Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Jonas Kaufmann in French

Jonas Kaufmann's latest album, L'Opéra, is not flashy, but it is substantial. It showcases an expressive range that is impressive -- if not, at this stage of his career, surprising -- and an artistic thoughtfulness that is one of the things I have long valued in him. In roles ranging from Romeo to Aeneas, it is those at the latter end of the spectrum that fit the current weight and timbre of his voice better, but there is something in each to be savored. Not least among the album's merits is the ravishing quality of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester under Bertrand de Billy. Indeed, the shimmering, breathless quality of the strings and woodwinds would be reason enough to keep "Ah! lêve-toi, soleil!"

It's been several years since I've had the chance to hear Kaufmann live, so for me, it's both pleasing and reassuring to hear him recorded in such fine form. His phrasing is exquisite, his control of dynamics assured. His gift for caressing text to the point of indecency and past it is also on full display. His Werther has been much recorded, but I am glad to have this version of "Pourquoi me reveiller," superbly controlled and superbly partnered by the orchestra. Here and in Wilhelm Meister's aria from Mignon, Kaufmann's phrasing approaches the hypnotic. Though I might quibble stylistically with the choices on a few of the arias, I could never fault the musicianship. The album's breadth, including several rarities, makes it a worthy acquisition for aficionados of nineteenth-century French opera, as well as for Kaufmann's devotees.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Höre ich Zigeunerweisen? Operetta in Ohio

Polish poster for the internationally popular Mariza
This past Thursday, I saw the closing performance of The Countess Maritza at the Ohio Light Opera festival, fortuitously located in my new hometown. (A synopsis of the work, which contains multiple disguises and mistakes in identity, may be found here.) My expectations were confounded on several fronts. The voices of Tanya Roberts, in the title role, and tenor Daniel Neer, as her ill-fated suitor, were welcome new discoveries to me. My impressions of the performance as a whole were conflicting; upon reflection, my predominating reaction is bewilderment. I plan to make a more systematic viewing of the festival next year (I arrived just in time for its final days), in hopes of fathoming its enigmas, for they are many. But of The Countess Maritza: I found it to be a frustrating performance. I would have been better pleased had it evinced less polish, less archness, and more heart.

Of the generic scenery I make no complaint. Indeed, a painted backdrop that proclaims, with studied ambiguity, "Central Europe," and a versatile Neoclassical portico that could probably, at need, also be the home of Major-General Stanley or a municipal building in River City argue admirable thrift and resourcefulness in a small company. But the lack of specificity in the performance was another matter. The choreography for the chorus was repetitive, and struck me as stereotypical. The fact that it was the closing matinée may, of course, have done it no favors. The principals, too, were obliged to stand and deliver with depressing regularity. Wide-eyed astonishment or naiveté expressed to the audience is simply not as funny, in such a context, as astonishment and naiveté behind an unbroken fourth wall. Among other things, the English translation by Nigel Douglas doesn't nod towards any mixture of Hungarian and German. It's praised in the program booklet as one of the best libretto translations in the repertoire, and I frankly shudder at the implication. The double entendres were invariably delivered with ponderous deliberateness.  I have decided to institute a standard test for all operetta productions I may see in future: do they have at least as much romantic and sexual tension as the classic film of The Sound of Music? The point of comparison was first raised at a Merry Widow performance, which also failed to meet it.

The orchestra -- to its credit -- clearly knew that sexual and dramatic tension were present in the score, and where. The harmonies and dynamics told us as much vividly, but I failed to perceive any corresponding urgency on stage. I would be remiss if I did not mention the dignified and impassioned performance of Alec Norkey as the on-stage violinist. Under the leadership of Wilson Southerland, the orchestra was cohesive, lively, and pleasingly nuanced at critical moments, despite a few issues of stage-pit synchronization. But this musical awareness alone proved insufficient, in my view, to save the dramatic tension.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Blogging Backlog: Einspringen at SummerStage

Almost an entire (calendar) season has elapsed since I attended the first in the Met's SummerStage series. I won't weary you, Gentle Readers, with a tale of my travails, but having moved and started a new job, inter alia, I've been fairly comprehensively busy. In retrospect, the evening's tranquility takes on something of the quality of an all-too-brief idyll. Several of the pieces, understandably, were drawn from operas due to be performed in the Met's upcoming season. Whether the others were chosen by singers or programmers, I was impressed by the judicious mixture of familiar crowd-pleasers and more unusual fare. This was true, I noted, for all the programs on offer in the series; I was delighted to hear the Cherry Duet and "Seien wir wieder gut." Although the singers were miked, this was better-handled and less distracting than in previous years. A quibble, for me, was the omission of any description of the music in the program. The glossy paper of the programs must be expensive, but I still think that two-line summaries of the selections' content and dramatic context and function would be helpful for the intended audience. I'm sure the Met has people on staff who could write them. I'd write them! On the evening, Mary Jo Heath presided, proving herself (excitingly) to be more than a disembodied voice, and the singers -- Susanna Phillips, Elizabeth DeShong, and Petr Nekoranec -- also glossed some of their offerings.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sunday Special: Viva il vino spumeggiante

Opera cocktail
I subscribe to John Keats' belief that a recipe for a perfect summer's idyll involves "books, French wine, fruit, fine weather and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." And there's something about the long, languorous evenings of early summer that tempts me to ponder cocktail recipes. It's a matter of puzzlement to me that this is an area where opera has made fewer cultural inroads, it would seem, than in that of food. We have opera cake, we have pêches Melba, tournedos Rossini, etc. etc. So why not cocktails, when so many opera characters, in so many situations, invite everyone to drink? I first discovered this dearth when the Beloved Flatmate and I were planning a party, and several years on, the situation seems to be fundamentally unchanged.

A few opera houses, at least, have embraced the idea of opera-inspired tippling. The Met has several themed drinks on their menu; "Lulu's Disposable Lover" might be my new favorite cocktail name. Seattle Opera also commissioned a series of themed drink/food pairings, of which my favorite is the Carmen cocktail, with vodka, cointreau, and champagne. (The Attila sounds appropriately dangerous.) Beyond this, I have found several delights, but fewer than I expected.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Semi-Scholarly Summary: Cyrano de Bergerac

This evening sees the opening of Franco Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac at the Met. It's being marketed as Puccini-like, but the comparison, in my view, over-simplifies the work of both composers. To me, Alfano's Cyrano seems a curious blend of romantic structure and dramatic spectacle, and experimentation in orchestral explorations of the central characters' psyches. I'd be inclined to say that it provides, as Alexandra Wilson has suggested for the late works of Puccini, a sort of alternate vision of how modern opera might have developed in the Italian tradition. From a scholarly perspective, it's received comparatively little attention, even when measured against Alfano's other works. I was surprised to discover this, given my personal fascination with how Alfano's opera functions as an adaptation of Edmond Rostand's 1898 play, which is itself a homage to the five-act dramas of France's golden age of theatre in the seventeenth century. I grew up with an edition illustrated by Dubout, and, later, wore out a VHS of the Gérard Dépardieu film; this is one opera I came to via its source text, rather than the other way around.

Cyrano de Bergerac, subtitled as a commedia eroica, was first performed in the Paris of 1936. I thought that the choice to write an opera based on a heroic fighter of doomed causes in the increasingly totalitarian Europe of the 1930s might have been a political one; but Alfano's ties to Mussolini belie this naively romantic hypothesis. The libretto, which preserves much of Rostand's gorgeously ornate language, is by Henri Cain, a frequent librettist of Massenet's, whose texts include Cendrillon, La Navarraise, and Don Quichotte. For me, as an aficionado of the play, it is curious to hear a text with such strong rhythms, such strong music of its own, orchestrated for the opera stage. But the results are often strikingly poignant. One of the things I find most interesting about Cyrano, in fact, is how the music sometimes undermines the apparent optimism of the text. Trumpets promise discord and warlike tumult even as Cyrano and Christian, the piece's rival tenors, embrace for the first time. When the two men promise brotherhood, the orchestra foretells disaster.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Fritz Wunderlich sings Schlager

The new two-disc collection of Fritz Wunderlich's popular output from the 1950s and '60s is an impressive achievement on several levels. Put out by Naxos in collaboration with Südwest Rundfunk, it's a testimonial to skilled archival work -- in Mainz, Stuttgart, and Freiburg -- and skilled technological remastering. The sound quality is excellent, and it's nice to have a record of several Unterhaltungsorchester. It is also, of course, a testimony to Wunderlich's versatility as an artist. In two ways, this collection is a document of what might have been. According to his daughter, quoted in the CD booklet, Wunderlich seriously considered embarking on a career as a popular singer; only a favorable audition outcome at a propitious moment secured him for the opera world. As this collection testifies, Wunderlich continued to record popular ballads with enthusiasm and skill. In its two hours -- and more! -- of high-quality recording, it is thus also a valuable document of a voice too little heard on the opera stage before Wunderlich's untimely death. 

I might characterize the songs as belonging to three categories: sentimental love songs, sentimental regional odes, and sentimental Mediterranean exoticism. They're pleasant to a fault. Both in the repertoire and in my reception of it, there are similarities to Jonas Kaufmann's recent excursion into Italian ballads. What Kaufmann sings as "Parlami d'amore, Mariù," Wunderlich sings as "Sprich zu mir von Liebe, Mariù," but in both cases, I was left wishing to hear the tenor in rarities of the Italian repertoire. Wunderlich's musicianship is never less than polished and generous. More than once, I was left whimpering with the desire to hear his Lohengrin. But the collection is worth listening to in its own right.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Mir Ist So Wunderbar: Fidelio at the Met

Happy families? Müller, Struckmann, Pieczonka in Act I
Photo (c) Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
It is well-documented that I love Fidelio. Inconsistently written and dramatically thin it may be, but it is also musically sublime, and its spare lines feel more plausible than many a fussier plot. I find its musical and dramatic structure -- moving from comedy to claustrophobia and back again -- compelling. And, not least, it can feel, psychologically, absolutely right, despite or through its melodrama. The musical and theatrical challenges of staging it, of course, are considerable, and the Met's current run satisfies the former better than the latter. The principals offered strong and emotionally nuanced singing. The production, however, balancing uneasily between artificiality and realism, appeared to lack a strong directorial hand governing the intense, complex, and potentially ambiguous relationships among the opera's characters. Crucially, the superb Met chorus was on excellent form, and the orchestra, under Sebastian Weigle, gave full honors to the gravitas of the score without letting it become ponderous.

Having seen Jürgen Flimm's 2000 production on DVD, I was frankly expecting to enjoy it more than I did. Some elements were both striking and effective: Rocco's tidy idyll of bourgeois domesticity existing opposite from and enabled by the cell block; the stack of prisoners' confiscated belongings consigned to the same subterranean space as Florestan. Also very poignant is the fact that when the 2nd Prisoner says "Wir sind belauscht mit Ohr und Blick!" he is referring to Fidelio's surveillance. But the crowded stage, and sometimes fussy stage business, too often works against emotional intimacy. Flimm's production seems to take the unfashionably sincere text about the power of love, etc., entirely at its word. (Parenthetically, why have I never seen an Old Hollywood production of Fidelio, using that instantly recognizable visual vocabulary of uncynical heroism? If anyone knows of one, please let me know in the comments.) A confusing exception was that Don Pizarro is beaten to death at the conclusion, albeit just off stage. If the bullying armies have merely passed from the command of one venal leader to another, what is the point? Intellectually, I don't mind a Fidelio production that reads against the text, and I enjoy abstract ones; but this moment of violence seemed inconsistent with the rest of the production. Moreover, I never felt that -- at least in this revival -- a stylistic balance between realism and theatricality was satisfactorily struck. Often, the characters declaim forthrightly to the audience their stifled passion, or their private fears, or their incandescent rage. In the case of Leonore especially, I felt that the ability to vent these dangerous feelings so easily, merely by facing the stage's fourth wall, rather undermined a sense of their explosive dramatic power.


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