Friday, December 5, 2014

My Postscriptum Sneak Pic of La Boheme

Even though as an opera critic, I do have access to high quality photos of the productions that I review, every once in a while I just can't help it - if something strikes me at the curtain call, I sneak a pic of it with my own camera to share it with you all later.
That said, here is my La boheme postscriptum - my curtain call pic of the glorious La boheme that I saw in the WNO in November, with all the light and spring in it that love brings to people's lives.

Left to right: Steven LaBrie (Schaunard), Saimir Pirgu ( Rodolfo), Corinne Winters (Mimi), Philippe Auguin,
Alyson Cambridge (Musetta), John Crest ( Marcello), Joshua Bloom (Colline)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

La boheme on the Edge

Since its 1896 premiere, La boheme, Puccini's timeless tale of the young artists struggling to make it in the harsh reality of Parisian life, has been reinterpreted countless times.
Photo: Scott Suchman

From the classic 1982 masterpiece by Zeffirelli ( still successfully performed at the Metropolitan Opera), to Larson's 1994 rock musical Rent to Dornhelm's 2008 opera film La boheme, Puccini's opera has been staged and performed in every conceivable shape and form. Therefore, call me a cynic if you will, but when it comes to seeing another production of La boheme, I don't expect to be surprised. What can possibly be said in reference of this opera that has not been heard before? What can possibly be shown that has not been seen?

However, when on Saturday afternoon the curtain rose over the stage of the WNO, it became clear that stage director Peter Kazaras (who in his own words is "all about the dramatics") had no problem keeping his audience on the edge of their seats. 
Having updated the setting of his production to the post-World War I, Kazaras depicted the life of the young bohemians in Paris stricken with starvation and disease on the one hand and illuminated by the rise of literature and arts on the other. Making the most of every means available to a stage director ( effective lighting by Bruno Poet, sepia-toned costumes by Jennifer Moeller and a combination of easily changeable sets and painted scenery by Lee Savage), Kazaras centered his production around the concept of life on the edge, life in which most things are fleeting and insecure. Just like the troops that marched across the stage cutting through and almost immediately blending with the Christmas celebration at Cafe Momus, in Kazaras' production life and death, prosperity and poverty, health and disease walked hand in hand, often crossing each other's paths, often turning into one another.

In Act I when poet Rodolfo (tenor Saimir Pirgu) and seamstress Mimi (soprano Corinne Winters) fell in love, the solid back wall of the garret ( that resembled a cheap wooden coffin rather than a living space) transformed into an immense window with a beautiful view of a winter forest. Subtle winter light replaced darkness, as Pirgu and Winters ended the famous duet O suave fanciulla in a gleaming high C, the signature effect of Pavarotti and Freni.

As the couple ran off the stage holding hands, the ceiling and walls of the deadly garret cracked open and, much to the audience's delight, the garret turned into Cafe Momus, where loneliness was instantly cured by a lively celebration (the WNO Chorus was in its usual top form and the supers were most convincing as Ernst Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Charlie Chaplin, easily recognizable in the festive crowd). The plentiful dinner that took care of hunger was spiced up by a few comic exchanges between flamboyant Musetta (soprano Alyson Cambridge's bold dancing was somewhat more entertaining than her steadily loud singing) and her sugar daddy Alcindoro, sung by baritone Donato DiStefano.

Falling snow by the toll gate at the Barriere d'Enfer turned into falling pink petals, as soon as Rodolfo and Mimi decided to stay together till spring. Effective as this metaphor was, the biggest impression was made by Pirgu's deep rendition of Marcello, finalmente.

A consummate artist, whose voice boasts enough lyricism to allow him to sing bel canto and enough depth and darkness to make him a perfect Puccinian tenor, Pirgu placed his character on an emotional edge, as his Rodolfo, a victim of unfortunate circumstances, masked his despair, tenderness, noble heart and boyish vulnerability with fake jealousy and hostility. The tenor's richly expressive vocal coloring and soaring high notes made the tender side of his character more visible.

In the final act of the opera, the immense window that once used to be the back wall of the coffin-shaped garret, expanded to the size of the room, offering a breathtaking view of the blooming forest. A small dark corner with a shabby bed in it was the only reminder of the pitiful existence that the young friends had in the beginning of the opera. The effect of this phantasmagorical transformation of the garret that now had so much spring and light in it was emphasized by a beautiful rendition of the Rodolfo/Marcello duet (Marcello was sung by baritone John Crest) O Mimì, tu più non torni, in which the artists' voices blended in a melting legato, as their characters spoke about love for their girlfriends who had left them for wealthier lovers.

However, as the opera progressed, it became clear that Kazaras' concept of life on the edge went far beyond the visible changes that took place onstage. The director's concept was also about the changes that never occurred. When Mimi's death turned spring back into winter and the snow-covered trees gradually dissolved in the gloomy twilight, the immense window never turned back into the solid wall it had been in the beginning of the opera.
Fleeting and insecure as most things may be in life on the edge, in Kazaras' production at least one proved to be permanent - it was human heart, the heart that having opened up to love once, would never be dead again. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Peer Acknowledgement

As Troy's December recital (during which he will play one song solo (!) is fast approaching, our cello practices are getting even more goal-oriented and dynamic than before. This afternoon our practice took place in Troy's school, where I arrived with cello, chair and music in hand.
The number which Troy has selected for his recital is a fast variation of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, aka Peanut Butter - Peanut Butter ( a great clue to the beat of the piece).
Troy enjoys playing it. The piece is fast and very expressive, and sounds very beautiful when performed on the cello.
We left the classroom door open.  Since all the classes had been dismissed, no visitors had to be expected. But the visitors did come. 
While Troy was playing, a group of nine kids ( all older than Troy) popped up in the doorway. One whispered: "Who is that?", to which another one answered " This is Troy from Kindergarten. He plays the cello". Then there was no more talking - the kids stood quietly and listened. When Troy finished playing, the kids started clapping their hands. One said : " You play very cool, Troy!" Another one said: "It was great, Troy!"  "Can you play that one again?" said the first kid and then several other kids said: " Again, again, again!"
Troy blushed modestly, laughed and said: " Of course, I can". He picked up his cello and played even better than the first time. No wonder - that peer acknowledgement gave him extra inspiration. And joy.
As soon as Troy finished playing, the kids applauded again and talked to Troy with so much respect, asking him about his cello and how often he practiced.

Troy was very happy. He blushed, and laughed, and bowed to three (the way cello students do).
For Troy that was a wonderful and very important moment: a moment of inspiration, peer acknowledgement and reassurance. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Guest Post: Friends Meet and Go to the Met

Dear Mandolin Vision Readers!

The post you are about to read is very special. It is a guest post written by my wonderful friend Suzanne from Michigan, whom I met via this blog several years ago. An ardent opera lover, Suzanne came across my blog and read just about every post following the path that my son Troy and I took on our way to musical discoveries. Eventually, Suzanne and I became what people of the pre-internet era used to refer to as “pen pals”, except that we emailed to each other, exchanging viewpoints on specific opera productions and opera in general.
On many occasions Suzanne and I wished that our email exchanges could be shared with the world (oftentimes, there was a lot of truly sparkling humor in them). While there is certainly no reason to publish our correspondence (not until each of us, or at least one of us, becomes a first-tier celebrity), we decided that this post should reflect the character of our friendship and be published in the format of a casual conversation, just like the ones we have in our emails.
While Suzanne will lead the conversation (her lines will be in magenta), every once in a while I will interfere with comments typed in ultramarine blue.
So, pour yourself a cup of coffee, my friends, because this is not going to be a short post, but it will sure be a good one.

Thus, without further ado, Suzanne, you are on:

S: My husband and I have been attending the Metropolitan Opera HD broadcasts at our local theater since the end of the first season. Even though I have a fairly extensive background in classical music, it didn’t include opera except for two productions I saw many years ago that I wasn’t particularly interested in at the time and don’t really remember. But since the HD broadcasts, I became obsessed with learning all I could about opera. I read everything I could find online – publications, blogs, reviews, Twitter and Facebook posts – and watched many selections and complete operas on YouTube.

A fortuitous Tweet from another opera blogger led me to Raisa’s blog. Mandolin Vision readers may remember “An Opera Blog Fan Letter” that I wrote and Raisa included as a guest post a couple of years ago.

R: That was a great letter. I was actually quite shocked and truly honored to discover that there is a person in this world who read all my posts. You are a real hero, Suzanne!

S: There was nothing heroic about it – I enjoyed every word of your posts! And I learned a lot!

So, that was the start of occasional email exchanges we had regarding opera or classical music. Around the beginning of this year, our emails became more frequent as we discussed (and discussed and discussed) a number of operas and productions that we both particularly enjoyed – or didn’t. We compared multiple versions of operas we could find online – whether on YouTube, opera company websites, or clips featured on blogs – or DVD versions that either or both of us owned, with lots of mailing back and forth to study different ones.

Besides opera, we discovered that we had a lot more things in common, as many shared interests became evident: “Oh, you like _____? So do I!”

R: Except for the way we feel about seafood and fruit in salads. That’s where we differ.  

S: Ha ha ha – we really do!

Despite some differences in our lives (my husband and I are empty-nesters; Raisa has a young son), we found many more things we had in common, and a deep friendship has developed between us. Over the months of sharing opera discoveries and observations, and helping each other through some challenging life situations, it became clear that we wanted and needed to meet in person.  

This was reinforced when we attended the Met’s La Cenerentola “together” last spring. Raisa took her son to see the production live at the Met, and my husband and I attended the HD broadcast at our hometown theater in Michigan. Before the opera started, during intermission, and after it ended, text messages flew between us as we shared our favorite parts. We decided that someday we would just have to see a performance – together, in person – at the Met.

When it appeared that a visit might be possible this fall, we endured a breath-holding summer while awaiting news of the Met’s budget negotiations, fearing that there might not be a Met season this year

R: … and even going as far as signing a petition for the season to take place!

Fortunately, contract issues were resolved, and we began planning our meeting around a performance of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, a new production of an opera of which we had compared several versions last spring.  

My husband and I scheduled a trip to Washington, D.C., to visit relatives. From nearby Baltimore, Raisa was able to come pick me up and return to Baltimore, where we stayed up half the night at her condo, talking and laughing and sharing stories and memories from our email correspondence of the past few months.

R: Wait a minute… I thought we went to sleep at a reasonable time that night, to be able to catch a 6:00 a.m. bus to New York (which meant waking up at 5 a.m.)

S: Right. I think it was a “reasonable” 2 a.m. – with two alarm clocks set for 5:00!

Early the next morning, bolstered with Vanilla Maple coffee, but too little sleep, we boarded a tour bus for New York City. Fortunately for me, a “small-town girl” who had never been to New York, when in New York Raisa is certainly in her element. I was completely at ease heading into the unknown metropolis under her guidance. All I felt was excitement.
We arrived at our hotel (Hotel Carter on 43rd St., between 7th and 8th Aves., a no-frills facility that offered just the necessities we required)
R: ...and a breathtaking view of the Chrysler Building located just steps away!
S: Well, if you call four or five avenues away “just steps” – remember, I’m a small-town girl!
So we had the rest of the day before the 7:30 opera performance at our disposal. After stowing our luggage at the hotel, we left for Café Sabarsky, connected with the Neue Galerie for lunch. We both had Grüner Spargel mit Jungkartoffeln & Sauce Hollandaise (Green Asparagus with Fingerling Potatoes & Hollandaise), Raisa’s with smoked salmon and mine with prosciutto
R: See, dear readers? No salmon for my friend Suzanne.
S: Well, at least I didn’t torture you by getting fruit in my salad!
For dessert, we shared a piece of Sabarskytorte (chocolate and rum cake with whipped cream) and the café’s signature Viennese coffee.
R: in which Café Sabarsky takes a lot of pride.
S: Following lunch, we stopped briefly at the gift shop of the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art, but decided that because of our limited time in the city and the day’s beautiful weather, we would rather spend part of our afternoon walking through Central Park than hurriedly trying to take in the immense museum’s exhibits. That will have to wait for a future visit, which, as we had decided, was an absolute must!
We returned to our hotel for a short rest and to change clothes for the opera. Heading out, Raisa hailed a taxi (as she easily did every time we needed one during our two-day stay), and we soon arrived at Lincoln Center, home of the Metropolitan Opera.

Crossing Broadway (oh, how easy it was to say that – just like a “real New Yorker”!) we headed to Café Fiorello for a light pre-opera dinner. Greeting us, the host asked if we had a reservation or if we were “surprising them”. We declared ourselves surprise guests, but were nonetheless seated promptly. Indeed, we were too excited to eat much.

R: Personally I don’t believe in eating before a major opera performance. Gotta save room for all that spiritual food, you know...

S: So we just had a quick bite, having agreed to make up for it after the show.

We then returned to the Met and made our way up to our seats in the Balcony – the fourth tier above the main floor.

Just before the lights dimmed and the magnificent Met “Sputnik” chandeliers were raised to the soaring ceiling,

a staff member came out on stage and announced, “Unfortunately, our Figaro, Ildar Abdrazakov, is not feeling well tonight. He has a cold – but he’s going to sing anyway!” Cheers and applause spread through the audience, as well as sighs of relief that there would not be a substitute stepping in for the star. As it turned out, he sang and acted wonderfully, and we would never have known he was sick. Thanks to the Met’s phenomenal acoustics, every word and every note from the singers and the orchestra was transported up to us in the Balcony, far above the stage and main floor. It was even easy to pick out each singer’s voice in ensemble sections.
This production of Le Nozze di Figaro was quite different from others we had seen on DVDs and on YouTube and had discussed in previous months. The set, a manor house near Seville, was made up of several circular or semi-circular “rooms” mounted on a rotating turntable, with “walls” made of what appeared to be perforated metalwork through which the audience could see various characters coming and going along the corridors connecting the rooms, or working in adjoining rooms. There were no set changes, as the turntable rotated between scenes, making for very smooth transitions and little break in the action. 
Scenes included Figaro and Susanna’s bedroom, where Figaro actually constructed a bed from wooden crates and panels during the first scene; the Countess’s bedroom (a somber setting at first, where she laments the loss of love in her marriage) that becomes the site of some of the funniest action in the opera, 

as the Countess and Susanna dress the page Cherubino as a woman to trap the Count, and then both the Count and the Countess, thinking Cherubino is in the dressing room, are surprised when Susanna emerges; the great hall of the manor house, where Figaro’s true identity is discovered, the Countess and Susanna continue conspiring against the Count, and Figaro and Susanna’s wedding celebration is held; and the garden, where a series of mistaken identities leads to the resolution of the conspiracies and reuniting of the couples. The five main characters were very effective in groups of two or three, where their chemistry and split-second timing were very effective. I also particularly liked the scene in the great hall, where a long dining table was set up for the wedding festivities, and the entire household staff assembled for toasts and photos.
Following the curtain call, we went downstairs for a backstage visit. A few days before our trip to the Met, Raisa had conducted a telephone interview with Ildar, so her name was on the backstage list. Since I was with her, my name was also included on the “approved list” of those allowed past several guard stations. While Raisa was speaking with Ildar, I noticed that the opera’s Count, Peter Mattei, was signing programs for a couple of fans. I got in line to have my program signed, and was able to tell him how much I enjoyed the performance and that it was my first visit to the Met.  “Great!” he replied. “Bring more HD people to the Met!”
At every HD performance, the host always urges viewers, “Come to the Met. Or visit your local opera company.” Now I can add my voice to those of Renée, Joyce, Susan, Eric, Deborah, Patricia, Sondra – and now Peter. For you “HD people” – if you ever get the chance, go see an opera live at the Met.
R: And even if you think you don’t have a chance, get yourself that chance and go!
S: The HD broadcasts are wonderful, with the camera close-ups, the intermission features and interviews, and the “inside” information, especially since they bring opera to people who live far from New York City. But there’s something extra special about hearing the singers’ voices project unamplified to every corner of that immense hall. There’s just nothing else like it.
After returning home, my husband and I attended the HD performance of Le Nozze di Figaro so I was able to compare the same production both ways. The close-ups emphasized what amazing actors the singers were, but even our state-of-the-art theater couldn’t compete sound-wise with the range of dynamics and tone color provided by the Met’s acoustics.
Following our backstage visit, we headed for our hotel, with Raisa easily getting us another taxi.
R: Who said it’s hard to get a cab on Columbus Avenue right after a performance at the Met?
S: But when we got back to the hotel’s street,
R: we realized that now we were actually very hungry, so midnight snack it was in a nearby café, which served us an order of the crispiest French fries and delicious Pina Colada smoothies.
S: Of course, even when we got back to our room, sleep was far from our minds as we reviewed the performance going through every detail and chatted again late into the night.
R: Oh sleep, why thou dost leave us, indeed?
S: Well, now we had lots more to talk about – a live opera and New York City – and no 5 a.m. wake-up call!
On Day 2, we had until the 6 p.m. departure time for the return bus trip to Baltimore. What can two friends do for a whole day in New York City? While planning the trip, we had discussed various options: a double-decker bus tour of the city, a boat tour around Manhattan, a walking tour of Lincoln Center, visits to a myriad of museums and galleries, horse-drawn carriage rides around Central Park, shopping. . . . The possibilities were seemingly endless, and we hadn’t settled on anything.
R: Too many choices are a bad thing. They make it practically impossible to actually make a choice.
S: In the end, we decided just to be spontaneous – follow whatever fancy struck us through the day.
R: Which was great. Relaxing.
S: After sleeping in, checking out but storing our bags at the hotel, we walked around the Time Warner Center, eventually making a stop at Landmarc for brunch.
R: Along with delicious food, that restaurant served up this view from the window - the view of the City that Never Sleeps slowly waking up. It might have been brunch time for us, but for New York it was still early morning.

S: We each had an omelette with tomato confit and sautéed spinach, served with field greens, plus a side of ratatouille, and coffee.

R: Wait a minute. What about that fancy Mimosa Aioli appetizer? The one that disappeared way too fast for me to take a picture of it?!

S: Appetizer??? I don’t remember anything before the coffee!

R: Hmmm... Really? Never mind - moving on.

S: We wandered around among the stores in the Time Warner Center, including my first Whole Foods, which took up the entire basement floor of the building. Still more walking was called for to work off our brunch
R: Oh, so we were walking with a purpose after all? I thought we were just walking around aimlessly like you are supposed to on your vacation in NYC…..
S: … so we strolled some more in Central Park and then headed out to spot various areas and sites, including the Plaza Hotel, 5th Avenue, Madison Avenue, Carnegie Hall and the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel
R: which included fancy window shopping, such as this one (much in the spirit of Rob Howell's set of last night's Le Nozze, the swirly makeup turntable was rotating!)

S: We also admired Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, eventually working our way to Times Square, stopping at a couple of gift shops along the way, and taking many pictures.
R: And that, my friends, was a lot of fun.
S: Across the street from Carnegie Hall, we noticed a sign offering Nutella Crepes at Europa Café. Months ago, after discovering that we shared a love of the chocolate-hazelnut spread, we made a pact not to indulge in Nutella until we could meet and share the experience together in New York.
R: Not to indulge in Nutella? I’d say not to even look in the direction of Nutella until we meet. In New York.
Meanwhile, Destiny was calling out from the window of Europa Café, and that was one call impossible to ignore, so in we went.
S: We split a huge crepe stuffed with sliced strawberries and bananas in addition to the Nutella. It was heavenly!
R: No, it was Heaven. Just in case any of my readers may wonder what Heaven looks like, it looks like this, guys! Minus the sharing part.

S: You know, we never discussed our post-trip stance on Nutella...

R: I say, let's stick to the same Nutella-free mode until we meet again? A pact is a pact - gotta honor it under any circumstances.
S: Back at the hotel, we collected our luggage and discovered that we were too close to the bus boarding location for a taxi driver to be willing to take us there.
S: Apparently, New York cab drivers do not settle for just anything. When it comes to money making, for them it has to be all or nothing.
S: so we walked to Rockefeller Center, our pick-up location.
As the bus headed out of the city, we were able to watch the skyline at sunset, with the buildings silhouetted against the darkening sky as city lights began to illuminate our way. Once it was dark, the bus driver played a movie that showed on several drop-down screens above the seats. We weren’t interested
R: Of course not. This bus company always picks out the worst movies to show on the way back from New York. Told ya, have I not?

S: Oh, yes, but there were those other passengers who wanted to see it. What, they don’t like opera???
Of course, we would have preferred to listen to the opera selections I had loaded onto my cell phone before the trip, but with the movie blasting into our ears, we just chatted until the movie ended. Arriving late in Baltimore, we returned to Raisa’s condo and stayed up late yet again, chatting away.
In the morning, we loaded my bags into Raisa's car and headed down to the Baltimore Inner Harbor for a brunch of coffee and quiche at The Barnes & Noble Bookstore café overlooking the water before heading back to Washington, D.C., to the hotel where my husband and I were staying for a few more days. He had followed his own touring agenda and visited relatives during my New York adventure with Raisa, but we had more sightseeing to do there before returning home to Michigan.
As for Raisa and me, we have returned to emails, with occasional "urgent" text messages tossed in as needed. Of course, now that we've spoken in person (almost constantly, for nearly three days!), we will probably find it necessary to include periodic telephone calls as well. I know not all email/blog correspondents are lucky enough to develop as close a friendship as we have, but I'm certainly glad it worked out that way for us!

R: Absolutely! Blogging is fabulous for many reasons, but above all, it is fabulous because eventually you meet truly fantastic people and become friends with them!  So, what's next, Suzanne? Isn't it time to start planning for our next opera trip? Didn't you have a couple of open-date plane tickets to the East Coast?
S: Hmmm… that will require some more study of the Met’s performance schedule. Or other venues!
R: Sounds almost like a plan already!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Troy's First Recital at Peabody Conservatory

This past weekend was very special in the life of my family: my son Troy had his first big recital at Peabody Conservatory. The tradition of YPSP (Young People String Program) Halloween Concerts on Sunday before Halloween featuring performances by young cellists and violinists dressed in Halloween costumes dates back more than a quarter of a century. This event is much anticipated by the students, their teachers, and of course, by us, coach parents, as well as the rest of the families.

Needless to say, preparation for this recital has been a big joint effort. Troy, his cello teacher and myself (both as his mom and coach parent) have put a lot of energy, time, will power, and most importantly, a lot of love for music for this important day in Troy's life to be a success. And before we knew it, here we were, ready to roll onto the big stage of Peabody's main recital hall.

Our “concert marathon” started early Saturday morning. I wish I could say “bright and early”, except that it started earlier than bright. When I woke up, the house was immersed in darkness, but the view from our balcony was gorgeous. 
As I found my way to the eternal source of energy aka the coffee maker, I secretly wished I could pay more attention to the fast approaching sunrise. But – the duty of the cello coach was calling. There were still too many things to put together and pack, and no time to be distracted!

Upon our arrival to Friedburg Hall, parents were told to hand the instruments and the stools to the teachers and their assistants, leave the kids ( dressed in specially designed lime green dress rehearsal T-shirts) in the front row in care of the group coordinator, and take a seat in a different section of Friedburg Hall. Minutes later the stage turned into a real Cello-land with rows of cellos of all sizes lined up on it - a majestic view indeed.

The dress rehearsal went smoothly, with a lot of breathtaking music coming from the young artists.
And then, before we knew it, the big day arrived.

In the morning Troy was very happy and calm. He smiled a lot, but did not talk much. When I mentioned that he had been really quiet, he said: “ That’s OK, Mama, I am thinking about my music”. I told him that he could do anything he wanted before it was time to leave, and he said that he wanted to write a letter to me ( he loves “writing” these days). He took a piece of paper and wrote 
“ D R R       A MAMAMA ", 
followed by a lot of signs and wavy lines. Later he volunteered to decipher it. It turned out that the letter said “Dear Mama. It’s my concert day. Hope you can come!” 
You bet! Not only will I come, but also I will give you a ride to your concert too!
Then Troy asked if he could wear his costume. For Halloween Concert he had chosen to be a Skeleton. Even though it was still early, I let him do that anyway. He walked around eyeing himself in every mirror in the house, smiling happily, and then said: "Mama, I need a lot of energy to be a good Skeleton today, so I want to lie down on the sofa now". 
And he lay down right in his costume, hugging his favorite Good Night Moon Bunny and rested. It was very interesting to watch him thinking about music, getting in the mood, and being so quiet and so calm prior to the concert. No one has ever told him that it was the best way to get ready for the show, but somehow he knew. 

Friedburg Hall, one of the most grandiose venues in Peabody Conservatory, was quickly filling up with  dressed-up people. 

There were Crayons, Penguins, Bananas, Frogs, Princesses, Jesters, Angels, Fairies, Pharaohs, Mummies, Tigers and Spidermen of all ages and sizes both on and offstage. The concert was opened by a quartet of teenage boys performing  pieces by Grieg and Ponce. It was incredibly touching to hear sublime music played by these inspired artists, who were still kids on the one hand and mature musicians on the other.
As the concert progressed, the older artists moved to the back row and the younger artists gradually took over the front rows. While each row of the younger artists performed their programs, the older artists played along, providing their young colleagues with a lot of musical support. Troy’s group was the youngest, so they came onstage last and were seated in the very front row,  with the whole stage of artists of all ages to back them up.
Their program consisted of the following 6 numbers which were performed with one break for applause in the middle.
  • Ant Song by Jeremy Sharp
  • King of the Castle by Edith Otis
  • Machu Picchu Mountain by Joanne Martin
  • Twinkle Twinkle Little Star: Variation A and Theme arr. by Shinichi Suzuki
  • Tiptoe Boo by Kathy and David Blackwell
Troy’s performance was very good. He was confident, focused and looked like he knew exactly what he was doing every second that he spent onstage (a big deal at the age of 5 years and 9 months). Even though we were sitting pretty far from the stage, as his coach, I was able to watch his fingering and bow, and was very proud of him – he played all the way through without one single slip, but with a lot of feeling and expression.
At the curtain call, when the audience gave the little musicians a round of long-lasting applause, I suddenly saw my son putting his cello down and blowing three kisses to the audience.

As I joined the crowd of proud cello parents by the stage, hugs, kisses, cheers and congratulations were flowing to all the young debutantes. As Troy and I were walking back to take our seats for the second part of the concert performed by the young violinists, I asked him why he had blown those kisses at the curtain call.
“I always wanted to blow kisses from the real big stage, Mama’, said Troy “Just like Mr. Juan Diego”.
(Mandolin Vision readers may remember that since very early age, Troy has been enjoying the  Celebración DVD, “conducting” along with “Mr. Duda” and blowing kisses at the curtain call along with "Mr. Juan Diego" - see below at 1:40:36 - 1:40:42).

After the recital was over, cello parents headed backstage to collect their children’s instruments and stools. I saw Troy’s teacher and came up to thank her. She looked really pleased. “It went really well, she said, Troy performed very well”. 
Hearing those words from Troy’s teacher, who never gives praise unless something is done really well, meant more than all the applause and cheers in the world.

After the recital, while Troy was munching on an orange-glazed pumpkin doughnut

with a lot of gusto, we all walked across the street to Troy’s favorite Walter’s where he received a very special gift – a medieval knight with a sword, so he could always remember his first big recital success.  

At dinner at Grandma's, Troy asked if he could see this movie,
and watched it with a very special joy in his eyes. 
I knew why. 
Now, after his 1st big (and really successful) recital, the story of a little boy who was given an opportunity to make beautiful music and pursue his dream became particularly significant to Troy.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Le Nozze di Figaro at the Met: A Comedy with a Spin

On Thursday night the Metropolitan Opera was packed from the orchestra to the family circle. A new season opening production of Mozart’s timeless comic gem Le Nozze di Figaro brought to life by first-tier vocalists under the baton of legendary James Levine must have been on the whole New York’s must-see-no-matter-what list.
Based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ comedy The Mad Day or The Marriage of Figaro (a sequel to the famous Barber of Seville) Mozart’s opera revolves around one insane day, the day that takes both the masters and their servants of the Almaviva household through the trials of love and seduction, suspicion and jealousy, intrigue and deceit, disguise and revelation. At the end of the day lessons are learned, conflicts are resolved and couples are reunited.

In his treatment of Le Nozze di Figaro, the British stage director Richard Eyre gave Mozart’s comedy an unusual spin. Quite literally, in fact, since the production’s main (and only) set– an 18th century manor house with elaborate Moorish wall designs – was mounted on a rotating turntable, providing for both smooth transitions between the scenes and an opportunity to watch several actions taking place in different rooms at the same time. While the set emphasized the headspinning whirlwind of the events onstage, Rob Howell's elegant suits and figure-fitting dresses of the 1930s (the "sexually charged" years that Eyre had chosen to set his production in) added a bold twist to the opera. Yet, a big part of the production's success had to be attributed to the dynamic team of well-matched artists who joined forces to breathe new life into Mozart's comic masterpiece.

Baritone John Del Carlo and soprano Susanne Mentzner, the most comic duo of the production, portrayed Doctor Bartolo and Marcellina with musicality and humor, spicing their performance up with elements of farce.
Making her house debut as Countess Almaviva this season, soprano Amanda Majeski offered some floating moments in her rendition of Porgi amor, along with secure acting, as her heroine found strength and courage to stand up to her philandering husband and teach him a lesson.
Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard was hilarious as hormone-driven page Cherubino, yet managed to add a certain depth to her character in her sensual mellow-toned account of Voi che sapete.
Baritone Peter Mattei’s lustrous tone paid dividends all evening. Known for his deep nuanced vocalism and sophisticated acting, Mattei delivered his showcase aria Hai già vinta la causa! with so much noble grandeur and genuine indignation that for a moment it was hard to stay focused on the fact that his character was the opera’s baddie, hence did not deserve compassion.

The biggest triumph of the evening, however, belonged to the two leads, bass Ildar Abdrazakov and soprano Marlis Petersen. From the very first notes of the famous duet Cinque… Dieci…, in which the happy couple dreams of their future together while Figaro measures the space for their bridal bed (in Eyre's production Figaro measured parts of the bed prior to building it), sparks flew between the two. Their spontaneous youthful humor, fiery energy and sexy flirtation kept the audience on the edge of their seats all evening long.
Ildar Abdrazakov (Figaro) and Marlis Petersen (Susanna)
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera
A true engine of the opera, Petersen’s smart, spirited and confident Susanna set everyone and everything around her in motion. Matching her exciting, accurate vocalism with a knack of flamboyant theatrics, the artist brought downright sexuality to her role, as Susanna provoked the lustful Count and led him on only to expose him to ridicule in the opera’s finale.
Marlis Petersen (Susanna) and Peter Mattei (Count Almaviva)
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera
Yet, later in the opera Petersen revealed a far more poetic side of her heroine in her rendition of Deh vieni, non tardar. While her tone boasted a sheer luminous quality in the beginning of the aria, as the music progressed, the artist indulged us in warm undertones of burnished gold, giving the piece the seductive quality of a serenade. This was one of the most breathtaking moments of the production.

Bass Ildar Abdrazakov portrayed Figaro with vocal brilliance and an abundance of comic action. In spite of his illness, of which it was announced prior to the beginning of the show, the artist soldiered right on, nailing one number after another with virtuosic ease and agility, boasting refined phrasing and endless tonal variety in his rendition of Non più andrai.
Yet, there was a lot more to this Figaro than great vocalism and acting. Using every opportunity provided by the score and the libretto, Abdrazakov created a complex character, allowing us to become witnesses to his psychological transformation. 
Ingenuous and naïve (especially in the beginning of the opera), his Figaro was an endless fount of humor, as he happily jumped into the arms of his newly found father (Doctor Bartolo) or tiptoed across the stage with fluttering arms, miming the movements of Saint-Saëns Dying Swan. However, as suspicion and jealousy crept deeper into Figaro's heart, Abdrazakov’s character changed. Filling his Aprite un po' quegli occhi with irony and bitterness (he performed the aria with a flashlight in his hand, as if probing the darkness to discover all the unfaithful women out there), the artist added deep dark undertones to his dramatic singing. 
Ildar Abdrazakov (Figaro)
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera
Even in the opera’s finale, as the truth finally came out and all the worries went away, Abdrazakov’s Figaro never went back to the trusting young man we had met at the beginning of the opera. Having pushed the memories of his recent doubts and sufferings to the back of his mind, this Figaro arrived at the opera’s finale a wise and mature man.

As the artists' voices blended in a sublime unison in the rendition of the opera's final (and most breathtaking) ensemble Ah, tutti contenti, performed with a barely audible touch of sadness, it became clear that Figaro’s transformation was not the only change that had taken place onstage that evening. The events of the mad day made an impact on each Mozart’s character turning each into a new person.
As I joined the diverse colorfully-dressed crowd on my way out of the theater, I suddenly realized the true meaning of the spin in Eyre's production. It was bigger than the revolving set and the unusual time setting, bigger than the characters’ sparkling humor and sexy actions. The spin of Eyre’s production (or was it the spin that Eyre had read between the lines of Mozart's timeless score?) was about us, people with strengths and weaknesses, similarities and differences, and the major transformation that each person eventually goes through in order to discover his or her new self.

Le Nozze di Figaro runs through December 20th at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Interview: Ildar Abdrazakov

Photographed by Julia Borodina

Last week I had an opportunity to interview the artist whose name is equally well known to both savvy opera connoisseurs and still-have-a-lot-to-learn-about-opera novices. The winner of multiple awards, including two Grammys, Oscar della Lirica and Golden Mask, hailed by Opera News as  “one of the most exciting Russian singers to emerge on international stage in the past decade”, Ildar Abdrazakov is one of the most sought-after basses in the opera world today. On the heels of his recent Metropolitan Opera triumph in the title role in Borodin's Prince Igor earlier this year, Ildar has returned to open the company's 2014-15 season as Figaro in Richard Eyre's production of Le Nozze di Figaro. During our conversation, Ildar shared his insights on Eyre's fresh treatment of Mozart's masterpiece and offered an interesting take on working with modern directors, self-criticism and other issues crucial for an opera artist today.

Mandolin Vision: Ildar, thank you very much for finding time for this interview.

Ildar Abdrazakov: You are welcome. Any time.

M.V: A week ago you opened the new Metropolitan Opera season as Figaro in Le Nozze di Figaro directed by Richard Eyre. Even though this production was reviewed in the media in great detail, not many have yet had a chance to see it in person. In your opinion, what are the most interesting features of this production?

I.A: Well, first of all, I would like to point out that this is an unusual production. It is set in the 1920-30s, which is a new thing by itself. I have participated in many productions of Le Nozze di Figaro and all those productions were pretty classic. This one, however, is more modern in many aspects including the costumes that are different too. 
Another interesting thing about this production is that it is set up on a rotating platform. So this absence of the actual change of sets gives one a chance to observe the change of scenes in a rotating mode. Conveniently enough, one scene transitions into another. The curtain never comes down, and the audience constantly observes what is going on onstage. Not only can the audience see the room of Contessa or Conte, but also they can watch everything that is happening outside their rooms. For example, one can see the Count knocking on the door or Susanna exiting the room or Cherubino performing certain actions. And the audience has a chance to observe all this.

M.V: So the set sort of resembles a see-through skeleton of the house?

I.A.: Exactly. Even though the walls are there, we can still see what is happening in each of the rooms. But of course, to fully appreciate how it works, one has to see it in person.

M.V: During your career you had a chance to work with the true kings of the conductor’s podium. Presently you are working with Maestro James Levine. What does this collaboration mean to you?

I.A: Well, I believe that for every singer and every musician working with Maestro Levine is a true honor and a gift of destiny. Naturally, it is that way for me as well. I am very happy and very proud of being able to work with him as well as of the of the fact that he has put his hopes in me to be part of this production by Richard Eyre and sing the role of Figaro.

What would be a big joy and a big honor for any musician, has fortunately become a reality for me.

M.V: In the 1700-1800s the opinions of opera soloists played a significant role in staging of opera productions. History knows examples when, following the advice of opera singers, composers would go as far as making changes to the arias.

Do modern directors take into consideration the opinions of opera singers? If an opera singer disagrees with the director’s concept or considers the director’s requests unacceptable, is there hope that his opinion will be heard and certain changes will be made?

I.A: Well, it depends on the director. If the director is, let’s say, more adequate and does not only take into consideration his own vision that he has come up with, but also treats the singer as a person who acts out and recreates onstage what has been written by the composer, I think that kind of director would accept the advice of the singer, thus making it more comfortable for the singer.

Thank God I have not worked with directors who would be unwilling to listen or would just insist on whatever they thought was best. The directors I have had a chance to work with were open to the singers’ advice. Thus, for example I have made many suggestions to Richard [Eyre] and he agreed with me. It was interesting for both of us. It was more natural that way, and acting-wise, more interesting for the audience to watch.

M.V: So most directors do remain open to the artists’ opinions?

I.A: Absolutely. Take for example our modern directors such as Vasiliy Barkhatov or Dmitri Tcherniakov who I have had a chance to work with. These are the guys who, thank God, are open to conversation and discussion.

M.V: That’s wonderful.

I.A: There certainly are directors ( I do not want to mention their names now), who I would not want to work with. I have seen their productions and have talked to the singers who participated in those productions.[Their] emotions were not very positive.

After twenty, or to be precise, sixteen years of my career, I already have my opinion of most directors. Not that I have a black list or anything, but…

M.V: You just know who is who, so to speak?

I.A: To a certain extent I do.

M.V: Do you stick to any special schedule on your show days?

I.A: Yes, of course. The most important thing for me is to stay calm and not to be bothered by anyone. I have to get plenty of  sleep, wake up, take a shower, have a cup of coffee and so on.
I don’t like to be bothered by anyone and I don’t like to talk.

M.V: Does that have something to do with the vocal chords?

I.A: It is about the vocal chords. It’s extra pressure on the vocal chords and anyway, talking would mean spending emotions, which, again, I prefer to save and give to the audience later. So the day of the performance is all about charging and saving that energy.

M.V: What do you do between your onstage entrances?

I.A: In the dressing room I relax, drink water. If there is something new, a new role for example, I review the words, the music, the director’s or the conductor’s suggestions – not to forget anything. But all this is done in a calm manner.

M.V: Do you have a talisman or some kind of object that has to be with you during the show and that you cannot go onstage without?

I.A: No, thank God I don’t. I don’t want to develop that kind of dependence, because what would happen if I suddenly left [that object] behind and would get upset or nervous about it? No, it is better not to be dependent on anything. That’s how it is for me at least. This is what decision I have made for myself.

I do know very many singers who put coins into their shoes or stick pins into their clothes. I don’t.

M.V: In other words, you are not superstitious?

I.A: No, I am not. At least I try not to be.

M.V: Ildar, back in the spring 2014 your Facebook page featured several pictures of you in the role of Feodor Chaliapin. However, there was no information about the pictures, except that they were from a movie. Could you please tell our readers about what movie it is and when we will be able to see it?

I.A: Well, this movie, directed by [Timur] Bekmambetov is called Elki-4 [Christmas Trees – 4 – M.V.]. You will be able to see it in late December 2014 – early January 2015, during the holiday season.  I played the role of Chaliapin in it and sang a song together with a girl there. It was not a big role, but it was very interesting for me to play it, even more so because I have been on television since childhood. My father was the leading television director, so this was something I was a little familiar with.

M.V: My next question happens to be just about that - your first role on television, which, if I am not mistaken, you played at the age of 4, correct?

I.A: Exactly. It was the role of the arriving New Year. I was dressed up as a little snowman. I was wearing a white hat and white clothes, but of course, I did not have a red nose. But I was wearing a band which read "1980". I believe it was in 1980. So when the clock struck midnight, everyone around me raised glasses with Champagne and someone ( I don’t remember exactly who it was) lifted me up to show that the New Year had just arrived. So I waved my hand to everyone and wished everyone a happy new year.

I didn’t say any [other]words of course. The show was Goluboy Ogonek [a popular New Year TV show in Russia, traditionally aired on New Year’s Eve – M.V.]. It was filmed in Ufa.

M.V: How did you feel being in front of the camera for the first time? Do you remember your feelings?

I.A: Of course I do. My knees were shaking. I was very scared. Everything was new to me. Plus, there were all the popular TV show hosts around me. The atmosphere was very interesting, with all the wigs, make-up and costumes. The mood was very festive. Of course, this show was filmed some time in November, or early December, but anyway it already felt like the holidays were there.

I can remember feeling a lot of joy, but at the same time, a lot of responsibility.  I knew my dad, who was the leading director, was filming the show and that doubled the responsibility.

M.V: Who is your main critic? Whose opinion do you value most?

I.A: My main critic is me. These days, thanks to the new technology, it is possible to be your own critic, listen to the rehearsals of the show and hear whatever flaws there may be.

Of course, it is wonderful when someone whose opinion you trust is around and available to listen to you. Naturally, it gets more difficult to find that kind of person abroad, even though there are always people around me with whom I performed many times, with whom I worked a lot and whom I could ask for an opinion. Otherwise, I can always listen to my singing myself.

M.V: Do you often feel content with your performance?

I.A: Content? Well, we are not robots. Sometimes it may be a little worse, sometimes – a little better. Absolute perfection is hardly ever possible. Even though some things may be worse and other things may be better, as long as it is a high-level performance, it is great.

One can always come up with something to pick on. One can pick on the smallest thing, one note that may not sound perfect. However, if the whole performance is great, one imperfect note means nothing. If your soul sings and if you do put your soul into the music you perform, little things do not matter.

Of course, if someone has no voice and just screeches instead of singing, this is terrible. However, if the voice is there and it is beautiful, even if there are small flaws, they can be ignored.

M.V: Ildar, is there an opera that, in your opinion, will always remain modern and relevant?

I.A: Sure. It is Don Giovanni.

M.V: I consider myself fortunate enough to have seen your Don Giovanni in the WNO back in 2012, which I also reviewed for Bachtrack. That was a very impressive performance.

I.A: Thank you very much.

M.V: Do you mind if we wrap-up our interview with a short blitz?

I.A: Not at all.

M.V: What is your favorite place on earth?

I.A: My favorite place on earth… is my home.

M.V: Which is…?

I.A: I have several: the house where my mom lives and the house where I live, in St. Petersburg. But my favorite place on earth is my home, where my mom lives.

M.V: Beautiful answer – thank you. What is your favorite holiday?

I.A: The New Year.

M.V: What is your favorite dish?

I.A: The manti that my mom makes.

M.V: I bet they are delicious.

I.A: Oh yes, they are incredible.

M.V: And the last question. What would you do, had you not become an opera singer?

I.A: Well, actually back in my childhood I used to dream of becoming a long-haul driver. I loved big cars. I used to dream about moving from city to city, from country to country, which in fact, I am doing these days. On my own two feet.

M.V: Ildar, once again I want to thank you for this wonderful interview and would like to wish you every success in your work. May inspiration never leave you.

I.A: Thank you very much. I wish you health and success to both you and the magazine that you are writing for. May everything you do go at a crescendo.