Capriccio

Date: April 19, 2011
Conductor: Andrew Davis
Production: John Cox, with no intermission
Location: The Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Two changes were made to this season’s revival of Strauss’s final opera: a simpler set, and the jettisoning of the intermission. Mauro Pagano’s 18th century rococo set, first created for the Met in the late 90s, was face-lifted to reflect a more practical society in the early 20th century. The opulent and florid ornamentations gave way to a simpler design that put focus squarely on the actors on stage. Props were kept to a minimum, with three main areas providing vital functions to the flow of the libretto: the harpsichord/harp area, a lounge area featuring a set of Portugese canapes, and a large tuffet which the Countess used extensively in the final scene. By maximizing the usage of these areas, John Cox managed to deliver a fluid performance with no intermission, just as Strauss intended.

Renee Fleming was ebullient and dramatically very convincing as the Countess. Her voice and vocalism were sublime, while her dynamic range was controlled and flattering. She spent much of her final scene wrapped around the tuffet, as if seeking anchoring resolution to a storm of grave indecision. Her evening’s performance was nearly perfect, although that final scene was sung with smudges of choppiness that seemed to break apart rather than connect the beautiful phrasings of Strauss’s lines. Russell Braun delivered a confident Olivier with an aura of matter-of-fact inevitability. His dramatic counterpart, Joseph Kaiser, conveyed a sweet but serious Flamand. Kaiser exhibited a nurtured voice, and was dynamically a perfect match to Fleming’s Countess. Sarah Connolly’s Clairon demanded attention without looking overt or offensive, sort of a dramatic antithesis to Peter Rose’s La Roche – an obnoxious, towering figure who tried to suck up all the attention while behaving in the most overt and self-serving manner. In that respect, both singers played their role faithfully and convincingly. Barry Banks, as the Italian tenor, had a sweet, lyrical voice with a very secure upper line. His duet with Olga Makarina, as the Italian soprano, provided the comedic high point of the evening, as the two juggled for vocal and dramatic supremacy while effusing this unmistakably Tom-and-Jerry playfulness. The dancing by Laura Feig and Eric Otto was crisp and functional. Conductor Andrew Davis led a sumptuous orchestra and delivered the all-important Straussian chords towards the end with luscious warmth, though I found his pace at times slower than I would desire.

Costume designer Robert Perdziola made new costumes for Fleming: for her first entrance, she wore a blue gown instead of the dubiously shaded green gown worn in the season premiere. Heavy-handed camera equipment was also present – most probably rehearsing for the upcoming HD broadcast.

Renee Fleming, in Capriccio, in that gown in a dubiously shade of green.

Renee Fleming, in Capriccio, in that gown with a dubiously shade of green. Photo courtesy of Ken Howard/Met.

Carmen

Date: April 10, 2011
Conductor: Chen Zuohuang
Director: Francesca Zambello
Location: The National Centre for the Performing Arts (The Egg), Beijing.

Repeating the success of last year’s Opera Festival, the National Centre for the Performing Arts brought back last year’s critical darling, Carmen, to the current Opera Festival, its third year running. The production by Francesca Zambello remained basically unchanged. There seemed to be, however, an evolutionary refinement of the entire production, especially in the gypsy dance number inside Lillas Pastia’s inn, which seemed more organic and natural than last year’s perceptibly under-rehearsed and somewhat disorienting rendition.

Viktoria Vizin’s voice was ripe and seductive, but lacked an exquisite timbre that would elevate her above the large horde of Carmen wannabes. Dramatically, she was less suave than Kirstin Chavez, last year’s Carmen, and her Habanera was comparatively pedestrian and uninviting. Yet, she made up with brisk control of her vocal instrument and was, unlike many egocentric Carmens who would dictate tempi at will, meticulous in placing her notes within the comforting confines of the accompanying music.

Anne-Catherine Gillet, returning to play Micaela, phrased with sensitivity and skill. Her voice was pure and controlled, and her effortless display of lyrical phrasings was disguised under her excellent portrayal of Micaela’s inherent modesty. Michael Todd Simpson interpreted a fine Escamillo, with a dauntless and dependable aura befitting the bull-fighting character. His voice could carry a distance, but was still insufficient to overcome the design shortcoming as described last year. (Francesca, my dear, if you are reading this, would you care to make some small changes to bring Escamillo closer to the apron so that he could surprise the unsuspecting audience with a scorching start to Votre toast?)

Brandon Jovanovich was triumphant as Jose. His vocal prowess was unmistakable: he possessed a wide singing range with robust dynamic control and a crisp, trumphet-like timbre. His voice had an air of immediate authority, and is obviously perfectly placed for Wagnerian roles (I look forward to hearing his Siegmund in San Francisco this coming June) and dramatic roles like Manrico or Alvaro. His searing top had a rare combination of force and textural juiciness, thus making his La Fleur delivery, albeit oddly without a flower as props, resoundingly enjoyable to listen to.

Chen Zuohuang’s conducting was again suspect, after failing to contain a young orchestra and a big chorus, especially in the big Lillas Pastia gypsy dance. At one point, the singing on stage was almost a full measure removed from the orchestra. More importantly, aside from slivers of brilliance from individual playing (for example, the fate theme by the woodwinds before La Fleur), there was very little personality coming from the pit. The romantic or tragic depths as crafted by Bizet were, unfortunately, neither apparent nor sufficiently befitting Zambello’s fine production.

Viktoria Vizin, as Carmen.

Viktoria Vizin, as Carmen.