Posted in Music

Berlioz’s Summer Nights

Grammied!

By turns exuberant, mournful and lyrical, Berlioz’s song cycle, Les Nuits d’Ete, is a stunning work for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. I had the pleasure of hearing it performed at Avery Fisher Hall on Thursday night by Joyce DiDonato and Alan Gilbert, conducting the New York Philharmonic. The results were breath-taking.

The older I get, the more I enjoy Berlioz. What’s even better is there are more and more opportunities to hear Berlioz, since works such as Les Troyens, La Damnation de Faust and Benvenuto Cellini are increasingly available in the opera house, and more rarities are appearing on the concert stage. Back in my high school and college days, it was basically Symphonie fantastiqueHarold in Italy and over and out. Which is a shame because Berlioz’s works tease the ear both in terms of musical color as well as the unexpected phrase. He apparently loved the middle voice—in addition to the featured viola in Harold in Italy, there are superlative roles for mezzo-soprano in the operas I just mentioned, along with Beatrice in his lovely take on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice et Benedick. (Massenet was another composer whose operatic roles keep mezzos in high standing: Werther’s Charlotte; Cherubin; and not one but two star parts in his version of Cinderella—Cendrillon and her Prince Charming).

Joyce DiDonato’s appearance turned into something of a victory lap, given her recent Grammy award for her CD, “Diva Divo”—she even wore her Grammy gown (check out the photo). The audience almost broke into cheers when she made her entrance, and then the magic started (Note to Joyce: Next time get Alan Gilbert to carry a handkerchief in his jacket pocket for you. While a lady never sweats, only glows, we know Les nuits d’ete is a concentrated sing and the audience will understand your need to blot).

Originally composed for voice and piano, Les nuits d’ete uses a small orchestra, not that much larger than chamber size with the number of woodwinds reduced and trumpets, trombones and percussion eliminated. The six songs that comprise the work are set to poems by Theophile Gautier, and make considerable demands on the singer in terms of vocal color and emotion. The opening song, “Villanelle” found DiDonato giving full voice to the exuberance of summer. Her performance of the next song, “Le Spectre de la rose,” the story of a flower worn by a young girl to a ball, was perfection. There was almost a collective sigh when she finished, and she seemed to take a bit of extra time to compose herself before continuing on. DiDonato may have exceeded this performance with her rendition of the last song, “L’Ile inconnue,” a “let’s sail away from it all” challenge delivered by a young man to his love. Joyce may have been wearing a strapless gown, but for that song she was Le Comte Ory‘s swaggering Isolier once again, with the cocky grin and reckless affect. It was obvious she loved singing it, and loved being able to share her delight with the audience. My immediate thought after the last note was “Gee, can’t we hear that one again?”, which apparently everyone else in the house felt too, because they wouldn’t stop applauding. Sadly, no encore—after being called out about five times for a bow, she finally left the stage to the disappointment of many members of the audience, including myself.

Brava, Joyce—now get into the studio and record it!

Posted in Baseball

On Hope Springing Eternal

It’s that time of year again: pitchers and catchers have already reported for spring training, and the rest of the squads will be in Florida or Arizona come tomorrow. Normally this is cause for me to rejoice, but as a Mets fan, I’m kind of dreading it. It’s not that I have lowered expectations—quite frankly, I’m expecting disaster, and it has nothing to do with their probable last place finish.

What I think will happen is this:

If David Wright gets off to a good start and the team tanks, he’ll be traded. It won’t be the first time the face of the franchise leaves town, he carries the most value for potential suitors and the Mets really need to replenish their farm system with prospects. Even with the drop-off in his batting average, Wright is still a solid player, though as Fred Wilpon correctly, if indiscreetly, stated a year ago, he’s not a superstar.

The team holds onto Mike Pelfrey who has proven time and again that he’s not up to pitching in New York. Yes, he had that wonderful first half a couple of seasons ago, but how many times have the Mets spread the word in spring training that “This is Pelfrey’s breakout year!” and nothing but nothing happens? When is the team going to face the fact that this guy is utterly mediocre and his true value lies in being trade bait for several young pitchers?

Johann Santana not only doesn’t revert to the Johann of Old, he still has major problems. While I don’t expect Santana to be that unhittable pitcher he was for Minnesota, I’m concerned about how much life he’s still got in his elbow, arm or shoulder (take your pick). This is not the first time he’ll be coming back from major reconstruction, and while he’s certainly savvy enough to compensate for what he’s lost, is he up to a full season, let alone a successful one?

Jason Bay will continue to prove that he should have stayed in Boston where he had a happy home as one of several players who could get the job done at any time. The Mets, on the other hand, have so many holes in their makeup that Bay’s inability to produce makes it impossible to look away. There’s no place to hide for Bay, and if he has a bad first half, the Mets should really consider paying his way out of town.

When I look at the rest of the roster I just shake my head. This is what Bernie Madoff hath wrought: zero resources for free agent signings. Yes, a healthy Ike Davis will be back, along with Daniel Murphy, Justin Turner and Ruben Tejada, all of whom I love to watch, but there’s no there there, is there? And let’s not get started on the rest of the rotation, with the possible exception of Jonathon Niese, nor the bullpen (shudder).

To me this adds up to discounted seats and warm beer at Citifield. I hope I’m wrong.

On another Met-related subject, I want to say a few words about Gary Carter. He wasn’t my favorite Met from the 1986 champion team (Keith Hernandez was), but there’s no way they could have won without him that year, or come so close to a division title the year before. He was superb in handling the pitching staff—Doc Gooden, Ron Darling, Bobby Ojeda, Sid Fernandez and Rick Aguilera—in addition to being a powerful clean-up hitter. While I know the curtain calls drove the rest of the world crazy, we Met fans just loved to see Kid belt one, round the bases and pop out of the dugout to acknowledge us. The passing of a summer hero, particularly at a young age, reminds us of our own mortality, but thankfully it also gives us a moment to remember and savor the good times once again. Thanks, Kid, and rest in peace.

Posted in Opera

Stoned

After seeing Gotterdammerung at the Met on Tuesday night and listening to the broadcast on Saturday afternoon, I’m absolutely drunk on leitmotifs, Brunnhilde and Siegfried, nasty Hagen and the three dippiest girls in opera, the Rhinemaidens. I had seen the new production of  Das Rheingold when it premiered in the fall of 2010, but Robert LePage’s vision doesn’t really come into its own until the last and best of the operas that form the Ring Cycle.

The ingredients:

Let’s start with the orchestra because it’s the bedrock of the work. While there’s nothing like hearing Wagner create the world in the key of E-flat major in Das Rheingold, even more virtuosity is necessary for Gotterdammerung. All that brass—seven horns doubling on Wagner tubas, plus bass trumpets and contrabass trombones—not to mention six harps and what sounds like an entire choir of clarinets for the Rhinemaidens’ music. That’s one crowded orchestra pit, but what a sound! Add a conductor who knows what he’s doing, like Fabio Luisi, and it’s six hours of bliss.

The singers. On Tuesday night it was Katerina Dalayman as Brunnhilde, and she was wonderful—great sound with a regal take on the character. I loved how, after Siegfried swore on Hagen’s spear, she practically shoved him out of the way to swear her own oath of vengeance as if to say: “You want swearing? I’ll give you swearing!” However, I thought Deborah Voigt, who’s had some vocal issues, brought out Brunnhilde’s warmer side on the broadcast, so there was just that little bit extra when she ordered the funeral pyre to be built. By the time she was into the Immolation Scene you felt as well as heard Brunnhilde’s overwhelming desire to join Siegfried in death. Jay Hunter Morris, an “overnight sensation,” after toiling for years, was the refreshingly vibrant Siegfried in both performances. He has a brighter sound for the role than you’re accustomed to, but he was certainly easy on the eyes and sang this killer part well. At times he was a bit over-enthusiastic with that sword (ninja Siegfried?), but I enjoyed his performance. Hans-Peter Konig was one evil Hagen, Iain Paterson and Wendy Bryn Harmer were the Gibichungs, Waltraud Meier was fittingly, Waltraute, and Eric Owens made his great return as Alberich. Kudos all around, but I’ve got to say Erin Morley, Jennifer Johnson Cano and Tamara Mumford did a spectacular job as the Rhinemaidens, both vocally and physically in their diving and sliding into the water (I’m dying to know how that illusion was created. No visible wires as in Das Rheingold, and they did not appear to be wearing any type of harness as they did in the earlier opera. It seemed like they could zip down that water slide and pop right back up to the rocks at will).

The set. The Machine has come into its own! Its configurations, from the Norns’ introduction to Brunhilde’s rock to the hall of the Gibichungs to the Rhine itself, were totally apt, and the projections were spectacular. Some patrons were still complaining about noise, generated either from the contortions of the Machine or the whirrr of the projectors, but sitting in the Family Circle I can tell you all was quiet. This was not the case when I saw Das Rheingold a year and a half ago, when the Machine creaked with the movement of even one of its 24 planks, so apparently the production team has worked out some of the problems, at least to my ears.

The work itself. Tomes have been written about Wagner’s Ring, its folklore, its leitmotifs—you name it. Despite its grandiosity, it’s really an intimate work. This is nowhere more apparent than in Gotterdammerung, which while depicting the end of the gods, is really all about this group of human beings whom we see in a full range of emotions. There are few scenes as ecstatic as Brunnhilde and Siegfried’s duet, or as wondrous as Siegfried’s Rhine Journey. Wagner makes his death feel as if the earth has split in two, which in a sense it has. Brunnhilde’s following monologue and Immolation Scene further ennoble Siegfried as well as displaying her wisdom by returning the Ring to the Rhinemaidens.

I know that in order to truly enjoy the Ring you’re supposed to see all four operas in the space of one week as Wagner intended. Unfortunately I don’t have the time or the funds to do that this season, but I understand the Met will be performing the complete Ring again next year. Until then, experiencing the end of the universe in Gotterdammerung will do nicely.

Posted in Music

Animal Crackers

Animals pop up with surprising frequency in music. I’m not talking about cameos and guest appearances like the sheep in Strauss’s Don Quixote, which courtesy of the brass section bah delightfully. My favorites are actually full-length portraits of the fur and feather crowd that never fail to please.

Yesterday morning I enjoyed my breakfast to the hee-haw strains of “On the Trail” from Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite. I hadn’t listened to it in a while, and I’d forgotten how accurate it is in describing the stubborn donkeys who finally get it in gear for tenderfoots (tenderfeets?) in the saddle. Grofe first made his name as an arranger, most prominently for Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue when the piece was premiered by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, and his talent is very apparent here. The donkeys’ clip-clops and the great wide-open-spaces feel of “On the Trail” make for delightful listening:

Probably the most popular animals are those in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. Even people who hate classical music can usually identify the cat’s Sneaky Pete prowl, if not the duck’s plaintive theme. Although the composer wrote this for children, even adults tend to flinch when they hear the four French horns portraying the wolf (I must say, though, that as a former bassoonist, the grandfather’s harrumphs are just as much fun as the depictions of the other characters). Director Suzie Templeton’s animated Peter and the Wolf, which won an Oscar several years ago, is an excellent version, though it makes me sad that the poor duck isn’t promised her return as Prokofiev intended. But here are Peter, the bird, duck and cat in happier times:

Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals, a very clever theme and variations, is another crowd-pleaser. Featuring a piano duo and full orchestra, the piece is replete with lions (whose theme, fittingly enough, was used a number of years ago in a Dreyfus Fund commercial), hens, kangaroos, tortoises, elephants, donkeys and a swan of renown. The “Fossils” movement is the funniest—those dry bones are referred to by the composer with a quote from his own Danse Macabre played on the xylophone and he puns by including several bars from Rossini’s “Una voce poco fa,” a musical fossil in Saint-Saens’s eyes. Despite all this, my favorite section describes the mystical-sounding fish swimming in an  aquarium:

Mother Goose, initially a ballet and later a suite by Ravel, features a section that I think is the wittiest and one of the most charming pieces of music ever composed. “The Conversation of Beauty and the Beast” first presents Beauty, but not in the form you’d expect. In most cases a flute will depict a feminine character, but Ravel, that master orchestrator, instead introduces Beauty with an infinitely graceful clarinet solo. After Beauty speaks, here comes the Beast, attempting to be courtly, but remaining, well–a beast. A contrabassoon does the honors, and its bumbling never fails to make me smile. After the initial exchange of views and evidently some doubt on Beauty’s part, the two lines come together as they continue their bumpy conversation. Starting at :50, you can hear their dialogue:

Feel free to chime in by sharing your favorites.

Posted in Movie Reviews, Opera

No-Winter Notes

As I’m writing this, all forecasts say we’re going to hit 62 degrees this afternoon. It’s baseball weather. The last time we had a winter this mild (about 15 years ago if fading memory serves), the trees were blooming in late February. Despite the nay-sayers, yes Virginia, there is indeed global warming.

Does an actor or performer ever use up their ability to engage us? Is there ever a time when they reach into their bag of tricks and just can’t find the technique, the gesture or the intonation that surprises us and makes us remember how gifted they really are? Unfortunately, yes.

The Suave Mr. Morris

This past Saturday I heard the Met broadcast of Tosca, which featured Patricia Racette, Marcelo Alvarez and James Morris. It’s hard to believe, but Mr. Morris has 40 years at the Met under his belt, having made his debut at the tender age of 23 (he was a baby Don Giovanni four years later). I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him perform an incredible range of roles—Philip II in Verdi’s Don Carlo, Iago, Wotan in Die Walkure, and Dr. Schoen, fatally caught in the web of Berg’s Lulu. Flipping the coin, he was all that you could want as Mozart’s Figaro. When Margaret Juntwait, announcer for the Met broadcasts, mentioned that Morris would soon be singing Claggart in Britten’s Billy Budd again, I thought “My God, what will the Met do when he retires?” I’ve seen him twice in the role, and can’t imagine anyone else bringing to the part what he does. On Saturday he was a wonderfully suave and menacing Scarpia who never let you forget he was an aristocrat, which is something most baritones overlook—it’s Baron Scarpia after all. Yes, his voice is showing some age, and as a bass-baritone some of Scarpia’s high notes were fudged or non-existent. But who cares when you hear an artist who never fails to surprise?

The next day I saw Albert Nobbs with Glenn Close in false nose and Charlie Chaplin pants and bowler. Albert may have been 19th century Irish, but when I see him, all I see is Patty Hewes from Damages. Somewhere along the line I became clued into her as an actor—her moves are predictable. It’s not shtik, which is a term I’d attach to Susan Sarandon, whose performances became very one-note for me as long ago as The Client, though she did a bang-up job in ‘Cradle’ Will Rock (And while I’m on the subject, I’ve got a long-standing bone to pick: Anne Bancroft was the image of Reggie as described in John Grisham’s novel, and should have gotten the movie role, no questions asked). On the other hand, Janet McTeer, who matches Albert Nobbs’s m.o. by disguising herself as a man, is tremendous. There’s one scene she steals (among several) that puts all this into perspective—when she, as Hubert, and Albert don dresses to walk along the beach. Glenn Close walks as Glenn Close, i.e., a woman. Janet McTeer manages to pull off a true Victor/Victoria—a woman playing a man playing a woman—displaying all guises simultaneously. It has to be seen to be believed. I think she’s a long shot to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but I’d love for her to do it.

Super Bowl Sunday is looming, but I’ve got a confession to make: even though I’m a Giants fan, I’m switching to PBS at 9:00 p.m. Nothing gets between me and Downton Abbey, especially now with the Spanish influenza epidemic on the horizon, Lady Mary facing perpetual blackmail from her sleaze of a fiance, Matthew–er–indisposed for marriage and Lavinia vowing that she can’t live without him. I don’t remember the last time I saw two characters as engaging or as right for each other as Lady Mary and Matthew, and if they’re not back together by the end of this season, I’ll be fuming for a year.

Tomorrow is Groundhog Day. Bet Punxsutawney Phil shows up wearing shades with a beer in his paw.