Maestro James Levine has canceled his conducting assignments at the Metropolitan Opera for the remainder of this season and next. Fabio Luisi will conduct the cycles of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen this coming April and May, except for two performances of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung on May 9 and May 12, 2012.
James Levine had injured his back after a fall last week, and underwent emergency surgery. He has withdrawn from his performances at the Metropolitan Opera for the rest of the year. Fabio Luisi (pictured left, photograph by Barbara Luisi) has been named the Met's Principal Conductor and will conduct the first five performances of Don Giovanni on October 13, 17, 22, 25, and 29 matinee, and Siegfried on October 27 and November 5 matinee. Louis Langrée will conduct the last four performances of Don Giovanni on October 31, November 3, 7, and 11. Derrick Inouye will conduct Siegfried on November 1.
Whilst the Opera Tattler attended a performance of Séance on a Wet Afternoon at the David H. Koch Theater on April 28, 2011, Miss LCU was nearby at Lepage's new production of Die Walküre (Act III pictured left, © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera) with the Unbiased Opinionator.
* Notes *
Of late, James Levine gets credit for simply showing up on the podium. The audience is so thrilled to see the ailing maestro that it seems he can do no wrong. However, I was not terribly impressed with the orchestra for the second performance of this latest Walküre. For one thing, the prelude was especially lackluster and rhythmically bridled. It was as if the orchestra was playing in exact unison to the measured beat of a metronome. There was a paucity of energy and agitato one would expect from music meant to represent a man who is frantically running from his pursuers in a storm. Thankfully things improved as the evening progressed.
As Brünnhilde, Deborah Voigt hit most of her notes and did not struggle with pitch. While she gave a very youthful, sassy portrayal of the valiant Valkyrie, her voice lacked nuance. She was generally at one dynamic level and yelped the high Bs and Cs when singing the word "Hojotoho." It sounded like she had hiccups and looking at the score, the composer did not intend for those octave leaps to end in clipped staccato. Voigt's interaction with Bryn Terfel as Wotan worked well. The two succeeded in establishing their close rapport and fondness for one another in Act II, making the heartbreak of their farewell at the end all the more devastating.
Terfel's Wotan was multifaceted and robust, even until the very end. He clearly did a fine job pacing himself. As Siegmund, Jonas Kaufmann was both convincing and lyrical. His voice carried effortlessly and his "Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnermond" consisted of one glorious legato line after another.
In contrast, Eva-Maria Westbroek (Sieglinde) gave a somewhat disappointing performance and the strain in her voice was evident as she fought through her last phrases in beginning of Act III, which are among the most beautiful lines of music in the opera. She did have cold on opening night, so perhaps she was still on the mend.
The highlight of the evening was, surprisingly, Stephanie Blythe's portrayal of Fricka. For the first time, I saw Fricka as something other than a vindictive, nagging shrew. I was reminded that she is a woman in pain, someone who has been deeply hurt by Wotan's transgressions. Blythe opens up her character's vulnerabilities to the audience, suggesting that perhaps she, too, deserves a bit of our sympathy. In order to uphold the Law, she demands punishment and justice, but we often mistake her for someone who is solely out to seek revenge.
Wagner was deeply influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer who was known for his pessimistic view of the human condition and his philosophy of the "Will," a concept so important that Wagner felt it was necessary to use Brünnhilde to personify Wotan's Will as a separate entity apart from himself. Schopenhauer also makes a clear distinction between punishment (to prevent future violations of the law) and revenge (motivated by reconciling past wrongdoings with the pure intent to harm and no constructive impact on the future).
Perhaps Fricka is after revenge and cunningly disguises it as punishment. Wagner leaves just enough ambiguity in his score to make us wonder. The true thrill of this particular production was not delivered by Lepage's ostentatious morphing planks, but with subtlety through Blythe's artistry and empathy for her character.
Regietheater seems to operate on the notion that in order for us to make old works exciting and relevant to the younger generations, we must to rely on shock value. The beauty of Wagner's work lies within the inconspicuous moments that expose human frailty and intimacy. Directors may consider paying more attention to the small details hidden in the score rather than embellishing the composers work with obscenely grand spectacles that are neither necessary nor relevant.
* Notes *
Don Pasquale had its 133rd performance at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday night. From what I could see at Score Desk 2, the sets and costumes, designed by Rolf Langenfass, were entirely traditional. One can only imagine Otto Schenk's 2006 production was likewise.
The orchestra sounded lucid under James Levine. The trumpet solo at the beginning of Act II was especially fine. The chorus was also fine. Anna Netrebko, while not possessing a particularly apt voice for bel canto, otherwise acquitted herself in the role of Norina convincingly. Her voice remains robust and dark, her gasps rather audible. Matthew Polenzani sounded sweet and disarmingly vulnerable as Ernesto.
Mariusz Kwiecien (Malatesta) started off with a slight wooliness, but sounded strong otherwise. His acting skills were apparent through his voice. In the title role, John Del Carlo was similarly shaky at first, but again, his consummate acting came through vocally. The Act III duet, "Cheti, cheti, immatinente," was particularly charming, and we were even favored with an encore of this as the finale scene was set.
* Tattling *
Though I did not receive my score desk ticket in the mail as I expected, the Met Opera Guild's Community Programs Fellow made sure it was waiting for me at the box office. During the performance itself, a family of three seemed completely confused about where they were sitting in the Family Circle. In any case, they were not together, and felt fit to wander over to one another and speak aloud as the performance occurred. Mercifully, they went elsewhere after the intermission.
Maestro James Levine will undergo immediate surgery for a herniated spinal disc. The procedure necessitates withdrawing from his scheduled performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on September 29, October 1, and October 3. He has also canceled his October 6 and 10 performances of Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera.
* Notes *
Saturday's performance of Götterdämmerung ended the second Ring cycle this season at the Met. The orchestra was consistent, immaculate for the most part, though with some sour notes in the brass. The singing was all at a high level. The opening Norn scene was striking, each voice differentiated from another, and each beautiful. Christian Franz (Siegfried), sounded a bit better than in the previous opera. Though strained, he did create a light, pretty sound just before he drank the love potion, and with the Rheintöchter. Katarina Dalayman's Brünnhilde was appealingly warm and human. She struggled less here than in her initial appearance in Die Walküre, and her sound was creamy and rich. John Tomlinson was authoritative as Hagen, though a bit thin in some of his higher notes, but in general his voice had both heft and resonance. The chorus sounded together and very strong.
The set was actually visible for most of the evening, and even the costumes were not entirely grey or brown, so they contrasted with the stage. Again, the choreography consisted of a great deal of pacing, though Brünnhilde did point dramatically and threw things. The set changes were loud, and were clearly audible because the music in between scenes was rather soft. However, the overall effect was good, the kitschiness of the production does not get in the way of the music, and the admirable musical values carry the performance.
* Tattling *
Many watch alarms were heard, and there was a particularly annoying one during an important rest. One watch alarm rang nearly a dozen times.
There was much aggressive hushing during the first overture, which happened again at the end of the opera, as the audience applauded before the music was done. This is undoubtedly prompted by how the curtain is lowered, several seconds before the orchestra stops playing.
* Notes *
The performance of Siegfried at the Met yesterday evening was a mixed bag. The orchestra sounded lovely, despite some roughness in the brass. The playing was deft and rich. The singing, however, left much to be desired. Siegfried himself, Christian Franz, had a rather frail sound. He had some pretty, warm moments, but he seemed to gasp quiet a bit. He was overwhelmed by the orchestra in Act III, though occasionally some of his shrieking carried over the pit. His percussion was rather good though. Linda Watson was fair as Brünnhilde, her vibrato wide, but her lower range is pleasing. Wendy White was engaging as Erda, without any trace of harshness. Robert Brubaker and Tom Fox sounded fine as Mime and Alberich, and Albert Dohmen rounded out the cast as the Wanderer.
The staging was particularly absurd this evening. For one thing, Siegfried gives Mime a high five, and all of the former's buffoonish, crude nature is heightened in this production. Mime and Alberich skipped, their giddiness and glee was palpable. The set and costumes continue to lack contrast, the characters do not look distinctive at all. The dragon was difficult to make out from the Family Circle, and he seemed to be underwater from the way he was lit. Though the transitional lighting between scenes in the last act was actually clever, one did feel that the scene was different, though the set was not switched out.
* Tattling *
A cellular phone rang at the beginning of the opera, and another one vibrated on two separate occasions during this act. As poor Franz cracked and wheezed though the second scene of Act III, half a dozen watch alarms went off in the course of 10 minutes. Apparently it was around 11pm.
Talking and whispering continued, though not to the extent of Das Rheingold. The couple next to us in standing room were roundly hushed, and they did remain mostly quiet after that. There was quite a lot of laughing as well, from everyone, it seemed. The titles must have been funny, and the staging certainly was.
* Notes *
Last night's performance of Die Walküre at the Met was more impressive than Das Rheingold. For the most part, the orchestra continued playing rather cleanly, though there was noticeable trumpet error in Act I. The singing in this act was especially strong. René Pape sounded very different as Hunding than as Fasolt the previous night. Adrianne Pieczonka sang Sieglinde with great beauty, she has a big voice with a controlled vibrato. Her German is clear, especially in contrast to Plácido Domingo's mumbling. Diction aside, Domingo was incredible as Siegmund, very heroic, with lovely high notes and fine volume. The rest of the cast sounded hale as well. Albert Dohmen was distinguished himself by singing his farewell to Brünnhilde quite exquisitely. Yvonne Naef was strident as Fricka, though this is appropriate to the role. As for the Valkyries themselves, they were a disparate bunch, some voices were quite pretty, others rather shrill, and they did not always blend perfectly when singing together. Katarina Dalayman is promising as Brünnhilde, her low notes are warm and pleasant.
The stage was dark for much of the opera, at least from the Family Circle. As a result, it was difficult to discern what exactly was going on, though the characters did pace about the stage quite a bit.
* Tattling *
One of the Walküren did a face-plant during Act III. This provoked some gasps and titters.
There were two watch alarms at 7pm, and a telephone rang during Act III. Standing room was tight during Act II, and I simply stopped looking at the stage during that act, since it was not of much interest anyway. I noted much whispering from the people next to us, which continued during the singing, and was still audible after they found seats during Act III. The rest of the audience was fairly quiet.
After the first intermission, one of my companions overheard someone say "I either have to go home or die quickly." I hope the person in question got home safely.
* Notes *
The second cycle of the Met's Der Ring des Nibelungen began yesterday night. The orchestra sounded very clean and restrained under James Levine. The tempi were often rather slow. All of the singing was solid, though not terribly exciting. As Wotan, Albert Dohmen did well, though his voice was a bit thin at times. Yvonne Naef had some very lovely, pleading moments as Fricka. Wendy Bryn Harmer (Freia) had some shrillness, as did the Rheintöchter. Richard Paul Fink (Alberich) gave a particularly convincing performance, he was brutish, and his singing in Scene 4 was heartrending. Dennis Petersen failed to steal the show as Loge, as can happen in this opera, but did not sing poorly. The giants were grand, their voices are distinct, René Pape (Fasolt) was sweet, John Tomlinson (Fafner) was mean, and all was as it should be, one supposes. Wendy White's Erda was most moving, though she was a bit shaky at first, she sang her words of warning with much authority.
The Otto Schenk production is amusingly campy, though I imagine that this was not the intent. Though servicable, the rock formations of the set look especially dated. One does appreciate how quickly the sets are changed, and without all the banging and such that we hear at some other opera houses. The staging itself was occasionally hilarious, from Freia's fey bouncing back and forth across the stage to Alberich's transformations in Scene 3. Fasolt's death did not have the appropriate gravitas, having Fafner throw him off stage, and then attack him with a walking stick/scepter was somehow ridiculous.
* Tattling *
The performance began 10 minutes late, and the line to get in the house was enormous. Certain people in the last row of the Family Circle refused to be quiet. They spoke at full volume all night, despite repeated admonitions from fellow audience members and even an usher. A watch alarm sounded the hour of 9, as Loge made his first appearance. There were many buzzes and squeaks throughout the evening, perhaps from either hearing aids or microphones.
My companion in standing room guffawed at Fasolt's death. He did have to cope with my jet-lag induced antisness, I was constantly fidgeting for the first half, and did not get a second wind until the anvil part that opens the third scene.
* Notes *
Director Robert Lepage's production La Damnation de Faust was shown as a simulcast over the weekend. His Met debut certainly had the marks of a production from that company. Carl Fillion's set was not entirely unlike the one for Doctor Atomic from a few weeks ago, both being vertical and grid-like. Both also made use of projections, though the ones here were more elaborate, reactions to the performers themselves.
Lepage did serve up one arresting image after another, and one must say that choreographers Johanne Madore and Alain Gauthier did especially fine work. However, at times it did seem like overkill for a piece that is most often performed unstaged. Going wild with video projections, dancing, and acrobatics was dizzying, though it translated well cinematically. The cameras moved quite a bit, but it seems that Barbara Willis Sweete is being less creative with her work, there were no moving or doubled images as in Tristan. It is, however, difficult to judge the overall impact of a production when there are so many closeups.
The musical values were exceedingly high, as usual, and conductor James Levine was impressive. Bass-baritone John Relyea had suitable eyebrow makeup for Méphistophélès, and he sang with great vigor. Marcello Giordani had not a trace of warmth in his voice, but sang perfectly well. Susan Graham was, however, sublime as Marguerite. Her "Autrefois un roi de Thulé" was lovely.
* Tattling *
Both sound and picture briefly stopped twice at the beginning of "D'amour l'ardente flamme" at the beginning of Part IV. The audience whispered a bit during the music, and there was much coughing. The cinemacast was supposedly sold-out in San Francisco, though there were quite a few seats that were empty in the first few rows.
* Notes *
The Dieter Dorn/Jürgen Rose production of Tristan und Isolde was shown as a simulcast yesterday. I tried my best not to worry too much about the set and staging, as I did not find the Dorn/Rose Le Nozze or Così at Bayerische Staatsoper particularly interesting, though their Don Carlo was not bad. However, I found myself liking the production, especially Max Keller's lighting. Naturally, in Act III, there were ridiculous props on stage to signify we were in Kareol, including a number of toy knights in armor.
James Levine conducted well, the orchestra and singers were all synchronized. Deborah Voigt (Isolde) was in fine form, she only had one small gasp before she put the torch out in Act II. She sang the "Liebestod" beautifully. Robert Dean Smith's debut as Tristan at the Met seemed to go smoothly, especially considering he was in Berlin a few days ago and was flown in just for this performance. There were a few times when the orchestra overwhelmed him, and when he didn't exactly know where to be on stage. Michelle DeYoung was lovely as Brangäne, her high notes are fine and her voice is strong without being ugly. Matti Salminen embodied King Marke, he looked and sounded the part.
* Tattling *
Susan Graham was a fine host, I never noticed how expressive her eyebrows are. Her interviews with Levine and Voigt were especially charming. There was only one time the sound went out this time, for a few seconds when Kurwenal was singing in Act III. From the simulcast, it was quite clear that both Voigt and DeYoung have perfect teeth, and that Voigt's eyes are a most brilliant blue.
Barbara Willis Sweete's filming of the simulcast was extremely irritating. She employed the use of multiple images, which in and of itself could have been useful, but since the perspective kept changing and the images moved around, tracking a certain character, it was simply headache-inducing. Often the field of vision was constricted, so that there was just one small box on the screen with a bunch of empty black space around it. It was also quite annoying when the images would show either exactly the same image (the image of the flame trebled, for example), or the same person in different views. The constant motion was at odds with the production and with the work itself.
The Wagnerians were out in full force, the movie theater was sold-out. One couple arrived late and sat in front of me, they spoke at full volume a few times. The female half of the couple received a phone call during Act III, as the male half kept falling asleep and snoring.
* Notes *
The Met's simulcast of Macbeth aired today. The production, by Adrian Noble, is new to the Met and opened October 22, 2007. Set after World War II, Mark Thompson's set and costumes are dark, lots of black, grey, olive, khaki. There were many leather jackets and machine guns, Banquo, for example, seemed to be dressed as Rambo for most of Act I. The witches were based on Diane Arbus, each witch wore some sort of hat and smeared lipstick. The purses of the witches were much too loud in Act I, it sounded like coins were dropping on the stage. There were a few supernumeraries used in this group, including three female children. A low point of the opera was the beginning of Act III, when a witches brew was created from little girl vomit, the three had to eat bread and spit it out in an over-sized chalice. I never imagined I would see simulated bulimia onstage at the Met. Sue Lefton's choreography was a little vulgar for the witches, a lot of hip thrusts and such, though when the witches set out chairs for Lady Macbeth to walk on just before she sings in her mad scene worked well.
The cast was impressive, everyone sang at a high level. Baritone Željko Lučić was a fine Macbeth, with much emotional range, going from mournful, to afraid, to defiantly angry with ease. Maria Guleghina was incredible as Lady Macbeth, her voice sounded almost angelic at times, but also could be crystalline and downright frightening. She had good control of her vibrato, for the most part, though she did have a tendency to have an occasional wobbling gasp, especially at the beginning of the brindisi in Act II. Dimitri Pittas (Macduff) sounded a little reedy to me at first, but he was incredible in his Act IV aria, singing well and even shedding tears. He was somewhat difficult to hear over the movements of the chorus and the playing of the orchestra toward the end of the opera. Bass-baritone John Relyea also had a few inaudible moments after the discovery of Duncan's body, but sang his Act II aria "Come dal ciel precipita" quite beautifully. I was most moved by the choral parts at the end of Act II and IV, everyone sounded together and James Levine had the orchestra well in hand.
I do find the May performances of Macbeth tempting, for René Pape will be singing Banquo, and Joseph Calleja sings Macduff. As for the lead roles, I have never heard baritone Carlos Alvarez, but I do avoid Andrea Gruber, whom I find grating. It might be fine, given that Lady Macbeth is supposed to be unpleasant to the ear.
* Tattling *
The line to enter the Century San Francisco Centre 9 formed before 9:30 am, and Theater 4 was pretty full. Lado Ataneli was listed online as Macbeth today, and his name also appeared on the program I was given at the theater. Apparently he took ill, and Lucic replaced him. The picture at this theater was clearer than at Bay Street, though I did get a headache by the second half. The image did go fuzzy or slowed down at least four times, once in the first chorus, another during "Mi si affaccia un pugnal," once again in "Ah, la paterna mano," and a last time at the last scene. These were minor, more unfortunate were the disturbances in sound, one lasted half a second near the end of Banquo's last aria, the other was during Macbeth's "Pietà, rispetto, amore," in which we were treated to three brief but loud sounds. A shame, considering these are two great moments of the opera. They also did not cut the sound from backstage fast enough for the beginning of Act IV, and we could hear stage directions with the orchestra.
The host today was Peter Gelb himself, the General Director of the Met. He gave a brief interview of James Levine just before the conductor went out to the orchestra pit. The cameras moved around quite a bit, and I was better able to appreciate this by sitting a bit further back this time. It gave me a headache, but for the most part it wasn't too bad. The worst was when Banquo's ghost appeared, it was difficult to make sense of how he appeared or what exactly was going on, because there were so many close-ups. Again, I would have preferred not to see the young supernumeraries regurgitate bread up close or see John Relyea's fillings. I did enjoy Mary Jo Heath's interviewing the two leads at the beginning of intermission. Lučić told us he is a Verdi fan, and Guleghina stated "I am becoming crazy" of her character, not herself.
* Notes *
Last Saturday's evening performance of Die Zauberflöte at the Metropolitan Opera was remarkable, though not for the singing. Julie Taymor's untraditional production was elaborate and whimsical, her costumes seemed to have Persian and Japanese influences. The production made ample use of puppetry to good effect. The kite-like fabric puppets were manipulated with rods by people dressed in black, reminiscent of both Wayang and Bunraku. It was entrancing, but the magical atmosphere was not sustained as well in the second half of the opera, which was more subdued.
The sets, designed by George Tsypin, looked space-age Egyptian. The stage moved in a circle, making for easy scene changes. At times it was slightly loud, but the most disruptive part of the set was when curtains were torn from a doorway, the velcro sound was unmistakable. Donald Holder's lighting had some problems against the shiny surfaces, at times I was blinded by reflections.
James Levine was simply amazing, the orchestra sounded perfect and the singers were never off from the music. Unfortunately, the Queen of the Night was ill, poor Cornelia Götz gasped through her two gloriously difficult arias. Her voice sounded stuck somewhere inside her head and she was, at times, flat. Lisa Milne was better as Pamina, her voice was warm and pleasant. Michael Schade was an earnest Tamino and Rodion Pogossov a charming Papageno. Both had perfectly nice voices, but neither was incredible. Bass Vitalij Kowaljow did not have consistent tone for the range of Sarastro, it was difficult to hear his low and high notes. Jennifer Aylmer sang reasonably well as Papagena, but her movements were just perfect as she pretended to be an old hag and when she revealed her true self.
* Tattling *
It seems that no one in the standing room line was there for Die Zauberflöte, so we didn't see any familiar faces from Eugene Onegin. The audience was badly-behaved. People behind us and in front of us spoke aloud during much of the performance. Some standees tried to sit during the middle of the last scene and were reprimanded. The person at standing room place 5 might have had Tourette's Syndrome, for he kept quietly swearing and humming during much of the performance, only stopping to eat candies. The unwrapping of said candies was loud, as was some of the crunching involved. When we did not get out of this fellow's way during the final round of applause, he pushed his way behind us without excusing himself.
So in the last week of December, I finally watched a television program in its entirety for the first time in seven years. It was a broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera's production of Fidelio. I suspect that part of the reason I do not watch television is because I have no idea what is on and at what time. Some solicitor for the Met called me on a rare day where I actually answered the phone and asked for a donation for the television broadcast, and I was, of course, compelled to actually send them money. But I decided that it might be nice to see this program, if I could figure out the channel and time. After much deliberation, it was possible.
Leonora was sung by Karita Mattila, who I saw recently as the lead in Kat'a Kabanova. Her voice is beautiful, and it had a damp sweetness in Janacek, but it is surprisingly strong, and she was able to sing Beethoven well also. Florestan was sung by Ben Heppner, who is supposed to be one of the greatest tenors at the moment, and he was quite good, a nice rich voice, but I would like to hear him in person. Jennifer Welch-Babidge as Marzelline was still birdlike sweet, and her acting is not bad and her German diction is pretty good. René Pape was good as Rocco, I had heard him before as an Old Hebrew in Samson et Dalila, but he didn’t make much of an impression then, since Olga Borodina was so incredible as Dalila. Falk Struckmann was an adequately evil Pizarro.
The production had its good points, the choreography was pretty good, though I was disoriented with how the camera moved around, as it was a television broadcast, so I’m not sure I could experience the staging exactly properly. As an aside, I found it strange to be looking at James Levine conducting from what would be an orchestra member's point of view. The set was ugly, very modern, but convincing.
The music was wonderful, and I must remember to look for a good recording of it.