March 30, 2008

For Star Singers, a Worthy Partner

vignoles_small.pngBy MATTHEW GUREWITSCH [NY Times, 30 March 2008]

IN late November the British accompanist Roger Vignoles visited the Juilliard School for his first New York master class. It was not the sort of public star turn often marketed under that name, but an internal, properly educational affair. Five students sang, accompanied by five student pianists preparing for careers as collaborative artists. Mr. Vignoles scrutinized singers and pianists alike with the same eagle intensity.

Posted by Gary at 7:59 PM

The Power of a Russian Birthright

hvorostovsky_small.pngBy ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 30 March 2008]

“The older I become, the closer I feel to Russia,” the Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky said recently over tea at a Manhattan hotel. And he seemed surprised to hear himself say it.

Posted by Gary at 7:52 PM

DiDonato’s Secret Ingredient

By JAY NORDLINGER [NY Sun, 30 March 2008]

If you heard Joyce DiDonato's New York recital last season, you're not likely to have forgotten it. It was top-of-the-line. The sparkling mezzo-soprano from Kansas gave another one on Wednesday night: in the Rose Theater, under the auspices of Great Performers at Lincoln Center. This, too, was top-of-the-line: at least for the most part.

Posted by Gary at 7:41 PM

William Byrd. Laudibus in sanctis.

The three volumes of Cantiones Sacrae (1575, with Thomas Tallis, 1589, and 1591) and two volumes of Gradualia (1605 and 1607), polyphonic settings of the Mass Propers of the Roman Rite, are an abundant trove and document both the Latin motet’s persistence in Anglican contexts as well as Byrd’s own persistence in musical Romanism. This present recording, the tenth in a series of Byrd’s works by Andrew Carwood and The Cardinall’s Musick, presents the polyphonic Propers for Lady Mass in Eastertide from the 1605 Gradualia and diverse motets from the 1591 Cantiones Sacrae. Certain of the texts seem particularly resonant with the plight of Roman Catholics in Elizabethan England. For example, the motet, “Tribulatio proxima est,” with its references to tribulation, insults, and terrors and a final plea that the Lord as deliverer will not delay, seems autobiographically poignant for Byrd who, close to the time of its publication, relocated away from London to become part of a recusant community in Essex. Similarly, the “Salve Regina,” both in its Marian identity and its lamentative reference to “this vale of tears,” also strikes a distinctively Roman chord. The religious history of late sixteenth-century England is one of many layers, and these Latin works, penned by a member of Elizabeth’s Chapel Royal, are enduring reminders of the era’s religious complexity.

The Cardinall’s Musick brings a compelling fluency to their performances of Byrd, born of their long-standing commitment to his music. Their sound is both exquisitely clear and vibrantly alive, fluid in its motion and satisfyingly well-controlled. (Such beautiful final chords!) That said—and enthusiastically so—much of the music is also sung with notable fullness of sound. There are, indeed, welcome lulls, such as the “pacem Deus” of “Alleluia. Ave Maria,” or the “genuisti” of “Beata es, virgo,” but in the main there is a full richness in the sound that may lose some of its expressive power when maintained at great length. And given the busyness of much of the counterpoint, a more dynamically varied approach would serve well.

One of the most memorable renditions on the recording is the Compline prayer, “Visita quaesumus, Domine,” memorable especially for the ensemble’s lighter and more contoured approach, elicited by the nocturnal context of its words and Byrd’s scoring without a low bass voice. The “Regina caeli” is also memorable both for its three-voice texture—a change of pace from the richness of its surrounding works—and also for the ensemble’s engagingly buoyant singing of the “resurrexit” figures.

Steven Plank

image_description=William Byrd: Laudibus in sanctis

product_title=William Byrd: Laudibus in sanctis
product_by=The Cardinall’s Musick; Andrew Carwood, Director.
product_id=Hyperion CDA6758 [CD]

Posted by steve_p at 5:27 PM

Cecilia Bartoli, Salle Pleyel, Paris

By Francis Carlin [Financial Times, 27 March 2008]

Apotheosis now. Cecilia Bartoli has rolled back into Paris with her Maria Malibran campaign wagon and taken the city by storm. The Malibran souvenir van is parked outside the town hall; Bartoli herself set up shop at the Salle Pleyel, not her usual Paris venue but a sure sign that the concert hall is firing on all cylinders under Laurent Bayle’s stewardship.

Posted by Gary at 4:04 PM

‘Tristan’ Gains a Star, Loses a Soprano

By GEORGE LOOMIS [NY Sun, 26 March 2008]

Just when it looked as though, after four tries, the Metropolitan Opera’s current revival of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” would proceed on Tuesday evening with the originally announced cast intact, the nemesis that has dogged the run sprouted another hydra-like head. Ben Heppner, in voice and appearance the very image of good health, belatedly joined the cast as Tristan. But Deborah Voigt, the scheduled Isolde, canceled because of illness and was replaced by Janice Baird, who at an earlier performance took over for Ms. Voigt during the course of Act 2.

Posted by Gary at 3:49 PM

True to Wagner’s Vision

By JAY NORDLINGER [NY Sun, 26 March 2008]

Salzburg, Austria — Siegmund flew in at 4 p.m. The opera started at 5. He made it to the opera house, put on his costume —and on he went.

The Salzburg Easter Festival staged “Die Walküre” on Monday night. “Die Walküre” is the second installment of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung.” We had the first installment, “Das Rheingold,” last year. In 2009 and 2010, we’ll get the last two: “Siegfried” and “Götterdämmerung.”

Posted by Gary at 3:45 PM

HANSON: Merry Mount

Better melodies could secure new operas a lasting place on stage, the argument goes. Howard Hanson's 1934 opera Merry Mount, a Metropolitan Opera commission, serves as evidence that a score's tunefulness will not guarantee its survival on the stage. Naxos has re-released the Seattle Symphony's concert recording, performed under conductor Gerard Schwarz. The opera received a rousing ovation at its premiere, but the Met never revived it after the initial run. A suite derived from the opera's score, however, appears on the playlists of most classical music stations. Lush, evocative music, the suite demonstrates that Hanson did some of his best work in setting Richard L. Stokes libretto, based on a Nathaniel Hawthorne story. The synopsis takes almost 5 pages of the Naxos set's booklet essay, in tiny font, and makes for painfully protracted and confusing reading. The recording itself doesn't make matters any clearer; the frequent choral effusions are all but incomprehensible, and little sense of character or dramatic conflict comes through the brief interchanges.

The basic premise of a romance around the conflict between two groups (here the Puritans and the fur traders) serves many a great opera very well. The archaic language, flat characterization, and tedious narrative arc would hobble, one might think, any composer. Apparently Hanson believed in the project enough to let loose with streams of inspired melody. So the suite might seem the first option for interested listeners. however, the Seattle Symphony recording has much to recommend it. The musicians and singers are all committed and able, and Hanson's writing for chorus, absent from the suite, is rich and extensive. Schwarz recorded a series of discs dedicated to Hanson's music, and his knowledge of the composer's style comes through. The most well-known member of the cast, Lauren Flanigan, has a voice large enough for the dramatic moments, if not one easily able to suggest fragility. Lawrence Tibbett has the role of Wrestling Bradford in the premiere. Richard Zeller, without that level of charisma, gives an earnest and capable performance.

The opera does give to the repertory a most amusing list of characters: Plentiful Tewke, Jewel Scrooby, Peregrine Brodrib, Faint-Not Tinker. Not to neglect the First and Second Puritans.

At one time, Naxos offered on CD (outside the USA) the matinee broadcast of one of the original performances, in atrocious sound. Lovers of American opera will want this Naxos recording in superior sound, and those who know and enjoy the suite will probably find the disc worthwhile as well. Only those hoping to find a lost masterpiece deserving of resurrection on today's stages will be disappointed.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Howard Hanson: Merry Mount

product_title=Howard Hanson: Merry Mount, Op. 31
product_by=Lady Marigold Sandys (Lauren Flanigan), Sir Gower Lackland (Walter MacNeil), Wrestling Bradford (Richard Zeller), Praise-God Tewke (Charles Robert Austin), Seattle Symphony Chorale, Northwest Boychoir, Seattle Girls’ Choir, Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz (cond.)
product_id=Naxos 8.669012-13 [2CDs]

Posted by chris_m at 2:44 PM

Verdi: La Forza del Destino

The booklet notes come in Dutch (followed by an abbreviated English translation), which is understandable for a set highlighting the Dutch soprano's contribution. Paul Korenhof quickly lists Brouwenstijn's few "official recordings," and then details her career, an admirably extensive one in both German and Italian repertory.

So though the name may not be familiar to any but committed opera fans, it only takes a few moments of her Forza Leonora as preserved here to recognize a very great talent. In her mid 40s at the time of the performance, Brouwenstijn sounds in her prime. The voice is secure throughout the range, the tone firm and attractive, and her interpretation dramatic without any hysterical outbursts (often an excuse for poor technique or a fragile vocal state). All of Leonora's great moments come off supremely well, with a rare beauty in the prayers and a "Pace, pace mio dio" that leans to a reflective despair rather than a pathetic outcry. She still has the requisite fire for that aria's final "maledizione," however.

Jan Peerce, as Don Alvaro, beefs up his his tone for this heavy role, and at times the volume he pours out in the duets with John Shaw's Don Carlo overwhelms the recording equipment. The sound requires the usual aural compromises of in-house recordings, but only when the tenor and baritone are trying to out-bellow each other does it actually become harsh and unsatisfactory. In the other key roles, Rena Garazioti thankfully underplays Preziosilla's sometimes annoying music, Georg Littasy blends well with Brouwenstijn in Padre Guardino's scenes with Leonora, and Renato Capecchi doesn't scene-steal too ostentatiously as Fra Melitone.

Alberto Erede unobtrusively conducts the Netherlands Opera orchestra. Fans of Ms. Brouwenstijn will want this set if somehow the performance has eluded them, and at budget price, any others who love the opera and a fine performance by a soprano will find the set rewarding.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Giuseppe Verdi: La Forza del Destino

product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: La Forza del Destino
product_by=Peter van der Bilt (Marchese di Calatrava), Gré Brouwenstijn (Donna Leonora), John Shaw (Don Carlo di Vargas), Jan Peerce (Don Alvaro), Rena Garazioti (Preziosilla), Georg Littasy (Padre Guardiano), Renato Capecchi (Fra Melitone), Conchita Gaston (Curra), Jos Borelli
(Un Alcade), Wim Koopman (Mastro Trabuco), Henk Smit (Un Chirurgo), Orkest en Koor van de Nederlandsche Opera, Alberto Erede (cond.)
Den Haag, July 5, 1962
product_id=Osteria OS-1002 [2CDs]

Posted by chris_m at 1:41 PM

Classics for Pleasure opera highlights: Puccini

Just because most, if not all, of the better-known pieces from a particular work have been included, that doesn't necessarily make the performances highlights of those particular sets. "Selections" might be the more modest term.

Butterfly_highlights.pngEMI prompted the above thought with a new line of "highlights" from its extensive catalog, released on its budget Classics for Pleasure series. (No, you won't find Moses und Aron or Lulu on its Classics Not for Pleasure series). Consider two discs of "highlights" from Puccini operas. Sir John Barbirolli's classic Madam Butterfly (the "a" of "Madama" dropped for no clear reason) boasts a fine cast: Renata Scotto, Carlo Bergonzi, and Rolando Panerai. In its glorious entirety, this recording has a cumulative power, with much beautiful orchestral detail revealed through Barbirolli's sensitive, if slow-paced, leadership. Although Scotto's top, even at this relatively early stage of her career, reveals some of the metallic edge that would later characterize her high notes, her assumption of Cio-cio san deserves its high reputation. Not much of Bergonzi's elegant Pinkerton can be judged by this highlights set, however. He is heard in the love duet and his act two aria, but the set omits the act one arias. At only 55 minutes, the excuse can't be the CD timing. Beginning with Butterfly's entrance, only about 15 minutes of the first act appears. The second act gets fuller coverage, with the essential Butterfly/Sharpless conversation, the lovely duet with Scotto and Anna di Stasio's Suzuki, and then closing with the opera's last 18 minutes. The single-fold booklet contains a synopsis with numbered references to the track listing.

Only a few years after Montserrat Caballé's classic performance as Liu in the Zubin Mehta Turandot, the soprano moved up to the title role. Joan Sutherland, under Mehta, had used her huge voice to convey both the fierceness and underlying passion of the "ice princess." Caballe sings the role beautifully, no doubt, but the darker edge is naggingly absent. On the credit side, the riddle scene of act two probably never sounded so melodic. José Carreras, a frequent recording partner of Caballé, retains his beautiful middle voice in this 1977 recording, but the top, frequently called on for Calaf, already sounds unpleasantly pushed. Mirella Freni doesn't try to compete with the lovely floating tones of Caballé's Liu from the earlier set. Instead, Freni sings a more full-blooded Liu, with all the passion for the Unknown prince. Not much is heard in this highlights set of Paul Plishka's Timur or Ping, Pang, and Pong. The set times out at a miserly 53 minutes.

Some may respond to Alain Lombard's deliberateness and delicacy, but your reviewer found the conducting ponderous and fussy. Unless one is a huge Caballé fan, the Mehta set remains the version of choice, whether as a complete set or in highlights form. With the Butterfly, true lovers of the opera should seek out the complete set.

Chris Mullins


image_description=Giacomo Puccini: Turandot

product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Turandot
product_by=Caballé, Carreras, Freni, Plishka, Sardinero, Corazza, Cassinelli, Senechal, Strasbourg Cathedral Boys' Choir, Rhine Opera Chorus, Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra, Alain Lombard (cond.)
product_id=Classics for Pleasure (EMI) 393 3712 [CD]

Posted by chris_m at 12:57 PM

MASSENET: Cendrillon

First Performance: 24 May 1899 at the Théâtre National de l’Opéra-Comique, Paris.

Principal Characters:

Cendrillon Soprano
Madame de la Haltière, her stepmother Mezzo-Soprano or Contralto
Le Prince Charmant Falcon or Soprano de sentiment
La Fée Soprano léger
Noémie, stepsister of Cendrillon Soprano
Dorothée, stepsister of Cendrillon Mezzo-Soprano
Pandolfe, Cendrillon’s father Basse chantante or Baryton
Le Roi Baryton
Le Doyen de la Faculté Tenor
Le Surintendant des plaisirs Baryton
Le Premier Ministre Basse chantante or Baryton


“Cendrillon is the Massenet opera most readily approachable by those with reservations about his idiom. His musical sense of humour, all too seldom given full rein, is here at its frothiest, and liberally spiced with dry Gallic wit. Variety is assured by the four distinct soundworlds conjured up to tell the fairy-tale: the vigour and pomp of the court music, with Massenet’s best dance numbers apart from Le Cid and affectionate pastiche of classical forms from the ages of Lully and Rameau; the music for the fairy world, which has the airiness and harmonic savour of Mendelssohn crossed with Richard Strauss, both in their E major mode; the writing for Cendrillon and Pandolfe, showing Massenet at his most artlessly economical to match the simple virtues they represent; and the love music, which in its heavily perfumed chromaticism reminds one constantly how well Massenet knew his Wagner (as a student he may have played percussion in the Opéra orchestra at the famous Tannhäuser fiasco of 1861, and there are distinct echoes of the Bacchanale in Act 2 of Cendrillon). The mystical marriage of Act 3 is one of the composer’s most succulent love scenes.” Rodney Milnes: 'Cendrillon (ii)', Grove Music Online (Accessed 31 May 2006).

Click here for the complete libretto.


Act I
Setting Chez Madame de la Haltière
Summary In the hope of attracting the Prince’s attention, Madame de la Haltière and her daughters dress and leave for the ball. Pandolfe bitterly regrets his remarriage but nevertheless accompanies his wife, heartbroken though he is to leave Cinderella to her miserable lot. The girl unenthusiastically returns to her chores but soon falls asleep. While Cinderella is sleeping, the Fairy Godmother uses the opportunity to dress the girl in a magnificent gown, putting a glass slipper on her foot so that she will not be recognized. Cinderella promises to return at midnight and leaves for the ball.
Scene 1 Servantes et Serviteurs — On Appelle ! On Sonne !
Pandolfe — Continuez . . . ce n’est que moi
Scene 2 Pandolfe — Du côté de la barbe est la toute puissance
Scene 3 Mme de la Haltière et ses filles — Faites-vous très belles, ce soir
Mme de la Haltière (Temps de menuet) — Prenez un maintien gracieux
Scene 4 Les Domestiques — Ce sont les modistes ! ce sont les tailleurs !
Mme de la Haltière — De sa robe, il faut que les plis
Pandolfe — Félicitez-moi donc de mon exactitude
Mme de la Haltière, Noémie, Dorothée, Pandolfe — De la race, de la prestance, de l’audace !
Scene 5 Cendrillon — Ah ! que mes sœurs sont heureuses !
Cendrillon — Reste au foyer, petit grillon
Cendrillon — Comme la nuit est claire !
Le sommeil de Cendrillon
Scene 6 La Fée — Douce enfant, ta plainte légère
Sylphes et lutins La Fée — Je veux que cette enfant charmante
La Fée — Pour en faire un tissu magiquement soyeux
Les Esprits — Tous les petits oiseaux nous préteront leurs ailes
Cendrillon — Que vois-je ? Ah ! suis-je folle !
La Fée — Écoute-bien . . . quand sonnera minuit
La Fée et les Esprits — Partez, Madame la Princesse
Act II
Setting Chez le Roi
Summary The guests try unsuccessfully to entertain the melancholy Prince. Ballet. Cinderella’s entrance attracts great attention. The young Prince and the girl fall in love at first sight, but soon midnight strikes and Cinderella must leave.
Scene 1 Luth, viole d’amour et flûte de cristal (Concert mystérieux)
Surintendant des plaisirs, Doyens, Ministres, Courtisan et Docteurs — Que les doux pensers
Scene 2 Le Prince Charmant — Cœur sans amour, printemps sans roses
Scene 3 Entrée du Roi — Mon fils, il vous faut m’obéir
Les Filles de noblesse — (Première entrée du ballet)
Les Fiances — (Deuxième entrée)
Les Mandores — (Troisième entrée)
La Florentine — (Quatrième entrée)
Le Rigodon du Roy — (Cinquième entrée) Ah ! nous sommes en sa présence !
Arrivée de Cendrillon — Voyez ! l’adorable beauté !
Scene 4 Le Prince Charmant — Toi qui m’es apparue
Cendrillon — Pour vous, je serai l’inconnue
Le Prince Charmant — Je te perdrais !
Cendrillon — Vous étes mon Prince Charmant
Le Prince Charmant — Eh ! bien . . . laisse la main la mienne
Le Prince Charmant — Suis-je fou ? Qu’est-elle devenue ?
Premier Tableau
Setting Le Retour du Bal
Summary In her haste, Cinderella loses her slipper. Returning home, Madame de la Haltière expresses her delight at the Prince’s seeming coolness which caused the unknown girl to flee from the ball. Cinderella is overcome with emotion. Regaining her senses, she evokes her dead mother and, weary of life, rushes beneath the Fairies’ oak to die.
Scene 1 Cendrillon — Enfin, je suis ici
Cendrillon — A l’heure dite, je fuyais
Scene 2 Mme de la Haltière, Noémie, Dorothée — C’es vrai ! Vouse étes, je vous le déclare
Mme de la Haltière — Lorsqu’on a plus de vingt quartiers
Cendrillon — Racontez-moi . . . qu’a dit alors le fils du Roi ?
Pandolfe — Mais ma fille pâlit !
Scene 3 Pandolfe — Ma pouvre enfant chérie ! Ah ! tu souffres donc bien ?
Pandolfe — Vienx ! nous quittterons cette ville
Cendrillon — Maintenant, je suis mieux
Scene 4 Cendrillon — Seule, je partirai, mon pere
Cendrillon — Adieu, mes souvenirs de joie et de souffrance
Deuxième Tableau
Setting Au Chéne des Fées
Summary Unable to see each other, the lovers recognize one another by their voices. They implore the Fairy Godmother to remove the bush which she had placed between them. The Prince and Cinderella fall asleep in each other’s arms.
Scene 1 Voix des Esprits — (Chœur invisible)
La Fée — Fugitives chimères, ó lueurs éphémères
Les Gouttes de rosée
Les Esprits — Mais, là-bas, au fond de la lande obscùre
Scene 2 Cendrillon, le Prince Charmant — A deux genoux, bonne marraine
Le Prince Charmant — Vous qui pouvez tout voir et tout savoir
Cendrillon — Une pauvre áme en grand émoi
Le Prince Charmant — Tu me l’as dit, ce nom
La Fée — Aimez-vous, l’heure est brève
Act IV
Premier Tableau
Setting La Terrasse de Cendrillon
Summary Pandolfe emotionally witnesses his daughter’s convalescence. It is announced that the Prince is seeking the owner of the mysterious slipper. Cinderella regains hope.
Scene 1 Matinée de Printemps
Cendrillon — Je m’etais rendormie
Pandolfe — Tu riais . . . tu pleurais . . . sans motif et sans trève
Cendrillon — Hélas, j’ai donc rêve !
Scene 2 Voix de jeunes filles — Ouvre ta porte et ta fenétre
Cendrillon, Pandolfe — Printemps revient
Scene 3 Entrée de Mme de la Haltière — Avancez ! Reculez !
Mme de lat Haltière — Apprenez qu’aujourd’hui l’ordre de notre Roi
La voix du Héraut — Bonnes gens, vous êtes avertis
Cendrillon — Mon rêve était donc vrai !
Deuxième Tableau
Setting Chez le Roi — La Cour d’Honneur
Summary March of the Princesses. The Prince recognizes Cinderella and his love of life is renewed. Madame de la Haltière falls into Cinderella’s arms. “A happy ending is here for all,” concludes Pandolfe.
Sequence Marche des Princesses
La Foule — Salut aux Princesses ! Salut aux Altesses !
Le Prince Charmant — Posez dans son écrin sur un coussin de fleurs
La Fée — Prince Charmant, rouvrez les yeux
Cendrillon — Vous êtes mon Prince Charmant
Pandolfe et les Chœurs — Ici tout finit, la pièce est terminée
image= image_description=Jules Massenet: Cendrillon audio=yes first_audio_name=Jules Massenet: Cendrillon
first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Jules Massenet: Cendrillon product_by=Simone Blain (Cendrillon), Mireille Berthon (Madame de la Haltière), Jean Guilhem (Le Prince Charmant), Lucien Lovano (Pandolfe), Gilbert Moryn (Le Roi), Paule Touzet (La Fée), Germaine Parat (Noémie), Denise Scharley (Dorothée), Chœur et Orchestre Radio-Lyrique, Jules Gressier (cond.)
Live performance, 25 December 1943, Paris
Posted by Gary at 8:53 AM

March 23, 2008

Third Tristan Survives Tension at the Met

Smith_Robert_Dean.pngBy STEVE SMITH [NY Times, 24 March 2008]

The latest chapter in the continuing saga of the Metropolitan Opera’s star-crossed “Tristan und Isolde” arrived on Saturday afternoon as Robert Dean Smith, an American tenor who has spent much of his recent career in Europe, became the third singer to take the role of Tristan in this run of six performances. Ben Heppner, originally scheduled for the entire run, is now listed on the Met’s Web site only for the final performances, on Tuesday and Friday. At this point even those seem dubious.

Posted by Gary at 11:00 PM

Opera 'Thunderstorm' fascinating, impressive

Sung_Ariel.pngDavid Gordon Duke [Vancouver Sun, 23 March 2008]

A new opera by Tang Kangnian was given a Vancouver premiere Friday night at the Vancouver Playhouse. "Thunderstorm" was a fascinating proposition which sounded a clarion note of diversity in our local opera milieu. Tang worked for many years with the Shanghai Opera before moving to Vancouver in 1990.

Posted by Gary at 10:59 PM

Falstaff's Comedy and Dignity

Opalach_Jan_Falstaff.png(Photo: Opera Illinois)
BY GEORGE LOOMIS [NY Sun, 21 March 2008]

The Metropolitan Opera made a questionable judgment call a few years ago when it abandoned plans for a new production of Verdi's "Falstaff" and decided instead to refurbish its once-classic Franco Zeffirelli production from 1964. Despite efforts on their behalf, however, the sets looked every bit their age when they returned in 2002 and served as a reminder that no production deserves to last forever.

Posted by Gary at 9:47 PM

Opera's elite celebrate music of Viardot

Viardot_Pauline.pngBy Georgia Rowe [Mercury News, 20 March 2008]

Marilyn Horne returns to the stage in San Francisco this weekend, but the great American mezzo-soprano won't be singing. Instead, she'll serve as host and narrator for a "theatrical concert" about 19th-century superstar singer-composer Pauline Viardot.

Posted by Gary at 8:05 PM


First performance: 16 February 1892 at the Hofoper, Vienna.

Principal characters

Werther, 23-years old Tenor
Albert, 25-years old Baritone
Le Bailli, 50-years old Baritone or bass
Schmidt, friend of Bailli Tenor
Johann, friend of Bailli Baritone or bass
Brühlmann, young man Tenor
Charlotte, daugher of Bailli, 20-years old Mezzo-soprano
Sophie, her sister, 15-years old Soprano
Kätchen, young girl Soprano
Six children: Fritz, Max, Hans, Karl, Gretel, Clara Soprani or children's voices


Act I

On the outskirts of Frankfurt, July 178_.

On the terrace of the house of the bailiff, children are practicing Christmas carols. Sophie, the bailiff's fifteen-year-old daughter, looks on while her older sister, Charlotte, prepares for a party. The guests arrive. Among them is the young dreamer Werther ("Je of it sais him je veille"), whom the bailiff introduces to Charlotte. While all are at the dance, Sophie is at home alone when Albert, who is engaged to Charlotte, returns from a long trip. He is greatly disturbed that Charlotte has gone to a dance with another. But Sophie reassures him — his beloved has always thought of him ("Elle me aime"). The two depart, whereupon Werther and Charlotte reenter. Werther declares to her his love, but Charlotte tells him of her promise to her dying mother to marry Albert. Werther, although desperate, doesn't oppose ("The faut nous séparer").

Act II

The following September in the plaza of Wetzlar.

Albert and Charlotte have been married for three months and their friends toast their union. The unhappy Werther attends. Sophie arrives, who is in love with Werther, asks him to dance; but the invitation is rejected. Werther wants to talk to Charlotte. He approaches her to declare his love once more. But she responds by recommending that he leave for a few months and return on Christmas. Werther begins to think that only death can free him from his unhappiness. He again refuses Sophie's invitation to the dance.


Christmas Eve in the living room of Albert's house.

Charlotte is uneasy as she rereads a letter of Werther. Sophie asks her if she were sad because of the absence of Werther ("Je vous écris"). Charlotte begins to weep. Werther arrives. While he is reading her some verses of Ossian, he kisses her. They embrace, but Charlotte then runs away confining herself in a room ("Pourquoi me réveiller"). Werther leaves the house. He now knows that there is no happiness for him. Shortly thereafter he sends a note to Albert to ask him to loan him his pistols to take with him on a trip. Charlotte realizes the truth and hurries to Werther's home.

Act IV

It is Christmas night.

Werther lies dying in his study. Upon hearing the voice of Charlotte, he is revived for an instant. He asks for forgiveness and for a proper burial ("Là-bas, au fond du cimitière"). He dies in Charlotte's arms as she confesses the truth — she has always loved him. She expresses her regret at having sacrificed her own true feelings to an oath. Children are heard from afar singing Christmas carols.

Click here for the complete libretto.

image_description=Georges Thill as Werther

first_audio_name=Jules Massenet: Werther


product_title=Jules Massenet: Werther
product_by=Georges Thilll, Ninon Vallin, Germaine Feraldy, Marcel Roque, Armand Narçon, Louis Guenot, Henri Niel, Choeurs d'enfants de la Cantoria, Orchestre du Théâtre National de l'Opéra-Comique, Elie Cohen (cond.). Recorded March 1931.

Posted by Gary at 9:47 AM

Lalo's Fiesque — University College Opera

The opera, for political reasons at the time of its composition, was not given its world premiere until last 2006 when it was given in concert in Montpellier, closely followed by its stage premiere in Mannheim in 2007.

Set in 16th-century Genoa, it inhabits the same world as Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, though its dark and threatening atmosphere make it more reminiscent of Un ballo in maschera or La Gioconda. It certainly succeeds in evoking an Italian flavour more effectively than any other mid-19th-century French opera about Italy which comes to mind.

As the performance progressed, I wished I had familiarised myself with the synopsis rather more thoroughly at the outset. It seemed to be a tale of marital jealousy on one hand, and one of political intrigue on the other — with the two threads having little relevance to one another. Somehow I had missed the crucial detail that the wanton Julie, with whom the eponymous hero seems determined to break his marriage vows, is the daughter of the enemy and therefore a pivotal pawn in a political game.

Indeed, the dramatic structure of the piece is flawed; for example, the opening scene belongs to Fiesque's wife Leonore, who is lamenting her husband's apparent abandonment of her, but it's then several scenes before she makes another appearance. There are a lot of characters, and so many plot details that it is very difficult to remember anybody's motivation for their actions. To make matters worse, the plot hinges on Fiesque himself often acting in a seemingly erratic manner, which only adds to the confusion – in fact he's acting for the greater good, but the audience don't get let into the secret any sooner than his family or allies do. There is simply too much going on, too few threads holding it all together, and too much incongruity amongst the motley group of characters.

IMG_7064.pngThe revolution scene

Emma Rivlin's straightforward production serves it well, however, and UC Opera's amateur forces (making up the chorus, orchestra and comprimario roles) gave the best performance I have heard from them in several years. Under Charles Peebles's direction, there was little in the orchestral playing to remind the audience of the players' amateur status. Similarly the chorus, made up of lots of youthful, amateur voices, may not have a traditionally 'operatic' timbre but produced an impressive sound. The chorus was well-directed, too, especially in the revolution scene towards the end, where the highly-charged atmosphere was palpable and everybody looked involved.

As for the professional principals, the male leads were, for the most part, very strongly cast: Robert Davies was outstanding as Fiesque's political-ally-turned-nemesis, Verrina, and tenor David Curry gave an assured and polished account of the title role. Margaret Cooper's Leonore and Alison Crookendale's Julie both suffered from over-generous vibrato and one-dimensional character portraits (though to be fair, neither role has much to work with in terms of character development.)

Fiesque may not be a lost masterpiece, but UC Opera certainly made as persuasive a case for it as it is ever likely to get.

Click here for this production's program.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

image= image_description=Lalo: Fiesque (University College Opera) product=yes product_title=Édouard Lalo: Fiesque
University College Opera, London
10 March 2008 product_by=Above: Fiesque (David Curry)
Posted by Gary at 7:08 AM

March 17, 2008

Frankfurt's Ship of Fools

Except they don't. Except, that is, in Frankfurt Opera's new production staged by Claus Guth and designed by Christian Schmidt, with imaginative costumes contributed by Anna Sofie Tuma.

Not that this is frivolously considered. It's not. And not that it's not very handsome indeed to look at. It is. Seldom has the famous Frankfurt turntable been used to better advantage than in swinging this elegant, white, two-level ship back and forth, always smoothly and soundlessly, revealing a suite, a bedroom, a first class bar, a hint of an open deck, a chapel, an imposing stair to the upper level, and a lounge. Messrs. Guth and Schmidt are seeking, nay stretching to find a metaphor here, and the unifying ideas they stress to be common to these three one-acters are, I believe, two:

  1. People make foolishly bad decisions and have to suffer the consequences, reaping what they sow.
  2. Coping with the death of a loved one (or "tolerated one," as with "Buoso") is a defining Life Moment.
Let's add a third: In the midst of life we are in the midst of death. Or does this production team consider it the other way around? At one point in the evening, my colleague leaned over and summoned "Sixth Sense," quipping: "I see Dead People." There were enough ghosts floating around to people a decent revival of "Poltergeist."

Back to the ship, just how much about those two "discussion bullets" above actually "floats" in the context of these one-acters? Truth to tell, not so very much. For the first act, Schmidt's elegant setting was assuredly not the original milieu of the score's dock workers and Seine denizens, and the honking and tooting of the industrial river traffic in the score seemed rather comically out of place with the surroundings. And what are those rough-and-tumble stevedores doing in a ship's classy bar anyway?

That said, "Il Tabarro" was exceptionally well-blocked, and the direction of the character relationships throughout the night was nothing short of electrifying. The "Luigi-Giorgietta" duet ('scuse me, Giacomo) is B-level Puccini. But the total commitment of the lovers, and the uninhibited erotic longings of our heroine transformed this passage into one of the hottest operatic encounters I have ever seen. Pawing her prey, this soprano-as-sex-kitten had a powerful itch and wanted it scratched; rubbing and purring, cooing and grinding, and creating heat not usually found on the operatic stage.

This was due in no small measure to the thrilling "discovery" of soprano Elza van den Heever ("Giorgietta"). In her first professional appearances ever, Ms. Heever gave a star-making performance characterized by uninhibited acting, beauty of form, and a highly polished lirico-spinto sound that had a touch of metal in the big declamations. The opera world needs singers of her caliber and she should go far. She was well-partnered by the experienced "Luigi" of Frank van Aken, also quite a fearless performer, who commands a robust. well-schooled, if slightly muscular tenor.

"Michele" and "Giorgietta's" beautifully voiced duet was imagined as a love-hate encounter that too created its own sparks. Among the white-clad spirit figures peopling each act was, in this duet, the couple's dead Love Child, playing with a makeshift folded paper boat, moved portentously in and about the action. As "Michele" forcibly kept his wife wrapped in the cloak, the child got seamlessly trapped with the pair in the garment during, providing an unforgettably haunting, chills-inducing image.

suorangelica.pngSuor Angelica — Angelina Ruzzafante (Suor Angelica, links oben), Ensemble

Only the critical fight scene when "Michele" chokes "Luigi" was rather meekly staged. Okay, okay, this is tricky stuff, with rapid fire "dialogue" that is not particularly well-timed in the score, and lots of scuffling required between baritone and tenor. Still, it appeared that our tenor was not choked, but rather "lapeled" to death. ("Nooooo, don't go grabbin' my lapels!! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh, I am melting, melting, what a world. . .what a world. . .")

No equivocation though that Zeljko Lucic was a first-rate "Michele." This splendid "house singer" has gone on to great acclaim in the world's most prestigious houses, including the Met's recent broadcast "Macbeth." That his success is deserved was evidenced on this occasion by a suavely sung "Michele," no more so than in his big ranting aria near act's end. He brought sound technique, burnished tone, and dramatic fire to bear in equal measure to forge a figure of profound tragedy. Later in the evening, Lucic regaled us anew with a wry, witty, expansively sung "Schicchi."

Julia Juon is a treasurable artist who was a memorable "Frugola," her little "cat arietta" giving much pleasure. She is perhaps too diminutive for the "Principessa," and was not helped by being placed behind the bar for the bulk of her great scene. It made her look even shorter, and served as a real visual barrier to our connection with her arrogance and imperiousness. Too, her tightly focused voice is not the big honking baritonal sound that Maureen Forester and Marilyn Horne have brought to the part. With "Zita" she was on solid ground again, looking eerily evocative of Rue McClanahan in "Golden Girls." Cagey, cool, elegant, steady and characterful of voice, this was nonetheless a wonderful trio turn for the popular Ms. Juon.

Longtime Frankfurt ensemble member Carlos Krause was a fully rounded "Talpa" as well as a delightfully scheming "Simone." The drunken exhortations of "Trincula" were well handled by Hans-Juergen Lazar. Daniel Behle was a sweet-voiced "Song Seller" who would later prove to be a slimy and persuasive "Gherardo."

Although "Tabarro" was shoe-horned into this concept, it still fully made it's case. The gentle "Suor Angelica" had rougher seas to traverse. Again I gotta ask: Is there anything about this simple convent tale that "floats"? Or that can allow for the fact that a strict, reclusive religious order is inexplicably on a luxury cruise? Are these actually the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence on a gay holiday? Whaddupwiddat?

The sweet little expository cameos of the rather anonymous and interchangeable sisters went for even less than usual. The setting here was such such a distraction that I spent more time wondering about the anachronisms than I did enjoying the overall wonderful singing and playing.

Within this ill-conceived framework, though, star soprano Danielle Halbwachs served notice that she is a wonderful, commanding, well-rounded artist. She sings with informed nuance, considerable power, and generous tone.

What she does not possess to my taste is a particularly Puccinian sound and therein lies a rub. "Angelica" is a character study (and nothing but) painted in a quintessential Italianate sound vocabulary. Not her fault, but where the voice should spin and gleam, such as in the upper reaches of the luminous climaxes, her technique only touched on the notes before fleeing to more comfortable lower reaches. The final floated high note of "Senza Mamma" did not come easily, and on this occasion, resisted focusing into the requisite finely spun filigree.

Dramatically, the director had her affect a cliched trembling hand a la Tom Hanks in "Saving Private Ryan" -- quieted only by death. Truth in Reporting: All my reservations seemed to matter not one whit to the Publikum who received her rapturously, and, well, why not? Our diva did the vast majority of things right, and is a hugely talented performer. So talented that I would love to see her in other, more suitable roles of her core repertoire.

But what a sad mish-mosh "Angelica" turned out to be. Our Singing Nun seemed to have a sideboard/mini-bar in her suite that was very well stocked with herbs, weeds, seeds, Diet Coke (I made that up), and well, um, poisons. Huh? (See the problem here?) If Carnival Cruises ever offers this tour package, I advise you to pass on it. Or at least avoid the herbal teas.

schicchi.pngGianni Schicchi — Željko Lučić (Gianni Schicchi, rechts), Solistenensemble (Verwandte)

With "Gianni Schicchi" we were back in the realm of believability, although the paeans to the vista of Florence were certainly not credible. I have been there. Big ass cruise ships cannot dock in the Arno. But, save that, there is nothing inherently wrong about "Buoso" and "famiglia" being on this boat. Guth found much to revel in and nailed any number of comic moments.

In a startling revelation our "Lauretta" is shown to be pregnant. Whether the singer really is or not, the reveal at the end of "O Mio Babbino Caro" (competently sung by Juanita Lascarro) was a stunner, and it worked. The Pillsbury Doughboy "Rinuccio" of Massimiliano Pisapia was a real crowd pleaser thanks to an ample, pointed, veristic tone and well shaped phrases. Mr. Pisapia is a tenor to watch.

The entire ensemble of greedy relatives made outstanding contributions, not least of which was Nathaniel Webster as "Marco." Angelina Ruzzafante, Franz Mayer, and Claudian Mahnke contributed sparkling jewels of individualized characterizations as "Nella," "Betto," and "Ciesca," respectfully. Throughout the night the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra under Yuval Zorn played very responsively, although (as in "Suor Angelica") occasionally with more passion than precision.

Perhaps the metaphor for the whole Ship of Fools concept came at the end of "Schicchi" when our leading baritone apparently shoots himself off stage. Shoots himself! I mean, Big Bang off stage, and he lumbers back on, bloodied, taking his ghostly time mounting the stairs, as a melancholy voice-over pronounces his final speech to the audience.

My Big Bang Theory? "Schicchi" went off stage and said "Oh damn, I have been playing this Florentine opera on a cruise ship! It's the fifteenth century, for God's sake! I'm a Fool! Onore! Famiglia!. . . .Bang!"

But seriously now, this was a terrific cast in a conscientiously considered, well-staged, musically sound production. The audience cheered it to the rafters. As for me, I admired the skills of the talented and earnest production team so much, that I would welcome the chance to see more of their work. Or. . . to see them put all these excellent elements into a more realistic production. Now there is a radical concept!

If not everything about this "Il Triticco" worked, it was still the product of a healthy and prolific artistic mind. I was always engaged, sometimes led astray, but always hoping to see more from this talented team.

James Sohre

image= image_description=Il tabarro--Željko Lučić (Michele), Elza van den Heever (Giorgetta), Kind von Giorgetta und Michele (Statisterie der Oper Frankfurt) product=yes product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Il Trittico
Oper Frankfurt product_by=Above: Il tabarro — Željko Lučić (Michele), Elza van den Heever (Giorgetta), Kind von Giorgetta und Michele (Statisterie der Oper Frankfurt)
All photos courtesy of Oper Frankfurt.
Posted by Gary at 2:01 PM

Heggie's "Last Acts"

Or at least, to think. Plus, he is a darn nice guy.

Having admired both the musical dramas "Dead Man Walking" and the revised "The End of the Affair," as well as any number of his recorded songs, I was greatly looking forward to the Houston Grand Opera premiere of his newest work, "Last Acts." To say the least, I was not disappointed.

Gene Scheer's libretto takes as its inspiration a very short work by Terence McNally, and features only three singers: "Madeline Mitchell," an actress, and "Charlie" and "Beatrice," her children, all of whom seem to live in Dysfunction Junction. There is actually a fourth, if absent character, the late husband/father, whose untimely death informs much of the conflict.

"Madeline" is a consummate stage mother, although not in the "Mama Rose" mold. She lives to be on stage, driven to deriving fulfillment from her approving audiences to the exclusion of the children after the loss of her husband. Although she is the pivotal figure, the emotional journey of "Last Acts" is more that of her gay son (whose partner is dying of AIDS), and alcoholic daughter (whose marriage cannot compensate for the early loss of her father), who long for her acceptance, or well, just plain recognition.

McNally's early piece was conceived for the concert platform (an AIDS benefit with the NYC Gay Men's Chorus) and uses a unifying dramatic device of the mother's annual, appallingly self-centered Christmas letter. As expanded here, the three acts are set a decade apart starting in 1986, at the height of the cataclysmic AIDS casualties here in the US.

Act One begins with baritone Keith Phares (exceedingly handsome of voice and face) and soprano Kristin Clayton (also looking radiant with singing to match), commiserating on the telephone over the contents of this annual letter, and lamenting their mother's detachment.

This act belongs most to "Charlie" as we come to learn of his partner's affliction, his craving of mom's approval, and ultimately, his co-dependence on his sister. A fine actor, Mr. Phares delivered a powerfully affecting, high-flying solo without a trace of self-pity, and joined Ms. Clayton at act's end for a deeply moving, beautifully sung duet about the memory of their father. "Bea" remembers dad (or idealizes him) as a benevolent patriarch in a comfortable easy chair. "Charlie" despairs that he remembers only . . .the chair. This was moving stuff, and arguably one of the high points in a score filled with pleasures.

Act Two gives way to "Beatrice's" demons, and Ms. Clayton is up to the challenge, with a bountiful lyric voice and spot-on projection throughout the range. She makes the most out of an extended scene of trying on mom's dresses (to accompany her to the Tony's), and delights us in a witty duet with her brother, extolling the virtues of "buying shoes" (a metaphor for therapy). Shortly after, she does a turn-about and has a searing confrontation with her mother, hurling powerfully sung phrases, and provoking a dramatic revelation about her idealized dad.

Any opera featuring the luminous mezzo Frederica von Stade ("Madeline Mitchell") at its center already has a lot going for it. This remarkable artist has been favoring us with consistently fine performances for over three decades. In my own experience, I cherish vivid memories of her Hamburg "Rosina," Brussels "Cendrillon," Paris "Octavian," New York "Cherubino," and most recently her "Mother" in San Francisco's "Dead Man Walking." The good news is that she is not only still a classy, beautiful, consummate artist, but she is also still singing very very well.

If the sheen and spin of her younger days is a bit diminished, it is amply compensated for by a hint of full-bodied, mature earthiness that was not there before. And if there is a very slight shifting of gears in and out of the chest voice now, she negotiates this rangy role with knowing skill. And our composer has given her some wonderful musical moments that play to all her interpretive strengths. She charms, she rants, she belts, she caresses, she provokes, she soothes, and she pours out phrase after phrase of plangent sound.

Act Three ultimately made "Madeline" a more fully rounded and sympathetic character, and ended by bringing her to the apron to invoke her philosophy of life which also happens to be the final phrase of her latest Christmas epistle. This act is much shorter than the either of the first two and seems more a postlude. Indeed the program heading says "an opera in two acts" although it later lists three, with an intermission between the first two.

To its credit and benefit, it does not hurt that "Last Acts" had the full arsenal of the HGO's first rate production values at its disposal, starting with director/designer Leonard Foglia. He placed the chamber orchestra on stage at the top level of some stepped platforms, making good, varied use of this playing space, to include raising and lowering actors and set pieces on the hydraulic pit apron.

By also flying in well-chosen minimal set pieces, and factoring in a flawless lighting design from Brian Nason, Mr. Leonard scored a lot of points for focus and variety. Cesar Galinda's wonderfully effective, occasionally dazzling costumes were also a great contribution, not least of which was the "reveal" of our diva's sequined red show gown from under a short cocktail dress as the scene progressed from entertainment at a private party to a Broadway show performance. Not since Effie White's "I Am Changing" turn in "Dreamgirls" has this effect been seen to better, more magical advantage.

But it was not just flash and dazzle and sleight of hand from our director. Add to the above an unerring sense of communicating character relationships, and a clarity in relating the story line, resulting in our being treated to some uncommonly fine acting.

The music was typically tuneful, dramatically engaging Heggie. In addition to the afore-mentioned set pieces, there were several hauntingly lovely motifs that caught the ear, Mme. von Stade had a wonderful scena when she reveals all about dad, and there were two sinuously intertwining trios that were achingly beautiful. Each character had a telling, well-considered monologue. And our composer sure knows how to deliver comedic punch lines with well-paced set-up and accurate pay-offs. The "Shoe Duet" in 3/4 time was reminiscent of Sondheim's "A Little Priest" without the Macabre.

That is not to say that absolutely everything worked, "Madeline's" comic party piece was missing that final "something" that would have made it play like the showstopping Cy Coleman novelty number it aspired to be. And early in Act Two, the libretto occasionally seemed too pat, bringing in a gratuitous reference or two about the father, or lacking clear definition of "Bea's" alcoholism and motivation for her to turn on her mother. But these are points that will be worked out as these talented creators play it for an audience. It remains to be said that this is a lovely chamber opera that greatly pleased its audience.

One quibble: since the three vocalists all had exemplary English diction, why the surtitles? They occasionally trumped the actors in giving away the dramatic and comic lines too soon, and why? They're not singing Polish, for God's sake! Turn that pacifier off when we can damn well hear and understand the words ourselves! (Thanks, I feel better now. . .)

The effective orchestration calls for five strings, oboe/English horn, one woodwind with doublings, percussion, and two keyboards played by the composer himself and HGO Music Director and conductor Patrick Summers. Maestro Summers has been instrumental in championing Heggie, and conducted the premieres of all three of his operas to date. As on other occasions, he led this group of superlative musicians with skill, dramatic savvy, and sensitive support.

"Last Acts" has other productions lined up starting in San Francisco, where it will play under its new title "Three Decembers." A rose by any other name should sound as sweet, especially if it has a cast, orchestra, and production support as top notch as that assembled by Houston Grand Opera. Mssrs. Heggie and Summers are young men. Here's hoping that they collaborate on many many more "Last Acts" of this high quality before their careers are finished.

James Sohre

image= image_description= Frederica von Stade (Madeline) sings a childhood lullaby to Keith Phares (Charlie) to console him in Jake Heggie’s Last Acts. HGOs 37th world premiere opera. Photo courtesy of HGO product=yes product_title=Jake Heggie: Last Acts
The Houston Grand Opera product_by=Above: Frederica von Stade (Madeline) sings a childhood lullaby to Keith Phares (Charlie) to console him in Jake Heggie’s Last Acts. HGOs 37th world premiere opera. Photo courtesy of HGO.
Posted by Gary at 1:40 PM

Heggie faces family dilemma in new work

Since Agamemnon and Clytemnestra were at their Attic — and antic — best families in a fix have been a major source of raw material for creative artists. Thus it’s easy to understand Jake Heggie’s fascination with the Mitchells — mother “Maddy,” an ageing actress, her gay son Charlie and daughter Bea, wife of a wayward husband, the subject of “Last Acts,” a chamber opera premiered by the Houston Grand Opera on February 29.

The Mitchells are something of a special case, for not only are they a mess as a group, but individually as well. “Maddy” has concealed her husband’s suicide from her estranged children. Charlie, the younger, watches his partner die of AIDS, while Bea — her kids already in college — laments her husband’s philandering. Heggie found the Mitchells — the deceased husband, although absent from the work, is still part of the family — in “Christmas Letters,” a 2001 play by his frequent librettist Terrence McNally that was given a single reading at a New York AIDS benefit. Smitten by the story, the composer asked Gene Scheer to fashion a libretto from McNally’s text.

When Heggie is on stage there’s no “Capriccio”-style clamor — “prima la musica e poi le parole” — about words versus music. He’s a setter of words, a composer first of songs and then of operas and musical scenes, in which the text comes first. The new score is smooth and flows without huge ups and downs; an occasional nudge of dissonance might have made listeners more aware of the finely-wrought music they are hearing. Heggie makes it too easy for the audience, drawing them into the story with his refined sense of theater and allowing them to overlook the sophisticated music that he has written.

A young composer could not have wished for better on-the-job training than Heggie got when he joined the press wing of the San Francisco Opera in 1994. Just out of college with a stack of early songs under his arm, he was immediately involved in the company’s 1994 world premiere of Conrad Susa’s “Dangerous Liaisons.” It helped him hone the skills that led to the SFO commission — and premiere — of his “Dead Man Walking” in 2000. (It remains the most successful opera of the new century thus far.) And the star of the Susa cast was Frederica von Stade, who became Heggie’s friend, muse and mentor. Heggie pays homage to the legendary mezzo in “Last Acts,“ a two-hour study of the Mitchells’ woes.

Tailor-made for her, von Stade is in her element in “Last Acts,” performed on a largely bare stage with an ensemble of 11 instrumentalists on risers behind her. Cesar Galindo provided her with sumptuous gowns, and Brian Nason‘s lighting added to the effectiveness of shifting scenes. Von Stade relishes “Maddy” and she accounted for the success that the work was in the eyes — and ears — of the opening-night audience that packed the 1000-seat Cullen Theater in Houston’s Wortham Center. Indeed, if there is an inherent weakness in the work, it is in the undiminished vocal splendor and still ravishing beauty of the famous mezzo, for von Stade — now 62 — will never grow old. And although Heggie admits that he can see others in the role, “Last Acts” will survive probably only as long as von Stade is able to sing it, for the work is so uniquely hers.

In his HGO debut youthful baritone Keith Phares was a troubled Charlie, while Kristin Clayton was a trifle too matronly to be the daughter of ageless von Stade. “Last Acts” is more Broadway than Berlioz, and von Stade’s first-act “number” is the “hit” of the work. And while the opening act is somewhat bland, Heggie’s skill comes to the fore as the previously concealed truth about the suicide of husband/father is revealed in the second. In the well-balanced score each of the children has a major solo scene. Heggie writes “big” music, even when composing for chamber forces. “Last Acts” is lush and listenable, warm and warming; it’s accessible and affirmative in gesture. Although “Maddy,” affirming that it’s the truth that makes us free, concludes that everything “is going to be alright,” one must wonder whether Heggie — and Scheer — have not made things a bit too simple.

The audience is asked to accept that “Maddy” went on stage to put food on the table and shoes on little feet. No one asks whether she, convinced that “truth could only be touched by imagination,” was in the beginning the constant wife of which everyone dreams. Did she perhaps conceal too much in finding “a version of our lives that we could all live with?” Does “Last Acts” suggest that there is a [italics] truth, rather than the [italics]? Is this not rather a further “take” on life as a stage, in which fiction substitutes for fact? (Not to be overlooked, of course, is the fact that Heggie’s father killed himself when his son was 10.)

HGO music director Patrick Summers conducted from one piano; Heggie was at a second.

Commissioned by the HGO in association with San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances, “Last Acts” will be titled “Three Decembers” in future performances. Heggie has been commissioned to write a new work on “Moby-Dick” to open the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, the new home of Dallas Opera, on April 30, 2010.

Wes Blomster

image= image_description= Frederica von Stade (Madeline) and Kristin Clayton (Beatrice) in Jake Heggie’s Last Acts. HGOs 37th world premiere opera. Photo courtesy of HGO. product=yes product_title=Jake Heggie: Last Acts
Houston Grand Opera product_by=Above: Frederica von Stade (Madeline) and Kristin Clayton (Beatrice) in Jake Heggie’s Last Acts. HGOs 37th world premiere opera. Photo courtesy of HGO.
Posted by Gary at 9:32 AM

Stewed Queen Loses Her Head in 'Bolena'

Anna_Bolena_ETO.pngWarwick Thompson [, 17 March 2008]

March 17 (Bloomberg) -- There are few things more heartening to an opera lover than a queen boiling with jealousy, going mad, and getting her head chopped off. Donizetti's ``Anna Bolena'' (Anne Boleyn) hits every mark.

Posted by Gary at 9:08 AM

Isabel Leonard, Weill Recital Hall

Leonard_Isabel.png(Photo courtesy of CAMI)
By VIVIEN SCHWEITZER and STEVE SMITH [NY Times, 17 March 2008]

The mezzo soprano Isabel Leonard made a noteworthy Metropolitan Opera debut last fall as Stéphano in “Roméo et Juliette,” demonstrating a lively stage presence and a radiant lyric voice. On Friday she proved that she is also confident on the recital stage, making her New York debut at Weill Recital Hall, ably accompanied by the pianist Brian Zeger.

Posted by Gary at 7:55 AM

The Cliché-Busting Baritone

Hampson_2008.pngBY GEORGE LOOMIS [NY Sun, 17 March 2008]

Giuseppe Verdi's 200th birthday is five years away, but it looks as though the baritone Thomas Hampson is celebrating early. His operatic docket this season includes Verdi operas exclusively — "Macbeth" in San Francisco, "Don Carlo" in Vienna, "La Traviata" in Chicago and Zurich. And he makes his debut as Don Carlo in "Ernani" tonight when the hot-blooded Romantic sizzler returns to the Metropolitan Opera for the first time since 1985.

Posted by Gary at 7:15 AM

Wozzeck, La Monnaie, Brussels

Berg_bust.pngBy Shirley Apthorp [Financial Times, 16 March 2008]

Blood, mud and madness are the key ingredients of David Freeman’s new Wozzeck for Brussels’ La Monnaie. At the end of the evening, when Marie’s throat has been slit and Wozzeck has sunk to his death beneath the murky water, it is Alban Berg’s music that leaves the strongest impression, a timeless story flawlessly told.

Posted by Gary at 6:25 AM

St Matthew Passion at the Festival Hall

StMatthew_2008.pngNeil Fisher [Times Online, 12 March 2008]

Strictly no applause until the very end. A long, long hush when Jesus dies on the Cross. And picnics with folding camping chairs in the Festival Hall foyers during the two-hour lunch interval between betrayal and Crucifixion. This is the Bach Choir at Easter, and it's a distinctly curious experience for the uninitiated.

Posted by Gary at 2:48 AM

Eugene Onegin, ROH

AleksandrPushkin_100x100.pngMartin Kettle [The Guardian, 12 March 2008]

Mess with Eugene Onegin at your peril. Several characters in Pushkin's verse novel and Tchaikovsky's opera learn this the hard way. But the warning applies to directors, too. The relationship between Tchaikovsky's assured "lyric scenes" and Pushkin's dazzling irony is a delicate one. Unfortunately, the late Steven Pimlott's production, here revived by Elaine Kidd for the first time since the director's tragic death last year, blunders gratuitously into the elaborate dialectic between author and composer. The result is a theatrical jumble.

Posted by Gary at 2:38 AM

March 16, 2008

Tristan und Isolde — The Metropolitan Opera

As the flick begins, they announce that Matt Damon has a virus and had to leave; he's being replaced by someone who's never done the part before. But it's okay. Then, halfway through, Gwyneth Paltrow (the star) goes running off-screen, leaving the guy hanging in mid love scene. After a moment, the screen goes dark (but not before you saw the panic in his eyes). Pause. Then they announce Miss Paltrow is ill, and will be replaced by (name you never heard of). She wears the same dress and wig but doesn't look anything like her. She takes a while to warm up, but hey, Daniel Day-Lewis walks off with the character part anyway. (As you expected.) Somehow the kid gets through the big final scene, and the girl takes the climax. Thundering ovation. You never had that happen to you at the movies, did you? (Low class bastards.)

At the Met tonight, Tristan und Isolde. Rumors of doom had been circulating since the disastrous prima on Monday. Ben Heppner, virused up, has run back to Canada. (He's been cracking on all his high notes anyway.) The tenor who replaced him Monday was so bad, he was booed off the stage. (Ugly too, they tell me.) So tonight they found some kid who'd never sung Tristan before. Gary Lehman (this is a heldentenor?) We're all very hopeful. (Besides, Matti Salminen is King Marke, and bound to be a hit.) Peter Gelb, announcing the change, looks like he has veins of ice water and this happens all the time. The kid is tall, well built, looks like Errol Flynn, sings okay, acts okay, keeps an eye fixed on Jimmy. Then, halfway through the love duet in Act II, Debbie Voigt runs off stage. To get a drink of water I presumed. The tenor just sort of stands there, singing ardently to a blank stage, Jimmy keeps conducting ... the curtain comes down. Pause. Someone (not Gelb) comes out to say: Don't leave the room, Debbie's sick, some soprano no one has heard of (Janice Baird, and she IS on the roster) is getting dressed and will take over.

Of course she hasn't had time (much less a whole act) to warm up, but anyway: At last we get the duet again (which means the poor Tristan will be singing more of the opera in one night than ANYONE EVER HAS). Isolde finally warms up by the climax. Matti Salminen walks off with it, as I knew he would. In the intermission, my friend La Cieca (opera columnist a l'outrance, see says, "I'm speechless." I said, "Don't tell me we'll have to replace you too!" Well, Lehman sings Act III, the toughest workout for tenor ever composed. Doesn't sound fabulous, but he's okay. No cracked high notes. Isolde rushes in clumsily (she's never rehearsed), sings Liebestod. She's okay. Silence to the last chord.

Chaos: Standing ovation for the pair, then for the whole cast, then for Jimmy. It's 1 a.m. and nobody wants to leave without screaming. Nobody wanted to have been, for those six hours, anywhere else in the world.

I bet you've never been at a movie where this happened.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Janice Baird product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
The Metropolitan Opera product_by=Above: Janice Baird
Posted by Gary at 9:37 PM

Handel's Riccardo primo, Re d’Inghilterra (HWV 23) and Tolomeo, Re d’Egitto (HWV 25) from Bärenreiter

The primary benefit of these vocal scores seems clear enough: making available affordable, convenient, modern critical editions of Handel’s operas.1 Hitherto, individuals have been largely limited to reproductions of Chrysander’s admirable but often unreliable ninetieth-century German scores (G. F. Händels Werke: Ausgabe der deutschen Händelgesellschaft, 1858–94), which are availably for purchase only sporadically (in the form, for example, of the Dover Score of Giulio Cesare and Kalmus’s miniature reprint series). Bärenreiter’s full-score editions, of course, have been beyond the means of most individuals – Riccardo Primo and Tolomeo are priced at €335.00 and €259.00 respectively – and are obviously intended primarily for institutional purchase. At prices in the €25–€40 range, however, the vocal editions are affordable to a wide range of scholars, students, and performers.

As has generally been the case, the vocal scores of Riccardo Primo and Tolomeo have followed the release of the full-score editions of the same operas in the Hallische Händel-Ausgabe (HHA) complete-works series.2 Needless to say, the vocal editions cannot offer many of the advantages of the HHA full scores, which have been nearly unanimously hailed for the wealth of explanatory information they provide. The orchestrational indications, for example, offer only sketches of Handel’s instrumentation, and are not always entirely clear. Similarly, although a list of general procedural guidelines is supplied in the front matter, explanations of specific editorial decisions are, of necessity, extremely limited. The front matter, however, provides (in both German and English) historical background, plot synopses, and, in the case of Riccardo Primo, descriptions of the divergent versions of the opera, giving students and scholars important contextual information. (These passages are in some cases reproduced verbatim from the HHA editions, and in others presented in condensed form.)

Handel_Tolomeo.pngOn balance, Ricardo Primo, Tolomeo, and the rest of the series serve their purpose quite well. For researchers, the editions will likely save many a trip to the university library (especially if the vocal scores are supplemented with background and source information from Winton Dean’s two-volume monograph on Handel’s operas). Moreover, vocal instructors, students, and professional singers alike are sure to find the editions invaluable, in that they provide relatively easy access to dependable editions of Handel’s operatic works with each new publication.

Nathan Link

1. The vocal score of Amadigi di Gaula was published in late February 2008; Oreste is set to be published in May 2008.

2. There are three exceptions: the vocal scores for Ezio (scheduled for publication Summer 2008), Alcina (due for publication in 2009), and Giulio Cesare (publication date not yet clear) have preceded the publication of the respective HHA full score.

image= image_description=G. F. Handel: Riccardo primo, Re d’Inghilterra (HWV 23) product=yes product_title=G. F. Handel: Riccardo primo, Re d’Inghilterra (HWV 23); Tolomeo, Re d’Egitto (HWV 25) product_by=Bärenreiter-Verlag, Kassel, 2007 product_id=Riccardo primo, Re d’Inghilterra — ISBN/ISMN: M-006-53247-6 (BA4081 90)
Tolomeo, Re d’Egitto — ISBN/ISMN: M-006-49932-8 (BA4058 90) price=23.95 EUR product_url=$art_english.inhaltsangaben%2ceditionsnummer%2ckomponist_autor%2cbeschreibung1%2ckurzbez%2cherausgeber%2creihenbezeichnung&kategorie1=komponist_autor&kategorie2=besetzung&kategorie3=kz_anz&begriff1=H%e4ndel%2c%20Georg%20F&begriff2=&verknuepfung=and&begriff3=X&return=15&searchdef0=multiple&searchdef3=exactmatches&begriff0=riccardo&search=Start%20Search&kat=%2f%2fbaerenreiter&user_priv=guest&total=2&start=0
Posted by Gary at 8:40 PM

Peter Grimes at the MET

When I first heard the score of Peter Grimes on a recording, this grinding melody seemed an inexplicable change of rhythm. When I then saw the opera, in a naturalistic production (as most of them have been – a natural choice in an opera so free of hyperbolic, godlike characters, so full of pointed village incident), all became clear to me: Peter the fisherman, has tossed a rope from his boat onto the shore. In a tiny fishing village, every able-bodied person helps out – they will take the rope to the capstan on the wharf and wheel him in against the tide. But the villagers ignore Grimes the pariah, until some of the less snooty types, Balstrode (retired sea captain), Ned Keene (apothecary who caters to all appetites – licit and otherwise), and Auntie (the blowsy innkeeper who keeps a brothel on the side) take the rope and wheel Peter in, singing a song in proper style. Britten gave us landlubbers a glimpse of coastal life, revealed Grimes’s position as outcast, and introduced one of the dozens of fascinating moody, tangy, not quite pretty melodies that enrich this extraordinary score.

This is sung very well in John Doyle’s stylized staging at the Met – but what’s going on? The singers step in an ungainly fashion, in place – but there is no capstan. To anyone who has not seen a naturalistic staging, or who has not studied the libretto closely, or who hasn’t spent time in a seaport, the song, the moment, the drama go by the board.

This is my problem again and again with Doyle’s artfully pointless staging. In Act II, a boy falls down a cliff to his accidental death – a death for which Grimes will be blamed. But we do not see this – we hear the faint, thin scream and see Peter staring down a trap door. Unless you know the opera, you will not understand the scene. (Is this a theater piece or a concert?) In the last act, instead of coming upon the maddened Peter and trying to coax him home as in other productions, Ellen and Balstrode stand in doorways ten feet above him on the stage. There is no link. Ellen’s cry when Balstrode tells Peter to drown himself did not touch me – the only time it hasn’t. I don’t fault Patricia Racette for it – I fault her position on the stage, high in the wall of doorways. She should be reaching for Peter with the maternal instinct that is her nature, and only at Balstrode’s words does she realize – still instinctively fighting against it – that she can no longer save him. Worst of all, perhaps, is the great riot scene of Act III, scene 1 – when the townspeople howl for Grimes’s blood – the pacifist Britten’s disgusted tribute to the appeal of so-recently-defeated fascism. It’s not here. The chorus on a narrow apron of stage forms like a congregation, the individual characters stand like soloists in a choir – no turmoil, no orchestrated roister, no mob, no terror. It’s a tribute to choral study, not a drama, much less one of the most shattering moments of political theater in modern opera.

The musical forces performing this walled concert are in exceptional form. Donald Runnicles deftly weaves the orchestra into a nautical tapestry, and his light, moody touches are so effective I visualized the sea in its various moods and colors as Britten played his oceanic instrument. The uneven burst of bawdy tavern music, for example, that intrudes on the murky tides of the prelude to Act III, has never felt – sounded – looked – more like a picture, a video, an impressionist painting of lights reflected off a lonely pier into the dark, imponderable heaving sea at night. Runnicles leads a gorgeous performance, always light, always hinting deep, never slacking the tension; the Met orchestra play like heroes for him.

Anthony Dean Griffey has the sort of lyrical tenor Britten wrote for – a tenor much in the mold of Peter Pears, Britten’s partner and muse. The dreamy, fantastic side of this fisherman out of water comes through, but I could have used more of the hearty brute than Griffey is able to imply. It is right that he looks more haunted than the romantic leading man, but I never felt – as I did when, say, Jon Vickers sang the role – that Grimes’s apprentices, or Ellen whom he loves, or anyone else was in any danger from Griffey’s Grimes. He couldn’t hurt a sea urchin. I wanted more of the murderous determination that I heard in his performance as Abraham to David Daniels’s Isaac at Carnegie Hall in Britten’s Second Canticle. But he always phrased beautifully, and the soaring reaches of the part are within his compass.

Patricia Racette’s Ellen was a warm woman under rigid self-control – trying to persuade Peter to share her generosity of spirit, rounding on the townspeople who persecute him, and stuck up to no one – we would not expect a respectable schoolteacher to be on easy terms with Auntie and her “nieces,” but Ellen is no snob, and Racette gives us a rounded self that this fixed, awkward staging does not permit enough scope.

Among the opera’s many minor but important characters, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, a great tall fellow with a great big baritone, made an auspicious debut as an unusually imposing Ned Keene; Anthony Michaels-Moore was an unusually subdued Captain Balstrode; John Del Carlo a Dickensian Lawyer Swallow; Jill Grove (who should be singing lead roles, as she proved in the Chicago Frau ohne Schatten) a wry Auntie; and Felicity Palmer girlish as mad Mrs. Sedley.

Peter_Grimes02.pngA scene from Britten’s Peter Grimes.

Twenty years ago, Met choristers told the New York Times that Grimes was their favorite opera, since they are not in the background of the plot but are actually the principal antagonist – the creature that destroys Grimes. They certainly sing the piece as if they loved it dearly. (Britten, like any great British composer, writes juicily for chorus. If you got it, flaunt it.) A friend pointed out to me at this performance that the orchestra is silent in most of Grimes’s mad scene – the only sound apart from his monologue is the spooky moan of the mob muttering “Grimes!” in the distance, one of the weirdest effects in all opera, wonderfully evocative of the sea in a fog. “But they’re giving him his pitches!” my friend realized. Britten combined the fog effect with the desired musical result. Now that’s genius.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Logan William Erickson as the boy and Anthony Dean Griffey in the title role of Britten&srquo;s Peter Grimes. [Photo: Ken Howard] product=yes product_title=Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes product_by=Peter Grimes (Anthony Dean Griffey), Ellen Orford (Patricia Racette), Balstrode (Anthony Michaels-Moore), Swallow (John Del Carlo), Auntie (Jill Grove), Ned Keene (Teddy Tahu Rhodes), Mrs. Sedley (Felicity Palmer). Conducted by Donald Runnicles.
Performance of 7 March 2008. product_id=Above: Logan William Erickson as the boy and Anthony Dean Griffey in the title role of Britten&srquo;s Peter Grimes.
All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera.
Posted by Gary at 8:19 PM

MOZART: Don Giovanni

The setting for the opera is The Estates Theater in Prague. It existed in Mozart’s time where he conducted two world premieres — Don Giovanni and Clemenza di Tito. Between 1983 and 1991, the theater was reconstructed to look just as it did in Mozart’s time.

The opera as we see it on the DVD’s is a film of the first opera performed in the reconstructed theater. There is an interesting aspect of the film of the opera production that seeks to connect the present production to the past and vice versa. In a day where we see opera houses and directors looking to update and to be more innovative with traditional operas, there is still another way of touching the audience with the historic and respected works of this master composer.

The first scenes of the film are of Andrei Beschasny, who is our Don Giovanni, walking to the opera house through the cobblestone streets of Prague. He is wearing a navy blue jogging suit and white tennis shoes and has an apple in his hand. The first scenes of the opera, following the overture, show Beschasny in full makeup entering the stage from the rear and the action then begins. We have made the transition from now to then.

For the next two and a half hours I was thoroughly entertained by a well-done production of the opera with all the lush period costumes and sets that might have been similar to what Mozart himself used. In the scene where the Commendatore ( sung by Dalibor Jedlicka) interrupts the liaison between the Don and Donna Anna we see a shirtless Don who is indignant at having his pleasure cut short. The death scene continues as he struggles into his red shirt and then kills the Commendatore.

Ludek Vele is an amazing Leporello. I hasten to mention here that I am not familiar with any of the singers so this was an adventure in listening to them and having no preconceived ideas of what they should sound like. But, back to Vele. He has a nice baritone voice, a bit more rugged sounding than that of Beschasny, which works well. He is a convincing actor who leaves no doubt about his conflicted relationship with his master.

Nedezhda Petrenko is Donna Anna. This is a soprano with a voice that can go shrill at times but is not unpleasant to listen to for the most part. She had a good grasp of the role. Shock at first when her father is killed and then determined to bring down the perpetrator. Ottavio and Elvira sung by Vladimir Dolezal and Jirina Markova, respectively, made a good couple. Markova is a passionate singer who I found engaging.

If there was, in my opinion, a weak link among the singers it was with Zerlina and Masetto ( Zdenek Harvanek and Alice Randova). There did not seem to be a good “connection” between these two and until the very end I thought they were singing “at” one another rather than “to” one another.

The banquet scene, always a highlight for me in Don Giovanni, was exquisitely done. The opulence of the Don’s palace was all there and the tables were laden with food. The production does a very good job of showing how the mood of the people changes from the beginning of the scene when they are all in “banquet” mood until the end when the Don has to escape.

But as we all know Don Giovanni is not to be deterred from his need to conquer even more women and add to his “catalogue”. The opera proceeds with great skill and lots of good emotional singing until its inevitable end. Anyone watching this production cannot help be intrigued by the timeliness of this old opera and its relevance to today’s audiences. Mozart was the rarest of men…one who gave us his very soul in his legacy of music.

Cheryl Dowden

image= image_description=W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni product=yes product_title=W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni product_by=Don Giovanni (Andrei Beschasny), Il Commendatore (Dalibor Jedlicka), Donna Anna (Nadezhda Petrenko), Don Ottavio (Vladimír Dolezal), Donna Elvira (Jirina Marková), Leporello (Ludek Vele), Masetto (Zdenek Harvánek), Zerlina (Alice Randová), Prague National Theatre Chorus and Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras (cond.)
Live on 1 December 1991 at the Estates Theatre, Prague product_id=Supraphon SU 7012-9 [2DVDs] price=$29.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 7:52 PM

Zarzuelas — Arrieta: Marina; Bretón: La verbena de la paloma; Vives: Bohemios and Doña Francisquita

As popular musical theater which flourished primarily in the last half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries, it has long since been pronounced officially dead as an art form. Several factors contributing to its demise may readily be identified: for example, its ties to romantic nationalism and its favored status with Spain’s monarchy—the very genre was named for the bramble bushes outside the king’s hunting lodge!—led to its decline during the Spanish Civil War. Likewise, during Franco’s reign of terror, Spain was for all practical purposes cut off from the rest of Europe, preventing the sort of artistic cross-pollination (or at least appreciation) which might otherwise have taken place. Nonetheless, the zarzuela arguably played an important rôle in the creation of modern-day Spanish national consciousness. As such, it is being revived today as both a national source of pride and a long-neglected contribution to the world’s musical scene. This collection participates effectively in that endeavour.

It should be clarified that these are not new recordings. Rather, this set gathers together previous recordings made in Madrid and Tenerife from 1993, 1994 and 1998. Given that factor, the first question to be asked of any collection of previously-released works is: what principle or criterion was used to select them? The particular collection in question is remarkably coherent. In fact, an exploration of the hidden networks of parentesco, or kinship, underlying this set will allow us a glimpse of the entire history of this short-lived genre.

Each of the works selected for inclusion here is a classic in its own right. Their grouping is a careful assortment of género grande (“grand” or full-length zarzuelas, usually in three acts) and género chico, or smaller works, usually limited to one-act pieces. But a higher purpose was at work here than merely to offer the listener a pleasant variety. Upon closer inspection, we discover that the first composer represented here, Emilio Arrieta (1823-1894), was actually the teacher of the second, Tomás Bretón (1850-1925). The third composer, Amadeo Vives (1871-1932), in turn set out, in Doña Francisquita, explicitly to imitate La verbena de la Paloma, by Bretón. So we see that these works exist not in isolation, but instead in symbiotic relationship to one another.

Likewise, in these recordings, these singers carry on an intimate and—in some cases—familial tradition. It is a little-known fact that the great opera star Plácido Domingo was born to two zarzuela singers who themselves performed with a touring company in Mexico, where they took their son along to work. Growing up in this environment, which might be likened to the Spanish equivalent of vaudeville, profoundly influenced the young singer and encouraged him to pursue a musical career. This CD collection is not the only time he has chosen, proudly, to return to his roots. In 2007, Domingo assisted with the production of another recording of zarzuela arias by stepping in himself to conduct the orchestra of the Comunidad de Madrid.

Listening to this music, one can see how such fierce—indeed, almost visceral— loyalty to this genre is well justified. Written by composers as they sat in cafés and town squares (we actually know this in the case of Bretón, who confessed it), or as the direct result of rediscovering old songs in the town library (in the case of Vives), these pieces offer a picturesque glimpse of popular life. A true appreciation for zarzuela must begin by accepting it on its own terms. This is not, nor was it ever intended to be, highbrow entertainment. The incorporation of flamenco, habaneras and other distinctly Spanish sounds affords the genre a high degree of authenticity on a cultural scene in Spain which is too often otherwise dismissed as largely derivative. A truly native genre, the zarzuela until recently survived along with bull fights merely as an attraction for tourists. Now, with these recordings, music lovers are beginning to see their error in having ignored this vibrant art form.

The one real drawback to this boxed set is the printed book of introductory essays and librettos. The translations are frankly abysmal and the proofreading nonexistent. Here we find such unfelicitous mistakes as the use of “third” for “thin,” “lot” for “not,” and “car” for “ear” (!). The result is at times only barely comprehensible, and then only with reference to the originals. This was a shoddy way to package an otherwise quality collection.

Hilaire Kallendorf, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies
Texas A&M University

image= image_description=Zarzuelas product=yes product_title=Zarzuelas — Arrieta: Marina; Bretón: La verbena de la paloma; Vives: Bohemios and Doña Francisquita. product_by=María Bayo, Plácido Domingo, Alfredo Kraus, et. al. product_id=Naïve V5120 [6CDs] price=$39.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 5:58 PM

Best of British from the BBC Proms 2007

Now in the "DG Concerts" series, key works by British composers from the 2007 festival season come packaged in a two-disc set with the title "Best of British."

Disc one certainly provides repertory that meets that definition. In classic programming style, Jiři Bělohlávek opens with a sprightly overture (Walton's "Portsmouth Point"), moves to a concerto (Elgar's for cello, with Paul Watkins), and ends with a major orchestral piece (Britten's "Four Sea Interludes). The Walton bounces and leaps with athletic grace, in sharp sound. For some reason, the acoustic turns dull for the Elgar, although some details of the string support for the opening cello statement poke up out of the murk. The unsentimental performance from both Watkins and the orchestra retains enough of the majesty of the piece, while providing a rigid spine that Elgar might well have appreciated. The Britten pieces never seem to fail, and though some more tang of the sea might be desired, they work well here.

The second disc brings together pieces from four different concerts. Andrew Davis conducts Delius's "A Song of Summer" to open the side, and maybe it should have closed side one. For following Delius's luscious, languid lyricism come three pieces from the last half of the century in modern idiom. Leila Josefowicz plays Oliver Knussen's violin concerto, under the composer's baton. Take all the melodic Hungarian lilt from the second Bartok Concerto, bulk up on eerie string gestures (slides and plucks), squeak out some horn bleeps, thwack a drum or two, and there's the Knussen concerto. Josefowicz plays impressively, but not well enough to convince these ears that the effort is worthwhile.

Sir Michael Tippett's Triple Concerto, from 1978-9, receives similar dedication from Daniel Hope (violin), Philip Dukes (viola), and Christian Poltéra (cello). After obligatory whining and whacking, Tippett introduces a theme (of sorts), and the music jumps nervously from brief flashes of lyrical coherence to spasms of frenzy. The thirty minutes take a long passing. Stephen Jackson conducts. The last selection comes from Sir Richard Rodney Bennett. As the title informs, he sets "Four Poems of Thomas Campion" for chorus. Despite the skills of the BBC Symphony Chrous, words rarely coaslesce into audible statements, but the texts, once read, have been well served by the composer's gift for drama and pacing.

Of course, some listeners may find the late romanticism of the first disc's music dull going, while delighting in the harsher textures of the repertory of the second disc. Others may enjoy it all. All in all, the two-disc set serves as further proof that the BBC Proms maintains its vitality into the 21st century.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Best of British from the BBC Proms 2007

product_title=Best of British from the BBC Proms 2007
product_by=Hope, Josefowicz, Dukes Poltéra, Watkins, BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Jackson Belohlávek, Davis, Knussen
product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 477 7352 [2CDs]

Posted by chris_m at 5:09 PM

The Opera Gala — Live from Baden-Baden

A DVD of the same event is advertised on the inside of the back cover of the CD booklet, with the tag "the complete concert." So for a few dollars more, one can see the gowns and jewelry of the female stars (credited in the CD Booklet to ESCADA and Chopard), and even, as a bonus, have more of the performance. Apparently there are enough customers who want less of the performance and no visual distraction. Thus this CD.

Without the sense of celebratory fun that the actual event ostensibly provided, the CD feels unnecessary. Stuffed with all too typical gala repertory, the only real highlight comes with mezzo Elīna Garanča singing a "caraceleras" from Ruperto Chapi's Las Hijas del Zebedeo. A sweet zarzuela-type number, it comes as quite a relief after the forced fun of such ubiquitous fare as "O soave fanciulla" and "Una furtiva lagrima." The short booklet essay, greasily oozing with publicist's jargon, contains not a word as to the origin of the Chapi piece.

Ramon Vargas sings in half the tracks, with solos in the above-referenced Donizetti and the Luisa Miller act three aria. The tenor warms up in "Una furtiva lagrima," straining on the higher notes. He sounds much better partnering with Ludovic Tézier in the duet from The Pearlfishers, which seems to provoke the most honestly pleased reaction from the audience (yes, applause is included, sometimes fading out quite abruptly). The CD opens with Anna Netrebko and Ms. Garanča in a pretty run-through of the Lakme duet. Netrebko's next appearance finds her essaying Norma's "Casta Diva" scene. Online opera chat forums buzzed with negative responses to this rendition when clips appeared not long after the European telecast. Indeed, Netrebko doesn't sound near her best, and she cancelled a few performances not long after this Baden-Baden performance. Despite the hint of hoarseness and some inattention to detail, the performance still has enough that is attractive about it to suggest that she could, with better health and preparation, deliver a quality performance of the piece.

Tézier does a nice job with Rodrigo's death scene from Don Carlo, a piece that in the context of a gala almost counts as a rarity. Later he delivers a merely competent "Toreador Song," and the same can be said Garanča's Dalila aria. The ensembles for all four performers (the Rigoletto quartet and, yes, the Traviata "Brindisi" as a finale) feel very routine.

Marco Armiliato and the Baden-Baden forces support the singers with efficiency if not much distinction. If star power sells CDs, DG may do well with this CD. The DVD would at least add the element of suspense, as the many photographs had your reviewer wondering if Netrebko's strapless gown contained her — well, herself — throughout the entire evening.

Chris Mullins

image_description=The Opera Gala — Live from Baden-Baden

product_title=The Opera Gala — Live from Baden-Baden
product_by=Anna Netrebko, Elina Garanca, Ramón Vargas, Ludovic Tézier, SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg, Marco Armiliato (cond.)
product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 477 7177 [CD]

Posted by chris_m at 4:50 PM

MAHLER: Symphony no. 8.

The recordings of other symphonies by Mahler that Boulez led over the last decade, demonstrate the conductor’s incisive approach to the literature, and this release of the Eighth Symphony, based on performances recorded in April 2007 at Jesus-Christus Kirche, Berlin, has much to offer.

As with his other recordings of Mahler’s music, Boulez brings a sense of a the architecture of the Eighth Symphony to this recording, which benefits from fine acoustics and spacious sound. The pacing of the first part of the Eighth, Mahler’s setting of the Latin hymn text “Veni creator spiritus,” is spirited without being extravagantly impetuous. The solid walls of sound with which the movement opens in its invocation of the Holy Spirit gives way to finer textures of the text “Imple superna gratia,” with its shift from massed chorus to vocal soloists. Even there, the careful placement and balanced sound of the instrumental elements accentuates the motivic interplay at the structural core of the movement. Beyond the juxtaposition of forces, the soloists themselves are particularly suited to present the music well, with nicely matched voices that bring to the recording an evenly mature and vibrant sound. Those familiar with the work will want to explore the movement further by taking advantage of the exemplary banding used in the recording, which delineates the major sections of this extraordinary movement. The breadth of expression and the clear distinction between sections contributes to a sense of pacing, so that Boulez can create momentum toward the climax of the “Veni creator spiritus” in the final passages that begin with the text “Gloria sit Patri Domino.” At this point the multiple choruses work together not only to meet the dynamic levels found in the score, but also to arrive at an intensity of sound. As one contrapuntal passages concludes, another intersects, thus bringing to mind the composer’s comments about his idea of setting the various planets and suns spinning – no “Universe” Symphony in the sense that Ives sketched such his ultimately incomplete work, the momentum Boulez has created in this recording calls to mind the heaven-storming sonorities Beethoven used in his Ninth Symphony and the Missa solemnis.

Yet Mahler’s intention is deeper in connection the Latin text of the first part with the German one of the second, as he illuminates the final scene of Goethe’s Faust with the spiritual dimension of the sequence associated with Pentecost. Stepping back from the powerful sounds with which the first part concludes, the second begins with the starkness of the anchorites’ world. The differentiation is palpable with Boulez, who brings out the various sonorities through attention to the articulations and nuanced dynamics. In such a way the intensity of the extended introduction to the second part sets up the vocal interplay that follows through the presentation of motives that will recur with the vocal sections. As the anchorites call our to each other, the vocal parts balance the instrumental forces and convey well the symphonic style Mahler used in this work.

Uniformly strong, the selection of solo voices makes this particular recording of the Eighth worth hearing. Notable among them is the fine young soprano Erin Wall and the mezzo Michelle de Young, whose voice may be familiar to Mahlerians from the recent recording of the Third Symphony by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Bernard Haitink. Robert Holl has given the role of Pater profundis a welcome drama that emerges within the interplay of instrumental motives. Likewise, the tenor Johan Botha offers a fine reading of the part of Doctor Marianus, which is in itself demanding. Botha brings a ringing and resonant tone to the solo that matches Holl’s intensity.

If the solo voices seem to have been recorded perhaps more closely than the choruses, it is not at the expense of the overall effect, which benefits from the clear presentation of the text throughout the work. Such presentation is also evident in the tempos that Boulez has used in various sections, such as the portion that begins “Gerettet ist das edle Glied,” where the timbre of the children’s voices underscores the verses. As in the choral timbres Ralph Vaughan Williams used in his “Sea Symphony,” the voices must convey both the text and the musical texture, and Boulez succeeds in this regard, such that the choruses interact decidedly with the solo voices. More than that the three female soloists blend convincingly in the section that starts “Bei der Liebe,” a passage distinctive for its scoring of soprano and two contraltos.

In the two-part structure of Eighth Symphony, the Latin hymn finds its complement in the vernacular drama of Goethe, and Boulez creates a fitting and effective conclusion. His tempos allow him to make the immense forces expressive. Never rushed, never impetuous, Boulez remains in control of the forces that work together toward the climactic passage that is set into motion with the resolute “Komm” of the Mater gloriosa prior to the suggestive words of Doctor Marianus as “Blicket auf” moves from solo voice to the chorus. This connects persuasively to the choral setting of Goethe’s famous text, “Alles vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis,” perhaps the most familiar phrase from the second part of Faust. Here the clear, almost a piacere treatment of the music helps to emphasize the passage as Boulez brings the work to a fitting and decisive conclusion. The resonance of the forces emerges well in the recording, as Boulez paces the final passage that clearly juxtaposes “Alles vergängliche ist nu rein Gleichnis” with “Das Ewig-Weiblich zieht uns hinan.” The majestic ending evokes the conclusion of the Third Symphony, through the dramatically sustained sonorities. All in all this is a fitting ending, too, to the Mahler cycle Boulez began years ago and concludes with this powerful reading of the composer’s Eighth Symphony.

James L. Zychowicz

image_description=Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 8

product_title=Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 8
product_by=Twyla Robinson, Erin Wall, Adriane Queiroz, Michelle De Young, Simone Schröder, Johan Botha, Hanno Müller-Brachmann, Robert Holl, Chor der Deutschen Staatsoper Berlin, Rundfunkschor Berlin, Aurelius Sängerknaben Calw, Staatskapelle Berlin, Pierre Boulez (cond.)
product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 477 6597 [2CDs]

Posted by jim_z at 4:29 PM


Jules Massenet (1842-1912), composer. Henri Meilhac and Phillipe Gille, librettists.

First performance: 19 January 1884 at the Opéra-Comique, Paris.


When it comes to opera, the French have tended to be conservative and insular. It took the Italian Lully to establish the genre in the French court. Following his death, it degraded to such a state that philosophers, such as Rousseau, seriously argued that the French language was unsuited for melody. It took other foreigners, such as Gluck, Rossini and Meyerbeer, to reenliven opera and to secure its place in France, most notably Paris. The success of Bizet’s Carmen, however, marked a watershed. Filled with fantastic melody, drama, and, above all, earthy realism, Bizet changed the course of French opera, particularly the style practiced at the Opéra-Comique.

Jules Massenet (1842-1912) followed Bizet’s lead with works marked by their lyricism, eroticism and extravagance. His adaptation of Prévost’s Manon Lescaut proved to be such a success, Massenet was considered the most important French composer of operas during the closing decades of the 19th Century. More importantly, Manon remains in the standard repertoire to this day.

Despite being based upon one of the greatest works in French literature, Massenet and his librettists, Henri Meilhac and Phillipe Gille, departed significantly from Prévost’s plot and character development. Massenet gives us a Manon that is frivolous, impetuous and brainless, not the craven schemer shaped by des Grieux’s narrative. Indeed, Manon is more like Verdi’s Violetta than Prévost’s Manon. Similarly, des Grieux is reduced to an absurdly pathetic figure deprived of reason because of his love for Manon, not the ruthless sociopath realized by Prévost.

Nevertheless, Massenet produced a masterpiece. The music, instrumental and vocal, is inspired. Manon’s aria “Obéissons quand leur voix appelle”—Massenet’s answer to “Sempre libera”—is but one of several showpieces from this opera. Note the spoken dialogue between arias, which is characteristic of opéra comique.


The Chevalier Des Grieuxtenor
The Count Des Grieuxbass
Lescaut (Manon's cousin)baritone
Guillot de Morfontaine, a noblemantenor
De Brétigny, a tax-collectorbaritone
Two Guardsmantenor, bass
Porter of the Seminary
Manon Lescautsoprano


Act I

Manon, a beautiful young woman, arrives at an inn in Amiens to meet her cousin Lescaut, who will take her to a convent according to the wishes of her father, who wants to amend her worldly and extrovert character. Manon does not share her father's wishes, and after being courted by an older man, Guillot, she falls in love at first sight with Des Grieux, a young man passing through the town, and they both escape to Paris in Guillot’s coach.

Act II

The young couple live their love story in a very modest home in Paris. Des Grieux writes a letter to his father asking for his consent to marry Manon. But Manon’s cousin and his friend Brétigny arrive and say that the father is going to have Des Grieux arrested; Manon believes this and succumbs to the proposals of Brétigny, who offers her a life of luxury in Paris.


Manon lives with Brétigny. She is already a well-known figure in the frivolous Parisian nightlife. Manon hears Des Grieux's father say that his son is not in prison, but so desperate after being left by Manon that he wants to become a priest. Then she decides to go to the abbey to seek him. Des Grieux tries to stand his ground, but finally Manon convinces him and he runs into her arms again. They return to Paris.

Act IV

Manon and Des Grieux have no money, so she forces him to gamble to obtain some. He finally wins, but Guillot accuses him of cheating, and in revenge he orders his arrest under the accusation of stealing, and Manon’s detention as an accomplice. At that time Des Grieux’s father arrives, who hopes this arrest will turn his son away from immoral and disreputable life. He promises to release him, but says he will have no mercy on Manon.

Act V

Des Grieux and Lescaut go to Le Havre, where Manon will embark to be deported, along with some prostitutes. Des Grieux and Lescaut try to assault the police and rescue Manon, but Des Grieux learns that she is ill. Then he tries to bribe a policeman so he can see her, promising to bring her back later. Des Grieux promises Manon that he will be able to rescue her, but she is seriously ill and cannot escape with him. Ashamed and full of remorse, she makes an apology for having made him unhappy and repents from her frivolity and light-heartedness. Manon dies. Des Grieux falls desperately on the lifeless body of his beloved.

[Synopsis Source: Asociación Bilbaína de Amigos de la Ópera]

Click here for the complete libretto.

Click here for a summary of Abbé Prévost's Manon Lescaut

image_description=Massenet: Manon

first_audio_name=Massenet: Manon

product_title=Jules Massenet: Manon
product_by=Victoria de los Angeles (Manon); Henri Legay (Des Grieux); Michel Dens (Lescaut); Jean Borthayre (The Count Des Grieux); René Herent (Guillot); Jean Vieuille (De Brétigny). Orchestre et Choeurs de l'Opéra de Paris, Pierre Monteux (cond.).

Posted by Gary at 8:20 AM

March 9, 2008


Music composed by Jules Massenet. Libretto by Louis Gallet after the novel of the same title by Anatole France.

First Performance: 16 March 1894, Opéra, Paris

Principal Characters:
Thaïs, actress and courtesan Soprano
Athanaël, a Cenobite monk Baritone
Nicias, a wealthy friend of Athanaël Tenor
Palémon, an old Cenobite monk Bass
Albine, abbess Mezzo-Soprano
Crobyle, a slave Soprano
Myrtale, a slave Soprano

Setting: Alexandria and the Egyptian desert during the early Christian era.


Act I

Scene 1 — In a time when Alexandria is wrapped in luxury and profligacy, Thaïs, a priestess of Venus, is recognized as the most beautiful of women. Athanaël, a Cenobite monk, who has been to the city in an effort to preach the gospel, returns to his devout associates with strange stories of Alexandria’s wickedness. Even though wearied by his journey, his sleep is troubled by a vision of Thaïs, posing in the Alexandrian Theatre before a great throng who noisily applaud her beauty. Awaking with a start, he is determined to “reform” her, and against the advice of the aged monk, Palémon, he sets out upon this mission.

Scene 2 — In Alexandria, Athanaël has a friend of his former unregenerate days named Nicias, whose palace occupies a commanding situation. Nicias greets his old friend with courtesy, but is moved to laughter at his apparently whimsical notion of reforming the lovely Thaïs, upon whom Nicias himself has squandered a fortune. Willing to help for old times’ sake, however, he has his household slaves array Athanaël in rich robes, concealing his monkish habit. When at last Thaïs herself arrives she is at first repelled yet intrigued by this austere visitor. Athanaël tells her that he has come to bring her to the only true God, as whose humble but jealous servant he stands before her. Thaïs’ reply is characteristically pagan—she believes in the joy of living; but she is none the less impressed. Athanaël leaves, horrified, as Thaïs begins to disrobe, to pose as Venus.

Act II

Scene 1 — In her room lies Thaïs. The floor is carpeted with precious rugs from Byzantium, the air laden with the exotic perfumes of flowers in vases of agate . . . incense burns before a statue of Venus ... yet Thaïs is wearied of the world, her luxury . . . the words of the strange monk haunt her memory . . . she fears that beauty and happiness will quickly fade. Taking a mirror, she contemplates herself, and begs it to assure her that she shall be forever beautiful.

At this moment comes Athanaël, who speaks to her of life everlasting, and eternal beauty of the spirit. She at first tries to triumph over him with her allurements, then succumbs to fear. The inexorable Athanaël leaves, declaring, “On thy threshold till dawn I shall await thy coming.” The curtain falls, but the orchestra continues playing the famous “Meditation,” symbolical of the conversation of Thaïs. To a harp accompaniment, a solo violin plays a melody of indescribable sweetness and expressiveness.

Scene 2 — True to his word Athanaël waits before her house. From another house nearby come sounds of revelry. Towards dawn, Thaïs appears, worn and repentant after a night of emotion, ready now to follow her holy guide into the wilderness. She leaves everything behind, and begs only for a small statue of Eros—love himself, for she says, love has long been a rare virtue, and begs that they may take the statue along to set up in some monastery as an emblem of the love celestial.

Athanaël listens patiently enough until she remarks that this was a gift from Nicias. Thereupon, Athanaël immediately seizes the statue and casts it to the ground, shattering it into a thousand fragments. They enter her palace to destroy the treasures—relics of “hell” there guarded; Thaïs accepts this sacrifice without demur.

As soon as they have gone, Nicias appears, having won heavily at the games. He orders dancing, wine and music. When Thaïs and the stern monk return, they are greeted by a scene of revelry. This quickly changes to a near riot, for the companions of Nicias are enraged at the prospective loss of Thaïs, and at Athanaël, for in his zeal he has set fire to her palace. The crowd are about to seize and kill the monk. To save him, Nicias throws gold coins among them, and as the people scramble for the money, Athanaël and Thaïs depart for the desert and a life of repentance.


Scene 1 — Tortured by lack of water, and weary from her long journey across the desert, Thaïs nearly faints although the journey is almost over. The monk remorselessly drives her on, bidding her “mortify the flesh,” and she goes willingly. Finally, however, she staggers with weakness, and Athanaël, moved to pity, allows her to lie down while he bathes her feet, and gives her fruit and water from the oasis at which they have arrived.

Thaïs now seems uplifted, beyond the dominion of flesh, into great spiritual exaltation; she is glad when the Abbess Albine and the White Sisters come to lead her into a cell in the convent, a short way off. She has found that peace for which her soul craved. Only Athanaël is troubled.

Scene 2 — Back among the brethren at the Cenobites’ camp, Athanaël is compelled to confess to the aged Palémon that he has saved Thaïs at the cost of his own soul. Passionately raging at himself, he strives to cast out of his mind the memories of her human weakness and of her intoxicating beauty. Yet he longs for her . . . in his sleep, a vision comes to him of Thaïs, lovely, self-sure, mocking, as he first beheld her in Alexandria; then the vision changes . . . her face lighted with the fervor of religious mysticism as she lies dying in the convent. With a cry of terror he awakens and rushes out into the darkness.

Scene 3 — Thaïs, worn with repentance and self-denial, is dying surrounded by the White Sisters, who respectfully withdraw when Athanaël enters. Utterly distraught, the monk implores Thaïs to return with him to Alexandria, there they shall live happily . . . all that he has taught her has been lies.

The ecstatic music of the “Meditation” soars calmly aloft in the orchestra, and Thaïs, heedless of the words of Athanaël, sings of the gates of heaven opening before her . . . the smiles of angels . . . the beating of their wings. Suddenly she falls back dead, and Athanaël, cheated by himself, cries out in despair.

[Synopsis Source: The Victor Book of the Opera (10th ed. 1929)]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image= image_description=Geraldine Farrar as Thaïs audio=yes first_audio_name=Jules Massenet: Thaïs
WinAMP, VLC, FooBar first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Jules Massenet: Thaïs product_by=Renee Fleming (Thaïs)
Simone Alberghini (Athanaël)
Joseph Calleja (Nicias)
Robert Lloyd (Palémon)
Ana James (Crobyle)
Liora Grodnikaite (Myrtale)
Clare Shearer (Albine)
Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Andrew Davis (cond.)
Live performance, 27 June 2007, Royal Opera House, London
Posted by Gary at 3:56 PM

March 5, 2008

A touch of Callas brought out the best in lyrical tenor

Di_Stefano2.png[The Australian, 6 March 2008]

SICILIAN tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano was the most brilliant and sought-after lyric tenor of the 1950s and will long be remembered for the many roles he sang opposite Maria Callas in the opera house as well as the recording studio. Audiences responded immediately to his seductive, openly produced voice, to his natural ebullience and his charismatic stage personality.

Posted by Gary at 12:02 PM

Rusalka, Operaen, Store Scene, Copenhagen

Gitta-Maria Sjöberg as Rusalka, Copenhagen Opera(Photo: Thomas Petri)
By Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 5 March 2008]

In the daylight it must almost be possible to see Copenhagen’s emblematic Little Mermaid from the splendid new opera house across the water. Dvorák’s Rusalka is based on a Czech folk tale rather than Hans Christian Andersen’s celebrated story, but there are enough similarities to make the opera an essential choice for the Royal Theatre in Denmark.

Posted by Gary at 12:02 PM

Utah Opera: No one-note Cinderella

Risley_Patricia.pngBy Catherine Reese Newton [Salt Lake Tribune, 4 March 2008]

What's Cinderella without her fairy godmother, pumpkin coach, enchanted mice, midnight curfew and glass slipper? She's Angelina, also known as "La Cenerentola," in Rossini's operatic version of the famous fairy tale. Utah Opera's production - its first "Cenerentola" since 1992 - opens Saturday at Salt Lake City's Capitol Theatre.

Posted by Gary at 12:00 PM

March 3, 2008

Deceduto il tenore Giuseppe Di Stefano

di_stefano.png[Corriere della Sera, 3 March 2008]

MILANO - Il tenore Giuseppe Di Stefano, 86 anni, è morto lunedì mattina alle 5, vicino a Milano. Era in coma dal 23 dicembre scorso. Ne dà notizia l'agenzia specializzata in classica Studio Musica. Nato a Motta S.Anastasia (provincia di Catania) il 24 luglio 1921, all'età di sei anni la famiglia si trasferisce a Milano, in porta Ticinese.

Posted by Gary at 8:54 PM

Tosca at the Royal Albert Hall

Carosi_Tosca.pngNeil Fisher [Times Online, 3 March 2008]

You've come for the pong of the incense, the frenzied knife attack and that climactic leap off the battlements. And you won't be disappointed.

Posted by Gary at 2:29 PM

Benjamin Britten's Pampered Brute

Peter_Grimes_MET_small.pngBY JAY NORDLINGER [NY Sun, 3 March 2008]

Many people regard "Peter Grimes" as Benjamin Britten's masterpiece, and it is, indeed, a powerful opera. The Met revived it on Thursday night, in a new production by John Doyle. The production is not particularly fancy or sophisticated. It does not go in for many effects. And it is a successful production.

Posted by Gary at 2:11 PM

A Polish Prince Seizes the Stage

Mariusz_Kwiecien_DG.pngBy ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 2 March 2008]

SOME of the qualities the Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien brings to his work are typical products of raw talent, good training and hard work. His voice, for one: burnished and rich, with robust carrying power and a ringing high A many a tenor would covet. His good looks, trim physique and agility are also givens, though at 35 he stays fit through routine exercise. Even his hobby — nature photography in mountainous regions like Peru — keeps him pretty limber.

Posted by Gary at 2:02 PM

Los Angeles Opera: March 1 & 2, 2008

He almost unfailingly appears at the pre-lecture of every opera he conducts, to speak with keen intelligence and insight about the particular opera and its composer. As a conductor, although he may not have the most distinctive interpretative profile, he has the LAO orchestra unfailingly play for him with passion and precision.

For years Conlon has cherished a dream of staging some of the works of those composers whose careers - and often, lives - were devastated by the Nazi regime. Last season, the "Recovered Voices" series began with a concert of excerpts from several of these composers, as well as a semi-staged performance of Alexander Zemlinsky's A Florentine Tragedy. For 2007/08, LAO scheduled four performances of a double-bill: Viktor Ullman's The Broken Jug, a comic piece that runs for under 40 minutes, and Zemlinsky's The Dwarf, an adaptation of an Oscar Wilde short story. The third of four performances took place Saturday, March 1st.

The program notes highlight the tragic irony that Ullman wrote the comic The Broken Jug in a concentration camp, not too long before his death. At the pre-lecture Conlon's interviewer tried to suggest a deeper theme of the corruption of power in the story of a judge who turns out to be the culprit in the case of the shattered family heirloom of the title. The judge seems to have basically planned a sexual assault on a beautiful young girl, only fleeing the scene (and in the process breaking the jug and losing his powdered wig) when her burly fiance showed up. Although Ullman's music bubbles cheerfully, very little that is actually amusing occurs, and the story plays out like a pale copy of Chaucer. James Johnson tried to ham it up as the Judge; there just wasn't much for him to work with. In fact, the show was at its best in a clever dumbshow played out in silhouette during the overture.

At 80 minutes, Zemlinsky's The Dwarf would not have made for a full evening in a temporal sense, but artistically, it more than compensates for its relative brevity. Wilde's story echoes elements of his Salome. A beautiful, spoiled princess, accustomed to getting what she wants, ends up destroying the object she claims to cherish above any other. Instead of being crushed by the shields of Roman soldiers, the Princess of The Dwarf walks callously away from the body of the broken-hearted dwarf, a birthday gift from a Sultan. The dwarf has made it through life deluding himself about his misshapen appearance, believing the reflection he has caught glimpses of to be that of an evil nemesis. When the princess cruelly provides him with a mirror that denies him the refuge of his delusion, the dwarf, who has fallen in love with the princess, collapses in horror.

Ralph Funicello's gorgeous set stacked a tiered outer ring of gray and green marble, with gold gilt highlights, around a lower center platform. Staging the appearance of the dwarf makes for a tricky challenge for the director. For quite a while, Darko Tresnjak kept Rodrick Dixon, a man of typical tenor stature, crouched in the silver crate that serves as his gift box. Eventually Dixon emerges, but by then he has established his character through his singing, and the other performers can takes their places on the higher levels of the tiers surrounding the lower center stage. Zemlinky's incredibly rich, imaginative scoring sometimes proved too heavy in texture for Dixon, especially when the singing line dropped into his weaker low range. But Dixon's top notes were solid and powerful, and as an actor he surmounted the role's challenge of blending the audience's predisposition for sympathy toward the character with the sharp depiction of the dwarf's warped self-perception. Simply put, Dixon triumphed.

Mary Dunleavy sang with the appropriately bright, superficial beauty of her role: a shallow, pretty princess. As her favorite maid, Susan B. Anthony etched a strong character in just a few moments, a woman who knows the defects of her mistress and sees the tragedy coming, while being helpless to prevent it. The audience rewarded her performance with a very warm reception at final curtain. But the biggest hand went to Conlon, who appeared not from the wings but from the rear of the set, a choice that highlighted his "starring" role in the show. Though not melodically memorable, Zemlinsky's score meets every challenge of the drama, with orchestral color and drama. One acts are notoriously difficult to program, but Zemlinky's The Dwarf surely should be staged more often. Though it would make for a longish evening, a pairing with Straass's Salome would surely make an amazing evening.

The next afternoon Conlon returned to conduct Verdi and Boito's Otello, using a Johan Engels staging borrowed from Monte Carlo and Parma, directed by John Cox. Conlon started the storm music with brash volume, and unfortunately, no subtlety followed in the performance that followed. Engels's set suggests the bowl-shaped floor of a ship, with two concrete culverts on either side for entrances and exits. The basic set gets dressed up for each scene change but remained static and uncommunicative, though not without a decorative visual appeal.

Anyone who has seen video clips of Ian Storey in the recent La Scala Tristan und Isolde, under the direction of Patrice Chereau, knows that the man can be an potent actor, although his capable vocal instrument lacks any interesting colors. However, Cox did not find a way to bring out Storey's best. A large man, Storey never seemed imposing, and from the beginning his Otello proved to be no match for Mark Delavan's malevolent, brutal Iago. Even Cristina Gallardo-Domas, a couple feet shorter than Storey, had more presence. The resulting imbalance drained much drama from the afternoon, with that deadly "going through the motions" feeling settling in. Despite some impressive notes here and there, Storey could not deliver with consistency. While effective as an actress, Gallardo-Domas's voice too easily slipped into a dismaying vibrato. Delavan powered his way through Iago's music, effectively if unsubtly.

In a program note, Conlon writes that "despite all the possible dramatic misadventures or vocal inadequacies, [Otello] cannot fail because it is so perfectly conceived..." So if this LAO Otello cannot be called a failure by those terms, at least it has to be called a disappointment.

But The Dwarf made the weekend at the Dorothy Chandler worthwhile. In next year's Recovered Voices program, Conlon conducts Walter Braunfel's The Birds. Anticipation builds from this moment.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Otello [Photo courtesy of Opera de Monte Carlo]

product_title=Recovered Voices, The Broken Jug; The Dwarf; Otello
product_by=Los Angeles Opera 1 & 2 March 2008
product_id=Above: Scene from Otello (Photo courtesy of Opera de Monte Carlo )

Posted by chris_m at 12:41 PM

Johann Sebastian Bach given a modern look, 260 years after portrait

Lewis Smith [Times Online, 29 February 2008]

DUNDEE The face of the 18th-century composer Johann Sebastian Bach has been reconstructed using the latest technology. A bronze replica of his skull was used to create the model, which bears similarities to a portrait by Elias Haussmann in 1746. The model, created by a team led by Caroline Wilkinson, of the University of Dundee, is due to be shown in Germany next week.

Posted by Gary at 11:52 AM

Sir David Attenborough faces green protests over opera’s wind turbine

Attenborough.pngValerie Elliott [Times Online, 26 February 2008]

Sir David Attenborough, the naturalist and wildlife broadcaster, has enraged countryside campaigners by supporting a 70 metre tall wind turbine for Glyndebourne opera house.

Posted by Gary at 10:59 AM

On Met’s Grand Stage, Opera Singers of Tomorrow

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 26 February 2008]

The Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions is a cumbersome name for one of the most high-visibility voice competition in America. Every year, typically, 1,500 young singers perform in regional auditions around the country. The field is winnowed in stages until roughly 25 semifinalists are sent to compete in New York. The finalists are then chosen to perform in a special afternoon concert with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

Posted by Gary at 10:09 AM


Music composed by Niccolò Jommelli (1714-1774). Libretto by Mattia Verazi, after the libretto, Phaéton by Philippe Quinault (written in collaboration with Lully) and Metamorphoses by Ovid.

First Performance: 11 February 1768, Schlosstheater, Ludwigsburg

Principal Characters:
Fetonte, son of Il Sole and Climene Soprano
Climene, widow of Merope Soprano
Libia, daughter of Merope and heir to his kingdom Soprano
Teti Soprano
La Fortuna Soprano
Orcane, King of the Congo Tenor
Il Sole [Helios] Soprano
Proteo, God of the Sea Soprano
Epafo, King of Egypt Alto


Act I

Climene and the priests of Teti invoke the sea nymph from her sacred cave. Climene confides her fears regarding the wedding planned by her now deceased husband between his daughter, Libia, and Climene’s son, Fetonte. King Epafo, however, has designs upon Libia. Proteo foretells that Fetonte will threaten humanity.

Libia and Fetonte later learn that Climene has been imprisoned by Epafo, who will not free her unless Libia agrees to marry him. King Orcane, wishing to marry Climene, plots with Epafo to arouse the Queen’s jealousy.

Act II

Having discovered their plans, Climene and Libia confuse Orcane about their real feelings. Fetonte, on the other hand, becomes disturbed. Climene announces that she will abdicate the throne in favor of Libia when the girl marries a child of a god in accordance with the oracle’s prophecy. Climene chooses Fetonte and reveals his divine origin. The rivals, however, challenge Fetonte to prove his divine nature.

Climene guides Fetonte to Il Sole. To show his true origins, Fetonte will ask permission to appear in the sky in Il Sole’s chariot and to bring daylight upon the Earth. Libia vainly implores Fetonte to desist.


Il Sole welcomes Fetonte into his palace. Fetonte is instructed of the danger if he proceeds. Fetonte refuses the protection of La Fortuna.

Meanwhile, Climene is seized by Epafo. Libia is taken under the protection of Orcane. The two kings prepare for battle. Epafo flees, taking Climene with him. Fetonte appears in the sky; but, losing control of the chariot, it appears that he will destroy the Earth. Zeus’ intervention is invoked, who directs lightning at Fetonte. He falls into the sea. Climene, who learns that Libia is dead, throws herself into the sea to join her son’s fate.

Click here for Lully's score of Phaeton.

Phaeton.pngPhaéton sur le char du soleil

image= image_description=Niccolò Jommelli audio=yes first_audio_name=Niccolò Jommelli: Fetonte
WinAMP, VLC, FooBar first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Niccolò Jommelli: Fetonte product_by=Jörg Waschinski (Fetonte), Uta Schwabe (Teti), Helene Scneidermann (Libia), Christiane Libor (Climene), Andreas Karasiak (Orcane), Matthias Rexroth (Epafo), Mechthild Bach (Proteo), Stuttgarter Kammerchor; Stuttgarter Kammerorchester, Dirigent: Frieder Bernius
Live Performance, February 11, 2001, Ludwigsburg
Posted by Gary at 8:38 AM

March 2, 2008

Johann Sebastian Bach. H-moll-Messe, BWV 232.

Philippe Herreweghe’s elegant performance with Collegium Vocale Gent is surely one of the catalogue’s most suave and nuanced readings. As has long been the case with this ensemble, the choral sound is wonderfully unforced with a propensity for wafting lines, close attention to articulation, and highly sculpted contours. This latter quality is especially gratifying, heard in particularly refined versions chorally at the “Qui tollis,” orchestrally at the “Et in unum,” and in the tutti at the “Dona nobis pacem,” and the “Sanctus,” where the adjectival cliché “angelic” suddenly seems to claim a new legitimacy.

Unsurprisingly, several movements move with a stylish dance-like buoyancy—the “Gloria” exuberantly so, the “Laudamus te” with irresistible grace. If these things do not surprise, they are nonetheless the fruit of careful interpretation. On occasion the interpretation strikes out in a more surprising direction. In the poignant tombeau, “Crucifixus,” Herreweghe has the slower moving accompanimental figures played with rather more accent than one typically finds, suggestive perhaps of the hammering of the nails into the cross, but in any event an affective addition of expressive tension.

Of the soloists, countertenor Andreas Scholl is most memorable, especially with his “Agnus Dei.” Here, in masterfully shaped lines he not only fashions a moment of unusual affectivity, but also reinforces the general vocal aesthetic of the choir with his sensitivity to contour. This degree of integration helps bridge the distance that often seems to separate solo and ensemble forces, and this is gratifying, indeed.

Precious few instances prompt critical comment. One instance, however, was the horn playing in the difficult “Quoniam.” Though admirably accurate, the articulation and general manner was marred by a pecky, static equality of attacks that left things shapeless and inelegant . . . regrettable in any version, but doubly so here as so much of the playing and singing was, by contrast, the epitome of shape and elegance.

This, aside, Herreweghe’s careful attention to nuance stamps this performance as a distinctive one to return to again and again . . . and I shall!

Steven Plank

image_description=Johann Sebastian Bach: H-moll-Messe, BWV 232

product_title=Johann Sebastian Bach: H-moll-Messe, BWV 232
product_by=Johannette Zomer, Véronique gens, sopranos; Andreas Scholl, alto; Christoph Prégardien, tenor; Peter Kooy, Hanno Müller-Brachmann, basses; Collegium Vocale Gent; Philippe Herreweghe, Conductor
product_id=Harmonia Mundi France HML 5901614.15 [2CDs]

Posted by steve_p at 6:02 PM

Cyrano at The Opera Company of Philadelphia

The libretto by Bernard Uzan is based on Edmond Rostand’s famous drama Cyrano de Bergerac, and is written in French. Uzan also directed the production. The score was orchestrated by Mark D. Flint, DiChiera’s frequent collaborator, and the orchestra was conducted by Stefan Lano.

Cyrano is DiChiera’s first opera, written relatively late in his life after a long and successful career as an impresario, particularly as founder of Michigan Opera Theater which premiered this production. He studied composition in the 1950’s and 60’s, but his Puccini-influenced style was not in fashion at that time. In this opera he returns to those musical roots. But like first operas by much younger composers, Cyrano seems a bit derivative. Its style has the feel of music from a century ago with touches of Korngold. But, if it breaks no new ground and shows no great originality, it is pleasing, accessible, and celebrates the singers, which is not always true of other modern works or modern productions. The music is weakest in the over-long first act, which seemed to bog down in dense orchestration and lack of a clear sense of musical direction. Had the opera ended after the first act, it would have been a disappointment. However, in the second and third acts the action focuses on the love story and here DiChiera hits his stride. His music carries the romantic story forward in melodic exchanges between the main characters, capturing the poignancy of Cyrano’s unfulfilled love. In these later acts the music was moving and enjoyable. But I could not escape the feeling that the opera was libretto- driven and lacked identifiable musical high points. In most great operas there are clear moments when the music takes over or dominates the story. After Cyrano I could remember dramatic high points, but not musical ones.

The young Romanian baritone Marian Pop sang Cyrano with a clear tone and lovely color, especially in the upper part of his range, and was affecting in portraying the bittersweet nature of Cyrano’s situation as the mouthpiece for his companion Christian. However, one wished for more vocal heft and bravura acting in the first act to convey what Cyrano calls his “panache”. The other two major characters, Roxane and Christian, were played by former students at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts. Soprano Evelyn Pollack could easily be imagined as the object of Christian’s infatuation and she displayed a bright and agile voice overall. However, she did seem to struggle on occasion with some harshness and insecurity in the upper register. And while convincing as the object of Christian’s love, she was less so as a witty précieuses who so easily and cruelly dismisses the supposedly beloved Christian for the banality of his professions of love. Christian is primarily a foil for Cyrano in the opera, and does not have much opportunity to shine, but tenor Stephen Costello sang the role solidly, if sometimes a bit stiffly. In his brief appearances Eric Dubin showed off a rich baritone and an aristocratic manner as the Marquise de Brisaille, Roxane’s would be seducer. The minor roles were ably filled.

After the music and libretto, the third important element of opera is artistic design, and here this production really shone. It is dominated by ornate and elaborate sets and costumes designed by John Pascoe, which are well-suited to the romantic story and music. On several occasions the audience was moved to applaud the set as the curtain rose. The designs also represent a certain vision of what opera should be that matches that found in the music and libretto.

Where this opera succeeds is in its reverent musical adaptation of a classic play and its well-crafted expression of certain operatic virtues. And these deserve praise and may be enough to bring it long-term success. In this regard it is the antithesis of the modern “concept” production in which the music and story are subservient to a directorial “vision.” But, the ultimate moments in opera are musical—moments when the music doesn’t just serve the story, but elevates or transcends it. And, alas, I cannot say I found many such moments in Cyrano.

Stephen Luebke

image= image_description=David DiChiera: Cyrano product=yes product_title=David DiChiera: Cyrano
The Opera Company of Philadelphia
February 8, 2008 product_by=Marian Pop (Cyrano), Evelyn Pollock (Roxane), Stephen Costello (Christian), Peter Volpe (Deguiche), Daniel Teadt (Le Bret), Mark T. Panuccio (Ragueneau), Kathleen Segar (Duegne), Torrance Blaisdell (Capucin), Stefan Lano (conductor), Bernard Uzan (director).
Posted by Gary at 5:01 PM

Peter Grimes by Opera North

It doesn’t get quite the international attention it deserves, however, because it’s based “up North”, as Londoners would say, in what was once the nation’s industrial heartland. This award-winning production of Britten’s Peter Grimes shows why the company earns its excellent reputation.

Opera North has a real affinity for Britten, so with Phyllida Lloyd as director, this production is something of a milestone in Peter Grimes performance. Lloyd’s style grows from the inner dynamic of the opera. Everything focuses on the music, nothing distracts. The curtain lifts to reveal the corpse of the apprentice who died of thirst while lost at sea. It’s a metaphor for the whole opera. In the trial scene, Grimes is fenced in, claustrophobically, by a wall of pallets, held up by the townsfolk. Later these pallets are the bastions of the church, and the walls of the pub. It’s a simple device but effective, underlining the fundamental conflict between Grimes and the populace who inoculate themselves from the outside world with prayer and drink. Britten embeds this dichotomy firmly within his music. The “church” chorus and Ellen Orford’s monologue with the boy exist in parallel, without interaction. There’s drama enough in the orchestra, so Lloyd keeps things simple. Similarly, she doesn’t need to depict the sea, as such. Britten’s cadences sweep upwards and down like waves. “A ceaseless motion”, goes the text, “comes and goes like the tide,…rolls and ebbs, terrible and deep”.

This uncompromising focus on the drama in the music intensifies the disturbing psychological aspects of the opera. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts’s Grimes was perceptive : he’s not meant to be sympathetic, but neither is he an object of hate. He may be cruelly insensitive, but both boys died of natural causes. This role requires a wide range, which Lloyd-Roberts delivers. He created Grimes when this production was premièred in October 2006, and much of the depth of the characterisation is due to him. If on this particular evening, his voice was a little tired at first, he vindicated himself totally in the “What is home” scene, when Grimes confronts the horror of his situation. This time, “the tide will not turn”, he will not “begin again”. The intensity of Lloyd-Roberts performance makes his decision to die at sea completely logical. That last scene, where the townsfolk sing of the tide pulling back out to sea “with string magnetic speed” was magical. Grimes is absorbed into the sea, and for a few moments, something quite magical happens in the orchestra, as the strings surge and the flute rises luminously above. This ending was brilliant, for Lloyd understands that, throughout the opera, Britten has stressed the relentless hard grind of the fishermen’s lives. “This unrelenting work”, as Ellen sings, that lets up for no man. So as the music fades, but on stage, the rhythm of life continues…’s a small detail, but expressing the spirit of the opera very perceptively.

Unlike some more matronly Ellen Orfords, Giselle Allen‘s vibrant characterisation gave a strong sexual charge to her relationship with Grimes. This is important to the interpretation of the opera, because it shows why Grimes drives himself so hard, because he wants to make a new life with Ellen, whom he sees as his redemption. He pushes his apprentices harshly because life at sea is harsh, as no doubt he learned himself a boy. Sexuality is a theme in this opera, from which this production bravely does not shirk away. The townsfolk hint that there’s something unhealthy about Grimes and his boys, so they mount a witch hunt. The chorus “Bring the branding iron and fire” was sung with frenzied energy, hinting that perhaps Grimes wasn’t the only person with desires to suppress. Indeed, Britten makes this clear in the text. Auntie and her “nieces” most certainly provide an outlet for some. As Auntie says, she and her girls say, “we comfort men”. One of the more disturbing, but entirely trenchant, aspects of this production was that the nieces were portrayed as children, one wearing pink and blue with white knee

socks. She’s underage, just like the boys Grimes is hunted down for harming. When she’s propositioned by the town lawyer, that pillar of society, the text is painfully explicit, but some productions shy away. Currently in the UK news, there’s a huge story about child abuse in Jersey, apparently covered up by official whitewash, so watching this production was decidedly uncomfortable. But it serves to show that Britten knew far more about hypocrisy and sexual bullying than he was able to articulate. In 1945, productions couldn’t really confront these issues openly. Now, we are unfortunately more able to appreciate just how deeply Britten understood the pain.

Yet Britten doesn’t judge. In contrast, Mrs Smedley delights in judging. “Crime is my hobby” she says. Although she’s right to be concerned about the boys, her motivation isn’t their welfare, but her own enjoyment of misery. Ethna Robinson’s Mrs Smedley bristles with barely contained hysteria, in contrast to Jonathan Summer’s Captain Balstrode, who stands for common sense. Good vignette parts all round, especially Yvonne Howard’s Auntie and Roderick Williams’s Ned Keene.

grimes6largeopt.pngClaire Booth as Niece 2, Yvonne Howard as Auntie and Amy Freston as Niece 1.

Britten valued the orchestral elements in this opera so much that the Sea Interludes are often performed on their own as concert pieces. Farnes’s conducting was precise and muscular : there’s ambiguity aplenty in the music, so there shouldn’t be in performance. The solos, flute, violin and oboe were particularly moving, like extra voices, commenting on the action. What made this production, however, was the way it was built around the music. A lot of fuss is made of directing style, but in this case, the direction served totally to reveal deeper levels of meaning. The secret, I suspect, is “know your composer” and “know your opera”, through and through. Anyone wanting further evidence of Lloyd’s work with Opera North on Britten might be interested in their DVD of Gloriana.

Anne Ozorio © 2008

image= image_description=Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Peter Grimes and Aaron Eastwood as his apprentice, John. Photography by Bill Cooper. product=yes product_title=Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes
Opera North, Sadlers Wells Theatre, London
26 February 2008 product_by=Peter Grimes – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Ellen Orford – Giselle Allen, Captain Balstrode – Jonathan Summers, Auntie – Yvonne Howard, Nieces – Claire Booth and Amy Freston, Bob Boles – Alan Oke, Swallow – Richard Angas, Mrs Smedley - Ethna Robinson, Rev Adams - Nigel Robinson, Ned Keene – Roderick Williams, Chorus of Opera North, Conductor – Richard Farnes, Director- Phyllida Lloyd – director. product_id=Above: Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Peter Grimes and Aaron Eastwood as his apprentice, John.
All photos by Bill Cooper.
Posted by Gary at 4:29 PM

Miles Davis, Miles Smiles and the Invention of Post-Bop

The fact that the author of the monograph, Jeremy Yudkin, is a musicologist whose previous publications have been exclusively in the area of medieval music and the Western classical tradition [the exception being a 2006 monograph on the Lenox School of Jazz] speaks to the immense changes in musicology over the last thirty years. When this music was made, and for a considerable time thereafter, it was entirely unwelcome in the academy.

Yudkin’s brief book (123 pages of text) is divided between 70 pages of prologue, and 50 pages of close analysis of the six compositions included on Miles Smiles, the second release by the classic quintet including Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. The book can’t quite seem to find a consistent tone, nor decide who its reader should be. The material in the prologue is too thin and commonplace for the reader who is already familiar with Davis and his work, and in contrast the close reading of Miles Smiles may be difficult to digest, even for those who know the album well. I am not convinced that the analysis adds new levels of understanding for the committed listener. Yudkin provides extensive transcription of the solos, and does provide some discussion of how this music differs from the other post-bop of the sixties, but even more discussion of the musical and especially the social context of this music would not have been amiss. For example, much is made of the originality of Tony Williams’ contributions at the drums, but it would be enlightening to know how much he owed to his study with master teacher Alan Dawson and the musical scene in Boston.

All in all, this project was worthy, but the execution seems to indicate that a few more years of gestation might not have been amiss.

Tom Moore

image= image_description=Jeremy Yudkin: Miles Davis, Miles Smiles and the Invention of Post-Bop product=yes product_title=Jeremy Yudkin: Miles Davis, Miles Smiles and the Invention of Post-Bop product_by=Indiana University Press, 2008 product_id=ISBN: 978-0-253-21952-7
Posted by Gary at 2:34 PM

Short on the sides and Full On Top

With its struggle between love and greed, youth and age, its general joie de vivre, along with gem after gem of “hummable” musical numbers, it is an audience favorite. Myriad opportunities for sheer technical dazzle give connoisseurs an opportunity to savor the more refined vocal moments of the evening. Lyric Opera’s current run of Barbiere, seemingly like Opera itself at the turn of the Millennium strives to please all of the people all of the time, succeeding both as high art and as showpiece. The opera’s elements seem traditional enough, and yet, even a perfunctory glance beneath the surface yields deeper levels of meaning. John Conklin’s sets, which were inspired by the work of Magritte are representational, with surrealist elements. Likewise, Michael Stennets’ costumes were both traditional and whimsical.

A Barbiere resounds or thuds because of style, comic insight, and vocal ingenuity. Lyric’s Barbiere managed to sparkle mostly because of the immense talent of Joyce DiDonato, who, in her house debut as Rosina, was both vocally and dramatically a perfect fit for the role. It must be said that DiDonato is a revelation. Her cavatina, “Una voce poco fa” was a lesson in bel canto tradition. DiDonato’s ornaments were rapid-fire and athletic, inspired, appropriate. The voice was exciting in the top with warmth to spare in the lower and middle registers. It must also be said that DiDonato is an engaging actress; her Rosina was sympathetic and charming. During “Una voce poco fa”, when the text returns, “Io son docile”, in an inspired moment, DiDonato threw a mini-tantrum, juxtaposing Rosina’s outward subservience with her inward rebellion. “Contra un cor”, Rosina’s second act aria, was staged as a “voice lesson” and DiDonato was uproariously funny in her impersonation of an amateur singer, placing her hands on various parts of the body to simulate physicalized learning. When DiDonato’s Rosina looks to Bartolo for approval, Bartolo furthers the joke by making hand gestures that suggested voice placement and grace. DiDonato’s triumph was complete when, immediately before the cadenza, she mimed exaggeratedly deep breathing.

Opposite DiDonato is John Osborn, who replaced Juan Diego Florez, the scheduled Almaviva, at the 11th hour. Florez’s return had been much anticipated by Chicago operagoers, and so Osborn’s bravery in assuming the star mantle should be commended. Osborn does not suffer greatly by comparison to the singer he replaces. His leggero voice coasts easily through the score, which is notoriously difficult for singers who are less equipped for this specialty role. In fact, the finale “Cessa di più resitere” is often cut because of its fiendish difficulty. The tenor wins the audience with his agility and stratosphereic finale. If criticism must be given, it is that Osborn’s voice takes a moment to warm up; his “Ecco ridente in cielo” is perhaps a little heavier than the rest of his singing in the evening, but he sails through the cabaletta with only a little effort and by the second scene, sighs through the recit with a lyricism not often heard from singers in major houses.

Sung by American pin-up baritone Nathan Gunn, the production’s Figaro is a treat, not only for the sporty physique, which the actor proudly displays during his “Largo al factotum” (staged as a dressing scene), but also for his generous singing. Contrary to some critical opinion, this listener finds Gunn’s voice to be adequate of weight for such a large venue as the Civic Opera House. Gunn had no trouble projecting over full orchestra for his arias and duets, but, surprisingly, he drops several syllables of his recitatives, with only a harpsichord to balance. A little more careful detail to vocal energy may be in order, but the singer’s execution is enjoyable, and Gunn’s relaxed air on stage is very welcome.

Barber_Chicago_09.pngJoyce DiDonato as Rosina and John Osborn as Count Almaviva

Baritone Philip Krauss gives a serviceable Doctor Bartolo. His reading paled in comparison to the lovers; however, his diction is crisp, and his aria “La calunnia è un venticello” was richer for it. Also of note is his lovely falsetto that we enjoyed in the opening bars of “Quando mi sei vicina”. In spite of his best efforts, Maestro Donato Renzetti fails in his attempt to encourage the orchestra to play so loud as to cover the singers during the quintet, and the overture, surprisingly slow, was out of tune.

Still, this Barbière is a must see for anyone who loves this comic work, and anyone who treasures the bel canto tradition is foolish to ignore the opportunity to hear Ms. DiDonato teach us how Rossini must be sung.

Gregory Peebles © 2008

image= image_description=Count Almaviva (John Osborn, l.) serenades Rosina (Joyce DiDonato) as Figaro (Nathan Gunn, r.) plays the guitar in The Barber of Seville, part of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2007-08 season. Photo by Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera of Chicago. product=yes product_title=Gioachino Rossini: The Barber of Seville product_by=Lyric Opera of Chicago, Civic Opera House
February 22, 2008 product_id=Above: Count Almaviva (John Osborn, l.) serenades Rosina (Joyce DiDonato) as Figaro (Nathan Gunn, r.) plays the guitar.
All photos by Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Posted by Gary at 2:13 PM

The Sea Hawk and Deception

A typical film soundtrack today might not fill the length of a CD, while being padded with any pop music hits for which the producers would cough up the money for the rights. As often as not the scoring would be light, with a tinkly piano/synth background. The Naxos series "Film Music Classics" takes listeners back to another era, with full orchestrations of melodically rich, evocative music. And there could be no better example than the two disc set which features Erich Wolfgang Korngold's full score to The Sea Hawk - almost 110 minutes of music. That should be enough to entice any fan of classic film scores, but Naxos adds on 30 minutes of music from the Korngold score for Deception, which includes a mini (7 minutes) cello concerto.

Korngold's The Sea Hawk works as a suite, with his brassy themes appearing in various guises over the course of the score. As would be expected, the music for action sequences tends to rely on rapid, ascending figures, and a little goes a long way. But there are also extended lyric passages, as well as brassy heroic music of a kind that clearly foreshadows the popular John Williams's scores for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg films. The first CD ends with the lovely "Maria's song," sung in barely recognizable English by soprano Irina Romishevskaya. Compared to the first disc, CD2 has a few more of the briefer cues that characterize many film scores. However, most of the tracks are over 3 minutes in length, so that the score hangs together. It's not profound music, but it delights the ear.

Deception, a lurid vehicle for Bette Davis and Claude Raines, gets a string-rich outpouring, with a lovely tune sometimes clouded over with chromatic passages that suggest Korngold's perhaps frustrated impulses as a composer of so-called "serious" music. He gets at least a few extended minutes to flex his compositional muscles in the abbreviated cello concerto that closes the disc, with cellist Alexander Zagorinsky's tone alternately sweet and impassioned.

Naxos supplies a generous 24-page booklet, with long essays about the films and also a tracking guide for each of the scores that connects the music to the storyline. John Morgan also contributes a note, detailing the score restoration he prepared to enable the recording to be made.

William Stromberg has led the Moscow Symphony Orchestra in many of the recordings of film scores for Naxos, and the performances due credit to the quality of the music. Never mind the bargain price, Naxos has simply released an exciting, enjoyable recording Lovers of film music will race out for it, and anyone anxious to hear some wonderfully melodic 20th century orchestral music should be right on their heels.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Erich Wolfgang Korngold: The Sea Hawk; Deception

product_title=Erich Wolfgang Korngold: The Sea Hawk; Deception
product_by=Moscow Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, William Stromberg (cond.)
product_id=Naxos 8.570110-11 [2CDs]

Posted by chris_m at 2:11 PM

Juan Diego Florez: Voce D'Italia - Arias for Rubini

And in an interior photo the singer, apparently tired of looking at the cameraman, stalks away, hands in suit pockets. In almost all these photos, Florez adopts an impassive affect, with only the slightest hint of a smile on his tightly pressed lips.

The vocal performances on the disc demonstrate what all the star's recordings have to date. His remarkable instrument has agility, a solid top extension, and an appealing tone, neither too sweet nor too tangy. With the exception of his previous disc, an over-orchestrated hodgepodge of lighter material called "Sentimiento Latino," Decca has primarily offered Florez in his trademark bel canto repertoire. Both his Rigoletto Duke and Gianni Schicchi Rinuccio, on the CD "Great Tenor Arias," indicated that his voice can stretch a bit into Verdi and Puccini, but some of the charm of his voice is lost.

Putting aide the awkward double title (Voce D'Italia - Arias for Rubini), this latest disc finds Florez comfortably at home in his beloved Bellini, Rossini, and Donizetti. The disc's repertoire covers arias from operas that made Giovanni Battista Rubini a (if not "the") leading tenor of his generation. Philip Gossett's booklet essay argues that Florez "is the acknowledged master of this type of vocalism." And no moment appears when, on a technical level, that judgment can be seriously challenged. On track after track, Florez leaps up to high notes and slides silkily around fast runs, all while maintaining an elegant composure. It's that same composure seen in the photos described above.

But what proves elusive in those photos - a sense of the singer's personality - also evades the ears in these performances. The lead roles in Bellini's Il Pirata, Donizetti's Mariano Falliero, and Rossini's Guglielmo Tell all sound pretty much the same here. And dramatically, perhaps not that much difference exists. However, to listen to Marcello Giordani singing the Pirata arias on a Naxos release of a few years back, one hears more of the hero, the dangerous sea brigand, than one does in the smoother, more secure singing that Florez provides.

But then over 70 minutes of tenor music from bel canto operas may not be the ideal continuous listening experience. Any of these tracks, heard by itself, would amaze and delight the ear. And that is due not only to Florez's great gifts, but also to the excellent support from the Academia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, under the leadership of Roberto Abbado. As a showcase for contemporary operatic singing, this Decca CD is an often stupendous affair. For at least one listener, a bit more individual expressiveness would have made it even more special.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Voce D'Italia - Arias for Rubini

product_title=Voce D'Italia - Arias for Rubini
product_by=Juan Diego Florez
product_id=Decca B0010302-02

Posted by chris_m at 2:10 PM

Mary, Queen of Scots (Maria Stuarda)

The company opened the season with a rebuilt staging of the Metropolitan Opera's Tannhauser production from that era, and for their second production, they figuratively crossed the square for Ming Cho Lee's sets for Donizetti's Maria Stuarda (which San Diego Opera insists on calling Mary, Queen of Scots). The San Diego audience audibly appreciates a decent traditional staging, and even though Ming Cho Lee basically dressed up a spare uni-set with just a shift of platform here and a moody back drop there, the curtain for act one, scene two (after the first of two intermissions) drew a round of applause from the audience. The three scenes of act two came after the second intermission, and each necessitated the dropping of the curtain for a scene change, letting at least some of the drama evaporate. Perhaps a lighting cue would get the audience to shush before the conductor (the reliable Edoardo Müller) brought down his baton to resume the music.

Quibbles aside, San Diego Opera deserves an opera lover's gratitude for putting on Donizetti's historically corrupt but very entertaining spin on the sad fate of Mary. Admittedly, the opera's structure lacks a compelling narrative drive. In the first scene, Elizabeth the queen gives into the request of the Earl of Leicester to meet the imprisoned Mary, only because the Queen is smitten with the Earl. In scene two, Mary exults at a brief taste of freedom in the assigned meeting place. However, her pride will not let her humble herself before Elizabeth, and in one of opera's surprisingly rare cat fights, curses are soon flying through the air between the two ladies. This seals Mary's fate, of course, but the long second act drags it out unmercifully, although when the final scene finally takes the audience to the execution chamber, the opera's best music follows.

Kate Aldrich as Elizabeth started the show gunning her engines, and if her character didn't disappear after the first scene of act two, might have totally eclipsed Angela Gilbert's Mary. Aldrich sang out with vehement gusto, easily encompassing the role's vocal range. She had the fire for the confrontation scene and the dejected regret when she realizes the man she loves is in love with Mary. Gilbert took a while to warm up. Her chief vocal strength is her top, which she can float quite beautifully. But it is more of a technical feat than an artistic one, and the middle of the voice too often dropped under the orchestral fabric. That being said, Gilbert hit her stride in the long final scene, finding just enough color to hold the audience though the rather anti-climatic set pieces.

Reinhard Hagen's sturdy bass worked well in making a sympathetic Talbot, who tries to support Mary in her suffering. Andrew Greenan, as the "bad guy" Lord Cecil, urged on the audience's boos at curtain, knowing well that they indicated the success of his performance. In the tenor role of the Earl of Leicester, Yegishe Manucharyan pushed his attractive lyric voice to meet the occasionally forceful demands of Donizetti's writing, with intermittent success. A vertically challenged tenor in the classic mode, Manucharyan as costumed often looked as if he were the adolescent prey of two middle-aged female predators.

Word is that at the Metropolitan Opera, Peter Gelb has plans to revive not only this opera but the other two in Donizetti's "Three Queens" trio. After the rapturous applause that followed this San Diego performance of Mary, Queen of Scots, perhaps General Manager Ian Campbell will consider beating the Met to the punch.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Mary Stuart

product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: Mary, Queen of Scots (Maria Stuarda)
product_by=San Diego Opera
24 February 2008

Posted by chris_m at 12:08 PM