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The Distancing Effect

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Listening) Permanent link

When the 2012 Grammy Award nominations were announced recently, Ian Bostridge's name was prominent on the list — in the category of Best Classical Vocal Solo, for his EMI CD Three Baroque Tenors. It's Bostridge's twelfth Grammy nomination, and he's won twice before — a remarkable achievement for an artist who spends most of his artistic life quite outside the classical-music mainstream.

I heard Bostridge most recently on November 28, when he appeared in recital at Carnegie Hall accompanied at the piano by composer Thomas Adès. It was a strange — also strangely memorable — evening that I'm still puzzling over to some extent. Bostridge has always spiked his recitals with peculiar poses and lurches about the stage that often make it difficult to determine exactly what his specific motivation might be. He did so again at the Carnegie Hall performance, and he was matched moment by moment by Adès, who attacked the keyboard almost ferociously at times, punching out individual notes rather than sculpting phrases. One odd detail about Adès's playing: he often picked up one hand from the keyboard and stared at it momentarily, as if he was surprised that it had shown up for the performance. The overall effect was that the music sometimes seemed pulled instead of merely allowed to take shape. This unnerved me most of all during their performance of Schumann's Dichterliebe which has to go down as one of the most eccentric performances of this cycle I've ever heard. The entire recital was built around the theme of loss and personal isolation, so many of their choices made sense dramatically. Yet underneath it all, I had a strong feeling — which I'm encountering in performance more and more these days — that the artists onstage weren't particularly interested in bringing the audience into the experience of portraying alienation. For me, the high point was Dowland's magnificent "In Darkness Let Me Dwell." I couldn't help but wish that more of the recital had managed to be so chillingly desolate and illuminating at the same time. spacer 


Director's Cut

(News, Observations, Brian Kellow, Arts Journalism, New York City Opera) Permanent link

It's refreshing that New York City Opera has been leading arts coverage recently. I only wish it were for different reasons. At a press conference on July 12, NYCO's artistic and general director George Steel said, in response to a question from The New York Times's Daniel Wakin, that the company had no plans to dispense with the services of music director George Manahan. Members of the press corps who are inclined toward skepticism may have noted that Steel seemed peculiarly vague about how many months Manahan had to run on his contract. 

Only three weeks later, the company announced that the position of music director was being eliminated. I have commented in other sections of OPERA NEWS on Steel's lack of candor in certain areas, and I'd prefer not to return to the subject here. What troubles me is this: what kind of future does NYCO have without a music director in place? One very important thing that music directors do is to block ham-handed artistic decisions from being put into play. If music directors are any good, they examine the artistic health and future of the opera company as a whole entity. (Obviously, guest conductors don't necessarily bring this concern to the table; often, they are focused on maximizing their isolated appearances at the opera houses, their eye very much on their own future.) An opera-house orchestra usually absorbs — for better or worse — the artistic personality of its music director. Without a single person at the helm, an orchestra runs the risk of sounding like a pack of musicians on a freelance gig. If all this isn't a compelling argument for the existence of a music director, what about this one (since money seems to dominate conversation in the opera world these days)? Music directors come armed with their own network of major donors. I know that New York City Opera is dealing with punishing financial realities, and I feel for the company. But for Steel and the board to treat this central position as if it were a mere vestige seems more than foolhardy. It seems maddeningly self-defeating. spacer


Listen to the Music

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Listening, Criticism, Keeping it Local, New York City) Permanent link
Have you noticed that so many conversations in the world of opera now focus on one general area — audience outreach and product access? Whenever I speak with opera-company directors, in particular, they say surprisingly little about the quality of what is being put onstage; instead, they mostly want to talk about how they will continue, in these challenging times, to put bodies in the seats. More to the point, they want to discuss how they will continue to put young bodies in the seats. Recently, I was on the phone with an executive at a major West Coast opera company. I wanted to ask her about the company's programming thrust for the coming season. Before I knew it, she was performing a lengthy commercial for her efforts to involve all of the local comic-book artists in the opera scene, and how such initiatives were vital to bringing in the opera newbies. By the time I hung up, exhausted, I had forgotten why I'd called her in the first place.

I support this push for new audiences in opera, but I think I may be coming at it from a slightly different angle. Implicit in all of the arguments about the need to lower the median age is the suggestion that all of those older people currently filing into the theater are engaged, tuned in, fully responsive to what's happening onstage — and that it's crucial to get younger audiences to function in the same way.

I would hope we could get the new audiences, wherever they may come from, to do much better than that. I do not believe for one second that most of the senior citizens I often find myself surrounded by in New York really have a profound connection to the music that the younger generations will have trouble matching. I think many older people, in New York especially, were brought up with the idea that attending live performances was crucial to being culturally well-rounded. They may be paying to fill the seats, all right. But I’m not sure they're filling them in a meaningful way. 

One recent example, among many: in mid-June, I attended a concert of the New York Philharmonic, with Ludovic Morlot conducting. On the first half, the orchestra played the lovely Prelude to Khovanshchina, followed by William Walton's Violin Concerto, impressively performed by the wonderful Gil Shaham. The woman in front of me dozed off as soon as the Mussorgsky began. The man next to her waited until the Walton to start bagging his Zs, and he came to only when the audience broke into sustained applause at the end of the entire concerto. Behind me, a man wrestled with his hearing device, pitched at air-raid level. My favorite, though, was the lady to my left, who, before the music started, bitched endlessly at her husband about the jacket he was wearing. Later, she wondered aloud why it took so long to rearrange the stage for the Walton. Throughout the first half, she restlessly leafed through her large-print program notes without once looking up at the stage. In the middle of the concerto's exciting final movement, she said, to no one in particular, "You’d at least think the program could mention that Gil Shaham comes from Israel." What could any of these people really have taken away from the evening other than a hefty Visa bill for dinner and a parking garage?

As a journalist, I prize evenings such as this. It’s wonderful to be able to look around and eavesdrop on the people sitting near you, because you can learn a great deal about where we’re heading culturally. But my greatest hope for the succeeding generations of ticket holders is that they'll be more tuned in than those who came before them. spacer 


The Classics Laid Bare

(Observations, Oussama Zahr, Performances, Keeping it Local, New York City, Theater) Permanent link

Blogs Jacobi 1 511
Derek Jacobi as Lear in Michael Grandage's production, currently at BAM
© Johan Persson

Perhaps the best way to preview Michael Grandage's new production of Don Giovanni, due at the Met this fall, is to see his staging of King Lear, playing at BAM until June 5. The works have some things in common — the necessity of vivid, meaningful ensemble work; a descent into wildness as night falls halfway through the show; and a seminal place in each artist's oeuvre in competition with a sometimes more widely esteemed work (Le Nozze di Figaro, Hamlet). Of course, both protagonists spend a good deal of time with their shirts unbuttoned, too, though for admittedly different reasons.

Don Giovanni and King Lear share a common pitfall, too: they can both fall victim to pageantry. Grandage strips the stage naked for his Lear, leaving rows of planks upon which the action unfolds. The play benefits from quick, seamless transitions between scenes, thanks to the unit set, which puts a burning emphasis on the interaction between characters.

But that doesn't necessarily mean the Don Giovanni will go without eye-popping designs. The Donmar Warehouse, where Grandage is artistic director, has shown another way to humanize a classical work. For its sizzling Broadway production of Mary Stuart from 2009, the battling queens were sumptuously attired in period fashions — a visual feast against a spare background that threw into relief both the costumes and Schiller's ornate language.

Either way, if Grandage brings this kind of depth and humanity to Mozart, Met-goers are in for a real treat. spacer 


National Pride

(Observations, Louise Guinther, New York City) Permanent link
Once upon a time, long before the Berlusconi era, when Italians still deeply valued their national culture, they did their utmost to preserve, invest in and honor their heritage, not only at home but abroad, exporting their pride in the legacy of the greatest artists of their native land wherever they went. In New York, when Italian immigrants began flooding in during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, this devotion took the form of a series of statues funded by popular subscription (organized by the editor of the newspaper Il Progresso Italo-Americano) and erected around the city in tribute to significant figures in Italian history.

The statue of Christopher Columbus that towers over Columbus Circle is well known, but I suspect fewer residents and visitors to the Big Apple realize that just a few blocks north of there, the composer who towered over the opera scene in Italy for most of the nineteenth century is honored with a statue of his own. It stands in a triangular island, on Broadway between 72nd and 73rd Streets, known as Verdi Square. 

I had been vaguely aware of the presence of the statue since its restoration in 1996, but I hadn't paid close attention until yesterday, when the afternoon sunshine of a perfect spring day, glinting off the figure of Verdi, caught my attention from across the Great White Way. Wandering over to take a look at my favorite composer rising up out of his bed of tulips, I noticed for the first time the four figures surrounding the lower part of the monument. I recognized only one of them right off, but it was clear that they were all characters from the operas, and a helpful sign on the wrought-iron fence confirmed my guesses about the other three. (You can find that information on the Parks Dept. website as well.) With the warm weather having finally arrived and the Met season still going, I highly recommend that any Metgoers who have a few minutes to kill before a performance take a walk up to Verdi Square and see for themselves.

Meanwhile, I leave you with the following description of the dedication of Verdi's statue back in 1906, from the aforementioned website:

"The sculptures were unveiled by Barsotti's grandchild, who pulled a string that released a helium balloon, lifting the monument's red, white and green shroud (the colors of the Italian flag). As it peeled away, a dozen doves — concealed in its folds — were released into the air, and flowers cascaded from the veil upon the participants." 

Oh to have been a New Yorker in the good old days! spacer 


A Workday at the Opera

(Observations, Louise Guinther, Cinema) Permanent link
In the course of researching an article for OPERA NEWS, I was obliged to spend part of a recent workday watching excerpts from the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera on YouTube. (And before you ask, the answer is no — I would not care to switch jobs with you, or anyone else in the world.)
In sending a link to the big opera-house scene to a colleague, I started to write "Here's Il Trovatore as you'll never see it anywhere else" — but it suddenly dawned on me that the way things are headed in the opera world, the indignities heaped on Verdi's masterwork in that movie by Groucho, Harpo and friends are as nothing compared with some of the purportedly serious attempts of modern régisseurs to "rethink" beloved repertory staples. Why not a railway station, a fruit cart or a battleship as a fresher and more novel backdrop to the plot than the old-fashioned idea of a Gypsy camp? Why not interpolate "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" into the overture, as a more currently recognizable and "relevant" indication of the kind of nationalist fervor the works of Verdi evoked in their time?
Like the old radio team Bob & Ray, who predicted the future with their then-absurdist commercials for the post office, perhaps the Marx Brothers weren't poking fun at opera at all: perhaps they were just ahead of their time. spacer 


Memory Play

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances) Permanent link

The Queen of Spades is one of my favorite operas, and I was very happy to attend the Met's revival of its Elijah Moshinsky production on March 15. But one thing kept nagging at me throughout the performance: why cast Dolora Zajick as the old Countess? I think this was a blunder, for reasons that don't have to do with Zajick's abilities. She certainly sang the role well — particularly in the second act, when the Countess recalls a few lines from Grétry's Richard Coeur de Lion. But Zajick is still in excellent vocal shape, still performing leading mezzo roles — she is still very much a force to be reckoned with on the international stage.

I think this is key to the casting of the Countess: as Mark Thomas Ketterson touches on in his "Coda" in the March issue of OPERA NEWS, the audience's memories of the star singing the role should bring with her a certain gravitas, an emotional connection from the past that matches up with the Countess's own sad, backward glance. We need to be aware that it is really is an older woman up there — not a healthy, vibrant woman in her mid-fifties. It's what gives the role its real punch: our feelings about the aging singer and what she gave us over her long career play into the performance itself. I'm reminded of Elaine Stritch's observation that women in their forties and fifties have no business singing Stephen Sondheim's "I'm Still Here."

My choice for the Countess would have been Renata Scotto: she has more magnetic glamour than ever, and even though she's seventy-seven, I'll bet she could have sung the role superbly. Any other suggestions? spacer 


Vintage Domingo

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther) Permanent link
Watching Plácido Domingo as Oreste on the recent opening night of Iphigénie en Tauride at the Met (Feb. 12), I could not help wondering whether the opera world will ever again have a superstar so utterly dedicated to serving the music at hand as it has in its current “grand old man.”

In late-career, Domingo has wisely relinquished most of the familiar roles with which he was closely associated in his prime and sought out lesser known areas of the repertoire that don’t tax his vocal resources but do give him scope to display his undiminished gifts for shaping expressive phrases, coloring his sound and pouring himself into a role with unstinting passion and intensity. 
Oreste is by no means a show-off role, musically or dramatically: there are no prolonged high notes, no long, lyrical melodies to spin, and the character, mired in the agony of his unhappy destiny, has no moments to display the sort of crowd-pleasing romantic heroism that has been Domingo’s trademark. Even when the focus is on him, this is a character living so much inside himself that it would be working against the dramatic current for the performer to do anything flashy to grab the spotlight. Yet there is a depth to Domingo’s portrayal, an artistic honesty and integrity, a complete absorption in the Gluckian ethos and a willingness to be a true ensemble member — in some ways even a supporting player — that places his performance, for me, on the same pedestal as some of his greatest mid-career assumptions. To watch him, in the final pantomime, respond to Susan Graham’s Iphigénie as the conflicted princess alternately repulses, pummels and embraces him; to see how he flinches, waits, yearns, despairs and ultimately freezes, suspended in time at the instant of her yielding, before folding her in his arms with wondrous tenderness — all this without ever distracting from her performance — is to understand what a stage partner is meant to be.
I was struck, at the end of the very well received opening, by the somewhat reserved response to Domingo at the curtain call. One might expect an artist of his calibur and his long and illustrious history in the house to be greeted with the operatic equivalent of rock-star hysteria whenever he appears, but here, while he received warm applause, there was no outpouring of mass gratitude and reverence such as have greeted other iconic performers toward the end of their careers. One almost got the sense that Domingo’s very seriousness of approach somehow heads off such demonstrations. Or perhaps the reserve of the reformer Gluck tends to rub off on his fans. But I find myself hoping it was merely an aberration, as I, for one, would like to see this great master given his full due. spacer 


Personal Best

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Listening) Permanent link

It's been a season of great losses in the opera world, the most recent one being Margaret Price, who died of heart failure on January 28 at her home in Wales. She was only sixty-nine. Why does her relatively early passing make me so sad? Maybe it's because her career never quite seemed to reach the heights that many of us thought it should. I don't mean to suggest that Price was underrated, certainly not by anyone who ever heard her live — at least not by anybody I knew. But she never maintained a highly aggressive approach to her career, and her appearances in the U.S. were relatively rare. She always left us wanting more.

I was there for her Met debut in 1985, as Desdemona. The company was chastised for not having her sooner; after all, she had made her professional debut twenty-three years earlier, as Cherubino at Welsh National Opera. Belated or not, her Desdemona was widely discussed as one of the most important Met debuts in years — another being Jessye Norman in Les Troyens in 1983. Price gave a superb performance. The sound she poured out was ample yet with an exquisite fragility and femininity. She was all we could ask of a Desdemona, and even though she loomed large onstage physically as well as vocally, I don't remember anyone I knew saying a word about her size. Her degree of vocal artistry made it seem crass even to suggest that she was too hefty to be "convincing." 

She returned to the Met in 1989 as Elisabetta in Don Carlo. This is the performance of hers I will always carry with me. She was a study in torment as she sang "Tu che le vanità," her ravishing voice filling the house. In the years that followed, I remember thinking it was odd that this performance wasn't commented on more feverishly when people I knew were recalling great performances. Perhaps this was simply her own shyness and reticence coming through to the rest of us. Perhaps we perceived somehow that she didn't want us to demand too much of her: she just wanted us to listen and leave her alone. spacer 


That Old Puccini Magic

(Observations, Performances, Louise Guinther, Cinema, Listening, Soundtracks) Permanent link

The other night, I attended a performance of La Bohème at the Met in the iconic Franco Zeffirelli production. For one of my companions, it was the very first time; for me, it is a familiar ritual by now — I think I must have seen this show a dozen times at least. It's always interesting to watch how differently the Bohemians play the comic shenanigans in Act I, and what new bits of shtick come and go over the years, depending on the artists' personalities and the amount of rehearsal time accorded to the production in a given year. It's also fun to feel the thrill of the newbies in the audience when the curtain opens on those amazing sets, which still draw bursts of applause and sighs of wonderment every night. (One amusing side note: the recent multiple blizzards in New York seemed to have dampened appreciation for the beautiful Act III snow scene outside the tavern, which was greeted with silence last week for the first time in my experience, though Acts I and III elicited as many gasps as ever.)

Over the years I have discovered something about this opera: no matter the variations — even with the occasional subpar exponents in the leading roles, lackluster conducting or staging miscues — the final moments never fail to make their effect. I mean NEVER. Of course, the Zeffirelli touch helps, as does the generally superlative level of casting at the Met, but they are really icing on the cake. Even on a bad day, when my mind is elsewhere, those last pages of the score invariably move me to tears. 

This phenomenon is born out strikingly by a perfectly dreadful old movie called Mimi, based on Scènes de la Vie de Bohème. Its plot is only loosely connected to that of the opera, and despite a starry cast led by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as Rodolphe and Gertrude Lawrence in the title role, the characters here emerge as singularly self-centered, dippy and unsympathetic, so that by the time poor Mimi lies on the brink of death, one is ready to roll one's eyes and say, "Not a moment too soon" — until, somewhere in the background, rise the strains of that final scene from Puccini's score. For a brief second, I caught myself thinking cynically what an injustice is was to the composer to drag him into this mess of a film at the eleventh hour, but in the next moment, my face was streaming with tears. It didn't make the movie any better, but it certainly provided testimony to the extraordinary, enduring and instantaneous power of this masterly few measures of music. spacer 


Renée Fleming at Carnegie Hall

(Observations, Oussama Zahr, Performances) Permanent link

On Tuesday evening at Carnegie Hall, at the end of a lovely program of music from fin de siècle Vienna, Renée Fleming thanked her audience for coming out despite the threat of a snowstorm. "I was afraid no one would come," she said, which prompted loud expressions of disbelief, at least from the narcoleptic man in my row. To prove her appreciation, she offered a wish list of encores, including Strauss's "Zeiugnung" and a devastatingly beautiful account of Marietta's lied from Korngold's Die Tote Stadt, complete with effortlessly floated pianissimos. (When she announced the latter, reverential "oh!"s and sighs swept like a wave across the audience.) After a spirited if awkward go at Bernstein's "I Feel Pretty," Fleming sent everyone home with all best wishes for better weather tomorrow, singing Strauss's "Morgen!"

Check out the clip below of Fleming singing Marietta's lied from a 2006 Moscow concert. spacer 


Keeping Quiet

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Leonard Bernstein) Permanent link

It's the midway point of New York's opera season, and the other day, while I was crossing Lincoln Center Plaza, I suddenly realized something: of all the staged productions I've attended since September, only one has really made any impression on me — New York City Opera's new Christopher Alden production of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Wadsworth's A Quiet Place

This was the first time I'd heard the opera onstage; I had become interested in it, years ago, on the basis of the 1986 Deutsche Grammophon recording. Back then, I thought it was a fascinating mess. I still think so. Parts of Wadsworth's libretto — particularly parts of the ending — are painful, like undigested thoughts and memories thrown out randomly in a therapy session. I can understand why my companion denounced the whole thing as "dreck." And I don't think that it quite works to integrate Trouble in Tahiti into the middle of the work. I grasp the idea of a simpler time versus a more complex one, but it seems to me that Trouble in Tahiti simply interrupts the spell cast by Act I of A Quiet Place and reminds us that it has better tunes than the later work. 

And yet — the damned thing moved me even more than it did when I first listened to the recording all those years ago. Bernstein contributed some wonderful writing to A Quiet Place — the warring eighth and sixteenth notes of the strings do a marvelous job of conveying Sam's tormented state of mind, and I love the oddball harmonies of the trio "Dear Daddy" and the prelude to the final act. I think Bernstein and Wadsworth must have felt a mutual need to create a tribute to the American family in all its inarticulate glory. A Quiet Place is no well-made musical play: it's much closer to a Robert Altman movie, showing the way real families function — we miss each other's points, say the opposite of what we mean, don't notice when people are reaching out to us. At the time of its unveiling, The New Yorker's Andrew Porter was one of the few critics who understood this. 

I think A Quiet Place means even more to me now because it's really about something we can all understand. It isn't a dry literary transcription of a book we were forced to read in high school or college. It's a real, American, contemporary story — something that's always a rarity on the opera stage. Perhaps if it had been more successful originally, its example might have led to more of the same. Perhaps not: it's amazing how insistently the world has ignored the example set by Bernstein, in so many ways.

I don't know what Stephen Wadsworth thought about this production. He's a fine stage director himself, so I'm sure he had strong opinions about it. I couldn't help thinking, however, that Alden had made an excellent case for the piece. I gasped when the lights came up on Andrew Lieberman's funeral home set at the beginning: everything looked exactly how it should have looked, to the degree that I was deeply uncomfortable.

It's probably too much to expect an NYCO revival anytime soon, but kudos to the company for having taken a chance on it at least once. spacer 


Found Opera

(Observations, Louise Guinther, Crossover, Television) Permanent link

From the moment I first won gainful employment at OPERA NEWS, I have regularly faced those uncomfortable cocktail-party moments when some new acquaintance, learning how I earn my living, says with wrinkled nose, “And do you actually like opera?” Now, I know we don’t all have the luxury of choosing a congenial career, and I freely confess that as a college grad desperate for a job, I once interviewed for a newsletter called “Garbage Collector Weekly,” eager to get my foot in the publishing door any way I could. But it’s hard to imagine a consenting adult spending nearly a quarter-century at the same magazine if its subject did not genuinely appeal.

Those conversations are always a rude reminder that opera, though thriving in many respects, is still not exactly a mainstream entertainment. So it always pleases me when I run into it in unexpected places. The most recent such encounter was in a re-run of the Inspector Lewis series on PBS’s Masterpiece Mystery. Back in the days of Lewis’s erudite predecessor, Inspector Morse, it used to be a fair bet that the culturally savvy protagonist’s elitist pursuits would periodically lead to some reference to the lyric art — perhaps even with some actual music thrown in. But with Morse replaced by his erstwhile sidekick, the distinctly working-class Inspector Lewis, the opportunity for operatic enlightenment seemed to have passed, so I was surprised to find Wagner at the center of a recent episode.

With the murder victim an Oxonian Wagner expert, connected obliquely to a Stasi informer with the code name Siegfried, the master of Bayreuth had a prominent role in the plot, but the fun part for me came toward the end, when Lewis — partly in a nostalgic tribute to his old boss, partly as a way of trying to understand the dark forces at play in the case — put on a Ring recording and sat down to listen. It wasn’t a long excerpt; Lewis’s operatically challenged partner arrived all too soon to pre-empt it with some modern musical drivel of his own. Still, it pleased me to think there might be mystery fans out there in TV-land with no previous experience of the Ring who might be sufficiently drawn in by the intriguing plot references and the brief snippets of that glorious, sweeping score, to find their way to Youtube for a second helping. And from there … who knows? spacer 


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