Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Met Opera: I Puritani

Yesterday evening I attended the last opera I'll be seeing at the Met this season - I Puritani, the final work composed by Vincenzo Bellini before his death at only age 33.

The libretto by the political exile Count Carlo Pepoli set the plot in England at the time of Cromwell's Puritan revolution.  The story's source was a popular 1833 French play entitled Têtes Rondes et Cavaliers, itself based on a novel, Old Mortality, by Sir Walter Scott whose tales, often filled with political intrigue, were a popular source for opera plots in the nineteenth century.  Scott's use of historical settings probably appealed so much to composers and librettists because they took place far enough in the past that they were not objectionable to nineteenth century Italian censors.

An interesting footnote is that Bellini also composed an alternate version of the opera specifically for Maria Malibran, the famous mezzo-soprano who herself died tragically young and who was the older sister of Pauline Viardot.  Due to the death of both the composer and the singer, this second version was not performed until 1986.

Bellini's operas are among the most challenging in the repertoire.  I felt that the cast at this performance did a strong workmanlike job even though it was never able to fully reach the heights called for by the music.  In particular, Olga Peretyatko, who played Elvira, at times seemed to struggle with the part and had trouble reaching the highest notes.  The conducting by Michele Mariotti was adequate but not distinguished.  The lavish production by the late Sandro Sequi, on the other hand, was one of the Met's older stagings and complemented the music very well.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

NY Philharmonic Performs Fauré and Prokofiev

For the last concert of my subscription series, members of the Philharmonic, joined by guest pianist Marc-André Hamelin, yesterday afternoon gave a recital of a chamber work by Fauré followed in the second half by the full orchestra's performance of a ballet suite by Prokofiev.

This was the second time this season I'd heard a rendition of Fauré's Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Op. 15 (1876-1883).  The previous occasion had been a recital given by the ACJW Ensemble at Paul Hall in January.  The quartet is characteristic of Fauré's chamber work in that it is never flamboyant but instead proceeds in a smooth understated flow that is both melodic and extremely pleasant to hear.  Though there has been speculation that the composition of the piece was affected by an incident in Fauré's personal life when Marianne Viardot (daughter of the famous mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot) abruptly broke off their engagement, there is no evidence of this in the work itself.  No signs of heartbreak disturb its serenity.  In fact, Fauré was well along in the composition of the work when the breach occurred.   

The final work on the program, as conducted by Andrew Davis, was Prokofiev's orchestral suite taken from his ballet Romeo and Juliet (1935-1936).  I had heard this work performed earlier this season as well, on the last occasion by the Beijing Symphony at Carnegie Hall this past October.  That version was lifeless and a definite disappointment.  Under Davis, the Philharmonic showed a much better understanding of Prokofiev's idiom and the sense of irony that informs much of the work.  An interesting aside is that the composer had originally planned to give the piece a happy ending in which Romeo arrived at Juliet's side before she had had time to drink the poison.  Luckily, Prokofiev changed his mind and stayed with the conclusion which Shakespeare had originally written.

I did not renew my subscription to the Philharmonic for next season.  Over time, I've become disheartened by the organization's poor customer service and by its weekly barrage of phone calls begging for donations.  Then too, though there are some excellent musicians in the orchestra, the quality of its conductors has left a great deal to be desired.  The Philharmonic's great problem is that it has never been able to find a worthy successor to Bernstein.

Since I will not be returning next season, it was fitting that I should have heard concertmaster Glenn Dicterow perform on Fauré's quartet at this final concert.  This was one of his last appearances before leaving at the end of the season.  He has been a mainstay of the orchestra and as close to an institution as the classical music world in NYC possesses. 

Friday, April 25, 2014

Neue Galerie: Degenerate Art

The Neue Galerie on 86th Street was more crowded yesterday than I can ever remember it having been on a weekday.  The exhibit everyone had come to see was Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937, a major review of the infamous exhibit that was held in Munich in that year and was attended by Hitler himself.  It proved to be a much more disturbing experience than I had anticipated.

I had coincidentally this past winter read a book on German portraiture from the Weimar period entitled Glitter and Doom.  It was shocking to see some of the originals of works reproduced in that book now on display at the museum.  These included works by Otto Dix and George Grosz (Portrait of Max Hermann-Neisse, 1925).  Also shown were a number of important Expressionist works by such artists as Kirchner (Berlin Street Scene, 1913, and The Brücke-Artists, 1926-27) and Kokoschka (Self Portrait as Degenerate Artist, 1938).  A place of honor was given in one of the galleries to Max Beckmann's monumental triptych Departure (1937).

Perhaps the most moving work currently on display had not been part of the original 1937 exhibit.  This was The Damned (1942) by Felix Nussbaum who was murdered by the Nazis at Auschwitz in 1944.  It is a large canvas that graphically depicts the suffering of German Jewry during the Holocaust.  One commentator has compared it to "a modern version of a medieval dance of death."  Included among the doomed figures shown are Nussbaum himself and his wife Flecka.

The 1937 Munich exhibit was, in spite of itself, one of the greatest shows of twentieth century art ever held.  Its virulent denunciation of the artists shown also changed the course of European art history and, in particular, dealt German modernism a blow from which it has never fully recovered.  The Neue Galerie has made a sincere effort to put this event in its historical perspective and to fully explore its ramifications.  To give as complete a view as possible, it presents samples of Nazi propaganda, including exhibit guides and a short black & white film, that had been churned out for the show's opening in an attempt to condemn the works on grounds of racial inferiority.  There are also examples of "approved" German art from the Great German Art Exhibition held the same year and staged literally next door.  There are even works on display by Nazi sympathizers, such as Emil Nolde, who were themselves denounced as degenerate and whose work suffered the same fate as that of the artists who opposed the fascist regime.

The exhibit continues through June 30, 2014.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Brassaï: The Eye of Paris

It is always distressing to pore through a poorly executed monograph on an artist whom one deeply admires.  Brassaï: The Eye of Paris is unfortunately such a book.  Compiled as a catalog to a 1999 exhibit held at the Houston Fine Arts Museum, the book is first of all poorly designed.  The choice of layout, fonts and photo placement are all disappointing.  The text by Anne Wilkes Tucker jumps arbitrarily from one aspect of Brassaï's career to the next with only a passing nod to chronological order.  Worse, the reproductions of Brassaï's photographs are not of the first quality and are better suited to a magazine article than a scholarly study.  Even the book's bindings are inferior and cracked on first reading.

Brassaï was born Gyula Halász in Hungary in 1899.  At age 21, he emigrated first to Berlin and then to Paris which became his home for the remainder of his life.  He is known today, at least in the U.S., primarily for his titillating The Secret Paris of the 30's, not to be confused with his earlier (1932) and far superior Paris by Night with an introduction by Paul Morand.  Originally welcomed to Paris by Hungarian compatriots, such as the photographer André Kertész, with whom he later quarreled bitterly, Brassaï soon enlarged his circle to include the most important cultural figures living in Paris in the early part of the twentieth century.  Prominent among these were Picasso (many of whose artworks he photographed), Henry Miller, Proust and the Surrealists.  

Brassaï, whose work should be ranked alongside that of the other famous Parisian expatriate Man Ray, was not only one of the last century's greatest photographers but was also a talented painter, sculptor and writer. Still, it was in his photography that Brassaï showed his greatest genius.  He was a master of recording low light situations and his nighttime photographs, especially those taken in rain and fog, have never been excelled.  He was also a witty and urbane man who deserves to be memorialized in a much better volume than the present one.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Met Opera: Joyce DiDonato in La Cenerentola

One of the operas I've most anticipated seeing at the Met this season has been La Cenerentola by Gioachino Rossini.  The composer is currently experiencing something of a renaissance at the opera house.  Though he wrote a total of 39 operas during his abbreviated career, he was until recently represented primarily only by Il barbieri di Siviglia (which was actually the first opera ever to have been performed in America) and occasionally by L'italiana in Algeri.  This seeming neglect of Rossini's other works was not due so much to a lack of appreciation as it was to a dearth of qualified singers.

It was really the emergence in the past few years of qualified vocalists that changed the situation almost overnight and once again made Rossini's works a staple of the repertoire.  Chief among these talented newcomers has been Joyce DiDonato who only made her Met debut in 2006 as Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro.  She has breathed new life into the 1997 production of La Cenerentola and made it one of the most enjoyable comic experiences in the repertory.  Ms. DiDonato was in perfect form last evening as she sang the title role, and she had excellent assistance from a gifted supporting cast, most notably the tenor Javier Camarena (who starred earlier this season as Elvino in La Sonnambula) in the role of Don Ramiro.

One of the more interesting features of La Cenerentola is that the libretto by Jacopo Ferretti largely eschews the magic trappings found in Perrault's children's tale.  There is no fairy godmother here, only the devoted tutor Alidoro doing his best to rescue Angelina from the abuse she suffers at her unhappy home.  At times, the story veers perilously close to naturalism as the audience sees the heroine mistreated by her family and reduced to the status of a lowly servant.  This change in approach only makes the final happy ending all the more rewarding.

Cesare Lievi's production was not overwhelming or lavish, but it was pleasant to look at and provided a solid backdrop for the ensemble to work against.  Conductor Fabio Luisi, whose presence has been somewhat eclipsed this season by the return of James Levine, did his usual excellent work at the podium.

The Met has already scheduled its premiere of Paul Curran's production of La Donna del Lago for next season.  Ms. DiDonato will once again appear onstage to sing the title role.  It's to be hoped that this will be followed by even more productions of Rossini's works.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Met Museum: Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris

The current exhibit at the Met Museum, Charles Marville: Photographer of Paris, is of interest to anyone who has ever visited that city and has been enthralled by its beauty as much as I have over the years.  But this is not a picturesque overview of the gentrified metropolis as it exists today but rather a journey back in time to the days of La Vie en Bohème when Paris was on the verge of the vast modernization that would destroy not only architectural masterpieces that had existed since the Middle Ages but would also alter much of the city's character in the process.

Marville was actually the official photographer commissioned by state authorities to produce a record of the city as it was transformed by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann under the auspices of Emperor Napoleon III.  Marville had previously documented the renovation of the Bois du Boulogne and was in a unique position to bring his experience from that project as well as his extensive knowledge of his native city to bear in creating this new work.  The resulting overview consists of scores of photographs that show the construction of the new wide boulevards and such landmarks as the Paris Opéra as well as the installation of public amenities that ranged from lampposts to urinals.  More importantly, Marville also recorded the old narrow winding streets and businesses located on them before they were demolished and lost forever.  Most fascinating are his photos of the outlying arrondissements that had only recently been incorporated into the city limits.  These neighborhoods still retained the feel of small villages in the countryside at the time Marville photographed them.

There are distinct differences between Marville's oeuvre and that of the later work done by Eugene Atget.  Although the latter also documented the streets of Paris, he did so on a private basis.  His work is therefore more idiosyncratic than Marville's.  Atget's work was in fact highly regarded by the Surrealists for its unusual point of view.  Morevover, by the time Atget commenced his work, the rebuilding of Paris had already been completed.  Marville, on the other hand, was engaged in a municipal project on an official basis and so was more limited in expressing his own point of view.  Nevertheless, Marville's aesthetic vision constantly projects itself on the dry historical record and raises his work to the level of art.

The photographer's earliest work was done using paper negatives and salt prints, that is, the original calotype process invented by Talbot.  Later technical advances enabled Marville to move on to albumen prints of images shot on glass negatives.  This resulted in much sharper and more detailed prints. Of particular interest to photographers are several prints in the exhibit entitled "Cloud Studies" or "Sky Studies."  At at time when the tonal range of available materials was so limited that it was almost impossible to show a landscape and cloudy sky in the same print, Marville got around the problem by photographing only the sky with a well known landmark discreetly silhouetted in the background.  These images prefigured Stieglitz's Equivalents by decades.  Though an eerie similarity exists between them, I'm not sure that Stieglitz was aware of Marville's photographs at the time he completed his own series.

There is also a small exhibit being shown in conjunction with the Marville entitled Paris as Muse: Photography, 1840s - 1930s.  This is a delightful small show of images of Paris taken by photographers who resided in the city at one time or another and were inspired by it.  Included are prints by Brassaï, Man Ray, Kertész and Atget.  These works complement the Marville images very well and are definitely worth seeing for their own sake.

Both exhibits continue through May 4, 2014.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years

By the time I opened the third volume of John Richardson's biography of Picasso, several years had elapsed since I had read the first two.  The first of those had dealt with the artist's early years, including the Blue and Rose periods, and the second with the invention of Cubism.  I had been greatly impressed by those earlier volumes and had very much been looking forward to reading the third, A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932.

If I was disappointed in the third volume it was not so much Richardson's fault as Picasso's.  Gone was the young bohemian genius who struggled in the Bateau-Lavoir to produce Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and then cavorted nightly through Paris with a motley assortment of friends.  In his place was a successful middle-aged bourgeoisie who dressed in tailored suits, rode in chauffeured limousines and lived in expensive homes.  His marriage to the conservative ballerina Olga Khokhlova was his pass to middle-class respectability.  He moved with her to the Right Bank and deliberately left behind friends such as Max Jacob.  In the summers, he would travel with his wife and child to the Riviera where he would mingle with prominent society figures, such as the Murphys.  In the midst of a mid-life crisis, he began an affair with the seventeen year old Marie-Thérèse Walter.  In the meantime, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire who had been a huge source of inspiration, died from wounds received during World War I.  It was ultimately a rather depressing story.

There are some interesting interesting points along the way, particularly those early on in the book dealing with Picasso's involvement as set designer for the Ballet Russes.  His meetings, not only with Diaghilev and Massine, but also with such composers as Stravinsky and Satie makes for compelling reading.  And all the while, of course, Picasso was producing masterworks of neo-classicism and synthetic Cubism.

Richardson's writing seems less passionate here than in the earlier volumes.  Though he still displays an enormous amount of insight when discussing Picasso's artworks, he seems at times merely performing due diligence as he chronicles the artist's movements month by month through this fifteen year period.  It may be significant that the author has not yet published the projected fourth and final volume of his biography.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Weill: ACJW Ensemble Performs Schubert and Crumb

For its final recital of the season at Weill Recital Hall, the ACJW Ensemble yesterday evening performed works by Franz Schubert and George Crumb.

The program opened with Schubert's Piano Quintet in A, D. 667 (1819), nicknamed the Trout.  The piece is so called because its fourth movement consists of a set of variations on the composer's lied Die Forelle (1817) based on a poem of the same name written in 1782 by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart.  Schubert's quintet is, of course, one of the best known works in the chamber repertoire.  It is incredibly cheerful and upbeat and never fails to make this listener smile.  At yesterday's performance, I was most interested in comparing the piano part to the composer's other music for that instrument, most particularly the Sonata in G which I had heard played only two nights before by Mitsuko Uchida next door at Carnegie Hall.

After intermission, the program concluded with Crumb's Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos, Vol. III).  The Makrokosmos series takes its name from the collection of piano pieces by Béla Bartók  entitled Mikrokosmos.  The Hungarian composer exerted a great deal of influence on Crumb and, together with Debussy, inspired the composition of the present work.  The composer also notes connections to Chopin and Schumann as well as the literary influences of Salvatore Quasimodo, Pascal and Rilke.  Crumb himself wrote of his work:
"As in several of my other works, the musical fabric of Summer Evening results largely from the elaboration of tiny cells into a sort of mosaic design ... I feel that the work projects a clearly articulated large expressive curve over its approximately 40-minute duration. The first, third, and fifth movements, which are scored for the full ensemble of instruments and laid out on a large scale, would seem to define the primary import of the work (which might be interpreted as a kind of 'cosmic drama'). On the other hand, 'Wanderer-Fantasy' (mostly for the two pianos alone) and the somewhat atavistic 'Myth' (for percussion instruments) were conceived as dreamlike pieces functioning as intermezzos within the overall sequence of movements."
As I had never before heard any of Crumb's music, I did not know quite what to expect from a work laden with so many references to other composers and authors.  Though the piece was at times uneven and self-indulgent in the early movements (it sometimes seemed certain musical effects were included simply to hear the unusual sounds they produced), it was in all a fascinating and innovative work that rightfully held the audience spellbound.  The final movement, Music of the Starry Night, was extremely moving and satisfying.  The four ACJW members who participated (Alexandria Le and Tyler Wottrich on piano and Ian Sullivan and Jared Soldiviero on percussion) all did a tremendous job.  I'd be extremely interested in one day hearing the same musicians perform Bartók's work for two pianos and percussion which is scored the same instruments. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Carnegie Hall: Mitsuko Uchida Performs Schubert and Beethoven

Yesterday evening, renowned pianist Mitsuko Uchida performed works by Schubert and Beethoven in recital at Carnegie Hall.  I had anticipated attending this performance for months and was not the least disappointed in what I heard.

The first half of the program was taken up by Schubert's Piano Sonata in G, D. 894 (1826).  Given the misleading title of Fantasy, it was one of only three sonatas to be published during the composer's lifetime.  It is a serene work that evokes for the listener the mood of a sunny day.  As such, it was a perfect vehicle for Ms. Uchida's light touch on the piano.  Her playing was lucid and recalled to mind Alfred Brendel's wonderful recording of the same work.  Thoroughly respectful of the composer's intentions, this performance brought out the full limpid beauty contained in the piece.

After intermission, Ms. Uchida performed Beethoven's 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, Op. 120 (1819-1823) more commonly referred to as the Diabelli Variations.  The genesis of the work was in a project envisioned by Anton Diabelli, a Viennese music publisher, in which he enlisted a number of well known composers to provide variations on a simple waltz which he himself had composed.  The profits from the publication of these variations were intended for the relief of those children orphaned by the Napoleonic Wars.  A number of composer's complied with Diabelli's request but there is an apocryphal story related by Schindler, that most unreliable of biographers, that Beethoven  at first refused the commission and angrily rejected the original waltz submitted to him as a schusterfleck ("cobbler's patch") unworthy of his talents.  For whatever reason, rather than contribute only one variation, Beethoven instead eventually composed 33.  These are generally seen as the crowning achievement of his works for solo piano and one of the masterpieces of his late period.  It is an extremely demanding work for the pianist and also requires the full attention of the audience in order to appreciate its complexity.  In her recital, Ms. Uchida gave a radiant performance of the work that did full justice to Beethoven's genius and provided listeners with a great deal of insight into the composer's achievement.

There was no encore.  Anything performed after the Beethoven would have been anticlimactic.  In any case, Ms. Uchida appeared thoroughly drained as she took her bows to a standing ovation.  She had obviously put everything she had into this recital and had triumphed brilliantly in her interpretations of these great works.  Though there had never been any doubt as to her abilities, her performance at this recital secured her place among the great pianists of our time.  I felt fortunate to have witnessed it.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Mannes Faculty Recital: Timothy Eddy and Gilbert Kalish

Yesterday, Mannes presented a joint recital by cellist Timothy Eddy, a founding member of the Orion Quartet, and pianist Gilbert Kalish, a recipient of many awards who is perhaps best known for his collaborations with other artists as well as his work with the Chamber Music Society.  The evening's program of cello sonatas included works by Beethoven, Carter, Janáček and Brahms.

The first work was Beethoven's Sonata in F, Op. 5, No. 1 (1796).  This early work was revolutionary at the time as it represented one of the earliest examples of a sonata in which the cello was not used merely as continuo accompaniment as had been the case in the Baroque era.  Indeed, Beethoven is given credit as the first composer to write a full part for the cello in such a work.  The first performance of this piece was in Berlin at the court of King Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia (himself an amateur cellist for whom Mozart had previously composed his famous "Prussian" quartets) where Beethoven played together with cellist Jean-Louis Duport.  The king enjoyed the performance so much he made a gift of a gold snuff box to the composer.

There followed Carter's Sonata (1948).  This was one of Carter's earliest works to break with the influence of Copland and is most notable for the separation of cello and piano as each progresses through the length of the work in an entirely different voice from the other.  While the cello is emotional and lyrical, the piano is cold and as precise as an automaton.  So stark is the contrast that at times I thought I was listening to two different pieces being played simultaneously in the manner of Charles Ives who had at one point actually encouraged the young Carter to pursue a career in music.

After intermission, the program continued with Janáček's Pohádka (A Tale) (1910).  Based on The Tale of Tsar Berendyey by Russian author Vasily Zhukovsky, Janáček's work is notable for having been revised several times by the composer during his lifetime.  It went from a three-movement (1910) to a four-movement (1912) and back again to a three-movement (1923) work.  It was the final version that was performed at Mannes.

The final piece was Brahms' Sonata in E minor, Op. 38 (1862-1865).  Originally composed with an adagio that was later deleted, the full title of the work is Sonate für Klavier und Violoncello, an indication of the importance Brahms placed on the piano part as equal to that of the cello.  The work was dedicated to Josef Gänsbacher, a composer of lieder who had been instrumental in helping Brahms secure his position as director of the Vienna Singakademie in 1863.  This was one of Brahms' first mature works in which he left his youthful romanticism behind for a more classical approach.  Perhaps due to the lack of a slow movement, the sonata was rejected twice for publication before its final acceptance by Simrock.

Yesterday's performance was one of the best chamber recitals I've seen this season.  Both Mr. Eddy and Mr. Kalish are musicians of the highest order, and their performance deserved to take place in a much larger venue.  Instead, it was given at Mannes' Concert Hall before an enthusiastic audience of no more than fifty people including the artists' students.  This is a sad commentary on the lack of appreciation for chamber music even in such a cosmopolitan city as New York.  Nevertheless, the two musicians did their utmost to give the best performance possible and then came back to play the slow movement from Chopin's Cello Sonata as an encore.  They well deserved the standing ovation they received.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Modern Furies at Galerie St. Etienne

As the centennial of the commencement of World War I approaches, Galerie St. Etienne has commemorated this anniversary with a show of works created by German artists who served in the conflict.  That these are almost all graphic works - etchings, lithographs and drawings - is significant.  Monochrome pieces serve much better here than paintings in detailing the grisly carnage of trench warfare.  They possess an immediacy and intensity that could not otherwise have been captured.  There is nothing contemplative about them; they have instead a roughness that at once brings the brutality of the conflict home to the viewer.

The artist most thoroughly represented at the exhibit is Otto Dix.  This is only fitting as Dix was the only major German artist to have served in the trenches through the entire length of the conflict.  Those who are familiar with the artist primarily through the scathing portraits he completed during the Weimar period will find new insight in the drawings and etchings shown here.  Though stylistically far different from much of Dix' postwar work - View of the Moon (1916) and Troops (1918) are almost abstractions - they provide the basis for the savage irony that would inform such later masterpieces as the famous Metropolis triptych (1928).  Nor did the artist ever forget what he had witnessed.  His 1923 painting The Trench, which depicted the decomposing bodies of dead soldiers, caused such a scandal that it forced the resignation of the director of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum who had already hidden the work behind a curtain.  That piece is prefigured here by Dead Soldier (1922).  Other wrenching works by Dix (all of them from 1924) at the current exhibit include Wounded Man Fleeing, The Madwoman of Sainte-Marie-à-Py, House Destroyed by Aerial Bombs (Tournai) and Soldier and Nun (Rape).  

That other great satirist of the Weimar era, George Grosz, is represented by six works of which the most interesting is The Photographer (1927-28) which was actually a set design for a stage production of The Good Soldier Schwejk based on the unfinished novel by Jaroslav Hašek.  Max Beckmann is represented by four works, two of which - Large Operation (1914) and Morgue (1922) - depict the front line hospitals where the wounded and dead were brought.  There are four works on display by Egon Schiele, but these are primarily portraits of the commanding officers who protected Schiele and kept him from being sent to the front.  Other artists shown include Erich Heckel and Käthe Kollwitz.

In these days when there is once again saber rattling and the massing of troops along the Ukrainian border, this is a most timely exhibit.  As the viewer gazes upon the horror and folly of war that is portrayed so well by these artists, it becomes all too readily apparent that no lessons at all have been learned over the past hundred years.  

The exhibit continues through April 12, 2014.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Met Opera: Diana Damrau in La Sonnambula

Yesterday evening was the final performance at the Met this season of La Sonnambula, the great bel canto opera by Vincenzo Bellini.  It turned out to be one of the most exciting evenings of the season.  Here was some of the composer's best music sung incredibly well by a fine cast and chorus.

Composed in 1831 with a libretto by the composer's long time collaborator Felice Romani, the work was one of the last four operas Bellini completed before his premature death in 1835.  (A phrase from the heroine Amina's final aria is inscribed on his tomb in Sicily.)  It's a much different work from the tragic Norma which I saw in another fine production at the beginning of the season.  La Sonnambula is instead a playful opera which, if not truly comic, at least holds its darker elements in abeyance.  If the use of sleepwalking as a plot device seems at times a bit contrived, that is of no great impediment in a work the audience knows all along is headed to a happy ending where the betrothed couple eventually resolve their dispute and reunite.  The entire plot, in fact, seems little more than an excuse to employ the time honored operatic tradition in which two lovers, not really knowing one another at first, must pass a test of mutual trust before they are allowed to live their lives together.  If the opera is about anything, it is about this passage to maturity and self knowledge by its two main characters.  All this was summed up in the finale's joyous dance - in which an athletic Amina actually turned cartwheels onstage - that also revealed the opera's balletic source as taken from the pantomime by Eugène Scribe.  

The role of Amina, originally created for Giuditta Pasta, the legendary nineteenth century singer for whom Bellini also composed the difficult role of Norma, was performed wonderfully by soprano Diana Damrau.   Her beautiful voice triumphed in aria after aria as she effortlessly hit one high note after another.  But Ms. Damrau was not alone.  Tenor Taylor Stayton was extremely effective as Elvino as he sang the virtuoso arias Bellini originally wrote for the nineteenth century superstar Giovanni Rubini.  Both soprano and tenor were ably assisted by a strong supporting cast that included Rachelle Durkin as Lisa, Elizabeth Bishop as Teresa and Michele Pertusi as Rodolfo.  The conductor was Marco Armiliato whose work on the podium was satisfactory if not particularly distinguished.

One of the surprises for me in this opera was Bellini's excellent use of the chorus.  The ensemble singing subtly reinforced the beauty of the principals' arias and gave them greater depth than they would otherwise have had.  In this, the composer was really a precursor of Verdi.  The Met's chorus here did their usual fine work as their singing blended seamlessly with that of the cast.

The 2009 production was by Mary Zimmerman with sets by Daniel Ostling.  This was another example of the Met's irritating habit of putting on contrived stagings simply for the sake of doing something new.  The concept of having an opera rehearsal within an opera never really worked.  And it was hardly necessary for a runway to extend over the orchestra pit for Amina's final aria.  On the other hand, the sets were pleasant enough to look at and, more importantly, the staging never really got in the way of the music.  In the end, that was really all that mattered.