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Archive for the ‘Opera’ Category

…and perhaps the Met will put on a good Turandot production.

1/7 Turandot @ The Metropolitan Opera

1. Why would a tenor who cannot be heard over the orchestra, especially up in the Family Circle, be allowed to perform? At the beginning of the opera I thought that the orchestra had perhaps decided to play really loudly. I’ve never had a problem hearing vocalists at the Met, even way up in the balcony, but Philip Webb, who played Calaf, was mostly inaudible for the entire opera. By the time Act II rolled around, I had pretty much resigned myself to enjoying the playing of the orchestra and mentally substituting Franco Corelli’s voice. When Webb went to strike the gong 3 times at the end of Act 1 to declare Calaf’s intent to pursue the princess Turandot, he missed the first time. Seemed fitting. Surprisingly, his version of “Nessun Dorma” was pretty decent (and audible), and given a nice round of applause by the audience, but turned into an awkward moment when conductor Andris Nelsons decided to pause the music and then realized the audience wasn’t THAT enthusiastic and silence reigned. The other vocalists were bearable, though not standouts. Maria Guleghina as Turandot was stronger than Webb, but sounded as if she had swallowed her upper register and was all over the place with some of her pitches.  Maija Kovalevska sang well as Liu, but her character sounded distant, and I did not feel particularly empathetic towards her. The chorus and the orchestra provided a bright spot, but certainly not enough to overcome the disappointment of the leads. 

2. 35 minutes of music and 25 minutes of intermission? Really? I understand that the magnificent set by Zefferelli probably requires a large amount of time to change. And I gasped like many in the audience when the imperial, gaudy scene of the second act was revealed. But almost as much time chilling in my seat as watching the opera? Wonderful as the visual effect may be, I don’t think it justifies 25 minutes of intermission. As a director once told me, people come to the theater to watch acting and singing, not scene changes.

3. Speaking of the set, why did the designers choose to leave a black drape hanging down that blocked the back of the set for most of the balcony? Does no one bother to go up to Family Circle and realize that all anyone can see of the emperor is his feet? I understand that I paid less for my ticket, but I did not purchase a discounted “limited view” seat, so why block my view with a black drape that served no observable purpose?  If the Met wants to attract a younger crowd, most of whom can’t afford a 100$ orchestra seat (and don’t have time to wait in line for 20$ ones) and will likely be sitting in the Family Circle, they should try and make a good impression. Or just take the time to look at a production from the point of view of everyone. Common courtesy? 

Perhaps I’ve overblown the significance of the failures of the production, but I walked away disapointed at the sloppiness and plain lack of care. I know that the performance wasn’t a gala opening night or the run of a new production, and there probably wasn’t anyone “important” there, but an impressionable young student who can advertise the Met to other impressionable young students (who I’m sure the Met hopes will attend when they can afford it) was there. I have the potential (like many others in the audience) to be a potent marketing tool, but after an experience like that I had on Thursday, I don’t feel like recommending the Met to anyone. What if that had been my first opera experience? I would likely not go back. And the Met should realize that perhaps the most important audience member is not in row E, but is in G116, way up in the balcony, and treat each production as a chance to impress that blossoming young opera fan.

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11/24 Janacek’s From the House of the Dead @ The Met Opera

Magical is usually not the first adjective that comes to mind when one thinks of an opera based on Dostoevsky’s experiences in a prison camp. And yet, that is precisely the word I would use to describe the production I saw last Tuesday. The blend of evocative music, terrific ensemble acting and singing, appropriate design was like no other opera I’ve experienced before.

The design of the opera was quite good, gritty and realistic, almost like watching a movie (what a pity this production is not being broadcast in HD!) The grey concrete of the prison camp and the drab clothing of the prisoners gave the proper air of the mind numbing boredom that would be life in a prison camp, but it was the staging choices themselves that were most effective. At the opening of Act 1 fighting prisoners were put into a line to receive what looked to be soup, but after half the line had their cups filled, the guards inexplicably denied the rest of the line a meal. Such arbitrary injustices appeared multiple times in the play, a daily plague. Later, prisoners were seen dressing in a seething mass, revealing the complete lack of privacy prisoners had. The staging of a play-within-the opera was done with the “actors’ ” backs to the opera audience while the prison spectators looked out towards us,  a telling mirror image. The transition between Act 1 and Act 2 was marked by a large amount of debris falling from the ceiling, which the prisoners then cleaned up with baskets. There was no glamour about it-one had a very clear idea of what it would be like to be a prisoner in the camp, of the monotony and small injustices or projects that characterized everyday life.

Given the staging, one might think the opera quite depressing, yet the music was so sympathetic and almost uplifting that the prisoners were transformed. The stark reality of the staging was overcome by the transcendence of the music. Janacek wrote in a style that incorporated late Romanticism, Stravinsky, and Czech folk music; a blend that allowed for a wide range of expression in the music. The way the opera was written, the music was almost a wordless narrator, giving depth to each character and event. The music could have stood alone as an orchestral work, but proved even more potent with the lyrical settings of the Czech words. For me, the power of the music in the work left a lasting impression and lent a significant sparkle to the opera.

Conductor Esa Pekka Salonen was masterful in his conducting of the piece (basically a 100 minute tone poem for orchestra), and the orchestra played vivaciously and supportively. The male chorus was an impressive sound, while each soloist shone as he told the story of how he had arrived in the prison. Particularly impressive was Peter Mattei in the role of Shishkov, who tells his story of murdering his wife for loving another man in Act 3. The drama and conflict of the story were evident in Mattei’s singing, holding the listener spellbound until the end. However, what was really impressive was the ability of the ensemble to work together seamlessly; given that the opera does not have a dynamic plot, it is the forceful and dramatic singing that carried the show.

Bravo to the Met for deciding to take on a difficult and unknown opera. I think, given that the house was full, they have been justly rewarded. I was left wondering what other gems might be buried behind concrete walls in Siberia, and hoping that I might get the chance to hear them. Given the general acclaim and popularity of this production, I hope the Met, and other opera companies, are encouraged to take chances and program modern and less well-known works. If they are done with as much care and talent as this production, and if they have so moving a score, they are surely going to succeed.

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Exciting Beginnings

10/8 Il Barbiere di Siviglia @ Met Opera

This year I decided to do something adventurous. So, I bought a subscription to the Metropolitan Opera. For less than $200 I received  7 tickets in the nosebleed seats for a variety of different shows. I really hadn’t had much exposure to opera before, but had listened to quite a bit over the summer and was inspired to go see live productions. Last year I went to the Met to see a rather lifeless production of “Don Giovanni” that turned me off to opera for the rest of the year. But, feeling that a reevaluation was in order, I found myself waiting on October 8th for the curtain to go up on Bartlett Sher’s production of Rossini’s classic Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

After the rousing overture played by the Met Orchestra under Maurizio Benini ended, the scene opened as Ambrogio, a servant, tried, without much success, to pull his sleeping master Dr. Bartolo offstage. And so began a series of jokes that involved the ne’er-do-well Ambrogio felled by a tree, almost crushed under an anvil, and the victim of exploding vegetables. The opera kept a light and ridiculous tone while also showing the interesting interplay of the early 19th century relationship between servants and masters. The significance of the eventual triumph of Figaro, the barber who serves all, and yet gets what he wants in the end, was not lost on the original audience, and still rings true today.

The cast of the opera was superb. Joyce DiDonato stole the show as Rosina, the young girl trapped by her guardian, finding love with Count Almaviva. She sounded beautiful, nailing all of her arias (not an easy feat in this opera.) She was also vibrant and charming in her acting, expressive even from the nosebleeds. Rodion Pogossov as Figaro was devilishly charming, accompanied by 5 women in low cut dresses that silently assisted him in schemes. He was perhaps a grander barber than Rossini envisioned-complete with house on wheels and live donkey-but a cunning schemer nonetheless. Count Almaviva and Dr. Bartolo were both quite funny in their misadventures trying to woo Rosina, especially when Almaviva dressed up and impersonated a drunken army doctor. The entire production flowed and sparkled. Despite sitting there for 3 hours, I was never bored or impatient for the story to move along. The orchestra and Benini listened with a deft ear, and the group arias, one of the strengths of the opera, were wonderful.

To anyone looking to go to their first opera, I highly recommend this engaging production of a classic for both its humor, talent, and beauty. As someone with another 6 operas to see this season, I’m happy to say that I left the Met with a light heart and no buyer’s remorse.

(Next up will be Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffman, a more serious work in a new production Dec 3.)

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