It is far from unheard of for a specific singer to champion a forgotten piece and bring it back into the performance circuit. Maria Callas, for example, brought Anna Bolena into the 20th century. In recent times, Joyce DiDonato has given particular prominence to Rossini’s La Donna Del Lago and Placido Domingo, the raison d’être for a well-executed and stirring revival recently seen at Milan’s Teatro Alla Scala, has resurrected Giuseppe Verdi’s musically-and-dramatically fulfilling I Due Foscari from semi-obscurity to reveal an exciting opera with ample potential for singers and stagings. Continue Reading »
Between the limits of historically-informed performance, period instrumentation, and the viability of an intimate chamber opera in a house the size of the Met or La Scala, there exists a stigma against Baroque opera that it cannot hold dramatic weight. On one hand, one could argue that the stories are too esoteric and the music and words seldom come together to form a sublime or affecting musico-dramatic moment, and to some degree that is correct. But on the other hand, though, is The English Concert’s thrilling performance of George Frideric Handel’s Orlando at Carnegie Hall this past Sunday. Intelligent, confident music making at Sunday’s performance made a sterling case for Baroque opera as a genuinely exciting, engrossing form of theater. Continue Reading »
There’s a lot of Gaetano Donizetti being seen at the Metropolitan Opera this season. There’s the Tudor Queen cycle (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux, all starring Sondra Radvanovsky), the sappy L’Elisir D’Amore, and, most likely to be overlooked because of its mere 5 performances, Don Pasquale, which opened at the Met on Friday.
Donizetti’s delightful 1843 opera buffa, originally written to showcase Luigi Lablache, Antonio Tamburini, Giovanni Mario, and Giulia Grisi, considered the finest singers of their day, is an endearing, old-fashioned “morality” tale in which an aging bachelor, Don Pasquale, is taught a harsh lesson about marriage when he decides to take a much younger wife that is, consequently, his nephew’s true love. After an evening of scheming and trickery, the whole affair ends in a cheerful quartet.
Only seeing its third outing in ten years, Otto Schenk‘s production is, like Don Pasquale himself, frustratingly mindless. Though Rolf Langenfass’ sets and costumes are impressive and really do bring sun-drenched Rome to the stage of the Met, Schenk’s park-n-bark (or, alternatively, park-n-throw-plants) production provides no insights about an opera that delivers a complex message and is more layered than the screwball comedy it is wont to be taken for.
Ambrogio Maestri, a baritone singing the titular bass part, was forced to rely on his talents as a comic actor when the low-lying tessitura of the title role shrunk his sound. While Maestri’s big, comic presence would seem a perfect fit for the part and his concise, sonorous voice is ideal for most of the parts he sings, his Don Pasquale was uncharacteristically lacking in vocal charisma and he struggled to strike a balance with conductor Maurizio Benini, whose efficient tempi and dramatic reading of the score made Donizetti’s ebullient opera sound near-Wagnerian at points.
As Dottore Malatesta, Pasquale’s physician that sets the whole ruse in motion, Levente Molnár boasts a resonant baritone with a pleasing snarl, but seemed, similarly to Maestri, somewhat out of his element with the part.
Of all the artists I’ve seen at the Met, tenor Javier Camarena, as Pasquale’s nephew Ernesto, has always gotten the most applause. Whether it’s his endearing stage presence, clean, honeyed high-tenor, stellar high notes that ring throughout the house but are produced with just enough effort so that you know that he is really involved in what he is singing, or a combination of the three, Camarena is a superb singer and an indispensable asset to the production. Most impressive was his sensitively-phrased “Com’è gentil,” sung from offstage. And while the Met has cultivated him well over the years (He has sung Almaviva in Barbiere, Ramiro in Cenerentola, Elvino in La Sonnambula at the house, and will sing Arturo in I Puritani next season), Camarena is ready and deserving of even more high-profile assignments. If a new Semiramide production is rumored to be coming down the pike at the Met, then maybe Camarena as Idreno? One can hope…
The most unexpectedly excellent performance came from Met debutante Eleonora Buratto as Norina, the young widow with whom Ernesto is in love. With supreme, exacting control, Buratto wields an ample voice that is dark in the lower register, beautiful and plush in the middle, and with shimmering metallic high notes at the top that filled the house with ease. She was up to all of the production’s physical comedy (including an impressively-executed somersault onto a deck chair) and, obviously deeply invested in the material and her performance, threw herself into the part. Her “Quel Guardo il Cavaliere… So Anch’io la Virtù Magica” really told a story and her voice blended exquisitely with Camarena in their final “Tornami a dir” duet. The world may have finally found its next Italian soprano.
The Met Orchestra and Chorus did their usually-impressive job with special props going to trumpet player whose solo at the beginning of Act III would have brought a tear to Ennio Morricone’s eye.
There are still four more chances to catch Don Pasquale this season at the Met, and you’d be well-advised to see Camarena and Buratto in action. Tickets are available here.
All photos by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
David Stone keeps busy. Between his work as a producer – among his Broadway credits are Wicked, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Next to Normal, and If/Then – and his career as a lecturer – he has lectured at Juilliard, Yale University, and Columbia University, among other places -, Mr. Stone has used his extensive experience in the industry to foster engaging theatrical experiences on an international level. I recently sat down with him to discuss how he came to producing, his opinions on bootleg recordings, and the phenomenon of cross-pollination between the worlds of opera and Broadway. Read our conversation below:
So, how did you come to producing?
As a kid, I went to the French Woods camp where I had the chance to perform and direct. I later ended up going into communications, like TV, film, and advertisements. From there, I was pulled into theatre. I got an internship at Jujamcyn Theaters, where I was introduced to people like Barry and Fran Weissler. I started producing when I was 26, and it just worked out.
What makes for good theatre vs. what makes a hit? Where do the two intersect?
Good theatre is subjective. What makes good theatre for someone might not make good theatre for someone else. But you can’t be cynical about it. In Broadway, there’s always cynicism about what will make money when it comes to jukebox musicals, for example. Good theatre comes as a result of the passion of the people who put a show together. It has nothing to do with whether or not it is a hit. And good shows aren’t always successful and vice-versa, and even good shows might not work at some degree. For example, Next to Normal, which I produced, was a rock opera and it was very good. It was a success, yes, but it wasn’t a huge hit. The two aren’t necessarily connected, and you can’t set out to do both. When both happen – good theatre that becomes a hit – it’s not intentional.
What is your favorite part of putting a show onstage?
I love the process. What I don’t love are opening nights and being there with the audience. I love is the development of a show, the previews, during which we listen to the audience to help us fix a show, and tech. Once a show is done, it becomes a job, and that’s not the part I’m crazy about.
What is your opinion on the bootleg recording debate?
I hate it, but I think it’s a good marketing tool because audience members know that if they’re only seeing something on YouTube, it makes them more excited about the material. A bootleg recording might whet your appetite for a show, and audiences are smart enough to realize that a bootleg recording is just an approximation of what is happening onstage.
What is your personal taste in theatre?
I love Sondheim. I tend to be interested in plays and musicals that reflect how I see the world. Shows with human beings with human problems. For that reason, musical comedy usually doesn’t do it for me. And so much of Broadway is just presentational. That’s not my style.
What is the best show you’ve ever seen?
Gosh, I don’t know. For musicals, definitely the original Broadway productions of Dreamgirls and Sweeney Todd. I think West Side Story is the greatest musical ever written, though I wasn’t around for the original production of that! For plays, I think Angels in America. I know it’s cliché, but it was like nothing nobody had ever seen at the time.
In which direction, do you think, is Broadway headed?
Broadway is in the midst of another Golden Age. In the last 15 years, we’ve had at least 2-3 enduring shows every year, many of which work commercially. And there are so many people who want to do theatre. I credit RENT with opening people up to theatre. And Disney has trained new audiences. I think Broadway is healthy. Ticket prices are definitely too high, even though dynamic pricing works, but overall, now is a good time.
What would you say to somebody going into your field?
Don’t rush. Though it worked out for me, I was probably too young. Make sure to learn business, apprentice with somebody in the business, and watch how shows are put together. Remember that commercial off-Broadway exists, too. I was lucky enough to initially do small-scale shows. And to anybody going into the arts: Only do it if you think “If I don’t do this, I’ll die.”
Any final thoughts?
There’s actually quite a bit of cross-pollination between opera and theatre. Many theatre people actually write and direct opera. Jonathan Kent, whom opera fans should know, actually did Man of La Mancha with me. Joe Mantello, who directed Wicked, has done Dead Man Walking. Stephen Schwartz even had a good experience in opera. He did Seance on a Wet Afternoon at New York city Opera. Cross-pollination is more common than you’d think.
Photos: Bruce Glikas, Jason A. Specland
Whether or not it was because of Giacomo Puccini’s tuneful and heart-wrenching score, New York Fashion Week, or the first outing of soprano Ana Maria Martínez, a singer curiously absent from the Met, in a prima donna role, the Metropolitan Opera was jam-packed for the premiere of Madama Butterfly on Friday, February 19th.
Most opera fans are familiar with Puccini’s drama about a Japanese geisha who is disappointed and humiliated when Pinkerton, the U.S. Naval officer she married and believed to be faithful, returns from a three-year absence with a new wife to retrieve the child Pinkerton and Butterfly had together. Stripped of her honor, Butterfly then kills herself with a ceremonial dagger. Replete with “Asian” motifs and intense demands from the singers and orchestra, Butterfly is especially difficult to execute for such a core work of the standard repertoire. This run of performances at the Met (13 in total) was originally supposed to feature Patricia Racette and Kristine Opolais as Butterfly, but because of a series of repertoire changes and illnesses, Racette’s performances bounced from her to Hei Kyung Hong (who steps into the kimono starting February 27th) to Ana Maria Martínez for only two performances.
Martínez possesses an ample, amber-colored voice with a resonant, grainy middle, and she uses it with intelligence and security. However, her high notes have the tendency to fade away, and on Friday, she just couldn’t get to the musical climaxes, the high notes, at the heart of all of Butterfly’s arias, even despite smart and sensitive phrasing choices throughout. It’s not that the high notes aren’t there, but that there is little force behind the upper register compared to the thrust in the rest of the voice. Other high notes, though, defied this tendency and were spun into dazzling pianissimi. Martínez’s Butterfly was refreshingly reserved at the beginning of the opera, and slowly descended into desperation throughout. She wasn’t naïve, but an inevitable victim of a society that objectifies women. And by the end, when Butterfly is faced with dishonor and suicide is the only option, it still feels like a conscious choice. Martínez is light on her feet and hard to take your eyes off of. She played well with the other singers and was able to easily and gracefully negotiate the raked stage in the gorgeous but obviously-cumbersome kimono she wears for much of the opera. Butterfly, though well-executed by her in almost every category, just might not be the perfect fit for her voice.
As Pinkerton, Roberto De Biasio hammed it up as a playful playboy and was more or less unmemorable. The voice is slender and a size or two too small for the Met, and he struggled to distinguish himself in any of the ensembles. Both his arias were muscled through, and though not for lack of trying, he seemed mismatched with Martínez’s much more assured Butterfly.
Artur Rucinski, a baritone with a serviceable voice who made his Met debut on Friday, gave a performance that suffered from both a lack of line and garbled diction as Sharpless, the American Consul. Maria Zifchak, a stalwart Suzuki, may be showing signs of a wobble, but she is still one of the few Met artists that consistently delivers with a gleaming voice and warm stage presence.
Karel Mark Chicon, also in his Met debut, conducted with uniformly brisk tempi, and though he was able to emphasize the drama in Puccini’s inherently dramatic score, the singers and chorus seemed frequently stranded and searching as the opera relentlessly surged on.
Anthony Minghella’s production, now ten years old, is still an intelligent staging that gives the music every opportunity to shine. It’s also singer-friendly – there is room for singers to put their mark on the characters. Michael Levine’s sets are spare and evocative, Han Feng’s costumes are detailed and striking, and Peter Mumford’s lighting is just phenomenal. Blind Summit Theatre provides the puppets, one of which stands in for Butterfly’s son, Trouble. After ten years, audiences seem to be finally acclimated to this initially arresting but ultimately effective innovation.
Martínez performs the title role one more time on Monday, and then Hei Kyung Hong, singing Butterfly for the first time in her long career, takes over the part until March 5th. Kristine Opolais steps in for the remaining performances and the run ends April 12th. Other singers to join the cast are Gwyn Hughes Jones and Roberto Alagna as Pinkerton and Dwayne Croft as Sharpless. Tickets available here.
Photos by Marty Sohl