Thursday, May 28, 2009

Two Butterflies

Madama Butterfly is incredibly sad. It is heart-breakingly, tragically, cosmically sad. It meets the awe and terror quotient Aristotle described as intrinsic to tragedy. Their collision leads to the sublime, the direct experience of the mystery and majesty of the universe.

In great tragedy everything moves like clockwork, inexorably, to the catastrophe that climaxes the action and the rips open the seams of the world. There is nothing extraneous; each moment, each beat, leads another step closer to the unthinkable. And even though we, like the Greek audiences, know what is going to happen, the brilliance of the composer seduces us into believing in the changes the characters go through on the path of annihilation. We know. They don't. They tender hopes and dreams right up to the very end. This produces some mighty wondrous music.

The orchestra is not an accompaniment. Puccini learned a lot from Wagner. His orchestra is huge, and can create a mighty roar, just as it can sigh and whisper and croon delicately. At Fenice the exposed pit is roomy and when the orchestra fills the auditorium at full blast, it is an awesome and terrible thing for any singer to have to sing over. It takes special singers, spinto, "pushed," to soar over the orchestral climaxes and also have the restraint and musicality to deal with the countless tender moments, delicately scored and written to be sung softly.

I love Butterfly and was happy to see it in lineup this year, but a string of poor productions dampened my hopes for anything memorable. I was also dismayed to realize that my subscription, which is supposed to have only the "A" casts, in this case had the "B" cast. There was nothing I could do about it.

But the world of opera is peculiar, and one of the things all opera lovers dream about is the night the young singer you've never heard of blows the lid off the place.

Oksana Dyka is a 31-year-old Ukrainian soprano; she is svelte and attractive and is a commanding presence onstage. She has a large silvery voice that is so spinto it screams Turandot and beyond. The night belonged to her and to the conductor, Nicola Luisotti, who becomes the Music Director of the San Francisco Opera in September. Maestro Luisotti inspired the orchestra to a stunningly detailed rendering of the score, from the fading whisper of the humming chorus to the brutal and thunderous climaxes.

Whatever the orchestra did, Oksana's voice rode the crest like the Silver Surfer, ringing out true and clear. The same was not true for her Pinkerton. When the orchestra murmured softly, you heard his pretty tenor voice. But when the orchestra surged to full tilt, he was lost in the shuffle. My seat for this performance was my usual seat, platea, sixth row, center aisle. It wasn't a question of bad placement. Of the entire cast, only Cio-Cio San had the horsepower to always be heard distinctly.

That whetted my curiosity to hear the "A" cast, and so I bought a twenty-euro ticket for a "scarsa visibilita" seat in the loggione, high at the top of the theater. From there you see how shallow the platea is and how much floor space the pit takes up. Fenice is small, but not as small as it seems. The auditorium itself, the sound box, is over six floors high and shaped like a horseshoe. The open pit is fully exposed, and in that space the orchestra creates either a cushion or a wall of sound depending on the moment.

My loggione seat is in the front row but you really can't see anything. I am as close to the ceiling as you can get. I can almost touch the sea maidens buoyed on the ceiling cornices, a gold baroque froth the late lamented Stuart Miller called "snail trails." But I saw the production last night, from the best possible viewpoint so it really doesn't matter that tonight all I can see is the horseshoe of boxes in which the usual excessive amount of picture-taking takes place before the houselights go down.

My seat is also far forward, toward the stage. I have a magnificent view of the orchestra below although I can only occasionally see the singers. What impressed most from this perch is how well I can hear various solo instruments warming up in the pit, a single trombone, a lone oboe, a few strings. Their sound is immediate and clear and present despite the ambient noise in the hall as people takes their seats.

The bustling fughetto that opens the score is brisk and clean. People around me are leaning over the guardrail to see what I already know. The production is virtually non-existent: a frame of giant shoji screens pushed back and forth for effect, a 70s style disco floor that lights up in mood colors. Another low-budget minimalist vision: no Nagasaki, no cherry blossoms, no hair ornaments or embroidered kimonos. The costumes are pleasant and simple, like a J. Jill catalog. What this kind of production needs is stellar performance. The music is all that matters.

Butterly makes a long entrance from off-stage. The music of her entrance, "Ancora un passo or via," is wraithlike, in high voices from a great distance growing closer. In this production, Cio-Cio San and her wedding party are raised up slowly to the level of the stage on a giant elevator. The more they are exposed, the brighter and closer the voices.

The night before, I could tell from the first notes of Butterfly's entrance that this was not going to be ordinary. Oksana's voice, even offstage, was immediate and lovely. As she stepped forward, she sang the optional high note that is so spellbindingly beautiful when done properly. Oksana was a bit loud on it, but that is a quibble: it is ethereal and spot on gorgeous. Opera at its best.

From the loggione I listened as the "A" cast Butterfly, Micaela Carosi, made the same entrance. The voice was pretty, but harder to hear, and when she opted out of the optional high note, she pretty much lost me for the night. It is one of my favorite moments in all opera... She has a pretty voice with a tremulous vibrato that thrills some and leaves others cold. It doesn't do much for me, but I admired her beautiful legato lines. By the second act she confronted the orchestra's full roar; she was there, but not forward, not soaring over it, as Oksana had done.

There was not much difference, to my ear, between the "A" and "B" Pinkerton, nice voices but underpowered for the part, not spinto enough to be heard in the big moments. Both casts were rather interchangeable, except that the "A" Suzuki made the the flower duet very special.

Micaela Carosi was vocally convincing, her performance impassioned, and I could appreciate her artistry. But she did not knock my socks off, the way Oksana Dyka did. Comparing the two Butterflies is like comparing an ivory-handled dagger to a lightsaber. When Oksana sang either of her big arias, and at all her peak dramatic moments, and in the ensembles, you could clearly hear every nuance of her vocal line. Her tone remained beautiful even when pushed high over the clamoring orchestra. And when the orchestra died down you could hear clearly how her voice was even from the bottom all the way to the floated high d-flat of her entrance.

When she sang, it was opera as it should be; you ceased to worry if she could do it. Trusting her, you could relax and be carried away by what she did. She is not the ideal Butterfly, but she was a brilliant Butterfly. Some day she'll discover her inner Sieglinde, and when she does, I want to be there.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Il crepuscolo degli Dei

I went to Florence to see the end of the world and I did. I got what I wanted, and then some. As it ended, it was redeemed by love.

What more could you ask for?

It was the Maggio Musicale's controversial Fura dels Baus production of Wagner's Die Gotterdamerung, the closing opera of the Ring of the Niebelungen.

I did not see the three previous parts, so I don't know how the visual imagery and production concepts interlinked, as they must. My impressions are based solely on what I saw and what I know of the Ring of the Niebelungen from previous viewings in a variety of production styles and from thousands of hours of listening accumulated over a lifetime.

It's easy to be disappointed, especially with Wagner. His demands on the singers are inhuman and, on the orchestra, Herculean. To successfully stage a battle with a giant dragon, or portray the frisky subaqueous antics of mermaid-like Rhine Maidens, or depict the Warrior Maidens called valkyries riding through the air on valiant steeds, is never easy. In the closing minutes of Gotterdamerung the world, from Valhalla, the palace of the Gods on high, to the earth below are consumed by flames and flooded over by the Rhine, submerging everything while the orchestra delivers its final redemptive chords. It takes brave and imaginative staging to pull this off.

Fura dels Baus originated as a street theater group in Catalonia in 1979. Since then they have worked in all forms of experimental theater and have a considerable history staging operas. They are in themselves a most interesting phenomenon, and a fascinating (and controversial) choice by the Maggio Musicale festival to design and direct their Ring cycle.

You may have ideas about Wagner and his music, you may not have a clue, but wherever you come from, this production would have made you sit up and take notice.

For example, in the first scene of Act 3, the doomed hero Siegfried encounters those watery vixens, the Rhinemaidens. They try all their wiles to talk Siegfried into relinquishing the ring on his finger, but he will have none of it. They warn him of impending doom but he doesn't listen.

Imagine now, three aquaria suspended above the stage, glass cubes filled with water. There is a Rhinemaiden in each. They flip and charm and, occasionally, fully submerge, posing and beckoning and playfully splashing Siegfried. All the while they are singing enchanting, subtle and fiercely difficult music, making it look easy and fun.

There were moments that didn't work for me. It wasn't enchanted by Gutrune, the Gibichung princess in go-go boots riding an exercycle suspended in a spherical gopher cage. In the fact, the whole Jetson's aesthetic of the Gibichungs left me cold, but Hans Peter Konig was so galvanizing as the evil Hagen, his manipulations of Gunther and Gutrune so chillingly cold-blooded, and his immense barrel-organ bass so overwhelming and insinuating that it took your breath away, reducing everything else to quibbles.

Jennifer Wilson as Brunnhilde gave it everything she had, and if she sometimes came up short it was not for want of trying. She also had to deal with unflattering costumes whilst singing from various contraptions suspended from cranes (see below). There can hardly be a more difficult role to sing and in the most intimately compelling moments she scaled the heights, as in the long scene with her Valkyrie sister Waltraute, and in her final Immolation Scene, her soft, sad "ruhe, ruhe..." was heartfelt and heart-rending. She did not ring out brightly in Act 2 trio, but she was palpable, filled with anger and hurt, pitted against the dark side of The Force.

As for Lance Ryan as Siegfried, it should be enough to say that he sang part of his Act 2 confrontation with Brunnhilde while hanging upside down in gravity boots attached to the keel of the same suspended metal boat that ferried her back captive of his absolute betrayal. He sang that way for several minutes until he was released. Many tenors fail on their feet to sing what he sang upsidedown. He is attractive and physical onstage, and his voice both spoke softly and carried a big stick. He sounded fresher in Act 3 than in Act 1. I don't know if it was because it was the last performance of the run, or because he was particularly inspired, but his Act 3 was sheer bravura, dramatically and vocally. It soared, as if, instead of being about to die, he was just getting started. It made his death all the more startling. He did not appear for curtain calls, but it would not be hard to imagine that he was spent, having given a gigawatt performance.

Siegfried is killed by Hagen at the very moment the magic potion which has blinded him releases him. He has rapturously remembered the forest bird telling him of the sleeping Valkyrie, his voice sweet and ecstatic. Then he remembers his radiant warrior bride, whom he has so horribly betrayed, to the music of her awakening from her long sleep surrounded by the magic fire -- their first meeting. It was devastating emotionally, dramatically, musically. The Funeral March which follows his murder was savage; Zubin Mehta beat it out of the orchestra and they played as if their own families had been murdered and they were fierce and angry and sad while a phalanx of GIbichungs paraded the dead hero's body through the audience.

And then there was the end of the world. Brunnhilde lights Siegfried's funeral pyre, setting heaven and earth on fire. She rides into the fire on the surge of love that conquers time and space and redeems the universe.

Bodies, suspended high, linked acrobatically, writhed in the fire light above the flood and what I saw was the dissolution of the primal DNA, the glue that held everything together, dissolving back into the sea of primal nothingness and already forming the bonds of a new world. So that we did not miss the point, stage hands pushed two rectangular blocks across the front of the stage, upon which was written "L'AMOUR". It was a very 60's touch, but having lived through that, it was resonant in a pleasant way. It was also part of the Circus/Jetsons/60s aesthetic that characterized the production and that annoyed many. Not serious, they said; Star Wars stagecraft. For me, on its own terms, it worked.

It certainly worked for most of the audience, an unusually high number of whom were under 30, hip, alternative, and enchanted; they were still there, dazzled, at the end of the six-hour night filled with music and magic.The metal boat suspended from cranes; Brunnhilde and Gunther inside, Siegfried and Gutrune below. When challenged, he is suspended from the bottom, upside down, in gravity boots. And sings...

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Firenze, randomly

I'm not a good wanderer. I always have a program. I may lapse from the program and meander, waylaid by beauty as Edna Millay put it, but I usually end up where I intended.

So it was accidental that I strolled past the prim Ognisanti Church with the lurid Hercules, all glutes and lats, wrestling a lion in the small square. Inside there were vast treasures, to the extent that I didn't understand why I hadn't set out here purposefully in the first place.

Ghirlandaio's San Gerolamo is in such pristine condition that it looks new; in fact, it looks real. Facing it directly across the nave is Botticelli's Sant'Agostino. Here the Renaissance is in full swing, the composition whirling in orbit around Augustine.

Firenze is the Renaissance city par excellence. At first a Florentine phenomenon, it is here, especially in Santa Croce, that you can see the Renaissance emerge.

It did not burst on the scene fully formed, like Minerva from the head of Zeus. It slowly takes form in the dramatic narrative scenes in Giotto's frescoes. In contrast to the flat and static Byzantine posing that always forms the first room or two of every museum in Italy, the expressions symbolic formulas, the stances frozen and iconographic, the Renaissance flowers first in the faces. Giotto transcended the hieratic Byzantine conventions by breathing life into them; real life. It is one of the great "gear-shifting" moments in history.

Giotto also worked all over Italy -- in Florence, in Padova, in Assisi, in Rome. He spread the seeds the way Johnny Appleseed spread apples. His assistants, his students, his school, his adherents, became the greatest artists of the Renaissance.

The frescoes at Santa Croce are wonderful, no more wonderful than Padova or Assisi, and no less wonderful. They are all supremely beautiful because they express the gamut of human emotion, they are a vast reservoir of shared humanity, capturing the richness of life itself.

What you get to see in abundance in Florence are the intermediate steps between Giotto and Botticelli and Rafaello and Tiziano, Veronese, and Tintoretto.

The basic iconography doesn't change. Giotto's "Presentation of the Virgin" prefigures Tintoretto's and Tiziano's. But increasingly the the faces and hands come to life. Rather than posed, motionless, they are caught in movement, in the middle of something happening. Their expressions are real expressions, realizing something, or thinking something, or about to say something, or terrified of something, or at a moment of transfiguration as in the Annunciations. In Botticelli the movement becomes ballet.

But in Botticelli the beauty of the faces also becomes less real, more idealized. That is the Renaissance in full flower. It departs from the dramatic and personal realism of Giotto and inclines toward the idealization of forms. This was what Ruskin loathed about the Renaissance: the artists replace vivid humanity with idealized proportions, symmetry, facial expressions composed of arcs and angles rather than real human expressions. Yes, they are beautiful. Botticelli out-Veroneses Veronese for sheer sumptuousness. But they do not express the profound simplicity of shared human experience that propel the earlier frescoes.

The "Birth of Venus" room at the Uffizi is always crowded. You can barely see the paintings for the people. Botticelli is, to pre-Modern art, what the Impressionists are to Modern art: easy to love, beautiful, iconic, instantly recognizable. That does not, however, make them the best, regardless of how ravishing they may be. The Lippis in the room before, and Beato Angelico, and, above all, the Santa Croce frescoes and the Massacio and Lippi frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel at the Carmine church, burn with an inner fire that reaches into the soul, that breathes.

The Brancacci chapel is one of the few places I have been that holds its own in the company of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova and the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi. The frescoes surround you, transport you to a parallel universe where real people are swept up in the human dramas. They resonate with shared experience of humanity, of mortality and transcendence. Some are bored; some are startled; some sleep. Adam and Eve are tempted on one side and banished from the garden on the other; in between, a world unfolds.



Guido Reni (1575-1642), Davide con la testa di Golia, Uffizi, Firenze

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Fenice | Maria Stuarda | Charles and Camilla

My subscription at La Fenice guarantees that going to the opera is, except for the performance, a routine procedure. No surprises: same night of the week, same vaporetto hop, same streets, same seat. But walking from the Santa Maria del Giglio vaporetto stop last Tuesday evening for Maria Stuarda, I began to notice something was different.

It was the police. We saw the first group behind the opera house: eight of them, four in blue dress uniforms and four in dress fatigues. We crossed the bridge and rounded the rear of Fenice. There were several more groups of them in the narrow calle alongside the building, posted at each door. There must have been thirty more in the small square in front of Fenice, many of them, men and women, in the very fancy black uniforms with red and gold trim.

We went into the bar next door for a glass of prosecco and I asked the bartender what was going on.

He smiled ironically. "Il principe Carlo e sua Camilla." He winked.

That was a strange shock because there had been no preceeding buzz; unlike movie stars, it had been kept very quiet. Richard went in as soon as the doors opened, as usual, and I stayed outside to watch. I assumed that they would come by boat to the rear entrance, and went in to my seat.

I have a great seat. I got the subscription because I was tired of getting stuck in terrible seats. I am in the sixth row of the platea just off the center aisle. When I stood up and turned around, I could see preparations in the red and gold royal box. A very tense offical-looking man had positioned himself in the center aisle and watched the royal box like an eagle, receiving messages from his earplug and giving orders through his mouthpiece. The usual ushers were subordinated tonight to a higher command.

Charles and Camilla entered the royal box in a blaze of flash. All you could see was a swirl of light, silk, phosphorescent platinum hair, brilliant smiles; a pause; a wave; and the houselights went down.

It was a tough act to follow, and the singers demonstrated a little extra edge, which worked both for them (the two Queens) and against them (their Leicester, the tenor).

This production is shared by Teatro Verdi in Trieste, San Carlo in Naples, Massimo in Palermo . Sharing simple productions is a way of dealing with slashed subsidies. The unit set, modular and easily transportable, was a large, steeply raked maze. Navigating the maze comprised most of the stage action. Yes, it is symbolic; but it is also a cheap and unimaginative solution to the budget problem. It was lit various colors as the scenes progressed, but ended up being nothing more than an obstacle course for the singers. Fortunately, they were unhampered by cumbersome period costumes; instead, the costumes were minimalist simple, stylishly modern, in single colors with very Venetian jewel-tone sheens.

Sonia Ganassi, Elizabetta, is five months pregnant and got off to a rocky start, forced to stagger through the maze as if she were struggling for breath to sing all that complicated fioritura. Over the evening she became more and more dramatically convincing, her tone more even and commanding.

The same was true of Fiorenza Cedolins as Maria Stuarda. She sounded forced at the top, not as bright and easy as the high coloratura should have sounded. It is her first foray into this role, in want of some tuning. Below the stratosphere she was vocally secure and dramatically compelling.

Once again the problem was with the tenor. Fenice has been parading seriously inadequate voices in the tenor department. Roméo in March, both casts, was abysmal (Jonas Kaufmann was originally to have sung it, but dropped out early). Jose Bros was basically unacceptable. He often had trouble producing sounds, any sounds, let alone the music he was supposed to be singing. There were stretches where his tight nasal tenor was mellifluous, but not many. He was easily covered by the orchestra and the two women, but what are those duets and ensembles without the tenor? Not much, even though the girls sang like their lives depended on it. Real sparks flew between the two Queens, and that was when the opera happened.

After the interval the houselights dimmed to half-intensity, but not all the way. The security man was in the aisle listening and talking. It became apparent to the audience that they were waiting for the Royals to return to their box. The Italian women behind me (regulars) were muttering "get on with it" loudly.

At the end, after the various curtain calls, the audience turned to watch the Royals leave the Royal box. Their presence had influenced everything about the evening: the audience, the musicians, the staff. It was not another night at the opera. It was the night Charles and Camilla came to La Fenice. They smiled and waved. The audience applauded them warmly. They had come to Venice to go to the opera. That scored points.

[On the right is Albert's friend Luciano, who squired them around the house because he was considered the most knowledgeable person on the history and lore of La Fenice.]

Over the weekend Sir R. and Lady F. stayed our b&b. They had come to Venice for the weekend to attend a party at Villa Malcontenta, and Lady F. had gotten a tickets to the opera. I told them how Charles and Camilla had been there when I went.

"Oh, yes, I knew they were here," she said. "He loves opera."

I told them what I thought of the performance and the production. The next morning I chatted with them at breakfast.

"Enjoy the opera?" I asked.

"Smashing," he said. "But not one word of it is true, historically. Elizabeth and Mary never met."

"Operatic license, Italian style."

"We thought the two sopranos were marvellous, really. The tenor was the weak link. Although F. thought the soprano's high notes were a little off."

I was glad that it wasn't just me; that the tenor didn't cut the mustard for any one (his dutiful applause was lackluster; both sopranos got healthy ovations, as did, as always, the orchestra).

"I am always amazed that it is so difficult to find a good tenor, especially here, in Italy," I said to him.

"It's difficult to find a good tenor anywhere," he said. "The most difficult voice to fill; there are plenty of good sopranos and baritones and basses to choose from. But good tenors... they're hard to find."

You have to wonder why.