Category: Top Diva

Opera Review: “I Puritani”

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Let us now praise Pretty Yende! No, it wasn’t her Met debut, nor is she an unknown quality in the opera world – it’s more like she’s a steadily rising young star. However, she’s not the established performer that Diana Damrau is, so the fact that she truly crushed it when taking over for the ill Damrau as Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani stands as a truly news-worthy event.

Now, I’ll admit that I hadn’t taken an active interest in 21st Century opera performers until I started covering opera in this blog a few years back. For almost all of the ’00s, I’d take note of a new opera by the likes of Glass, Adès, Dusapin or Heggie, but I wouldn’t really pay attention to who was singing (not that the superstars spend much time singing the postmoderns anyway). The last big star I knew anything about was Renée Fleming. So getting to know the likes of Damrau, Vittorio Grigolo, Michael Volle, Sondra Radvanovsky and so forth has been a real pleasure. With this I Puritani I’m definitely adding Yende to that stellar list.

Another slightly embarassing admission – this is the first time I’ve seen a complete opera by Bellini. I’ve heard his arias in concerts of bel canto singing, but in that context he tends to get overshadowed by the showier Rossini and Donizetti. He is famous for his melody, and now I understand why. Not catchy tunes mind you – go to Verdi or Puccini for that. No, for Bellini melody is a series of emotional moments that are strung together like pearls, or that flow like an unpredictable but somehow inevitable river of feeling. Yende has a perfect sense of this, and luckily her vocal instrument is liquid silver.

Also, let us now also properly praise the Metropolitan Chorus and Orchestra, as led by Donald Palumbo and Maurizio Benini respectively. The Act II opener “Ah, dolor! Ah terror!” is a glittering marvel for chorus and orchestra, and these massed forces delivered it with a passion and precision that made my hair stand on end. Oh, and I haven’t said a word about the plot, because I have never seen an opera where that matters less. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Opera Review: “Rusalka”

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To make a longish story short, Rusalka is a tragic operatic Czech variation on The Little Mermaid. It also takes elements of the older fairy tale novella Undine (and all three have roots in the medieval legend of Melusine). There’s also a strong musical influence from Wagner here tooand not just musical: The opera opens with a trio of water spirits teasing a gnomish creature, exactly the same opening as Wagner’s Das Rheingold.

It is also very Czech. While Little Mermaid and Undine are obvious influences, the libretto takes much more directly from the fairy tales of Czech authors Karel Jaromír Erben and Božena Němcová. As with all of the works of the opera’s composer Antonín Dvořák, Rusalka draws directly on Czech folk music for its melodic and rhythmic sense. Also, Rusalka is a lake nymph in contrast to Little Mermaid‘s ocean -dwelling heroine, which makes sense for land-locked Czechia.

Director Mary Zimmerman, whose work is packed full with beauty and fantasy, is an ideal interpreter for this dark fantasy. Choreographer Austin McCormick is known for his baroque-inspired sexual fantasies, and his second act court dance goes all the way there, in breathtaking fashion. Rusalka is in the outer reaches of opera’s “standard repertoire” so I’m not surprised this is my first time hearing it. Conductor Sir Mark Elder gives it a rich and surging account which more than sold me on the opera’s many and varied pleasures.

The buzz about this production, though, is all about Kristine Opolais in the title role, and it is more than earned. She gives just the right luminescent lusciousness to the lovelorn nymph, especially in the gorgeous aria “Song to the Moon.” Eric Owens was a revelation as Nibelung dwarf Alberich in the Met’s recent Ring cycle, and he is marvelous again here as Dvořák’s similar (but much kinder) water goblin Vodník. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Opera Review: “Roméo et Juliette”

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Well, this is lovely! I’ve never been a big fan of these star-crossed lovers; I thought of them as “stupid damn teenagers” even when I was a stupid damn teenager myself. But add some music to the story and it instantly gains a lot of interest – all that yearning gives abundant opportunities for making beautiful music. I’ve long been a fan of Prokofiev’s ballet version for that very reason. And Charles Gounod, composer of this operatic version, misses few opportunities for making glorious musical hay out of these adolescent passions, not only in the pair’s big arias and duets (which positively glow), but also in sensuously sparkling waltzes for the party scenes.

Director Bartlett Sher’s sturdy production drew inspiration from two films, Federico Fellini’s Casanova and Patrice Chéreau’s La Reine Margot. It leans more heavily toward the gritty grimness of Chéreau, where I would definitely have preferred more of the color, eccentricity and perversity of Fellini, but I’d call that a matter of personal taste. Sher’s staging certainly serves the material quite well. Choreographer Chase Brock, making a very impressive Met debut, makes those waltzes whirl and pulsate with a terrifically sculptural sense of space.

In the time that I’ve been covering opera at the Met, I’ve come to be a great fan of conductor Gianandrea Noseda. He triumphs once again here with a notably light touch, giving Gounod’s glittering score much welcome space and air. We also get a light touch from this productions Romeo, Vittorio Grigolo, but one that is not mutually exclusive with soaring passionate flights in the role’s upper register.

But the real story in this production is its Juliette, Diana Damrau. It was announced before the evening started that Damrau was suffering with a cold, but would be performing nonetheless. If we hadn’t been told, I would have been delighted by her liquid coloratura dynamics, but under these circumstances sounding so marvelous is nothing short of awesome. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Cabaret Review: Marilyn Maye “By Request”

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Ella Fitzgerald once called Marilyn Maye “the greatest white female singer in the world”. That’s no exaggeration; she may be the only singer alive who combines a great vocal instrument with interpretative flair and savoir faire equal to Ella’s own. There are younger singers who might posses more powerful voices but I can think of no other singer who possesses Maye’s combination of interpretive ability, rhythmic verve, and vocal range – at 88, her voice is the envy of singers 40 years her junior.

She’s also a “saloon singer”, a singer who has a fantastic rapport with her audience, singing them beloved songs from a startlingly wide variety of genres. These shows at the Metropolitan Room take full advantage of this facet of her talent. Marilyn asks her audience to pick her “Marilyn By Request” set list by making song suggestions when making their reservations. It makes for an evening filled with surprises, and plenty of energy from both sides of the footlights.

Musical director Billy Stritch – a frequent foil for the likes of Liza Minnelli and Christine Ebersole – is the perfect match for this footloose kind of approach, combining a broad knowledge of popular music with snappy, sophisticated jazz chops. Maye exquisitely tailors her style of singing to the individual song, smooth for the ballads, swinging for the standards, and truly gritty for the bluesier numbers. And always, always fully at home in – and totally committed to – the music.

Maye appeared on Johnny Carson’s edition of “The Tonight Show” a total of 76 times, a record not likely ever to be beaten by any other singer with any other host. If you love songs of every kind sung like they’re meant to be sung, it just doesn’t get any better than this. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Opera Review: “Salome”

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Patricia Racette’s assured performance in the title role is the main reason to catch the Met’s current revival of Richard Strauss’s 1905 opera Salome. It is a musically complex and demanding role, so it’s no small feat that Racette makes it look and sound easy. The role also covers a lot of vocal range, and Racette rumbled at the bottom and roared at the top, with no sign of strain at either end.

Based on Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play of the same name, Salome tells of the titular stepdaughter of the tetrarch Herod Antipas, who requests the head of John the Baptist (here called “Jochanaan”) on a silver platter as a reward for granting Herod’s request that she perform “the dance of the seven veils.”

Racette performed choreographer Doug Varone’s Dance of the Seven Veils with great verve. The costuming and some of the steps at this point were reminiscent of Weimar Germany, and indeed Racette comported herself like Marlene Deitrich at her most vampy.

This production’s Jochanaan, baritone Željko Lučić, was truly robust in both acting and singing. Tenor Gerhard Siegel gave us a Herod of great vocal nimbleness and power. Mezzo-soprano Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Salome’s mother, Herodias, had a clarion voice and gleeful intensity that brought this smaller role out in higher relief than usual.

Conductor Johannes Debus packs his account of Strauss’s High Romantic score with incisive intelligence and gleaming passion. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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