August 31, 2006

BRAHMS: Missa Canonica
RHEINBERGER: Mass

Somewhat problematically, however, neither of the “anchors” seems to have sufficient interest or weight to support the recording as a whole. Brahms’ Missa Canonica consists of only a Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, and derives from the 1850s when Brahms was in his early twenties. The study of counterpoint and the influence of Joseph Joachim helped fortify Brahms for significant aspects of this musical chapter, and the Missa Canonica, a work that lay dormant until the middle of the twentieth century, bears the stamp of his contrapuntal immersion. The Kyrie seems to announce Renaissance ideals that are wed to melodic lines with a compelling Romantic sweep. And the conclusion of the Agnus is quite beautifully constructed. However, too much of this incomplete “Missa” feels like student exercise. We should welcome its modern rediscovery, publication, and recording, but I suspect its interest will lie as much in what it tells us about Brahms as the music itself.

Similarly, Rheinberger’s E-flat Mass will certainly present interesting moments—the halo effect of the “et incarnatus est” in the Creed is effective, as is the “sepultus est” that follows, and the intertwining of the voices of the Agnus Dei is wonderfully engaging—but much of the Mass is economical (the Gloria takes only a little over three minutes) and offers little that will substantially engage the listener.

Fortunately, the Brahms motets are jewels all, including both “Es ist das Heil” and “O Heiland reiss,” works that show Brahms’s affinity for the German motet tradition—they are chorale based and impressively contrapuntal—and his fluency in making that tradition his own. None of the motets are lovelier, however, than the Geistliches Lied, “Lass dich nur nichts nicht dauern.” Richly canonic—it comes from the same period as the canonic mass—it nevertheless veils its canonic richness with wonderfully unfolding lines and a congenially supportive organ accompaniment. The sense of return in leading to the final strophe is nothing short of magical, and the rich chain of suspensions that comprise the final Amen is breathtaking.

The trebles of the Westminster Choir sing with a decidedly “continental” edge to the sound, an often observed aspect of their tradition. Characterized by a bright timbre, the treble sound can indeed be thrilling in some contexts, but in the present recording the line separating brilliance and shrillness is sometimes too narrow, especially at loud volume and in the upper register. By analogy, too, the overall interpretive approach favors a high-energy level that in some instances is engagingly full of verve—the freudige Geist section of “Schaffe in mir” is a good example--but in other instances, the line that separates verve from aggression is also a narrow one, and sometimes misjudged here.

In the final reckoning, the program itself will perhaps leave the listener wanting a bigger serving of more substantial fare, and the choir’s style is at times overly brilliant and energized where warmth and a more graceful line might serve well. There are many beautiful moments, however, and the listener who seeks them out will find reward.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

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Posted by Gary at 9:41 AM

August 30, 2006

How Mozart's Librettist Lost His Teeth, Ended Up in Manhattan

da_ponte_imman.jpgBy Manuela Hoelterhoff [Bloomberg.com, 30 August 2006]

Aug. 30 (Bloomberg) -- Decades after Mozart's death in 1791, his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte was selling vegetables and books in such exotic hamlets as Philadelphia, Elizabeth, New Jersey, and Manhattan.

Posted by Gary at 10:29 AM

August 29, 2006

VERDI: La Forza del Destino

The worst sinner is Gian Giacomo Guelfi, caught on a bad day. The voice is dry and without resonance, and Guelfi’s one solution is to force the voice and increase the volume as much as possible, eventually shouting in the cabaletta ‘Urna fatale’. By the last act there is some juice left in the voice, but he still gets away more easily with barking. His ‘Son Pereda’ and ‘Urna fatale’ are prime examples of mal canto, breaking the line and leaving legato aside. Guelfi was always a rough diamond that didn’t succeed in harnessing his huge voice and refining the musical style. Later that year he recorded an LP of the same opera with young Franco Corelli where at least the sound is exciting (Myto CD 953.132). The high notes, too, are better than in this live recording as he rather tentatively takes them but without the thickness and volume he has in the middle register.

Another disappointment is Padre Guardiano, sung by Giulio Neri. I had to look twice at the sleeve notes to make sure that this hollow sound, devoid of beauty and power, really belonged to Neri. Granted he only had one year and a half to live at the time of this performance, but he was only 47 in 1956, which is not at all old for a bass. Fedora Barbieri, another big name losing her voice before her 40th birthday, sings Preziosilla. In her first act aria, her high register is intact, but the bottom and middle are sung in a sort of growling, vile sound. By ‘Rataplan’ she has more or less recuperated to a more homogeneous sound from top to bottom.

We all know too well that Di Stefano’s lyric sound is totally unsuited for the role of Alvaro. By 1956 the voice is coarser, but the exciting timbre still has one spellbound. He starts out well with some incisive singing, but it soon becomes clear that the voice above the staff is foggy and that he has not warmed up. In Di Stefano’s vocabulary, the use of a first act of Forza is the warming up, so that by his big aria in the third act, he can give his all and something more as well. He doesn’t spare himself, sings too open as always and still makes a tremendous impression, alternating some fine pianissimo with some big forte’s. He’s fine too in ‘Solenne in quest’ora’ though he cannot match Guelfi in decibels. In the fourth act he simply gives up on stylish singing, trying to make as much sound as possible to match Guelfi so that the duet really becomes a shouting contest, won with one second by the baritone.

Not surprisingly, the best singing in this performance comes from Renata Tebaldi, with her use of a wonderful timbre for which the word ‘morbidezza’ was created. Leonora was always one of her best roles as she can float the voice in her two big arias and her convent scene, yet she has power to spare without having to shout herself hoarse. Indeed we hear the problems nearing that will mar her future. In ‘Me pellegrini’ she carefully takes a breath before tackling the high note. In the convent scene she is far less cautious but “the steam whistle” makes its entrance, and at the end of ‘Pace, pace’ she is flat. But, in this issue too, the better is the enemy of the good. Myto has included almost all of her well known 1953 performance as a bonus, and the listener can only be sad at the steadfast decline of her high register. Maybe the biggest surprise lies in the comparison between the middle voices. Though the sound is still very fine in 1956, it pales compared to the stupendous beauty three years earlier.

The experienced conductor, Gabrielle Santini, succeeds in sailing without problems through a performance, though many of these singers probably knew all too well that this was not their evening of glory and were therefore tempted to use some tricks. As was the custom in Italy of those days, the second Alvaro-Carlo duet was cut. Myto almost never gives an exact date of the performance. This one dates from the 8th of June, and some years ago was also released on the label Di Stefano lent his name to.

Jan Neckers

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Posted by Gary at 8:15 PM

WAGNER: Rienzi

The maestro himself took his distance from this work, even though the opera had clocked more performances during his lifetime than all his other opera’s (sorry Gesamtkunstwerken). But this was not at all uncommon. Puccini and Verdi distance themselves from many of their early operas, such as Le Villi, Edgar, and Il Corsaro. And so the Wagner of Tannhäuser has his detectable roots in Rienzi.

Of course, there are quite a few differences as well that the Wagner family probably didn’t want to remind their audiences of them. After all, Rienzi has an interesting historical topic as a subject instead of the silly humbug of Der Ring. Once upon a time Wagner tried to “out-Meyerbeer” Meyerbeer, but nobody in the family wants the public to know that the maestro followed the examples of other composers. Then there is the treatment of the human voice. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau once said that in Wagner’s best known operas “we singers have the honour of accompanying the orchestra” while in Rienzi the vocal line is still supported by the instruments. And, this is really too awful a truth to admit, the maestro even enjoyed writing a long 38-minute ballet without the excuse that the Paris Opéra obliged him to. Admittedly, there are some tedious moments in the opera when the wind section blows too long and too loud, when the choruses repeat themselves or when the melodic inspiration in concertati is sagging but on the other hand there is far more inspired music than Wagner himself acknowledged, such as the fine duet between Rienzi and his sister in the last act.

But to discover this and more, a good recording such as this issue is helpful. More than that, it is the only recording that gives us a real idea what Rienzi is all about. The four CD’s total 4 hours and 41 minutes. An interesting historical issue with Treptow and Eipperle plays for 2 hours and 48 minutes; that’s almost 2 hours of music cut. Even the best commercial recording up to now (Sawallisch – Kollo) gives the listener one hour less of music. This performance is the Dresden version, where the composer made some cuts after he himself found the successful première a bit long (more than six hours though with intervals).

Though this is an entirely British and Commonwealth cast, it is a strong one. John Mitchinson never had the morbidezza necessary for Italian roles, though I heard him sing a very fine Verdi Requiem. Nevertheless, he has a strong, big stylish voice easily riding the orchestral climaxes and the infamous Bayreuth bark is not to be found in his interpretation. His German is quite good too and he is an impressive Rienzi. Maybe Lorna Haywood’s voice is a shade too light for the long role of Adriano, the lover of Rienzi’s sister (at La Scala tenor Cecchele sang this role in a horribly mutilated version with Di Stefano). Yet Haywood brings a wealth of experience in Italian opera with her, and this is evident in the fine legato, the sweet sound in an opera, which after all was still firmly embedded in the French-Italian tradition. Lois McDonall as Irene has the bigger voice, and she too was a good Verdi and Puccini soprano and knew how to bring belcanto to a role. Her first act duet with Mitchinson is outstanding, and the voices of the two women blend. All the other singers are well-known names from Covent Garden and the English National opera and they bring their experience to roles they probably never performed anywhere else.

For many years Edward Downes was a household name at Covent Garden where he conducted hundreds of well-reviewed performances, often after the star conductor had left. To opera lovers in the rest of the world, he was mainly known for his inspired accompanying of singers in recitals such as the début albums of Bruno Prevedi and Luciano Pavarotti. Fed up with his London assignments, he went to Sydney to conduct for the Australian opera company. Rienzi was not his first Wagner discovery, as this was only part of a prestigious project by BBC North. But in May of 1976 Downes conducted concert performances of Wagner’s first-born Die Feen and Das Liebesverbot (both available on Ponto), followed by this Rienzi one month later. Downes knows how to shape the music, and, as he was very well versed in Italian Grand Opera, he is completely at ease. He doesn’t drown his singers and succeeds very well in getting over some tedious moments. It’s not his fault that some choruses or marches are a bit loud — Wagner probably thought that the more wind instruments the better the score.

Warmly recommended, especially to the Wagner family who, with the exception of Eva who wanted this opera to go on in Bayreuth, still cling to their outdated dogmas.

Jan Neckers

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Posted by Gary at 7:57 PM

VERDI: Missa da Requiem

He, himself, would have the last word with the setting of “Libera me.” Although the Rossini Requiem was completed, it was not brought to performance, and a few years later, Verdi’s “Libera me” finds a new home in his own Requiem of 1874, a work honoring the death of the writer, Alessandro Manzoni, best known for his novel, I promessi sposi.

The nature of Verdi’s Requiem is, unsurprisingly, operatic. And though this may complicate its reception in ecclesiastical contexts, it is piously operatic; the innate drama of life’s passing is engaged in theatrical terms, but the theatre would be one where the flicker of votive candles and the sweet waft of incense linger in the mind, a stage on which one can see from time to time the dance of colored light from distant stained glass. The Viennese critic, Eduard Hanslick, wrote that “the study of old Roman church music shines through [the Requiem], but only as a glimmer, not as a model.” The glimmer is significant however, for there are, to be sure, certain things that set the work apart from the operas, especially the chant-like falsobordone recitations in “Libera me,” the quantity of choruses, and more particularly, their contrapuntal proclivities, proclivities that were in tune with Verdi’s contemporary views on conservatory education.

This present recording by Marcus Bosch offers an interesting mix of attributes. At the top of the list would be the brilliant singing of mezzo, Gabriele May. May harnesses her rich vibrancy to a mature and commanding sense of line. Her sound captivates, both with its beauty of tone and its flair. And in these qualities, soprano Melba Ramos can also share in large measure. Ramos also renders the beautiful octave leap in the final “Libera me” with memorable grace, ease, and control, a well-known moment transformed into something unusually fine. The bass soloist, Martin Blasius, fares less well. His thick sound seems “just big,” and his execution seems awkwardly to be of the lumbering variety. Tenor Michael Ende bridges the gap with some strong moments, but rarely rising to memorability.

The chorus, “Vocapella,” is unusually well blended and clear of tone, with carefully formed articulation. Opera choruses, acceding to the demands of the stage for power and volume, will often forgo these qualities for solistically strong singing, en masse. Thus, the chance to hear Verdi’s choruses here in a more decidedly “choral” rendition is welcome—especially in the richly contrapuntal sections—though admittedly, to some ears, a bit more Italianate warmth would be welcome, too.

There is much to admire in the orchestral playing, especially the expressive solo wind passages and the very satisfying, organ-like brass plenum. The acoustic, however is dry, and in some sections the ambience seems to constrain rather than enhance.

This recording then is not problem free, but at the same time gratifying in a number of ways. The ability to hear the details of Verdi’s writing with remarkable clarity is striking and welcome, and the beautiful singing of Melba Ramos and Gabriele May will reward repeated hearings.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College





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Posted by Gary at 7:18 PM

August 28, 2006

VERDI: Don Carlo

First Performance: 11 March 1867 at the Opéra, Paris. Revised version 10 January 1884 at Teatro alla Scala, Milan.

Principal Characters:
Philip II, King of Spain Bass
Rodrigue/Rodrigo, Marquis of Pisa Baritone
Don Carlos/Don Carlo, Infante of Spain Tenor
The Grand Inquisitor Bass
Elisabeth de Valois, Philip's queen Soprano
Princess Eboli, Elisabeth's lady-in-waiting Mezzo-Soprano
Thibault, Eisabeth's page Soprano
The Countess of Aremberg Silent role
The Count of Lerma Tenor
An Old Monk Bass
A Voice from Heaven Soprano
A Royal Herald Tenor
Flemish Deputies Basses
Inquisitors Basses

Setting: France and Spain, about 1560

Synopsis:

Act I

Summary: Don Carlo, the heir to the throne of Spain, is in love with his young stepmother, Elisabeth of Valois. His friend Rodrigo, the Marquis of Posa, attempts to distract him and begs him to take steps on behalf of the oppressed Low Countries. Carlos asks Elisabeth to intervene with the King, Philip II. Carlos then gives his emotions free rein, at which Elisabeth reproves him, even though she loves him also. Carlos flees. The King arrives and is furious that he finds the Queen alone. Rodrigo pleads for the Low Countries with the King, but Philip tells him of his worries about Elisabeth and Carlos.

Sequence:

Part 1
Carlo il sommo Imperatore Male Chorus
Io la vidi e al suo sorriso Don Carlo
Scena: Il duolo della terra Don Carlo, Monk
Mio salvator (Duet) Don Carlo, Rodrigo
Tristo me! (Duet) Don Carlo, Rodrigo
Dio, che nell'alma (Duet) Don Carlo, Rodrigo, Mon, Male Chorus
Sotto ai folti Female Chorus
Nei giardin del bello (Song of the Veil) Eboli, Tebaldo, Female Chorus
Chi mai si fa Elisabeth, Eboli, Rodrigo, Female Chorus
Carlo ch' è sol il nostro amore Elisabeth, Eboli, Rodrigo
Part 2
Io vengo a domandar (Duet) Elisabeth, Don Carlo
Perduto ben, mio sol tesor (Duet) Elisabeth, Don Carlo
Qual voce a me (Duet) Elisabeth, Don Carlo
Il Re! (Scena) Tebaldo, Philip, Chorus
Non pianger, mia compagna (Romanza) Elisabeth, Rodrigo, Philip, Female Chorus
Restate! (Duet) Philip, Rodrigo
Ah! sia benedetto Iddio (Duet) Philip, Rodrigo
Quest' è la pace (Duet) Philip, Rodrigo
Il lor destin (Duet) Philip, Rodrigo

Act II

Summary: It is evening.Carlos has received an anonymous letter and is waiting for the Queen in the garden. The letter’s writer was the princess Eboli, who is also in love with him. Carlos reveals that he loves Elisabeth and rejects Eboli, who swears vengeance. Rodrigo asks Carlos to entrust any incriminating documents concerning the Low Countries that he might possess to him. An auto-da-fé is about to begin; deputies from the Low Countries approach and beg the King for aid. He sends them away, at which Carlos draws his sword and demands to be sent to the Low Countries. Rodrigo disarms him. Philip creates Rodrigo a duke and has Carlo arrested.

Sequence:

Part 1
Prelude Orchestra
A mezza note Don Carlo
Sei tu, sei tu Don Carlo, Eboli
V' è ignoto forse Don Carlo, Eboli, Rodrigo
Al mio furor Don Carlo, Eboli, Rodrigo
Trema per te, falso figliuolo Don Carlo, Eboli, Rodrigo
Part 2
Gran finale (Auto de Fé)
Spuntato ecco il di Chorus
Il di spunto Monks (Male Chorus)
Spuntato ecco il di Chorus
Schiusa or si la porta Herald, Philip, Elisabeth, Rodrigo, Chorus
Sire, no, l'ora estrema (Flemish Deputies) Don Carlo, Herald, Philip, Elisabeth, Rodrigo, Tebaldo, 6 Deputies, Chorus
Sire! egli è tempo ch'io viva Don Carlo, Philip, Elisabeth, Tebaldo, Rodrigo, Monks
Spuntato è il di Heavenly Voice, Deputies, Monks, Chorus

Act III

Summary: Philip obtains help from the Grand Inquisitor in setting up a trial for his son. Princess Eboli has passed Elisabeth’s jewel box on to the King; a portrait of Carlos is inside. The King confronts the Queen with it, at which she faints.Eboli then confesses everything, including the fact that she has been the King’s mistress. Elisabeth bans her from the Court. The incriminating documents have been found in Rodrigo's possessions. He goes to see Carlos in prison, knowing that his own last hour is upon him. A gun fires and Rodrigo falls; mortally wounded, he dies in Carlos' arms. Philip enters and goes to give Carlos back his sword, but Carlos rejects him, having realised that Rodrigo has died to save him. The populace storm the prison and Carlos flees.

Sequence:

Part 1
Ella giammai m'amo Philip
Il Grand' Inquisitor! Philip, Inquisitor, Lerma
Nell' ispano suol Inquisitor, Philip
Le idee dei novator Inquisitor, Philip
Giustizia, sire! Elisabeth, Philip
Ardita troppo Elisabeth, Philip, Eboli
Ah! sii maledetto Philip, Eboli, Rodrigo
O don fatale Elisabeth, Eboli
O mia Regina Eboli
Part 2
Son io, mio Carlo Rodrigo, Don Carlo
Per me giunto Rodrigo, Don Carlo
Io morrò, ma lieto Rodrigo, Don Carlo
Mio Carlo, a te la spada Philip, Don Carlo
Ciel! suona a stormo! Lerma, Philip, Eboli, Chorus
Sacrilegio infame! Lerma, Philip, Eboli, Inquisitor, Chorus

Act IV

Summary: Elisabeth and Carlos bid each other farewell in the gardens of the monastery of San Yuste.They are taken by surprise by the King and the Grand Inquisitor, but a mysterious monk appears (the ghost of Carlos V?) before the guards can take Carlos prisoner and drags him away into the monastery.

Sequence:

Tu che le vanita Elisabeth
È dessa! (Final Scene) Elisabeth, Don Carlo
Si . . . l'eroismo è questo Elisabeth, Don Carlo
Ma lassù ci vedremo Elisabeth, Don Carlo
Si per sempre! Philip, Elisabeth, Inquisitor, Don Carlo, Monks, 4 Brothers

[Synopsis Source: De Nederlandse Opera]

Click here for the complete libretto.

Click here for the text of Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien.

Click here for the text of Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien (English translation).

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Live recording, 25 October 1970, Vienna
Posted by Gary at 7:52 PM

POULENC: Figure Humaine and Dialogues des Carmelites

Although Poulenc (1899 – 1963) had realized in the late 1920s that he was homosexual, the death of Ferroud triggered his return to Catholicism. Despite Poulenc’s renewed commitment to the faith of his childhood, his relationship with religion was a conflicted one. Additionally, Poulenc’s tendency toward intense melancholic emotions was further exacerbated by World War II.

Recently two recordings have been released on CD that feature two of Poulenc’s most highly acclaimed works, each of which reflect themes of religion and war, though the recordings couldn’t be more different from one another. Ponto has released a remastered recording of Dialogues des Carmélites (1953 – 6) performed by the Vienna State Opera on Nov. 8, 1961 under the baton of Berislav Klobucar; and Harmonia Mundi presents several of Poulenc’s works for a cappella choir, including Figure Humaine, performed by the RIAS-Kammerchor conducted by Daniel Reuss.

The Vienna State Opera recording of Dialogues des Carmélites (Die Gespräche der Karmeliterinnen) is a slice of history on a CD. The recording, which includes Emmy Loose as Blanche, Elisabeth Höngen as the old Prioress, Hilda Zadek as the new Prioress, and Christel Goltz as Mother Marie, is a live recording replete with audience noise and applause. The Ponto label, owned by Mitridate, specializes in releasing unique live recordings that are not otherwise available on CD. In this day of digital touching-up and pristine production, it is refreshing to hear artifacts of live performance on a recording. While it is disconcerting to hear Dialogues sung in German instead of French, one need only consider that the opera was premiered in Italian at La Scala to be reminded that “authenticity” in performance is ever unattainable.

The enthusiast will likely be frustrated by the lack of information in the booklet that accompanies the two-CD set. Limited notes on the circumstances of the opera’s composition, a synopsis of the opera, and bios of the lead singers are provided in English by Andrew Palmer. However, the tracks are labeled in only by their German titles, and there is no libretto, in German or otherwise. Furthermore, there is no information on the specific circumstances surrounding this particular production of Dialogues by the Vienna State Opera. The operatic voice fanatic, however, will be delighted to have some of the greatest women to sing at the Vienna State Opera on a single recording. Unfortunately, a cursory search of several major record retailers indicates that this recording may be difficult to track down should one want to purchase it. Mitridate appears to be based in the Netherlands, and only has one distributor listed, also apparently in the Netherlands. [Editor's Note: Ponto is distributed in the U.S. through Qualiton Imports Ltd.]

Figure_Humaine.jpgIn contrast, RIAS-Kammerchor’s recording of Figure Humaine and other of Poulenc’s choral works is highly accessible in all senses of the word. Daniel Reuss directs this highly polished performance of Poulenc’s Sept Chansons (1936), Un Soire de Neige (1944), Figure Humaine (1943), Quatre Petites Prières de Sainte Françsis d’Assise (1948), and Chanson à Boire (nd). These performances are simply wonderful: Each piece is sensitively interpreted and beautifully textured. Reuss and his choir do a stunning job of presenting Poulenc in all his seriousness, melancholy, and concern for humanity. The final work is a short coda to the rest of the CD; Chanson à Boire is a drinking song that reveals Poulenc’s more light-hearted and mischievous side.

The album contains brief program notes by Hervé LaCombe that situate Poulenc as a member of Les Six and as a first-class setter of poetic texts. In addition, LaCombe’s notes and all the texts of the songs are included in the booklet in French, English, and German, as well as information on the RIAS-Kammerchor and photos of the choir and Reuss. Paul Eluard’s surrealist poetry was Poulenc’s gateway to recovering his Catholic spirituality, and this debt is apparent in that the first three works on the recording are settings of texts by Eluard (Sept Chansons contains texts by Apollinaire in addition to Eluard). Furthermore—and luckily—the CD is available widely from retailers. Aficionados will appreciate this the new availability of some Poulenc’s music that is not too frequently recorded. Someone who is not familiar with Poulenc’s music will find this recording to be a delightful introduction.

Megan Jenkins
CUNY – The Graduate Center

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Posted by Gary at 11:33 AM

DUNSTABLE: Sweet Harmony — Masses and Motets

The fullness of sound, the sweet amenity of full triads and vertical thirds, and a more highly controlled sense of consonance all combine to create a novel sound world. The novelty of the sound, however, did not reject all continuities: cantus firmus technique, isorhythm, and the genres of motet and mass movement remain integral to the early fifteenth-century style and remind us that even where innovation is pronounced, it is often couched in forms that are familiar.

Sweet Harmony, the present recording by Antony Pitts and Tonus Peregrinus, in part plays on that very idea, for while Dunstable’s music is generally well known, Pitts has compellingly taken that familiar repertory and interpreted it in ways that invite us to hear it anew. This takes several shapes. One is the amount and nature of the musica ficta that he employs. Musica ficta refers to performer-added accidentals, sung to make voice leading smoother and vertical sonorities more agreeable. Pitts applies his accidentals liberally, with the result that his readings are perhaps more harmonically colorful than is often the case.

A second example has to do with the register in which he performs some of the works. Three mass movements, a Sanctus and a Credo-Sanctus pair on the chant Da gaudium premia are sung in the treble range, a notably higher tessitura than usual. The unexpected shift in range is stunning in its effects. To the imaginative, it imbues the Sanctus movements with an angelic aura, resonant with the tradition that the Sanctus is the song of the seraphim. Moreover, the register renders the counterpoint particularly clear; because of the shift in register, the sound takes on new degrees of brightness that allow the intertwining of lines to be heard in a more transparent way than is often the case with more resonant lower voices. And additionally, the shift sends the top treble into the extreme high range—often thrillingly so here—and in so doing presages the sound of the Eton Choirbook later in the century.

A final bit of innovation surfaces in the recording’s last work, a canonic Gloria recently reconstructed by Margaret Bent. Pitts adds to the canon a repeating ostinato in the form of a descending scale through the octave. While lower-voice repeating patterns have much precedence—the liner notes cite the example of the well-known Sumer is icumen in—the full octave descent seems anachronistic, both in its melody and also occasionally in its harmonic implications. Admittedly, in this case the innovation is difficult not to like, but it sounds perhaps more of Pitts than Dunstable.

“Sweet Harmony” offers rich interpretations of foundational Renaissance works. The interpretations are sensitive and creative, and also, in no small measure, refreshing.

Steven Plank

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Posted by Gary at 11:07 AM

HANDEL: Giulio Cesare in Egitto

TDK offers a July 2004 performance at the Liceu in Barcelona. Directed by Herbert Wernicke, this staging deserves acknowledgment for its intriguing design and committed performers. When viewed, however, alongside the OpusArte release of the 2005 Glyndebourne production directed by David McVicar, the Liceu production pales. Sure to be a classic of opera on DVD, the Glyndebourne set is a treasure trove: generously proportioned, with two bonus features and one act per disc, an incomparable cast and orchestral performance, and a production design of delightful invention and dramatic strength.

Giulio Cesare requires a most sophisticated approach, as it veers from over-the-top comic villainy (Tolomeo and his henchmen), past heartfelt pathos (Pompey's widow and son, Cornelia and Sesto), and through heroism and seductiveness (Giulio Cesare and Cleopatra). The miracle of McVicar's direction for Glyndebourne resides in his complete mastery of these shifting tones. The performers play to the audience, but never wink at it. Each character has an individual profile, yet each interacts with the others as a true ensemble.

As McVicar maintains in the bonus feature centered on him ("Entertainment is not a dirty word"), the director feels at home with the da capo structures. Some other directors throw up their hands and let the stage picture grow stagnant during the longer arias. Others go in the other direction and throw on too much distracting business. McVicar employs character-based movement and brilliant choreography (by movement director Andrew Gorge) with an effectiveness that makes the arias essential and vivid pictures of emotional states suspended in time.

Robert Jones spartan set design features classic baroque elements, such as horizontal, rotating blue poles for an ocean effect, with a few handsome props. Brigitte Reifenstuel's costumes manage the neat trick of revealing the essence of each character while placing the character's in McVicar's chosen time setting of colonial, mid-19th century British rule. The taste of "Bollywood" McVicar injects in some numbers makes for an appealing spice.

But description can never serve to convey the sheer fun of this production. It has to be seen and heard. And what a cast McVicar assembled. Sarah Connolly redefines masculinity in her strutting and then besotted Cesare. Patricia Bardon and Angelika Kirchshlager make Cornelia and Sesto, respectively, into truly involving roles, instead of the tiresome victims they can often be. Christopher Maltman tears into the twisted psychology of Achilla, in love with Cornelia and realizing too late the depth of Tolomeo's duplicity. Rising counter-tenor Christophe Dumaux for once gives a Tolomeo without undue emphasis on his effiminancy, so that he can effect a truly worthy antagonism. Some may feel that Rachid ben Abdeslam prances a bit too much as Nireno, but his solos have an adorable quality that make them stand out much more than they usually do.

Opus Arte apparently considers Danielle de Niese, the Cleopatra, to be the star of the show, as she gets a 20 minute bonus feature, a sort-of "day in the life" vignette highlighted for your reviewer by a sequence in which she cheerfully babbles on about how much fun she is having with the show, while speeding down a country lane, her bracelet-laden hands casually draped over the wheel. And OpusArte is correct, for as consistently great as this Giulio Cesare is, it seems to get a rocket boost of energy when de Niese comes on. Her voice, though entirely satisfactory, has no special qualities. But her charisma and physical allure - not to mention her dancing ability - establish her as a performer to watch for.

The performers were given body microphones for the filming (as seen in the De Niese feature). The resulting audio picture offers little or no sense of perspective. The voices are well out in front of the excellent Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, led with both precision and passion by William Christie. Some may wish for a more realistic stage sound.

Giulio_Cesare_TDK.gifThat sort of sound can be found in the Liceu production. Unfortunately, neither the orchestra nor the cast in Barcelona compares well with Glyndebourne's. Michael Hofstetter seems to lead a smaller ensemble; at least the sound is scrawnier and less flexible. Countertenor Flavio Oliver often cannot be heard well enough to establish Cesare's authority, although he has some handsome runs. Elena de la Merced's Cleopatra, unalluringly dressed in heavy brocades, has a pleasant voice but little of the allure that the role demands. The effete Tolomeo, Jordi Domenech, sings with that nasal whine of some countertenors, which underline the unpleasantness of his character, perhaps too well. Maito Beaumont does well as Sesto, and if one can overlook a most unfortunate striptease by the pale and plump Oliver Zwarg, he sings an effective Achilla.

For many, the star of the show will be Ewa Podles as Cornelia. In heavy black "widow's weeds" and a fiercely shellacked head of hair, Podles here stays mostly in the middle range of her voice, with little opportunity to display her pyrotechnics. Bolder casting, with Podles and Oliver switching roles, would have made for a more interesting, posibly even credible, production.

Wernicke has the action take place on a shiny black slab, with a reflective surface dangling above. He makes good use of this for many interesting stage pictures, in particular in act two when a maze of walls appears on stage and characters can be seen reflected above as they enter, exit, and dart around.

Elsewhere, the production offers ideas that don't coalesce into a meaningful interpretation. A "puppet" crocodile clambers around throughout the opera, sometimes menacing and sometimes as sweet as a puppy. The booklet essay proposes an explanation. Perhaps Opera Today readers will understand it better than yuour reviwer did. Especially unfortunate was the decision to have Cornelia and Sesto retain Pompey's head in every scene. This only serves to distance the viewer from the emotions that Handel wishes to express.

Wernicke decided to honor a practice of Handel's time by inserting a small number of arias from other works of the composer, including two for the relatively minor character of Curio and an additional aria each for Cesare and Tolomeo in the last act. Handelians can take up sides on the effectiveness of these additions and substitutions. For all others who merely want to enjoy the best possible version of Giulio Cesare, the OpusArte Glyndebourne set will be first choice.

Chris Mullins

Related Link:

HANDEL: Giulio Cesare in Egitto

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Posted by Gary at 10:25 AM

August 25, 2006

Septembre musical de l'Orne, entre Mozart et aujourd'hui

orne.jpgChristian Merlin [Le Figaro, 25 August 2006]

La 24e édition de cette manifestation commence aujourd'hui avec un programme axé sur Mozart et la musique d'aujourd'hui.

Posted by Gary at 10:59 PM

Anna Netrebko : voix large, taille fine

[Le Monde, 25 August 2006]

Anna Netrebko a tout pour exciter la jalousie et l'agacement : elle est très belle et très mince, adore poser pour des photos de mode où, maquillée comme un camion volé et parée de tenues dans lesquelles elle frôle l'incident mammaire survenu à Janet Jackson, elle exhibe un corps dont elle semble décidément folle.

Posted by Gary at 10:43 PM

Blick auf den ganzen Mozart

Peter_Ruzicka.jpgSabine Dultz [Merkur-Online, 26 August 2006]
Salzburg: Ruzicka über Macht und Ohnmacht des Intendanten
Finale für die Salzburger Festspiele. Finale auch für Peter Ruzicka (58). Am 31. August ist Schluss. Fünf Jahre war der Komponist, Dirigent und Leiter der Münchener Musiktheater-Biennale Chef des teuersten Festivals der Welt. Mit dem Jubiläumsprogramm "Mozart 22" - die szenische Realisierung des gesamten Werks - setzte der frühere Intendant der Hamburgischen Staatsoper seiner Salzburger Amtszeit die Krone auf.

Posted by Gary at 10:33 PM

Six of the best

[The Guardian, 25 August 2006]

Few singers can boast of having a song cycle written for them. Ian Bostridge remembers how cats, a Kenyan island and a faulty metronome contributed to Hans Werner Henze's Sechs Gesänge

Posted by Gary at 10:27 PM

An Opera That Delivered a Eureka Moment to Mozart

Claire_Debono.jpgBy ALLAN KOZINN [NY Times, 25 August 2006]

In its two opera productions this summer, Mostly Mozart focused on the protracted moment when Mozart found his operatic voice. Passing over his nine early-stage works, from “Apollo et Hyacinthus” through “Il Re Pastore,” the festival first looked at “Zaide,” an incomplete score that was fleshed out here with orchestral interludes from “Thamos.” It didn’t work particularly well: a listener more taken with the “Thamos” borrowings than with “Zaide” might have wished that the pit band, Concerto Köln, had played a symphonic concert instead.

Posted by Gary at 10:17 PM

Edinburgh Festival Stages World Premiere of Stuart MacRae's Opera The Assassin Tree

assassintree11eif2006.jpg(Photo: © Catherine Ashmore) By Matthew Westphal [Playbill, 25 August 2006]

When Brian McMaster, outgoing director of the Edinburgh International Festival, looked to commission an opera for his last season in the Festival City, he turned to a Scot for the music. But not to James MacMillan, currently the best-known of Caledonian composers. Instead McMaster settled on Stuart MacRae, a relative youngster (now only 30) whose Violin Concerto had a big success in 2001 when Tasmin Little premiered it at the BBC Proms and another when Christian Tetzlaff played it in Edinburgh the following summer. (The Sunday Telegraph's critic called it "one of the best pieces of new music I have heard.")

Posted by Gary at 10:10 PM

What the Santa Fe Opera means to New Yorkers

SantaFeOpera2007.jpgBy Michael Clive [The Villager, 25 August 2006]

“Yeah, summer festivals. We get the point.” My brother Dave and sister-in-law Gloria have heard me extol the virtues of off-season musical events about a thousand times. With the end of the summer festival season in sight, it was high time I took my own advice and joined them in Santa Fe.

Posted by Gary at 10:06 PM

MENDELSSOHN: Sacred Choral Music

Amid the unified tradition, however, certain choirs have claimed a sound more individualized than the traditional ideal, with St. John’s, Cambridge being one of the classic instances. Under the leadership of George Guest from 1951 to 1968, the choir became well known for its more continental timbre and directness of sound, a parallel development to the style in favor at London’s Westminster Cathedral under George Malcolm.

Guests’s organ scholars have included both Stephen Cleobury and David Hill, two of the leading figures in modern English church music. Interestingly, both Cleobury and Hill were at one time Masters of Music at Westminster Cathedral, where the continental style had long found a warm reception. Cleobury went from Westminster to King’s College, Cambridge, the standard bearer of what we might call the “traditional” sound; Hill, after fifteen years at Winchester Cathedral, returned to St. John’s in 2003. Interestingly, as this present recording under Hill’s direction shows, the sound at St. John’s has changed, with a more modulated treble in evidence and also a more pure blend. Thus, the recording is an opportunity to be reminded that no matter how rich the tradition in a given place, change, to a degree, is a part of keeping the tradition alive.

Mendelssohn’s choral music draws on diverse musical influences. J. S. Bach seems, naturally enough, often peering over Mendelssohn’s shoulder, as in the contrapuntal chorale fantasia form of “Aus Tiefer Not,” or the second half of the “Ave Maria,” whose running-note bass line under slower-moving choral writing reminds of the Credo from the B-minor Mass. In other instances, it is the chorale-rich Reform tradition itself that seems to be a guiding force, as in “Mitten wir im Leben sind,” an earnest and powerful work that seems to partake of Reformation zeal. Still in other pieces, however, Mendelssohn draws on early nineteenth-century melodic propensities, and writes beautiful chorale Lieder. One of the best instances of this on the recording is surely “Verleih’ uns Frieden,” and the choir’s performance unfolds with a remarkable naturalness and sense of line. This diversity is discernible in the program, but, that said, there is also a degree of sameness in many of the pieces, where eight-voice, rich textures in chordal style predominate.

The most familiar work on the recording is surely “Hör mein Bitten” (commonly “Hear My Prayer”). It may be a hearty perennial, but how welcome is this absolutely splendid performance. The treble soloist, Quintin Beer, who must carry much of the piece on his shoulders, is a joy. He sings with a big sound, well handled, with sensitive phrasing and an unforced high range. His sense of line and his ability to sustain—sustainability of line is one of the signature virtues of the recording—seem quite mature, and the confidence he brings is surely well deserved. “Hear my Prayer” was featured on the first of the sixty recordings that George Guest made on the Argo label. As this present recording is the first that St. John’s has made for Hyperion, we might excitedly await the next fifty-nine!

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

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Posted by Gary at 9:45 PM

Ikon

However, they have also long cast a wide net in terms of repertory, frequently performing and recording twentieth-century works, as well. Most memorably, sometimes the counterpoint between the two is especially rich, as in their recording of two settings of the Scottish devotional text, “O bone Jesu,” one the famous nineteen-voice setting by Robert Carver (16c) and the other a new setting by James MacMillan, commissioned by the ensemble (“An Eternal Harmony,” Coro 16010 [2002]). With this present recording, Ikon, the ensemble underscores its breadth by presenting an anthology of works that are, for the most part, Orthodox in style and aura. Liturgical works by Rachmaninov, Kalinnikov and Chesnokov are prominent in the program, joined by the modern musical mystics, Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, the latter’s work also rich in Orthodox evocations. To these Christophers also adds a few works by Stravinsky—originally with Slavonic texts, but revised to bear Latin texts—MacMillan, and Holst.

If Orthodoxy is the strongest theme, there is a somber secondary theme of death, as well. The program includes both Tavener’s “Song for Athene,” famously sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales (1997) and his “Exhortation,” a commission for the Festival of Remembrance at Royal Albert Hall (2003), setting John Maxwell Edmonds’ profoundly moving words, “They shall not grow old . . .”; MacMillan’s “A Child’s Prayer” is a memorial work for the school children slain in Dunblane, Scotland in 1996; Pärt’s “The Woman with the Alabaster Box” brings Jesus’s burial into focus; and the two settings of the Canticle of Simeon (Kalinnikov and Holst) set the words of a righteous man at the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, now free to die, having seen his Saviour.

Much here is beautifully sung, with exquisite blend and tuning, well-crafted phrases, and a powerful dynamic range all evident. And this is surely what we have come to expect from The Sixteen. Unsurprisingly, the singers often adopt here a warmer, more vibrant sound than is their usual. They are obviously well attuned to the notion that no one sound meets all needs. However, despite the added warmth and vibrancy, I find the sound still identifiably to be one formed in the English tradition, and thus, although unflaggingly beautiful, a sound somewhat at odds with the Russian tenor of the program. It seems as though the clarity and focus of the tone—a glory of English choirs—overrides the need for a more characteristic heft of sound.

The Englishness of the sound is most at issue in the works of Rachmaninov, Kalinnikov, and Chesnokov, although the latter’s “Tebe poyem” finds The Sixteen’s basses impressively commanding in the low register. Christophers also brings to this particular piece an extraordinarily controlled slowness that allows the romantically wistful harmonies to unfold with expressive weight.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Englishness of the sound serves the music of Pärt and Stravinsky well. In Pärt’s “De Profundis” much is spare and minimal, a musical and spiritual austerity enhanced by the clarity of the sound. Similarly, Stravinsky’s “Ave Maria” and “Pater noster” want little in the way of inflection, and the pure, focused sound here helps to keep the subjective at bay.

Admirers of English choral singing in general, and The Sixteen in particular, will find this an expressive and moving recording. Certainly I count myself among their number. Some will wish for a more Russian sound in some of the pieces. That said, you will have to search far to find more sensitive readings of these deeply spiritual works.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

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Posted by Gary at 9:22 PM

WAGNER: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Although that may be a gross simplification with a glimmer of truth at its core, it still feels strange to think of that epochal staging after a viewing of this 1981 Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, created by the composer's grandson, Wolfgang Wagner. Staged with an orthodoxy of pristine purity, this Meistersinger serves to highlight all that is admirable and regrettable about the so-called "traditional" approach. The clarity of the storytelling comes along with a practiced execution lacking insight or imagination.

The overture plays over a series of zoom ins and outs of a old map of Nuremberg. As with other Bayreuth productions, the actual performance appears to have been filmed without a live audience; the orchestra remains invisible throughout. Yet the action remains stagebound, especially in the long first act. The set here, the least attractive of the four scenes, lacks color to liven its stagnant picture, and props and costumes have an artificial aura. A fine cast works patiently to create character, highlighted at first by Graham Clark's eager, excitable David. Both Siegfried Jerusalem and Mari Anne Häggander (Walther and Eva) appear utterly conventional as the young lovers, and the lesser "mastersingers" make no strong individual impressions. Hermann Prey's well-dressed, smartly coiffed Beckmesser promises more comic energy than he can quite deliver in the first scene, and Bernd Weikl seems merely stolid, rather than patient and wise.

With the second act, things improve considerably. Here the set's realism is heightened by lovely lighting and touches of color. All the performers seem more relaxed, and the act flies by, excitingly culminating with a lively - though no means uncontrolled - mini-riot, captured with cinematic editing by Brian Large.

The first scene of act three, in Sachs' home, really takes the whole performance to another level. Beautifully lit, as in a painting by some Dutch master, the set's starkness is handsome in itself and makes an excellent foil for the opening up to the greenery of the final scene. Weikl really comes into his own here, finding all the shades of the proud, intelligent, and somewhat sad cobbler. Jerusalem has some slight hoarseness at the top, but otherwise makes an appealing Walther, who can come close to being insufferably self-centered as a character at times. Some may join your reviewer, however, in finding an unfortunate reminiscence of Barry Manilow provoked by Jerusalem's fastidiously manicured hair helmet. The quintet at the end does not have the ideal blend of voices, however, and the singers are asked to stand stiffly. Physical direction throughout veers uncomfortably from fairly natural movement at times of action to formal posing during arias and ensembles.

The stage change to the last scene is not seen. Suddenly we are in a green field with a bannered two-level pavilion at the center, built around a huge tree. The festival cavorting may be forced but the chorus sings impeccably. Prey's Beckmesser never quite hits the right comic notes, maybe because he can't help but sing attractively. He does get to smile at the end, acknowledging the universal respect for Sachs that concludes the opera.

With no bonus features and scanty notes in the booklet, this Deutsche Grammophon set captures an enjoyable performance, not exactly fresh but stylish and tasteful. This Meistersinger feels almost like a comic book version with remarkably life-like animation. If anyone has been searching out a version of Wagner's comic opera of that nature, it has appeared.

Chris Mullins

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Posted by Gary at 9:05 PM

Children’s Songs of the World

After two children had soloed on a Turkish rap piece, followed by a Muslim religious song, it was our turn to sing. We were at a loss for an appropriate American song, until the guide asked for “the song about the little spider. That always goes over well.” “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” is one of the songs on soprano Edita Gruberova’s Nightingale CD, which is a curious meeting between a great diva in one of the last western acoustical vocal music forms and a very imaginative arranger and performer on the synthesizer, over a pleasing variety of songs collected from the children of the world. The notes are written by the late Kurt Pahlen, who collected and published the songs, many of them in his book Wenn Kinder singen...öffnet sich der Himmel, which had just come out when this recording was made in 1992.

The children in my life are either teenagers, and hence past the age group for which this CD is intended, or else too young to articulate their opinions of it (e.g. the four-month-old baby of the multi-lingual, music-loving Swiss friend to whom I’m giving the CD as a gift), so I am not in a position to speak for the target audience, or even to know what other music reaches them these days (15 years ago my young niece was particularly fond of “Baby Beluga” as performed by Raffi, but times may have changed). So the best I can do is describe the disc and let readers decide for themselves whether or not to make it available to the children in their lives.

The songs are gathered from five continents (Australia is not represented) and sung in the language of the country of origin. Texts are not included, so children will only be able to sing along by imitating the syllables that they hear (which, if I remember correctly from my own childhood, kids do anyway), except for the songs that they already know in their own language (my Swiss friend is familiar with all the German language songs, and I know “Three Blind Mice” and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”, although I’d never heard “Humpty Dumpty” sung before this).

Arrangements are played and in many cases synthesized to support the tune and sometimes add atmosphere or ethnic flavor; how appropriate the flavor is for the actual song is another matter (the old-time fiddle effect for “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” startled me a bit, but I suppose it is a legitimate “American” sound, even if I’ve never associated it with that particular song). Sounds include drum rolls in “Joli Tambour”, a mariachi band for the Mexican “De esos caballos”, a balalaika in the lovely Russian lullaby “Spi mladjenec”, panpipes in the Greek “Pera ston pera kambo”, African drums in “Kumbaya” (of which the notes acknowledge that no one knows the exact origin), and bird songs in the German “Alle vöglein”. A children’s chorus joins Gruberova on some songs, with children taking solo parts in the dialogues in “Joli Tambour.” Most songs last between one and two minutes; the longest, the lovely “Dolina, dolina” from Gruberova’s native Slovakia , lasting less than four minutes.

Gruberova brings energy and character to these songs. There are enjoyable animal sound effects: “meow” in the Norwegian “Katten og killingen” and a cuckoo in the Italian “L’inverno e passato”. Her tone is supported, but there is no thick vibrato; the Japanese “Sakura” is set in a part of her voice that allows for a liquid sound. We do hear her breath intake in “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” in a way that we wouldn’t hear in her performance of, say, a Mozart concert aria, and she modifies her voice to bring a nasal quality to the Egyptian and Indian songs. I of course cannot speak to the quality of her accent in the vast array of languages on this disc: I find her understandable in the English songs but there is definitely a foreign accent.

This international collection of children’s songs is clearly intended for an international audience; Pahlen’s notes and descriptions of the individual songs are given in German, English, French, Italian, and what I take to be Japanese. Listeners to whom absolute authenticity in the presentation of international folk music is important will probably be turned off by the synthesized arrangements, but overall this is a disc that I found enjoyable to listen to, and, perhaps even more importantly, I grew to like even more as I listened to it multiple times, which, as I recall from my niece’s family’s experience with “Baby Beluga”, one can pretty much count on doing, over and over, if one’s children decide they really like the disc.

Barbara Miller

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Posted by Gary at 8:44 PM

Mozart — Airs Sacrés

And it is radiance that so wonderfully characterizes the lustrous sound of soprano Sandrine Piau in this live-concert DVD from the 2003 Festival de Saint-Denis. Piau, along with the period-instrument ensemble Les Talens Lyriques and conductor Christophe Rousset present an all-Mozart program, combining various arias with instrumental music featuring wind soloists from the orchestra. The title theme—sacred arias—may be a bit misleading. Certainly the “Et incarnatus est” from the Mass in C minor, K 427 unequivocally fits, and so will excerpts from Mozart’s oratorio, Betulia Liberata, K427—once you know it is from an oratorio—and Davidde Penitente, K469. However, the operatic aria from Zaide, K344, the operatic scene, Ah, lo previdi, K272 and the concert aria Ah se in Ciel, K538 seem to stretch the concept. Moreover, to rely on the “intimate and spiritual nature” of the instrumental works like the Sinfonia Concertante, K297b to rationalize their inclusion is to press the issue too far. Piau, in an interview that accompanies the DVD, refers however to a grace in the music that transports—here perhaps is a view that one may find a sacrality in the music itself, whatever its generic associations might be.

Piau’s singing is wonderfully well suited to this music. Her tone is superbly focused, but at the same time there is a very satisfying depth at the core of the sound. The focus allows her to sing with consummate clarity and flexibility; the depth of the sound enriches its intrinsic beauty. Her maneuverability with rapid glottal articulation is impressive, amply demonstrated in the acrobatic passage work of “Ah se in Ciel,” but so too is her gorgeous connection of notes, as in her graceful performance of “Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben.” (Zaide). Clearly a performer of wide stylistic range, Piau is as strong in coloratura display as she is moving in contemplative phrases.

Rousset’s leadership prompts highly engaged, dynamic readings throughout. Phrases abound in motion—every note and musical gesture seems full of intent and direction, with no “throw aways” in earshot. And yet the high degree of engagement never seems to encumber the buoyancy of the lines. Given the opportunity to dance, Les Talens Lyriques and Rousset take it every time. An affinity developed in the ensemble’s frequent baroque work? Perhaps. Surely, however, it is an affinity that serves the music well.

Of the two instrumental works, the Andantefor flute and orchestra, K 315 and the Sinfonie Concertante, the latter is by far the more substantial and gratifying work. Here the melodies are delightfully memorable, sometimes warm and expansive, other times playfully personable, and performed with skillful flair by solo flute, clarinet, horn, and bassoon.

As a video, the recording offers enough shifting perspective to keep things interesting, while resisting the temptation to glory in the famous building itself. It is difficult to imagine being in the audience at Saint Denis and not allowing one’s eye to wander and roam, and perhaps a bit of this in the visual content would have been welcome. But it is equally sure that the radiance of the performance needs no supplementary enrichment. A Mozartian jewel, indeed!

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

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Posted by Gary at 8:09 PM

Bolshoi Russian opera highlights

Many of Pentatone's releases boast Hybrid Multichannel Super Audio sound, as heard on a new recording of selections covering Russian opera from Glinka to Rachmaninoff, performed by the Bolshoi Theater forces.

Russia remains one place where a great native tradition seems to be caught in time, at least in terms of certain vocal characteristics and an abiding affection for outdated stagings, as glimpsed in photos in the CD booklet. Labeled 'The Bolshoi Experience," what this CD somewhat unfortunately displays is a company in need of some new vision. No one can dispute the pride in the great heritage sampled on this disc, but the orchestra gives perfunctory performances, most of the soloists claim for themselves that appellation, "provincial," and the overall effect disappoints.

After a chorus from Glinka's A Life for the Czar, bass Vladimir Matorin rumbles his way through an aria for Ivan. Then two selections from Dargomizhsky's Rusalka make up the "rare" repertory on the disc, with the focus on Mikhail Gubsky's Prince. Gubsky sounds ready to break into tears at any moment, less from any dramatic impetus than a tendency to intonation droops. The music does have a gentle melodicism that makes further exploration of the opera an appealing prospect.

Tenor Vsevolod Grivnov sounds steadier than Gubsky, in a romance from Tchaikovsky's Iolanthe. This gives way to Lisa's act three aria, suing with distressing acidity by Elena Zelenskaya. The Tchaikovsky section concludes with an aria from Mazeppa for the title character; Yuri Nechaev has a pleasant baritone, if perhaps not dark enough for the character.

The best of the basses on the disc, Taras Shtonda, gets the aria from Rachmaninoff's Aleko, and proves that this type of voice can offer dramatic insight without untoward gruffness and wobbling.

The disc ends with flair, with four selections from Borodin's Prince Igor, ably sung by baritone Yuri Nechaev and bass Valery Gilmanov. As one might expect, to conclude the Bolshoi chorus tears into the vocal version of the Polovtsian dances.

So this disc, heavy with male voices, may not be the best calling card for the current Bolshoi opera. It does, however, have an appealing selection of music from a range of opera that give a good picture of Russia's great heritage. And the sound is, unsurprisingly, first-class.

Chris Mullins

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Posted by Gary at 12:30 PM

Verdi Gala 2004 Teatro Regio di Parma

They deduced that the poor singing and poor voiced directly resulted in a poor performance. Indeed, they are right, though in my opinion it was the absence of integrity toward the music that was the true culprit.

Take the liner notes, for example, typically informative and poignant with Dynamic recordings. However, it never mentions which singer sings what! For that information, you must watch the DVD itself and jot down yourself the name of the singer next to their corresponding aria in the notes. And then we come to the role of the video director, a certain Marco Scalfi. Following the current trends of European directing, Scalfi has decided to put his own peculiar stamp on his work, even in such a simple event as an operatic concert. You don’t just get a pan of the stage or a close-up of the singer- no- there are close-ups of the orchestra, the conductor, and other contrived cinematography that is quite distracting from the matter at hand- the music. This may been seen as vivid directing, but the chaotic proceedings is much too distracting.

On the musical side of things, this performance offers much more. This is not Verdi singing on the most exalted level, certainly. The days of Bergonzi, Price and tutti quanti are over. Still, this performance renders utter conviction, emotional grounding, and well-suited voices for the repertoire, all of which create an elusive white heat, something that is often conspicuously lacking nowadays. In short, this performance harkens to an era where Verdi and Italian singers were almost interchangeable ideas.

Here the soprano, Alessandra Rezza, has true potential. The coloratura in Attila is somewhat sketchy, and in both her big Attila and Macbeth scenes the voice flattens at the top. However, she throws herself entirely in the music, and her voice is full of metal, yet achieves still more vibrato at the top. One is reminded of the many formidable spintos of the fifties and sixties: flawed maybe, but always exciting. Names like Mancini and Marcella De Osma spring to mind.

Adriana Damato, however, belongs more to the modern era. She is more restrained, respecting the line of Giovanna d’Arco. Her lyicical sound is less strident, but also less gripping. José Cura is on his “best behavior.” Often his eyes are glued to the score, always fiddling with his glasses. In “Tutto parea sorridere” he suddenly appears with no score and no glasses—probably that’s the one aria he knows by heart. His lack of sensitivity in the duet from Giovanna d’Arco is quite evident. He uses mezza voce in abundance, and cannot achieve a clear legato line. He fares far better in the forceful aria and cabaletta from Attila where his glottal attacks and more stylistically correct. Veteran Leo Nucci is still signing strong after a 37-year career. His breath is inexhaustible, and the top rings free in Attila and Macbeth. True, some of the colors in the voice and ringing overtones have worn off, but the conviction and grand manner are still there.

This performance is more than just a string of arias and duets. The offerings not only represent Macbeth, but also rare operas such as Giovanna d’Arco, Attila, Masnadieri, and Corsaro. Every offering is complete with chorus and comprimarri. Even some good singers like Riccardo Zanellato, or the impressive Vladimir Stoyanov appear in duets with one of the star singers, or as part of the concertato. Yet as I said before, this DVD’s production was not perfection, musically I enjoyed it nevertheless.

Jan Neckers

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Posted by Gary at 12:19 PM

VERDI: La Traviata x 2

Now come two more: the 2005 Salzburg staging (featuring Anna Netrebko, Rolando Villazon, and Thomas Hampson) and Madrid's version from the same year (with the less starry but able cast of Norah Ansellem, Jose Bros, and Renato Bruson).

The Salzburg Traviata prompted a barrage of publicity for its stark staging and the sheer appeal of its young stars. DG has already put out a solo disc for Netrebko simply called "Violetta," and not long after came the CD soundtrack to the production (reviewed earlier on this site by Jan Neckers). Now at last the whole production can be seen, in a two-disc DVD set, one containing the opera and the other packed with "bonus" features (DG calls this a "special additional" DVD, since the retail price reflects the cost of the second disc).

When the glare and fuss of publicity has died away, what remains to be seen is a Traviata of bracing theatrical energy, sung with passion and charisma (if not always ideal technique). Willy Decker's design and direction may conform to some negative stereotypes of modern stage production, with its bare stage, its few props (dominated by a huge clock), and its performers in modern dress. But an opera as frequently performed as Traviata benefits greatly from a thorough scrubbing away of layers of time-honored varnish.

That clock received some derision for being too obvious a symbol of Violetta's fate. Yet in the typical Traviata, aside from Violetta issuing a weak cough or two in act one and a line in the second act confrontation with Germont, this dark shadow rarely gets cast until the last act. Viewers should consider that librettist Piave initially recommended the opera be titled "Love and Death" (Amore e morte). Decker also has Doctor Grenville haunt the proceedings from the opening prelude. In essence, Decker presents a Traviata of multiple time planes, where past, present and future intermingle. Another example is the opening of act two, which typically has our Alfredo standing mid-stage alone, singing of his passion for Violetta. In Salzburg, Violetta joins him in playful love games on sofas draped in flowery prints, so that we live their affair as Alfredo sings about it. Literalists will not approve; everyone else can revel in the immediacy of the drama.

Villazon's ardent Alfredo, occasionally edgy with anger, finds his dark timbre emphasizing the manliness of Alfredo. And it would take a very masculine man to capture the full attention of Netrebko's lusty tigress of a Violetta. She eschews self-pity and goes for a desperation to cling to life of sensual ferocity. Not every note these two sing can be compared with that of the finest performers of these roles in the opera's long history; neither singer, however, has been excelled in vivacity of characterization and dedication to a director's vision. And yes, it helps enormously that both look and move as we would expect these young lovers to do (that is, in the context of Decker's staging).

However, neither Decker nor Thomas Hampson can find much to do with papa Germont. So much of this Traviata flows with such choreographed, and yet natural, precision, yet "Di provenza il mar" defeats Decker, as Villazon must stumble around the stage shaking his head and grimacing for minutes on end while his father pleads with him. Not helping matters is Hampson's one-dimensional approach (Germont as stiff prig) and some surprisingly rough tone as well.

Carlo Rizzi's insistent tempos match the drive of this production, but as the last acts run together, any brief lyric respite comes as great relief. The Salzburg audience goes nuts at the end, and cameras in the wings capture an ecstatic Netrebko high-fiving Villazon before taking final bows. This Traviata makes a place for itself as an essential version of Verdi's masterpiece, despite the growing competition on DVD shelves.

The Madrid production, filmed just a few months earlier, has much to recommend it as well. It received its own publicity when Angela Gheorghiu walked out after the first rehearsals, claiming that director Pier Luigi Pizzi's approach was in scandalous bad taste. Up-and-coming soprano Norah Ansellem replaced the temperamental star, and to some extent she accomplished a "star is born" effect. Her Violetta is sadder, more preyed upon by than in control of the men in her life. She may live in glamorous surroundings amidst seedy goings-on, but she clings to her dignity. In fact she is dressed modestly throughout (what on earth was Gheorghiu going on about? Flashes of bare-breasted females at Violetta's party and then Flora's? Bizarre).

Vocally, Ansellem offers much but has a ways to go. Conductor Jesus Lopez Cobos keeps textures muted to allow for some softer singing, and here Ansellem is at her best, producing some very fine readings. When volume is called for, the voice sounds prematurely aged, with a worrying incipient vibrato. Understandably mature-sounding, veteran Renato Bruson lets the nature of his voice at this stage of his career work to add a softer, more vulnerable side to his Papa Germont, much appreciated in comparison to Hampson in Salzburg. And Jose Bros, a fine bel canto singer, brings out that gentle side to his Alfredo. A man with a handsome face, Bros's short, thick physique may make him a somewhat unlikely source of physical attraction for Violetta, but that sweet voice can compensate a lot.

Pizzi's updating to the 1940s is apparently more for style than anything else - Ansellem takes several puffs on cigarettes from time to time in classic mid-century movie star posture. The highlight here is the physical beauty of the sets, especially the bifurcated areas of act one and the first scene of act two. Having two rooms on stage allows certain comings and goings in the story to occur more naturalistically, and the detail impresses, from the bathroom at the rear of Violetta's bedroom to the birch trees outside the country home. However, DVD viewers may wonder how the set worked in the house, where the wall down the center of the sets (though not down to the footlights) might have blocked some views for those seated at the far sides.

Pizzi also has some clever direction in act two scene two, where for once Violetta makes a creditable attempt to speak to Alfredo before being called to dinner, and then everyone disappears behind panels backstage. This gives the Alfredo/Violetta confrontation a more intimate feel, and also eliminates the silliness of some productions where all the party-goers rush in from off-stage on cue. Here the panels open and the guests pour out in fairly realistic fashion.

On the debit side, Pizzi has Alfredo open act two singing of his great love for Violetta, while casually pouring himself a cup of morning coffee and glancing at the newspaper. The action contradicts the message. Likewise, Violetta's final collapse doesn't have the punch it should have, as she runs away from those who love her to die alone on the balcony (which has mysteriously appeared where her parlor was in act one).

A few times the orchestra sounds regrettably tentative, and many may find the pauses and emphatic timpani thwacks with which Lopez-Cobos underlines Violett's cries of "Amami Alfredo" too mannered.

The bonus feature interviews stick to a dull "talking head" format, with only Ansellem finding much of interest to say - ironically, focusing on the shadow of death aspect so important to the Salzburg production. A fascinating documentary on the DG set takes us through the rehearsals with the endlessly appealing Villazon and Netrebko. We also see some uncomfortable moments between Hampson and director Decker. All in all, a model bonus feature.

So the Madrid DVD deserves much praise, and for those with an undiminished appetite for this work, it merits viewing. But for those wary of "another" Traviata, the Salzburg DVD stakes out a rare position as a "must-have." Along with the recent Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare, this will surely rank as one of very best releases of 2006.

Chris Mullins

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Posted by Gary at 11:44 AM

BACH: Cantatas, Vol. 19

As in other volumes, the forces of the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner offer renditions that are technically, stylistically, and interpretatively benchmark performances.

That said, there are issues here and there about which one might quibble. Chief among them is a tendency in highly energetic sections to allow zeal and fervor too free a hand. As a result, articulations can seem, on occasion, exaggeratedly aggressive, even pecky, as in the opening chorus to “Ach wie flüchtig,” BWV 26 or the penultimate verse of “Jesu meine Freude.” Rhythmic verve is a signature trait of Gardiner’s interpretations and is often thrilling—the extraordinary storm aria of “Jesus schläft,” BWV 81 is a splendidly red-blooded example—but the line separating thrilling and “over-the-top” is not always easily judged.

Sometimes, too, the attempt to heighten the text with rhetorical delivery can seem exaggerated and mannered, especially in chorales. Satan’s storming and the raging of the foe in “Jesus meine Freude” (mvt. III) finds the choir arguably too dramatic for this straight-forward context. Sometimes it seems well to let a chorale be “only a chorale.”

However, how much remains that is superb! Soprano Joanne Lunn’s singing in “Mein Gott, wie lang?” BWV 155 is exquisite, with wonderfully clear timbres in the high register. Bass Gerald Finley is outstanding in “Empfind ich Höllenangst und Pein” from “Ach Gott wie manches Herzeleid,” BWV 3. His sound is rich, though well focused, and its forward placement and leanness allows his voice to move with clarity and flexibility. The text of the aria contrasts fear and pain with heavenly joy—challenging melodic contours for the former, decorative melisma for the latter—and Finley negotiates the whole affective range with ease.

In the liner notes to the recording Gardiner observes that in “Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid” “Bach reserves his most winning music” for the duet, “Wenn Sorgen auf mich dringen.” We would have immediately reached this conclusion with or without the tip! The buoyant uplift of the rising intervals is memorable, especially when teamed with elegant articulation and expressive decay on long notes, a characteristic care in the details. This is particularly evident in the bass aria “Ächzen und erbärmlich Weinen” from “Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen,” BWV 13. The aria is devoted to groaning and weeping, and Gardiner responds with a mannered degree of slowness in his tempo. The extreme slowness is something of an interpretative gamble, as it raises the risk of tedium, and challenges the performers’ control. However, the degree of nuance by soloist, violin, and recorder keeps the ear closely attuned, and the result is an unusually textured essay on sorrow.

The attention to detail marks these performances as singular, and that attention to detail seems all the more impressive in the circumstances of the Cantata Pilgrimage—a year of new cantatas every week in different venues. This volume, like its companions, thus documents not only the wealth of Bach’s output, but also the rich resources of seasoned historical performers and their inspired leader.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

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Posted by Gary at 11:42 AM

RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Snegurochka

Until the seventies, Bel Canto on the radio meant broadcasts of Italian, French, German and Russian opera, operettas, zarzuela, the token Gilbert and Sullivan, canzoni napolentane and American love songs. Because of the eclectic mix, “O wie so trügerisch” and “Comme la plume au vent” sounded as familiar as “La donna è mobile” performed in half a dozen different languages.

And then there was Henri Goraieb, a well-known French pianist who programmed a Bel Canto program on France Musique, which was immensely popular all over Western Europe. Almost every week Goraieb presented selections from a seemingly inexhaustible collection of radio performances given in France from the forties until the sixties. Rarely recorded artist such as Marthe Luccioni, Georges Noré, Odette Turba-Rabier, Jeanne Guyllama, Raphael Romangioni, and many others now became household names. Even great names like Alain Vanzo became greater still with the broadcast of performances of the prime, and even exhumed recordings thought to be lost forever. Even the lesser “starry” singers were busily employed at French radio that they had almost a year’s workload. Singers like Joseph Peyron, Lucien Lovano and Geneviève Moizan found that a radio career was ideally suited to their personal needs.

Hence, this Snegurochka is somewhat of a feast of recognizance for this reviewer, who maybe is somewhat less objective than ought to be. This is not my first choice, however, if one absolutely needed an authentic and complete Russian version. There are some cuts in the performance, and the sound is a bit constricted, favoring the voices, which makes it difficult to judge the role of conductor Charles Bruck. Yet the ensembles go smoothly without hesitation, which may be due in part to strict rehearsals.

The performance begins with Solange Michel, a fine voice and a truly authentic Carmen, which nevertheless is only the second mezzo in the cast accompanying Rita Gorr in the role of Lel. For Gorr admirers, the voice is at its best with the well-known lush sound without stridency. The title role, sung b Janine Micheau, a fine lyric soprano with somewhat sweet and sour timbre French sopranos are famous for. Her voice is still fresh and beautiful, far less wooden that later recordings. Yet vocal honors certainly are awarded to Geneviève Moizan as Kupava. Her sound is wonderfully lyric, clear, and personal, a sound, which makes the listener sit up and take notice. Michel Roux is a sonorous and convincing Mizgir, and tenor Jean Giaudeau’s role is completely suited to his particular talents. All these singers have excellent pronunciation. Even the women are almost always clearly understandable.

So, if you want to know what French singing was all about before the run for original language performances, this is the recording for you. Hopefully Ponto will further delve into the rich heritage of French radio in the future.

Jan Neckers

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Posted by Gary at 10:54 AM

Erwartung — Lieder by Schoenberg, Wagner, Strauss et al.

The carefully planned selection includes Vier Lieder, op. 2 by Schoenberg, three selections from Strauss’ op. 39, Wagner’s Fünf Gedichte von Mathilde Wesendonck, Four Mignon-Lieder by Wolf, and three selections from Max Reger’s Schlicte Weisen, op. 76.

Unfortunately, the album is entitled Erwartung, with Schoenberg’s name credited first on the cover. This may lead some buyers to believe the selections will be Schoenberg’s dramatic psycho-thriller or a monodrama, Erwartung, op. 17. However, the album takes it title from the first song of his Vier Lieder, also entitled “Erwartung,” and a very different piece indeed. “Erwartung,” like the three other songs in the set, is richly chromatic and winds through several distantly related key areas over its brief course. Truly, it is a far cry from the expressively athematic Erwartung, composed ten years later.

Kringelborn has selected songs that are sometimes overlooked by recording artist, yet she has done a remarkable job interpreting them, crafting an exciting recital. Furthermore, the collaboration between Kringelborn and her accompanist, Malcolm Martineau, is one of sensitivity and true collaboration.

Inspire by Dehmel’s poetry, the Vier Lieder are very compact, both in their succinct settings and in the smaller ensemble required for lieder. Two of the three selections from Strauss oeuvre are also inspired by Dehmel’s poetry; the third is a poem of Otto Julius Bierbaum. Apparently the poet criticized Strauss’ setting as being too sentimental, but the poetry almost seems to demand it, especially “Befreit,” a tender poem from the perspective of a dying man speaking to his beloved wife.

Wagner’s Fünf Gedichte von Mathilde Wesendonck are some of his most frequently performed lieder, specifically the third and fifth selections, which are well known as studies for Tristan und Isolde.

The climax of the album, however, is Wolf’s Vier Mignon-Lieder. Based on Goethe’s tale of Mignon, the daughter of an incestuous relationship between brother and sister, the poems are sung from the perspective of the thirteen-year-old Mignon who is a tortured soul. Indeed this is a situation most beautifully portrayed by Wolf’s emotional setting.

Closing with the three Reger songs makes excellent sense, considering Reger’s vocal writing was deeply influenced by Strauss, Wolf, and Wagner. The three songs presented here come from his sixth and final book of songs published as Schlichte Weisen between 1903 and 1912.

The album goes above and beyond expectations. The published material includes informative liner notes by Richard Stokes in English, German, French and Norwegian, song text in German and English, and photos of Schoenberg, Strauss, Wagner, Wolf and Reger. Special touches include a thoughtful note from Solveig Kringelborn, as well as a reproduction of an oil painting by Norwegian artist Karina Paulen titled "Erwartung," which was commissioned especially for this album. Paulen listened many times to the recording sessions and painted with the sound of the performance in her memory.

Visually and aurally this album is quite stimulating, and a lovely addition to any collection, whether one collects voices, late Romantic music, German Lieder, or excellent music in general.

Megan Jenkins
The Graduate Center- CUNY

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Posted by Gary at 10:24 AM

REIMANN: Lieder

Thus, without a point of reference that links him to another composer, be it Schumann, Mahler, Wolf, Strauss, or anyone else, Reimann’s Lieder may seem from that perspective to be excessively modern. Yet the attention he has given to the texts appears in the music. It is as though he makes the words sing by allowing the text to be presented clearly. While this is apparent in his Nachtstück I (1966) and Nachtstück II (1978), both settings of poetry by Joseph von Eichendorff, it is paramount in Engführung (1967) with texts by Paul Celan and his set of Six Poems by Sylvia Plath (1975). More importantly, the interpretations of the music found on this record also bear the imprimatur of the composer himself, who accompanied the singers in the performances recorded on March 1968, June 1973 and December 1981.

Of the music included on this recording, the first set of Nachtstück is, perhaps, the most accessible. Those unfamiliar with the vocal work of Reimann may want to start with the opening of the cycle (“Wir ziehen treulich auf die Wacht”) which contains some evocative sonorities in the piano. While the sounds can be discussed in terms of noctural images, they also convey a sense of the sound-world that Reimann used in this song and, in a sense extends through the five pieces in this work. It is difficult to imagine a more authentic interpretation, with the composer himself accompanying Barry McDaniel, who delivers the music convincingly. In fact, McDaniel makes this work particularly engaging, with his supple approach to the melismatic passages that Reimann uses to accentuate some parts of the text. In this and other pieces, the vocal line and its accompaniment can seem be conceived at odds, and yet the stylistic fingerprint of Reimann emerges in such contrasting textures. While all the songs in this set have something to recommend, the third setting “Vor dem Schloss in den Bäumen” is a tour-de-force for ensemble in its intricate rhythms and, at times, unexpected entrances by either the voice or piano.

Likewise, Reimann’s second set of Eichendoff settings, those that comprise Nachtstück II, are stylistically connected the first ones, even with the two works separated by over a decade at a critical time in the composer’s life, when he was working on his remarkable opera Lear. The first song in the second collection (“Nachts”) is notable for its extended melismatic passages which betray a creative use of modal patterns that are, at times, at odds with the atonal accompaniment. “Der Umgekehrende,” the second piece in the cycle involves some sustained passages in the vocal line that make it seem as an accompaniment to the florid piano writing. The other songs are of interest, particularly “Trost,” with its engaging accompaniment and sometimes declamatory presentation of the vocal line. The sustained emotion of the final song makes it seem like a scena for voice and piano, with its elegiac setting of a Rückert-like text by Eichendorff.

While songs with texts by Eichendorff seem to be a convention of Lieder, especially those by a German composer, it is less usual to find settings of modern poets, especially the verse of Sylvia Plath. Reimann found inspiration in her collection of verse entitled Ariel, which was already esteemed at the time this piece received its pemere. As pointed as poems by Rilke, these poems by Plath are multidimensional as texts alone. It is difficult to imagine them set to music, and it may be that the choice may have caused Reimann to use a different, more abstract approach to the Plath poems than occurs in the Eichendorff settings. If lyricism is evident in the Eichendorff cycle, a kind of post-modern expressionism characterizes the Plath songs. It is laudable that Reimann set the original English-language verses, which emerge clearly enough in the American singer Catherine Gayer’s impassioned delivery of some of Plath’s most intensive poetry. It is difficult not to associate Plath’s life from her work, especially when the subjects of mortality and self-identity are part of the texts.

With Engführung, Reimann drew on Paul Celan’s longer poetry, and in setting it created a structure that reflects the intensity of a solo cantata. Unlike the kinds of set pieces that are often used within the framework of a song cycle, Reimann sustained the mood of the piece in a demanding work for tenor and piano. The venerable Swiss musician Ernst Haefliger gave a moving account of the piece that is preserved in this compilation.

These are not the only Lieder by Riemann available from Orfeo, which has released another CD of the composer’s vocal works. Both recordings of Reimann’s music are part of a series of issues of twentieth-century vocal music by such composers as Sergei Prokofiev, Karol Szymanowski, Anton von Verbern, Wolfgang Rihm, and others. By choosing such convincing performances as those preserved on this CD, Orfeo has preserved some fine interpretations that are difficult to equal.

James L. Zychowicz

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Posted by Gary at 10:11 AM

BACH: Musical Offering

In a letter from 1730 he writes:

Now I must add a little about my domestic situation. . . From my first marriage I have three sons and one daughter living. . . . For the second marriage I have one son and two daughters living. . . . The children of my second marriage are still small, the eldest, a boy, being six years old. But they are all born musicians, and I can assure you that I can already form an ensemble both of vocalists and instrumentalists within my family, since my present wife sings a good, clear soprano, and my eldest daughter, too, joins in not badly.

The Kuijken Ensemble presents a compellingly symmetric situation, featuring three brothers—Wieland Kuijken, viola da gamba, Sigiswald Kuijken, violin, and Barthold Kuijken, transverse flute—who, along with harpsichordist Robert Kohnen, echo the familial music making that would have made Bach’s household a harmonious one. Moreover, the Kuijkens have played a leading role in the European early music movement since coming to prominence in the 1970s, both as artists of the highest caliber and teachers of great influence.

Bach’s Musical Offering, BWV 1079, fits well into this family theme, for the genesis of the work derives from a visit Bach paid to the court of Frederick, the Great in 1747, a visit that was surely attractive not only for its cultural opportunities, but also for the chance to see his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, an important figure in the court musical establishment. Upon arrival Bach was presented with a “royal theme” for improvisation; the Musical Offering represents a working out of this theme in many guises: a three- and a six-voice ricercar, numerous canons with intensely sophisticated counterpoint, and a four-movement trio sonata. As a large collection with a decidedly contrapuntal bent, it represents along with works like the Art of Fugue the nature of Bach’s last years, a time in which he takes on large-scale works and brings to them a seemingly inexhaustible contrapuntal technique.

The Kuijken Ensemble’s performance is a masterful one, characterized by an expressive style so elegant and refined that the question of technical demand never even enters one’s mind. The difficulties of Bach’s writing—and there are many challenges here—remain comfortably sub rosa, while expression and affectivity trump all other concerns. And that this is the case transforms the canons from works of potential abstraction to intensely personal statements. When the Kuijken brothers were presented with the York Early Music Festival Life Time Achievement Award, the presenter, Klaus Neumann, quoted Wieland Kuijken in what must surely be the brothers’ signature motto: “I keep fast to the idea that music is an intimate reaction between the score and its interpreter. Soul and heart have the last word.” And that “last word” is clearly their point of departure here.

The trademarks of this elegant playing surface in the details, of course—details like the sensitively contoured motions of phrase and motive, the variety of articulation, or the richness of vowel in the flute sound. Tellingly, the elegance seems equally as at home in the decorative filigree of the sonata as in the expansiveness of the six-voice ricercar.

The DVD records a live concert presented at the Altes Rathaus in Leipzig at the 2000 Leipzig Bach Festival. The nature of the visual content is straight forward with little to distract the viewer from the music. Given the nature of the music and the intensity of the performance, this is a well chosen approach. However, if the DVD is viewed as a visual work itself, not just a visual record of the concert, it might have benefited from a greater exploration of the room and a wider range of perspective. It was also a regrettable coincidence that found Kohnen seated in front of a broadsword mounted on the wall, with the predictable effect that at times it seemed to be growing from out of his head.

The Musical Offering is well represented in numerous recordings. For elegance and richness of expression, this one should go to the top of the list.

Steven Plank
Oberlin College

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Posted by Gary at 9:30 AM

VERDI: Don Carlos and Don Carlo

The vagaries of putting on new operas meant cuts and additions, transpositions and rescorings, and even translations. Can there be a true, original performing edition?

Well, the Platonists at Opera Rara feel they have the Don Carlos that composer Giuseppe Verdi intended: five acts, in the original French, and with all the music composed before rehearsals revealed the opera was over-long. Don Carlo, the later Italian version in four acts, has dominated the performance history since the opera found new popularity post-WWII. But the French original has enjoyed a resurgence, in particular with an outstanding production captured on DVD, with Antonio Pappano conducting Roberto Alagna, Karita Mattila, Jose van Dam, Waltraud Meier, and Thomas Hampson.

The recent Opera Rara set comes from an early 1970s' series of BBC radio broadcasts of early versions of Verdi's works. MacBeth, Les Vespres Siciliennes, La Forza del Destino, and Simon Boccanegra have already been released. The deluxe packaging, typical of Opera Rara, is spread over four CDs, each illustrated with a historical portrait of a main character (Posa does not make the cut). The ample size of the booklet is somewhat deceptive. Because of large print, the synopsis and libretto ( in four languages) take up over 250 pages. An Andrew Porter essay covers the relevant issues of the performing edition. Strangely, and sadly, no performer biographies are included.

At the substantial cost Opera Rara asks, the purchases receives a very satisfying performance, recorded live before a small audience in acceptable if not first-class sound. The leads are French-speakers, and the BBC Concert orchestra, under John Matheson's leadership, sound impassioned and idiomatic. The women impress the most. Edith Tremblay's Elisabeth meets the role's challenges and captures both the beauty and pathos of her character. With a hint of the great Dolora Zajick in her husky voice, Michelle Vilma sings a fine Princess Eboli. Although some strain at the top never quite disappears, Andre Turp's Don Carlos manages to be more of a put-upon hero than the annoying whiner the character can and has become with some other performers. Joseph Rouleau is a satisfactory Philip II, but Robert Savoie's Rodrigue has too much roughness where strength is needed.

As for the additions, they are mostly brief, except for an extended postlude to Rodrigue's death that Verdi later reshaped into part of his Requiem. When San Francisco Opera used the French version a few seasons back, this section was included. Although lovely, it also holds up the action as the opera is building to its climax. Sometimes the dramatic instincts of a composer are best honored by understanding the reasoning behind certain cuts.

In any event, for all but the most dedicated Verdi completists, that excellent Don Carlos DVD, at about half the cost of this Opera Rara set, will provide more reward, with its fine cast not only singing but acting at a high level, in a handsome and thoughtful production.

Naxos, in the meanwhile, has released a highlights disc from a complete Don Carlo recorded at the Royal Swedish opera between December 1999 and January 2000. Sadly, the only highlight here is a Rodrigo, in the person of Peter Mattei, leagues beyond Opera Rara's Rodrigue. Lars Cleveman struggles as Don Carlos, and the other leads perform seemingly at the limit of their abilities. Alberto Hold-Garrido gets an acceptable performance from the RSO orchestra, but there is too much competition from great recordings of the Italian version for this to be of much interest to anyone, despite the budget cost.

If this opera hasn't entered one's collection in any language, the recommendation here would be the Pappano DVD for Don Carlos and the Giulini CD set for Don Carlo.

Chris Mullins

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Posted by Gary at 9:10 AM

August 19, 2006

Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Adventures of Mozart's Librettist in the Old and New Worlds

MEGAN MARSHALL [The Scotsman, 19 August 2006]

ORCHESTRAS, OPERA COMPANIES AS well as chamber groups and solo pianists have been celebrating Mozart's 250th birthday all year, but surprisingly few writers have aimed to capitalise on the surge of interest in the composer considered by many to be music's greatest genius.

Posted by Gary at 9:53 PM

August 13, 2006

Organisier' dir dein Vergnügen wo immer!

VON DANIELA TOMASOVSKY [Die Presse, 14 August 2006]

Wiederaufnahme: "Don Giovanni" im Großen Festspielhaus, Harding am Pult.

Man kann Martin Kusejs "Don- Giovanni"-Inszenierung mögen oder nicht, vergessen wird man sie nicht so schnell: Denn der Regisseur wartet mit einem schlüssigen Konzept, starken Bildern und einer durchdachten Personenführung auf.

Posted by Gary at 8:55 PM

Amid beggars and a divided society, it's back to the cabaret years for Berlin

From Roger Boyes in Berlin [Times Online, 14 August 2006]

THE Roaring Twenties, the raciest era in German history, staged a dramatic comeback at the weekend when the country’s elite turned out in force to applaud and boo a new production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera.

Posted by Gary at 8:34 PM

L’italiana in Algeri, Rossini Opera Festival Pesaro, Italy

By Shirley Apthorp [Financial Times, 13 August 2006]

Was it the bare-breasted dancing-girls, the cavorting zebra, or the lone fleeing communist during Isabella’s patriotic aria to Italy that annoyed them? Perhaps it was simply Dario Fo himself, appearing to take his bow. There was something Pavlovian about the chorus of boos at the end of Pesaro’s L’Italiana in Algeri revival. It is hard to imagine that anything in this sweetly ingenuous 1994 production could really cause offence. Parts of the audience seem to boo Fo as a matter of principle.

Posted by Gary at 8:28 PM

Edinburgh International Festival Opens Tonight With Elektra

electra.jpgBy Matthew Westphal [Playbill, 13 August 2006]

2006 is a special year for the Edinburgh International Festival: it's both the 60th edition and the last one to be programmed by outgoing Festival Director Brian McMaster. The Festival launches in dramatic style tonight with a concert performance of Richard Strauss's Elektra. Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet takes the title role, joined by Silvana Dussmann, Leandra Overmann, Iain Paterson and Ian Storey; Edward Gardner conducts the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

Posted by Gary at 6:41 PM

VERDI: Don Carlo

Moreover the bonus is always concentrated on another performance of one of the leading singers of the main performance and therefore a clear nod towards the fans most expected to buy the issue. With almost an hour of music on CD3 devoted to Aragall’s Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon the main ‘raison d’être’ of this recording is clear and the tenor’s fans indeed get almost two of his complete performances for the price of one. Most will of course regret that the Don Carlo is the traditional 4-act performance, lacking the big first act duet of the 5-act version. Still, the performance has something to offer and hearing the sometimes ebullient reactions of the Viennese public, made a tremendous impression upon the audience.

Aragall is a worthy Don Carlos though one has to admit he never completely fulfilled the expectations of his early years. At the time he was called a far greater promise than his contemporary rival, Luciano Pavarotti, and it was no coincidence that in the different performances of I Capuleti e I Montecchi they sang together in 1964, Aragall got the plum role of Romeo while Pavarotti had to do with the less important Tebaldo. But while Pavarotti refined his art, Aragall didn’t evolve much, relying upon the formidable fine sound he produced. There is no denying the beauty of the voice though by 1976 he often attacked a note from below to reach a high note. What is lacking is imaginative phrasing. The beautiful voice rolls on and on but one cannot say there is deeper insight or a flash of understanding we know from less talented tenors like Bergonzi in his Decca-recording or Villazon in his Amsterdam-DVD. Aragall respects the score and will use mezza-voce or piano when necessary but this is the (granted, small) problem. The voice gets colourless and the interpretation becomes somewhat senseless. In short, he never puts a foot wrong in this performance but neither is there an outstanding moment that remains with you after having heard him.

As far as I know this is the first testimony of Freni’s Elisabetta; one year before she sang the same role at the opening of La Scala and two years before she recorded the part with Karajan. Probably the main reason for her taking on the role was her affair with Nicolai Ghiaurov that would result in their marriage in 1978. As Ghiaurov was so much in demand as Filippo, they could be together a lot of the time if she took on this spinto role. Her voice is at its very best, opulent, fresh and plangent in her leave taking of the countess of Arenberg and in her ‘Tu che la vanita’. She easily masters the climaxes and yet one clearly hears in this live performance where no balancing can shift the weight of a voice that the role is a shade too heavy for her instrument. When confronted with real heavies like Cossotto and Cappuccilli in the trio ‘Carlo che sol il nostro amore’ her voice disappears in the background. But when she is on her own or with a lyric partner like Aragall, maybe only Caballé of the many sopranos who have recorded the role in the last thirty years can match Freni. Fiorenzo Cossotto has other competitors, the best one of them maybe her own official and live recordings of the sixties. In her veil song I was struck by the lack of a low register while the voice was no longer seamless. But then she returns true to form till the ordeal of ‘O don fatale’ and there it becomes clear that twenty years of heavy roles have taken their toll. She starts well but then the voice becomes a hollow shriek at the G flat at the end of the cadence in the opening section. The central section she sings with her accustomed sound but she has the final movement transposed by a full tone and even then she barely makes it. The problems clearly announce her definite vocal deterioration two years later. Nicolai Ghiaurov too is, notwithstanding the enormous applause after ‘Ella giammai m’amo’, no longer the outstanding singer he once was. He still has some rolling sounds but the voice is a lot drier than it used to be. At the beginning of the monologue one for a moment thinks another, lesser singer has taken over. Ghiaurov’s breath has become short so that he no longer can sustain longer phrases . In the duet with the great inquisitor he still has the necessary authority, be it one that has to cut short one or another voluminous top note. Hans Sotin doesn’t have much threats in the voice, nor is it blacker than that of his Filippo but he sings with conviction and without shouting as so many second basses do. Of the men, Piero Cappuccilli takes the honours. His singing, as so often, is exemplary: perfect legato, long phrases, an easy top and the brown colour the best of Italian baritones are associated with. There are even moments, like in his duet with the king, of emotion where a few less gracious notes are introduced for drama’s sake and for once this makes his Rodrigo more interesting than usual because, let’s face it, he could sing it twice as good as Gobbi while being twice as boring at the same time.

Nello Santi, often vilified for his indulgences towards some singers, is one of the best conductors on record. He clearly breathes with his singers, stops the orchestra after a particular fine aria so the singer gets the well-earned applause and nevertheless paces a fine performance in true Verdian style.

In the long bonus we get a very fine Jeanette Pilou as a vivacious, beautiful though not fifteen year old Manon. Aragall too is in terrific voice, be it with the restrictions we know from his Don Carlo. One is reminded in the beauty of the voice of a young Giuseppe Di Stefano but once more Aragall lacks the elder tenor’s refined phrasing now and then. Aragall’s hasn’t the morbidezza during his entrance. Alain Vanzo with half Aragall’s talent makes a far bigger impression. And in Des Grieux’s dream Aragall’s lack of a truly beautiful pianissimo is obvious. His clear forthright singing suits ‘Ah, fuyez’ far better.

Jan Neckers

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Posted by Gary at 2:17 PM

SCHUBERT: Der Graf von Gleichen

What better occasion is there? We value this as our “relaxation” entertainment of choice even when the stories of the operas; imbued with chaos, unrequited desire, and murder, are events that would frustrate any normal person. Meant to whisk us away from the realities of our own lives and transport us to a world that we wish to be more interesting than our own, these stories are the perfect entertainment for any quiet evening at home. So, how about this: an opera that includes, love, adultery, the exoticism of turkey, and…la pièce de la résistance the guy who, in the end, gets not one, but TWO girls!!! How’s that for a tabloid driven plot line? Eat your heart out Brangelina, Bennifer, and Tom-Cat?!!!

Der Graf von Gleichen, Schubert’s last attempt at writing a “great” opera, was left incomplete due to his death. Hey, did Schubert compose operas? He did. In fact, he wrote 16 operas but they remain the least known of his works. It is an intriguing prospect to find out why this is so. How is it that a composer with such a magnificent symphonic understanding and a most blessed ability to write for the human voice would be unable to combine these two elements into one grand genre of opera. This being said, it is not to say that Der Graf von Gleichen fails entirely; there are indeed moments of beauty and that Schubertian delicateness that is always recognizable. Nevertheless, as a whole, the opera is not what you might expect from this renowned master.

At the beginning of 1824, and depressed with the failure of his theatre works weighing on his mind, Schubert abandoned the writing of operas and devoted his last years to songs and instrumental music, but it was the “opera” that haunted him throughout his short life. Why might this be? A probable hypothesis is this: All composers after Beethoven tried to adhere to his level of musical accomplishment. Beethoven struggled inherently with his opera Fidelio. A struggle made evident in the gestation period he took to compose it, and the attention he paid to its dramatic structure and realization. Was Schubert haunted by Beethoven’s grandiose operatic contribution, as Brahms and Mahler were haunted by his symphonies? More than likely, but why did Schubert’s operas fail? Why couldn’t he fuse together the elements he so clearly had control over, in their separate genres, into one. To answer this, we need to play a game of “sleuth” and collect significant evidence that might leads us to a coherent conclusion. In any opera study, one must look first at the value and validity of the libretto.

Eduard von Bauernfeld was one of Schubert’s closest friends during his last years. Unlike other occasional librettists amongst Schubert’s friends, Bauernfeld was a professional writer. As early as 1825, it seems that the plan for a Bauernfeld-Schubert collaboration was born. A medieval epic was to be the course of action, although Bauernfeld was not entirely happy about this idea. Therefore, he proposed the subject of the Count of Gleichen, a “true” legend that had appeared among the tales published by the brothers Grimm. In his letters, Bauernfeld mentions that he had adopted Mozart’s point of view and tried to write a play where the “poetry should be the music’s obedient daughter.” Schubert began to compose the music in 1826 and was so excited that he did not even wait for the approval of the censors. Of course, the opera was viewed negatively, surely because of its finale and subject matter.

Enrst, the Count of Gleichen, has been imprisoned during the Crusades and is now the slave of the Sultan of Cairo. The Sultan’s daughter, Suleika, loves Ernst and convinces her father to let him and the other Christian slaves go. Suleika returns with Ernst to his country and converts to Christianity, but not before he tells her that he has a wife and son back home. This is already outrageous, but the kicker is this: on the way to home to Turkey, they stop in Rome and get special permission from the Pope, and along with the Countess agreement, the Count of Gleichen can marry Suleika and live happily ever after with his “two” wives. That the Viennese censors did not allow such a story to be presented in Austrian theatres isn’t any big surprise, but what was Schubert thinking? Moreover, what was Bauernfeld thinking? Obviously, both were naïve if they thought a such a story would be accepted, by the censors or the public for that matter. Ironically, even Bauernfeld spoke of his libretto as a “Turkish-Christian mess.” It has several weaknesses which are not balanced by an operatic effectiveness.

So, is this a comic opera or to be taken seriously? If it is supposed to be a comic one, and it seems that the traditional structure of two acts and the extant conventions of opera buffa would suggest so. Why do the main characters have serious parts and belong to the upper class? Humour in opera means you have fun about somebody or something, and Schubert’s compassion, his perception of other people’s feelings, made that quite impossible for him. A sympathetic irony is the closest thing to humour we can find in Schubert’s work and that was surely not what Bauernfeld had in mind. In the aesthetic of the early 19th century, a comic opera should conclude with the traditional happy conclusion and so, it is quite difficult to avoid this “marriage à trios” becoming ridiculous. However, did Schubert really want the opera to end like this; remember it was unfinished? So who finished it?

Richard Dünser, an Austrian composer born in Bregenz in 1959 (yes 1959…he’s still alive) has taught composition at some of Vienna’s most renowned music schools, and has a particular penchant for orchestral arrangments. In 1995, he decided to complete and reconstruct Der Graf von Gleichen, and completed it in 1997. Therefore, whether or not this is what Schubert would have written is unknown.

This live recording by OEHMS is Dünser’s realization of Der Graf von Gleichen, with Act I beginning in the Sultan’s palace in Cairo. Interestingly, Schubert opens the opera with a choral number. The Chor der indischer Sklaven: a slave chorus is accompanied by light and sprightly woodwinds (woodwinds are prominent throughout the opera to suggest the “exotic” flavour of India). The male chorus sounds a little strained in the tenor section, but this is surely because of Schubert’s use of a high-tessitura, another influence from Beethoven, who wrote incredibly difficult ranges for choruses, even in his masses. The opening chorus does contain a beautiful string accompaniment and woodwind introduction to the Frauen und Sklaven where the chorus promotes excellent German diction, perhaps even obscuring the guttural quality of the language. Chorus master, Wolfgang Schwendinger, is to be commended for his work with the chorus, especially since choral predominance is immediately established at the opera’s opening. The only negativity here is that the orchestral texture is rather thick in the middle range instruments and somewhat distorts the clarity of the voices.

After the introduction, a spoken dialogue occurs before every operatic number. Although this is an excellent use of narration by Schubert, the speaker actually interrupts the flow and naturalness of the opera. It stops the action rather than enhance it, and in this recording we are not even given the speaker’s dialogue in the CD booklet. Therefore, unless you understand German, you will not understand the narration, an unfortunate exclusion by OEHMS Classics. The following number is the Recitativ und Cavatine of the Graf that begins with a lovely vocal entrance by Florian Boesch, with full-bodied and well-produced lines. The text is beautifully effected, but Boesch sings it almost too lyrically for a recitative. The speech-like quality is not there, and even though this recitative might not be the strongest composed moment in Schubert’s opera, the singer is still responsible to maintain the speech-like declamation of recitative. The woodwind responses to the Graf’s singing are appropriate and the orchestral accompaniment is reflective of the melodic commentary. Perhaps, though, Schubert might not have used so many unisons between certain instruments and the voice, but imbued the orchestra with it’s own purpose.

The Graf’s aria fails immediately because there is almost no division between the recitative and cavatina. The cavatina should have a completely different flavour than the recit, but Boesh fails to effect this. The singing here is rather rough and perhaps not delicate enough or lyrical enough for Schubert. The ends of Boesche’s phrases are not rounded and completed with a sense of shape, but sung robustly…almost to the point that he seems to yell.

Nr. 5 Arie, is sung by Suleika and followed by a recitative und duet by the Graf and Suleika. Cornelia Horak begins this with a lovely tone, and complimented by Schubert’s orchestral commentary, this piece works well. There is a continual repeated bass that almost reflects the heart-beat that is obviously representative of high passion. Horak has exquisite upper notes on “Sönne so feurig und wild,” however she immediately moves into a type of straight-tone on the descent which is not attractive. The Graf’s entrance is more intimate here than in his previous cavatina and Boesch’s voice is more pleasing when sung delicately. There is good conversation between the two characters, but the duet tempts Boesch back into his non-lyrical singing. Horak’s singing here is lovely and it becomes bothersome that the two main voices are not in sync, as they should be. The orchestra is delicate if not a little too subdued and could offer more support to the voices.

In the next scene, Schubert cleverly inserts a March (à la Beethoven), that is Turkish in flavour. The march is to introduce the character of the Sultan, however this is an immediate transition from the duet between the Graf and Gräfin, so it completely obscures the intimacy of the previous scene with it’s pompous flavour and rhythmic intensity. One might also think, here, of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio) and it’s Turkish elements. It is Suleika’s birthday and three Indian princes have come to congratulate her, but she has already chosen a husband, the Graf. As the Sultan arrives, the orchestra evokes his regal position and Schubert imbues this music with dotted rhythms and lots of brass. The Sultan is also sung by Boesch, and he begins with a nice tone in his recitative, but again there is a lack of legato singing in the aria, almost making it too choppy. Interestingly, Schubert’s arias don’t change mood as do the arias of Mozart or Haydn, and there is no Da Capo in sight.

To follow, the Graf gives Suleika a red rose, which is a sign of love in the Orient, and her passion explodes in an aria that almost seems like a “revenge-aria.” One would expect a lyrical and heart-wrenching piece, like Countess Almaviva’s “Dove Sono,” but instead Suleika seems almost infuriated in love. Horak approaches the difficulty of this aria, “Ja, ich leib ihn” in which she admits her love for the Graf. There is a particularly lovely moment where the agitation changes to a lyrical and passionate evocation of the word “Liebesblume.” She displays her incredible range in this aria, soaring into the upper tessitura and although Horak handles it well, there are still moments of pushing, and straight tone that make her sound as if her voice is getting tired. This is especially so at the end of the aria on “Groß ist der Liebe Macht” that ends in an extraordinarily high tessitura, perhaps too high for this type of aria.

To make things even more interesting, the Graf immediately tells Suleika that he has a wife and son back home. She also addresses the Graf as “my friend,” which seems like a mistake on the part of the librettist. Why would Suleika address the Count as her friend after she’s just poured her heart out in the previous aria? The effect of the aria is somewhat lost because of this. In the Finale of Act I, the Graf and Suleika sing a duet that is performed rather stagnantly. There is more vocal confrontation between Horak and Boesch here, rather than a merging of the two voices into one…which would be more representative of two people in love. This duet makes clear that the two voices are not well suited to each other.

The finale is quite long and goes through many changes. One, in particular, occurs at “Sich die Purpurblume, die du mir gabst!” where Suleika begins to mention that she will become Christian and leave for Europe with the Graf. The orchestra is rather stagnant here and rather than contributing to the emotion of the scene, Schubert uses it merely as accompaniment; perhaps this is another reason why Schubert’s operas weren’t as successful as his other works. At “Du weißt daß in Frankenkleidern bisweilen” Suleika pleas with her father, the Sultan, to release the Christian slaves. Schubert uses some orchestral drama to enhance this scene, with regal dotted motives in the brass as Suleika pleas, “Mein Vater!” The most beautiful moment occurs at “Leb Wohl auf hurz, dann ewig dir gepaart." She too is leaving. If Schubert wrote every moment in the opera with such beauty as this, his operas would have been very successful. Unfortunately, he only gives us small tastes of what his operatic writing might have developed into had he lived longer. The chorus then sings praises of joy, and there is a good balance between the choral voices and orchestra. “Oh Freiheit!” is sung with high intensity, and almost evokes hints of the Chorus of Prisoners in Beethoven’s Fidelio.

Act II begins in the Occident, on an autumn evening. The chorus also begins this act, again showing Schubert’s penchant for choral importance. There is lovely homophonic harmony here, and the orchestra lightly accompanies with pizzicati that help establish the mood. There is some polyphony used at the end of the chorus but the piece perhaps lacks the climax that we might expect from a chorus at this point in the opera.

Nr. 13 is an aria sung by the Gräfin, used to introduce us to her character. Countess Ottilie despairs about her husband’s absence. Letizia Scherrer sings her “Trocknet nicht” with a lovely warm sound and evokes much empathy from the listener. What makes this aria work well is that Schubert uses the orchestra in a more active approach, by making it reflect the mood and tone of the Countess’ emotions. It is truly a lovely moment, and connects the Gräfin to other forlorn women of high prestige, à la Octavia, or Countess Almaviva. The string finale to the aria is very heart wrenching and another one of those moments in which we see visions of an operatic Schubert that might have been.

The chorus enters again to snare-drum accompaniment, and the now free slaves sing a vibrant “Vaterland.” The pilgrims return led by the Graf who sees his wife and child for the first time. His recitative and aria “Burg meiner Väter” obscures his personality entirely…or at least more than it had been previously. He sings of how much he loves his wife and son, which is highly unbelievable, especially when he has arrived with his mistress, Suleika. A clear flaw in the libretto, any audience member in Schubert’s day, and surely a present-day one, would have a difficult time relating to the bigamous nature of the count.

In his return, the Gräfin recognizes him, and she is overwhelmed with happiness. The following recognition aria is confusing. For a scene of reuniting, the orchestra should invoke excitement and the furvor of the moment, but instead there is unresponsiveness, perhaps because the Graf is in love with two women. It is really very confusing as he sings “Unendlich, Unendlich is diese Lust!” (Unending, Unending is this love!) The duet that ensues between the Graf and Gräfin is rather un-exciting and again yearns for a moment of excitement.

The next scene is Suleika, who has now realized that if she is to live here with the count that she must be accepted by the countess. She asks God to help her accept this fate in, “Guter Gott, nimm aus dem Herzen dieses Sehnen.” Although this is a very beautiful aria, Horak’s voice seems more over-taxed than ever. The clarity with which she began the opera is missing and the beautiful legato that would display this aria’s rightful beauty, does not exist. As she finishes her prayer, the Gräfin enters and we have a duet between Suleika and the countess. The seriousness of the meeting is well presented in the orchestra by ominous diminished 7th chords. Schubert doesn’t use this sonority much throughout the opera, so their position here is well noted. There is a beautiful contrasting recitative where at the end, the Gräfin asks, “O liebst du ihn?” (Do you love him?) A poignant question leading to the duet, we expect that with Suleika’s answer the duet would merge the two women’s voices in a glorious display of either acceptance or not. We might think here of the great duet of Norma and Adalgisa, but here Suleika and the Gräfin rarely sing together in harmony. It is more of a question/response style that might occur in a recitative, not a full-blown duet. Regardless, the Countess accepts Suleika.

Finally, there is the anticipated trio. By this point we are asking, “what woman would really go for this? Most women can’t relate, and this is a probable reason why this opera has not retained any popularity or a solid position within the operatic canon. The trio between the Graf, Gräfin, and Suleika begins with a lovely string accompaniment that is evocative of Mozart’s Soave sia il vento from Così fan Tutte. Here he “does” have the women singing in thirds (and gloriously I might add) to the muttering of the Graf under the texture. Even though Boesch doesn’t really add to this trio, vocally, it is still possibly the most well-constructed number in the opera. The orchestra is responsive to the emotions of the characters, and there is an enhanced sense of drama that we haven’t yet experienced.

Why Schubert has the Graf sing for most of the Act II finale is beyond me. Boesch sings some lovely lines but all in all, there is no climactic ending here. His long speech is followed by, none other than, “the chorus”. It rejoices in knowing that the Pope has granted the count his wish to be married to two women, and that the countess has accepted Suleika. One of the main problems for any realization of the final scene is that it was not sketched by Schubert.

It seems to me that Schubert could have used this final attempt at opera to evolve, but he didn’t. The conventional description of Turkish cruelty is absent, as are warlike tunes, and instead we have an “impossible love story”. Compared to other Turkish operas, the opportunity of composing marches and other characteristic music is not there. Such a vision leaves little room for comical elements and thus Schubert cannot overcome the discrepancies of the libretto. It seems that the rightful category for the Der Graf von Gleichen is in the semi-seria category. In addition, Schubert’s characters are not well defined musically. They tend to remain the means of describing a story rather than representing distinctive personalities that develop through the course of action. Clearly, Schubert had not yet acquired a sufficient sense of dramatic timing. He might have with more experience and come to understand the need to build up tension and release it so to retain interest and produce more surprise elements.

Schubert, however, continues to remain a mystery to us. What might have become of him if he had lived? Might he have become the next Beethoven, surely a goal that he tried to achieve in life, at least in his compositions. Regardless of this, Schubert’s lieder and symphonies remain a staple of German art and culture. He will continue to be highly respected for his contribution to German musical development, and his operas shouldn’t be excluded from this statement. Even though his operas are not masterpieces like many of his other works, we cannot exclude them because they are another page, another aspect to the personality that we continue to investigate. Any Schubert fan should undoubtedly listen to this opera, or any, if only to hear the moments that suggest a sensitive, passionate, and intelligent operatic composer in the making.

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

image=http://www.operatoday.com/content/graf2.jpg image_description=Franz Schubert: Der Graf von Gleichen product=yes product_title=Franz Schubert: Der Graf von Gleichen product_by=Florian Boesch (Graf (Count) / Sultan), Cornelia Horak (Suleika), Letizia Scherrer (Grafin (Countess) / Fatime), Kurt Sternik (speaker), KornmarktChor Bregenz, Wolfgang Schwendinger, chorus master, Symphonieorchester Vorarlberg, Christoph Eberle, conductor product_id=Oehms Classics OC903 price=$31.99 product_url=http://www.hbdirect.com/album_detail.php?id=547417&aff=operatoday
Posted by Gary at 1:39 PM

WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde

Composition and Orchestration Completed: 8-9 August 1859.

First Performance: 10 June 1865, Königliches Hof- und Nationaltheater, München.

Principal Characters:
Tristan Tenor
König Marke (King Mark) Bass
Isolde Soprano
Kurwenal, Tristan's servant Baritone
Melot, a courtier Tenor
Brangäne, Isolde's maid Soprano
A Shepherd Tenor
A Helmsman Baritone
A Young Sailor Tenor

Literary Sources:

  1. The original author of Tristan and Isolde (or Iseut) is unknown, although it is believed to have its origins in the Celtic areas of the British Isles, most likely Cornwall. The story was transmitted orally. It was received in Brittany following the Conquest (later written down in the two Folies) and then spread throughout western Europe.
  2. Following medieval custom, the tale was written down and retold by a series of writers, the most important being:
    • Roman de Tristan by Béroul (12th Century)
    • Roman de Tristan by Thomas d'Angleterre (12th Century)
    • Tristrant by Eilhart von Oberg (12th Century)
    • Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg (c. 1210), completed by Ulrich von Türheim (c. 1240) and Heinrich von Freiberg (c. 1290), on which Wagner based his libretto.
  3. Click here for an English translation of The Romance of Tristan and Iseult by M. Joseph Bédier.

A Summary of the Medieval Tale:

Tristan is born to a life of sorrow (tristis in Latin = sad) as his mother dies in childbirth and his father is killed defending his kingdom. Eventually the young boy makes his way to the court of his uncle Mark in Cornwall where he is welcomed and quickly becomes the leading champion of the Cornish, arousing the jealousy of many of Mark’s courtiers. Cornwall is paying tribute to the King of Ireland and Tristan defeats the Irish champion, the King’s brother in law, the Morholt, when he comes to claim the tribute. The Morholt returns to Ireland to die and Tristan is left victorious but with a poisoned wound which no one can cure. Eventually the smell is so foul that he is put in a boat with his harp and towed out to sea. The boat drifts to Ireland where the Queen, the sister of the Morholt, and her daughter Iseut are famous healers and succeed in curing the wound, but a fragment of the Morholt’s sword is found in the wound which they recognise. They nearly kill Tristan but in the end they spare him (the reasons differ in the different versions). He returns cured to Cornwall where he is Mark’s heir. The barons demand that Mark marry and produce an heir as they do not want to be ruled by Tristan. A swallow drops a beautiful golden hair on the window sill, and Mark sends Tristan to find its owner as she is the only woman he will marry, hoping to outwit the barons. Tristan returns to Ireland as the hair is Iseut’s and saves her from a marriage to her father’s wicked seneschal. The King expects Tristan to marry Iseut but instead he claims her for Mark and escorts back to Cornwall. Before they leave, the Queen prepares a love potion (to last for 3 years in Beroul - for life in Thomas), which Brangien, Iseut’s lady in waiting, accidentally gives them to drink during the voyage. The love is instantaneous, all-consuming and consummated immediately. Nevertheless the wedding still takes place between Mark and Iseut, but on the wedding night Brangien, still a virgin, replaces Iseut in the marriage bed, so that Iseut’s secret is kept. Subsequently Iseut fears that Brangien will betray her and hires two serfs to murder her, but the serfs spare her and a penitent Iseut is reconciled with Brangien. Tristan and Iseut lead an extremely dangerous life at the court of Mark as adulterous lovers, loathed by a powerful faction among the barons. The fragment of Beroul covers this period as the lovers triumph over their enemies. Later the lovers are discovered together in the orchard and Tristan has to flee from the court leaving Iseut there. The two Folies and Marie de France describe single episodes from the period of Tristan’s exile in which he is able to return secretly to Cornwall and gain access to Iseut. Thomas covers the period of Tristan’s exile in Brittany when, jealous of the life that he imagines Mark is living with Iseut, Tristan marries Iseut aux blanches mains to experience the same pleasure and finds himself trapped in a position where he has to betray either his wife or his beloved. In the end he dies of a wound inflicted when he was helping Tristan le Nain rescue his lady, as Iseut is unable to reach his side in time to cure him. Believing himself betrayed he dies of despair, and when Iseut reaches Brittany too late, she dies of grief.

P. S. Noble, The Legend of Tristan and Iseut.

An Overview of the Work:

The background to the story

Tristan, the nephew and vassal of King Marke of Cornwall, killed a knight, Morold, the fiancé of the Irish king's daughter, Isolde, in battle and sent the head of the dead man to Isolde. Tristan was also wounded in the battle by a sword that had been dipped in poison by Isolde herself. He travelled to Ireland under the name of Tantris in order to be nursed back to health by Isolde. Isolde realised his true identity, as a splinter of metal which was lodged in Morold's head exactly fitted a small gap in Tristan's sword. She decided to be revenged on Tristan for Morold's death, but the moment she looked into Tristan's eyes her hate turned into love. Fully restored to health, Tristan travelled back to Cornwall, only to return a short while later to court Isolde in the name of his uncle, King Marke. Together Tristan and Isolde set sail for Cornwall.

Act I

Summary: Isolde feels that Tristan has betrayed her and orders her woman, Brangaene, to persuade Tristan to come to her so they can talk things out. He is very reluctant to do so. His servant, Kurwenal, declares that a hero can never be subservient to the maid whom he has courted in his uncle's name and he sings a satirical song about Morold's death. Isolde tells Brangaene about her first meeting with Tristan. Brangaene seeks to comfort her mistress and reminds her of the magic potions Isolde's mother gave her to take with her on the journey to Cornwall. Isolde is desperate at the thought of being so close to the man she loves while being forced to live as the wife of another. So she plans to die with Tristan. When the latter appears, Isolde demands that he should drink the poison with her as a penance for killing Morold. Assuming that they are both now about to die, Tristan and Isolde declare their love for each other. But the potion which Brangaene has given them was not the poison. Accompanied by cheering from the people, Tristan and Isolde reach Cornwall.

Sequence:

Part 1
Prelude (Liebestod)
Scene 1 A pavillion erected on a ship richly hung with tapestry, quite closed in at back at first. A narrow hatchway at one side leads below into the cabin. Isolde on a couch, her face buried in the cushions. Brangäne, holding open a curtain, looks over the side of the vessel.
Westwärts schweift der Blick Young Sailor
Nimmermehr! Nicht heut', noch morgen Isolde, Brangäne
Scene 2 The whole length of the ship is now seen, down to the stern, with the sea and horizon beyond. Round the mainmast in the middle are seamen, busied with ropes; beyond them in the stern are seen knights and attendants seated, like the sailors; a little apart Tristan stands with folded arms and thoughtfully gazing out to sea; at his feet Kurwenal reclines carelessly. From the mast-head above is heard once more the voice of the young sailor.
Frisch weht der Wind Young Sailor
Hab' Acht, Tristan! Kurwenal, Brangäne, Tristan
Wer Kornwalls Kron' Kurwenal
Herr Morold zog zu Meere her Kurwenal, Male Chorus
Scene 3 Isolde and Brangäne alone with the curtains completely closed. Isolde rises with a despairing gesture of wrath. Brangäne falls at her feet.
Wie lachend sie mir Lieder Isolde, Brangäne
Da schrie's mir aus Isolde, Brangäne
O blinde Augen! Isolde, Brangäne
Fluch dir, Verruchter! Isolde, Brangäne
O Süsse! Traute! Brangäne
Wo lebte der Mann Brangäne
He! he! ha! he! Male Chorus
Part 2
Scene 4 Through the curtains enters Kurwenal boisterously.
Auf! Auf! Ihr Frauen! Kurwenal
Herrn Tristan bringe meinen Gruss Isolde, Kurwenal
Nun leb' wohl Isolde, Kurwenal
Kennst du der Mutter Künste nicht Isolde, Brangäne
Scene 5 Kurwenal retires again. Brangäne, scarcely mistress of herself, turns towards the back. Isolde, summoning all her powers to meet the crisis, walks slowly and with effort to the couch, leaning on the head of which she then stands, her eyes fixed on the entrance.
Begehrt, Herrin, was ihr wünscht Tristan, Isolde
War Morold dir so werth Tristan, Isolde
Ho! he! ha! he! Male Chorus
Wo sind wir? Tristan, Isolde
Auf das Tau! Male Chorus
Tristans Ehre Tristan, Isolde
Tristan! Isolde! Tristan, Isolde
Heil König Marke Heil! Male Chorus
Was träumte mir Tristan, Isolde

Act II

Summary: King Marke has gone hunting at night with his retinue. Isolde is waiting in the garden for Tristan. Brangaene warns Isolde about Melot, Marke's liegeman, because she is convinced that he plans to betray the lovers to his master. Isolde does not heed her. Impatiently she extinguishes the torch at the door, that signal that she and Tristan have agreed on. Tristan and Isolde are delighted to be together without the danger of being disturbed and decide to quit this world, which does not allow them to love each other, and live only for their love. At dawn King Marke, who has been alerted by Melot, appears with his retinue. Disappointed at Tristan's betrayal of his trust and his friendship, he sees the existence of all moral values called in question. At this moment, Tristan's feeling of guilt and remorse is stronger than his love for Isolde; he agrees to fight a duel with Melot and runs into the latter's sword.

Sequence:

Part 1
Prelude
Scene 1 Isolde with fiery animation advances from the chamber (towards Brangäne).
Hörst du sie noch? Isolde, Brangäne
Dem Freund zu Lieb' Isolde, Brangäne
Dein Werk? O thör'ge Magd! Isolde, Brangäne
Part 2
Scene 2 As Tristan rushes in, Isolde springs toward him. There is a wild embrace, with which they come down to the front.
Tristan! Geliebter! Tristan, Isolde
O sink' hernieder Nacht (Love Duet) Tristan, Isolde
Einsam wachend in der Nacht (Brangäne's Watch) Brangäne
Lausch', Geliebter! Tristan, Isolde
So starben wir Tristan, Isolde
Habet Acht! Brangäne
O ew'ge Nacht Tristan, Isolde
Part 3
Scene 3 As Tristan and Isolde remain in their enraptured state, Brangäne utters a piercing scream. Kurwenal rushes in with sword drawn. He looks behind him with great alarm. Mark, Melot and courtiers (in hunting array) come from the avenue quickly towards the front, and pause in amazement before the group formed by the lovers. Brangäne descends from the turret at the same time and rushes towards Isolde. The latter with instinctive shame, leans with averted face upon the flowery bank. Tristan with equally instinctive action, stretches out his mantle with one arm, so as to conceal Isolde from the eyes of the newcomers. In this position he remains for some time, fixing his gaze immovably upon the men, who with various emotions turn their eyes upon him. Morning dawns.
Rette dich, Tristan! Kurwenal, Tristan
Thatest du's wirklich? (Mark's Lament) König Marke
O König, das kann ich dir nicht sagen Tristan
Wohin nun Tristan scheidet Tristan
Als für ein fremdes Land Isolde
Verräther! Ha! Zur Rache, König Melot, Tristan

Act III

Summary: Kurwenal has taken Tristan to his home, Kareol in Brittany. As Tristan's wound refuses to heal, Kurwenal has sent for Isolde to come and nurse his master back to health. A shepherd is keeping a look-out for her ship. He is to announce the arrival of the vessel by singing a merry song. Tristan's thoughts are dwelling on his origins and his childhood, which he had to spend without the love and support of his parents. His father died after he had been conceived, his mother died after he was born. When Isolde finally arrives, she is too late; Tristan has departed his earthly life in the moment of her arrival. Brangaene has also persuaded Marke to travel to Kareol so that he can offer the lovers his forgiveness. When the king and his retinue arrive, Kurwenal tries to stop them from seeing Tristan and Isolde. In the course of the ensuing struggle, Kurwenal and Melot kill each other. Isolde follows Tristan into another world.

Sequence:

Part 1
Prelude
Scene 1 The garden of a castle. At one side high castellated buildings; on the other, a low breastwork, broken by a watchtower; at back the castle gate. In the foreground inside lies Tristan under the shade of a great lime tree sleeping on a couch, extended as if lifeless. At his head sits Kurwenal, bending over him in grief, and anxiously listening to his breathing. From without comes the sound of a Shepherd's air.
Kurwenal! He! Shepherd, Kurwenal
Die alte Weise Tristan, Kurwenal
Dünkt dich das? Tristan
Der einst ich trotzt' Tristan
Isolde kommt! Tristan
Noch ist kein Schiff zu seh'n Kurwenal, Tristan
Muss ich dich so versteh'n Tristan
Mein Herre! Tristan! Kurwenal
Das Schiff? Siebst du's noch nicht? Tristan, Kurwenal
Wie sie selig Tristan
O Wonne! Freude! Kurwenal, Tristan
Part 2
Scene 2 Kurwenal hastens away. Tristan tosses on his couch in the greatest excitement.
O diese Sonne! Tristan
Tristan! Geliebter! (Isolde's Entrance) Isolde, Tristan
Ich bin's Isolde
Scene 3 Kurwenal who re-entered behind Isolde has remained by the entrance in speechless horror, gazing motionless on Tristan. From below is now heard the dull murmur of voices and clash of weapons. The Shepherd clambers over the wall. He hastily approaches Kurwenal and speaks softly to Kurwenal. Kurwenal starts up in haste and looks over the rampart whilst the Shepherd stands apart gazing in consternation on Tristan and Isolde.
Kurwenal! Hör! Shepherd, Kurwenal, Helmsman
Todt denn Alles! Kurwenal, Melot, Brangäne
Mild und Leise (Verklärung-Transfiguration) Isolde

[Source of Summary: Bayerische Staatsoper]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/content/tristan-und-isolde_fuchs.png image_description=Tristan und Isolde by Ernst Fuchs (undated) audio=yes first_audio_name=Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Tristan1.m3u product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde product_by=Ramon Vinay (Tristan), Ludwig Weber (King Marke), Martha Mödl (Isolde), Hans Hotter (Kurwenal), Hermann Uhde (Melot), Ira Malaniuk (Brangäne), Gerhard Stolze (Shepherd), Werner Faulhaber (Helmsmann), Gerhard Unger (Sailor), Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Herbert von Karajan
Live performance: 23 July 1952, Bayreuth Festspiele
Posted by Gary at 10:35 AM

August 10, 2006

OFFENBACH: Les Contes d'Hoffmann

That almost half of the dead were Jewish, Wagner continues, “in no way increases our sympathy for him,” whose music is devoid of “moral worth.”2Following on the heels of the successful Paris premiere, the fire at the Ring cast a black cloud over Offenbach’s opera, but in spite of this tragedy and Wagner’s diatribe, Les contes d’Hoffmann quickly gained its rightful place in the operatic repertoire. Unlike Bizet who saw the premiere of his masterpiece and lived to make the necessary changes, Offenbach orchestrated only forty pages of Les Contes d’Hoffmann before he died.3The composer's heirs gave the task of finishing the opera to Ernest Guiraud.4

As early as 1879, Offenbach sanctioned the use of spoken dialogue in place of recitatives for performances of Les Contes d’Hoffmann at the Opéra-Comique. Since then, and continuing with Guiraud's alterations for the Paris premiere,5 the manipulations to the score and to the sequence of the acts have not stopped. Changes to this opera have been as popular as its best known melody, the “Barcarole.”6To add to the ménage, in 1976 Offenbach scholar Antonio de Almeida discovered 1250 pages of original manuscript, parts of the original libretto, Guiraud's orchestra score for Giulietta’s Act, part of Offenbach's autographed score for voice and piano, and part of the score used for the performance in Offenbach's home in 1879; as many as another 350 pages of original orchestrated autograph came up for auction in 1984; newly discovered, original, couplets premiered in Salzburg in 2003, and what appears to be an original score, survivor of the Comique fire of 1887, surfaced a few years ago. The door is wide open for one more scholar, conductor, producer or director to make another set of “definitive” and “critical” changes.7

The libretto8 by Jules Barbier9 is based on his and Michel Carré's five act play of 1851, Les contes fantastiques d'Hoffmann, which in turn is based on stories10 by E. T. A. Hoffmann,11 including the “Serapionsbrüder.”12As such, it should not come as a surprise that some of the characters in the opera are unrealistic; it should be remembered that in E. T. A. Hoffmann's stories there is not distinction between reality and fantasy. His tales evolve around a web of intrigue, fantasy, the supernatural and the grotesque. It is also worth noting that Hoffmann, the character, is weak and delusional and while at Luther’s Tavern, he is depressed and inebriated.13

Offenbach was ideally qualified to write this opera. The more than ninety Bouffes Parisiens Bouffes Parisiens was the name Offenbach gave to his first ‘Theater” on Les Champs Elysées in 1855. The name became so associated with his operettas that in many circles the two were synonymous. he penned gave him a unique insight into the story, into Hoffmann the writer, and Hoffmann the character: half truth, half parody; never quite real, not always an illusion; never quite in control, never quite wanting it. Hoffmann, the character is almost autobiographical14 of Hoffmann the writer and he lives through the opera as he did in real life: in a fantasy; his Muse/Conscience in the form of his friend Nicklaus, for ever trying to bring Hoffman back to reality.15The libretto also points in the biographical direction by touching on another of the German writer’s obsessions: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.16In the prelude, Lindorf lusts after Hoffman's latest infatuation, Stella, and points out to the performance of Don Giovanni; Nathanaël speaks of “the firm, assured voice [Stella] brings to Mozart's masterpiece....” There are other connections to the Austrian composer: Luther’s tavern, where the prelude and epilogue take place, is adjacent to the opera house where Stella is singing in the Mozart opera; Nicklause quotes the opening line of Leporello’s first aria, “Notte e giorno mal dormire,” and Offenbach gives the character of Hoffmann a touch of Mozart’s music.

On October 21, 1858 Offenbach produced the first full length French operetta, and the one which gave him instant success, Orphée aux enfers,17 to be followed by, among many, La Péricole, Barbe-bleu, La vie parisienne, La belle Hélène, and La Grande-Duchese de Gérolstein. After professional losses in 1875, which prompted the composer to declare bankruptcy, Offenbach toured the United States during the Centennial festivities and, upon returning to Paris, he wrote two books on his travel experiences. His health had been in decline by the time Offenbach started to compose what he must have known would be his masterpiece, but he pressed on. In May, 1879, there was a private reading of Les contes d'Hoffmann at Offenbach’s home at which Carvalho, from the Opèra-Comique, and Jauner, from the Ring Theater, were present. Both men wanted the rights to the work, and the composer eagerly agreed. Eighteen months later Offenbach died without seeing his opera reach the stage. Les Contes d'Hoffmann premiered at the Opèra Comique, on February 10, 1881, and the original production played one hundred and one performances to overwhelming, public, and critical acclaim.

A short drive from Rome, towards the Adriatic Ocean, is the town of Macerata, host to the summer Opera Festival.18 The first opera to play at the Arena Sferisterio19 was Norma, in 1914, but, it would be Aida, seven years later, which would cement the idea of the Macerata Opera Festival at the Sferisterio. If this DVD of Offenbach's masterpiece is any indication, Macerata ranks with, if not above, Verona or any other summer venue for the overall quality of their productions. This performance, from the 2004 season, combines elements from the Chouden and Oerse editions. The cast is mostly not French, and therefore not as idiomatic as many would expect. This, however, is minor and should not discourage anyone from enjoying this DVD, many times over: most all of the singers have fine tuned their characterizations by having participated in several, different, stagings of the opera.

Pier Luigi Pizzi delivers a visually stunning and effective production in spite of its simple premise: black and white with an occasional splash of red to denote or emphasize the different layers of evil.20 The stage is split into two levels and at the front there are two Neoclassical colonnades with balconies that mirror the peripheral wall of the Sferisterio. At times, these colonnades slide out of view to meet the needs of the action on stage. The scenery and the costumes are true to the original period of the stories, yet subtly updated. Aside from the use of “red,” there are no hidden meanings in this production, no esoteric or psychological self aggrandizing statements from Pizzi and the viewer is left free to search for and to reach his/her own conclusions. Overall, this is a very good production which successfully combines all its elements. The DVD, under the direction of Tiziano Mancini, is just as good with many close- ups, wide-angle shots and superimposed views of the stage action and carefully chosen individual shots.

In the title role, Italian tenor, Vincenzo La Scola made his professional debut in 1982, as Oronte in Verdi's I Lombardi; his international career was launched three years later in Brussels, when he sang Nemorino in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amor, at the Theâtre Royale de la Monnaie. Since then, La Scola has sung in all the major operatic capitals and toured the former Soviet Union and Japan; his repertoire is equally varied: Rigoletto, Don Carlo, La Boheme, Capuletti e i Montechi, Traviata, Nabucco, Lucia di Lammermoor, Roberto Devereux, Simon Boccanegra, Beatrice di Tenda, Werther, Luisa Miller, Aida, etc., and the darker roles of Pollione in Norma, the title role in Ernani, Faust in Boito's Mefistofele, Don José in Carmen, Manrico in Trovatore, Mario Cavaradosi in Tosca, and in 1992, Hoffmann when he essayed the role for his debut with the Houston Grand Opera.

La Scola's French is tinged with a slightly warmer accent, especially at the beginning of the opera where he uses “forte” and clips the words to demonstrate Hoffman's inebriation. The singer takes his characterization one step further in “A boire ... La vie est courte ... Il faut boire, chanter et rire à l'aventure ...” where he successfully demonstrates the character's delusional mind stepping in and out of reality.21 During the Song of Kleinzach, La Scola remains in character, inebriated, effectively switching from the mocking tone of the song to painful thoughts of Stella and his ideal woman, “Ah! Sa figure....” His diction is more natural in the subsequent acts and his interpretation of the naive Hoffmann in the Olympia scene is believable. “Allons! Courage et confiance ... C'est elle! Elle sommeille! ... Ah! vivre à deux....” give La Scola ample opportunity to imbue his singing with many colors to match the different moods of the aria: from self-consciousness to the thrill of discovery, from fear to hope, to passion, and blind love. In the Venice scene “Ô Dieu, di quelle invresse embrases-tu mon âáme?” his voice easily soars over the orchestra and the high notes are not forced. In Act III La Scola is thrilling in “J'ai le bonheur dans làme!” with Antonia.

La Scola easily handles the difficulties of the role. He has a fine instrument with a pleasant timbre, though not not one to please every listener; La Scola's singing is sincere and he brings to the stage the added bonus of being a good actor and comedian, and never showing off to overcome what some may view as his shortcomings.

Few singers approach the role of Nicklaus with the ease of Elsa Maurus. The French mezzo-soprano made her professional debut at the Nantes Opera House in Léo Delibes Le Roi la dit,followed by Rossina in Il barbiere di Siviglia in Rouen. An accomplished recitalist as well, Maurus has sung in La damnation de Faust, Mozart's Requiem, Stauss' Arabella, Schumann's Scenes from Goethe's Faust, Marius Constant's Teresa, and other works by Poulenc, Ravel, Berstein,Mozart, Mahler, Mendelssohn, etc., and in 2002, Maurus participated in “A Requiem Concert in Memory of the Events of September 11” at the National Opera House in Kiev. She sings in the DVDs of The Elephant Man, Il turco in Italia, and on CD she sings Berlioz' Les nuites d' été andBenvenuto Celini, Gouvy's Requiem and the soundtrack to Mécanique Célestes, the story of a young Rossinian soprano.

Maurus' singing is effortless and expressive; her voice is dark without being inappropriately masculine and she is blessed with a real understanding of the music entrusted to her. Acting comes easily to Maurus, as well, enabling her to move about the stage in the most natural manner and making the pant role believable. She has a very expressive face, too, an attribute she uses extremely well as in the pained look she gives Hoffmann in the Prelude while he wallows in his misery.

In the Act I aria, “Une poupée aux yeux d'émail ... Le petit coq,” Maurus is restrained, though effectively charming, in her imitation of the mechanical doll, and in the opening of Act II, the Barcarole, “Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour,” is an ideal showcase for Maurus' excellent musicianship; her instrument's dark tones complimenting the string section. In Antonia's Act, Maurus sings an impassioned Romance, “Vois sous l'archet frémissant,” Her voice colored with a subtle vibrato to accentuate the pathos in the words she is singing. The Epilogue belongs completely to Maurus. In “Des sendres de ton cœur” her voice takes on different hues of poignancy without any hint of melodramatic superficiality.

Désirée Rancatore steals the show with her half human half “automate” interpretation of the doll, Olympia. Rancatore made her professional debut in 1996 in Salzburg, as Barbarina in Le nozze di Figaro. Since then she has appeared at Opera Gala at the Faenol, the Festival of Baroque Music, and the Teatro Massimo di Palermo Mozart's festivities, La Scala, Covent Garden, Teatro Real, Teatro Regio, etc. On DVD and CD she sings Blonde in Entfürhrung aus dem Serail, Olympia in Covent Garden's production of Les Contes d'Hoffmann with Neil Shicoff and Bryn Terfel, and Rigoletto. Rancatore sang the role of Semele in Pizzi's production of Salieri's opera, Europa riconosciuta, at La Scala; Fauno in Mozart's Ascanio in alba; La Contessa di Folleville in Rossini's Il viaggio a Reims; Sophie in Rosenkavalier, and Kostanze in Entfürhrung aus dem Serail. Future engagements include La Cambiale di Matrimonio and Elvira in Bellini's Puritani.

Rancatore imbues the role of Olympia with childhood innocence, tinged with a bit of cheekiness; this Olympia is not the standard “dummy;” she is a teaser, conscious of human sexuality and she enjoys showing her undergarments. Rancatore's instrument has a pleasant timbre and, in this performance, she gives hints of her thrilling coloratura in “Les oiseaux dans la charmille.” Some of her limitations are due to the “characterization” of the doll she is playing, at times giving her voice a touch of steel. In spite of this, Rancatore is well suited for the role and she delivers any number of high notes, mixed with the necessary wit and physical energy required for the role.

By comparison to Olympia's raucous behavior, the opening duet of the Venice scene is a welcome moment of calm and Sara Allegretta's warm, honey toned voice is like a medicinal tonic to the ears; the velvet texture of her instrument is as alluring as her character. Her classic good looks adding to the mystique of the character she is playing.

From the opening moments of the Venice scene, the viewer is aware that Giulietta is more interested in seducing Nicklaus than in Hoffmann,22 and Allegretta's voice beautifully blends with Maurus' in the Barcarole, giving credence to the lyrics. In the duet with Hoffmann, “Si ta présence m'est ravie/Extase, ivresse inassouvie,” she holds her own as well as in the sextet23 that closes the act, her voice rising easily over La Scola's and the orchestra.

Allegretta has sung at Wexford, La Fenice, Salzburg, Ferrara, Teatro della Pergola, Amsterdam's Concertgebouw, Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Covent Garden, and her repertoire includes works by Cherubini, Meyerbeer, Piccinni, Verdi, Rossini, Monteverdi,Vivaldi, Adams, Paisiello, etc.

Antonia is sung by Annalisa Raspagliosi. The young singer, has added a large number of credits to her name since 1998, when she won the “Cascina Lirica” and the “Città di Roma” Competitions. The Italian soprano has had a busy career, too, starting with her debut as Violetta Valéry in Verdi's Traviata,rapidly adding Amelia in Simon Boccanegra,24Alice in Robert le diable, the title role in Luisa Miller, Fiordiligi in Cos ì fan tutte, Mimì in Boh è me, Lina in Stiffelio, Amalia in Verdi's Masnadieri, Nedda in Leoncavallo's tragedy, Sîta in Massenet's Le Roi de la Hore, Anna and Liu in Puccini's Le vili and Turandot, Margherita in Boito's Mefostofele, Elisabetta in Verdi's Don Carlo, and Michaela in Bizet's Carmen. Raspagliosi's international career took off when she toured the United States, Latin America, and Japan with Luciano Pavarotti in his Farewell Tour; since then, she has sung in all the important Italian theaters as well as in many European capitals.

Raspagliosi has a most pleasant instrument with uniform vocal tone. She is a very expressive actress and her youthful good looks are well suited for the role of the hapless girl, Antonia. Raspagliosi's opening aria is effective as are her moments with Hoffmann, “A l'amour soyons fidèles!” “C'est un chanson d'amour qui s'envole” and “J'ai le bonheur dans làme!” Her final scene with Dr. Mircle and Antonia's mother is marred only by a drop in pitch at the end of the trio which Raspagliosi cleverly disguises. She sings with youthful elegance, her diminuendi are well executed, the high notes are effortless, and she uses chest notes sparingly to emphasize the drama.

Ruggero Raimondi, like La Scola, sings at times with the undeniable warmth of the Italian language, but don't let this detract anyone; Raimondi is an excellent interpreter of the four villains, always in control of the individual characters, giving each demon its own personality and unique perspective on Evil: Lindorf is self assured with a dash of cynicism; Coppélius is a witty charlatan, personified; Dapperttutto is sophisticated, cool and calm; Miracle is sinister, calculating, and razor sharp. The only common element in Raimondi's interpretation of the four villains is their vindictive enjoyment of being Evil.

The Italian bass is superb in his timing; with economy of action he knows how to denote the different moods: a subtle look, an outstretched arm, a sinister smile. He is as agile about the stage as though someone half his age; he is a singing actor who has no need to overact to get the point of his characters across. Raimondis's interpretation of the four villains has been called “Evil incarnate.”

As Lindorf, Raimondi sings in the Prelude “Dans les rôles d'amoreux,” with ease and agility and in stark contrast to some of the words in the aria. His instrument delivers a secure sound without vibrato and his breath control is excellent to the last note of the aria, which he securely holds. In Act II, “Je me nomme Coppélius ... J'ai des yeux, de vrais yeux...” Raimondi sings with verve and wit, adding a convincing trace of dignity to an otherwise conniving artist. In the Venice scene as Dapertutto, Raimondi imbues the aria “Scintille, diamant, fascine, satire-la!” with elegance singing it as a love song with sinister overtones. Raimondi is the most menacing and evil as Dr. Miracle. His opening lines are sung slowly and deliberately; his singing is evenly placed, almost at a whisper, and the high notes are carefully sung as to not interfere with the ominous aura around the character.

Raimondi studied at the Milan and Rome Conservatories before winning the Spoletto Competitions in 1964 where he sang the role of Coline in Puccini's Bohème. followed by his professional debut at the Rome Opera as Procida, in Verdi's Vespri Siciliani.

Of his debut at the Metropolitan Opera on September 14, 1970,25 Winthrop Sargeant wrote in the New Yorker, “[Raimondi] sang with fine quality and style, making an impression that will entitle him to many a future role at the Metropolitan Opera. He is not a deep bass, but he is one with plenty of velvet and a commanding stage presence.”

Sargeant's comments are still as true today as when he wrote them thirty-six years ago. Raimondi's lower notes come easily and though not bottomless, they are effortlessly endless; the timbre in his voice caressing each word he sings. He is an all around great singing actor, without exaggerated mannerisms to which so many so easily fall prey. Raimondi is dramatic, forceful, humorous, and at all times “in character.”

To paraphrase Lindorf's opening aria, “Dans les rôles d'amoreux,” Raimondi has many “assets.., [he may be] old, but [he is] full of life!” At sixty four, Raimondi has many more years ahead of him.

The secondary roles are effectively handled, some of the singers doubling on the roles they interpret. Thomas Morris is quite enjoyable as the older inventor and mad scientist, Spalanzani. His over the top comedic skills help Morris carry off the role in spite of his non-idiomatic French. Tenor Luca Casalin in the roles of Andrès, Cochenille, Frantz, and Pitichinaccio excels in all four roles. As Cochenille he stammers as though he were afflicted with the condition and he assumes an affected air well suited to the character. Casalin is reserved and cautious in the Second Act, and in Antonia's scene, in addition to this dancing abilities, Casalin's well sung rendition of “Jour et nuit je me mets en quatre” adds a touch of comedic relief to the otherwise very serious tone of the Act. Casalin switches registers with great ease and his instrument has a pleasant timbre. Bass Lorenzo Muzzi is very versatile and gives distinctly different interpretations of Luther and Crespel.

Frédéric Chaslin conducts with a tight grip on the members of the orchestra.

Sometimes all one needs to see is the opening titles to know the performance is going to be as exiting as one imagined, and in this case, the results have exceeded the expectations. There is only one thing one would criticize, though it is a standard feature in most productions of this opera: not using the same singer for Stella, Olympia, Giulietta, and Antonia as Offenbach intended.26 These four women are the counterpart to Lindorf and his three evil incarnations, and just like him, the nemesis of Hoffmann's frustrated notions of love. Together and separately these four women and four men work in Hoffmann's weak mind against his happiness and towards his self defeat. Aside from that minor observation, this is one production to be savored and enjoyed many times over.

At the end of the video the applause is spliced and one can hear sounds from the orchestra pit as well as comments from patrons repeated, over and over again, giving a uniform effect to the audience reaction. This is a strange concept. Whatever the reason for this technical manipulation, one can only surmise the producer wanted the appearance that all the performers, as they rightfully deserve, received the same quantity and quality of accolades from the members of the audience.

Though one will never know what Jacques Offenbach had in mind as the final version of his opera, he can rest assured that slowly, but surely, steps are being taken to complete his vision.

Daniel Pardo

Cast

Spalanzani: Thomas Morris

Crespel/Luther: Lorenzo Muzzi

Andrés,Cochenille, Pitichinaccio, Frantz: Luca Casalin

Hermann/Schlémil: Nicholas Rivenq

Nathanaël: Francesco Zingariello

Stella/La mère d'Antonia: Tiziana Carraro

A voice: Pierpaolo Palloni

Wilhem: Davide Tonucci

Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana

Coro Lirico Marchigiano “V. Bellini”

Conductor: Frédéric Chaslin

Coreography: Gheorghe Iancu

Video: Tiziano Mancini

Sources

Arena di Verona

Chapters of Opera

Henry Edward Krehbiel

© 1908 Henry Holt & Co.

New York

The Complete Opera Book

© 1935 C.W. Kobbé

G.P. Putnam’s Sons

New York

Complete Stories of the Operas

© 1947 Milton J. Cross

Doubleday & Co. New York

Les Contes d'Hoffmann

Les Contes d'Hoffmann: Michael Kaye Edition

Les Contes d’Hoffmann

Liner Notes

William Weaver

Richard Bonynge

© 1972 © 1986 London/Decca

Les Contes d'Hoffmann

Liner Notes

Jeffrey Tate

Michael Kaye

© 1992 Philips Classics Productions

Friends of the Salzburg Festival on line

Great Composers 1300-1900

David Ewen

© 1966 H. W. Wilson

New York

The Harper Dictionary of Opera & Operetta

James Anderson

© 1989 Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd.

Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.

New York

The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music

Don Michael Randel, Editor

© President & Fellows Harvard College

Belknap Press Harvard

Cambridge, Massachusetts

Macerata Arena Sferisterio

Elsa Maurus

Metropolitan Opera Archives

Music Culture

The New Penguin Opera Guide

© 2001 Amanda Holden, Editor

Penguin Books

London-New York

Radio Beethoven

Ruggero Raimondi

Vincenzo La Scola

The Tales of Hoffmann

Liner Notes

George Movshon

© 1972 © 2002 Deutsche Grammophon

Wagner vs Meyerbeer

Tom Kaufman

© 2003 Opera Quarterly

Volume 19 Number 4, Autumn 2003

Oxford University Press

North Carolina

End Notes

1. The gas explosion and fire at the Ring brought shame and ruin to Franz von Jauner. The impresario was arrested and blamed for the disaster; in disgrace, he committed suicide. Accounts vary as to the accurate number of casualties. Different sources report between 400 to 900 of whom, up to, half were Jewish. Wagner mentions “416 members of that tribe.”
2. Kaufman, 2003, p.666
3. At the time of the composer’s death, the piano and vocal score were complete, but opinions vary on how much of the opera was orchestrated by Offenbach. Some say the Prelude and Antonia’s aria, “Elle a fui, la tourterelle,” others say the Prelude and Act I, and others say Act IV.
4. Born in New Orleans, Enerst Guiraud (at times spelled Geraud, Giraud or Girard) (1837-1892), a teacher and composer whose music is now forgotten, gained immortality through his work on Bizet’s Carmen and Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Dapertutto’s Mirror Aria was written by André Bloch, a student of Guiraud's, for a 1904 performance of Les contes d’Hoffmann at the Monte Carlo Opera.
5. Guiraud added recitatives, he eliminated Giulietta’s scene, except for the Barcarolle which was added to the Antonia Act, and he shortened the role of Nicklaus. In reality, Offenbach is in part to blame for this: he, too, made a number of substantial changes to the opera; originally the role of Hoffmann was written for baritone Jacques Bouhy.
6. Ironically, the most famous musical passage of the opera and one which even non opera fans can hum, the Barcarole, as well as the drinking song that follows came from Offenbach’s 1864 romantic opera for Vienna, Die Reinnixen.
7. Aside from Chouden's five editions of the opera, there are Guiraud's two redactions-one for the Paris premiere and one for the Vienna premiere translated into German by Julius Hopp. Among the many other versions there is the Roul Gunsbourg production for the Monte Carlo Opera in 1904, with music by Guiraud's pupil, André Bloch. This production changed the sequence of acts, placing the Giulietta scene as second instead of third as intended by Offenbach. Among the many other versions there is the Gregor/Morris (1905), Maag/Haug (1944), Beecham/Arundell (1951), Gelsenstein/Voigtmann (1958) Bonynge (1972) Oeser (1976), Ponnelle/Levine (1980) and Michael Kaye towards the end of the Century.
8. Another composer, the now forgotten Hector Solomón, had prior rights to the libretto.
9. Michael Carré died in 1872. His name, long associated with Barbier's, mistakenly appeared in contemporary reports as well as in the first Chouden printing of the original score.
10. Serapionsbrüder (1821), Prelude and Apotheosis (Epilogue);Der Sandman (1814), Olympia's Act; Rat Krespel (1816) Antonia's Act; Die Abenteuer der Silvester-Nacht (1815), Giulietta's Act.
11. Ernest Theodore Amadeus Hoffmann (1776-1822), a deputy judge, was also a writer, music teacher, an accomplished critic, a theatrical musical director, and a composer. His opera Undine (1816) brought him fame and aside from his writings, he later became immortalized with Les contes d’Hoffmann. Among the many composers who brought Hoffmann stories to the stage there is Adam (La poupée de Nuremberg), Tchaikovsky (The Nutcracker), Hindemith (Cardillac), Busoni (Die Brautwahl), Offenbach (Le roi carotte), and Malipiero (I capricci di Callot)
12. The Serapion Brotherhood, a literary group of drinkers and story tellers where each member tells one of twenty-eight stories which are in turn analyzed by the other members.
13. E. T. A. Hoffman, like the character in the opera, seldom knew the difference between reality and fantasy; he was, more often than not, inebriated.
14. E. T. A. Hoffmann also belonged to a literary group and quite often, inebriated, exchanged stories, à la Serapion Brotherhood.
15. The writer would often come home from his drinking escapades tortured and obsessed with a new story in his head and stay up through the night–his wife, the only reality in Hoffmann's life, staying up to console him.
16. E.T.A. Hoffman was obsessed with Mozart; he dropped one of his original middle names, Wilhelm, in order to adopt the Austrian composer’s, Amadeus.
17. Indirectly, Offenbach also started the craze for the Can-Can, its most famous tune taken from this operetta. Similarly, the U.S. Marine Hymn, “The Halls of Montezuma,” comes from Offenbach’s 1859 operetta, Geneviève de Brabant.
18. Katia Ricciarelli is the present Festival Director
19. Macerata's Arena Sferisterio was the gift of local businessmen to the town's youth. Built between 1819 and 1829, the Neoclassical building is unusually long and narrow with an unusually wide and shallow (120' x 45') stage; the Arena holds over 3,000 spectators.
20. Lindorf and his demonic angels wear red shirts and red cravats tied in a voluminous bows; Coppelius' long coat is lined in red; Dapertutto wears a red rose in his lapel; Dr. Miracle and his sinister assistants wear red surgical gloves and Dr. Miracle's carriage is also lined in red. There are other hints of Evil in red: Olympia's “guilded” cage is red, Schlémil and Giulietta are dressed in red. The rest of the characters are dressed in black or white with the exception of the Venice scene which is peopled with colorful Carnival revelers.
21. For once here is a production where Hoffmann is inebriated in the first and last scene of the opera (Luther's Tavern and the Epilogue) as the libretto calls for. Lindorf rightly refers to him as “A poet, a drunkard...” and among Hoffmann's first lines, he sings, “... Bring me a drink ... Life is short ... We must seize the chance to drink...;” in the epilogue, acknowledging his defeat, he says, “...Let's have insobriety and folly, the annihilation which brings oblivion....”
22. This Act often opens, as in this production, with the misleading notion that Nicklaus and Giulietta are romantically involved: the two characters, alone on stage, singing the Barcarole, and in this DVD they kiss, more than once. In Offenbach's original plan, Giulietta’s Act is divided into three tableaux with changements à vue, starting with a lively party and the setting for the Barcarole. This is followed by a Garden Scene in which Hoffmann duels and kills Schlemil for the key to Giulietta’s boudoir. The third scene takes place in the courtesan's private chambers. The first tableaux opens with Hoffmann addressing the guests, “Gentlemen, be silent! An amorous refrain is wafting in the air. Let them [Nicklaus and Giulietta] sing to us; we will drink for them.” This introduction, which appears in the Michael Kaye Edition, leads to Nicklaus' opening lines of the Barcarole, “Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour,” later to be joined by Giulietta in “Le temps fuit et sans retour.” The source for this misleading opening of the Venice Act could very well be impresario Raoul Gunsbourg and his 1904 production of Les Contes for the Monte Carlo Opera. In the preface to his autobiography, Gounsbourg states that he wrote almost all of Giulietta's Act and takes credit for the way this act has been traditionally performed ever since.
23. At times referred to as a septet.
24. Raspagliosi has recorded the Original 1857 version of Simon Boccanegra
25. Raimondi made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Silva in Ernani.
26. Hoffmann sings, “Yes, Stella! Three women in one! Three souls in a single one, artist, young girl and courtesan!”
image=http://www.operatoday.com/content/offenbach_tales.jpg image_description=Jacques Offenbach: Les Contes d'Hoffmann product=yes product_title=Jacques Offenbach: Les Contes d'Hoffmann product_by=Vincenzo La Scola, Ruggero Raimondi, Desirée Rancatore, Sara Allegretta, Annalisa Raspagliosi, Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana. Grédéric Chaslin (cond.). Pier Luigi Pizzi: director, set and costume designer product_id=Dynamic 33470 [2CDs] price=33.60 € product_url=http://www.dynamic.it/e_scheda.php?pid=522
Posted by Gary at 4:37 PM

August 9, 2006

SANTA FE OPERA: Golden Oldies

Both shows badly needed a better viewing here, for over the last decade or more each has been ill served, either by bad singing, poor productions or both. Not so Season 2006.

The appearance of Anne Sophie von Otter as Carmen is said to have derived from Santa Fe Music Director Alan Gilbert’s friendship with her in Sweden where, during the winter season, he is music director of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. We should have more conductors with such resources! Von Otter was immediately tagged “a thinking man’s Carmen” by local cognoscenti – a good description. She is entirely into the role; she’s in charge of it and presents it for its musicality and not its sluttish tossing about; of that there was none. Von Otter’s Carmen was single minded – she wanted what she wanted, period. She was calm and self-assured; she looked well but not extravagant or deranged. The tall slim mezzo could simply stand still and smile, show her eyes, and her thoughts were immediately clear. Best of all, von Otter sang with the crystalline precision and expressiveness of a fine lieder singer, or in this case a singer of mélodies. The voice was always easy, well-supported and colorful; her diction precise, and even quietly spoken dialogue was heard. This Carmen was good humored and had fun – right up to the final scene. Who could ask for anything more? Well, one thing, a return engagement.

The other chief interest of the August 1 performance, was the role assumption by Laurent Naouri, Paris-born baritone appearing as Escamillo with easy assurance and authority, in his American debut. Naouri had everything needed: the right age, a trim build, a well produced bass-baritone that moved evenly through the scale, and plentiful masculine charm. Needless to say, his language was idiomatic, his singing with von Otter of the Act IV duet was a meeting of high professional equals – thrillingly so. Naouri sang the Toreador song freshly and without manner; for once, the right approach! Carmen has been waiting for a Toreador of this caliber.

The balance of the cast was of lesser stripe and I wont dwell on it, except two young smugglers, Remendado and Dancaire, sung by Keith Jameson and David Giuliano, respectively, both excellent and deserve recognition. The production was agreeable in a mild sort of way, the naturalistic stage direction by Lars Rudolfsson. Action was updated to Spain of the 1960s, which did nothing special for the grand old piece, but at the same time did no harm. If Franco’s fascism were just around the corner, I never saw it. The smugglers’ mountain pass became a transportation staging area filled with freight containers in process of unloading – not illogical. But it counted for little. Frankly, I’ve seen Carmen played on an empty stage and it was fine. It’s that kind of well-stocked operatic masterpiece. Some in the audience wanted more gypsies and more color; I was so content with the fine singing and music making, little else mattered.

The Santa Fe Opera orchestra is playing better this season than I have heard them, and August 1 was no exception. Alan Gilbert’s tempos were mainly just (one or two spots dragged), and he had good ideas about clarity and balance. This is a Carmen for Santa Fe to repeat.

The good news does not stop there: The Magic Flute, sung in German, spoken in modernized English, returned for the first time since 1998 in an innovative and charming new production by Tim Albury. Mozart’s thrice-familiar tunes and set pieces are hard to keep fresh, but the one true way to do so, is to play them honestly and with confident musicality; here honors must go to music director William Lacey, who has conducted at Houston, Utah and his native England. He was the spark plug of this Flute, which he kept brisk and clear as a cup of tea (lemon, please).

He was much assisted by Tim Albury’s clean natural direction and an innovative production concept the hallmarks of which were simplicity and elegance. Magical props and refreshingly dynamic lighting (by Jennifer Tipton who has worked well before at Santa Fe with Albury), graced an always-lively and engaging show. I’ll not give away the stage events, but the audience was at one point applauding the scenery, unusual at Santa Fe. Tobias Hoheisel’s visual designs were another strong element of this Flute’s success.

Added to all this excellence, Santa Fe assembled a cast of splendid equals to sing and play Mozart’s near-vaudeville entertainment: Toby Spence and Natalie Dessay as the young lovers, fresh and lyric and enjoying themselves; Andrea Silvestrelli’s full mellow basso and his kindly avuncular persona graced Sarastro; Heather Buck was a spot-on Queen of the Night (who reentered the action on Sarastro’s arm at the every end – a novel if controversial touch); young baritone Joshua Hopkins won hearts with his winsomely comic Papageno, the snarly Monostatos of the engaging David Cangelosi whose bark was worse than his bite – these and many others in the large cast betokened quality casting throughout.

Some voice aficionados wondered how California soprano Heather Buck could manage to sing Queen of the Night’s great vengeance aria with Natalie Dessay standing near her on the same stage, Dessay having been a reigning Queen of the Night only a few years ago? The answer: Buck sang confidently, brilliantly – the singers’ juxtaposition, with the slender young-looking Dessay as her daughter Pamina, lending a certain frisson to the occasion. It is always nice to play from strength, and this Magic Flute had it!

©2006 J. A. Van Sant
Santa Fe, New Mexico

image=http://www.operatoday.com/content/CARMENPOSTER.jpg
image_description=Santa Fe Opera: Carmen

Posted by Gary at 9:25 PM

August 7, 2006

Mozart’s Singspiels and ‘The Magic Flute’ at the Salzburg Festival

damrau.pngBy ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 7 August 2006]

SALZBURG, Austria, Aug. 6 — It may seem a stretch to consider a composer who died at 35 to have had a late period. But one of the goals of “Mozart 22,” the Salzburg Festival’s presentation this summer of Mozart’s complete operatic works in full productions, is to demonstrate how much he developed as an opera composer in the 23 years between his first and last stage works.

Posted by Gary at 2:40 PM

Giulio Cesare — Glyndebourne

Andrew Clements [Guardian, 7 August 2006]

New last summer, David McVicar's irrepressibly camp staging of Handel's Egyptian epic was Glyndebourne's biggest success for years, and it's no surprise that the company has brought it back as soon as possible. McVicar has supervised the revival, with a cast that is almost entirely new to their roles. Only two of the original team return: Danielle de Niese to repeat her all-singing, all-dancing appearance as Cleopatra, and Rachid Ben Abdeslam is once again the fey Nireno.

Posted by Gary at 2:35 PM

Giulio Cesare, Glyndebourne Festival, UK

de_Niese_small.pngBy Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 7 August 2006]

This production was the hit of last year’s festival and has returned this summer with its joie de vivre undiminished. Glyndebourne takes Handel’s Giulio Cesare on a trip to Bollywood – lashings of colour, witty dance routines and more than a dash of come-on sexual titillation.

Posted by Gary at 2:17 PM

August 6, 2006

In Santa Fe, bold new 'Tempest,' basic 'Carmen'

Shakespeare's play became a trenchant commentary on dictatorship and racism. And musically, "Carmen" excelled.
By David Patrick Stearns [Philadelphia Inquirer, 6 August 2006]

SANTA FE, N.M. - Opera audiences here seem to converge from different decades, whether they're dowagers unchanged since the 1950s, sun-baked disco bunnies from the 1980s, or the tattooed-and-pierced 21st-century set. How well the Santa Fe Opera serves this patchwork constituency is an annual source of curiosity that draws artistic directors from Philadelphia to Seattle. And that's why any given season here is an operatic crystal ball for much of the rest of the country.

Posted by Gary at 8:06 AM

Orlando, Wilton's Music Hall, London

Handel in the 21st century: just add beer
By Anna Picard [Independent, 6 August 2006]

From Achilles to Zidane, there are few things more poignant than a hero's fall from grace. Such is the subject of Handel's 1733 opera Orlando, the tale of a knight driven mad by love, or, in Netia Jones's sometimes moving, often baffling modern-dress production for the Early Opera Company, a lager lout who loses his temper.

Posted by Gary at 7:59 AM

Star stuck in a dog’s life

[Times Online, 6 August 2006]

Playing the most famous venues in the world may seem glamorous but Susan Graham explains to Jeremy Austin how lonely it can be

Posted by Gary at 7:56 AM

August 5, 2006

A Light Mozart Opera Refitted With a Hard Edge

werk-3829.jpg(Illustration: Jan Voss)
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 5 August 2006]

SALZBURG, Austria, Aug. 4 — There are two slogans you see posted all over town now that the prestigious Salzburg Festival has started. One is “Mozart 250,” signifying, of course, the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth. The other, more elusive slogan is “Mozart 22,” which refers to the festival’s most staggeringly ambitious project this summer: in the space of five weeks, all 22 (by the festival’s count) of Mozart’s operatic works are being presented in staged productions, even the ones that he wrote when he was 12, including a couple of fragments. I will see just four while I’m here. First was a new production of No. 20, “Così Fan Tutte,” which opened on Thursday night.

Posted by Gary at 2:55 PM

Thomas Adès' American premiere of 'Tempest' opera is a magical marvel of sound

tempest_santa_fe_small.jpgJoshua Kosman [SF Chronicle, 5 August 2006]

(08-05) 04:00 PDT Santa Fe -- For any composer out to make an opera of "The Tempest," Shakespeare helpfully provides a spec sheet. Prospero's enchanted island, as Caliban observes in the play, "is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not."

Posted by Gary at 2:38 PM

August 4, 2006

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Opera Singer, Dies at 90

schwarzkopf_head_shot_small.jpgBy ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 4 August 2006]

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, the German-born soprano whose interpretations of Strauss and Mozart made her one of the most dazzling artists of her time, died yesterday at her home in Austria. She was 90.

Posted by Gary at 9:33 AM

August 3, 2006

‘Tristan’ in Bayreuth: Classic Passions in Modern Dress

stemme.jpgBy ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 3 August 2006]

BAYREUTH, Germany, Aug. 2 — With the conclusion of the new production of Wagner’s epic “Ring des Nibelungen” here on Monday night, you might think that the directors of the Bayreuth Festival would have given everyone a day off to recuperate. But that is not the way this place works. So on Tuesday it was “Tristan und Isolde,” a modern-dress production by Christoph Marthaler that was introduced last summer and is still provoking strong reactions.

Posted by Gary at 2:37 PM

A Night of Rhythm and Dance

Nowadays it is a place for all kinds of concerts (rock/pop and even real music) where up to 22.000 people can listen and watch. Some events are televised and broadcast all over Europe. It was during a Domingo-conducted concert of zarzuela that I first discovered the beautiful voice of Ana María Martínez. Usually, some of the more popular classic concerts are an eclectic mix (like this DVD under review) with a good singer and a fine instrumentalist, except when the Love Couple (courtesy of Manuela Hoelterhoff) appears or when Villazón, Netrebko and Domingo (singing) combine their talents, as was the case this year resulting in a stampede for tickets.

For vocal buffs, the attraction of this DVD are the six Gershwin songs performed by Susan Graham, who was less well-known at the time. The mezzo clearly gave some thought to her interpretations and she didn't fall into the pit where lay the ashes of some recordings by Price, Te Kanawa and Fleming. She does some scooping here and there but never exaggerates. She knows how to swing along with the songs without resorting to crooning. In short she succeeds well in combining the best of two worlds. She uses her operatic voice without trying to turn ‘I got rhythm’ into ‘O don fatale’ but she never resorts to Lena Horne tricks and clearly uses volume and a splendid top to give meat to the songs. I wish the rest of the programme was on Graham’s level; but I for one am not much impressed by 24 minutes of Japanese drumming. The Orchestra Suite from the movie ‘Farewell My Concubine’ with its mix of Chinese instruments and melodic invention was far more to my taste. Nagano conducts lively interpretations of Ravel’s La Valse and Daphnis et Chloé, though the orchestra probably can play these pieces without a conductor. That’s what they do in fact at the end of the programme where the conductor leaves the roster and the Berliner end the concert with the Berlin National Hymn, better known as the popular Berliner Luft by operetta composer Paul Licke.

Jan Neckers

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Posted by Gary at 1:55 PM

Krassimira Stoyanova — Aus Liebe zum Einzigartigen

orpheus_7-8_2006.jpg[Orpheus, 7-8 2006]
Die Sängerin im Gespräch mit Marie von Baumbach

Die bulgarische Sopranistin Krassimira Stoyanova lebt in der Nähe von Wien und gehört seit Jahren zu den international
erfolgreichsten Sopranistinnen. Ihr besonderes Interesse gilt neben den großen Verdi- und Puccini-Partien auch Werken, die auf der Bühne selten bzw. gar nicht zu hören sind.

Posted by Gary at 12:36 PM

Sängerin Elisabeth Schwarzkopf gestorben

schwarzkopf.png(Photo: DPA) [DPA, 3 August 2005]

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, eine der herausragenden lyrischen Sopranistinnen des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts, ist im Alter von 90 Jahren gestorben. Sie starb nach Angaben des Bestattungsinstituts Marent Peter im österreichischen Schruns in der Nacht zum Donnerstag.

Die aus Jarotschin bei Posen stammende Sängerin hatte 1938 in Berlin debütiert und vier Jahrzehnte lang an allen großen Opernhäusern der Welt gesungen. Sie galt als eine der größten Sopranistinnen ihrer Epoche, neben Maria Callas und Victoria de los Angeles. 1972 beendete sie ihre Bühnenkarriere, 1979 gab sie ihren letzten Liederabend in Zürich.

Posted by Gary at 12:19 PM

August 2, 2006

RealNetworks Mates With Mozilla

firefox-logo-64x64.pngLouis Hau [Forbes.com, 2 August 2006]

RealNetworks said Wednesday that it has agreed to a multiyear agreement to offer Mozilla's Firefox Web browser with downloads of its RealPlayer, Rhapsody and RealArcade software programs.

Posted by Gary at 7:47 PM

Mirella Freni and Cesare Siepi Live in Concert

As with a recently reviewed Renato Bruson concert, this event took place in Lugano, Switzerland. Once again, Bruno Amaducci conducts the Swiss-Italian Radio orchestra. They do a decent run-through of Otto Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor curtain raiser, and later a dramatic Don Giovanni overture. Other than that, the focus is on two great singers; one somewhat late in his career, one in her prime, but both providing generous listening pleasure.

Siepi appears first, and just to watch his tall, gentlemanly figure take the stage prompts anticipation.With a modest nod to the audience, he begins with a tasty rare morsel, Jupiter's berceuse from Gounod's Philemon et Baucis. There can't be many bass arias as light and tuneful as this, and though Siepi's vocal production does give evidence of the length of his career, the handsomeness of his tone and the commanding technique more than compensate.

Freni follows with Margherita's prison solo from Boito's Mefistofele. The singer's innate sweetness and vulnerability make this an especially successful aria for her. The two Puccini selections ("Vissi d'arte" and "O mio babbino caro") are lovely enough but more generic in approach.

Siepi turns to Verdi's for Fiesco's "Il lacerato spirito" from Simon Boccanegra and the great Filippo II scene from Don Carlos. With his characteristic restraint and dignity, Siepi underplays the hurt of Filippo, which allows the aria to truly build in pathos. On the other hand, the Fiesco aria could have used a little more edge.

Freni took on the role of Don Carlos's Elisabetta around this time, and she manages the supremely challenging "Tu che le vanita" very well, but without quite the dramatic commitment to make the long selection (11 minutes) thoroughly captivating.

After the Don Giovanni overture, Siepi sings a playful catalog aria; to have this great Don take on Leporello might seem a bit odd to some, but his Don is not scanted. Soon Freni joins him as Zerlina, and their "La ci darem la mano" caps the concert beautifully, only leaving the wish that the program had included more duets.

The booklet has a short essay and the texts are in their original languages. No subtitles are provided.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

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Posted by Gary at 3:47 PM

Haitink conducts Elgar and Britten

While Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro was recorded on 27 November 1984, the Enigma Variations was recorded two years later, at a concert on 28 August 1986; Britten’s Our Hunting Fathers is an even earlier recording, which dates from 14 August 1979. These are recordings unique to the London Philharmonic Orchestra that have not been previously released commercially.

Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro, Op. 47 (1904-5) may be less familiar to American audiences, but this is a fine example of the composer’s work for string orchestra with its concertato style that plays a string quartet against the entire ensemble. This work demonstrates the fine string ensemble that is typical of the London Philharmonic, and the sound quality on the CD gives a fine sense of the timbre. It is a work that deserves to be performed more often, and this release may inspire other orchestras to include this turn-of-the-century work on future programs. The interplay between the chamber group and string orchestra creates some intensive sonorities that anticipate scorings that Elgar would take up later in other works, like the Enigma Variations included in this release. While the liner notes suggest a concerto with the concerto grosso, this remains a single-movement work that drives to a wonderful conclusion, which is capped with the audience’s enthusiastic applause.

With more a familiar work, like Elgar’s Enigma Variations, op. 36 (1898-99), several fine recordings exist. Yet a live recording of a performance conducted by Bernard Haitink is welcome for the spontaneity and finesse that emerges in this release. Significant as it is to recall the puzzling aspect of the allusions in this music, knowing all the details is not as important as hearing the techniques Elgar used to develop his thematic ideas in the fourteen variations. In the tradition of the great orchestral variation sets, like Brahms’ Haydn Variations, Elgar’s piece remains popular because of both the strength of its content and the orchestration, which emerge colorfully in this live performance. Haitink offers a fine reading, where the winds and brass never overpower the string texture at the core of this work. The mercurial “Troyte” variation is telling for its precision – never do the brasses overwhelm the musicality that must occur in such a successful performance. Haitink’s shaping occurs at various levels, with clear articulations punctuating Elgar’s sometimes angular phrases, while also giving breadth to the sweeping phrases that are central to a variation like “Nimrod.” In that piece, Haitink has demonstrated his sensitivity to the larger structure while also attending to the details that must be in place. It is unfortunate that some audience noises intrude on the final section, “EDU,” in which Haitink brings the work to a majestic conclusion. Nevertheless, this is a solid performance that merits repeated hearing for the nuances that are part of it.

The third piece on this recording is Britten’s orchestral song cycle Our Hunting Fathers, Op. 8 (1936), which is a setting of texts by W. H. Auden. In this work Britten addresses the theme of hunting by treating it with gusto. No sacrosanct treatment of the topic, Auden used the opportunity to take the sport to task, and Britten underscored the ironic tone with music that sharpens the meaning further. At the same time Heather Harper offers an effective reading of this fine score. There are moments in which her ringing tones suggest timbres one encounters in Strauss’s operas – roles that she has been known to execute with aplomb. The five songs in this set benefit from Haitink’s sensitive tempos that allow the text to be heard clearly. Harper’s diction is clear from the start, such the texts published in the liner notes are not absolutely necessary. When the music demands a more lyric, rather than declamatory, approach, as in “Messalina,” Harper’s enunciation remains exemplary, and the line is always present. “Rats Away!” is telling for the prominent part the orchestral plays in tone painting, to which Harper responds well. It is a delight to know of this recording, which, like the other pieces included has the added quality of spontaneity from the concert performance now available through the London Philharmonic’s own label.

Again, this release of material from the London Philharmonic’s archive makes available some fine performances that deserve to be known better. Like another of its releases, a collection of excerpts from Wagner’s operas conducted by Klaus Tennstedt, this recording also celebrates Bernard Haitink, whose association with the Orchestra brought forth some fine concerts, like the ones represented by this selection. Those not yet familiar with the London Philharmonic’s own recordings can start with this fine compilation of three excellent examples of English music from the last century.

James L. Zychowicz

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Posted by Gary at 3:30 PM

Ann Murray and Malcolm Martineau: Schumann, Mahler, Britten

The program is varied, which starts with Mahler set of five Rückert-Lieder, songs that date from the first decade of the twentieth century. Murray’s thoughtful performance of these songs is a good reminder of how fresh the pieces can be in the hands of a musician like her, who is sensitive to both the melodic line and the text. Nowhere does she overstate what is implicit in the text, especially in “Liebst du um Schönheit,” a subtle song that works well with Murray’s understated approach to the piece that requires the control of an experienced Lieder singer.

At times the music reaches beyond the intimacy of the fine acoustic used for this recording, as with “Um Mitternacht,” with its hymn-like echoes that call to mind the orchestration Mahler made. If Murray is sometimes overtly extraverted in interpreting this piece, her subtlety is all the more apparent in “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” a song that the composer himself thought to be one of his finest efforts. Martineau certainly creates a fine ensemble with Murray in delivering this song, and the nuances he contributes anticipate the way he approached some of the other music on the CD in what is essentially a recital at Crear.

It is unusual to find a work from an earlier period following such a modern one as Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, and the placement of Robert Schumann’s cycle Frauenliebe und Leben at the center of this recording is a wise choice. Albert von Chamiso’s texts point out some moments in a woman’s existence, which receive a fine treatment from Murray and Martineau. While the room sometimes swallows a few of Murray’s lines, it also offers a good ambiance to the piano. The performers give the pieces a proper ensemble, as occurs in the second song of the cycle, “Er, der Herrlichste von allen.” The understatement in “Ich kann’s nicht fassen, nicht glauben” fits the tone of the piece well and shows the supportive role Martineau can offer when playing this repertoire. All in all, this is a solid performance of this familiar cycle that benefits from the even and appealing treatment of the vocal line that Ann Murray brings to the recording.

Yet the pieces by Britten on this CD are treasures. Less familiar than either the pieces by Mahler or Schumann, the Charm of Lullabies is a work that deserves to be part of more programs, placed, perhaps, after music that is more traditional. Murray brings personal and effective expression to the English poetry Britten set, with the charming Scottish tones of “The Highland Balou,” a setting of Burns that cannot be missed for its incessant Scotch-snap rhythm in the accompaniment. In the hands of a composer like Britten, English is a highly lyric language, and that aspect of the pieces is not lost on Murray. The patter-song influence on “A charm,” a setting of poetry by Thomas Randolph, is effective in rendering a different kind of lullaby. “Sleep! Or I will make Erinnys whip thee with a snake” and the lines that follow are hardly the kind of verse an earnest parent would offer before sleep. Yet the final piece, “The Nurse’s Song,” with version by the sixteenth-century poet John Philip contains some wonderfully seductive harmonies.

Restful as that piece may be, the first of Britten’s Cabaret Songs, “Calypso” can rouse anyone’s attention with its strident whistle. The archness of the texts of this song, as well as the tone of the others in the set, sounds as though the music was conceived for Murray, who delivers them with panache. Martineau accompanies her with finesse, as these somewhat popular-sounding songs round out this engaging program. Britten’s effort in these songs, as well as the others he composed, shows the development of the artsong in the twentieth century. Not precisely Lieder in the strictest sense, these pieces are enjoyable because of the way in which the text and the music balance each other smartly. As with the Charm of Lullabies, the composer chose his texts carefully, an aspect of his song output that makes the music attractive to performers and their audience.

James L. Zychowicz

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Posted by Gary at 3:19 PM

August 1, 2006

Morricone Conducts Morricone

Translated from the German, Mr. Keller informs us that "It is no exaggeration to call Ennio Morricone the Picasso of film music, an experimenter for whom the synchronicity of the historically diachronic has become a point of principle..." That's because Morricone sometimes throws in a harpsichord or some such antiquated musical instrument. Ergo - he's Picasso!

A master of his craft, Morricone certainly deserves an overview of his work. Is this the ideal tribute? Doubtful. The composer leads the large orchestra without much exertion; he spends a surprising amount of time looking down at his own scores. The music is  well-played and recorded, but a few minutes of one score fading into a few minutes of another doesn't make for the most riveting viewing experience.

The concert breaks his work into five sections, each with its own title. Many will be waiting for the third, "Sergio Leone: Modern Film legends." These are the classic scores that brought Morricone world-wide fame. It is here that a soprano and chorus join the orchestra for some vocalise-style contributions (thus prompting this review for OperaToday). Susanna Rigacci is not asked to do too much strenuous work, and probably her pleasant voice would be less attractive if asked to.  The chorus "ooh"s and "ahh"s with commendable enthusiasm.

Since 100 minutes of film music excerpts, even from as esteemed a composer as Morricone, could use some variety, the vocals help break up the program, as does a visit from Ulrich Herkenhoff, a panpipes performer. Ultimately, this concert has to be for the most dedicated film music fans. Music that adds so much to the cinematic experience can be curiously uninvolving as concert fare, and Morricone himself, with his deadpan manner, lacks charisma as a conductor. The presentation is classy and the camera work professional (the director credit goes to a Giovanni Morricone - no word as to a possible relation to the composer). However, the few brief snippets of some actual film footage serve to emphasize that the best presentation for this music remains as soundtrack to a film experience.

Chris Mullins
Los Angeles Unified School District, Secondary Literacy

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Posted by Gary at 2:42 PM

"Geköpft, gehangen, gespießt auf Stangen" Reinsberg. Mozarts "Entführung" in der Burgarena.

reinsberg_arena.jpgVON HELMAR DUMBS [Die Presse, 1 August 2006]

Vorsicht vor Sommer theatern! Zumindest dann, wenn die Stimmen durch einen Verstärker gejagt werden (müssen). Elektronisches Rülpsen, miserables Mikrofon-Handling und noch miserablere Abmischung können einem den schönsten Mozart verleiden. Gerade Mozart!

Posted by Gary at 9:33 AM

From Majesty to Contemplation to Mystery

josquin.jpgBY FRED KIRSHNIT [NY Sun, 1 August 2006]

Renaissance Flemish master Josquin des Prez made one of the most important aesthetic breakthroughs in Western musical history.Although it is a bit simplistic to state that Josquin (his fame was so widespread that he became known by only one name, like Cher) invented the identification of the minor keys with the more dolorous emotions, his sensitive ear-to-heart connection broke the standardized Gregorian rules that had guided composition for a thousand years. And as a Catholic, his possessed profound influence in the Protestant church, especially since his most ardent exponent was a contemporary composer of hymns named Martin Luther.

Posted by Gary at 9:17 AM

Alagna’s antics spoil the show

By Francis Carlin [Financial Times, 31 July 2006]

Look, no Mozart. The Festival de Radio France et Montpellier Languedoc-Roussillon, to give it its full, indigestible title, featured 18 days of action-packed music- making and managed to ignore the anniversary. It is typical of the festival’s alternative flavour where 80 per cent of concerts are free and the spotlight is shone on musical archaeology with forgotten operas dug out and dusted down.

Posted by Gary at 9:12 AM