I Would've Never Stayed - Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro at Opera Garnier
Many years ago, at the very beginning of my (very short) operatic career, I played the role of Countess in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro. I loved the part with all my heart. It was so well suited for my voice and the character - for my personality, I couldn't have possibly asked for more. One thing always bothered me, though: at the end, after Countess finds out about her husband's infidelities, she forgives him, and they live happily ever after like nothing happened, and the last chorus with all those lovy-dovy lyrics was like nails on a chalkboard to me. Why would a noble, beautiful, wealthy woman go back to a bastard who screwed pretty much every woman in his sight and was about to do it again with her chambermaid? I would've never stayed with a guy like that, and I hated that I had to act like a loving wife at the end.
So, when I got the tickets for the final show of a sold-out Le Nozze di Figaro at the Garnier, I didn't know anything about the production. Not the cast, not the director, not the conductor - nothing. My only criteria were that it had to be AFTER my own concert so I could actually have the presence of mind to either enjoy it or hate it. Unfortunately, it was the night before, but since it was the last show of the run, I grudgingly paid for the seats in the 9th row of the orchestra - literally the last available tickets. In mid-August, haha.
I don't get impressed with the sold-out shows. They sell out for different reasons: famous singer, time of year, ticket price, blah, blah. So around the holidays in Paris, one can expect a full house regardless of who is singing and what. As for the unfortunate timing of it, I decided that if the show is good, I will use it as an inspiration for my own performance. If it sucks, I will know what not to do and once again use it for inspiration. In other words, I figured I couldn't lose.
I was intrigued by the first few measures of the overture. The conductor Louis Langree seemed to have a firm grip on the score, starting the show on the right note. The tempo felt good; the sound was well-balanced. However, the geometric digital stage set projected onto the backdrop was monumental and distracting. It consisted of massive numbers and letters, so I couldn't quite figure out what to make of it and rolled my eyes at the possibility of yet another modern production. That said, before I had a chance to hate it, things started turning around.
In front of us, there was a theater within the theater. The famous Beaumarchais play was planted into the backstage life of a theater with Susanna being a costume maker and a dresser of the primadonna Countess Almaviva. The Count was the company director, Figaro - some sort of administrator (i guess), Barbarina - a corps de ballet member, etc. The story unfolding in front of us was a story of sexual harassment that all the women in the entertainment business undergo with very little exception. On its own, the "me too" scenario inserted into the opera I knew intimately could've been a bad match for me, but somehow, the director Netia Jones (who was also the set creator and a costume designer), managed to do it very elegantly - for the most part. I could've used a bit less of men constantly taking their pants off (no worries, they kept the underwear on, lol), but the director's intention of making the lustful guys of all kinds utterly unattractive read through quite well. The stark contrast between the structured set that turned into a meticulously organized costume shop in the second half and the messy backstage life with all the women paying their dues to the director was quite apparent.
One can agree or disagree with the concept, but, as we know, what makes or breaks operatic production is singing and acting. An incapable cast can ruin any director's ingenuity, as a great ensemble can survive lousy staging. Fortunately for us, neither was the case.
Gerald Finley, as count Almaviva, was very well suited for the character created by the director. I thought, in the beginning, he had a poor projection and could be clearly heard only during the recits, but somehow he either got it together later in a show, or I no longer cared, taken by his beautiful voice, effortless top notes, and superb acting. He very well portrayed the character of a charming, powerful, and entitled individual who is so self-absorbed that he no longer sees the line he is constantly crossing.
Another interesting detail about this production was the projection of the characters' inner thoughts and hidden relationships on a giant screen behind them. So, for example, when the Count was interacting with someone, we could see on the screen, projected in shadows, what the relationship between them was really like. One of the funniest moments was Susanna and Marcelina's duet, where they politely talked while the projection showed the imaginary catfight between them. This moment of a virtual slapstick comedy didn't take away from the show but somehow enriched it with a very appropriate comedic element.
Overall, this was one of the most well-fitting casts I have ever seen. Miah Persson in the role of Countess was not breathtaking to me, perhaps due to a wider vibrato in her voice than I cared for, occasional slight flatness, and solid but uneasy top notes; however, her acting was touching and honest. Jeanine de Bique, whom I knew as a Baroque singer, with the blessing of the director, took the role of Susanna to a whole new level, making her the opera's central character. I was actually surprised how "mezzo-ish" she sounded with such rich and well-projected mid-rejester that I could hear every note of her aria and duet, not to mention all recits. Luca Pisaroni as Figaro bothered me a bit with his throaty tops, so my impression of his famous aria was slightly tarnished. However, once again, as an actor, he fits the part perfectly. Easy on the eyes, he was fun, funny, and charming.
The only miscast singer seemed to be Rachel Frenkel as Cherubino. She acted the spoiled little brat quite well but vocally was weaker than the rest. I was positive she was a soprano until I looked her up. The only notes I could hear clearly were the tops, but both arias are written in the middle, and that was the register she tragically lacked.
A lot can be said about each individual singer; however, the most impressive part was how they all worked together. The stage was often divided into sections, and something was happening in each of them. While the principals were singing in one, other characters, sometimes silently, were functioning in others. What was remarkable is that in each corner of the stage, at any given moment, there was some action, and the consistent communication between everybody went through the entire production as a uniting thread. Everyone on stage was busy and engaged 100% of the time, and nobody was standing and waiting for their turn to sing.
I used the word "remarkable" and immediately thought that it shouldn't have been so remarkable: it is the only way it should be. Otherwise, it becomes phony, and nobody in the audience can believe that anything happening on stage is worthy of their attention. Nobody looks at the characters as living, breathing creatures; therefore, nobody can relate to them or is interested in anything they have to say. The only way to do a comedy, or any show for that matter, is to take the made-up relationships seriously, and that is exactly what happened.
And then I knew why this show was sold out during its entire run - it was good, and I felt like I saw this opera for the first time. The endless uncut dialogs accompanied by the harpsichord were enjoyable instead of just serving as rubber bands that connect everybody's favorite arias. The ensembles staged widely from side to side of the stage were sung precisely and cleanly, and I felt the conductor breathing with the singers. The highlight of the show, however, was Susanna's aria Deh Vieni, Non Tardar, where Jeanine de Bique took the audience's breath away with her clear and beautiful tone and emotional yet well-calculated ritardando at the end.
And last but not least: she didn't stay. Countess Almaviva, in the end, returned her ring to her cheating husband and walked away. As for me, I was able to use this show as a true inspiration for my own concert the next day, which ironically included one piece by Mozart. As a matter of fact, I don't even remember when was the last time I walked out of the opera with such a feeling of excitement and hope.
Bel Canto Has Left The Building - La Fille Du Regiment by G. Donizetti at Wiener Staatsoper
Yes, I went there for a good dessert. La Fille Du Regiment by Donizetti, a charming opéra comique with brilliant music and the most ridiculous plot you could possibly imagine, is like an exquisite french dessert: it's sweet, it melts in your mouse, it's perfect for any time of day and any occasion, and you can't get enough of it. And what can be better on Christmas day than going to Vienna Opera for a production with Pretty Yende and Joan Diego Flores in the leading roles? With a seat in the first row of the "royal box," I had perfect sound and the entire stage and the orchestra in plain, unobstructed view. And when the young and devastatingly handsome maestro Michele Spotti ran into the orchestra pit, my excitement and curiosity maxed out.
The overture sparkled and shimmered under the devastatingly handsome baton, the audience exploded in enthusiastic applause, and the curtain opened.
I didn't allow the fact that this production was the old one from Covent Garden/Met collab directed by Laurent Pelly to discourage me in any way. While Pelly's direction seemed rather primitive and old-fashioned, in the end, the only thing that counts is how the actors live in the suggested geography and how they fill the proposed outline of the character with their artistry. Therefore, tonight there was a lot to look forward to.
What concerned me from the very first moment was the overacting to the point of grotesque on everybody's part. Nothing in the first scenes appeared funny or even cute: in fact, it was boring as, literally, all the characters were moving like marionettes or jumping around like clowns in the street circus, yelling in each other's faces, pushing and pulling each other around. I found it simply undignified of such a respectable opera company as Wiener Staatsoper. Meanwhile, the devastatingly handsom Mr. Spotti had problems of his own: the brass section had some apparent intonation discrepancies, the string sections were competing in their leadership skills, and the orchestra and the singers were frequently out of sink.
And then, entered the most adorable Pretty Yende as Maria. Beautiful, young, and undeniably talented, she seemed to have trouble keeping it together from the first note. The shaky intonation and throaty sound were distracting. It took me a little while to figure out which one of those two bothered me the most when I suddenly realized: neither. What was staring me in the face was a lack of legato. As a performer of primarily bel canto repertoire, I don't understand how a singer of Mrs. Yende's caliber can be so unprepared for the task. Yes, she has a very wide range topped with the high Eb and perhaps has even more than that, but an unsupported whistle tone in that register would've been more appropriate for pop music rather than Donizetti or Bellini or any operatic singing at all, for that matter. Given, this role is incredibly physically demanding, especially in the setting that Mr. Pelly proposed. When I saw Yende in this role in a Met production, I attributed all her vocal shakiness to the excessively dynamic choreography by Laura Scozzi . But now I noticed that in the scenes where there was no accessive movement or no movement at all, Yende's vocal issues persisted.
I have to admit: I breathed a sigh of relief when Joan Diego Florez appeared on stage. Small-built with a light, almost thin voice, he moved around with the energy and agility of a teenager and projected with apparent effortlessness. Even though the announcement was made before the show's beginning that he had suffered a throat infection and almost canceled, nothing in his sound suggested it was so. Aria Ah Mes Amis went without a glitch, at least on his part, but someone attempted to sabotage his success in the most comical way. In a short intro to the second part of the aria, I suddenly heard a long low sound that I knew was not in the score and didn't fit into the harmony. It reminded me of a sound of a water pipe when it's about to burst. Concerned, I took my eyes off the stage and suddenly noticed the conductor gesturing with his right hand as he was trying to get a fly out of his face. I continued in the direction he was pointing and saw a bass trombone player putting down his instrument, grabbing his music, and spastically flipping the same page back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, and then making a gesture as he was saying, "Oh hell, whatever. It's too late anyway."
While I was trying not to laugh, Florez was nailing his high Cs, one after the other. Ok, in all honesty, the first two sounded a bit strained, but as he continued, they became more and more confident and explosive, and the last fermata was simply glorious. His aria in the second act was a classic example of bel canto and included a masterfully used falsetto. And this was not even the best part. Florez became the bell of the ball very quickly with his effortless acting and ability to relate to other characters on stage with authentic warmth and to find ways to extract a genuine giggle from the audience. It was all in great contrast with Yende, who is yet to find her footing in this role. Unlike herself, her character was not attractive, relatable, or touching, and if the argument here is "but this is just a stupid comedy," watch Audry Hepburn in How to Steal a Million.
There were some directorial misses, such as Yende having to iron the laundry with a modern iron that was not plugged in or having to stand on a pile of white laundry she was supposed to iron. Then a barrel full of potatoes fell over, pushed by a sloppy chorus member, and the potatoes didn't fall out. The line with laundry on it stretched across the stage collapsed and stayed on the ground till the scene change. The contrabass player in the orchestra got so excited, he started swaying from side to side and almost dropped his instrument. But all those details are probably not worth mentioning.
As for other characters, I guess the most successful performance was by Adrian Erod as Sergeant Sulpice, who had a nicely supported and fairly well-projected voice and suitable looks and came in at the wrong time only once. Stephanie Houtzeel as Marquise de Berkenfield was soul-crushingly dull. But, to everybody's credit, they finished together.
The Fatal Attraction to Tables In Slow Motion - Dvorak's Rusalka at Prague National Opera
Curiosity killed the cat, and the cat deserved it: heavily jet lagged, the day after I arrived in Prague, I rushed to the beautiful 19th century-built Prague Opera House with its traditional yet stunning architecture to see the production of Dvorak's Rusalka. I got the last ticket in Box #8 - a private loge close to the center. All fapitzed in the best European traditions, I felt like royalty in a gorgeous theater while soaking up oh-so-welcomed warmth and comfort with excitement and curiosity.
Admittedly, having grown up surrounded by original art, ancient architecture, and classic traditions, I was in heaven. The red velvet of the seats and gold ornaments, hand-painted ceilings, carved wooden doors, marble stairs covered with red carpet, and crystal chandeliers - everything spoke to me in the language I remember from childhood. And when the first notes of the overture flew from the orchestra pit, so beautiful and so familiar, I thought that getting myself out into the cold night was all worth it. The all-Czeck cast looked interesting, and it was quite exciting to hear singers I had never heard of before. It was a perfect setup for some great discoveries, so I felt like I was on a cultural treasure hunt. I was right: the production was full of surprises, the first one being the director Jiri Herman, who decided, for whatever reason, that the opera would benefit from being staged in slow motion without any further explanation or visible purpose. He assigned the glazer pace around the stage to every character. The only ones to escape this fate were the dancers in the second act, who also got to wear gorgeous red costumes at the ball and were fortunate enough to avoid being stuck at the table. But please, stick a pin in this one for a second.
For the main character of Rusalka, the iconic Song To The Moon comes very soon after the opera's opening, and the singer gets only a few short lines before performing arguably one of the most famous arias in the entire soprano repertoire. The opera is yet to unfold, but the expectations are already high. Not the most relaxing place to find yourself if you are performing the role. However, young and stunningly gorgeous Alzberta Polackova looked promising. Until she started the aria, that is. It quickly became apparent that she completely lacked the middle and the lower range, with the upper one sounding forced and shrill.
The role of Rusalka is actually quite tricky. Written for a lyric soprano, it is positioned mainly in the center of the singer's range with the exception of three-four high-ish notes, so the soprano performing the role cannot afford to have a shaky middle. Also, the part is difficult artistically. If the singer is not a superb actor, the conflict between passion and disattachement, love and fear, extasy of the victory and insecurity of the fast-fleeding happiness will not be apparent to the audience; therefore, the point will be lost. In the case of Mrs. Polackova, the only advantage she had was those piercing high notes. As for the rest, she was incapable of anything that could be called acting, and couldn't cut through the orchestra to save her life, the task quite effortlessly accomplished by the tenor Pavol Brslik (Prince.) Ironically, I found that the soprano who could've easily performed the role of Rusalka was the first Wood Nymph, Irina Rurac. Her rich yet bright soprano resonated throughout the packed theater with effortless playfulness. Hopefully, the young actress will have a chance to perform the leading role at some point.
As attractive as the role of Rusalka is, my favorite character in this opera has always been Jezibaba. Brilliantly performed by Jamie Barton in an otherwise terrible Met production, this role would've been my wet dream if I were a mezzo. In the Prague production, however, it was given to Katerina Jatovcova, who is legitimately listed as a mezzo on Wikipedia (I had my doubts, so I checked) but is nowhere near the level of the one required by the role. The director made this character into something of a Femme Fatale. It would've been perfectly legitimate if the actress performing the role could stick to the plan. However, looking like an emo teenager rather than a powerful witch, she was neither scary nor sexy, once again lacking the middle and low range almost entirely.
And then... there were tables. So. Many. Tables. In each act, in every scene, there were tables. The singers stood by them, leaned on them, climbed on them, crawled all over them, sat on them, and even awkwardly imitated having sex on them while kicking off the butaforic plates that kept banging on the floor. All in slow motion, except for the plates taken down by gravity quite energetically. In some way, I was happy that tables were there to give singers at least something to do. Without them, they would've been completely lost.
The scenography that the director probably viewed as unconventional was, in fact, old and primitive. Still, it could've worked if it had been done well. The setting where two lovers sit on the opposite side of a long table stretching across the stage can speak volumes about their relationship, but only if the actors can pull it off. However, in this production, the goal was unattainable for the cast. They felt lost and empty, and the slow pace of their physical movement translated into nothing but boredom for the audience. The lighting was beautiful, the staging was beautiful, and the sets were minimalistic but well done. However, nothing was happening between the characters, and the point of the drama was lost.
Frantisek Zahradnicek, in the role of Vodnik, Rusalka's father, was vocally solid, especially compared to the leading ladies, and, just like everyone else, slow and boring, showing no emotions whatsoever toward his daughter.
The odd evening was crowned by the incident of my own making where I didn't arrange for the ride back to the hotel. Apparently, in Prague, there is no such thing as cabs sitting by the theater at the end of the show. I didn't know that and ended up asking for help. The theater concierge told me they had no one to call the taxi for me but gave me a phone number. I called to arrange the ride, but the driver never showed up. I called back: the dispatcher yelled at me in Czeck and hung up. I was left freezing on the street in the middle of the night. Fortunately, right when I was seriously thinking about walking all the way, a random taxi passed by, and the driver was kind enough to stop and deliver me to the hotel. At that point, it was too late to get dinner, and the restaurants were all closed. So now I am writing all this while having dinner consisting of two apples and a bottle of terrible wine. And if you think that, if I were not hungry, I would've given this production a better review, I have solid proof of being objective: the audience gave the show polite applause and started walking out as soon as it no longer was insulting.
Now, I have two more productions to see during this trip: La fille du Regiment in Vienna and Le Nozze di Figaro in Paris. I am hoping for better luck—meanwhile, I am taking my hunger to bed. Good night.
Warehouse Murder, she wrote - Tosca at LA Opera
Last night I was so fortunate as to land right into Dorothy Chandler's favorite seat: Circle, door 22, row G, seat 21, courtesy of my adorable and thoughtful cousin. An unobstructed view of the stage with the drama of Tosca unfolding right before my eyes - what could be better?
This production has been forcefully advertised as Angel Blue's homecoming and praised by many critics. On top, Angel is the former student of my dear friend who is also my current voice coach, so naturally, I was curious to see what all the noise was about. I couldn't quite see Angle Blue as Tosca, knowing that she performs Musetta and Violetta, but hey, what do I know?
Before I continue, a full disclosure: I am not, by any means, a music critic, nor do I strive to be one. All I have is a love for opera and some knowledge of it, that's all. So, if someone finds my opinions abrasive, please keep in mind: you don't have to agree.
Anyway, let's start at the beginning.
The opening was rather intriguing: after the overture, in complete silence, a man came out to the center of the stage, waved his arm in the air, and the curtain fell to open the set of the first scene. I am not sure what it signified, but a giant piece of light sheer fabric falling to the ground in beautiful soft waves looked stunning. Unfortunately, that was pretty much the end of my fascination: as the material was being dragged off the stage, the end of it, probably tied to a metal medallion for weight, started banging on the floor. It seemed unbecoming of such a company as Los Angeles opera, but I was determined not to get disillusioned with little details right at the start and took a deep breath. After all, this was a highly-acclaimed production.
But allow me kindly a short segue into the next part. Do you know the word "vumpookha"? No, of course not. It is a Russian word that comes from an old vaudeville and describes the banality and ridiculousness of operatic productions with their traditional overacting and corny staging.
Anyway, the word "vumpookha" came to mind as soon as the first act began. It puzzles me why director John Caird felt compelled to follow the same old template of mapping out the geography of the production while not bothering at all to work with the actors at least enough to make the expression of their emotions on stage look remotely believable. However, besides being assigned places to stand, the cast was left to deal with their roles to the best of their natural ability.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to hear Michael Fabiano in the part of Cavaradossi: it was not his night to perform; instead, we got a veteran tenor Gregory Kunde. Given, Cavaradossi sings his first aria, "Ricondita, Armonia," so early in the first act, he has only a couple of lines to get into the spirit of things. Still, I would think that a singer with such vast knowledge of repertoire and decades of experience would be ready for it, but no, it didn't go well. Kunde sounded tight, forced, and visibly winded. He finished the aria with his chest rising fast as he was trying to catch his breath. Truth be told, he warmed up a bit toward the end of the first act, but still, "E lucevan le stelle" was done on pure enthusiasm.
Angel Blue walked onto the stage to a furious ovation. She got through the role like a real trooper, with passion and determination, enjoying the comfortable top and phonating the hack out the middle and bottom range with all the might she's got. Was it worth it? To me, no, it wasn't. Coming out of the lyric soprano repertoire, it doesn't feel like the part suits her either vocally or temperamentally, and being a trooper is not what this role takes. Her top notes, while undoubtedly strong, were unsupported and forced, and her acting was scattered and lacked substance. A character Miss Blue portrayed would have never killed Scarpia, but maybe slapped him with a fan across the face at the most, and the complete absence of chemistry between her and Mr. Kunde (Cavaradossi) didn't help either. They looked like friends or perhaps relatives who liked each other, but passionate lovers? Not in a million years. A few awkward hugs could not qualify as a romance, even in a mediocre production such as this one. Ironically, Tosca had more chemistry with Scarpia, and their scenes were somewhat interesting to watch, much to his credit.
Speaking of Scarpia, this role was very successfully performed by Ryan McKinny, whom I didn't know at all and who carried the first two acts on his shoulders, keeping the audience engaged. A singer with a beautiful voice, solid technique, and an impressive physique fitting perfectly to the role, Mr. McKinny was quite compelling and convincing. While his interpretation of the role was not by any means groundbreaking, his beautiful bass-baritone projected (for the most part) well over the orchestra, his presence on stage demanded attention, and his death at the end of the second act caused the rest of the show to deflate quickly. "Tosca killed the wrong guy," - I thought to myself during the second intermission.
Yes, this production had all the platitudinous attributes: love duets in the front of the stage with the singers carefully turning towards the audience, prisoners falling from their wounds and then getting up and quickly walking off stage, the characters standing still waiting for their intros and gesturing tritely, Tosca's dress making way too much noise dragging on the flooring in the second and third acts, children of the chorus moving invisible objects (did somebody forget to put the actual props on stage?), the strange, disjointed portrait that Cavaradossi was supposed to paint but never did; the grey overpowering monumental stage set looking like an abandoned dusty storage facility, the inadequate costumes in best traditions of Goodwill stores - all of it was depressingly ill-fitting and out of place, era, and style. The production even had a dead body hanging from the "ceiling" during the entire third act that stayed there for the curtain call to the audience's amusement.
One pleasant discovery to me personally was young conductor Louis Lohraseb. A musician at the very start of his career, he still has a rather short resume. However, he demonstrated some sensitivity and musicality and appeared to possess one very important quality: the discipline of expression.
And then she died. She slit her throat and fell out the window. The fall was a masterpiece: elegant and precise.
The Curious Case of Silent Opera - the impressions of The Magic Flute, directed by Barrie Kosky
Full disclosure: I am not a music critic, nor do I pretend to be one. This blog post is inspired by my visit to the LA opera last Thursday, where I saw Barrie Kosky's production of The Magic Flute. The spectacular creation of the Australian director has been highly praised since its premiere in Berlin in 2012, but I only found out about it recently. Needless to say, I was excited to finally see it live and form my own opinion.
First, about the production. Yes, spectacular it was. Created in the style of a silent movie, the set consists of a giant screen that covers the entire stage from floor to ceiling with computer-animated images projected onto it. The singers make their entrances through the openings in the screen about 50 feet up above the stage and very rarely come down to the floor during the show. I wonder if the only criteria for choosing the cast was their strong equilibrium. But we'll save this for later. The computer graphics here are of brilliant colors and incredibly creative. In the scene where Pamina and Papageno are running away from evil Monostatos, it looks like they are running over the rooftops, which saves the scene from the static feel when they are both singing, "we are running, we are running," but in fact, they are just standing on stage. There were a few scenes like that throughout the show where the usual operatic conventionalism was saved by modern technology from turning into total boredom. I have to admit that the amination was incredibly well done.
That said, it was also spectacularly misused. The two most important components of any opera are singing and acting. In this production, acting was annihilated in its entirety. The singers didn't even have to move on stage, let alone interact with each other, with very little exception. The walking and acting were done for them through the animation. The dialogs, for the most part, were taken out of the score, and text was projected onto the screen, as it would in a real silent movie, briefly summarised and translated into English and accompanied by a honky-tonk piano playing the fragments from random Mozarts compositions, mainly from his Fantasy for piano in D Minor. Not only very important parts of the opera were brutally cut out, but the D minor key also did not correspond with the keys of any aria in the opera, and at times singers had literally one measure of the orchestral intro to get into the key they had to be in. Musically, the opera was cut down to the "greatest hits." Visually, by the end of the first act, my eyes were already popping out of the orbits from all the colors and images on stage while my brain was struggling to process them, and by the end of the opera, I felt like a total zombie. I could hardly remember any music.
Actually, at times, the music was hard to hear since, in their determination to demonstrate their mad skills, the animators and the director created many hilarious side stories of the digital creatures, and the audience kept bursting into laughter right in the middle of the arias and duets. Don't get me wrong, I am all for operas being entertaining, and just like you, I am sick and tired of stifling, dusty old-fashioned classical productions. The story of The Magic Flute is so ridiculous, to begin with; it simply cries out for being light and funny and easy to watch. But there is time and place for jokes, and this is still an opera, and when I am not allowed to hear it because all the tourists who came to see the lighting of the Christmas tree at the Grove and stopped by the opera house before leaving town are laughing on top of their lungs, I get frustrated.
There were some really weird things going on on the screen at times, like the magic bells, also animated, looked like little red flowers with legs - something of a marriage between Disney and Escher; the Queen of the night was turned into a giant (digital) knife-throwing spider; the flute was represented by a white-colored naked creature flying across the screen pooping out musical notes along the way; while Papageno was dreaming of food he was deprived of, the audience was presented with the images of live chickens walking inline across the screen, looking directly at us, then walking into the oven and coming out of it cooked on a platter. The procession looked like a kill line in some kind of a chicken Auschwitz, and the impression stayed with me for the rest of the show. For some unknown reason, Papageno had a cat companion, which was probably the cutest and the most memorable part of this odd production, but I never figured out what it was doing there.
As for the singing, it was plain embarrassing. Kudos to Jeni Houser, who replaced the South Korean soprano So Young Parks in the role of Queen of the Night due to her sickness. That said, Ms. Houser's voice could only reach the 10th row of the orchestra seat, where I was on the very top notes. The rest of her two arias were completely drowned out by the orchestra that was desperately holding back as it was. Sloppy coloraturas, unstable intonation throughout, and only two out of four high Fs she managed to sing on-pitch were just not enough for me to join in the defining round of applause she was awarded.
Czech soprano Zuzana Markova who made her debut with LA opera in this production as Pamina, had the best projection of all singers. Her powerful soprano undoubtedly reached the very last row of this pretty sizable opera house. That said, I am not sure it was such a good thing. Ms. Markova's voice had one of the widest and most unpleasant wobbles I've ever heard. In fact, her wobble was so wide that it was difficult to identify the pitch. This young soprano who sings leading roles like Violetta, Amina, Lucia, and Zerlina all over the world already has a huge vocal issue on her hands.
Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, as Sarastro, simply didn't have the low register necessary for this part. I have no clue why he was cast in this role in the first place, and I felt terrible for him, watching his struggle with every phrase of his famous aria and the rest of the ensembles.
The Three Ladies had a rough start as the Second Lady couldn't get the first note out. I didn't punish her for that in my head, hoping it would get better. It did, but not much. All three of them had pretty wide vibratos, and singing tight three-part harmony was difficult for them. Lady number one, the soprano, just couldn't get her pitch together, which was especially obvious when she was singing on her own; Lady number three was the most stable of all - thank you, god, somebody had to take it for the team!
Joshua Wheeker, as Tamino, sang his part diligently, like a good conservatory student, all pretty evenly loud with minimal nuances and a complete lack of personality.
Poor Three Spirits, three adorable adolescent singers, were so quiet that it took all the focus I had to hear them at all. Why they were not given mics to reinforce the projection escapes me and makes no sense. It felt like they were set up for failure while, of all ensembles, their blend was the best.
The little light in this dark tunnel was Theo Hoffman as Papageno. With his small but pretty bright voice, he was able to get through his aria (that was moved from the first act to the end of the second for no apparent reason) rather successfully, and for being trapped in a silent movie situation, he carved out for himself a few moments to show off his acting chops.
As for Frederic Ballentinet as Monostatos, besides the giant evil mask that he had to deal with the whole show, I can't recall much. Given, it's a very small role, but the young student who sang it in the Santa Monica College production last year was a much better singer and most definitely a very memorable actor.
To be honest, I felt a little insulted. The director simply decided that we, the audience, could not possibly handle the entire opera so he created a few shortcuts by getting rid of the dialog. In order to keep us in our seats, we also had to have bright digital visuals so we would have something to strain at and zone out to.
Well, I stayed. My fabulous seat was a present of generous friends, and I got to hang out with them at the Founder's lounge during the intermission and had some great scotch. It made it all worth it, and I ended up having a wonderful time.
As for the opera itself, good thing it's over.
And oh, by the way, there was no flute on stage.