Saturday, September 30, 2006

What I found today

So, I decided to take an early evening stroll. Walked up Saint-Michel, crossed into Ile-de-la-Cite, followed the Seine for a little while, and ended up at the Louvre. Contemplated sitting at the pyramids for a while, but I heard Mozart. Somewhere, a coloratura soprano was singing "Der Hölle Rache." I followed the sound and found a young woman singing in Cour Carree. She was holding a clever little electronic device that played her accompaniment. She sang a few songs and arias, and during her encore of "Der Hölle Rache"--this time, with stunning ornaments--rain poured down on the palace and thunder and lightening cast a foreboding backdrop. My video of that didn't turn out too well, so here is the second half of Olympia's "Doll Song." Listen for the gorgeous high G near the end!

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Third Lucia in Paris; Christine Schaefer does Mozart

Natalie Dessay swings after her big Act I aria in Lucia di Lammermoor tonight at the Opera Bastille.

On Tuesday, September 26, Sylvain Cambreling conducted the Opera's orchestra in a lovely (though long) Mozart concert at the Palais Garnier. The highlight for me: Christine Schaefer, who made two of the composer's difficult concert arias sound like they were a piece of cake.

More later.

Monday, September 25, 2006

A second Paris Lucia

I was in the first row at the Bastille tonight for my second Lucia. Natalie Dessay gave another powerful performance. This time, there was less perfection and more vulnerability. And also this time, since I was prepared for Dessay's tour de force, I was able to pay more attention to the men in the cast, and to admire their excellent voices.

More later. (More pictures and ovations videos too.)

UPDATE (9/26/06, 12:51pm):

By the way, I haven't figured out how to adjust the time on this thing--that last post was actually posted six hours later than whatever it says there. Well, it displays EDT, and I'm on Paris time.

So, I was thinking. Last night was the Met's opening night. And last night in Paris, we had Dessay in Lucia. At opening night next year the Met will have Dessay in Lucia. People have been celebrating the apparently stunning new Madama Butterfly production (I hope to see it in a revival at some point), but I've heard little about the voices. Dessay is a total package artist.

Last night I mentioned that I noticed the men this time. The bass Kwangchul Youn as Raimondo was solid. It's a small role--I don't think he really has an aria--but he made it memorable, and he deserved the large ovations he received. There wasn't anything special in Ludovic Tezier's dramatic portrayal of Enrico, but vocally he was outstanding. It's not a beautiful voice, but it's a solid (yeah, that's the word of the day) lyric sound and his support never fails.

I'm not sure what to make of Matthew Polenzani. As an actor he has his moments (his final lines drew tears from a certain audience member), but he's not consistently convincing. The stage director clearly showed him to play up the rage in Act I, when Lucia urges him to keep their love secret. In the second act's love duet, he cradles her more like a father than a lover. Vocally, I'm even more confused about Polenzani. Part of me wants to say that he's miscast. His light Mozartean tenor would seem suited to bel canto, but his singing lacks the requisite sexiness. He sounds sexy in Mozart and Verdi, but this role does nothing for him. On the other hand, the way he caresses a phrase can often be quite breaktaking. And he certainly has enough vocal weight to pull off the declamatory passages in Act III. Still, his Edgardo is a mixed bag.

As for the production, the emphasis on men oppressing this woman is on point. (A brochure reads--I translate: "the story of a woman manipulated and pushed to despair by a militant and arrogant world of men"). I think it's a smart reading of the opera. Certainly an interesting one. And it works. Boy do we feel sorry for Lucia at the end. The scariest aspect of the mad scene is set up by Raimondo, who tells the people that Lucia, covered in blood and completely disoriented, was smiling. Natalie emerged slowly from under a collapsed tent, first her bloody arms, then her face with those large smiling eyes. She played with a balloon, referring to it as Edgardo. She washed off, water flying across the stage. She played in the hay. Found a hatchet. Hacked in the air as she ferociously attacked coloratura. One of the most convincing portrayals I have ever seen.

Also wanted to add--sitting in the first row, to the left, I was lucky to have a good view of the large instrument made of glass that uses water. (I have no idea what it's called, but I'll try to find out.) It was fascinating to watch the musician lightly dip his hand in water, and pass his hand over the tops of glass cylinders to make those haunting sounds.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

A la recherche du mot juste

I clicked on a link to Alex Ross's blog yesterday and discovered one of his finest columns: his beautiful and honest remembrance of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Yes, how I too discovered that it's possible to mourn the loss of someone you've never met (as Ross so perfectly put it, "I never got closer to her than Row H"), and to reach a level of appreciation for which there are no words. The most striking passage:

In the days after she died, I tried to write about her, and failed. It felt wrong to call her “great” and “extraordinary,” or to throw around diva-worship words like “goddess” and “immortal,” because those words placed her on a pedestal, whereas the warmth in her voice always brought her close. Nonetheless, empty superlatives will have to do. She was the most remarkable singer I ever heard.

It's a statement as direct and as meaningful as Lieberson's solid and irreplaceable artistry. Mr. Ross, while no one has found the right words to describe Lieberson--an artist who came as close to truth as a person could--you've done well in characterizing that space where words fail.

I have my own remembrance to write, but it will be many more months.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

L'embarras du choix

The French expression l'embarras du choix refers to a state in which the only difficulty is in choosing. In English, we'd say embarrassment of riches. It comes down to this: when you've got (at least) two performances that happen to be at two difference venues on the same night, which do you choose?

Thankfully, this dreadful situation doesn't happen as often as it could. But, sadly, I will have to make several choices this season.

December 8, 2006:
Paris, France

So, look. I've heard them both, Heppner in solo recital a couple seasons ago (and at the Volpe gala), Bartoli in concert last season. I've also heard both in opera (Otello, Parsifal, L'Italiana in Algeri. So they're even in that regard.

Neither is in my list of treasured singers, but I like them both. Mere liking doesn't help in the decision-making.

Heppner will give two concerts in Paris this fall. The first, on November 14th at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees on November 14th, consists of exerpts from the Ring. The second, on December 8th, is another all-Wagner program, this time excerpts from Lohengrin, Tristan and Parsifal. I have tickets to both.

Bartoli's concert went on sale only last Friday. The program hasn't been announced in detail, but it sounds like it might be the Opera proibita stuff, which I heard her sing in Boston last season.

I am a huge fan of Wagner and of the arias that Heppner will sing. At his best, Heppner is nothing short of stunning. Bartoli's stage presence can sometimes distract from her singing. She's at her best, and reachs her most beautiful sound, in slow, lyrical music. There's a dull sameness in coloratura passages, which also bring out the ugly parts of her voice. At the same time, she's a great performer with energy to spare.

This is a tough one, and I have to say that I have not decided . . .

December 12, 2006
Paris, France

These two sopranos rarely perform in the States, and I have not had the chance to hear them, though I admired the recordings of both (when I listened to recordings). Lott promises a program of art songs with piano, while Jo offers an unbelievable program of mad scenes. I have a ticket for Lott, because somehow I feel that hearing her program would be better for me, though I have to say I'm tempted by Jo's aural-pornography, with its high notes, florid coloratura, and trills.

Currently, Lott is in the lead . . .

April 5, 2007
Paris, France

I bought a ticket for Bonney's performance, but later learned of DiDonato's. Matters were made simple by Bonney's early retirement and the cancellation of all engagements. And then, my travel plans will prevent me from staying the night in Paris, so I'll miss DiDonato as well. At any rate, I'll have the chance to hear DiDonato in a couple other things in Paris this season. So, nothing lost, nothing gained . . .

April 21, 2007
Paris, France

This is a good story, actually.

[to be continued . . .]

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Catherine Naglestad's Salome in Paris

The Opera de Paris has lavishly promoted its revival of Lev Dodin's 2003 production of Salome, originally mounted for Karita Mattila. The poster, featuring a woman who appears to be floating in icy water, decorates metro stations and shops around the city. For the last couple weeks, the web site's home page has featured music from the Dance of the Seven Veils cushioning a vignette from the production (and a typo in Strauss's death date). And in the Opera Bastille's lobby, stacks of lovely postcards featuring the production's poster are there for the taking.

I'm fascinated by Oscar Wilde's strange play, and Strauss's rich music and complex orchestration rescue Wilde's bizarre work from utter ridiculousness. Salome is a stunningly difficult work and, if opening night was any indication, this revival is acceptable at best. I do think, however, that things will improve with future performances in the run. Harmut Haenchen was often out of synch with the singers, who made their entrances too late or too soon. Catherine Naglestad, in her wonderful dance (girlish, amateurish), often made her moves before or after the beat. There was a general sense that everyone wasn't absolutely on the same page. I would attribute this to inadequate rehearsal time. That's what I'm hoping, at any rate.

Tomislav Mužek, as Narraboth, opened the opera rather tenatively and seemed uncomfortable on stage, but his smallish voice sounded beautiful. Evgeny Nikitin handled Jochanaan's lengthy legato passages very elegantly, even if his voice is placed a little too high for the part. Chris Merritt and Jane Henschel were pretty much standard as Herod and Herodias. These are ridiculous characters who make up a sort of cheering section to the real drama, and the singers' antics were engaging and amusing.

The beautiful Naglestad (bearing a resemblance to the stunning Waltraud Meier), who debuted this role last night, is a promising Salome. She possesses a powerful instrument. From a chilling low G (and powerful chest register) to a blazing high C (and shimmering top), it's a rich sound that, at its best, evokes Deborah Voigt's. She played Salome with a lot of smiles, and at the end, I didn't feel as sorry for the character as I did during Karita Mattila's 2004 performances of the final scene with the Boston Symphony. Naglestad's rather superficial characterization brought the work dangerously close to kitsch, but her high-octane sound saved the performance. I'm not sure if I'll attend another performance of this run, but if I do, I'd be interested to see if Haenchen manages to pull everything together.

UPDATE (CLICK HERE FOR PHOTOS AND VIDEO OF OVATIONS!): Salome in Paris a second time around

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Natalie Dessay's Lucia in Paris

Back on George V after a ride on the 1 from Bastille. Today's matinee was my first Paris Opera production. May I just say, Natalie Dessay is a goddess. No, it's not a very imaginative statement. But, at the very least, it's a true one.

Her voice is in solid form. It's a rich, beautiful sound that maintains a gorgeous liquid tone even in the most intricate coloratura passages, and yet, though agile, it has enough weight to swim over the orchestra and fill the hall.

Her stage presence puts her in Karita Mattila territory. Singing and acting are one. Lucia could so easily be a perfunctory coloratura showpiece. Dessay made the most of every note, and she maximized the resources of this odd production to render the role as interesting as possible. I'll never forget the playful way she balanced on a swing and see-saw in Act I, or her sad expression with horrible make-up in Act II, or her chilling antics during the mad scene. Andrei Serban's physically demanding directions seemed to be a breeze for Dessay, and her commitment shines through. This opening production of the Paris Opera's season marks a considerable success for Dessay, whom we bathed in lavish ovations, even demanding a curtain call following the mad scene!

The rest of the cast (Matthew Polenzani as Edgardo among them) was good, but there was clearly only one star on stage.

This was my first experience of Lucia, and I rather liked it. I read the Met's synopsis before leaving the hotel, and I rolled my eyes at the silly plot. But there's depth there, and Dessay certainly dug deep and found something quite real and quite chilling. And knowing how to turn an audience to mush with a forte high E-flat doesn't hurt either . . .

It is said that Dessay will essay the role to open the Met's 2007-08 season. New York, get ready.

The Old Style

I have deleted my Facebook and MySpace accounts. I just don't like where we're headed. Communication has become thin and lame. I have no interest in meeting people who for me exist only in these virtual realms. And if my good friends feel that these online meat markets are an appropriate way to contact me, I'd like them to rethink contacting me.

In other news, I am in Paris. I took a full two days to recover from jet lag. While I will be studying here during the year, in this blog I will report on performances and other things of interest.

In a previous post I erroneously stated that today's Lucia will be my first classical performance since the Volpe gala. I actually attended Opera Boston's Angels in America in June. I found both the opera and the production to be forgettable (apparently so . . .).

Also, as it turns out, my first classical performance of the season came a couple days sooner. On Wednesday night, while checking the Theatre des Champs-Elysees's web site for the on sale date of Cecilia Bartoli's December concert, I noticed that William Christie was to conduct his Les Arts Florissants in one performance of Mozart's Idomeneo, so I bought a ticket. It was a solid, assured, and satisfying performance on a rather intimate scale. The singers and chorus members were directed on stage, so there was a dramatic aspect not usually found in concert performances of opera.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The Strange Thing

While working on a paper on voice and failure in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days, I came upon this powerful and spare letter that Beckett wrote to Alan Schneider upon learning of the death of Schneider's father after a long illness:

I know your sorrow and I know that for the likes of us there is no ease for the heart to be had from words or reason and that in the very assurance of sorrow's fading there is more sorrow. So I offer you only my deeply affectionate and compassionate thoughts and wish for you only that the strange thing may never fail you, whatever it is, that gives us the strength to live on and on with our wounds.

More on Beckett to come; next month the Comedie Française will produce Happy Days in its French version.