Orchestra

Largo al factotum: Rossini’s Barber at Baruch Performing Arts Center

Image © Gregory Briggler 2017

As I was making my way to the city from my apartment in Queens, the cold mist visible in the street lights made the decision to turn to flurries in the ten minute walk to the subway. I was late for the opera. The start time was 7:30 and not 8:00 as I had assumed. I missed the overture and “Figaro qua, Figaro là…” much to my chagrin. This would be my first time to see the Barber of Seville live, I thought on my way to the theater. Once I sneaked into the darkness, after descending through the Dynasty era decor of the lobby staircase, I remembered that I had played the opera over twenty years ago! Opera in the Ozarks is a fantastic summer program for young singers from all over the country to gain experience singing major roles in full stage productions. I sweated through many outdoor performances of this buoyant farce playing trombone in the orchestra. As a veteran of the pit, I was happy to see a small full orchestra at this performance.

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Keith Milkie as Don Bartolo & Katrin Bulke as Rosina

Some composers, like Bach, craft a logically flawless piece of music that can work for organ, kazoo ensemble, or slightly out of tune community band. Shakespeare is similar in Drama, all one need do is plant themselves on stage and say the words clearly for the audience to get something from the beauty of the language and insight into what it means to be human. For Rossini, however, the medium is the message- both the farce and the songs. The orchestration is intentionally simple. Rossini uses the instruments as the canvas and frame for the vocal impasto. The comedy is intentionally broad. There were chuckles throughout the night from the audience. I particularly enjoyed the Bill Irwin look-alike Don Raymond as Ambrogio. Deaf and trying constantly to react to the craziness around him he was always one step behind. Mostly, he wanted to eat peanuts out of his shoulder bag.

Count Almaviva, Rosina’s love interest and eventual husband, was sung by Sam Varhan. His voice had a very nice “Italian” ring to it, but it was very quiet. I kept imagining turning up his volume with a out sized, cartoonish volume dial. I say put a mic on him and let him sing “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables! Claudio Mascarenhas was a resonate presence as Don Basillio. I enjoyed the acting from the rest of the cast, although I would have liked a little more Three’s Company and a little less How I Met Your Mother from the action.

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The singing from everyone, however, was full of mistakes, chips, not-quite notes and forgotten lines. The stated purpose of Vocal Productions NYC, the producers of the evening, is “to cultivate opportunities for emerging musical professionals to perform roles, conduct ensembles, and accompany major musical works within a positive nonjugdemental [sic] environment.” I tried to approach the evening with this in mind. The production was fully staged, with nice costumes and a sturdy set, so the environment set expectations high for the audience. The Vocal Productions NYC website states that they are open to more than just opera, so perhaps a musical wouldn’t be out of the question for next time.

Precision was a problem both in the pit and on stage. The singers were sometimes out of phase with the orchestra which was often out of phase with itself. When the orchestra managed to bring it together here and there, it resonated nicely. The chug-chug from the strings and winds can be as enjoyable as the singing, but the band has to be in the pocket for the joy to come through. The ensemble finale was an interesting pastiche of tempos from all over the stage and from the pit.

There were some minor productions mistakes. For example, Don Basilio needs some pants underneath his robe!  The super-titles were missing throughout the first act. Count Almaviva had three or four costume changes while Rosina had none which seems unjust. Although not a mistake, keep an eye out for Danny DeVito and Eric Clapton among the soldiers in the chorus.

The cast is different each night, so it would be impossible to make suggestions for the entire run based on opening night. I suspect everything will be tighter on and off stage by, say, Thursday. The artistic director of the group, Valentyn Peytchinov, will sing Don Basilio on Saturday, December 16th which would be a good time to go. If you are willing to accept the imperfections of singing from emerging professionals, then feel free to enjoy. If you are more judgmental, then this isn’t the production for you.

The Barber of Seville
Gioachino Rossini
Sung in Italian
December 12-17
Baruch Performing Arts Center
55 Lexington Ave.
New York, NY 10010
(entrance on 25th St. between Lexington and 3rd)
$31 or $51
Vocal Productions NYC

 

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Totestod – A Bleak Tristan and Isolde at The Met

Photo Credit: Gregory Briggler ©2016

I am not a fan of Wagner in general. Well, a fan of his orchestral writing, but not the rest. Who can tell if the singers are making up the never ending vocal lines as they go along? The storylines are often silly or become so. I never felt like he managed to “do it all” successfully. I feel the same about Tristan and Isolde specifically. The music is often precise and pulsating, but the story detail, the character development, is what kills the momentum especially in the first act. The first act is a prolonged lover’s quarrel on a ship after the kidnapping of Isolde. I fell asleep around “If you love me you’ll speak to me!” and woke up around “If you love me you’ll speak to me!”. That’s right, I dozed during the dress rehearsal I attended. Wagner writes the perfect napping operas.

The new production at the Metropolitan Opera, captained by Mariusz Trelinski, was licensed from the Polish National Opera give or take. Gird your loins for six hours of visual abuse. It is primarily bleak – brutal even – in true modern European style.The musical work is made secondary to the ideas of the directorial auteur. The stage is black and white each act. The only relief from that is a whisper, a breath of blue and green occasionally. Be prepared for the stunningly subdued “pop” of color when Isolde reveals her dark maroon velvet dress during the second act. The black and white aesthetic is made more intense by the bullying of the stage lights. The default light is a bare white. Upstage, there is a row of Klieg lights that are used like cannons to wake up or ambush the audience. Also, the director always needed to have “something” happening during the overture and prelude to the second act. The circle of a working sonar screen (green, of course) was projected onto the curtain for the duration as well as a film. The director was very fond of circles, they play a major role in the symbolism of the staging. At one point in the second or third act, another circle was projected onto the haze that constantly smogged the stage to great effect.

Not everything was an assault. Sometimes the stagecraft was amazing!  The most impressive stagecraft was the appearance and disappearance of characters while onstage. I was honestly surprised over and again by this device. The sets confined and defined the acts in a purposeful way. In the first act, the result often was to give the stage the feeling of a film which seems to make sense for Trelinski who began his career as a film director. The set for the second act was inexplicably “boaty”, though no less impressive. Over the course of the production, the staging opened up so that by the third act there was plenty of space for nihilism.

There was a choice by the director to exaggerate the importance of the fact that Tristan as a child lost his father to the sea. One line late in the opera was used to justify  a lot of psychological speculation. This idea was used in a film projected during the overture inside the sonar ring. Is this the story of a forbidden, tragic love of two young lovers? No! It’s the sea swallowing up lives. The production was so brutal and acerbic, the Liebestod comes across more as a Totestod.

The famous Liebestod, the culmination of operatic longing, the most famous melody from this sing-a-thon, and the point of the opera, is the end point of an arguably silly idea. But, it has its place and purpose as the logical conclusion of the action. How is the intractable problem of hatred turning to love ripening to despair solved? Life apart is resolved by death together. A powerful, ridiculous idea akin to the juvenile logic of Romeo and Juliet – both romantic and wrong. Or is it romantic because it is wrong? The story itself hints at the mindless origins of this poisonous thinking with a switch of love for hate by Isolde’s handmaiden early in the action. The faulty Liebestod is the fruit of magic- a poison switched for a potion, the effects of which were finally nullified by tragedy. Far from immersing myself in the ideas even for a short moment, the staging kept me from accepting the flawed logic and yearning for the power of forbidden, eternal love.

What can be said about the music and singing? Not much, but in a good way. Nearly flawless, from beginning to end. The orchestra, directed by Sir Simon Rattle, sawed away, unflagging for the duration. Tristan played by Stuart Skelton had a presence of voice that eclipsed everyone onstage until the end of the third act. By that point he began to chip around the edges. Nina Stemme sang beautifully, allowing her voice to blossom fully at the bitter end. Support was near perfection from Ekaterina Gubanova and René Pape.

My summary? This would be a horrible first opera to take a novice. The unceasing music is made less bearable by the bleak staging. What’s worse than six hours of Wagner? A stage director trying to one up Wagner for six hours.

Only a few more days to suffer for art’s sake. Tristan and Isolde is at the Met through October 27. Tickets almost certainly available here.