Sunday, February 28, 2016

Met - Manon Lescaut - 02/27/16

Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Fabio Luisi
Producer/Director: Richard Eyre
Manon Lescaut: Kristine Opolais
Chevalier des Grieux: Roberto Alagna
Géronte de Ravoir: Brindley Sherratt
Lescaut: Masimo Cavalletti
Edmondo: Zach Brichevsky

The famously ill-fated love story of Manon Lescaut and the Chevalier des Grieux bears the unusual distinction of having inspired not one but two operas by major composers, Manon by French Jules Massenet and Manon Lescaut by the Italian Giacomo Puccini (If you don't count Manon Lescaut by the French Daniel-François-Esprit Auber, which in fact came out first). Massenet's version never did much for me, but I was still curious to check out Puccini's. The opportunity finally arose in the Met's current season with no less than established superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann and meteorically rising soprano Kristine Opolais in a modern production by Sir Richard Eyre, which made the offer even harder to resist.
Then a couple of weeks before opening night, the Met announced that Kaufmann was bailing out of the entire run due to unspecified health reasons, but that veteran Met tenor Roberto Alagna was willing to learn the meaty part in two weeks (?!) and take it over. So all was not lost, just different. Therefore, that was in a relatively optimistic state of mind that I joined my friend Steve and Carter in a very full opera house yesterday afternoon.

My main problem with Massenet's Manon lies its uninspired plot, which could easily be summed up as "The brat and the fool" and its equally uninspired, except for a few sparks, score. But I had high hopes for Puccini's take on the story since the Italian master usually does not waste time on French delicacies and goes for a more hot-blooded approach, and we had an appealing cast to make it come alive.
As Manon, Kristine Opolais, one of the most highly regarded sopranos of the moment, lived up to the hype thanks to an irresistible package including a beautiful voice, convincing acting, glamorous looks and commanding charisma. A fiercely committed performer, she turned a character that could have been just another greedy bimbo into a touching young woman lost in love and in life. She gorgeously shone in her truly engrossing duets with Roberto Alagna and her two big arias, "In quelle trine morbide" and "Sola, perduta, abbandonata", soared with the gripping power of lost innocence and heart-felt regret. She was really an all-around delight and a big hit with the audience.
Learning a complex role in only two weeks is no simple feat, and performing it while suffering from the flu cannot but add to the challenge, but Roberto Alagna soldiered on yesterday afternoon. And while some high notes were unsurprisingly strained – A Met employee made an announcement explaining the situation and asking for our understanding during the second intermission – he still resolutely gathered his strength, talent and experience to deliver a des Grieux that was equally passionate and poignant in his hopeless devotion to Manon. His capable rescue of the part and his gallant handshake with the prompter during the curtain call earned him rousing and much deserved ovations.
The rest of the cast was as reliable as they come. English bass Brindley Sherratt was a stern and implacable Géronte, whose appearance was never good news. Italian baritone Massimo Cavalletti was a compelling singer as Lescaut, Manon's half-pimp and half-savior of a brother. In his Met debut, American tenor Zach Borichevsky was an engaging Edmondo. The chorus has added yet another challenging opera under its ever-expending belt, and came off remarkably poised, as usual.
If the singing was satisfying, the production was as puzzling as misguided. Why on earth would a story originally set in the second half of the 18th century be dropped into German-occupied France in the early 1940s, with all the irreconcilable political, social and historical differences it entails?! This production does not offer any answers, but it sure proves that it does not work. While the idea of emphasizing the "film noir" aspect of the narrative is legitimate and worth exploring, there has to be better ways to do it than that. On top of it, the fact that the original libretto contains obvious holes, like no scenes describing Manon's and des Grieux's life together, does not help either.
On the other hand, Puccini's unabashedly lyrical score remains the undisputedly glorious component of the opera, smoothing out the inconsistencies and providing the singers with plenty of colorful melodies to create memorable emotionally-charged moments. Under the direction of Fabio Luisi, the Met orchestra sounded as good as ever, voluptuously unfolding the incandescent lines with powerful force while still making sure to bring out myriad of tiny details.  
It is no wonder that Manon Lescaut established Puccini on the international stage and prepared him for even bigger and better things. While Massenet's Manon may make more sense narratively, the more inherently vibrant musical quality of Puccini's Manon Lescaut makes it the winner in my view. All it needs is a decent production.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Budapest Festival Orchestra - Weber, Liszt & Prokofiev - 02/18/16

Music Director & Conductor: Ivan Fischer
Weber: Overture to Der Freischütz
Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-Flat Major - Marc-André Hamelin
Prokofiev: Symphony No. 5 in B-Flat Major, Op. 100

It is always a pleasure to attend a performance by the fabulous Budapest Festival Orchestra, and last Thurday I even got to double my pleasure by attending their open working rehearsal at Carnegie Hall in the morning before the official concert in the evening. Moreover, the fact that they would be accompanied by pianist extraordinaire Marc-André Hamelin only made my friend Paula's invitation to the special event even more compelling.
Budapest Festival Orchestra's founder, music director and conductor Ivan Fischer is well-known not only for his impeccable musicianship and unbreakable integrity, but also for his irrepressible spirit of adventure and occasional flashes of quirkiness. And those were on full display as soon as the rehearsal started, when the maestro spontaneously broke long-established rules by inviting the audience to sit closer to the stage and clap whenever they felt like it. The rest of the session was engaging and informative for the audience, focused and productive for the orchestra, and everybody left looking forward to the real thing.

And the real thing started swimmingly indeed, with a beautifully colored and intensely organic overture to the opera Der Freischütz by Carl Maria von Weber. The best location for the four horn players had been discussed at length during rehearsal, and after various attempts, it had been unanimously determined that each pair should stand in slightly elevated positions on each side of the orchestra, and so they were, solemn and assertive.
Franz Liszt's dazzling Piano Concerto No. 1 is only about 20 minutes long, but there is an awful lot going during that time. The orchestra was predictably robust, and Marc-André Hamelin played his part with powerful virtuosity, from the resounding explosions to the understated interludes, while the famously conspicuous triangle made a decidedly loud and clear impression from right behind the soloist. As far as memorable performances of it go, it would probably be difficult to beat the 1855 premiere, with the teenage composer himself at the keyboard and no other than Hector Berlioz on the podium. However, the pairing of Marc-André Hamelin and Ivan Fischer on Thursday night was not half-bad either.
Our loud appreciation encouraged Hamelin to come back for Liszt’s transcription of Chopin's song "My Darling", which was as exquisite as the concerto had been flamboyant.
The Budapest Festival Orchestra's energetic performance of Prokofiev's epic Symphony No. 5 proved that the beloved composition's power of attraction remains as strong as ever. The numerous tricky high notes at the beginning of the second movement, which had been extensively worked on during rehearsal, went off flawlessly intricate and playful, and all the other technical challenges were deftly mastered as well. The straightforward interpretation of the composition was rather surprising from someone who could have cleverly alluded to its caustic commentaries in so many ways, but the musical enjoyment was high and unadulterated.
To conclude our evening on a totally different note, all the musicians stood up and sang a cappella a delicately shining rendition of a "4th century Russian orthodox church song arranged by a 19th-century composer". A gorgeous parting gift that may even outlast the official program in the audience's memory.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Orchestre National de France - Debussy, Shostakovich & Tchaikovsky - 01/28/16

Conductor: Daniel Gatti
Debussy: Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune
Shostakovich: Violin Concerto No. 1 in A Minor, Op. 77 – Julian Rachin
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64

After a longer than usual absence from it, I was happily back at Carnegie Hall last Thursday night to support my fellow countrymen of the Orchestre National de France, along with Lithuanian violinist, violist and now conductor Julian Rachlin, in a resolutely classical program consisting of a delicately nuanced French symphonic poem by Debussy and two grippingly emotional Russian works – a violin concerto by Shostakovich and a symphony Tchaikovsky – that could only attract a large and excited crowd.
And the crowd was definitely there, including my friend Christine, who had decided to bravely dip her toes a little bit deeper into classical music's mysterious waters, and Christine Lagarde, who is the president of Honorary Committee for the orchestra's US tour and, incidentally, the Managing Director of the IMF. And who can clearly recognize a good gig when she sees one.

Unexpectedly, the concert did not start with Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, but with Wagner's prelude to Act III of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which needless to say has a totally different groove. But who were we to complain about a surprise opening gift being thrown upon us? The orchestra dwelled into German romanticism with gusto, and off we were.
Next, Debussy's eagerly awaited Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune got to glow with mesmerizing shimmering colors and beautiful impressionistic touches. On Thursday night, Debussy's ground-breaking masterpiece proved once again that sometimes the most understated works are the most memorable ones.
There is nothing understated about Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1, but some subtle nuances can for sure be found in it. The one and only time I had heard Julian Rachlin perform before Thursday, he had played the tricky piece with confident virtuosity. About a decade later, he still took on the challenge head-on, but also made sure to let the quieter passages expand and brilliantly come alive. After much brooding darkness, the notorious passacaglia and its treacherous melodic lines appeared as the wild ride they are, and it all ended in a fierce finale.
But taming one of the violin repertoire's most untamable beasts was apparently not enough, and our enthusiastic ovation was rewarded with Ysaye's difficult "Ballade" sonata, which Rachlin handled with much dexterity and heart.
After intermission, we seamlessly moved from Shostakovich's unforgiving grittiness to Tchaikovsky's intense emotions with his majestic Symphony No. 5. Big sentiments and big sounds were in order here, and the orchestra unconditionally responded to Daniel Gatti's with precision and voluptuousness. So we shamelessly indulged in the luscious account of the magnificent composition, and felt all the better for it.
The hour was getting late and a good chunk of the audience was already out of the hall when the unstoppable French decided to end the concert the same way they had started it, with a surprise treat. This time, however, we moved back to the realm of French music with a heart-felt rendition of Fauré's prelude from Pelléas et Mélisande. Vive la France !