10 December 2015

A Brand-New Rossini Opera at the Met

Rossini’s La Donna del Lago returns to the Metropolitan Opera Friday night. Joyce DiDonato once again stars in Paul Curran’s production, which had its premiere at Santa Fe in 2013 before moving to the Met (with a different backdrop) last February. Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, Joyce’s “Giacomo, disguised as Uberto” from Santa Fe, rejoins her in the same role. We are guaranteed an evening of spectacular singing and glorious music that, as Joyce has observed in an interview, respects the story’s “emotional truth.”

However, after multiple viewings of this opera, it’s not the emotions but the underlying story that I find less compelling than I did, say, the first time around. At last, I have decided to heed the advice of Rossini’s biggest fan, Stendhal: I shall pretend that I speak no Italian, and I shall invent my own plot for this opera.

Stendhal: Don’t say he didn’t warn us.

La DiDonato del Lago, ossia
Great Scozia


Act I, Scene 1: The scene opens on Loch Kansas, where a chorus of townsfolk greets a new day that will bring the most exciting football game of the year. Ardena Scozia, a glamorous opera star, returns to her hometown by means of a boat that is conveniently left offstage. She sings of her love for Malcolm, her long-ago boyfriend, who is currently the general director of the Loch Kansas Opera Company. Unbeknownst to Ardena, this evening’s football game will pit the local team, the Pittsburgh Picts, against their deadly rivals, the Glasgow Grizzlies. The quarterback of the Grizzlies, Giacomo, has disguised himself as “Uberto,” an itinerant salsa dancer, in hopes of meeting the beautiful singer. She invites him back to her home for a cup of heather.

Act I, Scene 2: Giacomo is shocked to learn that Ardena’s father is Duglas, the former coach of the Glasgow Grizzlies, who is now coaching the Picts. He also learns of Ardena’s betrothal to Rodrigo, the Picts quarterback. Unbeknownst to any of them, Ardena is still in love with Malcolm, despite the fact that he is transitioning to contralto repertory. After Duglas has left, Malcolm invites Ardena to the football game.

Act I, Scene 3: Picts fans prepare for the football game by applying body paint in the team colors, blue and more blue. Ardena supervises. Malcolm declares his support for the team, but unfortunately it’s the wrong one (Aria: “Go, Go, Grizzlies!”), and Ardena’s friends mistrust him. The stadium lights are turned on, signaling that the game is about to begin.

Pep rally.

Act II, Scene 1: Still disguised as “Uberto,” Giacomo searches desperately for Ardena, because only she has the coin needed for the toss that will begin the football game. Once again he declares his love for her, but she tells him she could never love any man who doesn’t wear a skirt. He then gives her a ring, which he claims he won for playing at a Super Bowl, many years ago. Rodrigo has overheard their conversation and recognizes Giacomo’s true identity. Rodrigo commands his teammates to sack Giacomo, but Ardena, who is also the referee, calls a time out.

Act II, Scene 2: The game is incredibly violent, and in its aftermath Ardena is dismayed to see that the heads of losing players have been placed on pikes all over the field. She vows to find the NFL Commissioner, to complain.

Act II, Scene 3: Ardena is surprised to find all of the NFL Commissioners surrounding “Uberto,” who soon reveals his true identity. He tells Duglas and Malcolm that Bertram, the top draft pick, will be the Picts’ new quarterback, replacing Rodrigo, who has been sidelined for the rest of the season due to a severe head injury (on a pike). Malcolm admits that she’s a woman, and on hearing this news, Ardena joyously flings herself (Highland style, of course) into a live volcano. All rejoice, as a new peace reigns in Kansas.


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04 December 2015

Berg’s ‘Lulu’ at the Met

Petersen as Lulu in a promotional portrait.
I’m such a fanboy now that I want to get a pair of those hands to wear to all of her future performances.

Full disclosure: I am probably the least-fair critic of any performance of Alban Berg’s Lulu you are likely to find. The reason is my exceptional education in this opera, which I learned at the foot of Teresa Stratas, the soprano who created the title role in the world-premiere performance of the completed three-act score. Until Teresa and I started to talk about Lulu, I’d found this work absolutely fascinating and utterly unlistenable. But not long after Teresa started to explain it to me, I listened with greater and greater appreciation. Soon I called her to report that on many evenings I’d come home after work and play her recording of the opera. “Honey, be careful!” she replied. “That music can be dangerous!”

So it’s not merely my relationship with a singer closely associated with Lulu that seemed to doom my chances of ever witnessing a performance that met, much less surpassed my standards. That I attended the Metropolitan Opera’s new production three times — and would have attended more often, if circumstances had permitted — should tell you a great deal.

Dangerous Music: Stratas in the world premiere.
(“And comparisons are odious, honey.”)

Though a great deal of press surrounded the new production itself, by artist William Kentridge, my primary interest was in the singers, especially the leading ladies. Friends had heard Marlis Petersen’s Lulu and praised her extravagantly; she had decided to retire the role at the end of this run (last night).

And Susan Graham had decided to tackle the tremendous challenge of Berg’s score and the role of Countess Geschwitz, something I really wanted to see — because in the past I’ve been able to see only one performance when she created a role, or else I’ve seen her in roles she’s sung many times. Example: I saw only her only once in Les Troyens at the Châtelet, where she introduced the role of Didon to her repertoire — but five times when she returned to the role at the Met. And that in turn encouraged me to travel to San Francisco to see her Didon one more time, last summer.

This may be reflexive fan behavior, but I prefer to think that it’s something more. If this art — this opera — and this artist — truly mean something to me, then I must explore, study, immerse myself, in order to understand better.

Susan Graham as Geschwitz.

Susan has sung Berg before — but the “Sieben frühe Lieder,” not one of his mature works, certainly not Wozzeck or Lulu. As an artistic undertaking, then, this step into an entirely new kind of music was significant for her. At first hearing (the second performance), she won me over easily, and (predictably, perhaps) she seemed to warm most to the passages in which Geschwitz’s music chimes closest to the scores of Mahler and of Berg’s other immediate predecessors. Geschwitz’s final monologue proved tremendously moving, as Susan located a wellspring of tenderness and sorrow. At the penultimate performance, I found her more confident onstage, freer with her body as she acted, and even more resplendent vocally. And last night she carried all her best qualities before her as she crossed the finish line.

In interviews before opening night, she referred a few times to the unkind ways Lulu treats Geschwitz, as if mystified by Geschwitz’s unrequited devotion to her younger friend. To me, this characterization is one of the most easily understood aspects of the entire libretto: of course Geschwitz is slavishly devoted to Lulu, for all the almost-inexpressible reasons that I’ve behaved in similar ways with some of the objects of my own affections. By the final performances, I sensed — without knowing for certain how or why — that Susan was grasping her character’s emotions more completely. In Act III, Scene 1, Kentridge gives Geschwitz a particular, silent gesture, at the foot of a staircase as she reaches toward Lulu above her; by last night, the gesture had become especially poignant, and Susan’s entire body went into it. Yep, that’s what it feels like.

Petersen’s physicality as Lulu is only one of the extraordinary achievements in her performances: she delivers something quite like a modern-dance interpretation of Lulu, her choreography reflecting that assigned to Kentridge’s addition to the piece, a dancer who plays (or writhes inside) a piano far to one side of the proscenium. That Petersen can do all of this while singing a notoriously demanding score is almost beyond belief, and she’s doing so in varying states of dress, looking wonderfully sexy all the while.

Daniel Brenna with Petersen onstage at the Met.

The Met Titles meant that the audience could understand the jokes and ironic juxtapositions of the libretto — and the singers got laughs where Berg must have hoped they would. But Petersen’s theatricality proved so expressive, so perfectly attuned to the character’s moods, that she might do very well without titles at all. On first hearing, I was even more eager to attend the Met simulcast, with all its closeups, to permit me to see what her facial expressions were like — but when I got to the movie theater, there was a technical glitch, the screen was blank, and now I’ll have to wait for the DVD.

Lulu’s music requires a great deal of singing in very high registers, some coloratura, some Sprechstimme, and almost anything else you can name; she’s onstage for all but a very few extended passages. Petersen maintained a purity and beauty of tone throughout, without a trace of the metallic timbre that helped to lower one acclaimed Met Lulu in my estimation. (Comparisons are odious, but remember: 1.) I already admitted I’m an unfair critic; and 2.) that other soprano’s performance helps to illuminate just how delighted I am to find a singer who really does justice to this opera.)

Petersen explained to The New Yorker that, at the end of the final performance, she would deliver her own death-scream (as Lulu is murdered by Jack the Ripper, offstage), rather than letting another singer do the honors. It was a fitting way to bid farewell to the character, and indeed Petersen’s death-scream wasn’t like that of Jennifer Roderer (excellent though she’d been). Petersen had a guttural urgency — maybe Lulu herself was reluctant to leave Petersen’s body.

As for the rest of the cast, I was especially impressed with Martin Winkler’s commanding Acrobat, robust of voice and exuberant in his stage presence: somehow, in all my experience of this opera, the role had never seemed so important or so rich. Similarly, Alan Oke’s fully realized characterization brought the Prince into fresh new focus, though Johan Reuter (Dr. Schön), Franz Grundheber (Schigolch), and Daniel Brenna (Alwa) were all excellent without offering any revelations — for me. (I told you, I’m unfair.)

Kentridge’s production involves projected images and video, as well as curious props (see the gigantic hands, above) and the aforementioned piano-dancer. Much of this is, as we were warned, over-busy and distracting. Yet even from the first performance, I found it easy enough to ignore that which didn’t interest me and to focus on the staging itself, which was often straightforward and at times revelatory, as in the physical interactions between Lulu and Schön. Ultimately my biggest quibble may be with Geschwitz’s costume, which makes her look more ordinary and less exotic than I imagine her. But maybe that’s the point, and Kentridge’s choice did make me question why I’d always found Geschwitz exotic. Because she’s one of the rare lesbians in opera? Because other Geschwitzes wear men’s clothing? I’m not sure. Kentridge also sold tickets: I’ve never encountered a Lulu with better attendance, and fewer walkouts.

Derrick Inouye conducted the final performances, but by then I was under the spell of Lothar Koenigs, who brought out an almost lush quality in the score, Late-Romantic colors that I hadn’t heard from Pierre Boulez or James Levine. Koenigs’ performance made me realize that this opera, which I used to find denser and no pleasanter than an accident in a lawnmower factory, now strikes me as eminently accessible. How wonderful! For as audiences, we can also evolve artistically.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:
Susan’s next development — “transitioning,” shall we say, to Prince Orlofsky, tonight at the Met. Expect me to report about this remarkable juxtaposition of roles.

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