Friday, April 11, 2014

Henze's Brilliant Boulevard

(From 29 March 2007)

I had looked forward to viewing Hanz Werner Henze's opera, "Boulevard Solitude," based on the novel of the same name and while I adore Henze, but must admit being a tad disappointed in the opening scenes and wondered if I'd make it all the way through. I stuck with it (I tend to give everything a chance), and grew to enjoy and appreciate the opera, but by the end, still believe the first opening scenes to be problematic but fixable (though 52 years after the premiere I’m guessing this is less likely to happen and, perhaps, a problem uniquely my own). The biggest issue I had was the style and sound of the score feeling inappropriate to the story at hand. Musically, there is more than a passing nod to Wozzeck, while the story is that of Manon Lescaut and Des Grieux. (Berg’s Lulu also makes her
presence felt here, but this is more an effect of the libretto and staging than it is of the score).

Henze’s nearly pretty terrific score is going to remind a lot of people of Wozzeck . . . and a few who know it, of Zimmermann' Die Soldaten. Still, as impressive as it is, the opening scenes just don’t come across as Manon appropriate music (and I don't mean the need for it to sound like Puccini or Massenet, either!). For a tale rife with passion, desperation and seduction, the opening music, quite frankly lulled me into a boredom similar to the ennui-induced yawn I find permeating too much uninspired 20th century music. This is especially odd, because once
I was caught up in the passionate and devastating tale of des Grieux and his tragic love, the opera could have gone on another hour. (As it is, it stands at 7 scenes, no intermissions and runs about 10-15 minutes shy of two hours.)

The production by Tobias Hoheisel and directed by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, won the Olivier Award a couple of years ago and it’s easy to see why. Filmed here at the Liceu, (with most of the cast changed from the premiere) it remains an
eye-poppingly gorgeous thing to behold evening,, but is not without a few directorial clunks that I found a tad too arty and obvious. Based on the novel of the same name, this retelling of Manon & Des Grieux places more emphasis on the tenor then the heroine and it works, since it is generally Des Grieux that tends to win the audience's sympathies.

A massive, multi-level unit set brings is into the heart of a 1940's train station, filled with all manner of bustling human activity. Unfortunately, during scenic interludes, the same "bustling activity" seems to occur with only small, but highly noticeable variations, the equivalent of a visual leitmotif. As near identical scenes play out over and over, the feeling I got was I should be caring a little for some of them, and yet, I didn't. One of these, the young man with the bouquet, looking increasingly dejected before finally disappearing altogether, (what must have seemed an even more intriguing idea on paper), comes close to achieving the goal. Mostly, however, it's an endless parade of the same characters, with the odd variation from scene-to-scene with a couple of characters (i.e., the aforementioned young man) looking a little worse for the wear each time they pop up.

Pär Lindskog recreates his Des Grieux and he is appealing as the tortured, philosophy loving student who falls under the spell of that temptress, Manon. His descent into drug use and drunkennness is entirely believable and I could not help feeling his torment acutely as anyone who's fallen into youthful despair over love gone wrong will also easily be able to relate to. I rather liked Lindskog's Des Grieux, so much in fact, I felt embarrassed for him in several scenes.

Laura Aikin certainly has a tough row to hoe as Manon. Already not a particularly lovable character in any of the Manon stories, Henze's angular, difficult music feels built to put her plight at odds with with our sympathies from the get go. Indeed, her very first meeting with Des Grieux finds her little more than coy, calculating and manipulative. That all changes, however, when we meet her big brother, an oily, heartless, nee'r do well, who manipulates his sister solely for his own gain and without any regard whatsoever to her happiness or well being. He is the definition of scoundrel, this Lescaut. Tom Fox, looking a little "greasy" is slick as Manon's nasty brother, and while his voice doesn't sound as warmly attractive as I once recall, he remains a highly effective singer and will make you want to crack him in the teeth, or at least blacken an eye. Trust me. It is Lescaut who pimps out his sister, and does what he can to thwart the love between Manon and Des Grieux. His succès d'estime coming by hooking Manon up with her sugar daddy, the unappealingly bland Lalique (and then later, Lalique’s son).

Henze's 1952 score has post-German-expressionistic stamped all over it, yet should still not deter anyone, who thinks they cannot find modern "difficult" music, attracitve. Throughout, there are moments of great lyrical beauty and several scenes stamped with Henze’s particular genius. There is also some stunning, atmospheric music for chorus, most notably in the "Sorbonne" scene with young scholars quoting Catullus in Latin, and the interlude to the harrowing final scene. Henze also makes a judicious use of jazz riffs to open up the score in what seems to be a stroke of brilliance.

Zoltan Pesko conducts the Liceu forces in a performance of this immense, difficult, and complex jigsaw puzzle of a score, a task made seemingly more difficult by this complicated staging. If one doesn’t appreciate this performance, one sipmly will not be a fan of this opera. Yes, it’s that damned good. (I’d be pleasantly surprised if any American audience rewarded this production as vociferously as does the Liceu crowd at the final curtain.)

An added bit of sweetness occurs as Maestro Henze is escorted from his stall seat, down to the pit as the house goes bonkers. Soon, the entire cast has climbed down from the stage to kiss, hug and congratulate the deeply moved Henze. Nice.

The disc is on EuroArts and widely available and highly recommended to anyone hungry for a bit of opera outside the standard rep.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

PORTopera: Maine's Divas Come Home!

Last evening, PORTopera kicked off its 20th season with a concert titled: Maine’s Divas Come Home! at University of Maine’s Hannaford Hall. The Maine Divas were: Mezzo, Kate Aldrich and sopranos, Ashley Emerson and Suzanne Nance, accompanied by the excellent pianist Martin Perry.

The concert opened with an energetic four hand arrangement (I did not catch the name of the second pianist) of the overture to Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, which led into the ladies’ (all looking senational) Three Little Maids From School, establishing a tone of camaraderie and playful humor between singers and audience, and (as much as allowed) semi-staging. Ms. Aldrich and Ms. Emerson danced barefoot as Hansel and Gretel in Humperdinck's best-known duets, including the touching Evening Prayer, ending by picking up their shoes and quietly exiting the stage during the postlude.

Ms. Nance followed nicely with I Have Dreamt from Bernard Herrmann’s Wuthering Heights, later (after a dramatic costume change) camping it up brilliantly in a marvelously sung Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß from Lehàr’s Giuditta.

The first real "Diva at the Opera” moment arrived when Ms. Aldrich, fresh from recent performances of Donizetti’s La Favorite in Toulouse, began Leonor’s O mon Fernand, the audience cheering as Ms. Aldrich held “the pose,” then launched into the cabaletta, tearing through Mon arrêt descend du ciel, filling the hall with dramatic tension, powerful sound and causing the audience to erupt into a genuine ovation. Later, Aldrich topped even that performance with a beautiful rendition of Sesto’s Parto, Parto ma tu ben mio from La Clemenza di Tito, her performance reminding me of Agnes Balsta’s some years ago. Awesomeness ensued in a terrific sense of line, perfect trills and remarkable, clear agility through Mozart’s difficult, rapid fire coloratura passages.

The program noted it was subject to “inspired whims of our divas” and Ashley Emerson wisely switched out Gilda’s Caro nome for Susanna’s De vieni non tardar - a much nicer given the mostly light mood of the evening, her clean, light lyric voice, even and radiant throughout the range. Later, appearing in a white party dress and roller skates, she literally rolled onto the stage, working limbs and skates into a musically excellent and hilarious Les oiseaux dans la charmille from Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann. The audience ate it up, skates, high notes and all.

Duets included two of the most popular, the Flower Duet from Delibe’s Lakmé and the Barcarolle from Hoffmann. Both beautifully sung.

The evening ended with more comedy, 3 divas having difficulty trying to “share”" I Could Have Danced All Night, the mezzo predictably getting the short end of the stick before exerting a little mezzo vendetta stealing the limelight, before all three concluded it harmoniously. The single encore was a reprise of Three Little Maid's, each maid wearing an iconic Maine image (Emerson in a lobster bib, Aldrich in wool gloves and Nance in a parka), with cleverly reworked lyrics and inventive rhymes such as "lobstah" with "PORTopera." The evening could not possibly have been more fun. Well, okay, the final trio from Der Rosenkavalier would've been a nice touch, but I'm not going to complain!

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Monday, March 10, 2014

It's a Sad, Sad, Sad, Sad World: Goerne's Surprise Wozzeck at the Met

My jaw hit the proverbial floor yesterday when I heard the announcement that, for opening night of the Met's revival of Alban Berg's masterpiece, "Wozzeck," Matthias Goerne was stepping in at the last possible minute for an ailing Thomas Hampson. Goerne agreed sometime late afternoon for a performance (in a staging he'd never done and seen only once) to take part in the performance that would begin only 3 or 4 hours from his decision. (On a side note, I'm certain I wasn't alone in wondering "will he/won't he?" regarding Hampson and this Wozzeck.) Hopefully Mr. Hampson recovers and we get to hear his take on the role, but what a treat to hear one of the 2 or 3 leading Wozzecks of our time in his role debut at the Big House - even if I couldn't be there, thankfully it was carried on Sirius/XM Radio.

First off, having Levine back in the pit was a joy, despite his naysayers who complain of his treating Wozzeck as though it were The Merry Widow. The nuances, beauties, subtleties and in-your-face horrors of Berg's tremendous
score came crashing through, revealing just why this opera is one of the few 20th century operas to have gained such a stronghold on audiences and an obsession for so many (myself included). The celeste music that opens the first scene between Wozzeck and Marie always tears me up, its gentleness like the faintest ray of light peering through the darkest, densest and frightening forest - and Jimmy made this moment truly shine.

Some complain that Goerne is too much of a lieder singer and not enough "oomph" but I love his throaty brand of singing found him to have the perfect mix of beauty and roughness that makes Wozzeck the most pitiable (and oddly loveable - in an entirely different way) character The scenes between Wozzeck and Marie were heartbreaking - right up until his knife takes her. I would have loved to have been able to have been there to see him in this production.

As Marie, Deborah Voigt started off pretty rough and there is almost not a drop of beauty anywhere left in that once most beautiful of voices. Lower, unforced passages, the faintest glimmer of its former beauty tried to leak out, a sad
reminder of what once was. Her commitment, however, seemed total and, some horrifying (and unnecessary) shrieking sounds aside, she was able to create an effective portrayal of this poor anti-heroine. I'm certain seeing her would have made the effect even more powerful.

Peter Hoare was terrific as the Captain as was Mr. O'Neil as the Drum major . . . though his singing made me glad they swapped out Parsifal for Wozzeck as I can't imagine that voice - at least as heard last night - as the new Grail King,
less so, Ms. Voigt as Kundry. Clive Bailey kept the Met tradition going of offering really fine singers as the Doctor in this opera ... they luck out every time, and so do we.

Once again, Levine and the band were the real stars -along with Herr Berg. The interludes did everything the composer wanted them to and maybe just a bit more in offering relief from the brutality of Wozzeck's sad, sad, sad, sad world!

As a "bonus" here is a dress rehearsal shot of Mr. Hampson finishing off Marie!

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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Galina Is Katerina: The REAL Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

I waited 30 years to see this and was not disappointed - only happy to have lived long enough to finally have this opportunity.

First off: Vishnevskaya. For those, like me, who'd only experienced this artist in concert or at the very end of her operatic career, to finally witness her in a complete role as tailor-made for her as this proves to be overwhelming. She opens the film with Katerina's boredom" aria in a voice entirely unrecognizable one that harkens back more to her jazz and nightclub singing roots than the world of opera. It as though she were channeling Billy Holiday while imitating Rosa Ponselle.

Visnhevskaya's face is unbelievable. Forget about expressions changing over the course of a film - her face becomes some great mask which frequently in less than the blink of an eye can transform her from appearing angelic, saintly, demonic, tortured, and instantly go from looking like a teenager to a run down, broken old woman. Likewise, she presents as stunning and beautiful one second and grotesquely haggard the next. To call watching her "fascinating," is an understatement.

Though she insisted she performed her own stunts in the film's tragic and violent ending (which here, are bone chillingly horrifying) they simply HAD to use a stunt double in one scene (though you can't really tell), when Katarina violently kicks out her bedroom window (which IS clearly Vishnevskaya) leaps out about 8 feet - (and almost 3 stories in the air!) dropping to a landing beneath her, then tears down the stairs like a madwoman possessed. I rewound it about 5 times to try and detect where the switch was made . . . but coult not.

Mikhail Shapiro's film is gorgeously grotesque. 1966 Soviet cinema wasn't among the technically best the film world had to offer, and yet Shapiro's techniques, seems comprised of equal parts Hitchcockian hyper-realism and the surrealstic spookiness from the earliest days of film like Wiene's "Dr. Caligari." There is a visible pulsating quality in the transfer (in the original, too? I couldn't know) a sort of silent movie "flicker" in the washed out, oddly green/blue hued sepia toned color. Ingeniously, Shapiro sometimes layers image over image, such as the opening scene where we watch Katerina, sitting in a window looking out as the images she describes are projected, like home movies, against the exterior walls of her home. It is a brilliant device that early on pulls us directly into the mind of Katerina and how later, despite her brutal actions, retains our sympathy for her.

With the score so severely cut to fit within the framework of the film, we loose some truly great music, but the film version points up the very limits of ennui and violence of the tale into a nearly unbearably vivid relief.

Those unfamiliar with Shostakovich's score - or scared of it - will here get some of the most tuneful and beautiful music from this opera and, as cast here, one practically revels (whenever possible) in its "Fiddler on the Roof" nightmare quality.

For the lovemaking music that begins the second act , Shostakovich draws on the romantic Russian tradition with music of ineffable sweetness, which in this context becomes as jarring and unsettling as everything that comes before or after it.

Unafraid to combine horror and hilarity, Shapiro adds yet another amazing sequence to the film when Katerina, first hears the ghost of her freshly murdered father-in-law. Onstage, this scene usually means Boris belting out his lines in white theatrical "ghost" make-up, etc. In the film, Shapiro preys on Katerina's nightmarish guilt as, truly ghostlike, he bursts through a set of doors, a nearly cartoon-like head 50 times larger than life hovering and singing over Katerina and Sergei's sleeping bodies. I found myself simultaneously laughing cringing in horror. Yes, I loved it.

The final scenes of that endless march through Siberia is enough to chill one right to the marrow. As a big fan of Vishnevskaya, I've read her account innumerable times, but even that had not prepared me for those final, violent plunges as she takes Sonetka down with her into that horrible, icy death. Vishnevskaya's Katerina has become absolutely unhinged, ratcheting the horror even even further in an image I won't divulge, but can honestly say I did not see coming.

I can honestly state I am (for more than obvious reasons) delighted to be alive right now, but also to have lived live long enough to be able to indulge the senses with the visionary work of unknown masters of yore coming to light, like the nearly forgotten Mr. Shapiro.

Anyone on the fence about this one should just climb right over to the other side. This is truly amazing operatic filmmaking . . . vastly unlike anything on is likely to ever see before or since.

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