Monday, September 11, 2017

New York City Opera - La fanciulla del West - 09/08/17

Composer: Giacomo Puccini 
Conductor: James Meena 
Director: Ivan Stefanutti 
Kristin Sampson: Minnie 
Jonathan Burton: Dick Johnson 
Kevin Short: Jack Pance 
Alexander Birch Elliott: Sonora 
Michael Boley: Nick 
Christopher Job: Ashby 
Kenneth Overton: Jake Wallace 

After a fabulous Sibelius-inspired concert gloriously kicked off my concert season on Monday evening, I was more than ready for La fanciulla del West, presented by the New York City Opera, in collaboration with the Teatro di Giglio in Lucca, the Teatro Lirico in Cagliari and Opera Carolina, to kick off my opera season, and incidentally wrap up a short but hectic week, on Friday evening.
Not as perennially popular as some of Puccini's other works, the alleged "original spaghetti western" picked my curiosity because this time not only is the heroine independent-minded, but she's got a gun, knows how to use it, unhesitantly cheats at a card game to get the guy, and literally rides off into the sunset with him in a Hollywood-worthy happy ending. That sure beats dying of tuberculosis in a freezing garret, cutting one’s throat with a harakiri knife because of a worthless cad, or jumping off the top of Castel Sant'Angelo because there’s simply no way out.
Dismissed as a sweet but minor work by some and hailed as an unfairly neglected masterpiece by others, La fanciulla del West still more or less regularly pops up on opera stages around the globe. So I figured that the only thing to do was to go find out for myself, and at the same time support the valiant New York City Opera at the beginning of its second full season, with my friend Christine, who was also game for a light-hearted yet cultural start of the weekend.

Taking place in faraway California during the Gold Rush, which had to be a refreshingly novel setting at the time, La fanciulla del West also distinguishes itself for being the first world premiere ever presented at the Metropolitan Opera back in 1910, and a glittery one at that with Emmy Destinn and Enrico Caruso as the star-crossed lovers and Arturo Toscanini on the podium. The post-performance reception at the Vanderbilt’s was probably one of the hottest tickets in town as well. So who cared if the critics were not exactly raving?
Being the only girl in a man's world is a tough job, but from time to time somebody's got to do it, and while Minnie described herself as innocent and insignificant, she also appeared to be unconventionally well-read, self-sufficient and strong-willed. Portraying such a complex young woman can be no easy feat, but soprano Kristin Sampson readily rose to the task with a powerful and pliable voice that she knew how to amp up when reaching for the big emotional peaks and tamper down during the more intimate moments. She did not seem overly comfortable with a gun, but she had enough of a stage presence to make her Minnie an endearing character everyone on the stage and in the audience spontaneously rooted for.
Tenor Jonathan Burton was equally engaging as the outlaw Dick Johnson, even to the point where it was hard to imagine him as a hardened criminal. Maybe it was his sob story explaining his current circumstances, maybe it was his youthful smile and demeanor, maybe it was his going-for-broke singing that sounded straight from the heart, but seeing him through Minnie's loving and forgiving eyes quickly became a given. He had the one big aria of the evening, "Ch'ella mi creda", and did not miss his chance to nail it fair and square.
On the other hand, it was not hard to despise bass-baritone Kevin Short's self-assured sheriff and major boor Jack Pance, who nowadays would have been smacked with a sexual harassment suit in no time for his relentless pursuit of a clearly uninterested Minnie. Efficiently completing the de rigueur love triangle, he sang and acted his love-struck part with commitment and poise, even when dressed in a potentially confidence-crushing electric blue suit.
The rest of the cast defined their various characters skillfully and colorfully, with a special mention for baritone Alexander Birch Elliott, who deftly impersonated the combination of a good heart and a hot head that was Sonora. The all-male chorus seemed to be having a swell time walking around in their fancy cowboy outfits, and they were particularly good at expressing a genuine sense of camaraderie, even in the formulaic but fun bar brawl scene.
Speaking of clichés with an appealing twist, the sets were traditional in an understated way, but at least director Ivan Stefanutti did try to occasionally bring the rugged outside in with projections of nature landscapes on the background, which usually worked. The Western Sierras are no romantic Paris or exotic Japan, but the production made a laudable attempt at recreating the roughness of life in a mining camp in the middle of nowhere. As for the costumes, they went from mostly pleasantly serviceable to randomly downright dowdy, but that did not hugely matter at the end.
What mattered hugely though, is that the romantic mood, nuanced colors and attractive melodies of Puccini's openly ambitious score properly came out from the pit, and the reduced orchestra energetically conducted by James Meena made sure to make it happen. Fewer show-stopping arias and a more elaborate orchestration were in fact a nice change from the quintessential Italian melody master.
Therefore, the verdict is that while not an unquestionable masterpiece, La fanciulla del West deserves a decent spot in the opera canon, and the New York City Opera deserves high praise for having brought it to the New York City audience. All things considered, my opera season has started very well too. And now it is onward and forward!

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Juilliard Orchestra & Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra - Sibelius, Salonen & Stucky - 09/05/17

Juilliard Orchestra 
Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra 
Esa-Pekka Salonen: Conductor 
Stucky: Radical Light 
Salonen: Mania 
Jonathan Roozeman: Cello 
Sibelius: Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22 (Four Legends from the Kalevala) 

Not a minute too soon after Labor Day, my 2017-2018 music season started last Tuesday evening with what could only be considered an excellent omen: A concert celebrating the centennial of Finland’s independence with works by Finnish native Jean Sibelius, maybe the most underrated composer in the classical repertoire, Finnish native Esa-Pekka Salonen, by all accounts the most prominent composer from up North these days, and Steven Stucky, his late American friend who was significantly influenced by Sibelius.
After rehearsals in Helsinki, and performances in Helsinki and Stockholm, the Juilliard Orchestra and the Sibelius Academy Symphony Orchestra brought their combined youthful forces to Alice Tully Hall’s wonderfully intimate and totally packed Starr Theater for the much anticipated final stop of their mini-tour in New York City. Not a bad way to get back to reality after the wonderfully long but yet still too short holiday weekend.

When with the enthusiasm of youth and the aplomb of expertise a music student deems a composition “so cool”, you know that it was something truly special. Fact is, the assertive assessment by one of the concert-goers sitting right in front of me on Monday night neatly summarized what we were all thinking at that point. The piece we had just heard, Steven Stucky’s Radical Light, had indeed come out overflowing with originality and verve in one swell movement. The music first felt delightfully random with its various twists and turns connected by smooth transitions, but it soon became clear that such seemingly unrestrained freedom could only be obtained if a carefully built and rock-solid structure was there to support it, and there it was. And we got to appreciate it all the more as the über-talented, fearless and eager musicians making up the huge orchestra delivered a downright thrilling performance under the precise baton of maestro Salonen.
Next, Esa-Pekka Salonen got to conduct his own 2000 composition Mania, which could be called an almost but not quite cello concerto. It did, however, keep the soloist, indefatigable Finnish-Dutch cellist extraordinaire Jonathan Roozeman, virtuosically scraping away  ̶  Not an oxymoron in this case   ̶  almost the entire 20 minutes while the drastically reduced, cello-less orchestra kept on swirling like an equally wild crowd around him. This was no easy listening for the most part, but there was something eerily fascinating in hearing all the unusual sounds, sometimes clashing sometimes blending, produced by the fired-up musicians mercilessly pushed to their limits.
After having winningly met the Mania challenge, we ventured way down south for the semi-obscure encore that Roozeman had selected, Intermezzo and Dance Finale of Gaspar Cassadó’s Cello Suite, which added unexpected languorous Spanish rhythms to the Finnish-centric evening.
After intermission, it was back to Finland for more traditional fare with finally the unofficial man of the hour, Jean Sibelius, and his sprawling Lemminkäinen Suite. Based on one of the heroes in the Finnish national epic the Kalevala, and originally meant for an opera that never came into being, the four symphonic poems boast emotional drama, sumptuous lushness and beautiful melodies, which all came out through big splashy waves and pointed details as vibrantly performed by the decidedly unstoppable orchestra.
The hour was getting late, and probably past the bedtime of some of the players on the stage, but that did not keep conductor and musicians from treating the ecstatic audience to a delicately elegiac "Valse triste" because one can never hear too much Sibelius.