Well, there I was, somewhere in the wilds of New Jersey, enjoying the gurgling charms of my new grandson, when the snowing began to get serious. Broadcast media were in their apocalypse mode, mother and daughter were warning me of the perils of the highway, and another helping of irresistible infant cutesiness was tempting. But there was a Groupon for parking in Manhattan on my iPhone, and there were reserved seats for Zelda at the Oasis and Rigoletto - yes, a rare evening doubleheader! - waiting for me at the other end of the Lincoln Tunnel.
Ace in the hole: my trusty telescoping ice-scraper and snowbrush, purchased for $15 at my local AutoZone before I left the Carolinas. So I could see where I was driving! Strangely enough, despite all the broadcast hysteria begging people to snuggle up indoors (presumably to listen or watch those same media), there was a healthy amount of traffic on the highways. Even at such frivolities as theater and opera, there were people besides me in the seats.
In fact, the Metropolitan Opera was packed for Rigoletto, and Lincoln Center was a beehive of activity, simultaneously hosting a lavish Fashion Week event. Evidently, New Yorkers have learned to accomplish some things that Carolinians can't in wintertime: they tune out the media hysteria, hop on a train, and proceed with their lives. Two weeks after Theatre Charlotte was telling me to stay home when I was scheduled to review The Foreigner, the little St. Luke's Theatre and the mighty Met were telling me to come on down - despite the onset of the Blizzard of 2013 - with that special New Yorker "are you silly?" edge in their voices.
The new Rigoletto was especially worth the effort, but here's my full New York music roundup:
Here stage director Michael Mayer transplants all the action to that same Rat-Pack vintage of Las Vegas that Justin Timberlake is seeking to reclaim. The Duke is a Sinatra-like crooner with mob chieftain powers, and Rigoletto is his most-favored hanger-on. Instead of proclaiming his freewheeling attitudes about women, fidelity, and jealous lovers as an operatic aria, The Duke delivers them under spotlights, surrounded by dancing girls, as part of a nightclub performance. Count Ceprano is one of those jet-setters who gather round The Duke to watch him perform, and Rigoletto is still getting in trouble for mocking the Count after The Duke openly flirts with his wife.
Christine Jones' set design has a gaudy pinball machine crassness in the opening scene, but a neon sleekness persists when The Duke manages a clandestine rendezvous with Rigoletto's chaste daughter, Gilda: the tropical foliage outside are green neon palms. Even when we adjourn to the cutthroat Sparafucile's lair, a pole dancing club where his sister Maddalena is the scantily dressed lure, the storm that rages in the heavens as the assassin does his dirty work is a combination of Verdi's thunder and neon lightning.
Capitalizing on the filtration that can happen in translation, Mayer has the audacity to change the language of Rigoletto - in the Met's supertitles, specially revised for this production by Michael Panayos and Paul Cremo. So money for hiring Sparafucile becomes the more gangsterish "dough," and when Ceprano and friends avenge themselves on Rigoletto by kidnapping his darling Gilda, their loud choral cry of "Victoria!" becomes a casino-flavored "Jackpot!"
Instead of the murder victim being dragged to the river at the end of the opera, Mayer tosses in a final masterstroke. Rigoletto waits outside the seedy club with a gleaming high-end car, loudly 1950s in its design, and opens his trunk when Sparafucile emerges with his victim stashed in a sack. The title character sings his closing duet perched on a chrome rear bumper!
On the night of the blizzard, the singing was criminally superb. Whether dressed garishly in an argyle sweater or somberly in a trench coat, baritone Zeljko Lucic gave a rich account of Rigoletto, and Stefan Kocan's long, sustained bass notes imparted a subterranean evil upon the murderous barfly Sparafucile. The angelic aura surrounding Gilda never became precious in Diana Damrau's portrayal, and her devotion never became ludicrous. This was partly the result of Meyer's alterations, for it makes more sense that Gilda's adoration of The Duke should persist even after he has deceived and deflowered her - he's now a celebrity superstar!
And a it makes more sense for a lusty celeb to visit a pole-dancing strip club than for a Duke of Mantua to visit a crumbling inn on the outskirts of town to consummate a tryst with Sparafucile's sister. Piotr Beczala was wonderfully rakish in adapting to the altered Duke, but the superb singing that surrounded him had a cruel reverb effect in Act 3. Because of all the magnificence that had preceded, loudly acclaimed by the crowd, when Beczala's throat wasn't altogether clear at the start of the famed "La donna è mobile," he was deprived of his well-deserved bravos after he hit the last high note. The fine tenor was merely close to perfection on a night when nothing less would do. (Returns with a new cast on April 13)
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with Wayne Shorter (***1/2) - Celebrating their 40th year, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, with 34 members, is about half the size of our diminutive Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. The OCO are as famous for the way they perform as they are for their awards, accolades, and DGG recordings. But live at Carnegie Hall, an audience gets the unique opportunity to watch a leaderless orchestra in action. A listing of their personnel at their website offers a clue that is easily overlooked: their sections are as leaderless as the ensemble, so between pieces, musicians play a game of musical chairs in the larger sections as the hierarchy for each piece takes shape.
So there was nobody at a podium waving a baton or giving the downbeat as the concert began with Beethoven's "Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus." The beloved Isaac Stern Auditorium wasn't particularly kind to the brass in the opening sforzandos with the timpani, making the spikes of sound a little tubby, but the soft string passages were golden, almost miraculously projected into the hall. Flutes reverberated more pleasantly than the brass, and the togetherness of the strings at fast tempos was exceptional for any ensemble, with or without a conductor.
Then the OCO reminded me why, as a classical music lover, I yearn so ardently for my annual pilgrimages to New York. They played the Symphony No. 3 The Camp Meeting by Charles Ives, a composer we haven't heard at Belk Theater since 2004 when Leonard Slatkin, touring with the National Symphony Orchestra, inadvertently programmed Three New England Scenes, to the consternation of Carolina Concert Association subscribers.
Somebody new revolved into the first violin chair before the opening "Old Folks Gatherin'" movement of the Ives, but when the time came for the concertmaster's solo, it seemed to originate from the rear of the violin section. "Children's Day," like the preceding movement, was three shades darker than the title would suggest, starting off as a frolic perhaps for serious young professionals. With the onset of the flutes, the music grew more spritely and folksy. Strands of the various sections were exquisitely voiced as we circled back to the primary theme, with a nice suggestion of fatigue in the concluding slowdown. The concluding "Communion" was sadder than expected, with a clarinet and then a sour French horn mattering briefly, but we leaned toward loveliness, chimes sounding softly from offstage, as the piece concluded.
Wayne Shorter and his all-star quartet joined the Orpheus ensemble after intermission - Danilo Pérez at the piano, John Patitucci on bass, and the irrepressible Brian Blade on drums. To complement the opening Beethoven overture, there was a Prometheus among Shorter's creatures, as his 50-minute suite, beginning with "Pegasus" and continuing with "The Three Marias," crested with "Prometheus Unbound."
Although the jazzy orchestral intro to "Pegasus" added a new dimension to his composition, Shorter had little to contribute when he picked up his soprano sax except a few scattered squonks - in shocking and disappointing contrast with the 23-minute concert version, recorded with The Imani Winds, on the quartet's new Without a Net CD. Pérez and Blade had the more telling spots at Carnegie, while Patitucci was furiously active but undetectable in the sound mix. We had plenty of Shorter eloquence in the next segment, one solo for each of "The Three Marias," and Patitucci, likely with some first-aid from the sound booth, emerged from the symphonic haze while Blade continued to put on a percussion show with sticks and shaker.
A new world premiere piece, unannounced in the program booklet, now intervened. With Blade switching to mallets during the orchestral intro, "Lotus" began with the symphonic calm that the title promised. Pérez played an intricate vamp that provided a smooth take-off strip for Shorter's graceful solo, leading to a long soothing orchestral passage - suddenly incinerated by a volcanic eruption from the quartet with Shorter and Pérez at the furious tip of the flames. Pérez prevailed, and we settled into a nearly swinging groove.
As yet unrecorded, "Prometheus Unbound" was the most traditional and relaxed Shorter composition of the evening, providing the most satisfying integration of quartet and orchestra, with episodes that alternated between cool and hot. Blade ignited the first moderate temperature boost until Patitucci began soloing - only to be displaced by Shorter's fire. Pérez calmed things down with some lovely playing, setting the stage for the most memorable interlude of the evening. As Shorter on his soprano sax and Pérez on piano conversed - intensely, intimately, and then intensely again - reaching their summit of dialogue, the OCO played more effectively with the quartet than heretofore, creating a special aura as the evening ended.
The "Prometheus" is something that Shorter fans can look forward to in future recordings by the NEA Jazz Master. Meanwhile, OCO returns to Carnegie on April 27 with guest artist Gabriel Kahane singing and banjo-picking his new song cycle. A whole new four-concert OCO series at Carnegie has already been announced for 2013-14, including a rendezvous with Brad Mehldau on October 9.
Le Comte Ory (***1/4) - Rossini's comic opera, relating the title character's futile attempts to seduce a beautiful countess, resembles Verdi's Falstaff. But the Shakespeare model that Verdi used was a sturdier dramatic piece. Because John Falstaff is old, fat, impoverished, and dissolute (famously depending on the patronage of Prince Hal for most of his libations), we can anticipate the decrepit knight's failures in chivalry. Ory, created by the lesser Eugène Scribe and an obscure collaborator, is a dashing and resourceful nobleman whose chief failings are his libertine morals and his AWOL status during the Holy Crusades.
So it's harder to revel in Ory's romantic misfortunes, particularly since Countess Adèle, unlike The Merry Wives of Windsor, is young, beautiful, and unmarried. And at the Met, the man is dressed in leather! Still the spectacle, outside and inside the Count of Foumoutier's castle, is far more flamboyant than the Shakespeare comedy, and Ory's final stratagem, posing as a nun who is fleeing from Count Ory, is far more naughty, colorful, and audacious. He winds up in bed with his prey rather than in Falstaff's predicament, cooped up in a laundry basket.