Met Opera/Rattle: Tristan und Isolde

Date: October 13, 2016
Location: Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Tristan: Stuart Skelton
Isolde: Nina Stemme
Sailor’s Voice: Tony Stevenson
Brangäne: Ekaterina Gubanova
Kurwenal: Carsten Wittmoser
Melot: Neal Cooper
King Marke: René Pape
Shepherd: Alex Richardson
Steerman: David Crawford

Metropolitan Opera
Simon Rattle, conductor
Mariusz Treliński, production

Tristan und Isolde, Wagner’s epic tale about love and death, returned to the Met after an eight-year hiatus. The previous production, by Dieter Dorn, was as less well-remembered for its lego-colored background as the dynamic duo who propelled the run: Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen. Mariusz Treliński’s new production, premiered earlier this year in Baden-Baden, could well be remembered as much for its dark staging as the stars who lit it: Stuart Skelton, and Nina Stemme.

Treliński’s set was dark – so poorly lit that from the balcony seats one could barely make out the characters if not for the clarity of their voices. Militaristic costumes drowned in a a set painted with objects of grey and rusting metals. The stone-cold setting was made alive, albeit only marginally, by a screen at the back of the stage. As visual narrator in chief, this screen dabbled between genius and (mostly) clichés. For example, a crosshair radar was projected early on to reveal and enforce the place of action, even though the set was clearly one of a ship’s deck. While Isolde lamented Morold’s death, the screen offered to flash back the murder in utmost physical brutality, as if the grief in her voice alone would not suffice. Act 2’s start was cued by an impressive feat of stagecraft, where the entire stage spun about 180 degrees to reveal a Starship Enterprise-like structure, from which Tristan and Isolde professed love to one another. But the movements were so labored and long that the voice seemed secondary to the theatrical development. These sorts of visual narrative walked the fine line between enhancement and unnecessary distraction, and here, even if the visual cues were not found to be overwhelmingly clichéd, they could at times be distracting to the musical presentation.

Nina Stemme is a convincing Wagnerian heroine not least because of her vocal power, reliability and unbound stamina, but because that power and reliability allow her to focus a great deal of her attention on her theatrical acting, which proves time and again to be immersive and efficacious. Treliński’s staging did not provide a great deal for her to work on, due mainly to its plainness and darkness, but that did not seem to deter her: she clearly relished the opportunity to focus singularly on Tristan. Each twitching of her eye brows and each hypnotic glance towards Tristan seemed to unveil a great deal about the sort of Isolde that she wanted us to believe: as Tristan started to peel away the initial bitterness of Isolde’s lifeless armor, passion would resonate to the core. Vocally, her output flowed naturally like a gentle Alpine stream that sounded fresh, even after four hours and onwards to Liebestod. Her voice beamed with cinematic detail and heartfelt passion. Unlike many of Stemme’s contemporaries who relied on an outrageous, hedonistic build up towards and during Liebestod, to the point where the voice could be too excessively loud but lacking a sense of place and purpose, Stemme submitted something that was sublime, with nourished phrasings, crisp diction and a voice that found peace amidst all the commotion and ultimately the inevitable death. At the musical cue where Isoldes of the past simply died or left the stage, she rested her head gently onto the shoulder of Tristan sitting by her side, as though the pair has found eternal love in a manner where death no longer matters. Here, Treliński’s direction was brilliant and savvy, where he clearly reacted to the metaphysical implication without being excessively directorial.

Stuart Skelton, heard this year as Siegmund in Hong Kong, portrayed a soldier with a deep sense of loyalty and a deeper sense for love. Stemme clearly found protective and warm comfort next to the towering and muscular body of Skelton. Skelton presented a springy, agile voice that nevertheless sounded nursed and delicate. From the beginning, he did not show an inkling of restraint, even inside the Met’s gigantic hollow. That perhaps explained why he sounded tired and slightly hoarse towards the end (the high notes in “Sehnsucht, zu sterben” was audibly overparted), but that was not entirely unexpected of a dutiful Tristan who gave everything from the beginning till the very end.

René Pape presented one of the finest King Markes I have ever witnessed: a dignified character whose charity at the end shaded with paternal kindness. Vocally, Pape was sensitive with his words and phrasings, but, as stentorian a bass as he reliably has been, seemed a bit off in production volume this evening. Ekaterina Gubanova offered a fiery portrayal of Brangäne, and arguably was more spectacular vocally and dramatically than she was in Berlin back in June. Simon Rattle’s reading of the score was not as hypnotic as Karajan’s. Nor was his as dramatically surging as Böhm’s. But what Rattle gifted  us was intimate and delicate. If one cuts any random 10-second snippet from the evening, one would find great balance and perfect legato. Over four hours, Rattle did not seem to offer any particularly personal or definitive ideas. If there was nothing here that could point to a Rattle-ian identity, there must be something genuine and genius, with his modesty in not imposing his own color, and in allowing the singers to shine and Wagner’s music to speak for itself.

Stuart Skelton and Nina Stemme in Tristan und Isolde, New York. Photo credit: Met Opera.


Met Opera/Davis: 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.


Met Opera/Smelkov: Boris Godunov

Date: October 30, 2010 (matinee)
Conductor: Pavel Smelkov
Production: Peter Stein / Stephen Wadsworth
Location: The Metropolitan Opera, New York.

For all its Tsarist grandeur and the gravity of its history, Boris Godunov is not the most accessible of operas, at least to me, and is only made less so by plenty of low-register, narrative bass singing, in the Russian language no less, and typically in a dimly lit production that would last nearly 5 hours.

This Boris production does not impart the kind of visual pomposity that one would generally expect from the opera, but it compensates with an effective communication of ideas. For example, the central metaphor of this Stein/Wadsworth production is a human-sized book of history that sits on stage-left, and is meant to reveal Pimen’s version of historical events as juxtaposed in the opera. In one scene, Tsar Boris wrapped himself in the pages of the book, as if foretelling that, for all the limitless power he had as the Tsar, he was merely an object embroiled in the workings of fate – a pawn of history held captive by history’s inevitable moving forces. As another example, the Fool, who practically serves as a narrator of conscience and an arbiter of morality, is a literary creation removed from the actual history of Boris Godunov. Stein/Wadsworth uses a spot lighting atop the character, as if to separate this literary creation from the pawns of history. As yet another example, the Tsar’s throne often faces stage left, instead of towards the audience, as if to say that the audience was observing the unfolding of history from the sidelines, framed in a way that focused not merely on the facts of history (the fight for the seat of power) but also the sentimental turmoil surrounding it (what goes on behind the scenes).

Pavel Smelkov conducted a masterly performance that held together a gigantic orchestra and a massive chorus for a better part of this matinee performance. His Russian strokes were broad and sweeping, as if to dramatize the gravity of this episode’s place in Russian history. The romantic tinge in some of the big orchestral numbers formed a nice musical counterpoint to the porcelain-like delicacy of the several Russian folk songs. Smelkov managed the great bells scene at the end of the prologue with authority and clarity, and paced his way with a slow crescendo as the chorus procession moved into the cathedral.

Boris Godunov was sung by Rene Pape, who projected a physically imposing but mentally wrecked ruler of Russia. His Boris was, in fact, so sentimental and vulnerable as to demand sympathy from the audience. His death scene at the end was a poignant display of paternal affection and a commendable piece of poised acting. Vocally, Pape delivered his low registers with secure aplomb, and discharged Boris’ extremely difficult high notes with such effortless ease that would make any bass-baritone or baritone envious. Vladimir Ognovenko’s Varlaam provided the day’s only comedic relief, as his drunken character slowly revealed the secrets of Dimitri. His singing, however, did not match his acting as his vocal buildup that would foreshadow the outing of Dimitri was more like a big truck running out of gas than a coupe dashing towards the chequered flag.

Male alto Jonathan Makepeace’s performance as Feodor was an anomaly. His voice was a work of unadulterated beauty – and his singing showed – but dramatically he seemed confused on stage and never sure where next to move. Mikhail Petrenko’s Pimen was a work of vocal wonder. As he charted the history of Russia, his sturdy bass lines provided precisely the sort of religious/regal vitality upon which the unfolding of the rest of the opera anchored. The raw earthiness and sincerity in his timbre gave context to his pious character. Ekaterina Semenchuk provided a scheming portrayal of Marina, and sang with a dark, syrupy voice and a confident top tessitura. Aleksandrs Antonenko as Dimitri/Grigory had a formidable voice with ringing top notes. Andrey Popov’s Fool started weakly but recovered to sing with much conviction and confidence.

To be sure, this production was dimly lit and was still sung in Russian, and of course, some stage work was just too simplistic (for example, I found the monastery, portrayed simply by an archway on one side of the stage, not properly described, even as the monastery bells started to ring). Yet, it was the fantastic singing and genuine acting that made the five hours of performance, despite its flaws, an enjoyable one.

Rene Pape, in Boris Godunov


Met Opera/Armiliato: Il Trovatore

Date: October 30, 2010
Conductor: Marco Armiliato
Production: David McVicar
Location: The Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Verdi’s Il Trovatore, based on a 19th century play by Antonio García Gutiérrez, gives opera directors a serious headache: it seems to be a jumbled-up, incoherent drama because much of the historical background and the storyline are either buried between scenes or deep inside the libretto –how should the director unpack and elaborate this information, even as the music uninhibitedly rolls on?

David McVicar, in the MET’s newest Trovatore production, does not attempt to explain the morsels of history associated with the opera. The built set and costumes don’t readily reveal its moment in history (15th century) or its location (Spain). If anything, McVicar seems to consciously smudge these facts away from the visual delivery, as if to declare that in the dramatic art of storytelling, at least in this production, theatrics trumps the nuances of context. In other words, in McVicar’s vision, Trovatore is not merely an operatic equivalent of the foregoing play but a metaphor through which the timeless sentimentalities of love, jealousy and honor are theatrically realized. By doing so, McVicar frees the mind away from any unnecessary iconographic analysis to focus on the character relationships and, more importantly, Verdi’s immensely rich and sweeping musical lines and the theatrics associated with them.

Armiliato was a great timekeeper, only occasionally swaying aside to give singers extra room to deliver the treacherous phrasings and bel canto-like fiorituras of Trovatore. In the Anvil chorus, he was able to glue together the chorus, the orchestra and the metal-banging forgers into a coherent punch line. That said, he did not appear to be the consummate Verdian conductor, as his voicing was flat and uninteresting – and lacked serious undulating drama and the sort of mind-wrecking exclamation points for which Verdi’s music is famous.

Patricia Racette, as Leonora, sang the first two acts before becoming indisposed with tracheitis. She did not appear strained or sick at the beginning, and she had no audible breath-control issues. Her Tacea la notte, beautiful and full-voiced, painted a definitive statement of one person falling in love with another. If there was any indication that she was ill, it was that some of her top notes appeared forcibly squeezed. Her replacement, Julianna di Giacomo, emerged after intermission and plunged right into Leonora’s difficult music. Di Giacomo proved to be an agile singer with the kind of vocal athleticism on which the role depends. Her trills were impeccably crisp, while her top notes were secure and confident. In D’amor sull’ali rosee, her acting gift was in full display as she imbued the role with a sense of honor and piety just as she was about to offer herself, perhaps as opera’s most famous sacrificial lamb. Her heroic effort received the largest applauses from the audience at the curtain calls.

Marcelo Alvarez, as Manrico, had a lackluster evening – uninspiring, though with no glaring mistake. He was essentially Aldebran in that famous poster with Ben Hur on a chariot when he really should step forward and be Ben Hur — in other words, Alvarez lingered dramatically and vocally in the background when he really should be in front and take charge. Granted, he was able to hit all his notes in the pira cabaletta (albeit transposed down a semi-tone to make the execution more bearable), but otherwise didn’t carry along any emotional gravity that is so often associated with this music. Zeljko Lucic, as di Luna, had a soft-grained voice with no excessively decorative vibrato, but his legato had this matter-of-factly confidence that enabled him to navigate through the difficult Il balen passage with apparently little effort. Marianne Cornetti’s Azucena was a superb actress who knew how to place herself in the midst of the moving drama. Her voice was like an untamed lioness – plump and strong, but had the tendency of going sharp at the top notes, especially in the flashback passages of the Act II canzone.

The star of the evening was the stagehands, who managed to set up McVicar’s enormous set within the four hours between the last curtain of the matinee’s Boris Godunov, at 4:30pm, and Trovatore’s first curtain, at 8:30pm. This kind of turnaround time proves that for all the wonderful musicians who pass through the front doors of the Met, this pantheon of opera can’t be as good as it is without the enormously talented and super efficient backstage crew, for whom I have nothing but utmost respect.


Met Opera/Levine: Don Pasquale

Date: October 29, 2010
Conductor: James Levine
Production: Otto Schenk
Location: The Metropolitan Opera, New York.

After spending 17 hours on a plane, nothing relaxes me more than a light-hearted comic opera where the villain gets punk’d and the boy and the girl live happily ever after.

The above crudely, if not slightly irresponsibly, summarizes the story framework of Don Pasquale, and says nothing about Don Pasquale’s essence: Donizetti’s bubbly, effervescent music. Without any famed arias (like Elixir’s romanza or Lucia’s mad scenes), this work is nevertheless infused with plenty of honeyed passages that, altogether, form one coherent magnum opus, and the enactment of such would require nothing less than a stellar cast with a mastery of Donizetti’s written coloratura and of the piece’s buffo dramaturgy.

In that respect, Jon del Carlo delivered. His Don Pasquale was funny: his fine acting made it easy to believe that he was this wealthy old man whose farcical compulsion to get married was evidenced by the maniacal grin on his face, especially when he sang about his imaginary future children in Un foco insolito. His voice was slightly small for the house, but he made up for it by his outsized theatrical movements and broad-stroked physical comedy.

Anna Netrebko, playing Pasquale’s faux wife “Sofronia”, clearly had quite a bit of fun on stage. She was bouncing on and off the bed (in Pasquale’s house), and dancing, hopping, and two-stepping across the stage even as she was delivering her difficult bel canto lines. Voice-wise, she was not, on the surface, perfect for the role, as the lyrical power of her voice seemed to overwhelm the feathery lightness of Norina’s lines. But Netrebko treaded carefully, reserving power in the more exquisite lines while unleashing her vocal potency when the libretto’s emotional arch demanded it. Her impeccable vocal agility was precisely why she was able to effortlessly switch back and forth between a lovesick Norina and her meaner, fake alter-ego, “Sofronia”.

Matthew Polenzani, as Ernesto, Norina’s true love, was meticulous in his phrasings and precise in his delivery. His voice seemed to morph into whatever characteristics he so chose: he would project with a tinge of melancholic sadness in the heart-breaking song of Cherchero lontana terra, and with an aura of unmistakable mischievousness in the serenade. Mariusz Kwiecien delivered a masterminding but believable Dr. Malatesta, and together with del Carlo’s Pasquale, the pair delivered a massively fun dueling patter, at a breakneck speed that effused plenty of playfulness and none of the fast passage’s vulgarities. At the scene change curtain call, James Levine was gracious enough to let Kwiecien and del Carlo do an encore. Amazingly, after 40 years at the MET, this was Levine’s first time conducting Don Pasquale. Levine meticulously phrased Donizetti’s melodic arches with a caressing care, and drew a refined and fresh performance by the excellent MET Orchestra.

Otto Schenk came out of retirement a few years ago to create this production at the urge of ex-Met GM Joe Volpe. According to the lore, the signing of Netrebko onto the production was the deal clincher that compelled Schenk to do one more production. At the final curtain call, when Schenk appeared on stage amidst rapturous applause, he beamed with a big smile and a towering satisfaction, probably realizing that despite a movement towards a more avant-garde, cerebral stage design, the Met audience was still quite receptive to the classical realism that he so represented for a better half of the past century.

Netrebko, in Otto Schenk's Don Pasquale.