Kim, Kathleen


BalloGiuseppe Verdi - Un Ballo in Maschera

The Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2012 | Fabio Luisi, David Alden, Sondra Radvanovsky, Kathleen Kim, Stephanie Blythe, Marcelo Alvarez, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Keith Miller, David Crawford | The Met Live in HD, 8th December 2012

Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball) is an opera of wild dynamism, marrying together scenes of jarring contrasts in a way that makes it difficult opera to stage dramatically and musically in any coherent or consistent way. It certainly not an opera I’ve seen handled convincingly on the stage, but David Alden’s production for the Metropolitan Opera, if it doesn’t quite bring it all together, at least points towards a way that might work. Not playing it entirely straight, not playing it up for laughs either, but playing it scene by scene the way Verdi wrote it.

Quite what Verdi’s true intentions for the work were is of course open to speculation. The work, originally entitled Gustavo III, based on the real-life historical assassination of King Gustav III at a Masked Ball in Sweden in 1792, was notoriously banned by the strict censorship laws of the period in revolutionary Risorgimento Italy, who were unhappy about the depiction of an assassination of a monarch, forcing Verdi to rewrite and rename the characters involved. Even then, the changes applied to the new version, called Una Vendetta in Dominò, weren’t enough to appease the censors in Naples, so a furious Verdi took the work to Rome where it was first performed with the setting changed to Boston in North America as Un Ballo in Maschera in 1859. The work is now performed, as it is here at the Met, in its original Swedish setting, but clearly Verdi was forced or felt the need to make compromises to the work in order to avoid censorship even in Rome.

None of this however is likely to have had much of an impact on Verdi’s choices for the musical scoring of the piece and, seeking to show off his range and work with musical arrangements and arias more along the lines of La Traviata than the more through compositional style that he was gradually moving towards, Un Ballo in Maschera consequently has some of the composer’s most beautiful melodies, striking arrangements and dramatic situations. Every dramatic situation is pushed to its emotional limits - whether it’s the love of Gustavo for Amelia, the wife of his secretary, the friendship of Gustavo and Renato which is to fall apart on the discovery of the affair, or the hatred felt by the king’s adversaries - all of it is characterised by Verdi with an extravagance of passion.

An extravagance of melody too which, accompanying the melodramatic developments of the plot’s regal and historical intrigue, to say nothing of incidents involving gypsy fortune tellers, can lead the work to switch dramatically at a moment’s notice between the most romantic of encounters to the deepest gloom, from declarations of love to dire threats of vengeance. The key to presenting the work coherently - if it’s at all possible - is to try to ensure that these moments don’t jar, and with Fabio Luisi conducting the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera here, musically this was a much more fluent and consistent piece than it might otherwise have been, without there being any alteration or variation to the essential tone of the work.

Inevitably, any director is going to look for a consistency of style in the approach to the stage direction, but that’s probably a mistake with this work. It’s not a mistake that David Alden makes. I must admit, having seen Alden’s fondly humorous day-glo productions of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea and Handel’s Deidamia, I had a suspicion that Alden might settle for playing up the camp comic side of Un Ballo in Maschera - which is certainly there and probably a more convincing way of playing the work than attempting to do it completely straight if the Madrid Teatro Real production is anything to go by - but I was wrong. Alden plays every single scene in accordance with the tone established by Verdi, light in some places, thunderingly dramatic and brooding in others, but always operating hand in hand with Fabio Luisi to ensure that this can be made to work musically and dramatically.

Where the staging has consistency of theme and a consideration for a meaningful context for the work however, was in Alden’s typically stylish and stylised production designs, created here by set designer Paul Steinberg and costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel. Evoking a turn of the twentieth century setting that takes the work entirely out of its historical context (notwithstanding the personages reverting to their original Swedish names), the production had the appearance of a Hollywood Musical melodrama, as lavishly stylised as a Bette Davis melodrama, but consistent within its own worldview, and it worked splendidly on this level. The set was a little overworked in places, with dramatic boxed-in angles and heavy Icarus symbolism in a prominent painting, but it clearly responded to the nature of the work, playing more to the sophistication that’s there in the music than the often ludicrous libretto. Alden however even found a way to incorporate this into the production with little eccentric touches - such as the eye-rolling madness of Count Horn, which is not a bad idea.

Similar consideration was given towards the singing and the dramatic performances of the cast assembled here, which was - as it needs to be - forceful and committed. The combination of voices was also well judged, the Met bringing together a few Verdi specialists well-attuned to the Verdi line - Marcelo Álvarez (who I’ve seen singing the role of Gustavo/Riccardo before), Sondra Radvanovsky and lately, Dmitri Hvorostovsky - all of them strong singers in their own right, but clearly on the same page as far as the production was concerned. A few regular Met all-rounders like Stephanie Blythe and Kathleen Kim also delivered strong performances in the lesser roles of Madame Arvidsson and Oscar that really contributed significantly to the overall dynamic. This was strong casting that brought that much needed consistency to a delicately balanced work where one weak element could bring the whole thing down.

Alden and Luisi were clearly aware of this and played to the strengths of the charged writing for these characters. Act II’s duet between Álvarez and Radvanovsky was excellent, hitting all the right emotional buttons, each of the characters delving deeply to make something more of the characters than is there on the page of the libretto. Hvorostovsky brought a rather more tormented intensity to Renato in his scenes with Radvanovsky’s Amelia that seemed a little overwrought, but this paid off in how it made the highly charged final scene work. Un Ballo in Maschera is still a problematic work, but with Luisi and Alden’s considered approach and this kind of dramatic involvement from the singers, the qualities of the opera were given the best possible opportunity to shine.

RavelMaurice Ravel - L’Heure Espagnole, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges

Glyndebourne, 2012 | Kazushi Ono, Laurent Pelly, Elliot Madore, François Piolino, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Alek Shrader, Paul Gay, Khatouna Gadelia, Elodie Méchain, Julie Pasturaud, Kathleen Kim, Natalia Brzezinska, Hila Fahima, Kirsty Stokes | Live Internet Streaming - 19 August 2012

It seems only natural to bring together the two short one-act operas by Maurice Ravel, the only two opera works written by the French composer, but they are strangely - perhaps on account of the different challenges presented by the two works - more commonly performed separately or alongside short works by other composers (Zemlimsky’s fairytale Der Zwerg is often seen as a younger audience-friendly companion for L’Enfant et les Sortilèges than the risqué comedy of L’Heure Espagnole). Glyndebourne’s production for the 2012 Festival therefore provides an interesting opportunity to compare two works that aren’t often performed, all the more so since they are both directed for the stage by Laurent Pelly, a director with a good affinity for the works who is able to highlight both their commonalities and their contrasts.

One thing that both operas have in common, even if they use different means of expression, is Ravel’s playful and inventive approach to musical accompaniment. L’Enfant et les Sortilèges might be made up of apparently more conventional set pieces for singing, while L’Heure Espagnole is more declamatory in recitative than sung, but both make use of American influenced jazz and ragtime and other unconventional arrangements and instruments in order to express the variety of situations, movements, gestures and attitudes that take place from moment to moment over the course of both of the works.

Ravel

Set inside a clock shop in Toledo, if the music of L’Heure Espagnole isn’t conventionally rhythmic outside of the famous synchronised ticking of three different clock times at its intro, there is nonetheless a definite metronomic timing to the pace of the opera itself. While the clockmaker is out of the shop for an hour - by deliberate arrangement - checking the town clocks, the presence of a customer, the muleteer, forces his wife Concepción to have her lovers transported pendulum-like back and forth to and from her bedroom inside grandfather clocks by the unwitting but brawny muleteer. The opera has all the timing and rhythm of a typical French farce of slamming doors and hiding of a succession of lovers in wardrobes, and the rhythm of all these comings and goings even reflects the sexual implications that are suggested but not shown.

If that seems a bit of a limp subject for an opera, well imagine how this only reflects the disappointment felt by the clockmaker’s wife at the disappointing performances of the poet Gonzalve and the banker Don Iñigo Gómez who talk a good line but prove to be not really up to the job - unlike the muleteer Ramiro who handles all the exertions demanded of him by Concepción unfailingly. All such considerations are taken into account by Ravel, as lightweight as they might seem, including the suggestive double-entendres that come along with talk of pendulums, and the work is scored accordingly with flirtatious melodies, bursts of bluster, and shrill lines of frustration and disappointment, everything moreover seeming to play to the deliberate pace dictated by the presence of the muleteer. Ravel’s knowing treatment belies the apparent lightness of the work - the nod-and-a-wink ensemble finale offers no moral other than the intention of the work to “stress the rhythm, spice up the lines, with a soupcon of Spain” - but it’s never so clever as to get in the way of the genuine comic potential and satire of the subject.

Ravel

L’Heure Espagnole is not an opera that you would think requires much in the way of sets or props, but set designers Caroline Ginet and Florence Evrard pull out all the stops for this Glyndebourne production, fitting out the Toledo clock shop with a variety of timepieces, religious icons and assorted junk. It serves the purpose of being eye-catching as well as perfectly functional for the farcical operations of the plot, but it also serves that perfect sense of situation that you find in Laurent Pelly productions, where you feel not so much in a real-world location as in the world of the music itself. Evidently, in such a work it’s all about the timing and Pelly, along with conductor Kazushi Ono, find that ideal pace of rhythm and direct the five-person cast through the work wonderfully well.

The singers too realise that it’s all there in the music and match the tone of their performances to the sense of comic timing and the intricacies of the score. Stephanie d’Oustrac is alternately flirtatious and ferocious as the man-eater Concepción, commandingly delivering lines that demand obedience and satisfaction. Alex Shrader puts on a fine comic performance as the poetry-spinning Jim Morrison-lookalike Gonzalve, with a lovely tenor voice to match his lyrical musings, while Paul Gay’s bass-baritone seems better suited to the lighter comic delivery of Don Iñigo Gómez here than the heavier dramatic roles such as Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust that I’ve seen him sing before. Elliot Madore was excellent in the vital role of Ramiro, as was François Piolino as Torquemada.

With its surreal imagery, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges is a stage designer’s dream (or perhaps nightmare), but there is a deeper psychological element to author Colette’s original libretto of a naughty schoolboy and its treated to some ravishingly beautiful as well as inventive and playful arrangements by Ravel. In the case of the Glyndebourne production, it’s definitely a dream to have the imagination of Laurent Pelly set loose on a work like this. You get a sense of being somewhere unique with Pelly at the best of times, but it’s even more the case with a work like this. By the laugh raised from the Glyndebourne audience right from the moment the curtain opens on an over-large table and chair that miniaturises Khatouna Gadelia as an ‘enfant’, you can tell that the stage design has already made the right kind of impact. But there are still considerable challenges that have to be met not only to have the child’s mother appear as a grown-up within this set (it’s very well done), but in the rapid changes of scene that are required over the course of the rest of this short work that also relies on the keeping of a regular rhythm.

Having a tantrum at being told he has to do his homework, the victims of the child’s violent and selfish actions come back to haunt him as enchanted objects, each forming a little scene of their own. A dancing Sofa and an Armchair give way to a spinning Clock, than a Teapot and a China Cup, the Flames from the fireplace and then the Shepherd and Shepherdess from the wallpaper that the child has torn in his bad temper, each of them scolding the child for his behaviour, the Princess from the ripped-up storybook making him tearfully aware of the consequences of his actions. The separate pieces slip in and out of the dark like flitting figments of a child’s imagination, each imaginatively assembled, but contributing to create a surreal mood that has more sinister, or perhaps just deeper psychological significance that becomes clear with the final cry of ‘Maman’ at the arises out of the musical arrangements as much as from the psyche of the child.

The challenge of staging the work then is not just in keeping that procession of scenes moving, but in linking them together in a way that they lead to that natural conclusion. That progression is there in the music too, which seems to be made up of a variety of styles, some melodic, others less so, some abstract and playful, such as the song of the Cats, whose mewling vocalises their discontent just as effectively as an words. L’Enfant et les Sortilèges does feel at times like it’s trying to be too clever in this regard - and exercise in mood expressed very precisely and evocatively in musical and visual terms - all the more so considering the light subject of a naughty child being scolded by the objects that he has inflicted his anger upon, and it might indeed come across like that were it not for the ending in Colette’s libretto and the interpretation placed on it by the strong combination of Pelly’s direction and Ono’s approach to the score.

That really comes together then, as it should, in the final scenes where the knife-scored trees and the creatures of the woods - squirrels, dragonflies and frogs - bring us back to nature and, through them, to the essential nature of the child itself. L’Enfant et les Sortilèges isn’t just a clever theatrical show of animated objects and anthromophism - well, it is and it needs to be, but it’s also more than that. The director and conductor have their part to play in making the work more meaningful than that, in making its meaning come to life, but the singers have a large part to play in that as well, and it’s a work that is just as challenging in that regard. Khatouna Gadelia isn’t the strongest of singers to rise above this cacophony, but she doesn’t have to be, and it’s much more important that she gets across that this is the journey of a child’s experience. Kathleen Kim takes on the challenge of the coloratura Fire, Princess and Nightingale roles well, but there’s strong work here also from L’Heure Espagnole’s team of d’Oustrac, Gay, Madore and Piolino. The work of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Glyndebourne Chorus was also instrumental in maintaining that continuity within the work as well as in the combination of the two works as a fascinating double-bill.

The Ravel Double Bill was reviewed here from the Live Internet Streaming broadcast via The Guardian.

NixonJohn Adams - Nixon in China

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | John Adams, Peter Sellars, Kathleen Kim, Janis Kelly, Robert Brubaker, Russell Braun, James Maddalena, Richard Paul Fink | The Met: Live in HD - February 12, 2011

The Live in HD broadcast of Nixon in China from The Met in New York was a special event in a number of ways. Most notably, it was the first time the opera had been performed at the Met, and for the occasion, many of the original team involved in its original production were reunited and their involvement made even more pronounced. Not only was it opera’s debut at the Met, but it was also the debut there of the colourful, sometimes controversial, but ever intelligent Peter Sellars as stage director – and not just of the stage, Sellars directing also directing the filmed live broadcast. With composer John Adams conducting his own opera, the broadcast proved to be a good opportunity then to re-evaluate whether a work from 1987, tied very much into the political climate of the period in which it is set, had any relevance today and whether it would go on to stand the test of time.

Although the political ramifications of the visit of President Nixon to China in 1972 and his meeting with Mao Tse-tung shouldn’t be underestimated, the state visit breaking down old enmities and opening up the world stage for a different kind of global politics where there is a recognition on both sides that it’s for their mutual good to work with each other, Nixon in China is, and has to be, more than it being an opera about a specific historical incident. The realisation that the world is a smaller place through satellite broadcasts and new technology is recognised by Nixon, who is acutely aware of how his international statesman act is going to play back home on primetime news at a time when he is seeking re-election. How significant then is it that this technology is now able to broadcast a performance of this opera across the world as it is played live in New York?

The production and the broadcast were accordingly upscaled for the Met stage, and quite marvellously, not least in the additional impact of a larger chorus, particularly during the banquet scene at the end of Act 1. Mindful of the impact that can be achieved, Sellars ensured that the HD cameras were right there in the middle of the action, the camera striving for close-ups wherever possible that were most effective when projected onto a cinema screen. Again, it’s difficult on such an occasion not to see the significance and importance of presentation of events played out on a world stage through satellite broadcasts, of playing to a wider audience and the increased importance under such circumstances of stage management – one delightfully reflected in the Chian Ch’ing’s pointing out “here are some children having fun” while giving the Nixons their official guided tour. It’s not enough to show, an audience sometimes needs to be directed towards what to feel.

Nixon

The only minor problem with Act 1 was that James Maddalena, reprising a role that he helped originate and has performed over 150 times, was suffering from a frog in his throat that severely restricted his ability to hold sustained notes. A few discrete coughs, put into the character of Nixon clearing his throat before speaking, didn’t dispel the problem. It’s a pity, since most of his best work is done in the first act. The impact that this might have had was lessened however by the strong singing performances of Robert Brubaker’s Mao Tse-tung and James Braun’s Chinese Premier Chou En-lai. The aging and infirm Mao, prone to making obscure and impenetrable remarks, remains an enigma however, but James Braun brought out the sense of dignified confusion and ambivalence about the nature of the visit, mindful – as becomes more evident later – of his own mortality.

Act 2 was given over principally to the female characters, the opera dealing with the considerable contrasts between the respective First Ladies, while in the process noting the growing importance of their role in the US Presidency. Janis Kelly was simply outstanding as Pat Nixon, her voice flawlessly meeting the demands of the opening scene of the second act, while at the same time capturing the human side of her character’s charm sincerity and personal fears – an aspect that was emphasised in an equally flawless acting performance where every gesture was captured by Sellars in extreme close-up. Kathleen Kim as Chian Ch’ing, was likewise most impressive in technique and delivery.

Thereafter, the opera becomes a different beast, Alice Goodman’s libretto slipping into abstraction as it becomes more about ideas than the personalities involved. Despite their efforts to stage-manage and direct the course of world events, it’s clear that they are only weak individuals, frail and flawed human beings, with doubts about their own achievements and the legacy they will leave behind. It’s something that they can never know and that only time and history will prove. The opera likewise needs to rise above the depiction of personalities – no matter how historically important they may be – and touch on those deeper subjects that the Nixon’s visit to China gives rise to. Ultimately then, it was the fact of this performance of the opera being on the day when Hosni Mubarek was forced to step down as leader of Egypt in a revolution facilitated by advancements in modern technology that justifies the opera’s approach and suggests that Nixon in China is still relevant and may stand-up well in the years ahead.