Love in the Cargo Bay: Tristan und Isolde, Metropolitan Opera 10-3-16

So I had the opportunity to see the Met’s new Tristan und Isolde on Monday night. This is only the second time I’ve seen this opera live – or, rather, it’s sort of the first-and-two-thirds time, because the first time I went to see it, in Vienna, I misapprehended the schedule, arrived late, and was directed to the Opera Detention Area where I had to wait and watch Act I on a video feed until the intermission.

This production by Mariusz Treliński is grim. It opens with projection animation, a repeatedly inscribed glowing green circle on a black background – like radar or sonar on a ship – and through this we see, in reversed black and white, film-negative-style, crashing waves and the prow of a warship. Tristan and Isolde are on a modern military ship, with low gray rooms, outfitted in metal, and a very clangy metal staircase to one side. Tristan can see Isolde and Brangäne via a video feed projected onto the wall of the control center that makes up the uppermost level. There is a consistent feel of descending into ever darker levels as the story unfolds – when Tristan finally agrees to go and talk to Isolde in Act I, they go downstairs to the very belly of the ship; in Act II, they meet almost outdoors, in an observation area, but soon go down again, into the cargo hold (it is a cargo hold – there is cargo, even, and King Marke makes his entrance through the rear doors in a cloud of light and vapor; the effect is somewhere between Das Boot and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) and in Act III, Tristan awaits death and Isolde in a dark, cavernous hospital room. Sometimes the stage disappears behind the animation – in Act II, as Brangäne (Ekaterina Gubanova) warns the two of danger, we see rushing clouds, and ultimately the (often repeated) image of a solar eclipse.

Act III, which depends on Tristan being excellent by himself for about an hour and which can thus go wrong quite easily, is broken up visually by a move from the black hospital room into a burned-out hut as Tristan muses about his past. This part can drag on under some circumstances – we want Isolde to show up almost as much as Tristan does – but in this case it doesn’t, because Stuart Skelton is so consistently good. I have listened to recordings of this opera and felt, by Act III or so, that I had had rather enough of tenors in distress for one evening, but this was emphatically not the case on Monday night. Nina Stemme was also very satisfying as Isolde. It’s interesting hearing this opera live as opposed to on CD – on recordings, the voices are often placed a little bit more forward; in a live performance, even a big voice like Stemme’s gets drawn into the orchestral music at climactic moments, which I find I don’t mind. The show was stolen by René Pape as King Marke, however. His long soliloquy in Act II had a dramatic force that stood out from everything else I heard that evening. The Met’s orchestra with Simon Rattle also outdid itself – the wrenching musical tension in the score was vividly expressed. Rattle held the final chord longer than I expected, but very effectively. (And no one interrupted with premature applause!).

Strauss: Elektra / Met Opera 4-23-16

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I have been to not one but two live performances of Strauss’s Elektra in the past six months or so. Each time, I come out of it feeling stunned and unable to articulate any particular opinion about the performance. But stunned is good. And sometimes the opinions trickle in later on. (I think part of it might be Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s fault – I find that operas for which he has written the libretto take me a while to absorb, because I keep getting distracted by the quality of the text and occasionally miss music that I have to catch the next time around.)

When I glanced at the program last night, I was startled – the casting for this was pretty much incredible: Nina Stemme (Elektra), Adrienne Pieczonka (Chrysothemis), Waltraud Meier (Klytämnestra) and Eric Owens (Orestes). I bought the ticket to hear Stemme, who I’d never heard live before, but this is one of quadruple-bonus type evenings that you sometimes get in large cities with big opera houses.

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Donizetti – Roberto Devereux / Metropolitan Opera 4-16-16

When you are faced with a production of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, it is good to keep in mind that yes, it is ridiculous. It is ridiculous on the grand scale – it has the distinction of being (I’m pretty sure) the only story based on the life of the Earl of Essex that includes his execution but does its best to avoid talking much about the abortive rebellion he led in early 1601 that according to most non-Donizetti’s-librettist schools of historical scholarship was the primary reason he was executed. Also it leaves out the part where he tried to shift part of the blame for the rising to his sister Penelope (I am not making this up), which I suspect gives you a sense of why Donizetti’s librettist decided to leave this and many other things out of the libretto.

It is also ridiculous on the small scale – the ending has Elizabeth basically drop dead after she realizes she was wrong to execute Essex. Given that in this version, she has him executed basically because she’s mad at him for loving another woman, I suppose maybe she was embarrassed. You know how sometimes you’ve momentarily wanted to drop dead, when you’ve done something really stupid and everyone in the room knows? Well it may be that if you’re an anointed monarch, you can actually do this. But of course, you can only do it the once.

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Christiane Karg / Weill Recital Hall 4-15-16

One of the upsides to volunteering at Carnegie Hall is that you get access to the volunteers’ lounge, which has not only things like free coffee and couches and a bathroom and all that, but there is also a TV feed from the stage, including sound, so you can watch and listen to whatever is going on in the main auditorium. This is pretty cool – if you don’t have a ticket to something, you can watch it from there, and although the picture isn’t great, it’s better than nothing. On Friday, I spent a worthwhile 20 minutes or so watching and listening to Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax rehearse for their recital later that evening. This was pretty neat. I wasn’t able to go to the performance because I had a ticket for another show at the same time, but I felt like I got a little snippet of it.

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Karita Mattila / Alice Tully Hall 3-10-16

This was the best concert I have been to in months – exciting, beautifully rendered, balls-to-the-wall Lieder singing from the very first song. I had never heard Mattila live before, and I now wish I had more opportunities to do so – her voice is stunning. It’s bigger than I expected from recordings; part of me wished I had been able to sit closer to as to see more of her acting up close (I was in the back row of the balcony) but I think that aurally back center of the hall was perfect.

And it was so nice to go to a concert that does not consist of songs I have heard a thousand times before! Familiar material, but not too much so. The first set was Brahms’s Ziguenerlieder (Gypsy Songs). Mattila threw herself into these both vocally and physically; I realized when I opened my eyes somewhere around ‘Wißt ihr, wann mein Kindchen” that by not watching I was missing out.

I have heard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder a few times before, but I never listened to them with the same attention as I did last night. Among the high points here was the final song, “Träume,” (“Dreams”) which was spellbinding, from the moment the vocal line steps quietly out of the piano part until it sinks away again at the final lines of the text. Afterwards, I kept trying to put into words the feeling of when a song performance really clicks. I have a sense of being able to follow what is being expressed, even if it is in a language I don’t know, or don’t know well enough to understand every word; I also get an impression of the song, or at least the vocal line, holding itself together – there’s a feeling of wholeness. Whatever it was, and however you want to describe it, there was plenty of it in this concert.

After intermission, Mattila sang Berg’s Four Songs, Op. 2. The more I hear live performances of Berg’s songs, the more I like them. Here, with the first one, “Dem Schmerz sein Recht,” every note seemed to fall perfectly into place (I have in my notes “this just gets better and better”); the entire set was over far too quickly, and when we’d moved on to Strauss I wished for a moment that we could stay in Berg world for a while more.

Mattila’s stage presence is lively, funny and extremely energetic, and she certainly knows how to butter up her audience. She introduced her encore, a jazz (I think?) song called “Eine kleine Sehnsucht” with the observation that she had learned a new English word recently, “yearning,” and that this song perfectly expressed her yearning to come to New York again – “but in German, of course.” She delivered the song with the sort of style and sparkle that in retrospect I think Renée Fleming was going for in her similarly jazzy encore the other night, but didn’t (by comparison) quite nail. Mattila nailed it.

Renée Fleming at Carnegie Hall 3-9-16

I spent much of the subway ride home last night trying to figure out a version of recital encore bingo. The center free space would be “you didn’t catch what it was”; “Morgen” would be on it, as would “Danny Boy,” which I have now heard a fairly alarming three or four times in the space of about five months. Renée Fleming, if you are curious, sang “Danny Boy” as one of three encores, but did not venture “Morgen.” I was kind of relieved, even though the other two – “Shall we dance” (I think that’s what it’s called, anyway) and “O mio babbino caro” were not such material as normally makes me fall off my chair with excitement.

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Wednesday Evening Miscellany with Bonus Unrelated Photo of Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma Banging a Gong

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I stepped out of my usual rut last night, in the sense that instead of German art songs, I went to a recital of (mostly) Russian art songs by baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. I am pleased to report that I can now reliably repeat his last name, because I took care to look at the program so as not to be caught out on such an elementary item – earlier, even having heard him once at the Met before, I would have been able to say it started with H, ended with -sky and that there was Russian in the middle, but that would have been about the limit. So. Hvorostovsky.

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On the bright side, the Respighi was loud enough to drown out the audience noises

Have you ever had a concert experience that just didn’t work out? I did on Saturday. Partly I think it was the result of having been to the opera the night before and then spent the afternoon listening to a bootleg of Norma, which is one of those things that is perhaps a questionable choice under any circumstances, and thus being a little worn out – but partly I think it was the fault of whoever decided on the programming for the New York Philharmonic’s concert.

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Haydn and Bruckner from the Philadelphia Orchestra

I had been looking forward to hearing Jonas Kaufmann last weekend, but he was sick, and had to cancel a number of performances. I was disappointed. On the other hand, the previous week, due to the volunteering gig at Carnegie Hall, I scored a free ticket to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra (conducted by Yannick Nezet-Seguin) play Haydn and Bruckner.

I went into the concert thinking, “I’m here for the Haydn, and staying probably for Bruckner.” I had a bad Bruckner experience in graduate school, and my impression of his symphonies was what Henry James said about novels like Tolstoy’s – “large loose baggy monsters.” Also, this particular symphony, No. 4, had some sort of medieval theme to it, and 19th century people writing “romantic” things about the middle ages usually elicits a Homer-Simpson-backwards-through-the-hedge reaction from me.

But. I enjoyed the Haydn so much that I was not disposed to leave after the intermission. This was probably an intentional gambit on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s part – after all, who does not like Haydn? A Haydn symphony, operated correctly, makes everyone feel genial and contented. And if you’re lucky, you get one of the ones with a surprise or a drumroll or an imitation of a clock or whatnot. (The same is true of his chamber music. Though I’m still trying to work out why the last of the Op. 50 string quartets is called “The Frog.” According to one source I have read, it is “characterized by persistent bariolage,” which unless you know what bariolage is, could involve just about anything from anti-aircraft guns to some kind of specialized European pastry technique.*)

I will say this about Bruckner symphonies. My ticket was for the third row of the orchestra level, and I experienced much of the fourth movement through the floor as well as via vibrations in the air as is more customary. That shit is LOUD. It’s exciting, though, and by the end of the evening, I had mentally moved Bruckner symphonies to the same mental bucket occupied by Schumann’s “Frauenliebe- und Leben” song cycle: I’ll listen to it, but only live, and only rarely.

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*Bariolage is basically what you do a lot if you play bluegrass fiddle, but it’s possible to play the violin for quite a few years without anyone telling you that there is a term for that thing.

Violin Hijinks with Europa Galante at Zankel Hall 1-16-16

I had a pleasant experience last night at Zankel Hall – Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante playing late baroque concertos and chamber pieces for violin, viola d’amore and small chamber ensemble. I’ve been a fan of Biondi’s playing for years, and for several months this past fall I was mopey because I knew this concert was on and it had sold out. But I snagged a ticket in the end.

The program was based on their album Il diario di Chiara, which is a collection of music that would have been played by Chiara della Pietà, a performer and teacher at Vivaldi’s famous post the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice. Chiara, who was dropped at the orphanage’s doorstep as an infant, wasn’t trained by Vivaldi herself, but her own teacher Anna was.* The music is basically Vivaldi and a handful of other composers one rarely encounters (hi, Fulgenso Perotti! loved that thingy for violin and organ!), brought to life again by the brio of the solo and ensemble playing. I think last night was the first time I had heard a viola d’amore in a live performance; but more to the point, this was the type of baroque performance that made things we’ve all heard a thousand times, like the snippet of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” that they played for one of their encores, seem new. I mean, the guy sitting two seats down from me was gleefully air-conducting for several extended sections of the performance.

When I went to the concert I had not yet heard the Il diario di Chiara album, and I spent a few minutes stalking it on the internet last night. Apparently it comes with a bonus DVD, which the critic from Fanfare thought was nice, although “tame.” I am not sure what the rubric is for evaluating  “making of” DVDs about baroque violin music; as a result, I got distracted thinking about what would render such an item “not tame” and didn’t buy the disc until this morning. But it is winging its way toward me even now.

 

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*These ladies didn’t have conventional last names – both are surnamed “della Pietà” after the institution.

P.D.Q. Bach – The Golden Anniversary

I had the good fortune on Monday to hear a P.D.Q. Bach concert, presented by the inimitable Peter Schickele at the Town Hall auditorium. I had Schickele/PDQ’s music inflicted on me repeatedly at an early age (thanks, Mom!) and I’ve got all the CDs, etc. etc.

This concert was a riot. Most of the material was pretty familiar – who among us, after all, has not heard the Beethoven sportscast number? – but that even the umpteenth time, that shit is STILL FUNNY. Schickele is getting on in years and can no longer swing down onto the stage on a rope as he used to, but his comic delivery hasn’t changed, and as he demonstrated in the excerpts from Oedipus Tex that closed the concert, he can still belt out a Texas-sized aria. (And play continuo on a wheezy little keyboard/accordion thing that I couldn’t identify.)

My favorite parts, though, were the arrangement of “Swing low, sweet chariot” and the “Uptown Hoedown.” Like the “Unbegun Symphony” and a few other similar pieces Schickele has written, these are pastiches of whole bunches of tunes; every time I hear one of these, I catch more references in it than I did the previous time. In this case – did you know that you could arrange “Swing low, sweet chariot,” in such a way that the vocal part (sung by tenor Brian Dougherty) consists entirely of “Danny Boy”? And also that the whole thing can get mixed up with the Battle Hymn of the Republic and end on the final chords of Tristan and Isolde?

 

 

Diana Damrau – Carnegie Hall 12-6-15

I am on a roll as far as not getting thrown out of concert halls is concerned. (Has anyone ever been? I have never seen a concertgoer forcibly ejected from a venue, but the venues I frequent tend to be fairly staid – perhaps if I attended more song recitals in rough areas of Jersey there might be more action. You know, like in Blues Brothers where the band is behind chicken wire because the audience yells and throws beer bottles until they hear something they like. “Heidenröslein! Heeeiiidenröööööösleeeeeiin!”)

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Tara Erraught / Carnegie Hall 12-4-15

This recital started late enough that I was tempted to get up on my seat and start chanting “Lie-DER! Lie-DER!” but since I wanted to hear the concert and did not want to write about How I Got Permanently Banned From Carnegie Hall Due To Excess of Impatience I restrained myself.

Not getting thrown out turned out to be the right choice. The concert was in the Weill recital hall, one of the two smaller auditoriums at Carnegie Hall, and the space was just about the right size for a concert like this. The sound was very close and vivid – I can’t imagine anyone had trouble hearing or missed any nuances (I remember thinking very distinctly during Liszt’s “Die Loreley” that the loud bits were definitely loud).

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Mystery Recital

I have spent more time than I ought to this week playing an extended game of What the Fuck Is That Song. This is because I got a bootleg recording of a recital by Sondra Radvanvosky, recorded back in 2004. There’s no indication of what’s on it, so I have 19 mystery tracks to identify. Some of them are easier than others – e.g. if it’s about fourteen minutes long and begins with “Ah, perfido!” it’s probably Beethoven’s aria of the same name because there are only so many things in the world that are fourteen minutes long and begin with “Ah, perfido!”

But in non “Ah, perfido!”-type situations, one is reduced to trying to catch the first line, googling the first line, and then either checking an aria or song database to match the text or finding clips of whatever it might be on YouTube and listening to see if they are the same. I have had more success with some tracks than others: it’s amazing how much more intelligible sung Italian is when you know the words already.

So I have developed a pincer strategy. One side of the pincer is the abovedescribed listening and googling; the other is finding reviews of Radvanovsky’s recitals that list the things that she commonly sings, and then seeing if those are the things that I am hearing on this particular recital. Maybe by the time I have made myself thoroughly sick of the recording, I will know what is on it.

In which we obtain a bootleg copy of Bellini’s Norma under extremely suspicious circumstances

Well, don’t I feel dumb. A while back I ordered an “unofficial” recoding of Don Carlos from one of the usual places, because Sondra Radvanovsky was singing Elisabetta and I wanted to hear it. When I got it, I was disappointed when the first disc began with the San Yuste scene (“Carlo il somno imperatore”). I thought Act I was missing, because although I knew there were various longer and shorter versions of this opera with different sections added, removed or revised, I had never yet heard one that began at that point of the story. So, I wrote a polite email and they sent me another copy of the recording. This one was identical to the first. So I wrote another polite email and they offered to send me something else instead. I figured their recording was just missing a piece and that was that, so I accepted a bootleg of Norma also involving Sondra Radanovsky in its place. Because of the sort of operation this is, I didn’t have to return either iteration of Don Carlos.

Then, this morning, I had one of those “hm, I wonder” moments and I discovered that there is in fact a version of Don Carlos that omits Act I and begins with the San Yuste scene, and it was this truncated version that the San Diego opera elected to perform back in 2003. It’s a rarity in some sense, I guess, because I have never before either on CD or in an opera house encountered the opera in this particular form. After all, as these things go, Act I is a pretty good act. I rather like the Carlos/ Elisabetta duet – in fact, I was particularly looking forward to hearing Radvanovsky letting fly Elisabetta’s excited high notes toward the end.

So, I suppose we can say that I have learned something. We could also say, however, that I have probably convinced the customer service email person at PremiereOpera that I’m either an idiot or wicked sneaky – but fortunately, that is all in the past now and I can go and listen to my new recording of Norma. Ita sul colle, Druidi, etc. etc.

This week in opera

1. I went to the concert performance this past Wednesday of Strauss’s Elektra at Carnegie Hall with Christine Goerke in the title role. I normally prefer my operas four hours long and highly stylized; there is however much to be said in favor of brief and terrifying. I believed every word Goerke sang. It was hair-raising, in the best possible way – hearing her voice at full power with the Boston Symphony right behind her instead of in a pit was unforgettable. We should have more concert performances of Strauss operas around here. Elevating the orchestra (literally and perhaps a bit figuratively too) really works.

2. I have been dragged – well, not really dragged – to a number of piano recitals recently. Maurizio Pollini a few weeks ago, and again tomorrow because I am married to a piano nut, and then we scored some free tickets to hear Andras Schiff on the 30th. Piano nerds are real, and I was surrounded by them during the last recital. They do air piano on their programs during the encores. I am not making this up.

3. I got stuck on the subway the other day – one of the less attractive qualities of the New York subway system is that if a butterfly in Brooklyn flaps its wings in the wrong direction, all the express trains in Queens start running local, and it takes me an hour to get anywhere – and I was listening to that Mozart arias album again. It gets better on repeated listening. I always end up in this distressing epistemological quandry whenever I form an opinion about anything: I am never sure afterward whether my opinion was formed under the right circumstances and whether it might not have been different and which one would have been right.

4. As part of training to be a volunteer tour guide at Carnegie Hall, you have to tag a long on a bunch of tours to absorb what the other guides are doing and what the route is (there is also a booklet). I’m starting to feel like a regular at screenings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show – I know what all the jokes are going to be in advance.

Dorothea Röschmann and Mitsuko Uchida / Songs by Schumann and Berg

5119eS-4t8LThis recital is so very, very good that you just sit there stunned and then have to pick yourself up off the floor, regroup and sit there stunned for a little while longer. I heard the live version of this concert at Carnegie Hall last spring; this CD was recorded a few weeks later at Wigmore Hall, and I think the Londoners got the better performance, because again, while what I heard was good, this was utterly amazing. Every note of this performance is alive.

Röschmann and Uchida perform three sets of songs, Schumann’s Op. 39 Liederkreis, Berg’s Seven Early Songs, and Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben.

Uchida’s piano playing reveals that the piano part in these songs is not just “accompaniment” but rather a second voice in the piece. She brings out details that I had not registered before – the heartbeat pulse of the piano part in “Intermezzo” in the Leiderkreis, the way the piano lines wrap up the story of witch and wanderer in “Waldesgespräch”, the rushing of the little brook in “In der Fremde” or the simple glow of happiness in “Frühlingsnacht.” I was just listening to bits of the recital again as I write this (sometimes I can figure out what I was talking about in my original chickenscratch notes; other times – as is common with important historical documents – the notes are written in a left-handed scrawl so impenetrably awful that I have to go back and re-create the moment in order to interpret the record) and a second listen does nothing but confirm Uchida’s power to make the piano part speak.

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