January 31, 2006

Don Giovanni, Palais Garnier, Paris

By Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 31 January 2006]

Last Friday was Mozart Day - 250 years since music's greatest prodigy was born in Salzburg. Opera houses worldwide celebrated the event, but the Opéra national de Paris was particularly keyed up after word went out that there was a scandal in town. The Austrian film director Michael Caché Haneke, known for his bleak and transgressive, even sado- masochistic movies, had come to Paris to direct his first opera. A news blackout increased the thirst for rumour and, as the curtain fell, well-primed TV crews rushed into the auditorium to film the audience baying for his blood.

Posted by Gary at 9:12 AM

Gotterdammerung - Theatre du Chatelet, Paris

Gotterdammerung at the Chatelet(Photo: M.N. Robert)
By Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 31 January 2006]

What a relief: for the final opera in Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen the director Robert Wilson found a few more colours. Siegfried had been played out against an almost permanent blue screen, like a science-fiction film before the special effects are added, but in Götterdämmerung we were treated to the sunny yellow of dawn, bloody red and even spot-lit white.

Posted by Gary at 8:45 AM

A Sprite Far From Heaven in a Quest for Redemption

Katharine Goeldner(Photo: Christian Steiner)
By BERNARD HOLLAND [NY Times, 31 January 2006]

Schumann's reputation as a maximalist has not been helped by the oblivion visited on his only opera, "Genoveva," or on the curious hybrid quality of "Scenes From Goethe's 'Faust,' " a piece unable to decide whether it belongs on the stage or in the concert hall. The quasi-Oriental oratorio "Das Paradies und die Peri," put on by Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall on Sunday, is something else altogether.

Posted by Gary at 8:39 AM

A Cornucopia of Orchestral Colors

Anja SiljaBY FRED KIRSHNIT [NY Sun, 31 January 2006]

Passionate Freudian guilt is the subject of Arnold Schonberg's short opera "Erwartung." Spoken in pitch rather than sung, this onecharacter, one-act drama is part of the melodrama tradition, a body of work still familiar in the early years of the 20th century but virtually unknown today.

Posted by Gary at 8:29 AM

January 30, 2006

Mazeppa, Opéra national de Lyon

tchaikovsky_small.jpgBy Francis Carlin [Financial Times, 30 January 2006]

Mazeppa and his henchman Orlik ride handsome steeds and Cossacks throw themselves into traditional dancing. Anna Maria Heinreich's costumes are historically accurate when the norm these days is an anarchic confusion of styles (or laziness masquerading as universal insight).

Posted by Gary at 10:16 PM

A new generation in the house

By Leslie Crawford [Financial Times, 30 January 2006]

ImageCalixto Bieito, the enfant terrible of Spanish theatre, did his best to sound respectable at the opening of his recent production - the staging of Alban Berg's Wozzeck at the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona's venerable opera house.

Posted by Gary at 10:13 PM

He Reigns In Spain

Lincoln Center opens a monthlong festival devoted to Osvaldo Golijov with Ainadamar, his transcendent opera of the Spanish Civil War.

By Peter G. Davis [New York Magazine, 6 February 2006]

Everybody loves Osvaldo Golijov right now, especially Lincoln Center, which is in the midst of a monthlong celebration of the Argentine composer and his work. In the carefully curated world of classical music, this is a pretty extraordinary tribute, usually extended only to such high-profile names as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, or John Adams, prolific senior composers with a proven track record.

Posted by Gary at 10:08 PM

Alex Ross on Beethoven's Great Fugue

[New Yorker, 6 February 2006]

Last summer, a librarian at the Palmer Theological Seminary, outside Philadelphia, reached onto the bottom shelf of a basement cabinet and pulled out a lost manuscript by Beethoven. It was a draft of an arrangement for piano, four hands, of the composer’s “Grosse Fuge,” or “Great Fugue” (or, as the cover inexplicably said, “Grande Tugue”). Once the property of a nineteenth-century industrialist-composer, it had disappeared, “Citizen Kane”-style, into the clutter of his belongings, some of which the seminary inherited. The manuscript was handed over to Sotheby’s, which sold it in December to an unnamed buyer for $1.95 million. Shortly before the sale, the manuscript was put on display. With some misgivings, I went to Sotheby’s to have a look.

Click here for remainder of article.

image_description=Ludwig van Beethoven

Posted by Gary at 10:02 PM

Mozart 250 — Barbican/St Giles Cripplegate, London

bell_emma.jpgErica Jeal [The Guardian, 30 January 2006]

Where were Britain's great Mozartians on the composer's 250th birthday? That's right: Salzburg. Or Vienna, or Berlin - anywhere, in fact, but on a London concert platform. On any other day, the four concerts that made up the BBC's Mozart 250 - starting at lunchtime and continuing late into the evening - would have seemed like solid if unadventurous programming. But this was a celebration and, with the big hitters noticeable by their absence, it was critically low on glamour.

Posted by Gary at 9:55 PM

Pros Show the Neophytes How to Stroke an Audience

cabell_nicole_small.jpgBy ANNE MIDGETTE [NY Times, 30 January 2006]

The standing ovation began before the concert did. When Marilyn Horne walked onto the stage on Friday night, the audience at Zankel Hall rose to its feet and stayed there, applauding.

"I suppose you've all heard by now," Ms. Horne said, as soon as she could be heard, and paused for effect. "Nathan Lane has laryngitis."

Posted by Gary at 9:47 PM

January 29, 2006


The joint work was to be premiered in Paris in February 1891; however, for unknown reasons, the performance was cancelled.1 The result was two separate works with the same title, each expressing the same imagery without the limitations and constraints of the other medium. That is, the music was somehow liberated from the text and vice versa. However, the separation of the music from the text was not absolute. In fact, the use of the flute to represent the faun comes directly from the line in Mallarmé’s poem, “a single line of sound, aloof, disinterested.”2 In this recording, flutist Emmanuel Pahud depicts Debussy’s faun with lyrical gentility for a delightful effect. The balance of the winds and brass is quite impressive, demonstrating Simon Rattle’s delicate and thoughtful interpretation of this musical poem that is most accurately characterized by its tender moments.

Debussy’s La mer expresses the composer’s romantic fascination with the ocean. In a letter Debussy wrote to his friend, André Messager, Debussy confessed his childhood dreams of becoming a sailor and his utter adoration of the sea. When studying the score, it is evident that Debussy eagerly wanted to capture the organic and rhythmical flow of the ocean in his music. For this reason, Debussy went through the painstaking effort of providing precise instructions for tempo modifications throughout the work. For example, Debussy would instruct performers to ritard for four measures and/or very gradually accelerando in sections that did not necessarily constitute a phrase, but rather a wave-like contour. If well-executed, the resulting performance should closely mimic the flow of oceans waves. Simon Rattle deserves a standing ovation for this brilliant performance that pays the utmost respect to the composer and demonstrates an intimate understanding of nature.

Among the most difficult feats to accomplish in La mer are the long legato lines that must blend in with their surroundings. In other words, given that the ocean never starts or stops abruptly, neither can the music. Certainly, this recording demonstrates the orchestra’s unquestioned ability to sustain a musical idea for an inordinate amount of time. In one particular section, the cellos take over the melody in a four-part divisi to form a rich texture of fleeting motivic passages. The seamlessness from one motif to another further emphasizes the remarkable ability of the players to follow the natural current of this musical odyssey.

In contrast to the fluid presentation of La mer, Debussy’s La Boîte à joujoux can be described by its sudden changes in character, as well as by the juxtaposition of a number of musical fragments and gestures. Rather than depicting nature, La Boîte à joujoux has a more rambunctious story to tell, inspired by his own daughter’s playful antics. The role of the piano is essential to establishing a youthful element in this work, particularly in the mischievous “1er Tableau: Le Magasin de jouets.” Pianist Majella Stockhausen-Riegelbauer delivers an enjoyably capricious performance that simply radiates with liveliness - the orchestra certainly echoes her spirit. The best way to describe this piece, particularly in this performance, is simply to say that it is “fun and carefree.” The placing of this piece immediately after La mer was also a commendable decision since it showcases Debussy’s and the orchestra’s diverse talents.

The final work of the recording is an orchestration by Colin Matthews of three of Debussy’s Preludes. There are many examples of famous orchestrations of piano works, most notably, Ravel’s orchestration of Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Quite often, the orchestral version is preferred by audiences for its grandiose presentation. However, there are many works that do not naturally lend themselves to orchestration. When listening to recordings of the preludes performed on piano, it is difficult to imagine an orchestral manifestation of such pianistic pieces. The result of Colin Matthew’s treatment of Debussy’s Preludes is a pleasant and unexpected surprise.

The orchestration of the three preludes is quite remarkable, generating some powerful moments through a seemingly perfect choice of instruments. Still, it is worth mentioning that it was sometimes difficult to recognize the original work for piano. Somehow, the relationship between the orchestration and the preludes for solo piano is obscured by the dramatic elements from a wide-range of timbres. In many ways, it is easier to hear the voice of the orchestrator in these pieces than that of Debussy. While still captivating, perhaps even more so in this dramatic setting, the images conveyed are unlike those of the original work. After attempts to compare the two works, the inescapable conclusion is that there is no comparison. Each version is simply a pleasure to listen to in its own way.

Nathalie Hristov
University of Tennessee

1 Barbara L. Kelly, “Debussy’s Parisian Affiliations,” in The Cambridge Companion to Debussy, ed. Simon Trezise (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 33-4.

2 Ibid., 34.

image_description=Claude Debussy: La Mer; Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune; La Boîte à joujoux

product_title=Claude Debussy: La Mer; Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune; La Boîte à joujoux
product_by=Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle (cond.)
product_id=EMI 7243 5 58045 2 5 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 9:44 PM

PETITGIRARD: The Elephant Man

This person would have a great love for the art form, a grasp for how to mate modern orchestral textures to an evocative lyricism, and, last but not least, an innate understanding of how music can convey truths about human experience, especially when tied to a tightly conceived narrative. Do we have such a composer on the scene today?

November 2002 saw the premiere of a new opera by composer Laurent Petitgirard, his first effort in the genre, and Marco Polo has released a DVD of a live performance held at the Nice Opera house. The Elephant Man portrays the life of Joseph Merrick, a man suffering from a horribly disfiguring disease. His story is familiar both from a successful stage drama of the 1980s and David Lynch’s esteemed film, with John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins. Petitgirard composed a score for a libretto by Eric Nonn.

Nothing really new is brought to the scenario. The first of four acts focuses on Merrick’s life as a carnival freak. Then a Dr. Treves takes him to his clinic, where a beautiful nurse offers her sympathy. In the second half, Merrick begins to chafe under the observations Dr. Treves puts him through, and then in the fourth act, realizing he will never be less than a freak to the world (and with his disease progressing), he dies.

As compared to the film, the portrayal of the carnival owner (called Tom Norman, sung with charismatic sleaze by tenor Robert Breault) suggests a real affection for Merrick. And Dr. Treves comes across as less sympathetic than the conscientious physician Hopkins portrayed. The basic trajectory and mood of the story, however, remains essentially unchanged.

This is problematic for an opera, for Merrick never really interacts with the other characters, so that dramatic tension never develops. When Merrick ends act two in despair with cries of “Pity me,” the opera verges dangerously near becoming just a high-toned equivalent of the freak show portrayed in act one.

However, Petitgirard reveals himself to be a potentially fine opera composer. His mostly tonal score doesn’t sound like a regressive adaptation of older techniques, and yet it doesn’t belabor the monotonous clichés of so much contemporary music. Petitgirard has a particular skill for writing dramatic, musical recitative passages, even though some of those scenes (such as the act three confrontation between Treves and a hospital overseer named Carr-Gomm) go on too long. A composer as dramatically acute as Puccini would have asked for such scenes to be trimmed.

The many choral set pieces also have a searing power, and a final statement of a theme associated with Merrick, played by solo violin onstage as Merrick dies, may be one of the best tunes any new opera has had in quite a while.

So while the opera cannot exactly be called a success in itself, as a platform for introducing a composer of great potential, it has much of interest.

The singers all give committed performances. Jana Sykorova, in a latex suit, brings a warm contralto to Merrick’s soulful declarations of pain and longing. As the golden-haired nurse Mary (in an improbable white nurse’s uniform, slit up to the waist on one side!), Valérie Condoluci sings as attractively as she looks. Nicolas Rivenq as Treves doesn’t seem to have a very large voice, but he succeeds in putting across the conflicted concern of the character.

In a small role as a coloratura diva, Magali Leger spins out some incredibly high-lying lines with amazing ease. This doesn’t add much to Merrick’s story, but does help to break up the suffocating mood of the later acts.

The production has clever touches, but also some misfires. At Treves’ clinic a free-moving platform holds Merrick’s “room,” with the tiniest bed – hardly larger than a chair – imaginable, which looks ridiculous, especially every time Merrick approaches it as if he would like to lie down on it, a quite impossible task. At a later point Treves appears from under the stage in a sort of prompter’s box. What that is about, your reviewer cannot begin to say. And at the end, a double of Merrick appears during the death scene. Confusing at first, this gambit actually became quite effective when it allowed Merrick to die at one end of the stage while still interacting with his fears and hopes as he passed away at the other end.

Petitgirard conducts his own score, so a more caring and knowledgeable performance would be hard to come by. If the opera finds its way into other houses, hearing other conductor’s take on the music could make for a rewarding experience, despite the opera’s unsatisfactory dramaturgy.

At a little over 2 hours, 45 minutes (on one disc), The Elephant Man on DVD makes for an intense, if claustrophobic experience. If Petitgirard can find another libretto that inspires him, perhaps besides lavishing his musical talent on it, he will also evaluate it for dramatic weaknesses and pester his librettist as Puccini and Verdi tormented theirs. That second opera might confirm that Petitgirard truly has the gift of opera composition.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

image_description=Laurent Petitgirard: The Elephant Man

product_title=Laurent Petitgirard: The Elephant Man
product_by=Jana Sykorova, Nicolas Rivenq, Robert Breault, Valérie Condoluci, Elsa Maurus, Nicolas Courjal, Magali Léger, Mari Laurila-Lili, Nice Opera Chorus, Nice Philharmonic Orchestra, Laurent Petitgirard (cond.)
product_id=Marco Polo 2.220001 [DVD]

Posted by Gary at 9:14 PM

Rattle Conducts Mozart With a German Touch

Kozena_small2.jpgBy RONALD BLUM [Associated Press, 28 January 2006]

NEW YORK (AP) -- While the Vienna Philharmonic led the celebration in Austria, the Berlin Philharmonic came all the way to New York for its tribute to Mozart's 250th birthday

Posted by Gary at 8:56 AM

Party Rolls on for Die-Hard Mozart Fans

By WILLIAM J. KOLE [Associated Press, 28 January 2006]

VIENNA, Austria (AP) -- When it comes to parties, apparently there is no such thing as a hangover for die-hard Mozart fans.

After all-night celebrations of the 250th anniversary of his birth, Mozart enthusiasts lined up in frigid temperatures on Saturday for a chance to explore the newly renovated downtown Vienna house where the composer wrote "The Marriage of Figaro," one of his most beloved operas.

Posted by Gary at 8:49 AM

A Nose Job Only Roxanne Could Love

By KATHRYN SHATTUCK [NY Times, 29 January 2006]

They agreed on one thing: not just any nose would do.

What they - Francesca Zambello, the director of Franco Alfano's "Cyrano de Bergerac," now at the Met; Victor Callegari, head of the Met's makeup department; Anita Yavitch, the production's costume designer; and especially Plácido Domingo, its star - didn't want was the nose José Ferrer made famous in the 1950 film "Cyrano de Bergerac." That schnoz resembled a bratwurst jutting from his face. Or the proboscis Steve Martin wore in the 1987 film "Roxanne," its trajectory like a five-mile run on a bunny slope. Or the Academy Award-nominated honker Gérard Depardieu wore in the 1990 French adaptation, though frankly that wasn't much of a stretch.

Posted by Gary at 8:31 AM

January 28, 2006

In Salzburg, a Warm Birthday Party on a Cold Night

Mozart_Portrait_100.jpgBy JAMES R. OESTREICH [NY Times, 28 January 2006]

SALZBURG, Austria, Jan. 27 — You couldn't say that the intermission upstaged the concert, exactly. Not this concert, with Riccardo Muti conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and a handful of worthy soloists at the Festspielhaus to celebrate Mozart's 250th birthday, on Friday evening.

Posted by Gary at 9:48 AM

January 27, 2006

Archived Met Broadcasts on BBC Radio 3

If you missed last week's installment of the Met Radio Broadcasts, not to worry. BBC Radio 3 archives the broadcasts for a period of 7 days. Click here and then click "Play."

Posted by Gary at 1:36 PM

ROSSINI: Il Turco in Italia

Many of these operas have been recorded live. This latest set, Il Turco in Italia, comes from October 2003, and though the back cover of the CD identifies the recording location as the Teatro Marrucino, no audience is heard. However, the aural perspective suggests a live recording, not a studio affair with its more pristine balance.

An understandable misconception places Il Turco as a companion piece, even sequel, to the more popular L’Italiana in Algieri. In truth, the libretto for Turco predates Rossini’s L’Italiana, and the operas share no characters. Turco’s wild, almost modern plot device centers on a poet watching the interactions of the natives of Naples with a Turkish prince, and gathering material for his next play. The romantic complications verge on the chaotic; unsurprisingly, all are resolved for an extended ensemble finale.

Turco may lack an aria or two of a melodic distinction that would make the opera a more frequently performed part of the repertory, but that is not to say that the score is lesser Rossini. It bubbles and percolates with wit, and it has delightfully odd set pieces for variety, such as the act one choral number, “Voga, voga, a terra, a terra.” That piece even features a string accompaniment that resembles the opening of Smetana’s wandering Moldau.

Naxos has a energetic, skillful crew of musicians and singers for its recording. The Teatro Marrucino forces, led by Marzio Conti, may sound a bit thin in the overture, but as support for the singers, they embody all the fun of the score.

Natale de Carolis gets top billing, as Selim, the Turkish prince. His biographical note in the booklet suggests he had a burgeoning career in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, including a Mozart Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera. His voice retains a charismatic quality, while also showing evidence of wear. Myrto Papatanasiu, whose career began more recently, sings the soprano role of Donna Fiorilla. She doesn’t overplay Fiorilla’s shrewishness, but the opera being a comedy, a touch more color wouldn’t be out of place. Other than that, she uses her appealing voice to fine effect.

In other roles, Amadeo Moretti’s sharp-edged and high-lying tenor makes a good impression singing as Don Narciso (what a tenor character name!), and baritone Massimiliano Gagliardo brings a solid technique to the role of Fiorella’s put-upon spouse.

The booklet has a very brief note on the opera and then a track by track synopsis, along with artists’ notes, all offered only in English. The booklet offers a weblink for an Italian libretto. How much help that will be to non-Italian speaking listeners is questionable.

The Turco recording catalog is not extensive. The Callas recording does not seem to be available at the moment; her admirers will surely be undeterred by that inconvenience. However, the 1998 Decca recording, winner of a Gramophone award, can still be found. Still at full price, the set boasts the leadership of Ricardo Chailly and Cecilia Bartoli’s Fiorella. Miss Bartoli also appears in a recent DVD from Zurich, and she starred in a Covent Garden production last season that earned rave notices.

So perhaps Il Turco in Italia is on the comeback trail. For those who prefer to save a few dollars but who would like to know the opera better, this Naxos set has fortuitously appeared.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

image_description=Gioachino Rossini: Il Turco in Italia

product_title=Gioachino Rossini: Il Turco in Italia
product_by=Natale De Carolis, Myrto Papatanasiu, Amedeo Moretti, Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Marrucino di Chieti, Marzio Conti (cond.).
product_id=Naxos 8.660183-84 [2CDs]

Posted by Gary at 9:21 AM

World Honors Mozart on 250th Birthday

Mozart_birthday_small.jpg(AP Photo/Harri Mannsberger)
SALZBURG, Austria, Jan. 27, 2006(AP) It's a birthday bash being heard around the world. The cobblestoned and turreted city of Mozart's birth was the focal point for Friday's 250th anniversary celebrations _ but the sound of the master's music was being heard around the globe.

Orchestras halls and opera houses worldwide planned performances of his works. Piano students scheduled Mozart marathons and puppeteers were planning jubilee performances as hundreds of cities across five continents toasted the musical genius.

Posted by Gary at 9:01 AM

Composer, and opera, are a mixed bag

ainadamar.jpgBY RUSSELL PLATT [Newsday, 25 January 2006]

To his many fans, Osvaldo Golijov, the 45-year-old Argentine-Israeli-American composer, is a Schoenberg for the new millennium: at once a conservative carrier of tradition and a radical reformer who invented a new type of composition. He is also a man who enjoys entertaining an audience, as his one-act opera "Ainadamar" ("Fountain of Tears"), which began its three-performance run at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Theater on Sunday afternoon, proved once more.

Posted by Gary at 8:51 AM

January 26, 2006

A Master With a Mission, Despite Her Personal Trials

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 27 January 2006]

"I'm making you sing a little louder than you're used to, right?" the legendary mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne asked, seeming very sympathetic. She was speaking to Kathryn Leemhuis, one of six young singers in her master class at Zankel Hall on Tuesday night. "Well," Ms. Horne continued with good-natured bluntness, "you should get used to it, honey. There is the small time, the medium time and the big time. This is the big time. 'Sing out, Louise!' "

Posted by Gary at 9:26 PM

KÁLMÁN: Lieder

Moreover it is no coincidence that the cpo label produced this CD as the firm has recently released a string of rare operetta recordings by Kálmán and that other Hungarian genius, Ferenc Lehár, which prove that a lot of lesser-known operettas are musically on the same level as acknowledged masterpieces yet are discarded solely and only for their silly libretti. It is by now well-known that Kálmán, like Lehár and that other genius, Leo Fall, first and foremost wanted a career as a composer of “serious” music. Co-students of Kálmán’s teacher were Bartók and Kodály. Kálmán at first had some artistic successes, which of course didn’t make him rich and he didn’t much believe in the inspired artist living in destitution in an ice cold attic (During his stay in banishment in the US in the forties he earned a lot of fees by conducting his own works, though that was peanuts compared to the amounts of money he made on the stock exchange). Between 1902 and 1906 he composed, among other things, 20 art songs on Hungarian texts. In 1907 these songs were even published as a cycle called Dalai, for which he received the Emperor Franz Joseph Prize from the city of Budapest. At the time he had almost finished his first big operetta success, Tatarjaras, which would later make the rounds of the world in the German version as Ein Herbstmanöver—it presently exists in recording only as Autumn Manoeuvres by the Ohio Light Opera company). The songs were first forgotten and then thought to be lost forever. Enter Stefan Frey, a German author who specializes in exemplary biographies of operetta composers (his Kálmán and Lehár biographies are a must for every operetta lover…..if they can read German). During his research for “Unter Tränen lachen — Emmerich Kálmán” he discovered a set of the Dalai cycle in the Budapest State library, where they had gone unnoticed for a century.

Note that in reality Dalai is not a real cycle with a continuing story like Die Winterreise. In fact it is just a collection of twenty songs. Most of them are on rather gloomy texts about fatherlessness, loneliness and dark nights. Then there are some songs he later used for his first singspiel, though there too is nothing that hints at the prodigious charm and joy of Countess Mariza or The Gipsy Princess. They are somewhat folk-style songs reminding me a bit of Stephen Foster, though without the American’s melodic inspiration. There is nothing laboured in the Brahms or Hugo Wolf way. With the last songs Kálmán clearly reveals he is thinking of operetta. The sad melancholy makes way for vivaciousness like in “Örök mamor” (track 3) or “Kurucok tabori” (track 18), which is officially the camp song of a crusader but is the nearest the composer reaches out towards Count Boni’s “Ganz ohne Weiber geht die Chose nicht” in Gipsy Princess. So these songs are always pleasant to listen to and, though the CD contains full texts with German and English translations, no deeper insights are conquered reading them while listening to the music.

There is a bonus of four pretty piano pieces à la Schumann, a composer Kálmán admired . One can easily imagine a young fine lady of good bourgeois stock playing them in front of a few admirers. All in all, I hesitate to admit it but the CD grows on you with repeated hearing while reading or typing. The two singers are not exactly world stars but serious dedicated artists. Baritone Istvan Kovacs (born 1972) has a warm and supple voice well schooled in Lieder and with some Don Giovanni’s behind the belt. Soprano Anna Korondi is one of those versatile singers (Lieder, World Premières of soon to be forgotten operas and some smaller roles in Richard Strauss and Wagner) who never turn into a big name but have a full workload. She has a nice, though somewhat undistinguished, lyric soprano that from time to time turns a little bit sour.

Jan Neckers

image_description=Emmerich Kálmán: Lieder

product_title=Emmerich Kálmán: Lieder
product_by=Anna Korondi (soprano); Istvan Kovacs (baritone); Peter Stamm (piano)
Recorded Kleiner Sendesaal March 18th – 23th 2004
product_id=cpo 777 059-2 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 9:02 PM


The opera was given its premiere in Dresden on 29 May 1901, and a measure of its success resides in the fact that it was given its New York premiere just a year later in 1902. Fully in line with the nationalism that Paderewski promoted, the libretto by Alfreda Nossig is based on Jósefa Ignacego Kraszewski’s 1843 novel Chaty za wsią (“The Cabin behind the Woods”). While this work is regarded as the first Polish music drama, the somewhat eclectic style that Paderewski used in this work is more than a slavish imitation of Wagnerian opera. The story itself resembles some of the narratives that attracted Verismo composers working at the same time as Paderewski. The plot concerns the ill-fated attraction between Polish woman Ulana and the gypsy Manru, which draws on some stereotypes to make its point about the clash of cultures. While the opera fell out of the repertoire, it is still considered to be Paderewski’s masterpiece, and this recording makes the work available again after years of being otherwise inaccessible.

As to the dramatic content of the opera, Paderewski used the first act to introduce the characters in the village, particularly Hedwig and her daughter Ulana, who has run off with Manru. Hedwig will have nothing to do with her daughter because of her association with a gypsy. Driven out of her family’s home, Ulana confides in Urok, a dwarf with a reputation as a sorcerer. While Urok longs for Ulana, he represses his desire for her when she asks him for a potion that will bind Manru to her. At that point the village girls encounter Ulana and try to tell her how faithless gypsy lovers can be, just as Manru returns to the village. Hedwig wants her daughter free of them, but when Ulana will not leave Manru, the mother treats the couple as pariahs as the act ends.

In the second act, Manru has left the gypsies to try to live in the village with Ulana, with whom he has a child. Despite his efforts, he is unhappy and Ulana fears Manru no longer loves her. Upon encountering Urok, Manru disdains the dwarf, who foresees something tragic for the couple. Suddenly violin music occurs in the distance, and upon hearing it Ulana realizes that Manru has run off to meet the gypsy tribe. Manru returns with the gypsy fiddler Jagu, who is responsible for the enticing music. Jagu tries to persuade Manru to leave Ulana, since a gypsy woman, Asa, still pines for Manru. Yet when Ulana asks about the conversation with Jagu, Manru claims that the fiddler is just a wandered and nothing more. Later, when Ulana is alone with Manru, she gives him Urok’s potion to restore Manru to her, and the magic seems to work on the gypsy, Manru declares his passion for Ulana as the conclusion of the act.

At the opening of the final act, Manru finds himself wandering in the forest, and wonders what kind of magic he encountered. The gypsies stumble on Manru, and Asa recognizes her former lover. Oros, the leader of the tribe wants to leave Manru, since he had abandoned them to live in the village. Asa tries to persuade Manru to join them, but Oros argues further with the woman until the fiddler Jagu intervenes. Seeing how Oros behaved in this situation, the tribe no longer want him as their leader and suggest that Manru take charge of the tribe, and as Manru hears Jagu’s fiddling, he decides to join them after all. In the final scene, Ulana realizes that she has lost Manru forever, and she drowns herself. Upon seeing this, Urok is enraged, and he exacts his revenge on the gypsy by throwing Manru into a chasm. The opera ends with Urok’s cries for Ulana and to God as he gets achieves his vengeance.

In setting this libretto, Paderewski adhered to the conventions of the late nineteenth century, with harmonies that reflect the influence of Wagner as well as the German composer’s approach to orchestration. The introduction to the third act is a telling point, in which various motifs may be seen to coalesce prior to the scene between Manru and the gypsies. It resembles in some ways the opening of the final act of Götterdämmerung, with its interplay between the solo tenor and the other male voices, which punctuated at times augmented chords and, at times, some brief dissonances in the orchestra. As to the melodic content, Paderewski’s approach resembles at times that of Smetana and Dvořák, whose opera Rusalka dates from the same time. Declamatory passages occur, with the kind of recitative associated with Italian opera virtually absent from the score. Rather, telling passages of dialogue that require attention to the text are rendered with relatively simple melodic lines with repeated tones to carry the text.

Some of the more expressive lines are given to the character of Manru, whose prominent role is evident Paderewski’s naming the opera after him. Manru’s part contains a number of poignant lines, especially in the touching scene between Ulana and him at the opening of the second act. While Ulana’s role had been more declamatory in the first act, her character is necessarily more reflective in the second act, where she and Manru are essentially living outside their respective communities and wonder if they have become estranged from each other. This scene is at the core of the work and sets up the emotional pitch that brings the opera to its tragic climax.

Suggestions of folk melodies and local color are part of Paderewski’s idiom, but nowhere does he lapse into formulaic numbers. This is an earnest work that draws effectively on folk elements in the larger context of a serious Polish opera. The sense of drama implicit in the text is underscored in the scoring that helps to suggest the emotional pitch of the action. At the same time Paderewski uses the orchestra deftly to underscore the text and suggest the action. The march of the gypsies later in the third act is redolent of orchestral colors without resorting to cliché, and the dramatic scoring in the final scene reinforces the action without overtaking it.

While Paderewski bowed to some nineteenth-century conventions in this work, with set pieces like the march of the gypsies, or the various male or female choruses that represent the peer groups of the protagonists, his extended scenes allow individual elements to work together well, an aspect of the score that is apparent in such a solid performance. Moreover, some aspects of the score point to developments of the time associated with Verismo, which is especially apparent in the final scene, with its highly evocative orchestral line.

For those interested in nineteenth-century opera, Paderewski’s Manru embodies various tendencies in an effective and masterful work. It is a powerful work that can be heard in this recent recording, which is performed convincingly by a cast who evidently know the music well. Taras Ivaniv is engaging in the demanding title role, with a focused sound that helps to deliver the text well. Likewise, the soprano Ewa Czermak brings a fresh, clear sound to the character of Ulana, which has its demands in the highly dramatic moments accorded her. Above all, the conductor Ewa Michnik creates a fine balance between the vocal and instrumental forces, while also establishing tempos that reinforce the emotions suggested in the text.

Sung in Polish, the performance is also convincing because of its rendering of the language clearly, particularly with the speech rhythms and idiomatic accents. For those unfamiliar with Polish, the detailed synopsis of each act is keyed to the tracks for each of the two CDs in the set, thus making it easy to follow the work. It would have been useful for the recording to include not just the entire libretto in Polish, but also a translation into German or English. While it is possible to appreciate the opera as presented in this recording, such a masterpiece of Polish musical culture deserves to be highlighted so that those familiar with other traditions can apprehend Paderewski’s accomplishments in this score. Poised between the operas of Moniusko and Szymanowski, Manru represents the strength of Polish music at the end of the nineteenth century, the very time when the generation of composers associated with the “Young Poland” movement was calling attention to national culture. At the same time, this recording makes available some of the finest music of Paderewski, who made a wonderful contribution to Polish culture with such an effective opera as Manru.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

image_description=Ignacy Jan Paderewski: Manru

product_title= Ignacy Jan Paderewski: Manru
product_by=Taras Ivaniv, Ewa Czermak, Barbara Krahel, Agnieszka Rehlis, Radosław Żukowski, Maciej Krzysztyniak, Zbigniew Kryczka, Stanisław Czermak (violin solo), Chór i Orkiestra Opery Dolnośląskiej, Ewa Michnik (cond.).
product_id=Dux 0368/0369 [2CDs]

Posted by Gary at 7:40 PM

La Monnaie's Foccroulle Updates Image, Dreams of Almodovar

Bernard_Foccroulle_small.jpgBy Anna Jenkinson [Bloomberg, 26 January 2006]

Jan. 26 (Bloomberg) -- How can opera project a more up-to- date image? It's a question Bernard Foccroulle ponders often as director of the Brussels opera house La Monnaie/De Munt and the new chairman of the Opera Europa network, an organization that fosters cooperation between opera houses.

Posted by Gary at 7:28 PM

SALLINEN: Barabbas Dialogues

Sallinen is one of Finland’s best-known and most prolific composers today, having been awarded the title Professor of the Arts for Life by the Finnish government in 1981. His prolificity, while attributable in part to this unique honor, which allows him to dedicate all his time to composing, seems to stem also from his firm belief in the power of music to uplift humanity. The same strength of conviction in art’s potential for good is also a theme in the career of poet Lassi Nummi, Sallinen’s countryman and collaborator in the writing of the texts for Sallinen’s opus 84, The Barabbas Dialogues.

The Barabbas Dialogues, composed in 2002 and 2003, was commissioned by the Naantali Music Festival of Finland. It is a mixed-genre work—even Sallinen declines to choose between the labels “song cycle, a chamber oratorio, a cantata, a piece of musical theatre, and or something else” (from the composer’s note on the piece). The performing forces consist of six characters and seven players. The characters include Barabbas (baritone), The Woman (mezzo-soprano), Judas (bass-baritone), The Maiden (soprano), The Youth (tenor), and the Narrator’s part, which is also labeled as “One of the Twelve” (a spoken part for narrator). The instrumental ensemble consists of accordion, violin, violoncello, flute, clarinet, percussion, and piano. In this recording, pianist Ralf Gothoni is also the pianist. The fifty-minute work consists of seven movements—each titled “Dialog.” All the movements are indeed dialogues between two characters, except the fourth and seventh movement, which include four and seven characters, respectively.

The Barabbas Dialogues are based on the Biblical character of Jesus Barabbas, who is, according to tradition, the murderer and insurrectionist freed by Pontius Pilate on Passover Eve at the request of the crowd rather than Jesus Christ. As Sallinen himself points out in the notes to the recording, not much is known about who Barabbas was—his story is described in the Bible only briefly. Scholars have suggested many possibilities regarding the nature of the Barabbas story. Barabbas, which is a conflation of the Hebrew “bar Abbas,” meaning “son of the father,” may have been Jesus Christ’s alter-ego; perhaps the story is parable only, and the events described did not actually ever occur; perhaps Jesus Barabbas and Jesus Christ are the same man, and the tale of two separate men is the result of faulty translation. As it is traditionally interpreted by Christian religions, the Barabbas story represents a nadir in human compassion and morality. “The crowd” as portrayed in the Book of Mark is bloodthirsty and raucous; they choose to free a common criminal rather than the son of God himself. This story is considered by some scholars to be the root of the anti-Semitic myth that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, even though it was the Roman government that ordered and executed the Crucifixion.
While Sallinen and Nummi seem to accept at face value the incidents surrounding Barabbas in the Bible, their text transforms the tale into an optimistic meditation on the human capacity for love. Sallinen and Nummi chose to include another historically maligned character, as well: Judas is represented in the Dialogues, though, like their treatment of Barabbas, they do not portray Judas as he traditionally appears. The words that Sallinen and Nummi’s Judas sings come from the Book of Job, making Judas seem fragile and burdened, rather than traitorous and cunning.

Much of Nummi’s contribution to the libretto consists of excerpts from his long poem Breathing in the Night (1995). The libretto also contains portions of the newest Finnish language translation of the Bible, a project in which Lassi was deeply involved, as well as portions of text by Sallinen himself. Sallinen was also responsible for editing Nummi’s poem in order to make it work as a dialogue between Barabbas and The Woman. The Maiden and the Youth sing beautiful and moving excerpts about their love for one another from the Book of Solomon.

Not only do the selection and juxtaposition of the texts speak to the optimism of Sallinen’s vision, so does his music, which is lyrical and flowing. Sallinen’s vocal composition is designed to showcase the lyrical human voice in all its beauty and dignity. Sallinen achieves balance between the characters in the dialogue, and the music keeps the listener riveted—even if one doesn’t understand the Finnish language. Sallinen informs his listener in the liner notes that the small ensemble and delicate scoring is his reaction to “the overpowering noise of our time.” Indeed, the experience of listening to this music offers a refuge to the listener, but it is not “easy listening” because by its nature The Barabbas Dialogues requires contemplation and concentration. Because of the nature of the text the listener will be drawn to contemplating the nature of the relationships of the characters and by extension, the nature of the human capacity for love, among other questions.

While the names of the performers may not all be familiar to U.S. listeners, these young Finnish musicians’ talent and commitment to the sound of the ensemble is audible in every movement of this fine recording. I thought that Mika Väyrynen’s accordion playing was exceptionally sensitive.

One thing I missed was a clue as to how this work might have been staged. As with so many musical theatre and semi-staged works from early in the twentieth century, including Erwartung and Pierrot Lunaire, the visual elements of The Barabbas Dialogues are nearly completely neglected. Although the enclosed booklet contained a composer’s note and the libretto—both presented in Finnish, German, and English—there were no pictures of the performers, nor any mention about how Sallinen might have wished The Barabbas Dialogues to be performed live. I would have liked to see the costumes as Sallinen envisioned them, or at least haves been able to read how the set might look. In the end, though, it is better to have this piece on CD, even if it is not a complete realization, than to not have it available at all.

Megan Jenkins
The Graduate Center – CUNY

image_description=Aulis Sallinen: Barabbas Dialogues op. 84

product_title=Aulis Sallinen: Barabbas Dialogues op. 84
product_by=Salomaa, Rantanen, Kotilainen, Palo, Lehtipuu, Holmberg, Väyrynen, Vähälä,Noras, Mansnerus, Lethiec, Mäenpää, Gothoni
product_id=cpo 777077-2 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 4:39 PM

Music for the End of Time

messiaen_biography.jpgDavid Schiff [The Nation, 25 January 2006]

As composer, organist, teacher and theorist, Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) was the most influential European musician of the second half of the twentieth century--and yet he was in many ways far removed from his time and place. His religious beliefs were those of a pious medieval Catholic; his musical style ignored just about everything that had happened in European music between the troubadours and Wagner.

Posted by Gary at 4:28 PM

Mozart Rules From Salzburg to Santiago

By GEORGE JAHN [The Associated Press, 26 January 2006]

SALZBURG, Austria -- This cobblestoned and turreted city of his birth is pulling out all the stops to celebrate Mozart's 250th birthday Friday. But not only Austria is seized with Mozart madness.

Posted by Gary at 4:23 PM

Watching the Master Emerge, Circa 2006

gardener_small.jpgSalzburg Journal

By JAMES R. OESTREICH [NY Times, 26 January 2006]

To say that Mozart’s opera “La Finta Giardiniera” (“The Fake Gardener,” 1775) is remarkable as a work of an 18-year-old grossly understates the case. The makings of the mature master begin to emerge here in abundance.

Posted by Gary at 4:16 PM

January 25, 2006

Fleming's Sudden Departure Raises Questions

By JAMES R. OESTREICH [NY Times, 25 January 2006]

The first real news at the Mozart Week came on Tuesday, with the departure of the American soprano Renée Fleming. Ms. Fleming, who had been scheduled to join another American, the baritone Thomas Hampson, in the centerpiece concert with Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic on Friday evening, withdrew under circumstances that remain mysterious.

Posted by Gary at 9:29 PM

BRITTEN: Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings etc.

For once, Simon Rattle’s face doesn’t dominate the cover art, nor does his name. Happily, the composer gets the largest font size, but right above his name comes that of the recording's star, Ian Bostridge, and his thin frame fills half the cover (not easy for a slender gentleman to do), photographed in the classic “pensive stare into the future” pose.

Bostridge joins a fairly extensive list of tenors – mostly British – who have recorded some or all of these pieces. The composer’s versions with his partner Peter Pears will never be eclipsed, but so great are these works than almost any version will have its merits. Not long ago Naxos re-released the Collins Classic recording with Philip Langridge singing the Serenade and Nocturne (reviewed here on Opera Today). So the most recent choice becomes one between a budget priced recording and this full-price release (the Naxos has Ann Murray singing Phaedra in place of Les Illuminations).

Your reviewer recommends acquiring both, if feasible. The Langridge/Bedford is warmly recorded and impeccably performed, all offered at low cost. This Bostridge/Rattle version, unsurprisingly, features state-of-the-art audio, and the special qualities of both vocalist and conductor are on ample display. Although some may take that as a warning.

As composed for Pears, these pieces do not require an ample voice, and Bostridge does not possess one. His lighter, sharply defined tenor settles right into the emotional ambiguity of the settings, carrying tinges of both irony and real sensitivity, even simultaneously. In “Being Beauteous” from Les Illuminations he manages some characterful low notes along with the resonant head voice many of the numbers ask for. The Serenade “Nocturne,” with its repeated refrain of “dying,” could have a little more individual color to each iteration, but the understated effect Bostridge employs has its justification as well.

Bostridge pulled another duty for the recording: he wrote a quite interesting booklet essay. He has a thorough command of each work’s creation and inspiration, and does not refrain from discussing the implications of Britten’s “attraction to young men or boys” when of possible relevance.

Conductor Rattle has shown in his career, besides a brilliance that has taken him far, an occasional tendency to wander off into details and momentary effects. In the famous shimmering opening chords of the Serenade “Nocturne,” he adopts an aggressive, slashing attack that strikes the ear at first as fresh and vital, but might come to seem arbitrary. The Berlin Philharmonic, needless to say, performs with exquisite precision, and Radek Baborak’s horn in the Serenade has a beauty others have foregone for a more sorrowful tone produced by the fragile intonation of a natural horn.

Those Berlin strings have such body and texture they begin to feel like a living organism, sighing and moaning with Bostridge’s vocal lines. Would it really be wrong to wrap oneself up in the exquisite texture they produce?

So those who have found Bostridge impressive, and the many fans apparently following all of Rattle’s recorded work with the Berlin Philharmonic, will want this disc. Most of all, lovers of these exquisite Britten scores should give a listen to these often arresting performances. The booklet essay and all texts are offered in English, French, and German.

britten_sinfonia.gifMeanwhile, Naxos continues its re-release of Britten’s music first published on Collins Classic. The latest disc features instrumental music from two operas, Gloriana and Peter Grimes. The Sea Interludes certainly do not lack for fine recorded performances, and these have much merit, but the wonderful music from Gloriana deserves wider exposure. The suite here opens with the opera’s opening tournament scene before segueing into the courtly dances, selections that are popular on some classical radio selections. Gloriana may be a problematic opera, but the suite is a delight from start to finish, something not always easy to say about Britten’s music.

The Sinfonia da Requiem returns to the more sober, bare style commonly associated with Britten, and Bedford and the LSO offer a powerful rendition.

Thirty years ago Britten died; these two discs indicate that his music retains its power and drama, and it will as long as artists as committed and serious as Bostridge and Rattle are drawn to it.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

image_description=Britten: Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings; Les illuminations; Nocturne

product_title=Benjamin Britten:
(1) Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings; Les illuminations; Nocturne
(2) Sinfonia da Requiem; Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes; Symphonic Suite from Gloriana
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(2) Naxos 8.557196 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 12:53 PM

Norma in Munich — Two Reviews

Norma, Bavarian State Opera, Munich

By George Loomis [Financial Times, 25 January 2006]

The Bayerische Staatsoper had not done Norma since 1910, and Max-Josef-Platz was awash in Suche Karte (Ticket wanted) signs. The occasion was Edita Gruberova's first staged performance of the title role of Bellini's opera. "She's the first Norma since Caballé," everyone seemed to be saying.

Click here for remainder of article.

Ihre ureigene Norma

Bayerische Staatsoper: Edita Gruberova als Titelheldin von Bellinis Oper [Merkur Online, 22 January 2006]

Dreimal schlägt die Oberpriesterin den Gong, auf dass die Getreuen - alarmiert und hochgespannt zugleich - zusammenströmen. Und nicht viel anderes passierte, als Edita Gruberova vor einigen Jahren eröffnete, sie wolle sich nun aufmachen zur ultimativen Partie. Dabei ist Vincenzo Bellinis "Norma" in der Karriereplanung der Assoluta ein logisches Ziel: Nach dem Wechsel von der lyrischen Koloratur à la Rosina zu den wahnsinnigen Königinnen ist die Rolle nun ein weiterer Schritt ins Dramatische, mit dem man sich zugleich der Interpretationsgeschichte ausliefert. Denn wer die Norma prägt, der wird automatisch legendär.

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image_description=Vincenzo Bellini

Posted by Gary at 9:50 AM

Mozart at Lincoln Center — Three Reviews

Mozart, Secular and Sacred, Following His Own Bliss

By BERNARD HOLLAND [NY Times, 25 January 2006]

Mozart wrote most of his music to make a living. The idea of the disheveled artist in his garret shaking his fist at fate and plotting a glorious posterity was not a workable image in the 1780's. Yet all five pieces presented by John Eliot Gardiner, the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir over two days at Lincoln Center were composed for reasons we don't quite understand, though one is a subject of romantic speculation.

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Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/Gardiner

By Martin Bernheimer [Financial Times, 25 January 2006]

Have we had enough Mozart yet, in the year in which the universe celebrates the 250th anniversary of his birth? Cultural orgies can cloy, even when they honour a genius. It seems only yesterday (it was 1991) when we wallowed in the 200th anniversary of Mozart's death. So one must be grateful for interpretive favours.

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A doubly sentient Mozart with Mass appeal

BY JUSTIN DAVIDSON [Newsday, 25 January 2006]

John Eliot Gardiner conducts Mozart the way autumn brings crystal skies. Sunday was double Mass day at Avery Fisher Hall - first the C-minor and then the Requiem. Sacred landscapes quivered with all the detail of those sharp, glinting days when each leaf fluoresces and shadows etch the outline of every bough.

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image_description=Constanze Mozart

Posted by Gary at 9:09 AM

January 24, 2006

Violeta Urmana — Lieder

Urmana is no whisperer like Schwarzkopf or Dieskau and the results of a discreetly played CD will not convince you. But the moment you are safe at home (with or without headphones), turn up the volume and you will be rewarded. Urmana is a big- voiced opera singer and she makes no secret of the reasons why she gives a lot of lieder recitals. In recent interviews in the German press she emphasised that up to now she had taken care to avoid most madmen who think themselves a director; but, nevertheless, she is fed up with the pretensions of the lesser fools in that profession who think of a singer as just another prop on the scene and don’t even talk with their singers. They just order them around. And she hates the 6- to 8-week rehearsal time, as most directors waste everybody’s time concentrating on a few details. (As I write reviews for magazines and not newspapers, I usually visit the third or fourth performance when singers give in to ill-health once the première is over. I get a more than usual number of “just arrived by plane” replacements and I’ve never noticed any accident or even clumsiness with singers who have rehearsed a new production for one hour instead of 2 months). Ideally Urmana would be a great catch for an operatic concert but these are very rare nowadays in Europe. Orchestra unions are always asking for extra rehearsal and overpay for arias they can play blindfolded and one single pianist is cheaper for the management. Moreover, in the heavily subsidized European houses audience revenue is not very important. General managers favour lieder recitals because lieder are “art” and “operatic arias” are just fun. You could hear the public relax in the Brussels Paleis voor Schone Kunsten (Fleming) or the Ghent Opera (Studer) when the encores appeared and the pianist played the first measures of Adriana Lecouvreur or Rusalka. I think it no coincidence that Richard Strauss is so popular with opera singers giving lieder recitals.

Take “Fruhlingsfeier” (track 14) with its massive ascending cries of “Adonis, Adonis”. Most people, even knowledgeable opera lovers, will immediately believe you if you told them this is an alternative aria from Daphne or Friedenstag or whatever lesser known Strauss opera you care to mention. It is also an aria, pardon a lied, that proves that Urmana is a full-fledged dramatic soprano and not a singer with a mezzo tessitura and good top notes à la Bumbry or Verrett. After all, Urmana studied for several years as a soprano until a teacher convinced her she was a mezzo, as she has a good and warm voiced lower register. But the central part of the voice is indeed that of a soprano; and when I first heard her a few years ago in the Verdi Requiem, Michéle Crider sounded more a mezzo than the Latvian. A song like “Die Georgine” (track 4) is ideal for her as she can show the velvet in the middle register, the rich tone while at the same time she can open up and show the tremendous volume as well. Mind you she is not unsubtle. She can lighten up the voice and use a slender tone like she does in the amusing “Schlechtes Wetter” (Bad weather). She masterfully dominates the leaps in Berg’s Frühen Lieder and she shows her true mettle as a singer with an astonishing messa di voce in his “Traumgekrönt” (track 18). I can understand why some British critics are so severe as, according to them, the rapture of an Urmana concert derives “from the beauty of tone and not from understanding”. Nevertheless, anyone who has suffered and survived a Bostridge recital will cry out for some beauty of tone after such an overwhelming amount of understanding.

My only complaint is with the programme. If nobody wanted to take the plunge and introduce the soprano with an operatic recital, then an all-Strauss one would have been a better substitute. The Liszt lieder are not very inspired—dull is the correct word; and the Berg lieder are an anti-climax after the beauties of Strauss. So when is that operatic recital coming?

Jan Neckers

image_description=Violeta Urmana — Lieder

product_title=Violeta Urmana — Lieder
product_by=Violeta Urmana, mezzo-soprano; Jan Philip Schulze, piano.
product_id=Farao Classics B 108 022 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 4:45 PM

Soprano Vaness to leave the UW

vaness.jpgBy Melinda Bargreen [Seattle Times, 24 January 2006]

It's goodbye — at least for now — for soprano Carol Vaness at the University of Washington, where she joined the music faculty last year.

Posted by Gary at 3:57 PM

Glasgow gets the scale just right

glasgow_cityhalls_small.jpgBy Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 24 January 2006]

The history of Britain's civic culture-palaces these past 30 years is not something UK plc can be proud of. Despite endless tweaking, the Barbican's concert hall in London still looks and sounds like a conference venue. The Wales Millennium Centre was conceived as an opera house but operates like an entertainment emporium. Belfast's Waterfront Hall was built on too grand a scale to serve the needs of the city's orchestra. As for Glasgow's Royal Concert Hall, it has the visual and acoustical aura of a hotel.

Posted by Gary at 3:46 PM

MERCADANTE: La vestale

Fortunately, they kept coming, and in the ensuing years, about a dozen of them have been revived, with the bulk available on LP, CD or both.

Mercadante had been born in Altamura, in the South of Italy in 1895, and was to compose some 58 operas which had their premieres between 1819 and 1865. His earliest operas were generally in the style of Rossini, then the dominant figure in Italian opera. After Rossini left Italy in 1823 to go to Paris, Mercadante slowly changed his style, as did the other composers then active in Italy. In the ensuing years, Mercadante continued composing for Italian theaters, but also traveled to Spain, Portugal, and finally, Paris in 1836. He had generally written operas in the style then prevalent in Italy during the 1820s and most of the 1830s. But, perhaps due to his exposure to French opera when he was in Paris in 1836 for the premiere of I Briganti, he started to change his style, incorporating many of the ideas he picked up in the French capital. These changes in style were particularly noticeable in the five works starting with Il giuramento in 1837 and concluding with La vestale in 1840. Not surprisingly, they are frequently referred to as his “reform operas”. These reforms are described in a letter to Florimo, written about a year after the premiere of Il giuramento at the time of Elena da Feltre:

"I have continued the revolution I began with Il giuramento, forms varied, common cabalettas banished, crescendos out, vocal lines simplified, fewer repeats, more originality in the cadences, proper regard paid to the drama, orchestration rich but not so as to swamp the voices, no long solos in the ensembles--they only force the other parts to stand idle to the detriment of the action-, not much brass drum, and a lot less brass band."

It has been frequently stated that Mercadante abandoned his reforms in his later works, but this is not borne out by the four later operas that we have been privileged to hear. While there are indications that some of these "reforms" (perhaps the least significant) have been dropped, there are just as many indications of further progress. Thus, all four of them (Il reggente, [1843], Orazi e Curiazi [1846], Pelagio (1857), and Virginia [composed 1850, premiered 1866]) have many moments of great beauty and great dramatic impact.

La vestale is also the fourth of these reform operas to be available on commercial CD, following Il Giuramento (1837), Elena da Feltre (1839), and Il Bravo (also 1839). It should only be a matter of time until Le Due illustre rivali (1838) joins them.

La vestale had its premiere in Naples on Mar. 10, 1840, some 8 months before Pacini’s Saffo. It was one of the most successful of Mercadante’s operas, its approximately 150 productions during the 19th century being exceeded only by Mercadante’s Il giuramento. To give some idea of what these numbers mean, I was only able to trace seven 19th century performances of Verdi’s Oberto (1839), even less (3) of Un giorno di regno, and 33 of the original (1857) Simon Boccanegra.

The total of 150 productions racked up by La vestale is really quite amazing, especially when you realize that neither Emilia (the equivalent of Giunia in Spontini’s work), nor Decio (the equivalent of Licinio) has an aria. While there are several arias in the opera, these belong to Giunia (Emilia’s dearest friend in the Mercadante work), Publio (Decio’s loyal friend and supporter) and the high priest, Metellio Pio. An equivalent situation would be if Verdi had written Rigoletto giving arias to Giovanna and Monterone instead of Gilda and Rigoletto. Any attempt to explain this anomaly would have to be pure conjecture. But it would seem that by 1840 both Adelina Spech, the creator of the heroine, and Domenico Reina, the first Decio, were approaching the end of significant careers. Paolo Barroilhet, the creator of Publio, on the other hand, had already achieved, star status. He had previously been the leading baritone in Naples for several seasons. He left that city for Paris in late 1840, and was destined to create many roles in that capital, most importantly Alphonse in La favorite, Sevère in Les martyrs, Camoens in Dom Sebastien, Lusignan in La reine de Chypre and the title role in Charles VI.

Being premiered in 1840, the Mercadante work first appeared some 33 years after Spontini’s opera on the same subject. No two operas could be more different. The Spontini is an “interregnum”opera, and can be viewed as belonging to either the very late classical or very early romantic period.. All of Rossini’s operas intervened, as did all of Bellini’s, almost all of Donizetti’s, quite a few of Mercadante’s and Pacini’s, but only one of Verdi’s (Oberto), although it seems very unlikely that the latter would have had any opportunity to influence Mercadante.* On the other hand, there is every indication that Verdi knew and was influenced by Metellio’s prophecy in La vestale by the time he composed Nabucco.

To return to a comparison of the two Vestales, Spontini ‘s was considered quite revolutionary at the time of its premiere. It was the first really successful new opera at the Academie Imperiale de Musique in years, and is considered by many scholars as the first real French grand opera, although it lacked some characteristics of the genre, including five acts and a full scale ballet. But it did have other typical features of grand opera, including an emphasis on spectacle and a tendency to alternate between crowd and private scenes. It is a considerably longer work than Mercadante’s version–the running time of a typical recording is 145 minutes, while the Mercadante is unusually short for a three act opera: just over 97 minutes. Another major difference between the two versions is that the Spontini has a happy ending to conform with the French taste of the time, while the Mercadante is a “tragedia lirica”, and ends, like Aida, with heroine entombed alive.

The success of Mercadante’s La vestale can probably be best explained by its beautiful music, and the relatively large amount of striking numbers it contains. Perhaps the most salient of these is the high priest’s invective and prophecy: “Versate amare lagrime” in Act II, after he has discovered that the sacred flame has been extinguished. This number shows the strong influence of Brogni’s “Vous qui de Dieu vivant” in La juive, with which Mercadante became familiar while in Paris, and points the way to similar prophecies in Verdi’s Nabucco (1842) and Donizetti’s Dom Sebastien (1843). Other personal favorites include the two act finales, especially that to the first act, Giunia’s aria at the start of Act II “Se fino al cielo ascendere” and the love duet between Decio and Emilia in Act II, “No l’acciar non fu spietato” during which the sacred flame goes out.

The Wexford Festival has built a reputation for utilizing young singers, and helping them establish their reputations. During the last ten or so years, they have been particularly fortunate with tenors, what with finding Juan Diego Flores for Etoile du Nord in 1996, Dario Volonté for Siberia in 1999, and Joseph Calleja for Si j’etais Roi in 2000. It seems that they have found another such winner in Dante Alcalá, the young Mexican who sang Decio in the 2004 revival (actually, the premiere in the British Isles), which is the basis of this recording. It should be mentioned at this point that the Marco Polo recording under review is actually the second Mercadante Vestale to be issued, since Bongiovanni had released the performance that took place in Split, Croatia in April 1987 about 15 years ago. Of the two performances, the one on Bongiovanni wins in terms of the presentation, since a bilingual libretto is provided. But the singing is generally comparable or superior in the Marco Polo release—strikingly so where the Metellio is concerned. In addition to the Decio and Metellio (Andrea Patucelli), I was also quite favorably impressed by the sweet-voiced Emilia (Doriana Milazzo) and the Publio (Davide Damiani), who has been making a name for himself over the last 10 years with appearances in Vienna in Le Prophete, Fedora, L’elisir d’amore, Le nozze di Figaro and other operas as well as Wexford in Il giuramento and other important theatres.

David Rosen’s liner notes are excellent, and up to Wexford’s usual standard for such notes. My only disappointment with the booklet is the lack of a libretto, which I consider an absolute must for unfamiliar operas such as this one. While it is true that a libretto is available on the Naxos web site (in Italian only), which would have increased the price, not everybody likely to buy the set has access to the Internet; and some might even prefer the portability of a libretto in hard copy.

Tom Kaufman

* Oberto was premiered in Milan Nov. 17, 1839, and given in Turin on Jan. 11, 1840. La vestale was premiered in Naples Mar. 10, 1840.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/content/mercadante_vestale.gif image_description=Saverio Mercadante: La vestale product=yes product_title=Saverio Mercadante: La vestale product_by= Doriana Milazzo, Dante Alcala, Agata Bienkowska, Davide Damiani, Danna Glaser, Andrea Patucelli, Ladislav Elgr, Mattia Denti, Wexford Festival Opera Chorus, Cracow Philharmonic Orchestra, Paolo Arrivabeni (cond.). product_id=Marco Polo 8.225310-11 [2CDs]
Posted by Gary at 3:05 PM

Paris braced for Michael Haneke's 'mystery' Mozart

Michael_Haneke.jpgPaul Arendt [The Guardian, 24 January 2006]

A wall of secrecy surrounds the Parisian National Opera production of Mozart's Don Giovanni, which opens this week on January 27, the composer's 250th birthday.

Posted by Gary at 9:37 AM

Comme un chant de David, Paris

clauderegy.jpg(Photo: © Franck Beloncle)
By Clare Shine [Financial Times, 24 January 2006]

Is it a reflection on the unstable world around us that religious themes are becoming more prominent on stage? The past year alone has seen Howard Brenton's Paul in London, Jacques Delcuvellerie's Anathème on Old Testament violence in Avignon and now Claude Régy's minimalist adaptation of the Psalms, 10 years after his Words of the Prophet based on Ecclesiastes.

Posted by Gary at 9:23 AM

The 'It' Composer

osvaldo_golijov_1.jpg(Photo: Christian Steiner © 2001)
By JAY NORDLINGER [NY Sun, 24 January 2006]

Classical music has an "it" composer at the moment, and his name is Osvaldo Golijov. His press is ecstatic, and his publicity even more so. And for the next month, he will own part of New York, as Lincoln Center stages a festival in his honor: "The Passion of Osvaldo Golijov." That festival kicked off on Sunday afternoon with a performance of his opera, "Ainadamar," at the Rose Theater.

Posted by Gary at 8:46 AM

A Different Kind of Crossover

By GEORGE LOOMIS [NY Sun, 24 January 2006]

He has the kind of heartthrob looks that give ticket and record sales that extra boost, but Dmitri Hvorostovsky has steadfastly resisted pressure to cross over into the realm of pop music. The whole concept of crossover, the great Siberian baritone has repeatedly let it be known, leaves him cold. Why divert energy from his ever-expanding repertory of operatic roles or his work on the concert stage?

Posted by Gary at 8:39 AM

Two Clueless Newlyweds, Sharing a Bill With Purcell

By ALLAN KOZINN [NY Times, 24 January 2006]

The Bronx Opera Company has always been a model of what can be done with modest resources. Its latest offering, which ended its brief run on Sunday afternoon at the Heckscher Theater at El Museo del Barrio, was an odd but appealing double bill, with Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas" followed by a Chabrier comedy, "An Incomplete Education," to sweep away the tragic spirit.

Posted by Gary at 8:30 AM

Mozart's Gift

His music has taught us how to live.
by Fred Baumann [The Weekly Standard, 30 January 2006]

IN BEYOND Good and Evil, Nietzsche rejoices that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, "the last chord of a centuries-old great European taste . . . still speaks to us" and warns that "alas, some day all this will be gone."

Posted by Gary at 8:14 AM

January 23, 2006

The Populist Innovator

gockley2_small.jpgCan David Gockley, new opera director, build on the string of successes he brought to Houston in his 33-year tenure there? "He exists at the extremes of the spectrum and nowhere in the middle," says conductor Patrick Summers. "

Joshua Kosman [SF Chronicle, 22 January 2006]

When David Gockley made his first local appearance in February after being named the new general director of the San Francisco Opera, he showed up for a news conference at the War Memorial Opera House wearing a San Francisco Giants cap. It was a lark, an offhand joke — but it was also a compact little symbol of everything San Franciscans needed to know about the new guy in town.

Posted by Gary at 7:34 PM

The ghost of Mozart speaks

[Daily Telegraph, 21 January 2006]

Was he poisoned? Did he resent his father? Ivan Hewett uses the latest scholarship to imagine an encounter with the composer, born 250 years ago

I'm due to meet Mozart's ghost at the Elysian Fields, but it's hard to find him among all the other shades. Eventually I find him by a brook, entertaining some ladies at the harpsichord in the shade of a juniper tree. "Ah," he says, "I can tell you're from the other side, your apparel is so odd. Forgive me," he says to the ladies, with a deep bow, before turning to me. "We don't get many visitors here. Why have you come? You're not like that vulgar woman who wants to write down my music from beyond the grave? She must be getting rich from my efforts."

Posted by Gary at 6:47 PM

A Life as a Passion Play, in the Shadow of García Lorca

osvaldo_golijov_3.jpg(Photo: Alejandro Golijov © 2000)
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 23 January 2006]

When the history of Osvaldo Golijov's "Ainadamar" is written, the opera's 2003 premiere at the Tanglewood Music Center may be considered just a workshop along the way. At the time Mr. Golijov admitted to having rushed to finish the score at the last minute. Though his memory play of an opera had haunting aspects to it, whole stretches of the music seemed padded, lacking in urgency.

Posted by Gary at 6:33 PM

KINDERMAN & SYER: A Companion to Wagner's Parsifal

is among the least discussed in Wagner's oeuvre.1 This situation, it is clear, was in direct contrast to the voluminous literature on its meaning and message. The music has been taken as given; critics, many of them non-musicians, have focused on the penetrating psychological studies of the main characters and the (would-be) deep philosophical content of the opera, ranging across a broad spectrum of topics such as personal morality and salvation, Christianity as living force or historical backdrop, Schopenhauerian pessimism and compassion (Mitleid), Buddhist reincarnation (Kundry's former lives) vegetarianism (the swan episode), nature as holy and healing, and the hotly debated question of anti-Semitic content in the opera. The situation has changed-for the better-over the years, and William Kinderman has been one of the driving forces behind this change, having published several studies on the compositional origins of Parsifal as revealed by the sketching process and how primary ideas in the sketches have long-range structural functions of great significance. Now Kinderman and Katherine Syer have published a volume of essays about Parsifal, and this book constitutes a major contribution to the literature on the opera in English. Containing contributions from major Wagnerian scholars in the U.S. and in Europe, its three parts follow a now standard and appropriate division of topics beginning with the sources of the text and its content and meaning, moving to a consideration of the music, of course with respect to the text, and concluding with some discussions of how the work was received.

Part I, "The Text: Sources and Symbols," contains essays on "Medievalism and Metaphysics: The Literary Background of Parsifal" (Mary Cicora), "Erotic Love in Chrétiens Perceval, Wolfram's Parzival and Wagner's Parsifal (James M. McGlathery), and "Parsifal and Religions: A Christian Music Drama?" (Ulrike Kienzle). Cicora skillfully traces aspects of the long gestation of the text-Wagner first became interested in the legend in the 1840s-showing how Wagner picked and chose from the main sources and modified them according to his own ideational and musical agendas that he developed with respect to manifold intellectual influences, e.g. Schopenhauer. McGlathery focuses on a specific aspect of that gestation, showing how Wagner reduced the number of female protagonists present in the medieval sources into a single one, Kundry. This chapter is a very useful case study of how Wagner worked with his text sources; I would have welcomed commentary on how the theme of erotic love fits into the ideational content of the opera as a whole and how it connected (or did not connect) with Wagner's own tumultuous love life and his ideas about these matters. Kienzle traces religious content in various stages of the libretto, including the important "Prose Sketch" of 1865. Her discussion delves deeply into musical matters as well, tracing important leitmotivs that she associates with Christ and his suffering. The question whether Parsifal is a Christian opera, which has many different connotations, has been hotly debated from the inception of its reception history. Many writers on the opera limit the Christian elements to a simple historic background without further relevance for the content. Kienzle offers a more balanced view: no to the question if it presents Christian dogma or represents a particular confession, but yes to the idea that Christianity is positively represented as a kind of general and perhaps secularized Weltanschauung, in which the ethical and moral questions are posed, redemption is forthcoming, and the figure of Christ has profound symbolic meaning.

Part II is devoted to "The Music: Evolution, Structure, Aesthetics" with discussions of "The Genesis of the Music" (Kinderman), "Unseen Voices: Wagner's Musical-Dramatic Shaping of the Grail Scene of Act 1" (Syer), and "`Die Zeit ist da': Rotational Form and Hexatonic Magic in the Act 2, Scene 1 of Parsifal" (Warren Darcy). Kinderman is one of the leading scholars interested in the compositional process as revealed through the study of sketches. He has published numerous studies concerning Beethoven's music, including a facsimile edition, transcription and substantial commentary and analysis of the one of Beethoven's most important sketchbooks in this later period, and has also published several essays on the compositional origins of Parsifal that form the basis for this highly informative chapter. He takes us through the relatively brief (five years) but highly concentrated history of the compositional process, covering the sketching of important thematic ideas, notably those appearing in the Prelude to Act 1, which were some of the earliest ones sketched, and their further development as thematic ideas and their importance for structural keys areas. He also focuses on the "Transformation Music" music leading to the first-act Grail Scene. With respect to the harmonic content, he is particularly interested in the pair of keys Ab and C minor both of which are introduced in the opening measures of the Prelude and play important structural roles in the entire opera. Syer pursues much more than the enigmatic meaning of the off-stage instrumental and vocal music (the unseen voices of her title) in the Grail ritual of Act I. In addition to offering convincing explanations of Wagner's intentions, e.g. the youthful choral voices early in the scene representing genderless personae in accordance with the traditional image of a genderless Christ, she subjects the scene to an in-depth and comprehensive analysis that focuses just as much, if not more, on seen voices. A detailed table of dramatic and musical events is a very helpful guide to her discussion, which would be handy to use while listening to the scene. Both Kinderman's and Syer's contributions are not for the analytically faint-hearted, but Darcy's essay is intended only for the reader well-versed in the most rigorous academic music theory and analysis. Noting that much of Wagner's music has resisted traditional analytical methods, he offers two new approaches, the first of which is the theory, developed by himself and James Hepokoski, of "rotational form" in which a brief motive is developed teleologically through a series of rotations leading to the final structural (tonal and formal) goal in the last rotation. The nature of the rotations can be explained according to the second approach, the theory of hexatonic systems developed by Richard Cohn to help explain highly chromatic key relationships in late tonal music. Darcy's analysis is dense and detailed; his principal concern seems to be that of demonstrating the usefulness of the analytical approach and the formal structuring of the scene rather than an illumination of the way the music presents text and creates meaning. His is primarily a structural rather than a hermeneutic approach.

Part III contains two essays that discuss specific aspects of the reception history of the work, that is the way it has been interpreted in writings and performances: "Die Weihe des Hauses (The Consecration of the House): Houston Stewart Chamberlain and the Early Reception of Parsifal" (Roger Allen) and "Parsifal on Stage" (Syer). Chamberlain, the English racist and later fascist admirer of Hitler who married into the Wagner family, first attended Bayreuth in 1882, the year of the premier of Parsifal. Allen joins several other authors who argue that Chamberlain's earlier writings on Wagner and his music are valuable and not infected with the racism and German chauvinism of his Foundations of the Nineteenth Century and his later work. For Chamberlain, as for many of Wagner's advocates in the 1880s, Parsifal was the central work in Wagner's oeuvre, and Chamberlain emphasizes the theme of redemption, but not from a truly Christian perspective, and does not argue for racial and national content in the work. The possible subtext in this essay is that because Chamberlain had not adopted the pernicious views that would mark his later work, his insider's view of Parsifal, in particular of its ideological "purity," possesses a special authority. Syer's second essay is a fitting conclusion to the book. In tracing the performance history of Parsifal from its first performance to the present she provides one its most interesting and most comprehensive contributions and it can be read with pleasure by a non-specialist reader. (This is also true of the essays in Part I.) It is also a very timely article, because her work represents a new development in musicological opera studies that focuses on productions from the point of view that an opera is even less a fixed artistic object than an instrumental piece, because it has more dimensions: scenery, costumes, stage action in addition to music. While each of these may be secondary to the musical score, together they have a power equal to the score and poetic text-they can even, under circumstances, determine the content and meaning (both of which are mutable) above and beyond, and in opposition to, word and tone. Syer is sensitive to all these dimensions and she also ties the specific characteristics of a production to the cultural and political background of its time, from the Wilhelminian period of the late nineteenth century through the First World War (covering here the end of the Wagner family's monopoly of performance rights and the fervor around the first non-Bayreuth performances in Germany, Europe as a whole, and the U.S., then moving to the experiments of the Weimar years, the setbacks and consolidations during the Third Reich, and the renewed search for new interpretative strategies and meanings in the post-war period.

Syer's article, which contains many wonderful images, demonstrates both the continuing significance and the controversial nature of Parsifal (attributes that are shared by Wagner's other mature operas) which both have helped secure its place in the operatic repertory and are stimulating increased scholarly attention.2 As I stated before, this collection of essays makes a major contribution to Parsifal interpretation. It cannot be denied that certain important topics have not been covered with all the attention they deserve, for example the question of the presence of nationalistic, racist, and anti-Semitic content that surfaced in the early reception of the opera and has been most intensely debated in the last quarter century. Nor is there a discussion of the musical and dramatic structure of the opera as a whole (nothing approaching a synopsis or an overview) nor the musical style per se or in its relationship to Wagner's earlier operas. These topics would have further strengthened an already very valuable book, but I mention these omissions less as a critique than simply as a point of information for readers who might want to gather more basic knowledge before taking up the challenge of these stimulating and weighty discussions. A must read for all Parsifalians.

Glenn Stanley
Professor of Music
University of Connecticut
Reviews Editor, 19th-Century Music


1Constantin Floros, "Studien zur Parsifal-Rezeption," in Richard Wagner:"Parsifal" (Musik-Konzepte 25) ed. Heinz-Klaus Metzger and Rainer Riehn (Munich:edition text+kritik, 1982), pp. 43-57.

2Kinderman is planning a monographic study of Parsifal and several other books and collections of essays on the opera are in preparation. The present author has recently completed an essay on the opera that will appear in the Cambridge Companion to Wagner, ed. Thomas Grey, in 2006/2007.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/content/kinderman_syer.jpg image_description=A Companion to Wagner's Parsifal product=yes product_title=A Companion to Wagner's Parsifal, ed. William Kinderman and Katherine R. Syer.
Studies in German Literature Linguistics and Culture Series product_by=Rochester: Camden House, 2005. 9 b/w illustrations, 4 line illustrations, 376 pages. product_id=ISBN: 1571132376
Posted by Gary at 11:08 AM

January 22, 2006

Music: The fruits of passion

Richard Farnes led Opera North in a pulsating Salomé, and Villazon cut a dash in his debut as Werther.

By Hugh Canning [Times Online, 22 January 2006]

As the Grand Theatre in Leeds undergoes renovation, Opera North is spending the first half of its 2005-06 season giving concert performances and semi-stagings. The programme actually started at the end of last season, when Richard Farnes, the company’s dynamic young music director, conducted thrilling “staged” concerts of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle — with John Tomlinson as the eponymous world- and wife-weary Duke and Sally Burgess as his nosey spouse number four — before taking it into the studio for Chandos’s Opera-in-English series.

Posted by Gary at 9:47 PM

Maximum Mozart

By Roger Boyes [Times Online, 21 January 2006]

Austria's celebrations for Wolfgang's birthday promise a musical blow-out
Visitors to Salzburg, birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, will know only too well that it is possible to overdose on the composer: it is a common enough sight to see fat little boys guzzling on the gold-wrapped sickly sweet Mozart Balls and then spectacularly regretting their binge. But will music, rather than chocolate lovers, emerge from the 250th birthday celebrations with a similar feeling of surfeit and loathing?

Posted by Gary at 9:37 PM

BIZET: Carmen

The opera premiered, three months before at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, on March 3, 1875, to a less than enthusiastic reception. Du Locle, manager of the theater had forewarned patrons about the nature of the story, but even this was not enough to prevent the disappointing results.

It is difficult for today's audiences to comprehend the reason for this failure but, to the Parisian bourgeoisie of late Nineteenth Century France, Carmen represented everything that went against the grain of propriety-even if members of the bourgeoisie were the worst offenders. The notion of a sexually liberated woman who lures "respectable" men to err on her command, was not something the theater's rigid patrons were willing to face, or accept. Neither could the marriage brokers, who practiced their trade at the Comique, afford the glorification of such a woman, and the negative impact she would have on their business. Respectable Parisians did not want their daughters and impressionable young sons to be corrupted by the depravity portrayed on stage. Ironically, in its haste to condemn, society made Carmen the talk of Paris.

In reality the opera was not the dismal failure it has been reported; it played forty performances–a respectable run under any circumstance. Whether the public came out of curiosity, enjoyment of the opera, approval of the subject matter, or out of respect for the dead composer, is hard to tell, and irrelevant. What matters is that within a short period of time Carmen achieved the success it rightly deserved from its inception, and it has remained one of the most popular works on the operatic stage. Carmen and Verdi's Traviata share the distinction of being the two operas every female singer wants to add to her repertoire–be she qualified to sing it or not. In Traviata the pathos and the musical challenges are the calling cards. In Carmen, it is the secret, inner desire in people and the excitement of being "bad" which makes it so alluring for singer and public alike.

Carmen, like that other "bad" girl of opera, Dalila, is a complex character straddling the fine line between love and hate; not only hers, but the audience's. These two characters are ageless, and somewhat open to interpretation, though Carmen's, as Dalila's, ever present seductive nature remains the moving force behind the story.

That the public would shy away from the subject of the opera is understandable, but the critics, and cognoscenti alike did not recognize Bizet's genius (one periodical referred to the score as having music which "babbled" on and on), or his greater contribution to the musical stage: Bizet's Carmen paved the way for the "verismo" movement in opera.1 In Carmen, Bizet was the first to strip the sugarcoated varnish off the story and expose people's emotions at their most basic level. Disregarding convention and the effect on the public, Bizet took people from the lower echelons of society and made them the protagonists.2 In rising the heretofore mundane characters to protagonists, Bizet eliminated their need to reform or apologize for their behavior. Their misfortunes became real, and a way of life to be appreciated and understood by the audience.

On hearing the opening bars of the prelude, one thing is obvious: Bizet's music is vulgar as it is sublime, powerful, and seductive; and like the main protagonist, it lures and captivates the listener. Bizet further personalizes the score by infusing original Spanish music and color into an unusually passionate score that is definitely French in origin.3 Bizet's genius lays not only in the creation of a new musical style by combining elements from the Comique, Grand Opera, and local popular music, but also in the delicate psychological web he creates between the music and the characters.

The libretto for Carmen by Henri Meihac and Ludovic Halévy is based on Prosper Mérimée's novella, which in turn is based on factual events.

This 2005 performance of Carmen is a production of St. Margarthen Summer Festival in Austria, and it took place in what remains of the largest open quarry from the Roman days. The festival, brainchild of Wolfgang Werner, started in 1994 with a performance of Verdi's Nabucco, and the original 11,000 spectators have now grown to over 150,000.

The 70 meter wide, 7,000 square meter stage is the largest natural-setting stage in Europe. As such it has many advantages, and many more disadvantages. In the former category the stage allows for grand sets,4 and hundreds of participants with room to spare–maybe too much room. In the latter category, because of the size of the quarry, the singers are miked, and stage directions are difficult to follow on short notice. Walking off stage, or walking from one end to the other requires large blocks of time which creates some awkward still moments. In a stage this size, the action also needs to be more exaggerated, contrary to film which is more intimate. All in all, though, the staging is quite effective, and the four hundred plus actors, dancers, coachmen, horsemen, street vendors, and singers do their best to keep the action realistic.

This production opens on an ironical note: There is a wedding taking place and the wedding party is witness to the action on stage. The title role is sung by Bulgarian mezzo-soprano, Nadia Krasteva. Born in 1976 she has quickly risen to become a very popular and sought after singer in Europe, Vienna in particular. Krasteva has a dusky, velvet like textured instrument which she uses well in the more dramatic moments of the opera.

Krasteva's Carmen is not sexually alluring; instead, she seduces her men with the playful youthfulness and pranks of a teenager. Krasteva's exotic good looks, and the obvious enjoyment she gets out of flirting and being mischievous, compensates for and lets her get away with the lack of seductive powers in her interpretation.

"Près des remparts de Séville" is vocally interesting, though the constant movement about the stage interferes with the subtlety in the dialogue. Krasteva is dramatically secure in "Je vairs dancer en votre honneur." She is also effective in Act III, "Voyons, que j'essaie à montour" where Carmen lays out the cards and realizes the eminence of death. From the moment Don José confronts her in Act IV, Krasteva's Carmen displays a sudden dramatic maturity and vocal control: a gasp when Don José unexpectedly touches her; the look of disdain in her face and the serene, but determined look in "Non, je ne t'aime plus;" the defiant "...libre elle mourra;" the ridiculing laughter in "Je l'aime...," the determination in "Non! Non! Cette bafue..." when she takes the ring Don José had given her and throws it to the ground, to the final moments when Don José stabs her and she lays on the ground, her body quivering to the last breath.

In comparison to other tenor roles, the character of Don José does not inspire hero worship, nor is it particularly likeable. Yet, unlike the opera's namesake it offers the tenor, who sings it well, ample opportunity for character development and range of emotions. Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antoņenko has a pleasant timbre and youthful good looks, but his interpretation falls short in development of the character, and his instrument often appears to be underpowered for the dramatic intensity of the role.

"La fleur que tu m'avis jetée" is good, but Antoņenko's vocal range at times sounds lower than required for the role, and his voice is shrill towards the end of the aria. To be such a young singer, he displays a disturbing wobble in several of the less difficult moments. He is better in the more rapid exchanges as in the confrontation with Escamillo, and later towards the end of the act with Carmen. Antoņenko comes into his own in Act IV where he is more dramatic and better in control of his instrument. He is supplicating in "Je ne menace pas!," and "Carmen, il est temps encore." He is technically superior in "Carmen,je t'aime, je t'adore...ah! Ne me quitte pas!" Anto nenko imbues the character with passion and violence in "Ainsi, le salut de mon âme..."

It has been argued that Bizet invented the character of Micaëla with her sweeter than sweet image as a compromise to the patrons at the Comique. Perhaps the composer had other ideas. Micaëla is young, she is sweet, but she is also a woman in bloom, filled with desire and a foil for Carmen's overpowering presence. For all the truth and raw emotion in Bizet's score, the character of Micaëla is often played as an outsider, an enigma, and somewhat misplaced—just as Åsa Elmgren's interpretation.

Elmgren has a pleasant voice and her rendition is honest, but her Micaëla is at times stiff, deliberate and too matter-of-fact. To compound this, or maybe because of, Elmgren's self-conscious French is non-idiomatic, betraying her Nordic background. Elmgren does warm up to deliver a pleasant "Je dis que rien ne m'épouvante" in Act III, as well as in the later confrontation with Carmen.

Escamillo is the perfect counterpart to Carmen (her "long lost soul mate"), and he also serves to further emphasize Don José's weakness of character. Escamillo's profession and his personal life are wedded into one. He takes risks, he is cool in the face of danger, he is self involved, and interested only in temporary pleasures. For Escamillo there is no difference between fighting a bull in the ring, and taking a woman to bed–in either case he always comes out the winner, in either case he knows it is only temporary. His march-like music in Act II enables him to display his virile masculinity, and sets the tone for his personality: Escamillo is not a show off, but he is narcissistic and arrogant, all the while oozing his intoxicating sexuality. No such assurance in Sebastian Holecek's performance; instead, the Austrian baritone comes off as though trying very hard to play "Escamillo." There is no legato in his singing, he truncates some of the words, and overall appears ill at ease.

Somewhat annoying to this listener's ears, is Holecek's difficulty in pronouncing the letter "R" in "toréador." The improper roll of this letter is, in itself, a natural result of speaking a foreign language with an accent. As such, it would not be a problem in general conversation; in a performance, though, this easy to overcome detail becomes very distracting, and it is not acceptable.

Of the four principals Grasteva is vocally the best. The other three principals appear to be rehearsing their roles instead of performing them. In fairness, those in charge of the production should have devoted more time to the singers' diction and understanding of the French language. This would have eliminated the appearance that the singers do not know the meaning of the words they are singing.

In the end, the lesser characters of Zuniga, Mercédès, Frasquita, Morales, Dancaïre and Remendado, were better served by their interpreters. The Act II quintet "Nous avons en tête une affaire" between Mercédès, Frasquita, Remendado, Dancaïre and Carmen is vocally and visually one of the best moments in the opera. The singing and the acting is natural, adding to the success of the ensemble. The card duet/scene between Frasquica and Mercédès, "Mêlons! Coupons!" is better, still, with both singers fully in control of their instruments and the dramatic situation.

The chorus of cigarette girls sings rather well, in particular during their first appearance. "Dans l'air nous suivons des yeux" is sung softly and delicately sharp in contrast to the words they are singing. Perhaps the size of the stage (or lack of rehearsal) prevents them from "becoming" the character in the fighting scenes outside of the cigarette factory later in the act. The same goes for the men who are so eager to woo them.

The orchestra gives a spirited performance, and Maestro Märzendorfer leads with conviction.

Visually, this is a pleasant production though not without exceptions. As mentioned above, the large stage allows for elaborate scenery, and special effects. For Carmen there are copies of famous landmarks in Seville, including bridges, churches, taverns, and along the upper ridge of the quarry there are several windmills and other "Spanish" buildings. The public scenes are peopled as public scenes are in real life: with men and women coming and going about their business in ignorance of what other people (main characters) may be up to. There are carriages, people on horseback, dancers, children at play, café patrons taking a break in their hectic day, etc. The opening of Act III shows the smugglers on ropes descending the face of the quarry, their black capes dancing in the night air, their shadows reflected against the stark whiteness of the cliffs.

The choreography, too, leaves something to be desired, especially as the corps de ballet is from Valencia, Spain. The dances are not realistically original, but stereotypical in the interpretation of what Flamenco should be: much emotionless hand clapping, arm waving, pseudo dramatic poses, and skirt swirling in place of the real soul of Spanish folk dance. The one exception is the dance sequence during the Entracte to Act IV.

A major distraction is the visibility of microphones. Of course, in a vast stage as this one, microphones are a necessity. This is not an issue for the members of the audience, or under normal circumstances, where the microphones would be discreetly attached to a lapel, or blouse. On film, and with close-up shots it is different. Instead, in this production, the microphones are attached above and center of the singers' eyebrows, with the antenna fed through their hair, visible at the top, and coming out of the back of their heads–-memories of the TV program, My Favorite Martian.

It is never enjoyable to put down anyone's efforts. In particular this cast, as they are all fairly young and it is clear they are trying their best to fulfill the public's expectations. Overall, though, the production is flawed, the performers are ill prepared, and uncomfortable with themselves.

The performance quality in Act IV makes one wish the entire opera had been as effective.

Daniel Pardo ©  2006


Allen Mallach, Pietro Mascagni and his Operas (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2002)
The New Penguin Opera Guide, Amanda Holden (ed.) (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2001)
David Ewen, Great Composers: 1300-1900, (New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1966)
Antoine Goléa, Carmen (liner notes, 1990)
Georg Solti, Carmen (liner notes, 1975)


1Verismo in reference to opera is somewhat misleading. The term had been in use in literary circles for many years in Italy (Naturaliste, in France), and applied to the works of Giovanni Verga and his contemporaries. In 1883 Verga turned his short story of 1880, Cavaleria Rusticana, into a very popular play staring Eleanora Duse in the role of Santuzza. It was Mascagni's 1890 opera based on Verga's play which led to the transfer of the term from literature to opera.

2The operas presented at the Comique often had disreputable, deceiving, lower class characters but they were almost always cast in a comedic situation and invariably would repent at the end of the opera.

3The music for Habanera is an original Spanish piece written by Sebastian Yradier, which Bizet adapted to the opera. Bizet also added music to the lead character in the form of canto jondo, a style of sad singing from Andalusia.

4For the production of Turandot the forbidden city was recreated on the stage.

image_description=Georges Bizet: Carmen

product_title=Georges Bizet: Carmen
product_by=Nadia Krasteva, Aleksandrs Antoņenko, Sebastian Holecek, Åsa Elmgren, Stephanie Atanasow, Vladimir Vassilev, Brno National Theatre Chorus, Brno National Theatre Orchestra, Ernst Märzendorfer (cond.).
product_id=EuroArts 2054528 [DVD]

Posted by Gary at 9:07 PM

WAGNER: Parsifal

First Performance: 26 July 1882, Bayreuth (Festspielhaus)


First and Second Knights of the GrailTenor/Bass
First and Second SquiresSoprano
Third and Fourth SquiresTenor
A VoiceContralto
Klingsor's Flower MaidensSoprano/Alto

Time and Place: In the vicinity of Monsalvat, the castle of the Knights of the Grail, located in the northern mountains of Gothic Spain.


Act I

In a wood near the castle of Monsalvat, home to the Knights of the Grail, Gurnemanz, one of the Knights of the Grail, wakes his young squires and leads them in prayer. He notices the retinue of Amfortas approach, and asks the leading Knight for news of the King’s health. The knight tells him that the King has suffered during the night and is going early for his bath. The squires ask Gurnemanz to explain how the King’s injuries can be healed, but before he can do so a wild woman - Kundry - bursts in. She offers a balsam for the King’s pain which she claims is from Arabia and then collapses, exhausted.

Amfortas, King of the Grail Knights, arrives, carried on a stretcher. He asks for Gawain, only to be told that this Knight has left without his permission. Angrily, Amfortas says that this sort of impetuousity was what led him to Klingsor’s realm and to his downfall. He receives Kundry’s potion and tries to thank her, but she answers, incoherently, that thanks will not help and urges him to his bath.

The King leaves, and the squires question Kundry mistrustfully. Gurnemanz tells them that Kundry has often helped the Grail Knights but that she appears and disappears at her whim. When he asks her why she does not stay to help, she replies that she never helps. The squires think she is a witch and sneer that if she is so helpful, why does she not find the Holy Spear for them? Gurnemanz says that this is destined to be the job of another. He tells them that Amfortas had been the guardian of the Spear, but lost it when seduced by a fearsomely attractive woman in Klingsor’s domain. Klingsor had stabbed Amfortas with the Spear: this is the wound which causes Amfortas’ suffering and it will never heal.

Two squires, returning from the King’s bath, tell Gurnemanz that Kundry’s balsam has eased the King’s sufferings for the moment. His squires ask Gurnemanz whether he knew Klingsor. He tells them of how the Holy Spear, which was used to wound the Redeemer on the Cross, and the Grail which caught His blood, had come to Monsalvat to be guarded by the Knights of the Grail under the rule of Titurel - Amfortas’ father. Klingsor had yearned to join the Knights, but had been unable to drive impure thoughts from his mind and resorted to self-castration which led to his expulsion. Klingsor then bitterly set himself up in opposition to the Kingdom of the Grail, learning dark arts and establishing a domain full of beautiful flower-maidens who seduce and destroy the Knights of the Grail. It was in this way that Amfortas lost the Holy Spear, which is now in Klingsor’s hand. Gurnemanz relates how Amfortas then had a vision in which he was told to wait for a “holy fool, enlightened by compassion” (“Durch Mitleid Wissend, der Reine Tor”) who would finally heal his wound.

At this moment, cries are heard from the Knights: a swan has been shot, and a young man is dragged in carrying a bow. Gurnemanz berates the boy, telling him that this is a holy domain, and asking what had the swan ever done to injure the boy. The boy remorsefully breaks his bow and is unable to answer any question put to him: why is he here, who is his father, how did he arrive at the realm of the Grail and what is his name? When asked what he does know, the boy says he has a mother called Herzeleide, and that he made his bow himself. Kundry has been watching and now she tells them that the boy’s father was Gamuret, a knight killed in battle, and how the boy’s mother had forbidden her son to use a sword, fearing that he would suffer the same fate as his father. The boy exclaims that after seeing Knights passing through his forest he immediately left his mother to follow them. Kundry laughs and tells the boy that his mother has died of grief, at which the boy attempts to attack Kundry, but then collapses in grief. Kundry suddenly seems overcome with sleep, but cries out that she must not sleep and wishes that she would never waken. She crawls off to rest.

Gurnemanz invites the boy to observe the Grail ritual at Monsalvat. The boy does not know what the Grail is, but remarks as they walk that although he scarcely moves, he has travelled far. Gurnemanz tells him that in this realm, time becomes space.

They arrive at the Hall of the Grail and observe the ceremony. The voice of Titurel is heard, telling his son, Amfortas, to uncover the Grail. Amfortas is racked with shame and suffering. He is the Guardian of the Grail, and yet he has succumbed to temptation and lost the Holy Spear: he declares himself unworthy of his office. He cries out for forgiveness (“Erbarmen!”) but hears only the promise of future redemption by the “Holy Fool, enlightened by compassion”. The Knights and Titurel urge him to reveal the Grail, which he finally does. The Hall is bathed in the light of the Grail as the Knight commune by taking bread and wine. Amfortas has collapsed, and is taken out. Slowly the Hall empties leaving only the boy and Gurnemanz, who asks him if he has understood what he has seen. The boy cannot answer and is roughly ejected by Gurnemanz with a warning not to shoot swans. A voice from on high repeats the promise of redemption.

Act II

The second act begins in Klingsor’s castle, where Klingsor calls up his servant to destroy the boy who has strayed into his domain. He calls her: HellRose, Herodias, Gunddrigga and finally Kundry, transformed here into the fearsomely beautiful woman who seduced Amfortas. She wakes from her sleep and initially resists Klingsor, mocking his enforced chastity, but soon succumbs to his spell. Klingsor calls up Knights from his domain to attack the boy, but can only watch as they are slain. He sees the boy stray into his Flowermaiden garden and calls on Kundry to seek the boy out - but she has already gone.

The boy finds himself in a Garden surrounded by the beautiful and seductive Flower-maidens. They call to him and entwine themselves around him, chiding him for killing their lovers and for resisting their charms. They fight amongst themselves to win his love but are stilled when a voice calls out the boy’s name: Parsifal. Parsifal suddenly remembers that this is the name his mother used when she appeared in his dreams. The Flower-maidens fade away, calling him a fool, leaving Parsifal and Kundry alone. He wonders if this has all been a dream and asks how she knows his name. Kundry tells him that she knows his name from his Mother who had loved him and tried to protect him from his father’s fate, but who had been abandoned by him and finally died of grief. Parsifal is overcome with grief and blames himself for his mother’s death. He thinks he must be very stupid to have forgotten his mother. Kundry says that this is his first sign of understanding, and that she can help him understand his mother’s love by kissing him. Kundry’s kiss is, however, anything but maternal, and Parsifal reacts immediately by realising that this is how Amfortas was seduced - he feels the wound burn in his side, and now understands Amfortas’ passion during the Grail Ceremony. Filled with this compassion for Amfortas, Parsifal rejects Kundry.

Furious, Kundry tells Parsifal that if he can feel compassion for Amfortas, then he should feel compassion for her as well. She relates how she saw the Redeemer on the cross and laughed at Him. For this lack of compassion, she has been condemned to wander through the centuries looking for rest. Parsifal tells her that they would both be condemned for ever if he succumbed to her. Kundry again calls for his compassion, telling him that she is now the slave of the Spear-carrier. As he rejects her again, she curses him to wander without ever returning to the Kingdom of the Grail, and finally she calls on Klingsor to help her.

Klingsor appears and throws the Spear at Parsifal, but the Holy Fool catches it and destroys Klingsor and his Kingdom by making the sign of the Cross with the Spear. As he leaves, he tells Kundry that she knows where she will find him.


The Third act opens again at the Kingdom of the Grail, many years later. Gurnemanz, now aged and bent, hears a crying outside his hut and discovers Kundry unconscious. He revives her, using water from the Holy Spring, but she will only speak the word “serve” (“Dienen”). Gurnemanz wonders if there is any significance in the fact that she has reappeared on this, special, day. He then notices a figure dressed in full armour approaching. He cannot see who it is because the stranger wears a helmet, and does not speak. Finally the apparition removes its helmet and Guremanz recognises the boy who shot the swan, and then realises that the spear carried by him is the Holy Spear.

Parsifal tells of his desire to return to Amfortas. He relates his journey, wandering for years unable to find the path back to the Grail: he has often been forced to fight, but has never wielded the Spear in battle. Gurnemanz tells him that the curse preventing Parsifal from finding his right path has now been lifted, but that in his absence Amfortas has refused to reveal the Grail, and that Titurel has died. Parsifal is overcome with remorse, blaming himself for this state of affairs. Gurnemanz tells him that today is the day of Titurel’s funeral rites, and that Parsifal has a great duty to perform. Kundry washes Parsifal’s feet and Gurnemanz anoints him with water from the Holy Spring, recognising him as the pure Holy Fool, now enlightened by compassion, and as the new King of the Knights of the Grail.

Parsifal comments on the beauty of the meadow and Gurnemanz explains that today is Good Friday, when all the world is renewed. Parsifal gives his blessing to the weeping Kundry.

Once more they travel to the Hall of the Grail. Amfortas is brought before the Grail and before Titurel’s coffin. He cries out to his dead father to offer him rest from his sufferings, and wishes to join him in death. The Knights of Grail urge Amfortas angrily to reveal the Grail to them again, but Amfortas in a frenzy says he will never reveal the Grail and commands his Knights to kill him. At this moment, Parsifal arrives and says that only one weapon can perform this task: with the Spear he heals Amfortas’ wound and forgives him. He returns the Spear to the keeping of the Grail knights and once more reveals the Grail. All kneel before him and Kundry, released from her curse, sinks lifeless to the ground.

[Synopsis Source: Wikipedia]

Click here for the complete libretto.

Click here for a comparative translation.

image_description=Parsifal and the Flower Maidens by Henri Fantin-Latour (1893)

first_audio_name=Richard Wagner: Parsifal
Windows Media Player
second_audio_name=Richard Wagner: Parsifal
Alternate stream

product_title=Richard Wagner: Parsifal
product_by=Franz Crass, Sandor Konya, Janis Martin, Thomas Stewart, Gerd Nienstedt, Karl Ridderbusch, Heribert Steinbach, Heinz Feldhoff, Elisabeth Schwarzenberg, Sieglind Wagner, Rudolf Kniffke, Heinz Zednik, Hannelore Bode, Elisabeth Volkmann, Inger Paustian, Dorothea Siebert, Wendy Fine, Sieglinde Wagner, Marga Höffgen, Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival, Eugen Jochum (cond.).
Live recording, Bayreuth, July 1971.

Posted by Gary at 4:10 PM

January 20, 2006

Symphony conquers majestic 'Missa'

On short notice, Brewer steps in

By Richard Dyer [Boston Globe 20 January 2006]

James Levine doesn't mince words, and in his note to the audience in this week's Boston Symphony Orchestra program book he proclaims, ''[Beethoven's] 'Missa Solemnis' is the greatest piece ever written. Really, l mean it."

Posted by Gary at 1:54 PM

Señor 100 000 Volt

Villazon_small.jpgEkstase! Der mexikanische Tenor Rolando Villazón ist nicht zu stoppen

von Manuel Brug [Die Welt, 20 January 2006]

"Ich bin ein 24-Stunden-Sänger", sagt Rolando Villazón, und seine buschigen Augenbrauen zucken schon wieder wie elektrifiziert. Am liebsten wäre er das wohl, gäbe es nicht die Ruhegesetze der Stimmband-Physik, an 365 Tagen im Jahr.

Posted by Gary at 10:00 AM

Cor blimey, look at the struts on that!

royalfestivalhall_small.jpgThere's an enticing strip show taking place at the South Bank, finds Richard Morrison

[Times Online, 20 January 2006]

It’s London’s most exciting archaeological dig. Except that nothing is being dug, and what’s being uncovered are not Roman treasures but the sometimes disconcerting secrets of the British building trade, circa 1949. Yes, this is the Royal Festival Hall as it hasn’t been seen since it was frantically constructed for the 1951 Festival of Britain: stripped to its concrete and stuffed with 30 miles of scaffolding and 300 construction workers.

Posted by Gary at 9:45 AM

No Gaddafi? Send for Gilbert and Sullivan

gaddafi.jpg[Daily Telegraph, 18 January 2006]

There is a deliciously Gilbertian irony to one of the lesser embarrassments that has hit English National Opera in the last year.

Its intriguing commission of a new opera from the bhangra-fusion hard-ragga-jungle band Asian Dub Foundation on the subject of Colonel Gaddafi has faltered.

Posted by Gary at 9:34 AM

On This Day: 20 January

BIRTHS Ottavio Rinuccini Italian librettist. (1562) Francesco Bartolomeo Conti Italian composer. (1681) Buono Giuseppe Chiodi Italian composer. (1728) Giovanni Domenico Perotti Italian composer. (1761) Sebastián Iradier Spanish composer. (1809) Ernest Chausson French composer. (1855) Rudolf Bernauer Austrian librettist. (1880) Gabriele Santini Italian conductor. (1886) Eva Jessye American choral conductor. (1895) Wilfred Conwell Bain American administrator. (1908) Ennio Porrino Italian composer. (1910) Teodor Bratu Romanian composer. (1922) Valdo Sciammarella Argentine composer. (1924) Antonio de Almeida French conductor. (1928) André Jobin Canadian tenor. (1933) Ugo Benelli Italian tenor. (1935) Sándor Balassa Hungarian composer. (1935) Jean-Louis Martinoty French producer and administrator. (1946)

Posted by Gary at 9:28 AM

Theatre of Voices — Jacqueline du Pré Concert Hall, Oxford

Stockhausen (Photo: Stockhausen Foundation for Music)Tom Service [The Guardian, 20 January 2006]

Theatre of Voices's performance of Stockhausen's meditative masterpiece Stimmung began as a ritualised processional: the six singers, resplendent in suits of white and beige walked onto stage to sit round a table in whose centre shone a glowing orb. The atmosphere was that of a weird musical seance as they bowed to each other and intoned the single, hypnotic chord that would underpin the 90-minute performance.

Posted by Gary at 9:12 AM

January 19, 2006

The Diva Live — Wilhelmenia Fernandez & Bruno Fontaine

The stunning beauty of the lady no doubt helped her as well but her career never really took flight. The reason was a simple one. The boss of the Paris Opéra had her make her début in La Bohème as ….Musetta and right he was. But a lot of his colleagues preferred to type-cast her as Aida. I heard her myself in the role and felt that the voice was simply not suited. She probably realized it herself as for two years she sang “Carmen Jones” at the Old Vic.

But thanks to that movie she is still somewhat of a star in France and this CD is a reminder of the 2002 live concert she gave in the Grand Théâtre of Reims, a magnificent historic city in the North of France, known for its cathedral and as the capital of champagne. But as the city has only 200,000 inhabitants its opera is unimportant (13 performances in the whole season 2005-2006). The programme is a hybrid one: some art songs by Barber and Copland surrounded by popular songs by Gershwin, three hits of West Side Story, successes of Richard Rogers and four Negro spirituals.

The programme starts rather badly. Since Leontyne Price, as long ago as 1967 with her “Right as the Rain” album, decided that scooping and gliding was the way to perform some of these popular songs, most of her successors took the same road. Farrell, Te Kanawa, Hendricks and recently Fleming followed her lead, thereby disillusioning jazz-lovers for whom they remained opera-singers and opera-lovers who detested their abuse of their voices. Fernandez clearly thinks that “I’ve got a crush on you” and “Summertime” (a real opera aria after all) ought to be crooned. By the third track “Love walked in” she all at once remembers she is an opera singer after all and to my relief starts singing straight on.

Neither her Barber or her Copland songs make a deep impression and probably she didn’t want to bore her public too much with it. So, most of these songs last less than three minutes, while her popular numbers easily go over five. With West Side Story one sits up and pays more attention. After all those abusive Aidas she still has a really fine girlish sound somewhat reminiscent of Kathy Battle, though a little bit less pure. The same fresh sound serves her well in South Pacific and The Sound of Music and there is nothing wrong with the enthusiasm she brings to her four spirituals. It is only when she goes above the stave that one hears that the voice has suffered and is not young anymore. Every top note above A is shrill and not pleasant to hear. Pianist Bruno Fontaine is allowed some leeway to improvise a bit now and then but he clearly knows how to support the former “Diva”.

Jan Neckers

image_description=The Diva Live — Wilhelmenia Fernandez & Bruno Fontaine

product_title=The Diva Live — Wilhelmenia Fernandez & Bruno Fontaine
product_by=Wilhelmenia Fernandez, soprano, and Bruno Fontaine, piano
product_id=Transart Productions TR 110 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 8:21 PM

Singer Horne Keeps Schedule Despite Cancer

By VERENA DOBNIK [Associated Press, 19 January 2006]

NEW YORK -- Mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne has localized pancreatic cancer and is undergoing treatment that offers an excellent chance for full recovery, her manager said Thursday.

Horne, 72, was diagnosed in mid-December, said Denise Pineau, her manager at Columbia Artists Management.

Posted by Gary at 2:25 PM

Little Debbie

voigt_2006.jpgSlimmed-down diva Deborah Voigt makes her cabaret debut at Lincoln Center

By Adam Feldman [Time Out New York, 19 January 2006]

The great soprano Deborah Voigt, one of the world's premier interpreters of Wagner and Strauss, is nursing a latte at Starbucks, intoning a selection from the less demanding oeuvre of the Carpenters. "Superstar," it seems, is among the songs that she has been considering for her cabaret debut this week, in Lincoln Center's invaluable American Songbook concert series.

Posted by Gary at 9:30 AM

Not a Bitter Note in Their Song

DelTredici.jpgBy JAY NORDLINGER [NY Sun, 19 January 2006]

On Tuesday night in the Juilliard School's Peter Jay Sharp Theater, a really good idea came to fruition. In conjunction with the New York Festival of Song, the school presented a concert called "100 Years of Juilliard Composers in Song." The Juilliard School is celebrating its centennial, you see. And a lot of composers have passed through there - either as students or teachers. It was the idea of the concert to feature 24 of these composers, in one song each.

Posted by Gary at 8:57 AM

La Traviata, Royal Opera House, London — Three Reviews

A 'Traviata' on shaky ground

By Edward Seckerson [Independent, 18 January 2006]

If Alfredo's love for Violetta is indeed "the heartbeat of the universe", as he so ardently proclaims in the very first scene of La traviata, then this revival is urgently in need of open-heart surgery. It has been a year since the last exhumation of Richard Eyre's tepid staging, since when the temperature has dropped significantly. No fear of the elaborate ice sculpture at Violetta's party melting prematurely now; but some concern that our heroine will actually make it to Act III. There are many ways of dying on the operatic stage and, for Ana Maria Martinez, it began to look as if consumption might not be one of them.

Click here for remainder of article.

La Traviata — Royal Opera House, London

Erica Jeal [The Guardian, 19 January 2006]

Nothing fits the post-Christmas mood quite as well as a consumptive heroine coughing herself nobly into the grave - or at least that seems to be the Royal Opera's line, as it once again offers a January dusting-off of Richard Eyre's 1994 production of La Traviata. Several of the cast are retained from last year's performances; the conductor, Philippe Auguin, took over from Solti during the staging's first run. But experience doesn't always pay, and often Bob Crowley's monumental sets threaten to upstage what is taking place within them.

Click here for remainder of article.

La traviata, Royal Opera House London

By Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 19 January 2006]

One owner, quite high mileage, still in good condition. The Royal Opera's production of La traviata has barely been out of the repertoire since 1994 when Angela Gheorghiu scored such a hit in the opening performances, but none of the other sopranos who has taken it for a spin has quite made it her own.

Click here for remainder of article.

image_description=Anna Maria Martinez

Posted by Gary at 8:46 AM

January 18, 2006

GERSHWIN: Porgy and Bess

The CD booklet essay (by Richard Osborne) describes the mid-80s as a time when Gershwin’s opera finally found widespread acceptance and acknowledgement of its greatness. The Metropolitan Opera presented its first production about this time, under James Levine, and Glyndebourne found a committed exponent in conductor Simon Rattle. After the success of the latter production, Rattle took most of the cast into the studio to record the opera.

No doubt, as a recording done with a committed, talented cast in modern sound, Rattle’s Porgy and Bess has much to recommend it. Willard White conveys Porgy’s passion and dignity with strength and taste. Harolyn Blackwell brings her luscious, evocative soprano to Clara, who sings the classic “Summertime.” Cynthia Haymon, a “discovery” of this production, does not possess the most distinctive voice, but her Bess retains our sympathy even as she gives into her past and abandons the man who rescued her from it.

On the other hand, Damon Evans’s Sporting Life overemphasizes the unappealing nature of the character with a tenor that tends to grate on the ear, especially as it extends above the staff. Furthermore, the more trained tinge to his voice works against his characterization.

However, few recordings, “great” or otherwise, have casts of unalloyed greatness in every role. Two issues regarding Rattle’s Porgy and Bess, one under his control and the other not, make your reviewer reluctant to agree to EMI’s marketing gambit for this re-issue.

The recorded sound, described on the CD case as remastered, presents an odd acoustic where voices and orchestral forces never seem to blend, and the chorus sounds even further removed. Perhaps this is partly due to the low levels set for playback, which meant for this listener that the volume had to be turned very high for satisfactory listening, and then climaxes came on much too strong. Besides being disappointing in itself, the sound quality affects the drama, making too much sound studiously theatrical rather than immediate and real.
Rattle himself poses the other problem. No man can – or should be able to – rise to the top music director position in classical music (Rattle heads the Berlin Philharmonic) without an amazing talent. This Porgy and Bess offers much evidence of that talent. Ensemble is immaculate, climaxes roar up out of the score like tidal waves, and individual details are lovingly presented.

However…and the listener’s bias may, admittedly, play a role here – nothing really sounds authentic. There is no hint of swing, especially in the moments that most clearly call for it. Tempos often feel just that tad too slow, producing a regrettable sense of drag. All your reviewer could think was, “Why didn’t Bernstein record this?”

A less than satisfactory recording cannot spoil Gershwin’s immortal score. For many people, however, that score’s existence remains in the supreme versions of individual numbers done by great popular singers through the decades. I couldn’t be without Sarah Vaughan’s Summertime or My Man’s Gone Now, and when I want to hear a lot of the score, the highlights recording from Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald calls.

Acoustics, as well as an appreciation for certain conductors, tending to be a personal taste, there may well be many, many fans for whom Rattle’s Porgy and Bess truly deserves its appellation, “Great recording of the century.” For them, the reissue is here, in EMI’s fine packaging.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

image_description=Gershwin: Porgy and Bess

product_title=George Gershwin: Porgy and Bess
product_by=Willard White, Cynthia Haymon, Damon Evans, London Philharmonic, Glyndebourne Chorus, Simon Rattle (cond.)
product_id=EMI 7243 4 76836 2 6 [3CDs]

Posted by Gary at 8:25 PM

Die Schöne Magelone — Wigmore Hall, London

goerne.jpgErica Jeal [The Guardian, 18 January 2006]

Brahms was a prolific lieder composer, but among his works only Die Schöne Magelone can really be called a song cycle, and we don't get to hear it often. Matthias Goerne made a persuasive case for it; however, the context of its presentation did it no favours.

Posted by Gary at 9:11 AM


This was fortunate, as its opera house, built around 1828 in a style reminiscent of a scaled-down Opéra Garnier, has been playing host to many first-time international visitors who have been lured by the mouth-watering prospect of hearing Rolando Villazón, hot young tenor of the moment, in his first “Werther”.

Villazón has already gained some outstanding reviews and praise from the sternest critics around the world for his performances in such works as Rigoletto, Romeo et Juliette, La Traviata and les Contes d’Hoffmann. He is already spoken of as “the next Domingo” — understandable if maybe a mite premature as this stage of his career. He is only 33, and his recent meteoric rise appears to have been sensibly planned and considered. He does indeed relate closely to Domingo, his “artistic father” (his words) who, though he never actually coaches him acts as mentor and friend to the young singer.

Audience reaction in Nice has been ecstatic and loudly vocal — perhaps too much so at the performance this writer attended when one particularly partisan group of Villazón fans in the first balcony had to be remonstrated with by a stern “Respectez la musique!” from another part of the theatre. One imagines Rolando Villazón himself was equally unimpressed. The Nice Opéra audience was obviously deeply impressed and delighted to be hearing this singer, and I wondered how such an elegant and enterprising, but essentially provincial house (with budgets to match) had managed to achieve such a coup. The answer lies in a meeting between Villazón and the producer Paul-Emile Fourny back in 2001 at the Antibes Festival. Fourny happened to remark that he wanted to stage “Werther” as soon as possible in Nice; Villazón replied that he very much wanted to add this role to his repertoire and a deal was made; luckily, I am informed, at a fee that would no longer buy this artist’s time! Of course, the advantage for Villazón is that he has been able to try out an important new role in a smaller house before submitting himself to critical review on the larger stages of the world.

Both the role and this simple but satisfying production suit Villazón perfectly, playing to his strengths and offering him ample scope to display his musical and histrionic abilities. The young Mexican certainly has the ‘physique du role’ — slim, athletic, and an elegant mover on stage, he transmits the kind of emotional vulnerability essential for this tortured young lover who is cruelly denied his dream. Perhaps it is the combination of ringing clarity and the ability to offer every nuance of expression that impressed most. The voice has a thrilling, easy top, and his delicacy and refinement in the role’s many quieter, reflective moments were matched by a most intelligent response to the words. Every line was delivered with complete understanding of, and immersion in, the character. Werther will surely become a most important role for Villazón and with good reason.

Of the other singers, the mezzo Marie-Ange Todorovitch as Charlotte was the most impressive. She has a handsome stage presence and is a sympathetic actress — and once under full control her big, dark voice brought real intensity and power to the emotionally fraught scene in Act 3 where she fully deserved the warm ovations after the “Air des Lettres” and “Air des Larmes”. She also rose magnificently to the demands of the intensely dramatic final scene and was, along with her illustrious partner, intensely moving. Andre Cognet was a forthright Albert and Sophie was sung with quintessential French spirit by Valérie Condoluci. Of the remainder, Jean-Luc Ballestra offered a promising baritone voice and stage presence and Michel Trempont brought his maturity and rich tones to a satisfying portrayal of the Le Bailli.

The conductor was the well-regarded Patrick Fournillier who was obviously firmly in control of the orchestra and in absolute sympathy with his singers. His shaping of the Entr’acte between Acts Three and Four was particularly dramatic and appealing. The choir of children was perfectly schooled and musically correct, yet also natural — not easy to achieve. The production, sets and lighting were of a suitably elegant nature, if not presenting the audience with any great visual challenges or delights. The final scene was slightly reduced in impact by an upstage procession of the children and minor characters — an interesting device but essentially misconceived in this writer’s opinion as all concentration should surely be on the dying lovers, with the outside world kept only to an aural presence.

However, minor distractions apart, this was a most exciting and successful production of Massenet’s great work and one in which the visiting star, supporting singers and musicians rose admirably to the occasion. Nice Opéra are to be congratulated — let us hope we see more such enterprising events presented here.

© Sue Loder 2006

Click here to view a larger image.

image_description=Rolando Villazón and Marie-Ange Todorovitch

Posted by Gary at 8:34 AM

January 17, 2006

Still rocking us Amadeus

Mozart_operas.jpgAndrew Crumey [Scotsman, 15 January 2006]

Mozart And His Operas

David Cairns
Penguin, £20

WOLFGANG Amadeus Mozart was born 250 years ago this month, and a spate of new books marks the anniversary. Given the abundance of new biographies, David Cairns - who won the Whitbread Award for his massive study of Berlioz - opts for a more specialised approach, focusing on Mozart's operas, which have long been regarded by many as his greatest achievement.

Posted by Gary at 4:11 PM

Chamber Orchestra of Europe/von Otter, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Reasons to be miserable, part three
By Anna Picard [The Independent, 15 January 2006]

The first concert of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe's Silver Jubilee Season brought the changing colours of the countryside to the concrete bunker of London's Queen Elizabeth Hall. Two composers with unalloyed admiration for nature framed a third whose relationship with the great outdoors was perhaps more that of analysand to analyst. Each was played with a lyricism and dynamism that raises the bar for every other orchestra using this venue.

Posted by Gary at 3:57 PM

Benvenuto Cellini, Opéra national du Rhin Strasbourg

cellini_small.jpgBy Francis Carlin [Financial Times, 17 January 2006]

After Béatrice et Bénédict, this is the second leg of Nicholas Snowman's ambitious Berlioz cycle. But here the production team of Renaud Doucet and André Barbe are less daring, transforming the whole work into a conveniently mad farce rather than trying to mesh the serious and comic elements.

Posted by Gary at 3:48 PM

Salome — Town Hall, Leeds

Titian-salome_small.jpgAlfred Hickling [Guardian, 16 January 2006]

There have been a number of decapitations at Leeds Town Hall recently, as Opera North's temporary relocation has caused a few heads to roll. December's semi-staging of Saul introduced Goliath's in a linen bag; now it is John the Baptist's turn, his served on a silver plate.

Posted by Gary at 3:41 PM


How much more do we want to know? How much more do we need to know? The many writings about Mozart since WW II are not of a passing interest. They betray a fascination, almost an obsession, with the life of this 18th century musician. A life that was akin to a great shooting star, which streaked across the musical heavens. As it burned itself out in its course, it delighted and amazed those who saw it and became legend and tale to those who did not, even creating its own band of nay-sayers. Such was the life of “God’s love,” (Theophilus) or as Mozart preferred Amadeus.

The approaching 250th anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart brings to the fore of the music market DVDs, CDs, books, memorabilia and, yes, even kitsch. The following essay offers a look at three items worthy of reading, viewing, and hearing. These are aesthetic and intellectual pleasures for those searching for a “new” and enriching Mozart experience.

Mozart_Companion.jpgThe Cambridge Companion to Mozart. Edited by Simon P. Keefe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, first published 2003.

In the world of Mozartiana, fiction is often accepted more as fact than the facts themselves. There is the continuous quest to reveal some titillating new detail about the personal life of the composer, whereby the gossip mills keep turning and the caricature of an eccentric or even an “idiot savant” remains fixed in the mind of those who would have it be so. Fortunately, this book is a publication of scholarly merit, which is as “accessible” to the academic as it is to the enthusiast. The Cambridge Companion to Mozart is must reading.

The first Mozart Companion, subtitled A Symposium by Leading Mozart Scholars, edited by H. C. Robbins Landon and Donald Mitchell, appeared in print in 1955/56 in conjunction with the bicentenary of the composer’s birth. The annotations alone, speak of its place in the nascent stages of Mozart scholarship: the use of Emily Anderson’s translations of The Letters of Mozart and his Family (1938), Koechel’s thematic catalog of Mozart’s works, a third edition prepared by Alfred Einstein in 1937 and further revised after WW II (1947), and the names of such eminent Mozart scholars as Otto Erich Deutsch, Friedrich Blume, H. C. Robbins Landon, Karl Geiringer, Gerald Abraham, and Jens Peter Larsen, each contributing according to his own area of expertise. While the essays and discussions touch on style and influence, the focus is the music: keyboard, wind band, chamber music, symphonies, concerti, operas, concert arias, small orchestral works, and church music. In his “Foreword,” Donald Mitchell writes: “Mozart’s extraordinary versatility, the ease with which he worked in the various media … makes it almost impossible for one commentator … The picture of the whole Mozart is too complex in extent and content … for one mind to comprehend the total unity which exists behind the dazzling variety.” (xi) One might also say that it is too complex for one Companion.

The Cambridge Companion to Mozart is a continuation of the work published fifty years ago, as Simon P. Keefe states, “Like its illustrious predecessor from an earlier era … The Cambridge Companion to Mozart brings new, up-to-date scholarship into a public arena. Intended for scholars and music lovers alike, it aims to bridge the gap between scholarly and popular images of the composer by enhancing a reader’s appreciation of Mozart and his remarkable output regardless of musical aptitude or prior knowledge of Mozart’s music.” (Introduction, 2) The recurring theme in both publications, as well as in Mozartian secondary literature in general, is that the music and the man deserve responsible analysis and interpretation.

Essayists of the first Companion have since become distinguished names in the area of Mozart scholarship: Emily Anderson, whose Letters is now in its third edition; Wilhelm Bauer and Otto Erich Deutsch, authors of the seven volumes of Mozart: Letters and Records; Deutsch’s Mozart: A Documentary Biography and his Mozart: The Documents of his Life; and the exquisite Neue Ausgabe sämtlicher Werke, which began in 1955 and continues today.

The Cambridge Companion is in four parts, offering something to those of all music disciplines: 1) attends to Mozart’s place in late 18th century Salzburg and Vienna, with a new and vigorous discussion of Mozart’s aesthetic views and those of the times, as well as his compositional methods. This section is of particular interest in regards to Mozart’s life in Salzburg, his vocal writing and recent scholarship that addresses the revisions in some of his arias, and his fondness for the voice and for singers. 2) Offers a survey of the genres in which Mozart excelled, although a bit lean when compared to similar sections in the 1955/56 Companion; it segues into part 3) how the music and the composer himself have been received in society and culture since his death. The nineteenth century perspective and the current fascination are discussions, the benefit of which, are the product of time. 4) This section, regrettably too short, addresses Mozart’s career as a performer as well as theoretical and practical perspectives on historically informed performances of his music. By its length and overview approach, it is more of an introduction to the topic. Levin in particular, offers enough commentary to spark interest for those of a serious nature to look further, and for the appetite of the devotee to be sated. Throughout the Companion, the endnotes are rich in content. It is best to read them in connection with the text; the flipping back and forth is well worth the effort.

The definition of the word “companion” (one who accompanies or associates with another; one who travels with another) suggests that this book is not to be read in a vacuum, but rather in conjunction with something else. One might read it in combination with the first Companion, a live performance, or a Mozart listening event. It serves as a wonderful introduction to Mozart opera, Don Giovanni.

Don_Giovanni_TDK.gifDon Giovanni (K. 527), conducted by Riccardo Muti, with the Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna Staatsoper; Carlos Álvarez, Fran-Josef Selig, Adrianne, Pieczonka, Michael Schade, Anna Caterina Antonacci, Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, Angelika Kirchschlager, and Lorenzo Regazzo; directed for stage by Roberto de Simone; Co-produced by the Wiener Staatsoper and Wiener Festwochen; DVDW-OPDG, Wiener Staats Oper LIVE, 1999/2005. Brian Large directs the video production. There are 70 cuing tracks, subtitles in five languages, and the stereo sound is well balanced; no surround-sound.

On 26 June 1999, opening night of this performance, this production team of Don Giovanni met with a few “boos” and mixed reviews from the international press, with the German papers voicing the greatest skepticism. Although the production was questionable, such was not the case for the singers, the orchestra or Maestro Muti, for whom there was “an explosion of applause.” Although the name Muti is not generally associated with expertise in the area of Mozart, the Viennese Orchestra responds to the Maestro’s choice of dynamics, phrasing and tempi. As an aside, some may find tempi, at times, a tad too energetic. Muti is sensitive to the vocalists, never demanding that they compete with the orchestra. Together, they produce lovely sounds and musical moments. The Mozart ensembles remain in tact and a delight.

Like Faust, the title character of this opera is an archetype; a timeless creature. One may even speculate about the similarities between Don Giovanni and the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838), who frequently moved from city to city because of scandal or intrigue. The cause of this rather contradictory reception rests with Roberto de Simone, who depicts Don Giovanni traveling through time, beginning in the 16th century and continuing for two centuries. There are many costume changes--Giovanni alone has seven! It is an intriguing twist, one that may have delighted Mozart’s own theatrical flair. Edmund J. Goehring writes in the Cambridge Companion, “Mozart’s finest opera buffe seem unruly in their resistance to [the discipline of restrained language and probable situations.]” One of the pitfalls is readjusting one’s mental time-frame with each costume change. Moreover, it interferes with—almost superseding—the actual story.

The production was staged in the rather intimate Theatre an der Wien, 26/27 June 1999, as part of the Wiener Festwochen. Emanuel Schikaneder, the librettist of Die Zauberfloete and the original Papageno built this particular theater in 1800. Its architecture, along with its size and wonderful acoustics, faithfully portrays the tradition of the Baroque theatre, which is the starting point for Roberto de Simone’s production.

Carlos Álvarez sings the title role. His voice is commanding and a wonderful instrument. The quiver of sexuality and the undercurrent of violence are on the sparse side. Amid the beautiful vocal sounds, one waits for his commitment to the character. This is extremely important to the continuity of de Simone’s time-traveler staging. It is also one of the distractions from its total success.

Leporello, as sung by Ildebrando d’Arcangelo is at times over the edge. From his first scene, he commands the stage—almost becoming the focal point!

Adrianne Pieczonka as Donna Anna, the wronged woman, is exquisite. Particularly engaging is her lower ranges, e.g., in Non me dir. In her last scene with Michael Schade as Don Ottavio, Pieczonka is gentle, smooth and a delight for the ear. While Schade is not a powerful tenor, particularly in his lower register, Pieczonka accommodates him and does not overwhelm. A regular at the Theatre an der Wien, Schade’s presentation of vocal colors and dynamics is impeccable.

Anna Caterina Antonacci sings a vibrant and characteristically perfect Donna Elvira. She navigates Mozart’s wide tessitura with ease and agility; register transfers are fluid and unnoticed. She works and plays well with others, extracting from each that which gives her character buoyancy and life. She can be resentful and reproving and yet girlishly enticing. Antonacci renders Donna Elvira in totality. Superb!

Characteristic of Don Giovanni is the graveyard scene. Unfortunately, this rendition lacks verve. Franz-Josef Selig as the Commendatore, does not overwhelm Don Giovanni. One awaits power and ascendancy. One is disappointed. The graveyard set is strange, sans gravestones and two statues?

In the end, it is all a matter of interpretation. In the end, it is the musical interpretation of Muti and the magnificent vocal cast that makes this DVD well worth the experience. Proving, once again, that Mozart is timeless.

The legacy of a musician such as Mozart is measured in many ways, including in part, the accomplishments of students and those who came after him. JOSEPH EYBLER (1765-1846) was a pupil of Johan Georg Albrechtsberger and a respected friend of Mozart and Haydn, the former also gave him lesson. Mozart utilized Eybler’s choral skills to help coach the singers in (and conduct performances of) Cosi fan tutte K.588. The friendship between Mozart and Eybler appears to have been one of honesty, modesty and devotion. As Eybler put it: “I had the good fortune to keep his friendship without reservation until he died, and carried him, put him to bed and helped to nurse him during his last painful illness.” Mozart’s respect for von Eybler is documented in a testimonial written on 30 May 1790:

“I, the undersigned, attest herewith that I have found the bearer of this, Herr Joseph Eybler, to be a worthy pupil of his famous master Albrechtsberger, a well-grounded composer, equally skilled at chamber music and the church style, fully experienced in the art of the song, also an accomplished organ and clavier player; in short a young musician such, one can only regret, as so seldom has his equal.”
Wolfgang Amade’ Mozart, Kapellmeister in Imperial Service.
Von Eybler became Kapellmeister at the Carmelite Church in 1792 and advanced to the same post at the more prestigious Schottenkloster in Vienna in 1794. A position that he held for 30 years, before succeeding Salieri as Court Kapellmeister in 1824.

Eybler_die_vier.jpgHis Werkverzeichnis includes two oratorios: "The Shepherds at the Crib in Bethlehem” and Die vier letzten Dinge (The Four Last Things): Oratorio in 3 parts - CPO 7770242 (2 CDs) Libretto: Joseph von Sonnleithner. Elisabeth Scholl;Markus Schaefer; Peter Kooij;Rheinische Kantorei;Das Kleine Konzert; Hermann Max, conducting.

It is often said that the legacy of Mozart and Haydn is personified in the music of Joseph von Eybler. Die vier letzten Dinge clearly reflects the influence of these two great masters. It also demonstrates the true gift of a teacher, the freedom for students to take what they learn and make it their own. Mozart recognized Eybler’s ability in choral and vocal writing, which is creatively and wonderfully rendered in this oratorio and its great originality. Composed in 1810 as a commission for Emperor Francis I, Die vier letzten Dinge, continues the legacy of the German-language oratorio begun by Josef Haydn. It is a work in three parts: the end of the world, the resurrection, the Last Judgment and the redemption of the blessed.

Hermann Max directs this unknown masterpiece with the Rheinische Kantorei and Das Kleine Konzert. Together they perform the work with soloists including world-renowned German soprano and sister of Andreas Scholl, Elisabeth Scholl, and along with Mark Schaefer and Peter Kooij. The musical style is faithfully rendered. The vocal performances are a delight for the ear. One needs to only sit and enjoy the legacy of Mozart in the hands of Joseph von Eybler.

Geraldine M. Rohling

image_description=Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Posted by Gary at 12:52 PM


nathan_gunn_small.jpg[The Metropolitan Opera, 16 January 2005] The first annual Beverly Sills Artist Award for young singers at The Metropolitan Opera has been given to 35-year-old baritone Nathan Gunn. The new award of $50,000 was recently established by an endowment gift from Agnes Varis, a managing director on The Met board, and Karl Leichtman, her husband, in honor of Ms. Sills. It is the largest award of its kind in the United States.

Posted by Gary at 8:14 AM

January 16, 2006

STRAUSS: Capriccio

Carsen’s work focuses on bringing energy and movement to this static work, a parlor debate about the primacy of music or words, especially in opera. A brother and sister of nobility act as patrons for a new work, and the young composer and librettist not only vie artistically for primacy, but also to be the Countess’ first choice as paramour (while her brother the Count pursues Clairon, an actress). Meanwhile the proposed director frets that his role is bring slighted, and in a long monologue proposes that without his guiding genius, neither music nor words would come to life. Finally all step aside to get to work, and then the Countess reenters to soliloquize on the glorious unresolved nature of the debate.

The set Carsen works with mirrors the great Paris hall the performance takes place in, with its ornate, golden columns. Although the libretto retains its many references to Gluck as a contemporary opera composer of note, the costumes reflect the era in which Strauss wrote the opera. Dark-clad Nazi officers stray through the set at one point, with no particular purpose in mind.

Now, video director Roussillon had the clever idea of directing a sort of preamble in which Renée Fleming glides through the lobby of the theater, so that all DVD viewers can understand the set’s significance, even if the viewers have never attended an opera in that house. Fine enough.

However, at opera’s end, a very distracting filmed sequence has the cast – including Miss Fleming – taking box seats in the theater to enjoy the Countess’ final monologue. The number of “meaningful glances” exchanged here far exceeds the limit that should be placed on any director, and a coy, artificial feeling that has dogged the entire performance finally overcomes the senses, to an unfortunate degree spoiling the effect of that lovely postlude.

The final stage coup, however, with all the scenery pulling away to reveal the bare interior of the stage, makes for a compensatory climax.

Capriccio is a fragile piece, and without being able to place blame in one exact area, something false about the production hampers and deadens the affair. Perhaps Carsen overdirected, as the performers all work just a bit too hard to have fun. Especially noteworthy here are the cartoonish Italian singers, with some unfunny slapstick. In the huge ensemble section, a compositional miracle from Strauss, the chaotic action distracts from the music’s effect, rather than supporting it.

Carsen certainly has a notable cast to work with. Apart from a couple of tight high notes, Fleming glories in the role, and her dramatic restraint, amidst all the other cavortings, is most welcome. Dietrich Henschel, looking remarkably like the American satirist Harry Shearer, may not be a plausible brother to Fleming but sings well. Rainer Trost and Gerald Finley both appear a little foolish a little too often, which is not their fault, but they have the vocal goods for the roles.

Franz Hawlata makes a huge meal out of his solo, but there is no real character there, in this production. Similarly, Anne Sofie von Otter’s Clarion is all caricature, though she is in good vocal shape and always a charismatic performer. Robert Tear’s little solo scene as the prompter, with the head servant (well played by Petri Lindroos), suffers also from a cartoonish spin. And as mentioned above, Barry Banks and Annamaria Dell’Oste really have to make monkeys of themselves. Yes, they are figures of satire, but as overplayed here, a mean edge creeps in that the creators probably did not intend. Furthermore, as Banks seems to be made up to look a bit like Carlo Bergonzi, those of us who revere the great tenor may find some offense there as well.

No, for Capriccio, surely first choice remains the 1993 San Francisco opera production, with Kiri te Kanawa leading an exemplary cast, including Tatiana Troyanos as a truly stunning and funny Clairon, caught not long before her untimely death. Donald Runnicles leads that performance. Ulf Schirmer and his fine orchestra cannot be faulted at all in this Paris production.

One last cavil – the odd acoustic. On one hand, the voices have perfect placement and any audience present makes not a single cough or rustle. On the other hand, one wonders after a while if the sound picture shouldn’t change a bit when a singer turns his back or moves from stage rear to the front. It does not. Your reviewer almost suspects that this performance was not filmed before a live audience. Although applause greets the end of the performance, no audience is ever shown, and the sense of a performance caught in pristine conditions comes through. The DVD case has no date for the recording, only “June 2004.”

Yes, the cast is great, the music well performed, the sets and costumes imaginative and detailed – but somehow this Capriccio is much, much less than the sum of its considerable parts.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

image_description=Richard Strauss: Capriccio

product_title=Richard Strauss: Capriccio
product_by=Renée Fleming, Dietrich Henschel, Rainer Trost, Gerald Finely, Franz Hawlata, Anne Sofie von Otter, Robert Tear, Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris, Ulf Schirmer (cond.).
product_id=TDK DVWW-OPCAPR [DVD]

Posted by Gary at 9:33 PM

Trinity Sunday at Westminster Abbey

Trinity Sunday, the Sunday after Pentecost, is an unusual day in the Anglican church calendar—the only feast devoted to a doctrine—and the present recording presents music that one “might hear if you visited Westminster Abbey on Trinity Sunday.” The range of composers and styles represented is wide: Thomas Tomkins and John Farmer from the “Golden Age,” the richly Victorian John Stainer and George Elvey, twentieth-century stalwarts like Edward Bairstow, Herbert Howells, Benjamin Britten, and William Walton, and even a “modern” Francis Grier, all arranged to give a musical sense of the three choral services of the day: Matins, Eucharist, and Evensong.

The range seems to reflect actual practice, with the Dean of Westminster in a program note even suggesting that the range is, in context, “Trinitarian.” He writes that “from Tomkins through Elvey to Britten and Walton is comprehensive, mixing different styles, while their distinctiveness remains. Does not that exemplify the Trinity? One liturgy but three distinct but non-competing styles?” So, the recording is tightly thematic, although that said, the recording also seems perhaps a bit at odds with itself. In some ways it attempts to give a sense of being at a service—the opening peal of the Westminster bells, for instance, or the “functional” Preces and Responses at Matins are what one might expect in a service recording. But by the same token, the Evensong section omits responses and prayers, providing only the more musically substantial items. Surprisingly—and regrettably—none of the liturgical sections include any hymnody.

Other aspects of the programming are curious. The cathedral repertory is one rooted in tradition, and thus the frequency with which certain works get recorded is not altogether surprising. However, two of the larger works on the recording, Grier’s Missa Trinitatis Sanctae and Howells’ Magnificat and Nunc dimittis from the Westminster Service have both been recorded by the Abbey Choir under O’Donnell’s predecessor, Martin Neary, as recently as the mid-1990’s. This seems too much repetition, too soon. And, if the recording is to include but only one anthem, one wonders if Stainer’s “I saw the Lord” is the best choice. Its Victorian vocabulary easily seems decidedly melodramatic today in a way that is difficult to overcome, though admittedly, “after the smoke clears,” his lyric section is a welcome reminder of the tunefulness of the age.

Certainly there is much to like in the performances. I thought the choir at its best in the “Gloria” from Grier’s evocative Mass, where the combination of brilliant treble sound and marked rhythmic verve were particularly memorable. And, in general, it was the exuberant moments in a number of pieces—the climax of the Britten Te Deum, for instance—that found the choir most satisfyingly at home.

Certain other aspects were less satisfying. The evensong psalm, Psalm 107, is one of the longer, with a demanding forty-three verses. Given its great length, one might have imagined a more varied approach to the chanting, though the organist’s rumblings to depict “they . . . stagger like a drunken man” were well aimed. Also, in some instances throughout the recording, the blend seemed to suffer from too much vibrato in the lower men’s range. This proved particularly distracting in the mystical, intertwining lines of the Grier “Sanctus.”

“Trinity Sunday at Westminster Abbey,” though not without some curiosities and minor flaws, remains a welcome document of the richness of a liturgical and musical treasure. The distinguished musical tradition of the Abbey is, as always, one to savor.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

image_description=Trinity Sunday at Westminster Abbey

product_title=Trinity Sunday at Westminster Abbey
product_by=The Choir of Westminster Abbey; Robert Quinney, Organ; James O’Donnell, conductor
product_id=Hyperion CDA67557 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 9:07 PM

Bringing Massenet to the masses

KENNETH WALTON [Scotsman, 16 January 2006]

'MASSENET'S world is defined by song, even when nobody is singing." The author of that comment - Matthew Boyden in his excellent book, The Rough Guide to Opera - captures in a nutshell the essence of the pivotal French opera composer, whose best-known work these days is undoubtedly, and perhaps misleadingly, the famous Meditation for violin and orchestra.

Posted by Gary at 9:44 AM

Soprano's versatility sparkled

By Melinda Bargreen [Seattle Times, 16 January 2006]

Opera fans know to expect lots of surprises in the Act II party scene of "Die Fledermaus," when visiting real-life dignitaries often appear as walk-on "guests" at the Prince's gala soiree. (Gov. Christine Gregoire, who was to appear in just such a role Saturday, canceled because of the state's flooding emergency.)

Posted by Gary at 9:39 AM

Schumann Rarity: An Opera of Bits and Pieces of 'Faust'

robert-schumann_small.jpgBy BERNARD HOLLAND [NY Times, 16 January 2006]

CLEVELAND, Jan. 15 - Like the rest of us, Schumann yearned to be where he wasn't. In hand were his exquisite songs and piano pieces, the imperfect but inspired symphonies, and more. But over the next hill and just out of sight was opera. He never quite found how to get there.

Posted by Gary at 9:24 AM

January 15, 2006

MOZART: La clemenza di Tito

First performance: 6 September 1791 at the National Theatre, Prague.


Tito Vespasiano, Imperatore di RomaTenor
Vitellia, figlia dell'Imperatore VitellioSoprano
Servilia, sorella di Sesto, amante d'AnnioSoprano
Sesto, amico di Tito, amante di VitelliaSoprano
Annio, amico di Sesto, amante di ServiliaSoprano
Publio, prefetto del pretorisBass

Time and Place: Rome during the reign of Titus Flavius Vespasianus (79-81 C.E.)


Act I

Vitellia, daughter of deposed emperor Vitellius, wants revenge against Tito (“Titus”) and stirs up Titus’ vacillating friend Sesto (“Sextus”), who is in love with her, to act against him. But when she hears word that Titus has sent Berenice, of whom she was jealous, back to Jerusalem, Vitellia tells Sextus to delay carrying out her wishes, hoping Titus will choose her (Vitellia) as his empress.

Titus, however, decides to choose Sextus’ sister Servilia to be his empress, and orders Annio (“Annius,” Sextus’ friend) to bear the message to Servilia. Since Annius and Servilia, unbeknownst to Titus, are in love, this news is very unwelcome to both. Servilia decides to tell Titus the truth but also says that if Titus still insists on marrying her, she will obey. Titus thanks the gods for Servilia’s truthfulness and immediately forswears the idea of coming between her and Annius.

In the meantime, however, Vitellia has heard the news about Titus’ interest in Servilia and is again boiling with jealousy. She urges Sextus to go assassinate Titus. He agrees, singing one of the opera’s most famous arias, “Parto, parto.” Almost as soon as he leaves, Annius and the guard Publio (“Publius”) arrive to escort Vitellia to Titus, who has now chosen her as his empress. She is torn with feelings of guilt and worry over what she has sent Sextus to do.

Sextus, meanwhile, is at the Capitol wrestling with his conscience as he and his accomplices go about to burn it down. The other characters (except Titus) enter severally and react with horror to the burning Capitol. Sextus reenters and announces that he saw Titus slain, but Vitellia stops him from incriminating himself as the assassin.

Act II

Annius tells Sextus that Emperor Titus is in fact alive and has just been seen; in the smoke and chaos, Sextus mistook another for Titus. Soon Publius arrives to arrest Sextus, bearing the news that it was one of Sextus’ co-conspirators who dressed himself in Titus’ robes and was stabbed, though not mortally, by Sextus. The Senate tries Sextus as Titus waits impatiently, sure that his friend will be exonerated; but the Senate finds him guilty, and an anguished Titus must sign Sextus’ death sentence.

He decides to send for Sextus first, attempting to obtain further details about the plot. Sextus takes all the guilt on himself and says he deserves death, so Titus tells him he shall have it and sends him away. But after an extended internal struggle, Titus tears up the execution warrant for Sextus and determines that, if the world wishes to accuse him (Titus) of anything, it can charge him with showing too much mercy rather than with having a revengeful heart.

Vitellia at this time is torn by guilt and decides to confess all to Titus, giving up her hopes of empire in the well-known rondo “Non più di fiori.” In the ampitheater, the condemned (including Sextus) are waiting to be thrown to the wild beasts. Titus is about to show mercy when Vitellia offers her confession as the instigator of Sextus’ plot. Though shocked, the emperor includes her in the general clemency he offers. The opera concludes with all the subjects praising the extreme generosity of Titus, while he himself asks that the gods cut short his days when he ceases to care for the good of Rome.

[Source: Wikipedia]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image_description=Titus Flavius Vespasianus

first_audio_name=Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: La clemenza di Tito

product_title=Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: La clemenza di Tito
product_by=Nicolai Gedda, Hilde Zadek, Ilse Wallenstein, Ira Malaniuk, Peter Offermanns, Gerhard Gröschel, Chor und Orchester des WDR Kölns, Josef Keilberth (cond.).
Live performance, Köln, December 1955.

Posted by Gary at 3:51 PM

Lyric hopes to lift curse with restaged 'Rigoletto'

rigoletto_mlodozeniec_small.jpgBY WYNNE DELACOMA [Chicago Sun-Times, 15 January 2006]

Let's try this one more time. In October 2000, Lyric Opera of Chicago unveiled a new production of Verdi's "Rigoletto" that provoked a level of controversy unusual for the company. Scores of patrons wrote letters to General Director William Mason expressing their ire at British director David Alden's concept of the work.

Posted by Gary at 10:10 AM

The Yeomen of New York

mikado2_small.jpgDoes anyone do this specialized repertory better than the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players?

By Peter G. Davis [New York Magazine, 23 January 2006]

Lots of good folk out there are still passionate about Gilbert & Sullivan, emerging every January when the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players take over City Center. This year’s season was limited to a week’s run of H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado, and the two matinees I attended were packed. True fans can’t get enough of these operettas, even though many of them know each one by heart—newcomers excepted, of course, like the bug-eyed kid next to me on his dad’s lap, hugely enjoying his first Pinafore. Neither Gilbert nor Sullivan was able to conjure up this kind of special magic on his own or with other collaborators. Perhaps the fact that they could barely tolerate each other—an antipathy tempered by a healthy mutual respect—kept their creativity so potent.

Posted by Gary at 9:49 AM

Everyone's Invited to Wolfgang's Party, Willing or Not

By BERNARD HOLLAND [NY Times, 15 January 2006]

BRACE yourselves. The 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth is upon us, and there is heavy weather on the horizon. Blizzards are impressive both for their power and for their tendency to obscure our senses. We shall have Mozart blowing in our faces for the next year, and the accumulations will be staggering. We shall hear the good and the bad, the long and the short, the loud and the quiet, the famous and the obscure. It will take all of 2007 to dig our way out.

Posted by Gary at 9:40 AM

January 14, 2006

Army Helps DNA Scientists Unravel Mozart Mystery

Mozart_1770_small.jpgKen Hall [Army News Service, 10 January 2006]

WASHINGTON - U.S. military DNA researchers have been involved in a 200-year-old mystery about the identity of a skull long-suspected to be that of classical music composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Posted by Gary at 4:06 PM

Berlin Opera Night

Eleven singers get listed on the DVD packaging, and two more who appear in the closing Fledermaus ensemble have their names listed at the end. Music by Mozart, Wagner, Puccini, and many other composers gets performed – although strangely, no Verdi.

The event, from November 2003, is the tenth anniversary of a concert given to benefit the German AIDS foundation. In opening shots of the audience, red ribbons adorn lapels like so many carnations. At the either side of the stage two large red ribbons serve as decoration, along with a screen behind the chorus on which an occasional image of dim relation to a selection gets projected. However, not a single word is spoken from the stage, at least in the contents of the DVD. Many may be thankful for that, but why does the viewer have to go to the booklet to understand the reason for the gala evening?

Ultimately, the singers make the difference regarding the desirability of this sort of operatic endeavor, and Berlin lines up some fine talent. Angelika Kirchschlager does her tasteful Cherubino act, and then René Pape sings Leporello’s catalog aria as if he were the Don boasting of his own accomplishments.

Michele Crider (a Berlin favorite, according to the booklet essay) sings an acceptable Vissi d’arte that earns an ovation much larger than it may deserve. Perhaps the audience expressed their gratitude at a change of pace from Mozart.

Adrianne Pieczonka makes the Rusalka “Song to the Moon” into a dramatic showpiece. The approach works well for a gala; in other venues, perhaps a lighter approach would be optimal.

One of the true successes of the evening follows, with Anne Schwanewilms singing Elsa’s “Einsam in truben.” The intonation tales a while to settle, but as the aria proceeds the soprano finds her place and manages to bring the viewers into the dramatic heart of the piece, something always difficult, if not impossible, to do in these gala affairs.

The Rosenkavalier trio, with Kirchschlager, Pieczonka, and Juliana Banse as Sophie, takes longer to settle and to begin to work its magic, but the three ladies are able to bring the piece to its usual shimmering close.

Besides Crider, the other impressive ovation of the evening goes to Salvatore Licitra’s “Nessun dorma.” The lesson here? Sing Puccini! Licitra cannot maintain a consistently attractive tone, but he has his moments and the final high note, whatever particular note it may be, rocks the crowd.

Grace Bumbry looks stunning as she appears for Dalila’s great aria. Perhaps if her voice had been warmed up more, it would have been steadier, and her final high note more integrated into the body of her voice production.

As with Schwanewilms’s Wagner piece, Vesselina Kasarova gets the benefit of a longer dramatic set piece. Her “Werther! Qui m’aurait dit….” becomes a showpiece both for the excellent orchestra, under Kent Nagano’s leadership, and Kasarova’s dark honeyed tone.

The evening ends with two very different tenors. Vladimir Galouzine brings his masculine, throaty style to Canio’s great aria, and the young Charles Castronovo’s sings a pleasant enough “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz.”

As mentioned above, two singers not listed on the case join all the others for a Fledermaus finale. Ending credits reveal a lively new baritone to be Marcus Bruck, who appeared at last year’s Cardiff competition. His is a most engaging presence and voice. Next to him is the elegant Joachim Kowalksi, whose piercing counter-tenor makes for quite a contrast.

Well photographed and with excellent sound, this DVD should bring enjoyment to fans of the listed singers and those who just enjoy gala concerts.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

image_description=Berlin Opera Night

product_title=Berlin Opera Night
product_by=Juliane Banse, Michele Crider, Adrianne Pieczonka, Anne Schwanewilms, Grace Bumbry, Vesselina Kasarowa, Angelika Kirchschlager, Salvatore Licitra, Charles Castronovo, Vladimir Galouzine, Rene Pape, Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Kent Nagano (cond.)
product_id=EuroArts 2053588 [DVD]

Posted by Gary at 3:43 PM


Nowadays, there are 25 versions available and this once half-forgotten opera has become a staple of the repertory. The opera was created in Vienna with my countryman Ernest van Dijck as the first Werther (there still is an Ernest van Dijckkaai in the heart of Antwerp though almost no Antverpian or Fleming still knows who Van Dijck was).

And now the Vienna State Opera has put their recent new production on DVD. You need not look far for the star of the performance. After a few seconds the first title reads : Inszenierung Andrei Serban and then you may ponder on that important fact for a minute before you can read the names of some other people involved in this production. However the DVD is meant to be sold and on the sleeve the names of the singers take prominence over the conductor’s, while Serban’s name is printed in minuscule letters. That is not correct either as Serban’s direction indeed weighs heavily on this Werther. Let me put it bluntly. I’m annoyed at the director’s carelessness with small details because otherwise this could be a performance on the level of Jonathan Miller’s production of Rigoletto or the less well-known Joosten production of Otello at Antwerp: updating an opera in such a way the piece will never be the same for you and traditional productions seem stale.

First allow me to be a grumpy old man before returning to greater things. Serban decided on updating this Werther to the nineteen fifties. You can almost put a year on it as a girl is playing with a hula-hoop introduced in 1958. Costumes and magnificent dresses (my wife tells me) are painstakingly correct and so are all the props. Therefore, some anachronisms simply jar. In those years, when even a bikini was thought to be risqué on a beach, no teenager like Charlotte’s sister Sophie would have dreamed showing her nude stomach as is now fashionable. Some people prefer not to use titles in whatever language in an operatic DVD because the contradiction between sung lines and the scene reality is sometimes too big. However I cannot help it living in a place a few miles from the language frontier between Dutch and French and thus being able to speak French. When Johann and Schmidt are singing: “nous les vieux” (“we the old ones”), I see on my screen two singers definitely not older than Werther himself and indeed playing soccer with the younger brothers and sisters of Charlotte. Involuntary, Serban makes it clear why the mother of the family died. There are 14 (fourteen) smaller children on the scene all claiming to be sisters and brothers of Charlotte and Sophie. And as most of them have the same height there must have been several pregnancies resulting in four or five children. Most productions will use 5 or 6 children and that will do. And as almost always the director didn’t pay attention enough to the words so that some superfluous anachronisms bring forth a laugh. Rocking Sophie claims Werther’s attention to “le premier menuet”. Change the words to “le premier danse” and there is no problem. Werther notes “le clavecin” while a piano is in full sight. So make it “le piano”.

But the main quality of this DVD is that the updating makes the story even more believable, even more emotionally wrenching. The fifties were the last decade of sexual repression, but also of an emphasis of duty over pleasure, of respect for marital promises, of well developed consciences and all the agony of Charlotte and the restraint of Werther suit the age perfectly. (Indeed one of my colleagues lived through the same hell and committed suicide as well and this was already early eighties). Most of us will recognize in this production some of the emotional problems our parents and their contemporaries lived with. The emotional gloominess is well illustrated by the giant tree which is the big set piece and as it has a platform around it this is an excellent place for watching and even spying what Werther and Charlotte are doing. While the tree changes with the seasons and becomes bald, so the many fine and colourful costumes change and darken too. But it is in the interaction between the protagonists that Serban scores very high indeed. With small touches he makes it clear that from the beginning Charlotte and Sophie are rivals. He succeeds in making Albert, Charlotte’s husband, a far more important player than he usually is and he has some clever ways, never against the music or the story, to show it. I’ll not reveal some of his solutions but the third act finale is strong stuff indeed and worthy of Il Tabarro.

And most important he is very ably assisted by a very talented team of singers. All small roles are very well cast. Adrian Eröd (Albert) is the somewhat sinister but very believable Albert. French critics were not very happy with Ileana Tonca as Sophie and I fail to see why. Her French is excellent and the voice is sprightly and a little sweet-sour, indeed in the best French tradition of a Germaine Féraldy. And as a teenager in love she succeeds extremely well. One almost regrets she doesn’t get her Werther and here too the updating makes her more believable than the traditional way. Mezzo Elina Garanča belongs to that latest category to burst on the operatic scene: the East-European (she is Latvian) singer like Netrebko and Gheorgiu who is extremely handsome and has a magnificent voice too. The voice is strong, pure, personal and only the low register is somewhat weak. The role suits her to a T; indeed suits her far better than some of the music she sang on her recent CD. Her Rossini and Bellini coloratura are still sketchy but great sweeps of beautiful sound in the late romantic repertoire show her formidable talent. And as an actress she is utterly convincing and fearless; smoking and inhaling just before her big aria. She will be a Charlotte for the ages when she improves her pronunciation as she was the only protagonist I had difficulty understanding.

Still a Werther stands or falls with the tenor: four big arias and several fine duets and I’m glad to report that Marcelo Álvarez is somewhat of a surprise. He acts with dignity and absolute conviction and succeeds in believing him to be a real person. No mean feat as he is a little bit suffering from that well-known operatic disease: Pavarottism; that means fasting before a performance and then wolfing down tons of food so that the romantic hero’s credibility starts to suffer. I’m not much impressed by his Italian roles. The voice is not incisive enough and lacks somewhat in colour. But in this Werther he shows rounded tones, good pronunciation and a fine use of dynamics. He knows how to tune down the voice to some fine pianissimo before once more launching with full voice into one of those murderous monologues. He is somewhat below his very best in what should be the high point of his role, the aria “Pourquoi me réveiller”. But he is not much helped by the conductor.

Swiss Philippe Jordan has a formidable orchestra at his disposal and most of the time he succeeds well in pacing the performance but now and then his inexperience shows in the tempi he chooses. Like many a youthful conductor, he wants to wring every drop of emotion out of a score and sometimes does it by tempi that are either too quick or too slow. He rushes his tenor during Werther’s second aria “J’aurais sur ma poitrine” and Álvarez proves he has reserves of breath. On the other hand the music comes almost to a standstill in Charlotte’s monologue before picking up too fast a pace.

That and some careless details make this DVD less than perfect. But yes, I shall have difficulties watching another Werther in wigs and crinoline.

Jan Neckers

image_description=Jules Massenet: Werther

product_title=Jules Massenet: Werther
product_by=Marcelo Álvarez, Adrian Eröd, Alfred Sramek, Peter Jelosts, Marcus Pelz, Clemens Unterreiner, Elina Garanča, Ileana Tonca, Maria Gusenleitner, Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, Philippe Jordan (cond.).
Stage director: Andrei Serban.
TV and Video Director: Claus Viller.
Recorded at the Wiener Staatsoper on February the 25th and 28th.
product_id=TDK DVWW-OPWER [DVD]

Posted by Gary at 3:21 PM

SCHEIDT: Ludi musici I, II, III & IV

However, a significant aspect of the early seventeenth century concerns the flourishing of instrumental music, much of which is vocally inspired, much of which is in continuity with sixteenth-century forms, but at the same time a repertory that is increasingly moving towards independence, sophistication, and idiomatic style.

One of the major composers of early seventeenth-century instrumental music is Samuel Scheidt, a pupil of Sweelinck, and a court musician at Halle in the service of the Margrave Christian Wilhelm of Brandenburg. Scheidt’s four volumes of Ludi musici appeared between 1621 and 1627—collections of dances, intradas, and canzonas—and it is the music of these collections that Musica Fiata, under the direction of the virtuoso cornettist, Roland Wilson, performs with stunning flair and sense of style. Bringing this music to life in this case involved more than the performing of the pieces, for a substantial portion survives only in parts; Wilson has thus had to be adept at reconstruction, and has handled that task with convincing results.

As the majority of this music has no specified instrumentation, Wilson has taken the liberty to put together the recording with an ear towards timbral variety: cornetts, trumpets, dulzians and trombones are joined by violins, viols, lutes, and organs, with diversity of configurations the order of the day. Particularly striking and memorable are the several pieces performed by four dulzians or four trombones, all in close, low-register voicings. And if the timbres are diverse, so too are the nature of the pieces themselves. Some are explicitly dolorous, some are extended variations on popular melodies, some are animated dances. To the seasoned ear, it is a satisfying program; however, the language and musical idiom at first blush may seem rather uniform, and some may find the recording more a collection to sample than a “concert program” to hear at one sitting.

In any event, the performances are stellar. All the works show a characteristic close attention to style, especially in the gracefully suave shaping of phrases and the command of fluidly “verbal” articulation. The playing is often wonderfully spirited—the opening intrada is the epitome of buoyancy—and impressively virtuosic. Never more so, perhaps, than in Scheidt’s famous “Galliard Battaglia." Here “dueling” violins and cornets display a vigor in the exchange of figuration that transforms a genre piece that sometimes lapses into predictability into a thrilling tour de force. Scheidt dedicated this piece to the court cornettist, who hopefully enjoyed the workout as much as Wilson and his colleagues seem to do!

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

image_description=Samuel Scheidt: Ludi musici I, II, III & IV

product_title=Samuel Scheidt: Ludi musici I, II, III & IV
product_by=Musica Fiata; Roland Wilson, Director
product_id=cpo 777 013-2 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 2:45 PM

CACCINI: Nuove musiche

In late sixteenth-century Florence, Caccini was a member of the famous camerata of Count Giovanni Bardi, a humanistically inclined academy in which discussions of ancient music provided a basis for the modern innovations of monody, recitative, and opera. Above all else, the new aesthetic mandated the priority of the text with the result that harmonic license and declamatory style united in the moving of the affections. Caccini’s compositions and the performance instructions that he provides for them richly document the advance of the new style. And in this new recording by Dutch soprano Johannette Zomer and theorbist Fred Jacobs, the impassioned nature of the repertory is well served by a dynamic and stylish performance.

Caccini’s songs fall into two categories, through-composed madrigals and strophic airs. The stanzaic repetitions of the latter preclude close attention to the text—here lyric values are ascendant—and Caccini offers several examples that are strongly reminiscent of the rhythmic zest of the much earlier frottola. Dance-like and toe-tapping, airs like “Dalla porta d’oriente” and “Non ha ‘l ciel cotanti lumi” are rendered here with a vivacity that is memorable and a command of rapid passage work that is impressive. The through-composed madrigals combine declamatory gestures with lyric, ornamental flights that allow the singer to shape the poem with heightened passion and attention to the details of the text. The texts are from varied poets, though on this recording Ottavio Rinuccini, the librettist for a number of the earliest operas, is amply represented. And the texts are largely devoted to the painful sorrows of love. So much so, in fact, that the first line of the madrigal “Tutto ‘l dì piango” (I weep all the day) would seem an apt subtitle for the collection. But significantly, if the music is to be impassioned, it requires a text that is equally so, and the bemoanings of unrequited love were well chosen to this end.

Zomer’s singing is entrancing: lithe and articulate with an engaging ornamental vibrancy and a tone that is both rich and focused. Above all, however, it is her responsiveness to the demands of expression that so mark these performances as memorable.

The theorbo playing of Fred Jacobs contributes much to the success of the readings, as well, with stylish accompaniments and a striking clarity of sound. He also engagingly performs a number of solo pieces by the Ferrarese court lutenist, Alessandro Piccinini, including several works based on pre-existent material—the Romanesca, the tenore detto il Mercatello, and the Chiaconna—all of which bring to mind the rich improvisational heritage of much early baroque instrumental performance.

In Nuove Musiche, Zomer and Jacobs provide a rich experience of the newly emerging baroque style. It is an experience to revisit with frequency.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

image_description=Nuove Musiche

product_title=Giulio Caccini: Nuove musiche
product_by=Johannette Zomer, soprano; Fred Jacobs, theorbo
product_id=Channel Classics CCS SA 21305 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 2:31 PM

GASPAROV: Five Operas and a Symphony

Eight insightful essays that constitute the book show the social and political realities of pivotal moments in Russian history, from the 1830s to the 1930s, being reflected through the music of the time — a witness to and participant in these moments that is equal in significance to its contemporary literature. As the operatic stage had traditionally been the principal ideological battleground of Russia's musical scene over much of the time period discussed here, Gasparov focuses his attention almost exclusively on opera. A chapter each is devoted to Glinka's Ruslan and Liudmila, Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, and Musorgsky's Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina. The "symphony" in the book's title refers to Shostakovich's 4th, although even in this sole "instrumental" chapter, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District makes a cameo appearance.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the new book is Gasparov's easy command of Russian literature. This quality, unfortunately, may also detract from the pleasure of following his argument, unless the reader is at least somewhat familiar with the major creations of Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Bely, and Sholokhov. Most especially Pushkin: Four out of the five operas discussed in the book are based on that poet's oeuvre, in its various facets — a satirical "epic," a Shakespearean chronicle, a novel in verse, and a prose short story. Pushkin's creations present a powerful counterpoint to the main, "musical" theme of the book, as Gasparov sets out to explore and interpret a complex dialogue between a literary original and its re-conceptualization in an operatic libretto.

What makes this dialogue especially compelling (the author would call it "polyphonic," in a Bakhtinian sense) is its frequently temporal nature, in which the time-displaced visions of a plot and its characters collide, creating multidimensionality akin to a Cubist portrait. In Tchaikovsky's Onegin, for instance, Gasparov demonstrates how a shift in social mores from the Jane Austen-esque 1820s of the novel to the 1860-70s of Chernyshevsky's "new people" caused the composer's interpretation of the main characters' motivations to conflict fundamentally with Pushkin's original. The characters of The Queen of Spades, as the author persuasively argues, negotiate a dizzying temporal multiplicity: the 1770s of the libretto, the 1830s of Pushkin's "anecdote," Tchaikovsky's own 1870s, and the 1890s — the Symbolist present in which the opera first appeared, and upon which it had cast such a powerful spell. Particularly interesting is Gasparov's take on Ruslan and Liudmila — an opera so complex and misunderstood that it tends to be avoided by both stage directors and musicologists. Here, the author suggests, we witness a four-part dialogue between the original tongue-in-cheek "fairy tale" penned by an 18-year-old poet, his own revised version of the work, the 1830s of Glinka's Life for the Tsar triumph, and the early 1840s — the time when the opera finally came together. The conflict between these four versions of the plot, Gasparov suggests, is the cause of the alleged dramaturgical contradictions that have plagued Ruslan's stage history since its premiere. Taking them into account, meanwhile, may offer us a newly unified and plausible concept of Glinka's masterpiece.

Giving a detailed account of Gasparov's arguments throughout the book would be a disservice to my readers — as indefensible as revealing the ending of a thrilling "whodunit." So I shall only mention his view of Musorgsky's Khovanshchina as a musical counterpart of its contemporary psychological prose (specifically Dostoevsky's Demons) and of Shostakovich's 4th symphony as a (perhaps subversive) mirror of sorts to the newly created Socialist-Realist novel. The chapter on Boris Godunov, meanwhile, takes us to turn-of-the-century Paris and reveals a few remarkable traces of Musorgsky's chef-d'oeuvre not only — predictably — in Debussy's style, but also in the score of Puccini's Turandot.

A discussion of the "Russianness" in Russian music is a leitmotiv throughout Gasparov's book. He tracks along familiar territory (staked out some time ago by Richard Taruskin in Defining Russia Musically) of folk song, liturgical singing, the rising sixths of urban romance, and offers the pre-modernist progressions of loosely functional diatonicism as a Russian counterpart to teleological Wagnerism of late-Romantic, Western-European harmony. In this discussion lie perhaps the weakest points of the otherwise superb study, including a couple of annoyingly obvious mistakes in harmonic analysis in Chapter 1. On the other hand, the discussion of musical language also yields some of the most brilliant insights of the volume, including its beautifully amusing epilogue that comments on the troubled history of the Soviet State anthem — a most revealing example of a musical message outlasting a verbal one.

Overall, Gasparov's book is an exciting read. While some of the author's interpretations may prove controversial (on more than one occasion I was tempted to point out that sometimes a cadence is just a cadence…), they are always compelling. This enjoyable ride through music and history gets my highest recommendation: it is essential for all students of Russian culture, and — with a little effort perhaps — accessible to a wider audience as well.

Olga Haldey
University of Missouri—Columbia

image=http://www.operatoday.com/content/gasparov.jpg image_description=Boris Gasparov: Five Operas and a Symphony product=yes product_title=Boris Gasparov: Five Operas and a Symphony product_by=New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. 304 p., 6 1/8 x 9 1/4, 88 musical illus. product_id=ISBN: 0300106505
Posted by Gary at 10:12 AM

The Guardian on Dmitri Shostakovich

A hundred years after his birth, Shostakovich is still vehemently dividing critics

Gerard McBurney [The Guardian, 14 January 2006]

The 25th anniversary of the death of Dmitri Shostakovich coincided with the millennium, and had its own share of celebrations with a wealth of concerts, festivals, broadcasts and books. Now along comes the centenary of his birth in 1906; Manchester and London mark the occasion with two complete cycles of his 15 symphonies given by six different orchestras, there are swathes of chamber music, plenty of new recordings and, on the way, a revised and expanded version of Elizabeth Wilson's indispensible study, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered.

Click here for remainder of article.

image_description=Dmitri Shostakovich

Posted by Gary at 9:19 AM

Nilsson in Person: The Glory of the Power

Birgit_Nilsson_small.jpgBy ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 14 January 2006]

When I started going to the Metropolitan Opera as a young adolescent, typically in the upper balconies or the standing-room sections, some opera goddess must have been looking out for me. I didn't really know what I was doing. Yet at my first "Bohème" the Mimi was Renata Tebaldi. My first Aida was Leontyne Price. And my first Turandot was Birgit Nilsson.

Posted by Gary at 9:12 AM

January 13, 2006

For the Young Faces of Opera, a Night to Show Off in Style

tucker_richard_small.jpgBy BERNARD HOLLAND [NY Times, 13 January 2006]

One thinks of young opera singers in two ways: what they are or what they might be. Being and becoming alternated in the group marching on and off the Alice Tully Hall stage on Wednesday night. This was the so-called Rising Stars Concert put on by the Richard Tucker Music Foundation. The foundation helps young talent while remembering the eminent American tenor who died in 1975.

Posted by Gary at 8:52 AM

My problem with Mozart

His operas are wonderful to sing, says Ian Bostridge. But why do the tenors always get such short shrift?

[The Guardian, 13 January 2006]

All over the world, opera houses, concert halls and professional and amateur musicians are celebrating Mozart: this month marks 250 years since his birth. Particularly ambitious is the Salzburg festival's plan to perform every one of his operas over a single summer season. As a classical singer I am, inevitably, making my own modest contribution to the celebrations: singing Mozart arias in a recital in Hamburg, and appearing in a production of Don Giovanni at the Vienna State Opera. I don't perform a great deal of opera but, having the sort of tenor voice that suits Mozart rather than Verdi, the former figures largely in my career as a theatrical performer.

Posted by Gary at 8:47 AM

The New San Francisco Opera

In first act, Opera chief brings in top brass

David Wiegand [SF Chronicle, 11 January 2006]

David Gockley is wasting little time in putting his own stamp on the San Francisco Opera. The new general director, who will announce plans for the 2006-07 season in a news conference today, has filled two key positions at the War Memorial Opera House.

Click here for remainder of article.

Restoring 'a singer's house'


By Richard Scheinin [Mercury News, 12 January 2006]
Mercury News

David Gockley is so to the point: San Francisco Opera is no longer ``a singer's house.'' It has taken a tumble and lost its luster, it seems. He intends to correct that.

The company's new general director is bringing Wagner's ``Ring'' cycle to the War Memorial Opera House, starting in 2008. He is hammering out contracts with Reneé Fleming, Natalie Dessay and other superstar singers for future seasons. He has commissioned Philip Glass to compose a new opera for the fall of 2007 and is urging John Adams to compose yet another opera, following this season's ``Doctor Atomic.''

Click here for remainder of article.

image_description=David Gockley (Photo: San Francisco Opera)

Posted by Gary at 8:43 AM

January 12, 2006

Stravinsky in a flak jacket

Andrew Steggall went to Iraq to recruit actors for The Soldier's Tale. Six months, eight bodyguards and one torture centre later, he found them ...

The Guardian [The Guardian, 12 January 2006]

May 26 2005

My first day in Baghdad. I'm here to cast Iraqi actors to appear alongside British actors and musicians in a new adaptation of Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, to be performed in English and Arabic. Helmet and flak jacket in place, I'm led to a helicopter that will take me to the centre of the city. Throughout the short journey, a soldier darts from one side of the helicopter to the other, alternating between two fixed machine guns, scanning the rooftops below. I try to work out his pattern. Very little makes sense right now.

Posted by Gary at 9:26 AM

Score is reunited 170 years after Mozart's wife sliced it in two

By Jack Malvern [Times Online, 12 January 2006]

SOME 170 years ago Mozart’s widow stood in her Salzburg residence with a knife poised over one of her late husband’s manuscripts. Slowly, and with a slight wobble, Constanze sliced through a sheet containing music for a string quartet and parts of a piano concerto.

The two pieces, given to men from whom Constanze wanted favours, drifted their separate ways for the better part of two centuries before they were reunited yesterday for an exhibition at the British Library.

Posted by Gary at 9:23 AM

Tributes to Birgit Nilsson

Birgit Nilsson, Soprano Legend Who Tamed Wagner, Dies at 87

By BERNARD HOLLAND [NY Times, 12 January 2006]

Birgit Nilsson, the Swedish soprano with a voice of impeccable trueness and impregnable stamina, died on Dec. 25 in Vastra Karup, the village where she was born, the Stockholm newspaper Svenska Dagbladet reported yesterday. She was 87.

A funeral was held yesterday at a church in her town, the presiding vicar, Fredrik Westerlund, told The Associated Press.

Click here for remainder of article.

Birgit Nilsson

[Daily Telegraph, 12 January 2006]

Birgit Nilsson, who has died aged 87, was considered to be the greatest Wagnerian soprano of her day; she had a rock-solid technique and a voice of such soaring, unforced power that it was able to cut through the massed forces of a Wagnerian orchestra with ease, yet a purity of tone which enabled her to switch to the most delicate pianissimo.

Click here for remainder of article.

Birgit Nilsson

Supreme Wagnerian soprano blessed with musicality, technique and imagination

Frank Granville Barker and Alan Blyth [The Guardian, 12 January 2006]

Was there ever a more truly Wagnerian singer than Birgit Nilsson, who has died aged 87? It seems unlikely that her Isolde and Brünnhilde will ever be equalled, let alone surpassed. She brought to these roles all the qualities their composer could possibly have wished: a voice of heroic proportions, a remarkable musicality, an interpretative imagination as incandescent as the music itself and a technique as solid as the rock on which the latter heroine slept for 20 years. Even her laughter, though it was only heard offstage, rang like the Valkyries' "Ho-yo-to-ho".

Click here for remainder of article.

image_description=Birgit Nilsson

Posted by Gary at 8:56 AM

Nanki-Poo, Yum-Yum and Other Eternal Verities

By BERNARD HOLLAND [NY Times, 12 January 2006]

Gilbert and Sullivan operas can be an enthusiasm, a hobby or in extreme cases an obsession. How else to explain the 32 seasons of Albert Bergeret's New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players? My 25 years on the beat have found them in circumstances far more threadbare than City Center, where "The Mikado" played on Tuesday night. Where similar companies in the city have faded, Mr. Bergeret and his little team have persevered, and here they were with a very decent 25-piece band, a legitimate stage and a nice audience for their January season.

Posted by Gary at 8:49 AM

January 11, 2006

VERDI: Macbeth

It doesn’t follow the correct age of the libretto but neither does it update the story to Nazi-Germany or Iraq. It illustrates the story when the director feels like it; sometimes in great detail and sometimes somewhat superficially. It mixes old and new elements without any consistency. It depends on surtitles in the theatre or titles on video as otherwise spectators wouldn’t understand what’s happening and at the same time often contradicts those same titles. In short these few sentences apply to the work of directors like McVicar, Pimlott, Vick, Carsen and even Beito in his less outrageous statements.

A few examples in this production. There is nothing that reminds one of Scotland. The men’s haircuts resemble the way the Franks wore their hair in the 7th century. Happily nobody is wielding a machine gun but every soldier wears a kind of grey Russian peasant costume à la Rasputin. Macbeth and Banquo wash their hands under a distinctly modern tap. Lady Macbeth is first seen in a bed, declines a bath and then receives king Duncan in that same night cloth. But she is seated in her bath just to wash her hands in the last act. And the armies of Macbeth and Malcom march around the sleeping king and queen while singing “Patria opressa” (yes, I know this is their nightmare). Macbeth and Banquo think the witches have “foul beards” without any witch having a single hair on their chin. Banquo exclaims the witches are “vanished” while the ladies continue their aerobics with a stick on the scene and so on. But, on the other hand, a cross with a bloodied corpse is raised when Macbeth gets the message the old Thane of Cawdor is executed. In the third act a child is ripped from the mother’s womb (not a pretty sight) during the prophecy of the witches. The ghost of Banquo even appears and carries the prescribed mirror. And the doctor in the fourth act has the obligatory lantern as well. I have the unpolitically correct idea that as theatre the third act is the strongest when the director sticks closely to the libretto.

The sets (Anthony Ward) consist mostly of padded walls and would you believe it represents a cell in a lunatic asylum ? Yes, you would because madness is one of the dearest themes in opera and you and I have already seen those sets in Don Carlos, Lucia and whenever somebody is not completely right in his or her mind. The other inevitable prop is a revolving open golden cage, a large cubicle though a few yards smaller than in the Graham Vick production of the same opera at La Scala. By now we no longer need the sleeve notes as experienced opera goers know that this is “a mental space on the scene, a habitat designed to explain the inner catastrophe, the metaphor of a brain in semi-darkness”.

Not that Phyllida Lloyd is without original ideas. The witches’ prophecies are probably so very correct because they assure their fulfillment. A witch, and not a soldier, delivers Macbeth’s letter to the Lady. And the witches save the life of Banquo’s son while he is pursued by the murderers. As Verdi was unwise enough not to write music for this indispensable scene, we get it as a pantomime. But the discovery in the fourth act after the madness aria that the queen has committed suicide really is an eye-opener. In short the typical mix of tradition and modern so that one leaves the theatre and the video somewhat relieved that after all the chance exists that Verdi would have recognized his own work.

The singers clearly believe in their roles. Carlos Álvarez starts out with the voice we know so well from his Verdi and Zarzuela CDs. It is a full sound, suitably dark brown and with a good top. Imaginative Verdian phrasing and a differentiation in sound level are not his forte. At least not in the first act. But then and to my surprise the voice becomes even more burnished, he starts to act with it and by the third act he has become a great Macbeth: vocally and histrionically. His “Pietà, rispetto, amore” is an example of sustained tone and nuance and one almost regrets that the Paris version is chosen as this rids us of his “ Mal per me”. The public realizes it is watching a great performance and lustily applauds after his collapse in the third act. No, this doesn’t break the dramatic moment as the “Ondine e selfide” ballet section, usually cut in performance, is restored.

Maria Guleghina is not on the same level as the baritone. Oh she acts the hell out of her; indeed on video she even overacts, rolling her eyes, wringing her hands. She probably follows all directions she got from the director and the fault is not hers as the Liceu in Barcelona is a big theatre and people in the back seats won’t notice a raised eyebrow. But, the TV director should have given fewer close-ups. Álvarez knows there are cameras and his restrained manners make him a more believable character. Then there is Guleghina’s voice: huge, often raw and not always steady. There is a hint of a wobble and she cannot quite cope with the strenuousness of the climbing sequence of her first aria. She transposes the fearful cabaletta. Her “La luce langue” is better, though the voice doesn’t have much colour to suggest the fears haunting her. She is at her best in “Una macchia” in the fourth act, truly impersonating madness with well chosen piano’s and pianisssimi’ but the final D in a fil di voce is replaced by a shouted C.

Roberto Scandiuzzi is an imposing Banquo with a rolling bass and a good presence on the scene. Tenor Marco Berti has the success of the evening with his “O figli, o figli miei”. Most of the time, he is not a very imaginative singer, though the possessor of a good Italian tenor with a clear strong tone. This time he surpasses himself, though one involuntary smiles as one realizes he copies, note for note, Luciano Pavarotti’s magnificent rendition in his 1968 LP début.

Striking in this performance is the quality of the comprimario singers. Javier Palacios as Malcolm is of course a first tenor in other performances, but all the other singers have fine healthy voices and are not some worn elder singers who want to prolong their careers. The chorus sounds a little thin in their big moments and the orchestra is not a top notch one. But Bruno Campanella succeeds in having a good rapport between scene and pit. No conductor can make the witches’ chorus in the first act sound like anything other than a bunch of country girls; but in the third act the witches sound truly menacing. Campanella grows in this performance together with his singers. In the second act he succeeds in having us forget the discrepancy between the parts composed for Florence and those for Paris almost twenty years later.

Probably the best buy among the commercial Macbeths available on DVD.

Jan Neckers

image_description=Giuseppe Verdi: Macbeth

product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Macbeth
product_by=Carlos Álvarez, Maria Guleghina, Roberto Scandiuzzi, Begona Alberdi, Marco Berti, Symphony Orchestra & Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Bruno Campanella (cond.).
product_id=Opus Arte OA 0922 D [2DVDs]

Posted by Gary at 4:49 PM

BELLINI: I Puritani

Count Carlo Pepoli, an Italian nationalist and expatriate living in Paris, wrote the libretto based on a play by François Ançelot and Xavier Saintine, Têtes rondes et Cavaliers.1 Though a popular poet and man of the theater, Pepoli was not accustomed to writing for the voice or dealing with the unique situations in opera, and these shortcomings became the source of tense moments between composer and poet. In Puritani, Pepoli's poetry far outshines the quality of the stage action which is, overall, less than cohesive, but in the end he was able to satisfy the demands of the composer. Adding to the less than brilliant libretto is the false notion that the protagonists come from Scotland, or that the action takes place somewhere other than Plymouth, England.2 It was Bellini who, taking advantage of the popularity of Jedediah Cleishbotham's3 novel Tales of Old Mortality, gave his opera the novel's Italian translated title, "I Puritani di Scozia."

After some stressful months for all involved, the composer was able to present his "humble" work to Rossini for his approval, and as had become Bellini's habit, with needless and excessive flattery towards the elder composer. Bellini requested from the "great master" that Rossini "cut, add or change it completely" at his will as this would greatly benefit Bellini's music. It is not known what Rossini's immediate reaction to the score was,4 or what changes if any the greater composer made. Rossini did however suggest breaking up the opera's two long acts into three,5 and he facilitated the availability of an on-stage organ at the theater for the opening scene of the opera.6

I Puritani premiered in Paris on January 24, 1835 with the great Giulia Grisi in the role of Elvira and Giovanni Battista Rubini as Arturo. The opera was a success with the composer and the singers being called back twice, and in Bellini's words, "The Frenchmen went out of their minds..." Rossini called it a "brilliant success," and the Parisian press agreed with the praise, but had reservations about the libretto, with one periodical calling Elvira's madness imbecile rather than raving.

In England the opera had the same success, though music critic Henry Chorley's opinion of Bellini's talent was less than favorable, "More trite and faded themes and phrases than many of his...can hardly be imagined....there is nothing more fatiguing and mawkish...than Bellini's abuse of appogiatura." In Puritani, Chorley continues, Bellini's plagiarism of Simon Mayr's "Donne l'Amore" is exemplified in Arturo's music in the last act.

No such negative reaction to this Hardy Classic Video from 1966, but for those unfamiliar with opera prior to the 1970s, this performance of Bellini's work may not be for them. There are no elaborate sets: instead the scenery is painted on simple back drops, with a few steps here and there, a doorway, or a piece of furniture to facilitate stage movement. There is no complicated lighting design. The acting is not what one would call worthy of awards; in fact, it is rather straightforward, simple and typical of its time. On the other hand, for those interested in wonderful singing this DVD goes a long way in contradicting the notion that there were no capable interpreters for these unique roles in the 60s.

We have no way of comparing Grisi's instrument, but American coloratura Gianna D'Angelo (1934) is well worth this 140 minute DVD. Born in Hartford, Connecticut, D'Angelo studied at Julliard and in Italy, making her operatic debut in Rome as Gilda in 1954. Though some of her later performances at the Metropolitan were not considered her best, D'Angelo was very popular in Europe where she sang roles as varied as Queen of the Night, Musetta, Amina, Gounod's Juliette, etc. Her voice is captured on CDs in Contes d'Hoffmann, Boheme,7 Don Pascuale, Barbiere di Siviglia, Lakme, and on video as well as in many private recordings.

D'Angelo's instrument is characterized by its bright timbre and clear coloratura. Her unquestionable technique and flawless breath control enables her to manage Elvira's vocal virtuosity as easily as the more sentimental phrases. As Joel Kasaw points out, D'Angelo "possessed the unique talent of being able to sing two notes simultaneously."

From the opening bars of "O amato zio" to the end of the opera, D'Angelo is in complete control of her instrument. There are no out of place histrionics, or affected notes in her singing. Her trills are delicate, and her effortlessly sustained high notes are always on pitch and without any distracting vibrato. In the ensemble following "A te, o cara" D'Angelo is sublime, blending well with the rest of the cast.

D'Angelo peppers the aria, "Son vergin vezzosa," with trills, roulades, and high notes throughout, and to the end of the ensemble her voice soars effortlessly over the orchestra. "Oh! Vieni al tempio, fedele Arturo" is filled with poignant pathos, and with enough metal in her voice to project her bitter emotions. In "Arturo! Tu ritorni?...Oh! Vieni al tempio, fedele Arturo," and to the end of the Act, D'Angelo closely follows the direction in the score, singing with delirious abandon and with the faith of an innocent heart, turning to desperate sorrow in "Ma tu già mi fuggi..."

In "Qui la voce sua soave...Vien diletto, è in ciel la luna..." D'Angelo's interpretation is without fault, as is the duet with Arturo "Vieni fra queste braccia." Throughout the opera D'Angelo's singing is effortless: she never has to search for her voice, the notes come as easily to her as breathing to mere mortals.

Luciano Saldari (1933-1996) is deserving of Lauri Volpi's praises as a great singer, and one of the last true Italian tenors from the old school. Born in Ascoli Piceno, Saldari studied with Antonio Malandri, making his professional debut in 1957 as the Duke in Rigoletto. As a winner of the "Orpheus" competition he was in the company of Anita Cerquetti, Franco Bonisolli, Ronaldo Panerai, Mariella Devia, Gabriella Tucci, Cesare Valetti, Ruggiero Raimondi, Ronaldo Panerai, Sonia Ganassi, Leo Nucci, and a long list of now famous singers. Saldari was also the winner of the AsLiCo prize in 1958, and again as with the Orpheus competition, Saldari is in excellent company.

Saldari, though afflicted by a heart condition early on, had an extensive career and he also recorded a number of operas. Unfortunately some may know him only from his less than perfect performance of Puritani where he replaced an indisposed Pavarotti.

In spite of a forced diction on the word "gioia" in "A te, o cara," Saldari has nothing to envy other interpreters of this role (except maybe some height): the timbre of his voice is sublime with enough masculinity to carry it off, and his high notes are solidly executed. "Al brillar di sì bell'ora" is worth playing again. Saldari imbues the words with emotion and his high notes are perfect. "Non parlar di lei che adoro," and "Sprezzo, audace, il tuo furore...," provide Saldari ample opportunity to show off his instrument. "Son salvo, al fin son salvo..." is filled with sentiment. Unfortunately "A una fonte afflitto e solo" is cut from "La mia canzon d'amor."

Saldari is secure in his delivery of "Corre a valle, corre a monte." The inflection in his voice injecting all the pathos and emotion needed to elevate this lyrical moment from mundane to sublime. In "Vieni fra queste braccia" Saldari is simply superb in his timing, and in his delivery of some very exciting high notes.

Sadly neglected by the major recording companies,8 bass Agostino Ferrin (1928) delivers a venerable performance as Sir Giorgio, Elvira's wiser and elder uncle. Ferrin's voice was not one to be called dark, or cavernous, but his singing was always dignified, and dramatically involved.

His scene with Elvira "Ascolta. Sorgea la notte folta" Ferrin is fatherly and sensitive without undue emphasis. In "Cinta di fiori e col bel crin..." Ferrin sings with credence and ends the ensemble with a long sustained chest note. Ferrin is in his element singing with Dondi in "Il rival salvar tu dêi..." to the end of the scene with the rousing "Suoni la tromba, e intrepido."

The only disappointment is Dino Dondi's performance as Riccardo. A popular and experienced baritone, Dondi's instrument has a pleasant timbre but in this performance he is rather monotone. His Riccardo comes off as a cardboard character rather than the passionate man that he is. In "Ah! Per sempre io ti perdei...Bel sogno beato," his singing is very studied, emotionless, and lacking "love and rage." Dondi warms up to redeem himself later in "Ferma! Invan rapir pretendi," and in "E di morte lo stral non sarà lento." Dondi is at his best in the duet with Giorgio, "Suoni la tromba..."

Mezzo Maja Singerle, who should have had a larger career, makes the best of her small role as Enrichetta di Francia. Singerle holds her own in the ensemble following "Son vergin vezzosa."

As Gualtiero Walton, Silvio Maionica, delivers a solid performance worthy of praise.

The rest of the cast, the chorus and orchestra provide excellent support.

Bellini died shortly after the premiere of I Puritani, not yet thirty four years of age. His death has of late come under investigation and there appears to be ample evidence to prove what has long been suspected: that Bellini was poisoned. There is nothing to indicate to what heights Bellini's music would have taken him, but it would please him to know that many consider I Puritani di Scozia his masterpiece. The opera has fared better in popularity than Beatrice di Tenda, Il Pirata, Capuleti e i Montecchi, La Sonnambula, and second only to Norma.

Daniel Pardo © 2006


Civil War and Charles I
Teatro A. Masini
Joel Kasaw
Stelios Galatopoulos, Bellini (London: Sanctuary Publishing Limited, 2002)
Herbert Weinstock, Vincenzo Bellini, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1971)
Henry F. Chorley, Thirty Years' Musical Recollections, Edited by Ernest Newman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1926)


1The play Roundheads and Cavaliers premiered in Paris in 1833. Originally a derogatory term, coined around 1640 to denote the "round" or page boy haircut favored by many Puritans, the Roundheads supported Parliament and fought alongside Cromwell against the king's Royalists or Cavaliers, who wore their hair or wigs long and in curls like Charles I.

2Many members of the Puritan separatist religious movement sided with Parliament and against the Royalists during the English Civil War. Aside from that, there is no relationship between the title and the libretto as the action takes place in Plymouth, England. The only connections to Scotland is Mary Stuart, grandmother to the King, Charles I, and the Puritan revolt in Scotland against Charles' attempt to impose the English Book of Prayer on the Church of Scotland in 1637.

3Sir Walter Scott's nom de plume

4Later, Rossini would call it the "most accomplished" of Bellini's scores.3Sir Walter Scott's nom de plume

3Sir Walter Scott's nom de plume

5This suggestion may have stung Bellini. Originally Pepoli had submitted a three act libretto which Bellini had the poet re-write into two acts.

6Rossini may not have been aware or may not have cared to point out that Puritans did not approve of organ music in their places of worship.

7This 1959 recording of Boheme with Renata Tebaldi and Carlo Bergonzi was used in the movie Moonstruck.

8Agostino Ferrin did record the role of Giorgio for EMI with Montserrat Caballé, Alfredo Kraus, and Matteo Mannuguerra.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/content/I_Puritani.jpg image_description=Vincenzo Bellini: I Puritani product=yes product_title=Vincenzo Bellini: I Puritani product_by=Luciano Saldari, Augustino Ferrin, Dino Dondi, Orchestra e Coro del “Teatro Verdi” Trieste, Arturo Basile (cond.).
Live recording, Trieste, 6 March 1966 product_id=Hardy Classics HCD 4018 [DVD]
Posted by Gary at 4:33 PM

Swedish Soprano Birgit Nilsson Dies

nilsson2_small.jpgBy KARL RITTER [Associated Press, 11 January 2006]

STOCKHOLM, Sweden (AP) -- Birgit Nilsson, whose prodigious voice, unrivaled stamina and thrilling high notes made her the greatest Wagnerian soprano of the post-World War II era, has died. She was 87.

A funeral was held Wednesday at a church in her native town of Vastra Karup in southern Sweden with only her closest relatives attending, said Fredrik Westerlund, the church's vicar. He did not know when Nilsson died or the cause of death.

Posted by Gary at 9:20 AM


Hovsångerskan Birgit Nilsson har avlidit. Begravdes i stillhet i dag.
nilsson_small.jpg[Expressen, 11 January 2006]
Den stora operarösten har tystnat för alltid.
Hovsångerskan Birgit Nilsson jordfästes i dag i Västra Karups församling i Skåne.
Sångerskan avled enligt uppgift för 10 dagar sedan vid 87 års ålder.
- Gravsättningen har varit i dag. Hon begravdes i stillhet, säger Benkt Cederlöw på pastorsexpeditionen i Västra Karups församling.
Begravningsakten inleddes med musik ur Pastoralsviten, berättar kyrkoherde Fredrik Westerlund och säger att kyrkan bara var mycket sparsamt smyckad.
- Hennes släkt ville absolut hålla både dödsfall och begravning hemliga, men hade det blivit officiellt att Birgit Nilsson skulle begravas här i dag så hade kyrkan varit sprängfylld med blommor kan jag tänka mig, säger han.
Westerlund träffade själv den världsberömda operasångerskan vid några tillfällen och såg det som en stor heder att få vara den som höll i hennes begravningsakt.

Posted by Gary at 9:12 AM

Toasting A Legend Of the Opera

stevens_rise_small.jpgBy FRED KIRSHNIT [NY Sun, 11 January 2006]

In the 1940s and '50s there were several great Carmens, but none as saucy as Rise Stevens.Those fortunate enough to own an original 1951 Victor recording of the Bizet masterpiece, conducted by Fritz Reiner and featuring the dream cast of Jan Peerce, Robert Merrill, and Licia Albanese, know that the album cover, a serpentine Ms. Stevens practically lunging off of the cardboard, is as lurid as any east of the corner of Haight and Ashbury. On Monday evening, the Metropolitan Opera Guild and Opera News magazine paid tribute to Ms. Stevens at the Rose Theater.

Posted by Gary at 8:52 AM

January 10, 2006

The Bartered Bride, Royal Opera House, London

 The Bartered Bride (Photo: Royal Opera House)By Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 10 January 2006]

With a push and a shove The Bartered Bride can just about do duty as a holiday show. It mixes high spirits and plenty of dancing, throws in a visit to the circus, and leads to a feel-good ending - not another Die Fledermaus, the traditional New Year entertainment, but a reasonable substitute.

Posted by Gary at 12:26 PM

Copyright Laws Severely Limit Availability of Music

Thomas A. Edison, in a 1923 advertisement.  (Library of Congress)All Things Considered, January 9, 2006 · Archivists and collectors have long lamented the lack of access to older recordings. So the Library of Congress commissioned a team to find out just how many are out of print. The report -- released in August -- suggests that over 70 percent of American music recorded before 1965 is not legally available in the United States.

Posted by Gary at 12:14 PM

January 9, 2006

DNA Results on Mozart's Skull Released

The DNA results regarding the alleged skull of Mozart have been announced. They are inconclusive. The uncertainty turns on the authenticity of the remains of supposed relatives against which the skull's DNA was compared.

Posted by Gary at 10:47 AM

DNA detectives discover more skeletons in Mozart family closet

Luke Harding in Berlin [Guardian, 9 January 2006]

It is a mystery that has gone on for more than a century: did the old skull lodged in an Austrian basement really belong to the greatest composer of all time, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?

The results of DNA tests seeking to solve the mystery were broadcast on Austrian TV to coincide with the 250th anniversary this month of the composer's birth. And the answer is: we still don't know.

Click here for remainder of article.

image_description=Mozart at age 5

Posted by Gary at 10:19 AM

The Bartered Bride at the Royal Opera House, London

smetana_small.jpgTim Ashley [The Guardian, 9 January 2006]

Francesca Zambello's production of The Bartered Bride caused ructions when it was first seen at Sadler's Wells Theatre, London, in 1998. The Opera House was closed for refurbishment at the time. Zambello, anxious to provide the itinerant Royal Opera with a popular family show, approached Smetana's great comedy as if it were a Broadway musical, coming up with a big, rather gaudy entertainment that fell singularly short when it came to exploring the opera's emotional depths.

Posted by Gary at 10:11 AM

Renée Fleming and the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall — Two Reviews

On 8 January 2006, the Met Orchestra performed at Carnegie Hall with James Levine, Renée Fleming and Julien Robbins. Here are two reviews.

Posted by Gary at 10:00 AM

Renée Fleming and the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall — Two Reviews

The program consisted of

  • TCHAIKOVSKY Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture
  • TCHAIKOVSKY Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin
  • BERG Altenberg Lieder, Op. 4
  • WAGNER Overture and Bacchanale from Tannhäuser
  • R. STRAUSS Closing Monologue from Capriccio
Here are two reviews.

Out of the Opera House, but Not Leaving It Behind

By ALLAN KOZINN [NY Times, 9 January 2006]

A dispassionate listener might guess that an attraction of the Met Orchestra's Carnegie Hall concerts, for the musicians, is that the programs take them out of the pit, not only physically, but musically as well. Usually, James Levine uses these programs to explore purely symphonic repertory, including challenging contemporary works, that these superb musicians might otherwise not perform. And usually they play them dazzlingly, as if they are hungry for the challenges.

Click here for remainder of article.

The Fleming Show

By JAY NORDLINGER [NY Sun, 9 January 2006]

Yesterday, James Levine brought his Metropolitan Opera orchestra to Carnegie Hall, with a guest soloist: the starry soprano Renee Fleming. Actually, "guest soloist" isn't quite right: This was essentially a Renee Fleming concert. It is a mark of the conductor's esteem for Miss Fleming that he basically turned over one of his orchestra concerts to her. He has precious few to spend, with the Met, and he spent one on her.

Click here for remainder of article.

image_description=Renée Fleming

Posted by Gary at 9:33 AM

January 8, 2006

CILEA: L’Arlesiana

Still there is more to be discovered in the score like Vivetta’s aria, the fine intermezzo or the big duet between Federico and Vivetta in the second act. Cilea started his career as an opera composer with Gina as a 23-year old in 1889 and finished it 18 years later with Gloria as a 41-year old (Bongiovanni’s recordings of both operas can be warmly recommended). He lived for another 43 years without composing a major work.

Soon after the premières his operas sank into oblivion but in the twenties there was a renewed interest and his best known work Adriana Lecouvreur became a staple of the repertory in Italy. L’Arlesiana, too, once more made the rounds of the theatres. By that time, Cilea was probably too old and the onslaught of modern composing techniques was so great that he didn’t show an inclination to return to the stage. Still he started revising some of his older works; especially this Arlesiana, which only got its final version in 1937. By then the older versions were already much ingrained and the two first recordings didn’t use the definitive version.

I’ve never heard the Pederzini/Oncina/Protti recording but it seems the sound is not really state of the art. Rodolfo Celetti in his “Teatro d’opera in disco” has some good words for Pederzini and Protti but thinks the Cetra version to be superior. Of course Ferruccio Tagliavini was the reason behind this recording and he is easily the best Federico on record. Still, for those who know his hauntingly beautiful “E la solita storia” recorded in June 1940, the complete set will be a little disappointing as some of the wonderful sweetness and bloom had gone out of the voice eleven years later. We had to wait another 41 years before we got the first really complete version but Kelen/Anderson/Spacagna didn’t really give us an idiomatic version.

This latest, newest and most complete version has at least an all-Italian cast who know their trade. Lyric soprano Daria Masiero as Vivetta is a discovery: a lovely voice and a vivacious singer who clearly supersedes all her predecessors. Mezzo Elisabetta Fiorillo brings along a rich somewhat tremulous but convincing voice; and her “Esser madre” is a success with the public. Pia Tassinara in the Cetra-set (at the time Tagliavini’s wife before he threw her out and married a young lady 24 years his junior) had recently converted to mezzo-soprano. Yet she remains, however, a soprano who has lost her top; and the voice has not the fullness of Fiorillo. Stefano Antonucci in this latest version but a poor substitute for Cetra’s Paolo Silveri. The sound is indistinct and he has difficulties in his high register. Most opera lovers will have Giuseppe Taddei’s fine version of “Come due tizzi” in their memory and Antonucci is simply no match.

And then there is the fly in the ointment. A good version of L’Arlesiana falls or sinks with the tenor. Joseph Calleja is the only tenor around who could have outsung Tagliavini as he has exactly the beauty and youthfulness that is required in this role but alas he is not in the cast (and is probably already too expensive for a small theatre and recording company). Still I wonder if it wasn’t possible to find older singers like Salvatore Fisichella or younger ones like Giuseppe Filianote for the role. Of course, the tenor in this recording didn’t have to learn the part as he had already sung the role during his career. But listening to Luca Canonici, one wouldn’t presume that he made his début only 18 years before this recording. His was never a big voice and he didn’t always choose his roles wisely and this shows. The voice sounds a bit worn and dry. He never had a big spectrum of colours in his sound, as is proven by his solo CD (a reward for substituting for José Carreras in the Bohème movie) but the freshness has now gone out of the voice. His “E la solita storia” is not bad as he sings with style and sensitivity and doesn’t try to emulate Gigli’s bleaty sobbing. But after all, the role was written for young Enrico Caruso, never a tenore di grazia, and Canonici’s small voice is no match for the role. Reynaldo Giovanninetti has his forces well in hand and gives a sterling interpretation of overture and intermezzo. I hope Bongiovanni will keep up the good work and give us one day Cilea’s Tilda; his only opera that is still completely unknown.

Jan Neckers

image_description=Francesco Cilea: L’Arlesiana

product_title=Francesco Cilea: L’Arlesiana
product_by=Elisabetta Fiorillo; Luca Canonici; Daria Masiero; Stefano Antonucci; Corrado Cappitta; Lorenzo Muti; Alessandra Palomba; Orchestra Philarmonia Mediterrranea e Coro Francesco Cilea, Reynald Giovanninetti (cond.).
Live Registration at the Teatro Rendano Cosenza on December the 10th and 12th 2004.
product_id=Bongiovanni GB 2549/50-2 [2CDs]

Posted by Gary at 10:11 PM

MOZART: Idomeneo

First performance: 29 January 1781 at the Hoftheater, Munich
Revised version, 13 March 1786 at the palace of Prince Johan Adam Auersperg, Vienna

Principal Characters:

Idomeneo, King of CreteTenor
Idamante, his sonSoprano or Tenor
Ilia, Trojan princess, daughter of Priam, King of TroySoprano
Elettra, princess, daughter of Agamemnon, King of ArgosSoprano
Arbace, the King's confidantTenor
High Priest of NeptuneTenor
Voice of NeptuneBass

Time and Place: Sidone, capital of Crete, after the Trojan War.


Act I

Ilia, a Trojan prisoner in Crete, is in love with Idamante, son of Idomeneo, who, it seems, may have perished with the Greek fleet. Ilia imagines that the Greek princess Elettra may fare better with Idamante, who enters, bringing news of the sighting of the Greek fleet and the decision to release the Trojan prisoners, while he remains captive to the charms of Ilia. Elettra objects to this act of clemency, and Arbaces enters with the news that the fleet has sunk. Idomeneo, however, has survived, thanks to the vow he has made to Neptune to sacrifice the first living being he meets on his return. Idamante approaches him, neither of them recognising the other. When Idomeneo learns that the other is his son, he rushes away.

Act II

Idomeneo confides in Arbace, who suggests that Idamante should go away, escorting Elettra back to Argos, until some other solution may be found. As they are about to board ship, a storm arises and a sea- monster emerges. Idomeneo admits the vow he has made, but does not give the name of his son.


Ilia and Idamante are together in the palace gardens, joined there by Idomeneo and Elettra, all expressing their conflicting feelings. The sea-monster meanwhile has been causing devastation and Idomeneo admits to the High Priest of Neptune that the sacrificial victim should be his son Idamante. He, however, has killed the monster and now offers himself as a victim. Ilia tries to take his place, but the voice of Neptune bids Idomeneo abdicate in favour of his son, who should marry Ilia, a command that allows Elettra a final expression of jealousy and anger. Idomeneo is grateful for the rest that retirement will bring.

[Source: Naxos]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image_description=Mosaic of Neptune

first_audio_name=Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Idomeneo
WinAmp, FooBar, VLC

product_title=Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Idomeneo
product_by=Richard Lewis, Leopold Simoneau, Sena Jurinac, Birgit Nilsson, Alfred Poell, Glyndebourne Festival Chorus and Orchestra, Fritz Busch (cond.). Live performance, Glyndebourne Festival, 6 June 1951.

Posted by Gary at 4:40 PM

Operatunity Winners — Denise Leigh and Jane Gilchrist

Having learned from the PBS website that it was a project by the English National Opera to find “undiscovered” opera talent among the average Joes and Janes of the U.K., with the finalist(s) winning a chance for coaching and training leading up to performing a lead role in an ENO production, my reaction was mixed. On the one hand, I am all in favor of making opera more interesting and accessible to the public, and a contest like this is a good way to capture the public imagination as people see someone whose everyday life is like their own being raised to the glamorous world of grand opera. On the other hand, while my own vague dreams of having an operatic career were pragmatically shortlived, I have spent enough time in opera workshops and among semiprofessional singers who aspire to professional classical careers to know that the world is already full of very talented artists who will never get that level of recognition, despite years of solid training and sacrifice. I don’t count myself among those aspirants, so I listened to the two discs I was sent with interest and as much objectivity as I could.

The “Operatunity Winners” disc is a compilation of the two finalists, sopranos Denise Leigh and Jane Gilchrist, singing famous operatic arias and duets that are for the most part suited to their lyric voices, both light enough to handle coloratura comfortably, although Jane Gilchrist’s is enough heavier that she sings the Countess to Denise Leigh’s Susanna in the selections from Le Nozze di Figaro (including the famous letter duet, as well as “Porgi amor”, “Dove sono” and “Deh vieni, non tardar”). Since both finalists split the role of Gilda in ENO’s Rigoletto, there are tracks of each of them singing “Caro nome”, although they are separated from each other by the Mozart, as well as some other very familiar and beautiful pieces, such as the flower duet from Lakme, and arias ranging from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Poor Wandering One” to “Casta Diva”.

I will say I was more impressed by the singing than I had expected to be. Reading the bios of the two finalists made it clear why: both have had either classical vocal training or performance experience, or both, in the past, and they received several months of additional training and coaching as part of the contest. So, while they have not had the years of preparation that most operatic professionals receive, they are not exactly people whose singing has moved directly from the shower to the big stage.

Pragmatically listening to this disc, I am fairly convinced that the target audience is not the seasoned opera lover looking for exciting new artists. None of the recitatives are included with the arias, which allows us to get right to the hit tunes, but omits the crucial aspect of operatic performance in which the artist is required to express the thought leading up to the aria in a language that is often not the singer’s native one, without the support of the melody to carry the message. It was also rather startling to hear Denise Leigh’s very light, pure voice launch into “Casta Diva”. It made for an unusually youthful and vulnerable sounding Norma, which we of course never hear because to sing the entire role requires so much more artistic experience and sheer vocal power than a singer would be likely to have at this point in their career. Both women are capable of singing all the notes they are given with good sound, breath control and intonation, but I miss some of the subtleties of dynamic range and, dare I say it, the ability to communicate through the music that comes from years of immersion in the language and the style of the particular composer. In short, I doubt that any of these performances will make you forget that of your favorite great diva in the role.

But there is enough to like on these discs of two gifted women singing some of the most deservedly celebrated music in the lyric soprano repertoire, that I can see value in them. I look at the phenomenon of Andrea Bocelli, who achieved spectacular fame on the basis of a style of singing that was not exactly operatic, but close enough that he could sing opera arias to pop audiences to great acclaim. I admit I only listened to one of the arias on his Verdi disc before deciding that he had taken enough liberties with the note values that I couldn’t really consider it a performance of the aria, but rather of his interpretation of it as a pop artist. Still, I imagine that there must be listeners who first experienced the beauty of opera arias by hearing him sing them, and then became interested in hearing and learning more. Likewise, I can imagine the human interest story of the Operatunity contest drawing the attention of music lovers who didn’t think they cared that much for opera, and if they first experience its riches by listening to some of its greatest hits in the voices of singers who can at the very least get their lovely voices around the notes that the composers wrote, that seems to me like a gain for opera in general.

pie_jesu_leigh.jpgThe solo disc by Denise Leigh, “Pie Jesu”, continues in the same vein, with some more of the great hits of the lyric/coloratura repertoire blended with some sacred music (the “Pie Jesu” is that of John Rutter, not Fauré, by the way), operetta and traditional music, most of which is well suited to her voice. I have to say that I found the parts of “Mi chiamano Mimi” where the voice should blossom, rather too sharp and piercing. The quality of her voice which makes it special is its ethereal clarity, which comes across well in the Bach and Handel, and especially in the traditional lullaby “Suo Gan”, where I am just as glad not to be hearing a heavier operatic voice. This purity with presence, which some may associate with angel voices, together with the fact that she appears to be able to connect and communicate with audiences despite being legally blind, leads me to believe that we may hear more of her in the future, perhaps more in concerts and on recordings than, say, on the stage of the Met.

I am tempted to say that these discs could make good gifts for friends or relatives who are not deeply familiar with opera but could be drawn in. The trouble is that the liners offer little more than bios of the artists; there are only explanatory notes about the pieces being performed, no texts or translations. The hook would be purely the beauty of the music and the voices, but, in the end, that should not be underestimated.

Barbara Miller

image_description=Operatunity Winners

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(2) Pie Jesu
product_by=(1) Denise Leigh & Jane Gilchrist, sopranos, Orchestra of English National Opera, Paul Daniel (cond,)
(2) Denise Leigh, soprano, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, Leo Siberski (cond.)
product_id=(1) EMI Classics 7243 5 5759 4 2 [CD]
(2) EMI Classics 7243 5 57866 2 3 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 3:21 PM

A Tenor Voice That Carries Across a Century

Brownlee_small.jpgBy Tim Page [Washington Post, 7 January 2006]

Listening to Lawrence Brownlee sing -- as I did with enormous pleasure at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater Thursday night -- is a little bit like falling into a time warp.

Posted by Gary at 9:04 AM

An unlikely heroine to the rescue ...

Australian finance expert Loretta Tomasi speaks for the first time about her plans to save English National Opera from turmoil

Alice O'Keefe [The Guardian, 8 January 2006]

Loretta Tomasi is a woman with her feet on the ground. With her sensibly short hair, wide grin and earthy Antipodean accent, she does not look like a figurehead for the rarefied world of British opera. But when her predecessor, Sean Doran, resigned amid some controversy last November, the board of the English National Opera had no hesitation in appointing her chief executive. Looking out of place amid the pomp and finery of the restored Coliseum, just off Trafalgar Square, she even seems a little surprised herself.

Posted by Gary at 8:54 AM

He Can Sing With His Shirt On, Too

gunn_nathan_small.jpgBy ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 8 January 2006]

By any measure, this is a breakout season for the American baritone Nathan Gunn at the Metropolitan Opera. On Dec. 28, he finished a demanding run of performances as Clyde Griffiths, the recklessly ambitious young protagonist in "An American Tragedy," by Tobias Picker. Winning the lead for this premiere of a major Met commission was an enviable achievement for a baritone whose largest roles at the house had been Guglielmo in Mozart's "Così Fan Tutte" (just two performances in 1997) and Demetrius, one of the four Athenian lovers in Britten's "Midsummer Night's Dream" (a short run in 2002).

Posted by Gary at 8:48 AM

January 7, 2006

Vienna returns Mozart's Affection

By ILONA BIRO [Globe and Mail, 7 January 2006]

Vienna — Austria's “City of Music” is getting ready for its curtain call. Starting Jan. 27 and lasting until the final notes are played in December, Vienna will be celebrating the 250th anniversary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's birth with one of the largest birthday bashes Europe has ever seen.

Posted by Gary at 3:58 PM

The Guardian on Beaumarchais

By Michael Billington [Guardian, 6 January 2006]

Pity the poor dramatist whose work becomes a successful opera. Unless he is Shakespeare or Schiller, he will usually find that he is simply regarded as source material. So it is with Beaumarchais whose twin masterpieces, The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, are rarely seen outside France and have been largely superseded by the more famous operas. But, with new productions of both Rossini's Barber and Mozart's Figaro at Covent Garden, it is high time we re-examined, and revived, the revolutionary writer who inspired them.

Click here for remainder of article.


Posted by Gary at 3:43 PM

The Guardian on Lorenzo da Ponte

[Guardian, 6 January 2006]

On June 4 1805, a 56-year-old Italian immigrant disembarked in Philadelphia from the transatlantic packet Columbia, carrying only a violin. The little money on him when he left London, fleeing his many debtors, he had gambled away on the voyage. Before dying in New York 33 years later, in his 90th year, he would find new-world respectability as the first professor of Italian in America. For now, he set up shop as a grocer.

To those who knew him in the American denouement of his long European life, there was always an air of mystery about the Abbé Lorenzo da Ponte. A scholarly poet and teacher, he was also an ordained Catholic priest, rumoured to have been born Jewish. Although he had a devoted wife, he also had a reputation as a womaniser. With his flirtatious eyes and mane of white hair, Da Ponte charmed all he met. But his self-assurance also excited mistrust. When one of the first Italian operas was performed in New York in 1825, he had the nerve to claim he had written it. He had, so he said, known Mozart. Not to mention Casanova.

Click here for remainder of article.

image_description=Lorenzo da Ponte

Posted by Gary at 3:35 PM

Welsh Opera lands Met high flyer

fisher.jpgCharlotte Higgins [Guardian, 6 January 2006]

While the arts world shakes its head in disbelief at the coronation, without interview or proper process, of John Berry and Loretta Tomasi to run English National Opera, the Welsh National Opera has managed to recruit one of the most respected names in the business, currently at the Metropolitan in New York.

Posted by Gary at 3:27 PM

January 6, 2006

Dvořák und seine Zeit

The performers on this recording include such distinguished practitioners of the Lied as Thomas Hampson and Barbara Bonney, as well as their younger colleagues Michelle Breedt and George Zeppenfeld, all of whom are accompanied by the pianist Wolfram Rieger. In fact, the selections are grouped into three parts, the first repeating the title “Dvořák und seine Zeit,” which prefixes much of the composer’s songs. The second, “Dvořák in der Neuen Welt” [“Dvořák in the New World”], includes many of the American pieces found on recording, with the third “Die Welt des Glaubens” [“The World of Belief”] being a rubric for songs with Biblical texts or religious associations. These groupings help to make sense of the order of the pieces, which gives the sense of a Liederabend in three sections.

Most importantly, this recording provides a good selection of Dvořák’s songs, including music from Vier Lieder, op. 2, Abendlieder [“Evening songs”]; op. 3, Mährische Duette [“Moravian duets”] op. 32; Cigánské melodie [“Gypsy tunes”], op. 55; the op. 82 Lieder; the set of Love Songs, op. 83; and Biblické písnĕ [“Biblical songs”], op. 99. Of the over ninety songs that Dvořák composed, the ones on this CD date from various times in his career, with most of them from decade between 1876 and 1886, the time when the composer finished his Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. During the same time Brahms composed his four symphonies; Bruckner finished his Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies; Mahler wrote his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; and the Richard Strauss produced a number of songs, especially his op. 10 Lieder, the set that contains such well-known songs as “Zueignung” and “Allerseelen.” It was a rich time for new music, particularly the art song, not only in German-speaking countries, but also in other parts of Europe and also America.

When it comes to defining Dvořák’s contemporaries who wrote Lieder, the repertoire was selected from a wide geographic area and includes the European composers Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), Johannes Brahms (1833-97), and Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), as well as the Americans Arthur Farwell (1877-1952), Charles Wakefield Cadman 1881-1946), Edward MacDowell (1860-1908), and Charles Ives (1874-1908). While it is laudable to find so many American composers on such a program, the balance seems tilted a bit toward them because of Dvořák’s extended stay in the United States. This fact is pointed out in the article “Ein Lied-Erlebnis der besonderen Art” [“A Special Kind of Song Experience”] by Gottfried Kraus, which is found in the accompanying booklet.

Kraus’s notes include more information about the recital, which involved some music that was not included in this set. Hampson performed Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen alongside Dvořák’s Zigeunermelodien, as well as a selection of Lieder by Liszt and Strauss. Given that the first program included music which is, perhaps, more familiar, this selection of works from the second program makes available works that are, perhaps, less accessible on recordings. Thus, the works by American composers presented here offer a glimpse of late-nineteenth century composition in the United States. The songs sometimes involve topics of local interest, like the romanticized view of Native Americans found in the Three Indian Songs by Farwell and the Two Indian Songs by Cadman. The tone of those pieces reflects the time in which they were composed and a limited knowledge of the actual culture of the indigenous people. Likewise, the spirituals found on this recording, “Deep River,” “By an’ By” and “Steal Away,” all in arrangements by Henry Thacker Burleigh, represent the influence of African-American culture on the United States. At the same time, the single song by MacDowell, “The Sea,” is of interest for its text by the American author William Dean Howells, whose posthumous reputation does not leave room for verse, especially poetry that would be set to music. The one song by Charles Ives that is on the recording is “Songs My Mother Taught,” which is of interest for its American translation of a tune that Dvořák himself set.

Of the European composers that are part of this recital, the selection of Brahms’ late work, the Vier ernste Gesänge, op. 121 uses texts from the Bible, like Dvořák’s ten settings entitled Aus Biblické písnĕ, op. 99. While Brahms set verses from the Old and New Testaments, Dvořák used the Psalms exclusively for his. Likewise, the choice of two other love songs from Brahms set of op. 43 Lieder, “Die Mainacht” [no. 2] and “Von ewiger Liebe” [no. 1] offer an excellent parallel to the secular songs by Dvořák. With Grieg, the recital demonstrates the influence of the art song on yet another national tradition, Norway, with two selections from his op. 82 set. Mahler is represented by a single piece, the setting of “Urlicht” a text from the anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn that is properly part of his Second Symphony.

All in all, this is an ambitious program in its effort to represent Dvořák and his time. The informed choices made for this program demonstrate the ways in which familiar Lieder can be presented with less-performed literature to good effect. At the same time, the performances by Hampson and Bonney are quite effective, and the applause included after “Von ewiger Liebe” is quite deserved for Bonney’s sensitive interpretation of the song, as well as those that precede it. Hampson himself is a finer interpreter of Dvořák’s Lieder, especially in the selections from the set of Cigánské melodie, op. 55. The clarity of diction in Czech is notable, as is his careful intonation of the modal passages. He captures well the spirit of the texts, which are provided in the booklet.

The Möhrische Duette, op. 32, are reminiscent of some of Schumann’s Lieder for two voices, albeit with a nod to another nationality. Bonney and Breedt work well together, with commendable precision and intonation. Their voices blend well, even in the sometimes open sound of the hall used for this live recital. For those seeking some recital material, these settings deserve to be heard more often. Breedt’s somewhat deeper mezzo voice plays off Bonney’s clear soprano in music that suits both their voices. Likewise, Breedt’s solo efforts in the set of Vier Lieder, op. 2, offer an opportunity for her to use her lower voice effectively – it is a solid mezzo, not the contralto that is sometimes heard in Mahler’s “Urlicht” (as performed here by Breedt) or Brahms’ Vier ernste Gesänge (here sung by Georg Zeppenfeld). With Zeppenfeld, his clear bass voice is particularly good in conveying the texts of Brahms’ Vier ernste Gesänge. Yet the three spirituals chosen for this recording sound less idiomatic and seem more like art songs, and that may be the result of the arrangements chosen, which are somewhat stylized. This is more a criticism of the music selected, but such distinctions are important in the context attempted on this recording.

At the same time, the idiom of the live performance plays into the ambiance of the recording, and the hall does not always serve the singers sufficiently. At times the sound is thin, with the warm resonance that occurs elsewhere on the recording absent. Elsewhere, though, it seems as though the placement of the singers and piano may have changed to give a slightly different character to the sound. Again, this is to be expected with a live recording and, in some respects, conveys something of the atmosphere at the Salzburg Festival.

As a concept, the idea of shaping a recital around a composer and his milieu is laudable. This particular program certainly builds a case for exploring further the Lieder of Dvořák. While hardly unknown – Bernarda Fink and Roger Vignoles recently recorded a selection of the composer’s songs – they deserve to be known better. The quality of the music lends itself well to performances by such talented musicians as those who participated in the remarkable recital at Salzburg, and it is fortunate to have that event documented on this CD. For those who are unfamiliar with Dvořák’s songs, the Orfeo recording provides a fine sampling.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

image_description=Dvořák und seine Zeit

product_title=Dvořák und seine Zeit
product_by=Barbara Bonney, soprano; Michelle Breedt, mezzo; Thomas Hampson, baritone; George Zeppenfeld, bass; Wolfram Rieger, piano.
product_id=Orfeo d'Or C656 0521 [2CDs]

Posted by Gary at 3:53 PM

Natalie Dessay: Mozart Concert Arias

She discusses her work passionately and at the same time she dissects her failures without pity. She is probably the only prima donna who has no problem with a sleeve note writer discussing her vocal problems due to nodes on the cords as happens here. One month ago she told an interviewer of the French monthly Opéra-Magazine (successor of the defunct Opéra International) that all troubles were not over after a two-year absence as another node was discovered in the tissue. I have a TV interview made a few years ago where she literally freezes when confronted with some of her earlier high voltage singing, pulls horrified faces and then bursts out in a stream of curses over her youthful sins. So I can easily imagine her nowadays deriding this CD as one more example of bad advice and youthful hubris, especially because she recently said she still has to wait a few years before singing Konstanze; and, one could easily imagine each one of these arias taking the place of “Martern aller Arten”.

When the CD first appeared, the British Gramophone wrote that “though Dessay’s range extends upward far into the ledger lines, she has a sylph’s grace and lightness, and her timbre or character of voice is thoroughly human.” True, very true though I cannot remember a prima donna making inhuman sounds like the roar of a lion or the neighing of a horse (with the exception of Rossini’s cat duet of course). But it’s the timbre that’s the problem with me. It is rather white, even opaque. There are no true distinctive colours in the voice. Often at first hearing one wonders for a moment whose voice this is before it slowly dawns on you: if it’s somewhat plain, then it must be Dessay. In the theatre she is such a committed performer, such a stage animal (after all she was discovered singing a song during her actor studies) that one is less concerned by the lack of richness in the voice. But on CD this works less well. It has nothing to do with her kind of light leggiero voice as she nowadays defines herself. Mado Robin, Rita Streich, Erika Köth, Barbara Hendricks and Kathleen Battle all had that same kind of voice; but they were better endowed by Mother Nature with a more personal sound. As a consequence, this kind of recital — and it’s the same with all Dessay recitals — start to distract me after a few tracks. I lose interest and have to concentrate more than normal.

I know she is technically proficient and she succeeds most of the time very well higher than high C, though there are some shrill sounds in track 5 “Popolo di Tessaglia.” There are no problems with her legato and it’s all nice and fleeting. She surely does not have that small stiffness in the voice that mars many of Gruberova’s work but still she cannot move me much. Lucia Popp who followed the same soprano horse race as Dessay, succeeds far better in keeping our attention in this kind of repertoire because, apart from some fabulous high notes, there is more body, more colour and a better awareness of what many of these arias are about. Every one of the arias on this CD is about betrayal, lost love, bereavement, ungratefulness and suffering; but I wonder how many people would know that without the text before their eyes. Maybe I am rather dour; but I have a feeling that nowadays Natalie Dessay would even be more severe.

Jan Neckers

image_description=Natalie Dessay: Mozart Concert Arias

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product_id=EMI Classics 7243 5 55386 2 8 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 3:36 PM

BELLINI: La Sonnambula

The Royal Opera staged it a few years back, with Juan Diego Florez, (a reason for any bel canto revival) as Elvino. Santa Fe Opera put it on in 2004, for Natalie Dessay. And TDK has just released on DVD a January 2004 performance from Florence, with Eva Mei and Jose Bros.

Having seen the clumsy, occasionally ludicrous Sante Fe production, your reviewer can state that this Florence staging is better, but what a low standard to start from. Can the opera itself bear the blame? In the DVD booklet, Bellini is quoted as describing the audience at the opera’s premiere as not having a dry eye. Well, almost 175 years later, tears are unlikely to be produced by Romani’s depiction of an innocent young lady whose engagement to her beloved farmer/fiancé is threatened by her habit of sleepwalking. While Bellini’s music soars and sighs with the inner passions of the characters, the actual drama tends to psychologically naïve characterization and perfunctory plot complications (why does the Count have to pretend not to be the count?). No doubt, the opera poses many a challenge to stage directors.

Federico Tiezzi, director, and Pier Paolo Bisleri, set design, have created a visually arresting production, and the singers do their best to bring life to their characters. In the end, it doesn’t add up to much a success, but the effort can be appreciated.

A vivid green lawn and a house façade dominate act one. During the overture, Amina appears, curled up in a glaringly red sofa chair, which then disappears until the end of the opera, when Amina can safely curl up in it again for another nap. Has it all been a dream? Thankfully, that tired and ludicrous concept is not explicitly presented. Costumes for the ladies are of linen, for the most part, evoking an upper crust, early 20th century setting. Elvino, the gentleman farmer, and the Count, wear fine suits.

Somehow the beautiful spring or summer of act one regresses to a snowy cold winter scene for act two, and when Amina must suddenly appear for her narcoleptic foray, a metallic catwalk descends. So the production never comes together, with an idea here and another there that never add up to much, and with only the vaguest sense of time and place evoked. One innovation of this DVD set comes with the titles under the start of the overture, running across a series of illustrations based on the production, in the style of movie credits. Charming.

But bel canto should focus on canto, so how is this Sonnambula? The best performance in many ways comes from Gemma Bertagnolli as Lisa, the instigator and former love of Elvino whose jealousy of Amina propels the plot. A warm mezzo, Bertagnolli also has the gift of creating character by mean of her expressive face. Sadly, this production cuts Lisa’s aria, and the opera itself has no confrontation scene or true dramatic conclusion for the character.

Eva Mei meets the requirements of the role of Amina with a solid technique. She cannot do much to make Amina more than a rather tiring goody-two-shoes, but at least she doesn’t overdo the histrionics. Her big aria, Ah non credea mirarti, never takes flight, but never risks falling apart, either.

Jose Bros, the Elvino, seems to be the man to go to for these high-flying Bellini tenor roles; he also stars in the recent Puritani DVD with Gruberova. His acidic tone, though of a citric nature that may appeal to some, has a distinctive tang and easily cuts through ensembles. A simple but effective actor, he may not be an obvious choice for a man who has had the two beauties of the town fall for him, but it is a small village, after all.

Unfortunately, Giacomo Prestia as the Count has a vibrato-laden instrument without much attractive about it even when steady.

With few easily available alternatives, this Sonnambula will have its place for those burning with a desire to see the opera. For those with more patience, hold out hope that Dessay and Florez team up somewhere and that version makes it to market.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

image_description=Vincenzo Bellini: La Sonnambula

product_title=Vincenzo Bellini: La Sonnambula
product_by=Eva Mei, Jose Bros, Gemma Bertagnolli, Orchestra e Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Daniel Oren (cond.).
product_id=TDK DVWW - OPSON [DVD]

Posted by Gary at 3:08 PM

OPW and Keith Williams Architects to design Wexford Opera House

new_wexford.jpg[Archiseek Online, 4 January 2006]

Keith Williams Architects has been appointed to work on the design of a new opera house for the world famous Irish opera festival in Wexford in a far reaching €30 million rebuilding programme. The practice will work in association with the architectural team at the Office of Public Works in Dublin.

Posted by Gary at 11:21 AM

MOZART: Requiem

First Performance: 14 December 1793 at Neukloster in Wiener Neustadt.

The Requiem was commissioned by Count Franz Walsegg-Stuppach in the summer of 1791. Although Mozart promised to have the work completed within 4 weeks, he was interrupted by other projects, including La Clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte. In the meantime, Mozart's health rapidly deteriorated. Composition on the work nevertheless continued, even from his deathbed.

On December 4 Mozart was desparately weak, and a constant stream of friends visited him. In the early afternoon three singers from the theater sang through with him the completed movements of the Requiem, Mozart himself taking the alto line. When they reached "Lacrimosa," of which he had finished only the first eight measures, he wept and put the music aside.
The Compleat Mozart, Neal Zaslaw (ed.) with William Cowdery (New York & London: W.W. Norton, 1990) at p. 17. Mozart died the following morning.

Click here for the Latin text with English translation.

Click here for a presentation by the Österreichischen National-bibliothek.

image_description=Lacrimosa (Österreichischen National-bibliothek)

first_audio_name=Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Requiem

product_title=Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Requiem
product_by=Irmgard Seefried, Hildegard Rössel-Majdan, Anton Dermota, Gottlob Frick, Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Karl Böhm (cond.). Live recording, Vienna, 20 November 1955.

Posted by Gary at 10:25 AM

Ablaberdyeva/Korobeinikov at Wigmore Hall, London — Four Reviews

On 28 December 2005, soprano Alla Ablaberdyeva and pianist Andrei Korobeinikov presented a program of songs by Rachmaninov, Britten and Shostakovich. Here are four reviews.

Posted by Gary at 9:43 AM

Ablaberdyeva/Korobeinikov at Wigmore Hall, London — Four Reviews

Ablaberdyeva/Korobeinikov — Wigmore Hall, London

Tim Ashley [The Guardian, 5 January 2006]

The days between Christmas and New Year can be a dull time for classical music. The Wigmore Hall can usually be relied on, however, to provide an inventive concert schedule, even if some of the artists involved are hardly household names. This recital by soprano Alla Ablaberdyeva and pianist Andrei Korobeinikov was very much a case in point - an ingeniously programmed evening, presented with great panache by two performers of whom we perhaps ought to hear more.

Click here for remainder of article.

Ablaberdyeva/ Korobeinikov, Wigmore Hall, London

By David Murray [Financial Times, 4 January 2006]

I fancy that the Wigmore Hall faces an annual quandary: what to do with that awkward post-Christmas week, when audiences are likely to be meagre and the bigger names reluctant to appear? Part of the solution this year was the Samarkand- born, Moscow-educated, London-resident soprano Alla Ablaberdyeva, who appeared with the 19-year-old, multi-competition-winning pianist Andrei Korobeinikov.

Click here for remainder of article.

Alla Ablaberdyeva, Wigmore Hall, London

By Michael Church [The Independent, 2 January 2006]

How salutary to be reminded that while the British songsmiths of the early 20th century were setting dainty ditties about lads, lasses and lilac trees, their Russian counterparts were cutting to the quick. And how interesting to see what the deft and dense poems of Anna Akhmatova did to the habitually garrulous Prokofiev: his music became deft and dense, too. By bringing to our attention the songs he and Rachmaninov had coincidentally published in 1916, Alla Ablaberdyeva's programme did us a favour even before she'd opened her mouth.

Click here for remainder of article.

Alla Ablaberdyeva

Geoff Brown [Times Online, 3 January 2006]

The Russian soprano Alla Ablaberdyeva, based in England since 1991, may have looked triumphant in pink, but there was something, alas, decidedly unfestive about her post-Christmas concert at Wigmore Hall. For a start, the programme began in the wrong season, Easter, gloomily summoned in Christ is Risen, one from an overgenerous pile of 12 Rachmaninov songs in the first half. “The world is steeped in blood and tears,” she sang. She has a point, but the No 1 spot on a cold winter’s night was not the best place for undiluted pessimism.

Click here for remainder of article.

image_description=Wigmore Hall

Posted by Gary at 8:37 AM

January 5, 2006

Hansel and Gretel

Andrew Clements [The Guardian, 5 January 2006]

Watching Hansel and Gretel amid the Victorian splendour of Leeds Town Hall is like seeing the whole opera from inside the witch's house. The pipes of the organ look so much as if they have been carved out of marzipan you expect one of the children to climb up and bite a chunk out of them. But Opera North's new version of Engelbert Humper-dinck's opera, a staged concert performance directed by John Fulljames and designed by Soutra Gilmour, is determined to give it another, more contemporary resonance. Musical instrument cases are an important element in a production that is played around and about the orchestra, but the main reference is far more specific.

Posted by Gary at 10:31 AM

Die Fledermaus, Metropolitan Opera, New York

By Martin Bernheimer [Financial Times, 5 January 2006]

Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus is an elegant period-piece, a fragile fusion of waltz-time charm and comedy-of-eros insinuation. Not these days, however, at Lincoln Center.

Posted by Gary at 10:25 AM

Mozart at 250? Time for Something New

By DANIEL J. WAKIN [NY Times, 5 January 2006]

You have been specializing in Mozart for 40 years. It is the 250th-anniversary year of his birth. Your festival will bob in an ocean of Wolfgang, Wolfgang, Wolfgang concerts around the world. What to do?

The Mostly Mozart Festival's solution is to sink its tent poles into the present. This Lincoln Center festival, announcing its 2006 program yesterday, said it had commissioned four new works, three of them "inspired" by Mozart, as the foundation of the summer season.

Posted by Gary at 10:15 AM

Metropolitan Opera, in Tight Times, Receives Record Gift of $25 Million

By DANIEL J. WAKIN [NY Times, 5 January 2006]

The Metropolitan Opera has received the largest individual gift in its history, a $25 million donation from the socialite Mercedes Bass and her husband, Sid R. Bass, that comes at a time of increasing financial troubles for the house.

Posted by Gary at 10:11 AM

January 4, 2006

Régine Crespin: Wagner and Berlioz Opera Arias

But for a lot of others, twenty minutes of Crespin singing on TV will probably satisfy their curiosity and they will be quite happy with this nice Bonus, which is in reality mostly devoted to publicity for all the classic EMI-DVD’s at the moment. So, if you want to have a look at Menuhin, Oistrakh, Richter, Rubinstein playing their instruments for a few minutes, you won’t be disappointed before you once more return to those gent’s CD’s where the sound is much better. And if you are only interested in Callas singing “Vissi d’arte” in London 1964, this too is an interesting extra as EMI gives you the whole aria as a teaser for the purchase of the DVD.

There is something nostalgic in the televised Crespin performances. The pianist has still to turn the pages of the score himself, though most of the time the camera fully concentrates on the soprano, either in close-up or panning. The director evidently still thought that the soprano was the “raison d’être” of the programme and didn’t think it necessary to illustrate her singing by inserting all kinds of unnecessary pictures. In 1964 Crespin was at the height of her powers and the ease of her singing is remarkable — no deep breathing but fully relaxed singing. The sound, too, has one sitting up. There is one mike and there were probably no engineers all over the place to produce a sterile but beautiful sound. Crespin literally blazes away everything in front of her and this DVD probably gives a better impression of the formidably sized voice than most of her commercial recordings and this not even in operatic arias.

But of course the main course is the CD with Wesendonck-lieder, some Wagner arias (which already appeared on an earlier CD together with some Verdi-arias) and Berlioz arias. What is there left to be said that has not been said of the soprano’s recordings? Little, very little, unless it is with some regret one notes that her world career as a soprano was rather short. This was not her own fault. When she made her début in 1950, France was still embarrassingly rich in opera theatres (it still is) and most good French singers could make a big career in their own country, singing in their own language with only a venture to the French speaking parts of Switzerland and Belgium. They were well paid and the French railway system allowed them to return home regularly so that they didn’t have to absent themselves for months in South America or the US. France, too, had its own record companies, sometimes very independent subsidiaries of the international majors and a lot of singers recorded prolifically, Crespin included. I take offence to the cliché in the booklet stating that in those days French singing was generally perceived to be in decline. Boué, Robin, Montmart, Juyol, Le Bris, Doria, Sarroca, Cumia, Micheau and Jaumillot each could have had a world career. And with Blanc, Massard, Bianco, Bacquier, Cambon, Borthayre, Legros, France was as rich in baritones as Italy. What other country ever yielded a tenor crop as the Cannes singing contest of 1954 that gave us Tony Poncet, Roger Gardes, Guy Chauvet, Gustave Botiaux and Alain Vanzo?

Crespin came to the world’s attention in 1958 with a Bayreuth Kundry at the time when that festival still had some influence. She went on to Vienna and Milan and arrived at the Met in 1962, one year after she had recorded the Wesendonck-lieder which are to be found on this CD. She first proves how idiomatic her German is long before Pollet and Dessay would show that the language is no stumbling block for French sopranos. But there is far more than the perfect pronunciation. The voice is fresh, warm, all-enveloping and breathtakingly beautiful that brings with it ten years experience of legato in French and Italian roles. Her female warmth in Lohengrin and Walküre makes these recordings some of the best Wagner singing ever. In 1958 she had recorded the two soprano arias from Tannhäuser as well, plus the Marguerite aria from La Damnation, which she could easily sing as she always had the low notes and probably realized that her voice was rather a short one. Although the 1970 Decca recording of the same Berlioz aria is not too despised, the younger version wins hands out. The Didon arias from Les Troyens are often sung by either a dramatic soprano or a mezzo and they suit Crespin’s voice extremely well. It is interesting to note that by 1965, when these last arias were recorded, there still was not a vocal problem in sight and the voice sounded as beautiful as seven years earlier. The problems would only start two years later with a combination of personal problems and the ill fated venture as Karajan’s Brünnhilde in Salzburg. But for lovers of a velvety rich voice this is an issue to treasure.

Jan Neckers

image_description=Régine Crespin: Wagner and Berlioz Opera Arias

product_title=Régine Crespin: Wagner and Berlioz Opera Arias
product_by=Régine Crespin et al.
product_id=EMI Classics 7243 5 58031 0 8 [CD & DVD]

Posted by Gary at 10:02 PM


It has been Giancarlo Bongiovanni’s custom for several recordings to employ cheap orchestras (following the Naxos trend) for whom this is a kind of calling card and to give the title roles to experienced singers who never made headlines but carve out existences in small provincial theatres in Europe. There is nothing wrong with that method, as otherwise it would be financially impossible to bring to the market the many rarities Bongiovanni issues.

The orchestra is certainly not substandard and plays well under maestro Frontalini. Dnjepropetrovsk may be a hideous place to live; but the city has one million inhabitants and a good opera house. The quality of the orchestra is important in this opera as it starts out with a prologo longer than 12 minutes in an opera that only has thirty minutes more to go. The piece is exactly what the name says: a prologue that is a symphonic poem that tells us all what has happened beforehand : an attack on a caravan led by Muhammed ibn Abdullah (yes, the founder himself) that fails because of a sandstorm and the intervention of angels. The battle leaves the heroine all alone in the world as her family is wiped out. The tenor appears wearing a scythe (i.e., la Falce) but he is not a messenger of death but of life. The girl and the boy fall in love and they follow the victorious caravan starting their new life together.

At the time, the 21-year old Catalani knew the earlier operas of Wagner and, during a stay in Paris, he had heard some of the effects the older Massenet used (though that composer’s first oriental opera – Le Roi de Lahore – premièred two years after La Falce). Catalani’s use of the orchestra is refined and far from the big guitar of some of his contemporaries. He never was a great tune-smith though his best known opera, La Wally, has one big hit. Nonetheless he employs mostly melodic recitatives changing into arioso without formal beginnings or endings in the traditional aria-style. Though the tenor has more declamatory lines than the more lyrical ones of the soprano, their voices nicely join together from time to time in the honoured Italian way. It may be a youthful piece; but it is one that grows on you with repeated hearings.

After a career of twenty years with many performances of Abigaile and Turandot, soprano Paola Romano has a serviceable but somewhat shrill voice without a distinct timbre. Tenor Carlo Torriani is a throwback to the fifties when these kind of big booming voices with a heavy vibrato were still in abundant supply in Italy: not too refined, reminding one of Giuseppe Giacomini, but still exciting for those like myself who like ringing tenor singing.

In short, an interesting CD and a must for all collectors of operas by Verdi’s successors.

Jan Neckers

image_description=Alfredo Catalani: La Falce

product_title=Alfredo Catalani: La Falce
product_by=Paola Romano, Carlo Torriani, Orchestra dell’Opera Ucraina di Dniepropetrovsk, Silvano Frontalini (cond.).
product_id=Bongiovanni GB 2394-2 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 9:43 PM

L'Elisir d'Amore at the Met — Three Reviews

The Metropolitan Opera presented Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore (The Elixir of Love), which "tells of the peasant Nemorino who decides to take some magic elixir sold to him by a quack doctor, so that he can win the heart of a wealthy land-owner, who (to spite Nemorino) has announced her marriage to a sergeant." Here are three reviews.

Posted by Gary at 8:57 AM

L'Elisir d'Amore at the Met — Three Reviews

A Homegrown Coloratura's Breezy Donizetti Heroine

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 4 January 2006]

In recent years, Metropolitan Opera audiences have excitedly greeted the work of several brilliant young coloratura sopranos, including Anna Netrebko and, just this season, the German-born Diana Damrau, who had a splendid Met debut as Zerbinetta in Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos."

Click here for remainder of article.

L'elisir d'amore, Metropolitan Opera, New York

By Martin Bernheimer [Financial Times, 4 January 2006]

It did not look particularly promising on paper.

The vehicle to be cranked out at the Met on Monday was a just another revival of L'elisir d'amore. Donizetti's bel-canto comedy has been subjected to hack treatment in recent years. The terminally cute production, dating back to 1991, is predicated on pink-pastel flats by Beni Montresor that pretend all the world's a pretty-pretty stage within a stage. The latest cast is not studded with stars.

Click here for remainder of article.

Viva Donizetti

BY JAY NORDLINGER [NY Sun, 4 January 2006]

The Metropolitan Opera has revived maybe its most delightful show: "L'Elisir d'Amore" ("The Elixir of Love"), by Donizetti, in the 1991 production of John Copley. I've said that this production looks like a Valentine's Day card: all pinks and ruffles. Then again, it can look like an Easter basket. At any rate, it's irresistible.

And, no, the Met is not staging "The Elixir" on Valentine's Day - that night, they're doing "Samson and Delilah," not nearly as fun. (Something about having one's eyes gouged out.)

Click here for remainder of article.

image_description=Ruth Ann Swenson

Posted by Gary at 8:42 AM

January 3, 2006

Mozart-Schädel: Geheimnis um Echtheit wird gelüftet

Eine DNA-Analyse wurde bei Innsbrucker Gerichtsmediziner in Auftrag gegeben: TV-Doku "Mozart. Eine Spurensuche" löst Rätsel
[Der Standard, 3 January 2006]

Innsbruck/Salzburg/Wien - Stammt der seit 1902 von der Internationalen Stiftung Mozarteum Salzburg aufbewahrte Schädel tatsächlich von Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart oder nicht? Dieser Frage ging im vergangenen Jahr das Institut für Gerichtsmedizin an der Medizinischen Universität Innsbruck nach. Das Rätsel soll am kommenden Sonntag (8.1., 21.55 Uhr, ORF 2) in der ORF-Dokumentation "Mozart. Eine Spurensuche" von Burgl Czeitschner (Buch) und Ute Gebhardt (Regie) gelüftet werden.

Posted by Gary at 5:21 PM

Scientists May Have Found Mozart's Skull

By WILLIAM J. KOLE [Associated Press, 3 January 2005]

Have scientists found Mozart's skull? Researchers said Tuesday they'll reveal the results of DNA tests in a documentary film airing this weekend on Austrian television as part of a year of celebratory events marking the composer's 250th birthday.

Posted by Gary at 4:24 PM

Jonathan Lemalu: Love Blows as the Wind Blows

If one should believe British opera lovers, especially English ones, Jonathan Lemalu is a weak and uninteresting singer who has either paid himself for his CD’s or is otherwise the lucky recipient of EMI’s political-correctness as he is only recorded because he is a New Zealand-born Samoan.

In all probability both camps are somewhat right and somewhat wrong. English critics can be horribly biased and in the past they succeeded in having us believe for a short time that Peter Glossop, Geraint Evans, Joan Carlyle, Elisabeth Harwood and Rosalind Plowright would become stars of the first magnitude; and then we heard the results and we felt cheated. John Steane, the grand old man, of English singer’s critics is a little bit careful when discussing Lemalu’s operatic recital but of course heartily recommends it. A song recital as this one is even more difficult to judge as there are almost no opportunities for the singer to show his strength in either his low or high range. Most songs are smack in the middle of the voice and I cannot say I was stunned by it. Uninteresting, even bleak as his detractors wrote on some opera forum I won’t name. The voice doesn’t sound big (I never heard him in the flesh) but has a good focused core. He knows how to lighten it and has an agreeable piano like in “Come away” (track 18). But indeed, there are no myriad colours and it is not a very exciting timbre. In short, I’d say he is that kind of bass every opera house needs so that one can cast Jake Wallace or Ferrando from its own ranks. It’s possible his ethnicity helped him in getting engagements, but to me he greatly resembles, by the facelessness of his sound, some of his British predecessors such as Michael Langdon, Geraint Evans, Alistair Miles: singers who were not neglected by the major companies, singers one was happy to hear and see in the house though one quickly forgot them afterwards.

I’ll admit, too, that these songs do not stir me to ecstasy. Most of them are somewhat monotonous, without too much melodic inspiration, going along in a kind of Sprechgesang. I listened without looking at the sleeve notes and noticed that the Shakespearean songs sounded a little bit livelier, more interesting than the other ones. This may be because there one hears old-fashioned rhymes, which always make it easier for a composer to stir up some rhythm. But it can also mean that their composers were born before the days of dissonance. Some of the later songs are composed on excellent poems but I fail to hear any added value in the music of Barber, Britten and especially Bolcom (track 23 in particular). As a non-native speaker it struck me that Lemalu’s pronunciation when reciting or singing these songs is not always perfect and sometimes a little bit difficult to understand — a feeling I never have with another non-English bass, Bryn Terfel, who moreover has a more charming and rounded sound. In short, maybe those English opera lovers are a little nearer to the truth than the critics.

Jan Neckers

image_description=Jonathan Lemalu: Love Blows as the Wind Blows

product_title=Jonathan Lemalu: Love Blows as the Wind Blows
English and American Songs
product_by=Jonathan Lemalu, bass-baritone, with Malcolm Martineau (piano) and Belcea Quartet.
product_id=EMI 7243 5 58050 2 7 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 3:56 PM

Opera at the Philharmonic

By JAY NORDLINGER [NY Sun 3 January 2006]

At Lincoln Center on New Year's Eve, there was opera at the opera - and opera at the Philharmonic. (Actually, there was operetta at the opera - "Die Fledermaus" - but let's not quibble.) Lorin Maazel, the Philharmonic's music director, led a program of Italian overtures, dances, intermezzi, and arias. And who was along to sing those arias? Why, Angela Gheorghiu, the world's most glamorous opera star.

Posted by Gary at 9:01 AM

Even at Concert Halls, It's Location, Location, Location

By ANNE MIDGETTE [NY Times, 3 January 2006]

Some time ago I went to a concert at Carnegie Hall that involved a lot of talking from the stage. I was pleased with the way the performer engaged audience members by talking to them between numbers, using a hand-held microphone; and the audience seemed responsive and involved. A week or so later, I spoke on the phone to a friend I had run into at the concert and asked him what he and his wife had thought of it. I wondered if they had found the approach distressingly populist. "Well," my friend said, "we liked the music; but as for the talking, we couldn't understand a single word he said."

Posted by Gary at 8:55 AM

January 2, 2006

BRUCH: Das Lied von der Glocke

Women and children and even men had fun singing. In groups! In public! Instead of playing dartball or scrapbooking! Today in 2006 it seems astounding that people enjoyed being part of ensembles rather than teams—a word I’m sure the gods must flee in horror, it’s become so ubiquitous and at the same time so meaningless; everything in America works in “teams” and uses “teamwork” nowadays, to the neglect of collaborative techniques that entail more than reliving the recesses of our childhoods.

When I was a kid, not a century or so past, the Southern Illinois town I lived in had a Cultural Society that put on an annual Christmas concert as well as top-notch productions of musicals and other concerts. I currently live in a small Midwestern city (population 20,000, about the same size as the town I grew up in), and public choral singing is pretty nonexistent. We have a Lutheran Men’s Chorus, average age about 50, that sings at Lutheran functions and the Mayor’s Good Friday Prayer Breakfast. But that’s the extent of public choral singing here in the Heartland. Churches have their various choirs, whose numbers hardly compare to those even 15 or 20 years ago. A few still stage annual Easter spectaculars (“The Living Cross”), but you don’t find the John Peterson or Bill Gaither Christmas and Easter cantatas that church congregations used to enjoy.

Back in those years of yore when everything was bathed in a golden glow, even on those days when our grandparents trekked to school through five feet of snow (and lived to tell us about it, over and over), another now almost forgotten activity was memorization and recitation. Memorization of more than just the states and their capitals or the most common chemical elements and their symbols. Poems. Long poems. Poems of tens if not hundreds of lines. “Listen my children and you shall hear,/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” “This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks, ...” And then they had to turn around and recite them in front of their parents and, worse, sniggering brothers and sisters in convocations! No wonder the education czars don’t have children do that anymore. It traumatizes them. Rote memorization is bad. Poetry is bad. (Though what is rap if not nineteenth-century four-square poetry urbanized?) And memorization takes away from time better spent learning to take tests to meet the demands of the No School Administrator Left Behind Act.

It’s strange, though. Do those of us who had to sing in public concerts several times a year as kids have bad memories of it? I don’t. Every so often I’ll think of some piece I sang a few decades back (“O Star [the fairest one in sight]” from Randall Thompson’s setting of the Robert Frost poem), or I’ll hear a song on the radio that we sang in my high school chorus (the Beatles’ “When I’m 64”). I still love Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, which we did in college. What a fun piece! I don’t think I ever had to memorize long poems—species and genus and family and on up Linnaeus’s ladder was my challenge—but one of my parents still comes out with “Little Orphan Annie’s come to our house to stay” every so often, and they’re none the worse for having had to have learnt it.

So on to the proper subject of this review, Max Bruch’s Das Lied von der Glocke (The Song [or Lay] of the Bell; 1878). Bruch, best known for his violin concerto, Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra, and Kol Nidrei for cello and orchestra, lived an amazingly long time for a nineteenth-century composer, from 1838 to 1920. He tried his hand at opera as a young man, but abandoned the genre at the age of only 34, with Hermione, based on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Bruch continued in his secular oratorios his penchant for choosing not exactly lightweight subjects to set to music: Odysseus, Achilles, Arminius (a.k.a. Hermann, victor of the battle against the Romans at the Teutoburg Forest). Of course, in the nineteenth century, these mythical and legendary heroes were well known to everyone through that rote memorization—oftentimes in the original Greek—that we’ve now decided is such a waste of effort. Young people recite their favorite rap songs with gusto though; perhaps rhymed learning and remembrance might be advantageous in an evolutionary sense?

Schiller’s poem was a favorite of 19th-century German pedagogues, all umpteen hundred lines committed to memory by countless squirming German youths (better this than the poet’s diatribe against Christianity “Die Götter Griechenlands”). Compared to it, Longfellow’s poems are lightweight stuff indeed! Written in 1799, the year Schiller moved to Weimar, the poem connects the casting of a great bell with stages in human life in the poet’s “sentimental,” middle-class worldview. It was already well known by the time of Schiller’s death in 1805, and by the middle of the century it was used to help justify German unification. Nowadays readers are probably snoozing by the time they get to admonitions to die Jugend like “Der Wahn ist kurz, die Reu ist lang” (Illusion is brief, but Repentance is long). But, with echoes of his more familiar “An die Freude” set by Ludwig van, Schiller summons up a stirring finale where the bell soars upward to the heavens, its first notes heralding Peace.

Bruch had an ear for a good melody, but he was never the most original composer. Bits of this oratorio sound like Wagner, other passages like Brahms or Mendelssohn. With the galumphing tympani and sprawling orchestral forces coming close to being blown off the stage by the brass section, we hear the Mahler 8ths to come. The forces here, appropriately centered around the Staatskapelle Weimar, give the work a competent performance in the best conservatory-trained Central European tradition. I’m not sure it’s possible to hear a brilliant performance of Bruch’s oratorio, but listeners won’t find anything here that’s offsetting.

So did the Prague Philharmonic Choir and the soloists in this recording, or the singers who premiered the work in the 1870s and the other choral groups who performed it in the following decades, really enjoy learning this music and singing the slightly ponderous text, or—in the case of those long-ago singers—did they just not have anything more exciting to do on those gas-lit, five-foot-snowdrift winter evenings, and this was their idea of something to do and a way to get out of the house? I maintain that they really did see it as fun, as we might see a playing a video game, but also enjoyable (not the same as “fun”), and more important, as uplifting. For listeners, performances weren’t just another night in your subscription series. Learning music, and memorizing long poems, was a mental challenge, not mental drudgery. It was good preparation for other academic activities that hopefully would bring material success in business or industry. Choral singing and rote memorization took Discipline. These weren’t hobbies or sports for individuals and star players, scrapbooking the family’s year in pictures and newspaper clippings or winning the local men’s softball trophy. An ensemble is fundamentally different from a team; it involves a degree of constant collaborative feedback that, to my admittedly couch potato point of view, blows “teamwork” out of the water.

Our children probably wouldn’t be scarred (or scared) for life if they were expected to memorize hundred-line poems. Learning memorization tricks and techniques would help them master other analytical skills. I won’t argue that the current cult of the individual, doing your own thing and making your first million as young as possible, hasn’t had its benefits (at least equaled by its drawbacks), but perhaps if more children were to sing in school or church choruses learning large-scale pieces like Bruch’s oratorio (maybe even required to memorize the words), they would learn to listen to each other, something that is fast becoming a bygone skill, as seen daily on C-SPAN. The Duke of Wellington famously remarked that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playfields of Eton. The future battles of Baghdad and the economic battles of Shanghai and Calcutta are less likely to be won on the playing fields of the Lakers and the Steelers and the Cubs than on the playing fields of the mind and through community-focused ensemble-work.

David E. Anderson

image_description=Max Bruch: Das Lied von der Glocke

product_title=Max Bruch: Das Lied von der Glocke
product_by=Eleonore Marguerre; Annette Markert; Klaus Florian Vogt; Mario Hoff; Philharmonischer Chor Prag; Staatskapelle Weimar; Jac van Steen (cond).
product_id=cpo 777 130-2 [2 CDs]

Posted by Gary at 8:56 PM

WEBER: Der Freischütz

This was the last recording of the work with an all German-speaking cast before Swedish, American, Mexican, Finnish tenors and sopranos of international standing took over some of those roles as they were thought to be better sellers (granted, Carlos Kleiber once more had an all German male cast in 1973 but he had the horrible idea to ask theatre actors for the speaking parts).

Not all of these singers were still at the top of their career or even excellently suited to their roles, but all of them had known the opera all their lives, even before they started an opera career and this shows in the flow of the recording, the pacing and the ease in the dialogues. Der Freischütz with its rather naïve story was immensely popular in the broad sense of the word (“volkstümlich the Germans say) and up till the sixties there would have been no German, Austrian or Swiss who didn’t know the hunter’s chorus while most Germans thought the bridesmaids chorus to be a folk tune. Though the recording firms still kept up the pace, performances of Weber’s masterpiece slowly declined in Germany but it would never leave the repertoire as did most of Albert Lorzing’s fine Spielopern.

The recording has some strong points. First, there is the warm sound so typically for DG at the time. How we detested those magnificent stereo Decca recordings of Bohème (Bergonzi, Tebaldi), Lucia (Sutherland, Cioni) etc. because most people got a kind of hollow sound which improved definitely when one turned the volume a few notches up. But when one lived between paper thin walled houses or small apartments one could only try this for a few minutes before an angry knock asked you to calm down and as people still had some politeness and consideration for each other in those days….The DG recordings didn’t neglect the orchestra, but they placed the singers a bit more to the front; they didn’t have Culshaw extravaganzas and were far more easier to listen to in cramped surroundings.

I have fond memories of Eugen Jochum conducting a top notch orchestra (which was Celibidache’s after all). Apart from the Berliner in those days most German top orchestras belonged to a big public radio network as these organisations offered year long contracts in contrast to the opera houses and thus recruited the best players. On rehearing I was surprised at the very slow start of the overture and feared for a moment that my memories had played me false and that Jochum was suffering from a bad case of Furtwänglerism. But soon the conductor speeds things up and succeeds in building the tension that results in a chilling Wolfsschluchtscene. The best vocal performance comes from Rita Streich who would sadly die in 1987, only 56 years of age. She was one of that remarkable trio of light sopranos (the other two being Erika Köth and Anneliese Rothenberger), all born between 1920 and 1925, who still sang a lot of French and Italian roles in German with a fine legato, good top notes and easily distinguishable voices. Streich is sure and light-footed in her solos and has no difficulty at all of being heard in the ensembles though her voice was small. But she brings with her the joy and frivolity and the rock-sure vocal technique needed for someone who recorded a lot of waltzes and operetta though she was foremost an opera and lieder singer.

Next to her Irmgard Seefried is not on the same level. The soprano had a very beautiful voice in her youth and she was a far more popular figure at Salzburg than Schwarzkopf as she unstintingly gave of her best. But she paid a price for her lack of formal training. She was only 20 and still studying when she accepted an offer from the Generalmusikdirektor of Aachen’s small opera, Karajan. As the war was on maybe she was glad to earn a few Reichsmark. By the mid-sixties, only 45, she was spent and she cut short her operatic career and concentrated for many years on lieder before dying at 69. When she made this recording there are already hints of trouble. The warm personal middle voice is still there but the sound becomes thin at the top and one feels her reticence in giving her all as she cannot get away in the studio with flat notes which still passed on the scene. Therefore her Agathe is too tentative, too restrained as the voice no longer can respond to the character’s needs. Richard Holm was a fine Mozartean, a good Tamino though more a Pedrillo than a Belmonte. The voice is beautiful, smooth and well-projected with a good clear diction but the role is a size too big for him and he sometimes has to force in ensembles. Bass Kurt Böhme has more than the size. With a big booming voice he is a fine devil often too much relying on exclamations and Sprechgesang and some people will probably prefer the more smooth interpretation of Gottlob Frick or Karl Ridderbusch in later recordings. Eberhard Waechter in the small role of Ottokar is cast from strength and so is Walter Kreppel as Samuel.

There is no libretto included with this budget issue.

Jan Neckers

image_description=Carl Maria von Weber: Der Freischütz

product_title=Carl Maria von Weber: Der Freischütz
product_by=Eberhard Waechter; Albrecht Peter; Irmgard Seefried; Rita Streich; Kurt Böhme; Richard Holm; Walter Kreppel. Chorus and Symphony Orchestra of Bavarian Radio, Eugen Jochum (cond.).
product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 477 561-1 [2CD’s]

Posted by Gary at 8:40 PM

VERDI: La Traviata

Therefore the marketing department made a major effort and agreed to ask people why they bought or didn’t buy a set. And look and behold, after quite an expensive effort, the marketers got a clear and correct answer, one they could as easily have gotten for free if they had questioned one opera-lover. People buy opera-recordings for the singers and not for the conductor. And the reason that people no longer were buying opera-recordings was clear as well. Domingo-fans probably had bought the RCA Price-Domingo recording. So why did they need another (official) one with the same tenor, even though it was conducted by Muti 4 years, Abbado 10 years and Levine 20 years later? And now Deutsche Grammophon has acted accordingly. The names of Netrebko and Villazon are printed in bold black letters on the sleeve while one has to look carefully to discover that conductor Carlo Rizzi and the Vienna Philharmonic are also participating. And thus is finally restored what ought to be restored since those bad days when conductors like Toscanini and Karajan succeeded in having critics and record executives think they were the important people. Once more the primacy of the singer in recorded opera is acknowledged.

It is true that Rizzi is not a “star” among conductors and that armchair critics always had a lot too say, not always positive, on his conducting. Personally I wonder why. For seasons he was a fixture at the Amsterdam Muziektheater where he conducted many new Verdi productions. He wasn’t the man of grand gestures but he always succeeded in having a good report between scene and pit. He didn’t rush his singers and probably breathed with them (difficult to control from the audience seats in Amsterdam) but neither did he linger or overindulge them. One always came away with a feeling of correct tempi and that’s exactly how I would describe his handling of the Vienna Philharmonic in this recording. Yes, the conducting may be a little bit unobtrusive but that’s only because one is not eternally reminded of the eccentricities of the man at the helm so that one can concentrate on the drama as given to us by the singers. It’s probably no coincidence that the only moment where one notes the presence of the conductor is the one place where no soloist is singing and where Rizzi rushes chorus and orchestra at breakneck speed through the party at Flora’s in the 2nd act.

If this set has one quality, it’s one of youth. This reportedly is the soundtrack (though one is never 100% sure which takes were used) of the now well-known Salzburg performances ending in a DVD, but even without the images one realizes that this is a Traviata sung by singers who have almost the age of the protagonists. Netrebko and Villazon are both in that stage of their career where they have finally mastered their craft while at the same time the bloom of youth is still on the voice; where the overtones point to a youthful sheen that inevitably will lose some of its quality. One is reminded of the first Callas or Moffo sets where the tenors are already a little bit too mature. This set was culled from several live performances and there is some loss too. Netrebko wants to husband her voice in the first act and only gives us one verse of “Ah! Fors’è lui” before launching into “Follie, follie !”. Villazon has no such excuse for giving us one verse only of his cabaletta “Oh mio rimorso.” But it is a hell of a piece to sing — in fact it has some leaps which make it more difficult than “Di quella pira” — and the tenor wants to have some breath left before sailing to a good strong (unwritten) high B. Villazon is in very fine voice, not missing a single point of interpretation; exhibiting charm and boyishness in the first act by a mixture of delicate pianissimo and emotion. As his personal trick he let’s his voice quiver in the now almost forgotten verismo way of the thirties though Villazon is in general more stylish than a Ferrauto, a Merli or a Pertile. In the second act he is very convincingly angry and in the third act once more he finds a fine balance between joy and grief. In fact he sings so well that one tends to forget that his is not a first class instrument. The colour is dark but often a little throaty and comparisons with the sheer beauty of young Domingo’s voice are not correct. Villazon has more in common with Flaviano Labo, though the natural means of the deceased Italian tenor were probably greater. But for this reviewer, Villazon is only surpassed by Carlo Bergonzi in one of his best recordings on the Sutherland-Pritchard-set.

Competition for Netrebko is of course far more stiff. Every great soprano since the thirties has tried to make the role her own and all have left an imposing legacy of official and live recordings. Netrebko is a big lirico and thus not equal to young Callas, Zeani and Caballé; all three of them ladies who could cope with the coloratura demands in the first act while switching into a heavier gear for the rest of the opera. The Russian soprano cannot master the same gifts in “Follie, follie” where she has to tread carefully as she hasn’t the voice for fearless coloratura. Wisely, though always what disillusioning for a top note hunter as myself, she omits the high E. In the second act she is at her best with that beautiful sound used expressively. I sometimes think record producers have taken Freni’s and Scotto’s voices, mixed them together and came out with Netrebko. Now does she plumb the tragedy of Violetta in her big scenes with père Germont, during Alfredo’s unwarranted attack on her, in her farewell too life? Yes, she does and she doesn’t. She gives it her all; but the clear bell like sound of the voice works a little against her. She has not Callas’ vocal depth and even a lighter though darker coloured voice as Gheorgiu’s is better suited to the role as we are now so used to some deep chest tones in for instance “Addio del passato” that we feel a bit cheated if a soprano doesn’t have them. Netrebko is clever enough not to damage her voice by imitating sounds she doesn’t have.

The disappointment of the set is Thomas Hampson. His bright baritone so apt to French ‘bariton-martin’ roles is wrong for Germont père. There are some moments in his confrontation with Villazon where the tenor’s voice sounds deeper and broader. The intelligent singer that Hampson is tries to mask the lack of a broad easy flowing Verdi baritone by interpretation, with a good mezza-voce and pianissimo but that is often no real help. Time and again one thinks here is a rival for Alfredo instead of a father. Hampson knows this himself and he vainly tries to broaden the voice, cannot really make those imposing sounds and then resorts to hectoring which becomes almost painfully comic in his denunciation at Flora’s party. But even in the duet with Violetta, it takes but a few moments before one is reminded of Fischer-Dieskau in his unlucky portrait in that forgotten Decca set: the same problems and the same bad solutions. On DVD it may be possible that Hampson’s histrionic qualities can forget the deficiencies of the voice but on record it’s not possible.

All in all a good though not definitive set but what Traviata is?

Jan Neckers

image_description=Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata

product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata
product_by=Anna Netrebko; Rolando Villazon; Thomas Hampson; Diane Pilcher; Helene Schneiderman; Salvatore Cordella; Paul Gay; Luigi Roni. Vienna State Opera Chorus and Vienna Philharmonic, Carlo Rizzi (cond.).
product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 477 593-6 [2CDs]

Posted by Gary at 8:23 PM

Sounds of Summer: Dame Joan Sutherland

Reporter: Monica Attard [ABC.net.au, 2 January 2006]

HAMISH ROBERTSON: Hello, I'm Hamish Robertson. As part of the ABC's summer season, we now present a Current Affairs Special.

(sound of Joan Sutherland singing "La Stupenda")

One of Australia's national treasures – Dame Joan Sutherland ("La Stupenda").

Posted by Gary at 8:05 PM

Rare Operatic Masterpiece Comes to the Historic Los Angeles Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles

Lyric Opera of Los Angeles will perform the rare 19th century opera "Manon Lescaut" by D.F.E. Auber in April, 2006 at the historic Los Angeles Theatre.

Los Angeles, CA (PRWEB) January 2, 2006 -- Lyric Opera of Los Angeles is proud to announce that tickets are available for purchase online for their Spring, 2006 production of "Manon Lescaut" by D.F.E. Auber. This production will take place, appropriately, at the historic Los Angeles Theatre (http://www.LosAngelesTheatre.com) in downtown L.A. As part of the ongoing downtown LA renewal project, and efforts by the Los Angeles Conservancy (http://www.laconservancy.org), many of the grand theatres of yester-year are trying to bring live performances back to the former Broadway District. The beautiful Los Angeles Theatre was once the crown-jewel of this downtown Broadway District and is a fitting location for the oppulent French opera being presented by the Lyric Opera of Los Angeles.

Posted by Gary at 8:00 PM

A Self-Confident Diva With a Symphony Orchestra to Contend With

By BERNARD HOLLAND [NY Times, 2 January 2006]

Concerts by famous opera singers are usually star turns masquerading as musical events. But so intensely involved is Angela Gheorghiu in even the most overripe operatic repertory that her New Year's Eve with the New York Philharmonic ended up more a musical event masquerading as a star turn.

Posted by Gary at 7:54 PM

January 1, 2006

HAYDN: Die Schöpfung

First performance: 29 April 1798, Palace of Prince Schwartzenberg in the Mehlmarkt, Vienna


Gabriel; EvaSoprano
Raphael; AdamBass

Click here for program notes from the Cleveland Orchestra.

Click here for complete libretto.

Click here for complete libretto with English translation.

image_description=Franz Joseph Haydn

first_audio_name=Franz Joseph Haydn: Die Schöpfung
Windows Media Player
second_audio_name=Franz Joseph Haydn: Die Schöpfung
Alternate stream

product_title=Franz Joseph Haydn: Die Schöpfung
product_by=Walther Ludwig (Uriel), Hans Hotter (Raphael, Adam), Irmgard Seefried (Gabriel, Eva), Orchestra and Choir Bavaria Radio, Eugen Jochum (cond.). Live performance, Munich, 27 April 1951.

Posted by Gary at 3:53 PM

Il barbiere di Siviglia, Royal Opera House, London

Breakfast? A piece of the tenor please...
By Anna Picard [Independent, 1 January 2006]

Wrapped up in pastel paper and topped off with a crescent moon, Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser's latest Rossini opera for Covent Garden is instantly identifiable as theirs. Stars twinkle in an azure sky. A lissom hero serenades his love in a Saturday Night Fever suit. But where are the post-modern furnishings, the pop-up beds and the tight physical comedy?

Posted by Gary at 11:25 AM

A musical genius? No, Mozart was just a hard-working boy

[The Observer, 1 January 2006]

It was Albert Einstein who said that 'as an artist, or a musician, Mozart was not a man of this world'. Certainly the composer's extraordinary talents have never been in doubt: he could master a minuet and trio on the piano in half an hour when he was just four years old, and he wrote his first opera at the age of 12.

Click here for remainder of article.

image_description=Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Posted by Gary at 11:13 AM