June 30, 2005

When Copyright Law Gets It Wrong

When great music is silenced by law, who is truly wrong? Such is the nasty issue arising repeatedly in the low-stakes classical recording industry.

So ephemeral is music that passionate minorities who appreciate it can't believe their luck when lesser-known pieces survive multiple centuries, or when radio broadcasts by great, deceased or retired performers can still be heard — and enjoyed immensely. Yet making such music available to the public can be legally problematic. These are intellectual properties that belong to somebody else, even if that "somebody" might not know they exist or appreciate their value if they did.

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Posted by Gary at 5:40 PM

Rossini's Il viaggio a Reims

Scene from Il viaggio a Reims, ossia L'albergo del giglio d'oro (Photo: Mariinsky Theatre)

Il viaggio a Reims

By GEORGE LOOMIS [Financial Times, 29 June 05]

When Rossini's Il viaggio a Reims was rediscovered more than two decades ago, its musical brilliance was immediately recognised. But its almost nonexistent plot, designed to incorporate an abundance of superstars, lent credence to Rossini's decision to withdraw the opera once it had served its purpose — providing entertainment for the coronation of Charles X of France. Experiencing Il viaggio in the theatre, however, reveals its unconventional drama about a collection of upper-crust Europeans thwarted in their plans to attend the coronation to be an essential strength. The very triviality points up human foibles and, in the context of Rossini's elaborate music, supplies a source of hilarity.

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Posted by Gary at 3:58 PM

Così fan tutte at San Francisco

Così fan tutte (Graphic: Rosina Wachtmeister)

Opera's 'Così' doesn't cheat on the laughs, or the singing

Joshua Kosman [SF Chronicle, 27 June 05]

The San Francisco Opera's 2004-05 season is winding down in nicely palindromic fashion. The company's final offering, which opened (or reopened) Friday night at the War Memorial Opera House, is a revival of the handsome new production of Mozart's "Così fan tutte" that began the season back in September, and its virtues remain essentially intact.

John Cox's production, staged with a little more slapstick by Josemaria Condemi, continues to illuminate this familiar work with the help of just a few well-chosen directorial conceits.

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Posted by Gary at 12:17 PM

June 29, 2005

VERDI: Il Corsaro

Giuseppe Verdi: Il Corsaro

Zvetan Michailov (tenor), Renato Bruson (baritone),Michela Sburlati (soprano),Adriana Damato (soprano).
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Regio di Parma, Renato Palumbo (cond.),Lamberto Puggelli (dir.)
Dynamic DVD 33468 [DVD]

The CD incarnation of this performance, reviewed earlier on Opera Today, faces the formidable competition of an earlier Philips set conducted by Lamberto Gardelli, with Jose Carreras, Montserrat Caballé, and Jessye Norman in the cast. As a recording, that set remains the best recommendation for this neglected (fairly or not) Verdi score.

However, the DVD release of the Parma performance offers enough reward for it to merit attention from more than just those with an affection for early Verdi. Some singers who were not favored by the microphones reveal much more to admire when seen as well as heard. And with a mostly imaginative, attractive production, this incoherent melodramatic folderol comes into focus as a more than interesting predecessor to its great successor, Il Trovatore.

In fact, not only does the plot bear some strong parallels to the later opera (as briefly described in the earlier review of the CD), but the music does as well. The first soprano aria, for the Corsair's beloved, has a sad, minor key feel that suggests Tacea la notte. The corsair himself opens the opera with an extended scene that musically resembles the great third act Manrico double-whammy of Ah, sì ben mio and Di quella pira, to the extent that the Corsair even ends his cabaletta, joined by chorus, with cries of "all'armi"!

And the nefarious baritone role, here a cruel Muslim warlord named Seid, has his Il balen del suo sorriso moment as well, as he laments his unreciprocated longing for a slave girl. And what a great aria name: Cento leggiadre vergini, translated on the DVD as "A hundred lissome virgins1..." And where on earth would one find a hundred of those?

After hearing the unprepossessing CD, the DVD performance comes as something of a revelation. The melodies grow on one, so that suddenly one sits forward and realizes that the score has sunk into one's subconscious. No, it is not Trovatore, but Corsair's music provides a very satisfying alternative.

The singers deserve further reevaluation as well. Bruson sounds only tired and strained on the CD. He still is on the DVD, but his dignified, even arrogant bearing fills in the outlines of this character sketch, and helps the listener to forgive the exhaustion of his voice.

The tenor, Zvetan Michailov, has been mauled by a vicious make-up artist, especially as regards his eyes. But his voice is strong and manly, although his acting leaves much to be desired.

Adriana Damato, however, really must be seen to be appreciated. Her middle range is not her glory, and that seems to be emphasized on the CD. Seen and heard live, Damato inhabits the slave girl role fully, with sensuality and pride, and offers some fine singing, especially in the top of her range. Hers is the most successful total performance of the cast.

Unfortunately, the other soprano, Michela Sburlati, does not improve when seen as well as heard. Her wayward intonation and struggle to maintain a line make her role, thankfully brief, rather a trial.

Conductor Palumbo appears to be a young man; on the basis of this performance, many houses should look to him for Verdi. His leadership is sensitive and dynamic as called for, and he gets tremendous playing from a youthful appearing Teatro Regio di Parma orchestra.

As mentioned before, the attractive production finds creative ways to suggest different locales with a minimum of changes, mostly due to effective lighting. Not all the costuming can be praised — Damato appears to be wearing jeans in her final scene, and the Corsair dons a hideous blue jacket. Bruson gets to stride through the performance, however, in some very elegant silks, the caftan equivalent of a white tux. Very nice.

Corsaro is a short opera, about 90 minutes, and the story telling makes Trovatore seem to be a naturalistic masterpiece. The music, however, for any Verdi lover, should not be dismissed. If one has the Philips set, return to it and rediscover some marvelous tunes. If not, take a chance on this DVD. It may be no classic performance, but despite the liability of one disappointing singer, the DVD provides enough pleasure to justify adding it to the collection.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Harbor College

1 More correctly translated as "One hundred fair virgins."

Posted by Gary at 10:41 PM

Teatro La Fenice: Gala Reopening

Teatro La Fenice: Gala Reopening

Works by Beethoven, Stravinsky, Caldera and Wagner.
Patrizia Ciofi (soprano), Sara Allegretta (soprano), Sonia Ganassi (mezzo-soprano), Sara Mingardo (alto), Roberto Saccà (tenor), Mirko Guadagnini (tenor), Michele Pertusi (bass) and Nicolas Rivenq (baritone).
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro La Fenice, Riccardo Muti (cond.).
Recorded Live at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, 14 December 2003.

The liner notes dryly state that "This was a stringent programme for an opening-concert audience used to lighter fare at such events." In the past this would surely have been true but together with "Das Regietheater," there is now a firm tradition in European houses that the reason for their very existence is art, and preferably in its purest form. Audiences are not there to amuse themselves or even to enjoy the music but to ponder on whatever life's questions may be at that exact moment. They are mightily helped in their endeavours by conductor Riccardo Muti who cannot be caught with a single smile on his face during more than an hour of music making. Therefore a house where five operas by Giuseppe Verdi were premièred cannot be expected to open with such banalaties as Ernani, Attila, Rigoletto, La Traviata or Simon Boccanegra. Even worse would have been a concert with some prominent singers performing well-known arias and duets from these operas. The danger of enjoyment would have been too great. A conductor who reopened La Scala one year later with that immortal masterpiece L'Europa riconosciuta can be expected to make more original choices. Muti preferred lesser known music by maestros who had some ties with the city itself, even with the opera house.

Muti starts with the Beethoven overture "Die Weihe des Hauses", op. 124 (The Consecration of the House) and he does it with vigour and 'schwung', actually making the music better than it probably is in the hands of a lesser maestro. Then it's time for Stravinsky's 20-minute Symphonie de psaumes with some excellent chorus singing. (The composer is buried on a Venetian island and his The Rake's Progress premièred at La Fenice.) A Venetian born composer should have his place in such a concert though not Antonio Vivaldi; that would have been too easy. The honour goes to Antonio Caldara with a not very interesting Te Deum. This has the advantage of introducing 8 soloists; most of them having only a few sentences to sing during this 10-minute piece. Even then Ciofi and Pertusi succeed in making some beautiful sounds while tenor Sacca and especially bass Rivenq with worn or wobbly voices make one wonder why they were chosen.

The concert ends with two fairly unknown pieces by Wagner (who died in Venice). The Kaisermarch is an interesting one. The former revolutionary clearly had an eye on the powers that could be. His protector, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, was in financial difficulties. Bavaria and some other South German states had been allies of Austria in their brief war with Prussia in 1866. Austria which had been the most prominent German state for hundreds of years in the First Reich (800-1806) was ousted out of Germany and in 1871 little Germany or the Second Reich (1871-1918) came into being with the Prussian king elevated to the rank of Emperor. (The Austrians would briefly rejoin the Third Reich 1933-1945 though as a junior instead of a senior partner). King Ludwig, definitely against the wishes of his subjects but bought out of his debts by the Prussians, convinced the other South German sovereigns to join the new empire and Wagner jumped upon the wagon. His Kaisermarch starts out well with some interesting melodic ideas and all at once the famous Luther chorale pops up. For a moment the listener thinks he is in Les Huguenots where that same device was so rejected by Wagner. The introduction is a sure fire political statement by the composer as it firmly connects the new empire with Protestantism; one of the reasons Bavarians loathed their new federal state which indeed would start a war with the Catholic Church a few years later and lose it miserably. After some 5 minutes, Wagner's usual tediousness takes over, his melodic inspiration flags and even Muti's drive and incisiveness isn't enough to make the second part more interesting. Wagner's Huldigungsmarch concludes the concert and is mercifully more brief.

Still even this concert reveals some time honoured Italian traditions. It may be a Gala Reopening of the House but this only means that all that's visible to an outsider is restored. In reality the stage and the technical equipment were still to be completed and it was only a year later that the opera house really opened with a not very successful La Traviata.

As a TV-producer I had some experience with RAI and I am happy to note that some endearing qualities, a certain sloppiness, have not disappeared. This is a live registration and then some things can happen nobody can control. As there is no shortage of panoramic views I would have thought that several ugly shots, where the view is obscured by someone's back or even by a lady's feathers, might be supplanted during the editing process for this DVD; but it was decided to keep these artistic touches.

A hilarious moment comes at the end of the DVD. Often in these programmes, subtitles run along with the last images giving credits to all important collaborators. This is serious business as some people (especially technicians) are very touchy to get their due credits. Either the person responsible for those titles starts them too late or Muti only allowed to have them started the moment he left the rostrum. Anyway, those titles run at breakneck speed along so that everyone gets his credit, though it is impossible to read one single name. For the rest this is a true professional registration with one camera along the orchestra to shoot Mr. Muti's artistic face. Either the director can read a score or he had help but he anticipates correctly and we get the appropriate player each time there is a solo moment. The sound is clear.

Jan Neckers

Posted by Gary at 10:08 PM

June 28, 2005

HENZE: L’Upupa oder Der Triumph der Sohnesliebe

Hans Werner Henze: L'Upupa oder Der Triumph der Sohnesliebe
Alfred Muff, Matthias Goerne, Laura Aikin, John Mark Ainsley
Wiener Philharmoniker, Wiener Staatsopern Chor, Markus Stenz (cond.)
EuroArts 2053929 [DVD]

Henze's magical opera L'Upupa oder Der Triumph der Sohnesliebe (L'Upupa or the Triumph of Filial Love) bears the subtitle, "a German comedy in eleven tableaux based on the Arabic." The "Arabic" here refers to a traditional dream-tale from Syria, around which Henze crafted his libretto (his first such effort as a librettist). Like dreams, which condense from memory several images (of people, objects, actions) that share underlying characteristics into single composite dream figures, L'Upupa condenses many stories and characters into its over determined images. Far from pastiche, however, Henze's condensations cohere in a compelling tale.

The most overt remembered images hearken back to Mozart. With an Arabian setting, a combination of sung and spoken text, and a story of young lovers overcoming trials to be worthy of their union, L'Upupa reads like Die Zauberflöte alla Turca, a fitting tribute for a work commissioned by the Salzburg Festival. In short, Kasim (Tamino), traveling with a friendly Demon (a winged Papageno-like companion), encounters the lecherous ruler Malik (Monostatos?), and then rescues Badi'at (Pamina) from Dijab (a thinly disguised Sarastro).

A series of world premier performances of L'Upupa, given at the Salzburg Kleines Festpielhaus in August of 2003, have been expertly compiled and recorded on a DVD, directed by Brian Large. In this recording, an Old Man (sung by Alfred Muff) introduces the tale in a monologue that is perhaps a bit too lengthy. He recounts how the beautiful hoopoe bird (L'Upupa) had visited his window every day until he attempted to catch it, where upon it attacked him and flew away. He outlines a plan to send his three sons after the bird, but knowing his oldest to be a liar and his second son to be untrustworthy, the old man places his faith in the youngest who will no doubt persevere through the trials and bring back the golden hoopoe. Commissioning the trio of sons in this way brings to mind the parable of the talents, one of a number of biblical resonances in the opera; and the trio itself, with the youngest being the dearest, evokes other Ur-stories from Cinderella to King Lear.

The two older brothers (sung by Axel Köler and Anton Scharinger) comically mark out polarized registers, often articulating in the same rhythms their nefarious schemes: firstly, to escape the trials by leaving the dirty work to their younger brother, and later to do him harm and take credit for finding the treasured bird. Kasim, the youngest (skillfully sung by Matthias Goerne) leaves his older brothers behind in his search for the bird. Along his journey he encounters the Demon, a fallen angel (sung tenderly and sensitively by John Mark Ainsley), who becomes his traveling companion. The Demon, the least stereotyped character, develops a complex relationship with Kasim that proves to be the most interesting one in the opera.

Part II introduces Badi'at, (sprightly sung by Laura Aikin) the beautiful imprisoned Jewish girl, a welcome female presence in a cast dominated by men (with the exception of Malik, a trouser role expertly sung by Hanna Schwarz). Aside from her conspicuous identity as a Jewish girl in an Arabic tale, Badi'at is an uncomplicatedly one-dimensional character. With sweet naiveté, she immediately falls in love with Kasim, and their duet, "How beautiful she is ... how beautiful you are," intones the most lovely and lyrical music of the opera. An awkwardly adolescent coupling ensues and Dijab (sung authoritatively by Günter Missenhardt) has them captured and bound together back to back (with masking tape!). Badi'at skillfully pleads their case, managing to sing with grace while struggling in her unwieldy position. Eventually Dijab sympathizes with the couple and frees them, and they make their way back to where the older brothers wait, still idly playing poker. The brothers, in a move that resonates with another biblical story, (this one involving Joseph, a pit, and a stained cloak) trick Kasim into climbing down a well for water and then they throw the rope in after him. The ever-self-sacrificing Badi'at jumps in after her love. Again, director Dieter Dorn creates a visual spectacle in which the couple expertly executes the difficult task of singing while hanging awkwardly from the well wall. Luckily the Demon returns and rescues them and accompanies them back to the Great Gate. Another moment of exquisite lyricism marks the Demon's sentimental departure. His "Dear Kasim, my old friend ..." packs the kind of epic, deeply felt emotion that one listens for in opera. Kasim promises to bring the Demon a red apple (again ripe with symbolism) from the tree of life in his homeland in return for his kindness. Once reunited with his father, Kasim postpones his marriage and leaves to fulfill this obligation to his friend. The opera ends with the Old Man and Badi'at watching Kasim depart to the strains of an instrumental epilogue.

With all of these dream-like condensations, one might expect more overt references to other music, but Henze's atonal process resists quotation. There are, however, notable allusions, two of which I include here. When Kasim visits the Kingdom of Pate, the garden flower chorus sings a song of "bitter sorrow" with madrigalism worthy of Monteverdi. Later, when the couple is trapped in the well (an overtly biblical reference) an unexpected pipe organ solo pierces the instrumental color, underscoring the religious milieu. In general, Henze's music expresses the restrained economy of a chamber opera, and yet he makes use of a wide range of colors from piano to pipe organ, percussion to prerecorded bird sounds. At any given moment, though, the texture is characterized by sparkling clarity and filled with active gestures. The only musical disappointment comes at the end of Part I, when a well-earned surging climax is cut off too soon and left to fade away.

Interludes between the eleven tableaux articulate short bursts of scene-change music, while the camera focuses on identically placed side shots of the conductor, Markus Stenz, and a portion of the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra. Although a typical visual solution for scene-change music, the sight of tuxedoed musicians interrupts the fable's diegesis. Still, these disruptions frame the scenes in a way that highlights the tableau structure.

Other oddities of the tale act as dream-like non-sequiturs. Improbable words like "napalm," "pneumatic drills" and "nudists," along with unusual props like Polaroid photos in a setting otherwise free of modern technology, stick out of the fairy tale drama. Even with these disruptions, this production is truly as enjoyable to watch as it is to hear. Colorful and delightful staging is one of this production's strengths. The repeated curves of the bell tower, raked stage, well, and flower prison lend a welcome continuity. When flying with Kasim on his back, the Demon unfolds massive wings that fill the stage in a truly dramatic fashion. The pair of winged images — hoopoe bird and fallen angel — helps us compare the two, and we realize that it is Kasim, not the father, who has won the better prize.

This opera production is pleasurable on all levels. Vivid images of imaginative scenes fill the stage, complemented by clever action, lighting, and costuming. Skillful singing and acting, supported by colorful music, advance the story with beauty and grace. Neither deep nor grand, the tale has a resonant quality that enhances its economy. The condensations from literature, scripture, and other music lend a thoughtful nature to the fable, encouraging us to revalue the three kinds of true love presented: filial, friendly, and passionate. I found this opera both enchanting and sensitively executed.

Shersten Johnson, Ph.D.
University of St. Thomas

Posted by Gary at 7:55 PM

Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots at Liège

Didier Henry (Le comte de Nevens), Philippe Rouillon (Le comte de St Bris), Gilles Ragon (Raoul de Nangis), and Annick Massis (Marguerite de Valois) (Photo: Opéra Royal de Wallonie)

Liège: Les Huguenots

Annick Massis (Marguerite de Valois); Barbara Ducret (Valentine); Urbain (Marie-Belle Sandis); Gilles Ragon (Raoul de Nangis); Philippe Rouillon (St Bris); Didier Henry (Nevers); Branislav Jatric (Marcel)
Orchestre et choeurs de l'Opéra Royal de Wallonie
Conductor Jacques Lacombe - Director Robert Fortune
Costumes : Rosalie Varda - Sets : Christophe Vallaux

This performance must have been heart-warming for all diehards of traditionalism — no Spanish Civil War, no Palestinian-Israeli conflict, just plain religious warfare in France on the night of the 23rd of August 1572, the infamous 'nuit de Saint-Bartholomée' (St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre). One is now almost so used to the excesses of 'das Regie-Theater' that one almost is shocked to see such a realistic looking production where dozens of people move on the stage in magnificent authentic costumes all the time (300 of them during the whole opera). As a consequence director Lacombe had his singers act as realistically as possible with real sword fights instead of stylised ones, no squirming on the floor etc. Apart from the visual splendour, everything was concentrated on the music and the singing.

It is no mean feat of the Liège Opera to cast a big star (in Europe anyway) as Annick Massis in the small role of the Queen of Navarra: one aria, a duet and an ensemble and that's it. Massis has no scintillating voice; in fact it is more of a big lyric and the sound is not too richly coloured. But then she compensates for her lack of natural means by a formidable technique. Every kind of coloratura trick is in her trade and she can milk out the "O beau pays de la Touraine" till the last note. As her French is perfect, I even prefer her interpretation to Sutherland's well-known dazzling, but far less incisive, performance. Massis proved too that a small role is not something to be taken on as an afterthought and she acted the Queen with dignity, coquetry and irresistible charm.

Another winning performance was given by Marie-Belle Sandis as the page Urbain. She has the requisites for the role: a delicious mezzo-soprano the French call "une Falcon" (much like von Stade), a perfect pronunciation and with her small figure she was fully credible in this somewhat awkward role. Still another French soprano (indeed, this was almost an authentic French performance) was Valentine. Barbara Ducret is typical for the sweet/sour voices many a famous French soprano had though to my taste the voice is a little too sour, too charmless though she has all the notes and a house rattling volume.

The male singers were more of a mixed lot. Philippe Rouillon was a sonorous and utterly convincing St Bris. Indeed I wished he had been given the bigger role of Marcel. Didier Henry did his best as Nevers, acting with a sure touch, making a real person of this somewhat bleak figure. His baritone voice is neither beautiful nor ugly. The problem lies with Meyerbeer, however. As Nevers is such an important role in the play though without an aria, no real first class baritone will be cast in the role.

The only disillusion of the evening was veteran bass Branislaw Janic as Marcel. He had the looks of the part and acted a "vieux Huguenot" as the composer would have wanted it but the voice is worn, with a big wobble, almost no resounding top and his two impressive solos, the Luther chorale and the Pif paf, went for nothing.

And then there was the surprise of the evening: former baroque tenor Gilles Ragon. As Les Huguenots is so rarely performed one has not heard a lot of Raouls in the flesh and some legendary performances are deeply printed in any collector's consciousness. Monsieur Ragon therefore has to compete with some strong ghosts. I saw my first and up to now last Huguenots 38 years ago with the legendary Tony Poncet as Raoul, the last of the great French fort ténors. Most even elderly people in the house had never seen a performance but almost all knew the recording of one of the greatest singing feats ever heard on a scene: the amazing Raoul of Franco Corelli in the 1962 La Scala performance where every time one hears it one asks oneself how it's possible that a human throat can make such loud and at the same time such beautiful sounds. Well, Giles Ragon did well, very well. Though the sound is not particularly distinguished the voice is big with a gleaming edge and a good top. His aria was a tremendous success and he easily dominated the ensembles. Indeed one wondered how such a big voice had ever had a career in baroque. During the duet he too understood that he couldn't compete with Corelli and there he preferred some piano on the ascending phrases. But all in all a winning performance; acted well too, though he is a very small man. Indeed there was as to voice as to height a lot of resemblance with Tony Poncet (though that tenor was even 10 centimetres shorter).

Conductor Jacques Lacombe got some excellent playing from the orchestra and the lustily singing chorus which is always at its best when it can sing in the native language. Lacombe had a few moments where his tempi were rather too slow, to wrench out some pathos while during some choruses he was on the fast side. The ballet was cut and there were some very minor other cuts but on the whole we got more than three hours of music which passed as in a moment. I hope the Walloon opera will revive this production in a few years time with a cast as good as this one and I can only copy the famous words of the Michelin Guide for the many who have never seen a performance: "Vaut le voyage".

Jan Neckers

Click here for additional production photos.

Posted by Gary at 5:44 PM

June 27, 2005

The Fairy Queen at Aldeburgh Festival

Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

The Fairy Queen

Hilary Finch at Aldeburgh Festival [Times Online, 27 June 05]

NO FLOTILLA of swans, no dancing green men, no grand descent of the Sun King; in fact no big production numbers at all. Yet this concert performance of Purcell's The Fairy Queen will be a hard act for the forthcoming Proms appearance to follow.

This year, the singers of the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme and the instrumentalists of the Britten-Pears Baroque Orchestra had worked in an intensive ten days of masterclasses with the soprano Yvonne Kenny and with Harry Bicket, who conducted the culminating performance in Snape Maltings.

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Posted by Gary at 2:04 AM

Carmen at Styriarte

Nora Gubisch (Photo: Philippe Grunchec)

Wie man einen Stier ausweidet

VON WILHELM SINKOVICZ [Die Presse, 27 June 05]

Styriarte in Graz: Bizets "Carmen" bleibt bei Breth und Harnoncourt auf der Strecke.

Vom Bundeskanzler bis zu Deutsch lands Feuilletonistinnen waren alle da. Denn mit Andrea Breth und Nikolaus Harnoncourt hatten zwei Liebkinder des Kultur-Establishments erstmals gemeinsam eine Musiktheaterproduktion zu erarbeiten. Derartige Kunst-Bande zu knüpfen, ist die nobelste Aufgabe von Festspielen. Womit die "Styriarte" für ihre heurige Eröffnung ein adäquates Zeichen gesetzt hat. Auf der Strecke blieb dabei Bizets "Carmen"; oder zumindest das, was man bisher dafür gehalten hat.

Click here for remainder of article.</em

Posted by Gary at 1:34 AM

June 26, 2005

BARBER: Orchestral Works

Samuel Barber: Orchestral Works
Elmar Oliveira (violin) and others
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin (cond.)
EMI Classics 7243 5 86561 2 1 [2CDs]

EMI has re-released a 2-disc set of some of Samuel Barber's most compelling orchestral and chambers works on the Gemini — The EMI Treasures label. An album of the same recordings was released in 2001, itself a remastering of original recordings dating from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s. Disc 1 from both these sets contains music recorded in 1986 and 1988 with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin and released in 1990 as a single disc. The second disc of the set contains chamber music of Barber, recorded in 1995. Each time this music has been released it has received positive reviews. See for example, Jon Yungkans's review on the The Flying Inkpot; the reviews on Amazon.com; or Victor Carr's review on Classics Today.

On one hand, EMI's decision to recycle recordings is frustrating — it would be nice to hear some new performers and different interpretations, or to have access to some of Barber's less frequently performed works. On the other hand, Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra do such a lovely job with this music that the availability of so many affordable options is not to be scorned.

The cover of this most recent release features a small, tattered American flag attached to what can be imagined to be a Midwestern mailbox, rusted and tilted to one side, with tall grass sprouting up from the ground below. The rustic scenery and the American symbolism poses the question, how American is Barber's music? Or rather, has Barber's music been perceived as American by critics and listeners?

Barber has long been received as a neo-Romantic, and his sound associated with a more European, post-Straussian sound. Rarely is Barber's name included in the inventory of American composers that is comprised of such seekers of an American-sounding music as Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, and Leonard Bernstein, among others. Barber's exclusion from this catalogue has more to do with the way his music sounds than with his birthplace or national allegiances.

Barber was born in West Chester, PA, educated at the Curtis Institute in Philly, and he lived and worked for much of his life in Mount Kisco, NY. Barber sought some of his musical education abroad, spending several years in Italy on a Rome Prize. Barber's traveling and studying in Europe was not unusual; Copland, Thomson, Harris, and Bernstein also spent time studying with Europeans as they developed a distinctive American music.

In a 1939 article — "Modern American Composers" — David Ewen wrote about the then twenty-nine-year-old Barber that "[Barber] now promises to become the most important discovery in American music since Roy Harris1." It is interesting to note that at that early stage in Barber's career, Ewen compared him to a composer who actively and aggressively cultivated his "American-ness," and whose music was regarded as the epitome of American-sounding music. Furthermore, Ewen goes on to suggest that in the future Barber, because of his talent and skills, will contribute to further developing an American musical tradition.

A mere nine years later, in 1948, another article on Barber's music appeared — this one by Nathan Broder titled "The Music of Samuel Barber." Broder gives a summary of Barber's works up to that point, and he is careful to defend Barber against the label, "neo-Romantic." Broder claims that the use of tonality in Barber's more recent works is a "return" to an earlier style and a technique employed to evoke a particular mood, rather than a consistent part of Barber's musical vocabulary2.

While it is true that in his works from the 1940s Barber did use more dissonance, syncopation, and serial techniques than in his earliest works, history has proven that Barber really is more of a neo-Romantic than not. His later large works such as his operas, Vanessa (1957) and Anthony and Cleopatra (1966, rev. 1975), are predominantly tonal and feature Barber's well-known lyrical melodies, as well as a dose of post-Straussian chromaticism.

When compared to his contemporaries, Barber's music simply sounds less "American." Barber rarely uses American folk or popular song quotations, nor does he often employ jazz or popular styles in his music. One of the few pieces in which Barber does refer to American musical idioms is included in this CD set — Excursions (1941 - 2); however, Barber's "most American" piece — Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (1947) is not.

I suspect that EMI's decision to evoke American imagery on re-release of an already re-released album says more about the political climate and marketing strategies in the United States right now than it does about Barber's music or his position as an American composer. The choice of a tattered American flag — waving bravely and persistently despite the weathering it has endured — reads as an attempt to capitalize on the surge of post-9/11 patriotism.

Although Barber is an American composer, the rural imagery on the CD cover does not speak to the America that Barber knew — the east coast cities or the upstate-NY village of Mt. Kisco. One would hope that the high quality of the performances and the popularity of the works on the recording would sell themselves.

Megan Jenkins
CUNY The Graduate Center

1 David Ewen, "Modern American Composers," in The Musical Times 80/1156 (June 1939): 415.

2 Nathan Broder, "The Music of Samuel Barber," in The Musical Quarterly 34/3 (July 1948): 325 - 335.

Posted by Gary at 10:59 PM

RESPIGHI: Gli uccelli; Il tramonto; Trittico botticelliano

Ottorino Respighi: Gli uccelli; Il tramonto; Trittico botticelliano
Ewa Podle

Posted by Gary at 6:46 PM

A New Mariinsky

The imminent demolition of the House of Culture of the First Five Year Plan will initiate the city's most ambitious architectural project in recent memory.

Posted by Gary at 3:42 AM

Chief Joseph at Berliner Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Alfredo Daza as Chief Joseph I (Photo: Ruth Walz)

Donner in den Bergen

Unter Indianern: Hans Zenders Oper "Chief Joseph" an der Berliner Staatsoper Unter den Linden uraufgeführt

VON GEORG-FRIEDRICH KüHN [Frankfurter Rundschau, 25 June 05]

Das schönste Teil steht als Reklame vor der Tür: einer von Jimmy Durhams Büffeln, gehäutet und skelettiert. Ansonsten hat der indianische Künstler und Bühnenbildner eine Mischung aus Showbühne mit Aussichtspodest und Bahnhofshalle für Hans Zenders neue Chief Joseph-Oper gebaut: Vorn links auf dem teilweise überdeckten Orchestergraben ein Riesenmüllcontainer, aus dem später der kleine Joseph oder auch Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekht, was soviel heisst wie "Der Donner, der über die Berge rollt", kriecht und den Vater befragt, wie das denn sei mit den Weissen, ob sie alle Lügner sind, oder ob man einigen von ihnen wenigstens trauen kann, bevor er selbst das Kommando übernimmt, übernehmen muss. In rotbraunem Siedleranzug, nicht in umbrafarbener Federkluft, geht er dann sinnend durch die Szene.

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 3:29 AM

Merkur Interviews Diana Damrau

Diana Damrau (Photo: Tanja Niemann, Meilen/Zürich)

Ein tolles Erlebnis

Interview mit Sopranistin Diana Damrau

[Merkur Online, 25 June 05]

Wo sie auftritt, bezaubert sie das Publikum. So auch das Münchner Opernpublikum und unsere Leser, die Diana Damrau in diesem Jahr den Merkur-Theaterpreis zugesprochen haben. Eine Sängerin der Extraklasse. Auch ohne gigantische Vermarktungsmaschinerie hat sich die Günzburgerin an die internationale Spitze gesungen.

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 2:52 AM

Tan Dun Arrives at the Met

In mid-May, a Federal Express package containing three copies of a 226-page musical manuscript thumped on the desk of Sarah Billinghurst, the assistant manager for artistic affairs at the Metropolitan Opera. It was sent by Tan Dun, the Chinese-born avant-garde composer whom the Met had commissioned eight years ago to write an opera. Seeing the half score, Ms. Billinghurst said she felt "ecstatically happy."

Posted by Gary at 2:38 AM

June 24, 2005

40th Season at Saratoga Performing Arts Center

Cobwebs clung to the blue and brown plastic seats at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center last week as workers pounded on the roof and a brook gurgled below. Those cobwebs have been swept away for the formal opening of the center's 40th season tomorrow, along with - it hopes - the shrouds of scandal and mismanagement.

Posted by Gary at 3:08 AM

A Profile of James Conlon

When James Conlon steps on to the podium Friday night to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it will mark his emergence as a major player on the American classical music scene. After spending nearly two decades in Europe, Mr. Conlon is assuming a new role as the music director of the Ravinia Festival, the orchestra's summer home.

Posted by Gary at 2:48 AM

LEHÁR: Zigeunerliebe

Franz Lehár: Zigeunerliebe
Johanna Stojkovic (Zorika); Dagmar Schellenberger (Ilona); Zoran Todorovich (Jozsi); Bernhard Schneider (Jonel); Ksenija Lukic (Jolan); Stefan-Alexander Rankl (Kajetán); Markus Köhler (Dragotin); Raphaela Schulze (Frau von Kerem); Andreas Hörl (Mihaly).
NDR-Chor and NDR Radiophilharmonie, Frank Beermann (cond.).
cpo 999 842-2 [2CDs]

One of my oldest memorabilia is a programme of a performance of Zigeunerliebe by my father's operetta company just after the war. It was one of the many amateur companies in Flanders though the title roles were sung by good singers who earned extra money by combining a few companies. I was too young to assist at this performance but a few years later I would be a regular spectator. The moment I could read I was put into service rehearsing my father's lines. Every time the company put on a new piece I eagerly read the libretto. Most people nowadays think that an operetta is something like a Carmen with a few dialogues but that's definitely not true. A Lehár operetta always had a lot of spoken dialogue and often had a 50% spoken 50% sung lines balance. Many an operetta lasted 3 hours without including pauses.

That's the first thing that struck me in this new recording: not a single sentence of dialogue is included. Personally I like that better than the half hearted solution used in the famous EMI-series (Gedda, Rothenberger) where small artificial dialogues full of clichés were included between musical numbers. As these two CD's include the full score (119 minutes) one can easily conclude there will rarely have been complete performances. As such this is an absolute first among recordings.

Many collectors have a copy of the 1951 radio performance with Herbert Ernst Groh and that has some 20 minutes of music cut. The score was even more drastically cut in a 1975 TV-recording that at the time made the rounds of European public channels. A pity as that colourful spectacle had some outstanding singers and that's where this new recording is a little bit at fault.

The reasons are several. The operetta tradition is gone and therefore the style, the way of singing is gone. Every bawler with a big voice can get through an opera for a few years but for operetta what is needed is impeccable legato, imaginative phrasing and tons of charm. Fritz Wunderlich never performed one operetta on the scène in his whole short life but nevertheless could sing tons of operetta with utter conviction, steeped as he was in the tradition in the fifties when one could hear Tauber, Wittrisch, Schock, Anders, Klarwein etc all day long on every radio channel.

This is somewhat lacking in most singers in this recording. Take the male lead tenor Zoran Todorovich. There isn't much charm to be heard, some harsh sounds and an unnecessary difficult high C in his big aria, no doubt picked up by listening to Joseph Schmidt's classic recording. The second tenor which ideally should be sung by another lead singer is here given to Bernhard Schneider, a smallish buffo voice instead of the full tenor voice the score requires (Adolf Dallapozza was wonderful in the TV-version). But this is now a perennial operetta problem. Before the war there was far more money to be earned in operetta and a big spender as Tauber was lured into service. Nowadays all money (taxpayers' of course) goes to opera and any tenor with a little bit of voice tries to make his way exclusively in the opera house and operetta has to do with the less talented singers.

The ladies are better. Johanna Stojkovic sings with gusto and a good sense of style. Dagmar Schellenberger as the other lead soprano (one can more easily cast most operas than Zigeunerliebe) is even better. The voice is warmer and she knows how to sculpt a waltz. She has of course one of the best tunes though here too her 'Hör ich Zimbalklänge' doesn't come near to Pilar Lorengar's wonderful recording of the aria.

Every Lehár operetta has a lot of comprimarii and they are more than acceptable; in fact they are better than their colleagues on the famous EMI-recordings where singers (well, actors with a little bit of voice) like Harry Friedauer often were the fly in the ointment. Frank Beermann and his radio-orchestra know their Lehár and they show the lush orchestration, the unbelievable melodic richness of the master at its very best. But, even Beermann cannot quite overcome the great musical contrast between the formidable beauty of the score for lead singers and the somewhat trivial, though still melodious, numbers for the buffo couple (necessarily as a lot of people flocked to the theatre for buffo Hubert Marischka at the time of the première). Anyway due to the completeness of the recording, the excellent sound and some good female performances this is a recording that cannot be missed.

cpo has recently done a lot of good for Lehár's artistic heritage. They issued a 1974 radio-recording of that fine work that is Der Rastelbinder (somewhat forgotten as it couldn't be performed in the Third Reich because the title role is a Jewish tinker). Even better they recorded Der Sterngucker of which barely a note was known and they gave us Die Perlen der Cleopatra by Oscar Straus. Let's hope they will continue the good works as we are still without recordings of Wiener Frauen, Die Ideale Gattin, Die Blaue Mazur, Clo-Clo, Libellentanz and that forgotten masterpiece Eva (which only exists in a Spanish highlights-version, though one doesn't envy the recording firm that has to find a singer that can compete with the Octave Flaubert of Alfredo Kraus during his heyday).

Jan Neckers

[Editor's Note: Click here for more information on the operettas of Franz Lehár.]

Posted by Gary at 2:25 AM

June 23, 2005

KRENEK: Three One Act Operas

Ernst Krenek: Der Diktator (The Dictator); Schwergewicht oder Die Ehre Der Nation (Heavyweight or The Nation's Honor); Das Geheime Königreich (The Secret Kingdom)

Urban Malmberg (The Dictator), Celina Lindsley (Charlotte), Robert Wörle (Officer), Gabriele Ronge (Maria); Roland Bracht (Adam Ochsenschwanz), Celina Lindsley (Evelyne)), Robert Wörle (Gaston), Urban Malmberg (Professor Himmelhuber), Bogna Bartosz (Anna Maria Himmelhuber), Daniel Kirch (Journalist), Markus Sandman (Government Official); Michale Kraus (King), Claudia Barainsky (Queen), Urban Malmberg (Fool), Pär Lindskog (Rebel), Celina Lindsley, Silvia Weiss, and Michelle Breed (3 Singing Ladies), Falko Maiwald (1st Revolutionary), Egbert Junghanns (2nd Revolutionary)

Deutsches-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and RIAS-Kammerchor, Marek Janowski (cond.)

Capriccio CAP60107 [2CDs]

Ernst Krenek is remembered primarily for one work, his jazz opera Jonny spielt auf, which irritated the cultural conservatives in Germany and Austria in the years between the wars and helped ensure his exile to America during the Nazi era. If an opera strewn with jazzy tunes and a romantic black hero wasn't enough to tick off the right wing, he turned to serialism for his magnum opus, the anti-Nazi, pro-Austrian Karl V (Charles V, whom you'll remember from Verdi's Don Carlo).

Krenek's first major operatic success in the early twenties, Der Sprung über den Schatten (The Leap over the Shadow), set the tone for many Zeitoper in its use of jazz elements (supposedly it was the first opera to use jazz), satire and parody, psychoanalysis, and a revolution in a minor Central European principality. He followed it with a turn to mythology in an opera on the Orpheus and Eurydice myth. These two works prefigure almost all Krenek's later operatic works in both their plot elements and musical techniques, even those written in America when he turned to complex serial techniques and even wrote an opera for television (he lived until 1991).

The three works reviewed here saw a joint premiere in Wiesbaden in 1928, where Krenek was employed at the theater. The Dictator tells the story of a dictator, obviously based on Mussolini, who is staying at a Swiss spa with his rightfully jealous wife. Also staying there is one of his officers, who has been blinded in one of the dictator's many pointless wars, and his wife; together they are plotting to assassinate him. When the wife goes to shoot him in his office, however, she quickly succumbs to his charms. They are surprised by the dictator's wife, who grabs the gun and shoots--the officer's wife, who throws herself in front of the dictator to save him. Remember that in Jonny, the heroine falls for a womanizer too. One wonders what Krenek's romantic life was like.

The second piece, the shortest of the three, is more like Jonny in its use of jazz and broad parody and satire. The heavy-weight boxer Oxenschwanz (Oxtail, though Schwanz has another meaning that we can't go into on a G-rated site) is in training at his gym and catches his wife having an affair with her dancing instructor. He locks her up and sits down to a large breakfast at which he is interviewed by a newspaper reporter who takes his every grunt as a profound comment. Things don't change much, do they? An infatuated, nerdy young female student arrives, but she has to hide when her father, the professor, arrives as well. Through a broadly silly chain of events, she masquerades as a boxing dummy and gets pummeled by Oxtail, but loves it. Krenek's romantic life must have been interesting. The dancing instructor returns in disguise and hooks the boxer up to an electrified rowing machine that he can't stop, and escapes with Oxtail's wife. As the opera ends, a government official arrives to tell the boxer that the government is sending him to the Olympic Games as the "glory of the nation."

Krenek turns to the Schreker-Zemlinsky genre of ponderous operatic fairy tales in the last piece, The Secret Kingdom. Revolution has broken out in a Central European kingdom where the king is having an identity crisis. His fool tells him a riddle: "What is round and shiny and is on a head and contains a whole world?" The queen arrives, disgusted with her husband's behavior and ready to sell him out for the hunky rebel prisoner. The king, in despair, gives up his crown, but he gives it to his fool instead of the greedy queen, who with her ladies proceed to ply the fool with liquor and win the crown from him in a card game. However, the rebel wants just the crown, not the queen that goes with it, and chases her into an enchanted forest. As he is about to ravish her (he's changed his mind, seeing her naked) and seize the crown, she turns into a tree. Her husband wanders in, still in a funk. As he is about to string himself up from a limb on the queen-tree, she sings to him and comforts him. The king realizes that the answer to the fool's riddle is the eye of an animal reflecting nature. Krenek may have been hot at romance, but he wasn't so hot with riddles. The fool has the last word, as all fools do.

Krenek's music is pleasant enough in all three operas though not distinguished enough to warrant these pieces becoming regular repertoire pieces, by any means. The Dictator and Heavy-Weight would make fun pieces for college opera theaters, if the politically incorrect portrayal of women could be overlooked. The performances on this recording are all second-tier European opera house quality, though none of them are objectionable and all fill the needs of the music admirably. Any singers willing to learn works such as these that they probably won't ever get to perform again deserve listeners' thanks. Janowski conducts in his usual expert style, catching the jazzy and satirical tone of these Zeitoper. Krenek has other interesting unrecorded operas from his American career that we can hope Janowski turns his attention to next.

David Anderson

Posted by Gary at 1:01 AM

CARISSIMI: Oratorios

Giacomo Carissimi:

Jepthe, Jonas, Oratorios
Consortium Carissimi, dir. Vittorio Zanon
Naxos 8.557390 [CD]

Dialogo del gigante Golia, Oratorios
Monika Mauch, Constanze Backes, Wilfrid Jochens, Harry van der Kamp; La Capella Ducale, Musica Fiata Köln, dir. Roland Wilson
cpo 999 983-2 [CD]

Two recent CDs of Carissimi oratorios provide the listener the opportunity to compare very different "takes" on the composer's remarkable works, which exemplify the sophisticated and exclusive style cultivated by the cardinalate nobility in mid-seventeenth-century Rome. Carissimi's oratorios survive in manuscript only, and with relatively sparse indications concerning instrumentation; it has long been a challenge for contemporary performers to balance the need for dramatic clarity with the desirability of sonic variety, and the two groups featured on these CDs take different approaches to that challenge, each with fruitful results.

The ensemble "Consortium Carissimi" was founded in Rome in the late 1990s to bring more attention to the works of the prolific composer (whose fame in a wide variety of genres was extraordinary in the 1600s, but who is now known primarily for his Latin oratorios). This is the first recording by the ensemble to tackle sacred dramatic works in the genre, and while it is understandable that they chose to measure their Jepthe (the most famous of Carissimi's oratorios, a jewel of compact drama) against the many other recorded versions of the work, their goal of greater exposure for Carissimi's music might have benefited from the choice of less well-worn works (the other oratorio in the recording, Jonas, has also been recorded repeatedly since at least the 1970s). The ensemble's approach is minimalistic, with a clear focus on the dramatic delivery of text; this is done very effectively, and the clarity and subtlety of enunciation is wonderful, especially on the part of Marco Scavazza, the baritone who plays the title role in Jepthe. The lament of the daughter of the king who must die without children is certainly the most poignant moment in the work, and soprano Nadia Caristi has an extraordinary delivery; likewise in Jonas, the monologues are extremely powerful.

The duets and ensemble sections that punctuate the works are less interestingly conveyed. Melody-instrument reinforcement is relatively sparse (two violins), and even with a reasonably well-stocked continuo group (two plucked-string and two bass-line string in addition to the harpsichord/organ player) the accompaniment creates a relatively uniform effect. There are few moments of dramatic sonic contrast: it seems that the ensemble is relying on the power of the solo voices, sometimes dangerously leaning toward a monotonous effect.

The male voices of the ensemble are the strongest aspect of this recording, both individually and in their sonic blend. This makes the trio for tenor, baritone, and bass that complements the two oratorios — "Dai piu riposti abissi", an Italian cantata — the most remarkable and worthwhile piece on the CD. It alone is worth the purchase price, and the clarity of the delivery in the two oratorios is a welcome change over some earlier recordings of the works that provided more sound and fury than dramatic effect. One hopes that the Consortium Carissimi will continue to expand our awareness of Carissimi's lesser-known works, their strength being perhaps the smaller-scale compositions rather than the oratorios.

More musically satisfying overall to this reviewer is the other disc under consideration, a recording of four recently-rediscovered Carissimi oratorios. Perhaps the unfamiliarity of the works (thought to be lost, but recovered in a Czech archive) adds to the pleasure of discovery; while Jepthe is a wonderful work, it is more exciting to have the opportunity to experience another facet of Carissimi's creativity. Certainly La Capella Ducale and Musica Fiata Köln, long-standing effective interpreters of seventeenth-century concerted music, are on top of their game. The two sopranos, seasoned Constanze Backes and the young Monika Mauch, create extraordinary characterizations of old-testament heroines (and heros), and veteran bass Harry van der Kamp at his sonorous best, especially in his turn as the cocky giant Goliath. The presence of brass resources (cornetti and trombones, long a strong suit for Musica Fiata) in the soundscape gives Roland Wilson a wider palette than that available to Consortium Carissimi, and that palette is deployed to great effect, creating a wonderfully varied interplay between melody and continuo resources (despite actually having a more compact continuo group than the Italian ensemble). Delivery is perhaps a little less crisp than in the other disc under consideration, but the dramatic power of the musical gestures is unquestionable, and Wilson and his ensembles once again demonstrate their command of the sacred musical idiom of the Italian seventeenth century.

While the Consortium Carissimi CD is interesting as a comparison-point to many other recordings of Jepthe and Jonas, and most worthwhile for its more unusual Italian cantata, the Musica Fiata CD is a must-have for its expressive variety (not to mention the delight of discovering Mauch's powerful voice); the fact that it provides what appear to be the first recordings of four wonderful Carissimi works is icing on the cake. One quibble with the format: while Naxos (as they often do) have created many (almost too many?) separate tracks, allowing the listener to quickly locate a particular excerpt, cpo frustratingly provides a single track for each work — which, in the case of Regina Hester and Diluvium Universale, makes for 25-minute tracks — making it difficult for the listener to find favorite passages. But this is a small logistical matter, and a negligible road-bump in the enjoyment of this fabulous CD.

Andrew Dell'Antonio
The University of Texas at Austin

Posted by Gary at 12:43 AM

June 22, 2005

La Bohème at Covent Garden

Angela Gheorghiu (1995 Production)
Photo: Alastair Muir

La Bohème

George Hall [The Guardian, 21 June 05]

This production of Puccini's classic, originally directed by John Copley, began life in 1974 and is now the oldest in the Royal Opera's repertory. It's still serviceable in its old-fashioned way, at least when lit with sufficient discretion to hide its increasing shabbiness.

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 12:50 PM

June 21, 2005

COUPERIN: Les Concerts Royaux

François Couperin: Les Concerts Royaux
Marc Hantäi (flute); Alfredo Bernardini (oboe); Manfredo Kraemer (violin); Joseph Borràs (bassoon); Bruno Cocset (bass-violin); Xavier Dìaz-Latorre (theorboro and guitar); Guido Morini (harpsichord); Jordi Savall (bass-viol and director).
AliaVox AV9840 [CD]

If you've recently browsed the shelves in a bookstore or Blockbuster, you would have to be oblivious not to notice titles such as The DaVinci Code, the Romanov Prophecy, or films like National Treasure and Kingdom of Heaven. Responses to these titles suggest an increased interest in historical topics and journeys that provoke us to unravel clues that, in the end, will reveal an ultimate truth. Works that exude knowledge and mystery have always been popular in music, because it is by the dissemination of clues and their eventual interpretation that lead to the re-creation of a musical moment in history. One might even call it one of the earliest forms of a "treasure hunt." In this high quality CD, the Concert des Nations directed by Jordi Savall, has successfully disseminated the few details left by Couperin and re-created what are perhaps the most important works of the French royal court: the Concert Royaux. Having already recorded Couperin's Pièces de Voile, Les Nations, and Les Apothéoses, the Concert Royaux would comprise the second category of chamber works written by Couperin for the Court of King Louis XIV. To gain a better understanding of the general purpose of these concerts, you might think of them as relative to Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks, but only in their sense of purpose. Their stylistic elements couldn't be more diverse.

Why this CD reminded me of the recent worldwide fascination with historical clues and ultimate truths is because its music also went through a similar process of being unraveled and interpreted to reach a final result. In fact, due to the grand musicianship, historically accurate performance, and quality of sound on this CD, I will go so far as to call it is a treasure trove. You see, biographers of Couperin have very little to work from and so it is enticing to consider how this group of performers sufficiently re-created a work of this magnitude. Moreover, they did so even withstanding the unfortunate fact that Couperin rarely discussed which instruments he was writing for in the first place. At least for the Concerts Royaux he wrote that it might be played on the harpsichord, or on the violin, oboe, flute, viol, and bassoon, although this information is very vague. Here, the Concert des Nations uses the instrumentation Couperin suggests but in different organizations for each of the twenty-five separate dance movements and on period instruments; a point which brings me to the first treasure find on the CD: on the inside flap is a list of the period instruments being used, historical information for each instrument, and its current owner and origin; a welcome bonus for avid CD collectors. In addition, on page 10 of the CD booklet, there is a facsimile of Couperin's original letter indicating his instrument choices for the Concert Royaux. Although these additions to the collection are historically intriguing, it is the music itself that is the greatest treasure.

Divided into four separate concerts, each track on the CD presents one of the popular dance forms that predominated the Baroque. Each concert opens with a prelude followed by an: Allemande, Sarabande, Gavotte, Gigue, Minuet and Trio and/or substituted by an Air, Echos, Fugue, Courante, Chaconne, Muzette, Rigaudon, or Forlana, where the flavor and tempo of each dance contributes to the overall mood of the entire concert. Unique to Couperin, in the Concert Royaux, is his distinct fascination with Italianness, and there are several of the dance numbers in which a certain spiciness can be detected, but these are always contrasted by French lyric style and some Germanic fugal tendencies. French influence is most likely attributed to Lully who was most well known for his tragedies en musique (early opera), and the imposing orchestral style of his ouvertures or the dance music of his ballets, but the Italian qualities are most likely attributed to Corelli. Interestingly, Couperin was known to have rejected opera and other large orchestral works. In his CD notes, director Jordi Savall, discusses Couperin as a "poet musician" who worked his best with smaller and more intimate forms. Here, it is the juxtaposition of the Italian elements with the French that give the Concerts Royaux their distinct international flavor. This is especially noted in the fourth concert of the series, where Couperin uses a Courante Françoise that uses a light texture complemented by even melodic fragments, then followed by a Courante à l'italiene that is permeated with endless driving rhythm and cruder harmonies; both styles eloquently captured by the Concert des Nations.

As an ensemble, the Concert des Nations is solid and responsive to the unique emotion that each concert is to exude. For example, the first concert is surrounded by an air of melancholy that prevails through all six dances. Beginning in the free-form prelude, marked gravement (extremely melancholy) the stylized playing is doubly enhanced by the authentic acoustic space created by the Abbey of Saint-Michel on Thiérache. The overtones are rich, especially as the oboe begins with its yearning tone that is later doubled by the violin. But in the first concert it is the Sarabande that is the most affective work, where a minor theme weaves tellingly around falling chords. Perhaps most descriptive is the theorboro that offers an almost comedic lightness to the seriousness of the violin's melody.

"Melancholy" is contrasted in the second concert by a focus on fugal elements and a more pronounced German style. One will hear a pronounced polyphonic style (more than one melody occurring simultaneously) and within many of the dances the treble instruments seem to introduce a subject that never completely develops into fugue but taunts us to listen to it as such. It seems that the point of the Concert Royaux becomes apparent in the Air Tendre where Couperin achieves a synthesis of international styles. It is one of the most beautiful courtly pieces in the C.R. that functions on a dialogue between treble and bass instruments but always maintains its lyricism. This is followed by a virtuosic display of musicianship by the members of the Concerts des Nations in the Air Contre fugue, where the highly ornamented melody again suggests the beginning of a fugue but there is no imitation. This means that Couperin was playing with our expectations and those of the Royal Court, who would have thought that that dances were fugal when, in fact, they were not. How might we interpret this? Perhaps Couperin was playing the "poet musician" here and proposing that a true synthesis of styles is only attainable by presenting a dialogue between styles, but one that never fully develops into an argument. The influence of Bach can be detected in the playing of the Concert des Nations, especially in the detached bass, a punto (punctuated) performed by Jordi Savall on the Bass Viol. While playing with German stylistic elements, Couperin decidedly completes the second concert with the Echos: a favorite effect of the Baroque period. Each melody is repeated in echo, although in this recording the affect that the Concert des Nations was trying to achieve is diminished. This is partly due to the enhanced acoustic of the Abbey where the sonorities of the higher instruments continue to pierce the texture of the music, rather than to echo the statements first directed by the bass.

Overall, the most outstanding concert on the CD is the third, where the SarabandeGrave could be considered the pieces de résistance. In stately rhythms instigated by frequent and deliberate pauses (rests) there is a new-found dramatic impetus to this work. The members of the Concert des Nations pay close attention to these rests so as to create a heightened sense of drama; but more importantly, each instrument here is of equal value and brought to the fore at specific moments to increase the emotional impact and majesty that surrounds the work. It develops into a polyphonic web of ascending and descending patterns in simultaneous statements.

All in all, the recording quality is excellent, although one must approach listening to this CD with the knowledge that the sound will be different from a normal chamber ensemble recording. The tessitura (range) of the instruments is often quite high, producing a sometimes monotonous quality, however the CD is well organized in that you may choose to listen to one concert at a time, one dance at a time, or all four at once. Personally, I think it best to listen to these works as they would have been performed: one at a time. This allows the listener to reflect on the general mood and quality being presented within each concert. Each detail then becomes part of a larger picture and the historical value of each dance becomes apparent. Ideally, the Concert Royaux are Couperin's solution to the issue of competing styles, a problem composers would face for the next two-hundred years. While he adopts the forms of the Italian sonata or the German fugue, he never deserted the basic ideals of French art. If you are one of those people who enjoy historical treasure finds, then the Concert des Nations is a group that you would enjoy immensely. Each performer is strong in his approach and it is the musicianship of the individual parts that contributes to this most exciting and historically enlightening whole.

Mary-Lou Patricia Vetere, Mus.B. M.A., PhD (ABD)
SUNY at Buffalo

Posted by Gary at 8:29 PM

June 20, 2005

Britten's Gloriana in St. Louis

Christine Brewer

Long Live a Beleaguered Tribute to Britannia

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 20 June 05]

ST. LOUIS, June 19 - In more than 50 years on the British throne Queen Elizabeth II has shown scant interest in opera. So it is paradoxical that one of the major events of her coronation ceremonies was the 1953 premiere by the Royal Opera at Covent Garden of Benjamin Britten's "Gloriana," an elaborate three-act work about the first Queen Elizabeth, with a libretto by William Plomer based on Lytton Strachey's book "Elizabeth and Essex."

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 1:29 PM

June 19, 2005

Schade and Hvorostovsky in Vienna

Dmitri Hvorostovsky

Von Liebe und toten Kindern

VON DANIELA TOMASOVSKY [Die Presse, 20 June 05]

Schade im Konzerthaus, Hvorostovsky im Musikverein.

Die Zugabe war klug gewählt: "Wien, Wien nur du allein" sang der deutsch-kanadische Tenor Michael Schade zum Abschluss seines Liederabends im Konzerthaus. Bei so viel Zuneigung war ihm frenetischer Beifall sicher - und mancher Lacher für die drollige Aussprache. Den Applaus hatte er sich verdient. "Of Ladies and Love" war das Motto des Konzerts mit Liedern von Schubert, Beethoven, Liszt, Faure, Ravel und Strauss. Besonders mit leidenschaftlichen, ungestümen Liedern überzeugte er, etwa mit Liszts "Tre sonetti de Petrarca" oder Beethovens "Adelaide". Hier kam Schades volle, schön timbrierte Stimme hervorragend zur Geltung, und auch im Ausdruck schienen ihm dramatische Liebeserfahrungen näher zu liegen als innig-verzärtelnde.

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 11:55 PM

Cabell Wins Cardiff Singer of the World 2005

Soprano Nicole Cabell of Panorama City, California, won the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2005. Accompanied by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Carlo Rizzi conducting, Ms. Cabell performed "How can I cherish my man in such days" from Tippett's A Child of our Time, "Se il padre perdei" from Mozart's Idomeneo and "Les belles fleurs!...Entre l'amour et le devoir" from Benvenuto Cellini by Berlioz. A member of the Chicago Lyric Opera Center for American Artists ensemble for 2004-2005, Ms Cabell is a graduate of Eastman School of Music.

Posted by Gary at 11:55 PM

Renata Scotto — Teacher

You might not expect this city to offer much in the way of advanced training for opera singers, and for 11 months of the year, you would be right. But not in June, when the Renata Scotto Opera Academy takes up residence here at the Music Conservatory of Westchester, inside the shell of a renovated building the locals remember as the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Posted by Gary at 3:02 PM

Boris Goudenow and the Boston Early Music Festival

Tsar Boris Feodorovich Godunov (c. 1551 - 1605)

A Feast of Early Music With Opera as the Entree

By ALLAN KOZINN [NY Times, 18 June 05]

BOSTON, June 17 - For fans and performers of early music, this city is paradise for a week every other June, when the Boston Early Music Festival sets up its combination concert marathon and trade show. The festival offers performances every night between 5 and midnight. The centerpiece is always a lavishly produced Baroque opera - this year's is Johann Mattheson's long-lost "Boris Goudenow" - but concerts by imported ensembles and soloists, and by the festival's period instrument orchestra, are also a strong draw.

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 1:27 AM

June 18, 2005

A Scottish Lady Mass: Sacred Music from Medieval St. Andrews

A Scottish Lady Mass: Sacred Music from Medieval St. Andrews
Red Byrd (John Potter and Richard Wistreich) with Yorvox
Hyperion CDA67299 [CD]

Despite theoretical beginnings several centuries earlier, we have come to think of early polyphony as having its first "golden age" in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Paris, an environment teeming with things new: the University of Paris, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and the large-scale organa by Leoninus and Perotinus. If our attention is drawn to Paris, it is with good reason. But significantly, the musically innovative style of the Parisians had a geographic dissemination that took it to places like St. Andrews in Scotland, home to a cathedral roughly contemporary with Notre Dame and, to continue the symmetry further, in the fifteenth century, also home to Scotland's oldest university. A run of Norman bishops in St. Andrews secured a degree of continentalism in the local ecclesiastical culture, and one of the most important manifestations of this is the Scottish manuscript of Parisian repertory that we today know as "W1." W1 is a copy, in all likelihood one made at St. Andrews, of the Parisian Magnus liber organi — the "great book of organum" by Leoninus, as well as other works, some of them local. And it is from this local Scottish repertory contained within W1 that Red Byrd has fashioned their "Scottish Lady Mass."

The core of Red Byrd is its two principal singers, John Potter and Richard Wistreich, both long known as leading early music singers in the UK. And though joined on occasion here by an ensemble of students from the University of York (where Potter heads a program in early vocal ensemble practice), most of the recording is impressively the work of these two alone. Thus, when enumerating those things that are most memorable here — for instance, vocal tones that are beautifully free and exquisitely focused and poised — vocal stamina will surely be high on the list. Several works with continuous duet textures, sung one-to-a-part, exceed five minutes, and the concentration and physical endurance of Potter and Wistreich, are notable, indeed.

If the length of some of the works is impressive for continuous solo singing, the style of the counterpoint itself is nevertheless generally economical, with note-against-note or a few-notes-against-note styles predominating. Little here will recall the "sustained note" style of Leoninus. However, two monophonic tropes, the Sanctus Christe ierarchia and the Agnus Dei Archetipi mundi, are rhapsodic and florid, and in them Potter sings with wonderful control and expressive gesture. His use of glottal articulation offers a richness of texture that, when combined with his foray into the extreme high range, show him to be a singer as technically accomplished as musically sensitive.

There are few things about which to quibble here. The Latin pronunciation basically seems to follow, with but one alteration, modern Italian "church" Latin. The ci as an [S] sound is a nod towards period Anglo-Latin, but one wonders why a fuller range of period sounds was not used. And, as the manuscript itself is born of Norman continental interests, one could also imagine that a French-influenced pronunciation might be compelling.

"A Scottish Lady Mass" is the third of Red Byrd's recordings of the Parisian or Parisian-influenced repertory of the late Middle Ages (two discs devoted to Leoninus are also available on Hyperion). In bringing this repertory to life in so convincing a manner, they allow the listener to share in the beauty of polyphony coming into a period of rich blossom. That they have done so with such consummate artistry places us all in their debt.

Dr. Steven Plank
Oberlin College

Posted by Gary at 2:45 AM

June 16, 2005

SCHÜTZ: Historia der Auferstehung Jesu Christi

Heinrich Schütz: Historia der Auferstehung Jesu Christi
Weser-Renaissance Bremen; Manfred Cordes, Director
cpo 777 027-2 [CD]

In the seventeenth century Germany did not move quickly to embrace the new oratorio genre, despite its mainstream cultivation in Italy. Arguably, in fact, the Italianism of the genre may have made it suspect in some Protestant circles, and contributed to its slow cultivation. However, German interest in musical settings of sacred narrative is clear, given the examples of historiae composed by Heinrich Schütz and his contemporaries. These historiae present Biblical stories without modern poetic interpolations, and Schütz's "Resurrection History" of 1623 is one of the most compelling. Music historians have rightly seen in the historia an antecedent of the German oratorio, but in its own right — and especially in Schütz's compositions — it is a rich form, liturgically functional and compositionally sophisticated, that need not be harnessed to the more prominent oratorio to warrant our attention. With this recent recording of the "Resurrection History," Manfred Cordes and Weser-Renaissance Bremen add a fifth installment to their series of Schütz recordings for Classic Production Osnabrück and with it a welcome new performance of this significant work.

The "Resurrection History" is based on a conflation of Gospel accounts of the events following Jesus' resurrection: the visit to the tomb by the three Marys, Jesus' appearance on the road to Emmaus, Jesus' eating with the disciples, and so forth. Schütz sets the text for a narrative evangelist accompanied by a consort of viols, with the evangelist singing traditional chant formulas. The music for characters with dialogue is, in the main, duet texture, accompanied by basso continuo. Both the narrative chant style and the polyphonic music for individual characters may imbue the whole with a liturgical aura and keep theatricalism at bay. However, Schütz, in his performance directions shows a degree of flexibility that may nurture dramatic effect, especially in allowing the duets to have one line played, rather than sung, or even having the second line omitted altogether.

The Weser-Renaissance performance is an exuberant and robust one, attuned to the dramatic potential of the work. The evangelist, Hans-Jörg Mammel, varies tempo and dynamic levels to good expressive effect, and the accompanying viols, with improvised figuration, significantly animate the narrative flow. Moreover, characters are made distinctive with different continuo ensembles — Mary Magdalene sings to the accompaniment of the harp alone; Cleophas, to organ and harp, etc. — and this operatic practice, explicit in works like Monteverdi's Orfeo, serves the dramatic sense well.

Infelicities are few. Balance problems emerge here and there: sometimes the evangelist seems loud relative to other parts, and in some instances the organ seems unexpectedly loud relative to the singers. But these do not detract from the overall impression of a strong and vital performance, polished in detail and moving in effect.

The recording also features several smaller-scaled Easter works, including the Dialogue, "Weib, was weinest du?" A setting of Mary Magdalene's recognition of the risen Jesus, it is notable in its expressive intensity and in its retention of motives and harmonic gestures from the earlier "Resurrection History." Clearly Schütz was happy to revisit this material, and given this recording, the listener will surely join him in that sentiment.

Dr. Steven Plank
Oberlin College

Posted by Gary at 9:16 PM

David Gockley on Selling Tickets

David Gockley

...While He Practiced Pragmatism

By HEIDI WALESON [Wall Street Journal, 16 June 05]

When David Gockley became business manager at the Houston Grand Opera in 1970, the company, like most regional troupes in the U.S. at the time, was doing "instant opera." "There was a guy in north Jersey who had acquired all these old painted drops from Europe," Mr. Gockley recalls. "He would rent out a generic 'Tosca' or 'Trovatore.' They came in bags — you stretched the drops on frames." There was no rehearsal period — singers arrived, performed and left. Mr. Gockley became HGO's general director in 1972 and immediately changed all that. One of his first productions was "The Marriage of Figaro," with specially designed sets, a director, and a three-week rehearsal period. "We had a nice cast, including the young Frederica von Stade as Cherubino," says Mr. Gockley. It cost more than instant opera, but it paid off.

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 3:48 PM

Rossini's La gazzeta at the Liceu

Scene from La gazzeta (Photo: Gran Teatre del Liceu)

Darío Fo adapta para el Liceu una ópera olvidada de Rossini

El Nobel italiano "saquea" la 'comedia dell'arte' para lograr la escenografía de 'La gazetta'

JOSé OLIVA/BARCELONA [El Correo Digital, 15 June 05]

El dramaturgo y premio Nobel de Literatura italiano Dario Fo confesó ayer que ha "saqueado" a Rossini y la tradición de la 'comedia dell'arte' para hacer la escenografía de la ópera 'La gazzeta' del compositor italiano, que el Liceo barcelonés estrenará el próximo día 20. 'La gazzeta' narra la historia de don Pomponio, que quiere casar a su hija con el mejor partido. Para ello, inserta un anuncio en el diario en el que hace un elogio ditirámbico. Aunque la obra estaba llamada a tener éxito, la escasa promoción propició, segun Fo, que no recibiera el interés del publico cuando se estrenó en Nápoles en 1816.

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 3:21 AM

June 15, 2005

Immortal Fire: Music for Female Saints

Immortal Fire: Music for Female Saints
The Girl Choristers and Lay Clerks of Winchester Cathedral.
Sarah Baldock, Director; Andrew Lumsden, Organist.
Griffin GCCD 4049 [CD]

The recording "Immortal Fire" presents a varied anthology of music for female saints, excellently sung by the Girl Choristers and Lay Clerks of Winchester Cathedral under the direction of Sarah Baldock. Much of the music is Marian, with additional pieces in honor of St. Cecilia, St. Margaret of Scotland, and St. Ursula. Some of the works are highly familiar — Britten's youthful "A Hymn to the Virgin," and his popular setting of Auden's "A Hymn to St. Cecilia" for instance — and the performances seem familiar, as well. As the pieces are canonical within the cathedral repertory, so too are the interpretations, sung with polish and high accomplishment, but few surprises. However, other works are new or less familiar. For example, Judith Bingham's "Margaret, Forsaken," a work commemorating Margaret of Scotland, was commissioned for this recording. The composer's imaginative use of patterned repetition and ornamental organ effects are evocative of a North Sea moodiness, and the choir responds with an impressive reading that is both intense and dramatic. Herbert Howells — never far from the cathedral choir folder--is represented by two works, a "Hymn for St. Cecilia" and a "Salve Regina." The former is an expansive hymn tune with a wonderfully uplifting descant to its final verse. The "Salve" is an early work whose chordal gestures are reminiscent of Vaughan Williams, but in the main it is a work showing the developing harmonic fingerprints of Howells' musical signature, with sweet dissonant propensities and chromatic inflection. Howells graces the concluding acclamations with a memorable treble solo — the embodiment of the text's "dulcis" — gracefully sung by Tempe Nell.

Much to its credit, "Immortal Fire" has been put together with welcome attention to variety of program. Two large-scale organ works on Marian themes, Flor Peeters' somewhat predictable "Toccata, Fugue and Hymn on Ave maris stella" and Marcel Dupré's improvisational "Magnificat" with chant in alternatim, are interspersed among the motets and anthems to good effect, and they are played with flair by Andrew Lumsden. Also intertwined among the vocal polyphony are several monophonic antiphons by Hildegard of Bingen. The choir seems decidedly less at home with these chants than with the other works; the rhapsodic nature of the lines are constrained here into a business-like rush, showing neither the pieces nor the singers to their best advantage.

Where do the singers seem most at home? The performance of Holst's "Ave Maria," a stunningly rich eight-voice piece for upper voices, is a remarkable demonstration of this choir at its best. The sound wafts and soars; phrases are finely contoured; the high range is seemingly effortless — all in all, a memorable high point in a recording of many outstanding performances.

It may well be that in the present day we cannot hear this recording without also being aware of its broader context: music celebrating female saints, sung by girl choristers, conducted by one of the few women to gain a musical position in the traditionally all-male bastion of Anglican cathedral music is a combination that brings into focus a dynamic juncture in the history of Anglican cathedral music. Ardent traditionalists have resisted the advance of girl trebles into the cathedral choir stalls, citing among other things the added drain on already tight resources, the feared erosion of the participation of boys, and with that the loss of training of future altos, tenors, and basses, and the demise of a tradition that has been both defining and long cherished. In the past few years, however, more progressive voices have prompted the introduction of girl choristers into the life of a number of English cathedrals — Wells, Salisbury, Coventry, Peterborough, Southwark, and Winchester, among them — and the result, as demonstrated by this present recording,, is very rewarding, indeed.

The Anglican treble sound varies from place to place, be it from girls or from boys, and thus generalizations can be slippery to formulate. However, the emphasis on pure, largely straight-toned singing has long been fundamental, and the introduction of girls has not altered the basic aesthetic assumptions of the tradition. The girls do sing as choristers until an older age, however — seventeen or eighteen years old, long past when boys' voices would have changed — and thus the girls' sound may in some instances have a more mature quality. To my ear this takes the form of a sound more lithe; a sound subtly more substantial and textured, as evidenced by the Winchester girl choristers. One wonders, too, if at some subliminal level we don't listen to boys' and girls' voices in a different way, as well. We may perceive in the boy's treble sound a certain poignance, because it is so obviously ephemeral — we hear it, and — at some level--we know it will not last; someday the boy will be a tenor or a bass. Girls' voices, too, certainly undergo changes at maturation, but those changes seem more a part of a perceived continuity — high voices remain high voices — and thus we don't perceive the girl's voice as emotionally tinged with the same degree of irrecoverability. Thus, the present juncture seems to represent the continuity of a basic aesthetic tradition, yet with subtle changes in the sounds that bring it to life and significant change in those who do the singing. There is much to praise in this evolving of the cathedral tradition: certainly the "social" advances and the enriching of the range of sound are notable. Moreover, as this recent recording from Winchester so amply shows, the present moment is one characterized by a high quality of singing, and this will gratify long after the transient polemics have fallen silent.

Dr. Steven Plank
Oberlin College

Posted by Gary at 3:25 PM

Il Barbiere di “Siviglia” in Antwerp

Scene from Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Photo: Annemie Augustijns)

Il Barbiere di "Siviglia"

Lionel LhoteFigaro
Stephanie HoutzeelRosina
Iain PatonAlmaviva
Alexander VinogradovBasilio
Urban MalmbergBartolo
Anja van EngelandBerta
Benoît de LeersnyderFiorello
Michael AutenriethAmbrogio
Giuseppe GrisorioNotaio
Patrick CromheekeUfficiale
2=. Symfonisch Orkest en Koor van de Vlaamse Opera
2=. Conducted by Ivan Törzs
2=. Directed by Guy Joosten
2=. Sets and Costumes by Johannes Leiacker
2=. De Vlaamse Opera - Antwerp

Very attentive readers will have noticed I put "Siviglia" in quotation marks as it refers in this production to the name of an Italian hairdresser's salon and not to the Spanish city. Director Joosten who always keeps an attentive eye on surtitles and has them changed when the sung lines are contrary to the happenings on the scene nevertheless let a reference to the Spanish Prado slip in.

Anyway that was the only reference to a traditional Barbiere as Rossini's opera was fully updated to somewhere in the south of Italy. We are at the same time in a modern hairdresser's salon but one so open that the view of the windows of the apartments above unobstructed. The important thing is that the set worked well and helped to make the necessary comic points.

As is usual with Joosten he changed traditional perceptions of the protagonists. Figaro was not only the "factotum della citta" but a nice charming gay hairdresser who tries to seduce all and any male performer that comes within a distance of a yard (though I clearly remember a very macho Figaro in Joosten's Nozze di Figaro).

Rosina is a leggy young sexy lady not above using her many charms to get her man though that's where Joosten fails for the first time. Every time the lady appears she wears another wonderful often extravagantly coloured thick wig. At first the gimmick gets some tittering but by the sixth or seventh wig the hair is still as thick but the joke is definitely wearing thin. Joosten fails too (or hasn't sought for a solution) with Rosina's "billet doux" tricks. The letter jokes in 'Dunque io son' probably worked in Rossini's days but are stale nowadays. Joosten didn't have the courage of his convictions, let the lady write little notes instead of trying to work something out and let her SMS (Short Message Service) in this 2005 action play.

During the duet Figaro was extremely busy with some client who hid behind a newspaper. When he dropped the paper and left the salon, the audience discovered that one of Flanders' most popular entertainers had put in a cameo performance for a few seconds. The idea got a hearty and deserved laugh but the laugh would have been as big if the man had revealed himself after, instead of right in the middle of, the duet and the musical line wouldn't have been disrupted.

Almaviva corresponded more or less to the image of the Italian lover though Joosten had a small surprise. A pre-recorded "Se il mio nome" with a calypso rhythm and orchestra was played on a CD-machine.

The emphasis in Don Basilio was on 'Don' (as in Don Corleone) and he was changed into a machine gun handling gangster. Movie references are now a fixture of this director. In his Amsterdam treatment of Elisir d'Amore, Bryn Terfel was dressed and behaved as a mixture of Elvis Presley and Liberace. This time Ambrogio's (Bartolo's servant) main task was exactly repeating Gene Kelly's choreography (umbrella included and not in the libretto) around a lantern post (in the libretto) during the storm music. Don Bartolo was the only one behaving more or less in the traditional way, though he too was mainly busy shaving people instead of treating them.

The general impression was one of overdirecting, of too many jokes, of too clever ideas not always consistently worked out. One example: Seemingly drunken, Almaviva is not dressed as an Italian army officer but just as another of the bunch of carabinieri who is always entering and leaving the salon.

Still, the sum of this production is far more than the many small irritations. It is modern, respects the spirit of the work, gives sense and drive to the old warhorse. I hope the Antwerp opera will offer us a reprise in a few years when that great saviour of opera, 'plain routine', will eject a few of the extravagancies. But even now, I admit I wouldn't want to watch a traditional Barbiere in the seasons ahead; and that's maybe the highest praise I can give Guy Joosten (who will direct the new Roméo at the Met).

Musically there were a few problems. Conductor Michel Tilkin left at the last moment as things didn't work out well with his orchestra. Anyway that's the official reason. Rumour has it that he simply left in disgust at Joosten's treatment (that Calypso serenade?). So the Antwerp music director Ivan Törzs had to jump in.

Now Italian belcanto is not exactly Mr. Törzs speciality but the orchestra is so fine that the Rossinian crescendi didn't suffer and that harmony reigned between pit and scene (I attended the second performance). There were a few times when Törzs lingered too long on recitatives and he almost brought the music at a dead end in "Freddo ed immobile" but he still made the best of a difficult situation and singers didn't need to keep their eyes glued on the conductor.

Originally Gary Magee should have sung Figaro but already at the beginning of the season it was clear that Walloon baritone Lionel Lhote would take over. The baritone has a clear, big booming voice which is improving all the time. His is probably the greatest talent in the country and I would dearly love to hear him in a big Verdi role. A pity we have to suffer once more the inevitable Caproni or Vanaud next season in all the theatres over here when there is such a fine voice and an exuberant actor available.

Mezzo Stephanie Houtzeel has a ripe fruity mezzo that becomes rather shrill above the staff; and her coloratura are not exactly pure either. I fear the lady was somewhat more chosen for her fine looks, long legs and fearless acting than for Rossinian musicality. Tenor Iain Paton has the right voice colour but his voice too is somewhat unwieldy and he had his difficulties too with the intricacies of the score. Already in 1964 Ugo Benelli proved (too soon for the times) that "Cessa di piu resistere" is a necessary but acrobatic show piece for the tenor but Juan Diego Florez has now made it so popular that it is no longer acceptable to cut it as happened here (though it would probably have exposed Paton's lack of coloratura in a cruel way). This was rather conspicuous as Berta's almost unknown aria was restored, though sung rather sharp by Anja van Engeland. Apart from Lhote, the best singing came from the wonderful black resounding bass voice of Alexander Vinogradov. Urban Malmberg was a fine Bartolo.

Though Joosten may ask a lot of movement and antics from his singers, he is cleverly enough not to demand they should sing with their back to the audiences or swinging on a rope etc. They could easily project their voices in the audience.

Jan Neckers

Posted by Gary at 1:45 AM

June 14, 2005

Dame Gwyneth Jones sings Wagner

Dame Gwyneth Jones sings Wagner
Westdeutsche Rundfunk Orchestra of Cologne, Roberto Paternostro (cond.)
Chandos CHAN 10286 X [CD]

This CD is a digital remastering of an original 1991 recording of Gwyneth Jones in selections from Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde and Götterdämmerung. Jones was (and is) one of the great interpreters of Wagner, and the release of this CD is a welcome event, not only to her many friends, but all of us who are fascinated by the interpretation of Wagner's works. The recording is clearly meant to serve as a recorded monument to her artistry. Unfortunately, the CD is marred by many problems that make it less than satisfactory.

As we might expect, the sound engineers for this CD elected to foreground Jones's voice. But they also chose to "iron out" the dynamics, so that the fortes are attenuated and the pianos are amplified. Forte and piano, we might say, are no longer indicators of volume, but rather of color. This has the effect of diminishing the differences between Jones's interpretations of the individual heroines: Elsa and Isolde sound quite similar. Only in a few passages, such as the beginning of Elizabeth's prayer or the end of Brünnhilde's immolation scene, do we get a clear sense of Jones's distinctive approach to these characters.

Sound engineers might also be responsible for the quality of the orchestral sound, which is generally cold, thin, and overly bright. Part of this, however, must be laid at the door of the conductor. Paternostro goes a long way toward making Wagner's music sound banal. This reviewer found Paternostro's interpretation of the Tristan prelude (paired, as we might expect, with the Liebestod) to be the low point of the entire CD. His rather metronomic approach to the score deprives the performance of the sense of large-scale development that is so essential in Wagner. The tempi are rather quick, but somehow the performances seem too long.

One of the most distinctive things about Dame Gwyneth's voice is her approach to vibrato. She often begins a long note without any vibrato at all, adding it quickly in what we might think of as an idiomatic version of the classic mezza di voce. This can be a thrilling effect, but too often, the initial attack is under pitch. Jones's approach sometimes sounds mannered, particularly in the upper part of her range. In other sections, however, the effect is absolutely magical. The opening and the final passages of the Liebestod, for instance, are ravishing. Jones sings the final note in a bell-like pianissimo, without any trace of vibrato at all, producing what can only be called a sonic emblem of transfiguration.

The total time of this CD is only a bit over 55 minutes, and a few of the Wagnerian soprano chestnuts are missing. I would have particularly enjoyed hearing Dame Gwyneth sing Senta's ballad from Der fliegende Holländer and "Der Männer Sippe" from Die Walküre (they are absent from this CD). Despite its inadequacies, this recording is an important document of what is surely one of the great Wagnerian voices of the late twentieth century.

Dr. Stephen Meyer
Syracuse University

Posted by Gary at 8:00 PM

RESPIGHI: La Campana sommersa

Ottorino Respighi: La Campana sommersa (The Sunken Bell)
Laura Aikin (soprano), John Daszak (tenor), Rodericke Earle (bass), Kevin Conners (tenor).
Orchestre National de Montpellier et Choeur Opéra Junior, Friedemann Layer (cond.).
Accord 2 CD 476 1884 [3CDs]

Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936) is known best in the United States for his tone poems, including the Pines of Rome, the Fountains of Rome, and Roman Festivals, and, perhaps for some of his suites of early music, like the sets of Ancient Airs and Dances that reflect his detailed orchestrations. During his lifetime, however, his operas were known, and they include Re Enzo (1905); Semirama (1910); Belfagor (1921-22); La bella dormente nel bosco (1916-21); La campana sommersa (The Sunken Bell) (1923-27); Maria Egiziaca (1929-31); La Fiamma (1931-33); Lucrezia (1935). It is unfortunate that recordings of these works are somewhat rare, but that is quickly remedied by the recent issue of La campana sommersa on the Accord label.

This opera is a mature work of Respighi, and it contains the unmistakable orchestral writing that is familiar in his instrumental works. From the outset, the style is clear, with gestures that can only be attributed to Respighi. When the voices enter, the instrumental element gives way to the voices, which are supported by the full orchestra and never obscured. The vocal lines are nonetheless idiomatic and reflect the Verismo style of the period, echoing, perhaps, some of the motivically oriented style found in Puccini's Turandot. La campana sommersa is also paced well, and the scenes succeed fluidly, with each act following the other satisfactorily. There is never a perfunctory moment or stilted passage. Rather, the musical logic takes the listener through the work, with the musical narrative supporting the libretto seamlessly.

As to the story, La campana sommersa refers to the sunken bell at the crux of the plot that hinges upon the intersection of worlds of humans and fairies. The bell-maker Enrico's magnificent creation is at a certain point submerged in a lake, and this element forces the dénouement of the work. In facing the decision to choose between his wife, Magda and the elf Rautendelein, Enrico makes a decision that changes his life and the world around them. The libretto is a fable that resembles, in some ways, Dvorak's Russalka, where the power of love must overcome the differences that separate entire worlds of being. Either story may be regarded as a fable, and each also involves fairy-tale elements that create surrealistic settings.

The similarity between those two operas differs, though, since Respighi used some of the conventions of Verismo to set the text. The convention of set-pieces is absent from this score, as is the use of recitative to convey dialogue. As occurs in many traditional Verismo operas, the musical line is continuous, yet never completely declarmatory in its presentation of the sung text. Likewise, the orchestra does not merely accompany the work, but it helps in setting various scenes, as occurs at the beginning of the opera, which is supposed to occur in a meadow. In the next scene, when the bell-maker Enrico is lost, the orchestral passage before he sings "O buona gente" helps to depict the situation, with its repeated, unresolved motives preceding the character's declaration of being lost.

Yet the aesthetic idiom of Verismo, with its ideal of presenting true-to-life drama in contrast to the unrealistic idiom that became the domain of opera in the late nineteenth century, exists at odds with the Maeterlinck-like story of La campana sommersa. If nothing else, Respighi's use of some conventions of Verismo opera helps to convey a contemporary sensibility to the work. In doing so, Respighi is looking backward at a "Once upon a time," but suggests a contemporary setting, as Puccini did in this opera Le Villy, another work that involves the tragic consequences when humans encounter the world of the fairies.

As to the music itself, no distinctive pieces emerge from the score as particularly noteworthy in the sense of some of Puccini's more famous numbers, like "Vissi d'arte" or "Nessum dorma." Those kinds of pieces can create points of reference within an opera yet they are not entirely necessary With La campana somersa, no such popular numbers survive. Yet it is worth hearing some of the sustained pieces like the second-act scene of the elfin character Rautendelein "Tu me piaci," in which she reveals something about her nature to human Enrico, whom she loves. Like the music with Enrico mentioned above ("O buona gente"), Rautendelein's scene is one of the points in the libretto that is structurally more a soliloquy than dialogue, and here Respighi uses the opportunity to great effect, since he creates a sympathetic otherworldly sense that makes it possible to understand Enrico's attraction for the elf.

Other aspects of the score deserve attention, not the least of which is the contrast that exists between the accepted paradigm of the modern world and the attraction for what may be termed the irrational, the fanciful, the old pagan beliefs in elves and other supernatural beings. This may be interpreted by some in Jungian terms, but it also provides a talented composer like Respighi with the opportunity to create a work that may be interpreted at different levels. The score is as convincing as any of Puccini's, and it reflects the kind of rich score that Respighi's contemporary Erich Wolfgang Korngold created in a work like Die Wunder der Heliane.

While it is unlikely that La campana sommersa may ever displace some of the existing pieces of Verismo literature, this recording makes accessible another work from the period and an excellent example of Respighi's craft as an opera composer. The live performance is vivid and intense, and the singers handle their roles convincingly. Laura Aikin is notable as Rautendelein, a role which involves some demanding technical work. She sings the role with ease and deft musicality. In conducting Respighi's sometimes full orchestrations, Friedemann Layer contributes balance and paces the work well. In all, La campana sommersa is a twentieth-century opera that deserves not only to be heard, but, as indicated by this fine performance, enjoyed.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

Posted by Gary at 7:42 PM


Gaetano Donizetti's Elvida, recently issued by Opera Rara, is a perfect example. The composer's only one-act seria work has been criticized for its plot, and its score, especially the vocal lines, has been attacked as overly florid. Why, then, would a recording company with such dutiful care to historical integrity spend its time and money reviving it?

One can only be thankful that such a company exists, else gems like Elvida would lie amid the archival dust unperformed. A brief look at the opera's history (and the composer's career at the time of its composition) is instructive. Donizetti, still in the beginnings of his career, had come to Naples in 1822 just as Rossini was on his way to Vienna (unbeknownst to those in the Neapolitan arena, he had no plans to return). Donizetti was made director of one of the theaters and, although he accepted commissions from opera houses throughout Italy, Naples was to be the center of his compositional activities for nearly two decades. In the winter of 1826, just months before Elvida's July premiere, he had returned to Naples after a frustrating stint at the Teatro Carolina in Palermo, the second seat of the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. All of his "mature" works lay ahead.

An understanding of Elvida's commission is important, too. The one-act work was to be part of the celebrations of the birthday of Maria Isabella, wife of King Francesco I. At no time would Donizetti have assumed that the work would (or should) have had a future beyond the four performances — all part of the celebrations — it received. Thus, modern-day writers who have based their opinions of the work on the number of performances it received have missed the point. The only way for Donizetti to ensure a future for the work would have been to disassemble it and employ numbers in subsequent compositions (which he did — but for quite a different purpose). Elvida, a royal occasion piece, had served its purpose, which, by the way, was exactly the same as Rossini's spectacular Viaggio a Reims had just one year earlier for the coronation of Charles X of France.

And what of the libretto? One critic called it "hopeless" — "another dose of Moors in Spain." Its purpose, however, ably suggested in the Opera Rara liner notes, was an hommage to Maria Isabella. These were the Spanish Bourbons whose ancestors had vanquished the Moors. What better way to celebrate their heritage, especially at a time when revolution was a constant undercurrent in their reign, than to recall their glorious past? And what of that overly florid vocal style? In honor of the Neapolitan royals, some of the greatest singers in Italy were engaged for this production (again, exactly what Rossini did with Viaggio). Henriette Méric-Lalande (who would premiere four roles for Bellini) sang Elvida, the great Luigi Lablache performed Amur, and one of the most amazing tenors of the early nineteenth century, Giovanni Battista Rubini, created the role of Alfonso. Thus, the amazing pyrotechnics in the score were created specifically for them. Composers, of course, did that all the time during this period, but would one give any less to the monarchs in whose theaters one was hoping to remain active?

For the 1827 Naples premiere of his opera Le convenienze teatrali, Donizetti alluded to Elvida by having the opera company portrayed in the piece rehearse a work called Romolo and Ersilia; not only did the title resemble Elvida but so did the music. Again, critics assumed that Donizetti did it as a joke, in essence belittling what he must have thought an inferior piece; this would have been extraordinarily foolish since the Bourbons were still in power (indeed, the "birthday girl" Maria Isabella, then the Queen Mother, lived until 1848). Rather it was intended as an "in" reference which only Neapolitan audiences would have enjoyed for, by rights of the occasion for which it was composed, Elvida belonged to them.

Despite what twentieth-century writers thought of Elvida, the opera is a diminutive gem more than worthy of the treatment Opera Rara has given it. As usual, the Opera Rara cast (a familiar one) is excellent. Annick Massis as Elvida and Bruce Ford as Alfonso deal ably with the music composed with Méric-Lalande and Rubini in mind. Equally splendid are Jennifer Larmore in the "breeches" role as Zeidar, son of Amur, sung by Pietro Spagnoli. Supporting the main players are Anne-Marie Gibbons as Zulma and Ashley Catling as Ramiro. Antonello Allemandi's direction of the London Philharmonic is masterful. Although the entire recording is well worth the time to listen, certain cuts deserve attention. Massis' interpretation of the aria "A che me vuoi? che brami" is among them, as is the stretta in Massis and Larmore's duet "Sì grave è il tormento." Excellent ensembles include the trio "Invan, superba, invano" (Massis, Larmore, and Spagnoli) and the two-movement quartet "Deh! ti placa... Amur, mi rendi" and "L'empio cor che chiudi in petto" (Ford, Massis, Larmore, and Spagnoli). Massis and Ford's precision and exuberance in the work's final number, the rondo "Il cielo, in pria sdegnato" is breathtaking.

The score for Elvida was prepared by Christopher Moss (one might wish that the liner notes had identified his source, but we can assume it is the autograph in the archives of Naples' Teatro San Carlo, where the work premiered). Kudos to Opera Rara for the courage to continue shattering all of those prejudices that had previously excluded works like Elvida from revival.

Denise Gallo

image_description=Gaetano Donizetti: Elvida

product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: Elvida
product_by=Pietro Spagnoli (Amur); Jennifer Lamore (Zeidar); Annick Massis (Elvida); Bruce Ford (Alfonso); Anne-Marie Gibbons (Zulma); Ashley Gatling (Ramiro). Geoffrey Mitchell Choir and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Antonello Allemandi (cond.).
product_id=Opera Rara ORC 29 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 7:02 PM

VIVALDI: Arsilda, Regina di Ponto

Antonio Vivaldi: Arsilda, Regina di Ponto (RV 700)
Simonetta Cavalli (Arsilda); Lucia Sciannimanico (Lisea); Elena Cecchi Fedi (Mirinda); Nicky Kennedy (Barzane); Joseph Cornwell (Tamese); Sergio foresti (Cisardo); Alessandra Rossi (Nicandro).
Modo Antiquo and the Coro da Camera Italiano, Federico Maria Sardelli (cond.)
cpo 999 740-2 [3CDs]

Antonio Vivaldi composed Arsilda, Regina di Ponto for the Venetian theater of Sant'Angelo in the fall of 1716. While Vivaldi had, by its debut, been an important member of Venetian musical culture for over a decade as a violinist and composer, he had begun composing only three years earlier. Domenico Lalli, his librettist, who settled in Venice in 1710 after fleeing his native Naples upon being charged with embezzlement, was one of the most important librettists of the first decades of the eighteenth century.

This recording features the Baroque orchestra of Modo Antiquo, an ensemble with particular expertise in the music of Vivaldi and his contemporaries. Founded in 1984 under the direction of Sardelli, the group has made several recordings with Amadeus, cpo and Tactus, including the first complete recording of Vivaldi's cantatas. They have also performed at many European early music festivals, including the Italian festival Opera Barga, for which this production of Arsilda was prepared in 2001. Sardelli is working on a critical edition of Arsilda for Istituto Antonio Vivaldi; in his authored excerpt in the liner notes, he points out his intention to implement both a musical and a musicological approach towards Vivaldi's operas. The music in this recording is based on the autograph of the work and is described as a "reconstruction of the original version" that emphasizes the first arias written rather than the composer's later changes and additions for the 1716 performances.

Arsilda is a typical early eighteenth-century plot in its use of love intrigues, mistaken identities, and musical features such as simile arias. As such, it perfectly encapsulates the contemporary Pier Jacopo Martello's tongue-in-cheek satire of opera of the day, which argued that opera, in order to be entertaining, should avoid following Aristotelian rules of drama and instead feature favored scenic conventions, such as prison and sleep scenes. Arsilda employs several such scenarios, including a hunt that takes place in a verdant forest and a dungeon scene. Moreover, its story hinges on concealed identities. Reliant on a pair of twins for its main intrigue--one male and one female--the story opens with Lisea, disguised as her brother Tamese and posing as King, and Arsilda, engaged to be married to "Tamese." We learn that Tamese has been lost at sea and is presumed dead, and in order to preserve the throne, Lisea has adopted his identity. Arsilda is puzzled and disappointed by "Tamese's" lack of interest, while Lisea/Tamese, for her part, is angry when she learns that her true fiancé, Barzane, has betrayed her and instead pursues Arsilda. The true Tamese, meanwhile, is disguised as the palace gardener, and both Arsilda and Lisea have an unexplained attraction to him.

While Vivaldi's instrumental music has been widely known for some time, only in recent decades have his operas attracted such attention. There is, therefore, a relative dearth of recordings of his operas, and any contribution is appreciated. Modo Antiquo's contibution is a quality recording, done on period instruments with highly competent singers. While at times the sound quality of the recording could be more focused, with low frequencies at times overwhelming the vocal lines and occasionally making comprehension of the text difficult, the recording overall gives wonderful insight into Vivaldi's characterizations and skill at both instrumental and vocal writing. Thanks to the efforts of Sardelli and Modo Antiquo, scholars, Vivaldi fans, and opera lovers in general now have an additional example of Vivaldi's early operatic style.

Many of the arias employ striking instrumentation to help convey the sense of the text. Fipple-flutes are used for pastoral settings, for example, while horns are used for the hunting scenes. Simile arias appear in abundance, such as Arsilda's Act 2, sc. 12 aria "Son come farfalletta" where muted violins and fast arpeggios imitate the fluttering of wings, and Mirinda's "Io son quel Gelsomino" in Act 1, Sc. 15, which imitates the blowing of wind through leafy branches with imitation between voice and strings. All of the singers on this recording convey the individual characterizations with knowledgeable awareness of performance practice and attention to phrasing, dynamics, and ornamentation. Particularly charming are the arias for Mirinda, the naïaut;ve maid, sung by Elena Cecchi Fedi who has a flexible voice perfectly suited to the virtuosic arias often given to this character. Equally pleasing is Lucia Sciannimanico as Lisea and Sergio Foresti as Cisardo.

Dr. Mary Macklem
University of Central Florida

Posted by Gary at 2:13 AM

The Midnight Court at Queen of Puddings Music Theatre

The Midnight Court (Photo: Guntar Kravis)

The magic of a midsummer's nightmare

By ROBERT EVERETT-GREEN [Globe and Mail, 13 June 05]

Irish fairies can be malign spirits, but they've done nothing but good for Queen of Puddings Music Theatre. This small Toronto company launched its only production of the season at Harbourfront Centre on Saturday, and a scant hour later had scored its biggest artistic success ever.

Click here for remainder of article.

Colour this Court operatic

JOHN TERAUDS [Toronto Star, 13 June 05]

The meticulously organized mayhem on the stage of the Harbourfront Centre Theatre on Saturday night could only mean one thing: Toronto was witnessing the very first Dadaist opera of the 21st century.

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 2:02 AM

Vivaldi's Motezuma Restored

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

Lost Vivaldi Opera Finally Gets Its Music and Words Together

By ALAN RIDING [NY Times, 13 June 05]

ROTTERDAM, the Netherlands, June 12 - Antonio Vivaldi returned to his hometown, Venice, early in 1733, eager to reclaim his place as the Venetian republic's most popular composer. During his five-year absence, younger Naples-trained musicians had come to the fore with their own "dramas with music," but now, at 55, Vivaldi was ready to take them on with a daringly modern opera inspired by Hernán Cortés's conquest of the Aztecs.

How the work, "Motezuma," was received at its premiere at the Teatro di Sant'Angelo in Venice in the fall of 1733 is not known. But it can be assumed that it did not revive Vivaldi's fortunes. He wrote at least two more operas in Venice before moving to Vienna in March 1740 to seek the patronage of the Hapsburg Empire. And it was there, reportedly in a state of penury, that he died on July 28, 1741.

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 1:50 AM

June 13, 2005

The Fanny-Hensel-Festival 2005

Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn (1805-1847)

Das beste Glück hab' ich versäumt

Sie konnte zu Lebzeiten kaum etwas veröffentlichen: Das Fanny-Hensel-Festival 2005 gedenkt einer unterdrückten Komponistin

Von Volker Tarnow [Berliner Morgenpost, 12 June 05]

Sie war begabt und privilegiert wie ihr Bruder Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Sie schuf in ihrem kurzen Leben weit über 400 Werke. Die Universität der Künste feiert nun den 200. Geburtstag von Fanny Hensel-Mendelssohn.

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 1:16 AM

June 12, 2005

Don Carlos and Don Carlo at the Wiener Staatsoper

Nadja Michael (Eboli)

Kritik Oper: Spannendes Duell: Verdis "Don Carlos" in zweierlei Gestalt

Die Wiener Staatsoper bietet einen weltweit einzigartigen Vergleich.

[Die Presse, 13 June 05]

Selbst Giuseppe Verdi hat nie eine Realisierung seiner Vertonung von Schillers "Don Carlos" in ihrer Gesamtheit erleben dürfen. Bereits vor der Generalprobe zur Uraufführung in Paris musste er aus banalem Grund - die Gäste sollten die nächtlichen Züge noch erreichen - Teile seines Werkes streichen, vor der Premiere setzte er noch einmal der Rotstift an.

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 11:54 PM

Mattheson's Boris Goudenow in Boston

Tsar Boris Feodorovich Godunov (c. 1551 - 1605)

Enter Boris Goudenow, Just 295 Years Late

By RICHARD TARUSKIN [NY Times, 12 June 05]

AN early-music festival might not seem the likeliest place to witness a world premiere. But that is what the audience at the Cutler Majestic Theater on the campus of Emerson College will do this week when, after a 295-year delay, the Boston Early Music Festival presents the first fully staged production of the opera "Boris Goudenow, or The Throne Attained Through Cunning, or Honor Joined Happily With Affection," by the German Baroque composer Johann Mattheson.

The four-performance run begins on Tuesday evening and ends next Sunday afternoon. From there the production will go to the Tanglewood Festival in Lenox, Mass., this month, and to Moscow and St. Petersburg in September.

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 11:37 PM

SCHUMANN: Dichterliebe & Kerner-Lieder

Robert Schumann: Dichterliebe & Kerner-Lieder.
Ulf Bästlein, baritone, Stefan Laux, piano.
Hänssler Classic 98.452 [CD]

Ulf Bästlein's recent compilation of Lieder by Schumann presents fine performances of the works listed in the title, the cycle Dichterliebe (to texts by Heinrich Heine) and the Liederreihe usually referred to as the Kerner-Lieder for the twelve settings of poetry by author Justinus Kerner. It also contains some songs that may be less familiar, including several other settings of Heine: "Der arme Peter," op. 53, no. 3, "Die beiden Grenadiere," op. 49, no 1, and the late work "Dein Angesicht," op. 127, no. 2. This is a rich and focused program that offers some of Schumann's finest Lieder on a single disc.

The bass-baritone Bästlein is well known for his work with Lieder, since he has explored the repertoire widely in his own performances, as well as in his teaching. He is involved with the Lieder Festival in the city of Husom, and other efforts to further the genre. It is rare to find such an informed musician, whose interests span the gamut of the Lied, from its origins in the eighteenth century to modern expressions of German song in the twentieth century. In fact, Bästlein's accompanist, Stefan Laux, may be regarded as a kindred spirit because of his own broad interest in Lieder, which also spans a similar range of music in this genre and, especially, pieces by composers of the New Viennese School. Thus, a recording by these two gifted and informed individuals is very welcome.

The performances are, in general, thoughtful and sensitive. Both musicians let the music speak for itself and refrain from affections that bespeak an individual approach that is calculated to make a mark. Rather, the tempos fit the sense of text, and this aspect of performances emerges clearly in all the Lieder, from the pensive "Im wunderschönen Monat Mai" that opens the Dichterliebe to lighter pieces, like "Die beiden Grenadiere," with its Teutonic evocation of the Marsellaise. Dynamics reflect the score well and, again, nothing is excessive such that the text is ever obscured or, worse, misrepresented by the performers. A telling point is "Ich grolle nicht," the crucial song at the center of Schumann's Dichterliebe, which Bästlein presents with admirable intensity and accuracy. The evenness of his vocal tone is evident in this familiar piece. Likewise, the song that follows it in the cycle, "Und wüssten's die Blumen" requires a deft pianist, whose facility must not obscure the voice, but rather support it with his own musicianship, and Laux does this well. The outburst of virtuosity at the song's conclusion is appropriate and wholly in the spirit the work as a whole.

While most of the Lieder recorded here are settings of Heinrich Heine's poetry, the Kerner-Lieder are notable because these well-written pieces are sometimes overshadowed by Schumann's other song collections. In his notes to this recording, Joachim Draheim mentions how closely Schumann's settings of these poems recalls in some ways Schubert's music, and this becomes apparent in the subtle way the two performers execute the songs. Songs like "Wanderlied" and "Wanderung" make use of triadic figures that recollect some aspects of Schubert's style and also anticipate some the style Mahler would use for some of his settings from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. At the same time some of the Kerner-Lieder anticipate the elegiac character that Schumann would refine in some of his later vocal music. "Alte Laute," the last of the set, anticipates in some ways the reflective quality that makes the Dichterliebe memorable. One does not have to look for far to hear such connections, since the performers make them elegantly clear in this recording.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

Posted by Gary at 11:08 PM

June 11, 2005

SCARLATTI: Disperato Amore

Alessandro Scarlatti: Disperato Amore
Matthew White (Countertenor) with Les Voix Baroques
Analekta AN 2 9904 [CD]

Alessandro Scarlatti, a contemporary of Handel and father of Domenico Scarlatti, was a prolific composer of cantatas, oratorios, and operas. He wrote more than 60 operas and 600 cantatas. Contemporaries frequently distinguished between styles according to the locale in which they might have been performed or to which they were appropriate: the church, chamber, and theatrical styles. The cantata was considered a genre of the chamber style and offered listeners refined counterpoint and delicate changes in dynamics; cantatas of the period generally set pastoral or love texts and employed recitative alternating with arias. Many of Scarlatti's cantatas were written for performances at aristocratic residences; most survive in manuscript form and were never published.

This recording presents a selection of solo cantatas, one solo motet, and two instrumental sonatas from Scarlatti's last years in Naples. It features renowned countertenor Matthew White and Les Voix Baroques, an early music chamber ensemble based in Montreal. White has performed with, among others, Glyndebourne Opera, New York City Opera, Opera Atelier, and Houston Grand Opera in countertenor roles, as well as at many early music festivals. He brings his considerable knowledge of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music and performance practice to this recording.

White sings with clarity and elegance, beautifully interpreting the cantatas and motet. Each cantata on this recording employs a standardized formal pattern typical of the time: two da capo arias interspersed between recitatives. These vocal works provide moving examples of Scarlatti's contrapuntal expertise and expressive writing. The first two cantatas, Ombre tacite e sole and Bella quanto crudel spietata Irene, set love texts, while the last, Non so qual piu m'ingombra, sets a text concerning the coming of the Messiah. The instrumentation is a point of interest: Bella quanto crudel is a more typical cantata for continuo and voice alone, while the remaining two cantatas call for violins and viola in addition to the continuo, giving rise to vivid instrumental writing. These additional instrumental forces bring great narrative depiction to the cantatas, such as in the first aria in Non so qual piu m'ingombra, "Non sarà?" which features independent violin motives in dialogue with the voice; their meandering "comments" depict the confusion of the protagonist at his unexplained joy.

The Latin motet, Infirmata, vulnerata, depicts the protagonist's difficult encounter with divine love; it adopts a vocal style typical of the secular cantata. The tentative but deliberate opening aria of the motet, concerned with a languishing soul that is weak and wounded, is written in evocative counterpoint in a low register, suited to the topic of the text.

Throughout the recording, the recitatives are often dramatic in their use of instruments, chromaticism and dynamic shadings, to which White and the ensemble draw our attention; listen, for example, to the opening of Non so qual piu m'ingombra, which begins with an upbeat instrumental introduction depicting the joy of the Messiah -- a narrative event not revealed textually until the second recitative -- the depiction of "serene air" through the echoing of the voice in the strings, and an undulating string motive depicting "murmuring waves." Equally pictorial is the opening of Ombre tacite, which additionally employs chromaticism to convey the loneliness and horror described in the text.

The instrumental sonatas, given attractive and vivacious performance on original instruments, offer a nice contrast to the vocal selections. While the composer was best known in his lifetime for his vocal music, in his last years he turned more attention to instrumental music, from which these sonatas emanate. Scarlatti wrote these two sonatas for flute, violins, and continuo, and they are here performed with recorder and oboe, respectively. Each sonata contains a series of contrasting movements, and each captures Scarlatti's prowess at contrapuntal writing, particularly in the fugal movement within each sonata.

One minor concern about this recording is the accompanying booklet. The tempo markings of the arias are nowhere indicated despite the importance of the markings for both the composer and audience (a fact to which the liner notes draw our attention, in fact, by quoting the composer on this subject.) The composer, and contemporaries of his day, used tempo markings to indicate the affect, character, passion, and so on of individual arias and are therefore integral to the pieces. Secondly, the original Italian poetry is not usually presented in poetic form; instead, probably to save space, all lines are put in paragraph form, thus at times concealing the form and rhyme schemes. However, this is a high quality recording with beautiful performances of the musical selections.

Dr. Mary Macklem
University of Central Florida

Posted by Gary at 11:39 PM

GLUCK: Alceste

Christoph Willibald Gluck: Alceste

Alceste, Reine de la ThessalieDame Janet Baker
Admète, Roi de la ThessalieRobert Tear
Le Dieu HerculeJonathan Summers
Le Grand-Pretre d'ApollonJohn Shirley-Quirk
Un Dieu InfernalJohn Shirley-Quirk
L'OracleMatthew Best
Le HéraultPhilip Gelling
Le Dieu ApollonPhilip Gelling
évandre, confidentMaldwyn Davies
CoryphéesElaine Mary Hall
 Janice Hooper-Roe
 Mark Curtis
 Matthew Best
3=. Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
3=. Conductor: Sir Charles Mackerras
3=. London, December 12, 1981

Ponto PO-1035 [2CDs]

This two-disc performance was performed and recorded on December 12, 1981 at Covent Garden in London. The recording is one of a series of Ponto releases dedicated to Dame Janet Baker, who performs here the role of Alceste. This drama, a collaboration between Gluck and the librettist Calzabigi, was performed in late 1767 and is based on the tragedy by the ancient Greek poet Euripides. It was written in response to Empress Maria Theresa's grief over the death of the emperor, given that the text is practically synonymous with conjugal devotion. Calzabigi's libretto specifically emphasizes Alceste's sacrifice for her husband throughout, and is dedicated to Maria Theresa. The staging of the opera was delayed by a number of other royal deaths in 1767. Alceste was revived in 1770.

The performance is good for one recorded prior to the authentic performance movement, and is sung in the French rather than the Italian version. Dame Baker's rendering of the main character is well done, as are other supporting cast members, such as Robert Tear as Admete and Jonathan Summers as Hercules. The Romantic sound of the instruments is difficult to get around, but again, this recording was produced as a tribute to Dame Baker, not as an authentic performance of a Baroque opera. Some of the duets and trios are especially poignant, such as the aria "Alceste, aux noms des Dieux!" sung by Alceste and Admete in the third act. Overall, an excellent recording of one of Gluck's and Calzabigi's innovative operatic collaborations.

Dr. Brad Eden
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Posted by Gary at 9:28 PM

The Midnight Court Premieres in Toronto

The Midnight Court
(Photo: Guntar Kravis)

The Muck of the Irish

By ROBERT EVERETT-GREEN [Globe and Mail, 11 June 05]

Banned in Ireland. The phrase still has some weight, at a time when talking about banning anything is to align yourself with dogmatic mullahs and evangelists. It's hard to imagine how Brian Merriman, living in an Irish hamlet in the late 18th century, managed to write a literary work shocking enough to be untouchable for nearly two centuries. But the satiric bite of his 1,000-line Gaelic poem The Midnight Court is still something to wonder at, and thanks to Toronto's Queen of Puddings Music Theatre, something to sing about as well.

Click here for remainder of article.

Click here for press release concerning this production.

Posted by Gary at 4:37 PM

WEBER: Oberon

Oberon is an example of the Märchenoper, evoking on one hand the orientalism of Die Entführung aus dem Serail and on the other the fairy-tale fantasy of Die Zauberflöte. The opera even includes a chorus in which a chorus of slaves involuntarily dances to the music of a magic horn, much like Monastatos and his minions involuntarily dance to the music of Papageno's bells.

The opera contains a great deal of magnificent music, and is perhaps best known for the imaginative and coloristic musical gestures through which Weber creates the image of a fantastic medieval/Oriental world. Although the opera was frequently performed in the early and mid nineteenth century, it eventually fell out of the repertoire, in part because of insoluble problems with the plot. Weber wrote the opera for London, and the libretto (in English, by Planché) is a nearly incomprehensible mishmash of elements derived from Wieland's late eighteenth-century epic poem Oberon. There have been many attempts to overcome the inadequacies of the libretto: most of these have involved the composition of new recitatives to replace the original dialogue, or the insertion of various pieces from some of Weber's other operas. This recording dispenses with all of the added recitatives (and the dialogues as well), so that the opera appears as a series of largely disconnected musical numbers. This is probably a net gain for the work as a whole, for it has the effect of focusing attention on Weber's imaginative and coloristic music.

Even though the original language of the opera was English, Weber's Oberon has had far more performances in German, and that is the language in which the performances recorded on this set are sung. The main part of the set is a live recording of a concert performance from 1978, in which Eve Queler conducted the Opera Orchestra of New York. The set also includes five "bonus tracks" from a 1972 recording conducted by Rafael Kubelik (with Renè Kollo in the lead tenor role)

The OONY recording has all the advantages and drawbacks that go along with live performance. It is a record of what was surely an extraordinary evening, and in certain numbers (such as the third-act Rondo for the tenor "Ich juble in Gluck und Hoffnung neu!") the recording has the energy and excitement that is too often absent from studio sessions. But there are also distracting coughs during the overture, and (more importantly) a certain veiled quality to much of the orchestral sound. While the brass instruments that shine forth brightly (a big advantage in an opera that features a magic horn), the strings often sound muddy and distant. The Dessoff Choir sounds as if they are singing in another room -- it is nearly impossible to make out their words. The recording engineer had difficulties getting the levels right, and there is occasional distortion in the louder sections. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of beautiful singing and playing here, and the recording should be of great interest not only to specialists, but to all opera lovers.

One of the principal attractions for record collectors will be the presence of Nicolai Gedda in the lead tenor role of Hüon -- the role, incidentally, with which he made his Paris Opera debut in 1954. His rendition of the great first-act aria "Von Jugend auf in dem Kampfgefild" is stirring and spectacular, alternating between heroism and transfigured tenderness. But Gedda's singing is by no means faultless. Like the role of Max in Der Freischütz, Hüon is often treated as part of the Heldentenor Fach; indeed, both of these roles are highly dramatic and declamatory. But in contrast to Wagner, Weber writes a great deal of coloratura for his dramatic tenors, and here is where Gedda's approach leaves something to be desired. The voice often sounds as if it is under too much pressure, and the florid passages are consequently labored. In this recording, Gedda is at his best when he sings pianissimo, as in the second-act prayer "Vater! Hör mich fleh'n zu dir!"

Another interpretation of the lead tenor role appears in the bonus tracks at the end of this set, one of which is Kollo's 1972 recording of "Von Jugend auf in dem Kampfgefild." Kollo's approach is distinctively German: the sound is highly compressed and strongly articulated from the throat, and this reviewer preferred Gedda's more Italianate vocal style.

The OONY recording also features the soprano Betty Jones in the role of Rezia. Jones's voice is clearly enormous, and her upper range is remarkably free and clear. She is at her best in the aria "Ozean, du Ungeheurer!" (probably the most famous part of the score). Her performance is unfortunately marred by occasionally pitch problems, and a tendency to let her vibrato get out of control. This reviewer preferred the taught and muscular soprano sound of Ursula Schröder-Feinen, whose 1972 performance the famous "Ocean aria" appears as one of the "bonus tracks" in this set.

This recording should be of interest to many different audiences: for opera enthusiasts interested in the recording of particular voices, for those who are curious about the development of German opera (or at least, opera by German composers!) between Mozart and Wagner, and for those who have followed Eve Queler's remarkable career. But it is this reviewer's hope that the set will also reach a broader audience. The opera deserves a more prominent place in the repertoire, and the release of this set will hopefully draw attention to a forgotten corner of operatic history.

Dr. Stephen Meyer
Syracuse University

image_description=Carl Maria von Weber: Oberon

product_title=Carl Maria von Weber: Oberon
product_by=John F. West, Shirley Love, Betty Jones, Julia Hamari, Nicolaï Gedda, Richard Clark, Carmen Balthrop, Opera Orchestra New York and The Dessoff Choir, Eve Queler (cond.)
New York, Carnegie Hall, February 23, 1978
Bonus tracks
product_id=Ponto PO-1030 [2CDs]

Posted by Gary at 3:42 AM

MORRIS: Reading Opera Between the Lines: Orchestral Interludes and Cultural Meaning from Wagner to Berg

An introduction traces the historical development of opera interludes from seventeenth-century sinfonie, which commanded only minimal audience attention, to the nineteenth-century Wagnerian preludes and interludes, which coerced captive audiences, isolated in a darkened theater, into experiencing them fully. Along with this history Morris traces the increased dramatic focus on the orchestra, which becomes the agent of notions of interiority and the unconscious via the use of reminiscence motifs, the lessening of caesurae found in the numbers format, and idealistic unification of music with drama. Even so, he still acknowledges the tension between music "that represents a stop-gap measure (literally and figuratively) and the prominent position to which it is assigned." (8) Having provided a background for his study, he focuses in earnest on Wagner and further considers works of seven other composers (for whom Wagner's influence was impossible to ignore) ranging from the late nineteenth century (Massenet's Esclarmonde, 1889) through the first quarter of the twentieth (Berg's Wozzeck, 1925).

Carefully researched biographies and commentaries from the reception literature on each of the operas ground the critiques in the cultural milieu through which Morris filters his readings. In addition to the writings of contemporary critics and performers, Morris cycles through the important psychoanalytic and aesthetic discourses of the day, citing Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, and Wagner, as well as more recent writings by Lacan, Kristeva, Youens, Adorno, and Abbate among others; all while maintaining a critical ear to those arguments. By returning in each chapter to these important writers, Morris aids the reader not only in grasping details of the arguments at hand but also in teasing out more transcendent themes. Helpful as this strategy is, and cushioned as it is in Morris's elegant and clear prose, this book is no casual read. That is not to say that it is anything less than enjoyable, however, for its reasoned arguments are well worth the reader's attention.

Artfully performing his analysis, Morris sets the stage by summarizing each dramatic plot, cleverly weaving surrounding music and narrative details into his larger dramatic discussion. In portraying the music of the interludes, Morris paints an impressionistic picture. "It is as if ..." begins an abundance of sentences that draw the reader into the imaginative and speculative world of his reading. Although his concerns are largely historical and cultural, Morris conscientiously grounds his "as if" propositions in analysis of musical detail supported by clear examples in the text. In the main, these analyses are thorough and well thought out. At times, though, they leave us wanting to know more about how the music does what he claims it does, even when we may completely agree with his impression of the music. He observes, for instance, that a passage from Delius's A Village Romeo and Juliet (1907) sounds "a sudden concentration of leitmotivic and modal suggestion" that "renders any individual connotations unimportant in the face of what is a flood of reflectiveness, of perspective." His next sentence asks readers to take a leap of faith: "It is as if the music's relationship to the lovers has become infused with a distance that speaks about rather than from them" (29) (Readers conditioned by Abbate's theories of operatic narrative will find his attributions of narrating voice to the interludes as being somewhat liberal.) The question of exactly how a concentration of leitmotifs, for example, can be heard to create distance, remains open.

One of Morris's larger themes negotiates the gaps between embodiment and disembodiment, between real action and fantasy, and between metaphysical and physical meaning presented in the interludes. He suggests the interludes play off the consistent preoccupation of the period with a perceived decline in music evident in its move away from the inner portrayal of subjectivity to outer sensual perception. This leads Morris to observe that "the interludes can be seen to reflect, at times quite self-consciously, on the identity of music itself, and this construction of music will often turn on the conflict between metaphysical aspirations and a musical language that is all too clearly rooted in the sensual." (12) These issues are most effectively fleshed out in his discussions of Wagner's interludes and preludes in Der Ring des Nibelungen, Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal, in which transcendent metaphysics belies sheer physical impact. Morris's book presents a similar duality itself, conveying lofty philosophic speculations in paragraphs lushly lined with the vivid sensuousness of operatic detail.

The interaction of embodied constructions with cultural definitions of gender and sexuality dominate several of the chapters, including the discussion of Massenet's Esclarmonde (1889) and Strauss's Feuersnot (1901). These essays peruse two interludes, which enact love scenes that could not, for reasons of propriety, be staged. Morris's analysis supports discussions of changing gender roles, and notions of masculine and feminine sexual power that also continue in his chapter on Schreker's Der Schatzgräber (1920). In Schreker's love scene music, Morris hears a gap articulated between music of the female character (near, sensuous, material) and that of the male character (shimmering, distant, transcendental). But that gap proves false as the scene continues and we begin to hear that both musics are a product of male fantasy. Morris argues that the initial gap between masculine and feminine opens only in fantasy, and the music "suggests, indeed, that the gap is itself a fantasy." (158) The sheer resistance of this music to specific gender assignment allows Morris to reflect on the nature of Schreker's opera as celebrating its own falseness, and further leads him to speculate on why Schreker's operas, which followed in the Wagnerian tradition, fell out of favor.

The theme of music's false identity rings in Morris's discussion of Pfitzner's Die Rose vom Liebesgarten (1901) and Berg's Wozzeck (1925). In these essays, he examines interludes that act as eulogies for characters who have died, and thus raise questions of who it is that speaks for the dead in this instrumental music. Drawing into the discussion Wagner's Trauermarsch from Götterdämmerung, he demonstrates how these interludes mimic the techniques of mass propaganda in retelling - and in so doing, revising - the life of the deceased.

Morris also discusses how interludes can construct notions of subjectivity and interiority. He examines how the interludes in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) reinforce a reading of the action as a dream-like projection of Golaud's psyche. Morris traces the influences of romantic and idealist cultural tropes on symbolist poets who influenced Debussy, particularly those notions of dreams and the unconscious. For example, he relates how Debussy smoothes out an abrupt shift of scene from Maeterlinck's play. In scoring an interlude for the change of scene, Debussy effects a much more gradual transition, which moves from the wandering bewilderment of the preceding forest music to a stately motif that will be associated with Golaud's identity as son of Arkel. In smoothing out the transition, Morris argues, Debussy creates coherence in a way that is analogous to Freud's "dream work," paralleling the secondary revision of unconscious "latent" content into its "manifest," dream-as-remembered content. Morris argues convincingly that we hear Debussy's revision as an action of Golaud's psyche and we hear other more raw and fragmentary music as repressed material.

All in all, Morris achieves the goal of Cambridge's New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism series: "to create a greater presence for music in the ongoing discourse among the human sciences." He accomplishes this goal by engaging a broad range of cross-disciplinary voices in a critique that enriches our notions of how music helps us tell stories, not only about operatic characters, but about ourselves as well.

Dr. Shersten Johnson
University of St. Thomas

image_description=Christopher Morris: Reading Opera Between the Lines — Orchestral Interludes and Cultural Meaning from Wagner to Berg

product_title=Christopher Morris: Reading Opera Between the Lines — Orchestral Interludes and Cultural Meaning from Wagner to Berg
New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism series
product_by=Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2002
product_id=ISBN-10: 0521807387 | ISBN-13: 9780521807388

Posted by Gary at 3:24 AM

June 10, 2005

HAYDN: Symphonies no. 91 & 92 (“Oxford”) and Scena di Berenice

Joseph Haydn: Symphonies no. 91 & 92 ("Oxford") and Scena di Berenice.
Freiburger Barockorchester, René Jacobs (cond.); Bernarda Fink, mezzo-soprano.
Harmonia Mundi HMC 901849 [CD]

This wonderful recording features two Haydn symphonies composed in the year 1789, which frame the short dramatic scena Berenice, premiered in London in 1795. The autograph scores of the two symphonies were dedicated and given to Claude-Francois-Marie Rigoley, Comte d'Ogny, cofounder and patron of the "Concert de la Loge Olympique," an association for which Haydn had already written the so-called "Paris" symphonies in 1785/86. A Swabian prince, Kraft Ernst von Oettingen-Wallerstein, who was an ardent admirer of Haydn works and wished to acquire autograph manuscripts of his symphonies himself, had asked Haydn to produce some symphonies for his personal collection in 1788 as well. Haydn, in a somewhat underhanded manner, sent the Swabian prince autographed copies of the orchestral parts for these two symphonies, so that the autograph scores are dedicated to a French count, and the orchestral parts are dedicated to a German prince. Talk about killing two birds with one stone, or rather fulfilling two commissions with one ingenious solution! In any case, the Freiburger Barockorchester's performance of these two symphonies is magnificent, with correct orchestral size and authentic instruments.

At the culmination of the London concert season of 1795, Haydn conducted perhaps his most significant vocal work, the dramatic scena "Berenice, che fai?" It was written specifically for the Italian soprano Brigida Giorgi Banti, who made her grand entrance at the end of the concert performing this work. It is based on the third act from Pietro Metastasio's Antigono. Beethoven would use Haydn's setting of this text as his model in 1796 for his scena "Ah! perfido," op. 65. The drama shows Berenice lamenting the death of her beloved Demetrio. She sees his ghost as it leaves for the underworld, and begs him in this arioso not to leave without her. After a short recitative, the scena ends with a dramatic aria in which Berenice wishes for her own death. The unconventional harmonic design of the scena mirrors Berenice's state of mind throughout the short drama. The benefit concert where this was performed netted Haydn high earnings, although he commented that Banti's performance was less than perfect. Bernarda Fink, the soloist on this recording, does a wonderful job of portraying Berenice's loss of sanity as she laments her dead lover. I highly recommend this recording.

Dr. Brad Eden
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Posted by Gary at 1:45 AM

June 9, 2005

A Portrait of Ernst Gruber

A Portrait of Ernst Gruber.
Arias and scenes from Der Freischütz; Il Trovatore; Otello; Sly; Dalibor; Tiefland; Rienzi; Tannhäuser; Lohengrin; Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg; Die Walküre; second act of Tannhäuser.
With Maria Croonen, Sonja Schöner, Wilhelm Klemn, Robert Lauhöfer, Rainer Lüdecke, Theo Adam, Elisabeth rose, Kurt Rehm, Dora Zschille,Christa-Maria Ziese, Brünnhild Friedland, Rudolf Jedlicka, Martin Ritzmann.
(radio recordings 1955 - 1965)
Ponto PO-1033 [3CDs]

Up to now Ernst Gruber was only a name to me. During the fifties and sixties his career was centered in the houses of the defunct German Democratic Republic; first Dresden and Leipzig and later on at the Deutsche Staatsoper in East-Berlin. Usually he rated one or two entries each year in Opera Magazine; mostly just barely mentioning his name as even in those times reviewers concentrated almost exclusively on the antics of director Felsenstein and some of his copycats. So I thought of him as one of those somewhat to be avoided German tenors like Hans Günther Nocker who, while acting their heads off, sang in that barking way that got them epitaphs like "intelligent, thought-provoking" while words like "beauty of tone" were anathema to them and the critics. Mostly they remained behind the Iron Curtain, unless at the last moment they had to run to the rescue in Western Europe or the US when Windgassen or Thomas fell unexpectedly ill. They were always happy to comply as they mostly got 20% of the fee, immediately handing over the remaining 80% to the Stasi officer accompanying and controlling them, who would always remind them of the fate of their families who had to stay home as hostages.

Well, I was wrong in more than one way. Ernst Gruber was an authentic Viennese who made his début aged 29 in Graz in 1947, never gave up his nationality and his Viennese dialect. He lived in Berlin (where there was no wall till 1961) and could easily cross the frontier. So he from time to time he popped up in the West as with his 1967 performance as Tristan in Philadelphia; now even available on CD (Ponto PO 1026). He died in 1979 of the complications of routine surgery.

And I was wrong on the quality of the voice too. It is a big voice as can be clearly heard from the several ensembles on these recordings. The amazing thing is the ringing free top which has no problems at all with high C in "Lodern zum Himmel (= Di quella pira)". The color is somewhat dark, not very refined, a lot of metal though no sweetness or real beauty in it. He belongs, too, to the old German school where each word has to be understood so that from time to time beauty of tone surrenders to spitting out the right consonants. He reminds me of his contemporary, Ernst Kozub, who made a bigger career. Still, and I know readers must by now be dead tired of this cliché, he would have made quite a career nowadays. Even in those tenorricher times, it is strange he didn't make more of an impression. I looked up his name in my Chronik der Wiener Staatsoper and to my surprise he never sang in the main house in his city of birth while far lesser tenors as Janko, Lustig, Pöltzer, Söderström were employed in the roles of his repertory.

The recordings, all in good sound as they are derived from radio sources, give us a full idea of the voice's evolution between 1955 and 1965 and it is a fascinating one. In the earlier recordings like Trovatore the voice is very forward, sometimes sounding a little throaty with very open sounds which sometimes grate a bit. Gradually the voice becomes rounder, more beautiful until in the middle register it sometimes has an uncanny resemblance to the Vickers sound in the same repertoire with the difference that Gruber's high notes above the staff are much stronger and fuller. As can be expected, he is at his best in his German roles, especially where a lot of declamatory music is in attendance like d'Albert's Tiefland. Kollo, Schock and Hoppe in their official recordings cannot compete with his big incisive sound. In more lyrical roles like Lohengrin and Walther he is less successful though he succeeds in singing some fine pianissimos but the lack of pure beauty in those well known arias is a handicap.

One of the joys of this recording consists in finely having a testimony of other female singers like Elisabeth Rose or Maria Croonen; they too only names up to now. Not that they are singers of genius but both are honest pleasure giving artists though Rose is a shade too lightweight in Tannhäuser on the third disc. We get the whole second act and I fail to see why this is included as Tannhäuser's role is somewhat limited and Rudolf Jedlicka's Wolfram is not so unforgettable as to be preserved for eternity. A two-disc set would have given us a fully satisfying portrait of the tenor and would have been cheaper.

Jan Neckers

Posted by Gary at 1:45 PM

Falstaff at LA Opera

Bryn Terfel as Falstaff (Photo: LA Opera)

Opera review: Falstaff

By Madeleine Shaner [Reuters, 9 June 05]

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - "Falstaff" might have been Verdi's last opera; it might have been Verdi's greatest opera; it is, without doubt, Verdi's only and most hilariously comic opera.

It's all sparkle, wit, buffoonery, roaring slapstick and belly-laugh-inducing comedy. An international superstar, bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, headlines L.A. Opera's stunning production, directed by Stephen Lawless, under the baton of Kent Nagano with the superb L.A. Opera Orchestra. And it's splendidly sung by the amazingly talented Welshman.

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 1:30 PM

Felicity Lott at Wigmore Hall

Felicity Lott

Felicity Lott

Erica Jeal [The Guardian, 8 June 05]

"What's a dame like me doing in a dump like this?" It takes a DBE to get away with a line like that in a venue as august as the Wigmore Hall - and this was how Felicity Lott wrapped up a recital marking 30 years of performing here with pianist Graham Johnson. The programme, Fallen Women and Virtuous Wives, is one the pair are currently touring. While its humour found its niche in the Wigmore Hall, how it will play in Luxembourg next week is anyone's guess.

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Posted by Gary at 3:47 AM

Der Freischütz at Carnegie Hall

Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826)

Into the Woods but Leaving Hidden Meanings Behind

By BERNARD HOLLAND [NY Times, 8 June 05]

If Carl Maria von Weber never quite made it into the grand procession of Romantic giants, he left behind an opera of indestructible charm. "Der Freischütz," which Eve Queler's Opera Orchestra of New York undertook on Monday night at Carnegie Hall, is first of all a darling of historians - a musicological ground zero for the German musical theater.

The language, the mythic forest settings, the magic and the demonry put Italian style behind them and looked out toward Wagner. Germans have loved "Der Freischütz" patriotically since 1821. Everyone else has loved it for its pureness of heart.

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A thriller almost hits its target


Reviled by some for her bland conducting and for the hokey singer-worship that reigns at Opera Orchestra of New York concerts, maestra Eve Queler nonetheless gallantly serves musical New York. She tends to nooks of the repertory - French grand opera, pre- and post-Verdi Italian opera - often neglected by our larger companies. She has a keen ear for up-and-coming talent and a flair for casting established artists in smashing new roles: Aprile Millo's poignant Minnie in last fall's "La Fanciulla del West," for example.

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Posted by Gary at 3:40 AM

June 8, 2005

Boris Christoff — Lugano Recital 1976

Boris Christoff — Lugano Recital 1976.
Arias and Songs by Mussorgski, Rossini, Mozart and Verdi.
Orchestra della Svizzera italiana, Bruno Amaducci (cond.).
Introduction and interviews by Giorgio Gualerzi.
Dynamic 33476 [DVD]

Boris Christoff was, together with Cesare Siepi, the most prominent bass during The New Golden Age of Singing (1945-1975). At the time of this television recording, he was considered somewhat old hat as he had been singing for more than 30 years. During the mid-sixties, he was superseded by Nicolai Ghiaurov who, due to his rolling voice and bigger volume, quickly became the hottest ticket in town. Both men were Bulgarians and there was pure hate between them; especially from Christoff's side. Christoff was a protégé of the deceased king Boris. He studied in Italy and was not allowed to return home after the war when the communists had snatched power. He didn't even get a visa to attend his father's funeral. Ghiaurov was sent to Italy by the communists for further study. Their confrontations as Filippo and Grande Inquisitore in a La Scala Don Carlos are still legendary. Nobody had ever witnessed such (real) hatred in that scene. Afterwards, Christoff demanded that Ghiaurov be ousted but sovrintende Ghiringhelli sided with the younger bass and Christoff's career at La Scala was finished.

Now that both men are deceased (Christoff died in 1993 and Ghiaurov in 2004), historical perspective has taken its place and it is clear that Christoff was the more imaginative singer and a better one as well, as he kept his voice in better shape far longer than did Ghiaurov. At the time of this live Lugano recital for Swiss television, the older singer was already 62 and, though he cannot quite hide his age, there is still a lot to enjoy. At first there is a somewhat hollow sound and it seems as if higher notes come easier than lower ones. The characteristic timbre, which was Christoff's glory, is somewhat absent. This could be any good Slav bass.

Things improve a bit in "La calunnia" but it's only in "Wer ein Liebchen" that the old, well-known black sound to our relief (and probably Christoff's as well) is back. His great monologue from Don Carlos is very fine though he sometimes has to take an extra breath (In "Amor per me non ha" he takes three); but there is the noble uttering and an even more rounded and finer pianissimo than in his many commercial recordings.

His death of Boris is still the yard stick with which other singers are measured. There is something strange in that scene. He is clearly singing with all his force (no synchro) but nevertheless one hears a chorus that is not on the scene and indeed not even mentioned. So I wonder if this was mixed in later. It's well possible as this is a European TV-broadcast. TV-directors in those times still thought of themselves as artists instead of craftsmen (indeed, a lot of them still do) and they would always try to apply their artistic touch and so-called sensitivity. (I was a TV reporter and producer at Flemish Public TV at that time and I remember too well the many fights as I wanted these gentlemen to do my bidding instead of theirs). There are a few fine examples to be found in this recording. During the climactic phrases of King Philip's aria, the camera is fixed for almost twenty seconds on the conductor instead of the singer. The moment Christoff has sung his last utterances in Boris, we get a fake 19th-Century drawing of the Tsar during the postlude and the ensuing applause and we are not allowed to see Christoff during his well-deserved bows.

At the occasion of this concert, young Giorgio Gualerzi interviewed Christoff and I'm fairly sure it was the original director, and not Dynamic, who mixed parts of this interview during the concert proper. Half an hour of singing in one stretch was probably not artistic enough. Gualerzi proves himself to be a pedantic and bad interviewer, always ready to interrupt Christoff. The bass himself has some interesting things to say on older singers ("our professors" he calls their recordings) and modern composers (a hilarious story on Hindemith) who he clearly despised.

The sound of this DVD is excellent and the images are acceptable for the times: not too well focused and a little bit whitewashed. This is not Dynamic's fault. The seventies and eighties are a disaster for TV-archives. When we switched from film to video, we used all kinds of sizes and we didn't take precautions for storing. Theoretically, each recording ought to have been copied and recopied each year to keep the colour quality. No broadcasting company ever thought of doing this (and it would have been horrendously expensive) and so five or ten years later the images of many historical happenings had almost deteriorated into oblivion.

Compared with those sad losses, this DVD is still eminently viable. As there are so few documents available on this giant of a singer (the Napoli Forza and a few B/W features), even this registration of an older Christoff is a must.

Jan Neckers

Posted by Gary at 2:05 AM

José Carreras at the Sofia Palace of Culture Hall, May, 28, 2005

Bulgarian soprano Zvetelina Maldzanska performing with José Carreras. (Photo by BTA)

With Monserrat Caballé's sensational concert at the same hall in September 2000, this is the second appearance of a famous Spanish opera singer in Sofia. The advertising campaign that started two months ago brought good results assembling the la crema y la nata de la sociedad. The Sofia Metropolitan Orchestra conducted by David Himenez performed well in the solos: Rossini's "La gazza ladra" and the intermezzo of Heronimo Himenez' zarzuella "La boda de Luis Alonso." José Carreras chose to partner with the young and promising Bulgarian soprano, Zvetelina Maldzanska, to share his triumph in Sofia.

The local audience had the rare chance to hear Italian and Spanish songs (Gastaldone, Morera, Albeniz, Serano, Lama and de Curtis) by one of the greatest tenors in the world today. José Carreras did not disappoint. He performed 9 songs and 2 duos with the soprano, as well as 6 "encores," all in brilliant form and style that transformed this night into an unforgettable experience. A supreme delight and blessing!

Our correspondent in Bulgaria

Posted by Gary at 1:43 AM

June 7, 2005

Works of Bach and Handel Discovered

Des partitions jusqu'ici inédites des compositeurs allemands Jean-Sébastien Bach (1685-1750) et Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1750) ont été découvertes dans des archives à Weimar et Munich, selon les archives de Bavière et de la Fondation Bach.
© AFP/DDP Jens-Ulrich Koch

Découverte de partitions inédites de Bach et de Händel

AFP [7 June 05]

BERLIN (AFP) - Des partitions jusqu'ici inédites des compositeurs allemands Jean-Sébastien Bach (1685-1750) et Georg Friedrich Händel (1685-1750) ont été découvertes dans des archives à Weimar et Munich, selon les archives de Bavière et de la Fondation Bach.

Click here for remainder of article.

Unknown vocal work by J. S. Bach discovered

A completely unknown composition by Johann Sebastian Bach was discovered at the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, Germany by a researcher from the Leipzig Bach Archive. The discovery was made by Michael Maul in the course of a systematic survey of all central German church, communal, and state archival collections, an ongoing research project begun in 2002 and supported by the Packard Humanities Institute and the William H. Scheide Fund

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Posted by Gary at 11:45 PM

Grétry's Zémire et Azor in St. Louis

André Ernest Modeste Grétry (1741-1813)

Beauty and the Beast

By Sarah Bryan Miller [St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 6 June 05]

C'est charmante.

Theatrical magic and cheerful charm abound in Opera Theatre of St. Louis' new production of Andre-Ernest-Modeste Gretry's version of "Beauty and the Beast," seen Sunday evening in its premiere.

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 1:26 PM

June 6, 2005

VERDI: Il Corsaro

Giuseppe Verdi: Il Corsaro.
Zvetan Michailov, Renato Bruson, Michela Sburlati, Adriana Damato
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Regio di Parma Renato Palumbo (cond.)
Dynamic 468/1-2 [2CDs]

Alessandro Trovato's admirably honest and forthright booklet essay (translated by Daniela Pilarz) for this Dynamic release of Verdi's Il Corsaro goes a long way to explaining why this ranks as one of the master's least-performed works.

First, the opera fulfilled a contract that Verdi clearly wanted to bring to a close. Verdi had at one time found the story of passing interest, but in the end he set to work on a libretto he had deemed unworthy, without requesting any significant changes. Once the first performances passed, to a cool reception, Verdi apparently made no effort to revise the score. Instead, he went on to a new publisher and great, everlasting fame.

Il Trovatore would secure much of that fame, and Il Corsaro shares more than the definite article with that wild, garish melodramatic masterpiece. Although the plot of Il Corsaro may at first seem like the dramatic counter part to Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio, with its harem and cruel pasha, in outline the future masterpiece of Trovatore can be seen — the hero outside the law, trying to rescue a damsel in distress from a nasty baritone, only to be captured himself, and with his beloved poisoning herself just before his own sudden demise (here a suicide).

Dynamic is a label that relishes such rare repertory, and so they set up their microphones for a performance at the Teatro Regio in June 2004, and the handsome photographs on cover and in booklet suggest a lively, colorful, very traditional production.

The recording, however, only offers the voices (although extraneous stage noises make intermittent intrusions). With one exception, the cast features younger, less well-known singers. The swashbuckling title role goes to Zvetan Michailov, who has a manly tenor to match a handsome appearance, as evidenced by the booklet cover. Neither strength nor weakness distinguishes his performance; perhaps in person he has more charisma.

The two sopranos offer even less. The corsair's true love, Medora, gets a wobbly portrayal from Michela Sburlati, and the tragic slave girl Gulnara offers not much respite. Adriana Damato, a stunning young woman in the photos, has a prematurely aged voice that makes one fully sympathetic with the corsair's decision to return to his other love — until she opens her mouth.

The veteran Renato Bruson has the role of the nasty Seid (a "vile Muslim," in the truly politically incorrect libretto). A man with a great career behind him, this recording sadly documents his decline. The intelligence that guided him through many successes is still there; the voice simply is not.

Renato Palumbo leads the Teatro's orchestra and chorus in an emotional yet disciplined performance; he is the true star of this recording.

Not easy to find, the Philips recording, part of a series devoted to early Verdi mostly conducted by Lamberto Gardelli, offers much too high a challenge to this Dynamic set. Caballé, Carreras, Norman — they make a much, much better case for this score, as does the Sied, Gian-Piero Mastromei. He may not have had the career of Bruson, but in this role, he emerges the superior singer.

The booklet offers a libretto in Italian and English along with the names of the orchestra and chorus members, but no biographies of the singers or conductor. Strangely, the synopsis in English omits the first scene.

If one wants a complete set of Verdi's operas and cannot find the Philips anywhere, this Dynamic set make an acceptable compromise, especially for those more able to forgive certain soprano weaknesses than your reviewer can. For anyone else, the wait for the Philips to reappear, or the cost of locating it at an overseas CD shop, should be worthwhile.

Chris Mullins
Harbor Teacher Preparation Academy

Posted by Gary at 9:38 PM

Angela Gheorghiu at the Liceu

Angela Gheorghiu (Photo: Terry O'Neil)

'L'ELISIR D'AMORE', seducción total de Angela Gheorghiu

Angela Gheorghiu está construyendo una sólida historia de amor con el Liceu

JOAN ANTON CARARACH [El Periódico, 6 June 05]

Ahí estaba Angela Gheorghiu, recogiendo la ovación que se llevaba tras cantar el aria Prendi, per me sei libero, de la penultima escena de L'elisir d'amore. Lo hacía abrazada al tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, a quien consolaba mesándole el pelo. En la escena anterior, Filianoti había cantado Una furtiva lagrima, y lo hizo, ay, con dos espectaculares gallos incluidos.

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Posted by Gary at 1:18 PM

June 5, 2005

Magdalena Kozená in Berlin

Magdalena Kozená

Applaus für Lady Rattle

Ein Liederabend des Ungewöhnlichen: Magdalena Kozená im Kammermusiksaal

Von Klaus Geitel [Berliner Morgenpost, 5 June 05]

Ein gesellschaftliches, aber auch ein musikalisches Ereignis der besonderen Art: auf Einladung der Philharmoniker im Kammermusiksaal neben Sir Simon Rattle sitzen zu dürfen, um gemeinsam mit ihm die zauberhafte Lady Rattle, alias Magdalena Kozená, singen zu hören. Ihr Vortrag glich einem Streifzug durch Kunst gewordene Volkstümlichkeit: einer klingenden Speisekarte der Erinnerungen an die Heimatsprache der Musik.

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Posted by Gary at 11:16 PM

SCHUBERT: Die Schöne Müllerin

Franz Schubert : Die Schöne Müllerin.
Ian Bostridge, tenor; Mitsuko Uchida, piano.
Recorded December 2003, Lyndhurst Hall, London.
EMI Classics 5 57827 2 [CD]

In some circles, Bostridge isn't fashionable, perhaps because he achieved success so early, because he didn't come up through the choirboy route, and, perhaps most of all, because he is so startlingly different. But those with a real interest in intelligent music making would do well to ignore the clichés and really listen to this. It's an experience to change most perceptions of the cycle, and indeed of Schubert. This is no quaint bucolic romp. The protagonist kills himself, doomed even before he meets the girl. As Bostridge points out, the poet Wilhelm Müller said it should be "im Winter zu lessen." The songs refer to Maytime and blossoms, but since Nature itself is destructive, this is just seductive sham. This cycle is to read in the spirit of a harsh Prussian winter, not an innocent Austrian spring. Schubert picked up on the inner meaning of Müller's poetry because he had himself just been diagnosed with syphilis — the AIDS of his era. He had no bucolic delusions. He knew only too well that Nature can turn love into death.

Bostridge has gone far beyond tradition, back to the root issues in the music. No wonder he disturbs the conventional! Yet his understanding of the background is authoritative, well researched and psychologically unassailable. This is the version that comes closest perhaps to what Schubert and Müller might have felt, yet also resounds for us, who live in the 21st century. The only precedent is the recording by Matthias Goerne and Alfred Brendel, which scandalised many. Goerne's reading focussed on the psychopathology of the teenage suicide, a haunting analysis into the depths of a broken mind — a Wozzeck Schöne Müllerin, perhaps. Bostridge keeps scrupulously faithful to the score, and his interpretation fits better with the period. Romanticism, with its interest in the irrational, swept away the certainties of the Age of Reason. Gothic horror was an attempt to deal with the subconscious, the beginnings of a more questioning sensibility. The Romantics hadn't discovered "psychology" as such but expressed dark feelings in terms of the supernatural. Bostridge appreciates the link between this cycle and Erlkönig. Nobody does supernatural better than Bostridge. Hans Werner Henze was so fascinated by Bostridge's ability to express wild, transfixed emotion intuitively, he wrote the remarkable Sechs Gesänge aus dem Arabischen for him. Others have performed that cycle, but none come anywhere near its horrifying, otherworldly mystery.

Uchida's playing may seem dominant in comparison with more self effacing accompanists, but this is precisely the point, in this interpretation. The brook is a malevolent, elemental entity, with a will of its own, far stronger than any mortal. Her playing is, appropriately, demonic, despite the deliberately coy moments of lyricism. Bostridge has journeyed far from his seminal Die Schöne Müllerin for Hyperion so many years ago. His voice has deepened and rounded out in the lower ranges, and he is more assured. The last few years have brought out a steely firmness of character, which shows in his decisive diction and phrasing. He's learned not to push emphases too far, and to let the innate musical line shine through, as his recent Winterreise with Leif Ove Andsnes shows. He is singing better than ever. Combined with perhaps the most intuitive understanding of repertoire in the business, he is a force to be taken seriously and respected. Uchida pushes him and he responds. Her brook is Nature's capriciousness personified. But Bostridge's miller fights back. I've never heard such a defiant "Eifersucht und Stolz." In the final "Wiegenlied," the brook cradles its quarry, with twisted, psychotic love. Nonetheless, this miller has stood up to it with dignity. Frankly, a version performed with such intelligence, commitment and insight deserves being listened to with insight.

Anne Ozorio

Posted by Gary at 10:54 PM

The State of Online Audio Services

His Master's Voice

The Promise of Online Music

By John Anderies [Library Journal, 1 June 05]

Both library and commercial initiatives are opening up music in new ways

Every few decades, audio formats change, and libraries rebuild their music collections. We've gone from 78s to LPs, then from LPs to CDs. While CDs stand to be produced for quite some time, it's not clear how long large library CD collections--with many recordings going back to the mid-1980s--will last. Today, the format shift is on again as librarians attempt to offer patrons what they really want: online audio.

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 7:50 PM

June 4, 2005

1984 — Another View

George Orwell

Why Shouldn't a Conductor Compose?

BY JAY NORDLINGER [NY sun 3 June 05]

Lorin Maazel has done a very bad thing. Have you heard? He wrote an opera, "1984" (based on the Orwell novel, of course). It was premiered at London's Covent Garden last month. And he paid for part of the production himself. Very, very bad.

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 4:59 PM

Rupert Christiansen Interviews Gerald Finley

Gerald Finley (Photo: Sim Canetty-Clarke)

'Singing frees my soul'

[Daily Telegraph, 4 June 05]

Before he jets off to take the lead in John Adams's new opera, Gerald Finley faces a challenge nearer home. He talks to Rupert Christiansen

This is quite a year for the marvellous baritone Gerald Finley. At 45, this former King's College Cambridge chorister is in his prime, singing with a maturity that is sweeping all before him.

In January he undertook his first major Verdi role, Germont in La traviata at Covent Garden — an experience he found both "thrilling and terrifying, though I'm still not sure if Verdi is a road I want to travel further". And later this summer he travels to San Francisco to sing the conscience-stricken nuclear scientist J Robert Oppenheimer in October's world première of John Adams's Doctor Atomic.

Click here for remainder of article.

Posted by Gary at 4:52 PM

Carole Farley at Wigmore Hall

Carole Farley

Carole Farley

Tim Ashley [The Guardian, 3 June 05]

We haven't seen much of American soprano Carole Farley in the UK for a very long time. She was something of a cult figure in the late 1970s and early 1980s, specialising in roles such as Berg's Lulu and the unnamed woman in Poulenc's La Voix Humaine at a time when some singers were unwilling to tackle them.

Click here for remander of article.

Carole Farley - singer and champion of repertoire.

Interviewed by Anne Ozorio [Seen and Heard]

Starring as Lulu is an achievement for any singer, but Carole Farley debuted in it and has sung it over 80 times. She's much loved as an opera singer, particularly in Strauss, but Lulu is no ordinary role to characterize. I asked her if the experience had shaped her approach to art song. "I love song," she said, "I like the combination of music and drama." Songs, for her, can be little operas, with scope for imaginative presentation.

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Posted by Gary at 4:40 PM

June 2, 2005

KILAR: Tryptyk (The Triptych)

Wojciech Kilar: Tryptyk (The Triptych).
Izabella Klosinska (Soprano), Antoni Wit, conductor, Warsaw Philharmonic Chorus, Polish Radio/TV Symphony Orchestra.
DUX 0484 [CD]

Wojciech Kilar (b. 1932) is an exciting composer from Poland, and he may be best known in the West for his film scores, which include Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), Polanski's Death and the Maiden (1994), Campion's Portrait of a Lady (1996) and others. At the same time, Kilar also composes concert music, and his Tryptyk (1997) is a fine example of his work. Nevertheless, film is a useful point of reference in discussions of his style, since some of the techniques he used in creating effective soundtracks may be found in his other music.

Assembled into a single piece for a festival performance of the Wratislavia Kantans (on 16 June 1997 at Mary Magdelene Orthodox Church, Warsaw), Kilar's Tryptyk is essentially a cantata in three movements: (1) Bogurodzica (1975); (2) Angelus (1984); and (3) Exodus (1981). While the individual movements were composed at different times, they fit together well, thus evoking the traditional image of the medieval style of painting an altarpiece as a triptych, where the panels have their own character and yet create a stunning effect when perceived as a unit. Kilar did not create a program for this work, but the religious tone of the texts suggests a sense of spirituality that conveys feelings of hope and, ultimately, triumphant joy.

The final movement is, perhaps, the most evocative, since its structure is based on a gradually increasing intensity of dynamics and scoring. It is a musical procession in the sense of Respighi, whose Pines of Rome contains a comparable, albeit shorter, passage. With Kilar, though, the music unfolds more slowly, which ultimately contributes to the exuberant ending. The sung text is from the Old Testament book of Exodus, and specifically Miriam's song of triumph after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea into safety, with the pursuing Egyptian army drowned when the waters flowed back together. One of the most effective moments is near the end of the piece, when the choral forces shift from sung text to voiced shouts. The change from pitched to unpitched sounds suggests a dramatic scene so that when the music resumes at the end, its return forms a satisfying conclusion with its final "Hosanna."

Such a use of the spoke — or shouted — voice in this movement has a parallel in the second, which begins with the choral recitation of the prayer "Hail Mary" in Polish. It starts softly, with a few voices, and in the numerous repetitions, subtly gains intensity, until the initially humble prayer becomes a vociferous shout. At that point Kilar shifts to traditional sounds, starting with an effective passage for soprano solo. The effect is cinematic and extremely effective, especially when Kilar eventually combines bells and other percussion into his score.

The kind of dramatic shift in timbre that is part of the "Angelus" is crucial to the first movement, the medieval text "Bogurodzica," which is framed by extended passages for percussion. The martial tone of the percussion intersects the vocal music, and the chorus is asked to create ts own percussive sounds as piece begins. After the interplay of these elements, the choral setting of the medieval hymn at the core of this piece is effective in its subtle rendering of the text. It is a dramatic and compelling piece, like the other movements of this remarkable work.

Anton Wit conducts the work, and the musical forces he leads, the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, give a fine performance. The soprano Isabela K

Posted by Gary at 10:13 PM

SCHUBERT: An den Mond — Chants nocturnes

Franz Schubert: An den Mond — Chants nocturnes.
Dietrich Henschel, baritone; Helmut Deutsch, piano.
Harmonia Munda HMC 901822 [CD]

Beyond his song cycles and collections like Schwanengesang, Schubert's Lieder can be grouped in various ways. In this recording, the baritone Dietrich Henschel and pianist Helmut Deutsch selected twenty Lieder that reflect the ideas of wandering, night, and death, as stated on the jacket copy of this CD. Some of the music chosen is predictably part of this kind of selection, as with "Der Wanderer," D. 649, "Der Wanderer an den Mond," D. 870, and "Auf dem Wasser zu singen," D. 774, while others may be less familiar. The Lieder are from different times in Schubert's career and include various poets, not only the more famous ones like Goethe and Schlegel, but also figures whose reputation may be attributed to the composer's settings of their verses.

Henschel's selection of Lieder constitutes a kind of Schubertiad that celebrates some of those darker themes that emerge in individual Lieder. While it is difficult to imagine anyone missing the themes of songs like these, they are sometimes eclipsed in recordings which span from the traditional cycles to the complete works. The decisions to pursue such a "middle ground" of thematic selections is less common and, perhaps more difficult, since the result can sometimes come off as contrived or, at least, a bit forced. Nevertheless Henschel has done admirable work in assembling a collection that is, thematically related and, above all, satisfying musically.

This recording represents some fine performances on the part of Henschel, whose nimble baritone voice is suited particularly well to Schubert's music. In a less familiar Lied like "An die Apfelbäume," D. 197, the declamation he brings to the piece convincingly blends with his very natural lyricism. Henschel brings an intensity of line to that particular piece, as well as to the one that follows it in this recording, "Liebesrausch," D. 179, where the sensitivity to dynamic levels by both the singer and pianist work well in conveying the meaning of the text. When he is loud, Henschel never betrays a shrill or strident tone. Rather, his voice projects a comfortable volume that is supported well by the accompaniment. When Henschel is intense, it is never harsh, but rather, he uses it expressively, which also connotes his passionate involvement with the music.

Likewise, Deutsch - an appropriately chosen name for someone associated with performing Schubert's music - brings a sensible and idiomatic style to the accompaniments, including some of the more angular piano writing that is part of some Lieder. With "Lebensmut," D. 883, for example, the somewhat clichéd opening is handled discreetly so that not even the slightest sense of parody enters into the performance. With some of the more demanding accompaniments, as with "Der Schiffer," D. 536, Deutsch supports the voice without intruding upon it. In all, the two performers work together well in this recording, which also benefits from an extremely sensitive and effective volume level, as well as a warm, resonant ambiance. The overall sound is rich and resonant, so that the nuances both performers bring to the recording are reproduced well. If the sound is more immediate than would be heard in a live recital, such intensity serves the music well. The result in a richly detailed Lied like "Auf dem Wasser zu singen" is quite memorable, since the accompaniment comes across as clearly as the voice in the kind of chamber-music quality that makes this performance notable.

In terms of presentation, the CD includes a well-produced booklet that is bound to the CD case. The notes and sung texts are presented in German and translated into English and French. In fact, the liner notes by Walter Rösler are well written and concise, such that the texts and translations emerge as the prominent element in the booklet. Moreover, the texts are printed clearly and without crowding, something that is not always common in recent CDs. Such attention to details supports the fine performance, with the entire package being quite commendable. Those who appreciate the genre and know the literature should not be disappointed by this recent Henschel's An den Mond.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

Posted by Gary at 5:47 PM

Alex Ross: THE RECORD EFFECT — How technology has transformed the sound of music

The phonograph, he warned, would erode the finer instincts of the ear, end amateur playing and singing, and put professional musicians out of work. "The time is coming when no one will be ready to submit himself to the ennobling discipline of learning music," he wrote. "Everyone will have their ready made or ready pirated music in their cupboards." Something is irretrievably lost when we are no longer in the presence of bodies making music, Sousa said. "The nightingale's song is delightful because the nightingale herself gives it forth."

Click here for remainder of article.

Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music

Capturing Sound: How Technology
has Changed Music
Setting the Record Straight: A Material History of Classical Recording

Setting the Record Straight:A Material History of Classical Recording
Performing Music in the Age of Recording

Performing Music in the Age of Recording
Posted by Gary at 5:26 PM

June 1, 2005

Britten's A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Chicago Opera Theater

Scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream (Photo: Chicago Opera Theater)

Benjamin Britten: A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Libretto by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears.
Chicago Opera Theater
Conducted by Alexander Platt. Directed by Andrei Serban.
Click here for additional information.

In its recent performances of Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream Chicago Opera Theater affirms its reputation for carefully gauged and well cast productions. Already from the subdued opening accompanied by muted strings an underlying tension is evident in the darting figure of Puck, a spoken role assumed in this production by the actor Jason Griffin. The movements of all the characters in this production are matched consistently to an orchestral or vocal expression, emphasizing thus the union of choreography with lyrical and declamatory effect. Chicago Opera Theater's presentation divides the action and emotional entanglements of Britten's three acts into two parts. Soon after the start of the first of these the royal fairy couple, Oberon and Tytania, enter in formal dress. Their disagreement over a youth taken into the service of the queen, yet desired by Oberon, fuels an initial conflict that — by the time of its resolution — will bear on the fates of the other pairs of young lovers in the piece as well.

In the roles of fairy king and queen Tobias Cole and Danielle de Niese exhibit regal bearing alternating with bemused detachment or boundless passion. Britten's writing for countertenor and coloratura soprano is admirably fulfilled by this pair, each sinking into the dignity or erotic mask of the respective role with convincing vocal and dramatic involvement. Cole shows an especially effortless and graceful approach to the sung and declaimed line of Oberon, while de Niese's skillful vocal approach underscores her unexpected later attachment to the rustic Bottom.

The two pairs of young lovers — Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius — are sung by Allyson McHardy and Patrick Miller, Laura Whalen and Ian Greenlaw, respectively. In their fine delineation of character in both singing and acting the four lovers negotiate the amorous confusion caused by wrongful application of the herb on the part of Puck. Their youthful exuberance and quarreling parallel the erotic abandon of Tytania after Puck's machinations lead her to awaken and fall enamored of Bottom wearing the head of an ass.

In this production the dreams, thoughts, and emotions of characters are intermittently suggested by film clips projected on the rear part of the stage. The pink, purple, and green colors — as well as "nodding" flowers — suggest the stylized hues of a woodland while directing focus to the emotional tangles played out and righted within their midst. Most of the stage content in Part One of Chicago Opera Theater's presentation, up to the point of confusion of nearly all leading roles, covers the first two acts of Britten's opera. Although there are moments — especially toward the close of this Part One — where Britten's writing for the text lags in inspiration, the forces conducted here by Alexander Platt keep a consistent musical and dramatic fluidity.

The imaginative movements assigned to the fairies of Tytania's and Oberon's realm for this production — riding on scooters, sporting hula-hoops, executing cartwheels — are in keeping with the fanciful spirit of the text. Yet these actions can also detract from the simultaneous performance of the principals, especially when the fairies run out into the audience and shine their flashlights in a cliché maneuver. The buffoonery engaged in by the collected rustics is here both well-timed and humorously acted. Noteworthy among these singers are the Bottom/Pyramus of Kevin Burdette and the Flute/Thisbe of Tracy Wise.

By the close of their play-within-a-play at the court of Theseus in Part Two, the lovers are appropriately re-aligned and disagreements have been settled. Puck's closing promise to "restore amends" recalls his earlier movements in Part One of this production, during which he wove together hanging chains as a symbol of the lovers' entanglements. The twofold musical and dramatic resolution of the play and the play within has a renewed significance as this Puck unites both action and indulgence from Chicago Opera Theater's memorable dream.

Salvatore Calomino
Madison, Wisconsin

Posted by Gary at 9:37 PM

VERDI: Nabucco

Giuseppe Verdi: Nabucco
Alberto Gazale (Nabucco), Susan Neves (Abigaille), Orlin Anastassov (Zaccaria), Yasuharu Nakajima (Ismaele), Annamaria Popescu (Fenena), Alberto Rota (High Priest of Baal), Sabrina Modena (Anna), Alessandro Cosentino (Abdallo).
Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro Carlo Felice of Genoa, Riccardo Frizza (cond.)
Dynamic 33465 [DVD]

With Nabucco (1842) Giuseppe Verdi began a long and feverishly productive creative period in his life. More importantly, in this work, largely influenced by French grand opéra, the masses are as important as the soloists. This is one of the reasons why this opera, representing the enslavement of the Hebrews by the Babylonians under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar, was later received as a metaphor of the Austrian political domination of Italy, which the patriots of the Risorgimento were fighting against. Neither the alleged political metaphor (which has been recently questioned by Roger Parker), nor the grandeur of the drama as a series of large tableaux seem to be at the center of the conception of this recent production (Genoa, 2004), staged in a relatively small theater that does not allow choral masses to act dynamically (the soloists overpower the contained choral masses).

The major strength of this production is in the musical rather than in the visual domain, although this remains a DVD worth seeing. It is important to mention that this production is based on the critical edition of the score edited by Roger Parker (published by Ricordi and University of Chicago Press). The Orchestra of the Teatro Carlo Felice of Genoa, conducted by Riccardo Frizza, offers an energetic and engaged interpretation of Verdi's intense music, as is already immediately clear in the overture, during which the camera documents the tension and attention of the instrumentalists. The orchestra rarely drags in this considerably fast version of Nabucco and the energy of the performers (both instrumentalists and singers) is consistently rewarded by the numerous enthusiast reactions of the audience.

The largest numbers of ovations are reserved for and well deserved by American soprano Susan Neves (Abigail). Her full figure, powerful voice, and impressive technique grant her a mighty stage presence, which suits this role well (an unusually tough female heroine in Verdi's operatic dramaturgy). In the scena section of the double aria in Part II, Ms. Neves shows her total control over the entire extended register of her role; her ease in the sudden drop of two octaves in "fatal sdegno" is amazing, as is her ability to express contrasting emotions (one of the major challenges of this role). In the scena Abigail bitterly resents being a slave and expresses her hatred for her adoptive father Nabucco and his daughter Fenena ("O iniqui tutti" - "wretched all! upon everyone you will see my fury fall! Yes, let Fenena fall... my false father... the whole kingdom, even upon myself my fatal anger will call for ruin"). After these fierce lines, there is a paradoxical cantabile, "Anch'io dischiuso un giorno" ("I too once opened my heart to joy"), in which Abigail remembers her tender feelings of love. This sudden shift in emotional content leaves the whole responsibility for dramatic convincingness to the performer; Ms. Neves handles this difficult juxtaposition extremely well both musically (by emphasizing a sort of continuity in maintaining un underlying tension) and through gestures and facial expressions. The cabaletta is more credible due to the unfolding of events in the tempo di mezzo (The high priest informs Abigail that the people of Assyria claim her as their Queen). This fills Abigail's heart with pride and courage, launching her in a forceful and rhythmically driving cabaletta ("Salgo gia' del trono aurato"). Ms. Neves manages to surf the high dramatic waves required in this entire scene (from rage and resentment to tenderness, to pride and triumph) very convincingly. One remains impressed by her agility throughout the register, the dramatic effectiveness achieved even in the most difficult coloratura passages, her total control in extreme dynamics, and her consistent ability to maintain good balance with the orchestra. One may notice that at least in this production her acting is better in solo pieces than in ensembles or duets, in which her interaction with other characters is at times unconvincing. A clear example is when she tries to steal the crown from Fenena in Part II, scene 2: she reaches for the crown but hesitates, knowing that Nabucco is supposed to take it. In moments like this one gets the impression that the singer is more concerned with remembering stage directions than with offering a convincing dramatic interpretation. In the duet with Nabucco in part III, Susan Neville offers another musically flawless interpretation, but also confirms that her expressive power relies in her voice and facial expressions, rather than in a dynamic acting style based on gestures and movements.

Alberto Gazale (Nabucco) also shows a considerable stage presence, especially in Part I. Here the expression of rage ("Tremin gl'insani") is more convincing than his later interpretation of the mad scene. After proclaiming himself God in Part II, a thunderbolt bursts above Nabucco's head and drives him crazy. The libretto prescribes that before he sings again "madness manifests itself in his every feature" ("la follia appare in tutti is suoi lineamenti"), calling for a powerful acting style. Gazale shakes on the ground, covering his face. He seems to be more in pain than crazy; and his idea of madness thereafter seems to be one of sadness and dismay. He does well in the lament "Oh i qual'onta aggravasi" during the duet with Abigail in Part III and better in Part IV after, upon converting to Judaism, he regains his reason. Admittedly, any interpreter of this role suffers in the comparison with the unsurpassed interpretation of Renato Bruson, whose representation of madness reached a level of sophistication and emotional power of Shakespearean dimensions.

Yasuharu Nakajima (Ismaele or Ishmael) shows remarkable strength and clarity of diction, although he seems affected by fatigue in the second finale. This fine Japanese tenor seems also slightly penalized by the mismatch with Fenena, Ishmael's lover, interpreted by Annamaria Popescu, one of the weakest singers in this production, while minor roles like the High Priest and Anna are interpreted by very promising singers (Alberto Rota and Sabrina Modena). Orlin Anastassov (Zaccaria), exhibits a dynamic acting style when confronting Nabuccco in Part I, while for the rest of the opera he maintains a hieratic posture and style of singing. In the famous prayer in Part II this approach reveals its effectiveness; although the music is a lulling and gentle andante the text shows a contrasting emotion ("over the shattered idols the law of God shall arise"). This is one of the few puzzling examples in Verdi's operas in which the music does not seem appropriate for the text. But the reason why this happens is that Zechariah does not have a realistically delineated psychology; he is a vestige of Metastasian heroic opera, and Anastassov shows that he understands this by avoiding an inappropriate Romantic (more dramatically realistic) interpretation of this part.

As mentioned before, the choral masses are given an unusually important and difficult role in Nabucco. As often happens, not all the chorus singers remember that they are on stage and not in church or in a concert hall. The stage of the Carlo Felice is not wide enough to allow mass movement and all the interest is left to the power of static gestures. This is particularly true in the chorus that precedes the terrifying entrance of Nebuchadnezzar ("Lo vedeste?" - "Did you see him? Like thunder he bursts into the crowd, brandishing his bloody sword, etc."). We do not see the bloodthirsty Assyrian King, who in the 7th century B.C. destroyed the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem and took Hebrew hostages to Babylon as slaves. The mass of Hebrews at this point is in the temple and sees the barbarian approaching like thunder; the sense of terror is conveyed musically (the orchestra and chorus of Genoa provide a fiery performance) and through expression and posture. In the numerous pertichini with the soloists and with the ensembles of soloists this chorus reveals its best quality. The stretto of the first finale is one of the greatest moments in this production for dramatic dynamism and intensity. In Part II, the recurring theme presto and sottovoce with the staccato 8th notes ("Il maledetto non ha fratelli") is conveyed with agility and appropriate lightness and clarity of diction. In "S'appressan gl'istanti d'un'ira fatale" ("The moment of wrath is approaching") the soloists manage to express most convincingly the sense of approaching rage and terror; the chorus, however, in this case opens up in a broad cantabile that does not, however, seem to be dramatically appropriate. In the celebrated "Va pensiero" (Part III/2) the chorus shows a great control of the extreme dynamics and expressive crescendos required for this piece, although the tempo seems too slow (this is a largo, but it shouldn't drag).

In general, the filming technique in this DVD appears closer to that of a TV documentary than to that of a film-opera. The close-ups are not too abrasive (as is often the case in opera on video) and the points of view are diversified enough to offer some degree of variety in perspective. Unfortunately the excerpts shot from off-stage and above the stage are really bad in quality due to the fact that the cameraman could not alter the original stage lights and could not invade the stage either (this is a live production). In these moments the light in the video becomes too bright and icy, the image loses contrast and sharpness, and - worse - the viewer feels that the actors are not establishing a direct contact with the video audience, since the point of view of the camera does not coincide with that of the real audience in the theater, with whom the singers are interacting.

The beginning of Part III reveals one of the major downfalls of this video production. Not only are there serious problems with the quality of the image, but there is a major conceptual mistake: the camera travels fast through the orchestra banks, shooting the musicians in the orchestra pit; yet this is one of the pieces labeled by Verdi as "banda interna": the orchestra is supposed to play stage-music (meaning music heard as such by the characters on stage). Here we need to forget that the music is produced by the musicians in the orchestra pit and we need to imagine that this piece is played by an Assyrian marching band (as absurd as this may be from a historical point of view). Another infelicitous idea in regard to stage directions occurs in Part IV, scene 2. Here Fenena and the Hebrews are condemned to die and we hear a funeral march from off-stage (another 'banda interna'). Suddenly an idol that looks like an Egyptian mummy comes down from the ceiling, hanged by the neck: a grotesque scene that seems to belong to a cheap horror movie. To make things worse the camera angle is again from off-stage, producing the aforementioned problem of contrast and light. To make it even worse, Fenena's voice is almost gone at this point and the idol-mummy burns (this part is originally subtitled "l'idolo infranto" or the broken idol, not the burned idol). The libretto prescribes that the idol falls and is broken into pieces ("idolo cade infanto da sé"), while in this production the idols catches on fire but hangs there completely intact. Even the triumphal "Immenso Jeovha" (Almighty Jehovah) occurs under the hanging mummy, which stays there all throughout the final curtain calls. People bow and smile, the audience claps and rejoices, but the mummy idol still hangs grotesquely.

Regarding the scenery, the oppressive volumetric architecture (an unadorned almost cubic space) effectively conveys at the beginning a sense of claustrophobia (the Hebrews are trapped in the temple of Solomon), although it makes the stage even smaller so that the choral masses are constantly impeded. The triumphal entrance of Nebuchadnezzar is a lengthy musical passage in which the same phrase is repeated in a sort of Rossini crescendo used to accompany the slow parade of the Assyrian army approaching the temple from a distance. Because of the lack of space, however, here the chorus of Assyrians can only keep the Levites at a distance by brandishing daggers.

The costumes of the Assyrians and the hairstyles have a great effect (especially the High Priest with a mohawk falling in long braids). The costumes of the Jewish women are less effective. Especially in the chorus of Part III the Hebrews should appear in chains as forced laborers, as prescribed in the libretto. In this production, however, the women wear bright colored satin costumes, a few ladies show off unlikely elegant makeup, including blue eye shadow and red lipstick. The men are not as well dressed, but still decent, dignified, the costumes carefully ironed and nobody is in chains or shows signs of fatigue.

Besides these admittedly minor problems and oddities in staging and costumes, this is a very enjoyable production, putting together an international cast of mostly young talents, able to offer a lively and energetic production of one of Verdi's most enthusiastic creations.

Pierpaolo Polzonetti
Assistant Professor of Music History
School of Music
University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Posted by Gary at 2:39 PM

GIORDANO: La Cena delle Beffe

Umberto Giordano: La Cena delle Beffe
Antonio Annoloro (Gianetto) ; Anselmo Colzani (Neri) ; Enzo Guagni (Gabriello and Trinca) ; Franco Calabrese (Tornaquinci) ; Arrigo Cattelani (Calandra) ; Antonio Sacchetti (Fazio) ; Aldo Corelli (Dottore) ; Walter Artoli (Lapo and Cantore) ; Gigliola Frazzoni (Ginevra) ; Mafalda Micheluzzi (Lisabetta) ; Liliano Pellegrino (Laldomine and Cintia) ; Pina Leo Tanco (Fiametta) .
Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano della RAI, Oliviero De Fabritiis (cond.)
Bonus: Gigliola Frazzoni in La Fanciulla del West (RAI Milano 1955) with Ken Neate and Mario Petri
Myto 052.H103 [2CDs]

The recording industry has recently been good for Umberto Giordano. We now at last have well recorded performances of Mala Vita (Bongiovanni), Siberia (Gala), Madame Sans-Gene, Il Re and Mese Mariano (all on Dynamic). Still missing are recordings of his first opera Marina, of Regina Diaz, Marcella (Gigli recorded one aria) and Giove a Pompei. La Cena delle Beffe was somewhat better represented. There was a live performance on MRF-LP and in 1988 Bongiovanni recorded another performance (with Fabio Armiliato) in Piacenza. Both recordings however are no match for the RAI broadcast of the 14th of April 1956 (and not 1955 as the sleeve notes say). That recording was already issued several years ago by the same company (Myto 2MCD002.220). The big difference between both issues is that this first version included an Italian language-only libretto while this new issue doesn't. That can make a difference for enjoying the recording though Sem Benelli's Italian libretto is not exactly written in house and kitchen Italian.

La Cena was created by Toscanini who clearly believed in the opera and cast it from strength with Lazaro and Melis (Tebaldi's teacher). When it reached the Met, Ruffo, Alda and Gigli sang it and one can easily agree with the tenor's fury at Gatti's decision to press such a strenuous role upon a lyric instrument. After its first rounds, La Cena gradually disappeared and one can understand why. Though the music is firmly tonal, Giordano, of course, knew the works of Zemlinsky and Strauss surely enough; and there is a lot of "meaningful" dissonance to be heard. What ultimately is lacking is the firm melodic touch the composer showed in his best work. The first part of the opera is taken in by a lot of Italian sprechgesang. From the second act on things are getting better though the melodies always sound a little laborious, a little too uninspired. And then there is that one moment of genius in the fourth act when the composer gives us a wonderful serenade (Tornato e maggio), which would be a hit in every tenor's repertoire if this had appeared in Chénier. Now there is only Alessandro Valente's recording and moreover in the opera the serenade is sung by the second tenor (one can hear Gigli sigh) and cut short in the second strophe (yes, like in Di rigori where Benelli and Giordano obviously got the idea).

The recording is a good mono one and the singers belong to that last generation that got their musical education when opera and the verismo traditions were still a living thing in Italy. Antonio Annoloro in the title role has a big, somewhat unrefined, spinto tenor that cuts easily through the thick orchestration and he is absolutely convincing as the vengeful Gianetto. He soon realized that with his less than beautiful voice there was a career to be made in unhackneyed operas and in the same RAI season he sang in the best version up to now of Franco Alfano's Sakuntala ( not on CD but well known in the collectors' circuit).

As Neri baritone Anselmo Colzani is perfect: sinister where necessary, raging when playing the madman. He too is badly underrepresented on recordings and moreover he was a good actor and he would have been terrific on the scene in this role. Tenor Walter Artioli sings the serenade quite well though one of course longs to hear a Ferruccio Tagliavini in this piece.

All comprimari combine individual sound and incisive singing and we even meet Corelli's older brother, Aldo, in a small role. Gigliola Frazzoli sings Ginevra with her big, round though not very individual voice and she, too, clearly believes in her role. In fact, the issue is somewhat centred around her as the second CD has only the short fourth act followed by Minnie's three big duets from Fanciulla, broadcast on the 13th of March 1956. Surprisingly for a radio recording, the sound is rather dull and not better than her well-known complete live recording at La Scala of the same year. As to be expected there are no great differences, either in singing or interpretation, between those two performances. Her radio tenor is Australian Ken Neate with a good solid voice, with gleaming high notes, rather rare for an Anglo-Saxon tenor, and a not very personal or Italian timbre. Though he sings well and stylishly he cannot compete with the thrilling sound of young Franco Corelli in the La Scala recording.

Jan Neckers

Posted by Gary at 12:39 PM