Posted in Baseball, Brain Bits, Opera, Television

Brain Bits for the Start of Summer

June 23rd. Two days after the equinox. Not only did the Big Moon show up, the Mets (!?!) are now playing decent baseball. Matt Harvey’s superior success, the arrival of Eric Young, Jr., Omar Quintanilla, and Juan Lagares, the special guest appearances of Zack Wheeler are all adding up to a team that not only I’m no longer embarrassed to watch—they’re great to see even when they lose. Yet another miracle of summer, the best part of the year.

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I’m a Metropolitan Opera subscriber, yet I have to say that the most intense operatic performance I heard this season was not at that house but across the plaza at Avery Fisher Hall. Conductor Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic presented a concert version of Luigi Dallapicolla’s “Il Prigioniero” earlier this month, and I don’t think I breathed during the 50-minute duration of the work. Gerald Finley as the prisoner, Patricia Racette as his mother and Peter Hoare as the jailer were nothing short of superb, as were Alan Gilbert and the Philharmonic. Bravissimi!

Gerald Finley and Alan Gilbert:
Gerald Finley and the New York Philharmonic: “Il Prigioniero”

Speaking of opera, it’s always an interesting proposition to consider how a particular production either honors a composer’s intentions or scrapes across the grain. A few weeks ago I experienced Willy Decker’s famous “red dress” version of “La Traviata” at the Met with mixed emotions. On the one hand, I enjoyed how he pared the opera down to its essence, yet I really questioned some of his choices. Dressing the chorus and supporting characters in black suits and ties? (Flora, Gastone, et al, sorry we somehow lost you in the crowd). Ditto taking the sole intermission after the first act (While “La Traviata” is among my top ten favorite operas, sitting through the rest of the work without a break made for an unnecessarily long evening). And having Violetta dying in a bleacher seat was ridiculous—the least Decker could have done was given that poor girl a divan.

Nevertheless, there were some arresting moments, especially the beginning of the final act when Violetta sees her fickle friends create another Girl of the Moment by clothing her in that red dress. Diana Damrau was quite good in the role, delivering perhaps the most eerie “È strano” imaginable at the conclusion of the opera. Placido Domingo continues his vanity tour as a baritone, and I wish to God he’d quit and leave these roles to singers who can really do them justice.

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Many months ago I made sure to get a ticket to the Met’s revival of “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” since only three performances were scheduled. What a marvel John Dexter’s production is—how spare, yet how it complements both the story as well as the music. This is one production both critics and audiences agree should not be replaced.

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James GandolfiniThere’s a particular type of sadness most of us feel when a talented actor dies, especially at a young age. No matter how accomplished he or she may be, or how honored in terms of Oscars or Golden Globes bestowed, there’s that sense of deprivation, of missing out on what might have been. This was especially true with the passing of Natasha Richardson several years ago. But with the untimely death of James Gandolfini, there’s more—we mourn not only what might have been, but what iconically was.

As the inimitable Tony Soprano, he had us from the get-go. Is there anyone who wasn’t charmed in the pilot of the show when Tony, noticing his shrink’s Italian surname on her diploma, smiled: “Melfi. What part of the boot you from, hon?” It was Gandolfini’s skill at his craft and his range as an actor that ultimately realized a character and a television show that clearly delineated the “before” and “after” in terms of adult drama. While he made Tony charming, he also with equal skill made him petty, ruthless, murderous, compassionate and confused—sometimes simultaneously.

Since Gandolfini’s death many lists of “Tony Soprano’s Best Moments” have appeared, but I couldn’t come up with a run-down like that no matter how I tried. Where do you start? Even more difficult, where do you end? His amusement at Silvio’s continual state of melt-down during the Big Game with Frank Sinatra, Jr.? His hammer and tongs confrontation with Carmela that ended in their separation (an advanced seminar in acting expertly taught by Gandolfini and Edie Falco and perhaps the most uncomfortable hour of drama ever televised)? His epic battles with Richie Aprile and Ralph Cifaretto, not to mention the way things ended with the latter (Pie-Oh-My indeed)? The horrific moment when he murdered Christopher? When “The Sopranos” aired, every episode was a showcase for both actor and character, to our delight and astonishment.

Gandolfini was set to star in a new HBO mini-series, “Criminal Justice,” in which he would have played a somewhat down-at-the-heels defense attorney. It would have been a good role for him and most likely would have demonstrated once and for all that he had more than Tony Soprano in his repertoire. But sadly, we’re left again with “might have been.”

Thank you, Mr. Gandolfini, and rest in peace.

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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 Music, Opera

Anna and Salome Arrive in Style

Anna Netrebko
The Diva Herself

Anna Netrebko is a peach. She’s also a star with a capital “S.” I’ve just seen the final dress rehearsal of the Met’s new production of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” scheduled to open the new season next Monday, and Anna N. as Anna B. is amazing. She holds stage like nobody’s business, and that big, dark soprano of hers fills the house. Fortunately she’s matched by the Henry VIII of Ildar Abdrazakov, whom I had never heard live before. He’s got command and his rolling bass is a great complement to Netrebko’s sound. Mezzo Ekatarina Gubanova plays Jane (aka “Giovanna”) Seymour, and when the two ladies square off for their confrontation in the second act, there’s some superlative singing indeed. And I couldn’t care less that neither has a trill.

“Anna Bolena” was Donizetti’s big hit, pre-“Lucia di Lammermoor,” but I think the former is the better opera. The drama never stops. Donizetti threw in two plot twists that have no basis in reality–a prior marriage between Anna and Richard Percy, and a mad scene in the Tower of London before she meets the headsman–but so what. It’s not a documentary, it’s opera. I’m only sorry there’s no glass armonica to accompany Anna’s loony tunes as there is for Lucia, but hey–you can’t have everything.

This was the second dress rehearsal of a new production I’ve attended via a Met subscribers’ lottery, and I enjoy these tremendously. The audience is reminded at the start that this is a working rehearsal, not a performance, so the action may stop and repeat, which is what happened today. Things literally came to a screeching halt during the last scene change of the opera when the elevator stage apparently snagged on something and a 15-minute break was called. It was worth waiting out because Anna Netrebko’s mad scene, which immediately followed, was rightly cheered and “brava’ed” at length. Charmingly, she finally broke character, smiled and applauded, pointing directly at Marco Armiliato, a true singer’s conductor.

“Anna Bolena” is the first of this season’s Met HD telecasts, scheduled for October 15th. This one is definitely worth seeing.

Last night’s New York Philharmonic season opener came courtesy of PBS’ “Live from Lincoln Center.” While this Samuel Barber fiend was put out by the slow tempo of the Overture to “The School for Scandal,” I thought conductor Alan Gilbert and Deborah Voigt did an excellent job with his “Andromache’s Farewell.” But the big draw was the second half of the program, which consisted of three selections from Richard Strauss’s “Salome”–the “Intermezzo,” the “Dance of the Seven Veils” and most memorably, Salome’s final scene where she kisses the mouth of John the Baptist’s severed head. Deborah Voigt relished this, and after her somewhat constricted performance of Wagner’s “Dich teure Halle,” it was a relief to hear her soar in the Strauss. Alan Gilbert brought out all the weirdness and perversity of the “Salome” selections, and the orchestra sounded more involved than I’ve heard in quite a while.

PBS usually repeats these performances, so check your local listings as they say, as well as the New York Philharmonic website.