DVD Review – La Traviata (Evans, Konwitschny)

At some point last year, I decided that I wouldn’t watch or listen to another La Traviata for a long, long time. Within a short period of time, I had seen three productions (Jonathan Miller in Vancouver, Hugo de Ana in Verona, and the cinema broadcast of Richard Eyre from London), and I was frankly tired of the opera. The story seemed trite and romanticized, and the music not much better. However, a new Peter Konwitschny production from Graz seemed interesting and had gotten phenomenal reviews from a bunch of opera fans, who, like me, seemed sick of the ‘traditional’ Traviata. When I found the DVD at a great price, I caved, and I’m really glad I did. It’s a thought-provoking production, and is certainly worth seeing.

When I first saw the DVD cover, I was not particularly impressed: Violetta in a red cocktail dress, stark sets, cruel male-dominated society, blah blah blah – didn’t seem that different to the Willy Decker production from 2005. Despite the superficial similarities, the two productions could not be more different. To me, Decker’s production casts Violetta as a myth, the product of male fantasies. Thrust into a highly visible position (her red dress against the white walls), Violetta tries desperately to enjoy herself. However, that’s not possible – her happiness is only temporary, and her society quickly banishes and replaces her. Really, Decker’s interpretation of Violetta’s fall from grace isn’t much different from a more traditional production. Konwitschny’s production, on the other hand, takes a rather more pessimistic view. His production takes place in front of a series of curtains, representing society. Violetta’s red dress has the exact same pattern – unlike Decker’s more exposed, vivacious Violetta, Konwitschny makes it clear that his more jaded Violetta is very much integrated into society. This is a society that does not accept newcomers, and the chorus mercilessly taunts the outsider Alfredo. Violetta observes this cruelty, and chooses to take Alfredo’s side. During their act 1 duet, Alfredo starts pulling back the curtain, and Violetta is tantalized by this glimpse of another world.

By act 2, she has chosen to join Alfredo’s bourgeois world. Her character has been completely desexualized, and she wears what appears to be a lumberjack outfit (it’s not as bad as it sounds). However, the backdrop is still the same curtain. After Violetta’s encounter with Germont, the meaning becomes clear: Alfredo’s society is just as misogynistic and cruel as Violetta’s. The gambling scene has seemingly infinite layers of curtains – no matter what, every society can be just as cruel. As Alfredo insults Violetta in front of the assembled guests, he pulls down the curtains and the stage is covered in a mess of bodies and cloth. After the guests (and curtains) exit the stage before the final act, Violetta is left with nothing more than a pathetic little black curtain, which she clings onto during “Addio del passato”. In the final scene, that one remaining curtain pulls back, and Violetta walks into the darkness. It’s a rather difficult production to explain, but the whole concept is detailed and intelligent. Particularly thought-provoking is the direction of the chorus – in act 1, they are crude, drunk, and clearly enjoying watching the drama unfold before them. In act 2 scene 2, the lines blur between Violetta’s society and Alfredo’s society, and by the end, Alfredo, Germont, Annina, and the doctor are no different from the rest. Germont’s arrival in act 3 is through the audience, and he never goes onstage. Alfredo and the rest join him, and they abandon Violetta through the auditorium doors as she dies. The chorus/society is deliberately unpleasant, and also somewhat sickening to watch when you realize that we, the audience, are implicated as well – after all, we have been watching and enjoying the story as well.

This performance has been much criticized for its supposed disrespect of Verdi’s score. The performance was performed without intermission, and so any music that didn’t propel the plot forward was cut. In reality, it’s not that drastic – apart from the excision of the gypsy/matador choruses, the cuts are similar to those in a standard performance 50 years ago. Second verses are cut, as is Germont’s cabaletta. While I should feel a whole lot more offended at the cuts, I honestly can’t say I minded much – the cuts are made smoothly, and I never liked those two choruses anyways. The musical values are all at a high level anyways, so you never feel like the cuts are being made in concession to the cast or orchestra.

Marlis Petersen has my preferred voice type for Violetta – in the Moffo mode, she has a full, rather dark lyric voice with enough lightness to get through act 1. She is clearly a great musician, and it’s almost as if she learned the part exclusively from the score without listening to any other recordings of the opera. As a result, her interpretation is refreshing and unique, but always stays true to Verdi’s music. She gets through act 1 quite easily, but really shines in the later acts and has a large enough voice to sing “Alfredo, di questo core” curled up in the middle of the stage in the fetal position. Her “Addio del passato” is easily the best singing in the performance, and she ends the aria with no vibrato. It’s risky, but certainly effective and doesn’t come across as an ‘effect’. She’s also an attractive woman, and more importantly, a dedicated actress. It can’t be easy to play Violetta’s loss of dignity in such a raw way, with no pretty costumes to hide behind, but she does a very convincing job both physically and vocally.

It also can’t be easy to play Alfredo in this production – instead of the charming handsome young man, he’s portrayed as socially inept and emotionally volatile. He reacts in a very childish manner most of the time, and often comes across as pathetic rather than romantic. His primary solace is in reading, and he offers Violetta a book in act 1, which she reads with fascination. It’s unclear whether Violetta is genuinely in love with Alfredo, or whether she shares his romantic ideals. However, this is in no way a criticism of Giuseppe Varano’s singing or acting. Rather, it’s a testament to his skill in both that Alfredo’s character is delineated so clearly. His tone is quite dark, almost reminiscent of Kaufmann at times, although Varano’s voice is nowhere near as loud. Consistent with Konwitschny’s idea of the character, Varano never bawls and somehow vocally conveys Alfredo’s awkwardness without losing the line.

James Rutherford is a Wagnerian bass-baritone who has Sachs, Dutchman, Barak, and Jochanaan in his repertoire. As such, his Germont is a far cry from, say, Hvorostovsky’s elegant and sleek portrayal. Again, this is consistent with Konwitschny’s interpretation of the role. Germont is portrayed as a crude, abusive man, who brings his daughter along in act 2 with the express purpose of manipulating Violetta. Rutherford’s singing is loud and authoritative as expected, but surprisingly sings “Pura siccome un angelo” with excellent legato and subtle phrasing. Vocally and physically, his character turns out to be more sympathetic than he first appears. After a round of abusing both Violetta and his daughter, he is shocked and tries to intervene when Violetta tries to shoot herself, and ends up genuinely concerned for Violetta. It’s become popular to interpret Germont as a close-minded but fundamentally kind person, but this is definitely a valid take on the role.

Conductor Tecwyn Evans leads the orchestra, chorus, and soloists in a way that complements the spare sets and costumes. Everything is quite quick, and the emphasis is on moving the plot forward. There’s less rubato than usual, and none of the usual bombastic playing at “Amami Alfredo”. However, it would be unfair to categorize the playing as simply ‘efficient’ – it never feels rushed, and the appropriate amount of time is taken in the right places. The chorus sings very well indeed, given the amount of stage action they receive. Overall, the production is stark and intelligent but also very moving, and there is an uncommon unity between director, conductor, and singers. Definitely a contrast from the usual Victorian lampshade productions, and very much worth seeing. Also worth noting that the production is being presented by ENO in London next February with a great cast – see it if you can!


Radio Review – The Tempest (Metropolitan Opera)

Since its London premiere in 2004, Thomas Adès’ The Tempest has become one of the most-performed operas written in the last decade. Although it is most well-known primarily for Ariel’s cruelly high tessitura, it is in fact a beautiful, unique, and accessible work. Unlike many other modern operatic composers, Adès is familiar with the voice and as a result, the vocal line rarely feels awkward or unsingable (Ariel, of course, being the exception). Meredith Oakes’ libretto has been unfairly criticized for altering too much of the the play – the original play is very long and wordy, and Oakes efficiently conveys the sometimes complex storyline. Personally, I don’t think The Tempest is Shakespeare’s best work – the plot is rushed in parts, and few of the characters are sympathetic. For me, the strength of the play lies in Shakespeare’s poetic and often evocative lines, and the opera mostly eliminates that.

Adès music is perhaps more comparable to Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles than other operas premiered recently. As such, there are some very lyrical scenes such as Miranda and Ferdinand’s duet or Caliban’s aria, both in act 2. Isabel Leonard and Alek Shrader make a very convincing pair of lovers, and (perhaps intentionally) occasionally seemed to dropped in to the opera from Romeo et Juliette or some other late romantic opera. Unfortunately, Alan Oke’s Caliban was not quite as beautiful. Adès chose to cast Caliban as a tenor instead of the more obvious baritone or bass, and gives him some great music, including a duet with Prospero, his big aria, and the last few lines of the opera. Clearly, Adès does not conform to the traditional idea of of Caliban as a crude monster, but Oke’s dark and sometimes gravelly voice didn’t convey Caliban’s multifacetedness. I’m hardly the biggest fan of Ian Bostridge, the first Caliban, but his very British tenor fit the role well.

The Met assembled a truly starry group of courtiers – William Burden as Alonso, Toby Spence as Antonio, John Del Carlo as Gonzalo, and Iestyn Davies as Trinculo. William Burden’s exceptional voice was a delight to hear in such a small role, and Toby Spence was delightfully clever and manipulative without ever falling into parody. Iestyn Davies, Kevin Burdette, and Alan Oke were hilarious in their two short trios – the few moments of mirth in an otherwise serious opera. As the dazzling Ariel, Audrey Luna sang her punishing role as well as one could imagine, and her crystalline voice conveyed the character’s non-human aspect very well.

The only cast member reprising his role from the 2004 premiere was Simon Keenlyside’s Prospero (Toby Spence was the first Ferdinand). Keenlyside is famous for his excellent acting skills, and Prospero is yet another role he adds to his arsenal of Shakespearean characters he’s portrayed. Compared to his 2007 performance, which was recorded by EMI, he has improved both vocally and interpretively. His voice has grown larger and darker as well, which lends a greater sense of authority to the character. Adès Prospero is more emotionally volatile than his Shakespearean counterpart, and while Keenlyside’s interpretation is less overtly emotional, it has become smoother and more subtle.

This performance marked Adès Met debut as a conductor as well as a composer, and he proved that he is nearly as skilled at both. The Met orchestra played his demanding music with clarity but always with a full sound, and the prelude to act 3 and the opening tempest scene were thrilling. The chorus also sang their few scenes elegantly with admirably clear diction.

Peter Gelb seems to value new operas more than his predecessors, and it is rumoured that the Met will see new productions of operas by Nico Muhly and Osvaldo Golijov in the near future. If they are presented with the same musical attention as this recent performance of Adès’ The Tempest, we have a lot to look forward to indeed.

Live Review – La Bohème (Vancouver Opera)

Vancouver Opera opened their 2012-2013 season Saturday with Puccini’s ever-popular La Bohème. Not the most creative or thought-provoking choice, perhaps, but there’s no denying that it attracts audiences – the house was nearly sold out, and there were a higher-than-average number of young people attending. VO has been marketing the opera quite aggressively, with ads all over buses, bus stops, and Youtube. I personally was more interested in the cast than the opera – in my 10 years of listening to opera, I’m sure I’ve listened to at least 25 versions of the opera. However, this was my first time seeing the opera live, and I was totally unprepared for the impact the performance had on me.

(c) Vancouver Opera

It helped that Vancouver Opera had assembled a young, attractive cast who was fully capable of singing Puccini’s deceptively simple music. I believe that La Bohème only works well with a young cast. Unless the singers are phenomenal actors or have something interesting to say about the character, watching more mature singers in the lead roles can be vaguely embarrassing. At the same time, the roles are quite heavy – the traditional light-lyric Mimis, Rodolfos, and Musettas can have issues projecting above the orchestra. Thankfully, Vancouver’s cast had the best of both worlds. All of the lead roles were sung by young singers with large voices that will likely develop into heavier repertoire. Our Mimi, for example, also has Donna Elvira and Nedda in her repertoire.

Yesterday night marked tenor Jason Slayden’s international debut. I had seen him in Seattle Opera’s Attila last January, but to be honest, I didn’t pay too much attention to Uldino. However, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to hear him again, because he has a lovely, elegant tone and is a fantastic actor. His Rodolfo was always sensitive and detailed, and his diction was particularly good. I particularly appreciated his unusually complex portrayal of the character – his Rodolfo is not just the dreamy poet, but also the fun roommate and the emotionally abusive boyfriend. As a result, the love affair seemed real, as opposed to a romanticized idea of young love. His ‘Che gelida manina’ was refreshingly realistic and conversational, and was dramatically as well as musically interesting.

Of course, it would be hard not to fall in love with Marianne Fiset’s Mimi. As I’ve mentioned before, she has a full lyric soprano, so she has no issue with being heard in the ensembles in act 2 and the quartet in act 4. However, she is equally adept at singing softly, and in fact took some shocking risks with pianissimo singing that ultimately paid off. The whole first section of ‘Donde lieta’ was sung very quietly and conversationally, and she later allowed her voice to swell into ‘se vuoi serbarla a ricordo d’amor’. It was a stunning effect, which she later repeated with ‘Sono andati’, sung pianissimo with minimal vibrato. Of course, these dynamics are fairly common, but I’ve never heard anybody else do them so well without sounding calculated. Also of note was her strong lower register – many sopranos disappear in the lower phrases in act 3, but she could always be heard.

(c) Vancouver Opera

Of course, Bohème requires a strong supporting cast to make it a really successful production. However, nobody would have mistaken Etienne Dupuis and Krisztina Szabo as Marcello and Musetta for anything other than lead characters. Their tempestuous affair was portrayed on equal terms with Rodolfo and Mimi’s, and served as an effective foil. In the same way, Dupuis’ vigorous Marcello contrasted well with Slayden’s more introverted Rodolfo. Like Fiset, Dupuis has a large voice, and their duet in act 3 was a highlight. It’s clear that Marcello is the emotional ‘centre’ of the group – though he has no aria, act 2 and especially act 3 revolve around him. Despite his charismatic presence, Dupuis never dominates when he’s not supposed to – his ‘Gioventù mia’ in act 2, for example, was not the usual loud reprise of ‘Quando m’en vo’, but simply an important component in the ensemble.

As Musetta, Krisztina Szabo was more than a match for Dupuis’ Marcello. I was skeptical about the casting at first – Szabo is a mezzo who I last saw as Sesto in Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. Her other roles (Strauss’ Komponist, Bartok’s Judith, Debussy’s Melisande) are consistent with those of other high lyrics, but I’ve never heard of a mezzo Musetta before. However, she had no problems with the tessitura, and in fact her darker voice suited her conception of the character very well. Many Musettas also sing Mimi, and it’s often hard to differentiate between the two voices. Obviously Szabo had no problem with Musetta’s lower phrases, but the higher notes were no issue either – Musetta is not a role that requires floated high notes anyways. In fact, she did the best diminuendo I’ve heard on the concluding B in ‘Quando m’en vo’. I heard some audience members complain that her acting was too ‘crude’, but I fail to see the problem with a Musetta that takes advantage of her physical attributes – in fact, I would argue that a good Musetta must do that.

It was great to see casting on such a high level throughout the cast. Though it’s not that large of a role, it’s important to have a good Colline – in all of the ensembles, it’s critical to have a solid bass foundation. Stephen Hegedus made the most out of the role, and for once I didn’t wish we could skip over ‘Vecchia zimarra’ straight to ‘Sono andati’. Aaron Durand, who I saw just a few months ago as Danilo in Lehar’s Merry Widow in UBC Opera, was an excellent Schaunard. I believe this was his professional debut, and it was charming to hear so many UBC students cheering him on at the end. he orchestra and chorus were very good, as usual, and conductor Leslie Dala was excellent although there were some balance issues in the first two acts. However, these were resolved by the third act and Dala proved himself to be a sensitive accompanist and collaborator throughout the rest of the opera.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that the physical production was at the same level as the performances. The sets and costumes, rented from OSTL, were very traditional and somewhat cheap-looking. It seems like staging Boheme isn’t as easy as it seems – most traditional productions look too grand, and the minimalist/symbolist productions make the story less immediate. This production was a strange combination of the two, with very traditional costumes and what looks like half of a Zeffirelli production with cardboard cutouts in the background. Particularly entertaining was the bright orange sunset backdrop to act 4 – it was a ‘tramonta’ indeed, but it certainly wasn’t very ‘bella’. However, it was easy to ignore the sets and costumes thanks to Nancy Hermiston’s detailed direction. Any hint of melodrama or stereotypical opera mime was gone, and instead replaced with subtle, natural interactions. What I found interesting was the amount of attention focused on Rodolfo, Marcello, Schaunard, and Colline – this was more a story about friendship than love. Of course, the two relationships (which are definitely not models of healthy relationships, by the way) are critical to the story, but the telling moment comes in act 4, when everyone makes some sort of sacrifice to save Mimi and support Rodolfo. In fact, the final 5 minutes was brilliantly staged – all the characters were very still, as if in shock or uncertainty, and Rodolfo’s outburst at the end was far more shocking as a result.

Also worth noting: La Boheme is often cited as the perfect opera for first-time opera goers. I never believed that to be true – it always seemed idealized and melodramatic. However, I’m starting to see how powerful and totally relatable a good production can be. I’ll be bringing a few friends to the opera for the first time next week – stay tuned!

Opera and Teenagers: ENO’s new ‘Undress for Opera’ campaign

Yesterday, London’s English National Opera announced their new ‘Undress for Opera’ scheme to try and target younger audiences. Led by Terry Gilliam and Damon Albarn, ENO is trying to dispel the common myths about opera – that it’s expensive, snobby, and old-fashioned. For 25 pounds, you get a good seat, access to a synopsis and pre-show chat, as well as a post-show drink with with the cast and crew, all the while wearing whatever you want! Wow! Now, it’s not like we haven’t heard this all before – opera companies have been trying to attract younger audiences for years (as they should), and most of these are common and arguably successful methods. However, what seems to be setting this particular campaign apart is the veritable media and social media frenzy that has ensued. A number of articles have already been published, criticizing the scheme for not being respectful of the opera or democratic (Rupert Myers, in the Guardian), along with a rather more entertaining article questioning why opera companies should attract young audiences at all, since we all have “no money, and when [we] do [we] spend it all on super-strong alcohol, rolling tobacco and condoms” (I’m not even kidding – that was Bryony Gordon, who proudly proclaims that she’s never been to the opera, in the Telegraph). Perhaps I’m not being entirely fair – both articles make fair points, and it’ll be interesting to see how this works out for ENO.

The largest debate seems to be about the dress code – do we have to dress up, or is it alright to show up in jeans? The thesis of Myers’ article is that dressing up is both democratic and respectful. He argues that contrary to its ‘elite’ image, dressing up in fact democratizes the audience. Buying a blazer or cocktail dress doesn’t have to be expensive, and somehow ‘equalizes’ the audience and prevents you from being judged. And therein lies the problem – why should I be judged if I don’t show up to a performance in a suit? Myers states correctly that most opera houses don’t have a formal dress code anymore, but in many ways the fellow audience’s judgement is far stricter. There have been times where I’ve had a full day of class, rushed home to change into a dress shirt and a nice pair of dark jeans, only to have some well-dressed lady snarkily proclaim that “teenagers know nothing about opera”. Why should the audience be equalized, anyways? If opera houses are truly trying to appeal to a diverse audience, it’s wrong to force everyone to conform to one social group’s expectation of ‘proper’ dress, no matter how cheap or easy that dress code is to attain.

Myers’ second point is that audience members should dress up to show respect not only for the performers, but also to show respect for the occasion. I think it’s important that we not only show respect for the cast and crew, but as long as I don’t show up in dirty, ripped clothes, I can’t see that being seen as disrespectful. Honestly, I don’t think that Netrebko looks out into the audience every evening to see who’s wearing jeans or dress pants. I would even argue that we must dress a certain way to respect our fellow audience members – don’t go to the opera straight from the gym without showering, and conversely don’t go to the opera having bathed yourself in cologne. Yes, it’s important to be well-groomed and neat, but I take issue with Myers’ inference that because I’m not showing up in a suit and tie, I don’t care about the performance.

To be honest, I’m torn on the issue of dress codes in relation to younger audiences. Yes, many teenagers are attracted by the glamour of the event, and enjoy having an opportunity to dress up and have fun. However, that reinforces the idea of opera as an ‘event’ – a special occasion with a special set of rules. However, if we want to cultivate younger audiences as regulars, I think we need to prove that opera doesn’t HAVE to be an event. Yes, feel free to dress up, but if want to show up in a t-shirt and jeans, that’s alright as well. That way, audiences don’t see opera as a chore in any way – it’s just as easy as going to a movie.

The last word should go to Jessica Duchen, who succinctly states that ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the audience wears. The primary reason why people find opera intimidating is because they’re not exposed. The most important thing for an opera house is to present an interesting, thought-provoking performance with musical integrity, and nobody will even notice what their neighbour is wearing.