Die Walküre in HD from the Metropolitan Opera

Richard Wagner’s mighty four opera saga of Der Ring des Nibelungen is performed at the Metropolitan Opera this season. Below is my short preview of the Ring…well, ‘short’ to the best of my ability to be short…with a focus on Die Walküre, the only opera of the Ring to be telecast in HD this season. It’s the matinee performance of Saturday, March 30; coincidentally, this Walküre is part of Ring Cycle I: a subscription series of four matinees spaced across the weeks in March and April. Two other subscription Ring Cycles are scheduled toward the end of the season, late April and early May, as well as a few single performances of Die Walküre and Das Rheingold. As these singles are not part of a subscription to a complete cycle, remaining seats of these and probably performances in the complete cycles are available at the box office. Dates of all performances are given below.

Wotan’s Farewell to his favorite daughter from  The Victor Book of the Opera

Wotan’s Farewell to his favorite daughter from The Victor Book of the Opera

For first time Ringers, Die Walküre is the second opera of the Ring, the first being Das Rheingold (The Gold of the Rhine), an epic Prologue in one act. Die Walküre (The Valkyrie, in three Acts) is next, of course, after which is the heroic Siegfried (in three Acts) and finally Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods, in a prologue and three Acts), this last one wrapping the whole thing around, ending with hope for anyone who’s left after the catastrophic finale.

Fan, beware: one doesn’t simply walk into Die Walküre. Below are some thoughts to aid your approach and immersion.

Wagner chose to make the tale told in each opera take place over the course of more or less a single day.* In other words, there are no lulls in the flow of the dramatic narrative, like “several years have passed between Acts I and II.” In this way, the dramatic momentum on stage each evening is enhanced: the pressure of real time affects the pace of the characters’ decisions and actions as much as it affects your decisions about catching the train home. In Die Walküre, Siegmund and Sieglinde’s flight, which ends Act I, is ongoing in the music when Act II begins. Listen to this on recordings without a pause between the tracks. Then, save for the time of travel via Grane, Brünnhilde’s flying Valkyrie steed, the time for Acts II and III approximates the real time on stage. If you experience each moment in the Ring as such, it heightens the tension of the drama.

This said, however, at least a generation separates the end of Das Rheingold from the beginning of Die Walküre. A lot of stuff happening, we’ll soon learn. There is also a generation between Die Walküre and Siegfried, the third opera. Through the magic of the Tarnhelm, Fafner, formerly a Giant in Das Rheingold, is now a large dragon who guards the Nibelung’s treasure. Sieglinde, Siegmund’s bride (the heroic couple in Die Walküre), had died giving birth to Siegfried (thankfully not shown on stage) and the lad, his origins a mystery to him, has grown up under the ‘care’ of the treacherous Mime, whom we’ve met already in Rheingold. We witness empirical evidence of young Siegfried’s innocence, strength and heroism: in Act I, with his intuitive smithy skills, he repairs his father’s sword Notung; in Act II he slays Fafner with Notung, recovers the all-important Ring and the quite useful Tarnhelm, and then, forewarned by a talking Woodbird, Siegfried kills Mime, who would have poisoned him had the bird not tipped him off in a timely manner. Finally, in Act III, Siegfried shatters Wotan’s spear of power, ascends to the mountaintop, still surrounded by the magic fire, and awakens the sleeping Brünnhilde with a kiss.

The great Hildegard Behrens in the Met’s previous Ring production

The great Hildegard Behrens in the Met’s previous Ring production

This is a truly transcendent moment in the Ring Cycle, a peak experience if ever there was one, and all the more so because at the end of Die Walküre we, certainly I, leave the theatre truly broken hearted at Wotan’s tough love treatment of his most beloved daughter! Listen to the music! You must love this scene!

It is unclear how much time elapses between this ecstatic ending of Siegfried, Act III, and when the happy couple emerges from their cozy cave on the mountain top in the second scene of the Prologue of Götterdämmerung. This is a big moment too, especially if you’ve recently, like only two nights before, experienced the last Act of Siegfried. It is also unclear if Siegfried takes in any trendy riverside stops along the way of his Rheinfahrt before he docks at the Hall of the Gibichungs.

No matter really: the three acts of Götterdämmerung are the final day of the Ring. In the Prologue, Brünnhilde sends Siegfried off to perform new heroic deeds, because she knows this is his manly fach. Before leaving, Siegfried gives the Ring to Brünnhilde as a token of his love. In the course of the long evening, which is about Siegfried’s downfall and death** and the ultimate redemption of the world, the Ring will go back to Siegfried, then, in the final scene, back to Brünnhilde and at last back to the Rheinmädchen, who will return the Gold to the depths of the Rhein where it all began in that first scene of Das Rheingold. Full circle, which is why it’s called a ‘cycle.’ The world is right again and maybe this will reverse global warming too.

In a nutshell, the Ring is about the conflict between those representing greed, wealth, power, envy, loveless lust, and exploitation of the less fortunate versus ultimately those who live by compassion and love, with a joyful affirmation of life and community. Simply put, in the Ring, Alberich, even his brother Mime, and Alberich’s son, the gloomy Hagen embody the former; Sigmund, Sieglinde, Brünnhilde, and Siegfried, who perish, set the stage for the survival of the latter, though, truth be told, the innocent frat-boy-like Siegfried gets drugged and seduced by the dark side in Act I of Götterdämmerung, thereafter betraying his true love Brünnhilde and, in Act II, probably committing adultery with Gutrune, Gunther’s sister. They are the rulers of the Gibichung kingdom. Hagen is Gunther’s half-brother; his father is Alberich. Brünnhilde, in her anger, flirts with evil in final scene of Act II as she conspires with Hagen and Gunther for Siegfried’s assassination on the hunt the next morning (staged in Act III, Siegfried’s Funeral March ensuing). It’s big emotionally, very very big.

It’s big because Wagner had a real bug up somewhere about “effect without cause” in opera as drama. It’s why he expanded the Ring backwards in time from his original heroic drama Siegfried’s Death, so that we, in the audience, can experience the full emotional weight of the events leading up to the obviously big climactic moments played out during the evening. It also allowed him space to introduce and then vary, as dictated by the drama, the numerous musical references to characters, objects, and ideas. By working this all out, he also became aware of the grander cosmic issues latent in his epic cycle.

The two characters in the Ring who undergo the most significant developments are Wotan and Brünnhilde, the latter, if you ask me, is the centerpiece of the Ring and one of the great women in all of opera. Seriously!

Wotan in Das Rheingold leans, as I guess many absolute monarchs are wont to do, toward power, control, wealth, theft, of course he loves women, but, we suspect, as ornaments to be bejeweled, ignored, or…in this particular case, even exchanged as payment for manual labor. Ask Freia how she feels about this, like, really?

No, really: Wotan is not above exploiting the simple Giants (Fasolt and Fafner) by a promise to deliver the pretty goddess Freia as payment to them for building Valhalla, the new castle for the Gods. To break this deal, Wotan steals the Ring, the Tarnhelm, and gold from Alberich, but then ultimately turns it all over to the Giants. But...Alberich, full of hate, has cursed the Ring, auguring death to those who possess it. The curse is promptly demonstrated on stage by Fafner’s slaying his brother Fasolt right before our very eyes. That’s Das Rheingold, short and sweet.

Stuart Skelton as Siegmund and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde this season

Stuart Skelton as Siegmund and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Sieglinde this season

So in Act II of Die Walküre, Wotan’s pressing dilemma is how to get the Ring back before Alberich himself gets it and destroys the Gods. The Gods’ own laws being such, Wotan can’t simply take it back from Fafner. His scheme is to spawn a race of human heroes who, without knowingly breaking the rules and laws of the Gods, will win back the Ring for him. All good so far: Wotan’s son by a mortal woman, a hero of course, is Siegmund, destined to accomplish what the Gods themselves cannot. But Fricka, Wotan’s consort, also Goddess of Marriage and Family, informs Wotan that she finds Siegmund’s manner of bonding with his twin sister Sieglinde intolerable and don’t you even think of protecting him because he must die. So much for Wotan’s scheme. Neither, it seems, realizes that Siegmund has already planted the seed of a heroic son in his supposedly lost twin sister Sieglinde (their reunification is the stuff of Die Walküre, Act I; their passionate flight from Sieglinde’s husband Hunding, a forced marriage, lands them later in Act II).

Through Fricka, Wotan, the here-to-fore almighty God of Das Rheingold, feels weakened, saddened, trapped. At a real low point, he pours out his deep inner troubles to his favorite daughter Brünnhilde, who, at the onset of a long dark scene, reassures him (and shares with us) that she is naught but Wotan’s will. After hearing the history of it all, she (and we) understand why Wotan is so miserable. Worse, she is now pressured to obey Wotan’s furious command to support Hunding in the coming battle and let Siegmund fall. This scene is the centerpiece of Act II. Wagner says so himself in a long letter to Franz Lizst.

Following her father’s orders is not at all easy: Brünnhilde has positive, compassionate feelings for Siegmund, her human half-brother, and these are stirred up even more when she witnesses his undying love for Sieglinde (her human half-sister). Shaken, Brünnhilde vows to protect the lovers, first by shielding Siegmund in battle and second by protecting Sieglinde should something go wrong. Of course something goes wrong: a furious Wotan intercedes and Siegmund is slain. Brünnhilde, closes Act II of Die Walküre by quickly fleeing with Sieglinde and with pieces of the shattered sword Notung.

In Act III Sieglinde wishes only for death to join her Siegmund, but Brünnhilde reveals to her that the seed of Siegfried is already growing in Sieglinde’s womb. Insuring the safety of Sieglinde, quick thinking on her part, in fact saves Wotan’s scheme to regain the Ring. Brünnhilde is now an active agent in the world’s salvation. Perhaps knowing this to be so (and also because she asks him to), Wotan summons a Magic Fire to encircle the mountaintop on which Brünnhilde will sleep. Wotan and we, by the music of course, but also because Brünnhilde told us so in the beginning of the Act, know who will find her a generation later.

The Magic Fire in Act III here in the Robert LePage production at the Met

The Magic Fire in Act III here in the Robert LePage production at the Met

By Siegfried, Wotan is a tired man who is having second thoughts about this hierarchical structure of things. He’s willing to abdicate, let go, step aside, a move hastened by the fact that in Act III his grandson Siegfried chops his spear of power in half with one fell swoop of the repaired sword Notung, not even giving his grandfather a chance to warn him against playing with sharp objects. Wotan retires to await calmly the downfall of the Gods, which occurs at the end of Götterdämmerung.

At stated above, at first meeting in the opening of Act II of Die Walküre, Brünnhilde, who is the Valkyrie of the title, is totally subjugated by her father’s wishes. As for the ‘Wotan’s will’ thing, indeed she is actually pretty spot-on in her reading of his inner thoughts. Probably somewhere down deep she knows that ultimately she and Wotan’s grandson Siegfried will bring about the end of the old regime and the coming of a new caring community. In fact, at the end of Act III of Siegfried, Siegfried impetuously sings Lache und Lebe, süsseste Lust! Sei mein! Sei mein! Sei mein! Brünnhilde calmly replies O Siegfried! Dein war ich von je!***

Wotan’s rage shocks and confuses her. She subsequently makes a half-hearted attempt to convince Siegmund that his death will lead to glory with the Gods in Valhalla, meet his father, the rest of the family, but he doesn’t buy it. When he threatens to kill Sieglinde so they can be forever united, Brünnhilde discards obedience for compassion and action. Her character continues to evolve in the subsequent operas.

As the broad moments in Die Walküre transpire, it’s good to pay attention to the action, the dialogue and the music referring to the present moment versus the dialogue and music that establish background, the ‘how this all came about’ (the text) or ‘what this moment really means’ (the music).

For instance, the stormy prelude for Act I of Die Walküre is tremendous, Siegmund’s entrance, and Sieglinde’s gentle comforting are in stark contrast, but both are in the present moment, which will continue to be present until Hunding’s Q and A starts. Siegmund’s responses to Sieglinde’s and Hunding’s Q and A are about the events in his past, like why he’s got this cloud of misfortune following him. Here, importantly, Wagner’s music gives us hints about revelations to come: Siegmund remembers aloud that he and his father ‘Wolfe’ often hunted together. One day they returned home to find their dwelling burnt to the ground, his mother slain, and his twin sister gone. A bit later, as he narrates the tale of the disappearance of his father, the Valhalla motif (the Valhalla music from Das Rheingold ) sounds in the orchestra: we know now, or at least suspect, that Wotan is his father (I mean, who else? Valhalla and Wotan? The guy owns this motif!).

Importantly, we sense that Siegmund is someone special, destined to heroic deeds...also he’s a tenor. Why he’s so special, beyond his vocal range and the obvious demonstrations of strength at the end of Act I, comes out in Act II in Wotan’s long monologue described above.

Back to Act I: the drama returns to the present moment when Hunding realizes that Siegmund is, in fact, the unknown warrior who interceded, unsuccessfully it turns out, on the behalf of a maiden being forced into marriage. Hunding arrived too late, finding several of his clan slaughtered, but, chasing after the murderer, now finds the man defenseless in his own hut. Customs of hospitality forbid Hunding from slaying Siegmund right there and then, but tomorrow morning…still in the present moment, Siegmund wonders aloud (as they all do, this is opera don’t forget) about a sword promised to him by his father in a time of need and, no surprise, he’s feeling needy a lot right now. The Sword leitmotif (also from Das Rheingold, but as yet undefined as such) sounds from the orchestra and a ray of light from the dying fire illuminates a sword buried to the hilt in the trunk of a large, ancient ash tree in the center of Hunding’s hut.

Sieglinde, who has slipped a sleeping draught into Hunding’s nightly tipple, tells Siegmund that at her wedding a strange man in gray with a large hat, only one eye visible, thrust a sword into the trunk. To date no man has been able to extract it. At this revelation, we nod knowingly: too many coincidences here, Wotan has only one eye and probably a large hat…hmmmm.

In the moment, Sieglinde is certain that Siegmund is that hero for whom the sword was meant. As she recounts this, the Valhalla and Sword leitmotifs are woven into the music. The two are already in love, you can feel it; in the frenzy that ensues, Siegmund yanks the sword from the tree, he and Sieglinde realize that they are brother and sister (oops), and they ecstatically run off, to the extent that Wagnerian singers can run off, into the night to sire the next generation, soon to be named Siegfried.

But wait there’s more. The music opening Act II is BIG, it continues the desperate energy of their flight, evolving into the thundering music of Hunding’s pursuit, but, without losing momentum, it morphs into music soon to be associated with Brünnhilde and other eight Valkyries (her sisters). Curtain up, present moment, Wotan encourages his favorite daughter Brünnhilde  (by Erda, the Goddess of Earth) to come to Siegmund’s defense against Hunding, etc., etc., but soon thereafter, Wotan is recounting the past in the long Act II monologue described above.

The musical motifs compound the meaning of the moments because as the drama progresses they more than likely come from emotional scenes in the early operas. In the wild beginning of Act III of Die Walküre, after the famous Ride of the Valkyries, Brünnhilde hastens to find a way for Sieglinde to escape Wotan’s wrath. Sieglinde and we are informed that she carries “the world’s noblest hero” in her womb, and his name is Siegfried…it’s a big moment. Sieglinde’s soaring response O hehrstes Wunder! Herrliche Maid! introduces a new motif: Redemption, so named in Deryck Cooke’s famous audio guide to the Ring’s motifs on Decca. This motif will reappear as a softer variation before Brünnhilde’s entrance with Siegfried in the Prologue of Götterdämmerung and also sublimely stated again as the final theme at the end of the opera.

Said earlier, for me Brünnhilde is the centerpiece of Wagner’s Ring. The emotional journey she embarks on in the beginning of Act II of Die Walküre, through her rescue of Sieglinde at its end, her banishment from her father and sisters and the magic fire of Act III, her glorious awakening years later at Siegfried’s kiss at the end of Siegfried, and all of the emotional ups and downs of Götterdämmerung, which ends with her engulfed in the flames of the Siegfried’s funeral pyre…tears one’s heart out. It’s a cumulative thing, built up by every moment on stage leading up to it.

Comparing Die Walküre to Lohengrin, or even to Das Rheingold, one senses that Wagner really threw his heart and soul into this score: philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s assertion that music expresses the will, the unconscious source deeper than that for conscious rule-bound composition, gave him permission to let it all hang out. Plus, Wagner (Siegmund) was in love with Mathilde Wesendonck (Sieglinde), but he (Wotan) was also being nagged by his wife Minna (Fricka) to write something a bit more immediately marketable than a fourteen hour four opera tetrology.

But wait, there’s more: even after being asked to leave the Wesendonck estate, Wagner is still in love with M. Unfortunately, composing the early acts of Siegfried doesn’t let him vent it musically…so he stops midway in Act II, his heart’s really not into it, and instead embarks on Tristan und Isolde, the ultimate love story.

But I digress. In the libretto for the RCA Soria Series Die Walküre, 1961, the first complete studio recording in stereo and the first on my shelf **** (remember the big red album box?), conductor Erich Leinsdorf ended his introductory notes with “As you listen to this score, you enter a forest with very tall, very old trees and you ascend a rock which is more barren and higher and more frightening than the Alps. At the end you watch a fire which is grander than the burning of Rome. This is dream stuff, with the deepest instincts of love, hate, and violence unleashed, speaking a language of passion, romanticism, enchantment. I envy those who have yet to make its acquaintance.”

May your entry into Die Walküre be magical and enviable!

Hope this helped.

* There are two exceptions from this ‘single day’ thing: Scene I of Das Rheingold, in which the Nibelung Alberich ravages innocent Nature by stealing the Gold of the Rhine from the temptingly playful Rheinmädchen, establishes the starting point of the cycle. But this heinous theft is likely much earlier in time than the ‘single day’ of the ensuing three scenes of Das Rheingold. When we next meet Alberich in his home court beneath the Earth in Scene III he’s already forged the magic Ring and forced his miserable brother Mime into smithy servitude. Mime has just crafted a magic helmet for the boss. Look, for that matter, Alberich has enslaved the whole race of the Nibelungs, plunging them into forced labor so that he can amass unheard of wealth. How they shriek when they are summoned by his call! Sound familiar? Ask Karl Marx. Back to the point: as with most start-up businesses, these things take time.

** Not surprising Siegfried’s death is a big deal: Wagner’s Ring project started with a single opera Siegfrieds Tod (Siegfried’s Death, draft 1848, a little night music drafted by 1850), but, in the midst of working music dramatic theoretical things out in grand prose publications, he then wanted to put on stage, in a preceding opera, Der junge Siegfried (Young Siegfried), the tale of Siegfried’s youth and heroism, the dragon, the wall of fire, waking Brünnhilde with a kiss, etc. etc., that good stuff to be found in the early parts of the German epic Nibelungenlied. As his conception of the Ring broadened to cosmic proportions, he added where Siegfried came from, as in ‘now let’s meet the parents,’ and how Brünnhilde fell asleep on the rock (Die Walküre) and why these are all important things. Das Rheingold dramatizes how the whole thing started, introduces the tribes, etc. The Ring libretti were completed in December of 1852. Wagner composed the music in the proper order, completing the score for Götterdämmerung in November of 1874. To be fair, he also wrote and produced Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in between, each premiering before any of the Ring operas. The complete Der Ring des Nibelungen premiered in a specially built festival theater on the outskirts of Bayreuth in Bavaria in August of 1876. It is still performed there to this day as a summer festival. As it should be, though these days not often as you might like to see it staged.

*** Siegfried: Laugh and live! Sweetest delight! Be mine! Be mine! Be mine! Brünhilde: O Siegfried! I have always been yours! Translation is from Solti Ring on Decca CDs, courtesy Deutsche Grammophon.  

****The cast of Soria Series RCA was state of the art Wagner then: Erich Leinsdorf conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, Birgit Nilsson, Jon Vickers, George London, Rita Gorr, Gré Brouswentijn, and David Ward. The recording is currently released on Decca CDs. In the spring of 1965, Washington’s birthday as I recall, Die Walküre at the Met starred Birgit Nilsson, Jon Vickers, George London, Irene Dalis, Leonie Rysanek, and David Ward, William Steinberg conducting. Stood in line all day; back stage after for autographs too. Vivid as yesterday, as is the second Die Walküre, the new Schneider-Siemssen production, Herbert von Karajan’s Met debut on November 21, 1967. Another great cast, Birgit Nilsson and Jon Vickers again, Christa Ludwig, Thomas Stewart, Gundula Janowitz and Karl Ridderbusch, these last two making their Met debuts. So many more to follow.

One source for some of the above is Wagner’s RING of the Nibelung: the full German text with a new translation and commentaries. Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington. London: Thames and Hudson, 1993. But mostly what I write here comes from experiencing the Ring at the Met, on video and on recordings.

Photos: Winnie Klotz for Hildegard Behrens; Ken Howard for the Met current production; painting of Wotan and his little girl by Delitz, p. 367 in The Victor Book of the Opera, published by the Victor Talking Machine Co., Camden, NJ in 1912.

Enjoy! March is in like a lion so far!

Happy trails! OM

A joyful Falstaff sparkles at the Met

Verdi’s Falstaff is a comic masterpiece in the broader sense of the word ‘comedy.’ Like Cervantes’ Don Quixote or Ariosto’s Orlando, Shakespeare’s Falstaff is a larger than life character who is, to some extent, delusional about his current worth in the real world. However, Arrigo Boito, the librettist for Verdi’s Falstaff, gives the fallen knight a moment of clarity at the opera’s conclusion: Son io che vi fa scaltri, l’arguzia mia crea l’arguzia degli altri, variously translated as “It is I who season [the otherwise flat and flavorless arrogance of you all]. My cleverness creates the cleverness of others,” which ultimately leads to his parting assessment of the human condition: Tutto nel mondo è burla, “All the world’s a jest.”

Just about sums things up these days.

Falstaff courts Alice Ford in her modern kitchen in Scene IV of Act I

Falstaff courts Alice Ford in her modern kitchen in Scene IV of Act I

Robert Carsen’s production, new in 2013, updates the setting to post-WWII Windsor, a time when the British aristocracy was more evidently on the slide than in the prewar Downton Abbey days. Sir John is scrounging for money to supply food and drink for himself and for his hangers-on of dubious reputation. His scheme to get his former greatness back shapes the action of the evening. Carsen realizes this story well; as in his recent Der Rosenkavalier, Carsen creates humorous actions as asides to the main action, such as, here, the men in the gentlemen’s lounge quietly reading their newspapers until a flamboyant Mistress Quickly barges in to tempt Falstaff with Alice Ford’s trap or the frequent pick-pocketing by Bardolfo, one of the aforementioned dubious hangers-on. And you won’t forget the horse.

Mistress Quickly finds compelling methods to soften any of Falstaff’s resistance

Mistress Quickly finds compelling methods to soften any of Falstaff’s resistance

And under his direction, realized in this revival by Gina Lapinski, the characters have signature movements, mostly merry and bouncy, again to make it a never-a-dull-moment kind of evening. As such, they’re completely consistent with Verdi’s incredible score. Richard Farnes, making his Met debut with Falstaff, allows the orchestral riches to bubble to the surface without overwhelming the singers. Welcome to the Met!

Ambrogio Maestri recaps his portrayal of the grand Falstaff. Maestri is a man of commanding stature with a sizeable voice, a man who seems to live well within the large ego of his stage character. One is struck by his audacity as much as by his flights of grandeur. Yet there is an echo of nobility in his bearing.

Bardolfo and Pistola, sung by Keith Jameson and Richard Bernstein respectively, are smaller, more shifty sorts, the former, especially, like a mouse who comes out at night for a nip of cheese. Or a wallet or purse. Keep your eye on him.

Alice Ford, Mistress Quickly, Meg Page, and Nannetta compare letters from Falstaff

Alice Ford, Mistress Quickly, Meg Page, and Nannetta compare letters from Falstaff

Of the merry wives, Ailyn Pérez is simply charming as Alice Ford, as a character and as an artist. To Jennifer Johnson Cano and Marie-Nicole Lemieux go much praise for creating over-the-top funny but plausible women, co-conspirators in the plan to shame Sir John. As said above, there is much humor in the little things going on in the background. Watch Cano, as Meg Page, standing on the kitchen countertop waving her arms in the final scene of the first Act; Lemieux’s Mistress Quickly comically aims her assault on Falstaff directly at his weak points. The merry wives are in perpetual motion and wonderfully choreographed.

Of the lovers, Golda Schultz as Nannetta has a heavenly voice and the agility of a young woman in love: Nannetta must slide in and out of hanging with the olds or furthering her suit with young Fenton. Francesco Demuro as Fenton is a worthy suitor. Again, both in perpetual motion and wonderfully choreographed.

Ford, disguised as Fontana, approaches Falstaff with a deal

Ford, disguised as Fontana, approaches Falstaff with a deal

Juan Jesús Rodríquez is a strong voice for a strong Ford. At first meeting, he appears to be from Texas, probably made his wealth in oil or cattle, married British class. Or it could be Fontana’s disguise. Dr. Caius is sung by Tony Stevenson.

Again like Robert Carsen’s Der Rosenkavalier, his Falstaff is often played out in relatively large spaces, at least the width of the Met’s stage, if not always the depth. The space is filled with relevant things, like the waiter’s serving carts stored in Falstaff’s bedroom. Or are the carts just left there from Falstaff’s frequent room service requests? At least Paul Steinberg’s sets allow voices to project out rather than get lost and they also can be changed in a relatively brief pause, as indicated in the subtitles, rather than a not-so-brief pause. The details of the sets in Act I (as performed) well define the era. If you grew up around then you’ll recognize the kitchen immediately. The sets for Act II (as performed) is relatively timeless. Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes fit as well. Robert Carsen and Peter Van Praet designed the lighting.

The magical midnight in Windsor Park. The Queen of the Fairies appears to Falstaff

The magical midnight in Windsor Park. The Queen of the Fairies appears to Falstaff

Falstaff, coming after Otello, is the last opera Verdi wrote. He was seventy-nine at the opera’s premiere at La Scala in 1893. Incredible.

Performance date: March 2, 2019, the 188th performance.

Photos: Karen Almond

Verdi’s Falstaff, as written, is in three acts, but performed in two, one large and one smaller: Acts I and II are combined, then a lights-up intermission, Act III follows by itself. Between the four scenes comprising Acts I and II are “brief pauses.” The running time of the complete performance is about two hours and 40 minutes.

Enjoy! Falstaff is high on my list of all-time favorite operas, easily in the top 25. It’s wise, artful, touching, ultimately a wonderfully happy opera! My first at the Met was in early April in 1964, a Friday as I recall. It was the new Franco Zeffirelli production with Leonard Bernstein at the helm and the first cast (Gabriella Tucci, Judith Raskin, Rosalind Elias, Regina Resnick, Mario Sereni, and Luigi Alva, though the great Fernando Corena was Falstaff. The next night was my first Otello with James McCracken, Renata Tebaldi, and Anselmo Colzani…big weekend indeed!! The Falstaff (and the Otello) was first of many many memorable nights at the Met. Big regrets that I missed Tito Gobbi in the title role, but a cat can’t do it all. I cherish his recording with von Karajan, et al. on EMI. The clicks and scratches on the old Angel LPs still linger in my mind’s ear, happily nonexistent on the CD release. Check it out.

Happy trails. OM

Donizetti’s La fille du régiment entertains at the Met

Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, like his two other comedies* in the standard repertory, is a story ultimately with a happy ending, but touched by sentiment and sadness along the way. Set here at the time of the Great War, the orphaned infant Marie was found and adopted by the French 21st Regiment. They consider themselves her collective ‘father’ and, like all good fathers, they are protective, especially given that Marie, now of age, has been seen in the presence of a handsome young man. The soldiers capture Tonio, a Tyrolean, who, it turns out, is this very same handsome young man! He’s out and about in search of her because, because, because they love each other!

The good fathers keep a watchful eye over their daughter. Tonio is on the right.

The good fathers keep a watchful eye over their daughter. Tonio is on the right.

Well, good fathers also have rules, one here being that Marie must marry a soldier from the 21st. Tonio promptly joins up and is excited when he learns that the fathers consent, an excitement very obvious because he sings lots of thrilling show stopping high notes. I’m still hoarse these days later from shouting Bravo! Bravo!

Javier Camareno is a joyful Tonio. The fathers are lying low.

Javier Camareno is a joyful Tonio. The fathers are lying low.

But alas, Marie is shocked to find she is actually the long lost daughter of the “late sister” of la marquise de Berkenfeld; la marquise, en route to Vienna, has come to find the grown infant, retrieve her, civilize her, and ultimately to marry her into wealth. Sadly, Marie leave must leave the man she loves, all of her fathers, and her former life behind. We feel her pain.

Marie draws in her last load of laundry before leaving the Regiment

Marie draws in her last load of laundry before leaving the Regiment

Worse, things don’t go so well for her in Act II either: Marie is not taking to the ballet lessons and is so upset at her vocal lessons she intentionally sings off pitch or, worse, at the slightest temptation from Sgt. Sulpice, breaks off into a phrase or two from her vivandière playlist of the past, all to the infuriation of la marquise!

All works out in the end, and delightfully so in this season’s revival of Laurent Pelly’s production, new in 2008. Like all Pelly productions, of late Massenet’s Cendrillon (new last season) and, a few years earlier, Manon, there is a kooky flair in the décor: the mountains of Tyrolean Alps are made of pages torn from a map, la marquise’s villa in, we assume, the mountains of Austria, are picture frames without pictures or walls to hang on. When Marie sings her Rataplans, two clotheslines of long johns “march” in behind her. At other times large postcards in the style of the era of the Great War come down from the proscenium to highlight a point or just to make us smile.

A Pelly production is choreographed too: he also pays frequent, not to say constant, attention to the movements of the principals and chorus. The soldiers of the 21st Regiment are sometimes headbobbing from the floor, marching sideways and forth in zigzagged patterns, all to the music. It’s a very entertaining production to watch, on top of the wonderful score and the bel canto fireworks.

This season sports a first rate cast. I was eager to hear soprano Pretty Yende again, charmed as I was by her Adina from L’Elisir d’Amore last winter. She sings in a way that communicates the soul of her character in the situation at hand, not just in a way that sounds elegantly beautiful, which, when she’s not rebelling in Act II, is throughout the evening. She also can be comic, her timing, facial expressions, exaggerations, all coordinated perfectly. Donizetti’s music, sung in context of Pelly’s very active stage directions, sets a high bar for the lead soprano:** the evening is a win for Pretty Yende. Brava!!

Javier Camarena*** is also a huge draw. He doesn’t disappoint: in addition to thrilling first and, this evening, encored execution of Pour mon âme quell destin! with its nine high Cs, he, I find, is quite touching in Pour me rapprocher de Marie, his plea to la marquise in the nearly final scene of Act II. Camarena simply exudes joy, sheer joy, thus making his scenes with Yende naturally happy, almost innocent. As with Nemorino and Adina in L’Elisir d’Amore, one really wants things to work out for the lovers.

Stepnanie Blythe and Kathleen Turner face off in  La fille

Stepnanie Blythe and Kathleen Turner face off in La fille

And then there is Stephanie Blyth to contend with. Again, she is the master of comic timing and delivery, as she was particularly as Madame de la Haltière in Cendrillon last season and Zita in Gianni Schicchi of Il Trittico earlier this season. Her scenes especially in the second act with noted film and stage actress Kathleen Turner, as la Duchesse de Crakentorp, were priceless. Plus Blyth has that marvelous voice as well.

Sgt. Sulpice is kindly and paternally played by veteran Alessandro Corbelli, striking up a believable bond between himself and Marie. Paul Corona is Hortensius, la marquise’s butler; Patrick Miller is a Townsman, more or less a lookout; Yohan Yi is a Corporal in the 21st; Yohan Belmin is the Notary preparing the marriage contract in Act II.

Enrique Mazzola conducts Donizetti’s delightful score. The Met’s male chorus as members of the 21st Regiment, executed their vocal and choreographic roles with precision.

Donizetti’s La fille du régiment is a gem and the Met’s production is a winner. Don’t miss it!

Review performance: Monday, February 11, 2019, the 111th performance.

Photos by: Marty Sohl.

* These are, of course, the much earlier L’Elisir d’Amore (an opera comica) and the not much later Don Pasquale (an opera buffa). La fille du régiment, on the other hand, was written to a French libretto in the form of an opéra-comique, complete with spoken dialogue. It premiered in Paris in 1840; so patriotic is it that it’s often given special performances on Bastille Day in France. When Donizetti introduced La fille to Italy as La figlia del reggimento (an opera buffa), he cut the famous Pour mon âme quell destin! with its nine high Cs. The Met’s 1940 broadcast of La fille du régiment with the great Lili Pons omits this as well, but adds La Marseillaise in support of the French troops at war with Germany.

** For me other sopranos as Marie at the Met include Joan Sutherland, June Anderson, Natalie Dessay, and Diana Damrau, each different, for sure, but each also special in her own way.

*** He is so especially after his performances here of Arturo in Bellini’s I Puritani and Don Ramiro in La Cenerentola, and then other Rossini operas on video from Zürich with Cecila Bartoli. Other Tonios in my years at the Met include Alfredo Kraus, Luciano Pavarotti, and Juan Diego Flórez.

Donizetti’s La fille du régiment is performed in two acts with one intermission. The running time of the HD performance is about two hours, forty minutes.

Never fails, once again the trip home is ahead of a major winter storm. Fortunately, it waited until Tuesday to hit the metropolitan area. Drive safely!

Cheers! OM


A moving Pelléas et Mélisande at the Met

Claude Debussy’s masterpiece Pelléas et Mélisande lies outside opera’s standard repertory. Like so many other pieces beyond the fringe, it challenges our well learned expectations. Hence, at first exposure, most newcomers to the castle Allemonde are, most likely, sort of lost, as are, ironically, most of the characters in the opera. But as masterpieces go, Pelléas et Mélisande is an involving, deeply satisfying experience when one finds his or her way into its inner space, which can happen in a live performance, especially if it’s done right.

However, no easy task this: the opera is difficult to realize well on stage.* The Met’s current production by Sir Jonathan Miller, new in 1995, is certainly a step forward from the aimless, albeit colorful Paul-Emile Deiber setting of 1972, but even Miller’s Pelléas et Mélisande is only a hit, maybe a double, but not a homerun. John Conklin’s sets and Duane Schuler’s lighting design intelligently solve the transformation timing problems with a unit set of the mansion’s exterior and interior walls slowly rotating for scene changes in the center of the Met’s large stage. These walls are bordered by similar but stationary walls.** Often, though not always, this solution turns at the expense of a literal setting of a scene. Some are either a. scenically ambiguous as to where the characters are and what time of day or night it is or, within this, b. incorrectly lit, either just too bright or too bright and the wrong color lighting to boot.

Isabel Leonard as Mélisande in her window at night

Isabel Leonard as Mélisande in her window at night

Happily, from the musical standpoint, Pelléas et Mélisande is a winner this season, a home run with bases loaded. Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s conception of Debussy’s magical score brings out inner voices of the orchestra, highlighting threads of the music’s fabric that are often lost, but all this without losing the forward propulsion of the music. Similar, in fact, to the magic of his Parsifal last season. Subtle, sometimes very delicate shifts in mood are not lost, nor are the words of the text. Pelléas et Mélisande is Maurice Maeterlinck’s play, well, most of it, set to music. Often single lines carry tremendous weight. Unlike Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, who seem to go on about it for days, the lovers here are unoperatically succinct about how they feel: Pelléas: “Je t’aime.” Mélisande: “Je t’aime aussi.” There it is. Okay, maybe they talk about it a little more…

Mélisande is comforted by the aged King Arkel. Ferruccio Furlanetto is Arkel

Mélisande is comforted by the aged King Arkel. Ferruccio Furlanetto is Arkel

As it should be, the lovers are taken by attractive and relatively young artists. Isabel Leonard is an enigmatic Mélisande twice over: the character herself is so, but Leonard’s intonation and expression, possibly by direction, sometimes miss the mercurial mood changes Mélisande passes through, suddenly, even in split seconds.*** At other times Leonard, especially with Arkel and Geneviève, is spot on with interpersonal connection. It is worth noting that Mélisande is the center of the drama: everyone loves her, albeit in his or her own way.**** Leonard is always in rich voice.

Pelléas and Mélisande (Paul Appleby and Isabel Leonard) explore a grotto by the sea in search for her wedding ring

Pelléas and Mélisande (Paul Appleby and Isabel Leonard) explore a grotto by the sea in search for her wedding ring

Paul Appleby is a boyish Pelléas, a believable young man trying to understand the new emotions stirred by the young and beautiful but enigmatic wife of his down-to-earth older half-brother Golaud. Appleby endearingly captures Pelléas’s innocence, tenderness and his generally life-affirming outlook. Though his more tender expressions of care and affection are well within his range, Appleby’s light tenor voice seemed to encounter rough patches in the louder passages of Pelléas’s passionate seize-the-moment declaration of love to Mélisande in Act IV (as written).*****

Particularly outstanding this evening are baritone Kyle Ketelsen as Golaud and veteran basso Ferruccio Furlanetto. Golaud tries to resist the oppressive weight of the inevitable, call it fate, if you will, that seems to hang over castle Allemonde. He travels in a space defined by reason, purpose and custom, and, apart from a short fuse and a bad temper, he seems to be coping. But around him swirl those who seem to be stuck in the different logic (or lack of any) in Allemonde. At the end, after Pelléas’s murder by his hand and Mélisande’s subsequent silent passing, Arkel, le vieux roi d’Allemonde, advises Golaud, his grandson, to leave, simple as that, implying ‘you don’t belong here.’ Ketelsen brings out the raw emotions of a man caught in the vice of confusion in a meaningless world.

Furlanetto is genuinely and deeply touching as the aged King Arkel, both in voice and infirmity: his love and concern for Mélisande, his granddaughter-in-law, is uncomplicated, expressed in his extended monologue early in Act IV (as written) and in the final scene at Mélisande’s death bed (Act V as written). Bravo!!

Marie-Nicole Lemieux makes her Metropolitan Opera debut as Geneviève. Though not a long role, Geneviève sets stage for the welcome and embrace of Mélisande in the castle in Scene II and also for the support and love given to Yniold, Golaud’s adolescent son by his first wife in Scene III. Yniold is admirably and charmingly taken by boy soprano A. Jesse Schopflocher. He is always on cue, though at some points hard to hear. Jeremy Galyon is a Shepherd; Paul Corona is a Physician.

Golaud broods on matters. Kyle Ketelsen is Golaud.

Golaud broods on matters. Kyle Ketelsen is Golaud.

Debussy deeply admired Wagner’s Parsifal, particularly its score; unlike Parsifal, however, Pélleas et Mélisande covers far more dramatic and emotional ground in the course of the evening. Each scene is very much in the present, without a lot of backstory. In fact, one almost wishes the many questions raised in the opera had answers, as in ‘what does this dream mean?’ It is a unique operatic experience. Don’t miss it.

Photos by: Karen Almond.

Review performance: Tuesday, January 15, 2019, the first of the season, 115th performance by the Metropolitan Opera.

* Debussy’s score and the Maeterlinck’s text are very specific on matters of setting and mood. Moments such as a forest outside the castle walls at night where the act of emerging from the shadows into the moonlight is an admission of love or the first hints of love on a cliff at night as they overlook the sea, the sailing ships below negotiating the dense fog are so wonderfully painted by the music and described by the text. These are lost here, but, to be fair, they’re lost in most productions, even those available on DVD. The only production coming close to capturing it all on stage was the New York City Opera’s production (1974) with Patricia Brooks, Richard Stilwell, and Michael Devlin, conducted by Julius Rudel. Still searching for my program. Teresa Stratas, Frederica von Stade, and Anne Sofie von Otter were also wonderful Mélisandes at the Met. Perhaps every stage production of Pelléas et Mélisande will have to compromise on something...but not your imagination.

** All Acts, save Act V (as written), have at least two scenes changes; there is often precious little time musically to transform one scene to another. No six minute Siegfrieds Rheinfahrt to cover the scenic transformation from Brünnhilde’s Rock (Prologue of Götterdämmerung) to the Hall of the Gibichungs (Act I, Scene I), in other words.

*** To be fair, it must be tricky to portray on stage a character who seems disconnected in a manner that connects with the audience.

**** On reflection, Pélleas et Mélisande has all age groups represented, from the Mélisande’s newborn daughter in the final scene up, through Yniold to the young Pelléas and Mélisande, the older Golaud, mother Geneviève, ending the line with the ancient King Arkel. Their views on life, love, fate, and death are woven throughout the text, reflected in Debussy’s score. Also, since Mélisande must relate to all of them, either on stage or through the text, her interactions must show the relationship.

***** The role of Pelléas was written for a voice type the French call ‘baryton Martin,’ named after the early 19th century baritone Jean-Blaise Martin, whose voice bridged high baritone to mid-range tenor. The type is employed in operettas in the baritone parts, Offenbach, Sullivan, Strauss jr. etc.

Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, as written, is in five acts, but performed in three with two “lights up” intermissions. Acts I and II are combined, Act III is by itself, then Acts IV and V are combined. Within these are sometimes brief pauses, especially between the Acts as written. The running time of the complete performance is about four hours.

Pelléas et Mélisande appears on the Met stage again on the afternoon of January 19 and on the evenings of January 22, 25, and 31. Only these few performances. For ticket information or to place an order, please call (212) 362-6000 or visit www.metopera.org. Special rates for groups of 10 or more are available by calling (212) 341-5410 or by visiting www.metopera.org/groups.

The Met’s matinee performance of Pelléas et Mélisande on January 19 will be radio broadcast or streamed via various media, specifically on Sirius XM and, locally, the New York metropolitan area, I mean, on WQXR 105.9 FM.

Enjoy! A lovely evening at the Met with one of my all-time favorite operas, easily top 100. It’s a beautiful work! And…need I say this: you never know when they will do it again. My last was 2005.

Happy trails. OM


Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur at the Met

I feel like Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur is misunderstood. I think, though, the Metropolitan Opera’s new production goes a long way toward clarifying and realizing Cilea’s creative decisions, making what are perceived to be his weaknesses turn out to be more likely his conscious intentions.

Origins first: Adriana Lecouvreur is a bio-op of the famed French actress Adrienne Lecouvreur, who performed with the Comédie Française in Paris. The opera takes place in 1730, the last year of her life; she was thirty eight. The great Voltaire, playwright and liberal philosopher, called himself her “admirer, friend, and lover.” One source says her last performance was in his play Œdipe and she died in his arms a few days later.*

Yes, Adrienne had an intense fling with one Maurice, Comte de Saxe, who, a known womanizer and war hero, had affairs with royalty, notably with the Princess de Bouillon, who has been described as a ‘man eater.’ And yes, Adrienne died on her name day in 1730, but from dysentery, not from sniffing poisoned flowers from a rival or an enemy (though apparently she had many within the theatre). In French society at that time, actresses (actors and opera singers too) were placed not far above the level of beggars and prostitutes. And so Adrienne was forbidden the rites of a Church burial and, one imagines, unceremoniously tossed in an unmarked grave. More on this later.**

Anna Netrebko is Adriana Lecouvreur

ADL_Io son.jpg

The Met’s new Adriana Lecouvreur replaces the 1963 production, which, I’m guessing, is probably the last to go from the dusty days of the Old Met. Happily, as I say, this new one goes the distance to realize the slant of Cilea’s intentions. It’s produced by Sir David McVicar, with sets by Charles Edwards, costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, and lighting by Alan Silverman. The opera opens back stage at the Comédie Française, where we meet several of the delicious actresses, watch the rivalries play out, witness the lustful Prince de Bouillon and his sidekick, the Abbé de Chazeuil managing their affairs and, of course, meet Michonnet, the stage manager and father figure to his troupe. In mood and exuberance it’s not unlike the opening of Act I of Giordano’s Andrea Chenier or the prologue of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. McVicar’s direction gives each character identities through nuances, caresses, poses, fanfares, struts, handwringing, etc. Too busy and frisky to follow, this, but certainly enjoyable enough.

Then emerges Adriana from her dressing room, the structure of which rolls into place without much ado…until she emerges, rehearsing her scene from Racine’s Bajazet. She takes the part of Roxanne; Mille. Duclos, her rival, is also in the play.

Anna Netrebko begins Adriana’s famous signature aria Io son l’umile ancella del Genio creator from a deep vocal place, far below that which one would expect, being familiar with the bright, edgier sounds produced by the likes of Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Magda Olivero, Renata Scotto, or Montserrat Caballé***. Darker voice notwithstanding, Netrebko ultimately shines through the evening, giving a strong performance on all counts. Her duet with tenor Piotr Beczała at his entrance in the first part of the first act is scintillating; her duet with mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili in the second part of that act is hair-raising, and her final scene at the opera’s sad end is quite moving. Brava! Brava!

Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczała in the final scene

Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczała in the final scene

Piotr Beczała, Maurizio, Comte de Saxe, is in as fine a vocal estate as he was in last season’s stirring Luisa Miller. He and Netrebko are, of course, no strangers so their chemistry is well established. He strikes a handsome stance throughout; his interactions with Adriana and with the Princess are attentive and responsive, communicating volumes.

Adriana gives the Princess dirty looks as Michonnet looks on

Adriana gives the Princess dirty looks as Michonnet looks on

Anita Rachvelishvili, the Princess de Bouillon, has a lush, resonant and penetrating voice that literally fills the House to the rafters, thus complementing the power and dominance of her character. Certainly a force to conjure with. And lastly, Ambrogio Maestri is a steady Michonnet, clear in his affection for Adriana, yet, like Gerard in Andrea Chenier or even Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, he must remain her emotional supporter and trusted friend, never her lover. His tenderness toward her in the final scene is touching. Maestri has a commanding voice and stage presence.

Maurizio Muraro sings a solid Prince de Bouillon and Carlo Bosi is the Abbé de Chazeuil, both effective and necessary characterizations to mark out the French aristocracy and the Church. The many other roles, a long list of players and the dancers (in the Judgement of Paris ballet) were a strong part of the evening’s performance.

Backstage in Act I, Scene I: Ambrogio Maestri is Michonnet, surrounded by his troupe

Backstage in Act I, Scene I: Ambrogio Maestri is Michonnet, surrounded by his troupe

Perhaps knowing that singers are energized by wild applause from an audience, conductor Gianandrea Noseda made full stops at the ends of the ‘arias’ or monologues or duets in the longer first act so as to let us vent our excitement and appreciation. Which is fine. He led a most satisfying performance throughout the evening, both in the extraverted sections and those more introverted.

For the most part, McVicar’s production uses a unit set, a hollow cube representing all sides of the stage of the Comédie Française. The proscenium and ceiling are supported by beams, such that whatever the action on stage is taking place, it is visible. At one point in the first scene, Michonnet waxes admiringly about Adriana’s performance on this stage. In this production we also see it unfold. For Mille. Duclos’s villa by the Seine (the second scene), parts of the structure are walled in to create a lavish interior, in Act II (as staged in this production, Act III as written) we witness a frothy entertainment at the Prince de Bouillon’s palace, and in the final Act, we’re backstage again for the Princess’s revenge and Adriana’s death. It is a production that works well: busy, energetic, passionate, ultimately memorable, as the previous one was emphatically none of the above. And, as argued here and more so below, it comes closer to realizing what I perceive to be Cilea’s intentions. Don’t miss it!



Photos by: Production by Ken Howard; formal portrait of Anna by Vincent Peters.

Review performance: Tuesday, January 8, 2019, the 76th performance by the Metropolitan Opera.

Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, as written, is in four acts, but performed in three with two intermissions. Acts I and II are combined into two scenes with a long pause for the set change in between, running about an hour and 20 minutes; the running time of the complete performance is about three hours, fifteen minutes.

Adriana Lecouvreur appears on the Met stage again on the afternoon of January 12 and on the evenings of January 16, 19, 23, and 26. For ticket information or to place an order, please call (212) 362-6000 or visit www.metopera.org. Special rates for groups of 10 or more are available by calling (212) 341-5410 or by visiting www.metopera.org/groups.

The Met’s matinee performance of Adriana Lecouvreur on January 12 will be telecast live in HD to theaters worldwide and radio broadcast or streamed via various media. It will also be encored in some locations. Information about HD venues, operas, dates, times, casts, and tickets can be found on the Metropolitan Opera website www.metopera.org. This performance is broadcast on Sirius XM and, locally, the New York metropolitan area, I mean, on WQXR 105.9 FM.

Note local telecast dates: the Quick Center at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT, will show Adriana Lecouvreur in HD live from the Met stage on January 12 at 1:00 and as an encore at 6:00 p.m. There will be a pre-opera talk at 12:15 p.m. Tickets for these at the Quick Center may be ordered online at www.fairfield.edu/lifeatfairfield/artsminds/quickcenterforthearts or one may call the Quick Center Box Office at 203-254-4010 or 1-877-278-7396.

The Ridgefield Playhouse in Ridgefield, CT, will also telecast Adriana Lecouvreur only as an encore on Sunday, January 13 at 1 p.m. Tickets for this performance @ Ridgefield may be ordered online at www.ridgefieldplayhouse.org or from the box office of the Ridgefield Playhouse at 203-438-5795.

Ample free parking is available at both venues; please check their websites for directions to theaters and suggestions for fine regional dining.

* But before this goes viral, note that the “died in his arms” bit is not corroborated by a larger biography of Voltaire I read recently.

** Okay, now ‘more on this later’: though it’s true that the passionate, signature themes in Adriana Lecouvreur are repeated throughout Cilea’s score without significant variation, it’s also true that these are associated with the highlights of the opera one is most likely to hear, therefore more easy to pick out. The aria Io son l’umile ancella del Genio creator, Adriana’s entrance, is a case in point: years ago, it was the first excerpt of Adriana Lecouvreur I’d heard. Cilea, who? As an aside, tally up how many other operas are known for only one aria or a duet or or an overture.

This evening I was struck by how much care Cilea takes to give musical dimensions to his satellite characters: the theatre troupe, aristocrats, servants, etc., how light, airy and charming the dance music is, and so on. This, I’ll say, suggests that Cilea’s model for the sound and style of Adriana is not that of Puccini or even of Leoncavallo, both his contemporaries, but rather that of Massenet, maybe even Auber. Compare Manon’s tale as set by Massenet in Manon to its setting by Puccini (Manon Lescaut)…or, better yet, compare Auber’s setting of Gustave III ou le Bal masqué, with a libretto by Scribe, to Verdi’s setting of Un Ballo in Maschera to a libretto by Antonio Somma, based on the Scribe original. The latter is Verdi, but the French influence sneaks up: the perky page Oscar is totally ‘French Opera.’ Ever wonder what ‘he’ is doing there?

***Of those mentioned above, all but two sopranos sing Adriana’s aria to me only from recordings. My first Adriana Lecouvreur at the Met starred Montserrat Caballé in February of 1978, followed closely by another in March with Renata Scotto, whose recording of the complete opera with Sherrill Milnes and Plácido Domingo had just been released by Columbia. Also on stage in these were José Carreras as Maurizio and Fiorenza Cossotto as the Princess. Both Adrianas were memorable portrayals and much cherished since, though the emotional temperature was greatly different. I thank my friend RGS for his patience going to hear the opera twice that season with me. Mirella Freni was my Adriana in March of 1994.

Returning to the argument above, Tebaldi’s rendition of the aria, taken from her complete recording from 1962, grabbed my attention and held it. It was part of a three record set of promotional highlights for London Records, a dangerous thing to have around one so suseptable. I remember clearly in spring of 1965 the standees talking about the flap surrounding the ’63 Adriana Lecouvreur production, Tebaldi, her vocal problems, Corelli, the cancellations, the un-nice things said about the whole mess in the press. But I had already missed it (and also would miss the revival at the New Met in 1968-69). The recording of the Met’s 1963 broadcast with Corelli and Tebaldi is instructive, as live performances go. Thank you, Mr. Smith, for my first taste of this! Another great performance is a complete Adriana Lecouvreur from the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in 1965 with diva Magda Olivero (CDs on the Verona label). She was a close friend of the composer and championed the opera in the post war years.

Enjoy! A tremendous thunder and lightning storm of Wagnerian intensity accompanied my entire drive home, but it could not displace the glow of this evening’s performance.

Happy trails. OM


Damrau shines in the Met’s new La Traviata

Verdi’s La Traviata, one of the great operas in the standard repertory, is a centerpiece for a world class soprano with a large vocal skill set, quiver being a word open to misunderstanding here, but also for one who brings a keen sense of character, plus the ability to pull Violetta off dramatically as well. Diana Damrau is such a star. Brava!

Diana Damrau shines as Violetta in Verdi’s  La Traviata

Diana Damrau shines as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata

Her Violetta, as directed by Michael Mayer, wavers on the seesaw of joy, triumph and hope versus despair and death. Do I love this young fellow Alfredo? Do I open myself emotionally to a real love relationship and maybe find true happiness, possibly prolonging my life? Or do I accept the very real probability that the relationship is doomed by a number of factors, not the least of which are a lack of income, social rejection, his family’s rather explicit demands that I disappear, thus forcing me to return to my former hedonistic existence, which will almost certainly hasten my demise? Tough choices, these.

As written, Violetta is a complex character, which, of course, raises the bar of ‘complete realization’ much higher than, say, Verdi’s Gilda. Damrau communicates Violetta’s ever-shifting emotions and thoughts with quick but fluid bursts of expression. Watch her: attend to her face, her hands, the quick changes in her posture and the overall energy level she exudes as each moment passes. Sure, sometimes she exaggerates, but it doesn’t really seem so. More importantly, she is never, as in never a moment offline on stage. Damrau’s singing is equally thrilling, big when called for, but also subtle, inward and smooth as silk as needed. Again, mille bravi!

Juan Diego Flórez and Diana Damrau in Act I

Juan Diego Flórez and Diana Damrau in Act I

Alfredo is sung by a happily-returning-to-the-Met Juan Diego Flórez. He sings with his accustomed grace and sense of style, but one is aware that Verdi’s orchestra at times is not Donizetti’s orchestra, nor is the style of singing demanded always bel canto. Flórez, too, has a fine sense of character and stage presence; he and Damrau are a good match when their characters are closely, quietly in love, as in the heavenly Un di felice, eterea, their magical moment alone duet in Act I.

Quinn Kelsey is a sturdy sonorous Germont, his Di provenza il mar was roundly applauded. The Baron Douphol is sung by veteran baritone Dwayne Croft; Flora Bervoix is Kirstin Chávez, Annina is veteran Met star Maria Zifchak. Others include Jeongcheol Cha as the Marquis d’Obigny, Kevin Short as Dr. Grenvil, Scott Sulley as Gastone, Marco Antonio Jordäo as Giuseppe, and Ross Benoliel as a Messenger.

A salon for gambling at Flora’s, Act II, Scene II

A salon for gambling at Flora’s, Act II, Scene II

Michael Mayer’s conception of Traviata may raise eyebrows in some spots, but on the whole it’s more or less a traditional staging, for one big point, actually set in Paris, therefore already more traditional than his Las Vegas Rigoletto from 2013, with the glitz of the casinos, the elevator, and, in the end, Gilda’s body stashed in the trunk of a car. This La Traviata is updated to the 19th century, markedly so in Christine Jones’ sets and Susan Hilferty’s costumes, each possibly misinterpreting Violetta’s opening line as Floral, amici, as in “yo, my dear friends, give me lots of flowers”* instead of Flora, amici, as in “yo, Flora, friends…” and so on. The costumes are in the bright pastel colors, the flowers that bloom in the spring, summer, with vines and trellises, even a huge complex actually quite interesting ball of flowers hanging above the stage in Act I.

Gambling and dancing: the wild ballet in Act II, Scene II

Gambling and dancing: the wild ballet in Act II, Scene II

Both party scenes, Act I and Act II, scene II, have a colorful chorus choreographed by Lorin Latarro. In Act I the chorus performs in-synch gestures to the music, not excessively so, but just enough to let you know that it’s not random. The Spanish ballet in Act II, scene II has the mimed bull fight and all. This is highly energetic, like really highly energetic, enough to draw a gasp or two or several from the house at the end. Ultimately it’s far more interesting than swirling butts of the Baccanale of Samson et Dalila earlier this season.

In the opening scene, visible during the prelude to Act I, Alfredo, distraught, lays his head beside Violetta’s lifeless body, all others, in mourning, are still. No big surprise: this forshadows the opera’s sad ending. But wait, who is the young woman? I should have looked at the program…We find out her identity in Act II: Germont doesn’t just mention the daughter’s upcoming wedding, he brings the pure innocent young girl along as additional emotional leverage. Okay, cool. But no need to have the daughter somnambulistically stroll across Violetta’s chilly Paris apartment in Act III in wedding attire with a bouquet. Passing right by her soon-to-be death bed? Really? Selin Sahbazoglu is Alfredo’s sister, present in the opening scene.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin continues his path of enlightening revelations of scores we all know and love. Orchestral layers are more prominent, yet not distractingly so.

In sum, Michael Mayer’s new production of La Traviata is certainly a welcome relief from the previous Traviata, though it is not a throwback to the old stand and deliver days we all remember well. Highly recommended, for Verdi of course, for the musicians of course, and it’s pretty, the production is pretty. A smile.

Photos by: Marty Sohl; Act II, Scene II by Jonathan Tichler.

Review performance: Tuesday, December 11, 2018, the 1,014th performance.

*I’m kidding of course. More likely the flowers are because the designers know the story’s background: Violetta (in English, Violet) is based on Alexandre Dumas fils’ Marguerite Gautier, the Lady of the Camellias. Marguerite gives Armand a red camellia saying to return when it changes color; Violetta gives Alfredo a flower, asking him to return when it fades. Plus winter in Act III is characterized by a lack of floral color. Lots of eye catching colorful options in this production.

Verdi’s La Traviata is performed in three acts with two intermissions. The running time of the HD performance is about three hours, ten minutes.

Enjoy! My first Traviata at the Met was in June, 1970, with the beautiful Anna Moffo, the suave Carlo Bergonzi, and Mario Sereni. Memorable. Like yesterday.

Happy Holidays! OM

Puccini’s wonderful Il Trittico at the Met

Il Trittico ranks as three of my favorite operas, each a small masterpiece, in sum, an evening of gems.

Puccini chose the Metropolitan Opera to serve up its world premiere production on December 14 of 1918, barely a month after the Armistice ended the Great War in Europe. This season’s revival celebrates Il Trittico’s 100th anniversary, just as we did for La Fanciulla del West, which had its world premiered at the Met in 1910. Big history, this!

Puccini did not originally intend the three short operas as a trio bound by a common theme. In fact, Il Tabarro was composed by the end of 1916 before the other two were conceived. As he worked on Suor Angelica and later Gianni Schicchi, both libretti authored by Giovacchino Forzano, Puccini came to trust his instinct to perform them in a single evening, allowing the audience to draw meaning from the contrasts of characters and plots.

But, alas, with its large cast, it proved expensive to perform. The Met’s next production of the complete Trittico was unveiled in 1975, though Il Tabarro and especially Gianni Schicchi have been performed at the Met over the years on the same bill as other operas, hence the lopsided performance stats.* For the record, I’m still not even remotely convinced that Gianni Schicchi works as curtain raiser for Strauss’s Salome or Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, or even, for that matter, Hansel and Gretel. The logic behind these artistic/administrative choices escapes me to this day.**

Luigi (Marcelo Álvarez)   and Giorgetta (Amber Wagner) meet quickly while Michele is occupied.

Luigi (Marcelo Álvarez) and Giorgetta (Amber Wagner) meet quickly while Michele is occupied.

Puccini’s Il Tabarro is, in my mind certainly, among the very best of the so called verismo operas, the most popular and most frequently performed representatives of which are Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Il Tabarro is in every way a ‘modern opera’ for its time: darker, more sinister, more desperate, ultimately more heartbreaking. Passionate outbursts rise organically from the orchestral fabric, then, just as quickly, subside. Brief moments of relief are provided by self-defining business from the peripheral characters. Michele’s barge is anchored on the left bank of the Seine River in Paris; an orange sun sets and night falls as the story darkens. Baritone George Gagnidze is an unhappy and somber Michele, roused to anger and revenge when he discovers the identity of his wife’s lover. Amber Wagner is vocally sure as Giorgetta. Marcelo Álvarez is an assertive Luigi, in brilliant voice and strong stature. There are no winners in this love triangle.

George Gnadzhe is Michele in  Il Tabarro

George Gnadzhe is Michele in Il Tabarro

The genius of Puccini also lies in his conception of the smaller roles: here it is the other barge workers, happy passers-by and a music vendor, each identified by nicknames or role definitions: their players are Tony Stevenson as Tinca (in English ‘Tench’) a perpetual drunk, Maurizio Muraro as Talpa (‘Mole’), MaryAnn McCormick as his wife Frugola (‘Ferret’), Brian Michael Moore as the Song Seller and Ashley Emerson and Yi Li as the Young Lovers. As well as in the ensuing other two operas, conductor Bertrand de Billy realizes Puccini’s wonderful score by weaving an intricate orchestral quilt. Il Tabarro is a great opera. The very first orchestral ripples tell all.

Kristine Opolais as Suor Angelica

Kristine Opolais as Suor Angelica

Suor Angelica, sporting an all female cast, is sometimes done alone by smaller local companies, but at the Met it always comes with its two more popular companions. Suor Angelica, like Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi,*** surrounds the principal characters by others defined by snippets of smaller stories, observations and interruptions. Such is the first half or so of Suor Angelica. But then Angelica’s aunt, the stern, overbearing Principessa, makes an unannounced visit.

Through her we learn that Angelica has disgraced her noble family by having a child out of wedlock, the punishment for which she has been removed from society, hidden away in a convent. Though Angelica has found peace and has earned the respect and love of her sisters by tending an herb garden full of flavor, cures, and other ultimately useful remedies, she keeps her secret closed within her, but deeply longs for news of her infant son.

Stephanie Blythe as La Principessa in  Suor Angelica

Stephanie Blythe as La Principessa in Suor Angelica

La Principessa forcefully asserts that, since she is now in charge of the estate of Angelica’s late parents, she will give it all to Anna Viola, Angelica’s sister, who is getting united in holy wedlock. Oh, and by the way, Angelica, La Principessa says, almost as a casual aside, your son is dead.

The sound and scenic pictures of Suor Angelica are as serene as a convent should be, that is until La Principessa arrives. Kristine Opolais, as Angelica, is quiet and to some extent withdrawn, hiding the inner pain of uncertainty about her son’s health and whereabouts. Angelica’s emotional breakdown at the news of his passing and the heartbreaking solution for her anguish is riveting. Stephanie Blythe repeats from previous seasons her strong performance as the soul poisoning Principessa, MaryAnn McCormick is the gentle Monitor who structures the day, Maureen McKay is a delightful Sister Genovieffa. The final scene is very emotional.

Lauretta (Kristina Mkhitaryan) sings  O mio babbino caro , which convinces Gianni Schicchi (Plácido Domingo) to help the relatives

Lauretta (Kristina Mkhitaryan) sings O mio babbino caro, which convinces Gianni Schicchi (Plácido Domingo) to help the relatives

Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi is among the five absolutely best comic operas in Italian, and easily among my top ten in the standard repertory.**** It’s also more familiar so I won’t waste space praising its excellence. Stephanie Blythe, talk about artists who know how to delineate their characters, is a somber, greedy Zita, Maurizio Muraro (from Tabarro) is old Simone, Atalla Ayan is Rinuccio, the great Plácido Domingo sings the baritone role of Gianni Schicchi, Kristina Mkhitaryan is his daughter Lauretta, and so on. Schicchi is a joyful weeper, the final scene with the panorama of Firenze, the lovers Rinuccio and Lauretta at last facing a new life together, thanks to her father…it’s magical.

Rinuccio and Lauretta with Firenze in the background: magic!

Rinuccio and Lauretta with Firenze in the background: magic!

The Met’s production by Jack O’Brian, with sets designed by Douglas W. Schmidt and costumes designed by Jess Goldstein, was new in spring of 2007, General Manager Peter Gelb’s first season, and among the first of the HD telecasts. Hard evidence, I’d say, of just how successful a relatively realistic and emotionally evocative production can be. You don’t need gimmicks.

Don’t miss Il Trittico!! Three treats for the price of one!

Photos by: Ken Howard.

Review performance: Monday, November 29, 2018.

The three operas comprising Puccini’s Il Trittico are separated by intermissions, extended a bit by the changing of the wonderful but rather large sets. The running time of the evening’s performance is about four hours.

* The stats for my evening were: Il Tabarro, 82nd performance; Suor Angelica, 76th performance; Gianni Schicchi, 140th performance.

** Happily I’ve never had to shift musical/emotional gears at the Met from Gianni Schicchi to something completely different. In the winter of 1965, Karl Böhm chose Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan as the curtain raiser for my first Salome (with Birgit Nilsson). In the early ‘70s I remember the Saturday afternoon broadcast of Bluebeard’s Castle from afar, astonished that Gianni Schicchi was also done, but of my two Bluebeards in the house, the first was preceded by Schönberg’s Erwartung (with Jessye Norman) and for the second, the evening began with Tchiakovsky’s one act Iolanta with Anna Netrebko in 2015. The only curtain raiser for Hansel and Gretel in my past was a throwaway light ballet, something about a fan, in December, 1967, when the Merrill/O’Hearn production was brand new (Teresa Stratas was Gretel).

***This is true of all of the Puccini operas in the standard repertory. Part of his genius is to paint in brief musical strokes their personalities, moods, predilictions, etc.

**** My top five Italian comedies? Gianni Schicchi, of course, just said that above. But also Verdi’s Falstaff, Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore and Don Pasquale, and Rossini’s La Cenerentola and Il Comte Ory, which is in French, but Rossini wrote the music. Cenerentola has more soul than Barbiere and Comte Ory overflows with joy.

The other five, to get the ten top comedies: of course Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, incredible, just incredible, as is Cosí fan tutte, but then we have to add Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Every bit worth the effort to embrace these!

What are your favorite comic operas?

Enjoy! OM

Nico Muhly’s new opera Marnie at the Met

Nico Muhly returns to the Metropolitan Opera* with his new opera Marnie, based on the 1961 novel by Winston Graham, published 20 years before the composer was born. Steeped in Graham’s novel, and to some extent Alfred Hitchcock’s film from 1964, I found this Marnie compelling, emotionally charged at times, at other times, like Marnie herself, cool and distant, but consistently an engaging experience, both dramatically and musically.

Isabel Leonard is Marnie

M II.jpg

Central to the plot and to this production is, of course, the title character. Graham’s novel is written in the first person, all Marnie, her voice, her thoughts, her musings, what she hears, etc. From the novel one expects, at least I did, more introspective musings from her character. I mean, after all, opera certainly is the venue for musing aloud, giving airs, venting to the Family Circle. Isabel Leonard’s Marnie remains the center of attention but in the opera, set to a libretto by Nicholas Wright and directed by Michael Mayer, meaningful gestures, postures, poses, and action are added to her vocals. The character is there, just not always singing.

Marnie in therapy, surrounded by the Shadow Marnies

Marnie in therapy, surrounded by the Shadow Marnies

Happily, Leonard is a fine actress. As in the book she can be inconspicuous at times, part of her plan not to be ‘memorable,’ tense when cornered, sometimes cold and calculating, untouchable, self-destructive, and a downright liar, but the Marnie inside (as one learns from the novel) is always conscious of whom she pretends to be at the moment, of whom she was in the past, but also when she can be her real self (that is, as much of her ‘real’ self as she knows). So she is not a multiple personality, as hinted by the frequent appearance and commentary of the cleverly conceived four Shadow Marnies (Deanna Breiwick, Dísella Lárusdóttir, Rebecca Ringle Kamarei, and Peabody Southwell). Yes, Marnie has assumed several identities for her thefts, but they are carefully concocted disguises, temporary, used and discarded, not coexisting personalities unaware of each other’s presence. Under the mask of each identity Marnie gets a job, steals from the business and then disappears without a trace. She gives much of her take to her ailing Mother, sung dramatically by Denise Graves. It is obvious Mother does not love her much, so why does she keep coming back? The death years ago of her baby brother haunts Marnie.

Marnie and Mark Rutland, played by Christopher Maltman

Marnie and Mark Rutland, played by Christopher Maltman

Of course crime doesn’t pay. Her new employer Mark Rutland, sung solidly by Christopher Maltman, hires her, but he also falls in love with her. She is shocked when he says he remembers her from an encounter at a previous job. She is also recognized by a Mr. Strutt, sung by Anthony Dean Griffey, from whom, at this previous job under a different identity, she stole the payroll and disappeared.

Mr. Strutt eyes Marnie suspiciously

Mr. Strutt eyes Marnie suspiciously

Mark learns through Strutt the extent of her crime spree and strives to get Marnie in a position to come clean, make amends, and also possibly move herself toward a real human relationship with him. Mark even offers to pay back all of the money she stole. Marnie, resistant, plots to run from his help by stealing again and leaving the country.

But a terrible riding accident, the death of her Mother, and a trap set by Terry, Mark’s devious brother (sung chillingly by Iestyn Davies) bring Marnie to a chance at psychological release from her horrible prison of guilt.

Julian Crouch and 59 Productions created the sets and projection design here. The changes in scenery are fluidly and effortlessly done, the furniture quietly and gracefully set and removed by balletic men in suits. The colors and scenic projections are effective, including a tsunami of images of Marnie’s face early on and later.

Marnie and her beloved horse Florio (not portrayed here) leaps the fence, pursued by Mark

Marnie and her beloved horse Florio (not portrayed here) leaps the fence, pursued by Mark

I confess to wondering days before my Monday with Marnie how the fox hunt and horse riding accident scenes would be staged, these, back to back, being rather central parts to Marnie’s psychological journey in the novel. As much through Muhly’s increasingly tense music matched by the fast moving projections do we hear and see the suggestions of the hounds tearing apart the poor fox, Marnie’s reaction to this being deep, searing psychic pain. It’s followed quickly by Marnie’s horse Florio galloping wildly out of control, their fall, her injuries and the mercy killing of Florio, much to Marnie’s horror and real physical pain. Mark too, who has tried to stop Florio before he jumps, is nearly killed as well by his falling horse. Now with Mark in the hospital, Marnie’s last theft and flight to France will be easy…but she can’t.

Marnie’s story is not the only thread running through the opera. There are shifting allegiances in the Rutland family, behind-the-back dealings within the company, to some degree class warfare…

Others in the fairly large cast include Marie Te Hapuku as Miss Fedder in Strutt’s office, Gabriel Gurevich as the Little Boy, whom Marnie’s Mother dotes on (you’ll figure out why), Jane Bunnell as Lucy, Mother’s neighbor, Stacey Tappan as Dawn, Marnie’s work and gambling buddy, Will Liverman as Malcolm Fleet and Ashley Emerson as Laura Fleet, both fellow gamblers at Terry’s house, Janis Kelly as Mrs. Rutland, Mark’s mother, a real schemer, Ian Koziara as Derek and James Courtney as Dr. Roman, the Psychiatrist.

The Metropolitan Opera Chorus assumes various social stations throughout the opera; they serve to break the flow of the frequently used Sprechstimme of the soloists.

Muhly’s score is complex yet simple, consistently satisfying: it’s conspicuous how smoothly it develops and progresses through the drama, how characters are given instruments as part of their aural identities. Robert Spano, who is Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony, conducts in his Metropolitan Opera debut.

The costumes by Arianne Phillips capture England in the early 1950s, especially the differences in class; Lynne Page’s choreography gives us intentional dancing, but also the coordinated fluid movements of the aforementioned prop shifters.

Paul Cremo, the Met’s dramaturg, started the project rolling: Marnie was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and co-produced by the English National Opera, where it premiered in 2017.

In sum, Muhly’s Marnie is a winner. Should be quite engaging also in HD.

Photos by: Ken Howard.

Review performance: Monday, October 22, Its 2nd at the Met.

*Muhly’s first opera at the Met, Two Boys in the fall of 2013, was well received, as should be this one.

The Met’s premiere production of Marnie is performed in two acts with one rather long intermission. The running time of the HD performance is about three hours. Marnie is sung in English.

Enjoy! Another nice evening, October still a beautiful month. Happy Halloween, kids!


Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West strikes gold at the Met

Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West is a special opera in my long canon of hits, but this is about 2018, not about those performances in my past. You go Girl!

La Fanciulla del West was, one guesses, revived due to the availability of tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who has not appeared at the Met for a few years, and his stage match mate, soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, who appeared with him here previously in Die Walküre (2011), unforgettable performance, this, and on DVD in a Royal Opera House, Covent Garden production of Andrea Chenier. That there is already chemistry between them adds to the impact of the drama about to unfold in your performance.

A simple explanation for why La Fanciulla del West is, relatively speaking, a neglected child in Puccini’s family of operas could be because Nessun dorma is in Turandot, Un bel di is in Madama Butterfly, and so on, but save Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano, Dick Johnson’s brief solo in Act III, there are no other arias or duets that have managed to make their ways out of the house for recital discs. And also, mainly our issue this side of the Atlantic, an opera sung in Italian about miners, sheriffs, and bandits in the wild west of the California Gold Rush is a bit of a stretch. Whisky per tutti! indeed.*

The Polka Saloon’s regulars decompose when Minnie is away

The Polka Saloon’s regulars decompose when Minnie is away

The cast of miners, sheriffs, and postal workers is large, which, in addition to calling for big choral moments, creates a significant challenge for character definition and interpersonal and musical coordination. Puccini creates several vignettes to show, rather than talk about, their various relationships with Minnie and with each other. Each must be realized both vocally and dramatically.

In Act I, which is on the long side, we find Minnie as the men’s caretaker, surrogate mother, religious educator, and sometimes it’s her turn to watch over their gold hidden under the bar, which, as it happens, falls on the night when the bandit Ramerrez and his gang have come to steal it. Life is really tough and lonely there in the wilderness. They need her comfort, counseling, and support. In sum, Minnie is the guardian angel here and the boys are quick to anger when someone, like an arrogant Sheriff Jack Rance or the stranger “Dick Johnson” threatens these relationships.

Eva-Maria Westbroek is Minnie

Eva-Maria Westbroek is Minnie

Turns out that “Dick Johnson,” Ramerrez in disguise, had met Minnie before on the trail to Monterey, an encounter of mutual attraction, concluding, innocently enough, just with promises not to forget each other. One wonders if he was drawn back into Minnie’s world by a higher power for his own salvation. And for hers. The themes of redemption and salvation weave themselves throughout the story. Minnie is referred to as an angel.**

Eva-Maria Westbroek is a complex Minnie, both tough and tender, buttoned up and self-protecting, but underneath needy of a deeper, more soulful, more permanent relationship. Minnie remembers the love and happiness of her parents, and though ‘mothering’ the miners to some degree fills an emotional void, it is not the same. Frequent references to one Nina Micheltorena,*** a loose woman nearby who makes a living off the miners, provide us with clues of what sort of relationship Minnie most certainly will not find acceptable. Thus one feels the tension in Act II mount as Minnie prepares to lower her guard with Johnson, whom she invites to her abode for a goodbye. Westbroek meets the considerable vocal challenges without difficulty after her brief stretch of warming up. Brava!

Jonas Kaufmann as Dick Johnson at Minnie’s home in Act II

Jonas Kaufmann as Dick Johnson at Minnie’s home in Act II

The chemistry between her and tenor Jonas Kaufmann is evident throughout. His performance style tends toward interpersonal intensity, thereby creating a context for an equally intense response from his women. Watch their body language. Though we were informed of his suffering from a cold, vocally Kaufmann is in relatively fine shape, though not quite so cavalier and free with his upper range as in the past. But he remains a presence in every scene, even when wounded and bleeding from the rafters or about to be hanged in the cold dawn.

Sheriff Jack Rance, a tough man also in search of a deeper human connection, is sung by Željko Lučić. His stiffness, his cruel and gruff manner, not to mention the fact that he’s already married, put him out of the running for Minnie’s hand, but also spell trouble for anyone who seems to get closer to her.

Željko Lučić and the boys prepare to capture Dick Johnson in Act III

Željko Lučić and the boys prepare to capture Dick Johnson in Act III

The large cast includes some standout performances: Carlo Bosi is Nick, Michael Todd Simpson is Sonora, Scott Scully is Joe, Richard Bernstein is Bello, and Joseph Barron is Happy. Alok Kumar is Harry, Matthew Rose is Mr. Ashby of Wells-Fargo, Ian Koziara is a Pony Express Rider, Oren Gradus is Jake Wallace, Jeongcheol Cha is Sid, Adrian Timpau is Jim Larkens, Eduardo Valdes is Trin, and Kidon Choi is José Castro. MaryAnn McCormick is Wowkle and Philip Cokorinos is Billy Jackrabbit. Big cast, neatly differentiated.

Marco Armiliato brings out the riches of Puccini’s elaborate score, which, in Act II, looking backward, recalls the intensity of Act II of Tosca and, looking forward, anticipates the big complexity and richness of Turandot, these two lying more or less a decade in Puccini’s past and future. It is a rewarding experience on every level. Donald Palumbo coordinates the soloists and members Metropolitan Opera Chorus. Big, like California!

The production, originally conceived by Giancarlo del Monaco, son of the great Mario del Monaco, premiered in 1991. It is realized this season by director Gregory Keller, with the wonderfully wild western sets by Michael Scott, lighting by Gil Wechsler. The scenery fills the stage in each act and each set contains at least two levels, either balconies or attic space; enhancing the action are horses, wagons, gunshots, and snow to rival Paris in winter in La Bohème.

It is hard to believe that La Fanciulla del West, which had its world premiere at the Met on December 10, 1910, has racked up only 109 performances over the Company’s long history. Saturday, the last, is 111. Don’t miss it. You never know when the Met will perform it again.

Reviewed performance date: October 20, 2018.

Photos: Ken Howard.

*But then let’s be real here: every opera is a big stretch if you’re looking for the exercise. ALL operas, all forms of art are not real. But to a receptive audience, operas can be powerful experiences, as most of us know well. For the record, Aïda is sung in Italian too, not in ancient Egyptian.

**Though like Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life, Minnie must earn her wings.

***Nina never actually appears on stage.

La Fanciulla del West is performed in three acts with two rather long intermissions, probably due to the complexity of assembling the sets, judging from the hammering backstage. The running time of the HD performance is about three and three quarter hours.

Enjoy! A totally beautiful night in wonderful company. Plus October is a beautiful month. Heaven!


Met's new Samson et Dalila to be telecast in HD

A new production of Camille Saint Saëns’s hot Samson et Dalila* opened the Metropolitan Opera’s 2018-2019 season on Monday, September 24. As operas go, Samson et Dalila sits, I would say, quite high on the list of “French operas swimming just below the surface of the standard repertory,” which includes, if you want to stay more or less contemporary with Saint Saëns, operas by Chabrier, Thomas, Chausson, Dukas, Reyer, D’Indy, the lesser Bizets and Massenets, even, later, the singles of Debussy and Charpentier. But of all these, Samson et Dalila is more frequently performed. I mean, when was the last time you saw Louise at the Met?**

Unlike the others, Samson et Dalila has the virtue of two vocally strong characters whose signature solos, Dalila’s mainly, a languid Love Duet, and the provocative Bacchanale have been at home with us since the dawn of recorded opera, unlike snatches from the works of those other composers mentioned above. Okay, Depuis le jour, but ‘greatest hits’ of the rest are either nonexistent or very very hard to find, at least on this side of the pond.

Roberto Alagna as Samson gives new hope to his people in Act I of  Samson et Dalila

Roberto Alagna as Samson gives new hope to his people in Act I of Samson et Dalila

Though the musical framework surrounding the hits in Samson et Dalila is not at all unpleasant, it sometimes stagnants, leading, dramatically speaking, to a lot of standing around, particularly in the first Act where the downtrodden Hebrews and the oppressive Philistines alternatively give voice to their take on the situation. Early on from the chorus emerges Samson, who urges his people to rise up, affirm their beliefs, and take action. Which they do, though the action is offstage.

Roberto Alagna is Samson in this, his first at the Met. The Biblical character’s feats of strength and moral purpose imply a large shiny voice; as fitting, Alagna’s instrument has developed volume and a broader range than in his earlier years, and, as staged here, Samson is at the center of Act I. Like Rhadames, Alagna takes the heroic stance easily. But on the evening here reviewed he sounded on the dry side already in the first Act, and by Act II it was clear he was experiencing serious difficulties. Hopefully these are temporary; Alagna was replaced by tenor Kristian Benedikt, who, in addition to making his Metropolitan Opera debut, finished the final Act with aplomb.

Elīna Garanča as Dalila looks on as the exotic dancers whirl around her

Elīna Garanča as Dalila looks on as the exotic dancers whirl around her

Elīna Garanča, on the other hand, as Dalila, is superb in all aspects. In addition to a natural beauty and an eye catching stage presence, perfect for a seductress, she has accessed lower reaches of her voice to meet the musical demands of the role. In this new production under the direction of Darko Tresnjak, Dalila perhaps thinks her prior relationship with Samson can be rekindled, and, when they are together in Act II, maybe she has some hesitations about the snare she and the Philistines have set for Samson. In the last Act she seems to have misgivings about or pity for Samson, who stands before her blinded, sheared, and enslaved. One senses Dalila’s not really 100% on board with the celebration...it’s more in her body language. In sum, brava!

Elīna Garanča as Dalila and Roberto Alagna as Samson, here rekindling

Elīna Garanča as Dalila and Roberto Alagna as Samson, here rekindling

The High Priest of Dagon is forcefully sung by bass Laurent Naouri, whom we have seen a lot of in recent productions. Abimélech is portrayed by Elchin Azizov; the Old Hebrew is bass Dmitry Belosselskiy; the First and Second Philistine are sung, respectively, by Tony Stevenson and Bradley Garvin; Mark Schowalter is a Philistine Messenger.

Sir Mark Elder conducts a finely etched reading of Saint-Saën’s luscious score, from the still of a summer’s night in the desert to the wild Bacchanale of Act III.

The Bacchanale in Act III

The Bacchanale in Act III

Samson et Dalila is not by any means a long opera, but, as with Wagner, any staging of Samson et Dalila must cope with the long static moments: the choral work of Act I, a prolonged seduction scene in Act II, and the Bacchanale and celebration of Dagon in Act III, culminated by the collapse of the Temple. Though one gets the sense that Tresnjak created small touches of gesture and expression to delineate fine shifts in the emotional sands, at other times the players seem aimless. At least in the love scene of Act II, the centerpiece of the opera, Alagna and Garnača settle into something approximating sincere, though not vulgar or inappropriate.

Alexander Dodge’s colorful sets seem constructed to represent a world out of time, but then this puts the “timely” costumes and libretto text at odds. The materials from which the structures are built lend themselves to a film set of a more futuristic story, not 1150 BCE as listed in the program. The Temple, which is two halves of a see-through male torso from the waist up, has a passageway through the center: Philistines, maybe even tourists, go in and out throughout Act III; the acrobatic dancers scale it and dangle from it during the Bacchanale, and so on. The torso doesn’t collapse at the end, making it unclear in what way Samson has regained his strength, but there sure is a lot of noise. Austin McCormick’s choreographies in Act I and Act III show a lightness of touch in Act I and, in the Bacchanale, a lot of swirling, athletic swinging and climbing. Big energy stuff, guaranteed to be arousing. Linda Cho’s costumes for the dancers are appropriately scant.

Samson et Dalila is an opera well worth your time invested.  

Review performance: Monday, October 1, 2018

Photos: Ken Howard.

Samson et Dalila is performed as written in three acts. The running time of the HD performance is just about three and a half hours; there are two intermissions.

*Samson et Dalila holds a special place in my vast wing of Metropolitan Opera memories: it was the final performance of a special ’64-’65 season, a season significant because it was the first of the standing room performances. The cast sported the great Jon Vickers as Samson. Even back then I prepped for performances, here, appropriately, with the Vickers/Gorr/Blanc EMI recording (on LP of course), conducted by George Prêtre. In the following season, I witnessed Prêtre conducting Gounod’s Faust (in the fall) and two performances of Parsifal (in the spring), the second of which was my last stand on Broadway and 39th, then my first Tristan und Isolde with Birgit Nilsson in the new Metropolitan Opera House. These are very vivid memories.

**The Met premiered Louise with the Company in January of 1921 with Geraldine Farrar in the title role, a second production in 1930 with Lucrezia Bori, later the lovely Grace Moore and Dorothy Kirsten in the last, the 49th, on December 10, 1948. It has not be revived since. But happily the New York City Opera staged Louise with Beverly Sills in the spring of 1977. Grabbed it, enjoyed it.

Heavenly in NYC for OM’s opening night of the 2018-2019 season…even the traffic cooperated! Ciao!



Metropolitan Opera’s ’18–’19 HD Season

A joy indeed it is to begin the next OperaMetro season with the posting of the Met’s 2018-2019 HD telecast schedule! To some degree the writing is a comforting endeavor, a way to fill the void created by the end of last season, like, wait, what? You mean it’s over!? But, truthfully, each of my days is full of musical moments colored by eager anticipation and glowing retrospection, the latter being decades long at this point. I kid you not…but I digress.

Below is listed the Met’s HD schedule for the 2018-2019 season. The dates and times (ET) listed herein are those of the live performances on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, the source of the telecasts. But these times and dates are not necessarily the same as those of the projected performance @ your favorite HD venue. Throughout the season OM, as you know, lists the specific times and dates at the bottom of a review of the to-be-telecast performance for the venues in our immediate neck of the woods. It’s a little help I give my friends to get by; additionally, to me it gives new meaning to my oft repeated phrase ‘support your local opera.’

The mod  Samson et Dalila  opens the Met season, also in HD

The mod Samson et Dalila opens the Met season, also in HD

The Met’s HD season opens on October 6, 2018 at 12:55 p.m., with a revival of Verdi’s classic Aïda, starring the great Anna Netrebko, who has, of late, tackled some of the grander roles in the Italian repertory* (see Asides and Addenda below). In this by now familiar production by Sonja Frisell, with sets by Gianni Quaranta, Netrebko is joined by Anita Rachvelishvili as Amneris, Alksandrs Antonenko as Radamès, Quinn Kelsey as Amonasro, and Ryan Speedo Green as the King. Nicola Luisotti conducts. A grand opening of a great HD season starring a grand diva.

A new production of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila is the actual Opening Night of this coming 2018-2019 season (Monday night @ 6:00 p.m., September 24), but the opera gets its first ever showing in HD on October 20 at 12:55 p.m. Together again in a steamy French opera are Roberto Alagna as Samson and Elīna Garanča as Dalila. Sets are by Alexander Dodge, costumes by Linda J. Cho; the production is directed by Darko Tresnjak, making his Metropolitan Opera debut.** Others in the cast include Laurent Naouri as the High Priest, Elchin Azizov as the Philistine King Abimelech and Dmitry Belosselskiy as the Old Hebrew. Sir Mark Elder conducts. This should be a good time: Garanča and Alagna raised the temperature in the House with Carmen back in the winter of 2010, the HD performance of which was captured on a 2 DVD set released soon thereafter by Deutsche Grammophon.

Next is a long awaited revival of I think a very underrated opera: Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, telecast on October 27 at 12:55. On the books at least is tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the role of Dick Johnson, paired with Eva-Maria Westbroek as Minnie. Nick Bosi is Nick, Željko Lučić is Jack Rance, Michael Todd Simpson is Sonora, and Oren Gradus is Jake Wallas. The production is by Giancarlo Del Monaco, son of Mario Del Monaco, a highly respectable Dick Johnson back in the day. The sets and costumes are by Michael Scott; Marco Armiliato conducts. The role of Johnson lies well for Mr. Kaufmann these days; here’s hoping we get to hear how well it lies for him live in the House. Were it not so difficult to type with my fingers crossed, they’d be crossed until October.

Nico Muhly’s new opera Marnie gets its Met premiere on October 19, but the HD telecast occurs on November 10 at 12:55. It’s based on Winston Graham’s novel, which is also the source of Alfred Hitchcock’s film of 1964. The alluring Isabel Leonard stars as Marnie, with Christopher Maltman as Mark Rutland, her husband, Iestyn Davies as his brother Terry, Janis Kelly as Mrs. Rutland, and Denyce Graves as Marnie’s mother. Conductor Robert Spano makes his Metropolitan Opera debut. Marnie is co-produced with the English National Opera, at which the opera premiered in 2017; Muhly’s opera Two Boys was well received at the Met in the fall of 2013.

Diana Damrau in the Met's new  La Traviata

Diana Damrau in the Met's new La Traviata

Arguably one of the most popular operas in the standard repertory, La Traviata returns to HD on December 15 at 12:55, at last given a new production to replace Willy Decker’s “ya seen it once, you’ve seen it all opera in concert (just about) with a lot of running around the stage and then there's this omnipresent large clock” production. Michael Mayer directs; the cast includes Diana Damrau as Violetta, Juan Diego Flórez returning to the Met as Alfredo, and Quinn Kelsey as Germont. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts. Christine Jones’ sets are sumptuous; costumes are designed by Susan Hilferty.

Then, on New Year’s Eve, Sir David McVicar’s new production of Francesco Cilea’s lovely Adriana Lecouvreur premieres with Anna Netrebko in the title role, Piotr Beczała as Maurizio, Anita Rachvelishvili as the Princess of Bouillon, Ambrogio Maestri as Michonnet, and Carlo Bosi as the Abbé. Charles Edwards did the Set Design; Brigitte Reiffenstuel does the Costumes; Adam Silverman is the Lighting Designer. The HD performance for Adriana Lecouvreur is January 12, 2019, at 12:55 p.m. Also an unjustly overlooked opera, for sure, but hold the phone for a minute: it is co-produced by five other opera companies here and in Europe. So maybe not so overlooked, right?***

Anna Netrebko as Adriana Lecouvreur in the new production

Anna Netrebko as Adriana Lecouvreur in the new production

Following Adriana on the HD circuit is another production by Sir Richard Eyre, Bizet’s Carmen on February 2 at 12:55. Starring along with Roberto Alagna (Don José) is the beautiful Clémentine Margiane in the title role.**** Micaëla is sung by Aleksandra Kurzak and Escamillo by Alexander Vinogradov. Louis Langree conducts. Another French favorite is Gaetano Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, set in Lauent Pelly’s beloved production, his costumes too, and then sets designed by Chantal Thomas. Javier Camarena essays the role of Tonio to the Marie of Pretty Yende. Stephaine Blythe is the Marquise of Berkenfield. Maurizio Muraro is Sulpice. Enrique Mazzola conducts.

The Robert Lepage production of Wagner’s epic Die Walküre returns to the HD screen on March 30 at 12 p.m. The new cast sports American soprano Christine Goerke in her first run at the Met as Brünnhilde; Eva-Maria Westbroek repeats her role of Sieglinde; Stuart Skelton is Siegmund*****; Jamie Barton is Fricka; Greer Grimsley is Wotan, and Gunther Groissböck is Hunding; Philippe Jordan conducts. The complete Ring is performed at the Met this season, though Die Walküre is the only one to be telecast in HD; a complete Ring live @ the Met is a wonder to witness, certainly to hear in the House.

Isabel Leonard  stars in   Poulenc’s   Dialogues des Carmélites

Isabel Leonard stars in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites

Last, but most certainly not least, is the revival of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, telecast first time in HD on May 11 at 12 p.m. Heading the large cast is Isabel Leonard as Blanche de la Force, along with Adrianne Pieczonka as Mme. Lidoine, Erin Morley as Constance, Karen Cargill as Mère Marie, the great Karita Mattila as the First Prioress, David Portillo as Chevalier de la Force, and Dwayne Croft as the Marquis de la Force. Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts. It’s the John Dexter production, which was new in 1977, with sets by David Reppa, costumes by Jane Greenwood, and lighting by Gil Wechsler. This is a dynamite cast, believe me, and a powerful operatic experience. Something not to be missed. Carmélites will be sung in the original French. ******

Photos by Vincent Peters, save the Carmélites above, which is by Ken Howard.

For those new to the Met in HD, the telecasts are a fantastic way to explore the world of opera in a convenient in a theater near you; check the Metropolitan Opera’s website for locations! Most venues provide subscription packages.

The LIVE IN HD Member Priority pass puts the window for advanced sales as July 12 to July 17 in the USA and Canada. You probably have received this already in the mail.

See you in HD!

Oh, and my pick for operas not to be missed at the Metropolitan Opera this season: Boito's Mefistofele, Puccini's Il Trittico, Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, Tchaikovsky's Iolanta/Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle, Verdi's Falstaff, and of course the Ring, as mentioned above. 

And now for Asides and Addenda:

*The odds are that one of the next big roles in line for Ms. Netrebko is either Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera or Leonora in La Forza del Destino. Alas, Forza! One of my all time favorite operas. First cast was Franco Corelli, Ettore Bastianini, Gabriella Tucci, Giorgio Tozzi (February, 1965) at the Old Met. Had to stand for it...

**Make that Tony Award winning director Darko Tresnjak, who is most recently known here for his direction of Broadway’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (my whole family loved that show!), but…but also, a bit of trivia here, though not really trivial for those of us who know and love these things: Tresnjak is known for his direction of the Los Angeles Opera’s 2009 production of Walter Braunfels’ Die Vögel, (The Birds), which is available on an ArtHaus Musik DVD. Lest you’re thinking ah ha! now, what a coincidence!!! Probably Die Vögel is adapted from the Arthur Hitchcock horror film The Birds!!!!!! Just like Marnie…wow!...no, not so fast, it’s Aristophanes' play by the same name. Lovely opera, Die Vögel, by the way. Bravi LA Opera!

***Some local readers will recall the series we did in the fall of 2016 entitled Italian Operas you should know better: unjustly overlooked operas by Rossini, Bellini, Verdi, Giordano, Cilea and Puccini. The series included Semiramide, I Puritani, La Forza del Destino, Andrea Chenier, Adriana Lecouvreur, and La Fanciulla del West. Save Forza and Chenier, four of the others have been performed at the Met within the past two seasons and this one to come. Bravi Metropolitan Opera! And maybe Forza soon.

**** Clémentine Margaine starred as Leonore in Donizetti’s La favorite at Caramoor in 2015 under the baton of Will Crutchfield.

***** Skelton was the stellar Tristan in the new production of Tristan und Isolde in fall of 2016, paired with Nina Stemme. Now musically speaking that was a Tristan und Isolde for the record books! Shame the production caused as many problems as it solved.

******Dialogues des Carmélites had its world premiere at La Scala in January of 1957 (in Italian with Virginia Zeani and Leyla Gencer), followed by its original French version in Paris later in June (with Denise Duval, Regine Crespin, Denise Scharley and Rita Gorr, conducted by Pierre Dervaux), subsequently recorded by EMI in 1958. Really an amazing recording, hands down. The opera premiered at the Met in English with this John Dexter production in the matinee performance on Saturday, February 5, 1977, with Maria Ewing, Shirley Verrett, Betsy Norden, Regine Crespin and Mignon Dunn, conducted by Michel Plasson.

A story for you: my dear friend Dick and I were going to the Met that same evening, 2/5/77, but he asked me to come to his house early to monitor the reel-to-reel recording he was making of the Carmelites broadcast. He had a local function of some kind to perform at that afternoon, probably a wedding, but this is tangential. It was my first exposure to Carmelites, though I knew some of Poulenc's music from the ABT. I remember being floored by the broadcast: you could literally hear the building tension in the audience, let alone on stage. The ending was heartbreaking. That night he and I attended the evening performance, Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète (new production with Renata Scotto, Marilyn Horne, James McCraken, Jerome Hines: Henry Lewis); as we entered the House, there was a pervasive emotional aura, members of the audience lingering, talking with others who had heard the broadcast. There were vibes…you remember vibes, right, man, good vibes, bad vibes. Two weeks later Dick and I later saw Carmelites (2/19). As we settled into our seats upstairs a strange odor, stinging, pervaded the air. “Tear gas, I think,” said Dick, who’d been in Viet Nam. Sure enough we had to evacuate the theater quickly and stood outside on Lincoln Center Plaza for at least an hour while the great ventilation system did its magic. The show must go on! And it did. And we discovered for ourselves what the aura was all about. Trust me, it’s a profound music-drama. Don’t miss this one.

Summer time! There is life! Enjoy! And look forward to the HD season. Plan to take a friend too. J.