Monday, February 22, 2016


by  Dwight Casimere

Roberto Alagna has become the "go to" tenor  at the Metropolitan Opera. This month, he stepped in to save the day after famed tenor Jonas Kaufman withdrew from the Met's new production of Manon Lescaut, which opened February 12 to rave reviews. Fortunately, he had learned the role some years ago for a series of performances that were ultimately canceled. so he was able to assume the lead role of Chevalier Des Grieux in his role debut opposite super hot soprano Kristine Opolais in Puccini's passionate love story, Manon Lescaut. Saturday, March 5 at 1pm, audiences in 2,000 movie theaters in 70 countries around the world will have the opportunity to see this dynamic due in action when the opera will be transmitted worldwide as part of the Met's Live in HD Series.

With Met Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi in the pit as Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, the production by British director Sir Richard Eyre, who previously staged Carmen in his Met debut in 2009,  features set design by Rob Howell of London's National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Costumes are by Fotini Dimou, who also designed the costumes for the same production at the festival Hall Baden-Baden in 2013. Lighting designer Peter Mumford, also of London,  has previously lit Met productions of Werther, Carmen, Peter Grimes, Faust Madama Butterfly (debut in 2006) and the 125th Anniversary Gala.

Choreographer Sara Erde of New York has worked as assistant stage director for the Met's Rigoletto, Madame Butterfly and La Donna del Lago.

Sir Rihard Eyre sets the action during the Nazi occupation of France in 1941, giving the production a bit of an historial edge, over its original setting in the salons and boudoirs of late 18th century France.

Manon Lescaut is a production that bristles with sensuality, fantastic singing and superb acting. Roberto Alagna gives a visceral performance as Lescaut's ardent lover, Des Grieux, who pursues her love even to the gates of hell. Although this is his first time playing the role on stage, it seems as if it were written for him. Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais sings the  doomed heroine with abandon. The sexscenes between she and Alagna are among the most sensuous to ever play out on the Met stage. Opoplaise is also currently burning up the Met stage in her debut as Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly.

The Met is in the midst of a sort of undeclared Puccini festival  this season with productions old and new of La Boheme, Madama Butterfly, Manon Lescaut, Tosca and Turandot either previously ended or returning for a spring run with new casting.

Met Live HD's offering last month was Puccini';s Turandot in a lavish production, which was transmitted Saturday, January 30 with an Encore Presentation February 3. Swedish Soprano Nina Stemme soared as the enigmatic Turandot, whose ruthless riddles spelled doom for her wealthy suitors who came from around the globe in search of her hand in marriage. Only brave Calaf, sung with force and conviction by Marco Berti, ultimately conquers the vengeful Turandot with his ardor. This was truly and inspired, eye-popping production.



Ana Maria Martinez in the title role with  Roberto De Biasio as Pinkerton
Photos: Metropolitan Opera/Marty Sohl

by Dwight Casimere

Credit the superb staging and production design of Anthony Minghella, direction and choreography of Carolyn Choa, set design by Michael Levine and the imaginative puppetry of Blind Summit Theatre, with salvaging what might have been a rather hum-drum season premiere of the Metropolitan Opera's current offering of Puccini's Madama Butterfly.

Gibraltar-born conductor Karel Mark Chichon, the current Chief Conductor of the world-renowned Deutsche Radio Philharmonie infused Puccini's ground-breaking orchestrations with an urgency and vitality that, at times, overshadowed the performances on stage. Soprano and Houston native Ana Maria Martinez, stepping in for an ailing Hei Kyung Hong, showed glimmers of the conflicting angst felt by the named lead, Cio-Cio San, who suffers the ridicule and disgrace of her family and culture by embracing the Christianity of Pinkerton, the American Navy Lieutenant to whom she is wed in a sham "wedding." Sung by Sicilian tenor Roberto De Biasio, who seemed to tip-toe around the character, his sweet voice would inexplicably vanish into thin air whenever it was drowned out by Puccini's lush orchestrations. Soprano Martinez  seemed to gain her footing in the beautiful "Un bel di," the signature aria of this seminal work. Once out of the shadow of her lackluster co-star. Martinez seemed to blossom and take flight, much as her namesake, Butterfly.

Ana Maria Martinez as Butterfly with her handmaiden, Suzuki, sung by Maria Zifchak with her love-child puppet provided by Blind Summit Theatre.

Madama Butterfly tells the story of Cio-cio-San, the teenaged geisha whose family's fall from grace has led her to be bartered like a piece of chattel, along with a house and gaggle of servants to American Navy Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton at the height of U.S. Imperialism and the Manifest Destiny that began to unfold at the start of the 20th century. The deal is brokered by Goro, sung by Tony Stevenson in his Met debut, and U.S. Consul Sharpless, sung with smarmy smugness by Polish tenor Artur Rucinski, also in his Met debut.

Artur Rucinski in his Met debut at Sharpless

 Butterfly is given to Pinkerton almost an an accessory to the house he has leased "for 999 years." A phony marriage ceremony is hastily arranged. The 15 year old Butterfly is just as convinced of its validity as Pinkerton is of its  being just another meaningless peculiarity of Japanese culture. One can almost hear the gears turning in the back of his, planning his hasty return home once his tour of duty is completed to claim his American wife. His attitude is the ultimate representation of Manifest Destiny Imperialism which dominated the Western world view of the East at the turn of the last century.

Butterfly's tragic ending is telegraphed from the beginning. When her handmaiden, Suzuki, sung with  an assured ease by Met veteran Maria Zifchak, attempts to clear out Butterfly's old belongings in preparation for her wedding, Butterfly admonishes her not to throw away her most prized possession, the dagger her father used to commit ritual suicide at the behest of the Mikado. She eyes it almost lovingly, as if anticipating its kiss of death.

Soprano Martinez seemed at her vocal and dramatic best when she stepped away from the colorless shadow of her co-star. She seemed to come to life and at the conclusion of Act II, Part I, when Butterfly and Suzuki strewed the house with flowers in anticipation of Pinkerton's return.

Additionally, some of the most artistic scenes in the entire performance were provided by some of the opera's ancillary elements; the dancers and the chorus.  Butterfly and Pinkerton's love-child was portrayed by a life-sized puppet operated by two puppet masters shrouded in black from Blind Summit Theatre. Their pantomimed dance with two puppets representing the romance between Butterfly and Pinkerton was one of the highlights of the entire staging, which drew the audience into the emotional vortex of the opera and riveted its emotional impact.

Also, the use of lanterns and origami flags by the dancers and chorus gave much needed visual punctuation to scenes during the lush orchestral interludes. They were expertly conducted by  guest conductor Karl Mark Chichon. The orchestral passages were instrumental in advancing the story in and of themselves.

Lanterns, origami, puppetry, confetti and sliding silk panels are elements borrowed from Japanese theatre and artistry were the  visual elements that punctuated the story of Madama Butterfly

Have no fear, brighter days are ahead for Butterfly, so feel free to plan a future visit. The indisposed Hei Kyung Hong assumes the lead February 27. A new cast assumes the helm March 17 with the sultry Kristine Opolais, now electrifying the stage as Manon Lescaut, in the title role, with the indefatigable Roberto Alagna, also her co-star in Manon, as her Pinkerton. The serious money says this combination is sure to ignite fireworks. Visit for more details.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

NY Philharmonic: Yefim Bronfman plays Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2

by Dwight Casimere

Yefim Bronfman, the former New York Philharmonic Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-In-Residence at the Steinway

There's no question that Franz Liszt was the undisputed piano virtuoso of his time, playing the concert halls of Europe to standing ovations through much of the mid-19th Century. Although he wrote numerous challenging pieces for piano and orchestra, there are only two numbered full-scale concertos that bear his name. Grammy Award-winning pianist  Yefim Bronfman, the New York Philharmonic's 2013-14 Mary and James G. Wallach Artist-In-Residence gave a brilliant accounting of the work with the young Russian conductor, Juraj Valcuha, the Chief Conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonia Nazionale della RAI, Torino, Italy as guest conductor.

Clocking in at just under 20 minutes, the relatively short duration of the piece in no way diminishes its Romantic beauty. Bronfman carefully built the slow opening measures with a light, unhurried approach, before unleashing the full measure of his superior technique in the ensuing Allegro agitato. Conductor Valcuha did a masterful job of framing Bronfman's magnificent playing with restrained tempos and carefully balanced passages from each of the orhcestra's  sections. The bracing finale gave everyone the thrilling ride they had hoped for, with Bronfman diving into the Allegro animato with surety, dispatching the notes with a dramatic flourish, yet allowing each of them to ring with distinction.

The concert was bookended by two climactic tone poems that are virtual beacons in the annals of modern 20th century composing; Zoltan Kodaly's energetic and almost cinematic Glantai Tankoc (Dances of Galanta), which preserves the whirling dervish frenzy of Hungarian Gypsy dances, long since vanished, and Maurice Ravel's sardonic and equally frenetic LaValse, said to be his musical commentary on the ravages wrought by the first World War. A haunting clarinet solo played with heartfelt yearning that reminded one of the reed player Yusef Lateef (1920-2013), was the most outstanding element of the Kodaly. Guest conductor   Valcuha brought a youthful vitality to the Ravel, which garnered a much-deserved thunderous ovation.