Sunday, March 30, 2008

Tristan Unseen

Our friend Sam caught one last Tristan:

Have you ever attended an opera performance and wished the awful sets would disappear? Of course, you can always simply listen to broadcasts or recordings. But nothing quite takes the place of being in medias res, especially if there's a ballet, battle or parade that you don't want to miss.

You CAN have your wish and hear it too at the Metropolitan Opera.

Score desks are located along each side of the uppermost tier next to the seats in the Family Circle boxes. They cost $10 (for regular performances). They afford no view of the stage, but they have (mostly) superb acoustics. You can hear nuances in the voices and instrumental details that sound engineers manning hi-def mikes rarely pick up. The lamp-lit desk allows enough room for a score or a libretto. If the performance is going great, the aural experience is made all the more exciting. If it sucks, you can substitute the score with a book, magazine or racing form. (Newspapers are not advised. Even tabloids are too large and make a racket when you turn pages.)

Visually, there's not much to miss in the Met's current production of Tristan, which finished its six-performance series on Friday night. The unit set is unremittingly dreary (perhaps intentionally). Brief splashes of retina blasting back-lighting give little respite. And Tristan, unfortunately, has no ballets.

Friday night, I attended my fourth Tristan at the Met in little over two weeks, and I really didn't want to spend five more hours counting all the triangular forms built into the scenery. So I acquired a score desk.

No diversions were necessary. It was arguably the best performance of the four I heard in the house, and a photo-finish with last Saturday's broadcast. Ben Heppner AND Deborah Voigt appeared together for the first time in the title roles at the house, after illness forced them each to cancel several performances. (Heppner dropped out before the season premiere; Voigt withdrew from one performance in the middle of the second act, and skipped another one entirely.)

Heppner rarely has sounded better, despite some wrongly sung passages in the second act. Voigt regained her poise and confidence, following intermittent vocal squalls in previous performances. Michelle deYoung (replacing Margaret Jane Wray), Eike Wilm Schulte, and the redoubtable Matti Salminen rounded out what turned out to be as close to a dream cast as anyone could hope for in this day and age.

But the star of the show was the Met Orchestra under James Levine. The ensemble always plays well, and frequently scales the heights, but the muses were in attendance last night: the playing was uniformly Olympian. Primus inter pares: Pedro R. Diaz in the English horn solos.

If you didn't make it to the Met on Friday night, you could have experienced almost exactly what I heard. At the last minute, the Met decided to stream the performance live via its website. That meant that opera lovers anywhere in the world with access to a computer could have heard it. The Met should do it more often -- but with a bit more advance notice.


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Friday, March 28, 2008

Yet another TRISTAN wrinkle!

The Metropolitan Opera has just announced that they have added another Webcast to their publicly streamed series at the last minute(!): Since no TRISTAN UND ISOLDE this season has yet featured both Heppner and Voigt together, the Metropolitan has decided, at the last minute, to publicly stream this Friday evening's TRISTAN, the last of the season, for the pleasure of opera lovers everywhere! It looks as if this one time the scheduled duo of the whole series, Ben Heppner and Deborah Voigt, will finally appear together for real (perhaps instead of singing "Begehrt, Herrin, was Ihr wuenscht", Heppner might sing "So finally we meet!"...........). Be sure to tune in!

This is now entered onto the top of our This Saturday page with the full (expected) cast from the Met site. You'll find our new entry at the first GMT 2300/EDT 7:00PM slot towards the top of the page at

I did stipulate here the "expected" cast, of course. Given the way this run has been going, nothing -- but nothing -- seems for sure. Maybe, not only will Heppner cancel this time to balance Voigt's canceling the previous performance, but someone out of the blue (lyric tenor Juan Diego Florez????????) may do his first TRISTAN tomorrow.....................

Given the history of this run, anything is possible.

Happy listening,

Geoffrey Riggs

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Saturday operas - March 22, 2008

After all the travails the Met has been through in the past week or two (Heppner bows out of the first four Tristans, Mac Master fills in for the first T &I but disappoints in Act III, Swenson cancels Traviata, Lehman sings admirably in the second perf. of T & I, but Voigt walks off in Act 2 with a stomach bug, Lehman again sings in the third perf. - although Robert Dean Smith was rumored to appear, but didn't - but almost gets decapitated early in Act 3, and on Friday Radvonowsky cancels Ernani to be replaced by Angela Meade -- who then gets a sensational reception on the night), can it put on a flawless Tristan today? Robert Dean Smith is scheduled to appear in today's Hi-Def broadcast. He is certainly a more experienced Tristan than Gary Lehman, having sung the role at Bayreuth and elsewhere over the past couple of years. I still hope that Heppner returns for the remaining performances - no word on that as yet. IF the broadcast goes "normally", it should be one of the special ones. The rest of the cast are all wonderful.

By coincidence, listeners have a choice between two different operas with Robert Dean Smith and Eike Wilm Schulte this afternoon. Cesky Rozhlas 3-Vltava is offering them both in a star-studded 2006 Parsifal from Monte Carlo a bit later in the afternoon.

For the Easter week, we not only have Parsifal; there are also quite an assortment of oratorios and various settings of the Passions by a number of composers on offer during the next 48 hours.

So here's what's on this afternoon:

LRT Klasika - a rebroadcast of Rameau's Castor et Pollux from Amsterdam,
Metropolitan Opera (numerous stations) - Starting at 12:30 EDT, Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, with Deborah Voigt, Robert Dean Smith, Michelle De Young, Matti Salminen, Eike Wilm Schulte, Tony Stevenson, Mark Schowalter, Stephen Gaertner and James Courtney, conducted by James Levine.
Cesky Rozhlas 3-Vltava - From Monte Carlo, a 2006 performance of Parsifal with the mouth-watering lineup of Robert Dean Smith, Konrad Jarnot, Bjarni Thor Kristinsson, Kristinn Sigmundsson, Eike Wilm Schulte, Petra Lang, Ferdinand Seiler,Hans Griepentrog, Martina Rüping, Cécile van de Sant, Christian Elsner, Keith Ikaia-Purdy, Sabina Cvilka, Claudia Galli, Kristen Grotius and Caroline Stein, conducted by Marek Janowski.
Deutschlandradio Kultur / Radio Tre - From Brussels, a February 2nd concert performance of Weber's Euryanthe, with Gabriele Fontana, Jolana Fogasova, Kurt Streite, Detlef Roth, Jan-Hendrik Rootering, Hendrickje van Kerckhoven and Robin Tritschler, conducted by Kazushi Ono.
DR P2 - From Paris, a performance of Herold's Zampa, with Richard Troxell, Bernard Richter, Patricia Petibon and Doris Lamprecht, conducted by William Christie.
France Musique - From Palais Garnier in Paris, Stravinsky's The rake's Progress, with René Schirrer, Laura Claycomb, Toby Spence, Laurent Naouri, Hilary Summers, Jane Henschel, Ales Briscein and Ugo Rabec, conducted by Edward Gardner.
Latvia Radio Klasika - From Rome, yet another Parsifal from January 23rd, with Simon O'Neill, Lucio Gallo, Evelin Herlizius and George Zepenfeld, conducted by Danielle Gatti.
Radio 4 Netherlands - A March 21st performance of Janacek's Katia Kabanova from Amsterdam, with Amanda Roocroft, Kathryn Harries and Kurt Streit.
NDR Kultur - A four-hour special on the heritage of the celebrated Maria Malibran with some rarely heard material sung by Cecilia Bartoli.
WDAV - A new opera, Adamo's Lysistrata, is heard in the NPR World of Opera series, featuring Emily Pulley and Arturo Chacón-Cruz, among others.

Happy listening!


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Travails of Tristan continued...

Can one believe that the Met's jinxed Tristan run this season has fallen prey to yet another disaster? Read on . . . .

Tristan und Isolde - Metropolitan Opera, March 18, 2008

First Ben Heppner took ill and withdrew from the Met season's first performance of Tristan und Isolde last week. His place was taken by John Mac Master. At the next performance, Gary Lehman replaced Mac Master and Deborah Voigt quit in the middle of the second act, felled by an upset stomach. Last night, a scenery malfunction in the last act knocked out Gary Lehman, who was singing Tristan.

Here's how it looked like it happened. The mat on which Lehman was lying supinate apparently cut loose from its moorings and sent him like a trajectory head-first down the steeply raked stage right into the prompter's box. A computer glitch could also have been to blame, because the mat glides slowly down stage from the rear over the course of several minutes. Suddenly the mat simply raced toward the prompter's box.

Mark Showalter and Eike Wilm Schulte, who were on stage at the time, rushed to the side of the motionless Lehman, followed by several stage personnel. Lehman stood up after a few moments, and walked about the stage, rubbing his neck. The curtain was brought down, and a stage manager appeared to say, "Gary is o.k., but he needs a few moments and a glass of water before he continues."

According to the Associated Press report, a doctor examined Lehman, before allowing him to proceed with perhaps the most arduous scene for any singer in all opera. When the curtain went up again about 10 minutes later, a huge round of applause greeted Lehman, who was again lying, arms outstretched, on the killer mat. By any standard, he gave a towering performance of Tristan's delirium ridden visions -- all the more astonishing, given the potentially serious injury he had just sustained.

At the final curtain calls, could James Levine, who is well-known for passing around complements, have given Lehman a pat on the back, an extra solo bow or some kind of acknowledgment? Yes. Did he even bother to shake Lehman's hand in full view of the public? No.

Despite a momentary memory lapse by Lehman late in the second act, and some rhythmic uncertainty from Voigt shortly after her third act entrance, the performance was, by and large, the best of the three given so far. Michelle De Young, Matti Salminen and Schulte were in especially good form.

So who will sing Tristan at Saturday's world-wide live telecast? At last night's intermissions (both long enough to hit the head twice), the video screen above the box office said, TBA. According to Robert Dean Smith's website, he will go to the Mat from Hell on Saturday (the Associated Press refers to him as Roger Dean Smith.)

© 2008 Sam Shirakawa

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Notes on Ernani - Met, March 27, 2008

Sam Shirakawa's short take on the Met's Ernani - Thanks, Sam!

Why has Sondra Radvanovsky appeared infrequently at the Met in recent seasons? What ever the reason, she's back. Hooray for that.

At Monday's first Ernani of the season, the audience was told that she would sing in spite of suffering from a virus. What virus? Excepting a tentative moment or two during "Ernani involami" she sounded better than ever. That electric vibrato as she ascends the scale is bringing her about as close to becoming a real Verdi soprano as we're likely to hear in this day and age. For some reason, though, she's yet to surge into the realms of Divadom. She remains the opera world's best kept secret.

Her lover for the evening was Marcello Giordani in the title role. His hi-def appearances at the house have gained him a cache of glamor in recent seasons, and he is among the emerging tenors heading into the spotlight that L and P held for decades. Some don't like him; I do, at least, when he's performing Verdi. The voice is attractive, the top notes are usually secure, and he has pleasant if not recondite stage presence.

Why is Thomas Hampson singing Carlo, much less Verdi? He still maintains a gorgeous, evenly placed voice, but it would better serve the Gallic repertoire, modern works or Lieder, where his sun really shines.

Ultimately it was veteran Ferruccio Furlanetto as Silva, who dominated the performance, showing everybody what superb singing is all about. The voice has character and the kind of warm, dark verve often associated with Pinza and Pasero.

Conductor Roberto Abbado kept the beat going, despite one or two ensemble issues between the pit and the stage. Pier Luigi Samaritani's utility sets from 1983 are holding up.

© Sam H. Shirakawa 2008

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Tristan - latest scuttlebutt

Word was that Robert Dean Smith would be singing Tristan tomorrow night. However the latest scuttlebutt is that Smith will not be singing and that Gary Lehman, who sang the role so successfully on Friday night will be repeating the role. No news yet about who will be singing for the broadcast (which is also being broadcast in HD to movie theaters everywhere...).

I am assuming that Voigt will be back tomorrow to sing Isolde. . . .


Saturday, March 15, 2008


Herewith Sam Shirakawa's take on Friday evening's Tristan (and he had NOT read my post before sending this to me):

Friday, 14 March 2008

Opera distills mankind's noblest instincts. Opera harmonizes the cognizance of what lies within our innermost selves. Yadda yadda yadda. Mozart said so. So did Wagner.

Attending the first two performances of the Met's Tristan this season has made me cognizant about something of my innermost self: I'm a blood sport fan.

The indisposition of Ben Heppner last Monday (10 March) pushed a certain John Mac Master into the Coliseum of modern day opera. Nearly four thousand pairs of ears heard him come close to eviscerating his lovely fragile voice in the Killer Third Act.

John Mac Master emerged bloodied, but apparently not sufficiently able-bodied to be thrown to the lions again on Friday night (14 March). Heeding the implicit mumblings for fresh meat, the Met's management shoved one Gary Lehman onto its mopped-up stage. His Met debut (!) was preceded by an appeal for understanding for the intrepid Christian from guilt-edged Met General Manager Peter Gelb, doing his utmost to refrain from sounding like a carnival barker.

Lehman's first act went better than I, at least, expected. In fact, for someone who was singing the role for the first time professionally, he performed beyond expectations exceedingly. But Lehman's Trial by Tristan was far from over.

A seemingly long first intermission had some speculating that James Levine was furiously tickling the ivories backstage, taking Lehman through pesky parts of the next act. Maybe.

But another drama was unfolding.

Shortly before the love duet in the second act, the evening's franchise, Deborah Voigt, walked off, leaving Lehman to continue singing his part, even after the tabs were brought down. A stage manager or such promptly appeared to say that Voigt was feeling unwell, but the performance would continue shortly with Janice Baird.

The switch must have been pre-determined, because James Levine never left the podium, and the performance continued at roughly the same place where it had dribbled to a halt. When the curtain went up again, a huge round of applause greeted Lehman and his new Isolde. And just as though you were switching your remote from CD 9 to CD 10, Baird picked up as if she had been performing from the start.

Statuesque and exuding confidence, Baird went on to conquer. She already had created a buzz so positive in the unpaved parts of the operatic world over the past decade, that I've often tried to chase down her Salome, Bruhnnhilde, or ANYTHING at Chemnitz, Essen and a couple of other venues. But her schedule never coincided with my travel plans until last night.

Now, suddenly, I was confronted with an Isolde whose luminosity emanated from within, rather than from the real and metaphorical spotlights thrown on her. Voigt already had traversed the two ceiling-level Cs before Baird stepped in, but Baird evinced the requisite range and palate for adumbrating what remained with variety, flexibility and most appealing vulnerability. A few gaffes here and there centered mostly on patches of un-centered intonation. Eminently forgivable if you remember that some other Isoldes have shlepped through whole evenings under the note.

Baird is listed on the Met's current roster, but a search of the Met's website turned up no scheduled performances. If this was also her Met debut [editor's note: it was.] under most unusual or unique circumstances, didn't she too warrant a let's-give-it-up-for-Jan pep spiel from Gelb? But more substantively: If you're playing Tag Tristan with the guys, Pete, how about letting a gal join the game? There are four performances left in the current series.

Changing partners left Lehman unfazed, as he forged on to surmount the rigors of the love duet and the terrors of the third act with blazing thrusts of energy and voice. This was heady stuff -- about as close as opera is likely to come anytime soon to Manning and Tyree in that Unforgettable Fourth Quarter.

The vice that nearly trapped him a couple of times, though, was sporadic rhythmic sluggishness. No big deal. Before we get ahead of where he's possibly heading, though, let's realize that Lehman may be a herrliches Knabe, but he is no force of nature yet. Now that he's proven that he can do big Wagner in the Big Time right out of the box, he should stick to Erik and Parsifal for a while.

The rest of the cast sounded even better than on Monday night. Especially Salminen.

For the record, the performance drew to an end around half-past midnight, making it a candidate for the Guinness Book of Records.

All in all, my thirst for blood sport, or just blood, was certainly aroused on Friday but left largely unquenched. But then, there's next week...

That's when it's said that a tenor who has sung Tristan more than once will face the lions. If Robert Dean Smith does as well as he's been doing in Europe of late -- and he has done well every time I have heard him in person -- nobody will be confusing him with Harry Dean Smith.


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Is There a Tristan in the House? . . .

On second thought ... is there an ISOLDE in the house?

Last night's Tristan und Isolde was nothing if not an adventure. The audience was forewarned by Mr. Gelb before the curtain rose that Gary Lehman, the night's Tristan (and the second in as many performances) was singing the role, not only for the first time at the Met, but for the first time EVER. There was an audible "Ooph!" from the audience ... and then cathartic laughter. The Met has been doing its best to fill the ailing Ben Happner's shoes, but John Mac Master, who had sung Tristan on opening night, had been booed (something I don't think is ever justified when a cover singer is doing his best to fill in at the last moment).

Lehman was several cuts better than Mac Master, from comments I heard during the first intermission. His voice, while not the most beautiful instrument I have ever heard, was clear and large - at times he sounded bigger than Voigt. His German diction was excellent. Lehman looks good on stage. There were a few awkward moments, mostly due to his lack of proper rehearsal. But he was a stalwart stand-in. As the performance progressed, he became obviously more comfortable. I found his exchange in Act Two with King Marke, where Marke asks him to explain his betrayal, particularly moving. And best of all, he sang through all of his Act Three monologues with understandable caution, but without a hint of strain or fatigue. The circle of international Wagner tenors has just grown by one.

One wonders what was really in that potion Tristan and Isolde drank at the end of Act One. Overshadowing Mr. Lehman's impressive debut, however, was Deborah Voigt's sudden indisposition during their discussion of that potion toward the beginning of Act Two. Shortly after Brangaene had left the stage, as her Tristan continued to sing to her, Ms. Voigt ran off stage right, and shortly after that the curtain came down, the lights in the pit were doused, and the music came to a halt. Someone came out in front of the curtain to announce Ms. Voigt's indisposition and begged the audience's patience while her cover, Janice Baird, was put into her costume and makeup. Some ten minutes later, the house lights dimmed and the performance resumed.

Ms. Baird has a warm, ample sound, not quite large enough to surmount the loudest that James Levine's orchestra put out. But she never forced her voice and was always musical. Especially in the beginning, and in the Liebestod, when she was tiring a bit, she displayed some flatness. But her performance was overall a pleasure.

The first intermission seemed longer than usual, and when Levine only entered the pit several moments after the house lights went down, I assumed that he had been doing last-minute coaching with the evening's Tristan (still a third singer has been announced for the Tristan next Tuesday, March 18th). But the New York Times reports that Ms. Voigt told management after Act One that she might not be able to complete the performance. The cover was called and Ms. Voigt went on for the beginning of Act Two. I heard no hint of her indisposition in her singing, save for a couple of less than stellar top notes, usually the glory of her voice.

Overall, notwithstanding all the distractions, it was a successful Tristan. Matti Salminen continues to amaze as King Marke. In his mid-sixties, with occasional slight unsteadiness, he is still a musical force of nature. He conveys the gravitas and grief of the King better than any other singer I have heard in this role (including René Pape, who isn't old enough yet to entirely capture the exquisite grief of the aging and childless King). Eike Wilm Schulte, as Kurwenal, was also astounding. I have always enjoyed hearing him. Schulte is one of those rare singers who communicates the music without getting in the way of it. As one of my companions last night said, he's so natural you don't realize just how good he is.

The performance ended at 12:35 with generous ovations for all involved, especially the Tristan and Isolde, Lehman and Baird. I can only send the Met good wishes for the next performance of Tristan on Tuesday....

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March 15, 2008 Highlights

This will be a somewhat abbreviated highlights post. I got home very late from a historic Tristan at the Met last night (more on that later...), so here's the quick and dirty on today's live lineup:

  • Metropolitan Opera (numerous stations, and also being simulcast to movie theaters in HD) - Britten's Peter Grimes, with Anthony Dean Griffey, Patricia Racette, Anthony Michaels-Moore, Felicity Palmer, Jill Grove, Leah Partridge, Erin Morley, Greg Fedderly, Bernard Fitch, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, John del Carlo and Dean Peterson, conducted by Donald Runnicles.
  • DR P2 - From Vienna State opera, Verdi's La Forza del Destino, with Nina Stemme, Salvatore Licitra, Carlos Alvarez, Alastair Miles and Nadia Krasteva, conducte by Zubin Mehta.
  • France Musique & Radio Tre (RAI) - From the Opera Comique in Paris, a concert performance of Hérold's Zampa (ou La fiancée de marbre), with Richard Troxell, Bernard Richter, Patricia Petitbon, Doris Lamprecht and Vincent Ordonneau, conducted by William Christie.
  • Radio Oesterreich International (OE1) - Rebroadcasting the Met's historic broadcast from April 1975, of Rossini's L'Assedio di Corinto, with Beverly Sills, Shirley Verrett, Justiono Diaz, Harry Theyard and Betsey Norden.
  • Latvia Radio Klasika - a rebroadcast of the Met's performance of Prokoviev's War and Peace, with Marina Poplovskaja, Kims Begley, Aleksexis Markovs, Larisa Sevcchenko and Vasilijs Gerello, conducted by Valery Gergiev.
  • Radio Stephansdom - An historic live performance of Verdi's Don Carlo (recorded at the Vienna State Opera in 1970), with Franco Corelli, Eberhard Waechter, Martti Talvela, Tugomir Franc, Gundula Janowitz, Shirley Verrett, Edita Gruberova, Ewald Aichberger and Judith Blegen, conducted by Horst Stein.
  • WDAV - From NPR World of Opera, a performance from Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam of Monteverdi's Orfeo, with Jeremy Ovenden, Judith van Wanroij, David Cordier, Pascal Bertin, Tania Kross, Alan Ewing, Panajotis Iconomou, Wilke Te Brummelstroete, Ilse Eerens, conducted by Stephen Stubbs.

Happy listening . . . .


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Full Circle?

Sam Shirakawa has been busy attending performances in New York of late. Here is his second review for us in the past week:
Tristan und Isolde - Season Premiere, March 10, 2008

A poignant reunion of sorts may have gone unnoticed at the Metropolitan Opera's season premiere of Tristan und Isolde last night (10 March). Twenty-seven years after Matti Salminen made his sensational house debut as King Marke, he returned to portray the cuckolded king under James Levine, who led his first Tristan that same evening, 9 January 1981.

The depredations of time may have taken their toll in various ways on both men, but not on their talents. Levine's on-going musical achievements need no reprise here, for they are neither surprising in their extent, nor unexpected in their proportions. He's a superstar. Salminen has trumped the odds for survival in the stellar regions of the lyric theater, where brilliant vocal talents blaze and burn out each season like Eoman candles.

At his debut, lo those nearly three decades ago, Salminen transformed Marke's usually interminable monologue from a dreary whine-fest into the pivotal moment of the performance, his glowering basso forging the old monarch's "why-me?" self-pity into a statement of Lear-like rage against the death of friendship and the dying of the light. At Monday's performance, Salminen ruled again, but differently this time, as he stood before the drug-addled lovers in their post-coital disarray, to render a heart-breaking requiem for Marke's hope -- his dreams of happiness in old age so cravenly destroyed. While usage and the passage of time have mellowed that bronze hue that captivated listeners at Salminen's debut, the essential plangency of his magnificent instrument has deepened and fermented nobly. Rare is the bass who can survive long enough to nurture his resources to endow this frequently tedious music with such supernal sorrow. Blessed is the listener who savors it.

The big buzz on the season premiere as an event, of course, was Deborah Voigt's first complete New York Isolde. She's already recorded the role and given us live bleeding chunks of her take on the "Irische Maid" at other local venues, so the first-night crowd had a good idea of what to expect.

If expectations centered on revelation, Ms. Voigt delivered disclosure. All the notes were there, and she looked better than ever, having shed a wardrobe's worth of weight. Voigt has always been an interesting listen but a rather dowdy look. That, mercifully, is changing. Girth loss has had no perceptible impact on her voice, but it has palpably enlivened her stage presence. Her figure has hardly become glamorous, but her movements have become more animated and her gestures more telling. Her Isolde is still a promising work in progress.

That progress was challenged by the last-minute substitution of John Mac Master as Tristan, who stepped in at the dress rehearsal for the indisposed Ben Heppner. Some jerk at the back of the house booed him at the curtain calls, but such disapprobation was both cruel and unwarranted. Mac Master has a way to go before he becomes a world-class Tristan, if indeed he strives toward that end. But he, unlike so many other newbies to the role, has the core material for it. It would be a stretch to call his voice big, but Mac Master makes no effort to stretch it either. Which is a good thing, for he had patches of near-distress while traversing Tristan's mad scene. Nonetheless, it is big enough to cut through the orchestra at full tilt. There is musicality in every note he sings, and thanks possibly to Levine's wise tutoring, he parses out the cantilena with enticing style. This is a voice with which one can abide comfortably over five hours (yes, the performance began at 7:00 pm and ended about midnight). But it would be churlish to cast a verdict prematurely on his future as a Wagner singer, as some critics have done already.

Levine's predilection for slow tempi in later Wagner appears to have ripened over his 30-some performances of Tristan at the Met, but they seem less listless than they used to be. At Monday's performance, in fact, his basic tempo -- despite some rhythmic quirks in keeping orchestra and singers together -- served to illuminate the score rather than belabor it. Reginald Goodall often cautioned conductors to wait until they mature sufficiently before tackling late Wagner. Levine has arrived at that point.

Rounding out Monday's cast, Michelle DeYoung was a thrilling Brangaene, and Eike Wilm Schulte, starting off a bit brusquely, turned in a surprisingly mellifluous Kurvenal, especially in the final act.

If the voices that inhabit the imperiled state of opera are meaningful to you, do not fail to attend the Met's current Tristan. Matti Salminen is a treasure. Hasn't the time come for New York to hear his Philip and Sachs?

© Sam H. Shirakawa 2008
[Editor's comment: Geoffrey was also at Monday evening's performance. He was likewise impressed by Salminen and Schulte. Having seen Salminen's debut as King Marke, his mastery of this role remained deeply satisfying, for which no surprise. The surprise of the evening was Schulte's final act -- by far the most intrinsically musical, most nuanced and most moving reading of Kurwenal's music Geoffrey has ever heard in person. It was also gratifying to hear an uncut Tristan, but was this a wise decision given that Mac Master was virtually untried in the role?]

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Sunday, March 09, 2008

What's Become of the Good Old-Fashioned opera Gala?

Correction added 3/15/08

Our good friend, Sam Shirakawa, attended Thursday evening's OONY Gala. HIs review follows:

Following nearly 100 minutes of ho-hum turns by some of opera's brightest luminaries,a flash of longed-for lightning finally struck the Opera Orchestra of New York gala at Carnegie Hall on Thursday (6 March). Dowager super-diva Renata Scotto, who hosted the affair, appeared with the rest of the singers to participate in a round-robin rendition of the Brindisi from Traviata. Marcello Giordani and Bryan Hymel split Alfredo's lines, and Violetta's part was divided among no less than Renee Fleming, Krassimira Stoyanova, Eglise Gutierrez, Dolora Zajick (yes!), and Signora Scotto (YES!).

Looking perhaps even better now than she did during her glory days as the Met's reigning prima donna (317 appearances), Scotto then shamelessly took possession of the stage, moving around the podium area, kissing and hugging her colleagues. Not to be outdone, Giordani knelt before Scotto and kissed her hand and then scooted over to Fleming and performed the same ritual. For a moment, the occasion came to startling life, reflecting fleetingly the days when opera galas were, well, fun!

All the more poignant, because Scotto's official contribution to the evening was a brief spoken introduction at the beginning of the program. While she dutifully advertised OONY's next event (Edgar, 13 April), she also launched into a recitative on her performance and the recording she made with OONY 21 years ago (was it that long ago?).

But her most telling statement, in which she established herself absolutely as the event's only true prima donna assoluta, was her departure from the stage, dragging her shawl (down-stage side, altro che!), as she receded behind the double doors.

The ensuing musical numbers were performed in assembly-line procession, a string of lyric lollypops that seemed mostly sweet but oddly mono-flavored. Owing to the absence of Latonia Moore, the order of the numbers were shaken up radically, so that you really had no idea who was appearing next. Never mind. Tenor Bryan Hymel, replacinf Stephen Costello who was listed to appear third, had the unenviable task of warming up the crowd with that aria from Rigoletto [you know which one]. His rendition was about as good as any I've heard in the past couple of years from tenors with brand-names. But the audience tossed him a few perfunctory bravos and sent him packing.

So it was with the rest of the intermission-less evening. Aprille Millo (who should get new publicity photos to match her current appearance -- on second thought, scratch that) and Stephen Gaertner substituted "Mira d'acerbe lagrime" from Trovatore without interpolated high notes, which would have been fun to hear. Millo returned later to give us the Mefistofele aria but declined to appear with her coevals in the evening's concluding Brindisi-- which was performed twice. Gaertner came back with Daniel Mobbs for "Il rival salvar..." from Puritani, the gala's only showcase for the lower register. A tune or two more from these rising suns might have been exciting as well as fun.

Eglise Guttierez and Krassimira Stoyanova have both been stoking fires in their recent Big Apple appearances, but they seemed a tad phlegmatic in their respective turns. Guttierez didn't miss an opportunity to fire off a high note, but her "Qui la voce" from Puritani seemed bereft of the pathos and delightful girlishness she brought to her riveting Amina in the OONY's rocking Sonnambula last week. What a thrilling scream-fest that was! Maybe it was too much to expect lightning to strike twice in the same place within eight days. Stoyanova couldn't quite get her sympathies around Anna Bolena's Home-Sweet-Home reminiscences, but she appears to have the vocal material for this kind of music.

She was joined by Marcello Giordani in the challenging duet from Huguenots ("Tu l'as dit), during which he drew gasps from the audience with his helium-induced high notes. Giordani hit them all bull's-eye perfect, but they sounded as though he was channeling a beefy Munchkin.

Anybody's guess who Renee Fleming may have been channeling in her "M'odi, ah m'odi..." from Lucrezia Borgia. Possibly Maria Malibran (1808-1836), who, like Fleming, was unconditionally adored by her public, even though some accounts say, she occasionally fell short of a high note. Fleming did fall a bit flat in the aria's climatic moments. Nonetheless, she showed herself, as always, gracious and musically elegant, even though the true riches of her estimable talent may reside in realms outside bel canto.

You may well ask why I've been harping on high notes and FUN. It's because the event I'm talking about was a gala. For me, that's an occasion for artists to shake off the shackles of convention and do something more and differently. Galas should, especially for the money they now demand, also be entertaining -- replete with high wires, acrobatics, fireworks and all the rest of it. They should be fun from start to finish. Dolora Zajick, for example, delivered a flawless "O mon Fernand" from La Favorite -- not the down-at-the-cuff "O mio Fernando" but the rarer and trendy French version. But it wasn't until her eyeballs frantically bounced over the sheet music for the Brindisi -- which she obviously had never seen before and may never look at again -- that I caught a glimpse of the Zajick persona that contributes to making her tick as a much-loved artist. In that instant, she grabbed the spotlight from Scotto and dominated. Scotto promptly took back the spotlight, but there you have it: a few seconds of a diva in real-life distress was worth the price of admission, which for me was free -- a birthday gift. In the proverbial Old Days, there was a lot more of this un-premeditation. Today, most galas resemble cheerless product demos.

Speaking of admission prices and concomitant demographics, the seat I was given cost $25, all the way up top. A bargain in this day and age. Most of the expensive seats downstairs were sold out, but despite the big-draw names -- there were bags of empty seats in the rear and sides of the balcony. Not so long ago, those seats would have been the first to go -- filled by combative regulars, rabid fans and enthusiastic young people. Where have they gone? When the cheapest seats for an important cultural attraction fail to sell, it suggests attrition in the baseline audience. All the more worrying when the competition for the same audience on Thursday at the other major musical venues was far from frenetic.

Perhaps the only person having a perceptably good time at this gala was an elderly fellow sitting alone in the empty row in front of me, a veritable front-seat conductor. Both hands were gesticulating broadly throughout the evening, to keep the orchestra and soloists together -- which didn't always happen. He appeared more than ready to give a few tips to Eve Queller, who, by the way, was celebrating her 100th performance conducting in Carnegie Hall. I'm not sure why I resisted the urge to tell him to cease and desist. Maybe because his frequently wayward beat was an hypnotic distraction. Maybe because I found the specter of chronic rhythmic inaccuracy as a possible indication of encroaching age too intimidating to interrupt. Maybe because it dawned on me that we all make our own fun. Ah, well, two entertainments to witness for the price of none -- remember, the ticket was a gift -- may be about as amusing as it gets...

© Sam H. Shirakawa, 2008

Correction: The changes forced by Latonia Moore's absence from the gala also fomented some confusion in reporting who sang and what they sang. I wasn't the only reporter who had difficulty keeping track of the proceedings.

The substitution of the duet from Trovatore with Stephen Gaertner and Aprille Millo in place of the originally programmed number from Norma with Millo and Moore was announced in a program insert distributed at the performance. I got that right in my article, the New York Times did not. What I got wrong was as follows: Stephen Costello was listed in the program to sing that Rigoletto aria, but Bryan Hymel took his place. That's Bryan with a Y. The details of this change are said to be in the press kit, which I didn't receive, because I was attending the performance as a member of the Great Unwashed. Sounds a bit like the plot of Mignon, but all this could have been avoided, if Ms. Moore had only shown up...

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