Posted in Music, Opera

Lingering in the Glow

Party Like It’s 1911: Elina Garança (Octavian) and Renée Fleming (The Marschallin)

If you think the customer is always right, you might have believed the audience members who booed the production team of the new Robert Carsen “Der Rosenkavalier” that premiered at the Metropolitan Opera several weeks ago. But you would have been dead wrong. I saw it last Friday, and it’s a breath of fresh air.

Carsen has tossed aside the powdered wigs and knee breeches and set the opera in the year of its premiere, 1911. His take on this Richard Strauss-Hugo von Hofmannsthal masterpiece is a marvel of detail, so much so that I plan to attend the Live in HD telecast in two weeks just to catch some business I might have missed. It’s spot-on to see the egotistical Italian tenor (a terrific Matthew Polenzani) present the Marschallin with a 78 rpm recording of his latest hit, which he proceeds to autograph for her with a flourish. And in an uproarious Act III, how can anyone be surprised that the band showing up to serenade Ochs and Mariandel is clearly Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopaters from “Some Like It Hot,” complete with sax and bass. (I know that’s the 1920’s, but if Strauss can write an 18th century opera replete with three-quarter time though the waltz wouldn’t be invented until decades later, anachronism becomes the norm). I could go on, but I don’t want to give away all the incidentals that make this production such fun.

As sharply observed as this production is, it wouldn’t have the impact it enjoys without its cast. Much publicity has surrounded Renée Fleming’s final appearances as the Marschallin, and while I can’t say that her voice retains all the luster it once possessed, dramatically speaking she’s grown enormously in the role. Years ago I saw one of her first Marschallins at the Met, and she seemed somewhat intimidated by the part. In Carsen’s production she easily achieves what all good Marschallins must—she holds the audience throughout the levée, her monologue and the following scene with Octavian, and captures the bittersweet ending of Act I perfectly. Yet her final exit in Act III, on the arm of the Feldmarschall’s “brave orderly,” after a not-quite covert glance or two, reminds us that Octavian wasn’t her first lover, and certainly won’t be her last.

(A propos of absolutely nothing, what do Marschallins do when they’re off-stage during Act II and the first half of Act III? Play cards with the stage hands? Take a snooze? Maybe Ms. Fleming will spill the beans during the HD telecast intermission).

Elina Garança is a phenomenal Octavian. She certainly makes a gorgeous guy and her voice is lovely, but the uniqueness of her portrayal rests on her vivid embodiment of the 17 year-old boy he’s supposed to be. The petulance and impetuosity are there, but her Octavian is slightly more deferential to his lover than most, and his departure at the end of Act I is done not so much out of anger as of befuddled sorrow. Garança hints at his growing knowledge that his affair with a married woman really can’t go anywhere, yet she still manages to convince us that his love for Sophie is not just a matter of falling for the first pretty face he sees. She plays the comedy very well—her “Victor/Victoria” in Act III (the trick of a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman) is flawless.

Waltzing Away Act II: Ochs (Günther Groissböck) and Annina (Helene Schneiderman)

Because Baron Ochs is usually played as a fat fool, you tend to forget that Strauss and von Hoffmannsthal had something else in mind. Günther Groissböck portrays him as the 35-year old bachelor he was conceived to be, and it’s wonderfully refreshing to see a young, attractive bass in the role. This Ochs may be an idiot over Mariandel, but he’s no fool. His harping on “die Marschallin…Octavian…Mariandel” in Act III poses a real threat, and it’s only when the Marschallin doesn’t flinch that he gives in to her insistence that he depart the field.

Unfortunately the performance I saw was missing the excellent Sophie of Erin Morley, but she’s due to return shortly and will be on hand for the live telecast on May 13 that will also feature Ms. Fleming’s last ever Marschallin as well as Ms. Garança’s final Octavian (she’s headed for the more dramatic flair of Amneris, Santuzza and Dalila).

The score and libretto of “Der Rosenkavalier” are among the finest in the literature. But Robert Carsen’s production also reminds us what superb theater this work can (and should) always be. Bravo!

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It was a double-header weekend for me. Yesterday I attended a concert performance of Handel’s “Ariodante” at Carnegie Hall that was simulcast on Medici TV. The entire opera will be viewable on the Carnegie Hall website for the next 90 days, and if you’d like to hear what perfection sounds like, cue the webcast at 1:10:30 for Joyce DiDonato’s “Scherza infida,” accompanied by Harry Bicket and The English Concert. Time stands still.

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Posted in Opera

State of the Art

Though New York”s winter weather has indeed been frightful, the music in this corner of the world has certainly been delightful.

When a performance of Handel’s “Theodora” was scheduled at Carnegie Hall for February 2nd, I was reluctant to buy a ticket. With New Jersey serving as host for the first time, this was Super Bowl Sunday, which meant ridership on the train to New York, not to mention security issues, threatened to be overwhelming. But “Theodora” was to feature Harry Bicket and the English Concert, joined by some expert Handelians, so I just had to go (P.S.: It turned out I had no trouble whatsoever with transportation that day).

Röschmann + Bicket + English Concert = Glorious
Röschmann + Bicket + English Concert = Glorious

After a slow first act (Handel’s fault, not the performers’), the work just bloomed. Dorothea Röschmann, whose dark soprano was a perfect fit for the heroine, was simply on fire that afternoon. Sarah Connolly was a wonderful contrast as Irene, and David Daniels (Didymus), Kurt Streit (Septimius) and especially Neal Davies (Valens) were equally expert in their roles. I’m in awe of singers who perform Handel at this level—in addition to considerable vocalism, they’re required to complement the orchestral line in a manner that few other composers demand. But the key ingredients that day were Harry Bicket and the English Concert, who together with these soloists turned what is basically a one-line plot (Christians vs. Early Romans and we all know how that ends) into a musical spellbinder.

Next up was the Met’s new production of Borodin’s “Prince Igor,” a work that hadn’t been performed by the company in nearly 100 years. This one’s a great deal of fun for fans of the musical “Kismet,” like myself, since so much of the score of that show is derived from this opera—a phrase here, a few notes there, and of course, the “Polovtsian Dances,” a.k.a. “Stranger in Paradise.” What makes “Prince Igor” somewhat unique is that there isn’t a set edition of the score. Borodin died leaving entire sections of the work unfinished; Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov then split the responsibility of completing the opera and orchestrating it. The Met’s current version omits the Overture, yet adds other Borodin-composed music, and presents Igor’s encounter with Khan Konchak and the Polovtsians earlier than usual, this time immediately after the Prologue.

Prince Igor
Prince Igor

Musically, the performance I saw was extraordinary: conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, the opera was marvelously sung by Ildar Abdrazakov (Igor), Oksana Dyka (Yaroslavna), Anita Rachvelishvili (Konchakovna) and Sergey Semisher (Vladimir). The richness and exoticism of the score were a welcome change from the standard Italian-German repertory, especially in the seductive mezzo-tenor duet. Dramatically, though, you have to wonder why this is called “Prince Igor” when his wife, Yaroslavna, has the better role—she’s the Russian version of “Game of Thrones'” Catelyn Stark, betrayed by her usurper brother, Prince Galitsky (a terrific Mikhail Petrenko), yet trying in her husband’s absence to hold the kingdom together with her faithful boyars.

I thought some of the choices by director Dmitri Tcherniakov were odd. The poppy fields in rows for the Polovtsian scene were unnecessarily confining for the dancers who were forced to hurdle the flower hedges like track stars, and Igor’s hallucinations seemed too realistic (his “missing you” duet with Yaroslavna was staged in full light as she stood right next to him). And there was too much old-fashioned “Oh my God” head-holding and similar gestures by some of the singers. Nevertheless, “Prince Igor” is a wonderful change of pace, and one which the Met should be performing on a far more frequent basis.

Jonas. No further words necessary.
Jonas. No further words necessary.

The term “physique du rôle” could have been coined to describe Jonas Kaufmann as Massenet’s “Werther” in the Met’s new production–he absolutely embodies all aspects of the character in a manner not often seen on the opera stage. Unlike other singers, he shows us Werther’s social awkwardness in Act I, as a man far more comfortable extolling nature than interacting with people. His first scenes with Charlotte are magical in this production, as we see them dance at the ball to what will become a recurring theme in the opera, the motif that signals Werther’s love.

Nevertheless, Kaufmann had to resort to some odd choices to produce the sound the role demands. Werther is somewhat tricky—the role is lyrical at the beginning of the opera, yet it requires dramatic force when the character finally confesses his love for Charlotte. Kaufmann has a big voice—the man sings Wagner after all—so there was some reining in at various times in the performance I saw, and not a small amount of crooning on his part. When he finally let fly with an impassioned “Pourquoi me reveiller” I was relieved to hear that golden Jonas sound.

Sophie Koch’s vibrant mezzo brought out the best in Charlotte. There was a welcome warmth to her performance (I’ve seen more than one Charlotte who so tended toward ice you wonder why Werther would even bother), and she added no small amount of insight. At the beginning of Act II, when Charlotte and Albert, her new husband, enter, they sit a bit apart on a bench. While he marvels at his happiness by exclaiming “I can’t believe it’s been three months since we wed,” her stiff posture alone, even before she repeats that line, shows her quite opposite view of their marriage.

The production by Richard Eyre is traditional, which to me seems fitting for some of the most romantic music in the repertoire. Nevertheless a few directorial choices were questionable. With the exception of showing Werther and Charlotte at the ball, Eyre’s invented moments of illustration for the prelude and scene transitions ranged from unnecessary to ludicrous. We didn’t need to have the opera start with the death of Charlotte’s mother, and Charlotte’s struggling into her booties onstage before rushing out after the dispatch of those pistols was a mood-breaker, to put it mildly. On the other hand, the suicide is extraordinarily realistic—when Werther shot himself and the blood spattered on the opposite wall, I gasped and the woman sitting next to me jumped right off her seat. And for once, Werther and Charlotte’s final scene is properly staged. The man is dying of blood loss and Kaufmann acts it superbly, lying prone for the most part and only able to stand with Charlotte’s considerable assistance (In the prior Met staging Werther was on his feet so much you expected him to finally shake it all off and go out for a beer).

“Werther” will be shown as part of the Met’s “Live in HD” series on March 15th. With Kaufmann and Koch, as well as two unusually vivid characterizations by Lisette Oropesa as Sophie and David Bizic as Albert, this is a performance that shouldn’t be missed.