Archive for the ‘Met HDOperas’ Category

Opening scenario to Berg’s Lulu (designed by William Kendrick, directors Luc De Wit & Matthew Diamond

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve put off writing about this opera for a few days in order to hear what others who saw or heard it might say, to read reviews and find out about its sources because I had such a mixed reaction to it. First the story, which should be told (because it’s meant to be) crude/ly:

Lulu is a highly paid prostitute, actress, dancer, model kept by Dr Schon a physician who also supports a painter painting her continually. In comes Schigolch, her once abusive beggar father and she gives him money. She is aggressively “in love” with Dr Schon who says he wants to marry a rich socialite.

Lulu (Marlis Petersen) and Dr Schon (Johan Reuter who also plays Jack the Ripper)

Alwa, the physician’s son enters, enthralled by Lulu, who in the next scene has married the painter who kills himself when told of her past.

Lulu and painter (Paul Groves)

In the next act, in a ballet Lulu has danced in off-stage, she has exposed her relationship to Dr Schon to his fiancée; and faute de mieux he marries her. A boy scout or schoolboy (who I feared for) comes in admiring them all. An older countess-patroness Geschwitz, a lesbian, also loves Lulu who exploits her. Quarrels ensue, Dr Schon wants Lulu to kill herself so he will be rid of her, and in a fight, she shoots him several times. Son, countess, beggar father, boy scout try to cover up, but she goes to prison. She emerges shattered, thin, in a catatonic state. Son loses all his money in a scene with a crooked banker and investors. She ends up a ragged street prostitute in her efforts to support them all:

Again, Lulu and Alwa (Daniel Brenna)

She brings men in and out, haggling with them for money; one attacks and kills the son, Alwa, but another turns out to be Jack the Ripper who (after she argues with him for more money) offstage murders her. Ripper returns to knife to death the despairing countess who cries out for Lulu.

The countess Gerschwitz near the end (Susan Graham)


As it began, I disliked it because of the grotesqueries, and repellent imagery of a woman’s private parts garishly drawn on allegorical costumes and in flashing shows of light across the stage:

Lulu as we first see her costumed

But as the whole experience sunk in, or by the third act, while I continued to be distressed by the images of women’s private parts and breasts, I was shaken by the what was happening to the characters especially after the murder of the doctor as a farcical tragedy about the restless misery of personality-less individuals caught up in some maddened nightmare. I could find little to like in the music, hardly any melody, continual noise like hip-hop spoken rock, only the voices were singing and deeply resonant, plangent.

In this desperate crass bleak environment now and again a few yearn for happiness, peace, seem even to have an inkling of what this is: the painter who kills himself; Schigolch, the beggar dependent on Lulu for money sung here by Franz Grundheber; Alwa, Schon’s son; a naive schoolboy; the lesbian Countess. Most spend their hours vaunting themselves, behaving arrogantly or guardedly, coolly, seeking to marry or have sex with the richest most powerful person in the room, mocking other people, lying, cheating: Lulu; Dr Schon also tellingly the serial killer, Jack the Ripper; also an Animal Tamer, an Acrobat, an African Prince, a crooked banker, nameless investors and party-goers, not to omit two allegorical characters, a creepy man and sullen woman dressed in elegant evening clothes:


By the world’s chances (the play was begun just before and during the early Nazi period when the mark had lost most of its value) and their own venal stupidity in following a Banker who is a stock market crook, they become destitute, whereupon they grimly hang on to anyone who will prostitute herself, in this case, Lulu. The norm throughout is sadomasochistic sex.

Lulu with a male who is after her — the norm is sadomasochistic sex

Sometimes one person was the bully and the other abject, and then they’d change places. No one ever looked content; cheerfulness is out of the question: dark, intent, intense.

It may be the designers did not have the courage to flash up male private parts (as more shocking and less acceptable than female?), but if this omission was cowardice, the effect was sexist and eerily women-body-hating. But by the time the opera was over I was persuaded the wild use of lights, computer pictures in black and white of anguished, naked, violent, raging figures, sexism, and screens all over the stage, over-the-top theatrical imagery was justified effective expressionist projection of passions kept hidden, coming out only subtly but what drive the world’s overriding social structures.


The stage

My friend, Fran, supplies the sources, background, artistic milieu: “It is based on, Frank Wedekind’s Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box. Wedekind later conflated both works to the five act tragedy Lulu, which I have seen performed and which once seen is not easily forgotten. Apparently it was his original intention to write a single play all along, but his publisher initially got cold feet.

Wedekind was a German who grew up in what was the equivalent of Victorian England, and he would satirize and attack bourgeois capitalism, pseudo-morality, artistic philistinism, prudery and double standards etc. Stylistically he was influenced by Georg Büchner and was, like him, very much ahead of his time, being a precursor of the Expressionism you mention, but also the Theatre of the Absurd and Brecht’s epic theatre, for example. The latter cited both Büchner and Wedekind as direct inspirations and wrote the latter a laudatory obituary when he died in 1918. (Berg’s other famous opera happens to be Wozzeck, originally a Büchner play itself.)

Berg himself first became acquainted with Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box when he saw a private performance of it in Vienna in 1905. Wedekind himself played Jack the Ripper and his later wife Tilly Newes was Lulu. Only closed, private performances were allowed by the censors Wedekind’s work was always falling foul of. There is an available picture of Wedekind playing Dr Schön to Tilly’s Lulu in performances of the Earth Spirit. Berg has a singer doubling the roles in his opera, too.

Berg started writing his own piece in 1927. It was originally to have been performed under Erich Kleiber at the Berlin opera, but shortly after an orchestral piece culled from the existing parts of the opera had been performed there in 1934, the Nazis forced Kleiber to resign and Berg postponed finishing the opera in favour of a violin concerto. His death in 1935 meant the opera remained unfinished until Berg’s music publisher commissioned the Austrian composer, Friedrich Cerha to use Berg’s surviving notes to complete the third act in the 1960s. This version wasn’t presented to the public until 1977 and thus 2 yearsafter Berg’s widow’s death, since she had always opposed the procedure. This three act version had its premiere at the Paris Opera in 1979, directed by Patrice Chéreau and conducted by Pierre Boulez.”

Izzy, my daughter who came with me, said there are few atonal operas; atonal music was written in the middle 20th century, admired by academics, but never gained a wide audience.


Lulu with her beggar father, Schigolch (Franz Grundheber)

Fran sent along URLs to two excellent essays: “danger and desire” in the Huffington Post; “modernism in Lulu” from Yale.

I found a couple of favorable and sympathetic reviews of this production: “desperadoes” in the New Yorker; and “the question that stops the opera” in the New York Times.

The talk in the intermissions was not as stupid or hyped as usual which was interesting in itself; Grundheber was intelligent about the opera; others spoke of the difficulty singing it; others were uncomfortable about their characters (Susan Graham). But the question Deborah Voigt (following a script) posed and the New York Times repeats was misleading though it’s what the audience is thought to be left asking: is Lulu victim or victimized? Suggesting some of the actor-singers did not see any larger picture, but instinctively wanted to defend themselves against the idea the opera is unfair to women: Reuter (Dr Schon and then Jack the Ripper) pointed out in reply how Dr Schon was a bad man, guilty and was punished (!).

This makes us look at the female to find punishment or rewards, so erases one of the opera’s strengths: here is no Traviata, no Wagnerian self-sacrificing utterly devoted woman who dies for her men, or seethingly evil femme fatale or witch. Our heroine who began as mechanically aggressive and cold becomes mechanically withdrawn.


Rather all the characters are remnants of a terrible world outside the claustrophobic spaces we see them in, thrown out of some whirlpool of imbecility just outside the door. They come in staggering. Were it not for the screens, the acted areas would be small dark bare places. The one scene where we see the crowd, at the close of Act 2 in this production, is when the investors follow the banker about; just like the investors of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, they are greedy, indifferent to what their money was put in, ignorant of the workings of money and deluded. The opera is important: produced on such a scale for prestigious place says something: the content that is here pointed to is the extraordinary frankness with which sexuality is dramatized, how this prefigures other relationships. If you have not had anything like these experiences as a viewer you might be put off. What was implied about sex was the most troubling aspect of this production.

Finally, it’s remarkable to realize how modern we think this opera is and yet it’s 80 years old. That suggests modernity hasn’t penetrated the mainstream arts very much. Among the women in the class at American University I teach, two women said they had gone to the opera: one (like Izzy) left after the first act, and (like Izzy) thought the production misogynistic: the woman pointed out that we saw Lulu jump on the doctor, Lulu wrap herself around him, Lulu as animal and not the doctor. The second woman in my class left after the second act, and complained (like me) of the drawings of woman’s private parts thrown up on the screens as “repellent,” and said she did ask herself, why there were no men’s private parts? When Izzy left, I got up to sit elsewhere as a couple behind me had been quarreling with someone else over their seats. Three women behind me asked if I was leaving like my daughter. I said no, just moving away from the quarreling people. They looked relieved and asked me what I thought of it. I said, well I want to stay to the end to see how Lulu is treated when a prostitute. One of these women then said she found it compelling; the second said it was relief not to have these self-sacrificing virtuous heroine; another (echoing my silent thought) that she was tired of Traviatas. On face-book when I briefly described the opera, one woman said it “sounds pretty dreadful.” Another that she was glad she would have no chance whatsoever to see it.

The one male I did talk to about it commented: “A shame nobody does Jeffers’ version of Medea anymore. He turns Medea into a hero.” He was referring to the great American poet, Robinson Jeffers. A woman poet friend just said she liked the opera.

So, did I enjoy it? no. Would I go again? no. But I’ll remember it. When I’ve read Euripides’ Medea, I’m with her until she insanely kills her children.


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Sonya Yoncheva (as Desdemona, she played the scene as a woman facing death)

Dear friend and readers,

This was my first opera for this HD Metropolitan opera season, and on the whole I was glad I went. I learned that Otello is not a popular opera when it has not got spectacular stars: all around me seats were empty; the auditorium was less than half full.

It was a revelatory experience in an important way too. For the first time of any production of Otello I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a few) the key singer-actors were directed to act out the meaning of the words of their songs. I had never before realized how different is Verdi’s inward conception of Desdemona from Shakespeare’s: Verdi’s heroine is not an odd (improbable) combination of sophisticated teasing Venetian lady who rouses Othello’s jealousy with her playful ways and yet a poignantly puzzled innocent when called a whore; this Desdemona’s soliloquies in the third and fourth act are that of a woman who knows she holds a high place and is being abused by a man crazed with hatred for her; violent and murderous. In the last two songs, her song and then the final wild erotic disaster she expects death, she is waiting for it, facing it. Yoncheva was brilliant in this part of the opera. She sang beautifully too. I was very moved by the willow song and final acting out of death, grief, anguish (which words were in English subtitles).

Aleksandro Antonenko is however not a subtle actor and it was a great loss choosing a white Italian man instead of a black non-Italian so that central themes and happenings are unexplained (beyond the jealousy, why Cassio is chosen over him and he is recalled). People doing this opera must make it their business to find a black male singer for the part; look about for non-stars if their are no stars available. Perhaps you’ll find someone new and great. Or don’t do it. Blackface on a white man is an insult to black people when they are thus excluded from a part dependent on the whole penumbra he must endure as a black and old man (Othello is much older than Desdemona). But someone had instructed Antonenko to enact the meaning of his lines. There was no dignity, but there was no ludicrousness; he was scary: this was an exploration of male sexual insecurity and murderous violation.

Aleksandro Antonenko as seething within

Both he and Zeljko Lucie were acting out ruthless misogyny together, and in 2015 the allusion was to honor-killing and its milder varieties of female destruction in non-Muslim countries. The sense of Iago as this site of malignant evil, all envy, resentment did not come out, nor did anything homoerotic between them.

Zeljko Lucie as a man in a leather coat against glass boxes

It was two men in sheer destructive wrath — with a woman as their joint target. So this was another of these 21st century interpretations of an opera at the Met as about violence against women. This became and is an opera about a version of honor-killing. “It is the cause.”


When the men duel, women standing nearby are hurt by their daggers and the women gather about the wounded woman.

The rest of the experience was disconnected. Antony Tomassin (New York Times) explained this as a function of the odd sets, flat lack of activity, a lack of any original thought in the physical directing of the actor-singers; and David Salazar (Latin Post) wrote the problem came from how the actors were let to wander about, stand in crowds or mostly avoid one another. I’d add Roderigo was not acted out; he was a dull nothing, not a thug, not low class, just there; Dimitri Pittas as Cassio looked the part (gay, elegant) but he was given hardly anything to do. Emilia (Jennifer Johnson Cano)had a moment where she is abused (hit) by Iago when he snatches the handkerchief and will not return it; she is loyal and loving to Desdemona but beyond that and her beautiful dark blue outfit and lovely sonorous voice, she too was a cypher. Ditto with all the Venetians.


The sets were explained during the intermission by Es Devlin (set designer): in Boito’s letters he told Verdi that Otello was a prison in a glass-house. I’m not sure what Boito meant by that: easily shattered? an egoistic nightmare of his own making? But Devlin determined to have glass houses sliding on and off the stage against a dark stormy sky, red blood universe (matched by one of Desdemona’s 19th century style flouncy stiff dresses). I’m not sure they added anything; indeed they seemed to distract attention when the characters slinked about. Perhaps a bare stage with indications of tempest and then a few pieces of symbolic furniture would have been as effective.

I was on my own as I have now been for several of these operas. Since the audience was so sparse and people near by unfriendly. This is increasingly true in these movie-houses with HD operas or plays as the newness of the experience wears off; people have ceased applauding for the most part too. I was free to feel Jim’s absence — the silence around me — and experience Yoncheva’s scene about facing death and enduring it as what he did and what I will do in turn when my time comes.

I grieved too. Jim died with my arms around him, loving him, I will die alone. Recently I’ve had strains in my chest and my right arm grows weaker and weaker. I sometimes find a coffee cup heavy to pick up. I will not let the hospital and medical people attack me with their surgeries and then treat me with an indifference which depends on shaming me into compliance. Instead like him once he saw what the surgery was and recognized this medical establishment’s small behavior, he brought death on, faced it on his own terms. In Verdi Desdemona does not beg for life, for another moment more the way Shakespeare’s Desdemona does.

I thought had the opera just had the opening dark blue sky with its wisps of cloud (computer generated) all around that bed the scene would have scenically more meaningful. This version of Verdi’s opera when it’s most alive is about love as death. The last part is about facing and doing death.

Susan Herbert, a salutary woman’s mockery on the nonetheless deadly Othello


There was something beyond the opera worth going to see: one of the intermission films for the first time (finally) explained the role of the man whose name has appeared as HD director for every HD Met opera I’ve seen and never heard mentioned at all: Gary Halvorson. The film was presented as “celebrating” (the mode on these broadcasts is over-speak) ten years of HD broadcast: well according to him, he marshals all the cameras and computer controllers together to photograph or film the opera from the most effective angles possible; it takes weeks of synchronizing themselves and their equipment with the slightest changes of beat, or movement or sound, several people working at once with several screens going at once. Each time a live broadcast is actually done, he begins work at 6:30 am with some of his crew there already and as the day progresses with this or that different group, during the broadcast alert at every second with the others round this tables of computer until the moment the HD broadcast ceases. The implication was that this movie-director is just an overlay; the opera itself has not been plotted so as to be cinema-shaped. I doubt that, but I don’t doubt that this is what the man literally does, what I doubt is the lack of cooperation from the “real” director implied.

THE ADVENTURES OF ELMO IN GROUCHLAND, director Gary Halvorson, on set, 1999. (c)Columbia Pictures
Gary Halvorson, previously a TV film director — very much a promotional shot

It was a cold day in Alexandria today, the first real cold this fall. I had bought myself a new soft light blue wool sweater and a woolly yet light weight jacket-coat, high neck, long sleeves. I needed them both and pulled them tight against me. I wore a light purple scarf wrapped around my head with its ends twirled about my neck, and my usual thin violet gloves. I got into my car, started it and turned on Simon Vance reading aloud Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.

In the silence.
Now again.
Typing this.
sharing my chair.


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Kim and her child, poster for Miss Saigon

Mark Rylance
Mark Rylance as the king in a contemplative nervous moment

Dear friends and readers,

As with New York City, it seems to me to be in London and not go to the theater to miss out on what’s unique and deeply appealing about the city. So since during our 10 days and night travel last week, Izzy and I had three nights in London, two free, we saw two plays.

First a play I knew might seem slow or staid to her but whose content she would be sure to take an interest in, indeed know more about than me, but which I thought I’d like. All that was true of her reaction to Claire van Kampen’s play with much Baroque music, Farinelli and the King, about the mutually fulfilling relationship of an 18th century castrato, Carlo Boschi called Farinelli, and an apparently depressive and ill (he died relatively young) Spanish King, Philip V. Farinelli gave up a promising lucrative career in London to be this king’s musician-companion. Much of the barebones outline of the story is historically accurate; the queen’s love of her husband and an implicit affair with his castrato was added as audience pleaser.

Farinelli (both actor and singe, Sam Crane, Iestyn Davies)), King and Isabella his wife (Mark Rylance and Melody Grove)

I longed to see Mark Rylance live and was not disappointed by his performance. As Rachel Halliburton writes, the text is weak, there are too many resorts to easy jokes (jocularity) and creeky comic courtiers (who lose their tempers). It’s a vehicle by a husband-and-wife team (Kampen is Rylance’s wife and both worked together at the Globe as chief composer and director). Clever staging ideas livened it up. Audience members were given seats on the stage, the actors interacted with them and were here, there and everywhere in the auditorium. The characters pour over maps, astrological charts, medicines; there is much playing of 18th century instruments on stage. The king dies off-stage and the queen in the last scenes is a widow.

It’s the radiant idea at the center, that delicate beauty and mutual generosity exist and can sustain people, especially as enacted by Rylance — he was tenderly joyful — that makes it, and it’s touching, really conveyed persuasively. No small feat in such a large playhouse (the Duke of York brought back to look 19th century on the stage too), with just outside the curtained doors all the elements of a rough hard competitive commercialized city and social drinking nightlife. A little oasis of fleeting delicate happiness.


Afterwards Izzy and I talked about opera in London in the 18th century — she did her BA thesis on Handel. Jim would have enjoyed this play.

Our other choice was a famous musical which we had missed out on when Eric Schaeffer did it in our local Signature Theater and Laura went and said she thought of Jim while watching it because he would have liked Schaeffer’s sardonic production. The musical as done in London by Cameron Mackintosh (an expert in making hits) is a brassy, blaring concoction by the people who wrote Les Miserables, Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonerg. Miss Saigon had music that reminded me of Les Mis, and its over political content, a semi-cynical take on American soldiers in Vietnam. A long way from Rogers and Hammerstein’s sacarin South Pacific. As is common knowledge, it’s Madame Butterfly story where our Asian heroine, Kim, ends up giving her child by an American soldier she fell in love with and married, to him and his American wife. She kills herself and the final scene has him grieving over her body, with the wife clutching the child, and the Engineer again deprived of an opportunity to get a VISA. This coming spring she and I will go to an HD performance from the Met of Madame Butterfly — which each time I’ve seen has made me weep copiously — how they will cope with the self-effacement of Butterfly I know not.

Kim (Eva Noblezada) and Chris (Chris Peluso) — hero and heroine

The problem with Miss Saigon is the music is not beautiful or thrilling as was Les Mis. It’s also hopelessly corny at the opening, presents American soldiers as boys at play, exhorts you to see the US as having meant well (absurd), doing what it can afterward to compensate (as if this were even in thought possible). But it also has strong satiric moments (especially over this shibboleth referred to by the words the American dream). The most effective songs and acting were by the Engineer, a pimp and nightclub owner who longs for a VISA to go to the US to make a million, performed with outstanding energy by Jon Jon Brighes (he does not do it every night, he could not).


Charles Spencer conveys the piece accurately: it even has a helicopter at the back of the stage for the iconic scene of the fall of Saigon (soldiers jumping in, leaving the Vietnam complicit people behind). It had an unexpected new resonance with the audience, as its central leads and songs are about an immigrant child and his mother. The songs on this issue drew more applause than the rest.

Both auditoriums were overflowing with people, both provided bars open at least an hour before performance with rooms for socializing. Outside the twisty turning streets (several were no cars are allowed) too were filled with people drinking, eating, talking, spilling out of restaurants and pubs.

There were other plays I wished we could have seen: at the Globe Measure for Measure alternating with a play about Nell Gwynne; not far from the Prince Edward Theater, Branagh’s A Winter’s Tale. Just before this Farinelli Hattie Morahan had stunned all with her daring perceptive performance of Beatrice-Joanna in The duchess of Malfi. but these were the two that we could get tickets for, fit into our schedule, and I could imagine Jim at with us. The playbill booklet I bought for Farinelli actually has real information about the era so I’m saving it to remember.

Photos from the production of Farinelli


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Anna Netrebko as Iolanta and Piotr Beczala as Count Vaudemont (Tchaikovsky); Nadja Michael as Judith and Mikhail Petrenko as Bluebeard (Bartok)

Dear friends and readers,

If you needed confirmation, in the filmed interview conducted by Peter Gelb between the two one-act operas of the singer/actors for Bluebeard’s Castle with the production designer of both, Mariusz Trelinski (a iconoclastic courageous film director, like Netrebkvo, a Russian separatist), Trelinski made the brilliancy of the coupling of the two operas plain: these are two phases in the life of one woman, not a particular psychological person, but an archetype.



Trelinksi tries to transform the Tchaikovksy’s opera: Tchaikovsky meant us to see the utterly submissive Iolanthe, as a blind (disabled) mythic figure, whose loving father, King Rene (Ilya Bannik) mistakenly shields her from understanding she is blind, to prevent her rich suitor, the Duke of Burgundy (Aleksei Markov) from knowing about this by imprisoning her, allowing her to come into contact only with a nurse, her husband, a huntsman, and two (sneering) maids. Trelinski juxtaposes this material with Bartok’s legend of Bluebeard, the story of Judith inexplicably (she is given no past, except she has escaped her bethrothed) continually pleading with this cruel, sardonic, and murderous male to allow her deeper into his castle from door to door until she reaches a wood where she finds herself surrounded by haunted, wounded, and dead women and must remain forever herself.


We are supposed to see Iolanta has changed one supposed benign tyrant for another as Judith has exchanged one openly fearful one for another.
Trelinski’s production reveals Tchaikovky’s supposed sentimental romantic piece is a transparently cruel story of a young woman kept helpless and obedient to a tyrannical obsessive father, King Rene (Ilya Bannik).

That Trelinkski meant the pair to be read as feminist mirrors of women’s oppression was obvious: though he was not willing explicitly to say anything concrete, even Rupert Christiansen of the Telegraph saw this. As Iolanthe began the stage was turned into a movie-screen as a black universe, with stars, flowers and figures that suggested fragility, at the bottom of which was a lovely faun, which reappeared on the screen until Iolanthe’s father murdered it and it seemed a real fleshy body bleeding to death hunt up upon a nail. There is a long tradition of equating fauns with women (e.g., Marvell’s “Nymph complaining of the death of her faun”).

As Bluebeard opened a similar film screen took over the stage, similarly blackened with fragile petals, stars, small woodland creatures, only instead of a pastoral wood with a what looked like a square shoe box as dwelling, it kept turning into fearful images of elevators, tunnels, prisons, tables where hospital like operations could be performed (Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein used the same medical imagery):


At one point the same shoe box like square appeared but this time tiled like a bathroom (or the NYC subway), with Judith crawling on the ground, kneeling, clutching at the wall, a strong version of Iolanthe’s stumbling about. Netrebko’s outfits, a white slip, and a garish blue day dress were counterparts of Michael’s white slip and acqua blue gown.



Both women had the same white round flowers handed to them by men. Both operas had walls covered with stuffed deer heads. So this is what all those 19th century fairy tales were covering up. At the close of Bluebeard’s Castle, Bluebeard is having sex with a mannequin half-buried in a grave in a landscape that seemed something left over from bombing in a war


I would have liked to conclude the pairing was feminist but alas both operas resisted this imposition strongly. Had the Met opera had the nerve to end Iolanthe before the hero count persuades Iolanthe’s father to yield her up to the doctor, it might have worked for the first opera. But the second half of this play was dedicated to the still popular idea that if you believe yourself into health, have the will say not to be blind, you will be cured. This because a wonderful God has done this to you to show you just how good he is. In return, you of course must worship him abjectly.


As staged, the opera ends in this ludicrous Busby Berkeley spectacle of rays of green light like the spokes of a crown as everyone thanks God profusely — before of an unexpected and added on entry of the Trelinski’s father tyrant in a silent dumb show (so not part of the original script or singing): King Rene comes out and instead of smiling rejoicingly because his daughter’s eyesight has been restored after the hero persuaded her she wanted to see him and has been united to him, and throws out grim looks of anger and resentment.

This shot is from earlier in the opera but it shows how the King is presented — against the grain

Bartok’s opera makes more sense if you see it as misogynistic. Judith is endlessly masochistic; she just cannot get enough intense pain; she begs for more keys to open more doors apparently so she can submit and suffer and writhe some more. Bluebeard is her God, teaching her how to experience things physically:


Never mind that study after study has shown that the mashochistic woman who just loves abuse is a myth. The women at the close are just as hauntedly submissive as Judith; Bluebeard who is dressed (appropriate to his music) as an pleasure-loving (he smokes cigarettes, drinks wine) sardonic Citizen Kane type, more insouciantly rakish than murderous.


During the regulation hyped interview (by Joyce DiDonato) Netrebko said she felt for her character, stumbling about helpless and indeed she was poignant; Beczala is less of a phony than many of the singers and he refused to pretend to have psychoanalyzed his part and said what was hard about it was all the high Cs. In the filmed interview with Gelb, Michael seemed aware of the contradiction of claiming a perpetually longing- punishment type as an icon for feminism as she volunteered the interpretation that Judith wanted to see within herself, and what the “the world” is for real behind doors. Gelb (like the Telegraph) seemed a bit nervous at this open explicitness of what the opera might be about, for he immediately cautioned her “not to give away the story.” It was a rare good instance of how spoiler warnings function to stop bringing meanings of story into the openly discussable.

Very unusually for the movie-house audience I have now observed for four years there was little applause at the end of either opera or after some remarkably sung arias, especially those (in my view) of the unfortunate Michael whose acting was stunning; she had to have been exhausted.


I applauded for her but no one else did. The people around me were silent altogether. Were they embarrassed? The audience at the Met applauded now and again for some spectacular singing (it seemed to me) but did not stand up as has become the custom (the audience nowadays seems to do this to congratulate themselves for coming).

I decided to go out of curiosity. When the New York City Metropolitan opera chooses to do this kind of pairing, how they do it is significant. Izzy and I had been complaining all season of how conventional what we saw was, well, here was another instance after The Death of Klinghoffer (however in reality tame the opera is) of courage. It would be easy to make fun. Iolanta just needed to be mainstreamed and all would have been well. Bluebeard needed to stop imitating gangsters from movies and Judith their faux-glamorous beat-up molls. I prefer to take seriously what took itself seriously: these are two productions saturated with unexamined assumptions about disease and women, the first exposing teleological absurdities, the second genuinely mirroring a deep sickness in the images we are surrounded by in popular and high art. Torture came to mind; they were torturous, so appropriate to our political landscape today? I was relieved to escape when they were over.

I wonder what Jim would have thought of it. Had he and Izzy come with me (she didn’t come either) they’d have discussed the music and perhaps the singing. I found nothing thrilling about the 19th century opera and do not wonder it has rarely been performed since it was first paired (and then dropped from) the Nutcracker Suite. As for Bartok’s music, it seemed to me harsh and dissonant. I can’t say I enjoyed anything, perhaps the images of fawns at the opening of the first opera were touching; I was genuinely horrified when what made to seem an apparently real faun was knifed to death and hung and when Bluebeard was having sex with the mannequin.


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One of Renee Fleming’s stand-up numbers: it’s of a magical child who has left the singer: “how could you leave me alone” the refrain – stop and click and listen ….

Dear friends and readers,

When today while Yvette and I were watching the HD opera broadcast of the latest new HD production, Lehar’s The Merry Widow, starring Fleming as Hanna, I recalled to mind one night years ago. Jim and I were in a live audience somewhere and had been listening to a live act on stage of male rock-n-roll well-known singers; they ceased, and Pavarotti came on stage and began to sing. It was startling, just felt like he was knocking you off your seat. Jim began to laugh aloud so superior were they to all this noise, microphones and all. We were in the first row, and I may have imagined it but I thought he caught Pavarotti’s eye for a moment.

Fleming early in the first act — in the later scenes her many changes of costumes included no widow’s weeds

So too after I don’t know how many minutes of trivial supposed funny dialogue (some of which thudded badly or was not pointed enough, especially between Sir Thomas Allen as the count, and Mark Schowalter as the winking perhaps gay servant, Njegus), and Fleming was brought on. Kelli O’Hara (playing the count’s perhaps unfaithful wife) was just pathetic in comparison, her voice one reedy stream, until towards the middle of the third act she came out with a can-can costume amid the chorus of Broadway dancers and did a powerful effective wry playfully sexy number


What depth of feeling was pulled out of this production (and there was some) was mostly the result of Fleming’s songs, Fleming’s singing when she intones “The Merry Widow Waltz” and “Off to Maxim’s” her voice vibrates with alluring trembling trills. She just outdistanced them all. I fell to crying three times, real crying, the yearning for romance, and the lied refrain “how could you leave me alone” just entered into me.

Somehow the love story between the two aging principals, Nathan Gunn as Danilo and Fleming does start to move us gradually — alas Fleming’s face and neck are starting to show her age and she is uncomfortably stiff when dancing just a little or being pulled back to be kissed; Gunn is none to lithe. The waltz music helped — on the way home Yvette began to hum or sing the musical line; how lovely her voice sounded.

A finer rendition than anything in this production: Placido Domingo (he sings with delicacy) and Ricio Martinez, Rio, 2014

Towards the end of the second act the rousing dance numbers begin, some by the men in a kind of mock chorus: what is it that makes women so strange — and yes, not to be trusted (that stereotype duly trotted out). Gary Halvorson, the director for live cinema (never mentioned in any of the increasingly hyped interviews), took all the right shots. It was fun to watch the stage change from a garden to Maxim’s while the curtains remained open — through keeping our attention on the dancers as all around them the props and settings moved.


Susan Stroman, whose origins as a Broadway choreographer were repeated too often (as well as her and everyone else’s endless awards), nonetheless deserved credit for the risqué nature of the dancing which was suggestive as well as exhilarating.

The production’s hard-working dancing grisettes — in 19th century France grisettes were also hard-working women, sometimes milliners, or seamstresses who made ends meet by quiet prostitution on the side (it paid for your lodging)

At its best moments this operetta is a slightly heavy-handed but effective comedy with occasional brushes with romance that can still, just, reach us.

So, mark another highly conventional opera done traditionally for HD (“embalmed” said one critic). I remarked to Yvette that we were told before the broadcast began 37 school districts from around the US were watching. Before the intermission, the lack of any actuating believable emotion made for tedium. But after well-timed performances and “mistakes of the night” kind of humor also kept things going. Perhaps they could have used a bit more stylization. It’s too much to hope for re-thinking and making it contemporary (which they might have done in a European house — who knows?)


I also thought (once again) of Downton Abbey. Was this not the same kind of pastiche, pastoral of upper class life, where hardly anyone can be seen doing anything transgressive for real, though they are all running about as if they are about to; where we are told the characters need huge sums of money because their “country” is threatened by bankruptcy, but far from deprivation, all there is in sight is luxury. In the house on camera shots, Yvette spotted the dress circle seats she and I had occupied while we saw the Death of Klinghoffer — at considerable more expense and effort.

It is grating how each time a hostess begins her major spiel for money to an HD audience, she emphasizes that no matter how wonderful the experience of this broadcast, it is nothing, NOTHING, to being in the house. The obtuse tastelessness and dishonesty (for the movie experience is in some ways far better and interesting, except for the irritating false upbeat pseudo-depth talk in most of the interviews) of this is matched by the reality of opera as an elite entertainment; if occasionally it crossed your mind (as it did mine in this production) to wonder about the parallels between street life in Austro-Hungarian cities in 1905 to street life today in New York or other cities across the US, it became harder to push the thought away. Capitalist bourgeoisie at play. Satieted rhythms in the songs.

When I cry at these movies for real, I find the people near me get uncomfortable quickly. People can bear very little reality. I could go on about the falseness of this stereotype of the merry widow. But Lehar was not a fool, and the story concerns a very young woman, a farmer’s daughter, poor, married off to a very old man who died on the honeymoon. If she marries, her fortune reverts to her husband. And in life in the 19th century widows often could not control who would inherit their money. So no possibility of grief? and yet these haunting lyrical lines recur starting at the end of the first act.

I’ll be teaching the Poldark novels and film adaptations (now we’ve got two!) this coming March at the Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning at American University, and browsing the catalogue discovered a course in the Met opera seasons (apparently given regularly) where the practice is to watch those Met operas available on DVD not made into HD broadcasts (this year The Death of Klinghoffer, called “controversial”). Discussion then includes HD broadcasts as a comparison plus local operas (complete with a few guest speakers). An effort is made to discuss those operas not broadcast: I hope it is not on behalf of the idea that we must see the opera live to experience it most wonderfully as after all they are going to be using DVDs but rather to look into the choices and the different kinds of presentations HD-broadcast leads to.

Kelli O’Hara and the dancers during rehearsal — seen in a previous HD-opera as part of an intermission


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Michael Volle as Hans Sachs (with a different soprano in the role of Eva than the production we saw today)

Dear friends and readers,

I thought I’d record that Yvette and I spent 6 long hours watching Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg (to give Wagner’s opera its full title) today at our local HD movie-theater. Neither of us hardly ever drowsed off — I observed a number of people half-dozing at times. Two people in our row left after the second act. It was an utterly unimaginative production not quite rescued by the intelligent acting and realism and singing of Michael Volle.

OperaMichael Volle

Speaking for myself I found the second act charmed me by the touching and human psychological interactions of the principle characters, especially the Volle as the older intelligent witty passionate complex character of a cobbler Hans Sachs genuinely in love with Eva (Anne Dasch in the production we saw), the daughter of his friend) who herself seems torn between Sachs and the lifeless stiltedly acted and (it mattered) unattractive Johan Botha as a supposed dazzling Knight-poet Walther von Stolzino.


The scene is a street in a picturesque fairy tale German-like town, Hans is making shoes for the coming wedding of Eva and whoever wins her as a prize in a coming singing contest, and along comes a master-singer, Johannes Martin Kranzle as an emasculated over-sensitive and therefore mocked suitor-contestant Sixtus Beckmasser intending to serenade Eva at a window. Some of the wall of music in this and the third act swooningly as well as some of the comic singing and hammering away by Volle appealed to me, was amusing. Also the overt theme of how valuable original poetry which does not follow rules or conventions is (Wagner thinking of himself) appealed to me as well as some of the romantic lyrics (a leider-like song attributed to and sung by the Knight-Poet Walther).

Renee Fleming’s interview of Volle showed him to be a deep feeling singer who had given a lot of thought to his role as a man in love with a much younger woman who gives her up (as he foresees he will be a Mark to her Isolde). The interview of the production design person who talked of this 1990s pre-computer set, watching it put up, and then a rehearsal of the dancing (Kelli O’Hara as lead, Deborah Voight interviewer):


and an interview with a costume designer for the coming new production of The Merry Widow starring Fleming were entertaining.

Had Jim been alive he’d have certainly been there; I remember half-sleeping through a Meistersinger next to him where he stayed up for all of it I’m not sure where. He would have understood and listened to the music as Yvette seemed to.

Jim joined the Wagner Society of Washington DC here in DC shortly after he retired and envisaged us going to its lectures and concerts and yearly full weekend get-aways; and was bitterly hurt when after a second year of going to all its events, supporting it with money, we were clearly at the last moment excluded from their weekend (they held onto his check for it, some $500 until a week before when he said they must have at last had enough people for this event so they need not include us). He had thought here was a semi-popular cultural group we could attend, pretend to belong to. What was wrong with us I’ll never know — I did talk a lot on the one weekend we attended to a hired photographer-historian who shared my political outlook; maybe this was frowned upon. Maybe we weren’t important enough in any way. The snobbery of this society and the way the leaders behaved sycophantically to the supposed civic or political or cultural leaders of this or that place was without awareness. I was aware of how the fascism of Wagner, his anti-feminism (by the women there) was just ignored in all the talks about Wagner operas. I bring this experience up to expose this Wagner Society of Washington DC for doing that to him, and also show how much he was willing to endure to participate in the music of Wagner with the occasional person who knew something about it.

I’d like to think he might have agreed this production was hopelessly dull; the first act of the masters arguing over the coming contest was without drama — even Renee Fleming, the hostess could find nothing beyond vague hype about how “special” and “wonderful” this Wagnerian production was as she talked to the dull Kranzle and at least honest Dasch (she admitted the part was small, the psychology simple). In his filmed interview Levine kept going using the same contentless words. The third act went on for an interminable 2 hours: each of the major characters visits Sachs before the contest begins and while the interaction leads to the climax, each phase not only went on repetitively, but predicted the over-long heavy-handed climax with its gestures of gaiety, priggish self-righteousness at someone not wanting to join something, scorn of weakness and then insistence of how important it was to respect even conventional guilds and Germanness.

For me the HD film close-ups and surtitles made this another first time to see and understand an opera I’ve watched before and really gotten little out of. I was surprised to discover that Yvette didn’t like the second act: she thought it could have been a lot funnier. Very “uninventive.” She too felt it could have been half as long.

Not that anyone who matters in making new productions of this opera will pay attention to this blog, but I’ll still make the suggestion it needs not only to be wholly re-designed using modern symbolic staging but someone needs to take seriously its riveting interest is the erotic relationship between Eva and Hans. Wagner’s words do not call for Hans to act avuncular; and she asks him to marry her more than once and seems to prefer him to this suitor of hers in the third. Almost the whole of the first act could be eliminated, whole sections of the third, and if it cannot be cut, at least the mockery of Beckmesser could be cut down, made less snarky (he’s a kind of Mr Moseley character for anyone who watched Downton Abbey). There was no undercutting of the intense patriarchy of the male roles, but Karen Cargill, an Irish soprano as Magdalene, sister to Eva, showed some comic gifts:


Yvette and I caught sight of the dress circle we sat in when we were at the Met in mid-November, and she said she liked that she could now imagine where the various places filmed were in relation to what we had walked through.

I wonder when these opera companies who broadcast through HD will admit that filming for audiences makes them change how these operas are directed. The one person never interviewed in any of these productions is the person called “the live HD director,” this time Matthew Diamond. It is egregiously obvious that blocking and entrances and exits and choreography is done with movie needs as well as in-house stage limitations and sets in mind.


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Omar and Klinghoffer (from the National English Opera production)

Protests at the Metropolitan Opera house on opening night

Dear friends and readers,

It’s hard to know how to treat this opera since as a result of intense pressure from Jewish, particularly those supporting the present and previous right-wing Israeli organizations put sufficient relentless financial and social pressure on the Met as to cause them to not air it on the HD network (thus depriving thousands of people around the globe to see the opera for themselves) and to bring an halt to productions at the Met itself. (It has played in many others, from England to Scotland to Prague, and doubtless will continue to do so all the more.) At any rate Yvette and I saw the last big production in the US for some time to come, this past Saturday afternoon, November 15th.

What I have to tell those who come to this blog is that far from being a provocative, anti-semite inciting viscerally dramatic opera, The Death of Klinghoffer bends over backwards not to be overtly empathetic towards any group of people or individuals aboard ship. It’s a choral piece, much in the tradition of Copeland’s The Tender Land and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, only there is even less dramatic action and creation of individual personalities. Only 4 characters are made individual: Klinghoffer, his wife, Marilyn (Micheala Martens), a woman now famous for having hidden out in her cabin the whole time (Theodora Hanslowe?); a British dancer (Kate Miller-Heidke) by happenstance one of Omar’s prisoners who is eager for “ciggies” from him.


The Palestinians remain archetypes and are presented as teaching killing (while Jewish armies are forgotten). Death of Klinghoffer is a mild, indeed in some ways tame meditative and lyric opera: its center is the captain (Paul Szot) as neutral narrator (he has a podium he sings from) and the story and action, such as it is (beautiful filmed waters on three sides of the stage, graffiti filled walls, light and dawn and evening shows) is punctuated continually by the beautiful music and singing of the Palestinian chorus of exiled people, and the Jewish one of people come to Israel after horrific misery in Europe during WW2.

The actual history behind the incident is well-known, easy of access: 4 young Palestinian men in 1985 hijacked a ship and 400 passengers and threatened to kill everyone unless Israel exchanged these captives with his brother and other male relatives. In the event they killed but one man, but the elderly helplessly crippled one: all else emerged unharmed. The opera takes into account the English-sidekick to US role: the Palestinians threaten UK as well as US and Jewish people. Three of the Palestinian men were later arrested and tried and allowed to go to their homeland (relatively free). Adams presents so little about the Palestinian case (so we learn very little about what was at stake in the negotiating bargain) — for every Palestinian chorus there is a Jewish one.

I immediately asked myself, why this incident when there are so many others of thousands and thousands killed and murdered Palestinians and “other Arab people”: 250 at one blow (on Reagan’s “watch”) is more like it. Why nothing of Jewish conscription and the constrained lives of Jews in this “fortress” state? In lieu of a continuous storyline, the three walls of the stage had a light show taking us through announced years (sometimes just the year showed, as in 1967), graffiti on walls, the waters of the sea rising and falling, night and then dawn. There was a chorus of male dancers representing writhing Palestinian young men; the four hijackers were archetypal presences (Aubrey Allicock as Mahmoud sung of his bonding with migrating birds). The concentration though was on Klinghoffer and his wife, ever focused on by light and given the individuating startling and moving arias.

A scene from The Death Of Klinghoffer by English National Opera and Metropolitan Opera

Though the poignant figure etched in the visual memory is of the Jewish man who dies facing the sky in his chair (providing the advertisement poster) and in sound memory his wife’s two arias.

Yet I have not been so sincerely moved by an opera in years. It was a bold courageous move not to offer us a mythic metaphor of a story, but at least give us the outlines of a story that really happened. Thus the realities of rich middle class people, here a number of Jews and British who can afford to go on an expensive cruise (ship fuelled by oil, the natural resource the the elite powerful of the US and other NATO countries have been destroying all social and democratic movements to keep control of) is simply part of the givens. Each of the characters spoke as individuals; I was rendered riveted by Mrs Klinghofer’s final widow grieving aria, especially lines, “I live in him” and “I wanted to die,” and thought I heard the voice of Adams in her words about the medical establishment’s indifference to his suffering — all everyone cared for was their payment, their profit, with a sudden interjection about profit centered research (as such a woman would put it.)! I understood why the Palestinians picked on Klinghoffer: Klinghoffer’s scolding is that of the ignorant man: he inveighs against the hijackers as simply killers, thugs; he denies they have any justification, that their houses were worth anything. Adams had the courage to show the man to have been obnoxious against the Palestinians harassing and terrifying the hostages with threats of death, blindfolds, guns held to their heads and the like.


The opening Palestinian chorus a stunner protesting the originating incidents in 1948 a stunner. No as powerful as the Jews fleeing Europe and the death camps with a few thing or none to the promise of the desert where they would irrigate and make a new world. The Palestinians were treated as equal human beings — there was a remarkably beautiful aria by two singers who represented Palestinian women, one whose house had been destroyed in 1948 and the other the mother of Omar, one of the highjackers (an angry one, urging him to kill if needed in order to get the demands taken seriously).

From the opera: Omar Jesse Kovarsky), his mother (Maya Lahyani), and Klinghoffer (Alan Opie) seen in the picturesque distance

Omar has a sort of friendship with one of the British dancers who sings — there were 6 British dancers on board. The dancing of Omar was wrenching; the music beautiful and light and water and film effective, melancholy.

A matching Jewish chorus: remembering the holocaust

We had come to NYC for Yvette to experience the real opera house, and since The Death of Klinghoffer was removed from HD operas broadcast (and the mediocrity of a Rossini concoction substituted) we chose this weekend. We were in dress circle seats an experience in itself: it was hard to get to them, and we were in an overhang on the third tier so we saw both stage and (if this were still done) the opera house itself beautifully. We were cut off from the left side of the stage (partial view). Yvette’s blog-review worth reading in this regard (her experience from her spot). There was a kind of strangeness and stiltedness as if Adams was continually pulling his punches lest he offend someone important somewhere. It was a kind of staged masque:


How to account for the tameness of this piece? fear of reprisal if too truthful and searing? I object to the lack of hard violence by both sides and the situating of the Jewish chorus too early so later realities and cruelties beyond shame (in Gaza and the West Bank) omitted. Such an opera if people would watch would be useful: yet I am told there are Americans who Foxnews and the like have taught to looks upon Palestinian people as “cockroaches.” Operas are supposed to reveal grief, teach compassion, sing out the vulnerability of its characters (and occasionally even composers), though they rarely set their action in the here and now and an actual incident.

It was stimulating to really be there; Yvette said the voices sounded better and she seemed to enjoy being there: I dislike the elitism one comes up against as part of each experience from eating (each cafe callibrated to a specific income group), to lingering on the balcony; you can’t just go into the central cafe but must reserve and have tickets for that day; the shop was a replica of the Kennedy Center in its commercialism. It did seem to have far more CDs and DVDs. More: the way this incident was hyped up in the program notes unreal. Phrases like “horrible barbaric” and others suggesting some catastrophe of immeasurable proportions when it was a case of 400 people all of whom but one survived unharmed. No talk whatsoever about atrocities for real. Instead the program notes had a story about Stalin’s repression of Verdi’s Don Carlos as if to deflect attention. None of this Adams’s doing. He came on stage that afternoon Yvette and I were there. I hope the opera was filmed and eventually can come out on DVD and thus be shown to a much wider segment of the US population.


It is a disgrace that the Met did not broadcast this opera as an HD presentation, and has shut down further performances — the direct result of the relentless political powers and economic realities (no one dares to buck anyone connected into the 1% of US media and money today). I foolishly became a member of the Met this year. I thought to be sure and get tickets to HD operas this way, but there is no need and I won’t do so again. I understand the Met’s economic difficulties but they demanded their tech people take cuts in salaries and benefits while the stars were politely asked if they would …

I can’t deny it was something to be there literally though the misery of young Palestinian man forced to shoot (reminding me of Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad) and the cries of the cancerous woman (Mrs Klinghoffer is dying of cancer) whose crippled suffering husband could have been so easily taken out would have been more accessible (oddly) had we seen it in a plain movie-house, though then again we would have had to endure the hype in the form of interviews in the intermissions.


I heard something out by the gate
and went to look.
Dead of night; new snow, the larch woods
filling slowly, stars beneath the stars.

A single cry it was, or so it seemed,
though nothing I had recognised as native;
and when it came again, I knew for sure.
No badger there. No gathering of deer.

Forgive me, if! choose not to believe
the snow would fall like this, were I not here
to see it.
There might be snow, of course, but not like this,

no hush between the fence line and the trees,
no sense of something other close at hand,
my dwindling torch-beam flickering between
a passing indigo and lux aetema.

I stood a while to listen; nothing moved
– and then I turned and walked back to the house,
the porch light spilling gold for yards around,
snow at the open door and then, again,

that far cry in the dark
behind my back
and deep in the well of my throat
as I live and breathe.
— John Burnside

Read Alice Goodman Reflections on her libretto.


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