Sunday, May 29, 2011

Kasarova-mania continues: Never count a Thracian out

As Orpheus came back from Hades, so did fellow Thracian Vesselina Kasarova from her recent Hadian battle with pneumonia to make her debut in the sumptuous part of Dalila... singing opposite the formidable voice of Jose Cura at Deutsche Oper Berlin.

The reviews go from indifferent to hostile when it comes to the staging (quite reasonable judging from the look of it via the official trailer), though Kasarova herself seems mostly well-received. Here are a few words from various English-speaking audience bloggers:
- I Hear Voices     

By the way, true to form, the White Shirts' favorite diva (Frau Kasarova) has somehow managed to squeezed in another concert with the Kammerphilharmonie Amade on June 13th at Konzerthaus Berlin, this one to benefit Japanese earthquake victims. Her updated schedule here.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

All in a May day

It was a bit misty when I woke up this morning to find the snails feasting on the rose bush.

Too bad he isn't so edible...
The roadside squirrels were particularly jumpy... 

I guess he didn't like being barked at by my boss' 38 lbs lap dog...

I don't know what he was dreaming about, but I was glad he wasn't drooling.
On another note, I walked past this rather audacious ads posted on a telephone pole a few days ago... 

I mean... what's with that, ay? How blatantly illegal (not to mention unethical) can that get???

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Met HD Die Walküre & San Diego Opera's Carmen

When a couple of early morning cancellation opened last Saturday (May 14th) up like a peeled banana I made a galloping sprint right over to the AMC Mission Valley 20 cinema with 40 minutes to spare to catch the Metropolitan Opera's HD live broadcast of Richard Wagner's Die Walküre (The Valkyrie). Like the other 3 operas in the Wagner cycle, Die Walküre is a long sit at 5 hrs plus intermissions, so it pleased no one when the performance was delayed for 40 minutes.

No announcement was made until 15 minutes had lapsed since the posted showtime when the screen went black and ran the 'This performance has been delayed. The show will begin shortly,' notice. Half an hour into the delay a cinema staff came in and told us that there will be a 20-30 minutes further delay due to 'projector failure', which was both good and bad to hear. Most mechanical failure is quite more welcomed than 'indisposed principal cast' announcement! Not wanting to stay seated for longer than we already needed to, about half the audience (me included) went out in the lobby and walked around a bit. I came back to my seat after 8 minutes or so to find that the theater screen was showing live image from the Met auditorium with a running countdown clock saying that the show was about to begin in 1:50 minutes. Eh! At least 1/4 of the opera goers were still out of the theater buying food or stretching their legs because nobody had told them that the delay had been cut by more than half.

The Machine in Robert Lepage's staging of Die Walkuere at Metropolitan Opera in 2011. (Photo: Ken Howard)
As it turned out, the delay was due to a displaced encoder on one of the high-tech set's dynamic planks and they had to relocate and recalibrate the thing. 'La Machina', stage director Robert Lepage's gigantic mechanical set of the entire Ring Cycle is a real shape-changer that draws as much ire from the audience as it does admiration. I quite enjoy the thing and its many imaginative use to stand in for anything from Hunding's hut to its surrounding dense woods to Valhalla and even the galloping horses of the Valkyries. But then again, I'm a fan of minimalist staging that demands a lot of acting from the singers. After all, one of my all time favorite opera singers, Astrid Varnay (who happened to be one of the greatest Wagnerian soprano/contralto to ever walk the planet), wrote in her memoir that no other opera is as adaptable to the fantastic realms than Wagner's Ring Cycle. It is a mythical tale that can really benefit from imaginative staging... Many in the theater weren't happy with it, though, and spent the intermissions bemoaning the lack of other stage props.

Well, the show started with the entering of Maestro James Levine to the pit. He didn't look in the best of health (and it seemed to have a painful time struggling into his conductor's chair), but conducted with such fervor that ignited his orchestra into a splendidly thrilling playing of the hunt overture (this was one of the few bits of music that actually benefited from the loud volume of the auditorium sound system). If only all 5 hrs long opera could smolder through time the way he led this Walküre I'd risk my achy back sitting through them a lot more often!

Levine's conducting along with the stellar performances by Jonas Kaufmann (Siegmund), Eva Marie Westbroek (Sieglinde) and Hans Peter König (Hunding) made the first act feel just half its length! I heard Ms. Westbroek was battling a throat infection, but that didn't show much. She sounded very secure, and though the acting isn't much in the voice there was plenty of it on her face and in her every gesture. Herr König wasn't given much to do physically and wasn't the usual bad-guy Hunding, but I found him very convincing in his own way as a more reasonable and more passively nasty lord of the hut. Jonas Kaufmann was nothing short of flawless on all fronts imaginable. Rarely have I heard such nuanced singing in a 'Heldentenor' part like this. The voice is beautifully dark and vibrant with colors, deployed with delightful touch and dynamic command... And it drove the music forward in a way that made you anticipate his character's plight. He was also an exemplar colleague to his stage partners, only letting loose his glorious top notes for dramatic purpose and somehow commanding the stage without overshadowing anyone else.

Then, of course, came the second act with the entrance of the gods. Bryn Terfel's Wotan proved that he had the voice to match the physique (6'4") of a deity, and Stephanie Blythe's Fricka was riveting without even having to move off her mobile throne. The star marquee of the show, Deborah Voigt's Brünnhilde, however, was not very over-whelming as Wotan's favorite (and lead) Valkyrie. The voice has shrunk considerably since a few years ago and her pitch was at times a bit iffy. The choreography that had her spanking about with Wotan during her 'Hojotoho!' bits was rather.... ungodly in many ways. Even though I usually favor attempts to find humor in serious operas, this overt sort of silly fun making in a rather dignified and glorious musical scene seemed just frivolous. That said, she settled down after a while and sang much better in the final act (where Terfel was terfel-rific in the famous Abschied... though the orchestra somehow didn't sound very sparkly in the Magic Fire Music that followed... Perhaps that was the sound system's problem).

I had a great time with Die Walküre, and loved most of the intermission features with interviews with cast members and stage hands... Joyce DiDonato is a wonderful host, though I have to take some issue with Maestro Placido Domingo's lack of command of English (even when he was reading it). I will freely agree to anyone who says that Domingo is a great performer and ambassador of opera to a very wide audience. That said, his English is very hard to understand and annoying slow.... especially when he attempted to ad lib stuff. What is wrong with giving the interviewer job to someone who also knows the opera well and can actually speak English... and can really use the money? I'd buy a ticket to hear Domingo sing any day, but you can't pay me to hear him attempt to interview someone in English... I'm not that patient a person.

I also attended the San Diego Opera's opening performance of Bizet's Carmen on the same evening. This post is already long enough to make me a Wagnerian suspect, however, so I'm not writing about it here. If you are interested, though, I did muse on it earlier at another website.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Smorg's Favorite Tunes: The First Five

I promised my good friend Georg at Washing Without Getting Wet Blog quite a long while ago to make a post about my 10 all time favorite pieces of music. My slow-sluggedness alone, I'm afraid, doesn't account for the delay. I have so many favorite tunes that it is hard to settle on just ten, so I found myself making changes to the list every time I look at it. :oP After many months of dragging, I'm putting my big foot down on the following numbers simply because I'd never get a post started if I don't quit fidgeting with it. So... here are the 10 pieces of music that pop up in my head to stay the most, much to my comfort and pleasure - depending on circumstances, listed in no particular order:
1. 'Gia dagli occhi il velo e tolto' from Mozart's Mitridate (preferably sung by Vesselina Kasarova)
Farnace spends most of the opera betraying his father and brother to get what he wants (his dad's fiancee) until his treachery comes home to roost and lands him in jail. Having time to re-examine his unwieldy behavior he now realizes his rottenness and resolves to reform himself in this long song of atonement. It is an amazingly elegant soul-searching tune especially considering that Mozart was only 14 years old when he came up with it. The aria was custom-composed for the wackily low-voiced alto-castrato Giuseppe Cicognani, which makes singing it quite miserable for most mezzo-sopranos and countertenors performing the role today. The melodic line lives in the dusky depth of the chest register and thrives on sadistic octave-yo-yoing vocal leaps done in legato... If anyone deserves to be treated like that by a composer, I suppose Farnace does! 

2. Mendelssohn's E minor violin concerto (preferably played by Tasmin Little with the BBC Scottish Symph. Orch.)
Well... just because it is popular doesn't mean it is tart! It really took a genius to compose this thing. I've never heard how so many emotions can be put on just one violin string. And when the others are added, of course, the thing just explodes your mind in the cleanest eruption there is. No flash, no bang, no 'shock and awe', but pure acoustical delight that simply doesn't wane with repeated playing. I first encountered this piece via a video of Yehudi Menuhin performing this, I think, for a television program.

3. 'Kyrie' from Mozart's Mass in C minor (especially when sung by Barbara Bonney with JE Gardiner)
I first heard this number on the soundtrack cassette tape of the film Amadeus some time in the '90s while I was golfing around the US West Coast. It stuck in my head for the entire tournament with quite good result. To this day when I hear the tune I can remember much of the last round I played at Merced Country Club. It is always good to remember the 'good old days' when I was too naive to notice much 'not good' stuff that existed regardless of my ignorance. The rendition on the cassette was by Dame Felicity Lott with Sir Neville Mariner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Field. A great performance in its own right! I'm not religious now, but I still enjoy the music no less. Everyone has to confront helplessness every now and then and I can easily substitute crying for godly mercy with the search for the strength within to deal with whatever problem I'm facing. It comes down to the same thing regardless of how one chooses to label it.

4. Sarasate's Introduction and Tarantella (preferably by Mirijam Contzen and Valery Rogatchev)
Another very popular violin & piano duet that somehow didn't hit it right off with me on the first few go's, I guess mainly because it is very tempting for the violinist to make it his/her own show (and the pianist tend to willingly accommodate that). When played like a 'duet' as Mirijam Contzen and Valery Rogatchev do, however, this is a deadly infectious harmonic conversation I have a hard time stopping myself from repeatedly eavesdropping upon with the aid of the 'replay' button on my stereo. Listen to it... they (the soloists) actually listen to each other!

5. Verdi's Requiem
Not just one of two sections from it, but the whole thing! Of course, most people will be familiar with the fiery 'Dies irae' section. It has a knack for showing up in television commercials and in intense (and sometimes supernatural-ish) movie scenes, and, if I may say so, doesn't paint a very merciful picture of that notion of god that the piece invokes. I don't remember where I first heard the piece, or even which section first struck my ears. I'm partial toward the soprano-mezzo duo in 'Agnus Dei' and the surreptitious 'Quid sum miser', and, of course, everyone's favorite 'Libera me' -- not for the religious lyric of the thing but for the moodiness Verdi provides. Having this thing playing in my ears makes the brooding cloudy gray days especially enjoyable.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Sniff me crazy

I can't help but wonder why they have to stick their snout right on the poo to sniff at it during a walk... It takes so much of the pleasure out of being kissed by them afterward, you know?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Enigma/Carmen at San Diego City Ballet

I'm running around a week late these days. Apologies for untimeliness!

Last weekend was my first 'holiday' since late January, so I thought I would indulge myself a bit and catch the bus downtown late Sunday morning to either the opera or the ballet. The San Diego City Ballet was having its last performance of Enigma/Carmen at Spreckels Theater starting at the same time as the last performance of San Diego Opera's Faust at the Civic Theater (the halls are only two city blocks apart).
As I hadn't been to the ballet since 2002 though hadn't missed any opera in San Diego since Tannhäuser in 2008, it should have been a no-brainer for the ballet (especially since I've been itching to go to the ballet again since I saw Black Swan a month or two ago). But they (the San Diego City Ballet) were doing Carmen, which will also be the next opera in the SDO's line up, so I was quite torn in two and spent the hour before the show walking back and forth between the opera house and the ballet place. I would have loved to see a live performance of Gounod's Faust for the first time and the cast seemed very good for it (Stephen Costello as Faust, his wife Ailyn Perez as Marguerite, and Greer Grimsley as Mephistopheles)... and if I wasn't literally smoked right out of the Civic Center plaza while weighing the choices (there was this barbeque pit set up in the middle of the thing just below the fountain that was fuming up the place and threatening to set my allergy off) I might have gone in and get a rush ticket for the opera. As it was I escaped from the smoke and found myself exiting the south end of the complex... and just followed my momentum right to Spreckels for the ballet instead.

Smoke got in my eyes (and nose and lungs) walking around Civic Center Concourse on May 1st, 2011.
For $59 I scored a rather prime seat in row G of the Orchestra Level which was quite too close since the front part of the OL is below stage level (so if you are thinking of buying a ticket to a show at Spreckels Theater in downtown San Diego, be sure to get something beyond row J or so. Much better perspective of the stage from there). The City Ballet's Artistic Director, Steven Wistrich gave a brief pre-ballet 'lecture' before the show started a bit after 2PM.

I enjoyed the Enigma part of the show very much. It is all very robust contemporary modern dance to the music of Michael Cretu (piped in through the speakers on the front sides of the stage) and accompanied by pretty fascinating projected imagery to the 4 facades at the back of the stage. At times the projection distracted too much attention away from the dancers, but mostly it effectively supplemented the dancing. Aside from a few minor unsteadiness (a couple of 'will they make it to the crash pad in the wing before she tumble off his shoulder?' moments) the dancing was very well done and the choreography engaging. I thought I heard snippets of Maria Callas' voice singing bits from the Letter Scene of Massenet's Werther during one of the series of dance, mixed in with the more dancy modern music stuff.

Enigma and Carmen at San Diego City Ballet 2011 (photo: SD City Ballet)
I didn't like the Carmen part of the show, though. Aside from the authoritatively riveting Escamillo of John Henry Reid, the two principals who should have carried the show; Ariana Samuelson (Carmen) and Geraldo Gil (Jose) just didn't have enough charisma and stage presence to convince as their characters yet. I thought Samuelson did all she could in her dancing but was limited by her physique (and her blond hair didn't help as this particular character). Perhaps she tried too hard to act - though her gestures and movements were all done right and enthusiastically they didn't quite exude a lot of authority. Her partner, Gil, seemed simply indifferent, and made Don Jose even more a minor character that he already is prone to be (even though he shouldn't! He is the only character that develops and precipitates the key actions in the story).

My main peeve with the show; however, was the music editing... They used Bizet's music from the opera (sans singing) butchered into incoherency supposedly by Rodion Schchedrin and Leonard Bernstein (I shall probably be stoned by fans of the two now)... Well, since I had never heard the piece before (though I'm very familiar with the opera) I don't know if this thing was the work of Schchedrin and Bernstein uncut or if it was then re-rearranged by the SDCB (no live orchestra on performance. They used piped music), but it didn't make any sense. Some of the shows' most famous bits went missing (Habanera, Sequedilla, Act II intermezzo anyone?) and a lot of emphasis was paid on the minor dances (Carmen's act II tra-la-la-la was way overused) with no heed given to the opera's original use of leitmotifs. I guess those who didn't know Carmen opera music well weren't as disturbed for it, though. Also, the choreography was rather uninspiring and the scenes didn't transition from one to the next. In the end I was glad that the Enigma dance came in the first half of the performance or I'd have walked right out of the auditorium after Carmen and never saw it.

One thing impressed me in attending the show - although the small auditorium was far from filled the average age of the audience I could see was rather young. Quite younger than what you normally see in the opera auditorium.

The ballet was over just after 4PM, which left me a bit moody... I walked down Broadway to catch a bus home thinking, 'Man, you could have been at the opera now catching the last bit of the 2nd act... with that sublime Faust-Marguerite duet playing right about now!'

So... I wished I had gone to the opera instead, but I'm also glad that I did go to the ballet. Either way I did my bit of supporting a local art company while learning some new things and gaining more experience. I'm looking to catch one of the performances of Carmen at the San Diego Opera this month and perhaps attending another ballet before the year is out.