Category: Arts and Entertainment

With only two weeks left in their season, the Metropolitan Opera looked forward to the summer with an exuberant presentation of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (“The Abduction from the Seraglio”) last Friday night. The piece, which premiered in 1782 when the composer was only 26 years old, is a German singspiel – an opera in which spoken dialogue is interspersed between arias and ensembles. The story includes antiquated notions of the relations of East and West and is certainly of its era, but listening to Mozart’s timelessly ebullient music still makes for a mirthful way to spend a springtime evening.

Entführung is set in a Turkish seraglio into which three European travelers – the noble lady Konstanze, her maid Blondchen, and Blondchen’s sweetheart Pedrillo – have been sold into servitude for the ruling Pasha Selim. When the opera begins, Konstanze’s betrothed, the Spanish gentleman Belmonte, has arrived at the harem to rescue Konstanze. But before doing so, he and Pedrillo must outmaneuver the palace overseer Osmin in order to free the ladies, while Konstanze struggles to remain firm against the Pasha’s advances.

Just a week after the Met announced that Music Director James Levine would resign from his position due to health concerns, the conductor was back on the podium for this performance. Thanks to the smaller demands of a chamber orchestra and only half-a-dozen cast members, Levine was able to keep all the musical forces together and led a buoyant yet lithe rendition of Mozart’s early masterpiece.

As Konstanze, Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova offered a portrayal marked by refined timbre, rosy tope notes, and crystal clear vocal runs. Shagimuratova especially excelled in delivering Konstanze’s two formidable arias, which she dispatched with both precision and sophistication.

Kathleen Kim brought her characteristically radiant soprano and charming persona to the role of Blondchen who, despite her small stature, goes toe-to-toe with the towering Osmin to protect her modesty. Hers was also an enchanting characterization throughout.

Tenor Paul Appleby sang with a polished focused sound, that, while appropriately Mozartean, often struggled to fill the Met’s expansive auditorium and receded into the background during ensemble singing. Making his Met debut, Brenton Ryan was an adorable Pedrillo. With outgoing physicality and enthusiastic singing, Ryan brought great charisma and winning energy every time he appeared onstage.

Bass Hans-Peter König as Osmin plumbed the depths of his vocal range and sang with a dark, booming sound that nicely complemented his cast mates’ lighter voices. In the spoken role of Pasha Selim, Matthias von Stegmann gave a satisfactory if unremarkable interpretation.

The Met continues to use John Dexter’s 1979 staging of Die Entführung aus dem Serail each time they revive the opera despite the fact that, with its reliance on dusty flat scenery and some garish velvet costuming, is rather outdated. More remarkably, the production does little to address the cultural stereotyping in the source material. Not that Entführung is a terribly offensive piece considering the context of its composition, but this presentation still relies on dark makeup and “Middle Eastern-inspired” clothing to depict the Turkish characters. All this being said, this revival of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail features an accomplished cast that enlivens the evening with (mostly) stellar musical performances, making for an exciting way to celebrate the end of the season.

Performance of Die Entführung aus dem Serail run through May 7th with the final performance broadcast live on WQXR 105.9 FM. More information can be found online at the Met’s website.

From their study of the great texts of Ancient Greek literature, many Columbia students are well acquainted with the curse that hung over the House of Atreus, but far fewer are likely to be familiar with the operatic setting of the story by German composer Richard Strauss.

The plot of his opera “Elektra” focuses an episode in the family’s story after Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, has been murdered by his wife Clytemnestra after retuning from the Trojan War. Composed in 1903, Strauss’ frenzied score flirts with the then in-vogue move towards atonality in order to covey the opera’s violent subject matter. It is one of the most challenging operas to perform, so extra care goes into the preparation of a production as was the case when the Metropolitan Opera presented the work on April 14th.

The evening marked the premiere performance of a new staging by the late director Patrice Chéreau. Throughout his career, Chéreau was known for bringing an insightful perspective to many of the repertory’s most complex works, offering audiences revelatory theatrical experiences.

The entire evening unfolds against Richard Peduzzi’s towering set – a set of imposing, drab walls that seem to add to the opera’s sense of suffocation and despair. The scenery’s simplicity is complemented by pared down costumes by Caroline de Vivaise, both of which help focus attention back on the psychological drama unfolding onstage.

When the opera begins, Agamemnon’s daughter Elektra is so obsessed with destroying her mother and avenging her father that she has descended into a state of semi-madness. She awaits the return of her brother Orestes who will enact vengeance, but these hopes are dashed when messengers arrive to inform the family that Orestes has been killed. Ultimately, Elektra discovers that one of the messengers is actually Orestes himself, and brother and sister are reunited in order to overthrow their mother.

The weight of a successful performance of “Elektra” greatly rests on the shoulders of the soprano executing the incredibly taxing title role. Only moments after the curtain rose, Swedish soprano Nina Stemme took the stage and did not exit for the remainder of the nearly two-hour-long presentation. Not only was her stamina unflagging, but Stemme delivered Strauss’ music with a throbbing, steely tone that successfully sliced through the opera’s bewildering orchestration. Stemme owned the night with a crazed interpretation of the title character, but she also lent the character a sympathetic humanity that made her portrayal far more poignant.

Chrysothemis, Elektra’s sister and only ally, is conflicted about the plans to assassinate Clytemnestra and instead longs for a peaceful life of domesticity. In this role, Adrianne Pieczonka sang the role with a lustrous tone that soared over the orchestra and nicely contrasted Stemme’s intensity.

As Clytemnestra, veteran mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier proved that, even with age, her rich timbre still has the power to tackle incredibly dramatic parts. Meier brought great nuance to her portrayal, balancing the character’s mental anguish with her regal elegance.

Eric Owens is a favorite of Met audiences, but at times, his hefty bass can seem too weighty for the roles he undertakes. Orestes, however, was a natural fit for his instrument, as the character’s reserved determination was evident in Owen’s dignified performance. Burkhard Ulrich brought a penetrating tenor to the smaller but essential role of Clytemnestra’s lover Aegisthus, while the remaining members of the well-cultivated ensemble of singers contributed strong performances all around.

As is the case in the composer’s other masterpieces, Strauss uses the orchestra in “Elektra” to convey the narrative throughout and paints vivid musical pictures with genius orchestration. As always, the Met Orchestra performed the score with great dexterity, but as is often the case for especially demanding works, they infused an extra degree of passion into their playing, here under the baton of renowned conductor and composer Esa-Pekka Salonen.

In all honesty, “Elektra” demands a great deal from listeners. The music and language are dense, and there is little physical action onstage for much of the evening. That being said, it is a standout masterpiece of 20th century opera, and this production, cast, and orchestra offer a superb rendering of a challenging work.

Performances of “Elektra” run through May 7th with the April 30th matinee performance being broadcast live into movie theaters and broadcast on WQXR 105.9 FM. More information can be found online at metopera.org.

Photo Courtesy CU Now Show

Have you seen the newest CU Now video? The video, released last night, features Shreyas Manohar (CC ’18) covering a gamut of issues alongside the Dean of Columbia College, James Valentini.

To better understand student reactions to the video, our team went out and polled students from a variety of academic years and backgrounds about their reactions to the new video. Check out what students said below.

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By Yael Turitz (BC ’19)

I have a confession to make. I’m an addict.

No, I don’t struggle from alcoholism, or drug addiction, or even the newly psychologically recognized video-game addiction. I’m addicted to television.

I don’t mean to delegitimize the mental illness that is addiction. Thank God, I have never suffered from drug addiction or anything of the like and do not begin to claim I know what it feels like. And yet, I believe I too am an addict.

Addiction: “An unusually great interest in something or a need to do or have something” (Merriam-Webster).

It’s 1AM on a Tuesday night and the man is turning his back on the only person who’s ever cared about him. His friend catches on, and suddenly it’s a brawl through the abandoned warehouse in Manhattan. With one knockout punch, it’s over. The screen turns black. I look over at my clock. 1:06AM. ABC’s Castle is over. My body is exhausted, but my mind is just getting started.

“Television is the bane of this generation.”

“The problem with today’s teenage population is that they spend too much time with their eyes glued to the television and never do anything productive with their time.”

“Studies have shown that people spend more time watching television today than they do working, or exercising, or having personal interactions.”

I’ve heard it all before. Grumbles of the men in my synagogue, the professors in my history class, my grandfather. But it can’t stop me.

My imagination thrusts into action. I take each individual character, major or minor, and imagine her background, his family life, his career plans, her goals. I forge relationships between characters, and I create new characters, to establish new bonds or to wedge distances between old ones. I get lost in my own mind.

I want to be a writer. Not a journalist, not an editor—a bona fide fiction writer. I know it’s crazy, idealistic, naïve- but nothing gets me going like a well-crafted story. My idols include people like Jane Austen and Aaron Sorkin.

When I watch an episode of the West Wing, I’m not aimlessly watching a laptop; I’m actively engaging with Josh and Donna and imagining just how beautiful Sorkin’s banter looked on a page. When I watched Downton Abbey each week (oh boy, here comes the loss-of-Downton tears), it wasn’t a time-waster; it was a gateway into a world of characters and story-lines I could mold in my mind. Episodes inspire me to do what I love.

It’s an addiction because it’s a need. Once I get going, there’s no stopping me. I need to see how my imagination from last week measures up against The Good Wife’s professional writers’. There’s an incredible satisfaction when I get it exactly right, and I get a bit smug if I think my story was better. Of course, many times I’m awed when the plot takes a twist I never saw coming. But I am only fully content when I’ve resolved this creative discourse going on in my head. Only then can I peacefully fall asleep.

Am I wasting my time? Sure, I could exercise more. (Actually, I probably should exercise more, but that’s beside the point.) And sure, sometimes I watch TV while procrastinating from doing work. But you know what? I resent the bad rap television has gotten. There are definitely shows out there- think Keeping Up With the Kardashians- that are a mindless waste of time. But quality television is not pointless. An episode of Homeland is just as gripping as Stephen King’s latest novel. Gilmore Girls’ script is as smart and creative as any Oscar Wilde play. And you can learn from shows like The Big Bang Theory or The Newsroom. I know many will hound me for attributing such greatness to the medium of modern television—but honestly, TV writers are some of the greatest creative minds of our time. And it’s not fair to them when we blatantly characterize their work as a “waste of time.”

I’m addicted to fiction, to plot-lines, to characters, to twists and turns. I get a high, all in my own mind, off of stories. Stories spark the creativity inside of me, and my passion for stories is fueled by shows on television. One day, I dream of being the one sitting behind the scenes as the cameras roll and the actors speak the words I’ve written. And one day, when you insult the medium of television, you’ll be insulting my hard work. TV writers deserve better than that. Our openness to creativity deserves better than that.

Also, if you need any series suggestions—hit me up.

 

Last Thursday night, the Metropolitan Opera roared with thunderous applause at the conclusion of Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux, the first ever presentation of the piece in the company’s history. Even more momentous, with this performance, soprano Sondra Radvanovsky completed her season-long journey of singing all three lead heroines in the composer’s “Tudor Trilogy.” To celebrate the occasion, the Met assembled an all-star cast to perform the work in an opulent new production by Scottish director Sir David McVicar.

With each outing in these roles, Radvanovsky has further asserted her mastery of vocal technique and dramatic interpretation, even if her large voice is not typical of the Bel Canto repertoire. In Roberto Devereux, she plays an aging Queen Elizabeth I, weary after a long reign on the British throne. As the opera opens, Elizabeth struggles to win the affection of the much younger Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who has secretly taken up with Sarah, Elizabeth’s close confidant and wife of the Duke of Nottingham. After Robert is convicted of treason, Elizabeth is determined to save him from punishment, but when the truth of his affair with Sara is revealed, her love turns to rage, and she instead signs the death warrant that seals his – and her – fate.

Radvanovsky’s singing was even more polished than in past performances, characteristically combining prodigious sound with razor-sharp high notes while still carefully massaging the role’s lyrical phrases. As always, the soprano was especially moving when effortlessly floating sustained pianissimi, and with increasingly unhinged physicality, Radvanovsky conveyed Elizabeth’s descent into despair and resignation. Hers was a masterful portrayal that deserved the prolonged ovations it received, but in future performances Radvanovsky could bring a touch more grit to the interpretation and achieve even greater impact.

Nearly two decades after his Met debut, tenor Matthew Polenzani’s talent is being rewarded with some of opera’s most coveted leading roles; he likewise succeeded as the conflicted title character. Bringing a tone that has become rounder and more tender with age, Polenzani’s singing was both warm and insistent, and he capped ardent lines with robust top notes. Unfortunately though, Polenzani lost his stamina during his final impassioned aria, only cautiously concluding a triumphant night.

With a creamy mezzosoprano colored by just the right amount of smokiness, Elīna Garanča imbued her portrayal of Sara with great sympathy and expressivity. Up against the exceptional performances of his colleagues, baritone Mariusz Kwiecien’s portrayal of Nottingham was underwhelming. While Kwiecien often brings a wealth charisma to his performances, this outing felt unnaturally forced and was not aided by wooden singing.

McVicar has set the world of Roberto Devereux in the claustrophobic confines of a Jacobean theater that is filled with stunning visuals. The set, designed by McVicar himself, features black wooden walls, gilded ornaments, and imposing viewing galleries that drip with the trademark grandeur of the Tudor court and is enhanced by Paule Constable’s cinematic lighting. Especially noteworthy are the sumptuous costumes by Moritz Junge that utterly transform these modern singers into Elizabethan nobility. Unfortunately, McVicar’s direction did not match the lavish production values, with much of the onstage movement marked by unmotivated action devoid of any real emotional urgency.

Under Maurizio Benini’s baton, the first scene of the opera was thrilling; here each singer performed at his or her vocal and dramatic best. But this energy waned in the scenes that followed. In key moments, Benini chose uncomfortable tempi, and his sluggish pacing of Act 2 robbed the opera’s exhilarating showdown between Elizabeth, Nottingham, and Robert of much of its intensity. Eventually, the performance re-found its vigor with riveting final scenes by Radvanovsky and Polenzani, but this was not enough to save the evening from an overall sense of inconsistency.

In all, this performance, which was loaded with great potential, only partially delivered on expectations. Thanks to three strong vocal performances and attractive aesthetics, Columbia students will still find this an engaging night at the opera. Hopefully, with subsequent performances, the weaker elements can rise to meet these high standards.

Performances of Roberto Devereux continue through April 19 with the April 16 matinee performances being broadcast into movie theaters live in high definition and presented for free on 105.9 FM WQXR. More information can be found online at the Met’s website.