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26 April, 2015

Cavalleria Rusticana (Mascagni) and I Pagliacci (Leoncavallo) at the Met April 2015

This dual production of the verismo twins is a strange marriage of directorial talent with megalomania with much excellent singing shining through.  The McVicar productions will be controversial which probably suits The Met despite any insult to the art.  And the second opera IS an insult - from start to finish.  Pagliacci is a masterpiece, the composer himself a poet, carefully writing each line of the libretto in the marvellous drama which moves relentlessly towards theatrical tragedy by way of a play within a play.  The play itself has some Punchinello slapstick yet the director expands this to the entire opera starting unforgivably half way through the Prologue, Si puo? a baritone showpiece for good reason. 
In the busy and cluttered production of Pagliacci there are dozens of examples of hilarious and well rehearsed side-shows by acrobats, actors and vaudevillians.  Much of this distracts and thus detracts from what is happening centre-stage in the vocal drama we paid to see and hear.  The above example yields laughter from the audience during the Prologue over some shenanigans with a microphone cord stuck in Tonios groin, pulling three goofy assistants out of the wings, all to great hilarity.  The words of the Prologue compare life in the theatre with the real world and that the actors real and vulnerable people.  The three stoogers are brilliant vaudeville actors, yet they are greatly overused to my mind. 
Another example is clever but distracting, being Taddeo (Tonios) sudden appearance providing an alibi to Pagliaccio (Canio) for Colombina (Nedda) having set two places at table.  Traditionally this is sung as a terrified stammer credetela (believe her!) but McVicar has Tonio sing from the deep freeze cabinet as if he were shivering - ice and vapour for added realism as the door is opened to reveal the hidden witness.  The humour spoils the lines to my mind and does nothing but draw attention to Mr McVicar and away from Leoncavallos drama. 
Half way through Canios famous aria Vesti la giubba the curtain mysteriously drops, breaking the continuity to some extent.  Mr Alvarez then continues the aria while stage noise can be heard behind, yet again distracting from what should be a magnificent set piece for the tenor.  Another unforgivable concession to stage pragmatism by Mr McVicar who is starting to get on my nerves. 
The noise of a trucks starter-motor, especially a faulty one, is an ugly and unnecessary start to an opera, despite it being novel, funny and unexpected.  It is witless. 
Taddeo arrives in the play with a toy chicken (as required in the libretto - all of McVicars devices, however stupid, seem to come from the book) but he then uses the puppet as a TV character ventriloquist.  Nedda pokes the same springy toy into a saucepan and puts it on the stove as the attendant three stoogers clown with a bowl of whipped cream which ends up on several faces.  Even the cooked chicken comes to life again on the dinner table - but does this hilarious gag add? 
Modern Met productions really require two reviews, one for the opera in the theatre and another for Live-HD cinema broadcast as they are significantly different experiences.  I can only comment on the theater experience after attending the twin operas (twice) live. 
To state the obvious, only the theatre audience will hear the actual live voices of the singers and direct orchestral sound unaltered by technology.  Thus voice size is less relevant to the cinema audience.  Likewise the appearance of revolving scenery and also mishaps I was told that with a very short delay the live transmission can be switched to the previously recorded rehearsal as a back-up in case of stage or technical problems.  I was not told how often this is done in practice but it would seem like a useful strategy to avoid disappointing a huge paying audience around the world (only countries near Australias longitude do NOT receive the broadcasts direct due to the inclement hour of night). 
Like the Lepage Ring, these operas, with all their faults, fulfil the Met's need for something completely different yet maintaining the realism demanded by a conservative New York audience.  On the same open, dark-walled set, the operas make a stark contrast from each other. 
Unlike the bright and busy Paglicci production, the first opera Cavalleria Rusticana is mostly dark and tranquil with the intense emotion depending on the musical/vocal components.  It commences with a huge ring of black chairs and a tasteful slow circuit of the stage revolve finds us virtually meeting each villager a very Southern Italian thing to do.  Then very soon, like a child with a new toy, the director over-uses the stage revolve to the extent that I was positively vertiginous by the end of Pagliacci from the never-ending stage circles, both ways, fast and slow, most to no particularly dramatic point.  Most ridiculous was to see the entire chorus of over fifty singers in the first opera all gradually jerk themselves one way while the stage revolve goes the other, leaving them all in the same positions.  As a final insult just as the dramatic La comedia e finita was announced the revolve went into full speed.  Presumably this was to present the empty side of the stage for the curtain calls yet this could have been achieved without interrupting the operas dramatic ending.  I was intrigued that amid all the realistic attributes, candles, veils, wine jugs, fruit and vegetables, etc in Cavalleria Rusticana there was an odd mechanical refectory table with visible hydraulic expandable supports yet also with chunky wooden false legs.  One allows artistic licence but the one day of the year when village markets in Italy probably did not function was Easter Day. 
To give credit where it is due, the performance of Cavalleria Rusticana was both menacing and meaningful.  The singing was excellent from the off-stage Siciliana to the shriek at the end announcing the death of Turridu.  Mr Alvarez played both tenor roles brilliantly while George Gagnidze played both Tonio and Alfio with equal effect.  Patricia Racette played Nedda both excellent in voice and as a sexy singing actress.  Santuzza was played solidly by Eva-Maria Westbroek.  Lola with the unlikely name of Ginger Costa-Jackson was born in Sicily and may have been the only cast member with genetic and cultural connections to the stories.  The minor roles were also all well acquitted.  Silvio (Lucas Meachem) and Nedda had a long section of their duet restored and charmingly sung by both. 
By the modern vogue, things happen on stage during each of the orchestral interludes except for the Pagliacci intermezzo which then paradoxically is followed by a long pause, presumably for set changes.  The Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana is one of the greatest operatic orchestral pieces ever written.  How bizarre then that a director would feel the need to deflect attention from it.  Would he put some stage miscellany on stage during a Beethoven symphony or Bach cantata?  Maybe he would!   

19 April, 2015

Spectacular Aida again at the Met.

Aida - Verdi - Metropolitan Opera House, New York City. Friday 17th April 2015
I attended the second last outing of Aida for this season with Maestro Domingo on the podium and a strong cast.  When still one of the three tenors Domingo had been the original Radames in this classic production’s premiere in 1988 - along with Leona Mitchell, Sherrill Milnes, Fiorenza Cossotto and James Levine in the pit.  This is one of the few productions to survive the ‘Gelb purge’, the reason being that it would be hard to beat! 
While I adore the massive Egyptian colossi, sphinxes, march of hundreds, horses and triumphalism, for the purist it is a clever fraud stylistically.  It was fortuitous that I visited the Egyptian wing at the Metropolitan Museum earlier in the day, noting that the set designer Gianni Quaranta must have done the same thing, quite correctly, but got one major detail totally wrong.  Those faded frescoes, chipped statues and archaeological remnants would all have been new and vibrant at the time of the opera.  I once saw Anna Bolena at Covent Garden just after visiting the Tower of London and noted some similar incongruities. 
But I am being pedantic and the singing is what really matters … and it was 9 out of 10 for the most part - the Met chorus scoring ten.  Mark Delevan was most impressive playing Amonasro, as was Ramfis, played by Stefan Kocan a solid Met regular. 
Italian Marco Berti was fine as Radames managing the almost impossible Celeste Aida more than passably with much accurate and exciting singing beyond. 
Lithuanian Violeta Urmana was splendid as Amneris although her usually strong mid-voice seemed underpowered at times.  Her highs and lows were exemplary as was her drama especially at the end of Act IV, Scene 1 when she is torn between anger, love and grief. 
Oksana Dyka from the Ukraine (meaning ‘borderlands’) sang an excellent Aida.  Her dramatic input was stereotyped and her arms out-arms in became repetitive and irritating at times.  Her voice rose to numerous substantial heights yet she did not break any records (or chandeliers).  Maria Callas has detracted from the end of Act II for all who have heard recordings of her phenomenal feat in Mexico City singing a long, powerful and exciting E flat above chorus and orchestra.  The only more exciting thing I have heard is the thunderous applause from the audience following that high note.  A less stable nation might have been driven to a coup d’etat. 
The Met production by Sonja Frisell also has many high points but it is hard to go past the start of her Triumphal March which is still a breathtaking stage phenomenon no matter how many times one has seen it.  Aida is a brilliantly constructed drama conceived in outline by doyenne Egyptologist Auguste Mariette (who is not credited on the Met program title page).  The characters and interactions are all believable to me.  Verdi put all his mature genius into this work, having been brought out of retirement by the King of Egypt, his own wife and numerous others around him.  Possibly more than any other composer he developed his art - over six decades. 
While the drama, melodies, vocal ornaments and choruses are exemplary in Aida, for me the unique factor lies in the brief orchestral sections starting and finishing each act.  As with Falstaff, Verdi’s final opera, we have instrumental emotion, characterisation and even personality shining through an art which began with Gregorian chants a thousand years earlier (and these were unaccompanied!).   Listen for the crickets at the start of the Nile Scene! 
The Met orchestra was marvellous including six trumpeters on stage for the big scene.  The players know what they are doing with this popular ‘pot boiler’ being the ‘A’ of the ‘ABC’ of operas.  And some of the senior members may have played under Toscanini!  Much of the excited applause was clearly for the conductor Mr Domingo who Mr Gelb quoted recently to the audience as ‘immortal at the Met’.  And his presence must have contributed to the near full houses of recent performances. 
Notes by Andrew Byrne ..
Andrew’s Travels:
More soon (if I can) on Ernani both with and without Mr Domingo; new Cav&Pag production by David McVicar, A Masked Ball, Don Carlos and The Merry Widow.  A marvellous month of opera despite frequent illness amongst the singers.  Even some pre-Bach choral masses from Spain! 

06 April, 2015

Pontoon Aida on Sydney Harbour.

Aida - Verdi - Mrs Macquaries Chair, Sydney Harbour Fri 27th March 2015.

I am still in two minds about the Handa Harbour Opera in Sydney each autumn. On the one hand I love opera and applaud any attempt to bring it to a wider audience - and it is indeed a spectacle of opera and more. On the other hand, there are major draw-backs which make me positively cringe. The singers have to be amplified and thus we lose their one unique feature being the natural voice direct to the audiences ears as in the opera house. Furthermore, a month of outdoor opera monopolises a large part of the Sydney foreshores for a strange and irrational art form enjoyed by only a privileged minority of our community. The noisy display of fireworks during and after the show is another aspect which some may criticise. And then we have the weather (which is probably why they invented the opera house in the first place).

The main singers were strong apart from a miscast tenor, Walter Fraccaro. The role is tough and the most difficult aria occurs in the first 10 minutes of the opera. Like Otello, Verdis next and second last opera, the tenor role is suitable for only a very small proportion of tenors and Mr Fraccaro is no longer amongst them (if he ever was). He did warm up to some degree and he sang all of the notes.

The weather and ambiance were perfect for a gala opening, Sydneys dusk providing a backdrop for a drink and sustenance at tables on parapets constructed high above the water, all in view of the opera set. The pontoon sported a colossus of Nefertitis head, surrounded by dozens of red 44 gallon drums. Intriguing and talking points for the early arrivals. The original bust is in the Neues Museum in Berlin and is one of the most beautiful representations of the human form, crafted in the 18th dynasty ~1300BCE under the rule of Akhenaten, Nefertiti’s husband.

The performance of Verdis Egyptian masterpiece was most exciting on the whole with other principals, chorus and orchestra under Maestro Castles-Onion. For the start of the Triumphal Scene the long-necked statue slowly rotated to reveal the Pharaoh and his entourage miraculously in place and on time for the scene. Two magnificent camels strode back and forth across the faux proscenium with prisoners and carts full of booty and plunder for Pharaohs approval. Two rows of angled black plastic coffins reminded us of body bags of recent campaigns and the carnage of war as the victors celebrated and the vanquished mourned. And we even got the fabled Mexican E flat at the scenes end - although it could not have been sung by Ms Latonia Moore who, despite a vast talent in the dramatic soprano range would have to be super-human to have a sustained E flat in the voice***. Of course, being amplified, another singer could easily sub for the note as happened once in Macbeth with the Australian Opera decades ago (sung from the wings as the soprano turned away from the audience). For that matter any capable member of the ladies chorus could venture the high note (which is unwritten and dramatically inappropriate coming from the slave girl).

The Nile scene was magnificent and well exemplifies Verdis genius melding drama and vocal lines as the lines are sung: La gole di Napata. This revealed, like Wikileaks today, the unguarded remarks of the Commander in Chief who is thereby disonorato (dishonoured), leading to his being condemned to death in the judgment scene before the operas end in the tomb scene, Amneris pleading for peace (Pace, pace way above in Nefertitis damaged eye socket) as the music comes to an end.

Other details of the production would take pages of descriptions clever manoeuvres and devices, mostly straight from the book. Costumes were from cybermen outfits to Victorian dresses, white military uniforms and a loud, multicoloured balloon dress for Aida herself, looking like New Orleans fiesta.

So my advice for anyone in Sydney is to try to get a seat. The rear side seats are great value at just under $100 each. And try to borrow a program as there are no cast lists and the glossy programs are quite expensive. The food and drink are also at inflated prices, but thats what one would expect for such a venue. The slow service is also typical of the genre so get there early if you wish to partake and support the enterprise beyond the seat price.

Notes by Andrew Byrne ..
*** Note Aug 2017: I have now purchased the video of this wonderful performance and have to concede that for all appearances Ms Moore does indeed sing the E flat ending the Triumphal March.  Humble apologies! 
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