YNS @ La Scala

June 12, 2011

Young Québécois podium Wunderkind Yannick Nézet-Séguin made a rather smashing  Scala debut last Monday in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. I have long ranted (most often on the Canadian airwaves) about the artistic miscalculation of programming the opera at the Salzburg Festival, be it a dream vehicle for Rolando Villazón or Anna Netrebko. It seems that Bartlett Sher‘s production, which first graced the shores of the Salzach river in 2008, has now reached its true destination – even if it retains much of its pinky cutesiness (a DVD of the original installment – excerpt above – is available on Deutsche Grammophon).  Nézet-Séguin lends the score more than glitter and entrain: some depth, even a touch of tragic grandeur which wasn’t quite there in Salzburg. He doesn’t nearly  steal the show from Vittorio Grigolo, whose mellifluous but small lyric tenor won him enthusiastic scaligeri raves, yet overshadows Nino Machaidze, who was clearly not at the top of her game on opening night.  La Presse has my (short) review.

Reverred colleague Jens F. Laurson, fresh from a Mahler (over)dose in Leipzig, zeroes in astutely on the YNS phenomenon.



Theaters in Turmoil

May 7, 2010

Better days at La Scala: Visconti rehearsing Callas in La Traviata, 1955.

Much has been said and written on the situation of Italian theaters over the last couple of days, following the government’s unilateral decision to “reform” the funding system for the the 14 national opera houses in Italy. Havoc resulted: nation-wide protests, strikes, high profile performances cancelled, editorial statements by millionaire artists, alongside a fairly good deal of opera bashing among the general populace. Certainly there is cause for worry. While the idea of productivity-based subsidies may sound enticing, it comes with the matter-of-fact comment that the slashed public funds are quite unlikely to be replaced by private money – in the European operatic culture, individual and corporate fundraising amount to a minimum. It is just not part of the collective spirit. Yet amid the many informed opinions currently voiced, that of the venerable blogger Opera Chic seems most insightful (see threads here and here). Reform is needed, and perhaps not exclusively in Italy. What Europeans should bear in mind though is that opera lies at the core of their identity, historically, politically and artistically. Any backward step in the cultivation of the art form (and it is facing many such threats in our time, sadly) is a tragic loss.

The Janáček Buzz

March 1, 2010

My initial encounter with From the House of the Dead, Leoš Janáček’s ultimate opera, dates back to the Spring of 2005. The work was then being presented for the first time at the Paris Opera, in the famed if perhaps flawed production by the late Klaus Michael Grüber, originally seen at the Salzburg Festival. I remember being slightly puzzled by the experience.

HOD is not easy to pull off. Loosely adapted from Dostoyevsky’s Memoirs from the House of The Dead, in which the author reminisces on his own time behind bars in a Siberian camp, it lacks most if not all of the operatic tricks that usually guarantee audience approval. So, what makes it so great? When the piece premiered  at the Metropolitan Opera last November, it quickly became the hottest ticket in town. Clearly, something had happened.

About 90 minutes in length, it is a tense music narrative, comparable in density to, say, the contemporary W0zzeck by Alban Berg. As in Wozzeck, the musical language can be unsettling at first, even if for different reasons. In his works for the stage, Janáček was concerned with reproducing the particular rhythms and inflections of the Czech language. This is especially striking in HOD. Furthermore, the piece doesn’t focus on one individual drama in the intense expressionistic manner some of his more widely performed operas do – Káťa Kabanová and Jenůfa top the list.

Rather, it can be best described as a collage, naive but supremely touching, of the stories of four convicted murderers who in turn take center stage and become the narrators of their own lives. Through a painful process, we learn who they are, where they came from and what led them to kill. There are glimpses of light throughout the score, times when their shattered humanity comes together as if to affirm the almost frightening resilience of men, along with a certain faith in life. Ultimately, they come across as vulnerable, laid bare as they are in front of their fellow inmates, walking memory paths deeply buried in their souls to allow their wounds to emerge as they face a rather bleak future.

In its patchy nature, the opera departs from the narrative structure of the novel, the latter unfolding almost as a diary written by Goryanchikov, the only political prisoner (i.e., Dostoyevsky’s alter ego) in the camp. Intrinsically connected to Dostoyevsky’s entire oeuvre, it is tinted with concerns joining the religious, the political and the philosophical, yet it retains a certain otherworldliness characteristic of the Russian fiber. Rich with existentialist overtones, it bears the influence of Gogol, Pushkin and the like –  in the operatic sphere, Moussorgsky’s grandly tragic Boris Godounov is another characteristic example.

There is very little space (or time), in Janáček, for establishing such a climate though, or allowing it to be felt. For instance, Filka Morozov, unarguably the most evil-like of the four main protagonists, dies what is possibly the most poignant death in the entire repertoire, near the end of the third act. He does so almost in silence, in a matter of seconds, as if to be easily ignored. To make his agony start from his very first appearance and get the audience to feel empathy towards him should be seen as a directorial feat of the highest order. This is just one example out of a multitude of key dramatic moments, but it shows how the work’s potential lies in making each and every of those moments come to life in a credible, vivid and coherent way. In an opera where so much happens over such a short time, every transition (every second, every line, every word) counts.

Patrice Chéreau, in his now-iconic reading, achieves precisely that. A man of the theater, he has committed little of his distinguished career to the genre, yet many of his incursions in opera have been hailed as historic. Certainly one of the most exacting personalities of the directorial sphere, he works relentlessly towards a goal that most (himself included, sometimes) would deem unreachable. Revered by colleagues and performers alike, he is said by many to have transformed their perception of themselves and the way they regard and approach their work.

Patrice Chéreau in rehearsal a the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Peter McClintock.

And so, it seems, his production transformed at least part of the regular opera-going public in New York City last Fall. HOD opened at the Met to a heavily papered house – for reasons cited above, the piece is a tough sell for any company. However, the word spread quickly that something extraordinary was happening on the Met stage, and by the third performance, there was not one ticket to be found for the entire run. Audiences sat night after night transfixed by Janáček’s strange vital pulse and organicity, giving the huge cast one of the most heartfelt triumphs in recent Met history. The buzz had gone underground, one could tell. The long queues of young people and curious buffs, anxiously waiting to pick up their tickets before curtain, highlighted a type of audience behavior unknown to the Met. Seemingly unaware of regular Met procedures, they showed up so late at the box office (and in significant enough numbers!) that each performance systematically started 15 to 20 minutes late. By all accounts, this was not the regular opera crowd.

From the House of the Dead opened yesterday night at Milan’s mythic Teatro alla Scala. We’ll see what the buzz is like over there. Stay tuned.

Charles Isherwood, Anthony Tommasini, Dwight Garner and James Oestreich discuss the merits of the New York run here.

Deutsche Grammophon also has a DVD of the original installment of this production, filmed at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2007.