Watched the first two acts of the Met’s Fleming/Scholl “Rodelinda” last night

The third act will start in a second once my coffeemaker finishes.

God, I love this opera. The music is fabulous, the costuming, the singing, everything. And the story! No more “then the chick dies, the end!” Ooh, I looooove it! That’s the best part!

No. It’s not the best part. It sucks. Watching most operas is like being a gay guy and watching “Brokeback Mountain” sixteen times in a row. No, it’s not the “best part” when the gay dude dies. It’s the sickest, saddest part. I’m reminded of one of the characters in the stage play “The Boys in the Band” who cynically remarked to a friend, “You know, the fag doesn’t always die at the end.”

Well, the chick doesn’t always die, either. Sometimes she kicks all kinds of ass and sings like a bird in the process. No wonder this is, as stated in the intermission interviews that took place during the HD broadcast that made this DVD, Renee Fleming’s teenaged daughter’s favorite opera. The chick kicks ass, wears fantastic gowns in the process, and gets to land Andreas Scholl at the end. (Who by the way has long hair in this. And thigh-length leather boots. He’s about nine feet tall. Those boots go on for a while.)

Go buy it. Now.

The WSJ is staffed by idiots.

I won’t link to their “Enchanted Island” review out of spite, but I suppose you can find it if you google. A representative quote: “The theory behind the Metropolitan Opera’s The Enchanted Island is that modern audiences don’t have the patience for actual Baroque opera.”

No, the theory behind the thing is that, back in the day, Baroque opera was an all-singing-all-dancing half-vaudeville/rock concert variety show that billed itself as the puppy’s nuts, so come on in and have a good time. And oh, that heartthrob with the high notes is singing lead, the diva’s costumes are fab, and there’s some really cool special effects.

Seems to me that’s precisely what they ended up with — a true-blue recreation of what Baroque opera looked, sounded, and felt like to an audience. The problem with this idiot reviewer is that she has developed a very tight 19th/20th century opera sensibility without even realizing it. Opera, she tells herself, is By The Book — candles and crucifix in place, and you sit down, shut up, and listen or else — because it’s always been like that for as long as she’s been alive. Verdi and Wagner are opera to her, and she’s expecting an artistic sensibility of several hundred years prior to behave the same way. It’s as if she’s gone to see a Buster Keaton movie and gone away complaining because someone forgot to turn the sound system on.

I’m also amused that she seems to think that the audience for this thing isn’t exactly the same as the audience for Real™ Baroque Opera. Is she on another planet? The same people who are going to see the Haendel biggies (and eagerly awaiting the renovation of Vivaldi’s opera as well) are in the audience for this. Given the popularity of Baroque nowdays, this thing is an experiment to determine whether or not a real Real™ Baroque Opera — singing, dancing, puppy’s nuts and all — is still appealing to today’s audiences.

Plainly, it is.

Which is just driving her up the wall. How dare they let in the barbarians. If classical music and opera are dying because their audiences are dwindling, then better they die than she has to sit next to someone who isn’t part of the cognoscenti. The fact that anyone familiar with the history of Baroque opera would recognize this thing instantly as probably closer to any actual 16-1700s staging only magnifies the irony of her complaints about Real™ Baroque Opera. (For crap’s sake, she’s complaining about dancing in a pasticcio? That’s what they did! What does she think Baroque opera is — Puccini without balls?)

Next up on the chopping block is her canned complaint about the short attention span of Today’s Young People. Ignore that some of the most popular movies of the past decade clocked in at over 3 hours long. Ignore the fact that Real™ Baroque Operas are roughly the same length and still wildly popular today. Ignore the popularity of movie serials that take a decade to be produced and multi-part book series that span thousands of pages. Kids Today Can’t Sit Still … or something … so she’s just using this thing as an excuse to channel Andy Rooney and get some of her old-grump mojo on. I can sympathize. I’ve got some old-grump mojo myself.

But the ADHD tendencies of today’s youth is not one of my favorite targets, mostly because it doesn’t exist. Today’s audiences have the tenacity of lobsters when they latch onto something they like, and they’ll sit still for movies that run considerably longer than a Baroque opera. And they don’t come with intermissions, either.

She’s an idiot. But then the best way to get up the nose of some stodge someplace who doesn’t like their assumptions challenged is to do something truly positive, revolutionary, and interesting. Thumbs up for the Met! 🙂

“The Enchanted Island” — the live audio stream, Dec 31, 2011

I’m sheepish to say that I didn’t listen to the entire thing. Wasn’t sure if I wanted to hear it for the first time like this or at the HD broadcast that I have a ticket for. Ultimately, I did tune in at the very end of Act I though, coming in on the beginning of the beautiful “Chaos, Confusion,” and heard all of Act II, which concluded with a chorus number immediately after one hell of a cadenza by Danielle DeNiese. She sang a modest, fairly typical little cadenza, then paused. The audience started to applaud … and she kept going! It was great! It’s such a thrill to hear these things in a new way, when you aren’t sure what you’re going to hear. And using familiar music counterbalances that, so that you’re sure you’re going to like what you hear, whatever it may be.

It was fantastic. One of the arias they used was a favorite of mine — “Ch’io parta?” from “Partenope.” It was fantastic when I heard the opening of that from the orchestra, and Daniels sang it to bits.

They wasted no time whatsoever in getting some videos up, as well as the short doco about it on the Met’s website. Wonderful, all around. I can’t wait to see it in HD.

I hope we see more of these sorts of things in the future. And I would love to get this on DVD.

Listening to RBP doing the Bruch Scottish

— and that Guarneri is perfect for her. I’ve got another CD of hers on the old Amati she had, the 1617, and that thing sounded plasticky when she played it. She asks a lot of a fiddle; she’s a very athletic player. And that Amati used to buckle under it. The Guarneri sings more and more sweetly the harder she pushes it. I can’t imagine a better player for that thing. By rights, when she’s gone, it should be called the ex-Pine.

And it sounds like a viola on the low end — a nice, deep sound, dark and savory.

Anyhow, it’s this CD. Go get it.

BTW, the “Rodelinda” in HD …

I didn’t write a review of it but I should have. Short: it was really good.

  1. The translation of the libretto was a little fast and loose, but I think they were trying to avoid that inevitable o_O that the audience suffers at the end when Grimoaldo and Eduige pair off and the entire audience wonders how much of her jewelry they’ll have to pawn for couples therapy.
  2. Which brings me to the fact that they changed the way Grimoaldo and Eduige were interpreted from the Glyndebourne version, which is the other version I’m most aware of. Eduige was much more sympathetically drawn here — reminding Grimoaldo that she couldn’t accept his proposals because she was in mourning (as was the case, at least in the 7th century history this is taken from, which was probably about as truthful as your average newspaper). However, there was a sort of strange compensatory adjustment that had to be made to Grimoaldo, making him more manic and a bit out of control until the very end, where he was outright penitent and apologetic to Eduige. It required a huge change to the “Prigioniera ho l’alma in pena” aria, which is a favorite of mine whereby he sung it somewhat snarkily … until he found a letter written to him by Eduige, upon which point he read it and then did the A section reprise in a very melancholy way, clearly still in love with her. (And at no point in love with Rodelinda at all.) Initially, I wasn’t well disposed to the sneery way he was singing it, but when he opened the letter and changed his tone for the reprise, I realized what they had been after, and I liked it much more.
  3. Scholl had trouble filling the Met, celestial as he is. He was beyond spectacular in the smaller Disney Hall, one of the best performances I’ve ever been to. But … he had trouble filling the Met. Of course, he was still a good actor, and a big, strapping, good-looking guy can always fill a hero’s shoes with aplomb. His duet with Fleming (who was tremendous) at the end of Act II was really incredibly good. But he’s a recitalist singing opera as opposed to someone more like Daniels, who struck me in Disney Hall as an opera singer doing a recital.
  4. This was definitely a star vehicle for Fleming, and she was incredible. She really was. I hadn’t heard her prior to this and only knew that she was extremely popular. I can see why. Wow. She’s supposedly known for tics and vocal quirks, and I was practically expecting her to hiccough and belch on stage while singing. Nothing. Clean as a whistle, rich, with a nice rounded warble in the low end, and a really good handle on how to embellish this stuff for someone who claims that it’s not her strong suit. Sure sounded like it was to me.
  5. There’s always a voice that surprises me in every new performance, one person I hadn’t heard of before who shoots out above and beyond everyone else. This time, it was Iestyn Davies who absolutely must speak Welsh with a name like that. He had an extremely light, penetrating, and sparkly voice that, while not having the smoothness and darkness of Scholl’s, had a much easier time in the hall. And let’s face it, he played one of the sweetest dramatic characters ever written in any medium, except for possibly Bob Cratchit. He was so, so good.
  6. The broadcast was hosted by the world’s reigning Wagnerian Diva Deborah Voigt, who is so comfy in front of a camera that it’s almost spooky. She looked wonderful as always, and escorted the camera around backstage to where we could see all sorts of interesting things happening regards massive stage sets rolling around in slow motion, carpenters milling about, little interviews with the performers (I was in the damned bathroom for Fleming’s but saw Scholl and Davies’s interview — both men came across as very nice), etc. I actually enjoy this way of seeing an opera. I can sip coffee or eat a pretzel, plus get all the great backstage information and chats with performers and backstage crew.
  7. And speaking of the massive sets … this thing was immense. The whole set slid back and forth as we went from library to garden to stables, then the entire damned stage lifted out of the floor to reveal Bertarido in prison after Grimoaldo’s fabulous “Sospetti, affetti, e timori” aria. Talk about a huge undertaking. It went beautifully, and it looked fantastic.
  8. It’s hard for me to make a single declaration on the way it was done. Making Eduige a more sympathetic character definitely got the production on my good side, even if it did mean that I didn’t get my food pellet of a sincere and glowing “Prigioniera” nor a penitent, exhausted, “Pastorello,” a la Kurt Streit. So although I missed those two arias done the way I prefer (though they were done beautifully), it was a good trade to get a realistic Eduige out of the deal. And in general, it was a great combination of romance-novel style melodrama without insulting the living daylights out of me. Rodelinda was and remained a very strong, appealing character. Bertarido was still his generally sweet (if dim) self, and Unulfo was a sweetheart as always. Garibaldo was … well, I need to keep an eye on this Shenyang dude because he can rattle the timbers when he sets his mind to it. Helluva voice on him. (You know how contraltos are said to always play “witches, bitches, and britches?” For a basso, it should be “gods, clods, and cads.”)
  9. Hey, onstage meatball surgery, complete with yelps of pain. Unulfo got doctored up during the finale — literally during “Oh caro bene” — after having had his best friend and boss try to kill him while he was setting him free. He was on his feet and smiling by the end, so props to the surgeon. 🙂

Anyhow, it was really good. And there is one reviewer out there who wrote this up in 2006 or thereabouts who apparently wasn’t aware that Scholl even did that magnificent little bungee jump into baritone during “Infida consorte” and thought he’d slipped into chest voice by mistake and caught himself. As I’ve said previously in this blog, o_O. Oh, well.

So, “The Enchanted Island” is up next! Should be fun!

Update: Can’t believe I forgot this, but there was one more good addition to the production that nagged at me during the Glyndebourne. Before the opening scene for “Spietati,” during which Rodelinda dares Grimoaldo to kill her son before her eyes, she looked over at her son and nodded, and he nodded back, implying that they had conferred beforehand. That scene had seemed so implausible to me the first time I saw it, but just that one little signal between the two of them, and the bold way the little boy playing Flavio walked forward and put his arms out, made it clear that she had warned him ahead of time. Operas in general are not known for their realism, but that really snagged me as particularly bad characterization when I first saw the Glyndebourne. Here, it was still implausible, but much less so, and much less of a grotesque mischaracterization on the part of the librettist.

I have to wonder how much decision-making was done by Fleming to make these various changes; if they were indeed made on her suggestion, then she’s quite good and should be allowed more editorial control over her work in the future. (And possibly over others.) It’s just that many of the interpretations for this particular production all seem to head in the same direction of making it a little bit less … stupid and flimsy in general, which too many operas tend to be, and a bit more level-headed.

To be fair, Baroque operas already have less of that nonsense going on, and that’s a big selling point for them already. Even then, this particular version of an already good opera had a further huge advantage in not taking my money, insulting the shit out of me, and simultaneously expecting me to suspend my disbelief so high that my arms started to go numb. I wish they had put it out on DVD. I’d pay real money for the stream.

The Music of Henry Purcell, the English Concert with Andreas Scholl, Walt Disney Hall, October 11, 2011

It’s so easy to gush, isn’t it? So easy to breathe in and try to get enough running room to reach the heights of hyperbole that you need for an enthusiastic review. And so often it just sounds forced. It’s not here. This really, honestly was spectacular. Beyond spectacular. Of course I have to pay more mind to the voice since that was the showpiece instrument, but … damn. Scholl was flawless. He made that hall ring like a bell, with the most perfect, purest, unaffected sound I’ve ever heard from a falsettist. He really is the calibration point by which all others must be measured. I heard him once before in Santa Barbara with the ACO, and this concert blew that one away, aided no doubt by the somewhat cleaner acoustics at Disney Hall.

I love Purcell’s music, and I’m not even a specialist in it. It was a DVD of ye-olde-schule falsettist standards where I first encountered him, with a smorgasbord of voices, and I noticed that every time I sat forward and thought, “Ooh hey, that one’s really good,” it was by Purcell. I fell in love with “Sound the Trumpets” and the “Evening Hymn” in particular; it took Klaus Nomi to make me fall in love with “Cold Song.” I was thrilled to learn about this concert and almost dropped over when I learned that Scholl would very likely sing “Cold Song.” (He did. Wow.)

Because of this, I freely admit that I sat in my seat last night waiting for the concert to start, amazed that I was about to hear some of my favorite stuff sung by the greatest living falsettist, backed by one hell of a band. I stand behind my incoherent gushing. Gah. Buh. Mmmmmph. It was unbelievable. Holy crap.

“Sweeter than Roses.” (With a short false start that the audience completely forgave. In small quantities, these things are charming.) “Music for a While,” which I’ll always associate with Alfred Deller. “Evening Hymn.” “O Solitude.” “The Cold Song.” “Dido’s Lament.” Just the whole top ten of Purcell, in the purest, clearest, most glittery voice. It sounds so clinical to compliment him on his intonation, phrasing, and the sheer champagne beauty of his vibrato, which is why I’m trying not to bring it up. But trust me, that all came across as well. I just don’t want to make it seem as if this is the sort of thing one should listen to with a checklist of notes in hand, waiting for errors. Classical music already has a long row to hoe fighting against that image of sourpusses sitting in the audience checking off notes.

Nevertheless.

When a group of people can lift you out of your seat with beauty and also just happen to get it all perfect, it makes an impression.

The band put a nice dark belt under it all, too — I’ll never be a huge fan of Baroque violins. Too skatey and too watercolor, not a deep enough core to the sound. (Although lots of people adore them, so that’s just a matter of taste.) But the violas were better, the cello was great (played standing up and propped on a padded piano bench, which seemed very sensible to me), and the violone was to die for. A beautiful thing as well, with one of those extravagant cornices-and-oak-leaf-lobes silhouettes that is sometimes seen on violas d’amore. Man, that thing sounded like heaven. The lutenist came out after the intermission with a little Baroque guitar, which could actually be heard — not always the case. It added a needed angularity to the music that old-style strings can’t contribute easily. Together with the harpsichord, it all was a lot meatier than one would have thought. No prissiness in this stuff, and they used the power well. The swell the band added underneath was a direct contrast to the occasionally too timid orchestration for some of these pieces in other interpretations. They filled the hall without once swamping Scholl. When I heard them a while back with David Daniels, there were more of them on the stage, and they did indeed overwhelm him a few times. Not this time. Fewer musicians, and a beautiful balance between all instruments, including the biological one.

I’ll stop. It’s just a gush at this point. Gah. It’s true — bad reviews take a lot more telling, but good ones are often boring, just “OMG GO SEE THIS.”

Well, OMG GO SEE THIS.

Geeky stuff I noticed: I only saw the first violin shift once. The reeds were fantastic — Baroque reeds really sound great. A bit of a gender swap since three of the four high strings were male, and the oboes and bassoon were all women. The trumpets were also cool; one of them had to perform some sort of emergency drainage blowout towards the end. Again, I’m glad I don’t have to clean spit out of a piano or a viola.

Non-geeky stuff I noticed: One of the violists had on the most beautifully colored long purple dress. The cellist was adorable. The cello was also nice, that gorgeous deep cherry-brown that I like so much on strings. None of the other instruments were particularly beautiful looking. Scholl looks like he’s in his early 30s, the bastard.

“Natoma” and “Into the Trees”: Zoë Keating’s stuff

A short review: both albums are worthwhile, but the second album is better music than the first. Although the first, “One Cello x 16: Natoma,” has some standout pieces on it, there are more than a few pieces that strike me as if Keating were sort of frobbing the dials on this new way of recording and making music and finding out what she could accomplish with it, very avant-garde and more interesting in an “under the hood” sense. The second, “Into the Trees,” sounds as if she had sort of settled out her toolbox and found things to say.

For anyone curious about Keating’s methods and stories, I’d recommend buying both albums. For anyone who simply wants nice music to listen to, get “Into the Trees” and leave “Natoma” for later.

Personally, I do like both, but “Natoma” is a bit more like whiskey, more interesting than tasty. “Trees” is both.