Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"Lucia" Opens the 2007-2008 MET Season

The Metropolitan Opera opened its 2007-2008 with a new drop-dead gorgeous staging of Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. The production by Mary Zimmerman, with sets by Daniel Ostling and costumes by Mara Blumenfeld has updated the work to Victorian days (Sir Walter Scott set his novel The Bride of Lammermoor in 1707) and this period change suits the opera admirably. In these days when one is not quite sure where a director is going to set a beloved warhorse, it was reassuring to see that this Lucia is faithful to the spirit of the work. The bare trees, their branches looking ghostly against a stormy sky, really set the scene for the events that unfold in this well-known work.

The greatest accomplishment in this production is how Ms. Zimmerman has been able to take this often-told story and manage to infuse new ideas which end up working fabulously. Among the many great ideas found here are actual ghostly apparitions, and the most inventive staging I have ever seen -- via a wedding photographer -- of the famous sextet.

The sets are quite memorable, but stylistically a mixed bag. The first act is set in the kind of naturalistic woods that brings to mind the realism of the second scene of the first act of the MET's production of Tannhäuser. In this production, stark bare trees dominate the scene. The third act Wolf Craig's Castle scene on the other hand has a decidedly expressionistic look complete with stock theatrical lightning, and the kind of creepy staircase that Dwight Frye might have descended in Universal's 1931 Frankenstein. The last scene of the final act featured a theatrical looking graveyard, memorable lighting, and mourners carrying umbrellas who looked as if they stepped out of the last act of Our Town. Somehow, all of this works and the production team ought to be congratulated, although, they were received rather coldly by the opening night crowd. At least I did not hear any booing.

Without a doubt, he evening belonged to Natalie Dessay in the title role. I was quite impressed by her portrayal of this problematic character. Vocally, she certainly has the goods and she really knows how to deliver them: beautiful, exquisite pianissimos, accurate trills, and the ability to portray desperation, madness, passion, and confusion. The fact that she is also able to do all of this while delivering some of the most beautiful music ever written in the bel canto repertory is quite an accomplishment. Ms Dessay is without a doubt one of the best current interpreters of this role in any language (catch her recording of the French version of this work, Lucie di Lammermoor, with Roberto Alagna, on Virgin Records).

Her co-star at the MET is Marcello Giordani, a tenor who tends to warm up to a role as the evening wears on, and who ends up giving his best performances towards the end of the run of a production. Last year he sang Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, and I thought that the latter performances of this production were vastly superior to opening night.

What can I say about baritone Mariusz Kwiecien that has not been said before? He is truly the real deal, and given his performance on Monday as Enrico, this young artist can surely become the baritone of our times -- if he isn't already! He is scheduled to tour North America in recital this season.

The rest of the cast which included Michaela Martens as Alisa, John Relyea as Raimondo, and Stephen Costello, making his MET debut as Arturo, all made a lasting impression with their musically intelligent characterizations.

Lucia is definitely not the opera that one thinks of when pondering the many talents of conductor James Levine. Well, maybe it should be! The maestro took on the obvious criticism that conducting bel canto is just an exercise in beating out tempi while trying to follow the singer's lead. On Monday he taught us all a thing or two about elegant phrasing, and he made Donizetti's familiar score live again. His conducting was all about precision, and this brought out the hidden gems of this work. It's almost as if Jimmy is saying to us: "No, you haven't heard it all before! Listen again! You'll be surprised at what the man wrote!"

Whatever you do, don't miss this production of Lucia di Lammermoor. It isn't often that this kind of high quality happens on an operatic stage, anywhere.

Friday, September 21, 2007

"Equus" with Daniel Radcliffe coming to Broadway

The New York Daily News reported recently that Daniel Radcliffe, better known to movie goers as Harry Potter, will be coming to Broadway in the play Equus, the role with which he made his debut in London's West End this past Spring.

After seeing the play at the John Gielgud Theater last April, something tells me that this will become the hottest ticket on Broadway, and that it will be an unprecedented theater event. Meaning that people will do anything to catch Mr. Radcliffe's performance as the disturbed boy who blinds a stable of horses.

My sources tell me that his London co-star, Richard Griffiths, who plays the psychiatrist who is treating Radcliffe's character, may not be coming to New York. Two seasons ago, Griffiths won the Tony Award for his amazing performance in The History Boys. If Mr. Griffiths is not going to be making the trip to America, then I vote for Alan Rickman to be his co-star. Rickman would be an amazing foil, although I also recognize that this might be too much of a "Potter-casting" overload. Still, the animosity that has been building up in the Harry Potter movies between the two characters that Radcliffe and Rickman play would be ideal for these two great roles in Equus. We shall see. In the meanwhile, here is the article from the New York Daily News:

"Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe hopes to work his magic on Broadway next year in a reprise of his clothes-doffing performance in "Equus."

The 18-year-old won raves for his performance as a tortured teenager during an eight-week run of Peter Shaffer's psychological thriller in London earlier this year. But the teen who brought wizard-in-training Potter to life on screen called the prospect of acting in New York terrifying.

"It will be amazing, but I will be terrified because I was talking to Richard Griffiths about playing New York and he said the most stupid thing you can do is underestimate New York audiences," Radcliffe said.

Griffiths appeared with Radcliffe in "Equus" and plays Uncle Vernon in the "Potter" flicks.

Radcliffe said "Equus" could open late next year in New York.

Media hype over Radcliffe's nude scene sparked more than $4 million in advance ticket sales in London.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Luciano Pavarotti is buried in Modena

It's been a few days since his death, and it is still difficult to think of a world without Luciano Pavarotti. He was the first real superstar of opera: the mega star of the late 70's and early 80's, the years when I became interested in this art form.

It was great to be a kid and be present at his first piano recital at the MET where he sang music that I did not know too well back then, and which later on turned out to be signature pieces in his repertory. If I remember correctly, one of his encores, even then, was "Nessun dorma" and the recital started with "Una furtiva lagrima," another aria which he loved to perform, and did quite often.

I saw Luciano Pavarotti many times at the MET. The most memorable of all his performances was his characterization of Nemorino in L'Elisir d'amore. His characterization of the opera's country bumpkin was all Pavarotti, and that was the greatest thing of all. Luciano made opera palatable for everyone, even for country bumpkins. Everyone liked Luciano, and as a result everyone started liking opera. It was a cultural phenomenon that we may never see again during our lifetimes. When he sang the role of Rodolfo in the MET's first television live broadcast of La Bohème, he carried the art form to the masses in the same way that Enrico Caruso carried the opera house into people's homes when his voice was etched in wax in those glorious 78's at the beginning of the 20th century.

I missed the glorious years at the MET when Luciano belted a string of high C's in The Daughter of the Regiment, and then went on to wow the public in I Puritani. During the 1950's it was Tebaldi and Del Monaco, or Callas and DiStefano, but in the 70's and 80's it was Luciano and Joan Sutherland. Birgit Nilsson arguably never had a tenor to equal her greatness, but Pavarotti was blessed with Sutherland's unique voice, and together they made beautiful music on stage and on a string of memorable recordings for the London label.

Pavarotti's repertory rarely ventured beyond his native Italian, and his ability to read music was limited. His acting, at times, was straight out of a silent movie, and his physique never really matched the character that he was supposed to be playing. For these and many other shortcomings he was unfairly compared to Plácido Domingo, whose musicianship was rock solid, whose looks were dashingly romantic, and who ventured into repertory which included English and German. But Domingo manufactured his tenor from his inherent baritone beginnings until it rang out with incredibly beauty whether he was singing Verdi or Wagner. Pavarotti was a true tenor right from the start, with real high notes that he belted out in those great days when he made us think that singing Bellini's high D's was the easiest thing in the world.

We didn't realize it then, but those days were a true golden age of opera, and Luciano Pavarotti was one of its brightest stars.