Friday, January 19, 2007

LA Opera, I hate so much about the things you choose to be.

Well, Los Angeles Opera has announced its 2007-08 season, and it's a decidedly mixed bag. They're performing several operas that I've never seen before, plus some rarely performed ones by composers whose work was long-suppressed by the Nazis. This last bit is due to James Conlon's influence, and it's very commendable. Performing Don Giovanni, La Bohème, and Tosca again is NOT.

I love Don Giovanni, but do I really want or need to see the incredibly stupid production from a few years ago again, with the same singer as Don Giovanni. No, I do not. Erwin Schrott is good, I suppose, but will I get that much out of seeing him flounder around in that ridiculous Ursula the Sea Witch/Garthem/Queen of the Night get-up or counting the wrinkles in his cock in those hideous skin-tight hot pink pants? Not really, no. They've also re-hired the same tenor as a few years ago for La Rondine--the fairly egregious Marcus Haddock--and this year's recital is going to be Bryn Terfel again. Will he pull a rose out of the onstage floral arrangement and give it to a lady in the front row as he sings "Deh vieni alla finestra"? Does the Pope look like Emperor Palpatine? Isn't it a sign of insanity to do the same thing over and over and expect a different outcome?

La Bohème and Tosca have been relegated to my "Smell Ya Later" list along with Carmen, and only a really spectacular singer would get my ass in a seat at either of them.

The only explanation I can think of is that LA Opera is trying to save money by reviving recent productions in order to spend that money on getting better talent. To some extent, that may be true. I'm particularly thrilled to see that they've gotten Karita Mattila for Jenufa. But Boheme (among others) is cast with mostly winners of Placido Domingo's Operalia contest, mostly young singers who are just starting out and don't command huge fees... so where is the money going?

The Good: Seeing operas I've never seen before, since I always need new fodder to either praise or deride; no Robert Wilson!; Karita Mattila in Jenufa and Klaus Florian Vogt in Fidelio (he was great as Lohengrin at the Met).

The Bad: No Andreas Scholl or Simon Keenlyside, again. But that's my usual complaint, isn't it?

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Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Your Music Is Bad and You Should Feel Bad! – The 2006 Phlegming Awards

Ah, now this is the fun part for me, because I’m all about tearing down. I’m like Shiva or something. Also, it allows me to crack open a bottle of tasty, tasty Schadenfreude. Mmm…more shameful joy and less filling.

Worst Performance by a Male Singer in a Supporting Role: Lado Ataneli as Rodrigo in LA Opera’s Don Carlo. Yeah, he didn’t hit any bad notes or anything, but he made me not give a rat’s ass about a character I usually love, and he didn’t even make up for it by running around like he had shitty drawers. Runner-up: John Relyea (or the person who constructed and programmed the Relyea-Bot) as Garibaldo in the Met’s Rodelinda. Like Ataneli, Relyea was technically fine, but he didn’t change his performance at all in the three shows I saw, and he sang at an unmodulated, unrelieved forte volume all the time. Also, flared nostrils and pointy eyebrows do not a villain make. If they did, then Mr. Spock would’ve turned evil every time Scotty ate too much haggis and started popping them off.

Worst Costumes: I would choose Robert Wilson for his costumes in the Met’s Lohengrin (though he didn’t design them, one of his lackeys did), simply because I’m convinced he’s embezzling money by charging opera companies for the costumes and then re-using old ones. He also deserves a slap on the wrist for not giving Karita Mattila a bra. No, the worst costumes of the year were without a doubt the horrendously ugly Ashes to Ashes, funk to funky, we know Optimus Prime's a junkie, strung out in Munchkinland, hitting an all-time low Pierrot costumes from the Salzburg Festival’s production of Pelléas et Mélisande. They made the cast look like the Widettes. Awful.

Worst Cancellation of the Year, aka The Dwaynie: Simon Keenlyside pulling out of Chicago’s Iphigénie en Tauride, opening the door for that little smacktalker Mucus Leechem, er, Lucas Meachem. Now, I talk as much shit as anyone about opera singers, but I don’t think I can actually sing or anything, and I’ll never have to work with any of them the way he will. Here’s some shit-talk now: Lucas Meachem is a self-important, potato-faced little weasel. Runner-up: Gerald Finley cancelling his Golaud in Salzburg. Laurent Naouri was a decent replacement, but with Finley, it would’ve been good enough for me to overlook those butt-ugly costumes, which is saying something.

Worst Performance by a Female Singer in a Supporting Role: Luana DeVol’s Ortrud at the Met would’ve been a contender in this category, since her voice started coming apart during the opera, but it actually seemed to fit the character and the situation, so she’s not even a runner-up. The clear winner in this category is Frederica von Stade as Ottavia in LA’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea. She sounded like a cow being raped by a goose. I think Our Friend Flicka needs to ride off into the sunset.

Most Self-Satisfied Performer: It seems kind of counterproductive to give an award to someone who clearly already thinks very much of himself, but I just had to give this one to Dmitri Hvorostovsky. As I said last year in my review of his LA recital: “The man is so full of himself that I fear he'll soon collapse under the weight of his own self-importance and become some sort of extremely smug white dwarf. If cities could be run on an overinflated sense of self-satisfaction, I'd say hook Hvorostovsky up to a generator by his nipples and let him power the entire West Coast.”

Worst Audience: No question, the audience at LA Opera’s Manon. They arrived late, they clomped around and talked during the music, they ate, and they got as giddy as little schoolgirls when Anna Netrebko pole-danced or put things on her crotch. Grow up and shut up!

Worst Stage-Kiss: Most opera kisses are fairly unconvincing, but the kisses shared by Rodelinda and Bertarido in the Met’s Rodelinda were particularly bad. It looked like he was kissing his mommy. Also, to quote Blackadder, Renée Fleming is wetter than a haddock’s bathing costume (in the weak, too-effeminate sense of the word), so I expected her to squish a bit like an over-filled sponge.

Worst Death: Again, I find myself torn between the moronic direction of Robert Wilson and that of Stanislas Nordey. Telramund’s slow-motion crumple to the floor after being “struck” with an invisible sword in Lohengrin was ridiculous, but at least it was clear what had happened. In Pelléas, the only sign the audience had that Mélisande had died (until the singers told us) was that she slowly raised her arm and then drew it down in front of her face. Yes, I think that is the universal symbol for death, now that I think of it [/sarcasm]. Runner-up: Lado Ataneli’s “Ow, my back is going out!” Herky-Jerky Dance of Impending Death in Don Carlo.

Worst Note: Or should I say “notes”, for there were several. Renée Fleming’s botched run of coloratura in her last aria of Rodelinda wins this category easily. She hit one clunker and instead of cutting her losses and leaving it at that, she went on and followed one bad note up with another and crowned the whole thing with a screeched high note that was like the snot syrup on the poo sundae. Runner-up: Anna Netrebko’s horribly missed note in Manon, which she inexplicably held and held. It was like a rectal thermometer were being jammed into my ear canal and then tapped even further into my head with a ballpeen hammer.

The “winners” in the last category segue nicely into the next two:

Worst Performance by a Female Singer in a Lead Role: Renée Fleming as Rodelinda at the Met. Aside from that bungled bit of coloratura, her voice was just not at all suited to the Baroque music. The much talked-of “creaminess” in her voice seemed more like phlegminess; it had a cottony, sock-in-the-throat thickness to it. She also scooped and swooped up to most of her notes. To make matters worse, Fleming’s acting was, well, short of saying “shitastic”, lackluster. She didn’t have any of the fire that a good Rodelinda should have, and she just wandered around the stage like a kicked dog looking for someone to scratch its ears.

Most Overrated Singer: Anna Netrebko. She’s a fine singer, even though I don’t think she’s very good in some of the roles she chooses, but far too much fuss is made over her. The reason? Have you seen how pretty she is?! OMGSQUEE! A pretty, skinny girl in opera!! It’s like seeing a unicorn! Who cares if she can’t sing bel canto and makes very little effort to change that fact? She’s so pretty!

Worst Set: Stanislas Nordey’s Pelléas production strikes again. His rotating box-with-a-surprise-inside concept was tiresome almost immediately, and only got worse after the items in the box had less and less connection the opera. Then, bafflingly, he ditched the boxes completely in the second half (three acts too late, if you ask me). Also, he used lifelike mannequins *shudder*.

Biggest Douchebag: Robert Wilson. A thousand times Robert Wilson. In defiance of natural law, he both sucks and blows. I sat out his Madama Butterfly at LA Opera, after being sickened and annoyed by it in 2004, and I almost inserted a red-hot skewer into my eye after finding out that Lohengrin at the Met was going to be his production. True to form, it was utter crap. He's destroyed every opera he's directed. He is the least creative person in the world, or else he's the most delusionally self-confident one, if he thinks his ridiculous vision can encompass everything from Mozart to Tom Waits.

Worst Opera Show Host: I should probably feel lucky that LA even has an opera show, but it’s difficult to count my blessings in that respect when that opera show is tainted by the verbal diarrhea of the loathsome Duff Murphy. He is the biggest moron that ever moroned. He often screws up the names and plots of the operas as he explains them, and he insists on saying that Athanael in Thais is Thais’s father, completely oblivious to the fact that Athanael wants to get into Thais’s pants at the end of the opera and that Thais is calling him “Père” because he’s a monk. Well, in true Duffesque style, I’m probably not explaining that right, but Athanael definitely isn’t Thais’s dad. Murphy also has his little pet singers that he always plays. Part of their allure for him appears to be in the pronunciation of their names, which he clearly relishes: “Bryn TAIR-vel” and “Dmitri VOHR-o-stovsky.” Another one of his many gaffes came in a show devoted to his favorites in which he proclaimed that they’re both lyric baritones with a dramatic quality in their voices or something. Wrong and wrong, assclown.

My Duff Murphy rage is mostly inspired by his insistence on overlooking three of the best singers in the world. During his last show (on the penultimate day of the year—that means “second to last”, as Murphy will inform his listeners), he played a block of Schubert lieder. But did he play two of the best lieder interpreters in the world, i.e. Simon Keenlyside and Gerald Finley? Of course not. When he plays excerpts from Billy Budd, does he ever use the Keenlyside recording? Don’t be silly. Playing the best Billy Budd in the last twenty-five years, now that’s just crazy talk.

Worst Performance by a Male Singer in a Lead Role: No one really stands out to me as being particularly awful, since I didn’t see Franco “I have the biggest man-boobies here” Farina this year. I guess I’ll go with Licitra in Don Carlo, simply because he didn’t act much and he didn’t sing very well, and he looked like a wombat with a mullet.

Sadly, there is no Phlegming Award for Worst Overall Production of the Year. The closest I can come would be LA’s La Traviata for being so utterly stupid and forgettable. Even Robert Wilson’s production of Lohengrin had redeeming qualities—the singers, of course. And really, isn’t mediocrity the worst sin of all?

Happy New Year!

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The Operatic Vengeance Awards for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence

I was planning to do a Top Ten of 2006 sort of list, but I realized midway through that I had seen so few productions that my lists were going to overlap. Since I'm nothing if not a sheep though, I've decided to steal from the Academy and give out my own meaningless awards! Also, because I'm also nothing if not negative and critical, there will be a "Worst of" Award. I'm a negative sheep! Does that mean I think things are baaaaad? ... *cough* I'll see myself out.

Best Performance by a Male Singer in a Supporting Role: Though Gurnemanz has a buttload of music to sing, I guess he's still a supporting character in that he's fairly flat (it seems like the only change in him is that his hair goes gray and, if he's being sung by René Pape, he gets DTs). Anyway, the award goes to René Pape for his compelling, rich-voiced Gurnemanz in the Met's Parsifal.

Now I'll slip in a few of those b.s. awards that no one cares about.

Best Performance by a Instrumental Soloist: Violinist Anthony Marwood playing Adès's Violin Concerto. While I wasn't entirely sold on Adès's bleep-bloop-bleep music, Marwood was tremendous, and he managed to play three nights in a row without getting a single spot on his white suit. Runner-up: Martin Chalifour playing the solo violin in Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. Chalifour is a wonderful concertmaster, but I'd like to hear him play solo more often.

Best Costumes: This is a tough one, since most opera costume designers seem to be colorblind, brain-damaged velour-enthusiasts. I guess the award goes by default to the costumes in Rodelinda, because they were somewhat era-appropriate, weren't made out of bathmats or vinyl tablecoths, and didn't make me want to retch.

Best Performance by a Female Singer in a Supporting Role: Laura Claycomb as Queen Wealtheow in LA Opera's Grendel. Wealtheow was not much more than an object in Grendel, but she was supposed to represent sheer beauty, and Claycomb's voice was certainly that. Runner-up: Cyndia Sieden's seemingly non-stop Es and Fs as Ariel in Adès's Tempest Suite at the LA Phil. It wasn't the most pleasing sound in the world, but it was amazing nonetheless.

Best Set/Production: While the clap-happy audiences at the Met might say Rodelinda, I have to go with Grendel. Julie Taymor's work, instead of being obnoxious and full of freaky animatronic lion cubs, was fairly ingenious. In fact, her design was so strong that it was far more memorable than any of the music in the opera.

The Brokeback Mountain Award for Best Man-on-Man Action: Kurt Streit and Nicholas Phan in LA Opera’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea. When Nerone has more chemistry with some random guy than he does with Poppea, you know something’s wrong (but it felt so right!). As an aside, this category wins the “My Milkshake Brings All the Boys to the Yard” Award for most dated, clichéd reference.

Best Performance by a Female Singer in a Lead Role: Without a doubt, this award goes to Waltraud Meier for her spellbinding Kundry in the Met’s Parsifal. She was fascinating yet wild, a vulnerable temptress, and finally a hero. And all without a single karate chop movement or a maroon sack dress of evil. Fancy that, Robert Wilson.

Best Performance by a Male Singer in a Lead Role: This is a tough one. How to choose between Simon Keenlyside’s Pelléas in Salzburg and Andreas Scholl’s Bertarido in New York? Keenlyside maybe didn’t sing as beautifully as he did in Boston in 2003, and he was stuck in that ridiculous Ashes-to-Ashes Pierrot costume, but his acting was prismatic, subtle, and frankly much better than the production deserved.

Scholl, on the other hand, was weaker acting-wise (though his improvement is astounding), but his voice at all three performances was near perfect. In Handel’s slower arias, Scholl has a way of seeming to stop time with his voice. He's been called the Clark Kent of Countertenors, so maybe that's his superpower?

Eh, I can’t decide, so let’s call it a tie! Hurray!

Honorable Mention goes to Eric Owens for his career-making performance in the title role of Grendel.

And now, for the First Annual Operatic Vengeance Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence…

The award for best overall performance goes to… the Met’s Rodelinda, in spite of Renée Fleming. Rodelinda had Scholl, plus a good supporting cast, and the sets, while over-elaborate, weren’t maddening as they were in the Salzburg Pelléas. Cake for everyone! Well, everyone except Fleming, the conductor who thought Handel was the same as Puccini, and whoever decided to cut two of Bertarido’s arias. They can have the cake decorations, which are inedible and will probably lead to bowel obstructions.

Next up, the Phlegming Awards.

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