Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Opera in Tempori Belli

Reviewing Adriana Mater, by Kaija Saariaho and Amin Maalouf, Santa Fe Opera, July 26, 2008.

Update: That should be "...in Tempore Belli." Oh, well!

Monday, July 28, 2008

All Things Must Pass

Every time I've seen the great Frederica von Stade's name on a program in the last few years, I've breathed a sigh of relief and bought myself a ticket. I've been behaving as though each appearance might be her last.

She now has a date, or at least a year, for those last appearances. She will retire in 2010.

I gather that her management company has advised performing arts organizations of this. I hope we'll have a few more chances to see her in the Bay Area over the next couple of seasons.

Where I've Been

I can't apologize for the long silence. The week of July 13 to 18 was what I usually call "system release hell," though it wasn't exactly a system release. It was hell because I had two solid days of meetings right in the middle. No kidding, and that's what made the release hell, not the release itself.

After that - well, I went to Santa Fe, where I had a very good time and saw Radamisto, Billy Budd, and, most importantly, Kaija Saariaho's newish Adriana Mater.

I haven't got much to say about Radamisto, which I loved: wonderful singing and conducting, a great opera, directing with a few questionable decisions, but not many. If you like Handel, and you're anywhere near Santa Fe, go see it.

I have plenty to say about Billy Budd, which I will leave for its own blog posting. If I were reviewing it, I'm sure I'd be the odd man, er, woman, out.

I had lots to say about Adriana, and in fact my review is up already. Go to the San Francisco Classical Voice home page and look in the sidebar; no direct link because the URL will change tomorrow when the full new issue is published. I mentioned a symposium about Adriana; I have extensive notes and will blog about it too.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Gypsies, Nobles, and Nuns

Expectations have a lot to do with how I respond to a particular performance, especially when it comes to opera. Only big companies can hire the best singers in the business, who can cost $10,000 and up per performance.

Not that the big companies always hire the best, and not that hiring the best invariably results in a good or great performance. San Francisco Opera's last run of Verdi's Il Trovatore was a thoroughly dispiriting affair, with a dreadful production (a giant horsehead on stage, the first of many), an underpowered Leonora, a dull Manrico, a scattershot di Luna, and a conductor who was asleep the night I attended. Only the Azucena of Dolora Zajick, sung with great spirit and voice to spare, began to meet the requirements of the score.

So it's with quite a bit of pleasure that I can report that Festival Opera's current production of the opera is in many ways more satisfactory than what I saw five years ago in San Francisco. It's by no means perfect, and I have plenty of nits to pick, one of them quite a sizable nit. The four principals sing with energy and enthusiasm; they've all got healthy, young, well-matched voices; the production doesn't have any inexplicable stupidities. The direction is unfussy and unpretentious, if not particularly illuminating or urgent; the unit set does well enough in representing palace, fortress, prison, and monastery. (Okay - the tree in scene two, which looked as though it was going to fall on the singers, is ridiculous and has got to go.) The orchestra plays well, balances between the orchestra and singers were fine (though at times the coordination was not); the conductor moved the music along. The chorus sang accurately and with a nicely-blended sound, though they need more coaching in Italian.

The large theater at the Dean Lesher Center for the Arts is a grand venue, one of my favorites in the area. It seats around 900 or 1000, so you are never very far from the stage. Singers don't have to force or bellow, and their movements and expressions don't have to be exaggerated to make an impact on audience members sitting 250 feet away. The pit is big enough for a full orchestra, but positioned partially under the stage, so that the instrumentalists never overwhelm the singers.

You could do worse than this. A lot worse.

At the same time, there are plenty of problems with the individual singers, each of whom is to some degree unsatisfactory for dramatic or vocal reasons or both. I'm surprised that more of these issues weren't worked out during the rehearsal period; perhaps some of them will be mitigated past the opening performance.

I missed last year's Un ballo in maschera, which starred both soprano Hope Briggs and baritone Scott Bearden. I'd heard Briggs before, in an impressive debut as the Duchess of Parma in Busoni's Doktor Faust at San Francisco Opera. That role suited her well, and she has the right kind of voice for a middle-Verdi heroine: a warm, vibrant, sound without register breaks and with reasonable flexibility. She sang the cabaletta "Di tale amor" with good trills and clean runs, though at a moderate tempo. She sounded lovely for most of the evening, excepting some soft high notes, which seemed thin and artificially produced. She ran into more serious trouble in "Tacea la notte," where she finished her cadenza in the wrong key. And "D'amor sull'ali rosee" lacked repose, at least in part because the soprano overacted and overdramatized the music. Moreover, she didn't have a good feel for how to fit the trills into the rhythmic line, or for the line of the cadenza.

Scott Bearden, who sang di Luna, presents a conundrum: he has won a couple of vocal prizes, and yet what I heard was by no means exemplary. Oddly, my initial reaction was to wonder whether he might be a heldentenor in disguise, considering the bright timbre and size of his baritone. The color is all wrong for a Verdi baritone, and so was the all-too-frequent forcing. He sang coarsely and inexpressively throughout the performance, with blurry Italian pronunciation. "Il balen" sounded as if Bearden was complaining about Leonora rather than meditating on her radiant beauty, and something very bad happened, pitchwise, to the first verse.

Much less problematic were both Noah Stewart's Manrico and Patrice Houston's Azucena. Houston sang with consistent beauty of tone, and she has the range and power for Verdi's mad gypsy; the high notes came easily, though, like Bearden's baritone, her voice seems too brightly colored to pass for the classic dark tone of an Italian dramatic mezzo. And, alas, she has no trill.

Stewart has a beautiful, full-bodied voice, but is he really a spinto? He sounded perfectly lovely in the more lyrical passages (the offstage serenade; "Ah, si, ben mio"); nonetheless, I heard forcing and tightness at the top of his range, a worrisome thing in a young singer. But Festival Opera should find him a new costume: Stewart looked like something out of The Court Jester, and I expected him to ask about the pellet with the poison at any minute.

For all these complaints, in the end the performance was quite a bit greater than the sum of its parts. Hearing Trovatore in a small theater performed by singers with some guts and vocal heft is a treat, so take yourself to Walnut Creek. The remaining performances are on July 15 and 18 at 8 p.m. and on July 20 at 2 p.m.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Levine Endorses Pilates

Okay, the big news of the day is actually that James Levine is having a kidney removed, because of a cyst, and will miss the balance of the Tanglewood season. He sounds especially frustrated by missing the Elliott Carter celebration concerts, and who can blame the maestro for that?

Geoff Edgers' report includes this bit:
He returned that summer to Tanglewood after losing 35 pounds thanks to what he said was a changed diet and exercise on a recumbent bicycle and through Pilates.
After doing Pilates for nearly a year, I can report that my back is quite stable and almost completely pain-free. Has there been any weight loss from the Pilates? Noooo. Maestro Levine's weight loss is more likely to have resulted from the exercise and changed diet.

I hope his back, which has long been troubled by sciatica, is being helped by the Pilates, and I wish him a swift recovery from the upcoming surgery.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Compare and Contrast 10

The reviews are piling up for Die Soldaten:
  • Anthony Tommasini likes it ("a miraculous realization of an opera once deemed unperformable").

  • Martin Bernheimer likes it. ("It is good. Very, very good.")

  • Anne Midgette is unimpressed. (Detailed arguments too complex and interesting to be summed up or excerpted.)

  • Greg Sandow calls it "laughably bad."

  • Alex Ross is impressed and overwhelmed.

  • John Simon hated it.

  • Everyone in the comments section here loved it.

Well! I wish I'd been able to hear this. I'll reread all the reviews and try to reconcile them. I wonder which of these folks will be at Santa Fe for Adriana Mater, which I will have my own opinions about.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

What Terry Said

Go, run, see the gigantic J.M.W. Turner retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

I caught this show at the National Gallery in Washington, DC, in November, 2007. It is overwhelming; the cumulative impact of 150 Turners in one place can't be overstated. You might want to go twice and take in half the show each time.

The retrospective is at the Met through September 21, 2008. It's the first Turner retrospective in the United States - this I find amazing - and many of the works are on loan from British museums and private collections. I don't expect to have another opportunity to see them all in one place again.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Critics, Journalism, and the Internet

It's been a bad year for music journalists, with critics losing their jobs left and right, through buyouts, layoffs, and resignations. Some have been replaced; Tim Page by Anne Midgette, Peter Davis by Justin Davidson. Most have not: Bernard Holland, Melinda Bargreen, Alan Rich, and others. Davidson's spot at Newsday was not filled.

Martin Bernheimer has an article in the Financial Times, dated tomorrow, that discusses the role of critics as arbiters of excellence and maintainers of standards, and the trend away from respect for expertise toward the view that everyone is a reasonable critic. Along the way, he mentions the Internet as one reason for the decline of journalism and professional critics.

I think a number of the points he makes are on target, but others are truly arguable. The consolidation of the news media has been going on for decades, since the relaxation of rules on how many types of media a particular company could own in a particular market. Some newspapers are losing money - for reasons including their own failure to move their advertising onto the Web, pronto - but many others are profitable. They're just not making high enough profits for their corporate masters and Wall Street; therefore, their staffs get cut. (Justin Davidson provides some context in a Musical America article. Justin, about that last point you make: San Francisco Classical Voice is independent of both arts organizations and print journalism.)

I have to especially argue with this point in Martin Bernheimer's article:
A primary cause of our imminent extinction must be the internet. An impatient generation is succumbing to the free and easy lure of computer-enlightenment. Not all those who cover the arts in old-fashioned print are paragons, badness knows. Still, most have sufficient education and/or experience to justify their views. On the web anyone can impersonate an expert. Anyone can blog. Credentials don’t count. All views are equal. Some sort of criticism may indeed survive the American media revolution, but professional criticism may not.

Just how familiar is Mr. Bernheimer with the classical music blogosphere? The bloggers I read can be loosely classified as follows (and apologies to those of you I've omitted from this incomplete list):These voices are provide invaluable viewpoints, even the ones I spend too much time arguing with. I cannot say that any of them are in any way "impersonating" experts; the non-pros are perfectly clear about the fact that they're not professionals. I'd really like it if Mr. Bernheimer could point out some people who are impersonating classical music experts or taking jobs away from professional critics. And I hope he'll keep in mind the fact that the blogosphere is more like a salon than like a newspaper: a bunch of people sitting around exchanging opinions with themselves and their readers.

He's not the only critic who has gone astray writing about classical music on the Internet recently. The anonymous bloggers at The Detritus Review had a fine time taking apart an article by Mark Swed. And Out West Arts reports that newly-minted blogger Alan Rich said recently that there are "no important music blogs on the West Coast at this time." Welcome to the blogosphere, Mr. Rich, and check out those of us who've been here a while.

Update, July 5: A.C. Douglas has a few words on the same subject.