26 Jan 2009
Orfeo ed Euridice at the MET
I am an ardent fan of Stephanie Blythe, and if you revel in sheer sound, she will delight you, too.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
I am an ardent fan of Stephanie Blythe, and if you revel in sheer sound, she will delight you, too.
The voice emerges easily, and is of exceptional beauty from top to bottom, at any size you like, Wagnerian power in the very grandest houses, light and quick in coloratura filigree or lieder delicacy as called for. She is also a highly intelligent woman and an effective actress. Stout in a svelte age, she moves with assurance and dignity on stage, and she can cut up deliciously in comedies like Italiana in Algeri and Offenbach’s Grande Duchesse. She is always conscious of differences of style between Handel and Donizetti or Broadway and the avant-garde, and she suits her sound to the music on her plate, light or heavy, intellectual or humorous, baroque or grand operatic or modern. Sincerity and majesty — or, in comedy, irony — are her long suits: she creates a sublime Fricka or Handel’s morbid Cornelia or Poulenc’s Mère Marie or Puccini’s Zia Principessa and wicked Zita . One longs to hear her Amneris and Dalila and Isabella — roles she has won kudos for in other cities, but has never sung in New York — not to mention daydreams of what an Alceste or Fidès or Ortrud she would be.
All of this being so, and the glory of the many times she has thrilled me in the past, I am puzzled by her beautiful but superficial, unmoving performance as Gluck’s Orfeo at the Met. Every note was beautiful but none of it touched the heart, hers or mine — as David Daniels so unerringly did two years ago. Somehow Daniels found the trembling, uncertain, bewildered soul at the heart of this desperate lover, humanizing him, but Blythe makes Orpheus too formal, too rigid — an actor portraying grief because grief is expected of a widowed hero. Coupled with James Levine’s rather quick, unvarying tempi — a bit of a surprise considering his tendency to slow down in Wagner — this was an unemotional, unfeeling Orfeo.
In startling contrast, Danielle de Niese, whose pretty, tireless soprano sometimes leaves me cold, projected all the desperation and confusion of Euridice’s plight without distorting any of its usual beauty. (Heidi Grant Murphy, as Amor, was a cipher with bad technique.)
I should mention that, like many no doubt, I had been worried about Blythe’s appearance and movement in some version of the man-in-black (-with-pointless-guitar) costume worn by Daniels, but here she has been well-served (and has served herself well): she looked massive in a dignified and masculine way, like one of our turn-of-the-century presidents, she moves with the proper gravity. For an opera to be telecast, this sort of thing is important — but not all-important.
Stephanie Blythe as Orfeo and Heidi
Grant Murphy as Amor with chorus in background
The myth of Orpheus is not a theatrical story — boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy has a chance to get her back but blows it. There is very little for the girl to do, and hardly anything for anyone else: it is practically a monodrama, though it has never (to my knowledge) been set to music that way. To the ancients, it was a tale of death and mystical rebirth, and if you joined the cult of the Orphic Mysteries, you could enter the Members Only section after death — but that won’t do today: we need a more universal message, like “Love conquers all,” even though it clearly doesn’t. (Has anyone you loved come back from the dead? Was that because you didn’t love them enough? Does anyone dead come back? Mythologically, Eurydice never did.)
But as Orpheus was the mythic type of the musician, whenever opera remembers its classical roots (not that they have much to do with what opera turned into), Orpheus gets updated and some theatrical sense must be made of his quest. In Offenbach’s operetta (a send-up of Gluck), the two lovers have irreconcilable differences over his old-fashioned taste in music. In Sarah Ruhl’s recent play, Eurydice, the girl tricks Orpheus into looking back because she doesn’t want to rejoin him: she prefers cozy death to chancy life.
Danielle de Niese as Euridice
When Gluck and his librettist, Calzabigi, approached the subject, in a self-consciously “reforming” mood, they started out by omitting “boy meets girl, boy loses girl” — these events have already occurred at curtain rise. They then expanded Orfeo’s quest to the Underworld into several great solo, chorus and dance opportunities. Then came their big alteration of the legend: instead of going so quietly that Orfeo isn’t sure she’s there, begins to doubt the word of his gods, and betrays his oath, this Euridice is a nag who never shuts up, and Orfeo (who is barred, in this version, from telling her why he cannot turn to look at her), is finally driven to violate his word. Euridice is lost and Orfeo gets his most famous aria, “Che faro.” This is followed by alteration two: The gods change their minds and give her back anyway. If you have read the synopsis before you go in, this will undercut the tragic level of what has gone before, but it does allow for extended dances of rejoicing and a happy hymn to triumphant Love for us to hum going home.
I’ll admit I’ve never been entirely happy with any staging I’ve seen of Gluck’s opera (six and counting) — though from what I read, the current Viennese one sounds promising, austere and grand. The opera is so tightly focused on Orfeo’s feelings that there should be as little opportunity for wandering attention as possible, and I’ve been most pleased when, for example, the chorus were out of sight, in the orchestra pit, and dancers mimed their feelings. The Mark Morris staging at the Met seems mostly to be about Isaac Mizrahi’s costumes (creating far too much individuation precisely where it was not wanted), so that the rhythmic gestures of the corps de ballet miming grief and sympathy (and, in the finale, rejoicing), are distractingly individual, while the hundred historic “witnesses” of the chorus who look on at this (and who become without change of costume furies or whatever the libretto needs) seem a pointless extravagance.
We always knew Blythe could sing the music; she can sing anything. But the role does not play to her strengths, and I eagerly await her appearance in something that does.