Stephanie Blythe

Die Walküre at the Met (Cycle 2)

Met-walkuere-2012* Notes * 
The second Ring cycle this season at the Met continued with a matinée of Die Walküre (Act II, Scene 1 pictured left, photograph by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera) yesterday. The limitations of "The Machine" became more apparent in this opera. Robert Lepage's direction is restricted by how the set moves and where people can exit and enter the stage. The motivation for the characters movements are clearly tied to this, and is therefore fairly predictable. Lionel Arnould's video images are less abstract in
Walküre than Rheingold, with shadowy figures playing out the various narratives. The giant eyeball near the end of Act II, Scene 1 that doubled as a crystal ball was particularly silly. Other effects were staged very nicely. The Ride of the Valkyries was spectacular, as was the final Fire Music. The costumes, from François St-Aubin, were rather shiny.

The music was played neatly by the orchestra, Luisi did not push the music, and there were only a few minor brass errors. The Walküren were even and strong, very little if any shrillness was noted.

Frank van Aken, the husband of Eva-Maria Westbroek, sang in place of Jonas Kaufmann, who is reportedly ill. As Siegmund, van Aken blended well with his wife, who sang Sieglinde. Unfortunately, his voice is too small for the Met, and he had some noticeable intonation problems, perhaps because he was trying to sing as loudly as possible. Westbroek's voice is rawer than I remembered, having a roughness at the top. She sang her part in Act III with strength. Hans-Peter König sang Hunding with the right power and menace.

Stephanie Blythe sounded robust as Fricka. Katarina Dalayman made for a pretty, resonant Brünnhilde. The afternoon belonged to Byrn Terfel (Wotan), who sang this opera with authority and richness.

* Tattling *
Family Circle was not full, so many standees took seats. This made the standing area much more roomy.

Das Rheingold at the Met (Cycle 2)

Met-rheingold-2012* Notes * 
A second Ring cycle began with Das Rheingold (Scene 4 pictured left, photograph by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera) last night at the Met. Robert Lepage's production involves a series of about 24 jointed panels that can be arranged in many different configurations. Known as "The Machine," Carl Fillion's set is not unlike a huge shape-shifting robot. The scene changes were certainly resolved in breathtaking ways. However, the main drawback is not that "The Machine" is slightly noisy, snapping here and there, but that it placed the singers awkwardly upstage or on terrifying rakes where they do not seem as able to project well. The lighting, designed by Etienne Boucher, is attractively simple. The video images, from Lionel Arnould, evoke nature and space. Only the rainbow bridge was busy, with its dancing strings of multicolored light. François St-Aubin's costumes did not appear markedly different from the previous Ring production, traditional, perhaps taking on the aesthetic of comic book superheros in the armor of the Gods.

The orchestra sounded clear and secure under Fabio Luisi, and the tempi were moderate. The brass was clean. The singing was consistent around. Wendy Bryn Harmer was an incredibly hearty, bright Freia. Franz-Josef Selig (Fasolt) and Hans-Peter König (Fafner) turned out perfectly respectable performances. Adam Klein did not quite sparkle as Loge, but since he stepped in at the last moment for an ailing Stefan Margita, it is understandable. Patricia Bardon's Erda had an ethereal quality that was appealing. Stephanie Blythe was a sympathetic Fricka, warm with the right amount of steeliness. Eric Owens impressed as Alberich, his renunciation of love in Scene 1 was poignant, and his curse in Scene 4 haunting. As Wotan, Bryn Terfel's voice has a beautiful richness to it, but seemed a touch light at times.

* Tattling * 
An usher attempted to seat a pair of latecomers in Family Circle after the music had started. Unfortunately one of their seats had been taken, and there was a flurry of whispered instructions. A watch alarm sounded at 9pm and 10pm. Some were having respiratory issues, loud nose blowing and sniffles were heard, as were the usual crinkles of cough drops being unwrapped.

Rodelinda at the Met

Met-rodelinda-2011* Notes *
A revival of Rodelinda (Act II pictured left, photograph by Ken Howard) is currently underway at the Metropolitan Opera. Since I saw this opera in 2006, I opted to hear this at a score desk on Wednesday. The acoustics are quite flattering to voices at Score Desk 3, and everyone could be easily heard. The orchestra sounded neat and tidy under Harry Bicket, everything seemed in place and rather angular. The chorus was appealing in the last act and sang with clarity

The singing was fairly lackluster. Joseph Kaiser (Grimoaldo) sang with much vibrato. Shenyang's Garibaldo had richness but was imprecise. Iestyn Davies showed promise as Unulfo, his voice is bright and pretty. Andreas Scholl (Bertarido) was slightly quiet, but also has a sweet, beautiful voice. There was "a small technical difficulty" with the set before Scholl's "Vivi tiranno," which unfortunately interrupted the flow of the music.

As Eduige, Stephanie Blythe gave a strong, steely performance. Renée Fleming seemed more committed to this title role than her recent turn as Lucrezia Borgia in San Francisco. Though her vocal line had a fine legato, her intonation is lacking and her coloratura is not impressive. Fleming did not follow any of the da capo or dal segno markings in Act I.

* Tattling *
Besides the aforementioned mishap in the last scene, there seemed to be other struggles with the set. The first intermission ran even longer than the allotted 40 minutes, as putting together that elaborate Baroque library in Act II must present a significant challenge. The cues to the lighting booth were loud, and as the music is not, they were all too audible.

Stephanie Blythe at SF Performances

SFP-Stephanie-Blythe * Notes * 
San Francisco Performances featured mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe (pictured left, photograph by Kobie van Rensburg) in a charming recital last night. Somehow the programs for the performance went missing, and we were given photocopies of the most relevant pages. As it turned out, Blythe had not provided the texts in program, and she explained it was because she loved words and worked hard to be understood. She also joked about appreciated seeing people's faces as she sang, rather than the tops of their heads. Blythe and her accompanist Warren Jones read the 12 poems of Emily Dickinson that James Legg set to music, and later read the 3 James Joyce poems used in the Samuel Barber songs that followed. Though I enjoyed the directness of this approach, it seemed unnecessary, as they communicated the content through the music with great clarity. Blythe has excellent diction and a broad emotional range. She does have a great deal of volume at her disposal. Barber's "Sleep Now" was impressively stirring and painful.

The second half of the show was entitled "Songs from Tin Pan Alley" and included Jones playing a few rags by Joplin. Blythe was disarmingly funny, she and Jones hammed it up just enough, and it all seemed natural. Creamer and Layton's "After You've Gone" was especially amusing, as was Berlin's "I Love a Piano." Blythe sang Berlin's "What'll I Do?" with gravity, but without sounding operatic. I believe the encores were another Joplin rag (played by Jones), "How can I keep from singing?" (sung a cappella by Blythe), and "Beautiful Dreamer" (sung by Blythe and accompanied by Jones).

* Tattling * 
The audience was silent and attentive. More than one known Wagner fanatic was noted among the attendees.

MMDG's Dido and Aeneas

MMDG_Dido&Aeneas_08_Credit_BeatrizSchiller  * Notes * 
The Mark Morris Dance Group (pictured left, photograph by Beatriz Schiller) opened the new season at Cal Performances with Dido and Aeneas yesterday evening. The audience seemed completely rapt by the experience, and I have never attended a Baroque opera with so little fidgeting or noise. Morris fills all the music with choreography, so there is not a moment in which audience members feel comfortable speaking, especially since the work is only an hour long without an intermission. The dancing is unsentimental and not overly pretty. Limbs were thrown about at angles, and looked rather different on each of the 12 dancers. There were times when the choreography was much more like miming than dancing, and Morris is not shy of being crude. Humor was infused into many of the scenes, especially when dealing with witches or sailors. The dancers characterized their different roles clearly.

The Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra started off less crisply than usual under Mark Morris himself, but did often sound lovely. There was a slight squeaky quality to the dance at the end of Scene 2. The chorus also sounded fine. Since all of the singing was from the pit, most of the soloists sounded a bit like they were singing from the bottom of a well. Soprano Yulia Van Doren (Belinda, First Witch) sang prettily, and soprano Céline Ricci (Second Woman, Second Witch) was distinct from her. Brian Thorsett sounded bright though not hefty as the Sailor. Philip Cutlip (Aeneas) sang with warmth and lightness. Stephanie Blythe gave a vivid performance as both Dido and the Sorceress. Her voice has both volume and gravity.

* Tattling * 
The audience members around me were almost completely silent and no electronic noise was noted.

Stephanie Blythe Interview

Stephanie-blythe Last Saturday mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe (pictured left, photo by Kobie van Rensburg) finished singing the role Fricka in Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera. Later this month she will sing the Verdi Requiem and Elijah at the May Festival in Cincinnati. In August she will be the soloist in the Brahms Alto Rhapsody at Tanglewood. Next season Blythe will sing in Dido and Aeneas with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra at Cal Performances. She returns to the Met for Rodelinda, Aida, and the Ring Cycle. The Unbiased Opinionator met up with Blythe before rehearsal on Friday.

One thing I wanted to say first off is I saw your Kate Smith evening at the Allen Room, and you were great. Do you have plans to repeat the program?
We're looking for a place to do that. It was very nice, really lovely.

Did you grow up with music?
My father is a jazz musician, so I heard music swing from very early on in my life. We didn't listen to vocalists in my house, as my father never cared for vocalists. He likes me, but we don't listen to a lot of vocalists. But I learned very early on how to swing, and that's a style, that's all it is.

It's something that one has in one's blood. But that's how it was. I mean Ella and the others, the girl singers with the big bands, they were part of the band, they knew the jazz structure, they're part of the band, and they can could along without memorizing a sung measure by measure. To someone who is 25 today, or even younger, this music is really unknown. It's almost opera to them.
As a Kate Smith person, you would be amazed to know how many people came up to me after that concert and said "I had no idea who she was!"

What was your first involvement in opera? Was it a natural evolution of the musical background of your family?
No. I attended three operas before I sang at the Met and that was it. My mother was a great fan of opera. The first opera I ever saw was Tosca, on television. I asked my mother what was the name of "E Lucevan" was. She told me, and I wrote it down, and tacked it on my board in my room. It is still one of my favorite arias ever. I went to school to be a music teacher and I discovered then that I wanted to sing, so I got an English degree. I just took a very circuitous route. It was the best thing that could have happened to me because I got a liberal arts degree. I feel like you can't really be a complete artist unless you have something to say, and it gave me something to say. When you're a writer you have to have some idea of structure and it gave me away to organize my thoughts and ideas, which was incredibly helpful. And then I discovered that I really wanted to sing. I was 21 when I started to take singing seriously. I did the Met auditions when I was 23, won, and came to the Met. It was very circuitous! It's the old story, it just happened.

You recently spoke to Alex Ross of The New Yorker about being Fricka, how people see her as a harridan or a nag. You obviously don't feel that way. Could you help us see Fricka through your eyes?
Well, I can't really talk about the Walküre Fricka, unless I talk about the Rheingold Fricka. With the Rheingold Fricka, can you really develop a character with so few lines? The thing that I always say about Fricka is how do people not see that this is a woman who is in love with someone who's about to make a gigantic mistake. To try and fix the first gigantic mistake, which is to buy a house and have a house made that you can't afford. You've paid for that with your sister. Wotan never, ever intended to pay for that. He was going to default on that loan regardless. Fricka knows that. But now when the time comes, what do you do? I'm sure that everyone at one point or another in their lives has come across this, not maybe this exact moment, but more people than we would like to believe, who has loved somebody and seen them about to make this gigantic mistake and there's nothing they can do about it. There's absolutely nothing she can do. And there's actually one moment in Rheingold – you know she could have the gold for herself. Maybe he could be getting this gold for me. Because after all Valhalla is all about their relationship. If Wotan makes this great house he's going to stay home, or so she thinks. There's really nothing in that character that every single person cannot identify with. There's nothing. So I don't see how Fricka is a nag, I mean the music isn't written in such a way that makes her sound that way in Rheingold. It is extraordinarily lyrical. There are two big moments – "Wo Weiss Du" and then at the very end just before "Abendlich." These are two incredibly lyrical, beautiful moments. So it's not in the music. Not to mention the fact in Rheingold, both of them are young. He's a young God. He's inexperienced. All this stuff hasn't happened. He hasn't screwed around on her with other people. So to say "Oh it's a loveless marriage..." It's not a loveless marriage. When we find them the first time it's almost fruitful soil. They're very much in love. If they're not a couple, and there's no love in Rheingold, then there's no tragedy in Walküre. So that the tragedy in Walküre is that she is asking him to do something that will end their relationship.

Is there a possible coloration considering the fact that Walküre was actually written before Rheingold?
I have thought of it, but even if that was the case, I still can't show an arc of the character if I don't show where they came from, I can't show where they're going. So that's why I have people who come to me and say "Thank you for presenting a real marriage." It is a marriage. Now, I don't know how easy it is to portray that in this particular production, but that's what my goal was to do. To show them in a real marriage and in a marriage that's beginning to have some major conflict. So that when we get to Walküre you understand when she says to him: "How can you say to me, who has followed you and watched you all of your life; how can try to pull the wool over my eyes?" They know each other. She knows that with this request that she’s making of him. It's all over, it's finished. And it's devastating. Wagner made it devastating! Alex Ross' article was all about that.

Nimm den Eid...
Yes, that's his answer to all of that. It's heart wrenching. You can hear the heartbreak.

So there's really no excuse for a singer to yell through it as if she were angry all the time; the nuance is there.
You can look at it that way, if you want to look at it that way. I mean there are phenomenal renderings of this particular character by many, many brilliant women, brilliant singing actresses, but I can't personally yell the whole time. If all she does is yell at him, then she's a total one-note. Then that scene doesn't mean anything. If there's not a bigger, deeper meaning to it, then how's he going to sing the following monologue?

Let's get to obvious things about character development: what you pull from yourself, your personal life and your own experience. You are looking at the couple and in effect having to put yourself somewhat in Wotan's mindset as well?
Of course, Wagner shows that it doesn't matter. She already knows what he's going to say before he says it. Whenever he says something, whenever he makes an argument back at her, and they are very measured arguments, incredibly logical. Even her jealousy argument: she doesn't say to him: "I hate you for what you've done to me." Fricka is barren; they have no children. They've been together a millennium and they have no children. So I don't think that she accepts this because she has a hearth and a home. That's the irony. But I don't think she expects his philandering, but it is part of who he is. Though it's not about him making those children, it's about him putting their needs before hers.

So, as you say, she's barren and childless. Is she really in fact just defending the institution of marriage and the fact that incest is wrong? So her principles are so high that that's the tragedy?
I'm sorry, incest is wrong! I mean, the way the music is written for these two young people is so passionate. When an audiences sees two people who have been totally lost their entire lives and never felt right, and never felt that they were where they should be, and all of a sudden, in an instant, they know who they are. In an instant they all know – we all, hopefully, know what that is like when you see somebody for the first time and all of a sudden you realize that your life is complete. Of course we're going to love them for that. The audience is going to forget that they're related and that they're brother and sister. It is Fricka's job to remind him: when has anything like this ever been acceptable? He says to her, well, now we've seen it. You are the fortunate one who has seen it happen for the first time. Here it is. His arguments to her are very good arguments but they cannot stop the logic of what has happened. The part that wins him over is "You couldn't do this to me!" Which means there has to be some love there, I'm sorry. He married her for a reason, you know. The other one is when she says to him: "You cannot expect this young man to fulfill your obligation, because all he is is you."

I'm just curious when you look at other characters, perhaps Elisabeth in Don Carlo, purely as an example, someone who is faced with these terrible decisions and torn between the duty of state and her own personal feelings: you would approach those characters in the same way?
Of course. I don't sing Elisabeth obviously. But if you cannot find something in that character to connect with then there is no way you're ever going to convince anybody in the audience of that character. Every single character has to be essential, every single one. One of the hardest roles that I sing is Azucena. It's a very difficult role. You might think that's just a story, but Susan Smith drove her children into a lake and got out of the car and there was the woman who drowned every single one of her children in the bathtub. These things happen. They happen today. We just don't want to think of them in those terms.

Now we have psychoanalytic or psychiatric definitions, depression and so forth that drive these people to that. That's our contemporary explanation of this, but going back 150 years, before any of these theories were there, the tragic element, totally apart from how we interpret as modern day people. In that vein, who can sing a role like this without an enormous amount of preparation? You first sang of Fricka about a decade ago. Can you describe a bit how it has evolved for you over time?
I got married in 2001 and I had done Fricka twice at that point. When I came back to sing it in 2005 it was shocking how much different it was understanding what was at stake in a relationship. Understanding for the first time what it's like not living just for yourself, but for somebody else, it makes a very big difference. Playing Fricka with a different person made a huge difference. Working with Greer Grimsley was an enormous help to me because we developed that character, Fricka, together.

To finish up, what are your interests outside of the opera world?
For about the last ten years I would have to say birding and gardening and my family. My husband and I really like bird watching and I like gardening. I like playing with my dogs and being in my home. I'm a real homebody. I come here and everything's so hectic, in Northeastern Pennsylvania I feel like I can breathe. I'm very happy there. When I'm not singing I like being at home.

Die Walküre at the Met (Lepage)

Walkuere-act-3-metWhilst 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.

Das Rheingold at the Met (Lepage)

Met-rheingold An account of the final performance of Das Rheingold this season at the Metropolitan Opera from the Unbiased Opinionator.

* Notes * 
Director Robert Lepage gave an extensive interview in New York City last fall about his conception of the Ring. He spent considerable time in Iceland, and said that no one who lived in the Icelandic hinterlands for any length of time could ever doubt the existence of gnomes, giants, or mythic Gods. Hearing him speak, it is impossible to doubt his seriousness and integrity.

Unfortunately, the production's stage machinery, designed by Carl Fillion, seemed to overwhelm the evening. The set consists of gigantic, undulating planks, which morph into visually paradoxical, Max Escher-like planes. Complex, computer-generated effects and lighting were projected atop this. Only Wagner's gigantic score seemed unsubjugated by this restless behemoth. Particularly distracting were the all-too-visible cables from which the soloists were suspended as they moved in hazardous sideward and slanted trajectories across the cantilevered components of the set.

The audience applauded and tittered in delight at the cavorting Rhine-mermaids and their taunting of Alberich, and certainly Wagner would have approved of this. The dragon/dinosaur transformation, aided by the Tarnhelm, was also very effective.

Of the cast, Eric Owens' tremendous Alberich dominated the show, even though he seemed to tire during his final curse. It is a rare evening when Alberich is a more powerful dramatic and vocal presence than Wotan. The admirable Bryn Terfel's rendition of the God lacked the heft and thrust required of the dramatic bass-baritone voice type for which this role was conceived.

Stephanie Blythe, a singer in a class unto herself, poured out tremendous waves of sound, yet failed to capture the hectoring character of Fricka, as she agonizes about the fate of her sister Freia (sung with steely power by soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer), who is held as a downpayment by the giants Fafner and Fasolt for their building of Valhalla. Ms. Blythe seemed to fashion her vocal expression according to the surface contours of Fricka's vocal line, and not to the underlying text. Beautifully, in fact, overwhelmingly well sung, her rendition seemed lacking in dramatic comprehension of the character.

On the other hand, Bayreuth veterans Gerhard Siegel (Mime) and Hans-Peter Koenig (Fafner) inhabited their roles in such a fashion that one never thought of vocalism. They performed their roles with a perfect unison of text, powerful vocalism and dramatic intent. Patricia Bardon's dark-hued, threatening rendition of Erda's "Weiche Wotan" was, for this reviewer, the highlight of the evening.

Another Bayreuth veteran, Arnold Bezuyen, captured the essence of Loge, part scheming diplomat, part crooked lawyer, although one was often distracted and concerned for him as he slid down and then scaled backwards the steeply angled set. Tethered by a cable, his freedom to gesture and act with his body was severely inhibited. Possessed of a solid character tenor voice, he seemed somewhat underpowered in the large Met auditorium.

Having heard many performances of the Ring conducted by James Levine, it is difficult for this reviewer to make a fair assessment of Fabio Luisi's reading. Luisi drew from the Met orchestra an almost chamber music-like, transparent performance that served the singers well, but one missed the elusive combination of weight, grandeur and forward momentum that Levine achieved in this music. The brass section was uncharacteristically fraught with mishaps.

No doubt the composer would have been delighted to have had at his disposal the modern machinery used in the Lepage Ring, machinery which would have freed him from the two-dimensionality of the set design and lighting available to him at the time. One wonders, however, if he would not have employed these resources in such a way that the protagonists of his music-dramas were not relegated to the visual and dramatic background. One awaits eagerly the upcoming Walküre for a further assessment of the new Met Ring.

PBO's 2011-2012 Season

September 15-17 2011: Dido & Aeneas
September 22-25 2011: Mozart & Haydn
October 25-30 2011: Arias for Farinelli
November 18-22 2011: Marion Verbruggen & The Italian Baroque
December 2-6 2011: Bach's Mass in B minor
January 26-29 2012: Richard Egarr: Masters of the English Baroque
March 6-11 2012: Steven Isserlis: The Classical Cello
April 20-25 2012: Händel's Alexander's Feast

Philharmonia Baroque announced their next season today. Stephanie Blythe will be singing Dido in Dido and Aeneas this September, Mark Morris Dance Company performs. Vivica Genaux sings in the October performances of Vivaldi, Fasch, Telemann, and Rameau.

Official Site | 2011-2012 Season

Il Trittico at the Met

Tabarroset * Notes * 
The latest run of Il Trittico at the Met opened last night. Stefano Ranzani made a fine debut, his tempi were elastic, and for the most part the orchestra did not overwhelm the singers. Patricia Racette sang the three soprano roles, as she did recently in San Francisco. Her voice showed some strain, and the quality of her vibrato could be unpleasant. Her costume as Giorgetta was not the most becoming. Aleksandrs Antonenko was quiet as Luigi, and though menacing as Michele, Željko Lucic did not cut through the brass at the end of Il Tabarro. Stephanie Blythe was almost endearing as Frugola, her voice is strong, warm, and hefty. Her duet with Paul Plishka (Talpa) was not exactly together, and she was much louder than he.

Suor Angelica featured some lovely choral singing. Racette's acting came across as histrionic (from the back of the Family Circle, in any case), collapsing in a melodramatic pile of skirts not once but twice. Her singing could be moving, especially in the last scene. Blythe again was impressive as La Principessa, haughty and controlled.

Gianni Schicchi was perfectly amusing. Racette's "O mio babbino caro" had some shrillness, and Saimir Pirgu (Rinuccio) strained at the top of his voice. Stephanie Blythe was actually very funny as Zita, as was the rest of Buoso's family. There were only a few issues with timing. Alessandro Corbelli was hilarious as Gianni Schicchi, he is a fine actor, and his voice, though lacking weight, is perfectly suitable for this role.

The production, directed by Jack O'Brien, with sets from Douglas W. Schmidt, is the quintessence of the Metropolitan Opera style. Everything was simply a literal recreation of historical scenes, Il Tabarro was Paris in 1927, Suor Angelica Tuscany in 1938, and Gianni Schicchi 1959's Florence. Of course, this is breathtaking in its lavishness. The Seine looked like it had been brought to New York, there was a donkey that was lead across the convent courtyard, and when the set sank to reveal Lauretta and Rinuccio on the roof, it was difficult not to applaud.

* Tattling * 
The usual watch alarms rang at the hour, most distractingly in Suor Angelica. The audience clapped for every set. There was some talking, and vehement hushing as well.

Kelsey in Trovatore

Kelsey * Notes * 
Quinn Kelsey replaced Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the Count di Luna in San Francisco Opera's Il Trovatore yesterday afternoon. Kelsey sounded warm and rich, without being too dark in the least. His breath control was incredible, not one gasp was heard. On the other hand, he was not particularly menacing, though his portrayal of longing in "Il balen del suo sorriso" was clear and beautiful. There was much standing and singing, so as far as acting, Kelsey did not embody the role in the same way as Hvorostovsky.

Stephanie Blythe's last performance of this run went well vocally. Blythe does not seem possessed enough for the role, but her voice is commanding. Her top notes sounded secure from the back of the balcony and her duets with Marco Berti were robust.

* Tattling * 
Someone on the north bench of the back balcony kept eating out of a plastic bag during "D'amor sull'ali rosee." She rustled so loudly that both I and the person next to me kept trying to stare her down, but she was oblivious to our attempts. After Radvanovsky finished said aria, the woman in question clapped with great excitement, and went back to eating as soon as the music started again.

Il Trovatore at SF Opera

Sfo-trovatore * Notes * 
The 2009-2010 season at San Francisco Opera opened with
Il Trovatore last night. David McVicar's production is elegant, and Charles Edwards' rotating set made the scene changes straightforward. Maestro Luisotti's debut as music director was effervescent, and the orchestra sounded fine. The chorus was clear and together. Renée Tatum and Andrew Bidlack, the Adlers in the small roles of Inez and Ruiz, both sang well and with warmth.

Burak Bilgili seemed nervous as Ferrando, his notes were a bit choppy and he was slightly off from the orchestra. Dmitri Hvorostovsky was a confident Count di Luna, with lovely phrasing. Hvorostovsky did lack effortlessness at times and his breathing could be rather loud. On the other hand, Stephanie Blythe (Azucena) seemed to have endless lung capacity and a perfect smoothness in her transitions. Her last few notes of the opera were, however, a bit ugly.

The revelation of the evening was undoubtably Sondra Radvanovsky as Leonora. Her voice scintillates, her tone is lucid, her control is exquisite. Her Act III aria, "D'amor sull'ali rosee," was beautiful. Marco Berti made a valiant attempt in the title role, his voice being rather loud and not particularly subtle. He was able to match everyone else in volume, and he even managed to convey some pretty, tender moments, along with utter despair, in the last act.

* Tattling * 
Some people kept talking during the famous "Vedi le fosche notturne," despite being repeatedly hushed. A siren was heard in Act I, Scene 2. Someone's cellular phone rang several times as Hvorostovsky sang in Act 4. At least it was during his recitative.

Aida at Seattle Opera

 Aida-seattle * Notes *
Seattle Opera's Aida closed yesterday at McCaw Hall. The production, directed by Robin Guarino, was suitably grand. Michael Yeargan's set was attractive, the background of the pyramids was especially lovely. The scene changes were, however, not seamless. The curtain was brought down for a few minutes at a time, and the audience lost interest as we waited, lowering the intensity of the performance. Even so, the costumes from Peter J. Hall were striking, in keeping with the style of the set, and displayed a command of palette. For instance, Aida's first costume in teal and rose contrasted well with Amneris' costume of coral and turquoise, yet the effect struck a perfect balance, and did not look tired or ugly in any way. Robert Wierzel's lighting enhanced the production, and made the set seem to glow. The Donald Byrd's choreography was a bit transparent at times. Having servants walk around as if they were Ancient Egyptian paintings simply made me think of The Bangles. Nonetheless, some of the dancing was quite good, especially the solo in Act I Scene 2.

The orchestra was in fine form under debuting conductor Riccardo Frizza. They did have some problems being exactly with the chorus in Act I. The horns and trumpets were very close to being in tune during the Triumphal March, and played better than usual. Vocally, the performance was good but not great. Mezzo-soprano Priti Gandhi sounded tentative as the High Priestess, though her voice does have a pleasing lucidity. Karl Marx Reyes sang the small role of the messenger nicely. Luiz-Ottavio Faria (Ramfis) was  a bit thin, and occasionally difficult to hear over the orchestra. He did sing well in the Act I finale. As Amonasro, Charles Taylor was not commanding, and one wonders why he is in the A cast rather than Richard Paul Fink. Taylor's voice is pretty, but was, at times rather gravelly for a baritone, and does not compare favorably to Fink's rich, full tone. I am unsure why former Merolino Joseph Rawley (King of Egypt) made almost no impression on me at all, just as before as Curio in Giulio Cesare a few seasons ago. Though not imposing, he sang well, though not exceptionally. Antonello Palombi was a bit uneven as Radames, he could be quite loud, but if he happened to be upstage he could sound muffled. His voice paired nicely with Aida's, having a reedy and vulnerable quality.

Lisa Daltirus started off shrill and screeching in the title role, and I was worried I would dislike her as much as Norah Amsellem (the tone-deaf soprano in Seattle Opera's Il Puritani earlier this year) or Andrea Gruber (who was to share this role with Daltirus, but mysteriously was replaced). Daltirus was always in tune, but her breathing was very audible and she showed some strain in her voice, especially at the top. Her lower range is pretty and she sang Act I's "Ritorna vincitor!" beautifully. The star of the evening, however, was Stephanie Blythe (Amneris). Blythe has good control and a warm but piercing quality that is impressive. She does have moments where her voice is less than creamy, a certain coarseness, but she did overshadow all the other singers.

* Tattling *
The audience was better than the typical Seattle Opera audience. There was no late seating, and the house looked completely full. Even standing room looked sold out. Someone was speaking during the first overture, but was quickly hushed, and after that only whispering was noted. There were no cellular phone rings, but there was a watch alarm near me at each hour, and at 10pm, I heard no less than 4 different watches sounding at different times.

Hugh Wolff at Berkeley Symphony

Hughwolff* Notes *
Kent Nagano's 30th season as music director of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra will be his last, and the search for his replacement is on. Over this season and the next there will be a total of six guest conductors, one of which may emerge as the next music director. The first of these conductors is Hugh Wolff, who presented a program of Kernis' Overture of Feet and Meters, Osvaldo Golijov's Night of the Flying Horses, Shostakovich's From Jewish Folk Poetry, Op. 79, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92.

The Kernis work is influenced by Baroque dance suites, we were told the wry title refers to "dancing feet and shifting meters." Perhaps this is why the piece sounds a little like Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, both new and old at the same time. It had a cinematic feel, sometimes sweeping and other times very busy. I felt as if I should be seeing something with the music but wasn't.

Of the first half, I was most moved by Golijov. The soloist, Heidi Melton, sang well, she was not shrill and had seems to have gained more control of her voice. There was not a trace of strain or roughness, as when she sang Diane last summer at San Francisco Opera. The orchestra sounded lovely as well, the interplay of violas, second violins, celli, and winds was particularly beautiful.

Shostakovich's songs were presented in Yiddish rather than Russian, and this seemed to work just fine. Again, Melton sang well, though at times she overpowered Katharine Tier and Thomas Glenn. Tier's voice has a certain delicacy, she had one breath in the second song that was a bit too audible, but otherwise was good. I could hear Glenn much better in this than when I heard him last as Robert Wilson at Lyric Opera, but he was occasionally masked by the orchestra. He also seemed to be rushing during his first two songs, the fourth and sixth in the cycle. He does have a sweet voice, and sounded better for the rest of the performance.

The evening ended with a playful rendition of Beethoven's 7th, starting off with a rather stately slowness and finishing at a breakneck speed. The musicians played with suitable crispness, striking nice a balance in articulation.

This performance will be broadcast by KALW 91.7 FM on Sunday, April 27th at 4pm. Wolff will be conducting new music this Sunday evening at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley.

* Tattling *
Hugh Wolff broke his left leg and is still in a cast, so his antics getting around the stage were pretty entertaining. The pre-concert interview revealed that he is an affable and funny person. Apparently he does not compose, despite studying under Messiaen.

A trio of women behind me must have included some singers, for their speaking voices carried well. One told a hilarious story about Stephanie Blythe singing Messiah at NY Philharmonic last December. When she finished singing the B section of "He was despised," and went back to the A section, a man in the front row muttered "Jesus Christ" out of exasperation.

A couple brought their grade school child to the symphony, and he was not enjoying himself, he fidgeted constantly, and quietly whispered to his mum more than once. He was not distracting me, but he kicked the person in front of many times. Finally this person got fed up and angry admonished him during the fifth song of the Shostakovich.

Regina de' Longobardi

RodalindaactiiWadsworth production of Händel's Rodelinda opened at the Met on Tuesday, May 2, 2006. I was surprised that Thomas Lynch's set was so beautiful, since his Lohengrin was reminiscent of IKEA, though admittedly, his Ring set for Seattle was gorgeous. The library set was particularly impressive to the audience, which gasped when it was revealed in Act II. Act II also featured a horse, this device being a perennial favorite. The scenes changed flawlessly, the set moved both left and right and up and down. It was a bit much though, one did feel that things were always in motion, if not in the set itself, then in the choreography. The singers frenetically dashed around, seemingly without purpose. It was as if they believed the music was just so boring that it was necessary to fidget and fumble all over the stage as a method of distraction.

As for the singing, the lead, Renée Fleming, was somewhat flat, her voice is thin and she seems distant even though her volume is fine. Her voice has not a trace of sensuality, though I am not convinced that is necessary for Baroque music. Mezzo-Soprano Stephanie Blythe (Eduige) had more emotion in her voice, though she can be harsh. Tenor Kobie van Rensburg (Grimoaldo) also had passion, though his arpeggios and trills were weak and muddy. Bass John Relyea was a suitable villain as Garibaldo, the role does not show off how beautiful his voice is. Countertenor Christophe Dumaux (Unulfo) has an exceedingly girlish voice, light and slightly quiet. Andreas Scholl certainly was the star of the show, though his Bertarido was slightly stiff and awkward, vocally he was amazing. He has incredible power and control. His transitions between head voice and chest voice were perfect.