Monday, January 31, 2011

Joshua Bell & Sam Haywood - Brahms, Schubert, Grieg, Sibelius & Wieniawski - 01/30/11

Brahms: Violin Sonata No 2 in A Major, Op. 100
Schubert: Fantasy in C Major, D. 934
Grieg: Violin Sonata No 2 in G Major, Op. 13
Sibelius: Romance, Op. 78, No 2
Wieniawski: Polonaise Brillante

After three very successful visits to the Met so far this year, it had been high time to go back to the local concert halls as well. And it looked like 2011 would be off to an excellent, if belated, start on the concert front with a recital by Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood at the Alice Tully Hall yesterday. The former was as familiar as the latter was unknown, and I had no idea of what they would be playing, but what the heck. The fact that the performance would take place in the Alice Tully Hall was an added bonus, not only because it is walking distance from my apartment, but also because I really hadn’t had many chances to enjoy its comfortably intimate and acoustically pleasing environment yet. So that’s where I went late yesterday afternoon, on a day where New Yorkers were finally able to revel in a rare combination of gentle sunshine, milder temperatures and mostly dry sidewalks.

Brahms kicked off the program with a lovely sonata, unfailingly bringing to mind the bucolic Swiss location in which it was written as well as the tender feelings the composer was harboring toward the dear lady friend to whom it was dedicated. The piece started with gentle nonchalance, and even when things got more intense, it all remained very graceful and unmistakably civilized. From the very first notes, Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood proved that their collaboration was going to be a winning one with their two instruments effortlessly complementing each other. And that was just the beginning.
Schubert has never rocked my world with most of his œuvre, but on the other hand I am totally addicted to his chamber music works. So I was thrilled to see his Fantasy in C Major on the program, and I have to say that yesterday's interpretation of it was definitely my personal highlight of the whole concert. After a beguiling opening during which long, luminous violin phrases beautifully rose above an incessantly brooding piano, the mood quickly perked up and we were on for 25 uninterrupted minutes of elegant melodies and energetic outbursts, all the way to the unabashedly joyful finale. Expertly negotiating the numerous intricacies while keeping up their momentum, Joshua Bell and Sam Haywood did full justice to the virtuosic tour de force at hand. My evening was made, but luckily was not over yet.
After a well-deserved break, they came back with the sunny sonata No 2 by Grieg. A volatile combination of lyricism and colors, it is a naturally engaging piece that the two musicians were savvy enough not to unnecessarily adorn, but rather let fully breathe and shine. And so it did.
Staying in a Scandinavian mood, we went on to Sibelius’ Romance, a short and charming romantic treat.
Next, things got much more jumpy with Wieniawski’s Polonaise Brillante, which fiercely mixed fun and delicacy, with a few tricky twists and turns thrown in for good measure.

My first but totally worth the wait concert in the New Year (two days short of February, it was about time!) concluded way too early, but on an exquisitely dreamy note with the Nocturne in C Sharp Minor by Chopin. Granted, things couldn't get much better than that.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Met - Tosca - 01/25/11

Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Marco Armiliato
Director: Luc Bondy
Tosca: Sondra Radvanovsky
Cavaradossi: Marcelo Alvarez
Scarpia: Falk Struckmann

As I was spending quite a bit of quality time with Verdi at the Met last week, I couldn’t help but look wistfully at the Tosca poster proudly standing on the Lincoln Center Plaza. I had already seen the controversial Bondy production last year, but not with Sondra Radvanovsky, one of my very favorite sopranos and one I had always considered the ideal singer for Tosca. Marcelo Alvarez, who coincidently had starred with her in Il Trovatore two years ago, seemed just as well-suited for Cavaradossi, and if the name Falk Struckmann as Scarpia did not ring a bell, I quickly figured that two sure things out of three was a pretty good deal.
After seeing a few different productions of Tosca along the years, all more or less traditional, I was excited when a modern take on it was announced at the Met last year. Although the reactions from the critics and the audiences were strongly divided, but mostly on the negative side, I thought that all the brouhaha was a bit too much. Yes, some choices were misguided, perplexing and it had a decidedly stark feel to it, but when all is said and done, Tosca is a dark, violent story, only brought to miraculous, exciting life thanks to Puccini’s stunningly lyrical score. On Tuesday evening, the weather forecast was not predicting any snow or subpolar temperatures for a change, so I figured that I might as well go for yet another night at the opera.

And it was a particularly glorious night indeed. As expected, Sondra Radvanovsky brought her fierce physical presence and her ripe, wide-ranging voice to the celebrated larger-than-life diva, who had also somehow remained a simple girl at heart, relentlessly fighting for her lover’s life with all the might she probably never knew she had. Her "Vissi d’arte" was the show-stopper of the evening, so finely tuned in its intense desperation, and easily brought down the house. But dazzling aria or not, this was a superbly alive performance that did more that justice to one of opera’s most hot-blooded heroines.
As her ardent lover, house favorite Marcelo Alvarez generously projected his big heart and robust singing, whether to celebrate his love for his temperamental mistress or his commitment to his political ideals. Passionately exuding an artist’s sensitiveness and a revolutionary’s resilience, his Cavaradossi was a very admirable young man, affectingly belting out his own crowd-pleasing arias, "Recondita armonia" and "E lucevan le stelle", which brilliantly book-ended the evening.
And to complete this magnificent trio, Scarpia, the sadistic chief of police everybody loves to hate, was flawlessly impersonated by German bass-baritone Falk Struckmann. His strong, assured singing as well as his thoroughly despicable demeanor, first hypocritically subdued, then shamelessly lecherous, made for a Scarpia as deliciously baaaaaaaaaad as they come.
For all its faults, the production still had some priceless moments, such as the rousing "Te Deum" at the end of Act I or the lovely shepherd’s song at the beginning of Act III, all of which we owe first and foremost to the master of emotional manipulation that was Puccini. Setting the plot in three well-known Roman locations and having the story unfold in almost real time were other tricks meant to surely engage the audience, and it has been working like a charm as people still flock in mass to watch the three main characters ferociously fight until their very last breath.
Tosca’s popular score remains one of the most dramatically effective works of the Italian composer. But all the heart-wrenching turmoil comes at a price and it takes a particularly skilled conductor to strike the right balance between the music from the pit and the singing from the stage. On Tuesday night, Marco Armiliato, a long-time house regular, did not always manage to keep the musicians under tight control, resulting into the occasional drowning of the voices by too loud instruments, a problem I have frequently encountered with Tosca.
Nevertheless, the sensuous melodies beautifully soared and the outstanding cast was the best I had ever heard, so the whole outing was yet another very satisfying night at the Met.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Met - Simon Boccanegra - 01/20/11

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: James Levine
Director: Peter McClintock
Simon Boccanegra: Dmitri Hvorostosky
Jacopo Fiesco (Andrea Grimaldi): Ferruccio Furlanetto
Maria (Amelia Grimaldi): Barbara Frittoli
Gabriele Adorno: Roberto de Biasio
Paolo: Nicola Alaimo

Although I had missed Placido Domingo's much acclaimed baritone turn as Simon Boccanegra at the Met last year, I had promised myself to catch up with it some other time. This season, the Spanish tenor, who has just celebrated his 70th birthday, is not reprising the role, but Siberian-born baritone Dmitri Hvorostosky is taking it over, which was extremely good news for me and many other opera lovers. With the rest of the cast reading like a best-of among Met’s regulars and Verdi’s glorious music being an irresistible draw any time, everything seemed to urge me to just do it. The tipping point was reached in the wee hours of Thursday morning when my friend Paula e-mailed me asking if I was interested in her ticket as she had decided not to go. I had not planned to go this week, mostly because I had just come back from La Traviata a few hours earlier, but on the other hand, how could I turn down a double dose of Verdi in two days, not to mention helping a friend in need? I could not.
So on Thursday night I was happily back at the Met, incidentally even in the same row. The evening started with a fright because when I opened my program I noticed right away the dreaded insert, which typically means a last-minute cast change. And it was, but not as heart-breaking as it could have been. This time it was popular tenor Ramon Vargas who was ill, allowing newcomer Roberto de Biasio to make his Met debut in the role of Gabriele Adorno, the young man determined to overthrow, possibly kill, the doge Boccanegra because the latter had killed his father. Fair enough, but he unfortunately falls in love with his enemy’s daughter, although at the time nobody knows neither of the family tie, nor, incidentally, that the aristocrat in exile who adopted her is in fact her biological grand-father, himself a sworn enemy of Boccanegra’s because his now deceased daughter bore the doge (then pirate) an illegitimate child. And that is just part of the plot. Confusing? Yes. But do not let that stop you because it will eventually all make sense and the end definitely justifies the means.

With a decidedly convoluted story mixing historical facts, political unrest, family secrets and romantic turmoil, Simon Boccanegra is for sure an opera more in line with Don Carlo or Il Trovatore than La Traviata. It was not a success when it first came out in 1857, and even Verdi reportedly was not happy with it. After the composer and his Otello librettist, Arrigo Boito, carried out extensive revisions more than twenty years later, it slowly became part of the traditional repertoire, although by no means is it one of the most regularly performed works. And what a shame! The score contains some of the most striking music Verdi ever wrote and the conflicted characters are fantastic roles for the right singers to sink their teeth in.
And they sure did on Thursday night. As Simon Boccanegra, Dmitri Hvorostosky was simply superb. From popular former pirate reluctantly turned into hot-headed, if fundamentally decent, doge to fully committed man of peace and forgiveness, Simon Boccanegra embarks on a long, difficult journey through the twenty-five years of his life encompassed within the three hours of the opera. Accordingly, Dmitri Hvorostosky made the most of his rich, deeply nuanced voice and natural, magnetic charisma, giving his complex character a truly Shakespearian grandeur. He may not be a born Italianate baritone, but he brought too much to the part for us to care about mere technical details. Besides, this production already had the perfect Verdi singer in Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto. After being a stunning King Philip II in Don Carlo a couple of months ago (I even timed a visit to the Met lobby on the Saturday afternoon of the live broadcast to watch his big scene with the benefit of close-ups), his Fiesco was yet another tragic hero perfectly brought to life by his wide-ranging, fully controlled voice and inconspicuous but spot-on acting.
Facing these two consummate artists was probably a daunting task, but Italian soprano Barbara Frittoli did not let any apprehension show and more than held her own as Maria, the only female character in the opera. As the one over whom everybody fights for very different reasons, she proved worthy of all the attention by letting her voice steadily and elegantly soar, never mind if her gestures seemed a bit forced at times. Her ardent lover, Italian tenor Roberto de Biasio, was making a very promising Met debut, whole-heartedly grabbing the opportunity of a lifetime and singing as if his life (or at least his livelihood) depended on it. His voice had a straightforward, vibrant quality to it and I hope we’ll get to hear him again soon. Another Italian singer making his debut (planned, this time) was baritone Nicola Alaimo as Paolo and, here again, the first impression was totally positive.
Decors and costumes were adequate, if not particularly inspired. The score, on the other hand, was masterfully performed under the expert baton of beloved maestro Levine, who may have received the biggest ovation of the evening. The magnificently dark composition does not contain any instantaneously hummable melodies, but its discreet sophistication beautifully supported the singers’ voices, fittingly emphasizing decisive plot turns and all-consuming emotional peaks. And let’s not keep the suspense any longer: yes, the famous council chamber scene at the end of Act I, featuring the six main characters and the chorus thrown into a stormy, intense confrontation, turned out the undisputed highlight it was expected to be. Mission accomplished! All in all, it was yet another memorable night at the opera. May there be many more.

Met - La Traviata - 01/19/11

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi
Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda
Director: Willy Decker
Violetta Valéry: Marina Poplavskaya
Alfredo Germont: Matthew Polenzani
Giorgio Germont: Andrzej Dobber

After making it to past mid-January without a single live performance, things have suddenly changed and with quite a bang thanks to Willy Decker’s much talked about modern take on Verdi’s classic La Traviata at the Met last Wednesday night. What had been the hottest ticket in town in Salzburg in 2005, mostly for featuring opera’s golden couple at the time, Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon, has become the hot ticket in New York this season, albeit with less well-known-but-getting-there Marina Poplavskaya and Matthew Polenzani. Truth be told, I had much admired Marina Poplavskaya in Don Carlo earlier this year, but I was not sure how she would tackle the drastically different and particularly demanding role of Violetta.
After deciding to take a peek at the Salzburg production on YouTube to get an idea of what the fuss was all about, I naturally got sucked right into it and ended up watching the whole thing online. It is understood that a video (also available on DVD) on a small screen cannot do justice to any live performance, but I was still grateful for a first taste of what was coming to us. While I quickly realized than expecting the same kind of sizzling chemistry between the leads would be wishful thinking, I found the production intriguing enough and looked forward to seeing the real thing at the Met. After all, if all else failed, I could always close my eyes, bask in Verdi’s magnificent score and forget the rest.

But nothing failed and, in my humble opinion, this new take on the life, love and death of one of the world’s most famous courtesans has at least as much merit as Zefirelli’s old, over-stuffed production. Although it may not be the perfect introduction to the opera itself, it at least shakes up (actually gets rid of) the typically lavish decors and sumptuous costumes and gives us a minimalist setting with a blindingly white, curved wall, along which runs a bench, an occasional couch and a huge, merciless clock, which is relentlessly counting the time left to terminally ill Violetta. The symbolic time-keeper stops during the blissful episode of happy country life with Alfredo, finally reveling in the joys of true love, but it soon starts ticking again when she has to leave him and go back to her former, seemingly dazzling but ultimately empty life. Dressed in modern clothes (she in a bright red dress and matching heels, the others in sleek dark suits) the cast carries on in a world stripped of all fanciness, but rich in symbolism. The story unfolds in a timeless place, but time is nevertheless ever present, and will eventually win.
With her lean figure, long blond hair and charismatic stage presence, Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya quickly crushed my doubts as she handled the daunting vocal marathon with unwavering grace and aplomb. Her Violetta was warmer than expected and delivered some truly poignant moments. She had a good, spontaneous chemistry with Matthew Polenzani, but the peak of the evening was for me the long, draining confrontation with Alfredo’s father, during which she had to ride an exhausting emotional roller-coaster with no possible happy ending in sight.
As love-sick Alfredo, American tenor Matthew Polenzani offered a totally committed performance, viscerally hot-headed and endearingly vulnerable. Blessed with a genuinely lyrical voice and all-round youthful handsomeness, he had no trouble nailing his role. With a presence even more noticeable than his voice, Polish baritone Andrezj Dobber was an effective Giorgio Germont, unhesitant to ruthlessly shatter Violetta’s and his son’s ideal life before sincerely repenting for his actions. As for the seemingly all-male chorus, it had an especially meaningful part here, not only as participants in all-night parties, but also as voyeurs (The greedy, man-dominated bourgeois society?) watching the action inevitably unfold from above.
One of Verdi’s most famous scores, La Traviata abounds with climatic arias and emotionally charged moments, all flawlessly connected by naturally flowing, artlessly gorgeous music. While our eyes did not have much to feast on, we were able to focus even more on the sounds that were coming from the stage, and there was much to enjoy indeed. Maestro Noseda, who is also music director of Turin’s Teatro Regio, chief conductor of the BBC Philharmonic and principal conductor of the Orquestra de Cadaqués, among other guest appearances (Busy guy, obviously), led the renowned Met orchestra in a lively, well-paced performance, fully supportive of the production.
All put together, the result was a successful combination of a mid-19th century Italian masterpiece and a modern-minded, daring German director. Not a trace of Euro trash was to be found there. Yes, some of it may have been a bit heavy-handed or just odd (Did we need Violetta clowning around on stage while Alfredo sings about how he misses her?), but some of it was much appreciated, like getting rid of the second intermission. As much as I feel bad about the stress it must have put on Marian Poplavskaya’s voice, it made her character’s final downfall all the more unstoppable. Plus, I have frankly always found the death scene a bit over-drawn anyway (beautiful, no doubt, but over-indulgent too), so anything that kind of speeds up the process at that point is welcome. On Wednesday night, Violetta ended up dying early and beautifully, earning herself and her castmates a long and loud ovation from a packed auditorium, before we all went home happily humming.