Saturday, October 29, 2011

Non-Golden Age Singer of the Week: Gregory Kunde

I've mentioned Gregory Kunde before as a fine singer of bel canto.  Click this link to find two posts--one in which I compare "Ah mes amis!" videos, and another in which I compare "Asile heroditaire" (Guillaume Tell) videos.  Here is another example of fine bel canto singing, from a Canadian TV broadcast in 1987 (I Puritani, with Luciana Serra as Elvira):

But here is a fine example of how Mr. Kunde has grown and evolved as a singer as he has grown well into middle age (he is now 57).  This is from this year--I Vespri Siciliani.  Venue is not given, but apparently it's in Turin, because I can find DVDs of this performance available online.

Pollione in Norma, Warsaw, 2010.  Sadly, it's audio only, with sketches from another Norma production.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Giudici ad Anna? Ad Anna?!!!!!!!

I was delighted when I first learned the dear Metropolitan Opera was to produce Anna Bolena this season, and indeed Mr. Donizetti's entire Tudor Trilogy of Anna Bolena, Roberto Devereux, and Maria Stuarda over the next three seasons.  Not for nothing do I call myself a bel canto bear.  I love the music of Donizetti--the melodies, the operatic flow, the mad women.  He doesn't disappoint.

Angela Meade as Anna Bolena, 2008
Courtesy Academy of Vocal Arts
I've written about Anna Bolena before.  I've also written about Angela Meade before.  In a nutshell I'm a fan of both, and I was thrilled to be able to see Miss Meade sing this role.  I'd listened to the streaming broadcast of the Met's opening night of Anna Bolena with some other chick.  In all honesty, I think Anna Netrebko is a very fine singer in the right repertoire, but I have my doubts about whether Anna Bolena is the right role for her.  If I'd had any any doubts about Miss Meade and this role, they would have been completely laid to rest after last night's performance.  I wondered whether her singing was a little tentative in her first scene, as there were many floaty high notes but not many high notes of any volume, which can be a sign of trouble in some singers, but from "Giudici ad Anna?!" on I was sure she had her feet underneath her, and I was treated to lots of full-throated high singing and fiery temperament.  I can't compare her performance dramatically to that of Nebs, having only seen this one, but vocally I was not disappointed at all.

A surprise change was hearing the Giovanna Seymour of Katherine Goeldner, in for Ekaterina Gubanova. I thought Miss Goeldner's singing and acting were beautiful.  She has a full mezzo voice of impressive range and power, and I was quite happy she was our Giovanna. I hadn't been very happy with Miss Gubanova in the broadcast on opening night.  In her duets with Enrico and with Anna, Miss Goeldner sang beautifully and gave a powerful performance dramatically, no doubt bringing out the strengths of Miss Meade and Ildar Adrazakov as Enrico.  Although I'd heard and read reports that Mr. Adrazakov lacked dramatic impact as Enrico, I did not find him stiff or lacking in dramatic temperament, particularly when paired with Miss Goeldner.

I can't say I'd heard Stephen Costello very much before recently, and in truth I do think his voice is a little light for the role of Percy, but I also think that most of his singing last night was among the best I've heard of him.  After a tentative start, he soared in the duets and ensembles.

I quite liked Tamara Mumford, graduate of the Met's Lindermann Young Artist Program, as Smeaton.  I see great things for her in the future.  And international shirt-taker-offer and baritone Keith Miller sang beautifully as Rochefort, leaving me wanting more.  Also of his singing.

The Met chorus was predictably amazing, and the orchestra, in spite of one or two glacks and some overpowering moments, shone as well.  Although I usually don't have any complaints with conductor Marco Armiliato, at times it seemed he was mentally following the other cast from the pit.  Were I the soprano, his head would be the one to come off after the way he treated her final cadence, or lack thereof, in "Coppia iniqua".

The McVicar production.  Visually stunning.  I loved the design, the costumes, the moveable set pieces.  I liked how it seemed that Enrico's and Giovanna's costumes became more colorful as their sin, as it were, grew more flagrant.  I liked the proper use of the stage elevator for the sets.  This is the Met doing big stage machinery right, so that one is not distracted wondering what the set is going to do next as in certain other recent productions.  I quite liked the appearance of the executioner in the final moment as the set for Anna's prison chambers descended and he was standing on the floor of the set above.  I liked the sudden drop of the blood-red curtain, and liked having the executioner remain in the very same spot through the extended and appreciative curtain call.

What didn't I like?  I didn't like bits of blocking, notably the repeated unassisted kneeling and rising, that were clearly designed for another soprano, so that the Queen of England was forced to rise unassisted and look a little awkward doing so.  Even if the Queen of England were as lithe as a gymnast, she wouldn't rise unassisted.  I also didn't like the fact that the Met, which is known for not taking even traditional cuts in most operas, shortened Percy's arias and cabalettas considerably.

These are small quibbles.  Overall, I think the Met has a fine production on its hands, and I hope we see it enter the repertory for many seasons to come.  I look forward to seeing many more fine performances from Angela Meade and Katherine Goeldner at the Met and elsewhere.

And I'm happy to see Mr. Donizetti getting his due more and more.  How long before we see La Favorita at the Met?  Belisario? Poliuto? Dom Sébastien?  OK, I have a car and can go to other, more adventurous opera companies and fantasize about a more adventurous Met.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Shabby Little Shocker on the Upper East Side--my review at Opera Pulse

Dicapo Opera Theatre opened its 30th season with Mr. Puccini’s Tosca, a sure audience draw, on October 6. Dicapo has long been one of New York’s “stepping stone” opera companies—one where young singers gain experience and resume credits, and audiences are happy to see season after season of mostly familiar works, with some unusual or rarely performed works thrown in every now and then for spice. I was happy to see the October 14 performance.

Read the rest at Opera Pulse.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Guest Blogger EB reviews Weinberg's "The Passenger", English National Opera

This production of Mieczysław Weinberg’s The Passenger (1968) represents its first staged production (after a concert premiere in 2006).  It was premiered in Bregenz in 2010, and although I was at the festival last year I didn’t take the opportunity to see it, as it was planned as a co-production with ENO for transfer to London this year. It had its ENO premiere last month, to a mixed critical reception – having received plaudits at Bregenz, and there are further revivals planned in Warsaw and Madrid.

The enterprise is very much the brainchild of David Pountney, intendant of the Bregenz Festival, who seeks to champion the works of this little known Polish composer. The Portrait (1980), also given at Bregenz, had its UK premiere at Opera North earlier this year. But it seemed right that The Passenger should come to ENO, where Pountney was Director of Productions during the “Powerhouse” era of the 1980s, in many ways changing the face of British opera forever. How exciting that he will now be taking the helm of Welsh National Opera – where, I learnt this week, productions of Anna Bolena and Roberto Devereux are slated for 2013 and there are rumours of a Ring Cycle in the future.
Back to Weinberg. A Polish Jew, he escaped the Nazis by travelling to Russia where he was both admired and heavily influenced by Shostakovich. His style was seemingly also influenced by Britten. His oeuvre includes seven operas (eight if you include one operetta). I’m not sure if Pountney plans a cycle of all of these, although on this evidence he is unlikely to achieve the coup he pulled off with Janacek years earlier, for Weinberg has no such gift for lyric theatre.

The Passenger, based on a novel by Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz, certainly has dramatic potential. Liese, a German woman in her 30s, is embarking on a new life in Brazil with her older diplomat husband Walter. On the ship she sees a mysterious veiled woman – The Passenger – whom she believes she recognises. She confesses to Walter her previous role as an overseer in Auschwitz, hitherto a secret, and that she thinks The Passenger is Marta, a Polish prisoner whom she thought had been condemned to the “pitch black wall of death”. The opera cuts between the ship – and the impact of Liese’s revelation on hers and Walter’s relationship - and Auschwitz, where we discover the stories of a group of female prisoners as well as that of Marta and her violinist fiancé Tadeusz, whom she discovers is in a different part of the camp.

Alas, it is dramatic potential unrealised. Weinberg is no Janacek, and The Passenger is no From the House of the Dead. The central relationships are strikingly underdeveloped, and it takes exceptional skill to translate the horrors of the gulag to the stage – think of the road to Siberia at the end of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. His attempts to inject black humour (again, this needs the audacity of his Russian counterpart) – such as the three “comic” SS Officers in the second scene – fall flat.

But ultimately it is Weinberg’s lack of skill as a composer that prevents The Passenger from becoming a masterpiece. The dramatic pace is deathly slow, even in the second act where the scenes are shorter. Musically, two distinct worlds emerge: the ship – airy strings interspersed with jazz sections which again imitate Shostakovich – and the camp, mostly crashing dissonance, thuds of percussion and screeches of brass. There are remote, dissonant choruses reminiscent of Britten’s War Requiem, including a disembodied male chorus which serves little discernible dramatic purpose and whose moralizing lines sound crashingly trite in English. There is a dearth of invention and of singable vocal lines. Too often, these are monotonous, rhythmically unvaried and ungratefully written. Liese’s music is colourless, mid-range mezzo stuff, whilst, Marta’s is often punched out in the upper part of the soprano register. Not until an unaccompanied Russian folksong (sung by prisoner Katya in the middle of the second act) do we hear a vestige of a melody that moves the heart; the ending is very weak indeed.

The Passenger herself – silent on the ship and never actually identified as Marta – provides the most striking dramatic device, and the most powerful moment for me was in Act Two. Liese and Walter attend a dance on the ship at which The Passenger asks the band to play a waltz; this turns out to be the Auschwitz Kommandant’s favourite. We cut headlong to the pivotal scene in the camp where Tadeusz is ordered to play that very waltz for the Kommandant (see second photograph), but breaks into Bach instead: for his insubordination, he is sent straight to the extermination cells. Yet the scene is an anticlimax, almost underwritten; Marta’s subsequent apotheosis is both strident and understated at the same time.

The piece could hardly have received a better premiere production. Pountney opts to tell the story clearly and cleanly. It occurred to me that Pountney and prison camps are well acquainted, and not only from his seminal House of the Dead and Lady Macbeth productions. I have a vivid recollection of his ENO Königskinder in the 1990s, the children in their Auschwitz-style costumes falling one by one among the barbed wire at the finale, and of the shoes lining the forestage in his 2000 Nabucco at the same house.

As with the score, the two worlds in the production are neatly divided. At the start we are faced with the brutal buffers of two railway lines – unmistakably the iconic one-way tracks to Auschwitz. The ship inhabits the upper portion of the set, airy, platforms of “deck” around the white funnel, sparkling before a golden horizon. The camp is ingeniously represented below with two “railway” trucks which variously represent different areas of the camp, including the tiny cells of the female barracks. Characters – either is SS uniforms or threadbare, striped prison garb – both emerge from the shadows and are picked out in harsh searchlights. Pountney’s directorial style has mellowed over the years, but his sheer skill demonstrates his vast experience.

The cast is mainly excellent, though for me there was a significant exception in the person of Michelle Breedt’s Liese. This South African mezzo, new to me, has a vast concert repertoire, but lacked the vocal and dramatic charisma to bring Liese’s conflicts to life. Her medium size mezzo is competently produced and her singing correct but perhaps the lack of variety in the vocal lines translated to her performance. I was left thinking that ENO had missed an opportunity, and wondered what the likes of Sarah Connolly would have made of it. As Marta, Giselle Allen gave a characteristically committed and at times thrilling performance. I have long admired Allen – her Opera North Jenufa, Ellen Orford and Rusalka were hugely exciting – yet this music pushed her feisty spinto too often into into hardness, and left her precious little opportunity for lyrical expression.

Elsewhere, some wonderful performances in lesser roles. Leigh Melrose is virile as Tadeusz, and Kim Begley – enjoying character roles after a career of the heavy Wagners – is effective as Walter. I loved Helen Field (Pountney's Violetta in the 1980s!) as the “Old Woman” prisoner driven to shrill distraction. Excellent work too from regulars Rebecca de Pont Davies and Pamela Helen Stephen, and from new names Rhian Lois (bell-like as the French teenager Yvette) and Carolyn Dobbin (immensely touching as Greek prisoner Hannah).

This project is a noble enterprise, and one I am glad to have experienced. But it is Weinberg’s writing that renders it, ultimately, a piece unlikely to take hold in the mainstream repertoire, with a score that – like those iconic railway tracks – goes nowhere.

Final performance on Tuesday October 25th, London Coliseum.

Next up: La Somnambula at Covent Garden and The Queen of Spades at Opera North

Photo Credits: Bregenzer Festspiele/Karl Foster, Reuters Bregenz

Ed Beveridge, 16/10/11

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Women on the Verge, Opera Manhattan style

I was surprised to learn I hadn't posted about this before.  Those who read me on Facebook and Twitter (see links by the side) know that I've been producing a project through Opera Manhattan Repertory Theatre.  The project includes Mr. Poulenc's La Voix Humaine and two monodramas by Thomas Pasatieri, Lady Macbeth, based on speeches from the play we dare not name, and Before Breakfast, based on a Eugene O'Neill monodrama.   I've set up a RocketHub crowd funding page at this address.  There's more information at the link.

The dates of the performances are Feb. 10-12, 2012.  We have a wonderful cast of young, rising singers.

I hope you'll consider helping to support us.  Think of it as buying tickets now rather than then.  The good news is that Rocket Hub is international, so that all the Russian bots that find my blog somehow will be able to contribute rubles.

Golden Age Singer of the Week--Martha Egerth

Thanks to Ken Benson for turning me to to Martha Eggerth. What a babe! What a phenomenon! Please read the Wikipedia bio about her and view these clips and others.

J. Strauss, Jr. Frühlingstimme, movie not mentioned by the YouTube poster.

"Ich sing mein Lied heute nur fuer dich" from Mein Herz ruft nach dir (1934)

And this amazing clip from 1994:

Monday, October 10, 2011

Lassù in ciel

Courtesy Canadian Opera Co.
Once again your intrepid reporter has hit the road, or in this case the friendly skies, to catch some more exciting opera. I hied me to Toronto, which is really just a hop, skip, and a reasonable airfare from NYC, to see the Canadian Opera Company perform Mr. Verdi's Rigoletto.

I saw the matinee on Saturday, October 8. The opera is double cast, and the principals I saw were Quinn Kelsey as Rigoletto, David Lomelí as the Duke of Mantua, and Ekaterina Sadovnika as Gilda. Based on M. Victor Hugo's play Le roi s'amuse, this is the familiar story of Rigoletto, a hunchback court jester in service of the wanton young Duke. When the courtiers find Gilda, the daughter he has kept hidden, they abduct her and deliver her to the Duke, igniting a tragic chain of events when Rigoletto seeks vengeance.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Golden Age Singer of the Week--Lucine Amara

I can not think how I have failed to mention Lucine Amara before now. This grand lady sang at the Met 41 seasons! She made 882 appearances in 56 roles there! Who does that now?

Unfortunately there aren't enough videos of her singing.  Here are some highlights.

Audio with slideshow, Nedda in Pagliacci at the Met, 1959:

Audio with slideshow, Pamina in The Magic Flute (English), the Met, 1956:

In concert in 1978, singing "Morro, ma prima in grazia" from Un Ballo in Maschera:

Private film with "Pace, pace" from La Forza del Destino: