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21 April, 2006

Lots lacking in last night's Lohengrin. But much great opera, too. Heppner, Mattila, Fink, DeVol.

Met, Lincoln Center

20 April 2006

Dear Colleagues,

The 3 long acts of Lohengrin at the Met gave us "the best of times and the worst of times". Karita Mattila, who we had the privilege of meeting briefly after the performance, was magnificent as Elsa. Her range is wide, voice sizeable and she is accurate and musical to a fault. But the production and some vocal problems made it hard to "enjoy" this Lohengrin. I recall seeing it about 6 years ago and it was an endurance then as well.

This revival still has all its elements in place, even though some changes may have been made. Gilbert and Sullivan did it for ONE single aria ('You hold yourself like this; you hold yourself like that ...' from Patience) but these singers had to "do it" for 5 hours! For every moment on stage, every performer from King to chorister had to appear stiff and stylised 'like a Japanese marionette' (Mikado). White faces of the principals and blackened faces of the chorus seemed to have no particular meaning. Hand movements were meticulously choreographed throughout. At one point in a darkened stage, all principals had ONE hand individually illuminated to no particular effect . which would have been invisible from much of the 4000 seat hall. Also, all male leads had similar facial hair and dark costumes which is impractical for such a stage work.

The opening becomes a 'Trial by Jury' scene with King Henry as judge, Elsa the accused and Telramund as plaintiff while Lohengrin (as yet unnamed and unnamable) is chief witness for the accused. The mystery witness wins the hand in marriage of Elsa ... on condition of keeping his anonymity. Could a story be more Gilbertian?

Stephen West was ill, so we heard Andrew Greenan as King Henry. But the replacement was obviously also indisposed as his voice disappeared not long after his strong opening. His low notes were inaudible and his mid range seemed to be obscured by phlegm and were garbled or gargled. He was clearly uncomfortable, as was the audience. So where was Rene Pape when we needed him? Answer: in the audience! He is scheduled to take over the part on Monday.

Mr Heppner sang strongly and acted well in the first two acts. However, when he needs to shine in Act III things were not comfortable for him, either. He seemed to be curtailing some notes, singing a few 'glottals' and indeed just about 'cracked' on one high note in his aria. As a consummate professional, he knows how to recover and control things, but this inevitably means losing some of the excitement of the piece and losing some confidence with the audience. I do not know why his final song to the swan is sung facing away from the audience. It is just another crazy decision in a crazy production.

Many of the tableaux were very beautiful, using a bright, clear background, sometimes sky blue but often multicoloured, there were silhouettes, shadows and large fluorescent boxes in the foreground but otherwise bare stage settings. The overall impression of the production was that the characters were not human, the emotion was all artificial and the story needed no telling. This is contrary to what Wagner wanted in his usually detailed stage directions and is certainly not want I want to see in the theatre. While all opera plots have ludicrous twists, the point is that these 'twists' lead to many different circumstances where great emotion can come out using singing and orchestra. And when singing these 'high points' there needs to be great freedom for the singers to put all their energies into singing. Here they were constrained severely by the direction.

I have enjoyed Lohengrin elsewhere and had hoped to be won-over by this production. But it was not to be . even from the best orchestra seats. Remarkably, there was no wedding, which had to be imagined. Telramund actually got up and walked off stage after his murder (second time unlucky) . and his body was invisible in the stretcher carried back on stage. Weird!

A delightful surprise was a wonderful performance from Luana DeVol as Ortrud. She was glorious with full throttle, ringing, high soprano voice and exemplary dramatic sense. Richard Paul Fink, another true Wagnerian, was an impressive and comparably equipped Telramund.

The orchestra under Maestro Phillippe Auguin was magnificent. He sometimes looked to have his eyes closed while conducting music he obviously knows by heart. During the wedding music opening Act III he positively jumped on his podium, enjoying every glorious second. We learned afterwards about some foibles of the Met and its new management. He also tells some spicy behind-the-scenes opera stories from Europe, Australia and beyond (is there anything beyond Australia?). He was in his element last November in the Beijing Ring from Nuremberg.

comments by Andrew Byrne ..

13 April, 2006

Fidelio at the Met. 8 out of 10!

The Metropolitan Opera, New York City

8pm Thursday 13th April 2006

JaquinoGregory Turay
MarzellineJennifer Welch-Babidge
RoccoKristinn Sigmundsson
LeonoreErika Sunnegardh
Don PizarroAlan Held
First PrisonerDimitri Pittas
FlorestanRichard Margison
Don FernandoJames Morris
ConductorPaul Nadler
ProductionJurgen Flimm

Dear Colleagues,

This performance rounded off an entirely successful Fidelio season for the company. Not only a New York Times article about 'waitress to soprano' but also a reported minor vocal mishap on her opening night yielded publicity well beyond the normal. Ms Sunnegardh was second cast to Mattila's prima donna which I did not hear.

This up-dated production by Jurgen Flimm and Robert Israel is clever, stylish and sympathetic to the book. The 'rescue' opera takes place around 1960 in a repressive European political regime. Although the set was a 19th century prison, fluorescent lights, supermarket shopping bags and tailored military uniforms brought us into the middle of the 20th century. In a brilliant contrasting coup, the final scene moved on without a break from darkest dungeon to bright square outside. Against a bright blue horizon, we saw an equestrian statue (under construction) of Don Pizarro in the guise of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Its defacing by the crowd was reminiscent of the toppled Saddam in another failed dictatorship.

The final jubilant chorus was adrenalin-plus. Each principal singer could be clearly heard as well as the orchestra and chorus in their turn. And while the opera has dramatic imperfections, the finale must be one of the most joyous pieces of musical writing anywhere in opera. And there is the awkward and dramatically unsatisfactory 'side show' of Marzelline discovering that her betrothed is actually a woman. Joachino is her consolation prize.

Typical of the Met, most performers had long CV's. Conductor Mr Nadler was not typical of the Met as James Levine had injured himself in a theatre fall recently requiring shoulder surgery. Yet there was a feeling that Levine was there in spirit, rubato and all.

'Swedish American' Ms Sunnegardh as the title role was the newcomer, her career debut being in 2004 according to the program. She has a impressive, penetrating, accurate and large voice, especially secure in the high register. Her performance earned a rare standing ovation at the end from a substantial minority of the audience. She seemed overwhelmed by the reception.

Icelander Kristinn Sigmundsson sang Rocco to a perfection. Somewhat reminiscent of Kurt Moll, he has a large frame and matching velvet vocal output.

Richard Margison commenced his act with a pianissimo 'Gott' and sang the rest with power and pathos as required.

The first felon, Dimitri Pittas, sang some charming bars on being released into the sunlight. A clever touch put him into a dog-collar, worsening the impression of the police state imprisoning a cleric.

I doubt that James Morris would get his full fee for the cameo appearance as Don Fernando, yet he sings with suave authority if with a distinct beat at times.

The Met chorus was in finest form, being brilliantly directed such that there was a paucity of movement in the prison scenes yet mirth and frivolity emphasised at the end with corresponding activity, dancing, etcetera.

All in all a triumph for the Met. I'm not sure if that can be said of all their recent shows.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..