Posted in Opera

Britten’s Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Tytania (Kathleen Kim) and Bottom (Matthew Rose): Folie à deux to the max

The biggest downside to freelancing is that when you’re working, your time most definitely isn’t your own (hence the weeks between my blog posts). Fortunately these demands haven’t interfered with my opera-going: I recently had the pleasure of seeing the Met’s revival of Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” twice. And the exhilaration I felt when Puck, having the last word, flew like Peter Pan, lasted for several days.

Britten’s operas always surprise me. Not in the events of the drama, but in the sound his works produce. Think of “Billy Budd'”s aged Captain Vere fighting through brain fog in the opera’s Prologue, the crew’s mysterious shanty, their unearthly rumbling when Billy is executed. “Peter Grimes” is full of these moments. While you expect a duet from Peter and Ellen Orford, that searing unison vocal line, blending seamlessly into the first Sea Interlude, is electrifying. And despite all the foreshadowing, the chorus, calling Grimes out fortissimo, has to be one of the most chilling sounds to be heard in the opera house.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is the comic side of this coin. What a stroke of genius to make Oberon a countertenor. Britten’s music for him is properly unearthly–this King of the Faeries has quite a dark side. Correspondingly his vocal line lies in the lower and middle countertenor range, an ambiguous place for this voice to be. He’s almost, but not quite, human—and almost, but not quite, androgynous. Iestyn Davies, whom I had only heard previously in a small role in Thomas Adès’ “The Tempest” gave a powerful performance—the role and the singer really made the case for this vocal category in the opera house.

At the other end of the spectrum are the so-called Mechanicals—the artisans who will present the story of Pyramus and Thisbe to honor the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta. Bass Matthew Rose was ridiculously right as the weaver, Nick Bottom. His physical agility and the fluency of a lovely voice made him incredibly endearing in his scene with the besotted Tytania (Britten’s spelling). His request to the faeries who tend him (“Scratch my face–I am such a tender ass”) brought the house down. No wonder Tytania (soprano Kathleen Kim) called him her “gentle joy.”

Every measure of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” seems incredibly right. Britten has a marvelous time incorporating so many musical influences: English folk song, Elizabethan dance, 19th century Italian opera for the quartet of lovers, and best of all, a bit of bel canto madness for Flute’s big lamentation as Thisbe. So many moments stand out: the string glissandi that signal we’re in Oberon’s world, the staccato solo trumpet and high drum that accompany Puck (a speaking role), and the comic setting of the word “moonlight,” which provides a consistent laugh every time the Mechanicals sing it. And most of all, that final faerie chorus supporting Tytania’s voice, seems to make time stop. This is such a magical work.

James Conlon, whom I wish would conduct more at the Met, led a superb performance. The artists were exceptionally well-matched, particularly the quartet of lovers: Erin Wall, Elizabeth DeShong (who will be singing Hermia again in the Met’s revival of “The Enchanted Island”), Joseph Kaiser and Michael Todd Simpson. And it goes without saying that the children’s chorus was phenomenal, easily producing the ethereal sound Britten’s score demands.

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of Benjamin Britten’s birth. What a way to honor his achievements.

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Posted in Opera

Whose Opinion, Indeed?

As I suffered through two-thirds of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha at the Metropolitan Opera last week I started honing a mental axe to use on music critics who go WOW over works that make me go HUH? This subject seems to have some currency, because Olivia Giovetti, in her excellent Operavore blog on the WQXR website, asks whether public opinion, as opposed to that expressed by music critics, should carry greater weight.

I could be really cynical about this and say my paying for a subscription series to the Met alone entitles me to a say, but I think it requires more than that. I’ve been a regular concert- and opera-goer since childhood, and I played several instruments during my school years. I can read a full orchestral score, and my musical interests have broadened in time, rather than narrowed. To put it briefly, Alban Berg’s Lulu holds no terrors for me, and in fact, I loved it from start to finish when I saw it at the Met a couple of seasons ago.

The New York critics have a tendency to promote works with great snob appeal. Let’s take Satyagraha, which depicts Gandhi’s years in South Africa, as an example. It’s sung in Sanskrit without subtitles; the audience is forced to rely on a Playbill synopsis and a curious insert printed to resemble a turn of the century newspaper. This last has “articles” with headers bearing the names of the opera’s acts and scenes; although I thought this was supplemental material, it wasn’t until the next day that I found out this was the actual libretto. On top of this, there’s Philip Glass’s music—pure ostinato. It was like watching a non-silent silent movie. While the physical production, with puppets and projections, was interesting, I wasn’t going to stay just for the scenery.

Critical raves over two other Met productions that come to mind also had me scratching my head. Janacek’s From the House of the Dead won nothing but superlatives, but as a Janacek fan, I really didn’t think it was all that. Yes, the performances were wonderful, but I didn’t find it to be in the same league as The Cunning Little Vixen or The Makropulos Case. I’m glad I saw it, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it again.

I could say the same for Britten’s Death in Venice  (“You’ve read the book and seen the movie! Now hear the opera!”). I enjoyed the Met broadcast when this premiered in New York, but when I saw the revival several years later, it was a hard afternoon’s work. In fairness the performance began with one major strike against it—Philip Langridge, one of the finest singing actors I’ve ever seen, had to cancel the run of the opera and was replaced by Anthony Rolfe Johnson as von Aschenbach. In the opera von Aschenbach hardly ever leaves the stage; he’s spelled only by a baritone who sings seven small roles. Tadzio and his mother are played by dancers, and there are no female singers until the chorus appears well into the opera (Oddly enough you never miss the sound of a female voice in Britten’s Billy Budd, and it’s not just because it takes place on a man o’ war. The drama is so riveting that you’re locked into what’s before you–you never think of what may be absent.) Whoever sings von Aschenbach has to have charisma plus to hold the audience’s attention throughout the piece. Mr. Rolfe Johnson, while a good singer, didn’t fit the bill, which exposed the fact that in comparison to Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, this work really isn’t among Britten’s best, though to read the critics, you would have thought this was a towering opus.

On the other hand, I loved Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy (critical pan), found a great deal to like in Tan Dun’s The First Emperor, especially the Chinese theatrical techniques and instruments (another critical pan) and enjoyed Bartlett Sher’s 19th century stage-managed production of Le Comte Ory (you guessed it). And on yet another hand, with all their erudition, no critic that I read got that the miniature castle and knight appearing on stage during Act Three of the Met’s Tristan und Isolde look just like the itsy-bitsy Stonehenge from This Is Spinal Tap. PS—I giggled like a fool. So there.

The end result? Audience opinion should matter more than critical opinion. After all, there’s more of us than of them.