Thursday, May 19, 2011
My companion for the screening was a friend who had accompanied me to one of the Met performances. As a professional musician, he had more knowledge of Wagner than I, but shared with me a previous resistance to the composer. While totally enthralled by our live Walküre experience, we were both eager to view the production from a much closer angle. The HD broadcast left us in total agreement of this being a marvelous complement to the live theatrical performance.
Being at the Encore screening, we were aware of the tehnicial glitch causing a 40 minute delay of Saturday's live broadcast, as the techncians had to re-establish one of the electronic connectors to the computer system controling the operation of the set. The Met's HD staff had reacted quickly, turning this into a fascinating intermission interview with the Met Technical Director explaing the process of operation for the set, complete with close-up shots of "The Machne" as the set has come to be known. All quite interesting, but the close-ups of the set made me even more nervous for the singers who have to deal with it, while singing this gorgeous, yet very challenging music!
And, speaking of the music, we saw another stunning performance! It was thrilling to have the relationship unfold between tenor Jonas Kaufmann's Siegmund and soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek's Sieglinde from this vantage point. However, I couldn't help notice a few quirky details. Before Siegmund stumbles into Sieglinde and Hunding's hut, two stagehands were seen crawling in the background. As a mythological period piece, I still find it strange that chairs for the dining table are fold-out stools. Even more puzzling are the the silver or pewter flatware and dishes, which look contemporary. Speaking of silver, with all the money spent on this production, you'd think the sword Siegmund pulls out of the ash tree would be more grandiose looking, especially as it came from the god Wotan. And, someone please alter Sieglinde's dress and brush out her wig before the full Ring Cyle next year! I appreciate the desire to have the dress look appropriate for the period, but it could be better fitted to Westbroek's silouhette and tailored to look less baggy. I realize that Sieglinde is not wealthy, but that doesn't mean the one costume she wears can't be more flattering. The Met Opera Costume and Props Department create miracles, so I know all this can be taken care of.
I was so transported by seeing the intensely intimate and dramatic Act 1 up close that I was sorry to see it end. HD Broadcast Host Placido Domingo was waiting in the wings to interview a clearly exhilerated Kaufmann and Westbroek and it was a special thrill for me to see these two tenors together! Before the premiere, Kaufmann and Westbroek had participated in the "Met Talks" presentation before the premiere and their comaraderie as colleagues and friends is evident. (Westbroek also duets with Kaufmann in the final cut on his latest CD, the terrific Verismo Arias.)
Although I have seen each of the Met productions over the past season, this was only my third HD screening for 2010-2011 and I found the Walküre intermission features the most enjoyable. Aside from live cast interviews by Domingo and the fabulous mezzo Joyce DiDonato ("The Yankee Diva"!), there is an interesting feature on the horns Wagner wrote for, especially the "Wagner tuba". Members of the Met Orchestra horm section demonstated the different horms used, describing the "Wagner tuba",(or "Bayreuth tuba", as it is sometimes called) as a mix of a tenor tuba and French horn, which Wagner created for the Ring Cycle. And, we were treated to a fascinating preview of the upcoming documentary, James Levine: America's Maestro, which PBS will present on June 1st - also the date of more Walküre HD Enccore screenings. Included are scenes of Levine rehearsing Domingo in the 1970's for the lead tenor role of Gabriele Adorno in Simon Boccanegra and for his 2010 debut in the baritone title role.
By the way, my favorite quote of the cast interviews was powerhouse mezzo Stephanie Blythe's matter-of-fact description of her vocal technique. My friend and I shouted with ironic laughter at Blythe's calm assertion that singing Wagner is all about "...taking a breath, supporting it, singing the words and getting to the end of a phrase" If only we all could reach the end of any phrases with the vocal quality, ease and authority of Stephanie Blythe!
I had previously mentioned the projections during Siegmund's monologue in Act I and Wotan's in Act II. Closer examination has made me only more convinced that both are irrelevant. But, Siegmund's death in Act II is even more moving on the large screen that it was live in the Met as is the anguish and anger of Bryn Terfel's Wotan. At the Act II intermission, my friend and I were both shaking our heads in wonder at the accomplishment of Kaufmann's role debut as Siegmund. Accustomed to hearing Kaufmann in Italian and French romantic leading roles, the difficulties of Siegmund's lower register is quite a departure. As a tenor himself, my friend was especially appreciative of the challenges Kaufmann faced in this role. Kaufmann's performance is magnificient and I will be delighted to eventually have the DVD of this HD filming to remember it by.
Seeing the HD has also not changed my mind about the ending. Clips of the previous Met production show Wotan gently leading Brünnhilde to the rock, kissing her godly powers away and carefully lowering her on the rock, then slowly putting her spear, shield and visor in place. Truly a more tender and fitting last scene for these characters and more satifying. While the lights and fire effects of this production's finale are stunning, the staging must be altered, so it is not felt necessary to use a body double. Brünnhilde should not be portrayed by a body double in the finale as it damages the heartwrenching emotion of a father's fnal farewell to his daughter.
I've heard some professional musicians express concern about what they perceive as over-emphasis on the visual, rather than the musical aspects of opera productions because of the HD and other live opera film series. While nothing will ever replace the live experience of opera (or any other peforming art), the Met HD screenings are an extraordinary gift to opera lovers all around the world. Many HD viewers live in areas where there are no professional opera companies and look forward to all the HD screenings. I know a family with three children in a very small Western town who drive an hour and half each way to see the HD performances. As a Met audience regular, I continually meet people from all around the world who became opera fans because of the HD screenings and then began to experience opera live in the theatre. Or, long-time opera fans who can't get to the Met as often as they like and greatly value the HD opportunities to see the Met productions. Once the DVD of the Walküre HD performance is released, it will be a cherished companion piece to my memories of these unforgettable performances at the Met.
(All photos by Ken Howard from the final dress rehearsal of April 19, 2011, are courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.)
Monday, May 16, 2011
During Act II of the Die Walküre premiere on Friday, April 22nd, there was special resonance for me in Wotan’s observation; "Things can suddenly happen that have never happened before." One year ago, I wouldn’t have known a Hunding from a Hyundai, but have now seen six of the seven performances of Metropolitan Opera’s new production. Once resistant to Wagner, I now readily admit to being under the spell of Die Walküre.
Sadly, an increased work load had prevented my friend from joining me that evening, having informed me he sold his ticket two hours before the performance. The lucky recipient had driven in from Connecticut, taking a chance that a ticket might become available and his optimism certainly paid off! While missing my friend, I was about to silence my BlackBerry when I noticed the text light flashing and was delighted to see greetings from an friend in London, about to stay up all night and listen on Sirius Radio. Having experienced a similar journey to Wagner, she was excited to share in the festivities. I quickly answered her, promising to check in at the first intermission and waited eagerly for the start.
The rotating planks of the set (“The Machine”) are used to better advantage in Walküre, beginning with Siegmund, fleeing through the dense forest on a stormy night, avoiding the searchlights of his enemies close behind. However, with each viewing, I was frustrated in wanting the cast to be closer to the audience. When the forest becomes Hunding’s hut, a low wall (used in part for Sieglinde’s kitchen) causes most of the action to be set further back on the enormous stage. But, wall or no wall, the instant connection between Jonas Kaufmann’s Siegmund and Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Sieglinde is unmistakable. While Hunding (the remarkable bass Hans-Peter König) remarks on the resemblance between the two, I couldn’t help but wonder why he doesn’t notice the pair is trying desperately not to gaze at one another!
And, they can’t bear not to touch one another as their hands linger while Siegmund first takes the water, then mead offered by Sieglinde. At one point after Hunding’s arrival, Siegmund walks slowly past Sieglinde and gently brushes his hand against hers, then walks away and folds his arm across his chest, clasping his other arm, while he stares straight ahead. Sieglinde looks at him momentarily and turning her back, gazes at the hand Siegmund has just touched. At the premiere, I almost missed the moment and watched carefully for it at the next performances. While the idea of romance between Siegmund and Sieglinde, the lost twins separated as small children, is unsettling, to say the least, Kaufmann and Westbroek make you believe that once their eyes locked, there was no turning back. You can’t help but exult with them as they run off at the end of Act 1.
Hearing Kaufmann live after nearly a year is such an enormous pleasure! The first tenor since Domingo whose every role I long to see, Kaufmann does not disappoint in his debut as Siegmund. I had momentarily forgotten that Siegmund is written in a register lower than most tenor roles and appreciate the difficulty this obviously presents. In my previous state of ignorance, I had thought of the Ring as full of fire, brimstone, barking and shouting. While there is obviously fire, I now think of Walküre as a series of extended duets and soliloquies with some wonderfully lyrical passages. Kaufmann communicates the meaning of the text beautifully, as does the Wotan of Bryn Terfel and it is easy to see why both are so acclaimed as lieder singers.
Knowing some of Westbroek’s work from CDs and YouTube clips, her usually strong and vibrant voice sounded rather cloudy at the premiere and illness prevented her from continuing after Act 1. The daunting task of replacing her for the rest of the premiere fell to Margaret Jane Wray whom, it was no surprise to later learn, is an accomplished Wagnerian and experienced Sieglinde.
Intermissions at the premiere also had quite a buzz, and my sleepless London friend and I exchanged more text messages then and after the performance. In addition to running into a few excited Wagnerian acquaintances, I encountered the earlier pair of Valkyries, along with a new one:
While Act II brings instant recognition of the strong affection between the god Wotan and his Valkyrie daughter Brünnhilde, his relationship with his wife Fricka is deeply complicated. Despite giving up an eye to win her as his bride, true contentment apears scarce in their childless marriage. Fricka is conflicted between anger at Wotan’s repeated infidelities and numerous illegitimate children to lingering affection for her husband. As always, mezzo Stephanie Blythe is a force of nature as she vividly captures the complexities of her character. Although Fricka is goddess of marriage, she supports Hunding, the man who had Sieglinde abducted and forced into a loveless marriage and life of rape and servitude. Sieglinde and Siegmund are Wotan’s children and further proof of his infidelity, so she refuses to believe these half-mortals can save the gods. Fricka convinces Bryn Terfel’s anguished Wotan they must support this travesty of a marriage or their powers will be lost. After bitterly giving her his oath, Terfel snatches his hand away and doubles over in torment, knowing his only son is doomed in battle. While Hunding’s spear goes through Siegmund, Terfel’s Wotan reacts as though it has pierced him as well. Terfel conjures up images of a dangerous, wounded animal, dismissively snarling, “GEH!, GEH!” (“GO!, GO!”), to Hunding. Looking up as Wotan cradles his dying son, Kaufmann recognizes the lost father Walse and, with a loving gaze, caresses Wotan’s face before falling back dead in his arms.
Theoretically, I wouldn’t have expected to feel much sympathy for Wotan; a serial adulterer, willing to put his wife’s sister up as collateral for the construction of his castle, Valhalla. Terfel’s portrayal shows a god all too aware of the mess created by his wheeling and dealing. He knows he is trapped, bitterly realizing he has only himself to blame and I couldn’t help but have some compassion for him. Upon having to say farewell to his only consolation in life, his favorite child Brünnhilde, Terfel pours out his pain in the gorgeous “Leb' wohl”. Summoning the fire god Loge to produce a ring of fire for Brünnhilde, he repeatedly smashes his spear against the rock in frustration. The heartbreak of Terfel’s Wotan is palpable as he watches her surrounded by the fire, before turning away for the last time.
While the audience’s response to the singers and Maestro Levine at the end of the premiere was rapturous, I discovered that Wagnerians are not reserved when it comes to booing, as the production team heard definite displeasure. But the night did belong to the singers and, because of the after-party on the Grand Tier of the Met, the entire cast took curtain calls at the conclusion, including those not in Act III. A smiling Kaufmann was the last to leave the stage and briefly turned to survey the crowd once more. Gazing at the sold-out audience on their feet, shouting and clapping, he looked up at those in the upper sections, and waved broadly before following König offstage.
Feeling as though as I had only scratched the surface after the premiere, I found it essential to go back again and again. The festivity of opening night gave way to all-consuming awe as the impact of the music and these performances have left an imprint that has proven difficult to capture in words. I now understand Stephanie Blythe’s sense of wonder in describing to a pre-premiere “Met Talks” audience, the powerful effect of hearing this score in the theatre, played by a world-class orchestra. I had thought the length of the piece would be exhausting, but the conclusion of each performance found me too keyed up to sleep. And, I originally felt the Wotan/Brünnhilde scenes in Acts II and III
could have used some trimming, but, upon repeated viewing, I could be converted on that, as well.
Thankfully, Westbroek recovered quickly with a voice increasingly stronger and richer. With each performance, the orchestra and cast as a whole delivered an experience more emotionally and musically satisfying than the one before it. My favorite reaction overheard at one first intermission was from an obviously experienced Wagnerian. Meeting up with a friend on the Grand Tier, she said; “In fifty years of Walküres, this was the best Act I ever!” She looked up at the ceiling – “I’m sorry Jon Vickers, but this is the BEST!!!” At the sixth performance, I sat with a friend who was also had also seen the production a number of times. Wiping away tears at the first intermission, we both admitted to having goosebumps throughout Act 1. A text message reminded me that the performance was again broadcast and my friend in London and I found that we were equally enthralled.
I wish I could be equally enthusiastic about the staging and production values. In an interview before the premiere, director Robert Lepage stated, “We’re guided by Wagner and by the music.” While a Wagner newcomer, I would venture to guess the staging of Act I would not please the composer/librettist. The partial wall in Hunding’s hut serves little purpose, while forcing the action further back and cutting the singers off at the knees. The bit of staging that does take place on the apron of the stage only makes us long for a closer view of this intensely emotional act. While the projections of the forest and the storm on the planks are very effective, the projected scenes during Siegmund’s narrations are distracting and add nothing to the drama. When you are listening to Jonas Kaufmann telling Siegmund’s story, you don’t need projections – just sit back and enjoy!
Within three minutes of the second act, I was concerned for Terfel and Deborah Voigt’s Brünnhilde traipsing up and down that “mountain”. Yes, it’s supposed to be a mountain top, but I’d rather leave a bit more to the imagination and be less worried about the singers! The anxiety continues in Act III, watching the Valkyries slide down “The Machine”, after riding the simulated horses made by rotating planks. Although the idea is very clever, at each performance, I have a little sigh of relief as the last Valkyrie is safely on more solid ground.
And, there are more puzzling visual displays. Wotan’s Act II monolog is accompanied by a giant eye of changing colors and projections within the projection. Does this represent the eye he gave up to win Fricka? I don't know, nor did I really care as I was watching and listening to Terfel. Then, Wotan’s farewell to Brünnhilde features projected snow slowly spreading and covering the mountain top. Why? To me, it seems to have been included just for the sake of another visual.
The staging for Brünnhilde’s farewell is a major disappointment in an emotional context. After Wotan’s last fatherly kiss turns her into a mortal, the stage directions have him leading her off hanging between two spears. The next time we see Brünnhilde, it is not Deborah Voigt, but a body double, literally shoved down and left hanging head first on the side of the mountain top. A father is saying goodbye – forever - to his only consolation in life; his most beloved child. Between the drama of the libretto and the glorious music, this should be one of the most emotional scenes in opera, but this staging detracts from it. The effects of the rotating and revolving planks with the added colors and lights of the ring of fire are dazzling. But, they should be surrounding Deborah Voigt lying down (not hanging down) on a plateau of the mountain top. This staging deprives any singer playing Brünnhilde from a critical part of her emotional journey in the Ring Cycle and, the audience of sharing it with her.
I am going to think positively and hope that the 2012 Ring Cycle will find favorable revisions to the staging, resulting in a showcase that complements the singers and musicians. In the interview I mentioned earlier, Lepage also stressed that; “In the end, whatever it is that you want or plan as a director, the music always wins.” Despite my concerns about the set and staging, this music, this cast and this orchestra wins – unquestionably.
Friday, April 22, 2011
Opera fans living in New York might realize I am referring to the Metropolitan Opera’s season opening Das Rheingold, in September 2010 and Die Walküre, which, as I write this, is opening tonight. Friends of mine now delight in reminding me of the years I steadfastly refused to accompany them to an evening of Wagner. (Instrumental excerpts would have been tolerable, but not an entire Wagnerian opera.) A final attempt by one, (“But, it’s Die Meistersinger – a Wagner comedy!) resulted in me advising him that I would rather be home ill with the vapors for five hours. My anti-Wagner stance was considered a cultural character flaw. I was even regarded with derision and labeled a “philistine”!
Even as recently as March, 2009, I struggled through the Wagnerian excerpts at the Met’s 125th Anniversary Gala. “That’s it”, I told the friend who came with me, “If Placido Domingo can’t make me appreciate Wagner’s operas, it’s just not going to happen!” Within weeks of the concert, hearing tenor Jonas Kaufmann’s hauntingly beautiful rendition of The Prize Song from Die Meistersinger started to change my perspective. Later that year, after Kaufmann’s highly-acclaimed role debut in Lohengrin, the YouTube excerpts showing Kaufmann and soprano Anja Harteros appeared to me as romantic as any of the French and Italian works I’ve always loved. Thanks to a friend in London, I had a copy of the DVD before it was released in North America. Repeated viewing quickly made subtitles unnecessary for certain scenes, such as Kaufmann and Harteros’s gorgeous love duet in Act III; Das süsse Lied verhallt. Their expressive acting and glorious singing even makes the unfortunate set design less glaring.
Not being able to obtain a ticket to be inside for the first Rheingold, I secured two seats for the screening outdoors, in front of the Met. The drizzle kept my friend at home, but I was ready for the weather and so was the crowd; in a festive mood, despite the dreary skies. The Rheingold overture is dazzling. I can understand why it has been featured in movie scores, for if there was music to accompany the beginning of the world, it must have sounded quite similar to this. And, this was another evening of powerhouse performers, as there was the pleasure of Terfel and mezzo Stephanie Blythe, either of whom could sing me the phone book and I would be entranced.
Thursday, March 17, 2011
Sunday, February 27, 2011
Though only an amateur choral singer, I must respectively differ with the great Maestro for two reasons. First of all, his assessment of himself being “in the middle of the road” as a conductor is hard to believe. Within a two or three week period, I have seen Muti and then another conductor perform the same work with the same orchestra and the same singers. The only common denominator for me in both performances was my dislike of the set and costumes. What Muti and his musicians brought to the audience was a totally different, mesmerizing experience.
Secondly, I have been blessed a few times to be a part of choral work that may not have been perfect, note-for-note, but created an emotional connection difficult to put into words. When this type of connection happens, which is not often, it is unforgettable. In the late spring of 2002, I took part in a memorial concert for a choir mate and for all who died on September 11, 2001. John Rutter’s exquisite "Requiem" was our focal point and we first learned the sixth movement, “The Lord is my Shepherd”. Six months after that horrific day and a few months before our concert, we sang this piece at Mass and sensed a total and attentive stillness in the church. Through Rutter’s music, the choir gave of ourselves to the congregation and could sense that emotion being returned to us.
Although our concert also consisted of several smaller works, “Requiem” seeped into our pores as we rehearsed. While tragedy brought us to the piece, we could use Rutter's glorious music as a response to the madness. Our Music Director, Anne Holland, an accomplished composer, singer, and recording artist, gave us the clarity we needed to try and find the expressive reverence of the work. For me, there was also the sorrow of a friend losing a battle with cancer, mingled with the continuous joy of an infant nephew, seven months old by the time of our concert. Rehearsing with my nephew cradled in one arm and the “Requiem” score on the other, I was amused to see signs of a future music critic in the attentive reactions of the baby to the varying themes of the movements.
Despite a torrential downpour the night of the concert, we were gratified by the turnout and the response and felt as though we had been a part of something special. After the concert, I purchased my “Requiem” score from the church as I could not bear to part with it. That score contained the notes I jotted down from Anne’s inspired words, and my coffee stains from morning rehearsals. But most of all, the pages of that score were also filled with the faces of those who were lost; the memories of our rehearsals, and of the pleasure in gazing at my beautiful little nephew as I sang.
Another treasured experience was with my previous choir and Music Director, Laurence Rosania; as dynamic a conductor as I shall ever work with. The Saturday before Easter Week was a chilly but sunny March and we rehearsed in a circle in the small chapel off the main altar. Laurence stressed the magnitude of the works we were rehearsing and reminded us that much of what we sang Easter Week would also be heard in the great cathedrals of Europe. A new piece for us as a choir that year was William Byrd’s “Ave Verum Corpus” and, under Laurence’s firm guidance, we labored to weave the voices of the four sections together and do justice to Byrd’s genius. That Saturday, as the soft mid-afternoon sunlight filtered through the stained glass windows and was reflected around the walls of the Chapel, we finally felt a real unity in our harmonies. After the last notes faded away, we all gazed around our circle, knowing we came closer to the heart of the piece than we had ever been.
One of our Cantors at the time was Joe Simmons, who remembered that day in recent conversation. A highlight of working with Laurence and Joe is hearing the combined warmth and richness of Joe’s baritone and Laurence’s tenor. It is a pleasure that never grows old for me and happily, a concert last month presented another opportunity. While Laurence is currently Director of Music and Joe, Principal Cantor at the Church of St. John the Baptist in Manhattan, they each have active outside musical careers. A leading liturgical composer conductor and performer, Laurence also produced Joe's first solo CD for his label, Oculus Music. (Joe’s rendition of “How Can I Keep From Singing” on his first CD, Singing Out is one I have a special affection for because it also features the vocals of Laurence and Anne Holland.) Joe regularly gives concerts and workshops across the country for cantors and choirs and is currently featured on The Sunday Mass, televised nationally on ABC.
The backdrop for Laurence and Joe’s recent concert was the recently-restored historic Church of St. Francis Xavier and guest artists included the Xavier Choir. Selections from both of Joe’s solo CDs were highlighted, as well as a preview of Laurence’s upcoming solo release, Works of the Heart. (Hopefully, I will have Laurence’s indulgence in using his title as inspiration for this posting.) The audience was made to feel like special guests by these two consummate professionals and artists. For many of us who had sung under Laurence’s direction and worked with Joe, the evening was, in part, a musical reunion. And, accompanied by Laurence’s brilliant keyboards, Joe’s graceful commentary and vocals spoke of the human connection that music creates. Joe movingly described the joy of being able to reach his mother through music after Alzheimer’s Disease had sadly engulfed her. What remained with his mother was the music of her past; a gift that could still be shared in the present by mother and son.
Riccardo Muti was correct in stating that we are “too small in front of God”. And, perhaps we might not “get to the other side of the river”. But, there are still times that the imprint upon the heart and soul created by music brings us much closer to it.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
If you are looking for couture fashion on a budget, you will want to make some time tomorrow for a special event at The New York City Opera Thrift Shop. Proclaimed by Vogue as “the highest quality thrift shop in New York City”. The City Opera Thrift Shop is hosting their bi-annual Spring Vintage – A Vintage Affair on Thursday, February 24 from 4:00 - 8:00 PM. Admission is free to search for incredible values on couture designers, including Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Missoni, Bill Blass, Karl Lagerfeld, Emilio Pucci, Mila Schon and more. Also featured are “vintage and vintage-inspired” art, home accessories and other items.
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Accustomed to the energy and focus of Fairchild’s performances, his melancholic and distracted Prince Siegfried in Act 1 was startling to me. For a moment, I wondered what was wrong, until I remembered that he was acting. Although it was his 21st birthday celebration, Siegfried was distant from everyone and nothing seemed to please him; especially his mother’s admonition that it was time for him to take a bride. Fairchild glanced down at his left ring finger as if it was the last thing he wanted.
While understanding that this Swan Lake was created as an alternative to the lavish versions normally presented, I still have definite misgivings about the production and design values. However, I’d rather give the focus to the dancers, as it was a solid cast that surrounded Fairchild and Hyltin. Although it is strange to find the Jester such a major character in this version, you can’t ask for more than the speed, powerful rotations, elevation and wit of Daniel Ulbricht. The challenging pas de quatre in Act II’s ballroom scene is a highlight of this production and Megan Fairchild (sister of Robert), Tiler Peck, Abi Stafford and Joaquin de Luz were elegant and dazzling. Although I was anxious to see Fairchild’s and Hyltin’s “Black Swan” pas de deux, these four were a special delight and I could have watched them all over again.