Sunday, March 26, 2017

Those crazy Greeks!

On Saturday I saw the Live in HD broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera's Idomeneo, a revival of the 1982 Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production. I found it thrilling, not least because dear Maestro James Levine was in the pit. I am always touched by the tremendous ovation that showers Mr. Levine the moment he arises, almost god-like, from within the bowels of the Met to sit at the podium. (In the broadcast we could see the remarkable elevator device bringing him and his wheelchair into position from below.) In interviews singers sometimes talk of the almost sacred experience of working and performing with Mr. Levine, and I believe it.

Your intrepid reporter actually saw this production in 1982, while on a college choir tour. At age 19 (go ahead—do the math), sitting in the Family Circle, ignorant of the amazing work I was witnessing, I was more excited about simply being at the Met than about the opera. Since then I have seen several productions of Idomeneo, and I sang chorus in the Greater Miami Opera's 1990 production. My appreciation has grown immensely. Hence my joy at seeing this production again, even if budgetary concerns force me to see it in HD rather than in the house.

Nadine Sierra and Alice Coote
Photo: Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times
From the get-go we see what makes this work and this production amazing. The single set shows steps representative of rocks and cliffs, and an ever-present image of Neptune, ready to destroy one and all at his whim. Although employing opera seria conventions, which can sometimes lead to difficulty in portraying drama adequately, this Idomeneo hasn't a single dull moment. The action flows smoothly, and the acting of the four principals kept audience interest at all times.

Opera requires conflict, and Idomeneo offers plenty. Idomeneo, King of Crete, was forced to offer to Neptune the sacrifice of the first person he sees upon his safe return from the wars in Troy. That person turns out to be his son Idamante. The young Trojan princess Ilia, prisoner of war, is conflicted about her love for Idamante. Fortunately Idamante loves her, too, and after much wailing and gnashing of teeth the two end up together. Sorry if that's a spoiler. And Elettra (Elektra), having finished her own opera, has come to Crete to stir up trouble, and has decided she wants Idamante for herself. Not knowing of Idamante's love for Ilia, Idomeneo tries to resolve his sacrificial victim dilemma by ordering Idamante to accompany Elettra on her journey home. Hilarity ensues. Well, if not hilarity, much amazing singing.

Elza van den Heever as Elettra
Photo: Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times
Every singer will tell you that Mozart requires the finest vocal technique, for without it his music is nearly impossible to sing! This cast did not disappoint. A beautiful and nuanced performance of the overture transitioned immediately into Ilia's stunning aria Padre, germani, addio, sung with great feeling and sensitivity by Nadine Sierra. Ms. Sierra's singing never failed to please, with its free and even sound throughout, and she portrayed Ilia's vulnerability and strength quite well. She was this reporter's favorite among an exceptionally fine cast of singers. Elza van den Heever was also amazing as Elettra. We witnessed the same fiery temperament and dazzling singing (and ability to negotiate a raked stage in a costume the size of a city block) that so impressed us as Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda, with Mozart's even greater technical demands. Ms. van den Heever gave us Elettra's madness and arrogance while singing her torturous vocal lines with apparent ease.

Alice Coote sang Idamante's difficult vocal lines quite skillfully (the role was originally written for a castrato in a soprano range), and looked very much the part of a sturdy young prince, ready to take on the world. Her dynamic shading, particularly her pianissimo singing, was quite impressive. Matthew Polenzani was a fine Idomeneo, showing the king's emotional turmoil and singing the challenging music well. One does wonder, however, why the Met didn't use the 1786 Vienna version of the aria Fuor del mar, which has considerably fewer coloratura demands than the original version, from its 1781 Munich premiere.

One also wondered about the casting of baritone Alan Opie in the tenor role of Arbace. Mr. Opie's credits include Figaro, Rigoletto, Sharpless, and Don Alfonso. Arbace is usually sung by the sort of tenor who would sing Tamino or Don Ottavio. This was not a successful bit of casting, in this reporter's humble opinion.

It should surprise no one that the Metropolitan Opera Chorus performed at its usual stellar standard, as did the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Mr. Levine's subtle hand was evident throughout this performance. One is very sorry this was the last performance of Idomeneo, for it deserves repeated viewing.
Full company of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's Idomeneo
Photo:  Metropolitan Opera

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Forza del Destino at New Amsterdam Opera

I had the pleasure on Friday evening of hearing the New Amsterdam Opera perform Mr. Verdi's La Forza del Destino in concert. Forza isn't performed as often as it should be, partly because it takes over a half hour to explain the story. It sort of makes "Oops! Wrong baby in the fire!" seem like it makes sense.

New Amsterdam Opera and its Founder and Artistic Director, Keith Chambers, have been featured in these pages before. I've often stated I'm a big supporter of organizations that offer opportunities to young professional singers. The cast for Forza had singers still in the formative stages of their careers alongside veterans of the opera stage. The result was an evening with many exciting and electrifying vocal performances.

Stephen Gaertner
Photo: Arielle Doneson Photography
The male principals deserve the lion's share of my attention. The star of the evening was Stephen Gaertner as Don Carlo. His singing was powerful and subtle, with a beauty of tone that never failed and an intensity of character that was very convincing. Mr. Gaertner's program bio lists many impressive credits in Verdi baritone roles, all of which must surely fit him like a glove if his Don Carlo is any indication. Tenor Errin Brooks brought a very large, free sound and a gripping stage presence to the role of Don Alvaro. Mr. Brooks held one's attention and never wavered in his commitment to the dramatic intent of the story, even during the well-deserved lengthy ovation following his Act III aria. Mr. Brooks is capable of a great amount of range, subtlety, and delicate phrasing, and must be commended for that, but one occasionally wished for even more. When Mr. Gaertner and Mr. Brooks were together on stage, the effect was magic. Their shared dramatic intensity, commitment to their roles, and passionate singing nearly had the audience on the edge of their seats.

Kelly Griffin
Kelly Griffin also brought a large, beautiful voice and stage presence to the role of Leonora, but we did detect more scooping than we were comfortable with, and wished her pianissimo high notes were a little more secure. As the gypsy Preziosilla, Janara Kellerman brought a rich and ample voice, but we rather think the role doesn't fit her. We would love to hear her Carmen or Azucena instead.

Fra Melitone lends comic relief to an intense story, and he was well embodied by Daniel Klein. Stefan Szkafarowsky gave Padre Guardiano dignity and wisdom. Metropolitan Opera veteran Robert Brubaker ably sang the peddler Trabuco. Japanese bass Hidenori Inoue gave exciting vocal quality to the old Marquis.

Even in the capable hands of Mr. Chambers, the pick-up orchestra seemed a bit ragged at times. The chorus, too, seemed somewhat ill prepared. Budgets being what they are, these shortcomings are understandable. Neither prevented me from enjoying the performance. It seems a shame there was only one performance, for I would surely recommend attending subsequent performances if there were any.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Having a really big clock is overrated

Your faithful correspondent has reported on opera far too little in the past year or two. To get back into the habit, and to practice his craft, your reporter witnessed Saturday's Metropolitan Opera Live in HD performance of La Traviata. Let us be clear about one thing—an HD broadcast in a movie theater is far from the same thing as a performance in the opera house, and to this reporter's mind, not its equal. Opera is simply better in the house. Stage sets were meant to viewed as a whole, and most operatic voices sound better when heard from a distance than when miked. But when front row recliners in the movie theater go for the same price as Family Circle (the very highest balcony) seats at the Met—or even less—one must make choices.

Sonya Yoncheva as Violetta and Michael Fabino as Alfredo
And a really big clock.
Photo: Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera
This is the Willy Decker production of La Traviata, which first saw the light of day in Salzburg in 2005 and subsequently came to the Met in 2010. It is known for its minimalist design and updated costumes. And a really big clock. (Set and costume design are by Wolfgang Gussmann.) Critics have called the use of the clock to symbolize Violetta's measured days heavy handed, and we don't disagree. It is interesting in such a context that, in Act II, scene 1, the clock is shrouded in flowery slipcover fabric, as is all the furniture. (As Violetta accepts the sacrifice she must make, she removes the slipcovers from clock and sofas—and herself as well, since her dressing gown is made of the same fabric.) Dr. Grenvil is present in most scenes to symbolize Violetta's mortality. There is a particularly effective moment in Act IV when Alfredo talks of leaving Paris and tries to coax Violetta toward the door, but Violetta's eyes are glued to Dr. Grenvil. She knows well her fate. Although such clever touches abound in this production, on the whole one is left with the awkward and unsatisfying feeling of being inside a very large, ornate, Victorian mansion that had been redecorated in mid-century modern style.

Michael Fabiano and Sonya Yoncheva
Photo:  Metropolitan Opera
The singing was quite good on Saturday. Sonya Yoncheva was a very effective Violetta, imbuing the courtesan with passion and intelligence. With the exception of some pianissimo high notes in Act IV, Ms. Yoncheva was very much the equal of this very demanding role. Her tone was warm and mostly even throughout, her coloratura clear, and her acting very convincing. She was paired with the Alfredo of Michael Fabiano. Mr. Fabiano first gained notoriety as one of the contestants in the 2007 documentary The Audition, and this reporter has only heard excerpts of performances since then. We at Taminophile Enterprises believe Mr. Fabiano's singing to be much more beautiful and free than in The Audition, particularly his high voice. His Alfredo was certainly passionate and had many more dimensions than many productions give him.

We are not of one mind about the character of Giorgio Germont. Is he administering tough love to protect his daughter, or is he a controlling swine interested only in his social position? In the hands of baritone Thomas Hampson and director Willy Decker, he was a bit of both. We never believed his gestures of regret in the last act. Very telling is the moment when Germont takes the focus off of Violetta's and Alfredo's suffering to make them aware of his own supposed remorse. We're also not of one mind about Mr. Hampson's portrayal of the role. He has had great success as Germont for many years, but on Saturday one heard some occasional vocal fatigue, and his low notes were not powerful. One is reminded of his younger days, when he was a delightful Guglielmo, Figaro, and Count Almaviva (in Le Nozze di Figaro)—all higher, lighter roles. We must admit the playful, self-congratulatory air he occasionally had with those roles converted well into a self-absorbed air as Germont.

As usual, the Metropolitan Opera Chorus sang and acted well as revelers in the party scenes, although some of the directorial and costuming choices left one confused or simply dissatisfied. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, under the skillful hand of Nicola Luisotti, played the score with precision and expression.

Would I recommend this opera? The cast is a very good reason to see it. Will I see it again? Only for a new cast as exciting as the current one.