May 31, 2007

THOMSON: The Plow that Broke the Plains; The River

The musical pleasures come from both the re-recording, sympathetic performances in clean, modern sound, and the original performances, offered as an optional soundtrack. The sound of the latter can’t compare to the 2005 recording, but it has a sentimental appeal, in that its qualifications mirror those of the simple techniques of the black and white film-making.

Furthermore, Naxos has filmed some bonus features, mostly interviews with participants in an AFI celebration of the films that led to the re-recording. George Stoney and Charles Fussell speak with authority and humor about their experiences with the films. In audio-only composer Thomson speaks, in an interview, about his compositions. Finally Naxos offers the original endings for both films, clips of about 3 minutes that don’t offer any big revelations but will please cinematic completists.

The films themselves, while dated in style, bring important segments of American history into sharp focus swiftly and simply. The Plow that Broke the Plains feels like a wise ancestor of An Inconvenient Truth, with its narrative of human development leading to the Dust Bowl crisis. The River, conversely, celebrates the advances of man that tamed nature in ways designed to benefit our society — watching the film clips of levee-building, however, leads inexorably to memories of nature having the last word with Hurricane Katrina.

The films themselves total under 60 minutes, with the bonus features doubling the length. The booklet, in English only, has a substantial essay by Joseph Horowitz, Artistic Director of the post-Classical Ensemble, a note from Gil-Ordóñez on some textual issues with the score, and brief biographies of key participants.

The films, let alone the bonus features, may not demand repeat viewings, but Naxos still deserves thanks for both the quality re-recordings of Thomson’s scores and the reminder of the context in which they first were heard.

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=Virgil Thomson: The Plow that Broke the Plains; The River product=yes product_title=Virgil Thomson: The Plow that Broke the Plains; The River product_by=Post-Classical Ensemble, Angel Gil-Ordóñez (music director), Joseph Horowitz (artistic director), Floyd King (narrator), Pare Lorentz (film director). product_id=Naxos 2.110521 [DVD] price=$18.49 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 4:04 PM

MAHLER: Symphony no. 2

This recording dates from the celebrations in Berlin of Boulez’s eightieth birthday, and shows the conductor as a vital artist who is not content to be feted in the concert honoring him, but to continue his own music-making by conducting it himself. The intensity that Boulez brings to live concerts is captured in this video which was made in conjunction with the ARTE France, which brought its own quality to the visual presentation of this milestone performance. The titling actually gives the occasion first, that is, the celebration of Boulez’s eightieth birthday, with the name of the working following it.

As to the timing of this concert, this video predates the performances Boulez made in June 2005 when he recorded Mahler’s Second Symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic for a CD released in 2006 by Deutsche Grammophon (with Michelle De Young and Christine Schäfer). Both recordings demonstrate the fine attention to detail that Boulez brings to this score, along with a subtle intensity in allowing the nuances to emerge. In fact, it is possible to perceive Boulez shading the dynamics and balance throughout the performance — sometimes it would be preferable to see more of Boulez than the shots of the orchestra that focus too often on close-ups of instruments rather than the players or their sections.

The performance itself is quite effective. Boulez set the tone well in the first movement, which moves along with the sense of urgency that is implicit in the score. The playing clean and precise, with the clear direction from Boulez present throughout the movement. In addition, the sound is nicely balanced and the dynamic range appropriately fully, thus conveying the sense of the live hall that the audience experienced. While the forward motion is evident in this reading, the concluding passage is paced so that it emphasizes the descending gesture, rather leaving it sound as though it were a tacked-on gesture. That bit of drama draws in the audience, and it is a detail like this that sets Boulez’s live performances apart from other conductors.

With the second movement, Boulez captured the tone of the piece from the start, and the chamber-music-like sound from the string is rich in this reading. Subdued in volume, this idyllic piece is still intense for its tight ensemble and unified gestures. Unlike the more extroverted movements that Mahler used to frame this Symphony, the economy of gesture and theme are essential to the interpretation of this piece that becomes, in Mahler’s erstwhile programs for the work, a reminiscence of the past. It is, perhaps, an idealized image of the protagonist’s life, as suggested by the form and style Mahler for the movement. This is a fine example of the close ensemble that Boulez drew from the forces at his disposal.

The third movement differs in its move outgoing nature. An instrumental reworking of Mahler’s song Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt, the movement also contains an extended quotation from the Scherzo of his colleague Hans Rott’s Symphony in E. While Mahler’s programs for the movement had someone from the outside looking into a ballroom scene — as could be imagined through the invocation of Rott, the narrative text intersects the memory of the song that is at the core of Mahler’s Scherzo. Lyricism is evident in this movement and, if a weakness may be found, it is in the somewhat subdued entrances of Rott’s Scherzo theme — music that suggests the rollicking dance from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

With the fourth movement, the Wunderhorn song Urlicht, Mahler sets into motion the vocal elements that are essential to the choral Finale of the entire Symphony. Petra Lang offers a solid reading of the solo piece, with a rich dark tone that can be easily heard over the accompaniment. It may be the recording, but the DVD sound does not capture entirely the enunciation of the text, which is essential for understanding Mahler’s intentions in using Klopstock’s text for the final movement. Yet the camera has captured Lang’s strongly pronounced entrance of the passage in the Finale with the text “O glauben,” which becomes a duet with Damrau’s entrance.

The cantata-like canvas of the fifth movement is wonderfully evocative, and Boulez’s performance is laudable for its unified approach to the first part, the one in which the instrumental forces alternate between passages of thematic development and sheer effect (like the percussion rolls that signal the dead march). With the entrances of the solo voices, Boulez allows the text to emerge clearly. In shaping the choral forces, Boulez was as sensitive to the softer passages, as he was to the string textures of the second movement. He gradually builds the movement to the critical passage “Sterbe ich um zu leben,” with music that anticipates the choral Finale of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, both of which share the “Auferstehungs” motif from Wagner’s opera Siegfried. Here the instrumental and vocal forces are unified in conveying Mahler’s music succinctly in the powerful conclusion of this work.

Well-recorded videos of concerts like this are welcome, and this is especially true for those of a conductor like Boulez, whose almost legendary finesse deserves such documentation. The visual element helps to demonstrate the command of the ensemble that must occur with successful performances like this one. Details, like the physical dimensions of the hall, images of the attentive audience, and such elements reinforce the focus of the video which, necessarily, emphasizes the conductor and the musicians he is leading. Nevertheless, some elements are not answered in the film. It is unclear how Boulez treated Mahler’s marking after the first movement, which indicates a break of at least five minutes before the second movement. While a clear separation between the movements occurs on the DVD, it is less than five minutes on the video and even then, recording such a pause would not contribute anything significant: such directions for Mahler’s music belong to the immediacy of the live performance. Yet other, perhaps more salient aspects of the live performance emerge in this recording, especially the warm way in which the audience greeted Boulez greeted at the start of the concert and the correspondingly enthusiastic response at its conclusion. More than a birthday celebration for one of the major composers and conductors of the last century, this DVD has much to offer for the qualities Boulez brings to this notable concert performance of one of Mahler’s finest works.

James L. Zychowicz

image= image_description=Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 2 ("Resurrection") product=yes product_title=Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 2 “Resurrection” product_by=Diana Damrau, soprano, Petra Lang, mezzo-soprano, Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin, Staatskapelle Berlin, Pierre Boulez, conductor. product_id=Euroarts 2054418 [DVD] price=$22.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 1:16 PM

Death in Venice at ENO

Against this backdrop, Ian Bostridge’s Aschenbach is vocally extraordinary, using his unique other-worldly voice to its best sensual advantage in response to this man’s yearning for the ability to be a part of the beauty of his surroundings.

But there is always a sense here that Aschenbach is not really experiencing Venice for himself: the opera becomes almost a solo drama with the rest of the ensemble as a mere, if glorious, backdrop. More worryingly, the staging’s overwhelming visual beauty and meticulous attention to detail means that Aschenbach’s internal disintegration is almost an afterthought, instead of being the drama’s principal theme. There is a proliferation of style over substance, a feast for the senses but very little for the soul to hold on to or be moved by.

One big thing missing is any genuine sense of erotic allure in the portrayal of Tadzio. The role is danced gracefully enough by Benjamin Paul Griffiths, but not enough thought has been given to the need to place him on a pedestal, to enable the audience to experience whatever indefinable quality it is which captivates Aschenbach. In the group of athletic boy dancers there are two or three who look and move in very much the same way, so Tadzio is often lost in the crowd. Indeed, when Iestyn Davies’s Apollo makes his first appearance the sudden presence of genuine homoerotic allure is so revelatory that one wonders what the purpose of Tadzio has been during the preceding hour or so.

There was a chance that cohesion could have been achieved through the multiple baritone roles, sung here by Peter Coleman-Wright. However, rather than develop the roles as different incarnations of the same sinister character, they are too cleanly defined and individually characterised, and as a result become merely a set of character vignettes which contribute little to the overall shape of the piece.

While Tom Pye’s set designs have a meticulous regard for atmospheric detail which is mirrored in the ensemble direction and choreography, the same cannot be said either for the orchestra (under Edward Gardner in the first production of his tenure as ENO Music Director) whose first-night playing seemed harsh and detached from the action, or for the chorus, whose ensemble singing was scrappy and well beneath their usual standard.

Though on the surface this production had everything, it was deeply frustrating in its failure to amalgamate the internal downward spiral of Bostridge’s extraordinary Aschenbach with the ensemble performance and ravishing surroundings. Ultimately, it failed to create a coherent whole – even from a set of almost faultless ingredients.

Ruth Elleson © 2007

image= image_description=IAN BOSTRIDGE AS ASCHENBACH (COPYRIGHT ENGLISH NATIONAL OPERA AND NEIL LIBBERT) product=yes product_title=Benjamin Britten: Death in Venice product_by=English National Opera, 24 February 2007 product_id=Above: Ian Bostridge as Aschenbach (Photo: Copyright English National Opera and Neil Libbert)
Posted by Gary at 11:57 AM

May 30, 2007

Die Zauberflöte at the Volksoper

The Wiener Volksoper’s 2007 production of Die Zauberflöte is rich with visual effects, including a large mechanical dragon that emerges from the depths of the stage, a vibrant rotating set complete with “living” statues who are elevated high above the stage; a gargantuan telescope and fire set the scene for what was unfortunately a mediocre production, other than a few glimmering aspects.

The Overture was well-effected but somewhat mechanical and it lacked in the necessary colours and shading that Mozart’s music demands. Conductor, Elisabeth Attl seemed to have little influence over the orchestra that in some moments seemed to be just going through the motions. The three ladies, sung by Edith Lienbacher, Sulie Girardi, and Andrea Bönig looked fabulous in matching gowns and hats (and later clad in leather and tattoos) complete with walking canes, however their singing was often strident and in what should be a unified harmonic ensemble there were inconsistencies in unity.

Die Königin der Nacht (Queen of the Night) was eloquently sung by Miriam Ryen, who had a brilliant and laser-like upper tessitura and beautiful agility in her coloratura passages, however the orchestra often overpowered her and thus obscured her musicality. Her Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen was visually exciting with an electric red sky from which hung an enormous crescent moon. Some intonation problems affected her performance of this aria, that also lacked the tremendous rage that Mozart expected here.

Papageno was performed by Mathias Hausmann who possesses a lovely burnished baritone to match his consummate dramatic abilities. His Der Volgelfänger bin ich ja was not only amusing, but sung with much inflection and attention to detail. Unfortunately, the following entrance by Daniel Behle, as Tamino, left much to be desired. His Dies Bildinis ist bezanbernd schön lacked the brilliant sound that the aria requires and his acting was somewhat superficial throughout the opera. One wondered if he was really in love with Pamina or not.

Pamina’s entrance was visually wonderful, as she was dragged in by Monostatos (played by Wolfgang Gratschmaier) in a large net. American Soprano, Jennifer O’Loughlin’s Pamina was artistically beyond the rest of her cast. She effected every entrance with lovely spinning tones in a deep golden hue in her middle voice, and her musicality was well-suited to the lyricism Mozart demanded of a superb Pamina. The orchestra, however, was highly insensitive to Ms. O’Loughlin’s middle and lower registers and failed to match her musical nuances. A sensitive and believable actress, her Ach, ich Fühl’s es ist verschwunden was luscious and effected with impeccable diction, and well-floated pianissimi that give credit to her vocal technique.

Lars Woldt, in the role of the Sprecher, possessed a strong and well-projected voice, and his presence added to the overall dramatic impetus of the production. In addition, Kaiser Nkosi’s Sarastro opened Act II with strong dramatic and vocal qualities. His middle register was a lovely purple hue, however he lacked resonance in his lower tessitura, an unfortunate detail that affected the strength of Sarastro’s character.

Jennifer O’Loughlin and the Wiener Sängerknaben

Some of the most comical moments to which the audience responded belonged to Papageno and Papagena (comedically played alla Lucille Ball by Renée Schüttengruber). Complete with hot pink wig, and the whiniest fabricated voice, Papagena stole Papageno’s heart, and the audience’s as well. If anything stood out in this production it was the musicality and unity of the “Three Boys” who were played by the Wiener Sängerknaben. Mozart’s opera is imbued with many numerical elements in groups of three and these trios (the three spirits, the three ladies, and three priests in the temple) should be unified textually and harmonically. The three boys were perhaps the most precise musically and kudos go out to them for stealing the show. Although a visually interesting production, the orchestra often marred the musicality of the singers, and most bothersome was how members of the orchestra got up and left the pit during the opera and then returned to later, not only disturbing the dramatic action but also creating a general lack of continuity in the musical fabric.

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

image= image_description=Miriam Ryen as the Queen of the Night and Jennifer O’Loughlin as Pamina (Volksoper Wien, 1 May 2007) product=yes product_title=W.A. Mozart: Die Zauberflöte product_by=Wiener Volksoper, 1 May 2007 product_id=Above: Miriam Ryen as the Queen of the Night and Jennifer O’Loughlin as Pamina
Posted by Gary at 4:00 PM

MASSENET: Esclarmonde

Decca, in its Classic Opera series, does provide a French/English libretto, along with a synopsis. A health warning should accompany these items; one could laugh oneself into apoplexy at the ludicrous, unmotivated, all-effect-no-cause goings on. But with a fine cast and a true believer in the score, Richard Bonynge, leading the National Philharmonic Orchestra, the recording makes for an irresistible, artery-clogging treat.

In Byzantium, magician/emperor Phorcas (the forecast is for silliness) plans a tournament, at the conclusion of which, the winner will take the hand of his daughter, Esclarmonde. She must wait until her 20th year for this momentous day, but the hard-headed minx has the hots for the hero Roland. She casts a spell to bring him to an enchanted island, entrances him in ways a valiant soldier appreciates, but forbids him to look beneath her veil, let alone ask her name. Being the great hero that he is, Roland saves his hometown from a crushing military defeat, but then he refuses the hand of the King’s daughter, since he loves Esclarmonde. Having affronted the King, Roland has to reveal his reason, which breaks his vow to Esclarmonde. She would forgive him, but her father forbids it and forces her to renounce the hero to save his life. However, upon her 20th birthday, the tournament is held, and the masked knight who wins both the contest and Esclarmonde is — Roland!

So we have a mish-mash of early Wagner, especially Lohengrin, and a bit of Alcina. It takes a prologue, four acts and an epilogue for Massenet to deliver this nonsense, and though Decca could have squeezed the opera onto two discs, they chose to preserve the illusion of dramatic coherence by spreading it out by act breaks over three discs. Massenet’s melodic inspiration didn't blossom as lyrically as in his more famous scores, but his gift for orchestral color gets a full work out. Horns dominate, aside large, almost cantata-like blocks of music for chorus.

Bonygne assembled a tremendous cast, starting with his wife, Joan Sutherland. Esclarmonde lies between her studio triumph as Turandot and her many stage successes in bel canto roles. Sutherland gets to sing more lyrically and passionately than one usually expects from her, and she sounds simply gorgeous. As Roland, Giacomo Aragall gives evidence of the beauty and power of his voice that makes one shake one’s head that he never quite established himself as the star he could have been. The supporting cast, all excellent, features Huguette Tourangeau, Clifford Grant, Louis Quilico, Robert Lloyd, and a young Graham Clark.

So depending on one’s appetite for high-fat, low-protein musical concoctions, this Esclarmonde will either delight or revolt. The opera certainly couldn't receive a finer performance.

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=Jules Massenet: Esclarmonde product=yes product_title=Jules Massenet: Esclarmonde product_by=Joan Sutherland (Esclarmonde), Huguette Tourangeau (Parséis), Clifford Grant (L'Empereur Phorcas), Giacomo Aragall (Le Chevalier Roland), Luois Quilico (L'Evêque de Blois), Ryland Davies (Enéas), Robert Lloyd (Cléomer, Roi de France), John Alldis Choir, National Philharmonic Orchestra, Richard Bonynge (cond.) product_id=Decca Classic Opera 475 7914 [3CDs] price=$36.49 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 3:38 PM

ORFF: Carmina Burana

Marin Alsop’s interview on NPR offers some insights into her approach to this work (click here). As she notes there, “The music itself toggles between huge forces and a single voice, juxtaposing majesty and intimacy with ease.” Yet Alsop does not merely emphasize the dialect of large forces versus smaller ones, or extraverted pieces as opposed to more intimate ones. Rather, she brings out nuances throughout the performance that result in a thoughtful reading of the score.

With the impressive forces of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, supported by both the Highcliffe Junior Choir and the Bournemouth Youth Chorus, this performance has an impressive sound for those passages which require it, like Orff’s familiar setting of the text “O fortuna.” In “Fortune plago vulnera, the brass is rich and full, with the middle trumpet sounds balancing the upper ones, and in the subsequent section, “Vera leta facies,” the emphasis on the internal cadences between the verses reinforce the modality of the piece. One by one, details like these contribute to a reading that brings out some of the subtleties that are part of Orff’s work.

As much as Orff’s Carmina Burana can be a showpiece in a concert program, it is refreshing to hear more than a dichotomy between fast-and-loud and slow-and-soft sections, such that Alsop brings gradations of dynamics to “Ecce gratum” that also allow the text to be understood quite clearly. Thus, with the “Tanz” of the first section of the work (track 6) in which the structure of the piece makes use of repetition, Alsop’s flexible beat brings out the character of the piece and also “In taberna quando sumus,” which has a breadth of expression that allows it to serve as the climax of the third section.

The soloists in this recording also bring some distinction to the work. Markus Eiche has a fine baritone sound that allows him to stand apart from the chorus and orchestra without seeming strained or taxed. He is particularly impressive in “Estuans interius,” which requires a full and untiring effort and clear diction to succeed. Eiche does this well, and those who do not know his voice should gain a good sense of its depth in this piece. He must use an almost falsetto in “Dies, nox et omnia,” which has its own demands on the voice.

The latter piece is followed by the familiar solo for the soprano “Stetit puella,” which Claire Rutter delivers well, with pleasantly sinuous melismas. Her diction helps to punctuate the phrases cleanly, and the passages in the upper range suggest ease and facility. Command of the “Dulcissime” solo is memorable, with the a piacere treatment of the pitches effective in pacing this climatic number in the work. With the tenor, Tom Randle is equally impressive, especially in the demanding part he has in “Olimlacus coluerman.” In fact, he colors his voice such that it sometimes has the sound of an alto in the higher passages. Such nuances in color are fully in line with the other distinctive sonorities that characterize Alsop’s recording of this work. As the piece comes to its conclusion with the reprise of the familiar “O fortuna,” Alsop does not merely repeat what she had done earlier in the performance, but shapes it subtly, and it is such subtleties that set her recording apart from others.

All the forces involved are suited to the work, which comes off with a polish and flair that it requires. While many recordings exist, Alsop’s stands out for its vividness, a quality that emerges clearly on the CD, which benefits from fine sound and balance. The massed choral forces blend well win the tutti passage, while contributing their unique colors when the score requires it. Similarly, Bournemouth Symphony offers a solid sound that emerges confidently in the instrumental numbers. At times the individual timbres, like the flute in one of the early “Tanz” are wonderfully soloistic, while sections, like the horns that respond to the flute in the same piece offer a fine contrast. Alsop is attention to these and other details that set this recording apart from others. This is a welcome addition to the many fine recordings of Orff’s famous Carmina Burana.

James Zychowicz

image= image_description=Carl Orff: Carmina Burana product=yes product_title=Carl Orff: Carmina Burana. product_by=Claire Rutter, soprano, Tom Randle, tenor, Markus Eiche, baritone, Highcliffe Junior Choir, Bournemouth Symphony Youth Chorus, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Marin Alsop, conductor. product_id=Naxos 8.570033 [CD] price=$7.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 3:24 PM

Verboten und verbannt: Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Zemlinsky, Zeisl, Schönberg, Berg, Mahler.

While some of the composers represented by this phrase died before the Third Reich, others lived through it, and like the works of their predecessors preserved on this recording, they endured the horrors of this dark period of the twentieth century. This recital is an attempt to use music of composers so wrongly branded and proscribed to reverse the situation and make the label “Verboten und verbrannt” into an emblem of their merit. The best explanation of the purpose of this recital from the 2005 Salzburg Festival is included in the liner notes Gottfried Kraus:

As in previous years, the programme extended over two evenings, the first of which featured Hampson alone, whereas for the second he was joined by femail colleagues who shared his commitment to the subject. In both he confronted his festival audience with the works of composers whom the National Socialists had banned, outlawed, driven into exile and in some cases even murdered. Both programmes were titled Verboten und verbannt (Forbidden and Banned). Hampson’s aim was not so much to engage on a political level with one of the darkest chapters in human history. Instead, he wanted to show that art is ultimately more powerful than evil and brute force. Many of the songs and composers’ names, especially in the second programme, may well have been unfamiliar to his Mozarteum audience, while even familiar works such as Mendelssohn’s Auf Flügeln des Gesanges, which opened both programmes, functioning as a kind of motto, and Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, which brought the first evening to a close, appeared in a new and different light when heard in their present context.

The result was certainly not a lieder recital in the customary sense of the term, but a festival concert as it ought to be be, a distinction that it owed not only to the choice of programme and its intelligent structure but also to the way in which the audience was prepared. . . .

The women to whom Kraus refers (as translated in the accompanying booklet by Stewart Spencer) are Melanie Diener and Michelle Breedt, who participated in other such recitals with Hampson at Salzburg. The other composers included in the program are Hans Krása and Viktor Ullmann, two victims of the Holocaust who were also verboten und verbrannt. As much a social event as an artistic one, this recital program functioned at various levels, and its potentially controversial nature at the annual Salzburg Festival was a factor that helped it to succeed.

This recording preserves the recital from 18 August 2005 and provides an excellent overview of the Lieder by a body of proscribed composers. With Mendelssohn’s Auf Flügeln des Gesanges (“On the wings of song”) opening the program, the connotes a conventional Lieder recital through the use of this familiar song that has been part of many such performances since its composition. Just the same Mendelssohn’s Altdeutsches Frühlingslied is another song that transcends the artificial boundaries connected to nationality and politics, but rather communicates the poet— and the composer’s— experience of rebirth. These and other selections of Mendelssohn’s songs evoke the nineteenth century, a time when Mendelssohn would have been known and admired, but hardly forbidden and banned. These songs anchor the recital in the tradition of the German Lied, an element that is wholly part of the culture in which the other composers worked. It was not an idiom for social, religious, or political activity, but rather an artistic milieu that crossed any of those artificial boundaries. This hardly means that prejudice or labeling were unknown. While it may have been less so for Mendelssohn, Mahler faced the anti-Semitic press, and the bias against his Jewish nationality certainly influenced the reception of his music in lifetime and afterward.

With Meyerbeer, the songs represent an unfamiliar side of the composer, who is known best for grand opera. The three selections chosen for this recital show Meyerbeer’s facility with the Lied in two settings of Heine and one of Michael Beer. The first two are somewhat conventional Lieder, but the third, Menschenfeindlich shows a more dramatic and, to a degree ironic, side of Meyerbeer. This song calls for a tight ensemble between the singer and the pianist, and the applause included in the recording demonstrates the audience’s appreciate for this bravura piece. Wit the songs of Zemlinsky that follow, the harmonic idiom is more complicated. Mit Trommeln und Pfeifen, for example, Zemlinsky is a wonderfully colorful setting of Liliencron’s Wundhorn-like text, with modal inflections in the vocal line that underscore the sung text. Of Schoenberg’s Lieder, the setting of Viktor Klemperer’s verse in Der verlorene Haufen is highly evocative, and its proximity to Pierrot lunaire emerges in the passages of Sprechstimme and the pointillistic writing in the piano that underscores the vocal line in other places. Schoenberg’s proximity to Mahler and, by extension, the nineteenth-century Lied tradition may be found in his more conventional setting Wie Georg von Frundsberg von sich selber sang (“Mein Fleiß und Müh ich nie hab’ gespart”), with its text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

The modernism that Schoenberg expressed in his songs is part of the idiom that Alban Berg adopted for his own style, and in so doing both created music that eventually became associated with artistic decadence. It is possible to hear Berg’s challenges to convention in even the early songs included in this recital, with a piece like Schlummerlose Nächte poised keenly between traditional structure and turn-of-the-century innovation. Other Lieder are, perhaps, less experimental, with the fine examples from the young composer Erich Zeisl being a bit anachronistic. Mahler has the final word with this set of five Rückert-Lieder found at the close. Four of the songs were on the program, with the last, Liebst du um Schönheit offered as a Zugabe, an encore.

This recording preserves essentially all of Hampson’s performances of this important part of the 2005 Salzburg Festival. It is no surprise to find Hampson balancing the attention to the lines of text with the execution of the musical line and never at the expense of one over the other. His phrasing of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder is exemplary, with the comfortable ensemble with Rieger apparent on those pieces and throughout the recording. It is a fine contrbituion on various counts, with the sometimes infrequently performed literature here executed masterfully. The focus of the recital itself merits attention for its supra-musical motivation whcih, in this live recording were hardly lost on the audience. The overall quality of the reproduction is fine, and while some of the audience and stage sounds sometimes intrude on several selections, such details contribute the sense of immediacy that the audience itself experienced. While music that was forbidden and banned by the Third Reich has been the subject of various books and articles, as well as London’s series of recordings labeled “Entartete Musik”— proscribed music— this concise exploration of the subject speaks volumes.

James Zychowicz

image= image_description=Verboten und verbannt product=yes product_title=Verboten und verbannt: Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Zemlinsky, Zeisl, Schönberg, Berg, Mahler. product_by=Thomas Hampson, bariton, Wolfram Rieger, piano. product_id=Orfeo CD 708ő 061 [CD] price=$15.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 3:04 PM

Angel Dances

As the brief booklet bio somewhat oddly exclaims, “They are a unique ensemble worldwide.” On the cover, the word “angel” gets prominent placement in large font, and in a blare of white light a woman with wings looks thoughtfully away from the super-sized cello body behind her. What that has to do with musical contents, your reviewer can’t say.

Angels as subject are tangential at best to much of the repertoire on the disc, and dance hardly comes to mind when listening to Debussy’s “Sunken cathedral” or J. S. Bach’s “Jesus bleibet meine freunde.” In fact the title best reflects only the first three tracks, Piazzolla arrangements by José Carli of “La Muerte del Ángel,” “Milonga del Ángel,” and “La resurrección del Ángel.” Piazzolla’s angel is hardly the conventional haloed-cherub, but the 12 cellists do dig into the tango rhythms. After the Piazzolla, the CD becomes mostly an ethereal, if not morose, affair, and the fuzzy aura of new-ageism envelops some of the tracks (Volker Schlott’s “A solis ortus cardine,” with soloist Jocelyn B. Smith, and the lengthy “Miniaturr (einer Seelenreise)” by Markus Stockhausen).

The oddest track, “Let us praise him,” comes from Schlott and Smith. Here Ms. Smith resorts to a bland Gospel-inflected style, rather like Whitney Houston beseeching the Lord. Three tracks later the cellists take on Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres,” a typically spare, moody piece. Some listeners, in other words, will appreciate the disc’s eclectic mix; others will be as dismayed by some tracks as delighted by others. The 12 cellists’ musicianship is never in doubt, especially when heard in a Wilhelm Kaiser-Lindemann arrangement of a selection from Mendelssohn’s Elijah. The purity and honestly spiritual effect in that selection goes a long way toward excusing the excesses elsewhere.

Only the sales figures can determine if the 12 cellists will receive the absolution of the market place for any perceived sins against taste committed with Angel Dances.

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=Angel Dances product=yes product_title=Angel Dances product_by=Die 12 Cellisten der Berliner Philharmoniker product_id=EMI 0094635703023 [CD] price=$13.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 2:41 PM

Royal Opera House buys leading classical music and dance DVD label

roh_small.png[Royal Opera House, 30 May 2007]

The Royal Opera House announced today it has bought the internationally renowned classical music and dance DVD production and distribution company Opus Arte UK Ltd from a Dutch holding company Opus Arte BV for £5.7 million. £2 million borrowings already in the company have been refinanced through alternative lenders. The acquisition was funded through the use of a special fund of accumulated reserves held by the Trustees of the Royal Opera House for the sole purpose of capital and infrastructure projects. This is the first time an opera house has acquired its own DVD production and distribution company.

Posted by Gary at 10:00 AM

May 29, 2007

Eight Centuries of Troubadours and Trouvères: The Changing Identity of Medieval Music

Although the term “chansonnier” came into use only during the eighteenth century, the collections thus signified of troubadour and trouvère songs — assembled between the mid-thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries — were a significant interpretive source of earlier musical invention. Before analyzing the first such collections, Haines sketches a brief history characterizing the individual poets of each group and their contributions during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. While allowing for a progressive development from the southern poet or troubadour to a northern counterpart in the figure of the trouvère, Haines maintains a clear distinction going beyond a mere influence or exclusive imitation. The southern experimentation in the art de trobar is shown to become, in its contrast among the subsequent tradition of the trouvères, simpler in form and stylistically “more playful.” [12] Further differences are noted in the background of the poets, just as Haines marks gradual distinctions among successive generations of the northern trouvères. After an initial identification with the nobility, the later groups of trouvères originate, as here shown, in clerical or non-noble circles. As an additional point in the thesis presented, it is argued that the preservation of songs from the troubadours and trouvères was due, in part, to changes in the sociological and cultural landscape of the poet and audience. By the late thirteenth century Haines posits a “waning” of the song-art in composition at the same time that the collection of earlier songs was first undergoing commission. The copying of songs, often now paired with musical notation, removed such texts from the exclusive domain of performance and created a new context for their continued albeit altered appreciation. Featured here among the reasons for these earliest “editions” of the medieval lyric in France was the growth of an urban culture in areas such as Toulouse and Arras. With steady increase and diversification during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries these newly expanded metropolitan areas produced both poets and an appetite for collective volumes within a greatly enhanced industry of book production. The “first readers” of chansonniers proved themselves to be avid collectors, such that the earliest surviving volumes exhibit already a noteworthy diversity. Some of these first codices contain a mix of both troubadour and trouvères melodies, while others show a more restrictive use of available sources. In order that present readers might appreciate the contents of the early chansonniers, Haines provides informative charts mapping out their chronology, current location of manuscripts, and available data on lost sources which presumably included musical notation.

In his second chapter with an emphasis on late medieval and early modern reception of medieval song-texts, Haines outlines reasons why the period from 1400 to 1700 was crucial for establishing a subsequent historical image of the Middle Ages. A primary focus is here given to the sixteenth-century scholars Jean de Nostredame and Claude Fauchet, both of whom published fundamental historical investigations defining and categorizing — for their time — the legacy of the troubadours and trouvères. Although these works count among the first scholarly investigations on medieval song, Haines argues that they also gave rise to the earliest legendary stories about the poets, which persisted well into the eighteenth century and beyond. Nationalism, as symbolized in the quasi-historical depictions of Roland and Amadis, complements the critical and popular reaction to the poets as related by Haines, especially for the period of the Renaissance. As summarized by Haines, the reception of these two figures in legend “came out of a Franco-Italian debate over medieval literatures which itself was linked to the emergence of nationalism in both countries during this period.” [59] As a result of such debate, the legacy of the two groups of poets was determined, according to this argument, by the latter part of the seventeenth century. A literary competition of sorts between the two Romance nations prompted the selection of northern poets, or trouvères, as representative of the spirit of France. The neglect of the troubadours — as well as a sustained rivalry between the two groups of medieval poets — essentially had its roots in this significant period of reception.

In his following chapters on the reaction to medieval song during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Haines emphasizes dominant trends exemplified by figures such as Dr. Charles Burney, Pierre Aubry, and Gaston Paris. As expected from the response of contemporary European cultures including German and Dutch, a renewed interest in Old French literature by eighteenth-century “enlightened readers” signified not only a rediscovery of earlier poetic traditions but also a search for authentic literary evidence in the form of manuscripts. The earlier groundwork of Fauchet and Nostrdedame proved to be invaluable, if now subject to revision and expansion in the multi-volume literary histories undertaken during the time of Dr. Burney. As verified by Haines’s admirable survey of contemporary sources and commentary, the study of medieval French literature was a “legitimate scholarly concern” by the latter half of the eighteenth century. [93] Because of an earlier, and still at the time persistent, emphasis on songs of the trouvères, one is justified in asking after the fate of texts and music by the troubadours. After the publication of the first troubadour melody by Dr. Burney in his General History of Music (1782), the path was opened for a broader and more inclusive examination of earlier forms by poets from various geographic regions. The subsequent nineteenth-century reception of songs by the trouvères and troubadours represents, for Haines, a continuation of interest and study, which was present and “maintained from the Middle Ages on.” [157] His chapter on varying approaches to the medieval lyric throughout the nineteenth century succeeds in elaborating on such methods as a further development in the line of reception rather than a fresh discovery of medieval texts, as has been previously argued.

Whereas a number of musicological studies during the past decade or so have dealt with the survival of chant during the post-medieval period, the present monograph offers a revision of earlier views on music associated with the troubadours and trouvères. In addition to correcting a number of inaccurate or stereotypical assumptions, Haines presents the continuous reception of medieval song as a field to be studied both for its own merits and as a measure of cultural preference. The volume concludes with an extensive and useful bibliography.

Salvatore Calomino
Madison, Wisconsin

image= image_description=Eight Centuries of Troubadours and Trouvères: The Changing Identity of Medieval Music. product=yes product_title=John Haines: Eight Centuries of Troubadours and Trouvères — The Changing Identity of Medieval Music. product_by=Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. product_id=ISBN-13: 9780521826723 | ISBN-10: 0521826721 price=$95.00 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 4:20 PM

BRITTEN : Gloriana

Britten’s opera focuses primarily on the character of the aging Queen Elizabeth I. The plot may revolve around her feelings for the Earl of Essex, but Britten knew that most audiences would know the story already : his aim was to explore why Elisabeth needed to keep up her image of invulnerability. In the first scene, the Earl of Essex sings about a “chess game” in which the goal is to win the queen. This Queen has to keep ahead of the game, constantly, through stratagem and the illusion of invulnerability. Thus the stage action is woven with scenes from “behind the scenes”, creating the effect of illusion within illusion.

Like the Queen herself, Barstow the actress is under pressure to perform. In the opening scene, where she looks wearily into the mirror in her dressing room, while listening to the overture. It’s very moving. Not all singers make good actresses. Barstow, though, is exceptionally good. She’s so convincing that you forget, for a moment, that this, too, is illusion and stagecraft. Her whole performance is a masterclass in opera characterisation, and worth studying for its own sake. This Elizabeth is no fool, but watchful and tense, like a coiled spring. Hence the sharp delivery and attack, and the bristling, sharp edge to the voice. When the Queen steals her rival’s dress and dances in it, Barstow spits out her lines savagely, bringing out the menace that underpins the elaborate party games at Court. When Essex breaks into the Queens room and finds her unadorned and bald, Barstow’s very silence is moving. When she dismisses him, her voice wobbles, “Go, Robin, go” in an intense mixture of conflicted emotion, before she crumbles, the camera mercifully switching to long shot. It makes the “dressing scene” which follows all the more poignant. Her white makeup is lit so her face looks like a death mask. Later, when she assures Lady Essex that her children will be spared, her voice trembles with tenderness, “Frances, a woman speaks”. Seconds later, her voice becomes shrill with anger as she scolds Lady Rich, but when she’s signed the death warrant, her face contorts into a terrifying, wordless expression.

Film creates special new opportunities. For example, in the “Mortua”, when the Queen finally faces her mortality, there are long silences which would not work on stage or recording. Here though, the camera dwells on Barstow’s face which registers intense emotion. Sound, as such, is unnecessary. When she does sing, weakly, the song she and Essex had playfully sung long ago, she sing so quietly and tenderly that the impact would otherwise be lost. Similarly when she’d earlier explained her love for her nation, the camera pans the balconies in the opera house, backstage attendants and so on, as if all the world were listening to those noble, ringing words.

Just as the film draws out the effort the Queen makes to remain in control, the film shows how much work goes on behind the scenes of a production. Recordings alone can sometimes break the link between listener and performer, so sometimes people focus on recording values rather than on artistic creation. This film is an excellent reminder that it is people who make opera and that it isn’t easy work !

Musically, of course, this is very good, for Opera North has very high standards indeed. Britten’s score itself adapts early English music forms, weaving them into the whole, just as the film itself expands the basic opera. Early English music and poetry meant a great deal to the composer and this is one of the longest works in which he explores it. Therefore Daniels delineates these aspects of the score very clearly, because they, too, are an integral part of the multi-layered, shape-shifting whole. If the courtly dances are somewhat on the fast side, that relates to the narrative — the Queen deliberately tests the courtiers to their limits by making them dance and sing at a furious pace ! Daniels also has the measure of Britten’s acerbic dissonances which, throughout the opera add to the edgy tension in the drama. This opera has never been “popular” because its uncomfortable idiom seems at odds with the opulent setting, but that was Britten’s point. This is a powerful film, and completely unique.

Anne Ozorio

image= image_description=Benjamin Britten: Gloriana product=yes product_title=Benjamin Britten: Gloriana product_by=Queen Elizabeth : Josephine Barstow, Earl of Essex : Tom Randle, Lady Essex : Emer McGilloway, Lord Mountjoy : David Ellis, Lady Rich : Susannah Glanville, Sir Robert Cecil : Eric Roberts, Sir Walter Raleigh : Clive Bayley, Chorus of Opera North, English Northern Philharmonia, Paul Daniel (conductor), Phyllida Lloyd (director) product_id=Opus Arte OA 0955 D [DVD] price=$39.98 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 1:38 PM

May 28, 2007

HANDEL: Judas Maccabaeus (HWV 63)

Music composed by G. F. Handel. Libretto by Thomas Morell, from the First Book of Maccabees and from Antiquitates Judaicae by Flavius Josephus.

First Performance: 1 April 1747, Covent Garden Theatre, London

Principal Characters:
Judas Maccabaeus Tenor
Simon, his Brother Bass
Israelitish Woman Soprano
Israelitish Man Mezzo-Soprano
Eupolemus, the Jewish Ambassador to Rome Alto
First Messenger Alto
Second Messenger Bass

Setting: Israel c. Second Century B.C.E.

Click here for program notes and synopsis.

Click here for the complete libretto.

Click here for the First Book of Maccabees.

Click here for background on the Mozart re-orchestration.

image= image_description=Judas Maccabaeus Wins by Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld audio=yes first_audio_name=G. F. Handel: Judas Maccabaeus
WinAMP or VLC first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=G. F. Handel: Judas Maccabaeus (Mozart re-orchestration) product_by=Robert Johnson, Jennie Such, Ulrike Schneider, Christoph Genz, Raimund Nolt, MDR Sinfonieorchester, MDR Rundfunkchor, Howard Arman (cond.)
Live performance, 11 & 13 June 2004, Moritz-kirche Halle (Sung in German)
Posted by Gary at 8:06 PM

May 27, 2007

Faust and the Exploding Angel

pascal-dusapin.pngBy JOHANNA KELLER [NY Times, 27 May 2007]

A METAPHOR for the high cost of overweening desire, Faust is the story of a man who sells out by trading his soul to the Devil for wealth, love, knowledge or power. Even those who do not believe in Satan can recognize how neatly the plot illustrates the dilemma inherent in temptations of all kinds. Adapted in countless novels, poems, films, paintings, dances, dramas and operas, the Faust plot provides a renewable resource for contemplating moral compromise.

Posted by Gary at 8:53 PM

„Singen macht süchtig”

Stoyanova_small.pngGabriele Luster [Merkur Online, 26 May 2007]

Giuseppe Verdis Oper „Luisa Miller” hat am Pfingstmontag Premiere im Münchner Nationaltheater. Die rumänische Sopranistin Krassimira Stoyanova übernimmt die Titelpartie.

[Editor’s Note: Luisa Miller will be broadcast by Bayern 4 on 1 June 2007 at 1900 Central European Time.]

Posted by Gary at 12:00 PM

Nie wieder Königin der Nacht

[Die Welt, 25 May 2007]

Der begehrteste Sopran der Welt begeistert Berlin - Anna Netrebkos Auftritte entzücken das Publikum in der Hauptstadt. Mit WELT ONLINE spricht die Russin über ihre neuen Rollen, ein Abendessen mit Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel und das Scheitern als Königin der Nacht.

Posted by Gary at 11:08 AM

Amanda Roocroft, Middle Temple Hall, London

[Financial Times, 24 May 2007]

If you are lucky, a song recitalist will take you to the edge of an inner world. A select few know how to draw you in further. And then there’s Amanda Roocroft. Her peachy soprano may be what we hear, but it is her heart that does the singing.

Posted by Gary at 10:58 AM

Preview: Fidelio, Royal Opera House, London

Endrik_Wottrich.pngA Florestan who's not to be messed with.
By Michael Church [Indepdent, 24 May 2007]

The pictures had suggested a handsome hunk, but I wasn't expecting the massive weightlifter who erupts into the room. Before I have time to frame my first question, tenor Endrik Wottrich is off, with a ringing declaration of why the freedom-fighting Florestan - the role he is singing in Beethoven's Fidelio - is full of contemporary significance, and perfect for him.

Posted by Gary at 10:18 AM

Così fan tutte, Glyndebourne, UK

Robinticciati.pngBy Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 24 May 2007]

Tuesday was one of those quintessential Glyndebourne occasions when the sun is out, the picnicking is peaceful and the composer is Mozart. You could tell this was going to be an interesting performance from the very first tumble of chords. It was spacious, it sounded confident, it had a seasoned fluency

Posted by Gary at 10:03 AM

May 25, 2007

Opera on the move at Spoleto USA

Backbone of the program were then the twice-daily chamber music concerts hosted by venerable Charles Wadsworth in the Dock Street Theatre, an intimate venue that in various incarnations dates back to Mozart’s youth. Diverse programs in dance and theater and in orchestral, choral music and jazz filled the rest of the day - along with the two operas, a blockbuster in the cavernous Gailliard Auditorium and a more modest work - Baroque or modern - in the Dock Street.

Opera at Spoleto took on new life with the arrival of Emmanuel Villaume as music director of opera and orchestra events seven seasons ago. In a dynamic re-thinking of the role of opera at the festival French-born Villaume has increased the number of production from two to three and he has abandoned the Gailliard in favor of more hospitable venues.

 “Opera buffs will not come to Charleston for only two operas,” Villaume says. “We need three to make this a destination city — and festival — for them. “And we program them so that visitors can see all three on a single weekend.” Those changes, however, involve only externals. More crucial is the energy and the spirit of adventure that Villaume has brought to Spoleto in a choice of operas that would astonish — and challenge — audiences elsewhere in this country.

He opens the 2007 season that opens on May 25 and runs for 17 days with Weill’s 1930 “Mahagonny” and then moves on to the American premieres of Gluck’s 18th-century “L’ile du Merlin (ou le monde renversé” and “Faustus, the Last Night” by Pascal Dusapin, premiered at Berlin’s Staatsoper only months ago. Diverse and distant from each other in time as the trio of works on stage this season might seem, Villaume points to common ground. “Take ‘Magahonny,’ the work that took music in a new direction,” he says. “it’s about the building of a city and its decline. “But at its center is the meaning of community — of how people can work together.” And although this in no ways defines a theme that runs through the three works, each reflects on this subject. “They are all concerned with the definition of values — not just political values, but ethical values as well. “They are works of incredible power, and each enriches the experience of the other two.”

Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier serve a co-directors of “Mahagonny,” to which — Villaume points out — there is much more than the “Alabama Song,” recorded both by David Bowie and the rock group The Doors. The text for “Mahagonny,” of course, is by Bert Brecht, now celebrated as the top German dramatist of the 20th century.

When Villaume, now at home in the world’s leading opera houses, began his search for an opera for the 500-seat Dock Street, he not only did not know “Merlin”; he did not even know that Gluck had written a comic opera. “It’s a perfect counterpart of ‘Mahagonny,’” he says. “Pierrot and Scapin, shipwrecked on Merlin’s island, ask themselves what a society ought to be. “It’s a strong work — and highly ironic.” The fact that there was no video or even a recording of the work enhanced its appeal, for Villaume realized that an adaption of the score — indeed, a total reconstruction of it — would be necessary.

“I didn’t know whether I could find someone willing to do it,” he says. “And then I thought of Baroque specialist Harry Bicket. “He’s come up with a very modern and witty ‘take’ on the work, which we’ll sing in the original French.” Bicket conducts “Merlin.” Christopher Alden directs the staging.

For his new opera on one of the oldest themes in European literature French composer Dusapin turned to Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” written two centuries before Goethe’s classic drama on the man who made a contract with the Devil. In his last night Faust — somewhere between memory and forgetfulness, between dream and reality — seeks answers from a mocking Mephisto and an angel who is blind. Dusapin wrote his own libretto for a score described by critics as “dark and somber,” as “a great lament” and rich in “sweet angular melodies.” And Villaume points out that here too the question of community is central.

Director of “Faustus” is David Herskovits; Dusapin will be present for its American premiere.

Ticket sales for all three works are robust, for, as Villaume points out, “we have won the trust of our audience — both those at home in Charleston and those who come from elsewhere. “They have learned to like what we do.”

For information on the Spoleto USA season and for tickets, call 843-579-3100 or visit

image= image_description=Emmanuel Villaume (Photo: William Struhs) product=yes product_title=The Christel DeHaan Music Director for Opera & Orchestra Emmanuel Villaume will lead the Ginn Resorts Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra in two orchestral concerts and the opera production Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny during the 2007 Spoleto Festival USA, May 25 - June 10.
Photo by: William Struhs.
Posted by Gary at 6:47 PM

Carol I. Crawford To Leave At Conclusion Of 2008-2009 Season

Crawford.png[25 May 2007]

Carol I. Crawford announced today that she will leave her position as General Director of Tulsa Opera, Inc. at the conclusion of the 2008-2009 Season, bringing to a close a 16-year tenure as the administrative and artistic head of the nationally acclaimed opera company.

Posted by Gary at 6:29 PM

Virginia Arts Festival celebrates “Pocahontas”

the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the first permanent English-speaking settlement in the New World. And to commemorate the landing of those 104 adventurous Englishman the Virginia Arts Festival and the Virginia Opera co-commissioned “Pocahontas,” a tribute to the young Native American woman who charmed the new arrivals. The favorite daughter of Algonquian chief Powhatan, she learned English, converted to Christianity, married Virginia colonist John Rolfe and gave birth to a son, whom both Thomas Jefferson and Robert E. Lee claimed as an ancestor. Renamed Rebecca by a clergyman who saw her as the mother of two nations, Pocahontas traveled to England, where she was presented at court and, as she prepared to return to Jamestown, died suddenly at 24 in 1817. She is buried at Gravesend, and it is there that the one-act chamber opera by composer Linda Tutas Haugen and librettist Joan Vail Thorne begins.

From there it moves back to Jamestown and the early hostile confrontation between natives and settlers. Pocahontas appears now as an adolescent, a tomboy attractive to both parties and simultaneously as a mature woman respected on both side of the Atlantic. This interplay between the young and mature character is particularly effective in underscoring her role in two cultures.

Beyond the outer facts of her brief life, little is known about the “real” Pocahontas. Contemporary accounts were — in the style of the day — elaborately embellished, and later generations — including the 1995 Disney film — have added undocumented ornamentation. And although Haugen and Thorne obviously did an immense amount of study — including on-site observation of artifacts and landscape, they have made no effort to fill in blanks. Their endeavor focuses not on linear narration, but rather on an evocation of the unusual woman that Pocahontas was. While committed to cultural accuracy, the creative team has sought not to write history, but to explore the mystery of this woman who did much to establish peace between two peoples.

And the mesmerizing quality of Haugen’s score stresses that basic questions about Pocahontas remain open. “I ask myself who I am and I do not know the answer,” she sings. “There will never be an answer; I will always be ... a question.”

Further major players in the story as told by Thorne are Pocahontas’ father and mother, husband Rolfe and John Smith, head honcho of the Jamestown adventure.

Acclaimed a success by the enthusiastic audience that packed Norfork’s Roper Performing Arts Center for the world premiere on May 19, “Pocahontas” is an opera like no other. It is a pastiche that combines song and extensive spoken dialogue in a superbly crafted score. Haugen, noted for her use of ethnic voices and instruments in previous works, went to the tribes still resident in East for motifs that she has woven into the work, the instrumentation of which calls for specially crafted Native American flutes, drums and shakers. Haugen further includes a hymn tune from Thomas Commuck’s 1845 “Indian Melodies” and — to suggest the flavor of the Elizabethan age — bits of Byrd, Gabrielli and Orlando.

With a voice decidedly her own the composer has combined all this in a 90-minute seamless score for nine instrumentalists seated on stage behind the small, near-empty space upon which the story plays. “Pocahontas” is engaging and accessible without being pabulum for the people. The music is beautiful and often powerful; Rolfe’s wooing of the heroine and her death scene elevate this enigmatic woman into the company of Violetta and Mimi. (Although they add local color, the three Native American songs delivered by a vocal/drum duo from the Haliwa-Soponi and Appomattox Tribes stand outside the score and contribute little to the story.)

Virginia Opera assembled a superb cast of young singers for this production, slated also for performance in historic Williamsburg. Sopranos Laura Choi Stuart and Dawn Zahralban were superbly matched as the mature and youthful heroine, and bass Branch Fields sang Rolfe with resonant richness. Lyric tenor Brandon Wood was a handsome and sometimes roughish Smith, and Andrew Fernando a major presence as Powhatan.

Pam Berlin directed the staging with a firm hand; Marlene Pauley conducted with authority. Choreographer Todd Rosenlieb wisely opted for stylized dance, eschewing the pow-wow that others might have found essential. Costumes by designer Michael Schweikardt were true to the period; on her first appearance Pocahontas was dressed as in the painting by Simon de Passe, her sole surviving visual image.

In making the commission Robert Cross, founding director of the Virginia Arts Festival, specified that “Pocahontas” was to be not “a kiddie opera,” but rather a “family-friendly work to which parents would enjoy taking their children.” And the reaction of the opening-night audience, among which were many kids, suggested that he got what he ordered.

Pocahontas is famous beyond her native region, and this opera deserves stagings elsewhere. Because of its modest dimensions, however, it will not have the appeal of Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” or Jake Heggie’s “End of the Affair,” two recent and widely performed chamber operas. “Pocahontas,” however, is nicely suited for academic opera programs and for studio production by major companies. Haugen’s music is wonderfully singable and ideal for voices still in the development stage.

Festival performances of the opera profited, of course, from the “you-are-there”proximity of the historical triangle Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown, magnificently developed sites with an abundance of authentic documentation intelligently and tastefully displayed. Patriotism has become a discomforting concept of late; a visit to this region from which America grew is reassuring.

Footnote: Aside from its obvious roots in Jamestown “Pocahontas” is something of a Minnesota Opera. Composer Haugen holds degrees from St. Olaf and the University, where she studied with Dominic Argento. Librettist Vail has worked closely with St. Paul-based composer Stephen Paulus, and conductor Pauley, also a St. Olaf alumna, is a clarinetist in the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, which she conducts regularly.

Wes Blomster

image= image_description=Pocahontas (From the Virginia Plantation by John Langston, 1894) product=yes product_title=Above: Pocahontas
An etching in From the Virginia Plantation by John Langston, 1894
Posted by Gary at 1:49 PM

May 23, 2007

Angela Gheorghiu in an interview about Puccini

Angela Gheorghiu talks about Puccini's operas and characters explaining how she feels and what she thinks about them. You can also listen to her singing in some recording sessions and see the backstage.

Posted by Gary at 9:05 AM

May 20, 2007

Pelléas et Mélisande, Royal Opera House London

Debussy_BW.pngBy Anna Picard [The Independent, 20 May 2007]

Of the many scores that suckled at the bleeding breast of Tristan und Isolde, Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande is the most alluring and enigmatic. Though Stanislas Nordey's Salzburg Easter Festival production was widely criticised when it opened, this had little effect on advance bookings for its Royal Opera House run.

Posted by Gary at 9:23 PM

Une "Walkyrie" belle à voir et à entendre

Baird_Janice.png[Le Monde, 19 May 2007]

La tradition wagnérienne à Marseille n'aura pas été démentie par cette belle production de La Walkyrie proposée par la directrice de l'Opéra de Marseille, Renée Auphan, en clôture de saison lyrique. Au point que l'on se demande si la nouvelle production de cet opéra présentée au Festival d'Aix-en-Provence cet été dans le cadre du Ring initié par Stéphane Lissner avec la Philharmonie de Berlin ne risque pas de faire, à côté, pâle figure.

Posted by Gary at 9:20 PM

‘I put up with noisy opera-goers’

By Jonathan Birchall [Financial Times, 18 May 2007]

It was during the interval in the ”family circle” at New York’s Metropolitan Opera that the elderly lady with the German accent told the guffawing man in the row behind us that Mozart’s Magic Flute wasn’t supposed to be funny. She wasn’t much taken either by the production’s flapping puppets and dancing bears.

Posted by Gary at 9:19 PM

Boston’s Early-Music Hegemony, Reasserted

BEMFOrchestra.png[NY Times, 18 May 2007]

New York early-music performers get terribly exercised when reviewers suggest that Boston has more period-instrument activity than New York. And Boston’s musicians, happy to drive the point home, have established the Boston Early Music Festival series at the Morgan Library & Museum as a New York outpost.

Posted by Gary at 9:11 PM


The enthusiasm of the public, here still clearly audible, would wane only a few years later. This was one of the last years that Italians were still a majority in the arena. Soon after, tourists staying at Lago di Garda (the Garda lake) would take over. They didn’t know the repertoire, they didn’t know the singers and they didn’t know the applause codes; they just came for an evening out. And at the same time younger Italians were staying away because they preferred ‘il rock’. This was also one of the last years where a major cast would be completely composed of Italian singers.

Of course the opera may be called Aida but the real reason for this issue is the Radamès. By 1972 Corelli’s voice had started to dry up quite a bit as is clear from some of his Met performances. This is noticeable, too, in the first act. Though his high B is still very impressive in ‘Celeste Aida’, he nevertheless has to cut short the note. He also has a tendency to sing in big outbursts, mostly to cover up the fact that his once inexhaustible breath is now far shorter. I wonder if he took the pains to warm up properly, or if he did, did his voice need a very long time to regain its juicy quality? [The same thing happened when I heard him for the last time at the arena in 1975.] By the third act, the dryness has largely gone and we once more hear a lot of glorious sound and the breath is doing better as well. There are a few impressive and long pianissimi in the big duet, yet he clearly has reserves enough for an extremely long ‘ioooooo resta a te’ at the end of the act. And contrary to some of his performances at the Met, he knows this public will not accept just posing and not singing in the ensembles.

He has some worthy partners at his side. Luisa Maragliano is not a first class soprano; more of a cross between a poor man’s Tebaldi and the same man’s Stella. But she has the volume, too, for the arena. In her first aria she proves she has a lot of chest tones and some phrasing reminding us more of Santuzza than Aida but it is true we would be happy nowadays with such a strong Italian spinto. In her second aria she leaves verismo behind her though I have a feeling this has more to do with every soprano’s fear for that horribly exposed C. She almost creeps towards the note and still it goes flat.

I remember Luisa Bordin Nave as a fine Amneris on those evenings we had to do without the wonderful Fiorenza Cossotto. The voice very much resembled Cossotto’s though without the latter’s shattering power and silvery edge but still a sound to be treasured. Gian Piero Mastromei had some of his happiest moments in the arena. His big sound was a little bit rough and not apt for the more lyrical Verdi roles but as Amonasro (and as a splendid Scarpia one year later with Domingo and Santunione) this was more a quality than a liability.

The smaller roles could still be filled by major voices. Agostino Ferrin is a splendid Ramfis with a rounded and interesting bass; so much more beautiful than the ubiquitous Bonaldo Giaotti I often had to bear with. And someone with the interesting timbre and big voice of Giovanni Foiani (the only one on scene always a few inches taller than Corelli) wouldn’t sing comprimario parts these days. Veteran Oliviero de Fabritiis has his musicians well in hands in the difficult arena acoustics (for the orchestra only, not for the singers) but is clearly aware of the fact that the public has come for Corelli and therefore indulges him in his ways. The sound picture is not perfect but better than most arena recordings I have heard.

Jan Neckers

image= image_description=Giuseppe Verdi: Aida product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Aida product_by=Franco Corelli (Radamès), Luisa Maragliano (Aida), Luisa Bordin Nave (Amneris), Gian Piero Mastromei (Amonasro), Agostino Ferrin (Ramfis), Giovanni Foiani (Re), Ottorino Begali (messagero), Orchestra dell’Arena di Verona, Oliviero de Fabritiis (cond.). Live performance recorded on 8 August 1972. product_id=Myto Records MCD 064.333 [2CDs] price=$34.49 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 8:57 PM

Simon Boccanegra — Opéra national de Paris

In all honesty the role is perhaps a little too large for his voice, especially in the cavernous acoustic of the Bastille, but he sings it attractively enough and in a few years I am sure he will develop the character with more weight and authority.

He was partnered more than adequately by the rest of the cast; as Amelia, Olga Guryakova’s singing was sweet if a little monochrome, and she looked lovely. Franz-Josef Selig showed some discomfort in the upper register but gave a believable performance. Evan Bowers was a slightly wooden Adorno and Franck Ferrari lacked presence as Paolo.

If none of the cast really made much of their characters, it was difficult to point the finger of blame at the singers. Rather, the problem lay squarely with Johan Simons’s ugly non-production, with designs by Bert Neumann. At the start, the Fieschi palace consisted of an orange platform topped by an enormous hoarding depicting the face of Fiesco; the Grimaldi abode was a glittering gold curtain in front of which the entire recognition scene took place, and from the council chamber scene onwards we were back to the orange platform, this time with Boccanegra’s picture instead of Fiesco’s. The council chamber had orange plastic chairs for one party, blue plastic chairs for the other — in a moment of unique tackiness the councilors picked them up to use as weapons against each other, like schoolchildren left unsupervised. There were no props, save for the aforementioned chairs and a big plastic bottle of mineral water for Boccanegra to drink from and be poisoned.

Even a misguided directorial concept would have been preferable to something which had no apparent sense of purpose or coherence at all.

Costumes (by Nina von Mechow and Philippe de Sant Mart Guilet) were little better, with everybody in a half-hearted attempt at modern dress; though he got off quite lightly during the prologue, poor Hvorostovsky spent the rest of the opera in a snazzy blue suit with an orange shirt and tie — in other words, matching the set, and looking every bit as cheap. All in all, there was really nothing to characterise the setting, nor to suggest who any of the characters actually were. The opera’s all-important class relationships went for nothing, there was hardly any meaningful interaction between the characters.

James Conlon conducted with commitment and energy for the most part, though Guryakova’s breath control was really put to the test by the exceptionally slow tempo of ‘Come in quest’ora bruna’. Other than some messy brass entries, the orchestra was on form.

The cast would surely have done better in a concert performance. As it was, I was left wondering how it was possible to make something so dull out of one of the most interesting, non-formulaic works in the Italian 19th-century repertoire.

Ruth Elleson © 2007

image= image_description=Dmitri Hvorstovsky (Photo: Pavel Antonov) product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Simon Boccanegra
Opéra national de Paris, Opéra-Bastille, 10 May 2007
Posted by Gary at 5:36 PM

Anonymous 4: Gloryland

No tacky, fragile jewel-case for these ladies. The CD rests snugly in an unbreakable clear-plastic casing, and a 62-page booklet is attached to the inside cover. Attractive graphic design combines warm red, yellow, and orange in a quilt-like design on the front, and good ol’ red, white and blue on the back. Handsome, in a home-spun way.

Gloryland is a “pilgrimage,” according to the back blurb, a collection of religious-themed pieces of “love and loss, hope and redemption.” The four members — Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Jacqueline Horner, Johanna Maria Rosa — blend their voices with such smoothness that individual timbres disappear into a stream of tart, vibrato-free tone. From first track to last, the enunciation is immaculate, the rhythm spot-on. There is no emotion-laden interpretation; as much as possible, the simple melodic lines and heartfelt words speak for themselves.

On some tracks, two instrumentalists join the women. Darol Auger plays violin and mandolin and Mike Marshall plays guitar, mandolin, and mandocello. The men also perform on some instrumental tracks, including two of three versions of “Wayfaring Stranger.” Their contributions save the recording from any danger of monotony.

On one level, Gloryland impresses as a beautifully performed set of songs that draw one back to a lost era of direct, folk-based musical spirituality. Beyond the respect due to the skills of the artists, after a while the performances begin to feel dry, almost too perfect. Perhaps some occasional moments of unrestrained emotion, of passion-induced frailty, would more fully complete the concept of bringing these hymns and ballads to life. Your reviewer began to wonder if this wasn’t primitive American music performed with too carefully-studied sophistication.

Put it this way — Gloryland would be right at home in front of the register at Starbucks. It would make for pleasurable listening while sipping a Vanilla Bean Frappucino.

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=Gloryland product=yes product_title=Gloryland product_by=Anonymous 4 with Darol Anger, Mike Marshall product_id=Harmonia Mundi HMU 807400 [SACD] price=$19.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 5:17 PM

HANDEL: Saul (HWV 53)

Music composed by G. F. Handel. Libretto by Charles Jennens, based on 1 Samuel.

First Performance: 16 January 1739, King’s/Queen’s Theatre in the Haymarket, London

Principal Characters:
Merab, Saul’s daughterSoprano
Michal, Saul’s daughterSoprano
Jonathan, Saul’s sonTenor
High PriestTenor
Witch of EndorTenor
Abner, Captain of Saul’s armyTenor

Setting: Ancient Israel


David returns victorious from his combat with Goliath. He is welcomed by Saul, king of Israel, accompanied by his son Jonathan, his two daughters Michal and Merab, and Abner, his commander-in-chief. Saul asks David to remain with him and to marry Merab. But she scorns the low-born hero, whereas Michal is in love with him. Jonathan offers David his friendship. The people sing David’s praises, placing him above Saul, who is fired with jealousy and fears for his crown. He commands Jonathan to kill his friend, but in vain: Jonathan reminds his father of David’s acts of bravery in freeing his people from Goliath. Saul swears he will not harm David, and offers him Michal’s hand — before sending him off to battle in the hope that he will be slain by the Philistines.

When David comes back, having triumphed once more, Saul tries to kill him with his javelin. David trusts in the Lord's protection, but flees in the face of Michal’s entreaties. Merab acknowledges her brother-in-law’s qualities and expresses her fears for his life.

Saul seeks to murder David, and reproaches Jonathan for taking his side. He goes to consult a witch, who calls up the ghost of Samuel. The latter prophesies that Israel will be defeated by the Philistines, and Saul and his sons killed.

An Amalekite tells David of the dreadful rout, and the death of Saul and Jonathan. David and Israel mourn their loss, then the people extol David, whom they choose to lead them.

Click here for the complete libretto.

image= image_description=Detail from Saul and David by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1655-1660) audio=yes first_audio_name=G. F. Handel: Saul
WinAMP or VLC first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=G. F. Handel: Saul product_by=Saul: Franz-Josef Selig
Michal: Camilla Tilling
David: Andreas Scholl
Merab: Dina Kuznetsova
Jonathan: Jeremy Ovenden
Samuel, Doeg: Philip Ens
High Priest, Amalekite: Norman Schankle
Witch: Guy De Mey
Concerto Köln, Collegium Vocale, René Jacobs (cond.)
Live broadcast, 27 February 2001, Paleis voor Schone Kunsten, Brussels
Posted by Gary at 4:37 PM

Rising to the occasion – Michael Maniaci saves the day at La Fenice

The phone call at midnight, the frantic request to drop everything and “just come–we have a problem, we need you to cover all performances and it’s curtain up in just two weeks……”

Yet that usually happens when the house in question knows that the young singer already has the role in his or her repertoire, and it will just be a matter of polishing up the vocal muscle memory, and learning the stage-moves. No real problem – and exactly the sort of opportunity which is the life blood of opera. The king is dead (or at least hors de combat), long live the king. But a few months ago young American male soprano Michael Maniaci had all this, and a lot more, to cope with and it took him to the very limits of his mental and physical powers in a way that he will never forget.

It was the very end of December, and he was about to set off for Canada to record his first CD of Handel arias with the ATMA Classique label in Montreal. He was looking forward to his Met debut as Nireno in Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” singing alongside Ruth Ann Swenson and David Daniels in March and his diary was pretty much in order. Then came the phone call – was he free for a last minute departure for Venice and the acclaimed Fenice, to learn and perform the role of Armando in Meyerbeer’s “Crociato in Egitto”? It was a difficult call; for a start, he’d never sung the role. In fact, he’d never heard the opera, or even ever sung any Meyerbeer at all. But, encouraged by the Fenice’s inference that the two scenes they sent him by email constituted the bulk of the role, he decided to take the plunge and, with grateful thanks to the understanding folk at the record label, postponed the recording and headed for the airport. When he landed he went straight to the opera house, and that is when the dream started to look more like a nightmare and an artistic “Death in Venice” began to seem a distinct possibility.

M_Maniaci.pngTired and jet-lagged, he sat himself down at the back of the famous auditorium, and watched the rehearsals with both 1st and 2nd casts well underway. It was with shock that he suddenly realised that his role, the title role of the Crusader, was the largest sing in the production and with just two weeks to go before final orchestra dress rehearsal, he was looking at 350 pages of music for a role he’d never heard or studied, and in a style he had never sung in. Panic seemed a reasonable option – and a fast exit back to the airport. However, the director Pierre Luigi Pizzi then asked him to take the stage and sing the opening scene for him (the one that he had been sent) and Maniaci realised that this might be crunch time – and so he took the stage, sang the music and, when he’d finished, Pizzi, without ceremony, walked to the stage, shook his hand, and said simply “thank you for coming”. It was the stamp of approval and a huge vote of confidence, and Michael Maniaci decided there and then to head for his canal side apartment rather than the airport. Little did he know that worse was to come.

The Fenice had, rightly enough, provided him with accommodation that would in other times have seemed idyllic but, as he shut the door, sat down, and reviewed his position he quite frankly admits now that he was near to a mental breakdown as the enormity of his task became fully apparent. He had a huge role, a huge score, to read, memorise and master to not only his own high standards, but to that of La Fenice. He had just fourteen days to be stage-perfect and as he walked out onto the veranda overlooking the canal, he says that for a moment he seemed to see his own body, metaphorically floating face down in the murky waters of a very, very, bad decision. It was probably the lowest point of the entire experience but when you are ambitious, talented and hungry you find reserves of strength that you never knew you had. Luckily for Maniaci, he found those reserves and took the only possible course for a young singer in that position: he buckled down, shut out the world and started to learn the music…..

In his own words, it was “ten days of hell”, alone in the apartment with only occasional coaching help from an over-stretched company pianist, trying to absorb new music, new words, and yet still somehow trying to get some sleep when the brain simply wouldn’t hear of it. Yet, after those ten days, he was able to return to the opera house and inform them that he had learnt the role and was ready to learn the staging. Understandably, there was some disbelief among musicians and staff. Watching his colleague in the first cast rehearse was helpful, and he was able to jot down notes of the staging – he still hadn’t been given any time on stage – and he went home each night to walk through the action in his apartment. Suddenly, he got a text message to say he was to take the stage at the next day’s technical rehearsal – at last! The conductor, Emmanuelle Villaume, started the proceedings with Maniaci’s colleague, but then stopped after the second scene and invited the American to come on stage and sing the big Act One trio with Patrizia Ciofi and Laura Poverelli. He had neither rehearsed it with them, nor with the orchestra. When they finished, the orchestra cheered and stamped their feet in approval and he was then invited to do the rest of the rehearsal and staging with the cast and orchestra. But better was to come – that night, the 9th of January, he was informed he had been chosen to join the A cast and sing the premiere in less than six days time. Next morning it was his first full run in costume with orchestra. Two days later it was public general dress rehearsal, and the production opened on the 14th.

This most demanding role that he had ever sung would be given seven times in twelve days, and recorded for CD and DVD for good measure. Most seasoned singers, even knowing a role, would find this a punishing schedule and Maniaci now thinks that it was only his youth (he is just thirty) and the heady mix of adrenaline and horror that got him and his voice through the whole production. That and the excellent support given to him by Maestri Villaume, Pizzi and his singing colleagues, particularly Patrizia Ciofi and Fernando Portari, who all offered both kindness and assistance in a situation which perhaps only they truly appreciated.

Interestingly, the management at La Fenice never disclosed to the paying public or the critics what Michael Maniaci had been asked to do, and had achieved. But that achievement did not go unnoticed by some. This from Francis Muzzu of Opera Now: “Concert (performances) so far have cast the Velluti role of Armando with a mezzo-soprano, but La Fenice took the fascinating option of using Michael Maniaci, a male soprano (not countertenor) whose technique and artistry vindicated the choice triumphantly …… Maniaci has impeccable phrasing, excellent coloratura, a confident top and an effective stage presence. Matching him was Patrizia Ciofi’s Palmide whose soprano grows in strength without any loss of flexibility or sweetness - their Act One duet …… was exquisite.”

I asked Michael Maniaci what, looking back, his final thoughts were. “It was the greatest musical, intellectual and dramatic challenge I have ever faced. Was it the strongest singing that I have ever done? Perhaps not. But have I ever been prouder of any accomplishment? Absolutely not.”

(Michael Maniaci can be seen next in the title role of Berlioz’s arrangement of Gluck’s “Orphée” at Glimmerglass Opera, USA July/August 2007.
Opera North, (UK stage debut) as Atis in Kaiser’s “Croesus” directed by Tim Albury, conducted by Harry Bicket, performances through October/November 2007.)

© Sue Loder 2007

image= image_description=Il Crociato in Egitto (Photo: Michele Crosera) product=yes product_title=ABOVE: Il Crociato in Egitto at La Fenice
Photo: Michele Crosera
Posted by Gary at 3:16 PM

May 17, 2007

HANDEL: Jephtha (HWV 70)

Music composed by G. F. Handel. Libretto by Thomas Morell, after Chapter 11 of The Book of Judges and G. Buchanan's Jephthas sive votum (translation: Jeptha or the Vow) (1554).

First performance: 26 February 1752, Covent Garden Theatre, London

Principal characters:
Jephtha, Judge Of Israel and leader of the army Tenor
Storgè, wife of Jephtha Mezzo-Soprano
Iphis, Jephtha's daughter, betrothed to Hamor Soprano
Hamor, a warrior, betrothed to Iphis Countertenor
Zebul, Jephtha's half-brother, a warrior Bass
Angel Boy Soprano

Setting: Ancient Israel


Part I.

The Israelites, who for their idolatry had been oppressed by the Ammonites for eighteen years, become repentant, and invite Jephtha, a son of Gilead, to be their Captain in the war with their enemies. He accepts the trust, and (after a valedictory interview with his wife), in the ardour of his desire for victory, offers up to God a vow that if he should return home a conqueror, whatsoever cometh forth of his house to meet him, shall be dedicated to the Lord; --which is followed by a general invocation of the mercy and blessing of the Almighty. His wife, in his absence, being troubled with forebodings of some pending evil, her daughter attempts to dispel her gloomy apprehensions. In the following scene, Jephtha, having failed in his attempts to secure peace by a treaty, arouses the army of Israel for the battle.

Part II.

News being brought to Iphis of her father's victory, she resolves to go out to meet him on his return. Zebul celebrates the happiness resulting from the triumph that had been gained, and is joined by Jephtha, who commends the valour of his chiefs, but piously ascribes the glory of the event to God, --whose Omniscience and omnipotence are celebrated by a chorus of the people. Jephtha is then met by his daughter and a train of virgins, who welcome his return with music and dancing. Struck with horror and despair at the sight, he makes known his vow; --his friends expostulate with him; --his daughter resigns her fate to his will--he is torn with anguish and remorse, but resolves on the fulfillment of his vow and the scene is closed by a chorus of the Israelites expressive of the mysterious workings of God's providence, and the uncertainty of human enjoyment.

Part III.

Jephtha prepares to offer up his daughter, who, in humble resignation to what is thought to be the will awe Heaven pathetically bids adieu to all worldly joys and prepares for the sacrifice. The Priests, in fear and awe, appeal to the Almighty for guidance upon which an Angel appears and, forbidding the rites to proceed, declares that Iphis shall be devoted to a life of celibacy and the service of God. Jephtha and his friends successively acknowledge with gratitude the interposition of Providence in sparing the life of Iphis;--she and Hamor, to whom she was betrothed, piously submit themselves to the Divine will;--and her parents and friends, in conclusion, rejoice at the happy termination of their troubles, and the peace which had been secured to their country.

Click here for the complete libretto.

image= image_description=The Return of Jephthah by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini. audio=yes first_audio_name=G. F. Handel: Jephtha
WinAMP or VLC first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=G. F. Handel: Jephtha product_by=Iphis: Rosemary Joshua
Storgè: Patricia Bardon
Hamor: William Purefoy
Jephtha: Kobie van Rensburg
Zebul: D'Arcy Bleiker
The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightment, The Clare College Choir, Cambridge, René Jacobs (cond.)
Live broadcast, 20 August 2002, Innsbruck, Congress Saal Tirol
Posted by Gary at 8:52 PM

Glimmerglass on a New Course

Glimmerglass_Opera.pngBY NICHOLAS WAPSHOTT [NY Sun, 17 May 2007]

The changing of the guard at all three New York opera houses — the Metropolitan Opera, City Opera, and Glimmerglass Opera — has coincided with a slump in live audiences for classical music and opera. The old certainties that guided opera production for decades have gone, and there are no quick fixes. As the new general director of Glimmerglass, Michael MacLeod, put it, "The light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train."

Posted by Gary at 2:58 PM

Bizet via mail-order catalogue

bizet.png[Financial Times, 17 May 2007]

Micaëla steps gingerly into the smuggler’s den and gets a stray bullet in the shoulder from Don José, who is fooling around with his rifle. Her blonde perm makes her look like Jean Harlow or a refugee from a Leni Riefenstahl film.

Posted by Gary at 2:48 PM

Met Opera to Expand Simulcasts in Theaters

By DANIEL J. WAKIN [NY Times, 17 May 2007]

He is no Spider-Man, but Papageno held his own at the movies this season.

The Metropolitan Opera says its simulcasting of operas into theaters, which has sent ripples through the opera world, was so successful over the last five months that it will expand the program next season.

Posted by Gary at 2:40 PM

May 10, 2007


While no specific reason for Gilbert’s departure was given (“too busy elsewhere”), the atmosphere was all peaches and cream as indeed it should have been, for Gilbert has done a distinguished job for the venerable American summer opera festival over his short four years in musical command. No successor names have surfaced in any serious way, and senior conductor Kenneth Montgomery, a regular at Santa Fe for many years, was appointed interim manger for the orchestra, but is not considered a likely appointment for the musical directorship.

In response to a question at a May 9 news conference, Santa Fe General Director Richard Gaddes discussed the requirements for the position, making clear it is largely concerned with developing the orchestra and mentoring it, and not a lot more. Mo. Gilbert, the New York native, violist and conductor, who is making quite a name for himself in Europe and seems destined for a major American symphonic post eventually, had other ideas — and one has the impression from the start there was not a close alliance between Gilbert’s plans and ambitions at Santa Fe, and just how much General Director Gaddes would allow. In interviews Gilbert had spoken to this reporter several times about adding all-orchestral evenings to the Opera’s schedule, and he had expansive ideas about repertory. Tristan und Isolde, in festival form that would begin at 5 p.m., break for a long dinner first-intermission, then continue to conclude at about 11 p.m. was high on Gilbert’s list of ideas, he told me, and casting was even being considered. The Wagner and several other large projects never got off the drawing board.

Gilbert was not, in my view, an ideal music director for SFO as he was not much experienced or knowledgeable in singing or vocal culture. His great strength was command of the music and the orchestra, but there was a certain amount of learning-on-the-job with respect to his operatic music making. Even so, he delivered some strong evenings of operatic enjoyment and might be expected to grow in such matters. It will not be at Santa Fe.

What this means for the Festival is that Director Gaddes will continue to make repertory and casting decisions, strongly seconded, as he indicated at the press conference, by his artistic second-in-command, Brad Woolbrite, as well as be prime funds-raiser and CEO. Since its founding more than fifty years ago, Santa Fe Opera has followed a formula — a quite successful one — that combines several familiar repertory pieces with a world or American premiere of an operatic rarity or a new opera, plus the occasional presentation of an original new commission. Over the years much attention has been paid to unusual repertory, with a solid core of Bohemes and Carmens to help pay the bills. There is no reason this will change.

The other limiting factor at Santa Fe might be summed up by describing it as a ‘catered’ opera company. Everything is prepared elsewhere and brought in, one might say. Quaint little Santa Fe, in the mountainous plateaus and deserts of Northern New Mexico, has no depth of musical resources, chorus, dance or related professions to call on. Just to meet the choral requirements of Wagner’s Lohengrin or Tannhauser would be virtually impossible without importing dozens of additional singers, not to speak of added musicians for the orchestra. This is true across the board of logistical and artistic requirements. So there is strong logic, indeed, to the philosophy of repertory and scale that has always guided the SFO, though at times it can seem limiting. On the other hand, take a look at the local scenery — heck of a lot better than 61st and Broadway!

In the long term, whether one music director or another (provided there IS one of adequate talent and insight), will not make much difference. But for those who expected Gilbert to become a bright light and guide-on for SFO, May brought a sense of disappointment.

J.A. Van Sant © 2007

image= image_description=Alan Gilbert
Posted by Gary at 3:39 PM

May 9, 2007


Listening to Andrea Bocelli attempt the role of Canio prompted the above thought, of course. His soft (if not unsupported), sweet voice has made him a recording star, and the millions of CDs of more pop-oriented material he has sold have enabled him to pursue his dream, at least in the recording studio, of attempting some of opera’s greatest tenor roles. Tosca, Trovatore, Werther — Bocelli may well be the last singer to take those great tenor roles into the recording studio. Vocal connoisseurs may weep and wail — but Decca keeps churning them out. Somebody is buying the sets...

This Pagliacci, the most recent release (although actually recorded in 2002) finds Bocelli recorded in a bathroom stall acoustic, at times even sounding as if his vocals have been double-recorded to give added weight. But it’s simply not enough. The only way Bocelli can effect force is to bark, which loses all the appeal of his voice. Although the top sounds tight, for the most part, Bocelli has the notes. He simply doesn't have the character. “Vesti la giubba” ends with exaggerated sobs that cap an inauthentic reading; “No, Pagliaccio non son” has never sounded more accurate.

And truthfully, Bocelli probably wouldn't even be as strong a Beppe as Francesco Piccoli, who doesn't have as distinctive a voice but manages to convey a sense of character in his brief appearances, including a fine serenade. Ana Maria Martinez is a pretty enough Nedda, but neither her Canio or Silvio (Roberto Accurso) prompt her to dramatic distinction. Stefano Antonucci’s Tonio also lacks a sharp profile.

A frequent artistic companion to Mr. Bocelli, Steven Mercurio leads the orchestra and chorus of the Teatro Massimo Bellini di Catania in a reading that favors the lyrical sections as opposed to the verismo edges. All in all, a tamer Pagliacci is hard to imagine, and why would one want to?

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=Ruggero Leoncavallo: Pagliacci product=yes product_title=Ruggero Leoncavallo: Pagliacci product_by=Andrea Bocelli (Canio), Ana Maria Martinez (Nedda). Stefano Antonucci (Tonio), Francesco Piccoli (Beppe), Roberto Accurso (Silvio), Salvatore Bonaffini (Contadino), Salvatore Todaro (Contadino); Childrens Chorus - Coro di voci bianche "Gaudeamus igitur" Concentus; Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Massimo Bellini, Steven Mercurio (cond.) product_id=Decca Classics 475 7753 9 [CD] price=$15.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 2:12 PM

Audrey Stottler Sings Wagner

The projection is steady, the high notes easily accessed (though with the threat of spreading evident), and the timbre characterized by a feminine heroism. If one goal of this recording is to declare “I can sing these roles,” Ms. Stottler succeeds.

But can Ms. Stottler be these characters? As heard here, the soprano does not provide much interpretation for the ear alone to recognize. In particular, the Isolde heard in the narrative and curse as well as the Liebestod hardly differs from the Brünnhilde from the final acts of Die Walküre or Götterdämmerung. In all the selections, Stottler’s voice dominates the aural picture, with the Academic Symphony Orchestra of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic providing a rather pallid backdrop (Arkady Steinlucht conducts). Most sopranos begin Isolde’s love death with a haunted, distant quality. Stottler comes on full force, and has nowhere to build to. Her Sieglinde does have the requisite passion for her act one, scene three moments; still, one can imagine this particular Sieglinde standing up to her brutish husband.

With a career, as detailed in the booklet biography, dominated in recent years by Turandots, Ms. Stottler seems to be relying on the heft of her voice. That’s not a dismissible quality, but one hopes that in working with a solid director, she can provide more illumination of the text than can be discerned in this recital.

Texts are provided in German and English.

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=Audrey Stottler Sings Wagner product=yes product_title=Audrey Stottler Sings Wagner product_by=Audrey Stottler, soprano, Academic Symphony Orchestra St. Petersburg, Arkady Steinlucht (cond.) product_id=Romeo Records 7250 [CD] price=$15.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 1:52 PM

Alison Balsom: Caprice

The crucial distinction here would be that Ms. Balsom is not a vocalist, although her singing tone on her chosen instrument, the trumpet, deserves acknowledgment.

Actually, the Bellini selection is an arrangement (by Julian Milone) of Jean-Baptiste Arban’s “Variations on ‘Casta Diva’.” For Caprice serves primarily as a showcase for the phenomenal technique of Ms. Balsom. Whether whipping through Milone’s adaptation of Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca,” tangoing in Piazzolla (Milone again), or sighing through her own version of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” Ms. Balsom leaves no doubt that she possesses not only great technical skills but also an admirable interpretative touch.

Perhaps the disc would be even better with a bit more focus; to skip from Paganini’s famous “Caprice” to Berio’s settings of Falla’s “Seven popular Spanish songs,” with Bach and Debussy still to come, can create a sort of musical whiplash. Consider the recording more “iPod material” then — something to dip into or enjoy along with other music using the “shuffle” feature.

Edward Gardner, recently appointed to lead the orchestra for English National Opera, here conducts the Gothenburg Symphony Orhestra. They provide wonderful support for their star, who need not rely on her physical attractions — estimable, as the photos demonstrate — to hold an audience’s attention. A very enjoyable disc.

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=Caprice product=yes product_title=Caprice product_by=Alison Balsom, trumpet, Göteborg Symfoniker, Edward Gardner (cond.) product_id=EMI Classics 0094635325522 [CD] price=$13.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 1:31 PM

Porgy and Bess at Los Angeles Opera

That schedule requires two casts for the main roles, and the second cast performed on May 5th, with your reviewer in attendance.

Peter Davison’s set of a two-story metal framework around a courtyard bears some resemblance to a penitentiary, with sliding doors for the narrow homes of the Catfish Row residences. A smaller frame for Porgy’s room rolls on at crucial points, and the Kittiwah island scene change passes quickly, with the main set pushed to one side and a blue background dropped in. Zambello expertly maneuvers her cast around this set, establishing the tightness of the community and yet also the sense of oppression enforced by its poverty.

Terry Cook as Crown (Porgy and Bess, LA Opera)Dave Kopplin’s forthright program essay covers both the history of the opera’s creation and the issues — controversy, if one must — about the nature of an opera about African-Americans entirely created by whites. Likewise, it is somewhat unfortunate that here in 2007, one’s best chance to encounter the talents of African-American performers on an opera stage remains in a revival of the opera, but at least at this stage of our history, any controversy seems less pertinent than an appreciation for the opportunity to enjoy the greatness of Gershwin’s score.

Zambello can’t do much about the libretto’s monochrome characterization, with the noble residents of Catfish Row beset by trouble created by their much-less than-noble denizens (Crown and Sportin’ Life). The whites are even more crude caricatures, cruelly and capriciously exercising their power, here with unsubtle glee.

Indira Mahajan as Bess and Alfred Walker as Porgy  (Porgy and Bess, LA Opera)On Saturday night, Alfred Walker’s Porgy brought a deeper scale to the drama, fully inhabiting a figure of quiet dignity, not merely self-pitying or helpless. Some may regret how the character’s deformity was muted, with Porgy only reliant on crutches to move his weak legs around. In Zambello’s depiction, Porgy is a man who has let his innate strength go unused, and it makes sense to see him as less crippled physically than emotionally stunted, at least until his desperate love for Bess makes him find that inner core of determination. Walker brought all this out beautifully, and his firm bass-baritone voice rang out handsomely.

As Bess, Indira Mahajan sounded best in her ample middle voice, with the top a bit unsteady and tending to spread. She made for a suitably seductive figure, although Zambello couldn’t find a way to believably dramatize her change of mind when she decides to flee with Sportin’ Life to New York City. Her frantic dashing around here made Bess look possessed. Victor Ryan Robertson acted a wonderfully sleazy Sportin’ Life, but his light tenor needed more projection to really bring home his big solos, especially “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Terry Cook’s Crown veered dangerously close to cartoon villain, making Bess’s attraction to him border on the incredible. Thankfully Cook sang attractively enough to outweigh any quibbles.

Clara’s opening “Summertime” could have used a touch more sweetness from Alyson Cambridge; after that, she sang well and her touching Clara made an appropriate contrast to Bess. Eric Greene partnered her well as her husband Jake. Monique McDonald had the other big female solo, with the most aria-like of the score’s numbers, “My man’s gone now.” McDonald has a big, rich soprano and put this music across with operatic fervor. For your reviewer, the preferred version will always be Sarah Vaughan’s.

Porgy and Bess has a large cast, and they all performed with enthusiasm, although Jennie Ford, choreographer, may have wished for more time in rehearsal (Denni Sayers is credited with the original choreography). John DeMain, long an exponent of the score, conducted the LAO orchestra with professional precision.

The Gershwins’ and Heyward’s opera seemed at home on the Dorothy Chandler stage. Whether one calls it a true opera or not, in a production such as Zambello’s, Porgy and Bess makes for a memorable evening at the opera house.

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=Victor Ryan Robertson as Sportin' Life and Indira Mahajan as Bess (Robert Millard, courtesy of LA Opera) product=yes product_title=George Gershwin: Porgy and Bess product_by=Los Angeles Opera
5 May 2007 product_id=Above: Victor Ryan Robertson as Sportin' Life and Indira Mahajan as Bess
All photos by Robert Millard, courtesy of LA Opera
Posted by Gary at 12:04 PM

On The Town – English National Opera

Jude Kelly’s energetic production of Leonard Bernstein’s 1944 musical was originally seen here in 2005 to an extended run of full houses, so it can at least be said to have already proved its worth.

Let loose for 24 hours of shore leave in New York City, three young sailors go in search of some sightseeing and, more importantly, some female company. Small-town boy Gabey (Ryan Molloy) falls in love with a picture of the subway beauty queen (‘Miss Turnstiles’) Ivy Smith and sends his two friends out on a mission to make his romantic dream a reality. En route, virginal Chip (Sean Palmer) and the more worldly Ozzie (Joshua Dallas) quickly manage to land themselves a pair of nymphomaniacs, the taxi-driver Hildy Esterhazy and the archaeologist Claire de Loone – and the group set out ‘on the town’ for the evening before returning to ship.

June Whitfield as Mme. Dilly and Helen Anker as Ivy Smith (ENO -- On The Town)That’s basically it, as far as the plot goes. For all its brass, sex and comedy, the show is a vignette depicting the transience of pleasure in a world where any or all of the young sailors might soon lose their life in battle.

It’s a difficult piece to categorise, almost as much a ballet as it is a musical; the high-octane comedy numbers are balanced by romance and poignancy in songs including ‘Lucky to be Me’, ‘Lonely Town’ and ‘Some Other Time’. The dance numbers didn’t work too well in 2005, but this time Stephen Mear’s choreography is slick and energetic. Simon Lee’s conducting also seems snappier and more together than on the first hearing.

Coney Island scene (ENO -- On The Town)The three ladies all returned from the previous run. Caroline O’Connor’s Hildy was a ballsy dominatrix with a voice to match. As Claire, the American Lucy Schaufer, a very versatile performer (she’s also a Handelian mezzo) combined slinky dance moves with a glorious vocal range including some terrific operatic high notes, and Helen Anker’s Ivy was sweet, graceful and ingenuous. Conversely, the three male leads were new to the production and, despite energetic performances and some attractive singing, were left somewhat in the shade of the ladies – in fact the only really memorable performance came from ENO regular Andrew Shore as Lucy’s long-suffering fiancé, Judge Pitkin W. Bridgework.

Also new was the veteran British comic actress June Whitfield, in a memorably brilliant performance as Ivy’s bohemian alcoholic voice teacher Madame Dilly, while Janine Duvitski returned to give a touching comic account of Lucy Schmeeler, Hildy’s homely roommate who eventually finds a perfect match of her own.

Robert Jones’s ingenious sets rely mainly on outline forms to capture every situation - the dockyard, Hildy’s cab, the subway, the Museum of Natural History, Hildy’s and Claire’s tiny apartments crammed together in typically urban style, the sequence of night-spots, Coney Island.

Ruth Elleson © 2007

image= image_description=Ryan Molloy as Gabey (ENO -- On The Town) product=yes product_title=Leonard Bernstein: On The Town product_by=English National Opera, 23 April 2007
All photos by Laurie Lewis, courtesy of English National Opera
Posted by Gary at 9:32 AM

May 8, 2007

MASSENET: Hérodiade

Music by Jules Massenet. Libretto by Paul Millet and Henri Grémont, based on Gustave Flaubert’s novelette (1877).

First Performance:19 December 1881, Theatre de la Monnaie, Brussels
Revised version: 1 February 1884, Théâtre Italien, Paris
Principal Characters:
Salomé (Salome) Soprano
Hérodiade (Herodias) Mezzo-Soprano
Jean (John the Baptist) Tenor
Hérode (Herod) Baritone
Phanuel, Chaldean astrologer Bass
Vitellius, Roman Proconsul Baritone
High Priest Baritone

Setting: Jerusalem, c. 30 C.E.


Act I

Scene— The Courtyard of the Palace of Herod

It is dawn and a great horde of merchants, traders and slaves crowd the scene to do their oriental bartering. The Pharisees and Sadducees among them soon begin to argue, then to fight. Phanuel, seer and chief adviser to Herod, attracted by the uproar, enters and bids them cease; the crowd disperses. Phanuel remains musing over the impossibility of a strong Israel with her people thus divided, when he is interrupted by the entry of Salome. She is seeking John, the prophet with a new and rising gospel. She tells Phanuel how when she was a child, John had saved her from the desert; this she narrates in a lovely aria.

While listening to her sympathetically he marvels that this seemingly innocent child does not know who her mother really is. As she leaves, Herod enters, seeking her. He has seen her seldom, yet his passions are inflamed by this new beauty who lives so obscurely in his palace. He is startled from his amorous meditation by the arrival of Herodias, who comes crying out for vengeance; she demands the head of John, who has insulted her by calling her Jezebel. Herod refuses, much to the chagrin of Herodias, his one-time favorite. Her scoldings are in turn interrupted by the entry of John, who denounces the pair in such terrifying language that they flee.

Salome now comes towards the prophet, and frankly confesses her great love for him. He listens understandingly and kindly, but bids her turn to God and dream only of the love that is fulfilled in heaven. But Salome is not able to comprehend why she should not love and be loved on earth as well as in heaven.

Act II

Scene 1—Herod’s Chamber

Herod, restless on his luxurious couch, watches the dance of the almond-eyed women whose sole purpose in life is doing his pleasure. He cannot endure their presence now, for his thoughts are of nothing but Salome; he longs for her with the urgent desire that every powerful man has for the unattainable. A serving woman brings him a mysterious potion that will enable him to see a vision of the woman he most loves. Herod hesitates a moment, for fear that it may be a trick to poison him, but desire is too strong. He drinks the potion, and beholds a maddeningly tantalizing vision of Salome.

The vision passed, he again attempts to sleep; his restless tossings are ended by Phanuel, who comes to warn him that his hold upon the populace is insecure. Even as he speaks, from without there is a great cry for Herod.

Scene 2—A Public Square in Jerusalem

Local patriots have come to swear their allegiance to Herod in attempting to throw off the yoke of Rome. They are laughed at by Herodias. Soon trumpets announce the approach of Vitelius, and Herod is among the very first to bow the knee to the Roman; only John boldly remains standing before the rulers. Vitelius wonders at this man; Herod, although conscience of what is going on about him, is still under the spell of Salome’s beauty. He sees nothing—his eyes are glued on Herodias’ daughter as she affectionately watches the prophet, John. Herodias observes everything, and warns Vitelius of John’s growing power. The prophet denounces the Romans, saying their glory is but for a day; then, surrounded by his followers, he disappears.


Scene 1—Phanuel’s House

Phanuel, alone, is gazing out over the city, silent under the starry sky. He wonders about this man John, is he merely man, or a god? Herodias comes seeking her horoscope; the astrologer finds only blood written there. A star, inextricably linked to hers, serves to remind Herodias of her long-forgotten daughter; she wishes to see her again. Phanuel points from his window down to the gates of the temple. It is Salome they see. Herodias is horrified; hatred and desire for vengeance return. “My Daughter,” she cries, “never . . . my rival!”

Scene 2—Inner Court of the Temple

Salome laments and then falls fainting at the gate of the temple prison where John is confined. Herod, planning how he might release John and use him in his plot against the Romans, forgets all his political ideas when he finds Salome here. She recoils in horror when she realizes that this is the all-powerful Herod making love to her. Priests and people enter and worship at the Holy of Holies; then John is brought out for trial. The priests demand his execution; the crowd is divided. Herod would save John if he will help him in his plot against the Romans. John refuses; the Priests clamor for his execution. Suddenly Salome throws herself at John’s feet, and, before the astonished multitude, begs that she may die with him. Herod has found his rival, and condemns the two to death.

Act IV

Scene 1—A Dungeon in the Temple

John prays for strength in the ordeal to come, and pleads that he may be freed of the love of Salome which constantly disturbs his soul. When she enters a moment later he believes that this is an indication that heaven approves their love. They clasp one another in a supreme embrace while they sing their duet, “Il est beau de mourir en s’aimant.” Priests enter to lead John to death; but Salome is dragged away to Herod’s Palace.

Scene 2— The Great Hall in the Palace

A most luxurious festival in honor of the Roman Empire is in progress. As a part of the festivities a group of Phoenician women perform a languorous oriental dance. Salome runs distractedly before Herod and Herodias again to plead that she may be permitted to die with John. She appeals to the Queen, saying, “If ever thou wert a mother, pity me!” Herodias trembles at the word. Suddenly there appears at the back of the hall an executioner with dripping sword, crying “The Prophet is dead!” From the expression on the face of Herodias, Salome recognizes her as the one responsible for this; she rushes at the woman with drawn dagger. “Spare me!” cries the frightened Herodias, “I am thy mother!” Salome recoiling in horror answers, “If thou be my mother, take back thy blood with my life,” then drives the dagger into her own breast.

[Synopsis Source: The Victor Book of the Opera (10th ed., 1929)]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image= image_description=Gustave Moreau: Salomé (1876) audio=yes first_audio_name=Jules Massenet: Hérodiade
WinAMP or VLC first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Jules Massenet: Hérodiade product_by=Herodiade:Agnes Baltsa
John: Kostadin Andreev
Herod: Georg Tichy
Salome: Nancy Gustafson
Phanuel: Wojtek Smilek
Vitellius: Istvan Gati
High Priest: David Cale Johnson
Orchester und Chor der Wiener Staatsoper, Reynald Giovaninetti (cond.)
Live performance, 6 March 2000, Vienna
Posted by Gary at 2:17 PM

May 3, 2007

Wagner Dream -- Grand Théâtre, Luxembourg

Harvey_Jonathan.pngAndrew Clements [The Guardian, 3 May 2007]

For the last 30 years of his life, Wagner cherished the idea of composing an opera on a Buddhist theme. Die Sieger (The Victors) was to be based on the story of Prakriti, the untouchable who falls in love with Buddhist monk Ananda, and who, despite the opposition of the Brahmins, is eventually allowed by Buddha to be united with him as long as she shares his vow of chastity.

Posted by Gary at 2:59 PM

'Billy Budd' showcases a decidedly different opera star

By Mark Kanny [Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 3 May 2007]

Nathan Gunn revels in performing the title role of "Billy Budd," the operatic masterpiece by Benjamin Britten that Pittsburgh Opera presents for the first time, starting Sunday afternoon.

Posted by Gary at 2:59 PM

The Tristan Project, Avery Fisher Hall, New York

By Martin Bernheimer [Financial Times, 3 May 2007]

Much ado about pretty much. The Tristan Project – note that it isn’t called Tristan und Isolde – has been percolating in one form or another for two years on two continents. On Wednesday, it finally arrived in New York, and the Wagner-starved multitudes cheered the show. We do mean show.

Posted by Gary at 2:52 PM

Eugene Onegin, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre, Moscow

By George Loomis [Financial Times, 3 May 2007]

The Stanislavsky theatre, as it is popularly known, has a logo bearing the outline of a classical building with four columns. Most will see a nod to the dawn of western theatre but the design in fact alludes to the performance venue of Stanislavsky’s Bolshoi Theatre Opera Studio, a columned, former ballroom in the centuries-old house the great director occupied in Moscow.

Posted by Gary at 2:50 PM

Franco Corelli: His Early Cetra Records

Most of the time I think those people are simply not interested in what they are doing. They often churn out big names without taking the pains of looking up what appeared on earlier issues (the duplication between Preiser and Pearl is a prime example). Most collectors, of course, are not very keen on buying a new issue that only has a few arias that are not to be found on other CDs; and, therefore, they keep their money in their pockets. Firms then complain that there are no customers for their magnificent CDs and don’t look for culprits within their own ranks. No firm that I know off takes the pain to ask a few collectors what is already re-issued on other labels and what is not.

The CD under review is another example. This is the fourth issue with some of Corelli’s Cetra recordings. I cannot believe lovers of this tenor’s youthful exciting and virile singing have waited for this issue to replace their worn LP’s. Moreover, Warner’s 2-CD set is almost complete and gives the dates of recording or the names of Corelli’s partners, neither deemed necessary in this careless CD. At the same time all the tenor’s many fans are still waiting for a firm that will at last re-issue his very first recordings: Granada, Cancione Moresca, Lolita and Pecché ; four items that never got on LP or CD. This is a superfluous recording therefore unless you cannot digest two CDs of young Corelli (as all other labels offer them).

Jan Neckers

image= image_description=Franco Corelli: His Early Cetra Records product=yes product_title=Franco Corelli: His Early Cetra Records
Arias from Norma, Lombardi, Ernani, Rigoletto, Trovatore, Simon Boccanegra, Ballo, Forza del destino, Aida, Otello, Carmen, Mefistofele, Werther, Tosca, Turandot, Pagliacci, Andrea Chénier. product_by=Franco Corelli, tenor product_id=Urania URN 22.293 [CD] price=$13.25 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 10:26 AM

Cesare Siepi: The Salzburg Recital of 1956; Arias from Norma, Faust, Don Carlo

Siepi always had a big voice that streamed along as the Mississippi but there is no denying that the delivery could be a tiny bit monotonous, that the phrasing was not always very original. Maybe Siepi belongs to that species in the artistic tribe that needs an audience to give the best of himself as he did in this long and interesting recital. At the Met he sang several roles in German like Gurnemanz and Don Pizarro. Therefore it won’t come as a surprise that he sings a few well-known lieder from Schumann and Brahms. His German is acceptable, no more but still I wonder what the composers would have thought of Siepi. I have an inkling they would wrinkle their brows for just a moment and then they would sigh at the beauty of the sound and be happy with the firmness of the line and hope that other belcanto singers would perform their music far more often. In Ravel’s ‘Don Quichotte à Dulcinée’ Siepi is equally impressive — full of nuances and proving he has splendid high almost baritonal notes.

The same can be said of his six opera arias though the accompanying piano is somewhat meager. Here Siepi can be his own conductor, using more rubato than is usual in his official recordings. As a result the phrasing is more original in Mefistofele and he shows some fine restrained emotion in Jacopo Fiesco’s arias. Bongiovanni fills up this recital with live performances in Norma (2), Faust (2) and Don Carlo. The firm doesn’t think it necessary to reveal the origin of the sources for understandable reasons as these performances are in excellent sound and are clearly taken from Metropolitan radio broadcasts. These renditions too reveal to us the best of the singer: the velvety quality of the sound in the early fifties together with the power and the nobility of the voice. Nowadays there is an incessant complaint about the lack of truly great Italian tenors but this recitals reveals to us that not only in the high register there is a dearth of outstanding voices. The great line of Italian basses that went on from De Angelis to Pasero to Pinza ended with Siepi and we are the poorer for it. This record is proof.

Jan Neckers

image= image_description=Cesare Siepi: The Salzburg Recital of 1956; Arias from Norma, Faust, Don Carlo product=yes product_title=Cesare Siepi: The Salzburg Recital of 1956; Arias from Norma, Faust, Don Carlo product_by=Cesare Siepi, bass product_id=Bongiovanni GB 1194-2 [CD] price=$15.50 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 9:37 AM

American Choral Music

In their best recordings, the company’s reputation as a budget-price label becomes almost incidental. The performances are professional, often inspired, and the repertoire not limited to more popular composers such as Copland or Bernstein.

The disc “American Choral Music” is a fine example. James Morrow leads the University of Texas Chamber Singers in a program of pieces by Persichetti, Ives, Corigliano, Foss, and yes, Copland — but even then, the seldom-heard Biblical setting, In the Beginning.

A demanding group, choral music fans should find much to enjoy here. Some works are for chorus alone (Ives’s Psalm 90), one has organ accompaniment (Foss’s Behold, I Build a House), and the others employ the University Chamber Orchestra. With Susanne Mentzer as soloist in the Corigliano and Foss works, this disc has an enjoyable variety of structure and technique.

Nonetheless, some pieces will appeal more than others, and your reviewer found the opening set of short e.e. cumming’s settings by Persichetti, Flower Songs, to be an absolute delight that the rest of the material does not quite match. Persichetti tends to lay a mist-like instrumental fabric under the vocal line, so that the words come through distinctly. As all the works center on floral imagery, the pastel colors of the scoring feel appropriate, though having at least one more rhythmically charged piece might have been advised.

In Psalm 90, the Ives piece, the denser writing for chorus means that often individual words get lost. This music doesn’t come from Ives in bold iconoclast mode, and a dreariness sets in as the work proceeds to its conclusion at the 11-minute mark. Perhaps dreary is how Ives heard religious music.

Whereas the Ives piece comes from late in the composer’s career, Corigliano’s Fern Hill is an earlier work. Your reviewer heard some of the melancholy lyricism of Samuel Barber in the gentle music here, and the chorus admirably sustains a lighter approach.

With an insistent organ part (played by Seung Won Cho), Lukas Foss’s Behold, I Build an House also requires much full chorus contribution, and with Naxos unable to provide texts, most of the words pass by in an aural blur.

Setting the familiar lines of Genesis, Aaron Copland’s In the Beginning uses a call-and-response structure, with Mentzer leading the chorus. Just as the piece starts to become somewhat repetitive, Copland speeds things up. While that helps to keep the listener’s interest, as might be expected the words run together as the chorus speeds through them. With this piece as with the other religious settings on the disc, there is more of a sense of writing in a tradition than through actual spiritual inspiration.

Admirers of choral music will probably find much of interest on the entire disc, but for most listeners, the greatest rewards will come with the Persichetti Flower Songs. At Naxos’s prices, that still earns the entire disc a warm recommendation.

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=American Choral Music product=yes product_title=American Choral Music product_by=Susanne Mentzer (mezzo-soprano), University of Texas Chamber Singers, University of Texas Chamber Orchestra, James Morrow (cond.) product_id=Naxos 8.559299 [CD] price=$7.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 8:48 AM

May 2, 2007


Music composed by Richard Strauss. Libretto by the composer based on Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of Oscar Wilde’s play

First Performance: 9 December 1905, Hofoper, Dresden

Principal Characters:
Herodes, Tetrach of Judea Tenor
Herodias, wife of the Tetrach Mezzo-Soprano
Salome, daughter of Herodias Soprano
Jochanaan, a prophet Baritone
Narraboth, a young Syrian Tenor
A Page Alto
5 Jews 4 Tenors, 1 Bass
2 Nazarenes Tenor, Bass
2 Soldiers Basses
A Cappadocian Bass
A Slave Silent Role

Setting: Palace of Herod at Tiberias, Galilee, c. 30 C.E.


Narraboth, the Captain of Herod’s guard, is fascinated by the princess Salome’s beauty. When she enters onto the palace terrace the voice of the prophet Jokanaan is heard from the cistern where he is imprisoned. She orders him to be raised up and Narraboth eventually surrenders to her will and disobeys Herod’s decree. Jokanaan emerges into the moonlight and denounces the incestuous union of Herod and Salome’s mother Herodias and demands that Salome repents and follows Christ. Equally apalled and mesmerised she is increasingly overcome by desire, praising his body, hair and mouth. Narraboth is distraught and kills himself, but Salome steps over his body in pursuit of her passion. Jokanaan curses her and returns to his prison. Herod emerges from the palace with Herodias, seeking Salome who ignores his advances. Stepping in Narraboth’s blood — a bad omen — he seeks relief from his nightmare visions. The voice of Jokanaan is heard again and Herodias demands that he be delivered to the Jews, provoking a religious debate about the true nature of the prophet and of Christ himself. Herod’s attention is solely focused on Salome who he begs to dance for him and swears an oath to grant her any wish. She performs the Dance of the Seven Veils and tells the horrified Herod that her payment will be the head of the prophet. She waits nervously at the edge of the cistern until the executioner delivers her prize on a silver platter. She ecstatically kisses Jokanaan’s lips, achieving fulfilment at last. In disgust, Herod orders her death.

[Synopsis Source: Boosey & Hawkes]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image= image_description=Salome with the Head of John the Baptist by Titian (1550) audio=yes first_audio_name=Richard Strauss: Salome
Windows Media Player first_audio_link= second_audio_name=Richard Strauss: Salome
WinAMP or VLC second_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Richard Strauss: Salome product_by=Herodes: Hans Hopf
Herodias: Grace Hoffman
Jochanaan: Eberhard Wächter
Cappadocian: Reid Bunger
Narraboth: Waldemar Kmentt
Page: Rohangiz Yachmi
Salome: Leonie Rysanek
Slave: Ewald Aichberger
Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, Karl Böhm (cond.)
Live performance, 22 December 1972, Vienna
Posted by Gary at 9:49 AM

OFFENBACH: Orpheus in der Unterwelt (Orphée aux enfers)

Even at the distance of over 35 years, this production of one of Offenbach’s best-known works transcends the screen as a quite engaging video that works well in this well-conceived translation.

In using fantasy to parody the conventional story of Orpheus, Offenbach created an operetta that at once through the story on its ear and also satirized the bourgeois aspects of his culture. With Euridice as not entirely unwilling about leaving her mundane existence, Offenbach creates a character who is also skeptical about her life in the supernatural domain. The trade-offs that are part of the world weigh strongly in the plot. At the same time, the revolt of the gods and goddesses against Zeus because of their unflagging diet of ambrosia and nectar is a foil that reflects the uprisings in Europe, including France in 1848. Characterized by some as frenetic when it comes to the flow of ideas, Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers demands an a style of production that allows the ideas to flow easily between musical numbers and pieces. While this is possible on stage, it is impossible to miss when filmed, and this production succeeds in capturing the momentum that is essential to this work. Janowski and the crew responsible for this production created production that is works cinematically, while not losing any sense of theater and, most of all, the musical style.

Over the years, productions have depicted the setting in various ways, with some degree of contrast supporting the difference between earthly life and the divine. This production uses the frame of the television to allow the character eponymously named Public Opinion to lead the viewer to the television screen that reveals the production. As to earthly existence, it is somewhat plainly German and definitely peasant, while the gods have the obligatory gowned costumes that are sometimes adorned with accouterments connected to the identity of various individuals.

As to the specific character of this production, it is a product of the 1970s, with some of pop-art primary colors characterizing some sets, while several of the women’s costumes suggest the Carnaby-street sensibility that may suggest the time. One element that dates the production is Public Opinion’s skirt made of covers of Life magazine, which is no longer published in the format popular at the time. At present, the slender pictorial entitled Life that some US newspapers carry is a shadow of the more substantial periodical that appeared in the 1960s and 1970s. Yet these are minor quibbles, that should not detract from the overriding quality of the production that remains evident after three decades.

Notwithstanding the involvement of forces from the Hamburg Opera, this production is essentially a film of the operetta, not a film of a performance on stage. By using this approach, the director can effect the quick transitions and establish pacing that allows the production to flow smoothly between scenes. Likewise, the audience is absent, but unlike some filmed opera that suffer from the lack of the dynamic involvement of the audience, the performance is as vital as if it were performed in a theater.

The production included actors from the popular stage, both musical and otherwise, as well as some fine singers, William Workman as Pluto and Franz Grundheber as Mars stand out for their fine vocal work. Yet the singing actress Inge Meysel as Juno plays the role affably, with her moment of confusion between revolution and resolution is worthy of a seasoned Ruth in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. As John Styx, a role akin to that of the jailer in Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus, Theo Lingen delivers a finely comic line that emerges both in his acting and singing. The other performances are equally fine, and the entire cast works well in the various ensembles that interweave the work. Overall the spoken German is a model of clarity, but those who do not understand the language have the benefit of subtitles in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, thus making this fine performance accessible to a wide audience. The sound is quite good, and the recording quality high. From the display, it appears that this is a transfer, but there are no distortions in the digital images.

Of course, Offenbach’s famous “Can-can” occurs at the end of the work, and it conveys the spirit of the work, albeit with a Teutonic accent. That number, as well as the entire production, is worth viewing. Although some may prefer their Orphée in French, this German translation is every bit as lively as some of the finer Gallic productions. Listed on the DVD case as a “Historical Studio Production from the Hamburg State Opera 1971,” this rubric should by no means convey the sense of a dusty, old artifact. Even the warning about the quality of the original film is, perhaps, overly cautious, this is a fine production that has much to offer decades it was first viewed.

James L. Zychowicz

image= image_description=Jacques Offenbach: Orpheus in der Unterwelt (Orphée aux enfers) product=yes product_title=Jacques Offenbach: Orpheus in der Unterwelt (Orphée aux enfers) product_by=William Workman, Franz Grundheber, Inge Meysel, Theo Lingen, Liselotte Pulver, Elisabeth Steiner, Kurt Marschner, Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra, with Marek Janowski, conductor. product_id=ArtHaus 101267 [DVD] price=$24.98 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 9:25 AM

BACH: Cantatas, Vol. 26 (Whit Sunday and Whit Monday)

In this present volume Gardiner presents seven cantatas, all for Pentecost Sunday and Monday, with a chronological span of 1714 to 1746/7. Thus we hear not only the development and refinement of Bach’s own abilities, but also his development of specific material. For instance, the opening duet of Wer mich liebet, BWV 59 is amply fleshed out later as the opening chorus of Wer mich liebet, BWV 74, an expansion in both vocal and instrumental scoring, rather like Bach discovering a newly rich palette of hues and returning to re-color an earlier image. (Three of the cantatas, BWV 173, 68, and 174, adapt material, as well, including a splendid reworking of part of the third Brandenburg, although the models are not recorded here.)

The variety within the cantatas of the collection can be impressive. Erschallet, ihr Lieder, BWV 172, for example, presents a festive chorus, appealingly brilliant and exuberant, an aria with some of Bach’s most virtuosic trumpeting, a duet in the form of a love scene between the Soul and the Spirit, akin to the sensuous duets of Ich hatte viel Bekummernis, BWV 21 from the previous year or Johann Christoph Bach’s wonderful Meine Freundin, du bist schön, and also a richly adorned chorale, a setting of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern with violin descant. An early work dating from 1714, it shows Bach in full control of varied resources and having no shortage of ideas in response to an imageful text.

Performed and recorded in June, 2000, this installment of the Cantata Pilgrimage falls midway through the year’s tour of (primarily) European churches. And though personnel will vary throughout the year, it is significant that here at the midpoint the ensemble’s “house style” is well established and the performances show no sign of fatigue with the project nor staleness in the rendition. Among the solo singers, tenor Christoph Genz, a former chorister at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, is particularly memorable for his brilliant sound and nimble execution, as well as his lyrical sensitivity. Soprano Lisa Larsson draws the task of singing one of Bach’s best-known arias, the chestnut “Mein gläubiges Herze” from Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt, BWV 68. Her performance sparkles and smiles, especially in collaboration with David Watkin’s spry violoncello piccolo accompaniment. Also notable is countertenor Derek Lee Ragin’s dramatic rendition of the highly theatrical aria “ Nichts kann mich erretten” from cantata 74. Ragin has a flair for the dramatic propensities here and the deft technique to “laugh at Hell’s anger.” The dynamic variation with his register shifts may detract on occasion, but this extraordinarily gestural aria is well-served by his commanding interpretation.

The choir is seasoned and fluent in its singing—Bach seems to be for them a “native tongue.” Gardiner has a wonderful capacity for investing his performances with rhythmic excitement, especially evident in the choruses. However the line between this rhythmic excitement and a harsh articulative exaggeration is not always well gauged, as in the final chorus of cantata 68.

All in all, however, the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage remains a most impressive undertaking. Its legacy of recordings document music-making of high distinction, indeed.

Steven Plank

image= image_description=Johann Sebastian Bach. Cantatas Vol. 26 (Whit Sunday and Whit Monday) product=yes product_title=Johann Sebastian Bach. Cantatas Vol. 26 (Whit Sunday and Whit Monday).
Erschallet, ihr Lieder, BWV 172; Wer mich liebet, BWV 59; Wer mich liebet, BWV 74; O ewiges Feuer, BWV 34; Erhöhtes Fleisch und Blut, BWV 173; Also hat Gott die Welt geliebt, BWV 68; Ich liebe den Höchsten von ganzem Gemüte, BWV 174. product_by=Lisa Larsson, soprano; Nathalie Stutzmann, alto; Derek Lee Ragin, alto; Christoph Genz, tenor; Panajotis Iconomou, bass. The Monteverdi Choir; The English Baroque Soloists; John Eliot Gardiner, Director. product_id=SDG 121 [2CDs] price=$40.49 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 8:51 AM

Delightful Organ at St Margaret’s Palm Desert

I might have until recently, but as of January 28 and February 13, 2007 this auditor has a new and pleasurable impression of what pipe organs can be as secular entertainment, even if in a church setting. (Yes, I grew up listening to Stan Kann play the mighty Wurlitzer at the Fox Theatre in St Louis, but that was a movie palace, and in a very different repertory and time.)

A visitor to the California desert cities two hours east of Los Angeles may find the area, in terms of classical music, a cultural wasteland. That has been my impression. Thus in the present winter season two recitals on the superb Quimby organ at St. Margaret’s Church in Palm Desert (nationally known of late as the locus of Gerald Ford’s first funeral), were well appreciated as they were especially excellent in quality.

In January the talented Richard Elliott, a principal organist and musical director of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, held forth on a Sunday afternoon to a full house of 750 that stood and cheered his performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Originally written for piano, Pictures thrived in an organ arrangement by J. Guillou and K. John, the myriad colors and dynamic effects achieved by Dr Elliott and the 4,274 pipes of Quimby’s remarkable St. Margaret’s instrument provided a promenade through this dramatic musical gallery tour, which was literally incomparable. The ear was constantly surprised by the enormous variety of instrumental sounds and colors pouring from the various registrations chosen by Dr Elliott. “The Great Gate of Kiev,” resounded magnificently, and coming as it did following a section (“Baba Yaga”) played pianissimo, the audience was left in a state of astonished delight.

Quimby’s big 71-rank, electro-pneumatic slider organ is a bit daring given the size of the church’s auditorium; it is almost, but not quite, too large in sound, when full out, for the hall. Thus, the sonic journey from pianissimo to fortissimo is an exciting trek. The balance of tonal quality from lowest to highest notes is especially pleasing; and to hear the powerful low basso tones rolling through the room was thrilling. Nothing is raw or unrefined, every sound is pure music. Organ builder Michael Quimby, headquartered in Missouri, is a small but highly regarded designer-builder, who is presently engaged in the prestigious assignment of restoring the fire-damaged organ in the Cathedral of St John the Divine, in New York City. When Quimby built the Palm Desert organ, a decade ago, it was his most ambitious undertaking to date, he says. He went to great lengths to study the acoustical problems of the ‘dry’ St. Margaret auditorium, making a special trip to England and France to familiarize himself with instruments that overcame similar challenges.

I want to pause here with a disclaimer – I am not tutored in organ arts or technology and have only a layman’s notion of the skills required to perform as an organ virtuoso. But St. Margaret’s quicksilver Quimby instrument strikes me as of singular quality among church organs I’ve heard. Dedicated in 1998, after three years of manufacture, the four manual, 58 stop, 71 rank instrument is precise but warm in tonal quality, perfectly balanced in pitch and color. It is widely versatile – Bach, Buxtehude and classical pieces sound clean and clear, as they should; César Franck and Elgar are warm, mellow and full-toned, and showmen (if I may take that liberty), such as Widor and Vierne are fleet and sparkling. I am in complete sympathy with Dr. Elliott, who announced before his recital, “the only time I am unhappy at St. Margaret’s is when I have to leave this marvelous instrument.” Elliott’s other selections in his Sunday recital included a ‘Trumpet Voluntary’ of John Stanley; Bach and Handel, as well as Elliott’s own hymn arrangements. The Utah artist played with musical muscularity and poise, and he had the entire program from memory. What a treat to hear him and his unique treatment of various scores on the Quimby instrument. Dr. Elliott is featured in some sixteen CD recordings, and has a new solo recital disc coming out on the Mormon Tabernacle Choir label this year.

As if one good thing begets another, February 13 the Scotland-born music master and organist of Westminster Abbey, London, James O’Donnell, provided St. Margaret’s a quite different program that impressed not only with technical brilliance but with nuanced subtlety and elegance. O’Donnell’s many Hyperion recordings testify to his abilities, if not to the sound of the Quimby instrument. For that one can turn to a JVS Recordings CD of Frank Bridge organ music played on the St. Margaret’s Quimby by the American virtuoso, Todd Wilson of Ohio. Listen to this on a big sound system with an extended low-frequency response and plenty of amplification power, and my favorable adjectives may seem inadequate.

Mr. O’Donnell’s program included Buxtehude and Bach; a French group of Franck, Widor and Vierne; a quick dip into the English masters Stanford, Elgar and Walton, and a charming unexpected piece, “Miroir” by Ad Wammes (b, 1953) that added a touch of impressionistic whimsy. The Scottish artist played with remarkable technical mastery, his musical taste and spirit of the highest order, as would be expected from a man in his exalted position in British music.

When one considers most organ scores are not instructed with registration, thus leaving much of the instrumental colors and sounds to the choice of the performer, the magnitude of musical talent required for organ virtuoso performances is awe inspiring. An organist’s tasks are varied and many, and the artist has an unusual degree of creative input. [For audiophiles, my playback for organ and other ‘large’ material includes Thiel 3.6 speakers, a Threshold amp of 300-watts, and a DA converter by Sonic Frontiers of Canada that includes a vacuum tube stage for warmth, all connected with highly efficient top quality Kimber Kable.] After hearing organ music in Palm Desert’s church of St. Margaret, I shall admit to the sin of envy. The only cure, of course, is to hear more, or so Oscar Wilde might advise. This may happen, as next year is the organ’s tenth year, and John Wright, the church’s music master and resident organist, advises interesting plans are being made.

The CD [JAV120], “Frank Bridge and Friends,” recorded at St. Margaret’s in 2000 and still commercially available, is of unusual interest in itself, not only as a handsome demonstration of the Quimby organ. Most of the rarely-heard music is of English composer Frank Bridge (1879-1941), an important teacher of Benjamin Britten. Other selections are by Sir Edward Cuthbert Barstow, Britten, John Nicholson Ireland, Craig Sellar Lang, Sir William Turner Walton and Percy William Whitlock, all late 19th C. or 20th C. U.K. composers, working at a time when organ was a musical sovereign. As to interest and quality, each composer offers worthwhile material, though now and then the Bridge pieces can turn a tad watery and a slow-paced. I liked John Ireland’s ‘Romance’ for its shape and movement, and Walton’s ‘Popular Song’ will delight those familiar with his setting of the Sitwell poem ‘Façade,’ for which the merry tune was written. The better the audio system used in playing back this recording the finer the music will sound, though even the largest home stereo systems cannot approach the magical presence and full range of sound of a pipe organ such as St. Margaret’s in full cry.

King of instruments, indeed!

J. A. VAN SANT/Santa Fe © 2007

image= image_description=Quimby Pipe Organ at St. Margaret's, Palm Desert product=yes product_title=Above: Celebrating the Quimby Pipe Organ at Saint Margaret's, Palm Desert
Posted by Gary at 8:28 AM

May 1, 2007

Sexy Divas Boosting Classical Music Biz

Mijanovic.pngClassical music sales have risen 11.7% since 2003 thanks in part to the popularity of Russia's Anna Netrebko and other female vocalists

by Joachim Kronsbein [1 May 2007, Business Week]

Since Russian singer Anna Netrebko appeared on the scene, cash registers are finally ringing again in the classical music industry. Record companies are pushing a steady stream of new female vocalists -- but being a diva nowadays requires much more than just talent.

Posted by Gary at 9:48 PM

ROSSINI: Bianca e Falliero

The very long first act takes it time to set up a basic situation. Contareno, a Venetian noble, wants his daughter to marry Capellio, a sometime enemy. Bianca, the daughter, however, is in love with a military hero, Falliero. Contareno threatens Bianca, forcing her to submit to the marriage, but Falliero breaks up the ceremony. In act two he manages to meet Bianca alone, only to have to flee. When caught at the Spanish Embassy, he is arrested. In the prolonged climax, Falliero faces execution as a traitor to Venice, but Bianca’s protestations of love convince Capellio to release her from the marriage to him, and eventually Contareno relents as well.

Characters in such a scenario do not have “arcs” — they tend to veer with manic speed from exulting in triumph, through declarations of love, to cries of despair. The prolonged exposition of the first act makes for slow-going, but Rossini composed some wonderful music for the second act, with its greater variety of situation.

As with the better-known Tancredi, Rossini wrote the heroic lead for a mezzo, and Daniella Barcellona would surely have delighted the composer. Almost twice as tall as her soprano, Maria Bayo, Barcellona can use her size to effect a masculine pose. More importantly, her strong yet flexible instrument delivers the music with style. And it takes some formidable singing to make a viewer overlook the hideous costume forced upon Barcellona, a bizarre mish-mash of fur apron, silky ruffled sleeves and leather. Perhaps her wild mane of hair is meant to evoke that of a lion, since a huge representation of that animal, symbolic of the city, also dominates the staging of some scenes.

Although close-ups reveal that Bayo is not truly of ingenue-age, in this performance her light soprano sounds fresh. The duets with Barcellona have electricity, and her final scenes come off especially well. The tenor lead here is the bad guy, Contareno, and the able Francesco Meli sings him from a wheel-chair. At first your reviewer wondered if this was a director’s conceit, but the Meli’s crutches at curtain indicate otherwise. The explanation for the painter and easel throughout much of act one remains elusive.

Director Jean-Louis Martinoty tries to keep the action comprehensible and fresh, with the effort being rather more evident than any success. The rear of the stage is often an enclosed space, and occasionally Martinoty stages tableaux, such as Bianca asleep on a bed when Falliero reminisces about her from his holding cell, and a fantasy wedding for the two lovers. A libretto like this probably would be too nakedly archaic in a truly traditional production, while some updating or director’s conceit would crush its fragile structure. Martinoty hasn’t found the solution, but he hasn’t mangled the opera either.

The handsome sets are by Hans Schavernioch, and Daniel Ogier designed the attractive costumes, apart from the misbegotten one for Falliero.

And since singing is what it’s all about in such an opera, special mention must be made of the cameo by tenor Karel Pajer, actually double cast as Officer/Usher. His pungent, high-lying voice melds beautifully with Barcellona in a short prison scene.

Rossinians will need no urging, but other opera fans should consider this set for the singing of Barcellona and Bayo, especially in the strong second act.

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=Giacchino Rossini: Bianca e Falliero product=yes product_title=Giacchino Rossini: Bianca e Falliero product_by=María Bayo, Daniela Barcellona, Francesco Meli, Carlo Lepore, Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia, Prague Chamber Choir, Renato Palumbo (conductor), Jean-Louis Martinoty (director) product_id=Dynamic 33501 [2DVDs] price=$33.49 product_url=

Rossini Bianca e Falliero

Dynamic DVD 33501

Posted by Gary at 3:30 PM

Miami “Karenina” a dream come true

In 1968 the British-born all-around man of opera began paring the novel down for his mentor Benjamin Britten. The premiere was slated for Moscow’s Bolshoi. However, when Soviet troops marched into Prague that summer, Britten was urged to abandon the project. In 1978 Graham wrote the libretto for Ian Hamilton’s “Anna Karenina,” a work that, following its premiere at English National Opera and a Los Angeles staging, has sunk into oblivion.

Graham’s dream came true only this year, when on April 28 Miami’s Florida Grand Opera staged the world premiere of “Anna Karenina,” now a close collaboration between Graham, librettist and stage director, and American composer David Carlson. It is sad, however, that Graham did not see the new opera, which is all that he might have wished for in success. Ill, but nonetheless deeply involved in the premiere, he died on Good Friday, April 6.

“Anna Karenina,” the crowning glory of the GFO’s first season in Miami’s new Ziff Ballet Opera House, is a memorial and monument to him. In 2001 FGO general director Robert M. Heur was contemplating a new work to celebrate the opening of the company’s new home in Miami’s $500 million Carnival Center for the Performing Arts.

Two years later — encouraged by Graham and FGO music director Stewart Robertson — Heuer commissioned Carlson to write “Anna Karenina.” Carlson, too, had been thinking of a “Karenina” opera since Graham had mentioned his interest at a 1993 meeting in St. Louis.

Graham, obviously very familiar with the Tolstoi by the time of the FGO commission, tailored an amazing libretto for Carlson. He has not merely condensed the 800-page book to fit a 2.5-hour score; he has distilled the essence of the novel by focusing on the two couples at its center: Anna and her lover Vronsky, and the sensitive country boy Levin and his youthful wife Kitty, once madly in love with — but rejected by — Vronsky. Concerned with character and not with history, Graham wisely overlooked Levin’s proto-socialist concern for the working class, the aspect of the novel that kept it in the Soviet canon.

The brief arias written by Graham reach to the marrow of the human experience, and Carlson has woven them into a tapestry of mesmerizing music. Before setting to work on the score, the composer went to Russia to absorb the atmosphere. He heard the bells of St. Petersburg, which echo in the opening bars of the work, and settled on the theme from the Tsarist hymn familiar from Tchaikovsky’s “1812" Overture to give a Russian color to the opera. Variations on the theme become a “Fate” motif that recurs at crucial points in the story. And to achieve the lush sonority demanded by the story he decided upon an orchestra of 19th-century dimensions, which, however, he employs with discipline. In what might be called American verismo, Carlson treats his characters with the tenderness of late Richard Strauss.

The capacity opening-night audience in the 2400-seat Ziff was spellbound by the work. For the premiere the FGO assembled an ideal cast largely of young singers who in appearance could easily be the persons they play. (Most of them will be on stage in St. Louis.) Kelly Kaduce is an elegant and aristocratic Anna; she portrays the emptiness of her marriage, her surrender to passion and consequent downfall from the heart, remaining always a woman of courage who has the sympathy of the audience. As Anna disintegrates and turns to laudanum Kaduce’s velvet voice takes on an edge of nervousness, insecurity and despair. It is a demanding role and a new triumph for this still youthful American soprano.

Konstantin Levin, the counterweight to Anna, is to a large degree a self-portrait of Tolstoi, and Brandon Jovanovich, tall, lean, blond and bearded, makes him the noblest Russian of them all. Jovanovich, a tenor with baritone heft, includes Pinkerton, Cavaradossi and Werther among his signature roles. As Levin, it is his concern for all that elevates the story from the personal to the universal. Small wonder that he recently received a Richard Tucker Award!

The opera ends not with Anna’s suicide, but with an epilogue, in which it is left to Levin to conclude with Tolstoi’s that “we must learn to know ourselves and to love each other.”

Polish-born Robert Gierlach, a baritone frequently heard as Mozart’s Figaro and Giovanni, makes Vronski’s self-centered undoing credible, while lanky bass-baritone Christian Van Horn is a touch too full-voiced and handsome to be a convincing Karenin. A pudgy nail-biter would fit the role better.

Supporting roles are well sung by Sarah Coburn (Kitty), Christine Abraham (Dolly), William Joyner (Stiva), Dorothy Byrne (Lydia) and Josepha Gayer (Betsy). Special recognition goes to veteran Rosalind Elias as Levin’s aged housekeeper Agafia. Elias made her FGO debut in 1977.

Neil Patel and Robert Perdziola, responsible — respectively — for sets and costumes — have caught the spirit of the opera remarkably with designs of stylized simplicity, yet true to Tolstoi’s time. A revolving stage is used effective for rapid changes of scene that contribute much to the continuity of the staging.

Stewart Robertson extracts sensuous sounds from the FGO orchestra, and a very able Mark Streshinsky stepped in for Colin Graham early in the rehearsal period.

In only a month this production will be on stage at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and later at Michigan Opera, its third co-commissioner. Happily, Opera America held its annual meeting in Miami on the final April weekend, and that means that the “big brass” of opera in this country — 500 administrators — were present at the premiere of “Anna Karenina.”

One can hope that they shared the enthusiasm of the opening-night audience, who made clear that a great American opera has finally been written. In 2005, by the way, Boris Eifman used music by Tchaikovsky to create an “Anna Karenina” ballet in St. Petersburg.

Wes Blomster

image= image_description=Robert Gierlach (Vronsky) & Kelly Kaduce (Anna Karenina) Photo Credit: Deborah Gray Mitchell product=yes product_title=Above: Robert Gierlach (Vronsky) and Kelly Kaduce (Anna Karenina)
Photo Credit: Deborah Gray Mitchell
Posted by Gary at 2:57 PM

Dawn Upshaw's Beautiful World of Song

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 1 May 2007]

“It’s great to be here,” the soprano Dawn Upshaw said on Sunday afternoon at the beginning of her recital at Town Hall. “I mean, really great,” she added, looking misty-eyed, to which the audience responded with a long round of applause and cheers.

Posted by Gary at 2:47 PM

In Barcelona, a Wagner debut without scandals for Àlex Rigola, the rising star in the Catalan school of direction

The Flying Dutchman is a frequent guest in this Mediterranean seaport since it premiered here in 1885 as L’Holandès errant; not very surprisingly, since Barcelona is also an early shrine of the Wagner cult in southern Europe. Sure, it’s a long way from Bayreuth: patrons start clapping right after the overture and occasional breaches of etiquette take place after favorite numbers, despite rebuking from connoisseurs. Yet the purest of Wagnerites had more serious grounds for concern this time. The operatic debut of Àlex Rigola, born 1969, since 2003 artistic manager at the trend-making Teatre Liure, made them fear for the worst, as from that seminary for avant-garde directors came both the talented innovator Lluís Pasqual and his former assistant Calíxto Bieito (a notorious champion of deconstruction whom less friendly commentators call “king of Eurotrash”).

Eric Halfvarson as Daland in Flying Dutchman at Barcelona However, those who were afraid of — or possibly hoped for — one more scandal found themselves mystified. Rigola’s Dutchman is moderately postmodern, with a definite flavor of cinema imagery from the 1970s-1990s, but without turning that into a shortcut to relevance. As stipulated by Wagner the librettist, the action is set on the coast of Norway, where Captain Daland NOW owns a small plant of canned fish. Thus chorus girls abstain from turning their spinning wheels while waiting for their betrothed to come back from the sea with costly presents. Donning aprons and plastic caps, they either sit in the firm canteen peeling bananas and digging into yogurt tubs, or tarry on the verandah, smoking and flirting in front of an ever-impending seascape much realistically displayed on laser projection. The Dutchman’s ship, no longer a clipper mounting “blood-red sails and black masts”, towers as a rusty cargo of humongous dimensions. Updating reaches a climax in Act 3, when happy preps with their navels fully exposed dance to disco rhythms waving beer cans high in the air and cuddling a cute golden retriever. Nina was the name of that blonde four-legged diva, embodying her (fortunately) dumb role with unshaken dignity.

Chorus in Act III of Flying Dutchman at BarcelonaAll in all, the time-machine gimmick worked smoothly enough. Gloomy thrill and rural romance, hurricanes and country dances mingled in the visuals as they actually do in the amphibious score produced by the then young Wagner, still hesitating between French opéra-comique and seeds of his Wort-Ton-Drama to come. First-bill Dutchman Alan Titus, still suffering from a recent ailment, was not fully up to his signature role, since his beefy bass emerged a bit muddy in the lower register and feeble in the higher. Skimming the cream from both casts, special honor is due to Tómas Tómasson, a Dutchman perhaps insufficiently sinister but technically faultless in managing his baritone-sounding, flexible and alluring instrument, as well as to Susan Anthony. Her Senta sported girlish innocence and exquisite mezza-voce, though not matched by volume and resolution in the juiciest dramatic spots. As Daland, Eric Halfvarson impersonated a dapper sea captain-cum-industrialist, with his noble Sarastro-like utterances unspoiled by the slight shade of cynicism that the role imposed on him. Both tenors Kurt Streit (Erik) and Norbert Ernst (the Helmsman) contributed clarion tones and romantic passion to their born losers’ characters — yet with some bittersweet vibrancy in it. Under the newly appointed principal conductor Sebastian Weigle, the house ensembles — supplemented by the chamber choir of the Palau de la Música — offered a forceful, clear-cut rendering throughout the two-and-a-half hour stretch without any intervals.

Carlo Vitali

image= image_description=Kurt Streit in Flying Dutchman at Barcelona product=yes product_title=Above: Kurt Streit as Erik
Posted by Gary at 2:28 PM

Tristan und Isolde: Total Immersion

Two years ago LAPhil created the project by playing an act of the great Wagnerian romance each night coupled with other music that in some way related to Wagner, finally performing a complete presentation of the three-act masterpiece. This year the complementary composer was Debussy, and after three one act evenings at The Disney Concert Hall (and at Avery Fisher Hall in New York the following week), two full performances were played, under the musical direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen. Your observer was at the second Los Angeles presentation, April 24.

These were concert performances, the so-called “project” elements being a semi-staging by director Peter Sellars supported by Bill Viola’s visual projections seen on a huge screen above and behind the orchestra, while singers were in their usual places next to the conductor, though they occasionally appeared in other locations in the hall for certain scenes. For example, the beginning of the Liebesnacht (Act II) had Isolde in a balcony on one side of the hall, Tristan opposite; gradually the singers merged onto the stage for the final moments of the duet. Brangaene sang her warnings from an uppermost balcony above and behind the stage. It was not as radical or innovative as LAPhil seemed to think, or advertise, and at times Sellars’ efforts proved to be more distracting than elucidating of Wagner’s drama.

Most puzzling were Viola’s projections. They were hardly high art, and I found they did little to support the music or action of Tristan und Isolde. For the most part they were of great specificity, too great: when the sea was mentioned in Wagner’s text, the screen showed sea; when the thwarted passion of Tristan and Isolde was referred to in Act I, Viola presented two actors filmed in a slow-motion strip finally standing entirely nude (some members of the audience departed at that point), and then dissolved into streams of water pouring over their hands, and so on, for three long acts. In the passionate Liebesnacht duet of Act II, Viola filled the screen with a huge conflagration of orange flames, as if Wagner’s music and text had not already made the point. I ultimately paid little attention to the visuals, which simply became clichéd backdrops for, in fact, the singers were acting on their own and often quite effectively. I was impressed that the presenters were trying to spoon-feed Wagner to audiences that were presumably unfamiliar with the material. Nothing could have been more pointless; the Los Angeles audience that I saw was mature, sophisticated, and knew what they were hearing.

What they heard was a vocally ravishing presentation by Christine Brewer (Isolde) and Anne Sophie von Otter (Brangaene), and instrumentalists of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, of Wagner’s seminal score of passion, driven but unfulfilled, ultimately resolved in the Liebestod when death closed all wounds. Conductor Salonen and his musicians contributed a clean and clear, if uneventful, reading and the two leading sopranos could hardly have been bettered in any opera house of the world.

The locus of these performances is important, not only because Disney Hall is the home of the splendid Los Angeles Philharmonic, but also because it is a singularly eccentric room, one that does not seem particularly well suited to a presentation of big vocal music in such a manner. As is well known, Disney Hall was the brain child of Salonen working with architect Frank Gehry, and it proved of long gestation and difficult birth, with many delays and cost overruns during its design and construction. When Disney finally opened in 2003, what we found was a medium-sized hall shaped more-or-less like an old style bath tub, all grandly made of wood and beautifully decorated, with the orchestra space occupying about half the main floor. The rest of that floor is for audience, and several tiered terraces that run entirely around the arena-like room comprise the balance of the seating. Thus, music emanates from about the center of the room, and in the midst of the audience. The acoustical effect seemed, in the Tristan presentation, to be that of ‘surround-sound;’ the sound source seemed generalized, lacking in point and origin. One feels he is sitting in the middle of it all, at times not exactly certain whence the musical stream is coming. Odd as this sounds, the arrangement can work well for the orchestra and for instrumental music. The hall is acoustically well balanced, perhaps with a slight prominence to bass frequencies, and has a fine ability to blend sound. Salonen and his players are now accustomed to making music there and they do so elegantly. Yet, ironically, with the commanding voices of Brewer, von Otter and the other singers, there was in the acoustic a certain lack of ‘presence.’ The voices were generally audible, and crisp top notes would ring and resound in the hall; yet, the over-all tonal effect of the singing was a bit diffuse, even dim, especially for audience members located behind the singers and orchestra, which comprised quite a few. In a conventional proscenium hall, I expect the vocal experience would have been more satisfying, more in keeping with the nature of Wagner’s opera. LAPhil deserves high marks for trying to be innovative with this repertory piece, but the efforts of Messrs. Sellars, Viola and Salonen did not quite come off.

American soprano Christine Brewer is a unique singer. She calls herself a “big lyric soprano,” and I think that is a fair description. This is not a hard or piercing, laser-like voice of classic Wagnerians such as Birgit Nilsson or Gwyneth Jones; far from it. Brewer’s tones are soft-edged, often floated in mellowness and a wonderful variety of color. Her singing of Isolde’s love music in Act II was exquisitely modulated, and with light orchestration under it, floated hauntingly through the hall. The powerful singing required in Act I was also there, but it did not bowl one over through sheer volume. Brewer is well versed in the role, having sung it for a half dozen years, her German text and musical moods are convincing and apt, and her pitch in this difficult chromatic score was rock solid. She is a large handsome woman with great energy and musical integrity; when it comes time to hear her concept of Isolde in a favorable hall (such as the Metropolitan Opera) she could make Wagnerian musical history.

The Swedish mezzo soprano, Anne Sophie von Otter, famed for her Mozart and Strauss opera and lieder performances, was essaying Brangaene for the first time. Her bright appealing voice was entirely up to the task and her textual reading superlative.

LAPhil’s male singers were considerably less impressive. The experienced German tenor Christian Franz had good routine in his title part and represented Tristan’s emotions and agonies with effective body language. It was a pleasure to hear his idiomatic German, and to witness his command of the role’s drama. Alas, his voice was often inaudible, and when heard was afflicted with roughness and, when he was not shouting out his top, a shallow, sometimes under-pitched tone. In the response to King Mark’s address in Act I, Franz used a near-parlando to get his words across, and he found a measure of sympathetic appeal. I wish I could say this was an adequate vocal performance, but it was not. John Relyea worked hard to portray the angry King Mark, but he seemed young in the role and his fine bass voice a bit labored. The Finnish bass-baritone Jukka Rasilainen played Tristan’s companion Kurwenal with assurance if not with much beauty of voice or dignity of action. Other parts were taken by Thomas Rolf Truhitte as Melot, Michael Slattery as the Sailor’s Voice and Shepherd and Jinyoung Jang as the Steersman. Men of the Los Angeles Master Chorale were reliable and precise under the strong direction of Grant Gershon. They managed to end Act I with considerable excitement.

I have saved Esa-Pekka Salonen for last, for in Wagner the conductor is most often of the greatest importance, the first among equals. While the New Yorker magazine reports, in an article titled “The Anti-Maestro” [April 30], on these performances that Salonen “was precise in rhythm and rich in timbre; few conductors give as clean a beat or have so acute an ear for combinations of sounds,” indeed I found those qualities, but not much more — and there it lots more to conducting Wagner. There was also mention of “an unchecked heat in the playing” of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Such heat as I heard was generated by Mme. Brewer and some of the other singers. I had to conclude, based on this hearing, that Salonen is not much the Wagnerian. He reminded me of Pierre Boulez in this repertory, just let the music play itself and don’t do much. Sometimes that’s not a bad idea. But Salonen had minimal feel for shaping the Wagnerian phrase or the play and accents of dynamics. The big effects were in place; the nuances were not, and the sinuous eroticism of the love duet never took hold. From the first opening chords of the Vorspiel the Wagnerian mysterioso was absent. By the resolution of the ‘Tristan chord’ at the close of the Liebestod, we knew we’d heard an eventful Tristan, but one in which some of the parts were decidedly more interesting than the whole.

© J. A. Van Sant 2007

image= image_description=Tristan and Isolde with the Potion by William Waterhouse (1916) product=yes product_title=Above: Tristan and Isolde with the Potion by William Waterhouse (1916)
Posted by Gary at 2:02 PM