August 28, 2007

DONIZETTI: Anna Bolena

It got a boost from the 1950/60s bel canto revival, but in recent decades it has seldom been revived. Gala takes Donizetti fans back to the last years of that revival, with a four-disc set comprised of three performances dating from 1966 through 1977. The catch here: Only one of the performances is complete, that given in 1966 by the American Opera Society at Carnegie Hall. Starting on disc three and ending on disc four are some choice excerpts from a 1974 New York City Opera production, and disc four closes with an even more narrow range of selections from a 1977 performance at Rome Opera.

An in-house recording, the 1966 Anna Bolena captures an exciting performance, as the understandable but occasionally intrusive applause demonstrates. After one's ears adjust to the sound (decent for this type of source but buzzy in loud passages), the singing of fine vocalists in their prime can be enjoyed as they deliver Donizetti's passionate if unsubtle score with complete conviction. Elena Souliotis, the Anna, could not maintain the quality of singing evident here - dramatic, bold, fearless - and though her career ultimately did not fulfill its promise, she has this recording to substantiate the excitement she could generate. Marilyn Horne was establishing her greatness, and her Giovanna (Jane) Seymour has all her famed intelligence and control, with a voice not yet self-consciously beautiful. Placido Domingo went on to spinto roles fairly quickly, but his Lord Percy reveals how good a fit his dark, handsome tenor made in a Donizetti lead. Carlo Cava is a worthy Enrico (Henry the 8th), and in a wonderful piece of casting, Janet Baker takes the role of Smeton. Henry Lewis leads the orchestra, with the opening sinfonia sounding amazingly like a lost Rossini overture.

The NYCO performance gives very little away in terms of voices. Marisa Galvany (Anna) and Olivia Stapp (Giovanna) go at each other in the second act confrontation scene with delectable ferocity. Roger Patterson has a less distinctive sound than Domingo as Percy, but he is capable enough. A young Samuel Ramey contrasts well with the Boris Christoff performance in the third performance, discussed below. Ramey may slight the characterization, but he has all the music in his voice and that counts for a lot. Juius Rudel conducts well, at least as well as can be heard in an acoustic more constricted than that of the Carnegie Hall recording.

In his fine notes, Andrew Palmer cites Christoff as the main reason to enjoy the brief excerpts from the 1977 Rome performance crammed onto disc four. Christoff certainly roars and blusters, as one might expect an Enrico to do, but for these ears, his voice in 1977 is unpleasantly harsh. His Giovanna, Maria Luisa Nave, makes a much more appealing impression. Sadly, there is too little of Leyla Gencer, the Anna. Gabriele Ferro conducted.

Gala's decision to combine a full performance, a heavily cut one, and a fragmentary third ultimately doesn't make much sense. Those who only want the Suiliotis may resent having to pay for the others, and those who want the Galvany or Gencer will surely deplore the missing music. Lacking for any other alternatives, however, at least Gala offers this set at budget price, with good tracking information and, as mentioned, a solid though brief essay by Andrew Palmer.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Gaetano Donizetti Anna Bolena

product_title=Gaetano Donizetti Anna Bolena
product_by=Elena Souliotis; Marilyn Horne; Placido Domingo; Carlo Cava; Dame Janet Baker; Raymond Gibbs; Emilio Beleval; Orchestra & Chorus/Henry Lewis.
Live recording: New York, Carnegie Hall, November 15, 1966
product_id=Gala CD 100.659

Posted by Gary at 4:43 PM

BRUCKNER: Symphony no. 5

Instead, it is a rare performance from the monastery town of St. Florian, a site long associated with Bruckner's career. Compiled from two concerts, the recording captures a sense of the live performance and the enthusiasm of the audience for this fine American ensemble.

This is a fine performance of mature work by Bruckner. Perhaps known less than Fourth, Seventh, or Eighth Symphonies, it is nonetheless worth hearing in concert, and this DVD gives a good sense of that venue. Welser-Möst demonstrates a fine command of the score. His tempos tend to be somewhat brisk, but they contribute to the drive he has given to this performance. The first movement is effective with this approach, with each of theme groups clearly audible and the relationships between the various sections are evident. If he lingers at times at cadences, it is to allow a musical thought to finish. Elsewhere, as in the Scherzo, Welser-Möst approached the textures as if it were a work by Mendelssohn. Such a deft approach helps to allow the character of the music to emerge from the music itself, rather than a superimposed Brucknerian gravity that some conducts might use. The Finale is convincing, and Welser-Möst's pacing is a parallel to that which he used in the first movement. It is useful to watch Welser-Möst's hands in this movement, as he relies more on the physical gestures than the baton to give shape to the structure.

A key to appreciating this performance may be found in a bonus track, an interview with Welser-Möst in which the conductor discusses his affinities with Bruckner's music. He talks about Bruckner's style and mentions the approaches to performing the composer's music, and in the course of doing so points to the various styles that exist among several European orchestras. In the course of this discussion, Welser-Möst mentions the relatively leaner sound of the Cleveland Orchestra for this repertoire, an element that sets it apart, especially when it comes to some of the more contrapuntal textures that occur in some passages of Bruckner's works, including the Fifth Symphony. In taking the idea of a leaner sound further, it should not be equated to the somewhat pejorative description of a thin sound or the result of weaker players. Rather, the Cleveland Orchestra under Welser-Möst's leadership offers a more transparent timbre in this performance of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony, a quality that may be at odds with the acoustics of the basilica of St. Florian, which has a lively resonance. At times, though, words fail, with adjectives connected to size and mass can, at best, only approximate the musical effect.

As to the sound itself, the range of volume is relatively wide, with the introduction of the first movement almost inaudible compared to what follows, especially with the almost thunderous sound of the Brass. It is a stark contrast that may be reinforced by the acoustics of the basilica itself. As the movement continues the amplitude seems more balanced, with the differences less profound. That kind of lean sound that Welser-Möst discussed does allow for clarity in this performance, and that element contributes to the woodwind timbres in the first movement. The recording seems to have been made close to the orchestra, though, since the resonance of this Baroque church does not emerge readily in the recording. At times some of the long shots from the rear of the basilica suggest the warm acoustic that can result in such structures, but throughout the sound seems like that which results from a studio.

This DVD includes some external views of the monastery and a number of shots within the basilica itself. Renovated in recent years, the Baroque architecture and ornamentation seems at odds with the Romantic style of the music, but it is a place that Bruckner knew well. Bruckner would have associated organ and choral music with St. Florian, with symphonic performances intended for an also executed elsewhere, and so there is a bit of a disconnection between the locus of this recording and the work performed. Nevertheless, the acoustics are remarkably fine on the recording, which has some of the resonance that occurs with some studio ambiance. While St. Florian may not be a point of arrival for symphony orchestras to perform musical works, the event reinforces the connection between St. Florian and Bruckner, while also serving as a kind of souvenir of the Cleveland Orchestra's 2006 visit to Europe, an event which Welser-Möst mentioned in his interview.

James Zychowicz

image= image_description=Anton Bruckner: Symphony no. 5 product=yes product_title=Anton Bruckner: Symphony no. 5 product_by=The Cleveland Orchestra, Franz Welser-Möst, conductor. product_id=Euroarts 2055918 [DVD] price=$22.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 4:06 PM

BERG: Wozzeck

At a time when filmed opera was, at best, rare, the producer took a risk in creating a cinematic version of the film. It was innovative at the time and remains one of the creative approaches not only to filming this work, but in presenting opera in this medium for broadcast not in the cinema, but on television.

The decision to make this leap is not without some forethought. In the notes that accompany this DVD Richard Eckstein quotes the producer’s comments about his perception of the antithesis between opera and television: “Whereas television is primarily interested in transmitting reality, opera is a highly stylized artform. How can the two be brought together successfully?” This rhetorical question is addressed in the resulting film, which is a thoughtful production of the opera through the medium of film, which, by its nature allows for the non-diegetic orchestral accompaniment that some criticize for its perceived intrusion into the dramatic action between the singers when opera is performed on stage.

In Liebermann’s hands, film succeeds as a vehicle for presenting this opera and the others he produced outside its conventional venue on stage. In doing so, Liebermann did not turn to feature films intended to be shown in the cinema, but created them for television. In doing so, he made opera accessible to a broad audience by bringing the artform into homes, where individuals — originally in Germany — could view excellent performances at home. Such efforts are remarkable for the wide-ranging effect that brought Wozzeck and other operas to individuals who might not have been able to see the productions of the Hamburg Opera on stage. More than that, Liebermann wisely chose to create films of the operas, instead of pursuing the customary tack of filming the operas as presented in the theater. In working with Joachim Hess on directing Berg’s work for television, a more intimate space than the cinema, Liebermann addressed the visual challenges creatively. In a sense, Liebermann and Hess accomplished for televised opera what Ingmar Bergman did with staged opera in his film of Mozart’s Zauberflöte.

Notwithstanding the merits of filming operas as they are presented on stage (something familiar to those who know the “Live from the Met” and “Live from Lincoln Center” broadcasts from New York City), the addition effort involved in creating cinematic productions deserves attention for the way in which they contribute to the operas themselves. When it comes to twentieth-century opera, which is sometimes unfairly criticized for the modernity implicit in its style and sometimes exacerbated in avant-garde staging, Liebermann’s films are particularly noteworthy. With Penderecki’s Die Teufel von Loudon, Liebermann presented a vision of the opera that is at once cinematically convincing and faithful to the composer’s score, and did the same Berg’s Wozzeck. In approaching Pederecki’s work, Liebermann used crosscuts and various cinematic techniques to bring out the modernist elements of the score. With Wozzeck, though, Liebermann contributed to the style of the work by using realistic settings for the work. The various out-of-doors scenes bring a sense of realism to Berg’s opera, putting into the world we know and, at the same time, suggests the naturalism that is associated with Berg’s source, Georg Büchner’s unfinished play Woyzeck. The details found in the film create a level of meaning that may be out of the bounds of staged opera, with the gritty, muddy streets of the town in which the action occurs or the steam emerging from the mouths of the characters when they are out of doors. That detail and other, related elements are part of the style of the film and contribute to its visual appeal.

At the same time Liebermann started with the excellent the remarkable casts that were part of the Hamburg Opera. The performers involved with this production had a command of the opera on stage and comfortable with their roles in the work. With such a fine cast coming from the Hamburg production of Wozzeck at the core of the film, Liebermann had a solid starting point. The situation is markedly different from some of the attempts to film musicals, where the actors who created the roles on stage may not be available for the version created for cinema. While it can work in some cases, filed musicals also suffer from casts that were assembled from the available stars, who did not always work out in their eventual roles on the screen. As unfortunate as this can be, Liebermann’s approach gave him an artistic edge that allowed difficult works like Penderecki’s Die Teufel von Loudon or Berg’s Wozzeck to emerge effectively in film because of the strong casts and solid productions involved.

Thus modern audiences who may associate Sena Jurinac with her creation of roles in operas by Mozart and Strauss have the opportunity to see her portrayal of Marie in this film. In approaching the role, her attention to the melodic line overshadows her coloring it with expressionist details. She brings to this role the musicianship that is part of her legacy. While some may not associate Jurinac with this role, those who know her successful portrayals of Mozart and Strauss roles should find a convincing Marie in this DVD.

Likewise, Toni Blankenheim is a singing actor in this film, with his depiction of Wozzeck convincing, including his facial gestures, his movements, and the glances into the scenery. His name may not emerge readily when it comes to studio recordings of the opera, but the film demonstrates his command of this challenging role. Other well-known singers are also part of the production, with the tenor Richard Cassilly offering a fine interpretation of the Drum Major. Cassilly plays that role in earnest, including that sometimes arch scene where Marie asks the Drum Major to march for her. Vocally and dramatically, Cassilly and rest of the cast work well is not only a convincing vocal presentation, but one that is compelling dramatically.

For various reasons this DVD has much to recommend. In addition to the fine performers, the production is a model of a successfully film treatment of an opera. From the stark bare tree that opens the film to the concluding images, the visual elements support the music and drama of this critical twentieth-century work.

James Zychowicz

image= image_description=Alban Berg: Wozzeck product=yes product_title=Alban Berg: Wozzeck product_by=Hans Sotin (Doctor), Richard Cassilly (Drum Major), Toni Blankenheim (Wozzeck), Sena Jurinac (Marie), Kurt Moll (Workman I), Gerhard Unger (Captain), Peter Haage (Andres), Franz Grundheber (Workman II), Kurt Marschner (Idio), Elisabeth Steiner (Margret), State Opera Chorus, Hamburg State Philharmonic Orchestra, Bruno Maderna, conductor. product_id=Arthaus 101277 [DVD] price=$29.98 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 3:57 PM

An Interview with Canadian mezzo-soprano, Kimberly Barber.

KITCHENER, ON, 18 August 2007
By Mary-Lou P. Vetere

In 1999, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Handel’s Serse and it has remained concretely in my opinion and otherwise, one of the truly magnificent Canadian performances. Much of this weighs on what had been the sensitivity, dramatic and vocal prowess, and down right sexual appeal of mezzo-soprano, Kimberly Barber. Her portrayal left audience members in awe of her solid and beautifully lyric voice and the passionate delivery of her phrases, but more so because one tended to forget that underneath those trousers and the well-manifested male mannerisms, il Ré amoroso was really a woman. Since then, Barber has established herself as one of Canada’s operatic treasures, gracing the stages of the major Canadian and international companies; yet equally at home on the concert stage and in the recital hall. Her career combines the standard repertory but also contemporary and baroque works. Most recent praise has been for her portrayal of Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther with Vancouver Opera, and her creation of Jessica in the world premiere of John Estacio’s Frobisher for Calgary Opera. She has been acclaimed for her role of Sister Helen in the Canadian premiere of Heggie’s Dead Man Walking and for her magnificent portrayals of Handel’s big-boys: Serse, Ariodante, Nerone (Agrippina), and Rinaldo. No one would argue that Barber is Canada’s “Mistress of the trouser-role.” And yet, on a whim she can transform herself, like a chameleon, into Puccini’s Suzuki or Rossini’s Rosina.

What is most impressive about her lies not merely in her operatic accomplishments, but the fact that she is also a reputable pedagogue, clinician, lecturer, adjudicator, and artistic consultant. She has been the Assistant Professor of Voice at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario since 2002, and as if that isn’t enough to add to her already busy life as a recording artist, and brilliant stage performer, she also holds the most important job of being a devoted mom to her two lovely daughters, Jana and Alice, and loving wife to her husband Markus Philipp. She garners respect from the Mecca of great Canadian singers that are gracing the world’s stages, and she is earning her right as one of the bright lights in Canada’s operatic history. If one word comes to mind to describe this multifaceted and brilliant artist, as a performer and as a person she is: larger-than-life.

On a beautiful, sunny Saturday morning, I sat with the fit, clad all in black, sunglasses to block the sun, and barefoot mezzo, under her apple tree (à la Serse) and embarked on what would be an enlightening and revitalizing couple of hours. Barber spoke freely and with impassioned fervor; so much so that I wish I could link this interview to a sound file so that one might hear how she speaks as expressively as she sings. In the truest sense of the word, she is an artist and her thoughts and ideas resonated with me for days after our conversation.

Mary-Lou: Kimberly, first, thank-you for taking the time for this interview. I’m sure the first question everyone wants to know is, “How do you do it all?” Your career doesn’t just consist of being a performer. You’re a teacher, a workshop clinician, an adjudicator, a lecturer, and a recording artist. Tell us, what drives you to do all of the things you do, and what has propelled you to continue in what is becoming a more trying business than ever before?

Kimberly: I think it’s passion for the art-form that drives me forward. I guess not just for opera but for the vocal arts. I think that my greatest passion has been kindled by opera. For some reason, it’s the height of the emotion and the intensity with which they’re portrayed. As a small child, my two favourite games, interestingly, were school and dress-up. So, I was either being a teacher or living in a fantasy world. And I loved dressing up in costumes and being different personalities. I think what I do now is a perfect marriage of those two things. You know a lot of life coaches and self-help or creative books that teach you how to tap into your creative self. They talk about going back to your childhood and looking at what it was that really sparked your passion, your creative passion. And so, I’ve done a couple of creative workshops of this sort and I looked back and thought, “Isn’t that interesting that those were my two games that I always played?” I think it’s that desire, on the one hand, to live in a fantasy world but to actually take on another personality and completely try to become that person which one does, of course, in a purely technical sense. I’m not really one of those people who says, “Oh yes, I became Erica, or I became Sister Helen.” I think you do become immersed in these roles by the more intense they are, but it’s very technical and calculated, in a sense…if you will, process; this complete dawning of another personality that I find continually invigorating and it sparks my curiosity. It’s that aspect and the ability to explore parts of my own personality and to perhaps bring out aspects of my own personality that might be dormant that is very stimulating for me. It’s the communication with the audience. It’s a desire to interpret works that excite me on many different levels, and bring them to others. And the teaching aspect, I find extremely invigorating as well because it’s a different way of communicating that similar aspect. You’re facilitating for others, be they young singers or even lay-people or opera fans who want to gain more of a window into what we do. It’s that idea of communication and inviting one’s own passion for the work that we’re doing.

In a large sense, it’s a passion to create a community. Whether it’s the community within the opera house, because I always feel that the great artistic performances, or rather, any live artistic performance can change your life; it’s this that we’re drawn to it and why we go and it’s different than seeing something in a movie theater or on television. When you have immediate contact with the artists, there is an alchemy that exists that can’t be replaced. And I feel that infusion every time I do that, and not only when I’m on the stage but also when I sit in the theater. Obviously, some performances stand far far above others and sometimes it’s hard to pin-point what the elements are that make those certain performances just stand out. It’s that interest, for me, in the community, in the human community. Whether it’s as a performer in the theater or as an educator, when I do my work as a clinician or if I’m asked to adjudicate a competition, or when I teach a workshop, that’s also a form of communication. It’s me interpreting for whomever I’m working with; not only the music but the art-form itself and trying to be a filter. I become the filter for those people. So, it’s that passion for communication and creating that community that gives me the energy to do what I do.

Mary-Lou: I think it’s interesting that you’re talking about your childhood and the influences that you’ve had even just with creative playing. Do you think that it’s becoming more difficult nowadays because many young children are staying indoors, attached to the internet, and attached to their cell-phones and such? Do you think we’ve lost a bit of that sense of fantasy and how does that affect, for example, your work with younger singers? Obviously you work with singers from a broad spectrum of ages. Does it affect their abilities and how can you change that?

Kimberly: That’s an interesting question. I think, for sure, that it does make an impact but however little they do it, everyone has some kind of fantasy creative life and it’s fed in some way or other by the challenges in our culture. Society today has made it so much more difficult for people to come into touch with that. I would say, probably the biggest problem I find in my teaching, or really a problem that affects people in Northern Western culture, is that we are fairly guarded emotionally and artistically. It’s sometimes, just in general, more difficult to draw people out of their comfort zone because they feel ashamed or that they’ll look silly or that it would be too much. I find that across the board though. I wouldn’t say that it necessarily has to do with the computer media culture. I think the thing I find most difficult in my students is to simply get them in-touch with their bodies because we’re becoming a culture that is more and more sedentary. When I think of my own childhood, of course we had television and at time it was seen to be the big evil, but when summer came we were never at home. We were always outside playing and I think also that our culture in the west has become much more overprotective of children and very controlling. There is very little opportunity for children to have unstructured, unorganized, unsupervised play which we had all the time as children. We live in a culture of fear which is highly churned up by the media. I don’t think that it’s real, by that I mean the fears are real and the facts of life are real; but often most of those fears we’re playing upon are not real. We are doing children a disservice in the way we’re raising them. I was very fortunate that my children were born in Germany and I was living in a community in which there was a lot of support for alternative education and my kids both went to a pre-school where they were outdoors almost all of the time and in all types of weather. I’m a very strong advocate of public education. I’m a really strong advocate of not having kids have their time planned all of the time. Sometimes this is a lonely road because many people are frightened. I understand their fears but I’ve always tried to buck that trend. I do that with my students as well. I really try to make them aware that they have to go their own path and try things, make mistakes, endanger themselves. It’s very hard as a parent to let your children go and I remember my obstetrician telling me that being a mother was a continual process of letting go from the first: through weaning, to the first steps to going to school, to puberty, to when they finally leave home, to when they get married, to when they finally do have children themselves. And, I found that was a very profound moment when he said that. I feel that if this is one of the things we can do as a race, as a species; maybe we can try to let our children go a little more and give them more freedom, to trust them more. There has been a lot of research done into childhood development for children to have major falls or almost life-threatening experiences. When you see children in their backyards wearing helmets, for heaven’s sake; I’m going into a completely different realm here, but what I see as a teacher of music is this out-of-touchness, this lack of independence, this inability to breakout of the mold. Just to go back to your question, what we need to do as a culture is to have a re-thinking of what’s important and are we really helping our children by protecting them and sequestering them so severely. Some of the most profound experiences I had growing up, were mostly things that I did on my own, things that were sometimes questionable in terms of safety and so forth. We all know in life that the experiences that often change us are extremely painful and sometimes we try to prevent our children from experiencing this. We don’t want our children to hurt like we have. I urge my students to push the boundaries and I think I do that to my audience too. Maybe for some people I think I’m too much in their face. Some people don’t want to be churned-up when they go to the theater. Sometimes they just want to have a lovely experience at the theater and then go home and put their head on the pillow and go to sleep, so maybe they better not come….(laughing)…that’s being too strong, but I do like to reach out and grab people by the jugular and shake them up a little bit.

“I do like to reach out and grab people by the jugular and shake them up a little bit.”

Mary-Lou: I disagree. I think that people should definitely come and get shell-shocked because this is the theater. We go specifically to immerse ourselves in a world that is completely different.

Kimberly: The most shock people get is watching the Sopranos. You know, “live a little,” would be my thing, and push your own boundaries a little bit. Try something that blows your mind. Who wouldn’t want to go to something and come back out and just be gob smacked speechless and say, “I had no idea that this existed.” It’s why we do all these thrill stunts that are extreme. We need to have an outlet for extreme emotions in our lives.

Mary-Lou: I agree, and I think that you push boundaries, not just in opera but in everything you do. You seem to stretch the limits of the norm and we need more of that. That being said, you base yourself not just in opera but in a number of other artistic genres. What do you enjoy the most? What personally gives you the greatest pleasure in a performance perspective, and how do you see yourself contributing to the overall international spectra of performance in this area?

Kimberly: That’s a difficult question. I mean, opera was really my first love once I got into the classical genre; before that it might have been musical theater or something like that. I was always interested in music, but I really got hooked on opera because of the level of intensity, of the emotion. You know when emotions get too big you sing them, kind of thing. I love the collaborative aspect of opera. In an opera production, when I’m working with colleagues that I love, with directors who are really questing to say something interesting, with conductors who just know the score inside out and who are interested in shaping details and making a statement, the give and take with the other players on the stage; when those elements come together on the stage, and granted they don’t always, but when they do that’s a real shot in the arm for me. For me, that’s the epitome. But I also love chamber music for the same reason. I love collaborating with my colleagues and learning from them and being fed by their energy. I find that extremely rewarding. I’ve had great musical and artistic experiences in every genre. For example, when I did the Duruflé and Fauré Requiems with Chung Myung-Wung and Bryn Terfel and the Academia di Santa Cecilia, it was a phenomenal artistic experience: the hall, the choir, the orchestra. That exchange of energy was phenomenal. I love doing Beethoven’s 9th, for instance. It’s quite a dull alto part and Jean Stilwell and I always say, “Just wear a nice dress otherwise everyone will forget you.” But, it’s such a great experience to feel that orchestral and choral sound behind you. It’s a life changing moment when you can be a part of that. My favourite thing is to sit on the stage for the full second half. I just love it. In recital, too, I find that collaborative work, especially during the rehearsal with your pianist particularly important. What I love in recital is that I often talk a fair bit from the stage and I learned that it makes that experience of being in the recital hall so vital and thrilling. Instead of standing on the stage and talking from above, it becomes a real communion and people come out being really changed. Afterwards, people come up to you and tell you how much more they related to the music and finally “got it.” The short answer to your question is that I love all genres. My greatest passion is opera, but I find all of the genres stimulating.

Mary-Lou: And, I think that you’re stimulated but from the audience’s perspective, your main crux when you perform is to stimulate us. We all become stimulated whether you speak or not because you sing expressively, just as you speak. You try to express and keep digging at us to get to the thorough point of your emotions and anyone that has seen you perform is often left with a feeling of (big sigh). There is something you exude on-stage, something that I call the “X-factor,” that indescribable something that a performer possesses that makes them individual and inimitable. It is very clear that you digest the notes on the page for us and especially with Handel and music that is somewhat infiltrated by coloratura and fioritura. Looking at the score from a musician’s perspective they’re notes on the page, but you digest those notes and when you project them to us, your listeners, you give them such a clear and emotional meaning that you become a transmitter, if you will, through which a composer speaks. If you had to offer advice to a young performer, about this type of intense musical process, this kind of deep musical communication, what would you suggest to them to promote a really thorough projection of musical process?

Kimberly: I think that the number one thing has to be the text. You really have to think about it and study it and really understand what it means to you. Obviously, you think to some degree why the poet chooses a particular word, but you have to know what it means to you. It’s not enough to wonder why the poet wanted that or why the composer wanted it. You are the vessel through which this work is being filtered. And so, you have to make a decision and have an opinion. I urge my students, “What do you feel about that?” I give them an exercise that they hate where I make them sing, for instance, a Mozart aria in English, in their own words or if they happen to be Romanian or French I get them to sing it in their own words in their own mother tongue. It’s quite astounding. I mean this is not rocket science and I’m not the first person to come up with that but it’s astounding how that simple exercise makes a difference…sometimes all they have to do is sing two or three phrases and they totally loathe it. They look at it and then they’ll laugh at themselves and they get flustered. Once they return to the original language, it somehow comes to life because they now understand what they’re saying and they have an opinion about it. They’re expressing. So come from the text and ask not just what it means, but what it means to you personally. “Why are you singing this?” You really have to care about the things you sing. Sometimes you’re going to be asked to sing things that you don’t particularly care about and you have to find a way to care about them because you’re putting bread on your table. Sometimes things are less meaningful for you but you have to make them meaningful or they will be boring to the audience. The other aspect is to explore your own emotional life. I go to movies and watch a lot of films. I read a lot and I go to as much theater as I can, and I love it. “Experience life as much as possible.” Travel, go to other cultures; push your boundaries in whatever ways you can. As an artist you need to have as many experiences as possible to draw on and that’s how you open up a world to the people in your audience. If you’ve experienced…you’ve sat on an Italian piazza and walked down the boulevards of Paris, if you’ve tasted Mole; whatever it is you can bring it to people listening to you and inspire them so that they say, “Oh, I love those Spanish tangos that she sang,” and they’ll go and take a tango class. The more young singers push their boundaries and expand their own emotional life, the more they’ll have to give as an artist.

Mary-Lou: And I think this is one of the reasons why you bring so many different aspects to roles that you’ve recently created like the role of “Jessica” in Estacio’s Frobisher and previously for the role of “Sister Helen” in Dead Man Walking. A historian of opera tends to look at the inception of new operas as a bit of an anachronism but also, I think, as a possible “new path” for study and performance aesthetics. Opera after 1945 is really an interesting and eclectic study and with Heggie’s contribution and new operas like Filumena and Frobisher do you feel that we are headed for a new aesthetic?

In the Canadian première of Estacio’s “Frobisher” as Jessica. (Calgary Opera, 2007)

Kimberly: Also an interesting question. I think so, probably. One thing I think about some of the contemporary works is that they tend to be extremely intellectual and I think the less intellectual you can be the better off you are, with opera. It’s not really an intellectual art-form; it’s an emotional art-form. The most successful operas are going to be the ones that grab you on an emotional level. It’s like they don’t even go to your analytical brain at all. It’s like they come up with a giant suction cup on your heart and they take you on this emotional roller-coaster and your just going, “AHHHHH!!!” You know, the ones that work the best are the ones that work on that level, whatever aesthetic they might have. For instance, Nixon in China, I’ve seen that work a couple of times and the scenes that work in that are the ones that are really emotional. There has to be a lot of story-telling and human stories. People like to watch people and that doesn’t matter whether it’s 2007 or 1693, people watch other people. We’re social animals and we’re interested in other people’s behaviour. We talk about other people all of the time. That’s what we do. That’s never going to change; it’s what turns people on. I mean, some people are interested in the story-telling aspects. I mean I’m interested sort of on an intellectual level but I want to know why that person did that. What was the motivator for that? What was the relationship between the two characters ‘cause I’m not getting that enough? I need to care about why. That’s, for instance, why Dead Man Walking works for me. It’s the chemistry between Sister Helen and Joseph. It’s the agony of the mother. It’s that fascinating triangle. I think that there’s something maybe that Jake could have done to bring that more to the fore. I think there are some absolutely heartbreaking scenes in that opera, heartbreaking. The sextet in the first act, there were so many rehearsals when we couldn’t get through to the end of that because it was so powerful emotionally. That opera works is because it enables you to have that kind of release and connection to the characters. It’s this sort of critical mass that comes together in that sextet, that whatever opinion you have about capital punishment, when you see what the lives are of those six people and how they’re impacted and how those lives relate to one another, it’s mind-blowing. You just think, “I never thought about that.” That’s the future of opera. It’s the way we have to go so that whatever musical or political aesthetic we have, that emotional component always has to be there. For me, it’s a constant. It’s also why Filumena works. It’s a simple story but you have protagonists with very very big stakes. It’s also why Frobisher, a much more difficult piece, works. There are some very big emotions in that piece and ideas but the Johns talked about how “making the stakes higher” was an important element for them. It’s a much less immediate piece emotionally than Filumena. It’s filled with beautiful and profound statements but a little less direct emotionally and that makes it more difficult. This might actually be the problem with our modern aesthetic, that we try to be so indirect. Can we find an amalgamation for our desire to be aloof and indirect, subtle or even vague, but with something that is packing a really powerful emotional punch, that’s telling real stories about real people? It’s why the Ring is so timeless. When I went to see the Ring last year at the COC, I was reconfirmed, much as I so love other operas. It is the ultimate art-work. It is so profound and all-encompassing. There’s the story of human-kind. Boom: four operas. That’s what keeps people going back. Why is Poppea still as current today as it was then, or Agrippina? We are fascinated by these characters because they’re so motivated by the gut by deeply human things: love, lust, quest for power. We need to find more of those triggers.

As Sister Helen in the Canadian première of Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” (Calgary Opera, 2006)

Mary-Lou: I think it’s so interesting that the operas that have characters who end in downfall, like Salome and Elektra, are the most controversial operas but then we are drawn to them even more because we desire to watch, maybe as an educative warning about what to do and what not to do with our own lives.

Kimberly: Yes, and we’re almost perversely interested. Why do people go to public hangings? Why do people watch executions on YouTube? Why do we read the gossip problems in the paper, because we’re fascinated by it.

“The most successful operas are going to be the ones that grab you on an emotional level. It’s like they come up with a giant suction cup on your heart and they take you on this emotional roller-coaster and your just going, “AHHHHH!!!”

Mary-Lou: You mentioned the COC production of the Ring. Your career began around 1985 when you apprenticed for the Canadian Opera Company. How did that experience mold you and who were your significant mentors?

Kimberly: Well, of course, it was a fantastic opportunity and in Canada at that time there were very few opportunities for young singers to develop themselves beyond university. Just having that available was really extraordinary. Now there are programmes everywhere. It was a great experience to be involved in productions; generally as a secondary performer with really top-notch people. Lotfi Mansouri was a great mentor to all of us. He was really the grand-daddy of the current company. He brought it up to the international level. We had fantastic artists come through: Richard Leech, Joan Sutherland, Jerry Hadley, Carol Vaness when she started her meteoric rise. We had master-classes with Richard Bonynge which were quite extraordinary; he’s a wonderful teacher. Steven Lord was one of the head coaches at that time at the COC. I learned an enormous amount from him. Dixie Ross-Neill was there at that time and she really kick-started the ensemble into high gear. One experience was working with Dutch director Hans Nieuwenhuis. Wesley Balk, a tremendous educator who wrote three books that I draw a lot from in my teaching gave a two week workshop on performing techniques and that was life-changing for me: release inhibitions, breakdown blocks and entanglements, as he called them. There’s a bit of overlap with Alexander technique, but he broke down the singer-actor into three different components and he taught us to isolate those components and then recombine them. It changed my perspective as and artist. If there was one single “Ah Ha” moment for me, it was that. Also, Matthew Epstein came and did a workshop with us and taught young artists how to put together a package and so there were a lot of really good people that came through.

Mary-Lou: You are well-loved in this country and abroad for your portrayal of pant-roles. Tell us why playing a man is such a particular and dramatic feat, and this interview wouldn’t be complete without asking, “Who is your favourite character to portray?”

Barber as the Composer (Seattle Opera, 2004)

Kimberly: That’s always hard. I think my favourite character is the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos, of the characters that I’ve portrayed, although that’s such a hard question. When you’re doing it you love whatever you’re doing. I mean I’ve loved playing Sister Helen, too. The Composer is so demanding. A lot has to do with timing and it’s very mercurial. He can be extremely romantic and philosophical and then he can be in a rage and in the depths of despair and all that can be in one phrase (laughing). So it’s very difficult when you’re working with a director on that, and I’ve had some very good directors that I’ve worked with. I love that opera and I love a lot of the things that the Composer says; they’re very profound. It’s thrilling to sing and I’ve had many great colleagues to work with and so I have a lot of good memories of that role. Playing pant-roles is really; well, I grew up in a family of two brothers and until I was 12 there were no girl cousins in the family and we have a pretty close extended family so I knew my cousins very well and we visited often and I really had to learn to get along with boys. Obviously, I had lots of opportunity to observe boys and their behaviour and even through high school I had a lot of good friends who were guys. In some ways I related to them better than girls just because I had to suck it up a little bit when I was little. I had no patience for cry babies and even if I wanted to be one I couldn’t because I would have been ridiculed (laughing). I had to play a lot of boy games and I was a bit of a jock in school although I did a lot of extra-curricular in school…lots of sports. I was used to being very physical and I just liked the challenge of gender-bending. I liked trying to portray that difference of sexual energy. But, it does propose a particular challenge and you know obviously you can never truly suspend disbelieve entirely. I mean everybody knows that you have a breast-binder on and that you’re being made-up to be a man and I actually really hate having to wear facial hair or sideburns. I try to resist it because we’re not fooling anyone. Everyone knows that I’m a woman but I want to get as far as I possibly can, to suspend disbelief. I think one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever had was a colleague who I saw a couple of years after Xerxes who said, “I wanted to write you a letter after that performance cause I wanted to tell you that I was really really attracted to you. She’s heterosexual right; she really believed that I was a man. I was very pleased by that compliment and that’s what I do try to project and I guess it comes naturally to me but I do think about my posture, my gait and the way I stand and gesture. It’s also the sense of male entitlement that this element has to be there; a sort of cockiness if you will that we attribute to women being too masculine or too ballsy and they sometimes give us the creeps a little bit, maybe.

As Xerxes for the Seattle production in 1997.

Mary-Lou: Well, there is no question that that performance…well, let’s just say that I don’t think anyone who was there will forget it. You also give a master class revolving around the theme of Trouser Roles called “Call me Mister: Defining the Trouser Role.” Are these all elements you talk about or do you discuss a certain methodology in this sense?

Kimberly: I do talk to the singers about what they can do posturally: how they sit in a chair, how they get up from a chair, how they stand, how they walk. There are some certain physiological things that you can do that are very technical that can help you to find where your weight is, where your center of gravity is in the body; a certain kind of stiffness in the hips. The way women’s pelvis are constructed we get that sway in our hips and men don’t have that. There are other things like the way women and men differ in the way they put on a coat. You learn by observation. Those are just a few little tips that I give to that class and I try to give them a certain freedom of being in their bodies more than how women feel they’re able to be physically in the world. It depends on the context of the class. The first time I did it was for the Vancouver Opera Guild. They had just done Rosenkavalier and there was a lot of controversy about these two women kissing on stage. The audience didn’t get why it couldn’t be a man and they didn’t understand the tradition of trouser roles. So, I talked about the history of where it came from and why that tradition existed originally in the theater and so forth. You know, I get really annoyed and have had arguments with directors and opera general managers when they say that it’s kind of titillating to have a counter-tenor play Cherubino. And I think, you know, Mozart would have rolled around in his grave, not to mention Beaumarchais. I mean, Beaumarchais really had specific reasons why he had a woman playing Cherubino and why he wanted that quality and I feel very strongly about that. It’s very trendy at the moment to have counter-tenors in everything and there are many wonderful ones around and so I can understand that, but I think there is certain repertoire in which it is just not right to let that happen.

Mary-Lou: I agree. You also have a workshop called “Finding Your Individual Voice. Since you’ve been teaching for several years now and many of your students have gone on to opera programmes, festivals, and Masters programmes. What can you tell young singers who are searching for a career in opera or starting to hone their skills at finding their own voice?

Kimberly: I think what I’m trying to get at with that workshop is “What do you want to say?” I mean first of all, “Who are you?” Who are you as a singer and what is particular about you that makes you different and would make me want to listen to you rather than the person standing next to you? Each of us has our own unique self and set of experiences and filter with which we perceive the world. I use a lot of different exercises and techniques to try to get the singers in touch with that and to go back to the very beginning of the interview where we were talking about text and communication and say, “What is it that I want to say? Not, what do I think the director wants me to say or what do people in the audience want me to say.” Those are all interesting things to think about but what do I want to say as an artist. That’s a complaint that people often make about North American singers. They tend to be very well-trained their languages are good, they sing well, they look good, they show up on time, etc…but they don’t project anything unique and sometimes you can’t tell one sound from another. It all just sounds generic, just a pleasant, generic North American sound. That’s one of the things I loved about working alongside Kassarova. She’s just so fiercely not cut from any mold; or Kirchschlager, working with those ladies. They’re just making their statement and they’re not just sitting there saying, “Here I am making my statement,” they’re just doing what they do. And if someone says, “why did you do it like that?” or “that was an ugly sound,” they don’t care. That’s just their truth. They’re singing the truth that’s inside of them and I really learned a lot singing alongside of them and it was thrilling. I really try to encourage young singers to stop trying to be right all of the time. There is no right. There are certain stylistic parameters that should be respected…but maybe not. I don’t know. Who am I to say? Try it out for yourself and see if it really is your truth or if you’re just trying to provoke something that’s different. The crux of my workshop is to get people to experiment and move your boundaries. For the most part, people are just relieved to have permission to do something crazy.

“Singing the truth that’s inside of them.”

Mary-Lou: You are also the coordinator of the Voice programme at Wilfrid Laurier University. What goals do you have for that program and how are you establishing your position as a pedagogue in Canada?

Kimberly: Goals for the program: I have a really great set of colleagues there. I would like to see if we can go along and attract other pedagogues to the programme. At the moment we’re at a state where we have a good cadre of teachers. It’s a good atmosphere there, very collegial and we’ve begun to create an atmosphere of exchange, and we share lots of discussion and idea sharing. I think it’s very positive and I want to grow that. I think there’s some interesting areas of research I’d like to explore, pedagogically, that I’d like to pursue and I want to involve my colleagues in that. I’d like to see Laurier become a kind of think-tank for pedagogy and pedagogical innovation. I apply a lot of the techniques that I use in my workshops and use physical work; my colleagues do so as well. I’m encouraging them to be as creative and innovative as possible. We’re all interested in creating total artists not just singing machines. The other thing that I would like to see grow at Laurier is the Opera programme. At the moment, because of the size and budget at our school it is difficult because we don’t have much of a budget but the size also allows us to rely on undergraduates. Our undergrads get to sing leading roles in the excerpts and in the opera we put on. This is all before they graduate and most don’t get a chance perform a role until grad school. It would be wonderful if we could get a great performance space, but the one thing that the space we have has allowed us is to be creative in our productions. I’ve always been fascinated by minimalist productions; by that I mean productions that focus on characters and their relationships and not so much on production elements. I know it’s possible to really engage people in a powerful way and what we try to do, at the moment, is wow people by effects. It’s quite exciting with the innovations of theater technology nowadays, to see live explosions on stage but it costs and exorbitant amount of money. When I go to the theater what I’m really interested to see is the story and how the characters move within it. That’s one of the things that is great about Laurier, it forces the students to learn that it is possible to present vital and interesting theater on a very small budget. It teaches you to be resourceful and use your imagination. I would love to see us get a wonderful space to work in with a pit and I would love do productions in an edgy, interesting, exploratory, creative kind of way. This is how you can really bring opera to the people.

Mary-Lou: True, and I think that’s really what we’re lacking today; the concept that really drives opera is the characters and more than anything, the voice. And speaking of that, let’s talk about the current caliber of singers and performances in Canada and abroad. Do you feel that we are progressing on a technical and dramatic level, or do you feel that is a sense of mediocrity than what we’re willing to accept? If there is, what do you think causes it and what can we do to change it?

Kimberly: (Laughing) I don’t know, I think that’s interesting. You know, on some levels, Canada is producing an extraordinary number of world-class singers which is really impressive noting the size of our population. Just think about it? The generation starting from Judith Forst, who’s still very active professionally. She’s probably one of the senior members of our clan and then moving through John Fanning and Jean Stilwell and myself. Our generation: Russell Braun, Michael Schade, Isabel Bayrakdarian, Jane Archibald…I mean it’s an endless list of singers: Brett (Polegato), Ben (Heppner), Richard (Margison), James (Westman), Gerald Finlay, Philip Ens and of course Adrianne Pieczonka (I don’t want to forget anybody)…it’s really quite amazing. Yes, there is mediocrity. There always has been but I think it goes back to something we were talking about before, blandness. There was a really interesting article in the Globe (and Mail) that I cut out awhile back and it was called: “We aim to passively suffice.” It was a plea to Canadians to stop accepting mediocrity and I think there are those of us who are trying to do that but as Canadians we’re sometimes too apologetic and we’re afraid to not be right. As an artist you have to be absolutely fearless and I tell my students this all of the time. You cannot be afraid; it’s part of the deal and contract that you make when you want to be an artist. We have to train our students to be fearless.

Mary-Lou: What about the public?

Kimberly: I think that the public doesn’t really know what they want. They just don’t get their buttons pushed often enough. If they were getting their buttons pushed more often they’d really notice the difference between this and that. They’d say, “I think I like that one better. I like the one where she made me feel more uneasy and crazy.” I think people need to be shown more. We’re too safe and too unobtrusive. People can sit in front of a DVD player or CD player and sit safely at home and so we have to shoot them off their armchairs and force them to get up. We have to be different.

Mary-Lou: I think that’s really interesting. I was going to ask you about the way that opera is perceived by the general public. Awhile back it was more an issue of social strata or class but I don’t think it’s this so much anymore, it’s really a problem of people having a hard time accepting those types of emotions and being penetrated by them. Everyone feels safer by being in their comfort zone whereas if someone came to see you in Serse and had no idea what the opera was or they were a first time opera goer, it would have just blown their mind.

Kimberly: One of the key elements of that production was that it was in the vernacular; in English with surtitles in a great translation by Steven Wadsworth and it was a very simple set; fabulous costumes, but a simple set. A house front and tree so that the audience could focus on the characters and that’s what got people. They really got the story. Some people thought it was cheesy but we also came out at the beginning of the opera and gave a little mission statement, kind of, about who we were and what our character was. Mine was, “I am Xerxes, I am King. I want to be in love.” We’d always make jokes about it, you know, like “Hi, I am Kim and I am scared.” (laughing) But so many people came up and thanked us for doing that because it helped them to understand. We have to make opera accessible to audiences without dumbing it down. I always preferred opera in the original language until I did that piece in English and people laugh in the right places and I became a complete convert to that.

Mary-Lou: Kimberly, how do you balance teaching and performing and being a mom? (As Kimberly’s daughter Alice came and sat on the grass in her soccer uniform, fresh from soccer practice, eagerly listening to her mom’s commentary on this question).

Kimberly: It’s a constant balancing act. I’m very grateful to my family for understanding my craziness. I have a wonderful partner and my children are very supportive and understanding of what I do. I have great support from all my family, from my mother, my mother-in-law who traveled with me a lot when my kids were little, from my sister-in-law, my full extended family who has come to countless performances. They keep me grounded and humble and they remind me continually of what’s real. I could come home in the evening from a performance and feel a little disappointed or something, and my husband and I would go into our daughter’s room and watch them sleep and say, “That’s real, the other stuff doesn’t matter.” And that’s really important and it ultimately also feeds you as an artist. I say to my students, “You’ve got to have a life.” It’s not just enough to have your art because what are you going to do when you’re old? You have to have interests and they have to be rich. That’s how I balance. I have a lot of interests and I have a rich family life and also my family allows me to do what I do. It’s kind of like my performing feeds my teaching and my teaching feeds my performing, a sort of symbiotic relationship.

Mary-Lou: You’ve accomplished so much already, and you have so much ahead of you still. What are your future goals and what projects are you looking to work at?

Kimberly: I sort of take it as it comes. I used to do a lot of five-year plan and things like that but I don’t do that anymore. It’s easier to respond to what’s happening and I’m starting to get some really interesting roles offered to me that really surprise me. I’m going to be doing the Canadian première of Marc Blitzstein’s Regina out in Victoria (British Columbia) in the spring and I’m reading it going, “Oh my God, she’s in her mid-50s and I’m not even 50 yet! This is terrible!” And then I read the play and realized what a gift it is to play this character that is larger than life, or to play Sister Helen. That was also huge and a real departure for me, really challenging but extremely rewarding. I don’t limit myself anymore. I let things surprise me. I’m doing a lot more consulting and adjudicating. I got called out of the blue to do the broadcasting of the Montreal Jeunesses Musicale Competition a few years ago and I totally loved that. I’d be interested in doing anything like that. I’d be interested in doing something more political concerning the arts: Canada Council or in an administrative aspect at an opera company. The sky’s the limit. The things I’ve had no expectations for were the things that were really fertile that sent me in new directions. I try to live for the moment and do the most with the things I’m doing right now. My husband is a great advisor and he’s always spurred me on to my dreams.

Mary-Lou: Would you like to say a few words about Richard Bradshaw and his sudden passing?

Kimberly: That’s an enormous shock. It’s kind of like a seismic, 8.6 on the Richter scale of the Canadian opera scene. No one was expecting this. He was such a force of nature on the Canadian operatic scene and what he did for that company for the last 18 years. The kinds of operatic productions, the innovativeness; it is incalculable that affect that his unbelievable doggedness and perseverance in getting the opera house done just completely changed the playing field in Canada. It really put us on the map. It was that opening night in the Four Season’s Center with Wagner’s Rhinegold that was one of the greatest moments for me, ever (crying)……He brought the whole orchestra up on the stage…people were crying, it was huge. It’s a terrible shock. In a way, though, he completed his life’s work. There’s something almost divine (voice breaking), um…because he created this thing and completed it and maybe now he left it for someone else to take on and take to the next stage. So, um, I always try to put a bright spin on something cause I know that my colleagues at the COC are absolutely reeling at the moment. They don’t know what hit them. From a practical perspective, who’s going to lead the company and for right now who’s going to conduct the operas that he was going to conduct? He was just such a steersman and it’s going to be very very difficult indeed to fill his shoes, no question. He was a great operatic statesman. He left us a legacy and he has the company absolutely on the right track, in their opera house and he gave us a face. They have 99% attendance and it’s all very positive…he left everything in a good state. He received the Order of Canada and received honours and was justly celebrated and so I feel that his importance had been justly recognized and so I think we can all feel satisfied in that respect. There will be post-humus awards but we have recognized clearly what his contribution was.

Mary-Lou: The multifaceted, Kimberly Barber, continues to amaze and enthrall audiences from coast-to-coast. I’d like to thank you for taking the time to speak with me and giving your long-time admirers and fans a glimpse into your perspectives, opinions, and persona. You are indeed a treasure in the Canadian opera scene and it has been my pleasure to interview you for Opera Today.

Kimberly: It was a pleasure to be interviewed, great questions, and thanks.

A Review of her solo CD, “Faustina Bordoni: Faces of a prima donna” (CBC Records) can be found here on Opera Today, as well as a recent live review of her performance in Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38.” for the opening of the Elora Festival. Also, please check out Kimberly’s website at for more on this fabulous performer.

Upcoming performances:

October 26, 2007, 7:30: Recital with Pianist Peter Tiefenbach and special guests, Waterloo Entertainment Center

January 8, 2008: Recital with Pianist Anya Alexeyev, Cellist Paul Pulford and others. Music at Noon Series, Maureen Forrester Recital Hall. Waterloo, On.

February 7 and 9, 2008, Charlotte, “Werther” (Jules Massenet). Opera Ontario.

image= image_description=Kimberly Barber product=yes product_title=Above: Kimberly Barber
Posted by Gary at 3:03 PM

The Dream of Gerontius Opens Elora Summer Festival

The Elora Festival, noted for the collaborative efforts of many great performers and organizations opened its 2007 festival with Elgar’s magnificent creation. Noel Edison masterfully directed the Elora Festival Singers, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, and the Elora Festival Orchestra with brilliance, aesthetic dedication, and a tender yet strict hand. The sensitivity he allotted the soloists is to be commended and his understanding of the deeper meaning of this piece brilliantly shone in his exquisite control of the orchestral fabric. The overture began with warm and burnished hues, painfully weeping celli and well-balanced dark ombra. The Elgarian timbres were specifically expressed by each orchestral section, most specifically in the strings as they exemplified the ethereal and transcendent space Elgar demanded in order to create the vastness of his masterpiece. Edison paid intelligent heed to the dynamic inflection and allowed the orchestra to create layered effects leading to Gerontius’ beautiful entry cry of “Jesu, Maria—I am near to death.”

Noel Edison, Artistic Director of the Elora Festival

Gerontius, sung with elegance and the purity of lyricism by Irish-Canadian tenor, Michael Colvin, is a taxing role that requires an almost Verdian thrust but also the most expansive sense of lyrical control. Colvin’s diction was brilliant and his use of text was especially moving. A free and impressive upper register, the squillo of his tenore bruciato added to the dramatic presence of Gerontius. Although this is a concert work, Colvin was continually in character and indeed most musically presented.

Tenor, Michael Colvin was a sensitive and believable Gerontius.

The combined choruses blended well, with precise diction. Each section represented an individual unit that contributed to the larger whole and there was never a sense of unbalance. Edison led them beautifully toward their inflection of “Of all that makes me man….and crueler still, a fierce and restless fright begins to fill the mansion of my soul,” where Elgar at once transforms the music by imbuing atonal suggestions, with turbulent and exciting orchestration leading into an ethereal moment of relaxation.

The entrance of the priest was significant and wonderfully approached by bass-baritone, Tyler Duncan. Perhaps the most impressive performer of the group, his voice spun almost impeccably and was never pushed but floated on the breath with precision and musical inflection. Impressive indeed for a lower voice type to exude this type of elegance, there was never any heaviness and if so it was created by timbre, not pushing or sometimes, what I call, “barking” baritones.

Tyler Duncan (bass-baritone) was the surprise of the evening.

A most memorable moment at the point where Gerontius’ words mimic those of Christ in his last moments, “Into Thy hands, O Lord, into Thy hands…” was so utterly moving that every hair on one’s head stood completely erect. Duncan’s expression of the Priests, “Go forth in the name…” was well-expressed as one of Elgar’s most majestic melodies.

Canadian mezzo, Kimberly Barber astonishingly represented God’s Angel.

Part II offered a most expressive response to Part I and much of that is owed to the performance of the Angel by mezzo-soprano, Kimberly Barber. Her presence on-stage was riveting and even though she was not in costume one saw her presence as the Angel, purely and physically. Her eyes never wavered in their expressive depth and she captivated. Her’s was the presence of calm and salvation. Her voice blended liquidly with the chorus of Angelicals her inflection and diction was precise. Her sound was never pushed and her rich and luscious mezzo was used in a dramatic way, never singing just to project but rather to express the meaning of the musical lines and the Angel’s important message. Her “Softly and Gently,” was truly one of the most compassionate and hair-raising moments of the entire performance. As she sang, “In my most loving arms I now enfold thee, and o’er the penal waters, as they roll, I poise thee, and I lower thee, and hold thee,” she moved many in the audience to tears. Barber enfolded us with her eloquence and in the end one forgot that this was a singer performing a musical role, but really Elgar’s Angel.

Mary-Lou P. Vetere, 2007

image= image_description=Elora Summer Festival logo product=yes product_title=Edward Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius, Op. 38
Elora Summer Festival, 13 July 2007 product_by=Kimberly Barber, mezzo-soprano, Michael Colvin, tenor, Tyler Duncan, bass-baritione, The Elora Festival Singers, The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, The Festival Orchestra, Noel Edison, conductor.
Posted by Gary at 1:55 PM

Faustina Bordoni: Faces of a prima donna

During the 18th century, the castrati were the most desired voice type and one might initially think that there weren’t any female singers of great caliber; however one of the greatest female singers of her time was born in Venice in 1697 and lived there until 1781. Mezzo-soprano, Faustina Bordoni made her operatic debut in 1716 in Carlo Francesco Pollarolo’s Ariodante. She became known as the “new siren,” and was commonly just recognized by her first name, Faustina. This historical CD is a tribute to her and to the works of Hasse and Handel.

Cleofide, was Johann Adolf Hasse’s (1689-1783) first opera for the Saxon court. It explores themes of jealousy and royalty, as well as the position of women in kingdoms. The libretto to this work stems from Metastasio’s Alessandro nell’Indie and the title role of Cleofide was one of Faustina’s most well-loved roles. Featured here is the Sinfonia, and Qual tempesta d’affetti (recitativo) and Son qual misera colomba (aria). The Sinfonia, opens with a luscious Allegro di molto in which the Arion orchestra is well-balanced between orchestral sections. The brilliance of the brass is suggestive of the regal qualities of the opera. At this time it was not mandatory for the overture/sinfonia to reflect the dramatic impetus of the story, yet Hasse makes this quite appropriate. In the ensuing Allegretto, we move to a lovely, lilting 6/8 with aesthetic dedication to the up-lift required by this music. The clavicembalo performed by Olivier Fortin elegantly plucks along the beat with a dance-like quality and allows a well measured contrast to the opening Allegro. To end the Sinfonia, an allegro assai with brass instituting a rhythmic ostinato above cascading scalar passages in the violins. Some wonderful moments of consequent and antecedent phrasing present themselves within Arion’s orchestral fabric.

The recitativo accompagnato from Acte II, Qual tempesta d’affetti opens with a strong rhythmic inflection in unison by the orchestra leading to the vocal entrance. Barber’s voice is round and her inflections in this text are excited and sparkling. Her Italian is quite impressive and her attention to the Baroque performance aesthetic is profound. There is a lovely interlude that brings the recitativo into a slower and more reflective mood; a true testament to Hasse’s attention to dramatic motion and tension. Barber merges swiftly between voce di testa and voce di petto (head and chest voice) and her lower tessitura is thrilling and creates refined dramatic colour in combination with the orchestral fabric. The aria Son qual misera colomba opens with a pleasant and melodic instrumental prelude. Barber spins out coloratura in what seem like endless melismas of vocal pyrotechnics. She manages to retain a beautiful and lyrical line even through the infusion of notes. Her trills and especially the end of the second “libertà” is very impressive with quick passages of descending triads. The B section of the ternary aria is well-contrasted by Barber from the excitement of the first section. The supportive Arion orchestra is complimentary and provides elegant and dramatic support when needed. They are never overpowering and let the voice glimmer in its true and exciting element. The Da Capo is thrillingly performed by Barber and the well-chosen seconds of chest voice at the ends of certain coloratura passages are brilliant.

Excerpts from Handel’s Admeto are offered, again beginning with the Ouverture (Sinfonia) to Acte II, and to contrast the excitement of the Hasse, we are introduced to a beautiful Largo. Distinctive chords open this, from which stem cascades of ascending 16th note scalar passages. There are lovely moments of drama in that attention is paid to antecedent and consequent phrasing. An effective use of terraced dynamics is approached aesthetically and the orchestra is well-balanced in its presentation here. Following the Largo is an Allegro that is more polyphonically constructed. The orchestra divides itself into rhythmic support and two melodies occurring: one in the violins and another in the oboe; a welcomed contrast to the previous Largo.

In Scène I, we are introduced to the voice of Baritone, Jonathan Carle as Ercole. His recitativo, In van ti scuoti, in vano is elegant and his voice is lush and pleasant, however his Italian is marked by too many aspirated consonances making it sound in-authentic. The language sounds almost amateurish in comparison to Barber’s meticulous attention to diction. The recitative is followed by another Sinfonia that is filled with beautiful running passages in the violins surrounded by suspended falling seconds in the brass. The fagotto and traverso could be a tad louder in the recording mix as they are often much imbedded within the texture. Perhaps bringing these instruments further forward would give the orchestral fabric a more colourful and poignant colour.

Scène 7 is a recitative between Alceste and Ercole, A qual fine, o Regina. Again, Carle’s Italian is problematic here and affects the overall presentation of his lines. In a couple of entrances he even sounds a little flat in his tone. Barber inflects her responses dramatically and uses her voice effectively within the dramatic purpose of the text. The aria Gelosia spietata Aletto opens with a rhythmic and exciting orchestral introduction that is followed by a beautiful opening phrase by Barber. The orchestra here doubles her scales with precise inflection. Again, Barber’s fioritura is thrilling and to be commended, especially for her attention to historical performance practice. This aria expresses the lovely acoustic of the recording and the Da capo brings some absolutely luscious moments from Barber, especially by the contrast in her pianissimo singing and the, all at once moments, of chest register.

Acte III, scène 6 brings Alceste’s aria La dove gli occhi io giro which opens with a lovely introduction with solo violin that continues in responds to Barber’s vocal statements. The clavicembalo rhythmically defines the triumvirate of sound and this polyphonically inspired aria becomes one of the memorable tracks on this CD; not for the difficulty or intensity of the music, but for its inherent simplicity and remarkably subtle moments of just complete musicality between this collaboration of superb artists.

To contrast Handel, we return to Hasse’s Cleofide and are presented with the Sinfonia from Acte I, which begins with an Allegro assai. The lower extremities of the orchestra are featured here with oscillating 16th note passages in the violins. The juxtaposed transition to minor for a momentary thrill is notable for Hasse. The brass is well-balanced here but could have perhaps been a little poignant in its contributions to this piece. The Andante that follows has lovely drawn out baroque inflections and the clavicembalo is well-balanced with the strings. Some of the inner orchestral sections could be a little more projected here to take the pronounced treble to a more rounded medium. Because this music tends to be melodically based the acoustic can tend to be drowned by high resonances allowing the mids and lows to be lost.

The Sinfonia ends with a tri-part Minuetto-Presto-Minuetto. The presto was well approached by Olivier Fortin yet again the inner voices of the Minuetto could have been slightly more pronounced, especially the corni. This was a lovely introduction to Cleofide’s aria Se mai turbo il tuo riposo, Barber sings with a beautiful, lush tone and affective lyric phrases. She uses a colourful palate of voice shades and in each phrase she uses a new and fresh approach to her text, even in the Da Capi.

The CD returns to Handel with excerpts from the opera Riccardo Primo (1727). The Ouverture begins with a Largo in regal dotted rhythms with doubled treble parts in the fagotto, oboe, and traverso. Again, I would have liked this section to be more pronounced here, as it tends to get lost in the acoustic. The following Allegro is polyphonically based in a pseudo three-voice fuga. The orchestral sections are well balanced and each entry is given appropriate attention. There is a question/answer moment in which the fagotto and oboe are featured and is quite lovely; making me want to hear these instruments even more clearly within the aforementioned tracks.

Act II, scène I opens with Pulcheria’s recitativo accompagnato, Ah, padre! Ah, Cielo! Barber eloquently approaches the text with precision and dramatic inflection. Her aria, Quel gelsomino, che imperla il prato which she opens with a light and fiery sound. Barber’s mezzo is like a kaleidoscope of colour. She can in one instance produce a bright yellow shade and then at once descend into the deepest red. The true mark of an artist who can use their voice technically and artistically within a repertoire that is imbued with difficulty is one that can use those elements to create drama and bring a character to life, even on a CD. Barber is such an artist.

In Scène IV, Pulcheria’s aria L’Aquila altera conoscere i figli is constructed of a strong running-bass foundation. The moving bass is an elegant compliment to Pulcheria’s melody. Barber treats this with grace and her attention to phrasing, even though, the coloratura is noteworthy. The B Section shows her artistry as she employs some lovely terraced effects and uses a lighter toned sound to contrast the fuller sound of the previous section. Again, the Italian is well-enunciated and inflected with pure legato through consonants and vowels. She never lets the text affect the application of her phrasing and legato, but rather uses the latter to express that text more fully and artistically.

The final excerpt is from Handel’s Admeto (1727), and we are treated to Alceste’s aria from Act I, scène 3, Luci care, addio, posate. Barber takes time with these phrases and the rests are, as is sometimes forgotten, as important as sound. This aria, that in a way resembles Cleopatra’s V’Adoro Pupile (from Giulio Cesare), uses periodic rests for dramatic purpose. There is a lovely section with the traverso in duet with the voice that is moving and elegant. Barber’s rich mezzo is well-complimented by the higher tones of the obbligato.

This CD is a must have for any Handel aficionado, or anyone who is interested in historical performance practice. The vocal performance of Kimberly Barber is worth having, if just to listen to a singer who can complete the difficult tasks of Handel’s writing and make it beautiful. The Arion orchestra is a competent and supportive group of musicians and the ensemble is noteworthy.

Mary-Lou P. Vetere, 2007

image= image_description=Faustina Bordoni: Faces of a prima donna product=yes product_title=Faustina Bordoni: Faces of a prima donna product_by=Kimberly Barber, mezzo-soprano (Cleofide, Alceste, Pulcheria), Arion, orchestre baroque, Monica Huggett (director/violon baroque), with Jonathan Carle, baritone (Ercole) product_id=CBC Records 1172 [CD] price= $17.98 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 1:19 PM

August 27, 2007

Menotti’s “Saint” wears a dim halo

His death at 95 on February 1 made the CCO staging both an act of homage and an object of special interest to opera goers. It was thus the conversation piece of this celebratory season. And although CCO general and artistic director Pelham (“Pat”) Pearce admitted that at first examination of the 1954 score he was “underwhelmed,” the company went overboard to mount a production that seemed designed to revive interest in Menotti and perhaps correct the view offered in a July Opera News obituary by Barry Singer that he was “the most prolific, widely performed and widely disdained” composer in all of opera.

On the heels of her 2005 directorial debut with “Madama Butterfly” the CCO brought veteran soprano Catherine Malfitano back to Colorado to stage “Saint.” Annina, the ill and visionary orphan whose story the opera tells, had played a significant part in the soprano’s career. When she sang the role at Wolf Trap in 1973, Julius Rudel, chief of New York City Opera, was in the audience and engaged her to sing Annina with that company the following season. The production was seen on public television when it was revived in 1978. (Malfitano, by the way, made her professional debut in a CCO “Falstaff” in 1972.) Thus the summer production was an act of faith for Malfitano, who further came up with the concept for handsome sets, effectively realized by Wilson Chin.

Yet even Malfitano’s belief in “Saint” could not triumph over the feeling that the opera is justifiably absent from the repertory today. Indeed, this was clearly a case, in which the staging was superior to the work, upon which the company lavished such affection. “Saint” got off to a magnificent start. Ill and orphaned Annina, sumptuously sung by a convincingly adolescent Christina Martos, was an engaging study in a faith so absolute that it led to stigmata, to the wounds of Christ bleeding in her. On the other hand, her brother Michele, a macho product of New York’s Little Italy as portrayed by Derek Taylor, was ridden by doubt. The two, it is generally agreed, are metaphors for two sides of Menotti’s own tormented soul.

The composer’s verismo and his choral writing are up there with Puccini, and the power of the first act elevated expectations. Things paled, however, and melodrama took over with Michele’s murder of girl friend Desideria, passionately sung by Kirstin Chávez. The sub-plot won the upper hand, as Menotti inched towards liturgy in the remainder of the work. Annina died as she took the veil, something her fugitive brother tried to prevent, and, while the virtual on-stage canonization of the young woman might have wowed the Sunday-school set, it left the unchurched waiting for the curtain to fall.

“Saint” ended up being too much, rather than too little, and doubters were disturbed by the ease with which Menotti was content to let the mighty final chorus obscure the question of what happens to murderer-on-the lamb Michele. Might the composer have done better to delete the murder and develop the incest motif so obviously present in the sibling relationship? And although Menotti is certainly right in questioning the mob that would exploit Annina, this perspective of the plot is obscured by his post-Puccini choruses.

“Saint” is a dark work, in which Menotti, his own librettist, stirs in the complex depths of the soul, but fails to put his findings together convincingly. The resolution - Annina almost sprouts angelic wings on stage - is contrived; the audience is browbeaten by the sheer power of Menotti’s music, but left without answers to the essential questions involved. Indeed, the best - and most moving - music heard at the CCO on the July 21 opening night was Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, played by an octet from the pit orchestra in an outdoor courtyard as a memorial to Menotti.

In the brief work Barber, first a fellow student at Curtis, then Menotti’s long-time companion, wrote music of amazing clarity and cleanliness - quite the opposite of Menotti’s overwrought score that followed on stage. “Saint” brought Menotti his second Pulitzer (the first was awarded for “Amahl and the Night Visitors” in 1951), yet the Central City staging makes clear why the work is so seldom encountered today. The CCO has further staged Menotti’s “Amelia Goes to the Ball” with Eleanor Steber in 1951 and “The Medium” in 1979.

A personal recollection:

Italian-born and Curtis-educated Menotti was his own man in opera. He wrote for Broadway during decades in which academic atonality dominated serious music and in “Amahl” written for television, he created what remains today the most-performed American opera. The world owes him much as a composer also active as a director and architect of the Spoleto Festival, first in Italy and then in Charleston, South Carolina. We were hardly buddies, yet for several years Gian Carlo Menotti was a presence in my life, and I - in a modest way - in his.

It was one of those right-place, right-time scenarios that have enriched my life. For many years I wrote a weekly column for a major newspaper chain. This gave me “visibility,” and musical organizations were eager to be the subject of my articles. A special fruit of this chapter of my life was a close and warm association with Spoleto USA, the American “half” of the Festival of Two Worlds, founded by Menotti in Italy in 1956 and then “imported” to Charleston, S.C. 11 years later.

During the decade before his somewhat operatic departure from Charleston, I interviewed Menotti by phone each spring about the up-coming season - he was usually then at home in his Scottish castle, where Prince Charles and the late Queen Mum were frequent guests. And in the first days of the season, which begins the last week in May, Menotti invited the critics present to breakfast in the garden of Charleston Place Hotel, his home in the city.

Not content to be only Spoleto’s founder and artistic director Menotti further made his mark by directing Mozart’s “Figaro” and Wagner’s “Parsifal” during my years at the festival. And he laid weight on being a man-about-town, cropping up suddenly in the midst of performances in the many historic venues used by the program. And I often encountered him “off stage” at the lavish late-night parties staged in the gardens of the well-maintained mansions on Charleston’s historic peninsula.

He radiated charm and charisma and - thanks largely to daily swim sessions - on his 80th birthday he could easily have been taken for 65.Yet Menotti was a difficult person who - in Charleston at least - became his own worst enemy. As the years piled up, the question of administrative succession at Spoleto grew pressing and it was complicated by Menotti’s insistence that his adopted son Francis follow him as artistic director of the festival both in Charleston and in Italy.

Those who had long supported Spoleto in Charleston felt that Francis, a difficult person, was not the man for the job. During negotiations often confrontational and even hostile Menotti threatened to move the American festival elsewhere - Savannah, just down the coast, was mentioned as a new site. And when Menotti finally did depart from Charleston he insisted for a time that the name “Spoleto” was his personal property.

Happily, Spoleto USA has done very well without Menotti, while word from Italy indicates that son Francis is no great success there. My life was made richer through my association with Menotti, with whom I had little contact following the death of his American press agent shortly after he left Charleston. It was sad indeed that things ended in that wonderful, historic city as they did, but it was clear that the time had come for Menotti to go. Nonetheless, today Spoleto USA, the country’s top all-arts festival, is a major monument to Menotti; even if his many operas are not often performed, he was an active presence on the art scene of the world for over half a century.

Wes Blomster

image= image_description=Pictured: Don Marco (Philip Cokorinos) with Annina (Christina Martos) as she takes the veil in Central City Opera’s The Saint of Bleecker Street. Photo by Mark Kiryluk product=yes product_title=Above: Don Marco (Philip Cokorinos) with Annina (Christina Martos) as she takes the veil in Central City Opera’s The Saint of Bleecker Street.
Photo by Mark Kiryluk
Posted by Gary at 3:46 PM

New opera from China crosses national boundaries

From 1965 to 1976 all Western art was forbidden in China as the embodiment of bourgeois decadence. And although the shadows of repression and censorship fell upon artists in other totalitarian states, nowhere was a ban so intensely carried out as in the China of Mao and his sometimes-actress wife.

Take the life of Han Jiang Tian, the impressive China-born bass now at home in the opera houses of the world and star of Guo Wenjing’s “Poet Li Bai,” premiered at Colorado’s Central City Opera on July 7. Tian’s musician parents were sentenced to “reeducation,” while he was sent to work in a factory. His piano teacher went to prison. He recalls smashing the family’s records of Western music to avoid further accusations of guilt.

When the Beijing Conservatory reopened in 1978 composer Guo was one of 17,000 who applied for admission. There he was the student of Zhou Xiaoyan, head of the opera department. Then 85, she had studied in Paris, and then spent the years of the Cultural Revolution in rice paddies.

The Central City team for “Li Bai” — dramatist Xu Ying, director Lin Zhaohua and designer Yi Liming — are all of this same generation, and — given this background — their dedication to the “new wave” of Chinese music that is now sweeping the world is hardly surprising.Guo, along with composers Tan Dun, Bright Sheng and Chen Yi, are the first generation of Chinese artists to reach maturity after the Cultural Revolution. And although the subject matter of their works might seem far removed from the modern world, this sad chapter of history shaped and defined them.

When one surveys their work — Dun, Sheng and Chen Yi have long been residents of this country — one senses an immense creative energy — indeed, a fervor — that built up in them during years of repression and was released with the end of Maoism. With two premieres by Dun in a single season — “First Emperor” at the Met in December and “Tea: A Mirror of Soul” on stage in Santa Fe later this summer, these composers are now dominant figures in America’s opera houses. (Sheng’s “Madame Mao” was premiered in Santa Fe in 2003, after his “Silver River” had made the rounds of summer festivals.) The Central City premiere, beyond doubt the highlight of the company’s 75th anniversary season, left a capacity audience stunned both by the beauty and the dramatic impact of Guo’s 90-minute, one-act work.

Li Bai, an 8th-century poet forbidden during the Cultural Revolution, was a free spirit who went his own way — even if this resulted in exile and death at 42. Parallels felt by artists in modern China are self-evident. And they offer insight into the intensity of his story and the metaphoric significance that it has for artists there today. Indeed, Tian portrayed Li Bai in his final hours — an inner dialogue largely with his Muses Wine and Moon — as if he had been waiting for this role his entire mature life. Since “Poet” is billed as “a Western opera sung in Chinese,” it seemed appropriate to ask just how Western — or Eastern — the work is. “Definitions are not important!” Guo said in an interview, emphatically waving the question aside. “Descriptions say nothing about the work!” He went on to stress that although much in “Poet” is derived from classical Chinese opera, the new work stands in no direct relationship to this tradition. The markings of tradition were stronger in his earlier works, he added.

Guo draws a sharp line between the fusion of East and West encountered in good contemporary Chinese music and the “simple Westernization” in which some engage. This, he stresses, leads to kitsch or “silly sweetness” — to a boring compromise where everything is tasteless. He compares it with the mediocre food served at many “Chinese” restaurants in the West. The sensitive melding of East and West , on the other hand, brings new energy to Western music much as Bartok did almost a century ago and as Argentina’s Oswaldo Golojov is doing today. “Different races together make a more beautiful baby,” Guo says.

Works by Dun and Sheng have been performed thus far in English, and the original libretto of “Poet” was in that language as well. Guo, however, insisted that the work be sung in Chinese — in part because of constant references to — and quotations from — Li Bai’s verse.The language of the poet’s time, he points out, was largely monosyllabic. It lends itself to narrative singing, enhanced by verbal ink splashes and delicate brush strokes in the text. (“Poet” calls for an orchestra of 50, plus a single Chinese bamboo flute.)

Dutch conductor Spanjaard, on the CCO podium for “Poet,” has worked with Guo on various endeavors since 1991. He is especially impressed by the composer’s ability to make gloomy subject matter attractive. Indeed, the conductor speaks of an “excitement of gloom” in these scores and of Guo’s ability to create “an electric atmosphere” through his incredible command of orchestration. And CCO general and artistic director Pelham (“Pat”) Pearce notes how impressed he is by Guo’s writing for voice in other works. “He knows how to let the voice soar,” Pearce says. “His vocal lines are a gift to singers.” It can hardly be overlooked that the Magistrate, the man who speaks for the absolute state in declaring Li Bai guilty, is the only figure in the opera appropriated from Peking opera. And in tenor Jiang Qihu’s singing of the role one senses the cold edge of absolute power that was the standard in Mao’s China.

The genesis of “Poet” dates back to 2000, when Hong Kong-born Diana Liao, a United-Nations translator and frequent collaborator with Chinese composers, began work on the libretto, which she soon completed with the help of playwright Xu Ying. It was destined for a Central City premiere, when support for the project came from Asian Performing Arts of Colorado, a volunteer organization headed by Liao’s sister Martha, whose basso husband Hao Jiang Tian was the obvious choice for the title role.

While Guo worked on the score, this collective took to the country’s Silk Road to gain a “feel” for the landscape where Li Bai had roamed on horseback. To insure the success — and authenticity of the staging the CCO recruited an all-Chinese cast and production. This genesis, of course, says little about the artistic achievement involved and the overwhelming impact that the work had on the opening-night crowd in the historic Central City Opera House. It was a unique experience for those present, for there has been nothing like “Poet” before — not even in other works by Guo.

Guo’s cross-fertilization of East and West has resulted in a largely lyrically and totally tonal idiom — new, personal and original — that combines both traditions in mesmerizing music. Long melodic lines resist tonic-dominant “pull” and hover hauntingly over the story of the ill-fated poet who enjoys the respect among Chinese that Anglo-Saxons lavish on Shakespeare. “When I write, I really don’t want to reflect what happened a thousand years ago,” the composer commented. “I don’t know how it sounded — nobody knows how it sounded. “I write entirely for the audience of today.”

Supporting roles in “Poet” were magnificently sung by Li Bai’s Muses, tenor Chi Limig (Wine) and soprano Ying Huang (Moon). Special praise was earned by a chorus of 30 from the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music, impeccably trained by Catherine Sailer.“Poet,” Guo summarizes, underscoring the universality of the work, “is the story of the hopes and fears of a legendary man who loved life with a passion to the very end.” And although in the opera Li Bai dies reconciled with the word, an undertow of sadness in the score recalls the era in which it was written.

Here, too, the shadows of recent history lend weight to the work, which in its way also pays tribute to those who did not survive the persecution and prisons of this age. The CCO premiere of “Poet Li Bi” further celebrated the 20th anniversary of co-commissioner Asian Performing Arts Colorado, major force in bringing project to fruition. Li Bai, by the way, is not a stranger to many in the West, for Gustav Mahler drew heavily on his verse for the texts in “Das Lied von der Erde.”

Wes Blomster

image= image_description=(L to R): Hao Jiang Tian (Li Bai) and Chi Liming (Wine) Photo by Mark Kiryluk product=yes product_title=Above: (L to R): Hao Jiang Tian (Li Bai) and Chi Liming (Wine)
Photo by Mark Kiryluk
Posted by Gary at 3:22 PM

Glimmerglass Opera 2007 — An Overview

However, in the case of one ill-conceived production (Monteverdi’s “Orfeo”), “don’t look at all” might have been better advice.

Glass: Orphee

To start with the best, Phillip Glass’ “Orphee” based on the Cocteau film is a hypnotic, brooding piece set in the confines of a trendy luxury apartment where truly spooky things keep happening. The piece is referred to as a “meditation on the relationship between the artist and death.” The signature repetitive arpeggiated harmonies, pulsing rhythmic stings, and alternating arching vocal melodies and repeated pitches were all there, and this was very very enjoyable Glass.

After a boozy confrontation at a chi-chi cocktail party, the eerie traffic death of an upstart young rival poet “Cegeste,” sets the wheels in motion for the appearance of “La Princesse” (Lisa Saffer in an exciting, high-flying performance) and her handsome chauffeur “Heurtebise” (Jeffrey Lentz in yet another superb and understated portrayal). There is much blurring of lines between the underworld, life, spirituality, and death in a fluid script/score that tumbles forward from one compelling scenario to another. Who’s alive? Who’s dead? Who’s next? Who knows? Wonderfully unsettling and ambiguous stuff.

Philip Cutlip and Caroline Worra each contributed solid singing and dramatic commitment as the title role and his doomed spouse. If the vocal writing for these two seemed a little more generic, both fleshed out their portrayals with fire and commitment. All of the smaller roles were cast from strength, notable highlights being Christopher Job’s “Poet” and the “Judge” of Christopher Temporelli, two of the Young American Artists who were excellent in all of their weekend-long assignments. The spot-on atmospheric designs, superbly calculated stage direction (what beautiful stage pictures were created with such an “inevitability” about them!), and the controlled conducting of Anne Manson combined to make a solid case for this intriguing piece.

Offenbach: Orpheus in the Underworld

Too bad that the quality level took a step down with a rather lackluster mounting of Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld.” Major exceptions should be stated up front: Joyce Castle (Public Opinion) and Jake Gardner (Jupiter) performed with skill and comic nuance, sang well, and comported themselves like the seasoned pros that they are. They were matched by a wonderfully fey, wonderfully sung “Mercury” from tenor Joseph Gaines, who by the way, also gave a lovely Young Artist’s recital at week’s end accompanied by Timothy Hoekman.

The mostly witty set designs were sadly not matched by the garish, over-the-top costumes that strained to be funny, but at best were silly, and at worst were highly unflattering. The stilted declamatory speaking style sapped the comic life from a duff translation, and there was just not another performer (save the three mentioned) really capable of a star turn, in a piece that calls for nothing but little star turns.

The small-voiced and ill-mannered “Cupid” of Joelle Harvey fared better on her second set piece when there was a solid scenery flat behind her to help float her sound over the footlights. I had the feeling that Donna Smith’s (best of the lot) “Venus,” Ellen Wieser’s “Diana,” and Susan Jean Hellman’s "Minerva” all had better performances in them, strapped as they were by cliched character concepts and poorly chosen stage placement. Kurt Lehmann’s "Orpheus” and the “Aristeus/Pluto” from Marc Heller were rather clunky and did not help matters, nor did the limp conducting of Jean-Marie Zeitouni (which gained a little more sparkle in Act II).

Little of the “humor” was character-based, so all of the schtick and takes and mugging and over-staging seemed to me slathered-on, half-hearted silliness. The choice to make “Eurydice’s” (pleasing-voiced Jill Gardner) home in Hades a bright red brothel did not help matters, and the motley, unfocused “decadent” orgy at operetta’s end was a mess of visual images and been-there, seen-that “drunken,” mock-salacious cross-dressing choristers. Save it for the Mummers Parade, please!

Oddly, with everything else over-staged and micro-managed, the one selection that should have had some well-choreographed flair, the famous Can-Can, was curiously flat. A few nice cartwheels from the dancing duo and invited “guests” were just not enough. If this piece of fluff indeed has a shelf life, it needs a far more imaginative “take” to make its intended effect.

Gluck/Berlioz: Orphee et Eurydice

The Gluck/Berlioz “Orphee et Eurydice” was treated to a gorgeous production, lovingly conceived and designed, masterfully directed, and beautifully sung. Male soprano Michael Maniaci as “Orphee” seems to have it all: good looks, a uniquely beautiful instrument and responsive technique, passionate and affecting phrasing, and commanding stage presence. If the very lowest notes of the role were only touched upon, this is still a most impressive instrument, and a major star performance that was cheered to the rafters.

He was ably partnered by the touching, well-voiced “Eurydice” of Amanda Pabyan. Young Artists Brenda Rae as “L’Amour” and Caitlin Lynch as “Une Ombre Heureuse” made substantial contributions, as did the entire youthful ensemble, whether cavorting as peasants, writhing as Furies, or peopling Elysian Fields.

The handsome set, lighting, and period costumes in neutral grays, beiges, and browns were greeted with applause at curtain-rise, and the visual delights were sustained throughout with simple but highly effective scenic effects.

Director Lillian Groag used meaningful movement to create pleasing stage pictures, and well-chosen blocking underscored the tragedy without distracting from it. Two dancers were employed in various guises to provide visual variety. In a clever final “instant replay” of the whole story at opera’s close, the duo portrayed that “Eurydice” was not in fact redeemed a second time, but rather remained lifeless, as “L’Amour” blithely exits leaving us without a Deus (Dea?) Ex Machina. Having observed this dance, "Orphee” stands up bewildered as the curtain falls. It was a neat tweak to the happy ending Gluck manufactured, leaving us to wonder if our heroine was really left standing. . .or not.

Monteverdi: Orfeo

That leaves the maddening 400-anniversary year production of Monteverdi’s "Orfeo.” Maddening, mostly because musically it was just stunning. Indeed, I am not sure it could have been bettered. Superb orchestral playing under Antony Walker supported uniformly excellent singing: correctly stylized, invested with passion, well ornamented, and immaculately prepared. But. . .this was without a doubt the ugliest and poorest realization of an operatic piece I have ever seen. Yes, ever. In fact, I am not sure what it “meant,” but let me try to share some impressions.

The set appeared to be a Soviet-era-like overblown public building with beige marble walls, and (shades of Sartre) no exit, save some open windows, chest-level, through which singers entered and in which they occasionally posed, somewhat as living statuary. Costumes were all over the place in period, perhaps to suggest universality, or perhaps to say “who gives a toss what you think.” Everyone is lounging around smoking. Is it an opium den? A day room in a frat house? Break time at a communist party meeting? Who cares?

The set was filled with faded sofas, over-stuffed chairs, settees, and sofas which appeared to have been gathered by going “junking” on bulk garbage pick-up day in Cooperstown. Ugly ugly ugly. At curtain rise, “La Musica” is dressed in a purple sequined. . .what? Chorus girl costume? “Orfeo” is slumped despondently in an armchair, in blue jeans, a tee shirt, horn-rimmed glasses, and. . . what is that around his waist? A prayer shawl? His sister’s macrame project? What?

The incoherent presentation was quite devoid of a transparent through-line. “La Musica” (well sung by Juliet Petrus) just couldn’t stand up straight, or at all, for almost the whole of the opera and kept crawling, falling, tottering, and lurching around seemingly at will. When “Orfeo” and his two buds are happily celebrating in the fields, they behave as three unruly pre-schoolers jumping up and down on the furniture inanely.

White-robed “Euridice” (Megan Monaghan) disappears with our hero to have a liaison behind a sofa, before it being declared in a pseudo-wedding scene that they have not yet consummated their relationship. With the many doublings and with no costume changes, it was difficult to tell who most of the singers were at any given time. I can say that among all the terrific soloists, Katherine Rohrer gave a peerless performance of the Messenger’s sad tidings, exceedingly well internalized and characterized.

Shortly thereafter, when our heroine is sent to Hades, she is forced to stand against the upstage center wall with her hands out to her sides, and "they” proceed to duct tape her arms to the wall with great fanfare, ripping off big, loud, long strips of tape in a loooooooooong silence after Act One’s music had ended, until the curtain oh-so-slowly descended. “Orfeo” having put on a grey hooded sweatshirt, pulling it tightly closed over his face (as I wish I could have done), and slumping to the ground, was left on the apron for the interval.

A Vox Populi check at intermission did not find happy opera-goers, to say the least. One women in a refreshment line declared this to be a “two ice cream bar intermission.” The curtain rose in silence for Act Two to reveal that much much more tape had been applied to poor “E.” Enough tape that I wished I had stock in Home Depot. At last, the girl-taping was finished and the beautiful music began anew, only to be accompanied by one last loooong rip of tape as the river Styx was created with one single line of duct tape suspended across the stage.

Fast forward to our hero being presented by a teetering “La Musica” with a beat-up music stand down center which holds the score for his lament. In a moment blessedly free of hi jinks, tenor Michael Slattery presented a memorable, raw, emotions bared account. His was a superb vocal realization throughout. He apparently overcomes his fear of duct tape to break through the “river” and tear his love off the wall with no little effort. But, gee, she seems to like the wall, and tears herself free of him, only to return to stand again in front of it, “stuck” in the habit, if not by the tape.

More shuffling and hurling of chairs, more smoking, more ensemble members awkwardly heaving themselves up and onto the window sills. “Orfeo” at last finds the wing chair in which he began the opera. Dragging it down center, he now cowers in it, “Euridice” frozen in place, with “La Musica” having gained her equilibrium just in time to spin in mindless circles right of center. . .long silence as we watch. . .watch. . .waaaaaaatch. . .and curtain.

I have yet to find someone who has an idea of what this was about. I do know it was willfully ugly, distracting, and irrelevant to the piece. A good director edits, illuminates, supports, and clarifies the authors’ intent. On this occasion, I am afraid director Christopher Alden, who has done some good work in the past, tripped over his concept and we were all the losers for it.

Someone suggested “at least you can close your eyes and listen to the excellent music.” You know how many CD’s I can buy for the $99.50 I paid for this visually insulting “production”? I can close my eyes at home by myself, thank you. Theatre should be a satisfying community experience. This not being heavily-subsidized Stuttgart, Berlin, or Munich, I am not sure the Glimmerglass public will support more of this type of vanity production. I certainly hope not.

As one fleeing patron spouted: “You really shouldn’t mix duct tape and opera.”

James Sohre

image= image_description=Orphée a la lute, Jean Cocteau, 1960 product=yes product_title=Above: Orphée a la lute, Jean Cocteau, 1960
Posted by Gary at 2:31 PM


Jenůfa tells the story of a young woman who finds herself as the central figure in a flurry of ill-fated and violent relationships. She is the focal point around which all of the other dramatis personae rotate. In this character-based production with stage direction by Stéphan Braunschweig and Sceneographer, Alexandre de Dardel, the opera opens with the lovely Jenůfa, played by American soprano Emily Magee, kneeling at center stage looking at her pot of beautiful flowers. Behind her, the stage splits open as if a highlighter ran across the wooded floor and out of the opening expands an enormous rotating windmill. The turning of the windmill is represented during the prelude, beautifully conducted by Maestro Lothar Koenigs, by a repeated xylophone note, a sound that Janáček returns to frequently during the first act. The orchestra della Scala was sensitive and decisive with the composer’s lyricisms and signature ethnic rhythms.

The mill, now belongs to Števa Burja, played by Bass-Baritone Ian Storey, leaving his older brother, Laca, played by Tenor Miro Dvorski, with little inheritance. Both brothers are in love with Jenůfa however she is pregnant by Števa. As the scene changed to open the first act, she anxiously awaits Števa’s return from the conscription ceremony, where it was to be decided whether he was to be drafted to the army. Jenůfa’s, Už se večer chýlí’ (‘Night is already falling’) was brilliantly expressed by the La Scala orchestra and in technically precise and beautifully lyrical phrasing by Ms. Magee. Her soprano is well balanced and projected wonderfully in the helpful La Scala acoustics.

In a fine vocal and dramatic presentation, Miro Dvorski sings his jealous ‘Vy stařenko’ (‘You, Grandmother’) with a broad tenor that exhibited a burnished middle voice and just the right amount of ‘affogato’ in the upper tessitura. The following scene introduces, alto, Mette Ejsing as Grandmother Buryjovka. Ms. Ejsing’s voice had round and lush qualities that produced a striking contrast to the already diverse cast. The end of the act brings the news that Števa has, after all, not been drafted and this leads fantastically into a hubbub reaction by the La Scala chorus who was unified and harmonically sublime in their excitement and celebration. Their entrances and were sheer perfection and there was not one voice out of balance. Each contributed uniquely to the unified whole of this chorus.

At the climax of the ensemble, ‘Všeci za ženija’ (‘All are getting married’), Števa finally enters. Mr. Storey exhibited his strong bass-baritone, a resounding roar-like sound with a beautiful upper-tessitura and a technically proficient ability to create lyricism while effecting power; a difficulty for some baritones Mr. Storey made it look as easy as pie. Dramatically affective, Mr. Storey plays a drunken Števa while the chorus merges in a dancing frenzy that culminates in a wild orgy-like event. The action climaxes here with the powerful and vibrant entrance of the sternest of operatic femme-fatales, but fatale in its most literal and frightening sense. With a single gesture Kostelnička silences the music and all become silent; a silence that screams at us with its potency and darkness, Janáček’s dramatic sense here is articulated perfectly by Maestro Koenigs and the La Scala orchestra. Jenůfa’s stepmother is the Sacristan as the local church and a woman of little means but enormous moral authority.

At first Ms. Silja’s voice seemed overly shrill and harsh in comparison to the rest of her colleagues, but her dramatic skill was impeccable and even overpowering, as is required of Kostelnička. As she began her ‘Aji on byl žlutohřívý’ (‘He too was also golden-haired’), the stepmother asks Jenufa to wait a year before marriage and explains her reasons; reasons that relayed to her own personal experience of suffering in a marriage of abuse and violence. Ms. Silja’s voice grew warmer and the power of her instrument is truly remarkable. Noted for this role, her background in Wagnerian roles and the sheer exuberance of her laser-like, red-hot voice gave the impression that Ms. Silja had not merely become Kostelnička, but that Kostelnička had clearly inhabited Ms. Silja in complete form. The stepmother forewarns Jenůfa of the possibility of having a life similar to her own, and the negative and bleak prospect of having to raise a child alone would be disasterous; not just personally but socially.

This give rise to Janáček’s masterful, full-scale concertato for four voices and chorus composed on the grandmother’s words, ‘Každý párek si musí svoje trápení přestat’ (‘Every couple must get over its problems’). The unity and perfection of the ensemble, soloists, and orchestra give testament to the grandeur and precision that inhabits the walls of the teatro. It gives reason to why audience craves to witness opera here and why La Scala maintains its sacred place as a temple of music. At the end of the act, the xylophone returns to remind us of the dramatic web the turns, just as the windmill does, around the ill-fated Jenůfa.

In the remainder of the act, Mr. Storey’s musicality and dramatic prowess was eloquently displayed in his lovely ‘Už pro tvoje jablúčkovy líce’, a lyrical moment in which he praises the beauty of Jenůfa’s rosy cheeks. Laca then enters to an intervention by the xylophone, a now evident fate-motif. Mr. Dvorski’s intensity in this scene was breathtaking and his voice never wavered in its delivery or technical precision as he took out a knife and asked himself how Števa would react to the disfigurement of Jenůfa’s rosey cheeks. In an explosive flash of percussion and soaring brass, Laca slices Jenůfa’s cheeks turning their rosey colour to blood red and leaving the audience shocked and disgusted at the dark reality that infatuation and jealousy can bestow.

Half a year later, we find the disfigured Jenůfa in her stepmother’s house. The stage is minimal with only a white crib laying at a slanted 45 degree angle on the vast, empty stage. Kostelnička has secretly hidden Jenůfa in order to conceal her pregnancy and the birth of Števa’s child, telling everyone that Jenůfa went to work in Vienna. Kostelnička has secretly summoned Števa and begs him to not abandon his child and marry Jenůfa. It was here that Silja’s dramatic power fell over the opera like a huge cloud of stardust. Her pleas and the sheer power of her voice penetrated with every word, every syllable was inflected with purpose and a deliberant threshold of anticipation: for the moment where the opera takes its fatal turn. Ian Storey managed the scene with great attention to his characters persona and, of course, refuses to marry Jenůfa and wants nothing to do with the child. Silja responded remarkably to his negative statement and the disintegration of her character begins to unfold in a downward and accelerating spiral. In fact, Silja played the role so potently well that had Janáček seen her in it, he might have intended to rename the opera “Kostelnička” instead.

Anja Silja (left) as Kostelnička in Janáček’s Jenůfa

Laca also has learned that Jenůfa bore a child and insists on marrying her. Kostelnička lies to him and tells him that the child has died, and thus began the course of action that would lead to her desperate disintegration. In a violent and astonishing scene that consisted only of a crib with the sleeping infant, Anja Silja brought opera to its glorious definition. The scene in which Kostelnička kills the infant was powerful and the voice was obviously used up to this point in mediation. Truly one of the largest voices, the strength of its sharp, cutting, silvery edge was more than astonishing and one believed that Kostelnička had actually become part of Silja, and not that Silja was merely playing a character. The audience’s gasp at the on-stage murder ended the act after Kostelnička informs Jenůfa that her son is dead.

The concertmaster of the Filarmonica della Scala, Daniele Pascoletti effected a most wonderful interlude that was filled with a most weeping and deeply sorrowful vibrating melody. His vibrato was full and shook with energy to the highest tier of the opera house. The audience sighed when he finished and there was a good moment of silence before Lothar Koenigs moved.

The third act brings us to the wedding of Jenůfa and Laca and as guests begin to arrive Jenůfa’s grandmother blesses the couple. As Silja entered the scene one could see the desperation and guilt weighing on her conscience and her vocal entrances were filled with a solemn tinge of gloom. As Kostelnička was going to bless the couple, shouting is heard from outside: a dead child has been found beneath the ice. The child is brought in and Silja, in a Callas-like manner, fell to her deepest and most pitiful state. The moment where Jenůfa recognizes her son is moving simply due to the magnificent orchestral writing however, Emily Magee’s response was not as dramatic as it could have been; especially with Silja so carefully setting up her own characters despair. This moment should see a reversal of situation, where Jenůfa now has more power over Kostelnička however once the confession of murder was made, Magee moved too quickly to “forgiveness” without really showing the furious anger that a mother would feel had her child been murdered.

Silja, in full force until the end, remained the brimming light in this production. All the portrayals were competent and brilliant, but she stood above them all as was evidently expressed by the audience when Silja took her bows and screams and yelps of “Brava” echoed through the air and failed to silence her voice that lingered still in the rafters.

Mary-Lou Vetere-Borghoff © 2007

image= image_description= Anja Silja, soprano product=yes product_title=Leos Janáček: Jenůfa product_by=Teatro alla Scala di Milano
4 May 2007 product_id=Above: Anja Silja, soprano (Photo: Colbert Artists Management)
Posted by Gary at 11:34 AM

Carlos Cogul: Introduction

Carlos Cogul: Introduction.
Arias from Il Barbiere, Un Ballo, Puritani, Don Giovanni, Pagliacci, Don Carlo, Favorita, Trovatore, Otello, Rigoletto, songs.

Carlos Cogul, baritone, Compagnia d’Opera Italiana Orchestra, Antonello Gotta (cond.)

Chironrecords [CD]

It seems that the label discovered him while he was concertizing in the draughty corridors of one or another station. I would be glad to report that a major voice had been overseen by the opera houses but I fear this is not completely true. Mr. Cogul has a light tenorish baritone, lacking heft in his bottom notes. It is an agreeable sound with a slight vibrato but it is not an operatic voice or to be more specific not a voice which is suited to some of the heaviest arias in the baritone repertoire. There is something too tentative in his singing, hardly daring to attack a note in Favorita; almost like a conservatory student. Though the top is good it doesn’t have a real G in Pagliacci where the voice starts to wobble.

There are some discrepancies too with the orchestra; the ‘Compagnia d’Opera Italiana Orchestra’ conducted by Antonello Gotta. Now that name is not unknown to me as he is the conductor of an enormous number of CD’s which nevertheless are not to be found in most opera lovers' collections. With his ad hoc orchestra Gotta produces “cantalopera” CD’s; that means just the instrumental accompaniment to hundreds of arias for all kinds of voices. Aspiring singers can then mix their own voice with the orchestra and this explains the discrepancies on the CD. I fear Mr. Cogul is a victim of the times. I’m sure he would have been a very attractive performer in operetta and classical musical half a century ago but unhappily those times have gone. Of course it must be frustrating for someone that probably far less talented singers like Watson and Flanders own horror Helmut Lotti are treated as if they have a voice but light baritones are not much in demand anymore. Personally I enjoyed Mr. Cogul far more in his attractive version of some pop songs and I would be glad to hear him in some Lloyd Webber. But it is sometimes difficult to face the whole unmitigated truth on one’s own vocal means when someone is severely bitten by the operatic bug as Mr. Cogul is (he often ardently raises his voice on the web to praise a singer).

Jan Neckers

image= image_description=Carlos Cogul: Introduction product=yes product_title=Carlos Cogul: Introduction.
Arias from Il Barbiere, Un Ballo, Puritani, Don Giovanni, Pagliacci, Don Carlo, Favorita, Trovatore, Otello, Rigoletto, songs. product_by=Carlos Cogul, baritone, Compagnia d’Opera Italiana Orchestra, Antonello Gotta (cond.) product_id=Chironrecords [CD] price=£9.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 11:06 AM

ROSSINI: Bianca e Falliero

Opera Rara always offers so fine a booklet lavishly illustrated and with well-written detailed essays, that many an opera collector I know buys every issue, just for the good read and to have the full series in his/her collection. The two page essay in the Dynamic issue clearly cannot compete with the Opera Rara rival though there is compensation as Dynamic usually sells for lower prices. There is a second reason why Opera Rara will be difficult to be superseded and that’s Rossini’s. I’ve owned the Opera Rara set for many years and I’ve played this newer set several times and I don’t succeed in catching the tunes. The music sounds pleasant and very Rossinian and that’s it. It goes by without making a deeper impression and seems to be one of the composers rather run-of-the mill affairs.

The composer hastily travelled to Milan between turning out a series of operas for Naples in quick succession. After the first performances of La Donna del Lago at the end of October – beginning of November he arrived in the middle of November 1819 in the capital of Lombardy. He got a libretto by Romani and started composing a work of fully three hours of music. And one month and a few days later, on December the 26th , the world première took place. No wonder the review in Gazetta di Milano was not favourable. Indeed, no one hearing a recording of the work and not understanding the words will have a clue to what is happening, except that it seems to be something about a charming though lightweight affair. There is little in the music that reminds one of a tyrannical father wanting his daughter to marry a man she doesn’t love and a daughter who is willing to risk her life to have her and her lover’s life to have her way. As a result, this is an opera one can enjoy listen to but not one that has to sit on one’s shelves in every available version. The first contender therefore mostly takes it all; especially as there are no glaring differences in quality of singing.

The Prague orchestra on Dynamic is not on the same level as the London Philharmonic whose sound is more rich and better recorded. Renato Palumbo however knows his Rossini and brings energy to the score together with a fine understanding for his singers who have to do the most of the work. I’m always surprised how much tempi can differ in one of those interminable acts of Parsifal. Yet in Rossini one rarely notes this idiosyncratic behaviour of conductors. As (happily) both recordings are really complete it is remarkable that the long second act doesn’t differ too much in minutes though Palumbo is more incisive than Opera Rara’s Parry and his slightly quicker tempi make the opera more digestible. Another asset for Dynamic is mezzo Daniela Barcellona. She has the virtuosity for the intrinsic Rossinian writing and her noble timbre for the hero has the apt volume as well which makes this trouser role acceptable for a modern audience. Larmore on Opera Rara is less a technician than Barcellona and her natural means are more modest. Francesco Meli on Dynamic is not a belcanto singer like Barry Banks but he too wins as his tenor is far more Italian than his rival. The difference between Maria Bayo and OR’s Majella Cullagh is marginal but personally I think Bayo’s tone too thin. She doesn’t sound a Venetian noble lady that raises in revolt to her father’s dictates. Carlo Lepore too hasn’t the depth and freshness of sound that Ildebrando D’Arcangelo displays on OR. All in all, the choice between those two versions will depend upon the personal like or dislikes for one or more singers and the non-musical aspect will probably make a difference for many a collector.

Jan Neckers

image= image_description=Gioacchino Rossini: Bianca e Falliero product=yes product_title=Gioacchino Rossini: Bianca e Falliero product_by=Maria Bayo (Bianca), Daniela Barcellona (Falliero) ; Francesco Meli (Contareno), Carlo Lepore (Capellio), Dario Benini (Priuli), Ornella Bonomelli (Costanza), Jiri Prudic (Loredano), Karel Pajer (Ufficiale), Stefan Cifolelli (Cancelliere). Coro da camera di Praga e Orquesta Sinfonica de Galicia conducted by Renato Palumbo. product_id=Dynamic CDS 501/1-2 [3CDs] price=$52.49 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 10:45 AM

Jan Neckers on Recently Reissued Historicals

From that moment on only Die Meistersinger went unto the boards as snobbery wanted operas to be performed in their original language, even when 90% of the public didn’t understand a single word. Wagner himself would have been flabbergasted at this decision, though I'm sure he would be the first to welcome ten years ago the redeeming factor: the surtitle. But together with the disappearance of Wagner in Italian or French there went astray another tradition as well: the stars (especially the male ones) of French and Italian opera no longer wanted to sing Wagner as they had to relearn their roles in a language often strange to them. Domingo is of course the big exception but what a wonderful Lohengrin Bergonzi (who studied the role in Italian) or Pavarotti could have sung. Therefore this recording is one of the last of a dying tradition and well worth hearing.

No, it is not a substitute for a German official recording as there are some traditional cuts (mostly in the Hans Sachs role) and the sound of orchestra and chorus is a little bit thin. I don’t think Myto was allowed access to the original radio tapes. But there are some interesting assets as well, the main being the noble Hans Sachs of Giuseppe Taddei. Usually booklets accompanying these pirate issues praise the performers to the sky but the anonymous writer of this issue dryly states that “Taddei impresses more by way of his volume than richness of phrasing”. This will come as a surprise to someone listening to the baritone in this role. Listen to his moving Flieder monologue, full of subtle utterances. And which postwar German baritone has the warmth of this well-focused voice that is so suited to the role ? There was always something of a bass-baritone in Taddei’s voice (he made his début as Heerrufer in Lohengrin) and therefore he easily encompasses the whole vocal range for the role. Second to him comes the surprising David of tenor Carlo Franzini, a real lirico with fine pianissimi in a role often sung by almost voiceless buffo’s.

Bruna Rizzoli, another neglected Italian lirico of the fifties and sixties, brings a sweet and beautiful soprano to the role fully convincing the listener of her youth and charms. With Luigi Infantino things go slightly downhill. One still hears the remains of what was once during and just after the war one of the most beautiful tenori di grazia in the world. His attacks on ‘Am stillen Herd’ and ‘Morgenlicht leuchtend’ are still magical: soft, sensitive singing of the highest order but at full voice the throatiness is now clearly discernible. Still, compared to most German tenors of the day and most gentleman of today he sings in a higher league.

Boris Christoff brings authority and gruffness to the role of Pogner. The Bulgarian clearly is not a very loving father because warmth and charm were never in his vocal arsenal but after all, how loving can a father be who offers his daughter to the as yet unknown winner of a singing contest ?

Renato Capecchi’s Beckmesser is more problematic. At his first utterance he reminds one immediately of his many Melitone recordings where he tries to make an impression by distorting his voice or gliding over the notes in his bad Corena-imitations. There is more to Beckmesser than just a bigoted preaching clown but Capecchi never delves deeper into the role.

Matacic is a phenomenon, even with an orchestra of the second rank. He actually takes his time, in fact he is slower than several German conductors. He doesn’t hurry along his singers but still succeeds in giving an impression of lively vitality. One never feels that the music comes to a standstill. The bonus is an interesting one: Boris Christoff singing in more or less acceptable German, Wotan’s ‘Leb Wohl’ from Walküre. Though the bass hits all the notes, the voice is definitely too low for the music and the colour is wrong. Christoff could express hate, resignation, pride, solitude but warmth or deeply felt love are not his. One feels all the time this is a Boris or a king Philip lost in another planet.

Jan Neckers

Vincenzo Bellini: Beatrice di Tenda.

Leyla Gencer (Beatrice), Mario Zanasi (Filippo), Antigone Sgourda (Agnese), Juan Oncina (Orombello), Mario Guggia (Anichino). Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice di Venezia conducted by Vittorio Gui. Recorded live at La Fenice 10 January 1964.

Myto 2 MCD 065.334 [2CDs]

Leyla Gencer is the subject of one of the few state of the art singer biographies in Italian (by Franca Cella). Usually these Italian books are hagiographies (witness the horribly bad Azali series) where all former colleagues tell how wonderful the singer was, is and will be. Rarely do we get a glimpse of opera politics in these morose texts. Cella delved deeper and didn’t forget to consult the diva’s correspondence. The recording under review gets a prominent place as conductor Gui wrote many letters to Gencer concerning transpositions (she refuses) and the rewriting of the finale according to Bellini’s last ideas (she accepts). Gui, a renowned Rossinian, does more than that. He brings a sense of urgency, of drama that succeeds in vitalizing the somewhat lethargic long melodies of Bellini so that the opera has more in common with young Verdi than is custom with the Catanian composer (in the accompanying booklet Bellini is called a Catalonian; Barcelona will be surprised). In his endeavours Gui is magnificently supported by Gencer. Of course one has to love her somewhat pale timbre and her idiosyncratic way of singing; often switching to one of her fine pianissimi by a less than fine glottal coups. She clearly relishes the conductor’s dramatic tempi and is willing to sacrifice fine sounds for dramatic effects. In short she often makes it a different opera than Joan Sutherland does in the famous Decca recording and still Gencer’s approach sounds as valid.

Mario Zanasi uses the same method but contrary to Gencer Zanasi never was a very stylish baritone. He offers power and rage and succeeds but this is more Amonasro and Scarpia than count Filippo. Juan Oncina on the other hand has all the necessary refinement in his lovely voice, that is until the moment arrives style alone will not do and things become a matter of voice and voice alone. Then one notes his frayed top, his lack of squillo and one realizes he was more of a lieder singer. Antigone Sgourda as Agnese sounds a bit overtaxed in the role of Agnese and her voice is too close to Gencer’s to offer the necessary contrast between the two ladies. The sound is exellent and the recording is a worthy alternative for the official Decca one. The Sony recording too with Nicolesco (very much underrated), Cappuccilli, La Scola, Toczyska, Zedda may not be forgotten as the Rumanian soprano offers some of Sutherland’s beauty of sound together with Gencer’s sense of drama.

Jan Neckers

Pietro Mascagni: L’Amico Fritz.

Mirella Freni (Suzel), Gianni Raimondi (Fritz), Bianca Maria Casoni (Beppe), Rolando Panerai (David) Piero De Palma (Federico). Orchestra del Teatro alla Scala Milano conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni. Recorded live at La Scala on 12 December 1963.

Myto 2 MCD 065.336 [2CDs]

What a masterpiece this little opera is; so fresh of musical invention, such fine melodies. It says a lot on the ignorance of opera managers and directors that it is neglected and that one still has to suffer the combination of Cav and Pag while La Scala proved on that exceptional night of 1963 what a winning team these two operas are (Corelli and Simionato sang Cav). I suppose most directors don’t know the story because there is a tragic and real underground to it. The opera is set in Alsace late 19th century early 20th century though it could easily be updated with thirty years. Later is impossible as it plays in one of the many Jewish communities of the region which were ruthlessly liquidated by the Germans in the second world war. In reality Fritz and his Suzel and their eventual children and grandchildren would probably haven ended their life in an extermination camp. Mascagni probably didn’t realize what was happening with his heroes in real life though he knew that everything was not very well when he conducted the opera in 1941. All references to the Jewish background disappeared and one hears Ferruccio Tagliavini address David as ‘o buon dottore’ instead of the original ‘o buon rabbino’.

A live recording of L’Amico Fritz is always difficult to enjoy for 100% because the two official recordings are so fine. Tagliavini in the 1941 recording sings breathtakingly beautiful and is ably supported by his first wife Pia Tassinari and Saturno Meletti, with of course the composer himself conducting. Still that recording has a worthy rival in the 1968 EMI with Freni and Pavarotti and Gavazzeni at the helm. This is one of young Pavarotti’s finest recordings and it says a lot of Moritz Rosengarten (Decca’s boss) that he sent the tenor to EMI in the hope he would stay there as Decca had enough tenors already. Happily for Decca, Pavarotti came back and would almost earn half the company’s revenues in the years to come. But this means that Gianni Raimondi on that Scala night is singing against almost insurmountable competition and indeed phrase after phrase, so memorable by either Taglivani (listen to his second act’s ‘Strane eventi’) or Pavarotti (a miracle in Ah! Ditela per me) goes for nothing. Moreover Raimondi’s voice has not the morbidezza for the role and all that can be said is that he hits all the notes but a romantic hero he is not. Freni on the other hand is fabulous; as beautiful and fresh as on her official recording and with some more leeway from Gavazzeni so that she can introduce a little bit rubato in her thunderously applauded last act aria and a few well chosen sobs at the end of the second act. Beppe has two nice solo arias which I could at last enjoy thanks to the inspired singing of Bianca Maria Casoni. Both mezzo’s on the two aforementioned official recordings have a sour voice and are no match for Casoni. Panerai too is maybe the best David around though he has a tendency to sing slightly flat. Freni lovers will be happy with the bonuses as the soprano is brilliant too in some arias and scenes from La Scala’s 1967 Faust.

Therefore, not a replacement for either the Cetra or the EMI recording but well worth a try as a worthy live recording at a time when the Scala public by its warm applause proved they still knew this repertory.

Jan Neckers

Gioacchino Rossini: L’Italiana in Algeri.

Marilyn Horne (Isabella), Paolo Montarsolo (Mustafa), Luigi Alva (Lindoro), Enzo Dara (Taddeo), Margherita Guglielmi (Elvira), Laura Zannini (Zulma). Orchestra e Coro alla Scala conducted by Claudio Abbado. Live recording from 18 April 1975.

Myto Records 2MCD 064.331 [2CDs]

There are some remarkable parallels to be drawn between listening to a modern Verdi performance and a Rossini one of thirty years ago. The moment one hears the lightweight voices of today, the lack of the appropriate style, the absence of sheer gusto while singing one can only sigh and return to one’s records of Bergonzi, Price, Merill, Corelli, Tebaldi etc. The sigh is the same when one listens to a Rossini-performance before the great Renaissance of the composer’s music started. Take the Mustafa on this recording. Montarsolo was a fine singer with a big round bass; a real fat sound very appropriate for the role. But in the meantime we have been accustomed to Sam Ramey who has only half the voice of Montarsolo and as a result the older Italian bass sounds so clumsy, so unwieldy whose coloratura is laboured and is sung only because it is in the score and not to drive home a comic point by musical means. Or listen to Luigi Alva’s Lindoro. He sounds squeezed and a little dry; without charm or cunning in the voice. This isn’t a slave who finally sees the possibility to get his freedom and his girl at the same time. Here too it is remarkable that Alva’s coloratura sounds so sketchy to us, though one has to take into account the date of performance: six years before Azio Corghi’s critical edition of the score appeared but still, how one longs to hear Juan Diego Florez.

One of the few Italian singers who knew what Rossini was about in those days was Enzo Dara and he is an expert in telling us the musical jokes. And then there is the one and only Marilyn Horne, sprightly and bewitching and the set is worth the purchase for her alone. I know not everybody liked her timbre but I do and the Scala audience on this evening very much did. The voice sounds wonderfully fresh and she twinkles and twitches as nobody else did or does. The great difference to me between Horne and Cecilia Bartoli is that coloratura is a means of expression for Horne and not just a gimmick with which to stun the audience like Bartoli does when she puts on her machine-gun trick. Therefore Horne in everything she sings sounds spontaneous while Bartoli often gives the impression of being a Schwarzkopfesque Rossinian.

Claudio Abbado at the time of recording was still learning his way around the Rossini scores and there are some moments where Verdian seriousness make its appearances. I’m not much impressed by his sense of timing in the finale of the first act, maybe the best in all Rossini and which sounds a little bit flat in Abbado’s hands. Claudio Scimone would give him an object lesson in Rossini style five years later when he recorded his L’Italiana for Erato with Horne in the title role. I think the mezzo sounds less youthful on that official recording and therefore Horne-admirers should pick up this issue without neglecting the later one which has the wonderful Ramey and the far less admirable Palacio as Mustafa and Lindoro. Sad to say, the two CD-reissues of this 3LP-Erato cut away the three alternative arias sung by Horne on the original LP-version.

Jan Neckers

Gaetano Donizetti: Don Pasquale.

Alfredo Mariotti (Don Pasquale), Mario Basiola (Malatesta), Ugo Benelli (Ernesto), Anna Maccianti (Norina). Coro e Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino conducted by Ettore Gracis. Recorded at the Teatro Communale Firenze, October 1964.

Gaetano Donizetti: Il Campanello di Notte.

Alfredo Mariotti (Don Annibale Pistacchio), Emma Bruno De Sanctis (Serafina), Flora Raffanelli (Rosa), Alberto Rinaldi (Enrico), Mario Guggo (Spiridone). Coro e Orchestra del Teatro La Fenice conducted by Ettore Gracis. Recorded at the Teatro La Fenice, October 1964.

Deutsche Grammophon 002890 477 5631 [2CDs]

What an excellent idea to add that small comic masterpiece that is Il Campanello to a Don Pasquale that would otherwise have been somewhat short of value. Sad to say, there is a price to pay for that joy. Donizetti’s Night Bell only fits on the second CD because of some standard theatre cuts already existing in the Don Pasquale recording. Even in 1965 when this recording first appeared most labels didn’t accept provincial Italian house practice anymore on their commercial recordings. The main cut is the fine cabaletta of Ernesto, following his ‘Povero Ernesto’ and what a pity it is with such an accomplished singer as Ugo Benelli. He had one of the sweetest yet manly sounds I ever heard in the house. He was simply born too early as his voice was so well suited to Rossini and he would have been a strong competitor to Florez. Indeed, having heard both men I still think Benelli had a little bit more charm, more morbidezza in the voice while at the same time his high notes were strong. Therefore the blame for the cuts must be laid at the feet of conductor Ettore Gracis as I heard the Italian tenor sing the cabaletta and topping it with a brilliant C during a Pasquale-performance at De Munt in 1973.

Benelli is a marvellous Ernesto: indeed the very best of them all and I know that Schipa, Kraus, Araiza etc. recorded the role. But the voice is so winning, so intrinsically beautiful while at the same time sounding convincing in his despair or his love-making (listen to his ‘Com’è gentil). Another winner is the now completely forgotten Anna Maccianti. I heard her several times in concert at Flemish Public Radio but I had forgotten how lively and sensuous she sounded on this recording and her coloratura is brilliant and she can sing a real trill. Maybe the low notes are a bit weak but the rest of the voice is lovely and the top rings free. And then there is Alfredo Mariotti; an ideal Don Pasquale. His was not a big voice and I doubt he could have made an impression in the same role in a barn like the Met or La Scala but in an average sized house he brought a solid somewhat gritty Italian bass-baritone absolutely appropriate for the role. Moreover he doesn’t exaggerate the clownish aspect of the Don and one feels a certain reticence in the voice, a lingering doubt when he acquires such a young and beautiful bride. The least of the four soloists is Mario Basiola. During his career he always added jr. to his name so that people wouldn’t mix him up with his more famous father (the Tonio in the 1934 Pagliacci recording with Gigli) but DG dropped the jr on this reissue. Basiola did have the experience but asomewhat dry voice too and he is less than ideal on the recording. During the first part of the famous pattern duet with Pasquale, orchestra and singer are clearly not looking eye to eye.

Alfredo Mariotti made a career out of cuckolded husbands and once more his Don Annibale Pistacchio is exemplary in Donizetti’s little amusing farce where a new wedded older man, a pharmacist, is cheated out of his wedding night by his young bride’s lover. As the ‘gay young spark’ Alberto Rinaldi brings a fresh opulent baritone voice with him. 43 years later he is still going strong though these days he specializes in the husband roles. Here he is especially fine as the lover who has disguised himself as an opera singer who is losing his voice. Some singers tend to exaggerate their hoarseness, forgetting that too much foolery may be acceptable on the scene but irritates on record. Rinaldi knows and keeps the delicate balance between singing and comic effects. Both Rinaldi and Mariotti are at their best in the inevitable patter singing that is the vocal high of the score. Only Emma Bruno De Sanctis lets us down as the new bride. The sound is too sour and undistinguished. A pity, as Ettore Gracis paces his orchestra so well. All in all, a budget offer worthy for inclusion in a good collection.

Jan Neckers

Vincenzo Bellini: La Sonnambula.

Edita Gruberova (Amina), José Bros (Elvino), Roberto Scandiuzzi (Rodolfo), Dawn Kotoski (Lisa), Gloria Banditella (Teresa), Tim Hennis (Alessio), Andreas Mogl (Notario). Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Marcello Viotti. Recorded February 1998.

Nightingale Classics NC000041-2 [2CDs]

A good though not a brilliant performance. Of course much, even everything, depends upon the listener’s personal taste for Edita Gruberova’s sound. She starts out in a little girl voice though by her first cabaletta she already gives an object lesson in belcanto. From then on it’s smooth sailing and I remarked that the edginess which sometimes mars her work on record is not distinguishable. She also refrains from desperately lunging at flat high E’s which were no longer hers as at the time she was already 52. What will eventually decide all is the listener’s attitude towards her timbre. Personally I think it a little too opaque, not rich enough, too little vocal colour to put her in the same ranks as Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. Others nevertheless may prefer her sure footed singing above the former’s often sour sounds and the latter’s droopier tones.

Gruberova is very well partnered by Dawn Kotoski, a name new to me but the lady has a charming voice, steady from bottom to top and she sings her arias extremely well. Often in performance or on record one has too suffer a dreary Lisa as if the budget was only sufficient enough to pay the prima donna and I’m glad that for once this is an exception. At the time tenor José Bros was still at the outset of his career. The voice is slender but cuts powerful through the ensembles and he sings with style and a feeling for the line. The sound on this recording is a little bit dry and reminds one of Alfredo Kraus though not above the stave where the Bros voice thickens and loses most of its beauty. I’m glad to report that in recent performances (a fine Luisa Fernanda in Madrid) he seemed to have remedied his earlier vocal shortcomings. Robert Scandiuzzi sings a sympathetic count though he is somewhat tentative in his cabaletta and there is a hollow sound at the top of the voice. Marcello Viotti who was clearly Gruberova’s favourite conductor nevertheless doesn’t slack in his interpretations and never overindulges the soprano thus sentimentalizing the score. In these lean times I clearly enjoyed the accompanying booklet: at last different interesting essays in English and in German instead of just translations. And full colour photographs of most other Gruberova-sets are of course auto-promotion on the diva’s own label but still agreeable to look at.

Jan Neckers

image= image_description=Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg product_by=Giuseppe Taddei (Hans Sachs), Boris Christoff (Pogner), Renato Capecchi (Sixtus Beckmesser), Vito Susca (Fritz Kothner), Luigi Infantino (Walther von Stolzing), Carlo Franzini (David), Bruna Rizzoli (Eva). Orchestra e Coro di Torino della RAI conducted by Lovro von Matacic. Recorded on 2 February 1962. product_id=Myto MCD 066.338 [4CDs] price=$68.49 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 9:13 AM

MARSCHNER: Der Templer und die Jüdin

Music composed by Heinrich August Marschner. Libretto by Wilhelm August Wohlbrück, based on Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott.

First Performance: 22 December 1829, Stadttheater, Leipzig.

Principal Characters:
Maurice de Bracy, Norman knight Tenor
Brian de Bois–Guilbert, Norman knight Baritone
Rowena of Hargottstandstede, ward of Cedric of Rotherwood Soprano
Cedric of Rotherwood, Saxon knight Bass
Wamba, a fool in Cedric’s service Tenor
Friar Tuck, the Hermit of Copmanhurst Bass
The Black Knight (King Richard I ‘the Lionheart’) Bass
Rebecca, daughter of Isaac of York Soprano
Wilfred of Ivanhoe, son of Cedric Tenor
Locksley, captain of a band of outlaws Baritone
Lucas de Beaumanoir, Grand Master of the Knights Templars Bass


Act I

Scene 1: A wild, romantic glen in the forest De Bracy and his Norman knights emerge from cover to ambush Bois-Guilbert’s party of Templars, but shortly after the fight starts Bois-Guilbert calls a halt to it. Each leader confesses that he intends to win a particular woman. Bois-Guilbert names the lovely Jewess Rebecca and De Bracy, relieved that Bois-Guilbert has no interest in Cedric’s ward, agrees to help the Templar capture her. As they leave, Cedric and Rowena enter with Saxon knights. Cedric curses the tournament at Ashby from which he has just come because his disinherited son Ivanhoe was the victor there; Rowena, who is in love with Ivanhoe, chides him for his harshness. Cedric hates the idea of Ivanhoe marrying Rowena, but Wamba urges him in the lied ‘’S wird besser geh’n’, nevertheless, to leave the lovers alone. Oswald rushes in to report that Isaac, Rebecca and Ivanhoe have been captured; the Saxons march off to avenge the wrong, singing their battle song ‘Wer Kraft und Muth in freier Brust’.

Scene 2: Inside Friar Tuck’s hut in the forest Tuck serves wine to a mysterious guest, known as the Black Knight, while singing the drinking song, ‘Der barfüssler Mönch seine Zelle verliess, Ora pro nobis!’. A band of outlaws wanders in to listen. Their leader, Locksley, recognizes the Black Knight and asks if he will help rescue an unidentified Englishman and his niece. The Black Knight readily agrees.

Scene 3: An apartment in a castle turret Locked inside the turret, Rebecca prays. Bois-Guilbert enters and claims her as his property because he won her in battle, but she wrenches herself free when Saxon soldiers attack the castle. Bois-Guilbert rushes off to join the fight and Rebecca escapes to the bedside of the wounded Ivanhoe, who convinces her that she must flee. As she leaves, the Black Knight dashes in to help Ivanhoe escape.

Scene 4: A courtyard inside the castle Frenziedly seeking an escape route, Rebecca stumbles into Bois-Guilbert, who is staggering from wounds. When she refuses to elope with him, he carries her off. The fight reaches the stage and the Saxons win.

Act II

Scene 1. A forest clearing The morning after the battle, Tuck, the Black Knight and a band of outlaws praise the great outdoors in a rousing Germanic hunting chorus calculated to relieve some of the tension built up in the previous act. Having discovered their merrymaking, Ivanhoe enters with the Black Knight, who reveals himself to be King Richard the Lionheart, back from the Crusades.

Scene 2. The hall of justice at Templestowe The Templars enter, Beaumanoir presiding, followed by Bois-Guilbert, the victim of Rebecca’s supposed powers of witchcraft. Ordered to stand trial by ordeal, Rebecca must name a champion to face a representative of the Templars. When Bois-Guilbert offers to fight on her behalf, the knights pick him as their representative. He sinks to the ground in despair.


Scene 1. Richard’s throne room The king listens as Ivanhoe extends his praise for Richard to all of England in the stirring patriotic Romanze ‘Wer ist der Ritter hochgeehrt’ (a piece that became so popular that audiences would join in at the anthem-like refrain, ‘Du stolzes England, freue dich’, as they do in Iolanthe). Wamba provides a facetious commentary on their seriousness in his equally famous lied ‘Es ist doch gar köstlich, ein König zu sein’.

Scene 2. A dungeon in Templestowe In a fervent prayer (preghiera) with ethereal harp-like accompaniment, ‘Herr, aus tiefen Jammersnöthen’, Rebecca begs for deliverance from an unjust fate. Bois-Guilbert knocks on the door and offers to undergo the scourging of a dishonoured knight if she will only love him, but she refuses as guards take her away.

Scene 3. The tournament grounds The Templars march in to join Rebecca, who stands in chains. Bois-Guilbert begs her to escape with him, but she prefers the stake. Ivanhoe appears unexpectedly as her champion, and the duel begins. Initially, Bois-Guilbert seems to be winning, but as he is about to deal Ivanhoe a crushing blow, he drops dead. The king enters and asserts his authority over the land as the Templars bear off Bois-Guilbert’s body.

[Synopsis Source: A. Dean Palmer]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image= image_description=The Abduction of Rebecca (1846) by Eugène Delacroix (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) audio=yes first_audio_name=Heinrich August Marschner: Der Templer und die Jüdin
WinAmp, VLC or iTunes first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Heinrich August Marschner: Der Templer und die Jüdin product_by=Wilfred of Ivanhoe: Jon Pickering
Rebecca: Wakoh Shimada
Brian de Bois-Guilbert: Richard Malone
Cedric: Eelco von Jordis
Rowena: Lynn Martindale
Lucas: Jan-Hendrik Rootering
Wamba: Richard Panzner
Friar Tuck: Horst Emmanuel
Maurice: Lassi Partanen
Black Knight: Nikolaus Bergmann
Locksley: Ulrich Reuweiler
Anton Marik (cond.)
Live performance: 28 June 1981, Bühnen der Stadt Bielefeld
Posted by Gary at 7:03 AM

August 23, 2007

Naxos Now on MusicGiants; PentaTone to Come

goldcleft.pngBy Mark Berry [The Naxos Blog, 23 August 2007]

MusicGiants–which offers high-quality, WMA-format lossless downloads–is now selling the Naxos catalogue . The online music store will also carry PentaTone, the Dutch-based label distributed by Naxos of America that releases the majority of its recordings as SACDs, as part of its collection of so-called Super HD downloads in 5.1 (”surround”) sound. Both Naxos and PentaTone will be available DRM-free.

Posted by Gary at 10:28 AM

Stressed Opera Singers Turn to Drugs

Adrianne Pieczonka(Photo: Johannes Ifkovits, Vienna)
By GEORGE JAHN [AP, 22 August 2007]

VIENNA, Austria (AP) -- Stripping away opera's glamour, singers are increasingly speaking out about a more sordid side of their world - increased drug and alcohol use sparked by relentless pressure to perform often and well.

Posted by Gary at 9:53 AM

August 21, 2007

Kate Royal and Christine Rice, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh



[Financial Times, 21 August 2007]

The duo recital ought to be all gain. The audience gets two singers for the price of one. The singers can play complementary personalities. Everyone gets the chance to hear a repertoire that is as rich as it is neglected.

Posted by Gary at 4:03 PM

August 20, 2007

Santa Fe Opera in Changing Times

His departure, regardless of who succeeds him, suggests a significant order for change in the 50-year-old New Mexico opera festival, for Gaddes was trained in the traditions of founder John O. Crosby, and has essentially continued the Crosby management.

To his credit, Gaddes improved general quality, especially in musical matters, for he retained several competent new conductors, a reform Crosby never managed. Eminent critic Martin Bernheimer long since pointed out that the quality of musical direction under Crosby, especially including his own prosaic efforts in the pit, was the main reason SFO never reached the level or repute of a Salzburg or Glyndebourne. A telling point.

It is important, also, to acknowledge that several of Gaddes’s seasons have offered the finest evenings in the opera house I have experienced with this company. Among the best shows of the Gaddes years were: The quirky, but memorable and beautifully sung La clemenza di Tito (2002) — a remarkable and elegant achievement; the innovative, dramatically devastating Wozzeck (2001), and the daring and creative production of Ades’ The Tempest (20006), stand-outs in a succession of good shows. These productions out shown anything seen during the Crosby years, and I have been attending SFO since 1969.

Improved orchestral performance was much apparent when Amsterdam-based maestro Kenneth Montgomery lifted his baton on Richard Strauss’s Daphne. The large orchestra bloomed beautifully, filling the 2200-seat auditorium with authoritative, indeed authentically lush, German opera sound. If Montgomery did not give the shape and nuance to Daphne’s score that a Boehm or Sawallisch would have, the reading was competent and solid. Such quality did not entirely encompass the stage, unfortunately. Plump tenors with slim voices can be rather off-putting, and in the case of Garrett Sorenson singing Leukippus and Scott MacAllister as Apollo, both unbecomingly costumed, the result was a drag on the show. Happily, comely Erin Wall, with a far-reaching, bright soprano, easily delivered the goods as Daphne, and Matthew Best and Meredith Arwady, as her parents, sang well and true. Allen Moyer’s simple raked stage, a unit set furnished with a few boulders and clump of laurel trees at center, was low-keyed but effective; the dull-toned, colorless costumes of Jane Greenwood evaporated. I would have preferred Strauss’s more interesting Capriccio over Daphne (a shepherd girl who transforms into a laurel tree rather than submit to the lusty Apollo), if one must do his rarities. But SFO is known for this opera, having played four productions since giving its North American premiere in 1964.

Excellent musical direction continued with Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1745 near-vaudeville, Platée, under the baton of the English baroque specialist Harry Bicket. It turned out to be best of the summer in a boundlessly inventive and amusing production by the brilliant French director-designer, Laurent Pelly, who has enjoyed several other successes at SFO. Platée is a farce of mis-behavior of the Greek gods, and hence of human nature. Never mind the plot; it was a charming series of splendid, energetic dance numbers, largely of modern style, achieved by fourteen talented young dancers, the best I’ve seen on the Santa Fe stage, inter-mixed with vocal numbers and ensembles in good French baroque mode. Jupiter was able over the evening to prove to his wife Juno he had not been unfaithful (bit of irony here!), by taking up with a decided plain-favored ‘swamp nymph,’ one Platée, who believes herself to be beautiful and irresistible to men. By show’s end, she found out otherwise and retired to the swamp to mend her feelings.

The stand-out star of Platée was French comprimario tenor/actor Jean-Paul Fourchécourt – a minor voice, but a major comic talent; he brought off the difficult title role with panache. One was able to laugh at him/her (he was in drag as the frog lady), yet find sympathy in the end for Platée’s misery in being rejected. The other artists will forgive me if I cannot mention them all, but it would not do to overlook Laura Scozzi, the French choreographer, who gave us a top quality dance show. Music director Bicket’s 34-piece orchestra included period instruments such as recorders, a small guitar and a theorbo, a deep voiced lute that lent authenticity to orchestral sound. Bicket lately conducted Handel at the Metropolitan Opera and will do the same in season 2008 at Santa Fe. He is an uncommonly talented conductor, and one could see (and hear) the orchestra’s pleasure in performing with him.

Puccini’s La bohème received thirteen performances over the summer, healing the box office, and pleasing full houses. I heard the second cast August 14, the tenth performance; it seemed to have fallen into routine. Much of the problem was the lack of voltage from the pit, where the orchestra sounded a bit bored under the direction of Corrado Rovaris, a conductor from Italy who had done well conducting Simon Boccanegra three seasons ago. The singers were adequate but unexceptional. Mimi was a sympathetic lady from Lucca, Serena Farnocchia, perhaps a shade mature for the part, but she knew her business and was touching in an understated death scene; good Italian provincial. Tenor Dimitri Pittas displayed a lovely vocal quality as Rodolfo, but looked like a sack of potatoes with bad posture and far too much avoir du pois to be a romantic lead. A much publicized recording artist, the sprightly soprano Nicole Cabell, had generous high-B’s as Musetta, though her mid and low voice had little weight. A smallish young man with a big name, Alexander Vinogradov, as Colline, displayed a considerable bass voice, warm and dark. He needs maturity, but bears watching, as does a tenor who sang the tiny part of Parpignol, Ryan Smith, who sounded bright and interesting. Other singers were Markus Beam, Timothy Nolen (an expert comic as Benoit), James Westman and Wilbur Pauley. The elderly audience applauded scenery and stood to cheer the cast at the end of the show.

The recent season was not one of Santa Fe’s best (we have already reported on Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte and Tan Dun’s Tea: Mirror of the Soul). Next year’s list is more interesting, with masterworks of Britten, Mozart and Verdi, as well as Handel’s Radamisto and admired Finnish-French composer Kaija Saariaho’s Adriana Mater, in its North American premiere. Beyond that, with new management coming in, Santa Fe Opera may take a different tack. One has to recall the aborted plans of New York Philharmonic-designate Alan Gilbert, who had worked as Music Director for three years to bring festival Wagner and other innovations to SFO before he was, apparently, dismissed. Gilbert’s debut at the Metropolitan Opera next season conducting Adams’s Dr Atomic has lately been announced.

© 2007 J. A. Van Sant

image= image_description=Richard Gaddes product=yes product_title=Above: Richard Gaddes
Posted by Gary at 3:42 PM

Unsuk Chin’s “Alice in Wonderland”

Korean composer Unsuk Chin — the latest to defy the Queen of Heart’s forbidding “Off with their heads!” “Sentence first, verdict afterwards!” — unveiled the world premiere of her new “Alice In Wonderland” opera as the opening production of the Bavarian State Opera’s Festival 2007 on June 30th.

Chin’s work was originally to be premiered by the Los Angeles Opera under Kent Nagano’s direction, but the production was not realized. So when he was appointed as the new music director in Munich, Nagano had the rare courage to risk opening the first festival of his tenure with the world premiere of this unusual new work rather than a new production of an old, tried-and-true repertoire piece. Nagano even upped the ante by bringing in other local institutions, like the gigantic new Pinakothek der Moderne museum, to commission and display new Alice-based art works. To see such high-level chance-taking on the part of a conductor and a major opera house, the massive investment of artistic and financial resources and reputations in a new work, created an anticipation nothing short of phenomenal. A frenzy of speculation and a palpable excitement ran throughout the world’s music aficionados. Unsuk Chin had already made a stir, particularly when she won the richest award for music composition, the $200,000 Grawemeyer Award, for her Violin Concerto, inducting her into the distinguished circle of other winners of this award, such as Witold Lutoslawski and her teacher György Ligeti. Given such a pedigree, hopes were running high that at long last we might perhaps have a definitive operatic “Alice.” These expectations turned the June 30th premiere into a major red-carpet event, drawing the attention of the glittering elite of Munich and Germany, as well as of curious opera fans from all over the world.

Alice, the White Rabbit, Mad-Hatter, Queen of Hearts et al. have been traipsed onto the stage almost as soon as they were created. And the torrent of adaptations of the classic Victorian “children’s” books by Lewis Carroll, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and its sequel “Through the Looking Glass, And What Alice Found There” has only increased since — in every conceivable media. Perhaps the most vibrant examples of the peculiarly British genre of Witty/Wise Nonsense, this ripely inventive, playfully multi-leveled, low-hanging public-domain fruit has tempted many artists (and corporations) to bite into for inspiration. Sadly, remarkably few have done so without falling down the rabbit hole themselves. Transforming what works so magically well on the page is difficult.

Sitting in eager anticipation in the electric atmosphere of the Munich’s magnificent National Theatre, one could see this would be no small offering: the elaborate, huge battery of percussion instruments alone required the players to spill out of the orchestra pit and into the boxes on both sides of the stage. What was presented, however, was problematic and very dark indeed. There seemed to be three different performances happening at the same time, all of them at best tangential to the source material.

First, there was the expressionist/minimalist production by Achim Freyer, which was inventive but spectacularly miscalculated. Alice’s dreaming is nothing if not lucid. Certainly not nighttime-dungeon-dark with murky symbolism. Set on a totally black plane tilted so nearly perpendicularly, all the dancer-performers had to be suspended by wire or enter or leave by one of the nine round holes in it. When there were many active at a time, the stage began to resemble a battalion of paratroopers. Below at the front of the stage, also black, was a wide low barrier, behind which all of the singers were installed statically for the duration, with only their heads visible. Regardless of roles, these singers’ heads were similarly made up to look like cadaverous multiple Lewis Carrolls. In front of each were placed a pair of white hands and forearms, which were gesticulating from time to time for no apparent purpose. All of this, like the prominent death-head with insect wings suspended over the stage for most of the show, would have better represented world of Edward Gorey than of Lewis Carroll. Although Freyer’s production was amazingly complex, marshalling huge forces and with several coups de théatre, at best they were illustrative or momentarily surprising, but more often irrelevant and worse — drawing attention to itself at the expense of the singers and the ideas of the story. Alice herself was a rag-doll with a tutu, and who often turned around to moon the audience, giving off more than a whiff of pederasty — perhaps a reference to the controversial photographs of children made by Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Dodgson) and only discovered after his death?

Then there’s the libretto, jointly credited to David Henry Hwang and the composer. Hwang is best known for “M. Butterfly,” but he has also provided librettos for Philip Glass (1,000 Airplanes, The Voyage, The Sound of a Voice), Bright Sheng (Silver River), Elton John (Aida), and Osvaldo Golijov (Ainadamar). Although the “Alice” libretto is drawn in large part directly from the book and strictly according to the composer’s wishes, the additions are often unproductively obscuring. Unless you know the book well beforehand, it is unlikely you will be able to follow the story. And compounding this attitude, Chin had insisted on beginning and ending the libretto not with the original, but with newly imagined “dreams.” The opening “dream” is simply awful: An unnamed boy carrying a mummified cat while portentously intoning “This is my fate!” Lewis Carroll always had a light tread, with layers of sly and playful symbolism, never with a dull thud like this. The composer claimed the purpose in inventing this opening scene was to avoid the Victorian original. However, in doing so, she has actually pushed her work closer to a surrealist version of that hoariest of Victorian artforms: the pompous oratorio.

But the major event was the music. Composer Unsuk Chin is a significant talent, with a sure command of color, instruments, craft and technique. Yet in terms of style, form and drama she is still developing her skills. Although the music is wisely varied, full and often complex, paradoxically it feels as if many details are missing, happenstance, or that the wrong ones have been chosen, making it heavy rather than enlivening or charming. The music is expressionist when it desperately needs to be antic. There is a strangely distracted and hermetic air to this score, which emphasizes an inordinate number of near-quotations of other works. I found myself repeatedly distracted trying to identify the allusions as they whizzed by. This kind of compositional kleptomania would be less of a problem had not the works alluded to been uniformly stronger than the one at hand. Or if they had been at least apt. One principal source of allusions is Ravel’s infinitely more witty and magical “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges.” An almost direct quotation of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” had an inserted trio section derived from Ravel’s Piano Concert in G, complete with slapstick. The Duchess’ “Speak roughly to your little boy, and beat him when he sneezes: He only does it to annoy, Because he knows it teases” was underlined by a timpani tattoo as in the opening of Salome’s dance. What does this have to do with dropping veils? Such musical jokes as there are — for example the Cheshire cat’s disembodied smile as cat-like up-and-down glissandi not pinned down to specific pitches — frankly don’t translate well for the audience. Not to mention the distracting memories of Ravel and Rossini.

About the performers, however, there were no reservations whatsoever. The brave singers were heroic and uniformly magnificent, doing their dramatic best even when, as was often the case, their parts rarely flattered their voices or made the text manageable. Consonants following closed vowels set on high notes sometimes tested singers’ ability to keep from choking, let alone enunciate and project. Frequent full-voice sprechstimme and sequences of long glissandi on syllables were wielded like gashes in the tonal fabric, clear, effective, well-honed, but ultimately tiring when used so much.

The part of Alice was originally conceived for the phenomenally talented helium-based Broadway life-form known as Kristen Chenoweth. But for this premiere, Sally Matthews negotiated Alice’s very varied demands with ease, naive ditties, coloratura hailstorms, sprechstimme and swoops, everything. Septuagenarian Gwyneth Jones has a vibrato as wide as the moon’s orbit these days, yet she held the stage’s focus ferociously with her Brunhilde/Lulu turn as the Queen of Hearts. Piia Komsi triumphed in the punishingly extreme role of the Cat. Another standout was Andrew Watts, who negotiated his largely falsetto White Rabbit convincingly. Ditto Mad Hatter Dietrich Henschel. Guy de Mey was suitably mousey as the Mouse, and Cynthia Jackson a commanding Duchess. Steven Humes’ smooth bass stood him in good stead as the King of Hearts.

The most successful scene, however, was without singer or orchestra: the “Interlude 1” entirely for solo bass clarinet (Stefan Schneider), as the audience was invited simply to read projected on the stage the words of the hookah-smoking, mushroom-engaged caterpillar advocating the virtues of transformation and change.

Viewing Alice as a series of strange surrealist dreams, however, largely eviscerates the playful depths and hidden games that make the book the wonder it is. I would suggest the composer take the caterpillar’s advice and consider radical metamorphosis for this music: Drop Alice and map this score onto Strindberg’s “Dream Play,” which is not just closer to her ideas and temperament, but, startlingly, it contains nearly identical scenes as she has interpreted them.

Unsuk Chin’s finely-detailed, wide-ranging score received a committed, precise, fluent and beautifully played performance by Kent Nagano and the Bavarian State Orchestra. Ditto the State Opera’s children’s and adult’s choruses. Nagano commanded the huge forces with graceful authority, and I cannot imagine it being better done. In the end, the audience divided violently. The lusty, loudly sustained boo’s seemed to overwhelm the less numerous but also sustained applause. At the end, the parquet emptied quickly, while scattered energetic applause continued, mostly from the upper balconies, forcing the bows to continue to a nearly empty house.

The late György Ligeti is the one who suggested Chin consider “Alice” for an opera. He had wanted to compose it himself, but correctly guessed he had not time enough left to do so. One can only dream what that truly extraordinary composer, capable of the full, deft range of wit and humor, from wink, nudge, titter to belly laugh, would have done with Alice.

In my decades of Alice encounters, only one version has been a completely unalloyed success: a “poor theater” dramatization created by André Gregrory. Small cast, almost no props or scenery. But what imagination! And consider the artists who’ve tried to visualize Alice, including in the exhibitions surrounding this production — has anyone succeeded in displacing David Tenniel’s 142 year-old vision of this work?

Kent Nagano and everyone at the Bavarian State Opera are to be praised for taking such a big chance on new work. One fervently hopes this kind of risk-taking will continue. We need new work and the excitement it brings even when it does not live up to expectations. But perhaps the best moral comes from the book itself: “‘Perhaps it hasn’t one,’ Alice ventured to remark. ‘Tut, tut, child,’ said the Duchess, ‘everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it....Take care of sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves.’”

© 2007 Raphael Mostel

image= image_description=Alice in Wonderland (Photo by Wilfried Hoesl, courtesy of Die Bayerische Staatsoper) product=yes product_title=Unsuk Chin: Alice in Wonderland
Photo by Wilfried Hoesl, courtesy of Die Bayerische Staatsoper
Posted by Gary at 3:23 PM

August 19, 2007

GLUCK: Iphigénie en Tauride

Music composed by Christoph Willibald Gluck. Libretto by Nicolas-François Guillard after Guymond de la Touche’s Iphigénie en Tauride, which was based on Iphigenia in Tauris by Euripides.

First Performance: 18 May 1779, Opéra, Paris.

Principal Characters:
Iphigénie [Iphigenia], High Priestess of Diana Soprano
Oreste [Orestes], King of Argos and Mycenae, Iphigenia’s brother Baritone
Pylade [Pylades], King of Phocis, Orestes’ friend Tenor
Thoas, King of Tauris Bass
Diane [Diana], goddess of hunting Soprano
First Priestess Soprano
Second Priestess Soprano
A Scythian Bass
A Minister Bass
A Greek woman Soprano

Setting: Tauris after the Trojan War

Background: While en route to Troy, Agamemnon’s fleet is prevented from proceeding by a storm. Calchas, the soothsayer, admonishes Agamemnon that he cannot proceed without first offering the sacrifice he promised Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and the wild (considered synonymous with the Roman goddess, Diana). The sacrifice can be none other than Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemenstra. Iphegenia is offered upon an altar at the bay of Aulis; however, Artemis deceives them by substituting a deer for Iphigenia. She is then taken to Tauris, a town ruled by Thoas, to serve as the High Priestess of Artemis’ temple.


Act I

In the entrance hall of the temple of Diana as a great storm rages. Iphigenia, sister of Orestes, is the high priestess of Diana, having been transported here magically by the goddess when her father Agamemnon attempted to offer her as a sacrifice. Iphigenia and her priestesses beg all the gods to protect them from the storm.

Although it dies down, Iphigenia remains troubled by a dream she has had, in which she envisioned her mother Clytemnestra murdering her father, and then her own hand stabbing her brother. Thoas, King of Tauris, enters, himself obsessed with dark thoughts; the oracles, he tells her, predict doom for him if a single stranger escapes with his life (The custom of the Scythians, who inhabit Tauris, is to ritually sacrifice any who are shipwrecked on their shores).

A chorus of Scythians comes bringing news of two young Greeks who have just been found shipwrecked, demanding their blood. After Iphigenia and the priestesses depart, Thoas brings in the Greeks, who turn out to be Orestes and his friend Pylades. After asking them for what purpose they came (they have come to retrieve Diana’s statue and return it to Greece, though they do not divulge this), Thoas promises them death and has them taken away.

Act II

Begins, Orestes and Pylades languish in chains. Orestes berates himself for causing the death of his dear friend, but Pylades assures him that he does not feel dispirited because they will die united. A minister of the sanctuary comes to remove Pylades, and as Orestes falls asleep, he is tormented by visions of the Furies, who wish to avenge his slaying of his mother (whom Orestes slew for murdering her husband Agamemnon).

Iphigenia enters, and although the two do not recognize each other, Orestes sees an astonishing likeness between her and the slain Clytemnestra seen in his dream. She questions him further, asking him the fate of Agamemnon and all Greece, and he tells her of Agamemnon’s murder by his wife, and the wife’s murder by her son. In agitation, she asks of the fate of the son, and Orestes says that the son found the death he had long sought, and that only their sister Electra remains alive. Iphigenia sends Orestes away and with her priestesses laments the destruction of her country and the supposed death of her brother.


Iphigenia determines to save at least one of the two captives, though because Thoas demands blood, she knows both cannot be spared. She summons Orestes and Pylades and asks if whichever one is spared will carry word to her home of Argos with news of her fate to her sister Electra. Both men readily agree, and Iphigenia chooses Orestes to go.

But on her exit, Orestes insists that Pylades agree to switch places with him as Orestes cannot bear the thought of his friend’s death; Pylades, on the contrary, is glad at the thought of dying so Orestes can live. When Iphigenia returns, Orestes insists that she reverse her decision, threatening to kill himself before her eyes if she does not. Reluctantly, she agrees to spare Pylades instead and sends him to carry her message to Electra. Everyone but Pylades departs, and he closes the act by promising to do everything possible to save Orestes.

Act IV

Iphigenia wondering how she can ever carry out the killing of the remaining Greek (Orestes), since somehow her soul shrinks from the thought of it. The priestesses bring in Orestes, who has been prepared for sacrifice. He tells her not to lament him, but to strike, telling her it is the will of the gods. While she wields the knife, Orestes exclaims Iphigenia’s name, leading her and the priestesses to recognize him and stop the ritual slaughter.

The happy reunion of sister and brother is cut short at news that Thoas is coming, having heard that one of the captives was released and intent on the blood of the other. The king enters wildly, ordering his guards to seize Orestes and promising to sacrifice both him and his sister. At that moment Pylades enters with a band of Greeks, cutting down Thoas where he stands.

The resulting rout of the Scythians by the Greeks is halted by a deus ex machina appearance of Diana, who commands the Scythians to restore her statue to Greece. She also issues pardon to Orestes for murdering his mother, sending him to be king over Mycenae and bidding him restore Iphigenia to her country. As Diana is carried back into the clouds, everyone sings a concluding chorus of rejoicing at having the favor of earth and heaven restored to them.

[Synopsis Source: Wikipedia]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image= image_description=Iphigenie by Anselm Feuerbach (1862) audio=yes first_audio_name=Christoph Willibald Gluck: Iphigénie en Tauride
WinAmp, VLC or iTunes first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Christoph Willibald Gluck: Iphigénie en Tauride product_by=Iphigénie: Carol Vaness
Thoas: Giorgio Surjan
Oreste: Thomas Allen
Pylade: Gosta Windberg
First Priestess: Anna Zoroberto
Second Priestess: Michela Remor
Diane: Silvie Brunet
A Scythian: Angelo Veccia
A Minister: Enrico Turco
A Greek Woman: Svetla Krasteva
Orchestra e coro Teatro alla Scala, Riccardo Muti (cond.)
Live performance, 18 March 1992, Milan.
Posted by Gary at 9:07 PM

The Savvy Operator Who Aced That Newfangled Art Form, Opera

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 17 August 2007]

The 1950 book on Claudio Monteverdi by Leo Schrade, a penetrating study of a pivotal composer, is flawed only by its hyped-up title, “Monteverdi: Creator of Modern Music.” Monteverdi, the Italian master born in Cremona in 1567, loomed over the uneasy transition from the musical Renaissance to the Baroque. But the creator of modern music?

Posted by Gary at 6:48 PM

Art Songs From An Honorary Austrian

BY JAY NORDLINGER [NY Sun, 17 August 2007]

Thomas Hampson, the famed baritone, may be from Spokane, Washington — but he's sort of an honorary Austrian, having lived in this country for years. He has also been a fixture at the Salzburg Festival. This year, he is not appearing in an opera, even though one of his best roles is in play: Onegin. But, on Tuesday night, he did sing a recital of German art songs — something else he does quite well.

Posted by Gary at 6:43 PM

August 18, 2007

Sea-shanty festival a porthole on Brittany's mode de vie

Brittany_festival.pngAn annual festival revives old Breton music – one aspect of the region's burgeoning cultural pride.
By Susan Sachs [The Christian Science Monitor, 16 August 2007]

"The wind laughs in their eyes, these men with the scent of the ocean," sings Hervé Guillemer. "They have eyes that cry waves, these men on the jetties who yearn for the past, when life was as wide as the sea."

Posted by Gary at 6:12 PM

August 16, 2007

The Week that Was for Opera: Santa Fe — Dallas — Denver/St Louis — Toronto

The sudden and sad death of Richard Bradshaw, 63, the English-born head of Canadian Opera, Toronto, who served that company for thirty years and died at Pearson Airport last evening (August 15) while returning from holiday in the Maritimes, is the capstone to an unusual series of events over recent days.

On August 8 announcements came from Santa Fe that Richard Gaddes, long associated with that opera company, and its head since 2001 would leave at the end of the 2008 season, a surprise to many. At the same time Dallas Opera was announcing the departure next month of Karen Stone, their general director for the past four years.

Today, August 16, Opera Colorado at Denver announced the departure of its two top executives, Peter Russell, General Director, who is leaving in two weeks, and James Robinson, Artistic Director, who departs in 2008. It is expected that Robinson will assume the position of artistic head at Opera Theatre of St Louis, vacant since the death of Colin Graham last May. Four top executives and one top artistic administrator in the relatively small world of opera, all named for change within one week. The mind reels! Bradshaw’s position at Toronto was especially imposing, as for 30-years he had labored to build Canadian Opera and had succeeded, not only in developing the Company’s scope and quality, but he last year completed the building of a new opera center, and conducted therein Toronto’s first Wagnerian Ring Cycle. Bradshaw’s historic accomplishments will long be remembered in Toronto.

Santa Fe Opera developed under the direction of its founding manager, John O. Crosby, who was succeeded by Gaddes in 2001. Gaddes previously held other positions at Santa Fe and for ten years was General Director of the opera company in St Louis of which he was a founder. Russell and Stone had briefer tenures with their companies and made lesser records. The new Ellie Caulkins opera house in downtown Denver opened during Russell’s years and was favorably received. In an unusual move, Mrs. Susan Morris, President of the Board of Santa Fe Opera announced in a press release that she would be pleased to receive confidential letters addressed to her at SFO’s New York office, with any comments or suggestions concerning new management at her opera company.

J. A. Van Sant © 2007

image= image_description=Richard Bradshaw product=yes product_title=Above: Richard Bradshaw, general director of the Canadian Opera Company
Posted by Gary at 8:29 PM

Katharina Wagner's Debut at Bayreuth

As imagined by Katharina Wagner (nepotism does pay), the milieu is stuffy, pedantic Academia, and the “Meisters” are boring and inflexible academicians who “heff zeez rrrroooooools.” The setting is a large paneled institutional meeting room surrounded on three sides by balconies, the side tiers of which display busts of great thinkers, artists, or teachers.

The rear wall boasts a grand piano in one chamber, and a cello propped on a chair in the other, with the highest tier peopled in part by several artisans who are restoring the old traditional ceiling frescoes. At opening, a very attractive Walther (Klaus Florian Vogt) climbs out of the grand piano (yes, out of it) in modern, hip clothing with (and this is important) white sneakers.

As he cavorts above, Eva and Magdalene (Amanda Mace and Carola Guber), dressed in identical grey business suit and skirt combos (which do nothing to flatter their short stature and ample figures) and with identical henna pageboy wigs (making them indistinguishable) frolic below.

And I mean, those girls get down! They do jetees, and little leaps and spins, and jump up and down like excited schoolgirls playing with purple scarves semaphorically in a way that would make Sophie Tucker proud. But the whole effect was. . .well. . .remember the Hippo ballerina in “Fantasia”? If so, ya got the (probably intended) effect. . .

Concurrently, rather trim middle-aged choristers dressed as Buster Brown school boys and girls (with very unfortunate wigs) march in, carrying what look to be candles, that they stick in a holder along a railing upstage. They return with more of these carried on their shoulders as if rifles, and do the same. Only later do we find out that these are in fact the legs of conference tables and chairs, that they screw in and assemble to create a biiiiiig meeting table for the masters who arrive stuffily dressed, save Sachs (and the afore-mentioned Walther).

Sachs is a barefoot renegade outsider, all dressed in a black, Johnny Cash-like shirt and trouser get-up. He stands to the side and broods a lot. And smokes cigarettes. A lot.

The contest and “ze roools” do not seem to be about mere songs, rather performance art, and to this end Walther seems to be an out-of-control graffitist par excellence. With a bucket of whitewash, he starts defacing first the cello, on which he paints breasts and the word “Eva,” and later jumps onto, and adorns the big, holy conference table itself.

He and Beckmesser have a jumbo jigsaw puzzle challenge, both attempting to put a puzzle together and create a famous lithograph of “Alt Nuernberg” in their designated picture frame, each on an easel. Beckmesser (Michael Volle) succeeds, but dang if Walther’s isn’t upside down. Ach, the Sturm! Ach, the Drang!

Poor Walther just cannot -- cannot -- put the pieces in the right places and conform. So he defaces Beckmesser’s “correct version” with his initials, and flings a lot of paint around as he exits.

But. . .I have to say by Act’s end, Katharina’s concept of the definition of art, the “establishment” versus free-thinking, the negative climate that defeats challenge and growth, etc., was not only well-established, but I thought was quite clearly and even compellingly made. And there were some real laughs. And prolonged applause. Then came Act II.

Same three-tiers, but some cafe tables are now stage left and behind them, a giant sculpture of a forearm and hand poised in an act of benediction. Sachs has a work table down right, at which he sits and types on an old fashioned typewriter through much of the act.

There are four white sneakers strategically placed down- and up-stage, a symbol of all that is innovative and daring, I think. In any case, during his great monologue, he stopped typing and tried to fit his bare foot in one of the sneakers, and he cannot -- cannot fit -- cannot be hip -- cannot be progressive.

White-sneaker-shod Walther is now on a tirade, and he slops a bit more paint, and then flings the sneakers around. When one of them clocks the giant forearm hard, it wobbles a bit and then bends forward in deference (oooooooh), allowing him to deface it as well, painting a big ol’ white nail, perhaps on the fickle finger of fate?

Eva eventually decides to buy into this performance-art-thing, throws off her wig and suit, and climbs The Hand in an unflattering blue shift. Walther gets her to pose for him so he can paint her. And. He. Paints. Her. Literally. Well, her dress, that is. Circles around the breasts, love flowers on the hips, “Ewa” across her pubic area, etc. Pity the costume mistress.

Meanwhile, the Night Watchman, no lamplighter he, has come and gone with a miner’s helmet, picking up litter with one of those litter-picker-uppers. He returns to pick up the sneakers and Eva’s discarded wig. Also in the meantime, Beckmesser has come to pay his visit and to practice his entry to the contests. Although he has no lute, the twanging from the pit works “okay,” in a demented-mental-condition sort of way. Anyhow, Sachs sort of “plays” along with his typewriter. And then it gets a little nuttier.

The interruptions to Beckmesser’s song are not the tapping of the cobbler, but rather Sachs at his typewriter and. . .white sneakers falling from the flies. First one by one. Then more. Then, they started rather raining down. As the street confrontation scene plays out, the busts of the statues come to life -- turns out the bust-actor’s body was concealed by the pedestal. Then some academics come in the upstage tiers and are stripped of their robes to their underpants.

The Buster Brown students tear off their wigs and some costume parts, forming several Bunny-Hop style lines and dancing. Some brandish the oversize jigsaw puzzle parts from Act One. One of the graffiti’d desk tops makes an appearance.

And at the height of it, more choristers come on the tiers with buckets of colored paint and begin creating a “Jackson Pollock” right on the stage and over the assembled singers! Sing and fling, sing and fling, sing and fling. Garbage-picker Watchman comes back once more surveying the “art.” Curtain down.

Vociferous booing. Love it or hate it, it was quite a statement on progressive performance art, and the wisdom of unstructured disregard of artistic traditions. Audience displeasure aside, there were no empty seats for Act III so I guess everyone either figured “I paid 180 Euros and I am staying” or “I want to boo even more loudly at the end” or “I can’t wait to see what wacky thing that darn Katharina will come up with next.” Well. . .

We are now in a rather modern apartment with three enormous picture windows, through which we see the upstage tiers filled with the “busts” of the Old Masters (including Wagner) in the guise of over-sized mask/headpieces like those on the Seven Dwarfs at Disneyland. Well, actually these are just a giant head . . .with legs.

Walther, Eva, and Sachs are apparently re-thinking “you know this tradition thing may not be so bad after all so let’s compromise,” and begin changing into traditional evening wear and business attire. Mid-point in the scene, Sachs closes the curtain on the ever-observant Heads.

Conversely, Beckmesser seems taken in by the performance art agenda and now appears in jeans, sneaks, and a tee shirt that reads “Beck in Town.” And he begins formulating his performance art “prize song.” David has twice come and gone through a secret “door” in the stairs fronting the platform, dragging a smaller framed picture of “Alt Nuernberg” with him. Ah, tradition is still an influential presence. . .but ya have to be sneaky about it lest you appear “old-fashioned.”

For the quintet, apparently to prophesy the future, Sachs provides Walther and Eva with three children “extras,” and ditto two for David and Magdalene, and he calls in two large picture frames from the loft to make “family photos.” Visually simple and blessedly still, this was one of the nicest moments in the opera until one of the young “sons” had been directed to act as though he had to pee. Badly. Perhaps Ms. Wagner wanted to keep reminding us that this is a comedy. Or she wanted to “piss off” the traditionalists. But I digress. . .

For the transition music after that, all the “Seven Dwarfs” Meister-Busts appeared in front of the window unit, and danced an amateurish kick line as if in a bad German Variety Show. (An oxymoron, I know. . .all that was missing was Anneliese Rothenberger lip-synching “Vilia.”)

They are soon joined by three buxom bare-breasted Bavarian lasses, also in big mask/heads with long blond pigtails and traditional dirndls, well, save the missing bodice. They proceed to strip (some more) and whoopsie, one of them is a guy. This strip-tease greatly excites the Dancing-Head Meister-Busts, and they expose excited rubber phalluses, one or two of which fall off. Whoopsie again. This is what Nurernberg Gay Pride Day in Hell must be like. . .

The sense of hackles rising in the audience was palpable now. You could cut the tension with a rubber phallus.

Eventually a big metal road case was rolled in, the Busts of all kinds were shooed away, the residue picked up, and dumped in the box. As if to purge the place of this nonsense, Sachs lights a Bic and touches it to the enclosed rubble which bursts into flame. He and the four rubble collectors all warm their hands in the flames, at which point. . .

The window unit flies out and chorister-packed banks of bleachers rise from the ground until they filled the background with a seemingly vertical mass of bodies clad in various casual clothing which made quite a lively patchwork. Very impressive effect.

And now, the “song” contest. Remember the song contest?

Well, “Beck” (the Beck-a-Rama, the Beck-a-Rootie, the Beck-a-’Rocious, the Man) is back with a small carnival wagon festooned with balloons which turn out to be attached to an inflatable sex doll (Eva). We also get treated to a rather yummy naked chorus boy (Adam). When the doll explodes and deflates Adam’s, um, chances, The Beck opens his zipper and pulls out his loooooooooong flesh-colored rubber “snake” with which he does many rude things, not the least is swinging it in a circle.

They are soon driven from Paradise as the wall of choristers rips off their casual duds and throw them to the ground revealing them to suddenly be in tuxes and jewel-colored satiny evening gowns in boy-girl alternating vertical rows. Truly beautiful effect!

How will it all end? Well, Walther presents his “performance art” prize song as a traditional Garden Scene with old-fashioned painted archway flown in (there have been references to this with a stage model replete with set designs earlier on), and enacted in dumb show by a beautiful traditional prince and princess. Awwwwwww. . . .(He wins, you know?)

Sachs’ last famous monologue about preserving and revering (the superior) German culture was quite unadorned, with large statues of (I think) Schiller and Goethe forming columns to witness (challenge? monitor?) his sentiments. Sadly, by now Franz Hawlata had spent the best part of his voice elsewhere in the evening, and had neither the sustaining power, the beauty of tone, nor the vocal presence to score in this signature moment.

The lights went out to instantaneous booing from some very loud and determined folks who seemed to need an exorcism very very badly. Not all of the audience was Clinically Displeased, but those that were were strident.

The excellent chorus was then cheered. Most singers got decent applause. Poor Eva was roundly booed, but while she did not have quite the vocal presence wanted on this occasion, she didn’t deserve that. Sachs also got the razz. But The Beck and The Walt (those cool dudes) got the most rousing and vociferous ovations of the night. Neither erased memories of say, Hermann Prey and Ben Heppner for me, but they were very good, and in any event, the best in the cast.

And therein lies my problem. For all of the eccentricities of the production, and my cheeky comments aside, it mostly “worked” okay. Save a couple of bad choices, the focus was where it needed to be. The concept was consistent, clear, and controlled. And I thought The Beck’s Adam and Eve performance art debacle to actually be a comment on the sort of “Konzept” that can derail a production just like this very one we were seeing. In short, I think the woman not only has some creative ability and directorial skill, but also perhaps, considerable wit.

Musically, however, the cast was very uneven, something that certainly should be avoidable at a festival of this prestige and importance. The small-voiced Arthur Korn (“Veit Pogner”), rather squally “Magdalena,” and a couple others were decidedly not of the highest international standard available.

The orchestra was very good, if not quite “world class,” the soloists (especially the cellist) were excellent, and I liked the conducting, but I think that the covered pit must be an acquired taste. I personally thought the brass and winds sounded too muffled. Give me the brilliant sound of the first class band at the Met or Staatsoper or Covent Garden any day.

I recall an old anecdote about one Met horn player who, as the “Meistersinger” performance evening was entering it’s 6th hour, ironically asked his pit colleague: “Soooo, what other comic operas did Wagner write?”

Katharina Wagner was upfront that she was attempting a non-traditional, irreverent approach that emphasized quirky comedy. I have to say that that loooooong two-hour Act III went by more quickly than any other I have experienced. And I had fun, darn it! (But I didn’t always like myself for it!)

But to now paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, I don’t think one can appreciate this production on one viewing. . .and I certainly have no intention of seeing it again.

Still, it was my first Bayreuth experience and it was great fun in toto. Everything is well-organized to include hotel shuttles, catering options, and really, all the hosting elements were superior. And while it was wicked fun to partake of a genuine Bayreuth Skandal, I would hope that future visits might reveal the reputed high musical qualities that meet the revered Festival’s normal standard.

James Sohre

image= image_description=Katharina Wagner (Photo: Nawrath) product=yes product_title=Above: Katharina Wagner (Photo: Nawrath)
Posted by Gary at 2:39 PM

Ohio Light Opera Festival

The audience is almost as ancient as the repertory, and as faithful as fairy tale royalty. (Matinees sell out; license plates document the region, from Georgia to Wisconsin.) The performers, however, are young and enthusiastic, and production values (aside from some desperate excuses for baroque court wigs) impressive. The old scores brim with melody and sentiment, are played by a full orchestra, and are all sung in English by a chorus that refuses to stand and deliver — they can all dance up a storm, and they do. Delectable waltzes, polkas, and czardas flood sultry Midwest evenings. It’s a wonderful cause and a wonderful occasion, and I wish I’d enjoyed the performances more than I did.

Operetta in its heyday was the less serious, more popular, highly localized form of musical play — and to this day translation is a problem. Offenbach has always had difficulties coming off outside France, Gilbert and Sullivan never appealed in France, and zarzuela is confined to Spanish-speaking lands. But when the United States was full of immigrants, there was a large audience for foreign product, which inspired local product. Broadway operetta came of age with the runaway success of Lehar’s Merry Widow in 1905; then an Irishman, Victor Herbert, and two transplanted Austrians, Romberg and Friml, covered the twenties, but local boys like Kern and Rodgers soon proved they could handle it.

Zeller’s biggest hit, Der Vogelhändler, opened in Vienna in 1891 and was playing New York — in English — before the year was out. Kálmán reigned with Lehar — and was every bit as good — in Vienna and Budapest from before World War I till World War II, but his shows were as likely to premiere in New York, London, or Zurich. (He died in 1953 in Paris, at work on his last, Arizona Lady — yes, they’ve staged it in Wooster.)

The reason pre-war operettas, with rare exceptions like Show Boat and G&S, no longer hold the stage here, aside from the unfashionable style of the music and the idiocy of most of the plots, is that singers no longer know how to sing them. Voices that should fill a room with an achingly romantic waltz sound shrill or shaky or simply unsensuous with microphones, while the voice with a mic sounds ridiculous singing over a full orchestra without one. Broadway singers depend on mics today to a disgraceful extent, even in the tiniest theaters — they are no longer trained to project, and they no longer try to. A recent evening of grand old American operetta standards performed by young Broadway performers at New York’s Town Hall (which the unamplified voice can easily fill) proved a disaster: squealing sopranos, dull baritones, lyrics inaudible or else blasting our ears when they did use mics. OLO performs in a 394-seat house, and a singer who can’t fill that size room should probably not be singing outside the shower. And yet, over and over again, the lyrics of the soloists could scarcely be heard — even in Row H center — and the big sensual voices for which this repertory was created were not on hand. Part of the problem may lie with an overly loud orchestra, but surely someone in the company can point this out to the conductors and take it down a few notches. Or was it that, like Broadway performers today, the singers were concentrating too hard on their dancing to bother putting a lyric across? Were they that embarrassed by the translations? Operetta translations are often grotesque … but I couldn’t hear enough to determine if that was true at either of the performances I attended.

Der Vogelhändler and Die Herzogin von Chicago appealed to me precisely because I’d never heard them before, and both scores had been warmly recommended over the years. Each boasts a wealth of melody that puts anything now on Broadway to shame, but that’s almost a given. Both have cardboard characters and ridiculous plots in which true love, frustrated, conquers in the end. In Der Vogeländler (The Bird-Seller, sometimes Englished as The Tyrolean), Suzanne Woods as the Princess-in-disguise got her voice and her points across, notably in the show’s hit tune, “If You Give Roses in Tyrol,” but winsome Karla Hughes and comic Sandra Ross vanished into the woodwork as soon as the band struck up. The sprightly duet of two corrupt professors was probably comic, but not a word reached the ears. Paul Hindemith (no, really, that’s his name) and Todd Strange made likeable comic villains, and the latter was occasionally loud enough — because he screamed. Peter Foltz made a capable title character, Zeller’s attempt to give Papageno more sentiment and some spine.

Emmerich Kálmán’s Die Herzogin von Chicago (The Duchess of Chicago) dates from 1928, when the youth of Budapest and Vienna were gaga for jazz — had any American shows reached Central Europe yet? The dance tunes certainly had. Nothing daunted, Kálmán cannily wrote a jazz operetta, inserting fox trots, Charlestons, saxophones and snippets of Rhapsody in Blue among the waltzes and sentimental serenades. The wisp of a plot concerns a bankrupt Balkan prince who falls for the spoiled daughter of an American millionaire. She won’t marry a man who won’t do the Charleston and he won’t marry a girl who won’t waltz — even if she has just purchased his decrepit family castle for six million smackers. True love naturally conquers, in a spirit of musical compromise.

The staging was, once again, enthusiastic to a degree, with full marks for dancing choristers and the orchestra pouring forth delicious tune upon tune. The Duchess, “Mary Lloyd,” was played by Danielle Knox, who looks like the millions she spends, acts and dances with flare, and has terrific legs, of which we saw a great deal — all requirements for a 1928 operetta diva. But when she sang, alas, not a word reached the ear. Her prince (and real-life husband — scuttlebutt has it they met while performing at the festival) was Grant Knox, whose voice is not beautiful but whose diction was the clearest all weekend. The rival princess was neither singer nor actress nor beauty, and smirking Jacob Allen, a tap dancing American entrusted with the comic duties, lacked the energy to carry the evening. The most expert and stylish performances — but alas no singing — came from Gary Moss, playing the caddish fathers of both lovers.

There’s such a treasure of music at OLO, and such a blessed enthusiasm for it, that one would like to have the company at one’s mercy, to test whether the orchestra really does need a more controlling hand than it gets from its conductors, or if the theater acoustics are defective, or if it’s the fault of the singers — many of whom have studied in opera programs and surely could project if they wanted to — that the experience was so unsuccessful. Regulars around me (though, when asked, they admitted they couldn’t get the words either) seemed very happy with what they were getting, but I doubt a theatrical experience of this order will appeal to youngsters introduced to the operetta repertory by such presentations. This is as sad a conclusion as one of Lehar’s pessimistic endings.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Danielle and Grant Knox (Photo: Matt Dilyard) product=yes product_title=Ohio Light Opera Festival, Wooster, Ohio product_by=Carl Zeller, Der Vogelhändler, August 3
Emmerich Kálmán, Die Herzogin von Chicago, August 4 product_id=Above: Danielle and Grant Knox (Photo: Matt Dilyard)
Posted by Gary at 2:04 PM

Executive Leadership Changes at Opera Colorado

Carpenter.png[Opera Colorado, 16 August 2007]

DENVER -- Opera Colorado announces that its President and General Director, Peter Russell, and Artistic Director, James Robinson, have resigned from their respective positions. Russell’s resignation is effective September 1, 2007 and is based on his need to pursue other personal and professional interests. Russell will remain an advisor on artistic and production matters to Opera Colorado through January of 2008, and will continue his efforts on behalf of the National Performing Arts Convention (NPAC) due to take place in Denver in June 2008.

Posted by Gary at 1:22 PM

A Cloudy Mirror

The story is a triangle — a boy, a girl and a book. The book wins. The play is written in prosaic language with no emotional charge, and the action is minimal even mundane — though it aspires to be lofty and metaphysical. The characters search throughout Japan and China for the Book of Tea, or is it their soul they seek? Or is it the book of life? We never find out. They fail. We don’t care. The bowls of tea were empty (that was part of the action; I am serious).

All this might have been made to jell with an interesting vital score, one with lyric sweep and emotional power. Of these qualities there was none. The score was sound-effects music punctuated by moments of Kismet and Sigmund Romberg kitsch — it was entirely trivial. The performers were just fine, and the stage setting and costumes colorful and attractive. The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, which has been improving over recent years, sounded splendid in the awkward fusion of Asian-Western musical styles, and the busy musical traffic director was Netherlands opera conductor Lawrence Renes, obviously an admirable leader, who had conducted this score in Europe. Stage director was Amon Miyamoto. The capable singers were: Nancy Maultsby, Haijing Fu, Kelly Kaduce, Roger Honeywell and Christian van Horn. Design was by Rumi Matsui, Masatomo Ora and Rick Fishier.

The fault lay in the conception and the content, not in the execution; production excellence could not save the day. At $170. for an orchestra seat, one might have expected better. The audience response was properly restrained. The joke around Santa Fe was to call the Tan Dun, “a night of Chinese water torture.” Wish I had thought of that.

J. A. Van Sant © 2007

image= image_description=Haijing Fu and Kelly Kaduce in Tea: Mirror of the Soul (Ken Howard © 2007) product=yes product_title=Tan Dun, Tea: Mirror of the Soul
Above: Haijing Fu and Kelly Kaduce (Ken Howard © 2007)
Posted by Gary at 11:20 AM

Haydn’s L’Anima del Filosofo (Orfeo ed Eurydice) — A rare performance at Glimmerglass this summer, as part of their “Orpheus” 2007 Festival Season

Within a year the younger man would be dead, and the older would be in London putting the finishing touches to an opera that never saw the light of day in full public performance until, in 1951 it was staged in Florence with Maria Callas, Boris Christoff and Tygge Tyggeson in the leading roles. This is just part of the strange story of an opera that nearly never was, because although Haydn was fully paid in advance for his version of the Orfeo and Eurydice legend by the London-based impresario and violinist Johann Peter Salomon, it became the victim of politics and critical machinations that finally prevented it from opening at all.

Haydn was happy enough with the project (being paid in advance must have helped) and described the libretto, by Carlo Badini, as “entirely different from that of Glück’s”. What he didn’t say was that said Badini was also famed for his destructive gossip and very influential critical writings which could literally make or break a theatre’s reputation at that time. In this writing of the famous tale, the story starts with Eurydice fleeing the unwanted attentions of her father’s favoured suitor for her, and becoming the focus of Orfeo’s love; however, by the end of Act One she is dead from a snake-bite. The rest of the four acts concern Orfeo’s struggle to retrieve her from Hades, his famous error, and in this version of the tale, his eventual destruction by the Bacchae women, enraged by his avowed shunning of women’s love following his final loss of Eurydice.

There were only 3 main roles in the opera that Haydn wrote — Orfeo, written for leading tenor of the time Giacomo Davide who was described later as possessing “a clear and flexible voice, with an extensive falsetto”, Eurydice, sung by soprano Rosa Lops and the Genio (an oracle/soothsayer figure) who was apparently to be sung by a not-very-good castrato of the time, possibly one Signor Dorelli. Confusingly, by the time the opera came to rehearsal, there was another role included in the MS — that of Creonte, father of Eurydice. Sadly, despite getting to dress-rehearsal, local politics prevented the King’s Theatre from opening on time and Haydn never saw his opera open to the public.

It is no wonder then that this particular operatic version of the famous myth fell into that huge abyss of “forgotten” works as the late18th century geared itself up for the immense musical developments on the horizon. Yet, it is a jewel of its time, with some stunning music as well as dramatic vigour and this 2007 Glimmerglass concert performance has been looked forward to for some time by those who remember or have heard, either Callas in ’51, the 1967 live recording by Dame Joan Sutherland and Nicolai Gedda at the Edinburgh Festival, or of course the more recent revival by Cecilia Bartoli.

However, it was rather a disappointment to find that circumstances and time constraints had yielded some pretty savage cuts here on the shores of Lake Otsego. Michael Macleod, the new General and Artistic Director, explained that he had been anxious to do something meaningful on the traditional Sunday morning slot on Gala Weekend in this his first year at the helm of the Festival Opera. What better than to maintain the ethic of Glimmerglass and make more good music with a little known take on the myth, and better still, a work by one of his great loves, Haydn? Sadly, the time available between the 11 am start and the afternoon matinee at 3 pm of the staged L'Orfeo by Monteverdi meant that the concert performance was truncated with huge swathes of recitative removed. The story was moved on succinctly but prosaically by an on-stage Narrator, and several arias also cut.

What was left seemed more a showcase for soprano Sarah Coburn, an opportunity this technically elegant singer took full advantage of. She sang the arias of Eurydice and the Genio (the latter's big number “Al tuo seno fortunate” being eerily reminiscent of Mozart's Queen of the Night’s) with precision (mostly) and vocal poise. Not exciting, but obviously well-read and produced with only fleeting glances at the score before her. Equally effective was the baritone of young Corey Crider as Creonte. Much less successful was the Orfeo of tenor Norman Shankle, who appeared both nervous and under-prepared, his hands (and eyes) never far from the printed music, and his production sounding unsure and tentative, at best. This curate’s egg of a production was held together by some nice idiomatic playing by the Opera Orchestra, with special mention going to the flutes, under the shared batons of Antony Walker and Anne Manson.

Mr. MacLeod explained afterwards that the reason for the split duties for the conductors was part of a process of selection for vacant post of the Festival’s next Music Director. Whatever the reason, it was a rather novel experience for the audience as the two conductors had two very different styles, although it was hard to split them on the resultant sound.

The performance is repeated on the 19th August.

© Sue Loder 2007

For tickets (limited availability): Glimmerglass Opera Box Office (607) 547-2255 and more information from the website:

image= image_description=Sarah Coburn (Photo: © George Mott/Glimmerglass Opera) product=yes product_title=F. J. Haydn: L’Anima del Filosofo
Above: Sarah Coburn (Photo: © George Mott/Glimmerglass Opera)
Posted by Gary at 11:00 AM

Michael Maniaci Flies High as Orphée at Glimmerglass

Beginning with the art form’s pro-genitor, Peri’s L’Euridice written in 1600, that list of sixty-five includes two great masterpieces but only one that has never really left the world’s stages for a record 245 years.

That masterpiece is, of course, Gluck’s version of the timeless tale, “Orphée et Eurydice”, and in itself it has, over the years, been the subject of re-writings for different voices, genders and vocal ranges for the hero: from alto castrato (the original 1762 Italian version) through soprano castrato to high tenor, and then to Berlioz’s renowned arrangement in 1859, transposed by him for the great mezzo soprano of the time, Pauline Viardot. This was based on Gluck’s 1774 Paris version for “haute-contre” (high tenor, not countertenor) and transposed up to Viardot’s mezzo range.

A bewildering vocal history indeed; and, in the great tradition of this opera’s many vicissitudes, Glimmerglass Opera have achieved another two firsts. This summer’s new production by director Lillian Groag is using the new Bärenreiter edition of the Viardot/Berlioz arrangement for the first time in the USA and, perhaps more significantly, the title role is being sung by the exciting young American male soprano Michael Maniaci, who recently made waves at La Fenice with his performances of the title role in Meyerbeer’s “Il crociato in Egitto”, followed closely by his well-received Nireno in the Met’s “Giulio Cesare”.

Recent operatic history tells us that the demanding role of Orfeo has been sung usually by females — mezzo-sopranos and contraltos — and only recently have we seen a return to the male domain with CD recordings by tenors David Hobson and Richard Croft, and live performances such as countertenor David Daniels’ magisterial performance in Mark Morris’s new staging of the Italian version for alto at the Metropolitan Opera earlier this year — the first time a man has sung the role there. However, it is doubtful if there has ever been a professional staging of the Berlioz arrangement using a male soprano, and Glimmerglass are to be congratulated on their desire to push boundaries and to continue the writing of this iconic opera’s life story.

When it came to the new staging, I wondered if director Lillian Groag felt any pressure from the weight of history behind this opera? “I feel that with the great plays and operas in our canon everybody “knows” how they should be done and yet no one agrees as to what that “right” way is — so instead I always ask why this play or opera right here and now? In this opera I am looking at how the 4 characters — Orphée, Eurydice, l’Amour and the Chorus, or community, are affected by the process of grief, solace and return to life.”

For Groag, the hardest dramaturgical question was if Eurydice comes back to life, then the truly iconic myth is dismantled and apparently loses all meaning. However, in consultation with her costume designer Constance Hoffman, she came to the conclusion that it came down to religion or, in this case with the fatal look back, a failure of faith, the great sin in all theologies. “Calzabigi’s (the librettist of the original Italian version) and Gluck’s worldview was Christian and the Christian theology is the only one that has, to my knowledge, the possibility of redemption through suffering. This links directly to Eurydice’s final resurrection — through Orphée’s appalling suffering - which is gently remindful of the hope by which Christianity contrived to thrive in the Western World. I am an atheist, but I do see this as a profoundly Christian work.”

A hint as to Groag’s surprising, and ironic conclusion to this production can be found in her words above. She chooses to see the cycle of Life, Nature and man’s Redemption through Love as the key to this myth’s relevance today. The peasants cheerily celebrating yet another harvest in the opening scene comes full circle as our reunited lovers survey the chilling sight of their story starting over at the opera’s conclusion.

The opera opens here in some hypothetical 18th century world of rural bliss, with earth-toned costumed peasants set amongst the abandoned ruins of some Greek temples. The reference to time passing is one that recurs more than once. The Elysium Fields scene is another idea that works well: the Enlightenment’s vision of the Good Life — all arts, sciences and crafts applied in a peaceful society where harmony was the goal — was lit gracefully by Robert Wierzel. However, although Groag’s and her team’s initiatives often succeed well enough visually, there are considerable longueurs both here and in the opening scenes where singers and actors were apparently left to their own devices to the detriment of the cohesive whole. Luckily, John Conklin’s evocative neo-classical sets and Wierzel’s subtle lighting helped hold the whole thing together and, with Michael Maniaci drawing upon all his reserves of dramatic insight, directorial gaps are largely disguised.

It is this insight, coupled with the growing ability to move both body and voice into whatever realm is required by the text and music that makes Maniaci such a convincing and exciting stage performer. Here, he is the epitome of vulnerable young love — wounded by grief and at the mercy of the Gods. The voice, that of a true male soprano rather than countertenor using falsetto, is strong, centred and controlled throughout the range, and is one of today’s most interesting operatic phenomena, taking the high male instrument another step further to mainstream operatic “normality”. In this work he is required to sing, full and true, from G below middle C right up to soprano high C. It may not be his perfect vocal vehicle as it lies lower than ideal for him, but with the exception of the two lowest notes which take him beyond his current comfort zone, he operates with élan and strong dramatic sense. His full-throated soprano can float above the staff with ease, yet retains a difficult-to-describe but essential maleness about it.

Despite his avowed preference for simplicity Glück permitted a certain amount of ornamentation in his French revision; for instance in the mesmerising extended aria for Orphée, 'Amour, viens render a mon âme' that closes Act 1. Berlioz’s later arrangement for Viardot also encompassed a hair-raising cadenza written by the singer herself. Maniaci revels in the vocal challenge, displaying both technical brilliance and sense of style, with some amazing vocal gymnastics that set the hall alight.

Balancing this bravura performance, in Act 2, when Orphée descends to Hades we hear his heartfelt legato singing of Orphée’s plea to the Furies, 'Laissez-vous toucher par mes pleurs', which brought 'the demigod of music' to life and made us believe in his mystical powers of persuasion. Here the excellently demonic chorus rebut him time and again with their “Non!”s until at last they fall victim to his music. The iconic tune “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice” was elegantly yet powerfully sung; no mistaking this hero’s mental anguish as both singer and orchestra upped the tempo in the final repeat bringing an almost desperate quality to the aria.

Maniaci’s colleagues were equally convincing and committed: the sparkling soprano of Brenda Rae as L’Amour and the full vibrant singing of Amanda Pabyan as Eurydice were nuanced and distinctively phrased. Pabyan in particular was most affecting in her portrayal of the young woman too quick to blame her lover for his apparent indifference. In her reading of the part, we felt Eurydice to be the catalyst for disaster, rather than Orphée. Young Caitlin Lynch made a good impression as the Happy Shade, as did the two dancers, Trey Gillen and Katarzyna Skarpetowska, who led the choral movement sequences eloquently in elegant choreography by Nicola Bowie. Julian Wachner led the Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra in a fluent and pleasing reading of the score.

A “genuine classical drama” was what Gluck and Calzabigi originally wanted the audiences to see, and you could argue that the physical and vocal matching of role to character is crucial to make this happen. With a mezzo soprano singing this Berlioz arrangement, that equivalence is lost — would it be going to far to suggest that at last we have the thought-provoking realisation of Berlioz’s true musical intentions: the great mythic hero sung in the mezzo soprano range by a man? Probably it is, but that doesn’t undermine or diminish what Michael Maniaci has achieved. Another small piece of operatic history has been written here at Glimmerglass in 2007.

© Sue Loder 2007

Performances continue August 11th, 19th, 25th and 28th.

For tickets (limited availability): Glimmerglass Opera Box Office (607) 547-2255 and more information from the website:

 Orphée ( Version de Hector Berlioz)

image= image_description=Michael Maniaci and Amanda Pabyan (© George Mott/Glimmerglass Opera) product=yes product_title=Orphée et Eurydice by Glück, arranged Berlioz
Above: Michael Maniaci and Amanda Pabyan (Photo: © George Mott/Glimmerglass Opera)
Posted by Gary at 10:18 AM

Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo”, Glimmerglass 2007 — Slattery rises to Alden’s challenging concept

But that’s what Glimmerglass Opera is all about — pushing young singers on the cusp of international careers into the limelight with challenges of this sort of calibre. Luckily for them, this is an opera that has enjoyed a wealth of thought-provoking productions all around the world in the past two decades, and an audience now much more at ease with early 17th century musical forms than at any time since L’Orfeo’s first performance 400 years ago.

To quote Gustav Leonhardt, Monteverdi “turned a page of musical history and started to write a new chapter full of daring harmonies and (previously) unheard human passions.” Unfortunately there is a dearth of instructions from the composer and so nothing is writ in stone — yet, down through the years and certainly in the many 20th and 21st century recordings of L’Orfeo, all sorts of ideas as to how this juxtaposition of instrument and voice might be realised have been attempted. However, one thing is certain: he demanded the supremacy of the individual human voice in its eternal quest for psychological and dramatic truth. So that too has to be a priority of any staging: the voices and the story they tell must shine clear and unobstructed by any misguided directorial conceits.

On that subject, this production directed by one of opera’s current enfant terribles, Chris Alden, certainly tried the patience of many in the audience. Having attended its premier at Opera North in England last year, I was intrigued to see how Alden’s conceits had travelled to this very different house, and different singers. I wrote then: “You don’t get very much more classic than the opera that virtually invented the art-form, and Christopher Alden has most decidedly set out to challenge a few well-worn notions of this favola in musica.” Indeed he does, and on second acquaintance, I can’t say that I’m any more enamoured than I was first time around. It’s patchy; and although the idea of Orfeo as a troubled artist/singer in some sort of faux ducal palace works very well, the eliding of certain essential parts of the story — such as Eurydice’s rescue and second death — just jar the sensibilities too much, as do many of the bits of rather tired post-modernistic little “business” that the singers have to carry. Endless yards of sticky tape (to confine Eurydice to Hades and also to represent the Styx and now played more for laughs) and dozens of un-lit cigarettes get boring so quickly. Having said that, as this is the Glimmerglass Orpheus festival, in celebration of the great story’s many transmogrifications, perhaps the challenging Alden approach is what’s needed to keep the adrenaline running?

The pivotal and dominating role is of course that of Orfeo himself, where muse and myth fuse into the legendary singer who descended into the underworld to bring back his dead wife Eurydice, yet failed in the final moments. The essential difference between first run in Leeds, and here was the Orfeo. Paul Nilon in England concentrated on projecting a quite limpid, gentle, musical soul whose journey and eventual failure seemed oh-so-human and sympathetic. Here, Michael Slattery, a young American tenor and Juilliard graduate, was a very different kettle of fish. Resembling more a wild, wilful and wasted rock star of the 80's or 90's, his lithe body often seeming to project emotion and nervous energy as clearly as his admirably coloured tenor. His second act vocal climax, the virtuosic "Possente spirto", where the singer has to “audition” his way past Caronte at the gates of Hell, is 10 minutes of some of the most difficult vocal writing that Monteverdi (or his contemporaries) ever committed to paper. Slattery’s performance was a lesson in dramatic singing - the young poet/singer grew more desperate, more anxious, as his words seemed to fail him in his quest. If some tonal beauty was lost in the service of the drama, then it was a risk worth taking.

He was well supported by some spirited and effective singing from the rest of the cast, who doubled as the Chorus, although some were more committed to (and comfortable with) early music performance practice than others. Of note were Megan Monaghan as Eurydice/Speranza and bass Christopher Temporelli as Pastore 4/Pluto.

Matching them and Slattery in musical commitment was the orchestra under Antony Walker whose strong musical sense and understanding of idiom enabled the period instrument-augmented Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra to sound remarkably “authentic”. At this sort of festival with five widely varying works in repertory through the summer, one cannot expect scholarly exactitude from the players or the instruments they use — but with some clever adjustments (such as substituting the original cornetti with muted piccolo trumpets) and additions (three theorbos to augment the continuo accompaniment) Walker and his players gave a most satisfactory approximation to the real thing.

© Sue Loder 2007

Performances continue August 14th, 17th, 20th, 23rd, and 25th.

For tickets (limited availability): Glimmerglass Opera Box Office (607) 547-2255 and more information from the website:

image= image_description=Michael Slattery (© George Mott/Glimmerglass Opera) product=yes product_title=Above: Michael Slattery in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo
Photo: © George Mott/Glimmerglass Opera
Posted by Gary at 9:49 AM

Madame Butterfly: The Search Continues

Jan van Rij’s Madame Butterfly: Japonisme, Puccini, and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San is the latest — but by no means the last — in a series of passionate educated guesses attempting to track down the “real” Madame Butterfly. The problem has been trying to read the minds and interpret the words of a number of people involved in the creative process leading up to the first performances of the opera in Italy in 1904. Of particular interest to historical sleuths are comments made by John Luther Long, the Philadelphia lawyer and writer, in the preface to his 1903 version of Madame Butterfly (the story that inspired the opera), and those of Jennie Correll, his sister and source for the original 1897 Butterfly account, in a talk to the Tokyo Pan Pacific Club and a subsequent magazine article in 1931. The remarks by both Long and Correll are extremely vague and subsequently have led to a wide variety of interpretations. In Long’s response concerning the models for Cho-Cho-San, Pinkerton, and even the original story, he states the following: “And is she a fancy, or does she live? Both. And where is Pinkerton? At least not in the United States navy - if the savage letters I receive from his fellows are true. Concerning the genesis of the story I know nothing.”[1] Jennie Correll, who lived in Nagasaki with her Methodist missionary husband from 1892 to 1897, stated in her September 1931 magazine article that the model for Cho-Cho-San was a certain Nagasaki tea-house girl named Cho-San. The young girl, along with her baby, had been abandoned by her lover, who had promised to return by ship but never did.[2]

While these vaguely-worded assertions may have inspired van Rij and others to search for historical models of characters in both the book Madame Butterfly and the opera Madama Butterfly, the investigative trail has, indeed, been a foggy one. Van Rij begins what his publicity release refers to as his “operatic detective story” by examining the role that two relationships between European men and Japanese women from Nagasaki might have had on the book and the opera.

The German physician Philip Franz von Siebold worked for the Dutch trading post at Dejima from 1823 to 1830 before being expelled from the country. During his stay in Nagasaki, Siebold lived with a Japanese woman named Otaki-san and their daughter Oine-san. Siebold returned to Nagasaki in 1859 after the foreign settlement in the city opened and met briefly with his Japanese “wife” and daughter.[3] Van Rij refers to Siebold’s story as ”a prototype of sorts as it contained many of the ingredients of the later novel and play that would be the precursors to Puccini’s opera” (p. 24).

While the links between Siebold and Otaki-san to the Butterfly accounts are, to this writer, tenuous at best, the second relationship mentioned by van Rij - that of Pierre Loti and his young Japanese “wife” Okiku-san - clearly did have a strong influence on both Long and Puccini. Pierre Loti (the pen name of the French naval lieutenant Julien Viaud) stayed in Nagasaki during the summer of 1885 and two years later published an account of his adventures in the city entitled Madame Chrysantheme.[4] I agree with van Rij that “the Butterfly theme...entered Western literature for the first time through Loti’s book” (p. 33) and that ”much of the material of Long’s novel comes straight from Loti” (p. 112). Indeed, the contention that Madame Butterfly was based on Loti’s account has been argued by historians for years.[5]

Van Rij next examines the impact of Japonisme on the development of Puccini’s opera. The curiosity involving “things Japanese” for Europeans and Americans in the last half of the nineteenth century is undeniable and this fascination led to a boom in Western artistic works concerning the customs and lifestyles of these exotic people from the Orient. Van Rij investigates a number of possible influences of Japonisme on Puccini or his librettists — especially Camille Saint-Saens’s La Princesse Jaune, Pietro Mascagni’s Iris, Judith Gautier’s La Marchande de Sourires, Sidney Jones’s The Geisha, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, and Andre Messager’s Madame Chrysantheme. He also notes the possible inspiration of a Japanese touring group and Claude Debussy. Van Rij concludes this chapter of his book somewhat uncertain of specific influences, but absolutely convinced that Japonisme in some form played a key role in the opera’s creative evolution. “Whatever Puccini’s sources were, it is clear that Madama Butterfly was a product of Japonisme” (p. 56).

Chapter Three concerns the development of John Luther Long’s book* Madame Butterfly and the subsequent play developed from the novel by David Belasco. Van Rij investigates what Long did with the tale of “Cho-San,” as told to him by his sister Jennie Correll from her days in Nagasaki, and how he fused this story with Loti’s Madame Chrysantheme to create his best-selling account. Van Rij concludes that “Obviously, nearly all of the elements of Long’s story have been borrowed from Loti” (p. 66). Long is given credit for little more than “chang[ing] some of the persons he borrowed from Loti into new characters and...introduc[ing] a plot” (p. 67). One important change concerned the character Cho-Cho-San and for this he relied heavily on his sister’s account. Van Rij also asserts that Long added a moral message to his account that was lacking in the more diary-based descriptive work of Loti (p. 74).

Long’s novel soon came to the attention of the American playwright David Belasco. Belasco developed the book into a one-act play that debuted in New York in March 1900. Belasco changed the characters little but added two major components to the plot: a more dramatic vigil by Cho-Cho-San and her ultimate suicide. In June, Belasco took the play to London, where it was viewed with great delight by Puccini, who was in the city to supervise production of Tosca and to search for new ideas for his next opera.

In Chapter Four, van Rij discusses the making of the opera Madama Butterfly by Puccini and his librettists. He especially concentrates on material borrowed from the novels of Loti and Long and the play of Belasco. He concludes the chapter with an analysis of the failure of the opera’s disastrous premiere at Milan and the changes made before its successful second performance three months later at Brescia.

Chapter Five, in which van Rij speculates as to the real-life models for the characters in Madama Butterfly and Madame Butterfly, is the most controversial section of the book. Here he argues, not altogether convincingly according to this reviewer, that: Cho-Cho-San was modeled after a Nagasaki woman named Kaga Maki; her son, Trouble, was modeled after Kuraba Tomisaburo, a boy of mixed Scottish-Japanese parentage; and the father of Tomisaburo was more than likely not Thomas Glover, the famous merchant who (with his Japanese wife, Tsuru) raised the boy as his own, but Glover’s brother, Alfred.

At this point, van Rij enters a contentious debate to which he alludes in passing, but does not do justice to in all its convolutions. The main players in this recent international debate concerning models for characters in the Butterfly book and opera are Brian Burke-Gaffney, a Canadian scholar and translator who lives and works in Nagasaki; Noda Kazuko, a descendent of Tsuru Glover’s presently living in Tokyo, Arthur Groos, a professor of German Studies at Cornell University in the United States, and van Rij, a former lawyer and diplomat now residing in France.[6]

In 1991, Groos argued that, based upon Jennie Correll’s talks of 1931 and subsequent research on his part, the model for Pinkerton was most likely an American naval officer named William B. Franklin, who was in Nagasaki in 1892 aboard the U.S.S. Marion.[7] Groos also speculated as to possible models for other characters in the opera, but as for Cho-Cho-San he states that “we know almost nothing about the original Butterfly” [8] and “we may in fact never know any more about the historical O-Cho than what Jennie Correll tells us. To be sure, the real madame Butterfly remains mute.”[9]

In the meantime, Noda set out to prove that her great- great-grandmother,Tsuru Glover, was the model for Cho-Cho-San. Her efforts grew out of a crusade to rebut the claims by Burke-Gaffney in 1989 that, according to family records, Kaga Maki, not Tsuru, was the mother of Kuraba Tomisaburo.[10] Noda has gone around the world pressing her claim that Tsuru was not only the mother of Tomisaburo, but that she was - as Noda’s father had speculated in a 1972 book - the model for Cho-Cho-San as well.[11] The latter assertion is based on a collection of circumstantial evidence, including the fact that Tsuru wore a butterfly crest on her kimono.

Last spring, Burke-Gaffney countered with his book on Butterfly, claiming that the search for historical models beyond the general ones found in Loti is useless because the Glover-Butterfly connection was fabricated by Americans in Nagasaki during the occupation of the city after World War Two. To prove his point, he claims - among other things - that prior to the war there was no mention of this connection in either local guidebooks or local histories. He demonstrates how the wife of an American Occupation official living in the Glover house deliberately began the rumor and how Nagasaki officials later picked up on the story to publicize the large tourist attraction at Glover Garden in the former foreign settlement.[12]

Van Rij has now added to this controversy with his book. He discounts Groos’s assertion about the Pinkerton model, by saying that Groos relied too much on the historical authenticity of Long’s book and Jennie orrell’s 1931 accounts (pp. 112-115 and note #1, pp. 175-177). Instead, van Rij argues that “B.F. obviously modeled on Pierre Loti” (p. 69).

Van Rij rejects Noda Kazuko’s and Noda Heinosuke’s view that Tsuru Gloveris Tomisaburo’s mother and accepts Burke-Gaffney’s claim that Kaga Maki is, indeed, the mother (pp. 120-121 and note #8, p.178). He then goes even further by naming her as the Butterfly model — a rather unconvincing claim made earlier by a biographer of Thomas Glover.[13] His identification of Alfred Glover as the most likely candidate for Tomisaburo’s father (p. 134) is his own contribution as far as I can tell.

I remain unconvinced by van Rij’s claims regarding historical models for characters, because I do not believe that they exist for any of the main characters in Madame Butterfly or Madama Butterfly. More convincing is van Rij’s contention that the accounts by Long and Correll should not be viewed as repositories of historical truths. I would also question the historical importance of some of van Rij’s third-party sources: especially the one attributed to Miura Tamaki (the Japanese soprano famous for her role as the operatic Butterfly) told to her by Long that Tomisaburo was Butterfly’s son by an English merchant (p. 118 and note #7, pp. 177-178), and a second story Tomisaburo supposedly told another person in 1931 or 1932 that was passed on years later by a third party to Noda Heinosuke. Since van Rij rejects other aspects of the Noda accounts as unreliable, it seems surprising that he would place his historical faith in this story. Finally, van Rij’s claim that Alfred Glover was Tomisaburo’s father is pure speculation and frankly it is unlikely to receive much support from scholars in the field.

Van Rij’s final chapter briefly discusses the fact the Madama Butterfly has never been well-received by Japanese audiences. And the reasons for this should not be difficult to understand. The heroine, Cho-Cho-San, is hardly depicted in a complimentary manner and the opera is filled with historical and linguistic inaccuracies. As van Rij rightfully notes, ”The only attraction of the Japanese element of the story is the flattering fact of a foreign novel with a plot set in Japan and turned into a popular opera by a famous European composer(p. 140).

This has not, however, kept generations of Westerners - including van Rij - from falling in love with the opera. Madama Butterfly remains one of the most often performed operas in the world and undoubtedly speculation will continue to abound as to the historical models behind its main characters. Rather than accept the vagaries of undetermined influences from figures such as Pierre Loti, Jennie Correll and John Luther Long (and, as van Rij has shown, the genre of Japonisme) the search for the ”real” Cho-Cho-San will go on - and on and on!


1. John Luther Long, Madame Butterfly (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1903), p. xiii.

2. Mrs. Irvin H. Correl [sic], “Madame Butterfly: Her Long Secret Revealed,” The Japan Magazine, 21 (1931), pp. 341-345, as found in Van Rij, p. 60 and Groos, p. 130.

3. During the almost thirty year interval, Siebold married a European woman with whom he had five children.

4. Pierre Loti, Madame Chrysantheme (Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1887).

5. For example, see Jean-Pierre Lehmann, The Image of Japan (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1978), p. 91. Lehmann also argues that “O-Kiku san became Cho Cho san, from Madame Chrysantheme to Madame Butterfly” (p. 92), but van Rij would say that it is more complicated than that.

6. In addition to van Rij’s book under review here, the most representative works of the other three are: Arthur Groos, “Madame Butterfly: The Story,” in Cambridge Opera Journal, Vol. 3, No. 2 (July 1991), p. 125-158; Noda Kazuko, Madame Butterfly and Madame Tsuru Glover (Tokyo: DISCO Networking, 1998); and Brian Burke-Gaffney, Cho cho fujin o sagashite [Searching for Madame Butterfly] (Tokyo: Kurieitsu Kamogawa, 2000).

7. Groos, pp. 141-148.

8. Ibid., p. 156.

9. Ibid., p. 158.

10. Burke-Gaffney, Hana to shimo [Blossoms and Frost] (Nagasaki: Nagasaki Bunkensha, 1989), p.98.

11. Noda Heinosuke, Guraba fujin [Mrs. Glover] (Nagasaki: Shinnami Shobo, 1994 [orig. 1972]), pp. 51-58.

12. Burke-Gaffney, Cho cho fujin o sagashite, especially pp. 54-70.

13. The claim was made by Alexander McKay in his book Scottish Samurai: T.B. Glover, 1838-1911 (Edinburgh: Canongate Press, 1993).

Reviewed by Lane Earns (, Department of History, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. This review first appeared in H-Net and is copyright 2001 by H-Net, all rights reserved. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.

* [OT: As a point of clarification, “Madame Butterfly” first appeared in the form of a novella in the January 1898 issue of The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine. In 1903, Grosset and Dunlap issued “Madame Butterfly” in novel form merely by “stretching out the story by printing only a small square of text on each page and by adding illustrations.” Brian Burke-Gaffney, Starcrossed — A Biography of Madame Butterfly (Norwalk: Signature Books, 2004), 76.]

Addendum. Since Rij’s book appeared, two other studies have been published: (1) Brian Burke-Gaffney, Starcrossed — A Biography of Madame Butterfly (Norwalk: Signature Books, 2004) and (2) Jonathan Wisenthal et al., A Vision of the Orient — Texts, Intertexts, and Contexts of Madame Butterfly (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006).


image= image_description=Jan van Rij. Madame Butterfly: Japonisme, Puccini, and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San product=yes product_title=Jan van Rij. Madame Butterfly: Japonisme, Puccini, and the Search for the Real Cho-Cho-San product_by=Stone Bridge Press (Berkeley, CA), 2001. 192 pp.
Photos, map, chart, afterword, chronology, notes, bibliography, and index of personal names. product_id=ISBN 1-880656-52-3 price=$24.95 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 9:34 AM

August 13, 2007

Producers howl over sound cut out by MP3 compression

mp3_player.pngBy JOEL SELVIN [San Francisco Chronicle, 13 August 2007]

Whether you know it or not, that compact disc you just copied to your MP3 player is only partially there.

Posted by Gary at 7:46 PM

Showcasing a Starry Singer

christine_schaefer_small.pngBY JAY NORDLINGER [NY Sun, 13 August 2007]

On the Salzburg Festival menu this year was an evening of the Italian Baroque — dominated by one work: the Stabat mater of Pergolesi. This evening was to have featured one of the starriest singers on the planet: Anna Netrebko, the Russian soprano. But she canceled at almost the last minute, causing a bit of an uproar in this little town (a hotbed of intrigue, anyway). Ms. Netrebko said, simply, that she had laryngitis. Others were skeptical — and said that she had gone about her cancellation in a shabby way.

Posted by Gary at 4:07 PM

Turn of the Screw, Glyndebourne, Sussex

Camilla TillingBy Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 12 August 2007]

After a tour round the country last year, The Turn of the Screw has arrived as the last opera of the season at Glyndebourne’s main summer festival. Two of Britten’s chamber operas had their premieres here – The Rape of Lucretia in 1946 and Albert Herring in 1947 – so its appearance is not before time.

Posted by Gary at 3:51 PM

Così fan tutte Deconstructed

Last heard at Santa Fe in 2003, in a then-innovative and refreshing presentation by James Robinson of the Colorado Opera, the same visual production was back, with an entirely new cast, but given considerable new ‘method’ by Robinson the on-going stage director. It did not wear well.

Politely put, Robinson’s Così was a gag-filled, vulgar romp. Such is not Mozart’s Così, an elegant, ironic comedy – not an ambiguous study of human nature requiring Regietheatre treatment, as is the present day style with this piece. To make Così into slapstick comedy combined with faux psychological exploration of the characters is to miss the point.

Essentially a bittersweet comedy of character types, set to some of Mozart’s most exhilarating and beautiful music, Così indeed has dark edges that serve to heighten amusement over the foibles of human nature. I am bored by producers treating Così as a post-Wagnerian or neo-Freudian exercise of great profundity. Yes, the tormented bad conscience of Fiordiligi, as she wavers between passion for her new lover and duty to her old one, can touch the heart (through the music) – but right away Mozart tells us, ‘don’t take it so seriously – look how the boys are acting!’ Mozart has Don Alfonso (the agent provocateur of the show), mocking the insensitive lovers who have foolishly set out to trap their ladies into unfaithfulness, and got what they deserved. Of course, “women are like that,” as the title tells us, but so are men. That’s the show! What really counts in an evening of Così are the music and the singing, done in tongue-in-cheek 18th Century style. Director Robinson’s endless sight-gags and slapstick, as well as the over-wrought posturing of his characters, just got in the way. How many times can you throw a wedding bouquet around the stage or bang a baritone over the head with a huge Valentine box of chocolates?

Ironically, the Santa Fe Program book, always an interesting document, reserves a page to recall how a Metropolitan Opera production of Così, introduced December 1951 (your writer was privileged to attend the piano dress and five subsequent performances of that production in early 1952 ), was such a vital musical and theatrical success it inspired a young John O. Crosby, founder of the Santa Fe Opera, to establish his festival company in the mountains of Northern New Mexico some fifty years ago.

American actor Alfred Lunt was credited with the production, though Met manager Rudolf Bing and conductor Fritz Stiedry had major input. The Met’s old Così endured for many seasons and had no ‘concept’ beyond Mozart’s. Lunt’s chief contribution was to appear as a servant in full livery to prance about the stage during the overture lighting the footlights, which he did with nimble elegance and humor. From that point on, the Met’s celebrated Così was a straightforward rendering of the Mozart-DaPonte show, as written, based on the tasteful style of the famous Glyndebourne productions first heard in the seminal Mozart revivals of the 1930s. Soprano Eleanor Steber, Fiordiligi in the Met production, imparted to this writer, “Lunt never gave us any individual direction; Blanche (Thebom) had sung it at Glyndebourne so she showed us what to do.” That was a long time ago, but the germinal Glyndebourne influence long endured. The Met got it right in the 1950s, and on up through the 1990s was playing Così from the Mozart-DaPonte book. Nowadays, in sharp contract to Mr Lunt’s elegance, SFO had a dozen young men dressed in underwear lined up across the stage during the overture, waiting for their physical exams to enter “the school for love,” Mozart’s sub-title for Così. No comment needed. There is always hope Santa Fe Opera will return to the fold and present real Mozart. A new production of The Marriage of Figaro is scheduled for Season 2008, and there is talk of Don Giovanni soon thereafter.

A part of my problem with this summer’s Così comes from the prissy, unimaginative conducting of British maestro William Lacey. At times he had the excellent Santa Fe orchestra sounding like perfect chamber music; at other times it was thick in texture and sticky in tempo; only rarely was it theatre music with shape and point. One had to chuckle at one of the moments Lacey was dragging tempos, to see the well experienced Suzanne Mentzer (Despina) literally beat time from the stage with her arm, attempting to move things along.

Susanna Phillips, a gifted young soprano from Alabama, displayed a strong, superlative voice as Fiordiligi, but her great second act scene and aria, “Per pieta,” came near bogging down in Lacey’s slogging accompaniment. The musical style of the evening had all the principals ornamenting Mozart’s vocal lines with lavish decoration – runs, roulades, inserted high notes, none from the score and often counter to mood. It is not outside performance tradition of Mozart’s day to ornament, but the extent of it at SFO was excessive and tasteless.

The singing cast, aside from the interesting if unripe Phillips and the able Mentzer, was mainly unremarkable. A handsome tenor, Norman Reinhardt, was not unskilled as Ferrando, but his lovely Act I aria, “Un aura amoroso,” turned tentative and tight, the voice sounding wan in its upper register with little tonal appeal. The senior American bass, Dale Travis, was a faint Don Alfonso, playing well enough, but sketchy of voice. Katharine Goeldner brought a pungent reliable mezzo to Dorabella, combined with good stage skills. A baritone, Mark Stone, came from England to sing Guglielmo and one wondered why, as the product was not of export quality.

James Robinson, who managed to mangle Bizet’s Carmen almost beyond recognition at Seattle a few seasons ago, needs tutoring in hubris management. He is a well-educated gentleman, but his concept productions (or ‘method’ direction, in the lingo of the deconstructionist world, a corrupt domain ready for abandonment), have long since reached the point of diminishing return. The 1970s nouvelle vague of deconstructing masterworks of art to suit the “vision” of the director has waned in most artistic disciplines, yet operatic direction remains one of the last backwaters of that perverse fad. It got to Santa Fe late; let’s hope it leaves soon. Let me end with a question: Who would you like to trust with your expensive evening at the opera? A genius named Wolfie, or a would-be auteur, uncertain of his next stage move?

J.A.VanSant © 2007

image= image_description=Susanna Phillips, Katharine Goeldner and Susanne Mentzer [Ken Howard © 2007] product=yes product_title=Above: Susanna Phillips, Katharine Goeldner and Susanne Mentzer
W. A. Mozart, Così fan tutte
Santa Fe Opera, 2007 product_by=All photos taken by Ken Howard © 2007 courtesy of Santa Fe Opera
Posted by Gary at 1:30 PM

August 12, 2007

Bieito Does La Fanciulla del West at Staatsoper Stuttgart

Okay, here is an Italian opera played to German speakers, and they chose to do this scene in English. We were apparently at stag night on a Universal studios tour of the Wild West sound stage.

A young woman dressed as a dance hall hostess (think Miss Kitty), tells them to take their seats in the bleachers, chats them up, telling them they are going to see a piece by Gee-Ah-Koh-Moh Puke-Chee-Nee, and then finally (with a Texas accent that is lost in print) shouts [I am not making this up!!]:

Would y’all like to see some Indians? (Yeeeeeaaaah)

Would y’all like to see some . . .cowboys? (Yeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaah)

Would y’all like to see. . . . some motherfuckin’ GUNS?!?! (Yeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaah)

Then the music began.

It was all but impossible to tell who was who at first. The Wild West sound stage crew were enacting a mish-mosh “show” for these tourists that had precious little to do with the story or character relationships. Minnie arrived on a trapeze flown in from above, dressed as a blond circus girl in tights and spangly bodice, not unlike Mae West in “Diamond Lil.”

She sang her bible reading scene without bible, from the trapeze, making no sense. Dick Johnson arrived on a horse, and just sat around for a long time, and since there was another guy on a horse next to him, no one paid him any mind.

Rance was an Asian baritone (this becomes important later), in fact there were lots of Asians in the Stuttgart cast. Maybe they work cheap? There were so many distractions, I don't know where to begin: Uncle Sam on stilts with a cane that shot confetti repeatedly, a living Statue of Liberty, minor soloists amplified with hand held mikes like a lounge act, a stunning cowgirl “extra” who turns out to be Wowkle, the sullen Indian squaw, for God’s sake. At one point a miner had an extended solo and I could not find him on the stage. Could not. I heard him, but could not find him in the melee.

During Johnson’s extended solo during the duet, a Union soldier (!) does a handstand and then walks on his hands across the entire apron of the stage. When Minnie sings, a giant crate is delivered center stage, and the miners (or whoever they are) open it, and then one by one they mug and camp and “take” their way down a trapdoor while she and Johnson are singing their duet. Oh, and they shot cap guns a lot. And there were confederate flags hung all over the house. (It’s the California Gold Rush (1849-50)! Hellooooooo!!)

And one miner got hung by the neck but instead of staying dead, they gave him a guitar which he played. There is a “well-hung” joke there somewhere but I haven't figured it out yet.

When the waltz started, first two quite amorous men started dancing, then others, and then some sound stage director (I guess), started making amplified German announcements/directions of what they should do, over the music.

By Act II, we are in the split level dressing trailer of Miss Minnie. First, party girl Wowkle enters with a miner and a huge carnival teddy bear, with which she has sex on the sofa. This turns into a three-way when Miner Man pulls down teddy’s boxers (although not his own), and enters teddy from the rear. When Minnie comes in and throws them out, the duo become paparazzi, annoyingly photographing everything for the rest of the act. Everything. Did I mention for the rest of the act?

Minnie changes into a silver lame dress slit up to her hip, and swaps wigs to complete a redheaded Rita Hayworth look. She has apparently invited Johnson over to dinner which, she proudly shows him, is a green Jello mold. Which she puts in the microwave. Sing sing sing sing – DING! The cooking is finished. It looks none the worse for wear, so she carves it and serves it as though it were a roast. And they eat it with knives and forks like good Europeans.

Then, obviously she has another culinary surprise in store for him, and she brings out an identical red Jello mold which they giggle over like middle schoolers, poking it and pulling bits loose with their fingers. Of course, then all hell breaks loose, and some 50’s Vegas thugs (including Rance) arrive brandishing pistols. Costumes get a little weirder here with lots of “Gangsta Wrap.”

One of Rance’s side kicks sits down and starts enjoying leftover Jello, which annoys the hell out of the Sheriff. So he picks up handfuls of it and stuffs it in the guy’s mouth and holds it shut until he swallows. (I am not making this up.) This may be the very first time in operatic history that Jello was a major prop.

The famous poker scene consists of Minne and Rance staring each other down while Minne throws cards at him and in the air, until she throws the remainder at him as she exclaims “Three aces and a pair.” And then they both break character and laugh laugh laugh laugh laugh, like they had some “in” joke. Then Minnie sobs uncontrollably until we transition to some nether region for Act III.

All the cast save the leads are now wearing colorful Mexican tourist sombreros, and are shrouded in a mist. Uncle Sam on stilts is back as some miner or another on stilts, in a tuxedo. He must be a symbol. Of. . .?????

Johnson is finally captured house right with three red ropes, and dragged on stage. As he sings his gallows aria (nowhere near one), the rest of the cast shoot and kill each other rather noisily in pantomimed slo-mo and drop dead to the floor. The tenor could have had a sparkler in his teeth and no one would have noticed. Stilts Man sprinkles them all with glitter. Fairy Dust? Who knows?

Finally, Rance (here’s the Asian motif) starts to execute Johnson with a Samurai sword, but lo, Minnie appears with her own Samurai sword, dressed like she had just come from a callback audition for the “The Fantastic Four.” They spar and she kills him, with Rance lingering a long time with the damn sword stuck under his armpit. The dead all sing (to audience laughs), then get up.

They all exit, leaving Minnie and Johnson splitting and singing how they are together.

Lights out. Audience boos.

What a mess. I think there actually may be a workable concept in all this, but it is so busy, so unfocused, and so self-indulgent that it does not come close to being representative of this piece. Fanciulla is still a caviar piece, and needs to be attractively produced to win favor with an audience. Being all over the map did not win this work any new fans.

And sadly, the leads were not up to par. The Russian soprano should stop and fix her problems. The baritone was okay, and the Asian tenor was the best of the lot, but lisped much of his Italian like he was Castilian. I have a hard time believing that any one of them would have gotten to the Met Council finals. And the conducting was dry and correct, when it needed to have Puccini Passion.

Anyhow, there is my take on Bieito’s “Fanciulla.” I wouId not be in a hurry to see a production of his again. Or to go to Stuttgart Opera again anytime soon.

James Sohre

image= image_description=La Fanciulla del West at Staatsoper Stuttgart product=yes product_title=Giacomo Puccini: La Fanciulla del West
Staatsoper Stuttgart, 23 June – 25 July 2007
Posted by Gary at 9:11 PM

SPONTINI: La Vestale

Music composed by Gaspare Spontini. Libretto by Etienne de Jouy.

First Performance: 15 December 1807, the Opéra, Paris

Principal Characters:
Licinius, a Roman general Tenor
Cinna, commander of the legion Tenor
The Pontifex Maximus Bass
The Chief Soothsayer Bass
A Consul Bass
Julia, a young Vestal virgin Soprano
The High Priestess Mezzo-Soprano

Setting: Republic of Rome, c. 269 B.C.E.


Act I

The young commander, Licinius, has returned to Rome in triumph. Nonetheless, he is filled with dread. He tells his friend, Cinna, that his beloved Julia joined the cult of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, while he was in Gaul. Julia asks the head priestess that she not be present during the commander’s honor; but, her request is denied. As Julia presents Licinius with the golden wreath, he whispers to her that he plans to abduct her that evening.

Act II

Julia stands watch before the sacred flame, which must never go out. She prays to Vesta for deliverance from her sinful love. Yet, she races to open the temple doors to allow Licinius entry. When Licinius arrives, he swears to free her from her obligations. The sacred flame goes out as they pledge mutual fidelity. Cinna warns Licinius to escape at once. The Pontifex Maximus arrives and accuses Julia of perfidy. He demands to know the name of the intruder. Julia refuses to name Licinius. She is then cursed, stripped of her garments and sentenced to death.


Julia is to be buried alive. Licinius and Cinna plead for mercy. The Pontifex Maximus is unyielding. Licinius confesses that he is to blame; but Julia claims that she does not know him. She is led before the altar and climbs down into the open grave. A storm envelopes the temple. A lightning bolt ignites Julia’s veil that had fallen near the altar and the sacred flame is rekindled. Licinius and Cinna rescue Julia from the grave. The High Priestess recognizes divine intervention. All are forgiven. Julia is freed from her vows. Licinius takes Julia’s hand and leads her to the altar where they are married.

Click here for the complete libretto.

image= image_description=Le supplice d'une vestale (1790) by Henri-Pierre Danloux (1753-1809) [Musée du Louvre] audio=yes first_audio_name=Gaspare Spontini: La Vestale
WinAmp, VLC or iTunes first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Gaspare Spontini: La Vestale product_by=Leyla Gencer (Julia), Renato Bruson (Cinna), Robleto Merolla (Licinius), Agostino Ferrin (The Pontifex Maximus), Franca Mattiucci (The High Priestess), Sergio Sisti (The Chief Soothsayer), Enrico Campi (A Consul), Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Massimo di Palermo, Fernanco Previtali (cond.)
Live performance, 4 December 1969, Palermo (sung in Italian) product_id=
Posted by Gary at 5:53 PM

August 9, 2007

War, Love, Loyalty & Betrayal

BY JAY NORDLINGER [NY Sun, 9 August 2007]

Last year, the Salzburg Festival staged the mother of all Mozart blowouts: It was his 250th birthday, you know. This year, things are back to normal. Mozart is still a major presence in his hometown — as lovely as ever mid the Austrian alps. But other composers are accorded the spotlight, too.

Posted by Gary at 2:48 PM

Metropolitan Opera to Triple Number of U.S. Screens for Simulcasts

By Matthew Westphal [Playbill News, 9 August 2007]

The Metropolitan Opera is set to present its high-definition simulcasts on up to 400 movie screens in the United States during the coming season — nearly triple the number of venues from last season.

Posted by Gary at 2:25 PM

The man who put opera on the front page

By Norman Lebrecht [La Scena Musicale, 8 August 2007]

The busiest composer alive is sitting across the breakfast table, nursing a sore back from the San Francisco long-haul. John Adams, 60, has flown in to conduct a new opera at the Barbican this weekend and another at the Proms in a fortnight; in between, he has a piece being danced by Scottish Ballet at the Edinburgh Festival and a clutch of concert performances. He is, in a word, everywhere.

Posted by Gary at 1:36 PM

Four Trips to Hell and Back at the Opera

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 7 August 2007]

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y., Aug. 5 — Orpheus, the awesomely gifted musician and poet of ancient myth, whose lyrics and songs could entrance wild animals and alter the course of churning rivers, is the hero of countless operas, including Monteverdi’s landmark “Orfeo” of 1607. With this historic work Monteverdi set the parameters and pointed the way for what was to come in the genre.

Posted by Gary at 12:41 PM

What is it about Wagner?

Stephen Pettitt [Times Online, 5 August 2007]

His operas sell out immediately. His theories changed classical music. His artistic legacy still divides his warring family. Millions either love him obsessively or hate him passionately

Richard Wagner – or, rather, the Wagner dynasty – is in the news again, with intrigue about who in the family will inherit the directorship of the 131-year-old Bayreuth festival, created by the composer in the theatre built specifically for the performance of his work. Wagner occupies music and opera lovers as no other composer does. Some unequivocally worship him, their trips to Bayreuth akin to pilgrimages. Others revile him.

Posted by Gary at 11:59 AM

August 2, 2007

The evolution of the Proms

royal_albert_hall.pngColin Matthews [TLS, 1 August 2007]
Any coverage of the Proms is usually accompanied by images of the flag-wavers of the Last Night. What a relief, then, to find that The Proms: A new history, edited by Jenny Doctor and David Wright, is not wrapped in a Last Night jacket, but features a cover photograph that could belong to any night. The bizarre rituals of the closing gala are given their space, but in the context of something much greater: the history of the world’s outstanding music festival.

Posted by Gary at 12:24 PM