Sunday, April 30, 2006

Compassion at the MET: Lohengrin, April 29 2006

This is the second time that I have heard tenor Ben Heppner's voice crack in the middle of a Wagner opera at the MET. The first time that it happened within a personal earshot was at the matinee broadcast of Die Meistersinger a few years ago, and now he did it again Saturday afternoon, at another matinee broadcast, this time during a performance of Lohengrin. The only difference was that I heard the Meistersinger accident on the radio, but Saturday afternoon I was there. My good friend Marta and her husband Bill, members of The Metropolitan Opera Club, invited me to lunch at the club, and then to the performance. Listening to a tenor crack on the radio is one thing, being there is a truly complex musical experience.

Heppner seemed a bit tight during the first act, but managed to finish it with only minor mishaps, really noticeable only on a secondary hearing. However, during the course of the challenging and long Act II, he cracked in two separate places towards the end of the act. Most noticeably on the A natural on the words "Heil dir, Elsa! Nun lass vor Gott uns geh'n!" I am not sure if I can call it "cracking" on the note, it was more like he was vocally unprepared for delivering the phrase, thus leading to the production of one of the ugliest sounds I have ever heard at the MET. Ironically and sadly for Heppner, that was the last phrase that he had to sing before the end of the Act. On the bright side, he was able to finish the performance, singing a lovely third act, and a very effective "In fernem Land."

I think that Ben Heppner has the goods, and oftentimes, he tends to deliver them. Whether or not his voice is that of a true heldentenor (or whether or not he will be the next Siegfried) belongs in another discussion. However, last time this vocal embarrassment happened to Heppner during a MET broadcast, we started hearing reports that he was suffering all kinds of vocal problems that were leading to the cancellation of recitals up and down the U.S. and Canada. Eventually, he took a break from singing for several months and lost weight, which he has managed to keep off.

I am worried that he is going down the same path again, and I am especially worried that his first Parsifal at the MET might be compromised by whatever vocal problems might be plaguing him at the moment. Let us hope that he gets over this, and that he is able to debut in Parsifal successfully.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Lohengrin: Performance of Thursday April 20, 2006

It's wonderful to experience Lohengrin again at the MET, and even more wonderful to have a chance to re-explore Robert Wilson's unusual take on this romantic Wagner opera. I had completely forgotten the off-white curtain with the single blue wing on it that greeets the audience upon arriving in the auditorium (next year, with Peter Gelb introducing so many "new" operas, we may never get to see the Gold Curtain!), and the tremendous impact that this production can have on those willing to take a gamble on it. Back in 1998, I thought that Mr. Wilson's Lohengrin was a totally unique look for the MET. Since then, I have observed that he has pretty much applied a similar formula to his Parsifal in Los Angeles, and his Ring of the Nibelung at the Paris Opera.

The staging has remained pretty much the same: a backdrop of ever-changing hues of blues, and white neon-like monoliths that occasionally invade the stage in order to signal the beginnings or endings of scenes. Thankfully, the conclusion of Act II, involving the character of Ortrud and a crimson red curtain (to my mind, one of the master strokes of this production), remains intact from the first time I saw it.

One aspect that has been eliminated from the production is the rhythmic, but awkward hand-movements that everyone: critics, audience and, in particular, performers alike, complained about back when the production was new. Now, the characters move about the scenic space in a glacial pace, which at times is interrupted by poses which remind one of Kabuki theater. Not everyone is cut out to be a Robert Wilson performer. Some like Karita Mattila (Elsa), Eike Wilm Schulte (The Herald), and Luana DeVol (Ortrud) come naturally to it. Others like Ben Heppner (Lohengrin) struggle not to appear self-conscious.

Vocally, it was a strong evening. All the principals rose to the ocassion. The only weak link was Andrew Greenan who was the last-minute King Henry replacement for Stephen West, who was ill. Both Karita Matilla and Ben Heppner were perfect and made some lovely ethereal sounds as the lovers. Meanwhile, Luana DeVol and Richard Paul Fink as Ortrud and Telramund were evil and dastardly in their respective roles.

I must say that Philippe Auguin led a carefully crafted reading of the score -- his baton marking clear metronomic beats during the Act I prelude. Not the most inspiring of conductors, but definitely easy to follow. He also appears to be a jovial fellow, and during his curtain call he even turned to acknowledge the work of the chorus, who sang brilliantly. But I also have to report that when the cat's away, the mice will indeed play: there were some awful sounds coming from the "banda" backstage. Let's hope this gets fixed by the next performances, and especially for the broadcast.

Overall, this Lohengrin is a strong revival of one of the most important productions that the MET has staged in years. Do not, I repeat: do not miss it.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

British Götterdämmerung: Financial Times Review

Here is a review of the new Götterdämmerung production at The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, from the Financial Times of London.

At curtain-down on Monday the Royal Opera passed the virility test of any self-respecting opera ensemble: it completed a new Ring, the first in its renovated Covent Garden home. It was a cause for minor rejoicing, not just because the evening was more successful than the three previous instalments of the Antonio Pappano-Keith Warner production, but because we can now look forward to the first integrated cycle of Wagner’s tetralogy in London for a decade. Unlike English National Opera’s recent attempt, which foundered through lack of funds and willpower, the Royal Opera promises three complete Ring cycles in 18 months’ time, and is already marketing them.

The engineer of Monday’s success was Antonio Pappano, whose Wagner conducting suddenly seems to have found its pulse and shape. There were no traces of the disjointedness that dogged earlier instalments. The Royal Opera’s music director has finally begun to relax. He now listens to the music in longer breaths, communicating a wider sense of its architecture and a more mature grasp of Wagner’s orchestral palette. The Norns scene is a little slow – better that than starting off fast – but from there it is the most singer- friendly Wagner I have heard, generating Italianate lyricism in the Brunnhilde-Siegfried duet and a suitably high-voltage act two.

With the exception of Peter Sidhom’s muffled Alberich, this is also the finest cast since Das Rheingold 18 months ago. Lisa Gasteen’s Brunnhilde gets better and better: there are no exposed notes to trouble her, she looks more feminine (costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca) and she has found a way of singing the German words expressively. Just as important, she manages the transition from spunky bride to heroic tragédienne with ease. She deserves better than John Treleaven’s cautiously crowing Siegfried.

John Tomlinson’s Hagen is another of his clever portraits of evil, while Peter Coleman- Wright gives Gunther welcome substance. I particularly liked Mihoko Fujimura’s Waltraute and Marina Poplavskaya’s Third Norn, the latter a Sieglinde in the making.

It may be hard to come to Warner’s staging without prejudices formed by his previous three Ring evenings, but he nearly wipes those memories in the first two acts of Götterdämmerung. Stefanos Lazaridis’s sets have a clear architectural profile, and the Gibichung scenes – a stretch-settee in act one, a mobile platform in act two, both gilded with statues of the gods – tell us that Hagen & Co have as much sincerity as Hollywood royalty. There is a novel solution to the act one finale: Warner assumes his audience is intelligent enough to know that the Gunther who overpowers Brünnhilde is really Siegfried transformed by the magic Tarnhelm. Why then have Siegfried walking about simultaneously?

If the storyline is otherwise clear, the real thrust of Warner’s staging remains intentionally murky. It is not so much an interpretation, more a narrative overlaid with à la carte references to Wagnerian philosophy, which the audience can either ignore or acknowledge, depending on familiarity with the composer’s influences and intentions. Should Wagner’s idea of the imprisoning power of civil society, for example, have any bearing on the Gibichung scenes? And if so, why does the Tarnhelm come from the same cast? Is Hagen the alter ego, the dark side, of Brünnhilde, just as Alberich is of Wotan? What is the significance of the crown of thorns in which Brünnhilde is borne into the hall of the Gibichungs?

For all its philosophical pretensions this staging is fatally short of attitude or irony, and it limps home in act three. Lazaridis falls back on the clutter that has become a leitmotif of his Ring. Warner neuters Siegfried’s demise and Brünnhilde’s swansong, and the only redeeming factor in the finale – an empty fire-spectacle with an innocent boy raised aloft – is the sight of Heather Shipp’s breasts: she and the other two Rhinemaidens exchange their grunge for the full Monty as they reclaim the cursed gold. Does this Ring have nothing deeper or more original to say?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Robert Wilson's Lohengrin at the MET

The reviews are in for Monday's premiere of the revival of Wagner's Lohengrin at the MET. I will have my own review of this production in a few days: I will be going to see it Thursday evening.

Here is an excerpt from Anthony Tommasini's review in the New York Times.

It stands to reason that a high-concept new production at the Metropolitan Opera might take time to settle in and refine itself. The best example in recent years is Robert Wilson's staging of Wagner's Lohengrin.

The revival that opened on Monday night, winning huge ovations, especially for the tenor Ben Heppner as the grail knight Lohengrin and the soprano Karita Mattila as the innocent Elsa, is not the same show that earned Mr. Wilson lusty boos when the production was unveiled in March 1998. Back then the abstract scenic designs, a Wilson trademark, made for some haunting, mystical Wagnerian imagery: against a backdrop with shifting hues of blue, gray and green, slowly moving luminous white rectangular beams crisscross the bare stage. Still, the glacial movements of the singers and the highly stylized hand and arm gestures made everyone look terribly uncomfortable.

When the production returned the next season, the stylized movements had been simplified. On Monday the movements of the cast were simpler still, and the scenic designs as beautiful as ever. Finally, the astute concept behind Mr. Wilson's staging came through.

If the singers seemed self-conscious with their movements at times, for the most part Mr. Wilson's direction empowered them to give bold performances, especially Mr. Heppner. Many heldentenors are actually pushed-up baritones. Mr. Heppner is the real thing, a tenor with a clarion top range and a bright ping in his sound. His voice faltered a couple of times in the punishing Act III monologue, in which Lohengrin reveals the secrets of his origin and the reason for his mission. But it hardly mattered. This was a heroic and thrilling performance.

Ms. Mattila's singing unusually combines cool Nordic colorings with visceral emotional intensity. She was in her glory as Elsa. Coming off her winning Met portrayal of Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio, where she acted with affecting naturalness, she was equally riveting, and stunningly beautiful, working within Mr. Wilson's stylized concept.

Making her Met debut well into her career, the American soprano Luana DeVol sang Ortrud. Though her voice was sometimes tremulous and hard-edged, she sang with fiery abandon and cut through the orchestra with slicing high notes. Despite some hammy Cruella DeVil moments, she bravely embraced the concept and was a wonderfully malevolent presence. Mr. Fink and the baritone Eike Wilm Schulte, as the king's herald, were also strong. Substituting for the bass-baritone Stephen West, who was ill, Andrew Greenan made his Met debut as King Henry, singing with robust sound until his voice tired in the last act.

Though James Levine had been scheduled to conduct this revival, Philippe Auguin proved an exciting substitute who drew a shimmering, surely paced and incisive performance from the orchestra and chorus. Mr. Auguin has a history of saving the day for Mr. Levine. He made his Met debut in 2001, conducting the new production of Busoni's Doktor Faust, after Mr. Levine withdrew.

Over all, the simpler this production becomes, the better it seems. Even Mr. Wilson, who was in the audience, would probably agree.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Bangkok, New York, and London

Richard Wagner is very much in the news these days. On Monday, The Metropolitan Opera revived Robert Wilson's controversial Lohengrin, which I will get a chance to see on Thursday evening. There is a new production of Götterdämmerung at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, which, regretfully, I have no plans of attending. And, the biggest news so far is that Thailand has become the first Southeast nation to present Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. The Bangkok's Opera's production (which I will definitely will not be attending) seems to be a very interesting vision of the composer's work. Here are extended excepts from the New York Times review of the event.

Bangkok Opera Presents Wagner's "Ring" With a Difference by Robert Turnball

Thailand's decision to be the first Southeast Asian nation to present the work has surprised even the most ardent Wagnerians. The production, by the Bangkok Opera, has the official blessing of the composer's great-grandson Wolfgang, who inaugurated Bangkok's Wagner Society last year. But it is a huge undertaking for a country that has been producing Western opera for only five years. Will Wagner be raising a quizzical eye from beyond the grave?

To be performed over the next four years, this new "Ring" is being called the first to address a regional sensibility. Instead of Nietzsche, substitute Buddha: the cycle of destruction and rebirth is wrought not so much by power but by the Buddhist pitfalls of desire and attachment.

The design too embraces Thai motifs. A work still associated in many minds with horned helmets and mythical castles features gods as bejeweled classical dancers, entering a Valhalla that imitates the Bangkok skyline.

The impresario behind the project is Somtow Papinian Sucharitkul, a British-educated Thai conductor of vaulting ambitions who also dabbles in painting and filmmaking and has written 47 cult novels under the name S. P. Somtow. As a musician he is a refreshing polymath in an age of increasing specialization. Not content to conduct opera, he also produces, designs and directs it; when inspired, he'll also finish it, as he did with the last act of Puccini's uncompleted "Turandot," once the opera was out of copyright.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Götterdämmerung at Covent Garden

A new production of Götterdämmerung opened tonight at Covent Garden, London. While we wait for the reviews to be in, I thought I would re-print this London Times article from July 14.

Wagner, like Marmite, George W. Bush and Manchester United, is a polarising force in our society. You’re either passionately devoted or implacably hostile. And once people have decided which side they’re on, there’s no shifting them.

Few artists, certainly no other composers, inspire the passionate feelings of hatred and revulsion that Wagner can provoke. But, just as the antagonism that Man U inspires among other fans only attests to their durable quality, and the antipathy that George Bush faces only underlines the importance of his challenge to traditional ways of thinking, so the strength of anti-Wagner feeling proves what his detractors cannot deny — the immense power of his music.

And music is where any encounter with Wagner should begin and end. His mature works have a power to move that no opera written before ever had. While previous operas can enchant, divert, charm, make you think, amuse and, at their best, hint at the sublime, Wagner’s work comes bounding off the stage, wrenches at your heart and tries to make a prisoner of your soul.

For many people a music that sets out so powerfully to seduce is just too much to take. When that music is written, as Wagner’s was, by a sexually manipulative and egomaniac anti-Semite, then resisting it seems almost a moral duty. But if you turn away from Wagner you’re turning your back on the chance to experience some of the most complete, and deepest, experiences you can have with your clothes on. Because Wagner’s operas use music to open up a world in which human psychology, our spiritual yearnings and even our political arrangements are all explored in a way that speaks to us, whatever our background.

Wagner’s operas differ in form from everything that went before by being complete music-dramas, in which every aspect of what goes on before us is conceived as a unified whole. Before Wagner the standard opera form was a mixture of nice incidental music, connecting plot-lines (or recitative), and the set-piece highpoints (the arias), after which everyone applauds. There is a sense of staidness, even formality, about the process.

Wagner’s operas were conceived in a wholly different way, with music, poetry, staging and plot fused so that each reinforces the other. Individual chords, or specific melodic phrases (leitmotivs), become, through their precise musical structure, symbols for characters, concepts and forces. These chords and leitmotivs can convey anything from inexpressible longing to scheming wickedness and the serenity of nature.

In the Ring the leitmotivs become one of the most important element in a multilayered experience in which the sung poetry, the performers’ acting skills and the visual cues of staging and direction all interweave to simultaneously advance the plot, reveal the inner emotional state of characters, remind us of their past interactions and suggest to us the broader allegories behind their acts.

The fusion which Wagner brings about makes his operas, and the Ring in particular, a deep intellectual as well as emotional experience. Once you begin to appreciate the depth of it, and I for one am only just beginning, you have the exhilarating feeling of knowing that this is a world to which you can return many times and find an endless amount more to appreciate, enjoy and reflect on.

Some people, of course, are put off even beginning that journey, not because they want to resist being drawn into such a seductive world, nor even because they find Wagner’s personality an obstacle, but because the whole horns and dwarves, dragons and spears palaver seems so terribly teenage. If they want an epic with swords and sorcery they’ll get The Two Towers out on DVD, because after all you can’t get CGI giants at the Royal Opera House.

But the mythic world that Wagner creates is not an adolescent escape from reality. It is a daring attempt to make genuinely universal themes artistically resonant across generations and cultures by locating them outside history. Epic and myth allow us to see our virtues, and temptations, dramatised on such a scale, and in such a way, that they speak direct to our nature. Myth, rather than distancing us from the action, enables it to cut through the specifics of our time and place and engage our souls. Wotan’s struggle between the need to observe the rule of law and his own ambition has a contemporary resonance in the politics of Britain today. But it will also have had subtly different resonances in different politics of past ages, and other nations.

Allowing the myth to breathe allows us to appreciate the universal insights about the battle between law and passion, power and love.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

A Quarter for Weill and Brecht

If your idea of The Threepenny Opera is Bobby Darrin singing "Mack the Knife" or the early 1930's G.W. Pabst German film, then you are in for a shock. This production of this landmark musical is scathing, sexually provocative, and totally Brechtian in its approach and delivery. Not surprisingly, theater goers raised on The Lion King and Cats will leave the theater with a sour taste in their mouth when it is over, and that's exactly what the original creators of this work would have wanted you to feel.

Written in the heyday of the Weimar Republic, when the number of the poor grew to monumental proportions and a chosen few were rolling in it, the present production tries to make a historical connection between that sorry period of Germany's past and our present state of affairs. The show's economic criticism could very well be directed at its own audience: at $111.25 per tickets the only ones who can afford to see The Threepenny Opera might just be the fatcats that the show rages against. When Broadway starts biting the hand that feeds it that is the sure recipe for slow box-office receipts and short runs.

The show certainly has star power: Alan Cumming, Cyndi Lauper, Jim Dale and Ana Gasteyer (she got a big hand in her entrance -- it was obviously a television SNL crowd that packed the theater today) are all good, but it was Brian Charles Rooney who stole the show with his gender-bending take on Lucy Brown. I see a Tony nomination in his future. I found both Mr. Cumming and Ms. Lauper lacking voice-power, although she sang a memorable "Salomon Song," and he commands the stage with that same genuine presence that he had in Cabaret. Unfortunately he was pushing a bit on his vocal chords, and Ms. Lauper's voice is in need of coaching. I do hope that this run does not harm her voice further.

There is a warning outside the theater that the show has full frontal nudity (yes, it does!) and that the language is adult and not recommended for children. This is true, and although most of the adult moments do come straight from the texture of the narrative, there are a few new indiscretions that were not found in the original Brecht script.

The new translation by Wallace Shawn tries to get back to the spirit of the original Brecht, but it tries too hard, in my opinion, to be lewd. My favorite English translation of this work is the one by Ralph Manheim and John Willett for the New York Shakespeare Festival back in 1976. That production brought the work back to a more authentic Brechtian language. The wondrous LP cast album of that production, featuring Raul Julia as Macheath, has never made it to CD, and it is time that it did.

Finally, the wardrobe by designer Isaac Mizrahi is elegant and sleazy, with the right amount of bling to make it tawdry.

I recommend that you see this production if you have never seen The Threepenny Opera live. It is one of the landmarks of the 20th century, and it can be indestructible no matter what you do to it.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Reviews are in for Erika Sunnegardh

Here's what Anthony Tommasini had to say about the surprise debut of unknown soprano Erika Sunnegardh in the role of Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio, in yesterday's MET broadcast.

"Pressure Abounds as Determined Soprano Makes Debut" by Anthony Tommasini

Some extraordinary performing artists have ordinary life stories. Others, like the Swedish-born soprano Erika Sunnegardh, have dramatic life stories that, for better or worse, will tag them for their entire careers.

Ms. Sunnegardh's story is a tale of early promise, years of frustration, waiting tables and, finally at 40, the biggest break of all: a dream-come-true Metropolitan Opera debut yesterday afternoon in the role of Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio, in a coveted radio broadcast performance.

A fuller assessment will have to await her future appearances. Ms. Sunnegardh was substituting for the magnificent Karita Mattila, who was sick and who excels in this role. Moreover, Ms. Sunnegardh's story, reported yesterday by The New York Times , seems to have already traveled the world. Talk about pressure.

During Act I the pressure got the better of her, it appeared. Small-framed and attractive, she looked suitably boyish as Leonore, a heroic Spanish wife who disguises herself as a young man, Fidelio, and gains a job in a prison where she believes her husband is being unjustly and brutally held. But vocally, Ms. Sunnegardh took a long while to warm up.

Her voice has earthy colorings and warmth. She is especially comfortable in her upper range and has strong, clear top notes. Her midrange singing, though, sounded patchy yesterday.

In Leonore's aria of determination, Ms. Sunnegardh got lost momentarily and dropped a couple of phrases. She and the conductor, Paul Nadler, soon got back in sync. The error must have bothered her more than it bothered her listeners.

But after intermission, in Act II, she seemed more relaxed and took greater chances, especially in the climatic scene when she defies the tyrannical governor of the prison and saves the day. She grew stronger as the opera swept forward to its joyous conclusion.

That said, the difference between Ms. Sunnegardh's tentative performance and the work of the heldentenor, Ben Heppner, who inhabited the role of Florestan, the political prisoner, was hard to ignore. She has lost some time. But she has talent, grit and determination.

She also had the audience at the Met absolutely behind her. I wish I could say that this affecting personal story ended in artistic triumph. Not yet. Opera fans will undoubtedly get a better indication of what Ms. Sunnegardh is capable of when she sings the role again, as previously scheduled, on April 13.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Erika Sunnegardh: In Good Company

This afternoon the MET got a much needed shot in the arm as it hosted the debut of a rising opera star: Erika Sunnegardh, who assumed the title role in Beethoven's Fidelio, replacing Karita Mattila who is ill. The MET really needed this kind of an event. There has not been so much excitement generated by a debut at the MET since Roberto Alagna debuted here as Rodolfo in La Boheme back in 1996.

It's been a bad year at the MET no matter how you look at it. Sales have been weak, attendance poor, and although there have been some artistic highlights thus far in the season (this production of Fidelio being one of them), and promising productions later on to follow (Lohengrin and Parsifal), it has been a disappointing opera season in New York City. Of course, James Levine's unfortunate injury, which has sidelined him for the rest of the season, was the last straw. Joseph Volpe will never forget his last year at the MET.

But back to Ms. Sunnegardh: her exciting debut, which was sparked by a wonderful article in the New York Times this morning, went well for her, but not without a hitch, as apparently she got lost during during the first act. Her nerves must have been working overtime knowing that potentially millions of picky opera lovers were listening to the broadcast. I am looking forward to listening to a recording of the broadcast next week.

She is in good company, though: the following singers all made their MET debuts in a broadcast: Jan Peerce, Bidú Sayao, Kirsten Flagstad. Gwyneth Jones, Hermann Prey, and Alan Titus.