The Unbiased Opinionator

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.

Wozzeck at the Met

Met-wozzeck The Unbiased Opinionator's account of the last performance of Wozzeck this season at the Metropolitan Opera.

* Notes * 
The musical and emotional journey that is Wozzeck is not an easy one. The score bears much study before an uninitiated listener can appreciate the dramatic richness and supreme formal architecture of Berg's creation. Nonetheless, James Levine's organic mastery of the score, combined with a very strong cast, resulted in a memorable afternoon.

The opera, written in three acts, was presented without intermission. Brief pauses were built in for audiences members to stretch, chat, or check their e-mail. The decision to present the work without intermission was a wise one. To allow the audience to trickle out, have a glass of champagne or cup of coffee, and then attempt to refocus after an ordinary intermission would have dispersed the dramatic energy of the performance.

The epicenter of this performance was James Levine, who was greeted with a storm of applause as he slowly made his way to the podium. One never had the sense of a conductor being a mere rhythmic traffic cop. Levine presented the work as one uninterrupted field of energy. His body language alone seemed to inspire the orchestra and cast with its great economy of movement.

This unrelentingly dark tale, rendered into play by Georg Buechner, was derived from a true story. Woyzeck, a proletarian ex-soldier, is helplessly caught, along with his mistress Marie and their son, in a spider's web of degradation, poverty, and subjugation to crushing forces beyond his control. The real-life Woyzeck was convicted and executed for the murder of his mistress in 1821.

Robert Israel's set was a claustrophobic, darkly-lit alien landscape of matte grey columns, trusses, and foreshortened geometric surfaces. This provided a framework for the characters, who were dressed in period clothing representative of some indeterminate, pre-World War I Central Europe. The dramatic figures were lit in such a way that their shadows were projected at surreal angles onto the set as they interacted.

Alan Held played Wozzeck, not as a beaten-down underling, but as a human being seething with anger and frustration. Even his initial monotonic "Ja Wohl, Herr Hauptmann" had a certain menace which foreshadowed his later descent into animal rage and homicide. Singing with great intensity and impressive vocal quality, he was not afraid to push his vocal delivery to the breaking point. The result, particularly during his panic-ridden hallucinations in Act I, was overwhelming in its impact.

Waltraud Meier had the dramatic capacity to present Marie in all her guises: the despairing mother; lustful, wanton sexual object of the Drum-Major (strongly sung by Stuart Skelton); and the caged creature who causes her own murder by rebuffing Wozzeck with the line "better a knife in the belly than your hands on me." Her dramatic portrayal was chillingly uncompromising.

The doctor (Walter Fink), and the Captain (Gerhard Siegel) played their roles with malignant, detached sadism. Both succeeded in projecting their wordy lines cleanly and clearly into the hall.

The backdrop to the murder of Marie by Wozzeck in the final Act was a huge, bloodshot moon, with pockmarked striations reminiscent of a human retina. The abstract pond in which Wozzeck drowns was a one-dimensional, rust colored band across the back of the stage. The resulting visual effect underlined the deep nihilism of the drama. After the thunderous ovation died down at the conclusion of the afternoon, one emerged into a the privileged, well-fed City, haunted with the knowledge that there are still Wozzecks everywhere in this world.

* Tattling * 
UO had the great pleasure of greeting Marilyn Horne backstage after the performance. Horne was acclaimed for her performances of Marie in 1960, for the dedication of the new opera house in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, and in her US Debut in San Francisco in 1964.

Alan Held Interview

AH-Steiner-color Dr Miracle This weekend bass-baritone Alan Held (pictured left, leftmost photo by Christian Steiner) finishes a run of Wozzeck at the Metropolitan Opera. He goes to Baden-Baden next for Salome, Munich in July for Rusalka, Washington DC in September for Tosca, and Bilbao in October and November for Tristan und Isolde. Next season he returns to San Francisco for the Symphony's semi-staged Bluebeard's Castle. The Last Chinese Unicorn and the Unbiased Opinionator caught up with Held last Monday.

LCU: There are those who have difficulty sitting through pieces by Berg, Schoenberg, or Stravinsky. What advice would you give to those unaccustomed to atonal music to prepare for Wozzeck?
AH: I have a friend who's flying in from LA this weekend to see the show and intimidated by it as well. She just wanted to enjoy it and I told her to be familiar with the story. To me a piece like Wozzeck is almost musical theater. There are wonderful sections of the piece that are very melodic, but there is all the atonal music and the Sprechstimme. The first step is to get familiar with the play, it's a gripping story. Then, listen to fragments of it. When you're preparing to hear a piece like this, don't try to listen to it all at one time. People are shocked at how much enjoy this thing, because it is so musical. The orchestra is so strong. But you have to take it in small portions at first, and then when you see it all together it will blow you away. If the artist is doing his or her job, to express the text and the story, to me Wozzeck is more natural and easier to absorb than just about any other operas out there. There's no repetition of the same phrases over and over. The bones of this stuff – the music and the sound palette is put out there to put the emphasis on the drama even more than you would in many other types of opera, or other theater pieces.

UO: That will be quite helpful to those less inclined toward the Second Viennese School.
AH: I'm very committed to this piece and to contemporary music. I do a lot of it. My bread and butter is probably Wagner and Strauss. I've been in the business 25 years this year, and I've seen the tastes and what audiences go for really change in these 25 years. When I was starting out you'd see Verdi, Wagner, Mozart and Puccini; that was the meat and potatoes. Things have really changed. You're getting more contemporary music, Czech music, a lot more of Bartok, and the Russian repertoire. And there's a change in the other direction, too. You're getting a lot more Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini, because of the artists who come around in certain time periods. Maybe we're a little bit low on the Verdi end right now. The economy affects the repertory too. You're not getting as much Wagner in some houses as you once were, because it's very expensive to do Wagner. But I think audiences become more enlightened, more intelligent about different styles of music and more accepting of it. It used to be, when Wozzeck was done, you'd have a very small audience. Same thing for Lulu. Now the audiences are becoming much fuller and more active. The response we received after opening night of Wozzeck was as huge as anything I've ever heard at the Metropolitan Opera House. So, I think audiences, singers, and companies are all becoming more appreciative and open to a wider range of repertoire.

UO: That's great to hear, Alan. I'm looking forward very much to hearing the broadcast and being in the house this Saturday to hear you.
AH: I'm glad you're going to be in the house because this is a production that you must see as well as listen to. I think it comes off one way on the radio, or CD, but this is a production that needs to be seen. You have merits of the theater and the music together, especially in a piece like Wozzeck.

UO: Of course you have the enormous advantage of having James Levine conducting.
AH: We're thrilled to have him step on the podium once again when he came back after being away for so long.

UO: I've done a little bit of chorus work with Jimmy, and I find him enormously inspiring. Would you tell us a little bit about what the working process is like with him as a soloist? I imagine at the point you start working with him it's so integrated that you're working less on details and more on the larger picture.
AH: I've worked with Maestro Levine quite a bit on many different things over the years including the Ring, Elektra, Hoffmann, and Wozzeck. The process that we usually use at the Met is that, unless it's a brand new production, we rehearse the staging first – we do that for a couple of weeks. Then he'll come in when we start to do the stage rehearsals, sometimes before, when we're still in the rehearsal room, and he really puts a lot of polish on it. Sometimes it takes a lot more polish than other things. But we usually do the rehearsal on stage and then we'll get together in List Hall or somewhere else at the Met, really working on details and working on characters. Maestro Levine is such a master at melding the character into the voice and he loves pure sound and expression of the text. He's very good with Wozzeck at not just being such a great technician and a great musician, but he does a great amount with the drama as well. He's so familiar with it; he loves the score and he does so much to help bring more out of you. It's been said so many times what a great accompanist he is and that's absolutely true. He's right there with you all the time and you really feel when you're working with him that you're working together. There's none of this: just someone beating a stick. I've had the privilege of watching him work not only with the Met orchestra but also with the Youth Orchestra at Tanglewood. He's a master technician as far as teaching the orchestra, and he's teaching us all the time.

UO: When you first debuted the role in San Francisco back in 1999, how did you go about learning it? Did you simply pound it into yourself?
AH: I began as a pianist and I also listened in theory class, so I understood the 12 tone style. But again, I approached it from the drama as much as I did it from the music at the beginning, because the two have to be married together. Yes, I did pound out the notes, but I looked at the rhythm and how the language flowed and Berg set it masterfully. It all makes sense, what he did. I think this piece is almost as tough rhythmically as it is note-wise. The rhythm is just as important. And then incorporating it into how I work as an artist, and as an actor, all together. I didn't do it separately: note, note, note, note. That would be the wrong way to approach Wozzeck.

UO: You've sung, as you say, for 25 years on an international level and you’re working in constantly changing acoustic environments. I'm sure you're familiar with most of the big houses but if you're confronted with a very dry, unforgiving acoustic, what do you do?
AH: There's really not a lot you can do. If you go messing around and trying to change the way you're singing to fit the acoustic of a certain opera house, you're going to end up in trouble. You can't change the acoustic. If you try to change your voice you're going to end up hurting yourself. So you have to just accept it. Fortunately, we get several rehearsals in the halls so you have the time to adjust your mind more than anything. A tough house is Amsterdam and it's not simply because of the acoustic, but the stage is very, very wide and you're not used to the audience being almost at your side all the time. But again, you can't really go changing your singing. You may have to sing more straight out, and less to the sides in certain houses, but your technical apparatus is the same.

LCU: What is your favorite city, and what do you love about it?
AH: Boy, you know when I do operas, I think, "Oh, this is my favorite scene! Oh, no, I love this one!" Every time I think that I have a favorite, it's the thing that I'm singing. I oftentimes say the same things about cities and I like a lot of different ones. I love San Francisco. The weather there is fabulous; it's a great walking city. I love Chicago, maybe because I'm originally from Illinois although I didn't spend much time there as a kid. I love New York. In Europe, I like Munich a great deal and Vienna. I just spent two months in Barcelona and that was great because I avoided all the weather on the East Coast! So, yes, there are a lot of places I love to be. There are some places that I don't want to go back to (laughter). I'm not going to say what they are. I may need a job there someday!

LCU: Wasn't it in Barcelona that you took the picture of those pig heads for Valentine's Day?
Oh yes! Nothing says Valentine's Day like a pig head! I tend to walk around, I'm a pretty observant guy when I'm doing so. So in Barcelona there was this meat case and it had all these pig heads and stuff, and they had Valentine hearts all over the place, and I was like "Oh my gosh!" (Laughter)

LCU: I remember seeing that picture, wondering if it was a joke or real.
AH: It was absolutely real.
UO: It's either a joke or another piece of Regietheater.

LCU: What's the story behind your Facebook profile picture (above right)?
AH: Thats Dr. Miracle from Tales of Hoffman in 1993 at the Met, the old Otto Schenk production. I love that picture! I figure that's how I look after four kids. (Laughter) That old production at the Met was amazing. It's one of my favorites. Dr. Miracle pops out of the fireplace, and he pops through the floor. I get so many people commenting on that picture all the time! And someone said that that's the best picture on Facebook so I said "OK, I'll keep it!"

Capriccio at the Met

Capriccio-renee-fleming An account of Capriccio this season at the Metropolitan Opera from the Unbiased Opinionator.

* Notes * 
"Indian Summer" is used by music historians to describe the re-flowering of Richard Strauss' creative powers toward the end of his life, after the catastrophe of World War II. This re-flowering, which occurred after a period of jaded stagnation, was Strauss' response to the destruction of German culture during the Nazi period. One of the loveliest of the works from this period is the opera Capriccio, one that he and his librettist, Clemens Krauss, subtitled "A Conversation Piece for Music." Strauss died seven years after the premiere of Capriccio in Munich in 1942.

"Conversation Piece for Music" is certainly apt. Much of the first part of the work, performed without intermission, is given to extended passages of complex, sung "conversation," consisting of witty debate on the subject: which is more important, text or music? Only the poet Olivier's sonnet, "Kein Andres, das mir so im Herzen loht" (created in the conceit of the opera by the composer Flamand) is set by Strauss to linear, memorable music. Both poet and composer vie for the love of the Countess Madeleine, sung with luminous beauty and acted with simple grace by Strauss-veteran Renée Fleming, who is, as was Kiri Te Kanawa in her day, a wonder in this repertory.

Olivier's and Flamand's courting of the Countess is set by Strauss as a metaphor for the tug of war between music and text. In the concluding scene, the Countess cannot decide between these two elements, but concludes that only a perfect wedding of music and text can satisfy, and she sings her glorious final scene, based on the musical material of the Sonnet, as a hymn to the mystery and artistic power of this synthesis.

During the opening prelude, an intimate string sextet (played beautifully by the Met first desk string players) is heard. The Met curtain was illuminated in a soft golden light, with house lights dimmed, but still lit at a low level, and the chandeliers were not completely raised to the ceiling, but remained at "half-mast," at half light, creating a atmosphere of burnished gold which set the stage for the sensitive rendition of the Opera to follow.

There were no weak links in the cast. Joseph Kaiser's Flamand had plenty of carrying power, with a fine top, and the tall tenor cut a fine figure. The poet Olivier was sung by Russell Braun. Peter Rose's portrayal of the pompous theater director, La Roche, was aptly blustery in the finest buffo style. The part of the actress Clairon was sung by English mezzo Sarah Connolly. This reviewer has long admired the work of this fine singer, and she did not disappoint, with her dramatic flair, rich vocal color and tall and striking visual presence.

The many secondary roles, including the comic roles of the Italian Singers (admirably sung with perfect timing by tenor Barry Banks and soprano Olga Makarina), and a luxury cast of Servants, including Met veteran Christopher Schaldenbrand, added to the extremely high quality of the evening. The character roles of the Major-Domo (Michael Devlin) and the prompter (Bernard Fitch) were wonderful facets in the finely jeweled clockwork that is Capriccio.

Andrew Davis led the Met orchestra in a warm and balanced account of the score, with the only possible criticism being a too fast tempo for the opening prelude.

* Tattling * 
The soaring, evanescent music of the concluding scene seemed to transfigure the audience, and one exited the theater into a beautiful Spring night, with the Lincoln Center fountain dancing in the soft air. This reviewer walked home amid blossoming ornamental pear trees and felt as if he had drunk the finest champagne in the world.

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.

Jonas Kaufmann at Cal Performances

Kaufmann On the evening of Sunday, March 13, LCU and UO attended the highly anticipated song recital of internationally acclaimed tenor, Jonas Kaufmann. Co-presented by Cal Performances and the San Francisco Opera, the performance took place at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. What follows is a discussion of the performance between LCU and UO.

LCU: Kaufmann is typically very expressive in his operatic roles and I was surprised that he employed minimal facial expressions and hand or body gestures with this program. It was pure, honest singing; not mawkish or overly theatrical, which is often the danger when opera singers attempt the German Lied - they can't seem to leave the drama at the door. But Kaufmann sang with disciplined restraint, relying solely on the nuances of his voice to articulate the emotions and meaning of the songs. His delivery was lean and exact, with that touch of German austerity. Now UO, I understand that last summer you sang with Kaufmann in the Bayreuth production of Lohengrin. How does his style and vocal technique on the opera stage compare with what we saw tonight?

UO: Well, I think it all boils down to one thing: Kaufmann knows how to act with his voice. He trusts the material he sings and knows that if he delivers it in a straightforward way, masterpieces such as Dichterliebe will speak for themselves. In this day of live HD transmission and emphasis on extreme naturalism and cinematic facial expression, I think singers feel compelled to exaggerate their facial gestures and body movements. Even when he sang Lohengrin, Kaufmann generally did what was required of him by the director, in terms of gestures and movement around the stage, no more, no less. Certainly he didn't change his technique. That's what makes him so unique. For instance, he sang Lohengrin's Grail Narrative in Bayreuth with all the nuance that he brought to tonight's lieder recital. He isn't afraid employ the entire dynamic spectrum of his voice, from ultra-soft to ringing, metallic forte. He's one of the few singers out there today who has the ability to sing through an entire spectrum of loud and soft, in a way that reads in large halls. And it all carried beautifully, in part, of course, due to the wonderful Bayreuth acoustic. It worked well tonight, in a hall that isn't acoustically as generous.

LCU: As a singer and voice teacher, could you explain the technical challenges of Schumann's Dichterliebe for the tenor voice despite the fact that Jonas made it look so effortless? He sings with the ease of Fritz Wunderlich!

UO: Two of the highest vocal hurdles of Dichterliebe occur in the very first song. The "strong, weak" stresses of the words "aufgegangen" and "verlangen" are situated right in the tenor's so-called "passaggio," right where the voice has to negotiate a register shift that is quite challenging. Then just look at the word, for instance, "verlangen." The pitch change from G to F# -moves through two liquid consonants ("l" and "ng"), so a seamless vowel connection in this tricky part of the voice is quite difficult. Also, most of the songs are set quite low. This is partly in order to accommodate a high note in "Ich Grolle Nicht" that is not so stratospheric that it becomes an quasi-operatic acrobatic feat, with everyone on the edge of their seats waiting for the poor guy to crack! Of course, I think we would both agree that Kaufmann could have managed this with no effort at all, but the tonalities of all the songs have to have a coherent relationship to one another, and not be transposed all over the place. So the cycle is quite "range-ey." You also have potential pitfalls in intonation, particularly in the song "Am Leuchtenden Sommermorgen," where there are a lots of really radical modulations. Coming to Wunderlich: he had a very different, very sweet and less baritonal quality to his sound when you compare him to Kaufmann. You really never think of technique when you hear Wunderlich, it's all like child's play to him. Kaufmann came close to this ease of delivery last night, I think.

LCU: In one of his interviews, Kaufmann said that there is a huge difference between singing and speaking the German language. Kaufmann's diction is deliberately round because he chooses not to 'spit' his consonants, allowing for a smoother legato line. You mentioned that he has been criticized for doing this and for sounding too Italianate as Lohengrin (even though Wagner himself considered it his most Italian opera). However, does the German Lied call for a distinct German sound with all of its idiosyncrasies intact?  At Bryn Terfel's recital just a few months ago, I noticed that he was very emphatic with his consonants and even though he's Welsh, Terfel sounded more German to me than Kaufmann. Does the mellowing out of the harsh and choppy qualities compromise the rugged beauty, character, and integrity of the German language?

UO: I think we'd agree that in Lieder, especially, text and music have to be co-equal. You can't have one at the expense of the other. But there are choices to be made; do you maniacally over-pronounce at the expense of vocal quality?  Believe me, a lot of German coaches want just that!  Zellerbach Hall seems to me to be one of those places that swallows consonants, so perhaps that accounted for a certain loss of clarity. It's a big question, especially in opera: when do you modify text and vowels in order to allow the voice to be free?   Kaufmann seems to me to be one of those singers whose credo is "prima la musica, e poi la parola", in other words, music first, then text, to put it a bit simplistically. My impression in Bayreuth was that those who didn't care for his approach to Lohengrin felt that it was too human, not "knightly" enough. It wasn't so much about lack of clear diction or a matter of style, as I recall. But believe me, the supporters of his Lohengrin there far outweighed his detractors in number!

LCU: I have to tattle on myself - I shamelessly hooted and hollered and cheered like I was at a Michael Jackson concert. At one point George Hume, who sat across the aisle from me, even flashed me a dirty look. I was having a religious experience and just couldn't help myself. What do you think of the Berkeley audience?  How do they compare with the audience at the Met and Carnegie?

UO: I guess you didn't see me sinking lower and lower into my seat! What's wrong with enthusiasm?  I believe European artists in general are gratified by our American, somewhat over the top applause. I thought the Berkeley audience was just terrific -- absolutely silent during the singing. I saw a woman following along with a vocal score, and most people didn't turn the pages of their programs in the middle of a song, causing a rush of brittle sound to interrupt the music. Many times I have the feeling that, at the Met and other big venues in New York, and particularly on Broadway, people leap to their feet in a robotic, automatic standing ovation. Maybe that's just to convince themselves that the evening was great, because the ticket prices are so high! I enjoyed the respectful, informed Berkeley audience – very European – informed, respectful and quiet.

Armida at the Met

Fleming_as_Armida An account of the February 18, 2011 performance of Armida at the Metropolitan Opera from the Unbiased Opinionator.

* Notes * 
The tale of Armida, derived from an 16th Century epic poem by Tasso, has inspired composers from Lully and Händel to Dvořák and the contemporary British composer Judith Weir. The story of the crusader Rinaldo, tricked into love by the sorceress Armida, was also the source for an impressive cantata for men's voices by Brahms.

Rossini's version was composed during a fruitful period in Naples, in which he was assured of the best soloists, chorus and orchestra available at the time. In Armida, he had the luxury of writing for an unusual cast that includes seven tenors. The title role is among the most virtuosic and demanding in the entire dramatic coloratura repertory.

The Metropolitan's production was created by Mary Zimmerman for the 2010 season. Ranging from a painted stage curtain reminiscent of Titian, to Armida's infernal realm with a coffered dome in the style of the Pantheon (complete with an incongruous, huge black spider), to fantasy palm trees bathed in the rich color palette of the post-impressionist Henri Rousseau, the set design was striking.

John Osborn's sang the role of Goffredo, with its stratospheric high notes and demanding coloratura, most impressively, setting a high bar for the evening. The remaining secondary tenor roles were well cast.

The true hero of the evening, both dramatically and vocally, was the Rinaldo of Lawrence Brownlee. He sang with astonishing agility and a rich and varied range of vocal color. Compounding the difficulties of the role are the large ensembles, which require enormous stamina. Brownlee met these challenges with an ease of vocal delivery that was jaw-dropping. All the while scaling height after technical height, he managed to convey the expressive humanity of Rinaldo himself -- a transcendent achievement.

The Met's production of Armida was mounted for Renée Fleming. In the 1996 concert version given by the Opera Orchestra of New York, conducted by Eve Queler, this reviewer experienced Ms. Fleming's triumphantly fiery delivery at a time when the soprano had begun to shed her nice girl image and had started applying the "diva dust" required to sell this role.

While the intervening 15 years have brought Ms. Fleming many triumphs on the great stages of the world, they have not been kind to her in this impossibly challenging repertory. The artist sounded indisposed. Her singing was characterized by a pallid top, labored coloratura and a lack of vocal presence that bordered on inaudibility. The breathy attacks and scooping that have become a Fleming trademark seemed only to further undermine her technique. One hopes for happier moments in her upcoming performance as the Countess in Strauss's Capriccio, repertory in which this fine artist continues to excel.

Graciela Daniele's choreography, marvelously executed by the Met corps de ballet, featured a solo dance role Rinaldo performed with bravura by Eric Otto. The solo instrumental contributions, especially those of concert master David Chan, cellist Rafael Figueroa and principal harpist Deborah Hoffman, were masterful.

* Tattling * 
Absent a stellar singer in the title role, Rossini's Armida is a very long evening, and the audience thinned noticeably after both intermissions.

Premiere of Nixon in China at the Met

Nixoninchinamet The Metropolitan's production of John Adams' Nixon in China opened February 2. Here is the Unbiased Opinionator's account. The Opera Tattler may write about the February 12 performance.

* Notes * 
Once derided as a "CNN Opera," an opera taking its theme from contemporary news flashes, and thus lacking in substance, "Nixon in China" has achieved a permanent place in the standard operatic repertory. Often incorrectly described as a "minimalist" opera, the score has many moments of intense lyricism and almost Wagnerian sweep.

The Met's production is a virtual duplication of the 1987 Houston world premiere. Set design, including the famous arrival of "The Spirit of '76" (as the Nixon administration christened Air Force One), direction by Peter Sellars, Mark Morris' splendid Act II choreography, costumes and blocking were identical to the world premiere, and held up very well in the cavernous Met auditorium. James Maddelena, who created the part of Nixon in the first production of the opera, sang Nixon in the Met production. A bright red curtain was substituted for the Met's usual gold brocade.

The composer himself conducted. He was greeted by loud applause and clearly had the propulsive, complex score under tight control.

This was clearly a big event, preceded by large media build-up and attended by President Nixon's daughter, Patricia, her husband Edward Cox and their son. I am happy to report that the evening exceeded the expectations which the hype preceding an event of this high profile often creates.

As in other operas with an historical backdrop, Verdi's Don Carlo, and Masked Ball for instance, the opera probes the thoughts and emotions of principal players in an important moment in history. In this case it was President Nixon's path-breaking trip to China in 1972, the first attempt at creating politic and military détente with the "Middle Kingdom" after a prolonged and geo-politically dangerous lack of contact.

The opera succeeds in capturing the essence of President Nixon, who was clearly aware of the enormous media attention the trip received. His opening aria, with its propulsive repetition of the words "History" and "News," shows Nixon the politician, eager for favorable publicity before his bid for reelection.  His final duet with Pat, with his reminiscences about his experiences in World War II, shows the human, vulnerable aspect of this complex human being, much maligned at the time of his resignation and now in the process of rehabilitation and recognition for his accomplishments as a statesman and as President.

The role of First Lady Pat Nixon is the emotional and musical epicenter of the evening. She is portrayed highly sympathetically and her great aria: "This is Prophetic!" was beautifully sung by soprano Janis Kelly. Her closing lines "Bless this Union...May it Remain Inviolate" was intensely moving. One audience member broke out in enthusiastic solo applause, and one wondered if it were for the music, or for the plea that the nation remain unshattered by political division, a sentiment clearly relevant to the American political scene today.

Henry Kissinger fared poorly. He was cast as a stiff buffoon, and acts the part of the randy landlord (a complete departure from the historical reality of the occasion) in Madame Mao's ballet The Red Detachment of Women (brilliantly choreographed by Mark Morris and executed with astonishing energy and precision by the Met corps de ballet), which was performed for the Nixons and their entourage. Richard Paul Fink made the most of the role.

James Maddalena's performance was that of a singer whose best days are clearly behind him. He had evident vocal problems, especially in his first scene, and sang with overly darkened diction and a hooty, wobbly vocal quality. The principals in most of the opera were heavily amplified, and the amplification did not serve Mr. Maddalena well, with his audible cracking and throat-clearing. Although he acted the part well, capturing some of Nixon's physical stiffness, his dramatic achievement could not compensate for his inadequate vocalism.

Robert Brubaker presented an astonishingly well-sung Mao, which is written in an impossibly high range, and he captured the decrepitude of the aged yet iron-willed leader very effectively. Another stand-out was Russell Braun's performance as Chou En Lai, to which he brought nuanced and expressive singing. Chou En Lai in historical fact was an exceptionally cultivated and politically savvy leader. Denied treatment for bladder cancer by Mao's malignant wife Chiang Ch'ing (sung with great virtuosity by soprano Kathleen Kim), his final rumination ("How much of what we did was good?) was extremely effective and the capacity Met audience held its breath momentarily before delivering a thundering ovation.

* Tattling * 
Two young lovebirds seated before me irritated my neighbor to the point where she repeatedly poked the backs of their seats to stop their blocking of her line of sight. Otherwise, the audience sat in rapt, attentive silence.

La Traviata at the Met

Mettraviata German Regietheater made another inroad (after Luc Bondy's poorly-received Tosca) into the repertory of the Metropolitan Opera's with its new production of La Traviata. Here is the Unbiased Opinionator's account.

* Notes * 
Few Met opera-goers will mourn the passing of Franco Zeffirelli's visually overloaded production of Traviata, in which it was almost impossible to discern the principal singers on a stage riotously overpopulated with supernumeraries and overburdened with layers of flamboyant set design. German director Willy Decker's mounting of one of Verdi's most popular operas is the polar opposite of Zeffirelli's visual pandemonium. All three acts of the opera take place within a glaring white semi-circle, replacing Zeffirelli's over the top realism with abstract, "concept"-laden sterility. As is common with this sort of thing, the Director writes pages of explanatory program notes (filled with tautological, tortured sentences such as: "La Traviata is a piece about death – and paradoxically, or maybe inevitably, it is equally a piece about the almost overwhelming force of life, which drives every living thing toward death...") in an attempt to win over the otherwise bored or baffled audience member.

Well before curtain time, a hoary "Father Time" figure, a sort of Dr. Death, is seated before a giant clock, which dominates the stage throughout the evening. As the Overture begins, Violetta makes her entrance in a scarlet strapless party dress and drifts about the stage, occasionally moving pleadingly toward "Dr. Death" as she attempts to grasp and stop the motion of the hands of the clock. An ungenerous critic might ask: Was a metaphor ever more belabored or more obvious?

The courtesans and haute-bourgeois party-goers were dressed, both men and women, in black tuxedos, menacing Violetta and Alfredo.  The hospital white, semi-circular set created odd acoustic distortions of the singing and the largely purposeless stage direction left the principals to wander about the stage or required them to perform writhing physical contortions on the floor or on one of the couches which appeared like an obstacle course. In fairness, it must be mentioned that the confrontation between Alfredo and his father, culminating in Germont striking his son and then holding him, weeping, in his arms, was effective and moving. As Violetta surges toward death in her final scene, a floral patterned sky turns blood red – giving the impression of tubercular microbes seen under a microscope – creating a chilling, spine-tingling effect.

Marina Poplavskaya's Violetta was uneven, ranging from an explosive "Sempre Libera," with muddy coloratura and a strident top, to a meltingly beautiful rendition of the third Act "Addio del Passato." It does not matter at all if Violetta does not interpolate a high E-flat at the end of "Sempre Libera," but it does matter if what comes before is so disappointing. A visually striking woman, she was forced to writhe, crawl, meander and ghost-walk through the show; which was choreographically impressive, but surely not vocally helpful. Possessed of an impressively beautiful voice, one has the sense that the soprano consistently overloads her middle range, which might account for her difficulties in important, climactic moments such as her outburst "Ah, M'ami Alfredo!" in Act II.

As Alfredo, Matthew Polenzani sang with consistent beauty and sensitivity. In particular, his "Parigi, O Cara" was sung with an exquisite gradient of vocal color and emotional expression.  His second act rendition of the cabaletta to "De Miei Bollenti Spiriti" was powerful without being forced. Polish baritone Andrzej Dobber cut an impressive figure as Germont, and sang "Di Provenza al Mar" with a fine sense of line despite the aria's cruel tessitura and a slight crack on the high G-flat in the aria's concluding phrase.

There were many instances of poor coordination between the pit and the stage. The second act Gypsy Chorus fell apart completely as a result of an impossibly fast tempo. On the plus side, the orchestra played with marvelous balance and uniformity of sound, especially in the Act One and Third Act preludes.

All in all, an interesting evening for a short run in a B-level German opera house. An enduring production for the Metropolitan Opera? The question is open and surely will provoke lively debate.

La Fanciulla del West at the Met

Met-fanciulla1 Metropolitan Opera's current production of La Fanciulla del Westmarks the 100th anniversary of the opera's world premiere. The Unbiased Opinionator attended the performance last Tuesday.

* Notes * 
The genesis of the La Fanciulla del Westis well known. Puccini, in New York to supervise the Met premiere of Madama Butterfly, saw David Belasco's play The Girl of the Golden West, and caught what he later called the "California Disease." The result -- after several years of struggling with librettists (Carlo Zangarini and his successor Guelfo Civinini), and after a period of unproductive depression following an extra-marital affair and the suicide of his mistress -- was one of Puccini's most musically enigmatic, elusive and psychologically insightful operas.

The central personality of the story, Minnie, reveals herself as a woman both homesick for and ashamed of her humble origins. Over her inner vulnerability she has constructed a steely shell, ever ready with a shotgun to protect herself and the gold entrusted to her for safekeeping by her ragtag group of miners. Her character is complex and contradictory, yet believable. The only female character in the opera (with the exception of the cameo role of the native Indian Wowkle), she is the surrogate mother and to and schoolmistress of a colorful collection of California Gold Rush gold-diggers.

The success of the opera rests entirely on the shoulders of Minnie, her love interest Dick Johnson and the sheriff Jack Rance. If any of the three legs of this dramatic tripod is weak, the opera fails. Unfortunately, the experience of this reviewer on December 14th was that of an utter failure, especially on the vocal front. With the exception of Marcello Giordani's powerfully and expressively sung Dick Johnson, the efforts of the protagonists were woefully inadequate.

To my great regret, the prime responsibility for the failure of the evening rests with Deborah Voigt's Minnie, which was consistently under pitch, lacking in color and marred by a weak top, with most high notes either approximated or lunged at. Having heard this artist at her peak, prior to gastric bypass surgery, when she possessed a dramatic soprano voice of astounding power and beauty, her current vocal condition is especially sad. In consideration of her statement that she underwent the surgery not for cosmetic reasons, but literally in order to save her life after a struggle with morbid obesity, an attitude of understanding and charity has to be brought to a review of her efforts. However, it is irresponsible of Management to continue to cast this artist in dramatic roles which completely exceed her current vocal state. In Ms. Voigt's favor was an obvious affinity for the character of Minnie and some fine acting, especially in Act II.

Lucio Gallo's Jack Rance was marred by clichéd, stiff, operatic gesturing and a strangled top. As noted above, Marcello Giordani's Dick Johnson, an outlaw whose encounter with Minnie both humanizes him and converts him from his renegade criminality, was very impressive and consistent, with an exciting top and a vocal delivery blessed with a variety of color and expression. Only his signature aria, "Ch'ella Mi Creda," (in which, facing execution, he asks his henchmen to spare Minnie knowledge of his fate, but rather to let her believe that he is enjoying a life of freedom far away from the harsh life of the Sierra Nevada), was flawed by curiously broken phrasing and pitch problems.

The numerous supporting roles, especially Dwayne Croft's Sonora, and Tony Stevenson's Nick, were strong, well-acted and well sung, and avoided the dangers of cartoonish over-playing. Conductor Nicola Luisotti displayed total mastery over the many challenges of the score. To create a sense of seamless flow in Puccini s music, with its constant tempo changes, syncopations and difficult vocal and instrument cues, is deceptively, in fact enormously, difficult. Fanciulla, in particular, presents many challenges, not the least of which is Puccini's delaying of the musical resolution of phrases with ambiguous tonalities. complex harmonic structures and deceptive cadences, counterbalanced by melodic material of luminous beauty, none more so than the finale, "Addio, mia dolce terra, addio mia California," which never fails to grip the listener with its haunting sadness.

Luisotti brought a natural affinity to the music and molded the Met orchestra into a fine ensemble, the orchestra in Fanciulla being, as in much of Wagner, a character unto itself. One hopes that he will be a frequent guest at the Metropolitan.

The production, dating from 1993, is conventional and mostly effective. A particularly beautiful touch was the stream of light that entered into Minnie's cabin at the end of Act II, underscoring her feeling of wholeness and redemption as she gives in to her love of Dick Johnson.

* Tattling * 
There were many empty seats in the hall, but the audience was mercifully quiet and attentive.

Don Carlo at the Met

Met-don-carlo Metropolitan Opera's Don Carlo, a co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, opened last night. What follows is the Unbiased Opinionator's account of the prima.

* Notes * 
Very rarely does an opera with a 7:00 pm start time and midnight closing curtain, on a Monday night, rivet an audience into rapt silence. Absent Bayreuth-style, hour-long intermissions, the performance can be a grueling experience, for singers and audience alike. I am happy to report that the evening sped by –with compelling stage direction, impressive set design and above all, a very strong cast led by a conductor who knew what he wanted from the score and radiated both confident mastery and reverence and respect for the difficult tasks faced by the principals.

It would require a curmudgeon the likes of Wagner's Beckmesser to nit-pick the performance last evening, the season premiere of Don Carlo at the Met. The opera was performed in the five act version in Italian, not the original French version, and is loosely based on the Schiller play, reworked by the playwright François Joseph Méry (1798-1866). The libretto was completed by Camille de Locle after Méry's death.

Verdi spent over twenty years tweaking what is considered by many, and most definitely by this reviewer, as Verdi's magnum opus. Many of his revisions were undertaken after Aida and the Requiem, and Verdi's growth and mastery, acquired after composing Aida (an opera similar in scope and ambition to Don Carlo, where the private passions of individual players take place before an enormous historical back-drop) and the Requiem, which drew Verdi into the realm of the sacred, seem to culminate in the final version of Don Carlo, where personages of enormous political power struggle to reconcile their private loves, disappointments and sense of tragic doom with the crushing political burdens forced upon them by history.

The sets and costumes were in every way effective and impressive, no more so than in the monastery of St. Just, with its subterranean catacomb containing the sarcophagus of Charles the Fifth, and the striking set of the third act auto-da-fe with the Valladolid Cathedral cast in gold, the sky blood red, and a huge portrait of Christ in torment dominating stage left, which at the end of the Act becomes a transparency behind which we see the remains of heretics burned at the stake. All the horror of the Spanish Inquisition was felt here. Torture and death by fire were suggested, not imposed on the audience literally, which increased the sense of terror and mania underlying the Inquisition.

Roberto Alagna's performance of the title role, after initial dryness and forcing in his only aria "Io la Vidi," was impressive and moving. This role is thankless and in most performances only memorable if the tenor is not up to its demands. Don Carlo has but one real aria, and the role is extremely long and taxing. As the evening developed, Alagna become more convincing, with an powerful top and deeply felt expression.

To this reviewer, the musical and dramatic high point of the show was Ferruccio Furlanetto's rendition of the King's great aria "Ella Giammai M'amo." It would take an entire review in itself to explore the rich detail, the sonority and variety of vocal and expressive color Furlanetto was able to bring to this aria, perhaps the greatest aria for bass ever written by Verdi. The arching phrase "Amor per me non ha," greatly feared by basses, is repeated twice. In the first of two repetitions, this great artist succeeded in slimming his large voice into a slender, yet ringing, stream of sound. He did not allow himself to be rushed by the conductor, taking all the time he needed to properly breathe and prepare for each, ever more challenge phrase, but in no way diminishing the intensifying drama of this scena. In the reprise of the difficult phrase mentioned above, he opened up with a massive, engulfing sound that was overwhelming in its emotional intensity, as the King, possessing all the political might of the world, mourns his wife's lack of love and his solitude.

Marilyn Horne, a great Eboli in her day, correctly describes the this role as actually requiring three singers; one with the flexibility of the Veil Song, one for the enraged Eboli, rejected by Carlo in their in the first scene of Act III, and one who can pull out all the stops for the virtuosic showpiece "O Don Fatale." The mezzo Anna Smirnova was really only truly suited to the last of these challenges: her Veil Song was labored and lacked subtlety. However, her powerful, dark vocalism and marvelous high B in her Third Act aria were breathtaking. Marina Poplavskaya's Elizabeth was sung with great beauty and a sublime fil de voce- the ability to thread a high note into a spinning pianissimo. Unfortunately, she was overburdened by the challenges of this long evening, and her final aria "Tu Che la Vanita" was effortful, with a forced top and limited emotional impact. Simon Keenlyside, who performed an admirable Hamlet last year at the Met in Ambrose Thomas' opera, was a fine dramatic presence, but seemed a bit out of his depth vocally. He was often overpowered by the orchestra, and his aria "Per me Giunto," where he pledges his life to saving beleaguered Flanders and declaring his loyalty and bond of love to Carlo, was weak.

The great stage veteran, Eric Halfvarson, a memorable Hagen in Götterdämmerung, captured impressively the ancient, blind yet all-powerful and menacing Grand Inquisitor. At this stage in his long career, Halfvarson's voice tends to spread and wobble at climactic moments, but this is a mere cavil – so effective and blood-chilling was his delivery and presence. His cardinal red robe, the only color in the darkness of Phillip's chamber, was a blood-shot reminder of his fanatical pursuit of heretics and the horror of burning at the stake of his victims. In the great confrontational duet between the King and the Inquisitor, I had the sense that phrases were not given an opportunity to resonate, but rather were precipitously jammed together by the conductor, which diminished somewhat the impact of this tremendous scene. Secondary roles were well sung, especially by Lalya Claire (in her Met debut s the Elizabeth's page Tebaldo) and the Celestial Voice (Jennifer Check), who is given the daunting tasking of performing a short, very high and exposed angelic line at the end of the Act III. She met this challenge with courage, and sang from a position high in the auditorium balconies, not on or behind the stage. The Friar (Alexei Tonvitsky, in his Met debut) was imposing. A special mention should be made of the 6 Flemish Deputies, who sing in unison in the Act III auto da fe, imploring King Philip for relief for the Flemish people. The blend was perfect, resulting in the sense of one voice pleading, yet dignified.

There were too many marvels emanating from the pit to describe them all. The horn section, playing in unison at the beginning of Act IV was perfect in its somber sonority. I had the occasion to hear this performance from two positions, one in the front row of the Grand Tier, where the orchestra seemed overloud, since its sound projects upward while the singers' voices tend to project directionally forward into the hall. A seat in Orchestra Row Z, just under the parterre boxes, gave a better sense of balance, and my initial impression that conductor Yannick Nézet-Séquin was insensitive to the singers was corrected when I heard the performance in this horizontal acoustic plane.

* Tattling * 
As this was the opening Gala Performance of Don Carlo, the audience was especially glamorous and well-dressed. Disruptions by cellphones and yakking were minimal, and people remained after the performance long enough to render a loud and fitting approval of the evening's performance, which will remain in my memory as one of the best I have heard at the Met.

Carmen at the Met

Carmen-metMetropolitan Opera's new production of Carmen was revived this season. Here is the Unbiased Opinionator's account of the performance that occurred on November 16th.

* Notes * 
The Metropolitan Opera's reprise of its 2009 production of Carmen, directed by Richard Eyre, updates the story from Prosper Mérimée's 1830s setting to the time of the Spanish Civil War. This concept is not new: Frank Corsaro imposed it on the low-budget New York City Opera production back in 1984, which was reprised several times. I saw the NYCO production in the late 90s, and an unfortunate parallel must be drawn: one has the impression that the updating is done only to save money by substituting drab costumes and sets for what should be a rich visual spectacle. Audiences "listen with their eyes" as well as their ears, as the saying goes, and in this case the visuals cast a pall on the entire opera, with some exceptions, to be noted below.

One exception to the dreariness of the color palette of this production was the striking blood-red slash streaking downward through the fire curtain as one entered the auditorium, which found an admirable symmetry in the gown in which Carmen meets her fate at the end of the opera: a black lace dress (trajes de faraleas) with an identical red streak down the front, something akin to a lightening bolt.

To this listener, the performance was murdered in its cradle by the impossibly fast tempi chosen by conductor, Edward Gardner, in his Met debut. The opening overture was driven to such an extreme that the only the marvelous Met orchestra could have kept up. The result was a depressing lack of rhythmic drive, absence of phrasing, loss of clarity of instrumentation and ragged ensemble. This was particularly obvious in the third act, and the failure of coordination verged on outright disaster. Perhaps Gardner was told by management to keep his eye on the clock, as overtime starts at midnight. Seated relatively closely to the stage, I could not discern a prompter's box, and absent a prompter, and even with TV monitors, the cast displayed almost telepathic capacity with which to maintain minimal coordination with the pit. I believe this to be one of the curses of our time, the confusion of speed with energy.

The admirable Met chorus seemed underpowered in this performance, except for lyric passages which were sung with great beauty and balance. The children's chorus was brilliantly energized and forceful. I often marvel at the capacity of a child's voice to carry in a house the size of the Met, an object lesson to adult singers and to voice teachers alike.

We had, once again, the ever present Met turntable set design; rotating vertical cuffs which serve in their various permutations as cigarette factory, tavern, gypsy hideout and bullring. Peter Mumford"s lighting design washed the stage in a dim haze throughout the evening. Piercing, brilliant Spanish sunlight was nowhere to be seen, even in the final act, except at the moment where Jose murders Carmen, when the sky momentarily turns blood red.

The Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanča possesses a voice of great beauty, graced with a secure technique and a powerful top. She is also blessed with an extremely attractive physical presence and the ability to move well on stage. However, one wished for more risk-taking, more earthiness. Her delivery undercut Carmen's predatory sexuality by substituting finely formed vocalism for dramatic power. It seemed that she either lacked, or was unwilling to dig into, the chest register where the music and drama require it. This is a great challenge for a good singer: how to go beyond certain technical boundaries without risking vocal health. I would love to hear this singer in other repertory, Mozart, Strauss or Mahler, where her cool Baltic temperament and vocal gift might be heard to better effect.

Tenor Brandon Jovanovich's Don José was vocally gratifying and visually handsome. He possesses a voice with the sufficient "blade" (as Colin Davis used to call it) with which to fill the large Met auditorium, and he finished his Flower Song with a beautiful voix-mixte B-flat. He overcame an initial impression of physical stiffness and unease and built his delivery to fine dramatic effect in the last act. On the minus side, he was not served well at the opera's conclusion by the costume designer, who draped him in what looked like a monk's robe with a huge cross dangling across his chest – a too literal take on his line to Carmen: "laisse moi te sauver." A fine bit of staging, having José slam Carmen into a wall, dazing her as he pleads with her not to desert him, was spoiled by an unsupported piece of the set which tottered comically upon impact.

Of the remaining cast, John Relyea's Escamillo was to this listener a disappointment in every respect except one, his dashing physical presence. I have greatly admired this singer in other roles, particularly, Faust in Berlioz's Damnation of Faust. Here, however, his ample bass-baritone was hampered by a swallowed delivery and weak top. Nicole Cabell as Micaëla, while sweet of voice, seemed underpowered in the Met's cavernous auditorium although she played the role with sincerity. At the risk of belaboring the point, one has to again fault the conductor, who put Cabell into a rhythmic vice in her signature aria "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante." His dictatorial, metronomic beat robbed this singer of any chance to employ expressive rubato or flow. She wisely delivered her high B front and center, figuratively wresting the baton from Edward Gardner's hands and giving herself a chance to make a true impact. Michael Todd Simpson as Moralès and Keith Miller as Zuniga were effective. Joyce El-Khoury (in her Met debut) as Frasquita, Eve Gigliotti as Mercédès and their gypsy cohorts didn' t stand a chance vocally, given Gardner' s whirlwind tempi, although they executed their choreographic and dramatic duties with expertise.

A special mention should be made of the beautiful and expressive dancing of Maria Kowroski and Martin Harvey, and of the beautiful rendition of the Act III Entr'acte by members of the Met orchestra.

* Tattling * 
The Met audience was better-behaved than usual, although one man behind me insisted on humming alone with the "Toreador Song" in the overture. Two women of a certain age insisted on exchanging remarks despite nasty looks from UO and from Miss LCU. There was the usual, inevitable standing ovation by the audience members who chose not to bolt for the doors the minute the show ended. How one longs for European audiences, who rarely give standing ovations, except for performances of extraordinary "once-in-a-lifetime" impact.

Il Trovatore at the Met

Trovatore_E-Courir_Act-3 A revival of Metropolitan Opera's Il Trovatore, seen in San Francisco last year, opened this evening. Here is the Unbiased Opinionator's account of final dress rehearsal that occurred on October 21st. The Opera Tattler was quite surprised to hear that Patricia Racette was indisposed, as she is known for having vocal cords of steel. At the same time, one finds it difficult to imagine Racette in this role, especially since she is double cast with the incredible Sondra Radvanovsky.

* Notes * 
The bare-knuckled, long-time film critic for the New Yorker, Pauline Kael, once wrote of the Marx Brothers' "A Night at the Opera" that The Marx Brothers did to Il Trovatore what Il Trovatore deserved to have done to it. The plot line of the opera certainly requires of the listener not just a willing suspension of disbelief, but at times requires the listener unplug disbelief entirely, and to suppress outright laughter. My favorite howler is Manrico's singing his mother to sleep just before she is to be burned at the stake.

In addition to its lemon of a plot, the opera contains long stretches of rather pedestrian music. Thus, the success or failure of the piece rest entirely on the quality of the performance. Thursday's dress rehearsal was beset by many gremlins. Both Manrico and Azucena canceled due to illness, and the Leonora (Patricia Racette) was announced to be indisposed but, begging the audience's indulgence, would perform as scheduled. So an entirely fair review of this show must await an actual performance after flu, allergy, and the unwillingness of certain singers to "waste their time" on the dress rehearsal of an opera season has passed. That said, enough of the performance remained intact for UO to make a few comments.

It is difficult to comment fairly on Patricia Racette's Leonora in light of her announced indisposition. She marked many passages, but managed a full-voice account of her first act aria "Tacea la Notte," which confirmed my doubt that the versatile, dramatically satisfying Racette could ever make a true Verdian. Her voice is simply too light to ride out the huge Verdi arches and to prevail in the large ensembles. Luckier opera-goers will have a chance to experience Sondra Radvanovsky's portrayal later in the season. Again, an entirely fair review is simply not possible, given the circumstances.

The cover Azucena, Russian mezzo Elena Manistina, delivered a truly great performance, with a thrilling top, great sense of drama and a vocal combination of metal and warmth which are the hallmarks of a really fine singer. For this listener, the vocal and dramatic highlight of the afternoon was Azucena's "Stride la Vampa," which was sung so convincingly and with such dramatic menace that its inherent musical silliness was forgotten. On the other hand, Phillip Webb, the stand-in Manrico, showed potential, but is very green, and was probably very nervous. His "necktie tenor" delivery, numerous cracked notes, and ungainly and awkward acting revealed a promising singer much in need for further technical and dramatic training. Nonetheless, he delivered a sensitive "Ah si ben mio," followed by a good High C at the end of the cabaletta "Di Quella Pira." The Count di Luna, Serbian Zelkjo Luĉić, was dramatically strong, but his large voice had an unfortunate hootiness, which diminished his effectiveness throughout the afternoon, especially in his aria "Íl Balen del sul Sorriso."

Conductor Marco Armiliato, a veteran in this repertory, found just the right pacing to avoid dissipating musical energy. The chorus was precise and powerful. Smaller roles, some taken from the chorus, were strong and confident. It is very instructive to hear an orchestra play when a singer is marking. One hears how light the orchestrations are in Verdi's vocal accompaniments, and how unnecessary it is for a singer to yell to get over them.

As for the other aspects of the production, upon entering the house, one was confronted with a large painted panel (once called a fire curtain) in the style of Goya's Disasters of War. The horrified faces depicted on the panel brought to mind my first reaction upon entering the Met's tacky Belmont Room (or, as insiders call it, the "Boom Boom Room").

Charles Edwards' set design was stamped from the Met's usual set of all-purpose templates. A large rotating wall alternately represented the royal residence of the Count di Luna, and then Manrico's fortress. The ash grey, dreary background effectively set the tone for the darkness of the plot. David McVicar was the traffic cop, leaving the soloists to make stock gestures and the chorus piled up in the corner of the stage.

* Tattling * 
One of the entertaining aspects of attending a Met dress rehearsal is the intermissions, where people sit on the floor in the red-carpeted foyers and instead of spending $4.50 for a lousy cappuccino, unpack thermoses of coffee and unwrap sandwiches brought from outside. Among Thursday's audience was an entire class of grade school kids, who from up in the Family Circle listened in absolute silence, and who cheered loudly at the end of the show. Sitting out on the Balcony overlooking the Plaza during the intermission, I heard several of them talk excitedly about the performance and how cool the redesigned Lincoln Center fountain is. I felt that there is hope for opera's future after all.

Boris Godunov at the Met

Met-boris This season, the Metropolitan Opera is presenting two operas that weave personal emotional drama into the sweep of great historical events: Boris Godunov and Don Carlo. On October 8, the final dress rehearsal of Boris took place, and what follows are the Unbiased Opinionator's impressions.

* Notes * 
After Peter Stein's cancellation due to visa difficulties, it was left to Stephen Wadsworth, in only five weeks, to rework the show's staging and direction. Perhaps as a result of this abrupt change in leadership, René Pape's Boris seemed lost, staggering about the stage, looking more drunk than physically and emotionally tormented by the burdens of power and guilt. His vocal delivery seemed to lack core, which might be attributed to the early hour of the rehearsal. Nonetheless, his sound was diffuse and as the rehearsal progressed, tended toward a barked delivery, even in the more legato monologues. I am a great admirer of René Pape's work, however, he seemed miscast here – the effective center of his range is higher than the role demands. But, then, where are the true bassi of yore, those cast in the mold of Ghiarov, George London or Jerome Hines, let alone Chaliapin?

That said, the remaining, very large, solo cast was uniformly strong. Particularly fine were Ekaterina Semenchuk (Marina) and Aleskadrs Antonenko (Grigoriy). The performance by the young Jonathan A. Makepeace as Boris' son Fyodor was nothing short of astonishing: vocally, dramatically and choreographically. This role is often taken by a mezzo-soprano, and such a level of accomplishment by an adolescent was immensely impressive. I cannot imagine a better Pimen (bass Mikhail Petrenko), whose solemn portrayal of the hermit was very moving. Evgeny Nikitin's Rangoni could perhaps be faulted for a certain ragged vocal delivery, but this was in keeping with the smarminess of the character, alternately coming on sexually to Marina and trying convince her to seduce Grigoriy into returning to Moscow to claim the throne, paving the way for the destruction of Russian Orthodoxy by Rome.

The large chorus in Boris Godunov is a character in itself, and a very important one. Driven and oppressed, veering from servile obedience to outraged vengeance, the Met chorus was dramatically magnificent and technically unimpeachable, with razor sharp attacks, violent and dramatically overwhelming outbursts -- never yelled, or (as in previous years) fraught with poor blend and heavy vibrato in the soprano section. Donald Palumbo's work with this group has created one of the world's finest opera choruses.

As in Wagner, the orchestra is also itself a character in the opera; never a mere accompaniment, but rather a commentator on and instigator of the events taking place on stage. The incomparable Met orchestra rose to the occasion, which is particularly impressive in light of the fact that the weakest link in this performance was conductor Valery Gergiev, whose head remained buried in the score as he threw out the occasional cue with his left hand, while the right hand flaccidly and indistinctly waved about in unintelligible beat patterns. It is a tribute to the soloists, the choral ensemble and the orchestra that the performance was as cohesive as it was, with only occasional lack of coordination between the pit and the stage. Further, the tempi chosen by Gergiev, in particular in the prologue and in the Third Act Polonaise, were unconscionably rushed. The small string figures that spin over the characteristic rhythm of the Polonaise were reduced to a thin wash as the players struggled to keep up. One can only surmise, generously, that tempo choices were dictated by time constraints.

The set design was spare – even abstract, with the Novodievichy Monastery in the first act reduced to a small entry portal on stage left. The Kremlin consisted of a gold wall which descended from the flies, with a small curtained door for Boris' entrances and exits. While this created a wonderful acoustic resonator for the singers, the row of bells at the top of the set, remaining motionless as digitally produced bell sounds pealed, was frankly a bit silly. The Polish court scene consisted of rows of black columns, which provided a fine backdrop for the elaborate white gowns and hats worn by the noblewomen (designed by Dorothee Urmacher). The triumphant return of Grigory the Pretender's forces in Varmy forest, en route to Moscow, was set on a bare, raked staged, with a central rectangular opening, out of which emerged banner-waiving soldiers and two white horses, which reinforced the old maxim – live animals and children are scene-stealers. At the conclusion, the Holy Fool (in a very fine delivery by tenor Andrey Popov), bemoans the dark destiny of Mother Russia; godless, populated by a mob and rabble ready to follow any leader strong enough to bludgeon his way to power.

* Tattling * 
Peter Gelb's latest innovation, offering 1,000 dress rehearsal tickets by lottery, in addition to those offered to patrons and guild members, combined with a thoughtful and intelligent spoken introduction, and his humorous admonition that the only electrical devices that should operate during the performance be on stage and not in the auditorium, provided for a mercifully quiet, disciplined and cellphone-free audience. If only this were the case in performances and not just dress rehearsals!