Saturday, October 23, 2010
We interrupt our rolling review of the Lepage RHEINGOLD (see infra) to review today's live telecast of the Met's new production of BORIS GODUNOV, directed by Stephen Wadsworth (taking over on short notice from Peter Stein, who got marooned in Europe this summer either by a rude American consular officer or by his own Euro-'tude -- different interpretations are possible, and all equally unimportant), and starring the one, the only Rene Pape.
What this production replaces
The previous production that premiered in 1974, with austere yet atmospheric sets designed by the formidable Ming Cho Lee, hardly needed replacing. It managed a clean and dry stage look, while taking advantage of things like onion domes, and, in its proper scene, St. Basil's. And no one who saw it will ever forget Boris tumbling down a flight of stairs leading to his throne -- not falling and rolling, but pitching forward like a tree. Each time it happened, the audience was sure the bass had broken his neck. Or perhaps it was the unique athletic ability of Martti Talvela, for whom the production was designed. But then Jerome Hines did it too! And Sam Ramey! (OK, Sam's so small, he could probably walk away from a fall from a tall building, but still....)
Years later I met Prof. Richard T. Gill at a conference. Gill was an economist at Harvard. He was also a bass, and had a substantial career as a second-tier soloist at both the City Opera and the Met. Expecting to talk only about economics at this conference, he was delighted to meet someone who had seen him in almost every operatic role he ever did. At the Met, he told me, they gave him a few performances as Pimen in BORIS, plus the opportunity to cover the title role. As an official cover, he got to do one dress rehearsal as Boris. He was tall and thin, so they got Jerry Hines's costumes out of mothballs for him. It was then that he discovered how every Boris in that production fell downstairs without killing himself: the Tsar's costume for the death scene was heavily padded! Prevents injury, builds confidence. Like rolling in a log, ya know.
A new look
Well: new donors, new star bass -- new production. What we are given by set designer Ferdinand Woegerbauer and costume designer Moidele Bickel, who did their work before save-the-day director Wadsworth took over, is basically period costumes (maybe with designs a bit swirlier than late 16th century boyars actually favored; experts may debate), with a really boss Crown of Monomakh for the Coronation Scene. But why was Marina in black? To match Jesuit Rangoni? More on this anon.
For the sets, Russian atmosphere was somewhat sacrificed to adaptability. Like many opera directors today, Wadsworth abhors a "down" curtain: scene changes take place in full audience view. So, for instance, Pimen's monastery is not seen as such: it's a downstage space, with Boris, enthroned, still visible upstage through some of the scene, and choristers reacting to Pimen's multiple narratives. (As the old John Gutman translation used to say: "I was in Uglich. They sent me there to do a term of penance." Someday I must see Uglich to find out whether it really sucks as hard as this opera makes out.) (Also: Boris's scepter must be as corked as a bat, given how long he holds it aloft in some parts of this production.)
As if in compensation for some loss of vieille Russie atmosphere by comparison to Ming Cho Lee's sets, we get a lot more color. Lee gave us a lot of shades of gray, except for the Polish Act, which was shades of blue; the death scene, which was red, gold, and black; and of course, St. Basil's. Here, color is used vividly throughout. In fact, Wadsworth and Woegerbauer defy the convention Russia-gloomy, Poland-lively. The Polish Act was actually the darkest and most uniform: white-clad nobles, black-clad Marina and Rangoni, dimly-lit Sandomir; variety provided only by "Dimitri"'s red leather jerkin, and -- ahem -- Rangoni's red leather gloves.
The book -- yes, luv, I'm getting to that. Most scenes (perhaps all: Brian Large's expert camera work left that unclear) featured a large book, downstage left. Sometimes it was the Cyrillic-filled chronicle in which Pimen is writing. Other times it was the map of Russia that Fyodor compiled -- and that Marina stood on to accept dazzled obeisance from "Dimitri." Some will say cool; some will say gimmick; I'm sure Martin Bernheimer said (tho' I haven't checked) "Ah, symbolism." At certain points the direction "Now go stand on the book because you're singing something important" seemed a bit obvious; at other times it kind of worked. A wash, over-all.
The Holy Fool
This production is very Russian in that it makes much of the character of the Yurodivi, or Holy Fool (reductively called the Simpleton in earlier Met tradition). He is the first character we see: he is praying in the monastery courtyard even before the crowd arrives. During the prelude, Boris, having escaped his minders, comes out to him, seeking something. The Holy Fool tries to give him a stone of some kind.
Note to directors: Christianity has a rich range of symbols, but stones aren't among them. If you show a representative of prophetic, non-hierarchical holiness trying to give someone a stone (instead of, say, a cross or an icon), no one will know what you mean.
Anyway, Boris gets hustled back into the monastery before he can accept whatever gift it was the Holy Fool meant to give him. Evidently this is not an ambitious Boris orchestrating demonstrations in favor of his own coronation, as Pushkin's play suggests, and playing hard to get, as Shakespeare's Richard III does. He seems conflicted from the get-go.
All this, of course, is directorial invention. The Holy Fool has no lines until Act IV. There, in the shadow of St. Basil's, he refers almost casually to Boris's killing of Tsarevich Dimitri. Holy Fools are innocent, non-manipulative truth-tellers. The staging of the confrontation was the best I've ever seen or heard of: Boris knelt before the Fool. (Whether or not it's good theology for the Fool to refuse to pray for "Tsar Herod" -- "Do not pray for him, says the Mother of God" -- we can discuss some other time. In any case, the Fool in this production does have something to offer Boris: that stone!)
The Holy Fool was played with sweetly maniacal eyes and an even sweeter tenor voice by Andrei Popov.
Boris -- Rene Pape
There aren't enough good things to say about Pape. I've seen Talvela, Hines, and Ramey on stage, and I've heard Pinza, Siepi, Tozzi, London, Christoff, and Ghiaurov on records. Every bass or bass-baritone wants to make Boris his own, and the great ones do, including all those I've just mentioned. (I have special affection for Talvela, Siepi, and Tozzi, the first and last of whom were also awesome as Pimen before they got the big promotion!) (Props also to Anatoly Kotscherga, who solidly anchors the Abbado recording.)
Pape's voice is huge, handsome, dark, and round. To compare with some of my other favorites: Tozzi was almost too paternal, and Talvela almost too barbaric. Pape brings these qualities together. And -- thanks to TV director Brian Large's camera work -- we can see with Pape's first-class acting the Tsar's inner torment: not a scrap of scenery-chewing, just Christian conscience and human anxiety.
He -- Boris -- wanted to do so much good; had done so much good as de facto regent of Russia under the pious wantwit Fyodor I (Pimen's favorite Tsar); seemed to do so much good for the first few years of his reign; but then the fears that he spoke of at his coronation closed in: famine, fires, untimely deaths of which was innocent, and the memory of the one untimely death of which (according to the legendary history accepted as fact in this opera) he was not innocent, that of Tsarevich Dimitri, whose survival would have blocked Boris's way to the throne.
Gergiev's choice of versions, esp. as applied to Act II
Very commendably, this production, includes Act III -- the "Polish Act" -- which means that, pro tanto, Maestro Valery Gergiev is using Mussorgsky's 1874, but with (as is highly traditional) the St. Basil's Cathedral scene from the 1869 version retained. Bravo. But Gergiev also made an unusual choice: for the latter half of Act II -- the scene in the Tsar's Apartments, an act that combines family intimacy, high politics, and horrible conscience-driven hallucinations -- he reverted to the 1869 version; i.e. for Boris's Monologue, the ensuing Boris-Shuisky confrontation, and the hallucination (which, in this version, does not involve the clock chimes, so ixnay the familiar term "Clock Scene").
The minus side: you lose some familiar and excellent music; and you lose the bit where Boris burns Shuisky another one, and Shuisky replies that, really, in Tsar Ivan's time the Shuiskies were not accustomed to being spoken to that way, and Boris replies that, really, if Tsar Ivan were around today he'd roast this particular Shuisky alive and sing a psalm around the campfire while doing it, so shaddup about past Shuiskies and tell me what your spies have told you. And you lose the stroke of genius whereby Boris's hallucination of the child Dimitri is keyed to the chiming and moving figurines on the clock (hence "Clock Scene").
The plus side: the 1869 version actually conveys more information, esp. in Boris's monologue. For example, did you know that Boris's sister Irina (who had been married to Tsar Fyodor I, thus facilitating Boris's rise to prominence as a statesman) died during Boris's reign -- and popular rumor had it that Boris had had her killed? (He didn't, even in legend.) There's also info about the plagues, fires, and famines that you get only in the '69 version of this scene.
Net? For me, 1874 is my story and I'm sticking to it. But I don't disapprove of Gergiev's decision to experiment here.
Shuisky, looking younger than usual, was well sung by tenor Oleg Balashov. This production shows him really double-dealing: in the Polish Act, he turns up at Sandomir, ingratiating himself with Boris's enemies, with Rangoni introducing him around. In the last scene, he's part of the False Dimitri's retinue, while other princes and boyars are getting tortured by the mob for their loyalty to Boris. (Historically, this runt of the clan that once ruled Suzdal and fought beside Grozny, after quasi-reigning for a few years as Vassily IV, finished out his life as a political exile in Poland. LKF.)
As conductor more generally, Gergiev was what he always is: energy, propulsion. A few of his tempi were too quick for my Knappertsbuschian tastes, but the fire was always there, and always white-hot. Mr. Large's camera-work frequently caught singers looking at him -- I mean, more often than soloists usually look at the conductor -- which may suggest that he's a bit mercurial: tempi not set in stone in rehearsal, need to watch constantly, etc. (Nikitin, as Rangoni, was especially doing this.) But this long, leave-nothing out version of BORIS flew by, without too many of those rushed tempi I mentioned. Gergiev has shown that he can truly mangle non-Russian repertory (his OTELLO, anybody? or DON CARLO? or his Maryinsky RING on tour at Covent Garden?), but in Russian rep, he's infallible.
Fyodor and Xenia
Jonathan Makepeace and Jennifer Zetlan, with Wadsworth's help, made much more of the Godunov children than is usually the case. It's a Wadsworth principle that every character, even in a sprawling work like this, has his or her own story, and so Fyodor and Xenia emerge more individuated than usual. Makepeace has a strong boy soprano and acts well. Zetlan -- with a pretty/homely a face of the sort you "don't get tired of," and with a rich range of expression -- managed the feat of looking about ten years old in the Coronation Scene, then aging into teen-hood by Act II. (Six years elapse between these scenes.) Her alternating cheered-up and not-cheered-up moods during the songs and dances with Fyodor and their nanny (Larisa Shevchenko) were delightful.
In a coup that has mysteriously eluded earlier directors afaik, Wadsworth brings Xenia as well as Fyodor onstage for Boris's death. (She enters at the point where he mentions her.)
In some productions -- and this way is valid too -- Boris's death scene is fraught with politics. At the Met in the '60s, Shuisky would put his foot on the first step of the throne, until Fyodor, cradling his father's body, shoots Shuisky one of those looks that sterilizes frogs at forty paces. In the Ming Cho Lee production, loyal courtiers extracted Fyodor from his embrace of Boris and carry him, underarm, up the stairs and set him on the throne.
Here, politics vanishes in this scene. It's a strictly and highly intimate family scene: Boris, Fyodor and Xenia. Even the chorus that half-sings, half-whispers "He's dead" is off stage.
There's a reason for this intimacy. Remember how all scene changes are in full audience view in this production? As soon as the ethereal strains that close out the scene of Boris's death are over, you hear a roar: you think maybe it's a spontaneous ovation. No: it's (the Met chorus now playing) a bloodthirsty revolutionary mob, rushing in to begin the final scene, usually called the Forest of Kromy Scene. Where Pape, Makepeace, and Zetlan vanish to, I couldn't tell you. Possibly they "escape" in the confusion; possibly the Met stage's trap doors are involved. All I can tell you is, they're gone.
Can you deal with a wise, elderly Russian monk who is clean-shaven? White-haired, white-clad, but clean-shaven? I sense a failure of research here, or maybe an excessive desire to be different ("EVVVVVerybody puts a long beard on Pimen...").
If you can get past that, you may like saintly Brother Pimen as presented here. He's wise, and diligent, probably very holy, but on one subject, just a little bit off his nut: the murder of Tsarevich Dimitri. He was there, you see: he heard the Tsaritsa's first screams, he saw the people's arrest of the knifeman -- "that Judas, Bityagovsky" (as the Met's surtitles say).
(The libretto says "Yehuda Bityagovsky." I've never been easy in my mind whether this really means "[a guy by the name of] Yehuda Bityagovsky," or "that traitor, Bityagovsky" -- or just possibly, "that Jew, Bityagovsky.")
This Pimen is obsessed with this event. When he turns his chronicling duties over to young Grigori, he hands over his newly-sharpened quill (the camera dwells on Pimen sharpening it), but he takes his ink-tray away with him. Wha...? Is he signalling that Grigory should in fact use sharp tools, rather than ink?
Anyway, the eyes of bass Mikhail Petrenko start to flash when the subject comes up. In the scene of Boris's death, he is less an old man with a story than (all in white) an avenging angel: he even grabs Boris by the collar at the climax of his narrative.
I was delighted with Petrenko's voice. A few years ago I heard him at the Met give a distinctly underwhelming performance as Hunding in DIE WALKURE, which was put to shame by the unforgettable, stage-grabbing Hunding I saw in May of '09 -- Rene Pape! Either Petrenko's voice has greatly improved, or he was just not comfortable in Wagner back then. To equal his Pimen vocally, you'd have to go to Plishka (in the Rostropovich recording, or many a Met b'cast tape), or Tozzi (in a Met b'cast tape from '56), or Talvela (in the Ghiaurov/Karajan recording of the Rimsky-Korsakov version).
Grigori, later "Dimitri"
What do you call this character? The Russian libretto I've accessed on the web calls him "Grigori" in Act I, and in Acts III and IV, самозванец, "pretender." Never "Dimitri," tho' some English libretti call him that. I'll stick with Grigori.
The length and difficulty of this role doubled when Mussorgsky added the Polish Act (in the 1874 revision). It turned the role into the musical equivalent of a romantic tenor lead, except that a) he's still an unscrupulous schemer, and b) he'll never get star billing, because the lead bass will always get that. This means that this role has had trouble attracting tenors equal to its demands. No such problems arose, however, with the role in the hands of Aleksandr Antonenko. Germans have Heldentenors, Italians have (what Americans call) "can beltos"; whatever the Russian equivalent is, he's that. Not especially tender, but solid and brilliant throught this role's wide range.
Marina and Rangoni
Awright, what's going on?
First, I know the Polish Act is often omitted these days. The stated reason is "authenticity": it wasn't part of the "original version." That's pious BS: the real reason is to avoid the cost of hiring a first-rate mezzo-soprano and baritone for these two roles, and of building a set to represent the Palace of Sandomir. So when we get the Polish Act at all as part of BORIS (and I think it's essential: the producers who said the 1869 version needed more dramatic sweep and a serious female lead were right, and Mussorgsky wrote some of his best music for these scenes), I suppose we must be grateful.
That said, is it a given that there must always be hints (of varying degrees and types) of sexual intrigue between Princess Marina and the Jesuit, Fr. Rangoni?
Rangoni was Mussorgky's creation. He's not in the Pushkin play, which features only an unnamed Jesuit with a quick line or two. Fr. Rangoni, SJ, is a product of the Slavophil imagination. The historical Rangoni was a lay nobleman who represented the Vatican at the royal court of Poland-Lithuania. To fulfill the Slavophil nightmare, though, he had to be a priest, and not just any priest, but a Jesuit.
The Jesuits in their first century were in deadly earnest: they accomplished amazing feats of missionary work (think of St. Francis Xavier in Japan), and lots of martyrs. Now, I can't claim that none of them were attracted to, or inspired attraction in, the women of the high society they often moved in. It may have happened. But for a Slavophil -- and this is my point -- you don't need that in order to make Jesuits creepy. They come creepy right out of the box, just because they fervently spread the -- heretical, from a Russian Orthodox "ultra" p.o.v. -- Roman Catholic faith.
But moderns are incapable of seeing religious questions as intrinsically serious. Why should Rangoni be creepy -- as his music, and others' reactions to him, clearly show he is -- just because he'd rather Russians be Catholic and Russians would rather Russians be Orthodox? There must be something else! GOT IT....!
In this production, Ekaterina Semenchuk is one bombshell of a Marina. Put it this way, if Anna Chapman has a rich mezzo voice, that'd be this Marina. That something other than spiritual direction is going on between these two is made clear, though, mercifully, the details are not. (And to think some people think it's weird that some priests will only have spiritual chats with women in a traditional, non-face-to-face, through-the-grille confessional.) What's less clear is who the instigator is or was. It could very well be Marina. In this production, she rejoiceth in her seductive power the way that horse in Job paweth in the valley.
As Rangoni, the Jesuit who (in this production) gives up the girl for the greater good, the craggily handsome Evgeny Nikitin is a Father What-a-Waste. (All Catholic girls know what that is.) In older days at the Met, Rangoni was usually Morley Meredith, who was, not to put too fine a point on it, Boris Karloff with a dry bass-baritone voice. How nice to see a Rangoni who doesn't crack mirrors as he passes.
Jesuits were supposed to be comfortable in high society, and in that regard, Wadsworth gets it right: Nikitin's Rangoni chats with Grigori across living room furniture, legs crossed, at ease -- all that's missing is a cigarette (which Pape was enjoying backstage, but that's a separate post). And what's he doing, at least as Wadsworth sees it? Setting up this worthless vagabond-ex-monk with the Best Girl in Poland, all for the greater glory of God. And smiling while he does it. Maybe his whispered prayer to St. Ignatius isn't pointless or hypocritical after all!
Oh and -- costume. The Jesuits these days remain badly in need of some counter-reformation, and I think if they could swan about the way Nikitin's Rangoni does -- clericals decked out with black knickers, a black leather knee-length pinch-waist coat, and crimson gloves -- I think that could happen. Trent Punk.
Singing -- oh yes, Nikitin did that too. See, when he first came to the Met, it was as Fasolt in DAS RHEINGOLD -- a bass part. But baritone is his Fach -- lately I even heard of him doing as high-lying a role as the Herald in LOHENGRIN. Mussorgsky marked Rangoni as "bass" in the score, but, at least at the Met, since the '30s, it's been baritone territory. Nikitin may not be ready, or suited, for Verdi baritone parts, but the baritone voice he's settled into is more mellifluous than that of, say, Sergei Leiferkus (an excellent Rangoni in his time) or Nikolai Putilin. Onegin and Igor should be in his future.
With Pape, Semenchuk, Petrenko, Antonenko, Balashov, and Nikitin in the major roles, this performance could have gotten away with a few weak performances down-ticket -- but there were none. Veteran bass Vladimir Ognovenko (a Boris back home) showed the right buffo style as Varlaam. Nikolai Gassiev, who's been doing character-tenor roles in Petersburg since Rasputin was a cadet, was a mischievous and eye-catching Missail. Young Alexei Markov showed a baritone voice of Hvorostovskian potential as Shchelkalov, Secretary of the Duma (virtually a star role). Valerian Ruminski and Gennady Bezzubenkov provided two mean and bassy police officers (and hey guys, great whip sound-effects in the first scene -- uh, those were sound effects, right?). Olga Savova was an Innkeeper right out of Gogol.
Mikhail Svetlov excelled as Mitiukha, the one character above all who, for me, exemplifies the "here comes everybody" aspect of this opera: Mussorgsky didn't leave out any element of Russian society, not even the designated peasant "smart guy," the plebeian whom the other plebeians instinctively ask questions of. That's Mitiukha. In English village life, this is what would be called a "Lord High Everything Else."
Only problem is, with all these superb Russian comprimarii, there was little room for the Met's own artisti di casa. Two of these did in fact get cast: Andrew Oakden and Mark Schowalter as the adventurous Jesuits in the last scene, Lavitsky and Chernikovsky. I'm afraid I was at a loss to figure out what Wadsworth meant to have happen to them: they narrowly escape being hanged thanks to the timely arrival of Grigori, all decked out as the conquering "Dimitri." Then they're about to follow him, but they look at the various dead guys all around -- and sort of sink down too. You might expect them to pray for the dead -- but a quick, silent Liebestod? No comprendo -- but all is resolved, if sadly, in the final, mournful prophecy of the Holy Fool, which closes out the opera.
Saturday, October 9, 2010
The music-dramatic spectacular of Wagner's RING needs re-staging from time to time, sometimes even re-thinking. But during the Postwar, not to say since the days of Adolph Appia, this has in fact been happening. Are re-think ideas endless?
European Personenregie is a dead-end: even if a encasing Wotan's head in a birdcage somehow does tell us something, it's more likely to be something the director learned in Europe's endless grad-school culture than anything Richard Wagner meant to narrate.
The "neo-Bayreuth" style of Wieland Wagner was beautiful in its austerity, but its quarter-century reign on the Green Hill (longer elsewhere) was a long inning indeed, and in any case, it had two flaws: it underplayed the role of color in Wagnerian staging (or do I just think so b/c those productions were mostly photographed in b&w? I think they were photographed that way b/c they were that way); and they depended on a generation of singers so great in both their vocalism and their dramatic sense that their like cannot be depended on.
Wieland Wagner defended that lack of literal-looking trees in his RING sets with the remark, "Why do I need a tree when I have Astrid Varnay?" Meaning, not that this great (American!) soprano was a tree, but that her vocal and dramatic presence made sets kind of beside the point. But is there a new Varnay today? Enough of them to supply the (growing!) demand for RING productions? Frak that! -- even Bayreuth is now employing Linda Watson; an estimable lady (I've seen her Brunnhilde at the Met), but not a Varnay, or a Flagstad, or a Moedl, or a Nilsson.
What else? Well, there's the type of Konzeptproduktion that doesn't deserve to be dismissed as "Eurotrash"; productions that impose an interpretation, but do so with consistency and evident intelligence, and work with the text and music, not against them or in apparent ignorance of them. Ultimate example: Chereau. Archetypal term of praise from reluctant admirers (like me): "It works." Yes it did -- but how many such ideas are out there, w/o tipping over into Eurotrash? And, even if they were abundant, do we really want every RING to come with some director's Konzept? Can't we have some "pure" Wagner somewhere, some time?
The Met thought so. After a 1967-1982 experiment with a neo-Bayreuth style (the complete cycle was last given in 1975), James Levine realized that "conservatism" had become radical, and took to the barricades. Everyone said you could never again have literal spears, shields, and sets that represent the forests and mountains of mythical ancient Germany. Levine said, why the hell not? Who sez?
No need to change set designers: the clever and versatile Gunther Schneider-Siemssen, who had designed the broken-ring world-disc, abstract buildings, and sky-swirls for the 1967 "Karajan" production, was re-hired to work with director Otto Schenck on a panoply of ultra-realistic sets, such as might have been seen in Wagner's day, but enhanced by modern stage technology.
The result was right out of New York opera-world master-plots: fans loved it, critics hated it, it drew generations of new Wagnerian singers to the Met, and it put paying butts in seats, wall to wall, for a quarter-century. And that's not counting earnings from the DVD and (not identical) CD releases.
But 20-25 years is about the average life-span for any RING production at the Met. Ask me, I'd have kept the Schenck version indefinitely. But I can't honestly complain it got stiffed, lifespan-wise. And besides, it is on DVD.
But -- what to do next? As my survey above was meant to suggest, the best options are all either just as "done already" as ultra-realism, or else they're simply bad. (I admit I haven't seen the LA Opera's hyper-modern production, which I've already ragged on a bit in this essay; but, to judge from their ticket sales, hardly any one else has either, and that should tell you something. In the age of the internet, people can find multiple reviews and see both still pictures and video clips, and decide whether they really want to see a stage full of laser beams and Wotan with a birdcage on his head, or not. Evidently, most don't.)
(The idea behind LA RING director Achim Freyer's wire-encasement of Wotan's head may be -- just guessing here -- to show the audience, who would never otherwise have guessed, that Wotan is imprisoned by the choices he has made. Oooooooooo, deep, man. "Ah, symbolism," as Martin Bernheimer might say.)
But if we don't want old and we don't want bad, what is there? Well, there has not yet been "fusionism" in Wagnerian staging: that is, anchoring certain aspects of a production firmly in tradition and the composer's narrative -- costumes and props, say -- but fusing that traditionalism with a non-representational (and to that extent, non-traditional) set, which will dispense with representationalism not for the hell of it, but in order to achieve scenic effects in a new way, a way made familiar by theater phenomena such as Hal Prince (how "representational," really, are his classic productions of SWEENEY or PHANTOM?) and Cirque du Soleil.
Only one man for that job -- a man with experience in both CdS and opera -- by name, Robert Lepage. And by 2005, Peter Gelb was talking to him about taking charge of a new RING production at the Met.
And now, RHEINGOLD is here. For my money (and I think I've shown my traddy cards clearly enough) it is a triumph. It's a long way from a traddy production: e.g. the gods assemble, not on a set that looks like the grassy mountain-top called for in the score, but in front of a row of vertical slats that pivot, turn, and re-form to change scenes or to make necessary adjustments within a scene. These slats are highly reflective, and both light and images (e.g. bubbles coming from the mouths of the Rhinemaidens, fire around Loge's feet) are projected on them constantly.
But notice -- the slats move around to tell Wagner's story, not some new one invented by the director. And what's projected on them are elements directly or indirectly from Wagner's libretto (after all, Scene One does take place "in the River Rhine -- in it," as Anna Russell pointed out, and Loge is the god of fire). Revolutionary means to conservative/preservative ends. Or, if you prefer (as I do) to can the political metaphors: a kickass new way to tell a familiar story (or to tell as afresh to those not familiar with it).
In the previous production, Schenck and Schneider-Siemssen gave us at the finale of their RHEINGOLD a beautiful Rainbow Bridge leading to a visible Valhalla. But it was done entirely with light-tricks, so no opera-singers-portraying-gods could actually "cross" it and "enter" Valhalla.
What does Lepage give us? An aurora-borealis of color in the sky, representing the rainbow; a laser-light "bridge" hiding an escalalator that enables the "gods" actually to rise slowly up the steep "bridge" behind the lasers; then the slat that had been raked to make all this visible horizontalizes, so that the "gods" can continue their walk (sans escalator) into Valhalla. The slat then verticalizes behind them, solemnly shutting Valhalla (Loge, by choice, remains outside); lights projected on the slats show Valhalla to be built of black alabaster with much white marbling (the Giants use quality materials).
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Met RHEINGOLD round-up
Heidi Whaleson in the WSJ: "a high-tech extravaganza oddly married to an old-fashioned stand-and-sing aesthetic." To me, that's basically praise.
Stage-machinery malfunction at very end meant gods had to shuffle off to Buffalo instead of entering Valhalla. But hey, the history of RING productions is a history of prop malfunctions. See my Dad's book, "Prima Donnas & Other Wild Beasts," for the section on anvils that split *before* Siegfried strikes them. You deal with it.
Philly says "flawed," which tells you a lot about Philly.
My longtime friend Martin Bernheimer (writing for The Financial Times) is the world's greatest opera critic, and perhaps the last of the truly learned ones. But he's mighty hard to please in RING productions. He railed endlessly against the Met's previous, ultra-realistic one, but does he like this new, more abstract one? Ha!
Claire Prentice in The Daily Telegraph: "a triumph...Lepage treated the audience to a mesmerising display of virtual magic...Images projected on to the set evoke the depths of the Rhine, the mountaintops of the gods and the underground realm of the Nibelungen....Wearing costumes inspired by early productionsthe singers move around a stage bathed in infrared light. Computers pick up their movements and envelop them in projected pictures that move with their voices and the score. Wherever the god Loge goes, a flaming aura follows...."
Oo! Oo! A quick video about the production, narrated by director Lepage! (Ignore the opening: it's Baroque, but don't fix it.)
Monday, September 27, 2010
Monday, September 13, 2010
Berg, who was born in Vienna in 1885, is classified in most music histories as an epigone of Arnold Schoenberg. Although Berg followed Schoenberg in abandoning conventional tonal harmony and, later, in adopting twelve-tone composition, his works reverberate with echoes of Wagner, Strauss, and, especially, Mahler. If Schoenberg always seemed to be marching in a straight line, Berg moved in majestic loops. In that spirit, the “Berg and His World” festival presented a dizzying mélange of early twentieth-century styles: the late-Romantic outpourings of Mahler, the gilt-edged impressionism of Schreker, the Brucknerian bombast of Franz Schmidt, the brittle sonorities of Paul Hindemith...
Thursday, June 24, 2010
No. -- Well, maybe than can, but I think the word "addiction" has become drastically overused. There are some things that some people like to do a lot, while other people aren't that into them. Nothing wrong with that -- until the latter start to label the former "addicted" and start to medicalize their situation.
Do many teenagers today spend too much time with videogames and other online diversions, displacing both human interaction and other forms of education? Yes, maybe they do. When I was a teenager, I spent long hours under my headphones listening to various forms of classical music, mainly Wagnerian opera. Did I spend too much time with that, displacing both human interaction and other forms of education? Yes, maybe. Do I care? No.
And any educational specialists who came around theorizing that my Wagnerian opera-listening might have a dangerous addictive effect on me would have gotten Wotan's spear right through their interfering little hides.
You know what? I think the tendency to label other people's cultural passions as "dangerously addictive" has a dangerously addictive effect on educational theorists, psychologists, Euro-parliamentarians, and other types we could use less of. I think we should do something about it.
Tuesday, June 8, 2010
A baritone as remarkable for his versatility as for his longevity on the stage. Not many singers succeed, at much the same periods in their careers, in relatively light baritone roles like Marcello, and in roles usually thought of as more in the bass-baritone line, such as Mozart's Figaro, and also Leporello, which is sufficiently bass territory to have been in Kipnis's repertory (though, yes, also in Evans's and Terfel's). Taddei performed and recorded all these roles -- and also the uber-dramatic roles of the Italian rep, such as Rigoletto and Scarpia (the latter famously recorded under Karajan with Price and diStefano.)
The New York Times's obit concentrated on the longevity angle, since the Met -- due to Bing's famous ham hands with singers' egos -- failed to secure his services until he was 69! (And what was Jimmy -- who usually handles singers so much better -- thinking of when he offered this titan a role like Fra Melitone as a Met debut role? I guess he was thinking cameo; but even at 69 Taddei was not yet old enough to be doing cameos!)
Thursday, May 20, 2010
As for Bohm -- well, I'm from the Kna-Goodall school, but Bohm shows one that exciting need not mean slow.
Sunday, May 2, 2010
Saturday, April 3, 2010
I read on a priest's blog today that Holy Saturday is in a sense a day of "silence." I've always been a bit Fail on that part of the Triduum: worst of all two years ago when I spent that afternoon at the Multiplex watching the live HD transmission of TRISTAN -- and got a nice late-Lenten headache for it, thanks to the dizzy-making direction that day, with all its shifting "boxes." Enough about that.
Today I'm at home, but the AIDA broadcast is on the radio in the library (while the Holy Father's Easter Vigil Mass in on the telly in the living room).
We're at O Patria Mia right now, and I must say Hui He is quite a find and potentially quite a treasure. Where is she from, both nationally and in terms of the opera-professional ladder? The guardians of the memory of Milanov and Tebaldi who post of the great listserv Opera-L have been cautious in their praise, but look: we so often have chatter -- oops, there went the high C, and I've got to say, I've gotten better ones at the A&P -- but let me finish the thought: in general, we have so often had to chatter about what in iron age of voices we live in compared to the golden age of our youths or (in my case, I assure you) childhood, that when an Aida comes along who is at least worthy of serious comparison with the Greats, we should cheer, encourage, maybe do the "Dilbert victory jig." (As well as suggest some coaching for that high C.)
Zajick is amazing. Too bad there's only one serious Italian-style dramatic mezzo in the entire frikkn' world right now. Makes putting on AIDA kinda difficult, knamean? (D'Intino? Maybe. Borodina is past it now. Ganassi? Has she really moved successfully beyond the Berganza repertory?)
I like Licitra's voice, but it tends to flatten at the top. And by "flatten" I don't mean go flat in terms of pitch: I mean that it sounds like it's pressing against an upper limit, as if you were trying to serve jello to the neighbors upstairs directly through the ceiling. A shame, b/c he's got a lot going for him in the heart of his range. And it's nice to hear a Radames who is a tad more lyrical than a standard "can belto" -- as just now, when he pulled back to a mezza voce on "Fuggire!" Cool!
The lower-voiced guys aren't on the same level. Carlo Guelfi is effective dramatically, but the great baritone voice you can here in his recorded TABARRO didn't last long. Carlo Colombara's Ramfis does not suggest a bass who does first-string roles as well, tho' I know he does. Stefan Kocak as the King makes me feel that if I practice my scales in the shower a little longer, who knows.... "Dunque tu sei -- Sua padre" wasn't exactly like the days when Luben Vichey or Louis Sgarro would hand off to Leonard Warren or George London, was it?
Marco Armiliato shows again that he is a great Verdian. The orchestra and chorus sound great; Marco punctuates the possibly-too-familiar score with a few rubati, and the ensembles are omg grand.
Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Now I'm going to say right here that my favorite mezzo of that era was Nell Rankin. But Rankin and Thebom's overlap of repertory, though substantial, was not complete, and anyway, they brought different virtues to their roles. Today, sadly, is Blanche's day (Nell died four years ago, before I began this blog), so, RIP Thebom.
Saturday, March 6, 2010
While I can't claim to know this early Verdi gem like the back of my hand, I've had a tendre for it since I saw it at NYCO back -- how long ago? Well, I remember Sam Ramey did a thrilling job in the title role, and, though memory may be playing tricks on me, I believe some of the younger members of the historical Attila's entourage were in attendance, though of course they would have been getting on in years by then and required special attention by the ushers.
How delightful to discover, then, that Sam Ramey is still appearing in ATTILA, though this time not in the title role, but in the striking cameo role of Pope Leo the Great.
Now as fans of this opera know, Verdi did not call this character Pope Leo the Great. The scene in which Leo does the ol' "You! Shall! Not! Pass!" number on Attila was far too operatic for Verdi, great man of the theater that he was, to leave out; yet Verdi was also an arms-crossed, lips-pursed, that's-not-funny anti-clerical, and as such, reluctant to give a Pope credit for saving Rome from the Hun. So Pope Leo appears in the official dramatis personae as "Leone, an old man."
Yeah, see, so Attila the Hun is terrified by a nightmare in which "an old man" bars his way into Rome, and later, "Leone, an old man" does in fact appear and bar his way into Rome, using -- spooooooky! -- the very words Attila heard in his dream!
Whatev'. It's a great scene. And commentators Juntwait and Siff, most graciously, referred to Leone as "the bishop of Rome." That'll do: as St. Thomas More puts it, "No, 'Bishop of Rome' if you like -- it doesn't alter his authority."
Given that Ramey can't quite sing the title role any more, then how delightful to find him "promoted" to Leone! Of course in operatic terms it's not a promotion: it's a prelude to retirement. I'm borrowing the "promotion" trope from that great Calaf (in Puccini's TURANDOT, as if you didn't know) of the '20s, Giovanni Martinelli, who came out of retirement at the San Francisco Opera to sing another small-but-important role, roughly corresponding to Calaf as Leone does to Attila: the Emperor Altoum. Afterward he said: "For years I was the Unknown Prince [Calaf]. Then San Francisco promoted me to Emperor. Now I wish to abdicate."
But to judge from his performance, Ramey has some time left before he has to "abdicate." What's different about his voice today, compared to his voice when he took the title role in this opera? A great big wobble -- a sign of age, or, some would say, a fault of technique (though if a queue is forming to accuse Ramey of faults of technique, include me out). Aside from that, his great and long-familiar voice was clearly there in Leone's oracular lines. (He also sang a ruddy good Timur, in TURANDOT, last fall. So I figure that as Pope he can't abdicate, and as exiled Tartar king he already has. But I digress.)
The guy who did sing Attila was Ildar Abdrazakov. Magnificent. I was going to say that he's a Slavic bass as much at home in Italian repertory as Christoff or Ghiaurov ever was -- but I think Abdrazakov is from Kazakhstan, and might not appreciate being called Slavic. Well I hope he'll appreciate being called an Oriental Siepi, which I'll gladly call him. Interesting, though -- in some parts of this role, especially its higher range (and Verdi was pretty merciless to his leading bassos in this regard), Abdr, er, Adbr, er -- f. this, let's call him Ildar -- Ildar sounded very much like a young Ramey. Maybe he was trying to; I don't know. (In an intermission interview he mentioned asking Ramey for advice, and the generous old colleague and former Hun said, you've got it fine, just do what you're doing.)
In other cast news, I liked Violeta Urmana's Odabella, but I still say she's a mezzo. She got all the notes, but so can many mezzos. The best part of her voice is the middle and lower range, and it's not like the world is overflowing with dramatic mezzos. Ever since the Bartoli phenom, lyric and coloratura mezzos have been a dime dozen, if the exquisite diDonato and her fans will forgive my saying so. It's dramatic mezzos that we need, and we end up fach'ed when they decamp for the soprano repertory. Plus, those who do so usually shorten their careers. We shall see.
Ramon Vargas used to have a sweet lyric tenor voice. The role of Foresto in this opera is not lyrical, and today Vargas did not sound sweet. Sometimes a bel canto tenor can sing "can belto," but this was "can't belto," at least in the higher and tougher passages of the role. Something of his old self returned in the lyrical passages.
Now, this new Ezio, Giovanni Meoni -- where'd he come from? who discovered him? Quite a find! When I first tuned in (on the car radio, I must admit -- later I listened on the home stereo) I thought I was hearing a tenore-baritonale. No, he's a baritone, but on the light-toned side. As I listened further, I found myself more and more reminded of a young Merrill. Oh please, let this one be a keeper, not another flash in the pan!
Much, much credit to Maestro Riccardo Muti. I've long been a fan of this Snape-in-the-pit, with his baton-wand. (Look at pictures of him from five or ten years back, when his black hair, parted in the middle, was longer, and you'll see what I mean). It was his recording of the Verdi Requiem that taught me to love that piece passionately. He excels in Wagner too (check out the YouTube clip of the end of Act I of WALKURE at LaScala, with Domingo and W. Meier, Muti conducting), but he's the Wizard of Verdi. Early Verdi is at risk of turning oom-pa-pa in ordinary hands; with Muti, not a chance: passinate and grand from start to finish.
I can't comment on the austere production or the Prada costumes, but the Met's new ATTILA is a musical triumph.