maw College, November 18, 2014
Rossini, La scala di seta and Puccini, Gianni Schicchi. Curtis Opera Theater at the Prince Music Theater, Philadelphi, November 21, 2014.