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The 2015-2016 Season begns at WNO

Bryan Hymel and Janai Brugger as Don Jose and Micaela.

Bryan Hymel and Janai Brugger as Don Jose and Micaela.

I first got to know tenor Bryan Hymel watching a recorded performance of Meyerbeer’s “Robert le Diable,” from Convent Garden. Hymel has a strong, firm, pliant, French-sounding voice—a high-powered, almost blazing kind of crooning–comfortable with the high tessitura of many French tenor roles, and he produced reliably exciting sounds all through the little-known Meyerbeer (a piece I’ve been fascinated by since I heard Eve Queler conduct it with Opera Orchestra of New York in 1988). In last night’s season-opening production of “Carmen” at the Washington National Opera, Hymel took time to warm up as Don Jose. He isn’t particularly comfortable on stage in any of the guises Don Jose must adopt: innocent lad from the country; romantically besotted young soldier; recklessly passionate lover; violently abusive spurned boy toy. But by the final scene he was, vocally, everything you want from Bizet’s doomed protagonist.

The other strength of this production is in the orchestra pit, where conductor Evan Rogister led the Washington National Opera Orchestra. He made his Washington opera debut last year with Jake Heggie’s “Moby Dick,” but hearing him in a familiar score, and music that thrives on rhythmic and dynamic nuance, was a revelation. I don’t think the WNO Orchestra has sounded so good in this repertoire since Emmanuel Villaume was a semi-regular guest. Rogister drew forth beautifully shaped phrases in the Entr’act to Act III, and in the overture, and was unafraid in the First Act to let the scene-setting listlessness of the music sound in fact sultry, lazy and listless. The orchestra can often be unsubtle, but not last night, and even a few horn misfires didn’t diminish the fine effect.

French mezzo-soprano Clementine Margaine sang Carmen, and soprano Janai Brugger sang Micaela. Margaine’s Carmen evolved slowly through the evening, growing stronger and more fluent as an Act I tendency to chop up phrases gave way to a more thoroughly sustained and supported sound. Dramatically, her Carmen is more provocateur than temptress, a more vulgar presence than some, and more directly an agent in provoking the rage that will destroy her. It isn’t easy to believe that she is ever in love with Don Jose, at any point, so the drama becomes more of a test of wills played out on the field of erotic combat than a fleeting love gone sour. She’s a Carmen one respects—for her insatiable freedom, and contempt for sentimental platitude—but it isn’t easy to love her.

Janai Brugger, however, was an uncommonly appealing Micaela, both vocally (she has a sweet, precise, well-formed sound) and dramatically. It is almost impossible to create a Micaela who isn’t cloying and a bore, but Brugger did the only thing you can do with opera: Take the music and the cues seriously and carry off the obvious intent of composer. So she gave us an honest Micaela who, with no trace of irony, seemed genuinely committed to her role as intercessor between Don Jose and his saintly mother (suffering somewhere off stage as her son goes from naïf to wastrel to criminal). It would be good to hear more of her, and in larger roles.

Small-role standouts included Ariana Wehr as Frasquita and Aleksandra Romano as Mercedes, sparkling and fleet in the Act III fortune-telling scene. Michael Todd Simpson’s Escamillo was full-voiced but somewhat wooden.

The production is standard, and borrowed, and it feels that way. Perhaps it’s unfair to the WNO to complain too much about its lack of distinction. But even borrowed sets don’t preclude sharp restaging. Character interactions could be better focused—surely someone can goad more natural gestures from Hymel and more genuine passion between Carmen and Don Jose—and the chorus needs to be handled more effectively. Dramatic entrances weren’t always well timed, and the crowd, especially in Act I, moved with that strangely operatic habit of being both busy and purposeless at the same time.

And so it’s a fairly typical night at the opera: Much to enjoy, some standout performances, a long, complicated drama expertly handled from the pit, but also a level of the merely dutiful when it comes to theater.

Photo by Scott Suchman courtesy Washington National Opera

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BIG transforms the National Building Museum

NBM Interior_Great HallI was skeptical of some of what the Smithsonian proposes to do to its campus near the Castle on the National Mall. Over the fifteen years I’ve lived in Washington, I’ve watched gardens grow along the Mall, and watched how people flock to those gardens. The Mall is good for framing views of the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, and it is an historically and symbolically powerful place to gather and address the seat of national power. But it is an oppressively rationalized landscape, and the emergence of small gardens at the National Museum of the American Indian, the Botanical Garden and the Bartholdi Fountain has begun to humanize the Mall. That’s why I so strongly support the Frank Gehry design for the Eisenhower Memorial, the core of which is another park-like space with a human scale, yet another possible escape from the barren reaches of the Mall. And that’s why I’m skeptical of the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) design unveiled by the Smithsonian last November. It would disrupt this trend toward smaller, secluded and contemplative spaces along the Mall for something more connected, “vibrant,” and open.

But the exhibition designed by BIG that opened at the National Building Museum on Saturday offers encouraging insight into the firm’s thinking. For the first time, an installation has been designed that actually engages with the monumental architecture of the Pension Building. And it also makes a strong case for the intellectual seriousness and adaptability of the firm’s design process. I recommend it highly in tomorrow’s Washington Post. And I feel a little better about how the Smithsonian project may turn out.

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Florencia en el Amazonas at the WNO

???????????????????????I’m afraid I don’t believe anything about Daniel Catán’s opera Florencia en el Amazonas. It’s been floating around for almost 20 years now, since a 1996 premiere in Houston, and a successful afterlife at other opera companies around the around the world, though mainly in the United States, where it serves a very particular function: It looks and sounds a bit like an opera, checking off all the boxes of what opera is supposed to be and do, without presenting any real theatrical, musical or emotional challenges. Catán’s rather meager drama opened The Washington National Opera’s 2014-15 season on Saturday night at the Kennedy Center.

It is inspired by the writings the Gabriel Garcia Marquez, though even the program booklet doesn’t tell us exactly what he contributed. In a “Letter from the Artistic Director,” Francesca Zambello writes: “He helped our team to plan and create the tale of the libretto which was executed by his student Marcela and captured by the sound world of Daniel’s music.” Later in the booklet, the biography for librettist Marcella Fuentes-Berain puts it slightly differently: “In 1995 her mentor, teacher, and friend Gabriel Garcia Marquez asked her to write an opera, Florencia in the Amazon, composed by Daniel Catán.”

Perhaps no contradiction there, but a good deal of vagueness about what “inspired by the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez” actually means. I don’t detect much of Marquez’s voice, narrative adventure or grandeur of spirit in the story or the libretto. To my ear, there is about as much genuine Marquez in this opera as there is Giorgio Vasari in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The closest narrative comparison is the old Saturday-night television pairing of The Love Boat with Fantasy Island. The basic structure is identical: The “El Dorado,” a paddle steamboat plying the waters of the Amazon, is boarding passengers for a run to the town of Manaus, and some mysterious power inherent in both the boat and the river promise life changes for all involved. The guests—two frustrated young people seeking love; an older married couple who have soured on their marriage; a mysterious woman of a certain age hoping to recapture the flame of an old romance—arrive, and we are introduced to them in a succession of short scenes. These vignettes are dutifully and predictably developed, one by one, before the characters are intertwined in ensembles; then the river grows angry and the act ends with the boat adrift and no one certain of the morrow.

It was also so dreadfully stale, so second-rate TV, that I thought for a moment that the second act would deconstruct the drivel, propel the opera into the world of critical parody or ironic fantasy. Perhaps it would do to the conventions of television what Anne Sexton did to the conventions of fairy tale. But there were no transformations. The opera continues just as it began, borrowing shamelessly but with no vitality, with plot twists that strain the credulity of even the most ardent fan of Magic Realism.

There are a few decent ensembles near the end of the first act, and a credible attempt at a kind of Straussian big soprano number at the end of the second. But Catán’s music is otherwise a stew of post-romantic clichés, a lot of fussy orchestral exoticism, and text setting that is mostly embedded within the orchestral fabric. Nobody sounds out of place, or at odds with the musical consensus, but there’s no particular distinction to anything they’re singing. A handful of motifs give consistency to the otherwise moment-by-moment twists and turns of the score; characters, especially Florencia (sung by soprano Christine Goerke), sometimes echo these motifs, brief, urgent little cells of melodic material reminiscent of 1970s pop tunes, that are scattered throughout but never developed into anything satisfying. Genuine characters never emerge because their vocal lines never really break free of the orchestral palette.

The directing, by Zambello—whose work is often trenchantly insightful—is a surprising disappointment. Five dancers, dressed in loin clothes and with feather headdresses, portray mischievous but ultimately benign spirits of the river. They are also astonishingly outdated avatars of the colonialist fantasy, erotic and ideological projections of danger, innocence and sexual allure onto the Native other. Pity poor Dan Snyder who can’t get anyone to believe that the “Redskins” is an honorific celebration of Native Americans; he would certainly love the carte blanche that opera audiences will give to these offensive caricatures (because no one holds opera to a higher standard). When cholera is discovered in the town of Manaus—from afar and through some kind of epidemiological supersensory powers of vision—the river spirits start carrying coffins through the river. It wasn’t easy to stifle laughter. A final scene in which Florencia may mutate into a giant butterfly, perhaps a nod to Strauss’s Daphne though not in any substantial musical way, is also a bit of a howler.

Despite this ridiculous material, the performers deserve recognition. Goerke was a dignified presence, and sang with steadiness and emotional commitment. Particularly impressive was the young soprano Andrea Carroll, who sang Rosalba. The voice is bright, clear and beautifully produced, and though she didn’t have much to work with, she made her character relatively convincing. As Paula, the embittered married woman floundering in a tempestuous marriage, the Spanish mezzo Nancy Fabiola Herrera was also a powerful presence. Baritone Norman Garrett sang the role of Riolobo with a rich, full, sonorous voice and plenty of athleticism. Riolobo is another river spirit, who also does double duty as a kind of ship’s purser and Greek chorus. But the role feels perilously close to the clichés of musical theater and racial stereotype (the supposedly mystical connections between race, the natural landscape and animist forces).

Keeping it all together, deftly and with a sure hand, was conductor Carolyn Kuan. It was Kuan’s debut at the WNO and her skill negotiating this thankless task makes one hope she will be invited back to conduct actual music at some point.

Throughout the evening, I kept thinking of Alban Berg. Not every evening at the opera has to be Lulu or Wozzeck, and thank God for that. But the only way I can describe my disappointment is to consider the opera as part of a tradition that includes Lulu and Wozzeck, and other 20th-century operas of serious ambition and artistic stature. And Florencia doesn’t belong to that lineage. There is no authenticity here, no honest emotion, no credible drama, no reason for the audience to care or engage. This is a fabrication meant to serve as a placeholder for a real opera. That’s why one can’t just give it a pass, or construct half-hearted apologias for its mediocrity. Producing Florencia meant not producing something else. And that is a waste of resources.

Photograph by Scott Suchman, courtesy the Washington National Opera

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Staging the Self

I don’t like the phrase, and perhaps that’s incidental to the several pleasures of a small but rewarding new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. “Staging the Self” focuses on six Latino artists who are all representing a sense of themselves, through painting or photography, often heavily dependent on a cast of characters from their past, their family or their community. Art Speak is full of well-worn cliches, and the sense that theater, or staging, or theatricality somehow makes things more complicated, more multivalent, more substantial is one of them. It’s fairly simple, isn’t it? To the extent that we have an identity, it is sum of many parts, drawn from our past, our friends (through imitation) and enemies (through repulsion), and of course heavily dependent on our many shifting loyalties to ethnic, religious, sexual and gender subgroups. That’s all.

But don’t think that sorting through all of this, or even “staging” it through art, is going to get you any closer to knowing who you are. At the end of my review I quote James Agee, who understands the frustration well:

…and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.

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The Perennial Klinghoffer Controversy

John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer is, I believe, his strongest opera. It was controversial when first performed in 1991, but has been produced several times since without much fuss, including at Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2011. Opera Theatre went to great pains to contextualize the opera–which dramatizes the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro, and the murder of an elderly and disabled Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer–when they staged it three years ago, including working with the local Holocaust Museum and other community partners. Now the Metropolitan Opera is preparing to stage it in October, and it seems we’re right back where we started. Critics, some legitimately worried about whether the opera will inflame anti-Semitism, others simply irresponsible and vicious, have been hammering the Met for weeks now.

Anti-Semitism is rising in Europe, and there have been horrible incidents, including murders in Belgium directly attributable to the resurgence of this abominable bigotry. Over the weekend, I spoke with a French journalist who is Jewish, who recounted anti-Semitic thugs outside a synagogue in her neighborhood chanting the most terrifying filth and threats. It is appalling to think that odious figures like Dieudonné are gaining an audience, and mainstream sympathy, and that the National Front is seriously in political contention. Americans shouldn’t take any of this lightly.

But Adams’ opera isn’t anti-Semitic. Nor is it anti-Israel. In an Opera News piece recently posted online, I make a case for it being a complex work of art about anger, and about how we must learn to be distracted from our anger, or we will become lost in it and to it. Adams and his librettist Alice Goodman accomplished something extraordinary in Klinghoffer that has absolutely withstood the test of time and is, for obvious reasons, needed more now than ever. 

It isn’t worth arguing with people like Andrea Peyser, who defamed the work in The New York Post. She quotes lyrics out of context, seemingly unaware that in drama bad people will say bad things. This doesn’t mean the composer or librettist endorses those sentiments. It’s silly beyond measure to think so, and silly of course to argue with any who makes that mistake. But her piece does violence to art, a willful, ignorant sort of violence. There are far worse forms of violence to be sure. But watching someone tear something apart and hold up the pieces to scorn… well, that’s ugly. And the world has had a surfeit of ugliness. 

Yes, the opera is also about ugliness. But it offers a way out.


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Bartok’s Six String Quartets

I had to admire the Kennedy Center for staying open last month, when snow, wind and then bitter cold temperatures made it an adventure to get there. Two magnificent concerts by the Takacs String Quartet were sold out, but the weather depressed attendance. Too bad, because they were some of the best hours I’ve spent with live music in a long time. The program was Bartok, all six of his string quartets, played over two nights. I wrote up my response to the music for The New Republic, an article that was picked up by a few other sites, including Andrew Sullivan, which is a delightful bit of good luck for a music and art drudge. They chose to link to a dynamic performance by the Pacifica Quartet. Here’s another option, by the Alban Berg Quartet:

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Google Honors Harriet Tubman

Google is honoring Harriet Tubman today. In most images, especially on postage stamps, she appears as a sweet if rather haggard old woman, often with a wrap around her hair. Google uses a younger version, with the famous guide to the Underground Railroad holding a lantern. The image below, taken from a book, appeared in an exhibition of CIvil War era photographs and other images I reviewed at the National Potrait Gallery last year. Most images honor her accomplishment; this one depicts her resolve.


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