Opera Critic

The Met’s innovative new season continued apace this fall with another infusion of extra-operatic talent. Fast on the heels of Anthony Minghella’s evocative Madama Butterfly, noted Broadway drama director Bartlett Sher brought the house an infectiously funny interpretation of Rossini’s most famous work.

Opera is often accused of being a static art form, but Sher’s debut firmly refutes the thought. Here we have an intensely sexualized Barber, literally done in an “in your face” style (a walkway extends over the orchestra pit to bring the characters as close as possible to the audience). Supported by Michael Yeargan’s sets and costumes by Catherine Zuber in her Met debt, Sher successfully draws out the senses of desire and entrapment, despair and insistence that make this work a believable dark comedy. Of course we still have loads of perhaps unavoidable slapstick and physical comedy – Dr. Bartolo’s poor servant Ambrogio keeps getting hurt and we see the giant metaphoric anvil Bartolo feels in his mind descending over Seville, — but the characterizations follow in a brash yet attractive way from a perceptive producer of drama. Rosina, sung by Diana Damrau in her Met debut role, buzzes with repressed sexual energy, spinning, flailing, and focusing nervously on the boundaries and symbols of her carefully controlled life. Peter Mattei’s Figaro is accompanied by a flock of unscripted women magnetized by his artful, masculine presence (a pair of them make out early in Act I). Count Almaviva’s ardor is hardly disguised, and even stuffy old Bartolo has flashes of sexual energy. The whole production is pervaded by a motif of oranges, a symbol of Seville, used here in a way that focuses our attention on fruits that might well be forbidden.

Sher was fortunate to have a cast that proved so amenable (perhaps even too amenable) to his overall concept. Peter Mattei’s Figaro gave no cause for complaint. The Swedish baritone sang with a solid, steady line throughout the entire evening and generated well deserved admiration. John Del Carlo delighted the house with his energetic Bartolo. The aging Samuel Ramey and always delightful Wendy White were impressive in the roles of Basilio and Berta. The young lovers united by the opera were no less ardent, but Damrau’s much talked about vocal heights sometimes failed to find focus. Improvisations in the score led her to disappointing restraint on some of the original high notes and unfortunate attacks on newly placed ones that did little to energize the music. The popular Juan Diego Florez seemed uncharacteristically reduced in vocal power throughout the evening. Maurizio Benini’s conducting was jovial throughout.

The Met opened this season with a new general manager, Peter Gelb, who has succeeded Joseph Volpe with a promise of popularizing reforms. Along with live telecasts into movie theaters, $20 rush tickets for normally pricey orchestra seats, and ballyhooed posters and banners around town, these efforts will include a faster pace of new productions – as many as eight a year – including many by stage and film directors who have rarely or never worked in opera. The season opened with perhaps the greatest “catch” of the first year of the Gelb administration: the famous Anthony Minghella of The English Patient, commissioned to replace, in partnership with English National Opera, the relatively recent (1994) but less than inspired Madama Butterfly by Giancarlo del Monaco.

Minghella’s approach addresses Japanese culture in unique ways important for a work that contains many inherent cultural inaccuracies. Butterfly and Pinkerton’s child, most notably, is represented by a surprisingly lifelike Bunraku puppet operated by members of the Blind Summit Theater. Whether this works with the three visually distracting live puppeteers needed to operate it on stage has been a matter of serious debate, but the production deserves praise at least for its attempt at innovation

All action, moreover, is reflected in a curved mirror suspended above the stage, a technique that allows us to see everything, including the drama behind the sliding screens that make up most of Michael Levine’s set and occasionally mask characters from normal view as they wrestle with the complexities of their lives. Minghella’s intense use of color handily adds to the psychological effect. Violent reds, oranges, and purples pervade the action, stunning the audience visually yet avoiding even a hint of the garishness too often suffered in opera today. Evocative costumes by fashion designer Han Feng (also new to opera) add strong, if perhaps a bit caricatured, impressions of Japan and its people.

Stage direction also helped the Minghella production overcome the sterility to which Butterfly often falls victim. Movement throughout the evening was dynamic and attention grabbing, right up to the title character’s fully on-stage suicide, committed in this production by a surgical stab to the throat rather than the traditional disembowelment.

The Gelb era may, however, fall short in innovating the vocal component of the Met’s work. The much heralded new Butterfly was staffed largely by regulars. The two leads, Cristina Gallardo-Domas and Marcello Giordani, have been familiar to New York for at least a decade. Despite their high technical competence, the excitement of the new production did little to help them find the dramatic singing necessary to move real audiophiles.

Dwayne Croft’s steady baritone had more success in the ancillary role of Sharpless, the American consul, as did Maria Zifchak as Butterfly’s faithful servant Suzuki and James Courtney in his brief appearance as her angry uncle.

After fourteen years of complementing post-Soviet Russia’s recovery from communism, one gets the feeling that the artistic achievements of St Petersburg’s premiere arts institution are wavering. Certainly this is not for lack of ambition. In the 2005-2006 season the Mariinskii presented several new opera productions – Verdi’s Nabucco and Falstaff, Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, and Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, as well as new ballet offerings.

Although all of these works added something to this year’s White Nights Festival, for the first time in a while no new productions appeared during the festival itself. The reasons might not be difficult to imagine. The much discussed construction of a new theater was planned to have coincided with the original Mariinskii’s closure and renovation for about a year and a half. Perhaps general director Valery Gergiev did not want to launch anything new outside of his theater’s major stage spaces. Or, perhaps more realistically, globalization has caught up with the Mariinskii in full and hindered its ability to feature choice artists in the lucrative summer festival season. Top Russian artists like Anna Netrebko, Olga Borodina, and Vladmir Galouzine almost never appear there now, favoring Western celebrity (Netrebko recently began the process of acquiring Austrian citizenship, to be accused of treason by some of her countrymen). This phenomenon is reaching all the way down the roster. The fine baritone Evgenii Nikitin was absent in France all summer, depriving St. Petersburg’s residents and ever increasing summer tourist population of his great talent. Others were in and out. Gergiev himself disappeared to London for much of the summer, in what seems to be a pattern of increasingly long absences from Russia’s imperial capital.

Illness claimed some of the best talent. Galouzine, who despite his international commitments was to appear in a solo concert and as Canio in Pagliacci, had to limit his performances to one Nessun dorma sung as an encore to what was supposed to have been his concert. Indeed, without him Pagliacci was cancelled altogether, leaving a suddenly improvised revival of the popular but lightweight Il Viaggio a Rheims in its place. Mikhail Kit dropped out of this year’s Ring Cycle, adding to its generally disappointing roster (from which we can safely exclude the beautiful Sieglinde of Mlada Khudolei, Mikhail Petrenko’s stentorian Fafner and Hagen, and Olga Sergeeva’s radiant Brunnhilde). The Mariinskii’s chronic problem of presenting foreign talent was also in evidence. Despite Renee Fleming’s appearance for a recital (made especially attractive by its beautiful encores), Rene Pape (the other Rene?) was sorely missed in one of his newest roles, Phillip II in Don Carlo.

There were some occasions to enjoy newer talent ? Vladimir Gorshkov, Vasilii Gerello, Olga Savova, Daniil Shtoda, and Olga Guryakova all acquitted themselves well in Verdi?s Falstaff, Don Carlo, and La Forza del Destino, and Ekaterina Semenchuk made for a fine Carmen and Preziosilla — but the heft of previous festivals was notably absent. Vladimir Ognovenko’s distinguished first appearance after many years in the old but as yet unsurpassed Andrei Tarkovskii production of Boris Godunov (which includes the now – at least in Russia – politically incorrect Polish Act) could not deliver sufficient relief.

The new productions from last season that resurfaced during the summer were a mixed bag. Kirill Serebrennikov?s Falstaff appeared to be set in 1950s America, complete with a drive-in movie theater as the set for Act III. Why this needed to be enhanced with devils whose major distinction from humans is their BDSM gear I cannot imagine. Similarly, placing the role-appropriate frame of Viktor Chernomortsev in a bubbly bathtub might suit his character?s Act II appearance, but thanks to what one hopes was only a technical flaw the audience saw more of the baritone than it probably needed to. Nevertheless, Chernomortsev’s vocal and physical stature helped him make a memorable impression in the opera’s title role. Gerello’s Ford vaulted the performance to imperial heights, as did his Rodrigo in Don Carlo and Don Carlo (how confusing opera is) in Forza. His fine singing makes any performance worthwhile, though one can only wonder how long it will be before he, too, becomes too popular and well paid in the West to return home much.

The other new Verdi offering, Nabucco, disappointed more than thrilled. After making the audience wait for about 40 minutes (prompting one audience member to start chanting “Boring!, Boring!” in loud English), Gergiev drove the orchestra too fast for real enjoyment. Dmitrii Bertman’s production bent space in a weird way and was literally too beige to excite anyone. Nikolai Putilin’s masterful singing helped the performance (as it did in Borodin’s Prince Igor this summer), but Maria Guleghina, despite her foreign renown, shrieked her way through the role of Nabucco’s mean daughter Abigaile and added to that effect with weird Xena Warrior Princess-style affectations (we admit and hope that they might not have been her choice). Added to Irina Gordei’s forced Liza and Leonora, she made for some disappointing Verdi. Avgust Amonov and Akhmed Agadi did not do much better as their suitors and others in various operas.

The Mariinskii has announced that the original theater will not close during the construction of the new theater after all. The company is taking is Ring Cycle to the Metropolitan Opera most of next July, but we can only hope that next year’s festival will be more stimulating than this year’s.

Adriana Mater (World Premiere production), Opéra National de Paris, April 7, 2006

Kenneth Quandt

Adriana, the heroine of Kaija Saariaho’s new opera, is a mother who stands by her son, Yonas. The pain and the passion she stood by was his discovery and then his reaction to learning that his father Tsargo the Protector had been absent all his life not because he died a heroic soldier’s death, but because he had raped Adriana and has ever since had to hide out on the other side of the river. In the fourth of seven scenes the son bursts into the house having learned the truth from which his mother has protected him. The conception was indeed not immaculate, but Adriana was just as confused and certain about what was happening to her as Mary was and all mothers are. Tsargo raped her, having been enraptured since she had danced with him a year before and unable to accept being spurned. She decided to keep the child, knowing and sensing (Je sais et je sens) that although both their blood was mixed together in the child, the child was truly hers and not his. Yonas’s passion goes through its stages, first indignant anger at his mother for lying to him. She replies that he has now become an adult and can know the truth. All along it has been hell to know the ugly truth of his parentage and protect it from him. She had thought her blood in him was noble but Tsargo’s was vile, and the vile blood in this innocent child at her breast could make him a villain when he grew up. But now she knows that blood is mute, a mere excuse people make for their passion. Should she have told him when he was four? Eight? Twelve? His indignation turns to anger as indignation always seeks to do, anger directed at the father if ever he should meet him. Next we learn, from Adriana’s sister Refka, that Tsargo has returned to the town. Yonas gets a gun and goes out to kill him. Adriana is resigned: he will do what he must, but not what blood dictates. When Yonas finds his father, he first engages him in conversation, the foreplay revenge cannot resist. The very name of Adriana sets Tsargo into reverie, enraging Yonas, who reveals to him that he is his son by Adriana. Adriana and Yonas! You would have been my life!” Tsargo muses, again enraging Yonas who brandishes the weapon and waits for that last provocation to pull the trigger. “Had you thought to die before seeing your son, then?” he asks, in abject indignation. “See? I see nothing. I have been blind for years,” Tsargo replies. The son remembers for a moment that he would like to be known by his father. This is what he craves and has craved all his life. “I could know you by touching your face,” Tsargo suggests. This he does, slowly. Suddenly Yonas runs off stage ending the scene. The seventh and final scene places all four characters on stage, not in action as much as speaking directly to the audience and imagining how things could have been otherwise. If only there had not been that dance. The gates of hell opened that night and now they must be closed. Yonas still wishes he had killed his father. He deserved to be killed, Adriana starts to say to him, and again he upbraids himself for not carrying it out. But Adriana will be heard. The music stops. She tells her son, “He deserved to die, but you, you did not deserve to kill him. Instead of being avenged, we have been saved. Come let me rest my head on the shoulder of a real man.”
The plot is tight, the dialogue credible and efficient. One thinks often of Jenufa, the surging forward motion of plot and music, the theme of a wanted and unwanted baby, and of Jenufa’s forgiveness. One thinks how one’s struggle to achieve identity and dignity can proudly struggle forever or else yield and accept the identity that one already has been given. One remembers that just as a human is able to inflict an amount of pain on his fellow that is greater than he should be able to do, he can also participate in the miracle of raising him to a higher plane by loving him, simply and patiently.
Saariaho’s music is a constant accompaniment of the characters’ feelings, defining itself each moment by changing what it just was, sometimes achieving a distinct rhythmic articulation and climax but often hewing close to what is happening as long as it takes to happen. The clarinet describes Adriana’s feelings and at the end has a lyric low passage that settles us down after two hours of frenzied and anxious high notes. The tuba blares the self-ignorant grossness of evil human action. The score can be described as pulse always, bars only sometimes, but stresses always foreseeable. The chorus (fifty or sixty off stage and amplified in this production) reminded me of the chorus in Messiaen’s St. François d’Assise, presented here a year and a half ago, sometimes functioning as a Greek chorus echoing the background ideas, and sometimes bursting out with shock at what is transpiring on the stage and within the souls of the audience.
George Tsypin’s sets are fixed throughout. In the first three scenes, before and during the war, it is a simple domicile on stone block with a domed roof that might recall the high view over roofs in a Middle Eastern town. From the fourth scene on it is the same, in rubble. The block appears at first to be grayish stone but at moments of heightened tension within the characters’ minds, it conspires with them to glow, in red during the rape, in yellow during Yonas’s fantasies of revenge, in a sultry sand color during the encounter between Yonas and Tsargo, which is meant to take place at noon, and finally in the gleaming white of alabaster during the final scene, when Adriana reveals to her son and to us what she has learned about life. Noteworthy also is the play of shadows on the blank rear wall of the stage. In the first scene we see them, projections of the persons of Adriana and Tsango, a mere addition. They do not return until the final scene, when Adriana attempts to teach her lesson to Yonas. Her shadow is somehow made to be smaller than his, a good deal smaller, though the two characters on the stage are similar in stature. The small voice of truth always appears weaker than forcefulness, until we hear it, as we do by then.
Voices at the Bastille have a great deficit to overcome. All of them succeeded. In the title role Patricia Bardon was a vulnerable and authoritative Adriana. Solveig Kringelborn’s Refka brought the solid sanity required by the mezzo role along with its requisite component of unimaginativeness. Gordon Gietz sang strongly and convincingly in the role of Yonas and acted his part well, carrying its multidimensional uncertainty to the end. Danish bass Stephen Milling was burdened in some ways with the most difficult role as Tsargo, but executed it with great skill. An accomplished Wagnerian, he resembled Fafner in Siegfried when stalked by the young hero with the weapon. Esa-Pekka Salonen achieved the sustained and vigorous reading that his compatriot’s score requires: deft, clear, and tireless.
The work, directed by Peter Sellars, is a tremendous success for 2006. It entertains the Western concern with blood feuds without being brought down by it, its revision of the Marian truth in an other than immaculate conception captures the most powerful current of the women’s movement without showy rancor, and above all succeeds to engage these and other obligatory contemporary themes without paying fatal dues to the Minotaur. After this work and her first opera, L’Amour de Loin, Saariaho is now preparing an opera about Simone Weil.