03 Jun 2011
The Metropolitan Opera HD Live on DVD
Since 2006, movie cineplexes across the USA have attracted a somewhat unlikely crowd for Saturday matinees, from fall to spring.
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.
Since 2006, movie cineplexes across the USA have attracted a somewhat unlikely crowd for Saturday matinees, from fall to spring.
Instead of adolescents or youngsters and their parents shambling in to see the latest animated feature or some popular action/horror movie, a polite, more “senior” audience appears (often quite early) for a live simulcast in high-definition from the Metropolitan Opera’s home in Lincoln Center. Earlier attempts of this sort of media exploration had never really been much of a success, making the “Met Live in HD” venture something of a risk. In this case, the bet has paid off, and the so-called moviecasts have become a phenomenon, at least in the world of opera. The number of presentations has increased, the number of theaters hosting the shows has multiplied, and later “encore” showings are part of the program now as well. That first live moviecast remains the biggest draw, as most anyone who has attended one of the movie theater showings can attest that somehow at least some of the energy and atmosphere of the actual live performance manages to get conveyed, even in some suburban multiplex hundreds and hundreds of miles from NYC.
The fact that these moviecasts end up on PBS within a few months (although erratically scheduled) and then eventually on store shelves in DVD format has done nothing to slow the program’s expansion and success. Viewing five of the Met Live in HD moviecasts in their DVD equivalents offers reasons for that. Although the DVDs have at least some of the intermission features and begin with the backstage introductions by one or another of the Met’s singing stars, a true “live” feeling is absent once the opera proper begins. The viewer is left with somewhat ordinary operatic DVD viewing — with the expected variable successes in singing, production, and musical performance. The optimal way to enjoy these performances would have been to see them at Lincoln Center, but the definite next best would be the live HD moviecast. After that, the magic dissipates.
Start with the Sony DVD of the Met Live in HD series’s Simon Boccanegra, filmed on February 6, 2010. In a brief interview conducted by Renee Fleming, conductor James Levine speaks of his high regard for the opera and suggests it is no surprise to him that tenor Placido Domingo would, at this point in his career, take on the title role, which Verdi wrote for a baritone. For all the talk of the “baritonal” timbre of Domingo’s voice, what is striking about his vocalism as Boccanegra is how bright and high-placed he makes so much of the music for his character sound. Duets with a low voice such as that of James Morris, as Boccanegra’s adversary Fiesco, have a tint of Otello and Iago facing off. What cannot be questioned is Domingo’s identification with the role, where he is able to indulge his passion for enduring emotional, if not physical, pain on stage. He projects dignity at all times, however, which strengthens his portrayal. Up against a wily veteran such as Morris, Domingo raises this performance to a high level. The rest of the cast does not reach that elevation. A fine soprano, Adrianne Pieczonka is miscast as Amelia, her solid, hefty soprano sounding blustery and forced. A favorite tenor of the Met, Marcello Giordani is at his best when he can power through a role, and the male ingénue role of Gabriele Adorno gives him few such opportunities. The production of Giancarlo del Monaco would have been at home at the Metropolitan a quarter century ago. Handsome, detailed, almost monolithic in its high walls and expanse, it would be perfectly appropriate for an opera with a more believable narrative. The greatness of the opera, however, is not in its plot but in its score, which Levine and his orchestra play with taste and expertise. Still, when Morris and Domingo are not on stage, the performance drags.
Not dragging at all is the Madama Butterfly in the late Anthony Minghella’s acclaimed production. Here a viewer can regret the TV director’s propensity for close-ups, as the total stage picture offers the greatest reward. Minghella, lighting designer Peter Mumford and set designer Michael Levine put on a master class of how to create dramatically cogent and visually arresting stage pictures on a stark set, through color and effective use of minimal props. The one controversy of the production centered on the decision to use a puppet for Sorrow, Butterfly’s child (puppet theater being a cultural and theatrical tradition in Japan). Viewers will make up their own minds about this, but for your reviewer, the puppet fits perfectly into the theatrical techniques of the entire show and has an impact often absent from productions which use an older child than the libretto indicates.
A strong cast exhibits high professionalism, if lacking in the aura on inspiration that makes for truly great performances. Patricia Racette’s soprano can begin to wobble under pressure, and your reviewer, like some others, finds something external, or generic, about her acting. But this is one of her best total performances, no doubt. Much the same goes for Marcello Giordani, who gives us a strong portrayal of the classic very-Italian B. F Pinkerton. Dwayne Croft’s Sharpless and Maria Zifchak as Suzuki give fine support. Reliability would seem to be the key word for conductor Patrick Summers, but one only has to endure one less than reliably conducted performance to understand the virtues of a conductor such as Summers. He does well by Puccini’s magnificent score.
Summers has the baton again for the October 11th, 2008 recording of Richard Strauss’s Salome. One might have hoped for some more distinctive musical leadership. When Karita Mattila first took on this role at the Met in Jürgen Flimm’s spooky, modern dress staging, she sang for Valery Gergiev, and the radio broadcast gave evidence of the visceral excitement of those performances. Years later, in 2008, Mattila is working with slightly less secure vocal resources, but the brazen aggression of her princess still makes for a startling show. She also had Bryn Terfel as her Jochannan in that earlier run. Here Juha Uusitalo takes the role, and he cannot match the stage charisma or vocal authority of Terfel. Some viewers may be grateful that neither Kim Begley as Herod nor Ildikó Komlósi as Herodias overact in their roles, as singers in many another production have, but sometimes it is that extra element of risk that adds to the total frenzy a great Salome can produce. This production, therefore, ranks as respectable, rather than great. Too bad the cameras were not there in 2002, for that first run.
A strongly conducted performance appears in the Carmen, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin bringing out distinct colors and etching a sharp rhythmic profile. He has two superior leads — the well-established exuberance and commitment of tenor Roberto Alagna as Don José, and the warm, sensuous tones of mezzo Elīna Garanča. Often one reads references to the “clichés” of a Carmen portrayal, but any performance that doesn’t acknowledge what the libretto establishes — the sensuality and wildness that make Carmen stand out — won’t pass muster. Garanča herself, even in a dark wig, doesn’t have to stretch to evoke this reputation, and the intelligence with which she sings the role cuts against any cry of “cliché.” In the key supporting role, Barbara Frittoli manages to be beautiful and yet clearly not much competition for the Carmen, especially as the soprano needs time to warm up and even then, a persistent beat appears in higher lines.
Richard Eyre’s staging was new to the Metropolitan when filmed in January 2010, and while far from innovative or evocative, the sets establish the sultry, threatening mood of the piece, and scene changes are easily accomplished. A performance of this quality reminds everyone of why this masterpiece never loses its appeal.
For all the above titles, numerous competitors on DVD might lay claim to being superior in one category or another. For John Adams’s Dr. Atomic, the only DVD competition also features Gerald Finley in the title role — the Peter Sellars staging of the premiere production (originally seen at San Francisco Opera, later filmed at De Nederlandse Opera). For the Metropolitan Opera , Penny Woodcock took over the production responsibility. Her work is more formal and naturalistic than what Sellars opted for, but it has enough stylization to support the atmospheric effects of Adams’s score. Seeing this opera again (your reviewer caught the premiere run in San Francisco, twice), the strengths seem just as distinctive as ever, but the weaknesses only grow more persistent. The libretto seems to be modeled on Nixon in China, with Oppenheimer a more sympathetic figure than Nixon, but just as troubled and conflicted, and with Kitty Oppenheimer (Sasha Cooke) being the equivalent of Nixon’s sadly sympathetic Pat Nixon. There is even a comic villain character to match Nixon’s Kissinger in General Leslie Groves (an excellent Eric Owens here), with tints of that same color in Richard Paul Fink’s Edward Teller. But Sellars’s libretto remains a mish-mash of various prose and verse texts, so that unity Alice Goodman brought to the Nixon libretto fails to appear.
Whatever one’s opinion about Dr. Atomic, the DVD has to be seen to catch Finley’s great performance of the title role, caught at its zenith at the end of act one, in the solo of Donne’s “Batter My Heart.” New York Philharmonic conductor Alan Gilbert crossed the plaza to conduct, and he finds all the idiosyncratic power of Adams’s score. Your reviewer has his doubts about the long-term prospects for the work, but Finley’s performance will always be worth viewing.
The 2010-2011 Metropolitan Opera season of Met in HD moviecasts will undoubtedly all be out on DVD soon enough. However, the real treat lies ahead, when the 2011-2012 season opens in movie theaters — that’s where the glory of this venture lies.