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From Hell

“About the only good thing that can be said for New York City Opera’s Orpheus, which opened Saturday night, is that it made the rest of the company’s feeble season seem scintillating by comparison.” [New York Post]

81 comments

  • Clarendon says:

    New York City has never been a particularly apt place to put on baroque opera: relatively few appropriate spaces exist for it and, more importantly, critical mass has not yet been reached in the early music culture here. As a consequence, local productions that embrace the idiom with flair are few and far between, notwithstanding the superb productions that visit BAM from Europe. What mostly passes for good performance of baroque opera here is setting singers with very little experience in the period in front of a “baroque orchestra,” which almost always consists of a tiny string band augmented by a few period instrument players in the specialty divisions. It’s almost always an ungodly mess, as it was in this production.
    I will just cite a few examples here, although there are many more to offer.

    1) This production suffered the usual fate regarding ornamentation and cadenzas: meaningless twiddles that added nothing were pasted onto the original line, cadenzas were attempted that exceeded the limits of the singers’ real flexibility (resulting in muffed fioraturas, shrill high notes, and generally-out-of-tune singing), and the usual problem of singers flying up to their “money notes” at every opportunity (resulting in tedium and often making nonsense of the emotional content of the texts at hand in any particular aria). Conductor Wedow apparently did nothing to put any of this in order, and his coaching staff seems not to have helped singers who were going outside their actual capacities.

    2) As mentioned, the cast often wobbled off pitch when singing coloratura, and there were major problems of diction and vocal registration. It was often difficult to tell which of the three languages was being sung until five or six bars into the vocal lines of each aria. There seems to have been a real crisis of leadership in the coaching staff to blame here. In a city with any number of brilliant coaches, I had to wonder at the absence any of the city’s best coaches when I looked up names in the program. Why?

    3) The staging provided a kind of Regietheater Verfremdungseffekt that may be trendy, but is hardly effective. I’ve had occasional trouble with such “updatings” (which, ironically, have become such a genre unto themselves that they now seem rather careworn and out-of-fashion at times), but sense something of importance to the story stirring in my subconscious when I view them. There is nothing like that in this production. In its place, all is superficial distraction and playing to the cheap seats. Just one example: Orpheus sings an Act I aria about insincerity and posturing in life at court. Throughout, he has one tiresome gesture, in which he flaps his wrists in some kind of mad impersonation of Quentin Crisp. I’m not highly offended at the joke, but I find it to be tiresome, old, threadbare, rubber-chicken humor. Why not just go the whole nine yards and replace his cadenza with an extended Paul Lynde snarling giggle? I could go on, but what’s the point when the Borscht Belt is informing opera stagings? Unmoving from beginning to end.

    • louannd says:

      Thank you so much for this review of the work. Why bother with an a rare and undiscovered work when only minimal effort is available to do it justice? It sounds like even a concert rendering would have been tacky.

      • louannd says:

        Recently discovered work, rather.

        • m. croche says:

          Louann, Telemann’s Orpheus wasn’t all that recently discovered. There have been productions periodically since 1990 (including two in Berlin under Jacobs and one at Wolf Trap in 2006). There are two different recordings of the work currently available (including Jacobs outstanding one). It appears that some critics weren’t very aware of the work or its history until now, but that’s a different matter.

          Students of classical music have had it drummed into them for a century that Telemann is a second-rate composer (Adorno memorably described followers of the Early Music Movement: “They say Bach, but they mean Telemann.”) I’d like to think we have a more sophisticated appreciation of music from the early 18th century nowadays, and that we can find Telemann’s music more rewarding. I can remember a time when the idea of staging Vivaldi operas was met with derision -- nowadays performances of them are becoming commonplace.

          By most accounts, everything the City Opera is putting on these days is performed badly. I’m not sure people would have been any happier to see a familiar work performed under such circumstances.

  • Aida Lottapasta says:

    I would agree that the NYCO production did nothing to make a case for this opera, but the piece itself has considerably greater merits than were shown on stage. I would urge anyone interested in baroque opera, or operas inspired by the Orpheus myth to give this piece another chance. The Jacob’s recording shows a piece that is incredibly inventive and has great theatrical potential. It is well worth looking into if one is interested.

    Personally, I had no problem with the idea of the dancer as the snake, but beyond that, she was overused and distracting. The production itself was not my cup of tea, but perhaps my biggest issue was the elimination of the chorus. I’m sure this was a cost saving measure on NYCO’s part, but I think it’s kind of insulting to to present the New York premiere of an opera, but to reduce the chorus (which actually has an important role in the piece -- and could have significantly added some life to the proceedings) to a quartet of principals. This not only reduced the musical scale tremendously, but ignored the entire idea of what the chorus’s function is dramatically.

    Finally, I think it’s helpful to consider that this opera, despite it’s title, is not really the story of Orpheus. It is the story of Orasia. Her story is told around the well known myth. Orasia would make or break any production of this piece. Listen to Roschmann on the Jacob’s recording. That is a performance, with a good director, that I’d love to see! Rowley has quite an impressive instrument, but the barking she conjured up was unacceptable and did nothing to honor this wonderful music, let alone the one-dimensional portrait of a character who is actually very complex.

  • JJ says:

    JJ here.

    A problem with having a fairly small word count to work in (especially when addressing an unfamiliar work) is that there isn’t much room for nuance. The “judging by this performance, should have stayed this way” is hyperbolic but I think fairly economically sums up how I felt. I don’t think this score is a magnificent lost gem; rather, it has some nice things in it. Given a really clever production and superb musical preparation — say, something aspiring to the level at which Les Arts Florissants performed Atys here recently, this Orpheus could be a delightful festival experience.

    But that is not what “this performance” afforded the piece. It’s cheaply and tritely staged, with all the bad Opera Workshop cliches such as “let’s show how louche we all are by swilling booze out of the bottle and then reeling about as drunken people are supposed to do” and “let’s demonstrate that the murderous queen is in fact just a silly woman because she pauses in mid-aria to touch up her face with a compact of pressed powder, sort of like the way bad actresses in 1940s movies indicated ‘vanity’,” not to mention that rip-roaring classic “let’s set the audience roaring at our conscious anachronism of having the damned spirits in the classical underworld feverishly clattering away on laptops, because working in a office is HELL amirite?” And then there is that damned snake-woman playing contortionist all the time.

    The musical preparation is flimsy. The orchestra barely stays together, and most of the singers (with the exception of Rowley and Pallesen) sound bland. Nobody in the show has any particular skill at putting across the text in recitative. Rowley has either been encouraged or allowed to attempt high roulades that surpass her range. If it was some kind of directive that Orasia had to sing Konstanze-style variations on Telemann’s vocal lines, then the company should have hired someone with a Konstanze voice.

    The Orpheus either is by nature or else has been directed to act the part of a narcissistic sissy, and, worse, he has no voice. If I didn’t know George Steel was straight, I would immediately assume that this guy must be his boyfriend.

    If I heard and saw this performance at some little no-name troupe in a middle school auditorium somewhere in downtown Manhattan, I would probably use words like “promising” and “intriguing.” But from the celebrated New York City Opera, a company that this season spent over $15 million to present four productions? With that kind of reputation and that kind of money, they should have been able to make a strong case for this piece. Instead, they barely played all the notes, and therefore “judging by this performance” the work came off like a piece of junk. That’s not my fault; all I can do is report the disaster as it happens.

    • m. croche says:

      It’s quite admirable of La Cieca to tolerate even sharp criticism of her good friend’s work, and equally admirable for JJ to respond graciously.

      My objections to the paragraph as it was written still stand, but JJ’s elaborations were interesting and informative.

    • Henry Holland says:

      If I didn’t know George Steel was straight, I would immediately assume that this guy must be his boyfriend

      Zing!

    • Clarendon says:

      As unfortunate as it is, JJ is absolutely right, most especially regarding the flimsy musical preparation, poor orchestra ensemble, the bad recitative delivery, and the tasteless, meaningless ornaments, many of which are transpositions all’ottava. If the singers are so regrettably miscast that they have to sing substantial parts of their arias up the octave whenever they can sneak it in, with the flimsy justification that they are “ornamenting” (they are not), then isn’t there a huge crisis of musical direction at work here?

      Of all of these, I think the thing that made the evening drag on interminably was the misguided approach to recitative. Italian Baroque recits contain hundreds of utterly meaningless rests, their only purpose being to ensure that strong syllables wind up on strong beats in the bar. That requires the insertion of rests that were never meant to be “performed,” but which only have a function with respect to accentuation. Apparently, Wedow finds deep meaning in these meaningless rests, since he has directed his singers to observe, and even extend (!) every one. Perhaps he finds similar meaning in the amount of space between the staff lines, or the positioning of the clef signs relative to the key signature, and would like to “perform” these, as well. The result would, no doubt, be just as stultifying and deadening as his slow-paced, dull, pedantic approach to the recits in this opera. We could have shaved a good 20 minutes off the evening just by having a more intelligent recit delivery.

      • derschatzgabber says:

        Clarendon, Aida, and JJ. Thanks so much for the detailed reviews above. I had toyed with a trip to NY for the end of the MET season and this Orpheus (ended up choosing Don Carlos in Houston). Sounds like missing this particular performance was a blessing. Out in the SF Bay Area, we get spoiled by the number of local, historically informed baroque performers. What you described sounds like the musical equivalent of fingernails on blackboards.

  • operaassport says:

    Telemann is to opera what Wendell Corey is to film. A few
    trumpet pieces, not much more.

    • papopera says:

      what a waste of time and talent to exhume these silly old works.

      • grimoaldo says:

        (counts slowly to ten, breathes deeply)…We’ll, umm, agree to disagree.

    • grimoaldo says:

      I am as ignorant as to who Wendell Corey may be as your statement reveals you to be about Baroque opera and Baroque music in general.

      • Camille says:

        grimmey, dearest,

        After THIS you’ll never, ever, ever forget Wendell Corey!

        Isn’t that right, ClitadelT?

        • grimoaldo says:

          That is funny, cher Camille, thank you. I never heard of that film or any of those people before except of course for La Crawford. Under all the melodramatic music and shrieking overblown superimposed titles it looks like it might actually be quite an interesting movie ( Crawford as monstrous scheming egomaniac -- whoever thought of casting her in that role?)

          • Clita del Toro says:

            Grim: Joan is even better in *Queen Bee*. If that’s possible? lol
            But, don’t get me started.

          • operaassport says:

            Ignorance must be bliss. Wendell Corey was a dull actor with a monotone voice who mostly served as a whipping boy for tough, strong Hollywood grande dames. A perfect metaphor for most baroque opera.

        • Clita del Toro says:

          LOL Cammie, dear, we missed you on the chat!

          I don’t know about Harriet, but I bet Joan “specialized in approaches.”

          Wendell Corey was also in *Rear Window.*

          • Clita del Toro says:

          • Camille says:

            Clita! How could you leave out the greatest BITCH SLAP of all times???

            xxxooocammie

          • papopera says:

            Excellent comparison Mr Opera, touché ! Corey was a 3d rate actor who was the star of such unforgettable film as The Astro-Zombies, etc.

        • derschatzgabber says:

          Wow! I had forgotten about Harriet Craig. I discovered her watching late night TV in a dorm room (which means, a LONG time ago for me). The movie is so wildly over the top that my friends and I were yelling at the TV in respone to Joan’s many devious stratagems.

          • Clita del Toro says:

            Cammie, I just posted the movie trailer. I had totally forgotten about the slap. FAB! Xoxoxox

        • bluecabochon says:

          I love Joan, but ugh, did she ever have the worst hair & makeup here. She was 45 and 50 in these films, and to my eyes looked much older with the harsh makeup and ludicrous hairdressing.

          The films look interesting and fun -- I haven’t been on a Joan binge in years so I’ll have to look these up. Thanks for the diversion!

          Wendell Cory IS dead-eyed and dull, and here’s the proof.

      • operaassport says:

        I’m happy to remain outside the realm of those superior people who think opera ended with Gluck. Those creatures who think that early and baroque opera is the bees knees. Oh, I know plenty about baroque opera. I just find most of it overly repetitive, dull, clinical, some sort of academic exercise. It’s not about lack of knowledge but disdain.

        • Clita del Toro says:

          Operaassport, get over yourself. You are always so negative. No one ever said that Wenrell Corey was another Laurence Olivier. It does take all kinds.

        • grimoaldo says:

          Nobody has to like anything of course but I do not get why you feel the need to insult not only Baroque works themselves but the “superior creatures” who enjoy them.

          • derschatzgabber says:

            Believe it or not, there are opera fans out there who like Wagner, Berg, AND baroque opera. I don’t consider myself superior because I enjoy the Jacobs recording of Orpheus. Just happy to have found another piece of vocal music that I enjoy.

            Despite my appreciation for baroque music, I did giggle at a New Yorker cartoon that featured a marquee in front of a concert hall, announcing “Tonight, All the Teleman You Can Stand”.

          • marshiemarkII says:

            This Wagnerian Queen here is another who loves Wagner and Strauss, and ALSO worships Handel (and Vivaldi operas long before the sublime Enchanted Island experience)

          • mirywi says:

            I know a fellow who likes John Cage’s Concerto for Prepared Piano. This forces me to believe that anything is possible.

          • mirywi says:

            I heard the Cage Concerto live accompanying the Cunningham Co at the Kennedy Center last winter. I did so want to enjoy it and maybe could have half-convinced myself when I was younger but now I find I need a tiny hint of a tune or at least some rhythm in order to be happy. Agon
            any day, please.

        • m. croche says:

          I’m happy to remain outside the realm of those superior people who think opera ended with Gluck.

          Tosh -- It’s well known that there hasn’t been any decent opera since the last Ming emperor Chongzhen hanged himself from the Guilty Chinese Scholartree.

          • manou says:

            mirywi -- and some people are devoted to John Cage’s 4?33?.

          • manou says:

            …or rather Four minutes, thirty-three seconds.

          • lorenzo.venezia says:

            Mirywi, Cage’s music for prepared piano, sonatas and interludes, are quite beautiful, and if you haven’t given them a listen (and they aren’t whatever you think if you haven’t), you are missing something wonderful.

          • brooklynpunk says:

            After the Juilliard’s tribute to John Cage, earlier this year-- I have to admit to being GUILTY of loving this piece!

            httpv//www.youtube.com/watch?v=BHFzu-X6Ruw

  • casualoperafan says:

    Talking about Baroque opera in NY beings to mind a presentation a few years back by an Italian group performed at the Temple of Dendur.

    It was so bad it scared my companion off Baroque opera for several years.

    Does anyone else remember it?

  • eric says:

    So Cieca, tell us about this Teadt guy.

    It’s clear from your review that the voice is subpar. But your comment “grieving” in pouty poses suitable for a Calvin Klein ad is intriguing. Should we put him in the barihunk category, or not? He looks pleasant in his pictures, but you’re the one who has seen him in person.

    • whatever says:

      he is briefly shirtless near the end of the performance. he has real potential, but is about six weeks @ dave barton short of true barihunk status.

      • ianw2 says:

        Please feel free to post a photo of your own abs as an example.

        Not all of us consider the Barton look to be ‘hunk status’. In fact, to quote Clive James, Barton brings nothing more to mind than a ‘condom stuffed with walnuts’.