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.

Posted in Movie Reviews, Opera

Whose Opinion?

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Groucho on “Il Trovatore”: “Boogie, Boogie, Boogie”

Ever feel out of step, critic-wise? How frequently have you seen an acclaimed movie or play that makes you regret the time lost as you suffered through it? And what about that film the critics universally slammed which has you talking about for days?

Yeah, me too. The most recent works at issue? “Il Trovatore,” the first Metropolitan Opera “Live in HD” telecast of the season, and the movie “Freeheld,” starring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page. The New York Times loved the first and hated the second; I, on the other hand, was disappointed at a certain level by the former but found a great deal to admire in the latter despite its flaws.

“Il Trovatore” starred Anna Netrebko, Yonghoon Lee, Dolora Zajick and, in his triumphal return in the midst of treatment for a brain tumor, Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Vocal riches galore to be sure, and especially amazing since Mr. Hvorostovsky never sounded better as Count di Luna, or in any other role for that matter. But here’s the thing: I’ll sometimes take fewer vocal fireworks if a singer can really act the role. I don’t wish to sound ungrateful, but there’s more to “Il Trovatore” than its voices, despite Enrico Caruso’s oft-quoted view that all you need for a successful performance is the four greatest singers in the world. Actually that should be five anyway, because without a dynamic bass as Ferrando, the opera stalls getting off the blocks (Štefan Kocán, who also plays the amusingly sinister Sparafucile in the company’s production of “Rigoletto,” filled the bill quite nicely).

The Marx Brothers’ shenanigans in “A Night at the Opera” notwithstanding (and for years after seeing it I couldn’t hear any phrase from “Il Trovatore” without bursting into uncontrollable laughter), there’s a lot of great drama to be mined here. Yes, the plot is famously absurd and there’s more action taking place off-stage than on, but performers committed to acting the roles as well singing them will make all the difference. The last time I saw “Il Trovatore” at the Met, Patricia Racette was an incredibly nuanced, vulnerable Leonora. Although the role was not a great fit for her in vocal terms, I couldn’t have asked for a better dramatic performance. In the HD telecast only Yonghoon Lee’s “Ah, sì ben mio” rose to that level of sensitivity. This was a rare event indeed—usually you can see the wheels turning in the tenor’s head while he sings this aria because he’s already gearing up for “Di quella pira.” But Mr. Lee delivered both his best singing and acting of the afternoon in that moment.

I love Anna Netrebko. Her dark sound is amazing and though this isn’t apparent in an HD telecast which tends to homogenize singers’ volume, her voice is enormous. She’s a terrific actor—a tremendous Lady MacBeth and a helplessly vulnerable Antonia in “Les Contes d’Hoffman,” among other roles— but in “Il Trovatore” she gave a diva performance. Vocally she was thrilling. Dramatically she was so “take charge” you wondered why she needed Manrico—she could have disposed of di Luna with one hand tied behind her back. Much has been made of her desperately climbing the jail gate during the “Miserere.” To me this seemed a stunt on par with her ripping open des Grieux’s cassock during the seduction scene in “Manon” several seasons ago (the audience tittered at this maneuver during the performance I saw). While I would have liked more dramatic awareness from her Leonora, her singing was extraordinary—it made me long to hear her as Tosca. She’d burn the house down.

There are still some issues with the Met HD telecasts in general. The (lack of) sound quality really grated on me this time, no doubt because the level of vocal quality in this performance was so high. And there’s still too much emphasis on close-ups, to the extent I felt very claustrophobic while watching. The set for this opera is no disaster, so why rely so heavily on the “nostril shot” camera that rides the lip of the stage?

“Il Trovatore” in HD? It left me wanting something a bit more. Maybe it’s too much to ask for perfection?

freeheld (1)
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page: “Freeheld”

As a New Jersey resident I clearly remember following the real events behind the film “Freeheld.” To summarize: Laurel Hester, a 23-year veteran police officer in the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. As legally required in 2005, she formally requested the county’s governing body, the Board of Freeholders, to grant her registered domestic partner, Stacee Andree, survivor benefits via a transfer of her pension, as her heterosexual married colleagues were entitled to without question. The Board, which by law had the discretion to grant her application, said no. And subsequently said it several times. It wasn’t until a boatload of bad publicity, centered on the freeholders’ sheer mean-spiritedness, especially in view of the quality and length of Ms. Hester’s service, was brought to bear that they finally reversed their position and granted her request. She died soon after, but her pension financially enabled her partner to remain in the house they had bought together and shared for several years, thus fulfilling the ultimate purpose of her fight.

Manohla Dargis, chief movie critic of the New York Times, called “Freeheld” a “television movie of the week gone uninterestingly wrong” and went on to slam it six ways to Sunday. Surprise, surprise—I liked it. While it certainly has its faults, they’re more than compensated for.

“Freeheld,” based on the Oscar-winning documentary of the same title, features excellent performances all around, though dramatically speaking it’s really Ellen Page’s movie. As the much younger partner of the dying Laurel Hester (a very moving Julianne Moore), she’s likely to get an Oscar nomination out of this—she’s beautifully subtle in how she conveys Stacee’s emotions. Fortunately the supporting actors are on a par with the two leading ladies. Michael Shannon is simply terrific as Dane Wells, Laurel’s police partner; one of the best scenes in the film is his unexpected drop-in on the closeted Laurel, finally learning after many years of working together that she’s a lesbian. He does a tremendous job depicting Wells’ anger and disappointment—not that she’s gay, but because she didn’t trust him enough to tell him about her life. As he did on “Boardwalk Empire,” he gets maximum mileage out of that unusual face of his. Steve Carell as Steven Goldstein, head of Garden State Equality, who becomes Laurel’s chief advocate, is a welcome presence–he’s like the dash of paprika that makes a dish interesting. And Josh Charles is excellent as the freeholder who questions the resounding “no” of his fellows on the board.

Are there problems with this film? Of course. In chronological order, I found the first few minutes covering Laurel’s involvement in a drug bust and subsequent cracking of a murder case somewhat confusing—I couldn’t tell the perps from the snitch, which had some bearing on a later scene when the filmmakers want to convey Laurel’s expertise at her job. More importantly, I wish scriptwriter Ron Nyswaner, who also authored the film “Philadelphia,” had given more context to how the state, in contrast to the intransigence of Ocean County, was beginning to recognize inequality in the treatment of its gay citizens. In 2005, as shown in the film, New Jersey had legally recognized domestic partnerships, but more than that, had seen the introduction of legislation that would afford more benefits via civil unions; the bill would be enacted a few months after Laurel Hester’s death. Same-sex marriage finally became law in New Jersey via court decision in 2013, following several years of failed legislation and a veto (you expected something different?) by Governor Christie.

Ultimately I was surprised that the film placed so much emphasis on the seeming secrecy that several freeholders were collecting two and perhaps three government pensions each while denying Laurel Hester’s request. Every newspaper in New Jersey has constantly been on the issue of double-dipping for as long as I can remember; a liberal paper like the Asbury Park Press, Ocean County’s home newspaper, would have featured this hypocrisy front and center. And if they didn’t, the film should have said so.

Unlike Ms. Dargis, I would have preferred more “didactic” context rather than less, particularly since people to tend to forget the early stages of social change. But “Freeheld” is definitely worth anyone’s time on the strength of its acting and the light it shines on what constitutes true equality. In this case “good intentions” do indeed carry the day.

Posted in Baseball, Music, Opera, Television

Brain Bits for a Cool November

Less than two months left in 2014, but the entertainment couldn’t be better.

Late to the party again, but I’ve been meaning to say a word or two about the season-ending episode of “Masters of Sex” which aired several weeks ago. That double twist was totally delicious. First, learning that Ethan Haas, Bill’s former rival, was the man behind Dr. Kaufman, Bill’s current competitor in the race to publish, only to be capped by the appearance of former Provost Barton as the man who caused the squelch at Bill’s request. Each plot turn was an unexpected pleasure.

These developments, plus Ginny’s losing custody of her kids (it’ll never last—her ex is a flake), should get “Masters of Sex” started on a dramatic Season Three when it returns. I can’t wait.

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World Series - San Francisco Giants v Kansas City Royals - Game SevenWhat a delightful end to October.

As a result of concentrated lobbying by her many fans, Joyce Di Donato, Kansas City’s own, was invited to sing the National Anthem prior to start of Game 7 of the World Series. She did it a cappella, tossing in a couple of blue notes and at least one simplified Handel progression. Her rendition was very much reflective of her personality—no muss, no fuss, but straightforward and straight from the heart. Brava. Too bad the Royals, this year’s Cinderella team, didn’t complete the dream by winning.

This is definitely Joyce’s New York year. She’s one of the artists featured in Carnegie Hall’s Perspectives Series, and thus far we’ve had her “Alcina” in concert version (I took a pass—after last season’s “Theodora,” I wasn’t ready for another four-hour baroque extravaganza sans stage action) and a lovely recital that was streamed live and which will remain on the Medici website until the beginning of February. The unifying subject is Venice; I found the second half of the program, featuring songs by Michael Hand and Reynaldo Hahn, to be more engaging than the first.

Joyce returns for two more Carnegie Hall performances in the Perspectives Series and of course (finally!), “La Donna del Lago” at the Met. Good times ahead.

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klinghoffer_2151670b

Yes, I saw it.

I attended the second performance of “The Death of Klinghoffer” at the Met, and to say it was quite an experience doesn’t exactly do it justice.

Security was even tighter than in the weeks post-9/11. Police cars lined the curb in front of Lincoln Center; parade barricades restricted foot traffic onto the plaza. Although the number of protesters across the street seemed minimal, several stood at the barricades speaking to the police while holding their signs that labelled Peter Gelb a Nazi, among other pleasantries. Uniformed police and Lincoln Center security seemed to be everywhere. In the opera house patrons were required to check all briefcases, totes and back packs; pocketbooks were thoroughly searched and detector wands were in use. A number of men in suits wearing security badges patrolled the lobbies as well as the auditorium during the performance.

Despite all this, the atmosphere was more subdued than tense. Once the performance started and the first of John Adams’ extraordinary choruses began, the focus became the music. The opera played somewhat differently than I had anticipated. That Bach’s Passions served as a model for Adams was quite evident; I was also reminded of Berlioz’s “secular oratorio,” “The Damnation of Faust,” in which the artists spend more time singing at each other rather than to each other. “Klinghoffer” is very contemplative; most of what you hear takes place in the characters’ heads. Only when Leon Klinghoffer confronts one of the terrorists who responds in diatribe, and at the very end, when the Captain tells Marilyn Klinghoffer that her husband has been murdered, do characters truly interact. Actually the chorus is the true leading character in “The Death of Klinghoffer.” By turns portraying Palestinians, Israelis and passengers on the Achille Lauro, it has the most extraordinary music in the opera, and the Metropolitan Opera Chorus was perfection.

It speaks volumes about the state of the world that a mob of willfully ignorant morons, the majority of whom know nothing of the art form and in fact needed a map to find the opera house in front of which they protested, could halt an HD telecast intended for people who have loved opera for decades. I’m one of them, and my biggest regret over this entire controversy is that the national and indeed, the international, opera audience was deprived of the ability to experience this production of “The Death of Klinghoffer.” I can only hope that the Met management has learned that caving to bullies is not how an arts organization should be run.

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yannick

I recently attended an incredible performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 by the Phildaelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Yannick Nézut-Seguin was a man with a plan, shaping the work as few conductors do. I don’t always agree with his vision of a work, but I always respect his choices—the man is frequently amazing.

In this case I was glad we were promised a resurrection, because the first movement was fierce, unrelenting, and in fact quite scary to hear on Halloween night. There was total commitment from the orchestra throughout the performance; the brass, especially the trombone section, was extraordinary. Nézut-Seguin has the pulse of this work—I especially enjoyed his reading of the “Knaben Wunderhorn” movements. The soloists were Angela Meade, whose soprano really did fill the auditorium, and Sarah Connolly, who performed a lovely “Urlicht.” The bravos and curtain calls were well-earned indeed.

Next up: Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtstensk” at the Met. Looking forward to seeing that bad girl do her stuff.

Posted in Opera

Le Nozze di Figaro

"Aprite un po' quegli occhi!"
“Aprite un po’ quegli occhi!”

There are many operatic comedies, but if there’s a work that ends on a more joyous note than “Le Nozze di Figaro,” I’ve yet to see it. Indeed, Saturday’s finale to Mozart’s opera, courtesy of the Met’s Live in HD telecast, was cause for elation.

There’s just so much in “Figaro”: servant vs. master, long-lost parents, assignations in the garden, a randy pageboy who enjoys dressing as a girl, and most of all, that incredible Act Two, with its musically intricate and plot-twisting finale. Not to mention the funniest moment in opera—when Susanna, not Cherubino, steps out of the closet, to the Count’s complete stupification. (For the record my other favorites are Mistresses Ford and Page discovering Falstaff has sent them both the same love letter, the ménage à trois of “Le Comte D’Ory” and Almaviva and Rosina singing of how they’ll make their getaway instead of making their getaway while Figaro is “andiam”–ing them onward).

Richard Eyre’s production, which opened the current Met season, sets “Figaro” in 1930’s Spain. In my experience putting the singers in contemporary dress often frees them, not only from the literal constraints of corsets and powdered wigs, but from a type of formality that can be distancing. In short a modern dress production seems to enable them (and the audience) to relate to their characters and each other more easily than in a traditional staging. Such was the case here—the singers seemed to be enjoying themselves to the hilt.

There’s been a great deal of debate as to what that ’30’s setting signifies in view of Franco and the looming Civil War. I see it in a different light. Let me give you a hint: think Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game,” not politics. In fact if memory serves, Renoir precedes the action of his film with a quote from the source of the opera, Beaumarchais’ “Le marriage de Figaro.” Like the world of that film, the regime Eyre portrays is corrupt and dying; what’s left is love, the chase and other divertissements.

Eyre begins the production with a prequel that accompanies the overture. I didn’t care for his use of this device in his production of “Werther” last season, but I very much enjoyed it here. The scenes on the revolving set featured a maid running to work from the Count’s chambers while hastily dressing en route; the knowing looks of her fellow servants when she finally reports to her post; the gardener Antonio, already tippling in the a.m.; and the Countess, restlessly tossing in her bed—alone.

This was the 75th performance of “Le Nozze di Figaro” conducted by James Levine at the Met, and musical matters were as crisp as ever. The cast was excellent. Ildar Abdrazakov, shorn of his beard and Prince Igor’s long locks, is an engaging and enormously attractive Figaro. He and Marlis Petersen made an interesting team. Somewhat cast against type (she was a sinuous, dangerous Lulu at the Met several seasons ago), she proved a slightly older and definitely wiser Susanna than usual. Susanna is no ingenue, and variations on the role are most welcome. Years ago I saw Catherine Malfitano (pre-Salome and Tosca) perform a lovely, vulnerable Susanna, while Judith Blegen brought her sharp intelligence to the role. During the second act jousting with the Count, her expression wasn’t just “How did a nice girl like me end up in a mess like this?” it was “How did a nice smart girl like me” etc. In the current production the modern era works to Petersen’s advantage—she could have given Carole Lombard a run for her money in any 30’s screwball comedy.

I have to admit one of my main reasons for buying a ticket to this performance was to hear Peter Mattei sing “Contessa, perdono.” For sheer beauty of sound, there are few currently active baritones who can touch him. His Count Almaviva possessed the most important attribute necessary to putting the role across—authority, which he never lost despite the many times he was outfoxed by Figaro, Susanna and nearly everyone else on stage. I would have liked to have seen a Countess who could truly match him, but Amanda Majeski isn’t quite there yet, though she may well be in the future. I thought her performance a bit one-note—this Countess should have been on Prozac, though she eagerly joined in the many twists and turns of Act Two. I tend to think the overdone depression was more Eyre’s take on the character than hers, so there may be some tweaking in the future.

Isabel Leonard is a beautiful woman with a lovely voice, but I wasn’t really impressed until seeing her performance as Cherubino. She’s inside his skin, and looked quite dashing in that white suit. However, I was somewhat disappointed by “Voi che sapete.” She acted the lyrics to the aria, which resulted in some abruptly terminated phrases. But the aria is really a performance piece, and I would have preferred to have heard it as pure music rather than a vehicle by which Cherubino too obviously shows his befuddlement and anxiety to the Countess. Since it’s such a calling card for lyric mezzos, I can’t imagine this was Ms. Leonard’s idea, but it needs to be thrown overboard forthwith.

The rest of the cast was exemplary: Greg Fedderly’s Don Basilio seemed like Paul Lynde revisited, Susanne Mentzer, a former Cherubino of distinction, was a wonderfully arch Marcellina and John Del Carlo blustered becomingly as Bartolo. There was also a star in the making—Ying Fang, whose Barbarina had far more voice that you usually hear in this role. She’s got the limpid sound and the charm to be a wonderful Mimi, and I look forward to hearing more from her in the future.

What a lovely way to start a season of opera.

Some food for thought: Here’s a snapshot of what’s wrong with opera in America today. At my local multiplex there were only about 40 people in attendance for the “Figaro” HD telecast. I spotted one couple in their early 30’s, another in their 40’s, and a young woman in her 20’s who arrived with her mother. No one else in the theater would see 55 again, and in fact, the majority of attendees appeared to be in their late 60’s and far beyond. And, sad to say, the situation is no different at the university where I usually attend HD telecasts. So the marketing folks better get cracking pronto, before there’s no audience remaining to appreciate some of the greatest works ever created.

Posted in Observations, Opera

No Strength of Conviction

"The Death of Klinghoffer"--Opera Theater of St. Louis (Photo: Ken Howard)
“The Death of Klinghoffer”–Opera Theater of St. Louis (Photo: Ken Howard)

I’m furious.

The Metropolitan Opera, per General Manager Peter Gelb, has cancelled both the HD telecast and the radio broadcast of John Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer,” scheduled for next season. To anyone who has heard the opera (more about that later), the given reason for doing so is couched in something of a non-sequiter: that an international showing of the work would be “inappropriate in a time of rising anti-Semitism.” In the next breath, Gelb maintains that he doesn’t feel the work is anti-Semitic, but he understands the “genuine concern of the international Jewish community.”

Baloney.

The prime mover in this is Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, supposedly representing the interests of the Klinghoffers’ daughters. In truth this is an attempt to stir a pot that doesn’t exist. Unlike Mr. Foxman, who admits he’s never seen the opera and whom I seriously doubt has even heard the music or read the libretto, I’ve listened to a recording of the work, and no way is “The Death of Klinghoffer” anti-Semitic, nor in my opinion, anti-Zionist.

What John Adams and Alice Goodman have produced is a multi-faceted, sensitive opera designed to represent multiple points of view and—horrors!—to make the audience think. The music is some of Adams’ best—eerily beautiful, yet powerful. What I suspect really galls the ADL and their supporters is that the work is not as one-sided as they would wish. The Palestinians on stage voice their aspirations; they’re not merely cardboard villains. Though Adams and Goodman make it very clear that Leon Klinghoffer’s murder was an unjustified, horrific act, this is evidently not enough for those who operate on knee-jerk reactions.

Look, I’m Jewish and I had problems with “The Death of Klinghoffer” before I listened to it. My reservations weren’t political, but emotional—my parents were of the same generation as Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer, and it didn’t take much imagination to see them on the Achille Lauro. But having listened to the opera, I think it’s a major work that should be seen by as wide an audience as possible. I had planned to attend the HD telecast, but unfortunately this opportunity hasn’t just been taken away—it’s been stolen from me and everyone else who had been eagerly looking forward to seeing it. The artistic loss can’t be denied: John Adams is a composer of enormous stature whose works are among the most intriguing any opera house has to offer. The Met’s productions of “Nixon in China” and “Doctor Atomic,” both of which I’ve seen, are on a very short list of outright successes Peter Gelb has enjoyed during his tenure as General Manager.

I have a message for the ADL: You don’t speak for me. Abraham Foxman, he who blithely admits he never saw the opera, apparently wanted the entire run of “The Death of Klinghoffer” to be cancelled. But, as he ever so smugly told the New York Times, “We compromised.” The fact that a special interest group is evidently dictating repertory to the Metropolitan Opera should give anyone with a brain some pause.

To the Klinghoffer daughters: Your loss was immeasurable. I know you don’t see it this way, but to those familiar with the opera, John Adams and Alice Goodman have honored the memory of your parents, not exploited it. The fact that you are evidently using your influence to suppress, rather than promote, an opportunity for discourse is in itself an injustice.

To Peter Gelb and the Metropolitan Opera: Your cancellation of the HD telecast of “The Death of Klinghoffer” is the worst expression of cowardice I’ve seen in years. You caved to political pressure in the same way that Hollywood and TV caved during the McCarthy and “Red Channels” years. You’ve compromised the very mission of the arts: to provoke thought and discussion. Integrity once lost can never be regained. So the next time your little minions call me for a donation, the answer will be no. And Peter? You just wrote the first paragraph of your obituary.

The “Klinghoffer” controversy is just one more example of the extreme fear exhibited by religious and/or special interest groups in the face of any expression that departs from orthodoxy. A number of years ago it was Catholic groups that protested the showing of Chris Ofili’s “The Holy Virgin Mary” at the Brooklyn Museum (If you recall, the artist had used elephant dung in addition to more traditional media in executing the portrait). Then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani threatened to withdraw city aid to the museum, which filed suit in federal court and won on First Amendment grounds.

Ultimately this type of suppression is unvarnished paternalism. It stands for the proposition that only Mommy and Daddy know what’s best for you. Interest groups that apply this type of pressure to arts organizations fundamentally distrust the audience, no doubt out of fear that their own ideas will be rejected. The only comfort one can take away is that those who suppress are on the wrong side of history.

Will the ADL up the ante next time by resorting to book-burning? Shonda.

 

Posted in Baseball, Observations, Opera

Lose One, Win One

Still Smarter Than AGMA and Local 802
Still Smarter Than AGMA and Local 802

This may turn out to be more deadly than the “Game of Thrones” Red Wedding.

Local 802 of the Musicians Union recently authorized a strike should an agreement not be reached with the Metropolitan Opera before current contracts expire on July 31. Unlike the choristers represented by the raucous American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), which has been rattling its saber for weeks, the musicians have been quiet until now.

Given the present state of affairs, it’s time for a tutorial from this Met subscriber whose hard-earned dollars have been paying their salaries since 1987. So all you unions, welcome to Auntie Betty’s parlor. Have a seat while I try to open your eyes to reality.

Contrary to your evident expectations, you’re not going to win the public relations war. Met General Manager Peter Gelb and his board aren’t dummies, so they won’t forsake the high road to lock you out, which is something I’m sure you’d dearly love (Martyrdom has its perks, I suppose). While the Minnesota Orchestra management had to learn the hard way from this mistake, you can rest assured the Met hierarchy was watching their every move and filing the public reaction away for future reference. This, in addition to the calm of Peter Gelb’s response to every hysterical pronouncement by AGMA, consistently casts the Met in the adult role as opposed to the unions’ acting like petulant teenagers.

You’re not fast food workers scraping by on minimum wage. While the employment paradigm in this country has shifted drastically to part-time and contract work, you’re full-time, permanent employees, a status that many of your audience members would kill for. So how much sympathy do you think you’re going to get when real wages in this country have been virtually frozen for decades and the cost of benefits is increasingly forced on employees? Unemployment in the New York metropolitan area remains high, to the extent that millions have ceased even looking for work, or haven’t you heard? The present economic picture results in less disposable income, which in turn means fewer Met tickets sold and fewer dollars donated (Let’s not forget the investments of the Big Wallets, i.e., the moneyed elite, were also hit by the 2008 economic upheaval. I see no evidence whatsoever that you’ve acknowledged this reality, but you better do so, pronto. Otherwise you’re not serving your membership.

I remember the Met strike of 1969-70, when half a season was lost, and opera lovers went through major withdrawal. Here’s a news flash: We won’t feel that level of pain this time should there be a strike. Why? We’ve got opera on DVD, Blu-ray, YouTube and countless sites on the interwebs, not to mention HD telecasts from around the world. Of course we’ll miss the excitement of the live experience, but we sure won’t be bereft.

Think about it.

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Oh happy day!

The news broke this week that Saul Katz, business partner and brother-in-law ofMr_Met1960s Fred Wilpon, owner of the Mets, may be interested in selling his share. This would either make the Wilpons minority owners or force them to sell their interest in the team. Although Katz immediately denied the rumor, Mets fans took to the internet and social media to rejoice.

If ever a franchise needed new ideas and a cash infusion, it’s the Boys of Flushing, New York. Hit hard by the Madoff scandal (the Wilpons and the Madoffs had been friends for decades), the Mets have simply been out of the running for several years in the free agent market. They’ve been forced to settle for players like Chris Young and Curtis Granderson who, while able, are not what the Mets have a crying need for—a Big Bat. A Darryl Strawberry, a Gary Carter—someone who can deliver. Consistently. And be a colorful Super Star. For years the Mets have been as bland as skim milk. This is New York, for God’s sake! Strut your stuff.

At heart the Wilpons really seem to have wanted to own the Brooklyn Dodgers, not the New York Mets. While the new CitiField honored Dodger greats from Opening Day, the Wilpons didn’t even feature a Mets museum until the ballpark’s second season, and it was only then that the team’s retired numbers appeared on the outfield fences. With this plus a very disheartening team, is it any wonder that ticket sales have been diminishing year by year?

Financially speaking, the Mets have been a bottomless pit, and I suspect that had the Wilpons not been close friends of Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, they would have been forced to undergo some stringent financial scrutiny when the true extent of Bernie Madoff’s dealings became known, and perhaps even been forced to sell the team. It’s nice to have friends in high places.

Here’s hoping a sale happens ASAP. I don’t expect a World Series champ overnight, but I would like to see some consistently competent and maybe even (dare I hope?) occasionally exciting baseball played in Queens for an entire season. It’s a start.

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R.I.P. Al Feldstein, the driving force behind Mad Magazine’s success and the father (?!?) of Alfred E. Neuman, this post’s headliner. At its peak, there was nothing better than to grab the latest issue and laugh like a fool over what “the usual gang of idiots” had cooked up that month. Good times.

 

 

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.