Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Mattila IS Salome!

I wasn’t in the house for it this time, but listening to the Met’s Salome with Karita Mattila last night I felt almost as though I was. Like many in the
audience, finding my breath after those great crashing chords, I let out a roar in appreciation for what I’d just heard.

First, let me defend Patrick Summers, who I keep hearing bashed over and over again. Maestro Summers led a gorgeous, enormously lyrical while still thoroughly dramatic performance from the orchestra. Rather than the thickly textured soup some conductors can make of Strauss scores of this period, Summers brought out the widely varied colors - an array of hues from the band, revealing layer after layer of delicate, gauzy sound in best Straussian fashion. I heard solo instruments last night, where I barely - if ever - hear them in other performances, and like the Gergiev-led run of four years ago, one got to hear that deliciously creepy organ music so rarely heard in a live performance of this immensely popular work.

Vocally I was wowed from the moment the curtain rose, beginning with Joseph Kaiser’s beautifully nuanced reading. I love the slightly reedy yet smooth texture to his voice and his sense of line through this music evoked youth itself.

Mattila stunned me with the way she began the evening. There was this delicate near Mozartean lean sound, youthful, virginal yet powerful enough to swell in those few places the role calls for early on. The voice was fresh and free with everything delightfully pointed up. As the story grew darker, so frequently did the tone and color of Mattila’s voice, at times sounding like an
entirely different (and fully deranged) singer.

Sometimes a singer will insert gasps, grunts and groans for dramatic purposes, usually in lieu of being able to sufficiently convey the drama through the music. Mattila inserts these effects aplenty including sucking in air and moaning as she waits to redeem her bloody prize, and what made it all so effective was that instead of masking any deficiencies of voice, they were
merely embellishments on a deliciously over-the-top reading of vocal prowess and often gleaming sound. This sound grew and bent like a prism through Strauss’s complex score, the final scene radiant, confused and triumphant. The ultimate phrase: “Ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jokanaan, Ich habe ihn geküßt, deinen Mund,” found conductor and soprano stretching out the line to the point where it felt suspended in time – the aural equivalent of a gazing at a painting. After last season’s worrisome Manon Lescaut, I think more than a few of us had been holding our collective breath to see how she would do and once again Karita put on the mantle of Mattila the Magnificent!

I was unfamiliar with Ildikó Komlósi, who I found to be a very attractive and lyrical Herodias, especially against her husband’s often gruff vocalism and slightly exaggerated mannerisms provided by Kim Begley, an artist I usually enjoy more than I did last night. This was too bad, since Alan Glassman who four years ago made gave the best performance I’ve ever heard of that role, was last night singing one of the Jews.

It was difficult at first to judge Juha Uusitalo’s debut as Jokanaan. From the cistern the voice itself seemed a bit loose and hollow, which always gives me pause for concern. Later, the sound seemed freer, if somewhat tight and rather reigned in. Yet, in one or two of the explosive moments he revealed a big, thrilling sound that poured out easily, which, seemed almost to come another singer altogether - I’d like to hear more of THAT from him.

The performance flew by in the proverbial blink-of-an-eye and ran only an hour and 36 minutes, with a nice, fat ovation for Mattila and company at the end.

After the bloated excess of the opening night gala, THIS was the right way to kick off a high energy season of opera at the Met. Bravo . . . Bravissimo!

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Met Opening Night Gala: A Wagnerian Length Evening of Scenes

After picking me up early from work, my Met HD Gang and I headed to the Brunswick Regal for the Met Opening Night Gala. Years ago I realized I’m not really an opera gala kinda guy – nights in “three acts” from different works not really being my cup of tea. Much preferable to me are evenings comprised of aria recitals or, even better, entire operas. But there was so much hullaballo surrounding this one there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of missing it. It felt pretty special returning to the sold-out show (as with all of the Met HD offerings here, two or more theatres had to be opened). I must say the chaotic, disorganized hour or so before the gala proper began was a bit of a chore to sit through after a long day at work: a beer and a sandwich would have helped enormously. Still, it was pleasant enough to catch snippets of some celebrity sightings and listen to the unimportant blatherings – as we all agree – these things ain’t all about the music!

First a word on the gowns (and I’m no fashionista – quite the opposite). Renee looked sensational all night, even in that wretched, godawful, tattered Christian Lacroix deconstructed rag for the first Traviata scene. Seriously, it looked like a clown blew up and was then fed into a shredding machine. It was horrific. The next scene’s gown looked considerably better, but so too would have a dirty housedress. The Karl Lagerfeld gown for Manon reminded me nothing so much as something designed for Elsa . . . and I don’t mean von Brabant, but Lanchester - as in “Bride of Frankenstein.” Seriously. It looked particularly drab in comparison to the “lesser lights” of the costumes for the overblown Cours-la-Reine scene (which looked strangely deflated on the big screen in comparison to having seen it a number of times in the house). The final Galliano number for Capriccio was absolutely stunning (though my friends and I got unduly excited thinking Fleming had a snake tattooed on her back . . . she should!). She looked like a million bucks primping, massaging her boobies, and slinking back and forth across the stage like Veronica Lake in a bob (and did anyone get a load of the heels on her? Holy Stiletto, Batman!)

I thought Hampson started off a bit dry and stiff vocally, but my lord, he opened up for the Di Provenza. I found him to be an extremely and uniquely touching, Germont: awkward and thoughtful (and I believe these were choices, not discomfort of being in the role). When Violetta asks “embrace me as a daughter” and throws herself into his arms, this Germont simply didn’t know how to respond, which I felt entirely appropriate. As to complaints about Fleming slowing down the “Amami Alfredo!” – there is a long tradition of Violettas who have done so and I LOVE it when they do. Sills, one of the lightest voiced Violettas ever, could turn, pull and chew those few bars almost into an entire aria. Callas could bring down the pace here, as well. I think it fits the drama perfectly and though Fleming does not necessarily place among my favorite Violettas of all time, I liked what she did with the role (at least for an act) last night. Very much so. (What a drag that Vargas didn’t get his cabaletta, though!)

Throughout the night the singing would be mixed, but mostly good throughout the night, with top vocal honors going easily to Ramon Vargas. My God, I cannot wait to hear him as Des Grieux, a role I find it hard to believe he’s not yet taken on. The “Ah, fuyez” began a bit softer than I like (but hardly inappropriately so) with a slight hesitancy that had me worried he wouldn’t pour everything he had into it. I needn’t have been concerned, as he simply tore the aria up! I really think this is one of the “prettiest” tenor voices in the opera world today, and even if he’s not quite a dynamo actor, he has such appealing, genuine presence that I find myself always routing for this singer (and his Rodolfo last season was exceptional). I loved how he and Fleming kicked it up a couple of notches completely losing all inhibitions and raising the erotic quotient to . . . well, pretty damned high. People in the Cineplex gasped and tittered when Renee literally flung herself backwards over the Prie Dieu, pushing up her girly bits and striking – and holding – a “take me now” pose that was smoking hot! This really is the best scene (and music) of this opera and they did it proud last night.

I really thought Robert Lloyd pulled off Daddy Des Grieux rather nicely (loved the mocking applause and admonishment he gave his son – comical, snide, paternal . . . ). Armiliato got a good reading of the French perfume out of the Met band, moving things along nicely when necessary while still being able to luxuriate in the sound of his singers.

Though Fleming sounded good, involved (and sometimes slightly taxed by the evening) the Strauss was sung with an often refulgent tone that hadn’t been present in anything else all evening. It was a nice capper and what made it especially sweet was seeing Michael Devlin again . . . I’ve always been a fan of his and he seems to be going on forever, good for him! I was startled - pleasantly so - by how many people in our audience were riveted by the Dr. Atomic previews. I can't wait for this one!

It was fun spotting Joe Clark in an early backstage moment (funny how many people recognized him from previous cinecasts, even though he was “out” of the limelight last night) Equally fun was meeting his replacement, (can’t remember his name, but we dubbed him “Little Joe” last night!) who seems like a real charmer. Susan Graham and Deborah Voigt seemed a little odd and stiff last night, both in a sort of "charm the masses" mode that didn't feel natural from either of them.

I think Martha Stewart should've been mixing those cocktails a little earlier in the evening. It WAS funny watching Rufus Wainwright in his sparkly cowboy outfit trying to steal a bit of camera time thought mostly ignored and blocked from view by Martha and Susie. It was a ridiculously long night and not the best showing from from the Met, but as noted already, these evenings ain't all about the music; the buzz is out for the season and I think great, great things are in store for us this year! I can't wait!

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