Tuesday, July 24, 2007

And now a word from the Strauss Monster

...whose monstrosity, as you know, extends also to Wagner. Brief digression: the problem with fans, perhaps you'll agree, is often that their fandom isn't grounded in anything; and then on the other hand, the problem with People Who Know Things is they don't get loopy enough about their subject. An admirable exception to both of these generalizations is my pal the Strauss Monster, whose fandom will beat up your fandom, but who also knows whereof she types, big time. Take it away, Straussy.

* * *

So, I waited to write anything on this because I knew a ton (okay, four--but in the opera world I live in that's a ton) of people who were going to the last performance and I didn't want to spoil them, so I could get their aesthetic reactions without bias. I didn't see the other installments--I'm poor and busy and only went to this one thanks to the kindness of strangers--so I don't have an idea of how and/or whether the visual logic linked up, which is very important in a Ring.

That said, somewhere during the second half of the Prologue, my mind christened this "the Valery Gergiev prog metal concept show Ring", and I stand by that. We had Metal Mario Siegfried, Brunnhilde the Queen of the Darkness, manly men in skirts, and lots of dancers. Let's talk about the dancers first.

So, you all remember the production of Helena earlier in the year, right? (I blogged that one out of love for the piece and glee that the Met did it at all.) The overwhelming problem with that production can be summed up in one word: "What?" Operatic production does not have to be literal to be faithful, and not everything symbolic has to be obvious--in fact, it's painful when it's made too obvious, like that dumbass London Ring where Wotan was carrying a traffic sign instead of a spear.

But the audience reaction of a blank, uncomprehending "What?" indicates a basic failure on the part of the producer. The blank stare means that you haven't even managed to connect with a basic level of symbolism that could then be expanded upon, played with, deconstructed. It means you've managed to jolt the audience out of paying attention and into wondering what that was supposed to be. (In Helena Act II I kept wondering what the Omniscient Seashell was doing there, not to mention her male counterpart.) So for me, the giant idols decorating the stage were not full-blown "What?", but the dancer extras almost always were.

Take the Norn Scene. Their costumes were great with weird hats and long robes covered in rope and shells; they looked sufficiently mystical and otherworldly. But what was going on with the rope? It's there, and then the dancers take it over to the side (I was on the angle, so I could see all of that), and then they did some sort of rolling across the stage. The rope comes back on, it gets broken in an undramatic fashion, and there's some generic wandering off for the Norns. (Stage exits were a problem in this production, at least in the Immolation Scene.)

Maybe it's because I didn't see the other installments, but I found other parts of the stage action bewildering, such as the (admittedly very cool looking) Rhinemaiden surrogates with neon green hair, in Act III. Why were they carrying around a glowspear? (I'll resist the urge to detail how a friend and I found ourselves referring to it, afterwards.) I will refrain from making a joke about chickens, too.

The biggest stage disappointment was the Immolation Scene. Like it or not, at least once Brunnhilde is done, it's incredibly visual and narrative music; it reworks two major sets of material that we have heard before, Rhine music and the Valhalla music. (Let's leave aside the motif that everyone argues about.) And there is a very explicit and amazing transition from the Rhine music to the Valhalla music, which then flares forth in its highest glory.

Unless you are an aesthetic tool like Pierre Boulez who rejects the idea of stage/music coordination (it's in some of his comments on Lulu; he may have grown up some since), you need some staging correspondence to this. Nothing. Nada. Not even a good use of the lighting (although I enjoyed the dramatic primary color lighting throughout). Brunnhilde just walked off the back of the stage, no fire. I swear I thought the audience was going to laugh when Hagen went off the back, and I was going to have to kill someone. The fadeout at the end was obscured by clapping, although Gergiev held it nice and long. I thought Wagner audiences had better manners.

So, musical side of things:

Victor Lutsuk (Siegfried): a little rough at first, but I appreciated his stamina, he got the high C in the third act, and as Maury said, a reasonably lyrical death scene. (I like having him do the death scene entirely alone on stage; it emphasizes its hallucinatory/reworking nature.)

Larisa Gogolevskaya (Brynnie): had all the notes, loud, effective, but I was bored. I got no idea of a character off of her.

Mikhail Petrenko (Hagen): I appreciated doing the role without shouting, but Hagen really needs more volume in a few select places, or a voice that projects a little better. Hagen's music is some of my favorite bits of Wagner. Fabulous face paint.

Edem Umerov (Alberich): Awful. Barky. No sense of line.

Everyone's German was fairly mediocre, to the point where I could tell.

Gergiev: idiosyncratic. There were times I was annoyed because I wasn't hearing things that I knew I should have been; I liked a lot of the slow tempos, but things felt disconnected and some of the pauses were very long. Fantastic when he really let the orchestra rip in the Funeral Music. That was awesome.

I could blather on, but I'll end it here, saying thank you to those who hooked me up with a ticket, and I hope this is interesting to those reading it.

* * *

Which of course it is. Thanks SM!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The French-Bavarian-Ossetian Farewell

Ok, a few words of my own about last night, if I can pry my thoughts from the all lesbian Walkuere we were plotting this morning. No, seriously, think about it.

I don't have a Big Statement to make about the Konzept; certain things worked--even some of the crazy ones like Erda's Really Big Hat--and certain other things were little trainwrecks (nobody's fault, but every time Tanovitsky entered in that costume all I could think was "I'll get you my pretty! And your little dog, too!") The one thing that I couldn't accept was the unresponsive staging of the last moments, in which Brunnhilde here makes something of a...I'm told it's called a French Farewell. One minute she's there; the next minute she's in a cab. I'm not the world's biggest literalist, but things have to go boom at the end of Last Call in Walhalla. It can cause a serious aesthetic case of blue balls if they don't. Wow, I never thought I'd use that phrase for anything, and yet there it is. Horrors.

With that quibble behind us, and a bottle in front of us, I am prepared to get all 3rd grade Thanksgiving list about last night's 'erung. Little Maury, what are you thankful for this year? Well, teacher, I'm thankful for Valery Gergiev's savage reading of Siegfried's funeral march, and I'm thankful for Viktor Lutsuk's unflagging fortitude and reasonably lyrical death, and on the whole I'm thankful for Olga Sergeeva.

Because she's here and there a mess, but when she's not, and sometimes when she is, she's excellent in many ways. To describe her in Fametracker fame audit terms:

Current approximate level of fame: Olga Savova
Deserved approximate level of fame: Hildegard Behrens

The part of the voice right below the money notes feels unmistakably unreliable, but maybe she'll get that straightened out. Or maybe it'll get worse, what am I, the amazing Kreskin? All's I'm saying is her Brunnhilde was a portrait, not a sketch. I actually do think Gergiev's G'd'ung might find new dimensions as the years go by, which is not to minimize its pacing or its punch, but some of the music that should be more rapturous ("Frau Sohne sendet") or more stately ("Heil dir, Gunther!") might eventually get colored in as vividly as stuff like the Rhine Journey and the big barbecue.

Tiny what-if's: Nikitin might've made a better Hagen than Petrenko, musclier voice, and first Norn Elena Vitman frankly had more contralto mojo than last night's Erda, Ms. Bulycheva. Anyway that about finishes up the summer for me, with nothing to do for 1.5 months but sit here dabbing my eyes with a kerchief, listening to Frida Leider, and maybe occasionally go to work. And yet I'm bound to go on about something or other.

Meanwhile, look forward to a guest blogger or two, one pretty soon I believe.

I just read Martin Bernheimer's take, and it's a good deal more dour than my own, and I can't entirely disagree with much of it. One thing he points out that I forgot to mention is the hilariously unimaginative staging of the Woodbird. Oh jeez. And yet I'd sit through forty more of this one before I'd willingly return to Otto Schenk's aesthetically mildewed old clunker.

p.s. Alex Ross's's's posting reminded me of another pleasure of last night's hoedown: the minute you set foot out into the plaza for a breath of fresh air or to dash for a sandwich or whatever, there's a bunch more people in one form or other of adoration of music. First there's the swing dancing dealio, which looks like great fun for those enviable souls among us able to get out of bed without breaking an ankle, then there's the big, brilliant art piece "Slow Dancing" projected on the State Theater (finally someone has found a use for the State Theater.) They project them 'til 1 each morning! Now and then, this town reminds you why you moved here, eh?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Etruscan Funerary Statuary

Today's semi-sensical subject line is a phrase I read some twenty years ago in a book about murder mysteries and have used ever since to connote the needlessly arcane. Though in this case it just popped into my head since it's my understanding that Tsypin's (directorless?) Ring takes as its visual seed Scythian funerary statuary. It's not the kind of thing I go around knowing about, so I'll have to just pass that along to you as hopefully true.

What I can tell you about, on the other hand, is the musical values draped thereupon and the dramatic impact, both of which are very high without being such as makes one do backflips down the street. I'd recommend it except of course you'd have about half an hour to get a ticket for the last 1/8 of it.

My hope going in was that this would be some sort of replay of the Kirov's big deal tour to Lincoln Center in the 90's, whereupon we inherited the likes of Olga Borodina and Dmitri Hvorvostovsky, along with some more faded stars like Galina Gorchakova and Sergei Leiferkus who gave some enjoyable performances and some crazy-ass interviews. That is to say, I was hoping we'd find some new stars in this here Ring, and I think on that count, this outing has been a success.

Did you ever get a hunch about a singer from irrelevant details? You think his name sounds right for a marquee or her face is made for the projection of ridiculously outsized emotion? I had that hunch about Mlada Khudoley: just try saying the name--sounds famous doesn't it? I'm hearing she's got real star potential, though I took a pass on Walkuere. But in last night's Siegfried, I can attest directly to the presence of some singers you'd like to hear in upcoming seasons.

Insofar as your tastes line up with mine, who I think you should be most hell-bent on hearing is Aleksei Tanovitsky, our Wanderer. I've heard more boom in a bass, but after years of kvetching about James Morris' Wotan, always to my ear more pedestrian than crossing 34th Street, less inspired even than this review is turning out sofar, I am thrilled to have heard someone...hey I need to run, actually. Because Gotterdammerung is in 50 minutes.

So in fast-forward: Sergeeva started out rotten and then got good, capping things off with an are you kiddingly long C; the evening's Siegfried whose name I'll fill in later was soft-grained in ways that were a relief and a disappointment, a gent named Gorshkov I think was absolutely ideal as Mime, needle-toned without making the milk go sour, and Petrenko mined the depths with presence and the requisite measure of menace. The orch, as expected, messy but descript, resolutely so.

Sorry to blog and run, and of course I've skipped the production altogether. Most likely I'll remedy that, and if not, my friend who has Wagner chops in a way I don't has promised a write-up. See you in six hours, at which point I may try to make this not such a demipygous thing. (Personal to Chalkenteros: forgive my moment of feigned Greek there.)

Sunday, July 15, 2007

No wait; this really does end up being about Trovatore, eventually

On a recent ride down from Columbia County, we were listening to the Bohm Rosenkavalier (in which you get the fleeting thrill of hearing the perfect Tatiana Troyanos make a false entrance, by the way.) It's nearly flawless Strauss, Oktavian a better fit for Troyanos than Der Komponist, and Ludwig's Marschallin leaving nothing to want. And then Edith Mathis, who sounds like she might have made an excellent Zdenk@, waltzes in and kills it, every inflection 100% wrong. Had Mrs. P been an opera fanatic, she might have written
Why is it no-one's sent me yet
One perfect Rosenkavalier, do you suppose?
Ah no; it's always just my luck to get
One Perfect Rose, and some bleaty Swiss soubrette.

But she wasn't, and she didn't, oh and also it doesn't rhyme. Just, why are there so many near misses with Rosenkavalier? Popp's definitive Sophie paired with either Gwyneth Jones in jello mode or Fassbander's taffy-pull of an Oktavian, the brilliance that is Donath with the (if memory serves) rather nondescript Minton in the drag bit. Think about it: there's something fairly major wrong with every damn recording of the thing.

That's not what I'm posting about, of course. It was just on the top of the box, mentally speaking, so I had to move it.

Here we pause for an unaccustomed commercial break, because the picnic is as much a part of Caramoor as the yodeling, and one of the fine gents who invited me along when I was whining about taking the bus brought the most ravishing soppressata from a place on Bleecker called Faicco's. Go get some, and email me one, and in the text of the email explain to me once and for all that soppressata doesn't mean a sausage so terrible it must be forgotten.

Am I putting off the actual review? Oh, probably. It's just that Saturday was the first time I ever heard the Podles sing something that is objectively no longer within her vocal means. (Is that the "forced transition" leitmotif I hear? I'm certain it is!) Azucena is, right, not a contralto role. And while the big Rossini extravaganza at Carnegie where first I heard EP had unflappable A's and maybe above, at fifty-whatever-she-is, Madame's voice has settled into a glorious but by no means ambivalent or flexible contralto place. The interesting thing is that she resolutely and repeatedly opts out of the gentlewoman's compromise on high notes, going so far as to put in an extra one in a tiny cadenza in (I think) "Condutta era in cieppi." I think the rhetorical content of what sounded a lot like a scream was: why didn't anyone offer me this role fifteen years ago? Or it may just be that she will do nothing, but nothing halfway.

For, of course, she brought to the role, as always, that Podles touch, playing it with all the quiet dignity of a Mexican variety show, and that is why I will always hear her if I can. A sort of operatic anti-Lillian-Hellman, every word she sings is true, including "e" and "la." There is towering intensity, stopping always before the point of cheap effect, and the low passages remain confounding. What would have been the best approach, according to Emperor of the World Maury, would have been if Crutchfield's deeply permissive ornament-positive attitude had allowed for his Azucena to indulge exclusively in interpolated sub-acuti, and in fact during "Stride," she did indulge thusly with the expected effect. Best of all, to no-one's surprise, was "Deh, rallantate, o barbari," though though "Ai nostri monti" showcased La P's flair for pathos, seen in last year's death of Tancredi.

Also, not to be mean, but you may be pleased to hear she was not wearing the gold lame thing, for once.

The thing about cult divas is they sometimes fall prey to what I think I'll call The Curse of Magda, singing with drastically inferior support from their colleagues. Not the case, this fine evening, at least not all around. The young Juliana di Giacomo provided me with the opportunity to watch a singer turn it around entirely between acts: "Tacea" wasn't conservatory stuff but it was more promise than delivery. Everything that followed was cheeringly splendid, especially "D'amor," which she decanted like the fine stuff it is. There's room later for more ideas in the flow of sound, but no-one could complain it wasn't beautiful.

Do you really want to hear about Mr. Casanova? Srsly? Well, better you should hear about him than hear him. Famous to you, perhaps, for his lumpen stage presence, he should instead be famous for his exasperating singing. The thing is, you can't completely dismiss him, because the voice is good in places and there are even moments of elegance; "Ah si, be mio" was not half bad. And then "the pira" as I understand it's called by opera-fan-as-sports-fans (yes, we're all guilty of this sometimes) who almost literally sit with a scorecard, shuffling around and waiting for the second-to-last note so they can rate things in comparison to dead people...where was this sentence going? Rightyo, the pira was by way of "Di Quella Pierrot Lunaire," and I'm not at all kidding. Scarcely a note where you'd expect it, and a veritable seventh inning stretch while we waited for him to rejoin us for the C.

I'm a little lost trying to talk about the performance's Di Luna, Daniel Sutin. I am usually in favor of singers who look like their heads are going to explode or like they may faint from their physical involvement in what they're doing, speaking of Troyanos as I was once upon a time, but in this case it came a little at the expense of the line. The Verdi Line--sounds like a fleet of cruise ships, when really it's just an opera writing cliche. But how else am I gonna say it? Di Luna is an elegant role, and the fury must be presented with the genteel strictures of the style. Sutin sometimes did and sometimes didn't pull off this act of aesthetic trickery. I guess I don't mind a little Wagner in my Verdi, but maybe just a half cup less. I see he's in National's Elektra next season, and I'm pretty sure he'll be terrific.

Did I mention the performance was mic'd to the point that I, who never notice these things, or any other things, felt a little iffy about writing a review of what I'd heard? Where it bothered me most was at the very beginning, when Daniel Mobbs, a singer of reliably high quality, was singing a robust account of Ferrando's air that was nonetheless tough to size up on account of the electronics. It's also one of those no-win arias like the drinking song from Otello, I'd say, but with that in mind, I think he did admirable work.

So, whither Podles? If it were up to me, there would be Mahler and Wagner in the future, more Klytamnestren, maybe some Gaeae. Things like that. And of course the Russian program she takes on the road will never fail her. It is too early in the game to give her the parting gift that is the Pikovaia Dama Countess. Actually, her Polish website usually lists a long way into the future but right now seems to have only three things past Friday's Trovatore, not including the rumored La Cieca at the Big House. So I'm afraid that may be all I hear this season.

Next up, Siegfried and Gergi-dammerung. Thanks again to my expedition-mates for having me along! One of whom, before I sign off, emailed me something for the gameshow portion of My Favorite Intermissions, namely a crazy Victorian singing translation of Trovatore. So here are three excerpts, and you can try and guess what they are! I actually don't know, so it's only a game really in the way that, say, voting in Ohio is a game.

Tremble, ye tyrants!
I will chastise ye,
My flaming beacon
ye have uprais’d,
Yes, by that burning pile
My wrath defies ye,
Your blood I’ll scatter
Where it hath blaz’d.

Here at thy feet a suppliant
Oh, let my tears implore thee!
If neither tears nor pray’rs avail
My lifeblood I’ll pour before thee.
Let me die! Let me die!
If vainly I kneel before thee
Then tread upon my lifeless corse,
But harm not the Troubador.

Oh, tyrants, loose these cruel bonds
Ye drive me to distraction,
Let death at once release me
But spare me this protra-ha-ha-haction.
Thou impious son of cruel sire,
I he-e-e-e-re defy thee
Tremble, there is a pitying God,
His wrath on thee shall fall,
Tremble, there is a pitying God,
His wrath on thee shall fall

Good luck!

Friday, July 06, 2007

Helas, those summer nights

Well thank god I know clever people to quote so you'll keep me around when I have nothing to say. (Perhaps I ought to take the good advice of David Byrne whose lips, you know, are sealed when he has nothing to say. Yeah I was just watching that on Netflix.) Anyway this requires a tiny bit of backstory but I'm certain you'll find it worth it: in discussing Steber and Les Nuits D'Ete, actually before the passing of the much beloved Mme. Crespin, Stewball of the North and I both started to make a knee-slapper on Nuits d'Ete and "Summer Nights" from Grease and then dismissed it, aghast at ourselves. Having so confessed, though...

Writes our Stewball:

...And now that the doors are open, I
think I've come up the most fantastic Konzept production of
Grease ever. All the regular songs will be replaced by
Berlioz selections which address the same themes. Les Nuits
d'Ete works nicely as a back and forth boy/girl number and
is thus a perfect replacement for Summer Nights. Then we can
have Hero's aria from B and B in place of Hopelessly Devoted
to You, There Are Worse Things I Could Do is replaced by
D'Amour l'ardente flamme, obviously cause of the whole
knocked up thing, and for You're the One that I Want, well I
guess Nuit d'ivresse from Troyens. I'm not sure what to do
about Beauty School Dropout. But really, this will be a huge
success on the Bregenz Floating Stage, I'm convinced of it.

Well, I have no connections at Bregenz, but if you do, you might bring it up. I can't see how they'd say no, right? Suggestions are being solicited for appropriate Berliozian stand-ins for "Beauty School Dropout." Riffing on the whole issue of hair color, I suggested "O Blonde Ceres," but I don't think either of us was quite satisfied with it, me in part because I know none of the other words to the aria so I don't know what it's about, but almost certainly not failure and disappointment, teenage style. That's awfully specific.

Aright, gotta get going to that malt shop in the sky. Next up: Podles conquers the outdoors.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Off chance...

Has anyone a cheapish set of Kirov Ring tickets (i.e. one seat, all four operas) they'd like to unload at face value, all legal-like, to a certain pal of mine? I mean, frankly, jesus will like you even better if you just give 'em to her, but I'm trying to be realistic. Drop me an email if you have tickets yearning to breathe free.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Another farewell

Comfort and solace to the family of Beverly Sills and all who adored her, who will feel lonely tonight, upon reading the news, though she never knew them. They've lost a friend, as surely as...

The first opera set I ever owned, given to me by my father (who thinks he recalls hearing her in Dallas, when he was young) was her Traviata. I don't have it anymore--it got scratched, and my tastes changed--and change still: I'd love to hear it again, though she was not among my most cherished. She was a vibrant public face of opera, this I know, and listening now to a memorial track or two, I certainly value the vitality of her singing. In high school I listened to "So anch'io la virtu magica" on warped cassettes; she was my introduction, I think to Olympia's air. The public library had her Manon on LP. In some indirect ways, she's prominent in my love of the art, though not lately someone I doted on. (I say this not to disparage, least of all now, but so as to avoid ostentation in telling you what I've lost--you may be the more bereft. When my favorites go, you can let me do the wailing. But she's too important to let her passing go without comment.)

One thing I always loved: somewhere or other I taped the old, scratchy broadcast she did of the original-key Zerbinetta scene. She leaves out a note or two but as for the rest, it's unadulterated delight. I said to a friend that her singing in it was "fearless." He said that was the right word. I think it was.

I have the impression, rightly or not, she was someone we'd like to have known, not just for her singing.

Maybe you can listen to a little of your favorite performance if you've just read the news, and remember her fondly, even if you just loved her records. The Puritani scene has just come on, and it's certainly a fine thing.