Monday, August 21, 2023

Seattle Opera's 60th Anniversary Das Rheingold

Beginning with its production of Die Walk├╝re in 1975, Seattle Opera has since put the city on the map as the Wagner capital of North America. This season, the 60-year-old company celebrated its anniversary with a presentation of Das Rheingold, directed by Brian Staufenbiel, and with former Seattle Symphony music director Ludovic Morlot directing the musical forces.


Vocally it was truly an impregnable performance – the voices were uniformly outstanding, from the commanding vocal and dramatic presence of Greer Grimsley, to the smaller role like Froh (Viktor Antipenko) and Donner (Michael Chioldi), singing actors all carried off their role with vocal beauty and dramatic conviction. Peixin Chen and Kenneth Kellogg were memorable and suitably menacing in their portrayal and singing of Fasolt and Fafner. Melody Wilson as Fricka and Katie Van Kooten as Freia, both sang with palpable musicality and a convincing degree of humanity - as well as all-too-human frailties as the all-too-human gods. 


Most memorable were Martin Bakari’s masterful portrayal of a crafty and slippery Loge, and Michael Mayes as a menacing and power-hungry – though not really all that lustful - Alberich. The vocal prowess of these singers was well-matched by a dramatic presence they brought to their roles. They truly became the characters they were singing.


Production designer David Murakami and Lighting Designer Mextly Couzin made effective use of projections and lasers to create visual effects that would otherwise have been near impossible – the rainbow bridge to Valhalla in Scene Four, for instance. For me, the drawback of the production design lay in the use of the stage as well as the orchestral pit. The production team placed the entire Seattle Symphony on the stage, with the singers singing either in front of the orchestra or above it on a metal bridge that supposedly signifies the “open space on a mountain, a castle glimmering in the distance”. 


To be sure, such placement of voices and orchestra gave the vocal lines much more prominence than we are used to. Unfortunately, from my vantage point, the all-important orchestral sounds did not match the presence of the voices. Rather than having the sound of the orchestra envelope the vocal lines, the sounds of the instruments seemed receded in the background. 


The musicians of the Seattle Symphony played with great sensitivity and beauty of sound for Ludovic Morlot. Perhaps it was because of the placement of the orchestra, I did find myself wishing for a greater richness as well as weightiness in the sound, especially in the strings.


The orchestra pit was put to use dramatically, doubling as the Rhine River in Scene One as well as the subterranean Nibelheim in Scene Three. Although the use of projected “water” on a scrim made the image of the Rhine quite effective, it was much less visually convincing as Alberich’s labour camp for Mime and the Nibelungs.


The presence of the orchestra on stage somehow diminished the “magic” of the drama, giving it the feel of a semi-staged production. The absolute mystery of the beginning of the opera was missing, as we clearly saw the conductor giving the downbeat for the music. The low E-flat that begins the opera did not “come from nothing”, as I believe Wagner intended it to.

Of course, Wagner’s dramatic demands of these operas would challenge the most intrepid and ingenious director, and no one production could really claim to overcome all the problems posed by what the composer had in mind. It is when the director strayed too far afield from Wagner’s direction that lessened the impact of the drama.


That said, yesterday’s performance of Das Rheingold did make an indelible impression on me, at least musically. Let’s hope that the new general director of Seattle Opera would see to it that the other three operas of the Ring would soon be presented in the Emerald City.




Friday, August 11, 2023

A Magnificent Recital in the Summer

The drought of piano recitals in the summer was broken on Tuesday, August 8th, with pianist Sergei Babayan’s magnificent recital at Vancouver’s Christ Church Cathedral. In spite of the sounds of the Steinway competing with the occasional traffic noise, Babayan’s performance confirmed my previous impression that he truly is one of the Elect.


The concert commenced with Franz Liszt formidable and masterful Ballade No. 2 in B minor (S. 171), one of his finest solo piano works. I can see why this piece is rarely performed, as it takes not only a musician with transcendental technique, but also the ability, and vision, to hold all the disparate elements of the score together. Under the wrong hands, this work could sound like a series of beautiful episodes. In Babayan’s performance, there was a sense of unity, an organic cohesiveness to the score. The artist understands what Alfred Brendel calls Liszt’s nobility of spirit, and he underscored the ecstatic quality of the music, as well as the dark brooding colours found in so much of the work. He exploited – in the best sense of the word – and brought out the full resources of the piano. It was with this masterful performance that Babayan began his recital. 


With his performance of Franz Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert’s Lieder, the piano was suddenly transformed into a songful instrument. In spite of the very high standards of piano playing today, few pianists could produce a true legato on the instrument. Under Babayan’s hands, the piano took on a palpable liquid, flowing quality. From the starkness of Die Stadt (D. 957) to the yearning of Der Muller und der Bach (D. 795) to the utter despair of Gretchen am Spinnrade (D. 118) and to the beautiful flowing melody of Auf dem Wasser zu singen(D. 774), Babayan gave the piano an absolute vocal beauty and a complete identification with and affinity for the Schubertian idiom that would be the envy of a Fischer-Dieskau or Ameling. 


I have long admired Babayan’s Rachmaninoff interpretations, so beautifully highlighted in his solo album for Deutsche Grammophon. At the risk of running out of superlatives, his performances of the composer’s Etudes-Tableaux (Op. 39) and Moment musicaux (Op. 16) highlighted all the beauty and inventiveness of his music. In his playing of the Etudes-Tableaux in E-flat minor (No. 5), Babayan brought absolute clarity to the dense texture as well as the passionate and tumultuous quality inherent in the score. The artist’s performance also highlighted the intricacies and forward-looking aspects of Rachmaninoff’s later works, as was evident in how he masterfully negotiated the complexities of the Etude-Tableaux in C minor (No. 1). At the same time, in his performance of the two earlier Moment musicaux, Babayan brought out the beauty of the composer’s harmonic and melodic inventions that so attracted musicians and music lovers to his earlier works. 


After intermission, the artist took the audience back to the 18th century with his performances of Mozart and Haydn. In many ways, the music-making in the second half was even more incredible, as the virtuosity required was even more subtle. The playing throughout was enthralling and moving. I was astounded by Babayan’s interpretation of Mozart’s early Sonata in B-flat Major (K. 281). There was great souplesse in his playing and breathing room for the music, but without disturbing the structural integrity of the work. Under his hands, the music seemed to have taken a three-dimensional quality, with a perfect balance between vertical and horizontal elements. His tempo choice in the second movement (Andante amoroso) reminded me of Horowitz’s admonition about this movement, “This was Mozart in love!” Babayan’s playing of the third movement brought out all the joy and humour of this jaunty movement, still so steeped in the aesthetics of the rococo. 


Haydn’s Sonata in E minor (Hob XVI: 47bis) is, for me, one of the most original works in his vast output of sonatas. A combination of sturm und drang as well as great humour, and a juxtaposition of joy and melancholy. Babayan’s playing of the first movement was, to my ears, like a beautifully shot black and white film, with infinite shades of light and darkness. His performance of the Larghetto was perfectly placed; he did not make it bigger than it is meant to be, but allowing the music to serve as an intermezzo between the two outer movements, and his romp through the third movement was simply breathtaking. 


Babayan brought out the elegance and humour in the first movement of the same composer’s Sonata in E-flat Major (Hob XVI:49). For me, the emotional core of the work lies in the magnificent slow movement - Babayan underscored the great depth and beauty of the outer sections and the gentle anguish, not to mention the darker colours, of the middle section. He took the gently rocking minuet of the third movement at a slightly slower tempo than I hear in my mind, which somehow made the humour inherent in this music even more pronounced. Somehow, Babayan managed to give the left hand a quality of a ticking clock. 


The artist gave an utterly charming performance of Mozart’s utterly charming Twelve Variations on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman” (K. 265). With the first notes of the music, the audience heaved a pleasant sigh of recognition of the famous tune. Babayan’s performance of this enchanting work with great panache, ending the evening’s performance with a palpable sense of joy and great good humour. It was, indeed, akin to a perfectly made dessert following a gourmet meal. 


Throughout this second half of the recital, I felt that the music-making had a sense of fantasy to it, a spontaneity and freedom, a feeling of discovery, and always full of surprises.


After a well-deserved ovation from the capacity audience, Babayan generously granted a single encore – although I am certain that the audience would have happily listened to many more – the Aria from Bach’sGoldberg Variations, a performance filled with all the grace and beauty it calls for, and one infused with a spiritual quality, as well as the quality of a benediction. 


Even in today’s crowded field of outstanding pianists, Sergei Babayan remains in a class of his own. Last Tuesday’s programme – indeed a traversal through a vast segment of the piano literature - amply demonstrated the artist’s generosity of spirit. The performance was a perfect synthesis of the intellect and the soul, the mind and the heart, and a reminder of how the greatness of music can make the world a better place. 

Patrick May