Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Scarcity by Design

March 28, 2010

Simon Keenlyside and David Pittsinger in Hamlet
Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera 2010

Saturday proved an interesting contrast in new productions at The Metropolitan Opera in New York. In the afternoon was Thomas’ Hamlet in an imported production from Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser that was broadcast as part of the Met’s “Live in HD” series. Later that evening was the Met’s final performance this season of a new original production of Verdi’s Attila. Both shows featured big name vocal talent, esteemed conductors, and contemporary productions from well-regarded opera directors with a taste for the minimal. And yet one was surprisingly watchable and the other was, …well, not. Hamlet was the winning entry. Thomas’ decidedly French take on the Shakespeare play has plenty in it to ruffle feathers. It’s pacing can be slow and the original plot is taken more as a suggestion than anything else. To compound these problems, Caurier and Leiser have come up with an almost non-existent production. Not unlike their bland Covent Garden Il Barbiere di Siviglia I saw last summer, you get a couple of scenery pieces, and you are on your own. Two curved wall segments are juggled back and forth by stagehands for three hours in Hamlet while the cast emotes all around them like nobody’s business. There are a few striking images, especially when the cast who are often clad in very light colors and presented in relief to the black background for contrast. But mostly, the stage is empty except for the performers.

So it all comes down to how good those performers are as actors and singers. Hamlet is blessed with some of the best. If the direction team got one thing right, it was to leave them alone. Simon Keenlyside leads a cast including Marlis Petersen, Jennifer Larmore, Toby Spence, David Pittsinger and James Morris who are more believable in their roles than any ensemble I can recall in the recent past. Keenlyside is especially fine and pulls off some big coups including a pretty freaking inspiring moment in the end of Act II when he douses himself with wine, wrapped in a table cloth in the middle of the banquet where he confirms his step-father’s guilt. Granted it was not the bare-chested wine soaking he (and later on, yummy Erwin Schrott) got in Francesca Zambello’s Covent Garden Don Giovanni, but he’s got the market cornered on sexy brooding here. Petersen underwent a rapid transition to fill in for the ailing Natalie Dessay as Ophelia, and at this point much of the uncertainty in her opening night performance has calmed down. Her vocal performance was commanding if not as creepy in the mad scene as you might like. Of course, it is a mad scene, however, so she does have to manage the requisite bloody dress and strewing of flowers about the stage. Still, I was really taken in by all of this, and by the time the finale arrived I actually found that I cared what was happening. Who knew?

Violeta Urmana and Ildar Abdrazakov
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2010

Sadly, the Pierre Audi-directed Attila has an almost opposite fate. It too sports an overly simple set design which in this case is highly restricted to the foot of the stage. But whereas the acting in Hamlet overcomes a banal staging, Attila had another burden to contend with, Riccardo Muti. If you believe what you read on-line, conductor Riccardo Muti, who made his Met debut leading the early performances in this run, played a major role in the staging reportedly interfering and insisting that performers remain virtually stationary and always in direct line of sight. The director was Pierre Audi who knows how to direct an opera as attested by my own first hand experiences with both his Poppea and Messiaen's St. Francois. But in Attila another very fine cast was so tied down, as was the chorus, that there was little too little to do. Dressed in all the leather, LED lights and cowboy fringe you could want, Violeta Urmana, Ramon Vargas, Franco Vassallo and Ildar Abdrazakov gave some spectacular vocal performances. But otherwise it was just looking at people in buildings. As with Hamlet the images could be stunning, but with little change in those images over time and a heavily restrained cast the evening quickly unraveled. Muti received much credit for the quality of the musical performance in the run of Attila to date, but things still sounded great under Marco Armiliato in the final show. But sadly the damage Muti left behind him was still apparent on stage. Apparently much like the US Government, opera too benefits from a strict separation of powers.


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