Monday, January 16, 2017

New York Philharmonic - Beethoven & Brahms - 01/11/17

Conductor: Alan Gilbert 
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 73 (Emperor) - Stephen Hough 
Brahms: Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90 

 Because life and music must go on, after enjoying a rousing Roméo et Juliette at the Met on Tuesday night, I was back at Lincoln Center about 24 hours later for a long-planned and highly anticipated concert by the New York Philharmonic and Stephen Hough at the David Geffen Hall. The main purpose of my getting a ticket was to hear the modern-day Renaissance pianist's take on Beethoven's Emperor concerto, as I had figured it would be hard to go wrong with that pairing. And having Brahms' Symphony No. 3 on the same program would be a nice continuation in the Romantic tradition. After all, there's nothing wrong with indulging in stellar servings of oldies but goodies once in a while.

 Stephen Hough's flawless Debussy and Chopin recital at Carnegie Hall last May had been one the highlights of my season, and I simply could not wait to hear him get busy with Beethoven's majestic Emperor. I am happy to report that my patience was splendidly rewarded by the technically brilliant and emotionally engaging performance the captive audience got to revel in on Wednesday night. Starting with vivacious assertiveness in the long Allegro, he moved on to the Adagio with delicate introspection, before going all fireball with a tad of mischief in the Rondo. Even in his most energetic moments, there was a fundamental purity of sound and a clear sense of purpose that made this Emperor not only remarkable for its sweeping grandeur, but also for its delicate lyricism and sparkling details. Everything I could have hoped for and more.
After intermission and a speech to thank donors, welcome music students among the orchestra and salute the NY Phil's special relationship with the University of Michigan, we headed back to familiar territory with Brahms' relatively lesser-known Symphony No. 3, a puzzling status that was actually hard to believe as the composition was magisterially unfolding with big brass, fleeting winds and glowing strings. Its rich and complex texture beautifully brought to life with vibrancy and flair, the black sheep of Brahms' symphonies probably conquered the last skeptics, assuming there were any in the packed concert hall, and triumphantly concluded the evening with a soft touch.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Met - Roméo et Juliette - 01/10/17

Composer: Charles Gounod 
Librettist: Jules Barbier and Michel Carré 
Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda 
Producer/Director: Bartlett Sher 
Diana Damrau: Juliette 
Vittorio Grigolo: Roméo 
Laurent Naouri: Capulet 
Frère Laurent: Mikail Petrenko 
Diana Montague: Gertrude 
Tybalt: Diego Silva 
Elliot Madore: Mercutio 

 A few days after witnessing a modern-day doomed love story with the Prototype Festival’s gripping Breaking the Waves, I found myself at the Met for the original doomed love story of them all with Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette starring opera's latest dream duo consisting of German soprano Diana Damrau and Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo. I have to admit that I initially had slight misgivings about the opera being too sentimental and Diana Damrau being too old to play a teenager. But then I came to my senses thanks to my ever-reliable friend Nicole’s high praise of the opera, and my realization that Diane Damrau is not that old since she is after all younger than me, and of course a divine singer to boot.
In her determined quest of experiencing New York City's impressive art scene, my still newish French colleague and friend Vy An has been on a trail-blazing mission checking out all kinds of cultural institutions for the past couple of months, and she had been looking forward to her first foray into the Met. And we could not think of a better way to get her started than with two of the hottest singers of the moment putting their rightfully acclaimed talents to excellent use in a universally famous love story that, in this case, would even be sung in French. So that’s where we were on Tuesday evening, kind of spontaneously, in no less than decent orchestra seats.

The good thing about watching an opera inspired by a certified classic, be it a book, play or film, is that the plot being so well-known, no homework is generally required. Adapted many times over, including in West Side Story, which incidentally takes place exactly where the Met stands now, Roméo et Juliette can boast about being the gift that keeps on giving. And the tragedy of the original  and probably ultimate  pair of star-crossed lovers gave plenty again on Tuesday night.
In an irrefutable proof that I should just shut up when I don’t know what I am talking about, Diana Damrau effortlessly conquered everybody in the house as soon as she stepped up on stage, a pure and luminous presence among the rambunctious ball crowd. Seeing her twirl around in a pretty yellow gown and flowing blond tresses, I had to readily acknowledge that she was a truly lovely Juliette, from carefree teenager eager to live life to the fullest to the tragic heroine whose only escape is death. However, if her demeanor was appropriately youthful, there was no doubt that the unfailingly exacting, delicate yet intense singing unquestionably came from the seasoned soprano that she is.
As for Vittorio Grigolo, he certainly seemed to have found a meaty part that fit him like a glove. His Roméo was temperamentally hot-blooded and physically restless, intrepidly climbing walls, breathlessly running around and fiercely engaging in the fateful sword fight. But obviously determined not to be just a pretty face and a non-stop fireball, he displayed an impressive singing range, which was not just burning ardor and unabashed romanticism, but achingly vulnerable and subtly introspective as well, convincingly conveying every emotion the youngster desperately in love was going through.
 A lot has been written about the “sizzling chemistry” between those two inherently charismatic singers, and I am happy to confirm that it was there in spades on Tuesday night. So much so, in fact, that an audience member a few rows ahead of us could not resist filming their admittedly thrilling love duet after their first and only night together on his smartphone until an usher put an end to it. The culprit should not worry though, as chances are he will not forget this exceptional pairing anytime soon. And neither will the rest of us.
Even though the opera squarely focused on the leads, smaller roles were interpreted by top-notch singers as well such as bass-baritone Laurent Naouri, who embodied firm patriarchy as Juliette’s father, bass Mikhail Petrenko brought out the best of good-hearted Frère Laurent, mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez was a dynamic Stéphano, mezzo-soprano Diana Montague endeared herself to all as Juliette’s strongly devoted nurse, and tenor Diego Silva as Tybalt and baritone Elliot Madore as Mercutio effectively portrayed the two ferocious enemies.
The production was solidly conventional, with a permanent set that included a three-floor Italian palace exterior, a town square and a Greek column, but it got the job done. Every time the action moved to a new place, a few things were altered. Some chairs were brought in for the opening scene, a few religious accessories made up the church, a sheet more or less inventively served several purposes – its puzzlingly interfering with the last sword fight being the one major faux pas of the staging – and two coffins in front of a large door stood for the crypt. The crowd scenes, especially the sword fights, were winningly choreographed.
It comes to no surprise that the music is lushly romantic, and if may not have all of the weight necessary to support the full emotional depth of Shakespeare's tragedy, it stayed thankfully away from excessive maudlinness. Damrau and Grigolo had beautiful arias and duets that they consistently nailed with impeccable savoir faire, turning their scenes into the undisputed highlights of the evening. And the typically fabulous Met chorus also had several opportunities to show that they were having a very good night as well.
The always dependable orchestra delivered a warm, energetic and richly melodic performance under the baton of Met regular Gianandrea Noseda, who cleverly focused more on firing up the score's all-out lyricism than on getting closer to the more subdued French style. The result was an exciting musical accompaniment that compellingly contributed to the non-stop drama unfolding on the stage, which in turn made our evening with Roméo et Juliette a complete success.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Prototype Festival - Breaking the Waves - 01/06/17

Composer: Missy Mazzoli 
Conductor: Julian Wachner 
Librettist: Royce Vavrek 
Director: James Darrah 
Kiera Duffy: Bess McNeill 
John Moore: Jan Nyman 
Eve Gigliotti: Dodo McNeill 
Theodora Hanslowe: Bess' Mother 
Matthew Curran: Terry 
Dominic Armstrong: Dr. Richardson 
Marcus DeLoach: Minister 
The Choir of Trinity Church Wall Street 
Opera Philadelphia Chorus

 Now that 2016 is solidly behind us, I could not find a better way to start 2017 than with a new opera that deals head-first with exacerbated emotions, religious fanaticism, sexual depravity and modern martyrdom, courtesy of Beth Morrison Projects, Opera Philadelphia and, first and foremost, New York's very own Prototype Festival, which in its fifth year is showing nothing but signs of getting bigger, stronger and better, a remarkable accomplishment all music-loving New Yorkers are very grateful for.
Inspired by the 1996 Lars von Trier film, which routinely dealt an unforgettable gut-wrenching punch to everyone who saw it while putting wide-eyed but steel-willed Emily Watson forever on the map of actresses to watch, Breaking the Waves has become an opera composed by Missy Mazzoli, who fully embraced and clearly conquered the mighty challenge.
Three performances were scheduled at the NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, and I figured that I might as well go to the first one, on Friday evening, since it was the official New York premiere and, more prosaically, the weather forecast was not particularly optimistic for the rest of the weekend. Apparently, a lot of important and less important people felt the same way, and we all excitedly packed up the pleasant theater.

The blatantly unusual story revolves around a young Scottish woman who in a short time experiences incredible highs and agonizing lows when joyfully finding the perfect husband and then promptly seeing him suffer from a horrific work accident, which eventually leads her to debase herself through increasingly sordid sexual encounters as a way to save him. To make things even worse, all of this takes place among a deeply religious and particularly intolerant Scottish island community.
A veteran of the world premiere in Philadelphia in September 2016, soprano Kiera Duffy had the frail frame, aching vulnerability, unbreakable stamina, fearless spirit and vocal intensity necessary to carry out what was essentially an awe-inspiring one-woman show. Her visceral combination of endearing goodness and uncompromising fierceness made her Bess all the more poignant as we watched her bare her body and soul all the way to her ghastly death. A new tragic heroine had been born.
Kiera Duffy's performance being so central and riveting, the other singers unsurprisingly tended to pale next to her. However, with his rugged good looks and attractively burnished voice, baritone John Moore did not escape notice as Jan, the oil rig worker Bess marries for better or worse. In their better times, his scenes with Kiera Duffy had a spontaneous intimacy that made their emotional and physical bond all the more palpable, and even after the worst happened, he remained a powerful presence even as he was lying paralyzed from the neck down.
Another standout performer was formidable mezzo-soprano Eve Gigliotti as Dodo McNeill, Bess' sister-in-law who stood firmly by her side even as their entire community turned its back on the increasingly self-degrading young woman. Her beautifully lyrical, wonderfully warm and truly compelling singing effortlessly filled up the entire theater while unmistakably embodying the steady voice of compassion and selflessness.
All the other singers ─ Theodora Hanslowe as Bess' worrying mother, Matthew Curran as Jan’s loyal buddy and supervisor Terry, Dominic Armstrong as compassionate Dr. Richardson and Marcus Deloach as the ruthless minister ─ came through with equal force and commitment, and the outstanding members of the chorus, who had to switch rapidly between implacable churchmen, boisterous rig workers and sadistic lovers, fulfilled their parts with plenty of talent and integrity, and without missing a beat.
The production used one stark set made of broken down planks on the stage, which created spaces and props for the singers to move around, and screens on the background, on which videos of the oil rig violently exploding as well as black splashes of ink tarnishing the immaculate canvas – and Bess' reputation – randomly appeared. Everything remained efficiently minimalist and perfectly in line with the inescapable bleakness of the story.
On the other end, as if to blur the line between performance and reality, during the intermission the audience members who stayed inside the theater got to witness Jan being cared for by dedicated medical staff and then left alone in full hospital gear, and the performance resumed as many people were still streaming back to their seats, which ended up being more frustrating for everybody than anything else.
The brittle Scottish landscape and Bess' no less brittle state of mind were cleverly reinforced by Missy Mazzoli’s wildly inventive, confidently unpredictable score that, for all the occasional pleasant melodic offerings, had countless unnerving moments filled with strange sounds and jagged dissonances. The overall texture was nevertheless cleanly woven and carefully balanced, making sure that the singers could be heard over even the most grating instrumental turbulence.
The exacting musicians of the unseen NOVUS NY orchestra, which featured awesomely esoteric percussions and made impressive use of an electric guitar, was commandingly conducted by Julian Wachner, who proved one more time what a versatile and involved music man he is. Although we could just from time to time see the top of his head and his moving arms, there was no doubt that he was keeping thing firmly under control and significant contributed in turning this daring endeavor into a successful and memorable experience.