Is Opera Color Blind?

A couple of weeks ago I had the immense pleasure of hearing Nina Stemme tear up the house as Turandot live at the Met. The sheer size of her voice brought me back to see her again, only at a movie theater instead of the Met so I could witness her power live in HD. Yet again, her entire range was solid as a rock. She never let a stray note waver or sound out of place in the vast space she creates in her skull for successful resonance. Seeing her Live in HD did leave me with something else to think about other than her musical performance, however.

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Nina Stemme as Turandot © Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera, January 2016

There is no question that the Met HDs are geared towards the movie industry. The film crew behind their production makes a viewer more aware of a singer’s makeup and appearance than he or she ever would sitting in the opera house. As I was enjoying listening to Ms. Stemme’s astounding sound, I could not help but be distracted by the heavy makeup around her eyes, which was utilized to give her more of an Asian look. The character of Turandot the ice princess came from a Persian collection of stories titled “The Book of One Thousand and One Days” ; and the word “Turandot” itself means “daughter of Turan”, Turan being a region located in Central Asia. Puccini set his opera to take place in the city of Peking, or present-day Beijing, China.

While Ms. Stemme’s makeup did not affect my enjoyment of her performance, it did take me back to a contoversy earlier this season over the use of blackface in the Met’s new production of Otello which opened the season. In this case, Shakespeare created Otello as a “Moorish captain”, based on the story “Un Capitano Moro” published in 1565 by Cinthio. While “Moor” has been used as a term to describe Arab and Berber people emigrating from North Africa to Spain, many have simply identified Othello as distinctly darker than Iago and Desdemona, and thus, isolating him from the light-skinned society for which he serves as a general. Countless references are made in both Shakespeare’s text and Boito’s libretto to Othello’s “blackness”. In the duet between Otello and Desdemona at the end of Act I of Verdi’s Otello, Otello describes how “scendean sulle mie tenebre la gloria, il paradiso e gli astri a benedir” or “upon my darkness shown a radiance, heaven and all the stars in benediction”. Desdemona responds: “Ed io vedea fra le tue tempie oscure splender del genio l’eterea beltà” or “And I descried upon your dusky temples genius’ ethereal beauty shining there”. In other words, it is made obvious that Otello should be personified as a character with darker skin than Desdemona.

When posters were first hung up and New York City buses began bearing ads for the Met’s new production, outrage broke out over Aleksandrs Antonenko’s dark makeup. After Nina Stemme’s thick eye makeup was shown to viewers all over the world on Saturday, I wondered where that same outrage was. For many years, the government of the People’s Republic of China banned performances of Puccini’s world renowned work because it gave an unfavorable portrayal of China and the Chinese people. In the past, productions of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly have been criticized for using “yellowface”, or a type of Hollywood-born makeup used to make actors look “more Asian”. As it was obviously intended by the makeup artists to give Ms. Stemme the complexion of a Chinese princess, where was the fuss? Should her face have been left alone to only let her costume advocate her Asian heritage?

With operas like Otello and Turandot, we are lucky. Costumers and makeup artists have the choice and disposal to create certain complexions they have in mind for the stage. In operas like La Fanciulla del West, however, that choice is not provided, as hints of racism are depicted in the speech or vernacular of the characters. Wowkle, Annie’s pregnant Native American servant, and her husband, Billy Jackrabbit, repeatedly say “Ugh”- filling the popular “stupid Indian” stereotype white Americans used at the time they were trying to move further West.

Is there reason for outrage or is the Met correct in following Puccini’s intentions for an Asian title character? I am very interested in hearing your responses. Please comment below if you have any thoughts.

To Shush or Not to Shush?

As we live in the age of the iPhone, there is no question that the average attention span of the human race is getting shorter. While they are useful and have changed twenty-first century lifestyle for the better in many ways, they undeniably contribute to many of our distractions. This issue makes activities such as concentrating at work, driving, and even going to the opera more difficult. This lack of attention motivates us during a performance to stare off, steal a glance at our watches or maybe even our phones before directing our eyes back to the stage. For some, the problem is made worse by having an even shorter attention span and/or not knowing the rules of concert etiquette. Back when my father was attending Met performances as a college student, he would see printed articles in his programs going in depth about the practice of performance etiquette. After an incident I saw play out last week at the Met, it would seem that a revival of this is desperately needed.

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David Pershall being shushed as Papageno in Virginia Opera’s production of The Magic Flute

Last week I paid a good sum of money to sit in a very nice orchestra-level seat at the Met for one my favorite operas. Through all of the first act, a young couple seated across the aisle from me whispered continuously, noisily feasted on Altoids and chocolate wrapped in crinkly foil, and passed an iPhone between them which had to have been dropped on the floor at least three times. A brave man at the beginning of Act II decided to put an end to it by executing a quick and quiet “sh”, providing the rest of us with peace for the duration of the act. At the end of the act, I overheard the shushed victim reprimanding the hero, saying something along the lines of, “If you ever shush me like that again I’m going to punch you.” I was horrified by this and intended to thank and reassure the man who gave us the chance to hear Act II without interruption, but unsurprisingly, the man did not return to his seat to enjoy Act III. For all I knew the man was back at home already, knowing that it was not worth trying to enjoy the performance, a performance he without a doubt paid a handsome sum for, just as I did.

What is to be done? Has concert etiquette been buried so far into the ground that it is worth giving up one’s enjoyment of a performance at the expense of rude patrons? Has the  attention span of an average audience been so mangled with by new innovations like the iPhone, that someone with a more focused attention span is looked upon as the bad guy? Two thirds of the tickets for an average performance at the Met are priced at over $175, meaning those coming have made a serious investment. Going to the opera itself does not have to be serious, but taking into account other people’s enjoyment always has to be taken seriously.

I am very interested in hearing responses to this. What are your thoughts? Is there a better way to stifle noisy audience members, or is better to sit and suffer? Do you have your own stories to tell? Please comment below or tweet me @MsOperaGeek.

Swedish Steel: A Review of the Met’s Turandot

The Met opened its last run of Turandot for the 2015-16 season on Monday night. Nina Stemme starred in the title role, Marco Berti was the daring Calaf, Anita Hartig sang the tragic role of Liù, and Ukranian bass-baritone Alexander Tsymbalyuk was Timur. Paolo Carignani conducted the Met Orchestra and Chorus. 

Nina Stemme taking her bow after Turandot on Monday night

 

Nina Stemme is a Turandot made of Swedish steel. Maybe the icy waters of the Baltic Sea carry treasures to produce the rich Swedish ranks of Birgit Nilsson, Iréne Theorin, and other dramatic voices. If so, we should be grateful for how they enhanced Ms. Stemme’s solid high notes, dead-on pitch, and perfect attacks. Her performance bade well for what she will bring to the Met’s new production of Elektra, coming from Aix-en-Provence, when she sings the title role. Marco Berti forced as Calaf, causing some of his sustained high notes to either disappear or crumble. It came as a surprise to hear a dead audience at the end of “Nessun dorma”, which normally rouses fanatic applause.

Anita Hartig put the never-ending devotion of Liù’s character into her voice. She never let it drop as she ventured through her pasaggio and jumped registers. Her legato was sensational; none of her phrases died away. Timur’s last appearance in which he is told of Liù’s death was all the more devastating, as Mr. Tsymbalyuk sang so tenderly. He caressed each phrase, particularly when he was singing about Liù and how God would frown upon all who supported her torture. Dwayne Croft, Tony Stevenson, and Eduardo Valdes were hilarious as the kooky trio of Ping, Pang, and Pong, respectively. Each of them stayed on the beat in their tricky passages in Act I. Mr. Croft gently reminisced about his house of bamboo, generating a feeling of sentimentality.

Maestro Carignani conducted without bombast, allowing the singers to be heard and creating an ideal balance in the orchestra. The thorny passages in the woodwinds were managed particularly smoothly. The Chorus acted as a strong force, and the backstage Children’s Chorus acted as a comforting break from the violence caused by Puccini’s special princess.

Performances of Turandot continue through January 30. Go enjoy some hardcore Swedish steel!

A Tribute to Pierre Boulez and the Centenary Ring

When I heard Pierre Boulez had passed away on January 5, I cannot say that I let his death pervade my thoughts or affect me significantly. One of the few performances I saw him conduct was Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 at Carnegie Hall in May of 2009. The piece was what it was, gargantuan and monumental, but I did not feel uplifted when I left the auditorium, which is normally a given after listening to the “Symphony of a Thousand”.

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Pierre Boulez, ca. 1976 ©Pierre Petitjean

That was until I was introduced to his Jahrhundertring, or the “Centenary Ring” production presented at the Bayreuth Festival in 1976 for the one hundredth anniversary of Wagner’s four-part series of epic music dramas. In a collaboration with the legendary French director Patrice Chéreau, Maestro Boulez and he created a launching pad for “Regietheater”, advocating broad-mindedness for not only musical interpretation, but taking liberties with the staging and setting as well. The artists in this revolutionary production did not channel their characters in traditional mythological garb: Sir Donald McIntyre’s Wotan was dressed in a frock coat as a banker in the Industrial Revolution, and Gunther sports a tuxedo to contrast with his blood-sworn brother Siegfried, who is dressed in rags as a dragon-killing, mountain-climbing, fire-jumping hero. The Ring itself is born from gold stolen from a hydro-electric plant, not from the banks of the peacefully blue Rhine river.The struggle between capitalists (Wotan and the rest of the Godly race) and the working class (the Nibelungs) undermines the conventional Norse mythology found in Wagner’s work.

Boulez and Chéreau’s combined work was booed mercilessly at Bayreuth for years. After its final performance in 1980, however, it was given a 45-minute ovation, showing that the staging of opera was moving in a new direction and that audiences were conforming and opening up in response.

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Sir Donald McIntyre as Wotan in the final scene of Act III of Die Walküre

Nothing like Boulez and Chéreau’s collaboration had ever been done anywhere else previously, let alone atop the sacred Green Hill. Remember in 2013 when audiences for the Met’s new production of Parsifal were getting hot flashes because Jonas Kaufmann unexpectedly loses his shirt before his big smooch with the supernatural Kundry? That erotic style of staging for Wagner was very similar to the staging for Peter Hofmann, another very good-looking German tenor, as he loses his shirt during the Todesverkündigung with Brünnhilde. What seemed deranged and nutty back in the late seventies is perceived as typical on today’s stages. Maestro Boulez was a man ahead of his time.

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Peter Hofmann as Siegmund and Gwyneth Jones as Brünnhilde in Act II of Die Walküre

While I may not have enjoyed some of his speedy tempi and abrupt endings to phrases, I understand that his background of contribution to the development of innovations such as computer music, integral serialism, and controlled chanced allowed him to introduce opera to the future, and looking back from 2016, the longterm. The intense, dramatic acting and intimacy between characters implemented in the Centenary Ring has become a necessity for Ring productions today. Maestro Boulez created a new standard with which opera directors in the present day work, and for that, the music world should be forever grateful.

The 2015 Metropolitan Opera Guild Holiday Card, Designed by Melanie Spector

2015 handed me some incredible opportunities. I was accepted to Manhattan School of Music, am studying with my first-choice voice teacher, and I even got to see my favorite team, the New York Mets, battle it out in the postseason – to the bitter end. One last opportunity granted to me in 2015 was to have the honor of designing the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s holiday card. After seeing some of my other works, such as my 2013-14 Met Season drawing, those on the Guild were interested in having me design their card. Here is the final product:

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The front of the 2015 Metropolitan Opera Guild Holiday Card © Melanie Spector 2015

As the English-version of Die Fledermaus is being performed at the Met right now and as it is always associated with New Year’s Eve and the holiday season overall, I figured it would be a perfect theme for a holiday card. Champagne bubble letters, I believe, are appealing to everyone. I did have another idea, however, that I was hoping would pull through as the favored design of the two I created. Here is my other card design:

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2015 Metropolitan Opera Guild holiday card alternate design © Melanie Spector 2015

One with any prior knowledge of opera would understand that this is a reenactment of the end of Act II of Puccini’s Tosca. Instead of Tosca stabbing Scarpia with a knife, however, she kills him with snowballs. The two candelabra set on either side of him are seen in any production that is true to the libretto. The snowman is obviously not in the libretto, but I thought it would be a nice touch to a relatively vulgar holiday card. This design was not chosen to be used, however, I’m sure I can make use of it in the future.

I hope all of you readers have a wonderful new year. Thank you so much for keeping up with my posts in 2015. I look forward to writing more about opera and other subjects in 2016. Happy New Year!

Ms.OperaGeek’s Favorite Classical Music Performances from 2015

2015 was a great year for classical music performances given in New York. From some of the new productions put on stage by the Met to visiting orchestras at Carnegie Hall, the stages of New York oozed with talent. I estimate having attended around fifty to sixty performances just this year, but here are some of my favorites, in chronological order, as I look back on 2015:

Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 and the Schumann “Rhenish” Symphony, January 2015

This program featured Maestro Riccardo Muti conducting both Yefim Bronfman in Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto and the Schumann “Rhenish” Symphony. What I took especially from this performance was the honor of being in the same hall as the CSO brass section. Even without the leadership of Dale Clevenger, the longtime Principal Horn of the CSO who retired two years ago, the notoriously clear and rich sound of their brass section plays on. Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 begins with a gentle horn call, followed by the “Rhenish” which gives very generous parts particularly to the horns. The symphony itself is in E-Flat Major, a heroic key and a favorite among brass players. The Chicago Symphony played it heroically at that.

Iolanta and Bluebeard’s Castle at the Metropolitan Opera, January and February 2015

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Nadja Michael as Judith in Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle”. © Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera, 2015

With the help of two ghoulish new productions by Mariusz Trelinski, a terrifically haunting evening of two rarely staged works was presented. It is doubtful that Iolanta would have been performed at the Met without the help of Maestro Valery Gergiev, who conducted it superbly. Both Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala, Iolanta and Vaudémont respectively, gave proof of how their voices have grown and how they are going to take on heavier roles in the future. Nadja Michael’s intensity as Judith in Bluebeard’s Castle drew the audience in with her, as Mikhail Petrenko contrasted with an eerily passive portrayal of Bluebeard. Trelinski’s production made the evening. His use of eternally dark moving projections and ominous voices and noises coming from speakers around the house made it like a ride in the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland rather than a dismally dark experience.

La Donna del Lago at the Metropolitan Opera, February and December 2015

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John Osborn, Joyce DiDonato, and Juan Diego Flórez in La Donna del Lago at the Metropolitan Opera; Photograph: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

I had never seen such a battlefield of coloratura singing before the Met finally brought Rossini’s La Donna del Lago to the stage in 2015. Both casts, in the 2014-15 season and the 2015-16 season, were made up of all-star bel canto repertoire artists: Juan Diego Flórez, Joyce DiDonato, Daniela Barcellona, Lawrence Brownlee, and John Osborn. Each time the trio in Act II between the two tenors and Ms. DiDonato came back, I would sit at the edge of my seat, frozen and immovable, as I witnessed the “battle of the high Cs” between John Osborn and Juan Diego Flórez and later Lawrence Brownlee. Then came the final aria of the opera for Elena, “Tanti affetti”, or “so many emotions”, which is exactly how I felt hearing Ms. DiDonato nail all her runs every single time she went for them. It was amazing to not only hear a new addition to the Met’s bel canto repertoire, but to also hear an entire cast of artists who are always consistent and perpetually prepared.

Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, Ein Deutsches Requiem, March 2015

As part of their US tour, the Vienna Philharmonic brought with them one of their specialities: Brahms’ German Requiem. Listening to those Viennese musicians play that music was like comfort food. It felt as if the music was coming straight out of their veins as they played and breathed together as one being. Daniele Gatti conducted gently, exactly what the piece deserves. Diana Damrau and Christian Gerhaher, both accomplished singers of lieder, gave personal and intimate performances as the two soloists. The Westminster Symphonic Choir exemplified versatility, as they sang powerfully in the trembling “Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras” and later came all the way down for a very moving “Selig sind die Toten”. One could pick up on the great amount of care given by every person on stage to deliver Brahms’ non-liturgical messages to humankind.

Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, Beethoven Violin Concerto, Shostakovich: Symphony No. 10, Mahler: Symphony No. 6, April 2015

In April the Boston Symphony toured to Carnegie Hall with Christian Teztlaff and the Beethoven Violin Concerto, Shostakovich 10, and Mahler 6, all conducted by Andris Nelsons. The Beethoven was played tenderly by Teztlaff with a very interpretive and relatively long cadenza. Both the Shostakovich and the Mahler were fluid and chamber-like under Maestro Nelsons. Instead of going for the big band sound like many conductors do, Nelsons went the other way for a smoother, more velvety sound even out of these two huge works. His animation on the podium, even solely in his eyes as they connect with his musicians, is always worth the price of admission.

Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall, Beethoven: Symphonies No. 4, 7, and 9, November 2015

The Berlin Philharmonic is the rock star orchestra of the twenty-first century. Tickets to see them at Carnegie Hall are the highest for the entire season each year they tour. From Karajan to Abbado to Sir Simon Rattle, their sound has been transformed into possibly the best in the world as far as classical orchestras go. These rock stars gave it their all as they brought with them a cycle of Beethoven. Out of the three symphonies I saw them perform, my favorite had to have been Symphony No. 7. Yes, many complain that it is performed too often, but when it is performed that well and with such high standards as those of the Berlin Philharmonic, it is a perfect choice.

An entire section of violins sounded like one violin, their blend was that melded. The winds’ first priority was to listen to each other, as they moved and made eye contact as they commingled. Albrecht Mayer, the Principal Oboist of the Berlin Philharmonic, paid particular consideration to listening to his fellow musicians and blending his sound. The brass playing sounded magnificent. As always, they were perfectly in tune and created a big, clear sound together. Sir Simon Rattle looked like he was having a blast as he danced and leaped on the podium. At times, however, he would stop conducting the orchestra entirely, demonstrating that the trust between him and the musicians is unquestionably mutual.

Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera, November 2015

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Marlis Petersen in Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera; Photograph: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

To call Marlis Petersen a stage animal is an understatement. How she ran around the stage while simultaneously singing Lulu’s long and strenuous part boggled everybody’s mind. She practically won the Olympics. A busy new production by South African director William Kentridge allowed some of the attention drawn to Ms. Petersen to be drawn elsewhere, as projections of newspaper clippings and encyclopedia entries were blotted with inky drawings of people, including the characters on stage, Alban Berg, and others. It was eccentric, but for an opera as kooky as Lulu where everyone is busy dying, the production was allowed to be busy too. The Met Orchestra outdid themselves by effortlessly playing Berg’s complicated twelve-tone rows.

With 2016 coming in, I am very excited for all the performances the new year has to offer. Thank you, 2015, for a fantastic year of performance-going!

 

Deck the Halls with Boughs of Handel: A Review of the New York Philharmonic’s “Messiah”

New York City is brimming with “Messiah”s this December. Whether one wishes to attend one with period instruments, a full-on orchestra, or something in between, the New York Baroque scene awaits. I chose to attend the New York Philharmonic’s “Messiah” on Saturday night. With a more petite version of the ensemble, including only three stands of first violins for example, a more chamber-esque sound was created on a smaller-scale. Unlike the cherished Sir Thomas Beecham recording, trombones, tuba, triangle, and cymbals could not be found on the stage of David Geffen Hall.

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Jane Glover conducting the “Messiah”; Credits: Robert Altman of the New York Times

Jane Glover, making her debut with the New York Philharmonic, conducted a very loving performance. Without a baton or a score, she genuinely connected with the soloists, orchestra, and chorus to make the whole experience very warm and inviting. I particularly liked her own clever articulation of “All we like sheep have gone astray”, as she placed a pause or lift between “we” and “like”, in order to clarify the meaning of the sentence. Often people take it to mean that the chorus really, strangely, respects sheep, whereas it should be taken to mean that the people are wandering in the manner of sheep.

Heidi Stober demonstrated her versatility through the contrast of her fast gait in “Rejoice  greatly” and her beautiful legato in “I know that my redeemer liveth”. Tim Mead exemplified the fluidity in his voice, never spending too much time singing in straight-tone and making sure to incorporate full vibrato. As his part is commonly sung by a mezzo, he managed to maintain the appropriate timbre for Handel’s requirements. Paul Appleby’s voice has grown since the last time I heard him as David in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Met last season. He gave great emphasis for clarity and diction on “Thou shalt break them”. Roderick Williams was difficult to hear at times, especially in “The Trumpet Shall Sound”, but who could blame him for being covered in that aria? The piccolo trumpet itself was played very clearly and bravely forte.

The Westminster Symphonic Choir sounds professional in everything they do. Sir Simon Rattle just recently led them triumphantly in Beethoven’s Ninth at Carnegie Hall with the Berlin Philharmonic and they are soon preparing to sing under Yannick Nézet-Séguin with the Philadelphia Orchestra for Mahler: Symphony No. 8 in March. Their blend deserves great admiration considering how young the average age is of each member of the ensemble. They sang freely, kept their faces out of the music, and even moved together in a joyful fashion.

As my first time ever attending a live performance of the “Messiah”, I was very impressed with how uniquely and specifically it was interpreted. The two and a half hours flew by for me. I look forward hopefully to more appearances by Jane Glover both at the New York Philharmonic and the Met.

Saturday by the Lake: A Review of the Met’s La Donna del Lago

On Saturday afternoon I attended my second ever performance of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago at the Met. The cast was virtually identical to last season’s run, with the exception of Lawrence Brownlee singing the role of Uberto, or King James V in disguise, instead of Juan Diego Flórez. Joyce DiDonato, John Osborn, and Daniela Barcellona triumphed again in their efforts to combat Rossini’s merciless coloratura and extreme tessituras.

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John Osborn, Joyce DiDonato, and Lawrence Brownlee in La Donna del Lago, Credit: Sara Krulwich/New York Times

I was shocked to see how sparse attendance was for a Saturday matinee of a performance with singers as well renowned as Joyce DiDonato and Lawrence Brownlee. The new production by Paul Curran sold very well last season, possibly with the help of Juan Diego Flórez who has been notorious for being one of the few twenty-first century artists to repeatedly sell out houses. La Donna del Lago has not yet been fully embraced as a permanent member of the circle of custom bel canto repertoire, however, it surprised me to see multitudes of empty seats for a Rossini opera with such acclaimed singers of that very repertoire.

Joyce DiDonato was fabulous as always, bringing down the house after her glorious aria “Tanti affetti”, which ends the opera. Her voice soared over the orchestra while also blending with other soloists, especially in her Act I duet with Daniela Barcellona, “Vivere io non saprò/ potrò, mio ben, senza di te”. At times, it was difficult to hear Ms. Barcellona over the orchestra. However, her lower register opened up and was audible enough to sound very impressive. Lawrence Brownlee’s Uberto was driven and focused, making his multiple high As, Bs, and Cs sound very exciting. John Osborn’s extension up to his upper register seemed effortless, so much so that his high Ds sounded just as facile as the rest of his upper register. The battle of the “high Cs” between the two tenors, moderated by Joyce DiDonato as part of a trio, at the beginning of Act II left me on the edge of my seat.

The conducting of Michele Mariotti made an afternoon of Rossini all the more enjoyable. He stressed for lightness and character which by no question the versatile Met Orchestra was able to match. The chorus sang robustly to fit the spirit of the camaraderie in the Scottish highlands.

To conclude, here is a bit of fascinating trivia which my father Garry Spector pulled out of the air for both last Saturday’s and this coming Saturday’s double bills: For the first time in history, the Met on both December 19 and 26 will put two Rossini operas on the stage the same day, La Donna del Lago and Il Barbiere di Siviglia. This coming Saturday, La Donna del Lago will switch with Il Barbiere to be the evening show.

Lots of Lieder: A Weekend of Recitals with Tara Erraught and Diana Damrau

Despite the cold that has come upon New York during these past few early days of December, two fulfilling lieder recitals warmed me up this weekend at Carnegie Hall: One by Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught on Friday night and one by German soprano Diana Damrau on Sunday afternoon. Ms. Erraught made her New York Recital Debut on Friday after making her Boston Recital Debut two nights before, while Ms. Damrau took a break from her rehearsals of Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles at the Met. Each of them gave monumental performances and exemplified fluidity on their respective programs.

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Diana Damrau (© Michael Tammaro/ Virgin Classics) and Tara Erraught (© Dario Acosta 2014)

Even the biggest of American opera buffs have difficulty placing the name of Tara Erraught. She simply has not sung a lot in this country. Those Americans who are familiar with her might know her from the live simulcasts provided by the Bayerische Staatsoper and Glyndebourne. She recently gave performances as Sesto alongside Kristine Opolais as Vitellia in a production of La Clemenza di Tito from Munich, and as Octavian in Glyndebourne’s new production of Der Rosenkavalier, directed by Richard Jones, both of which were viewable online worldwide.

The iconic richness of her voice is something that cannot simply be appreciated through computer speakers or even a reputable audio system; Her sound in Weill Recital Hall’s intimate space wrapped itself around the audience like a velvety cape. As a mezzo, her middle and bottom registers were rich, however, even her upper register remained sunny, especially so in the Strauss. Her residency in Munich for the past several years as a member of the Bayerische Staatsoper’s ensemble has evidently helped her in building an appropriate German character for the meaningful songs of Brahms and Strauss. She was just as strong in her inherent inflections of the English texts used by Quilter and Delius. Her assiduous attention to text made for a very devoted, entertaining, and warm performance. Her “Allerseelen” and “Morgen” in particular left me very convinced of her respective messages for each. The playing of Henning Ruhe was attentive and sensitive, especially in the huge, chromatic swells Liszt composed in some of the more stormy repertoire Ms. Erraught performed.

Diana Damrau gave a very similar program, if one subtracted English songs and replaced them with French. After a period of vocal rest, her voice sounded healthier and fuller as she characterized and tore through the lust of Schubert’s and Strauss’ lieder as well as some very comical French works. Her grasp of the German language brought out the true colors of Schubert’s purposeful songs. Her pianissimos were so delicate, especially in her show-stopper (her last encore), “Morgen”. This gorgeous portrayal of Strauss’ sensual prospect of “Tomorrow” was accompanied slowly and dolce by the very sensitive Craig Rutenberg. One could feel the chemistry between the two of them even in the 2800-seat Stern auditorium. Even if the German language is one of her strong suits, the French language draped easily off her tongue in both the Poulenc and Rosenthal. She was absolutely hilarious in the funny, sentimental Chansons du Monsieur Bleu of Manuel Rosenthal. Her versatility truly shined as she showed her mastering of both German and French.

While Diana Damrau is a veteran to the New York stage, Tara Erraught as a newcomer matched her in lingual versatility and sensitivity. Each of their recitals made for a great weekend in New York.

 

 

Welcome Back, Dmitri Hvorostovsky!: A Review of the Met’s Il Trovatore

On Friday night, the Met began its run of the second Verdi opera of the season Il Trovatore. The role of Manrico was sung by Yonghoon Lee, Anna Netrebko was Leonora, and Dolora Zajick sang Azucena. The spotlight, however, was on Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who sang Count di Luna and made his first return to the Met after announcing that he is in the midst of a battle with a brain tumor and is currently undergoing treatment. He is scheduled to sing two more performances of Trovatore, after initially canceling many of his performances for the rest of the 2015 year.

Upon Hvorostovky’s first entrance, the Met audience went absolutely nuts. Many were standing and clapping as loud as possible, so much so that Maestro Marco Armiliato had to stop the orchestra and wait for the applause to cease. He and the orchestra gladly joined in the applause despite the halt of the performance. Hvorostovsky put a hand to his heart and bowed his head as thanks for the support. The performance continued after about an entire minute of applause.

Dmitri Hvorostovsky during the finals bows after Il Trovatore on Friday night. Photo credits to Met Oboist Susan Spector

Dmitri Hvorostovsky during the finals bows after Il Trovatore on Friday night. Photo credits to Metropolitan Opera Oboist Susan Spector

That was nothing, however. At the conclusion of the performance during the sequence of final bows, Hvorostovsky was given yet another standing ovation and overwhelming round of applause. This time, however, the orchestra not only applauded, but each member threw a white rose from the pit onto the stage for him to collect. This simple gesture was comforting not only for him, but for everyone in the opera house. It showed that the Met is not just a boasting center of entertainment made up of the essential employees for each department: It’s family. As Canio describes in “Vesti la giubba”, there is more behind an actor than just what is on the surface, the makeup and costume; they can experience pain and suffering just as regular people do. Unfortunately, Hvorostovsky is currently experiencing that very human pain. His illness has hit the Met at a personal level, because every orchestra and chorus member, stagehand, you name it, knows him as a man with and without makeup. On Friday night, Hvorostovsky was as ordinary as any individual in the audience, and more importantly, acknowledged as a beloved member of the Met family.

His performance as Count di Luna might have been a little rocky simply because of his immediate return, however, his vocal power and astounding breath control were still exhibited. Yonghoon Lee used volume as his main tool throughout the evening, enough so that I was concerned he was not going to make it. However, he managed to make it through the evening even while keeping a consistent forte volume. Ms. Zajick was fabulous as always in her honed role as Azucena. Her push for forward resonance makes for a very powerful sound up and down the register. Singing-wise, Anna Netrebko was the star of the evening. Her move towards the Verdi sphere and out of the bel canto belt has benefited her well. Her voice has grown into an authoritative instrument by using the rigid breath support needed to handle Verdi’s difficult ascents and descents on the scale. She also managed to do all this while acting in her adopted “stage-animal” method, as she climbed and hung from the metal grating of the prison during her Act IV aria “D’amor sull’ali rosée”. It was an unbelievable stunt, similar to the ones she pulled as Lady Macbeth last season.

On any opening night, there are always a few disconnections between pit and stage. Maestro Armiliato led the orchestra and chorus with his Italianate cantabile line, allowing them to play and sing freely and beautifully. At some points soloists made wrong entrances, some early some late, but none were trainwreck-worthy.

Performances this fall of Il Trovatore run through October 17 before its return in early February with a different cast. Buy tickets to see it today, and to welcome back Dmitri Hvorostovsky for the next two performances!