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22 April, 2011

Otello by Verdi at Carnegie Hall Friday 15th April 2011

Otello by Verdi at Carnegie Hall Friday 15th April 2011.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra conductor: Riccardo Muti

The two best operas we heard during the month were at opposite ends of the spectrum. Comte Ory is a Rossini romp full of froth and bubble where Otello is as serious as it gets. We were indeed privileged to hear Riccardo Muti perform Otello at Carnegie Hall with his orchestra and chorus from Chicago and a group of highly talented principal singers. It was a marvellous and special performance, complimented by the near perfect acoustics of Carnegie Hall (c. 1891, seating 2800). These performances marked Muti’s return to the podium after 2 months following cardiac arrhythmia causing a collapse and serious facial injuries. After surgeries and a pacemaker he again looks his youthful and radiant self, bounding with extraordinary physical and musical energy.

The opera was stunning in every way. It was announced that Mr Aleksandrs Antonenko was under treatment for a stomach ailment and craved our indulgence. His performance as the moor was peerless. He has a big, beautiful tenor voice with the heft, depth and colour needed for this supreme operatic role. His Desdemona was played by Krassimira Stoyanova who sang the heart out of the role, again with style, power and tasteful intonation. Carlo Guelfi was a menacing Iago, starting out weakly and with a wide wobble but, like a locomotive he reigned in his powerful instrument to this long and challenging role. Unlike some other creditable singers we have heard in this role, Guelfi had all the high notes for the drinking song - and more besides. In the last note of his dramatic ‘credo’ he could not be heard due to the orchestra, something I found surprising with a conductor who is normally so sympathetic to singers.

Other roles were also well chosen with Cassio being played by a good looking young Argentinean tenor Juan Francisco Gatell who sang extremely well, despite being particularly short and having a terrible ‘mod-mess’ hair style. Barbara Di Castri played Amelia, Eric Owens played Lodovico and Michael Spyres, Roderigo. Each was admirable.

As ever in New York the audience was almost as interesting as the show. In the two rows in front of me were Bryn Terfel, Mrs Jonas Kauffman and Sarah Billinghurst of the Metropolitan Opera. The previous Otello I heard in this hall was the ill-fated return of Carlo Bergonzi in 2000. The ‘three tenors’ and many other famous people attended. Many left before the second half after the fabled tenor pulled out sick (and after giving one of the worst performances of his illustrious career – and following a reportedly magnificent dress rehearsal just the day before).

The Chicago orchestra provided an enormous chorus of perhaps 200 adults and 50 children who filled the hall with wonderful vocalisation. Apparently they all flew in for the occasion having done two performances in their home town. It demonstrates that a concert performance can be as exciting as the staged work (or even more so) and it would be almost impossible to imagine a stage which could fit this number of singers altogether in costume.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

18 April, 2011

Comte Ory. Rossini. Met Opera (cinema then theater).

Comte Ory. Rossini. Met Opera. Sat 9th (cinema), Thurs 14th (theatre) April 2011

For the third time now I have been extremely privileged to see an opera in the theatre AFTER having first seen a telecast of the same production. Prior to Comte Ory I had seen Rheingold and Tosca on the screen followed by visits to the ‘real thing’.

My notes on the operas in New York are now almost superfluous since anyone with a computer can listen in on Sirius broadcasts for almost any Met performance (and free public radio on Saturdays during the season). Suffice it to say that both live and electronic, Florez is incomparable, Damrau and DiDonato are magnificent and the comic production is a great irreligious romp, raunchy and with a great comeuppance at the end. It might be subtitled ‘Nuns on the Run’.

As readers would know, once every few weeks there is also a video transmission to participating cinemas across the world (43 countries, Egypt is the latest, we were told). These are Saturday matinees streamed in ‘high definition’ direct in the Americas as well as to Europe, where it is Saturday evening with the time zone. Due to the ungainly time difference, they are streamed to Australia and the Far East a week or two later at a more suitable hour. This necessarily loses that immediacy and ‘danger’ factor intrinsic to direct ‘live’ transmissions.

Only those in or near New York City have the choice for Met productions. The rest of the opera world may attend a cinema telecast or listen to a radio or CD/DVD recording. Hence I felt very lucky to be able to attend numerous live performances during a stay of almost four weeks in New York (see below for the operas I attended, with comments on: ).

The most obvious difference is the immediacy of non-amplified voices, live in the theatre. Opera is about voice, after all. And opera singers of all things need to have a voice which can be heard from the back of a large theatre … as well as the rest. See my blog notes on stunt people being used and how much more obvious it is in the theatre: see Tosca and Rheingold notes also comparing live with HD viewing. There were also ‘stunt’ people in Comte Ory in the form of three men dressed as nuns who did some crazy synchronised steps including one calamitous spill on stage. I don’t believe that the principals were replaced as they were in Rheingold and Tosca on numerous occasions.

I was invited by a donor colleague to a lavish patron session at the Met on the afternoon of the HD telecast of their new production of Comte Ory on Saturday 9th April. Rather than just a panel introduction (which happened in March before the season started) it was in fact a fully catered brunch with all the bells and whistles. Bagel, cream cheese and lox, quiche Lorraine and salad served with champagne, petit fours, tea and coffee an hour prior to the start of the opera. During the vittels we heard an insightful speech by Sarah Billinghurst who is the Met Artistic Director (and a Kiwi). She spoke about their approach to repertoire generally and in particular, she said that they aimed to mount one new work each year … meaning an established opera which had never been done at the Met. This year was Comte Ory. I wondered if Anna Bolena was the new one for next year.

We were also given a few snippets about the Met’s policy on folio versions and translations in response to a rather critical piece in the New York Times on the subject that day (‘Timing is everything!’). The company had decided against the ‘new’ translation simply because it was not available when they programmed the opera three to four years ago. Changing text or music in such circumstances has contract and artistic implications and had to be rejected. Ms Billinghurst said that this did not mean that the company would not consider using the new translation in the future ‘by all means’. The cost of using a modern copyrighted versions of works is also a consideration when, as she reminded the room filled with generous donors (myself excluded but including my generous hostess) that the Met’s box office receipts only cover half of the budget so all expenditure has to be closely vetted. The ‘classics’, of course, come free of patent or royalties.

Ms Billinghurst then discussed the ‘good news’ that Mr Florez had agreed to sing at successive seasons at the Met in the foreseeable future. She emphasised that after a brief foray with the Duke from Rigoletto in South America, Mr Florez had determined to stay within his current fach by singing the lighter bel canto roles which he had started eight seasons ago with Barber of Seville (a season I heard him do Almaviva on two occasions - it was extraordinary). Mr Florez had also decided against singing in I Puritani.

Our speaker told us that the Comte Ory was one of Rossini’s last operas. The already very famous composer lived in London for a time but was lured back to Paris with a lucrative contract. He composed Voyage to Reims for the coronation of Charles X but withdrew the work in order to recycle six numbers for Comte Ory. His final opera, just after this, was William Tell, written when he was 38 years old after which he retired and wrote little else but charming songs.

Comte Ory will never be one of the ABC of popular operas, nor does it contain any classic concert items. However it is crammed full of wonderful melody and may contain Rossini’s “busiest” music. The act I finale is brilliant. It has some orchestration reminiscent of the Fledermaus overture as well as hints of Semiramide and Fille du Regiment.

We were told that Joyce DeDonato has been offered the role, despite it having no discrete aria. The role had huge vocal and dramatic challenges which suited her talents … and she had worked with the other principal artists already with great success. Ms Damrau likewise seemed ideally suited to the colossal coloratura and hilarious comedy situations. The opera has a night time bedroom scene in which there are three people in a bed but only two of them know they are not a couple. For once Mr Florez is on the butt of the joke and he also “loses the girl” and Ms Billinghurst told us that Ms DeDonato was the one who gets away with the girl - ‘two girls go off together’ she said mischievously. She then gave a rap for Maestro Benini who is very much at home in this sort of repertoire.

The production is original and well executed as a play within a play in an 18th century proscenium theatre. The telecast is introduced by Renee Fleming and I would recommend it to anyone.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Queen of Spades
Romeo and Juliette
Comte Ory
Otello (Carnegie Hall, Chicago Orchestra with Muti)

New York Blog:

11 April, 2011

Wozzek inter alia.

Dear Friends,

The Metropolitan Opera has restaged Berg's Wozzek. Although being one of the great works and a star case it is not my cup of tea being intellectual and dissonant. A mischievous friend wrote to say that I should know that half-way through it reverses and runs backwards so that it ends at the beginning.

This was also the Met debut of Australian tenor Stuart Skelton (Drum Major) along with Gerhard Seigel (Captain), Alan Held (title), Maltraud Meier (Marie) conducted by an extremely frail looking James Levine. The orchestration is phenomenal, complex and loud, if not always exactly beautiful. The last two scenes are particularly novel. The opera received a huge ovation in the house and especially the beloved maestro.

I will have been fortunate to hear Tosca, Romeo and Juliette, Queen of Spades, Rheingold, Otello and Comte Ory (see my notes on the opera blog). Some names include Domingo (conducting), Stephanie Blythe, Violeta Urmana, Salvatore Licitra, James Morris, Hei-Kyung Hong, Piotr Beczala, Vladimir Galouzine, Peter Mattei, Juan Diego Florez, Joyce deDonato, Diana Damrau, Dolora Zajick, James Levine and Riccardo Muti. Tickets for all operas were all easy to obtain over the internet, most costing less than $100 for excellent positions in the house. It makes the quality and price of opera in Sydney seem to be very poor options.

More notes on Comte Ory and Otello next week.

06 April, 2011

Tosca. Monday 4th April 2011. Metropolitan Opera.

Tosca. Puccini. Monday 4th April 2011. Metropolitan Opera.

Dear Colleagues,

I enjoyed this production which is updated to the 1920s but still seems to ‘work’ in most every respect.

Violetta Urmana is now clearly a soprano, having done some ‘in between’ roles like Santuzza and Kundry. She did a most creditable Princess Eboli a few years back with Rolando Villazon in Amsterdam (available on DVD). On this occasion she sang Tosca, a dramatic soprano role. She was magnificent in this rather up-dated and somewhat controversial production. Her ‘Vissi d’arte’ was splendid. Rather than singing, she spoke her lines after killing Scarpia: “E avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma”.

Salvatore Licitra did a grand Cavaradossi, letting loose on all the top notes as well as putting in all the most delicate shadings to his legato singing.

James Morris is one of the few survivors of the ‘golden age’ and yet he can still pull it out of the bag for Scarpia. I was concerned as he had some ugly exposed notes early on with a wide wobbly beat, yet he reined it in and sang large and loud, as becomes the evil Rome Chief of Police.

Angelotti was played by Richard Bernstein who was also excellent. At the start, after a spotlight flashes around the darkened interior of the church annex, his appearance was from a high portcullis whence he descended by a thick rope to the stage floor only to walk through a side chapel and reappear to start the action of the opera. I had it pointed out to me that in fact it was clearly a ‘double’ who shinnied down that rope. This was revealed by a visiting Australian soprano we happened to meet at intermission (New York is teeming with Aussies at present). We were told that singers just hate doing that sort of thing. She and her partner were also mightily impressed with the Met goings on and were only disappointed to have missed Rheingold, saying ‘you had to kill someone’ to get a ticket (I know I was lucky, having booked some months ago). I should point out that Angelotti somehow managed to pull his rope free from the ground, a boy-scout trick I was never taught.

I was also concerned about the soprano’s final leap which did not come off as planned. From my seat I was able to see the soprano still standing on the stairs as a mannequin or stunt person leapt out into thin air (and a safety net) as the lights blacked out at the end of the drama. I think that maybe Luc Bondy wanted the mannequin thrown off the high turret into the oblivion but the management may have thought that their audience were not ready for that. Certainly many would have been deeply shocked and some might have thought to call the ambulance. Also, here in New York there are still too many memories of 9/11. I was also surprised that there were no stars for ‘E lucevan le stelle’, at least not from where I was sitting.

Despite these small production criticisms, another staggeringly exciting night at the Met.

Comments by Andrew Byrne .. (pinching myself to a bruise).

Das Rheingold at the Metropolitan Opera

Wed 30th March 2011. See also: Andrew’s review of HD telecast

This performance was an artistic and vocal success - yet somehow there was still something missing. The company has had teething problems with their novel 24-plank stage “machine” … and for this performance there was a 25 minute delay. An announcement was made at ten past the hour although no explanation was given. This is particularly awkward for a continuous work of just over 2½ hours. It does not augur well for the Die Walkure opening in a few short weeks based on the same concept and using the same ‘machine’. Little wonder that the dress rehearsal has been closed to the public.

I had seen the opera in the cinema in high definition back in December but this was very different, especially as I was sitting slightly to the side (and quite close). The main difference was that one noticed the intensity of the voices in the theater where there is no amplification, enhancement, balancing, etc. None of the voices needed the slightest enhancement and from where I sat in row J we were engulfed in a vast vocalism which is rare indeed. Stephanie Blythe as Fricka has a voice which may compete with the legendary Clara Butt who allegedly could be heard in France when singing at Dover. At times it was hard to believe that Ms Blythe was not amplified, yet she never sounds forced or harsh in the slightest. And Wendy Bryn Harmer as Freia was not far behind in the decibels department. Bryn Terfel did not tire in his portrayal of Wotan yet neither did he seem to impart the contrasting elements of resolve and confusion of this complex character in the theater.

There were two cast changes from the version broadcast to cinemas around the world last year. Alberich was played by Richard Paul Fink on this occasion rather than Eric Owens (they were both outstanding) and Loge by Dutch singer Arnold Bezuyen rather than Richard Croft (equally impressive performances). Mr Levine was replaced by Fabio Luisi owing to ill health. Otherwise the cast remained the same with Dwayne Croft playing Donner, Gerhard Seigel as Mime, Hans-Peter Konig as Fafner, Franz-Josef Selig as Fasolt, Adam Diegel as Froh (a new and substantial tenor talent to watch) and Patricia Bardon as Erda. None let the side down, despite some criticisms of the original performances.

The drama unfolded with one splendid visual vista after another, starting with the blue Rhine River at dawn and its suspended (literally) Rhine Maidens singing as they approached the sandy banks from which Alberich approached with his unwanted advances. The opening scene was more subtle and effective in the cinema since it was seen ‘head on’ by everyone with a gently increasing wave motion. The clunking Nibelheim scene was cleverly done but most impressive perhaps was the denouement which saw the central planks rotate to create a steep multicoloured bridge which each character (or their double) mounted as it levelled out, leaving only Loge on stage, being a mere demi-god, while the angled wall turned from fine grained black and white marble tones to stars in the last seconds of the opera as the curtain was lowered. There was much beauty in this avant-garde production, despite its mechanical limitations.

Two things made me realise for the first time that some of the action (and perhaps much more) was done by stand-in actors. I was baffled at the rapidity with which Wotan and Loge were able to exit stage left after the second scene to then reappear high above on the brilliantly synthesised lateral staircase across which they ‘langloffed’ towards Nibelheim. The use of stuntmen and women was also obvious using trapeze wires in the final scene. This was most evident for Ms Blythe whose imposing physical frame was not consistent with the similarly dressed ‘double’ joining the party of gods mounting the (initially) near vertical rainbow bridge as they marched slowly first up and then across towards Valhalla.

It may seem stupid, but after ‘seeing and believing’ in the cinema, I somehow felt cheated by this. We are led to believe that the named characters perform the stated roles and yet now it appears otherwise (same in the current Met Tosca in two instances at least). No names of stunt subs were given in the program from what I could see. Naturally, it made me wonder just how many such actions were performed by others taking non-singing roles. “Would Wagner have approved”? … and while complete speculation, this is the question I always ask myself about modern productions. After all, Wagner gave quite detailed instructions on what he wanted of his performers in the drama. And yet he also wanted his operas to be accessible to the wider public. Comparison with the Otto Schenk production would be odious and unnecessary.

In a discussion after the opera with some like minded friends we decided that if the staging does not distract either performers or audience from the drama then it is probably fine. I am still equivocal on that and may have to see the opera again to decide. Because I had no idea that there were doubles when watching in the cinema it could not have been distracting by definition - indeed I recommended it ‘to anyone’ at the time.

The 40 tonne machine with 24 rotating ‘gang planks’ was described by Mr LePage on the radio broadcast. These angled, fangled flaps can form a myriad of varied surfaces. By containing surface LED-like illumination they can become any colour, texture or shimmering effect. Bubbles going up, river stones rolling down … marble effects, stars on black … even a remarkable flashing lightning effect when struck by Donner in the last minutes of the opera … nothing is too difficult for the ‘machine’!

A narrow trench in front of the palisaded planks served for many entrances and exits including Alberich’s arrival early on as well as Erda’s appearance near the end. It may have served for quick swaps for stunt people too as they bobbed up and down.

The costumes deserve comment. Despite an ultramodern setting, the characters’ dress was from mythic history, breast-plates, leather belts, fur sleeves, scarves, capes and cuff laces. The two giants were particularly effective with mock-steroid deltoid and chest bulges, creating a singular impression. They were almost twin like in other respects as well. There were no horns, helmets or other head gear, probably because of the gravity defying necessities of the action (Tarnhelm notwithstanding).

The orchestra was exemplary, taking the piece at a measured pace and never dominating the vocal side. Robert Lepage and his team have indeed succeeded in transforming this epic work into a new and enjoyable production for their Manhattan audience and it is a bonus that we can all now join the Rhine journey in cinemas across the world. Die Walkure opens on Good Friday and the full ring in a year’s time.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

05 April, 2011

“To double or not to double, that is the stuntman question.”

“To double or not to double, that is the stuntman question.”

A most interesting comparison. Rheingold in the theater (US spelling) was quite a different experience despite most of the same cast, same production, etc. Somehow I had expected more but got less. Most telling was that it was obvious live that there were stunt actors doing numerous feats we assumed (or at least I had assumed) were being done by the singers. The whole essence of opera, making it different from leider is that the singers dress up and act through a dramatic role as well as ‘bellow’ their challenging vocal parts.

Opera singers have always been called on to do the occasional stage ‘feat’ … like ride a horse, jump off a balcony, do a limp fall, sing in a harness about the stage, etc. I have even seen one modern tenor juggle on stage and do a hand stand (Roberto Alagna in Elixir of Love). But it necessarily interrupts the drama when scenes contain diversions where, during non-singing sections, the character disappears briefly and apparently reappears … sliding down a rope (Tosca), mounting a bridge or even being thrown across the stage (Tosca again) or doing other feats, only to reappear elsewhere on the stage before they start singing again.

Of course if this is all done cleverly and totally imperceptibly (as it was for me in the cinema) it can hardly matter. But when it is bleeding obvious (as must happen when it is slightly imperfect, the more so for those up close) then it is a distraction which necessarily takes ones mind and ear off the musical drama and back to the nuts and bolts of the staging details as happens at the circus and which is the very opposite, I believe, of what composers would have wanted for their works.

I am coming to some conclusions about telecasting operas … and there must be compromises made I know and funds from telecast will exceed the individual box office eventually I imagine. But this is a tectonic shift for the company and for opera generally where artistic decisions will now be based on the broadcast at the expense of those in the theatre itself … something I never thought would happen.

Link to Met site:
Andrew’s opera blog:

04 April, 2011

Met Talks: Die Walkure. Friday April 1 2011

Met Talks: Die Walkure. Friday April 1 2011

An introduction to the new Die Walkure on Friday afternoon was supplemented by an interview with Mr Lepage before the Rheingold broadcast the following day. Because of other commitments (and the Met Guild changing the time from 5pm to 6pm at short notice) I had to leave the Friday evening session early. We were sitting in the huge half-empty ‘orchestra’ stalls of the Met auditorium listening to the Ring director, general manager Peter Gelb and 4 cast members who sat at a table with microphones and glasses of water on a platform raised above the orchestra pit with the music stands all moved to the sides. They did not sing … no ‘freebies!’

Deborah Voigt is to sing Brunnhilde, Jonas Kaufmann Siegmund, Eva-Maria Westbroek Sieglinde and Stephanie Blythe Fricka. We had an introduction from Mr Gelb about the genesis of this Ring series, the 45 ton “machine” which was ‘asleep’ a few yards away on stage left awaiting Saturday’s Rheingold broadcast performance (also the last for the current season).

The cast, he told us, had been rehearsing Walkure already on “level C”, three floors below the current stage and the first formal stage rehearsal would commence this Sunday. Mr Gelb made a few pertinent but slightly nervous jokes about the last minute problems with the set and production but did not allude to the half hour delay to this week’s performance on Wednesday. “The rainbow bridge worked THIS TIME!” He also made a quip about the new steel girders needed to take the weight!

We were told that the whole thing had been an enormous undertaking after 21 years since the Met last mounted a new Ring series. Ms Blythe spoke first, saying that she found the role of Fricka very rewarding and that she said she constantly had to defend the Goddess of fidelity who was ‘always right’ … “after all, marriage between a brother and sister is just not right, is it?” And she went on to remind us that her character had to look on as her wandering husband made one disastrous decision after another, knowing there was absolutely nothing she could do about it. She spoke with a jolly joy and fluency as well as a slight wickedness and obviously could have spoken for the whole hour herself. She did not need the microphone given to her and Mr Gelb had reminded us that these singers had to do all of these roles unaided by amplification in this enormous theater.

Next Deborah Voigt spoke about the demands of the iconic role of the favourite Walkirie, Brunnhilde. ‘Daunting’, ‘challenging’ and other such terms were used. She declined a question about what she found most difficult, saying that everyone would look out for it if she let on. She had been asked by another opera house to do this role several years ago but she had declined for two reasons. She felt that she was not quite ready and that once she had done it, it would become her major career choices. She also wanted to do the role of Minnie in Fanciulla del West before tackling the even bigger Ring roles. We then saw a brief video of main scenes and stage highlights from the current Rheingold to an orchestral medley.

Robert Lepage spoke about the major differences between the ‘prologue’ of Rheingold which is mainly superhuman events with gods, demigods, thunder and lightning to the very human stories starting in Die Walkure, namely a love affair in a little house in the woods, albeit a very strange affair in a particularly strange house. He had visited Iceland and said that with some of the Norse myths originating there it was telling for his retelling of the story since there were glaciers, volcanos and mountain ranges as tectonic plates met, like some elements in the first opera. Whether he manages to focus this worldly dimension down to the intimate scenes between the twin lovers, Wotan and his daughter, etc in Walkure we will have to wait another few weeks (it opens on Good Friday).

I missed the comments by Kaufman and Westerbroek but gather that they described their approaches to learning the respective roles (the tenor was apparently reluctant to describe how long it took him to learn his part). I was told that at the end of the talk at 7pm there were patrons already waiting for the evening performance of Cappricio, the elegant set of which we had seen briefly. The evening’s speakers had entered by way of the fire curtain being lifted. Apparently there was no time for questions and answers which was a shame. I had one of my own about stunt-persons involved in the production.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..