Tuesday, March 28, 2006

How American is the new Washington Rheingold?

Here is Anthony Tommasini's review from The New York Times:

WASHINGTON, March 26 — If you put on a production of Wagner's monumental "Ring" cycle, you'd better have a novel concept. That's accepted wisdom in the opera world. We have had industrial age "Rings," an environmentally green "Ring," and several cosmic "Rings" with mystical lighting and abstract scenery.

On Saturday night the Washington National Opera introduced its new production of "Das Rheingold," the first installment of its first complete "Ring" cycle (a co-production with the San Francisco Opera), which will unfold over the next three seasons at the Kennedy Center. For months, the director Francesca Zambello's staging had been touted as a provocatively American "Ring" steeped in American mythology and iconography.

There are many fresh and impressive elements to the company's colorful, abstract and well cast "Rheingold." But its success is only partly attributable to overtly American imagery.

It's true, for example, that in the opening scene Ms. Zambello, working with the set designer Michael Yeargan and the costume designer Anita Yavich, portrays Wagner's Alberich, the dwarf who dwells among the lower race of Nibelungs, as a hulking forty-niner, with thick boots and suspenders, panning for gold; the Rhine Maidens are a trio of sassy gals in fleecy dresses who cavort on a mining sluice, a wonderful wood contraption with chutes and ladders.

But the visual imagery that really gives this scene its impact is the depiction of the pristine river. Rushing water is suggested through swirling video projections by Jan Hartley. When the magic gold glows from the river bed, the Rhine Maidens do a celebratory dance with a billowing silken sheet atop this abstract river's sleek, clear plastic surface. Shafts of golden light (courtesy of the lighting designer Mark McCullough) fill the stage. None of this would matter, though, without the powerful singing of the baritone Gordon Hawkins as Alberich, who nearly stole the show all evening.

The giants Fasolt and Fafner (the bass-baritones John Marcus Bindel and Jeffrey Wells), having just finished building Wotan's castle Valhalla, first appear sitting on a steel beam as it is lowered from an unseen crane. They are blue-collar laborers in matching overalls with elongated legs and huge clodhopper feet. If they look a little like Gumby giants, the cartoonish humor seems intentional. Ms. Zambello is refreshingly attentive to the whimsical side of Wagner's mythological tale. The audience, sensing it was O.K. to laugh, did.

Wotan and the gods are portrayed as entitled 1920's characters out of "The Great Gatsby," arrayed in white summer suits and dresses. Loge, the god of fire, is a wily lawyer in a tailored overcoat (the tenor Robin Leggate). Still, there is nothing especially American about his look, which has a hint of Inspector Clouseau. The rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop is excellent as a matronly and prideful Fricka, the long-suffering wife to the inconstant Wotan.

With his goatee and fedora, the sturdy bass-baritone Robert Hale makes an unusually lanky and disdainful Wotan. Still, in the scene when he descends to the lower world to wrest the magic ring from Alberich, he seems too aloof for the job. Mr. Hawkins's booming and husky Alberich looks as if he could take down the surly god — no problem.

The Americanization concept turns political when the all-knowing earth goddess Erda (the tremulous-voiced mezzo-soprano Elena Zaremba) appears with her ominous warning for Wotan. She is costumed as a Native American princess, and looks as if she had wandered in from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

The lingering image of this production comes in the deep, dank and sulfurous mine where Alberich brutally drives his slaves to hew rock and forge gold. The workers are played by a roster of some 50 mostly minority children, large and small, with tattered clothing and sooty faces. Evoking the history of slavery in America is the idea, but the image of child labor, which remains an international outrage, is what came through for me.

With about 65 players, the orchestra is a little undersize for Wagner. But the veteran conductor Heinz Fricke, the company's music director, turns this to advantage and elicits playing of rewarding clarity and, at times, chamber music-like intimacy. Wagner's two-and-a-half-hour score emerges in a calmly paced and shapely arc.

Though there are still three operas, lasting almost 15 hours, to go, the Washington National Opera is off to a good start with "Das Rheingold." But they might want to damp down all the talk about their American spin on Wagner's "Ring."

Monday, March 27, 2006

Rheingold at the Washington Opera

Here is the Washington Post review of the new production of Das Rheingold at the Washington National Opera.

"A Rheingold that Stands on its Principals"
by Tim Page

The best way to approach Washington National Opera's new production of Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold, which opened Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, is as a solid, abstract and sometimes very attractive updating of a classic.

In short, forget most of what you might have read about this being the first installment of an "American 'Ring' " -- that is, a staging of Wagner's four-evening "Ring" cycle based on what WNO calls the "rich history of the United States." It isn't, unless you count as pointed political commentary, dressing up the earth goddess Erda like the lady on the Land O' Lakes box, casting African Americans in the roles of the captive Nibelungs, and having the giants Fafner and Fasolt bop and swagger like wild 'n' crazy guy construction workers.

Perhaps the next three operas in the series -- a new Die Walkure will enter the repertoire next season, with Siegfried and Gotterdammerung promised for later -- will deepen the American subtext. For now, just enjoy Francesca Zambello's "Roaring Twenties" staging for its general usefulness, its evocative projections (mist, sun, water and some creepy snakes), its occasional moments of majesty and whimsy.

I am grateful, I suppose, that none of the characters wear antlers on their heads, but I am less happy that the production, for the most part, lacks the luminous beauty of the best traditional stagings (Otto Schenk's hypnotic rendition at the Met foremost among them) and the sort of genuine directorial vision that would make for a radical new understanding of the piece.

Still, it will suffice, especially when the performances are as good as they were Saturday. Baritone Gordon Hawkins is simply the best Alberich I've encountered. Grasping, haunted, malevolent -- a monster, of course, but strangely sympathetic at times -- Hawkins's Alberich stole the show as surely as any great Mephistopheles will steal a "Faust." His acting was dynamic and multi-dimensional; moreover, despite the inherent grotesquerie of his character, Hawkins never devolved into Disney horror show. He always made sure the notes were sung -- properly and in tune.

Robert Hale's voice is perhaps a size too small for Wotan -- he brought power to the role but not quite the seemingly effortless power one might have hoped for. That said, he sang with intelligence and sensitivity and brought as much gravity to the character as he could in a production that does not exactly extol Wotan's godliness.

Elizabeth Bishop (Fricka) and Jane Ohmes (Freia) were excellent, singing clearly and soulfully, with proper Wagnerian amplitude. Robin Leggate was a dapper, understated and remarkably lyrical Loge.

The three Rhinemaidens -- JiYoung Lee, Frederique Vezina and Jennifer Hines -- were lovely all around, singing with welling, primordial freshness. Elena Zaremba sounded curiously husky and strained as Erda; she might have the cold Washington has been passing back and forth all winter, but no announcement was made. John Marcus Bindel and Jeffrey Wells played skillfully off each other as Fasolt and Fafner, dressed in elongated bell-bottoms that looked as though they had been designed by R. Crumb. There was worthy support from Corey Evan Rotz as Froh, Detlef Roth as Donner and Gary Rideout as Mime.

A huge factor in the success of any "Rheingold" is the performance of the orchestra, and in this production WNO music director Heinz Fricke has surpassed himself. He took the amazing overture -- a four-minute exploration of a single sustained E-flat major chord that effectively defines and perfects musical minimalism 100 years before the name was invented -- at such a slow tempo that one worried whether his forces could sustain it. But they came through, playing with such sweep, precision and prismatic color that one almost forgot that the Kennedy Center Opera House pit holds a considerably smaller orchestra than is usually employed for this music.

The concluding "Entrance of the Gods Into Valhalla" made up for its somewhat prosaic staging (set on what looked like the gangplank to an ocean liner) with a glorious and affirmative peal of sound. We can almost believe, for a moment, that the gods and goddesses are eternal, that nothing can ever harm them. But just wait until "Die Walkure."

There will be six more performances of Das Rheingold : Thursday, Sunday and April 5, 8, 10 and 14.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

March 25: Rheingold Day

Tonight the Washington Opera premieres its much awaited production of Das Rheingold, the work which kicks off the company's first staging of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung. While we wait for the critical word on what this "American Ring" is like, I thought that I would report on the new DVD from Unitel of the Daniel Barenboim Harry Kupfer Bayreuth production of this opera. The production was filmed in widescreen in 1991, three years after its controversial premiere at the Festspielhaus.

In Kupfer's vision, the Ring is just another tale of greed that we have all seen before but which deserves to be retold over and over again. To this end, the opera begins in silence on a barren, foggy empty road as enigmatic characters wearing trench coats and fedoras are looking at a corpse. An obvious conclusion to some sordid story we may never get to know. As these characters disperse the lights dim to total darkness, and we hear the familiar E flat chord that begins the work. Suddenly the stage fills with green beams of laser lights which will swell and eventually imitate the watery surface of the Rhine. The laser allows for some nifty tricks making the Rhinemaidens and Alberich seem as if they are really under water.

The Gods in the second scene are all dressed in Great Gatsby style, and they all carry empty see-through Plexiglas suitcases (I guess that this newly built Valhalla of the future has plans of becoming a clothes-optional playground). The giants, Fasolt and Fafner, are giant behemoths with microcephalic sized heads. In the Nibelheim scene, Mime, wearing a lab coat, works in a laboratory, and at the end of the opera Wotan and the rest of his gang get onboard a rainbow elevator to go up to their penthouse in the sky.

This production was the target of very harsh criticism back in 1988. When directors tamper with Wagner (as they often do) a sizable part of the audience takes it as an insult: almost as if they thought that the work of the Master was being desecrated. This explains the booing that often occurs at Bayreuth and everywhere else where the management tries to forge new ground despite a decidedly conservative audience.

The DVD is definitely worth getting. The production, despite its eccentricities, is well directed and creates an unforgettable world. The performance by Graham Clark as Loge is delicious; check out the way he does jumping jacks to warm up just before he has to confront the giants. His blond wig and black floor-length leather coat makes him look like Mike Myers' German host Dieter on Saturday Night Life. Not far behind him is the Wotan of John Tomlinson who looks more disreputable than any god in any mythology has a right to be. The rest of the cast is strong, and they all ham it up to the hilt, especially Günter von Kannen as Alberich who appears to have prepared for his part by studying villains in silent films.

Daniel Barenboim's conducting is solid and exciting, and the sound on this DVD is wonderful. You'll enjoy the sound field on the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track, but for a cleaner, more exciting experience listen to it on DTS 5.1 Surround, if your equipment can decode it. You'll be blown away by it!

Monday, March 20, 2006

A Wondrous Forza at the MET

The performance of La Forza del Destino that I attended on March 18 was as good as anything I have seen at the MET in quite a while. It was not like the Forza performances of my childhood (Leontyne Price, Plácido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes) but few things these days are. This one came really close, though, and that was a pleasant surprise. I had recorded last Saturday's broadcast (pictured here is the cover that I designed for it), and I thought that it had turned out to be a very uneven performance. I am sure that when you get down to it, most of us were just happy that Forza was back at the MET. The cast changes on Saturday were excellent decisions: Samuel Ramey's unsteady, wobbly Padre Guardiano was replaced by solid bass Vitalij Kowaljow, and the roles of Don Carlo and Preziosilla were sung by Mark Rucker and Mary Phillips, replacing Mark Delavan and Ildiko Komlosi. Still in the cast were Deborah Voigt as Leonora, Salvatore Licitra as Don Alvaro, and Juan Pons as Fra Melitone. Mr. Licitra sang with greater conviction and more securely than in the broadcast. He was really impressive throughout the evening, producing a true Verdi sound. The same can be said of Mr. Pons who, with his huge but uneven voice these days, should begin exploring the comprimario repertory more often. Deborah Voigt's voice is not ideal for this role, and that's all there is to it. Although her tone is lovely, and she is able to produce some angelic sounds, the role requires a heftier, darker, more mature sound than she can deliver these days. The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra under Gianandrea Noseda sounded like a well-oiled machine, and played beautifully.

This morning the following review of this performance was published in the New York Times.

Being Prepared for a Worst that Never Shows Up
by Anne Midgette

At this point, the Metropolitan Opera production of Verdi's La Forza del Destino, now in the final week of its run, is like a piñata: everyone has taken a swing at it. And while the conventional wisdom about each individual performer has covered the entire spectrum of opinion, the aggregate has shaded toward "disastrous." So it seemed reasonable, on Saturday night, to brace for a train wreck.

But there was none: at most, there was an occasional horrifying screech of wheels at the crossing. This demonstrates two things: second casts may be better than first ones, and opera is an ever-changing art with performances that may vary from one night to the next.

The second cast was notably strong. A happy surprise was the vital, warm bass of Vitalij Kowaljow as the Padre Guardiano. Another was the baritone Mark Rucker, more than respectable as a stout Carlo. Mary Phillips, a mezzo-soprano, made her company debut on Wednesday as Preziosilla; on Saturday, she sounded slightly driven and brittle, despite an appealing instrument. (Mark Delavan and Ildiko Komlosi will resume the roles of Carlo and Preziosilla for the final performance on Thursday, but Mr. Kowaljow will remain.)

Deborah Voigt's Leonora has divided fans. To my ear, the role exposes her voice's lack of sheer heft. Her lovely shimmer — which worked for the final aria, "Pace, pace" — was not enough to carry her big Act II scene, the opera's emotional heart. Here, she came close to parody, breaking up the big arcs of her vocal line, aggressively rolling her r's, singing flat and gesticulating wildly.

Then there's the unpredictable Salvatore Licitra, once hailed as the next big thing in tenors, since castigated for sloppy performances. On Saturday, I thought he sounded great. His upper middle register remains the weakest part of his voice, but that weakness wasn't as glaring as I've heard it, and for the most part he sounded big and warm. His Act III aria, followed by the duet with Mr. Rucker, was some of the more satisfying Verdi singing I've heard in a while. Less satisfying was the conductor Gianandrea Noseda, with fast, driving tempos and heavy balances in the orchestra.

The final performance of "Forza" is on Thursday night at 8 at the Metropolitan Opera.

The Rheingold Cometh -- Part II

Washington Opera to give Wagner's "Ring" a New, American Setting

By Tim Page -- The Washington Post

One test of a masterpiece is its ability to withstand many different interpretations. Who would have imagined that the maverick director Peter Sellars could have set Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" in a lavish apartment in Trump Tower and still have the opera seem absolutely true to its 18th-century origins? Director Jonathan Miller placed the action of Verdi's "Rigoletto" in New York's Little Italy, and Frank Corsaro had the same composer's Violetta ("La Traviata") expire in an AIDS ward.

And now Washington National Opera will present Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung -- an encyclopedic study of the Norse gods, family politics, greed and the redemptive power of love -- as what the director Francesca Zambello calls an "American Ring."

The first of the four works in the "Ring" cycle -- an evening-length operatic prelude titled Das Rheingold -- will receive its first performance on March 25. Die Walkure (starring WNO General Director Placido Domingo) will follow in March and April 2007. No dates have yet been set for the last two operas, Siegfried and Gotterdammerung.

Although this "Ring" will be a co-production with the San Francisco Opera, each installment will receive its premiere in Washington. When complete, this will be WNO's first "Ring" cycle. The last time the entire 15-hour work was performed here was during a visit by the Deutsche Oper Berlin to the Kennedy Center in June 1989.

"Like any Wagnerian masterpiece, the 'Ring' is always contemporary and speaks to us today," Zambello said in a statement. "We have coined the term 'American Ring,' and the designers and I are using American history, mythology, iconography and landscape to set the operas. We are creating a world in some ways familiar to our audience but also one that will feel very mythic as we look to our country's rich imagery. The great themes of the 'Ring' -- nature, power and corruption -- resound through America's past. In many respects, the politicians and celebrities that are today's superstars perform as if they were the gods of Valhalla. It is especially fitting to undertake an American 'Ring' in Washington, D.C., where the concept of global power is a feature of daily life."

Zambello staged Die Walkure for WNO at DAR Constitution Hall in 2003, but the new, unified production of the complete "Ring" will be nothing like that.

"From the very beginning of Washington National Opera's discussions about the 'Ring,' I wanted it to have an American atmosphere," Domingo said in a statement. "I felt that this is not only an original, but also a proper concept for a 'Ring' in the capital of the United States, and Francesca Zambello, the director, was very receptive to that. Francesca's productions are always beautifully balanced between the intimacy of the characters and the sweep of the epic, and I think that she will use the symbols of America brilliantly."

According to Zambello, the costumes "encompass worlds that are both abstract and realistic." For example, Erda, the Earth Goddess, will be clad in Native American attire. Further details will be forthcoming.

The cast will include Robert Hale as Wotan, Elizabeth Bishop as Fricka, Gordon Hawkins as Alberich and Robin Leggate as Loge. WNO Music Director Heinz Fricke will conduct. The production will include sets by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Anita Yavich and video projections by Jan Hartley. Mark McCullough will be the lighting designer.

"I wanted an American production team," Zambello said. "Many of our artists are American as well, and I felt they could bring a collective experience and personal histories to the piece."

Friday, March 17, 2006

The Rheingold Cometh

Next Saturday, the Washington Opera will unveil its eagerly awaited new production of The Ring of the Nibelung. Das Rheingold, the first opera of Richard Wagner's massive cycle, will debut on March 25 in a production that has already been dubbed the "American Ring." During this week, this blog will feature articles from the New York Times and the Washington Post about this new production. We hope that your curiosity will be sparked, and that you will visit us often for more details about this upcoming cultural event.

An Americanized Version of Wagner's Ring
by Carl Hartman

WASHINGTON -- In the world of Wagnerian opera, Wotan is the king of Germanic gods. In an upcoming American production he'll appear on stage in a natty 1920s suit, a fedora and a black eye patch.

Erda, the earth goddess and mother of Wotan's eight children, the Valkyrie, will look very much like an American Indian.

The fanciful costumes will give a distinctly American twist to the Washington National Opera's production of Richard Wagner's four epic German operas, "The Ring of the Nibelungs," which the company will present over the next four years.

When "Das Rheingold" opens the cycle March 25 at the Kennedy Center, tradition will prevail in one aspect of the production: It will be sung in German. Next season the company will present "Die Walkure," with Placido Domingo in the lead role of Siegmund. Domingo is general director of the Washington Opera.

"When Placido wanted to do it (the Ring) I was very excited to do it here," Francesca Zambello, who is directing "Das Rheingold," told reporters. "So many of the stories in the Ring are also right here _ stories about power, greed, about society, respect for the environment, all hot issues of our time which are in the Ring and also right here, in the seat of American and in some sense global power."

"Das Rheingold" is a story about greed, power and natural resources. Rhine maidens try in vain to protect the gold under the river from the villain Alberich. Wotan, as big a thief as Alberich, wrests from him the ring made from the gold, which gives him absolute power. When Robin Leggate, the British tenor who plays Wotan's tricky adviser Loge, asked the director about the part, she messaged back: "Think corporate lawyer."

Ms. Zambello takes the position that the Ring is a masterpiece, and that masterpieces are always contemporary. Shakespeare, theater manager as well as playwright, clothed his actors in the long stockings and puffed-up shorts that were the modern dress of his own time, not the Roman togas that Julius Caesar and Mark Antony wore.

When a new sketch of Wotan in costume was hung at the Goethe Institute, Germany's cultural arm in Washington, people dubbed it "Gatsby in Valhalla." Jay Gatsby was the rich young New York protagonist of "The Great Gatsby," the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel of 1925.

The singers will use the libretto written by Wagner in a dense romantic poetry that even many Germans find hard to understand. The English translations will appear in surtitles flashed above the stage. The director said the surtitles will not try to translate the German into American slang.

"Wotan doesn't have to say, 'C'mere, babe, I wanna kiss you,'" she said.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Peter Schneider meets Parsifal

Conductor Peter Schneider has been named James Levine's replacement for the three performance of Wagner's Parsifal which will play during the month of May. He is a native of Vienna, where he began his musical career early in life as a member of the famous Vienna Boys Choir. He has conducted extensively throughout the world, but his home base is the Vienna State Opera where he has conducted since 1984. In 2004 he was awarded the title of honorary conductor at this famed opera house. The 2004-2005 season at the Vienna State Opera was a Wagnerian year for maestro Schneider. He conducted The Ring, Parsifal, and Tristan und Isolde. In the summer of 2005 he conducted all performances of Lohengrin at the Bayreuth Festival. I heard and recorded the premiere performance of this Lohengrin production on July 26. It featured tenor Peter Seiffert in the title role (for a complete cast list of this production, click here) and soprano Petra-Maria Schnitzer.

Regretfully, the reviews for this production were lukewarm at best. Referring to Peter Schneider's conducting, Andrew Clark in the Financial Times wrote that "it was no better than you would find anywhere else in Germany." Although this is not too promising, we have to remember that maestro Schneider is an accomplished musician with loads of experience, and that the stellar cast that the MET has assembled for the May Parsifals will inspire any conductor to greater heights. At least, I hope so.

Now, let's see what tempi he will use for this work. If you have heard Peter Schneider conduct Parsifal elsewhere, feel free to comment.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Levine Out for the rest of the MET Season

Regretfully, it is now official: his rotator cuff is torn and James Levine requires surgery. This unfortunate event will lead the Maestro to cancel his participation for the rest of the Metropolitan Opera season which included multiple performances of Beethoven's Fidelio, the new production of Donizetti's Don Pasquale, and Wagner's Lohengrin and Parsifal. Maestro Levine will also have to cancel the May 20 Gala Farewell Concert for the MET's general manager Joseph Volpe, as well as the company's summer tour of Japan where he was to have conducted Wagner's Die Walküre and Mozart's Don Giovanni. According to the general manager this type of injury is unprecedented, and it has sent the MET scrambling to fill the conductor positions for the thirty-five performances that Levine has been forced to cancel. This will not be an easy task for the Metropolitan Opera. The management will have to find conductors who are available, who know the scores, and who have the international reputation worthy of one of the largest opera companies in the world. Already Maurizio Benini has been selected to conduct the new Don Pasquale, and the MET expects to make a final decision on Fidelio as early as Monday. This now leaves the Wagner operas temporarily unattended. Parsifal, with its dream cast of Ben Heppner, René Pape, Waltraud Meier, and Thomas Hampson will be a particular loss. In my opinion, this is the strongest ensemble that the MET has put together in years for Parsifal, and Levine's conducting is very much the main character of any performance of this opera, in particular, in terms of tempi. Undoubtedly, if a second-tier assistant conductor takes over, Levine's tempi will remain intact, and the three performances will hopefully not lack the gel that's needed to keep everything together. On the other hand, if the MET is able to find a great conductor (has Pierre Boulez's official retirement after he conducted Parsifal at Bayreuth this summer kick in yet?) then we are in for some interesting surprises in the merry month of May.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Anna Moffo R.I.P. (1932-2006)

I never got to hear Anna Moffo live. When I started going to the opera in the late 1970's, she had already retired from singing at the MET. All that was left of her, in the early Saturday standing room line where I met other opera fans for the first time, were memories from the old faithful. Record stores loved Anna Moffo's image, though: those wonderful sexy covers on her LP's were always prominently displayed. Her recording of Massenet's Thaïs, which featured a stunning photograph of Ms. Moffo in costume, was a huge best-seller. At that time, I thought that she was the most beautiful opera singer in the history of the genre. And I still do. Physically, I never thought that Maria Callas was a great beauty, although I recognized her visual elegance and grace. But Callas was too European for my tastes in those days. There was something earthy in the way that those pictures made Anna Moffo look. There was something that was closer to home about her. And indeed she was. Born, bred, and educated in the USA. She hailed from Pennsylvania, the daughter of Italian-American parents who loved music. She studied the piano and the viola when she was a voice major at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and was recognized to be an all-around great musician.

So many opera fans that were lucky enough to have heard her live remember her Traviata, her MET debut, and perhaps her signature role. Her stunning high E-flat was legendary because it was secure, memorable and incredibly beautiful.

In his obituary in the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini wrote the following impressions of the late soprano:

"She died of a stroke after grappling with complications of breast cancer for 10 years. Though Ms. Moffo's career began splendidly, her voice had declined by her late 30's. With her radiant appearance, she was drawn early on into television and film, playing host of her own variety show on Italian television for many years. She might not have fulfilled her promise, but for a good dozen years Ms. Moffo enjoyed enormous success and won a devoted following at a time when her competition for roles like Verdi's Violetta, Puccini's Mimi and Donizetti's Lucia included Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi and Joan Sutherland. Though Ms. Moffo's voice was not large, it was warm and rich, with soft pastel colorings and a velvety lower range. Agile coloratura technique allowed her to sing high soprano bel canto repertory impressively, especially Lucia di Lammermoor. She was a thoroughly trained musician, having studied the piano and viola when she was a voice major on scholarship at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. For a brief time, Ms. Moffo was a lovely singer and appealing artist who broke out of the traditional career mode to reach the larger public. 'You may not like what I do,' she said in a 1972 interview, 'but you can't say I'm dull.'"

Monday, March 06, 2006

James Levine's Health

I saw James Levine on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, in the spring of 2004, walking outside the MET. He was walking very gingerly, lagging behind a female companion, and carrying in his hands a folded Playbill to the Christopher Plummer production of King Lear that played at the Vivian Beaumont from February to April of that year. Looking at him, walking like a tired old man, his gaze lowered to the ground, almost afraid of taking the next step, I assumed that he had been overcome by Christopher Plummer's stellar performance. But when he walked passed me, I could see in his face the unmistakable pain of someone deeply suffering from his sciatica. James Levine's journey from young energetic prodigy to infirm middle age came too fast.

This weekend the news broke that he had fallen onstage at Boston's Symphony Hall after a rapturous performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The preliminary reports are that he fell right on his shoulder and injured his rotator cuff. The fall has now forced Maestro Levine to cancel his participation in the Boston Symphony's upcoming tour and, depending on the extent of his injury, possibly the rest of the performances at the Metropolitan Opera. He was scheduled to undergo an MRI today, and the best that he can hope for is that the rotator cuff is only bruised. Anything more damaging, such as a tear, would require surgery and put him out of commission for many months. His schedule at the MET for the remainder of the season, is quite hectic, with upcoming performances of Fidelio, the return of Robert Wilson's production of Lohengrin and three performances of Parsifal. Also, he is scheduled to conduct the upcoming new production of Donizetti's Don Pasquale.

If James Levine is forced to cancel his Wagner performances during April and May, it will be interesting to see who the MET gets to replace him. Will these performances be led, by default, by Maestro Valery Gergiev (who in April of 2003 conducted a number of memorable performances of Parsifal with Domingo, Pape and Struckmann)? Or will David Robertson or Marek Janowski (both of whom are taking over the Boston Symphony's tour) be hired to fill in for the ailing maestro in New York.

Listen up, Mr, Volpe: desperate times require desperate measures. If Maestro Levine is unable to fulfill his duties for the rest of the season, I recommend Christian Thielemann (an amazing Tannhäuser at Bayreuth this summer), Kent Nagano (his vivid reading of Parsifal from Baden-Baden is now available on DVD) or Esa-Pekka Salonen, whose Tristan Project and Tristan und Isolde last year in Los Angeles and Paris respectively electrified the musical and artistic world.

But make no mistake, what we all really want is for James Levine to get healthy and to conduct the rest of the operas he is scheduled to lead. The A-list of star conductors that I recommended above would be great ringers, but I think it would be better if they just became part of the MET's regular roster of house conductors under the upcoming Peter Gelb tenure.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Mark Morris Dance Group does Vivaldi

The Juilliard Choral Union, to which I belong, will be performing at BAM with the Mark Morris Dance Group. The ballet is called Gloria, and it features the music of Antonio Vivaldi. This week, Time Out New York published some reflections from the choreographer on the 25th anniversary of the founding of his Dance Group. Here's what Mark Morris had to say about the upcoming performances of Gloria: "Here's the thing: it's one of my first dances, it's very very good, people like to do it and people like to watch it, and I've done everything I can with it. It's not always my favorite thing to watch in rehearsal. I decided to reinvolve myself with the piece, so I'm conducting the motherfucker."

Friday, March 03, 2006

He's Becoming Quite the Wagnerian

These days, mention Bryn Terfel's name and it is Wagner, not Mozart or Verdi, that first comes to mind. Last year it was Die Walküre at Covent Garden and the BBC Proms, and this winter it is The Flying Dutchman that is keeping the Welshman busy right in his homeland. The Welsh National Opera has mounted for him a new production of Wagner's romantic work, helping to fulfill Terfel's promise to the company that he would sing this taxing role when the company had a suitable house. The critics have all praised Terfel's singing and acting, but have been less kind to David Pountney's production which was first seen in Zurich, and which features projections by video artists Jane and Louise Wilson. Using an approach that vaguely reminds one of The Tristan Project, static close-ups of Mr. Terfel's face are rear-projected throughout the opera on two giant screens.
Anthony Holden in The Observer wrote the following review of this production which, to him, reminds him more of a space opera than anything else.

"Where Wagner Boldly Goes"

The Flying Dutchman Welsh National Opera, Millennium Centre, Cardiff

On the cover of Welsh National Opera's programme for its new version of The Flying Dutchman is a faux-naif nightscape reducing the universe to one-quarter sea, three-quarters brooding sky, dotted with white objects too large to be stars. Observant opera-goers might be forgiven for thinking the (uncredited) artist has got his (or her) proportions wrong, especially in the case of a work so steeped in the maritime. In fact, the picture is a clue to director David Pountney's characteristically bold new take on Wagner's first great meditation on solitude and redemption.

Space, to Pountney, has these days replaced Wagner's sea in the collective imagination as 'an image of the ultimately lonely, desolate place in which someone might be condemned to wander aimlessly'. Such is the plight of the legendary Dutchman, cursed to sail the high seas forever unless he can seize a fleeting chance, once every seven years, to find the love of a faithful woman.

When last he directed this opera, on the huge floating stage at the Bregenz festival in Austria, Pountney had to avoid the temptation to use real ships on the lake as he could not rely on real weather to reflect the shifting moods of Wagner's music. So he internalised the Dutchman's quest, setting it in an abstract house, 'the house of his mind'.

This remains largely true in this new staging, with no less a mind than Bryn Terfel's returning home to Wales, and the company where he began his career, to make his debut as the Dutchman in honour of WNO's 60th birthday. The trouble, as he roams space for two-and-a-half uninterrupted hours, is that so much of Wagner's music is still explicitly, all too audibly, about the sea.

Undeterred, Pountney reinforces his mise-en-scene with video images he came across by chance in Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum - pictures by sisters Jane and Louise Wilson of a crumbling Soviet space training centre in Kazakhstan. He then commissioned them to film extreme, often uncomfortably so, close-ups of Terfel and the girl who might just end his protracted quest.

Projected on to giant screens through which the two interact, these suggest that each may be a figment of the other's imagination, or at least someone other than they seem. Given that the girl is a dreamy adolescent in love with the romantic idea of the Dutchman, and that he sees her purely as a means of escape from his plight, this adds up to an effective variant on the over-familiar use of video images onstage, even if it does neither soloist any cosmetic favours.

It also turns the evening into a collision of archetypes rather than the conventionally torrid human drama. Roaming around a central platform of the girders so loved by this director (and too many others), rarely interacting except to each other's phantom images, rarely even touching for a couple supposedly in love, the two central figures take on dream-like dimensions of fantasy and illusion that cumulatively suit their roles in this otherworldly piece.

And they are majestically performed, Terfel's trademark snarls and gloriously rich baritone more than matched by the glacial beauty and sonorous reach of Swedish soprano Annalena Persson as Senta. Where he maintains a lofty detachment, singing to her projected image (or even his own) more than her corporeal self, she hurls herself towards her new-found destiny with as much physical as vocal commitment.

This involves the summary dumping of her childhood sweetheart, Eric, whose impossible longings and self-righteous indignation are touchingly captured by British tenor Ian Storey. You cannot imagine this wimp ever seeming an adequate son-in-law to Senta's scheming father, Daland, the unscrupulous materialist as powerfully enacted as sung by Israeli bass Gidon Saks.

A sensitive director of singers, with a sure enough sense of theatre to lend central moments a duly celestial stillness, Pountney cannot resist the occasional postmodernist intrusion. Where his own synopsis of the plot has Daland's crew becoming 'increasingly aggressive and provocative', for instance, he decks out a female chorus of all shapes and sizes in tediously unoriginal Barbie doll wigs to become the victims of a drunken gang-rape.

The childish graffito that Senta draws when singing of her love for the Dutchman is, by contrast, a clever conceit reminding us that she is a young woman way out of her depth in this saga, pimped by a greedy father to a lost soul who cares only about her fidelity.

It's an unremittingly bleak scenario, rendered all the bleaker by its transference from the foaming seas of Wagner's imagination to the boundless space of Pountney's. His decision to dispense with an interval, let alone the usual two, bolsters the epic scale of the work without quite turning it into an endurance test. But it also deprives the audience of the chance to work out exactly what's going on with a quick flick through the programme over a welcome drink.

I have said it before - and I'll say it again - it should never be necessary to read the programme to grasp what's happening in any theatre, operatic or otherwise. In this case, however, it sure helps, for all Pountney's protestations that his meaning should be 'completely understandable from what you see in front of you'.

Those who don't understand the sudden descent of spacemen towards the end, or the fibre-optic bulbs being manufactured by the female chorus, might even take the first video-projected images of some derelict institution to be a topical reference to Abu Ghraib. Fear not. Once you grasp that we're all wafting around the Milky Way, rather than being subjected to yet another stage protest about some dire contemporary hellhole, everything will gradually fall into place. Think of space as an ocean and Wagner's surging music will weave its magic. Succumb to Pountney's maverick vision and these world-class performers will help you understand why even early Wagner has a cult following.

With the impressive Carlo Rizzi in the pit, this exemplary ensemble is blessed with distinguished support from WNO's fine chorus and house orchestra, every stitch in Wagner's rich tapestry meticulously revealed, if, at times, underplayed for the sake of the onstage voices.

It may have got off to a slow start on the first night, but this is a reading which is bound to grow in confidence as the show moves from Cardiff to London, Birmingham and Bristol, where Robert Hayward takes over from Terfel and continues with the role in Milton Keynes, Liverpool and Swansea. If the visuals don't grab you, the aurals surely will.