Sunday, October 27, 2013

Doves, Ghosts, Defiance and Longing; Gurre-lieder Succeeds in Berlin

"Weit flog ich," sang mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill as the wood dove. "Klage sucht' ich, fand gar viel! (Far did I fly, and seeking grief have found much!)" This refrain from the close of Part I of Arnold Schoenberg's massive Gurre-lieder remained in the ear, in an impressive performance by the Berliner Philharmoniker that was transmitted over the Digital Concert Hall.

Simon Rattle, whose 2002 recording of this work is already a classic, led a detailed accounting of this elemental early work by Schoenberg that will become a jewel in concert archive associated with the digital concert hall.

Rattle was assisted by a solid collection of vocalists led by the American tenor Stephen Gould as Waldemar, who navigated the extremes within this part but also lingered over pleasing colors and shades. He worked well with soprano Soile Isokoski as Tove, and even though the two never sang at the same time there seemed to be a believable connection between them.

The complexities within this orchestral score are legendary. The presentation given by the cameras favored the vocalists, but often provided important angles that helped clarify unusual orchestral textures. The one place we could have used a better look was during that evocative high B written for piccolo in the "Sommerwindes wilde Jagd." Schoenberg wanted that sound to be pianissimo and it almost never can be. The sound in this performance was fabulous! It seemed like a specially constructed whistle of some sort, and it held interest throughout the passage and somehow blended with each of the other instruments that spoke during that scene.

This is a work that begins in the haze of late romanticism, but transitions within itself to end leaning into modernism. This performance made the shifting styles sensible. "Herr Gänsefuß, Frau Gänsekraut" was a significant moment in this transition. The great Thomas Quasthoff was engaging in this melodramatic role. He articulated its rhythms with clarity and found an engaging middle ground between singing and speaking. Several times he created thrilling moments in sustained voice.

If you missed the live transmission, make sure you see the sunrise music. The orchestra has been celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the construction of the concert hall, and here is an opportunity to see how well the hall holds and focuses massive forces. But beyond that, it was a celebration of the process by which a concert of music this rare and delicious can be shared, live, to a global audience.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Two Kisses and a Shake; a review of Eugene Onegin from Met Live in HD

Scene from Act III

Unexpectedly the music stopped. We were only nine measures from the final curtain of the performance. But the music stopped. Anna Netrebko, who was Tatiana, had started to leave the stage. But like the music, she also stopped. She returned, moving quickly toward Mariusz Kwiecien as Onegin. She planted an extended, passionate kiss with a sexual energy rarely expressed in operatic kisses.

Let’s just say it was a most memorable inverted augmented sixth.

Kwiecien sang a C major triad unaccompanied and the music resolved into E minor as the curtain fell. The chord was not the only thing that was inverted. The kiss itself was an inversion of a kiss that Onegin gave, just as unexpectedly, to Tatiana in Act I scene 3 (which is often called the “sermon” scene).

This new production by Deborah Warner and directed by Fiona Shaw gathered momentum as it progressed.

It was described as “among the roster of also-rans,” and also as “drab,” and “dingy” by Tommasini on opening night. The set did not seem that way in HD. But nonetheless, I had a hard time connecting with the first scene.

Secondary roles and seemingly insignificant moments take on a primary importance in scene, and the secondary vocal roles were bland at best. Elena Zaremba wobbled too much in pitch as Madame Larina, and Oksana Volkova made little impression as Olga. The “Chorus and Dance of the Peasants” was contrived and acrobatic and it distracted from the rustic attraction that this music can generate.

I was pleasantly surprised by Netrebko. She turned all of her energy inward, and her Tatiana seemed preoccupied by art and by the world of the imagination and not simply shy. The letter scene became an externalization of this quality and did not seem like a contradiction in personality.

The HD camera work was effective, but did delay in going to “wide-shot” at the Onegin’s exit in Act I scene III, and we missed the infamous “apple bite” that has become the subject of commentary from Margaret Juntwait on recent Sirius FM Met broadcasts. Apparently, the attitude with which he took a bite from an apple in making his exit

Piotr Beczala's Lenski also took some time to make its mark. His character never seemed believable as a poet, but his singing was always of interest. In his Act II scene 2 aria everything came together. (The forest set was evocative-- and we watched the fallen tree get assembled during the scene break). Like Tatiana, Lenski's energy was also inward, and the similarity in these two characters was articulated very directly.

Onegin and Lenski shook hands in this production before the duel began. It was a gesture that was given a close up on the HD cameras. The shake was a symbol of friendship gone wrong.

While it took longer to gather its forces than the 1997 Carsen production, this new production did have insights and was very worth hearing.

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