Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Malheureuse Iphegenie, Tres heureux Maury

There we all were 24 hours earlier saying rather (pronounced "rah-ther" for effect) uncharitable things about a perfect Tabarro Giorgetta who flew, nu, a little too near the sun. Who was to know that 24 hours back this way, a lucky some of us would be transported to the place where there are no jokes to be made. Not from suffering, you understand, but from dumb joy at having ears and eardrums issued with them.

Can I pull that trick that always made me throw bricks at the tube when they did it on Alias? You know, Sydney's about to jump out of a plane and the door opens and they play that sul ponticello tremolo of danger and the screen goes black and it says:

Twelve hours earlier...

Twelve hours earlier, I wrote a rather pissy post about how trop cher it's gotten to hear a lousy pack of Bohemians moan about the cold, or what have you. Write something like that and you run the risk of sounding like you're asking the universe for a ticket, so the only honest thing to do is decide, but really, not to go. Which I did. It is after all Domingo in a bit of stunt casting, Ms. Graham who (let's not pretend) I have hemmed and hawed over in the past, mostly hawed. It's another new production in a season where, despite the sparky wattage of Dessay, one was forced to recall stories of theatrical directors in opera asking the conductor, "What should they do here? There's music, but no words." Maybe there will be no Minghella-fly this season--didn't you think as much?

Sometimes you gotta be rescued from your own stupid. My white knight was the voracious listener whose impeccable verbiage you read at Night after Night, among other places. After all, nobody's going to say no to meeting the folks who do for real what you and I (well, some of you) play at with tea sets and barbies, and if there's a prima involved, more's the incentive to accept.

There's something I have to say about tonight's Iphegenie, but I'm asking you to let me off the hook if I sober up later. Maybe I'm just high, but I may have just spent my finest evening at the Met. "But Maury," says my cat, who was not asked, "what about Frau? And Troyens? And Jenufa? And Tebaldi's Gioconda?" She's trying to make me feel old, I think. I wasn't at Tebaldi's Gioconda, nor was I in Our American Cousin the night Lincoln was shot.

And she has a point. I think it's fine, though, to have all-time favorites that last until the next. So correct me next time something is the best EVAR if you will, but right now, I am at the feet of all who performed and perhaps most of all, Stephen Wadsworth and his team, who must, must becomes fixtures at the Metropolitan. You know I'm serious when I use its full name, right?

Because what Wadsworth did was, I guess, magically sidestep the problem of whether to try to wrench a stageworthy performance, in some naturalistic sense, out of someone who must at the same time sing, or just try to get everyone comfortable in stock gestures that are almost impossible to produce with aplomb. How he did this exactly I am still working out, but I think it was embodied most fully in the Act III trio between Iphegenie, Pylade, and Oreste are basically reenacting the duet from The Impressario where Madames Herz and Silberklang spend twenty minutes saying "No, I am the prima donna!" "No, I am the prima donna!" [lather, rinse repeat] except in this case it's "No, I want to die!" It's static stuff.

So Mr. Wadsworth a) chained them to an altar, which meant nobody got to run to the front of the stage, and b) let them all sit down together, Graham in the middle. Because yes, some really important conversations take place without people facing each other and without anyone getting up. All I can compare it to is Barak, in aforementioned Frau, sitting forlornly in front of an open fridge, also known as My Favorite Thing Anyone Has Ever Made an Opera Singer Do. I'm probably making too much of this.

The set itself seemed conceived as a visual whole in a burst of inspiration, where so many seem to have come from words: so there are these screens, and they move around a lot; or, so they're all about to be in a photograph. It divides the stage seemingly instinctively rather than practically. I am staunchly opposed to stage action before music, but am fully prepared to make an exception for the admittedly ostentatious gesture that begins this work. I wouldn't dream of ruining it for you. If you don't get to go, ask me later.

If you'd like to serve me a plate of cold crow regarding Susan Graham, I will fetch the A-1 sauce. It's true. I've never liked her singing, or never liked it enough, and hearing her praised I could only shrug and feel defined by my minority opinion. Now, I don't think much of epiphanies and conversions, and if you asked who I'd rather hear as der Komponist in an Ariadne to be mounted tomorrow, I'd still write "Mentzer" on my slip of paper without hesitation. As Iphegenie, however, there is nothing that could be done that Susan Graham did not do. She has found what JSU once termed (in discussing what makes a soprano able to deliver "Es Gibt ein Reich" as it must be delivered) inner stillness. I credit her and her director, oh and Gluck while I'm at it. The sync between artist and role was immaculate. And, since this is always my barometer, yes: the acting was as much in the chords as the hands or the face. Or that hair that is such a problem in the posters.

I find it interesting that Domingo has not, last I looked, sold this show out. As we all know, the little old ladies would knock down the hearty to hear him sing Die Toten Augen. Either Gluck is beyond the pale, or someone let it out that he's not singing tenor here, or not exactly so. Oreste, so I understand it, is proto-zwischenfach, and what better to sink your teeth into when you're an already notably baritonal tenor many years past his last Manrico? As Oreste, making sometimes a different sound than the one we know, he was fascinating, and not in the least doing a star turn. You could hardly fault Paul Groves for going all gay for him, I mean really. His lack of vanity was equaled only by his trust in the role, which he treated as no less a sing than Siegmund. Of course there's a certain contingent whose only comment will be "I told you he never had a C." On them a pox, as always.

Speaking of Groves, though, despite his high standards in Mozart, didn't we all think of Groves as a leetle bit of a reliable milquetoast? And then, like the quiet kid who it turns out has a mean left jab, we all sat there slowly realizing as he sang "La calme rentre dans mon coeur" that he can sing Gluck with that balance of passion and elegance that matters here perhaps even more than in Mozart.

William Shimell as Thoas sang with great commitment and, well, limited vocal resources. You know what else, before I try and wring a few hours' sleep out of the night, though? Not enough can be said about how much the Met needs to keep it coming with the Gluck. Maybe it was Louis Langree's extraordinary sense of how to make Gluck sound appropriate in a huge hall without turning into into old-school steroidal proto-Bruckner, but I think just as much, what happened tonight was a cue for anyone listening to reevaluate Gluck, not an academic figure of reform from a textbook or a dusty champion of mythology, but rather as a musical mind whose dramatic heart beat fast and urgent as Wagner's. I'm thinking it's time to dig up my Minkowski Armide and listen to the terrifying ending and hope Peter Gelb might own it as well.

No kidding, I think I may have to see it again before I can tell you everything that was great about it. It is a terrible burden of duty, you understand, but I suffer for you kids.

Next up: probaby another Iphigenie. Jonathan of Wellsung and I are thinking of having a bake sale or just selling our furniture on craigslist as a means of funding several more times on this particular ride.

My thanks again to my kind and gregarious host, who I'm guessing will have words for you as well.

ETA: for all you versionologists out there, Matthew Westphal at Playbill Arts clarifies just what it is we've seen.

The version of Iphigénie used by the Met for this production is something of a hybrid, adapted for the particular strengths of this cast. The bulk of the score will be performed in the original version Gluck wrote for Paris in 1779, but with some changes taken from the adaptation the composer made for its 1781 Vienna premiere, in which Oreste is a tenor rather than a baritone role. Other borrowings from the Vienna version include the transposed version of King Thoas's opera and several orchestral movements.

Out of Gluck

I know it's a well worn chant that if the Met wants younger audiences they should find a way around charging a fortune for tickets (more corporate sponsorships? I don't know; I don't run an opera company for very good reasons.) But you know what? It's true. If the Broadway strike ends anytime soon, I'm hoping to spend $26ish to see August: Osage County from seats where I can see the actors' lips move. Because of a last minute price reduction, I could possibly pay $26 for a seat in rear fam circ for the Gluck prima. From which I could see the mooring mast on the Empire State Building, if the roof were off.

But I'm not. For the first time in two seasons, I'm skipping an opening night. Not that it's anyone's god-given* right to go to opening night or sit in good seats, but since I started writing these little reviews, I've gotten in the habit. Hopefully later in the run I can find a decent balcony box seat, the only remaining bargain for people whose day jobs preclude the rush line and whose standfleisch** is no longer game for long hauls. Yes, I could probably have managed twenty-six bucks, but there's a fine balance of "this is still a lot of money" vs. "for all I know, that's not Placido Domingo but some other stocky Lebanese gentleman up there" that tips as I grey.

I'm actually very excited about Iphigenie, less because of the cast than because it's Gluck, but I just had to cry uncle on this one. My apologies to anyone who does what I do, once I'm done writing anyway, clicking around 'til all hours looking for the first review. Doubtless there is some other blogger loopy enough to stay up past midnight or one on a Tuesday who will satisfy this late night craving.

*huh, I'm having a vocabulary-poor morning and can't think of a satisfactory secular alternative to this irritating phrase

**is it just me or does that sound obscene? I suppose I just mean lower back muscles but I was, y'know, thinking sitzfleisch/standfleich

Thursday, November 22, 2007

In memory as usual of that Thanksgiving or was it Christmas when my only companion was Margarete Klose

Here at MFI, we like to stay open on major holidays in case it's not your holiday. Nothing's so dull as finding everything closed, tout le monde indoors celebrating whatever their perception of the holiday's meaning happens to be (I think we've all grown up past believing the nice pilgrims and the nice natives collectively revved up the can opener for the tubular cranberries, but the gesture of thinking what you have to be content about is a good one in inwardly- and outwardly-directed ways.)

The truth is, though, I haven't gone to anything in weeks now and I have little to entertain you with. I did, on the bus down here to DC, come to the ipod-fueled realization yesterday that no matter how much of her I have on my ipod because she's the kind of thing I should adore based on everything else, I'm never going to love Emmylou Harris in that visceral way...but that's about my only musical thought in the last few days. So instead I'm going to go on about nothing for the benefit of the truly bored.

I guess for the sake of a shallow joke I can snap in place a phone photo of some ecrevisses pas du tout a la bordelaise from the seafood stand on the Potomac. God I hope the ecrevisses don't actually live in/get fished out of the Potomac. Uh huh, I've gotten obsessed with that menu. I swear one day I'm going to have a Vanessa themed dinner party, hopefully not ending with a spontaneous abortion in the woods. Now all's I need to do is learn to cook.

Here's a recipe from some crayfish-centered site.

Ecrevisses a la Bordelaise

This is the traditional French recipe for cooking crayfish which are served whole and unshelled. The dish can be prepared the day before and re-heated gently. To serve 4 people
12-16 whole crayfish
3 cup of dry white wine
4-6 carrots
2 tablespoons of tomato paste
4 onions
8 tablespoons of cream
300gm butter
Salt & pepper
8 sprigs parsley
Cayenne pepper to taste
2 bay leaves

Chop vegetables into thin strips ( julienne). Melt butter in a large pan and simmer the vegetables and herbs until the former are soft. Add the crayfish and cook over high heat, stirring continually until the shells are red. Add the win and tomato paste and boil gently for a further 15 minutes. Add the cream. Take off the stove and season to taste.

[from: http://www.crayfishremovaloxon.co.uk/cookingcrayfish.html]

My favorite part is "add the win." I have a feeling with my cooking skills, I would not be adding the win. Say, look [he said, editing later]: La Cieca, too, is having a culinary moment. In the part of the world La Cieca and I hail from, you know, ecrevisses are known oh so elegantly as "crawdads." Well, you can just think of us as the Giada di Laurentis and Rachael Ray of opera, for today. (Sue me, I picked the cute ones instead of the ones who make anything interesting.)

Aright. Enough. Have a great holiday if you're doing that, and if you're not, I hope something else good happens today.

ETA: here's something else good, in case nothing else came up of its own accord. Who wouldn't feel a little grateful to the universe for this?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

;_; ;_;

Beyond a fondness for fortified Estonian vanilla liqueur, the Straussmonster and I have a good many things in common. One of these is that we turn into profoundly emo walrii (see subject line for illustration) when folks hate on the libretto Giancarlo Menotti wrote for Samuel Barber's Vanessa. Bemoaning this fact this evening, between big, walrusy tears, we came upon one review that started out by defending the opera itself, only to join in slagging on the book. "Vanessa," the review went on, "is about Vanessa." Well yes, and many other things besides. It's a funny review, with a madcap reference to "Three's Company," but as I said to the Straussmonster, said I, "'x is about y' is almost never an interesting or meaningful sentence unless Y is a pretty long and detailed clause." I meant it, too.

Not to keep you in suspense, here is what your monster and your Maury think Vanessa is about: Vanessa is about (obviously) regret and self-deception, about the disasters inherent to family, the disasters inherent to patriarchy if you'll pardon the undergraduate-level gender politics in summary, the horror of aging, the narcissism inherent to love, and about the importance of never serving ecrevisses a la bordelaise and langoustines grillees sauce aux huitres on the same menu. Vanessa is about the lies that we all tell ourselves, the unknowability of another human being, and the need to get along to go along. Vanessa, finally, and we feel a number of reviews we have read miss this point most of all, is about the failure of the human character to provide satisfying resolutions a good deal of the time.

La Monstre has also not unreasonably noted the misogyny that underlies certain opera queen readings of Vanessa, ones that do give us pause as we look past the trees to the forest and think about opera queen discourse in general. (And if you care to look further than that, there's lookin' to be done.) We hope, as we sit here in our cozy fit of not quite pique, that no-one will take this as a personally pointed finger, unless of course they should.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The best at their worst: Video Edition

Well, they're actually in good form, it's just irredeemably dreadful anyway. Note the English line right at the beginning that would surely get a few guffaws these days. Anyway, here are two of my very favorites in a clip I couldn't watch through to the end.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Apocryphal or not?

"For three and a half hours you sing and sing your heart out, and then it turns out the opera is about Maria Jeritza."

Somewhere, a million years ago, I read that Lehmann said this about Frau but I don't know where and can't find any reference to it. Did she say it? I've always found it a hilarious+poignant expression of second fiddledom.

If by any chance you are reading this RIGHT NOW, go log on to WFMT's streaming broadcast of Frau with Voigt, Brewer, Grove, Hawlata. I had high expectations and still am shocked at how good it sounds. Travel-plan-inducingly good. I am off the fence about Brewer.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Word on the street (62nd Street, that is)

We're hearing very good things about the current cast of Figaro, centering around Anja Harteros, an upcoming Met Violetta if the Met Futures Page is to be believed, and it usually is. As sampled in half an act of last night's broadcast, Harteros is a countess verging on the overripe, which is certainly preferable to the too sedate countesses you get at times. Also heard in that half act, the Barbarina of your beloved singing blogstress Anne-Carolyn Bird. ACB's a pal of mine, but I heard and liked the voice before I knew and liked the person, so you can take it as relatively objective when I tell you her verses were delivered in fresh and youthful tones. I think I'm gonna stand on Saturday and see for myself what the fuss is about.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Someone didn't fully explain to Franco Farina the rules of the Gong Show, it would seem. Oh, that's in the score? Never mind then.

I can't shake the irritation I experienced, reading one discussion of Norma where it was suggested that the opera be shelved for twenty (was it forty?) years until someone worthy of, oh, what was the rhetoric, "the mantel of the great priestess" no doubt, should burst upon the scene. I don't remember, but I'm guessing this was in reference to the rumored Fleming/Wilson Norma. Actually for what it's worth, I think a Robert Wilson Norma might be just the thing. Just as Lohengrin is the better for taking singers' instincts about what to do during static moments out of the picture (well, and directors' frequent inability to help them), Norma might really lose some of the awkwardness it's frequently bestowed with if Waco Bob had a shot at it. Robert Wilson: for operas that are marginally viable in a non-concert setting. I dunno, I'd show up.

But we hear Fleming has sensibly dropped the project, and it was hard not to think about this and approve last night. While I do think the difficulty of filling Norma's apron, er shoes--sorry, Norma is such an archetypally waitressy name, I sometimes forget what the opera's about--is slobbered upon rather too much, it is a big sing. Fleming would be terrific in The Aria, if recent habits have any permanency, and then she'd be lost. Someone more fixated on fach than I might be tempted to think of Fleming as Adalgisa, but hell hasn't frozen over, last I checked, so again never mind.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the role is being sung by Hasmik Papian, and not badly either. Thank god nobody locked that forty-year safe. Not to say she was at all moments electrifying. Here and there the voice goes all squishy, seriously I can't think of a better word for it. And the top is a sometime thing, potent when the approach is felicitous; short or flat when it ain't. But she's not what I recalled from Aida in the 90's, a soft and wholly unmemorable presence. Her phrasing is, while not riveting, attentive and regal, and in the last scene of the opera, she found some inner resources of tragedy and shared them with us.

Oh, Dolora Zajick. How long has it been now for you and me? I'd say about ten years. What a long strange trip its been, huh pal? First there was Aida, and I really think at that point I'd never heard a bigger voice. Then there was Marfa in Khovanschina, we still laugh about that one, right? Oh and then there was the time I got super cranky because I went to a dress rehearsal for Cavalleria and you marked a lot, and your cover sang the aria, because yes, a rehearsal is a rehearsal, but what can I say? I'm a prick when I'm disappointed. Last time I heard you, you were ripping it up as the annoyingly pious mom in An American Tragedy and I think that's how, twenty years from now, forcibly regaling the young 'uns with stories of the old days, I'd like to remember you.

Adalgisa is an ok fit. Like Papian, Zajick has a good florid technique, which I guess is why everyone constantly thinks of her as slightly edgy casting for Macbeth. There are a couple of little opportunities to belt. From a dramatic standpoint, it's kind of a mistake, though, and all the soft singing brings out the more generic side of her formidable instrument. Know what, I do think she's oddly used at the Met. Ideas I've heard tossed around by the geekerati include Die Amme, which would be ever so much more gratifying than Adalgisa. Or, again, Macbeth, though the potential complexity of the character would be missed.

The singing of Eduardo Valdes was a welcome relief.

Ok, I'm not going to let it go at that. Farina sang well for about twenty measures of the opera, when he was singing softly. And the rest of the time, well, you pretty much know how I feel. No need to harp on it. But the thing is, am I on crack or did he take several low variants in his first act aria that aren't there? That pissed me off as much as the monochrome bawling. I covered my eyes, because it seemed slightly less rude than covering my ears.

Julianna di Giacomo, who made such a nice showing at Il Podlatore, was certainly a bit of luxury as Clotilde. Vitalij Kowaljow, who I somehow forgot about until I was editing this, for my money made the finest vocal showing of all.

Next up: was going to be another Vanessa, but for a scheduling snafu. I'd get up and look at the ticket pile but the cat is having none of that idea.

Monday, November 12, 2007


For someone who asked, and anyone who wondered.

Ti soffoca il sangue?
E ucciso da una donna!
M'hai assai torturata!...
Odi tu ancora? Parla!... Guardami!...
Son Tosca!... O Scarpia!

Soccorso, aiuto!

Muori dannato! Muori, Muori!

More youtube/Verrett

Well, this one pretty much kills me dead.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

A return to form

Remember this statement from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe?

"...when a recent edition of Playbeing magazine headlined an article with the words 'When you are tired of Ursa Minor Beta you are tired of life', the suicide rate there quadrupled overnight."

Maybe you weren't geek enough to have read The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. That's possible, too.

When you're tired of Traviata, you're probably also tired of life, or at least of opera, as Traviata kind of is opera. Um, but I'm really, really tired of La Traviata. So this is going to be a simulacrum of a review, written by me pretending I care more. The truth is I spent a lot of time keeping a mental scorecard, which doesn't happen when I'm truly engrossed.*

It's been a long, hard road for me from die-hard Flemingian to disciple of that Cassandra of the ether known to you and me as La Cieca. "Why is La Cieca so mean?" I would sit and wonder, fanning myself with a program from RF's jewel-like Arabella in Houston, long about 1998. And then there were a number of excruciating outings in a row, my personal low point being Manon with Alvarez, and these days I go in with a sense of trepidation if not dread. I think I'm not alone in this dreary progression, and La Cieca must be feeling awfully vindicated.

People can always surprise you, you know. While I'll note with some dismay that the voice is at times during the first act so small as to occasion questions about the appropriateness of the Metropolitan as a venue, the overwhelming impression of last night's Violetta was one of relief and admiration. Here again was the singer who (was it only six years ago?) sang a Desdemona in Chicago of such purity and grace as to largely excuse her Handel outings, otherwise a one-way ticket to art hell. "E Strano"--potentially the staging ground for her most indulgent cooing--was done 98% straight, though with evident joy and introspection. The flights of coloratura that followed in the aria were wholly flawless, from my vantage.

As the evening went on, the sound grew and the vocalism remained impeccable. Yes, for me it lacked some of the glamor of Gheorghiu, and the last act aria (both verses!) was more accomplished than moving, but from start to finish, this was Renee Fleming demonstrating why she's famous to begin with, and neglecting to demonstrate why lots of people think she's overrated. Report card moments such as "Amami Alfredo" were absolutely lavished with voice, and "Dite alla giovine" took me back to Houston and Arabella and the moment during the duet where I was conscious only of the music and the slowed passage of time.

Now, I mostly went, it must be said, to hear Polenzani, lately the Met's jack of all trades, master of most. And though I've heard him do other things better, his Alfredo was certainly a pleasure. This may be the first time I've ever heard a tenor do much acting in the role; utterances like "O ciel! Domani!" were sung with actual "o ciel!" in them. I wish I had been more conscious of him when I went to Troyens or maybe just more familiar with Troyens. I daydream about what he must have done with "O blonde Ceres." Feel free to tell me, if you recall it well, or just send an mp3.

Dwayne Croft continues to sing with great dignity, but I wish he didn't always punch at the beginning of every note. It tramples the legato, or so think I.

'at's about all I got. I'll say this though: several people I talked to at intermission expressed something like horror at this production, but I gotta say: as heavily doilied productions go, I think it's a keeper. The second set is gently atmospheric in the kitchen-sink mode, and the stage elevator moment in the last act strikes me as a little moment of absolutely viable theater magic. Right, yes, the big party can only be described as ongepotchket, but if I were sneaking around the warehouse with a can of kerosene and a book of matches, this one wouldn't be high on my list of targets.

Next up: Norma

*Know what, that's a big lie. I always keep score. It just isn't the main eveny under ideal conditions.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

And so he did

Update the blogroll, that is, somewhat. I imagine I missed some folks, so I'll keep an eye out.

Well as long as I'm posting, I think it's worth noting that lots of people out there seem to be of the opinion, hunch-wise, that Erika is indeed the daugther of Vanessa and Anatol, Sr. I can't say I had ever thought so, but then I pay so little attention to the plots of things I only recently realized Violetta had an evening job. No, I kid, but what do you think? Oh oh oh. I just thought of a tiny contextual clue: what does Erika pull off the bookshelf to read to Vanessa? Why, it's Oedipus, which is also about the wacky hijinx that ensue when you sleep with family members.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

With the cold, already, enough

News Item: somebody kidnapped that ragtag band of fiddlers that is sometimes indoors long enough to accompany operas at the Little Opera that Occasionally Could and replaced them with a top notch ensemble of musicians.

Alternate theory: all they ever needed at City Opera was (the music, and the mirror...wrong song) a conductor with a little vision because obviously this is New York and if they weren't terrific musicians they wouldn't be down in that there pit, now would they? Anne Manson is pretty clearly the hero of the day, leading NYCO's roundly excellent new production of--at long last--Barber's Vanessa with as sure a feel for the unapologetic romanticism of the work as for its jaggedy edges. If this were the sole virtue of the thing, I'd still kind of be glad to have gone and end this by urging you to go, too, which you know by now is what I'm gonna do.

Yes, we had a moment of panic when it looked like someone might not have gotten the memo, written in 1979, that the scrim craze was over, but it went away quick as you please, revealing an essentially conservative but not unimaginative production of this work, not staged in New York so far as I can tell in the last forty years. Truly, I can't for the life of me figure out why this is so, by the way. It's not drastically, Trovatorically hard to cast. The Met could do it right now, like literally tomorrow though I guess it'd be with piano and maybe sets by Ikea, with Voigt, DiDonato, and Polenzani.*/2 (Not that I think the casting would play out quite that way if they did put it on, but hey, welcome to the opera house in my head.) It's also a reasonable bet as a house-filer: profoundly accessible without ever flirting with banality. Melodrama, yes. Banality, no. Who wouldn't want to hear that?

I've long thought of Vanessa as a Douglas Sirk film with music, actually, but better.* It has more dimensions without being needlessly more subtle or less sentimental. Which is, upon several seconds of reflection, an impression I formed on the basis of the original cast recording, and the broadcast, and the Salzburg Festival air check with everyone the same except I think Ira Malaniuk as the old biddy. Hi, have I mentioned I'm obsessed with Vanessa?

Today's cast actually took a slower-burning approach, I think, starting with Katharine Goeldner, our Erika. Now, Erika's best known music, and that of the whole opera, is of course "Must the winter come so soon?" On the old recordings, Erika is already burning at both ends in this whisp of an aria, but I'm pretty sure Goeldner make a conscious departure, and I think it's totally valid. Remember that in the first act, Vanessa asks her niece to read to her, and after she has complied with a strophe or two of Oedipus**. The next part never made sense with Rosalind Elias: Steber/Vanessa chews her out for her boring reading. And you're sitting there going, "wait, that was totally not boring. Who died and made you Pauline Kael?"

So I think there was a deliberate blankness (I hope, or else I'm going to sound really backhanded) to Goeldner's reading of Erika in the first quarter of the opera. It's like Enzo Bordello says: if Lucia starts out crazy from the word "ancor," there's nowhere left to go. In the similarly heightened emotional clime of the unspecified, weirdly intense Scandinavian country wherein takes place Vanessa, it's good to leave some room, and Goeldner did indeed give her character an arc of development. "Must the winter," was very pretty and not a character manifesto. Anatol, thus it seems, opened her horizons. Unfortunately not in the good way. In act I, an emotionally frigid girl; in Act II, a somewhat grown up neurotic mess. Again with the possible unintentional backhandedness, one thing I loved about her portrayal was that Erika was never particularly likable. By the same token, she was never completely pitiable, a choice that may sit well with those uncomfortable with opera's endless profusion of feminine victims.

Now on to her sister. The transitions department in my brain closed early this evening. It is, in fact, staffed by French brain cells, and they are on strike.

Lauren Flanigan is at an interesting place in her vocal lifespan. It can only have had something to do with her casting that they chose the revised version of the big V, senza skating aria. Fond as my memories are of Flanigan skating, nay, roller blading in the 90's mounting of Intermezzo***, the skating aria probably would have been thin ice under the weight of her mature instrument, a pliant but rather drab thing that for all its essential lack of character allows her to create, as always, characterizations straight from the gut. Some voices are like blank canvasses, and when we're lucky, they're allotted to people who see gesso and think of paint.

Ms. Flanigan made her entrance in, well, did you ever drive through Williamsburg on a Saturday when all the Bukharian Jews are wandering back from presumably shul with the hats that look like a spare tire made of cheapish fur? (The last part of the mink, my grandfather would have said, to go over the fence.) Swear to god, she was wearing one of those. It gave us a delightful moment of imagining a Vanessa where everyone's Jewish. Vanesseleh. Potage aux matzoh balls? Potage aux matzoh balls. Reubens maybe? Feh, too many sauces. He just got here--you want he should plotz? Except then the entire opera would be them planning the menu, and you'd have to somehow squeeze the rest into a tiny epilogue.

That (alas for you) said, Flanigan delivered. It didn't sound easy, but it also didn't sound like a walk on the tightrope. Which is, probably, to say: she too is much unlike her predecessor. Steber's Vanessa is a triumph of Stimm, though she doesn't skimp on the Kunst either. Note how she's able to make, unless I'm imagining it, a subtle difference of tone on the protracted "ay" in "this very day" in her big scena after the music around it resolves. Flanigan didn't lay on that kind of vocal filigree; her Vanessa was a little older and wiser and tougher, underneath the mannerisms of the time, as imagined, more bent on getting what she wanted maybe. She sounded haunted, though, and desperate, and pounded on the window when they men who had gone to find Erika were dragging her back to the house, and it was a fully realized character. In the last act, before the devastating quintet, her carriage was younger, her choice of hats, much more flattering.

The young and the old fared well here: Ryan MacPherson overcame his terrible stage moustache to sing a crystal clear Anatol, diction to make Gedda proud really. Perhaps he lacked a little swagger that makes Anatol, Jr. seductive to the audience instead of just poor, sheltered Erika who honestly if you think about it would have jumped on anything in pants that walked through the door. He found the character's nihilism more easily than his charm. The voice is meanwhile easily produced and substantial. On the other end of the range, veteran Richard Stillwell must have been doing something right since his house debut in 1970. He has plenty of voice left for the wistfully comic little monologue of the doctor right up through that very long G, and if his acting was on the frenetic side, it was none the less assured. Pro stuff.

The real veteran, though, is Rosalind Elias, the creatrix of Erika in 1958. It doesn't take long with the abacus to figure out that she's flirting with 80. It is an honor to have her in the role, though if I'm going to be 100% honest (which isn't usually worth doing) it's an honor and a compromise. Something about Vanessa gets me obsessed with everyone's age, and I find myself noting that Regina Resnik would have been about 35 when she created the Old Countess. You come to think of it as a sort of cameo because her character is defined by her silence, but the fact is there are some real vocal demands in the beginning of the second act, and of course she's an equal partner in the quintet. Still, she brought great conviction to the role and many would be thankful to have that much left at her age. Anyway the opera is so suffused with nostalgia, nobody could really argue with the choice. And once in a while you heard a flash of Erika's archetypal voice, and that was terribly poignant.

Most generally what I'm trying to say is: go. Please. For you, because dollars to donuts you'll like it, and for me and the rest of us who wish City Opera would do this instead of a good deal of the things they do instead. I'm going again next week, and then, if I may drop (I promise) my last hint to the universe, again when they put it on a hundred yards northwest.

*/2 right, not literally tomorrow, unless it was on-book. These young opera singers, showing up to imaginary productions in my head not knowing the score. What do they teach you in imaginary school today?

*nuh-huh, I've only ever seen one Douglas Sirk movie, but you get the drift pretty quickly and it's a handy reference.

**um, why'd the audience crack up when she said what she was going to read? my new favorite line from Vanessa is "I hate your laughter!" No joke: they also laughed when the Doctor, in the last act, sang the line, " have always known I am a bad doctor. Now I know I am a bad poet as well, for I have never learned to read the human heart." Fine, it's a little bit campy, but who ARE you people? As long as I'm on this, did I ever mention the time I went to see Glenngarry Glen Ross, and Alan Alda was in the cast, so le tout New Jersey assumed it was a sitcom and laughed at the whole thing? GLENNGARRY GLEN ROSS IS NOT A COMEDY. NEITHER IS VANESSA. kthanxbye.

***I'm pretty sure I suggested at the time that if Tobias Picker felt like writing a biographical opera about Wayne Gretzky, they'd know who to call. Thus concludes this year's sports reference.

Oh, footnote. Just to fight the trend of so many irritating reviews and program notes, so often, I'd like to mention for the record that Menotti and Barber, just in case you didn't know, were, without further euphemism, doing it. I'm sure it was much more beautiful and loving than that, but just to be on the safe side and not leave anyone with the possible impression they were housemates, yeah, I don't know the details, but there was definite intercourse going on there.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

The best at their worst

There's some small, sad fascination in hearing our favorites do things they can't, I'm going to say. This Clemenza currently on Sirius features Troyanos as Sesto, and she just barely made it through "Parto, parto" with her life. A moment of true desperation. Levine could have tossed her a life preserver but for some reason instead chose to barrel along with his hapless star bouncing along on the road behind. It's not a fun listen; you can hear the distress of this famously nervous singer as she approximates the ruthless triplets and gets a breath wherever the hell she can. Just the same I think it enriches one's love of Madame T., the shade that makes the painted apple rounder.

ETA: of course she's wonderful in the rest. And Roberta Alexander is maybe even better. Why was this her last performance at the Met?

Next up in real life: Vanessa! Tomorrow!