Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Prototype Festival - Fellow Travelers - 01/13/18

Composer: Gregory Spears 
Librettist: Greg Pierce 
Conductor: George Manahan 
Director: Kevin Newbury 
American Composer Orchestra 
Aaron Blake: Timothy Laughlin 
Joseph Lattanzi: Hawkins Fuller 
Devon Guthrie: Mary Johnson 
Vernon Hartman: Senator Potter and Bartender 
Marcus DeLoach: Estonian Frank, Interrogator and Senator 
McCarthy Christian Purcell: Potter’s Assistant, Bookseller and Priest 
Paul Scholten: Tommy McIntyre 
Alexandra Schoeny: Miss Lightfoot 
Cecilia Violetta Lopez: Lucy 

After two very satisfying evenings in the familiar confines of the Metropolitan Opera and the David Geffen Hall earlier in the week, on Saturday afternoon I walked a bit further down the Upper West Side to the much less familiar but wonderfully intimate Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice for the New York premiere of Fellow Travelers, one of the most eagerly awaited productions of the Prototype Festival’s sixth season.
Inspired by Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel by the same name, Fellow Travelers takes place in Washington, D.C. during the “lavender scare” of the 1950s, when homosexuals were purged more efficiently, albeit more discreetly, than communists from the U.S. government. Therefore, there was little doubt that the forbidden relationship between the two gay men in the heart of the story would provide plenty of drama and an unhappy end, which of course made it the perfect topic for an opera.
The world premiere of Fellow Travelers in Cincinnati, Ohio, last year was by all accounts a resounding success. Unsurprisingly, the positive buzz made it all the way to New York City, where a particularly excited crowd filled the theater to near capacity, hopefully not just out of political correctness, but also in the name of intellectual curiosity and in support for risk-taking artists.

Among the already paltry number of new operas being produced these days, few of them deal with issues from the recent past or the present, despite the wealth of material to be found there. Although the 1950s are not exactly recent past or present, and significant progress has been made in many areas since then, being reminded how incredibly fragile and constantly threatened those advances still are is a good thing, especially when those reminders are delivered via compelling artistic endeavors.
As Timothy Laughlin, the young New Yorker who has just arrived in D.C. and is finding out the hard way how complicated being gay is when McCarthyism – and Catholicism – are looming large, tenor Aaron Blake was a painfully shy, dutifully milk-drinking radical with a clear and appealing voice. As the opera progressed, his seemingly anti-hero looks and demeanor made his steady resolve against adversity all the more commendable, and if he ended up being badly shaken by the whole thing, he nevertheless remained fundamentally true to himself.
Baritone Joseph Lattanzi looked almost too young and good-natured for the experienced, care-free and cynical State Department employee Hawkins Fuller, a self-confident man about town who would eventually give in to outside pressures regardless of his genuine feelings for Timothy. His charisma was undeniable though, and so were his singing abilities, making the powerful attraction he exerted over fresh-faced Timothy truly palpable.
In Mary Johnson, Hawkins’ friend-assistant and Timothy’s ally, soprano Devon Guthrie had an originally inconspicuous role that slowly blossomed into a full-fledged character who had to face her own set of challenges, but who admirably never lost her moral compass. Her beautiful voice delivered some of the most moving singing of the entire performance as she was becoming a firm advocate for understanding and acceptance.
The smaller parts were all handled very well, with quite a few singers impersonating more than one character. The most memorable impressions came from baritone Paul Scholten as quintessential fixer Tommy McIntyre, baritone Vernon Hartman as gruffly Senator Potter, baritone Marcus DeLoach as devious Senator McCarthy, and soprano Alexandra Schoeny as relentless busybody Miss Lightfoot.
The production kept the fifteen short and crisp scenes flowing smoothly thanks to seamless transitions, the cast moving and transforming the versatile pieces of furniture and props with impeccable efficiency. The costumes quickly brought us back to the 1950s, and the lack thereof during the slightly over-extended seduction scene gave it a raw quality. The use of lights was understated, yet yielded unmistakable results, such as the glow on Timothy’s face turning increasingly warmer as he was having his epiphany.
In the end though, the unusual score turned out to be the real star of the opera. Adroitly combining elements from American minimalism and medieval troubadour tradition, including a few superfluous melismas, Gregory Spears came up with a composition that is deceptively quiet, brilliantly inventive, and hauntingly effective. Two of the most heart-breaking scenes were Timothy alone in church struggling with his passion for a man and his devotion to God, and Hawkins alone in their secret love nest realizing that the affair simply had to end. They did not have any flamboyant arias, but they were riveting. On the other hand, the festive office holiday party proved that the ever-crafty composer could effortlessly master ensembles too.
The reliably adventurous and capable American Composer Orchestra was in fine form on Saturday afternoon, making sure to take the time to express the characters’ complex emotional journeys while keeping up a good pace under the baton of their music director George Manahan. The subtle nuances of the various colors were keenly brought out, and the big sweeping moments had all the necessary punch and élan.
The opera ended on the devastating image of all the characters, except for Mary, literally turning their backs to Timothy. All one can hope is that audiences will embrace Fellow Travelers.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

New York Philharmonic - Tchaikovsky, Salonen & Debussy - 11/11/18

Conductor: Susanna Mälkki 
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 
Baiba Skride: Violin 
Salonen: Helix 
Debussy: La mer: Trois esquisses symphoniques 

Sometimes a new beginning feels more like a fond look back at the past, such as this week, when I started my 2018 performance dance card with my first opera love, Giacomo Puccini and his beloved Tosca, at the Metropolitan Opera last Tuesday night, and 48 hours later, with my first instrumental classical music love, Piotr Tchaikovsky and his beloved violin concerto, right next door at the David Geffen Hall. There’s really not much more I could have hoped for.
On the other hand, things have obviously changed a lot and for the better since those long-gone formative years as on Thursday evening the New York Philharmonic had not one but two unapologetically brilliant women headlining its program with the long-overdue return of Finnish guest conductor Susanna Mälkki and new-to-me-but-clearly-not-to-the-world Latvian violinist Baiba Skride.
My main motivation for attending the concert was the New York premiere of Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Helix”, but I certainly did not mind starting my evening with Tchaikovsky’s dazzling violin concerto and ending it with Claude Debussy’s ground-breaking masterpiece La Mer, the wide-ranging appeal of this line-up being all the more evident at the sight of an impressively filled concert hall for a week night.

Although his famously challenging violin concerto was originally deemed unplayable by no less than esteemed violinist, academic, conductor, composer and legendary teacher Leopold Auer, Tchaikovsky wisely, if rather uncharacteristically, stood his ground and the rest became music history. On Thursday night, Baiba Skride joined countless other violinists in proving that the concerto is definitely playable as long as you have the virtuosic skills needed to pull it off. Her performance was technically confident and emotionally engaging, making sure to discreetly emphasize all those unabashedly lyrical lines with grace and energy. Happily treading on very familiar territory, the orchestra expertly back her up, and a wonderful time was had by all.
Becoming acquainted with a new piece by Esa-Pekka Salonen, now in his last year of his three-year appointment as the Marie-Josée Kravis Composer-in-Residence, is always an exciting event, even if said piece only lasts nine minutes. Described by the composer himself as an “accelerando”, “Helix” uses a large variety of instruments to create one continuous spiral of sounds that will undergo a few intriguing changes in orchestration, but will never lose its sense of purpose. In pure Salonen fashion, this compelling overture was rigorously structured and irresistibly inventive.
The endless possibilities of orchestration were on much wider display with Debussy’s La Mer, which I hadn’t heard in so long that I had almost forgotten what an exhilarating trip it is. Simultaneously aware of the majestic force of the indominable sea as well as mindful of its every movements and colors, Susanna Mälkki drew a downright dynamite performance from the orchestra, which seemed to be itching to show what they could do with such a richly descriptive composition. From tiny exquisite shimmers to formidable splashy waves, that sea was strongly heard, seen and smelled in all its eternal glory right on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and we were all very grateful for it.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Met - Tosca - 01/09/18

Composer: Giacomo Puccini 
Conductor: Emmanuel Villaume 
Director/Producer: David McVicar 
Floria Tosca: Sonya Yoncheva 
Mario Cavaradossi: Vittorio Grigolo 
Baron Scarpia: Zeljko Lucic 

After meteorologically challenging holidays, which mercilessly extended through the Epiphany weekend, but at least provided the perfect excuse for indulging in movie marathons and plenty of hot chocolate, the time came to put uncomfortable sub-zero temperatures and a hyperbolically named but still disruptive “bomb cyclone” behind, and resume attending live performances. Because supporting the performing arts can a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.
It would have been difficult to find a better way to kick off my 2018 musical year than with the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Puccini’s Tosca, which even before its opening night on New Year’s Eve had made headlines multiple times due to its hard-working revolving door relentlessly spinning singers and conductors in and out. But the untenable suspense eventually led to a happy end by way of a scintillating cast including Met regular-in-the-making Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva, new Met regular Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo and confirmed Met regular Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic, who would all sing under the last-minute baton of French conductor Emmanuel Villaume.
Therefore, last Tuesday night, on a lovely winter evening (You know you’ve had it rough when 35 °F feels downright balmy), I was thrilled to have yet another opportunity to revisit the opera that had made me fall in love with the art form in the first place, not to mention to introduce my friend Vy An to it as well. The excitement of this long-awaited outing, complete with pretty awesome orchestra seats, being only tempered by the fact that this Tosca may very well be our last pizza & opera date for a long time.

With three charismatic characters, a straightforward story, an unhappy end, a reasonable length, and plenty of hand-wringing drama and fabulous music, Tosca has all the right ingredients for a memorable night at the opera for neophytes and connoisseurs alike. This is probably the opera I’ve seen the most often, and I keep going back to it for the same reason as everybody else: Knowing full well that I will be inexorably pulled back into its irresistible mix love, sex, religion, revenge, politics, and death one more time, and relish every minute of it.
Sonya Yoncheva had impressed many audience members, including myself, with her confident Violetta last year, and I was thrilled to hear that she would replace Kristine Opolais as the most popular diva of the opera repertoire. I am even more thrilled to report that my sky-high expectations were indisputably met as her naturally plush voice enabled her to deliver some wide-ranging singing that effortlessly went from amorous whispering with her beloved Mario to hair-raising fury with the much-despised Scarpia. Her splendid “Vissi d’arte” started soft and reflective, but she knew exactly when to ramp up the intensity and literally rose to the occasion. She may not have the full weight of an Angela Gheorghiu or Sondra Radvanovsky yet — This will no doubt come with experience — but she threw herself whole-heartedly into the part and has earned her Tosca credentials.
As much as I had enjoyed Jonas Kaufmann as Cavaradossi several years ago, I was ready for a change in leading man and was totally looking forward to seeing what Vittorio Grigolo, whose impetuous Romeo had impressed many audience members including myself, last year, would make of the role. And the verdict is, he smashingly nailed it as long as you like your Cavaradossi youthful, ardent and untamed, which I did. That said, it also must be pointed out that beside his by now signature wild puppy antics, the irrepressibly hot-blooded tenor had no trouble occasionally slowing down to express deeply nuanced emotions to outstanding effect. A case in point would be his genuinely heart-breaking “E lucevan le stelle”, full of tenderness, melancholy and anguish.
As the ruthless chief of police Scarpia, Zeljko Lucic had the daunting honor of stepping into Bryn Terfel’s mighty shoes to impersonate one of those evil characters everybody loves to hate. That also means, of course, that he had a particularly juicy part to play with, and he certainly played it for keeps. His poised demeanor and ominous singing consistently exuded the understated elegance of the born aristocrat and the force tranquille of a powerful man used to getting his own way at any price.
Smaller characters such the desperate escapee Angelotti (Christian Zaremba), the kind-hearted sacristan (Patrick Carfizzi), and the sinister Spoletta (Brenton Ryan) all made lasting impressions while iconic moments such as the glorious “Te Deum” at the end of Act I and the angelic singing of the shepherd boy at the beginning of Act III compellingly came to life.
If the unusual youth of ill-fated lovers was a refreshing change, the production was a determined step back into Zefirellian past. The three sets dutifully displayed the Chiesa di Sant’Andrea della Valle in Act I, the Palazzo Farnese in Act II, and the Castel Sant'Angelo in Act III, all faithfully recreated, beautifully lit, and utterly predictable. The costumes looked very good and the directions did not err much from the norm, except maybe for small details such as the holy water that Cavaradossi generously splashed over his face in Act I as he was frantically trying to help his revolutionary friend on the run and calm down his jealous lover. On the other hand, yes, you may rest assured that Tosca did place two candles around Scarpia’s dead body because that’s just the kind of pious woman she is.
 Regardless of what’s going on on the stage, one sure value of the Metropolitan Opera is its endlessly versatile orchestra, unperturbably playing away in the pit. Although most of the musicians could probably work their way through Tosca from memory by now, their performance was as committed, vibrant and colorful as expected. After Andris Nelsons had pulled out and James Levine had been pulled out, Emmanuel Villaume was called to rescue and boldly stepped in. This third time turned out to be a charm as, on Tuesday night, he seemed to fit in seamlessly, even taking the time to join the audience in applauding the show-stopping arias. Even the maestro agreed, that Tosca was a memorable night at the opera indeed.