Sunday, December 27, 2009

Met - Elektra - 12/26/09

Composer: Richard Strauss
Conductor: Fabio Luisi
Director: Otto Schenk
Elektra: Sandra Bullock
Chrysothemis: Deborah Voigt
Klytamnestra: Felicity Palmer

By the time Saturday morning came around, there was not a lot of snow left on the ground and we had the relentlessly falling rain to thank for that. It, however, did not bode well for the start of the weekend. It is not like I terribly mind getting up at 4:45 am (even after my upstairs neighbors had kept me up until past 12:30 am), but walking under a torrential downpour for 40 minutes on my way to the bus stop really did not qualify as a good start of the day. On the other hand, there was no way I was going to missed the UK's rising soprano Sandra Bullock scheduled to make her Met debut in the reassuring company of Met superstar soprano Deborah Voigt. Not to mention that Strauss' terrifically expressionnist and brutally difficult music is usually reason enough to justify yet another trip up the 95. Overflowing with fury, madness, hatred and revenge, Elektra may not be everybody's idea of entertainment for Christmas weekend, but then again, why be everybody?

The fact of the matter is, Sophocles' tragedy about the young Greek princess obsessed with killing her mother because she and her lover killed her father is pretty heavy stuff. It first inspired Hugo von Hofmannstahl to turn it into a play, and later into a libretto for Richard Strauss in what would be the start of a long and fruitful collaboration. The German composer eventually came up with a one-act opera focusing almost exclusively on Elektra's debilitating thirst for revenge, unmistakably reminiscent of Salome in its viscerally tempered heroine and Hamlet in its iffily dysfunctional family. Such intensely lived issues, so little time...
After more than 50 presentations around the world, the title role is certainly no stranger to Sandra Bullock, and yesterday she slid into Elektra's skin with some impressive poise. Her voice had no problem fiercely impersonating her character's unstable state of mind and changing moods, but it also had to suffer the indignity of occasionally being overpowered by an irrationally loud orchestra. Of course, one could argue that it was a perfectly appropriate way to play Strauss' blazingly modern score, but too much is too much. As her milder sister, Deborah Voigt had no trouble making herself heard over the more subdued music she is associated with and offered a touchingly human Chrysothemis, a welcome breath of sanity in the decidedly unhealthy atmosphere of the court. The rest of the cast did a remarkable job as well, especially Felicity Parker who did not hesitate to crank up the madness quotient of a pitifully out-of-control Klytamnestra.
The set was simple enough to keep us focused on the music and the action, although it did feature the large statue of a horse broken in two, a stately symbol of nobility and chaos. The music, to be performed by an unusually large orchestra, can be blatantly grating with its resounding dissonances and other modern techniques, but it also offers beautiful lyricism when things calm down. Yesterday afternoon, guest conductor Fabio Luisi kept constantly busy trying to tame the wild score and did not always succeed. But still, each character's predominant traits were vividly, if often not subtly, emphasized by their respective recurring musical phrasings, therefore creating a wide range of raging colors. A virtuosic composition and excellent singers for a tough day at the court... and yet another satisfying trip to the Met.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Met - Les Contes d'Hoffmann - 12/19/09

Composer: Jacques Offenbach
Conductor: James Levine
Director: Director: Bartlett Sher
Hoffmann: Joseph Calleja
The Muse/Nicklauss: Kate Lindsey
Lindorf, Coppélius, Dr Miracle, Dapertutto: Alan Held
Olympia: Kathleen Kim
Antonia/Stella: Anna Netrebko
Giuletta: Ekaterina Gubanova

Snow storm? What snow storm? Oh yes, that one, the big bad one that had the audacity to start at the same time as my Contes-d'Hoffmann-at-the-Met weekend got underway. But where there's a will there's a way, at least as long as I did not mind trudging through whirling wind, rain, sleet and fast-accumulating snow at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday morning on my way to Union Station and forking out big bucks to Amtrak since the bus service had unsurprisingly been cancelled. But once the train had made its way through the raging elements, it matter-of-factly ended up in a winterly cold but still dry Big Apple and I, well, went about my business.
Les Contes d'Hoffmann has always appeared to me as a strange beast, especially coming from the undisputed king of French operetta. Without an actual plot but oozing poetry, phantasmagoria, torments and excesses, it is a production all the more difficult to put together as Offenbach died before having had a chance to complete it. So all we have left is the beautiful, if not flawless, swan song of an artist who literally fought to his dying breath to be accepted in the traditional French society of the time, thus fully identifying with his hero's struggle as an eternal outsider. Although eagerly anticipated Met favorite Rollando Villazon had to bail out as the lead, his favorite partner and other Met regular Anna Netrebko and Washington's very own Alan Held were going to be there along with maestro Levine, finally back on the podium. That definitely sounded too good to pass, snow storm notwithstanding.

Les Contes d'Hoffmann narrates a dreamy journey into the troubled mind and vivid memories of the poet Hoffmann and takes us to a wide variety of places where our hero relentlessly wanders in search of true love. Every time a new paramour seems likely to fit the bill, drama and heartbreak ensue, brought in no small part by each episode's designated villain, who personifies the various incarnations of Hoffman's nemesis. On the positive side, his faithful muse, disguised as his friend Nicklauss, follows him everywhere too, sometimes discreetly observing the scene, sometimes fortuitously intervening.
Because Hoffmann is the character driving the whole opera, casting the right tenor is paramount. Stepping into much acclaimed Rollando Villazon's shoes is no easy task, but rising newcomer Joseph Calleja whole-heartedly threw himself into the challenging role and deftly embodied a very engaging Hoffmann. His young, cherubic face was a nice contrast to his more mature, Kafkaesque demeanor, and his truly versatile voice was easily soaring when experiencing the transports of love, desperately bristling with anguish when facing unfulfilled hopes. Assuredly displaying impressive stamina and unwavering timing, he's definitely one to watch. But he was not the only one undertaking a daunting singing marathon as he was often accompanied by Kate Lindsey, an understated but discreetly indispensable muse/Nicklauss, and Alan Held, efficiently representing diabolical forces everywhere he went.
Hoffmann's three ill-fated love stories feature three drastically different and interchangeable facets of the new and ultimate object of his passion, the unattainable prima donna Olympia. Accordingly, Kathleen Kim and her stratospheric coloratura was a to-die-for doll, dazzling the audience with her humor-infused vocal acrobatics and effortlessly earning the biggest ovation of the afternoon. Anna Netrebko was predictably all lush lyricism as Antonia, the obsessed singer who will die from her art, and Ekaterina Gubanova brashly exuded cunningness and greed totally fit for the courtesan Giuletta.
Naturally, all those fantastical acts gave the set and costume designers the perfect opportunity to go wild and man, they sure did not hold back, for better or worse. The mechanical doll Olympia was exhibited on a colorfully kitsch fairground while Antonia's bourgeois German home was downright minimalist, which made the ill-conceived apparition of a hanging violin all the more awkward. But it was the third act that got everybody's undivided attention, simultaneously prompting a collective gasp of disbelief and spontaneous clapping from the audience, when it opened on a sumptuously orgiastic party in a lavishly decadent Venetian palace straight out of Fellini film, complete with a bright red gondola in the background and dancers engaged in, errr, suggestive gymnastics in the foreground during the famous Bacchanalian tune "Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour". Mon dieu, mon dieu!
The musical score was also an undiscrimating mix of various genres, from the sparkling enchantment of Olympia's crowd-pleasing "Les oiseaux dans la charmille" ("The Doll Song"), to the richly lyrical power of "Elle a fui, la tourterelle" ("She has fled, the turtledove") during which Antonia remembers her beloved mother who died from singing, and of course the ravishing sensuality of the Venetian feast. But Offenbach's vaudeville roots were never far off and they could be easily detected in numbers such as the drinking songs in Luther's tavern and the servant's comical interlude, all the way to the frankly grotesque narrative about the dwarf Kleinzach. So the musicians were in for a endurance test as well, and they proved all afternoon long that they could keep all those various ingredients in steady balance under their masterful conductor's baton.

So, was it worth all the extra efforts in getting there and back, including a dreadfully expensive and suspenseful-until-the-very-last-minute return trip? Absolutely! Even if the production lacked some cohesiveness and may have indulged a bit much in all the theatricality, it had made some bold but welcome visual choices, the singers were well-versed in their parts (I gave up trying to understand the lyrics of French operas a long time ago, never mind who sings them), and James Levine kept the orchestra moving along just right. Now all I can hope for is a return to routine traveling for Elektra this coming Saturday...

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Met - From the House of the Dead - 12/05/09

Composer: Leo Janacek
Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen
Director: Patrice Chéreau
Alexander Ptrovich Gorianchikov: Willard White
Aleya: Eric Stoklossa
Filka Morozov: Stefan Margita
Skuratov: Kurt Streit
Shapkin: Peter Hoare
Shishkov: Peter Mattei

Better late than never, yesterday afternoon I was finally back at the Lincoln Center for my first Met opera of the season. I really can't say that a work titled From the House of the Dead taking place in a Siberian prison camp sounded immediately appealing, even if it boasted associations with Dostoevsky and Janacek (thought-provoking artists, yes, but a bit on the dark side indeed). At least it was as far away from jingle bells-induced merriment as possible, that's for sure. On second thoughts, it sounded like a pretty intriguing adventure and having highly regarded French director Patrice Chéreau and equally praised Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Halonen - both making their long overdue and eagerly awaited Met debuts - involved were two other deciding factors in my getting a ticket after all. Last, but not least, I hadn't paid a visit to the Big Apple in a couple of months, and any excuse was good to immerse myself in its non-stop festival of sights, noises and smells once again.

Although it was officially presented as a novel, Dostoevsky's account was obviously inspired by his own detention as a political prisoner in the 1850s. Composed of several vignettes depicting specific memories and situations on a background of grim everyday life, it was very easy to just see the prisoners' community as full of violence, boredom and hopelessness. This was definitely a man's world out there, with its unspoken codes and rituals, but you didn't have to look very deep to realize that there were also some genuine sparks of humanity and an irrepressible will to live right underneath the rough surface.
All the main characters made memorable impressions with solid, nuanced voices, unmistakable physical presence and compelling personal stories. Little by little, each of them became his own person, deserving to be heard out regardless of his crime. In a primitive and brutish society, those men still related to one another, relationships formed and life went on against all odds. Although the opera contained no main anchor beside this actual House of the Dead, the 20-minute monologue sung by world-famous baritone Peter Mattei as Sishkov was the undeniable highpoint of the afternoon with its all-consuming combination of painful narration and agitated music, inconspicuously pulling in the audience the same way as when you pass by a dreadful car accident and can't help but look over, strangely fascinated.
The set was gray and bare, basically consisting of three concrete walls on which the surtitles were inexplicably projected. The lighting was discreet, emphasizing the complete lack of the slightest ornament, and the sudden pouring of trash from the ceiling between the first and second acts certainly did not help make the place more welcoming. Even if the two plays-within-the-opera, definitely the lighter moments of the whole 90 minutes, brought in some temporary and much needed comic relief, never mind how flat out vulgar it was, you couldn't forget where you were.
In a production without any actual lead or even a plot, the star of the performance was without a doubt Janacek's fiercely inventive music, a score so richly evocative that only repeated listening would allow to decipher all its subtleties. It may have symphonic dimensions, but it also expresses thoughts and emotions with economy and efficiency, intricately mixing modern sonorities with more traditional folk themes. Esa-Pekka Salonen, well-known for his commitment to contemporary music, sure managed to keep a firm grip on the orchestra, eliciting a consistently riveting performance from them, bringing some visceral humanity out of what could have easily been a bottomless ocean of gloom and despair.

At the very end, the wounded eagle the prisoners had originally picked up and healed back to health got to spread its wings and fly away. Hope springs eternal...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Saint Lawrence Quartet - Haydn, Vinao & Adams - 12/04/09

Haydn: String Quartet in C Major, Op. 54, No 2
Vinao: String Quartet No 3 ("Sirocco Dust")
Adams: String Quartet

When so many venues whole-heartedly plunge into the holiday spirit, the Library of Congress remains steadfastly committed to inviting la crème de la crème of chamber music ensembles throughout the world. Accordingly, yesterday evening it was the Saint Lawrence Quartet who got to entertain us all the way from Canada. After a delightful recital by Angela Hewitt the night before, it looks like our neighbors from the North have taken over Washington in force lately, even if these days the Saint Lawrence Quartet are technically US residents through their "ensemble in residence" status at Stanford University. With sure-value Haydn, a world première by Ezequiel Vinao and a Washington première by John Adams, emphasizing the musicians' commitment to performing contemporary composers, the program was decidedly as eclectic as intriguing.

Starting with vivacious outbursts interspersed by unexpected silent pauses, Haydn's string quartet was the German master at its best, concluding the lively piece on a particularly soft, whispering note.
After that healthy dose of classical fare, the one-movement "Sirocco Dust" felt like a runaway train rhythmically blazing through an ever-changing landscape. Keeping the four tightly synchronized musicians fully engaged the whole time - about 20 minutes - the relentless score took us all on a Middle-Eastern music-infused, recurrence-based hypnotic journey that left everybody on and off the stage breathless, flushed and utterly exhilarated.
After that exotic interlude, it was John Adams' turn with a rich, multi-faceted quartet composed of two movements, the last one of which stood out as much for its compact vigorousness as for the cellist breaking a cord during the last few minutes. After everyone good-naturedly waited for the instrument to become whole again, we got even more music than we bargained for as the fired-up ensemble started the last movement all over again.

And that was not all. In response to our thunderous ovation, the Saint Lawrence Quartet treated us to the final movement of Haydn's Op. 20, No 4, thus bringing the whole concert full circle, back to "the father of the string quartet".

Friday, December 4, 2009

WPAS - Angela Hewitt - All-Bach - 12/03/09

Bach: Aria with Thirty Variations BWV 988 (Goldberg Variations) - Angela Hewitt

Although I'm doing my darnest to stir clear of the unavoidable Messiah-Nutcracker-led holiday fare, I still find myself facing Cornelian dilemnas such as the choice I had to make last night when the National Symphony Orchestra was presenting the world première of Jennifer Hidgon's new piano concerto performed by tiny-but-mighty Yuja Wang along with Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow and the Maiden and Tchaikovsky's first symphony while at Strathmore another pianist extraordinaire, Canadian Angela Hewitt, was scheduled to tackle her field of expertise (and what a field of expertise!): Bach's Goldberg Variations. Either of these hugely talented ladies was a prime choice, of course, and I ended up picking Ms. Hewitt because of the dreamy combination of her well-established talent and Bach's enchanting masterpiece.

Supposedly composed by the German master for the 14-year-old harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg - therefore their name - so that he could help insomniac Count Hermann Keyserlingk fall asleep, Bach's Goldberg Variations first and foremost stand out as a delightful musical work on their very own. There are very few indications on how to actually play the variations, but that did not stop Angela Hewitt's fingers from assuredly working the keyboard, creating music that sounded by turn like the delicate rain drops of a refreshing spring shower or the vigorous hail of a relentless, mean thunderstorm. The thirty variations on the theme Aria are short by nature, but each and every one of them is an indispensable link in Bach's perfect chain. Angela Hewitt has long made this quasi-continuous 90-minute piece her life mission, and listening to her is like having an old friend take you on a exhaustive tour of her favorite place.

The long, enthusiastic ovation even earned us a lovely encore in the form of an arrangement of an aria from Bach's Hunt cantata. A stunning parting gift that I didn't even expect after the exhilarating but no doubt draining marathon she had just brilliantly completed. My only lingering regret was how even more enjoyable the whole experience would have been in a smaller venue, where the auditorium would have been fuller and the whole journey more intimate, but now that's really nitpicking.