The Modern Opera Experience II

Yesterday mom and I went to our final opera broadcast of the season: that of Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, the completion of the Met’s staging and broadcasting of all three of his “Tudor Queen” operas four an a half years after they first aired Anna Bolena in 2011.  It was a season of the familiar on the Met’s screen; they had already had Roberto Alagna and Kristine Opalais singing opposite each other in two of the broadcasted operas, and now they had Matthew Polenzani and Mariusz Kwiecien for the second time this season singing two points of a love triangle and seeming to be more in love with each other than with the woman involved!  Although despite the title the real star was Sondra Radvanovsky singing Queen Elizabeth I.  Throw in Elina Garanca, and some of the most beautiful music Donizetti’s ever written, and one’s in for an afternoon of true beauty-if, that is, you are lucky enough to be a theater where the sound is working.

Unfortunately, my mother and I were not.  Instead we were in one that had continual problems with both the image and sound; they both would sometimes go smoothly for a while, then start freezing and stammering, then there would a loud burst of static and sometimes after that things would get better, but not always, and they wouldn’t stay better.  During those minutes where everything was working, we could greatly admire the singing, the acting, and the drama especially during the second act, where it had better emotional effect, but then would come that stammering again and we’d be knocked out of it.  The climax was intense enough that even with the sound still struggling it was easier to stay engaged with it, and yet one is still aware of how it could have been far better still, had Radvanovsky been the wall of grief and song she’s supposed to be.  Also the finale wasn’t quite over when whoever was in charge of the lights thought it was and raised them!

At the intermission, as I read the Wikipedia article on the actual Robert Devereux and noted how ridiculously unlike the opera the true history was(but it’s opera; one should expect that), we also got a list of next year’s operas.  Mom wants to see quite a few of them, even some of the reruns of operas we’ve seen already.  I’d be for seeing some of them too, but given that apparently the sound issues were even worse when she attended the rerun of Madam Butterfly, perhaps we should look into any other cinemas doing the broadcast, and if there are any that aren’t too far away.

Met Opera Broadcast: Manon Lescaut

Giacomo Puccini’s opera on the famous fallen woman of French literature is the less famous adaptation of the tale, but when the Met broadcasted it yesterday, they talked about how it was his first hit.  Indeed, you can hear in it some general skill in writing music, although for this one he didn’t manage any super-memorable themes like his later operas contained.  He also simplified the story far more than Jules Massenet did in his more famous version, and took it out of its original time period, which left director Richard Eyre free to set it in another time period all together, and he went with occupied France, as being a France and a time period in which the plot more or less worked: when powerful people could do what they wanted and everyone else ignored terrible things around them in exchange for being able to live their lives if they were lucky.

Puccini’s version of Manon and her lover are also somewhat simpler than Massenet’s, though whether or not that’s a bad thing depends almost on how you look at it: on one hand, things are shallower, but on the other, their actions make a bit more sense psychologically, especially in the first half of the opera.  The best way to deal with it, perhaps, is to get the best vocal talent available to infuse into the characters all the feeling they can.  The Met, thankfully, lucked out when, having lost their original leading man, they managed to get Roberto Alagna to sing instead; he may be a little older than he was when movie theater audiences first saw him, but he can still do passion with the best of them.  Plus the younger Kristine Opolais proved able to hold her own with him.  The most effective part of the opera was the end, when all the fancy sets and costumes were removed, and they didn’t even attempt to explain where in the world the two characters were, just had them suffer and die and let us be sad over it.

Alagna and Opolais are going to be singing more Puccini to each other on the Met stage and screen as well; they’re also starring in the upcoming Madama Butterfly.  Unfortunately I’m going to be in Boston during that one.

Met Opera Broadcasts: Les Pecheurs de Perles

Les Pecheurs de Perles, a lesser-known composition about a pearl fishing village in Ceylon by Georges Bizet(of Carmen fame), before now was last done at the Met about a century ago, using a corrupted libretto(Bizet’s more authentic manuscripts weren’t found and used until very recently), and then forgotten about for a long time.  Not without some good cause, since the story is a mix of melodrama and 19th-century Orientalism, a depiction of people from the far east who will ritually murder people.  But then soprano Diana Damreau wanted to sing it, and convinced the Met to put it on so she could-while wearing a very light tanface, which was at best a questionable thing to do, and actually turned out to be the most problematic detail of the show that was broadcast Saturday.

One can understand why she wanted to sing it, though.  The music is absolutely gorgeous, from the opening chords(accompanied Saturday by a spectacular aerial show that showed people diving for pearls), to the lovely duets between the three main characters.  But while Damreau was good, she was rather outsung by both her male co-stars.  Matthew Polenzani and Marius Kwiecien were helped there by having the standout number from the score, which they played unafraid of the homoeroticism, but Polenzani almost stole the first act with his passionate solo aria there, and Kwiecien emerged as the true lead of the opera in the third with both his singing and his moving acting, making the melodramatic end truly heartbreaking.

Meanwhile, director Penny Woolcock was smart enough to take the opera out of exotic Ceylon and instead put it in modern-day Sri Lanka(the program claimed it was just an unspecified eastern location, but the billboard in the first act and the map of the country on the wall in the third belied that), putting the chorus in a mix of traditional and modern clothes, creating hovels with electric lights, and removing in the third act to a modern office with a laptop and vintage TV.  This put the story of villagers afraid of storms and the rising sea into a whole new context, one where we are aware these are people whose home and very lives are threatened by climate change.  When they put their hopes on Damraeu’s priestess character to stop the storms, one has to figure the most recent years have been bad enough to make them desperate, and when they prepare at the end to kill her and Polenzani, one is quick to realize they’re scapegoating them for more than just the most recent weather, but for everything they in reality can’t do anything about, but are unwilling to accept their helplessness in the face of.  Once, the ritualistic murdering seemed ridiculous to the modern mind.  Now, in the era of ISIS and similar, it feels all too plausible.

Whether or not most of the people involved in this production realized that is an interesting question, although I’d like to think Woolcock did.  But either way, it makes this opera resonate in a way that perhaps it never has before.  This is one production that might stay on for a while.

Netflix’s Daredevil and the Met Opera’s Cav & Pag

Finished Daredevil just after breakfast yesterday, and spent the rest of the morning consuming the fandom that has sprung up around it, before going off to watch the Met Opera’s broadcast of Cavalleria Rusticana/I Pagliacci.  It was a very Catholic day.  Most of it was made pretty much by virtuoso performances.

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Met Opera Broadcasts: The Merry Widow

For yesterday’s cinematic broadcast, the Met presented what they described as a mix of opera and Broadway.  Their production of the Austro-Hungarian operetta The Merry Widow was directed by big Broadway director Susan Stroman, had as its two leading ladies Renee Fleming and Broadway singer Kelli O’Hara, and was peformed in English.  But after the more straightforward productions of Figaro and Der Meistersinger transmitted earlier this season were such disappointments, I, for one, was hoping the Met broadening its horizons a little might produce something better.

By the end of the first act I was on the verge of despair.  The Merry Widow proves a silly farce, not nearly as funny as it thinks it it, and I suspect the English translation made it cornier.  Not to mention its portrayal of the battle of the sexes is kind of offensive, even more so than one might even resign oneself to when watching opera.  Meanwhile, while O’Hara was sure during her inteerview to talk about how she had studied opera in college, her abilities to sing it remain limited, as became devastating clear once Fleming showed up.  And she wasn’t singing nearly enough, making it seem like even she couldn’t save the damn thing.  The visuals were gorgeous, but it felt like all dressed up and no place to sing.

Thankfully after the intermission, things improved somewhat.  The second act contained a bit more singing for Fleming, and also for leading man Nathan Gunn, a man described his interview as a man equally comfortable in opera and Broadway, and when given the chance did display the best of both.  Then in the third act, we finally reached the showgirl dance the opera had wisely advertised itself with before the broadcast of Meistersinger, where O’Hara finally got to do something she was actually really great at, and Stroman’s skillset also showed its strength, I think.  The second two acts were also when the best pieces of music in the opera started showing up, including one waltz I was stunned to hear in its original context having grown up with a kiddie birthday version of it, and most of them involved signing by Fleming and/or Gunn, which made them better.  Also the comedy even *might* have gotten slightly funnier, especially when it was being carried by stage/screen actor Carson Elrod as the comic manservant.

Still, I’m really hoping Cav & Pag at the end of the season is better.

Met Opera Broadcasts: Il Nozze di Figaro & Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg

I fear the Met may not be broadcasting its best this year.  Granted, I’ve only seen two of their broadcasts so far this year(although this was partly because we had severe doubts about at least two more), but both were of pretty mediocre productions that displayed the Met’s reoccurring difficulty with going outside the box.  The results were actually somewhat different, but this was largely because of the quality of the two operas themselves.

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The modern opera experience

Went today to the Hoffman cineplex to watch the broadcast of the Met’s production of Jules Massenet’s Werther, walking in what was actually very nice weather, though apparently it’s supposed to snow again on Monday; it seems the latest game of climate change is for the weather to descend into chaos.  Arrived an hour early to get good seating, settled in to eat overpriced pizza(with very nice crust), and killed time by reading about marching white supremacists on the iPhone before the opera started.  Unfortunately, I ended up dozing off for large parts of it, which usually doesn’t happen to me in the middle of the day but perhaps it was because of my rising early this week to watch Junior Worlds, but for whatever reason today it did.  I woke up to the sound of my mother crying and we were in the middle of Jonas Kaufman singing the big third act aria, which certainly was powerful, especially with him having the command of it.  The music of  Werther is very good as making the emotion of the opera rise and fall, especially when aided by a romantic tenor of Kaufman’s caliber.

Then came the final scene, the tragic end, where my mother was crying again, Kaufman and the music were still ruling the roost-until suddenly the sound stopped.  When it didn’t come back on the lamenting started.  Somebody apparently got the radio broadcast playing on one of their gadgets, but it was soft and out of sync and occasionally interrupted by Spanish-language radio stingers.  The big question we all had, of course, was whether the fault was with the Hoffman(not the first time it would’ve been) or if the broadcast itself was having a problem.  So I pulled my iPhone back out, loaded up Twitter, and entered “Werther” into the search box while several people went the the management to complain.

The sound finally came back literally the second the curtain fell, by which time I had found multiple tweets from people who had also lost sound, though it was trickier to determine where they were, until one tweeter identified herself as being in the Ziegfield in New York City.  So it looked like this was a problem at least for a large part of the east coast, though I’m still not sure how far it went(ETA: Apparently it hit “the majority of U.S. theaters”).  For the next 15 minutes or so I kept the app open, reading tweets from people who had suffered the same difficulties, getting much amusement out of it and consolation that we in the Hoffman had not been alone.  Watching opera is now truly a global experience-at least when it goes wrong.

ETA: And now the Met facebook account has announced that the last scene will be uploaded to their website tomorrow night for us all to watch with the sound on.  The modern opera experience indeed!

Met Opera Broadcast: Prince Igor

Prince Igor was the opera I was perhaps looking forward to the most this season, if only because as a figure skating fan, I was interested in hearing the Polovtsian Dances in context.  On the other hand, like most people who know only that piece of music, at least by its original name(other pieces of music from the opera have also been appropriated into other things though), I didn’t know much about the opera itself.  Which might have been just as well, since the Met production broadcast yesterday was actually a whole new approach to what at the time of composer Alexander Borodin’s death was a collection of pieces of an opera-in-progress he never properly put together, discarding must of the music his colleagues had composed to create the original full opera, and staged to suit modern ideals, delivering a strong anti-war message on a day when Russia’s current leader declares his intention to invade the Ukraine-a coincidence of timing, or perhaps just an indication that noone ever learns from the mistakes of the past.  Either way, it increases the opera’s power.

The biggest problem with purifying the opera in this way, perhaps, is that it leaves all the gaps which Borodin didn’t get around to filling.  As a narrative arc, what was put together works well enough.  It is left ambiguous what happened to Igor after his defeat, since in between the march off to battle and his return to his ruined city, all we see involving him is told in hallucination and flashback, with the famed Polovtsian Dances where the Khan’s slaves sing tribute to him turned almost into a nightmare sequence, and you have at least briefly wonder if his son really defected for love, or was simply killed in battle and hallucinated by his father.  Whether this a good thing or not, I suppose, depends on whether one likes having their mind screwed with.  But one undisputedly bad result of this is Prince Igor isn’t the biggest presence in his own opera-lead Ildar Abdrazakov is great when he’s signing, but you have to wait some time for that.  Meanwhile, the main character almost becomes his wife Yaroslavna, sung by Ukrainian  met debutante Oksana Dyka.  Not entirely inappropriate to have her lamenting the consequences of the war, though, on this particular day.  It helps too that she’s really good.  The production does it’s best to fill some of the gaps with projected image of the battle, and Abdrazakov in the end rejecting the grand welcome back chorus from his people in favor of leading off a clean-up of the stage.

Also the production previewed next season broadcast schedule, when much of the cast from yesterday will be featured, including Abdrazakov headlining Marriage of Figaro, and Cavalleria Rusticana Pagliacci with Marcelo Alvarez singing the lead in both.  Those ought to good.  Sadly, Dyka’s next doing Aida, which they will not try to broadcast again.

Met Opera Broadcasts: Rusalka

It was quite a week for Renee Fleming.  Starting with her singing for probably her biggest audience ever Sunday, and finishing yesterday with her singing for moviehouse audiences around the world in the Met production of Rusalka that was very much revived sheerly so she could star in a role now extremely closely associated with her, ever since during her young years she won the Met’s National Council auditions singing its famous “Song to the Moon.”  Which is all very well and good, especially since she’s great enough to make anything starring her worth seeing, except that Rusalka isn’t the most ideal showcase for such things for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, Rusalka isn’t that good an opera.  In terms of music, “Song of the Moon” is nice and so is the general feel of it, but it still doesn’t have anything that carries itself the way the greater operas do.  Combine that with the plot not really making sense at the time, and though it’s stronger at the ending it still leaves the singers with a lot of work to do.  And then, on top of that, said plot also mutes the title character for much of the second act.  One can argue that gives Fleming a chance to really show her acting ability, but her real talent is still her singing, and when the opera’s weak anyway, you spend much of the second act waiting impatiently for her to start singing again.

The cast made it worth it enough, though, with Fleming getting a good amount of help from Dolora Zajick in the first act, John Relyea getting our interest in the opera back during his long aria in the second, and Piotr Beczala holding his own during the end.  The set was impressive too, especially the atmospheric first/third act set.

Met Opera Broadcast: Falstaff

Taking in our first Met broadcast of the year, one thing I noticed was over the summer the Met had apparently gotten a skycam, and they weren’t tired of using it yet, though it wasn’t really practical for use during the performance, so they had to mostly use it during scene changes.  But the main development and their main focus during the broadcast was the return of maestro James Levine, out with injury and illness for two years, now in a special seat and apparently not up to being interviewed live during the broadcast(instead they taped an interview beforehand), but nonetheless still able to conduct.  Falstaff we were told was one of his favorites, and also not an easy opera to conduct at all, but he did the job very well.

Generally, indeed, everyone involved in Falstaff did their job well, though whether there were any standouts I am less certain.  Perhaps Stephanie Blythe as Mistress Quickly a little bit, as we heard from her during her interview how when she was young she took over the role at the last minute, under Levine’s conducting of course, and it became a signature part for her.  She wasn’t the only one singing a role associated with her; it is said noone else on Earth can do Falstaff as well as Ambrogio Maestri, and after watching him bound his way through the role I believe it.  Although all the knocks on his weight included in abundance by Verdi don’t work quite as well when they’re being sung not only by Blythe, but by Angela Meade, who in contrast to others was singing against type as Alice Ford, and that wasn’t a problem for her, but she’s hardly thin either.  Perhaps those lines could’ve done with being reduced, at least so the audience doesn’t start thinking the main characters are hypocrites.

The setting for the production was a technicolor version of the 50s with flashier surroundings and brighter colors than reality; it too worked pretty well for an exaggerated comedy, especially when it included Ford dressed in Texan cliche when disguising himself, though the final act seemed a little overly weird to the point that it interfered with the effectiveness of the climax.  One fun interview during the intermission was with the props master, because there were a lot of props, especially with the high amount of eating all the characters did.  Indeed, one of the running themes of the interviews was that Falstaff is an opera that is supposed to celebrate the pleasures of life, but I admit, I did not leave the theater with that impression.