Straussathon 2013: Die Frau Ohne Schatten and Der Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera

First, I’d like to apologize for the extended absence. I don’t think I’ve ever taken this long to update, and I’m sorry about that. School is intense this year, and I’ll try to keep a more regular pace.

With 2013 being the bicentennials of both Verdi and Wagner, you’d expect Wagner to get top billing as a German composer at the Met. Wagner was celebrated last season with a new production of Parsifal, along with a revival of Robert Lepage’s Ring Cycle, but the 2013-2014 season is mysteriously devoid of any and all Wagner at the Met. However, it’s another German composer who rose to the top this season at the Met. Richard Strauss, who turns 150 next year, has three operas of his revived this season at the Met. In the fall, the Met brought back its acclaimed production of Die Frau Ohne Schatten and the seasoned production of Der Rosenkavalier. Arabella, Strauss’ final collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who wrote the librettis for the other two operas mentioned, will be presented in the spring.

               Fortunately, I was able to attend performances of both Frau and Rosenkavalier in the past few weeks. We’ll start with Frau, which I went to on its final performance on November 26th.  dfrau_2761a

Of all the crazy operas out there, Frau has to be near the top of this list. The libretto is densely symbolic and the story is moving, but hard to follow. In short, an Empress of the Spirit Realm has no shadow-in which shadow is a metaphor for the ability to bear children-and is convinced by her Nurse to descend to the mortal world and take the shadow of a mortal woman. If she can’t get a shadow in three days, her husband will turn to stone at the threat of her father, Keikobad.

The Empress and Nurse arrive on Earth in the hut of a lowly Dyer and his nagging Wife. They convince the Wife to sacrifice her shadow in exchange for earthly delights. However, seeing how upset the Dyer is when he learns his wife will never have children, the Empress refuses to take the shadow. Keikobad admires the humility of his daughter and rewards her with a shadow of her own. The couples are reunited and thus ends the first scene of Peter Pan Die Frau Ohne Schatten.

If you stuck with me through that, then please come forward to collect your cookie. If not, it’s OK.

While the Empress is the title character and the prima donna of the show, the evening belonged to Christine Goerke, who played the Dyer’s Wife. The singer has just recently stepped into dramatic repertoire and is a voice to be reckoned with. Her distinctive voice easily fills the house and her vibrato is intense and thrilling. Her high notes soared and singing was impassioned and fascinating. Quite often, the Dyer’s Wife can come off as a nag, but when Goerke sang the part, she brought out an insecurity in the character that validated a lot of her actions. It was another layer of portrayal which really made you care about a character who gets second billing in the opera.

As the Empress, however, Anne Schwanewilms gave a riveting performance in her Met debut performances. Her cool, agile voice glided over dfrau_2861athe coloratura in her entrance aria. Her high notes were, for the most part, quite stable and her delivery of the final monologue was chilling. Her acting was appropriately regal and reserved, but she made frequent use of what Eric Simpson referred to in his Classical Review take on the performance as “resorting to cape-twirling diva gestures.”

Ildiko Komlosi, the first opera singer I really loved, was a fascinating Nurse. The role spans from the top to the bottom of the mezzo range, and, in the Met’s uncut performance, it’s the longest role of the opera. Komlosi’s polished mezzo was pushed to the limits, but the result was a passionately sung and well-acted performance.

As the Emperor, Torsten Kerl’s smallish but shimmering voice was put on display in his well-sung aria, one of the few examples of Strauss’ writing for the tenor voice. As Barak, the pleasant Dyer, Johan Reuter’s voice was also not the biggest, but pleasant still in his passages with his Wife. His acting, especially the way he sits down with a beer, accepting his wife’s temperament at the end of act 1, was nuanced.

Also worth mentioning are Richard Paul Fink as a powerful Messenger of Keikobad, Jennifer Check as the voice of the Flacon, and countertenor, Andrey Nemzer, whose ethereal sound was wonderful as the Guardian of the Threshold. Scott Weber’s acrobatics got a little tedious, as the falcon mime, but they were nonetheless impressive.

Valdimir Jurowski lead a pristine Met Orchestra in an intense performance. Rare at the Met these days, the orchestra almost never drowned out the singers. The cello solo was beautifully played by David Chan.dfrau_5647a

Herbert Wernicke’s production is one of the best I’ve seen. This is such a hard opera to direct, with all of its moving between realms and the fact the plot is almost impossible to understand, and he pulled it off with aplomb. The only point of confusion would be the worm-things that wriggled around the Empress in one scene. The opera is split between a mirrored cube and the hyper-realistic Dyer’s hut, both designed by Wernicke. The Met’s stage elevators get a workout in this performance and they glided from scene to scene without making a creak. Costumes, also designed by Wernicke, were also great at suggesting general rank between characters.

               The Frau performance was the best opera I’ve seen to date. After that, it was a scant four days to come out of the music coma before heading to Der Rosenkavalier on Saturday, November 30th.

               The opera is about a young count, Octavian Rofrano. He is the boy-toy of the Marschallin, an adulterous Viennese princess. One day, one of the Marschallin’s liaisons with her younger lover is interrupted by her boorish cousin Ochs, causing Octavian to have to dress as a maid to hide. While inquiring about a young man who can present a silver rose, a marriage custom, to his much-younger bride-to-be, Ochs takes a liking to “Mariandel,” the name the Marschallin has given to the disguised Octavian. Photo: Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera

               Octavian presents the rose and falls immediately in love with Ochs’ fiancée, Sophie. When Sophie rejects Ochs’ sexual harassment advances, Octavian challenges him to a duel. The Ochs is wounded, but is consoled by a note from “Mariandel,” consenting to meet him for dinner later that night at an inn.

               At the inn, faces pop out to surprise Ochs during the meal. As a result of some other hijinks, Ochs is sent running, leaving Octavian and Sophie. Enter the Marschallin, who releases Octavian to a younger woman in one of the most sublime pieces of music ever written.

               I’m not going to lie. I bought the Rosenkavalier tickets to see Elina Garanca. She’s long been one of my favorite singers and the idea of seeing her do Octavian was too interesting to miss. In fact, the day after I bought the tickets for this performance, she withdrew due to pregnancy. I was devastated. When they announced her replacement would be Alice Coote, I wasn’t much happier.

               In the title role, Alice Coote, much to my surprise, was a very capable Octavian. She was very at home playing a boy (No wonder. She’s one of the most sought after pants-role mezzos of our day.) and knew how to get laughs out of the audience. Her singing may not be the most exciting, but it doesn’t need to be for an opera like Rosenkavalier. My only quibble was her volume. At times, she resonated beautifully throughout the house, where at others I had to strain to hear her.

               This Marschallin, sung by Martina Serafin, is a departure from most of the creamy voiced sopranos who have played the role at the Met in the past. She took some time to warm up in the Photo: Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Operabeginning, but she delivered a gorgeous rendition of the monologue. The Marschallin sits in the middle of Serafin’s voice, but some of the higher notes exposed a thin upper range. The only problem with Serafin’s Marschallin was that she didn’t seem to have a good grasp of the character. Ask any soprano who’s sung the piece and she’ll tell you what a complex woman this character is. She is heavily layered and dense. Serafin’s portrayal was pretty one-dimensional. The Marschallin’s not just a regal character who appreciates a good time. She’s more than that, and I was left rolling my eyes when she released Octavian to Sophie. I just couldn’t care enough about Serafin’s Marschallin.

               As Sophie, Erin Morlca_11231308433470ey jumped into the role only a short time before the production opened. She was a pleasure as Sister Constance in Dialogues des Carmelites last season, and was a pleasure here. Her quick and even voice made her a lovely and sympathetic Sophie and she contrasted well with both the other women in the trio. She was definitely the most consistent performer of the afternoon.

               Peter Rose has obviously done Ochs before, and practically stole the show. His basso voice was jolly and resonant and he negotiated the stage nimbly.

               In the supporting roles, Eric Cutler was a pleasant Italian singer and Hans-Joachin Ketelsen was a funnyPhoto: Jonathan Tichler/Metropolitan Opera and serviceable Faninal. Jennifer Check’s Marianne was well-sung.

               After hearing Edward Gardner do it recently and Edo de Waart do it in the HD transmission a few years ago, I’ve concluded that Der Rosenkavalier must be an extremely difficult piece to conduct. Gardner’s conducting was overly syrupy at times, and the attempts to gather up the majesty in Strauss’ score fell flat. A special shout-out goes to the brass section, which was a standout during the performance.

               Nathaniel Merrill and Robert O’Hearn’s production is the oldest production still in use at the Met. It’s been around since 1969 and in a day where productions that push boundaries and provoke thoughts are in vogue, it’s an odd one out. However, the sets and costumes are so beautiful (My grandfather’s reaction when the curtain opened on act 2 was “Oh my God!”) that it would seem a shame to get rid of it entirely. It’s a set so many famous singers have performed on, from Kiri te Kanawa to Luciano Pavarotti to Renée Fleming. It’s definitely a classic Met production. In his New York Observer piece, James Jorden provides an interesting argument.

The final performance of Der Rosenkavalier is this Friday. Tickets are available here.

               I’m thrilled to be back blogging again and I’m sorry again for being away for so long. Leave a comment below and let me know what you think!

Photos courtesy of Ken Howard, Jonathan Tichler, and Cory Weaver


NYCO Says, “Ta-Ta”: New York City Opera’s Final Performance of Anna Nicole in Review

There were tears from the cast during the curtain calls after Saturday, September 28th, New York City Opera presentation of Anna Nicole. Not only because it was the final performance of the run, but mostly because this co-presentation with Brooklyn Academy is the final production that New York City Opera, a 70 year old institution, will ever present. The company announced this week that their campaign to raise $7 million by the end of September fell completely flat and that it would be closing its doors after filing for bankruptcy earlier this week. While a lot of people predicted the fall of New York City Opera after they left Lincoln Center and raided the endowment in 2008, it’s a real shame to see the company close. A timeline of NYCO’s money woes can be found here.

While I’ve only known the post-2009 NYCO (A homeless, money-hemorrhaging shell of the company it used to be.), they’ve given me innumerable opportunities to grow as a critic and as a writer. The people at New York City Opera were the first people to take me seriously when they offered me an email interview with Melody Moore. Since then, they’ve let me review their Prima Donna and Perichole and I really enjoyed both. Their consistent generosity was so appreciated by me, so it’s a significant loss for me, and the New York cultural scene.

I was able to be a part of history by being in the audience at BAM for the closing night of Anna Nicole. It was a bittersweet moment that, unfortunately, passed without much ceremony. There was no announcement from general manager, George Steel at the end. There was only an insert in the playbills advocating for donations. When they announced their fantastic-looking season in March, there was no sign of the financial struggle they would endure six months later. Anna Nicole had been subsidized to the end of the run and the rest of the season was cancelled.

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera about the fallen reality starlet premiered to great buzz and mostly positive reviews at the Royal Opera House in 2011. The opera opened at BAM on September 17th for its second presentation since the London premiere. (The opera was performed at the Oper Dortmund in Germany earlier this year.) You can read more about Anna Nicole and its significance as an opera in an article that I wrote here, that my friend Isabela published on her blog.

I should probably start out this review with saying that I really like Anna Nicole as an opera. I’ve watched the DVD countless times (Saturday was the first time I had seen it live) and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it every time. Turnage’s music is a fantastic and original blend of musical styles that propel the drama and indicate the setting with ease. Richard Thomas’ libretto is clever, but it’s laden with every “four letter word” you could call to mind. Sometimes, it feels like it relies on superfluous use of profanity, which feels like missed opportunities for more thoughtful dialogue. Also, it carries a mild “Look! Opera has swear words! Come and hear curse words in opera, youths!” connotation, which is not the way opera should be motivating new audiences. Overall, though, it’s a funny text set to fascinating music. Below is a clip from the ROH DVD:

The opera received a very warm reception at BAM on Saturday. While it may have had success in London, it goes without saying that an opera about Americans has a special resonance with American audiences, especially the people who remember hearing about Anna Nicole. (I was in third grade when she died, and I remember everyone being fascinated by the coverage. However, appropriately so, nobody told me who she was or what she did. The day after she died, only nine kids came to class because there had been a stomach bug circulating. While working on some projects in class, I brought up that she had died, still having no idea who she was, and my teacher told me to “Stop talking,”.) Whether it was genuine or out of awkward tension, Thomas’ witty libretto garnered laughs throughout the entire evening.

The production is the same one that opened in London (The Dortmund presentation didn’t use the same production.) and was directed by Richard Jones. I really enjoyed it. It emphasized on the gaudy and frivolous aspects of Anna Nicole’s life, yet it was never mocking of her. Certain nuances, like having dancers dressed as cameras slowly appear and multiply throughout the opera, was a thought provoking and clever touch. The brightly colored sets were designed by Miriam Beuther and the adequately gaudy costumes were by Nicky Gillibrand. Aletta Jackson’s highly inspired choreography was fascinating.  

Leading the cast as Anna was the young, American soprano, Sarah Joy Miller. It’s not easy to fach Anna Nicole (Don’t even say anything.). The role remains mainly in the middle of the voice but has lower notes and exposed high notes sprinkled throughout. It’s probably a dramatic soprano role, if anything. The role suited Eva-Maria Westbroek so well at the ROH. For Joy-Miller, the role didn’t seem to fit quite as nicely, but she still pulled it off well, especially the parts set higher in her voice. The entire cast sported a fantastic Texan accent (Better than the ones at the ROH.) and diction was crystal clear throughout. Joy-Miller was a very likable and pert Anna Nicole. It’s hard to speak to the audibility of the singers, as they were all mic’ed. In the opera, Anna Nicole is on stage almost the entire show, so it suffices to say that it’s a demanding role. Having had a show the day before, Joy-Miller gets brownie points for putting on a great performance on Saturday. She was very moving in the final aria of the piece and an affecting actress who conveyed the huge gamut of emotions that run throughout the opera. The best moments were the moments of full-throated, passionate singing that came at times like the party scene and the scene preceding her Larry King interview. That said, the moments of more quite, pensive singing also stood out.

The soprano definitely takes center stage in this opera, as she should. However, the other dominating character is definitely the lawyer, Howard Stern. In this production, NYCO veteran Rod Gilfry (Who sang in an episode about opera for the children’s TV show, Arthur.) sang the part of the manipulative “friend”. His voice was deep, authoritative, and technically sound as he negotiated some of the more obscure vocal demands of the role (Like trilling. Why should Howard Stern trill, you ask? I don’t know.).

However, the vocal star of the night was definitely Susan Bickley, the only original member of the London cast. In the part of Virgie, Anna Nicole’s mother and the voice of reason, her clear-cut, piercing voice was thrilling and she had a compelling stage presence to boot. She’s a singer who’s had great success in England, but never found that type of success in the Unites States, which is a huge shame. Her performance was even more nuanced than her ROH portrayal (I’ve surmised from the DVD.).

Another standout was Robert Brubaker as Anna Nicole’s second husband, oil tycoon, J. Howard Marshall II. The role is full of high notes and he pulled them off with aplomb. Also, he gets double respect for singing in a variety of positions. His voice is high set, but interestingly enough, it isn’t nasal at all, which provides a real depth of vocal color that is perfectly suited to an eighty year old man.

As Dr. Yes, the doctor who gives Anna Nicole her breast implants, Richard Troxell seemed miscast. Having heard him in Perichole, you can hear that his voice lies lower than where the part was written. It’s more of a character tenor part, and that is not so much Troxell’s gig, I’ve noticed. He struggled with the high notes, causing him to create some unflattering phrasings of his lines.

In the smaller roles, the standout was definitely Christina Sajous, a singer taken from Broadway, as the lap dancer that teaches Anna Nicole the tricks of the trade. Her sassy, vibrato-less voice was perfectly suited to the role. Also strong were John Easterlin as Larry King and Nicholas Barasch as Daniel, Anna Nicole’s teenage son. Below is another clip of the ROH production:

Stephen Sloane led 59 members of the New York City Opera Orchestra with great skill. Given the consistent changes in style and mood in the score, the orchestra moved on agilely, if not maybe just a little too loud for the Howard Gilman Opera House.

The New York City Opera Chorus was in very good form and highly convincing as a brigade of sleazy newscasters.

One of the staging differences from the ROH presentation was that instead of going to black after Anna Nicole’s final line at the end of the opera, the cameras stayed onstage and picked through the tipped over bins of garbage that littered the stage in silence for about a minute before blacking out. Digging through garbage as something dies in the middle of it all. An ending for Anna Nicole not unlike the ending for New York City Opera.

Photos credit of Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times and Stephanie Berger


Opening Night at the Met: Post-Performance Wrap Up

Opening night at the Met for the 2014-2014 season has finally come to a close. If this is a bellwether for the rest of the season, then we’re going to have a fantastic eight months.

Alexei Tanovitski was only ALRIGHT as Prince Gremin. While all the notes were there and he has some great low notes set into his gravelly voice, it lacked any type of passion, as heard via radio. Valery Gergiev’s conducting lost some spitfire towards the end, with a Polonaise that just didn’t communicate joy.

In the final scene, Netrebko sounded beautiful, showing off the full emotional breadth of her voice. She didn’t blend as well with Kweicien, vocally, as one could have hoped for, but she maintained a beautiful tone during the duet. Kweicien sounds sort of uncomfortable in the role. It’s hard to describe, but it didn’t feel like the right fit.

For me, Oksana Volkova was the biggest surprise, in a positive way. Piotr Beczala also made a great impression as Lenski.

All in all, this was a fantastic opening night. Thank you for following along with my blogs, and I’m looking forward to reviewing the performance on the 12th.

G’nite, folks!

Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera

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Opening Night at the Met: Intermission #2

Act 2 of Onegin just finished and it’s easy to hear the marked improvement in Kweicien’s voice. There’s more action in this act, and he’s delivering the drama. Monsieur Triquet’s aria was appealing, but the comedic wobble got to be a little much at times. Piotr Beczala gave a beautifully sung and emotionally charged performance of Lenski’s Aria. The act was short, but action packed.

Not much to say besides that this act was really great to listen to. Below is a picture of the last scene’s set.

Eu Stage

Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera

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Opening Night at the Met: Intermission #1

The night has gotten off to a fantastic start. Netrebko is in great form tonight, and she’s obviously at home in her native language. Her pronunciation is perfection. Notably, Oksana Volkova is fantastic, spinning out a mixture of chest voice and beautiful, clear singing. Her first aria was pulled off well, but her breath control could use some work. Both Filippyevna(Larissa Diadkova) and Madame Larina (Elena Zaremba)are fantastic and authoritative mezzo voices. They blend and contrast perfectly and were a pleasure to listen to in the opening portion of the opera. Piotr Beczala gave a fantastic performance of the first aria. He’s in great form, tonight, as well. His”Kuda, kuda” will be something to behold. Kweicien was also very good in his opening aria, but not as memorable as the other performers. He still has the entire opera, though.

Elena Zaremba as Mme Larina and Larissa Diadkova as Filippyevna in Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin." Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Elena Zaremba as Mme Larina and Larissa Diadkova as Filippyevna in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.”
Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Netrebko’s Letter Scene started out as gorgeous and was gorgeous the entire way through. Each section of the aria was distinguishable from the next, matching it’s scattered arrangement. Perfection from beginning to end. Netrebko is a true artist and I can’t wait until I see this on the 12th.

Gergiev is extracting the most perfect sounds out of a top-notch Met orchestra. It’s been a true pleasure to listen to. It has lagged at times, but it’s been overall fantastic.


Opening Night at the Met: Pre-Performance Post

The performance is about to start! During the pre-performance coverage, Alice Coote and Nico Muhly talked to people like

Fiona Shaw emphasizes how much Tchaikovsky must have understood Pushkin and how he incorporated it into his opera. They also talked about how the set is traditional looking, but it’s still suggestive of the location. Costumes are in late 18h century dress, as well. Also, we head from William Kentridge talking about The Nose.
The celebrities in attendance tonight are: Dan Stevens, Bryan Batt, A’mare Stoudemire, William Kentridge, Patrick Stewart, Zac Posen(Probably.He’s always there.).

If you didn’t know what this opera is about, it’s about a young woman, Tatjana, who falls in love with Eugene Onegin. However, he doesn’t reciprocate her love until many years later, once she is married.

AND, Lucine Amara and Rosalind Elias for the intermission interview. YUSSSSS.

Let’s get started!

Protestors pretesting the Met’s refusal to dedicate it’s opening night performance to LGBTQ Russians who have been oppressed. Photo courtesy of Randi Weingarten

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OPENING NIGHT AT THE MET!: Everything You Need to Know

It’s finally here! After an inappropriately long time of waiting (The opera season in New York is substantially shorter than in most European houses.), Opening Night, one of my favorite days of the year, has arrived! This must-see production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” stars Anna Netrebko as Tatjana, Mariusz Kweicien as Eugene Onegin, Piotr Beczala as Lenski, Oksana Volkova as Olga, Elena Zaremba as Madame Larina, Larissa Diadkova as Filippyevna, and Alexei Tanovitsky as Prince Gremin. The production originally premiered at the ENO by Deborah Warner, but due to surgery, it has been taken over by one of Warner’s frequent colleagues, Fiona Shaw. Set designs are by Tom Pye and costumes are by Chloe Obolensky. You can find out all the details about the production here, in a screencap from the Met Database. I’ll be there on October 12th, and I’ll post a review.

This is the first night of the Met’s 130th season, and there are many ways for you to be a part of it. For New Yorkers, the Met presents a live, free transmission on the Josie Robertson Plaza in Lincoln Center, as well as another on in Times Square. For those who aren’t able to make it into New York City, don’t fear because you can listen to the online live-stream on the Met’s website, of on channel 74 of Sirius XM radio, Metopera Radio. If you’re listening at home, you can find a libretto in English here (I couldn’t find a good one with both Russian and English text).

MetOpera Radio and Live Stream coverage starts wit the Red Carpet interviews at 6:00 (EST), with the opera starting half an hour later at 6:30. As usual, I’ll be blogging right before and after the performances, and during the intermissions. Make sure to follow my Twitter and Facebook for live updates during the performance.

For some predictions of what this season might look like, look on Met Season Analysis: 1,2,3, & 4.

Below, you can see a slide show of some pictures from this production. That’s all for now, and I can’t wait for 6:00!

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