When I visited St. Petersburg last May, the Mariinsky 2 was still a work zone. Now it’s open. The new building is undistinguished and even quite ugly from the outside. I haven’t seen the inside yet. But I did write about the controversy over its site, cost and design in this month’s issue of Opera News. A chance to look at the deep authoritarian habits of mind that still rule so much of Russian culture.
I seem to have made it through more than two decades of professional life without actually having to set down, definitively, what I think defines good criticism, how one practices it and other basic questions about the field. Mike Singer, writing for the AIA’s bulletin, asked me some of the essential questions, and I offered my halting responses in a piece that is now online.
Yesterday I won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. The news was announced almost simultaneously with the first alerts coming out of Boston. Many of us weren’t aware of what was going on until after the gathering around the main news desk broke up, perhaps an hour later. By the time I did a quick video interview for the Post, and a few brief conversations with journalists from the AP and The New York Times, the images flashing on every screen and monitor throughout the building made the ugliness of the bombing–the panic, the wounded, the urgency of first responders–feel almost too familiar, even as the tragedy was still unfolding.
People asked if it was strange to win on such an awful day. Yes, it was very strange, and I have family in Boston (who are all safe). But it was a thing of wonder to see the newsroom with all hands on deck, to see it do what it does best. Arts critics survive in newspapers not because we help the bottom line, but because enlightened editors and publishers see art as an essential part of the picture of the world that newspapers deliver everyday. It’s news that makes newspapers vital and relevant, and there wouldn’t be a working arts critic in America if people weren’t first hungry for the work of reporters covering breaking stories with depth, perspective and passion.
Art, on the other hand, is entirely essential to the survival of the world itself. That fact, that necessity, isn’t universally acknowledged, as the events in Boston give sad witness. Creation is the opposite of destruction.
I was elated when it was announced the Corcoran wouldn’t be leaving its historic home on 17th Street NW. But still, what does it say about the institution that they even considered the idea? With the recent announcement that the Corcoran will seek some kind of partnership or alliance with the University of Maryland, there’s an understandable sense of skepticism about how that will play out. In this Sunday’s The Washington Post, I talk to several people who will be deeply involved in the project. And I come away with a tiny glimmer of hope, so long as the Corcoran opens up the process and allows full transparency as it goes forward.
Dwell magazine has posted a story I wrote about a new house in Seoul, designed by the magnificent architect Steven Holl, who was recently chosen to reconfigure parts of the Kennedy Center campus. Holl was looking through a book called Notations, a compendium of contemporary music edited by the composer John Cage. Struck by the unique graphic design of Istvan Anhalt’s 1967 Symphony of Modules, Holl used Anhalt’s score as inspiration for the new Daeyang House and Gallery. Anhalt’s score, one of those everything-and-kitchen-sink beasts that composers loved to write in the 1960s, has never been performed. But the composer’s widow was pleased to see her husband’s work memorialized in Holl’s design, and sent the architect a note saying so. In my article I look at the unique design, its inspiration, and the complicated question of how, or if, music and architecture are related.
The star of the show is, of course, soprano Patricia Racette, who added the title role to her repertory for the first time last night at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Racette is a favorite at the Washington National Opera, perhaps as close to a house soprano as we’re likely to get. I loved her in the 2011 Tosca, and the 2009 Peter Grimes, and still remember her searing performance in the premiere of Tobias Picker’s Emmeline in Santa Fe in 1996.
Racette isn’t a naturally gifted singer, but rises to greatness through force of will, commitment, technique and passionate intensity. Is her voice the most sensuously beautiful? No, but she can darken it to chilling effect, and she has wonderful control over its dynamic range. It is at its most lovely when deployed in intimate passages, softly, with a rounder, warmer tone. Pushed to greater volume in the upper range, the voice has a pronounced vibrato, but it’s not a vibrato that interferes with a clear sense of pitch. You wish the slight throbbing sound wasn’t there, but then that feels like quibbling because the vibrato never gets in the way of the singer’s expression and communication.
She is a fine actress, too, and never performs as if the singing is all that’s required. Her acting goes deep. Not content merely with the well-timed gesture, Racette fully embodies her characters, in her posture, movement and silences. Racette is now in her mid-40s, but the Manon who flounced on stage in Act I was very much the girl who Prevost tells us was “even younger” than her 17-year-old lover Des Grieux. Throughout this and the next act–when the plot puts the young lovers on a rapid descent into misery and abjection–Racette’s coquettishness was entirely believable.
It also easy to be enthusiastic about the baritone Giorgio Caoduro, who sang Manon’s brother (and pimp) Lescaut. Caodoru is a dynamic presence on stage, athletic and alert to the drama, and he sings with a pleasing voice and easy facility.
Beyond that, however, the production gets weaker. John Pascoe’s 2007 staging is aggressively ugly at times, especially in the first act, which looks like it fell off the back of a second-rate bus-and-truck company. The central staircase is too large and intrusive, and makes the space feel cluttered, constricting rather than opening up possibilities for stage movement. The flower garlands and other kitschy touches suggest the unapologetic camp of a ballet set. Larger mirrors don’t seem to add much beyond more visual dissonance. A sparer approach to Act II helped and the blasted desert of Act IV was effective. The director might consider refining the stage business in Act III, in which Lescaut and Des Grieux make a failed attempt to rescue Manon from the soldiers who are leading her to exile. There was a lot of shuffling without much purpose or clarity.
As Des Grieux, Bulgarian tenor Kamen Chanev got off to a bumpy start (the first several minutes of Act I need some serious rehearsal on everyone’s part). His voice blooms only when he throws himself into the red-blooded declamation of Puccini at his most lyrically intense. If the music doesn’t call for ardor, Chanev’s production feels scattered and choppy. But the opera builds throughout its four acts, almost as if Puccini, in his first great work, was learning moment by moment how to be Puccini. And as it builds in intensity, the tenor is given more and more of the spotlight. By the end, Chanev was in his comfort zone and his performance made a stronger impression.
One can’t go to the opera these days without being aware of the economy and the challenges faced by all opera companies, which struggle to make the most of limited budgets in lean times. Critics remain on the outside of the hard decisions about how put on a show without hemorrhaging red ink. But I can’t help feel that there was a leaner, meaner, and yet more dramatically powerful way to stage this Manon Lescaut. Yes, the costumes were lovely and sumptuous, but they aren’t really necessary. More could be left to imagination, which always is kinder to the mise en scene than cheap efforts at luxury.
Parting thought: Manon Lescaut calls out for new cinematic treatment. If the dreadful Les Miserables can triumph at the box office, couldn’t Manon (with or without music by Puccini or Massenet) have a decent run? The bones of the story felt as fresh last night as they must have in the 1730s.
I can’t shake a powerful sense of sadness this afternoon. Around noon, the movers came to remove my old piano, a 7-foot Kawai I’ve owned since I was 22 years old, and replace it with a rebuilt Steinway model A, from the 1890s, a considerably smaller but more elegant instrument. I’ve had the Kawai for a quarter century now. It has moved with me from New York to Detroit to St. Louis to Washington, and every apartment or house I’ve ever lived in has been chosen primarily for its capacity to hold a very big, shiny black box.
When I was still in my early twenties, it came along with me on a failed but necessary experiment in romance and cohabitation. The relocation taught me a painful lesson in practical geometry. I reasoned this way: If I am 5’ 10” and my piano is less than that in width, and if I can walk up the stairs without bumping my head, then certainly my piano will make it up to the third floor. Big mistake. One must measure perpendicular to the angle of the stairs.
The piano wouldn’t fit and there it sat, on 14th Street, with crowds and cars rushing by. The movers had no good ideas and I was fairly desperate. I realized there was a pair of large French windows on the back of the new apartment, which looked onto a parking lot. I found a phone book, hired a crane company (minimum three guys, three hours each at union hourly rate), and paid the parking attendant to let me use the space. Then I hired a carpenter to tear out the window–making a space big enough for the piano to pass through–and then replace it when finished. Many thousands of dollars later the piano was in its new home. Only a few months later my experiment in cohabitation was over, and I repeated the whole process in reverse.
I loved that instrument. Saying goodbye to it was remarkably hard. You don’t realize how much an instrument becomes integral to your identity. I chose it when I was playing mostly large 19th-century repertoire, especially Chopin and Liszt. More than any other instrument I tried, the old piano had clarity and ping in the bass. When you wanted to make a lot of noise, the piano came with you without protest.
I’m playing mostly Bach now, which is likely a getting older thing. The new piano is very responsive, and has a deliciously sweet upper range, bell-like and clear. The action is better, and the damper pedal doesn’t have the occasional quirks of the old piano. The bass, well, I suppose I’ll get used to its muddier sound, which is to be expected given the smaller size of the instrument.
Grief comes in all sizes, sometimes attached to lost people, sometimes to places, sometimes to things, and often simply to time itself. The loss of a beloved thing, which was a symbol for youth, that’s the explanation.