Saturday, April 11, 2020

Parsifal: Metropolitan Opera On Demand

Richard Wagner
Metropolitan Opera On Demand
Performance Date: 2nd March, 2013
#CoronaCouchOpera, Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn
11th April, 2020


If you’re looking for something more profound to add to the Easter eggs and hot cross buns to celebrate the Easter weekend but don’t quite see yourself switching onto one of the many streamed masses to mark Christ’s death and resurrection, you could consider turning to opera. The latest Met Opera free nightly opera steam is Richard Wagner’s Parsifal. Based on a Medieval story concerning the wandering fool Parsifal who is destined to become the saviour of the Grail Knights, Wagner’s final, epic work champions humility, compassion and enlightenment. We need those qualities now, as always, and God knows we have the time like never before to mull over and soak us in its sublimity.

Parsifal demands more than four hours of time but when the overture begins, it’s a music that initiates its erasure and beckons a landscape of tranquility and hope within a spiritual-like realm. In the pit, Italian Conductor Daniele Gatti conveys that spirituality with great sensitivity with various tempi leaning toward an unhurried yet malleable nature.

In French-Canadian director François Girard’s barren and gloomy production which premiered in 2013, scenes of forests and meadows, castles and wondrous gardens which Wagner’s libretto refers to are nowhere in sight. From the start, Girard sets about establishing a ritualistic tone. Movements are as restrained as the dramatic momentum. Girard’s knights are uniformed in contemporary-styled black trousers and white shirts, the flower maidens who attempt to seduce Parsifal are a sway of flimsy white fabric while the temptress, Kundry, is a bedraggled gypsy. And there’s blood, lots of it, including a pool of blood in which Kundry and the maidens dance and cavort. It is undoubtedly blood as sin.

Featuring a trench of running water dividing a parched earth with menacing skies in the distance, Act 1 is the setting for the soul-searching Amfortas, King of the Grail Knights, who desperately seeks forgiveness after receiving a wound from the sacred spear he was entrusted to after being seduced by Kundry in the domain of the expelled knight, Klingsor. As Amfortas, Swedish baritone Peter Mattei baritone brings compelling heat and reverberant strength to a man punished like no other, acting as if living the pain and guilt in superb performance.

As Gurnemanz, veteran Knight of the Grail, Italian bass René Pape expresses the perceptive but steadfastly firm ministerial-like authority of his character in richly brewed vocal depth and impressive control. Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman, whose distinctive stature and dramatic textures were recently witnessed in Victorian Opera’s Parsifal last year in Melbourne, brings fiery radiance and fierce darkness with extraordinary height and depth as a disturbed Kundry and, introduced in his cavernous domain in a pool of blood, bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin’s menacing Klingsor is brought to evil life in crisp and sculptured stoney form.

And the glorious title role? Renowned German tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, is an ideal Parsifal. When he first appears in Act, his Parsifal is as perplexed as anyone would be by the ceremonial oddities he finds himself witnessing and is in hot demand by slinking maidens in Act 2. Kaufmann’s Parsifal moves with gentleness and poise, the vocal load building from Act 1 to the brilliant power expressing the agony of Amfortas’ wound in Parsifal’s revelatory “Amfortas! - Die Wunde! - Die Wunde!” and a coruscating final aria when the spear heals Amfortas’ wound and the Holy Grail is uncovered.

And when Gurnemanz sings “... you who have suffered everything He suffered. Allow this one burden to be lifted from your head”, guilt is washed away in a sign of forgiveness we can all seek on our own way to enlightenment.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Macbeth: Metropolitan Opera On Demand

Giuseppe Verdi
Metropolitan Opera On Demand
Performance Date: 11th October, 2014
#CoronaCouchOpera, Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn 
5th April, 2020


Verdi’s Macbeth, premiered in 1847 and composed in the fruitful years that launched his universal acclaim, forms a thrilling multi sensory experience retelling Shakespeare’s early 17th century play. A climate of fear and superstition abounds and the quest for power so great, murder seems the easiest option. Buckets of blood are spilled but the price is eventually paid. Despite the story’s general familiarity, you might find yourself holding your breath in constant anticipation as Verdi’s operatic picture unfolds. 

When the curtain goes up, you can sense some challenges ahead in this second revival of English director Adrian Noble’s 2007 staging when a bunch of dowdy women, as the prophesizing witches who Macbeth and Banquo encounter, emerge from a forest singing and waving their handbags. The original work’s loose connection with 11th century Scottish history is replaced by a Second World War aesthetic while question marks keep popping up in this rather superficial concept. 

Musically, you couldn’t ask for more from Italian conductor Fabio Luisi who gave an urgent and emphatic reading of the score, the overture instantly invoking the foreboding ahead in astonishing intelligence and style.

In the title role, Serbian baritone Željko Lučić wears the mantle of cold authority solidly. Not so is Lučić’s unsteady start to a man haunted by his own evil and sense of fear. I’ve heard Lučić in excellent form many times but the broad range, lion-strength instrument he possesses lacks refinement at the top here and comes across forced. Certainly, the mental torment Macbeth endures is depicted convincingly but it’s not until his final aria alone onstage that the combination of man and voice give everything, in the plangent, introspective mood of “Pietà, rispetto, amore”.

There is no disappointment with star Russian soprano Anna Netrebko’s vocal depiction as Lady Macbeth in what was her role debut. Netrebko’s first appearance comes from under the bedcovers, unleashing an opening aria and cabaletta full of rich-centred ferocity, burnished edges and soaring freedom at the top, asserting her Lady Macbeth as what seems more than ruler of the bedroom. Act 2’s “La luce langue” brings stunning height and a crazed demeanour  at the sumptuous state banquet but, in the final toast she makes to her guests, her acting comes across feeling much too dissociated and overly aggressive. 

Netrebko’s greatest combination of voice and acting, like Lučić’s, comes in Act 4’s “Una macchia è qui tuttora”, when Lady Macbeth sleepwalks - mounting the furniture once again - after wringing her hands in an attempt to wash them of blood. Sadly, the passion at play in the pair’s relationship is markedly unbalanced from the start and Act 3’s finale duet, “Ora di morte e di vendetta”, is a particularly awkward mess as Lady Macbeth drags her king to the floor after they resolve to kill Banquo’s son as well as Macduff and his family.

As Banquo, it’s a great loss when German René Pape’s earthy and commanding bass disappears from the stage after his murder in Act 2. Pape’s great forward march in the voice and seemingly utter ease of vocal production fuse marvellously with Banquo’s brave spirit and cautionary eye but, subsequently, it’s only his silent blood-stained ghost we get to see when he returns to haunt  Macbeth.

Rendered in Joseph Calleja’s Macduff is a warm-hearted and distinguished air, the Maltese tenor’s delectably honeyed and smooth Italianate voice bringing enormous sensitivity to Act 3, “O figli, o figli midi! ... Ah, la paterna mano”, an affecting tribute to his murdered family. The chorus of witches, nobles and soldiers are superb in voice and I should mention that the performance is introduced by Georgian soprano Anita Rachvelishvili whose infectious smile and enthusiasm alone should have you settled and excited quickly. 

Friday, April 3, 2020

Don Carlo: Metropolitan Opera On Demand

Don Carlo
Giuseppe Verdi
Metropolitan Opera On Demand
#CoronaCouchOpera, Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn


I’ll keep this brief. I just scraped in on catching New York’s Met Opera free nightly opera stream. On this occasion, it was a chance to revisit one of my certain favourites, Don Carlo. I can’t remember how many times I’ve seen this opera but I’ve seen this Met Opera production by English director Nicholas Hytner on two occasions, March 2013 and April 2015 with different casts. Hytner’s original production premiered in November 2010 with this on-demand offering filmed on my birthday, 11th December. It turns out, on that day, I was in Los Angeles sitting through another Verdi masterpiece, Rigoletto.

In any of its various revisions, Verdi’s sublime, monumental drama is a work that binds plot with music in a triumph of art. And for this, the Met has assembled an extraordinary cast to satisfy the heavy demands required.

Hytner’s notable contribution is seen in the outlining of palpable personal connections and riveting action that responds coherently with the music to which Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s purposeful guidance brings out the work’s ongoing tension with refined musicianship from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. The only problem is that Bob Crowley’s stylised set designs rarely feel supportive despite the excellence of his own sumptuous period costumes and Mark Henderson’s evocative lighting.

Set at the height of the Spanish Inquisition in mid-16th century France and Spain, the storyline is a festering drama around the King Philip II of Spain’s marriage to Elizabeth of Valois - daughter of the French king and formerly betrothed to Philip’s son Don Carlo - after a deal is struck as part of a peace treaty between the two monarchies. Elizabeth and Don Carlo are in love but duty to her people stops Elizabeth from refusing the king’s hand. What ensues are personal agonies played out against political unrest as church and state lie at uneasy crossroads.

‪French tenor Roberto Alagna is convincingly passionate as an emotionally laden Don Carlo. Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya, equally burdened by concealed love, delivers a sophisticated performance as a thoroughly radiant and uncannily courageous Elizabeth. And ruling with starved compassion as Philip II, cavernous Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto meshes the king’s public and private affairs in a sensational, brooding manner.

Amongst the tragedy, 19th century opera’s greatest bromance, stoked with rapturous music and tenderness, is the beautiful and poignant relationship between Don Carlo and his trusted friend Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa. In British baritone Simon Keenlyside’s virile and untiring performance, Rodrigo is armoured in heroism and centred with loyalty, his death a heartfelt blow to Don Carlo and audience alike. Fuelling the drama too is the vengeful court aristocrat in love with Don Carlo, Princess Eboli and Russian mezzo-soprano Anna Smirnova is a galleon of riches in the role, producing a whirlwind stunner with Act 4’s famous aria, “O don fatal", after having confessed to Elizabeth that it was she who told the King that Elisabeth and Carlos were having an affair.

Adrenaline runs rampant through the work with highlights coming one after the other: Act I’s pledge of loyalty between Don Carlo and Rodrigo, Act 3’s riveting trio of Don Carlo, Rodrigo and Princess Eboli when she threatens to tell the King that Elisabeth and Carlos are lovers, as well as the massed of the act’s concluding auto-da-fé scene, Philip II’s sleepless night while deliberating over his wife’s barren love for him and punishment of his son in Act 4 and Elizabeth’s eventual aching aria, wishing to consign herself to death, at the haunted tomb of Charles V.

I guess I wasn’t so brief after all!

Nixon in China: Metropolitan Opera On Demand

Nixon in China
John Adams
Metropolitan Opera On Demand
#CoronaCouchOpera, Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn
3rd April, 2020


By the time I got the time to revisit Nixon in China as part of the Metropolitan Opera’s nightly opera stream and my #CoronaCouchOpera experience, it was late into the night. I couldn’t resist. When I checked, it turns out I was in the audience there 15th February 2011, three days after this iconic Peter Sellars production was filmed.

Despite the opera’s success, you don’t get the opportunity to often see it. Fortunately, however, I got to see the same production in June 2012 at San Francisco Opera and the following year, in May 2013, by VictorianOpera from director Roger Hodgman in a beautifully drawn artistic production.

It’s almost 50 years since U.S. President Richard Nixon’s world headline visit to China in 1972, after 25 years of of hostilities between the two countries. Revisiting Adams’ 1987 opera, despite China’s interim economic advances, political relations remain touchy at the best of times, with a side of xenophobia that never seems to go away. There’s still so much that remains in Sellars’ production that evokes the time with visceral strength when two conflicting nations strain to shake hands.

The mechanically choreographed nature of Sellars’ direction with choreographer Mark Morris, Adam’s hypnotic score with it’s frequent repetitions bound to Alice Goodman’s plain-spoken libretto and early Communism’s drab aesthetic all combine marvellously as manufactured-like components of heavy industry.

Since the 1987 world premiere, hefty winter-warming baritone James Maddalena has stepped into Richard Nixon’s shoes countless times and it shows in an assured performance that reveals much of his character’s duality of public and private life. As Chairman Mao, the power in Robert Brubaker’s broad tenor reaches such extremes that his philosophising seems to just about go down the gurgler. And how wonderful are the three translators used effectively to surround him in choreographed spin.

Pat Nixon is crisply drawn as a bright and affable First Lady by Scottish soprano Janis Kelly, a woman showing real heart and concern for matters. And Wow! Wow! Penetrating soprano Kathleen Kim shoots daggers with every note in a sensational show as the tornado-force Mrs Mao while baritone Richard Paul Fink is solid in voice and an unsavoury caricature as Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.

One of the best performances comes from suave baritone Russell Braun, soldierly and commanding as Chinese Premier Chou. And whether the nuances of his words are understood or not, he sings with absolute charisma, his speech at the Great Hall of the People a notably big highlight.

The spirit and events of the first and second act, in particular, rise and fall marvellously in dramatic interest whereas, apart from the idea how personalities are explored and played out behind-the-scenes, there might not be much concentration ability left for the third act. Perhaps it has something to do with the absence of the en pointe Metropolitan Opera Chorus who marched and sang through the first two acts splendidly.

It’s a treat to see John Adams there to conduct as well, the momentum of the score turning and turning out great textural results despite Adams holding back too tentatively under a cast of singers with otherwise ample volume in supply. I have no doubt that, if we get through these trying times without too many opera companies being grounded permanently, there’ll be a few new outings for the work in 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of President Nixon in China.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Der Ring des Nibelungen: Metropolitan Opera On Demand

Das Rheingold

Die Walküre



Der Ring des Nibelungen
Richard Wagner
Metropolitan Opera On Demand
#CoronaCouchOpera, Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn
25th - 28th March 2020


It’s been over two weeks since my last post. Yesterday, one week into my own #StayAtHome, I sobbed for the first time. I’ve just come out of director Robert Lepage’s Ring Cycle as part of New York’s Met Opera nightly opera streams. Spread over four days with my own in-house catering and distractions I would never let anyone get away with at the theatre, the hours spent with Wagner’s great gift to life made an appreciated and connected experience with his smorgasbord of richly portrayed characters.

I sobbed for Siegfried’s unjust death, Brünnhilde’s suffering and loss and perhaps amongst those emotions came a few for our own reckless world. Lepage’s Ring culminated in a riveting Götterdämmerung to finish four quite unforgettable days.

The Ring teaches us that everything is connected - man, nature, reason and spirit - and that hope should never fade for a new order where rule is governed by fairness, not by power and greed. There’s a particular saliency in its themes right now with the world in crisis like we haven’t seen in our day. Will what we learn now about ourselves change us to act responsibly when things improve? No other point in living memory has given us an opportunity so glaringly.

I saw Lepage’s Das Rheingold 9th March last year but missed the rest of the cycle. The Met Opera nightly streams are audio visual recordings of the four works when they first premiered, beginning over the 2011/12 season.

For me, Götterdämmerung and Siegfried make up the better resolved parts of Lepage’s Ring, both of which give a greater sense of character action-reaction. And the grained Gibichung Hall comes up superbly as one of the more splendid applications of Carl Fillion’s mechanised set. However, I’m still left feeling this one ever-present gargantuan piece of machinery limited the potential for ideas during the course. Likewise, the costuming. But of absolute pleasure and excellence was a music that deepens our sense of humanity by artists of incredible talent.

Jay Hunter Morris maintains the gung-ho spirit Siegfried lives by with a cheeky glint in the eye and a fabulously heated golden tone to go with it. He also convincingly makes the journey from ignorant youth to awakened manhood, easily winning sympathy on his gallant adventure.

As Brünnhilde, Deborah Voigt is at her most fierce and affecting when shamed before the Gibichung, then singing with beautiful emotion and sincerity over Siegfried’s body before Brünnhilde’s final act of wisdom and selflessness.

Hans-Peter König is an unswerving force whose grand, monolithic bass gives hateful character to Hagen, Iain Paterson is impressively sturdy and resonant as a distinguished though insecure Gunther and Wendy Bryn Harmer is maiden fair and radiant voiced as Gutrune.

Way back, starting with Das Rheingold, Bryn Terfel is a masterful Wotan, rock solid in voice while subtly exposing troubling fissures in his command. Eric Owens wows as the big standout as Alberich, presenting greed and sinisterly ease in tones of dark and swampy strength. Stephanie Blythe is full and rich as Fricka in all her imploring genuineness. Richard Croft weaves his way about splendidly as Loge but it was Dwayne Croft’s thundering Donner who I particularly loved in the smaller roles.

Next up, in Die Walküre, comes the chorus of fiercely singing Valkyries, Deborah Voigt untiring in voice, slicing the air with razor sharpness as a fearless, high-spirited Brünnhilde and Bryn Terfel back solidly with more huff and puff as an anguished Wotan. When Jonas Kaufmann opens the first act, it takes little time to sink into his suave and endlessly smooth tone as Siegmund and develops in increasingly robust and gallant form as his fate progresses. Eva-Maria Westbroek gives a sensational performance, the most convincing for me, with singing that yields heart wrenching psychological clarity as part of Sieglinde’s journey while Hans-Peter König is a colossal-voiced Hunding who few would want to cross.

By the time we get to Siegfried, with singing that gave it all, a round of lozenges to soothe well-worked throats seemed in order. In the title role, coppery tenor Jay Hunter Morris is the fearless Wälsung and one we get to know with great intimacy, his penetrating blue eyes and long blonde waves exuding youth with dynamite in the voice that burns constantly to the passionate and heroic finale.

Vocally gnarled and animated, Gerhard Siegel puts on a brilliant show as Mime, a slimy, fidgety weasel channelling a good draft of Benny Hill. Act 1 certainly is the highlight as Siegel and Hunter Morris pace and deploy the drama with seamlessness and interest. Bryn Terfel brings a sensitively tempered aspect to The Wanderer, Eric Owens makes a lion-strength return as Alberich and, when Brünnhilde is finally awoken, she is given lush, poetic beauty by Voigt, though the top forte at times felt forced.

Thanks to all, including the hardworking Met Opera Orchestra, who propelled and oiled the entire drama exceptionally and filled my living room with an experience I’m generally only accustomed to at the theatre. Looks like there will be more to come.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Metropolitan Opera On Demand

Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Richard Wagner
Metropolitan Opera On Demand
#CoronaCouchOpera, Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn
29th March 2029

4.5 stars

I finally surfaced from Otto Schenk’s spectacular period masterpiece set to Wagner’s epic comedy and longest opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Ok, it isn’t laugh-out-loud stuff but Schenk does manage to mine what’s there nicely and he does so with a filmmaker’s eye.

What shines through at the heart of the work, and needing it more than ever now to return to our lives, is the necessity for art’s preservation and presence. And while there are rules that govern the way we live amongst each other, artistic expression, with air to breath, will flourish regardless. That all churns about in a plot that revolves around a song competition in which the prize is the hand in marriage to the young woman Eva, arranged by her father Veit Pogner.

Maybe it was my unsophisticated audio but Johan Botha seemed to lose the patina at the upper edges of the voice despite maintaining vocal power and sturdiness. Regardless, he’s much too static in his role as the knight charging into new territory, Eva’s love interest, Walther. Annette Dasch, on the other hand, charms as a radiant and pure sounding Eva, swaying along smartly from one scene to another.

The chemistry was far more appealing between Paul Appleby’s toasty voiced David and Karen Cargill’s lush and perky Lena. And, with a voice that dances colourfully on the music, Johannes Martin Kränzle is a fine ,melodramatic and jumpy Beckmesser.

The star, of course, is German baritone Michael Volle who I’ve heard sing Hans Sachs twice at Bayreuth’s Wagner Festival. Volle is exactly the right man in the cobbler’s chair, the man who senses the beauty and freshness of Walther’s rule-breaking song. Here, the heft and flexibility of voice comes with a richly carved oak tone while every note is accompanied by natural, convincing gestures.

You also get the rare opportunity to see the Met Opera Chorus up close, making their mark with both superbly united singing and acting that creates an exciting picture of life. And in the pit, briskness, subtlety and nobility feature under James Levine and the fab Met Opera Orchestra.

There’s one more production remaining as part of Met Opera’s Wagner Week and nightly opera streams. I’ll be back with a little blurb on Tannhäuser tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Tannhäuser: Metropolitan Opera On Demand

Richard Wagner
Metropolitan Opera On Demand
#CoronaCouchOpera, Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn
30th March 2020


Wagner’s enthralling paean to penitence and redemption, Tannhäuser, closed Wagner Week as part of New York’s Met Opera nightly opera streams. And, as the only time I’ve seen opera on video of an opera I’ve seen live, it brought back memories still cherished. Filmed on 31st Oct, 2015, 12 days after I saw it at the Met, it’s another long-living and lavish production from 1977 by director Otto Schenk - perfectly illustrative but something of an old museum piece - and another example of superb camera direction responding to an expert understanding of the score.

There’s the title character, Tannhäuser, a medieval knight and minnesinger, who left the court of the Landgrave of Thuringia after a disagreement with his fellow knights, then lured into the pleasures of love in Venus’ domain, Venusberg. Longing for freedom after his desires are satiated, Tannhäuser finally departs and comes by his minnesinger friends who convince him to rejoin them. But no sooner is he welcomed back, and rekindling romantic overtures with the Landgrave of Thuringia’s niece, Elizabeth, he’s banished after singing blasphemously about the nature of love. After being forced to join the pilgrims on a journey to Rome to seek atonement, rather than being absolved, Tannhäuser is cursed. In a transcendental like intervention, Elizabeth gives her life as his saviour.

Schenk sure knows how to both fill the Met’s massive stage with people reflecting a spectrum of life and manage the details that go with it convincingly. The more intimate scenes are sometimes less well handled but every angle comes together splendidly in the final third act.

An abundance of vocal expression and power comes with Johan Botha’s nonconformist Tannhäuser, although it’s not until the second act that every foundation feels solid. Act 3’s “Rome Narrative” is certainly his summit, rivetingly sung with mountains of disappointment and despair. As Tannhäuser’s angelic saviour, Elisabeth, Eva-Maria Westbroek is a jewel, her lustrous and pearly soprano cradling affectingly measured emotion and her Act 3 prayer to the Virgin Mary a highlight of poignant tenderness.

Smooth, flexible and instinctive in style, baritone Peter Mattei gives every bit of himself as Tannhäuser’s faithful friend Wofram, his “Song to the Evening Star” - the opera’s most recognisable tune - a superbly heartfelt prayer he bejewels what is an entirely glorious Act 3. Bass Günther Groissböck always impresses, his sonorous vocals resonating like towering forest timbers and colouring Landgraf Hermann with authority and distinctiveness. And as Venus, Mezzo Michelle DeYoung sings with intrigue and richness despite her seductive powers fizzing a little and, what there was, seemingly going to waste on Botha’s own lumpy lusty attempts.

Encircling them, those excellent Met Opera Chorus folk energised and elevated the storyline with a halo of golden sound as nobles, knights, ladies and pilgrims. And down below, the music-making supported the singers nicely with James Levine driving the drama with confidence and thought.

There ended 6 days with long hours of opera’s artistic pleasures soaking the soul but, for now, I need a little time off.