Saturday, August 1, 2020

Opera-tunity knocks: This week at the Met

"Don Giovanni" at the Met this week.
I want to go back to watching the MetOpera's opera stream.

Remember, I was going great guns with it back in April, when we were in the depths of the lockdown. I quickly fell behind with it because I got hooked on Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" and began watching it over and looking for different versions. Then there was Wagner week and I caught a few of the Wagner operas as I recall. And then .... and then ...

And then I guess what happened to me was like what happened to everyone else as we went through the Coronavirus craziness. The weeks began passing faster and faster and running into each other and now suddenly it is months later and I have not watched one single other Metropolitan Opera opera.

But now I do believe I will start again. I was just looking at what is coming up.

In the next week -- the week beginning August 2 we are talking -- they have two Mozart operas coming up, "The Magic Flute" and "Don Giovanni." There is also a "Madame Butterfly" with Roberto Alagna and a "Parsifal" with Siegfried Jerusalem.

"Parsifal" is a little heavy for me though Leonard Pennario liked it a lot. I might watch it to try to see what he saw.

There is an illustrated synopsis for "The Magic Flute." Cute!

There is also an interesting essay about "Don Giovanni" which I have been enjoying picking over. There is a trend these days, say I, to see Don Giovanni as not a bad man but as a rather attractive rebel, a man who insists on his own happiness. I am saying it is a trend because when I saw the opera in Toronto a few years ago, they took that tack.

I admire this essay for acknowledging the Catholic background to the opera, and the literal nature of hell. The director, Michael Grandage, suggests that literal interpretation is something quaint, something the public in general might have trouble understanding. I do not have that trouble, I will tell you that. I believe hell exists. But Grandage has a point, I do not think a lot of people would agree with me. It is nice that he would even explore this topic because Mozart's Catholicism informs so much of his work and few musicologists acknowledge that.

What else is on tap this week? Handel's "Agrippina." They keep giving us this Handel in modern dress and pointing out political parallels to modern times ....

...  I don't know, not to use the language of Don Giovanni but are people seduced by this? Have these operas drawn audiences and gained fans? They seem to me tough to swallow.

But anyway ....

A lot to look forward to this week, if I get back into the opera saddle!

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Free from the Met, "Der Rosenkavalier"

The free opera tonight from the Metropolitan Opera is "Der Rosenkavalier." I watched half of the first act while I was cooking dinner. I took a break and left dinner simmering on the stove so I can share my initial observations.

One, Renee Fleming, just lovely. She is a lovely person in real life, from where I sit ... or sat, which is the chair of the music critic at The Buffalo News. I interviewed her on the phone a couple of times and I really enjoyed the conversations. I love Richard Strauss and we had a wonderful talk once about the Four Last Songs, which she was singing with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. That was a dream come true for me! I have loved the Four Last Songs since I was a teenager. And to be discussing them with a world-class soprano ... unbelievable.

My life has been blessed, you know?

Anyway, Renee Fleming is one of the glories of the production ... so beautiful, and such beautiful singing. She is believable as the Countess. Did I say the Countess? I meant the Marschallin. I think of her as the Countess because Strauss was inspired by the Countess in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," another opera I love. I think of them as the same person because they are.

Elina Garanca who was our bad-ass Carmen a few weeks ago is Octavian. You figure she will take it over the edge and she does. What a good-looking gal and she makes a good-looking guy. This was their last performance in these roles. Both were retiring, at least from these particular parts.

They are very good together.

I have special praise for the singer who sings Baron Ochs. Gunther Groissboek.

Peter Gelb, introducing the opera, refers to his terrific panache, and that is true. Panache. It is cool to have an Ochs who is cute and has panache. It makes it more fun.

Here are my thoughts on the opera as performed by Renee Fleming, Susan Graham, and a great Scandinavian Baron Ochs, Kristinn Sigmundsson. That Ochs also had panache.

Reading back on that post just now, I am glad I wrote it! There are things I had forgotten. Such as how Ochs says of Octavian, "I see myself in him." And the possibility that Octavian is Ochs' son. Their names are similar, you know? Both start with the same syllable. That is something to think about.

I do not think I mentioned this before but watching that other production, I noticed something else. There is this one moment that struck me. I had missed it previously, or something. That is in the last act, when Ochs puts it together about the Marschallin and Octavian. It dawns on him. You see it in his face, if he is a good Ochs. He says something about, What am I to think about this?

And she says Nothing, if you are a gentleman.

And he says, Never let it be said that a Lerchanau was a spoilsport. That is his name, Ochs von Lerchenau. And you remember at that point that he is her cousin, they are related.

They are cut from the same cloth, after all! That scene is a game-changer, and to think that I missed it before. I am looking forward to seeing it.

Along with the rest of the opera. "Rosenkavalier"!

There is nothing like it!

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The fun and beauty of the Met's "Die Meistersinger"

Son of a sea cook, I never did get around to posting my report on "Die Meistersinger," the production the Met aired free last week.

Or whenever it was. Everyone says that in our Coronavirus homebound social distancing, the days are running together. It is true!

Anyway, about "Meistersinger." I loved it. I love this opera and they did a beautiful job with it.

This "Meistersinger" was staged about six years ago. The staging is magnificent, just the way I like it, a beautiful medieval street scene.

Hans Sachs is Michael Volle and one thing that hit me was, his portrayal made it clear that Sachs has real feelings for Eva. I always kind of figured that was the case but in this production there was no missing it.

Six years was a while ago and it is sad that Johan Botha, who sang Walther von Stolzing, is no longer with us. He died young. Botha's portrayal of Walther, like Volle's of Sachs, also gave me new things to think about. His bearing is so knightly, I had never really thought about how Walther is a knight, a nobleman, thrust into the world of tradespeople, of common people. He not only has to make his way among them, he has to submit to them. He has to compete for Eva's hand. He has to deal with Beckmesser. He is lectured by Sachs, a shoemaker, and is grateful for it.

This world is Lutheran but you have to wonder about Walther whose hero is the Roman Catholic medieval singer Walther von der Vogelweide. Well, I will not get into the weeds about this.

It was touching to see Walther von Stolzing with his finery and his girth, standing in the humble cobbler's shop, enjoying this unexpected episode in his life. He had to get his bearings in this humble new world. Earlier in the opera you saw his impatience -- he kept drawing his sword, he wanted to get Eva out of there.

Eva -- Annette Dasch -- was so beautiful and I got such a kick out of when Walther showed up in his knightly finery ...

...and she was just staring at him with stars in her eyes. This huge guy. so graceful! And you never forgot he was a knight. He projected that. You could see what she saw in him.

The last scene was stunning. I always get tears in my eyes, just seeing the sheer number of people on stage, all of them gathering before dawn. The trumpet calls, the pageantry. For some reason I noticed the children's chorus and just now I found this charming blog post written by a woman apparently studying singing who was in a production of "Die Meistersinger" at the Met. Imagine that! It was funny to find it right when I had been thinking about that. I loved her account of what it was like.

The picture up at the top of the post shows the famous Quintet. It is rare to have something classical like that in Wagner and the beauty of it made me wonder if he was thinking of Mozart. I know, I always wonder that. But then I think I am usually right!

Granted, not everybody hears what I hear. Once reviewing a performance of the Verdi Requiem for The Buffalo News I wrote about how I was sure Verdi was thinking about Mozart and ways in which the music reflected that. One woman got really mad and wrote me a nasty letter!

Ha, ha! I will have to go back and review my arguments. They were on deadline and off the cuff. But I bet I was right. I bet he was thinking of Mozart. And I do not think he would have minded me saying so. It is high praise when you sense, from hearing someone's music, that the composer was thinking of Mozart.

Back to Meistersinger. I could ramble on and on. These great works, you always find something new in them.

Just a few other observations: Sixtus Beckmesser was Johannes Martin Kränzle, a little too handsome for the part but a ton of fun. Beckmesser must be a great part to play because you know at the end you will get the biggest hand. Another Wagner role like that is Hunding. I was thinking that the other day watching "Die Walkure." Hunding is a great thug. "Bring us men our meat." "Sacred is my hearth." There are a million ways a guy can take that part, starting for when he just walks onto the stage. The Hundings and the Beckmessers, they rule the world. Got to love them.

Since I watched "Meistersinger," the themes have taken up residence in my head. Along with the scene from "Die Walkure" between Brunnhilde and Siegmund, but that will have to wait.

I was thinking, as long as I'm home all the time, I might learn one of Liszt's Wagner transcriptions. I think he did one of Meistersinger.

The book is sitting on the piano.

I think I will go right now and look.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Hans Sachs in quarantine

After watching and loving "Meistersinger" free from the Met's archives, I took a break to Google the singers. And I found that Michael Volle, our Hans Sachs, was in quarantine.

He does not have Coronavirus, or the Wuhan flu, or Covid-19, or whatever its name is. However he has been in quarantine because he was singing at La Scala and someone there had it. He discusses it here.

Opera singers in the spotlight! That is as it should be. Volle addresses us from a laptop. It is a funny feeling hearing him talking about this now having just finished having watched him as Hans Sachs in this magnificent performance. It is kind of intimate because in his performance, you really get to know Sachs. You feel this character exists somewhere. His portrayal is that vivid. It is really touching, too. I will explain more about that tomorrow, but it gets to you. Someone online wrote somewhere -- I have to find it -- "You want to hug him."

I am still listening to Volle talking about his quarantine. He is giving us the news! He says the latest update is that all cultural events are canceled in Italy until April 3. Volle actually was giving this report back on March 9. He is speaking in English.

I am sorry he has had to go through this but he seems to be dealing with OK. Just as Hans Sachs would.

Stay well, Hans Sachs.

I mean Maestro Volle!

Just now I am listening to President Trump saying our guidelines are being extended until April 30. That means a lot more opera coming our way.

We're going through this together -- literally!

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Met's "Die Meistersinger"

Tonight the Met's Nightly Opera Stream is "Die Meistersinger" and I am tuned in.

It is kind of emotional watching these Met broadcasts because of the current situation, I mean with this virus. Wagner's "Die Meistersinger" shores me up and gives me courage. Last fall when I had my first art show, I was playing "Meistersinger" as I framed up my pictures and got them ready to show. This music got me through it.

What I have seen so far ... and I am not through the first act ... this production looks fine. Not like "Goetterdaemmerung" yesterday, I have to say that. I had to stop watching "Goetterdaemmerung" because the production was just so Goetterdaemmerung awful.

Just get out of Wagner's way, you know?

Just stage the darned opera!

That guy, whoever did "Goetterdaemmerung," he had how much money to work with? I am guessing a lot. I am also guessing that I could have done a better job. The costumes were a mess. The mechanics ... you never lost sight of that you were seeing machines. Maybe it looked different from the seats but I doubt it. Everything was a mess. And Siegfried looked like a slug. I could not stand it.

OK, you cannot look a gift horse in the mouth so, whatever. On to this one.

I do not often take the opportunity to watch the entire "Meistersinger" and whenever I do, new things jump out at me. The way in the first act David, Sachs' apprentice, has such a prominent part. All his musings about music, and what he is learning from Sachs. Wagner must have enjoyed that.

The Master Singers ... I still cannot get over that one of them is named Kunz. I love that! I watch for Kunz Vogelgesang. He is a tenor. The one in this production looks young and he throws himself into the part -- I mean, he establishes a character for Kunz. I like that. They have little name plates in front of their seats and I love that. Kunz Vogelgesang.

In high school one of my best friends was Anne Conrad and she pointed out to me that my name meant hers. Kunz is short for Konrad.

There is a Konrad also among the Master Singers.

And there is also Erich Kunz, the late great Viennese baritone, who was the ultimate Beckmesser. I mean Sixtus Beckmesser, the baddie in "Die Meistersinger."

At left is a signed photo of Erich Kunz as Beckmesser in the Bayreuth production of 1943. I love what a ham he was. From other pictures I have seen he was actually a very good-looking man. Very Viennese, very urbane. You have to admire a guy who sacrifices good looks to look the part he is playing. Erich Kunz, God love him, he did that!

The picture is for sale on eBay only unfortunately I am too cheap to buy it. It is $90! I am glad a photo of my Uncle Erich is commanding so high a price but still.

Well, just looking at the picture makes me proud.

My name is all about "Meistersinger"!

Now I have to go ahead and watch the rest of the opera.

I will report!

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

My 'Onegin' experience

The duel in "Eugene Onegin" as imagined in 1901 by the great Russian painter Ilya Repin.

My relationship with the Met and its free opera streaming continues rocky. Like an opera itself, it is!

It is complicated. The opera streams until a certain time the next day, but at some point you lose the subtitles, is my experirence. That is why Howard and I had to watch a different "La Boheme."

And I watched "Eugene Onegin" half and half. Half was the Met production, and half was another.

"Eugene Onegin" took me by surprise. I had not actually intended to watch it. But when they aired it I peeked at it, and then to my surprise something happened. I could not look away.

Howard was laughing at me because I was toting my tablet around and he found me in the bathroom brushing my teeth and watching it!

Then I had to put it away for a bit. I may be in lockdown but I am still busy. I work from home anyway and I have a ton of work to do. When I went back to it later, it pulled the subtitle thing on me, and then it froze up completely.

By that time I was totally hooked. I knew more or less how things worked out because I did see the opera live once.. But I think when I saw it some years ago my mind was addled up over something or other and I could not give Tchaikovsky the attention he deserved. I had to see this drama play out. So I found a different one on YouTube, from Glyndebourne.

I missed Dmitri Hvorovstovsky who had been starring in the Met production. He is so handsome and icy! But this new Onegin grew on me. He is a Polish singer and I cannot begin to spell his name (I can however spell Hvorovstovsky off the top of my head). Let me cut and paste: Wojtek Drabowicz. He is very good too -- he projects the look of a misfit, a definite plus in this situation.

The duel scene got to me. Lensky in the Glyndebourne production is a beautiful man and you just cannot stand it. I actually had not recalled the duel even happening. This seems a good time to admit, I do not like prepping for operas by reading the synopsis. I like being surprised. Before you know it, you will know the opera inside out, and there is a different joy to that. But the first couple times you see an opera, I do not see any reason to read up on it. Enjoy the suspense!

That gets me to one more point: Everyone thinks opera is an acquired taste and they cannot possibly appreciate it. Just sit down and watch "Onegin." Find one with subtitles and sit down with it. Easy.


Tatiana in the Glyndebourne production is not as human as Renee Fleming, who can be wrenching as no one else can. That scene where Tatiana is scorned, Fleming just breaks your heart. She is very bold when it comes to this kind of thing, I mean putting herself into a part.

Tchaikovsky has a kind of Wagnerian thing going on in "Onegin," at least from where I sit, in that the opera is about you. I identify strongly with Tatiana. I was very naive and romantic and sheltered the way she is. So the famous letter scene gets me and so does that terrible scene where Onegin scorns her and lectures her. "I had to listen meekly to your sermon," she tells him later.

That scene later is very satisfying to me, coming from where I am coming from. Tatiana has married a handsome older man, a military hero, and she is a princess. And she has the mental fortitude to stick with her husband. To tell Onegin no.

I found myself talking to the screen. "Tell him to get lost." "Walk away."


When the opera was over I found myself dipping into different productions of "Onegin." Such as this excellent one, in German, starring Hermann Prey. Prey is terrific in this part, which is high praise. He is handsome and has that bedeviled look and that intensity. Speaking of intensity, a young Brigitte Fassbaender is Olga. And ... get this ... Fritz Wunderlich is Lensky.

Let me say that again: Fritz Wunderlich!!


Interesting thing about this production, the ending is different. After Onegin exits in anguish, Tatiana has a bittersweet interlude to herself. She pulls out the letter she wrote to Onegin, and she reflects on what has happened.

All this has been a great learning experience for me. On the minus side, I have not gotten around to much of the Wagner. Here I was looking forward to the Met's Wagner week and all I have watched is the first act of "Tristan und Isolde" which, now it is too late to finish that. I do have some comments but they can wait.

This Coronavirus lockdown different-opera-every-night thing is great but it is like traveling on a whirlwind tour -- you know, 10 cities in 10 days.

Sometimes it is better to spend a week in a city and get to know it! That is my situation with "Eugene Onegin." I fell behind. I could not help it.  I do know the Wagner operas much better but this was new territory for me, and I had to linger a little longer.

Plus, "Tristan," I just could not clear the time in my life. These Wagner operas mean a lot to me and you cannot watch them just anytime. You have to have time when you can concentrate, when you can give them space and attention. You have to treat them with respect.

It is like when you turn on the car radio as you are running errands and they are playing Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony or Beethoven's Ninth, you have to change the station. Masterpieces need space and attention.

I am glad I did right by "Eugene Onegin."

It is a masterpiece!