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GRAND OPERA GOES TO THE MOVIES

GRAND OPERA GOES TO THE MOVIES

 

Who would have predicted several years ago, when the Metropolitan Opera began its experiment of offering live performances of its productions beamed by satellite to various cineplexes, that the result would be as well-received as it has been?

 

Even more surprising, who would have predicted that experiencing opera this way would prove to be in nearly every way quite superior to the traditional route for reaping the unique benefits of this fantastic art form?

 

This summer the Met is offering six “Live in HD Summer Encores” performances in various area multiplexes. I saw the first, Puccini’s”Madama Butterfly,” at a cineplex in Livonia on June 15. I can report that it is a terrific way to enjoy grand opera.

 

For one thing, there is no dress code. Jeans and T-shirts are acceptable. For another, ticket prices are reasonable. (I paid $12.95 for my ticket, a far cry from the cost of dress circle seats at most professional opera companies.)

 

The very clear satellite transmissions give front-row-center perspectives of the onstage activity, along with camera close-ups even the best opera glasses can’t duplicate. The music comes to you through a superior sound system. Parking is free. You begin to understand why many might prefer this cinematic method of going to the opera.

 

Besides, you get popcorn.

 

As for the performance itself, the results were mostly satisfying. The much-heralded production by the late film maker Anthony Minghella, staged by his wife, Carolyn Choa, dates from the 2006-7 season.

 

Its simple set is artfully rendered: a bare, raked stage highlighted by sliding doors and an overhead mirror. Black-costumed silent actors derived from the Japanese Noh tradition serve as accessories to the singers, moving lanterns about in clustered patterns during the Act I Love Duet and manipulating puppet versions of various characters, most prominently Trouble, the child of Butterfly and Pinkerton.

 

Turning Trouble into a puppet was in many ways a wise idea, since the normal procedure of assigning a child to the non-singing role (a girl rather than a boy is often cast) can put undue pressure on many young persons. The three manipulators assigned to the puppet moved it (him?) around with such natural skill you soon forgot he was not made of flesh and blood.

 

The singing cast was universally fine. American soprano Patricia Racette sang the title role with sweet, soaring sound that, while sometimes monochromatic, never turned sour. Physically she projected a tender, wounded character, innocent but not without some sophistication.

 

Italian tenor Marcello Giordano (Pinkerton) provided lots of the Italianate sound Puccini calls for. American mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak, who made her operatic debut as Kate Pinkerton, was an unusually strong Suzuki; American baritone Dwayne Croft (Sharpless) clothed his rich voice with sympathetic sound. American conductor Patrick Summers kept things moving in the pit.

 

The performance’s main drawbacks came in those instances where Minghella’s film maker talents got in the way of Puccini’s music. During the orchestral introduction that opens the final scene, for example, Minghella employed all sorts of needless visual distractions. He apparently didn’t understand that Puccini’s music speaks with such eloquence visual images (outside of the coming of dawn the music displays) are superfluous. At such points Puccini’s opera became Minghella’s opera. That’s not good.

 

The brief intermissions featured soprano Renee Fleming giving vapid but harmless interviews with the principal singers.

 

The popcorn? It was great.

 

The remaining operas in the series are Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” (June 22), Verdi’s ”Simon Boccanegra” (June 29), Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment” (July 13), Puccini’s “Tosca” (July 20) and Verdi’s “Don Carlo” (July 27). Further information: metopera.org/hd or 1-800-METOPERA.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Contract Extension of DSO President Anne Parsons

On the Contract Extension of DSO President Anne Parsons

 

The apparently blue skies that opened up with the ending of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra strike turned grey and stormy with the recent revelation that the orchestra’s board had offered DSO President Anne Parsons a three-year extension of her contract.

 

In March, shortly before the orchestra’s nearly six-month strike ended, the board approved the extension of Parson’s lucrative contract. That wrong-headed decision, preceded by the sad news that Emmanuelle Boisvert, the orchestra’s longtime concertmaster, was departing to join the Dallas Symphony, makes the DSO’s weather forecast gloomy indeed.

 

Clearly, Parsons’ contract extension is a collective slap in the orchestra’s face, an arrogant confirmation by the board that her campaign to severely alter the orchestra’s artistic purpose and vision will continue.

 

But it is vital to remember that the blame for the ongoing struggle for our orchestra’s future lies not with the inept Parsons but with the board and its autocratic chair, Stanley Frankel, who issued a lavish statement supporting her.

 

As long as Frankel and those misguided DSO board members who agree with him continue to exert power within the organization, the future of the orchestra as a viable  artistic force remains in serious jeopardy.

 

So the storm clouds continue to gather. Don’t expect to hear any thunder, though. The entire DSO percussion section has already departed for more secure artistic futures.

Murray Perahia CD Review

Brahms: Handel Variations, op. 24; Rhapsodies, Op. 79; Six Piano Pieces, Op.118; Four Piano Pieces, Op. 119; Murray Perahia, piano (Sony Classical 8697-79469-2)

I first heard American pianist Murray Perahia in the late 1970s, when he played a recital in Ann Arbor’s Rackham Auditorium. His appearance was part of a series offered by the University Musical Society titled “Debuts and Reappearances.”

I was wowed. Perahia, then just about to turn 30, played with a distinctively warm, highly personal approach that somehow enhanced rather than inhibited the composer’s intentions. I had not witnessed that kind of playing since William Kapell, the late, lamented American pianist who was killed in an airplane crash in San Francisco harbor in 1953.

(I began my review of Perahia’s Ann Arbor debut for the Detroit Free Press this way: “Ever since William Kapell died we have been waiting for an American pianist to come along with Kapell’s kind of talent. Murray Perahia just may be that pianist.” The copy editor mistakenly put the following headline on my review: “Now We Can Forget Kapell,” but that’s another story.)

In the intervening years Perahia has fulfilled the promise I heard in Ann Arbor. Now 64, he plays with consummate artistry, combining a secure technique (sidelined several times over the years by various hand injuries and infections) with a gorgeous tone quality and a perceptive insight that still amazes me.

That’s surely the case with Perahia’s latest Sony CD, devoted to the major solo piano pieces of Johannes Brahms.

Here is the tantalizing set of variations on Handel’s pompous march, the wild explosions of the B-minor and G-minor rhapsodies, the alluring collection of intermezzos, a romance and a ballade that demonstrate how fluidly the composer matured, all capped off with the blustery E-flat Major Rhapsody.

Perahia plays each piece with such revelatory insight you think you’re hearing it for the first time. I have played some of these pieces. All of them regularly show up in the ever-shrinking world of solo piano recitals. But again and again I found myself thinking: “Oh, that’s the way it goes! That’s why that ritard is there! The inner voice needs to become prominent in that measure!”

I know of no other living pianist who plays the way Perahia does. He does the revealing; you simply sit back and wallow in his insights.

Want to know what Brahms’ piano music means? Listen to Murray.

DSO Concertmaster Resigns

Detroit Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Emmanuelle Boisvert’s departure to become associate concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony is a major blow to our orchestra, its patrons and the cultural health of southeastern lower Michigan.

Do the faulty DSO managers, along with those dangerously naive board members who continue to support them, realize just how serious Boisvert’s departure is?

For this is not simply the case of a gifted violinist flitting about from one ensemble to another. Boisvert has been Detroit’s concertmaster for 23 years. She came on board at the ripe young age of 25, the first female to hold the concertmaster’s position in a major American orchestra.

She leaves for a lesser position in Dallas trailing a glorious legacy. Not only has her solo work been consistently superb, her intense artistic personality has had a major impact on the unique sonic character of Detroit’s orchestra.

Boisvert has said that she had planned to stay in Detroit for her entire career. What lured her to Dallas, she says, is simple: the Dallas orchestra’s commitment to classical music, the intrinsic respect offered to the musicians and the emphasis placed on communication and teamwork at all levels.

What a sad indictment of the current workings of the Detroit orchestra’s board and management! What a severe wound to the struggling, post-strike musicians who are trying to maintain the health and character of their ensemble!

In a statement sent to DSO board and staff members today, executive director Anne Parsons wrote that the information about Boisvert’s departure “was released to the press directly by the Orchestra, with some of us learning about Emmanuelle’s decision at this morning’s Executive Committee meeting, from her musician peers who sit on that committee.”

Wonder why.

The fact is, orchestra is losing its major individual lynchpin. Adieu, Emmanuelle! We will miss you mightily!

MOT “Rigoletto” Succeeds

Michigan Opera Theatre closed out its 40th season with a production of Verdi’s ”Rigoletto” that got just about everything right.
The production, which I saw at the Detroit Opera House on May 14, reinforced the fact that Verdi’s genius is everywhere evident in this tale of the misshapen jester who loses the one beautiful creature in his life.
With the simplest of melodic means (a descending major scale in Gilda’s “Caro nome,”  the sequence of exquisitely fashioned major 6ths with which Gilda closes out her life at the opera’s end) Verdi tugs at our souls so convincingly we cannot fail to respond.
Providing, of course, those means are produced with technical and artistic savvy. MOT’s cast did just that.
Todd Thomas took full possession of the title role, using his handsome baritone to engender an enormous sympathy for his piteous plight. His high notes soared, his low ones were powerfully fueled. He was at his best in the second act, his “Cortigiani” achingly plaintive, his duet with his violated daughter a model of parental despair.
Rachele Gilmore sang Gilda’s music with plaintive skill, her coloratura supple, her pitches perfect.This was her first outing as Rigoletto’s naive daughter, and that may account for the fact that her acting sometimes took a back seat to her singing. That will no doubt be rectified as she becomes more comfortable with the role.
Tenor James Valenti filled the Duke’s music with high-flying excitement. He fashioned “Ella mi fu rapita” into a lyrical basket of beauty, and somehow made you forget the popularity of “La donna e mobile” by clothing it with his unique musical personality.
Alain Coulombe was a properly sinister Sparafucile, his powerful bass projecting the lowest notes handsomely. Carla Dirlikov’s mezzo-soprano needed more power, often fading toward the ends of Maddalena’s phrases.
Rod Nelman laid on Monterone’s curse with great intensity;  Andrew Gray (Marullo), Edward Hanlon (Count Ceprano) Jason Wickson (Matteo Borsa), Sarah Nisbett (Giovanna) and Alexa Lokensgard (Page) successfully executed their smaller roles.
Steven Mercurio, making his 16th appearance on the MOT podium, drew taut, polished playing from the company’s orchestra that even made the recurrent oom-pah-pahs sound meaningful.  Bernard Uzan’s staging, using an attractive set by Allen Charles Klein originally designed for the Cincinnati Opera, was fluid and unobtrusive.
Ultimately, the overall proof that MOT’s collaborating artists succeeded was proven by the renewed respect for Verdi’s genius their work engendered. What a composer!

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