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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Spartacus - Soviet Superman!!!

There are so many ridiculous moments in Yuri Grigorovich's Spartacus that by rights, I should have hated it completely. The choreography for Spartacus and the slaves consists almost entirely of marching (the "goosestep"), leaping on a diagonal, chest-beating and sword-fighting. The choreography for Phyrgia consists entirely of being lifted like a sack of potatoes. The only remotely interesting choreography is for Crassus and Aegina. Crassus brandishes his penis extension (uh, I mean sword) in some truly convoluted ways, and Aegina is asked to shimmy, to lie on the floor and thrust her hips upwards, and then in Act Three, to do a pole dance in which she actually takes the pole and rubs it between her legs and shivers from the orgasm. The score by Aram Khachaturian takes a melody, and then repeats it about 10,000 times more.

Yet by the end of the three hour extravaganza, you had to love the whole thing. The Bolshoi brings such irresistible energy to every leap, every goosestep, every sword fight, that you find yourself clapping just at their exertions. You can see the corps de ballet panting after yet another thundering diagonal leaping sequence onstage, but thirty seconds later, there they are again, doing another diagonal from the opposite end of the stage. The Bolshoi orchestra plays the kitschy score as if it were Mahler -- the conductor himself got a huge standing ovation before the final act. In other words, the ballet might have been a combo of a Cecil B. DeMille epic crossed with pure Soviet schlock, but it is fun!

The four leads in this afternoon's performance exemplified what I call the "Spartacus spirit." Mikhail Lobukhin was originally from the Mariinsky but he completely transformed himself into Bolshoi Soviet Superman. He was beefy, he was strong, he was tireless. In Act Three he drew a huge ovation for lifting Phrygia (Anna Nikulina) over his head with one arm, then circling the entire stage while Nikulina changed positions several times. First she was in the classic curtain drape lift (see below). Then she was sort of in an overhead split. Then she somehow turned her body completely upside down and her legs were in the air as her head was facing the ground. I bet Lobukhin could bench press with the best of the Olympians. As for Nikulina, there were murmurs among the audience that she's one of the Bolshoi's weaker ballerinas, but all I can say is: she certainly knows how to stick her legs in the air while being lifted. She also knows how to catch her foot while being wrapped around Spartacus's shoulders. And really, that's all the role requires.

The "evil" couple of Crassus and Aegina was even more fun. Alexander Volchkov looked like the stereotypical spoiled Roman emperor. I even loved his slightly boyish look -- it made him resemble King Joffrey. But beneath those pretty locks and baby face was so much typical Bolshoi horsepower. He was amazing. Even more stunning was Svetlana Zakharova as Aegina. Zakharova has unusually long limbs, with highly arched feet, and a careful, controlled way of dancing that often leads to her being labeled "cold." However she was absolutely riveting as the Roman courtesan. Her legs and feet became sexual objects. She danced with the full awareness of her own sexiness. She often walked all the way downstage to the footlights, and stood with a pointed foot forward at the audience, and then shimmied. In the Act Three pole dance, a weaker dancer might have looked ridiculous. But she contorted herself around that pole like a Vegas showgirl. It was completely believable that a bunch of slaves started crawling on the ground to grab her legs. She was the definite star of the performance.

But really, it's not the leads that make the Bolshoi special. It's the company of 200, most of whom will never have a chance to ever leave the corps de ballet. Despite the vicious infighting in the company (a company feud resulted in the director Sergei Filin being partially blinded by an acid attack last year), when the Bolshoi steps onstage, they dance with an such energy and passion, and that energy is transmitted across the footlights to the audience. Whether they are waving their fans in Don Quixote or brandishing their swords in Spartacus, they dance every performance as if it were their last. You can't help but be whipped in a frenzy of dance.

After the performance I waited at the stage door and saw many of these dancers carrying huge pieces of luggage as they rushed to the airport. Many of them were scarfing sandwiches. They looked exhausted. Thank you Bolshoi!

The incredible Spartacus, Mikhail Lobukhin

King Joffrey, uh, I mean, Alexander Volchkov (Crassus)

Denis Rodkin, who I unfortunately missed as Spartacus 

The gorgeous prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Bolshoi's Don Quixote - Best Show in Town

Don Quixote has long been considered the Bolshoi Ballet's house special and touring warhorse. Wherever they go, audiences go crazy over the Bolshoi's boisterous, happy, busy depiction of a Spanish fairyland. The curtain rose tonight at the Koch Theater and the effect was the same -- the audience was bombarded with sashaying skirts, rustling maracas, banging tambourines, swaying fans, swinging capes, and the happy reaction said "Ah, so fun."

But there's a method to this choreographed joy -- the Bolshoi has over 200 dancers, and many of them specialize in character dancing. That's why they can have rows and rows of dancers who don't even look like ballet dancers, but rather like folk dancers, with the emphasis on lower body strength, back flexibility, and dancing on the downbeat. These dancers will never get to dance Aurora or Odette/Odile. So Don Quixote is their chance to shine, and they grab the spotlight and never let it go. You can see the hunger in their eyes. It's exhilarating. Equally exhilarating are the character dance soloists -- the Spanish dancer (Maria Zharkova), the Bolero couple (Anna Antropova, Vitaly Biktimirov), the Gypsy dancer (Kristina Karasyova). Their solos are short, but do they know how to sell it! The women seem to have jelly spines, and their long skirts become almost like musical instruments as they sashay and shimmy and dance their hearts out.

It takes super-strong soloists in the lead roles to not get over-shadowed by the wonderful character dancers. The Bolshoi has been famous for its Kitris -- Maya Plisetskaya, Ekaterina Maximova, Nina Ananiashvilli, Natalia Osipova are just a few of legendary names. Tonight's Kitri, Maria Alexandrova, is coming back from a ruptured Achilles tendon and as much as I'd like to report that she's rebounded from her injury completely, there were a lot of moments when her Kitri seemed weak. For one, her once buoyant jump is gone -- the grand jetes are now low to the ground and heavy. In the famous Kitri Act One variation, she didn't even attempt the famous Plisetskaya head kick, and also had trouble traveling on the diagonal. Her Italian fouettes in the Vision scene were also effortful. In the final grand pas de deux her balances were shorter, and her variation with its rapid passé and relevé sequence seemed again heavy and leaden. She did finish her fouetté sequence with some very fast singles. Alexandrova's still a solid, likable dancer, but she's no longer the whiz-bang that this role requires. I also wish her upper body weren't so stiff -- she now dances with a tenseness around her arms, neck, and shoulders that is distracting.

Thankfully, her Basilio, Vladislav Lanatrov, added the sparkle and joy to Alexandrova's Kitri. She might not be able to do all the tricks that other Kitris can pull off, but her rapport with Lanatrov was wonderful. If she couldn't wow the audience herself, as a couple they could wow the audience. Lanatrov picked her up in two thrilling one-handed lifts, the second prolonged as the corps banged their tambourines longer and longer. Lanatrov's solos were also very fine, if occasionally sloppy in form. I've seen cleaner double assembles and split leaps, but Lanatrov had a real charming personality. The only time his partnering failed him was in the wedding pas de deux, there were a few pirouette/lunges that looked shaky.

The rest of the soloists showed that the Bolshoi, despite its quirks, is a company with real depth. The variations were cast from strength. Kitri's friends at the wedding danced two splashy variations -- Maria Vinogradova was notably stronger than Ana Turazshvili, but both showed great promise. Denis Rodkin (Espada) didn't do as much with his back I would have hoped but Anna Tikhomirova was thrilling as the Street Dancer. She looked like a Kitri in waiting. Yulia Lunkina wasn't that memorable as Cupid. Oxana Sharova sizzled as Mercedes.

Olga Smirnova (Queen of the Dryads) is the big It Girl of the tour. I missed her Swan Lakes last week, but I did see her Nikya when she guested with the ABT. It's easy to understand why Smirnova has a following -- she's one of the most physically exquisite dancers I've ever seen. She looks like the ideal ballerina, with her raven hair, china doll face, and beautifully tapered legs and feet. So I hate to sound sour but I think she's one of those ballerinas who might be too aware of her own beauty. Her Dryad solo was beautiful and pristine, but also contained a lot of mannered "now you may admire the exquisite tilt of my neck" posing. It's impressive, but too calculated by half. I just want her to really dance. The only thing I don't like about the Bolshoi's Don Q is the Dryad variation -- I prefer the developpe/Italian fouette variation that the Mariinsky/ABT does. The Vision Scene corps were beautiful.

But all the little complaints that one could have for this performance pale with all the strengths the Bolshoi displays in this ballet. Simply put, there's no company that dances with such raw energy and power. Don Quixote and Sancho may be only walk-on characters in this ballet, but the Bolshoi does capture the fiery spirit and earthiness of Cervantes' Spain. It's a joy to watch.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Bolshoi's Swan Lake

There's a saying in ballet that says "Put Swan Lake on the billboard, and they will come." This certainly seemed the case tonight as the Bolshoi Ballet has kicked off its two week stay at the Koch Theater with a week a Swan Lakes. Well ... I think many of the audience were shocked, to say the least, that in the Bolshoi/Grigorovich version, there's no swan and no lake. In fact, audience reaction was muted, and it made for some awkward moments when the audience was dead silent and the dancers decided to come out for another bow.

The usual "vanilla" Swan Lake story goes something like this: Prince Siegfried for his birthday received a bow and arrow and a dictum to marry from his mother. He goes hunting with his friends and is about to shoot at a swan, until he is mesmerized by the swan's beauty. The swan Odette tells Siegfried of her sad tale: she was once human, but turned into a swan thanks to the evil magician Rothbart, and can only regain human form at night. Siegfried pledges his love. But at his birthday party, he's tempted by an Odette lookalike named Odile. She looks exactly like Odette but she's dressed in black. He breaks his pledge to Odette before realizing his mistake. He runs back to the lake, and depending on the version, either the spell is broken by him fighting Rothbart, or Odette and Siegfried break the spell by jumping into the lake and are reunited in heaven.

Grigorovich decided instead to make the whole ballet a vision conjured up by the "Evil Genius." The Evil Genius mirrors Siegfried in all his dancing and actions, and swans appear from behind a curtain. In the third act a sextet of black swans and Odile are also conjured up by the Evil Genius from behind this curtain. This robs the ballet of any meaningful romantic connection between Odette and Siegfried. It's all a vision of the Evil Genius, remember? And in the final act, there's no reconciliation or forgiveness between Odette and Siegfried. The Evil Genius again whisks his swans behind the curtain. The end.

Many iconic moments are gone: Odette doesn't make the flying entrance. Instead, she's already behind the curtain, and has to exit the stage before re-entering. The entrance of the swans is also gone: they're already onstage behind that stupid curtain, then a few minutes later they re-enter with the familiar flying arabesque sequence. This production spends so much time getting people offstage for no reason only to haul them onstage a few seconds later. The only things left marginally intact are the White Swan pas de deux and Odette's variation. The character dances in Act Three are also gone: all the princesses dance on pointe, and so the Spanish/Russian/Polish/Neapolitan dances look exactly the same. Oh, the score is cut and rearranged beyond recognition from the usual Petipa/Ivanov arrangements. Even Tchaikovsky's beautiful apotheosis music is gone -- the ballet instead ends with a replay of the overture. What a mess.

All of this would be more tolerable if the production weren't so darned ugly. The whole thing has a cheesy 1970's decor. The guys at court are in pageboy wigs, and the girls are sporting puke-yellow dresses. The sets have lost whatever sheen they might have once had and just look old and tatty. They even get the swan tutus wrong -- they're in flat pancake tutus without the usual feathers to line the tutu. But I guess in this version it's not even clear they're swans -- they're just random girls the Evil Genius whiffed up behind the magic curtain.

The Bolshoi corps, that can look like balls of manic energy in Don Quixote, were sluggish and often uncoordinated with the orchestra. They might have been cramped by the small Koch theater stage, as I noticed many of them making small adjustments to avoid dancing too close to the edge of the stage or near the wings.

It's a shame, because the dancing by the leads was on a very high level. Anna Nikulina doesn't fit with the current O/O aesthetic (very tall, long-limbed, majestic). She's petite and frail. But her dancing had a wonderful delicacy and lightness. She doesn't go for the big flashy extensions that Svetlana Zakharova would display, but Nikulina's portrayal was warm and human. Her arms were soft and supple. I would love to see what she could do in a more traditional production. I also would love to see her in Giselle.

In the White Swan pas de deux Nikulina didn't slow the action to a crawl -- she actually seemed to move through the music. When Odette does the split jump in Siegfried's arms her spirit seemed to soar. Another highlight was her Odette variation. Her sissones really flew, and she ended the diagonal with a flawless set of piroettes. As Odile she was more kittenish than vampish. Her fouettes started off with an impressive series of doubles, before she sort of ran out of steam. Artem Ovcharenko had beautiful lines and elevation as Siegfried, and partnered Nikulina wonderfully. His cabrioles had wonderful soft landings. Grigorovich's choreography for Siegfried is fussy but Ovcharenko made the most of it. Denis Rodkin performed the "look at ME" Evil Genius choreography with the requisite campiness. In the act one pas de trois Chinara Alizade and Daria Khoklova were both excellent -- fast with the petit batterie. And the Russian companies always find great Jesters -- Denis Medvedev was no exception.

All this wonderful dancing is essentially wasted though. The Bolshoi's Swan Lake is DOA.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Tsar's Bride - The Bolshoi Ride Into Town

There are certain works of art that for some reason hardly ever make the trip out of their homeland. Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Tsar's Bride has been relegated into that basket.   It's a regular in Russian opera companies but except for a recent La Scala production and a San Francisco production in 2000, the opera remains a Russian house special. Tonight the Bolshoi Opera brought this beautiful work for the first of two performance at Avery Fisher Hall.

The storyline is melodramatic -- it's loosely based on a rather dark little corner of Russian history when Ivan the Terrible decided he was going to roam the country for a bride, whittled his selection to 12 candidates, and the unfortunate final choice was a girl named Marfa Sobakina. The poor thing died under mysterious circumstances a few days later. Tsar's Bride gives Marfa a backstory -- a vapid tenor lover, a jealous baritone suitor, and an even more jealous mezzo rival. Is this starting to sound familiar?

However, it's not a cheesy bit of exotica, as in great to view once but once is enough. Sometimes you can understand why works resists exportation. Why Tsar's Bride has remained homebound is a mystery. It's one beautiful opera. The score is magnificent. The melodies are lush and instantly memorable, and the orchestration and chorus have enough Russian heaviness to lend some gravitas to this otherwise conventional love quadrangle. You realize you've heard these tunes before -- must have been in the background of some movie or documentary. The whole thing even ends with a magnificent mad scene for the soprano. But the thing about this opera is that you need great voices, and many of them -- in that sense, it's very much like a Verdi opera.

Here is Marfa's Mad Scene, sung by a very young Anna Netrebko:

I don't have many points of comparison for Tsar's Bride. Tonight was my first performance ever. But since this was performed by one troupe (the Bolshoi) it was fascinating to see how even in one company, there are the world class voices, the solid house singers, and the provincials. In the "world class" league was Aguna Kulaeva (Lyubasha, the psycho jealous mezzo villainess), who has a voice like a young Olga Borodina and also has charisma to burn. She's pictured on the left. The singers were all bunched in an awkward tight semi-circle in the center-back of the stage. But when Kulaeva stood up to sing, you know the Diva Had Spoken. Her raven hair matched her magnificent black gown. And talk about a stage face -- I was sitting in the wee corner of the third tier and I could sense her blazing intensity. And her voice had so much beauty and soul that somehow you felt Lyubasha's actions were completely just, proper, and sympathetic. Her a cappella aria was heartrending. You felt her pain. She was amazing. In the second half of the opera she delayed her entrance until after the soloists had taken their seats, and the audience gave her an ovation. She smirked.

Here is a youtube clip I found of this Diva:

On the other end of the world class spectrum was the very young soprano Olga Kulchinskaya (Marfa). She looks and sounds exactly like Marfa should sound: young and pretty and fresh. Her voice was bell-like, ethereal, and in the extended mad scene that ends the opera, truly celestial as it traveled through the cavernous orchestra hall. Since she is so young what she hasn't quite learned to do is to project her face to the audience -- she sometimes looked a bit blank and buried in the score. But quite a voice.

Vladimir Matorin (Vasily) and Elchin Azizov (Grigory) were also excellent lower voices. My friend Jan said that Matorin is one of those people who sounds exactly like he looks. So true. He has the scruffy gray beard that just says "Russian black bass." But it's a very warm sound. Elchin Azizov also has a fairly warm, rich baritone that lended a layer of humanity to the role of Grigory. Of the lead singers only the Ivan (Bogdan Volkov) was at a slightly lower level -- his tenor sounded occasionally tight and constricted. Ivan's kind of a vapid part, so no real loss there.

The supporting players were all solid to excellent. Marat Gali as Bornelius chewed the scenery as another villain and Elena Novak as Marfa's friend was more than good. The Bolshoi chorus and orchestra were remarkable. Conventional wisdom says that the Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra are the "world class" company and that the Bolshoi is meant to stay in Russia. But conductor Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, at the age of 83, still had superb command of the orchestra and chorus. He was remarkable to watch, as he thundered his stick at certain sections of the orchestra and they thundered back at him. And he had such authority that the audience seemed afraid to clap until he gave the okay to clap. At the opera ended the old man turned around on his seat and nodded at the audience. The audience burst into a thunderous happy ovation. The singers milked their ovations like true Russians, but it was absolutely deserved.

In fact, the whole event was unexpectedly classy. I say this only because sometimes Lincoln Center Festival events tend to be midsummer tourist traps, with the actual quality of art being variable. The Bolshoi Ballet (the more well-known, flamboyant cousin to the Bolshoi Opera) is set to begin a two-week stay at the Koch Theater performing the overstuffed and overdone staples of Swan Lake, Don Quixote, and Spartacus. But the audience for tonight's performance were real opera enthusiasts. The presentation was completely thorough and professional -- David Shengold's liner notes were excellent reading. You didn't get a sense that anyone was there just to be seen. And the Bolshoi Opera gifted us with an amazing performance of an opera that, as I said, as of now remains thoroughly Russian and not to be exported.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Shakespeare at the ABT

At ABT, the big ticket items (Giselle, Swan Lake) are over. The guest artists have come and gone. The final week of the season ends with a low-key mixed bill and some Coppelias which mark the farewell for some talented but underused soloists (Yuriko Kajiya, Jared Matthews, and Sascha Radetsky). I caught a matinee performance of their "Shakespeare" mixed bill which pairs the tried-and-true (Ashton's The Dream) with the new (Ratmansky's The Tempest).

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Giselle at the ABT - Semionova and Cojocaru

Sometimes you really need to see a bad performance of a work to appreciate a great performance. I think I've always been spoiled when it comes to Giselle -- my very first Giselle was Diana Vishneva. Vishneva's portrayal is a modern classic -- her gothic intensity and sense of drama brings this tragedy to life. Since then I've seen Nina Ananiashvilli, Alina Cojocaru, Natalia Osipova, and Aurelie Dupont and Clairemarie Osta. Almost all of these ladies brought something special to the role. Dupont was a bit too cool for my tastes, Osta was at the end of her career and her technique sometimes lagged, Cojocaru always has trouble with the Spessivtseva variation, but whatever the case is, I never felt like I wasted my time and money at the theater.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Cinderella, 6/11/14 and 6/12/14

My favorite moments of Ashton's Cinderella have no actual dancing. My first favorite moment is when the in-drag stepsisters start throwing oranges in the air at the Prince's ball. My second is late in the third act, and Cinderella's stepsisters are sitting at home. They start playing pat-a-cake and Cinderella tries to joins them. They are both wonderfully human moments that, for one, makes the sisters not truly evil, but more silly and pitiable.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Diana's 10th Anniversary Gala; MSND at NYCB

At the conclusion of the 6/7 afternoon's performance of Manon at the ABT, Diana Vishneva was pelted with bouquets and confetti. It was a Very Special Occasion -- her 10th anniversary gala. It was anything a prima ballerina could have wanted in a gala. She was dancing her favorite role with her favorite partner (Marcelo Gomes) in front of an adoring audience. Irina Kolpakova came onstage to present her with flowers. Kevin McKenzie did the same as well. It was all very nice and heartwarming and thank you Diana for your commitment to the art form and your commitment to ABT.

Friday, June 6, 2014

OONY Roberto Devereux

I'm going to sound like Edith Wharton but the only way to describe OONY's Roberto Devereux at Carnegie Hall is: "Anyone who is anyone was there." By "anyone," I mean the hard-core opera fans. The fakes, the name-droppers, the star-fuckers weren't necessarily interested in 66-year old Mariella Devia's return/farewell to NYC. In fact, as of this morning, Carnegie Hall was heavily papering the event. But the real fans, the ones you see who really love opera, were all there. It was a joy to see so many faces that I hadn't seen for years -- it really was one of those nights.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

NYCB Mixed Bill - Millepied's Neverwhere Goes Nowhere

Somehow I missed Benjamin Millepied's Neverwhere when it debuted last fall. Today I caught up with it in an NYCB Sunday matinee mixed bill. The ballet certainly has a different look -- Iris van Herpen has the dancers dressed in black pleather, including pleather boot/pointe shoes for the women. The lighting is dark and moody and all about spotlights, a stark difference from the NYCB's usually brightly lit stage. Nico Muhly's score also has a dissonant post-modern edge.

Friday, May 30, 2014

La Bayabore, uh, I mean Bayadere

Is it possible to love a ballet to death? Because every time the ABT trots out Natalia Makarova's La Bayadere, I think the great Russian ballerina adored this ballet so much that she killed it. The La Bayadere that the Mariinsky/Bolshoi/Paris Opera Ballet do is a piece of East-meets-West exotica. Productions call for: a stuffed tiger, an elephant, girls who dance with birds attached to their wrists, kids in blackface (ugh), dancers in "brownface" beating wildly against a drum, and a woman balancing a jug on her head. In between all that schlock there's one of the greatest scenes in classical ballet ever choreographed (the Kingdom of the Shades).

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Jewels at the NYCB

It's one of NYCB's quirks of programming that Peter Martins now likes to do excerpts of Jewels (Rubies here, Diamonds there) but hasn't actually put on a full-length Jewels in several years. The last time I saw a full-length Jewels, Wendy Whelan was in Diamonds. God, that seems so long ago.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

All Robbins

Jerome Robbins set four ballets to the music of Chopin. Of the four, The Concert was his earliest, and in my opinion, his greatest. It's a comic ballet that parodies, among other things, audience behavior at classical recitals, corps de ballet formations, marriage, 1920's social conventions, fashion, and butterflies. Even if you know where all the jokes are the ballet doesn't lose its freshness. There's none of that portentousness that creeped into later Robbins. It's a delightful piece that also needs real charmers. This afternoon's performance at the New York City Ballet had that in Sterling Hyltin as the ditz, Joaquin de Luz as the husband, and Lydia Wellington as the angry wife.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

All-Balanchine at NYCB,5/11/14 and 5/13/14

Ah, spring season of dance in NY. It's a time when people often have to replicate King Solomon and split the baby. "Ok, I'll choose to see NYCB Tuesday and the ABT Wednesday," they say, shedding real tears in the process. First world problems, but it can be painful. 

The NYCB often makes these choices even more painful by springing exciting last minute debuts with almost no advance notice. Or they will bring back a ballet into the repertory that's beloved by dance mavens but hardly ever done. Such was the case this week when they presented three different casts of their all-Balanchine program of Raymonda Variations, Steadfast Tin Soldier, Le Tombeau de Couperin, and Symphony in C. I attended the last two casts, the Sunday matinee (5/11) and tonight's performance (5/13).

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Golden Age of Tenors?

Today I decided to round out the season by seeing the final La Cenerentola in HD. I had already seen this production twice in the house, but with Javier Camarena as Don Ramiro. The HD performance had Juan Diego Florez. I can't really say who was better, when both are A+ singers. Camarena's voice is bigger, rounder, with a more ringing top, but he doesn't have the extraordinary facility with coloratura that Florez has. Florez's voice can sound slightly hard and nasal when pushed, but he can sing all the 1/64 micro-notes like nothing.

They play two very different Don Ramiros. Camarena had a lot of fun playing the valet, his eyes twinkling with mischief. He was little and sneaky, and he had wonderful chemistry with Pietro Spagnoli's Dandini. Florez was more the traditional leading man. More princely, if you will.

This Cenerentola is one of the strongest productions the Met has mounted this year -- true ensemble singing, with Pietro Spagnoli in particular making a wonderful impression as Dandini, and Alessandro Corbelli and Luca Pisaroni hamming it up in true opera buffa style. I know Joyce DiDonato is dropping the role of Angelina but it's not because she can't sing it anymore -- she can still sing the hell out of it. Lovely ornaments in "Non piu mesta." The chemistry between the cast was evident, as I saw three performances and each one had different ad-libbed comedy. And Fabio Luisi is my wtf-crush. I think he's adorable. I can't explain why. But just seeing him in the pit gives me a happy vibe.

I found this video from Pesaro, 1998. Horrible picture quality, but JDF's voice is instantly recognizable, and you have to respect him for keeping his voice in such a condition that he can still sing the same role 15 years later without any compromises.

Since January (first half of the season, don't ask, but let's just say I wasn't in any mood to see anything) I've seen just about everything. The only things I took a pass on were Die Fledermaus, Enchanted Island, Prince Igor (well I didn't take a pass on it, I just somehow never got the energy to go see it for one reason or another), and Andrea Chenier. Otherwise I'm looking at my programs and I saw:

Rusalka -
Werther (three times, twice with Kaufmann, once with Borras!)
Boheme (three times, with three different casts!)
La Sonnambula -
Puritani (twice)
Madama Butterfly
Cosi fan tutte
La Cenerentola (twice in the house, and then the HD)

A running theme through all these shows is how great the tenors were. In fact, only two performances had what I'd consider to be sub-par tenors. In Arabella, Roberto Sacca bleated and shrieked his way through the punishing role of Matteo. But to be fair, I think he was sick, because he cancelled a good part of his run. And in Madama Butterfly, James Valenti did his usual D-list "why does he get hired" thing.

Otherwise, it's time to gush. Piotr Beczala - GREAT!!! Joseph Calleja - GREAT!!! Jonas Kaufmann - OH.MY.GOD. Jean Francois Borras (Kaufman's cover) - GREAT!!! (And he's being brought back next year for La Boheme). Vittorio Grigolo - GREAT!!! Lawrence Brownlee - GREAT!!! Matthew Polenzani - GREAT!!! Javier Camarena - BRAVO BRAVO BRAVO!!! Juan Diego Florez - GREAT!!!

This is getting tiresome. But it drives home the fact that great tenors are just everywhere nowadays. I mean, I didn't even count Aleksandrs Antonenko, Ramon Vargas, Michael Fabiano, Roberto Alagna, Bryan Hymel, tenors I didn't have a chance to hear this season. Or Klaus Florian Vogt, John Osborn and Michael Spyres, three tenors I haven't had a chance to hear in the U.S. but I've heard wonderful things about. And then there are tenors who really aren't my cup of tea but I can't deny that they have talent (Johan Botha, Stephen Costello).

I mean, it's just a sign of the times that Lawrence Brownlee can hit a high F in I Puritani and that's not even the most talked-about event of the season:

But that's because everyone was talking about this:

As I said, embarrassment of riches.

But for tenors, the new rule seems to be: do not call in sick. Your cover/replacement will be just as good. Management will send the replacement onstage and he will get to encore. The thing is, most of these tenors are not young. Most of them are in the late-30's/early 40's range. They're all just peaking at the same time. It must be stressful for them, but for the audiences, it's like watching the Hunger Games and Game of Thrones at the same time. No one is irreplaceable. All men must die, and hit a blazing high C on the way out.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Guanqun Yu

Two years ago I saw this young soprano in Il Trovatore. I thought she was nice, promising, fresh-faced, but still a work in progress. What a joy it was then to see her last night in Cosi fan tutte -- she absolutely lit up the stage. She was exactly the right mix of immature, vain, but adorable as Fiordiligi. Her voice is exactly what Mozart sopranos are supposed to sound like -- creamy and silvery, and her singing has such cleanness. My review of the complete performance is at parterre box.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014


Disclaimer: The following is a purely fictional recreation of what Richard Nixon and the Berlin Wall might have thought about tonight's performance of I Puritani. The views expressed by the Nixon, Ehrlichman, and Haldeman do not reflect the views of the blog-owner. 

April 30, 2014, 12:46 AM, Air Force One:

Richard Nixon (R.N.): Well, Bob, John, I have to say, tonight, we really pulled it off. This will get the goddamned liberal media off our backs for good.

H.R. "Bob" Haldeman: Yes, sir, it certainly will. A great night for the presidency, yes, sir.

John Ehrlichman: Yes, it will please all those liberals for sure.

R.N.: To do what we did, you know, have a (inaudible) Soviet soprano, onstage, singing with an, an Afro-American tenor, and a Polack baritone, that's just, the New York Times never would have thought Richard Nixon could pull that off. And for the President of the United States to stand on that stage, and present the opera, it's like if I ... if I went to China or something.

Haldeman: (Laugh). And I already saw the presses. They said "NIXON UNITES WORLD ONSTAGE."

R.N.: Who said that, the Post?

Haldeman: Yes sir, the Post.

Ehlrichman: Well, goddamn.

R.N.: Bob, have any, uh, cabinet members called, saying they saw us on television, or anything? Have you gotten any, uh, reactions from them?

Haldeman: Well, not yet, but, you know, it's late ...

R.N.: Tomorrow, could you call around, to see, you know, how they felt about it? Whether they liked it?

Haldeman: Yes sir, tomorrow first thing in the morning.

R.N.: And I thought I Puritani really represented, you know, Anglo-Saxon values. Patriotism, love, loyalty, wholesomeness, there's none of that, you know, homosexual Jewish agenda onstage. The men and women were all dressed up decently, like upstanding people, and not half-naked. And we were sitting in a box but I didn't see any, you know, obvious homosexuals in the audience. I mean, one or two might have been, but I went to the men's restroom, and it was really clean in there.

And I thought that it would be, you know, strange, seeing a Soviet soprano kiss an Afro-American tenor, but they kept it really wholesome, I liked it.

John, what did you think?

Ehrlichman: Well, Mr. President, I thought that the music was lovely and all that but kind of boring. Slow love song, fast love song, slow patriotism duet, fast patriotism duet, slow girl is sad solo, fast girl is sad solo, and on and on. I mean, after the show I went up to Mariotti ...

R.N.: Who the hell is Mariotti?

Haldeman: The conductor, sir.

R.N.: (Inaudible)

Ehrlichman: I said to him, "You know, Maestro, if you took that entire score, with all those sheets, and you threw them into the Hudson River, would anyone know or care?"

Haldeman: No, no, John, you're wrong there. The composer of the opera was a man by the name of Vincenzo Bellini and he's a very famous opera composer. And the way they sang, well, that's the style of the operas of Bellini. It's very specific and he composed them that way for a reason. It's called "bel canto."

Ehrlichman: Famous or not famous, it was boring. And that Soviet soprano, she's a dish and all, but she looked kind of empty-headed, and notice when she threw the veil into those fake candles, the poor baritone had to run across the stage to get the veil because it was so obviously fake candles ...

Haldeman: Speaking of her, Mr. President, Mitchell did call, he said he saw us on television, and he said ...

R.N.: What did he say? Did he say anything about my speech?

Haldeman: No, well, no he didn't say anything about your speech, but he did say something about the soprano.

R.N.: Nothing about my speech? Goddamn great cabinet we have here.

Haldeman: It's Mitchell. He said that the soprano when she sang her high notes ... she sounded like she had her titty in a big fat wringer.

Ehrlichman: (Laughs) So true.

Haldeman: The soprano was attractive, I agree.

Ehrlichman: Good thing we didn't take Kissinger. He would have wanted to discuss international affairs with her, for sure. (Laughs.)

Haldeman: She's married to the conductor.

R.N.: So nothing about my speech, goddamn.

Haldeman: But I think everyone thought the tenor Brownlee was good. He's such a little guy, but he can sure sing!

R.N.: I still think the picture of a Soviet soprano with an Afro-American tenor singing together, on the biggest stage in the United States, I mean, the magnificence of it! We won't talk about the Polack baritone, he was sick. What the hell is his name, anyway? I couldn't pronounce his name in the teleprompter, made me so goddamn annoyed.

Haldeman: Mariusz (M-A-R-I-U-S-Z) Kwiecien (K-W-E-I-C-I-E-N). Now don't ask me if I'm pronouncing it right, because I don't know myself.

Ehrlichman: I noticed how everyone's voice in the last act got bigger. I could barely hear them in the first act and then they're bawling into my ears in the last act?

R.N.: Could it be that they were miked?

Haldeman: No, no, opera houses are not miked. That's the difference between opera singers and, you know, rock-and-roll singers. Opera singers have to learn to project their voices without a mike.

Ehrlichman: So after the show I went up to that Gelb guy, and I said, "Say, Mr. Gelb, those voices sounded awfully ... BIG in the last act." And you know what he said to me?

R.N.: What'd he say?

Ehrlichman: He said to me, "Well, this is purely off the record, but here at the Met, everyone mikes everyone."

R.N. and Haldeman: (Laughs) Well, goddamn.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Bis for Camarena!

During tonight's absolutely amazing Cenerentola Javier Camarena finished "Pegno adorato e caro" with a long-held D followed by an even longer high C, the audience predictably started screaming, just like opening night. This time though, after it was clear the ovation would not stop, Camarena ran back onstage to acknowledge the applause. And then ... an encore!!! Yes it was planned because the chorus also ran back onstage and Luisi immediately cued the band, but he deserved it. You could see the joy on his face as he held an even longer D and C. This is a guy who just has to open his mouth and the audience is already screaming.

Yes, I think it's safe to say ... Javier Camarena is ready for his close-up.

p.s. And the rest of the cast was also much improved from opening night, if that's even possible. But they were much more relaxed with the comedy, Luca Pisaroni sounded GREAT (as opposed to opening night, when he sounded ... ), and Corbelli and Spagnoli absolutely chewed the scenery and gave a master class in how to sing and act opera buffa. Joyce DiDonato threw in even more crazy machine-gun coloratura in "Non piu mesta." It really was just one of those nights.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

La Cenerentola - Viva Rossini!

To the left is a picture of Gioachino Rossini that I think reflects a bit on the man and his music. Behind the dark shadows and serious poses of 19th century photographs, you can see a sparkle in his eyes and a small but definite smile. Rossini's music, even his serious music, never loses that certain sparkle and joy, and the challenge for casting his operas has always been finding singers that can match the Italian master's spirit.

Friday, April 18, 2014

I Puritani

I attended the premiere of I Puritani last night at the Met. My review can again, be found at parterre box. Overall I don't think it's a must-see for the season.