Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Important Debut at the MET: Janice Baird

When Janice Baird made her triumphant debut last night as Isolde, stepping in for the ailing Deborah Voigt in this year's troubled revival of Richard Wagner's work, she brought with her over a decade of international operatic singing. Ms. Baird's roster of major Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Italian roles have been the staple of opera houses from Tokyo to Berlin, Buenos Aires to Vienna. She is an accomplished artist, who began her career as a mezzo and developed into a dramatic soprano under the guidance of such notable Wagnerians of the past as Birgit Nilsson and Astrid Varnay, whom she credits as two of her most important vocal coaches.

But everything changed last night: she made her official Metropolitan Opera debut! I stress official because last week Ms. Baird was pushed onstage to continue the role of Isolde when Ms. Voigt was suddenly stricken with some kind of stomach malady which forced her to run from the stage. As Ms Voigt's stand-in, Ms Baird finished the performance to great applause and cheers.

Last night she got to do it all from the start. If you were lucky enough to be there, save your little paper insert that appeared inside your playbill. Since Ms. Voigt's cancellation came in after the programs had already been printed, this is your only record of her debut.

Ms. Baird's Isolde was filled with energy and passion. Sure of herself vocally, and surprisingly comfortable with the production's staging and blocking, her Isolde was a fiery creation whose dark soprano had no problems soaring over the intricate orchestration. Only in the few fortissimo moments of the role did her voice tighten a bit at the top, allowing a smattering of a tremolo to creep through. Isolde's Curse in the first Act was chilling, and the Liebestod at the end was powerful and moving at the same time.

It was a great debut which earned roars of applause and bravos from the audience, making us all keenly aware of the kind of talent available out there which, unfortunately, does not always seem to be tapped at the right time by MET management. Over the years the MET has had singers step in at the last moment to save the day. Leonie Rysanek covered the role of Lady Macbeth in 1959 when Maria Callas was removed from that production, and years later Plácido Domingo filled in for Franco Corelli when the great Italian tenor had to bow out of a performance of Adriana Lecouvreur. For both, Domingo and Rysanek this last minute coverage was the beginning of their stardom.

I hope that it proves to be the same for Ms. Baird, and that Peter Gelb and James Levine consider her for the upcoming Ring Cycle. She will be singing the role of Brünnhilde in Seattle's upcoming new staging of the Ring.

Last night also marked the return of Ben Heppner, looking fit and strong, and delivering one of the best performances I have heard him give. More than in other occasions, Mr. Heppner was vocally secure throughout the entire vocal range, and his third act was truly heartbreaking.

The orchestra under James Levine was the well-oiled machine it has become, with incredible playing in all the sections, and all throughout the evening. Last night, the off-stage banda interplay of horns in the beginning of the Act II was executed with razor sharpness precision and exquisite beauty of tone.

Thankfully, everything went well with the staging. I guess from now on, when Act III begins and the curtains part to reveal Tristan upstage in crucified form, slowly descending towards the apron of the stage, we will all remember the night when Gary Lehman almost became a contender for the luge competition. Let's hope that never happens again.

There's one more performance of Tristan und Isolde left; it is this Friday. Could it possibly be that finally Heppner and Voigt get a chance to sing together? We shall soon know. Please, post your impression of that show if you will be in attendance on Friday.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Janice Baird as Isolde debuts tonight!

There has not been a performance of this Metropolitan Opera run of Tristan und Isolde that has played with a complete scheduled cast. Tonight is no exception. Tonight we have another debut. This time Deborah Voigt is out and taking her place is American soprano Janice Baird.

Ms. Baird comes with great credentials from Europe, where she sang a stunning Isolde in Rome as well as an unforgettable Salome in Paris. She is also scheduled to sing the role of Brünnhilde in the new Ring scheduled to open in Seattle, a role that she has sung extensively in Seville's Teatro de la Maestranza, La Fenice, Venice and the Deutsche Oper, Berlin She is a former mezzo, and most reviewers make a point of mentioning that, since it is a distinctive trademark of her dark voice. However, her high notes are supposed to be right on the money, so we will see.

Ben Heppner (remember him?) is due to appear tonight. Again, let us see what kind of shape he is in. I am sure that Gary Lehman will be in the wings, in costume, just in case.

I think that it is going to be an interesting evening. If anything, an Isolde debut is always exciting. I will report about how the evening went soon.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Waltraud Meier in Walküre at La Scala

Now that the news officially appears on her agent's website, perhaps the persistent rumors were really true. Waltraud Meier will sing the role of Brünnhilde in Wagner's Die Walküre at La Scala, Milan during the 2010-2011 season.

The production, which is to be conducted by Daniel Barenboim, will also feature the Wotan of René Pape, a role that many of us have been salivating at the mouth, waiting for him to finally tackle it. This dream cast will surely make the La Scala Walküre the hottest ticket in the Western world.

No confirmed news yet as to who has been cast in the roles of Siegmund and Sieglinde, or Hunding, for that matter. If you've heard something definite, please don't hesitate to post it here.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

J.S. Bach: The Gospel According to St. Matthew

Johann Sebastian Bach completed and performed The Passion According to St. Matthew, BWV 244 sometime between 1727 and 1729, in the middle of his life, during his long tenure at Leipzig's Thomaskirche.

The New York Philharmonic, under its Music Director Emeritus Kurt Masur performed this massive work four times this Holy Week, and I attended the last performance on Saturday evening. It was my first Matthäus-Passion, and I was overwhelmed by the power and serenity of this musical setting of Christ's passion and death. Without a doubt, it is the musical pinnacle of one of the great composers, and one of the most monumental outpourings of religious faith. It is difficult not to be in awe of it even after an initial hearing.

I was impressed by Mr. Masur's spirit of discovery as he led selected members of the New York Philharmonic and the Westminster Choir and the American Boychoir. At 80, Mr. Masur has seen it all musically, and yet, this performance showed how he is still striving to find the inner meaning of Bach's intricate writing. It was a voyage that included the sweet-voiced American tenor James Taylor in complete command of the high tessitura of the role of the Evangelist, and the incredibly involved Matthias Goerne who employed his deep baritone in an unforgettable performance as Jesus. Mr. Goerne is an impassioned artist who looks nervous and fidgety when he is sitting down and not singing, but who totally gets into character when the time calls for him to perform. While the rest of the men sported white tie and tails, Mr. Goerne dressed in a black suit with an open-necked shirt. Now, that's what I call a Jesus! He did it his way!

The New York Times reported that in one of the earlier performances the baritone aria “Komm, süsses Kreuz" was the low point of the evening, with substandard playing by the viola da gamba soloist. In the performance that I attended, this aria was cut. Somebody is reading the reviews!

For many years, I have been listening to Bach's St John Passion, and have come to know and admire that shorter work. It served as a good introduction to the intricacies found in the St. Matthew Passion. Now all I need is a few years to study, and hopefully perform one day this great work.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Robert Dean Smith triumphs as Tristan

Peter Gelb and James Levine can breathe a sigh of relief. After a roller coaster week at The Metropolitan Opera that saw one Tristan get booed, and another one get injured with almost a near concussion, the Saturday matinée finally got a Tristan that could sing the role: Robert Dean Smith.

Many thought that Gary Lehman deserved the HD telecast and radio broadcast, especially after replacing John Mac Master and at the same time getting clunked on the head when he slid down the stage right into the prompter's box. Although Lehman physically looks the part of Tristan, the MET went with as much a sure thing vocally as you can these days: they got a tenor that's done the part at Bayreuth. The MET likes impressive credentials like that, especially when the house finds itself in a bind; never mind that his Green Hill reviews in 2005 were only so-so.

Robert Dean Smith made his MET debut today, two years earlier than scheduled, and it was a great success. He really did very well! Impressively well! He was magnificent in Act I (most Tristans are), he soared in Act II (most Tristans remain earthbound), and he was heartbreaking in Act III (he lived though it, and that's an accomplishment these days!) He soared above the orchestra -- which played gorgeously -- in the concluding act, and managed to get through that most difficult of music unscathed, definitely finishing much better than in the 2005 Bayreuth production.

I'm finally going to see this opera on Tuesday. I wish that Robert Dean Smith could stay for another performance, but his was a one shot deal, and I hear that Gary Lehman will be back in the role on Tuesday. Oh, well, it will be fun to see what this young American artist has to offer. Hopefully the MET's stagecraft will behave this time around.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Four Notable British Deaths

This week four notable British men died. Each one a leader in his field. Arthur C. Clarke, whose science fiction novels and non-fiction books assured us that the future of Mankind was tied to the exploration of outer space was one of the best known science fiction writers of our times. 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film that he created with American film director Stanley Kubrick revolutionized science fiction movies, and became the work for which Mr. Clarke would always be remembered.

It was also primarily in movies that director Anthony Minguella made his mark. Beginning with his first film Truly, Madly, Deeply back in 1990, Mr. Minguella showed that he was a true artist. His film The English Patient earned him an Academy Award for Best Director, and following that film he went on to direct The Talented Mr. Ripley, featuring a cavalcade of some of today's best actors. Mr. Minguella was once again in the limelight when he directed a production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly for the English National Opera. That same production opened Peter Gelb's tenure as general manager of The Metropolitan Opera in 2006. Mr. Minguella was only 54 years old.

Many young people today unfortunately do not know Paul Scofield. One of the great stage actors of the 20th century, he created the role of Antonio Salieri in the play Amadeus, as well as the role of Sir Thomas Moore in the play A Man for all Seasons, a role he would reprise on film, and for which he would win the Academy Award. An extremely private man, Mr. Scofield disappeared from public life for many years, carefully selecting very few acting projects, and then only on the London stage.

The photographs of war journalist Philip Jones Griffiths made Americans painfully aware that the Vietnam war was riddled with atrocities, and that the United States's involvement in that conflict had to stop. The publication of his landmark photography book Vietnam, Inc. helped turn public opinion against the war. Mr. Jones Griffiths, a pacifist born in Wales, never blamed the American soldiers, whom he often described as confused young men, but the American government that had sent them to kill.

The accomplishments of these four men will always be remembered.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Wooden Sheds and Peter Grimes

Random bit of news before my review: I sat down next to the puppet handlers and the fellow who plays Martin Luther King from the upcoming production of Satyagraha. They are here from London rehearsing the production at the MET and decided to spend an evening attending an opera after spending the whole day rehearsing for another opera. They were surprise to be sitting down next to someone that had seen their production in London last April at the English National Opera. We talked about Glass and Britten. It was fun! They are nice people: go see Satyagraha when it opens here!

Now on to Peter Grimes:

Many of us in New York City know this seminal 20th century masterpiece by Benjamin Britten from the great production conceived and directed by Tyrone Guthrie. It was a superb staging made complete by the titanic performance of Jon Vickers, who was simply unforgettable in this role.

John Doyle, who has directed unusual stagings of Sweeney Todd and Company for Broadway, has turned this opera inside out. Instead of using the sea as the work's focal point, as the composer intended, his interest is in showing us the craggy facades of wooden sheds in an English fishing town. Here, villagers do not open the doors and windows to let the sunlight and fresh sea air in, but instead spy on each other, and stand in judgment of the village oddball, Peter Grimes. Needless to say, the results are rustic and monotonous, and the audience easily tires of the same drab look throughout the entire evening. When in the last scene the set parts to reveal a radiant sky, the effect is only predictably marvelous (what do you expect after spending an entire evening looking at wooden sheds?) Perhaps this was Mr. Doyle's intention: to lead the audience towards visual salvation by guiding them through a journey of suffering. This being Holy Week, I can totally understand and appreciate Mr. Doyle's trajectory, but I think here it is a bit much.

And what about the Sea Interludes -- the beating heart of this marvelous score -- do you stage them or not? I am sure that every director agonizes over this decision. Here. Mr. Doyle opted not to stage them, and instead treats us to long views of the same drab wooden sheds.

Of course, the director and his design team will argue that the audience need not see the sea, or even feel that we are close to the seashore because Benjamin Britten's music evokes it better than they could ever achieve. I'll go along with that, but I am sure that Mr. Britten wouldn't have minded a little scenic color in this production to go along with his marvelous tone color in his amazing score.

Anthony Dean Griffey sang the title role with style and passion. His lyric tenor offers a total contrast to the great men of the past who made this role legendary: Peter Pears, for whom the part was written, and Jon Vickers, who for many years was the MET's house Grimes. But Mr. Griffey is a fine singing actor, and he will grow in this part, and as the years pass and his voice deepens, if he continues to sing this role, his interpretation will gain even more gravitas.

Wonderful in this cast were Anthony Michaels Moore as a younger than usual Balstrode, and John Del Carlo as a giant sized Swallow. Patricia Racette sang a memorable Ellen Orford, Grimes's lady friend, and his only hope, if they marry, for one day to be accepted by the villagers.

Donald Runnicles and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra were one. His reading was clear, detailed and powerful. During the last scene I vividly heard and saw the waves breaking during the last measures of the last scene. Of course, the sea was there all the time, but the waters were hidden somewhere behind the wooden sheds. With them out of the way, Benjamin Britten's imagery came through loud and clear.

It's Official: Robert Dean Smith will sing Tristan

The Metropolitan Opera confirmed that Kansas-born tenor Robert Dean Smith will sing the broadcast and HD telecast of Tristan und Isolde this Saturday afternoon. I first heard of this artist when he was chosen by Wolfgang Wagner to sing the new Bayreuth production of this work in the summer of 2005. The first year of this production was not a success. The international press immediately called it the "Ship of Fools" production, being that the entire action takes place on what seems to be a cruise liner which has seen better days. The critics universally disliked conductor Eiji Oue's reading of the score, and the Kurwenal of Andreas Schmidt was attacked by a roar of boos during the run of the production. They were both replaced the following year. Nina Stemme's performance as Isolde, on the other hand, was deemed a triumph. Ms. Stemme was the Isolde in the Plácido Domingo recording of Tristan that came out that same year.

I personally did not like the sound that Robert Dean Smith produced during the first and second years of this production. I found him straining by the time that Act III arrived (it's really hard not to, considering the tessitura Wagner wrote), although he sang a very beautiful first two acts. Critic Larry Lash at Andante was very impressed by Mr. Smith's performance:

"Neither warnings nor punishment need be meted out to Robert Dean Smith. His is a well-thought-out career based around a sizable Heldentenor of uncommon sweetness, inherent lyricism, and a fresh, metallic quality. Smith's Tristan was beautifully paced, and that alone is no small feat. By the time he reached Tristan's "mad scene," he shifted gears into a white-hot intensity, nailing not only the delirium of the scene, but every note smack on pitch (something even Jon Vickers could rarely achieve). I wished this, the longest solo sequence in the opera, could have gone on longer."

When Anthony Tommasini visited Bayreuth in 2006, he wrote the following about Mr. Smith's performance:

"Mr. Smith looks the part of a tall, hardy and wholesome Kansan, and in the best sense, he brought those qualities to his Tristan. His voice is not huge, but it carries well. His sound can be grainy, but the overall vigor and richness of his singing are appealing. In the daunting scene early in Act III when the wounded Tristan erupts with delirious outbursts as he keeps expecting his beloved Isolde to return, Mr. Smith showed awesome stamina and dramatic commitment."

Robert Dean Smith will repeat the role of Tristan five times this summer at the Bayreuth festival. This Saturday, we will hear a preview of these performances. However, if you would like to listen to excerpts of Mr. Smith's Tristan, download my podcast of the 2005 production.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Saturday's Tristan (???)

This season's MET revival of Tristan und Isolde has not only been filled with drama, but it has made us all painfully aware of the dearth of capable heldentenors in our time who can successfully tackle Wagnerian roles. Once Ben Heppner made the decision not to sing due to his failing health, the MET had to scramble to fill the role. It was reported to me that his cover, John Mac Master, lost his voice during the March 10 performance. It was further made known to me that at the next performance another tenor, Gary Lehman, was the replacement and managed to sing well, but Deborah Voigt suffered some kind of stomach problem and had to be replaced.

Then last night the unthinkable happened: Gary Lehman, who was back and apparenly singing well, suffered an accident onstage. At the start of Act III, during the English horn prelude, the contraption that slowly carries the tenor downward from upstage snapped, and Lehman slid down, like a toboggan, head first, into the prompter's box. Pandemonium! Levine stopped the orchestra, people rushed onstage to help him up. Minutes later, Peter Gelb came out to say that Mr. Lehman was all right, and that he would continue the performance after a few minutes, and a chance to drink some water. The rest of the performance continued without any further technical problems, although, vocally, the performance was not one for the ages.

Who's going to sing the role of Tristan on Saturday? It's not only the radio broadcast of the opera, but also the HD telecast to theaters around the world. This is the biggest danger an opera company faces when it decides to broadcast and telecast almost everything in the repertory. Yes, you show the world your greatest achievements, but you also open yourself to showing the world the lowpoints of the season. The question remains, who is going to sing the role of Tristan on Saturday?

The rumor is that Robert Dean Smith will take over the role. Mr. Smith sang Tristan in the latest production of this work at Bayreuth in 2005 alongside Nina Stemme, who received great ovations for her work. The production, which seemed to take place on a dilapidated cruise liner, was universally hated, and Mr. Smith received mixed reviews.

You can hear a preview of Robert Dean Smith's Tristan on my podcast of the 2005 Bayreuth production. It can be downloaded by clicking here.

I can't wait to see what happens on Saturday!

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Official Demise of the Juilliard Choral Union

Last week, the members of The Juilliard Choral Union received an e-mail in the form of a .pdf file from Joseph W. Polisi, president of The Juilliard School. In the e-mail he details the reasons why the ensemble is not in the school's future plans. It is the end of an era, and I am very happy that I was a part of it. Below you will find the text of President Polisi's letter. The bold print is my own.

March 4, 2008

To the Members of the Juilliard Choral Union:

When I advised you last June that the activities of the Juilliard Choral Union would be suspended during the 2007–2008 academic year, I also indicated that my colleagues and I would evaluate the future course of action regarding choral activities at the School.

We have now concluded our review of this issue, and it has been our decision to discontinue permanently the activities of the Choral Union. I am sure that this decision is a disappointment to some of you. However, logistical, financial, and artistic considerations pointed strongly in favor of this decision.

The discontinuance of the Juilliard Choral Union does not, of course, diminish the extraordinary artistic accomplishments that you have achieved in the past under the direction of Judith Clurman.

Please accept my gratitude for your dedicated artistry. I wish you the very best in your future musical endeavors.

Joseph W. Polisi