Friday, December 19, 2008

IN REVIEW: Cincinnati Opera – Lucia di Lammermoor

Cast/Production Team
Lucia: Sarah Coburn
Edgardo: Mark T. Panuccio
Arturo: John McVeigh
Raimondo: Alain Coulombe
Gilbert: Jeremy Cady
Conductor: Jean-Marie Zeitouni
Stage Director: Mark Streshinsky 

Scenic Designer: John Conklin
Costume Designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting Designer: Thomas C. Hase
Choreographer: Devon Carney 

Chorus Master: Henri Venanzi 

CINCINNATI – (June 26 & 28, 2008) This was the sort of production that left much to be desired. Cincinnati’s Lucia (performed in Donizetti’s French language Paris revision) was strange to say the least.

As the evening began, a small voiced Jeremy Cady started the action – but he was covered by chorus and was nearly inaudible. Conductor Jean-Marie Zeitouni led the Cincinnati Symphony in some good “om-pa-paing”.

Some good singing came from Gaétan Laperrière. The French Baritone had an interesting and large voice and proved to be a fine Enrico. His “Cruda funesta smania”, I couldn’t tell you the title in French, was quite good. He negotiated the Bel Canto hurdles well even if there wasn’t much ornamentation. His acting was acceptable.

Another strange part of the evening was tenor Mark T. Panuccio. This was a strikingly uneven performance. The nasal vowels often became annoying, but this is more the fault of Cincinnati Opera’s leadership for programming the French version than the tenor himself. Panuccio’s Edgardo started off weakly, in voice and manner. Panuccio often stands with his arms hanging to his sides, looking rather tragic and weak. Perhaps he finds Edgardo to be a weak character – but in fact this is warrior and should never look like someone who would be a target for mugging. When he killed himself, people laughed out loud…but I’ll get back to that.

A bright spot in the evening was Sarah Coburn. The lyric coloratura’s Lucia was excellent. Again, the French version left things to be desired, this time it was the absence of “Regnava nel silenzio”. This change suited Coburn, who may not have had the vocal dramatic chops to have excelled in the aria. The alternate aria was lighter and higher than the original, however it was still inferior to the original. Even while it worked to her advantage, it wasn’t as thrilling as Lucia’s usual opening aria.

Coburn’s mad scene was very unique – the acting almost always of a high quality. The flute cadenza was longer than most. They added a review of almost every aria, duet or other tune which Coburn had performed in the evening, but it never became annoying. Her final cabeletta in the scene was a little annoying, but still thrilling because of the clean beauty of her voice.

The production was what left the most to be desired. It was more or less a series of ramps. The set was stark, with suggested period clothing. Women draped in red and men in Black always carrying crossbows. The angular platforms that dominated the stage were also dark. Everything was dark.

The production consistently employed the use of dancers who pretended to be a pair of deer. This was stupid and distracting. It often provoked laughs and maybe even a few boos from the audience. This stupid production became rather campy with touches like this and the flower petals used to represent blood. In fact, when Edgardo (Panuccio) stabbed himself and clumsily threw a handful of red petals I heard cackels and hisses from the balconies. The fight scene was pitiful.

My general feeling is that this production didn’t work well in a house the size of Music Hall. Cincinnati’s opera house is comparable in size to the largest in the world. What works well at Glimmerglass doesn’t work so well at the Metropolitan or the Cincinnati Opera.

In conclusion, this opera left much to be desired. It lacked the sophistication of the grand presentations Cincinnati Opera has staged in the past. Perhaps the Cincinnati Opera’s leadership believes (as many opera goers used to) that Lucia is simply a showpiece for a soprano. It is not. It requires attention to dramatic detail and sophistication. Last season the Metropolitan showed the world that it was possible to make it into a riveting piece of music drama, perhaps Cincinnati should take note.

Friday, May 30, 2008

IN REVIEW: May Festival – La Forza del Destino

Leonora: Angela Brown
Don Alvaro: Salvatore Licitra
Don Carlo di Vargas: Marcco Caria
Preziosilla: Catherine Keen
Curra: Ellie Dehn
Padre Guardiano: Morris Robinson
Fra Melitone: Earle Patriaco
The Marquis of Calatrava: Darren Stokes
Maestro Trabuco: Rodrick Dixon

CINCINNATI – (May 12, 2008) Each May for a few weeks Cincinnati’s musical scene becomes just as important to the world of classical music as the happenings at Lincoln Center or any of the Opera houses of Europe. The Cincinnati May Festival has consistently provided world class performers by the to singers. Thomas Schippers, Leontyne Price, Birgit Nilsson and so many of the greatest contributors to the art of music have appeared in my home town’s Music Hall since the house’s construction in 1878.

Last year festival music director James Levine promised to present Italian Opera (as they had done in the old days) in a concert version. Sondra Radvanovsky sang Leonora in Il Trovatore and broke everyone’s hear with her “D'amor sull'ali rosee”. This year another great opera who’s herion was called Leonora was presented. This was Verdi’s massive La Forza del Destino.

As the evening began James Conlon took the podium with a microphone and explained the opera and his opinions of it. This is a practice I hate. For a director, conductor or impresario to subject the audience to a restatement of the program notes is ridicules. What was even more ridicules was his choice to point out the fact that people find this story silly. It planted a seed in my mind about how stupid everything was…making the drama of the night only a vehicle for the music. Then again, it’s Verdi so maybe this is the point.

Indeed, the story is far to convoluted for me to recount here. I will focus on individual arias and performances. Angela Brown once more shined in a new spinto role. She used a score for much of the evening, but even over this crutch she was the finest singer on the stage. I would rank her performance among the greatest (Arroyo and Price) in the history of the part. Her opening aria, “Me pellegrina ed orfana” was good, but it was clear that the voice was still warming up and would shine more later. Her reading of “Madre, pietosa Vergine" couldn’t have been better. She sang it with power and grace just as Leonora should be. At the end of Act II her “La Vergine degli angeli” joined by Morris Robinson and the men of the May Festival Chorus was one of best things I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing. Of course, when she sang "Pace, pace mio Dio!" the house broke into applause in bravos. She was truly wonderful.

Bass Morris Robinson who has appeared in Cincinnati several times over the past few years was on par with Brown in every way. I was surprised at how beautiful the bass’ voice was in the higher register. I think of him as a basso profoundo and expected him to had a rumbling wobbly sound. In fact what he did was to sing the higher parts of the role with a lyric intensity worthy of the greatest Bel Canto singers of the past. Of course, Robinson’s stage presence was great.

The biggest disappointment of the evening was Salvatore Licitra. For all of the talk about the tenor, I’ve heard him on two occasions and I’ve been quite disgusted both times. At one point I even though I heard hissing from the lowest balcony after he sang some rather crude high note. What was true this evening was also true of his Ballo at the Metropolitan Opera. A comment from Will on a past blog said it better than I could, “I'm hoping that Licitra isn't one of those singers who will go from very promising to past prime but respectable without ever having the great years he should have. I've found his singing disturbingly uneven and sometimes even downright crude recently.” The tenor should have stayed home and let someone with talent take the stage.

On the other hand, James Conlon cast at least one amazing surprise this evening. Unknown to me was the young Verdi Baritone Marcco Caria performed the role of Don Carlo di Vargas. Caria was very good. The difficult role was tackeld by him well. "Son Pereda son ricco d'onore" was execelent. I think he will grow into one of the finest singers of the future.

Rodrick Dixon was disappointing. He just always seems aloof. I don’t know why else he was bad. He just was. But, Baritone Earle Patriaco was a fine actor and the voice was enjoyable as well. Catherine Keen had a fine voice, but it was too small for so large a role in so large a house.

The real star of the evening was the May Festival Chorus. They were amazing always. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra led by Maestro Conlon and he led them well.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

About next season

I'm very angry. It looks list it's true: No Ruth Ann Swenson at the Met.

But the world goes on.That time has come when every opera fan must begin to consider their plans for this fall; what to see and where to go.

A few things stick as points of interest for the coming season and I’m sure that the entire blog community will take time to get to the opera houses and hear a few productions. Today the OPERA in AMERICA blog is proud to name the most important productions in America in the Autumn Season.

Manon – Chicago Lyric Oprea
September 27 – October 31, 2008
The world’s most famous coloratura Natalie Dessay will team up with my favorite young tenor Jonas Kauffman for Massenet’s masterpiece.

Don Giovanni: Metropolitan Opera

September 27, 2008 – April 24, 2009
Erwin Schrott leads a glorious cast which includes the likes of Barbra Frittoli, Susan Graham, Matthew Polenzani and Samuel Ramey. A special treat will be Peter Mattei who will round out the performances as the Don.

Porgy and Bess – Chicago Lyric Opera
November 18 – December 19
The lyric opera seems to draw me into operas which I normally hate by providing stellar casts and this Porgy is no exception. A lineup of today’s finest African-American singers will be led by Gordon Hawkins – who I believe to be the finest working dramatic baritone of our age – as Porgy together with names such as the stunning Lisa Daltirus, future star Laquita Mitchell and established goddess Marietta Simpson.

As much as I hate Progy and Bess, the Lyric can expect a visit from me in December.

La Gioconda – Metropolitan Opera
September 24, 2008 - October 9, 2008
Two words: "Suicidio!” and Voigt…

Add Olga Borodina, and Ewa Podles and you have me there.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Alagna brings me back

I took something of a sabbatical (after I forgot that I had a blog to write) and I wasn’t sure of how to return…so I, John Valois waited for a bang. Thank you President Sarkozy! My feelings about Algana have been well documented here on the Opera in America Blog…so I won’t revisit old ideas; much.

The naming of Roberto Algana (a.k.a. the greatest thing to happen to Opera since Andrea Bocelli) to the Légion d'honneur was the perfect event to bring me back. The event was documented by Opera Chic.

I’m a descendent of the post-revolutionary Valois émigrés. I’ve always harbored family ills towards the French Republic. It seems the people of France are determined to make fools of themselves by giving the world a reason to think they are stupid.

Let’s be honest: The French have a long history of debacles. The Republic has been a mess since the revolution – where tens of thousands lost their lives and thousands were executed as enemies of the state – as well as being kicked out of Paris multiple times. It goes back beyond the botched revolution to the several times when the English, the Spanish and the Germans pushed the French out of Paris.

Algana as a knight of the Légion is no exception to the pattern long established by the French. I admit it, I enjoyed his Romeo. True to his French blood he doesn’t stick to the things he does best. A lyric voice should stick to Faust, Romeo and the Bel Canto cannon. But Alagna’s constant expeditions into the Dramatic repertoire leave his voice tired and ugly. When he was young and talented the French government paid little attention to him…but now that he is old, fat and dried up he is being honored.

I call on the Crowned heads of Europe including Elizabeth II of England and Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden to return their Grand crosses as members of the Légion in the name of good taste.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

IN REVIEW: Metropolitan Opera – Un Ballo in Maschera

Un Ballo in Maschera
Giuseppe Verdi

Conductor: Gianandrea Noseda
Amelia: Michèle Crider
Oscar: Kathleen Kim
Ulrica: Stephanie Blythe
Riccardo: Salvatore Licitra
Renato: Dmitri Hvorostovsky
Production: Piero Faggioni
Set Designer: Piero Faggioni
Costume Designer: Piero Faggioni
Lighting Designer: Piero Faggioni
Stage Director: Laurie Feldman, Laurie Feldman

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – (December 29, 2007) This production of Un Ballo in Maschera was the most uneven performance I have seen at the Metropolitan Opera House this season. The casts two heaviest hitters were not the pieces romantic leads, Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Renato nearly stole the show with his smart and complex portrayal of the roll. I found the singing divine. The Russian Baritone’s “Alla vita che t'arride” was wonderful and his “Eri tu” deservingly received the loudest bravos of the night. One thing I never noticed was Hvorostovosky’s loud breathing. It was obnoxious.

The Russian baritone would have taken the night had it not been for Metropolitan Opera Veteran Stephanie Blythe. Her Ulrica was aggressive but didn’t fall into the insane Verdian cliché of the “Gypsy Mezzos”. This Ulrica was a woman in control of her destiny. The singing was unbelievable. When Blythe’s voice joined with those of her cast mates it was hers which was the largest and most attractive. Her lower register shook the gaudy walls of the Metropolitan Opera House.

The evening was a trio of great performers the last of which was young coloratura Kathleen Kim who’s Oscar was enjoyable, bubbly and generally perfect. I would like to see her again soon.

The opera’s romantic leads were performed by less able singers Michèle Crider and Salvatore Licitra. Neither of the two was awful, but both had moments where they were just that. Crider’s voice is very abrasive at times, this is what makes it special and were the voice slightly bigger she would make a great Aida. When the soprano came on stage the voice was a little too sour for my taste. Later she changed my mind with her perfectly phrased “Morrò, ma prima in grazia”. It was old fashioned in all the best ways.

Licitra was a friendly Riccardo and moved well on stage. He was warm commanding as the King of Sweden and I enjoyed it very much. His singing was less warm, the tenor’s top often sounding strained and tired. In his opening aria, “La rivedrà nell'estasi”, the tenor displayed a lack of security as he sang the final cadence of the piece. Any sort of “Bel Cantoesque” phrase sounded awkward and didn’t flow well. In his middle and on less lyric passages Licitra’s voice was good.

The sets were large and opulent. The color blue dominated the stage. It was sort of what you might expect of Ballo, provided the house doesn’t offer it in that ridicules Boston version. I had seen this production before, in a DVD with Aprile Millo (our Goddess Devine) and at times the blocking was exactly the same. Michèle Crider at one point did a whole aria that was just like that of Millo…not vocally.

Gianandrea Noseda nearly lost control of the orchestra a several times. Had it not been for the trio of great singers the evening would have been a waste.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

IN REVIEW: Metropolitan Opera – Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel
Engelbert Humperdinck

Conductor: Vladimir Jurowski
Gretel: Christine Schäfer
Hansel: Alice Coote
Gertrude: Rosalind Plowright
The Witch: Philip Langridge
Peter: Alan Held
Production: Richard Jones
Set & Costume Designer: John Macfarlane
Lighting Designer: Jennifer Tipton
Choreographer: Linda Dobell
English Version: David Pountney

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – (December 29, 2007) The Metropolitan Opera House closed the year with a bang (and a lovely bang too) with a broadcast of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. This gym of the German Repertoire is neglected in large part. This is because the opera was written for children in large part, and people still believe it’s subject matter to be childish – and in some ways it is – but this doesn’t mean that the opera has nothing to say.

The was some evidence of Peter Gelb (the Great Satan) and his style in this production but for once I found it completely satisfying. Conductor Vladimir Jurowski – Glyndebourne’s Music Director – led the orchestra in the finest playing I’ve ever heard them in. For once the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra had a German sound and his tempo and volume was completely appropriate.

German Soprano Christine Schäfer was difficult to understand in the English version of the opera, but as the performance went on it became unnoticeable. Schäfer’s sweet lyric soprano was perfect for Gretel. She worked perfectly moving about the registers seamlessly with a nearly perfect technique. Her physical portrayal was convincing and she proved herself not just a singing actress, but also a fine comic with her witty performance
Alice Coote’s Hansel was also very fine. Like Schäfer, Coote was a smart actress and provided sufficient charm for the boy. She had the awkwardness of a seven year old child and made me smile as the opera went forward.

The low point of the evening was the Gertrude (Mother) of Rosalind Plowright. The Mezzo had that squawk that some dramatic mezzos have. She proved fine for the part, but I wouldn’t like to hear her as much else. The voice was large and her acting was convincing. Her prayer that her children return was very beautiful.

American Baritone Alan Held’s portrayal of Peter (Father) was the highlight of the evening. He sings a sort monologue about the difficulty of life as a poor man, and he left the crowd wanting more. He was fatherly and kind. Held will appear as the Dutchman in Washington later this season, and it will be worth a trip.

Philip Langridge appeared as the Witch. The role was perfect for him, and it gave him an opportunity to show off his gift as an actor. The voice was large yet brilliant and lyric, it was perfect for parts like this or Loge. The Witch’s part is also very small, and he left us wanting more or wishing that the villain had consumed the children so that we might her another aria about how good they taste.

The set was witty, using large pieces of artwork as a the curtain between acts. In the beginning as the prelude played there was a large empty plate which showed the children’s hunger, later as the children entered the haunted forest the plate was replaced with an awful mouth that was hungry for blood. The device worked well.

The first act took place in a sparse and small room. This was the children’s impoverished home. It is clean but shows sings of disrepair. Hansel and Gretel play games to pass the time rather than doing their charms. Their dancing game has an enchanting duet (which later becomes a hymn of praise and thanksgiving) and the pair performed the scene very well. They break the glass jug of milk, the family’s only source of nourishment and when Mother finds out she sends them away into the woods to pick berries so they will have something to eat. She prays to find a way to free her children.

Father comes home drunk and then shows his wife the huge amount of food he has gotten during the day and telling her the milk was “no loss on a day like this”. He asks where the children are and nearly beats her for sending the children into the woods. He explains that the woods have an awful old woman who likes to eat children living there. The parents are soon off to look for Hansel and Gretel.

The visual highlight of the opera came at the end of the second act after the Sandman puts the children to sleep. Traditionally they are in a wood, but in the Met’s version the siblings found themselves in a large room with wallpaper that looked like the forest. It was very artistic (very Gelb) but worked well. There was a long table. Sandman blesses the children and keeps them safe in the night. The production also broke from tradition by eliminating the angels that often come to protect the children after they say evening prayers in a stunning duet.

In this version there was a long dream sequence where the children are no longer hungry because they are fed by a large group of funny looking chefs and a butler with the head of a fish. It serves to enforce the feeling that the children are very hungry, and you can understand their happiness as the long table is set for a king, and they are able to eat.

In the third act there is no gingerbread house, instead the children are beckoned though the curtain which has become a mouth with it’s tongue sticking out and a cake on the tongue. The children can’t resist the treat and find themselves in the Witch’s industrial kitchen. Gingerbread children can be seen all around and when the audiences catches a peek into the large stainless steel refrigerator they see arms and legs.

The Witch is killed by Hansel and Gretel as they push her into the oven. Her spell is broken, and after an explosion and a moment of darkness and time in from of a curtain (now a broken plate) the Hansel and Gretel find that the gingerbread statues have turned back into live children. Here the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus sings the sublime chorus as they cry because their eyesight has been lost. Hansel and Gretel break this spell too by giving every child a “tender touch”. They sing and joyously as they once more see the light, and it was the most touching moment I’ve seen over the last year.

Finally Mother and Father (Gertrude and Peter) find the children. Held performs the melody of the children’s dancing duet, but this time he thanks God for delivering the family from evil. The production avoids obvious Germanic clichés and feels like it could be just about anywhere. The message is clear, family and love is the most important thing and that God will deliver those who love their families.

Monday, December 31, 2007

TOP 5: reasons we loved 2007

OPERA in AMERICA is “A candid discussion of all things opera, music and the other finest things in life.” The time has come to take a moment and remember the best (and most ridicules) events in American Opera in the year 2007.

5. Joyce DiDonato: American Beauty’s return

This year was the breakout of a diva true that a quality aficionado has been following for some time. Joyce DiDonato arrived at the center of the scene as Rosina in The Metropolitan Opera’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, she was awarded the Beverly Sills Award, and the prestigious cover of Opera News (the coveted diva issue at that). DiDonato is singing all of the best, and most challenging repertoire – Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, Cenerentola and Cendrillon – and doing to great acclaim.

I first learned of the Mezzo with a Paris Barbiere, set in Moorish Seville and it was just wonderful. She is now performing at all of the world’s top houses and brining them down too. This is the sort of singer who makes Americans proud…intelligent, talented, skilled kind and beautiful, Joyce DiDonato’s broke out this year; it’s about time.

4. Peter Gelb: The Great Satan

Gelb is one of the two reasons we loved 2007 for something negative. OPERA in AMERICA feels that he has a sick mind and we love that the Metropolitan Opera has given us someone to hate.

Gelb appeared on the shit list after his negative comments about Joe Volpe (who I think rocks) and his discrimination against Ruth Ann Swenson, despite her triumphs at the house as Cleopatra and Marguerite. We love to hate Peter Gelb, the Great Satan and we can’t wait until he leaves the Metropolitan Opera House.

3. Die Agyptische Helena at the Metropolitan Opera

Will I ever hear such a performance again? I seriously doubt it, so I am glad to have made the trip last March to hear Strauss’ rarity in New York. Deborah Voigt proved herself the heir to Leonie Rysanek and the composer’s dramatic repertoire from the moment she took the stage. “Zweite Brautnacht” was erotic and magical, and she spun out the lyrical lines of the scene with a silver tone not usually heard. Voigt’s performance is the sort that will go down in history as one of the greats. The diva truly deserves her throne as today’s finest dramatic soprano.

Jill Grove’s Omniscient Sea-Shell was unbelievably great. She hit every note; from the contralto bottom to the top of the staff. This was another woman who showed that she is the finest in the fach. Grove is in a class of her own in the German Mezzo Repertoire.

Finally the Aithra of Diana Demrau was the toast of New York. Her large bright coloratura soared over the thick orchestra of Strauss’s score. She gracefully etched the difficult part and showed that she was the premier Struassian Coloratura.

The Met’s Helena was just incredible. The house brought together a Strauss Trinity of the finest caliber. A finer cast couldn’t have been created.

2. Neruda Songs

The recording of the late Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson singing her husband Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs (a cycle for Soprano and Orchestra) was a love letter saying goodbye to her fans. Hitting the shelves in January the piece was just stunning.

If only music could all sound like this. Peter Lieberson created something classic…for me Neruda Songs will be the same as Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and will become an American Classic.

Lorraine Hunt sings the music with passion and every word is colored perfectly. We will miss Hunt-Lieberson, but we will never forget her.

1. The Alagnas

She is awful. He is ridicules. One is off pitch, the other is a bitch. One got booed by Italians, the other got fired by one.

In one year Roberto got booed off stage, then needed his wife at his side. While she was standing in the wings of the Metropolitan Opera, she skipped out on her Chicago Mimi and was dismissed from the production, which was directed by Renata Scotto. They should be humiliated after this year. When the Met Opera Shop gave –for free, I’ll never pay for her music – me this CD called “Angela Gheorghiu - A Portrait” and it turned out to be a twenty-five minute interview filled with self praise (together with praise from Carol Neblett) over her less than perfect singing. I threw it away.

The Alagans made 2007 something to laugh at.