Review: Idomeneo

The first of Mozart’s operas written entirely during his adulthood, Idomeneo is a nod to an older, now unfairly ignored, operatic form, opera seria, that was undergoing intense reform at the time (1781). But it also includes innovations that point towards later Romanticism, a style that forms the core of the operatic standard repertoire as we know it today. It connects what was glorious about both ages of opera, and is a great musical glory itself. The gorgeous treatment it is currently being given at the Met under conductor James Levine’s still powerful baton – as well as the always-magnificent Met Chorus under Donald Palumbo – is a must-hear.

Is it a must-see? Well, the production by the late director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle is certainly impressive and handsome, with sepia-toned backdrops inspired by 18th Century etchings by Giambattista Piranesi of Roman ruins. But it has a whiff of the academic about it. Opera seria was an art form aimed at, and patronized by, European nobility, with Greek myths refashioned to give object lessons in good government. Sound a bit dry doesn’t it? And that’s the feel Ponnelle evokes, albeit with a grandeur befitting the Met. I prefer to think of opera seria as action-adventure stories where the action moves at a stately pace, sort of a more majestic Gaurdians of the Galaxy. At least I think that’s the best way to express the many but strange charms of opera seria to a 21st Century audience. In short, a fine production, but not exactly to my taste.

One of the more Romantic-feeling things in Idomeneo is Elettra’s mad scene ”D’Oreste, d’Aiace” and Elza van den Heever hits it with an exciting fury and precision, as well as gestures so wild they border on the comic. What fun! In the title role, Matthew Polenzani correctly pitched his performance toward the light elegance expected from tenors in opera seria (very different from the vocal heroics that fill most of the tenor repertoire), while also allowing Idomeneo’s most emotionally expressive passages full play.

Mezzo Alice Coote make a fine and strong impression as Idamante, Idomeneo’s son, a role originally written for a male castrato soprano. As Ilia, the Trojan princess, Nadine Sierra sang with a considered yet warm beauty closely comparable to Polenzani’s, with a confident strength that carried to the large house with no sign of strain. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: I Puritani

Let us now praise Pretty Yende! No, it wasn’t her Met debut, nor is she an unknown quality in the opera world – it’s more like she’s a steadily rising young star. However, she’s not the established performer that Diana Damrau is, so the fact that she truly crushed it when taking over for the ill Damrau as Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani stands as a truly news-worthy event.

Now, I’ll admit that I hadn’t taken an active interest in 21st Century opera performers until I started covering opera in this blog a few years back. For almost all of the ’00s, I’d take note of a new opera by the likes of Glass, Adès, Dusapin or Heggie, but I wouldn’t really pay attention to who was singing (not that the superstars spend much time singing the postmoderns anyway). The last big star I knew anything about was Renée Fleming. So getting to know the likes of Damrau, Vittorio Grigolo, Michael Volle, Sondra Radvanovsky and so forth has been a real pleasure. With this I Puritani I’m definitely adding Yende to that stellar list.

Another slightly embarassing admission – this is the first time I’ve seen a complete opera by Bellini. I’ve heard his arias in concerts of bel canto singing, but in that context he tends to get overshadowed by the showier Rossini and Donizetti. He is famous for his melody, and now I understand why. Not catchy tunes mind you – go to Verdi or Puccini for that. No, for Bellini melody is a series of emotional moments that are strung together like pearls, or that flow like an unpredictable but somehow inevitable river of feeling. Yende has a perfect sense of this, and luckily her vocal instrument is liquid silver.

Also, let us now also properly praise the Metropolitan Chorus and Orchestra, as led by Donald Palumbo and Maurizio Benini respectively. The Act II opener “Ah, dolor! Ah terror!” is a glittering marvel for chorus and orchestra, and these massed forces delivered it with a passion and precision that made my hair stand on end. Oh, and I haven’t said a word about the plot, because I have never seen an opera where that matters less. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Rusalka

To make a longish story short, Rusalka is a tragic operatic Czech variation on The Little Mermaid. It also takes elements of the older fairy tale novella Undine (and all three have roots in the medieval legend of Melusine). There’s also a strong musical influence from Wagner here tooand not just musical: The opera opens with a trio of water spirits teasing a gnomish creature, exactly the same opening as Wagner’s Das Rheingold.

It is also very Czech. While Little Mermaid and Undine are obvious influences, the libretto takes much more directly from the fairy tales of Czech authors Karel Jaromír Erben and Božena Němcová. As with all of the works of the opera’s composer Antonín Dvořák, Rusalka draws directly on Czech folk music for its melodic and rhythmic sense. Also, Rusalka is a lake nymph in contrast to Little Mermaid‘s ocean -dwelling heroine, which makes sense for land-locked Czechia.

Director Mary Zimmerman, whose work is packed full with beauty and fantasy, is an ideal interpreter for this dark fantasy. Choreographer Austin McCormick is known for his baroque-inspired sexual fantasies, and his second act court dance goes all the way there, in breathtaking fashion. Rusalka is in the outer reaches of opera’s “standard repertoire” so I’m not surprised this is my first time hearing it. Conductor Sir Mark Elder gives it a rich and surging account which more than sold me on the opera’s many and varied pleasures.

The buzz about this production, though, is all about Kristine Opolais in the title role, and it is more than earned. She gives just the right luminescent lusciousness to the lovelorn nymph, especially in the gorgeous aria “Song to the Moon.” Eric Owens was a revelation as Nibelung dwarf Alberich in the Met’s recent Ring cycle, and he is marvelous again here as Dvořák’s similar (but much kinder) water goblin Vodník. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Candide

I’m biased here: I am a complete Leonard Bernstein nut. I’ve been very excited ever since I first heard about the New York City Opera revival of Candide. It’s not the unimpeachable masterpiece that Lenny’s West Side Story is – the book is famously problematic – but it is still enough of a joy that as long as you nail that sublime Bernstein score, it’ll be a grand night out. Nail it this company does, and the results are glorious.

Based on Voltaire’s 1759 novella of the same name, Candide follows the naïve titular character as he strives to maintain his optimism in the face of brutal experience. The sprightly, brilliant score is one of the best things Bernstein ever wrote, and starts with my personal choice for best musical overture of all time. This production was first staged for NYCO in 1982 by legendary director Harold Prince, featuring Voltaire as ringmaster of a circus. While the staging is showing some signs of age, Prince has refurbished many moments for an overall better flow.

Jay Armstrong Johnson imbues the title role with a charming guilelessness. Meghan Picerno plays Candide’s true love Cunégonde, filling her signature song “Glitter and Be Gay” with wit and surprise. Gregg Edelman attacks the campy business that Prince gives to Voltaire with real relish. Linda Lavin makes a full meal of the smaller plum role The Old Lady. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Roméo et Juliette

Well, this is lovely! I’ve never been a big fan of these star-crossed lovers; I thought of them as “stupid damn teenagers” even when I was a stupid damn teenager myself. But add some music to the story and it instantly gains a lot of interest – all that yearning gives abundant opportunities for making beautiful music. I’ve long been a fan of Prokofiev’s ballet version for that very reason. And Charles Gounod, composer of this operatic version, misses few opportunities for making glorious musical hay out of these adolescent passions, not only in the pair’s big arias and duets (which positively glow), but also in sensuously sparkling waltzes for the party scenes.

Director Bartlett Sher’s sturdy production drew inspiration from two films, Federico Fellini’s Casanova and Patrice Chéreau’s La Reine Margot. It leans more heavily toward the gritty grimness of Chéreau, where I would definitely have preferred more of the color, eccentricity and perversity of Fellini, but I’d call that a matter of personal taste. Sher’s staging certainly serves the material quite well. Choreographer Chase Brock, making a very impressive Met debut, makes those waltzes whirl and pulsate with a terrifically sculptural sense of space.

In the time that I’ve been covering opera at the Met, I’ve come to be a great fan of conductor Gianandrea Noseda. He triumphs once again here with a notably light touch, giving Gounod’s glittering score much welcome space and air. We also get a light touch from this productions Romeo, Vittorio Grigolo, but one that is not mutually exclusive with soaring passionate flights in the role’s upper register.

But the real story in this production is its Juliette, Diana Damrau. It was announced before the evening started that Damrau was suffering with a cold, but would be performing nonetheless. If we hadn’t been told, I would have been delighted by her liquid coloratura dynamics, but under these circumstances sounding so marvelous is nothing short of awesome. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Salome

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Patricia Racette’s assured performance in the title role is the main reason to catch the Met’s current revival of Richard Strauss’s 1905 opera Salome. It is a musically complex and demanding role, so it’s no small feat that Racette makes it look and sound easy. The role also covers a lot of vocal range, and Racette rumbled at the bottom and roared at the top, with no sign of strain at either end.

Based on Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play of the same name, Salome tells of the titular stepdaughter of the tetrarch Herod Antipas, who requests the head of John the Baptist (here called “Jochanaan”) on a silver platter as a reward for granting Herod’s request that she perform “the dance of the seven veils.”

Racette performed choreographer Doug Varone’s Dance of the Seven Veils with great verve. The costuming and some of the steps at this point were reminiscent of Weimar Germany, and indeed Racette comported herself like Marlene Deitrich at her most vampy.

This production’s Jochanaan, baritone Željko Lučić, was truly robust in both acting and singing. Tenor Gerhard Siegel gave us a Herod of great vocal nimbleness and power. Mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Salome’s mother, Herodias, had a clarion voice and gleeful intensity that brought this smaller role out in higher relief than usual.

Conductor Johannes Debus packs his account of Strauss’s High Romantic score with incisive intelligence and gleaming passion. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: L’Amour de Loin

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Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s much-praised 2000 opera has a darkly shimmering beauty to it, and director Robert Lepage has created a gorgeous production for its Met premiere that leans powerfully into that shimmering quality. Lepage and set designer Michael Curry have draped strip after strip of LED lights across the immense Met stage. With those strips, “lightscape image designer” Lionel Arnould paints constantly shifting washes of color that vary from evocative abstractions to almost realistic representations of the Mediterranean Sea. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, and suits Saariaho’s music to a “T”.

There’s precious little to the plot of L’Amour de loin. Very loosely based on the legend of French troubadour prince Jaufré Rudel (c. 1100-c. 1147), it tells of Jaufré’s idealized love for a woman he has never seen – Clémence, countess of a Crusader colony in Lebanon – with messages brought back and forth by an unnamed, androgynous, seafaring Pilgrim.

Saariaho’s music may sparkle, but it’s also dissonant – influenced as much by the steely atonality of Webern as the hazy sensuality of Debussy. Saariaho has also incorporated material redolent of the medieval era, including actual melodic elements from Jaufré’s own songs. When these primitively tonal melodies emerge out of the dark tides of Saariaho’s music, the effect is remarkable. It happens first in a passage sung by the pilgrim, sung here with resonant gravitas by Tamara Mumford, and it’s like a sunset breaking through the clouds.

Making her Met debut, conductor Susanna Mälkki navigates the complexities of the score with great assuredness and expressiveness. Susanna Phillips, as Clémence, gets a plethora of bravura passages and high notes which she handles with great power and musical intelligence. As Jaufré, Eric Owens is the production’s beating heart, bringing great passion to even the most devilishly difficult sections. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.