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.
Category Archives: Music
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.
Galina Vishnevskaya, the great Russian soprano, has died. It feels very strange to learn this today as my other half and I spent part of the weekend listening to a very fresh-voiced, and dramatically piercing Galina sing Liu from Turandot (with Nilsson and Corelli). Every time I listen to her, I rethink an old prejudice–that she suffered too much from that strident, Slavic sound–that somehow got lodged in my ear early, and mistakenly. It was a distinctive sound, and as Liu the tone was often blindingly white on top; but it was also pure and clean and wonderfully focused. Of course, it helps to see her in action, as one can in the remarkable film version she made of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth, which is one of the greatest opera films ever made, and sadly too little known in this country. Just last night, while making dinner, we were talking about her (strange coincidence) and we fell back on that easy but obvious and obviously true summation: She wasn’t just a singer, she was an artist.
There’s a lot of discussion at the moment about the future of opera, whether it’s trending to a diminished state, with major companies economizing and falling back on a limited repertory of war horses, or thriving in new formats, new venues and new companies, in a post-Grand Opera sort of way. I’m in Santa Fe right now for the opera season, which is spectacular in the way I remember opera could be spectacular when I first fell in love with the art form: great repertoire, great singing, smart direction and passionate audiences. But I do fear we are entering an age in which the serious opera lover finds less and less to delight him, unless he goes to places such as Santa Fe or a handful of other companies where commitment to serious opera is pursued without embarrassment. I tackled some of these issues in a piece for Opera News, which the magazine has kindly posted online. Here’s a nugget of my futurist musings:
Indeed, one can imagine both futures simultaneously, a two-tiered opera world in which the vast majority of the population knows the form only in its digital simulacrum, while an eccentric elite of antiquarians persists in the old ways.
Photo credit: Robert Reck (Courtesy Santa Fe Opera)
Friday night’s big storm blew through the Castelton Festival, creating drama that evening, and a cancelled performance on Saturday. But by 2 p.m. on Sunday the festival had an enormous, truck-sized generator hooked up and the air conditioning was running in the big performance tent, an oasis of cool atop a lovely little hill in Virginia’s horse country.
It had been several years since I was last there, for a performance of Britten’s Turn of the Screw in the pint-sized home theater attached to artistic director Lorin Maazel’s house. Yesterday’s performance of Rossini’s Barber of Seville was the first time I’ve been in the big tent, and I liked it very much. The festival has the feeling of a genuine festival, a high-spirited coming together in a beautiful spot for music. The views outside the tent, of rolling hills, giant round hay bales and a sultry, shimmering horizon of green in the distance make it clear why the rich and fortunate flock to this region, despite its isolation and ferocious summer heat.
The young cast gave a good show, albeit with a few tentative moments here and there, and perhaps a little too much stage business for the chorus. Otherwise, it was everything one wants from Rossini: Absurdity, speed and occasional pauses for emotional interjection. The set was a single piece on a turntable, representing Figaro’s shop, and the inside and out of Dr. Bartolo’s elegant home. The lighting was a bit sketchy here and there (the storm cues seemed a little odd) but the costumes, meticulous period pieces, flattered the cast.
Singing Count d’Almaviva, Tyler Nelson, a tenor with a small but appealing sound, was sometimes hard to detect in ensembles. But he has great musicality, and his performance of “Se il mio nome” in Act 1 demonstrated a refined sensibility and a voice capable of haunting tenderness. Tyler Simpson, as the lecherous Bartolo, is already a fully-fledged opera singer, and he has a fine comic sensibility, creating a muscular and manipulative Bartolo rather than the usual buffoonish and ridiculous caricature. Cecelia Hall’s Rosina was suitably impish, and if the coloratura isn’t quite fluid yet, the tone quality is attractive and the voice very promising. Both Jonathan Beyer as Figaro and Evan Hughes as Don Basilio had something pleasingly subversive in their slightly fey portrayals, and Beyer’s “Largo al factotum” set a high standard early in the performance for technically accomplished singing.
It’s good to see Castleton progressing so rapidly towards serious festival status. It’s a privilege to have Maazel in the pit on a Saturday afternoon in Washington’s backyard. The operas performed this season (Barber, Boheme and Carmen) are standard fare, and one misses the novelties that were present in earlier iterations of the festival. But the whole Castleton experience is a pleasure, a drive through beautiful country, an encounter with young artists and a leisurely return on back roads to Washington… through a landscape with a few thousand fewer trees than the last time I made the trip.
Credit: Leslie Maazel, courtesy the Castelton Festival
Another cliche-riddled story about how to fix classical music is making its rounds on Facebook. I tried to muster some sympathy for Richard Dare’s Huffington Post piece, “The Awfulness of Classical Music Explained,” but found it a long straw-man argument with no redeeming insight. Dare, a financier who is now head of the Brooklyn Philharmonic, argues the old line, that the rituals of classical music are off putting, without acknowledging any value in them. Why can’t listeners react spontaneously, shout and clap when they want to?
But this [is] classical music. And there are a great many “clap here, not there” cloak-and-dagger protocols to abide by. I found myself a bit preoccupied — as I believe are many classical concert goers — by the imposing restrictions of ritual behavior on offer: all the shushing and silence and stony faced non-expression of the audience around me, presumably enraptured, certainly deferential, possibly catatonic; a thousand dead looking eyes, flickering silently in the darkness, as if a star field were about to be swallowed by a black hole.
He then goes on to compare all these rituals to authoritarianism and North Korea.
The most common practices in classical musical venues today represent a contrite response to a totalitarian belief system no one in America buys into anymore. To participate obediently is to act as a slave. It is counter to our culture. And it is not, I am certain, what composers would have wanted: A musical North Korea. Who but a bondservant would desire such a ghastly fate? Quickly now: Rise to your feet and applaud. The Dear Leader is coming on stage to conduct. He will guide us, ever so worshipfully through the necrocracy of composers we are obliged to forever adore.
Yikes. And this guy is head of an orchestra.
In fact, there are a few good reasons for the protocol of classical music. Silence allows one to hear the music. It is a sign of respect both for the musicians and fellow audience members. Silence encourages close listening, and not clapping between movements gathers a multi-piece musical work into an organic whole, allowing its parts to be appreciated together (each movement revising the one before, subtly altering the memory of the experience) rather than as disconnected parts. The reason people sometimes shush noisy audience members is because music lovers deeply value the experience of listening, and don’t want it ruined by thoughtless and rude behavior.
And people often do shout with joy in the concert hall and opera house. A good lusty bravo after a well-sung aria is a thrill to hear. A riotous ovation gets the blood pumping.
Just wait until the music is over.
And this guy is going to save classical music?
Unfortunately, discussion of classical music has become so rote and tribal that Dare’s piece isn’t really about a problem or solutions. It’s a litmus test of how one thinks about preserving culture.
It’s always encouraging to find Emmanuel Villaume in the orchestra pit, especially so when the repertoire is French. Villaume conducted last night’s performance of Massenet’s Werther, and the orchestra of the Washington National Opera never sounded so good. Massenet is easily condescended to, as a cheap romantic and theatrical fluff artist. But his operas are full of surprises, evocative and innovative orchestration and dramatic idiosyncrasies. Villaume underscored the rich coloristic elements in Massenet’s score, and found almost expressionistic power in its expostulations. The brass snarled, the strings produced haunting chorale-like sounds, as if channeling Bruckner at a whisper, and the woodwinds (including the saxophone) were free to play with engaging personal freedom. The extended orchestral preludes and interludes that serve as psychological bridges between acts and scenes were some of the best things all evening.
Massenet gets hammered for his distortion of Goethe’s original, and the distortion is so profound that it’s best—if possible—to forget about the 18th-century novella when watching the 19th-century opera. In the Massenet, Albert becomes a bit of a thug and Werther and Lotte are equally in love from the beginning, forcing the latter into a classic conflict of duty and desire.
Most egregious, in the last act, while Werther lingers on from his self-inflicted gun shot wound, the two engage in an entirely superfluous final love scene. And there are absurdities in the text that reflect a hybrid of Goethe and the French team that wrote the libretto. In act three Werther reminisces about his friendship with Lotte, and the time they spent together (a vestige of the novella); but the libretto has them fall in love almost immediately, and whatever companionship they enjoyed is lost between the interstices of the First and Second acts.
No matter. Despite one of the most static first act’s in opera, Massanet’s score is often exquisite, and despite having one of the best known endings in all of literature, the denouement is still shocking. Unfortunately, while the cast can’t be faulted on purely vocal grounds, none of the singers really inhabited his or her character. Francesco Meli’s Werther seemed cobbled together from rote vocal and dramatic gestures. He has the voice, but not the dramatic sensibility for the role. Sonia Ganassi’s Charlotte wanted more vocal heft, but the mezzo rose to occasion in Act III, especially in the monologue that opens the scene.
Michael Yeargan’s set design, especially the transparent walls that fused together an 18th century drawing room with the natural world outside, was particularly well done. But Barila’s decision to costume the singers as if for a stage production of The Great Gatsby (frocks for Charlotte were particularly unflattering) was arbitrary, like so many decisions about updating opera. Charlotte’s sister Sophie (well sung by Emily Albrink) became a flapper rather than a flighty teenager. Werther looked dumpy in his striped sweater. And the basic tension between the enlightenment and the romantic sensibility explored in the original novella was lost by the updating. Why? But then there’s never any rationale for these things.
So go for the orchestra. And for Massenet. There were a distressing number of empty seats on Friday night, and it would be a shame if anyone concluded from that a lack of interest in the magnificent operas of Massenet.
Credit: Francesco Meli as Werther and Sonia Ganassi as Charlotte. Photo by Scott Suchman
Reaction was obviously swift, furious and focused, and now the Metropolitan Opera has sent word that Opera News will indeed continue to review new Met productions. An emailed statement came from Lee Abrahamian:
May 22, 2012
Opera News Will Continue to Review Metropolitan Opera Productions
In view of the outpouring of reaction from opera fans about the recent decision to discontinue Met performance reviews in Opera News, the Met has decided to reverse this new editorial policy. From their postings on the internet, it is abundantly clear that opera fans would miss reading reviews about the Met in Opera News. Ultimately, the Met is here to serve the opera-loving public and has changed its decision because of the passionate response of the fans.
The Met and the Met Opera Guild, the publisher of Opera News, have been in discussions about the role of the Guild and how its programs and activities can best fulfill its mission of supporting the Metropolitan Opera. These discussions have included the role of reviews in Opera News, and whether they served that mission. While the Met believed it did not make sense for a house organ that is published by the Guild and financed by the Met to continue to review Met productions, it has become clear that the reviews generate tremendous excitement and interest and will continue to have a place in Opera News.
That’s good news. But something more is needed. Peter Gelb needs to make a personal, affirmative statement that he endorses the magazine’s editorial freedom. This isn’t about demanding a groveling apology. It’s about the basic dynamics of censorship.
Censorship works through fear, and it instills fear asymmetrically. The censor doesn’t need to read every word, monitor every statement, or enforce a long list of directives. Quite the opposite. The censor merely needs to make writers, editors and publishers nervous. The more vague the censor is about what is and isn’t allowed, the more power he or she has to enforce control over expression.
I’ve spent a lot of time in countries where freedom of the press is nonexistent. Journalists in authoritarian countries speak of “red lines,” invisible, vague, but powerful gray zones that keep expression constrained. They talk about the red lines as if they’re tangible, but also admit that no one knows exactly where they lie. And that’s the point.
A threat to free speech is never a single, isolated act. It casts a pall, and the people threatened carry that sense of fear with them, self-censoring.
Opera News, over the years, has grown into a remarkably independent publication, and it deserves great credit for defining its mission not only as a voice for the Metropolitan Opera, but as a voice for opera in America and beyond. It performs a valuable service for opera lovers, many of whom will never buy a ticket or attend a performance at the Metropolitan Opera. This rather idiotic (and failed) effort to limit its editorial freedom can lead to two possible futures for the magazine. If Gelb doesn’t affirm the magazine’s freedom from in-house editorial control, Opera News will go forward under a cloud. If Gelb can be coaxed into a genuine statement in support of the magazine’s independence, it will emerge stronger, and will be well positioned to continue its admirable mission of service not just to the Met, but to opera everywhere.
The Metropolitan Opera has decided not to allow Opera News, published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, to review any more Met performances. Unhappy with occasional negative (and sometimes quite pointed) reviews, the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb pulled the plug on a tradition dating back to the 1970s. From now on, the Met’s own publication, and the classical music magazine with the largest circulation in the United States, will say nothing negative about the Met. The New York Times reports:
“As of the June 2012 issue, Opera News is not reviewing Metropolitan Opera productions,” F. Paul Driscoll, the magazine’s editor in chief, said in a terse telephone interview. He declined to elaborate but acknowledged that no other opera company had been banished from its pages.
The decision makes another fine artistic institution look simply corporate, more concerned with message and brand control than the free play of art and creativity. The Met loses the input of critics with long institutional knowledge, disappears from a section of the magazine that is lively and well read, and demonstrates to its loyal fan base that it is a nervous, prickly, bureaucratic organization.
Good criticism is an endangered species in American journalism. It has all but disappeared from most American newspapers, and is now yet more circumscribed within the pages of the last vigorous classical music publication in the country.
It’s easy for critics, like me, to become tribal and protective about criticism, without explaining why it matters. One reason it matters is that, when done well, it provides a template for how to listen and remember. The latter, remembering, is key. Criticism isn’t just part of the public memory of a musical performance, it is a demonstration of how to process and analyze a complicated aesthetic experience, what to take note of, and how to organize those memories into something that may stay with you long after the performance. Often, I believe the greatest danger art faces in our busy, chaotic, jangling world is that most people feel that the experience is ephemeral. The curtain comes down, they head to the subway and by the next morning, they legitimately wonder: What do I remember? What stays with me? Criticism, done well, doesn’t just document how one writer remembers a performance, it offers guidance in the kind of thinking and observation that helps everyone remember.
It is about making sure that art isn’t forgettable, in all senses of the word. The Met, as one the most important old-guard artistic institutions in the country, would be better served by actively supporting criticism, not limiting it.
UPDATE: The Met Relents