Saturday, April 20, 2013

Wagner's Siegfried at the MET

The Metropolitan Opera is in the middle of presenting three Ring Cycles this spring, and this afternoon was the premiere of Siegfried, the third part of Richard Wagner's monumental tetralogy. It is the second year that the Robert Lepage production is seen in its entirety at the house.  This season comes with a few key changes in the cast from the first initial years when the operas debuted. The "machine," the twenty four planks that make up the unit set for the four operas, is still very much with us, and continues to be the source of much controversy, and the topic of most of the audience conversation at intermissions. When the contraption works, it offers a 21st century staging that at times can be arresting as it is maddening. When it malfunctions it is an engineering nightmare that leaves audiences wishing that the MET had kept the previous Otto Schenk staging alone.

Having seen the entire music drama at the house as well as on Blu-Ray DVD I've concluded that this staging is best enjoyed on a 16x9 flat screen monitor at home, or in an HD presentation in the theater. The "machine" robs the staging of depth with much of the action taking place near the apron of the stage. This is perfect for the two dimensional presentation on a theater or home screen. Some audience members have even complained that, depending on what part of the house one sits, the "machine" steals away some of the sound. With money coming in hand over fist from the worldwide HD presentations MET management could probably care less what goes on at the house these days.

Among the artists returning to the roles they created in this production are Gerhard Siegel as Mime and Jay Hunter Morris as Siegfried.  These days Mr. Siegel owns the role of Mime.  He is a brilliant actor with a strong heldentenorish voice to match.  Mr. Morris is very strong in the acting department, but his voice, compared to that of Mr. Siegel, is lighter, making the MET's Ring possibly the only production of this work where the Siegfried could sing Mime and vice-versa.  I would love for them to switch roles in a recording of this opera and examine the results.  Likewise, basso-profundo Hans-Peter König was a thunderous Fafner, a voice that harks back to the Golden Age of Wagnerian singers.  Eric Owens, as Alberich, continues to be a phenomenal stage presence, but this afternoon his low notes sounded a bit dry.   Deborah Voigt has become the house Brünnhilde, and this afternoon she sounded strong and radiant, the best I have seen her in quite a while.  Mark Delavan, taking on the role of Wotan for the first time this year, sounded strong and assured.

The Metropolitan Opera orchestra, under Fabio Luisi played flawlessly as usual this very difficult score.  We are so lucky to have such an incredibly fine ensemble playing every night in New York City.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Music meets Technology at the American Composers Orchestra

The American Composers Orchestra concert on Friday evening at Carnegie's Zankel auditorium, under the direction of George Manahan, explored the possibilities of music and technology under the banner of "Playing it UNsafe."  Composer Raymond J. Lustig's "Latency Canons" does just that. It is a transatlantic twelve minute orchestra work that balances the musicians in New York with the Gildas Quartet playing, in "real" time from Manchester, England, and over the Internet.  The unreliable aspect of cyberspace, together with the delay that oftentimes happens in our current computer communication is the backbone of this work.  In Richard Wagner's Parsifal when the character Gurnemanz mysteriously states that in the realm of the Grail "time becomes space" he could very well be talking about Mr. Lustig's canons.  His mostly tonal piece culminates in a dizzying fugue punctuated by massive chords on the brass section.  That the Internet has become more reliable and less twitchy than when perhaps the idea first occurred to Mr. Lustig is not the point.  The very fact that the composer embraces unreliability in performance as the piece's raison d'être continues to make the essence of "Latency Canons" wonderfully experimental.

For more information about Raymond Lustig and his music, visit his website:

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Blancanieves, A Silent Snow White Set in Spain

If you are a Spanish filmmaker and you are going to update Snow White and the Seven Dwarves you might as well pull all the stops and set the classic fairy tale in 1920s pre Civil War Andalucia.  That's where director Pablo Berger takes us in his film Blancanieves, transporting us right to the middle of sun-drenched Seville amid the heat of the bullfight and the clamor of flamenco. And to make it even more timeless, he reaches back to the early days of cinema and presents the story as a silent film, in beautiful black-and-white.

Under Berger's direction, Snow White becomes a grotesque tale of the sword and the cape set to the driving rhythms of the earthy but elegant gypsy music that gives Southern Spain its soul and passion.  Snow White, here called Carmen is the daughter of famous torero Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) and a flamenco singer from Seville's Triana neighborhood.  On a sunny day in the bullring, the matador ably disposes of the first five bulls, but the last one, named Lucifer, savagely gores him, leaving him incapacitated for life.  His pregnant wife gives birth to Carmen prematurely, and dies in the process.  Thus the little orphan is left to be raised by the grandmother (Angela Molina) who teaches young Carmen the ways of the gypsy dance, and thus maintains the spirit of her mother alive.  Meanwhile, the bullfighter's gold digging nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdú) marries him and keeps him a virtual prisoner in his own house as she transforms herself into the evil lady of the manor -- a scarier Evil Queen I have not seen!  When the grandmother dies in the middle of a flamenco dance on the day of Carmen's first communion, Encarna sends for the little girl and, like every twisted fairy tale stepmother, drives Carmen into a Cinderella-like slave existence.

Eventually, director Berger remembers that this is Snow White, so the little girl grows up to be the fairest of them all: Macarena García.  The evil stepmother sends her henchman to kill her, but she survives the attack only to be revived by a troupe of midget bullfighters: an inspired idea that mixes Buñuelian imagery with Tod Browning's horror classic Freaks.  Eventually, under the tutelage of her little friends, Carmen becomes a lady matador, gains notoriety by performing in small dusty towns, and eventually gets a big contract to come back to Seville, the mecca of bullfighting, where her father almost lost his life.

From here on, it's a short road to a poisoned apple, a glass coffin, and the kind of ending that draws from the original fairy tale while deviating from it in a most melodramatic way.  Mr. Berger's final shot, offers an unexpected touch of the poet that may not be totally in keeping with the rest of the film.  It is the kind of conclusion that leaves audiences with a veil of satisfaction that hides the disturbing darkness beneath.