Posted in Opera

“Enchanted” Afternoon

Saturday afternoon’s live HD telecast of The Enchanted Island not only proved a delightful trip to Baroque opera-land—it demonstrated yet again that critics are incredibly biased against productions that are just plain fun.

Daniels & DiDonato…..Divine

As touted in the Met’s promotional materials, this work is a pastiche meant to emulate the sort of evening’s entertainment frequently cooked up by 17th and 18th century composers. The recipe goes something like this: take a stock plot involving at least two sets of lovers, swipe arias, ensembles and choruses from several different works and/or composers, throw in a mythological god or two and voila! Instant opera. In the case of The Enchanted Island, dramatist Jeremy Sams produced a mash-up of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the four lovers from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, flavored by the music of Handel, Vivaldi and Rameau, among others. The result was incredibly witty and engaging, and just to thing to see on a snowy January day.

A lot of criticism has been directed at Met General Manager Peter Gelb for not scheduling an honest to God, full-length Baroque opera, i.e., the real deal instead of a pastiche. I’m just guessing here, but to me it seems obvious that management wanted to shoot the works by having Joyce DiDonato and David Daniels appear in the same opera. If so, there’s a slight hitch—she’s a mezzo, he’s a countertenor, so they both tend to sing the same roles in Baroque opera, i.e., heroic leads. The problems of casting and repertoire are thus solved when you build the house from the ground up. Another issue in the critical press has been the nature of the libretto—too contemporary, too vernacular, too silly. This is all very subjective, of course, but I loved it. I laughed out loud at several scenes, and if the naysayers couldn’t enjoy the sight of mismatched couple Lysander and Miranda jumping up and down with glee because their names rhymed (sort of), all I can say is some people need to lighten up.

I’ll get to the singers in a moment, but I think top honors should go to conductor William Christie, who also selected the works included in the opera. Beyond that, what he did with the orchestra was amazing. It doesn’t often play this type of music, but what we heard was nothing short of stylish, superlative musicianship. The number of players was of course significantly reduced—probably half the regular complement of strings, two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, one set of tympani. The only time I can remember hearing brass was when Neptune made his entrance, and that was just a brief fanfare. Bravi tutti!

While I’m still not entirely sold on countertenors in the opera house, David Daniels did a masterful job as Prospero. He had two achingly beautiful arias, his entrance piece taken from a Vivaldi cantata, and better still, the aria that closed the first act, a Handel work featuring a stunning bassoon obligato. Lisette Oropesa played what I think of as the Dawn Upshaw role, Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, and her aria, from a Handel cantata, was lovely (by the way, the full playlist, so to speak, is available on the Met’s website). Dancing Danielle deNiese sang Ariel, and while she was cute as a little red wagon, her voice above the staff has gotten incredibly shrill. Bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni was Caliban, and his extraordinary makeup and costume couldn’t conceal what a tremendous singer he is. Placido Domingo showed up as Neptune and demonstrated that while he’s still got it vocally, Baroque is not exactly his metier. Four young singers from the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program played the lovers from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I’d keep my eye on soprano Layla Claire and baritone Elliot Madore—these two have definite possibilities.

There’s a special charge hearing a singer at the peak of her career, and that’s where Joyce DiDonato resides these days. As Sycorax, the sorceress mentioned but not seen in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, she goes for broke both musically and dramatically in her first arias as she casts her spells. In the second act she turns lyrical in a Ferrandini aria as she consoles her son Caliban, and hearing the DiDonato brand of musicianship in a work like this is a gift. She seemed to be having the time of her life playing ugly at the beginning of the opera, and aside from Beverly Sills, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a singer convey such enjoyment at what she does for a living. Not so incidentally, she earns that gorgeous costume you see in the production photo above by the end of the opera, and then some.

The production team poked some fun at the Baroque style with its over-the-top design of Neptune’s lair, complete with four floating mermaids and a chorus posed behind cardboard-flat cherubs. I also enjoyed Ariel’s entrance in that scene as she appears in old-fashioned diver’s gear, and the initial depiction of Neptune as a cranky Wizard of Oz. Even when Ariel-as-Tinkerbelle threatens to become too cute for words, you’re still wowed by the stage effects. I only have a couple of minor bones to pick—I wish Jeremy Sams had made the extent of Prospero’s usurpation more explicit at the beginning of the opera, because in the last scene even Joyce DiDonato can’t make Sycorax’s hatred of the man and her refusal of forgiveness logical. And casting a countertenor as Ferdinand almost made his pairing with Miranda incestuous—evidently she wanted a guy just like dear old Dad. However, their duet was terrific (countertenors are like universal donors—they blend like nobody’s business). It’s a shame we didn’t get some fireworks via a duet featuring DiDonato and Daniels, but it’s something to think about when the production is revived, isn’t it?

The encore HD telecast is scheduled for February 8th, and I’m sure this will turn up on PBS in the coming months. Don’t miss it.

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Posted in Observations

Art Deco Madness

Except for its number, 666 Third Avenue in Manhattan is not a particularly notable address. But if you work there, as I currently do, you’ll find it unique—it enjoys a connecting passageway to that 1930 riot of art deco on Lexington Avenue, the Chrysler Building.

I have the delight of walking through good old CB’s ground floor several times a day. The lobby is an experience—the decor of all the early sound films you’ve ever seen seems to spring to life in zigzags, diagonals and Broadway-lettered signs. Where else can you see elevator doors that look like this?

Or a clock like this?

Or gaze at this?

The building’s origins are just as gaudy as its appearance. The brainchild of Walter Chrysler of automobile fame, it represented his effort to build the tallest skyscraper in the world. Architect William Van Alen’s original design differed somewhat from the building we know today, and was in fact submitted to a previous client who turned it down as impractical. The project was sold to Chrysler, who wanted his building to sport the same type of exterior features he had on his automobiles—the hubcaps and hood ornaments that made his cars distinctive (Needless to say he got them, though he stiffed Van Alen on his fee, the curse of all licensed professionals). Ground was broken in 1928 and the race was on. Construction of the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building at 40 Wall Street was underway, and this promised to be the winner in the World’s Tallest category. Until, of course, Chrysler construction workers secretly assembled the famous spire inside the building and hoisted it through the roof, topping the structure off at 1,047 feet. This was the first man-made structure to exceed 1,000 feet in height.

Alas, the Chrysler Building’s reign only lasted 11 months, until the Empire State Building won the crown with a height of 1,454 feet (antenna included). However, unlike the Empire State, which was constructed from stock materials, the Chrysler Building was, according to David Stravitz, author of “The Chrysler Building: Creating a New York Icon Day by Day,” hand-crafted—not just the elevator doors, but the stainless steel items, such as the spire, the building crown and the exterior ornaments, all of which were made in Manhattan sheet metal shops. King Kong may have made the Empire State famous, but only the Chrysler Building has gargoyles like these:

Other fun facts:

—The Chrysler Building once had an observatory on the 71st floor and a restaurant called the Cloud Club (how perfect is that?) which occupied Floors 66-68. This was created at tenant Texaco’s request, which wanted an exclusive luncheon club for its top-level executives. While the membership roster expanded slightly, it was in its heyday the epitome of corporate executive power—women were verboten. Ultimately it fell victim to the “tear down, don’t restore” syndrome of the 1960’s, but while it was around the Chrysler Room looked like this:

The main dining room:

—Walter Chrysler boasted of having “the highest throne in the world” since his bathroom occupied the top floor of the building. Unfortunately his plans to relocate Chrysler corporate headquarters to his namesake structure never happened, though the lobby did become a showroom for the latest in Chrysler–Dodge–DeSoto design.

It’s a privilege to experience this every day.

Update! Update! This morning I found the passageway from Grand Central Station to the Chrysler Building. The underground hall in CB has marble walls and boasts a shoeshine parlor (very spiffy) and a deli with a great neon sign. Winding stairways, also marble walled, take you right up to the lobby without having to brave the January cold on Lexington Avenue. Art deco bliss.

Posted in Opera

Tosca, Sei Tu!

Tosca reappeared at the Met last night, only to prove that terrific voices and a soprano with savvy still can’t overcome Luc Bondy’s production, not to mention a debuting conductor with some strange ideas about tempos.

A Bad Day at Castel Sant’Angelo

Patricia Racette, one of my favorite singers, was the reason I went back to see this production, which garnered a ton of brickbats when it premiered. At the outset let me say that I love singers with brains. Not just musical brains–dramatically wired brains. What I want to see is the result of what baseball players frequently yell at each other from the dugout: “Have an idea out there!” I’ve never found Ms. Racette to be without one, though even she couldn’t make me like Tosca all that much in the first act. After Cavaradossi establishes a rapport with the audience in the melting “Recondita armonia”, Tosca’s jealous fit is a bit much. But Racette reeled us in when she met Scarpia and he played on that jealousy, literally bringing her to her knees. As for Act II, Pat really did it up royally. She was marvelous when she arrived at Scarpia’s apartment and it became clear she was under suspicion as to the whereabouts of the fugitive Angelotti. There was fear, but more than that, the look on her face was pure Tosca-as-diva: “How do I play this?” For some reason I immediately thought of Casablanca’s Major Strasser and his interrogees–maybe it’s the similarity between the letters of transit and the safe conduct Tosca demands. The most controversial portion of this production comes after Tosca stabs Scarpia–the iconic candelabra and crucifix are nowhere to be found. This is the third time I’ve seen it, but not until last night did the stage action following the murder become worth watching. Patricia Racette wasn’t just acting “Oh my God, what have I done?”–she showed us Tosca’s subsequent self-loathing, her fleeting thoughts of suicide and her shocked recognition of the murderer she’s become. For once Tosca’s sinking onto the sofa and fanning herself at the end of the act was logical and real–Racette wonderfully conveyed “I’m in a nightmare, but I’ll be OK once I catch my breath.” Oh, and by the way? She sang the hell out of the part.

Roberto Alagna was Cavaradossi, but more than that, he was a tenor on a mission. On Monday night he had sung Faust,  subbing for an ailing Joseph Calleja, so on Tuesday night he was obviously hell-bent to prove he had the goods to sing a second leading role in 24 hours. He does and he sounded marvelous, but forget about dramatic values. I like Alagna, but I’ve found him to be two entirely different singers. As a French tenor he’s terrific–I saw him do an excellent Werther several seasons ago, and his performance as Don Jose is alone worth the price of sitting through Carmen yet one more time. But Italian opera brings out his hambone tendencies, and his “E lucevan le stelle” while superb vocalism, didn’t hold a candle to the version I heard Marcelo Alvarez deliver last season. At that performance it wasn’t just an aria, it was a palpable remembrance of Cavaradossi’s sensual night with Tosca, and sung with a dramatic awareness that few singers, let alone tenors, possess. The crowd loved Alagna, though, and cheered like mad.

George Gagnidze was the Scarpia, and while he was good, I like some suavity to go along with the sadism. At least he didn’t engage in the manhandling I saw Falk Struckmann resort to with Sondra Radvanovsky last season, which turned the opera into a WWF match. A note to Mikko Franck, who made his Met conducting debut last night: if your singers are turning blue in the face, it’s not a fashion statement–your tempos are too slow.

It was kind of an “awwww no” moment to see a note in the Playbill that Paul Plishka, last night’s Sacristan, is retiring at the end of this run after 45 years at the Met. The memories are plentiful–he was one of the best Falstaffs I’ve ever seen, not to mention a tremendous Boris Godunov, just two of the 83 roles he’s sung. What a career!