October 31, 2007

The Business of Music

The current theme is “The Business of Music”. The initial offering is Antonio Salieri’s Prima la musica e poi le parole, a divertimento teatrale on the misadventures of an opera composer. This is followed by Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor, which involves the exploits of an impresario in organizing a production. Then there is Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss, which is based on Molière’s comedy-ballet, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg follows, which exemplifies one route to a musical career — the competition.

Links:

Previous Theme: In memory of Luciano Pavarotti (1935–2007):

Previous Featured Operas on the Theme The Sacred and The Profane

Previous Featured Operas In Memory of Beverly Sills (1929–2007).

Previous Featured Repertoire on a Biblical Theme

Previous Featured Operas on the Theme of Early Recordings from La Scala

Previous Featured Operas on the Theme of Schaueroper (Shiver Opera)

Previous Featured Operas on the Theme of Opera in Translation

Posted by Gary at 9:50 AM

Oper als Geschäft

It has a principal title: Opera as a business, and a closely related subtitle: Impresarios of the operatic stage in Italy (1860-1900). These two titles are closely related, but also quite different. The first strikes this reviewer as difficult to deal with, since it is the sort of thing that is not that easy to get a handle on. The second could, by itself, have made a fascinating book, especially if it had not been limited to Italy, but to Italian impresarios all over the world, ideally over a somewhat longer time frame, perhaps from Verdi’s first opera (1839) to the beginning of World War I (1914).

This was a period when enterprising Italian companies and their managers not only traveled throughout Italy, but expanded the boundaries of Italian opera all over the civilized world, including the United States, Latin America, the near East (including the Balkans and Russia), as well as the far East, going as far afield as India and Australia. In fact, one company had crossed Siberia, reaching Vladivostok in 1914, but was unable to return home the way they came due to the outbreak of World War I. No problem—they traveled down the coast of China, calling on many South East Asian cities, including some in the Philippines, the then Dutch Indies, Malaya, and India, and eventually winding up in Australia and New Zealand.

Essentially, the author deals with three main impresarios: The Marzi brothers, Luigi Piontelli, and the Corti family, primarily the brothers Cesare and Enrico, their father and their uncle. All of these impresarios traveled extensively, and managed different theatres at different times. But all included La Scala in Milan at one time or another. The Marzis were also prominent in Rovigo, Ravenna, Mantua, Venice and Florence. Piontelli in Venice and Turin, while the Corti’s biggest achievement is cited by the author as being an extended Italian tour with Adelina Patti in 1877-78. They are also listed as heading a “stagione” at the Theatre Italien in Paris in 1883-84

The title also contains an exhaustive index with brief capsule biographies of prominent names, as well as a glossary of Italian terms.

Tom Kaufman

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product_title=Jutta Toelle: Oper als Geschäft
product_by=Baerenreiter, Kassel-Wilhelmshöhe, 2007, 269 pages
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Posted by Gary at 8:22 AM

The 17th Bienal of Contemporary Brazilian Music

Opening the festivities was the Fanfarrona (Grand Fanfare) by Tim Rescala, a work which had been commissioned in 2005 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the opening of the Sala. Surprisingly for a work which one might imagine should have a festive character from the outset, the piece began with no clear character at all, no strong statement, no definitive tone. Gradually the piece took shape, until the concluding section contrasted bits of various familiar marches, etc. for brass, with the more "serious" materials in the string in a Ivesian way. Da Capo (2007) by Marcos Lucas was another work the form of which was difficult to perceive in one hearing - both the gesture of the piece as a whole, and the gestures of the individual moments, seemed undercharacterized, and the final climax took this listener, at least by surprise. The work suffered from weak intonation in the strings. H. Dawid Korenchendler was not heard at the 2005 Bienal, so it was good to hear his strong Sinfonia no. 7 (Sinfonia quasi seria). Korenchendler is revered as a teacher of counterpoint, but his music also reveals a keen sense of humor, evident in the ironic title, and in the gestures of this good-tempered symphony, depicting the visit of a circus to town, a work more easily intelligible both as a whole and in the individual moments. Here once more the intonation of the orchestra was not up to snuff, a fact most painfully apparent in the opening moments for low strings. The Abertura Sinfônica by Rogério Krieger revealed a technically-skilled writer working in a vein that recalled the sound of North America - Copland, perhaps, or a movie score from the 1960s - not innovative, nor Brazilian, but effective. Clearly the most engaging and beautiful work of the evening was Vereda (2003) by Marisa Rezende, a piece with an original voice, one that clearly communicated motion and emotion, and drew on the resources of the orchestra, but through contrast, rather than presenting them all at once. Rezende's writing is a model of clarity, and she achieved a spacious, grand, exalting effect. The concluding orchestral work was The Book of Imaginary Beings, for piano and orchestra, by Eduardo Guimarães Alvares, making effective use of the winds, brass and percussion (particularly the unison slams with the solo piano), and little use of the strings. Interestingly, none of these six works revealed a concern with producing a characteristically Brazilian statement.

The concluding section of the concert, with the orchestra replaced by percussion, was from a different world, and might more effectively have been programmed as a separate concert, with another three such works, since as a single concert the evening would already have been well-filled with six pieces for orchestra. The extremely high quality of performance from this final section also showed up the approximate qualities of the committed but not always convincing renditions from the orchestra. Reflexio (2006), by Marcos di Silva, for speaker, clarinet, cello, and percussion was well-made, but too long for the scant quantity of material used (as Bilbo said "too much better spread over not enough bread"). The concluding pieces well repaid the patience of the listeners who had remained. Dialogues III (2006), by Roseane Yampolschi, was well-made and engaging, with the visible interaction between the percussionists as motives traveled about the stage adding to the listening pleasure. Profusão 5 - Toccata (2007) by Frederick Carrilho closed the evening with a bang, skillfully integrating percussion elements from popular music into a clearly-structured large-scale work. Both here and in the Dialogues the performance of the Dynamo Quartet was world-class, and worthy of a DVD recording. Virtuoso, and extremely enjoyable. Bravo!

After the festive opening of the Bienal on Sunday, Monday’s concert began with a much more intimate tone. First up was Insinuâncias (2006), by Jose Orlando Alves, a work for two percussionists obsessively examining the possibilities of just a few intervals and pitches – tritones and semitones. Alves generates both lyricism and compelling structure from these limited materials. Next was GRLASHODIBZNTMEV (no, I don’t know what it means either) by Andersen Viana for vibraphone and marimba, a quiet, meditative work with indeterminate harmonies. The chamber music which followed, Matérias by Marcelo Chiaretti, for snare drum and piccolo, was the first truly off-putting work of the festival, with pedestrian material from the snares combining with long tones from the piccolo, more a visual than a musical presence, given that the snare drowned out anything in the piccolo’s low to middle range. Memorably bad, but not so bad that it was good. Soprano Doriana Mendes shone in the Diário do trapezista cego by Roberto Victorio, a piece combining a lyrical vocal line with an extremely active and modern idiom for the accompanying guitar. Mendes’ delivered her poetry impeccably, with intonation that was absolutely dead-on. After a not-so-memorable outing for three percussion (Oscuro lume, by Rogério Vasconcelos, highlighting “dark”, i.e., lower and less brilliant instruments), came another particularly rebarbative work, Vol – For Stanley, by Marcos Mesquita, with material of very little interest stretched out to an unforgivable length. Were this a novel, the reader would not persevere beyond the first chapter.

Soprano Mendes was heard in two similarly-scored works, by Fernando Riederer (Campeche no Escuro) and Marcio Steuernagel (À margem oeste deste mar eterno), for soprano, violin, trombone, piano, percussion (Riederer) or soprano, violin, trombone, trumpet, piano, percussion (Steuernagel). The former was much more effective in that the voice’s incantations were contrasted with instrumental interruptions, rather than combined with the ensemble. Mendes’ small but beautifully produced sound was unable to compete with the open-bore trumpet of the Steuernagel, but then few voices could. An ineffective compositional choice. The evening concluded with a lengthy work for piano (Cartas Celestes XIII by Almeida Prado), in which the virtuosity of the performer (Benjamin Cunha Neto) was more impressive than the material, decidedly more earth-bound than its celestial program of stars and galaxies.

Tuesday evening at the Bienal was devoted primarily to electro-acoustic music. The program began with Cancões dos dias vãos XII (Songs of empty days) by L.C. Csekö, who by now is notorious for the quantity of theatrical smoke surrounding his pieces at the various Bienals (I made sure to sit well back from the stage). Csekö’s contribution was a sort of highly-amplified noise-rock for clarinet/bass clarinet, electric guitar, acoustic piano, and percussion, with the performers doing their work in a haze penetrated only by a couple of horizontal beams of light. No details could be perceived, and it seemed that the entire effect would have more convincingly and theatrically carried off by a death-metal band.

The rest of the first half was much more satisfying. Next up was the electroacoustic Mas tenho consciência?....(2004) from Henrique Iwao, a slow-moving stacking of non-equal tempered intervals moving at different rates of speed, producing a rather Bachian effect (mutatis mutandis, of course, in the area of harmony). If Iwao’s work was Baroque in tone, ReCubos v.1.2 (2007) by Marco Campello (also electroacoustic) was almost operatic in tone, with an orchestral breadth, and sounds suggesting brass, woodwinds, and bells against a background which suggested watery depths. Curto Circuito (2007) by Jônatas Manzolli presented three percussionists (wearing miner’s headlamps on a darkened stage) in a sort of neo-primitive idiom, while images suggesting tribal art were projected on a screen behind them. The work received a warm welcome from listeners. Concluding the first half were two exceptionally whimsical works. The first featured percussionist Sergio Freire performing his own music for percussion controller, with a sort of magic wand controlling sounds from a single snare drum, and what I presume were samples activated in real time. Freire’s self-effacing, almost nerdy presence, his motions in controlling the percussion, and the music itself combined for a memorable moment.

Even more out of the ordinary was the percussion quartet by Siri (nom de plume meaning “crab”) which followed, with performers dressed in snorkeling gear seated on stage with plastic containers of water before them, beating on half-immersed pots and pans. Original and amusing.

The second half began with two more electro-acoustic works. First, by Daniel Quaranta, Pelos olhos de quem ve (In the eyes of the beholder), worked with a palette of clanks, thuds and creaks, reminiscent of a transformed piano, moved through a more diffuse moment, and ended abruptly. Tormenta em campos férteis (2006) by Fernando Iazzetta gained momentum slowly, building to percussive rhythms – the counterpoint of different materials heard at the same time from different points in space inside the hall was very effective. Closing the evening was another quasi-political work by Jocy de Oliveira, with a title in Tupi-Guarani (Nherana), which made use of pre-recorded sounds from Brazilian Indians, combined with pseudo-indigenous motives from the live ensemble onstage – oboe, clarinet, cello, electric guitar, and percussion. Seeing the basin of water in front of the oboist, I waited with bated breath until the moment I knew was coming when the instrument would be dunked. Not something you usually do with a wooden instrument of quality. The oboist was also called upon to play two oboes at once. There was the obligatory entrance of the berimbau (no instrument is more evocative of Brazil). And the final gesture…should perhaps remain unrevealed, so as to retain its impact.

Wednesday was a day of torrential rain in Rio de Janeiro, with as much as 15 cm falling, with landslides, tunnels closed, streets flooded, and the government advising car owners to leave them in their garages. By starting time for the fourth program of the 2007 Bienal streets were almost empty, but nevertheless a large number of hardy music-lovers managed to make it downtown. The concert focused once more on electroacoustic works, opening with a programmatic piece referring to the killing of composer Anton Webern by soldier Raymond Bell, after the former had stepped out for a smoke (Raimundo e os sinos (2007), by Marcelo Carneiro de Lima). There were plenty of bell-like tones, but otherwise an ill-informed listener would have no idea of the content. In other words (2005/6), by Bruno Raviaro, for sax and prepared piano, made a strong impression, particularly the cognitive disconnect between the visual of pianist Tatiana Dumas executing a two-armed full smash on the keyboard, and the sound that issued from the instrument. The wild flurry of notes that followed brought piano and saxophone closer than one would have ever imagined. Perhaps the fact that the work was based on a previous improvisation meant that it failed to hold one’s interest for its entire length. Metagestos (2006), by Christine Dignart, was attractive, with a sound world reminiscent of computer music and synthesizers of thirty or forty years ago. One of the most striking works of the festival followed, a piece for soprano and tape by Paulo Guicheney, Anjos são mulheres que escholheram a noite (2006) (Angels are women who have chosen the night), with Doriana Mendes properly celestial, an angelical presence amidst clouds of synthesized sound. The work was dramatic and beautifully paced, with the recorded part supporting, not competing with the soloist.

Estesia (2007), by Rodrigo Avellar de Muniagurria, which closed the first half, combined clarinet harmonics and electroacoustic sounds in a contemplative way, but the shockingly loud noise which concluded the piece (a sort of aural poke in the eye with a sharp stick) revealed another composer who finds it difficult to make a convincing ending in this genre.

The second half began with Lupanar by Marcus Alessi Bittencourt, in which the mechanical sounds made it sound like this particular bordello was all work and no play. The machine noise were punctuated by tenor or baritone register double-reedish beeps and grunts (the male customers?), but the piece went on much, much, much too long.

The Kyrie & Gloria (2004) by Rodrigo Cicchelli Velloso which followed was another of the highlights of the festival, with excellent singing from the chorus Sacra Vox, under the direction of Valeria Mattos. The choral sounds were electronically transformed and echoed, and the combination of choral writing (very effective) and effects was evocative and beautiful.

Closing the concert was an evocation of the sea (Maresia, by Daniel Barreiro), nicely done, almost cinematic in breadth, and a piece neither too brief nor too long, but with an organic shape. The concluding work for heavily-amplified violin and tape (Percussion Study V) was more a piece of theater (carried off with bravura by violinist Mario da Silva) than a work with an intrinsically musical shape.

Thursday’s program returned to more traditional media, with the performing responsibilities divided between the Quarteto Experimental (a clarinet quartet made up of Batista Jr., Walter Jr., Marcelo Ferreira and Ricardo Ferreira), and the strings of the Symphonic Orchestra of UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro), under the baton of André Cardoso. The first three works were given to the Quarteto, a group of exceptional musicians playing at the highest level. Prenúncio (de um tormento) (Foreshadowing of a suffering) (2007) by Gustavo Campos Guerreiro began slowly (a mournful glimpse of what is to come), preparing for an outburst of quick patterns in the upper voices while the lower voice continues in its slow motion. A fine work. The extensive Clarinet Quartet (2007) by Thiago Sias revealed an impressively assured and original voice in its writing (particularly for a twenty-five year old at the beginning of his career), exploiting the possibilities of the instruments, with a predominantly lyrical sound. The Criatura no. 1 (2004) by Yahn Wagner (in which the quartet was joined by Waleska Beltrami on French horn) also made a strong impression, particularly the motoric rhythms combining like clockwork, which, along with humorous tone, seemed to this listener to draw on Stravinsky .

The strings of UFRJ then closed the first half with two strongly contrasting works. The first were the Three Miniatures (2006) by Murillo Santos, slight in dimensions, attractive, good-natured, well-made, conservative in idiom. The In extremis, ad extremum (2006) by Roberto Macedo Ribeiro, a passacaglia with moments of beauty, and an obsessive intensity in the masterful stretto and ultimate deconstruction of the material was an anguished crying-out which will remain in the memory.

After intermission came the Tres toques emotivos (2007) by Guilherme Bauer, with a difficult chromatic and contrapuntal idiom which took the strings a bit beyond their technical limits. Canauê, op. 22 (2006) by Dimitri Cervo was considerably more approachable in idiom, beginning with a lyrical theme over string tremolos, and closing with a quicker section combining “Brazilian” rhythms with a minimalist style.

The history and culture of Northeast Brazil then made an appearance with a programmatic piece reflecting the popular literature about outlaws – Cordel no. 1: A saga de Corisco [the story of a famous bandit] by Liduino Pitombeira, the musical idiom balancing between accessibility and modernity, between abstraction and imagery. The program closed with another work, this time explicitly narrative, based on a poem by Euclides da Cunha, in which the strings were joined by baritone Eladio Pérez-González and flutist Eduardo Monteiro, a sort of melodrama in which the vocal part was very much more parlato than sung.

Friday at the Bienal was rather a mixed bag. The evening started with Levante by Rodolfo Vaz Valente, a lengthy piece for clarinet solo, beginning in the lowest register of the instrument and making its way upwards, in a clipped and disjunct idiom, anti-lyrical, one might say, and hardly something one would dance to. Were it a piece of verbiage, you might think of a lengthy disquisition on a rather dry subject. The piece was virtuoso, taking advantage of the prodigious technique of Paulo Sergio Santos, but not at all in-drawing. Next came a song cycle, Vida fu(n)dida, by Calimerio Soares, in which the painstakingly-enunciated utterances of the soloist, Eládio Pérez-González, were at odds with a flightier piano part, and two songs, Homenagens (2007), by Nestor de Hollanda Cavalcanti, celebrating friends of the composer who had passed on, but in a intimate vein making no sense to outsiders, like family pictures from someone else’s family. These were followed by two exceedingly dry pieces (by Rogerio Constante, and by Paulo de Tarso Salles) for guitar, which must have been well-played by the gifted Paulo Pedrassoli, but neither of which held any appeal for these ears, seemingly making a point of avoiding any of the normal seductions of the instrument. The first half closed with two pedestrian choral works, adequately sung by the Brasil Ensemble – UFRJ, but lacking any iota of innovation in style. All in all, eight pieces, with not one generating excitement.

The second half made the trip to the Sala worthwhile. It celebrated the 100th anniversaries of the births of Jose Siqueira (1907-1985) and Camargo Guarnieri (1907-1993), with the Quarteto Radamés Gnattali (Carla Rincón, João Carlos Ferreira, violins, Fernando Thebaldi, viola, Paulo Santoro, cello) performing the Quartet no. 2 of the former, and Quartet no. 3 of the latter. The Siqueira drew heavily on Northeastern folk music, particularly in the stunningly beautiful and lyrical Andante. The Guarnieri was more modern (violently urban) in its outer movements, but also drew on Northeastern idioms in the central heart of the work, the Lento. The playing of the Quarteto in these works brought tears to the eyes. Not to be missed.

My final evening at the 2007 Bienal was Saturday, lamentably, although three more concerts beckoned, but professional responsibilities meant that I needed to fly back to the USA on Sunday. In previous Bienals, the festivities had started on Friday evenings, meaning that fans from outside Rio could fly in, spend two weekends sandwiched around a week of concerts, and get back to work by Monday morning. No such luck this year, and something I consider poor planning by the organizers (of which, more later).

The program began with a work for two pianos (performed with verve by Sara Cohen and Zélia Chueke) – Agua-Forte (2006), by Ricardo Tacuchian, a piece in a surprisingly conservative idiom, with figuration and rhythm quite regular in a free opening section which led to a fugato on what sounded like an “Indian” theme. There were details which recalled, of all people, Gershwin.

Three choral works followed, in performances by the Coral Harte Vocal. Both the modest dimensions and ambitions of the works themselves, and the renditions by the chorus, reinforced my impression that choral music in Brazil is an area susceptible to considerable growth, and one in which achievements are yet below what is the norm for other genres in Brazil, and below the norm for top choruses elsewhere in the world. The chorus, made up of young, seemingly untrained voices, produced a small sound that barely carried to where I was sitting.

The first half ended with a substantial and quite attractive piece for a traditional ensemble, the Quartet 2006 for piano quartet by Ernest Mahle, capably performed by Sara Cohen, Ricardo Amado, José Volker, and Marcelo Salles. The work is predominantly retrospective and lyrical in tone, with a striking middle movement, Andantino cromatico, played sempre pp.

Rather than end this panorama of Brazilian music on a sour note, I will let the first be last, and the last first. The Toccata Metal (2007) for solo cello by Yanto Laitano received a virtuoso performance by Paulo Santoro, but to these ears it was naught but sound and fury signifying nothing. I can’t imagine wanting to hear it again. Does the “metal” from the title refer to “heavy metal”? Hard to say. Ambitious but unsatisfying was Pathos (2006) for a quartet of clarinet, viola, cello and piano by Bruno Angelo, with many unisons perhaps intended to be dramatic, but which chiefly showed that the young players were incapable of playing in tune, particularly the lamentable cello, excruciatingly out in its high register. Ouch!

Far more rewarding were the two works which opened the second half, Celebração (2006) by Maria Helena Rosas Fenandes, quite original in voice and dark in tone, with a religious program, but one which was not usually audible in the music, except for the evocation of animal voices in the opening Cântico das criaturas. Particularly striking was the Paisagem do inverno (Winter Landscape) (2006), by Harry Crowl, beautifully played by Batista Jr., clarinet, Vinicius Amaral, violin, and Luciano Magalhães, piano, evoking first winter storms, and then an a chilly, but more tranquil, calm, with a harmonically static section leading to a long, long, long final adagio, masterfully captured by the trio. Captivating!

Some closing thoughts: each Bienal reveals the richness of contemporary music composition in Brazil, but also brings home to me how little this beautiful music is known internationally. The Bienal should be an opportunity for the country to show the best of what it produces to the world, not simply an opportunity for composers and performers to meet. For the Bienal to fulfill a broader function, it needs to have a firmer organizational and funding base, a base that would allow the festival to be scheduled years, rather than months, in advance, and should make a concerted effort to attract music-lovers from around the world to visit, including the international press. It is shocking how the Brazilian press itself can ignore this important event, with no prior coverage, and almost no reportage of the concerts of the festival. Music is in Brazil is vital – the composers and performers for this festival were almost all in their forties, thirties, twenties – and it communicates, but it needs help from the media to get its message across.

Tom Moore

image=http://www.operatoday.com/villa_lobos.png image_description=Heitor Villa-Lobos
Posted by Gary at 7:54 AM

October 30, 2007

MAHLER: Symphony no. 3

Such is the case with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2006 concert in which Bernard Haitink conducted Mahler’s Third Symphony on several evenings in October of that year. Taken from performances recorded on 19, 20, and 21 October 2006, this live recording preserves the outstanding association between Haitink and the Chicago Symphony, a relationship that continues through the present season. This first release on the Chicago Symphony’s own label also brings the fine performance to a broader audience with a performance that stands well when compared to other, fine recordings of this challenging work by Mahler.

Because of the expansiveness of the sound involved with this Symphony, the Third is not always readily accessible through recordings. The waves of sound with which the out movements conclude stand in contrast to the delicate and chamber-music-like sonorities of second movement, the Tempo di Menuetto. Likewise, the string textures that dominate the latter movement and the much of the Finale differ in quality from brass timbres of the first movement or the vocal textures in the fifth. The fourth movement poses other challenges, with its subtle accompaniment to the solo female voice that presents the text from Friedrich Nietzche’s Also sprach Zarathustra, “O Mensch!, Gib acht!” The series of contrasts point to a palette of sounds and textures that typifies the organic structure of the work, a composition in which its composer attempted to relate the various levels of existence, from inarticulate nature to human speech and, ultimately, its unity with the Deity expressed here as the apotheosis of love, the force that binds the cosmos within the Schopenhauerian existence.

In expressing the world through the genre of the symphony, Mahler made the symphonic idiom a universe of its own, through the range of ton colors and textures, musical forms, and other elements he united in what is, ultimately, a cyclic work. The challenge for the conductor and the orchestra is to bring out the unity of Mahler’s conception, without allowing its diversity to suggest a disjointed work. Among the memorable recordings of this work are those of Leonard Bernstein, with the New York Philharmonic and also James Levine with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Other historic recordings of this work include Mitroupolos’s relatively early, albeit somewhat truncated recording from the 1950s. In this recording of his recent performances of the work, Haitink demonstrates the command of the score that made his earlier recording of the Third Symphony memorable when he performed it with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. Yet this later performance by Haitink retains its own quality. Without comparing this particular performance against the others, listeners will find in this CSO-Resound release a compelling interpretation because of Haitink’s attention to the details of the score. At the same time the finesse of the Orchestra is apparent throughout, with the solo parts evenly precise and expressive. No concerto for orchestra, this work remains has demands of solo performances and soli sections that exceed the kind usually encountered in a conventional symphony. It requires an ensemble as skilled and integrated as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to approach this score so convincingly, and when as insightful a conductor as Haitink can shape it, the result is memorable.

The vocal element also requires a deft musician, and Michelle De Young is exceptional in this work, and this recording is almost a close-up of her performance, which was more distant when heard from the stage of Symphony Center. Audible, yet not overly present, De Young’s articulate voice and subtle coloring are essential in the sub-structure of movements that lead from the depiction of night, in which she sings, to the contrastingly bright sounds of programmatic angels in the following movement. Those two shorter pieces are a foil for the slow Finale, in which Love is expressed without words in an instrumental piece that is impressive for its majestic and subtly powerful conclusion.

Mahler’s symphonies contain a variety of Scherzos, and the one Mahler composed for this work is notable for its inclusion of an instrumental transformation of one of his settings from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The solo trumpet – the Posthorn – Mahler scored for the work, is particularly effective in this recording because of its sweet and even sound. Heard live, the sonic distance that occurs in this passage seems greater than it can be rendered in a recording like this. Yet this recording offers a fine representation of the movement, which is also notable for the woodwinds, which demonstrate their remarkably tight ensemble playing. In fact, such playing is evident in the second movement, which is, perhaps, a little faster than some conductors take the movement, but nonetheless effective here.

The structural weight of Mahler’s Third Symphony resides in its two outer movements, with the expansiveness of the first movement counterpoised by the thematic unity of the Finale. A slow movement, like one of the Adagio movements of a symphony by Bruckner or, the dramatic procession of Elsa in Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, the Finale of Mahler’s Third Symphony demands the intensity that Haitink brought to the live performances and which is evident in this recording. Again, the sonic quality of this recording is a facsimile of the live performances, but does not resemble completely the experience of this music in performance when heard within the resonant space of Symphony Hall. Nevertheless, the sound derived from the microphones place above the ensemble captures some details that might have escaped the audiences at the concerts. It is difficult to deny, though, the powerful conclusion that Haitink draws from the Chicago Symphony in the finale sections of the last movement which, in itself, left a lasting impression about the power of this work in the hands of a master conductor. This is an impressive interpretation of Mahler’s monumental Third Symphony, and it should stand well with other fine recordings of this work. As the CD by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra that inaugurates its own label, this fine release bodes well for future recordings that the ensemble will offer.

James L. Zychowicz

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image_description=Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 3

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Posted by jim_z at 4:00 PM

Hamburg's Tales Told

I was amply rewarded for the five-hour train trip.

Having “discovered” Mr. Ketelsen as (already) a world-class “Leporello” in the Glimmerglass “Giovanni” (rivaling my memories of Walter Berry), I was next wowed by him in a star-making turn in the little-performed “Maskerade" (Nielsen) at none other than Covent Garden. It was a triumphant tour-de-force that was roundly cheered by that discerning public (and critics). It is no accident that he has repeatedly been invited back for his signature Mozart roles and Escamillo, among others. Happenstance found me next at a Seattle Mozart “Requiem” where, undistracted by stage business and costumes, I luxuriated in his just-plain-gorgeous sound in a memorable “Tuba Miram."

To the opera at hand, then, how were his “four villains"? Well, confirming my previous experiences, they were beautifully sung, the sizable voice steady and responsive, seamless throughout the roles’ rangy demands, capable of great variety and detail, excellent French diction, and all wrapped up in a handsome stage presence. He is one of those treasurable artists that can totally inhabit a role, all the while singing with great beauty and understanding. If he does not have the stock villainous “snarl” that older (or less refined) voices might bring to it, well, all the better as far as I am concerned.

Let’s get all the “happy” news on the table, shall we? Musically, “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” was very fine, indeed. Tenor Giuseppe Filianoti has been singing all over the map, at many major houses including the Met, and he deserves to. This is a well-produced, full-sized lyric instrument with enough heft and point in it to edge into a slightly heavier Fach like this one. He sang with sensitivity and passion, if at times with a slight Italianate “catch” in the voice (okay, okay, he is Italian!). And he is apparently tireless, pouring out searing, balls-to-the-wall phrases and hushed introspective musings alike throughout the evening. Indeed, at opera’s end, he seemed as fresh-voiced as at the start. Committed actor. Good looking. Major talent.

Although soprano Elena Mosuc was announced (with some drama) as indisposed (with three different ladies on hand to spell her if needed), it was hard to tell from her authoritative portrayal of the four heroines. All the coloratura was finely-tuned for “Olympia;” a fuller, warmer voice was summoned for “Antonia;” and the necessary requirements were met for a good embodiment of “Giulietta.” While I personally find the opera better served by three different voice types, a true diva aficionado is always more intrigued by one lady able to encompass all. And that the attractive Ms. Mosuc certainly does, with considerable success.

Hoffmann_Hamburg2.pngKetelsen (Coppelius), Filianoti (Hoffmann) and Surguladze (Nicklausse) with "Olympia"

Nino Surguladze as “Nicklausse” displayed a rich, full mezzo which rather surprisingly emitted from a mere slip of a girl; Deborah Humble provided burnished tone for an honorable turn as “Antonia’s Mother;” and tenor Benjamin Hulett had some wonderful comprimario moments in his four roles. Smaller parts were mostly very well taken and the responsive orchestra played with fine style under Emmanuel Plasson (yes, son of “that other Plasson”).

And this pretty much concludes the great news portion of the evening, for the physical production was somewhat a well-intended grab bag.

I am very nearly ready to start a petition to banish “The Mysterious Cube” from the repertoire of Euro-Scenery. Yes, the whole set was a boxy cube, within which (most of the time) a smaller cube resided, which rotated to reveal our leading ladies through an open fourth wall, or as I refer to it: “Diva in a Box.” Sometimes it just played Sit-‘n’-Spin for no good reason. And just when you thought this thing couldn’t be any uglier, dang if they didn’t reveal a yellow interior re-dressed with garish painted posies all over it; or outfitted it with the flopping-est, most hand-print-smeared Mylar mirror panels I ever hope to see. Designer Hartmut Schoerghofer is on the blame line for this creation.

A blue scrim began each act with well-intended but hard-to-see projections, the first being (I think) disembodied hands - or were they condoms? - nope, they must have been hands ‘cause they later “applauded” when the show-within-a-show’s “act” was over. That business over, the set-up seemed that we were in the Kantine of the theatre where Stella was performing. It was awfully trendy for a Kantine, though. In fact if we were to believe the employees’ tee shirts, it was called “La Diva” (get it?). Four TV monitors showed what was going on “on-stage.”

A hip and handsomely clad “Lindorf” arrived with a rolling suitcase of minor importance later. The crowd that populated this space at “intermission" included a mix of opera-goers, cast, and crew. A tortured “Hoffmann” entered with “Nicklausse” dressed as his Girl Friday. It must be said the energetic, dedicated cast was immersed in their assignments, and plunged wholeheartedly into everything that was asked of them by director Christine Mielitz.

But did she have to ask “Hoffmann” to be all bug-eyed and off-putting? Did he have to thrust his pelvis savagely and snap his fingers on his tale of “Kleinzach” so that he looked like a tryout for the “Jets” in a high school production of “West Side Story”? Did the chorus have to jive and weave and bop like White People Dancing Badly? (In a horrifying flashback, the sight reminded me of the terrible Wisconsin wedding dances of my youth. . .Brrrrrrr)

As our disagreeable hero became obsessed with the video-feed of Stella on one of the TV monitors, he took it off its shelf and schlepped it to the prompter’s box. And then something happened that became my metaphor for the whole evening’s staging: the damn’ thing sputtered and unintentionally went blank. Oh, he covered, and turned the face of it away from us, but the ill omen was communicated. . .

Hoffmann_Hamburg5.pngKyle Ketelsen (Dr. Miracle) and Elena Mosuc (Antonia)

There was at first something quite clever in presenting “Olympia” as a “Marilyn” pop icon, and in having “Cochenille” got-up as Michael Jackson, although having the diva as “Madonna” may have been more apropos. This act was by far the most imaginative direction, compromised as it was with gratuitous futzing around by the chorus, and well, way too much of a (pretty) good thing. “Michael” got visually tiring after a very short while, operating the doll with a twinkling remote. As for poor “Marilyn”:

First, she was a dummy seen from the back, seated on a sofa in “The Diva Box;” then as the real soprano, costumed in a pink (make that PINK) form-fitting short-skirted dress with ample bosoms and buttocks. “Hoffmann” became sex-obsessed (perhaps harking back to those pelvic thrusts), leering at these features like a testosterone-driven juvenile. He became absolutely inflamed when “Cochenille” blew into a tube attached to her, thereby inflating her breasts even larger (shades of “Passionella"!). Later, after the introduction of a helium canister on-stage, “Mr. Cube” turned to reveal a reclining Macy’s Parade giant doll, one breast bared, legs spread, ready for action. That “Hoffman” breaks his magic glasses fainting backwards between her thighs onto her belly, made no sense.

“Coppelius” rolled in the carry-on suitcase to reveal the requisite cogs and gears inside, and then mostly lurked in and around the cube in a pony-tailed ball cap. His last say in “dismantling” the doll consisted of blowing its head off with a Kalishnikov. While there was no sound effect, there was a film projection of splattered brains running down the wall that would have made John Carpenter proud. And now an “aside” on Renate Schmitzer’s costumes. . .

Okay, the concept for “Olympia” was rather an MTV-like disco scene, but was it wise to put the entire chorus in lime green, clinging scoop neck tops with big red Rocky Horror lips on the front of each? And annoying “trendy” accoutrements, like the twinkling bows (or was it heels?) on all the chorus girls’ shoes? This is not the sort of thing that looks good on people of a certain age, and let’s face it, 90% of opera choristers are “a certain age.”

Act Two began with a giant Mylar false proscenium flying in, and then with a loud thunk tipping forward to weakly reflect an overhead view of the real pit musicians. Unfortunately, this and a (rather lovely) floating violin distracted from “Nicklausse’s” well-sung air. As visual compensation, she and “Hoffmann” crossed and formed a beautiful, Pieta-like tableau with a white-clad-as-Virgin-Mary “Antonia’s Mother.”

“Antonia,” first seen in a black pants suit, later appeared for her descent into death with slacks traded for a pink skirt (please note: color motif tie-in). “Miracle” arrived in a doctor’s white smock and wonderful “Wiz”-like reflective green glasses , then reappeared in a similar smock that boasted flowers matching the wallpaper. Ditto her father’s look. The sicker she got, the more posies appeared. In fact, this act was most successful “tale” as far as the quite witty costumes.

However, some real oddities included the addition of faux pianos to each outside wall of “The Cube”; a hanging portrait of Mom that just didn’t “read” in the audience, even before “Mother” surprisingly tore the “canvas” out from behind; and “Miracle” performing his evil ministrations to an empty chair, while the doomed “Antonia” looked on from Cube’s edge.

Hoffmann_Hamburg4.pngKyle Ketelsen (Dappertutto) and Giuseppe Filianoti (Hoffmann)

A real plus in this “tale” was “Frantz’s” wacky arietta. I usually squirm through this as the aging character tenor play-acts at “cracking” the high note, and coughs and wheezes a bit, well, you know, embarrassing, right? In this case, young Hulett was a closet ballerina, or cross-dresser, or both (and why not?). As his dance moves gave way to more strip-tease abandon, he revealed himself to be wearing a camisole, and fishnet stockings, and, after holding a leg up high to one side while singing the last bars, he ended in a really decent split to considerable audience approval! No fooling, this was an inspired moment. One I was still relishing all the way up until . . .

“Antonia” died quite unceremoniously at the prompter’s box, next to the ill-fated monitor in fact, and was hurriedly covered up with a black cloth. She was the lucky one, I thought, as Venice was. . .well. . .not pretty.

In fact, it seemed as if the visual and directorial inventiveness, so promising at the start of the real “tales,” just ran out of steam. This was as bleak a “Serenissima” as I have never seen. I am not sure what was supposed to be in “The Diva Box” but it looked like Hernando’s Hideaway gone bad. The chorus members seated on outer sides of the cube seemed to be malcontent-ed street people in rags and tatters. I think. The lighting was so dark it was hard to see. . .chorus. . .principals. . .anything of note.

“Giulietta” herself was got up in a black turban, pants, and jacket over a gold bustier which made her look eerily like “Karen” from “Will and Grace” at a costume party not of her own choosing. “Hoffmann” gave in to the carnal build-up of three (unnatural) Acts and stripped off his shirt, mounting the soprano before rolling on his back and being mounted in return. Mercifully this was mostly masked by the prompter’s box, the dead monitor, and “Antonia’s” still-covered corpse double.

Hoffmann_Hamburg3.pngThe Box

There is just so much “cube-lurking” that can be passed off as true direction, and “Dapertutto,” sporting Muslim headgear, was not well served by uninspired blocking. A performer of this caliber has far more to offer dramatically than was asked of him here, although a quite beautifully sung “Scintille, Diamant” was compensation.

This was clearly a bad part of town. As “Nicklausse” looked on in a Hawaiian tourist shirt, “Hoffmann” violently stabbed “Schlemil,” and shortly after, “Giulietta.” No kidding, “Giulietta”! I half expected a “Jose” moment of “Oh, ma Carmen. . .” but instead the Mylar panels on the Cube were a wiggling-jiggling distraction as they hauled “The Diva Box” up and off, and poor “Hoffmann” was left half-naked to ponder that he had caused the demise of all his loves. Or “lusts.” (Okay, okay, excluding “Schlemil”).

Meanwhile, back at the Inn of La Diva, “Dapertutto” (or “Lindorf”. . .or. . .hell, does it even matter now?) symbolically gave “H” the white “Miracle” smock to wear. No longer a sex-obsessed juvenile delinquent, he is back to being an unlikable, ranting jerk of a poet. Having driven “Stella,” “Lindorf” and everyone away, our hero ended the proceedings curled up in a fetal position, white-coated, on two stray chairs down right. Blue scrim in. . .

There were actually any number of good ideas here and enough freshly inventive bits that it was a pity that Ms. Mielick and her design team settled for a profusion of images and movement that became less and less focused. The production could be greatly improved by simply imposing some clarity and discipline in the crowd scenes and, especially, re-considering singer placement on the stage.

Too often, these excellent soloists were far upstage, behind the action, in the dark, singing to the wings, and/or not allowed to take the focus to which they were entitled. Happily, the terrific singing was tremendously satisfying. (I would travel further than Hamburg to hear Mr. Ketelsen again.) Plasson led a brisk, committed reading with all the dramatic consistency that the staging lacked.

Musical glories aside, in the end, just like that hapless prophetic monitor, this “Tales of Hoffman” production promised much, sputtered briefly, and ultimately, went dark.

James Sohre

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Hoffmann_Hamburg1.png image_description=Kyle Ketelsen (Coppelius) and "Olympia" (Hamburg 2007) product=yes product_title=Jacques Offenbach: Les Contes d’Hoffmann
Staatsoper Hamburg product_by=Above: Kyle Ketelsen (Coppelius) and "Olympia"
All photos courtesy of Staatsoper Hamburg
Posted by Gary at 2:21 PM

October 29, 2007

Jean Sibelius: A Film in Two Parts

Written and directed by Christopher Nupen, the result is a solid biographical study of the composer that takes its cue from the various shifts in the reputation of Sibelius, not only within his lifetime, but posthumously. Such a perspective is present from the start, with the narrator’s comments about the changing fortunes of Sibelius’s legacy part of the introduction to the first part of the film.

In presenting this the story of Sibelius’s career, Nupen avoided creating a biopic and, instead, chose the more straightforward approach of illustrating a solidly written narration with iconography associated with the composer as well as performances of his music. The latter include some fine excerpts by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, along with vocal music sung by Elisabeth Söderström. To augment the visual palette, Nupen included various natural scenes from the Finnish countryside, and the subtle motion in the landscapes contributes a subtle touch to the images that are otherwise static, albeit quite effective.

At the core of this film is the text that seems driven by the questions about Sibelius’s reputation, and in seeking answers, Nupen addresses not only the biographical details but seeks, at times, to approach the composer’s motivation in certain works. Ultimately the search for answers requires an exploration of both the music and its reception, which results in establishing a context for the success of Sibelius as a composer of both national and international standing. The connections between Sibelius and Finnish nationalism are known popularly through his famous tone poem Finlandia, and Nupen fortunately goes further to discuss this aspect of Sibelius’s career further. The aspiration behind Sibelius’s Violin Concerto and the Fourth Symphony, two works that have, in some respects, fallen short of the expectations behind them. Yet Nupen is keen to establish a context for the careful composition of the Fifth Symphony, which resulted in Sibelius’s enduring contribution to modern symphonic literature.

While the enthusiasm Nupen has for Sibelius’s music is apparent in this film, it never moves toward the kind of hero-worship that biases his work. The balanced and factual treatment of the issue of alcohol in Sibelius’s personal life is part of the narrative, but it becomes neither an excuse for what some may deem failings on the part of the composer nor a sensational topic. Again, the text bears attention for the choice of works, along with the judicious selection of sources from diaries and other primary sources. The reliance on firsthand accounts is selective, and contributes a sense of authenticity that films like this require.

Thus, when Nupen approaches the second part of the film, “Maturity & Silence,” he has already established the composer as an international figure with an individual style, so that he can explore the directions in which the artist could take his musical imagination. Never simplistic, Nupen is clear in the aesthetic success of the Fourth Symphony, without exaggerating the popular appeal and immediate success of the Fifth. The composer’s own comments about his flights of musical imagination at the time he wrote the work are, perhaps, more telling than reviews or other kinds of documents. Yet it is the performance of the music itself in the hands of the Ashkenazy that make the composer’s accomplishments vivid and appealing. The selections are well chosen and as much as some are expected, they are nonetheless welcome in this film. At times, one would want to hear the acclaim of the audience at the conclusion of as bold a statement as the Finale of the Second Symphony. At times the careful superimposition of the narration on the music is nicely balanced.

This is a carefully created film that goes far in describing the life and works of Sibelius. With each of the two segments lasting just over fifty minutes, the length of the film is sufficient to explore the subject in some depth, with time enough for sometimes extended musical examples. Fifty years of Sibelius’s passing in1957, the release of this film serves as a tribute to the composer at a critical anniversary and at the same time asks the question of the composer’s future. While Sibelius’s works are regularly part of symphony programs and recording releases, how does the composer ultimately fit into the various threads that comprise the twentieth century. Is the aspect of nationalism the enduring quality, or is the individual style that inspired the later works ultimately critical to Sibelius’s legacy? Answers to such questions are beyond the scope of the film, but the repeated hearings that Nupen’s efforts will provoke may bring audiences closer to understanding the contributions that Sibelius made in works that have lasted into the early twentieth century. All in all, this is a fine film that serves both its subject and the music well. The DVD is a useful means for making available material like this, with its easily searchable contents and excellent sound.

James L. Zychowicz

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Sibelius.png
image_description=Jean Sibelius: A Film in Two Parts

product=yes
product_title=Jean Sibelius: A Film in Two Parts — The Early Years / Maturity & Silence.
product_by=The Christopher Nupen Films.
product_id=Christopher Nupen Film A05CND [DVD]
price=$26.99
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Posted by jim_z at 10:00 PM

The Endless Scroll

New works by Philip Glass.by Alex Ross [New Yorker, 5 November 2007]

Philip Glass is without a doubt America’s most famous living composer of classical music. In fact, he may be America’s only famous living composer of classical music—the single one who would draw nods of recognition (or irritation) if you were to start waving eight-by-ten glossies of modern-music masters at passersby in Times Square.

Posted by Gary at 1:52 PM

Kitsch captures the castle

Cendrillon_small.pngBy Martin Bernheimer [Financial Times, 29 October 2007]

Massenet’s Cendrillon is many things – a fragile study in Gallic romanticism, a precarious fusion of fantasy, comedy and melancholy, a sophisticated composition that makes knowing references to Debussy and even Wagner, a sensitive ode to adolescent love. It is not, however, a crass cartoon. One wouldn’t have guessed that on Saturday, when the New York City Opera introduced a popsy new production that it shares with Karlsruhe, Strasbourg and Montreal.

Posted by Gary at 1:36 PM

Soprano wins the Bertelsmann Stiftung 12th International Singing Competition

neue-stimmen.pngGütersloh, October 28, 2007. Marina Rebeka (27) from Latvia has won first prize, which carries a cash award of €15,000, at the Bertelsmann Stiftung's 12th NEUE STIMMEN International Singing Competition.The soprano won over the international jury headed by Francisco Araíza with a performance of the arias “Qual fiamma” from the opera “I Pagliacci” by Ruggero Leoncavallo and “È strano, è strano“ from Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata“. Second prize (€10,000) was awarded to the 21-year-old Argentinian bass Fernando Javier Radó, while tenor Diego Torre (27) from Mexico won third prize and €8,000. 1,100 young singers from 66 nations had auditioned in preliminary rounds held around the world, 47 had qualified for the final round in Gütersloh.

Posted by Gary at 1:26 PM

One Voice for Innocence and Experience

By ANNE MIDGETTE [NY Times, 28 October 2007]

PAMINA is soft, gentle and lovely; the Queen of the Night is angular, cold and brilliant. Yet the German soprano Diana Damrau is to sing both of these roles, the female leads in Mozart’s “Zauberflöte,” at the Metropolitan Opera within two months.

Posted by Gary at 12:41 PM

Washington Post Names Interim Chief Critic

capitol.pngBy Susan Elliott [MusicalAmerica.com, 27 October 2007]

NEW YORK -- Anne Midgette, free-lance classical music critic, feature writer and reporter for The New York Times, is to step in for Tim Page as chief classical music critic at The Washington Post, starting in January. Page is taking a leave of absence to be a visiting professor at the University of Southern California. The Post has been interviewing potential successors for the last several months.

Posted by Gary at 12:00 PM

Radio 3 to video stream ENO's Carmen

Chris Tryhorn [Guardian, 26 October 2007]

BBC Radio 3 is to video stream an opera on its website for the first time, offering a performance of the English National Opera's current production of Carmen.

Posted by Gary at 11:47 AM

October 28, 2007

DONIZETTI: La Figlia del Reggimento

This brief, light-hearted opera, about a tomboy mascot for a group of soldiers who inspires one love-struck man to enlist just so he can be near her, doesn’t get quite the number of productions as Donizetti’s other comic masterpieces, L’elisir d’Amore and Don Pasquale. At one time, the Fille was more likely to appear as Figlia; in other words, in Italian translation.

That’s the version recorded by Naxos, featuring the orchestra and chorus of the Teatro Marrucino di Chieti. The tuneful charm of Donizetti’s score is irrepressible, but it’s no use pretending that the singing here possesses the personality and appealing tone that stars such as Dessay and Florez bring to the leading roles. The Maria, Maria Costanza Nocentini, produces a metallic, sharp-edged sound that may well carry with distinction in an opera house. As recorded, the effect is not especially appealing. Much the same goes for Giorgio Casciarri’s Tonio. He produces the high Cs at the end of his famous aria; everything before that - and after - feels rough and unshaped. Luciano Motti growls appropriately as Sulpizio. The comic effect of a role like the Marchesa de Berkenfeld carries best in the theater - Milijana Nikolic might be more amusing, seen on stage. The Teatro Marrucino forces are no more than capable.

Fans of the opera probably already have, at the very least, the Sutherland/Pavarotti recording. Anyone looking for a more recent version would be advised to wait until the opera’s latest round of successful productions appears either on CD or DVD. This particular version is no bargain, even at Naxos prices.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Figlia.png image_description=Gaetano Donizetti: La Figlia del Reggimento product=yes product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: La Figlia del Reggimento product_by=Maria, a vivandière: Maria Costanza Nocentini, soprano; Tonio, a young Tyrolean: Giorgio Casciarri, tenor; Sulpizio, a sergeant of the 11th regiment: Luciano Miotto, bass; La Marchesa de Berkenfeld: Milijana Nikolic, mezzo-soprano; Ortensio, major-domo of the Marchesa: Eugenio Leggiadri-Gallani, bass; Un Caporale (A Corporal): Arturo Cauli, bass; La Duchessa (The Duchess of Crackentorp): Giulia Martella, mezzo-soprano; Un Paesano (A Peasant): Franco Becconi, tenor; Un Notaio (A Notary): Alessandro Pento, tenor; Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Marrucino di Chieti, Marzio Conti (cond.). product_id=Naxos CD 8.660161-62 price=$11.98 product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/Drilldown?name_id1=3144&name_role1=1&comp_id=900&genre=33&bcorder=195&label_id=19
Posted by Gary at 5:08 PM

The Magic Flute — English National Opera

Despite rumours to the contrary, English National Opera’s advertising material claims that this 12th revival of Nicholas Hytner’s popular production of ‘ The Magic Flute’ will be the last. Though it’s arguably better to get rid of a production in its prime rather than when it’s been done to death, it will be a sad loss. The staging has been popular with all sectors of ENO’s audience, as a result of its balance, clarity, wit and visual beauty. This staging more than any other has given me continual pause for thought over the years, leading me to better understanding of the piece.

The ‘ serious’ characters are well-rounded and balanced; after all, they are all supposed to be in some way human. The Queen of the Night is drawn in particularly fine detail; she believes that she’s acting for the good, or why would she afford Tamino the protection of the flute and the guidance of the three boys? Heather Buck’s threatening coloratura was like an explosion of simmering anger and frustration on top of a soft, warm-hued centre, not an all-guns-blazing outpouring of evil. Sarastro, too, has something to learn; as he gets to know Pamina better, he loses arrogance that he never knew he had, and comes to respect a woman as an equal.

Andrew Kennedy was a noble Tamino with lovely tone, though his oddly distorted vowel sounds are becoming increasingly irritating. Sarah-Jane Davies matched him well as Pamina, singing a beautifully poised ‘Ach, ich fühls’ (‘Now I know that love can vanish’). Brindley Sherratt’s Sarastro was perhaps a little weak on the bottom notes, but gave an imposing, centred performance, and Matthew Rose is such a fine Speaker that I long to hear him as Sarastro.

Roderick Williams was a congenial Papageno with considerable charm, delivering Jeremy Sams’s English dialogue in an approximation of a Yorkshire accent. Talking of accents, his disguised Papagena is conventionally played in this production as an elderly Irish tea-lady, which proved a verbal challenge too great for the Swedish soprano Susannah Andersson. Once she was out of ‘ character’ and into the duet, her diction was perfect and she sang very sweetly.

Magic_Flute_ENO_2007_2.pngSarah-Jane Davies (Pamina) / Brindley Sherratt (Sarastro) / Andrew Kennedy (Tamino)

The chorus were on form and Martin André conducted with delicacy and lyricism, but the greatest joy of this production remains the staging. The live doves summoned by Papageno’s pipes; the flood of green light when Tamino is wandering in the woodland; the bears tamed by the flute; the majestic white pillars of the Temple of Wisdom and its glorious interior golden screens with cut-out hieroglyphics; Papageno’s marital nest full of baby birds. Given ENO’s tendency to replace serviceable and popular stagings of core repertoire with misguided ‘concept’ productions, could they not be persuaded to keep this lovely piece of musical theatre for a few seasons longer? I hope so.

Ruth Elleson © 2007

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Magic_Flute_ENO_2007.png image_description= Heather Buck (The Queen of Night) / Andrew Kennedy (Tamino) product=yes product_title=W. A. Mozart: The Magic Flute product_by=English National Opera, 6 October 2007 product_id=Above: Heather Buck (The Queen of Night) / Andrew Kennedy (Tamino)
All photos © ENO and Robert Workman
Posted by Gary at 4:44 PM

“Apollo e Dafne” — the English Concert at St. Georges, Bristol.

He wrote it at roughly the same time as his first full-blown opera seria were starting to roll off that amazingly fruitful production line which was to dominate the English opera scene for decades, and it has music and drama of the same high quality, even if the quantity is more limited.

It is a delightful, if sobering, tale of out-of-control sexual desire which leads to loss and regret; an everyday tale of country folk set in the misty mythological past where nymphs, shepherds and passing gods wreak havoc in the Arcadian calm. The amorous god Apollo spots a nubile young wood nymph called Dafne. He becomes entranced and then besotted with her and in the end his unwanted advances force her to reject him in the only way left open to her: she turns herself into a sweet-smelling laurel bush, (forever after known to gardeners as “Daphne”) and Apollo is left to rue his heavy-handed technique, singing a heartbroken tribute to his lost love.

Although this cantata can be viewed as a simple morality tale — and most probably was in 1710 — Handel has lavished the full panoply of his skills upon it, though in miniature form compared to his greater vocal works. He actually started writing it, we think, whilst still in Venice where he was both working and networking among the nobility of that great musical centre of the time. The manuscript had to travel with him when he left for a brief sojourn in Hanover which was where it was completed. This break in the compositional timeframe is not noticeable — the arias and recitatives flow smoothly one to the other with all of the young German’s trademark felicity.

A recent national tour by the renowned baroque ensemble The English Concert has put the spotlight back on to Apollo e Dafne and a recent Friday evening saw them performing it as the semi-staged centre piece of an all-Handel programme for an appreciative audience at St. George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol. This elegant and acoustically-blessed baroque ex-church was the perfect setting for the English Concert’s stylish and alert playing, where both spirit and refinement were found in equal measure. It was particularly interesting to see the band directed not from the violin, but from the fine baroque oboe of Alfredo Bernardini, who has both worked with some of the best period ensembles in the world, and he brought a touch of Italian musical fire to proceedings as he stood and played his instrument with astounding virtuosity in both the two concerti grossi (No 2 in B flat, and No 3 in G) and a shorter cantata for solo soprano “Ah crudel nel pianto mio”.

This lament was plangently sung by visiting Spanish soprano Nuria Rial, who has an ideal voice for this kind of work — clear, limpid and quite white in tone — and she gave a polished if perhaps musically unadventurous reading of it. What was needed was an injection of Italian brio — and we got it with the entrance of Fulvio Bettini as the importuning god Apollo in the main vocal work of the evening. Bettini is an experienced singer of not only Handel’s meaty baritone roles, but also of the earlier Italian masters such as Monteverdi, and his stage credits go from that period right through to Ravel, Weill and Glass. This kind of theatrical experience showed in his robust performance — his characterisation had a 360 degree aspect and his rich middle and lower range was used to the full, expressing not only the god’s passion, but also his frustration and almost comic exasperation with his unwilling beloved. His final aria, when he mourns his vanished love, “Cara pianta, co'miei pianti” revealed a matching ability with legato line. Nuria Rial was a most believable young wood nymph and her desperation and unease was effectively captured by some stylish and elegant singing with neat ornamentation, most noticeably in the lovely aria “Felicissima quest’alma” where her tone was entrancing. The two singers combined gracefully in the final duetto “Deh, lascia addolcire”.

Sue Loder © 2007

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Apollo_e_dafne.png image_description=Apollo e Dafne product=yes product_title=G. F. Handel: Apollo e Dafne product_by=The English Concert at St. Georges, Bristol.
Posted by Gary at 4:09 PM

SHOSTAKOVICH: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

The negative spiral of evil at the core of Shakespeare’s drama inspired Leskov to retell the story in prose for Russian readers of the nineteenth century and it, in turn, became the basis of the libretto by Alexander Preis Shostakovich, who gave it a contemporary setting. In telling the story of Katerina Ismailova, Shostakovich portrayed the woman, his Lady Macbeth, with perhaps more sympathy than his nineteenth-century predecessor. The comments by Shostakovich quoted in the notes that accompany this DVD give a concise statement of his intentions:

Leskov finds no moral or psychological justification for murder. I [Shostakovich], however have portrayed Katerina Ismailov as a strong, talented and beautiful woman who succumbs to the bleak surrounds of a Russia populated by merchants and serfs. For Leskov, she is a murderess; I depict her as a complex and tragic character. She is a loving woman, a deeply sensitive woman, by no means without feeling. . . .

In this opera the dissonant idiom Shostakovich used is effective as a sonic foundation for the passionate, if angular, vocal lines. The sometimes harsh orchestral accompaniments not only support the vocal lines, but also offer cues to the audience about the emotional pitch of the scenes, and the sensitive conductor Mariss Jansons offers a perceptive reading of this score. By no means an simple work. Jansons is clear in his interpretations, which offers a clear shape in each scene. At the same time the staging of Martin Kušej offers an appropriate foil for the story, with its outline-like structures of glass and metal that support the work. This DVD is based on the televised version of that staging, which Thomas Grimm directed for film. As a filmed opera, it preserves the sense of being on stage, yet reproduces some of the necessarily intimate blocking for some scenes, with close-ups that would be difficult to capture from a live performance of the work.

The staging itself is realistic and sometimes brutal in depicting murder or sexual longing, thus bringing out further the modernist aspects of Shostakovich’s work. As Kušej is quoted in the booklet that accompanies the DVD, “Orgasm and murder are two diametrically opposed poles, two extreme amplitudes of love and hate, the two fundamental relationships between human beings. This climactic and yet unfathomably deep essence of human behavior is the linchpin of my production. . . .” On this basis, the production brings out the sometimes primal striving of characters to survive both the situations in which they find themselves and also their or drives. Such a perspective is, perhaps, what makes the heroine Katerina intriguing, and Eva-Maria Westbroek succeeds in depicting the character as someone who is at once victim and perpetrator. She is the match for Sergei, whom Christopher Ventris plays convincingly. Early in the opera, a member of the crowd warns that Sergei is troublesome, but that does not deter Katerina in her liaison with him. It is too simple to make Sergei the scapegoat for Katerina’s actions. He is, rather, the enabler, whose passion for Katerina is at the root of her fateful response to her father-in-law’s discovery of their affair.

In performing their roles, the two principals display a command of the music and its nuances. Westbroek is as compelling in her solo numbers as she is when her entrance heightens the ensemble numbers. As much as the performance requires physicality, her voice matches those demands well, and remains inviting and vibrant. Ventris, whose own presence balances that of Westbroek, is equally adept at the role of Sergei, whose brutality is convincingly offputting. Yet his singing is, on the contrary, what makes Ventris’s Sergei memorable.

The chorus serves a actor and commentator, and the members of the Netherland Opera offer a vivid sense of the crowds when necessary. The involvement of the crowd in the sexual attack is stark, and the staging stops short of being graphic. Yet the rendering of Sergei’s liaison with Katerina benefits from the stop-action clips of the performers at various angles that suggests, rather than tells. As such, the stage action balances the musical content without overwhelming it.

Beyond the sensuality associated with Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, the opera conveys a sense of the starkness that affects the characters in different ways. In interpreting the score Jansons is sensitive to that aspect of the music and maintains the intensity throughout the performance. This, in turn, drives the work to its conclusion, which is at once fitting and tragic.

This is a powerful production that makes available on video a fine production of the opera by performers who know the work well. The first two acts fill the first disc, with the third on the second. In fact, the latter contains a documentary about the film by Reiner Moritz, which offers some details about the production and the film itself. Recorded in 2006, this recent release is an impressive contribution to opera on DVD, and serves Shostakovich’s work well.

James L. Zychowicz

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Lady_Macbeth.png
image_description=Dmitri Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

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product_title=Dmitri Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk
product_by=Vladimir Vaneev, Lani Poulson, Carol Wilson, Eva-Maria Westbroek, L'udovit Ludha, Christopher Ventris Mariss Jansons, conductor, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Netherlands Opera Chorus.
product_id=Opus Arte OA0965D [2DVDs]
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Posted by jim_z at 1:20 PM

WAGNER: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Music composed by Richard Wagner. Libretto by the composer.

First Performance: 21 June 1868, Königliches Hof- und Nationaltheater, Munich

Principal Roles:
Hans Sachs, cobbler bass-baritone
Veit Pogner, goldsmith } bass
Kunz Vogelgesang, furrier } tenor
Konrad Nachtigal, tinsmith } bass
Sixtus Beckmesser, town clerk } bass
Fritz Kothner, baker } Mastersingers bass
Balthasar Zorn, pewterer } tenor
Ulrich Eisslinger, grocer } tenor
Augustin Moser, tailor } tenor
Hermann Ortel soapmaker } bass
Hans Schwarz, stocking weaver } bass
Hans Foltz, coppersmith bass
Walther von Stolzing,
a young knight from Franconia
tenor
David, Sach’s apprentice tenor
Eva, Pogner’s daughter soprano
Magdalene, Eva’s nurse soprano
A Nightwatchman bass

Setting: 16th Century Nürnberg (Northern Bavaria [Nordbayern])

Synopsis:

Act I

Inside the church of St Katherine.

Walther von Stolzing, a young nobleman, has just come to Nuremberg and fallen in love with Eva, the daughter of Pogner, a rich goldsmith and mastersinger, one of the most important men of the town. After the church service Eva contrives a few minutes with Walther to explain, in answer to his eager questions, that, although she loves him, she is not free to marry. Her father has decided to offer her hand to the winner of a mastersinging contest to be held the next day, for the festival of St John, Midsummer's Day.

Eva's maid and companion, Magdalena, arranges for her sweetheart, the apprentice David, to prepare Walther for the contest, since only mastersingers are eligible to compete. David is horrified to discover that Walther knows nothing at all about the art of mastersinging and that he hopes to reach in one day a stage which requires years of painful study - such as he is undergoing himself as he studies singing as well as shoemaking under Hans Sachs, the greatest of the mastersingers.

Other apprentices are meanwhile arranging the church for a singing test. The mastersingers begin to arrive. First are Pogner and Beckmesser, the town clerk who wants to marry Eva and is trying to urge her father to put in a good word for him. Walther takes Pogner aside and explains that he wants to join the mastersingers guild. Beckmesser eyes him off suspiciously.

When the meeting begins Pogner announces that he intends to give his daughter and her dowry as a prize in the festival song contest. Sachs suggests that the people ought to have some say in the judging, since the contest is to be public, An argument develops between Sachs and Beckmesser,who clearly regards Sachs, a widower, as a rival for Eva's hand. Sachsenrages him by answering that they are both too old for a young girl. Pogner then presents Walther as a candidate for the guild. To prove his suitability he has to sing a song but is failed by Beckmesser, who acts as examiner.

Sachs defends the song and accuses Beckmesser of not being objective, but the other masters also reject the song, finding it too free and not in accordance with the strict rules of their craft. In the ensuing argument Beckmesser complains that Sachs should spend less time on poetry and more on the pair of shoes he has ordered for the next day.

Walther, failed in the test, leaves the church angrily.

Act II

A street between the houses of Pogner and Hans Sachs, the evening of the same day.

Eva, having learned of Walther's failure to become a master, goes along to Sachs to find out the full story. He, still reflecting on the strange beauty of Walther's song, tests Eva's feelings. She responds so hotly to his disparaging remarks about Walther that he realises she loves him. He is now able to plan how to help the lovers.

When Walther comes along to find Eva he is still very angry with the masters and persuades Eva to elope with him.

She goes inside to change clothes with Magdalena, so that she can escape unnoticed and also so that Magdalena can take her place at the window to listen to a serenade which Beckmesser is supposed to be singing to her that night.

Walther and Eva wait in the street for a chance to slip away but Sachs,inside his shop, has heard their plans and is determined to stop them from taking such a rash step, so he keeps a light shining across the street so they cannot get past unobserved. When Beckmesser begins his serenade Sachs begins to hammer and sing a vigorous cobbling song. To Beckmesser's objections he agrees to stop singing but points out that he has to keep hammering - to finish the shoes Beckmesser has been complaining about.

After some argument it is agreed that Sachs is to act as marker for Beckmesser's song, only hammering when he makes a mistake. But when Beckmesser sings the hammering is so fast and furious that the shoes are finished before the song.

Then David sees Magdalena at the window and rushes out jealously to attack Beckmesser. People open their windows to see what is going on. Apprentices from rival guilds rush into the street and a general brawl develops, only broken off by the appearance of the night watchman.

Sachs manages to bundle Eva into her own house and pull Walther with him into his house just as they are on the point of running away in the confusion.

Act III

Inside Sachs' workshop, the next morning.

Hans Sachs is in a reflective mood, thinking of the midsummer madness of the night before, but still eager to help Eva and Walther. Learning that Walther has had a dream he encourages him to make it into a song, teaching as he goes along how to frame it so as not to outrage too violently the mastersingers' rules and writing it down himself as Walther sings it. With the final stanza still uncomposed they go into another room to change their clothes, leaving the song on the bench.

Beckmesser comes in and pockets the song gleefully, thinking it is by Sachs. To his surprise, Sachs does not object when he finds out, but makes him a present of it. He is torn between gratitude, feeling certain that a song by Sachs will win him the prize, and distrust that Sachs has something up his sleeve - as indeed he does, though all Beckmesser's guesses are wide of the mark. He goes off to learn the song.

Eva comes in, ostensibly to complain about her shoes. Walther is inspired by her presence to finish the song, which Sachs, putting his own feelings for Eva aside and satisfied with his matchmaking, pronounces to be a mastersong.Eva and Walther are deeply grateful to him for his help. Sachs calls David and Magdalena in to help celebrate the new song and also promotes David to the status of journeyman, which means that he and Magdalena will be able to get married. They all set off for the festival.

The festival meadow.

The apprentices of the different guilds dance and sing while waiting for the arrival of the masters. Then the proper business of the day begins: the townspeople sing an ode of praise to Sachs, who thanks them and makes the public announcement of the prize to be awarded by Pogner, exhorting those who aspire to the prize to be sure they are worthy of it in all respects.

The first competitor is Beckmesser, who makes a hopeless mess of Walther's song. In the face of general derision he defends himself by claiming that the song is by Sachs. Sachs denies this and tells them that the song is beautiful but has been ruined by Beckmesser. To prove his case he calls on the real composer to sing the song, thus giving Walther a chance to be heard - which otherwise, as an outsider, he would not have had.

With the unfair assistance of a full orchestra and chorus to back him, compared to Beckmesser's solitary lute, he sings his song, to general acclaim. Eva crowns him with the victor's garland and Pogner offers him the chain of a mastersinger. He rejects it angrily, but Sachs reproves him, telling him to honor the masters because their care has kept the art of poetry alive.

[Synopsis Source: Opera~Opera]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Meistersinger_Act3.png image_description=Act III from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Ferdinand Leeke) audio=yes first_audio_name=Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Meistersinger1.m3u product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg product_by=Hans Sachs: Paul Schoffler
Veit Pogner: Gottlob Frick
Konrad Nachtigall: Eberhard Waechter
Sixtus Beckmesser: Erich Kunz
Fritz Kothner: Hans Braun
Walther von Stolzing: Hans Beirer
David: Murray Dickie
Eva: Irmgard Seefried
Magdalene: Rosette Anday
Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, Fritz Reiner (cond.)
Live performance: 14 November 1955, Vienna
Posted by Gary at 12:30 PM

The Coronation of Poppea — English National Opera

Having collaborated in the past with choreographers including Mark Morris, the company is now two thirds of the way through a Monteverdi opera cycle in collaboration with Chinese-American director Chen Shi-Zheng, the Orange Blossom Dance Company from Indonesia, and the early-music specialist conductor Laurence Cummings. A precedent was set by the opening opera of the cycle in spring 2005 — an Orfeo of spectacularly hypnotic, fluid beauty.

The company début of rising British singer Kate Royal as Poppea was an additional selling point for this second opera in the cycle. She's a glamorous singer, with a polished sultriness in her low-lying soprano, but the stage directions prevented her from painting a convincing character portrait; she spent much of the first act perched high on the deck of Nerone’s luxury yacht (yes, there was a surreal marine theme to the production, with much of the action apparently taking place underwater) which made her untouchable and aloof. Projected images on the backdrop reinforced this idea; she was an icon, virtually a graven image to be worshipped. Despite Royal’s natural poise and elegance, there was little sense of Poppea’s earthy sexiness nor of her calculating ambition.

Lucy Crowe (Drusilla) and Robert Lloyd (Seneca) had an easier time of it, and managed to make something believable of their roles; Christopher Gillett’s Arnalta looked (intentionally) ridiculous but sang very beautifully at times.

Otherwise, the cast was a bit weak and underpowered. It is, perhaps, unfair to blame the singers for this; Monteverdi operas were not designed for a space the size of the Coliseum. Tim Mead's Ottone started off with that slightly yelpy sound which countertenors get when they over-project (though he sorted this out by the second half). Anna Grevelius, as Nerone, sang very sweetly but didn't project any masculinity either vocally or physically - certainly not enough to convince as an egomaniacal ruler. Doreen Curran’s Ottavia had considerable vocal presence, but her characterisation wasn’t aided by the fact that the director had her languishing on top of what looked like a large white pumpkin at the bottom of the sea. Indeed, the costumes and props seemed incidental to the opera, and at times even a hindrance. Sometimes it was more like a fashion show, with wacky structured haute-couture costumes which made me wonder whether we'd accidentally strayed into the Zandra Rhodes-designed Aida a few weeks early.

Poppea_ENO_Ashmore_2007.pngKatherine Manley (Fortune) / Sophie Bevan (Love) / Jane Harrington (Virtue) and Orange Blossom Dance Co

The Indonesian dance troupe were usually incidental to — indeed, often distracting from — the action rather than providing the unifying, mesmerising presence they supplied to last year’s wonderful Orfeo. The production did have moments of real beauty - like the dancers in the dragonfly costumes rising slowly into the air during "Pur ti miro". And there was great beauty in the music — is it even possible not to make this score beautiful? Laurence Cummings really understands Monteverdian line and seemed to have taken considerable trouble to share this with the cast.

But compared with Orfeo, with its sense of "flow" and constantly visually-arresting use of colour and movement, this Poppea staging was scrappy and disappointing. In truth, the biggest problems were the failure to communicate the humanity of the characters, and the fundamental sense of division between the musical performance and the visual spectacle. Chen Shi-Zheng has shown himself to be yet another director who allows his personal vision for a production to take priority over the work being performed. ENO still has him lined up to direct Il ritorno d’Ulisse and I really hope he engages more with that than he seems to have done with Poppea.

Ruth Elleson © 2007

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Royal_Poppea_Ashmore_2007_2.png image_description=Kate Royal as Poppea (Photo © Catherine Ashmore) product=yes product_title=Claudio Monteverdi: The Coronation of Poppea
English National Opera, 18 October 2007 product_by=Above: Kate Royal as Poppea
All photos © Catherine Ashmore courtesy of English National Opera
Posted by Gary at 11:54 AM

October 26, 2007

Verdi's 'Macbeth' at Metropolitan Opera

BY MARION LIGNANA ROSENBERG [Newsday, 26 October 2007]

"Macbeth" occupies a special place in Verdi's career. After its 1847 premiere (Verdi revised it in 1865), the composer dedicated it to his beloved father-in-law, calling it "dearer to me than all my other operas." Verdi reportedly made the first Macbeth and Lady Macbeth rehearse their great duet 150 times - the last time with cloaks over their costumes, in the theater lobby, while the world premiere audience waited impatiently.

Posted by Gary at 9:35 AM

Something wonderful unearthed

Isabel Rey, Jonas Kaufmann, Kismara Pessatti, Chor des Opernhauses ZürichBy Shirley Apthorp [Financial Times, 25 October 2007]

The current fad for unearthing forgotten operas has turned up some duds. Justly neglected flops are diligently dusted and polished so that they can flop again.

Posted by Gary at 7:53 AM

October 24, 2007

Der Freischütz at Oper Köln

I can recall, as a student, hearing a guest concert by the Bavarian Radio Symphony in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall that opened with Carlos Kleiber leading a thrilling reading of the overture to Weber’s “Der Freischütz.” (Every chestnut was once new to those who hadn’t heard it before, right?)

After this “teaser,” I discovered that the whole opera was not only under-represented on recordings at the time, but also that in America it was hardly ever seen at all, remaining more talked about than performed. The reason for the neglect of this “first German opera” is perhaps partly because of extended dialogue scenes which have trouble making their effect in cavernous theatres; partly because of a pervading mysticism that can seem rather silly today (except maybe to adherents of L. Ron Hubbard); and the notoriously difficult staging demands needed to credibly bring off the rather clunky dramaturgy of the “Wolf’s Crag” scene (which can so easily become so very cheesy).

More’s the pity that it is so rarely attempted, because I find much of the music sublime, that is, if you have the singers to meet its challenges. And therein perhaps lies the real reason for its neglect, since there are certainly other pieces that are dialogue heavy and dramatically “challenging” that get regular mountings (“Die Zauberflöte” comes to mind). Weber’s opus not only requires a hero and heroine with sizable, flexible heroic voices, but a bass-baritone with chords of steel. All are called upon to maintain a mounting and plausible tension in the plentiful dialogue.

Happily, in Germany, “Freischütz” is attempted much more often, though still not nearly with the frequency of other mainstream masterpieces. In my experience the two separate Frankfurt productions (one memorable only for a terrific Angela Denoke, the other for the goofiness of having the hunters got-up as Hassidic Jews); the Achim Freyer version in Stuttgart (which others liked much more than I); and even a well-meant staging in Seattle with (a slightly mis-cast) Deborah Voigt; all left me admiring individual components but none adding up to a total package. Until now.

Freischutz_Koln4.png

Cologne Opera has unveiled a new staging under the sure direction of Michael Heinicke, with a pleasing traditional set and costume design by Jens Kilian, all quite beautifully lit by Hans Toelstede. Just when you thought you may never see the like again, here is a “take” with - *gasp* - actual pretty dirndls and proper-looking hunters, and a huge, gorgeous, many-branched tree that fills the stage. In the first flush of fall, its leaves just turning, and beautifully lit, it elicited gasps at curtain rise. “Agathe’s” room was a skeletal “wall” frame of 4 X 4's, sparsely furnished, through which the ever-present tree kept nature smack at the center of things.

Mr. Heinicke is an unfussy director who, blessedly, does not seem to need to impose much of anything but common sense and strong stage pictures onto the piece. Almost everything and everybody is what or who they are supposed to be. He has elicited sincere and affecting performances from an excellent cast. However, perhaps out of obligation to do something “modern,” there are one or two moments when “Freischütz” misfires.

Just after Max loses the initial shooting contest, the taunting chorus is suddenly joined by a sextet of actual pit musicians, playing onstage in their concert attire, who join in tormenting him. Too, there is a piece of business in which “Agathe” pretends to play a cello as accompaniment to “Ännchen’s” aria. She is so clearly not playing it that it only distracts. And, in a “what-does-that-mean?” moment, “Ännchen” places the flower arrangement on the lip of the stage mid-Act I, next to the prompter’s box, where it remains until picked up again when the flowers are required in Act II. I would hope that some consideration would be given to tweaking these jarring bits, because for the rest of the evening I thought the staging had most everything one could want.

The acting was not only believable, but for once the declamation was not of the phoney- baloney Dudley Do-Right School of Operatic Elocution. “Samiel” (Joachim Berger) was a looming and evil omni-presence who eerily appeared up in the crook of the tree, evaporated into the darkened background at will, and attempted complete control over the turns-of-events, including a sinister hovering during “Agathe’s” second act aria. The “Hermit” (Wilfried Staber) too had several silent and mysterious appearances long in advance of his usual sung entrance late in Act II.

The fine young Croatian baritone Miljenko Turk (wonderful as “Billy Budd” last season) brought beauty of tone and attractive demeanor to “Ottokar.” Katharin Leyhe’s “Ännchen” was not just the usual chirpy kewpie doll, but had a tall, solid physique du role and brought some welcome starch to her characterization, producing some lovely lyric singing in the bargain. Venerable bass Ulrich Hielscher made a perfect fatherly “Kuno.” He was also feted at curtain call for his 30 years service with the company, by being made a “Kammersaenger.”

Freischutz_Koln3.png

Lithuanian soprano Ausrine Stundyte had just the right amount of heft and metal in her pleasing sound to make a winning Agathe. The hushed “Leise, leise” was beautifully internalized, and the soaring stretto section delivered all the goods. She was totally committed to the Nervous Nellie characterization that was asked of her. Indeed, I thought she was going to have a nervous breakdown in several moments -- at least I hope she was acting! (It was reminiscent of Judy in her later years. . .)

Thomas Mohr was a splendid Max. While his firm lower-voiced singing displays some signs of his former life as a baritone, the top rings true, his sense of line is commendable, his dramatic commitment is effectively varied, and he poured out beautiful sound all night long in all registers. We may have gotten spoiled, wishing every leading tenor could look like Juan Diego Florez or William Burden, and that Mr. Mohr does not. But he exuded a genuine, conflicted appeal nonetheless, albeit more in the Paul Giamatti mode.

The knockout performance this night came from the completely mesmerizing, thrillingly sung “Kaspar” of Korean bass Samuel Yuon. His focused, steely tone cut through the orchestra with ease, and his fiery melismatic work was right on the money. Moreover, he avoided every cliche that has encumbered this role in the past with acting of amazing nuance. Even the sometimes hokey asides of “Hilft, Samiel” hit their mark. His star turn in the “Wolf’s Crag” conjuring scene was awesome. I should add that he was ably abetted by some very good, strobe-like lighting effects which made the static tree actually seem to move about.

Freischutz_Koln2.png

Memory having the ennobling effect that it does, I suppose nothing will ever completely over-ride my first happy encounter with the opera’s overture those many years ago. But I found Enrico Delamboye’s conducting to be very well-considered overall. He favored faster tempi than some, with the bridesmaid’s tune and a couple of the choruses especially quick-paced. There was a brief scrappy moment or two, like the opening bars of the overture’s first agitato and a slight hiccup in the opening chorus. But even in the relatively dry acoustic of the Cologne house, the Guerzenich Orchestra, chorus and cast responded to him with often expansive, always persuasive Romantic music-making of a very high order.

If you, too, have longed for an encounter with the best of all possible performances of “Der Freischütz,” well, this could very likely be the one you’ve been waiting for.

James Sohre

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Freischutz_Koln.png image_description=Der Freischutz at Oper Koln product=yes product_title=Carl Maria von Weber: Der Freischütz product_by=All photos © Klaus Lefebvre courtesy of Oper Köln
Posted by Gary at 1:52 PM

Jan Neckers on Recently Reissued Historicals

After all there are two official recordings made in her prime and there are the widely popular live-recordings made at the Met (Bergonzi-Gorr-Solti); one even made the same year as this Rome-issue and it has the glorious voice of Franco Corelli as a bonus in the tenor role. Still Price-fans will miss out on a treat. She is in fabulous and firm voice: that unmistakably rich smoky sound domineering the whole evening. By the mid-sixties some Price-performances and even recordings were sometimes marred by her not being able or not wanting to produce a homogenous sound. She sometimes sounded as if she was experimenting with different kinds of vocal timbre so that several voices could be heard in one performance, even in one aria; all of them exciting but sometimes somewhat incompatible. She was not above growling parts of her role too. Nothing of that is to be heard in this recording: just an amazing outpouring of one of the most beautiful Verdian sounds to be heard on the scene. Her second aria is truly astounding, capped with an ethereal fine high C. The Roman house comes down and to its regret doesn’t get an encore though not for lack of trying.

None of the other singers come near though they are all interesting and didn’t have a big official recording career. Giorgio Lamberti was still very young at the time, only three years into his career. He has the true Italian sound and a vocal production that is best summed up as ‘trumpet’, reminding me of a legendary singer like Bernardo De Muro. Lamberti doesn’t commit mortal vocal sins like heavy sobbing but honesty compels me to write that he has no sense of the Verdian line, that he is just belting out the notes without any insight into his role: witness his lack of piano in the third act duet where he in has to take leave of Egypt. In the house the voice was probably fine but the unremitting penetrating sound tries the listener. Later on in his career he would have a better sense of legato, and would even succeed in giving us some pianissimi (I often heard him in the flesh; he still lives in my own Flanders) but these qualities were still to come. Mirella Parutto has a fruity mezzo and is a fine and convincing mezzo, as long as Price is not in the neighbourhood. Alas, the American soprano’s middle voice is bigger and more colourful and one hears Parutto pumping up the voice and straining for decibels. Mario Zanasi in one of his rare recordings shows off a big agreeable voice, though still singing in the verismo style in use at the Italian provincial houses. At ‘Dei Faraoni tu sei lo schiavo’ he clings interminably long to his top note, milking the house for applause. Veteran conductor De Fabritiis is fine most of the time, driving on his forces at a good Verdian speed. But now and then, mostly in the cabalettas, he gets a dose of stimulating substances (or he wants to show his singers who is the boss) and then he hurries along at a breakneck speed which must have made the singers curse him.

Lindoro_802.pngGrandes Cantantes en el Teatro San Fernando de Sevilla.
Lindoro MPCL-0802 [CD]

I’m sure vocal buffs of one of the most beautiful cities in Spain (indeed in the whole of Europe) will be pleased with a worthy souvenir of great historical singers who performed at their long lost beloved opera house of San Fernando. The house was built in the 1840’s and was renowned for the fine singers it attracted, especially just before and just after the first world war. Then it was the long road downhill until its demolition in 1973. Happily for the Sevillanos, the refurbishment of the whole city due to the world exhibition and the awful amount of money put into Spain by the European Union once more gave them an opera house, the Teatro de la Maestranza which opened in 1991. However I’m less sure that vocal buffs outside Sevilla will take up this CD. Famous singers on this CD like Capsir, Battistini, Tamagno, Lazaro, Cortis, Mardones, Fleta, Schipa etc. performed at the San Fernando and are duly incluked but I doubt very much collectors have waited for this CD to sample their voices.All of their recordings are to be found in earlier compilations or on solo albums by Preiser, Romophone, Bongiovanni or Spain’s Aria Recording. And several earlier issues are better pitched; the De Lucia record is a case in question, a tone too high. The redeeming feature of the CD is the introduction of some almost forgotten Spanish singers like Utam, Tabuyo and Granados; not all on the same level as their more famous countrymen and women but still good examples of their art and times. Perhaps a full CD with those and other lesser known performers would have found wider circulation among vocal record collectors.

arabella_decca_originals.pngRichard Strauss: Arabella.
Lisa Della Casa (Arabella), Hilde Gueden (Zdenka), George London (Mandryka), Anton Dermota (Matteo), Otto Edelman (graf Waldner), Ira Malaniuk (Adelaide), Mimi Coertse (Fiakermilli). Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Georg Solti.
Decca 00289 475 7731 [2CDs]

Arabella may be the opera suffering most from surtitles. I remember an astonished lady, finally able to grasp every detail, who commented during the pause of a Ghent performance: “but this is an operetta.” Well, not quite. I doubt Messrs. Lehar and Kalman and Romberg would have accepted some of the sillier aspects of the libretto like the big guy falling in love with a portrait. But the structure of boy meets girl (first act), boy and girl quarrel (second act) and boy and girl nevertheless find happiness is indeed completely derived from Gypsy Princess, Countess Maritza and Naughty Marietta. Georg Solti however with his nervous and dramatic conducting makes the piece less sentimental than it can be and he has at his disposal an astounding cast. Most of them belong to the fabulous post-war ensemble of the Vienna State opera and they are able to sing and to record everything between Mozart and Lehar in a still unsurpassed way. The first thing that struck me was the sound. Though recorded in early stereo in 1958 it is still amazingly warm and fresh after half a century. Therefore nobody can discard this recording in the series The Originals because it sounds old and worn.

Moreover all of the singers are at the height of their powers. Della Casa’s voice in her signature role is shimmering with beauty, youth and freshness. She is strong when she rejects the attentions of unwanted suitors; she is warm and meltingly when she meets or speaks of ‘der Richtige’ and she easily rides the orchestral climaxes. I cannot imagine a better Zdenka than the boyish sound of Hilde Gueden which becomes appropriately sensuous when she once more becomes a girl in love. Solti takes care that she doesn’t linger on or scoop as she often did in her great operetta recordings with less stern conductors. A third rediscovery is the silvery coloratura of South-Africa’s most famous diva Mimi Coertse. She is sparkling and technically proficient and her small role is a plea to Decca to reissue her recitals. The male department is almost as strong. Anton Dermota as Matteo is far better than the average Matteo. It is an ungrateful role but Dermota with his experience of Mozart and his fine un-German somewhat grainy timbre succeeds in creating a sympathetic suitor. And then there is the singer whom many Americans (and others as well) will prefer as Mandryka and whom I have doubts about. For my personal taste the bass-baritone of George London is a bit too gruff, too throaty though he brings warmth to it in the third act. He doesn’t hector as Fischer-Dieskau does but there is less charm too. Mandryka may be rough from time to time but he is a nobleman. For me London is the relatively less than perfect singer in the recording but all in all, this budget issue is unbelievably fine and convincing and maybe the best around.

Jan Neckers

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Aida_Price.png image_description=Giuseppe Verdi: Aida. product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Aida. product_by=Leontyne Price (Aida), Giorgio Lamberti (Radamès), Mirella Parutto (Amneris), Mario Zanasi (Amonasro), Luigi Roni (Il Re), Franco Pugliese (Ramfis). Orchestra and Chorus of the Rome Opera conducted by Olivero De Fabritiis. Recorded live Rome 1966. product_id=Myto Records 2MCD062.327 [2CDs] price=$37.98 product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/Drilldown?name_id1=12554&name_role1=1&comp_id=3324&genre=33&label_id=433&bcorder=1956&name_id=14830&name_role=2
Posted by Gary at 1:02 PM

October 23, 2007

Alex Ross on the music of an untamed era

Rest_Noise.png"The Rest Is Noise' considers the 'chaotic beauty' of 20th-century music.
By Susan Miron [Christian Science Monitor, 23 October 2007]

Readers of The New Yorker are already familiar with music critic Alex Ross's insightful writing and his ability to bring sounds and styles alive through erudite yet passionate consideration.

Posted by Gary at 6:40 PM

October 22, 2007

La Nilsson: My Life in Opera

Her whole life was glowing testimony to its validity. A farm girl born in southern Sweden in 1918, she grew up pulling weeds and milking cows — things that she continued to do on visits home even after moving to Stockholm to study at the Royal Academy of Music and Opera School. As she tells it in “La Nilsson,” her autobiography that has just appeared in English, hers was a straightforward life marked by diligence and hard work, no matter what the task at hand. She describes a professional journey made with feet firmly on the ground.

It was a no-nonsense career that paid off handsomely with a stellar position in the opera world for four decades. Nilsson organizes the immense detail of her long career in chapters focused on the cities enriched by her talent: Stockholm, Vienna, Bayreuth, New York and Buenos Aires; a further chapter deals with Italy’s often disorganized opera houses and others with recordings and experiences with fans. An appreciation of her husband concludes the book.

She begins with her first “Tristan” at New York’s old Met in 1959 — long after her debut with America’s major companies. This series of Isoldes became legendary, when she sang opposite three indisposed tenors in a single performance: Karl Liebl, Ramon Vinay and Albert da Costa. (Each sang one act.) Nilsson has more to say about rehearsals than performances, and this gives the book an intimate feeling of opera from the inside.

Although a number of dressing-room events provide color, she eschews gossip; she even leaves the soprano for whom Wieland Wagner left wife and family unnamed. (It was Anna Silja.) She writes generously of colleagues, and among the conductors with whom she worked she speaks only of Herbert von Karajan with reserve. She calls her relationship with him “clouded.” She was irked not only by his vanity, but by the countless hours that he — doubling as director — spent on lighting rehearsals. She was unimpressed by Karajan’s conducting without score, for this left him unable to help singers who lost their place. (Prompters, she notes, were usually half asleep.) Relying upon a bit of farm metaphor, Nilsson portrays Karajan at a Vienna rehearsal “strutting about like a cock in a henhouse, his rear end stuck out and his head in the air.... It was exactly so.”

Although her career stands as a major chapter in the history of opera, Nilsson nonetheless lived between major musical epochs. In her early years she worked with such conductors as Erich Kleiber, Fritz Busch, Issai Dobrowen and Leo Blech, men firmly rooted in traditions that prevailed before the Second World War.

Both LP’s and CD’s were introduced after her debut, and she made the first complete recording of Wagner’s “Ring.” She retired — happily — just as Regieoper was about to crown the stage director king of opera. (It was the “Ring” project that allowed Nilsson — so to speak — to raise her voice together with her Scandinavian countrywoman and great predecessor in the Wagnerian Fach Kirsten Flagstad. Flagstad sang Fricka in “Das Rheingold”; Nilsson, Bru”nnhilde in the remaining three operas of the cycle. Although the two women never met, Flagstad sent Nilsson a “fan letter” after hearing her on a broadcast “Tristan” in 1959.)

Nilsson’s account of instruction at the Stockholm conservatory recalls Anna Russell’s statement that at one time or another her voice was “ruined by all the great teachers of the day.” For two years Nilsson worked with a man who insisted that she focus the full force of the voice on the vocal chords, which produced an intense tone — but without overtones and with tension that turned to pain. After another gripped her larynx and pressed it down — again causing pain — she fled to noted Wagnerian Nanny Larsen-Todsen, who spent lesson time telling of her own earlier life as “Queen of Bayreuth.” Happily, Nilsson had the intelligence and insight to work out problems of technique on her own.

Although she was noted for her sense of humor, few of the stories that circulated following Nilsson’s death on Christmas day 2006 have found their way into this book. (Two favorites: in her first Bayreuth “Siegfried” Wolfgang Windgassen, the eponymous hero, removed the sleeping Bru”nnhilde’s armor to find the tag from her hotel door on her bosom: “Please do not disturb! And when asked whether Joan Sutherland’s bouffant hair was real, Nilsson replied: “I don’t know; I haven’t pulled it. )

Her autobiography is thus without great excitement; careful consideration of assignments and thorough preparation kept disaster at bay. She married her first love, Bertil Niklasson, a veterinarian who later went into business on his own and frequently accompanied the soprano on her many trips abroad. And although she last sang in public in 1984 on a tour of West Germany with orchestra, she never spoke of retirement and loathed the term “farewell performance.” From 1983 to 1993 Nilsson — to great acclaim — taught master classes at New York’s Manhattan School of Music.

The mechanics of “La Nilsson” furrow the critical brow. This - strangely — is a translation from the German — not from the original Swedish. And although — says the translator in a brief preface — Nilsson saw the English text and liked it — or found it better at least than two others that she saw, one wonders why the English version is not based on the Swedish original.

The English version suggests — although this is no where said — that Nilsson wrote the text. Indeed, she concludes her introduction by speaking of “the blank sheet of paper to which I shall shortly entrust some of my memories.” But that’s probably a figure of speech, possibly from the “pen” of the translator. The Swedish original, on the other hand, says that Nilsson “narrated” the text to an unnamed scribe. In an earlier day the title page of such “autobiographes” commonly stated “as told to....” If the Nilsson opus is the product of this practice, the dictatee should somewhere be named.

The book contains two sections of photos and a detailed discography.

A personal recollection: I discovered Nilsson — as it were — on my own. In Vienna early in 1954 I heard her as Elsa in “Lohengrin” and the next evening as Elisabeth [correct] in “Tannhäuser.” Although I had not heard the name before — this was her first season singing outside Sweden — I knew immediately that this was the successor to Flagstad. I saw her “live” only once again and that was as the Dyer’s Wife in Strauss’ “Frau ohne Schatten” at the San Francisco Opera in 1981. (Also in that cast were Leonie Rysanek and James King — which caused wags to call it “an original-cast performance.”)

Trivia: Nilsson reports that the Vienna Philharmonic, pit orchestra in the State Opera, tunes almost half a step higher than A-440 Hertz to achieve a brighter sound. This — as Nilsson tells in her chapter “The Battle of the High Cs” — makes life even more difficult for singers.

Wes Blomster

image=http://www.operatoday.com/La_Nilsson.png image_description=Birgit Nilsson. La Nilsson: My Life in Opera product=yes product_title=Birgit Nilsson. La Nilsson: My Life in Opera, trans. from the German by Doris Jung Popper with a foreword by Sir Georg Solti and an afterword by Peggy Tueller. product_by=Northeastern University Press, 2007. Pp. 356. product_id=ISBN: 1-55553-670-0 price=$23.10 product_url=http://www.amazon.com/dp/1555536700?tag=operatoday-20&camp=14573&creative=327641&linkCode=as1&creativeASIN=1555536700&adid=0EH54J78Z746CA6FDJWQ&
Posted by Gary at 4:59 PM

MAZZOCCHI: Madrigali e Dialoghi

Mazzocchi has several strikes against him – first, his production is exclusively vocal, and so inaccessible to listeners who don't know Italian or Latin or both. More importantly, even at this late stage in the early music (and perhaps due to reason number one), most of his work still remains inaccessible in modern editions (for example, the book of madrigals from 1638, with 24 works was only excerpted with a modern edition presenting six). The late (1664) collection of Sacrae Cantiones is available complete

Not only is there first-rate music here, but it is most winningly performed by Les Paladins. Particular applause must go to the excellent bass singing of Renaud Delaigue, who carries off deep and florid parts (not an easy combination!) with great panache. Another delectable moment is provided by the trio of sopranos Monique Zanetti and Valerie Gabail with tenor Benoit Haller, with floating and seductive tones at the opening of Breve è la vita nostra. Indeed, this moment is too brief, since here (and elsewhere in the disc, for reasons of time?) the ensemble omits verses in strophic arias (we might never have known, had the booklet not included them).

A final quibble: this is the sort of disc that drives librarians and catalogers mad, since it provides the titles of the works, but not the information about which of the composer's publications the works are drawn from. Try to rectify this next time, please! Nevertheless, this is a most valuable contribution to the yet-small Mazzocchi discography. Warmly recommended.

Tom Moore

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Mazzocchi_madrigali.png image_description=Domenico Mazzocchi: Madrigali e Dialoghi product=yes product_title=Domenico Mazzocchi: Madrigali e Dialoghi product_by=Les Paladins; Jerome Correas product_id=Pan Classics PC 10188 [CD] price=$18.99 product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=170325
Posted by Gary at 4:29 PM

Biondi’s Labors Won, or Unearthing The Lost Vivaldi

Rome’s Teatro Tordinona was the ordering venue, thus bringing gender ambiguity to a peak, due to the papal ban preventing women from appearing onstage in the Holy City. What the original Roman audience actually saw and heard was a bunch of seven castrati, partly disguised as ladies in androgynous warriors’ costumes, partly as heroes of Ancient Greece - all of them warbling in soprano and alto pitches around one single tenor impersonating the most macho character imaginable, Hercules. To make things even worse, on the podium stood a Catholic priest, Vivaldi himself, acting in the many capacities of composer, conductor, solo violinist - and probably also stage director. Suspension of disbelief, albeit on the basis of lip-service to morals, was apparently much needed…

The pendulum has now swung so far that, having to dispense with the unavailable castrati, Fabio Biondi selected no less than five ladies, plus one countertenor - and yes! two tenors, one of them very high-pitched — for the world premiere revival of the same opera. Since not any complete score of it is extant, Biondi undertook one more labor, that is tentatively reconstructing one from the sets of detached arias preserved in the libraries of Paris, Münster, Turin and several other locations, then discarding and substituting some of them for the sake of inner balance and, last but not least, composing all the missing recitatives. This bears witness to the situation recently described by the Vivaldi scholar Michael Talbot: “Today, there is not one performable Vivaldi opera that someone has not staged somewhere, and those still desirous of novelty for its own sake are now forced to explore the margins of his operatic output where fragmentary works or works of multiple authorship reside. Even there, it has grown hard to discover material for a genuine prima assoluta”.

Was the whole painstaking process worth trying? Judging from the results, it was. Vivaldi’s Ercole according to Biondi (different reconstructions might be attempted, and probably will, sooner or later) fits well into the general pattern of Venetian baroque opera prior to the Metastasio-Hasse-Farinelli revolution, which was due to start very soon, in the late 1720s. It exhibits most features thereof: mainly the intricacies in the plot and sub-plots, which result in mixed styles of singing, ranging from quasi-comic through amorous, to utterly heroic or tragic, sometimes all within the same character. In other words, variety pays a premium over dramatic consistency or psychological credibility. Thus, for instance, the title-role Ercole aptly delivers a row of warlike and menacing arias as he keeps clubbing his way to the final triumph; nevertheless, he also produces himself in a sort of love lesson paternally delivered to Martesia, an Amazon princess who ignores the very basics of marriage and wavers between the competing Greek princes Alceste and Telamone, both in love with her. Enhanced by the charm of Vivaldi’s compelling rhythms, unison accompaniments, colorful orchestral palette, all that amounted to some three hours of sheer, if not particularly highbrow, entertainment. Needless to say, lovers’ complaints, warriors’ bravados, last-minute rescues — and an unusually high rate of battle scenes involving brasses and kettledrums — led to the unavoidable happy end, when peace was restored and sealed with a double marriage.

Among the singing company, high praise was due to both Amazon queens (and sisters), mezzo Romina Basso as Antiope and soprano Roberta Invernizzi as Ippolita, for their unfailing intonation and agility, clear diction, style competence and acting stamina. The same was true for Laura Polverelli in the trousers role of Alceste, prince of Sparta, as well as for tenor Carlo Allemano in the title-role, who displayed a doughy quasi-baritone register and a bodily appearance well matching the muscular demi-god he was supposed to impersonate. Pity that the young and lovely soubrette Stefanie Irányi as Martesia, reportedly impaired by a cold, was a bit short of breath now and then. Nor did the mellifluous Catalan countertenor Jordi Domènech (Teseo), just perfect as a subdued lover, sound fully up to the requirements of an hero, mainly because of lacking dynamic variety. Both Emanuela Galli as Orizia and Mark Milhofer as Telamone got going very hard, yet their vocal technique still needs some refinement in order to meet the stipulations of this particular repertoire.

In the (Vivaldi-like) double bill of conductor and first violin, occasionally also grabbing the viola d’amore, Biondi led the performance with a relentless overall pulse, a nuanced choice of tempi and, most notably, a careful insight into the singers’ needs for breath and action — nowadays not a terribly common feature among opera conductors, whether of period bands or regular pit orchestras. His Europa Galante sounded like a large multi-register theorbo struck by a single hand: an amazing outcome, considering the frequent turnover of instrumentalists within its ranks. Biondi has clearly got a signature sound, one of the most exciting in the early music scene today — to say nothing of his individual prowess on the baroque violin.

Generally appreciated were the costumes, a mixture of fanciful 18th-century fashions and military paraphernalia much in the guise of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Some disappointment was instead caused by the fixed set which, according to ongoing anticipations, was due to be part of an historically informed staging care of the Arts Faculty, University of Venice, under the supervision of Walter Le Moli, a respected professional. Actually, it was all about huge square portals in the mould of stock Neoclassic, providing functional in-and-out access to the backstage. No machines, no decorations, no spectacular effects whatsoever.

***

The same set was re-used for the ensuing Bajazet, less than a novelty for early opera freaks since Biondi’s award-winning recording released in 2005 by Virgin, yet still a rarely staged title. (Back in 1994, this writer attended a fully-staged production under the alternative title Il Tamerlano — at Verona’s Teatro Filarmonico where it originally had premiered in 1735, but the singers were hardly historically informed).

As it turned out, the present Venice production was only semi-staged, with the characters dressed in modern black attires as if for a formal cocktail party, and all of the action revolving, in a rather indecipherable manner, around a Victorian-style couch in red velvet. Once again, the real centerpiece was the singing cast, studded with heavier sounding women’s voices. The barbaric warlord Tamerlano was Daniela Barcellona, towering for her imposing physical shape no less than for the force and precision of her deep mezzo. As the destitute Little Orphan Asteria, Marina De Liso unfolded hot temperament and versatility in her four widely diverse arias. As Prince Andronico, Lucia Cirillo delivered a passionate rendering of “La sorte mia spietata”, a Vivaldi borrowing from Hasse’s Siroe. Notoriously, Bajazet is a thoroughgoing pasticcio, in which several arias are favorites of the singers themselves, a.k.a. arie di baule, mostly in the ‘new’ Neapolitan style. This doesn’t apply to the unfortunate Bajazet, who, besides one exciting showpiece from Vivaldi’s own Motezuma (“Dov’è la figlia?”), is just allotted a row of angry utterances or frantic vocal gesticulations with very little thematic substance in them. Despite that, tenor Christian Senn emerged with full honors from his unrewarding part.

The sole survivor from the 2005 recording was Vivica Genaux, in the not-so-important role of Irene. However, her appearance raised an unprecedented salvo of curtain calls among the demanding operagoers of Venice. Clad in a funereal black attire vaguely resembling a chador, the Alaskan mezzo machine-gunned an incredible amount of vocal pyrotechnics in “Qual guerriero in campo armato”, the treacherous coloratura piece written by Riccardo Broschi for his brother Farinelli, bristling with inter-registral leaps extending over two and a half octaves and featuring endless florid passages in semiquavers. In contrast, another Farinelli suitcase aria, “Sposa, son disprezzata” (by Geminiano Giacomelli), gave evidence for her deep dramatic potential and faultless legato technique. During the intermissions, there was much arguing among the patrons about the frantic quivering motions of her lips and lower jaw. While some cognoscenti tended to identify a technical device for hitting each note more clearly and precisely (“finding the position”), others called that a disturbing mess or a pointless mannerism. The dispute was solved by an old gentleman who suggested with a meek smile: “Perhaps she’s not from Alaska, but from somewhere in the outer space: the Planet of Steel Nightingales...”.

Carlo Vitali © 2007

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Ercole_La_Fenice_10-07.png image_description=Ercole sul Termodonte di Antonio Vivaldi (Foto (c) Michele Crosera) product=yes product_title=Antonio Vivaldi, Ercole sul Termodonte, 6 October 2007
Antonio Vivaldi, Bajazet, 7 October 2007 product_by=Teatro Malibran, Venice
A Fondazione La Fenice production product_id=Above: Photo © Michele Crosera
Posted by Gary at 3:56 PM

Opera at the BBC Proms 2007

The opera was done in a hybrid edition in which the familiar 1865 score gives way to the 1847 finale following ‘Pietà, rispetta, amore’, thus keeping all the later version’s best music and gaining a more theatrical, less ‘operatic’ ending.

Indeed, it had been a theatrically-compelling staging — at its Glyndebourne home. However its bulky sets and large-scale choreography simply wouldn’t have been viable in the limited dimensions and exposed nature of the Royal Albert Hall platform. Consequently Geoffrey Dolton’s semi-staged adaptation retained little of the original, and had it not been for the tartan costumes which provided such a clear indication of family allegiances, it might as well have been given in concert.

On its own terms, however, the musical performance was very strong, led by Vladimir Jurowski whose conducting had rhythmic delicacy and dramatic sweep. Voices which sound thrillingly huge in Glyndebourne’s intimate and forgiving acoustic can struggle to make an impression in the cavernous Royal Albert Hall, but as Lady Macbeth, Sylvie Valayre was notable here for her strength and lyricism, and Stanislav Shvets for a portentous yet introverted account of Banquo. Strong performances too came from Andrzej Dobber in the title role, and Peter Auty as a young Macduff who is matured by his personal tragedy.

On to August 12th and this season’s operatic highlight: a concert performance of Götterdämmerung, the culmination of the first “Ring cycle” in the Proms’ 113-year history - in reality, performances of the four operas by four different companies over the space of four years. After visits from Simon Rattle with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Antonio Pappano with a semi-staged adaptation from the Royal Opera, and Christoph Eschenbach with the Orchestre de Paris, the baton was handed to Donald Runnicles and the Proms “house band”, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, for the final instalment in a concert performance.

It was a terrific ensemble effort by all concerned, speaking volumes about Runnicles’ rapport with the orchestra. Christine Brewer (a regular guest performer with the BBCSO) was a radiant, committed Brünnhilde. Stig Andersen gave a muscular performance as Siegfried albeit with a couple of botched top notes, and John Tomlinson’s Hagen was a triumph of characterisation and malevolent stage presence. Of the supporting cast, the Scottish mezzo Karen Cargill gave a notably excellent performance as Waltraute; her focused, dramatic sound and expansive phrasing will surely stand her in good stead for similar repertoire in the future. Only the Norns — Andrea Baker, Natascha Petrinsky and Miranda Keys — sounded as though they had not been employed with the success of the ensemble in mind, and even this is no reflection on the individual singers.

This performance was a great achievement and, like all successful Wagner performances, succeeded in making six hours go by in the blink of an eye.

August 20th brought a performance of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Christoph von Dohnányi, in a concert whose first half featured Webern’s orchestration of part of Bach’s ‘Musical Offering’ and a recently-assembled concert suite from Thomas Adès’s 1995 opera Powder Her Face. Contemporary music, even going back as far as Bartók, simply doesn’t seem to pull in the crowds at the Proms; the hall was almost empty. This cannot have done much for the morale of the orchestra or soloists, but this Bluebeard performance would surely have been disappointing in any case. Charlotte Hellekant was miscast as Judit, her glacial poise giving no indication of the warmth she promises to bring to her chilly new home. Correspondingly there was scant evocation of this in the orchestral playing, and little sense of the richly-drawn individual musical worlds to be found behind each of the seven doors. The orchestral balance was all wrong too, swamping Falk Struckmann’s intelligent, generous-voiced Bluebeard.

In the final week of the season, James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra visited for two evenings — an orchestral concert as well as a concert performance of Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. This performance fell on September 6th, the day Luciano Pavarotti died, and the performance was dedicated to his memory.

Vocally the highlight was Yvonne Naef’s glorious mezzo in her fevered, introverted account of ‘D’amour l’ardente flamme’, but elsewhere there were a few problems. As Faust, Marcello Giordani had a tendency to strain, while as Méphistophélès, the veteran José van Dam sounded a touch threadbare. The real strengths in the principal ensemble lay elsewhere; the dynamic between Faust and Méphistophélès was well-developed, and the characters were finely-drawn and well rounded. This was, after all, a late date in the orchestra’s tour calendar, so the opera (or rather the ‘dramatic legend’) came to London fully ripe. This experience was evident too in the disciplined and vivid singing of the chorus, and in the wonderful orchestral playing especially in some of the solo woodwind.

Ruth Elleson © 2007

image=http://www.operatoday.com/proms_2007.png image_description=The Royal Albert Hall, Home of the Proms!, Image © BBC product=yes product_title=The Royal Albert Hall: Home of the Proms!
Image © BBC
Posted by Gary at 11:00 AM

Turbulent and Tense

Zemlinsky_small.pngBY JAY NORDLINGER [NY Sun, 22 October 2007]

James Conlon is a good friend to Alexander von Zemlinsky, and Zemlinsky is a good friend to him. Mr. Conlon is the American conductor who is now music director of the Los Angeles Opera (and some other things); Zemlinsky is the Viennese composer who straddled two centuries, living from 1871 to 1942. Mr. Conlon has recorded a good deal of his music, including "A Florentine Tragedy," a short opera.

Posted by Gary at 9:32 AM

Elina Garanca und Mariss Jansons preisgekrönt

garanca_small.pngBei einer Gala in München sind am Sonntagabend die Echo Klassik Preise 2007 verliehen worden. Die Starsopranistin Montserat Caballé nahm die Auszeichnung für ihr Lebenswerk entgegen.

[DPA, 21 October 2007]

Als Sängerin des Jahres wurde Elina Garanca geehrt. Der zum Sänger des Jahres gekürte Simon Keenlyside hatte seinen Auftritt aus persönlichen Gründen abgesagt.

Posted by Gary at 9:17 AM

October 21, 2007

Monteverdi with an image problem

monteverdi.pngBy Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 21 October 2007]

When Monteverdi wrote L’incoronazione di Poppea for republican Venice in 1642, he devised an opera not about mythical archetypes but – a probable first for the nascent art form – about real human beings. He showed their frailties, their ability to love and hate, to be good, evil, pompous, humble, callous and kind. Poppea is unashamedly popular in its treatment of love, lust and power.

Posted by Gary at 9:47 PM

This Time, No Laughing at the Witches

macbeth2.pngBy MATTHEW GUREWITSCH [NY Times, 21 October 2007]

THOUGH few would deny that Verdi’s “Macbeth,” based on Shakespeare’s tragedy, is a work of genius, experts may disagree about the true nature of Verdi’s achievement. Adrian Noble, a former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company in London who has staged the play twice, points to Verdi’s scene of Scottish refugees lamenting the state of their country under the tyrant’s yoke, a far cry from Shakespeare’s political game of cat-and-mouse among fugitive Scottish nobles.

Posted by Gary at 9:42 PM

Killer queen

medee_delacroix_small.pngPrincess, sorceress, child-murderer - Medea is a goldmine for dramatists and composers. As a new production of Handel's Teseo tours, Andrew Huth unmasks an exotic myth

[The Guardian, 19 October 2007]

"Nothing that's grim, nothing that's Greek. She plays Medea later this week," they sing at the beginning of Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. And they don't come much grimmer than Medea, who leaves a trail of havoc through a whole series of Greek myths. Myths recounted by Greeks, that is, for the whole point of Medea is that she's not Greek at all. She's an exotic, a sorceress from a mysterious land at the very edge of the world.

Posted by Gary at 7:02 PM

Dostojewski in Wien: Suchtverhalten als Ahnung

Dostoevsky.pngWILHELM SINKOVICZ [Die Presse, 18 October 2007]

„Der Spieler“. Prokofieffs Dostojewski-Oper kam aus St. Petersburg an die Wien.

Sergej Prokofieff ist wahrscheinlich einer der besonders falsch bewerteten Meister der musikalischen Moderne. Einige seiner Werke haben es im Vergleich zur durchschnittlichen Produktion „wichtiger“ Komponisten seiner Zeit zu unglaublicher Popularität gebracht. Mit den Klängen von „Peter und der Wolf“ sind wir alle aufgewachsen, fanden sie im Ballett bei „Romeo und Julia“ wie im Konzertsaal – etwa im Dritten Klavierkonzert und der ersten Symphonie, der sogenannten „klassischen“ – erfreut wieder und nahmen zur Kenntnis, dass gerade weil wir das als so erfreulich empfanden, die Musikwissenschaft mehrheitlich über die Rückschrittlichkeit von Prokofieffs Musik referierte und ihn aufs ästhetische Abstellgleis schob.

Posted by Gary at 7:00 PM

STRAUSS: Ariadne auf Naxos

Only a few months following the premiere of Der Rosenkavalier, Hugo von Hofmannsthal proposed a new opera to Richard Strauss based on Molière’s comedy-ballet, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (in German, Der Bürger als Edelmann).

As initially conceived, the work was in two parts—the first being an adaptation of Le Bourgeois gentilhomme with incidental music composed by Strauss and the second being a collision of an opera seria based on the legend of Ariadne with commedia dell’arte, which would replace the Turkish ceremony with which Molière’s play ends. The work was completed in April 1912 and premiered in Stuttgart the following October. As Charles Osborne notes:

The first night, on October 25, was something of a disaster. Though the press reports were in general favourable, the audience received the Molière-Hofmannsthal-Strauss mélange without enthusiasm. Those who had come to enjoy Molière were bored by the opera which was tacked on at the end of the comedy, while the opera-goers who had come to hear Strauss’s latest opera were vexed at having first to sit through a play by Molière.

[Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Strauss, London: Grange Books, 1992]

Eventually, the work was revised with the first part being entirely rewritten as a prologue to the opera. The location was changed from Paris to Vienna, all dance scenes were eliminated and the plot bears but scant resemblance to Molière’s play. The incidental music that Strauss had composed would reappear later as Le Bourgeois gentilhomme Suite (1920).

As revised, Ariadne auf Naxos premiered at the Hofoper in Vienna on 4 October 1916.

Synopsis

Prologue

In the house of the richest man in Vienna, where a sumptuous banquet is to be held in the evening, two theatrical groups are busy preparing their entertainments. The Music Master protests to the Major-domo about the decision to follow his pupil's opera seria, Ariadne auf Naxos, with 'vulgar buffoonery'. The Major-domo makes it plain that he who pays the piper calls the tune and that the fireworks display will begin at nine o'clock. The Composer wants a last-minute rehearsal with the violinists, but they are playing during dinner. The soprano who is to sing Ariadne is not available to go through her aria; the tenor cast as Vacchus objects to his wig. There is typical backstage chaos. Seeing the attractive Zerbinetta and inquiring who she is, the composer is told by the Music Master that she is leader of the commedia dell'arte group which is to perform after the opera. Outraged, the Composer's wrath is turned aside when a new melody occurs to him. The Major-domo returns to announce that his master now requires both entertainments to be performed simultaneously and still to end at nine o'clock sharp. More uproar, during which the Dancing Master suggests that the Composer should cut his opera to accommodate the harlequinade's dances.

The plot of Ariadne is explained to Zerbinetta, who mocks the idea of 'languishing in passionate longing and praying for death'. To her, another lover is the answer. Zerbinetta and the Composer find they have something in common when Zerbinetta tells him 'A moment is nothing - a glance is much'. 'Who can say that my heart is in the part I play?' Heartened, the Composer sings of music's power. But when he sees the comedians scampering about, he cries, 'I should not have allowed it.'

Opera

On the island of Naxos, where Ariadne has been abandoned by Theseus, who took her with him from Crete after she had helped him to kill the Minotaur. Ariadne is asleep, watched over by three nymphs, Naiad, Dryad and Echo. They describe her perpetual inconsolable weeping. Ariadne wakes. She can think of nothing except her betrayal by Theseus and she wants death to end her suffering. Zerbinetta and the comedians cannot believe in her desperation and Harlequin vainly tries to cheer her with a song about the joys of life. She sings of the purity of the kingdom of death and longs for Hermes to lead her there. The comedians again try to cheer her up with singing and dancing, but to no avail. Zerbinetta sends them away and tries on her own, with her long coloratura aria, the gist of which is that there are plenty of other men besides Theseus. In the middle of the aria, Ariadne goes into her cave. Zerbinetta and her troupe then enact their entertainment in which the four comedians court her.

The three nymphs excitedly announce the arrival of the young god Bacchus, who has just escaped from the sorceress Circe. At first he mistakes Ariadne for another Circe, while she mistakes him for Theseus and then Hermes. But in the duet that follows, reality takes over and Ariadne's longing for death becomes a longing for love as Bacchus becomes aware of his divinity. As passion enfolds them, Zerbinetta comments that she was right all along: 'Off with the old, on with the new.'

[Source: http://www.abc.net.au/classic/opera/s1384766.htm]

Click here for the full text of the libretto.

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Live performance, 20 April 1996, Weiner Staatsoper, Vienna

Posted by Gary at 2:39 PM

MOZART: Der Schauspieldirektor

Music composed by W. A. Mozart. Libretto by Gottlieb Stephanie the younger.

First Performance: 7 February 1786, Schönbrunn, Orangery

Characters:
Frank, an impressario Speaking role
Eiler, a banker Speaking role
Buff, an actor Speaking role
Herz, an actor Speaking role
Madame Pfeil, an actress Speaking role
Madame Krone, an actress Speaking role
Madame Vogelsang, an actress Speaking role
Vogelsang, a singer Tenor
Madame Herz, a singer Soprano
Mademoiselle Silberklang, a singer Soprano

Setting: an impresario’s room in Salzburg, 1786.

Synopsis:

Gottlieb Stephanie, who had previously collaborated with Mozart in Entführung aus dem Serail, portrays the misadventures of the entrepreneur Frank who must put together a company of actors and singers while dealing with their whims, rivalries and pretensions of exorbitant remuneration. The economic problems are resolved thanks to banker Eiler’s intervention in exchange for Frank pretending to engage his lover, Madams Pfeil. The musical passages are in the second part of the job, when Frank begins the auditions of the singers. Madams Herz sings an air ranging from an initially pathetic and sentimental character to a bright conclusion, rich in virtuosities. The following air tests Mlle Silberklang. In the trio “Ich bin die erste Sängerin” the two ambitious singers confront him on who the prima donna will be, while Monsieur Vogelsang attempts to reconcile matters. The singers determine that art can thrive with all the personal ambition only through the peaceable cooperation of all their strengths.

Click here for the complete libretto.

Click here for vocal score.Schauspieldirektor_score.png

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iTunes, FooBar2000, WinAMP or VLC first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Schauspieldirektor1.m3u product=yes product_title=W. A. Mozart: Der Schauspieldirektor product_by=Madame Herz: Edita Gruberova
Mlle. Silberklang: Krisztina Laki
M. Vogelsang: Thomas Moser
Buff: István Gáti
Mozarteum-Orchester, Leopold Hager (cond.)
Live performance, 29 July 1976, Salzburger Festspiele 1976
Posted by Gary at 2:20 PM

October 18, 2007

Diva fever

bartoli.pngCecilia Bartoli celebrates an illustrious forebear on Maria.

By Marion Lignana Rosenberg [Time Out New York, 18 October 2007]

Irony of fate: Cecilia Bartoli’s voice in the theater or concert hall is surely one of the most beautiful sounds to be heard. Yet for North American audiences, Bartoli is primarily a recording artist. New Yorkers have not heard her in opera since 1998 (Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro at the Met), and her local appearances in concert and recital have grown increasingly rare.

[Click here for additional commentary by the author.]

Posted by Gary at 9:06 AM

October 17, 2007

Royal College of Music: A serenade by the grateful stars of song

RCM.png[Daily Telegraph, 18 October 2007]

The Royal College of Music's world-renowned alumni are gathering to celebrate its 125th birthday, says Ivan Hewett

In 10 days' time, some of Britain's starriest singers will be gathered together to sing in the same piece on the same stage. That's an amazingly unlikely event, as they have careers that keep them constantly on the move to every corner of globe.

Posted by Gary at 7:59 PM

Seattle Opera’s mythic interpretation is a knockout.

iphigenia_seattle.pngPhoto © Seattle Opera Photo
By Gavin Borchert [Seattle Weekly, 17 October 2007]

In Seattle Opera's Iphigenia in Tauris, composer Christoph Willibald Gluck and director Stephen Wadsworth spin out a slender plot into two of the most absorbing hours of opera in memory. The story is taken from Euripides, and in a brief but breathtaking prologue, the title character is rescued from the sacrificial altar by Diana, the two of them silently whooshing into the air. As the opera opens, Iphigenia has become a priestess in far-off Tauris. Charged with the killing of two prisoners—ironically ordered to inflict upon them the fate she escaped—she agonizes over the deed until her connection to them is revealed.

Posted by Gary at 7:07 PM

Sellars lends unique vision to production

osvaldo_golijov.pngPhoto Tanit Sakakini © 2005
By Keith Powers [Boston Herald, 17 October 2007]

If the overused phrase “think outside the box” was never coined, it would have to be for director Peter Sellars.

Posted by Gary at 7:02 PM

Pushy Mother Plots to Win Her Son the Top Spot

Agrippina.pngBy ALLAN KOZINN [NY Times, 16 October 2007]

The New York City Opera has been particularly hospitable to Handel, but its productions come and go, often bursting onto the New York State Theater stage for a season and then disappearing. Its “Agrippina” was first seen in 2002, after a 2001 showing at the Glimmerglass Opera, which co-produced it. It has been scarce since then, but on Sunday afternoon Lillian Groag’s ultramodern staging returned to the repertory.

Posted by Gary at 6:29 PM

October 16, 2007

Rediscovery: Hélène by Saint-Saëns

Nellie_Melba.png[Media-Newswire.com, 16 October 2007]

A recently rediscovered opera written especially for Victorian music icon, Dame Nellie Melba, has its world premiere recording in Melbourne more than a century after its last performance, Minister for the Arts, Lynne Kosky, said today.

Ms Kosky said that Melbourne-based Melba Recordings made history at the South Melbourne Town Hall this month with the first ever recording of Hélène, a neglected masterpiece written by French composer Camille Saint-Saëns especially for Dame Nellie Melba to sing.

Posted by Gary at 4:32 PM

San Francisco stages triumphant Tannhäuser

In Houston he set a record for world and American premieres and built a house - with both a 1000- and 2000-seat theater that bespeaks the commitment of that oil-rich town to the arts. Indeed, Gockley is the man who made opera grand in Houston and made the HGO a way of life in the city.

And when Pamela Rosenberg departed from the San Francisco Opera after six rather unfortunate seasons, it was widely agreed that Gockley was the only person who could put the company together again and restore it to the position of prominence that it had had for well over half a century. Gockley arrived as SFO general director just before the opening of the 2006-2007 season and during that year he was largely the executor of plans made and laid by Rosenberg. Thus it is in with the season that opened in September that Gockley’s presence is now clearly felt in the Bay Area, and it is clear that he is doing even more than might reasonably have expected of him in so short a time.

Gockley set out to make his mark with two productions: the world premiere of Philip Glass’ “Appomattox” and Richard Wagner’s “Tannhäuser, which opened on September 18 as his first all-new staging at the SFO. And in choosing “Tannhäuser” as his signature piece, he has gained the respect not only of his community, but of the larger opera world as well.

In an essay in the program book for the staging Gockley says that he chose Wagner’s “Italianate” work to “make a statement on how a company views itself and what it thinks opera ultimately is,” stressing further the necessity “to keep moving into the future just as we are rooted in tradition.” Thus the new “Tannhäuser” is more than just one more “go” at the opera; the production is something of a lab experiment that lets the public in on what Gockley has in mind for the SFO. And there is hardly another work in the established repertory that presents the challenge that Gockley sought - and found - in Wagner’s early and often revised work.

Despite those who would yoke the composer to his own 19th-century Bayreuth stagings, it was Wagner who commanded: “Kinder, macht Neues!” - “Do something new, guys!” That Gockley had those words in mind is obvious from the fact that 13 of 17 members of the cast made SFO debuts in this “Tannhäuser,” and the same is true of five of the production staff - including at the top director Graham Vick and designer Paul Brown.

Vick, Brown’s frequent co-worker in Europe, speaks of the opera as a mix of “site-specific Romanticism and open-ended symbolism,” a combination that sparks the creative imagination. The two men see no need to move visually out of the Middle Ages, as was rather cutely done in last season’s “Tannhäuser” at the Los Angeles Opera, where as the eponymous hero Peter Seiffert cast his mini-harp aside and - clad in black tie and tales - sat down at an on-stage Steinway to belt out his song of sensuous love.

That’s doesn’t make academic medievalists of Vick and Brown, for as the director explains, his mission was to define the point at which “the content of the opera interacts with the world today” in his quest for “a wilder, more mythic view.” And they found this by focusing upon the troubled man that Tannhäuser is. Or as Vick puts it: “Tannhäuser’s problem is Tannhäuser.” Thus the knightly minstrel is not torn between the sexual excesses of life on the Venusberg and a calmer existence with virginal Elisabeth; he is rather the helpless victim of conflicting desires raging within him.

Once the director opens the listener’s eye to this view, it is hardly surprising to realize that Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung, those early explorers of the psyche, were born - respectively - in 1856 and 1875, well before Wagner composed “Parsifal,” his last work, and then died in 1882. Vick thus takes Tannhäuser on a turbulent stream-of-consciousness journey that brings unusual fascination to the opera.

“It’s the story of the married man who has left his wife and gone to live with the other woman,” says Vick. “But he can’t settle down with his mistress, so he returns to his wife, only to discover that he can’t live with her either. “He loses out on all fronts and has a nervous breakdown.” Thus Tannhäuser is not lured to destruction by woman, but by his own desire; he is struggling to find fulfillment and integration of his own personal life.

Even at the penultimate performance of the season on October 7, the production was of exuberant freshness. Peter Seiffert sang as if 20 years younger than he was in Los Angeles a year ago, and Petra Maria Schnitzer, the Los Angeles Elisabeth, gave an inspired performance of her “Prayer” aria. Petra Lang was an appropriately seductive Venus. Veteran bass Eric Halfvarson seemed rejuvenated as the Landgraf. The show-stealer, however, was youthful James Rutherford as Wolfram; his “Evening Star” will long shine in the memory. And Czech Stefan Margita — Walther — is clearly a tenor worth watching. Ian Robertson, long chorus master at the SFO, had his ensemble gloriously well prepared for both the arrival of the guests and “Pilgrims’” Chorus.

In Donald Runnicles the SFO has for 15 years had the services of one of the top Wagnerian conductors of the day. Runnicles opted for the Paris version of the score with its expanded ballet, which was choreographed by Ron Howell. While in this scene others today titillate the ageing opera audience with a bit of soft porn, Howell took “Bacchanal” at face value and unleashed his dancers upon the stage in a true state of Dionysian frenzy. It might not be ballet, but Howell’s concept was totally in keeping with Vick’s approach to the story. Completing the cast, by the way, was Alloy, a white quarter horse, who — handled by his owner Gary Sello — behaved impeccably on stage.

This “Tannhäuser” leaves no doubt about it: the San Francisco Opera and David Gockley has both made correct choices!

Wes Blomster

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San Francisco Opera product_by=Above: Peter Seiffert (Tannhäuser)
Photo by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera
Posted by Gary at 2:05 PM

GIORDANO: Fedora

After making it straight-faced through a synopsis of the insubstantial yet overly complex narrative, Pfister sums up with this: “Above all, however, Fedora is an extremely effective stage vehicle for a prima donna.”

The irony of that lies in the fact that Fedora’s main claim to operatic fame today comes from its central tenor aria, “Amor ti Vieta.“ Without that “big tune,” no one might care at all what sort of vehicle the opera made for a soprano. Basically, the story gives the soprano reason to fret and wring her hands for three acts before drinking poison. In Paris, Fedora’s lover is shot, and she identifies his killer as Count Loris. However, he offers an explanation that mollifies her (seems her lover was cheating on her with Loris’s wife). She falls in love with the Count, but not before identifying him to his political enemies. They go after his family, and he announces that he will seek out the woman who set his enemies on his trail. In despair, Fedora admits it was herself, and drinks poison, dying in Loris’s arms.

Giordano has ample opportunity for melodramatic inspiration in Arturo Colautti’s libretto. Neither character is very sympathetic, unfortunately, and the supporting cast is thin on interest or even relevance to the plot. This is an opera done fair recompense to its quality by having it live on in the 3 minute encore for tenor recitals that “Amor ti vieta” provides.

The La Scala DVD still makes for a mildly enjoyable wallow, with its old-fashioned backdrop sets by Luisa Spinatelli, idiomatic conducting by Gianandrea Gavazzeni, and Freni singing gloriously. She has Placido Domingo for her Loris, and his tasteful “Amor ti Vieta” earns a substantial ovation, though some listeners may join your reviewer in wishing for a more visceral delivery. Alessandro Corbelli hams it up delightfully in his rather pointless little scene.

This Fedora serves as a reminder that some operas live on the outskirts of the standard repertory because they really don't fit in when they make it into town.

Chris Mullins

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Posted by Gary at 9:35 AM

“Dein ist mein ganzes Herz”

Or perhaps not remarkable at all when you take into account the considerable talents of Angelika Kirchschlager and Simon Keenlyside. Fans of this pair (count me in) and/or operetta should revel in their fine renditions of predictable standards along with some delectable excerpts that are less performed. Strauss, Lehar, von Suppe,and Kalman are all well represented, of course, alongside a pair of jewels from works by Milloecker and Stolz.

The recital kicks off with the duet “Weisst Du Es Noch” (“Die Csardasfuerstin”) that alternates playful patter with a lushly expansive and deeply felt “haunting refrain.” The duo establishes their impeccable credentials at once, displaying sound technique, naturally beautiful instruments, clear diction, compatible partnering, and complete command of the material and style. It is doubtful that either artist has performed all, or perhaps any of these roles in a staged production, yet each seems immersed in the material, conferring each selection with an appropriate characterization.

The many waltz numbers do tend to have a certain (albeit lovely) aural sameness to them, but that is not the fault of the artists. Still, von Suppe’s 3/4-time “Mia Bella Fiorentina” (“Boccaccio”) offers some diversity of mood, not to mention language. And both singers show imagination and seriousness of purpose in quite successfully creating a fresh take on each piece.

My personal pick of the mezzo’s offerings would have to be the hushed pleasure she lavishes on “Hab’ Ich Nur Deine Liebe” (“Boccaccio” again). The underlying tango rhythms of the aria from Kalman’s “The Violet of Montmartre” (oh, that again!) buoy the baritone to perhaps his best and most nuanced reading in the collection.

Did the world really need another traversal of “Ich Lade Gern Mir Gaeste Ein” (“Chacun a Son Gout”), “Viljalied,” or “Meine Lippen Die Kuessen So Heiss”? Perhaps not. But Ms. Kirchschlager is idiomatic and persuasive on them, and the first does serve to bring a needed bit of cheeky variation in the material. If the “Vilja” does not have quite the freedom and panache in the upper reaches that some lyrico-spinto sopranos have brought to it, and if “Meine Lippen. . .” does not have the hedonistic abandon that Anna Netrebko brought to it recently in Baden-Baden, they are nonetheless beautifully voiced.

Among his other always enjoyable arias, the baritone charms us with a delightfully sly “Da Geh’ Ich Zu Maxim” (“Die Lustige Witwe”) marked as much by virile full-throated phrases as it is by playful, hushed, and coy asides. The CD’s titular “Dein Ist Mein Ganzes Herz” finds Keenlyside (standing in for the usual tenor) in rapturous command of all the schmaltz, crooning, and tonal outpouring needed for maximum effect in bringing the whole affair to a thrilling close.

The Tonkuenstler-Orchester Noe under the secure leadership of Alfred Eschwe is an able partner in these highly enjoyable, and eminently listenable results offering pliable phrasing, nice solo work, and solid rhythmic pulse as required.

Operetta. Like it or not, you probably just aren’t ever going to hear these tunes better sung. Maybe that is why “The Merry Widow” waltz is now stuck in my head? Hell, I may just play the whole thing yet again and rejoice in the guilty pleasure that two outstanding artists have perpetrated a highly infectious recording.

James Sohre

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Posted by Gary at 9:02 AM

October 15, 2007

STRAUSS : Elektra

This production focusses on the opera as the drama of a horribly dysfunctional family. Murderous they may be, but they're still recognisably human, not stereotypes. Elektra isn't just a raving madwoman but someone with whom we can readily identify. Dressed in a hoodie and fingerless gloves, she's the punky rebel we've all encountered. That probably says something disturbing about the society in which we live, but it's all the more reason for listening to this interpretation.

Gőtz Freidrich's visualisation of the Bőhm production was so powerful that it's hard to shake images of Rysenek and Varney, haunted and distraught, emerging from a murky background. Perhaps this new production is a conscious effect to break away, for the Zűrich production is lit so harshly that it hurts, achieving an oppressive effect by opposite means. The very ground beneath the singers undulates, underlining the shaky foundations of Klytemnestra's power. Holes in the floor provide burrows in which Elektra can hide, like a feral beast. Like abused children, she's had no support, and hardship has taken its toll.

This production places some emphasis on social commentary. Doors open and close along barren corridors, as if the palace were a hotel. I doubt that Kušej knowingly made the connection, but Klytemnestra and Aegisthus are indeed the type who think morals apply “only to little people”. The contemporary focus also brings out interesting secondary themes. Elektra and Chrysothemis represent completely different ways of coping with the family trauma, and by extension, illustrate the choices open to women in society. This is in the libretto and in the music, so it's not inappropriate and is not, in any case, overdone.

More developed, though, is the production's fascination with sexual ambiguity. The story wouldn't have happened in the first place if were it not for Aegisthus and Klytemnesrra having an illicit relationship, so there's clearly a sexual undercurrent. Yet Elektra's identification with her father and brother goes deeper than anger at her father's death. The scene in which she buries the apparition of a little blond girl ties in psychologically with her revulsion at being touched by Orestes and the frisson with which she imagines her sister's marriage. Her kind of madness would have fascinated Freud, and the wordly circles in which Strauss moved. But what do we make of the naked young men who flit across the stage in suspender belts and lipstick ? Or the butch mistress who manages the maidservants ? Or Aegisthus with so much rouge ? Definitely these things contribute to the idea of a court where aberration rules, but the scene in which half the cast turns up in feather tutus is a bit beyond me. It's certainly spectacular, though, and a visual release after all that repression .

Eva Johanssen convinces as this conflicted Elektra because she's a good actress, the subtlety of her portrayal captured better on film through close-ups and quick cuts than would come over in stage performance. Vocally, her range is more restricted, but this is not a role that requires prettiness. Just as Elektra had to hold out alone for years, awaiting vengeance, Johanssen's part heroically supports the whole opera. She creates the character even when she's not actually singing. Lipovšek's Klytemnestra is surprisingly sympathetic. She uses the natural roundness in her voice to balance the harshness inherent in the role. Klytemnestra has bad dreams, so she does have a conscience, not at that far from the surface. In comparison, Deiner, Muff and Schasching have relatively straight forward parts. The dialogues, such as between the sisters, and later when Elektra faces off Aegisthus, come over clearly. A pleasant surprise was Sen Gou. It's probably back handed compliment to single out one of the maids in a chorus, but her role is more important than it might seem, for she's the maid who defends Elektra when all the others condemn her. This maid, like Elektra herself, is “allein” and suffers for being an individual. Sen Gou's personality and singing definitely stood out. I also liked the orchestral playing, for Dohnanyi's lucid style did not submerge the spartan angularities in the music. Even when he's evoking the wild abandon of the final dance, his clear vision respects the modernity in Strauss's orchestration. This new production certainly won't supplant the Bőhm on DVD, but it's an approach which enhances the opera as a human drama.

Anne Ozorio

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Elektra_TDK.png image_description=Richard Strauss: Elektra product=yes product_title=Richard Strauss: Elektra product_by=Eva Johansson (soprano) : Elektra, Marjana Lipovšek.(mezzo-soprano): Klytemnestra, Melanie Diener (soprano) : Chrysothemis, Alfred Muff (baritone) Orest, , Rudolf Schasching (tenor) : Aegisthus, Chor des Opernhauses Zürich, Orchester der Opernhaus Zürich, Martin Kušej (Stage Director), Christoph von Dohnnanyi (conductor) Zürich 2005 product_id=TDK DVWW-OPELEK [DVD] price=$29.98 product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/Drilldown?name_id1=11683&name_role1=1&comp_id=27353&genre=33&bcorder=195&label_id=4145
Posted by Gary at 4:46 PM

Philip Glass celebrates 70th with compelling new opera

Philip Glass might well have prefaced his new opera “Appomattox” with Wilfred Owen’s words that Benjamin Britten chose to introduce his War Requiem in 1962. For although “Appomattox,” given its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera here on October 5, is in no way a pacifist pamphlet, it reaffirms the commitment to peace and to non-violence that Glass first expressed in his Ghandi opera “Satyagraha” three decades ago. Happily, however, there is nothing tendentious about “Appomattox,” an extended account of the 1865 meeting between Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee that seemingly ended the Civil War.

Seemingly — for here the concern of Glass and his librettist, British playwright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton, looks beyond Lee’s surrender of his army at Appomattox Court House to underscore the wounds of that war that remain unhealed today, 150 years after the meeting of the two generals. Glass counterpoints this historic event with the massacre of black militia by Louisiana racists in 1873, the murder of civil rights worker Jimmie Lee Jackson by Alabama State Troopers in 1965 and the hate-filled words of Edgar Ray Killen, the Klan member convicted only in 2005 for his role involved in the slaughter of a trio of civil rights workers 40 years earlier. (Glass’ ballad for Jackson — the composer calls it “a Bob Dylan song” — will undoubtedly have a life of its own beyond the opera.) “War is always sorrowful. Never has so much blood been drained. Let this be the last time,” sing the women who open — and later close - “Appomattox.”

And Grant and Lee, portrayed here as men of dignity, moral stature and generous spirit, are determined that the conflict that took over 600,000 lives should be the last war. “How we end the war today will still be felt a hundred years from now,” Grant says, while Glass’ music makes the general’s words unmistakably ominous. Grant is sung by bass Andrew Shore, Lee by bass baritone Dwayne Croft and Lincoln by bass Jeremy Galyon, low voices all that underscore the sorrow of the tale as Glass tells it. Indeed, it was the failure of that dream that accounts for the dark undertow of the new opera, for the optimism that Ghandi’s non-violence once inspired in Glass is no longer present here.

In this ahistoric age Grant and Lee are little more than cardboard cutouts on the distant horizon of fourth-grade history. Glass, however, brings them to life as men of character and intellect and it is this that gives “Appomattox” its aura of human warmth. Grant, although unkempt, scruffy and fresh from battle, is not the bumpkin as which he is often portrayed, and Lee is every inch a Southern gentleman and aristocrat. (The scene, in which Lee is dressed on stage for the crucial meeting, recalls Don Giovanni’s preparation for the “Champagne” aria.) The respect of the two men for each other — and their shared concern for their mission — is genuine. And their wives, along with Lee’s daughter Agnes, Mrs. Lincoln and her soothsaying seamstress, are late descendants of Euripides’ Trojan women after the sack of their city, for they sense the ominous side of the “peace” about to be concluded. It is they who see the inhuman dimension of the war and lament its consequences.

All five women are impressively sung by SFO Adler fellows Rhoslyn Jones, Elza van den Heever, Ji Young Yang, Heidi Melton and Kendall Gladen. Impressive also is the ability that Glass has now developed to make words fully comprehensible — even without resorting to the titles now traditional everywhere. “The tessitura, or placement of the voice, will determine a lot about comprehensibility,” the composer says. “For example, in English the final consonants often indicate the meaning of a vowel. So if you go very high with the voice it becomes difficult to understand the words. “What you’re looking for is a style of singing that is melodic but stays well within the range of spoken voice.”

One thing most will learn from the opera is that Appomattox Court House is not the seat of local government that the name commonly implies, but rather an entire small town, in which the generals met in the living room of Wilmer McLean. Designer Riccardo Hernandez has recreated this modest room — complete with period furniture — for the second act of “Appomattox.” Overall, however, Hernandez’ finest work is the curtain of glass and steel that the audience sees upon entering the War Memorial Opera House for this production. It is — literally — a cutting-edge expression of the nature of war. On the other hand, for the destruction of Richmond he takes his cues from Cecil B. DeMille and detracts from Glass’ score with realistic artillery and fireworks.

“Appomattox” is in a sense Glass own celebration of his 70th birthday, which took place in January. And in a superbly informative interview with his team in the SFO program book, he makes note of the distance he has traveled since the 1989 production of “Satyagraha” here. “It was the very night of the crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests in China,” he recalls. “And I’ve moved away from the optimism you see in my early works.” He states that the world has become a threatening place and laments that such statesmen as Grant and Lee have been replaced today by mere politicians. And Grass’ style has changed markedly from the repetitive patterns of his nascent minimalism.

“Appomattox” is at times richly melodic, and orchestral interludes - such as the music that marks the destruction of Richmond — is highly dramatic in its descriptive force. This is not to say that this is a perfect work; the chorus of black Union soldiers, for example, should be shortened. To dwell on shortcomings, however, is to overlook the grand achievement of “Appomattox” and to fail to be moved by its absolute integrity and the intensity of its message.

Appomattox2.pngThe Union Army’s XXV Corps

Philip Glass has been his own man since the beginning, and his concern for the war between the States dates back to “CIVIL warS,”, his collaboration with Robert Wilson for 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. To measure him by the ruler defined by Mozart ignores the originality of a man who has contributed to every known genre and — in his collaborations with poet Allen Ginsberg and his operas built upon Jean Cocteau films, to mention only two examples — he has created some of his own. And, as librettist Woodruff observes, in “Appomattox” Glass has dealt meaningfully with a chapter in history that “still sits in the middle of the psyche of the American people in an iconic way; the resonance between that moment in history and the succeeding moments of violence and violation of that pact.”

Originally a commission for the Houston Grand Opera, David Gockley brought “Appomattox” with him when he became general director of the San Francisco Opera in 2006. It is thus his first SFO commission. Although there are at present no plans for staging “Appomattox” elsewhere, the work seems destined for great popularity. Indeed, it seems safe to say that with the new work Philip Glass has created an operatic companion piece to “Gone with the Wind.”

Wes Blomster

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Appomattox1.png image_description=Ulysses S. Grant (Andrew Shore) & Robert E. Lee (Dwayne Croft) product=yes product_title=Philip Glass: Appomattox product_by=Above: Ulysses S. Grant (Andrew Shore) & Robert E. Lee (Dwayne Croft)
All photos by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of the San Francisco Opera
Posted by Gary at 4:22 PM

Don Carlos gets personal on a grand scale

Adrianne Pieczonka as Elizabeth( Photo: Antoni Bofill)
John Terauds [Toronto Star, 15 October 2007]

We all know that it's not safe to go to the movies, or the opera house, for a history lesson. Instead, for the price of admission, we expect to be transported to somewhere beyond our day-to-day world.

Posted by Gary at 1:31 PM

The Well-tempered Web

Solie Isokowski and Joyce DiDonatoSolie Isokowski and Joyce DiDonato (Photo: Leonardo Vordoni)
The Internet may be killing the pop CD, but it’s helping classical music.
by Alex Ross [New Yorker, 22 October 2007]

In the spring of 2004, I made the questionable decision to start a blog. I reserved a dot-com address, signed up for an Internet-for-dummies service called Typepad, and, to the delight of more than a dozen compulsively Googling insomniacs around the world, began adding dribs and drabs to the graphomaniac ocean of the Web.

Posted by Gary at 1:13 PM

San Francisco Opera's 'Magic Flute' a bit out of tune

Maltman_Papageno_small.png(Photo by Terrence McCarthy)
Joshua Kosman [SF Chronicle, 15 October 2007]

One of the things that makes "The Magic Flute" so difficult to pull off is that Mozart's late opera begins as a comic-book fairy tale and then takes on philosophical weight - not always convincingly - as it goes along.

Posted by Gary at 12:51 PM

Handel’s “Radamisto” revisited with mixed results in Hamburg

Those first shows had been well received both domestically and internationally, with some outstanding singing from Maite Beaumont, Inga Kalna and David DQ Lee. Unfortunately, the revival only managed to retain the luminously warm-timbre’d Lee in the title role and neither Deborah Humble as Zenobia nor Trine Wilsberg Lund as Polissena could quite match their predecessors, although the latter had some good moments. Also retained from the previous cast were baritone Florian Boesch, required to play the tyrant Tiridate as a ridiculously pantomime villain, bass Tim Mirfin as an elderly King Farasmane, and Hellen Kwon as Prince Tigrane. Christiane Karg stood in at only 3 days notice to play Fraarte.

Marco Arturo Marelli’s intelligent but visually frantic production (he is responsible for direction and the set/lighting) remains little changed and is not singer-friendly; in the great tradition of modern German opera it seems to relegate the music to some minor by-way of the director’s mind. Handelian purists would be best advised to avoid this production where tragedy is degraded to vaudeville, and odd conflations of the plot make an already complex story dramatically questionable. Luckily, Mr. Handel could cope (doesn’t he always?) despite some ragged and sometimes lumpen playing of this marvellous score under the benign and undemanding conducting of Martin Haselböck. One exception: the natural horns were, on the third night, extremely proficient — no easy feat.

Yet there were vocal highlights that rose above this mish-mash of directorial conceits and bland playing, and they included the strong dramatic singing of Boesch, who could colour his upstanding baritone from cooing suitor to bombastic tyrant with ease, the precise and pleasing coloratura of Kwon, not a natural baroque singer, who warmed to her task in the later acts. Wilsberg Lund as a feisty Polissena also sang Sposo ingrate, parto sì with commendable vigour and passion as she strode about the stage packing her things to leave her unfaithful husband — literally a “suitcase aria” in this production. Most impressive of all was the beautifully articulated, warmly sensuous singing of David DQ Lee as the much-troubled Radamisto. He has a free and easy top that cries out for the higher-lying Handelian castrato roles (popping a high B flat with nonchalance during his “rage aria” Vile! Se mi dai vita) and he achieved neatly executed divisions whilst convincing entirely with his acting. If, in his lower range, he fought to be heard on occasion above an orchestra that sounded as if they only had one dynamic in their range, that was partly due to the director’s odd insistence on placing him way upstage for most of his arias. When finally allowed just to sit quietly downstage and sing, his “Qual nave smaritta” would be hard to better by any countertenor singing today and showed what an exciting young talent he is.

Sue Loder © 2007

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Radamisto_Hamburg.png image_description=David DQ Lee (Radamisto), Inga Kalna (Polissena) and Florian Boesch (Tiridate) [May 2007] Photo © Karl Forster/Hamburg Staatsoper. product=yes product_title=G. F. Handel: Radamisto
Hamburg Staatsoper, 6 October 2007 product_by=Above: David DQ Lee (Radamisto), Inga Kalna (Polissena) and Florian Boesch (Tiridate) [May 2007]
Photo © Karl Forster/Hamburg Staatsoper.
Posted by Gary at 12:37 PM

Swiss conductor Jordan named Paris Opera music director

Joudan.png(Photo: J. Ifkovits)
[AFP, 10 October 2007]

PARIS (AFP) — The young Swiss conductor Philippe Jordan will take over as music director at the Paris National Opera in 2009, the opera house announced Wednesday.

Posted by Gary at 1:00 AM

October 9, 2007

The Met’s New Lucia

The reasons are clear: Donizetti and his librettist, Cammarano, were stage-wise pros and their work, boiled down from a verbose Walter Scott novel, is a tight dramatic ship as well as tunefully irresistible. The sextet has been called the most famous ensemble in opera, but it does not come from nowhere — it bursts logically from a nervous situation, and the scene that follows propels the excitement to a teetering high. Coloraturas prove themselves on the Fountain Scene and the Mad Scene, but the latter, too, is the logical result of all that has gone before. The Tomb Scene that follows may be anticlimactic, but its beauty has lured many a great tenor to attempt to steal the show.

The Met has always loved Lucia; every notable Lucia of the last 124 years has sung it there. This season’s new production is the fourth to play the New Met; its look is handsome and conservative to suit the taste of the American opera audience. The era has been warped to the late nineteenth century for no obvious reason, though it does permit Natalie Dessay to wear a tight Empress Sisi riding habit in Act I and glamorous red silk in Act II. (I thought the Ashtons were strapped for money?) In the Met’s previous Lucia, properly set two hundred years earlier, zaftig Ruth Ann Swenson was unattractively got up as one of Charles II’s bare-breasted floozies, but Dessay is the raison d’être of the show — her maddened face is all over New York, on every news and subway kiosk — and she presumably had more influence with the costume shop. (“She’d look good in anything,” muttered the woman beside me.)

The director is Mary Zimmerman, who like so many tyros brought in by the Gelb regime, has never staged an opera before. Her theater skills are evident, but also her unfamiliarity with the form. In bel canto opera, singing is the primary focus — everything else seems secondary because it is secondary. Beautiful music is where the drama occurs, and such acting as may occur should support that. It’s very exciting when singers can act, as nowadays most of them can, and Dessay is famous for it — but it’s not primary. That is the message someone should have explained to Zimmerman when she grew impatient — as, alas, she did — with moments, minutes, of mere music.

It will puzzle anyone who knows Lucia why any director would upstage the famous sextet, but that is what Zimmerman has done by introducing a new character — a fussy society photographer — who is busily placing people for a Victorian wedding photo, so that instead of a tragic crisis, we have a giggly skit. Very funny, but why is it here? Does Zimmerman think this is a comic opera? Three new corpses for Six Feet Under, perhaps?

Zimmerman obliges us to choose between paying attention to her or paying attention to the opera, which is just what I object to about new wave opera directors. She distracts us from Dessay’s lovely account of “Regnava nel silenzio” by bringing on the ghost of whom the aria tells. The ghost tiptoes down a hill, beckons, and vanishes into the well, very intriguing, but who, then, is paying attention to Dessay’s singing? Only those who know it, and force themselves to ignore the stage. Again, when Raimondo, beautifully sung by John Relyea, admonishes Lucia to accept her fate in an aria often cut, many people may not notice because a bunch of servants behind him are changing the Act II set from scene 1 to scene 2. With a camera, Zimmerman could focus our attention on Relyea; on a stage the size of the Met’s, his artistry goes almost for naught. Too, if Lucia and Arturo are seen mounting the staircase at the beginning of what will become the Mad Scene, they have less than two minutes for Lucia to go mad, find a knife, stab him 23 times, drench herself in blood, and be discovered before Raimondo rushes back to the hall with the news. Then there’s the doctor who comes on in mid Mad Scene to administer the injection that (we must infer) causes Dessay’s death and the exquisite and fanciful variations of her cabaletta — it’s amusing, but this is supposed to be a tragic melodrama, not sketch comedy. At last, in the Tomb Scene finale, when Marcello Giordani is pouring his heart out in the tenor’s big solo moment, Dessay returns, costumed in the ghost’s gray-white from Act I, and distracts us from his singing. Thinking of ways to take our minds off the singing appears to be Zimmerman’s first principle of opera direction. The singing, at least with this cast, is too good for this.

At the October 5 performance, two weeks after the premiere, the star was certainly Dessay, and it was a performance of the role not of the music alone, the vocalism never divorced from the neurotic girl giving way under emotional pressure. Her faints and mad, inappropriate giggles were credible, as was the shock of the guests (and ourselves, familiar with the piece as we might be) at the sight of this birdlike creature’s indecorous behavior. Dessay’s is a Lucia for the present day, when coloratura shenanigans are expected to defer to character. The contrast of her freakish acting with the formality of Donizetti’s melodies and ornaments created an uneasy disjuncture; this is simply not a naturalistic part. But edge can be good in the theater; in time it can become custom: There were charges of tastelessness when Sutherland, fifty years ago, became the first Lucia to have blood on her dress at all. (“She stabbed him over and over!” she pointed out at the time.) Psychologist Brigid Brophy noted that to see a virgin bride stained with blood was not unusual — to see her in her husband’s blood gave the story a jolt. Lucia has always submitted to one strong-willed man or another. Going murderously mad is her way of fighting back. None of the men expect this, and with so petite and (in Act II) pallid a Lucia, it is especially unsettling.

Dessay makes the opera her own by forceful acting, and sings her arias beautifully, but her tiny voice does not command it — she can be overpowered whenever any other voice sings, obliging her to hold her high notes until she can be sure she’s got a clear place to insert them. (Someone should advise the Alisa, Michaela Martens, that it is not good form to drown out the diva at an act finale.) Her ornaments are prettily executed, often given dramatic point by gesture or attitude, but their function of illustrating the character’s state of mind has been usurped by those gestures or, worse, by ghosts, doctors and other distractions. She may be more thrilling to see than to hear.

As Edgardo, Marcello Giordani sang with a liquid tenor thriving on the duet with Dessay and, best of all, his morbid double-aria in the final scene. More passionate outbursts — the famous “Maledizione” of Act II — seemed to push him towards shrillness rather than intensity, and his “Come on, fight me” gestures to the furious wedding guests were awfully Italian in so rigidly Scottish a production. As Enrico, Mariusz Kwiecien’s best act was the second, the suave, menacing duet that breaks his sister’s will — he was close to cracking during what should be the cold fury of the opening scene and withdrew due to illness before Act III’s Wolf’s Crag scene, replaced by a capable debutante Stephen Gaertner. John Relyea, as Raimondo, turned in the best-judged performance for the style of the music and the even flow of line. Young Stephen Costello, the hapless Arturo, has an exciting sound that has aroused comment, but his high notes were not without strain. It was James Levine’s night off; Jens Georg Bachmann, his replacement, kept the singers cued and the drama tight.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/lucia_di_lammermoor.png image_description=Gaetano Donizetti:Lucia di Lammermoor (Rafal Olbinski) product=yes product_title=Gaetano Donizetti:Lucia di Lammermoor product_by=The Metropolitan Opera, 5 October 2007 product_id=Above: Lucia di Lammermoor by Rafal Olbinski
Posted by Gary at 9:15 PM

I Hear American Singing

America carried the banner for the human experience of the modern world, with the angular optimism of Walt Whitman’s verse that emerged in part from a similarly embattled time. Yet in presenting this recital the baritone Thomas Hampson used the opportunity to explore literature that is rarely heard in concert and less often preserved in recordings of this quality.

The fifty selections presented in I Hear America Singing were given in two recitals and are organized in this recording into discrete sections with the titles “Early Voices of America,” “Walt Whitman Recognized from Afar,” “American Poets Heard in America,” and “Walt Whitman at Home” on the first CD ; and “Drei Hymnen von Walt Whitman,” “Lieder aus dem Schwarzen Amerika,” “Lieder aus text von Emily Dickinson,” “Musical Voices from American,” and “Verboten und verbannt.” (The latter section is the name of another fine collection of vocal music with which Hampson was involved.) The program includes settings by such composers as Edward MacDowell (1860-1908), Charles Loeffler (1861-1935), and Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920), as well as European composers who took inspiration in American verse, including Frank Bridge (1879-1941), Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1957), Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968).

As to the poets, some are such enduring figures as Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes, while others are remembered more for their prose, as is the case with William Dean Howells and Herman Melville. Yet it is of interest to know that verse by Tennessee Williams was set by the polymath Paul Bowles (1910-1999) in his Blue Mountain Ballads, a seldom cycle seldom heard and performed convincingly by Hampson in this recording. The challenge of setting such strong writers as Whitman and Dickinson is to avoid introducing musical elements that detract from the rhythm and intonation in their texts, and the listener can determine how effective the various composers are in this regard. Some composers resorted to melodrama, as is the case with Frédéric Louis Ritter (1834-1891) in his Dirge for Two Veterans, a piece with cliché elements that Hampson handles well in his straightforward reading of the work.

While it is easy to praise some of the more famous composers, like Vaughan Williams and Hindemith, the value of this collection is in the range of composers represented. Many of the figures may be, for some listeners, names on a list whose music is not immediately familiar. Thus, in addition to individuals like Bowles, it is useful to hear works by such fine composers as Hugo Weisgall (1912-1997), Henry Thacker Burleigh (1886-1949), Ernst Bacon (1989-1990), and others included in this recital program. In addition, the familiar has its place, with the selections from the music of Stephen Foster (1826-1864) and John Jacob Niles contributing an almost iconic sense to this recording. By no means encyclopedic in presenting American song, some composers, like Copland, Blitzstein, and Bernstein are notably absent, but their vocal works are known well enough through various recordings. Nevertheless, the settings of e. e. cummings’ poetry by Blitzstein come to mind, as an American literary voice who stands with Whitman and Dickinson for a highly individual and musical style. At the same time the selections in this recording also call to mind the songs of other contemporary composers, like William Bolcom, who represent other American voices.

As to the performances themselves, the dynamic of the live recital emerges effectively in this recording, which includes some spoken passages by Hampson. His delivery is solid and deliberate, his phrasing well-thought and insightful. In rendering a range of pieces by a variety of composers, Hampson offers some persuasive interpretations that both accompanists support well. His diction contributes to the interpretations of the songs, with readings that are clear enough to preclude consulting the texts that accompany the CDs, as one expects of a performer of Hampson’s caliber. The contribution of Hampson and his associations in I Hear America Singing certainly opens the door for further explorations of the rich poetic and musical traditions that will allow other performers and their audiences to enjoy the musical creativity of generations of artists.

James L. Zychowicz

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Songs by MacDowell, Bridge, Vaughan Williams, Hindemith, Bowles, Rorem, Bacon, Bernstein and Korngold
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Posted by jim_z at 8:55 PM

Thomas Stoltzer. Psalm Motets.

Stoltzer’s career as a beneficed cleric in Breslau would have guided him in orthodox paths, though his later move as chapelmaster to the Hungarian court in 1522 found him setting large-scale psalms in Luther’s version. And the fact that his works were published in Wittenberg is also ample evidence of their attractiveness to the Reformed world.

The Josquin Capella’s anthology of motets is attractively varied, including both Latin settings as well as vernacular ones, with the imposing “Erzürne dich nicht,” the giant representative of the latter category. The works also range in scale, including the intimacy of a three-voice “In Domino confido”—it is amazing how rich he can make three voices sound!—and the short Christmas antiphon, “O admirable commercium,” whose brevity was inverse to its wide dissemination and popularity. (It survives in as many as eleven sources.) For good measure, the anthology also adds a Magnificat in alternatim and a Requiem introit.

The Josquin Capella brings to their performances a high sense of style. The opening motet, “Super salutem,” for instance, is exquisitely contoured, with finely sculpted individual notes that yet do not detract from the honeyed fluency of line. The ensemble sound is lean, the bass particularly rich, and the expressive palette given to dynamic nuance. These traits show the traces of careful preparation and leadership, and for that we have the impressive conductor, Meinolf Brüser, to thank. There is an occasional feeling of pitch sag here and there—not in actuality, but in impression--as the darkness of the timbre seems to weigh the pitch down. But the expressive beauty of the singing is the most lingering impression, and for that this recording is unusually fine.

Steven Plank

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Stoltzer.png
image_description=Thomas Stoltzer. Psalm Motets

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product_title=Thomas Stoltzer. Psalm Motets
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product_id=MDG 605 1394-2 [CD]
price=$16.99
product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=138148

Posted by steve_p at 8:50 PM

MAHLER: Symphony no. 6 / Piano Quartet

As much as it can be easier to apprehend a live performance in a DVD of a concert, the sonics of this Ondine recording convey a sense of immediacy in this reading of Mahler’s complex and demanding score. The recording has a fine depth of sound that allows the nuances of Mahler’s scoring to emerge clearly and with the attention to detail that Eschenbach brings to the performance.

When it comes to the interpretation of the work, Eschenbach can be at times overtly demonstrative. Near the opening of the first movement Mahler moves from the first theme to the second, more lyrical one, the transition to the second theme seems to be paced a bit cautiously, and this almost anticipates the slower tempo in advance. It is as if the score were intended for the stage, where the dramatic elements must at times be prominent. Such a perspective is hardly foreign to Mahler’s music, which can be effectively dramatic, and suffers when performed in a routine or overly affected manner. That stated, it is not entirely unwelcome to hear the kind differentiation that Eschenbach offers later in the movement, since such an approach is useful when it comes to distinguishing the elements in this score that some criticize for being less individualized than the content of the works surrounding it, that is, the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies. Perhaps it is a misnomer to treat these three works as a unit, when the are distinct compositions that deserve to be treated on their own terms. For these and other reasons Eschenbach’s interpretation also stands apart from those of other conductors. Yet it remains useful to refer to some of the fine earlier recordings of the Sixth Symphony, like the one conducted by George Szell, whose focus on the formal aspects of the score creates a different effect than Eschenbach’s.

With the second movement, in this performance, the Scherzo, Eschenbach starts with almost the same tempo as the first movement. As a result, the details are clear from the start, and a sense of delicacy characterizes the music. This stands apart from performances of the Scherzo that are more driven and result in a harsher style of playing. The appoggiatura works well with Eschenbach, because he does not overemphasize it, and the timpani strokes that color the theme later in the movement do not predominate when they occur. This movement shows an exemplary reading on the part of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which benefits from a strong sense of ensemble to make the score seem to emerge natural from the group.

Eschenbach chose to follow the Scherzo with the Andante, and such a position is contrary to recent thought on the movement order of this work. Mahler originally intended the inner movements of the Sixth Symphony to occur in the order Eschenbach used, but Mahler reversed them in the revised edition of the work and in all the performances he conducted. It would seem that his final thoughts on the order would be those, but the critical edition that was published in the early 1960s and treated as authoritative for a generation of musicians had the inner movements in the original order. The decision that the editor, Erwin Ratz made in presenting the work in this fashion has become controversial, and it raises questions about the disposition of Mahler’s music a century after his death. With the intention of the Mahler Gesamtausgabe to present Mahler’s work in editions based on the principle of the Ausgabe letzter Hand or, in some cases, Ausgabe letzter Fassung, it is important to vett the sources used so that the sources have musical credence. In the case of the critical edition, the materials used stand out for the inclusion of a telegram from the composer’s widow years later among otherwise conventional musical sources. Nevertheless, a new edition of this work in its ultimate form has been announced, and it will supersede Ratz’s score, and with that publication, it may reduce the various options conductors have recently taken upon themselves to use in performing Mahler’s score.

With Eschenbach’s decision to place the slow movement before the Finale, the result offers a noticeable contrast between the Scherzo and the Finale, and it certainly accentuates the dramatic aspects of this recording. Yet with the Finale found on the second of two CDs, the transition is not as immediate as if it occurred as the next track or on a single CD. In terms of the interpretation, though, the clarity of Eschenbach’s approach to the entire work is found in the slow movement, with the extended melodic lines that move from one instrument to another quite apparent. If the latter part of the slow movement is somewhat hesitant, such lingering on various sonorities is not without interest for the fine sonorities the Philadelphia Orchestra delivers. By the end of the movement, the sense of timelessness pervades the performance, without some of the tautness that occurs with other readings of the score.

The Finale brings the listener back to the milieu of the first movement, and Eschenbach delivers a straightforward interpretation of the movement. On this recording the sonics reinforce the various orchestral effects that Mahler used to support the musical structure. The telling point for some can be the coda, which benefits from understatement, so that the sonorities act hand-in-glove with the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic ideas, all fine-tuned by the articulations – the resulting effect is unique in orchestral literature.

With a single movement placed on the second CD, it is useful to find an additional work included with this recording. In this case, the selection of Mahler’s youthful Piano Quartet is excellent, since it shares the same tonality as the Sixth Symphony. While other recordings of this fragmentary chamber work exist, the polish and élan that is part of this performance is laudable, and those unfamiliar with the Piano Quartet benefit from this fine reading of this early work by the youthful Mahler.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Mahler_6.png
image_description=Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 6 / Piano Quartet.

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Posted by jim_z at 8:34 PM

The Yves Becko Collection

Becko was a Walloon engineer, one of the few Walloons able to speak acceptable Dutch, and at the end of his too short life the owner of a magnificent collection of 20.000 shellac records (including extreme rarities on Pathé), lots of cylinders etc. I know several collectors who had to deal with Becko and he was not one to sell cheap or to be generous to other members of the tribe. Anyway his wife and daughter sold the collection in its entirety to De koning Boudewijn (king Baldwin in English and not Baudouin as they always mistakenly call themselves) Foundation which handed the treasure to the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (Royal Library) at the Kunstberg in Brussels where appropriate measures will be taken to make it accessible.

Still it is a reality that in the matter of collectors’ records, Foundation and Becko family succeeded in making some decisions which lessen somewhat the pleasure of this important issue. The two CDs contain 60 interesting records and nowhere, not in the liner notes, not on the sleeve, can one find a date. Granted it is not always easy to have an exact date of recording but The Record Collector has proven for almost 60 years that with some research one can come near. This is especially galling as I don’t know who had the brilliant idea of putting all these selections in alphabetical order per singer. Now we get an acoustic followed by an electric followed by a cylinder followed by an acetate etc. Don’t try to look for evolution in the style of singing or the art of recording. The booklet is very luxuriously illustrated with many photographs but the notes themselves are far from interesting. Though a lot of the singers are very obscure, there are no biographical details. The buyer will have to purchase Dick Soper’s ‘Belgian Opera Houses and Singers’ and a complete set of Kutsch-Riemens if he wants some details on the singers. Nevertheless page after page is devoted to Mr. Becko (do we really have to know he liked Tony Poncet ?) and the kind of records he collected. Maybe this kind of non-information was a condition imposed by the family. A small essay on Belgian singers during the shellac days is just an enumeration of names. The koning Boudewijn Foundation is one of the last curiosities pretending that Belgium should stay as it is, denying the huge cleft on every issue between Flemings and Walloons. Therefore the Foundation should take care not to publish an essay that is offensive to one of two peoples. The author, Frédéric Lemmers is constantly referring to translations of songs and arias in Flemish. By now, Mr. Lemmers should finally know and acknowledge that Dutch is the language of Flanders; Flemish being a dialect known from Dunkirk (in France) to Middelburg (in the Netherlands) but not in the former duchy of Brabant where I am living though it is the heart of nowadays Flanders. I can assure Mr. Lemmers that the non-French selections on the CDs are sung in excellent Dutch, understood by everybody from Amsterdam to Brussels. This condescending attitude results in some mistakes as well. There was never a tenor Joseph Sterkens ; it was Jef Sterkens though ‘Joseph’ may well have been written on his birth certificate as he was born during the Walloon colonization of Flanders (nor is there a Joseph Fortuné Verdi, though these are the names on the birth certificate too). The creator of Werther was not Van Dyck but Van Dijck as proven by the tenor’s own signature.

Happily for the American collector, this will pale against the treasures to be found on these CDs. The transfers are excellent, pitched during long hours of work by my friend (a Walloon, would you believe it ?) Georges Cardol. Georges is a teacher of physics and a talented amateur-baritone, using the score, a piano and his gut feeling when pitching. He takes such care that, not being a shellac guy myself, he succeeded in instilling doubts in me when listening to some selections. Normally, I would have pronounced the Valère Blouse a tone too high but knowing Cardol’s care I probably am wrong. Was Blouse Flemish or Walloon ? some will ask. Neither. The producers (Lemmers, Couvreur, Cardol ) sold the idea of these CDs to the Foundation by telling them that it was an overview of Belgian singers and then they picked out recordings of some of the most rare and interesting singers in the Becko collection, a lot of them French.

The CDs start with four very fine recordings by Henri Albers, a Dutch baritone while French singers like Blouse, Deschamps-Jehin, Dubois, Gilibert, Gilly, Imbart, Leblanc, Saint-Cricq etc. are well represented. Therefore this is foremost a collection of singers who sang in the opera houses of Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp and Liège. Of course there are a lot of Flemish and Walloon singers too, not all of them exceptionally talented but represented by recordings which are extremely rare and almost not to be found elsewhere on CD ( exceptions are well known French singers like Soulacroix who is on well pitched “Truesound” but Saint-Cricq and Landouzy are only to be found on notoriously bad “Malibran”.) Several names were completely unknown to me and it doesn’t come as a surprise there are some dull dogs among them (Dectéry: squeezed; Delvoye: great voice but rough style). But with others we are in for a surprise: unknown Dubois who is almost as good as René Verdière; baritone Emiel van Bosch whom I finally can appreciate due to the fine transfers; Jeanne Montfort who made me sit up wit her Vivandière. Other names will be unknown in the States though they still ring a bell in this country but I’m sure every collector will be surprised by the wonderful spinto voice of Claudine Boons, by Madeleine Farrère so much better and less shrill than better known Clara Clairbert. Tenor Charles Fontaine has a whole CD, produced by Georges Cardol for his friends only (lucky me) but deserves to have an issue widely available. I admire the producers for avoiding cliché names like Bovy, Clairbert and especially Ansseau which would make this issue less interesting as they are already well represented on CD. And I admire them for including items by great names, even if the singing is less than great but now at last we can judge for ourselves if we appreciate the dry tone of Georges Imbart de la Tour or Georgette Leblanc. And the creator record of Flemish tenor Ernest van Dijck (“Pourquoi me réveiller” though he actually created Werther in German) proves that his best years were gone but that the voice was ample indeed. For 15 Euros this is a bargain and I hope these CDs will sell well. Take care to ask for the English language version. Welcome is the news that other labels will be allowed to mine the Becko collection too.

Jan Neckers

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Becko.png image_description=Opera.be : The Yves Becko Collection product=yes product_title=Opera.be: The Yves Becko Collection product_by=Albers, Arral, Assy, Bergé, Blouse, Boons, Crabbé, Colmant, Decléry, Delvoye, Deschamps-Jehin, Dubois, Farrère, Fontaine, Forgeur, Ghasne, Gilibert, Gilly, Imbart de la Tour, Lasalle, Leblanc, Lefèvre, Lheureux, Maréchal, Mertens, Montfort, Noté, Revel, Saint-Cricq, Soulacroix, Sterkens, Swolfs, van Bosch, van Dijck, Verlet, Ysaÿe. product_id=The koning Boudewijnfoundation 1622 [2CDs] price=15 € product_url=http://www.kbs-frb.be/CODE/page.cfm?id_page=153&id=412&lang=EN
Posted by Gary at 8:14 PM

October 8, 2007

CAVALLI: La Calisto

Now available on DVD, as well as on CDs that were issued in the 1990s, it will certainly draw a new audience to the sensuous world of seventeenth-century Venetian opera. Cavalli was the leading composer of opera in Venice during the 1650s, and Calisto (which premiered in November 1651) finds him at the height of his powers.

Giovanni Faustini’s mythologically based libretto for Calisto tells the story of the amorous trials of two couples: Calisto, a female devotee of the goddess Diana, and her pursuer, Jove; and Diana herself, and the shepherd Endymion. As a follower of Diana, Calisto has rejected carnal relations with men; as a result, in order to win her affection, Jove disguises himself as Diana, and Calisto willingly follows him in that guise to enjoy carnal pleasure. Calisto’s actions invoke the wrath of both Diana herself, and of Jove’s wife Juno. According to the myth, Calisto is transformed into a bear, and will later ascend to the firmament as the constellation Ursa Minor. Diana, in Faustini’s version, finally admits to loving Endymion; they remain devoted to each other, but their relationship remains unconsummated.

The Jacobs production, directed by the late Herbert Wernicke, is built around a set that displays allegorical representations of the constellations; most strikingly, at the conclusion of the opera the set darkens, the stars become visible, and Calisto ascends to take her place in the heavens. The three walls of the set remain constant throughout the opera; most of the characters enter and leave through trap doors, or, in the case of the gods, descend from the heavens. Another visually stunning moment finds the parched Calisto (whose thirst derives from the environmental devastation brought about by the fiery fall of Phaeton) relishing an immense silvery fabric that represents the stream created by Jove at the beginning of the first act.

For the most part, Jacobs and Wernicke read Calisto as a comedy, and extend this sense of comedy by having most of the characters represent stock figures from the commedia dell’arte. Thus Jove bears the attributes of the blustery “Captain”; Endimione is Pantaleone, while Satirino assumes the nature of Harlequin. Wernicke further exploited themes of comedy and vulgarity through graffiti (both sexually explicit and more generic) and a number of stage actions.

In any staging of Calisto, the musical director must make an important casting decision, because the music for Jove “disguised as Diana” is notated for a soprano, not in the lower vocal range Jove normally sings in. This presents two options in performance: either Jove himself will sing in falsetto, or the singer who plays Diana will appear as Jove-in-Diana, making Jove’s transformation all the more deceptive. Jacobs and Wernicke chose the first option, and this decision inevitably governed many other aspects of the opera. In this production, then, Jove-as-Diana is truly a comic figure; the audience sees “Jove,” not “Diana,” and we are meant to read the seduction as just more of the comic business that pervades the production.

One other comic element in the production continues a practice that Raymond Leppard initiated in his first performances of Calisto in the 1970s. The character Linfea (another young woman who is a follower of Diana) who–according to the libretto–desires to experience the sexual pleasure that Calisto has described after her encounter with Giove/Diana, is cast in the mold of the comic male nurse, most commonly known to modern audiences through the character of Arnalta, Poppea’s nurse in Monteverdi’s L’incoronatione di Poppea. Jacobs’s Linfea is played by the tenor Alexander Oliver, and the role is transcribed to a lower register. While this “reading” of Linfea works in a certain sense, a different sort of comedy would have resulted by presenting her as she was meant to be: a young girl looking for the pleasures of love.

Many of Jacobs’s musical decisions regarding the score of Cavalli’s opera are similar to those he has made in other recordings of seventeenth-century opera. Like the director Wernicke, Jacobs aims to present Baroque opera not as a “museum piece,” but as a medium that will appeal directly to modern audiences. As a result, he transforms Cavalli’s score into something more akin to late Baroque music: the orchestra is heavily expanded with wind and brass instruments, and it plays frequently (we know from contemporary accounts that Cavalli’s orchestra was quite small, with just a few string and continuo players). Moreover, additional music, some of it by other composers, has been inserted to cover “scenery” changes. In Cavalli’s original score, however, the string orchestra rarely accompanies the singers; as a result, when it does play, the musical and dramatic sense of the work is heightened. While Jacobs’s band offers some unaccompanied recitative, much of the score is orchestrated. Admittedly many modern players might be reluctant to take a job where they play so little, but there is precedence for adhering more to the composer’s original intentions. In any event, the result of Jacobs’s tinkering produces a vibrant, rich score, but one that would have been entirely unfamiliar (and perhaps unconceivable) to Cavalli in 1651.

Calisto has been the subject of a good deal of academic research in recent years. I would encourage viewers particularly interested in the opera to search out Wendy Heller’s Emblems of Eloquence, which features a chapter on the opera, as well as Jennifer Williams Brown’s magnificent edition of the opera (A-R Editions, Collegium Musicum, Yale University, 2007). Brown provides the most thorough discussion of the history of the opera and its performing issues heretofore available, along with a complete version of the libretto in Italian and English.

The fifty-four-minute documentary concerning the making of the production should certainly be viewed, whether before or after watching the performance of the opera. It provides an amazing look behind the scenes, and, can only increase one’s admiration for the energy and stamina of the singers as they enter and exit through the trap doors. The cast is top notch. Maria Bayo brings Calisto’s sensuality and pathos to life; Marcello Lippi easily elicits the comedic elements that Jacobs and Wernicke wanted to emphasize in Jove; Graham Pushee perfectly captures Endymion’s plight; and Dominique Visse, as the young satyr, is a wonder to watch on stage.

An evening spent with Jacobs’s Calisto may very well leave viewers wanting to experience more seventeenth-century opera, and that’s certainly, as Martha Stewart would say, a good thing.

Beth Glixon
University of Kentucky

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Recorded 20 March 1996, Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels. product_id=Harmonia Mundi HMD9909001.02 [2DVDs] price=$32.99 product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/Drilldown?name_id1=2052&name_role1=1&comp_id=39929&bcorder=15&label_id=9437
Posted by Gary at 2:54 PM

October 7, 2007

SALIERI: Prima la musica e poi le parole

Music composed by Antonio Salieri. Libretto by Giovanni Battista Casti.

First performance: 7 February 1786, Schönbrunn Orangerie, Vienna.

Principal performers:
Maestro Bass
Poet Bass
Eleonora Soprano
Tonina Soprano

Setting: A room in the house of the Maestro.

Synopsis:

Count Opizio orders a new opera to be written within the space of four days. The composer has already turned out the score, but the poet, suffering from deadline pressure, must adapt his verses to the existing music. Eleonora, the prima donna hired for the opera by the Count, enters and delivers a sample of her vocal artistry. Together with the Poet and the Maestro, she acts out a scene from Giuseppe Sarti’s Giulio Sabino that devolves into a grotesque parody. Eleonora exits, and the librettist and the composer wrestle with the problem of writing a new text for the existing music or producing music for an existing text. A lengthy dispute ensues. Tonina, representing opera buffa, enters and demands a role in the new opera. The composer and the librettist quickly concoct a vocal number for her. A quarrel then erupts between the two singers as to which of them should sing the opera’s opening aria. The scene culminates in having both sing their arias simultaneously. The composer and the librettist are able to pacify the two ladies by agreeing to a juxtaposition of the seria and buffa styles, thereby putting a conciliatory end to their quarrel.

[Synopsis Source: Prima la musica e poi le parole, Bärenreiter BA 7698a (2007)]

Click here for score.Prima_la_musica_e_poi_le_pa.png

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Antonio_Salieri.png image_description=Antonio Salieri audio=yes first_audio_name=Antonio Salieri: Prima la musica e poi le parole
iTunes, FooBar2000, WinAMP or VLC first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Prima1.m3u product=yes product_title=Antonio Salieri: Prima la musica e poi le parole product_by=Enrico Fissore (Maestro), Vladimir Druzdak (Poet), Durdevka Cakarevic (Eleonora), Nada Linda Siriscevic (Tonina), Festival Opera Ensemble, City of Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra, Nicza Bareza (cond.)
Live performance: Dubrovník, Rector's Palace Atrium, 6. August 1973
Posted by Gary at 7:50 PM

Mackerras returns to home turf

Mackerras_Charles.png[The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 October 2007]

Sir Charles Mackerras is looking disgustingly spry. Particularly for someone who will celebrate his 82nd birthday by conducting not one, but two, series of concerts this month at the Opera House.

Posted by Gary at 1:29 PM

Jose Carreras woos Moscow with songs of love

carreras_jose.png[Russia Today, 7 October 2007]

Opera superstar Jose Carreras has performed at Moscow's International House of Music. At his only concert, the Spanish tenor presented his new programme titled "Mediterranean Passion" that featured exclusively love songs from the operas by Puccini and Ravel.

Posted by Gary at 1:24 PM

Seattle Opera and the Met collaborate on "Iphigenia"

Gluck_CW.pngBy Melinda Bargreen [Seattle Times, 7 October 2007]

So how do you pronounce "Iphigenia"?

Opera fans are pondering this question, as the opening date — this Saturday — for Seattle Opera's "Iphigenia in Tauris," the company's first co-production with the Metropolitan Opera of New York, draws closer.

Posted by Gary at 1:23 PM

Lyric Opera meets 'Impossible' challenge

Cervates_Miguel.pngBy Anne Marie Welsh [San Diego Union-Tribune, 6 October 2007]

Terminally corny or spiritually uplifting? However you feel about “The Impossible Dream,” a new production of the Dale Wasserman-Mitch Leigh “Man of La Mancha” marks one small step in the right direction for the Lyric Opera of San Diego.

Posted by Gary at 1:15 PM

The Newest British Flagship

royal_kate2.pngBY JAY NORDLINGER [NY Sun, 5 October 2007]

Kate Royal is one of the most ballyhooed young singers in the world right now. And, thank goodness, there's something to ballyhoo. She is an English soprano, in her late 20s. She recently graced the cover of Gramophone magazine, a bible of classical-music recordings. She is that kind of singer: a cover girl. In fact, there's a little — I said a little — of Catherine Zeta-Jones in her.

Posted by Gary at 1:05 PM

A Sensible, Musical ‘Figaro'

(Photo: Arve Dinda)
BY JAY NORDLINGER [NY Sun, 4 October 2007]

Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" has a large cast, but the most important performer of all is the conductor: He's the one who drives, controls, and shapes the opera. He is the spirit on which the opera depends (if you leave out Mozart and his librettist, Da Ponte). And in the pit of the Metropolitan Opera on Tuesday night was Philippe Jordan.

Posted by Gary at 1:03 AM

A ‘Figaro’ With Youth, Agility and Eros

Oropresa_Lisette.pngBy ALLAN KOZINN [NY Times, 4 October 2007]

For a while, the return of Mozart’s “Nozze di Figaro” to the Metropolitan Opera stage promised at least one interesting quirk: Isabel Bayrakdarian was to sing Susanna, Figaro’s bride, though she is very visibly pregnant. A pregnant Susanna being chased by the Count and flirted with by Cherubino would have given the story a different spin.

Posted by Gary at 1:02 AM

Das Rheingold, Royal Opera House, London

John TomlinsonBy Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 3 October 2007]

If all-knowing Erda had pronounced on the likely fate of this first complete cycle of the Royal Opera’s new Ring des Nibelungen, she probably would have foretold disappointment.

Posted by Gary at 1:01 AM

October 4, 2007

HAYNES: The End of Early Music — A Period Performer’s History of Music for the Twenty-First Century

There was classical music, the boring old standard-repertoire taught at conservatories, and played in the same old way by people who fetishized the lineage of their teachers, and their teacher’s teachers, and then there was early music, the music of Bach and his predecessors, played by amateur performers (often musicologists) on “old” instruments (recorder, harpsichords, viola da gamba), something which fit right in with the reclaiming of folk music and folk instruments by the hippie resistance to manufactured mass culture.

At the same time Albert Ayler and John Coltrane were exploring the outer limits of free jazz, and Jefferson Airplane combining psychedelics and folk-rock, amateur ensembles with krummhorns, sackbuts, shawms, and other dead instruments were reviving centuries of forgotten repertoire from Machaut onwards. Early music managed to be cutting edge by going deep into music which had been only of interest to historians, and transgressive by suggesting that this music and the music which followed did not belong only to its self-anointed priesthood, which seemed to be only mumbling half-understood inherited formulas, with no sense of the enlivening spirit within.

Time passes, and nothing from 1967 seems very current anymore, with the possible exception of Purple Haze. The amateur (and hippie) tinge to early music was washed away by decades of musicians who managed to perform early music professionally on period instruments, and with an historical awareness of the performance issues involved. Their success drew the barbed words of musicologist Richard Taruskin, himself once an amateur performing-musicologist, pointing out the lack of authenticity involved in this recuperation of both unknown and well-known repertoire. The End of Early Music may be seen as a response to the criticisms of Taruskin and others.

Oboist Bruce Haynes is one who has been involved with historically-informed performance for decades, since the first successes of four or five decades ago, and unlike the younger Taruskin, whose recordings are safely entombed on LP in music libraries, his recordings are still commercially available. His survey of the history and issues involved with period performance is compulsively readable. Though the volume has the standard scholarly apparatus of notes and bibliography, there is nothing of the dry-as-dust scholarly compendium about it. An innovation which is particularly useful is the provision of sound examples at the publisher’s site, even if means that the book can be best used with your network-enabled computer close at hand.

The notion that concert-going has become a secular ritual substituting for more explicitly religious rites has become widely accepted, but Haynes goes farther in looking at the amount of fetishism and ritual involved in musical interpretation and consumption in general, disassembling the various fetishes we take for granted as part of musical experiences – the notion of the canon, of absolute music, of genius, of score-fidelity, and others. Evidently I sympathize with Haynes’ position, but even so I think it must be clear to any reader that he has done his work well.

Tom Moore

[This review has been cross-posted to Biddle Beat, The official blog of the Music Library at Duke University.]

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Posted by Gary at 12:51 PM

October 2, 2007

Carmen at ENO

The theatre will always be full; the audience will contain both opera aficionados who need something they haven’t seen a million times before, and the newcomers who are the holy grail of the opera house’s marketing strategy and who need to be given a reason to return to see other operas in future. There are really two ways one can go — either a fairly traditional staging or an innovative reinterpretation — but above all, it’s important to achieve the near-impossible aim of being all things to all people. The drama needs to be compelling, and preferably interesting too.

It was common knowledge that film director Sally Potter, whose new production opened English National Opera’s 2007/08 season, was to go down the ‘innovative reinterpretation’ route. As such, it was inevitable that this most familiar of operas would be removed from its familiar setting in order to rid it of its well-worn stereotypes.

So where was it set? Good question. The first act, with its music full of sunshine and midday heat, was set in some dimly-lit wasteland populated by security guards (in place of soldiers) and cheap whores (in place of cigarette girls). Who were they to us? It was impossible to recognise these people or to empathise with them — and it was impossible to follow the thread of the drama, as the decision to cut all dialogue reduced the opera-comique structure to a song-and-dance show.

It became clear later on that we were probably supposed to be in Britain: in the final act we headed for the customary Spanish bullring, with the chorus as a horde of boorish British tourists (enabled by Christopher Cowell’s very liberal translation). So why, for the first three acts, were none of the characters recognisable to a British audience — and what on earth was a star Spanish toreador (David Kempster) doing in a bar in an English back street? Surely the coincidental appearance of a key character in an entirely unlikely situation is one of the most enduring of operatic clichés, and therefore anathema to Potter’s concept (it didn’t appear to be intentionally ironic). The third act of course took place at an airport, the home of the present-day smuggler; you can imagine why three girls might have a go at fortune-telling to pass the time, but not why one of their number might take it quite so seriously.

CARMEN_FULLSTAGE_ALICECOOTE.pngFullstage with Alice Coote (Carmen) in foreground

There were some striking moments - tellingly, they were those where the singers were left to sing, as if in concert, against an almost plain backdrop. Micaela and José’s duet benefitted from this; so did Micaela’s aria, lustrously sung by the young American soprano Katie van Kooten in her company debut. The final scene was quite riveting, with José maniacally terrifying and Carmen an emotional wreck.

Fortunately there was also plenty of energy in the music. ENO’s new Music Director, Edward Gardner, conducted with poised tension and enjoyed the climaxes, and there was a lot of fine singing, not least in the title role. According to the press release and some of the advance publicity, Alice Coote was recovering from a viral infection — there was no announcement before the performance, and she sounded on fair if not top form. The problem was that she was seriously miscast. Although the veiled smokiness of her mezzo brings something very alluring to the role, it’s not a voice equal to the weight of the music and, more troublingly, her body language simply didn’t match it. She moved awkwardly, and was not helped by her costumes — for most of the opera she was incongruously dressed like a traditional Carmen. Opposite her, Julian Gavin was a blazingly passionate and believable Don José once he got going, but David Kempster failed to bring the necessary vocal suavity to Escamillo.

Ironically, the operatically-inexperienced Potter’s intention to escape cliché resulted in a production in the manner of many of ENO’s productions of the past few years (bearing a particularly strong resemblance to David Freeman’s controversial Otello in 1998) punctuated by some Spanish flavour supplied by unremarkably-choreographed tango dancing. Whatever the intention, a disservice was done to the piece, and to opera buffs and newcomers alike. Although the third and fourth acts worked reasonably well on their own terms, it was Sally Potter’s Carmen, not Bizet’s.

Ruth Elleson © 2007

image=http://www.operatoday.com/CARMEN_JULIANGAVIN%2BALICECOO.png image_description=Alice Coote (Carmen) and Julian Gavin (Don José) [Copyright English National Opera and Tristram Kenton] product=yes product_title=Georges Bizet: Carmen
English National Opera, 29 September 2007 product_by=Above: Alice Coote (Carmen) and Julian Gavin (Don José)
All photographs are copyright English National Opera and Tristram Kenton
Posted by Gary at 1:28 PM

October 1, 2007

JANÁČEK: Jenůfa

But at the Dorothy Chandler, the Los Angeles Opera chose to commence their season with two unquestionable masterpieces of darker colors, less likely to be thought of as “crowd-pleasers.” Beethoven’s Fidelio premiered first, with a stunning cast of relatively new names (Anja Kampe and Klaus Florian Vogt).

On September 27th Janáček’s Jenůfa opened, with the great and glorious Karita Mattila in the lead. Seen at the second performance on Sunday, 30 September, Oliver Tambosi’s now well-traveled production provided a reliable if not exactly memorable staging for a high-powered musical success. Music Director James Conlon appeared again at the pre-lecture (as is very much his wont), to speak with revivalist passion about the merits of Janacek’s opera, now over a century old and yet still not quite beloved enough to make such urgent declarations of merit unnecessary. But as Conlon said, once the audience is in the house for a performance, the opera makes its own case, and better than any speaker can.

Sunday’s performance certainly won over the matinee crowd. At intermission some members spoke admiringly about the dramatic vocals, while wondering about the significance of Tambosi’s core concept: a boulder breaking through the ground in act one, crowding the stage in act two, and broken into rocks and stones for the final act. As the beautiful Jenůfa hides in her step-mother’s house, scarred by her frustrated admirer Laca and recovering from the delivery of the child she produced with the handsome scoundrel Števa, she cries out that she feels as if a stone is crushing her. Apparently that one line provided for Tambosi his entry into the heart of the drama, but when the boulder becomes the primary visual reference, the literal depiction of the metaphor reduces the complexity of the drama, rather than supporting it. The tension of act two, at any rate, certainly does not benefit from giving some of the less serious members of the audience the temptation to giggle, as characters feel their way around the huge boulder in their living room.

But the roar of adulation that greeted the singers and conductor Conlon at the end of the afternoon proved that even the questionable qualities of Tambosi’s setting could not lessen the impact of this performance. Mattila owns the title role, and she remains in her glorious prime. An athletic performer, she could subtly suggest Jenůfa’s youth just through her posture, while incautiously throwing herself around the stage in the dynamic second act. Then in the third, after her almost hysterical outburst at the discovery of the body of her child (murdered by her step-mother in a desperate bid to save her stepdaughter from a shamed and lonely life), Mattila projected a wise and loving forgiveness, even standing stock still. Her singing approached the flawless, with only one high climax finding her reaching up a bit tentatively. Tambosi’s set does have the virtue of high walls, intersecting at the rear, which projects the voices out into the huge space of the Dorothy Chandler. Mattila had the power when she needed it, and could pull back into shades of detail as needed. She is, quite simply, an astounding artist.

As the step-mother Kostelnička, Eva Urbanová came through where it mattered most, in the powerhouse histrionics of act two. Not the actress that Mattila is, Urbanová nevertheless has the sort of edgy, penetrating vocal production perfect for the role, and her commitment helped make the audience understand both the cruel reasoning behind her decision to kill her stepchild and the ability of Jenůfa to forgive her.

The plain but honest quality of Kim Begley’s voice perfectly suits the character of Laca, as does his masculine appearance, which contrasts well with the boyish but callow handsomeness of Jorma Silvasti’s Števa. Silvasti was a late replacement for the young tenor Joseph Kaiser, who took a prime assignment at the Metropolitan. Perhaps this change was just as well, as the trip of Mattila, Begley, and Silvasti made a convincing assembly of peers, all of approximately the same age and all well experienced in their roles.

The LAO orchestra has not played a Janáček score for well over a decade, and Conlon has some more work to do to make the players fully comfortable with the spiky idiom of the composer. With Conlon’s impassioned leadership, Sunday’s performance still had all the power needed, especially for the heart-tugging lyrical outburst at the climax. Act one, however, felt a bit tentative.

So after two very successful productions of Fidelio and this Jenůfa, LAO will return to the tried and true with productions of Don Giovanni and Puccini’s ubiquitous Bohemians, under other conductors. Conlon returns in the 2008 half of the season, with Tristan und Isolde, Otello, and this season’s edition of Conlon’s “Recovered Voices” series, a double-bill of Zemlinsky and Ullman one-acts. All in all, LAO can’t compete with the Met for star-power or technical innovation, but when it comes down to the actual performance, the company may never have been better.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Mattila_Jenufa_LAO.png image_description=Karita Mattila (Photo by: Robert Millard ) product=yes product_title=Leoš Janáček: Jenůfa
Los Angeles Opera, 30 September 2007 product_by=Above: Karita Mattila (Photo by: Robert Millard)
Posted by Gary at 1:13 PM