Lincoln Center Does the Holidays

By Perry Tannenbaum

The three square blocks where the Metropolitan Opera House presides is actually the hub of Lincoln Center, with five different indoor performance venues, a film center, and a handy park that hosts open-air concerts in summertime and tented events in winter. So while parts of the place are turned over to holiday events when December rolls in, other parts can go on with culture as usual. Across West 65th Street, there are frequent concerts at Alice Tully Hall, and down at 59th Street, overlooking Columbus Circle, there’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, another hub of activity at multiple venues.

The four musical presentations in this year’s roundup represent less than half of what was available around the main plaza during our 16-day stay. Four other operas were in rep at the Met, one other Philharmonic program, the Big Apple Circus pitched its tent in the park, the acclaimed King and I revival continued its run at the Vivian Beaumont, and the New York City Ballet presented something called The Nutcracker at the David H. Koch Theater. Ample choices whether or not you wished to revel in the holiday spirit.

Here’s what we saw:

Photo by Ken Howard

Lulu (***3/4 out of 4) – Germanic expressionism, Parisian wantonness, and London squalor all take their turns in fleshing out the decadence of Alban Berg’s last unfinished opera, based on two Frank Wedekind plays. With the soon-to-close revival of Spring Awakening drawing accolades on Broadway, musical adaptations of Wedekind works written more than a century ago are making the playwright newly notorious in New York.

Both pieces are preoccupied with sex. While the tragic teens in Spring Awakening are the consequences of 19th Century sexual repression, the title vamp of Lulu is a poster girl for calculated promiscuity, though the Animal Tamer of Berg’s prologue wants us to think of her worldliness in far more ferocious, elemental, and bestial ways. By the end of Act 2, the body count – and husband count – of men smitten by Lulu is three.

Yet Lulu is not a cold-blooded murderess at all. Her first husband, The Physician, has a heart attack when he discovers his wife being ravished by The Painter doing her portrait. The Painter, after swooping in and marrying Lulu, partly for the fortune that has fallen into her hands via The Physician, slits his own throat upon learning the truth of Lulu’s past, delivered by the man Lulu would really like to marry, newspaper publisher Dr. Schön.

And what is a girl to do when husband #3, Schön, who knows you for what you are, grows maniacally jealous and demands that you kill yourself with his gun on account of your infidelities? Sure enough, Lulu takes advantage of a distraction and pumps five slugs into her tormentor’s back.

Even after Lulu is convicted of murder, men are still standing in line for her favors when she escapes from imprisonment – and so is a lesbian countess. The line only comes to an end in London when Lulu, in her first night out on the streets as a prostitute, has the misfortune of picking up Jack the Ripper.

Lulu and her men seem to always be playing with dynamite in this new Met production. There’s a cluttered, disheveled look to each of Sabine Theunissen’s set designs, but the restlessness of William Kentridge’s production concept is compounded by Catherine Meyburgh’s projection designs. Woodcuts, lithographs, animated front pages of newspapers are frequently creeping across the upstage walls, sinister and dim, sometimes surreal. The nervous edge of what see is magnified by what we hear: 12-tone composition that goes crazy when it isn’t merely neurotic.

Marlis Peterson brings delicacy and vivacity to Lulu, often belying the harshness of what she sings. Just as often the softer elements of Peterson’s personality fuse with the edgy music to become a desperate angst imbued with beautiful melancholy. Adding luster to Lulu are the men who love her. Aside from her husbands, there’s a prince, an acrobat, and Schön’s son, Alwa, who is a composer and poet. Schön plucked Lulu off the street years ago when she was peddling flowers, and the broken-down Schigolch, who is either her father or her first benefactor, repeatedly drops by for handouts. So Lulu is ultimately a woman of mystery – tawdry mystery.

All of the husbands take on new roles in Act 3, parading in as her clientele on the night of her ultimate demise. Especially good are tenor Paul Groves as The Painter, though he’s not as credulous and vulnerable as I’d like, and bass-baritone Johan Reuer as Dr. Schön, whose gruffness is the essence of Berg – I’d love to see him as Wozzeck. Susan Graham was sweetly underpowered as The Merry Widow when I last saw her at the Met in 2003, and the hall swallowed her up again as Countess Gerschwitz this time around. More to my liking was tenor Daniel Breena in his Met debut as Alwa, in some ways, Lulu’s most ardent lover. It would be interesting if Breena and Groves swapped roles.

Left unfinished when Berg died in 1935 and completed by Friedrich Cerha in 1977, Lulu sounds as edgy, angry, and anguished as Spring Awakening did when I first heard it on Broadway over nine years ago. All in all, Lulu has been performed 44 times at the Met, eight of them this season, with Peterson retiring the title role at the performance we attended. Before then, the music and imagery sizzled on a Live in HD performance beamed to local cinemas. Surely it will sizzle again on Blu-Ray and in rebroadcasts.

Free Lulu for the masses? I fear it’s too hot for ETV to handle.

New York Philharmonic
Photo by Chris Lee

Messiah (***1/2) – Maybe it was nostalgia for my alma mater, Queens College, where I was first enchanted by Handel’s masterpiece. Or maybe it was the prospect of scoring an off-season fix of Charleston’s Spoleto Festival USA, where I’m annually uplifted by the voices of the Westminster Choir directed by Joe Miller. Could have been both, because as I drove toward Manhattan and my rendezvous with the New York Philharmonic, I had a glimpse of the QC campus and Colden Auditorium, where I saw multiple Messiahs, from the westbound lanes of the Long Island Expressway.

David Geffen Hall is slated for a massive overhaul in the coming years, a just verdict on its acoustics for symphonic concerts, but they do Messiah with all strings until they bring on a modest trumpet corps – and timpani – after intermission. Even the strings seemed thinned-out compared with the all-Nielsen concert I reviewed last January, so the sound of the hall was never a problem.

The hall also disabused me of the notion that the purity of the Westminster sound had something to do with always hearing the choir’s concerts in church settings. Now I realize that the richer, less pure sound of the Charlotte Symphony Choir (I still want to call them the Oratorio Singers) has to do with diversity of its membership compared with the Westminsters, who are all college-aged or in that neighborhood. Sounding more like a community, our choir strikes me as more human. The Westminster College voices (from Rider University in Princeton, NJ) are uncannily uniform, more angelic.

That communal sound of collective humanity has been very persuasive in “For unto us a child is born,” “All we like sheep,” and the celebratory “Hallelujah!” chorus. But in the early prophetic choruses, “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” and the ensuing “He shall purify the sons of Levi,” that angelic sound was revelatory.

Guest conductor Jane Glover, in her New York Phil debut, elicited crisp and alert work from the orchestra. The lithe precision of her approach allowed for gently accelerated tempos. The freshened “All we like sheep” sounded sheepish rather than puerile, but there was no lack of punch – or magnificence – moments earlier when the chorus gravely followed a countertenor air with “Surely, He hath borne our griefs.”

Trumpets and timpani fortified the climactic “Hallelujah!” Although a sidebar in the program booklet dissected the standing tradition, nearly all of the audience stood up – perhaps not for religious reasons, since they applauded lustily afterwards before sitting down. Thanks to baritone Roderick Williams and the solo trumpeter, we did not have to endure an anticlimax afterwards in Part 3.

It’s always interesting to see how the solo chores are doled out. Tenor Paul Appleby, countertenor Tim Mead, and soprano Heidi Stober were in the lineup with Williams – and each had at least one shining moment. Stober’s came when she warbled the “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” and when she brought a creamier texture to “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” Mead seemed a little jittery in his “Who may abide the day of His coming,” but he rivaled Stober in vitality singing “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” and in suppleness when he reached the “He was despised and rejected” lament, adorning it with trills.

Early and late, Appleby was sleekly impressive. He was beautifully mellow and controlled in the first of so many snatches from the prophet Isaiah, “Comfort ye, my people,” and he truly did make the rough places plain in “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted.” Yet there was anger and steel near the end of Part 2 in his “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron.”

Nobody was going to upstage Williams, whose “I will shake” recitative was easily as striking as Appleby’s “Comfort ye.” The richness of his baritone didn’t quite match Bryn Terfel’s in the “Why do the nations so furiously rage” air, where the bite from the orchestra came to Williams’ aid, but the comparative lightness of his voice became a winning asset at the end of the evening in his “Behold, I tell you a mystery” recitative.

Fortified by the bravura of the solo trumpet, Williams’ “The trumpet shall sound” was mighty and thrilling. And who was that intrepid trumpeter? None other than Karin Bliznik, former principal of the Charlotte Symphony, whom I’d last seen in Messiah five Decembers earlier at Belk Theater. There was enough glory and jubilation in the Williams-Bliznik volleying for the Westminsters’ “Amen” to sound, if not peaceful, like a satisfying ceasefire.

Photo by Marty Sohl

La Donna del Lago (***1/4) – After watching this production in a Live in HD broadcast last March, I was eager to see soprano Joyce DiDonato repeat her stupendous performance at closer range. Even if she didn’t sing quite as well, the sound of her voice would be more rousing coming from her throat at the Met rather than from an array of loudspeakers at the Stonecrest 22 multiplex.

There was at least one factor I hadn’t counted on, because of the deftness of the Met’s video production – and because I didn’t pay close attention to the credits. What we have here is a co-production with the Santa Fe Opera, where DiDonato has been a mainstay for over 20 years. Among regional companies, a co-production usually promises a pooling of resources and a more opulent product than any of the participants can budget individually.

At the Met, it simply means that the production directed by Paul Curran and designed by Driscoll Otto at Santa Fe during the summer of 2013 was co-opted for presentation at Lincoln Center the following winter. Or you can look at it another way: the limitations of the Santa Fe’s glorious outdoor stage impose some limits upon what a co-production can have in common.

Scenery is very spare and compromised. A projection at the Met fills in for a New Mexico sunset in the opening lakeside scene, where King James V of Scotland, disguised as a huntsman, meets the captivating Lady of the Lake, Elena. Scenes at Elena’s cottage and the king’s throne room are not sorely compromised, though they can’t be confused with more lavish Met efforts such as La Bohème or Lucia di Lammermoor.

But the intervening scenes are stupefyingly spare and unvarying, as if the entire military conflict between James and the Scottish rebels occurs on the same grassy slope where Elena and James first met. The opening scenes of Act 2, which are supposed to unfold in a thick wood near the mouth of a cave and then in the cave, are on the same slope that we left when the Act 1 curtain came down.

A few members of the chorus differentiated the setting by impaling a row of spears up the slope and removing them at the end of the scene. If you’ve never seen a production at the Met with a community theatre tang, this was your chance.

There are similarities between this story, adapted by Rossini from a Walter Scott poem, and Lucia, adapted by Donizetti from a Scott novel. Multiple men love both heroines, and the man who has captured each of their hearts is not Daddy’s choice. But while the title roles are both famed for their vocal challenges, the peak moments are very different indeed. Lucia’s mad scene in the final act is deranged despair, while Elena’s is unbridled happiness, coming on the unexpected heels of her rebellious dad’s redemption and the family’s reconciliation with the king, who also yields up his beloved so she can marry hers.

If there was anything anticlimactic for me in DiDonato’s performance the second time around, it was probably because the elements of shock and surprise had vanished, not because the mezzo-soprano’s excellence had dimmed. There was a palpable diminution, however, in the grandeur of Giacomo V with tenor Lawrence Brownlee replacing Juan Diego Flórez on the throne. Brownlee is more than adequate as a romantic lead, imbuing his pleadings and his arias with admirable verve, reaching the high notes with only minimal signs of strain. Flórez was simply more dashing, confident, and regal, and his voice is arguably the best and most recognizable of this era.

Listening to a slightly lesser king inevitably makes Elena’s favorite more appealing, a favor to the lumbering mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona, who returned from last season’s cast. Here the absence of shock and surprise were helpful whenever Barcellona swaggered in from the wings, eternally outcast and resentful until the denouement, for she sings beautifully.

A couple of crusty voices rounded out the cast, bass Oren Gradus as Elena’s noble father and tenor John Osborn as Rodrigo (Roderick), the conceited Highland chieftain she’s been promised to. I wouldn’t want either one to sound any different.

Photo by Karen Almond

The Barber of Seville (**3/4) – In past seasons, the confectioner’s sugar served up during the holidays ranged from Hansel and Gretel to celebrate Christmas and Die Fledermaus for Auld Lang Syne. Met general manager Peter Gelb has shaken things up since he took over, mounting new productions of the old standbys and adding a fantastical Magic Flute to the rotation in a family-friendly version that gets trimmed for the holiday season and upsized to run just for the adults.

By subjecting The Barber to a similar trim, the Met can offer a conveniently sized sampling of one of opera’s most tuneful creations, suitable for parents who would like to introduce their kids to the art form as a holiday treat. Running it concurrently with La Donna del Lago might also serve as a pathway to more Rossini for young adults and professionals making their first encounters with opera. Or it could serve as a bridge to and from Die Fledermaus, a dazzling production that is being reprised after its triumph last season.

The Bartlett Sher Barber was first trimmed in 2012, six years after he originally directed, so it’s appropriate to give credit to Kathleen Smith Belcher as the stage director of this speedy effervescence. All the familiar tunes are here, but they play second fiddle to the double-layered comedy. While the pert Rosina is hoodwinking her aging – and lecherous – guardian, Dr. Bartolo, the young and handsome student she loves is deceiving her. That student is actually Count Almaviva. The wily Figaro helps the aristocrat in gaining opportunities to woo Rosina and in eluding the increasingly watchful, jealous, and domineering Bartolo.

Originally crafted by Beaumarchais in 1775 (minus a few provocative speeches that he eventually snuck into The Marriage of Figaro), the Barber plot doesn’t lend itself easily to the fast-forward button, particularly in the helter-skelter that ends Act 1. Yet Belcher gets fine comedy performances from the entire cast, beginning with mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, who has done Rosina in this Sher version before, and Elliot Madore and David Portillo as her dashing conspirators, both newcomers.

For these three confidantes, it helps that the 200-year-old libretto is freshly translated by J.D. McClatchy into English, their native tongue. First-timers in the audience can get a lot of Leonard’s sauciness as Rosina without the aid of supertitles, along with Portillo’s noble ardor as Almaviva and Madore’s hearty worldliness as Figaro – and there are still supertitles to help in grasping the rest. Those already familiar with The Barber have a rough go of it in certain spots, beyond the compressed overture and arias. Figaro, usually such a déclassé rascal, is something of an action hero in Sher’s concept, almost as dashing as the Count and more roguish.

Michael Yeargan’s set design is winsome, circling the orchestra and bringing the action nearer to the audience. Costumes by Catherine Zuber aim straight for the funny bone, from Figaro’s striped pantaloons in his famed “Largo al factotum” entrance near the top of Act 1 to Almaviva’s absurd disguise in Act 2 impersonating a music tutor.

Most laughable are the old farts who think they can outflank the young blades. Valeriano Lanchas, in an auspicious debut, brings a supreme Charles Laughton ugliness to Bartolo, giving rise to laughter as soon as we consider the prospect of his marrying Rosina, and Robert Pomakov as his disloyal best friend – and Rosina’s music tutor – adds a scruffy sleaziness to the household that entitles us to think that Almaviva is rescuing rather than stealing the unfortunate orphan.

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