Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Met - Adriana Lecouvreur - 01/19/19

Composer: Francesco Celia 
Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda 
Librettist: arturo Colautti 
Producer/Director: Sir David McVicar 
Adriana Lecouvreur: Anna Netrebko 
The Princess of Bouillon: Anita Rachvelishvili 
Maurizio: Piotr Beczala 
Michonnet: Ambrogio Maestri

Last Saturday, once I was done with the dreamlike four and a half hours of a superb Pelléas et Mélisande, followed by three hours of the frenetic, cold but still rain-free outside world, I was back at the Met getting mentally prepared to return to France, albeit through an Italian opera this time. Francesco Celia’s Adriana Lecouvreur was inspired by French tragedienne Adrienne Lecouvreur, who was as famous for her innovative naturalistic acting style as for her many indiscriminating love affairs, tight connections in high places, and mysterious untimely death. In short, hers was a life ready-made for opera.
But as much as I was eager to cross Adriana Lecouvreur off my operas-I-still-have-to-check-out list, I was even more thrilled at the prospect of hearing the international starry cast that had been tapped to perform it, including superstar Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, super-hot Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, ever-reliable Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, and irresistible Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri. An ensemble of singers so exceptional that this new production was premiered at the Met’s glittery New Year’s Eve gala. Add to that a bunch of raving reviews, and we had a packed opera house on Saturday evening. 

Lately my mom has been checking out the Met productions on my calendar ahead of me from France via the HD broadcasts. Although her very traditional tastes do not always line up with mine (Do female singers still need to wear such puffy dresses?), we tend to agree on the quality of the singing. In the case of Adriana Lecouvreur, her feedback had been superlative in all regards, including the production and the opera itself, which according to her had all the right ingredients to be a classic. Now my turn had finally come.
It is probably a safe bet to assume that these days Anna Netrebko and her sky-high level of bankability can ask pretty much everything she wants from opera houses and get it. And it is to her credit that, instead of relying on her impressive laurels, she has been steadily expanding her repertoire and tackling exciting new parts every season. With that in mind, it only made sense that she would come across Adriana Lecouvreur and grab it sooner than later, the role of a passionate artist living for her art and her lover being too juicy for her to pass on.
And on Saturday night it did, in fact, fit her like a glove. Clad in elaborate period costume that perfectly emphasized her luscious curves, she put her trademark charisma, irrepressible energy and innate sense of theatricality to the best possible use as the actress who is always in control of her craft, but not so much of her life. Her voice was as intensely gorgeous as ever, and those long lines of hers have remained an absolute marvel to behold. Let’s face it, the woman could win any breathing contest far ahead of the competition, and while maintaining her impeccable glamour too.
Her mighty rival for Maurizio’s heart and, incidentally, sheer lung power, was newcomer who is definitely here to stay Anita Rachvelishvili. Opera aficionados are still talking about their blazing confrontation in Aida on that same stage last fall, but it now pales compared to the all-out glorious cat fight they got into on Saturday night. That said, Rachvelishvili was a force of nature to beckon with even when she was alone. Despite some occasionally touching signs of insecurity, this willful princess was not be denied, and she sure knew how to get her point across.
In between those two commanding women stood the man they were fighting their heart out over, the dashing Maurizio, Count of Saxony, who was splendidly portrayed by Piotr Beczala, all convincing cunning with just the right touch of romanticism. In outstanding singing shape, his voice easily going up and down at will, he spent the evening hard at work trying to sort out his personal and professional life.
In the smaller but most endearing role of Michonnet, the paternal stage manager desperately in love with Adriana, Ambrogio Maestri and his booming voice were all-around terrific, whether he was authoritatively trying to keep stage hands and artists under control or awkwardly trying to express his feelings to the object of his affection.
Adriana Lecouvreur takes place in the theater milieu, right where art and politics intersect and mingle, and in David McVicar’s safe hands, all the world was a stage indeed. Adroitly using dressing rooms, stage wings and a temporary stage set up in a private villa, he successfully created a wildly entertaining environment where play and reality, mistaken identities and intrigues, all mixed together. The sets were unquestionably attractive, the costumes downright lavish, and at times the mood seemed to interestingly verge on genuine camp.
The sustained pace and the ever-evolving plot were supported by a sumptuously lyrical score that kept on coming up with pretty melodies, show-stopping arias, as well as moments of gripping drama, quieter introspectiveness and unbearable suspense. It was the perfect vehicle for the stupendous singers we had on the stage, and they all happily delved into it. Not to be outdone, the MET orchestra delivered another outstanding performance under maestro Noseda’s energetic baton.
It turned out that my seatmate to the right had also been at the matinee of Pelléas et Mélisande that day too, but, unlike me, she had found it “slow and dreary”. She was, however, absolutely delighted by the big colors, big voices and big emotions of Adriana Lecouvreur. And this time, I totally agreed.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Met - Pelléas et Mélisande - 01/19/19

Composer: Claude Debussy 
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin 
Librettist: Maurice Maeterlinck 
Producer/Director: Sir Jonathan Miller 
Mélisande: Isabel Leonard 
Pelléas: Paul Appleby 
Golaud: Kyle Ketelsen 
Arkel: Ferruccio Furlanetto 
Geneviève: Marie-Nicole Lemieux 

In my “Can one get too much of a good thing?” series, I was up for another challenge last Saturday at the Met with the exciting yet daunting double bill from 1902 consisting of a warhorse of French impressionism in Pelléas et Mélisande in the afternoon and a curiosity of faux Italian verismo in Adriana Lecouvreur in the evening. Although I had tried to work my way around it, a combination of semi-procrastination, conflicting schedules and plain old bad timing made this overabundance of an admittedly excellent thing unavoidable. Since I was determined not to miss either production, I tried to be proactive and completely cleared my social schedule for the week, dutifully took my vitamins, and fervently prayed that the forecast snowstorm would not mess everything up.
My Met marathon would start at 12:30 PM with a new production of Claude Debussy’s one and only opera, Pelléas et Mélisande. But then again, when you hit the bull’s eye the first time around, where do you go from there? Beside the fact that I would finally be able to cross it off my operas-I-still-need-to-check-out list, I was also particularly looking forward to hearing again the young, attractive and prodigiously talented Paul Appleby and Isabel Leonard, not to mention enjoying the fabulous skills of  the Met’s freshly appointed and already riding high music director, maestro Nézet-Séguin.
That said, life can be just as suspenseful as an opera sometimes. Once we had figured that the expected snowstorm would probably only be pouring rain (Whew!) and were settling in our seats mightily relieved, a Met employee walked onstage with a mike, which is rarely good news. She, however, just wanted to let the packed audience know that the two male leads, Paul Appleby and Kyle Ketelsen, had been suffering from colds all week and were asking for our indulgence. Whew again!

Pelléas et Mélisande could just revolve around another ill-fated love triangle, of with some participants would eventually die because this is an opera and somebody’s gotta die at the end. But back in the days, Debussy’s ground-breaking score set his “lyrical drama” apart from the competition, and over a century later, it still does. And what competition! Beside Adriana Lecouvreur, the lucky audience of the early 20th century was around to attend the premieres of, among others, Puccini’s Tosca, Dvorak’s Rusalka and Verdi’s Rigoletto. Opera is such a small, and yet wide-ranging, world after all.
As the mysteriously troubled young woman whose unexplained appearance kick-starts the story, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard was a lovely Mélisande. Intelligently showing aching vulnerability, inner pains and a more surprising willfulness, she was not just the passively unhappy heroine she could have easily become. Although we never got to know much about Mélisande, Leonard realized a complex character through her nuanced singing and acting, fully fitting in Debussy’s eerie world.
Her Pelléas was tenor Paul Appleby, who after sounding a bit cautious quickly turned into the sweet and impulsive young man he was supposed to be. If his overwhelming love for Mélisande was not displayed with passionate arias and gestures, the touching scene underneath her window as he was playing with her hair as well as his furtive “Je t’aime” during their last encounter were in their own way tremendously more expressive than louder statements.
Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen made a note-worthy impression as Golaud, husband of Mélisande and older half-brother of Pelléas. Physically strong and emotionally primitive, he grew increasingly frustrated at his inability to get close to his wife and overwhelmingly jealous at the sight of her powerful and reciprocated attraction to Pelléas to the point of eventually committing a reckless crime. Despite the early warning about his health, Ketelsen was in superb vocal shape and remained strong throughout the performance.
To the young American cast was added Italian bass extraordinaire Ferruccio Furlanetto, who had stunned me as King Phillip II in Don Carlo several years ago. Here again, he was simply magnificent as Arkel, the wise and weary old king whose near blindness does not keep from seeing and understanding the power of fate. Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux brought dignity and kindness to the small but essential role of Geneviève, the mother of Golaud and Pelléas. Boy soprano A. Jesse Schopflocher brought an endearing touch of childhood innocence as Yniold, Golaud’s young son.
In the opera canon Pelléas et Mélisande stands on its own not only for its bold and unique score, but also for its barely there story and omnipresent symbolism. The background of the characters is often partly known at best, and the narrative kind of moves along through self-contained vignettes that, like the conversations among the various characters, do not always seamlessly flow. Nevertheless, these challenges were handled convincingly by not only a committed cast, but a versatile minimalist set, whose haunting elegance defied time and place.
In many ways, Debussy’s music is the star of the opera. At times cryptic to a fault, but also subtly mesmerizing, the score does not try to define the story and the characters through logical plot lines or compositional conventions, but rather through atmospheres and emotions described by music, in particular exotic scales and unusual harmonies, and poetry, by way of unanswered questions and detached statements. The end result creates a whole dreamlike world that is not necessarily coherent, but is likely to fascinate whoever makes the effort to step into it.
The Met orchestra being a world-class ensemble, there was no doubt in my mind that it could literally face the music and make it its own. It could have hardly found a better conductor for that than Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who did a terrific job at detailing the colors’ transparent hues and creating spellbinding atmospheres, the overall somber tone only making the eruptions of the few dramatic moments even more intense.
The unusual experience had been long and slow, and quite a few audience members gave up during the first and the second intermissions, but for those of us who remained, it had been memorable too.
One down, one more to go.

Monday, January 7, 2019

New York Philharmonic - Dvorak, Sibelius & Ravel - 01/03/19

Conductor: Paavo Järvi 
Dvorak: Cello Concerto 
Gautier Capuçon: Cello 
Sibelius: Lemminkainen and the Maidens of the Island Ravel: 
Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2 

After wrapping up my musical year with a reasonably satisfying Traviata at the Met on Saturday night, I was back at Lincoln Center on Thursday night to start my new musical year at David Geffen Hall with the New York Philharmonic and their special guest, who also was my main reason for being there in the first place, French cellist Gautier Capuçon. Of course, the fact that he would be playing Dvorak’s hyper-popular cello concerto did not hurt either.
Additionally, this concert would have been a good opportunity to support one of the very few female conductors in the business, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, in her New York Philharmonic debut, but this was ultimately not meant to be as she had to postpone her engagement due to maternity leave. Fortunately for us, eminent conductor Paavo Järvi gentlemanly stepped in for what seemed to be a promising kick-off of 2019 at the Philharmonic.

One of the most dashing young musicians on today’s classical music scene, especially when he shows up in his signature tailcoat outfit, Gautier Capuçon is also a serious and talented, and seriously talented, artist whose pristine reputation has been earning him prestigious engagements worldwide. As it should, after an appearance at Carnegie Hall last season, he was gracing the stage of David Geffen Hall with the New York Philharmonic last Thursday evening for Dvorak’s magnificent cello concerto.
I may not be one of the biggest fans of Dvorak’s œuvre, but I have to admit that his cello concerto and his ninth symphony totally deserve the adoration they have been enjoying all these years. Written in New York City after lots of misgivings on the part of the composer, the grandly Romantic, superbly lyrical the cello concerto adroitly combines classical elegance and folk music rowdiness. In the virtuosic hands of Capuçon, it unfolded with force and panache, solidifying my view of the cello as one of the sexiest instruments around.
The ovation was long and enthusiastic, and earned us an exciting encore in a fun little march by Prokofiev. Quite a drastic departure from the lushness of Dvorak, and a masterfully executed one too.
It is rare that the second half of a program is less of a crowd-pleaser than the first half, but it did not seem to bother anybody, and the almost capacity audience gamely stayed put. That was a smart move because the four tone poems making up Sibelius’ Lemminkainen and the Maidens of the Island turned out to be a not-to-be-missed component of the composer’s œuvre, of which I am one of the biggest fans. Dark colors and supple rhythms clearly and beautifully unfolded, bringing the mermaids and the landscape to vivid life.
Sibelius’ deeply atmospheric 15-minute Finnish work was quickly followed by Ravel’s deeply atmospheric 15-minute French work Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2, which consists of the last three movements of the superbly impressionistic ballet score by the same name that drew inspiration from a drama from the Greek poet Longus to describe the incomparable joys of nature and love. Even though it was regrettably performed sans the optional chorus, the appealing set was another undisputed success as the audience indulged as much as possible for as long as it lasted in Ravel’s voluptuous world. And that was very good indeed.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Met - La Traviata - 12/29/18

Composer: Giuseppe Verdi 
Conductor: Yannick Nézet-Séguin 
Librettist: Francesco Maria Piave 
Director/Producer: Michael Mayer 
Diane Damrau: Violetta Valéry 
Juan Diego Florez: Alfredo Germont 
Quinn Quelsey: Giorgio Germont 

When my Barcelona-based friend and fellow opera buff Nicole announced that she would be coming back to the U.S. for the holidays, we quickly planned to have her spend one night at my place, and then just as quickly started wrecking our brains looking for something memorable to do. Unsurprisingly, it did not take long for her to find the perfect treat that would not only have nothing to do with the holidays, but also was a long-time favorite of ours: La Traviata.
Fact is, I have seen it quite a few times and she has seen it countless times. But then again, Verdi’s musical treatment of Alexandre Dumas fils’ semi-autobiographical novel La Dame aux Camélias, which was itself based on the author’s short liaison with the French courtesan Marie Duplessis, is one of those gifts that keeps on giving, and we were more than ready for another round of it.
Of course, knowing that Diane Damrau and Juan Diego Florez, two of the brightest stars in the opera world today, would sing the parts of the ill-fated couple made the offer even more attractive. I was particularly thrilled at the thought of having an opportunity to hear Florez as he most of the time sings in fluffy operas that I simply cannot bring myself to go check out, even for him.
However, a couple of days before the day, my other opera buff buddy Steve made my heart sink when he casually mentioned that Florez had just had to cancel one performance. Luckily though, on Saturday night no dreaded insert was found in our programs, and no last-minute announcement was made from the stage. Dire disappointment had been closely averted for us, and possibly some connoisseurs in the hordes of  international visitors that were packing the house.

As with most masterpieces, La Traviata allows for countless possible adaptations. One of the most dazzling ones I have ever seen was Willy Decker’s still fairly recent extraordinarily bold and resolutely modern take on it. This season, the fact that my own mother very much enjoyed the HD screening of the Met’s new production by Michael Mayer a couple of weeks earlier could only mean one thing, that it would be traditional. Oh well, one cannot win every time.
One of the opera canon’s most formidable parts ― and there are quite a few of those to choose from ― Violetta is an extended obstacle course for any singer intrepid enough to tackle it. When it is done well though, the result is absolutely trilling. German soprano Diane Damrau being the consummate professional we all know and love, I was confident that her Violetta would at least be satisfying. And sure enough, although she is not a natural Verdi singer, she whole-heartedly threw herself into the emotionally and technically taxing part, and readily conquered it.
Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez is also famous for his unequalled bel canto singing, so here again there was some queasiness on my part at the thought of him stepping into heavier Verdian territory. But it soon became clear that this was a carefully calibrated career move as he judiciously managed his impressive vocal resources, in addition to his natural charisma, boundless energy and easy chemistry with Damrau. Admittedly he’s more comfortable when flying high into the upper range, but those limitations were easily overlooked as he confidently shaped his Alfredo into a totally engaging character.
To us the wild card in the otherwise starry cast was American baritone Quinn Quelsey in the smaller but pivotal role of Giorgio Germont. However, my uncertainty was quickly put to rest when I heard his handsomely burnished voice and poised singing. His big scene with Violetta in Act II, in which he appeared not only as her lover’s disapproving bourgeois father, but also as the embodiment of the hypocritical society he belongs to, was one of the highlights of the evening, his understated sternness standing in stark contrast to her penetrating anguish.
The rest of the cast fulfilled their parts most efficiently, and the ever-reliable Met chorus got to shine as bright as ever, all of those various voices mightily contributing to making our evening at the opera a total musical success.
Since my expectations were cautiously low, the production ended up being a reasonably good surprise. I even found that having Violetta dying in her bed in the prologue and then turn the rest of the opera into memories of the past before coming back full circle to her last moments was a defendable idea after all. On the other hand, the essentially unchanging set and some misguided directing choices, such a Germont père’s daughter showing up (?!), were much less effective.
The staging had some effortlessly attractive elements going for it though, even if the extravagant combination of the endlessly intricate details of the rococo-style decor and the vivid colors of the costumes straight out of Disneyland could be a bit much. As if to briefly shake up all those over-the-top but fundamentally conventional visuals, the semi-clad dancers of the ballet sequence added a bit of PG-13 decadence to the generally safe proceedings.
But no matter what is happening on the stage, the magnificent score never fails to deliver, especially when it is played by a crack orchestra like The Met. This Traviata was the first conducting gig of Yannick Nézet-Séguin as the Met’s new music director, and while I had no doubt that we were in excellent hands, the deftly paced, beautifully nuanced, and emotionally gripping performance he drew all night from the orchestra easily exceeded my already sky-high expectations, and I am beyond excited thinking about what he has in store for the Met in the future. May the force stay with him!