Sunday, October 14, 2018

Met - Samson et Dalila - 10/09/18

Composer: Camille Saint-Saëns 
Librettist: Ferdinand Lemaire 
Conductor: Sir Mark Elder 
Producer/Director: Darko Tresnjak 
Samson: Roberto Alagna 
Dalila: Elina Garanca 
The High Priest of Dagon: Laurent Naouri 

Some opera memories are of course more vivid than others, and one of my best times at the Met is still the incandescent pairing of French tenor Roberto Alagna and Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca in Carmen, back in 2009. Therefore, I was understandably very eager to repeat the experience this season with Camille Saint- Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, and to add another opera under my belt at the same time.
A certified child prodigy who became a prodigious pianist and organist, as well as a staunch supporter of young artists, the French composer was not known for dwelling on emotions too much. A born perfectionist, he unquestionably mastered his craft but did not carry his heart on his sleeve, which makes his foray into opera, an art essentially made of larger-than-life emotions, all the more interesting. Samson et Dalila, which deals with big time religion, politics and sentiments, seems like an odd choice for him, but then again, you don’t know until you try it.
So that's what I did last Tuesday night at the Met, on an unseasonably warn evening, in a not quite full house.

Among all the biblical stories, Saint-Saëns had picked the haircut that resounded around the world – or at least would eventually bring down the Philistines’ temple – to originally make an oratorio out of it, until his librettist Ferdinand Lemaire persuaded him to turn it into an opera that is. And since this was happening in end-of-the-century France, the end product came out as a grand opera that featured two extended dance sequences, a decadent bacchanal and a sure-fire hit for mezzo-sopranos.
This fall the mezzo-soprano in charge is Elina Garanca, whose singing is as well-known for its surgical precision as for its underlying coolness. However, she did not let this aura of mystery of hers make her Dalila indifferent, just naturally poised and undoubtedly conniving. And if it was not always easy to figure out what her true feelings toward Samson were, she still sang the hell out of the seduction scene in Act II, including the much celebrated “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix”. And all our hearts, including Samson's, did in fact open to her voice. Incidentally, she also has to be given credit for looking impossibly glamorous in the gaudiest outfits.
The yang to her yin was tenor Roberto Alagna, who never stopped singing his heart out, whether he was trying to raise his fellow Hebrews’ spirits or to resist Dalila’s compelling charms. Alagna always seems most comfortable with hot-blooded characters that are going through vertiginous highs and bottomless lows, and on Tuesday night, his Samson, whether the fearless leader, the hopeless lover or the remorseful traitor, was dramatically and vocally intense.
The third wheel, which turned out to be one of the true stars of the evening, was French bass-baritone Laurent Naouri who gave an imperturbably commanding performance in the smaller role of the High Priest of Dagon. His scene with Dalila in Act II, in particular, as they are plotting Samson’s demise, was a real treat.
Unsurprisingly, another shining star was the Met’s chorus, who brought their superior skills flawlessly together to create wonderfully nuanced crowd scenes, especially making Act I come alive with gripping fervor and Act III explode with orgiastic decadence.
Although Samson et Dalila can be a frustratingly static opera to begin with, a setting in biblical times – Gaza in 1150 BCE, to be precise – still has the potential to set imaginative minds on fire. But, beside a few flashes of creativity, that was not much the case for this production. The costumes, for example, were downright predictable, such as drab-looking rags for the enslaved Hebrews as opposed to glitzy get-ups and half-naked bodies for the Philistines. At least the two teams were easy to tell apart.
Truth be told, some ideas had their merit, such as leaving the Islamic art-patterned, metal-looking curtain down for a few minutes into the opera smartly concretized the confinement of the Hebrews, who then appeared at the bottom of the stage while the Philistines looked down at them from above. On the other hand, at some point, the young guy behind me was wondering aloud where Dalila’s “spaceship dungeon” of a home was supposed to be located, and I had no answer. In Act III, in a sharp study of contrast, the much-awaited bacchanal was vividly colorful and tremendously agitated while the collapse of the pagan temple was cleverly symbolized.
Saint-Saëns’ score is rigorously structured and dutifully runs the gamut from crass to romantic to spiritual, strongly establishing the laudable piety of the Hebrews and the shameless debauchery of the Philistines. Even in the most forceful moments, the orchestra never covered the singers, all the better to hear the carefully crafted parts they had been assigned. As conducted by the estimable Sir Mark Elder, the flamboyant kitsch was all on the stage and the understated efficiency was all in the pit. And that worked out.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

New York Philharmonic - Andriessen, Stravinsky & Debussy - 10/06/18

Conductor: Jaap van Zweden 
Andriessen: Agamemnon 
Stravinsky: Violin Concerto in D 
Leila Josefowicz: Violin 
Stravinsky: Symphonies of Wind Instruments 
Debussy: La Mer: Trois esquisses symphoniques 

I had to wait over eight agonizingly long years before hearing Igor Stravinsky’s idiosyncratic little violin concerto live again, but since patience is apparently a virtue with priceless rewards, last week I got abundantly rewarded when I serendipitously got to hear it not only once, but twice. And by no less than Leonidas Kavakos with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night, and then Leila Josefowicz with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Davis Geffen Hall on Saturday night. And suddenly, all was well in the world again (and that takes a lot these days).
So I had to suck up my contempt for going out on a Saturday night one more time, and happily headed down to Lincoln Center for my big New York Philharmonic season-opening performance (Yes, that was that kind of a week). As a substantial bonus, the program also included La Mer, the stunning orchestral work by Stravinsky’s colleague and friend Claude Debussy. Even better, I found one of those mysterious little envelopes filled with goodies welcoming returning subscribers on my seat in a happily buzzing concert hall. 

As if van Zweden, the New York Phil’s new artistic director, wanted to assert his dedication to bringing new works to music-loving New Yorkers, the program started with Agamemnon, a composition by Dutch composer Louis Andriessen that had been commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and was having its world premiere last week. Inspired by Greek mythology, the tone poem combined resounding war-like chaos with a little help from an electric guitar, an electric bass, and a discernably jazz influence. There were a lot of conflicts going on among the several characters until the finale, when Kassandra suddenly got up and spoke a few lines while maestro van Zweden was keeping the orchestra under quiet tension. And that was that.
Although an in-depth comparative study between Leonidas Kavakos’ and Leila Josefowicz’ performances of Stravinsky’s violin concerto almost seemed inevitable, it would also have been an exercise in futility, both of them being artists well-known for their outstanding musicianship and insatiable spirit of adventure. It was kind of unfair to Josefowicz too, since Kavakos would benefit from the vastly superior acoustics of Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium, and consequently sound better by default. But then again, life is not always fair.
Stravinsky famously used his lack of knowledge about the violin and his close friendship with American violinist Samuel Dushkin to come up with a piece that did not heed the conventional limits of violin playing, but instead boasted a constant stream on inventiveness that seduces nowadays more than ever. In the end, after all had been said, done and played, I am happy to confirm that, with a firm grasp on the feisty score and a tight connection with the superb orchestras accompanying them, both soloists delivered tremendously exciting performances. Now all I can hope for is not to have to wait another eight years before hearing it again.
After intermission we got more Stravinsky, and of the more unusual kind too, with his Symphonies of Wind Instruments, an ironically string-less composition made for woodwind and brass instruments. Dedicated to the memory of his friend Debussy, the 10-minute, one-movement piece came out somber and respectful.
And then, logically enough, we moved on to Debussy himself by way of La Mer, one of his most remarkable and popular works, never mind its inauspicious debut. Although the composer did not care for the real thing and routinely stayed away from large bodies of water, preferring drawing inspiration from visual representations of them, he nevertheless created a richly evocative composition that the New York Philharmonic beautifully brought to vivid life with radiant colors, powerful winds, splashy waves and a big bad storm. In fact, while listening to such a powerfully eloquent depiction of the sea, one almost does not need the real thing.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

San Francisco Symphony - All-Stravinsky - 10/04/18

Conductor: Michael Tilson Thomas 
Stravinsky: Pétrouchka (Petrushka) 
Stravinsky: Violin Concerto in D Major 
Leonidas Kavakos: Violin 
Stravinsky: Le sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) 

After my big Met season-opening performance of Aida with Anna Netrebko on Tuesday night, I was getting ready for my big Carnegie Hall season-opening performance by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, their long-time music director and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and their guest soloist violinist Leonidas Kavakos for an all-Stravinsky program on Thursday night.
Hearing Stravinsky’s music is always a thrill to me, and Le sacre du printemps has to be one of my all-time favorites from the entire classical music repertoire. That said, I was equally thrilled for a long-overdue other opportunity to hear his electrifying violin concerto again. I had the privilege of hearing it twice, performed both times by Gil Shaham, back in Washington, D.C. years ago, and haven’t been able to find it on any concert programs until last spring, when the Carnegie Hall’s 2018-1019 season catalog appeared in my mailbox and quickly made my day.
So it was with great expectations that I made my way to the bustling Stern Auditorium, where I found what seemed like a lot of the same staunchly patriotic Russian population that I had found myself among on Tuesday night. Those Russian know a good thing when they see it.

Among Igor Stravinsky’s many works, I can’t say that Pétrouchka stands out for me, maybe because I have never cared for puppets and their misadventures. On the other hand, I can still appreciate the score’s refreshing inventiveness, and when it is played by a well-oiled ensemble like the San Francisco Symphony, it is hard not to be carried away by the whole thing. And I eventually was.
Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto, on the other hand, had grabbed me the first time I heard its recurring dissonant “passport” chord followed by a cascade of idiosyncratically spirited music. And that was only the first movement of a piece whose unexpected twists and turns kept me on my toes the entire time, and left me eager to repeat the experience as often as possible. That proved to be more difficult than I had thought.
But my patience was mightily rewarded when at long last the magic operated flawlessly again on Thursday night with Leonidas Kavakos, who spontaneously made the quirky little concerto his own with his trademark virtuosity. Among many other things, you simply had to love the Baroque hints and asymmetrical rhythms of the composition, and the right balance between warmth and causticity of the performance. Although I remembered the concerto’s pulsating playfulness most vividly, this time I was struck by the introspectiveness lyricism of its two slower Aria movements. The work only lasts slightly over 20 minutes, but it kept soloist and orchestra constantly busy going through Stravinsky’s seemingly bottomless bag of tricks for a totally exhilarating performance.
After a well-earned enthusiastic ovation, Kavakos came back and treated us to a gritty Adagietto from the Sonata for Solo Violin by Second Viennese School’s member Nikos Salkottas, adding an unmistakable Greek touch to our Russian neo-classical evening.
After intermission came the prodigious Sacre du printemps, which I can never hear enough either. Its riotous Paris premiere, which was probably caused as much by Diaghilev’s avant-garde choreography as by the revolutionary nature of the Stravinsky’s score, may have made it famous for the wrong reason, but there’s no doubt that its own artistic merit would have guaranteed it a prime spot in the classical music canon regardless. An unambiguous ode to the “mystery and great surge of the creative power of spring” and a discreet homage to Eastern European folk music overflowing with experiments in tonality, meter, rhythm, stress and dissonance, it remains a unique work that still sounds as fresh and innovative today as it did back in 1913.
There’s probably not much, if anything, that the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and MTT cannot handle, and sure enough, they gave a brilliant performance of it, deftly using their technically advanced skills to compellingly evoke primal rituals with mysteriously foreboding percussion, brightly ringing brass, strongly confident winds, and of course, the organically sinuous and a little unnerving bassoon. For all its wild ferocity and sonic eeriness, this Sacre also featured superbly polished harmonies in the quieter moments, proving once and for all that far from being mutually exclusive, primitiveness and refinement can make beautiful music together.

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Met - Aida - 10/02/18

Composer: Giacomo Puccini 
Librettist: Antonio Ghislanzoni 
Conductor: Nicola Luisotti 
Producer/Director: Sonja Frisell 
Aida: Anna Netrebko
Amneris: Anita Rachvelishvili  
Radamès: Aleksandrs Antonenko 
Quinn Kelsey: Amonasro 
Ryan Speedo Green: Egyptian king 

Sometimes the third time is the charm, and that’s what I was dearly hoping for when I bought my ticket for yet another go at Aida back last summer. After a lackluster first experience in Washington, D.C. eons ago and a humdrum one at the Met a couple of years ago, I was still waiting to hear Aida the way it is supposed to be heard. Luckily for me, this season the Met booked the world's premier soprano and indomitable force of nature Anna Netrebko, by all accounts the living opposite of lackluster and humdrum, which made me think that she could be not only the one breaking the curse, and also provide a resounding kick-off to my 2018-2019 Met season.
Even if Aida has enjoyed an enduring popularity since it first came out, it has never appealed to me the way other operas by Verdi have. But again, hearing the ill-fated love triangle fiercely battle it out amidst political conflicts is never all bad. And a lot of people, including the apparently entire Russian population of New York City, were obviously thinking the same thing as the Met’s opera house was literally packed to the rafters, including the standing room patrons who had to stand the whole time, on a (Gasp!) Tuesday night. 

Originally commissioned for the opening of Cairo’s Royal Opera House, Aida was delayed by the Franco-Prussian War, but still eventually had its world premiere there in 1871. It is generally considered a good introduction to opera because the plot is easy to follow, the music is thrilling, and it is not overly long. Add to that the exotic setting of ancient Egypt, and you have a certified hit, especially when you have the right cast. And we sure came pretty damn close on Tuesday.
Over the past few years opera superstar Anna Netrebko has been mindfully moving away from the lighter roles that made her famous to venture successfully into (vocally and psychologically) darker territories. And sure enough, she whole-heartedly threw herself into the exciting new part of the deeply conflicted enslaved princess and delivered a fully controlled, dynamite performance that kept the happily enthralled audience on their toes the entire evening. Following her by now well-honed M.O., she made the most of her magnetic stage presence and her constantly evolving, more nuanced than ever, magnificent voice, and if her signature impossibly long, delectably voluptuous lines were not always crystal clear, they certainly unfolded gorgeously.
Her worthy rival was sensational Anita Rachvelishvili, who turned out to be a remarkably strong yet still achingly vulnerable Amneris. Making the thankless role of the ruthlessly scheming trouble-maker engaging is no small task, but the Georgian mezzo-soprano was totally up for it with a wonderfully wide-ranging and expressive voice, solid acting chops and plenty of charisma of her own. The confrontation scene between the two women was one of the highlights of the evening, bristling with tension and anxiety.
As military hero and romantic lead, Radamès was impersonated by tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko, who, among other things, faced the daunting challenge of belting out one of opera’s most beloved arias a few minutes into the performance. His “Celeste Aida” went well, and he managed to hold more or less his own against the two fired-up ladies fighting for his attention. My main quibble is that while his singing had all the steady power required for the part, his lyrical side sometimes had trouble coming through.
The Met chorus was as fabulous as usual, especially in the Triumphal March scene, to which they vividly breathed much needed new life, and smaller but key roles such as Amonasro, Aida’s father, and the Egyptian king were more than capably filled by respectively baritone Quinn Kelsey and bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green.
Sonja Frisell’s squarely old-fashioned production, featuring huge pharaoh’s statues, quiet sandy landscapes, bare-chested troops and fake tans, has been regularly used for the past three decades now, and although its indisputable grandeur makes up to some degree for its lack of inspiration, it is high time to retire it. Piling up a bunch of monumental set pieces and moving a lot of people on a stage may be visually arresting, but it takes more than that to make a production truly memorable. Even the much talked-about live horses of the victory parade made it clear that they could not wait to get out of there.
The Met orchestra musicians can probably play Verdi’s sumptuous score in their sleep by now, but they were nevertheless wide awake on Tuesday as conducted by Nicola Luisotti and gave it richly colorful reading. The arias had space and time to blossom, the dramatic moments came out truly genuinely gripping, and the pace was nicely kept (The final curtain dropped just 10 minutes after the scheduled time).
Bottom line is, Anna Netrebko and Anita Rachvelishvili made it all worth it, and all we need now is a new production for it

Friday, October 5, 2018

Teatro Grattacielo - Gloria - 09/29/18

Composer: Francesco Cilea 
Librettist: Arturo Colautti 
Conductor: Israel Gursky 
Kerri Marcinko: Gloria 
Wesley Morgan: Lionetto de Ricci 
John Robert Green: Bardo 
Mikhail Svetlov: Aquilante 
Chorus: Cantori New York 
The Teatro Grattacielo Orchestra 

Just as my 2018-2019 music season is slowly but nicely warming up, Teatro Grattacielo, the feisty little opera company that shall not be denied, managed to dig out another barely-known and yet worth-knowing work in Francesco Cilea’s little verismo jewel Gloria, and presented its New York premiere last Saturday night. While the plot, which revolves around a doomed love story à la Romeo and Juliet in 16th century Siena, is not terribly imaginative (who needs another pair of star-crossed lovers?), it still had the potential to yield plenty of good drama and good music.
Since I like to think of myself as a staunch supporter of out-of-the-box endeavors, I decided to put aside my physical and mental exhaustion after a long day of labor with a stubborn cold, not to mention my general disdain of going out on a Saturday night, and headed down to the Gerald Lynch Theater to check out this mysterious Gloria in concert last weekend, on what was an appropriately glorious fall evening.

There’s little doubt that Teatro Grattacielo operates with very limited means, but that does not stop them for coming through for their audience. Therefore, if there were no surtitles over the stage, a complete bilingual libretto was provided inside the program. And if a staged production was out of reach, some pretty impressive talents had been booked for that one and only performance regardless.
As the female protagonist torn between her brother and her lover, soprano Kerri Marcinko was an endearing Gloria, whose naturally beautiful voice helped her expertly turn from sweet young girl to fiercely passionate woman who does not hesitate to make the ultimate sacrifice to be reunited with the man she cannot live without. This Gloria constantly had a lot on her mind, but she stayed true to herself until the very end.
Her Lionetto was more than capably impersonated by tenor Wesley Morgan, who did not let his almost non-existent rehearsal time get in the way of delivering a solid and engaging performance. Lionetto may not be the perfect son-in-law (That kind of went out of the window when he abducted the daughter of one of the town's noblemen), but his genuine love for Gloria, as well as his sincerity and courage, are to be commended, and Morgan made sure that those laudable traits came through.
Every love story needs a villain, who will try by any means necessary to keep the two lovers apart, and on Saturday night baritone John Robert Green did a wonderful job at being the bad guy who will stop at nothing to get his revenge. Among many highlights, his extended volcanic duet with his sister in the second act certainly brought out the best of them. As his father Aquilante, bass Mikhail Svetlov made a lasting impression in his smaller part.
The expanded Cantori New York choir had a swell time creating a lively crowd of busybodies right from the start as they opened the opera with a bright celebration of the joys of spring and the symbolic nature of the fountain, giving the story context, depth and energy.
In true verismo tradition, Cilea's Gloria boasts a richly colorful, intensely lyrical score, complete with quite a few attractive arias, and the large orchestra, including a harp and a harmonium, gave it their all under the attentive baton of maestro Gursky. Not a bad way to spend a Saturday night after all.