February 25, 2008

Puccini Gold

Besides demonstrating how easily the great composer's operas can be raided for two hours of inspired lyrical treasures, Decca's compilation highlights the stars it apparently regards as its greatest marketing winners. Six names appear above the CD title on the cover in large font: Pavarotti, Netrebko, Bocelli, Villazon, Fleming and Domingo, and their handsomely posed portraits adorn the cover. In smaller print at the bottom of the front cover reside stars such as Jose Carreras, Angela Gheorghiu, and Roberto Alagna. Their portraits are found on the back cover. One name on the front cover that may prove elusive to the star-conscious is Kaufmann, as in Jonas Kaufmann, whose debut CD Decca has only been recently released. He joins Kiri te Kanawa in making the front cover listings without earning a space for his photo, front or back.

The two discs feature many indisputably great selections, including several prized cuts from the complete opera recordings of Madama Butterfly and La Boheme that Herbert von Karajan led. Zubin Mehta's Turandot gets space, although strangely Joan Sutherland's phenomenal "In questa reggia" is bypassed for her somewhat less impressive "Senza mama" from Suor Angelica. Unsurprisingly, Luciano Pavarotti starts the collection with "Nessun dorma," and both of Liu's arias, as sung by Montserrat Caballe, appear on CD two.

While it is understandable that Decca wants to feature its more recent catalog, those selections are among the less impressive. Renée Fleming comes across as mannered in the ubiquitous "O mio babbino caro," although her "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" is indisputably lovely. Rolando Villazon and Anna Netrebko ham it up a bit too much in "O soave fanciulla," and conductor Nicola Luisotti enables their act with fussy pacing. The darker tenor of Kaufmann makes for a gruff Rodolfo in "Che gelida manina," but it is an interesting turn on the arguably overly familiar aria. Opera snobs will turn up their noses at Andrea Bocelli's "Addio, fiorito asil," but it is a fine selection for his voice. However, Decca could easily have gone back just a couple years for an even finer version by tenor Joseph Calleja. Apparently Decca has already forgotten about him.

In a nice touch, Decca includes some instrumental selections conducted by Riccardo Chailly, with the rare but lovely "Crisantemi" and a potent intermezzo from Manon Lescaut. Otherwise the two CDs survey almost exclusively the tenor/soprano repertoire. Surely Scarpia could have made an appearance, or even Sherill Milnes's Rance, heard briefly in Placido Domingo's "Ch'ella mi creda" from La Fanciulla del West.

The set's real demerit lies in the editing. The orchestral introduction to "Recondita armonia," for example, has been cut, so that the track abruptly begins with Jose Carreras singing the title words. Then after the aria has concluded, the performance continues with some of the Sacristan's lines, before ending as suddenly as it began. Similarly, after Gheorghiu's "Si, mi chiamano Mimi" ends, we get the dialogue leading up to "O soave fanciulla," with the music ending just where the duet would commence.

At any rate, most confirmed Puccini lovers have probably long ago assembled their favorite music as performed by their favorite singers. A collection such as Puccini Gold is probably for those who have had just enough of a taste of Puccini to know they want to explore the music further. Despite the editing glitches and the arguable choices of artists, those purchasers should be happy with Puccini Gold.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Puccini Gold

product_title=Puccini Gold
product_by= Luciano Pavarotti, Montserrat Caballé, Carlo Bergonzi, Mirella Freni, Renée Fleming et al.
product_id=Decca 028947593799 [2CDs]

Posted by chris_m at 4:18 PM

Salome at Covent Garden

Its main set is a pale, dank, tiled basement – the excesses of the banquet in the palace above are glimpsed on an upper level which sits just below the proscenium arch. The 'below stairs' angle may be one of director David McVicar's trademark devices, but here it is evocative of a sewer, an underworld, a space suspended between this world and Hell. Designer Es Devlin has exercised faultless attention to detail in bringing this concept to life.

The people who inhabit this place are as devoid of human emotion as the animal carcasses we see hanging in one of the basement's doorways. Following Narraboth's suicide, the others make a point of picking their way around his fresh corpse as if to demonstrate just how little his death matters to them.

Nadja Michael's Salome is credibly young and nubile, slinky, poised, if not really sexy. She produces a huge sound considering her physical build, and it gleams on top when it is in tune, though she does have a few intonation problems. Her fixation with Jokanaan is quite understandable, as Michael Volle dominates the stage in both voice and presence even when he cannot be seen.

The Dance of the Seven Veils is not done as a conventional striptease but as a dream interlude after the modern fashion. It is a subtly disturbing fantasy sequence, where the tiled walls give way to black depths with cinematic projections which suggest Herod's sexual obsession with Salome from early childhood. This unspoken suggestion of Salome's lifetime of rape by her stepfather makes sense of her scheme to destroy both Jokanaan and Herod himself. At the end of the dance, Salome leads Herod off for one final tryst – this time on her terms – before making her fatal demand.

Robin Leggate was a late substitute as Herod. If he lacked the physical presence and vocal weight of Thomas Moser, who he replaced, he certainly found an element of black comedy in his petty, bickering interchanges with Daniela Schuster's Herodias.

Against the murky grey-white background, there is an emphasis on the luridness of Herod's court – represented by Herodias in her glittering turquoise gown – and of Jokanaan's murder, when the naked executioner emerges from the cistern dripping with the prophet's blood. However, Salome herself is a pale sylph in a glistening white dress, and Herod's fantasies of her during the Dance of the Seven Veils have a crisp monochrome purity. From Herod's perspective, her horrific request for Jokanaan's head comes as a complete surprise from someone he sees as a perfect specimen, an alabaster ornament.

Salome_006.png(left to right) Michael Volle (Jokanaan), Joseph Kaiser (Narraboth) and Nadja Michael (Salome)

And as this beautiful creature's white slip and limbs become drenched in Jokanaan's blood, the assembled court – at first averting their eyes in revulsion – gradually turn towards her and become transfixed on the spectacle, just as Herod's and Narraboth's eyes had always been inexorably drawn in her direction.

Orchestrally, the standards were generally high; Philippe Jordan certainly has an understanding of how to bring out the horror in Strauss's opulent score, though some untidy brass playing took the shine off the texture.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Salome_015.png image_description=Nadja Michael (Salome) [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of the Royal Opera House] product=yes product_title=Richard Strauss: Salome
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, February 21, 2008 product_by=Above: Nadja Michael (Salome)
All photos by Clive Barda courtesy of the Royal Opera House
Posted by Gary at 2:25 PM

VINCI: La Partenope

Music composed by Leonardo Vinci. Libretto by Silvio Stampiglia.

First Performance: 1725, Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo, Venice.

Principal Characters:
Rosmira, Princess of Cyprus Soprano
Partenope, Queen of Partenope (later Naples) Contralto
Arsace, Prince of Corinth Soprano
Armindo, Prince of Rhodes Tenor
Emilio, Prince of Cuma Mezzo-Soprano
Ormonte, Captain of Partenope's Guard Tenor


Partenope (or Parthenope) appears in Greek mythology and classical sources as one of the sirens who taunted Odysseus. One version has her throwing herself into the sea because her love for Odysseus was not returned. She drowns. Her body washes ashore at Naples, which was called Partenope after her name. From this, Silvio Stampiglia created a fictional account where Partenope appears as the Queen of Naples. According to Robert Freeman:

[T]he libretto for Partenope . . . [was] first set for performance in Naples during 1699 with music by Luigi Mancia, and produced all over Italy in more than a dozen versions with music by a variety of composers . . . [The libretto involves] a young lady named Rosmira, once betrothed to and then deserted by Arsace, now a suitor of Partenope, Queen of Naples, where the drama takes place. Early in the libretto, Rosmira, disguised as a man, charges Arsace with infidelity and defies him to redeem his honor by promising never to reveal her identity. After Arsace promises, Rosmira taunts him before the court, then challenges him to a duel, which Arsace quite naturally tries to evade. But in the final scene Arsace hits upon a solution. He agrees to the duel, but on condition that it be fought with combatants stripped to the waist. . . Rosmira admits her identity and there is no duel.
Notes, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Dec., 1971), pp. 216-217.

Click here for the complete libretto.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/partenope.png image_description=Partenope audio=yes first_audio_name=Leonardo Vinci: La Partenope
WinAMP, VLC, FooBar first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Partenope_Vinci.m3u product=yes product_title=Leonardo Vinci: La Partenope product_by=Partenope: Sonia Prina
Arsace: Roberta Invernizzi
Emilio: Lucia Cirillo
Armindo: Makoto Sakurada
Ormonte: Rosario Totaro
Rosmira: Maria Grazia Schiavo
Capella della Pieta de' Turchini
Direttore: Antonio Florio
Live Performance: 10 July 2004, Festival International d'Opéra Baroque de Beaune
Posted by Gary at 11:50 AM

February 22, 2008

Carmen, The Metopolitan Opera

Shrouds mantle the vaults of heaven; the gilt and sparkle of the opera house seem to mock the gray mood.

Let me explain why I was eager to hear Olga Borodina’s Carmen again: She starred in a close-to-perfect series of performances of the opera a few years ago, ably partnered by Roberto Alagna (such a piteous child when he finally got the message in the last act, “Tu ne m’aimes plus?” and then leaped for her throat) and Rene Pape (the sexiest of all possible toreros).

At that performance I felt I was seeing Bizet’s Carmen for the first time — seeing the character as Bizet conceived her, as she is almost never performed. She was not a sexpot. She couldn’t be bothered to deal with masculine fantasies. She walked in on her way to work, sneered at the idiotic, amorous male chorus, sang a song (why not? She had a great voice), noticed the pretty soldier on the sidelines and tossed him a flower — for the hell of it. She was a Carmen who didn’t care if we were staring or not. Most Carmens work far too hard — they shove their poitrines in every face, they hoist their dresses to display their legs, their world is all about sex. Not Borodina — her world was all about doing what she wanted to, with whoever cared to join her — and snapping her fingers at those who would not. In Act II, when Frasquita and Mercedes pushed themselves in Escamillo’s face, this Carmen sang “L’amour,” pensively (and in that low, dusky, impossibly sensuous Borodina voice) — she wasn’t singing about love to attract Escamillo’s attention, she was brooding about it to herself. And that was just what did attract his attention. Was Jose going to kill her? All right — he was going to kill her. But he would not keep her from being herself out of something so alien as fear.

That was Carmen. A real, a credible, an adorable Carmen — precisely because she did not care if we adored her or not. She was herself. And with Borodina’s voice.

But last week something fell on Borodina’s foot, and she did not sing on February 19.

Her replacement was Nancy Fabiola Herrera, a singer unknown to me. Herrera’s Carmen was no last-minute exercise; it’s a finished portrait, everything in place, comfortable on the enormous Met stage, no matter how many choristers and herds of farm animals Franco Zeffirelli clutters it with. Not really a surprise, as Ms. Herrera was scheduled to take the role next week. Its nuances were hardly strange to her.

CARMEN_Alvarez_as_Don_Jose_.pngMarcelo Álvarez as Don Jose (Photo by Beatriz Schiller courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera.)

She is a handsome young woman with a handsome voice, a pleasing quality in the lower notes and no break. She can certainly sing it, plus she can act and dance, and plays castanets as well as any Carmen since Teresa Berganza. (I’m told she has zarzuela training.) But her Carmen was a cliché: the spitfire flirt. She sang her arias prettily enough, but she was trying to please. Of a deeper, more self-conscious Carmen there was no sign until the fortune-telling of Act III, when she withdrew into herself. She was not so pretty any more, a dark and brooding quality came over her voice, she seemed to withdraw into herself and become one with the music; the opera began to seem to be her story.

Just then, however, she came up against a rival worthy of her steel — Krassimira Stoyanova, one of the great singing actresses of our time, whom the Met has squandered on the role of Micaela. (She will be our Donna Anna next year, however; I’m expecting fireworks.) Stoyanova sang the aria beautifully, but it was her confrontation with Jose and Carmen that made us sit up straighter: she wasn’t just defeated in love, she was angry at what lust had done to the man she loved, angry at Carmen (at whom she barely deigned to look) and furious at Jose. These lines are throwaway; in most performances one hardly notices them; in this Carmen all three performers were electric, their confrontation crackled.

These later acts were Marcelo Álvarez’s best as well. A burly man, he is not flattered by Jose’s uniform; as a thuggish smuggler, whatever Carmen might say, he seems perfectly at home, capable of any violence. This made up for a weak, ill-supported account of the Flower Song. Lyric moments are not, evidently, Álvarez’s forte; when he must be passionate, he is an interesting singer. Someday, not too far off, an Otello — but just now, I wouldn’t want to hear him in the love duet of that opera until he has worked on his lyric phrasing. Just now, when he tones down the passion in order to plead, he merely sounds weak.

His madness in the final scene was less pitiable, less human than Alagna’s, but effective. He and Herrera seem to have worked on this: they did a neat little bullfighting dance, a paso doble as it were, when he came at her with his knife and she dodged, fearlessly and, with a glance of contempt, walked past him — exposing her back — daring him to do his worst. It was a thrilling conclusion, and drew a standing ovation.

Lucio Gallo was the least impressive toreador I can recall, and not merely because he is too fat to evade a slow, blind yak — his singing is without personality, pretty notes phoned in. You did not notice him; you were surprised that anyone noticed him. He has no stage gifts, and the Met appears to have stuck him in at the last minute, when they changed a run of Hoffman for Carmen late last spring, hoping it would all fall into place. I’m guessing the Met also did not think through the casting of seven-foot-tall John Hancock as Dancaire opposite four-foot Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as Remendado — I exaggerate, slightly — but they seized the opportunity for some delicious Mutt-and-Jeff muggery. When they nudge each other, as comrade smugglers will, speculating on the same female rear end, what different acts (we ponder) do they imagine performing? Jeffrey Welles sang a worthy Zuniga. (Why not give him Escamillo? Or Hancock? Neither has the physique du role, but they could both put it over with flair.)

Emmanuel Villaume conducted; the opening prelude was unsatisfactory, all crash-bang-boom and cliché. The preludes to the other acts were more satisfactory, more breathable, and he was gracious to the singers, both familiar and (in Ms. Fabiola’s case) unfamiliar.

The Zeffirelli Zoo Story production (horses, burros, dogs) holds up well, but I object to his having set the opera — three acts of which are supposed to take place in the riverside plain of Seville — in mountainous Granada, solely because the sets (especially for Act II) thus become more scenic. Let Spain be Spain.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Carmen_Herrera.png image_description=Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Carmen product=yes product_title=Georges Bizet: Carmen
The Met: February 19, 2008 product_by=Carmen: Nancy Fabiola Herrera; Don Jose: Marcelo Álvarez; Micaela: Krassimira Stoyanova; Escamillo: Lucio Gallo. Production by Franco Zeffirelli. Conducted by Emmanuel Villaume. product_id=Above: Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Carmen
Photo by Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera.
Posted by Gary at 3:05 PM

Tito Manlio at the Barbican, London

Vivaldi_small.pngNeil Fisher [Times Online, 21 February 2008]

On the eve of the latest Baroque exhumation in the Barbican, the scholar who oversaw the new edition of Vivaldi's 1718 opera had some advice. “Should you lack the will to delve into the convoluted text,” she wrote in a national newspaper, “have no fear; at this early stage in the history of opera, you can go without.”

Posted by Gary at 2:31 PM

'Tosca' is so intricately constructed it's uncuttable

Daltrius_small.pngBy R.M. CAMPBELL [Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 21 February 2008]

Chris Alexander has spent a lifetime in the straight and lyric theater but never staged Puccini's great melodrama "Tosca" until Speight Jenkins, general director of Seattle Opera, asked him to. The production opens this weekend at McCaw Hall.

Posted by Gary at 2:21 PM

Austria to auction late soprano's estate for charity

VIENNA (AFP) — The estate of Elizabeth [sic] Schwarzkopf, the legendary German soprano who died in 2006, will go under hammer here next month, with the proceeds to go to charity, the Vienna-based auction house Dorotheum said Thursday.

Posted by Gary at 2:01 PM

Leonie Rysanek Live Recordings 1955-1991

The first disc covers a wide range of composers, from Tchaikovsky through Verdi and Puccini, to Wagner. The second disc focuses on the operas of Richard Strauss, perhaps the composer with which Ms. Rysanek was most closely identified.

The enclosed booklet features two articles by Peter Dusek. The first, briefer one covers the specific performances included in the set, while the longer essay amounts to a biography of the singer's professional career. Not too long into the first of these articles, Dusek, as translated by Steward Spencer, refers to Rysanek and her partner in the Eugene Onegin final duet as "two great singing actors." For those fortunate opera lovers who attended Ms. Rysanek's live performances, the recordings on this set will undoubtedly bring back many memories of her imposing, incisive theatrical abilities. But as an audio experience, only so much of Ms. Rysanek's acting ability can be discerned here. And frankly, whether it is the Tatiana of 1955 or the Kostelnicka of 1991, Ms. Rysanek's voice was not favored by recording equipment. At least some of the drama of her top notes extends from the evident strain of accomplishing them. The body of the voice suggests substantial weight, with a slight tendency to feel just under the note. Although she appears to have had great affection for Italian opera, her Aida, Tosca, and Santuzza, as heard here, would probably be best enjoyed by fans tuned into her dramatic perspective.

Her 1985 Ortrud, however, finds her resources well-matched to the demands of the role, as does her Kundry. There are many such moments on the second disc of Strauss excerpts, including a truly scary final scene from Salome. Rysanek's Chrysothemis, to Birgit Nilsson's Elektra in 1965, has more edge and tension than is typical in performers of the role, which arguably makes the ties between the two sisters stronger.

Perhaps the key track here for understanding Rysanek's artistry is the Marschallin's act one monologue from Der Rosenkavalier. Rysanek's coloring of words and phrases creates a vivid portrait of the woman's state of mind, proud and yet openly emotional. Nonetheless, over the 25 minutes of the scene, your reviewer's ears tired of Rysanek's tone and the sense that any extended note never quite hits the center of the pitch.

Again, Dusek's booklet essay gives the point of view of so many who cherished this artist, and it is surely for them that Orfeo has produced this handsomely packaged set, with its many enjoyable photographs of Rysanek in her key roles. If such fans have not already acquired this set, they are urged to seek it out.

image_description=Leonie Rysanek Live Recordings 1955-1991

product_title=Leonie Rysanek Live Recordings 1955-1991
product_by=Leonie Rysanek et al.
product_id=Orfeo d'Oro 696072 [2CDs]

Posted by chris_m at 10:51 AM

February 20, 2008

Sephardi singer keeps father's ancient passions and language alive in song

Levy_Yasmin.png[The Age, 21 February 2008]

From a deep and spiritual history come songs of relevance to every era, writes Michael Dwyer.

YASMIN Levy's musical journey started in 1492, in the purges of the Spanish Inquisition. It was the year Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella sent Christopher Columbus west in search of wealth and glory, and hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing in every direction under threat of extermination.

Posted by Gary at 2:34 PM

Giulio Cesare, Amsterdam

Caesar_Julius_bust.pngBy Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 20 February 2008]

Since the stir caused by his invigorating recordings of Mozart’s operas there has been a keen following whenever René Jacobs appears in the opera house. For these performances of Handel’s Giulio Cesare, shared between Brussels and Amsterdam, he has brought the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra with him for a few weeks in the frosty north.

Posted by Gary at 2:34 PM

Houston Grand Opera: A Life of Many Acts

Heggie_Jake.pngBy Patrick Summers [Playbill, 20 February 2008]

Verdi, Wagner, Massenet, and Puccini wrote only opera, though they each made brief forays into other forms--I classify Verdi's monumental Requiem as his finest work. The focus of Handel's and Bach's lives was vocal music. Mozart, the exception to every rule, was creatively inspired by every musical genre and master of all of them, though he seemed to hold the most affection for stage works.

Posted by Gary at 2:33 PM

José Carreras

Alfred Hickling [The Guardian, 20 February 2008]

Domingo brought drama and dynamism, Pavarotti had the most exquisitely poetic tone, while Carreras ... Actually, it was never completely clear what Carreras brought to the Three Tenors party, except poignancy perhaps; his voice having endured the twin traumas of leukaemia and Herbert von Karajan who, in pushing Carreras's delicate instrument towards the heavyweight end of the tenor spectrum, may have hastened the deterioration of vocals once likened to a silken thread into a timbre more reminiscent of a fraying rope.

Posted by Gary at 2:32 PM

L.A. Opera unearths music suppressed by the Nazis

By TIMOTHY MANGAN [The Orange County Register, 18 February 2008]

A listener has a rooting interest in Los Angeles Opera's "Recovered Voices" project. The annual series revives music suppressed by the Nazis, much of it, but not all, by Jewish composers, some of it by composers who died in concentration camps. If the Nazis hated it, it must be good, so the thinking goes.

Posted by Gary at 2:27 PM

Anna Christy Triumphs in Lucia di Lammermoor at ENO

Dramatically, Lucia di Lammermoor is perhaps the composer’s finest work, and one of the most obvious precursors to Verdi, but it’s also one of the most problematic to cast, not least because of its daunting historical association with some of the greatest sopranos and tenors of the twentieth century.

If any opera company can be relied upon to make a credible ensemble piece of an opera that’s known for being a star vehicle, it’s ENO, and this first new production of 2008 is a triumph. It may not be orchestrally thrilling — Paul Daniel’s conducting doesn’t really allow any rhythmic variation or space, at least for the first two acts — but the staging is dramatic, emotionally involving and coherent, and the principal casting is almost faultless. All did not go entirely to plan on opening night; singing the chaplain Raimondo, Clive Bayley succumbed to a chest infection part-way through the first act and he continued to mime the role to the voice of his cover, Paul Whelan, who is due to sing two scheduled performances of his own at the end of the run, but who on this occasion sang from one side of the proscenium.

In David Alden’s bleakly monochromatic production, with sets by Charles Edwards and costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, emotion takes second place to practical and political considerations. A fixation with the past — particularly childhood, and images of dead ancestors — prevents anybody from influencing their own future or bringing anything interesting or new into their lives. It has turned Enrico into a bitter, almost emotionless shell, with a perverse obsession with his naïve young sister, whom he keeps trapped in childhood before brutally ’breaking her in’ and throwing her into her unwanted marriage to Dwayne Jones’s soulless pretty-boy Arturo. Mark Stone’s sense of bel canto legato leaves something to be desired, but the darkness in his voice makes his Enrico deeply nasty.

Edgardo is really no better. While Enrico’s reaction to his surroundings and the events of his past have turned him introverted and cruel, Edgardo has become careless, rash and impetuous, which ultimately makes him almost as responsible for Lucia’s fate as her brother. Barry Banks’s vocal and dramatic power belie his small stature; his presence is easily a match for Stone’s, and his final aria sequence is thrillingly, beautifully sung.

ENO_Lucia_Mad_Scene.jpgThe Mad Scene (Anna Christy in foreground)

In the tile role, Anna Christy’s remarkable physical portrayal and crystalline soprano — not audibly marred by the bronchitis which had prevented her from completing the dress rehearsal — make her utterly convincing as this troubled, abused young girl. There is something other-worldly about her voice, and its partnership with the glass harmonica (restored to the Mad Scene as Donizetti intended) creates a chilling resonance. Although the libretto refers to her passionate nature, passion is lacking; she is more of a dreamer. We first see her perched at one side of a miniature stage, gazing obliquely at the closed curtain; she is discovered there again following Raimondo’s revelation that she has murdered Arturo, and during the mad scene, after the curtain is pulled back to reveal her husband’s bloodied body, she gradually retreats into the “stage” area as if it is the realisation of a long-held dream.

Tellingly, the blood which drenches Lucia’s and Arturo’s wedding-night garb is almost the first colour that’s been onstage all evening; it serves as both a coup de theatre and a symbol of Lucia’s release through madness from the bonds of her dead, grey, repressed surroundings.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Christy_Lucia_medium.jpg image_description=Anna Christy in Lucia di Lammermoor (ENO) product=yes product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor
English National Opera, 19 February 2008 product_by=Above: Anna Christy
Posted by Gary at 1:54 PM

Der fliegende Holländer, Stuttgart Staatsoper

Stuttgart_Dutchman.pngBy Shirley Apthorp [Financial Times, 13 February 2008]

This corporate jaunt has gone horribly wrong. Middle managers strew the contents of files like confetti, their wives huddle on the ground and smear their faces with dirt, champagne is sprayed across the crowd while dancing girls jerk neurotically in the far corner.

Posted by Gary at 1:29 PM

Susan Graham; Wigmore Hall

Hilary Finch [TimesOnline, 13 February 2008]

There's always something fishy about the French. Noël Coward noted it, and Susan Graham sang it, as the perfect encore after an evening of unashamed Francophile indulgence. A London recital by the great American mezzo-soprano is rare. The house was full and expectations were high. And Graham, with her accompanist Malcolm Martineau, offered us 24 songs - and 22 composers. It was an evening of canapés and bonnes bouches, with not a single main course in sight.

Posted by Gary at 1:29 PM

February 19, 2008


Music composed by Luigi Cherubini. Libretto by Franoçois-Benoît Hoffman. Italian version by Carlo Zangarini.

First Performance: 13 March 1797, Théâtre Feydeau, Paris.

Principal Characters:
Jason [Giasone], leader of the Argonauts Tenor
Medea [Médée], his wife Soprano
Neris [Néris], her confidante Mezzo-Soprano
Creon [Créon, Creonte], King of Corinth Bass
Dirce [Dircé, Glauce], his daughter Soprano
First attendant Soprano
Second attendant Mezzo-Soprano

Setting: The palace of Creon.


Act I

The wedding of Jason and Dircé, daughter of Creonte, is approaching. In a gallery in Creonte's royal palace the bride-to-be is tormented by anxiety fearing the possible return of the sorceress Medea, who refuses to accept that Jason, to whom she has given two children, has abandoned her. The chorus and the confidantes of Dircé attempt to comfort her, as do both Jason and Creonte.

The sudden appearance of Medea comes as a terrible shock to Dircé and Jason has to lead the sorceress away. Medea tries to bend to Jason's will, hoping to dissuade him from his decision to be married again. But the contrast between the two leads to the bitter hatred of Medea who summons Colchos and his darkest horrors to prevent the wedding taking place and to avenge Jason's refusal to hear her pleas.

Act II

In a wing of the palace near the temple of Juno, Medea, the abandoned and furious wife, calls upon the terrible Eumenides to shed blood and bring terror to Creonte and his daughter Dircé. Accompanied by her hand-maiden Neris, Medea obtains Creonte's permission to spend one more day in Corinth. The king begs her to calm her wrath, whereas she, with the help of Neris, is seeking vengeance to match the offence and suffering she has known.

Medea's next encounter with Jason sees her in remissive attitude, as she asks her former husband to let her have her two children back. So upset is she that she is prepared to try to win the pity of Jason, but Jason will not be moved. Medea is hurt and insulted. Events confirm her desire to seek the vengeance that she had planned. She confides in Neris, telling her that she intends to give the bride-to-be Dircé her gown, crown and her personal effects all poisoned. During the wedding procession Medea pronounces cruel wishes for the couple.


A storm which obscures the scene is the idea backdrop to the appearance of Medea who steps forward dressed in a black veil. She is awaiting the children of her marriage with Jason to complete her criminal plans. Neris pushes the children into their mother's arms. Medea is touched when she sees them but will not be distracted from her plan to kill them. They are her children but what matters most is that Jason is their father and through the children he must pay for the offence he has committed.

Cries from the palace inform us that Dircé is dead. Jason, moved to pity and fearful for his children, begs Medea to bring them to him: it is too late, they have already been killed. Jason is crushed by his sorrow. Medea calls to him that she will be waiting for him on the banks of the Styx and then sets fire to the temple.

As the crowd runs from the blaze, the flames spread and engulf both the temple and the palace; thunderbolts heighten the terror; the mountain and the temple collapse. The destruction and flames destroy the scene. Medea disappears among the burning remains.

[Synopsis Source: Opera Italiana]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Callas_portrait.png image_description=Maria Callas audio=yes first_audio_name=Luigi Cherubini: Medea
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Giasone: Carlos Guichandut
Neris: Fedora Barbieri
Glauce: Gabriella Tucci
Creonte: Mario Petri
Capo delle guardie: Mario Frosini
Prima ancella: Liliana Poli
Seconda ancella: Maria Andreassi
Orchestra e Coro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
Vittorio Gui, Direttore
Andrea Morosini, Maestro del coro
Live Performance, 7 May 1953, Florence
Posted by Gary at 3:42 PM

SALIERI: Prima la musica e poi le parole

He wanted these pieces to entertain his guests at a party for the visiting Prince Albert of Sachsen-Teschen and his wife, Marie Christine (Joseph’s sister). From stages set up at opposite ends of the Orangerie at Schönbrunn, the Italian troupe performed Salieri’s Prima la musica e poi le parole, and the German troupe put on Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor. The evening highlighted Joseph’s love of competition in music: between composers, librettists, singers, and languages. Both these pieces represent what Betzwieser calls “metamelodramma,” that is, an opera in which the subject of the plot is opera itself. (I prefer John Rice’s term “self-parody.”) This is not a new category of theater, and these are not the last examples. Benedetto Marcello poked fun at operatic excesses in his satirical tract Teatro alla moda (1720). From the eighteenth century there are several parody operas: Domenico Scarlatti’s La Dirindina (1715), Domenico Sarri’s L’impresario delle isole Canarie (1724), and F. L. Gaβmann’s Opera Seria (Calzabigi’s libretto La critica teatrale), 1769; more recently, one thinks of Richard Strauss’s Capriccio (1942), which was inspired by the Salieri work, and even the likes of “Chorus Line” and other Broadway musicals. Moreover, the debate over which should have primacy, words or music, goes further back into the history of music: Monteverdi clashed with Artusi over the “prima prattica” and “seconda prattica,” and Gluck endeavored to reform opera seria.

Salieri’s one-act divertimento teatrale has a cast of four characters, each depicting a player in the creation of an opera: the Maestro (bass), the Poet (bass), Eleonora (soprano), a prima donna, representing opera seria, and Tonina (soprano), an opera buffa singer. The plot lampoons everyone and everything in opera production. The Poet is obliged to write his verses to music already composed by the Maestro, who cares nothing about expressing the words in the music. Both singers try to use unfair influence. Seria and buffa elements (normally kept strictly apart) collide in a duet of two simultaneous arias, in which Eleonora sings hers in the serious style and Tonina sings hers in the comic style. And so on.

Salieri was fortunate to collaborate with the skilled librettist, Giovanni Battista Casti, whose dramaturgy easily surpasses that of Mozart’s librettist, Johann Gottlieb Stephanie. The editor observes: “Casti’s and Salieri’s opera is incomparably richer in allusion than its German counterpart.” This very genius, however, contained the seeds of its own destruction. What was readily apparent to 18th-century Viennese audiences, but unlikely to be perceived by today’s listeners are the musical references to and quotations from popular operas of the time. Opera fans will recognize this technique from the supper scene in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, where the composer quotes from operas by Martin, Sarti, and his own Figaro. In Prima la musica, Salieri borrowed much more extensively. The editor cites three long “complexes of quotations” from Giuseppe Sarti’s Giulio Sabino, including a castrato aria transferred here to female soprano. Thus, laden with allusions to the Viennese operatic world and bearing myriad quotations, Salieri’s opera was not “viable” beyond the imperial city, where it received only three more performances. This fate sets it apart from his many operas that achieved wide-spread popularity, and made him one of the most celebrated composers in Europe.

Despite its short run, Prima la musica represents Salieri at the height of his musical and dramatic creativity. The score masterfully entwines the serious and comic, taking many colorful twists and turns. The action entertains by farce, absurdity, even slapstick. On the whole, it stands up well against the inevitable comparison with the Mozart companion piece. (May I suggest that to solve the problem of unrecognizable quotations we should revive Sarti’s Giulio Sabino.)

Prima la musica was published in a vocal score by Schott in 1972, and it has been revived in performance a number of times since then. Nikolaus Harnoncourt directed a production in Vienna in 2005. The present publication is the first “Urtext” and critical edition. The vocal score, extracted from the critical edition, has the text in Italian with a good singing German translation. The full score and orchestral parts are available as rental. According to the preface to the vocal score, Betzwieser examined all the surviving sources (the composer’s autograph score and three manuscript copies), and it seems evident from the vocal score that the edition has been carefully prepared. This publication of Salieri’s Prima la musica e poi le parole is a welcome addition to the growing corpus of Salieri’s works available in good critical editions.

Jane Schatkin Hettrick

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Posted by Gary at 7:24 AM

February 18, 2008

Jonas Kaufmann—Romantic Arias

This young German singer is making a fine reputation for himself in European opera houses. He has appeared at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York most recently as Alfredo in La Traviata, which he is scheduled to reprise in March of this year.

So this is an eagerly awaited album on both sides of the pond. And the wait was worth it.

There are 13 tracks on the disc that represent a variety of styles. The standards are there, “Che gelida manina” from La Boheme, “La Fleur que tu m’avais jetee” from Carmen, and “E Lucevan le stelle” from Tosca. These are well sung and totally fit the title of the album in evoking the romantic feelings that their composers intended.

This tenor is building a reputation on a broader scale than those familiar arias would indicate. Some of the composers on this disc range from Flotow, to Verdi, to Wagner and include Berlioz and Gounod and Massenet. Kaufmann is a versatile singer who, here, demonstrates where his skills and talent may take him in the future. He has sung Parsifal and Florestan (Fidelio) on stage, which is even more testimony to his versatility.

The Prize Song from Die Meistersinger is beautifully rendered, and I hope it might be a precursor to his singing that role down the road.

Each of the selections on the album requires a different degree of passion and Kaufmann gives us that. The gentle song of love to Mimi in La Boheme that rings with his new found passion for her is contrasted with the beautiful “Pourquoi mr revellier” from Werther, an aria of unfulfilled love and passion and the precursor to Werther’s death. Kaufmann clearly understands the different passionate needs of the arias and fulfills those emotions..

I was particular impressed with his attention to the words and his diction in the three languages sung on this album. I want a singer to sing the words and not slur them so they are unrecognizable as language. Kaufmann is as clear in his native German as in he French and Italian.

There is a rich, dark and intriguing quality to Kaufmann’s voice. His commitment to the works he is singing is readily apparent. I suspect that over time the darker tenor roles such as Cavaradossi and Don Carlo will be more his style than the lighter Alfredo. I found his delivery effortless and his demeanor very romantic indeed!

Missing from this debut effort is anything by Mozart. Kaufmann includes many of the composer’s work in his repertoire. One would hope that the lack of any Mozart on this disc might be a precursor to a disc of Mozart or German composers in the future. So if anyone at Decca is listening………..

This is a tenor for the 21st Century who has a fresh sound and some fresh ideas and will grace our opera houses for a long time. His good looks as well as his beautiful voice will continue to give rise to the romantic leading man image that this album is all about.

Cheryl Dowden

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Posted by Gary at 12:06 PM

February 17, 2008

ENO's The Mikado

It is a sure-fire winner – a good-looking, funny, energetic show with appeal for all the family.

Its central premise is that the Japanese setting for Gilbert and Sullivan's best-known work is purely incidental, and the operetta is very much a satire on English society and values. Although we remain ostensibly in Japan, the set is clearly a smart English hotel circa 1930, and the male chorus represent various caricatures of the English upper classes of the time. The accents are cut-glass; the costumes and sets are immaculate in cream, and every character from monarch to maid is flawlessly turned out. Even the patches on Nanki-Poo's artistically ragged trousers are perfectly finished.

Ko-ko's “little list” is rewritten for 2008 with moderate success; a few very funny lines about politicians and footballers were balanced out by many more obscure topical references. And after all these years, Richard Suart is inseparable from the role, with a talent for finding a funny side in lines which are normally played straight ('I dare not hope for your love – but I will not live without it' as Ko-ko tries to persuade Katisha to marry him in order to release him from his imminent execution). He frequently overacts to the point of being unfunny, but I suspect that the desperation to please is – at least to some extent – part of the act.

Other experienced members of the cast include Graeme Danby as a softly-spoken Pooh-Bah, Richard Angas's genial Mikado in a costume which seems almost as wide as he is tall (and he IS tall) and Frances McCafferty's Katisha, dominating every scene with a well-balanced tragicomic portrayal and an expert sense of musical phrasing which alleviates the disadvantages of an ageing voice.

Leading the younger contingent, Sarah Tynan's Yum-Yum is a fresh-voiced and fresh-faced delight. And she's well balanced by Robert Murray, a newcomer to the production as Nanki-Poo. It's good to see that such talented singers as these are successfully managing to forge careers on both sides of the inexplicable divide which historically seems to have separated 'Gilbert and Sullivan' from 'opera'. Both singers are becoming familiar faces in ENO's G&S productions, yet they are among the most versatile young opera soloists on the scene at the moment.

The conductor is Wyn Davies, who tends to take things rather slowly – perhaps this is why the tap-dancing maids and other choreographic highlights weren't quite as polished as I remember them being. However, the hilarious male corps-de-ballet of headless bodies has to be seen to be believed!

Ruth Elleson © 2008

image_description=Sarah Tynan (Yum-Yum) and Robert Murray (Nanki-Poo) [Photo © Alastair Muir and ENO]

product_title=Gilbert and Sullivan: The Mikado
English National Opera
product_by=Above: Sarah Tynan (Yum-Yum) and Robert Murray (Nanki-Poo)
Photo © Alastair Muir and ENO

Posted by Gary at 9:24 PM

LA Opera: Tristan und Isolde

Although on face value the piece might serve as a cautionary tale against sharing any adult beverages with your love interest du jour, the LA production persuasively plumbed the work’s musical depths and romantic sentiments, and made a loving Valentine indeed out of the mystic beauty contained in Wagner’s finest Gesamtkunstwerk.

David Hockney’s evocative scene design is being seen in its second revival, having premiered in LA in 1987. It remains quite a handsome and effective production, well-maintained, and beautifully lit by Duane Schuler. Indeed, the deceptively monochromatic look of many structural surfaces takes the light exceptionally well, and the transformative powers of different strong color filters created masterful delineation of the story’s quicksilver moods. The judicious use of specials, area lighting and tight follow spots heightened the shifting destinies of the principal characters.

A modern-art re-imagining of the structural elements of Act One’s ship included a colorful, broadly striped raked deck receding with forced perspective; wildly stylized sails and colorful draperies, akimbo in the wind; and a chaise for “Isolde” that would not be out of place in a Picasso cubist drawing. Act Two’s fateful garden featured a similar rake, with a grove of trees receding at stage left, topped with cut-out boughs right out of a Matisse scrapbook; and a rather more realistic fortress wall running the length of stage right, the balcony of which looked to be “Juliet’s” famous perch, borrowed from Verona.

The serene field in Act Three is arguably the the most fanciful structure, rising on the upstage rake to include a sort of shapely “splashing wave” of green meadow. A couple of well-placed field stones are framed by a large cutout tree branch just behind the proscenium. All of this set was quite colorless at first, commenting on “Tristan’s” coma, then catching fire in the colored lights to great effect as his agitation mounts.

treleaven.john.pngJohn Treleaven (Tristan)

While all of this worked well enough, it has to be said that Mr. Hockney’s highly individual decorative gifts did seem to root the visuals in an artistic vocabulary of, well, twenty years ago. And, for all the imagination that the set and lights embodied, the costumes were merely (though not badly) Prince Valiant Standard Issue, albeit in faaaaaaaaaabulous colors. Our heroine looked especially lovely in her deep wine gown --- well, okay, okay, with the sole misjudgment of plopping a squatty crown with clinging veil on her head to meet “King Marke,” which had the dire effect of reducing her visually, however briefly, to a pissed off Smurf.

Music Director James Conlon brought his considerable experience to bear and led a richly detailed, rhythmically propelling, dramatically taut, and downright lavish reading of this glorious score. To name but one superb moment in an afternoon of abundant delights, the aching and longing of the Act Three prelude has seldom been so deeply felt and profoundly affecting. From those first familiar arching phrases and restless chords, he was in full command of his forces, and shaped the proceedings with passion and intelligence.

watson.linda.pngLinda Watson (Isolde)

Balance with the stage was sometimes another matter, but only sometimes, and then only when the principals were singing rapid declamation in their lower registers. One such time was in “Brangaene’s” important exposition where the beautiful cello solo, meant to be commenting, was instead competing.

It must said that the Dorothy Chandler is a notoriously patchy house for acoustics, and that Wagner himself was not always careful in balancing the voice with the large band. Still, with that apologia comes the avoidable reality that the poorly amplified chorus throughout Act I sounded as though they were singing in the subterranean men’s room. Still, if I have heard this luminous piece better-served instrumentally, I can’t recall when it was.

Of course, the supremely difficult vocal challenges of the title roles can either be legend builders or more often, voice shredders. In any generation we count ourselves lucky to find one duo that can encompass these multi-layered demands. Happily, in LA, the ol’ Helden-Meter tilted decisively to the success side with the committed portrayals and well-paced assumptions by the experienced stage “lovers” of John Treleaven and Linda Watson.

The tenor really has a tougher time of it than the soprano, going from the lengthy ecstatic outpourings of the Love Duet, right into the even lengthier steady crescendo of Act Three’s delirious lament. Mr. Treleaven brought an assured vocal presence, handsome enough demeanor, and tragic bearing to his assignment. If he does not have Ben’s burnished tone, well, small matter, as his rather bright sound was pleasant to listen to, and he could muster enough heft for credible, audible dramatic statements. Not surprisingly, a bit of fatigue crept into his extended death scene, but nonetheless he husbanded his gifts and scored all the major points.

I first heard Linda Watson as DC’s “Bruennhilde” in “Die Walkuere” and my impressions were largely confirmed here. Her “Isolde” was strongly and musically sung with a warm voice of considerable amplitude, marked by a generous vibrato that imbues each phrase with a very womanly presence. She is a major league player in the Isolde Sweepstakes, and her “Liebestod” was memorably delivered.

I did wish that she would not seek to pulverize certain climactic high notes but rather just allow them to ring full out. The extra energy she occasionally invests in these disparate top notes sends them fraying a little, and finds them losing the focused core of the pitch. Too, in the complicated and heated overlapping exchanges of the love duet, the tone at top went a little strident at full tilt. Still, she is understandably numbered among today’s very top interpreters of the Irish Princess, and the audience was unreserved in their appreciation of her outstanding efforts.

Lioba Braun is a singer with a lovely sound, beautiful stage presence, and wonderful musical gifts, but while I really like a little more bite in the tone for “Brangaene,” her “Watch” was exquisitely sung, and a highpoint of her portrayal. Juha Uusitalo offered a rather lackluster account of “Kurwenal” in the first two acts; so much so, that I was unprepared for the searing vocalism he brought to bear in his great scene in Act Three. Suddenly I felt I wanted to hear this artist again in a larger assignment.

Veteran bass Eric Halfvarson brought all of his stage savvy and colossal voice to the small role of “King Marke,” hitting every money moment squarely on target. Gregory Warren was doubled as sweet-voiced “Young Sailor” and “Shepherd.” In his few well-sung phrases as “Melot,” Brian Mulligan displayed a gorgeous baritone and well-schooled (if not quite idiomatic) German.

What to say about Thor Steingraber’s stage direction? Generally speaking, I found the blocking efficient at best, indifferent at worst. The love duet especially is a hard nut to crack. I mean, with the orchestra in full “Geschrei” the two lovers/soloists just simply have to — have to — sing front. And so they did, but in wholly unimaginative placement and movement. There was nothing terribly “wrong” with it. Just nothing “interesting” about it either.

There were compensations: “Brangaene’s” indecision, and subsequent serving up of the love potion was as clearly staged as I have ever seen it, and the end of the “Liebestod” was inspired. Instead of “Isolde” drooping on poor “Tristan” or just fading away, or just standing there (sorry Richard, neither the text nor the music really help much in explicitly defining her as dying of love), here our hero rose from the dead to join the heroine in the icy blue lighting special, put his hands over hers which she had extended in ecstasy, and then enfolded both of them in his loving final embrace. It was a great solution, and one I can recommend to other producers.

Cupid’s arrow may or may not not find its mark this Valentine’s Day, but luckily for me at least, LA Opera’s traversal of “Tristan und Isolde” has almost totally fulfilled my seasonal romantic longings.

James Sohre

image=http://www.operatoday.com/James_Conlon.png image_description=James Conlon product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
Los Angeles Opera product_by=Above: James Conlon
Posted by Gary at 9:01 PM

Rodelinda at Portland

In the title role, the radiant Jennifer Aylmer showed off quite a full arsenal of technical perfection. Throughout the night Ms. Aylmer not only poured out plangent legato phrases, trip-hammer fioritura, and unfailingly lovely tone at all volumes and in all registers, but also displayed a solid technique, handsome stage presence, and an admirable command of this difficult genre. If her trills were sometimes approximated it was small matter. Hers is a major musical presence on the current scene and happily for us all, these days she is singing all over the map.

That said, for all her strengths, at the top of the show I thought she lacked the weight of voice, or perhaps the seriousness of dramatic purpose required. “Rodelinda” begins in tragedy mode, which accelerates rapidly to righteous anger. I certainly thought the voice a wonderful instrument from the git-go, but perhaps a half-size too small. Her first splashy coloratura harangue, while clean and musical, seemed more “petulant soubrette” than “royalty wronged.”

Indeed throughout Act One, I was thinking rather what a memorable “Susanna” she would be, and then, lo, from Act Two onward, as her performance deepened I settled into a broader appreciation of her talents for the work at hand. Maybe she was pacing herself? Or maybe I just got over myself! In any case, while she is not “quite” just yet Beverly or Renee or Cecilia in this repertoire, this is a major talent with a great future. Watch for her.

Arguably, the “discovery” of this production was countertenor Gerald Thompson as “Unulfo.” We have come a long way since pleasant rarities like Russell Oberlin, let me tell you! Mr. Thompson has an uncommonly impressive instrument for this Fach, full-bodied, expressive, responsive, capable of every demand that Handel asks of it. Our singer absolutely and thrillingly nailed every sixteenth note of the (extremely) rapid passage work with fiery precision. Moreover, he displayed real heart in his slower parlando passages. So accomplished was he, that I found myself wishing that he were the one singing the incomparably lovely “Dove Sei,” one of leading man “Bertarido’s” big set pieces. (He has sung the role elsewhere.)

Not that Jennifer Hines didn’t bring many fine qualities to her impersonation of our hero. She is a handsome woman with good musical instincts and a well-schooled mezzo. While her dark, almost vibrato-less sound should have been well-suited to this male character, her production did not seem grounded in the speaking voice, at times sounding hollow instead of troubled, backward-placed instead of forthcoming. She had all the notes for her final showpiece aria, but scarce brilliance of tone. Perhaps I have become too accustomed to the luxurious bravura of Horne or Verrett or Larmore in such trouser roles, but Ms. Hines seemed mis-cast, not in agility or intelligence or intentions, but in vocal star presence.

The “Eduige” of Emma Curtis had plenty of spunk, and she quite successfully married her rock solid low register to a rather rich middle and a secure, if slightly thinner top. She managed some awesome arpeggiated licks with thundering baritonal low notes, but her generous vibrato caused a little grief in slower passages in the lower middle voice, when the “point” of the pitch got muddied a bit here and there.

For the first two acts, it was difficult to make out the skill set of tenor Robert Breault’s “Grimoaldo.” His florid singing seemed accurate enough, if somewhat thin and scaled back, and I had the feeling he wanted to lag behind the beat. Then, suddenly, ringing climactic high notes would appear that rattled the chandeliers. Hmmmmmm. Looking at his credits, this is a guy who sings “Cavaradossi” and “Don Jose” and here he was, frogging around in melismatic Handel, for God’s sake. Then in Act Three, Mr. Breault was totally vindicated with a memorable and moving reading of his big scena of doubt and redemption. Amazingly fine.

In the mute role of “Flavio,” young lad Jamesmichael (sic) Sherman-Lewis (don’t you love that name?) was adorably effective without upstaging. Bass Verlian Ruminski was so terrific as “Garibaldo” that I dearly wished the role were not so small. He tore up the stage with his solidly projected arias and theatrical conviction.

And “theatrical conviction” is a point of discussion in considering Helena Binder’s staging. It is interesting that in other times and places, producers have occasionally sought (with considerable effort and imagination) to make viable stage pieces out of oratorios. But here it seemed that we were looking at a highly stage worthy opera, which was reduced on more than one occasion to an oratorio.

Let me first say that Ms. Binder’s management of the logistics of exits and entrances, integration of set changes, and creation of lovely tableaux was skillfully done. And she is mistress of focusing the attention in all the right places, striving to serve the story well. Believe you me, these are no small skills, and we could use more directors/producers with this mind set.

However, to my taste there were too many instances of “stand-and-sing” or busy movement that did not illuminate the relationships, nor develop the character. You know, those interludes of stage “busy-ness.” You’ve seen it: “Now I will walk right; nope, nope; I will stop as if remembering I really wanted to go left; maybe; maaaaybe; nope, left’s not it; I’ll just stop; and. . .oops-it’s-time-to-sing-again.”

Too, a pattern emerged of having the soloists tromp off stage at the end of almost each and every aria, sometimes way too soon prompting applause over the postludes, and leaving silence in the ensuing set changes which could have been better covered by the audience reaction to the aria. I appreciate the artistic decisions that were made and the consistency of their execution, all the while I would yet urge Madame Director to further develop the character relationships, delve into more specificity, and take fuller advantage of the ripe dramatic possibilities.

John Copley’s pleasing settings were an effective modern interpretation of Baroque theatrical conventions, like the “in-one” scene changes. The playing space was made more intimate by a succession of receding square proscenium-like frames which threw the action forward to the primary playing space on a red lacquer square front and center stage.

Within this simple and elegant black and white unit, minimal furniture and key set pieces (like “Bertarido’s” memorial) were smoothly placed and removed by costumed servants. The colorless silhouettes of scenery flown in and out behind the upstage frame suggested trees, prison, gravestones, etc. like stylized and unadorned paper cut-outs. The shallow apron area had the advantage of bringing the singers forward more often than not, but had the disadvantage of somewhat restricting blocking to more linear moves.

The beautiful lighting design by Thomas J. Munn achieved lovely effects, especially with back lighting and isolated areas. The uncredited lavish costumes (Mr. Copley?) appeared to have been updated to Handel’s time, and well, why not? They enhanced the character, and looked gorgeous to boot.

Musical matters were in secure hands with conductor George Manahan. While modern instruments were used, there was the usual inclusion of the (winningly played) theorbo and baroque guitar. There are trade offs in this choice. While the ensemble was immeasurably better tuned that some “early music” bands I have heard (ooh, was that my out-loud voice?) it also lacked the special color that great “original instrument” players can elicit. Playing with minimal vibrato and well-considered style, purists be damned, the Portland pit contributed some beautiful, idiomatic support.

Ever felt like a jaded opera fan who has maybe “seen it all”? I sure did as I watched lines of patrons parade to the orchestra pit at both intermissions to see just what this “theorbo thing” was all about. Many had never seen one before, and it was a total delight to be party to their discovery. Too, it should be remarked that there were any number of young people in attendance. The Goth Valentine’s couple in the row just behind me seemed to be getting off on “Rodelinda” with an uncalculated enthusiasm often lacking at such temples as Glyndebourne or Glimmerglass. Other companies with a maturing customer base might do well to study what Portland is doing right in audience development.

If I heard more “woo-woo-woo’s” than “bravi” at the curtain call, the net result was the same. The Portland public seems to know and appreciate the fact that they have a top notch producing organization, whose high standards were always in evidence with this enjoyable “Rodelinda.”

James Sohre

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Aylmer_Jennifer.png image_description=Jennifer Aylmer product=yes product_title=G. F. Handel: Rodelinda
Portland Opera product_by=Above: Jennifer Aylmer
Posted by Gary at 8:48 PM

Navajo oratorio a triumph in Phoenix

No! — at least not when the designer in question is Mark Grey, who is now emerging as a major American composer. Listen to Grey’s new “Enemy Slayer” and you’ll hear what the difference between a designer and an engineer is. The beneficiary of extensive collaborations with John Adams, Peter Sellars and the Kronos String Quartet and of work at a Norwegian jazz club above the Arctic Circle, Grey understands sound — the raw material of music — as a fashion designer understands fabric, color, cut and style.

“I sit in the audience surrounded by people’s reaction to music,” says Grey, now 41. “I feel their emotional energy and I know how to sustain a tension that keeps them involved.” In “Enemy Slayer” Grey has woven a sonic tapestry that overwhelmed the audience at the premiere of the work by the Phoenix Symphony on February 7.

Commissioned by the orchestra to mark its 60th anniversary, the 70-minute oratorio is something new in music. One does not seek to define the style of the score, but surrenders rather to a flow of energy that parallels the forces of nature. True, Grey employs bi-tonal and bi-diatonic means to make the score increasingly atonal as the story develops, but these are only the externals of an achievement that has all the markings of a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk [italics] — a composite work of art that might well prove a major monument of early 21st- century music. And the contemporary relevance of “Slayer,” subtitled “A Navajo Oratorio,” will astonish those who come to the work “cold,” expecting an evocation of the Native-American past but confronted by a wrenching drama of the present day.

A young Arizona native returns to his people from a desert war, where a cousin died in his arms. "Your blood poured brightly through my hands like a lamb being slaughtered,” sings the baritone soloist. “I could not stop it!"

In the story, told in verse with urgency and economy by Laura Tohe, a Navajo poet on the faculty of Arizona State University, the monsters of native myth become the tormenting memories of death and devastation that haunt the returned soldier and prompt him to tell his story. Although Grey’s ideas for the oratorio reach back several years, the work — once defined — was quickly written. Grey met Michael Christie, now in his third year as music director of the Phoenix Symphony, in 2004 in Rotterdam, where both were involved in the staging of John Adams’ “Death of Klinghofer.”


“Several times we took the train to Amsterdam to hear the Concertgebouw and visit museums,” Grey says. “The trip was an hour each way, and that gave us time to swap ideas.” Christie premiered Grey’s violin concerto “Elevation” at the (Boulder) Colorado Music Festival in 2005 with Leila Josephowicz as soloist. The conductor had just accepted the Phoenix appointment and talked with Grey about a new score for the orchestra‘s up-coming anniversary. “Michael is eager to premiere new and exciting works,” Grey says. “And although he left the door open to me, the idea of an oratorio came up immediately.”

Grey thought about a re-telling of the David and Goliath story, but found that it had little meaning for Phoenix. At that point he stumbled on Monster Slayer and his brother, central figures in the Navajo epic of creation. Twin warriors, they made the world safe for others. Grey was especially fascinated by Nidaa', the Navajo ceremony that washes away the psychic torments resulting from violent acts. When Enemy Slayer returned from killing the monsters that had threatened his people, he went through this ceremony. The relevance to a modern veteran is obvious.

“We were not out to make this a literal translation of myth," Grey says, "but to view a ceremonial path through a contemporary lens.” Grey found librettist Laura Tohe by googling [does that need quotes?]“Navajo” and “poet.”

Mark Grey Near Sunset Crate.pngMark Grey

Born on the Arizona reservation and educated in one of its boarding schools, Tohe is now professor of English at Arizona State in near-by Tempe. And although Tohe admits that when she accepted the assignment as librettist she had to look up both “libretto” and “oratorio,” the idea of an updated version of native myth caught her fancy.

As Grey continued his research he saw this story increasingly within the context of the entire Southwest, for the Navajo reservation, the largest in the United States, reaches into New Mexico and Utah. “It’s a region rich in creation stories,” Grey says, “and more and more I felt the energy of this region with its mountain spirits, deities and monsters. “And it was clear to me that this would be a large work — a work for mammoth chorus and orchestra.”

Grey’s source material, of course, came from oral tradition, and that posed a problem. “The minute you write something down, you remove it from its ceremonial function,” he says. “And out of understanding for the Navajos and their community, we did not want to do that. “What we wanted was a contemporary window on a very old story.” And Grey opted for a single solo voice, a baritone protagonist as the suffering soldier and kept at his reading while Tohe moved the project forward. “Laura got me involved in a dialogue with the Navajo community,” Grey says. “She put together a group of elders, and with them we discussed cultural sensitivity — what was appropriate and what wasn’t. “She opened doors and built a bridge between us.”

Grey speaks of his collaboration with Tohe as “a shared passion.” “We achieved an incredible balance between Navajo tradition and a contemporary dialogue,” he says of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal relationship that characterized their collaboration from the beginning. “It was back and forth from the outset; we worked in tandem. I sent Laura fragments of the score, and she came by to talk with me. “Together we visited places associated with the story, and the cultural palette grew wider and wider.”

In one of their first conversations they agreed that there would be no effort to make the score “sound Indian.” Grey was determined to avoid the stereotypes that one encounters in films — and in contemporary operas. (Well-intended recent operatic exercises in cultural tourism come to mind: Henry Mallicone’s “Coyote Tales” (Kansas City, 1998). David Carlsons’ “Dreamkeepers” (Salt Lake, 1996; Tulsa, 1998, and Anthony Davis’ “Wakonda’s Dream” (Omaha, 2007). Grey felt no temptation to “import” drummers and dancers from the Navajo nation. “Their tales are told with dance,” he sys. “It is all part of a myth-rooted ceremony. You cannot take its components out of this context.”

The chorus — director Gregory Gentry expanded the PSO Chorus to 150 for the premiere — speaks for the Navajo people and in a larger sense for all humanity. “Family and community are especially important for the Navajos,” says Grey, noting that the chorus functions here much as it does in Greek tragedy. “The ensemble speaks with an ancestral voice; it is there to help — and to cleanse the returned soldier.” (Tohe tells of an older brother who never recovered from his involvement in the Vietnam War. Upon his return to Arizona he refused ceremonial cleansing and died at 40 from his exposure to the toxic environment of war.)

Given the power of Grey’s music and Tohe’s poetry the inclusion of a visual perspective on this story might seem superfluous. However, what photographer Deborah O’Grady contributes to this production is far removed from the travelogue sometimes considered a bonus at concerts. With what she defines as “projected visualizations” O’Grady has brought another dimension to the oratorio. Using the latest digital software, she underscores the sweep of the music with images that move and morph and make the Arizona landscape an integral part of the work. "I tried as much as I could to be sensitive to the music," O’Grady. “And with digital technology, you can do something more sophisticated than just one picture fading into another."

Most moving are O’Grady’s shots of the tattered flags above the Fort Defiance Navajo Veterans Cemetery. (O’Grady, by the way, is married to composer John Adams.) Soloist for the premiere was Scott Hendricks, a youthful American now in great demand in European opera houses.

“Enemy Slayer” is a big work — in the sense the Mahler is big. It requires space to tell a story of urgent importance that reaches across cultures and centuries, and at the premiere Christie demonstrated a refined understanding for the spaciousness of the score. The carefully prepared performance of Grey’s lush and loving music brought home just how original the composer is in his understanding of the design of music. He has created here a collage of colors that brings the many voices of soloist, choir and instruments together with near-magical homogeneity.

In “Enemy Slayer” Grey might well have composed cthe requiem that laments America’s unfortunate adventure in the Middle East. The work deserves to be widely performed. Michael Christie will conduct “Enemy Slayer” at the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder, Colorado, on July 24 and 25, 2008. Soloist at that time will be Daniel Belcher. For information, visit www.coloradomusicfest.org.

West Blomster

image=http://www.operatoday.com/desert-spire.png image_description=Desert Spire product=yes product_title=Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio
The Phoenix Symphony
Posted by Gary at 6:29 PM

Tosca at COC

Instead, it would be the Canadian debut of ensemble studio soprano, Yannick-Muriel Noah. Many performers have gotten their “big break” by filling in for a sick colleague and in these situations; the somewhat indecisive role of the “understudy” suddenly becomes something magical. By having the opportunity to show their musical goods, huge international careers have been launched as a result of this very situation. And so, once the announcement was made, Puccini’s Tosca took on quite a different air: one of a fictional tale of real and passionate emotions juxtaposed with the non-fictional reality of a young opera singer making her debut as a fictional opera singer, Floria Tosca.

Puccini’s Tosca is often presented in one of two ways: it can be exciting and exhilarating, leaving one touched at one woman’s unwavering determination, or it can fall flat on its face should its diminutive cast be at all weak in their characterization. This production was a little of both. The one overall aspect that lacked focus was the common Puccinian dichotomy of Eros and Thanatos (Love and Death) which lies at the heart of this work. Cleverly, Puccini imbues the orchestral fabric with wonderfully suggestive moments that indicate this dichotomy, but if Tosca is to be successful, the characters must also inhabit each of these elements at a given point within the opera.

In Tosca, Puccini sews with the thread of religion, a topic that he was not so interested in, except for in his later Suor Angelica. In essence, the religious component in Angelica has nothing to do with religion at all, more than it uses the overall ideal of a religious setting to approach a story about a girl who got herself pregnant out of wedlock. It is a story of sin and redemption in the sense of a woman atoning for sexual urges. Atoning for love, passion, and sex by suffering and death is the concoction that Puccini continually fills into his syringe. With it, he pierces us and tries to teach us the more difficult lessons of living and loving. Tosca functions in an identical manner, however, this production failed to express these elements, for the most part. There were, however, several moments of excellent music making.

Richard-Buckley.pngConductor, Richard Buckley

The first act began with an elegant sound in the orchestra and a well-chosen tempo by conductor Richard Buckley. He maintained a balanced orchestra fabric, if perhaps it was sometimes lacking in the larger and more dramatic moments where the orchestra is telling of the character’s innermost emotions. The Sacristan, played by Robert Pomakov, was directed in a rather incoherent way, for Puccinian aesthetics. The music of the Sacristan is light-hearted but his religious aura and pious nature are not to be affected. His piety was obscured by Pomakov’s almost spastic, buffo-like actions. Nowhere does Puccini indicate that the sacristan is a comical character. There is an indication in the score that the Sacristan has a “tic” in his neck, but this element of character was dramatically overdone and became somewhat ridiculous. Although Pomokov’s voice is quite lovely, the Italian was unacceptable for a house of this magnitude. There were aspirations of all sorts, where the authentic Italian language does not consist of these aspirations in consonants but is softer and rounder. Doubled-consonants are stopped with the tongue to create the proper affect and unfortunately Pomakov’s Italian was much too Americanized to pass for authenticity.

The set was quite lovely and spacious: on the left, the portrait of the Contessa Attavanti, and on the right an altar to the Madonna. The orchestral tempi were well chosen and the orchestra’s beautiful playing certainly overshadowed the inconsistent dramatic purpose of the Sacristan in the opening. Cavaradossi’s entrance was cavalier as tenor Mikhail Agafanov filled the stage with a handsome and testosterone-filled presence. The orchestral horns were brilliant at this moment and set the stage for the pure tenore affogato sound that is expected of Puccinian singing.

Mikhail-Agavonov.pngTenor, Mikhail Agavonov

Although Agafonov has a tremendous upper tessitura, his singing was often not as legato as Puccinian aesthetics require. In his letters and the journals of singers with whom he coached, Puccini indicated that the legato line was to be carried “not from note to note, as in Mozart, but carried through every note in between the notes he had written on the page.” Simply, that means that his music requires an influx of portamenti, graceful sliding from note to note, which were not successfully applied to this production in its entirety. It was sung in a very strict manner, unfortunately, where the application of legato sul fiato (singing on the breath) means a very different thing for Puccini.

The woodwinds were precise in their entry to Cavaradossi’s first aria, “Recondita Armonia,” which was rather disappointing. For some reason, Mr. Agavonov seemed to sing more effectively during passages of Cantilena or Arioso rather than in a full-blown aria. This aria is where the first flickering of Cavaradossi’s passion begins to spark, its ultimate purpose being to cause the audience to fall in love with him, so that we may further relate to Tosca. Unfortunately, Agavonov’s expression failed to ignite the audience. The arias in Puccini should be sung with a completely spinning line and very little straightening of that sound, as in pure Bel Canto singing, however, this was not the case for Agavonov. It is a lovely sound but tends to lose in the middle and lower tessitura because of his straightened tones. These, on several occasions, even caused him to sing under the pitch. The orchestra, however, was excellent.

The acting was mediocre at best, where Puccini’s works are meant to represent “realism” in its most definitive operatic ideal. The acting should always be larger-than-life, but here it lacked in energy and spontaneity. Tosca’s anticipated entrance was a glimmer of hope to save things and Ms. Noah entered with an air of authority, although her first vocal entry showed a great deal of nervousness. It is a large and powerful voice with a blood-red colour and golden hues in the upper tessitura. Ms. Noah’s nerves got the best of her in the first act, which was not surprising. The orchestra began to emerge more readily, as Puccini demands at Tosca’s entry and was aesthetically excellent. Praises go to Maestro Buckley for his control and precise handling of the delicate music.

Yannick-Muriel-Noah.pngSoprano, Yannick-Muriel Noah

Ms. Noah’s acting also was sporadic and the necessary spark that was supposed to ignite a passion worth dying for, between Tosca and Cavarodossi, would never occur. Unfortunately, Ms. Noah’s nerves and the lack of intimacy between the two singers caused the first act to be inconsistent and quite boring. The tremendous quality of Ms. Noah’s voice is unquestionable, but she is perhaps too young yet to sing a Tosca. She had some difficulty in the upper tessitura in the first act and parts of the second, where Tosca is a role that requires a grand maturity a completely solid upper tessitura. She deserves respect, however, for having the guts to perform it in a house of this magnitude and give it her best.

Once she got going, Ms. Noah’s voice exhibited beautiful timbres and she showed us that she possesses a tremendous upper voice, which she eloquently displayed in the second Act where she was much more comfortable and settled. Unfortunately, she did not define Tosca’s jealousy sufficiently, especially in singing of the important words of Tosca’s jealousy “Quei occhi.” There was simply not enough emphasis on this text and really, it was almost inaudible. The interchange between Tosca and Cavaradossi was not very interesting and Agavonov was flat in several instances here. He sang excellently, however, the words “Floria, T’Amo”…if he had sung everything as he did this line, the entire mood of the presentation might have been different. In addition, had there been a good stage kiss, perhaps a more erotic mood might have prevailed; one that is necessary for any Puccinian opera, where human passions are at their most extreme. Because this opera has a very small cast, the necessity of that kiss is imperative to the personal relationship between Tosca and Mario. There was not even a touching of lips.

Andrew Stewart, who played the prisoner, Angelotti, had good stage presence but his diction was completely inaudible and unfortunately continued to show a lack of consistency in this production. The chorus, however, was the brimming light of this production and praises go to Sandra Horst for her direction and attention to detail. The chorus had the most authentic Italian sound in this production, and were wonderfully unified whole. Bravi!!!

Alan-Opie.pngBaritone, Alan Opie

At the end of Act 1, Alan Opie’s entrance, as Scarpia, was a little thin in the orchestral texture. Maestro Buckley could have let it rip a little more, especially with those luscious and most descriptive harmonic chords. Mr. Opie’s Italian was better than his colleagues’ and this along with his more consummate acting abilities were enough to change the direction of the production up to this point. His baritone was quite lovely, if a bit thin for a Scarpia, and a little weak in the upper tessitura.

The Te Deum, of course, was the highlight of the first act with a full processional in complete religious attire. The children of the chorus were delightful. The addition of the organ and tubular bells gave a majestic aura of supreme grandiosity. It was fantastically done. The drama was created simply by the direction of the chorus, with three prostrate priests lying down as if attaining their ordination and the grandeur and majesty of the procession. The Te Deum is the catalyst that moves the more religious first act into the sinful, painful torture of Cavaradossi , and the attempted rape of Tosca. Act 1 is Eros.

Act 2 is Thanatos (Death). It began with strong dramatic intensity, with Scarpia lovingly caressing the letter opener that would soon be the cause of his death. Again, the orchestra looms the dichotomy of love and death . If the first act is love, then the second act is death and Puccini’s sadistic penchant becomes the focus of the act. The low Brass in the orchestra shone forth in this instance with some exquisite playing while intoning a foretelling funeralistic dirge.

Ms. Noah’s performance of Tosca’s “Cantata,” (sung offstage) was quite lovely and it was obvious that she was going to be “different” in this act. La Scena degli strazzi (the torture scene) with Cavaradossi being battered for information was rather fake in its drama. The scene has to be more realistic for it to work and this was an example where it unfortunately failed. The opening of the secret vault leading to a more effective torture chamber was quite brilliant and the addition of Puccini’s dissonances began the crescendo of drama that would end in Scarpia’s murder.

Finally, Ms. Noah seemed to engulf herself in Tosca’s character and her upper tessitura opened significantly. The power of this voice is quite tremendous; however, the drama required her to be more defiant in her character. She seemed more sporadic and pacing than defiant. She could have been more hateful in throwing piercing words at Scarpia, like “Assassino!” The decisive moment at the text “Il Prezzo,” where Tosca asks the cost of Mario’s freedom required more space. Tosca already knows the cost but for this scene to work, as Puccini dramatically set it, the momentum between the torture scene and the instance of this question has to be maintained.

When Scarpia finally attacks Tosca, the acting was powerful with Mr. Opie throwing her down on the coach while pressing himself on top of her. That he exposed a good deal of flesh by lifting her dress was appropriate here. There are no holds barred with Puccini and he would have rightfully approved of this type of stage direction. Had the entire opera possessed this kind of realistic drama and erotic intensity, the production as a whole would have been more successful.

Tosca crawls along the floor to escape Scarpia’s clutches and ends at a chair on her knees to sing her famous “Vissi D’Arte.” Ms. Noah sang it rather strictly and without the necessary Puccinian punto di linea that the composer indicated to sopranos like Maria Jeritza. Several moments within the aria required more attention to diction, such as the missing doubled-consonants. It was a little rushed, but it was apparent that Ms. Noah took it at a safe and moving tempo. In effect, Ms. Noah exhibited her voice more potently here and she really gave it to her audience as much as possible. The audience broke out in a roar of support and encouragement for her, as if to say, “Keep singing and we will support you.”

Scarpia’s murder was quite realistic and Ms. Noah chose to use an affective chest-voice to utter the affectionate words “muori dannato,” (die in damnation)! Even moreso, she spoke the words “D’avanti à lui tremava tutta Roma” (In front of him all of Rome trembled) with great hatred; although, to be even more affective she might have taken more time here and really rolled out the “r” in the word “tremava” as if to add some reality to the word, tremble.

The set for Act III was interesting, with the top of the Castel Sant’Angelo exposed as a large cistern in which Tosca would plummet to her eventual death. The mood created by the set, lighting, and orchestra was quite powerful, but when Agafonov sang “E lucevan le Stelle,” the mood was broken. This aria was the poorest of the evening with several inconsistencies between the orchestra and Agavonov. In an aria that usually stops the show, there wasn’t one morsel of applause and the show continued on toward the end. Mr. Agavonov’s upper range is quite impressive but his middle was lacking intensity in the aria. His burnished colour was appropriate but he lacked the necessary slancio that this particular aria requires. The orchestra, however, was supportive and the woodwinds gave the essence of a spectacular heart-wrenching moment, but Mr. Agavonov did not take on their motive well.

The finale brought a powerful dramatic climax with the firing of the gun-squad and the ‘supposed’ fake-death of Mario. Ms. Noah’s reaction to his death was vocally secure, but dramatically thin. Her despair needed to follow her up those steps to the roof of the Castel Sant’Angelo and in final vengeance utter her final words, “O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!” (In front of God, Scarpia!).

Although the production was not outstanding, the house itself is acoustically wonderful and the orchestra was superb in their delivery, interest in the drama, and depth of colour. Tosca is a difficult opera, in that it rests securely on the merits of the two lead roles. Whatever weakness the singers possess, will result in the characters’ weakness. A good attempt by two very fine voices but, as a whole, the lack of distinct Puccinian aesthetics applied to this performance and the need for a just more raw and erotic relationship between Mario and Tosca caused it to be less than spectacular.

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

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Four-Seasons-Centre-for-the.png image_description=Four Seasons Centre, Toronto, Ontario product=yes product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Tosca product_by=Canadian Opera Company, Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts product_id=Cesare Angelotti: Andrew Stewart
Sacristan: Robert Pomakov
Mario Cavaradossi: Mikhail Agafonov
Floria Tosca: Yannick-Muriel Noah (debut performance)
Baron Scarpia: Alan Opie
Spoletta: John Kriter
Sciarrone: Jon-Paul Décosse
A Jailer: Andrew Stewart
Shepherd Boy: Dov Houle
Conductor: Richard Buckley
Directed by Paul Curran
Chorus Master: Sandra Horst
Posted by Gary at 5:48 PM

Tannhäuser at San Diego Opera

In fact, so complete is the restoration that the program book describes it as a "new production (sets) owned and constructed by San Diego Opera." However, the costumes are credited to the Metropolitan Opera, with the premiere date given as December 22, 1977. Furthermore, the program features a tribute to Schneider-Siemssen written by San Diego's scenic and production designer, James Mulder (working with Alexander Schneider-Siemssen).

Anyone who has seen the DVD of the Metropolitan production, featuring Richard Cassilly, Eva Marton, and Tatiana Troyanos, would have recognized the sets seen in San Diego. The most remarkable feature of the handsome, very traditional staging is the seamless transition from Venusberg to the valley outside Wartburg. With the use of a special scrim and lighting, the change happens before the audiences' eyes, and soon has prompted a wave of applause to swamp over the music. The second act hall lacks any imaginative transformation effect, but is lovingly detailed.

At the final performance of the run, seen February 3, conductor Gabor Ötvös managed a spirited reading of the score through the first two acts, after some less than pleasing ensemble and intonation in the overture. A worthy cast at first seemed somewhat muffled by the atmosphere of a dusty revival, albeit without the dust. Michael Hampe's direction certainly brought little new to the drama. Robert Gambill knotted his brow as he pleaded with Petra Lang's Venus to let him return to Wartburg. The good men of Wartburg stamped around almost like extras from Braveheart, with too much hearty spear-waving. In act two, Gambill's Tannhäuser strutted around with rock star-petulance as he sang his song of defiant eroticism, making Camilla Nylund's pretty Elisabeth look like a star-struck audience member on Wartburg Idol. Reinhard Hagen as Landgraf and Russell Braun as Wolfram brought some appreciated reserve and class to their roles.

If the first two acts passed by pleasantly but unmemorably, the last found the show finally pulling together into something special. Away from Gambill's hero, rather dull to that point, Nylund's pliant voice produced some aching beauty. Then Braun stepped forward to deliver a gorgeous hymn to the evening star, which would surely have received a long ovation if Wagner had allowed such (a couple of lonely claps tried to force the issue). Then Gambill reappeared, transformed both as the character and as a performer. He found real anguish and delivered his long narration with both vocal force and fine dramatic detail. Although the sudden appearance of the Pope's blooming staff (so to speak) could have prompted a few giggles, the climax found all the pathos that Wagner would have wanted, and the final chorus soared majestically.

08Tannhauser.pngA scene from Tannhäuser

So as Tannhäuser the man found his redemption, so did this production of Tannhäuser. With its 2008 season off to a strong start, San Diego Opera now looks forward to a rare staging of Donizetti's Mary, Queen of Scots, set to open February 16th.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Tannhäuser (San Diego)

product_title=Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser
San Diego Opera

Posted by chris_m at 1:18 PM

Interview with Canadian Mezzo-Soprano, Jean Stilwell, and pianist, Patti Loach

She uses them to affect those around her: Don José, her audience, and even the music itself. Since its inception, Bizet’s Carmen has remained an operatic staple, a birthmark in the standard repertoire, and since then mezzo-sopranos have fought to make the role of “La Carmençita” their own. But what of a tall, stunning, blisteringly seductive, and un-conventional Carmen? One who exudes more sex appeal by simply walking on-stage than so many other mezzos who have tried to seduce us as the vixen of Seville? In the mid-nineties, just such a singing-actress mesmerized her audience in Keith Warner’s production of Carmen for Opera Hamilton.

Canadian mezzo-soprano, Jean Stilwell, is internationally renowned for her portrayal of Carmen, and not simply because of her lush dark, merlot-like mezzo. Rather, the intoxicating combination of musicality, bodily instinct, and vibrancy on-stage, give Stilwell the label of a “singing-actress” of the dramatic likes of Callas. By embedding herself deeply within the heart of her character, Stilwell pulses with an air of verità and complexity. Not surprisingly, her dangerous Carmen has been seen in conjunction with the Buxton Festival, New York City Opera, and Welsh National Opera, to name but a few. Possessing a wonderfully distinct and powerful tinta colorato, that is required of the more dramatic mezzo repertoire, she has also performed the roles of Amneris in Verdi’s Aida and La Principess Eboli in his Don Carlos, as well as many others. Multi-faceted and equally at home on the concert stage, Stilwell is no stranger to these dangerous roles. Through them, she continues to enthral her listeners and retains dedicated fans on several continents.

Although Jean has been acclaimed for a significant number of other roles, it is with Carmen that she is undeniably connected, and rightly so. What is ever more fascinating about Jean Stilwell is the underlying and deeply rooted understanding that Carmen and she are more connected than we think they are; so much so, that one might say that Jean “is” Carmen, but Carmen is also Jean. For anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing Jean as Carmen, it would not be surprising to know that their blood flows in identical veins. They are so connected that Jean, along with the invaluable creativity and artistry of Canadian pianist, Patti Loach, has given rise to “Carmen Un-Zipped,” an opera-singer meets cabaret in a semi-autobiographical and deliciously realistic production where Jean exposes herself as much more than a striking, dark-haired diva with a few tattoos. She displays the beauty of the human heart and the strength of will one must possess in order to endure and survive the complexities of love, loss, and life.

Pianist, Patti Loach Pianist, Patti Loach

Patti Loach has been musically inclined since a very young age and studied piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music and later at the University of Toronto. A multi-faceted musician, her interests are broad and diverse, from opera to cabaret, to tangos and jazz, and one cannot forget gorgonzola and vino rosso…specifically Wolf Blass Yellow Label; two little luxuries of life that helped to merge a friendship that would become an invaluable musical partnership. The friendship Patti forged with Jean Stilwell gave rise to this eclectic, invigorating, and refreshing production that has caused an artistic stir and the possibility of employing a new type of genre, where the operatic voice and music is used for expressive dramatic purposes other than those in which they were meant to be performed. “Carmen Un-Zipped” is the juxtaposition of life and art, a concept that artists and historians have attempted merge for millennia.

Today, I have the distinct pleasure of meeting with Jean Stilwell and Patti Loach to discuss the conception of their production, to talk about opera, and to delve further into ways that opera, a genre that has been seemingly associated with the upper-echelon of society, can be brought to the masses in an uncomplicated and more accessible way. Before the interview began, I was delighted to have been witness to a moving and quite effective performance of “Ne me quitte pas” with Jean, Patti, and Patti’s husband, trumpeter John Loach. The beautiful blend and emotional performance created the kind of passionate interplay that is necessary between musicians and everything was still for that few moments.

Mary-Lou: “Jean, Patti, thank you for speaking with me today.”

Jean: “Our pleasure.”

Mary-Lou: “I’d like to start with you, Jean. Every musician or singer has an interesting background; something or someone who ultimately influences his or her plummet into this fantastically difficult and rewarding field. Tell us, who your influences were, personal or professional. Who was the catalyst behind the artistry of Jean Stilwell?”

Jean: “My mum, Margaret Stilwell. She was a singer and she was a pianist. You know as Patti says in the dialogue to “Carmen Un-Zipped,” my father was an organist and a pianist and we had music going on around us 24/7. It was on all the time. You know, I would just watch her sing and I thought she was very, very beautiful. I thought she had the most perfect nose, you know (laughing). She was gorgeous and I loved watching her, and I was proud of her. I loved the colour of her voice. It was warm. There was no edge.

Patti: “It was described as creamy.”

Jean: “Yes, it was very creamy, very loving. Also, she was extremely humble. She would wear the latest fashions but I never ever knew that she was nervous. She would keep everything inside and she would just be a consummate professional every time, even when she was sick. I knew that she had the goods to have a professional career and she was offered that by Sir Ernest McMillan who was conducting the Toronto Symphony. He wanted to take her to London, England, but he took her to Carnegie Hall where she sang the St. Matthew’s Passion with the Toronto Symphony. She could have had that kind of career, but it was after the war and the priority was to have a family, you know, and so she had three kids and five-gazillion jobs: sang with the Festival Singers of Canada and had a church job. Her mother told her, “Just in case your music career doesn’t work, then you’ve gotta learn something, a skill.” She became a comptometer operator, which was a glorified adding machine.”

Jean: “I rarely saw her and when I did see her, I felt so lucky and she just seemed beautiful to me, until I got wise (laughing), you know, and then you grow up and see all the crazy things that make up a person. But yes, she was definitely my inspiration. My father, also, was a very fine organist, but he played the piano like an organist and we did not have a musical relationship. I mean we did in that he played a lot of Copland and Stravinsky and he played a lot of Bach and Handel all the time. On Sunday afternoons he would play Haydn and I hate Haydn…..

Patti: “Well, you have to wonder what came first. Did you hate Haydn because you just didn’t want to live with his music?”

Jean: “Probably, but actually I think I find Haydn boring. I loved when he would play things like the William Tell Overture and we’d all get on the couch and bounce around (Jean humming the overture and demonstrating)…we’d have just a riot when we were kids but, really I would say that it was my mother that was my inspiration.”

Mary-Lou: “And what of her, do you think, when you walk out on a stage, what of her do you take with you?”

Jean: “Her spirit. There is no question about it. She is definitely a part of me.”

Mary-Lou: “That’s wonderful, you know.”

Jean: “When I was growing up and was in my teens, I had no idea who I was and just did all sorts of crazy things. You try to find a personality, and our relationship was symbiotic, as most mother/daughter relationships are, because my mother really did live through me, as well. So, that was extremely difficult and I didn’t know who I was and it took me a long time to find out; a very late bloomer consequently. I also have a personality and spirit that is quite distinct from my mother’s but I know that she’s very, very present.

Patti: “You should tell the story about when your mother was doing vocal warm-ups on the piano bench and you sang them back.”

Jean: “I was about 18 years old and studying social work at Ryerson, and I wasn’t studying voice but piano….Lord knows why….and she said, “Jean, come here! Come here and sing this for me.” She pulled out some Schubert. I was in the church choir with he,r and I would just sing along and I would marvel at how she could find the middle note. She was a wonderful musician…she could play anything. So, she put out Schubert and played it and I didn’t like Schubert, but she said to me, “Ok, Jeannie, I want you to try and use your own voice and now sing for me again.” And, I looked at her and said, “Well, what do you mean, I am singing in the only way I know how.” She said, “Now don’t try and imitate me, just give me your own unique sound.” And I said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. This is the only sound I know how to make. I’m not imitating you.” So, I started taking lessons. My mum asked around and I began studying at the Royal Conservatory with William Parry. I started with him. I auditioned for the Mendelssohn Choir and I had also just been accepted into the Ontario Youth Choir. I was going to sing Aaron Copland’s “In the Beginning,” and everyone was excited ‘cause I had only had 12 lessons and “I” was going to sing a solo! You know, “OH MY GOD. No one was gonna open any door for me cause “I” was in the Choral World.” (Laughing).

Jean: “Right before the audition, my mom came up to me and said (whispering), “Jeannie, I’m so sorry, I forgot to tell you that there’s going to be a sight-reading test.” And I said, (whispering) “Oh, no.” So, I sat there and as luck would have it a mezzo went in before me and she sang the sight-reading exercise and Ruth Watson Henderson was playing the piano, and was playing the notes and I memorized them. So, when I went in I sight-read and I made the same mistakes that the previous girl had made (laughing). I sang in the professional nucleus of the Mendelssohn Chorus and I was terrified. You see, my mother did all the solos so Elmer thought, “Well, if her mother can do it, she can do it.” My mother and I were the second alto section, complete. Anyway, in my first solo I cracked on a “D”. I was so nervous, and I thought ‘Ah Fuck.’ I was 18 years old. He didn’t ask me to sing another solo.

Mary-Lou: “What a story.”

Jean: “When I became a soloist and did Oratorio….you know the Festival Singers made a gorgeous sound and, you know, I loved being in the middle of a chord…I loved it. The first thing I did was the Poulenc “Gloria,” and I was right there in the middle of these nasty chords. That’s where I belonged, and I was young and a little overweight and I didn’t belong anywhere but there, in the middle of the sandwich. But then, I wanted to start to speak…to say something for myself and I knew that I had to move on. This was fine for mum but it wasn’t fine for me. The reason was that I was trying to find myself. I had a lot to say, but I didn’t know how. So, I joined the Tapestry Singers; then I did three operas in the Chorus of the Canadian Opera Company, and I thought, “Yes, acting.” I went to the University of Toronto to check out their program, but they didn’t teach any acting so that wasn’t right for me. Then I heard about the Stratford Festival, and I auditioned to get into the Gilbert and Sullivan productions. I got into the chorus and there was a full-time pay-cheque and there you go.”

Jean: “Patricia (Kern) said, “Well, you need an agent now.” So, I got an agent and then Vancouver called and saw that I had done all these roles. They got a cancellation and they were looking for a mezzo at the last minute. They wanted me for the role of Olga in Eugene Onegin in three or four days. THANK GOD the opera was in English instead of Russian. That was my first opera with Richard Margison as my tenor, Joan Watson was my soprano, and it was such a beautiful production with John Eaton as the director and I went on from there.”

Mary-Lou: “Patti, I’m going to ask you the same thing. You’ve also had a diverse background and began your journey into the musical arts at an early age, as well. Who would you say influenced you to proceed into what, for every musician, is a daunting and untrodden path?

Patti: “For me, I wouldn’t say that I encountered any leading musical influences in piano until I picked up Clarinet in public school. My first musical epiphany would have been at the Scarborough Music Camp. I was bumped into the senior band and I played the bass clarinet and they needed a bass clarinet…I would have been 12. Everybody warmed up and put their instruments together. The director put his baton down and said, “We’re going to do a B concert scale,” and everybody played at the same time, and it was that first note that I thought it was such a huge sound and there were so many colours in that sound. As a pianist, you can pull colour from the piano, but there were so many colours in that B-major scale. What could be simpler, right? I remember just thinking I had died and gone to heaven. We did some great literature. There were many strong, young players in that band and we did Nimrod and to this day, if I’m driving and Nimrod comes on the radio I have to pull over and I cry every time. It was so moving to be a part of that, so I would say that it was strong influence. Because we do spend so many hours at the piano by ourselves, to sit in a group and be in a collective whole, to feel the power of the organism, was amazing for me. I don’t know, I had very kind teachers but the ones I found that were the most influential was to listen, really specifically, to Jazz pianists. Listening to where the note falls exactly in the beat; why does that time kick me in the gut when I hear it? Pianists like Bill Charlap, Hank Jones, Gene Di Novi, Bill Evans…thinking really seriously about touch. Why does this make me feel the way I do? Why loud, why soft? Also, trying to play their transcriptions, and getting to know things musically and technically, giving that sprinkle of pixy dust at the end that takes you into the realm magic.

Mary-Lou: “That’s really fabulous, but I’m going to ask you something else because you’ve brought me into that, and it’s about singing. For many, that word has many connotations. For some, it’s simply the practice of making sound with the voice, but for others it is a complete language in itself. Throughout history, instruments have been created and performed in an attempt, I think, to mimic the fluidity, range, depth, and subtleties of the voice. One often hears, “Make the line sing.” We think of Bach fugues with vocal fachs in mind to bring out particular colours. When you play with a singer, Patti, what do you feel the pianist’s duty is and what is it, for you, that creates the kind of collaboration you have with this singer and this particular voice?”

Patti: “First of all, I have to say I’m so extremely lucky to work with this singer, and whether or not she knows it, I spend a great deal of time looking at the back of her body, as most pianist do when they accompany singers. We’re talking about an extremely physical singer. Jean sings with her entire body and I can tell by the set of her ribs or the way her muscles are tensing down here (gesturing to lower back) what’s going to happen. I can tell by her breathing, and I have to say that I haven’t worked with bad singers, but I would imagine it would be hard to work with a singer if the breathing wasn’t as good as hers is. It all starts with the intake of the breath and the preparation of the body. If a singer isn’t breathing in a way that you can read…cause that’s an aural cue, you can sense it. For example, in our show, we both wear microphones and we didn’t always practice with the microphones on and anyway, one time we finished a phrase and were about to begin the next phrase and I took a breath, and she turned around and said, “What was that?” and I said, “Oh, I think it was me!” (Jean breaks out into a hearty diaphragmatic laugh). It was just me, ‘cause I was breathing with her, right? It makes things so much easier to shape a phrase when you’re working like that. You know, Glenn Gould was a huge influence on me and I guess I’ve always thought about voices. Maybe that’s why I like working with a mezzo so much, because she can sing in that netherworld, as well. When I find music for piano, I look for music especially that has a well-promoted inner-voice because I don’t want to double anything she’s doing. The thing with Jean is that she never does anything the same way twice. So, I listen really hard.

Jean: “I really make her work.”

Mary-Lou: “For you, Jean, the idea of singing. The voice is such an enigma and we try to define it or give name to it but it seems impossible because it’s so personal an instrument. It’s so unique and everyone’s is different. You can hear, even on the radio, distinct qualities that define the voice as Jean Stilwell’s or Leontyne Price’s. You can tell if it’s Callas or Renata Tebaldi. What do you think about this language of singing? How do you define the language of singing?

Jean: “Oh, extremely personal. It is a language that conveys the truth, but no matter what, the audience knows exactly what’s going on because they feel. They might not be able to define it but they watch and they feel what you give them. So, if you’re nervous, if you’re upset, if you’re angry…whatever, the audience senses it, even if you don’t mean to portray that or communicate that. The voice is “this” (gesturing near her heart and with hands in an opening motion). My teachers talked about opening up your chest and just exposing, and that is the truth. The goal is to be that, and to stay there, and express the words and the music, which are equally important; and so, I would have to say it’s just about the most vulnerable instrument. No matter what sound you make, it reveals the truth.

“The voice is the most vulnerable instrument. No matter what sound you make, it reveals the truth.” Jean Stilwell.

Mary-Lou: “I agree…..what about Carmen’s truth? Talk to me about Carmen. Why her? Why you? What is it about Carmen that spoke to you, because obviously, she has spoken to you and I think, now, that with this production you are speaking through her, as well.

Jean: “Well, I would have to say, first of all, because she’s so powerful. Carmen really is incredibly courageous. Carmen is an animal. She doesn’t think…she’s smart, but she sings with her body and that’s what I do. She has a great sense of humour, and here’s a biggie: that freedom. That’s huge. I’m a claustrophobic and even if I put on clothing that’s wrong…you know I hate hats. Carmen would never wear a hat ‘cause it encloses her. She’s a nomad. A singer is a nomad, and yet people think that Carmen is the leader of the pack and this kind of stuff. She would never say, “You know, fuck men.” Carmen knew exactly what her place was but she was very clever in trying to achieve it. You know, in the play she achieves it for her husband and for the pack. She doesn’t do it just for herself, and that is blood. If you’re a gypsy, no one else can possibly come into your life. You know, we were in Budapest and I was the train station and you see the gypsies. There’s no interacting. There is no notion that they’re welcoming or that they want you to go up to them. So, I think that this is really what I loved about her; also, the fact that she loves to laugh and dance and she celebrates her body. She loves passionately, but does she…does she know? She says she’s in love, but is she? She doesn’t even know, because she’s not that clever. You know other people interpret, but what do we know…it’s like the Beatles. People listen and they say, “Oh, they’re talking about LSD in that Beatles tune,” and John would turn around and say, “Hey were just some ordinary guys. I don’t know, you know…whatever.” That’s exactly, you know…she does it and you interpret it.”

Dialogue from “Carmen Un-Zipped”
Courtesy of Patti Loach.

“What lies in the belly of Carmen is her ferocious hunger for freedom. She has so much to teach us about loving, living, and choice…

Carmen is a part of me.

She has inspired me during seminal moments in my life: falling in love, marriage, the death of my mother, the birth of my son, the end of my marriage, relationships and break-ups, and then some…

Carmen has been the one single thing in my life that has given me courage. Well, Carmen, and my son…

Every time I sing Carmen, I fall in love with her all over again.

Jean: “I had a most spectacular time doing Carmen in Pittsburgh. I was doing a very traditional production of Carmen but the director had flown in some flamenco dancers from Caracas and these girls were so hot, they were so earthy. They were such an education to me. They were Carmen. They were all Carmen. The great thing was that they wanted me to go out with them. They wanted me to celebrate and on-stage in the scene in Lilas Pastia’s Tavern, they would urge me toward them and I was just (Jean motioning to grab their imaginary selves). You know they were just urging me to “Give us your crotch,” you know, like “Come on. Give us the earth.” That felt sexy. That felt hot. She’s an animal and I can relate to that. In fact, the very last Carmen that I did, the director said to me, “So, how do you want to do this,” which was extremely flattering, and I said, “Well, instead of me portraying Carmen, why don’t we do it as if Carmen is portraying me.” “Show me,” he said. So, that’s how I did it. Carmen was a little more vulnerable. She was playful. She was “really” angry and she showed her anger more. She comes in from the side….I don’t. My Carmen was a little more in your face. She’s a gypsy and she had to provide…she had to get the money and she was the best at what she did. It was her job. The guy was still the hierarchy, however, and she still bowed to the man. A lot of people think that Carmen is the ultimate feminist, but I don’t think so.”

Mary-Lou: “So, let me ask you this, as a musicologist, I’ve studied Carmen in many different perspectives, but let’s say in a more historical, theoretical, philosophical methodology. I love what you’re saying and I think she is really, in a musicological sense, one of the most complex characters. I mean, if you have to stand in front of a group of students and lecture to them about her, it’s difficult because she’s so hard, she’s so dangerous; but yet, she allures us all. We want her. We want to be seduced by her but then we ultimately crave her death. We attend the opera already knowing that José is going to murder her. He’s going to murder her. He’s going to penetrate her with his knife. It’s a different death than a Mimì or a Manon Lescaut where it leaves a gaping hole in you, and you cry and you leave. With Carmen, for some reason, and I ask my students this, “Do you feel that gaping hole?” Do you pity her? Do you cry for her? She knows exactly what she’s doing. It’s so hard to define her because she’s such an awesome character, and I don’t mean awesome as in cool…but that you can’t put her in a box. You know, the death, for historians, is one thing, but then we also ask, does she ever really have sex with anyone, because we often don’t ever see her having sex. Does she just tease?”

Jean-black-dress.pngJean Stilwell

Jean: “It’s up to the director. It’s often up to you…it’s your playing field. Is she in love with José or no? Is she in love with Escamillio, or no? It’s your playing field, and you get a choice. You find it in the music and in the words. I’ve done it in several different ways. For example, in Hamilton I thought the tenor was so fucking hot and then I went to Pittsburgh…”

Patti: “Did she have sex on-stage with that tenor, or didn’t she? I mean, to what extent is that decision made by the casting specific to a production?”

Jean: “Well, it does, a lot. I think that….it seemed like we did because we had that passion for one another. I took the same production to Pittsburgh and this tenor was very different. This tenor was a maniac. We didn’t get along very well. The director came up to me and said, “You don’t like him do you?” And I said, “No,” and he said, “Show me.” I loved it. Oh my God.”

Jean: “If Carmen shows fear when she confronts José in Act IV, then we would fear for her too. If she faces José knowing, in her heart of hearts, that he’s going to murder her, because she refuses to be put in an emotional straight-jacket by him, then perhaps we should feel sorry for her; less afraid for her. She knows she’s going to die and that José is going to do it. She read it in the cards. She feels a very powerful connection to José because of that; because of his dark side; because she, too, has a dark side. Do we crave her death, or do we want her to find joie de vivre with Escamillo, for however long? I don’t think her state is pathetic. It is her choice to die. Her raison d’être is freedom, so she has no choice. She accepts her fate and honours it, and it is who she is. What is sad for me is that there is no way out for her. In dying, she becomes free rather than rage that this is the choice she has to make. She wants to be with Escamillo and risks her life to do so. That is because he offers her life. Why else does she go to the bullfight if she doesn’t think she has a chance at life with Escamillo? She knows that José is going to kill her, but she doesn’t know when or where. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance with Escamillo. It is Frasquita who warns her that José is there, and suddenly then everything changes. Carmen is, and she is not a victim. So, I RAGE for Carmen. Their exchange begins and she wants desperately to get away. She feels caged in and so she lashes out. She is in the moment. “Just fuck it and get it over with because being her with you is death. Kill me so that I may be free. Fuck you. I’m not afraid. I am fucking angry. Come on, come on, and do it. I dare you, you fucking coward.”

Jean-Carmencita.pngJean as “La Carmençita” in the Opera Hamilton Production of Bizet’s Carmen

Mary-Lou: “Let’s talk about “Carmen Un-Zipped.” Patti, tell us what inspired this production and collaboration.”

Patti: “We had done a show together called “Love and Life” that centered on Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben, and that urged a lot of conversation between us. We were looking at ideas for a show we could do together that would incorporate many elements, such as: That she’s more classical and opera and I’m classical, but also cabaret and musical theatre, and jazz. We wanted to incorporate all of this and it occurred to me, over many evenings of gorgonzola and Chianti, by listening to these amazing stories from Jean, that we should just build a show around them. These stories aren’t just specific to a singer, they’re stories of all women and men who have fallen in love, fallen out of love, experienced the joy and wonder in the birth of a child, the loss of a beloved parent—these are stories that resonate for everyone. Jean unzipped my perceptions of what a diva is all about, and hence… “Carmen Un-Zipped.”

Mary-Lou: “And why did you think it would work? What ideas for promotion did you conjure up and why a cabaret act?”

Patti: “I knew the show would work because it addressed what is human in all of us and I was working with one hell of a singer, who was ready to take some serious risks. Whenever I sit in an audience, I want to be challenged as well as entertained. I want to hear a story that is truthful, not maudlin. I want a story that will make me look at myself as well as the performers. Therefore, when I sat down to cull through all of Jean's stories, I kept all of that in mind: I assumed our audiences would be curious and intelligent and demand excellent music, excellently performed. Plus, we've discovered some beautiful music along the way, the songs of the New York Singer/songwriter/pianist John Bucchino. Singing Bucchino's music is what we do to reward ourselves at the end of a rehearsal. I have the most beautiful memory of being in a gorgeous, ancient house in Orvieto, Sicily. Jean is singing; I'm playing a beautiful old grand piano; the floor to ceiling windows are all thrown open, and all we can see out the window is blue, blue sky. We finished our rehearsal, and toddled down to a restaurant by the sea where, in typical Italian fashion, the tables on the patio were crowded together. The Danish people at the next table found out that Jean was a singer, and it turns out that while we had been rehearsing, that afternoon, they had been walking around the streets, heard us, and had stood for about 20 minutes looking up at the open window, listening.”

Mary-Lou: “The relationship between a singer and pianist is one that, I feel, is an extremely intimate. There is something about supporting a voice that has a much different sensation altogether from supporting an instrument. The roles of the singer and pianist have been changed and enhanced since the inception of Lieder and, really, they are equal roles. The collaboration is as strong as both partners are dedicated to their performance and each other. Talk to us about your collaboration; how your diversities, as well as your similarities, reflect upon the success of “Carmen Un-Zipped.”

Patti: “Stephen Sondheim was once asked how to make a musical collaboration work and he said, "Make sure you're writing the same show." I like that. I'm constantly checking with Jean to define a direction, either within a song or when I'm working on writing dialogue, and I'll say, "Is this what you want", or "I think this line is important", or "Are you sure you want to share that?" Musically, although we have a partnership, I know that Jean as the vocalist has the audience's ears and eyes (Damn it). So, when push comes to shove, singer trumps piano. It has to be that way. Luckily, for us, I don't think she's ever had to play the trump card. We're pretty much on the same page when it comes to the music. We're tight.”

Carmen_Un-Zipped.pngCarmen Un-Zipped: Jean Stilwell and Patti Loach

Mary-Lou: “Jean, let’s take a bit of a controversial road and discuss an issue that continues to fascinate many, and that is the comparison between opera singers of today and those of the past, say 70 years. When we listen to a Leontyne Price, or a Callas, Tebaldi, a Schwarkopf, a Jussi Bjorling or a Moffo, and then listen to a Renée Fleming, an Anna Netrebko, a Ramon Vargas; let’s say, and a Natalie Dessay. We continue to hear those voices of the past as remarkable, and there is no question that they were. Do you feel that voices have changed? Has this genre mutated into a competition of physical beauty and looks and suffered in terms of the actual music making?”

Mary-Lou: “Perhaps, more specific to you, Jean, the mezzo’s of the past and today: Barbieri, Cerquetti, Simionato, Horne, Larmore, Von Otter, Bartoli, Graham, Mishura, Troyanos, Baltsa, Zajick, Borodina…tell us, what you think defines these voices, and yours included. There is something unique in them, but also very similar and for many mezzo’s, as we know, the controversy over “voce di petto” (chest voice) prevails. What do you think about these voices and how they employed the dangerous mystery that surrounds the mezzo fach.?”

Jean: “To each his/her/own. We, each of us have something to say, otherwise we wouldn’t chose to sing. The challenge is to find the route to the depths of our self-knowledge and awareness. To sing requires great courage. We are totally naked, no matter of emotional awareness. Each of these singers had to find their own path and make their own choices based on their emotional make-up. They are all extremely, emotionally huge. I respect each of these singers and the choices they made because they made them. They dared to go there. Yes, I have my favourites, but these choices are because I feel the greatest connection and admiration for them. I have different reasons for admiring each one.

“I never liked Horne. I found her voice ugly no matter the brilliance of her technique. Simionato was awesome. What an actress! Larmore has a beautiful sound but is too emotionally soft for my liking. I only saw her in recital once, so perhaps it is unfair of me to judge. I am INSANE for Von Otter. I admire her as a woman. I love the colour of her sound. She is all about colour and finding colour from an intellectual perspective. I admire her lifestyle, her intelligence, her groundedness, and her discipline. These are all things of which I wish I had more of. Troyanos was a mental case, and I adored her. I wanted to take her in my arms and love her. She was so vulnerable and for that, I fell in love with her. I adored her Octavian. I loved Baltsa’s balls, but I would never choose to sing like her. Her singing was vulgar for me. Yet, I loved her animal-like behaviour. I thought her Carmen was fabulous, but that’s all. Zajick blows me away. She’s an awesome power house! I get off on her largess. That’s it. I, at one time, wanted to have a voice the size of Zajick, but now I simply admire her for what she does. I respect Bartoli but I’m not into her repertoire and so I spend little time thinking or listening to her. I do admire the depths to which she researches her fach. I respect her intelligence. My choices are sooooo emotionally charged. So, there you have it!

Mary-Lou: “I’d like to ask, Patti about the cross-over genre that manifested itself years ago now. What do you think about this genre and do you think it has served a purpose? For some classicists, they would say, well, it may bring a more popular based audience to the opera and to classical music, and for popular critics they see these singers as “opera singers” which to me indicates a well-trained voice, and a specific ability. What do you think about it?”

Patti: “Music is personal. It's subjective, so it's hard for me to comment on that. I listen to EVERYTHING with an open mind and I leave it up to the performers to turn me off or on. For example, Jean and I went to see the East Village Opera Company a couple of weeks ago: they do classical arias with rock band arrangements. The singers are not specifically classically trained opera singers; they're musical theatre or rock singers. For me, that show really brought home the fact that there are so many beautiful melodies and gorgeous harmonies in the arias in opera. Should those arias live only in opera halls? I don't think so. Do classically trained singers have the right to be territorial about that music? I don't think so. These arrangements were creative, and the performers were well rehearsed and passionate and they told the story. Some of it I loved, some of it I didn't love, just like ANY live music performance. We've all sat in an opera hall and rolled our eyes at scene chewers. My point is that there is good and bad music everywhere, but I leave it up to the listener to make his own decisions. Both Jean and I LOVED the Habanera that the East Village Opera Company performed. Every Carmen is different.”

Mary-Lou: “Indeed, and I would like to thank you both, on behalf of Opera Today, for this enlightening and exciting interview. The best of luck to both of you in all your future endeavours.”

Jean Stilwell and Patti Loach

Two wonderful women, consummate musicians and a few lessons for us all. Musical partnerships of this sort are special, indescribable in words, and really only understandable when one can be witness to their magical properties in performance, through the language of music. Jean and Patti’s musical connection is supported by a tremendous friendship, which makes this collaboration even more wonderful to observe. A good model for all singer/pianist relationships; when you find this irreplaceable musical partnership, hang on to it and don’t be afraid to look at your colleague every so often and say, without speaking….Ne me quitte pas.

By Mary-Lou Patricia Vetere, 2008
PhD (ABD), M.A., Mus.B

For more on “Carmen Un-Zipped” or Jean Stilwell please visit: www.jeanstilwell.com or www.pattiloach.com CDs available, please see websites

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Stilwell_Jean_medium.png image_description=Jean Stilwell product=yes product_title=Above: Mezzo-Soprano, Jean Stilwell
L’oiseau rebelle” product_by=This interview is dedicated by the author, with much respect, to the memory of “Margaret Stilwell”
Posted by Gary at 11:30 AM

February 11, 2008

Grief and loathing in Lombardy

DAVID STABLER [The Oregonian, 11 February 2008]

When George Frideric Handel wrote a tune, he wasn't kidding. His music pours out in a stream of charms, boasts, snorts, bluffs and laments. It's exquisite stuff -- theatrical, fierce, the opposite of aloof.

Posted by Gary at 9:06 AM

Opera more dramatic in the seats

applause_small.png[Contra Costa Times, 11 February 2008]

Dear Miss Manners: Although I consider myself to be a great lover of music, I have uncertainties about contemporary concert etiquette.

Posted by Gary at 9:03 AM

Bait & Switch

Larmore_Jennifer_small.png(Photo: Ken Howard)
BY GEORGE LOOMIS [NY Sun, 11 February 2008]

An infrequent New York appearance by the admired mezzo soprano Jennifer Larmore was surely the main draw for many in the audience at Zankel Hall last Thursday evening. So the presence of Ensemble Matheus, a dynamic, up-and-coming French period-instrument band making its American debut under its director, the violinist Jean-Christophe Spinosi, probably came as an unexpected bonus. If the evening had a mild bait-and-switch element, it likely left few complaining.

Posted by Gary at 8:53 AM

Filling the Silence With Music

James_Conlon_small.pngWith Recovered Voices, L.A. Opera's James Conlon Takes On the Nazis

by Julie Riggott [LA Downtown News, 11 February 2008]

James Conlon conducted the first dress rehearsal for The Broken Jug as if it were opening night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Though only a pianist was with him in the orchestra pit, the energy of his movement and baton said he felt every note.

Posted by Gary at 8:50 AM

Sopranos step up in competition

Lynch_Caitlin.pngBy CHARLES WARD [Houston Chronicle, 10 February 2008]

Sopranos reigned at Houston Grand Opera's annual Eleanor McCollum Competition for Young Singers.

Posted by Gary at 8:09 AM

February 10, 2008

Madam Butterfly at ENO

Michael Levine's set designs and Peter Mumford's lighting are utterly beautiful, from the floating lanterns and curtain of flowers which descend upon Butterfly and Pinkerton on their wedding night to the dramatic brush-stroke effect of the unravelling of Butterfly's crimson obi at her suicide. Despite Minghella's film credentials, it is not a cinematic approach as such, though the steep rake and the giant mirror above the stage create a 'widescreen' effect which suits the shape of the Coliseum's stage and concentrates the eye.

Although the staging keeps Pinkerton as very much a one-dimensional character, the production's Bunraku puppetry – expertly supplied by Blind Summit Theatre – gives the audience a little glimpse into the beliefs and perceptions which cause him to act the way he does. The exquisitely lifelike puppets, most notably used to portray Butterfly's son, blur the boundaries between artifice and reality, and it becomes almost easy to accept Pinkerton's perception of the Japanese as pretty playthings, not quite real. Sometimes the puppets seem more natural than the human performers.

Indeed, there is a risk with such a staging that it could sacrifice substance for style, and as such it needs a very strong cast to balance it out and reach the heart of Puccini's opera . I confess I was apprehensive about Judith Howarth's debut in the title role, as her (very successful) career has been almost entirely in the lyric coloratura repertoire. I need not have worried; the soft-grained, pearly quality of her soprano, though not the sound we are used to hearing in the role, proved equal to Puccini's characteristically heavy scoring and an appropriate timbre for this most youthful of operatic heroines. Her stage presence and mannerisms were just as credible, and she was shattering in her vulnerability. It was perhaps a misjudgement to pair her with as vocally powerful a Suzuki as the excellent Karen Cargill, but this is really a minor criticism.

As Pinkerton, Gwyn Hughes Jones, returning from the original run of the production, was in fine voice. He was allowed 'Addio, fiorito asil' despite the modern fashion to do without it, but it seems superficial. Sharpless – the one character who can see the situation from every angle and is left with the responsibility for damage limitation – was given a warm and dignified portrayal by Ashley Holland.

madambutterfly160.pngGwyn Hughes Jones as Pinkerton / Ashley Holland as Sharpless

Musically this revival was in every way superior to the original run in 2005. David Parry was once again in the pit, giving a sensitive and never self-indulgent reading of the score. Words came across well, except in parts of Act 1; members of ENO's chorus made clearly-defined characters of their cameo roles as wedding guests. But above all it was a remarkable personal triumph for Judith Howarth.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

madambutterfly437.pngKaren Cargill as Suzuki / Judith Howarth as Madam Butterfly

image_description=Judith Howarth as Madam Butterfly © Alastair Muir and ENO

product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Madam Butterfly
product_by=English National Opera
Performance of 8 February 2008
product_id=Above: Judith Howarth as Madam Butterfly
All photos © Alastair Muir and ENO

Posted by Gary at 8:45 PM

Italian Opera at the Liceu

The Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, after suffering a calamitous fire in the early 1990s, reopened in 1999, lovingly restored. TDK has released a series of DVDs from the Liceu since that date, providing ample evidence of the world class status of this house. All three of the stagings discussed here reflect the Liceu's high artistic standards and professionalism; unfortunately, none can lay claim to being a truly distinguished success.

The least impressive, coincidentally, first took the stage for the 1999 reopening of the house. As seen in a revival from 2005, the Turandot directed by Núria Espert comes across as a budget version of the Metropolitan Opera's Zeffirelli extravaganza. Heavy, elaborate costumes smother the singers, who rarely move well. Instead of Zefferelli's ornate sets, the front stage is mostly bare, with a more elaborate backdrop of stone carvings and heavier props carted on and off. Fog and lighting effects bring some atmosphere to the Emperor's entrance in act two. Espert also finds a clever way to end act one, which usually finds the Calaf holding the mallet with which he has struck the gong with an idiotic grin of triumph while waiting for the curtain to drop. Here, Turandot's guards wheel a cage onstage and cart the Unknown Prince away, a reminder of the murderous control the princess has over those who attempt to answer her riddles.

Turandot_Liceu.pngAlthough Espert uses the Alfano ending instead of the Berio completion (which premiered some years after this staging's creation), she foreshadows the ambiguity of the Berio version by having her Turandot stab herself at the end - a brutal contrast to the joyous chorus Alfano set the ending to. Gambits such as this can work if the entire production teases new meaning out of the work. However, this production has gone pretty much by the standard playbook from opening curtain, and so the twist at the end feels false and forced.

The singing doesn't redeem the director's muddled vision. Luana DeVol can carry the role's weighty demands well enough, but her wide vibrato and a cloudy middle voice make her a less than attractive princess. A bonus feature on her career, however, should make most viewers appreciate the dedication and effort that have led her to key assignments in many of the world's best opera houses. As Calaf, Franco Farina is his usual self: reliable in the sense of being able to manage some of the repertory's heavier tenor roles, but unimaginative and occasionally effortful. Barbara Frittoli suffers under a bad Jamaican beach-braid job, which may explain why she warbles a bit more than a Liu should really do. The Timur, Ping, Pang, and Pong are anonymously competent, and the same goes for Giuliano Carella's conducting.

In staging the once vastly popular La Gioconda, a director can choose to go traditional and let the red-blooded effusions of the melodic Ponchielli score dominate the convoluted narrative, or seek to clarify the action with a more modern slant. For the Liceu in 2005, director Lier Luigi Pizzi took the latter approach. His handsome, spare set shifts around a a ramp of stairs that can suggest a bridge, before a vast blue background conveying both sea and sky. Splashes of red appear in the last acts, as the story line adds some gore. Costumes have been carefully chosen to fit into a color scheme of grays and steely blue, with the very low cut royal blue dress of our La Gioconda, Deborah Voigt, not being especially flattering. Richard Margison, the Enzo, forgoes his usual wig, and dressed in leather, has a certain masculine appeal - he might look right at home in a bar called, for example, "Rawhide." Voigt has all the voice for a role such as this, yet both the idiom and the character elude her. The sheer quality of her singing can't be denied, but it is a superficial pleasure. Margison has often been underrated. He lacks stage charisma, and the top never quite delivers all it promises, but the substantial body of the voice is handsome and tastefully delivered.

Gioconda_Liceu.pngBoth leads, and the bland Laura of Elisabetta Fiorillo, are upstaged by the great Ewa Podleś as La Cieca and the snarling malevolence of Carlo Guelfi as the villain Barnaba. Podleś has a stature on stage that is hard to convey - she seems to simply stand there, and yet embody her character. That self-confidence surely comes from her command of the deep, warm bounty of her voice. Guelfi's instrument itself is not as impressive, but he brings a welcome energy to his performance.

Conductor Daniele Callegari gives the score all the respect it deserves - probably more. The ballet is included, with a near-nude male dancer probably making most listeners put aside all memories of hippos in tutus. Ultimately, Pizzi's staging can't redeem the opera as drama, but as a "show," it works well enough.

The DVD of Graham Vick's staging of Verdi's Rigoletto comes from December 2004. The problem with many contemporary stagings of this masterpiece reappears here; directors can't help but explore the uglier sides of the story's view of human nature, so that the ample beauties of Verdi's score curdle, and Gilda ends up looking deluded to the point of ridiculousness, which limits the pathos. Marcelo Alvarez has rightfully earned a top ranking among today's tenors. He has total command of the Duke's music, and is a handsome enough singer, at least from the shoulders up. However, while no Pavarotti, Alvarez carries enough heft to make him less than agile on stage, and he can be a clumsy actor. It hardly seems credible that Inva Mula's Gilda would fall so deeply in love with this preening lout. Of course it is not Alvarez's fault that the director asks him to pick his nose and bite his nails. Mula's appealing Gilda works best with Carlos Álvarez as her father, Rigoletto. Compared to a classic vocal performance such as that of Robert Merrill, Álvarez cannot boast the same opulent tone. But apart from some rough spots that might be excused as dramatic license, his singing is as attractive as his make-up is ugly.

The depiction of Rigoletto as a truly grotesque figure, with a head almost as misshapen like the Elephant Man, is just one proof of Vick's tilting toward the misanthropic angle of the opera. Could there have been any other production where Gilda greets her father on his return home by lovingly washing his hump? Álvarez's make-up, by the way, seems to be quite hot, as sweat drips from his head often, further adding to the repellent portrayal.

Every act's set (designed by Paul Brown, who also did the costumes) features a revolving platform. For the Duke's court, the walls are gold. At first various women are posed around the circular wall, like a line of goodies for the Duke to choose from. For act two, they are pinned to the wall, victims of his lust. For Rigoletto's home, the set revolves to its most open side, and for some reason Vick has planted a large apple tree right in the center, for Gilda to climb up into for "Caro Nome." The set works well for the action of act three, which can be awkward to stage as Rigoletto and Gilda overhear so much action in Sparafucile's inn that the audience must also see. But why is Gilda dressed in a hideous purple and pink prom dress at the start of the act? At least her "boy" costume is more believable than usual. The heavy-handed director's touches continue right up through the last scene. Rigoletto punches and kicks the body in the sack that he believes is the Duke, and Gilda's legs kick. Then after the final duet, after propping up his daughter's body in an easy chair (why is that by the river?), Rigoletto shoves the chair over, dumping his beloved daughter's corpse to the ground.

And why the row of theater seats to the side of the revolving platform? Vick has had far too many ideas, and not enough point of view. But somehow, the strength's of Verdi's masterpiece survive. Viewers simply have to be prepared for an extremely unappealing vision of already dark material. Veteran Jesus Lopez-Cobos conducts with his usual detail and control.

Taken all together these three DVDs do not individually rank as first-rate performances, but each has some strengths, and they indicate that the Liceu is a house of strong musical standards. The productions are hit-and-miss, but that seems to be the way of the world, in 21st century opera.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto

product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto
product_by=Inva Mula, Marcelo Álvarez, Carlos Álvarez, Orquestra Simfònica i Cor del Gran Teatre del Liceu. Jesús López Cobos, conductor. Graham Vick, stage director.
product_id=TDK DVWW-OPRIGL [DVD]

Posted by chris_m at 8:27 PM


Music composed by Vicente Martín y Soler. Libretto adapted from Andromaca by Apostolo Zeno and Andromaque by Jean Racine.

First Performance: 26 December 1780, Teatro Regio di Torino, Turin

Zeno’s [Racine’s] Principal Characters:
Pirro [Pyrrhus], son of Achille, King of Epirus (Ipiros) and lover of Andromaca
Andromaca [Andromaque], widow of Ettore, Trojan princess and slave of Pirro
Astianatte [Astyanax], adolescent son of Andromaca
Telemaco, adolescent son of Ulisse raised by Andromaca under the name of Astianatte
Ulisse, King of Itaca and Greek ambassador
Ermione [Hermione], daughter of Melelao (King of Sparta) and Helen, promised to Pirro and lover of Oreste
Eleno, prince of the royal Trojan blood and secret lover of Andromaca
Oreste [Orestes], son of Agamennone (King of Argo) and lover of Ermione
Eumeo [Phoenix?], tutor of Telemaco and confidante of Ulisse
[Pylade], friend of Oreste
[Cléone], confidante of Ermione

Setting: Troy after its fall to the Greeks


According to the Argomento to his libretto, Zeno explained that this work is as amalgam of Andromaca of Euripides and Racine and of the Troadis (Troades (The Trojan Women)) by Euripides and Seneca. Although none of the characters are of his own invention, Zeno asserts that he has woven them together in an authentic manner.


At the end of the Trojan war Andromaca [Andromaque], Ettore’s [Hector’s] faithful widow, her son Astianatte [Astyanax] and his ‘brother’ Telemaco [Telemachus in The Odyssey], Ulisse’s [Ulysses’] child, whom she had abducted and raised as her own, are held captive by Pirro [Pyrrhus] (soprano), King of Epirus, who desires Andromaca although she rejects his love. She fears for the life of Astianatte, whom the Greeks regard as heir to Ettore’s strength. The Spartan princess Ermione [Hermione], betrothed to Pirro [Pyrrhus], is overcome with jealousy at her lover’s betrayal, and wants to eliminate her rival. Ulisse [Ulysses (or Odysseus)] comes to press Pirro into honouring his commitment to Ermione, to punish Andromaca for the abduction and murder (he thinks) of his son, and to kill Astianatte. Protected by Pirro, Andromaca hides the boys in Ettore’s tomb. When Ulisse discovers them, she reveals that one of them is his son. After Ermione identifies Telemaco, and Astianatte is taken to be executed, Pirro commands that Telemaco too must die. Ulisse then relents and their lives are spared. Pirro, hearing that Andromaca would kill herself if forced to be his wife, accepts Ermione.

Click here for Zeno’s complete libretto.

Many thanks to Carlo Vitali for his helpful comments.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Death_of_Astyanax.png image_description=The death of Astyanax (18th Century engraving) audio=yes first_audio_name=Vicente Martín y Soler: Andromaca
WinAMP, VLC, FooBar first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Andromaca_Martin_y_Soler.m3u product=yes product_title=Vicente Martín y Soler: Andromaca product_by=Elena de la Merced (Andromaca)
Flavio Oliver (Pirro)
José Ferrero (Oreste)
Beatriz Lanza (Ermione)
María José Martos (Pilade [Pylade])
Pilar Moral (Clearte [Cléone])
Luis Soto (Astianatte)
Cuarteto Canales: Juan Linares (violín), Esther Rubio (violín), Luis Llácer (viola) and Javier Albarés (violoncello).
Live performance, 5 July 2006, Patio de los Mármoles del Hospital Real, Granada
Please note there is distortion at the very beginning of the stream.
Posted by Gary at 8:01 PM

February 6, 2008

MAHLER: Das Lied von der Erde

Composed between 1907-9, Das Lied von der Erde was not performed in the composer’s lifetime, but was given its premiere in November 1911, several months after Mahler’s death in May of that year. While Bruno Walter conducted the premiere in Munich, other performances followed soon afterward, including those led by Mahler’s colleague Willem Mengelberg, as well some partially documented ones with reduced orchestration at Arnold Schoenberg’s Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (Society for the Private Performance of Music) that existed between 1918-21, as indicated in the notes that Kenneth Slowik contributed to the present recording. Yet while Anton Webern is credited with the reduction of Das Lied von der Erde at the Verein, only an annotated score by Schoenberg with some notes toward a reduction the score has survived. Dating from 1921, Schoenberg’s score remains a connection to that earlier time, with present recording based on the completion of the reduction that the composer Rainer Riehn (b. 1941) prepared in 1983 from the fragmentary annotated score that Schoenberg left.

Riehn’s efforts capture the chamber-music style that was characteristic of Schoenberg’s Verein. From the outset the lush sounds of Mahler’s orchestral score give way to thinner textures that present the work in the absolutely essential textures and basic timbres. The transparent lines give a sense of the work that clarifies, if not sharpens, the textures that Mahler used to support his text. As much as the essential musical elements are present, the timbres that Mahler used in this work give way to a small ensemble that consists of a flute (doubling on piccolo); oboe (doubling on English horn); clarinet (E-flat, B-flat, and bass); bassoon; horn, two violins, viola, cello, bass, harmonium (doubling on celesta); piano, and percussion (two players). In capturing the sense of the reductions that Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, and their colleagues pursued, Riehn attempted the daunting task of capturing Mahler’s style within a chamber idiom. It is essentially akin to trying to convey the sense of Seurat’s Grand Jatte in miniature, and while the effort can be extended, the result can never be exactly the same as the original effort. Nevertheless, in standing between the two authentic versions by Mahler, that is, his orchestral score and the version for voice and piano, the Schoenberg-Riehn score merits attention for various reasons, including the way it reflects the reception of the work.

Mahler’s score for voice and piano suggests through the idiom more conventional Lieder, and it remains for the imagination of the audience to invoke some of the timbres that the composer brought to the orchestrated version. Yet in both the version with keyboard accompaniment and Riehn’s reduction, it is possible for the audience to concentrate on the vocal parts. While there are a number of highly successful recordings, Mahler’s orchestral score puts demands on singers, who may not always meet the demands of singing with such a full ensemble. The first and fifth songs, for example, can challenge even the most adept tenors because of the tessitura and the amplitude of various passages. Likewise, the lower voice (alto or baritone) must execute a sometimes dense text in the fourth song. With either a piano accompaniment or the Schoenberg-Riehn version, the singers can concentrate on the text and thus convey its meaning readily to the audience.

Thus, John Elwes, who is known for his performances of eighteenth-century opera or nineteenth-century Lieder, meets the challenge of the songs for tenor. From the opening of the first song “Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde,” Elwes uses his focused tone to convey the text clearly. While the placement of the microphones sometimes captures the singer’s articulations, those details soon fade into the interpretation that Elwes brings to the music. While it is, perhaps, easier to sing with the smaller ensemble, that does not negate the requisite intensity that the work demands. Thus, the increasingly arching phrases of the first song need to build gradually, and Elwes executes that aspect of the music well. His sometimes a piacere presentation of certain lines seems to allow him to bring out the longer lines that are part of this song, in particular, and yet recur in others.

Russell Braun, an operatic baritone who is known both to American and international audiences, is also respected for his work in solo recitals. This combination of venues seems to suite him well for performing Das Lied von der Erde. From a practical viewpoint, his solidly dark lower register is appropriate for the work, while his upper range makes some of the more extended passages seem completely comfortable. Although the part is customarily sung by an alto, Mahler’s score does not specify genders for either the lower or upper vocal parts. Rather than imitate an alto, a baritone succeeds well by approaching Das Lied von der Erde with a full voice, as Braun does well in “Der Einsame im Herbst.” The telling song is the final one, “Der Abschied,”which is in itself as long as the five songs preceding it combined. Any singer approaching this song faces what is essentially an approximately thirty-minute soliloquy which is interspersed with several interludes. Comprised of two texts (found on facing pages of the original edition of Bethge’s Die chinesische Flöte), the song involves various twilight images in which the speaker calls to mind a dear friend, who is absent. Yet moving from the absent friend, the speaker reflects on his own journey and the prospect of existence as a series of eternities. Without the trappings of philosophy, the text evokes ideas associated with Schopenhauer, while the music creates a sense of eternity that is possible only in sounds, as the piece ends with unresolved sonorities that create an unforgettable context for the repetitions of “ewig” that conclude the piece. Braun succeeds well in giving engaging voice to this piece, and his interpretation deserves attention for its poignancy.

At times the scoring of “Der Abschied” in this version reminds listeners of its distance from Mahler’s score. Various passages seem close to the chamber-music like sonorities that are already part of Mahler’s score, but sometimes the use of piano shifts the timbre enough to call attention to the difference. Nevertheless, the fine interpretation of “Der Abschied” by Braun and Slowik stands out in this performance of the work. Those interested in Das Lied von der Erde may find some insights in this version of work because of the reduced scoring. At the same time, this version also represents the reduction that was cultivated by Schoenberg and his circle for several important years in the early twentieth century.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, WI

image_description=Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde.

product_title=Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde.
product_by=John Elwes, tenor, Russel Braun, baritone, Smithsonian Chamber Players and the Santa Fe Pro Music, Kenneth Slowik, conductor.
product_id=Dorian DOR-90322 [CD]

Posted by jim_z at 3:16 PM

Opera journal going for a song

Opera-opera.pngClare Morgan and Roger Covell [6 February 2008, Sidney Morning Herald]

AFTER 30 years of producing their much-loved monthly opera journal, Sydney couple David and Alison Gyger have taken their final curtain call.

Posted by Gary at 2:57 PM

Tragic story makes a fine 'Concubine'

Farewell.pngBy SCOTT CANTRELL [The Dallas Morning News, 6 February 2008]

RICHARDSON – That the largest contingent of contestants in the last Van Cliburn International Piano Competition came from the People's Republic of China said a good deal about the huge and growing popularity of Western classical music there.

Further evidence surfaced Tuesday evening at the Eisemann Center, with a fully-staged, more-or-less Western-style opera by a Chinese composer, produced and performed by the China National Opera House.

Posted by Gary at 2:47 PM

IU Jacobs School of Music captures several Grammy nominations

grammy_logo.png[Indiana University, 6 February 2008]

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The Indiana University Jacobs School of Music is once again prominent at the Grammy Awards, with three recordings up for a total of five awards at this year's ceremony, taking place Feb. 10.

Posted by Gary at 2:40 PM

Pregnant star soprano Netrebko to marry 'soon': newspaper

[6 February 2008]

VIENNA (AFP) — Soprano Anna Netrebko, who has pulled out of this year's Salzburg Festival because she is pregnant, is set to marry the father of her child "soon", the tabloid daily Oesterreich reported on Wednesday.

Posted by Gary at 2:34 PM

The Russian bombshell

Vasily_Petrenko.pngTim Ashley [5 February 2008, The Guardian]

'It's been a hard day," says Vasily Petrenko, with a broad grin. "I could do with a pint." He doesn't seem remotely tired - although he is, undoubtedly, a busy man. Petrenko, a big, blond, handsome St Petersburger, is principal conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. With Liverpool now the European Capital of Culture, this means he has a lot on his plate. He and the Phil, as the orchestra is known round here, have put on three concerts in the week we spoke, and he has been rehearsing all day.

Posted by Gary at 12:08 PM

February 5, 2008

Semele, Cutler Majestic Theatre, Boston

Dionysos_masque_Louvre_smal.pngBy George Loomis [Financial Times, 4 February 2008]

Opera Boston’s initial collaboration with the Boston Baroque ensemble yielded such a marvellous account of Gluck’s Alceste that one eagerly awaited their next joint effort. Three years later they are at last together again, offering a Semele that, however welcome, failed to match its predecessor.

Posted by Gary at 11:51 AM

February 4, 2008

Awesome Angelika Again

Appearances be damned, I simply could not pass up the chance to experience first hand a glorious voice deployed by an impeccable artist. I was the richer for the journey.

For this was not just any-old-concert of crowd pleasing arias by a much-recorded and marketed glam diva with a competent orchestra being paced by a conductor-as-time-beater. No, the program featured no less than Berlioz’ wonderfully complex and seldom-heard “Les nuits d’ete” and the band was none other than the luminous Kammerorchester Basel, led with insight and conviction by Paul McCreesh. This highly skilled musical ensemble proved a real partner in the total success of the program.

That Ms. Kirschlager is a treasurable recording artist with a rich and gorgeous tone was well known to me. Already an admirer, I was still not fully prepared for the scope of dynamic variations, the detailed musical observations, and the utterly secure vocal technique at both extremes of her range that she effortlessly commands. These six songs are anything but an “easy sing.” From the sprightly tune of the “Villanelle” to the moodiness of “Le spectre de la rose” and the haunting despair that creeps into “Au cimitiere” and “L’ile inconnue,” there is virtuoso singing (and playing) required throughout.

For not only the vocal line, but also instrumental solo lines are often fragmented, halting, and rangy in tessitura and volumes. It is a supreme challenge to make phrases, songs, and the whole shebang hang together, much less make it musical and meaningful. It is to the great credit of the singer, conductor, and the entire ensemble that they took us on a most compelling journey through each of these six pieces, by turns joyous, grief-stricken, questioning, and uplifting. Quite a range of shifting moods, that.

Everything about Ms. Kirschlager (save her exceptional talent) strikes me as untemperamental, unfussy, and unaffected. She appeared looking lovely in a modest black gown with little adornment, very light make-up, and a simple coiffure. She seems content to let the music emanate from within and provide all the glamor needed, indeed to be the evening’s raison-d’etre.

If she seemed ever so slightly uncomfortable on the platform at first, perhaps she was indisposed. Although never noticeable in her music-making, she turned upstage and let forth with some good throat-clearing coughs after songs three, four and five. And there was no hint of an encore to be offered.

She did use the music, which kept her eyes diverted to the music stand a fair amount of the time. While this did somewhat limit her contact with the audience, it did not really diminish her very real achievement communicating these musical jewels. For she was always totally in command of the material, scoring every musical and emotional moment. Surely she is going to either record these songs, or perform them again, or both. Her stylish rendition would be a most welcome addition to anyone’s CD collection.

Singing in clear, idiomatic French, I did sometimes wonder if it was wise to let final (unvoiced in normal speech) syllables go off the voice. Or to use an injected breathiness fairly frequently on selected syllables as a device for dramatic effect. Or to use the occasional backward-placed French “r.” I was seated very close and lost nothing, but I wondered how that might be telegraphing to the further reaches of the house.

But these are very very minor points that are mere blips in a wholly successful performance by a very major artist. In the flesh, Angelika Kirschlager exceeded all the high expectations that I had been promised by that first recital CD gift a friend sent me some years ago. I will assuredly not wait so long before I seek her out again.

The program framed the Berlioz with two staples of orchestral literature. The opening overture from Weber’s “Oberon” was as heady and jauntily played as I have ever heard it, while the second half consisted of the evergreen selections from Mendelssohn’s incidental music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

I honestly thought about leaving at intermission, having been quite sated by the Berlioz, but damn if I’m not glad I stayed. These pieces are popular for a reason, and no recording could do justice to my first-ever live experience with them, in which I realized a whole palette of orchestral colors and minute detail I never noticed before.

The Kammerorchester Basel is a truly fine group of players, not only technically accomplished, but (are you seated?) they are a group of professional musicians who seem to radiate a joy of playing. They brought real freshness and delight to these oft-played warhorses, yes, even (maybe especially) the Wedding March, which was marked by expansive exuberance.

The audience responded in kind with a prolonged ovation that prompted an encore, the very short “Elf’s Dance” from the same composition. Maestro McCreesh was excellent throughout in coaxing results from his orchestra, but here he turned positively playful, and with the two “false endings” turned each time to the crowd with a look of “ya think it’s over?” and then quickly turning back to conduct again. In a final tweak, the violists sprung to their feet to saw away at their penultimate tremolo, and the whole evening concluded with panache.

On a side note: Even though it was a winter Monday, it was distressing to see the hall only half full at best. The large top ring was closed off entirely and unlit, but still this was a decidedly poor showing for artists of this caliber. Time was when this Pro Arte orchestra series was so heavily subscribed that it was hard to get in. Are times changing that much?

James Sohre

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Kirschlager_Angelika.png image_description=Angelika Kirschlager product=yes product_title=Above: Angelika Kirschlager
Posted by Gary at 3:51 PM

February 3, 2008

Madam Butterfly, Coliseum, London

ENO_Butterfly.pngBy Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 3 February 2008]

After a break for ballet over Christmas, the English National Opera is back in business. A revival of Anthony Minghella’s production of Madam Butterfly is the first up of the spring season – a popular success that looks set to be one of ENO’s bread-and-butter shows to rival Jonathan Miller’s Rigoletto or Nicholas Hytner’s Magic Flute.

Posted by Gary at 9:13 PM

"Dame de pique" gagnante

[LE MONDE, 2 February 2008]

Deux Dames de pique, lyonnaise et toulousaine, se concurrencent actuellement à l'opéra. L'une, confiée au metteur en scène allemand Peter Stein, achève sur une déception théâtrale une brillante "Trilogie Pouchkine" de Tchaïkovski à l'Opéra de Lyon (Le Monde du 29 janvier). L'autre, montée au Capitole par le Français Arnaud Bernard, consacre les éclatants débuts du jeune chef de l'Orchestre national du Capitole, Tugan Sokhiev, dans la fosse dudit théâtre.

Posted by Gary at 9:09 PM

Dallas Opera presents lurid Bible story 'Salome'

Mlada_Khudoley_Salome.pngBy SCOTT CANTRELL [The Dallas Morning News, 1 February 2008]

It's got murder and suicide, dirty dancing, necrophilia and incestuous droolings, all packed into a mere 110 minutes. The cast of characters includes a slimy monarch in a dusty corner of the Middle East, his obsessive Lolita of a stepdaughter and a strange, bearded, doom-spouting evangelist.

Posted by Gary at 9:06 PM

Karita Mattila Performs Manon Lescaut

These they wore in whatever production of the specific opera happened to be on the boards — this was before operas were set in eras other than those intended. The gaudiest items in the collection belonged to the ladies of ailing repute: Violetta (the two party scenes) and Manon — either Manon, Act III, or Manon Lescaut, Act II. Tiny, exquisite Bidu Sayão had the most glorious Manon costume — pink silk with a front of cabbage roses of different hues, each one created from sewn sequins. (Her Violetta Act I wasn’t bad either — crimson velvet, dripping with gold beads.) But Licia Albanese’s Manon Lescaut was at least their equal: cream silk brocade with, at the neck, the heads of peacocks sewn in glass jewels, their silver necks descending the length of the cloak to spread their tails — all glass jewels — over the side panels. Rivalry? Nonsense — the ladies were great friends. Besides, Sayão wisely never attempted any Puccini part but Mimi.

So it is too bad that the Met has clothed Karita Mattila’s Manon Lescaut in the same off-white shmatta used in Desmond Heeley’s production for every other diva who has sung in it: Scotto, Freni, Cruz-Romo, Zylis-Gara. These are ladies with distinctive individual style; it would have added to the occasion to allow them to choose a look as well. But in the Heeley production, the Act II gown has to become its duplicate in Act III, when a bedraggled, imprisoned Manon is still wearing it after her disgrace, and a still more battered version in Act IV, when she perishes in the colonies. This is a pity, as Mattila sets her own special stamp on this — as on every — role, and as anyone who has ever seen her in recital can tell you, this strikingly beautiful woman certainly knows how to dress. (As anyone who saw her Salome can tell you, she knows how to undress too.)

Her singing, happily, is hers. It is not Italianate — as everyone has already pointed out. Her voice is cool for Puccini. Never mind: it is such a beautiful voice, and of such quality and richness, so technically finished (she even tosses off a perfect casual trill during the flirtations of Act II), so intense in Manon’s later despairs, so light and naïve in Act I that I, for one, forgive her everything: I can’t think of any other soprano these days whom I would rather hear in this part. (This is not true of, say, Tosca and Turandot, with which she is experimenting back home in Finland — I don’t think her voice would suit the hysterics of the one, the cruel tessitura of the other. I wish she would sing Arabella or Vitellia or Emilia Marty here instead.) The only falling off — and it may have been a result of pushing herself through “In quelle trine morbide” — came during Act II’s passionate duet with Marcello Giordani’s Des Grieux, where she seemed unable to summon the sheer sensual voice this scene requires.

All this is to say nothing of her acting — her observant wonder in the inn courtyard, her teenage kicking of her heels over her head (try this at 47, ladies) as she sings of her boredom in Geronte’s bedchamber, her wholly credible extinction, when the gorgeous phrases Puccini gave, unrealistically, to a girl dying of thirst, seemed to be her heart and life force expelling their last gasps. Opera isn’t real; it’s more than real; that’s the point.

I saw Mattila’s Manon Lescaut in Chicago two seasons back, in a production that gave her more scope to create character in Act I, but also gave her Vladimir Galouzine for a partner — an exciting singing actor with no notion of how to produce Italian line. The Met has provided Marcello Giordani, who is in his element, an ardent actor blooming lustily into exquisite anguish in the higher register as every good Italian lover should. If only he’d sung this way in Lucia last fall — but bel canto is not the ideal fach for this singer; Puccini, Ponchielli, Meyerbeer and verismo are his meat. Good to have him back where he belongs.

Dwayne Croft, so stiff when he plays leading men, is gratifyingly restrained in the often over-camped part of Manon’s slimy brother. (As Tom Lehrer put it, “Don’t solicit for your sister — that’s not nice — unless you get a good percentage of her price.”) Dale Travis is imposingly self-absorbed as her rich old lover — we credit both his simpers and his malice. Sean Panikkar makes a charming Edmondo but does not steal the scene from Des Grieux, as a great Edmondo can. Tony Stevenson sings the lamplighter well — but is he so busy singing that he needs an assistant to actually light the lamps? He’s supposed to toss the air off as he goes about his lonely job.

James Levine returns with every evidence of delight to this most blooming, most constantly delicious of Puccini scores; it frisks and sighs and bounces under his touch. Gina Lapinski is credited with restaging the show (which has not been shown in some twenty years), and she has come up with some neat touches — Geronte, having been humiliated with a mirror by Manon, vengefully holds it up to her own face at the end of Act II — but the crowd could make way a bit more effectively when Mattila alights from her coach in Act I. In Chicago we noticed her the moment she appeared, she riveted the busy stage, and she looked like a curious, impulsive teenager. At the Met, there is such clutter — we do not at first pay any attention to her.

Manon Lescaut appears to be the tawdry story of a very young and shallow girl who can’t decide between love and luxury, and dies for her sins in the “desert of Louisiana.” Actually, it is the far more exciting story of a young genius of 35 who finds himself (in the desert of Lombardy) as an opera composer: it was Puccini’s third, his first triumph, and it convinced Verdi (among others) that he was the hope of Italian opera. Its floods of melody will delight in any decent performance, in scene after memorable scene, to the point that we deliriously ignore the awkward dramaturgy (expressly concocted to avoid the high points of Massenet’s and Auber’s versions of the story). It is the more ironic, then, that the wayward heroine expires of thirst in all this juicy Italianitá. It’s a glum moment, but you can’t be depressed when your ear is still ringing with a dozen such irresistible tunes. Manon may be a corpse, but Puccini’s future and fortune were assured.

On his deathbed, they say, thirty years later, Puccini begged his friends not to forget Manon. We’d probably hear Manon Lescaut more often if we did not have Mimi and Tosca and Butterfly grabbing the stage time. Their stories are more clearly told and dramatic stories, it’s true, but I weary of their calculated coups de théâtre. I’d rather hear Manon than any of the others; I appreciate her return after long absence — especially if a soprano and tenor arrive with the voices to put stars in my ears, and whose acting makes me believe for a moment that they are a pair of adolescent fools.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/karita_mattila.png image_description=Karita Mattila - credit Lauri Eriksson product=yes product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Manon Lescaut
The Metopolitan Opera (Performance of 1 February 2008) product_by=Manon Lescaut: Karita Mattila; Des Grieux: Marcello Giordani; Lescaut: Dwayne Croft; Geronte: Dale Travis; Edmondo: Sean Panikkar; Lamplighter: Tony Stevenson. Conducted by James Levine. product_id=Above: Karita Mattila (photo by Lauri Eriksson)
Posted by Gary at 8:49 PM

J. S. Bach, arr. Robert Schumann. Johannes Passion.

There is, of course, a degree of irony in all of this, for it was mid-nineteenth-century musicians and scholars who began the landmark Bach Gesellschaft complete edition of the composer’s music: landmark in its scope and landmark in the pioneering model of scholarly “pure” editing it presented. The objective ideals of science would soon shape the nineteenth-century birth of modern music scholarship, and a rigorous approach to editing, shorn of adulteration, was a characteristic presage. At the same time, however, some nineteenth-century performances of Bach showed no hesitation to re-clothe the score lovingly in modern garb. Thus, Schumann’s score adds instruments—clarinets here, trumpets there—substitutes available instruments for those that were not—a solo viola replaces the solo viola da gamba in “Es ist vollbracht,” for instance—alters voice assignments—some tenor arias are sung by soprano—and makes various deletions in the score. Additionally, Schumann’s performance used fortepiano as the continuo instrument, especially prominent for its role in the large number of recitatives.

As an example of the degree of adaptation, the well-known aria, “Es ist vollbracht” shows Schumann’s respectful but creative hand. The original viola da gamba solo, played to the accompaniment of basso continuo alone is recast as a viola solo over low, brooding string harmonies; the heroic second section of the aria, adds trumpets to the orchestral flourishes to heighten the military sound of things. The Bachian details remain reasonably intact though we may perceive those details differently for the adjustment in color. The de-familiarization is an interesting way of meeting this “old friend” anew . . . interesting, and in selective ways gratifying. The brooding low strings of “Es ist vollbracht,” for instance, is not all that distant from certain Bach sonorities—one thinks of the divided viola parts in the early cantatas, for example--and here in the Passion, this later touch may well haunt my own future listening of Bach’s version of the aria. I doubt the later version will ever unseat the earlier—our historical sensitivities, if nothing else, are much too deeply entrenched for that—but hearing the aria with a touch of Romantic melancholy may serve to alert us anew to the affective depths we may find in Bach’s own language.

The performance is an impressive one. In general, Hermann Max and his forces seem to have started with a baroque sound and brought it chronologically forward a bit rather than have taken a later sound and tried to pull it back. This serves the performance well. The choir is flexible and clear; spry in fast passages and well proportioned in solemn moments. The soloists in the main are well-seasoned early music practitioners and we hear in their approach the refined articulative sense and shapely contours born of this specialty. Bach seems to trump Schumann in the vocal sound. Jan Kobow’s rendition of the evangelist’s role is brilliant—compellingly dramatic and wonderfully fluent, and the ease of his high range is remarkable. Similarly so the exquisite high register of Veronika Winter, beautifully controlled in the aria “Zerfliesse, mein Herze.”

One of the most startling differences in the Schumann version is the fortepiano accompaniment, here played by Christian Rieger. Through frequent arpeggiation and chordal reiteration he promotes a very satisfying forward motion to the line, welcome in any rendition of the work.

Schumann’s devotion to Bach is well-known, and though modern respect for Bach’s historical “otherness” would deem the arrangement a historical trespass, in Schumann’s world the adaptation serves only to further the devotion. According Schumann the integrity of his own historical “otherness,” we find in this arrangement much that will move and interest. And in the performance we find considerable accomplishment, indeed.

Steven Plank

image_description=J. S. Bach: Johannes Passion

product_title=J. S. Bach: Johannes Passion
product_by=Veronika Winter, Elisabeth Scholl, sopranos; Gerhild Romberger, alto; Jan Kobow, tenor; Ekkehard Abele, Clemens Heidrich, bass; Rheinische Kantorei; Das Kleine Konzert; Hermann Max, conductor.
product_id=cpo 777 091-2 [2 SACDs]

Posted by steve_p at 8:40 PM

The Mikado

Neil Fisher at the Geilgud Theatre [Times Online, 1 February 2008]

Alistair McGowan must have impersonated plenty of royals in his time, but has he ever ascended to the Chrysanthemum Throne?

Now the West End debut of the Carl Rosa Company, in town for a season of Gilbert & Sullivan, has given him his chance, and the result is a celeb cameo in the very best sense. Part Prince Charles - he gives us a quick blast of the Windsor wheeze - part Wooster, with a little bit of Paxman thrown in for good measure, McGowan's Mikado (pictured) is a capricious, conspiratorial and completely English creation. A shame we don't get more of it.

Posted by Gary at 8:33 PM

DE LALANDE: Les Folies de Cardenio.

The present recording presents the dance music by Michel-Richard de Lalande for the comedie-ballet Les Folies de Cardenio by Charles-Antoine Coypel, performed in 1720/21.

The performances by Ensemble Baroque de Limoges are stylish, played with engaging rhythmic lilt, poise, and, where invited, convincing characterization. Characterization particularly comes into play with the exotic dances, such as the “Air pour les Chinois” and the “Air pour les Pagodes,” both using imaginative scorings and, in the case of the Chinese air, col legno battuto, all to good effect. In dances like the “Air des Combattants,” the percussion—one of the delights of the recording, in general—recreates the clank of sword play in an congenially dramatic touch. Many of the dances are rather more generic, however, and this raises a question about the program itself.

The recording isolates the dances from a theatrical context and from the visual partnership with dancing, and it asks a lot of a succession of short, often generic pieces to stand alone, as the recording requires. Of the forty-one tracks, only one, the overture, is longer than three minutes; many are under a minute in duration. No matter how splendid the performances or how charming the pieces, this many miniatures strung together for nearly an hour will frustrate attentive listening to the whole; the transplant from the context-rich, original environment to the audio isolation of the CD is a difficult one and imposes demands on the music that seem foreign to its nature. Taken as an “archive in sound”—“these are the dances for Les Folies de Cardenio”—the recording is a successful document, without question. Taken as a program, however, I recommend smaller doses to maximize the delight.

Steven Plank

image_description=Michel-Richard de Lalande. Les Folies de Cardenio.

product_title=Michel-Richard de Lalande: Les Folies de Cardenio.
product_by=Ensemble Baroque de Limoges; Christophe Coin, Director.
product_id=Laborie Records LC01 [CD]

Posted by steve_p at 8:17 PM

SIBELIUS: Symphonies 1-7

The affinities between the two sets of works are known, with the connection between the two composers existing in Mahler’s comment to Sibelius that a symphony must embody a world. Yet Sibelius took as his starting point the late-Romantic symphonic idiom to explore several aspects of modernism as he developed his own style within the bounds of an instrumental milieu. In performing the body of Sibelius’s symphonic works, Rattle evinces his own affinity with the music that emerges in this set of recordings made between 1984 and 1987. Several of the additional tracks in this set date from earlier sessions, notably the two cuts with the Philharmonia Orchestra, Night Ride and Sunrise, op. 55, and the second performance of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, both made in September 1981. The relative short period during which Rattle made these recordings contributes to the sense of cohesiveness to the set, and the use of the same ensemble, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, is another asset. Yet it is Rattle’s own sense of Sibelius’s style that makes this set of Sibelius’s symphonies attractive.

With the famously misunderstood Fourth Symphony, Rattle offers a solid reading of the work that makes the architecture of the score audibly apparent. A relatively short, four-movement work, The Fourth Symphony is outwardly more dissonant than the composer’s previous contributions to the genre. The manipulation of cells and motives that Sibelius used in the Second Symphony is key to the structure of the Fourth Symphony, as is the use of sparer forces that give a sense of large-scale chamber music to this score. Rattle is keen to bring out the interaction of the various motives in this work, with the varying orchestral timbres intersecting the work almost seamlessly. The limpid sonorities found in the third movement are one of the more intriguing aspects of the recording, which demonstrates the tight ensemble of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. With such a demanding score, Rattle offers a fine reading that emerges well in the particular recording in this set, and it is the effectiveness of this less-familiar Symphony that is one criterion of a cycle like this.

In leading the more familiar works by Sibelius, such as the First, Second, and Fifth Symphonies, Rattle demonstrates his command of the scores. The first movement of the First Symphony contains some subtle contrasts in tempo that convey to support the tone of the movement, and this includes both some of the slower passages as well as cascading accelerandos. In balancing the strings and brass, the recording of this work gives the impression of distance separating the two timbres which, in turn, underscores the sense of expansiveness that is part of the movement.

Such balances serve well in the first movement of the Second Symphony, in which the supporting string parts emerge clearly to create a harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment to the music. In that movement, which involves the presentation and development of various motifs before they combine into larger ideas and full themes, such accompanying figures are essential to the continuity of the music. In bringing out the secondary ideas, which may not be memorable in themselves, Rattle makes full use of the textures notated in the score to arrive at a persuasive performance.

Such attention to figuration emerges elsewhere, such as the Scherzo of the Second Symphony, in which he downplays some of the repetitive figures, without making them inaudible. This allows him to make the most of the sometimes complex textures that contrast the slower ideas that Sibelius uses in the movement. Here Rattle’s pacing again makes his interpretation distinctive, not only for allowing some breathing space around sections of the movement, but also allows various colors to emerge clearly. All in all, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra demonstrates its own sense of ensemble, with playing that responds well to Rattle’s leadership, as found in the convincingly satisfying conclusion of the Second Symphony.

Overall the quality of playing and the solid interpretations contribute to the success of this set of recordings. With works that are heard less often in the concert hall, like the Third Symphony, the reading here demonstrates the appeal that work should have, with its clearly articulated rhythms juxtaposed with soaring themes. In making the colors of the score emerge clearly Rattle offers an attractive reading of this score. The sound of some of the more intimate ensemble writings as, for example, the opening of the second movement, seems to benefit from the studio, but it also includes some depth as various timbres move in and out of prominence, as found in the score. With the third and final movement of that work, Rattle takes advantage of the rhythmic nature of the themes to allow sections to interact with each other. While some interpreters can be a little harsh in this movement, the lighter touch that Rattle exhibits contributes to the recording.

Likewise, Rattle’s accounts of the Sixth and Seventh Symphonies bear consideration, since they are solid interpretations of these fine works. With the Sixth Symphony, Sibelius is more introspective than he was in the Fifth. The modal inflections and contrapuntal textures require a deft hand, and Rattle meets the challenge well. The string sonoritiesin the Sixth Symphony are essential to the work, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is impressive in making this regard. The intonation is notable for modal passages, as well as some of the impressionist-sounding passages.

In the Seventh, Sibelius’s last symphony, the composer explored the possibilities of expanding the musical content of the form further than he had previously done. Once intended to be entitled Fantasia sinfonica, as Stephen Johnson mentions in the program notes accompanying the set, the formal dimensions Sibelius conceived for this work extend the conventional architecture to create a compelling work that deserves repeated hearings. This is, perhaps, the most challenging of the works in the set, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra is convincing. With echoes, Anklänge, of ideas found in earlier works, alongside ideas that are unique to the Seventh, the result is a work that moves between modernism and convention. Rattle’s conception of the score is evident in the recording, which is, perhaps, one of the more impressive ones in the set.

One of the more difficult works by Sibelius to capture in recording is the Violin Concerto. With the sometimes atmospheric scoring that he used in the work, the full sonic impact of the work is sometimes lost, even with relatively modern or, in this case, recent, recording techniques. The fine work of Rattle and Nigel Kennedy is apparent in the recording, but it does not convey the immediacy that is essential to this important twentieth-century violin concert. The playing is solid, and stands well as reissued in this set, but the recording itself does not capture the excitement that must have been present in the live performance on which it is based.

In addition to Sibelius’s seven symphonies and the Violin Concerto, this set includes several of the composer’s tone poems, specifically The Oceanides, Op. 73, Kuolema, Op. 44, and Night Ride and Sunrise, Op. 55. Yet the fifth disc – the bonus CD in this set – contains an earlier, quite atmospheric, recording of Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony with the Philharmonia Orchestra, and it gives a sense of the approach Rattle took with this work several years prior to recording the cycle with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. As a set, though the complete cycle that Rattle recorded for EMI with the City of Birmingham has much to offer those who wish to explore the music further. The consistency that arises when a conductor records a body of works with the same ensemble becomes a kind of document that listeners can use to explore each piece. Those who might know several of Sibelius’s symphonies might use the set to gain a better sense of them all from the perspective of one of the finest contemporary conductors.

Notwithstanding the merits of this set, it is difficult to avoid comparisons with other fine recordings of individual works and cycles of Sibelius’s symphonies. The discography includes a number of fine performances, including those of Thomas Beacham, Colin Davis, and others. While some critics may have strong fields about specific sets, this release of Rattle’s fine recordings makes his interpretations accessible for comparison and, most importantly, enjoyment. As with other great symphonists, Sibelius’s work withstands multiple interpretations, which bring out various aspects of the works.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, WI

image_description=Jean Sibelius: Symphonies 1-7.

product_title=Jean Sibelius: Symphonies 1-7.
product_by=Sir Simon Rattle, conductor.
product_id=EMI Classics 50999 5 00753 2 4 [5 CDs]

Posted by jim_z at 8:08 PM

Verdi's Falstaff at Chicago

A bloated, insult-wielding drunkard who finds himself suddenly broke, he seeks to free himself from debt by wooing two wealthy women—both with the exact same love letter. When Alice Ford and Meg Page, the ladies in question, discover that they are being played for fools, they band together with the help of their friend Mistress Quickly and plan to dupe Falstaff. The musical result is one of the rare occasions when comic opera is actually funny. Played, as such evenings often are, to the blind in the 10th balcony, the laughs at Lyric are more often than not collective good-natured chuckles than guffaws of genuine surprise. Still, on opening night, the audience clearly enjoyed the opera’s style of comedy, investing in the show and audibly rooting for its favorite characters. This notion is further reinforced by Frank Phillipp Schlössmann’s Globe Theatre-inspired sets, which immediately transplant the audience into a world where a broader method of presentation is the norm. Costumes were traditional, but the bold colors contrasted beautifully with the amber-toned sets.

An audience can expect a thoroughly enjoyable evening of theatre—even if there are slight problems with the production—with a Falstaff from a top-notch company like Lyric Opera of Chicago. Picky imperfections in performance pale in the shadow of the brilliance of the work itself, obviously a labor of the composer’s love.

Like any comedy, a Falstaff is only as strong as its sense of ensemble, and, in something of a coup, by utilizing the brightly burning talents of current members of the Ryan Opera Center and supplementing them with the Center’s alumni, the administration has gathered a group of artists used to working with each other and who, out-singing most of the imported stars of the evening, present a tidy troupe. Even though director Olivier Tambosi fails to tighten the comic timing to sharp punctuality, the general mirth on stage more than carries the evening’s entertainment. Once again stepping forward with her booming voice, Meredith Arwady sparkles as Mistress Quickly, and her “Riverenza” scene inspired most of the genuine laughs of the evening. Elizabeth DeShong’s Meg Page is sprightly and attractive of voice. Of the current Ryan Opera Center’s roster, the most notable singer in this opera is Bryan Griffin, whose turn as Fenton is marked by a lyric tenor voice of both sweetness and strength, and Ryan Center alum Stacey Tappan’s crystalline Nannetta soars opposite Mr. Griffin. David Cangelosi, whose character tenor roles are well known at Lyric for their physicality, seems positively subdued next to the boisterous commedia dell’ arte characterization of fellow alumnus Rodell Rosel’s Bardolfo.

Falstaff_Chicago2.pngAlice Ford (Veronica Villarroel, third l.) describes her plan to feign interest in Falstaff's wooing as Meg Page (far l.), Nanetta (second l.), and Mistress Quickly (far r.) listen with delight in Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2007-08 production of Falstaff.

Though not advertised as Megastars, one would expect the leads of this production to outshine the ensemble easily, but such was not the case. As Alice, Veronica Villaroel is not the plastic prima donna spinning measure after measure of line while ignoring the baser nature of the material; the Chilean soprano found some joy in even the subtler moments of the comedy. Neither is Villaroel the soprano with very little in the way of voice, but with star power to burn. (In fact, she sang Alice with no apparent strain.) Villaroel lands this role instead somewhere in the unfortunate pleasant-enough middle ground and manages neither to offend nor excite. Similarly, Andrew Shore in the title role perhaps does not have the wherewithal to color more lyrical moments with the vocal subtlety he intends; however, he does make a convincing Falstaff, barking and seducing at regular intervals. The audience may forgive the slow moving actor because of the additional costuming required to render him obese, but his physical comedy fell short of the standard set by other members of the cast. Boaz Daniel, on the other hand, as Signore Ford, turns in a thoroughly engaging vocal performance, his robust and appealing baritone easily launching itself expressively over the orchestra for his aria “È sogno? O realtà…”

Andrew Davis, conducting what the official press release calls his ‘’favorite Verdi opera”, keeps the evening well paced in this reviewer’s opinion. His tempi, though, may have been a little slow for those on stage; the singers consistently tried to rush the Act One finale. Granted: the Act One finale is incredibly difficult to keep together, and the cast does a noble job of trying, perhaps, though, it could stand to watch the bouncing head of hair up front a little more. Still, the opera itself is sung very well across the board, the stagecraft solid, and the evening spent in the Civic Opera House absorbing Verdi’s last masterpiece is well spent.

Gregory Peebles © 2008

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Falstaff_Chicago.png image_description=Andrew Shore in the title role of Falstaff, part of Lyric Opera of Chicago's 2007-08 season. Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago. product=yes product_title=Giuseppi Verdi: Falstaff
Civic Opera House, January 28, 2008 product_by=Above: Andrew Shore in the title role of Falstaff, part of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2007-08 season. All photos by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Posted by Gary at 7:53 PM

ROSSINI: Ermione

Music composed by Gioachino Rossini. Libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola after Jean Racine’s Andromaque.

First Performance: 27 March 1819, Teatro San Carlo, Naples

Principal Characters:
Ermione [Hermione], daughter of Menelaus and Hélène, promised to Pyrrhus Soprano
Andromaca [Andromaque], widow of Hector and captive of Pyrrhus Contralto
Astianatte [Astyanax], son of Andromaque Silent
Pirro [Pyrrhus], son of Achille, king of Épire (Ipiros) Tenor
Oreste, son of Agamemnon Tenor
Pilade [Pylade], friend of Oreste Tenor
Fenicio [Phoenix], tutor to Achille and then to Pyrrhus Bass
Cleone [Cléone], confidante of Hermione Mezzo-Soprano
Cefisa [Céphise], confidante of Andromaque Mezzo-Soprano
Attalo [Attalus], servant of Pyrrhus Tenor

Setting: Buthrot, city of Épire (Ipiros), in a room of Pirro’s palace.


After having defeated the Trojans, Pirro returns to his country with numerous prisoners among which there is Andromaca and her child, Astianatte. Pirro breaks his promise to Ermione because of his love for Andromaca. Remaining faithful to the memory of Hector, Andromaca rejects his advances. Oreste, who has been sent to Buthrote by the Greek kings to demand that Pirro fulfill his duty, declares his love to Ermione. Yet Ermione, tormented by jealousy, seeks to regain the heart of Pirro. Ermione rejects Oreste and his demand for the death of Astianatte (so as to avoid inevitable revenge). But, Pirro, in the presence of the court and Ermione, asks Andromaca to marry him. Andromaca falsely consents to the wedding, but in reality she wants only to save her child. Humiliated, Ermione induces Oreste to kill Pirro. When Oreste shows her the bloody dagger, Ermione is horrified and calls the Furies upon him. Oreste, stunned and delirious, is dragged away by his companions to a ship.

Click here for the complete libretto.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Andromaque.png image_description=La Douleur et les regrets d'Andromaque sur le corps d'Hector son mari by Jacques-Louis David (1783) [Musée du Louvre] audio=yes first_audio_name=Gioachino Rossini: Ermione
WinAMP, VLC, FooBar first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Ermione1.m3u product=yes product_title=Gioachino Rossini: Ermione product_by=Ermione: Linda Maguire
Andromaca: Diana Mondague
Pirro: Jorge Lopez-Yañez
Oreste: Bruce Ford
Pilade: Paul Austin Kelly
Fenicio: Gwynne Howell
Glyndebourne Festival Orchestra, Andrew Davis (cond.)
Live performance, 30 May 1995, Glyndebourne
Posted by Gary at 12:00 PM