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.

17GLOVER-master675

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.

Advertisements

Six Hours of Stamina: A Review of the Met’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

One can spend a six-hour period of time doing a lot of things. It is about the length of a school day, it is how long you have to practice driving before getting a permit in the state of New Jersey, and one could watch La Bohème more than two times with two intermissions. Die Meistersinger by itself runs six hours long: Evenings from 6:00 to midnight; matinées from noon to 6:00. Sitting for six hours in front of the Met Orchestra, Chorus, and soloists was definitely worthwhile.

VolleMeistersinger

Michael Volle as Hans Sachs with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus in Act III of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, The Metropolitan Opera, December 2014, © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

This Meistersinger was all about stamina. Both Michael Volle and Johan Botha triumphantly made it through their lengthy roles. Volle managed to stay lyrical and strong throughout, without giving way to speaking or cracking. As James Morris once said: The part of Hans Sachs is longer than all three Wotans of Wagner’s Ring Cycle put together, therefore, it is a real trial for even a true professional to sing it through. Volle remained poetic throughout, appropriately similar to Hans Sachs’ profession, by caressing the text and making it meaningful. This was especially shown in Act III Scene 1, when he helps Walther compose his prize song. It was obvious that the lyricism of Botha’s singing and the lyrics themselves meant something to Volle, as he went from scribbling to pacing to listening. Despite Sachs being one of the longest roles in all of opera, Volle displayed that he has mastered the character, especially after singing it in Salzburg and other houses. He was very active throughout the duration of the performance, consistently staying conscious of his endurance.

Botha played the perfectly clueless Walther who stumbles upon the Mastersingers and their set traditions. His expressive “Am stillen herd” rang through the house beautifully. By Act III, Botha showed absolutely no sign of fatigue, pitch-trouble or hoarseness. The chorus had no reason to laugh at him as they did at Beckmesser earlier in the final scene. Stamina was definitely on his side, just as it was for Volle.

Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Beckmesser was truly the highlight of my six hours. For once, Beckmesser was played without being overdone. Beckmesser is a mastersinger himself, after all, he is not supposed to sound ugly. Kränzle managed to portray the snide town clerk while simultaneously keeping his line lyrical, or like that of a mastersinger. His duet with Sachs that ends the second act had me in stitches, not because it sounded awful, but because it was actually funny!

MeistersingerAnnetteDasch

Annette Dasch as Eva with Hans-Peter König as Pogner in Act II of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, The Metropolitan Opera, December 2014, © Beth Bergman/Metropolitan Opera

Annette Dasch’s ringing top really works well in the Met’s 4,000-seat theater. While it covered some singers at times during ensembles, such as the Act III quintet, it managed to float above rather than completely obliterate the other singers’ sound. For a woman who just recently gave birth, Dasch played a very youthful and spritely Eva. Her sparkling blue eyes and her bouncy blonde wig made her a very innocent-looking catch for Walther and Beckmesser alike. After a five-year absence since her Met debut as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, it is lovely to have her back on the Met stage.

Karen Cargill played the matronly, no-nonsense Magdalena, which fit her dark, resonant low register into which the whole audience sank. Her boyfriend David, sung by Paul Appleby, complimented her well with his low and middle register. At times, it was a bit difficult to hear his top. However, his athleticism and animation in the brawl at the end of Act II and in his monologue in the middle of Act I, respectively, were very entertaining. After seeing him as the internet-introvert Brian in Nico Muhly’s Two Boys last season, it was great to see him in higher spirits.

The Met Orchestra and Met Chorus both performed brilliantly. The woodwinds sounded particularly crisp on the fugue-like passages, and the brass sounded rich and powerful. The Chorus, as always, looked like they were having such a fun time. From teasing David in Act I, to pillow fights in Act II, to the Festwiese in Act III, they too were conscious of both their stamina and their acting.

I look forward to seeing Die Meistersinger again this coming Tuesday, December 23: The last time it will be put on the Met stage in the iconic Otto Schenck production. It will truly be missed!

“Chatting” about Two Boys

This fall the Met has featured many operas that many people call “typical”, such as NormaRigoletto, and Tosca on its stage. However, Two Boys is far from typical. It is like nothing the Met has ever done before.

Image

The story deals with, in fact, two boys (no, really?), one named Jake, age 13, and the other Brian, age 16. The opera deals with a murder mystery, a case assigned to Detective Anne Strawson, involving evidence posted on the internet through chat rooms, only it is difficult to know who is who in these chats. It is difficult, because Jake, at the tender age of 13, has several different personas that he uses to chat with Brian. There is Rebecca, a teenage girl/love interest around Brian’s age, the “Fake Jake”, or Brian’s imagination of who Jake would be, Peter, the “perv” gardner, Fiona, a friend of Jake’s who is responsible for telling Brian to kill Jake, eventually, and the real Jake eventually chats to Brian as himself. So why does Jake use all of these personas to chat with Brian? At first, Jake is interested in Brian for a relationship, but later on in the opera when the two boys meet each other in person, Brian rejects Jake’s love interest. After that, Jake twists the story and plans a murder plot…for himself. Through his personas, Jake tells Brian exactly where to get a knife and where to meet him and kill him, and Brian does exactly that, hence the first lines of the opera, “Help! Help! My friend has been stabbed!”

Nico Muhly, the composer of Two Boys, and Craig Lucas, the librettist, have something in common that no other opera composers and librettists have at the Met this year (unless you count Enchanted Island)…they are both still alive! When my mother rehearsed Two Boys on C-level and on the stage, Mr. Muhly would be listening intently, talk to orchestra members, and communicate with Maestro Robinson. Imagine if Mozart, Verdi, or Wagner could come back from the dead and do that today! My mother was even able to ask Mr. Muhly about a certain spot in the music, where the oboe was supposed to be playing in a certain way where the mouth surrounds the entire reed, or a shawm. My mother was able to play the passage a few times for Muhly, and he, (yes, the composer), was able to say “Yes, that is exactly what I want!”

Photo: Alice Coote and Paul Appleby in Two Boys

Image

When I walked into Two Boys, I was worried that it was going to be too modern and too eery for my taste, and that the music would sound like the work of some modern composers that I do not particularly like. I had nothing to worry about! When I first heard Two Boys I heard a lot of music that sounded like Wagner and Debussy, rather than random clinking and clonging. After the second time hearing the opera I was able to pick up on leitmotifs that follow characters around, such as the rhythmic ‘G’s on the timpani and low brass that follow Fiona around, or the chromatics that follow Anne Strawson’s mother around. The music was very interesting and indeed modern, yet I enjoyed listening to it!

The production by Bartlett Sher really caught the darkness and travesty that can occur on the internet. He used many projections of various prisms, shapes, lines, boxes, and other figures that we, as the audience, were supposed to interpret as the internet. Sher also used projections for the chat windows, where moving text could be seen line by line along with profile pictures, and even a video camera! The production also used dancers to express the randomness and complicated nature of the internet, and the chorus held laptops that produced light to glow on members’ faces. Overall, the production was very dark, except for the light of computers and projections, which captured the mysterious nature of the internet perfectly.

Photo: Act II of Two Boys, chatting between Fiona (Sandra Piques-Eddy) and Brian (Paul Appleby)

Image

The singing in Two Boys was magnificent. Alice Coote outdid herself as Anne Strawson. Her acting and her singing were amazing, in fact, if Two Boys ever comes back to the Met, I cannot imagine anyone else except Alice Coote singing that role! She became the detective! Paul Appleby played and sang a perfectly smug, stubborn sixteen-year old Brian. Jennifer Zetlan had a lovely lyric sound and some great high notes as Rebecca. Sandra Piques-Eddy was a very dark, evil Fiona, whenever she sang to Brian I was on the edge of my seat! Keith Miller sang a very evil Peter, in fact, he was so scary that when I told him that I was coming to see the show he said “Oh dear…”. The singing done by the chorus, and the orchestra under Maestro Robertson were also amazing! All of these roles must have been very difficult to memorize, because there are numerous short lines that characters sing when they are in “chat mode”, so bravi to everyone!

I thoroughly enjoyed Two Boys. When I first heard that this opera was coming to the Met, I honestly thought that it would be a piece that I would not like, and that I would first listen to on the radio to hear if I really would want to go see it. The complete opposite occurred. I saw it on Opening Night, and went back to see it again! Why did I like this opera so much? It felt so relatable to what I do as a teenager on the internet. First of all, I am on it all the time, just like Jake and Brian, and I love to use my blog, Twitter, and Facebook to chat with people, some I know better than others. Two Boys served as a reminder to me to be very careful on the internet, and remember that you never know who’s out there. As Fiona sang, “You don’t know me, but I know you. Choose your friends wisely”.