December 30, 2007

Iphigénie en Tauride at the Met

Today, when large audiences for older music and older styles of singing have come into being, Gluck’s simplicity and directness of dramatic melody have a chance at genuine popularity. Orfeo is back — indeed, it never went away, or not since Pauline Viardot made it chic to watch a lady wield a toga way back in 1859, and these days it is perfectly respectable for men to sing it as well. I have also seen stagings of Alceste, Armide, Paride ed Elena, Iphigénie en Aulide and Iphigénie en Tauride — the last three times, Gluck’s penultimate work for the stage and generally acknowledged masterpiece. Mozart attended every rehearsal for the Vienna premier in 1779, and one can easily detect its influence in his Idomeneo, composed the following year. Gluck’s influence on the declamatory style of Berlioz and, indeed, Wagner, is instructive: when composers want something “classic” in the style of the Greeks, Gluck, who was anything but Greek, seems the obvious model. He all but channels Euripides — whose plays are the basis for Alceste and both Iphigénies.

Hedging its bets, the Met insured Iphigénie’s success at the box office by presenting Placido Domingo in the usually baritone role of Oreste (and we’d so much rather have him sing Gluck, in any register, than crap like Sly or Cyrano). Having thus guaranteed that all performances would sell out, the Met went on to secure Stephen Wadsworth’s production, whose kinks had been worked out at the Seattle Opera, and the services of Susan Graham in the title role, after hearing her sing it in Chicago and other venues. The mixture worked very well; enthusiasm for all elements was all the Met could have desired, and lovers of Gluck could feel their fidelity justified: the merchandise is as good as its repute.

Musically, it could be argued that the production’s tendency to link number to number, scene to scene, negating the breaks where applause could be signaled, makes it tougher for audiences to grasp: it’s all or nothing. But opera audiences of today are not the ones Gluck had to face — they are now accustomed to long stretches of uninterrupted music-drama. Therefore Wadsworth filled — overfilled, I’d say — “empty” stretches of music, and even moments with no music to cover them, with loud noises so the audience would not applaud a sublime aria, or else with dumb shows, acting and mime, and variously neurotic behavior on the part of his characters. Did Gluck work so hard to take the clutter and irrelevancy out of opera only to have Wadsworth put it back? Here — yes. Oreste is supposed to be crazed, driven mad by the Furies summoned by his mother’s ghost (in Aeschylus’s Eumenides — you remember) to avenge her murder; Gluck famously contrasts his measured vocal line against mad, slashing figures in the string section, a moment subtly underlined by the evening’s expert maestro, Louis Langrée.

But Iphigénie, in my experience, has usually been rather a cold fish — the stern priestess repressing her nightmarish past, such that the revelation of her identity is a shock. In the Wadsworth staging, Graham is anything but cold — she is loonier here than her brother, hurling herself about the stage, clawing the walls. The sense that she and the other priestesses are captives, terrorized into doing the barbarians’ bloody will (which includes human sacrifice) is made superbly real by the two steep rooms into which the set is divided and the way the priestesses huddle in its corners, but I missed the regal distance of Iphigénie that alone seems to explain why she and Oreste take such a long time to come to reveal their names and discover they are brother and sister before the accursed house of Atreus suffers yet another intrafamilial homicide. Graham’s singing, too, though prettily expressive of her throes, lacked that haughty element, that grandeur that is my personal preference for Gluck-lich royalty. She is sweet where Iphigénie should be awesome. As for her desperate attitudes, clutching of walls and self, at times when she has sung of her reconciliation with her fate — this does not expand her character; it denies the power of music, and of Gluck. Gluck, I put it to you, should have the last word here — not Wadsworth or even Graham.

The relationship between Oreste and Pylade, which often has a homoerotic frisson in modern stagings of the opera (that was true in Euripides’ day, too), had nothing of the kind with Domingo in exceptional voice, a dignified, inward, tragic Oreste, and Paul Groves a thrilling Pylade. That element of excess that sometimes comes through their frenetic efforts to die in each other’s stead was not part of the drama on this occasion: they were, rather, back to back against the forces of darkness. William Shimell, as the barbaric King Thoas, sounded gruffer than the opera demands — it was never pleasant to hear him sing.

Iphigénie gave more pleasure than any other new production thus far in the crowded Met season — Wadsworth was engaging with the opera, not forcing it into another mold. Besides the bare, rude grandeur of the temple’s back room set, with its gleams of gold and mysterious lighting, I liked the way several of the opera’s celebratory or orgiastic dances (French opera has always liked more ballet than non-French opera audiences have cared for) took place all-but-off-stage, so that one glimpsed a few ecstatic movements without being distracted from starker doings stage center.

I did object, however, here as in many other productions, to the current style of giving the audience visual cues every step of the way, a style that might be called MTV opera direction: the dumb show at the beginning (for those who have forgotten the story of Iphigenia’s past — which is not likely, and in any case is described later on), the spectacular but undignified descent of the goddess from the ceiling on wires, the appearance of Clytemnestra within the pillar between Oreste and Iphigénie, blessing the two of them — a lovely stage effect but not, I suggest, what the real, vengeful Clytemnestra would have been doing and therefore intrusive.

Perhaps most absurd, why is the statue of the goddess facing away from the stage and the altar? I know they’re barbarians in Tauris (the modern Crimea), but what sort of manna are they invoking from this cult statue? Is it a pun on the “moon” in Diana’s nature? It would be nice to have Mr. Wadsworth explain this particular silliness in the midst of an exciting staging of a masterpiece too seldom heard or seen.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Iphegenia_Feuerbach.png image_description=Iphigenie by Anselm Feuerbach (1862) product=yes product_title=Christoph Willibald Gluck: Iphigénie en Tauride product_by=Iphigénie: Susan Graham; Oreste: Placido Domingo; Pylades: Paul Groves; Thoas: William Shimell; Diane: Michele Losier.
Conducted by Louis Langrée. Production by Stephen Wadsworth.
Metropolitan Opera, December 19.
Posted by Gary at 2:48 PM

Prokofiev's War and Peace at the Met

But you will also feel as if you knew each and every one of them — there is nothing monochrome or impersonal about the onslaught.

The attempt to make an opera out of Russia’s emblematic epic novel is so improbable that even in the hands of a genius it was unlikely to be anything but a succès d’estime. As companies have enlarged their jaws sufficiently to encompass it, as orchestras and choruses and singers have trained themselves to handle it, War and Peace has revealed itself as one of those masterpieces almost too grand for this grandest of art forms: As with the Ring and Les Troyens (and Khovanschina), War and Peace reveals itself at every new hearing as full of new depths, new angles, unplumbed riches. This is an opera that cannot be undertaken casually, but if a company has the resources to present it, it’s almost a crime not to. That the Kirov, with all its tradition and its position in Russian culture, should bring it off magnificently is hardly a surprise; that the opera could be co-produced with the Metropolitan with all of its very dissimilar resources (though the conductor and many singers and an increasing number of designers share both stages) and bring itself glory was by no means a foregone conclusion. The first run, six years ago, was spectacular; the revival is nothing short of a major triumph, the very grandest game in town. (And that town, let me remind you, is New York.)

For those new to War and Peace, I advise: read the synopsis carefully a couple of times (even if you did read the novel twenty years ago, and remember perfectly well who Hélène and Anatol are, and Andrei’s rude old father, and Natasha’s foolish, kindly one) but do not pay too close attention to the subtitles; the text will only distract you from the music and the acting. The story of Act I has been boiled down to bare essentials: Russian nobles thinking about love and dances and the various dissatisfactions of their lives; a young girl accepts a proposal of marriage, then a proposal of a different kind; her heart breaks but recovers — like Russia, she’s tougher than she looks. More interesting than the dialogue is the variation of orchestral grandeur (for the balls) and intimacy (for nature, or private reflection) that is going on behind and beneath and all around it. George Tsypin’s setting is the world as a baroque ballroom, with columns or flats descending to whisk us here or there, never leaving the globe behind. Then just as we get involved in the quotidian round of petty existence, a very Russian chorus interrupts: Napoleon has invaded Russia. The atmosphere changes at a stroke; the mood we have yielded to is shattered.

In Act II, armies march here and armies march there — Prokofiev composed these scenes after scoring films for Eisenstein, knowing what audiences now expected in the way of realism and willing to attempt it in a most unrealistic medium. Not coincidentally, while he composed, the Germans had Moscow under siege — the intended audience knew the experience of war as modern audiences (especially in the west) do not. There are stretches not easy to accept, not easy to make sense of: why is this scene here? Why is there a similar one right after it?

You have to trust Prokofiev — and also the master of the revels, Valery Gergiev. Prokofiev knows what he’s doing here (he didn’t always), and Gergiev knows the score as perhaps no one else on earth knows it; yield to their authority and you will feel you have lived through a transformative experience. And just when the battle scenes and the terrible scenes of what goes on around the battle reach fever pitch — the terrorism, the looting, the ravaging, the brutalization, the untold petty heroisms of ordinary people — we reach the grandeur of the burning of Moscow, perhaps the pivotal event of Russia’s history, at least in its sense of self, at least as Prokofiev’s far from disinterested patron Stalin wanted it to be seen. Then, with no sense of anticlimax but a magnificent consummation, we are in the bedroom of the dying Andrei, and he and Natasha recollect the earlier scenes of their love against a fabric, choral and orchestral, that jumps from the personal to the general moment by moment. Such musical recollections are a sentimental “convenience,” familiar from fifty operas — but their use here is anything but sentimental; it is on a par with Tolstoy’s mirror for Russian history in simple, single persons. The orchestration rewards attention at every spare moment — the dances recall Prokofiev’s whirling, astringent ballet scores, Andrei’s death is one of the subtlest bits of scene-painting of the twentieth century, and there are wonderful new details to discover with each hearing.

Andrei Konchalovsky’s production neglects nothing the opera calls for, from gypsies at a louche café to madmen wandering through the cinders of Moscow to ten — make that twenty — or is it forty? — ladies (and lords) a-dancing. The tale of putting the whole production together with all its constituent parts running smoothly would probably furnish a Tolstoy with enough material for another 800-page novel. The vocal requirements called for double casting to be sure of getting through the run without undue disaster — I heard the Met debuts of two exceptional singing actors, Vasili Ladyuk as Andrei and Irina Mataeva as Natasha. Ladyuk lacks the easy power Hvorostovsky brought to the role last time around, but seemed all the more human, both falling in love and fading away. Mataeva does not radiate ecstasy in the opening scene as Netrebko did (it’s fun, though, today when she is a fixture of the operatic scene, to remember just how much Netrebko did that, and what a thrill she was) — but Mataeva spins a lovely lyric soprano and portrayed to perfection the adorable, uncertain girl thrilled with her first ball, with Andrei’s attentions and, later, with Anatol’s more sensuous ones, suicidal at her betrayal, then redeeming at Andrei’s deathbed. Kim Begley’s Pierre gathers authority across the evening, as the character does — we know these experiences have changed Pierre because his voice expresses that, and because we feel we have shared them. Samuel Ramey’s wobble still appears to thrill the crowd, but I think a Kutuzov who did not sound eighty years old could be just as effective. The fifty (is it?) smaller roles all fit, each significant in its place — there is less than usual of the bad Met habit of turning to face the audience rather than the person to whom one is “speaking.”

Gergiev and the battalions supporting him in every department reveal War and Peace as one of the great achievements of opera, in the twentieth or any other century. You can’t love opera and not want to thrill to it, and be grateful to Gergiev and the Met for bringing it to you.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/kramskoy-tolstoy.png image_description=Leo Tolstoy by Ivan Kramskoi product=yes product_title=Sergei Prokofiev: War and Peace product_by=Andrei: Vasili Ladyuk; Natasha: Irina Mateva; Pierre: Kim Begley; Anatol: Oleg Balashov; Sonya: Ekaterina Semenchuk; Kutuzov: Samuel Ramey
Production: Andrei Konchalovsky; Set Design: George Tsypin. Conductor: Valery Gergiev
Metropolitan Opera, December 15, 2007
Posted by Gary at 2:30 PM

Cinderella and her Cinderfella

I mean, a diva and a divo that could both easily, nay joyfully negotiate the considerable and varied vocal demands of the title role and the Prince? And handle spot-on comic acting as effortlessly as they embodied well-judged sentimental moments that truly touched the heart? And on top of it all, both be possessed of exceptional, unassuming youthful good looks and that truly elusive “star quality”?

Well, ’tis the season, and dreams do come true. Those who whine and pine for some elusive “Golden Age” or another should shut up and hurry to Catalonia to catch Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez in what may just be definitive performances in Rossini’s enchanting rags-to-riches-rendition.

The beautiful, blond, Ms. DiDonato quite simply has it all. She can dispatch roulades with aplomb; color and vary seamless melismas to convey any variety of emotions; float high, middle, or low notes (and everything in between); spout out fiery dramatic phrases; or pull back to pianissimi of crushing frailty. It seems nothing in the role eludes her. She is a major artist with a beautifully schooled, richly handsome instrument, at the top of her game. Above all, she invites us into her world with a winning presence and an infectious delight, sharing her prodigious gifts in the service of one of Rossini’s most enchanting characters.

That she brought us to our knees and then to our feet with a perfectly judged “Non piu mesta” almost goes without saying. It was one of those thrilling performances when my heart began racing as fast as the coloratura, and the entire audience scarcely dared breathe. Applause and a low roar began as soon as she released the climactic note, and it built and built until the play-off finished and we seemed helpless in wanting to out-do each other in shouting our approval.

This is the kind of moment we dream of encountering in our years of routine, nicely competent opera-going, isn’t it? A spontaneous communal moment mercifully unspoiled by the likes of the Met Shush-ers (aka “The Applause Police”), where sudden perfection and the outpouring of recognition collide to make for an electric, one-of-a-kind shared experience. But far before this famous set piece, our star impressed from her very first, firmly-voiced “Una volta cera un’ re,” and then she just went from strength to strength. I felt much like Renee Zellweger in “Jerry Maguire” when she said “You had me from ‘hello’.”

Matching her note for note, and dripping charisma (he could bottle and sell it), Mr. Florez currently has no equal in this repertoire. Having heard him now on seven occasions, this cool bel canto dude just never mis-fires. Everything in his beautiful, bright lyric voice is perfectly aligned and evenly produced; he wisely judges just how far to push it in volume; his remarkable agility knows no apparent bounds; he can spin a hushed or full-throated legato phrase that the great Kraus would envy; and he can leap octaves and tenths (maybe fourteenths) in a single bound to perfectly centered high notes.

His Latin temperament and impossibly boyish dark good looks are certainly icing on the cake to ladies of both sexes (the five Milanese gentlemen with whom I shared my box were certainly enamored, prompting much passing of binoculars). Perhaps his most special skill as a complete performer is that he knows how to effortlessly play comedy — without mugging, without shtick, without gilding the lily — he just “gets it.” So here is a Prince Charming that is fun, passionate, a looker, and…he sings, too. No wonder he gets the girl!

In my previous encounters with “Cenerentola” I have certainly always enjoyed the tenors I heard, nice voices, nice enough acting. But I never quite realized what a great part Don Ramiro could be until I first caught Mr. Florez in it in London (well-partnered with Kasarova). It is cause for rejoicing that he is just a plain ol’ star singer who can make any of his assumptions a star part.

Not to say that these two were alone in their glory, for the Liceu assembled a most winning cast. At first I thought that Bruno de Simone (Don Magnifico) and David Menendez (Dandini) might should switch roles. The former was more suave of voice and presentation than I had imagined for Magnifico, and the latter a little more blustery and over-the-top than any of my previous Dandini’s. But once I set aside my pre-conceptions, both won me over with their well-realized (and well-traveled) interpretations. Although the frequent rapid-fire patter from both was well-executed, what impressed even more was the underlying beauty of tone both brought to the occasion, de Simone more lyrical, Menendez more burnished.

Simon Orfila’s warm, mature, and artfully deployed bass-baritone contributed another big plus with a lovingly conceived Alidoro. In the rather one-note dramatic roles of the step sisters, Cristina Obregon (Clorinda) and especially Itxaro Mentxaka (Tisbe) always acquitted themselves well, sparkling vocally in their spunky chatter-patter, and adding substantially to the many ensembles.

Joan Font directed a highly inventive production that has also been shared between Houston Grand Opera, Welsh National Opera -Cardiff, and Geneva’s Grand Theatre. Mr. Font and his designer Joan Guillen have come up with a cornucopia of clever touches, a riot of well-coordinated colors, and a unifying concept that deploys a “chorus” of eight dancers costumed as rats (with long pointy noses) who prettily pose, comment with movement, change scenery, and offer props along with tea and sympathy.

Amid all the bustle, and funning around, and subsequent glamor, these judiciously used rodent groupings kept us well grounded in Cinderella’s humble milieu. Indeed, she began “Nacqui all’affanno e al pianto” kneeling among the rats and charmingly tousling their heads as a sort of ‘thanks’ for having been such willing accomplices.

While all the tongue-in-cheek costumes and wigs were revelatory and aptly matched to the characters, I found our heroine’s white ball gown to be a bit of a disappointment. In this signature moment of her arrival at the ball, the skirt looked too short, like a high water model, and the veil that was removed revealed a huge white powdered wig that, from my seat at least, looked for all the world like a white Afro so big it could eclipse Angela Davis. Mr. Florez’ white wig, while accurate, might also have been traded in for a brunette model to better complement his coloring.

I initially wondered why Cinderella came out for the final scene in her black, gray and white(designer) rags and a tiara, but it became clear that Mr. Font had one more trick up his sleeve. During her final aria, she distanced herself more and more from the Prince, ending alone in a spotlight, and was once again rat-handed her broom. Was it all a dream? A unique touch to end a uniquely delightful production.

Albert Faura’s excellent lighting merits mention since it was such a willing accomplice in the afternoon’s effects. The back lighting of the basic scenic structure instantly transformed it from rat-infested home to palace (in this case, also rat-infested). The interior lighting of the fireplace created a wonderful effect as the mantle lifted and it grew to create/reveal the imposing palace doors. And in a novel touch, the storm scene was accompanied by the rats operating a shadow curtain showing a silhouette of the prince in his mini-coach riding through the blustery night en route to find the girl of his dreams.

Last but not least, Patrick Summers conducted with stylistic flair, and ably accompanied the recitatives from the keyboard. Inexplicably, he got a few undeserved hoots at curtain call. All I can figure is he was apparently being taken to task for a total of about six bars in Act I when our otherwise fine Dandini slightly misjudged an entrance, and later had a very minor moment of rhythmic uncertainty. When things are moving at such a breakneck clip, the slightest moment of inattention can cause a hiccup. But I found the maestro always to be large-and-in-charge, and he led an effervescent reading that was not only well-paced, but all the while pleasingly sensitive to the balancing introspective utterances.

Seen on 23 December, this struck me as a perfect gift for the holiday season, which I recommend to companies and opera lovers everywhere as a fine alternative to the usual parade of “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Magic Flute,” and “The Nutcracker.”

At least on this occasion, in light of this dreamy Rossini, it seemed a new “Golden Age” might be possible after all. And after all, it is the season of dreams, isn’t it?

James Sohre

image=http://www.operatoday.com/La_Cenerentola_Liceu.png image_description=La Cenerentola by Josep Guinovart product=yes product_title=Gioachino Rossini: La Cenerentola product_by=Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona product_id=Above illustration by Josep Guinovart
Posted by Gary at 1:54 PM

¡Viva Valencia!

Now into its second season, and with a diminished “flavor-of-the-month” status, I lucked into a prime seat for “Don Carlo,” seen on 21 December 2007.

It’s hard not to gush about the architecture. The Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia is a stunning modern design, visually arresting, innovative, spacious, and from my experience, appropriately functional. The deep blue seats have padded, frosted plexi-glass armrests that are illuminated in tandem with the bright house lights, adding even more glow and dazzle to the white tiers which are backed with deep blue ceramic mosaic patterns.

Acoustically, it is quite “live” to my taste, meaning the orchestra and singers all sound quite “bright,” and on occasion, quite loud. If you are the sort who cranks up the speaker knobs at home to feel like you are sitting in the brass section, this place is definitely for you. As I heard the voices consistently pinging lightly off the back wall of the 1500-seat house, I thought that some mellowing of the mix would not be amiss. Except for the bodies in the seats, there seems to be nothing but reflective surfaces including a (beautiful) hard wood floor.

And Tobias Hoheisel’s rather indifferent boxy set design provided plenty more reflective surfaces. A black show curtain was illustrated with a single, slightly-skewed white cruciform, and the unrelentingly square-ish setting it revealed had cut-out openings that were variations, or rather de-constructions of it. Two scenes, and a couple of L-shaped scrim flats later (plus a couple of raised and lowered platforms, and a lame projection or two), and we had pretty much seen the entire unremarkable scenic arsenal, a text book case of “too little too soon.”

Still, while neither Mr. Hoheisel’s setting nor his mostly effective costumes added anything definitive, nor did they unduly distract. Ditto the atmospheric lighting of Matthew Richardson, re-created by Rui de Matos. I cannot say the same of Graham Vick’s puzzling staging, re-mounted by Lorraine Reda, as there were many instances where the text was just disregarded. Rodrigo tells Carlo he sees the tears in his eyes, although our tenor is downstage of him with his back turned. Elisabetta asks Eboli why she is on her knees, and Eboli is standing. Carlo, having been “saved” and helped to escape from prison by Eboli, inexplicably stays put on stage hovering over the dead Rodrigo. Duh, he would be recaptured and there would be no final act! Helloooooo! (You know, that sort of thing?)

The Grand Inquisitor and the King were seated so far apart during their "conversation” (conducted straight front) they could have been in different operas. Indeed, many times the blocking seemed to resort to indifferent stand-and-sing compositions which might look more acceptable on the concert stage than in a piece filled with so many red-blooded dramatic opportunities. Conversely, when there was movement, it was often perfunctory. The rag tag noblemen extras in the Auto-da-fe appeared to march in hastily, bow clumsily, and quickly scurry to their appointed spot on the stage lest they forget what the stage manager had just told them to do!

A notable exception was the love duet, which was breathtakingly simple and highly effective. Carlo, having appeared up right, travels oh-so-slowly on a straight purposeful diagonal to Elisabetta positioned down left, and a tremendous tension was created. The ensuing scene was full of imaginative interplay, and was the best (almost only) example of meaningful character relationships during the long evening. It is hard to know how much of the venerable Mr. Vick’s original intentions remained, but I am not sure how much dramatic license would have been given over to an assistant to re-imagine his concept. Let’s chalk it up to opportunities missed.

For their were opportunities galore to have crafted a deluxe, maybe even definitive staging with the first rate cast that was assembled. Only Carlos Alvarez was familiar to me, and his Rodrigo certainly delivered all the goods. Having “discovered” him (and been bowled over) in this role some years ago, he has not only matured his dramatic interpretation, but has refined his vocal characterization so that it is not only still thrilling at full throttle, but also has become more deeply nuanced and varied. Arguably the star turn of the night.

Although Marcello Giordani had previously been scheduled, the posters now advertised the Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee in the title role, implying he had ample rehearsal for the assignment. He could be a major find since he has a polished instrument, stentorian high notes, sound technique, good diction, effective and idiomatic phrasing, and youthful slim good looks. A committed actor, what he lacks at the moment is the “heart” in his vocalizing. i.e. there was not yet an emotional investment or spontaneity in his singing. But I would place money on him. With more experience he should grow from a very fine singer to a very fine artist.

Our Eboli was not so lucky with stage time as the indisposed Nadia Krasteva was replaced by Anna Smirnova. There was something to admire in each of the mezzo’s three registers but she usually had the volume button turned up, witness a paint-peeling chest voice in the Veil Song. (Yes, the Veil Song!) She aspired to more subtlety than her technique seemed to be able to deliver on this occasion, although she sings with intelligence, craft, dramatic presence, firmly controlled tone, and often pleasing sound. Perhaps it was lack of rehearsal, but she seemed to be left to her own devices with “O Don Fatale,” pacing un-meaningfully. And she was not assisted in “cursing her beauty” by being put on display in a costume and wig that did not flatter her physique.

Soprano Angela Marambio (Elisabetta) seems destined for wider international success. Hers is a substantial, focused voice throughout the range and she managed the difficult low and lower-middle passages of this role with considerable success. Mme. Marambio could also ride the orchestra with full warm tone in the more rhapsodic and heated moments, and could float high pianissimo phrases with skill (though maybe not as easily as La Scotto once did). She has a lovely demeanor and presence, and while beautifully costumed in white for her later appearances, I found her well-intended, silver-spangled, blue velvet dress of Act One did give her the somewhat unfortunate silhouette of a (handsome) pin cushion. (Tone down those puffy sleeves for the diva, please?) Her vocal and dramatic rendition of “Tu che le vanita” not only had everything going for it, it was among the finest readings I have encountered.

I quite liked Orlin Anastassov as Filippo II, his suave, well-produced voice reminding me somewhat of Ghiaurov in his heyday. While he sang the role extremely well, I have come to want a little more imperious gravitas in the voice, and that, young-ish Mr. Anastassov does not yet possess, or cannot affect. His heartfelt “Ella giammai m’amo” had everything else going for it, and natural maturity will likely supply the requisite world weariness. The cello solo leading up to the aria was exquisitely played to a completely hushed and appreciative audience.

Stalwart Eric Halfvarson brought his veteran (if “new” to me) presence and fiery declamation to the Grand Inquisitor. Stanislav Shvets was a fine Monk, Carmen Romeu contributed all that was required as Tebaldo, and Olga Peretiatko was competent as the Heavenly Voice.

Presiding in the pit, Music Director Lorin Maazel led a brilliant reading, full of detail and dramatic fire. Sitting in the front row as I was, the massed forces were sometimes exciting to the point of being overwhelming. But never have I experienced the variety of orchestral colors as vividly as here. The Maestro favors a brisk reading of the four act Italian version. The opening horn statements, the bridge in the famous Carlo-Rodrigo duet, the introduction and exit of the Grand Inquisitor, did not have the usual expansiveness, although curiously the Tebaldo-Eboli duet in the Veil Song was a bit slower than is the norm.

Still, Mr. Maazel put his decades of experience to good purpose here, and drew committed, idiomatic singing and playing from his top-notch soloists and a very fine band. The well prepared chorus also sang well, especially in the opening’s offstage moments which have rarely been heard to such good effect. In short order, in this exciting new house, Valencia has delivered some world class offerings of international interest, and this “Don Carlo” certainly holds its own with any of the major houses.

As for some extra-musical considerations, there are still some challenges that need to be worked out. Thankfully, I went early in the day to pick up my telephone-sale ticket, and it was lucky I did, since they could not find it even with my name, address, credit card, booking number, and exact seat location (which happily, I had recorded). Twenty-five minutes later I did get the ticket, all amidst great pleasantry and many apologies from a friendly staff. Too, the box office is rather ill-marked and you have to talk your way past a security guard to gain access to it.

The biggest drawback is that this exquisite complex is not only located about a 40-minute walk from downtown, but also after the performance there is no public transport running. The promised availability of taxis did not come to pass. Having to stand in a cool misting rain, in a traffic circle, at one o’clock in the morning, with a theatre darkening behind you does momentarily take the joy out of the otherwise joyous experience. So, be advised if you go (and you should) that you would do well to have your hotel arrange a taxi for you under your name for pick-up after the show.

James Sohre

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Don_Carlos_Spanien.png image_description=Don Carlos, Prince of Asturias product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlo product_by=Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia
Posted by Gary at 1:42 PM

Chicago stages fantastic “Frau” --- Another View

Although clearly an indispensable presence both in concert hall and opera house, one pauses only rarely to consider the truly monumental dimensions of Strauss’ achievement. And thus one is doubly grateful to the Lyric for the impressive “Frau” directed by Scotland’s brilliantly perceptive Paul Curran. Its excellence both musically and scenically call for reassessment of the debt that owed this composer.

Part of the problem with Strauss — if a problem it is — is that, although he was actively alive during half of the 20th century, he is unthinkingly relegated to the century before, labeled somewhat too easily of “the last Romantic.” It is wiser perhaps to think of Strauss not as “the” end of an age, but rather “an” end of an era still unashamed to sing the “unending melodies” of Wagner. As Edward Said, writing about the 1993 Strauss festival at Bard College observed: “Few composers other than Strauss have lived so undistractedly through so many conflicting upheavals in musical style and conception and at the same time remained so ostensibly unaffected by them.” Indeed, Strauss in his fidelity to the tonal tradition is sometimes compared with his close contemporary Jean Sibelius as a man oblivious to the eruptions on the musical landscape caused by Schoenberg and Stravinsky. The parallels, however, are severely limited in scope. Sibelius worked in a remote corner of Europe, celebrated for his national idiom by a people still waiting political recognition of their identity. Strauss, on the other hand, spent his career deeply involved in the musical life of Munich, Vienna and Dresden and Berlin, each in its way a frontrunner in the musical grandeur of Europe until darkness descended upon the continent with the advent of National Socialism.

It is, however, surprising to read in the largely positive commentary on the Lyric’s production that “Frau” is the “best,” the “major” or the “greatest” product of Strauss’ lengthy collaboration with writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal, for although it can be seen every few years in this country, it lies far behind “Elektra,” “Rosenkavalier” and “Ariadne” in the number of performances on American stages. “Frau” is a formidable work, and the infrequency of productions is due in large part to the Wagnerian demands of the work. Thus the degree, to which the Lyric met them, makes the staging, designed by Kevin Knight and lighted by David Jacques all the more praiseworthy. The five major roles in the opera call for voices that can sing out over an orchestra of 100 players and have the endurance for a performance that runs — with two intermissions — over four hours.

Although the “Frau” of the title is the Empress, the fairy-tale creature from another realm, it is clearly the wife of dyer Barak who is the central figure of the opera. And in her debut in the role Christine Brewer, heard on December 20 in the Lyric Opera House, was a triumph of legendary level. Brewer, who long ago made Ariadne a signature role, is now a major Wagnerian. Her Isolde has been praised on disc and on stage, and she recently sang her first Bru”nnhilde in a London concert performance of “Go”tterda”mmerung.” She is a fascinating singer, for although she has the voice of neither Flagstad nor Nilsson, she brings a humane warmth to her work that causes listeners to identify with the characters she portrays. Although she in no way overlooked the shrew that the Wife is in her scorn for her husband in the first half of “Frau,” even there she evoked sympathy for a very modern woman in an unhappy marriage. And when at her most vehement she sang [italics]; she never shouted or barked. Her suffering was palpable, and when change came, the heart of the audience was torn with her own in her pain-wrought confession to Barak.

And the Lyric could not have cast her next to a better Empress than Deborah Voigt, a veteran in the role. Friendly rivals perhaps as Ariadne, the voices of the two sopranos blended beautifully in this staging — despite the feeling that Voigt no longer sings with quite the radiant ease that made her famous. She understands the Empress fully and gave full vent to the despair that she feels when told that unless she finds a shadow — i.e. becomes a mother to one of the ensemble of children crying for incarnation — her husband will turn to stone. Her opposition to the Nurse’s designs, her confrontation of her father Keikobad and finally her refusal to acquire a shadow at the expense of the Dyer’s Wife were played with genuine feeling.

Inspired perhaps by Brewer, Franz Hawlata, the only non-American among the five leads, sang a singularly sympathetic Barak, a role strictly secondary in most productions. There was nothing one dimensional about Hawlata’s often too self-effacing dyer, and his love for his wife came across as genuinely enduring — despite her treatment of him. He renewed his pledge to her, recalling: “She was placed in my care for me to cherish, to protect in my hands, to look after her and respect her for the sake of her young heart.” He made clear that the words had meaning for him — and for those who heard them. And his three handicapped brothers, usually caricatures of offish bearing, were winningly played by Daniel Sutin, Andrew Funk and John Easterlin. Tenor Robert Dean Smith, a current Bayreuth Tristan, was a strong-voiced and attractive Emperor, especially when he swept down from above on a white stallion. As the Nurse mezzo Jean Grove almost stole the show with her portrayal of a woman essentially in alliance with the “bad guys” of the story. In a comment in the Lyric’s program Grove described the Nurse as “a Type A personality from Hell,” but cautioned: “If she were singing ugly all the time, no one would pay any attention to her.”

Lamentation over the complex and convoluted plot of “Frau” is commonplace, but here the leading roles were all sung with such insight that they became credible women and men in a story in no way beyond everyday imagination. It is much to Curran’s credit that he brought “Frau” down to earth, stressing that despite their roots in fantasy Strauss has made flesh-and-blood humans of Hofmannsthal’s somewhat fantastic figures. Adding to the unforced fluency of the production was the skilled hand of conductor Sir Andrew Davis, the Lyric’s music director, in whom Strauss has a firm friend and ally. Davis stressed not only the drama of “Frau,” but also the melting beauty of a score that almost a century after its 1919 Vienna premiere stands as the valedictory outpouring of the supreme talent of the last great Romantic. In those magic moments when Strauss reduced the orchestra to chamber-music transparency Davis brought true enchantment to the production. Indeed, the playing that Davis evoked from the Lyric’s orchestra gave meaning to Glenn Gould’s designation of Strauss’ product as “ecstatic music.”

Finally, in a personal perspective on the opening remarks on the degree to which Strauss is taken for granted without adequate appreciation of his achievement. The opulence of Chicago’s “Frau” returned me to the Vienna of 1951, where it was my great good fortune to be a student. I saw my first “Rosenkavalier” in the historic 900-seat Theater an der Wien, the home of the Vienna State Opera while the company awaited reconstruction of its war-devastated house on the Ringstrasse.

I thought often of that distant day after the Chicago “Frau,” for Strauss had then been dead for only two years. My first Marschallin was Viorica Ursuleac who had sung the first Arabella in Dresden in 1933. And on the podium — as he had been in Dresden — was her husband Clemens Krauss, closely associated with Strauss not only as a conductor, but further as the librettist for “Capriccio.” I must have seen Ursuleac in the role four times during that year — with little sense of the music history that played before my eyes. Perhaps it is this early experience that accounts for the enduring role that Strauss has played in over half a century of opera, and validates the gratitude that I feel for this production.

Wes Blomster

Click here for another view of Chicago’s Frau. image=http://www.operatoday.com/Chicago_Frau_Smith.png image_description=Robert Dean Smith sings the role of the Emperor in the Paul Curran-directed Die Frau ohne Schatten, a new production for Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2007-08 season. Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago. product=yes product_title=Above: Robert Dean Smith sings the role of the Emperor in the Paul Curran-directed Die Frau ohne Schatten, a new production for Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2007-08 season.
Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Posted by Gary at 1:02 PM

Genoa Opera Hires New Artistic Director

carlo_felice.pngHouse's troubles a major challenge for Italy's first top woman opera manager
by Carlo Vitali [MusicalAmerica.com, 27 December 2007]

BOLOGNA, Dec. 26 -- Cristina Ferrari is the new artistic director of Genoa's Teatro Carlo Felice, one of Italy's 14 Fondazioni lirico-sinfoniche, or chartered opera houses. The announcement, made Saturday, is a surprise, since no woman at a comparable managerial level is to be found elsewhere in the country's opera system.

Posted by Gary at 12:37 PM

Jan Neckers on Recently Reissued Historicals: December 2007

Moreover, the conductor is a good ‘routinier’ and that’s all that can be said. Nowadays one doesn’t accept anymore the truncated versions of yore with almost half an hour of music missing. Still as a memento of three important and fine American singers or as an alternative to more famous recordings this is a set not to be despised lightly. Anna Moffo may not be plumbing the tragic depths of Callas but the voice is sweet and fresh and shimmering with youth. The coloratura is fine too just before the turning of the B.S Age ( = Before Sutherland) and the top is strong though the high E at the end of “Sempre libera” is clearly the end of the voice’s extension. The scooping which would mar many of Moffo’s later recordings is still absent. One easily believes (if one shouldn’t know the real facts) that here is a young soprano probably not more than a few years older than Violetta and thus utterly credible. Mr. Tucker’s sound may be not to everyone’s taste but he has a strong personal timbre and good top notes (indeed, Previtali allows him to drown the other singers in the ensemble at the end of act 2). His Alfredo however relies too much on sheer vocal force. He is not unstylish but piano and pianissimo are not in his dictionary. Those sounds he clearly reserved for his many fine recordings of popular love songs (so did Lanza) which probably tapped something deeper in his musical mind. As always Robert Merrill is a tower of strength; delivering every line with unfailing beauty and roundness of sound. And alas, also as always, not a single phrase remains stuck in one’s memory. One would offer a lot of money nowadays to hear such a baritone in the house but a bit boring he remains.


Franco Bonisolli: Recital.

Arias from Puccini, Giordano, Händel, Leoncavallo, Cilea, Ponchielli, Verdi, Donizetti, Massenet, Lehar, Sieczynski.

Myto 1 MCD 066.339

A worthy souvenir of the tenor, warts included. Myto doesn’t give us a date or a place when the recital was recorded. Judging from the sound of the voice I’d say between 1983 and 1988. And I don’t think Bonisolli would have sung “Wien, Wien, nur du allein (Vienna, Vienna, you alone)” in let’s say Rome or Madrid. Anyway this is vintage Bonisolli; a singer who succeeds in leading the listener into ecstasy or rage due to his vocal strengths or his unmusical sounds. Preferably, all in the same aria. Take “E la solita storia”. Bonisolli’s voice exemplary caresses and suits the dreamlike story until it’s time in the second strophe for sobbing, guffawing and interpolating an ugly high B (listen how Björling succeeds the same B without sounding vulgar). The tenor once more charms the listener in “Cielo e mar” until his intonation becomes suspect and he glides in and out of the right key. “Un di all’azurri” is at least sung homogenously; which means everything chopped up, shouted and suiting the tenor’s own idea of rhythm and tempi. And then he surprises us with a fine “Ombra mai fu”; brilliantly encores with “Wien” and gives us a magnificent high D in Land of Smiles. And which other tenor was ever so crazy to end a long evening with “Di quella pira” ? The end result therefore is a mixed bag though one has to admit this was a real voice. Nevertheless I‘ve a gut feeling that in the end Bonisolli knew his timbre was not the most sensuous and realized his top notes didn’t have the cutting edge of that other Franco. Therefore Bonisolli used some extra musical means to draw attention.


Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser.

Hans Beirer (Tannhäuser), Sena Jurinac (Elisabeth), Martti Talvela (Landgraf), Janis Martin (Venus), Victor Braun (Wolfram), Jeff Morris (Walther). Orchestra and Chorus of La Scala conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch. Recorded live 1967.

Myto 3 CD’s 3MCD 062.325

When the Bundesrepublik came back into the fold of peoples and the Deutsche Mark started soaring due to the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) the great prima donna’s started to perform in Germany again. We owe two important live performances by Renata Tebaldi to this phenomenon. As they were broadcasted all over Western Europe I watched both of them almost 50 years ago. I was so disillusioned when I discovered Tebaldi’s Otello was not Del Monaco but the unknown tenor Hans Beirer. The gentleman had already many years of strenuous roles behind the belt but no recording firm had ever thought of offering him a single record. He was almost completely unknown to people outside the profession. Not without reason as his voice was second rate and his sense of Italian style owed more to bawling Siegmund than to singing Riccardo. Soon afterwards I became a subscriber to Opera Magazine where his name regularly popped up. I couldn’t understand why he was allowed to sing in a temple as La Scala. Nowadays when we see things in a more historical perspective reasons for his Scala performances are more easy to explain. Like all other major European theatres La Scala was slowly dumping old traditions; one of them singing opera in a language the audience could understand. This Tannhäuser was one of the first productions to be sung in the original German (as late as 1974 Jenufa was still performed in Italian).Another reason for the German version was the fact that no major Italian tenor could be found to sing the role of Tannhäuser. Gone were the Wagner-days of Gino Penno, Mario Del Monaco (Lohengrin at La Scala) or Giuseppe Di Stefano (Rienzi in the same theatre). So Beirer came in and at first the sound is not a thing of beauty; dry, unattractive timbre, resemblance with 70year old Rudolf Schock. But at the end of Act 1 the voice becomes more powerful while he never roars. During the rest of the performance he has found his Vickers-sound; beefy but with some shine on it. In short a real pro who absolutely knows how to pace. The same is noticeable in the long bonus scene from Siegfried recorded at San Carlo two years later (he was 58). There is not much lustre in his dialogue with Mime but when the forging song is there, so is the voice. As could be expected Sena Jurinac is a splendid Elisabeth. With her warm Slavonic sound (half-Italian, half German; combining the best of two worlds) she succeeds in making Elisabeth less virgin and more woman. Only at the top of the voice is the sound a bit frayed as she too was already a veteran of many operatic wars. Janis Martin is not especially erotic and in her clear light sound one already hears a soprano struggling to come out. In fact, on record Jurinac sounds more sensuous than Venus. Martti Talvela is an imposing Landgraf and Victor Braun delivers an excellent ode to the evening star. He too didn’t have much of a recording career and his big voice easily fills La Scala; at the same time showing warmth and charm. Sawallisch is sympathetic to his singers, never rushing them in what is after all a voice-wrecker for the tenor. It comes as a surprise though that the La Scala chorus sounds rather tame, less incisive and powerful than usual. Then one remembers that this generation was asked to sing for the first time in a completely foreign idiom.


Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto.

Margherita Rinaldi (Gilda), Luciano Pavarotti (Duca), Piero Cappuccilli (Rigoletto), Nicola Zaccaria (Sparafucile), Adriana Lazzarini (Maddalena), Plinio Clabassi (Monterone). Orchestra and Chorus of the RAI-Torino conducted by Mario Rossi. Recorded live 1967.

Myto 2CD’s 2MCD 064.330

This RAI-performance reminds me of a 1969 performance at De Munt in Brussels with almost the same cast. Cappuccilli and Rinaldi sang their Rigoletto and Gilda while Luciano was the duke (Luciano Saldari however was not a Pavarotti). The singers on this radio-performance are as excellent as they were in the theatre; filling the recording with well-focused sound and convincing vocal acting. Still a good evening in the theatre can sometimes fall a little bit flat when one relives the experience without the visual and aural surroundings and this is a prime example. Piero Cappuccilli is his well-known self; letting forth a stream of perfect sound in that brown colour only the real Italian(ate) baritone possesses. From top to bottom the sound is rock firm and he has a splendid G at his disposal as proven by the end of “Si vendetta”. I’ve seen and heard him countless times and he was always excellent and yet I think he was the Italian answer to Robert Merrill: a wonderful voice which rarely moved you (unless he sang his magnificent Boccanegra) or made you go back to his recordings. Margherita Rinaldi doesn’t put a foot wrong. She had a clear ‘virginal’ voice easily sailing to a D without the sharper edge of lesser Italian sopranos in this repertoire. Of course Myto gambles on Luciano Pavarotti’s appearance in the cast. He studied the role with Tullio Serafin, a real singer’s conductor who nevertheless according to Philip Gossett’s book on performance tradition, didn’t have much feeling or interest in historical belcanto. Pavarotti is splendid. He had been singing for six years and the overtones of a young and fresh voice are still there while the vocal technique is now very secure (the one chink in his vocal armour is his lack of a true piano). But Maestro Rossi is a Verdi-conductor in the Serafin-tradition: well-chosen tempi but no interest in the original score and preferring the provincial traditions. By 1967 all recorded Rigoletto’s already had the Duke’s cabaletta which is completely cut here. And singers already knew that “Parmi veder le lagrime” and the duet “ E il sol” had important cadenzas. None of it can be heard here though the tenor recorded them officially only a few years later. The rest of the cast is interesting. Plinio Clabassi (the former Mr. Rina Gigli) can still curse impressively as Monterone but his colleague Nicola Zaccaria is dull as Sparafucile. And that not everything Italian was gold is proven by Adriana Lazzarini. Several times I experienced her performances myself while visiting Italy and the hollow sound on this recording is exact as I remember her.


Vincenzo Bellini: I Puritani.

Virginia Zeani (Elvira), Mario Filippeschi (Arturo), Andrea Mongelli (Giorgio), Aldo Protti (Riccardo), Vito Susca (Gualtiero). Orchestra and Chorus of The Teatro Verdi Trieste conducted by Francesco Molinari Pradelli. Recorded live 1957.

Bongiovanni 2 CD’s GB1195/96

As alternatives to official recordings go, this is one that can be recommended. The radio sound was not state of the art, even at the time, but it is the orchestra that suffers most. And the singers, all used to a healthy dose of Verdi and Puccini, will probably not earn kudos by Philip Gossett for their immaculate belcanto style. But voice and voice and voice again we get in generous doses. Best of all is Virginia Zeani of course. Together with Olivero and Gencer she may thank pirates for helping her name into the pantheon of sopranos. The fifties were her great years and what a shame she didn’t get more official recordings. From the first measure on one listens spellbound to the magnificent Rumanian. She may not be the great vocal actress Callas was but neither has she the sour sounds the American soprano made, even in her good days. Zeani’s voice is personal, throbbing with emotion and utterly fearless in the high register. Whenever possible and preferably at the end of an ensemble she takes the higher option and sends the audience into a delirium. As a coloratura she is no Sutherland as she was not raised in classical belcanto with its ornamentations but her involvement is so much greater than the Australian and she knows how to float her voice without becoming sugary. Indeed, it seems to me that Zeani combines the best of Sutherland and Callas. Enter Mario Filippeschi; known from his Pollione with Callas when not in his best voice (his recitals on Bongiovanni culled from live performances are far better). The voice is a bit unyielding, lacking suppleness for Bellini and has a slightly whining quality. One should not expect subtleties or even a great singing technique. There is no messa di voce as on the legendary “A te o cara”recordings by Alessandro Bonci and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. But if you like your tenors to have metal, even pure steel, and squillo and stamina in the voice this is the man to go for. The top notes are splendid and he is breathtakingly efficient when during “Vieni” he sails together with Zeani to a stunning high D (he was 50). Another veteran is Bass-baritone Andrea Mongelli. He too was a popular house singer throughout Italy though almost unknown elsewhere. He saved the recording of the early EMI-Fanciulla when he stepped in at the last moment for Tito Gobbi. His Riccardo is authorative and warm and the voice sounds homogenous from low to high in this bass-baritone role. Aldo Protti too, another big voice, is not the first baritone one thinks of in this repertoire. He is used to big outbursts of sound and though his emission is very easy one feels his phrasing is a little bit stiff. But he has reserves of power and typically for the time a fearless top. He easily takes the high G in his cabaletta (one verse only) and one hears he still has a few notes in reserve. Therefore when Mongelli and Protti meet in their big duets, all stops go out and the house almost becomes hysterical. One doesn’t associate Francesco Molinari Pradelli with Bellini and his is not the most subtle reading. He is nearer to Un Ballo or Trovatore than to Bellini but how could he otherwise with such powerhouses of voices in front of him ? This Puritani is a worthy testimony to a gone tradition, though not for Bellini puritans. It may not be fare for every day. But I’m sure we would screech our heads off if we would get a performance like this one now and then.


Gaetano Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor

Renata Scotto (Lucia), Carlo Bergonzi (Edgardo), Mario Zanasi (Enrico), Plinio Clabassi (Raimondo), Mirella Fiorentini (Alisa). Orchestra and Chorus of NHK conducted by Bruno Bartoletti. Recorded live Tokyo 1967.

Myto 2 MCD 065.337

This recording is an issue only for those who collect every CD with the names of Scotto or Bergonzi on it. Is this a bad performance ? Far from it but as NHK broadcasted it on Japanese TV there is a (rather expensive) DVD available. So one can watch one of the four existing complete live performances by one of the greatest tenors of the post-war period (the other three being Aida, Elisir and Ballo while up to now nobody has ever thought of extracting his 1968 RAI-TV Inno delle Nazione from the vaults). Such a rare live visual document of tenor and soprano makes one more tolerant of the two barbarous cuts; the Lucia-Raimondi and the Edgardo-Enrico duets which when absent on record are unpardonable sins. Bergonzi himself had recorded only a few years earlier (with Moffo-Sereni) a really complete Lucia but he was notoriously sticking to Italian provincial habits. He was always rambling about “our great Verdi” when a producer didn’t stick to utterly conventional productions but the scores of that same “great Verdi” didn’t mean much to him when he could cut corners. In 1966 he was almost threatened with murder during a Dallas Rigoletto and he nevertheless refused to sing even a single verse of “Possente amor”; a cabaletta he had recorded for DG. Therefore I’d advise anyone to buy the DVD or the complete RCAset. Not that this Tokyo-perfrmance is inferior. The tenor sings with his usual ardour and feeling for the line. Of course in a live performance, the small sobs are a little bit more pronounced but his final scene, as always during the sixties, is a ‘tour de force’; an object lesson in belcanto which every student should student for beauty of tone and exemplary breathing. The bonus gives us some highlights from his first Werther in Naples in 1969, sung in Italian. Bergonzi, an autodidact and one to leave school too early, never learned another language than Italian and thus we are deprived of some possible great performances of French opera. Nevertheless Werther was one of the few roles (together with a Don José who is still missing) he studied in the original language 4 years later. It is a pity Myto didn’t use that far more rare interpretation than the Naples one which has already appeared on other labels.

Yes, I know the opera is called Lucia but Renata Scotto was never in the same league as the tenor. She officially recorded the role in 1959 for the short lived label of Ricordi (with Di Stefano-Bastianini). This is one of the five or six live-recordings available, almost all of them better than the early official recording. The voice grew and got more tragic undertones; the phrasing became more interesting (owing a lot to Callas). Still she never succeeded in overcoming completely one natural handicap. There is something acid in her voice; a sharp edge which makes some listeners uncomfortable. It is the sound non-operatic people always imitate to ridicule an operatic soprano. Granted, as I witnessed myself often during her prime, it was less obtrusive in the flesh but absent it never was. It is not very noticeable here in “Regnava nel silenzio” but as the performance continues it slowly makes its appearance. Her coloratura in the madness scene is fine though one nevertheless has more an impression of hard work than of natural talent. She remains a lirico with coloratura facility lacking however the easy top. The C in “Il dolce suoneo” is short and slightly flat and so is the E in “Spargi d’amore pianto” which ends in a small cry.

Baritone Mario Zanasi clearly thinks of Enrico as a kind of Amonasro. The voice is excellent but the style is more than rough and ready. Singing to the baritone means clearly to cling as long as possible to any high note on his road. This is a one dimensional portrait of a villain in which there is no place for mellowness, pity for the fate of his sister and remorse during the madness scene. I suppose Plinio Clabassi still had it in him to be a good Raimondi but as his big scene is cut there is not much to comment on. Angela Marchiandi however is one of the most wretched Arturos to be found on record. The singers conduct well and Bruno Bartoletti follows them nice and dry. Mitigating circumstances are that he has to work with an orchestra not well versed in this repertoire while his Japanese chorus is underpowered.

Jan Neckers

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Verdi_Traviata_Sony.png image_description=Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: La Traviata product_by=Anna Moffo (Violetta), Richard Tucker (Alfredo), Robert Merrill (Germont). Rome Opera Orchestra and Chorus condcuted by Fernando Previtali. Recorded 1960 product_id=RCA (Sony BMG) SKU: B000G759LC [2 Hybrid SACDs] price=$19.97 product_url=http://www.amazon.com/dp/B000G759LC?tag=operatoday-20&camp=14573&creative=327641&linkCode=as1&creativeASIN=B000G759LC&adid=1JRKZJXJFXXF4PRM4G7J&
Posted by Gary at 12:26 PM

December 27, 2007

MOZART: Don Giovanni

His passion for “excavating old dusty manuscripts” has illuminated Monteverdi, Cavalli and Cesti, Couperin and Charpentier, Schütz and Buxtehude, Blow and Purcell, Bach, Scarlatti, Keiser, Telemann, and Handel (whose little-known Flavio is a sentimental favorite of mine among Jacobs’ recordings). Jacobs’ approach to the concept of “early music” is all-embracing, ecumenical, one might even say “neo-Classical” — that is, anything pre-Beethoven is fair game. This approach gave us Gluck’s Orfeo and Haydn’s The Seasons; and Mozart, of course — Figaro, Tito, Così, and now finally Don Giovanni, with RIAS Kammerchor and Freiburger Barockorchester, out this year on Harmonia Mundi label.

Don Giovanni (Prague 1787, Vienna 1788) has had arguably the most tortuous reception history of all Mozart’s masterpieces. The most performed of his operas, it has also been the least understood, the most second-guessed and mutilated, as the composer’s vision was compelled to submit to the Romantic fantasies of the next generation that appropriated his creation. René Jacobs’ stated goal in this recording (see his fascinating interview in the CD booklet) goes far beyond restoring the Mozart sound (that has been done before, after all, by him and others). He proposes nothing less than deliberate and complete de-Hoffmannization of Don Giovanni. It was E.T.A. Hoffmann, after all, who single-handedly spearheaded the performance tradition of the opera as a chronicle of a tragic Faustian hero in search of the eternal feminine in which his demonic, tormented soul would find salvation. This view of Don Giovanni as a tragedy, Jacobs argues, has impacted the decision-making of performers and directors in a tremendous variety of ways, such as voice casting, tempi, and the choice of the numbers to include in and excise from the conflated Prague-Vienna version typically performed these days. Thus, it gave birth to the questionable tradition of excising the scena ultima, Mozart’s comedy’s moralistic epilog, as well as downplaying other giocoso aspects of the drama whose Shakespearean mixture of drama and farce made quite a few Romantics (starting with Beethoven) uncomfortable.

The character of Don Giovanni has probably traveled the furthest away from Mozart’s dissoluto punito over the years. Jacobs’ “restored” Don is pointedly lacking in Faustian gravitas. Instead, he is what da Ponte’s libretto describes as “an extremely dissolute young man” — in essence, a Cherubino five years older than he was in Figaro (accidentally or not, the wonderful young baritone Johannes Weisser, who brings both his gorgeous lyrical sound and nuanced comic timing to the role on this recording, is about the Don’s age). His voice may have broken from mezzo-soprano to a baritone, but he still has not learned impulse control. As in Figaro, instead of a tragic Romantic pursuit of an ideal, his misadventures in this opera (including the graveyard scene) are a series of comic catastrophes, which make his final confrontation with Commendatore all the more dramatic by comparison.

In the Hoffmannesque tradition, an antagonist to the demonic Don Giovanni was Donna Anna, whose secret passion for the Don is fueling her rage and thirst for revenge. As a result, Anna is almost inevitably cast as a dramatic soprano, completely against the voice type suggested by Mozart’s score that, with its affecting pianos and lyrical high register, is so clearly designed for an ingénue. On Jacobs’ recording, Olga Pasichnyk emphasizes Anna’s sweetness, not her bile. This interpretation not only completely transforms her Act 1 Or sai chi l’onore from a rage aria into a cantabile, but also allows the possibility of the famous Non mi dir, bell’idol mio (the very aria on the basis of which E.T.A. Hoffmann accused Anna of faking her devotion to Ottavio by not speaking with her own voice) to sound both fully justified and entirely convincing.

The bile in Jacobs’ Don Giovanni is reserved for entirely for Donna Elvira (Alexandrina Pendatchanska) — the Don’s true nemesis, and a classic donna abbandonata whose forcefulness comes across wonderfully in the angry lows of Act 1 Ah chi mi dice mai. Hoffmann sees Elvira as a comic character, and in a way she is (but then so is the Don – both characters are classified as mezzo carattere). Pendatchanska also emphasize Elvira’s softer side that comes across in Act 2, particularly in Mi tradì and the sextet, helping to set up the justification (often absent in Don Giovanni productions) for her last-minute intervention attempt in the Act 2 finale.

Apart from rescuing Elvira’s reputation, René Jacobs comes to the aid of another much-maligned character of the opera, Don Ottavio. In the Hoffmannesque tradition, he is usually portrayed as a weakling both dominated by forceful Anna and unworthy of her. Jacobs’ Ottavio, on the other hand, is an antithesis to selfish and impulsive Don Giovanni: he is “the new man” of the sensible Enlightenment, whose strength lies in a perfect balance of reason and emotions. As such, he is Donna Anna’s equal and her free choice. Between Ottavio’s two arias, Jacobs chooses Dalla sua pace, the Vienna insert, for the main recording, which is worth getting just to hear Kenneth Tarver’s sonorous, velvety but restrained bel canto in that piece. Arguably, Dalla sua pace is dramatically more convincing than Prague’s Il mio tesoro as an immediate response to Anna’s preceding Or sai chi d’onore; if the listener is partial to the latter, it may be found in the appendix. In his interview, Jacobs is very clear about his view on an established performance tradition that incorporates both arias. He believes that an uninterrupted aria parade in Act 2 that results from this unfortunate practice disregards Mozart’s fine sense of pacing and his intolerance for monotony, particularly when the hilarious Zerlina-Leporello duet is excised from the same act as unseemly in a tragedy (it is of course present on this recording).

The issue of pacing brings me to the most immediately controversial aspect of René Jacobs’ interpretation of Mozart’s opera — tempo indications. The Hoffmannesque tradition, he believes, led to the extreme range of tempi in Don Giovanni productions, some gravely slow, others maniacally fast. The revisions made in Jacobs’ recording are partially based on identifiable dance rhythms that underline some vocal numbers, such as the minuet in the Catalog aria (taken here somewhat faster than usual). Don Giovanni’s notorious Champaign aria, Jacobs points out, is a contradanse – a popular couple dance of the Mozart-era middle class that the Don would soon be dancing with Zerlina at the very ball that the Champaign aria aims to organize. The dance is an appropriate one for the Don — after all, it is a partner-switching dance. Therefore, the aria — as close to a self-portrait as Mozart’s notoriously elusive character ever comes in the opera named after him — should be performed at the contradanse speed, still lively but slower than the usual breakneck pace that makes the all-important text of the aria all but incomprehensible.

The pacing issue is even more important to ensemble numbers, which according to Mozart’s letters are supposed to resemble naturally flowing buffa conversations, in which time flies and intrigue continues. The tragic interpretation of Don Giovanni, Jacobs contends, causes the Act 2 sextet to be taken much too slowly. What Hoffmann sees as the sublime center of the drama, Jacobs reasonably recognizes as a typical comic finale (which it would have been in the unrealized 4-act version of the opera), with its ubiquitous mixture of sentimentality, hilarity, and confusion. Similarly, the scene with the Commendatore statue in the Act 2 finale — the very scene previewed in the opening section of the overture — is, Jacobs contends, ruined by having the statue make its pronouncements at the usual funereal speed. At the “normal conversation” pace on this recording, the verbal sparring between Don Giovanni and his undead nemesis becomes less of an otherworldly apparition and more of the musical and dramatic equivalent of their Act 1 duel, thus tying together the two scenes and supporting the finely balanced structure of the opera as a whole.

The more traditional and probably more accepted concern of a typical “early” recording showcased in Jacobs Don Giovanni is the issue of improvised embellishments. Every performer includes them, both instrumentalists (see, for instance, a brilliant little pianoforte flourish at the beginning of Act 1 Scene 4 secco) and vocalists — including in the buffa numbers such as the Catalog aria, the Act 1 duettino, the Champaign aria, and of course the second verse of the Act 2 canzonetta. As Jacobs points out, buffa characters were expected to improvise ornamentation for their parts as a matter of course; they were also expected to “act out” the comedy (which Lorenzo Regazzo as Leporello certainly does here).

In conclusion, René Jacobs’ Don Giovanni is a true achievement; it is brilliant, polished, inventive, and engaging. The cast is almost uniformly excellent (Sunhae Im as Zerlina was by far my least favorite, and yet she is a must-hear in the Act 2 duettino); so are the orchestra and the choir. And whether or not one agrees with his tempo indications (I personally prefer my spooky statue music nice and slow), Jacobs’ interpretation is based on specific and reasonably verifiable principles of late-18th-century performance practice, not phantoms of Hoffmann’s wonderfully fertile imagination. The supreme pragmatist Mozart would surely have appreciated it.

Olga Haldey

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Don_Giovanni_Jacobs.png image_description=W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni product=yes product_title=W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni product_by=Johannes Weisser, Lorenzo Regazzo, Alexandrina Pendatchanska, Olga Pasichnyk, Kenneth Tarver, Sunhae Im, Nikolay Borchev, Alessandro Guerzoni, RIAS Kammerchor, Freiburger Barockorchester, René Jacobs (dir.) product_id=Harmonia Mundi HMC901964.66 [3CDs] price=$34.98 product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=176942
Posted by Gary at 2:58 PM

RAVEL: Daphnis et Chloé

Yet Ravel’s decision to create suites from the entire ballet should not be taken as any kind of preference for selected pieces of the work.With such an engaging ballet, a suite or any selection hardly suffices when it is possible to hear the music in its entirety, and the recent release of the entire ballet on Naxos is a fine way to enjoy it. Recorded at concerts from 3 January through 5 January 2006 at Franklin Hall, Bordeaux, the result is a fine release. While the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine may not be as familiar an ensemble as the Boston Symphony, the Concertgebouw, and others, it delivers a fine performance of this score under the leadership of Laurent Petitgirard. Given the accessibility and price of the recording, it is a solid choice among recent recordings.

From the very introduction to Daphnis et Chloé, the orchestra demonstrates its comfort with the work, and this familiarity emerges consistently throughout the performance. Petitgirard brings out the character of each of the numbers in this score, while also maintaining a laudable dynamic pitch. The full sound required in some passages is never lacking and, at the same time, the more intimate moments are not lost within the ambience of the recording itself. Such is the case with the third number of the first part, “Daphnis s’approache tendrement de Chloé,” where the pensive, sometimes disjunct musical gestures create the intimate scene intended in the scenario. The more aggressive percussion elements occur at an appropriate sonic distance to reflect well the musical space Ravel created in the score. Likewise, the more passionate mood of the subsequent section, “Les rires s’interrompent,” seems natural andeffortless, with the inclusion of the choral textures notably tasteful and precise.

Petitgirard is solidly precise at the beginning of the second part, the section marked “Animé et rude,” and in this section, the sometimes impetuous rhythms remain fully under control to give the result a clarity that is sometimes lacking in live performances. The brass never overbalance the entire ensemble, with the timbres always clear. Solo passages emerge from the ensemble with ease, and when they must retreat into the texture, the ensemble works well. With tutti pieces, like the concluding “Bacchanale,” Petitgirard brings the score to a satisfactory conclusion, and those who want to sample the recording may wish to start at the final track to observe the solid exuberance it contains, and then return to the beginning of the work to appreciate the performance in its entirety.

The existing discography includes some fine recordings of Daphnis et Chloé by such conductors as Ansermet, Munch, Boulez, Haitink, and others, which give listeners some excellent choices. This recording, albeit new, is a performance that is worth exploring for the idiomatic reading the Petitgirard offers. Given the mastery of the score that he demonstrates in this recording, one would hope for other release of music by Ravel and other French masters from the Orchestre National Bordeaux under Petitgirard’s baton.

James L. Zychowicz

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Ravel_Daphnis.png
image_description=Maurice Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé

product=yes
product_title=Maurice Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé
(Complete Ballet in Three Parts)
product_by=Bordeaux Opera Chorus, Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine, Laurent Petitgirard, conductor.
product_id=Naxos 8.570075 [CD]
price=$7.99
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Posted by jim_z at 2:30 PM

Houston puts final touches on new Heggie opera

rehearsal_0125_small.pngWes Blomster [27 December 2007, Opera Today]
There’s still a hint of jest in the comparison, but it’s not without reason that Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally are mentioned now and then in opera circles as “the Strauss and Hofmannsthal of the 21st century.”

Posted by Gary at 2:20 PM

Houston puts final touches on new Heggie opera

McNally, of course, didn’t really need a composer. One of the most popular playwrights of the day, he has an uncanny ability to find words that “make music” without staff paper. His early “Lisbon Traviata” and more recent “Master Class” document that gift.

McNally, however, struck out in a new direction when he wrote the libretto for Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking,” premiered in San Francisco in 2000 and now the most performed new opera of the decade. He then wrote the text for “At the Statue of Venus,” which Heggie composed for the gala 2005 opening of Denver’s Ellie Caulkins Opera House. And on February 29, 2008, the Houston Grand Opera will premiere “Last Acts,” a chamber opera written by Heggie for star mezzo Frederica von Stade. Gene Scheer based the libretto for it on McNally’s “Some Christmas Letters,” performed at a 2001New York AIDS benefit. In mid-December the cast and production crew of “Last Acts” met in San Francisco for a workshop designed to put the score in final form for the Houston premiere.

Heggie is pleased with the results. “Everything looks right, and the work is really in good shape,” he says. And he’s pleased with his decision to score “Last Act” for two pianos and eight further instruments. “The pianos are just right for the piece,” he says. “They create a chamber-music atmosphere and they can be lyric, percussive and orchestral.” HGO music director Patrick Summers will conduct from one piano; Heggie will be at the other.

McNally wrote “Some Christmas Letters” for a New York AIDS benefit in 2001. The play explores the dysfunctional relationship between a mother and her daughter and gay son through letters and phone calls. In New York Julie Harris played veteran actress and mother Madeleine. “I read ‘Letters’ seven years ago and I was in tears,” Heggie recalls. “I fell in love with it and I said to myself: ‘This needs to be set to music!’” He has worked with Sheer to make it operatic by adding story lines to the plot. (Scheer, author of librettos for two operas by Tobias Picker, has collaborated with Heggie on the song cycles “Statuesque” and “Rise and Fall” and on “To Hell and Back,” premiered by the Bay-Area Philharmonic Baroque earlier this season.)

In “Last Acts” Heggie has moved in a direction more lyrical than in earlier works. “It’s really music theater,” he says. “The music serves the characters in the drama.” And there’s even a bit of autobiography in the story. “My father died when I was a kid,” Heggie says. “This could be my life. There’s so much in it that any family can relate to.” He sums it up as “a heavy story with a light feel - a tragic tale with a lyric undertow.”

rehearsal_0103.pngLast Acts in rehearsal (Keith Phares (Charlie), Frederica von Stade (Madeline), Kristin Clayton (Beatrice))

“Flicka” von Stade, who goes “way back” with Heggie, shares his enthusiasm about “Last Acts.” “I had met Jake in Los Angeles early on,” says the most popular - and enduring - mezzo of her generation. “But it was in the ‘80s, when he worked in the press room at the San Francisco Opera that I really got to know him. “One day he showed me some of this songs, and I flipped. They were incredible - simply marvelous!” Von Stade estimates that she has now performed over 100 Heggie songs in recital. For the premiere of “Dead Man Walking” Heggie had suggested that she sing Sister Helen, the lead in the opera, but von Stade felt this should be left to a younger singer, and Susan Graham was cast in the part. Offered her choice of supporting roles, von Stade opted for the mother of Joseph De Rocher, the man on Death Row.

On the heels of the December workshop, the singer finds Heggie “in a whole new place.” “‘Last Acts’ is more in a ‘pop’ vein - more like Broadway,” she says. “Yet it’s not a Broadway show – it’s different. And the melodies are incredible.” And after two complete run-throughs in San Francisco, she finds the score perfect. “There’s not one wrong step in it,” she says. “It’s always the right thing at the right time. “It’s exactly what Jake wanted it to be - and it’s touching!”

And although stories about dysfunctional families are hardly rare these days, von Stade is struck by the universality of the story. “It rings so true,” she says. “This could be any family anywhere. “It’s Terrance at his best.” Turning to the challenge of her role, the singer comments that it’s difficult to find a redeeming quality in Maddie. “She’s so impossible!” she says. “But then you realize that people become who they are for a reason. “And what has happened to Maddie become clear as the work ends.”

Von Stade turns to the genesis of the work, in which she was involved from the outset. “When Jake first talked to me about it years ago, he was thinking of something for Berkeley Rep. “Terrence was excited about the project, and we were all feeling good.” Then things got out of hand. McNally wanted to add characters, and Heggie began talking of a full-scale Broadway production. It was von Stade who brought the two back to the original plan. And Maddie, she says, was “totally tailor made” for her. “She’s somewhere between my mother and me,” she says, “and she strikes very close to home. “She’s a woman deeply involved with her children, and her problems are very pertinent to any woman in show business.” She calls the role both demanding and very taxing emotionally and sees Maddie as a “springboard” from which the daughter and son develop. And she’s hit hard by a late line in the text when she says: “I think these two are going to be okay.”Maddie has a good deal in common with von Stade, who made an extreme effort to balance her own life between her career and her two daughters.

rehearsal_0147.pngLast Acts in rehearsal (Jake Heggie in center)

The HGO premiered Heggie’s second major opera, “End of the Affair,” in 2004, when David Gockley was still general director.Anthony Freud, who succeeded Gockley in 2005, met Jake Heggie during an early visit to Houston. “Jake told me about this idea that had been washing around, but hadn’t yet found a home,” he says. “Flicka too has a long relationship with the HGO, and I had been talking to her about a small-scale work just for her. I loved this story immediately.” “We then brought in Leonard Foglia, who has worked with both Jake and McNally, to create an in-the-round production that Freud defines as “cabaret style.”

Freud, who has obviously seen a lot of opera, admits that he cried at the end of the San Francisco run-throughs. “It’s wide ranging and very human,” he says. “Everyone will find in it something that triggers the trauma of recollection. “It will touch the sensitivity of every member of the audience.” “The intimacy of the piece is its strength,” he says. “Jake has a unique ability to celebrate the circumstances of a situation. “This is very sophisticated writing.’

“Last Acts” will be performed in the HGO’s 1065-seat Cullen Theater with the ensemble on stage with the singers. “There are no sets,” von Stade says. “Just an occasional chair and a mirror. “Effects are achieved with light, and the scenes flow together easily. Lighting designer is Brian Nason. (“Last Acts,” in three acts without intermission, lasts 90 minutes.) Heggie has recently set the final monologue of McNally’s "Master Class" for Joyce DiDonato, who has recorded it for release next year. “Last Acts” is a co-commission with the San Francisco Opera.

“Last Acts” by Jake Heggie and Gene Sheer opens at the Houston Grand Opera on February 29; eight performances run through March 15. For information and tickets starting at $50, call 1-800-626-7372 or visit www.houstongrandopera.org.

Footnote on “Flicka”: “Retirement” is not a word in the vocabulary of Frederica von Stade, born in 1945. Asked about future plans, Frederica von Stade speaks of “la sistema,” the Venezuelan program that provides every kid in the country with music lessons. It has been brought to the attention of the world in the past year by superb Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra and its conductor Gustavo Dudamel, the 26-year-old who has been named music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Plans are being made by several American communities to “clone” the system, and von Stade has organized an inner-city children’s choir in Oakland. (She makes her home in the East Bay.) “I work with them twice a week,” she says. “They’re building a new cathedral in Oakland, and I hope to have the choir ready to perform there when it is finished.”

Wes Blomster

image=http://www.operatoday.com/rehearsal_0125.png image_description=Frederica von Stade product=yes product_title=Above: Frederica von Stade in rehearsal
All photos courtesy of Houston Grand Opera
Posted by Gary at 1:36 PM

'Hansel and Gretel': Grand and Gross

BY JAY NORDLINGER [27 December 2007, NY Sun]

On Christmas Eve day, the Metropolitan Opera offered Engelbert Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel," in a production by the Englishman Richard Jones. "Hansel and Gretel" is not just for Christmas; in fact, you will strain to find Christmas in it. But it has long been a seasonal favorite, not unlike "The Nutcracker."

Posted by Gary at 12:40 PM

The Perfect Picnic at Jermyn Street Theatre

Jermyn_Street_Theatre.pngSet to the music of Mozart and with a champagne sparkling new libretto 'The Perfect Picnic' is a wonderfully light hearted entertainment combining elements of theatre and opera to produce a quintessentially English tale of love and misunderstanding at a summer's Opera Gala in the park.

Posted by Gary at 12:32 PM

‘Polish’ Not Change for Santa Fe Opera

MacKay.pngJ.A. Van Sant [27 December 2007, Opera Today]
Incoming general director of Santa Fe Opera, Charles MacKay, has made clear he is “in the tradition -- I will not be an agent for radical change,” at the celebrated New Mexico summer opera festival, MacKay says.

Posted by Gary at 12:20 PM

‘Polish’ Not Change for Santa Fe Opera

“I expect to refine and polish Santa Fe Opera, as much as I can – though it is fine shape right now – but my mission is to help continue the successful tradition established by founder John O. Crosby and continued by Richard Gaddes. My first interest in opera was developed by Crosby, who gave me as a youngster, jobs at Santa Fe Opera. Gaddes, who retires in 2008, has been my friend for years and predecessor at Opera Theatre of St. Louis,” MacKay told this reporter.

Susan F. Morris, prominent New York philanthropist and society figure, board chairman of the Santa Fe Opera, headed the search team that rather promptly identified MacKay as the successor general manager and announced in recent weeks his appointment, effective October 2008. “Charles has had an extraordinarily successful, debt and deficit-free, 22-year career at Opera Theatre of St Louis...and high artistic and musical standards have marked Charles’s career there,” Mrs. Morris said recently.

Perhaps repertory is the place where MacKay will eventually make his most distinctive mark. “Look for more American opera; keep in mind I love French opera, and I admire Britten, also Wagner, though he is difficult to present in an outdoor theatre,” the New Mexico-born intendant said. “I similarly love Mozart and Strauss, and so do audiences; we will not be abandoning those traditions at Santa Fe Opera, not under my direction.”

“Der Rosenkavalier” is mentioned in conversation with MacKay, but so is “Anthony and Cleopatra,” the 1966 opera of Samuel Barber. Barber revised and refined the opera after its initial failure at the Metropolitan Opera, and when MacKay was on the staff of the Spoleto Opera Festival in South Carolina, the piece enjoyed a successful revival there, which was recorded. MacKay also admits to interest in unusual repertory such as “King Roger,” a little-known 1926 work of Polish composer Karol Scymanowski.

“I wont be reaching my full profile with Santa Fe until the 2011 and 2012 seasons,” MacKay noted, “as artists are contracted for specific roles so far ahead, and have to be.” MacKay, 57, will “support commitments for new commissions and other plans put in place by Gaddes, including a commissioned opera based on Somerset Maugham’s short novel The Letter, which is also famous as a motion picture. The new opera is scheduled for season 2010 with music by New York composer Paul Moravec, and libretto by journalist Terry Teachout.

MacKay has western American heritage, and strong musical roots, as the son of two amateur musicians and singers, who were natives of Colorado and Wyoming respectively, John and Margaret MacKay. He grew up surrounded by vocal music, both at home and from his boyhood years attending Santa Fe Opera, where he remembers hearing top rank singers. “It marked me for life,” he laughs. Santa Fe Opera remains in safe hands and in the Crosby tradition. One can look forward to innovative repertory now and then, but the old maxim “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” will surely apply to the upcoming

© 2007 J.A. Van Sant

image=http://www.operatoday.com/MacKay.jpg
image_description=Charles MacKay

product=yes
product_title=Above: Charles MacKay

Posted by Gary at 12:12 PM

“Your Queen is trumped”: Queen of Spades by the Kirov

This is particularly true of the first-rate troupe of the Kirov Opera that still holds its regular St Petersburg season in the very building where Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece premiered in late December, 117 years ago. That said, the closing performance of The Queen of Spades that the Kirov offered this year at the Kennedy Center is an experience I would much rather forget. While not horrible, it was inconsistent, careless, even sloppy – a step down from the opening night of Otello the week before, and a leap down from what this company is capable of doing with this most St Petersburg-esque of all operas.

As expected, Vladimir Galouzine as Gherman easily out-sang the rest of the cast. Although he did opt for the lower, less “insane” key of A-major for the gambling house brindisi, his strong, powerful heldentenor high register garnered well-deserved applause. So did his acting, particularly in Act 3 in which Gherman’s fragile psyche is gradually unraveling in front of our eyes. I would specifically point to an often overlooked duet of Gherman and besotted Liza at the Winter Canal, here made compelling in its stark contrast of distraction and devotion. However, there were several moments when the singer was taking liberties (or was it memory lapses?) with his part. In the opening arioso, the perfect high note arguably made up for the missing verb in the text; not so in the finale, when dying Gherman simply refused to declare how much he loved his “angel” and left maestro Gergiev holding the bag (i.e., the score) for a few incomprehensible (without the vocal line, that is) measures before being saved at last by the final chorus.

Mlada Khudoley’s Liza was not particularly impressive in the opening act: indeed, in Scene 2 she was overshadowed not only by her girlfriend Pauline, performed by Zlata Bulycheva, but even by her maid (Maria Matveeva). Still, to her credit, Ms Khudoley improved steadily throughout Act 2, and did wonderfully in her famous Act 3 Winter Canal aria – at least in the lyrical opening section. No singer, no matter how fabulous, can ever save the unfortunate F#-minor cabaletta that follows (the reprise of it as a duet is more unfortunate still, particularly in the poetry department).

Lyubov Sokolova, whom I liked as Emilia in Otello, acquitted herself admirably as The Countess, with a rich low register and a proud arrogance of manner. I do regret not having had an opportunity to hear the illustrious Irina Bogacheva: she was showcased in this, her classic role on the earlier nights, with Sokolova as the Governess (Olga Savova, Sokolova’s replacement in that cute cameo role on December 14th, was a regrettable choice).

Outside the fateful triangle of Gherman, Liza, and the “Old Hag,” Alexander Gergalov’s Yeletsky shone in his Act 2 aria but was nondescript elsewhere. I liked the gamblers – Sergei Semishkur’s Chekalinsky, Fedor Kuznetsov’s Narumov, Sergei Skorokhodov’s Chaplitsky, and particularly Yuri Vorobiev’s jolly and sonorous Surin. Evgenii Nikitin was, overall, a good Tomsky, although I preferred his highs to his lows, and his gambling house song to his ballad. I was prejudiced, of course: no one can ever quite recover from hearing Sergei Leiferkus in this role (see the Kirov’s recent Queen of Spades DVD for details).

Set designer Alexander Orlov offered us a minimalist setting. The single backdrop of the narrowed stage showed a granite staircase rising toward a fragment of the Neva river embankment. The details marked the spot as the tip of the Vasilievsky Island, across the river from the original Winter Canal of Scene 6, and a place that some St Petersburg dwellers call “the end of the world” – a historically incorrect but strangely appropriate setting for this symbolist tragedy. The symbolically disinclined Petersburg natives in the audience – and there were many – were meanwhile puzzled by the fact that the staircase led in the wrong direction, so technically the characters were literally “walking on water.” But most of the historical and geographical details that typically create the pageantry of The Queen of Spades were either skewed or eliminated. The absence of poor Liza’s pianoforte, for example, turned the “real” period tunes of the Scene 2 duet and Pauline’s romance into an unreal, theatrical pretend sung into the orchestra pit. When the pageantry did appear, it was glaringly self-aware: the figure of the young Countess haunting each scene dressed in her rococo splendor; three masked figures in black, revealed in Act 3 to be the personifications of the three cards; the Act 2 ball turned into a masquerade...

The theatricality (or perhaps the unreality) of the drama was highlighted by several tall curtains – some black, others white – that were used to separate scenes, characters, and events throughout the opera. A black curtain, specifically, enlivened the section of the ballroom scene in which masked Surin and Chekalinsky are haunting the increasingly unstable Gherman with a fragment of the three card ballad, while literally hiding behind it. It was also used to great effect in the last act, making its three scenes, in effect, run continuously, and thus increasing the tension leading towards the catastrophic dénouement. From the point of view of the overall direction and design, the curtain idea went beyond stage business, of course: it symbolically represented the opera’s crushing contrasts of light and dark, day and night, life and death, real and surreal. Yet here, as at many points in this performance, a good idea was betrayed by its slipshod execution: the fabric was too light, which made the black look gray, and both black and white look cheap; it divided into unattractive sections, each flapping about seemingly with a life of its own, and all more Mary Poppins than Countess ***.

The otherworldly green-colored (and much better draped) Act 2 pastoral did provide a nice contrast to all the black and white: a lively stylization of French rococo court entertainment, it sported a traditional separation of singers and their dancing doubles. The scene would have worked even better if the number of dancers had been curtailed: the endless leaf-decorated fauns made the stage a little over-crowded. The same can be said for the actual crowd scenes, particularly the opening Summer Garden party: the choristers in their elaborate costumes (costume designer Irina Cheredniakova) kept getting in each other’s way; the striking hats alone required two extra feet of space around each wearer.

Overall, despite some controversial directing and designing choices, there were many attractive features in the Kirov production of The Queen of Spades. Alas, the same cannot be said for the performance – at least not on the night in question. This was probably the sloppiest work I have ever witnessed from the Kirov, inexcusable in a world-class opera company that has clearly demonstrated on so many occasions (and to me, as recently as five days earlier) that it can do better. In Act 1, the whole ensemble seemed to have forgotten how to count, sliding constantly out of sync with the orchestra and with each other. Among many ill-fated consequences, this problem doomed the chilly, barely accompanied quintet in the opening scene – the moment that Russian musicologist Boris Asafiev once called “the nerve center” of the opera that first and irrevocably ties together Gherman, Liza, and The Countess. Bad timing also ruined the little duet of Gherman and Yeletsky in the same scene: as the characters are expressing directly opposing sentiments in almost the same words but contrasting rhythmic profiles, its very incongruence, its “anti-duet-ness,” depends on perfect, ironclad synchronicity for its effect. Thankfully, things improved somewhat as the opera progressed: still shaky in Act 2, the timing was acceptable (yet still not perfect) in Act 3. It must be added that this criticism applies to the soloists but not to the chorus, as steady and in sync as it has ever been. The same cannot be said for the orchestra, however: it did well, but did not impress me as much as it usually does. The bass clarinet solo in Act 2 Scene 2 and the horn chords that punctuated the Countess’s death scene were two of many examples of imprecision ruining Tchaikovsky’s bone-chilling effects.

So, if you missed the Kirov’s Queen of Spades this season, do not despair. Instead, get yourself their (granted, much more traditional – pianoforte and all) DVD for Christmas and witness Russia’s greatest opera company do justice to one of Russia’s greatest masterworks.

Olga Haldey

image=http://www.operatoday.com/queen-spades_med.png image_description=Queen of Spades product=yes product_title=Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Queen of Spades
The Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C. product_by=Vladimir Galouzine, Mlada Khudoley, Olga Savova, Evgeny Nikitin, Alexander Gergalov, Sergey Semishkur, Kirov Opera, Valery Gergiev, General Director and Conductor
Posted by Gary at 11:46 AM

You read it here first: now Naxos is ready to take over the world

Bartok_Bluebeard.pngMICHAEL TUMELTY [The Herald, 26 December 2007]

It has been a remarkable year for Naxos, the super-budget CD label that celebrated its twentieth anniversary in the early summer. At one time derided and dismissed, it is now regarded as an influential market leader, as I observed at the time of its anniversary in an interview with Klaus Heymann, founder of the company.

Posted by Gary at 11:40 AM

Metropolitan Opera Extends Its Populist Mission

BY KATE TAYLOR [NY Sun, 21 December 2007]

As of this month, the Metropolitan Opera is bringing its populist message to a new audience: schoolchildren. Last Saturday, the Met transmitted "Roméo et Juliette," starring Anna Netrebko, live via satellite to high-definition screens at five New York City public high schools. Some 2,000 students and family members attended for free. On New Year's Day, the Met will transmit to the same schools its new production of "Hansel and Gretel." Today, 2,500 students will spend their last day of school at the Met's first student open house, watching the final dress rehearsal of "Hansel and Gretel" and learning about how the sets and costumes are made.

Posted by Gary at 4:19 AM

December 26, 2007

Tom Moore Interviews Frederick Carrilho

Botafogo, 24 October, 2007

TM: Let’s talk about the influences of adolescence, the family, the musical environment. Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

FC: I was born in Penápolis, a city in the interior of the state of Sao Paulo, but when I was a month old, we moved to Sao Paulo, where I lived until the age of sixteen. Then I moved to a city near Campinas, named Indaiatuba. My mother is a musician, a pianist, and my grandfather was the pastor of a Baptist church, and played sax at the church. From a very early age, three, four, five years old, I was used to seeing my grandfather and my mother playing at church. At about five or six, my parents started me on guitar lessons.

My father had lots of sets of records, of instrumental and orchestral music, and when I was by myself at home, I would listen to them. Since I didn’t have much to do, I would turn on the enormous Victrola (78rpm), and put something on. I got to know music by Handel, other composers from the Baroque, classic and romantic.

TM: What year was this?

FC: 1976, 1977.

TM: A period by which 78s were already old-fashioned.

FC: A bit. The Victrola played at both 78 and 33, but the disc were old ones that played at 78.

So I started guitar, and entered a conservatory at age 11, and went through to the end of the course. When I graduated I dedicated myself to performance, and for the next ten years that was my focus. Another interesting thing is that my first experience in composing was at age 12. I was listening to an aria from Messiah by Handel, and made a sort of variation/arrangement. I started to dedicate myself to composition at about age 23, 24, with music for guitar, and then for groups including guitar.

TM: Let’s talk a little about the church. Musical experience at church often plays an important part in the development of a musician. What was the music at your church like? Was it more like American gospel? Was it more Brazilian?

FC: There is a musical style which you find in the more traditional churches – Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist. They have their own repertoire in their hymnals, which is primarily music from the late nineteenth century, and still is very important. This is something which I heard a lot of. I was born during a transitional period for church music. In the sixties you had the revolution with the Beatles and rock and roll, and this is something which made its way into the churches, whether in Brazil or elsewhere. So church music began to be made based on these influences, which were not the traditional sources. Traditional church music in the smaller churches was done with piano or organ, and the congregation singing. In larger churches there was an orchestra which accompanied the congregation. Parallel with this there were songs which were more popular. So you had a mix of more traditional church music with music from the sixties, a situation which continues until today.

TM: What sort of music were you listening to as an adolescent? Even a composer who is working in the area of classical music often listened to rock, progressive rock, jazz, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin….

FC: Exactly. Since I was born in the seventies, in addition to my father’s discs which I listened to, I used to listen to the music which was playing on the radio at the time in the seventies. What made an impression when I was an adolescent in the early eighties was Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Pink Floyd, music which had quite an influence on me, and continues to have an influence. In terms of jazz, there was John McLaughlin – I used to listen to a lot of his records, including the trio which he had with Paco de Lucia and Al Di Meola. This made a great impression on me after I started to study guitar. This was around ’83, ’84. Before this there was the Mahavishnu Orchestra, which I heard somewhat later, since I would have been too young at the time. This music is part of my vocabulary – it’s in my genes.

TM: When you studied guitar what type of literature were you working with?

FC: The traditional repertory. Bach suites, which are part of the study of every guitarist. Sor, Giuliani. And later music from the twentieth century – Leo Brouwer, Villa-Lobos, of course, since all Brazilian guitarists play Villa-Lobos. Then I became interested in more experimental music for classical guitar, composers like Berio, various others.

TM: Did you have classes in popular music and jazz at the same time?

FC: I was listening to this music, but did not have formal instruction in it. Brazilian harmony was also something that was present, since you listen to bossa nova, and get very familiar with it, and in studying harmony you want to know how harmony works in bossa nova. And there are connections between bossa nova and jazz, so I didn’t study formally, but tried to study these other styles on my own.

TM: You did your baccalaureate work at the conservatory in Sao Paulo?

FC: Yes, in guitar. I studied with Professor Enrique Pinto, maestro Abel Rocha, and with the conductor Naomi Munakata. Maestro Abel was the director of the symphonic band of the state of Sao Paulo. Maestrina Naomi was the director of the chorus of USESP, and Enrique was one of the most important figures for the guitar in Brazil.

TM: I am more familiar with the scene in Rio. What is the situation with the conservatory in Sao Paulo? Is it conservative? Does it follow the French tradition?

FC: In Sao Paulo they are a little more diversified in the sense that each discipline has its own methodology. For guitar, for example, you have something which is more traditional. The pianists also have something based on the romantic school. Theory tends to be traditional. We used the Schoenberg treatise on harmony, from the first part of the twentieth century, and counterpoint from the same period.

TM: You studied performance at the undergraduate level. Were you already composing?

FC: Between the age of twenty and twenty-five I was already composing a little, but since I was very focused on performance there was less time for composition. Gradually I spent more time on composition. I studied with various composers, Achille Picchi, Raul do Valle, Jose Augusto Mannis.

TM: You are presently finishing a masters in composition.

FC: At Unicamp in Campinas.

TM: Do you have models or anti-models for composition in the program at Campinas, composers who are ones to emulate (or avoid)?

FC: There is not a specific list of composers to study, but some suggestions. A professor may suggest a work to listen to, and later to study. In terms of my training, I don’t like the word “eclectic”, but it is appropriate in this case. From the traditional composers that everyone knows, from the Baroque, or even from the Renaissance – Palestrina, Gesualdo, John Dowland, Bach, Handel….in the twentieth century there was a huge number of composers in the second half of the century. In the first half, there are certain composers which are more often people’s favorites – Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, and others who are more experimental – Berg, Webern, Schoenberg.

From the second half of the century I had more freedom of choice, having to do with my personal taste, so I got to know composers like Xenakis, Penderecki, Ligeti, figures whose music I enjoy listening to and studying. And there are composers from other genres – Frank Zappa, who I paid a certain homage to in my piece. Could you tell?

And other exceptional composers – it is hard to make a list. There are Russian composers, Polish composers, Hungarian composers, who are very important. Schnittke, who very much attracted my attention. Friedrich Cerha, another exceptional composer. These are composers who are not yet part of the academic lists, but are on the same level as other important composers.

TM: Your piece at the Bienal [Profusão 5 – Toccata] was received very well. The integration, mixture, anthropophagy of influences from popular music and classical music was very interesting, and extremely well-done. Too often you hear compositions with influences from popular music which are not very well-digested, which remain as a sort of objet trouvé, where the popular music is alien to the rest of the style. In your work, it was impossible to say where one style ended and the other began. Please say a little about the structure, the motives, the rhythmic references.

FC: Integration was one of my principal objectives in the piece, fusing various elements. You have a classical way of thinking, with influences from other musical styles. You have the influence of rock, which is clear, and the influence of Brazilian rhythm. It’s difficult for a composer to speak about his own work, but the principal motive is the quintuplet. Although the piece is impregnated with the influence of rock, at the same time it has elements of the rhythm of bossa nova [snaps fingers, and pronounces the typical cross-rhythms for the guitar style of Joao Gilberto]. The instrumentation highlights the rock elements, the drum-set, for example. At the same time, you have bossa-nova elements. At the end, the references are explicit, with the tambourine and the cuica. They are there at the beginning, simply to introduce the instruments.

TM: The first time the cuica appeared I thought “My God, someone is singing on stage!” since the sound was so low. Usually you hear it in its higher register.

FC: A voice was not a possibility. I talked with the musicians and chose the cuica.

TM: Let’s explore the presence of Frank Zappa in this piece.

FC: Frank Zappa is someone who is an inspiration not just through his music, but through his musical ideology, a music that is free from styles and structures.

TM: Sometimes a composer creates a structure which is not easily perceived by the listeners – the direction of the piece, what the piece wants, where it wants to go. In this piece the direction was clear.

FC: The piece is a toccata, so it explores the virtuosity of the instrumentalists. The first part presents the principal elements, with the rhythm which everyone plays together, and the second part is more soloistic with marimba playing the same motive, but with variations beginning to appear.

TM: Is this work part of a series? Does the five come from a series, or from the quintuplets?

FC: Good question. It comes from the quintuplets, and from the other four ideas which are the pillars of the music – rhythm, instrumentation, timbres, layers. The name is related to the use of the elements, but I could imagine a series – 5.1, 5.2, 5.3…..

TM: Let’s talk about your other works. What are your favorite combinations? What direction do you see your work heading?

FC: I don’t know yet. I can’t classify my work as being freely atonal, or experimental. Integrating these styles is still something quite new for me. In my pieces for guitar I do not make much use of atonality, experimentation with sounds, space…my language is one which I could classify as freely tonal. In the area of guitar I have a direction. If I am using a steel-string guitar or an electric guitar my music is already more experimental.

I think a composer today has to be able to work in different languages, not because the market demands this, but because if you don’t you will be limited, restricted to one area.

For contemporary music ensembles I use a different language than I do when writing for guitar.

A teacher of mine once said that a good composer has to be able to write in C major, with conjunct motion, a traditional melody, or a piece for orchestral with complex elements. I write and compose in various styles – I don’t have a specific language yet, though I hope to.

TM: Let’s talk about brasilidade. The early concerts of this year’s Bienal seem to be lacking the presence of Brazil. One of the works seemed to be American in style, but in general the presence of national elements in classical works is something which differentiates Brazilian music from that which is produced in Europe, for example. How do you think about this question?

FC: Today this question is much more important for me. As a performer, my training was very traditional. I spent many years paying attention to music from outside Brazil, music which is held to be “good” music.

TM: Canonical music.

FC: There is always a certain negative stigma attached to music from Brazil. Today I pay much more attention to Brazilian rhythm and harmony, to music that arose from within Brazil, as a fusion of various different cultures. This music is something unique. It is present in my work. I see that even in compositions which I wrote without thinking about this detail, from ten years ago, it was already present. I was thinking about classical harmony, but using chords with ninths. Syncopated rhythms were also present. The piece for two guitars already was integrating these things, although on an unconscious level, in order to give structure and variety to the work, with a more Brazilian rhythm in one section, and more Spanish idioms elsewhere, with rasgueado, etc.

TM: How does a piece get started for you? Is it a concept, a structure, a melody?

FC: Good ideas come – I don’t know if there has been a scientific study about this- when I am taking a shower. Seriously! When I am going to sleep as well – I put my head down on the pillow, and as I am traveling, thinking, before I fall asleep, my level of concentration and relaxation allows certain ideas to come out. This piece - Profusão –

I don’t want to mystify it, but I would get up in the middle of the night and work on it for a couple of hours on the computer. I compose directly at the computer. I would be singing the passage, and begin to improvise on the passage, and I would get up and get it down. This went on for quite some time, since I spent six months working on the piece, the first half of 2007. But the principal motive, the quintuplet, came to me during a barbecue. After various beers, I was talking with a friend who is a drummer. We were listening to music – Frank Zappa, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple – he is a drummer who plays music that is more popular. I began to improvise, playing around, and I liked the idea. And at the next barbecue, and the next, and the next, the idea was always there. I was always playing around with this motive. I wrote it down, and it turned into the piece.

TM: Nice!

FC: Usually that is how it works. You get to the moment where you think “I have to work on the next project”. Sometime I have difficulty in deciding on the instrumentation which I am going to use. If I think about writing for soloist and orchestra, the work involved is enormous, so it’s easy to feel a little lazy. But musical ideas appear more spontaneously. I always try to have respect for this question of intuition. It is always present. You can be very preoccupied with the formal question, the structure, the number of measures, unity…I try to let my intuition control the unity of the piece. I sing and sing the whole piece, the various sections. If I don’t sense that it is tiring, then it is OK.

An important detail – this piece is supposed to be a little quicker [than the performance heard at the 2007 Bienal]. As it is very difficult, it ended up going a little more slowly. I commented to my friends that it was a little long in some passages, but in fact it is shorter, since it was supposed to go faster.

I like intuition, blood, emotion, energy, things that are part of Brazilian music, and I think that a Brazilian can’t let this go to waste.

TM: What future projects do you have?

FC: Making a bunch of children….buying a house on the beach…..

I want to continue composing. Yesterday I was talking about the piece I want to write for the next Bienal. There are other projects for guitar, for electric guitar….I am thinking about putting together a instrumental trio or quartet with electric guitar, with those influences that we talked about, John McLaughlin, these great guitarists…..There are various projects which I have begun but which are not completed.

One of them is for symphonic band. I have sketches, but I am waiting for the piece to mature. I worked for four months on the piece for band, but I have put it aside for more than a year. I think it is crucial for a composer to have a perception of when the music is really ready. The response to this piece for the Bienal [Profusão] has allowed me to see more clearly the things I can explore which are inside me.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Frederick_Carrilho.png image_description=Frederick Carrilho product=yes product_title=Above: Frederick Carrilho
Posted by Gary at 5:27 PM

LULLY: Alceste, ou Le triomphe d’Alcide

Music composed by Jean-Baptiste Lully. Libretto by Philippe Quinault after Euripides.

First Performance: 19 January 1674, Opéra, Paris.

Principal Characters:
Nymph of the Seine Soprano
La Gloire [Glory] Soprano
Nymph of the Tuileries Soprano
Nymph of the Marne Soprano
Alceste [Alcestis] Princess of Iolcos Soprano
Admète [Admetus] King of Thessaly Haute-Contre
Alcide [Alcides, or Hercules] Baritone
Licomède [Lycomedes] brother of Thetis, King of Scyros Bass
Lychas confidant of Hercules Haute-Contre
Straton confidant of Lycomedes Bass
Céphise confidante of Alcestis Soprano
Cléante knight of Admetus Tenor
Pherès [Pheres] father of Admetus Tenor
Charon Baritone
Pluton [Pluto] Bass
Thétis [Thetis] a sea-nymph Soprano
Apollon [Apollo] Haute-Contre
Proserpine [Proserpina] Soprano
The Ghost of Alcestis Silent Role
Alecton [Alecto] a Fury Haute-Contre
A Rebuffed Ghost Soprano
Eole [Aeolus] King of the winds Baritone
Diane [Diana] Soprano

Setting: The city of Iolcos in Thessaly

Synopsis of The Alcestis

The Alcestis was produced in 438 B.C. and is probably the earliest of nineteen surviving plays of Euripides, unless the Rhesus is considered genuine. It was the fourth play in the tetralogy which included The Cretan Woman, Alcmaeon in Psophis, and Telephus. It is a position, in all other cases that are known, to be occupied by a satyr play. However, a true satyr play, such as Cyclops, is a short, slapstick piece characterized by a chorus of satyrs, half men, half beasts, who act as a farcical backdrop to the traditional mythological heroes of tragedy. The Alcestis in spite of its position “is clearly no such play.”1

It has no satyrs, no openly farcical elements. Even the merriment of Heracles is toned down to fit the dignity of serious drama. The uniqueness of the Alcestis is not its happy ending, which was not uncommon in Greek tragedy, but its positioning within the 438 B.C. tetralogy. Its relative shortness and fairy-tale like theme which is unusual in extant Greek tragedy adds to its uniqueness and controversy.

Eurpides’ Alcestis has always been a critic’s battlefield. Even the genre to which the play belongs is disputed—is it a tragedy, play, or the first example of a tragicocomedy?2

Though the story of the Alcestis appears relatively simple it too has been the object of study and controversy. It is the story of a young man who is king. His name is Admetus. Through the trickery of his friend, the god Apollo, Admetus escapes Thanatos, Death. Apollo, in the prologue of the Alcestis, laments the situation he has gotten his friend into. He had persuaded Death to take a substitute for Admetus. It seemed a fine idea to both Admetus and Apollo, however Death made one stipulation, the substitute had to be a voluntary one. Admetus, still undisturbed, believed his elderly parents would lovingly and willingly take his place and die. Instead, his parents made it clear, especially Pheres, his father, that life was sweeter and more precious as one got older and his parents had no intention of dying for him.

Hercules Fighting Death to Save AlcestisHercules Fighting Death to Save Alcestis by Frederic Lord Leighton (1869-71)

None, except his young beautiful wife and queen came forth. Alcestis voluntarily places herself in her husband’s stead. Death comes for Alcestis, leaving her grieving husband to contemplate a life of shame, promised celibacy and isolation. Now enters Heracles. Heracles sees his friend in mourning and questions him as to who has died. Admetus assures his friend that it was simply an outsider and that Heracles was very welcome to stay. Heracles takes Admetus at his word and begins to party and make merry as was his custom. Finally, a servant tells Heracles that is is the queen, Alcestis, that has died. Heracles, angry and hurt confronts Admetus and learns that this is true. He asks Admetus how he could deceive a friend in such an embarrassing and cruel way.

Admetus painfully tells Heracles the story. He tells Heracles that he is sorry for his humiliation but that he did not want to refuse Heracles hospitality since he felt that hospitality was the only thing left that he had to give his friend. Heracles not only forgives his friend but feels his pain in the loss of Alcestis.

Heracles, being the super-hero of those times, goes off to Hades and wrestles Death for the life of Alcestis. He wins and brings Alcestis back to Admetus in disguise. It is as if Alcestis is still dead. It is not until Admetus begins to understand the true pain of his deeds, that the veil drops from Alcestis’ face and her husband recognizes her. And so the happy ending.

As its genre, the story also poses questions:

Who is the main character, Alcestis or Admetus? And through whose eyes are we to see this wife and this husband? Is Alcestis as noble as she says she is? And is Admetus worthy of her devotion, or does he deserve all the blame his father, Pheres heaps upon him? And is the salvation of Alcestis a true mystery, a sardonic ‘and so they lived happily ever after’ or simply the convenient end of an entertainment?3

[Synopsis Source: Kathleen O’Neil]

Click here for a synopsis of the opera (in Italian).

Click here for a synopsis of the opera (in German).

Click here for the e-book of Euripides' play.


1. Wilson, John R. ed., Twentieth Century Interpretations of Euripidesthe Alcestis, (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968), p.3.

2. Ibid, p. 1.

3. Ibid, p. 1.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Euripides.png image_description=Euripides [Musée du Louvre] audio=yes first_audio_name=Jean-Baptiste Lully: Alceste
WinAmp, VLC, FooBar first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Lully_Alceste.m3u product=yes product_title=Jean-Baptiste Lully: Alceste product_by=Alcide: Nicolas Rivenq
Alceste: Véronique Gens
Admète: Simon Edwards
La Gloire, Céphise, 1ère ombre: Judith Gauthier
Lychas, Alecton, Apollon, 1er triton: James Oxley
Straton: Renaud Delaigue
Lycomède, Caron: Bernard Deletré
Pluton, Éole, Homme désolé, Cléante: Alain Buet
Phérès, 2ème triton: Jean Delescluse
Proserpine, Nymphe de la Marne, Nymphe des Tuileries, 3ème ombre: Hjördis Thébault
Femme affligée, Nymphe de la Seine, Diane, Thétis, 2ème ombre: Stéphanie d’Oustrac
Chœur de Chambre de Namur, La Grande Écurie et la Chambre du Roy conducted by Jean-Claude Malgoire
Live broadcast: 22 March 2006, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris
Posted by Gary at 5:17 PM

SCHOENBERG: Gurrelieder

With its all-star cast and fine sonics, the Philips recording of Gurrelieder has been held in esteem for over two decades. Cast well for a festival performance at Tanglewood, it is difficult to consider a finer assemblage of musicians. In addition to the six soloists (including the speaking part assigned to the actor Werner Klemperer), the piece includes four choruses and an augmented orchestra with a scoring that calls eight flutes, seven clarinets, four harps, ten horns, six trumpets, five trombones, and six timpani. This late Romantic work is a sprawling conception of the story of the Danish King Waldemar and his love for Tove, who is mysteriously killed and for whom Waldemar desperately searches. Set around the castle of Gurre, the tragic circumstances of the ill-fated love story has some resonances with Mahler’s youthful cantata Das klagende Lied. Yet Schoenberg’s score rivals Mahler’s in scope, and requires the fine touches Ozawa brought to this recording to communicate well the nuances in the work. As fine as the sound was on the Grammy-winning LP, the transfer to CD offers some enhances in sound that merit rehearings.

Again, the fine cast featured some of the best performers of the time, and while some might quibble with the choice of singers, they all do well. In his relatively brief career James McCracken made some fine recordings, and this reading of Gurrelieder provides an opportunity to hear the tenor in a demanding and sustained role. Some listeners might prefer the sound of a later tenor, like Siegfried Jerusalem, in Chailly’s later recording of this work, but McCracken’s reading is commendable. As Waldemar, McCracken offers an impassioned portrayal of the Danish King, with the yearning implicit in the text made audible in the performance. As the Wood-Dove,Tatiana Troyanos also gave a fine performance in the brief, but critical scene at the end of the first part, which sets up the remaining portion of the story. Likewise, Jessye Norman captured the personality of Tove well, with the kind of control that has marked her performances of other Romantic heroines. Understated, but not undersung, Norman’s Tove is well thought and appropriate to the approach that Ozawa has taken in this recording, which is impressive for his fine control of the expanded orchestra that Schoenberg used in the score.

While other conductors have added their interpretations of Gurrelieder to the discography of this fascinating work, Ozawa’s endures for his solid approach and talented cast. While the sometimes massive sonorities that Schoenberg used to suggest the emotional impact of the tale are impressive, Ozawa also balances such scene painting with the attention to detail that is crucial to the more intimate sounds that are part important when Schoenberg need to bring out the text. As massive as Gurrelieder can be in terms of the forces required, the availability of such an extensive orchestra does not result in a constant assault of sound. Rather, tone colors and textures vary throughout the work, as timbre emerges as a structural device in a work that took shape as its composer worked on the famous Harmonielehre, the text in which Schoenberg outlined his approach to composition, including the idea of Klangfarbenmelodie. Ozawa was certainly sensitive to such considerations when he made this recording of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder decades ago, and it is a pleasure to return to his persuasive reading of this important score.

James L. Zychowicz

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Gurrelieder.png
image_description=Arnold Schoenberg: Gurrelieder

product=yes
product_title=Arnold Schoenberg: Gurrelieder
product_by=Jessye Norman, James McCracken, Tatiana Troyanos, Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa
product_id=Philips 475-7782 [2CDs]
price=$21.99
product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=146252

Posted by jim_z at 12:00 AM

December 18, 2007

Belfast welcomes a first-rate Messiah

It is also a city busy re-inventing itself after decades of internecine strife and is now buzzing with the optimism and investment that is part of the “peace dividend”. At a time of year when many cities in the UK and USA are churning out moderate and sometimes frankly embarrassing renditions of Handel’s great work it was a delight to see last Saturday night that the Ulster Orchestra, under the forward-thinking guidance of Chief Executive David Byers, had invited a top flight international conductor with excellent baroque credentials to meld the undoubted talents of its musicians and chorus with some world class soloists.

Martin Haselböck holds the titles of Vienna Court Organist (shades of Hapsburg splendour there) and Professor of Organ at the University of Vienna, but it is his work throughout Europe and the USA (he’s recently been appointed Music Director of the baroque “Musica Angelica” in Los Angeles) as a conductor of baroque opera and orchestras that he is best known perhaps. With just a couple of days of rehearsal with a slimmed-down Ulster Orchestra and Belfast Philharmonic Choir under Christopher Bell, he obviously gelled most satisfactorily with both, as on both nights before full houses there was evidence of like minds working together to produce a nimble, but supremely eloquent rendition of this iconic work. The modern instrument orchestra played with great Handelian style and flourish without ever over-doing the baroque gesture, whilst the choir was almost immaculate in both intonation and ensemble, with special mention going to the alto section for a particularly creamy tone. No fuzzy diction in the faster passages, crisp enunciation throughout, and a sense of true pleasure in singing came though loud and clear. Messiah is a wonderful platform for solo excellence, but it stands or falls by the quality of its less starry musicians, and Ulster has every reason to be proud of its achievements here – they stand comparison with many higher-profile European ensembles.

With this sort of solid musicianship behind them, it was inevitable that the soloists would have to shine and really live up to their individual billings and we were not disappointed, although on the second night there was perhaps a slightly less ebullient start to proceedings.

Young British tenor Benjamin Hulett is, like his colleagues Deborah York and David DQ Lee, now based in Germany and his warm, agile voice has been noticed there in a range of baroque and classical repertoire. At the Waterfront Hall last night his ease of production was particularly noticeable in the Part Two recitatives and arias such as “Behold and see if there be any sorrow” with some lovely unforced high notes being balanced by darker lower tones.

The one singer in the group who might be termed non-specialist in the baroque was the American baritone Randall Scarlata. However, he had no trouble in fitting into this sound world and indeed demonstrated a similar degree of agility in the coloratura as his colleagues, plus showing some impressive colouring and expression in the more passionate arias, “Why do the nations so furiously rage together” being a prime example.

With the first alto aria “But who may abide” the Belfast crowd got their first taste of the highly promising young countertenor David DQ Lee, who made such an impression this year in the BBC’s Cardiff Singer of the World competition. Just a couple of weeks previously they had enjoyed the more mature talents of Germany’s Andreas Scholl, and in the young Canadian-Korean’s voice local informed opinion found a fascinating comparison to enjoy. Lee’s instrument is more in the modern American tradition of countertenor vocal production, with a warmer, more full-blooded sound than the English/Germanic one, and his operatic experience to date appears to colour his interpretations of these classic alto/mezzo arias, although always with good taste and refinement of line and ornament. Some elegant phrasing and soft, exquisitely-held cadential notes in “He was despised” were particularly impressive.

Deborah York’s Handelian credentials are well known and respected worldwide and if we have heard her less frequently in the UK recently, it is more due to her present residence in Berlin than any lack of demand within in these shores. Her bell-like, almost vibrato-free, soprano is not particularly large, but it has the ability to ping to the farthest corners of a big house, and the 1800 seats of the Waterfront held no terrors for her. She sang “I know that my redeemer liveth” with a particularly glistening tone and was an intriguing contrast to Lee’s more vibrant one in the duet “He shall feed his flock”.

With music and singing of this standard, Belfast and the Ulster Orchestra are up there with the best in Europe and America and Handel was well-served indeed.

Sue Loder © December 2007

image=http://www.operatoday.com/water.png image_description=Waterfront Hall, Belfast, Courtesy and © Arts Council of Northern Ireland product=yes product_title=Above: Waterfront Hall, Belfast
Courtesy and © Arts Council of Northern Ireland
Posted by Gary at 6:35 PM

December 17, 2007

GLUCK: Alceste

Music composed by Christoph Willibald Gluck. Libretto by Marie François Louis Gand Leblanc Roullet after Calzabigi.

First Performance (French version): 23 April 1776, Académie Royale de Musique, Paris

Principal Characters:
Alceste [Alcestis] Queen of Thessaly Soprano
Admète [Admetus] her husband Tenor
Their two children Silent
Evandre [Evander] leader of the Pherae people Tenor
A Herald of Arms Bass
High Priest of Apollo Bass
Apollo protector of the house of Admetus Baritone
Hercule [Hercules] Bass
Oracle Bass
Thanatos an infernal deity Bass

Setting: Classical Pherae, Thessaly

Synopsis:

Act I

A herald announces to the people of Thessaly that King Admeto is gravely ill and that there is little hope. Evandro calls upon all to pray to the oracle at the temple of Apollo. Alceste joins them and asks Apollo for pity. The oracle says Admeto can be rescued if another voluntarily sacrifices his life. This causes great consternation. Alone, Alceste agonizes whether to give her life for that of her husband.

Act II

In a dense forest dedicated to the gods of the underworld, Ismene asks Alceste why she is leaving her husband and children. Alceste tells Ismene of her intentions. Meanwhile, Admeto has a miraculous recovery to the joy of all Thessaly. Evandro tells him that someone has apparently sacrificed himself for the king. When Alceste appears, he questions her until she confesses. The desperate king hurries into the temple to plead with the gods. However, Alceste says good-bye to the children.

Act III

The decision of the gods is not revoked. The people lament the approaching death of Alceste. Having said good-bye to Alceste, Admeto decides to follow her into death. Then the heavens open, Apollo descends and proclaims that the gods have given them their lives as a reward for their steadfast love.

Click here for the complete libretto.

Click here for the complete score.

Click here for a view of La Mort d'Alceste ou L'Héroïsme de l'amour conjugal by Pierre Peyron, 1785 (Musée du Louvre)

image=http://www.operatoday.com/content/mort_alceste_detail.jpg image_description=Detail from La Mort d'Alceste ou L'Héroïsme de l'amour conjugal by Pierre Peyron, 1785 (Musée du Louvre) audio=yes first_audio_name=Christoph Willibald Gluck: Alceste
WinAmp, VLC, FooBar first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Alceste1.m3u product=yes product_title=Christoph Willibald Gluck: Alceste product_by=Anna Caterina Antonacci, Alceste
Charles Workman, Admète
Topi Lehtipuu, Évandre
Luca Pisaroni, Ein Herold / Hercule
Johan Reuter, Le Grand-Prêtre / Apollo
Sandra Trattnigg, Coryphée
Salzburger Bachchor
Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg
Alois Glaßner, Choreinstudierung
Ivor Bolton, Dirigent
Live performance, Salzburg Festspiele 2005, Residenzhof, August 2005
Posted by Gary at 4:24 PM

December 16, 2007

OONY Performs Verdi's I Due Foscari

But his sixth, I Due Foscari, indicates a new direction: inwards. Taken from a verse drama by Lord Byron, it’s a piece with little action in it. The three principals are not in opposition to each other – their antagonist is the ruthless machinery of the Venetian state; the opera concerns what goes on in their hearts, torn between love (of family, of country) and duty (to country, to unjust laws). Verdi did not yet have the musical chops to develop such internal conflicts, to create new layers for Italian opera – but that’s where he wanted to go, and in time, opera followed. Foscari, however, despite its wealth of melody, got kind of passed by. None of the tunes are well known and the leading roles are perilous – you need three big voices to pull the thing off.

In the history of Venice, a compleat oligarchy, the truly heroic figure is Venice. But human beings are drawn to individuals, and when stories come down to us from Venetian history, it is not state organs that elicit our sympathy. We sympathize with the oppressed, and with the conspirators who tried to disrupt the Venetian constitution – but Venice would not have become Venice if they had succeeded. Francesco Foscari, the longest-serving Doge of Venice (an almost powerless elected figurehead), after twice being refused permission to retire, was forced out of office against his will. He had also been forced to stand by when his son was wrongly accused of murder, tortured and exiled for it. That’s the story here: young Foscari complains (at the top of his tenor lungs), his wife resents (even louder), the old man bewails and, at last, drops dead.

Eve Queler chose Foscari (which she has presented a time or two before) for Opera Orchestra of New York’s one hundredth concert, and it was a joyful occasion on all counts. Venezuelan tenor Aquiles Machado, the accused Jacopo Foscari, is a Venezuelan tenor who has honorably sung such roles as Enzo at the Met. A little man with a big, brash voice of gleaming metal, he filled the room and made everyone smile, but there was little shading or subtlety. Jacopo should move us with his heartbreak not just his ardor.

He was very well matched by Julianna Di Giacomo as his wife, Lucrezia Contarini, one of Verdi’s hectic heroines, a dramatic coloratura like Abigaille in Nabucco or Odabella in Attila. (The Met’s producing Attila for the first time in a year or two, and they should keep her in mind.) Her voice, too, is huge and gleaming, and she has the coloratura, though the instrument is not ideally supported at the top. She had no troubles with strenuous Lucrezia, but she sang at only two levels, loud and louder, and there was little sign that she had other colors to her palette. Unless she learns how to characterize and how to manage soft singing, her future as a Norma, Anna Bolena or Verdi’s Hélène, the roles she seems to crave, is uncertain. Both these singers earned, and received, great enthusiasm.

The ovation of the evening, the performance that made people sigh as well as scream, was for Paolo Gavanelli’s Doge Francesco Foscari. His voice too is large, a rich, bluff smoky baritone with heart to it, and a sense of poetic phrasing. There were depths of feeling, of internal discussion, when he sang of his heartbreak, and we seemed to be an audience for that genuine discourse. It was easy to imagine him as Verdi’s other tormented baritone fathers, Rigoletto or Amonasro or Germont (which he has sung at the Met in years past), and everyone present would be eager to hear him in such roles.

As so often in Verdi, the baritone is the heart of this opera, and Queler chose the right man to make a case for the work. She did as well with the work’s thrilling, attention-grabbing prelude and several background choruses, though some of the orchestral work sounded a little scrappy. In any case, as at all the better Queler evenings, we came away with a better notion of the roots of the operatic canon, besides having made the acquaintance of several little-known singers we look forward to encountering again.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Verdi_standing.png image_description=Giuseppe Verdi product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: I Due Foscari product_by=Opera Orchestra of New York, Carnegie Hall, 13 December 2007 product_id=Francesco Foscari: Paolo Gavanelli
Jacopo Foscari: Aquiles Machado
Lucrezia Contarini: Julianna Di Giacomo
Conducted by Eve Queler
Posted by Gary at 1:50 PM

New York City Ballet and New York City Opera Agree to Improvements in the New York State Theater

New_York_City_Opera.png[NYCO Press Release, 15 December 2007]
The Boards of Directors of the New York City Ballet and the New York City Opera have agreed to a plan to renovate the New York State Theater, their joint home at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. The companies' goal is to improve audience amenities at the State Theater and create a state-of-the-art environment for producing music and dance. The City Center of Music and Drama, the leaseholder of the theater, will meet to approve the plan.

Posted by Gary at 8:46 AM

December 14, 2007

2008 Temple Festival

middle_temple.png

2008 marks the 400th anniversary of the Letters Patent granting the freehold of the Temple lands to Inner and Middle Temple. This historic anniversary is being celebrated with a year-long festival of exciting programming.

Posted by Gary at 3:38 PM

Danielle de Niese is opera‘s young star

de_Niese.pngBy F.N. D‘ALESSIO [AP, 14 December 2007]

CHICAGO - With her dancer‘s body, huge brown eyes and California-casual personal style, soprano Danielle de Niese hardly fits the stereotype of an opera star.

Posted by Gary at 3:25 PM

WAGNER: Götterdämmerung

Too, she has sheathed the norns in plastic tubing (surviving slices of the Midgard serpent?), and then there are the colored pompoms on the heads of the perpetually tumbling Rhinemaidens and the orange panniers on poor Gutrune (all the Gibichungs wear Halloween colors). One expects little questions like this when watching any Wagner production nowadays, but designer Rosalie – who apparently stole the spotlight (Manfred Voss did the superb lighting) from producer/director Alfred Kirchner when this 1997 Bayreuth Ring premiered – seems to have a real causa against the female anatomy. With Wagnerian leading ladies as svelte as Mmes. Polaski, Schwanewilms and Schwarz, it seems ungrateful to say the least to costume them as if they were steatopygous Neolithic goddesses.

The sets, too, are Rosalie’s work. Gunther and Gutrune in their Expressionist lounge chairs clearly signal rich, decadent, too-too to take seriously, but Hagen is in the usual black leather. (Just once I’d like to see Hagen performed as a loafing aesthete who surprises people with his long-concealed plots – it’s absurd to make him so sinister and have no one on stage ever suspect what he’s up to.) Sword and Ring and Tarnhelm are present if tacky in closeup, and Siegfried looks genuinely alarming when he’s in disguise, his head covered in the Tarnhelm and his shoulder in Gunther’s chic orange cloak.

Kirchner, however, is responsible for the staged action; it’s unusually clear and the acting choice. I liked ardent, enthusiastic Siegfried rushing so eagerly into Gunther’s palace that he overshoots the stage and has to walk back from the wings, Hagen making love to his own spear, the tumbling Rhinemaidens, the threatening movements of the crowd of soldiers such that Siegfried seems a simpleton (which he is) never to perceive its whiff of the Night of the Long Knives.

The set is the top of a globe, its lines of latitude and longitude implying the universality of the mystery. The rest of the stage is matte black against which the colorful singers stand out like symbols in a morality drama – which this is and they are. The trees of the forest are barren metal stalks, like expressionistic crucifixes, and they bow low to mourn dead Siegfried. A huge screen descends during the Immolation to display light-show fire that evolves on cue into light-show flood. (You should watch these scenes in a very dark room. Or all of it.)

The singing, despite a few stretches here and there (Schwanewilms’s Gutrune seems whiny, which has not been my impression of her on other recordings), is excellent. I don’t know how many different performances (or rehearsals) were culled for the final tape (there is no audience noise or applause), but Polaski’s somewhat chilly Brunnhilde is in floods of voice from love duet to immolation, which has not always been true of her on a single night, and Wolfgang Schmidt, who sounds as if he would have trouble managing Siegfried’s punishing demands in a larger house, continues to sound youthful and eager to the bitter end here.

The glory of this recording is the orchestral sound which, under James Levine, rises through the floor in Bayreuth’s unique configuration (a discussion of how the miking for recordings is done there would be of interest) and surrounds the singers, so that they seem to be breathing music and moving through an atmosphere of it. The various instruments (and not merely their leitmotifs) seem to be characters in the drama as important as the singers and not nearly so awkwardly dressed.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Gotterdammerung_Levine.png image_description=Richard Wagner: Götterdämmerung product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Götterdämmerung product_by=Deborah Polaski, Wolfgang Schmidt, Anne Schwanewilms, Falk Struckmann, Eric Halfvarson, Hanna Schwarz, Bayreuther Festspiele, James Levine. Staged by Alfred Kirchner. product_id=DG 073 4340 [2DVDs] price=$39.98 product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=175832
Posted by Gary at 3:04 PM

December 12, 2007

PACINI: Medea

Music composed by Giovanni Pacini. Libretto by Benedetto Castiglia.

First Performance: 28 November 1843, Real Teatro Carolino, Palermo
Revised, Teatro Eretenio, Vicenza, 1845.

Summary of Euripides' Play

Euripides' Medea opens in a state of conflict. Jason has abandoned his wife, Medea, along with their two children. He hopes to advance his station by remarrying with Glauce, the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth, the Greek city where the play is set. All the events of play proceed out of this initial dilemma, and the involved parties become its central characters.

Outside the royal palace, a nurse laments the events that have lead to the present crisis. After a long series of trials and adventures, which ultimately forced Jason and Medea to seek exile in Corinth, the pair had settled down and established their family, achieving a degree of fame and respectability. Jason's recent abandonment of that family has crushed Medea emotionally, to the degree that she curses her own existence, as well as that of her two children.

Fearing a possible plot of revenge, Creon banishes Medea and her children from the city. After pleading for mercy, Medea is granted one day before she must leave, during which she plans to complete her quest for "justice"--at this stage in her thinking, the murder of Creon, Glauce, and Jason. Jason accuses Medea of overreacting. By voicing her grievances so publicly, she has endangered her life and that of their children. He claims that his decision to remarry was in everyone's best interest. Medea finds him spineless, and she refuses to accept his token offers of help.

Appearing by chance in Corinth, Aegeus, King of Athens, offers Medea sanctuary in his home city in exchange for her knowledge of certain drugs that can cure his sterility. Now guaranteed an eventual haven in Athens, Medea has cleared all obstacles to completing her revenge, a plan which grows to include the murder of her own children; the pain their loss will cause her does not outweigh the satisfaction she will feel in making Jason suffer.

For the balance of the play, Medea engages in a ruse; she pretends to sympathize with Jason (bringing him into her confidence) and offers his wife "gifts," a coronet and dress. Ostensibly, the gifts are meant to convince Glauce to ask her father to allow the children to stay in Corinth. The coronet and dress are actually poisoned, however, and their delivery causes Glauce's death. Seeing his daughter ravaged by the poison, Creon chooses to die by her side by dramatically embracing her and absorbing the poison himself.

A messenger recounts the gruesome details of these deaths, which Medea absorbs with cool attentiveness. Her earlier state of anxiety, which intensified as she struggled with the decision to commit infanticide, has now given way to an assured determination to fulfill her plans. Against the protests of the chorus, Medea murders her children and flees the scene in a dragon-pulled chariot provided by her grandfather, the Sun-God. Jason is left cursing his lot; his hope of advancing his station by abandoning Medea and marrying Glauce, the conflict which opened the play, has been annihilated, and everything he values has been lost through the deaths that conclude the tragedy.

[Summary Source: SparkNotes]

image=http://www.operatoday.com/medea_pompeii.png
image_description=Medea (holding a sword) and her two children in front of Jason's home at Corinth (Pompeii wall painting).

audio=yes
first_audio_name=Giovanni Pacini: Medea
first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/pacini_medea1.m3u

product=yes
product_title=Giovanni Pacini: Medea
product_by=Calcante: Giorgio Giuseppini
Cassandra: Maria Cristina Zanni
Creonte: Marcello Lippi
Giasone: Sergio Panajia
Licisca: Enrica Bassano
Medea: Jolanta Omilian
Orchestra Sinfonica di Savona, Coro Schola Cantorum S. Gregorio Magno Trecate, Richard Bonynge (cond.)
Live performance, 5 October 1993, Savona.

Posted by Gary at 7:27 PM

Magdalena Kozena: This is what happens to Madonna

Her affair with Simon Rattle put soprano Magdalena Kozena in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. But now it's her singing that counts. By Jasper Rees [Daily Telegraph, 13 December 2007]

Last month Magdalena Kozena, a statuesque, blow-dried blonde Valkyrie in a shimmering turquoise gown, stood on the stage of Barbican Hall and tore into an aria from Handel's oratorio, Ariodante.

Posted by Gary at 7:17 PM

Prolific composer wrote opera based on Stegner's 'Angle of Repose'

Imbrie.pngBy Valerie J. Nelson [LA Times, 12 December 2007]

Andrew Imbrie, a prominent Bay Area composer and noted UC Berkeley music professor who was perhaps best known for his 1976 opera "Angle of Repose," has died. He was 86.

Posted by Gary at 7:12 PM

War and Peace, Metropolitan Opera, New York

By Martin Bernheimer [Financial Times, 12 December 2007]

Nothing exceeds likes excess. The Mariinsky version of Prokofiev’s wild and sometimes wonderful War and Peace, which returned to the Met on Monday after a five-year lapse, boasts a cast that would make any statistician delirious. Called to duty for this 4¼-hour marathon were 52 soloists, 118 choristers, 41 dancers and 227 supernumeraries, not to mention a horse, a dog, a goat and four chickens. Somehow, I missed the chickens.

Posted by Gary at 6:20 PM

December 11, 2007

Billy Budd, Barbican, London

BillyBudd.pngBy Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 11 December 2007]

It’s hard to remember a closer crop of Britten operas in London. The past week has seen Glyndebourne’s touring Albert Herring, English National Opera’s The Turn of the Screw and concerts of Owen Wingrave and Billy Budd. All this is testimony to Britten’s enduring appeal, but the reasons for it are insufficiently appreciated. Yes, he was brilliant at finding the right musical language to dramatise the action. But he also had a nose for subjects and texts that would suit him – a skill today’s composers seem to have lost.

Posted by Gary at 9:59 PM

A King's Christmas

the-kings-singers.pngBY JAY NORDLINGER [NY Sun, 11 December 2007]

Within the space of a week, New York heard the two most renowned a cappella groups in the world: Chanticleer and the King's Singers. The former is a 12-man ensemble from San Francisco; the latter is a six-man ensemble from England (King's College, Cambridge). They both sang Christmas programs, Chanticleer at the Metropolitan Museum, and the King's Singers at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola, not too far from the museum.

Posted by Gary at 9:51 PM

Improv at the Opera

Gary_Halvorson.png[Playbill, 11 December 2007]

A conversation with Gary Halvorson is a high-octane ride, with the lyricism and sweep that have become the director's calling cards. So dizzying are his directing credits — from the hit countdown show Solid Gold to Michael Tilson sitcoms like Friends and Everybody Loves Raymond to NBC's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade — he covers the terrain of several directors combined.

Posted by Gary at 9:43 PM

Kwiecien's vocal blasts give songs a pummeling

Kwiecien_DG_Seattle2007.pngJoshua Kosman [SF Chronicle, 11 December 2007]

Mariusz Kwiecien cemented his hold on the imagination of local listeners in June with his dark, dynamic portrait of Don Giovanni, a signature role. But for his Berkeley recital on Sunday, the Polish baritone seemed to be drawing inspiration instead from the Commendatore, the mysterious stone statue that comes to life in Mozart's opera.

Posted by Gary at 9:27 PM

The Turn of the Screw at ENO

We have already seen Purcell's 'King Arthur' and Vaughan Williams's 'Sir John in Love' (with the same composer's 'Riders to the Sea' to follow next season) but the composer playing the largest part in this revival of the English operatic repertoire is Benjamin Britten. The operas covered so far – 'Billy Budd' and 'Death in Venice' – have proved some of ENO's greatest successes of the last two seasons, and this latest co-production of 'The Turn of the Screw' with the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg (where it premiered in 2006), is no exception.

Director David McVicar, always good at exploring themes of corrupted innocence, views the story's central ambiguities from an unusual angle by attributing the evil forces to the children rather than the ghosts. Rather than being innocents possessed by an evil force, or blank slates ripe for the overworkings of the Governess's imagination, these two children were quite clearly the principal malevolent influence in this drama, and the source of the ghosts' powers from the start. In front of Mrs Grose they were little angels, but whenever her back was turned they were engaging in subversive rites: turning Flora's doll into a pig, digging a grave for the same doll while singing their cherubic Benedicite, and – in Miles's case – making sexual advances towards the Governess.

And yet McVicar still threw in a note of doubt; for example, the schoolroom scene between the Governess and Miss Jessel was not a dialogue, as it is often played, but two independent monologues, suggesting that neither woman has a greater foothold in reality than the other. Chillingly, despite the obviously menacing character of the children, the audience was still seduced into siding with them. The characters' relationships with one another and with the audience are carefully and intricately designed, but somehow the audience never feels overtly manipulated – just disturbed.

The silent cast of walk-on servants, fast becoming one of McVicar's production trademarks, were ever-present as scene-shifters, and went some way towards addressing the issue of creating a suitably intimate, claustrophobic atmosphere in a theatre the size of the Coliseum. When the giant sliding windows of the set shifted, the creakiness – which was, I suspect, unintentional – served only to crank up the atmosphere, to which Garry Walker's taut conducting was an ideal musical counterpart.

George Longworth (Miles*) / Rebecca Evans (Governess)George Longworth (Miles (press night performance)) / Rebecca Evans (Governess)

Rebecca Evans sang beautifully as the Governess, though her diction was far from clear; the honeyed sweetness of her voice and liveliness of her demeanour made for a particularly unsettling contrast with the children's poised coldness and the monochrome darkness of the set and costumes. Timothy Robinson's Quint, was lean, hungry, feeding off Miles's energy; Cheryl Barker's Miss Jessel used the intensity of her presence to suck the warmth out of the atmosphere whenever she was on stage. Singing her first Mrs Grose, Ann Murray's characterisation and diction were excellent even if her mezzo really is very shrill on top these days. The two children – the excellent second-cast Miles, 12-year-old Jacob Moriarty, and Guildhall undergraduate Nazan Fikret as a Flora in fairly advanced adolescence – were really first-class.

The result was an evening which left a chill in the air and, for the right reasons, a nasty taste in the mouth.

Ruth Elleson © 2007

image=http://www.operatoday.com/ENO_TOTS1.png image_description=Nazan Fikret (Flora) [© Neil Libbert] product=yes product_title=Benjamin Britten: The Turn of the Screw product_by=English National Opera, London
30 November 2007 product_id=Above: Nazan Fikret (Flora)
All photos © Neil Libbert
Posted by Gary at 5:57 PM

Otello — Kirov Opera

Francesco Tamagno, the original Otello, also gathered accolades during his tour a couple of years later. Yet, Otello came to Russia on the crest of the nationalist wave there that had critics and audiences laughing “the old man” Verdi out of the theater. This complex and arguably “un-Verdian” opera proved especially puzzling: too difficult and “modern” for traditionalists raised on Barbiere and La traviata; too old-fashioned for the Wagnerians, and too Italian for everyone else. Today, amid a Verdi boom in St Petersburg unseen since La forza del destino premiered there in 1862, Otello is enjoying a renaissance at the Mariinsky (a.k.a. the Kirov). The opera appears to be one of Valerii Gergiev’s particular obsessions: since he took the reigns at the Kirov as artistic director and principal conductor in 1988, it has had at least five different productions there. The most recent one, premiered this fall and directed by Vasily Barkhatov, is currently playing at the Kennedy Center as part of the Kirov’s annual residency there.

The visually arresting production (sets by Zinovy Margolin; costumes by Maria Danilova; phenomenal lighting by Gleb Filshtinsky) bears little resemblance to Renaissance Crete. The main set (used in Acts 1-3) is an angle of (presumably) a city square; tall white walls stained with gray, like aged marble, narrow towards the back of the set dominated by a huge working lighthouse that might be more at home on a bluff in 1950s New England than in 16th century Italy. The front left side of the stage transforms in the middle two acts into Otello’s office, with heavy wooden furniture, an old-fashioned (i.e., 1950s again) coat stand and round table lamp. The opposite wall (or is it the wall of the city square?) is lined with silent female figures, dressed in black, their heads covered with shawls more Russian than Italian. Beggars, or petitioners, these figures (not a part of the chorus located in these acts on platforms on top of the walls) darken the landscape like an obsessive gloomy ostinato in this increasingly gloomy tale. Particularly striking is the opening of the Act 3 finale, in which Desdemona, dressed in black, joins their line, made destitute by her husband’s suspicions. The costumes overall are modern yet outdated: office suits for the leading men, crisp business-like creations for the socialite Emilia (wonderful Lyubov Sokolova), traditional long skirts and cloaks (increasingly drained of color) for Desdemona; brown and black, drab, nondescript Russian peasant fare (occasionally with a hint of an Italian scarf design) for the crowd. There was no bonfire in Act 1 for the chorus to sing and dance to, but there were fireworks of sorts, with the colorful explosion of confetti from the ceiling and the wings. Single pieces of the confetti then continued to fall down onto the stage through Acts 2 and 3. It was unclear whether the effect was a purposeful one; if not, the coincidence was fortuitous: like falling autumn leaves that evoke the memories of summer, the confetti pieces served as poignant reminders of glories past.

The lead attraction of the production, dramatic tenor Vladimir Galouzine has been the leading man of the Kirov for more than a decade, and an international star for almost as long. The sharp, focused, metallic timbre of his youth, best exemplified on the 1994 Kirov DVD recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko, in which he sings the lead, has now turned darker, heavier, with more emphasis on the lower register, and on sheer sound power over crispness and precision of diction and intonation. The change parallels that generally observed in arguably the world’s most famous living Otello, Placido Domingo, who once performed the role in St Petersburg under Gergiev, and whose influence is recognizable in certain moments of Galouzine’s gut-wrenching performance (apart from the “usual suspects” — all four duets with Desdemona and the scene with Iago in Act 2 — I particularly recommend his fabulously menacing asides to his wife in the Act 3 finale). Yet overall, his interpretation is distinctly different from Domingo’s: instead of the tragic noble hero destroyed by evil, Galouzine offers a broken, anxious, almost fragile Otello (despite his suitably earth-shattering Esultate!), damaged not from the outside but from within. The brittleness of the character shows almost from the start of the opera — that is, from the Act 1 love duet, in which the bliss suggested by the score is constantly undermined by Galouzine’s angular gestures, terrified looks over the shoulder, and slouching posture, wrapping both the coat and arms tight around his body as if shivering.

If Vladimir Galouzine’s Otello is hardly a wholesome hero, Sergey Murzaev’s Iago is no Mephistopheles. In his gray three-piece suit, tie, and glasses, he is more of a petty bureaucrat who smiles placidly as he stabs his boss in the back with a letter opener — or in this case a pocket knife he uses to sharpen pencils on the handsome mahogany desk in Otello’s office as he is proclaiming his infamous creed. Incidentally, the singer was clearly outperformed by maestro Gergiev and the orchestra in the fiendishly difficult Credo, central to Iago’s self-representation as the resident devil of Verdi’s opera. Yet his softer, more sinister moments, such as the Era la notte later in Act 2, were pulled off beautifully, with fine sound and nuanced acting. Thus, in the finale of Act 3, in which Iago, with fatherly smile, points out the “lion of Venice” prostrated at his feet to a group of kid extras, Murzaev looked downright creepy.

Young Viktoria Yastrebova was a terrific Desdemona, fearlessly determined not to be dominated by her illustrious partner and occasionally outshining him with a rich, warm, clear sound, effortless projection and pure high notes. The dynamics clearly reflected Barkhatov’s directorial interpretation of the drama itself, and particularly his revisionist take on Desdemona. Instead of the usual weepy blond, Yastrebova offers a dark-haired Desdemona — smart, assertive, unapologetic (as much as that is possible without altering Verdi’s score), and not above manipulating her husband, as evident in the Act 2 duet when she literally lets her hair down in order to seduce Otello into forgiving Cassio (portrayed nicely by Sergei Semishkur). This Desdemona is less naïvely terrified by Otello’s accusations than she is angry, and genuinely concerned for her husband’s mental state; one almost expects her to whip out a business card for a neighborhood shrink. As a result, Yastrebova’s least convincing moment came near the end of Act 4: begging for her life seemed almost beneath the strong and thoroughly modern character projected throughout the opera. The earlier part of that act, however, and particularly the Willow Song, was by itself worth the price of admission.

Apart from making Desdemona a brunette, Barkhatov’s production dispensed with yet another Otello classic — the bedroom scenes. The Act 1 duet is a moonlit picnic on the city square (although Desdemona does bring the bed linen, presumably to use as a tablecloth). Act 4 does include a bed — severe, narrow, pillowless, and used as an ironing board by silent servant women who fold and pack the colorful dresses of Desdemona’s virginal youth (none of which she wears in the opera), as she slowly rips up her wedding night bed sheets, turning them into handkerchiefs. The final scene (from Ave Maria on) takes place not in the bedroom (the opening of the act is performed in front of the black curtain), but on top of the lighthouse that dominated the earlier set. Now in a close-up, it is divided into two narrow fenced circular platforms, one above the other; Desdemona sings her prayers from the lower platform, then watches Otello literally descend upon her from the top. There are no messy murders after Desdemona’s; Iago flees from Otello’s verbal thunderbolts, and the other characters — Cassio, Emilia, and Lodovico the ambassador (excellent Fedor Kuznetsov) — watch silently as Otello (mortally wounded not by his favorite revolver but by something resembling an ice pick — or a screwdriver...) drags his dead wife to the back of the lighthouse, out of sight, like a dying lion crawling back into his lair, unwilling to let go of his final prey.

My review would not be complete without the highest praise for Kirov’s outstanding Choir (principal chorus master Andrei Petrenko). Its performance was strong, clean, rhythmically and intonationally precise, yet alive, particularly in the powerful opening scene played out on a darkened stage lit only by the searching beam of the lighthouse. Finally, maestro Gergiev in the pit was unquestionably the leader of the production, as he should have been in this orchestra-driven score. It was performed with power and intensity, precision and nuance, and very nearly flawlessly, with the exception of some intonation problems in the strings, particularly in the difficult double bass solo that accompanies Otello’s entrance in the last act (not many in the audience would have noticed that flaw, however, as the section was drowned by an epidemic of coughing from the back of the orchestra seats).

Overall, I would highly recommend catching this innovative, powerful, and intensely watchable production, still available Wednesday night (with partially new cast) and Sunday afternoon (with the main soloists reprising their roles).

Olga Haldey

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Kirov_Otello1.png image_description=Otello -- Kirov Opera product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Otello
Kirov Opera, Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C.
Posted by Gary at 5:19 PM

Composer Karlheinz Stockhausen dies

Stockhausen.png[Press Association, 11 December 2007]

Avant-garde German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen has died at the age of 79.

One of the most important and controversial postwar composers, he helped shape a new understanding of sound through electronic compositions.

Posted by Gary at 1:56 PM

6 Characters in Search of a Dimension, in Different Operatic Tempos

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 10 December 2007]

Though Elliott Carter is an indisputably towering figure in contemporary music, few would have pegged him as a composer with a knack for opera. He attended operas for decades, but selectively. He did not pay heed to “La Bohème” until he was nearly 70 and left the show unimpressed.

Posted by Gary at 12:38 PM

Jérôme Deschamps veut redorer l’Opéra-Comique

deschamps.pngJean-Louis Validire [Le Figaro, 10 December 2007]

Dans une salle restaurée, le nouveau directeur lance la saison avec «L’Étoile», oeuvre contemporaine des glorieuses années de l’établissement.

Posted by Gary at 12:09 PM

December 6, 2007

SACCHINI: Oedipe à Colone

Music composed by Antonio Sacchini. Libretto by Nicolas-François Guillard after Sophocles.

First Performance: 4 January 1786, Versailles

Principal Characters:

Antigone Soprano
Polynice Tenor
Thésée Tenor
Oedipe Baritone
Eriphile Soprano
Le grand prêtre, the High Priest Bass-Baritone
Une athénienne, an Athenian woman Soprano

Setting: The grove of the Furies at Colonus

Synopsis of the play:

Blind, old Oedipus, a former king of Thebes, wanders for many years guided by his daughter, Antigone. Although once successful as a ruler, he was exiled after the gods sent sickness to the city because Oedipus had killed his father Laius, the prior king, and he commited incest with his mother, Iocasta, after he becoming king of Thebes. Now he and Antigone end their journey near the Greek city-state of Athens at a place called Colonus. There, Oedipus offends the Eumenides -- goddesses of the underworld -- and he must make offerings later to avoid punishment. His youngest daughter, Ismene, joins them at Colonus, bearing news from Thebes that her brothers are fighting over the kingship and that the younger Eteocles exiled his older brother Polyneices from the city.

Oedipus is stunned to hear this, but she also reveals the oracle's prediction that the each of the sons will soon seek Oedipus' support to win the battle for the throne. Disgusted, he refuses to help either of them because Theban citizens had treated him so poorly before. He asks for the help of Theseus, King of Athens, to protect him and his daughters, and the wise king agrees. Later, Creon, Iocasta's brother, finds Oedipus at Colonus and kidnaps his daughters to force Oedipus to return to Thebes, so that the younger Eteocles can win the war. Thankfully, Theseus comes to the rescue by retrieving the two girls and sending Creon back to Thebes empty-handed. Next, the exiled older son Polyneices comes seeking Oedipus' support, yet the old man is angered at his son's request and condemns both of his sons to death because they are so selfish.

After praising the Athenians for their kindness, thunder in the sky summons Oedipus into the wilderness to die. Accompanied by his children and King Theseus, he walks off toward death, declaring that Athens will forever be protected by the gods as long as Theseus does not reveal the location of his grave to anyone. Oedipus thus dies after a long life filled with suffering that is cured only by forgiveness and acknowledging the supremity of the gods. Because of his return to faith, he is absolved from the crimes he committed so many years before. After their father's death, Antigone and Ismene return to Thebes, hoping to prevent the deaths of their two brothers that Oedipus had predicted.

[Synopsis source: Book Rags]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Oedipe_et_Antigone-Krafft-L.png image_description=Oedipe et Antigone by Johann Peter Krafft (1809) audio=yes first_audio_name=Antonio Sacchini: Oedipe à Colone first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/sacchini_oedipe1.m3u product=yes product_title=Antonio Sacchini: Oedipe à Colone product_by=Marcel Vanaud — Oedipe
Valérie Millot — Antigone
Jean-Luc Viala — Polynice
Mireille Delunsch — Eriphile
Daniel Galvez-Vallejo — Thésée
Valérie Lecoq — Une athénienne
Laurent Naouri — Le grand prêtre
Soldats, prêtres, athéniennes, coriphée
Ensemble Orchestral de Paris
Ensemble Vocal Audite Nova de Paris
Jan Latham-Koenig, direction
Live performance: Festival de Montpellier, 17 July 1992, Cour Jacques Cœur
Posted by Gary at 10:40 AM

Lust, greed, sex, lies, betrayal, pain and death

Cenerentola_UtahOpera.pngOpera not for sissies
By: Christie Franke [Daily Utah Chronicle, 6 December 2007]

It seems as if spring seasons in the classical world are a little more dramatic than their autumnal counterparts. At least such is the case here in Salt Lake City. The fall season has certainly been busy, no doubt about that, but the upcoming spring season is definitely something to anticipate.

Posted by Gary at 9:28 AM

A Tour of Russian Works, Led by the Locals

Gergiev.pngBy ALLAN KOZINN [NY Times, 6 December 2007]

Valery Gergiev and his Kirov Orchestra, along with a planeload of choristers and soloists from the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, finished their short residency at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday evening. Their three concerts, part of Mr. Gergiev’s Perspectives series, offered a selective tour of the Russian opera and ballet repertory. Mr. Gergiev is the go-to guy for this music today. He has drilled his orchestra to produce a tremendous range of both sound and expressivity, from exquisite beauty and polish to terrifying ferocity.

Posted by Gary at 9:17 AM

The Stand-Alone

WhatNext.png(Illustration by Sarah Howell)
BY GEORGE LOOMIS [NY Sun, 6 December 2007]

When the composer Elliott Carter presented the world premiere of his first opera, the one-act "What Next?," at the Berlin Staatsoper in 1999, many critics were perplexed. Mr. Carter was 91 years old, had never written an opera, and was presenting his first with a literal bang — in the form of an automobile accident that started the show. So the question seemed to be, "what's next?"

Posted by Gary at 9:01 AM

December 5, 2007

Ian Bostridge: 'Sid Vicious was a Romantic'

He's famous for lieder, but Ian Bostridge is happy to be branching out, he tells Peter Culshaw

[Telegraph, 6 December 2007]

'I have something of a punk aesthetic," says Ian Bostridge, surprisingly for someone perhaps best known for his sensitive performances of German lieder. And someone who says he has never been to a pop concert.

Posted by Gary at 9:14 PM

Mendes to make opera debut at Glyndebourne

mendes.pngCharlotte Higgins [The Guardian, 6 December 2007]

It is a move that will take him from the hustle of Hollywood to the leafy lanes of East Sussex, from Tinseltown to the rarefied environs of Glyndebourne. Sam Mendes, director of American Beauty and Road to Perdition, is to try his hand at directing opera.

Posted by Gary at 9:11 PM

Scala-Orchester verweigert Smoking

[DiePresse.com), 5 December 2007]

Unruhige Zeiten für die Scala: Aus Protest gegen die als unzulänglich betrachteten Gehaltserhöhungen wollen die Orchestermitglieder nun auf den Smoking verzichten und im Hemd arbeiten.

Die Mitglieder des Scala-Orchesters überlegen, bei der Saisoneröffnung am Freitag ohne Smoking, nur im weißen Hemd aufzutreten. Sie wollen somit gegen den Vorschlag des Scala-Intendanten Stephane Lissner protestieren, der eine Produktionsprämie für die 1.000 Angestellten des Theaters im Wert von 3,2 Millionen Euro angeboten hat. Der Vorschlag wird als unzulänglich betrachtet, berichtete die römische Tageszeitung "La Repubblica".

Posted by Gary at 11:47 AM

A Career in the Cards

dehn_small.pngBY FRED KIRSHNIT [NY Sun, 5 December 2007]

Soprano Ellie Dehn can hardly be considered a newcomer any longer. Last season, she won the George London competition. With Eve Queler at Carnegie Hall, she nearly stole the show as Jemmy in Opera Orchestra of New York's presentation of Rossini's "William Tell." And, in an appearance that I did not catch, starred as Marguerite in Gounod's "Faust" with the Metropolitan Opera in the park this past summer.

Posted by Gary at 11:24 AM

A year after Gockley stepped in, how does the Opera sound?

Joshua Kosman [San Francisco Chronicle, 5 December 2007]

No one could ever fault David Gockley for lack of ambition. When he was appointed in 2005 as the San Francisco Opera's sixth general director, he hinted at a to-do list that didn't seem to leave any aspect of the business untouched.

Posted by Gary at 11:20 AM

The High and Low Notes of Politics and Romance

ramey_niemann.pngBy VIVIEN SCHWEITZER [NY Times, 5 December 2007]

It must be fun for the bass Samuel Ramey, whose specialties in the opera house are devils and villains, to imitate barnyard animals in a lighthearted work like “I Bought Me a Cat.”

Posted by Gary at 11:18 AM

Mortier sonne l’alarme à l’Opéra de Paris

Mortier.pngJean-Louis Validire [Le Figaro, 4 December 2007]

Le syndicat radical SUD fait toujours de la résistance contre la réforme du régime de retraite. La situation devient préoccupante et les pertes pourraient dépasser les 8 millions d’euros si les grèves continuent au-delà de la fin de l’année.

Posted by Gary at 10:52 AM

December 4, 2007

Beyond The Media Avatar

Past the stately gates of the medieval city hall, a breath-taking sight: the Sala del Mappamondo, a large hall studded with the old regalia of the proud Tuscan Republic that once competed with Florence over supremacy of Europe’s financial markets. Images of saints and sinners; angels, bankers, friars and warriors frescoed by Simone Martini, Duccio di Buoninsegna, Sano di Pietro — names echoing like clarions. And the clarions are actually there, arranged within crystal shelves: precious originals of the long trumpets whose copies still resound twice in a year for the Palio horse race. From Autumn 2008, this is planned to become one more regular series, a so-called “Festival Contemporaneamente Barocco” storming a variety of historic venues in the city — including two recently-restored opera houses, the cathedral, the university and more — with events connected to opera, music, drama and cultural heritage at large.

To Italian concertgoers who missed the seldom chance to hear him live, countertenor Derek Lee Ragin is a sort of media avatar, the lower half of Farinelli’s voice as heard in the gorgeous soundtrack of a (quite despicable) 1994 feature film on the legendary Neapolitan castrato. The upper one, as largely spread at that time, was provided by the Polish soprano Ewa Mallas Godlewska, with a French computer digitally processing both halves into the virtual reconstruction of a voice which, around 1725, could boast a range of two octaves and a fourth (from A to D’’’) — and later extended by a few more pitches downward, thus to around three octaves! (However, there is no surviving evidence in the scores that Farinelli ever used all of them in any single piece…).

Ragin_Siena.png

As to Ragin, his voice sounds most effectively in the range just around the middle C up to a tenth above. It might have grown darker in years, yet without losing the appeal of an other-wordly color, something of an alto of warm polish and purity, all of a sudden opening up towards high notes generally forbidden to the male falsetto. At those dizzying pitches, he doesn’t either squeak or resort to a metallic compression that betrays strain, like many among his peers tend to, but emerges with a lustrous full-pressure resonance, apparently with some major support from the chest. If only he could smooth the transition between both ranges, you would call him a monster; nevertheless, he remains a singer of superior class and versatility, equally at ease in Baroque arias, contemporary music and the Negro spiritual. Add to that a technical refinement matching the stipulations of early Bel Canto style. His opening messa di voce in “Alto Giove”, from Porpora’s Polifemo, pierced the gloomy instrumental atmosphere like a sunbeam from a cloudy sky — a terrific effect. One more piece from Farinelli’s suitcase repertoire — “Ombra fedele anch’io”, set by the castrato’s profligate brother Riccardo Broschi in his opera Idaspe — was lamentably shortened of its second section and subsequent da capo. A pity indeed, considered Ragin’s heart-rending delivery of the first plaintive section, featuring a good deal of appoggiaturas and inter-registral leaps in slow tempo. Before that, a pair of Handel cantatas (Mi palpita il cor, HWV 132d and Lungi da me, HWV125b) displayed bravery in fast syllabic passages, meaningful switching between staccato and legato, polished fast trills, evidence of dramatic sensitivity in the recitatives. By the way, Ragin’s Italian diction was more than acceptable throughout, reaching a peak in the favorite encore “Ombra mai fu” from Xerxes, whose notorious text clumsiness often fires jokes among native hearers.

Rossignolo%2BRagin.png

Besides providing a spirited accompaniment to Ragin’s vocal solos, the resident period band “Il Rossignolo” (a gentle archaism for nightingale) showed off with notable panache in the fillers: a four-parts sonata and a concerto for the same forces by Telemann, plus Vivaldi’s Concerto for recorder, RV 106. All of the players emerged in turns for their individual merits and deserve quotation: harpsichordist-cum-conductor Ottaviano Tenerani and flautist Marica Testi for their assured elegance of phrasing, the mercurial cellist Ludovico Minasi for his bold strokes, Luca Giardini, a young violinist in growing international demand, both for finery of sound and fanciful embellishments. Oboist Martino Noferi, a promising virtuoso on the baroque oboe, didn’t perform equally well on the recorder. He should probably choose for the better opportunity, sooner or later.

Carlo Vitali

image=http://www.operatoday.com/ragin.png image_description=Derek Lee Ragin product=yes product_title=Recital by Derek Lee Ragin, alto; Il Rossignolo (with original instruments) product_by=Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, December 1st, 2007 product_id=A Festival Contemporaneamente Barocco preview production
Posted by Gary at 3:10 PM

Barenboim to debut with Wagner as principal guest conductor at Verdi's La Scala

[Associated Press, 4 December 2007]

MILAN, Italy: Twice blocked by striking musicians and stagehands, Daniel Barenboim makes his debut as La Scala's principal visiting conductor Friday night with a gala premiere of "Tristan und Isolde."

Posted by Gary at 1:15 PM

Tenor Turns His Focus to the Art of the Song

Polenzani.pngBy ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY times, 4 December 2007]

Not that many years ago voice buffs in New York who admired the American tenor Matthew Polenzani had to content themselves with hearing him in winning performances of supporting roles at the Metropolitan Opera. For the role of David, for example, the young apprentice to the shoemaker Hans Sachs in Wagner’s “Meistersinger,” the boy-next-door wholesomeness and awkward earnestness of his portrayal, not to mention his handsome singing, were ideal; he was the best David of my experience.

Posted by Gary at 1:02 PM

Arts: Concert halls target the younger listener

Phaedra_Berlin.pngBy Patricia Naatz [Financial Times, 4 December 2007]

As Germany’s population ages, the nation’s great opera houses and concert halls are facing rapidly-shrinking audiences. Already struggling to fill seats, some of the country’s most venerable institutions have launched a series of initiatives to rejuvenate their public appeal.

Posted by Gary at 12:53 PM

Pieczonka among many UWO music faculty success stories

By JAMES REANEY [4 December 2007]

Fresh from Ben Heppner's triumphant turn as a teacher last week, UWO's Don Wright music faculty is bracing for more celeb-powered classes -- and basking in the successes of its students.

Posted by Gary at 12:48 PM

'The Billy Elliot of opera'

storey.pngIan Storey, son of a Durham miner, is singing Tristan at La Scala - arguably the biggest prize in opera. Why is he unknown in Britain? Martin Kettle reports

[4 December 2007, The Guardian]

This year's winter exhibition in La Scala's museum is all about the times Maria Callas sang here. And the gift shop is loaded with commemorative merchandise celebrating Luciano Pavarotti. At the world's most famous opera house, they only deal in operatic legends. Which is why I have come to Milan to meet Ian Storey.

Posted by Gary at 12:43 PM

KINKEL: An Imaginary Voyage through Europe. 32 Songs

While the idea of a trip through the Continent is not explicitly part of Kinkel’s work, it offers some useful points of reference for listening to works that are essentially unknown, yet deserving attention. Moreover, the extensive notes by the soprano Ingrid Smithüsen are a fine introduction to Kinkel’s career.

From the works presented here, the music itself is engaging, with the songs found on this CD intriguing for their natural-sounding vocalism and well crafted accompaniments. Elements redolent of the folk idiom are part of some songs, while others suggest the influence of bel canto; elsewhere, as in “Abschied von Italian” (op. 16, no 3), the music verges on a popular-sounding idiom that breaks free from some of the foursquare style of conventional Lieder. While the arrangement of the recording accentuates some of the national styles of the texts themselves, the music is not overtly nationalistic. Some formulations that connote Scottish lyricism are part of the “Auld Rob Morris,” a setting of a folk text, as indicated in the liner notes. Yet the arrangement is a convenience for presenting this large selection of Kinkel’s songs, rather than an attempt to lock her works into the sometimes artificial categories associated with musical nationalism. Instead, lyricism prevails throughout the songs, with accompaniments that support the vocal line. Her sense of rhythm and meter allows the texts to emerge clearly, with a natural declamation that stops short of the Angst that would emerge in the Lieder of the latter part of the nineteenth century.

As much as it is possible to enjoy songs associated with the Rhine, Spain, Italy, Scotland, and France, other themes are included, like “Revolution,” “Kinderland,” and “Geisterwelt.” “Auf, whole auf Ihr Condioten” (op. 18, no. 3) is a kind of march-song that Smithüsen included with “Demokratenlied (a song without an opus designation) under the label “Revolution.” These songs show Kinkel in a somewhat popular idiom that the texts certainly require. As to the texts, a number are by Kinkel herself, with some by her second husband Gottfried Kinkel. Other songs make use of texts by poets who became associated with Lieder, like Heinrich Heine and Adalbert von Chamisso. As Smithüsen mentions in her notes, Kinkel was part of Bettina von Armin’s salon, where she met such individuals as Chamisso. In fact, some details of her life reveal how closely Kinkel was associated with some of the more important figures of her day.

The performances on this recording are laudable for various reasons, not the least is the interpretations that are persuasive enough to suggest rehearing some of the selections. Smithüsen is a fine interpreter of these Lieder, with her focused and expressive voice shaping each of the songs with the individuality the music requires. Smithüsen is effective because of her ability to bring out details, without relying on histrionics or other elements that are not idiomatic. At the same time, the accompaniments by Thomas Palm support Smithüsen throughout the recording. The use of fortepiano is fitting, and while its lighter sound may be jarring upon hearing the first selections, it proves to be a fine means of allowing the vocal lines to emerge clearly. The recording captures the nuanced sounds of the fortepiano well. Palm is a sensitive accompanist, and his ability to support some of the more overtly demonstrative songs, like “Thurm und Fluth” (op. 19, no. 6) is welcome.

Those unfamiliar with Kinkel will find this recording to be an excellent introduction to her music. At the same time, this CD expands the world of Lieder in the first half of the nineteenth century. Her music is certainly appealing enough to stand alongside some of the other figures of the time. Those who want to fuller image of music-making in the first half of the nineteenth century may find some insights in exploring Kinkel’s work. More than that, the music itself is evidence of the composer’s talent and accomplishments.

James L. Zychowicz

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Kinkel.png
image_description=Johanna Kinkel: An Imaginary Voyage through Europe. 32 Songs

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product_title=Johanna Kinkel: An Imaginary Voyage through Europe. 32 Songs
product_by=Ingrid Schmithüsen, soprano, Thomas Palm, fortepiano.
product_id=CPO 777 140-2 [CD]
price=$15.99
product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=143901

Posted by jim_z at 12:28 PM

Giulio Cesare in Chicago

So also for those unaware that Caesar and Cleopatra ever visited Chicago: Under the auspices of Handel and the Lyric Opera, they came, they saw, and they kept local opera-goers happily glued to their seats for nearly five hours at a stretch.

A lot of the credit for this goes to David McVicar, who admits the first objective of the production he designed for the Glyndebourne Festival (and which, truth to tell, fits a bit awkwardly in a house twice the size of Glyndebourne and three times the size of any theater Handel ever wrote for) was to entertain. Basing his interpretation on parallels between Rome’s conquest of Egypt (and Cleopatra’s conquest of Caesar) and red-coated Britain’s occupation of Egypt around 1900 (and the Bollywood dance-ical sensibility in movies now made in the former British Raj), he has given us an all-singing and usually dancing spectacle that puts anything on Broadway to shame for special effects, never mind the contrast of Handel’s sublime melodies to anything pop. Too, the singers here, besides being as attractive, athletic and showy as anyone in Mumbai, fill the enormous venue without microphones.

A few spoilsports did grumble that the jokiness sometimes got in the way of their pleasure in Handel (though few of the jokes occur at serious, semi-tragic moments) and the more delicate ornamentation of the baroque line which is so necessary a part of Handel style often got lost in the expanses of Chicago, but still: five hours of baroquerie on a Monday night, and they stayed in droves!

Giulio Cesare is probably the most popular of Handel’s forty operas. There are two good reasons for this: the opera concerns the affair between two personalities whose reputations still linger in the popular consciousness (in contrast, how much do you really know — or are excited at the prospect of learning — about Deidamia, Amadis or Lotario?), and more important, the libretto is first rate, tracing the character development of its six principals, aria by aria, until they succeed or fail to grow into triumphant success: Cesare, the Roman conqueror, must discover that he has a heart; Cleopatra, the amoral pin-up, must fall truly in love and learn the courage and empathy that will suit a reigning monarch; Sesto, a child when we first meet him, must mature into a Roman warrior, capable of defending his mother and avenging his father; Cornelia must learn to survive her grief at her husband’s murder; and Tolomeo and Achilla, the conniving and dishonorable Greco-Egyptians, must learn sincerity, courage and honor — which they signally fail to do, meeting their proper rewards. It’s didactic and old-fashioned, but it is not (as so many baroque libretti are) haphazard: genuine tests are met or failed here, the characters move on or die, and the action is clear and constant. Revivals in days past (but not long past) often rearranged and interpolated music, making mincemeat of Handel’s clarity, but the days when audiences accepted this and shrugged off their confusion are happily behind us.

Those familiar with the DVD of the McVicar production will also be familiar with his Cleopatra, Cornelia and Tolomeo, Mmes. de Niese and Bardon and M. Dumaux. The interpretations of all three have deepened emotionally while the athletic feats of de Niese and Dumaux remain jaw-dropping and tireless. My problem with Ms. de Niese, so lovely, so charming, so healthy, so inexhaustible, so eager to conquer the world (isn’t that teenaged Cleopatra all over? was even Vivien Leigh in slinky silk — in the classic film of Shaw’s play — a sexier kitten in the role?) is that it is never clear to me that the deeper emotions, the discovery of her own heart in such arias as “Piangero la sorte mia” which are the heart of the opera, mean much of anything but breath control to this youthful singer. In Handel’s operas, fast arias like “Da tempesta” and Cesare’s “Quel torrente che cade” excite the newcomers, but the slow ones express the emotional truth of the work, and de Niese does not yet — or, perhaps, in a show as energetic as the McVicar staging, can’t — reveal them, or demonstrate that she appreciates them. There is time for her to deepen, however; for the present, she’s fun to hear and an awful lot of fun to look at.

Mr. Dumaux still does backflips and cartwheels as Tolomeo, as on the DVD, but his singing is becoming a thing to take pleasure in as well. It is appropriate that he is more the willful tyrant than the spoiled brat, since this production restores so much music that is usually cut — both Tolomeo’s lust for power, vengeance and Cornelia, and Cornelia’s and Sesto’s triumph at his destruction get more play than they usually do. This extends the evening considerably, but giving Cornelia her one joyous aria saves Bardon, as Cornelia, from a part only a Stephanie Blythe (or a Maureen Forrester) could save from tedium. Bardon’s pleasant voice lacks the personality of those ladies; she needs that dollop of energy at the end.

Maïte Beaumont, the Sesto, has a bright, clear alto, quite exciting in adolescent triumph but also touchingly vulnerable in the self-pitying introspection of “Care speme.” She also plays a young boy credibly; I’d love to hear her Cherubino or Oscar.

GC_LOC2.pngDavid Daniels, in the title role, watches as Wayne Tigges, as Achillas, presents the head of Pompey in Act I of Julius Caesar, part of Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2007-08 season. Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.

David Daniels, probably the world’s foremost Cesare, undertakes the title role (as he has nearly everywhere else in the last ten years). This is a role — Julius Caesar, for gosh sakes! Soldier! Lover! Statesman! Bestselling author! whose name became a synonym for monarch! — that, for me, cannot be credibly impersonated by a woman, though I never saw Baker or Troyanos undertake it. Daniels definitely plays a most masculine Cesare, all right, but his luscious voice is slow to warm up. Perhaps the vast spaces of this opera house are unkind to his voice (which is not vast), his lapidary phrasing, his sensitivity to the meaning of the words he sings, but even in smaller houses I have not been impressed by his singing of the first act of Cesare. The arias might be tossed off by any competent countertenor — even the divine “Va tacito e nascosto” (staged by McVicar as a warriors’ pavane, with rival armies stomping in time to its studly, ominous march-time) does not bring out the special throb of Daniels at his best.

By Act II, amorous arias and catastrophic turns of the plot seem to warm him to the task. He takes off during the battle royal with violin that is “Se infiorito” — but then, another feature of this singer is the delight he takes in having a partner-adversary to strike sparks: grand duets and obbligatos always give us Daniels at his best, and he always shows his partner to advantage too — he is a colleague as well as a sportsman, and here he also a lover — his scenes with de Niese get quite steamy.

Emmanuelle Haïm earned full marks for leading a much-cut-down Lyric Opera orchestra to a baroque sound quality startling in its precision the day before performing Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten — but no doubt the Lyric Opera, like most opera house orchestras the world over — are getting used to the requirements of the baroque revival. So is the Chicago audience, which saw few empty spaces as the hours went blissfully by.

John Yohalem

Click here for audio and video courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago. image=http://www.operatoday.com/GC_LOC1.png image_description=David Daniels (Cesare), Danielle de Niese (Cleopatra), Maïte Beaumont (Sesto), Patricia Bardon (Cornelia), Christophe Dumaux (Tolomeo), Wayne Tigges (Achilla), Gerald Thompson (Nireno). Conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm. Production by David McVicar. product=yes product_title=G. F. Handel: Giulio Cesare in Egitto
Lyric Opera of Chicago. Performance of November 19, 2007 product_by=David Daniels (Cesare), Danielle de Niese (Cleopatra), Maïte Beaumont (Sesto), Patricia Bardon (Cornelia), Christophe Dumaux (Tolomeo), Wayne Tigges (Achilla), Gerald Thompson (Nireno). Conducted by Emmanuelle Haïm. Production by David McVicar. product_id=Above: David Daniels in the title role and Danielle de Niese as Cleopatra star in the David McVicar-directed production of Julius Caesar, part of Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2007-08 season. Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Posted by Gary at 11:26 AM

Bolcom’s ”View” brilliant at WNO

The mythic dimension, of course, was already there in Arthur Miller’s 1957 drama, a true-to-life story, in which the author detected “some re-enactment of Greek myth that was ringing a long-buried bell in my subconscious mind.” In the play Bolcom too sensed the mythic horizon behind life in the New York Sicilian community of which Eddie Carbone had long been a pillar. And working with Miller and long-time collaborator Arnold Weinstein to “translate” the drama into opera the composer amplified the mythic resonance of the story by adding a chorus that functions as it did in classic tragedy: it comments on — rather than taking part in — the events at hand.

Commissioned by and premiered at the Chicago Lyric Opera in 1999, “View” moved — with the addition of two arias to the score — to the Metropolitan Opera in 2002 . And this third staging of the original production — directed by Frank Galati with sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto — by a major company confirms that this is indeed an American classic.

Three singers in the WNO cast who created their roles in Chicago and then repeated them at the Met contribute greatly to the WNO success: Kim Josephson as stevedore Eddie Carbone, Catherine Malfitano as his wife Beatrice and Gregory Turay as relative Rodolfo newly-arrived from Italy.

It is a coincidence perhaps that this trio returns to “View” for a third time. Yet their presence in the cast speaks of a commitment to the work that came across clearly in the performance at Washington’s Kennedy Center on November 14. It is, of course, Malfitano, now looking back on an international career spanning three decades, who amazes. The dramatic power and the beauty of her voice remain undiminished. Her delivery of “When am I gonna be a wife again?” — one of the added arias — expresses the pain she feels as she watches her husband’s growing obsession with her orphaned niece, portrayed with all the innocence of the ‘50s by Christine Brandes.

This illicit passion that turns this account of life in a community still committed to an Old-World code of honor into tragedy defines Eddie as the central figure in “View,” and Josephson has fully mastered the complexity of the role. He violates this code first in his passion for his niece and then in reporting his wife’s illegal immigrant relatives in to authorities. But of far greater consequence is the kiss that he gives his rival Rodolfo.

It is a violation of a taboo that determines the outcome of the drama. What makes the scene doubly compelling is that up to this moment Eddie was not consciously aware of the sexual attraction that Rodolfo held for him.

This kiss, comparable in its force to that embrace in the Garden of Gethsemane, is at the very heart of “View,” and Bolcom has set it with a master’s hand. Backed by the black-white bleakness of the photographs projected on the rear of the stage, it reaches beyond the story as a violation of such dimensions that it demands action from the gods. Indeed, in its impact, it stands beside Hagen’s murder of Siegfried in Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung.” It is one of the great moments in opera.

An outstanding member of the supporting cast is Richard Bernstein as illegal immigrant — “submarine” — Bruno. Bass Bernstein, one of America’s most agile singers, is superb in everything he does, yet he remains among the unsung truly significant voices of his generation. And he makes “A Ship Called Hunger,” the finest and most overpowering aria in the score, a show stopper. Indeed, the bitterly sorrowful line “I do not understand you, America!” is the supreme vocal moment in the opera.

Also impressive is veteran bass John Del Carlo as Lawyer Alfieri, a man intimately familiar with the characters in the drama, but at the same time an objective observer who leads the chorus that Bolcom has integrated so effectively into the score. And tenor Turay brings bel canto brilliance to Bolcom’s recasting of the hit song “Paper Doll” as a Pucciniesque aria.

John DeMain, now in the senior ranks of American conductors, gives full power to Bolcom’s score with the WNO orchestra. Amy Hutchison directed this re-staging of the Chicago production.

“View from the Bridge” tells a story as poignant as it is bleak of what opera scholar Thomas May describes as “an era that combined lingering innocence with suspiciousness, unjaded faith in the American dream with a shield of cynicism.” Arthur Miller was a major spokesman of that age; with this opera William Bolcom lays bare its emotional heart.

Wes Blomster

image=http://www.operatoday.com/bolcom_outdoor.png image_description=William Bolcom product=yes product_title=Above: William Bolcom
© 2006 Katryn Conlin for VocalEssence
Posted by Gary at 11:12 AM

Op shop opera is using its head

pinchgut_juditha.png[4 December 2007, Sydney Morning Herald]

The director, his assistant and leading lady are discussing the most efficient way to behead a man. "It looks really hard to actually cut someone's head off," says the assistant director, Sean Hall, as he slices a jewel-encrusted sword through the air. "Do you take an almighty swipe or saw it off?"

Posted by Gary at 11:01 AM

Die Frau ohne Schatten in Chicago

Set in some hazy fin-de-siècle fairy tale Orient, the tale is ageless, its symbolic structure based on many an ancient trope and theme, especially beloved in such near-contemporary versions as Andersen’s “Little Mermaid,” Pinocchio and Die Walküre — but Frau could never have been created for the stage before the era of electric stage lighting. There is the matter of the Empress’s shadow (which must not exist until the penultimate scene, when it should be apparent and obvious), but the many other spectral intruders and the pauseless flow of scene to scene and world to world would have defied the pre-electronic stage. Hofmannsthal and Strauss deserve credit for rooting their homegrown myth so securely in a mystic fabulous while making full use of the latest (1919) technology to bring it to life. Companies that venture to stage Frau must gather the finest vocal and instrumental forces, needless to say, or risk falling on their faces — but they also risk disaster if they simplify excessively, if they do not go for broke in the visual line.

All of this was clear to the Lyric Opera of Chicago when they put a new production of the opera (the second in their history) together this fall. The stage is agog with smoke and mirrors, turntables within turntables so that characters and set elements drift apart and off the stage, ominous ramparts and portals whose openings and closings must be calculated to a hair, scrims and smoke machines, cages and lightning bolts of neon tubing, whirling dancers almost invisible in the darkness and startlingly visible (nearly nude) hung from the ceiling or rising from a well mid-stage, singers obliged to perform while on horseback in mid-air, or from a rickety bridge across mid-stage, or behind a distorted eye or confined to a spotlight by fluttering hands, barely seen. The gimcrackery is choice, the stage pictures and the vision of three separate worlds (spirit, earthy, and the imperial middle realm) rather more coherent as well as handsome than in, for example, Herbert Wernicke’s recent Met production.

Another word about the dancers, who deserve it: dance is most often used in opera either as divertissement or sideshow, in any case as a separate thing where one relaxes the ear and lets the eye take over, welcome or unwelcome as that may be. The LOC Frau is a rare and impressive example of using dance as part of the action, enhancing the magic, motile scenery. The dancers never call attention to themselves (as they so often do when choreographers take up direction); they are part of the stage magic here, creating the dungeons in Act III simply as hands fluttering in the faces of those imprisoned, swaying about the Amme in Act I to suggest the world of dark spirits she inhabits, becoming the hands and heads of the unborn children and the flood that sweeps the scene away in Act II.

Die_Frau_LOC2.pngA scene from Act I of the Paul Curran-directed new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten, part of Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2007-08 season. Photo by Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera of Chicago.

The singing is sumptuous, especially from the ladies. Christine Brewer is today’s great Wagnerian heroine, her voice room-filling and rock-solid but never cold; rather, warm, deeply moving, an earth-mother Dyer’s Wife. Deborah Voigt’s Empress is a shooting star spewing Ds and C-sharps into the heavens of Act III and Jill Grove, in a breakout performance, was in complete command as the wicked Amme, one of the toughest roles in the repertory. Robert Dean Smith is evidently immune to acrophobia — and I refer to the Emperor’s tessitura as well as the flying horse. There were a few rocky phrases from Franz Hawlata, generally a sturdy and sympathetic Barak, the figure whose baritone must be the center of this morally centered tale. The twenty small roles were well-handled, in part by having some of them acted (the Falcon, the Apparition) by dancers while the singers stood discretely behind them, garbed in black. Sir Andrew Davis drew all the complexities together to tell this complicated story clearly and mellifluously. The usual cuts were, alas, observed — the show nonetheless ran to four and a half hours with intermissions.

One comes away from such a performance feeling, in the first place, the awe any first-rate presentation of this complicated opera must produce — who was keeping track of which doors should rise and which fall while tableaux and performers floated in and out of them, often in pitch dark? Rare is the military operation that boasts such precision. Paul Curran’s production, Kevin Knight’s designs and David Jacques’ lighting were constantly inventive and astonishing — though I did think the mystic Empress should be dreaming in something classier than a big brass bed, and the upturned umbrella used as a boat in Act III seemed to have strayed in from some other production entirely. These two props screamed “Fix me!” in tones as loud as any brass in Strauss’s orchestra.

I did have one misgiving about the direction: In their efforts to “humanize” a story full of tropes and archetypes, the producers and the actors (one must discuss them here in their non-singing aspects) have given the characters behavior and expression that suggest unnecessary and inexplicable subtexts to the action. We are in a fairy tale world here, where “spirit” beings aspire to human-hood, fish dinners sing, and apparitions seduce. This can be staged “realistically” — as at the Wiener Staatsoper, where the Empress is a modern Viennese lady on a couch talking her way through psychoanalysis — but having chosen, as Chicago has, to give us a fairy tale with all the trimmings, it is unwise to give the characters unnecessary layers: good should be good here, and wicked, wicked. Fairy tale, like our unconscious, knows no half measures.

Awkwardness is most clearly apparent with Deborah Voigt’s Empress, the titular lady without a shadow. Having played the role “archetypically” in half a dozen other stagings, the newly svelte and agile Miss Voigt has decided to get into the swim of things. Instead of sitting in the shadows observing the Nurse’s devious plots and the pain they inflict on Barak and his Wife, developing a moral conscience and, thus, a soul, this Empress is actively complicit with the wickedness, crowning the Dyer’s Wife, flirting with the Dyer, observing the temptations with a cynical smirk. It makes her transformation — the central moments of the drama — more difficult to accept. Grove’s Amme, too, tended at times to convey comic fluster rather than malice in her gestures, which contradicts the assurance of her stated utterances.

But these are minor points in a thoroughly winning evening of opera at its grandest.

John Yohalem

Click here for audio and video courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Die_Frau_LOC.png image_description=The Empress (Deborah Voigt) and Emperor (Robert Dean Smith) embrace and anticipate the supreme joy of parenthood. Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago. product=yes product_title=Richard Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten
Lyric Opera of Chicago; Performances of November 20, 26. product_by=Empress: Deborah Voigt; Dyer’s Wife: Christine Brewer; Nurse: Jill Grove; Emperor: Robert Dean Smith; Barak: Franz Hawlata. Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis. Production by Paul Curran. product_id=Above: The Empress (Deborah Voigt) and Emperor (Robert Dean Smith) embrace and anticipate the supreme joy of parenthood.
Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Posted by Gary at 10:41 AM