Thursday, December 27, 2012

Bryan Hymel's Met Debut

BERLIOZ: LES TROYENS                         Revival 
Metropolitan Opera 
26 December 2012

©Geoffrey Riggs

I heard Bryan Hymel's Metropolitan Opera debut as Enée in the house tonight, not over the internet. The voice in person has an uncommon clarity, although it's not as large as Heppner's or some other voices some of us are accustomed to hearing in this role.

He came on in the first act (for the purposes of this thumbnail review, Act I is the Met's Act I, which is Berlioz's Acts I and II, Act II Berlioz's Act III and IV, Act III Berlioz's Act V) sounding a bit tight, although there was a palpable surge of adrenalin the second he started singing, and his top was already "in focus". The tightness did not altogether leave him in his next scene (when alerted that Troy is on fire). But the line was getting smoother, somewhat.

In his first scene in Act II, when offering to defend Carthage, we had the first real magic moment of the evening, when one first knew this was someone special: Enée's farewell to his son before leaving for battle. The incorrigibly restless New York audience suddenly got very quiet, and the sweetness of Hymel's phrasing got to me. There was tenderness for his son and graveness in his accents combined. By the hushed dynamics for some of the words here, Hymel made this a moment when both father and son understand that Enée can always be killed in battle but will never ever acknowledge it: warm human feeling against a stern but very quiet warrior ethic. It's all there in Berlioz's music. I was trying to recall if anyone other than Vickers has ever evoked this so vividly. 

Even finer and more masterly in its expert dynamic control was the love duet at the end of Act II. The true legato line and the elasticity in the dynamics were exemplary throughout. Hymel has the knack of achieving a genuine full-throated climax within a phrase while maintaining authentic musical shape throughout. He appears the musician's musician. Now, this is a role he's done a number of times, and maybe a new role might not find him singing at such a sensitive level. But what he achieved in the duet had the stamp of musical as well as vocal assurance.

The last act was slightly less subtle, perhaps because of some coordination problems with the pit in the recit for the aria. But we had an elastic and flowing line for the first half of the aria. For the fast coda -- as close to a cabaletta as Berlioz has in this score -- Hymel showed he had the reserves to pull out all the stops with pingy top notes, including a glancing high C as written in the score, a prolonged top note before the final "desespoir", and a closing "desespoir" that seemed to last forever. Storms of applause: the kind of applause that points up the difference between grateful acknowledgement versus real excitement. This was decidedly the latter. After the aria, his voice did seem to break once or twice in the ensuing moments, but his top stayed sure. He did not maintain quite the consistent legato of the earlier scenes. However, he was out of his mind -- excitingly so -- when confronting the implacable ghosts and pleading with Didon to understand. When pleading with Cassandre, his voice even split open at the "Ca" of "Cassandre". But this may have merely been emotion. He stayed just as emotional and desperate with Didon, rendering more sobs here than I've ever heard from anyone else in this scene, singing half of the exchange on his knees, feverishly holding her hands. This was not as musical as formerly, but it was certainly exciting. He was also declaiming hysterically, occasionally, and I truly feared for the state of his voice. Perhaps, I shouldn't have worried. When it came time for his exit on "Italie", he produced a top note of almost epic length, clean and secure.

Again, his is not a big sound like Heppner's or Vickers'. Even the top notes are "zoned" rather than "wide". But the top tones do ring through the house, and he has the uncommon gift of conveying specific emotion in them. This is true through most of the voice. One rarely has the feeling that one is just hearing sounds. His Enée does not stir me as much as Heppner's or Vickers'. It does not have the expressive range of Vickers, nor the refulgent beauty of Heppner. But though no Frenchman (he's from Louisiana), in some uncanny way Hymel comes off as the most "French" singer of the three. His diction is marvelous and well schooled. He does not evoke the epic hero as readily as Vickers or Heppner, simply because his instrument is not as ample. But an affectingly human, and instinctively musical, Enée is a rare thing, and it's hard to imagine anyone else today doing this better. If I wanted to relate the impact of his voice to anyone else's in the house, perhaps that might be the young Neil Shicoff's in his prime. Can a voice like that last in this role? We'll see. Going by tonight, Hymel seems to have amazing resilience.

I know I'll be eager to hear him again, and I hope he becomes a regular visitor to New York.

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Saturday, December 08, 2012


AIDA                         Revival 
Metropolitan Opera 
29 November 2012 

Conductor..............Fabio Luisi
Production..............Sonja Frisell
Set designer............Gianni Quaranta
Costume designer........Dada Saligeri
Lighting designer.......Gil Wechsler
Choreographer...........Alexei Ratmansky 
Stage Director..........Stephen Pickover

Aida....................Lyudmyla Monastyrska 
Radamès.................Carl Tanner
Amneris.................Olga Borodina
Amonasro................Alberto Mastromarino
Ramfis..................Stefan Kocán
King....................Miklós Sebestyèn 
Messenger...............Hugo Vera
Priestess...............Jennifer Check
Dance...................Christine Hamilton
Dance...................Bradley Shelver 
Lyudmyla Monastyrska

Ever since I attended a fateful performance of Aida at the Deutsche Oper Berlin on 20 April 2001, the Nile Scene has been marred for me in one way or another. During this scene at that performance, Giuseppe Sinopoli collapsed at the podium. He later was pronounced dead at the age of 54. 

Mortality haunted the occasion. It was Sinopoli’s first appearance in Charlottenburg following a protracted absence, owing to a rift with Götz Friedrich, long-time Intendant of the Deutsche Oper. His two scheduled performances were considered Engagements of Reconciliation, but Friedrich died before he was able to welcome Sinopoli back to Berlin. Oddly enough, the last time I had witnessed Sinopoli conduct an opera prior to this performance was a Salome on 14 October 1991, when he stood on the same podium at the Deutsche Oper and announced the death earlier that day of Leonard Bernstein. 

What troubles me still, is that no physician was immediately available to aid Sinopoli as he lay unconscious between two music stands. The only doctor in the house was seated in the first tier.  She had to retrieve her valise from her car, parked in a nearby garage, before entering the pit. Sinopoli had lain motionless and supine on the orchestra pit floor for what seemed an eon, when she finally reached him. In the meantime, several principals and sundry others came out in costume and peered over the stage apron to gawk at what by now must surely have become the remains of Maestro Sinopoli. Had succor been available immediately, could he have been saved? 

Since that awful night, eight out eight performances I have witnessed of the Nile Scene have been blemished in some way, usually by the soprano of the evening fouling the high-C in “O patria mia.” 

Which brings me to the Nile Scene at the Metropolitan Opera on 29 November. When Lyudmyla Monastyrska managed to get past her aria without incident, I sighed with relief. The hex had been broken. No sooner had Alberto Mastromarino made his entrance as Amonasro, though, someone came running up the aisle from the front row of the orchestra, followed soon thereafter by a theater rep racing down the aisle with a walkie-talkie, pursued by an attendant ramrodding a wheelchair toward the front of the house. By the time Olga Borodina had played out her Gotcha! scene with Carl Tanner (substituting for Marco Berti), a gentleman who apparently had had some acute but non-fatal respiratory issues had been extracted from the middle of the front row, wheeled up the aisle and whisked off to the hospital. 

If only a spark of the electricity that informed the drama in the house during that Nile Scene had struck those on stage, this Aida might have had a chance of becoming memorable. Unfortunately, the Muse of Tedium had cast her soporific spell over the performance from the start. That sense of urgency and aliveness that once imbued even the most routine of Met performances was sadly absent. Yes, Fabio Luisi had the Met Orchestra playing in fine form, and the singers and chorus stepped promptly up to their cues, although both Monastyrska and Borodina were deep into the second act before their voices found them.  But the performance over all failed to quicken the pulse.

Monastyrska, by the way, has garnered some enthusiastic press for her Ethiopian princess.  She certainly has heft in the middle and upper registers, but she still needs to develop her way with the Verdi line. Stefan Kocán (Ramfis) and Miklós Sebestyèn (King) made sonorous contributions. The outstanding member of the cast was Carl Tanner, whose beefy tenor is both powerful and tractable. 

The evening was saved from listing by Sonja Frisell’s spectacular production from the last century. It is still a thrilling feast for the eye. I dread the day, when a Concept Cretin has his/her way with the opera. 

Aida will be performed live in HD on Saturday, 15 December.  Roberto Alagno is set to sing Radames. 

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Saturday, December 01, 2012


L’ÉTOILE                 Revival 
Oper Frankfurt 
17 November 2012 

© Sam H. Shirakawa 
Musikalische Leitung 
Sebastian Zierer 
David Alden 
Szenische Leitung der Wiederaufnahme 
Caterina Panti Liberovici 
Bühnenbild und Kostüme 
Gideon Davey 
Olaf Winter 
Zsolt Horpácsy 
Beate Vollack 
Felix Lemke 

König Ouf I. 
Christophe Mortagne 
Jenny Carlstedt 
Prinzessin Laoula 
Anna Ryberg 
Simon Bailey 
Fürst Hérisson de Porc-Epic 
Michael McCown 
Sharon Carty 
Julian Prégardien 
Hans-Jürgen Lazar 
Sungkon Kim 

Chor der Oper Frankfurt
Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester
Christophe Mortagne, Anna Ryberg, Jenny Carlstedt

In accordance with local custom, the young king of a fairytale city-state goes in search for someone to have publicly executed on his upcoming birthday. Thus begins L’Étoile by Emmanuel Chabrier, an opera-bouffe with more twists and turns than a Gordian pretzel. 

I have no idea what Chabrier and his librettists Eugene Letterier and Albert Vanloo found amusing in this idea, but they apparently thought enough of it to complete it and have it mounted at Jacques Offenbach’s Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens in 1877. Its complex score proved difficult for the orchestra musicians, but the opera went on to enjoy spotty successes in Europe, Great Britain and in the US. 

 L’Étoile has never been wildly popular, even in France, but it has received noteworthy revivals periodically throughout the past century. More recently, Glimmerglass attracted attention by mounting it in 2001, New York City Opera first produced it two years later, and Sir Simon Rattle led a production at the Berlin State Opera in 2010. 

Oper Frankfurt is currently reviving David Alden’s quasi-contemporary production with several staffers alternating on the podium, including Sebastian Zierer. Thanks primarily to his enthusiasm on 17 November, the piece fizzes sufficiently to suppress the recurring thought, that the score smacks more of ginger ale than of champagne. 

Actor-singer Christophe Mortagne as the head-hungry King Ouf tops a superb cast that works hard to follow Zierer’s lead. Jenny Carlstedt sparkles vocally in the trouser role Lazuli, the street vendor King Ouf selects for his birthday execution. Anna Ryberg essays feline fascination as Princess Laouli, who is engaged to wed Ouf but finds herself the object of Lazuli’s affection. Simon Bailey enlivens the court astrologer, who charts the King’s impending death, with a dour oafishness that strikes an engaging balance between sappy and sinister. 

The audience at the performance I attended was quite different in general character from those I am frequently a part of; this was not a premiere or a special occasion. The crowd was less glittery and more attentive to the humorous nuances of the German supertitles being flashed above the stage. During the interval, there were some energetic discussions being carried on. But the snippets I overheard had nothing to do with the performance. Leading me to infer that the audience regarded L’Étoile with as much gravity as the multitudes who, once upon a time, found delectation and amusement at public executions. 

Rightly so perhaps.

Three more performances are set for this season. 

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