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Links: WNO "Hamlet," NSO Adams

In today's Washington Post:

In "Hamlet," only the theatrics are grand, by Anne Midgette.

John Adams offers insights into Britten, his own music, by Anne Midgette.

By Anne Midgette  |  May 21, 2010; 5:45 AM ET
Categories:  Washington , opera  
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This is the sort of concert that separates serious listeners from people who like pretty music. I agree that it was a very interesting concert and John Adams is a very engaging presence on the stage. I had almost the exact opposite reaction as that expressed in Anne's review. I liked the Doctor Atomic symphony more than the The Dharma at Big Sur. I didn't pay that much attention to the underlying text of Doctor Atomic; I just liked the way the music sounded. The Dharma at Big Sur did indeed, as the program notes indicated, remind me of a Javanese gamelan band which I once heard playing on the lower level of the Sackler gallery. At the time, after listening for about an hour, I felt that I might be able to understand and react to that music if I had been born in or at least immersed in that culture. I had the same reaction last night and as a result these western ears responded more to the Doctor Atomic. I would need a lot more than one hearing of The Dharma at Big Sur before I could begin to appreciate it. Evidently it was a far more learned audience than I last night judging from the wild applause and cheering. I even made out among the shouts "Encore! Encore!" which made me wonder what might have made a suitable encore to something as challenging as what I had just heard.

As to John Adams' conducting skill, I am in no way knowlegeable enough to comment. But the Britten sounded a little rough and the Stravinsky more difficult to follow than I usually find Stravinsky. My overall impression was that it was a very interesting and, yes, challenging evening and I am very glad I had a chance to experience it.

Posted by: William Kirchhoff | May 21, 2010 10:07 AM | Report abuse

“[Steve] Reich might be more brilliant”
-- Anne Midgette, Washington Post, May 21, 2010


You mean “brilliant” as in the musical works of Anton Webern?

I think that Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and John Adams are all outstanding American musical artists – especially American artists of the immediate post-John Cage and post-Robert Rauschenberg eras.

As the New Yorker music critic Alex Ross might say, I am not sure that we yet have the historical perspective to aesthetically judge fully this living American trio of minimalist and post-minimalist composers in full.

Until that time, I believe that rather more is required of work-a-day music critics than simply unsupported blanket statements made regarding supposed “brilliance.”

Posted by: snaketime1 | May 21, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

slagboys, it is interesting to me that there were hundreds of empty seats at the Kennedy Center on Wednesday for the opening night of Hamlet. Fortunately, the remainder of the run seems to be selling quite respectably; although I agree that there are probably thousands of Washingtonians who would love this opera production even if they had never been to an opera before. We are planning to invite some opera novices to attend next week, and I also see that a limited number of $25, $50, and $75 good seats are still available for most of the remaining shows.

Perhaps because of the Washington Post review, the Washington National Opera will be forced to offer even more $160 tickets for $25 or $50, but that wouldn't mean the financial ruin of the company, in my opinion.

Posted by: snaketime1 | May 21, 2010 5:08 PM | Report abuse

I think the discussion about conductors needs to be elaborated a little bit. I already defended Elgar as an interpreter of his own works, and said that Stravinsky and Kodaly were not great conductors. Certainly Copland, Milhaud, Villa-Lobos and Carlos Chavez illustrate "the two truisms" mentioned in the article. I don't know what to say about Khachaturian since I don't like his music.

I would however argue that Britten, Enescu, and perhaps Richard Strauss are great conductors; I say "perhaps" Richard Strauss because I only know of him conducting his own music. They are certainly not the greatest conductors that their countries have produced, but they have both technical knowledge as well as finesse necessary to bring the details in the scores that they are conducting.

And how about Gustav Mahler, who in his time was better known and more respected as conductor than composer? Also, Furtwängler and Paul Paray thought themselves as first composers, though posterity decided otherwise.

There are a number of conductors who also composed. Weingartner, Klemperer, Martinon, and Kubelik are just a few names on top of my head. Their music ranges from "worth listening" to "best left in the archives."

Then, there's the case of Markevitch and Silvestri who composed in their youth but had to abandon composition due to their conducting careers. The loss is ours, it seems...

And Celibidache also composed but, perhaps wisely, forbade performances of his music. The one work that he actually allowed performance of, "Der Taschengarten" is music that is full of freshness and does stand well on repeated hearings, though is perhaps in search of the same individual voice that the conductor has.

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | May 24, 2010 10:11 AM | Report abuse

I realized I left out Bruno Maderna (and perhaps not only him), a great conductor by any standards.

As for John Adams, this was the second time this season when I left the auditorium nauseating. The first time was at "War and Peace."

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | May 24, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

With repect to Hamlet, I attended the performance on May 24, which was Domingo's second in the pit and the debut of Liam Bonner in the title role. I agree with most of Anne's review of the remainder of the production. Bonner took awhile, just as Chioldi and Futral did on opening night, to warm to his role, but was singing well after intermission. It's truly a shame what has happened to Samuel Ramey's voice; isn't there a male counterpart to the Duchess of Krakenthorp he could sing?

The two women were the unquestioned stars of the evening. Elizabeth Bishop was excellent as Gertrude; her singing and acting left nothing to be desired, and only confirmed the impression left last year as Meg Page. Elizabeth Futral seems to have grown into her role since opening night. I continue to be impressed by this soprano, whom I have previously seen as Mabel in Penzance, Pamira in Siege of Corith, and the title role in Traviata, excellent performances all.

Finally, I am usually not impressed with productions which are moved in time from the original conception; with that said, this production of Hamlet set during the Cold War 50 years ago was effective without detracting from the opera itself.

Posted by: 74umgrad1 | May 25, 2010 9:16 AM | Report abuse

With respect to Hamlet, we also attended the performance on May 24, and we four thoroughly enjoyed the production and the performances; and would highly recommend the evening to everyone, including operatic newcomers. There did, in fact, appear to be about 100 or more unsold seats on the orchestral level alone. Apparently, the WNO had blocked out the last two or three rows of the orchestra level from their computer systems earlier when I peeked. (Two members of our party each spent a third of a century living – and studying music and drama -- under Communism in different Eastern European and former Soviet Union countries.)

I agree largely about the excellence of singers Bonner, Futral, and Bishop; and the sadness of now hearing the great bass-baritone Samuel Ramey, who was the only weak link (but a less noticeable weak link than was the singing and acting of the Countess in the recent WNO Figaro). I agree with others who praised the excellent single-unit stagecraft, and agree that it was far more inspired and brilliant than was the WNO Ring. Will the WNO be inviting Thaddeus Strassberger back soon?

The second half seemed so much more dramatic to all of us than the first half, that I was wondering whether it was Domingo’s tempos, or whether it might be possible to nip and tuck a few of the first-half intermezzi to move the show along a bit.

Quibbles aside, it was an excellent production which built in musical excitement, and cast an interesting and unusual perspective on Shakespeare. I see no reason for it not to be revived once in a while – perhaps as part of occasional Shakespeare-themed opera seasons which also include world premieres of new operas on Shakespeare plays.

If Washington, D.C. is, in fact, one of the three greatest centers for Shakespeare production in the world, as claimed in the recent past by the British Economist magazine, I hope that Shakespeare Theatre-goers will drop their intellectual suspicions of the obviously much less well-run Washington National Opera (as compared to their leading Shakespeare Theatre Company), and give the current production of the opera Hamlet a look-in over the next ten days.

Posted by: snaketime1 | May 25, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

To think, snaketime1, that we were in the house on the same night!

But alas, I must respectfully disagree. I thought the company did the best they could with a work I found extremely dull. The singing, with the already stated exceptions, was fairly strong. Bishop is a trooper, and Futral was far better than I've ever given her credit for, and I liked Bonner very much.

Unfortunately I can't share your enthusiasm about the production. Strassberger trained as a designer and unfortunately it showed- lots of pretty visuals with little to connect them. Re-imagining a Shakespeare into some pseudo Fascist/Iron Curtain setting has now become a cliche. And to put such a halt (it felt like, though it probably wasn't, at least five minutes) in the mad scene to rig up a stage picture was, in my mind, unforgivable in an opera which could already use some serious trimming (THANK GOD they cut the ballet).

There were bits of the score I liked- the Gertrude/Hamlet confrontation primarily- but overall I found it a bit of a chore. I can barely stomach Gounod and Massenet at the best of times, so Thomas was a bit beyond me. Chacun a son gout.

Posted by: ianw2 | May 25, 2010 11:12 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps Tuesday nights will become known as artists and intellectuals nights at the Washington National Opera.

Ian, I have to strongly disagree with your comment that the WNO Hamlet production showed lots of pretty visuals with little to connect them. I thought that the recent WNO Ring cyclette showed lots of “pretty” visuals with little to connect them. I often wished that Zambello and her team had been locked in the American painting galleries of the National Gallery of Art or the Rockefeller American Art Galleries of the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums for several fortnights.

And while I did not attend, the recent Mary Zimmerman - Rossini “Armida” at the MET (with Rene Fleming and Lawrence Brownlee) looked fairly poorly conceived visually. Thaddeus Strassberger may not yet be in the same genius league as Zimmerman, Ross, and Alsop, but I think that he and his team should be strongly applauded – along with the excellent soloists, secondary singers, chorus members, and staff – for helping the WNO end a sad year on a note of promise.

Again briefly as to the singing, I thought that Liam Bonner was fine almost from the post-prologue outset, while Elizabeth Futral at first seemed to be holding back a bit and preserving her voice for the second half. However, she, too - sooner in the first half than I expected - blossomed nicely, especially in the important and beautiful duets. Like others here, I am tempted to try to see the production a second time.

As to the break before Ophelia’s mad scene “grand special effect” – I had been warned to expect it and could warn our guests, and I found it no more distracting than watching Siegfried sung and acted by different performers as in the WNO production of the year before. (I wish that I had taken my mother to Hamlet rather than to Siegfried.)

For people who haven’t yet seen the production and are hesitant, the WNO’s Hamlet features a GRAND SPECIAL EFFECT in the second half even better than the chandelier GRAND SPECIAL EFFECT in Phantom of the Opera!!!!! The GRAND SPECIAL EFFECT features Ophelia seeming to fly in her madness!!!!

[Diplomacy, my dear boy, ian. You must be new to Washington. There are very powerful cultural forces hidden here that will either grant your wishes or banish you from sight. Also, remember, neither a borrower nor a lender be …]

Posted by: snaketime1 | May 26, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

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