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Friday, January 30, 2015

Disruptor at the Met for Iolanta/Bluebeard Premire


Last night the delayed NP of Iolanta/Bluebeard was interrupted by this man. I reviewed the entire performance for Parterre Box.

The Met’s planned premiere of Iolanta/Bluebeard’s Castle was cancelled due to the Great Blizzard That Wasn’t. All ticket holders were given refunds and exchanges, and the premiere was moved to January 29. As a result the lobby of the Met pre-performance was a noisy zoo. The will call line spiraled almost to the basement stairs and my! all that fur (on both the men and the women). Outside was a small but noisy group of protestors. It’s understandable that the Met staff seemed a bit frazzled and overwhelmed. They came, they sang, they bowed. Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala are audience favorites, and so of course there were bravos and bouquets. Then, at the end of the performance a man just strolled onstage using the stage right stairs, and unveiled a poster of of the Ukraine flag with pictures of Valery Gergiev, Netrebko… and Hitler. The cast was clearly frazzled (although they were singing behind a production scrim) and the crowd began to boo the intrepid protestor. Almost as if on cue professional photographers ran down the aisle snapping pictures. And just as calmly, the man walked offstage. The protestor I think earned the
 Iolanta cast some sympathy points. That was handy, because the performance was sort of disappointing. Tchaikovsky’s last opera has been a favorite vehicle for Netrebko in concert, and she’s sung this role onstage in the exact same production. I won’t point out the link but a whole performance is easily searchable on youtube. Maybe it’s sentimentality that’s kept this role in Netrebko’s repertoire because at the point in her career neither her voice nor her stage appearance really suit the role of the sheltered, blind princess. Netrebko’s now rather mature looking and what’s more, acts mature. The youthful ebullience is no longer really there. When she rolled around on the floor and twirled it almost seemed like a nostalgic throwback to her earlier days. It didn’t look natural.
Her voice has also changed. She always had a dark, rich timbre, but in this rather lyrical role one noticed a thickness to her voice that sounded matronly. It had a slight but persistent beat on sustained notes. Her pitch sagged. What was most surprising was how often she seemed to be pushing. In the past, Netrebko didn’t have to strain to be loud. She just had reserves of volume. It was like she opened her mouth, and the sound filled the auditorium. Tonight in the duet with Vaudémont (Beczala) and in the final wedding chorus she was hunched over, fists balled, screaming. I really want to think this was just a bad night for Anna, because I’ve heard her in almost everything she’s ever sung at the Met and she’s never sounded this bad. And she was spectacular as Lady Macbeth this past fall.
Beczala is actually five years older than Netrebko but is still believable in these lyric prince roles. His voice is for the most part an incredibly well preserved light tenor. On the highest notes one can detect a thinning of the sound and some strain, but the core of his voice has stayed the same. More amazing is that he can still pull off the ardent lover schtick. If Netrebko’s voice is a bit like an aged fine wine, Beczala is more like amber. You can pull out videos from more than 10 years ago, and compare them with today. He hasn’t changed. And when you saw him smirking a little after the ovation for his aria it was so cute. Never change!
The low voices were distressing. Whatever happened to Russia’s lower-voiced males? They used to be the greatest bass factory in the world. Ilya Bannik (King René) was the understudy for an ailing Alexei Tanovitsky so one couldn’t expect too much, but he doesn’t have even a cover voice. He has a thin, wobbly comprimario voice.  Elchin Azizov (Ibn-Hakia) was almost as bad. Alexei Markov (Duke Robert) at least had a voice, although it wasn’t beautiful.
Gergiev has remarkably little feel for Tchaikovsky’s music. This is as much of a problem in the Nutcracker recording of his as Iolanta. He has a cold clinical style, which is absolutely against the grain of Tchaikovsky’s melodies. The final wedding chorus fizzled out to the point where when the curtain fell there was little to no applause.
Mariusz Trelinski’s production of Iolanta was the lesser of his two efforts. It’s set in a chilly hunting lodge, with some deer hanging on the walls and a dead deer that drips blood. I liked the austere look for most of the opera. It suggested a bone-chilling Russian winter. The stage blocking was formulaic and the “transformation” however pretty lame. Everyone just put on some wedding gear and held hands and belted.
After the intermission we got the grim aftermath to the fairy tale ending of Iolanta. Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle is not as easy and accessible a work as Iolanta. It has only two voices, and the story is dark and creepy. With that being said, I loved it. First, Trelinski apparently saved all his good ideas for Bluebeard. The production was surreal, imaginative, and almost cinematic. I won’t spoil many of the production’s effects (the way he handles the Seventh Key is a doozy) but let’s just say it’s a scene Ted Bundy might have approved of, in his sick sociopath way.
And what of the two protagonists? Well for Mikhail Petrenko (Bluebeard) I’ll repeat: what happened to Russia’s basses? This voiceless, wobbly dude is the best they can get? Judith was “soprano” Nadja Michael. Previously I had only heard on recording and in soprano parts like Lady Macbeth and Salome. The screechy white tone was cringe inducing. Well tonight I think I finally figured Michael out. I think she’s really a contralto. In the lower register (where much of the role lies) her voice has a richness and resonance that is (dare I say it) quite intriguing. It’s not beautiful, but it’s not the trademark caterwauling that one hears on the DVD’s. Only when she has to sing in the soprano tessitura does the white, shrill tone emerge.
Petrenko and Michael don’t have A-list voices but they did throw themselves into the production completely. This opera has a rather abstract libretto but Petrenko and Michael made the characters flesh and blood people. He bond between husband and wife was well developed. There was tenderness, sexual attraction, fear, and finally, a chilling acceptance. Bartok’s score is “difficult” but deeply rewarding. I loved how the music became less dissonant with each door. The seventh door music was almost like Tchaikovsky. Death never seemed so seductive. It was a wonderful musical experience, and what I’ll most remember from the night.
Trelinski said Alfred Hitchcock films inspired him when he planned these productions. With this insight in mind I’ll just say that Hitch would have called the Iolanta half (replete with the noisy protestor) the MacGuffin. The lush music, fairy tale marriage story, and curtain call antics were just a trick for the audiences to appreciate the bone-chilling story of Bluebeard and his doomed wives.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Call Me Debbie

The first thing you need to know when you read Deborah Voigt's Call Me Debbie is that she's a "down to earth" diva. I confess I have an allergy to people who label themselves "down to earth" -- it's my experience that genuinely down to earth people don't walk around with a "Down to Earth" advertisement.

That reservation aside Debbie Voigt's memoirs (we learn that "Deborah" was a stage name she chose to seem more formal) are enjoyable, easy to read, in an Oprah kind of way. I download this on my ipad this morning and by noon I was done. Those looking for gossip or insight into the cut-throat, competitive opera business will be disappointed. Jessye Norman required a personal assistant to spray her path with mist. There's unnamed Mezzo X and Mezzo Y who gave her a hard time but otherwise everyone is wonderful, fantastic, supportive, amazing. Luciano Pavarotti called her up one night to ask about gastric bypass. Leonie Rysanek cheered her on the first time Debbie sang Chrysothemis. Anna Netrebko gave Debbie pointers on how to signal to the prompter "I need help." Placido Domingo made her swoon with an onstage kiss. President Bill Clinton kinda sorta copped a feel. And so on.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Mariinsky Waves Goodbye

The final performance of Swan Lake at the Mariinsky was maybe the most old-fashioned of the three Swan Lakes I caught. Viktoria Tereshkina has a contemporary physique and line, but her facial expressions and portrayal owed a lot to silent movie acting. There was nothing subtle about it, but her Odile especially was tons of fun. The long-held balances, the doubles and triples thrown into the fouette sequence, and, finally, the old-fashioned milking of bows. She came forward for a bow whether the audience response warranted it or not. Her Prince, Vladimir Shklyarov, was the Siegfried with the most bravura technique. His boyish looks and spotlight hogging reminded me of the young Nureyev. He's one of those dancers that does that slow walk with his back to the audience before he begins a variation to drum up anticipation. Andrei Yermakov really camped it up for his last performance of Rothbart (the death scene convulsions!), while Vasily Tchachenko was by far the most appealing Jester of the run.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Mariinsky Swan Lake #2: A Turkey


There is a certain look performers sometimes have on their faces when things are just not going their way. There's a deflated look in their eyes, posture, and demeanor that makes it clear to the audience that magic is just not going to happen on this particular night, and they are being professionals by chugging through the remainder of the performance. That look was in abundance at tonight's performance of Swan Lake at BAM. The Mariinsky swans were as beautiful as ever, Andrei Yermakov was a terrifying Rothbart, the pas de trois was elegantly danced by Filipp Stepin, Nadezhda Batoeva, and Yana Selina (!!!), but the leads Ekaterina Kondaorova and Timur Askerov were just disappointing compared to last Friday's magical performance by Uliana Lopatkina.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Royal Danes


There exists a brief snippet of La Sylphide's opening solo as performed by Ellen Price in 1903 (see above). The film might be of low video quality but the lightning fast footwork, the effortless ballon, and the charmingly modest épaulement are immediately apparent.

How does one preserve the Bournonville hallmarks of charm, grace, fast and fleet footwork, and effortless elevation in a ballet climate that now favors big jumps and flashy pirouettes? This question has been plaguing the Royal Danish Ballet since time immemorial but the miraculous thing is, for the most part, the Bournonville tradition lives on. This was apparent in the Royal Danish Ballet's brief tour to NYC this week.

Mariinsky: Cinderella, Ratmansky Style

My second night at BAM was markedly different: it was my first time seeing Alexei Ratmansky's Cinderella. And the short version of the story is: I hated it. I usually find Ratmansky to be an interesting (if inconsistent) choreographer but this is one ballet I can put on the shelf and never see again.

To be fair, I didn't hate everything about it. I liked some of Ratmansky's ideas: the stark industrial look in Act One, the Prince (Konstantin Zverev) being a sort of Fred-Astaire-type dancer instead of the traditional dull-as-potatoes-cavalier, the Stepmother as an oligarch trophy wife.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Swan Heaven - Mariinsky Arrives in BAM

There are certain things you expect when you see an Uliana Lopatkina performance. You expect extreme beauty of line -- those endless arms, the tapered fingers, the mile-long legs. You expect a stately dignity -- I saw Lopatkina as Nikya maybe 10 years ago, and she was as glacial and remote as the highest Himalaya peak. It was as if her body was a temple. I also saw her in Symphony in C where her line was so exquisite that you sort of forgot how she sort of pulled the Balanchine choreography into a molasses crawl. Of course there was the Dying Swan where she flapped her boneless arms and the applause lasted longer than the dancing.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Opera Diaries: the Four Hour Bohème

So 1/15/15 marked what might have been a first: a La Bohème that lasted nearly four hours. Too tired to write much about the details, but after the first act the curtain fell and we heard a loud crash. Apparently the scenery had fallen apart. An announcement was made that there'd be a 20-minute intermission. That really was about 40 minutes, and every intermission lasted about 40 minutes, so by the time the opera was over it was like 11:30. Seriously.

Thankfully the performance was worth staying for -- and I met the cast afterwards!!!



The gorgeous Mimì, Kristine Opolais. She's one of those women that immediately make you feel mousy and plain by comparison. 



Marina Rebeka, who was such a wonderful Violetta, tonight made for an equally wonderful Musetta. The voice is really very special -- airy, like a bell, you can just listen to her all day. 


Finally, the tenor Jean-François Borras, who I saw last winter as a last-minute sub in Werther. He was amazing. One of the most pure, beautiful lyric tenors I'd ever heard. I thought, "I'll probably never hear him again." Well, his Rodolfo tonight was very different, but just as great. Now if you want Michael Fabiano-like squillo then you're better off uh ... listening to Michael Fabiano. But Borras has a very light, youthful, sweet sound. I was talking with someone at intermission that I really wanted to hear him sing with Marina Rebeka -- they both have this lightness to their voices that I think would blend wonderfully. And the good news: he'll be back again next season! Woo-hoo! But go listen to him next Monday or next Saturday afternoon (broadcast).

And last night I heard Sonya Yoncheva in what might have been the sexiest, most complete Violetta I've ever seen. I already knew she'd be great because I saw her earlier this season as Mimì and there's a Youtube compilation of a performance she did with Jean-François Borras two years ago. But she exceeded all expectations. Really just a special, special voice.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Les Contes d'Hoffman


I went to the Met's revival of Les Contes d'Hoffman last night and wrote a review for parterre. An excerpt:

A wise man once said: “It’s absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.” Vittorio Grigolo may be a narcissist, but at least he’s a charming one.

The above is the wonderful Erin Morley's Doll Song.