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Up Close and Personal

(Oussama Zahr, Performances, New York City) Permanent link

Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb took the modest-sized stage at (Le) Poisson Rouge in the West Village on Friday, October 26, as the crowd settled in and started placing their drink orders. Referring to the program as "our downtown adventure," he added, to much audience laughter, "Our presence here tonight is not the result of our getting off at the wrong subway station."

While individual Met artists such as Danielle de Niese and Joseph Calleja have been booking LPR for one-off events, Friday night's concert reflected the Met's maiden voyage to the Bleecker Street cabaret bar. The evening's program — presented first at 6:30 PM, then repeated at 9 PM — was curated by composer Thomas Adès, whose opera The Tempest is currently playing at the Met, and who put together an hour's worth of Tempest-related material spanning three centuries of music. (A second event in the Met–LPR collaboration, this time an evening with composer Nico Muhly, is slated for May 14.)

As he explained his selections at the top of the program, Adès displayed a quiet magnetism. Right from the start, the intimate setting seemed to inspire a different kind of interaction between the artists and their audience: it felt warm, informal and personal. In a nice little bit of serendipity, Adès's program included five different settings by five different composers of Ariel's timeless verse "Full fathom five," from Act I of Shakespeare's play. 

Countertenor Iestyn Davies sang two of them, first Purcell's, in Adès's arrangement, and later in the program, Michael Tippett's. (Adès played piano all evening.) The piano accompaniment for the Purcell still possessed a Baroque stateliness, but Adès stripped away the formality of the original and forged a more direct emotional connection — at least by modern standards — to the words. Davies's sprite-like timbre was a lovely fit, but for Tippett's gorgeous, unabashedly tonal, just-sentimental-enough setting from 1962, I wanted something more soulful and tender from the vocalist. 

Kate Lindsey also received a pair of "Full fathom five" assignments. First, she braved Stravinsky's serialist setting from 1953, sitting alongside the flutist, clarinetist and violist as if she were just one more instrument in the quartet. Her delivery of Ives's "A Sea Dirge" was so devastated (and devastating), embodying the narrative voice so completely, that Adès could not suppress a smile from his seat at the piano. (Afterwards, my companion leaned over to me and said, "She's the Amanda Peet of opera. I'm completely obsessed with her.") 

Laure Meloy, who is covering the role of Ariel in The Tempest at the Met — which I saw the following night; my favorite evening at the opera so far this season — sang the version from Adès's opera. (The lyric was reworked as "Five fathoms deeps" by librettist Meredith Oakes, who couldn't help but keep most of Shakespeare's unforgettable language.) She delivered the high siren calls with much success though not without what seemed like fear. In such a small venue, with such a dry, unflattering acoustic, the mercilessness of Adès's sky-high vocal writing was all too apparent. 

But when you have a singer like Simon Keenlyside, there's no need to quibble about acoustics. His voice could probably reverberate in a vacuum. His ninety seconds onstage, singing Prospero's "Our revels are ended" from Adès's opera, were magnificent in every way. He somehow scaled his performance to the venue but didn't at all. He was big and impressive but connected to every person in the room, holding his hands up just so, keeping you in his grasp. All I can say is, to hear an artist of Keenlyside's stature booming from the stage not twenty feet away like some kind of secular, seductive operatic god is well worth the two-drink minimum. spacer 


Live and Well

(Oussama Zahr, Performances, Crossover, Keeping it Local) Permanent link

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Tori Amos at (Le) Poisson Rouge
Photo by Ebru Yildiz for NPR

Tori Amos — pop siren and dazzling keyboard technician — gave a special, one-night-only concert on Friday at New York’s (Le) Poisson Rouge. Over the past few years, classical musicians in search of the below-Fourteenth Street crowd have gravitated to this cabaret venue on Bleecker Street, so it makes sense that Amos, who has partnered with the Deutsche Grammophon label, would embrace the quirky venue for a chamber concert with string octet. Tickets were free and available exclusively through a lottery on LPR’s website, though I noted at least one lucky, ticket-less fan who waited out the line, which wrapped around the block, and gained standing-room admission.

Amos was promoting her latest album Gold Dust, a collection of greatest hits in newly orchestrated renditions, marking the twentieth anniversary of her breakout success with Little Earthquakes. For fans who grouse that the updating on Gold Dust is too subtle, that the new versions sound suspiciously similar to the old versions, this concert was a revelation. 

In the live show at (Le) Poisson Rouge, Amos’s interaction with the string players felt substantial and collaborative. The crescendos in “Cloud On My Tongue” were excitingly synchronized, and she sprinkled extra measures of music throughout the song, exposing the seams between verse/chorus, giving the piece a sense of expansiveness and showing off the instrumentalists. Even a fan-favorite like “Hey Jupiter” got the revisionist treatment: Amos deconstructed the song and put it back together, turning a teary, haunting ballad into an up-tempo cabaret number, with plucked strings and percussive keyboard effects. It sounded like a cross between Gotye and Kurt Weill. Going solo for some selections, Amos proved that she could turn a beautiful composition that had seemed too earthbound on record into a buoyant success — most notably “Taxi Ride,” her tribute to makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin, who died in 2002. 

Of course, Amos’s prowess in a live setting is well documented. Rolling Stone acknowledged her undeniable onstage allure in 2003, placing her at No. 5 in its list of the “20 Greatest Live Bands” and branding her “a one-woman wrecking crew.” With the industry-wide decline of CD sales, Amos is one artist who has benefited from the increased importance of concerts and tours in bolstering a recording artist’s profile. Luckily, NPR Music sponsored and broadcast the LPR concert, and it is now available in streaming fashion in their online archivesspacer 

The Classics Laid Bare

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

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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 


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 


Elina Garanča’s Body Language

(Observations, Oussama Zahr, Performances) Permanent link

Some of the Met's revivals this season have been somewhat dispiriting for audiences and critics, so I am particularly grateful for Elina Garanča. Her interpretation of the Gypsy in Richard Eyre's production of Carmen, which I saw again last Tuesday night, has only improved with further outings. She has been criticized for "under-acting," but I find her calculating, fatalistic Carmen gripping. Garanča is at her best in Act IV: I have never seen a Carmen who physicalizes the final confrontation so breathtakingly. The way she works the train on her dress, whipping it through the rose petals strewn for the toreadors or collapsing into it when Don José tackles her to the ground — it’s an achievement in itself. spacer

Patricia Racette’s It Gets Better Video

(Observations, Oussama Zahr, Advice, It Gets Better) Permanent link

Soprano Patricia Racette, who appears this month and next in Il Trovatore at the Met, has contributed a video to the It Gets Better Project, which was launched in response to the rash of gay teen suicides that have appeared in the news.

In the video, Racette and her partner, mezzo Beth Clayton, speak touchingly about the personal significance of Racette's "coming out" cover story in OPERA NEWS in 2002.

The video is available on the Metropolitan Opera's YouTube channel. spacer 


Elina Garanča's New Music Video

(Recordings, Observations, Oussama Zahr, Crossover) Permanent link

Reports of the death of the music video, much like that of print media, are greatly exaggerated. Lady Gaga proved as much earlier this month at the MTV Video Music Awards, where she nabbed eight "moonmen" (MTV’s equivalent to the Oscar statuette) in recognition of her revitalization of the genre.

Classical-music marketers never met a pop trend they didn't like, so Deutsche Grammophon gives us "El Vito," a music video of mezzo-soprano Elina Garanča singing Obradors' song in support of her latest album, Habanera.

The video seems singularly designed to convince us that Garanča is a sexy minx in her role as a hard, bewitching, capricious Gypsy — but is that enough of a concept to sustain its three-and-a-half minutes? Music videos were created to visualize pop music, and over the past thirty years, the style of their presentation has evolved in tandem with the style of that particular genre. Does Garanča's video embrace the idea of a cinematography of classical music? No. Could one be created? Maybe. spacer 


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