Monday, April 30, 2012


Wagner: Die Walküre 13 April 2012 Metropolitan Opera, NY
Wagner: Götterdämmerung 24 April 2012 Metropolitan Opera, NY
Cultural Convergences 20 April 2012 City Center Studios, NY
The Morini Strad Primary Stages, NY
End of the Rainbow Belasco Theater, NY
Ring Time at the Met [Collage: Shirakawa]
Ring Time at the MET [Collage: Shirakawa]
© Sam H. Shirakawa

I should have heeded my own warning. I've been telling all who take the time to read my stuff, to avoid attending a performance of an opera production they first experience on television or via HD relay. But I wanted to see the Met's new Ring under Robert La Page's supervision in its entirety at the house, even if I was seeing the operas in non-consecutive order.  For the record, I heard Rheingold and Siegfried live before seeing their respective relays. Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung I saw first on the silver screen before hearing them in the house.

Except for the Ride of Valkyries, Walküre, I found, works better on screen. Its filial love story, domestic bickering and naughty backlashes lend themselves to close-ups and enable TV director Gary Halvorson to fill out the blank spaces left by Page's vapid staging. Götterdämmerung works marginally better as a live, in-the-theater experience, despite some odd lighting designs. Why, for example, are the Gibichung scenes awash in Lion King yellow? The scenes look even worse in HD. I was convinced, as I wrote shortly after seeing it in Düsseldorf, that a technical malfunction generated a nauseating colorcast.
Vocally, the relays were considerably superior to the performances I attended recently. What management sees in Katarina Dalayman as the Valkyrie errant, I just can't fathom. A friend I met during one of the intermissions defended her as follows: "She has no top, and she has no bottom, but I find her middle beautiful." 'Twasn't so long ago, when Brünnhildes treading the boards of the Met had tops, bottoms and middles to spare. My issue with Dalayman is that I find her voice tolerable in small doses, but not over five hours. It got to the point, only midway through her visit with Waltraute, where I was starting to dread Dalayman's next cue.  Lest you think I'm a nostalgic fuddy-duddy, listen to Jennifer Wilson on YouTube, or get hold of her recordings. Or sample Catherine Foster, Barbara Schneider-Hoffstetter, Irene Theorin, Nina Stemme or Evelyn Herlitzius to name but a few sopranos worthy of the role. Dalayman has been a sensational Brangaene and an excellent Lisa (at least in Munich, where I heard her sing Pique Dame), and there are plenty of roles she could still assume. She should consider performing them and soon.

I run hot and cold on Deborah Voigt. She sounded a bit more comfortable recently on stage than she did on screen in Walküre last year, and she appears to be acquiring a commanding stage presence that I was beginning to think was beyond her ken. Her problem, if that indeed is what you could call it, is that she no longer sounds youthful. Not that her Brunnhilde sounds old. No. But it has accrued a mature timbre that some may find off-putting. It doesn't bother me, because I can abide the sound of her voice over the span of a long performance. If it's a matter of chacun à son goût, she's my goût.
Both Stuart Skelton (Siegmund) and Stephen Gould (Siegfried) sounded heftier and no less musical than their predecessors in earlier performances. But the glamor that Jonas Kaufmann and Jay Hunter Morris evinced somehow elude them. Eva-Marie Westbroek (Sieglinde) has a big dark sound whose subtler qualities are best suited to the microphone. Stephanie Blythe (Fricka) probably wouldn't need a microphone to be heard around the world.  When she first appears in Walküre to confront her troubled consort, she looks a tad ridiculous -- Britain's Elisabeth I in a fun-house mirror.  But once she opens her mouth, she becomes a fulcrum of the archetypal livid wife, coming to part her once-adored husband from his privates.

Wendy Bryn Harmer is an outstanding Gutrune. While the voice sounded a tad smaller than when I heard her last year as Freia, it has that effulgence that leaves you craving more. Iain Peterson, as I've written before, is effectively ineffectual as Gunther. Hans-Peter König has become one of the finest Hagens I have ever heard -- in the same league as Kurt Boehme, Gottlob Frick and Matti Salminen. Both he and Eric Owens (Alberich) took possession of the stage whenever they appeared. Bryn Terfel (Wotan/Wanderer) came across as gruff and snarly before the cameras last year, but he was rewardingly sympathetic when I faced him live. The voice also sounded richer and subtler in the theater.

Fabio Luisi keeps the pace going at a seemingly fast clip, but the music never sounds hectic or rushed under his beat. His readings strike me as a bit odd after decades of Jimmy because the sonic picture he elicits from the orchestra is so fleet and transparent, yet vivid in detail and color.   It also is gimmick-free, never calling attention to itself, except when the orchestra emerges front and center, as in Siegfried's Funeral March. Phenomenal playing, especially by the brass. 

LATENCY:  An inexplicable urge drove me to the Met on 3 May to attend Götterdämmerung again, but I hemmed and hawed and arrived a few minutes after the performance had begun.  So I watched the Norn Scene and the Prologue Duet on a monitor in the lobby.  Hunger drove me to seek refreshment as Act I began.  An equally inexplicable dread kept me from returning to the Met for the next couple of hours.  By the time I re-entered the lobby shortly after 11 pm, Dalayman was already a minute or two into purveying  Brünnhilde's Torch Number.  

I'm so glad I didn't subject myself to the entire performance. 

Kyunghun Kim
Kyunghun Kim

On a recent Friday evening, part of a dance/instrumental ensemble concert at City Center Studios under the rubric "Cultural Convergences" piqued my interest. The phrase "cultural convergence" (singular) was coined by scholars to describe a peculiar phenomenon in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, in which creatives of all stripes arrived at similar conclusions about their respective activities without having ever known or contacted each other. Many believe this spontaneous collusion constituted the beginning of what today is known as the Romantic Movement. The second part of the concert with this title was devoted to "Abschied" (Farewell) from Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. It was arranged for large chamber ensemble by Yoon Jae Lee (which he re-titled "Migrations") with choreography by Michael Mao and performed under the musical direction of Kyunghun Kim.

Hyona Kim
Hyona Kim

On paper it seems unusual, even weird. But the Mahler as scored so shrewdly by Lee and led with subtlety and warmth by Kim was a revelation -- recondite yet lucid. Kim has been developing a following through his work with small ensembles and orchestras and has been on the verge of a breakthrough for some time. As Eugene Ormandy became known for saying, every fledgling conductor gets a chance, but he must be prepared. Kim is prepared. What he needs is luck. Quite apart from the superlative dancers, mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim (no relation to Kyunghun Kim) brought elegance, grace and profound melancholy to the text, derived from poems by two Chinese poets of the 7th and 8th centuries (with supplemental lines by Mahler himself).

An event like this is unlikely to be experienced anywhere but in New York. It makes you realize why the world wants to take a bite out of the Big Apple.

Michael Laurence, Mary Beth Peil, Hana Stuart
Michael Laurence, Mary Beth Peil, Hanah Stuart

Two theater pieces also caught my attention recently, both of them of interest to opera fans because they are both so... operatic: The Morini Strad at Primary Stages by Willy Holtzman recounts an incident in the final phase of Erica Morini's long life as a virtuoso violinist and one of the few women to make an international career for herself during the first half of the 20th century. (She died in New York at the age of 91 in 1995.) Morini (Mary Beth Peil) seeks out and hires an obscure instrument restorer (Michael Laurence), who succeeds in removing a scratch on her multi-million dollar instrument -- the Davidoff Stradivarius. She resolves to sell it, but ultimately backs out. Meanwhile, she succumbs to her final illness. As the world knows, her Strad was stolen from her apartment during her hospitalization. To this day, it has never been recovered.

Throughout Morini's vacillations over selling her Strad, she rants upon music, performers, performing and sundry other subjects. These declamations, mostly incisive, are periodically interrupted with snippets of Morini's recordings and some superb live interludes performed with a big ripe tone by Hanah Stuart. The piece got a luke-warm critical reception, although a sell-out audience responded enthusiastically on the night I saw it. What the critics as well as Holtzman miss, though, is that the nexus of this play --  the evanescence of music -- can never be fully articulated in dramatic/literary form, though Thomas Mann comes close in Doctor Faustus.

The Morini Strad

Recurring to me during the performance -- my memorable talk some years ago with Wolfgang Stresemann, son of Weimar Germany's legendary Foreign Minister, who became well-known in his own right as Intendant of the Berlin Philharmonic. Performing music, he said, is the most vulnerable of all the arts. You can't touch it as you can touch a sculpture, text or painting; you can't see it like a play or film. Once the notes are played, they are gone forever. Only the score remains, waiting to be played by someone else.  Recordings can capture something of a performance, but only a shadow. And that shadow becomes an entirely different kind of experience.

As a schoolboy, I heard Morini several times, and she was wonderful: huge, warm tone; erotic vibrato, hypnotic flights and cadences. But so what?  By the time she died nearly 40 years later, she had become a musical footnote, an oddity: a monstrous girl in a guy's playground. As such, some may have heard her rage against the dying of the light, which Holtzman delights in writing for his heroine. But in the play, only the invisible vultures who ultimately steal her violin are listening, but listening only for that rage to subside into silence.

Mary Beth Peil carries out a tour de force as Erica. Her seething lingers on, long after the play ends. But Michael Laurence has the more difficult role by far, animating the archetypal journeyman, whose unsung labors enable fabulous Maenads like Morini to ply their art.

End of the Rainbow
End of the Rainbow

Speaking of Maenads and perhaps not coincidentally, another swan song play has come to New York, this one from London, aptly titled End of the Rainbow. If you're guessing that it's about Judy Garland, you're not wrong. Peter Quilter's piece takes place during Garland's last big (and catastrophic) extended engagement in 1968 at London's Talk of the Town. There's nothing new in it, but Terry Johnson's lively staging gives enough breathing space for Tom Pelphrey to play Mickey Deans -- the last of Garland's five husbands -- as a reluctant blood-sucker. Tracie Bennett meanwhile renders a compelling impersonation of the broken icon, while giving creditable accounts of nearly ten Garland favorites, backed up by a six-piece band. The surprise of the production, though, is Michael Cumpsty, who is heartbreaking as a gay music director, who makes Garland an offer she cannot accept. He is also an accomplished pianist.

Tom Pelphrey, Tracie Bennett, Michael Cumpsty
Tom Pelphrey,  Tracie Bennett, Michael Cumpsty

For all the talk about her eccentricities and unreliability, Garland was both punctual and unforgettable on the two occasions I experienced her live. The first time was 29 April 1961 in Philadelphia. She brought her triumphant Carnegie Hall Concert program from a week earlier to the Academy of Music. A few months later, Capitol released a two-record souvenir of her New York appearance, and it showed that Philadelphia was virtually an exact copy: same songs, same order, same jokes. But there was nothing mechanical or rote about Garland. In retrospect, I think she was out to prove that lighting strikes at least twice on the same force of nature. I don't know how many more times lightning struck during the long national tour that followed, but only one thing matters to me about those magical hours I spent with her that night at the Academy: As long as I draw breath, I will never forget that concert.

The second and last time I saw her live was at a screening of A Star is Born in early 1969 at the National Film Theater in London under Waterloo Bridge. The film print reportedly was director George Cukor's cut, which studio executives had shortened significantly when it was first released in 1954. Garland had just started her five-week engagement at the Talk of the Town and she was the toast of London. Garland, Mickey Deans and an interlocutor appeared on stage about five minutes after the film ended. She seemed a bit ill-at-ease and her eyes kept darting around the house -- which was not full. I was sitting in the eighth row just off the left-center aisle, and she turned and looked at me several times -- once I thought she was about to say something to me from the stage, but Mickey Deans squeezed her arm and redirected her attention to the interviewer. Toward the end of the half-hour interview, she fielded some questions from the audience. Someone asked her if she would sing. Instantly her face lit up, and you could feel the rush of electricity coursing through the house. Judy glanced at the grand piano parked at the rear of the stage. But Deans intervened and told us that Judy's contract at the Talk of the Town forbade her to sing anywhere else during her engagement. The electricity subsided as suddenly as it had flashed.

A few months later, Judy Garland crossed the rainbow's end.

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