Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Cirque de Soleil at the Met: La Damnation de Faust

In the early 1800’s the closest you could come to an experience like going to see Raiders of the Lost Ark would have been to go the opera. The opera offered wonders for audiences of a time that had no television, no movies, no electric lights, no phonographs, and no digital dinosaurs: beautiful music played by an expert orchestra; singing of the highest caliber; and, importantly, amazing technology. It offered characters that would appear from clouds of smoke, actors that could fly across the stage, and perhaps cherubim floating across the top of the stage. There was a time when the opera was a place where people went to be awed.

But we now live in a different age. Digital imagery allows us to create any illusion we set our minds to. Today children are not impressed by someone appearing out of a trap door or flying across the stage. The same is true of adults. Our jaded natures raise the production stakes and ask producers to do more and more to impress us. But just because we can do something does not mean that we should do it. With respect to contemporary stage effects there comes a point at which enough is simply enough. And Robert LePage’s production of La Damnation de Faust is at times simply too much. LePage is known for a particularly stunning Las Vegas Cirque to Soleil show, . Now he has brought the Cirque de Soleil feel to the Met.

The only thing that makes the busyness of the LePage production tolerable is that it is imposed over a piece that is not a true opera. Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust was created as a concert work to be performed by four soloists and chorus. It is a masterpiece. The libretto, however, is not operatic in scope, so it would seem that an enhanced production might be just the thing to fill the voids in the text: this might be just the work that could tolerate an intrusive production.

The production is certainly a feast for the eyes: uniformed soldiers slowly marching up walls and then dropping to the laps of women; beautiful sets accomplished by projection; demons dancing on the ceilings of cells in the tiered stage and crawling on the walls; 40-foot ladders from which the leads enter and depart the stage; actors hanging à la crucifixion from five giant crosses; real actors riding projected horses. At times the performance was the gastronomic equivalent of a deep-fried candy bar dipped in honey—with whipped cream—and a cherry on top—covered with chocolate sauce.

There were several distractions created by all of this technology. At times the masses getting ready behind the set were making all kinds of obtrusive noises. At one point you could see some odd laser pointer type dots on the set. (I thought there was a sniper in the audience.) Towards the very end of the opera the reflective screens at the back of the set were picking up maestro Levine’s white tux as lit by the lights down in the pit. This created an inexplicable moving image at the back of the set that was quite distracting. Most problematic were the safety harnesses used whenever anyone dangled or climbed, which was often. Perhaps they would not be too distracting if one was attending the performance at the Met, but the zoom of the HD cameras made them more obvious. During the horse riding scene the riders looked like they were dangling from nooses. The magic of opera depends upon illusion and the clear visibility of these devices was a constant reminder of the artificiality of the production.

Musically, the performance was very good. Levine took the First Act’s Rákóczi March at a very fast pace. This worked until just before the end of the number when the orchestra seemed to struggle a bit. Also, in the stunning gibberish number at the end of the work, "Has! Irimiru Karabrao!” it at times seemed that there was some disconnect between the chorus and the orchestra. Marcello Giordani’s Faust seemed excellent in the first acts, but lagged significantly after intermission. In particular, he seemed to struggle during the duet “Ange adoré”—particularly at the high notes about forty-five seconds after his entrance. The confidence he brought to the early part of the piece evaporated by the end. On the other hand, Susan Graham’s Marguerite was outstanding. She sang the role with apparent ease, even after conducting interviews before the performance and having cameras follow her around backstage during it. Her voice was spot on. John Relyea’s Mephistopheles was impressively wicked. His rich voice seemed in good form. The presence of his character was definitely enhanced by the HD close-ups.

This was one performance that made me wonder whether attending live at the Met might not be an improvement over the HD viewing. At times the most impressive part of the tiered staging was its size and scope. Sometimes the cameras would focus on a small part of the stage when I wanted to see the broader view. And of course this was true when the harnesses and rigging were prominent.

Despite these criticisms, all in all the performance worked. The music is brilliant. The production was impressive. The singers were, overall, spectacular. Any deficiency in the production probably flows from the fact that this was not written as an opera. The next Met HD Broadcast is Massenet’s Thaïs. It is a new production. Let’s just hope that the Egyptians don’t dance on the ceiling.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Pathetic Gray Lady and Her Sorry Minions

While visiting wellsung.blogspot last night I noted a review of a recent Maurizio Pollini piano recital by Alex. The post was short and thoughtful. But it got my blood boiling because it directed me to a review of the recital by NYT critic Allan Kozinn.

Some background. Pollini is one of the giants of the piano world and has been so for almost 50 years. He won first prize at the International Chopin Piano Competition in 1960 at age 18. By the 1970's he was a dominant figure in the piano world. He toured extensively and recorded some amazing discs for Deutsche Grammophon. (Here are three of the best: Beethoven: Die späten Klaviersonaten, op. 101, 106 ("Der Hammerklavier"), 109-111 (1977); Chopin: Etudes, op. 10 and 25 (1972); Chopin: Préludes, op. 28 (1975).) In the 1970's he was generally hailed as a pianistic marvel. His technique was reputed to be flawless. His concert performances were attended by critics who would just salivate at the thought of him missing a note--but he rarely did. I recall a recital in London where a large percentage of the audience had brought their scores so that they could better detect error. Speed, power, consistency and discipline were his trademarks.

But unlike timing the 100 meter dash, the critique of musical performances is not a purely objective activity. Some critics disliked Pollini--for many different reasons. Some already had a favorite pianist and had no room for another. Others protested that his playing "lacked spirit" because it was too precise. Eventually, this man, one of the most gifted pianists ever to have lived, was frequently dismissed--and sometimes by NYT critics--with a "well, if you like that kind of pianism" give away. Furthermore, while it's always nice to sell old records, many companies seem to be more interested in pushing what is new this year rather than what is truly the best recording of some of these pieces. Well the subjective nature of criticism makes for quite a muddle. Luckily other endeavors are more objective. Were it not so, I am confident that Usain Bolt never would have won the gold medal. His form was not too good! He stood up too early! Did his performance really have the grace or poise or that "certain something" found in the speedy performances of Richard Thompson or Walter Dix? If Pollini were a sprinter this is the type of questions that his critics would ask.

So now to the review at hand. My first problem is that the review, found here: is simply too short. I doubt that this is Kozinn's fault. It's 424 words long. I'm sure that either the editor cut the hell out of it, or Kozinn knew that he has some tiny limit. Such are the limitations of the old media.

The review starts with a huge waffle that could have been written before the concert and takes up almost 15% of his precious 424 words:

Both fans and detractors of the pianist Maurizio Pollini agree that his playing is powerful and precise, driven by a probing intellect and executed with steely, virtually infallible fingers. But where Mr. Pollini’s supporters argue that these qualities are at the service of warm-hued, impassioned performances, less impressed listeners hear his readings as icy and calculated, even when the surfaces are incendiary.

Okay, now this already looks like a bad Freshman English essay. Everybody apparently agrees Pollini is a thoughtful and technically stunning pianistic genius, but. . . . Well, then there are those naysayers that hear his readings as "icy and calculated." What exactly does that mean? Does that mean that his playing is "too correct"? Is it too slow--nope. Is it too fast--nope. It's at just the right tempo. Are the dynamics incorrect? Nope. They're perfect. Are the notes wrong? Apparently not. The writer seems to suggest that the playing is too correct. But is there such a thing? And next, though we have those nice "incendiary surfaces," it is implied that there's something deeper that is missing. I'd like to know exactly what that missing something is. That "je ne sais qua." Because just as I don't know what it is, I don't think Kozinn can tell us either. If the composer tells the pianist to play with a loose tempo and he does not, then fine, say so. If the pianist ignores accepted conventions with respect to the use of rubato that the reviewer thinks are compulsory, say so. But don't tell us that the performance is missing "depth" without telling us what you mean.

And then we find out that both sides in the Pollini debate may be correct. Way to take a stand!

At the end of the review Pollini is congratulated for his graceful touch and gentle rocking quality during his performance of Chopin Mazurkas, but Kozinn then clownishly implies that the performance of Chopin's “Revolutionary Etude” was impetuous and hard driven! This is simply laughable. The “Revolutionary Etude” is the exemplar of hard-driven pianistic impetuosity. And the Chopin Scherzo is not far behind in this category. Of course, god forbid that we should have an impetuous and hard-driven Beethoven “Tempest” or “Appassionata” Sonata. What else was he expecting to see? Presumably the program was available for review before the concert and Kozinn could have decided to skip this scary and treacherous aggregation of hard-driven impetuosity if it was just too much for him.

But there’s another way in which the review fails: lack of humanity. Pollini has been an incredible talent for a long time. He turns 67 in January. While we all age differently, let's face it, the rules of nature assure that this is not the Maurizio Pollini of the Deutsche Grammophon glory years of the 1970's and 1980's. But according to Kozinn, Pollini still has “virtually infallible fingers”—so I guess age maybe has nothing to do with it. While I last heard Pollini play in recital about ten years ago, I know that he is one of the most exceptional pianists that has walked the earth and his playing must still have much to offer—particularly if, as the reviewer suggests, his technique has not deteriorated. A critic who offers vague and insubstantial criticism of this kind in the face of a mature and intelligent pianistic genius of Pollini’s stature lacks heart and soul and deserves to be relegated to a job where they only dole out 424 words of space for his criticisms.

I can just see the title of the review that Kozinn will write when Liszt's ghost incarnate gives a recital at Carneige Hall: Startling Perfection--If You Like That Kind of Stuff.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Doctor Atomic: Not Much For The Ears

A Review of the November 8, 2008 HD Broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera’s Performance of Doctor Atomic

J. Robert Oppenheimer proved that dreadful things can be produced if the best and the brightest are provided enough resources. Saturday’s performance of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic proved that when the best and brightest of our artistic world are put to the task they can make even the dreadful music of Adams bearable. There is no doubt that the Met could provide a compelling performance of The Three Little Pigs if it wished—perhaps it already has—but here the Met’s elaborate and intelligent production was thrown against a backdrop of tuneless anti-musicality.

The performance offered much for the mind and much for the eye. The story is set in and near Los Alamos at the time of the first nuclear detonation. The subject is a compelling one for an opera: man wrestling with science and becoming master of his world. The libretto is ingenious. It juxtaposes some of Oppenheimer’s favorite works, the Bhagavad Gita and the metaphysical poetry of John Donne, with the actual written words of participants in the Manhattan project, including Oppenheimer and Edward Teller. The topic certainly lends itself to thoughtful examination. The intellectual and moral difficulties associated with the decision to create and use the first atomic weapons are among the deepest subjects we can examine.

The staging provided an ominous feeling that well served the opera’s weighty subject. Using a backstage wall that incorporated a huge fourteen by three cell structure, as was used in last year’s production of Peter Grimes, members of the chorus and occasionally principal singers were stacked on top of each other and alongside each other like curios in a giant shadow box. These cells were at times filled with contorted bodies. At other times they were filled with half-lit “ghosts” dressed in American Indian costumes, replete with furs and antler headdresses. The ominous, ugly, threatening bomb dangled above the stage for much of the performance.

The performance succeeded when it examined the psychological aspects of our nuclear quest. Gerald Finley's impeccable acting conveyed the weight Oppenheimer must have felt at the time. Kitty Oppenheimer’s part was sung by Sasha Cooke. Initially she sings of her personal pain at Oppenheimer’s disassociation from her. By the end of the work her voice serves to remind us of humanity’s fears—as does the singer in the role of Pasqualita, the Oppenheimers’ Native American maid who sings of olden tribal times. The juxtaposition of these many psychological elements is thought provoking, though not always satisfying. Occasionally it seemed that too many layers of association were being applied at the same time. But while sometimes overbearing, the work was for the most part a success on the psychological level.

But this is supposed to be the “Metropolitan Opera,” not a Broadway play. While it is easy to admire most aspects of the performance, it fails as opera. And this is not due to the vocal performances. They were impeccable. Finley's Oppenheimer was first rate. Cooke was also unimpeachable. All the vocal performances were excellent. But what were they performing? Much of the opera was slightly-elevated recitative drawn from a drab, unattractive and uninteresting musical palette. An aria sung by Finley at the end of Act One, “Batter My Heart Three Person’d God,” with words from the famous Donne sonnet, provides the opera’s one successful aria and perhaps its only compelling musical moment. Other moments, particularly those involving the chorus, threaten to become musically interesting, but it is hard to give Adams credit just because the Metropolitan Opera chorus is blazing full tilt.

The opera concludes with a scene that has the entire cast awaiting the detonation at the Trinity site while it stares at the audience. No doubt the performers create tension as they cover their eyes with sunglasses and pieces of tinted glass and we wait—in Hollywood fashion—four minutes of real time for an explosion that is supposed to be just two minutes off. Of course, while we wait for the explosion the orchestra ticks away the seconds. But here the piped in sound of a clock would have been just as effective as Adams’ banal offering.

In some ways this work represents a lengthy act of self-flagellation, since it focuses on our guilt in creating and using the first atomic weapons. The post-blast conclusion, with the voice of a Japanese woman asking for water for her children—as the final curtain falls—helps accent this theme in lead-fisted fashion.

As a whole, the work succeeds. The libretto, the production and the skill of the performers make this worth seeing. But if you are looking for a musical performance of merit that concerns a depressing and weighty subject, purchase or rent the DVD of last year’s Met performance of Peter Grimes instead.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Miracle of Metropolitan Opera HD Broadcasts

Any music lover that has not heard of the Metropolitan Opera HD broadcasts is living in a cave, a repressed police state, or is, as Ambrose Bierce put it, an ascetic: one who “gives in to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure.” The stunning and innovative Metropolitan HD broadcasts are among the most important developments in the history of the fine arts. Why? Because one can go to the cinema in any major urban area and see the Metropolitan Opera live.

While all elements may not all always come together at the same time, one who attends a Met production has the prospect of seeing the best singers in the world, playing with some of the best musicians in the world, under the baton of brilliant conductors, putting on some of the world’s most creative artistic productions. This is not to mention impeccable costuming, interesting staging, camerawork so close that you sometimes see spit and spray coming from singer’s mouths, the incredible sets, great writers (sometimes the Met modifies stodgy librettos, usually to good effect)—in short an artistic tour de force. When all these elements come together correctly they yield a performance that is unforgettable and exciting.

After I attended my first HD broadcast I never missed another—other than to attend the Met live during a performance of La Bohème that was itself broadcast in HD. Even then, I went back and saw the HD broadcast a few weeks later when it was offered as an encore performance. For those who are not aficionados, these broadcasts are a powerful introduction to opera. To those that already enjoy opera these broadcasts are musical heroin. In the 2007-08 season there were several performances that were artistic triumphs of the greatest order.

Of the performances I have seen, three have been particularly memorable. Though Puccini’s Manon Lescaut was the first HD broadcast I attended, Britten’s Peter Grimes was the first to forcibly grab me. I knew the general premise: an opera in English (strike one); with music by Benjamin Britten (strike two); exploring themes of child abuse and murder (strike three). But in fact, the performance was just fantastic. I did not know the music well, having listened to my recording of Jon Vickers in the lead only a couple of times. The staging was so visually interesting that my lack of familiarity simply did not matter. Everything clicked that day. Even the conductor, Donald Runnicles, someone I had not previously heard of, contributed to the feeling that one was experiencing one of those rare occasions on which all the artistic elements align. The work has six “Sea Interludes,” orchestral episodes that are sometimes performed as standalone pieces, and these were captivating. The second interlude, “The Storm,” was awe inspiring. I went to the performance believing that I would hate every minute of this opera, but left feeling elated, hopeful, captivated and enlightened.

And then there was Natalie Dessay’s performance at the end of the 2007-08 season. I prepared well for the HD performance of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment by purchasing what appeared to be the definitive studio recording with Pavarotti and Sutherland in the leads. The opera contains an aria, “Pour mon âme,” that helped make Pavarotti famous: he could hit the nine “high C’s” to incredible effect. Juan Diego Flórez sang this role of Tonio and while he sang beautifully he was eclipsed by the radiant Dessay. My recording had Sutherland singing the lead role of Marie. Marie’s most memorable tune is “The Song of the Regiment,” and Sutherland belts out the beginning of this number as if her voice were a powerful but totally clear trumpet. I went prepared to be taken with singing of the order of Sutherland’s performance on disc. Again the Met threw a curve ball. On this day it was not the quality of the voice that took hold, but the frenetic and wonderful acting of Dessay: singing while ironing; singing while washing; singing while she is on her back being carried across the stage; singing while standing on the piano bench. She grabbed the stage by the scruff of its neck and made it serve her ever purpose. Again everything was clicking at the Met—and all around the world at the theaters that were receiving the HD broadcasts.

The most shocking performance I have attended was this season’s performance of the Richard Strauss opera Salome. The story is well known: in exchange for a dance—not just any dance, but the “Dance of the Seven Veils”—Herod offers Salome anything she wishes, up to “half his kingdom.” But she chooses the head of John the Baptist. After trying to dissuade her, Herod gives in and delivers the head on a silver platter, as Salome had demanded. Then Salome takes the head, sings to it, kisses it, and starts rolling on the ground with it. The opera ends as Herod orders her death, apparently because of her perversity, perhaps because he has been jilted for a dead prophet’s head. Karita Matilla played the lead role in what is almost a one-woman show. Matilla ended up drenched in fake blood. She took her bows with the blood all over her face and costume, looking like a floozy vampire. Memorable indeed.

Each of these performances cost only about $20. I simply showed up at my local movie theater and grabbed a seat after purchasing my tickets on the internet. No need to fly to New York. Plenty of seats were to be had. Plus I still had my Saturday evenings for play, since the performances started around the noon hour and generally were out by about three o’clock.

One particularly interesting aspect of the HD broadcasts is that the cameras follow the performers off of the stage directly and then they are interviewed by other opera notables, such as Deborah Voigt, Renee Fleming, or Dessay. The behind the scenes look at the Met is a view of a mysterious, hidden world. From animal wranglers to costumers, producers, stage hands—all the varieties of supporting workers are interviewed or seen doing their work. I remember that when I attended the Met I was disappointed that I could not see the interviews that were taking place backstage—another disadvantage of attending in person at the Met! Actually, many who both attend in person and take in the HD broadcasts say that they prefer the HD broadcasts. I am one. Even if you have really good seats at the Met you will not see the singers as clearly as you do with the aid of a battery of video cameras run by expert cameramen and coordinated by a skilled producer.

I intend to go to every HD broadcast for the rest of my life. If I miss one I’ll be sure to attend the replays that sometimes take place the next day or within a week or two of the original broadcast.

Ten Recommended Classical Recordings: A Sampler for Those New to the Classical Scene

The following is a list of classical recordings that offer a variety of classical genres: opera, symphonies, keyboard, violin concerto, solo cello, piano concerto, and oratorio. Though it is mostly mainstream with respect to the represented composers, it reflects a variety of interesting sounds.

Because the list is intended for someone who is starting to explore classical music many of the recordings are now budget issues. If you have thoughts on the list or would like to pipe in with your own, please do!

1. Mozart: The Magic Flute; Sir Colin Davis, conductor, Staatskapelle Dresden, orchestra; Rundfunkchor Leipzig, choir; Moll, Schreier, Price, Serra, Melbye, Venuti; Philips Duo, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 1994.

2. Beethoven: Symphonies No. 5 and 7, Carlos Kleiber, Wiener Philharmoniker; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1975 and 1976, released on CD in 1996.

3. Bach: Keyboard Pieces, Toccata, BWV 911; Partita BWV 826; English Suite No. 2, BWV 807; Argerich; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1980, released on CD in 2000.

4. Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D; Brahms: Violin Concerto in D; Jascha Heifetz; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA, recorded in 1957, released on SACD in 2005.

5. Panorama—Edvard Grieg, two discs of various piano and orchestral works; Deutsche Grammophon Panorama, recorded on various dates, released on CD in 2000.

6. Bach: Six Unaccompanied Suites for Cello; Yo-Yo Ma; Sony, recorded in 1983, released on CD in 1990.

7. Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos, Vol. I—Brendel; Sir Neville Mariner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Philips Duo, recorded in 1972-82, released on CD in 1994.

8. Handel: The Messiah; Sir Colin Davis, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Philips Duo, recorded in 1966, released on CD in 1994.

9. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Martha Argerich, Philips, recorded 1982 and 1980, released on CD in 1995.

10. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-4 (separate disc one); and Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 5-6 and Orchestral Suite No. 1 (separate disc two), Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; EMI, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 2004.