September 28, 2007

Allegri “Miserere”; Palestrina “Missa Papae Marcelli”

Few composers are more iconic of time and place than Palestrina, assuredly evoking both Counter-Reformation Rome as well as the ideals of late-sixteenth counterpoint. Similarly, few works will be more iconic of Rome than the “Pope Marcellus Mass” with its strong ties to the Council of Trent, the “Miserere” by Gregorio Allegri, a work closely guarded as a possession of the Sistine Chapel, and the motet (also recorded here) “Tu es Petrus,” the foundational Gospel text for the authority of the papacy. To these icons, we might also add the sense that the Tallis Scholars, now approaching their thirty-fifth year, have also become iconic of the highest levels of modern performance of Renaissance polyphony. And despite their eponymous affinity for the music of Tallis, the Allegri “Miserere” and the “Pope Marcellus Mass” have surely become signature works for the ensemble. So much so that one might wonder why another recording of these works.

Both of these works are well represented in recordings by the Tallis Scholars at various stages in the life of the group. A 1980 recording of both works (released on CD as CDGIM 339) was followed by the 1994 “Live in Rome” recording (CDGIM 994), a concert recording made in the Sistine Chapel to celebrate the restoration of the Michelangelo frescoes. Additionally “The Tallis Scholars Sing Palestrina,” a 2005 release (CDGIM 204), re-issues the “Pope Marcellus Mass.” Director Peter Phillips observes that the Tallis Scholars have sung the “Miserere” over 300 times; no doubt the numbers for the Mass are high, as well. So why another recording of these signature pieces?

In part, the answer may lie in the continual development of the group’s thinking about the pieces. For instance, the “Miserere” here now alternates with a different psalm tone than the traditional second tone, and the last of the two versions on the recording incorporates the exquisite ornamentation of soprano Deborah Roberts, developed over long experience performing the work. (The ornamentation is notated in the liner notes, giving it a fixity somewhat at odds with its nature, but heightening its presence in the production in a concrete way.) And, it must be said, the recording shows the group at the very top of their game. The sound is ravishing, highly focused and full of presence, but at the same time wonderfully lustrous. The singers’ long familiarity with the works has not dimmed the conviction or dynamism of the performances; instead, we hear renditions of remarkable fluency.

A quibble here or there? One wonders at the use of a solo voice to render the psalm tone verses in the Allegri, as psalmodic chanting in this style was traditionally the preserve of the choir. And occasionally one might wish for more variety of volume—much is sung rather full, to the point where fullness itself loses some of its impact. But these quibbles fall by the wayside when one savors the glory of the sound. Do we need another recording of these pieces by the Tallis Scholars? Perhaps not, but this is one that I suspect all will be delighted to have on their shelf—right next to the others!

Steven Plank


product_title=Gregorio Allegri: Miserere (2 versions); Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: Stabat Mater; Missa Papae Marcelli
product_by=The Tallis Scholars, Peter Phillips (dir.)
product_id=Gimell CDGIM 041 [CD]

Posted by steve_p at 7:49 PM

Dusting off a Masterpiece… “The Fortunes of King Croesus” by Reinhard Keiser, coming to Opera North, Leeds and Minnesota Opera soon.

We can be forgiven today for not knowing much about either Keiser or his contemporaries in the jigsaw of small Germanic states of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Their work was very localised in terms of audiences, and specific to their towns and townspeople, and they more often than not composed for the German language, not the more widely accepted Italian or French. However, musically, they were perfectly aware of, and amenable to, some of the more southern influences of the times. They also occasionally included in their midst up and coming young composers on the way to greater things – Handel and Telemann to name but two. Indeed a young Handel absorbed many influences from Keiser, acknowledged in his day as the greatest living composer in Germany.

What makes Keiser (1674-1739) so special – and his “King Croesus” is a good example – is that he was a master of variety, expression and colour, and not only vocally. He liked nothing more than arranging the instrumental accompaniments in complex layers of sonority, giving his fast-paced vocal numbers a dizzying variety of effects. He wrote Croesus in 1711 when no longer in charge of the Hamburg opera house, but still writing for it, and returned to the piece revising it extensively (possibly for the better, although the original is lost) in 1730, making full use of the latest dramatic and musical ideas. He knew his audience. Not for them the epidemic sweeping the rest of Europe of strict Italian opera seria format, the rigid recitative-da capo aria-recitative sung by starry castrati and sopranos who could, literally, call the tune. The German tradition was much more eclectic and country-based, full of traditional dance rhythms and structures. The townspeople of Keiser’s time liked to hear tunes and see characters that reminded them of their folk traditions (even if they had long left the fields for more lucrative merchandising), they liked a bit of broad comedy, and wanted to know that all would come good in the end. On top of that, their rather grim Lutheran Church elders also required morality and ethics, for without that they could make big trouble for the local opera houses of the time.

The story of King Croesus as told by Keiser is typical of its period: that is to say, convoluted. The mighty Croesus of Lydia is proud but soon humbled by his enemy King Cyrus, as predicted by the sage Solon. His son, Atis, is dumb (at least in Act 1) but is in love with Elmira, Princess of Media. She is loved by the treacherous Orsanes, who is pursued in turn by Princess Clerida…who is loved by Croesus’ son Eliates. Only Atis’s servant Elcius (the comic character) is immune to these eternal triangles, and prefers the pleasures of the table. After war, imprisonment, concealed identities, betrayal and lessons learnt, we emerge at the end into the light of a wiser and more content court, with joy and happiness apparently unconfined.

By the time Keiser revised the version of King Croesus we will see in Leeds and Minnesota, both his career and the German Opera as a working entity were soon to disappear beneath the flood of Italian works, so it’s a good choice on the part of director Tim Albery, who originally convinced Opera North’s General Director Richard Mantle to stage it, to show off Reinhard Keiser’s brilliance as a master of musical invention.

And it’s that very brilliance of fecund invention – layer upon layer of musical and dramatic ideas pouring forth with an almost indecent profligacy – that Tim Albery has had to both tame and barber to fit our modern sensibilities, and expectations. Asking him to describe his attraction to this piece brought forth an equally profligate flow of enthusiasm: “It’s a wonderful, anarchic, hugely varied piece, suddenly irreverential, suddenly serenely heroic – it’s a gift, and a challenge, to present to today’s audience.”

So how has he done it? He says that they have made some cuts, especially in the recitative that didn’t progress the story to any effect, and a few arias for the same reason – but also moved around a couple of arias that just didn’t feel comfortable where they were and seemed to work better elsewhere – and he hopes that the audience will find it works too. They have cut some of the peasant and children’s dancing scenes and relocated the “country bumpkin” character from the village street to become more of a courtly old roué attached to the palace. Albery also feels that the downside of Keiser’s fecundity – so many ideas, tumbling over each other it seems – is that the opera can provoke a feeling of almost breathlessness as we the audience try to keep up. So when Keiser does slow the pace, and gives a beautiful melody space to expand and evolve, it’s almost as if we feel “oh, thank heavens, yes, let’s just enjoy this a bit”. So to that end, he and Harry Bicket, the musical director, have, on occasion, just repeated a particularly lovely line of song – to give people the chance to appreciate it before it disappears and the story’s off again. At Opera North, we will hear the work sung in English, the work of Albery himself, although in Minnesota it will be sung in the original German.

Helping Albery achieve this alchemy of adaptation and clarification in Leeds is an impressive musical line-up. As well as “Mr Baroque Opera” himself, Harry Bicket, there is a top flight cast of actor-singers including British tenor Paul Nilon in the title role, young Canadian soprano Gillian Keith, the extraordinary, exciting American male soprano Michael Maniaci in the role of Prince Atis, and Henry Waddington as Cyrus.

Will this production finally bring Keiser back to popularity? Albery certainly hopes so and he’s sure that once people get to hear the wonderful richness of melody and orchestration in “King Croesus” they too will want the dust-sheets left off for ever.

Sue Loder © 2007

“King Croesus” can be seen at:

The Grand Theatre, Leeds on 17th & 20th Oct and 7th &10th Nov 2007
The Theatre Royal, Nottingham on 27th Oct
The Lowry, Salford Quays, on 17th Nov

[Click here for information on U.K. performances.]

and at Minnesota Opera from 1st March 2008

[Click here for information on Minnesota performances.]

image= image_description=Tim Albery product=yes product_title=Above: Tim Albery
Posted by Gary at 2:52 PM

September 26, 2007

Margaret Garner at NYCO

It is difficult to criticize a work that is so optimistic in its scope, and indeed, one that is the collaborative effort of two giants in their fields such as Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison are. And yet, despite the ovations from the audience (especially for Morrison), despite the excitement generated by opening night at the City Opera, the opera felt a little flat. This is in part attributable to the one-dimensional nature of the characters in Margaret Garner: without exception they are either wholly good or wholly evil. Librettist Morrison and composer Danielpour fell into a trap of creating Margaret and her husband Robert as something like noble savages.

Margaret Garner attempts to address the historical figure of Margaret Garner in a dignified and meaningful way—as is only to be expected of Nobel Prize-winning Morrison. However, Danielpour, not unlike Puccini, uses musical references in irrelevant and anachronistic ways. For example, during the opera one hears (frequently) references in the orchestra’s music to jazz and ragtime; and when the black (and black-faced) chorus sings they evoke gospel music that you might hear pouring out of the Baptist churches in the South today. He has used familiar sounds to make his audience tap their feet and he weaves beautiful and jazzy melodies to tug at our heartstrings. Some critics have referred to Danielpour’s “Leonard-Bernstein-like” musical style, but his attempts are not as successful as Bernstein’s dizzying combinations of styles, and the result is that Margaret Garner is less effective as a dramatic opera than it could be.

Additionally, in his imitation of black American musics, Danielpour has orientalized Margaret and her family, rather than presenting them in more complicated musical language, which of course, Danielpour is capable of composing. Like Madame Butterfly, Margaret and Robert become simplified, overdrawn characters; they are held up as infallible in their love for one another and for their children, and they are made into saints and martyrs. By making Margaret a saint instead of a desperate human, Danielpour and Morrison do not do justice to the facts of Margaret Garner’s life, which, when examined on their own shed light on a slice of American history, even without dramatization.

One problem with creating saints out of real peoples’ lives is that though we can argue that this Margaret Garner of their creation—kind, loving, intelligent, and beautiful—did not deserve her fate, the opera does not make a strong stand about slavery in general. An opera that would truly look our history of slavery in the eye must protest the enslavement of even those people who were less virtuous than this Margaret; those who were not good parents or faithful lovers; those who may have been somehow complicit with the system of slavery in which they were raised. The house slave who may have enjoyed her status or the transplanted husband who was not faithful cannot measure up to the standard set by this martyred Margaret Garner. To be truly “anti-slavery” we must recognize that even slaves who stole, who abused the little power they had, who abandoned their lovers, or who were in other ways unable to measure up to Danielpour and Morrison’s standard were deserving of basic human rights of freedom and self-determination.

In another, more practical way, Margaret Garner strikes a blow against the institutional racism that plagues opera houses. We need only look at the hiring practices of the Metropolitan Opera (or the New York City Opera or any other major US or European opera house) to see that while men and women of color are often hired to sing roles designated as characters that are black, Hispanic or Asian, they are rarely hired to perform roles that are understood to be white characters; and furthermore, that white people are sometimes hired to sing roles that are designated as black, Hispanic, or Asian characters (think, for example on the famous singers who perform Otello, Monostatos, Madame Butterfly). For more thoughtful writing on hiring practices of the Met, see Wallace Cheatham’s article “Black Male Singers at the Metropolitan Opera” in The Black Perspective in Music 16/1 (Spring 1988): 3 – 20; which is almost as relevant today as it was twenty years ago. (Over his career Cheatham has also written about black women singers in opera.) Margaret Garner, in its subject matter and casting, perforce must address some of these issues. Three of the four NYCO debut artists in this cast are not white. In choosing to have both black and white characters in this opera about America’s history with slavery, it seems that Danielpour and Morrison have created new roles for black singers, roles that may help these singers further the careers of the artists who perform them, if they can avoid being typecast.

Tracie Luck thrilled the audience at the NYCO premiere of Margaret Garner, not only with her acting skills, but also with her beautiful voice and some surprising low notes. Other newcomers Lisa Daltrius as Cilla and and Gregg Baker as Robert Garner were also very talented and warmly received. Another notable performance was given by Maureen McKay who seemed to embody the perky and radical Caroline Gaines, daughter of the slave owner Edward Gaines (performed by NYCO debut artist Timothy Mix).

The set designed by Donald Eastman was functional; it did not distract from the action on the stage. This production offers the director the difficulty of having to stage five deaths—two of which are hangings. The first murder—that of the villainous overseer played by Joel Sorensen by Robert Garner—involved some very convincing stage acting by the two performers. Neither the hanging of Robert Garner or of Margaret Garner was pulled off very well. The scene that should have been at the heart of the opera—the one in which Margaret stabs her own children to death was convincingly acted, but musically and otherwise undramatic. Any of the angst that the real Margaret must have felt was glossed over briefly in one of the shortest scenes of the opera.

Although this opera was disappointing, one cannot help but feel it is in part because Margaret Garner is bearing so much social responsibility on its own. Few other operas tackle such huge and relevant issues. Perhaps if this opera were not one of so few that address race relations in the United States, then we as audience members would not have to scrutinize the message or the presentation so closely. If this were one of many approaches to healing the wounds that slavery has left in our country, then Margaret Garner would not have such a heavy burden to bear.

Megan Jenkins © 2007

image= image_description=Toni Morrison product=yes product_title=Above: Toni Morrison
Posted by Gary at 5:48 PM

September 23, 2007

Hear the Voice and Prayer

Another manifestation, however, is the legacy of having inspired the creation of other all-male, one-to-a-part, chapel-trained ensembles that have left the choir stalls and taken to the concert stage and recording studio. Ensemble Amarcord is one such ensemble, founded in 1992 by former members of the choir of St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. The influence of English ensembles like the King’s Singers or the Hilliard Ensemble, both of which are cited in the liner notes, is discernible—unavoidably so—but the German ensemble is no shallow clone. Their sound is a big one, generous and full, though always well focused. And the fullness of the sound is enhanced in this recording by the ample acoustic of the Stiftskirche St. Petri in Petersberg bei Halle.

The big sound is distinctive, but so too the repertory here. Some of the pieces are the “usual suspects”—anthems and motets by Byrd and Tallis, Josquin, and Pierre de la Rue. But the offering of works by Orff, Peter Cornelius, Rudolf Mauersberger, and Marcus Ludwig shows Ensemble Amarcord well attuned to their national heritage. The Orff work, “Sunt lacrimae rerum” is notably rhythmicized and reiterative, and an interesting contrast to the supple lines of the earlier Renaissance works. Similarly, Ludwig’s “Tenebrae” explores a clustery palette and features some of the ensemble’s best soft singing.

There is much to praise here, especially the flawlessly pure tuning and nobility of the sound. (In homophonic passages I was frequently reminded of the beauty of trombone choirs.) The early works on the program are well served by one-to-a-part singing, as both modern experience and historical model have confirmed. That said, however, one might wonder if the later works on the recording (Poulenc and Milhaud, in addition to the Germans cited above) do not miss a truly choral texture. There is a clarity and flexibility in the solo ensemble that is undeniably compelling, but in these later works one will occasionally miss the color of choral sound, a reminder of the difficulties of broad programming. In the category of quibbles, the “German English” of the Tallis pieces will catch the ear now and then, and the absence of English translations of the sung texts is a regret (a surprising one, at that, as the program notes appear in English). But these are small points. In the liner notes, the ensemble invites the listener to consider the title of the recording broadly. Indeed, hearing the voice of Ensemble Amarcord is an experience that will amply repay the effort again and again.

Steven Plank

image_description=Hear the Voice and Prayer

product_title=Hear the Voice and Prayer
product_by=Ensemble Amarcord
product_id=Apollon Classics apc 10201 [CD]
Raum Klang 10201 [CD]


Posted by steve_p at 7:43 PM

The Feast of St. Edward, King and Confessor at Westminster Abbey.

To some it is an architectural icon of royal ceremony and London’s vibrant public life; to others, it is a gallery of monuments; to others still, it persists as a cherished site of prayer and liturgy. The many faces it wears are, of course, the legacy of Edward, the Confessor, who in the eleventh century rebuilt the Abbey to grand dimensions. As the Abbey church houses his shrine and, by association, has long been the church of the coronation, it is no surprise that the Feast Day of St. Edward (October 13) is observed at the Abbey with special attention. And it is special attention that also marks the quality of this recording, a broad sampling of things one might hear at Matins, Holy Eucharist, and Evensong at the Abbey on the Feast. The aural glimpse of a particular feast day is a format that the Abbey Choir has previously essayed with a Trinity Sunday recording, also from Hyperion (CDA67557). The format is something of a variation on the long familiar service recordings of English cathedrals and chapels—Evensong for Ascension, Evensong for Advent Sunday, etc.—keeping the same sense of occasion and cohesion, though offering a wider swath of repertory.

Much of the music here represents a “golden age”: canticles and an anthem by Purcell, preces and suffrages by William Smith (whose Amen to the closing collect is a wonderful jewel), and a psalm by Morley. Stanford and Crotch come along for the ride, as well; their relative distance from the golden age make the hue of their gilt paler, although both remain well within the tradition. And while these pieces are familiar ones, the Abbey recording is no less welcome for it. The choir’s dance-like lilt for Purcell, their expressive explorations of the soft dynamic range, and, in the main their very satisfying blend are all compelling. Occasionally last notes of phrases from the men show less control than perfect balance requires—the opening chant is a case in point—but this is a rare lapse. And occasionally treble solo passages sound unconvincing, a surprise given the overall strength of the trebles in the tutti. The shortcomings are fleeting and momentary, the delight in the performance long-lasting.

The Anglican affinity for tradition might have left the recording to bask in the rich aura of its golden age hues—a “gilty plea” that few would begrudge--but O’Donnell boldly adds to the mix two commissioned works, Jonathan Harvey’s 1995 Missa Brevis and Philip Moore’s “The King and the Robin” (2005). Harvey’s mass is full of challenging dissonance and thick clusters, spiced also by spoken declamations amid the singing. Its modernism is a welcome reassurance of the continuing vibrancy of the “tradition,” and the challenges of its idiom are brilliantly met by the choir. Philip Moore’s “The King and the Robin” sets a beautiful modern poem by poet laureate, Andrew Motion, interestingly rich in medieval evocations. If the text looks backwards, the music does not, as Moore offers rich harmonic textures, well-crafted solo lines and rhythmicized interweavings that are engagingly dynamic. The performance is again, a strong one, especially in the tuttis and the bass solo. However, the treble solo—the voice of the “robin”--ultimately sounds difficult. It is accurately rendered, but wanting in confidence, much as was the case in the treble solos from the older repertories, as well.

One might eagerly await the continuation of this format from Hyperion, and look forward to further offerings from the liturgical riches of the Abbey and its brilliant choir.

Steven Plank

image_description=The Feast of St. Edward, King and Confessor at Westminster Abbey

product_title=The Feast of St. Edward, King and Confessor at Westminster Abbey
product_by=The Choir of Westminster Abbey; Robert Quinney, organ; James O’Donnell, Director.
product_id=Hyperion CDA67586 [CD]

Posted by steve_p at 6:45 PM

Playing Elizabeth’s Tune

The present CD presents the “concert” material from the BBC television program, and though absent the sights of a candle-lit Tewkesbury Abbey, the sounds are sumptuous, often exquisite, and leave one without any suspicion that anything is “missing.”

The program is a diverse sampling of Byrd’s music, ranging from Latin mass and motet to Anglican anthem and canticle, from dense counterpoint to stunningly beautiful chordal homophony, from celebrative tones to the dark hues of poignant lamentation. Byrd’s music takes the Tallis Scholars only a short jog from their eponymous home base, and to no one’s surprise, they sing this program with the natural confidence and expertise born of decades’ experience. Their performances are alternately suave, alternately animated, and unflaggingly fluent. From an ensemble that has been one of the standard bearers for the modern performance of this repertory, one would expect nothing less.

The Scholars’ sound is distinctively vibrant and free, a tone that is particularly well-suited to exuberant passages, such as arise in the motet “Vigilate” and the “Gloria” and “Credo” from the Mass for Four Voices. The exuberance is exciting and they continue to explore the animated potential of lines with notable flair. The sound also is well-suited to contrapuntal independence of line. However, the lower-voice blend on occasion seems to suffer a bit from the degree of timbral freedom, as in the dark opening of “Ne irascaris,” but softer passages--Sion deserta” in the same motet, for instance--show a warm blendability that surfaces elsewhere, too, as in the moving anthem, “Prevent us, O Lord.”

The text underlay of the vernacular works requires a sensitivity to period pronunciation—a one-syllable Spirit in the “Magnificat” from the Great Service, for example—and these adjustments are rendered with ease here. The ensemble’s Latin, however, persists in being Italianate “church Latin,” and one wonders what so accomplished a group might do with the inflections of sixteenth-century Anglo-Latin as part of their verbal palette.

The program here is admittedly one of “favorites,” most, if not all, well known and well represented in the recorded catalogue. Among favorites, I find “O Lord, Make thy Servant Elizabeth” an irresistible gem, complete with an “Amen” that packs a rose-window’s worth of blossom into just a few measures’ length. The plea at the end of the anthem is that God will grant the Queen a long life; given the beauty of the singing on this recording, one might easily wish the same for those who here sing “Elizabeth’s Tune.” A splendid recording.

Steven Plank

image_description=Playing Elizabeth’s Tune: The Tallis Scholars sing William Byrd.

product_title=Playing Elizabeth’s Tune: The Tallis Scholars sing William Byrd.
product_by=The Tallis Scholars; Peter Phillips, Director.
product_id=Gimell CDGIM 992 [CD]

Posted by steve_p at 6:43 PM

GIORDANO: Andrea Chénier

Music composed by Umberto Giordano (1867–1948). Libretto by Luigi Illica.

First Performance: 28 March 1896, Teatro alla Scala, Milan.

Principal Characters
Andrea Chénier, a poetTenor
Carlo Gérard, a servantBaritone
Madalena de CoignySoprano
Bersi, her maidMezzo-Soprano
Madelon, an old womanMezzo-Soprano
La Contessa de CoignyMezzo-Soprano
Roucher, a friend of ChénierBass
Pietro Fléville, a novelistBass
Fouquier Tinville, the Public ProsecutorBass
Mathieu, a sans-culotteBaritone
An IncroyableTenor
The Abbé, a poetTenor
Schmidt, a jailer at St. LazareBass
Master of the HouseholdBass
Dumas, president of the tribunalBass

Setting: The environs of Paris, 1789–93.


Act I

As the curtain rises, the servants of the Countess of Coigny are preparing for a ball. Among them is Gérard, afterward to become a revolutionary leader; he is filled with indignation at the sight of his aged father bent from years of set vile labor for the aristocrats. When the guests have arrived, a typical eighteenth century court pastoral is performed for their entertainment: while the chorus, dressed as shepherds and shepherdesses, sing idealized rustic music, the ballet mimic a rural love story in stately court fashion. Among the guests is the poet, Andrea Chénier, whose work is growing popular just at this time. When the Countess asks him to improvise he refuses, but when her beautiful daughter, Madalena, pleads with him he consents. She has rather coquettishly suggested the subject “Love,” but he soon forgets this, and singing of the misery and suffering of the poor, he launches into a tirade against those in power in church and state.

All but Madalena are outraged by the idealistic social and human creed shown in this dramatic song; and when a crowd of ragged men and women appear headed by Gérard, only to be ordered from the castle, Chénier follows them.

Act II

Chénier, now a revolutionary, is advised to flee by his friend. “Roucher. who has managed to bring a passport for him. Chénier refuses to leave without Madalena. Strangely enough, she arrives, incognito, and begs now a revolutionary power and attracted to her. They linger for a brief love scene, and are about to go, when they are caught by Gérard. While the rivals take to their swords, Madalena is spirited away. Gérard, wounded, he believes mortally, magnanimously warns Chénier to flee from the wrath of his revolutionary enemies, and asks him to save Madalena also. When the mob arrives on the scene a few minutes later, he tells them that his assailant is unknown to him.


Gérard has recovered and is presiding over a revolutionary tribunal. A spy announces Chénier’s arrest for having dared criticize Robespierre’s cruelty. This is too good an opportunity to make away with a rival, and as he is about to put his signature to the fatal document, he laughingly asks himself, “An enemy of his country?” ... he knows well that is the standard charge against one’s personal enemies. Yet he hesitates for a moment recalling that it was Chénier’s inspired verse that first awakened his own patriotism . . . now to satisfy his passions he sacrifices a friend. The struggle of honor and desire is beautifully expressed in the music ... a bit of the Marseillaise is suggestively quoted by the orchestra. Finally desire triumphs and Gérard signs in a mood of cynicism.

Hurried before the tribunal, Chénier pleads for himself vehemently, saying that he, a soldier, fought for his country; if he must die, let him die fighting for it, not shamefully executed.

Madalena, whose mother has meanwhile perished, also puts in an appearance. She offers to give herself to Gérard to save Chénier’s life. Gérard then pleads for the poet; but it is now too late. The mob thirsts for blood.

Act IV

Confined in the gloomy St. Lazare prison, Chénier awaits execution while writing his last verses, “Come un bel di di Maggio” expressing his belief in truth and beauty.

Madalena having bribed her way, is ushered in by Gérard, who then goes for a last vain appeal to Robespierre himself. At dawn, the death tumbril comes for the prisoners. Madalena, when the name of some condemned woman is called, rushes out beside Chénier and dies with her lover.

Click here for the complete libretto.

image= image_description=Luciano Pavarotti audio=yes first_audio_name=Umberto Giordano (1867–1948): Andrea Chénier
iTunes, FooBar2000, WinAMP or VLC first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Umberto Giordano (1867–1948): Andrea Chénier product_by=Maddalena di Coigny: Eliane Coelho
Andrea Chénier: Luciano Pavarotti
Carlo Gérard: Paolo Gavanelli
Bersi: Malgorzata Walewska
Madelon: Nelly Boschkowa
Countess di Coigny: Waltraud Winsauer
Roucher: Gottfried Hornik
Fléville: Evgenij Dmitriev
Fouquier-Tinville: David Cale Johnson
Mathieu: Wolfgang Bankl
L'Incredibile: Heinz Zednik
Abbé: Franz Kasemann
Schmidt: Rudolf Mazzola
Dumas: Walter Zeh
Major-domo: András Palerdi
Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper
Chor der Wiener Staatsoper
Marco Armiliato (cond.)
Live performance: 17 November 1996, Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna
Posted by Gary at 4:13 PM

Brewer at her best in live “Fidelio”

The victory over National Socialism endorsed Beethoven’s black-white view of the contest between good and evil, affirming the belief that the latter had now been eradicated from the world for all time. This child-like optimism of Beethoven’s only opera, premiered in 1805 with Napoleon already in Vienna, was a perfect musical reflection of a faith that was soon to be proven naive.

As the Cold War divided Europe into two hostile camps a more sober approach to Beethoven’s idealism developed. A telling example was a Fidelio staged in Wupperthal in 1977. Following the ecstatic second-act duet “O namenlose Freude” the curtain fell and houselights were turned on. A narrator addressed the audience: “Here ends the part of the opera that can be presented on stage today. The producers doubt, however, that such an act of grace — the Minister as deus ex machina, which by chance liquidated terror at just one place in one time, can be shown as the joyous, reconciling climax.” Following “Leonore” Overture No. 3 the lights were dimmed and the curtain rose for a concert performance of the finale: the chorus stood on risers, the seven soloists were seated on a row of chairs before them in modern concert dress and stood — score in hand — for each entry.

Thirty years later Fidelio remains a challenge; those staging it face difficult choices in defining the message of the opera in terms relevant to a contemporary audience. This explains the special appeal — and perhaps the success — of Fidelio on discs, where only the music matters.

The LSO Live recording of a performance of the opera in London’s Barbican in May 2006 supports this view. Christine Brewer is ideal in the title role, for the American soprano — now 50 — meets the vocal demands of Beethoven’s devoted wife with ease. She has both the high and the low notes needed for the great “Abscheulicher” aria and sings its “hopeful” middle section with melting lyricism. (A British critic described her singing of the aria as “a rainbow through the clouds.’)

Admirable is the preparation that Brewer devotes to any role that she undertakes. She sang several “Fidelio’s” in concert before approaching this assignment and she had already recorded the opera for Chandos’ “Opera in English” series. She had sung it in concert at the Barbican under Charles Mackerras only a few months before this recording. And although Leonore is not a trouser role cut from the same cloth as Mozart’s Cherubino or Strauss’ Octavian, Brewer in disguise is marvelously feminine in her interrelationship with the other characters in the opera in this recording.

In an interview in England she defined Leonore as “a woman who does the right thing for the right reasons,” and this view is clearly audible in the focused conviction that she brings to the role here. Indeed, a masterpiece of balanced casting — Iceland’s Kristinn Sigmundsson (Rocco), Sally Matthews (Marzelline) and Andrew Kennedy (Jaquino) — makes the famous first-act quartet a shimmering example of ensemble singing.

Although Canadian John Mc Master is a tenor more Verdian than Wagnerian, he delivers a dramatic account of the mammoth “Dungeon” aria and manages to keep up with Brewer without noticeable strain in the duet “O namenlose Freude.” And Juha Uusitaio is a fiendishly Mephistophelean Don Pizarro.

Spoken dialogue has been only slightly trimmed, and the totally non-German cast is exemplary in its command of German.

Much credit for the coherent impact that the recording makes goes to octogenarian conductor Colin Davis, for whom the London Symphony plays on the level of Europe’s greatest orchestras. The affection that Davis lavishes on the performance places more weight upon the love story than upon the political perspective of “Fidelio.” There is little in the excellent sound of this LSO Live release that hints of a “live” performance.

Breaking with the tradition that began with Mahler’s insertion of “Leonore” Overture No. 3 before the finale, Davis — as is today common — omits the Overture and moves directly to the final scene that anticipates the sympathies expressed later in the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Given her success as Leonore in concert, it is strange the Brewer’s stage debut in the role at the San Francisco Opera in 2005 was disappointing. Michael Hampe’s unimaginative direction of a traditional production was partly responsible for the fact that the staging simply did not catch fire, but Brewer’s considerable girth was also a problem. She is a large woman who does not move easily when the going gets rough — as it does in the “Dungeon” scene in “Fidelio.”

Brewer’s next major assignment is the Dyer’s Wife in Richard Strauss “Frau ohne Schatten” at the Chicago Lyric Opera later in the fall.

A personal view

I saw my first Fidelio in Vienna’s historic Theater an der Wien, where the opera had had its premiere in 1805. (The Staatsoper on the Ringstrasse had not yet reopened.) The Leonore was Christel Goltz, a young singer who had begun her career in Dresden as a dancer. The next major Viennese Salome after Ljuba Welitsch, Goltz was an openly passionate Leonore, whose approach to the role anticipates today’s incarnation of Beethoven’s devoted wife by Finland’s Karita Mattila, seen on TV in the “Met” production of a few seasons ago.

As an established Wagnerian Brewer’s Leonore follows rather in the footsteps of Kirsten Flagstad, who performed the opera in the late years of her career. I recall a “Met” broadcast with her and today treasure the recording that she made of the opera under Wilhelm Furtwängler in Salzburg in 1953.

The most unusual Fidelio in my experience was a staging at Spoleto USA, the festival the Gian Carlo Menotti founded in Charleston, S.C., in 1977. The production directed by Germany’s Nikolaus Lehnhoff, came from 1960s’ Bremen, at that time a major center of the New Left in Europe. Lehnhoff stripped the opera completely of its spoken text and replaced it with a narrative written by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Germany’s leading leftist poet and essayist at that time.

When I read about plans for the staging I could not feature Fidelio without its dialogue, but it worked brilliantly. (Perhaps my approval was influenced by the fact that Lehnhoff asked me to translate Enzensberger’s narration into English. It was a thrill to hear Fidelio performed with “my” words!) In an act hardly in keeping with the story of the opera Sweden’s Ulla Gustafsson, Leonore in the Spoleto staging, was mugged on her way home from an evening rehearsal.

A production that I wish I had heard was staged by a lesser German company in 1970, the Beethoven bicentennial year. I knew it only from reviews and no longer remember where it was performed. The director, a man well schooled in Bertold Brecht’s theater of alienation, included “Leonore” No. 3, but had it played with the curtain open while stage hands changed sets. When they had finished their work, they sat on the edge of the stage, feet dangling in the orchestra, and enjoyed sandwiches and beer. The opening-night audience was so offended that the curtain was closed at further performances.

Finally, an aspect of the opera that has concerned me since the “burn-baby-burn” days of the ‘60s. Fidelio — along with Mozart’s “Magic Flute” and Goethe’s “re-write” of Euripides’ “Iphigenia” — celebrates the age of classical humanism — of enlightened eudaemonism — that defined the values supposedly valid in the world today.

While in the other works the good, true and beautiful triumph because of their inherent strength, in the crucial moment in Fidelio Leonore pulls a gun. As Don Pizarro moves to murder Florestan, she throws herself between the two and sings — weapon in hand — “You’ll have to kill his wife first!” Only then does the off-stage trumpet sound, announcing the arrival of “der Herr Minister,” the deux ex machina who without Leonore’s singular bravery, would have arrived too late.

This is not to suggest that Beethoven was an advocate of violence, but it does offer a “take” on the Enlightenment that differs starkly from text-book presentations of the era. I fear only that a master of Regieoper will notice the gun and stage a Fidelio with the chorus drawn from the NRA.

Wes Blomster

image= image_description=Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio product=yes product_title=Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio product_by=Christine Brewer (Leonore), John Mac Master (Florestan), Kristinn Sigmundsson (Rocco), Sally Matthews (Marzelline), Juha Uusitalo (Don Pizarro), Andrew Kennedy (Jaquino), Daniel Borowski (Don Fernando), Andrew Tortise (First prisoner), Darren Jeffery (Second prisoner), London Symphony Chorus, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Colin Davis (cond.) product_id=LSO Live LSO0593 [2SACDs] price=$21.49 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 2:52 PM

Italian Sunshine Sweeps Away Gloomy Operatic Forecast

To start with, tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, who was slated to be ROF’s Otello, canceled at the beginning of the rehearsal period. So on July 1st, tenor Gregory Kunde got a call from the powers that be offering him the role. Kunde accepted gladly, but he had never performed the role, so he needed at least two weeks to learn it. Keeping that in mind, ROF hired tenor Ferdinand von Bothmer, who had a small role in ROF’s 2006 production of Mozart’s Die Schuldgkeit Des Ersten Gebots, as a cover for Kunde. As a cover, von Bothmer was promised one performance on August 11th. Tenor, Chris Merritt, who had not appeared in Pesaro since he sang Otello in 1991, was cast as Iago in this production. Now the cast included Kunde, Merritt and, as originally planned, Juan Diego Florez as Rodrigo. Today, Florez is known in the opera world as the supreme Rossian tenor and, with nine previous appearances at Pesaro under his belt, the singer is the object of an adoring public at the festival.

As it turned out, Merritt was in poor vocal shape on the 8th, and the next day, he was suddenly taken quite ill and had to cancel. The new Iago turned out to be Spanish tenor, Jose Manuel Zapata. Whether the tenor was a cover for the role or had just been flown in to replace Merritt was not revealed, but the result was that on the 11th, the announced cast was von Bothmer, Zapata and Florez. If ever there was an opera performance fraught with apprehension as to its outcome, this was it.

The performance turned out to be a lopsided affair. Although Florez was a superlative Rodrigo, and Olga Peretyatko’s Desdemona was well-acted and beautifully sung, Zapata had a few hesitant vocal moments, yet still offered a well-thought-out Iago. The disappointment came with von Bothmer’s Otello; the role was beyond his vocal capabilities. The tenor really tried to bring a noble bearing to counteract Otello’s jealous, anxious moments, but vocally he was thwarted at every attempt. The voice was too small for the role and lay in the back of the throat, so it was difficult for him to project it forward into the house. He had difficulty with the coloratura runs in Otello’s opening aria and couldn’t reach the few high C’s that Rossini gave him. However, the way he held his composure throughout the evening was quite admirable.

It was the performance on August 14th which really struck vocal gold. Kunde’s reviews for his first Otello on the 8th only hinted at the dynamic, explosive Otello he brought to the Adriatic Arena that evening. In fact, in 2003, Kunde’s had sung the role of Idreno in Semiramide which proved to be rough sailing for the bel canto tenor, where he exhibited some ungainly coloratura passages. As Hugh Canning recalled in his Otello review of August 26, 2007, in the Sunday Times about that performance, “His (Kunde’s) last appearances at the festival, four years ago, as Idreno..., were greeted by catcalls and booing, so it was brave and magnanimous of him to help Pesaro out of a fix.” The fix, however, segued into a vocal tour de force for Kunde whose passionate interpretation of the Moor brimmed over with such vocal conviction that he not only dazzled the audience, but also seemed to astonish himself. Most likely the reason for Kunde’s great performance was that he finally had the opportunity to sing a role he had surely coveted throughout his career and to do so, with extraordinary vocal and dramatic characterizations, in front of some of his severest critics. This Otello was the defining moment of his career.

And fortunately for the audience, vocal gold was found among the other singers as well. Rossini and Francesco Berio di Salsa, his librettist, embellished the role of Rodrigo because the great late classic tenor, Giovanni David was at their disposal in Naples in 1816, who had no trouble with the high tessitura Rossini composed. And, luckily for those in Pesaro, in August, 2007, ROF had Diego Florez, whose voice could climb the scale equally well. Florez has been on the operatic stage for ten years now and his achievements in Rossinian tenor roles have been well-documented. At this point in his career, the tenor is using all that experience to incorporate a dynamic stage presence that easily translates into a precise dramatic intensity. This theatrical know-how was most evident in his portrayal of the rejected suitor in the first scene of Act Two when Desdemona reveals that Otello is her husband. In fact, Florez, along with director Giancarlo Del Monaco, mapped out the technically-difficult aria into various emotional sections, so that it took on the feel of a short play. Starting with the recitative, “Che ascolto ! ahime!” in which Rodrigo, stunned by Desdemona’s declaration, bursts forth into disbelief in “Ah come mai non senti.” The aria, written in three parts marked allegro was sung with a growing anxiety each time Florez bit into the piece, going from confusion, to lashing out in anger and then finally registering inconsolable heartbreak. Vocally, his top notes were bright and secure, but it was the many gruppetti and grace notes that he flew through that set the audience on fire!

As much as Florez dominated the tenor roles on the 11th, the performance on the 14th proved to be the complete performance that everyone wanted to hear. Zapata’s Iago was on sturdier vocal ground than previously, allowing him to concentrate on Iago’s malevolent side. In his duet with Otello in Act Two, the tenor used Del Monaco’s idea of having Iago walk with a slight limp and in need of a cane to emphasize the character’s self-loathing. Maria Fillipi’s dark green and leathery brown costumes that she created for Iago and his cohorts at court, plus the severe, almost caustic look of the makeup, pinpointed Otello and Iago’s emotional friction. Kunde and Zapata brought both power and great musical drama to the scene in which Iago shows Otello a billet-doux and a lock of Desdemona’s hair, rather than the handkerchief used in Shakespeare’s play, as evidence of her unfaithfulness. Originally intended for her husband, the love tokens were intercepted by Iago who convinces Otello they were meant for Rodrigo.

Kunde’s Otello continued on his highly charged journey, first in an explosive duet with his rival, Rodrigo, who challenges the Moor to a duel and then in a trio which finds Desdemona trying, but failing, to stop the men from fighting. In the act’s last scene after the men go off, Desdemona, overwhelmed by confusion and bewilderment, falls fainting to the ground. As Emilia, her confidant, tries to revive her, Rossini introduces the scena with four long, lamenting chords, clearly lifted from the tragic ending of his Tancredi. Not only are the chords appropriate, but they created a beautiful moment for Olga Peretyatko, a young soprano from St. Petersburg, Russia, to start her transparent and many-faceted rendition of Desdemona’s plight. Going from the wounding invective,“Barbaro ciel tiranno,” to the pathos in her realization that her father, Elmiro has condemned her in “Se il padre m'abbandona,” so filled with lyrical tenderness, and finally to desperate declaration that she may never recover her good name, Peretyatko was able, no doubt with Del Monaco’s guiding hand, to carry this emotionally-draining scene.

If we could dip into that private place where Rossini’s musical genius lies, we would find the composer’s Act Three brimming with inspiration. For in this act, the composer truly took hold of his operatic powers and put to paper one of his most beautiful and detailed compositions, anticipating the romantic drama that Donizetti and Verdi would embrace in their operas. Starting with the delicate and beautifully limned “Willow Song,” with an ethereal harp accompaniment, Desdemona tells Emilia the story of her dear friend Isaura who died from a broken heart. Peretyatko’s vocal colors were able to capture the aria’s heartbreak all the way through with a sorrowful, lyrical tone while always matching her movements to the aria’s drama. Even though Peretyatko did not have the full spectrum of vocal resources to cover all the demands of the role, as in the vibrant trio with Rodrigo and Otello in Act Two, she gave the impression that she could reach that artistic level in the future.

At this point, Peretyatko and Kunde’s total commitment to their roles put the opera on a stirring dramatic path. After Otello’s entrance with torch in hand, underscored by ominous strings, Kunde’s artistic vision came to its full realization. In the recitative before the final duet, his emotional display of jealousy, self-loathing and fearful uncertainty was so strongly projected it clearly predicted the couple’s fatal outcome. Peretyatko responded to her Otello’s desperation with forceful protests of her innocence. Here Del Monaco’s direction rightly pulled the couple apart and pushed them together in waves of overwhelming anguish that finally ended in Otello slitting Desdemona’s throat and stabbing himself. But it was the power of their emotional vocal outpouring that brought the opera to its searing conclusion and the audience to a rousing ovation.

There was, however, an air of controversy surrounding Carlo Centolavigna’s unit set painted in a sky/sea motive. The designer divided the back and side walls into two sections, the top representing an open sky with flowing clouds and the bottom part representing the Adria Sea as mentioned in the opening chorus who, by the way, dressed in blood red tunics and medieval-looking skull caps, never moved a muscle. Standing in a box placed high on each side wall, the chorus was rolled out every time they had to sing. A more provocative feature of the staging consisted of nine doors that were opened, closed or moved around the stage, used as metaphors for the emotional trappings that each character experienced. It really depended on one’s point of view whether Centolavigna and Del Monaco’s concept came across as viable. On the 8th, the director, designer and costumer were booed at their curtain call. On the 14th, the audience was so caught up in the drama, they cheered the performers, reacting to the physical production as an afterthought.

Nick del Vecchio © 2007
Living At The Opera
Reprinted with the permission of the author.

image= image_description=Rossini Opera Festival Program — 2007 product=yes product_title=Gioachino Rossini: Otello
Rossini Opera Festival 2007, Pesaro
Posted by Gary at 2:19 PM

PENDERECKI: Die Teufel von Loudon

Commissioned by the director of the Hamburg Opera, Rolf Liebermann, Penderecki based his libretto for Die Teufel von Loudon on Erich Fried’s German translation of Robert Whiting’s 1964 drama The Devils of Loudon. That play is, in turn, based on Aldous Huxley’s 1952 historical study The Devils of Loudon. In the latter work Huxley explored a single event, the execution in 1634 of the French priest Urbain Grandier, who was actually accused and convicted of sorcery. From Huxley’s perspective, the execution is hardly an historic footnote, but a complex incident that involves the mingling of personal obsession and political intrigue, and Huxley’s prose certainly demonstrates its relevance for modern life. Such implications were not lost on Penderecki, who used this as the basis of his first opera, which was given its premiere in Hamburg in 1969. This DVD brings into print the 1969 television production of the opera that produced by Liebermann, just two years before Ken Russell released his film based on Whiting's play, which was entitled The Devils.

Liebermann's production is quite advanced for its time, because it is not a filmed opera, but a production conceived cinematically. Closeups, cross-cuts, fade-ins and fade-outs, flashbacks, and other effects are essential to the visual idiom and are used to underscore the opera. More than adding to the score or serving as an adornment of it, the cinematic elements are integral to Liebermann's film of Penderecki's opera. It is difficult to imagine, for example, the third scene of the second act (“Liebe Schwester in Christo”) with its superimposed image of the orgiastic scene in its fleeting effective rendered more effectively on stage. The closeup of Father Barré’s face in the same scene and its almost blurring closeup underscores his wonder at what was just related to him, with the cinematic rendering wholly in line with the musical content. These and other elements of the film are essential to understanding the work as presented in this idiom. Produced with the knowledge of the composer, this film also preserves an image of the opera that the composer sanctioned. It is wholly effective in its vivid imagery and authentic voice in conveying a sense of the opera as it was presented in its day and yet remains current through the idiom of film. With the cast essentially the same as the one that performed the work at its premiere, it is also an important historic document for this critical work. One of the important twentieth-century operas, Die Teufel von Loudon is a work that remains relevant on several counts.

Penderecki’s work is highly effective. His use of new sounds and modes of vocal expression fit his subject well and give it the voice it requires. The orchestral accompaniment not only supports the vocal lines of the libretto but also serve as a kind of commentary on it. Such is the case in the sixth scene of the second act, where the opening gesture in the orchestra sets the tone of the exchange that follows and the accompaniment reinforces the stage laughter that must not be missed at its end. In a sense, Penederecki’s conception of the orchestra resembles the one that Poulenc used a decade earlier in Dialogues des Carmélites, where the orchestra sometimes resembles a soundtrack for the action on stage. For both composers, the genre of opera provides a point of departure for their personal expression, and each created highly individual works. With Die Teufel von Loudon the resulting work is unique in its powerful depiction of charismatic hold Fr. Grandier had on the community of nuns who knew him, along with the ensuing madness and its consequences.

At the core of the drama is the exorcism effect on Sr. Jeanne, a horrific element that casts more guilt on the perpetrators and their audience than the character herself. In depicting Sr. Jeanne, Tatiana Troyanos created a convincing image, both physically and aurally. Her gaze is part of many scenes, and it embodies in various ways the mood that has been already expressed in the text and its accompanying music. The vocal idiom that Penderecki used in this work is effective in establishing the character of Sr. Jeanne and the others, each of whom is adept vocally. Troyanos stands out for her commandingly expressive performance, and various vocal and visual images of her almost define the opera. At the same time the tenor Andrzej Hiolski, who was involved with the premieres of Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion and Utrenja, created the role of Grandier as a multi-dimensional character. With the various faces of priest, seducer, victim, and ultimately martyr, the role of Grandier requires a dramatic intensity that almost challenges the musical demands of the role. Hiolski created the character with strength and sympathy, and this performance in the third act is virtuosic, with the image of Grandier at the stake remaining long after the film.

This film succeeds well in bringing opera into the medium of the cinema. Like a well-thought stage production, the capacity for visual imagery possible through film creates a level of presentation that is not in the score that serves the dramatic and musical content of Penderecki’s work. Liebermann’s cinematic vision enhances the presentation of Die Teufel von Loudon by not just recreating the work as it was staged, but using the medium to present the opera as film.

James L. Zychowicz

image_description=Krzysztof Penderecki: Die Teufel von Loudon

product_title=Krzysztof Penderecki: Die Teufel von Loudon
product_by=Tatiana Troyanos, Andrzej Hiolski, Bernard Ladysz, Hans Sotin, Rolf Mamero, Helmut Melchert, The Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra, Marek Janowski, conductor.
product_id=Arthaus Musik 101279 [DVD]

Posted by jim_z at 12:01 PM

September 19, 2007

Music Triumphs in S.F. Tannhauser

Donald Runnicles’ Opera Orchestra and Ian Robertson’s Opera Chorus give a magnificent account of the music, which is among Wagner’s most sweeping and bewitching. Runnicles and General Manager David Gockley have assembled an outstanding cast for this, the first new production of Gockley’s 20-month-old intendancy, and the cast delivered the goods, in an ensemble performance of international stars, the like of which has not been heard in these parts for some time.

However demanding and difficult the opera may be vocally and instrumentally, this tale of the 13th century minstrel torn between Venus’ earthly, “sinful” and Elisabeth’s idealized, redemptive love is a near-impossible bear when it comes to staging, especially in the 1861 Paris version and its extended ballet scene.

On that point, Graham Vick’s overbusy, occasionally just plain silly direction will be discussed (and derided) heatedly. Attention-diverting production excesses, especially the primitive overuse of awkward missionary positions, seem close to some of those under Gockley’s predecessor, Pamela Rosenberg.

Tannhauser_SFO_2.pngPetra Maria Schnitzer (Elisabeth) & Eric Halfvarson (Landgraf Hermann)

There is a wealth of greatness squeezed in the four-hour performance that unfortunately opens with a ballet that’s a mix of Pina Bausch, Greco-Roman wrestling, and a Groucho Marx routine, and ends with little boys emerging from the stage floor as if in a prairie dog hunting game.

But music, the essential component of the evening, triumphs over it all, making the stage monkey business almost immaterial. Runnicles’ customarily outstanding direction of Wagner holds true here, with rock-solid tempi, balances, sterling support for the voices, and wonderful control of (the many) climactic passages where he avoids “burping” the orchestra, presenting powerful, convincing, steady high points instead.

The Opera Chorus, handicapped by Vick’s requirement to wave arms, roll on the floor, and act ecstatic or possessed at the most inappropriate moments, gave a memorably solid, beautiful performance, holding back (for good or ill) from blowing the walls down when it had the chance.

Peter Seiffert — a large man and no actor — was vocally sensational in the title role, fulfilling the dual and conflicting requirements of heroic and lyric tenor. His Rome Narrative was powerful, if rather dry. Warmth and beauty, on the other hand, characterized Petra Maria Schnitzer’s Elisabeth; vocally and dramatically, she gave a true star performance, especially in the difficult third act, creating an affecting “female Parsifal,” waiting for him in vain.

Mezzo Petra Lang was the bold Venus, singing well, but not quite at her best. The young English baritone James Rutherford made a memorable San Francisco debut as Wolfram, with a meaningful, moving Song to the Evening Star. All the principals, except for Eric Halfvarson’s mighty Landgrave (and fine horsemanship atop the white quarter horse Alloy), had their local debut in this production.

Vocally, one of the most striking performances of the evening came from a young singer in a three-minute role. Having been made to sit on stage motionless for almost an hour, Adler Fellow Ji Young Yang sangthe Shepherd’s aria with affecting brilliance, exhibiting both musical intelligence and peerless communication of emotions. When she sang of the sun’s warmth (“da strahlte warm die Sonnen”), you could feel the bright light, the nourishing heat. An extraordinary talent.

Ron Howell’s choreography for Venusberg — women in long, clinging white shifts, men naked to the waist — was angular, clinically (and unsuccessfully) sexual, and altogether distracting from some of the most sensual music ever written. The Opera’s program notes decried productions with “unfortunate (and justly parodied) exaggerations... cheap eroticism and a kind of corybantic, danced Kama Sutra” of the scene — describing perfectly what took place in the War Memorial.

Tannhauser_SFO_3.pngPetra Lang (Venus) and Peter Seiffert (Tannhäuser)

Stage directors have forever tried to “improve” on Elisabeth’s quiet, offstage death as she is sacrificing her life for Tannhauser’s salvation Vick’s direction on that point will cause much controversy, but in fact it makes sense, while remaining true to the meaning of the text. In a kind of assisted suicide, Wolfram reluctantly, gently, lovingly snaps Elisabeth’s neck when she begs for death, and he goes on to sing to the Evening Star: “Wie Todesahnung, Damm’rung deckt die Lande...” (“As a presentiment of death, twilight covers the land”).

Paul Brown’s stage design uses a hangar-like unit set, with large windows, all scenes enhanced by opulent costumes. Brown and Vick are provoking the audience to shout “fire!” in a crowded theater by using up gallons of propane that flares as a large circle on the ground, as branches of a tree, for long periods.

But just how crowded was the theater? A startling fact from opening night, something clearly indicating what a tough row Gockley must hoe to attract audiences back to the War Memorial: in this once-Wagner mad town, on the opening night of a major new Wagner production, the second balcony — with its affordable seats and best acoustic in the house — was half empty. Wagner fans, opera lovers: you don't know what you're missing.

Janos Gereben © 2007

image= image_description=Petra Maria Schnitzer (Elisabeth) & James Rutherford (Wolfram von Eschinbach). Photo by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera. product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Tannhauser product_by=Above: Petra Maria Schnitzer (Elisabeth) & James Rutherford (Wolfram von Eschinbach)
All photos by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera.
Posted by Gary at 4:33 PM

Music for Compline

While the monastic context may be generally unfamiliar, bits of Compline material resurface in Anglican evensong (the canticle Nunc dimittis, for instance) and the liturgy of Compline itself has taken on considerable popularity in some modern circles. St. Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle, for example, has offered Compline on Sunday nights since 1954, and attracts huge crowds both in the Cathedral and on radio.

On this present disc, the marvelous English vocal ensemble, Stile Antico, performs sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century music for this rite by Tudor composers, both well-known (Tallis, Byrd, and Sheppard) and less familiar (Robert Whyte and Hugh Aston). The singing is simply extraordinary. Mindful of the intimate and reflective nature of the rite, Stile Antico allows phrases to unfold in an unhurried manner, and when soft, as in the opening salve nos of Sheppard’s “Libera nos” or the beginning of Tallis’s “Miserere nostri” the effect is exquisite and sublime. The soft is never an “undersung” volume, but full of presence. Heard here, this expressive dynamic begins to do for the sound what candlelight does for the sight, enveloping things with an aura of intimacy. And this is very compelling.

Much here is tinged with serenity. Even with contrapuntal complexity, such as in Tallis’s canonic “Miserere nostri,” the affective context of words and liturgy alike combine to keep things focused on repose. In this case, sweetly so. The final antiphon, Hugh Aston’s “Gaude virgo mater Christi,” is of a different stripe. Chronologically Aston is of an earlier generation, born twenty years before Tallis and over fifty years before Byrd. His musical language in the antiphon is sinuously melismatic with sensuous ascents of the trebles, in the echo at least of the decorated style early in the century. This, the large scale of the antiphon, and its extra-liturgical nature—Marian antiphons were often sung at the close of the evening office—set the antiphon apart from the rest of the program. But if occasionally more splendid, it nevertheless seems also within the “aura,” as well, as much a blossoming of that which has preceded as a contrast to it.

This is surely one of the best early music recordings of the year. It will certainly have pride of place on many a shelf.

Steven Plank

image_description=Music for Compline

product_title=Music for Compline
product_by=Stile Antico
product_id=Harmonia Mundi HMU 907419 [CD]

Posted by steve_p at 1:37 PM

Psalms for the Spirit

Noel Edison’s forces offer highly polished renditions that show great care in preparation and skill in execution. (As a side note, it is not entirely clear just who “Noel Edison’s forces” are—the disc and cover material identify them as the Choir of St. John’s, Elora; the liner notes, however, describe them as the professional Elora Festival Singers. One imagines a degree of overlap, in any event, but the editorial slip is irksome.) The choir’s chanting is richly controlled, nicely articulate, and sensitively inflected. However, the price paid in order to achieve this level of control is an occasional trace of “undersinging” and constraint. With the Anglican chants this is not particularly problematic as their verbal priority invites a lightness and ease of production. Similarly, in anthems such as the introspective “O Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem” by Herbert Howells, the intimacy of the setting is well served by the close control. But despite all the good things—wonderful blend, subtlety of inflection and articulation—it remains hard to shake the occasional trace of constraint and the wish for more freedom of sound. This is most apparent in Parry’s war horse, “I was Glad,” trotted out as a rousing conclusion to the program; it is well sung, but also a bit underwhelming. Or in William Matthias’s sprightly “Let the Peoples Praise Thee, O God,” written for the 1981 wedding of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer, the choir never yields to throw some unbuttoned caution to the wind, and the frolicsome lines are less rollicking for it.

The program itself is a well-crafted anthology of both anthems and chants, chestnuts (Garrett, Goss, and Samuel Wesley) and newer works (Chlicott, Larkin, and Edison). Of the newer pieces, Robert Chilcott’s “My Prayer” is particularly notable. Combining interesting textures, harmonies, and evocations of Purcell’s famous “Hear my prayer,” it is a challenging and welcome addition to a repertory that sometimes finds the shackle of tradition difficult to break.

Steven Plank

image_description=Psalms for the Spirit

product_title=Psalms for the Spirit
product_by=Choir of St. John’s, Elora; Matthew Larkin, Organ; Noel Edison, Director.
product_id=Naxos 8.557781 [CD]

Posted by steve_p at 1:28 PM

The First of Maazel's Last

BY JAY NORDLINGER [NY Sun 19 September 2007]

The classical-music calendar is stuffed with attractive events, from now till New Year's. I'll give you my sense of the highlights, or some highlights. This is an excruciating cut, I must tell you.

Posted by Gary at 1:19 PM

WAGNER : Lohengrin

It’s so lustrous that it seems to shimmer, hovering as if suspended in some magical atmosphere. Nagano’s conducting evokes such luminous mystery that literal staging would be intrusive.

Fortunately, with Nicholas Lenhoff as director, we are spared the barbarity of kitsch scenery. We all know this is medieval Brabant, but there’s a lot more to the fundamental drama than that. Lohengrin hasn’t come all the way from Montsalvat just to meet Elsa. Fundamental to this drama is the eternal struggle between Good and Evil. The vaguely Cold War imagery evokes the sense of Brabant as a tense, militarized state which might at any moment be annihilated. This alludes to instability and murderous power struggles which created the situation the country is faced with. This court at Brabant “is” a court in the legal sense, where judgement is being made. It’s a political show trial, for Elsa is being framed for a crime she did not commit. An edge of fear and anxiety polarizes this court : tapestries and fripperies would distract. This production, with its clean, uncluttered lines, pares away non essentials, so the music itself is thrown into stark focus, without distraction. It’s the music, and Nagano’s conducting style, that above all defines this performance.

The Prelude seems to rise out of nothingness, creating a translucence which evokes images to come, when Lohengrin, the shining knight, enters is a blinding blaze of light. Nagano’s precision keeps the orchestral textures clean, so the strings really seem to shimmer and the brass to glow. The playing is exquisite, details tellingly focussed, yet there’s real resonance in the strings and winds. It’s important that Nagano manages to bring out this underlying romance and mystery, because it reminds us what’s at stake – Brabant is a symbol of past and future glory, a place where human values can still flourish even though the present is threatened. This level of playing continues throughout, almost competing for prominence with the vocal parts, for motivs like the “Swan” music were so vividly achieved. Indeed, at times I was listening to the orchestration rather than the singing, longingly waiting for the next interlude. But the music is well integrated into the action. The brass in theVorspiel, for example, are bright and animated, seamlessly leading, at the head of the procession, into the Wedding march. The Morgenröte is particularly entrancing, Nagano getting his musicians to paint in sound a wonderful panorama, depicting the scene aglow with sunrise, trumpets shining, flags unfurled, yet never overwhelming with temporal imagery the fundamentally cosmic nature of the drama.

Solvieg Kringelborn is a charming actress, so despite a constrained vocal range, she’s convincing and full of character. This Elsa, human as she is, has no chance of standing up to Ortud’s machinations, especially an Ortrud as complex and powerful as Waltraud Meier. Meier has inhabited this role so long that she’s able to adapt her nuances to suit the spirit of the production. Here she’s surprisingly glamorous, her wildness contrasting seductively with the stiff formality of Brabant. This may not be her finest performance technically, but her experience only adds to the sense of authority she brings to her characterization. No wonder Telramund, no innocent ingénue, is entranced. Tom Fox has thought his role through, for his Telramund is sympathetic, a good man gone astray, seduced, literally, by the “other” world Ortrud represents. The Telramund/Ortrud relationship is in many ways a counterbalance to the Elsa/Lohengrin relationship, so the humanity Fox brings enhances the levels of meaning. For all the honours bestowed n him, Roman Trekel’s Herald is disappointingly one dimensional.

The moment Lohengrin enters is a devastating piece of theatre. The flash of light which announces him is so blinding that it takes some moments for the eye to adjust. How Wagner would have loved that, had he modern technology. At first Klaus Florian Vogt’s portrayal seemed too solid, particularly against the diaphanous, transparent textures in the orchestration. Yet this, too, added to the realisation. Dressed in an improbably shiny suit, he looks like a creature unused to wearing “normal” clothes. His natural habitat is another, more spiritual plane of existence. Much is made of the swan imagery in his music. At times he even looks like a swan turned into a man. Hence, perhaps the gravity of this portrayal, for swans, though graceful, are immensely strong. It’s also an interpretation that relates to the Old Gods Ortrud serves, who are animist, and carnal, forces of nature. At the end, Ortrud, in defeat, appears in a dress made of feathers. This characterisation of Lohengrin, brings out his essential alien quality. He’s so engrossed at the piano he doesn’t notice his bride approach. Elsa can’t fathom his strange emotional makeup, and is so unsettled that she asks the fatal question. Despite his muscular appearance, Vogt’s voice is pure toned and lucid, his In fernem Land, soaring and floating with the orchestra, evoking the vision of a spiritual existence beyond the ken of the physical world.

Most DVDs come these days with a bonus film, most of them afterthoughts put together as an alternative to a booklet. The bonus with this release, however, is actually useful. Each character talks about their interpretation, as do Nagano and Lenhoff. Nagano was and remains a specialist in 20th century music, which is perhaps why his style emphasises the more esoteric, sophisticated aspects of Wagner’s music. This production is so good because it recognises what Nagano is doing. Lenhoff says, in a moment of great insight, that the Prelude is “the first monochromatic music ever written….the best Philip Glass, you know”. This is a very different Lohengrin, but most intriguing.

Anne Ozorio © 2007

image= image_description=Richard Wagner: Lohengrin product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Lohengrin product_by=Elsa : Solvieg Kringelborn (soprano), Ortrud Waltraud Meier (mezzo), Lohengrin : Klaus Florian Vogt (tenor), Heinrich der Vogler : Hans-Peter König (baritone), Telramund : Tom Fox (baritone), Herald : Roman Trekel (baritone), Europa Chor Akademie Mainz, Chorus of the National Opera of Lyon, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Kent Nagano (conductor), Nikolaus Lenhoff (director) product_id=Opus Arte OA 0964 D [3DVDs] price=$43.49 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 1:06 PM

The gentle composer with fire in his soul

Macmillan_James.pngJames MacMillan writes music about revolution and resurrection. Our correspondent talked to him about his new opera
Richard Morrison [Times Online, 18 September 2007]

Like it or loathe it, few will be bored by James MacMillan’s new opera, The Sacrifice. “It’s set in the future, in a country that could be Britain,” he says. “Order has collapsed. There’s been a civil war or such like. The two main characters are on opposing sides. One is a general, the other a paramilitary.”

Posted by Gary at 12:23 PM

S.F. Opera's German diction coach, 91, speaks from experience

Petra Maria Schnitzer (Elisabeth)(Photo by Terrence McCarthy)
Joshua Kosman [SF Chronicle, 16 September 2007]

When "Tannhäuser" opens at the San Francisco Opera on Tuesday night, take a good listen to the words - not just Wagner's intricately patterned poetry itself, but the precision and clarity with which the singers deliver it. Then offer a silent tip of the hat to Nora Norden, whose job is to make sure the German text emerges cleanly.

Posted by Gary at 12:00 PM

The Culture: 'Samson and Delilah' and religion

Samson Blinded (1912) by Lovis CorinthSteven Winn [SF Chronicle, 12 September 2007]

When the third-act curtain went up on "Samson and Delilah" on opening night, someone in the row behind me at the War Memorial Opera House giggled. It was hard to blame her; I was smiling a little myself. The image onstage at that moment, of the bedraggled hero (Clifton Forbis as Samson) pushing a fantastically huge millstone around in a circle, teetered on the edge of a ludicrous sight gag. Even a slightly bigger stone might have tipped the moment into full, unintended parody.

Posted by Gary at 11:50 AM

September 18, 2007

Ariane et Barbe-Bleue and Capriccio in Paris

The set design seems to be a mental hospital or minimum security prison. Lighting is institutional and colorless. Video cameras are trained on the doors and interiors, and the images are projected as if on a large security screen. Costuming is mostly drab and clinical, save one man-in-charge in a business suit.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”? “Whose Life Is It anyway”? “Dead Man Walking”?

Nope, this was the design for Paul Dukas’ “Ariane et Barbe-Bleue” that premiered at Paris Opera Bastille on 13 September.

This particular musical consideration of the Bluebeard story is based on the play by Flemish author Maurice Maeterlinck, whose static stage works are characterized by mysticism, pre-occupied with death, and propelled by fate. Dukas was a friend of Debussy, and while the latter’s influences can be heard in this opera, Dukas was a noted teacher and inventive composer in his own right. Although perfectionism led him to destroy much of his work, and while today he is known primarily for “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” his sole opera contains much to be admired, including compelling orchestral effects for a very large ensemble, quite grateful (and even tuneful) vocal writing, and a tour de force role for dramatic soprano. More’s the pity, then, that a rare opportunity to experience this jewel was wasted in such a lackluster setting.

It is supposed to be set in Bluebeard’s castle, of course, but here in this mid-20th century institution, the requisite doors are all there, the different rooms are tidily appointed, and the cubicles are separated by “windows” that allow us to see everything happening within the minimally-structured “frames.” But it becomes very very tedious to look at after about ten minutes.

Too, it is hard to make much spatial and structural sense of it when one minute the characters are seemingly “contained” by the compartmentalized low “walls” and expansive “window panes,” and the next they are blithely scampering through and over them as though they don’t exist. The structure also makes hash of so many textual references to stairs and cellars and gates and all, that you sort of just have to say, “okay, they are nuts, let’s accept that they aren’t making sense.”

The video cams that are trained on the doors, that show off “Ariane’s” jewels in the sink (!), that focus close-up on the fatal sixth door “lock” (oooooh, spooooooky -- not) turn out to be a bad idea gone wrong. They catch goofy brief glimpses of things like the Nurse’s handbag, until she moves and we are left looking at the damn’ wallpaper pattern in black and white on the large vertical screen that dominates the right side of the stage.

In Act Two, when the (unseen) villagers revolt, catch phrases from the libretto (“kill him,” “after him,” etc.) are rather comically projected evoking silent movies, needlessly duplicating the super-titles, and alternating with close-ups of sinks-locks-wallpaper. Only once does a projection rather “work” artistically, when the bound, wounded Bluebeard stumbles in from the down stage left door, and a cam from the wings captures him, Ariane, the Nurse, and the other wives in a cross-stage shot. But as I stared at it, I thought “why am I looking at this screen when there are live actors on the stage?”

Happily the musical side of it was mostly wonderful. I often find Sylvain Cambreling’s conducting workmanlike at best, and eccentric at worst. However, on this occasion he led a fine reading, scoring all of the musical high points and keeping the singers and the large instrumental ensemble quite well-balanced in this sometimes problematic house. The pit responded to his leadership with exceptional playing.

The estimable Willard White was luxury casting in the small yet important role of Bluebeard (who sings not a note in Act II). Julia Juon poured out dramatic singing of the highest order as the Nurse, and all of the wives were very good, most especially Diana Axentii as “Sélysette.” And now the “mostly” part of the “mostly wonderful” musical side:

While Deborah Polaski sang “Ariane” beautifully 85% of the night -- which is to say in the lower, middle, and upper-middle registers -- she sadly no longer has the “money” passages above the staff where the voice was frayed, the volume was loud-to-louder, and the acquaintance with pitches was far too casual.

Up until recently one of our leading dramatic sopranos, too many “Isolde’s” and “Brünnhilde’s” seem to have exacted their price. I hope she can take time to get back to her usual high standard, ‘cause we need her. She was not helped by an unflattering costume: a beige business suit with floppy felt hat that made her look like a henna-rinsed spinster school ma’rm in comfortable shoes. She was certainly never really “bad,” but to makes its full effect the opera needs a tireless soprano on top of her form, a far more beautiful production design (perhaps starting with the diva’s attire), and oh yes, meaningful direction.

One of the nuttier things she was made to do: when “Ariane” is supposed to tend to “Barbe-Bleu’s” wounds, she puts her over-the-top diamond necklace over-the-top of her buttoned-up white blouse, reverses her jacket to don it as a white lab coat, and violently wrenches away the rope that was binding prone and beaten Bluebeard. Ouch. Nurse Ratched lives! Be-jeweled yet! Then she reverses the procedure, becomes natty Miss Ariane again, and primly announces “I must leave now.” Dumb.

The production team was vociferously booed and jeered by much of the house, and the enthusiastic applause that had greeted the singers and conductor, immediately went nearly silent when they came on stage. Note to opera producers everywhere:

If much of the audience is vocally disapproving your artistic choices, indeed if not one person is cheering them, if most of the patrons stop clapping to protest the ineffective production: you are doing something wrong! Who are you serving with stuff like this? Not poor Dukas. Not the poor singers. Not the poor paying public. Then, who?

Thanks, I feel better now.

And in fact, I felt much much better the very next night when I attended a truly wonderful production of “Capriccio” at the Palais Garnier. Now let me say up front that director Robert Carsen also may not be to all tastes. And every moment in every production of his may not click. But far more often than not, he tells the story clearly and illuminates the content with fresh images and apt concepts. He takes intelligent risks, and when he scores, man, he scores big.

That said, since this production began on the bare stage, I had initial misgivings. They did not entirely go away when the opening string sextet was played on-stage in front of a piece of a bucolic scenery drop flown in, with the “musician Flamand” (Charles Workman in fine form) hovering and fretting around the fringes, and the Countess (fabulous Solveig Kringelborn) at first seated and spot-lit 3/4 of the way back in the auditorium, following along in the score. Eventually, though, the upstage loading doors were opened, revealing a mirrored and chandelier-ed salon that could have been a foyer in the Palais Garnier itself.

Servants moved chairs, tables, harpsichord, harp, etc. from this area to the main stage as needed to accommodate the action. In the frenzied (and terrific) ensemble when all hell breaks loose, another (full) drop comes in, props come out of chests, and there was plenty of color and variety. The entire piece was uncommonly well blocked, with clarity, imagination, motivation, specificity, and fine delineation of character relationships.

After Taupe’s (venerable Robert Tear) charming scene, played in front of an act curtain after he scrambles on stage from the prompter’s box, this curtain raised to reveal an identical act curtain and old-fashioned foot lights, which in turn raised to reveal the here-to-fore far upstage elaborate “foyer,” now re-imagined and filling the stage as a beautiful old-fashioned drop-and-wing set. The Countess, previously costumed in a beautiful dark green satin gown, had added a sheer black mesh version over the top of it which was alive with bugle beads, spangles, and sparkles. We discover her “doubly” glowing in this elaborate set, as she is facing upstage and fully reflected in the mirrored back wall. This was a stunning, chills-inducing coup de theatre. Thank you, Mr. Carsen.

After her beautifully sung final scena in which she “decides not to decide” whether she prefers the suitor “music” (“Flamand”) or “words” (“Olivier,” effectively played by young baritone Tassis Christoyannis), the entire set slowly rises to the fly loft, leaving us again on a bare stage. After an infectious ensemble performed by the furniture-striking servants, fine soloists all, “Countess” and her “Steward” (wonderful bass Jerome Varnier) exit through the real stage door.

Hartmut Haenchen conducted a thrilling reading with his customary heart, skill, and spirit. His excellence deserves to be better known. It was great to hear: Olaf Baer still singing very well as the “Count”; big-voiced Doris Soffel’s “Clairon” as sort of Tallulah-Bankhead-playing-Margot-Channing; the “Italian Singers” Elena Tsallagova and Juan Francisco Gatell who made the most of their featured roles; and Jan-Hendrick Rootering who seemed to be channeling Richard Griffiths (“Harry Potter”) as “La Roche,” with girth and over-sized demeanor that were married to terrific vocals.

But while the ensemble must be excellent, for me this “conversational piece” rises or falls on the success of the soprano, and well, the stunningly lovely blond Ms. Kringelborn had all the vocal goods and star quality to make this a memorable rendition. Occasionally, I wished that she would let phrase-ending top notes blossom instead of pulling them back, but this is a minor quibble as she let rip any number of times with soaring phrases of creamy tone. This was a major assumption of the role by a singer in full control of her musical and dramatic gifts.

All in all, these two outings made for a memorable start indeed to my Paris Opera subscription series.

James Sohre

image= image_description=Deborah Polaski product=yes product_title=Paul Dukas: Ariane et Barbe-Bleue
Richard Strauss: Capriccio product_by=Above: Deborah Polaski (Ariane)
Posted by Gary at 3:50 PM

PUCCINI: La Bohème

Then, unless one subscribed to the latest technological advance, "Cable," one was limited to three commercial, two UHF local channels, and PBS. Archie Bunker was scandalizing society with his antics on All in the Family, and Johnny Carson reigned as the "Golden Boy" of late night TV,1 and in 1976, another first: Live from Lincoln Center. That first year there were four presentations by the New York Philharmonic, two performances by the American Ballet Theater, and three operatic productions by the New York City Opera.2 The benefit from the exposure and the success of the broadcasts could not have gone unnoticed by the Grand Old Dame across the square. Thus, whether planned or by coincidence,3 on March 15, 1977, PBS introduced Live from the Met with a production of Puccinis La Bohème, starring Renata Scotto and the then "darling" of opera, Luciano Pavarotti. The broadcast was an immediate success, gathering an audience of more than four million viewers.4 To date, over one hundred performances have been broadcast "Live from the Met" stage.5 It all seems so long ago, now, but it isnt: thirty years to be exact and a lot of water has gone over the dam.

With a name like Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini, the last of the great musicians bearing his surname, he could not help but succeed. Like his predecessors, Giacomo Puccini left his hometown of Lucca to study music, but unlike them, young Giacomo did not return to the Medieval city and the safety of a Church job; instead, he stayed in Milan to pursue his musical career. Documentation of Puccinis Conservatory years is sketchy, at best, but upon reading his letters to his family and friends, one learns that it had not been easy and his determination to become a composer outweighed the disadvantages.6 In the end, those early years paid off: they gave Puccini first hand knowledge and insight into a lifestyle, which would later bear fruit in La Bohème.7

Puccini appears to have discussed Henry Murgers Scenes de la vie de Bohème8with his librettist, Luigi Illica, prior to 1893, but no official announcement was made and the idea went no further than the discussion stage. This all changed after the premiere of Manon Lescaut in Turin on February 1, 1893.

Returning to Milan, Puccini had a casual encounter with his old friend and fellow composer, Ruggiero Leoncavallo,9 to whom Puccini mentioned that he was working on a new opera based on Murgers work. Surprised, Leoncavallo, who had also led La vie Bohème in Paris between 1882 and 1887, replied that he, too, was working on an opera based on the same story.10 Furthermore, he reminded Puccini that, years before, he had rejected Leoncavallos suggestion of Murgers work for an operatic plot as unsuitable.11 After this unpleasant exchange and accusations, both musicians made public announcements of their intentions to compose an opera based on Murgers stories.

On March 19, 1893, Leoncavallo published his side of the story in Il Secolo. In his defense, the composer said that Victor Maurel could testify that Leoncavallo had spoken to him, when the singer was in Milan for the rehearsals of Falstaff, about writing the role of Schaunard for the famous baritone.12 Leoncavallo also mentions that he had discussed the opera with soprano Elisa (Lison) Frandin in November of 1892-before Puccini claimed to have started his opera.

In a letter to the editor, published in Corriere della Sera on March 21, 1893, Puccini feigned innocence saying that had he known of Leoncavallos intentions, he would have never considered Murgers tragic tale for a libretto; he further states that at this point it was too late for him to be "courteous" to stop with his work on the new opera. Puccini ended the letter with a challenge to Leoncavallo: to continue with his version of the opera, saying that a story could be interpreted with different artistic values and that the public would be the final judge.

As would happen more than once, this rivalry stung Puccinis ego and spurned him to proceed full force ahead with the opera. The friendship between the two composers never recovered from this public confrontation and Puccini, until the end of his life, ridiculed Leoncavallo whenever and wherever he had the opportunity. This conflict with Leoncavallo would be the first, but not the last time Puccini would finesse a work, or attempt to, from another compose or author. The notion that he could take something away from its rightful place-be it a libretto or a woman, as with his wife to be, Elvira13-was an elixir for Puccini.14 It appears that part of the challenge for the composer was in the chase and not in the results. Puccini, at times, would quickly tire of his conquests and casually set them aside, soon to be forgotten.15

The libretto for La Bohème, by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa,16 would be the first in a difficult series of collaborations between the publisher, composer, dramatist, and poet.

Writing to the publisher, Tito Ricordi, the poet Giacosa,17 the least enamored with the tempestuous and demanding composer, complained of the "exhausting pedantry" and the lack of "stimulation and inner warmth" in the libretto. Giacosa acknowledged to Ricordi that a work of art was a labor of love requiring many hours of sacrifice, but the rewards came in those periods of inspiration that prompted any artist to continue. In writing a libretto for Puccini, Giacosa continues, there was nothing to raise the spirit."18

Illica, too, had expressed concern over Puccinis intentions in a letter to the publisher.19 Illica further believed that Puccini was too intoxicated with the success of Manon Lescaut and using it as an excuse to stop working on the new opera. Ricordi, the composers most fervent supporter had some doubts, too, and replied to Illica from Paris, on November 2, 1893, " You know very well how filled with fervor Puccini was, how he absolutely wanted thatsubject, and the subsequent angry exchange of letters with Leoncavallo. And now ... is he shaking in his pants at the first difficulties?" Meanwhile, Puccini complained to Ricordi in a letter written on September 25, 1893, " can I set to music such long, drawn-out verses that should at least be condensed or possible even rewritten...?"20

But, back to 1977 and Puccinis La Bohème ....

Live from the Met premiered on Renata Scottos birthday and what should have been a moment of celebration, was anything but. Pavarotti snubbed the soprano by neglecting to appear at the birthday party taking place in the sopranos dressing room.21

Scotto laments in autobiography, "A long time ago I had known this man and worked with him22 We had been friends, but as his career grew in every sense he began to be less a colleague and more an adversary of his first Italian friends.23 For those at home and in the audience on the night of the broadcast, this tidbit of information would have come as a surprise; on stage, the two singers came off as though they were, in fact, in love with each other. Hindsight, and Scottos autobiography, tells us differently and today we can understand why there are some gaps in the stage direction for the two artists playing Puccinis lovers.24

Scottos Metropolitan Opera debut took place on October 13, 1965, playing another Puccini doomed heroine, Cio-Cio-San, in Madama Butterfly. Though a qualified success, the Met management only offered Scotto the same four roles: Lucia (4), Cio-Cio-San (9), Adina in LElisis damore (4), and Violetta in Traviata (3) during her first three seasons with the company.25 Frustrated and disappointed, the soprano turned down any more engagements at the opera house until the Met offered her a wider variety of roles to develop her craft.

Altogether, Scotto sang over 300 performances at the Met by the time she retired 22 years later, on January 17, 1987, in the same role of her debut, Cio-Cio-San, in Madama Butterfly.26

Not one to shy away from a challenge, Scotto sang a variety of roles throughout her career and received an inordinate amount of criticism and unfair comparisons to other singers, but through it all, Scotto was Scotto and no one else. Early in Scottos career she was often compared to Toti dal Monte and many other singers, Mafalda Favero, in particular. By her own admission, this comparison to "the great and underestimated Italian soprano," pleased Scotto. "But I never copied her, ... I copied no one ..."27

It is difficult to speak of Scottos singing apart from her acting. The two are one, and even her detractors will acknowledge her ability to highlight the meaning of every word she sings and the significance of her every gesture. In Act I she is vulnerable, naïve, and seductive and when Rodolfo casually, touches her hand as they are looking for Mimìs key, Scotto is innocence personified: "Ah!" she cries our of surprise and pleasure; the emotions clearly defined in her face. She turns to Rodolfo and speaks silently with her eyes as only a teen-ager in love can speak. Lost in the fantasy of the characters emotions, Scottos face is a mirror for Mimìs soul: she changes from anguish, sorrow, and despair to happiness, joy and abandon as she listens to Rodolfo and imagines the fulfillment of her inner desires.

"Mi chiamano Mimì" gives Scotto ample opportunity to display her craft. This seamstress is hopeful, "Son Tranquilla e lieta...," yet all woman when she asks Rodolfo, "Lei mintende?" As if embarrassed, she turns away and once again becomes the young girl, only to succumb to her need for the man next to her: the deliberate break in the words in "Vivo sola, soletta," giving emphasis to "soletta," as she coyly looks at Rodolfo, then turns away as though retracting the invitation to her inner world. Scottos eyes look into the distance of Mimìs longings ("Ma cuando vien lo sgelo") awakening in her a deeper emotion and unspoken feelings. Once more, she turns from Rodolfo, lost in her own thoughts, "Il primo bacio ... il mrimo sole emio...." Suddenly, realizing she is exposing her innermost secrets, she returns to reality and changes the tone of her singing and the emotion in her face ("Altro di me"). Scottos histrionics are well placed and she conveys the elation, sadness, hope, and happiness of the character. The aria ends with well deserved shouts of "Brava."

Acts III and IV are classic Scotto and belong to no one but the soprano. Mimìs aria with Marcello, "Rodolfo mama ... Un passo, un detto," is emotionally charged with carefully placed breaks in the voice and the use of parlando to give emphasis to her pain. Later in the act with Rodolfo she is resigned in "Donde lieta useì," suplicant in "Se vuoi, se vuoi," as though fearful of the alternative. The sustained piano in "Addio, addio, senza rancor," at the end of the aria, elicits more shouts of "Brava."28 In Act IV, Scotto is haunting and the pallor of her eminent death is always present in her voice. Her Mimì is believable and one, maybe, two singers come to mind who could equal Scottos interpretation.

Overall, Scotto is a winning singing actress. Throughout, Scottos instrument easily soars over the orchestra and imbues her singing with a touch of sensuous abandon. She colors and shades her singing to perfection with subtle nuances and one forgives her those moments when one knows, "she should have done it better." Other singers may have had a more beautiful timbre, others may lay claim to a better technique, and yet others may have sung a more beautiful Mimì, but few have sung a performance as emotionally charged and believable as Scottos seamstress in this DVD.29

Luciano Pavarotti made his professional debut on April 29, 1961, as Rodolfo, in La Bohème and the role remained a favorite throughout the tenors career.30 By the time of this broadcast performance, the Italian tenor had become a Metropolitan Opera favorite, but he had also begun to sing heavier roles and the strain, though minor, show in several passages, specifically in "Che gelida manina" where the tenors high note is less than perfect, albeit sung in the original key. In spite of this and his very limited acting ability,31 few tenors could sing as beautifully as Pavarotti-and that he does in this performance.

Pavarotti was blessed with a clear diction, perfect pitch and an unusual ease for delivering high notes which earned him the title of "King of High Cs." Altogether, Pavarottis association with the Metropolitan Opera spanned 36 years and he sang 383 performances.32

Regardless of whatever differences there may have been between Scotto and Pavarotti, they both sing superbly in this performance.

From the beginning, Puccini was credited with having the "gift of melody, [of being] a master of orchestration and [of having a] rare comprehension of dramatic effect."33 Hard compliments to accept for the shy, modest, and depressive, yet shrewd and driven composer.

It is this gift of melody and orchestration and his comprehension of dramatic effect which saved Bohème from being the total failure it had been predicted by the public and reviewers on opening night, February 1, 1896. Though for many, today, it may be difficult to understand, the negative reports are not without some merit, and Puccini was well aware of the damage the failure of the opera would have on his career: though Catalani was deceased, Leoncavallo and Mascagni could still be a challenge to the title of Verdis successor, which Puccini eagerly sought..34

That night, the audience was polite, but not overly enthusiastic; the applause was warm but not thunderous; and the reviews were spiteful and violent. There was criticism for the second act which appeared to be more operetta than serious opera (Gazzetta del Popolo); Bohèmewas a rushed work which would not leave its mark on the lyric stage (La Stampa); and in general, the music had not depth (Gazzetta di Torino). 35

It has been generally acknowledged by critics and biographers that, along with the high public expectation for the composer of the highly celebrated Manon Lescaut to out-do himself, there was also resentment for all the publicity announcing the new work; in the composers mind, his enemies circulated negative reports about the opera, and the composer wanted a different cast. The libretto must have troubled him, too, for changes had been considered almost to the last minute, and though Puccini liked the conductor, Toscanini was not his first choice. But more than this, Wagner deserves the credit for Bohemès failure: Götterdämmerung had turned musical taste in Turing upside down after its premiere a few weeks before Bohèmes. Wagners opera had shocked Italians into a new musical reality and offered them a new lens through which to view the art form. Compared to Wagner, Puccini must have appeared a novice; the unnecessary antics in his Bohemè: a failed attempt at serious music.

Maralin Niska made her Metropolitan Opera debut on March 17, 1970, as Violetta in Verdis Traviata. Her short stint with the company lasted eight seasons and included 42 performancess, of which, Musetta, was the most performed (26).36 She had a successful career at the New York City Opera but was never able to reach the level of stardom. Niskas voice has at times been called "steely" and "brittle," yet coupled with her (over) acting style she was the perfect foil for Scottos more demure and dramatically correct interpretation. Niskas voice was not beautiful but she had great musical instinct and she was a great interpreter of Janaceks heroine Elina in Vec Makropulos and Strauss deranged teenager, Salome.

It is the fate of Musetta to always be played-overplayed-as though she were the principal character, and Niskas interpretation is no different. This Musetta is loud, mistaking the librettos cue of "impudent" with artificial and vulgar. There is no subtle longing for Marcello, or connection between the words she is singing and the characters inner emotions. Her histrionics are often out of place and her actions exaggerated. Niska makes up for it in Act IV where she displays a real sense of understanding and pity.

Swedish baritone, Ingvar Wixells career with the Metropolitan Opera was two years shorter than Niskas, yet he sang almost twice as many performances leaving one to wonder, why such a short career with the company? In spite of being criticized by some for being too "grainy," Wixell was powerful Rigoletto, in Verdis opera by the same name. Wixell has been called a superb musician and he could easily reach deep into the characters emotions as he does, here, with Marcellos. This was the first time he essayed the role of Marcello at the Metropolitan.37

Paul Plishka made his Metropolitan Opera debut on June 27, 1967 in the role of Bonze in a performance of Puccinis Madama Butterfly at the Bronx Botanical Garden. To date, he has sung over 1500 performances with the company in operas as varied as Aida, Fidelio, Contes dHoffmann, Parsifal, Nozze di Figaro, Lucia, Boris Godunov and many more. Recently, Plishka took on the role of the Sacristan in Puccinis Tosca, and this summer he sang the dual roles of Benoit and Alcindoro in Puccinis Bohème.38 Plishka is well suited for the role of Colline, and his youthful looks fit the part of the philosopher with a penchant for humor. His "Vecchia zimara" is not as emotionally involved as one would prefer, but musically it is well sung.

The Schaunard of Canadian baritone, Allan Monk, is very pleasant considering the limitations of the role. His rendition of "A quanldo le lezioni?" to the end of the scene, when Benoit makes his entrance, is cleverly amusing and well sung.

Monk had a repectable ten year career at the Metropolitan Opera and sang 272 performances from March 27, 1976 to March 15, 189639

Italo Tajo is the quintessential Benoit, giving his character a seldom found life-like quality. This landlord is sympathetic, shy and carries the timidity of his your into his old age without shame or apology. He enjoys being surrounded by his younger tenants who make him feel their equal and comfortable enough to disclose his pecadillos. Tajo sang at the Metropolitan Opera from December 28, 1948 (Don Basilio in Rossinis Babieri di Siviglia) to April 20, 1991 (the Sacristan in Puccinis Tosca), a total of 255 performances.40 Tajo was a well known singer in Europe as well, but in the USA he was better known for singing character roles.

On the other hand, Andrea Velis almost made it a deliberate choice to sing character roles. Starting on October 23, 1961, Velis sang 1693 roles at the Metropolitan Opera, ending on February 24, 1994.41 His Alcindoro is well sung and dignified instead of the standard buffoon caricature of an older, wealthy, man infatuated with a younger woman.

This new production by Pier Luigi Pizzi, and borrowed from the Chicago Lyric Opera, premiered at the Metropolitan Opera four weeks before the television broadcast. At the time it was considered "state of the Art." Looking back at the production, Act I is rather sterile and typical of the 70s pseudo modern ideas: vast, dark and empty spaces dwarfing the characters; a bit too psycho-impressionistic. The scenery in Act II is, in sharp contrast to the previous act, realistic and quite effective in spite of being peopled, as is always the case, with more singers, street vendors, clowns, dancers, children and animals than are necessary, while engaging in unrealistic activities for a cold Paris winter night. The Tollgate Scene (Act III) is superb and succeeds in marrying the conflicting moods and emotions in the libretto.

Live performance can, at times, have their amusing, tense, moments which the public may not necessarily notice. One such moment is the end of the curtain call, after the applause has been acknowledged and the singers customarily engage in the cat-and-mouse game of "Who is going to be last person to leave the stage?"

At the end of the curtain call after Act II, as Scotto started to walk back stage and aware that Niska was posturing, she reached to the singer to walk off stage together. Niska quickly slipped away and pushed Scotto ahead. In a few seconds all the singers were out, again, for a second bow. After acknowledging the applause, Scotto, who had Wixell between her and Niska, dropped Wixells hand and quickly reached for Niskas with a tug, to indicate it was time to go. Scottos not to be misunderstood action took place so quickly, Niska did not realize what was happening to her long after she was led off-stage.

The not so subtle maneuver did not get lost on Niska, or any of the other cast members: Scotto is the star of the show!

Daniel Pardo 2007


La Bohème
Liner Notes
Joseph Wechsberg
1974 RCA Records
New York

Chapters of Opera
Henry Edward Krehbiel
1908 Henry Edward Krehbiel
Henry Holt & Co. New York

Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music
Edited by Don Michael Randel
1996 President and Fellows at Harvard College
Belknap PressCambirdge, Massachusetts and London England

Live from Lincoln Center

Metropolitan Opera Annals
William H. Seltsam
1947 H. W. Wilson Company
H. W. Wilson Company
Metropolitan Opera Guild
New York

Metropolitan Opera Archives
New York

Monsieur Butterfly
Stanley Jackson1974
Stanley Jackson
Stein and DayNew York

Public Broadcasting Service

Pietro Mascagni and his Operas
Alan Mallach
2002 Alan Mallach
Northeastern University PressBoston

Howard Greenfeld
1980 Howard Greenfeld
G.P. Putnams SonsNew York

Renata Scotto and Octavio Roca
1984 Octavio Roca and Renata Scotto
Doubleday & Co.
Garden City, New York

Joseph Wechsberg
1974 George Weidenfeld and Nicholson
G. P. Putnams Sons
New York


1-The Public Broadcasting Service was founded in 1969, it merged with NET, and began broadcasting the following year. Starting with Upstairs Downstairs, and followed with Elizabeth R, Henry VIII,I Claudius, and Nature, PBS quickly set itself apart with a new programming standard in television.

2-Douglas Moore s The Ballad of Baby Doe, April 21, 1976; Rossini s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, November 3, 1976; and Massenet s Manon, October 18, 1977.There was another program that first year, "AndréWatts in Recital," presented aspart of"Great Performers at Lincoln Center."

3- The Met had more than once taken advantage of television, as with the 1948-49 Season Opening night of Otello, the first televised performance from the Metropolitan stage.

4-The Metropolitan Opera

5- These broadcasts have long ago ceased to be "live." Today, they are compiled from several taped performances and broadcast as one "live" performance at a later date. Recently, the new management at the Met has begun to broadcast live performances on Sirius radio, as well as movie theater broadcasts in selected cities.

6-More information and details on Puccini s early years in Milan can be garnered from his contemporaries, fellow students and teachers at the Conservatory, and friends letters and biographies.

7-La BohèmeCapriccio Sinfonico LaBohèmeCapriccio

8- Le Corsaire,La vie de Bohème Manon Lescaut

9- Leoncavallo was one of the many who collaborated on the libretto for Manon Lescaut.

10-While the two libretti follow the same characters, Marcello and Musetta s relationship is better defined in Leoncavallo s opera and unlike in Puccini s opera,Marcello is a tenor, and Musetta is a Mezzo-soprano; the role of Rodolfo is asssigned to a Baritone.

11-There is reason to believe that Puccini did take Leoncavallo s idea for Bohème and passed it on to his librettists:in Muger s work, Mimi dies alone in the hospital, whereas in Leoncavallo s libretto, written by himself, she dies in Rodolfo s room-as in the Puccini opera.As the two operas premiered within months of each other, it would not have been possible, nor would it have been logical, for Leoncavallo to alter his libretto to mimic Puccini's.

12- Preparations for Falstaff started in September of 1892 and La Scala became available for general rehearsals on January 3, 1893-five weeks before its premiere on February 9, 1893.

13-Elvira Bontini Gemignani, Puccini s mistress and later his wife, was already married to Puccini s long time friend, Narciso Gemignani, a successful merchant in Lucca, when Puccini started an affair with her.

14-Originally, Tosca was to be set to music by Baron Alberto Franchetti until Puccini connived with Ricordi to take the libretto away from Franchetti. To the benefit of future generations, Puccini did get the libretto and composed what many consider to be his masterpiece.

15-More than once Puccini refused to work on Boheme, to the frustration of all involved.

16- Giacosa and Illica had contributed to the Manon Lescautlibretto after the original draft by Marco Praga and Domenico Oliva was reworked by Ruggero Leoncavallo, Giulio Ricordi, and possibly Puccini, but the libretto for La Bohèmewould be the first in which Illica and Giacosa would work together as a team. Lasting a short eleven years, the Giacosa and Illica team contributed four libretti for Puccini: Manon Lescaut, 1893, La Bohème, 1896, Tosca, 1900, and Madama Butterfly, 1904. The collaboration ended prematurely with Giacosa s unexpected death in 1906.

17-Little known today but for his collaborations with Illica on the libretti for Puccini s operas, Giuseppe Giacosa (1847-1906) was a well known and respected theatrical and literary figure. Originally trained as a lawyer, Giacosa later turned to literature and theater after the success of his one act comedy, Una partita a scacchi. Giacosa s plays were performed by the most famous artists of the day, including Eleonora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt; he lectured at the Milan Conservatory, wrote poetry, and was the editor of the influential literary periodical, La Lettura. Methodical and detailed, Giacosa was not accustomed to Puccini s sudden outbursts or the stress of working with a composer who required constant changes to the libretto. For his patience and physical appearance, Puccini dubbed him "Buddha."

18-Greenfeld, 1980, p.

19-In October of 1893, Illica wrote to Ricordi, "Is Puccini already tired of Bohème? ... I know very well that Puccini is a watch that winds and unwinds easily. But in any kind of watch time passes very quickly and does not turn back and each loss of enthusiasm is a disappointment and further discouragement."

20-Greenfeld, 1980, p. 90

21-"The premiere took place on my birthday, and there was cake in my dressing room and reporters around. My Rodolfo would not accept any of Mimi s cake and did not even come by to wish me a happy birthday ...." Scotto/Roca, 1984, p.161

22- Scotto had sung with Pavarotti in a production of I Lombardi in Rome (November 20, 1969), in which the tenor often came late to rehearsals and made no attempt to conceal his ignorance of the score

23- Scotto/Roca, 1984, p. 161

24-Most glaringly is the lack of physical interaction, between the two singers, leading to "Che gelida manina." in Act I and Pavarotti s lack of interest or eye contact with the soprano in other key moments in the opera.

25- Metropolitan Opera Archives

26-Scotto at the Metropolitan Opera

27-Scotto/Roca, 1984, p. 85

28- Throughout the aria, Scotto does not stop wringing the handkerchief in her hands

29-"My mother worked all day sewing and would hope to keep her hands warm enough in winter to be able to go on using them. One day I would sing of a seamstress like my mother, and I would understand Mimi s sweet desperation and her happiness by remembering Santina the seamstress as she worked and sang." Scotto/Roca, 1984, p. 5

30- Rodolfo was also Pavarotti s debut role at the Metropolitan Opera on November 23, 1968.

31- Pavarotti s acting abilities never went beyond the stereotypical out stretched arms, furrowed brows, open mouth, and wide eyes to denote resignation,anguish, surprise and pleasure

32-Pavarotti at the Metropolitan Opera

33- London Standard May, 1894

34-The knowledge that, in 1896, Verdi "offered the entire material on King Lear to Pietro Mascagni," must have stung Puccini s ego. Wechsberg, 1974, p. 204

35-Its Metropolitan Opera premiere on December 26, 1900 was equally disappointing: none other than Henry Krehbiel of the Tribune wrote that La Bohèmeis foul in subject, and fulminant and futile in its music.... It is "silly and inconsequential; a "twin sister" of Verdi s Traviata, but not as good.

36-Niska at the Metropolitan Opera

37-Wixell at the Metropolitan Opera

38-Plishka at the Metropolitan Opera

39-Monk at the Metropolitan Opera

40-Tajo at the Metropolitan Opera

41-Velis at the Metropolitan Opera

image= image_description=Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème product=yes product_title=Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème product_by=Mimì: Renata Scotto
Rodolfo: Luciano Pavarotti
Marcello: Ingvar Wixell
Musetta: Maralin Niska
Colline: Paul Plishka
Schaunard: Alan Monk
Benoit: Italo Tajo
Alcindoro: Andrea Velis
Parpignol: Dale Caldwell
Sergente: Paul De Paola
Un doganiere: Domenico Simeone
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, James Levine (cond.) product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 073 4025 [DVD] price=$24.98 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 3:26 PM


The Requiem had been planned in honor of the late Edgar Baitzel, LAO’s chief operating officer who lost his battle with cancer earlier this year. With the recent death of Luciano Pavarotti the Requiem took on double duty, but Baitzel had one tribute to himself: during the Fidelio performances, conductor James Conlon honored a request of Baitzel’s to insert the third Leonore overture between the two scenes of act two, as Gustav Mahler had done.

At the second Fidelio performance on 9/15, Conlon and LAO orchestra’s powerful rendition of Leonore III prompted many audience members to a rare mid-performance ovation, and at final curtain, Conlon received the most rapturous applause, and understandably so.

But that is not at all to suggest that the rest of the performance was not creditable, for all in all, director and designer Pier’Alli’s production is dramatic, incisive, and brilliantly designed. Act one’s set features a set of creepy torture devices, with restraints and spikes. Towering walls of dark gray concrete, with metallic grills suggesting the prisoner’s cells, tower over the act one action, which starts in domestic humdrum and grows increasingly darker.

With act two, Pier’Alli uses filmed sequences which take the creepy imagery of act one into an atmosphere not unlike a torture-porn film, as the audience is pulled down through a fearsome labyrinth where Florestan lies chained. He is not seen until after his initial cry of “Gott,” whereupon the scrim on which the film has been projected clears. Deep in the background of the set Pier’Alli and projection designer Sergio Metalli of Ideogramma have found a way to duplicate images, giving a spooky sense of depth. After Leonore has rescued her husband, the stage darkens for the overture, and reopens to brightness, as the final joyful chorus rings out before a kaleidoscope-effect of heraldry images.

What Pier’Alli has created neither overwhelms the truthful plainness of the libretto’s narrative nor tries to distract from it. Fidelio may never be a model for dramatic cohesion, but when the musical values are high, it is a masterpiece that benefits from a production both as respectful and eye-catching as this one.

Vocally, the star of the evening is Anja Kampe as Fidelio/Leonore. As with many a soprano, she does not make the most convincing male, but that becomes an irrelevance as soon as she sings. Full-voiced, secure throughout her range (some weak low notes withstanding), she projected both the character’s bravery and trepidation as she seeks a way to save her spouse. The big aria came across as a coherent narrative, not just a display of vocal force, although she had all the power required.

Klaus Florian Vogt has a Tamino-tinged voice with a surprising amount of force that makes him a creditable Florestan. He seemed to tire near the end of his long aria, disappointingly right at the brighter music that would seem to suit his voice best. He recovered nicely for the rest of the act. A taller man with a modest but appealing stage presence, he will surely be a very valuable performer for years to come.

Matti Salminen has proved his value over the length of his career. At this point, he has most of his power though somewhat less of the tonal allure of his prime, but he is a stage performer who can, with minimal effort, embody a character. His Rocco suited the state of hie voice - somewhat weary, but still at heart a good, caring soul. Eike Wilm Schulte (about half the height of Salminen’s Rocco) also found a match between his rather brash, unsubtle voice and the character of Don Pizarro. Ultimately, a bit more subtlety both in acting and vocalizing would be to his (and the audience’s) advantage. As the “ingenues” Jacquino and Marzellini, neither Greg Fedderly nor Rebekah Camm appeared all that young, but they both sang with respectable professionalism.

As mentioned at the top, in his second year as music director for LAO, James Conlon has already captured the affection and respect of the Chandler audience. They roared their approval for his leadership of the orchestra. Conlon favors the restless energy of Beethoven’s score, but he doesn’t slight the occasional lyricism of act one. In the slower sections of the Leonore III, the sound seemed to die almost as if ensemble had been lost, and then come roaring back. It’s a tight, pointed sound, well-suited to accompanying the singers. Some may want a more ostentatiously dramatic approach, but the LAO patrons were obviously very pleased with their music director.

Pier’Alli’s production is shared with the Palua de les Arts Reine Sofia in Valencia, Spain. Unless one is planning an extended holiday there, be advised that this LAO Fidelio is strong enough to merit an LA trip for opera lovers far and wide.

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=Anja Kampe as Fidelio (LAO, photo by Robert Millard) product=yes product_title=Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio
Los Angeles Opera, 15 September 2007 product_by=Above Anja Kampe as Fidelio
Photo by Robert Millard courtesy of Los Angeles Opera
Posted by Gary at 1:42 PM

September 16, 2007

WAGNER: Die Walküre

This recording of Die Walküre meets those challenges in a recording that is sonically responsive to Wagner's score. Celebrating the accomplishments of the State Opera of South Australia, this performance is led by Ascher Fisch, whose leadership and vision is apparent throughout the work. His tempos and pacing are convincing and allow the vocal line to emerge clearly throughout the work.

The first act is notable on various counts, with the telling opening having a fine sense of urgency that propels the drama forward. With the entrance of Siegmund, the tenor Stuart Skelton (who may be familiar from his performance on the recent CD of Albeniz's opera Merlin) offers a fine interpretation that stands out for the elegant phrasing and diction that brings together the text and the music. Skelton's scenes are compelling, and this recording shows his voice well. The well-known passages in the first act show a Siegmund who is attentive to the conventions of the role and also makes it personally expressive. Skelton's sustaining of certain syllables reinforces the text, while not distorting the rhythm, and it demonstrates his individual stamp on the role. Richard Green is necessarily assertive as Hunding, who creates his role admirably, and his scene with Siegmund at the end of the second act is quite solid.

Deborah Riedel is also fine in interpreting the role of Sieglinde in her spirited performance. The "Winterstürme" scene is well played, with the requisite emotion matched by their musical involvement that culminates with Sieglinde's "Siegmund, so nenn ich dich!" While there is nothing visual to suggest their demeanor on stage, the performance itself suggests that Skelton and Riedel work well together, a crucial element for this demanding act.

The second act involves the soprano Lisa Gasteen (a winner of the Cardiff Singer of the World competition) as Brünnhilde and John Bröcheler as Wotan, and their efforts are shaped by Ascher Fisch. The vocal line is always present and Fisch is careful to allow the orchestra to accompany and never dominate. Because of the attention given to this aspect of the work, the diction could be clearer and more pointed. Yet the interchanges between those two individuals, later joined by Elizabeth Campbell in the role of Fricka, is engaging and contributes to this recording.

The third act exhibits the dramatic tension that must occur in the opera. This is evident in the opening "Ride of the Valkyries," always a popular scene not matter how it may be staged, and yet the urgency among the singers in this production is evident. The resolve that Gasteen delivers as Brünnhilde is effective, and it intensifies when she is paired with Bröcheler. Moving between the more extroverted gestures of the opening scene to the intimacy of the ones that follow it, the fine sound quality of this hybrid SACD helps in delivering the nuances of the performances. As a live performance, though, the recording has minimal audience noise or other background sounds, with the sound quality chosen being full without sounding artificially enhanced. The stage sounds that occur from time to time serve to remind the listener that this CD is derived from live performances (between 16 November and 12 December 2004), rather than the result of studio performances, and that may account for the exciting that colors much of the recording.

This performance represents some fine Australian music-making, and the celebratory nature of the release is evident in various ways. For one, the packaging differs from conventional opera recordings in having the liner notes, libretto, and CDs bound together with a sewn signature that keeps the materials together neatly and unobtrusively. All in all, it resembles a small book, and in concept it prevents the various components from from becoming lost as they are used. Thus, the libretto is never far from the CDs, and the liner notes conveniently include detailed track listings that refer back to the pages of the text that follow.

This is an exciting peformance of Die Walküre with a young cast, whose enthusiasm is one of its assets. The direction that Ascher Fisch offers is notable, and those who may not have yet experienced his work in the opera house can gain a sense of it from this recording. This is a remarkable effort from the State Opera of South Australia, and the company deserves credit for mounting what must have been an exemplary production and bringing it to the wider public in such a laudable manner.

James L. Zychowicz

image_description=Richard Wagner: Die Walküre.

product_title=Richard Wagner: Die Walküre.
product_by=Stuart Skelton (Siegmund), Deborah Riedel (Sieglinde), Richard Green (Hunding), John Bröcheler (Wotan), Lisa Gasteen AO (Brünnhilde), Elizabeth Campbell (Fricka), Elizabeth Stannard (Gerhilde), Lisa Harper-Brown (Ortlinde), Liane Keegan (Waltraute), Zan McKendree-Wright (Schwertleite), Kate Ladner (Helmwige), Gaye MacFarlane (Siegrune), Jennifer Barnes (Grimgerde), Donna-Maree Dunlop (Rossweise), State Opera of South Australia, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, Asher Fisch (cond.).
product_id=Melba Recordings [4SACDs]

Posted by jim_z at 6:25 PM

Hector Berlioz: Te Deum, op. 22

Known for his famous cycle of Berlioz's works on for Philips, Sir Colin Davis led a focused performances of the Te Deum on 3 and 4 October 1998 in Kreuzkirche, Dresden, and this recording is derived from those concerts, which involved several choruses, including the Dresden State Opera Chorus, Dresden Symphonie Chorus, Dresden Singakademie, the Dreden Philharmonic Children's Chorus, and the Dresden State Opera Children's Chorus, as well as tenor soloist Neill Stuart, and organist Hans-Dieter Schöne.

In setting the Te Deum, Berlioz used a multi-movement structure to emphasize the various nuances of the text that simultaneously suggest a symphonic approach to the work. The opening "Te Deum" is a majestic movement that anticipates the grandeur familiar to modern audiences in the first movement of Mahler's Eighth Symphony. In the "Te Deum" movement Berlioz arrives at the sonic splendor fitting to a text that addresses the Deity directly. Organ, chorus. and orchestra work together to create a massed sound in which the textures serve to underscore the orchestration and voicing of the individual forces involved. After such a beginning, the "Tibi omnes" section in the second movement is contrastingly meditative in character, like the slow movement of a symphony. Its controlled expressed demonstrates' Berlioz's ability to achieve an effective mood with much smaller forces and to sustain the mood in underscoring the text.

While the organ is heard at various places throughout the Te Deum, it is prominent in the third section, the "Dignare," and this recording captures its sound well. The blend between the chorus and organ is nicely balanced, with the instrument supporting the voices without overshadowing them. Similarly, the tenor, Neill Stuart, has an extended solo part in the penultimate movement, "Te ergo quaesumus," and the interplay between the solo voice and orchestra or, variously, with chorus, emerges clearly to show Stuart's fine tone. Such clarity is never compromised in the tutti movements, the first, fourth, and final ones, in which the entire forces join in the sometimes complex textures Berlioz used for those texts. The sound is evenly reliable, as one would expect from a recording made in a studio. This is all the more admirable for recordings made live and also challenged by the special circumstances of performing in a church.

Moreover, Colin Davis brought his deft approach to Berlioz's music to these performances, and the recording shows the focus that he can give this work. His tempos are clear and always allow the text to be heard clearly, including those massive places where all the choruses must come together in this paean to the Deity. The balance between the orchestra, which alternately supports and comments on the vocal music, is laudable. This is a fine recording of a work by Berlioz that requires such a thoughtful approach to bring all its components together convincingly.

This recording also includes a performance, presumably from the same concerts, of Mozart's Kyrie, K. 341, which receives an equally fine reading here. Taken together, the two works are a fine contribution to the ongoing series of live recordings of the Staatskapelle Dresden led by Sir Colin Davis. As such, they preserve some fine performances and also make them available to a wider audience through their availability on CD.

James L. Zychowicz

image_description=Hector Berlioz: Te Deum, op. 22

product_title=Hector Berlioz: Te Deum, op. 22; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Kyrie in D minor K. 341.
Editions Staatskapelle Dresden, vol. 10.
product_by=Staatskapelle Dresden, Sir Colin Davis, conductor.
product_id=Hänssler Profil CD PH06039

Posted by jim_z at 6:07 PM

SCHEIDT: Ludi Musici

The collection features canzonas—instrumental works in the style of popular song, here often based on well-known melodies like “Est-ce Mars?”—and dances, some of which have complexity and programmatic content enough to set them apart from the more work-a-day variety.

The venerable French cornett and trombone ensemble, Les Sacqueboutiers, offer in this recording a well-chosen selection from the collection, and they do so with an eye to variety. The pieces themselves, though in a language that is somewhat generic, are sparked with elaborate variations and compelling metrical shifts. And additionally, some pieces represent more developed versions of themes put forth in other pieces. To this intrinsic variety Les Sacqueboutiers adds the spice of percussion, plucked strings and organ, and frequent reduction of textures—one dance, for instance becomes an elegant solo for trombone—all towards nurturing this aesthetic of variety.

The performances are highly accomplished with stunningly pure intonation, beautifully contoured phrases and shapely individual notes, and in the cornetts a particularly liquid articulation. In the sense of shaping, the recording recalls and compares well with the earlier performances of Jordi Savall and Hesperion XX (EMI Reflex 1C 065 30 943 Q [1978]; CD re-release EMI CDM 7 63067 2 [1989]), a recording that set the standard high for this repertory and a recording on which Jean-Pierre Canihac, one of the founding directors of Les Sacqueboutiers, took part. The pedigree is gratifyingly apparent.

In some of the pieces Scheidt aims at a high degree of dynamism. The Paduan VI, for instance, begins with high elegance—a quality that the ensemble renders with an irresistible sense of swoon—that eventually gives was to spirited figuration. The players handle the figuration here and in other intricate examples with flair and seeming ease, but more impressive is the sensitivity to the dynamism itself, the notion that things grow and blossom forth.

Some will wish for a more diverse ensemble, missing the juxtaposition of strings and winds that is so much a part of the Savall recording and also the recent recording by Roland Wilson and Musica fiata (cpo 777 013-2). And occasionally here the percussion may seem a tad too exotic in its patterns. But, in the end, Les Sacqueboutiers offers an engaging reading of a repertory that is foundational to their core instrumentation. The early baroque wind band repertory is graced with these pieces, and we are similarly graced by the excellent performance here.

Steven Plank

image_description=Samuel Scheidt. "Ludi Musici."

product_title=Samuel Scheidt. "Ludi Musici."
product_by=Les Sacqueboutiers; Jean-Pierre Canihac and Daniel Lassalle, Directors.
product_id=Naïve AM9996 [CD]

Posted by steve_p at 6:00 PM

Le Chant des Templiers

In this recent recording devoted to twelfth-century chant of the Knights Templar and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem that distinctiveness is once again wonderfully evident.

The program is devoted largely to monophonic antiphons and responsories, thrillingly spiced with frequent use of paraphony, the simultaneous replication of the melody at consonant intervals, here over a wide compass, grounded in impressive bass profundity. (One example, a Kyrie, takes on a more sophisticated approach to multi-voice singing, using more independent individual lines in the style of the Codex Calixtinus.)

The performances are rhythmicized and highly articulative. Ornamentation is frequent, sometimes subtly inflective, sometimes exuberant and effusive. And the singing is strong, rendered with direct and powerful tone. This is far removed from the ethereal aesthetic we have been conditioned to expect in chant through generations of recordings under the influence of the Benedictines at Solesmes. Like the more familiar ethereal renditions, those of Ensemble Organum will retain a sense of “otherness,” but they sing with both feet on the ground, looking toward heaven, perhaps, but not lost in the waft of celestial clouds. Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century enjoined choir singers to sing “not as lazy, sleepy or bored creatures . . . nor with voices broken or weak, . . . but bringing forth with virile resonance and affection voices worthy of the Holy Spirit.” It is this virile resonance that so captures the distinctiveness of these performances, performances that stir and animate the ear and beguilingly beckon one into the sound world of the Knights Templar.

Steven Plank

image_description=Le Chant des Templiers

product_title=Le Chant des Templiers
product_by=Ensemble Organum Marcel Pérès, Director
product_id=Naïve AMB 9997 [CD]

Posted by steve_p at 5:44 PM

DONIZETTI: La Figlia del Reggimento

Music composed by Gaetano Donizetti. Libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Jean-François-Alfred Bayard, later revised to an Italian translation by Calisto Bassi.

First Performance: 11 February1840, Opéra-Comique (Salle de la Bourse), Paris

(revised version, 3 October 1840, Teatro alla Scala, Milan).

Principal Characters:
Marie (Maria) a vivandière Soprano
Tonio a young Tyrolean Tenor
La Marquise (La Marchesa) de Berkenfeld [The Marchioness] Mezzo-Soprano
Sulpice Pingot (Sulpizio) a sergeant of the 21st regiment Bass
Hortensius (Ortensio) major-domo of the Marchioness Bass
A Corporal Bass
A Notary Spoken
La Duchesse (La Duchessa) de Crackentorp [The Duchess] Spoken
A Valet Spoken

Setting: The Tyrolean countryside and the chateau of the Marchioness, not long after the battle of Marengo, 1800


Act I

Setting: Outside a Tyrolean village

A group of villagers, expecting to be overrun by the victorious Napoleonic army, is joined by the Marchioness of Berkenfield, whose journey has been interrupted by the fighting. There is relief when they learn that the French have withdrawn, but alarm when Sergeant Sulpice appears, much to his amusement, as his intentions are peaceful. He is joined by Marie, the orphan girl who had been brought up by the regiment since she was a baby and who has just been made the regiment’s vivandiere.

As Sulpice is interrogating her about a strange young man she has been seen with, the soldiers drag him in; he is Tonio, a Tyrolean peasant, who has been found hanging round the camp. Marie saves him from instant execution as a spy by telling the soldiers how he had saved her from falling over a precipice. They immediately hail him as a brother, but as they are summoned by rollcall, Sulpice makes sure Tonio is not left alone with Marie, although she claims him as her prisoner and promises to keep an eye on him.

Tonio manages to give the Sulpice the slip and rejoins Marie, who explains that the regiment are her collective fathers. They confess their love and wander off.

The nervous marchioness explains to Suplice that she wishes to resume her interrupted journey to her castle of Berkenfield. The name reminds him of a former officer, Captain Robert, a name which, in turn, has strong associations for her. She explains that her sister had been married to the captain and their daughter lost. Suplice tells her that the child had been found on the battlefield and is alive and well and her upbringing has fitted her for her role as an heiress - a claim shattered by Marie’s rough-and-ready military vocabulary when she learns that the lady is her aunt. The marchioness wishes to take Marie away with her.

Tonio has decided to join the regiment to be near his beloved. The soldiers, although ready to accept him as a recruit, are dubious about his wish to marry Marie, until he assures them that she loves him. They give their consent, only to learn that Marie must leave them. All express their sorrow.

Act II

Setting: A salon in the castle of Berkenfield

The marchioness has arranged a marriage for Marie with the Duke of Krakentorp and has summoned Sulpice to help her secure Marie’s consent. The marchioness, who believes that Marie has lost her unladylike ways, gives her a singing lesson, but the presence of Sulpice causes her to abandon the sentimental ditty in favour of a rousing regimental song, which he joins in.

The marchioness takes Sulpice aside, and Marie is suddenly surrounded by the regiment, including Tonio, who has been promoted to officer for his courage. Marie sends the soldiers off with the steward to try the cellars, while she and Tonio try to persuade Sulpice to plead their cause with the marchioness. She, however, is unmoved, sending the lovers off in different directions. She admits to Sulpice that Marie is not her niece, but her illegitimate daughter. She has set up the grand marriage to provide Marie with the position and security she cannot legally give her. Sulpice is convinced that the marriage would be in Marie’s best interest. When the dowager Duchess of Krakentrop, mother of the bridegroom, arrives with other guests, she is affronted to find the bride absent. Marie, who now knows the secret of her birth, embraces her mother and prepares to sign the contract, but the soldiers, anxious for their daughter’s happiness, tell the guests that she has been their vivandiere. They are at first scandalised, then charmed by Marie’s sincerity. The marchioness, touched by Marie’s readiness to sacrifice herself, agrees to let her marry Tonio.

[Synopsis Source: Opera~Opera]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image= image_description=Luciano Pavarotti as Tonio audio=yes first_audio_name=Gaetano Donizetti: La Figlia del Reggimento
WinAMP, VLC or iTunes first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=La Figlia del Reggimento product_by=Maria: Mirella Freni
Tonio: Luciano Pavarotti
Sulpizio: Vladimiro Ganzarolli
Marchesa di Birkenfeld: Anna Di Stasio
La Duchesa di Krakentorp: Maria Grazia Allegri
Ortensio: Walter Monachesi
Un Notaio: Angelo Mercuriali
Un Caporale: Giuseppe Morresi
Un Paesano: Walter Gullino
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Nino Sanzogno (cond.)
Live performance, 11 February 1969, Milano.
Posted by Gary at 5:16 PM

September 12, 2007

La Bohème x3

Since its somewhat underwhelming reception at the premiere, Puccini's La Bohème has become an opera that audiences love with an undying appetite, so the appearance of three DVDs in a matter of a few months comes as no surprise.

In March 2006 the Teatro Real, Madrid staged an expensive, "cinematic"-influenced La Bohème from Giancarlo del Monaco. Philippe Sireuil's contemporary staging for Zurich was caught on camera in July 2005. Finally, a 1989 Canadian Opera Company performance, completely traditional, has found its way to DVD. Unfortunately, none of the three makes a strong case for itself as a DVD La Bohème to cherish. Not to worry - another DVD, or more, surely wait around the corner.

In Madrid director del Monaco, with set and costume designer Michael Scott, has tried to achieve almost contradictory ends - to have both a realistic depiction of the lower economic stratum of the bohemians, and an intricately detailed, eye-dazzling display of stage-craft. Rodolfo and Marcello's garret is suitably dark and depressing, but it could accommodate the crowd scene outside cafe Momus, with its wide-open space and even a loft as big as the garret is some other productions. The scene change from act one and act two is handled magically, with a street set almost seeming to materialize before our eyes (the camera selection and editing here are part of the trickery). Del Monaco likes the effect so much that he repeats it at the end, having Rodolfo leave Mimi's death bed to totter off and suddenly appear on the abandoned streets of the city. All this, of course, calls more attention to the stagecraft than to the story and the characters. This is not just a matter of sets or props. During Rodolfo's act one aria, del Monaco has Rodolfo take Mimi's hand and peck at the keys of his typewriter, which makes for a noisy and irritating percussion effect during a tender moment. The romance gets lost in the details.

Jesus Lopez-Cobos leads the fine orchestra in a reading that slows into ponderousness too often. Of a talented and hard-working cast, only Inva Mula as Mimi is able to deliver a performance that cuts through the fussiness. The role suits her voice well, and with her at its center act three becomes the best part of the performance. Mula's Mimi is both tender yet knowing, fragile yet brave. Aquiles Machado as Rodolfo just does not have the same depth, with his physique denying him any romantic appeal. A cute, teddy-bearish Rodolfo can work, but Machado's singing, while quite able, lacks the lyric charm to make him truly successful. As the parallel couple, neither Fabio Maria Capitanucci (Marcello) nor Laura Giordano (Musetta) have much special to offer. David Menèndez and Felipe Bou as, respectively, Schaunard and Colline practically get lost in the wallpaper. But then Bou has the worst moment of the production, having to sing his entrance lines as he runs behind a curtain, drops his trousers, and relieves himself, to the nose-wrinkling displeasure of his friends.

Boheme_EMI_DVD.pngDon't care for that idea? Well, then, prepare oneself for the amazing coincidence that a similar scene occurs in the Zurich DVD, only there it occurs in act four as the Schaunard, with his pants around his ankles, grabs a bucket and some newspaper. With that unfortunate coincidence aside, the Zurich DVD outclasses the Madrid one, even if ultimately it can't be called a complete success.

Vincent Lemaire's clean, spare set, modified simply for each act, suggests a modern-day setting but the time is unclear. Mimi still has her candle, of course, as the libretto makes that indispensable. The lighting (by Hans-Rudolf Kunz) has the faint blue-silver glow of fluorescence. Jorge Jara's costumes manage to look like the sort of stylish "vintage" clothing bohemians (or hipsters?) of today would sport. The change from the garret to Cafe Momus is done simply by dropping the rear wall of the set and having a few well-chosen props carted on my supers. As Puccini's music sets the mood quite well, that's fine. Act three, however, uses the same basic set, and more atmosphere is needed. The booklet essay refers to the act three set as a sort of mass transport waiting area - that escaped your reviewer's notice, especially as the stove-pot of the garret is present all the way through. The final stage effect, of the back wall dropping away at Mimi's death to reveal a field of sunflowers, distracts more than it illuminates.

Not exactly a conductor of warmth, Franz-Welser Möst is efficient in the sentimental sections and bracingly energetic when called for, and the Zurich Opera orchestra plays brilliantly for him. Marcello Giordani is a little mature for Rodolfo, and his voice now tends to spinto forcefulness, but he manages to make that work for him as evidence of Rodolfo's passion. Still, better to have avoided the high option as he and Mimi exit at the end of act one. Cristina Gallardo-Domâs acts a beautiful Mimi - warm, womanly, and sad. Vocally, she sounds surprisingly worn at times, and one can't always ascribe that to the characterization of an ill young woman. Michael Volle's Marcello has a darker edge, really angry at his Musetta at times, and not paying much attention to Mimi at the start of act three. Interesting, but not so appealing. Elena Moŝuc's hearty, busty Musetta deserves better. Cheyne Davidson's Schaunard and László Polgár's Colline come across as more odd than goofy. Somehow, despite these reservations, the singers all come together to create a more touching group of Bohemians than the Madrid cast can.

Boheme_Amado.pngThe 1989 Canadian Opera cast, with only one well-known name, work within a cramped set (for every scene, not just the garret) and in fussy traditional costumes. Every moment, as directed by Brian Dickie, seems to come from a frayed playbook titled "This Is How to Play 'Bohème.'" Within this conventional framework, everyone does well enough to please the undiscriminating. Unsurprisingly, it is a fresh Hei-Kyung Hong as Mimi who gives this DVD its only real distinction. She is in marvelous voice, and easily as affecting as either Mula or Gallardo-Domâs. Her Rodolfo, Neil Wilson, looks more like the character than either Giordani or Machado, but his voice is undistinguished, and he looks tense whenever the vocal line rises. Gaetan Laperriere and Katherine Terrell play the other couple, with Kenneth Cox and John Avey as Schaunard and Colline, the perennial hangers-on.

The review copy had a slight but very irritating lag between audio and video, so mouth movements almost never corresponded to the actual singing. That flaw could be overlooked if the performance were more special, but as it isn't...

If one were desperate for a new Bohème certainly on DVD, the recommendation here would be for the Zurich, with its more original setting and a consistently capable cast. Those who like opulent sets could go for the Madrid, and Inva Mula deserves respect for her efforts. The Canadian DVD would suit those best who love Ms. Hong. Or one could just wait for the Bohème on DVD - one should be appearing any minute now.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème

product_title=Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème
product_by=Inva Mula, Aquiles Machado, Laura Giordano, Fabio Maria Capitanucci, David Menéndez, Felipe Bou, Gonzalo Fernández De Terán, Juan Tomás Martínez, Alfredo Mariotti,
Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro Real (Madrid Symphony Orchestra and Chorus), Jesús Lopez Cobos, conductor, Giancarlo del Monaco, stage director.
product_id=Opus Arte OA0961D [2DVDs]

Posted by Gary at 3:52 PM

A slave tale fails to break free

luck_tracie.pngBy Martin Bernheimer [Financial Times, 12 September 2007]

The summer doldrums in New York have drawn to a merciful close, and so we begin again. The first stirrings of significant musical activity emanate, as usual, from the New York City Opera, which prides itself on playing David to the Goliath of the Met, still dormant next door.

Posted by Gary at 3:09 PM

Iphigénie en Tauride, Royal Opera House, London

Iphigénie by Michel-Ange Slodtz (1705-1764) [Musée du Louvre]By Andrew Clark ]Financial Times, 11 September 2007]

One problem faces all Gluck interpreters: how do you extract the meat from the marble? It explains why we encounter his masterpieces so rarely, and why Monday’s performance of Iphigénie en Tauride – the first at Covent Garden for 35 years – was so uninvolving.

Posted by Gary at 2:21 PM

September 11, 2007

VIVALDI: Dixit Dominus

This recording is the first to feature the newly re-claimed Dixit Dominus from this group of rescued works. “Rescued” may seem a strong word here; Galuppi in his day was without question a preeminent figure in the musical life of Venice, but in our own day he is a figure who must stand in the shadow of Vivaldi, whose canonical stature ensures that “new” works from his pen will enjoy a heightened degree of celebrity.

“Dixit Dominus,” one of the psalms at Vespers, here receives a large-scale setting not unlike the familiar “Gloria” of Vivaldi: short movements follow in succession in a variety of styles that include choral declamations superimposed on bustling, sequence-laden orchestral figuration, contrapuntal movements (rarely developed or complex, except in the final movement), duets featuring imitation and reliance on parallel thirds, and solo writing with melismatic floridity. The variety is an appealing one, though inevitably the whole will also feel somewhat fragmented and undeveloped. Filling out the recording here are three psalms by Galuppi, also from the Dresden library. Though from a later generation—the music is a bit less rollicking and has more “Classical” balance—the Venetian kinship is readily apparent and comprises a nicely cohesive program. Additionally, as all the works come from Dresden sources, the program also reminds of the long reach of the Italian style in the eighteenth century.

The performances are gratifying in many ways: Kopp’s direction offers a secure hand, commanding engagingly quick tempi from choir and soloist alike, taking obvious delight in the famous rhythmic life of the style. The choral agility at the end of the “Dixit” is particularly impressive, but no less so the solo command of often acrobatic challenges. Roberta Invernizzi emerges as the most distinguished of the soloists, and her “Gloria Patri” aria from Galuppi’s “Nisi Dominus” is the high point of the recording. Here her ornamental flair and technical control create a moment of welcome graciousness, all the more rich for its coupling with elegant solo violin playing from the ensemble.

Does the “Dixit Dominus” sound better as a work by Vivaldi than Galuppi? Doubtlessly the way we frame our works of art can powerfully influence the way we perceive them, and our eagerness to have a “new” work by a master composer will shape the way we hear “Dixit Dominus.” Heard as a rediscovered work, there is clearly much to celebrate, and this is a performance that ably sets the celebration on its way. Without the Vivaldi tag, there would still be much to savor, though I suspect we would do so with less ado.

Steven Plank

image_description=Antonio Vivaldi: Dixit Dominus

product_title=Antonio Vivaldi: Dixit Dominus
product_by=Körnerscher Sing-Verein Dresden, Dresdner Instrumental-Concert, Peter Kopp
product_id=DG 477 6145 [CD]

Posted by steve_p at 3:00 PM

September 10, 2007

MONTEVERDI: Madrigals (Book 5)

Monteverdi’s Fifth Book of Madrigals (1605) famously contains the music that sparked the polemic between Giovanni Maria Artusi and Monteverdi, a polemic that gave rise to Monteverdi’s famous articulation of baroque style as a “second practice,” rooted in the service of the text. That which Artusi’s conservatism could not license was, in light of the new aesthetic, amply warranted by the way it impassioned the words. Accordingly, in these madrigals one encounters both gestures of polyphonic declamation and harmonic freedom, rendering the words audible and affectively rich.

Longhini has chosen to perform these works with male singers only, noting that sacred contrafacta for a number of the madrigals exist—the sacrality making women singers problematic—and that Padre Martini in the eighteenth century preserved a low transposition for the madrigal, “Cruda Amarilli.” Certainly a transposed versions sung by male ensemble is a viable option, though given the prominence of female singers associated with the madrigal repertory in northern Italian courts, it is easy to see that it is only that. In this particular case, the low tessitura of many passages proves well suited to the affective dolor of the text, as the pain of unrequited love takes on added darkness and gravity with the low range of the voices. And the low passages offer a welcome chance to appreciate the profundity of bass Walter Testolin. However, the use of a male falsettist on the top part, even in transposed versions, requires high register ease. Counter-tenor Alessandro Carmignani seems at times constrained, with a shallow tone quality the result, though singing with a practical lightness and a stylistic sensitivity.

One of the more singular madrigals in the collection is “Ah, come a un vago sol,” a work with alternating full and reduced textures, the latter featuring ornamental figuration. These more virtuosic passages are rendered with flair, and the madrigal as a whole is passionately sung. In other madrigals there is occasionally the sense that control and subtlety keep other impassioned opportunities at bay, but the control remains impressive nonetheless.

Particularly impressive, as well, is the sound of the instrumental ensemble. Be it the rich sounds of “pluckery” in basso continuo, the beguiling sonority of the lirone, the improvised interludes connecting madrigals, or the finely contoured sinfonia of the the final “Questi vaghi concenti,” the instrumental contribution to the sublime sounds of the recording is a major one. Delightfully so.

Steven Plank

image_description=Claudio Monteverdi. Madrigals Book 5

product_title=Claudio Monteverdi. Madrigals Book 5
product_by=Delitiæ Musicæ; Marco Longhini, Director.
product_id=Naxos 8.555311 [CD]

Posted by steve_p at 5:31 PM

A Taste of City Opera's Season

New_York_State_Theater_inte.pngBY GEORGE LOOMIS [NY Sun, 10 September 2007]

High priced galas and opera opening nights go hand in glove, but for the last three years, the New York City Opera has turned its back on conventional economic wisdom by inaugurating its fall season with Opera-for-All, a mini-festival for which ticket prices are not jacked up but rather slashed to $25 a ticket. The company maintains that by cutting the price of tickets, it attracts new audiences to opera. Maybe so, but the regular operagoer also gets to enjoy an all-too-rare bargain.

Posted by Gary at 5:12 PM

DONIZETTI: L’elisir d’amore

Music composed by Gaetano Donizetti. Libretto by Felice Romani derived from Le philtre (1831) by Daniel-François-Esprit Auber.

First Performance: 12 May 1832, Teatro della Canobbiana, Milan.

Principal Characters:
Nemorino a simple peasant Tenor
Adina, a wealthy landowner Soprano
Belcore, a sergeant Baritone
Dr. Dulcamara, an itinerant physician Bass
Giannetta, a peasant girl Soprano

Setting: A village.


Act I

Scene 1

Nemorino, whose name accurately describes him as a“little nobody,” is smitten with the wealthy Adina, but can’t inspire love in her heart. Nemorino sees Adina reading a book in the village square and wonders how a fool like him could possibly win her love. Everyone begs Adina to tell the story, so she reads the tale of Tristan, who bought a love potion from a magician in order to win the heard-hearted Isolde. If only they knew how to get the recipe!

A drum roll signals the arrival of a platoon of soldiers headed by handsome Sergeant Belcore. Arrogantly likening himself to Paris wooing a goddess, Belcore immediately proposes to Adina, much to Nemorino’s dismay. But when Adina says she needs time to think it over, Nemorino seizes the moment and declares his undying love for her once again. Irritated, Adina declares that she is capricious and fickle—he should look for love elsewhere.

Scene 2

Dr. Dulcamara, a fast-talking quack, arrives and sings the praises of his amazing elixir, guaranteed to cure all diseases—and even chase away mice and bugs! Nemorino, who falls for the con like everybody else, asks if Dulcamara carries Isolde’s love potion. Dulcamara gives Nemorino a bottle of Bordeaux, warning him that it will only take effect after twenty-four hours (giving Dulcamara time to get away) and that he must keep it a secret. Nemorino drinks enough to get tipsy, so when Adina comes by he is so full of confidence that he pretends to ignore her. Aggravated to find her swain so oblivious, she promises to marry Belcore in six days. Nemorino isn’t worried because the elixir will be in effect the next day. But Belcore receives orders to leave the village in the morning, so Adina agrees to marry him immediately. Now that Nemorino is really desperate, Adina enjoys his torment. She invites everyone to the marriage feast, and they all mock the dunce who thought he could defeat the dashing Belcore.

Act II

Scene 1

While they’re waiting for the notary to arrive at the wedding, Dr. Dulcamara entertains everyone with a comic song. Adina, however, hesitates to continue because Nemorino isn’t there—she wants to complete her revenge. After the company goes off for the wedding toast, Nemorino sneaks in and begs Dulcamara for help. Always obliging, he prescribes another dose, but Nemorino is broke. Belcore finds Nemorino alone and talks him into signing up—what a victory to enlist your own rival! Nemorino accepts, hoping the elixir will work before he leaves with the soldiers.

Scene 2

Rumor has it that Nemorino’s uncle has died, leaving him heir to a fortune. All the girls flirt with Nemorino, who doesn’t know about the inheritance and thinks the potion is finally working. Adina is astonished at his popularity and realizes that she is jealous. When Dulcamara brags that it was his elixir that worked the miracle, Adina also learns that Nemorino has sold his freedom for her. She realizes that she is in love with him, and Nemorino is delighted to see her shed a tear on his behalf. Adina takes action, buying back the enlistment papers from Belcore and admitting to Nemorino that she loves him. When Dulcamara tells everyone about Nemorino’s inheritance, Dulcamara claims the credit—his elixir is so powerful, it can make rich men out of poor ones! As he leaves town in triumph, everyone wishes him well—except Belcore.

[Synopsis Source: Pittsburgh Opera]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image= image_description=Luciano Pavarotti as Nemorino audio=yes first_audio_name=Gaetano Donizetti: L’elisir d’amore
WinAMP, VLC or iTunes first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: L’elisir d’amore product_by=Nemorino: Luciano Pavarotti
Adina: Mirella Freni
Belcore: Leo Nucci
Dulcamara: Paolo Montarsolo
Giannetta: Eugenia Ratti
Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Reynold Giovaninetti (cond.)
Live performance, 13 February 1979, La Scala, Milan
Posted by Gary at 4:47 PM

BACH: St. Matthew Passion (Excerpts)

Among Bach ensembles, few can rival the Bach Collegium Japan for clarity and control, a control that is unflaggingly maintained, though best heard here in stunningly beautiful soft passages. Two chorales, the emblematic “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” and “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden,” emerge here not as familiar pauses between events, but as moments of depth, deepened through the breathtaking control of the rendition. Sometimes the control has a shadow side: for instance, in the canonic duet with choral interjections, “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen,” the solo lines lament Jesus’s being led away captive while the choir, in their role as the crowd of onlookers, exclaim their objection: “let him go, stop, unbind him!” Here the choir seems rather too controlled and soft; the objections become more like furtive comments among the crowd than forceful attempts to intercede. More’s the pity, as in other instances like the chorus “Sind Blitze, sind Donner,” the ensemble has fury and force in ample proportions.

If the ensemble is distinctive in its control and cultivation of the soft dynamic, the soloists are sensitive in this way, as well. The soprano aria, “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben,” sung by Nancy Argenta, is exquisite in its intimacy, and both Peter Kooij as Jesus and Gerd Türk as the Evangelist also show consummate ease in the full dynamic range of their roles—the dramatic force of certain passages is keenly exciting, but it is, I think, the soft passages that are the most memorable.

The excerpt format of the recording invites one to consider the selections as self-standing moments rather than part of the dramatic flow. And in that light, the alto aria, “Erbarme dich” is easily one of the high points of the recording. Counter-tenor Robin Blaze is at his best here with a soaring high range and compellingly engaging sense of line. And the rich interplay with the ornamental violin playing of Natsumi Wakamatsu makes for especially rapturous counterpoint.

The recording is not problem-free, however. In the imposing chorale fantasia on “O Mensch bewein dein Sünde gross,” the treble cantus firmus adds the sound of children’s choir, a well-considered echo of Bach’s scoring of the opening chorus. However, here it is precisely echo that is the problem. The cantus firmus sounds as though it is being sung somewhere else, and that somewhere else seems to have an exaggerated reverberation at odds with the main acoustic of the performance. The effect is both surprising and jarring.

Another problem surfaces in the excerpt format of the recording itself. Apart from the economic attraction of a one-disc affair, it is difficult to see the gain and easy to perceive the loss. In a number of the excerpts, there is a clear intent to provide a degree of cohesion, and that is welcome. But in other instances arias are severed from their immediate surroundings, which leads to disjuncture, ambiguity of reference and context, and the loss of the characteristic ebb and flow of declamation and lyricism. Instead, the isolated moments emerge as independent “favorites.” If one wants to listen to one’s favorites, the CD format in general makes that an easy thing to do. The record producers do not need to devise excerpt recordings to make this convenient. And in devising recordings of excerpts, they invite the listener to consider the work shorn of its beauty of integration. That’s a sad loss.

Steven Plank

image_description=J. S Bach: St. Matthew Passion (Excerpts)

product_title=J. S Bach: St. Matthew Passion (Excerpts)
product_by=Gerd Türk, tenor; Peter Kooij, bass; Nancy Argenta, soprano; Robin Blaze, counter-tenor; Makoto Sakurada, tenor; Chiyuki Urano, bass; Bach Collegium Japan; Masaaki Suzuki, Director.
product_id=BIS-SACD-1500 [SACD]

Posted by steve_p at 6:18 AM

September 9, 2007

PUCCINI: La Bohème

First Performance: 1 February 1896. Teatro Regio, Turin

Principal Characters:
Rodolfo, a poet Tenor
Schaunard, a musician Baritone
Benoit, a landlord Bass
Mimi, a maker of artificial flowers Soprano
Marcello, a painter Baritone
Colline, a philosopher Bass
Alcindoro, a state councilor Bass
Musetta Soprano
A Custom-House Sergeant Bass
Parpignol, a toy vendor Tenor

Setting: Paris, mid-19th Century


La Bohème aroused quick public response, thanks to its heart-warming melodies and absorbing drama. Many early critics, however, objected strongly to its story, its music, even its romantic freedom. Turinese writers bemoaned what they called a decline in Puccini’s powers; some dubbed the new work a mere potboiler, others dismissed it as an operina or operetta, and here in New York the Tribune critic flailed the new work as “foul in subject and fulminant and futile in its music.” In due course, however, even the critics were won over by the bubbling verve and intense fervor of the music. Today most opera-goers would rank La Bohème among their favorite operas.


Act I

Scene: In the Attic.

The cold, bleak garret dwelling of the inseparable quartet, Rodolfo, poet; Marcello, painter; Colline, philosopher; Schaunard, musician, is certainly large enough to accommodate such a family. The sparse furniture makes it seem doubly spacious. For the fireplace — devoid of fire — the few chairs, the table, the small cupboard, the few books, the artist’s easel, appear like miniatures in this immense attic. Marcello, busily painting at his never-finished canvas — The Passage of the Red Sea — stops to blow on his hands to keep them from freezing. Rodolfo, the poet, gazes through the window over the snow-capped roofs of Paris. Marcello breaks the silence by remarking that he feels as though the Red Sea were flowing down his back, and Rodolfo answers the jest with another. When Marcello seizes a chair to break it up for firewood, Rodolfo halts him, offering to sacrifice the manuscript of one of his plays instead. The doomed play now goes into the flames, act by act, and as it burns, the friends feast their eyes on the blaze, but gain scant warmth from it. The acts burn quickly, and Colline, who now enters stamping with cold, declares that since brevity is the soul of wit, this drama was truly sparkling.

Accompanied by errand boys, the musician Schaunard bursts in cheerfully, bringing wood for the fire, food and wine for the table, and money — plenty of it, from the way he flashes it. To his enraptured companions he relates how a rich English amateur has been paying him liberally for music lessons. The festivities are cut short by the arrival of the landlord Benoit, who begins to demand his long overdue rent, when he is mollified by the sight of money on the table. As he joins the comrades in several rounds of drinks, he grows jovial and talkative. The young men feign shock when the tipsy landlord begins to boast of his affairs with women in disreputable resorts, protesting that they cannot tolerate such talk in their home; and he a married man, too! The gay quartet seize the landlord and push him out of the room.

Rodolfo remains behind to work as his companions go off to the Café Momus to celebrate. He promises to join them in five minutes. He now makes several fruitless attempts to continue an article, and a timid knock at the door finally interrupts his efforts. Rodolfo opens, and a young girl enters shyly. While explaining that she is a neighbor seeking a light for her candle, she is suddenly overcome by a fit of coughing. Rodolfo rushes to her side to support her as she begins to faint and drops her candle and key. He gives her some water and a sip of wine. Rodolfo recovers the candle, lights it, and, after accompanying her to the door, returns to his work. A moment later Mimi re-enters. She has suddenly remembered the key and pauses at the threshold to remind Rodolfo of its loss. Her candle blows out, and Rodolfo offers his, but that, too, soon goes out in the draft. Left in the dark, they grope together along the floor for the lost key. Rodolfo finds it and quietly pockets it. Slowly he makes his way toward his visitor, as if still searching for the key, and sees to it that their hands meet in the dark. Taken unawares, the girl gives a little outcry and rises to her feet. “Thy tiny hand is frozen” (“Che gelida manina”), says Rodolfo tenderly; “let me warm it for you.”

Rodolfo assists the girl to a chair, and as he assures her it is useless to hunt for the key in the dark, he begins to tell her about himself. “What am I?” he chants; “I am a poet!” Not exactly a man of wealth, he continues, but one rich in dreams and visions. In a wondrous sweep of romantic melody he declares she has come to replace these vanished dreams of his, and now he dwells passionately on her eyes, eyes that have robbed him of his choicest jewels. As the aria ends, Rodolfo asks his visitor to tell him about herself. “Who are you?” he asks.

Simply, modestly, the girl replies: “My name is Mimi,” and in an aria of touching romantic sentiment, she confides that she makes artificial flowers for a living. Meanwhile she yearns for the real blossoms of spring, the meadows, the sweet flowers that speak of love.

Rodolfo is entranced by the simple charm and frail beauty of his visitor and sympathizes with her longing for a richer life. The enchanted mood is broken by the voices of Marcello. Colline, and Schaunard. calling Rodolfo from the street below. As Rodolfo opens the window to answer, the moonlight pours into the room and falls on Mimi. Rodolfo, beside himself with rapture, bursts out with a warm tribute to her beauty, and soon the two of them unite their voices in impassioned song. “O soave fanciulla (“O lovely maiden” ). Mimi coquettishly asks Rodolfo to take her with him to the Café Momus, where he is to rejoin his friends. They link arms and go out and as they go down the stairs their voices are heard blending in the last fading strains of their ecstatic duet.

Act II

Scene: A Students’ Café in the Latin Quarter.

It is Christmas Eve. A busy crowd is swarming over the public square on which the Café Momus stands. Street vendors are crying their wares, and students and working girls cross the scene, calling to one another. Patrons of the café are shouting their orders to waiters, who bustle about frantically. The scene unfolds in a joyful surge of music, blending bits of choral singing, snatches of recitative. and a lively orchestral accompaniment. Rodolfo and Mimi. walking among the crowd arm in arm, stop at a milliner’s, where the poet buys her a new hat. Then the lovers go to the sidewalk table already occupied by Colline. Marcello, and Schaunard.

Parpignol, a toy vendor, bustles through the crowd with his lantern-covered pushcart, trailing a band of squealing and squabbling children, who pester their mothers for money to buy toys. As the children riot around him, Parpignol flings his arms about in despair and withdraws with his cart. Meanwhile the Bohemians have been ordering lavishly, when suddenly there is a cry from the women in the crowd: “Look, look, it’s Musetta with some stammering old dotard!” Musetta, pretty and coquettish, appears with the wealthy Alcindoro, who follows her slavishly about. Musetta and Marcello had been lovers, had quarreled and parted. Noticing Marcello with his friends, the girl occupies a near-by table and tries to draw his attention. Marcello at first feigns indifference, and when Mimi inquires about the attractive newcomer, Marcello replies bitterly: “Her first name is Musetta, her second name is Temptation!” In an access of gay daring, Musetta now sings her famous waltz, “Quando me’n vo soletta per la via” in which she tells how people eye her appreciatively as she passes along the street.

The melody floats lightly and airily along, a perfect expression of Musetta’s lighthearted nature. Presently the voices of the other characters join in — Alcindoro trying to stop her; Mimi and Rodolfo blithely exchanging avowals of love; Marcello beginning to feel a revived interest in Musetta; Colline and Schaunard commenting cynically on the girl’s behavior. Their varied feelings combine with Musetta’s lilting gaiety in an enchanting fusion of voices. Musetta now pretends her shoe hurts, that she can no longer stand, and Alcindoro hurries off to the nearest shoemaker. The moment he disappears from sight, she rushes to Marcello. The reunited lovers kiss, and Musetta takes a chair at Marcello’s table. The elaborate supper ordered by Alcindoro is served to the Bohemians along with their own. As distant sounds of music are heard, the crowd runs excitedly across the square to meet the approaching band. Amid the confusion the waiter brings in the bill, the amount of which staggers the Bohemians. Schaunard elaborately searches for his purse. Meanwhile as the band comes nearer and nearer, the people along the street grow more and more excited. Musetta rescues her friends from their plight by instructing the waiter to add the two bills together and present them to Alcindoro when he returns. A huge crowd now rushes in to watch as the patrol, headed by a drum major, marches into view. Musetta, lacking a shoe, hobbles about, till Marcello and Colline lift her to their shoulders and carry her off triumphantly to the rousing cheers of the crowd. Panting heavily, Alcindoro runs in with a new pair of shoes for Musetta, and as he slumps dejectedly into a chair he receives the collective bill.


Scene: A Gate to the City of Paris (the Barrière d’Enjer).

A bleak, wintry dawn at one of the toll gates to the city. At one side of the snow-blanketed square stands a tavern, over the entrance of which, as a signboard, hangs Marcello’s picture of the Red Sea. From within the tavern come sounds of revelry. Outside the gate a motley crowd of scavengers, dairy women, truckmen, and farmers have gathered, demanding to be let through. One of the customs officers warming themselves at a brazier saunters over to the gate and admits the crowd. From the tavern comes the sound of Musetta’s voice. Peasant women pass through the gate, declaring their dairy products to the officials. From a side street leading out of the Latin Quarter comes Mimi, shivering with cold. A violent fit of coughing seizes her as she asks one of the officers where she can find Marcello. The officer points to the tavern, and Mimi sends a woman in to call him. Marcello, rushing to her side, greets her warmly with a cry of “Mimi!” “Yes, it is I; I was hoping to find you here,” she replies weakly. Marcello tells her that he and Musetta now live at the tavern: he has found sign-painting more profitable than art, and Musetta gives music lessons. Mimi tells Marcello she needs his help desperately, for Rodolfo has grown insanely jealous and the constant bickering has made life unbearable. In a tender duet with Mimi, Marcello expresses his sympathy, and her frequent coughing only deepens his concern.

When Rodolfo comes from the tavern to call Marcello, Mimi slips behind some trees to avoid being seen. Now Mimi overhears Rodolfo complaining to Marcello about their quarreling. Just as he announces his decision to give her up, Mimi reveals her presence by another coughing fit, and Rodolfo rushes to embrace her, his love returning at the sight of her pale, fragile beauty. But she breaks away, and sings a touching little farewell song, in which she says she bears him no ill will, that she will now return to her little dwelling, that she will be grateful if he will wrap up her few things and send them to her.

Meanwhile Marcello has re-entered the tavern and caught Musetta in the act of flirting. This brings on a quarrel, which the couple continue in the street. As Mimi and Rodolfo bid each other good-by — “Addio, dolce svegliare alia matina” (“Farewell, a sweet awakening in the morning”) — their friends almost reach the point of blows in their quarrel. The music vividly mirrors the difference in temperament of the two women — Mimi, sad, gentle, ailing; Musetta, bold and belligerent — as well as the different response of the two men. “Viper!” “Toad!” Marcello and Musetta shout to each other as they part. “Ah, that our winter night might last forever,” laments Mimi. Their resolve to part weakens in the new mood of tenderness, and as they leave the scene Rodolfo sings, “Ci lascieremo alla stagion fiorita” —     ‘”We’ll say good-by when the flowers are in bloom.”

Act IV

Scene: In the Attic (as in Act I).

Rodolfo and Marcello, having again broken off with their mistresses, are back in their garret, living lonely, melancholy lives. Rodolfo is at his table, pretending to write, while Marcello is at his easel, also pretending. They are obviously thinking of something else — of their happy times with Mimi and Musetta. When Rodolfo tells Marcello that he passed Musetta on the street looking happy and prosperous, the painter feigns lack of interest. In friendly revenge, he tells Rodolfo he has seen Mimi riding in a sumptuous carriage, looking like a duchess. Rodolfo

tries, unsuccessfully, to conceal his emotions, but a renewed attempt to work proves futile. While Rodolfo’s back is turned, Marcello takes a bunch of ribbons from his pocket and kisses them. There is no doubt whose ribbons they are. Rodolfo, throwing down his pen, muses on his past happiness. “Oh, Mimi, you left and never returned” (“Ah, Mimi, tu piu”), he sings; “O beautiful bygone days; O vanished youth.” Marcello joins in reminiscently, wondering why his brush, instead of obeying his will, paints the dark eyes and red lips of Musetta.

Their mood brightens momentarily as Colline and Schaunard enter with a scant supply of food. With mock solemnity the friends apply themselves to the meager repast as if it were a great feast. When a dance is proposed, Rodolfo and Marcello begin a quadrille, which is quickly cut short by Colline and Schaunard, who engage in a fierce mock duel with fire tongs and poker. The dancers encircle the, duelists, and just as the festive mood reaches its height, Musetta bursts in. She brings sad news: Mimi, who is with her, is desperately ill. The friends help Mimi into the room and place her tenderly on Rodolfo’s bed. Again Rodolfo and Mimi are in each other’s arms as past quarrels are forgotten. When Musetta asks the men to give Mimi some food, they confess gloomily there is none in the house, not even coffee. Mimi asks for a muff and Rodolfo begins rubbing her hands, which are stiff with cold. Musetta gives her earrings to Marcello, telling him to sell them to buy medicine and summon a doctor. Then, remembering Mimi’s request, she goes to get her own muff. Spurred by Musetta’s example, Colline resolves to sell his beloved overcoat to make some purchases for Mimi. In a pathetic song he bids farewell to the coat, and departs with Schaunard to find a buyer. Rodolfo and Mimi are now alone. Faintly her voice is heard: “Have they gone? I pretended to be sleeping so that I could be with you. There is so much to say.” The lovers unite their voices in a duet of poignant beauty as they recall the days spent together, of the first time they met, of how she told him her name was Mimi. Reminiscent strains of melody are spun by the orchestra as the couple dwell on their attic romance. Mimi wants to know if Rodolfo still thinks her beautiful. “Like dawn itself!” he exclaims ardently. Suddenly Mimi, coughing and choking, sinks back in a faint. Rodolfo cries out in alarm, as Schaunard enters and asks excitedly what has happened. Mimi, reviving, smiles wanly and assures them everything is all right. Musetta and Marcello enter quietly, bringing a muff and some medicine. Mimi eagerly seizes the muff, which Musetta insists Rodolfo has purchased for her. Growing weaker and weaker, Mimi at last falls asleep — or, so it seems. Marcello heats the medicine; the other men whisper together, and Musetta begins to pray. Rodolfo has fresh hope, now that Mimi is sleeping so peacefully. Schaunard tiptoes over to the bed. Mimi is not asleep — she is dead! Shaken, he whispers the news to Marcello. Rodolfo, having covered the window to keep out the light of dawn, notes the sudden change in his friends at the other end of the room. As he realizes the truth, the orchestra pounds out fortissimo chords full of tragic impact. Musetta kneels at the foot of the bed, Schaunard sinks into a chair, Colline stands rooted to one spot, dazed, while Marcello turns away to hide his grief. Rodolfo rushes across the room, flings himself on Mimi’s bed, lifts her up, and sobs brokenly, “Mimi! . . , Mimi! . . . Mimi!”

[Adapted from The Victor Book of the Opera, 1929]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image= image_description=Luciano Pavarotti as Rodolfo audio=yes first_audio_name=Puccini: La Bohème
WinAMP, VLC or iTunes first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème product_by=Luciano Pavarotti: Rodolfo
Mirella Freni: Mimì
Rita Talarico: Musetta
Sesto Bruscantini: Marcello
Alessandro Maddalena: Benoît
Mario Frosini: Parpignol
Franco Calabrese: Alcindoro
Gianni Maffeo: Schaunard
Nicolai Ghiuselev: Colline
Elio Prisco: Customs Officer
Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Roma della RAI
Thomas Schippers,conductor
Live performance, 17 July 1969, Rome
Posted by Gary at 8:37 PM

September 7, 2007

The Paradoxes of Pavarotti

BY BENJAMIN IVRY [NY Sun, 7 September 2007]

In England, where his international singing career began in the less politically correct 1960s, the press called him "Fat Lucy" and even "Lucky Luciano." In his homeland Italy, headlines referred in Italian to "Big Luciano," in homage to his fame in the English-speaking world. Yet the lyric tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who died of pancreatic cancer this week at age 71 in Modena, Italy, was a complex entity, impossible to sum up in a nickname or a headline.

Posted by Gary at 4:11 PM

SMETANA: The Bartered Bride

With an authoritative cast, including the glorious Gabriela Beňačková and admirable Peter Dvorsky, recorded in clean but atmospheric modern sound, the opera dances delightfully, joyously.

As a soundtrack to a 1982 TV presentation, as preserved on a recently released DVD, the quality of the recording has a contradictory effect Simply put, the robust , natural liveliness of the recording makes the artificial, "post-card-pretty" film all the more inauthentic as a version of the opera.

The chief cause lies in the decision to have the opera performed by the singers lip-syncing to the recording. The recording has no stage perspective, so the camera's relentless editing from close-ups to wide shots reinforces the sense of two distinct performances being presented as one. Apparently the director (Frantisek Filip) has requested that the singers not move their mouths in too authentic a representation of actual singing. Lip-syncing is always a tricky enterprise, but in this film, not for the briefest moment do the performers succeed in conveying the sense that they are actually vocalising.

The production, while colorful, is a cartoonish affair of spotless, colorful costumes and an over-decorated town plaza set. Films of live stage productions have their failings too, but this stage-bound performance offers few if any of the benefits of a true film.

The DVD begins with Kosler leading the exuberant overture in a concert hall, turning to washed-out travelogue footage before presenting the stage action. Even the dances are lamely choreographed. As provided to your reviewer, the DVD set contained no booklet, only a slip which simply reproduced the front and back covers.

Unfortunately, as presented here, the opera suggests reasons why its success today seems limited to classical radio replays of its overture and dances. The comic energy and human passions inside the characters never comes through.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Bedrich Smetana: The Bartered Bride

product_title=Bedrich Smetana: The Bartered Bride
product_by=Gabriela Benacková; Peter Dvorský; Richard Novák; Miroslav Kopp; Marie Veselá; Jindrich Jindrák; Marie Mrázová; Jaroslav Horácek; Jana Jonášová; Alfréd Hampl, Prague National Theatre Ballet, Prague National Theatre Opera Chorus, Prague Philharmonic
product_id=Supraphon SU7011-9 [DVD]

Posted by Gary at 3:57 PM

JANÁČEK: Katja Kabanowa

In August 1949 a brief run of Leoš Janáček's opera Katja Kabanowa took place at the Dresden opera house, and the day after the first performance the artists went to the recordings studios of the radio station. As a result, we have this atmospheric, dramatic reading, en Deutsch. The Mackerras studio recording will remain the standard, but for lovers of this opera, this Profil set makes for a fascinating alternative.

To begin with the most pertinent demerit: the set has only a brief English synopsis, but no libretto. Clearly the producers consider this to be a recording for those already familiar with the opera. German-speakers, however, can find some compensation in brief spoken passages explaining the story. These are separately tracked for non-German speakers to skip.

Beyond that, the opera receives an urgent, yet beautiful performance, and in remarkably clear mono sound. There are no sound effects during the storm scene, but the singers all seem to be in a true dramatic environment, and not yet just frozen before the microphones. Ernst Richter and the Staatskapelle produce a detailed, sensitive reading with more than enough power in reserve for the climax.

The booklet note (in German and English) contains a quote from Janáček praising the German translation of Max Brod. Your reviewer does not have the ability to judge its success as translation, but as sung it comes across as tremendously sensitive to Janáček's musical idiom and sharply communicative of the drama.

Elfride Trötschel's Katja is sympathetic in her sadness, warm in the grip of her erotic awakening, and touching in the pathos of her fate. Helena Rott unleashes some scathing lines as Kabanicha in the concluding scene, while never cross the dangerous line into parody (a risk in this role). As Boris, Helmut Schindler manages to use a plain instrument with enough style to make the love duet a success.

Without the stage noises of an in-house recording, and yet with more dramatic fire than the typical studio recording can claim, this Katja Kabanowa should please all lovers of Janáček's opera.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Leoš Janáček: Katja Kabanowa

product_title=Leoš Janáček: Katja Kabanowa
Edition Staatskapelle Dresden, Vol. 16
product_by=Sieglinde Gossmann, Werner Faulhaber, Helmut Schindler, Helena Rott, Heinrich Pflanzel, Karl-Heinz Thomann, Erich Zimmermann, Elfriede Trötschel, Käte Höfgen Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, Chor der Staatsoper Dresden, Ernst Richter (cond.)
product_id=Profil PH06040 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 3:18 PM

All about Roberto and Angela

AlagnaGheorghiu.pngBy Francis Carlin [Financial Times, 6 September 2007]

Cat-calls can be good for your career. Last December Roberto Alagna caused a sensation in Milan by walking off the stage at La Scala on the second night of Aida when part of the audience booed his first aria.

Posted by Gary at 3:15 PM

Teresa Berganza Live in Concert

In May 1990 Teresa Berganza appeared with the orchestra of Swiss-Italian radio. On a disc of about 70 minutes, less than half an hour features Ms. Berganza: she sings Salvatore Sciarrino's orchestration of the Rossini cantata Giovanna d'Arco, and then Berio's orchestration of Manuel De Falla's Siete canciones populares españoles.

1990 found Ms. Berganza nearing the end of her career, and though the booklet essay (by Arrigo Quattrocchi - I did not make that name up) accurately praises her "musical intelligence...and elegant choices," threaded throughout her performance are slight moments of strain. She manages the quick runs in the Rossini piece with experience, but as the lines take her higher, the tone turns edgy. The Falla pieces have fewer technical demands, but the effects of time and a full career on the instrument produce a slight tremble. For some ears, this may be affecting, and when taken in with Ms. Berganza's handsome, classy stage persona, the performance has its rewards.

The opening three dances from Rossini's Guglielmo Tell come across as a quick warm-up for the orchestra, led by one Nino Bonavolontà. Unfortunately, later in the program when they perform Bizet's second suite from L'Arlésienne, the orchestra still sounds scrappy, and charm is conspicuously absent.

Surely this disc, as with the others Fabula has produced from similar Lugano recitals (see the archives), is for fans of the singer. Those who cherish the quite cherishable Ms. Berganza may choose to seek this out. Others should note the reservations noted above.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Teresa Berganza Live in Concert

product_title=Teresa Berganza Live in Concert
product_by=Teresa Berganza, Orchestra della Televisione Svizzera Italiana cond. Nino Bonavolontà
product_id=Fabula Classica DVD 603

Posted by Gary at 3:04 PM

Kiri Sings Karl: Songs of Mystery & Enchantment

Apparently Wales-born Karl Jenkins has made quite a success in the UK and Europe. His breathless biography in the CD booklet reports that he started in jazz, then earned numerous awards "in the field of advertising music," before turning his talent (supply one's own throat clearing) to 'classical' music (inverted commas courtesy the booklet essay).

Although the cover claims that these "songs of mystery and enchantment" are composed and arranged by Karl Jenkins, that should really be "and/or." The majority adapt melodic material from composers such as Fauré, Chopin, Beethoven, with a large number using the lighter material of Argentinian Carlos Guastivino. A smaller number are credited to Jenkins.

Everything sounds the same, at any rate. Jenkins doesn't even have the occasionally effective melodic gift of an Andrew Lloyd-Webber. Vangelis is a closer comparison - and that's no compliment to Vangelis. Synthesizers pulse and stream, percussion rattles endlessly, and a breathy chorus mumbles nonsense syllables. And above all that we have soprano Kiri Te Kanawa. Her own booklet note makes it clear that she admires Mr. Jenkins and his music. Fine. Even if she had recorded this album when her voice possessed its full bloom and beauty, she would not have to bring much to it. In her current vocal state, the tone trembles as she lightens the support to fit the pop-nature of the material. She sounds much, much older than she looks in the very attractive and glamorous photos generously supplied in the packaging.

If OperaToday readers know Mr. Jenkins' work and appreciate it, surely they will find this CD as enjoyable as any other from him. Only the most devoted of Ms. Te Kanawa's fans, however, are likely to find much pleasing here.

Sappy, derivative, occasionally tasteless (try Antema Africana): that's Kiri Sings Karl.

Chris Mullins

image_description= Kiri Sings Karl

product_title= Kiri Sings Karl
product_by=Kiri Te Kanawa, Karl Jenkins, London Symphony Orchestra (LSO)
product_id=EMI Classics 0946 3 53257 2 0 [CD]

Posted by Gary at 2:46 PM

VERDI: Otello

Arguably, all viewers get to respond as they wish: traditionalists get to huff and puff in righteous indignation at the modern dress, open sensuality, and freedom with theatrical conventions (such as having the doctor present throughout the opera as a harbinger of death), while less conservative eyes get to take in all the above mentioned with excited appreciation.

Decker's approach also worked well in a Boris Godunov on DVD filmed at the Liceu in Barcelona. A more recent release from the same house finds Decker's approach still with some strengths but not achieving a total success. The opera is Verdi's Otello, and Decker finds himself with an eager stage animal in the lead, José Cura. The performance dates from February 2006.

As with the other productions mentioned above, Decker in this Otello favors a basic, spare set (a lot of bloody red, with Cura in black often standing out amongst others in white). This allows for seamless transitions between acts. Here, as one example, he has Iago (Lado Ataneli) enter at the end of the love duet in act one, and then continues on into act two without break. Touches such as this bring a unity to the drama that compensates for any perceived lack of naturalistic depiction.

However, whereas in the Traviata and Godunov Decker found motifs and symbols that propelled the action (such as the oversized clock running down the hours of Violetta's life, and the similarly oversized golden throne for Godunov), here Decker hasn't found as compelling a detail. A large cross plays a central role in the action, and although the opera certainly has its share of appeals to "Dio," how exactly this reinforces the drama remains unclear. A late scene with a wall-sized mirror borders on the risible, as characters sneak around it, just missing each other, as in some lame farce.

The main liability, however, is Cura, who paradoxically gives a passionate, sturdy performance, marking him as one of the few tenors on the scene today able to perform the role in a convincing manner. Cura's throaty timbre can grate in more lyrical roles; here that very thick sound reinforces Otello's masculine authority. But Cura is a self-conscious performer, and the effects he produces are studied, premeditated. As such, they do not blend well with the coolness with which Decker approaches the opera. Then again, what can Cura do? Otello is a hot-blooded opera, and Decker's approach may ultimately not be suited to the material.

The other cast members fit Decker's approach more smoothly: Ataneli's confident, sneering Iago and Krassimira Stoyanova's gentle, baffled Desdemona both sing with distinction. Vittorio Grigolo, a good-looking young tenor who has had some pop-oriented commercial forces promoting him, shows he has the stuff for, at least, a worthy Cassio. Antoni Ros-Marbá and the Liceu chorus and orchestra bring no special profundity to Verdi's score, which is fine, as the score itself is profound enough.

Domingo dominates Otello on DVD, although Vickers' towering achievement can still be discerned in the stiff film Karajan produced. This Liceu DVD documents a worthy attempt, but the elements never pull themselves into a coherent whole. Nice try.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Giuseppe Verdi: Otello

product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Otello
product_by=Otello: José Cura
Desdemona: Krassimira Stoyanova
Iago: Lado Ataneli
Cassio: Vittorio Grigolo
Emilia: Ketevan Kemoklidze
Roderigo: Vicenç
Esteve Madrid
Lodovico: Giorgio Giuseppini
Montano: Francisco Santiago
Herald: Roberto Accurso
Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Antoni Ros-Marbà, Musical Director, Willy Decker, Stage Director
product_id=Opus Arte OA0963D [2DVDs]

Posted by Gary at 2:31 PM

Aspen premieres forgotten Cavalli work

But despite magnificent singing by a huge contemporary-clad cast and the superlative musicianship of Cavalli scholar Jane Glover as conductor of a pocket-size early-instrument ensemble the promise did not hold.

Advances on the production, plus two lengthy hand-wringing essays in the Aspen program book, focused not on the opera, but on its seemingly mysterious history. In brief: Cavalli, long the darling of his day in opera-mad Venice, looked back on over 30 successes when “Eliogabalo” was all set for a carnival-season premiere in the city. Then the work was not merely cancelled, but replaced by an opera on the same decadent Roman emperor by Giovanni Antonio Boretti. And to make the substitution still more painful to the aging Cavalli his librettist Aurelio Aureli wrote a new text for Boretti. The manuscript of “Eliogabalo” — sketches of a score, as was the habit in that day of agile improvisation — was filed away in the Venice Marciana Library and forgotten for over three centuries. Cavalli wrote another two operas — both lost — and died in 1676.


“Eliogabalo” emerged from oblivion in 1998 when an edition of the score by Roberto Solchi attracted the attention of Europe’s major master of Baroque opera Rene’ Jacobs, who made it the basis of a staging at Brussel’s La Monnaie in 2004. That production, essentially the world premiere of the work, moved on to Innsbruck and Paris and was enthusiastically celebrated by incense-burning critics throughout Europe. Indeed, Opernwelt, Germany’s leading opera periodical, declared it “the rediscovery of the year.”

It is impossible, of course, to compare the Aspen production with a staging that one knows only from written reports; one feels, however, that something was lost in crossing the Atlantic. Aspen was in no way behind Brussels in scholarship. British-born Glover, in her fifth season as music director of Chicago’s Music of the Baroque, wrote her dissertation on Cavalli and published a book on him in 1978. And she undertook her own realization of the edition of the score by Harvard’s Italian-born Mauro Calcagno, another leading authority in the field.

The Aspen production was, to be sure, impressive in its solid musicianship and in the work of a huge cast thoroughly schooled in Baroque vocal performance practices. It did, however, not radiate the excitement that one recalls from “Giasone,” and in outright fun it was light years behind the staging of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1745 “Platée” on stage at the Santa Fe Opera this summer. Even armed with a detailed guide through the contorted, convoluted and complicated plot and English titles it’s not easy to follow the story of depravity, intrigue and perversion that “Eliogabalo” tells.

As briefly as possible: Eliogabalo — in history the boy emperor Heliogabalus who corrupted Rome from 418 to 422 — is aided by co-conspirator underlings Lenia and Zotico in his quest for bedmates. Out to seduce Gemmira, he orders the murder of his cousin Alessandro to whom she is betrothed to achieve his goal. Five-watt-bulb Atilia is after Alessandro, and boy-about-palace Nerbulone finds himself in the middle of this mess. In the final act Eliogabalo is knifed offstage and — only the Baroque could manage a happy end after so much senseless misery, and Alessandro, the new emperor, is united with Gemmira and Eritea finds a mate in Giuliano.

Gender, of course, isn’t merely bent in Baroque stagings these days; it’s thrown on the floor and stamped upon, and that allows the director free choice of voices for a production. Yet director Edward Berkeley, long-standing mastermind of opera at Aspen, might have gone off the deep end in casting women in seven leading roles in “Eliogabalo.” That in itself resulted in a lack of contrast that contributed to the tedium of the two hour, 40 minute performance.

The lower register was thus left entirely to tenor Alex Mansoori, who stole whatever show there is to steal as Dame Edna look-alike Lenia, and to be-Speedoed baritone David Keck as court glamour boy. As the bi-sexual cross-dressing title figure mezzo Cecelia Hall was appropriately louche in both male and female attire, while soprano Christin Wismann brought happily contrasting dignity to Alessandro. Ariana Wyatt’s brilliant soprano combined with her natural beauty to make Gemmira a credible object for Eliogabalo’s raging hormones, and business-suited Ellen Putney Moore employed her dark-hued mezzo wonderfully to offer insight into Giuliano’s conflict-ridden soul.

Top vocal honors, however, went to Paris Hilton look-alike Carin Gilfry, whose well-honed mezzo made Atilia credibly human. (The only moral being in the cast was the white doggie that Gilfry carried.) Arthur Rotch’s scaled-down ruin of a triple-arched Roman gate proved a perfect set for the many on-stage machinations in “Eliogabalo,” and the superb 14-member chorus brought additional color to the cross-dressing central to the production. (Unusual in today’s Baroque stagings was the inclusion of only one countertenor in the cast, and he was relegated to the chorus.)


Overall, however, the opening performance in Aspen’s historic Wheeler Opera House on August 14 came across much more as a magnificently prepared academic study than a knock-out evening at the opera. Rather than biting nails about the possible injustice done Cavalli in the 1667 cancellation, Aspen might better have considered that “Eliogabalo” was written at a time when opera was in transition, moving from the largely through-composed stile representativo of Monteverdi (presumably Cavalli’s teacher) to the contrast between recitative and aria that was soon to be Handel’s glory. The “star” singer was emerging, and both audience and artists were eager for change. One returns to the conclusion that works residing in oblivion are right where they belong.

Wes Blomster

image= image_description=Alexander Mansoori (Lenia) and Ariana Wyatt (Flavia Gemmira) [Photo: Alex Irvin] product=yes product_title=Above: Alexander Mansoori (Lenia) and Ariana Wyatt (Flavia Gemmira)
All photos Alex Irvin
Posted by Gary at 10:50 AM

September 6, 2007

STRAUSS: Elektra

For various reasons expressed in the booklet that accompanies the recording, Nilsson had been away from New York for some time, and her return for this performance was a special occasion that culminated in the live broadcast. This DVD reproduces the televised performance that conveys the immediacy of the experience at the Met. While the opening trailer is the same that has been used for other Live from the Met productions, the performance suggests the spontaneity that accompanied Nilsson’s return.

For this performance Levine used one of the Met’s reliable productions, one created by Herbert Graf and which is a conventional way of presenting the opera. The costumes by Rudolf Heinrich reflect the fin-de-siècle opulence in their stylized evocations of ancient Greece, especially in the accoutrements for Klytämnestra. Yet overall, the DVD gives the sense of being at the Met for one of the operas it has done well over the years.

Typical of the Met in 1980, the cast included Leonie Rysanek, who was also part of another video recording of this opera made around the same time that Karl Böhm led. Along with her, Mignon Dunn sang the role of Klytämnestra, with Robert Nagy as her lover Aegisth. Donald McIntyre was Orest, Elektra’s brother and the vehicle of revenge on Klytämnestra for her murder of Agamemnon, their father.

It is a quite competent performance that stands apart from other DVDs because of its single-take as a live broadcast. While some pitch problems occur, they are minor compared to the generally fine and spirited performances of all the principals. Rysanek works well with Nilsson in roles that are comfortable for both singers. As strong as both performers are, their voices are sometimes obscured by the orchestra, which emerges perhaps too strongly in the recording. It is possible to accommodate that imbalance through the fine acting that both of those performers brought to the stage.

Mignon Dunn contributed a suitably imperious quality to the role of Klytämnestra, and with it gave the part the lyrical quality that some performers eschew in deference to readings that can be closer to Sprechstimme. Likewise, Orest requires a heroic sound that must not seem like a caricature, and McIntyre captures the part well. He and the rest of the cast work well with Nilsson in bringing out the dramatic qualities of the music in this signally modern interpretation of the Greek myth. In the end, though, it is Elektra who must elicit the cathartic moment, and Nilsson delivers her part memorably. While her finale dance may not have the visual pathos that comes with the streaks of rain that characterize Böhm’s film, her mimed madness is effective in this live performance.

The disc includes the extensive curtain calls that demonstrate the respect the Met audience expressed for Nilsson and Levine. All of the curtain calls are left in, along with shots of the cast behind the curtain, as they heard the acclaim of the audience, It is particularly impressive to heard the rhythmic applause that started after almost eight minutes of the ovation and brought Nilsson out for a solo bow after twelve minutes. In addition to the opera, the DVD includes bonus tracks of Nilsson singing Isolde’s narrative from Tristan und Isolde, which Nilsson performed at the Met Centennial celebration in 1983. This concert performance of the excerpt is memorable and serves to document further Nilsson’s association with the Met and Levine.

Another excerpt included on this disc is a relatively short tribute that Nilsson gave at the 1996 twenty-fifth anniversary of Levine’s tenure at the Met. In that cut Nilsson alluded to the 1980 production of Elektra and the part it played in her career – she ended her salute to Levine with a solo Walküre call of “Ho-jo-to-ho.” A tribute to Levine, it is a valedictory to a career well sung.

James L. Zychowicz

image_description=Richard Strauss: Elektra

product_title=Richard Strauss: Elektra
product_by=Birgit Nilsson, Leonie Rysanek, Mignon Dunn, Robert Nacy, Donad McIntyre, The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, James Levine, conductor.
product_id=Deutsche Grammophon B0007475-09 [DVD]

Posted by jim_z at 7:44 AM

September 5, 2007

Street Scenes: Opera on a Brooklyn Sidewalk

AOP.pngBy HEIDI WALESON [WSJ, 5 September 2007]

St. John's Place, a quiet street two blocks from Eastern Parkway on the edge of this borough's Crown Heights neighborhood, is home to tenements, a rarely used synagogue, a parking garage, and the Five Myles Gallery, a converted one-story industrial building that in the summer becomes a gathering place for young neighborhood artists, including painters, poets and a group of teenage hip-hop dancers.

Posted by Gary at 6:46 PM

Don ho!

Bradley Greenwald and Steven Epp(Photo Jennifer Baldwin Peden)
On the road with Mozart and Molière in Don Juan Giovanni
By: CAROLYN CLAY [The Phoenix, 4 September 2007]

In 1665, when it made a brief appearance before being suppressed for a couple of hundred years, Molière’s Don Juan was a “machine play” — noted for its elaborate stage mechanics. In Don Juan Giovanni, a 1994 amalgamation of Molière’s play and Mozart’s Don Giovanni into a philosophic confection with incidental music of the spheres, the machine is a functioning vintage Plymouth on a road trip to nowhere — it travels in circles, like the bike and the wheelchair that also figure in this Sisyphean sex addicts’ journey. Given the source material, the car should probably be a Citroën or a Fiat, but who’s quibbling?

Posted by Gary at 12:53 PM

Netherlands Opera — New Wine in Old Bottles

All three of Monteverdi’s great works — L’Orfeo, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, and L’incoronazione di Poppea are being given in this anniversary year of his ground-breaking leap forward for the art-form, along with three more minor works later in the season. However, this cycle can also be seen as a celebration of a rather more contemporary master, albeit one synonymous with Netherlands Opera itself as well as with the old master’s works, director Pierre Audi. What Audi does, particularly with these very early works, is to achieve the near-impossible: he takes an audience back to a time before time, to a place that might be no-place, but which communicates to us through visual textures and stage architecture that never confuses, always make sense. A set or prop may prompt an initial “I wonder why….”, but invariably the question is soon answered and we are the wiser for it. He is a director who illuminates, rather than obscures. On the downside, as he loves to use fire as exclamation points in his productions, giving us three of his operas on successive nights did rather devalue the currency: what, another explosion and burst into flaming torches? But that would be to quibble with the scheduling, not the pieces themselves. As would be to query the order of the weekend’s offerings: why not in chronological order rather than putting “Poppea” before “Ulisse”? Some reasons suggest themselves, and the noticeably emptier house on the final Sunday could be either cause or effect: “Ulisse” is certainly the least accessible and immediately engaging of the trio where even Monteverdi seems to struggle with the essentially static nature of the libretto.

All three of these productions are well known now around the world, and have been available on DVD for some time. The local opera-goers have also had several opportunities over the past 17 years to see them fine-tuned to their present state, so can their re-emergence be justified? Certainly it makes sense in this Monteverdi anniversary year, as we’ve seen elsewhere on both sides of the Atlantic, but productions of this quality have a second, even more important role. Netherlands Opera has always prided itself on the strength-in-depth of its ensemble singers and with these three pieces they shrewdly mixed in many of their younger talent with visiting big names and often gave them opportunities in more than one.

Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro (Arnalta) and Danielle de Niese (Poppea) [© DNO/Ruth Walz en Hans Hijmering]
Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro (Arnalta) and Danielle de Niese (Poppea)

L’Orfeo” is quintessential Audi where all three natural elements of earth, fire and water combine in sets of tangible solidity and exceptional beauty. They were matched by singing of a similar calibre with not a single disappointing voice on display — standouts being the experienced countertenor David Cordier as a ringing La Musica, Alan Ewing’s deeply expressive and mellifluous bass as Coronte and the two exciting younger voices of Tania Kross (La Messagiera) and Anders J. Dahlin (Pastore 1, Eco/Spirito). Tenor Jeremy Ovenden was giving his debut performance in the title role and if his vocal resources were occasionally tested by “Possente spirto”, with some rough edges here and there, overall it was a very satisfactory performance showing an expression and intelligence that will surely develop further.

One very positive aspect of the scheduling of all three operas on successive nights was the opportunity to contrast and compare several of the younger singers in different roles. Dahlin shone again in “Poppea”, his beautifully produced light lyric tenor floating serenely around the music of the first Soldier and Lucano, whilst the bigger names of de Niese, Mehta and Stotijn gave expressive and fully-rounded performances that didn’t disappoint. De Niese continues to extend her capacity to express the darker emotions and passions and there was less shrillness in her top, more gentle colour, than I have heard before from her. I doubt we have ever seen a more seductive or believable Poppea. Malena Ernman, one of today’s more versatile sopranos, seemed uncomfortable at times in the role of the despicable Nerone, her statuesque Nordic beauty rather at odds with the character’s requirements. She has a good range, although the gear-changes sounded less than smooth on Saturday night and it took most of Act 1 for her to settle vocally. By the final scenes she was entirely credible, even disturbing, in her vocal and dramatic commitment. Bejun Mehta, as the luckless Ottone, brought his usual assertive dark countertenor to the role with admirable effect, if not much fine-tuning of expression. Christianne Stotijn was deeply affecting as the wronged and vengeful Ottavia — her lovely chocolate tones could colour and caress the notes at will. Yet, it was another young singer new to this writer that perhaps left the strongest impression. The Chilean-born tenor Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro gave an outstanding and very promising performance as the comic/pathetic governess Arnalta, his final gorgeous lullaby to the sleeping Poppea a model of legato line and sheer vocal beauty. Let us hope his talent is nurtured and guided in the right direction.

All the singers were of course aided immensely by inhabiting Emi Wada’s amazing costumes. These works of art — no better term — could carry the opera on an empty stage and are rightly renowned. Textures that intrigue the eye, materials that merge from shade to shade in the changing lights, fabrics that shimmer and float. They evolve with the story, they almost become the story.

Paul Nilon [© DNO/Ruth Walz en Hans Hijmering]
Paul Nilon as Ulisse

Such heights of visual and musical delight are hard to follow and that is where the decision to place “Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria” at the end of the three works must be questioned. It is a much darker work, it comes well before “Poppea” in terms of composition, and although it has some lovely music, it is essentially much more static and almost entirely given over to examinations of the protagonists’ psychological states of mind whilst grappling with the whims of interfering deities. It needs the best singers, and luckily it mostly had them — in particular Paul Nilon in the title role, as expressive and idiomatic as ever, and totally convincing as the struggling hero. Here too, we had a chance to admire again other singers from earlier on: Ewing, Agnew, Cordier and Kross. And in particular the excellent Wilke te Brummelstroete as Minerva — with a searing soprano, crisply enunciated text and strong presence she lit up the stage most effectively. Matching Nilon in emotional vocalism was Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon as the grieving Queen Penelope, like the Englishman an experienced baroque singer. Her dark and silky tones revealed grief, anger and confusion with total surety. As so little happens dramatically for most of the story, Audi keeps his “big guns” for one major coup de théâtre when our hero pulls the bow to convince his queen who he is. Then, with a massive explosion of light, fire and thunderous noise the house shakes and any guilty “nappers” in the 15th row are rudely awakened. Then, gently and almost apologetically, the opera winds down again through the final, loving duet between husband and wife, back into darkness and quiet.

One final aspect of this trio of Monteverdian genius must be mentioned — Netherlands Opera invited three separate period instrument bands in to provide the music (although some players mixed and matched in at least two) and it was interesting to compare the approaches of each director/conductor. Stephen Stubbs and his Tragicomedia/Concerto Palatino took command of the “L’Orfeo”, Stubbs playing from both harpsichord and his best known instrument, the theorbo (chittarone). His other harpsichordist was none other than Christophe Rousset, making up the nine other continuo players. They were supported at dramatic moments by another 16 players of brass, wind and strings, including some outstanding playing of the difficult cornet by Bruce Dickey and Doron David Sherwin. This band offered subtle and virtuosic playing at the service of the drama. The next night it was Rousset in charge of his own Talens Lyriques for “Poppea”, only 14 in number but with a warm sound and obvious total familiarity with each other and the piece. Now Stubbs withdrew to lute/theorbo/baroque guitar and was matched in the continuo group by the likes of Erin Headley on viola da gamba and Stéphane Fuget on harpsichord and organ. On the final night the even smaller forces of Glen Wilson’s “Esxatos” tried to hold the musical interest of “Ulisse” but sadly failed to succeed entirely. Just eleven players was perhaps a risk too far for this medium sized house, and it must be said that although Wilson expended much energy and commitment to his singers from the harpsichord, the total sound world was pinched and meagre in comparison to the previous nights. Having said that, it is always a pleasure to see so many young players in these period groups and like the less experienced singers on the stage above them, they can only continue to stretch their skills with these magnificent stagings of Monteverdi.

© Sue Loder 2007

image= image_description=Tania Kross (La Messagiera) and Jeremy Ovenden (Orfeo) [© DNO/Ruth Walz en Hans Hijmering] product=yes product_title=Above: Tania Kross (La Messagiera) and Jeremy Ovenden (Orfeo)
All photos © DNO/Ruth Walz en Hans Hijmering
Posted by Gary at 11:18 AM

September 4, 2007

Poulenc Celebration

Carmelites.pngKENNETH WALTON [Scotsman, 3 September 2007]

FOR a Festival music programme that has had its eccentric touches, ending it with an all-out tribute to the acerbic tonal world of Francis Poulenc, and in particular the decapitation of an entire convent of nuns in his opera Dialogues des Carmélites, was gauche in the extreme.

Posted by Gary at 11:10 AM

Pitch perception skewed by modern tuning

tuning_fork.png[New Scientist, 3 September 2007]

Mozart had it; Leonard Bernstein had it; even Jimi Hendrix reportedly had perfect pitch - the ability to recognise a musical note without a reference tone. Now it seems that orchestral tuning may be skewing note perception in people with this rare talent.

Posted by Gary at 10:50 AM

September 2, 2007

The Pleasures of Presence — The Small Loudspeakers of Richard Sequerra

This was said to make music sound more ‘in the room.’ Later, a similar control (sometimes called ‘loudness’), showed up on several amplifier units in my long parade of audio equipment, with the same idea — something was done to boost the musicality of sound, regardless of volume level.

It was generally thought the frequency response curve was adjusted in the amplifier to boost response of the upper-mid into upper frequencies, perhaps 1000kHz to 1800kHz (all of this approximate), which gave a lift to the audible area where most musical sound occurs. This is arguable, of course, and one can never overlook the extremes, low bass to high treble, even up to many thousands of cycles-per-second, and as low as twenty cycles, for the nuances and colors of music — live or reproduced. If this is how ‘presence’ is achieved, so be it. Of course, those old radio-phonographs offered little high frequency or bass response, compared to today’s electronics, which run the full gamut.

These thoughts came to mind recently as I surveyed bookshelf speakers to replace an older pair that was sounding tired. I settled in for long listening sessions with the new Sequerra Metronome-7.7 Mk-6 speakers, driven by 100W per channel of Linn amp power with input from California Audio Labs high-definition CD converter/player. I sampled everything from beautiful modern recordings of Sibelius symphonic tone poems, a splendid recording of Schubert Impromptus by Andraes Haefliger, the elegant Swiss pianist (and son of the famous tenor Ernst Haefliger), a big Benj. Britten choral work — and even German salon music, and a few Argentine tangos — just to get a feel for the sound quality (see list). The word that kept coming back to me was ‘presence,’ especially after I added a Klipsch or Aperion sub-woofer (I tried both, both are excellent), to extend the deep bass response from about 50kHz, the low limit of most bookshelf units, down to 20kHz or thereabouts, to fill out the sonic landscape. What lovely sound, and from such modestly unobtrusive elements!

The hero of this piece is a senior audio and radio engineer based in Stamford, Connecticut, one of the great names in the audio profession for decades, Richard Sequerra. Though presumably retired from manufacturing, Sequerra is far from that. Over recent months he has hand-built in his own workshop some ninety units of the Met 7.7 Mk6 model, a concept he introduced some years ago, and continually refined. Sequerra told me in a telephone conversation, “This new Metronome is the finest monitor of its type I’ve ever built; I am so pleased with it.” The small speaker, often called a mini-monitor, is made of a handsome, ruddy brown African hardwood, with jet black base trim, retails for $1500 a pair, and they are on brief backorder. [Sequerra has an exclusive dealer in the US, Acoustic Sound, 1500, South Ninth St., Salina, KS, 67401; 800.716.3553.] I think it is fair to say these speakers are already collectors’ items and will only become more so.

I have a particular appreciation of small speakers, placed out of the way in bookshelves or cabinets, that do not call attention to themselves or become part of the furniture of a room. My collection does contain a pair of big floor-standing Thiel 3.6 speakers, and they are wonderful. In fact, you cannot compare mini-monitors with large floor speakers — they are in a different ball game; but both systems are capable of supplying fine musical reproduction. The only significant loss of music in moving from a floor speaker to bookshelf, is in the very low frequency areas — deep bass and cello strings, tympani, low piano or organ chords, harmonics derived from mid-range sources that will resonate in the lowlands of sound -- you really want these elements for richness and color.

Another more subtle point is what I will call — sonic geography. This simply means the physical arrangement of sound, say, across a stage or in a concert hall — so that one can hear, via good stereo, the positioning of instruments and/or the acoustical properties of the room. Sometimes the word ‘imaging’ is used to describe the phenomenon, but there is more to it. For example, Powell Hall, home of the St. Louis Symphony, has to my ear a quite distinctive sound, as does Symphony Hall in Boston; so did Arturo Toscanini’s famous (sometimes infamous) Studio 8H at NBC. I want to hear these room acoustics, as I experience music from them via recording, because they give the musical sound air and space, a quality of naturalness that we know from live performances. Large speakers can provide this quality of ambience, and in the case of Sequerra’s small monitors, he has managed to create the ‘space’ of recorded sound to a remarkable degree. Keep in mind, of course, the acoustical property has to be present in the recording in the first place.

With Sequerra Met 7.7s, I find these qualities of sonic geography and presence in remarkably plentiful supply. Specifically, Met 7.7 sound is quite forward and ‘in the room,’ even aggressive at times, and favorably so. ‘Up front’ is a frequent designation of this phenomenon, just as ‘laid back’ is used to describe the quieter more self-contained speaker (very often of English origin). The speakers also have a strong ‘throw;’ you can hear them at a considerable distance. My previous bookshelf speakers would not, even at high volume, penetrate through open windows into a nearby garden; the new Sequerras do that, to the extent someone asked as we sat in the garden the other day why the music was so loud.

Since I like this kind of energetic but detailed sound, I was pleased by the ‘now’ quality of the big Sibelius orchestra. The old Finnish master was a wizard at distinctive orchestration — fascinating, intricate use of woodwinds and flutes, with wonderful string writing (Sibelius was a violinist), and all the edges and colors are there via the Metronomes. Andreas Haefliger’s grand piano sound was decidedly present in the room, and singing voices sounded natural.

Voice is often a real test of loudspeakers, spoken voice, yet one rarely thinks of it as important to musical quality. To deliver a natural-sounding, easily understood radio announcement is a great challenge to speakers. The first sound I heard via the Sequerras was an FM radio broadcast from Santa Fe’s classical station. What a pleasant surprise! The muffled or timid tones of announcements were suddenly absent in the face of perfectly clear voices that I could — for once, easily understand. This quality carries over into musical reproduction and is one element of the Sequerra sound, especially with a generous back-up of amplifier power and the resulting ‘head room’ (dynamic range ability), that seems so engaging. I should make the point that this sense of ‘presence’ is also there a mid and low-volume levels. When I asked Mr. Sequerra about speaker tonality and ‘presence,’ he responded by talking about the interior insulation and damping factors of his little boxes, and how simple felt batting has come to play a key part in achieving his sonic goals.

To control resonance and sound artifacts inside a speaker cabinet is of concern to engineers — one wants the music resonating outside the cabinet, right there with the listener, and not farther back inside the box. Control of these factors is clearly a part of Sequerra’s success. It is interesting also that Sequerra uses not only a high-quality mid/bass European driver in his array, but also a Japanese tweeter that is adjustable by a knob on the back of the box. If the speaker is too bright in your room, adjust the control. This is unusual; i’ve seen such a tweeter-level control on Aerial speakers, and used it, but the opportunity is infrequent.

I recognize Opera Today is not primarily a forum for audiophiles or collectors of sound equipment. Yet, for many of us who enjoy fine music in true sound, these matters are relevant. (See below for specifications and details.) Let me sum up for the general reader: The Sequerra Met-7.7 Mk6 speakers were a pleasant surprise to my ears, for the quality and realism of musical reproduction. Combine them with high-quality amplifier and CD player components, always, to realize full musical quality. The addition of a solid sub-woofer, at a cost of only a few hundred dollars or even less, is needed to capture the low end of the musical spectrum. Adding the sub is easier than a listener may imagine; it is only a matter of connecting a couple of wires, and often your dealer will make the simple installation. I hope anyone who undertakes such a project experiences as much musical enjoyment as I have found, courtesy Richard Sequerra.

J. A. Van Sant © 2007


Sequerra Metronome 7.7Mk6 speakers

Price: $1500/pair

Dimensions: 11-inches height, 7.5-inches width, 13-inches depth

Weight: 16.5 lbs. per unit

Drivers: The 6-inch mid-range driver is by SEAS Fabrikker, Norway; High-frequency 2 ¼” tweeter by Foster Electric, Japan. Both are treated paper cone drivers, modified by Sequerra, much of it extensive and proprietary. The tweeter has added a shear radiator of Sequerra’s devising, which extends frequency response and controls resonance. Speakers are of enclosed box design to maintain a ‘Q’ of 0.75. Crossover point is 2.8k Hz

Efficiency: (sensitivity), 89 db/W/m.

Manufacturer: Sequerra Associates, 1929 Long Ridge Rd., Stamford CT 06903 (203) 968-0339

Dealer: Acoustic Sounds, (800) 716-3553.

Associated Equipment for Testing: California Labs CL-15 high-definition CD player; Linn HV 5105 stereo amplifier, 100W/ch; Rotel RC980BX pre-amp control; Rotel RT990BX radio tuner; Cables and interconnects, all by Kimber Kable Klipsch Promedia 2.1, a good inexpensive sub-woofer; Aperion S8APR, 150W sub, a few dollars more, a powerful performer.

Recordings Used: Sibelius Tone Poems, Osmo Vanska, Lahti Symphony Orchestra, BIS CD 1125; Sibelius Symphonies 1 & 7, Leif Segerstam, Helsinki Phil. Ondine ODE 1007-2; Sibelius Symphonies 1 & 4, London Symphony, Sir Colin Davis, RCA Red Seal 09026-68183; Stephen Hough, The Piano Album, Virgin Classic 61498; Die Berliner, Vol. 1, Salonmusik, Berlin Phil. players, Koch 3-1814; Schubert Impromptus, Andreas Haefliger, piano, Sony SK53 108; Nights in the Gardens of Spain, Angela Cheng, piano, CBC Records SMCD 5195; Chopin selections, Nelson Freire, Decca 289 470 288-2; Brahms Serenades No. 1 & 2, Scottish Chamber Orch., Charles Mackerras, Telarc CD-80522; Gershwin, Songbook, Three Preludes, Sebastian Knauer, piano, Glissando 779; Tango Lesson (film score), Sony SK 63266; Benj. Britten, War Requiem, London Philharmonic, Kurt Masur, conducting, LPO label; Zemlinsky, Die Seejungfrau, Köln Orchestra, James Conlon, EMI 5-55515. R. Strauss, Josephs Legende, Ivan Fisher with Budapest Festival Orchestra, Channel Classics CCS SA 24507. Whew!

Other Information: Appearance: One does not choose Sequerra Met 7.7Mk6s for visual allure. This fits my earlier contention you wont need to feature small monitors as furniture — a plus for me! There is no grille cloth or cover — the drivers are right there, out front and obvious. The mid/bass driver is offset forward to the demure tweeter in order to achieve time-coherence, but the appearance is not offensive, you just have to be a bit careful about dusting. So, why no cloth cover? Mr. Sequerra strictly forbids it, even sheer silk will diminish the sound, the maker claims. My ear tells me he is correct.

Downside? Very little sonically. I’ll not suggest the Met7.7s offer the same dimension of sonic space/geography of a large floor-standing speaker, but for most music you will not need it, though in intense orchestral passages (for example the Richard Strauss/Ivan Fischer CD of Josephs Legende), or in large choral recordings, a slight sense of density may sometimes be encountered. The trade-offs of presence and the great up-front quality in the Sequerra sound are more than compensating.

Price? The $1500 list retail price is not discounted and the popular units are on brief backorder (August), I am told. It seems a reasonable price compared to similar units (all around $1800 pr.), by quality makers such as Aerial, Snell and Thiel, three fine speaker manufacturers whose products I personally use with pleasure. A buyer would be smart to audition several units before choosing. Noting the similarity of pricing, I jokingly said to one of the executives, “You guys must have had lunch on your pricing!” He laughed, “Well, I just figured $1800 is about the most I can charge for a two-way speaker.” That very well sums it up.

J. A. Van Sant © 2007

image= image_description=Sequerra Metronome 7.7Mk6 speakers product=yes product_title=Above: Sequerra Metronome 7.7Mk6
Posted by Gary at 2:25 PM

The science of music

This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession
Why does music affect us like no other art? An American scientist thinks he can explain these ‘glorious illusions’
Bryan Appleyard [Times Online, 2 September 2007]

In his last, largely barren years on the island of Faro, the great film director Ingmar Bergman listened to music. He saw it, his daughter-in-law said, as “a sort of gateway to other realities, different from those we can immediately perceive with our senses”. Bergman had no religious faith, but in music he heard the only possible evidence that there was something beyond this world. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein described Mozart and Beethoven as “the true sons of God”.

Posted by Gary at 1:13 PM

Hitting the high notes

[Guardian, 2 September 2007]

On stage the fiery Russian soprano is dazzling audiences with her wild, charismatic interpretations of classic roles. Offstage she's doing the can-can in St Petersburg nightclubs. Can she make opera sexy for a new generation? Ahead of next week's Proms showdown, the world's hottest diva talks to Peter Conrad

Posted by Gary at 1:02 PM

VERDI: Giovanna d’Arco

First Performance: 15 February 1845, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Principal Characters:
Carlo VII, King of France Tenor
Giovanna, daughter of Giacomo Soprano
Giacomo, shepherd in Dom-Remi Baritone
Delil, an official of the King Tenor
Talbot, Supreme Commander of the English Bass

Setting: France during the Hundred Years’ War (1338-1453)


The action takes place in the village of Dom-Remy, where Giovanna was born, then in Reims and near Rouen during the Hundred Years’ War, in 1429. Loosely based on historical events, the drama has as its protagonist the shepherdess Giovanna. Urged by a group of angels who have appeared to her in a dream, she persuades the King, Carlo VII, to put her in command of the French troops, which she then leads to victory against the English. Suspected of witchcraft by her father Giacomo, she is handed over by him to the enemy to be burnt at the stake. She implores God’s help and Giacomo, realizing that he has accused her unjustly, frees her shortly before the decisive conflict. Giovanna rushes into the fray, and the French troops led by her rout the enemy. But the King’s joy is short-lived because he is in love with the heroine who has been wounded in battle. Before dying, she sees the heavens open and the Virgin Mary comes to meet her.

Click here for the complete libretto.

image= image_description=Jeanne d’Arc (Centre Historique des Archives Nationales, Paris, AE II 2490) audio=yes first_audio_name=Giuseppe Verdi: Giovanna d’Arco
WinAmp, VLC or iTunes first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Giovanna d’Arco product_by=Giovanna d’Arco: June Anderson
Carlo VII: Dennis O’Neill
Giacomo: Vladimir Chernov
Talbot: Jeremy White
Delil: John Dobson
Daniele Gatti (cond.)
Live performance, 5 July 1996, Royal Opera House, London
Posted by Gary at 12:28 PM

Singing the Lament of a Fugitive Slave

graves_denyce.png(Photo: Devon Cass)
By MATTHEW GUREWITSCH [NY Times, 2 September 2007]

IN the fall of 2002 the composer Richard Danielpour was in residence at the American Academy in Berlin, orchestrating the first act of his first opera, “Margaret Garner” but still awaiting the words for the final scenes. For weeks, in calls to Princeton, N.J., he had been hounding his librettist, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison, who would answer quietly: “Good things take time. You have to wait.”

Posted by Gary at 11:18 AM

Off with the trousers

Susan_Graham_small.pngThe Texan opera singer Susan Graham is finally ditching the boys for some real heroines

Neil Fisher [Times Online, 31 August 2007]

Reader, I tried. Somewhere within the singer regularly dubbed America’s favourite mezzo there had to be a lurking insecurity – or at least a lurking indiscretion. But Susan Graham, the striking six-footer from Texas, takes a different approach to the strains of life on the operatic circuit. They all get channelled into her immaculate performances and rich, supple voice; it’s her characters that take the strain.

Posted by Gary at 2:26 AM

Capriccio, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Fontana_Gabriele.pngThe last gasp of Romanticism
By Raymond Monell [Independent, 30 August 2007]

The backdrop of this production of Strauss's Capriccio placed us, in the first half, at the bottom of a palace stairwell. After the interval the stairwell had been hit by a bomb, presumably one of many that were falling on Munich in 1942, when the opera was premiered.

Posted by Gary at 1:56 AM

An Isolde in a million

Christine Brewer is one of the great Wagnerian sopranos. But preserving that voice means often saying 'no', as she tells Edward Seckerson

[Independent, 29 August 2007]

When the BBC broadcast Wagner's Tristan und Isolde over three evenings in 2002, the consensus was that the Isolde of Christine Brewer was the most affecting and beautifully sung in a generation or more.

Posted by Gary at 12:48 AM

Prima la Musica, Poi le Parole / Dido & Aeneas

Tim Ashley [Guardian, 28 August 2007]

First performed in 1786, Antonio Salieri's Prima la Musica, Poi le Parole would probably have been consigned to limbo had it not been for the fact that Strauss was famously drawn to the libretto, which eventually became the starting point for his own opera Capriccio. Given that a new production of the latter is one of the main events of this year's festival, it seemed an appropriate time to revive Salieri's curio for a concert performance with Nicholas McGegan conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Posted by Gary at 12:06 AM