Saturday, April 28, 2012

Almost suffering for the beauty of this music; Gustavo Dudamel Returns to the Digital Concert Hall

"It is such a perfection, such a simplicity, such a beautiful atmosphere," said conductor Gustavo Dudamel about Ma Mère l'Oye by Ravel, the work that opened his concert with the Berliner Philharmoniker transmitted live over the Digital Concert Hall. "Wow! How can I deal with this beauty! suffer for the beauty of this music!”

The five movements that comprise Ravel's suite need to come across as a memory of childhood. They need to sound filled with longing for what was once ordinary and domestic. They are always a tall order to open a program because the "excitement of beginning" is the exact opposite of the emotional quality that is required.

Dudamel came to the podium in a very subdued mood and let the music spill naturally, keeping tempos quietly dancing. He connected the second movement to the first with only a breath pause, and though the pauses between other movements were increasinly longer, he maintained a continual sense of energy to unfold without the feel of starting and stopping.

The digital concert hall transmitted the Ravel with too much focus on individual soloists. The highlighting of each solo line with visual solo shot pulled these lines too far from their colorful contexts. In the fourth movement, which portrays the interaction of "beauty and the beast" with a waltz for beauty and the contrabassoon representing the beast, the constant solo shots focused only on "beauty" after the first two entrances of the contrabassoon, and so the interaction between the two was diminished.

Violinist Leonidas Kavakos joined the orchestra as soloist in the Korngold Violin Concerto. Kavakos has a commanding musical presence with razor sharp articulation. He has a wonderful, crazy, Paganini energy--he stands in very relaxed posture, in the complete absence of any showmanship, and lyrical warmness and cerebral technical precision just emanate from him.

I loved the way he voiced the second theme group of the opening movement, the so-called "Juarez complex" of material from Korngold's 1939 film. The line is filled with melodic gaps, and Kavakos edged these gaps to make us clearly aware of what they were missing. The ending gestures of the first movement were fiery from both orchestra and soloist.

The second movement felt like chamber music on an epic scale. It is music of contradiction and too often its surfaces are what attract. This performance dug much deeper into possibilities. The third movement was taken at lightening fast speed and became a jittery jig with a big Hollywood ending. It sounded cool. The work was well received, and Kavakos returned to play the opening movement of the Sonata No. 5 in G major, called "L'Aurore" by Eugène Ysaÿe.

After intermission we heard "Also sprach Zarathustra" by Strauss. The first half of this performance was tightly constructed and the interrelationship of motives was clear and powerfully developed. The extension and development of the Tanzlied lost focus but found its bearings again when the music settled in B major for the Nachtwandlerlied. Dudamel extended the silence after the final unresolved C-naturals that close the work, and he allowed us to contemplate the life out of balance that sounds at the end of this work. There was still music even in this silence.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Scarlatti's Fun-House Sonata; K.119

Step right up! L-a-d-i-e-s and G-e-n-t-l-e-m-e-n: we give you the fun-house sonata:

The unexpected can be delightful. Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), master of invention, had a particular knack for the unexpected.

In the famous keyboard sonata K. 119 in D major the unexpected takes the form of strangely encased passages in the minor mode. Music in minor haunts this sonata like a ride through the fun-house. No one would suspect a haunting based on the celebratory opening gestures, played here by Irena Koblar in a live performance:

We begin with confident music built on logical contrasts; widely spaced intervals against stationary chords on each downbeat. The chords disappear just as rising scalar figures are introduced [0:06]. The phrase seeks a cadence but requires a series of musical updrafts before it can settle.

A closing gesture [0:14] with repeated notes attracts our attention. It becomes narrative music; an amusement park barker calling though a megaphone. The section dissolves into a cadenza [0:23] that quickly modulates.

A-minor hits like Sleepy Hollow [0:31]. Syncopated melodic writing and the surprising twists of harmonic minor poke through as the ostinato rhythm moves us on rails through the fun house.

Gradually the texture takes on characteristics of the narrative music until we recognize our barker [0:58] and realize that we are safely back in major, celebrated with delightful hand-crossings that reference the very first measures of the piece, now in the dominant.

Koblar repeats the entire first half of the sonata [1:14-2:25]. The ghosts at [2:26] seem real. It is distilled, melancholy music that begins to obsess on trills like an incantation.

Gradual refocusing happens as ghosts fade and the sound takes on recognizable shapes related to the cadenza. The music stops on the dominant [3:00]. The final segment of the fun-house works as a mirror deflecting the earlier ride onto a different track that allows us to arrive back home.

Koblar repeats the entire second half of the sonata [3:47-5:08]. Like any good fun-house attraction the second time through we can figure out all the humbugs!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Dessay struggles but draws us close. Review of Traviata from Met Live in HD

(AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Marty Sohl)

"I missed a high note today," said soprano Natalie Dessay, "I'm sorry!"

Dessay confessed to the live in HD audience during intermission about a pitch that seemed placed but for which no sound came out at first. The note finally did speak and she closed the vocal cadenza at the end of Sempre libera.

Dessay struggled against her voice throughout the performance. It lacked her characteristic power, agility, and crystalline color. Often the sound seemed torn and raspy, and the cords did not always vibrate at her command. One hoped she would warm and rally. One hoped that it would not become a distraction; after all this is a heroine who is ill. But there was no rally. It was distracting.

But it was also filled with an unusual kind of emotional charge. Her determination was inspiring. Her extraordinary musicianship was also inspiring; and it allowed her to continue in spite of all challenges.

But in spite of huge sound from Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Giorgio Germont and an effective performance from Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo, the connection among characters that needed to take place in order to fully mine this plot never materialized.

The Willy Decker production remains "timely." The connection from the end of the second act into the opening of the third proved that the death scene need not take place on a Victorian sickbed, but that it was connected to the very location of abandonment. Alienation was expressed during the final moments by staging the heroine's drops into death alone and unattended by those around her.

During the first curtain call everyone else had vanished and Dessay alone was onstage for the first bow. She had somehow managed to draw us close.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

White Shag Mozart; Review of Gotham Chamber Opera's Sexy Sogno di Scipione

The curtain opened on white shag and a small black and white TV displaying a snowy noise pattern in a toppled apartment. Stage left there were two stacked mattresses and three sets of bare feet sticking through a sheet that wasn't long enough to cover them. Even during the overture we were in a dream. A sexy dream.

In this young and vibrant production by Gotham Chamber Opera directed by Christopher Alden and conducted by Neal Goren, Scipione's dream began in bed with two beautiful women; Fortuna and Constanza. It turned to a nightmare with his almost immediate realization that he needed to choose between them.

Written at age 16, Il sogno di Scipione was the 8th of 22 operas by Mozart, depending on how you classify and count the works. It has seldom been presented in live performance but we have reason for hope that Gotham has helped to change that fact. This is the second time the company has produced Il Sogno di Scipione. The opera marked a trajectory for this company when it was the very first opera that it produced; an occasion which was also the American premiere of the work. This occasion marked the 10th anniversary of the company.

Described by Mozart as a "dramatic serenade," the work must be presented continuously and lasts just under two hours. The challenges for staging the work are legendary; there are ten solo arias and no duets, trios, or ensembles of any kind save two interjections by a chorus. Each aria is as complex as a concerto movement and last 7 to 8 minutes. Each aria includes mind-bending coloratura and presents extremes of register that imagines singers to be instruments of the orchestra with keys and values.

This amazing cast was up to the vocal challenges. They sang the notes that were on the page, and many that were not; they added extra figures and ornaments in appropriate places. All of them took extended cadenzas as opportunities to unleash relevant and tasty but nonetheless fearsome vocal pyrotechnics, and all of them could act. Their collected performance was a testament to the high level of acting and role engagement that is possible with this new generation of young professional opera singers.

During Fortuna's first aria "Lieve sono al par del vento," the essential character of each of the two central women was developed. Susannah Biller sang the aria in a blaze of C major with both power and clarity as she also dressed and undressed several times. She expressed her character's capriciousness through assuming the personality of each costume in a sequence that would have been challenging even without singing. Biller made confidences audible.

While Biller was in motion, Constanza, played by Marie-Ève Munger was quietly moving through yoga postures on the opposite side of the stage. Constanza's mystical character in this production synced with the magical proficiency of Munger's awesome technique. She sang "Ciglio che al sol si gira" accurately in a breathtakingly fast tempo without losing any of its tenderness. "Biancheggia in mar lo scoglio" was given with a power and drama that showed that this girl next door had a kicking engine under the hood.

Tenor Michele Angelini as Scipione was most impressive in his final aria "Di' che se l'arbitra del mondo intero," where he sang some of the trickiest divisions in the entire opera and several quick high C's while tying a double windsor knot in his tie (without a mirror). When fully dressed he grabbed his briefcase, used it to break a hole through a wall, and exited. This corporate transformation ended the dream sequence without ruining it with completely rational explanation.

Tenor Arthur Espiritu as Publio, tenor Chad A. Johnson as Emilio, and Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Licenza filled out the rest of this first-rate cast.

I was only disappointed in the way that the second aria for Fortuna was staged. Dressed as a cocktail waitress, Fortuna scowled as she prepared drinks. Though the lyrics of this aria are menacing, the music is a clear reference to Constanza's first aria. The two arias share the same key, the same scoring for strings only, and even framing pitches and contour shapes. It is as if Mozart wanted to show that Fortuna had elements of Constanza within her, as Constanza has elements of Fortuna in the contrasting aria that follows it. Mozart seems to say that even the women of our dreams are more complex than they seem at first.

In the large-scale design of the design of the opera each of the main characters gets two arias that break in slightly shifted mirror symmetry on either side of Emilio's aria. Emilio, because he is at the center gets only one, and he is mirrored at the close by Licenza's aria. The order that Constanza and Fortuna sing arias in this second half is shifted from the pattern that would have happened naturally. The shift highlights the idea that Fortuna realized she was losing ground to Constanza and needed to show that she had tenderness within her as well; even if it was only in music and not in the libretto. The cocktail Fortuna did not serve any difference in personality and that made the entire second half feel that much less complex, less strange, and more predictable. At any rate it was certainly too unchanging for this mistress of the capricious.

"Scipio is not the subject, we are," sang Willis-Sørensen as Licenza during the epilogue finale of the work. She made eye contact with everyone in the audience and explained that Scipio's name "is a disguise for the respect I feel for you."  She acknowledged the musicians in the pit and the first-rate continuo players. Mozart, master of last minute transformations, reconciliations, and forgiveness, scored appreciation into this opera and this production allowed it to be shared.

Individual members of the chorus each lifted enough of the curtain to sing the final choral celebration as Willis-Sørensen gathered her shopping bags, returned the apartment to its former toppled condition and disappeared.

Like any good dream this production asked more questions than it answered. And it gave us a dream-cast to ask them. It was a significant achievement by this relevant and fascinating opera company.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Met Live in HD Review; The Diagonal Manon

Tenor Piotr Beczala as the Chevalier des Grieux was the most pleasant surprise in the Met Live in HD production of Manon. He sang with consistent elegance, power and fiery control. “En fermant les yeux” was gorgeous and sung from a stunning placement near a black wrought iron railing, cast on a diagonal, with Anna Netrebko lying down on the landing so that her head was slightly above his even though she was horizontal.

This work with relative heights was an effective feature of the sets by Laurent Pelly. Pelly developed diagonals throughout the production: There was a diagonal stairway in the bland set for Act I, many diagonals in the loft apartment in Act II, diagonal ramps galore in the Cours-la-Reine scene, which was echoed in the scene with the gamblers in Act IV, and in Act V all diagonals were finally resolved by tilting them upstage and allowing the sight-line to disappear. The only place unsaturated with diagonals was the seminary of St. Sulpice in Act III scene 2, and their absence helped anchor the importance of this scene by creating a visual stasis. The scene seemed settled and in opposition to the directed motion of the ramps and other diagonals of the production.

The production was updated to 19th century styles but that did not add anything significant to the telling of the story. Massenet sets archaic music frequently in the work and all that music felt askance. The production itself also interfered with the narrative in many places. For example, Pelly had the top-hatted gentlemen of the Cours-la-Reine abduct some of the ballet dancers in a scene that suddenly became unnecessarily Lulu.

This Live-in-HD production was also marked by an overabundance of camera shifting. At times it was dizzying. There was no reason to shift perspectives so frequently when the music, acting and singing was so good.

The backstage interviews were also bland. Bland. We need to ask Fabio Luisi better questions. He has been asked the same question every time he has been on camera...Yes, he likes to conduct different repertoire at the same time. Yup. Luisi could probably conduct Wagner with his left hand and Massenet with his right. Lets get him some questions that will allow him to tell us something about the music itself. Give us some insight.

Thankfully, Netrebko had her own volume turned all the way up. She gave a characteristically cool interview in front of her costumes. "This is the very first is supposed to look very innocent and simple. Those ones who call me Mary Poppins immediately go down to Hell!" We needed it. It felt great.

Netrebko also sounded strong and accurate. There were very few of the pitch problems that Tommasini wrote about on opening night. She also looked better than she did in Anna Bolena earlier this season. "I feel a purifying flame within me," she sang near the end of the opera. Purifying indeed.
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