Friday, May 30, 2014

New York's Opera Season Ends (I)

Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center
We New Yorkers are fortunate to have opera year-round,
as some of the smaller opera companies - upon which we are going to depend more and more - perform during the June-September months.

For the most part, though, we tend to attach our opera "season" to the dates of our great Metropolitan Opera Association, usually from the last week of September through early May, and now that's over. Just three weeks ago I attended the final performance of the season, Bellini's grand old showcase "I Puritani" - a splendid performance bringing back very happy memories (more about that later).

I was impressed with Anthony Tommasini's comments on the season, published in The New York Times. On May 13, he wrote in A Look Back at the Year of Top Voices that - with all the worry about next season's performances - we've had a very good year, topped by the return of James Levine (for which we are all extremely grateful) and Peter Gelb's "fresh theatrical thinking" about presenting works for the Met's audience.

And in this essay Mr. Tommasini's focus on the season was on the singing, a point of view with which I couldn't be more in agreement: " takeaway from the season is that, as always, singing comes first in this art form."

So I'm thinking about what we experienced with our Monday series (and some specifically chosen additions). Coming with our pleasures at the opera house were several HDLive performances (which I note the Met has now started to refer to "movie theater transmissions" - sort of a silly description - it seems to me - but I guess their marketing people know what they're doing). By some people's standards, I suppose that's a pretty full plate of opera but since this is one of the major reasons - well, for some of us - for living in New York we're happy to have it, good singing and all.

And there used to be more. The season began with the sad news that our beloved New York City Opera was entering into bankruptcy and would close, after 70 years for performances. Mayor LaGuardia's famous "people's opera" succumbed to a lot of problems but from what most of us have figured out, it was simply bad management over the past ten or twelve years. We were so disappointed to have this news (at our house we had subscribed to NYCO as well) but the company simply couldn't be saved. I hope someone someday will write a full history of this wonderful company. It meant so much to so many of us. [And until then, we have Fred Cohn's very fair description of the sad story, "The Ballad of NYCO" published in Opera News in January 2012 and two months later Alex Ross's brief commentary remarking on NYCO and the dispiriting New York opera scene in The New Yorker, March 12, 2012.]

And we did have the opportunity for a wonderful send-off, right at New York City Center, where the New York City Opera had first performed. Put on by the musician's union (one of the very unions leading - as Tommasini describes with respect to the Met - "critical labor negotiations that have turned acrimonious"), it was a night to remember. Lots of good singers, wonderful orchestral playing, and a sweet ending when during the curtain calls Pl├ícido Domingo - who started at New York City Opera - kissed his hand and leaned down to plant his kiss on the floor of the stage. A bittersweet evening indeed.

That's enough for now. More about this season's opera experiences below.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

New York's Opera Season Ends (II)

Back to the Met: I'll let Mr. Tommasini describe the singing (splendid - no disagreement there!). I'll share my thoughts about several wonderful highlights, including Nico Muhly's "Two Boys," a fresh and very modern spooky story set to a lovely score. Muhly writes in a wide-variety of "styles" and I'm especially taken with his choral music. Very important work (coming to New York - with slight revisions - from a 2011 premiere at the English National Opera) and I'm pleased we had it here.

We had three Strauss jewels, and since I'm a major Straussian I was very happy. I had missed my Strauss when his works were excluded to make room for the 200th-anniversary Verdi and Wagner performances (and truth to tell, the new Wagner "Ring" in the 2011 and 2012 seasons sort of got the lion's share of the attention - 'way too much for what we had in the cycle itself). But we made up for it this year, with the splendid and almost overwhelmingly beautiful "Die Frau Ohne Schatten" in the autumn. This has to be one of the most beautiful operas ever written, and this thirteen-year-old Herbert Wernicke production - not seen for ten years - must be one of the loveliest to look at of all the productions done for this opera. So well performed, and if the season had had a single highlight, this would have been it.

And we also had the last performances of "Der Rosenkavalier" - the beautiful but, yes, worn-out Robert O'Hearn production of 1969. A great, great lavishly visual production, but it was time to go and - quite coincidentally - we were there for the last performance. Of course I loved every minute of it, and since it was the first of many productions of this great opera I ever saw, I will miss it, but I will do without this production. And it will be great fun to see what the new production - when it comes - looks like. I'm wondering if any other production at the Met has lasted 45 seasons and still looked this good.

Our final Strauss was the gorgeous "Arabella," sung so well at the house just last month. Another well-done and long-lasting production (by Otto Schenk in 1983), the show looks good. I felt the cast was very good, although there were some commenting on these performance who would not rank the singing with Tommasini's singing highlights of the season. I didn't feel that way, and I thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

What else? Two very special new productions, in addition to "Two Boys," made us sit up and take notice. Like the Las Vegas rat-pack "Rigoletto" of last season, the new "Falstaff" blew us away. Replacing Franco Zeffirelli's 1964 production (yes, even older than that "Der Rosenkavalier" I referred to above!), this was set in post-WWII England and - as much as we resisted - it worked, with splendid singing and, well, just an overall fun and musically satisfying evening. The new "Werther" also pleased, and once again all of us were impressed with the overall ensemble work done at the Met.

And the happiest opera experiences, it seems, came at the end of the season. We had a great time with "La Cenerentola" and even though it wasn't a happy-ending opera like "Cenerentola," the last night performance for the season was "I Puritani," another one of the greats. And clever scheduling, on the part of the Met (although I'm joking - I'm sure it was only coincidental) the last day of performances was "standing-ovation" day at the opera house.

The afternoon performance was "La Cenerentola" and it proved - from the first performance in April - to be the popular hit of the season. We were at the first performance, with Javier Camarena singing the prince for an ailing Juan Diego Florez. Camarena was spectacular, and the ovation went on so long we thought we would have an encore (that happened in future performances). For the last matinee, Florez had come back to the performances, so that afternoon seemed to generate some excitement that carried over into the evening.

As I said, the last performance of the season was "I Puritani" and this time the spectacular tenor was Lawrence Brownlee in a performance that had us all on the edge of our seats with excitement. No encore this time, but his singing definitely ranked with that of Camarena and Florez in "La Cenerentola," giving lots of talk in New York about a new version of "the three tenors." Silliness aside, they were all just terrific as we ended the season. I think Mr. Guy gives a little bit of edge to Brownlee.

And what memories that old 1976 production brought back. Starring Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Sherrill Milnes, and James Morris, it was one of the highlights of my opera-going younger days. And when brought back ten years later to celebrate Joan's 25th anniversary at the Met, it was still a delicious experience to hear. No matter that the production is not one of the Met's best productions, it works (and it worked then) and whenever I hear this splendid opera I can't help but remember the glorious singing of Dame Joan. Ah, she is missed.

So we move on. I love to hear older opera lovers talk about the "golden age" of opera (it's always the time when they were nearing middle age and were hearing that generation's best singers), and I love to think about how what we hear is different for all of us. I'm not threatened by the Met's sharing house performances with audiences in "movie theater transmissions," and, yes, for me and most of my generation, we prefer the opera house. But whatever the situation is, for viewing and hearing the opera, I think we're pretty lucky, as this past season proved. And for those of us living in New York, I continue to be amazed - and appreciate - what is done for us at our great opera house here in New York. We're very lucky.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Spring Visit: Canterbury Windows in New York

View from The Cloisters
across the Hudson River
Up in Fort Tryon Park, in northern Manhattan, we have a very special place that appeals to so many of us New Yorkers. It's The Cloisters museum and gardens and it has just completed the celebration of its 75th anniversary.

And it's been a splendid celebration, complete with a beautifully written and produced issue of The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin devoted exclusively to the history of the Cloisters. "Creating The Cloisters" by Timothy B. Hubbard provides a wonderfully detailed description of this branch of The Metropolitan Museum of Art specially devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe. The collection was assembled from architectural elements, both domestic and religious, largely dating from the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries.

Not surprisingly, the collection is full of many artifacts that each evoke a particular response from visitors (and it doesn't matter whether you are a believer or not - this is great stuff to look at and think about). I have a couple of favorites, but I'm not a scholar. So I've never taken the time to study the official guidebook or delve deeply to find out more about them (should do that one day). I just like them.

Wise old people
The first is what I like to think of as a group of kings or prophets or something like that, but who knows? Perhaps they are just wise old people (I started to write "wise old men" but I don't think the figure second from the right would be very happy about that!). I'm specially taken with the last figure on the right, as he seems to be pondering some special problem that is going to be very important to everyone who knows him once he solves it (and don't you sometimes sit with your cheek against your right fist while you trying to solve a problem?).

Two ladies
Then there are the two ladies topping off a column and providing substance to its capital. Just what is the lady who in not front-and-center thinking about? Could it be something along the lines of "Just who does she think she is, getting out front and getting all the attention when I'm the one people should be looking at?" I love that stone carvers in olden times could incorporate their own sense of humor in their work.

Now, with the 75th Anniversary celebrations ended and life for visitors to The Cloisters back to normal, we've just had another special treat. [And when I say "back to normal" I'm simply referring to life as "normal" as it can be for visitors - New Yorkers and out-of-towners alike - who thrive on learning all they can about New York's history and how it attached to special interests like those of John D. Rockefeller Jr. - who built The Cloisters - and George Grey Barnard, the person who brought together the original items that became the first collection at The Cloisters.]

Jared (left) and Phalec (right)
The special treat I'm referring to is this: In a special arrangement with Canterbury Cathedral, we've just had a wonderful opportunity to view six Romanesque-period stained glass windows that have never been away from the cathedral grounds since they were created in the 1178-1180 period. At Canterbury, the stonework surrounding the windows is being restored, and while the restoration work is being done, the windows have been on loan to us.

The exhibition was called Radiant Light: Stained Glass from Canterbury Cathedral at The Cloisters and there's this from a nice published description at the museum site:

"The windows are from the clerestory of the cathedral's choir, east transepts, and Trinity Chapel. The six figures—Jared, Lamech, Thara, Abraham, Noah, and Phalec—were part of an original cycle of eighty-six ancestors of Christ, the most comprehensive stained-glass cycle known in art history. One complete window (Thara and Abraham), rising nearly twelve feet high, is shown with its associated rich foliate border."

I'm not an expert in cathedral windows, but I did enjoy the exhibition (sorry I couldn't write about it before it was over) and I was delighted to learn about a book on the larger subject of the saints depicted here: The Ancestors of Christ Windows at Canterbury Cathedral, by Jeffrey Weaver and Madeline H. Caviness describes some eighty-six near-life-size figures of the male ancestors of Christ that once could be seen in the choir and eastern extension of the medieval cathedral and priory church of Canterbury.

With the windows here with us in New York, I recently took a day go to The Cloisters, to visit the windows to delight not only in the windows themselves but just to have another visit to The Cloisters, one of the highlights on any list of unique New York experiences. The visit also gave me the opportunity to have a delightful trip down memory lane, for earlier in my career I had been introduced to a delightful lady - now gone, sadly - who was something of an expert on Canterbury's windows. She came to America frequently to lecture to museum friends groups, civic associations, church and literary historical societies, and the like (not surprising that the list should be so long, since Canterbury Cathedral's history is so long and so connected to all Christendom).

On one of her lecture tours, I got to know her and of course, just by some sort of osmosis process I suppose, found myself interested in cathedral stained glass windows, cathedrals themselves, and - considering my profession then - cathedral libraries. I was extremely lucky, for just a few years after meeting Mrs. Brooks I was granted a sabbatical from my then employer to go to England and study English cathedral libraries with the goal (according to my book agent) of producing the definitive book on English cathedral libraries, a large coffee-table type book to be filled with splendid illustrations of artifacts held in the cathedral libraries. As it turned out I was in England for 18 months, living at Mrs. Brooks's house in Canterbury (although I was of necessity required to travel all over England and visit all the cathedral cities as I pursued my research). An ambitious project, and one I was delighted to undertake.

That 18 months was a spectacular time for me, living in Canterbury, traveling all over the country, spending enormous blocks of time at the British Library and even, when required, at the London Library - which I learned to love as a sort of "library home away from home." I even took digs in London for a brief spell, since I was so captivated by being in London and have available to me all that - as for many Americans - London "life" represents. Whether real or fantasy, that environment charms many of us, so to have the opportunity to enjoy London as a real person and not as a tourist was a special treat. I've never forgotten that time in my life, and for me London and Canterbury (and yes, to a certain extent other places I visited in England as well) are a big part of my adult "memory book".

And they were fun times. I made many friends - some of whom I keep up with and who will be reading this post - and I experienced so many good stories that I can't begin to tell them all. I will, though, close this post with a typical story, connecting the visit to the Canterbury windows in New York with Guy's life in Canterbury nearly thirty years ago, a very happy time indeed. And some of my friends will recognize this story, for I used to tell it often.

Kathleen Brooks was a delightful and always cheerful good friend. Whether she was one of the "typical" English eccentrics or not is beside the point, but she definitely had her ways. And often, with a total lack of self-consciousness, she would describe a situation that - for some - might be considered self-deprecating. Didn't matter. Whatever the story was, she described the situation and, with her listeners, laughed heartily.

One day, at the cathedral, she had been called to guide a group of visiting businessmen, all from Northern Europe. Protesting that she did not know any Scandinavian languages, she tried to decline but was told that the men all spoke perfect English, so she agreed to do the tour.

As was her usual habit, she walked the group (a pretty large one - about thirty people) about the cathedral, telling all the stories and of course, with her specialty, focusing on the stories illustrated in the magnificent stain glass windows.

Also as was her habit, she always tried to have her listeners stop from time to time for a few moments, just to take in the enormous space of the cathedral and all that it represented to society and to history. And to have a bit of a rest.

After the men were all seated, Kathleen herself decided to take a rest, so she sat down in the pew just behind the last few of the visitors. They were deep in conversation, and did not notice that she had sat down behind them. As it happened, she was so close that she could not help but hear their conversation, which was all about the tour and all that the visitors were seeing, and especially about her enthusiasm as a guide.

And then one of the men turned to the others and, without missing a beat, said, "And did you ever meet a lady with so much useless information?"

She told the story often, always roaring with laughter, and seeing the Canterbury windows in New York made me realize just how much she would have loved seeing them here.

End of day -time to head
back to mid-town Manhattan
So it was a special day at The Cloisters. Here's an end-of-the-visit photo. You can see it's still a winter's day - not quite the springtime warmth we would like to have had for an April visit to The Cloisters but, yes, down in the shadows is a crocus or two trying hard.

And a very nice day anyway, a day for re-visiting Canterbury Cathedral windows, a day of re-living special Guy-in-England memories, and a day for about thinking about a very special lady, a wonderful influence in my life. She taught me much, and gave substance to my love of English cathedrals.

Oh, and all that research about English cathedral libraries? I ended up following in Kathleen's footsteps and giving lots of lectures and telling lots of stories and having a few articles published. The proposed book that sent me on my journey? Didn't happen. Now generally referred to as "Guy's famous unpublished book on cathedral libraries." It was a grand idea, had lots of support from people I knew in America, including a very hard-working agent, and support from folks in the Anglican church (some, not all). My agent really tried had to sell the project to the art publishers but it wasn't to be. When my research work in England was finished with no publication in sight, it was time to move on.