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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

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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.

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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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Met 2013-2014 Season Analysis Part 4: What to Expect from mid-March Through the End of the Season

Here is the final round (You can find rounds 1,2, &3 ) of Met predictions just in time for the Met Opening Night tomorrow! As per tradition, I’ll liveblog tomorrow’s performance. In the afternoon, I’ll put out a list of ways you can enjoy the Met Opening Night with some opinions in advance. I’ll post again just after the radio coverage that starts before, during both intermissions, and after the performance. I also live tweet the entire thing on my twitter. Now, let’s begin!

La Sonnambula: The Met is presenting the three Bellini operas this season. I’m not totally sure why, but it’s happening. That Mary Zimmerman production comes back, but the cast is pretty great. Diana Damrau is Amina. It’s a role she’s sung before and probably should have retired by now. It would be great to see Eglise Gutierrez sing the part, but Damrau is a good second. Javier Camarena, the FANTASTIC bel-canto tenor (And successor to Juan Diego Florez…?) is Elvino. Michele Pertusi is Rodolfo. Marco Armiliato conducts. You can see Natalie Dessay sing the Sleepwalking Scene in the same production below.

Andrea Chénier: You can say a lot about Patricia Racette. You could even say that Maddalena is probably going to be a stretch, vocally, for her. However, you can’t say that she doesn’t give a 110% in her performances and that they usually pack an emotional punch. She’s a superior actress and a consummate performer. That’s why I would consider seeing this opera. Marcelo Alvarez is the French poet, in a role that should fit him well. Gerard is the steely baritone, Zeljko Lucic. Giandrea Noseda conducts the run in a revival of Nicholas Joel’s production.

Arabella: Arabella returns to the Met for the first time in over ten years. The revival was supposedly mounted for Anja Harteros, but she pulled out a few years in advance. Swedish soprano, Malin Byström, who I’d never heard of, takes her place. Roberto Saccà and Michael Volle, both singers with whom I’m not in the least familiar with, are Matteo and Mandryka. Zdenka is Genia Kühmeier, another singer I don’t know. Otto Schenk’s production returns, and Philippe Augin conducts. I’m really not prepared for this revival. I have some homework to do before April!

I Puritani: This is, without a doubt, a vehicle for the fantastic Olga Peretyatko to make her debut at the Met with. The soprano has a gorgeous voice and has (on video, at least) a charming stage presence. Bel-canto tenor, Lawrence Brownlee, one of my personal favorites, is Arturo. Mariusz Kweicien and Michele Pertusi are Riccardo and Giorgio, in one of the best cast revivals of the season. Sandro Sequi’s production with sets by Ming Cho Lee returns again. You can say what you want about the production, but it’s hard to deny that the sets harken back to the type of productions Callas sang in at La Scala. I think that that’s pretty cool. Michele Mariotti conducts.

La Cenerentola: The Met has been under no Joyce DiDonato shortage. She has sung most of her major roles there (Cherubino, Rosina, Isolier, Maria Stuarda, etc.), but New York is yet to hear her Cenerentola, possibly her signature role. She’ll be sure to dazzle in the part. I’ve heard that she might be retiring the role soon, so it’s extra exciting that she’ll be singing it in New York. Oh, it gets better. Juan Diego Florez, one of her most frequent collaborators, is the Principe Ramiro. Pietro Spagnoli is Dandini and the basso-buffo, Alessandro Corbelli, is Don Magnifico. The other base role, Alidoro, is sung by the fantastic Luca Pisaroni. As Zerbinetta said, “It’ll be LIKABLE!” Fabio Luisi conducts. IdDonato kicks butt in “Non Piu Mesta” below.

The season is, notably, missing Wagner. While it is a shame, I do think that it’s justified. New York has been exposed to the Ring for three consecutive seasons now, and we had Parisfal last season. While it would have been nice to see a new production of the Tannhauser or Lohengrin, I can understand the notable lack of Wagner this season.

Also, Vittorio Grigolo has a recital. I’m not sure why.

There you have it! The Met season. Check back for tomorrow afternoon for some Met Opening Night fun!

Photos: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

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