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They Say the Neon Lights are Bright on Broadway

February 19, 2013


Piotr Beczala as the Duke in Rigoletto Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2013
Fresh from seeing the Metropolitan Opera’s visually-stunning new production of Wagner’s Parsifal, I decided to check out the company’s other big new production currently on stage, Verdi’s Rigoletto directed by one of Broadway’s current favorites Michael Mayer. As you might expect, eye-popping visuals are again at the hear of what makes Mayer’s Rigoletto tick. But while François Girard’s Parsifal is somber and reaches for mystery, this Rigoletto is bright, aggressive, and never lets you forget where your at even for one neon-drenched second. Which I suppose is to be expected in that Mayer updates the opera’s action to a 1960’s Las Vegas casino where Rigoletto now serves as a comedic performer in the establishment run by the lounge-lizard of a Duke. The court here is composed of Mayer’s own version of the Rat Pack. This all works well in a set built with wall to wall neon that can both offend and amaze especially when it bursts from a dark neon blue to a brilliant flashing white during Act III’s thunderstorm.

Željko Lucic and Diana Damrau Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2013
Garish it may be, but it is also appropriate. A royal palace from 16th Century Mantua may rarely look it on contemporary opera stages, but garish isn’t far off the mark relative to its own time. And the sort of hollow-souled menace legendary in Vegas of the 60s fits right in with the Duke’s court. So what’s not to love? Well with all the glitz and dark undertones, there was remarkable little tension in the performance of the opera on Saturday which was broadcast to theaters around the world as part of the Met Opera’s Live in HD series. And it may have been the pressure of those cameras and lights that led to some less than top drawer performances from the otherwise stellar cast in the show. Diana Damrau sang Gilda and while she provided plenty of bright, agile sound, she seemed somewhat reserved as if holding back a bit. Piotr Beczala was the Duke and he exhibited fun high spirits wrapping up his “La donna è mobile” with a spin on a stripper pole featured prominently in Act III. (The stripper had long since left the stage at the beginning of the act after some clear uncertainty of response to her bare breasts from the audience.) But Beczala for all his good humor strained a bit at times in this off afternoon despite his believability overall.

Željko Lucic has no substantial competition when it comes to the title role which he has sung just about everywhere, and his nebbishy Vegas comic still managed all the broken heart he’s famous for delivering. His scenes with Damrau's Gilda were a highlight of the whole show. Michele Mariotti led the orchestra with brio and certainty. This is a solid and enjoyable staging overall, and given the very patchy results of the Met's home-grown new productions in recent seasons, it must be chalked up as a success. Not hat it is going to make everyone happy. But it is fun to watch, always interesting to look at and does something with the material that does delve into the interpretive if in a very tentative fashion that so many of the recent premieres haven't.


Take a Powder

February 18, 2013


l-r: Nili Riemer, Allison Cook, and Kaneza Schaal in Powder Her Face Photo: Carol Rosegg/NYCO 2013
If you want to know what keeping up appearances means in the world of opera, New York City Opera is serving up a prime example right now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of its many recent homes away from homelessness since leaving Lincoln Center. You’d never guess the troubles that have plagued this company in recent seasons by the look of the opening production of their 2013 season, a new staging of Thomas Adés’ Powder Her Face. Rapidly approaching its 20th anniversary, Adés’ chamber opera has proven to have remarkable legs and this time around those legs have some amazing bulging calves and meaty thighs. Not to mention all the bubble butts, washboard abs and impressive male genitalia on display in Jay Scheib’s sharp, fever-dream staging of Britain’s Duchess of Argyll affair. The Duchess, sung by an assured Allison Cook, finds herself unraveling in  impoverished anonymity at the opening of the piece, and her recollection of how she got there is presented as a half-remembered hallucination with clever augmentations of events in the libretto. The Duchess and her maid, the equally captivating Nili Riemer, go on a cocaine binge in the bathroom of the Duchess’ hotel suite at one point, and the line between the suite’s interiors and the outside of some imaginary forest blend and shift constantly throughout the show. And then there are those two-dozen completely nude male lovers that wander into the penultimate scene of Act I to lounge, do head stands, handle fruit, and read newspapers as the oblivious Duchess goes about seducing the hotel’s waiter, a part sung with clear even tone by William Ferguson.

Allison Cook and friends in Powder Her Face Photo: Carol Rosegg/NYCO 2013
Ferguson is a good sport here, appearing in the all-together, as well, at moments and making the most of frisky undressing and groping with another waiter, Jon Morris, in one of two non-singing servant roles in this staging. The intention, of course, is to demonstrate how the once scandalous sexual behavior of the Duchess has become commonplace in the contemporary world that has forgotten all about her late in her life. The staging also makes much of live video projected onto the large blank moving walls of the set, allowing the audience to see action in multiple rooms onstage simultaneously while providing juxtapositions of scenes that are simultaneously taking place in contrasting exposed or enclosed settings. It all works splendidly and does great service to Adés score, which is lightly peppered with references to popular 20th Century musical genres. Instead of treating the work as some period piece or survey of the recent past, Scheib and his team deliver something that feels like it is happening in the moment in a slightly crazed, intensely psychological way. Adés’ score likewise sounds urgent and all of one piece as opposed to some musical pastiche. Of course, one of the reasons Powder Her Face continues to be so attractive is the relative economy of the forces involved. But conductor Jonathan Stockhammer manages to elicit much bigger sound than one might expect from the size of the chamber ensemble in the pit.

Of course, whether or not this kind of work will be the kind of thing that brings New York City Opera back to a bigger existence in a more permanent home remains to be seen. But even not, the artistic values on display suggest the company has plenty more to say, and one hopes they continue to find the fortunes to do so. Powder Her Face continues for two more performances at BAM this week.


Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat

February 17, 2013

Jonas Kaufmann in Act II of ParsifalPhoto: Ken Howard/MetOpera 2013
The Metropolitan Opera continued its campaign to be the world’s preeminent company in the world of retail artistic values this weekend with the opening of another new-to-you production, Wagner’s Parsifal. And as with many imported co-productions new to this New York stage in recent years, it’s far more successful than the homegrown fare the company has produced recently and it is certainly the best “new” production yet this season. That’s not to say it’s a great one – it just stands out a bit in a field of generally weak competition. François Girard’s impressionistic, painterly modern-dress affair, first seen at the Opéra National de Lyon, does tap into the ceremonial aspects of the libretto, making the work bracingly modern at times. And the show is rife with a sometimes obtuse visual symbolism that is intriguing to ponder. But the many striking stage pictures are just as likely to evoke as much high art female anatomy as one generally experiences on a visit to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Yes, we get it. Parsifal has mother issues. Flower maidens dancing in a shallow pool of blood staining their white shift dresses and Pantene-treated hair may look good, but subtle it ain’t. Yet, the stage images are bewitching ones nevertheless. The rolling hills that rise and fall in the giant video projections in Act I are clearly the curves of a human body. The cleft in the rolling meadows of the set bleeds under a subtle change of David Finn’s lighting. Finn deserves special recognition here for perhaps the most striking lighting I’ve seen on a stage in quite a long time. His stage painting often outshines the stunning imagery of Peter Flaherty’s constantly evolving video designs.

Some of my favorite images come from Act I when the Knights of the Grail carry out their ceremony dressed in slacks and white dress shirts. Seated in a double tight circle, the male chorus sways about in an affecting way that reinforces why Parsifal might feel like an outsider. The audience does as well, and for a moment one might feel like they’ve accepted that invitation to an after-work prayer meeting from that awfully nice but to-be-avoided creepy guy at the office. That image might actually be a good analogy for the show as a whole. Despite good, and sometimes lofty intentions, and despite this lovely visual sensibility, the show often stalls out with little warning and some of the principals can be given woefully little to do at key moments. In an opera that is about ritual and the slow passing of time, that can be deadly very quickly and there are many moments here that could be tighter or more fleshed out.

Act I of ParsifalPhoto: Ken Howard/MetOpera 2013
But of course the Met has brought musical resources to bear on this staging that are really without comparison on the contemporary scene. Simply put, Peter Mattei’s Amfortas is perfection. René Pape’s Gurnemanz is better known, but no less captivating. Even Katarina Dalayman, a sometimes bewildering Met favorite as Brünnhilde, gives an engaged if somewhat overwrought Kundry that is solid throughout with no shrill sound or shrieking. And at the center of it all is the show’s star and big ticket seller, Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. He certainly delivers, and his baritonal tenor works better here than say in his much-lauded turns as Lohengrin. But even Kaufmann can't quite seem to execute the challenge of portraying a character who goes from puzzled to pious over the course of five hours. It may be an interesting and true-to-life human experience, but it’s a much harder transition to sell on stage than say falling in love or plotting murderous vengeance. Kaufmann’s Parsifal, despite his nuanced, energetic, and warm vocal performance, is just as likely to be removed and aloof until the final scene. He does spend a good half-hour or more of the show shirtless, however, so the production is bound to please a significant portion of the opera audience I’d wager regardless.

The Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus were on fire, by the way. They sounded better tonight than they have perhaps all season and Daniele Gatti delivered a dynamic, polished and nuanced interpretation of the score that wont help jog anyone’s mind about the announced return of Music Director James Levine to the company next season. Gatti can be brutally forceful in some contexts, but not here. The feel of ritual and the promise of salvation were in every note of this performance. That really is reason enough to see the show with an unsurpassed vocal cast. And the Met’s new Parsifal is awfully easy on the eyes, even if it isn’t necessarily going to convince you to see the light.


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