Sunday, May 1, 2016

Met - Elektra - 04/30/16

Composer: Richard Strauss
Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Producer: Patrice Chéreau
Stage Director:Vincent Huguet
Elektra: Nina Stemme
Klytamnestra: Waltraud Meier
Chrysothemis: Adrianne Pieczonka
Orest: Eric Owens
Aegisth: Burkhard Ulrich

Among all the exciting prospects of my 2015-2016 Met season, Elektra had to have the top spot, not so much for the opera itself, which admittedly has plenty going for it, but for the artists involved in this new production. I had loved Patrice Chéreau's long-overdue Met debut From the House of the Dead several years ago and was fully confident in his ability to bring a unique perspective to one of opera's most dysfunctional families. Esa-Pekka Salonen, who also made his Met debut in From the House of the Dead, worked closely with Chéreau on this Elektra, which debuted to unanimous acclaim in Aix-en-Provence in 2013, shortly before Chéreau's death.
Nina Stemme was a thoroughly convincing Turandot earlier in the season, and after the cold Chinese princess I was curious to hear her take on the vengeful Greek princess. I could not wait to finally get an opportunity to experience the power of living legend Waltraub Meier in person, and to become reacquainted with Eric Owens after too many years apart.
And if I had to sacrifice part of another sunny spring afternoon in New York for this new adventure, so be it.

As a popular Greek mythology figure, Elektra had made a name for herself way before Hofmannsthal and Strauss decided to make an opera out of her. She was the main character in classical tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides before occupying a central role in plays by Aeschylus, Alfieri, Voltaire and Eugene O'Neill. Oh, and she's an American comic book heroine as well. Heck, she even gave her name to a neo-Freudian mother-daughter complex. So the woman is clearly here to stay.
Swedish soprano Nina Stemme's formidable presence and visceral singing are no news, but in Elektra she has found the perfect character to use the full range of her dramatic chops as well. Yesterday she was unquestionably enraged by her mother and her lover murdering her father, ferociously ranting and raving all over the stage while obsessively plotting her revenge, but she also showed a truly vulnerable side first when she was with her mother and later with her brother in two of the most heartbreaking scenes of the afternoon. Once she had made her discreet yet unmistakable entrance, Stemme powered through the next two hours with admirable focus and stamina, and delivered a memorable performance.
As the mother Elektra wants to murder, German mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier, still blessed with an inherently beautiful voice, impeccable acting skills and a magnetic presence after four decades of dazzling audiences, was a naturally commanding and surprisingly human Queen Klytamnestra. She was not presented as the typical hysterical murderess, but as a deeply conflicted woman suffering from bad dreams and desperate to reconnect with her rebellious daughter. As such, her singing was not only technically assured, but also touchingly poignant. At this point, I will probably never fulfill my dream of hearing her sing Isolde in context, but we'll always have Klytamnestra.
Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka may not have been as well-known as the other lead singers on that stage, but she more than held her own as Chrysothemis, Elektra's deeply unhappy sister who only dreams of a normal life with husband and children. Her fiercely expressive singing and impressive dramatic flair are valuable assets that she used with utmost intelligence to create a strong and relatable character. She appeared to be as grounded as Elektra was tormented, and conveyed her thoughts through clear phrasing and expertly shapes lines.
As the put-upon brother who simply has to do the deed, American bass-baritone Eric Owens was an emotional and determined Orest, emotional when at long last he was reunited with his beloved sister, determined when he coolly went off to accomplish his gruesome mission. Before he revealed himself to Elektra, he was seen for a while in the background, silent and imposing, the inescapable figure of fate.
In the small and thankless role of Aegisth, Klytamnestra's lover and accomplice, German tenor Burkhard Ulrich had trouble making a lasting impression. On the other hand, the five female servants and their overseer who were cleaning the steps and ground during the opening scene in silent first, and then singing to the music, were all outstanding, with a special mention going to Roberta Alexander, the older woman and the only one defending Elektra.
The set was spartan with just a few walls, steps and not much else, everything being in light shades; the costumes were also minimalist and in earthy colors. In fact, everything seemed designed to place the story in nondescript place and time, emphasizing the timelessness of the conflicts and focusing the attention on the characters. The end result was a cleverly streamlined production that resolutely brought out raw human emotions, not shrieking hysteria or orgiastic decadence.
By all accounts Elektra is a wild, non-stop, two-hour ride; therefore it takes a fearless conductor to be in charge of taming the complex score and properly directing the 120 musicians in the pit while making sure to convey the composition's many fascinating qualities. Fortunately, we had the right maestro in Esa-Pekka Salonen, who not only dug out myriad of details from the music, but also subtly highlighted its fundamental beauty and intense lyricism, which in turn made the shattering eruptions all the more startling and terrifying. Kudos to him also for not drowning the singers' voices even during the most forceful outbursts.
The Met Orchestra's sterling reputation of being able to handle anything thrown at them And an awful lot is constantly thrown at them was reinforced one more time yesterday afternoon. As the drama was steadily unfolding on the stage, the instrumental performance was wildly colorful, but also richly textured, gorgeously nuanced and profoundly haunting.
When all had been said and done and everybody finally got a chance to catch their breath, we all found ourselves thoroughly exhausted, and immensely elated. The tremendous ovation that followed confirmed it: Patrice Chéreau may rest in peace. His Elektra vibrantly lives on.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Jeremy Denk - Bach, Hayden/Joplin, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Bolcom, Nancarrow, Lambert & Schubert - 04/17/16

Bach: English Suite No. 3 in G Minor, BWV 808
Hayden/Joplin: "Sunflower Slow Drag"
Stravinsky: Piano-Rag-Music Byrd: "The Passinge Mesures: The Nynthe Pavian" from My Ladye Nevells Book
Hindemith: "Ragtime" from Suite "1922"
Bolcom: Graceful Ghost Rag
Nancarrow: Canon No. 1
Lambert: "Pilgrim's Chorus" from Tannhäuser
Schubert: Piano Sonata in B-Flat Major, D. 960

After a busy Saturday with Donizetti at the Met in the afternoon followed by Puts and Mahler at Carnegie Hall in the evening, the next morning my mum and I were gearing up for another musical adventure at Carnegie Hall again, this time for a Sunday afternoon "ragtime sandwich" courtesy of pianist Jeremy Denk. The intriguing description amazingly enough turned out to be accurate as his recital would consist in an "iPod shuffle" of various works with one connection or another to ragtime, which would be bookended by bona fide classical composers in Bach and Schubert. But then again, what else do you expect from one of the most creative and multi-faceted music artists of our times?

The concert started in full Baroque mode with Johann Sebastian Bach and his English Suite No. 3, which we got to enjoy in a deeply insightful and delightfully free-spirited performance. Denk's profound knowledge of the score and innate communication skills allowed him to easily connect with the audience while strongly emphasizing the piece’s timeless appeal.
The ragtime portion of the program was as educational as exciting. One of the highlights was the wildly rambunctious "Piano-Rag-Music" by Igor Stravinsky, who was a Russian expatriate in Paris when he discovered the joys of popular American music and did not hesitate to appropriate them for this thrilling little number. Another was Donald Lambert’s bold take on the "Pilgrim's Chorus" from Tannhäuser, which gave Wagner’s sumptuous composition an irresistible jazz spin that would have been right at home in any 1940s jazz clubs.
The quintessential ragtime hit "Sunflower Slow Drag" by Scott Hayden and Scott Joplin had kicked things off in style and they only got better after that. We went back to 16th century England with "The Passinge Mesures: The Nynthe Pavian" from My Ladye Nevells Book by William Byrd, whose elaborate intricacies fit right in this series. Paul Hindemith’s chaotic "Ragtime" and Conlon Nancarrow’s playful Canon No. 1 turned out to be wild romps that brightly resounded throughout the concert hall, with William Bolcom’s nuanced "Graceful Ghost Rag" strategically slowing things down right in between.
After intermission, we were back on more familiar territory with Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B-Flat Major, which was his last and is widely considered to be his most accomplished sonata. One could only agree with that statement while listening to Denk put his technical expertise to the service of the composer’s ambitious ideas and exposed emotions. After the rollicky fun ragtime episode, Schubert’s work brought us inner peace and quiet.

The dedicated audience was clearly ecstatically happy with their unusual musical afternoon, and we still wanted some more. So it was back to square one with Bach and a thoughtful Variation No. 13 from The Goldberg Variations,  wrapping up a virtuosic performance on an ultimate virtuosic note.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra - Puts & Mahler - 04/16/16

Conductor: Marin Alsop
Puts: The City
Mahler: Symphony No. 5 in C-Sharp Minor

Fact is, New York City's music venues do not consult with me before programming their seasons. On the other hand, I do not mind mixing it up, if I must. So after three hours of glorious bel canto at the Met on Saturday afternoon, I found myself walking down Broadway again in the evening, all the way down to Carnegie Hall this time, for a concert by the distinguished Baltimore Symphony Orchestra presenting an intriguing new piece by contemporary American composer Kevin Puts and a popular classical symphony by Viennese master Gustav Mahler, in the company of my visiting mom and a few friends.
Such is the life of a music lover in the Big Apple sometimes, and I would really be ungrateful to complain about such an embarrassment of richness, especially since I had a grand total of four hours in between to regroup after all.

The concert opened with the New York premiere of Kevin Puts' The City, which was co-commissioned to celebrate not only the 125th anniversary of Carnegie Hall, but the 100th anniversary of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra as well. Although it was originally inspired by the city of Baltimore, the score could easily apply to any major city around the world. The film by James Bartolomeo accompanying it was all Baltimore though, and included countless images from the 19th century to the present, mixing panoramic views, historical landmarks,  public figures, street scenes and snippets of TV news.
The film was certainly mesmerizing in its own right, but its power was unquestionably duplicated by the vibrant performance of the orchestra, which emphasized the eclecticism, excitement, grittiness and sufferings of the living organism that is a city. The raw, often chaotic, but also attractively melodic music kept the audience on the edge until the evocation of the 2015 riots, at which point the film stopped and the music revolved around a sustained single note, before both eventually resumed with tentative optimism. It may not have been a smooth ride, but it was artistically bold and socially relevant.
After enjoying Mahler's singing celebration Das Lied von der Erde on Thursday evening with the San Francisco Symphony within those same walls, I was very much looking forward to his all-instrumental Symphony No. 5 with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Saturday evening. So much Mahler, so little time. Written during an increasingly happy period in the composer’s life, starting with a somber funeral march and ending in a unequivocally triumphant finale, Mahler's sprawling fifth is no easy undertaking.
But the orchestra on the stage was no ordinary music ensemble either, and they proved it by delivering an assuredly virtuosic, skillfully nuanced and emotionally charged performance of it. Marin Alsop's trademark red cuffs were flying all over the podium and the fired-up musicians kept busy dealing with Mahler's profound musings about life and death. It was a long and tortuous journey, but we all eventually left the concert hall in a total state of elation.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Met - Roberto Devereux - 04/16/16

Composer: Gaetano Donizetti
Conductor: Maurizio Benini
Producer/ Director: Sir David McVicar
Queen Elizabeth (Elisabetta): Sondra Radvanovsky
Robert (Roberto) Devereux, Earl of Essex: Matthew Polenzani
Sarah (Sara), Duchess of Nottingham: Elina Garanca
Duke of Nottingham: Mariusz Kwiecien

After the Metropolitan Opera’s offerings of Anna Bolena with Anna Netrebko and Maria Stuarda with Joyce di Donato in the past couple of years, I was more than ready to conclude the Tudor trilogy with Roberto Devereux starring Sondra Radvanovsky last Saturday afternoon. The commanding American soprano reportedly dazzled opera lovers in New York earlier this season after she took over the two aforementioned roles, and by all accounts is now capping off a glorious home run with the third and final chapter of the Three Donizetti Queens.
As if to make this crown achievement as memorable as possible, the Met pulled all the stops and gathered an impressive cast including some of the hottest names in the opera world these days with Elina Garanca, Matthew Polenzani and Mariusz Kwiecien. The presence of David McVicar as producer was good news as well since his productions for the other two queens had turned out to be definitely adequate, occasionally inspired.
So it was with great expectations that I walked down Broadway on a ridiculously warm and sunny afternoon last Saturday to join my friend Steve and a sold-out audience at the Met, almost feeling sorry for myself for having to sit inside for three hours, but also confident that my sacrifice would be rewarded.

In the relatively familiar environment of 16th century England's Elizabethan court – Never mind the liberties taken with history to deliver more gripping drama – Roberto Devereux presents highly problematic love and power entanglements which can only finish badly, but which also provide the perfect excuse for a sparkling bel canto score. So if all went as planned, big feelings, big statements and big musical feats would abound and converge to create a quintessential opera experience, and boy did we happily suck it all in on Saturday.
The opera's title may be Roberto Devereux, but there was no mistaking that it was Sondra Radvanovsky's show when the intrepid soprano immediately grabbed Elisabetta’s part with her signature soaring singing and visceral acting, and stayed the course until the very end. When in the first act she fiercely pointed out how "great" her revenge would be, you knew she meant it; on the other hand, she was painfully vulnerable in her final scene when, without her regal wig and gown, she hobbled around the stage at her most disheveled and exposed. Aging and tormented, with a spectral white-powdered face and extravagant outfits, Radvanovsky’s queen had a Shakespearean grandeur that was truly haunting.
Not to be outdone, tenor Matthew Polenzani was a wonderfully hot-blooded Roberto Devereux, efficiently portraying Elisabetta’s former favorite who has just lost a major battle and is hopelessly in love with Sara, who is not only a close confident of the queen, but also the wife of a good friend of his. Yikes! Superbly singing with lyrical abandon and convincingly conveying all the anguish brought by his obviously uncomfortable position, Polenzani readily delivered a vivid portrayal of emotional turmoil.
The irresistible object of his affections, sweet yet strong-willed Sara, was beautifully impersonated by mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca, whose stunning darkly hued singing and natural charisma gave the young woman who has been trapped in a loveless marriage but has finally found true love a genuinely mesmerizing presence.
As the Duke of Nottingham, Sara's unloved husband and Roberto's faithful friend, baritone Mariusz Kwiecien contributed to the performance in spades by compellingly expressing the profound dismay of a good man who suddenly finds himself betrayed by his wife and his friend, and decides not to be good anymore.
If the plot revolved around four formidable singers, the smaller parts and the Met chorus were also in top singing form and helped make this engaging production a total crowd-pleaser.
As usual, David McVicar’s versatile set was not overly imaginative, but the fancy black and gold décors attractively bathed in the glow of chandeliers and smoothly morphed into the Tower of London. The production had some note-worthy touches such as an enormous clock occupying the back wall while statues of Death and Time stood on each side of the center doors. Another had the chorus overlook the action from the upper balconies and sides, turning the stage into a glitzy palace filled with countless gossiping courtiers. 
When it comes to the music, very often with bel canto the score’s the thing. This one for sure did not stray from tradition as blazing arias kept on regularly popping out like fireworks while the characters were ferociously battling their fates out. Maestro Benini led the orchestra into a vibrant performance whose bright colors and pulsing intensity did not interfere with its underlying finesse. The standing ovation at curtain call was unusually long and loud, and oh so well deserved.

Monday, April 18, 2016

San Francisco Symphony - Schubert & Mahler - 04/14/16

Conductor: Michael Tilson
Thomas Schubert: Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, D. 759 (Unfinished)
Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde
Sasha Cooke: Mezzo-Soprano
Simon O'Neill: Tenor

It is hard to turn down a date with the San Francisco Symphony and its peerless music director and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas during their annual visit to Carnegie Hall. Since family obligations kept me away from their Copeland concert on Wednesday night, I decided to grab them while I still could and went to their more traditional program of Schubert's Unfinished and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde on Thursday night.

Although I am not the most die-hard Schubert fan in general, except for some of his dazzling chamber music compositions such as The Trout and the Quintet in C Major, I have to admit that his Unfinished symphony has been steadily growing on me. And when you have a crack ensemble like the San Francisco Symphony dive into it, the result can only be superb, like it was on Thursday night. The first movement was movingly dark and restless, the second and last movement brought a bit of serenity, although no true resolution decisively appeared yet. However, no matter what could have been, the strongly committed playing made the work feel whole and fully satisfying.
Inspired by Chinese poetry and written when Mahler was going through the most painful period of his life, Das Lied von der Erde cleverly mixes rowdy drinking songs and more introspective musings to come up with an unofficial symphonic outing. As performed by the San Francisco Symphony orchestra on Thursday, the music was earthy and refined. The exuberance of the three songs featuring New Zealander tenor Simon O'Neill led to the occasional balance problem when the instruments covered the voice, but he still managed to come through securely feisty most of the time. On the other hand, my long wait to hear much celebrated American mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke was gloriously rewarded by her impeccable performance. Her "Abschied" (Farewell), in particular, was absolutely magical and concluded the concert on an exquisitely ethereal note.