May 29, 2008

Is there a Right way to sing opera?

macmillan.pngIgor Toronyi-Lalic [Times Online, 30 May 2008]

There’s so much that Kim Jong Il would love about the Barbican. All that delicious rolling, rising, falling, state-funded concrete, the Gesamt-kunst thrust, the communal togetherness, the cheesecake. And the opera. A recent spate of new works had enough anti-Americanism/imperialism/capitalism to warm the heart of the frostiest commie dictator.

Posted by Gary at 4:43 PM

Shorter, sparcer ‘Dido’ opera will leave audiences satisfied

By Keith Powers [Boston Herald, 29 May 2008]

If you hear local culture-lovers saying things like “rosy-fingered dawn appeared” or “I sing of arms and the man,” smile graciously and nod. We’ve had a heavy dose of the classics here lately, and it’s bound to have an effect.

Posted by Gary at 4:35 PM

Der Rosenkavalier, Coliseum, London

By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 29 May 2008]

If the success of an opera company is judged by the input of its music director – usually a pretty accurate measure – then English National Opera has had a good season.

Posted by Gary at 4:31 PM

NYC Health Department: Mice at Met Opera

By RONALD BLUM [Associated Press, 28 May 2008]

On-stage villains aren't the only vermin at the Metropolitan Opera.

The grand theater at Lincoln Center, where much of New York's society gathers to show off gowns and jewels, has been cited for sanitary violations by the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Posted by Gary at 12:51 PM

May 28, 2008

Jonathan Miller's Operatic Mission

miller_small.pngBy NICHOLAS WAPSHOTT [NY Sun, 28 May 2008]

Lunch with director Jonathan Miller is in turns a testing lecture on philosophy and literature, a hilarious stand-up routine, a somber poetry lesson, a doleful diatribe against trends in opera production, and a lugubrious harangue against celebrity culture and vulgarity. Above all, it is a superb one-man show.

Posted by Gary at 2:43 PM

Mezzo-Soprano's Glorious Debut Lifts 'Cavalleria'

Dolora_Zajick.pngBy Anne Midgette [Washington Post, 27 May 2008]

Dolora Zajick, 56, has long been the reigning American mezzo-soprano. She is a fixture at the Metropolitan Opera, where she is unequaled in the major Verdi roles (Amneris, Azucena, even Eboli).

Posted by Gary at 2:34 PM

Il prigioniero/Bluebeard’s Castle, La Scala, Milan

Il_prigioniero.png(Photo: Marco Brescia, Archivio Fotografico del Teatro alla Scala)
By George Loomis [Financial Times, 27 May 2008]

It was good to pair Luigi Dallapiccola’s Il prigioniero with Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle but then it was good to revive Il prigioniero period, even if this one-act opera by the most lyrical of Italian dodecaphonists was staged just last month at the Paris Opera.

Posted by Gary at 1:52 PM

Tree-mendous in Chicago

And it did so with a completely different take on the piece than that devised by Peter Sellars for Vienna’s world premiere in November 2006 at the Festival of New Crowned Hope.

The original concept had the large orchestra on stage, with minimal stage action relegated to small elevated playing spaces, more semi-staged oratorio than a full-fledged dramatic rendering. It is perhaps no accident that this Chicago company has “theater” prominently included in its name, for they have put the band back in the pit, and with consummate stagecraft, they fleshed out this folk tale’s libretto which was crafted by Sellars and the composer based on a story translated by A.K. Ramanujan from the Kannada language of southern India.

the-king.pngThe king (James Johnson, dancer).
The tale concerns two sisters, one of whom, “Kumudha,” is able to transform herself into “A Flowering Tree” and back again. However, her jealous sibling’s wicked friends break the spell, trapping the heroine in her tree-state, breaking her limbs, and leaving her in the gutter as a pitiful grub-like torso. After her disappearance, the “Prince,” having already wedded her for her bewitching beauty and powers, wanders disconsolately until his love restores her and reunites them in marital bliss. The only other singing principal is a “Storyteller.”

The minimalist set and costume design by George Souglides scored big, with simple yet highly imaginative effects. The first important transformation scene was accomplished with “Kumudha’s” sister (dancer Karla Victum) stretching hidden, over-long sleeves from her costume and extending and twisting the “branches” into various shapes. Each subsequent transfiguration was larger then the previous, magically accomplished with colored ropes.

Whether descending from the flies or rising from the stage floor, these were presented in artfully tied designs that would be the envy of any advanced macrame class. Indeed, the curtain rise of Act Two stunningly coincided with a “growing tree” emanating from “Kumudha” down center stage that ultimately filled the entire proscenium opening. The few set pieces and props (a veil-covered over-sized wedding bed, a gilt throne, primitive masks on poles) were selected with attentive care.

the-storyteller.pngThe Storyteller (Sanford Sylvan).
The evocative and colorful costume design was effectively based on traditional Indian and Asian street and stage garb, with a couple of the specialty dance turns being dazzlingly outfitted. I wish that same attention had been lavished on our heroine, who looked quite plain; well, too plain by comparison. Indeed, the rather lumpy and shapeless white coat she wore in the wedding scene was promisingly removed to reveal only more of the same look, if better fitted. All of this was well-served by Aaron Black’s terrific lighting, artfully combining lustrous washes of color with well-calculated and flawlessly executed specials, gobos, and area lighting.

If all this was gorgeous to behold, it would not have impacted us as strongly as it did without Nicola Raab’s masterful direction. First, without ever unduly cluttering the stage, Ms. Raab has devised meaningful and poetic movement for the large chorus and corps de ballet. As we entered the theatre, the white-garbed “Storyteller” was already seated, immobile on a chair stage right. Slowly, the chorus in reddish-orange filed on from various points and seated themselves on the stage around him, ultimately creating a visual “island” that captivates us before a note is played. We couldn’t wait to hear what he has to say.

Similarly, meaningful character relationships are defined with ethereal subtlety. The mating scene with our newlyweds walking/stalking on the bridal bed was a study in sensuous restraint, as the pair never quite touched but conveyed the impression of love-making nonetheless by tracing the head and torso with slow sweeping gestures, and intertwining their arms (well, almost) in ever inventive combinations.

Perhaps the most problematic scene of all, the dismemberment of the tree-trapped “Kumudha” was beautifully solved by having two dancers wrap her in a cocoon of a vibrant red cloth. Leaving one arm free, the actress could recline, sit up, and drag herself around the stage as a sympathetic outcast.

The ritualistic choreography by Renato Zanello was well-executed by not only his trained dancers, but also pleasingly performed by the singing chorus. The clean, thrilling choral work (most of them are in the COT Young Artists Program) was complemented by the group’s exceptional ability to transform themselves at will from commentators, to bystanders, to relatives, to royal subjects, all the while doing some amazing staged business, not the least of which was crawling from the wings on their bellies to pick up folded boards that were used in any number of combinations to create everything from a village of houses to a penultimate pop-up back-drop for the lovers’ reunion.

COT assembled a fine trio of singers as its principals. Natasha Jouhl proved an affecting “Kumudha,” singing with a well-schooled, ample lyric soprano that easily encompassed all the wide ranging demands and soaring lines of this difficult role. Originally written with Dawn Upshaw in mind, the part was taken over in Vienna (and several other locations) by rising star Jessica Rivera (who recently triumphed locally in another Adams piece, Chicago Lyric’s “Dr. Atomic”). Dawn and Jessica are two artists who really “get” this music and don’t just sing it, but embody it. That said, although she vocalized it splendidly, looked attractive, and acted with commitment, I did not yet feel that Ms. Jouhl has fully integrated the piece into her voice, or more particularly, her artistry. I would love to see her again after she has the experience of some more performances.

With Noah Stewart’s “Prince” I felt that we were experiencing an artist on the verge of a major career. He brought a regal bearing to the portrayal, and a polished, weighty lyric voice with excellent thrust on the high phrases, and wonderful presence throughout the range. Excellent diction, handsome good looks, beautiful instrument, wonderful musical instincts, sound technique, stage savvy — he’s got the goods.

I have long admired the fine artist Sanford Sylvan, but I found that his soft-grained approach was initially a little too lieder-based and subtle for the task at hand as the “Storyteller.” Seated a third of the way upstage for the first act, while I could hear his beautiful sounds and sensitive phrasing, I too often had real trouble understanding the text and found my gaze drifting to the surtitles. When he came forward to the side of the proscenium in Act Two, there was an immediate difference. This would be a quick fix by just telling him to “Sing out, Louise” when he is upstage. Still, he is a treasureable baritone and was an audience favorite.

kumudha-and-prince.pngKumudha (Natasha Jouhl) and the Prince (Noah Stewart).
Diminutive Joana Carneiro had taken over conducting duties from Mr. Adams and this was a tour-de-force assumption. “Tree” is a monster-piece that calls for split second rhythmic changes, quicksilver mood-altering shifts, lyrical outpouring, percussive tirades, and well, the kitchen sink just may have been in there somewhere. Above all, this stuff must be clean-clean-clean to make its hypnotic effect and save a few squishy moments in the opening bars’ undulating strings, Ms. Carneiro was in full command of her forces. As if she was driving a car at 120 miles an hour, there was no room for error. And she negotiated every twist and turn of this challenging piece with concentrated inspiration. Brava Maestra!

It seems as though Mr. Adams may have developed the score a bit since Vienna, where I remember thinking that perhaps the heroine should have a set piece up front to announce her character. It seems that “Kumudha” had more exposition to sing at COT. Or maybe the staging was just that much more compelling. For all its glories, and they are many and they are ravishing, I still found myself wishing that the long chanted choral dance in Act Two (sort of Rap-Lite) was a bit shorter. And I sorta wanted a radiant final duet for the reunited lovers. Have I seen “Turandot” too many times? Perhaps.

Still, this was in toto a welcome and notable achievement. Chicago is a world class musical city and with Chicago Opera Theater’s “A Flowering Tree” we have been treated to a sampling of the very best the town has to offer.

James Sohre

image= image_description=Kumudha (Natasha Jouhl) transforms into a flowering tree [Photo by Liz Lauren] product=yes product_title=John Adams: Flowering Tree product_by=Kumudha (Natasha Jouhl), Prince (Noah Stewart), Storyteller (Sanford Sylvan). Conductor: John Adams (May 14,17); Joana Carneiro (May 20, 23, 25). Director: Nicola Raab. Choreographer: Renato Zanella. Production Designer: George Souglides. product_id=Above: Kumudha (Natasha Jouhl) transforms into a flowering tree
All photos by Liz Lauren courtesy of Chicago Opera Theater.
Posted by Gary at 1:44 PM

Revised Amistad makes its mark

Happily, a constellation of circumstances caused Nigel Redden, general director of Spoleto USA, to see Amistad as an ideal work for the 2008 season of the Charleston, South Carolina, festival.

Amistad tells the true story of a Spanish ship taking captive Africans to America to be sold as slaves in 1839. The Africans mutinied, killed most of the ship’s crew and intended to return home. Misguided by the surviving navigator they landed on Long Island. The Spaniards demanded their return, but the still young United States was sharply divided on what action should be taken. The Africans found an eloquent defender in former president John Quincy Adams who pleaded their case before the Supreme Court. Two years later they were released from jail and allowed to return to Africa.

And the circumstances at Spoleto USA? Charleston, commercial and cultural center of the old South, was the epicenter of the slave trade, which — although outlawed by Congress in 1808 — continued illegally. The city’s slave market is maintained as a museum that recalls painful past history.

lrg-288-img_1201.pngStephen Morscheck (John Quincy Adams)
The site for Amistad was the totally reconstructed Memminger Auditorium, a 1939 building devastated by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Once the city’s major performing arts venue, the building stands at the edge of a mixed neighborhood near the historic heart of Charleston. What better work to pinpoint Charleston on the historical map than Amistad?

Redden insisted upon major revision of the score and he, along with Spoleto director of opera and orchestras Emmanuel Villaume, played an active part in the project. With their help Davis and his librettist cousin Thulani Davis made Amistad an opera much leaner, more focused and dramatically far more effective than the original. And in so doing they created not only a masterpiece of American opera, but further a work that — against a contemporary horizon darkened by undercurrents of racism — resonates today far beyond Memminger and Spoleto USA.

The Davises eliminated characters and scenes, and the composer reduced the orchestra from 65 to 45. Amistad — now only slightly more than two hours of music — is a work transparently coherent both in narrative and music, and Spoleto assembled a creative team and cast that made the work, seen at its premiere on May 22 and again on May 25, an opera that should be widely performed. Amistad now has a mass hero of eight Africans, each with significant solos. As their leader Cinque, bass-baritone Gregg Baker was a commanding presence on the oblong Memminger stage, and as Margru, soprano Janinah Burnett gave a poignant account of how women were treated by their captors. It was followed by the overpowering chorus “Ankle and Wrist,” referring to the chains the Africans had worn.

lrg-281-img_0801.pngGregg Baker (Cinque) and ensemble.
Tenor Dennis Petersen led a quartet of reporters out to exploit the Amistad case as a public sensation, while tenor Brian Frutiger brought passion to forces advocating abolition of slavery. Bass-baritone Stephen Morscheck, tall and lean, was an imposingly agitated ex-president Adams in his confrontation with the Supreme Court.

Davis has woven hints of jazz, blues and even scat so seamlessly into the score that they surrender their identity to his uniquely personal idiom. His use of the hymn “Jesus Savior, Pilot Me” is one of the most moving moments in the opera. Thus the dialectic of American history — the commitment, on the one side, to free men and, on the other, the acceptance of slavery despite the noble wording of basis documents — played out before the Memminger audience. The Davises brought a mythic gloss to Amistad by placing the story of the ship and its captives in the hands of a pair of deities from African mythology. As the Trickster God tenor Michael Forest, both narrator of the story and participant in it, had the lead role in the huge cast, while Mary Elizabeth Williams brought humane concern to the Queen of the Waters with her warm and winning mezzo.

Director Sam Helfrich, set and costume designers Caleb Hale Wertembaker and Kaye Voice, and lighting designer Peter West collaborated to make Amistad flow with ease across the stage in Memminger’s black-box interior. Indeed, the production is a coup of music theater for Spoleto — an experiment in opera grand and intimate and timely in its content. The trial that consumes most of the second act is a superlative achievement of dramatic narrative that reaches back to the beginnings of slave trade and culminates in a vivid reenactment of the mutiny on board the Amistad.

A major contributor to the success of the production was conductor Emmanuel Villaume. Working — he noted — as the many-armed Indian god Shiva, he led his gifted ensemble of young instrumentalists through Davis’ complex score, unfazed by its multiple meters and shifting rhythms to bring musical and dramatic drive and continuity to this compelling story.

lrg-289-img_1333.pngJaninah Burnett (Margru), Herbert Perry (Burnah), Norman Shankle (Kaleh), Mary Elizabeth Williams (Goddess of the Waters), Crystal Charles (Captive).

It is significant that the Spoleto revival of the revised Amistad comes less than a month after the world premiere of another opera that confronts the question of slavery in the years prior to the Civil War: Kirke Mechem‘s John Brown’s Body, premiered by the Kansas City Lyric Opera on May 3. Both works call for careful reconsideration of truths long — and uncritically — held self evident.

It is of interest that while most of the Amistad captives returned to Africa, one — a woman — stayed in this country and earned a degree from Oberlin College.

The 2008 season of Spoleto USA runs through June 8. Visit

Wes Blomster

image= image_description=Gregg Baker (Cinque) and Fikile Mvinjelwa (Antonio) performing in Amistad at Spoleto Festival USA, May 22- June 8, 2008. Photo by WIlliam Struhrs. product=yes product_title=Anthony Davis: Amistad product_by=The Trickster God: Michael Forest; Navigator: Raúl Melo; Don Pedro: Jeffrey Wells; Kinnah: Robert Mack; Grabeau: Kevin Maynor; Burnah: Herbert Perry; Margru: Janinah Burnett; Bahia: Kendall Gladen; Kaleh: Norman Shankle; Captive Girl: Crystal Charles; Cinque: Gregg Baker; Lieutenant: Edward Parks; Antonio: Fikile Mvinjelwa; Reporter 1: Dennis Petersen Reporter 2: Zachary Coates; Reporter 3: Jan Opalach; Reporter 4: Jonathan Green; Phrenologist: Dennis Petersen; Abolitionist Tappan: Brian Frutiger John Quincy Adams: Stephen Morscheck; Judge: Edward Parks; Goddess of Waters: Mary Elizabeth Williams; Ship Cook: Brian Matthews. Director: Sam Helfrich; Conductor: Emmanuel Villaume; Assistant Conductor: Olivier Reboul; Accompanist: Lydia Brown; Costume Designer: Kaye Voyce Set Designer: Caleb Wertenbaker; Lighting Designer: Peter West. product_id=Above: Gregg Baker (Cinque) and Fikile Mvinjelwa (Antonio).
All photos by WIlliam Struhrs courtesy of Spoleto Festival USA.
Posted by Gary at 1:15 PM

An Interview with Allen Anderson

His works have been recorded by such leading artists as the Lydian String Quartet, violinist Curtis Macomber, and pianist Aleck Karis. We spoke at his office in Hill Hall at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, on May 13, 2008.

TM: What was the musical environment like in your family? What were your beginnings as a musician?

AA: I have an older sister, who somewhere in our childhood decided she wanted to play the organ. It wasn’t the classical organ….

TM: Farfisa….

AA: It wasn’t a Farfisa. That would have been fun! This was the household chord-organ, where the left hand played full chords, and the right hand played the tune. That and an autoharp were the only musical instruments we had in the house, and it must have come when I was about twelve, perhaps ten or eleven.

I do have a compositional memory that precedes this by some unknown number of years. I probably was six or seven at the time. The whole family was in the automobile, I was sitting in the back seat — this was before the days of seat belts — and I remember distinctly moving forward to perch myself over the back of the front seat, and proclaiming to my parents that if they gave me any line of song lyrics, I would be able to sing back the song that went with these lyrics. “You mean a song you already know?” “No, just give me the lyrics, and I’ll sing the song!”

I remember being crushed by their response, because they thought this was impossible. They didn’t give me any lyrics, and I remember returning to the back seat, and not thinking of myself as a composer for many years.

My first conscious desire to want to be involved in playing an instrument like many people from my generation, males in particular, was after seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. It must have been within a month after that we went out and got a guitar. I studied with a man who did jazz guitar, but I was interested in joining rock and roll bands. He was teaching me rather advanced music theory while he was trying to make me into essentially someone who could play background chords — not really a soloist, but someone who could comp the chords. That was my first exposure to music theory.

TM: Where were you growing up?

AA: In the San Francisco Bay area. I was born in Palo Alto, and grew up in Los Altos, right there. When all the San Francisco bands from Haight Ashbury hit, I was a little young, but I knew what their sound was, and started imitating that in the bands that I played in.

When George Harrison started playing the sitar, I became interested in Indian music as well, and for two years I studied sitar during the summers in Berkeley, with a real honest-to-goodness Indian master, sitting on the floor for four hours every morning, playing scales up and down the sitar. When I got to college at Berkeley I realized within a month or so that I would have to give up the guitar, because in those days the electric guitar was not an acceptable instrument — nobody paid attention to it in that environment. And there was no place for sitar, so I decided that I needed to learn how to play the piano.

TM: What year was this?

AA: I started in the fall of 1969.

TM: What was music at UCB like in the early seventies?

AA: Not being a performer of a classical instrument with any capability, it was interesting how composition got started for me. I was in a class in which every student was asked to perform, and my fellow classmates got up and played the viola, or the piano, and the only way for me to do the assignment was for me to have written the piece myself, so that I could find a way to perform. At the same time I realized that I could sing, and was attracted to the choirs available at the department, which I found very stimulating. Some of my strongest memories of those years are performing new music as a singer. They had commissioned Roger Sessions to write a cantata, and I was involved in the premiere of that as a member of the chorus – When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed — big full-length cantata, forty-five minutes or so, as I recall. A cappella Schoenberg – De Profundis — difficult, but I was loving it. Various kinds of pick-up groups, since those were the years of Vietnam, strikes, there would be a sudden convocation. There was one where in a few days we had to learn music that had been written for us to sing. There were a lot of things going on, but my memories are primarily of new music events.

TM: Early music in the seventies was also outside the mainstream. Was there an important early music scene going on?

AA: Philip Brett was on the faculty then, someone that people know for his interest in British early music and gay studies. I sang a number of early music concerts with his group in those days. There were musicology students who would get groups together to sing Josquin…

TM: To go back to your rock and roll roots for a moment, what sort of rock were you doing before getting to Berkeley?

AA: When we started we were covering California surf bands, and then it got into the British bands. I remember learning lots of Yardbirds and Zombies, and from California, the Byrds. When we started to do our own stuff it was derivative of San Francisco, something like the Jefferson Airplane.

TM: Did this music end up being integrated into your approach to composition?

AA: I don’t know where it is. To me, not only was the electric guitar put away in a case, and left at my mother’s house, and not found again for twenty years, but the music associated with it was also pushed aside. I do have memories of walking out of the music building at Berkeley and hearing rock bands playing from a quarter-mile away, and thinking “that sounds great!” Once or twice I went to some venue at night. I remember sitting up close and seeing Jerry Garcia playing in New Riders of the Purple Sage, not much farther from him than you and I are now, but by and large it was just something that I didn’t pay much attention. You couldn’t avoid it, being in a large college town –you hear the music, you live in a dormitory, and it’s playing down the hallway — but I wasn’t doing anything with it, and since I was trying to learn to write music pretty much on my own, I was looking at scores of the European avant-garde, and trying to emulate that.

TM: What were the composers that had an effect on your hearing in the seventies? My friends and I made a point of hearing the most avant-garde things we could — Sessions piano sonatas, and so on, and the Ives revival was going on.

AA: Ives was big in California too. I remember getting Ives piano music as a Christmas present, and loving it. Somewhere along the line I heard the Rite of Spring, and the Berg Violin Concerto, and of all things getting a recording of the Schoenberg Woodwind Quintet, a rather severe piece by comparison. One thing that really enthused me was seeing — I can’t imagine this now — Pierre Boulez on television — he must have been conducting Marteau — and thinking what a fabulous world of sound this was.

At Berkeley, as a student, there was a fair amount of new music. I remember hearing a concert performance of Le Marteau there too. The most important composer as a role model, someone I wanted to emulate, was when then-young Fred Lerdahl was on the faculty at Berkeley for a few brief years. Hearing him conduct a couple of his pieces, particularly one called Wake — I remember being blown away by it. Also, because of the proximity to Mills College there was a staunch avant-garde side in the Bay area. There was a Cage happening on the Berkeley campus, which must have been trying to duplicate the Black Mountain Happening. People on ladders stringing Christmas tree lights, a giant balloon that was inflated and tossed into the audience, batted around like at a baseball game…wild, madcap happenings.

I remember a big Antheil concert with someone in tuxedo but no shoes….I don’t remember any of the early minimalist composers. There was a performance of Merce Cunningham where Cage came out and sat down in a chair, took a bottle of champagne out of a cooler, poured it very deliberately….takes a sip, opens one of his books, starts reading…meanwhile the dance had been going on for ten minutes.

TM: We look back at the seventies and think “what a revolutionary period!”, but inside the academic walls it was as conservative as could be imagined.

AA: I had traditional harmony and counterpoint classes with Andrew Imbrie. We had to write tonal fugues in the style of Bach. I just ate that stuff up. I didn’t actually study composition with anybody as an undergraduate — I felt insecure about my abilities. The content of the courses was very traditional, and the education probably had a greater impact on my development than the avant-garde things mentioned earlier.

TM: Where did you go after Berkeley?

AA: I went to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. One of my teachers had said “there is this professor you would probably get along with”, Seymour Shifrin, who had been a faculty member at Berkeley, but had left before I was an undergraduate there. I applied, and amazed, now, that I got in, because there were so few pieces that I had to send with the application. I ended up getting a PhD, and taught there for many years as well.

TM: Those who know the Boston scene may know Shifrin, but perhaps he is not generally well-known elsewhere.

AA: It’s true, he’s not. His music has disappeared since he died in 1979. He was a very high-minded fellow. There was a purpose to everything. I am talking about one’s commitment to writing music, his own, and what he expected of his students. Extremely serious. Everything was questioned; nothing could be put down on a page without full commitment to it and its significance. Nothing was automatic. For some people this was a difficult environment — they weren’t used to thinking this closely about everything. I wasn’t a particular fast composer, so I didn’t find it inhibiting. His standards were very high. I didn’t study with him my first year at Brandeis. I remember showing him the piece that I wrote. I was very proud of it — it was the longest thing I had ever written.

His response was “Well…you use the same type of phrase shaping”. He was probably right, but it wasn’t what I wanted to hear at that moment.

One of the features of his music that had a profound impact on me for a long time was that there was very little repetition. Again, everything had to be discovered, nothing could automatically come back. There were things that repeated, but almost in a covert way — they weren’t obvious returns. It had an effect on the way I heard, or even on my ability to hear certain things in pieces of music. I emulated it, I wanted to be like that, and for a long time my music had very little repetition, either local or large-scale.

TM: Is this stripping-down to the most basic expressive gesture, without using repetition to build a form, something that comes from serialism?

AA: Shifrin was not a serial composer. He was not a pianist, but would write his music at the piano, and my sense was that he was always hunting for what the next pitch would be. Not that he couldn’t project shapes, he certainly could. There is more repetition in Schoenberg than there is in Shifrin. As you say, he would whittle it to down to the essential thing that has to be said next. You listen to Shifrin’s music and you would think from my description that it would be a few sparse notes. It’s not that at all. It’s almost as if you have headed out into the jungle, and there is more underbrush than you could ever possibly imagine. A piece that I loved was Satires of Circumstance, with these elaborate, melismatic instrumental lines, spinning out numbers of notes — they are very elegant lines. And you think what was he talking about, about paring it down — you didn’t have to pare it down, you just had to know that every note was the important one at that moment, what it meant, and what its purpose was.

TM: Do you recall some of the things he was working on at the time?

AA: A piano piece, Responses. I heard Robert Helps premiere the piece at Carnegie Recital Hall, at a concert that Shifrin himself couldn’t attend, probably for health reasons already. The fifth string quartet…one of his last pieces, In the Nick of Time, commissioned by Speculum Musicae. I remember copying some of the parts for that, if I am not mistaken. A piece for early music instruments, A Renaissance Garland, with recorder, lute, viol, and a singer.

TM: It seems that this influence of “paring-down” from Shifrin is something that continues in your work until today.

AA: That is true. I have made a conscious effort to put things in my music that he didn’t have in his. There have been pieces where I tell people “believe it or not, this piece is an effort to bring in repetition in one way or another”. A piece which I wrote in 1996, Cloud Collar, where this was one of my goals in writing it. There are some small chordal formations which are arpeggiated and repeated — it seems like such a simple thing, a basic thing that music has done for centuries in one form or another, whether it’s accompanimental parts in Mozart, or more recently, in flamboyant manner, in minimalist repetition, but for me I had to struggle with my hand every time I wanted to repeat a note, or have a chord repeat. The other hand was trying to bat it away. Someone listening casually might think that repetition wasn’t a particularly important part of this music, yet for me it was a major breakthrough that I was able to include it in any way at all.

An element of compositional naiveté on my part is insisting for years in finding ways to not repeat some basic material. It’s a hard-fought battle for me to make myself really think of thematic shapes, thematic contents, that reusing them is not only a means to make compositions grow, but makes them audible in a way that is remarkable when you actually do it. I am laughing as I am saying this — these are basic and obvious things, but they were hard fought on my part, to get them in there.

With respect to Shifrin, I certainly still revere him as a person, and admire the music, but there had to be a conscious break for me to try some things on my own.

TM: The lack of repetition is the antithesis of popular.

AA: I try to place the music I write in some other listening place than the easy one. It’s demanding on the listener, and demanding on the performers as well. I want the experience of listening to it to be a different kind of experience than the one that might lead to dance….that’s not to say that elements of dance in a potentially more refined form aren’t things that I want…elegance, grace of motion, I certainly aspire to those things. The concert hall experience for my music that I want …it wouldn’t be right to call it meditation, but there’s an element of thought…not only a physical response, as important as that is.

TM: Were there other important figures in your study at Brandeis?

AA: I studied with Marty Boykan during my first year in graduate school. I hadn’t had much formal compositional training, so it was my first extended experience showing music to someone as I was writing it, and getting feedback. Marty was and remains the most profound musical thinker that I have encountered — he always has the best insights, the best references to examples of a similar problem from the great works of the classical music literature — how Beethoven handled this problem, or how Brahms couldn’t manage to get something similar to work. The depth and delicacy of his understanding of his music had a profound effect on me.

TM: Let’s talk about some of the pieces which have been recorded on CRI. Was the String Quartet written for the Lydian Quartet?

AA: Not exactly …. the Lydians recorded it. It’s a three-movement piece, and the middle movement was written first. This was when I was living in Boston, and the middle movement was written as a wedding present for two people who are here on the faculty at UNC…

TM: whose initials are in the title…

AA: “Variations on S.K. and R.L”, who are now my colleagues and good friends of mine, Susan Klebanow and Richard Luby. Susan Klebanow is the choral director and Richard Luby is a violinist.

TM: Susan was at Brandeis.

AA: She was at Brandeis when I was a graduate student and she was an undergraduate. She, my wife, and I all sang in early music groups together at Brandeis. That middle movement was based on the spelling out of their names in musical notation, and in the variations I tried to capture some element, some form of music that we shared, so there’s some very loosely shaped references to madrigals, an effort to get some baroquish string writing in there, because at the time Richard was playing a lot of baroque violin. There’s an attempt to capture the sound of Broadway show tunes….all this in a style that is never any of these things overtly. After that was written, and I had it played by the Lydian Quartet at Brandeis, I thought that maybe there could be a whole quartet built around this.

Not long after that I lost my job at Brandeis — didn’t get tenure there, and the first movement was written in a kind of defiant “I’ll show ‘em” anger at the forces that be…

the first movement is rather turbulent, and alternates between a vigorous music and one that is more resigned, with the resignation winning out at the end. The third movement is a sort of rondo.

TM: One of the things that struck me was how it drifts away at the end.

AA: I had a long-standing reluctance to end anything with a clear, forceful affirmation. It has happened in some more recent pieces, but there was a period of time in which that was about the only way that I could figure out how to get a piece to end, to have it trail off in one way or another.

TM: Could you talk about Casting Ecstatic?

AA: The Lydians had recorded the string quartet, and after the recording session Dan Stepner, the first violinist, said in exchange for having recorded this piece for you, I want you to write me a solo violin piece as a sort of payment. A win-win situation….I wrote Casting Ecstatic for Dan, and thought of it as a sort of concert etude for violin. There are a number of tricks in it that are devices that I was interested in exploring — it’s not an etude in the most concentrated, single-minded sense. Among the things that show up in that piece are efforts to have the violinist refinger the same pitch in close succession in order to avail himself of fingerings for other notes around it, as well as a sort of tremolo between a normally-stopped note and a harmonic in the same place on the finger board. This latter is the thing which I was referring to in the title, the “ecstaticness” of a note that suddenly takes off, and almost loses control under the finger of the player. That was one of the grounding elements.

TM: How was the move from the contemporary music in Boston to UNC?

AA: After teaching at Brandeis, I taught for two years at Columbia, and commuted back and forth between Boston and New York. When the possibility came for a permanent job, I moved to North Carolina. There are good people in contemporary music in North Carolina. There has always been activity at Duke and at Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill has added a director for the arts, Emil Kang, who wants to make Chapel Hill a real center for new music. I keep busy….

TM: You have a recent set of pieces for saxophone quartet. They seem to be a little more transparent in style, maybe drawing on the French wind tradition, with more repetition.

AA: That piece is from 2000-2001, and the repetition has become more of the language of that piece. One of the reasons that it happens in the saxophone collection is that it is the first piece in which I entered it into notation software as I was writing it, rather than writing it on paper, and then transferring it. Although it’s not always a good idea, I was pushing the replay button, and listening to how the computer performed it, and I would say that it was due to the software that the repetition became so pervasive in that composition.

It’s a curious set — a quartet in three movements, like the string quartet, but in this case, it’s the last movement which is the most important — it is as long itself as the other two combined. The first movement is just a table-setter — short, with a clear, straightforward shape to it, building by increments, with an ebb and flow, two-thirds of the way through it has its highest point, and falls off to the end. The second movement is almost entirely cantabile, based on sustained lines in one instrument or the other, and stems from my memory of a piece by Peter Maxwell Davies that goes back to when I was an undergraduate, one I liked very much, the Leopardi Fragments. I was sitting at my piano, not at the computer, thinking about what to do, and found myself playing something that was like the beginning of that Maxwell Davies piece, and not really getting it right, but using it as the opening. We’re talking about two measures worth of material, and you can see that I didn’t get I quite right, so I say in the score “after a misremembered measure or so of Peter Maxwell Davies”.

The third movement has been performed by itself, and works by itself without the other two, although I prefer it to be in their company. Some things I like are where all the parts get going, and it gets a kind of groove. There’s not an obvious repetition to it, but the momentum builds nicely.

TM: Your commission for the UNC chorus is quite different in style from your other works.

AA: When I came to UNC, Susan Klebanow asked me if I would write a piece for her chamber singers. I wrote a piece for piano and small choir to a text of Denise Levertov, and that was the first choral thing I had written in a long time. The piece you are referring to I wrote just over a year ago. Two years ago, the chair of the music department asked me, at the completion of the graduation ceremony, to write a piece for the graduation ceremony in the music department. I had no idea how to handle that – the music that I had written just didn’t lend itself to a commemorative, ceremonial function, and I had no idea how to fulfill the request. I put it aside for nine months.

In a composition class one of my students showed me a song that he was working on, and it seemed like he didn’t go very far in developing his material. So I wanted to rewrite it to show him how it could go. It turned out to be an inspiration to myself to write a choral piece. The next thing I had to have was a text. What kind of text do you use at college graduation ceremony? I ended up finding a translation of a Li Po poem.

The nature of its language is because it was for a graduation ceremony. A year ago it was premiered, not only by the graduating students, but by all their relatives in the audience.

We had 250 scores, and they all sightread it…it was performed again at the graduation ceremony last weekend, but this time by a small choir.

TM: Can you tell me about current projects?

AA: About two years ago, my colleague here at UNC, flutist Brooks de Wetter Smith, asked if I wanted to work on a collaborative project. He was going to Antarctica, planned to take photographs, and wanted to know if there was some way we could make something with sound and light when he got back. He took over 4000 photographs, and when he came back we went through them. I can’t say I looked at all 4000…but we assembled a number of photographs that would offer some cohesion. I wrote a score for that, which was just performed two weeks ago. That was the Iceblink project, for flute, clarinet, percussion, harp, violin, viola, cello, double bass, soprano and narrator — live music while the photographs were projected – not IMAX, but large all the same. It was interesting to work on. I was forced to complete every step as I went along, instead of blocking out the whole in any way. While I was writing, Brooks was feeding the photographs into a program to time them to the music. He needed to know exactly how long things would be to do it, so I had to work from the beginning straight through to the end, with very little revision time. As a result I wrote thirty-five minutes of music in seven months, which is much faster than I am used to writing.

It was exhausting, so I can’t say much about the next one, except that it will involve both professional and student performers.

[Click here for an excerpt from Held In the Weave]

image= image_description=Allen Anderson product=yes product_title=An Interview with Allen Anderson product_by=Above: Allen Anderson
Posted by Gary at 12:15 PM

May 27, 2008

Books 'n Things

Opera guide books tend to be a bit stuffy and boring, if indispensable. One of the best, first issued in 1961, has just been updated and reissued in a handsome softback from Amadeus Press.

It is “The Opera Companion,” a 693-page, good-quality paperback by the noted writer George Martin (a great bargain at $19.95). I cannot recommend this engaging book too highly; in fact, if my library had to be restricted to one book on opera, this would likely be it. Martin’s edition is of singular design and organization. It consists of three major sections, The Casual Operagoer’s Guide, a discursive consideration of many topics in opera – pitch, the opera orchestra, history of the art form, the nature of melody – and numerous others in a short, intelligent and pithy mode.

The second section is a dictionary-glossary of operatic and musical terms, while the third section of Martin’s “Opera Companion” is a quite detailed discussion of all aspects of forty-seven popular operas, from plot to musical analysis. Martin’s accounts are so reasonable and well-informed, I wish the number of operas treated were much larger. But he has chosen those most often heard by today’s audiences, and in spite of my own sixty-years of attending opera, I actually learned some new things about Gounod’s Faust, for example, and Mozart’s Così fan tutte from Martin.

In a time when that Mozart opera is foolishly treated by musicologists, who find in Così deep and dark contradictions or profound psychological themes, Martin’s clear-headed intelligent exposition of the music and text is exactly what’s called for; he understands the opera and its style and how it should be played. After reading Martin, you will too! His treatment of Faust as a melodic operetta rather than deep grand opera is exactly right; I recommend it and the entire book without reservation.

* * * * *

Put your hand up if you want to read a new tenor biography! Ummm....not very many hands. I don’t blame you, they can be a self-aggrandizing bore; most singer bios are. An exception was the Jussi Bjoerling book of a few years ago, in which his truthful wife spoke out with refreshing candor. Another exception is the new (2008) Amadeus Press biography of the greatest Italian tenor of my lifetime, the golden Franco Corelli. In terms of vocal power, color, quality and effectiveness, the Corelli tenor voice eclipsed all others; in terms of a balanced lifestyle, the poor man suffered greatly from all kinds of personal demons, stage fright and tenor-mania.

Holland-based René Seghers has written “Franco Corelli: Prince of Tenors,” a beautifully printed and illustrated book, that thrives because of excellent research, interviewing, and a strong narrative style. I picked up this book about 4 p.m. one day, and in just a few pages I was hooked – I read it all in one sitting, late into the night. I recommend starting earlier!

Seghers treats all aspects of Corelli’s history, from birth in Ancona on the Adriatic coast, to death in August 2003 in Milan, a demented and emaciated 84-y.o. millionaire, whose wife would not keep him at home for she feared his senile rages. The author, unlike many others, does not glamorize his subject, nor does he soften the rough edges of Loretta Di Lelio, Corelli’s possessive and controlling wife, who many believe made the “adolescent” tenor’s huge career possible. Loretta herself freely described her husband as immature and requiring constant care and attention. This she supplied in abundance, though in later years he somehow escaped her control and undertook some love affairs, which caused a temporary separation of the Corellis. This contrasts with hilarious scenes of the Corellis’ backstage rituals before performances, when the terrified tenor, insecure and superstitious, was sprinkled with holy water by Loretta, who would rub a crucifix on his throat just before she pushed him onto the stage. The Corelli anecdotes are legendary, as are his wars with opera managers, especially New York’s Rudolf Bing, and Seghers gives them full treatment, even dispelling some (Franco did not bite Birgit Nilsson in the Boston Turandot).

Of greater interest is Seghers’ thorough discussion of the evolution of Corelli’s stunning vocal technique, which he worked on constantly throughout his career. In the 1960s, in his forties, he often was in Spain seeking to make his voice more fluid and lyric through studies with the great Italian tenor of a generation before, Giacomo Lauri-Volpe, who helped him significantly. Corelli’s finest vocal period was the mid and later-1960s, and he readily credited the coaching of the senior Italian tenor di forza.

Corelli’s major public career extended from about 1958 to 1975. The author organizes the greater part of his book chronologically, touching upon each season, where and what Corelli sang, and often with somea critical analysis. This required prodigious research, and Seghers’ account has the strong flavor of authenticity. In mid-career Corelli moved to New York City and lived there until old-age; this facilitated his many seasons of dominance at the Metropolitan Opera, where, along with Milan’s La Scala, the handsome Corelli established himself as the most vocally potent and popular Italian tenor of his era. “Prince of Tenors,” as a book, is a keeper; it is going on my shelf and I expect to take it down often. Among other virtues, author Seghers is an accomplished photographer and knows the value of visuals, so has furnished his 526-page book richly with photographs, many never seen before. The list price is a steep $34.95; Amazon is offering copies at $21.95. Amadeus Press and René Seghers have done the vocal world a service by publishing this invaluable biography of the wondrous Corelli.

* * * * *

Now, to the noted composer Dr. Paul Moravec. He is currently visiting professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton, NJ, and is in addition a professor of music at Adelphi University. Thus, Moravec is an academic composer and distinguished musical scholar. His music, to my ear, sounds exactly that – “academic,” if highly competent.

I bring this up because in Season 2009 you’ll be hearing a lot more about Moravec, as his first-ever opera, “The Letter” (based on a 1927 play by Somerset Maugham, famous from the Bette Davis 1940 movie), is being premiered at Santa Fe Opera, starring Patricia Racette in the Davis role of a murderous wife.

Moravec_Time.gifI just listened several times to two Naxos recordings of Moravec’s music, one, “Tempest Fantasy,” is a Pulitzer prize winner (Naxos 8.559323 ), the other is “The Time Gallery” (Naxos 8.559267). Both are interesting, and they share some traits. While the music lacks lyric line, it is energetic -- busy and chattery (one friend called it “molecular”), except when it makes a point to be quiet and mellow, which doesn’t last very long, for its heart lies in smart antics and excitement, though these particular selections are not much for originality or melodic effect. Moravec_Tempest.gifThere is a lot more to this composer than these two CDs, and I wont comment more because I have not heard his lyric writing. But considering that opera, even “opera noir,” as Santa Fe is calling the forthcoming show, must be about singing and lyric reach – if that does not occur, rather than true opera, you have a play with music. While a novice opera composer, Moravec is an accomplished and sophisticated man; and his text collaborator, the jazz critic Terry Teachout, is a bright one too. So they may come up with a good show; how “operatic” it will be remains to be seen. We hear it’s 90-minutes in length, with an orchestral interlude. Bette Davis is a hard act to follow, but maybe clever Santa Fe can pull it off. The talented singing-actress soprano Racette is clearly an asset; she was recently reported advising the composition team on how to make their ending more dramatic. Will this be opera by committee?

J. A. Van Sant © 2008

image= image_description=The Opera Companion product=yes product_title=George Martin: The Opera Companion product_by=Amadeus Press, 2008 product_id=ISBN-13: 978-1574671681 price=$15.56 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 2:07 PM

Burly and Savage, but Elegant: Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

By JAY NORDLINGER [NY Sun, 27 May 2008]

The Metropolitan Opera season is over, and so is the Met Orchestra season: Last week, that extraordinary band gave a final concert in Carnegie Hall. They are an opera orchestra that plays like an orchestra orchestra — a top-flight one.

Posted by Gary at 1:11 PM

Opera Meets Animation to Tell a Chinese Tale

monkey.pngBy DANIEL J. WAKIN [NY Times, 26 May 2008]

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The opening scene is a vast cartoon, projected on a scrim, with viewers zooming past clouds and mountain peaks to an egg, which falls, bursts and gives birth to Monkey. The scrim goes up, and the cartoon dissolves into a stage full of flipping acrobats, a monkey tribe flying from bamboo pole to bamboo pole. The score pulsates with an electronic beat.

[Click here for official web site.]

Posted by Gary at 1:08 PM

Die Bassariden, Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich

By George Loomis [Financial Times, 26 May 2008]

Alarmed by the threat of Dionysian rites in his kingdom, Pentheus, the ill-fated king of Thebes, personally investigates in disguise. In Christof Loy’s tense new production of Hans Werner Henze’s The Bassarids for the Bayerische Staatsoper, Pentheus finds himself centre-stage amid the cultish practices, women lined up on one side of him, men on the other.

Posted by Gary at 1:05 PM

Eugene Onegin, Glyndebourne Festival, UK

By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 25 May 2008]

Love – as we know from countless operas if not from personal experience – is a complicated thing. Two people can have the same intense feeling, but not at the same time or in circumstances that deny fulfilment.

Posted by Gary at 12:06 PM

Argentine gem will miss its 100th birthday party

TeatroColon.pngBY TAOS TURNER [Miami Herald, 25 May 2008]

It's enough to make the great Caruso weep.

Today, on its 100th birthday, the Teatro Colón, this city's cultural jewel and one of the world's most majestic opera houses, is closed and on the verge of disintegration, a victim of the ravages of politics, incompetence and time.

Posted by Gary at 11:39 AM

Merry Widow at ENO

However that is exactly what John Copley’s straightforward, pretty and — heaven forfend! - traditional staging of 'The Merry Widow' has to offer. Set around the time of the opera’s composition, the production has chocolate-box frocks, dashing uniformed officers, a full-blown 'Pontevedro in Paris' at Hanna’s home (complete with folk-dancers) and orange-flounced can-can girls at Maxim’s.

In the title role, Amanda Roocroft at first seemed rather matronly and ill at ease — perhaps her first-act costume was partly to blame — but came into her own from the second act onwards when she brought out Hanna’s wit, warmth and down-to-earth charm. Vocally there was a touch of strain in her top notes, and she was happier in the middle register, floating a beautiful Vilja-Lied.

Philip O'Brien, the second-cast Danilo, was making his company début at this performance, and like Roocroft he took a while to make something of his character. He grew in presence throughout the performance, and by the time he made his exit to Maxim’s at the end of Act 2 his charisma was sufficient to hold the audience’s sympathy.

When they finally got together, unfortunately, it lacked both credibility and passion - the connection between them was simply inadequate. Fortunately, Alfie Boe’s Camille was full of youthful ardour towards Fiona Murphy’s beautiful, vivacious Valencienne; these two were really the production’s life force, as engaging to watch as to hear.

Jeremy Sams’s clever (and sometimes very risqué) translation did not always come across clearly in the sung numbers. It was put to best effect in the spoken dialogue and the comic numbers, providing ample material for Richard Suart’s Baron Zeta and (especially) Roy Hudd’s endearing Njegus. Both are mainly speaking roles, though the biggest hit of the evening was Hudd’s showpiece number in Act 3. Daniel Hoadley (St Brioche) and Hal Cazalet (Cascada) provided an almost slapstick angle to the coomedy, sporting ludicrous “French” accents.

Oliver von Dohnanyi’s conducting seemed to revel in the rumbustious numbers but was almost leaden in the quicker, lighter passages, ill-serving the energetic choreography by Anthony Van Laast and Nichola Treherne.

080423_0065widow.pngAmanda Roocroft (Hanna Glawari)

Though it had its flaws, this was a highly entertaining evening, and the audience emerged from the theatre with a spring in its step. It was just a shame the house was not fuller: as classic operetta tends to pull in a substantially different audience from most of ENO’s fare, it is perhaps an audience that isn't used to paying ENO’s ticket prices, once on a par with other West End shows but nowadays substantially higher.


As I had wanted very much to hear John Graham-Hall as Danilo, and had not been aware when booking that he was not due to appear on May 6th, I decided to return a few nights later in order to hear him. Although the role lies rather low for him, it surprisingly seems to fit him like a glove in other respects. Who would have thought this tall, pale-faced tenor — normally at home in 'character' roles — could be so rakishly attractive as the awkward playboy? And his chemistry with Roocroft was really touching.

080423_0295widow.pngRichard Suart (Baron Zeta) & John Graham-Hall (Count Danilo Danilowitsch)

Ruth Elleson © 2008

image= image_description=Fiona Murphy (Valencienne) & Alfie Boe (Camille de Rosillon) [Photo: Clive Barda courtesy of English National Opera] product=yes product_title=Franz Lehár: Die lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow) product_by=Hanna Glawari, The Merry Widow (Amanda Roocroft); Camille de Rosillon (Alfie Boe); Njegus (Roy Hudd); Baron Zeta (Richard Suart); Danilo (John Graham Hall); Valencienne (Fiona Murphy). Director: John Copley. Set Designer: Tim Reed. English National Opera. product_id=Above: Fiona Murphy (Valencienne) & Alfie Boe (Camille de Rosillon)
All photos by Clive Barda courtesy of English National Opera.
Posted by Gary at 10:39 AM

Masterpiece Masterfully Rendered in Toronto

Having run into a local friend unexpectedly at intermission, and having related the above information, he hurriedly said, “ohhhhhhh, you should come back sometime for a real opera.”

Judging from intermission comments recently in Toronto, and some empty seats for part two, the piece apparently remains caviar for the gourmand, rather than bread and butter for the masses. I am hard pressed to quite understand why, especially when the work is treated to such a world class performance as mounted here by Canadian Opera Company.

Dany Lyne’s gorgeous design — ethereal, timeless and haunting — provided the perfect backdrop and playing environment for Debussy’s masterpiece. While the basic construction featured a girdered bridge which elevated actors about ten feet off the stage floor, visual variety was introduced through the addition of well-chosen set pieces (throne, bed, rickshaw, etc.), and the revelation of fold out features such as a hidden stairway and door leading from above to the “depths” of the debris-strewn floor in which “Pelleas” dwelt during much of the first act.

The stage left third of the structure was able to be raised and lowered, creating “Melisande’s” bedroom tower, a beautiful evocation of a depth to the well, and a final descent to the grave for our heroine’s remains, even while her spirit (in the form of a diaphanous bed canopy) ascended to the heavens.

Scrims, opaque spun fiberglass drops, and a cyclorama fronted by expressive filigreed tree branches, were inventively lit by Thomas C. Hase with his perfectly judged special effects and a highly creative design. He was assisted by John Prautschy. A glowing blue moon, passing torchlight, silhouette imagery, the up-lit fountain, and the down lit bed and stairs were among the superbly calculated effects. A passionate orb of a sun called to mind Stephen Crane’s “the red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer.”

Ms. Lyne’s vibrant Asian-influenced costumes could also hardly have been bettered, and the choice to put “Melisande” in vivid reds proved to be inspired, completely playing against the usual wispy “type” for this mysterious character. Indeed, our heroine’s first appearance behind a scrim, in a rich Chinese red dress with an impossibly long train, and draped in an over-sized off-white veil was a triumph of character statement, making her at once irresistibly alluring and impossibly indefinite. The minute attention to each and every technical detail created true theatrical magic.

pelleas07.png(l – r) Alain Coulombe as the Doctor, Barbara Dever as Geneviève (behind Golaud), Pavlo Hunka as Golaud, Isabel Bayrakdarian as Mélisande and Richard Wiegold as Arkel

Such a top notch design would go for nothing, of course, without a cast up to the musical challenges, and COC came up with winners all around. At any given period there is always a dream team for the title roles, and on the basis of this visit, I would have to say the mantle has been passed to stars Russell Braun and Isabel Bayrakdarian, Canadians both. Although Mr. Braun has more experience with his well-known “Pelleas” (including a memorable Robert Wilson version in Salzburg with Dawn Upshaw), there is nothing in these fearsomely demanding roles that eludes either one of these superb interpreters.

Ms. Bayrakdarian offered a most compelling take on “Melisande” with a bit more starch than some. She displayed a wonderful technique, an even production, fine projection with a pleasing point to the tone, and thorough attention to each quicksilver shift of mood and subtext. Mr. Braun now pretty much owns his role, and he negotiates “Pelleas’“ highest reaches with seasoned perfection, singing with a robust and responsive baritone that has mastered every nuance of his tortured attraction to his brother’s wife.

Pavlo Hunka’s compelling “Golaud” was every inch the powerful linchpin central to the drama, as it needs to be. He managed more variety than other interpreters that I have seen, and his obsession with finding confirmation of the betraying physical act was well-balanced between heartsick introspection and macho bluster.

pelleas09.pngRussell Braun as Pelléas and Isabel Bayrakdarian as Mélisande

Richard Wiegold used his dark imposing bass to etch an unusually detailed portrait of “Arkel,” and he was well rewarded at curtain call for his efforts. Barbara Dever offered dramatic power and a steady outpouring of her rich mezzo for a fine assumption of “Genevieve.” The small role of the “Physician” was fleshed out with wonderful stage business, and the few rolling phrases required were well intoned by Alain Coulombe.” Only Erin Fisher’s attractive if light-voiced “Yniold” seemed one size too small to ride the occasional dense orchestrations.

Director Nicholas Muni made masterful use of every playing space and level available to him; he created memorable, chills-inducing stage pictures and groupings through well-motivated blocking; and he could give a masters class on effective character development and interaction. My God, here is a director who not only understands the work, but serves it! Let’s hope his creative philosophy starts an epidemic in the opera world. For this is decidedly a brilliant mounting of Debussy’s “Pelleas,” rather than Muni’s. Would that all directors “got” that difference.

The superb playing from the pit was diligently led by Jan Latham-Koenig. The acoustic of the house seemed very grateful to this impressionist work, even if I did think that it favored the orchestra slightly more than the singers. This richly detailed reading not only had the wispy, blurry succession of solo lines flawlessly interwoven, but the blocks of woodwinds, strings, and horns were individually and collectively well-knit into a clean ensemble. The passionate outbursts were all the more effective for the placid churnings that came before, and the inner life and forward thrust of the rhythmic pulse was never lost.

The beautiful “new” house in the Four Seasons Center would be an architectural pride of any world city, and it is perfectly complemented on stage by a stunning “Pelleas et Melisande” that makes the best possible case for this elusive work. Will this opus ever become a bread-and-butter opera? Perhaps not.

But for those of us who occasionally relish the highest quality caviar on our musical menu, this totally winning production was a very rich feast.

James Sohre © 2008

image= image_description=Isabel Bayrakdarian as Mélisande (Photo: Michael Cooper) product=yes product_title=Claude Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande product_by=Golaud, King Arkel’s grandson (Pavlo Hunka), Mélisande (Isabel Bayrakdarian), Geneviève, mother of Pelléas and Golaud (Barbara Dever), Arkel, King of Allemonde (Richard Wiegold), Pelléas, King Arkel’s grandson (Russell Braun), Yniold, Golaud’s son by his first marriage (Erin Fisher), The Doctor (Alain Coulombe). Conductor: Jan Latham-Koenig. Director: Nicholas Muni. Canadian Opera Company. product_id=Above: Isabel Bayrakdarian as Mélisande
All photos by Michael Cooper courtesy of Canadian Opera Company
Posted by Gary at 10:07 AM

May 25, 2008

MOZART: Le Nozze di Figaro — Vienna 2001

Music composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte after Beaumarchais’ play La folle journée, ou Le mariage de Figaro (1784).

First Performance: 1 May 1786, Burgtheater, Vienna.

Principal Characters:
Count Almaviva Baritone
Countess Almaviva Soprano
Susanna her maid, betrothed to Figaro Soprano
Figaro valet to Count Almaviva Bass
Cherubino the Count’s page Mezzo-Soprano
Marcellina housekeeper to Bartolo Soprano
Bartolo a doctor from Seville Bass
Don Basilio music master Tenor
Don Curzio magistrate Tenor
Barbarina daughter of Antonio Soprano
Antonio gardener, Susanna’s uncle Bass

Setting: Aguasfrescas near Seville, the Almavivas’ country house


Act I

A half-furnished room in the castle of Count Almaviva

Figaro's satisfaction at the location of the room assigned to him and his prospective bride, Susanna, is shattered when she points out that the Count (who has done away with his hereditary right to the first night with any bride on his estate, but regrets it) has designs on her and the location of the room will assist him.

Marcellina plans to marry Figaro, who has signed a contract promising marriage if he is unable to repay money borrowed from her, and Bartolo is eager to be revenged on Figaro by assisting her. Cherubino tells Susanna that the Count is sending him away because of his amorous inclinations. He hides behind a chair as the Count approaches. Susanna tries to avoid the Count's advances. He hides behind the chair when Basilio appears, and Cherubino hides in the chair. Basilio warns Susanna that the Count will be angry if she encourages Cherubino and the Count emerges from hiding and discovers Cherubino. The Count accepts the praises of his servants, led by Figaro, but postpones the crowning of Susanna as a bride. He assigns Cherubino a place in his regiment and orders him to leave at once.

Act II

The Countess' bedroom

The Countess is sad because her husband neglects her. She joins in Figaro's scheme to disguise Cherubino as Susanna, who is to agree to an assignation with the Count, who can then be caught in the act. But the Count arrives unexpectedly. Cherubino hides, but betrays himself by knocking something over. The Count is ready to break down the door, but when he goes to get tools, Susanna lets Cherubino out and he jumps from the window, and she takes his place, surprising not only the Count, but the Countess, who takes her time about forgiving her husband for his suspicions.

Figaro comes in to announce that all is ready for the wedding, but is confronted by the Count, who knows it is Figaro who has written an anonymous letter telling him the Countess will be receiving a lover in the garden (part of Figaro's elaborate plot). Antonio, the gardener, arrives with the complaint that someone jumped from the window into his garden. When Figaro claims that it was he who jumped, Antonio produces a paper which dropped from Cherubino's pocket, challenging him to idenfity it. With the assistance of the women, he does so - it is the page's commission. Marcellina, supported by Bartolo and Basilio, arrives to press her claim for Figaro's hand, as he has no money to pay her back.


A big drawing room

Urged by the Countess, Susanna pretends to agree to an assignation with the Count, but he overhears her telling Figaro of the success of the plan.

Marcellina and Bartolo arrive with a lawyer to demand that Figaro fulfil his contract, but it is discovered that he is the long-lost son of Marcellina and Bartolo. Susanna boxes Figaro's ears when she sees him embracing Marcellina, but explanations prove satisfactory to all except the Count, who storms out.

The Countess laments her sad life with a faithless husband. She gets Susanna to write him a note agreeing to a meeting in the garden, sealing it with a pin which is to be returned as his answer. Peasant girls, including Barbarina, Antonio's daughter, and Cherubino, whom she has dressed as a girl to hide him from the Count, bring gifts to the Countess, but the Count and Antonio appear and unmask Cherubino. The Count is about to send Cherubino away, but Barbarina, reminding him of promises made when he was making advances to her, successfully asks for Cherubino as her husband.

There is a double wedding ceremony - Marcellina and Bartolo as well as Susanna and Figaro. Susanna slips her note to the Count. Figaro is amused to see him prick his finger with the pin, but does not realise the note is from Susanna.

Act IV

The garden, at night

Barbarina, entrusted with taking the pin to Susanna, has lost it, and Figaro learns that it was Susanna who wrote the note. The Countess is to take Susanna's place in meeting the Count, and they have changed clothes. Marcellina warns Susanna that Figaro is hiding, planning to trap her, and she sings an alluring love-song, intended for him, but which he interprets as being directed at the Count. Cherubino makes advances to the Countess, under the impression that she is Susanna. Susanna intends to be revenged on Figaro for doubting her, but he penetrates her disguise and turns the tables, pretending to believe she is really the Countess and making love to her. Explanations and reconciliation ensue and, realising that the Count is listening, they resume the apparent love scene between Figaro and the Countess. The Count summons everyone to witness his wife's disgrace, ignoring pleas for mercy. He is silenced when the Countess herself adds her plea and in turn asks her forgiveness, which she grants.

[Synopsis Source: Opera~Opera]

Click here for the complete liberetto.

image= image_description=Il Conte di Almaviva: Simon Keenlyside audio=yes first_audio_name=W. A. Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=W. A. Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro product_by=Il Conte di Almaviva: Simon Keenlyside
La Contessa di Almaviva: Melanie Diener
Susanna: Tatiana Lisnic
Figaro: Carlos Alvarez
Cherubino: Angelika Kirchschlager
Marcellina: Francesca Pedaci
Bartolo: Maurizio Moraro
Basilio: Michael Roider
Don Curzio: Peter Jelosits
Barbarina: Ileana Tonca
Antonio: Boaz Daniel
Chor der Wiener Staatsoper, Wiener Philharmoniker
Riccardo Muti (cond.)
Live Performance, 18 June 2001, Wiener Festwochen 2001, Theater an der Wien, Vienna
Posted by Gary at 1:23 PM

A Berlin Sampler

Granted, it may have been hard for any indoor performance to totally upstage the glorious early summer weather and delicious seasonal white asparagus entrees on offer in any number of attractive and pleasant outdoor eateries. But venture indoors I did. . .

Staatsoper unter den Linden offered a well-traveled production of “La Traviata” that was very long on concept and conversely short on just about everything else. The major exception was the wonderful playing from the orchestra under the baton of Dan Ettinger. Save for an inexplicably scrappy moment or two in Act Three (Flora’s party), the ensemble showed great presence and stylistic acumen, tempered by sensitive and subtle support of the soloists.

Would that stage director Peter Mussbach have had as much success with his vision of the piece as Violetta’s one woman show. Poor Elzbieta Szmytka started out floating toward us from far upstage as a ghostly apparition during the prelude and simply never left the stage the entire evening.

This opening moment indeed promised much. A black raked stage with two ramps escaping into the pit was dotted with interrupted receding white lines brought into great relief (along with our diva’s white strapless gown) with black light. A swirling, disorienting light show dissolved into a highly evocative over-sized video projection of rain on a window pane, an image that framed the entire stage. And then. . .

Nothing much happened. Okay, to be fair a shiny slit drape flew in upstage but then it remained there constantly through opera’s end. The chorus in the opening act sang from off stage until the farewell chorus when they dutifully filed on, and then off. Soloists paraded through, and down into the pit without relating to Violetta who alternately swooned to the floor, stood up again unsteadily, or mostly, stood and sang front.

Was this Violetta’s dying delusion? A video projection of a car going through a tunnel, and later, of many cars in heavy traffic proved to be a red herring, evoking thoughts of Princess Di’s untimely end without any other parallels drawn. It did clarify that the white marks on the stage were highway-like traffic lines on a “dramatic” highway to nowhere. . .

The stage was bare until Act Two when a single chair was placed down center. Then in Act Three (or the second scene of Act Two if you’re a purist) the chorus files on, each holding a chair. They first sit in rows, then rise indignantly after Alfredo throws the money at Violetta (well, in the air like confetti really), and then all, to a person, jump up and stand on the chairs like they have collectively seen a mouse. Where the “chair-mounting music” is in this score, I couldn’t tell you. Or maybe they suddenly realized they were playing in the “traffic,” which had returned to the video projector?

If there were some interesting ideas in the Violetta-Germont duet, there were also major miscalculations. After having begun routinely, it regressed into first a rather touching moment with Germont as a comforting substitute father, but then transgressed into a creepy sort of Daddy sexual encounter during which he put his hand a bit too far up her skirt for our comfort level.

Does it surprise you to learn that there was no bed in the final act, which began with the same ghostly promenade as at the beginning? As the stage lights got brighter, we discovered Alfredo asleep upstage on the floor. Asleep upstage! As he got up and stretched and yawned, it prompted me to wonder if this whole thing might have been meant to have been his dream. At least in the final duet, the characters related to each other, albeit only slightly.

While great vocalism might have injected interest, what we had on offer was merely “good.” The minor roles were certainly sung competently, with “Flora” quite beautifully voiced by Katherina Kammerloher.

Alfredo Daza as “Germont” displayed a beautiful, buzzy baritone, but he bullied his way through too many phrases, and his take-no-prisoners entrance at “Flora’s” was way out of decibel proportion to what the moment requires. While many of his over-sung high notes went sharp, his effective softer parlando phrases proved what a fine singer he could be. A gentler approach, and the deployment of a true “ee” vowel could make him a major asset to the international roster.

Marius Brenciu’s “Alfredo” was afflicted with the same propensity to force top notes off pitch, although he too has a good instrument and handsome appearance which offered much pleasure. Our leading baritone and tenor were both usually singing about a third louder than needed to fill this house, a factor that also somewhat marred Ms. Szmytka’s artfully sung “Violetta.”

For when she jumped up to full-voice exposed high notes, too much passion and pressure forced them to splay and lose focus. As compensation, she was highly effective in her introspective work, and her “Addio del passato” was a glory of her interpretation. I felt the somewhat dry voice was slow to warm up, but once it did, she negotiated the demands of the role with considerable success. Above all she displayed mature artistry and totally focused commitment.

None of the cast was helped by the decision to put the evening’s sole intermission just before the final act. Nor by the total discouragement of traditional opportunities for applause for the set pieces. Ultimately, the director succeeded in keeping the audience at arms-length, in defeating interaction between the principals, and in tiring us with repetitious visual imagery. Not the elements that contribute to a very memorable “Traviata.”

Happily, “Die Zauberfloete” at the Deutsche Oper was a delight on almost all levels. First, while the u.d. Linden crowd seemed to be largely silver-haired subscribers, about half of the packed “Flute” audience seemed to be school age young people who were jazzed to be there. With such a completely different ambiance from the start, this well-known Singspiel (in its 238th performance of the current production) communicated with a freshness and vitality that eludes many premiere evenings.

Andreas Reinhardt’s colorful and inventive designs have been well-maintained, the best feature being a runway around the pit, the least being a sight-line restricting tree on the down right lip of the stage. Small matter that, since the liberal use of colorful over sized billowing silks, puppetry, and Asian-inspired theatrical performance elements swept us along on a visually varied and highly satisfying ride. Especially handsome was a garden tableau evocative of “The Peaceable Kingdom.”

Herr Reinhardt was ably abetted by an uncredited but terrific lighting design. The golden glow of the temple scenes was but one of the many effective effects. I could have done without the eventual end-of-scene blackouts which I felt impeded the overall momentum, but this was very fine work overall. If the caricatured black make-up on the Moors was decidedly un-P.C., the Germans seem to retain rather an innocence about it all.

Guenter Kraemer’s direction (and/or whoever restaged it) used all of the stage well, not the least of which was the use of the runway. This especially afforded “Papageno” the opportunity to wholly engage the audience. And to that end, we had a willing collaborator with the winning performance of Simon Pauly. A superb comic actor who thinks on his feet, he took well-calculated risks in soliciting audience participation, as a “taster” for his glass of wine for example, or as ringer of the magic bells, the latter amusingly filling what can be a lengthy stretch in the “Das Maedchen oder Wiebchen” aria. While he also sang quite well, it was Mr. Pauly’s acting that carried the day. He was well-partnered by a lovely and charismatic “Papagena” in the person of Ditte Andersen.

The excellent “Three Ladies” of Jacquelyn Wagner, Sarah Ferede, and Julia Benzinger were well-matched, and Burkhard Ulrich was easily the very best “Monastatos” I have encountered. While she will not make you forsake Edita or Natalie or Diana, Burcu Uyar was a decent “Queen of the Night,” far more comfortable in the second aria than in the first.

The “Two Armored Men,” Paul Kaufmann and Hyung-Wook Lee offered solid singing. Arutjun Koptchnian was just fine as “Sarastro,” his orotund sound more pleasing to me in the two big arias than in his other scene work. Young Joel Prieto seems destined for a fine career if his well-voiced “Tamino” is any indication. Already performing this role well, I predict that in a few year down the road he will be performing it memorably well. Fionnuala McCarthy’s naive blond approach to “Pamina” worked fine once I got used to it. She has a pure, well-schooled soprano from which I occasionally wanted more warmth. “Ach, ich fuehl’s” seemed a bit uninvolved (and maybe a bit too brisk).

The “Three Boys” (unnamed) from the Dresden Kreuzchor were competent, the diction quite muddy, and the intonation variable. I have only once really enjoyed the casting of boys in these parts, finding female voices much more satisfying. Even the “cute” factor was diminished in this production by their sit-and-sing deployment, keeping them relatively uninvolved in the drama and inviting one of them to look about in boredom.

For sheer fine singing, veteran Lenus Carlson took the evening’s honors as he rolled out one beautiful sonorous phrase after another as the “Speaker.” The excellent orchestra under the sure hand of Matthias Foremny was an unusually sensitive partner to the singers, offering a pliant, delicate Mozart reading of the highest quality.

Would that Wolfgang had been so well served the next night at the Komische Oper. For those who may have been eagerly awaiting “Abu Ghraib - The Musical,” your wait is over.

For those who wanted to see “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” stay far away because Bad Boy Bieito has been at it again. Calixto Bieito seems to me to have become famous for being famous. Famously provocative, that is. While great directors illuminate, clarify, focus, and re-imagine well-known classic pieces, Mr. Bieito seems to be content to wantonly defile them willy-nilly in any way that will fuel attention to his “artistry.” For starters, the published spoken lines of this “Abduction” have either been cut, or just plain re-written, with dramatic situations eliminated or altered to suit the “concept.”

One example is that “Pedrillo” enters and yells after the exiting “Osmin” -- in English -- “I am sick and tired of you busting my balls. How would you like it if someone came after you (with a gun) and blew your tiny dick off?” He then starting playing basketball with “Belmonte” who had entered and they began conversing in German again.

The taint was evident from the start. The revolving stage set is a series of Plexiglas, brothel-like “Love Modules.” As the overture begins, a scantily clad trapeze artist descends from the flies, and after some routine tricks, starts performing some very suggestive acts. “Osmin” enters chasing a buxom “extra” (I heard they were real prostitutes, these extras) and they chase each other, disrobing totally as they go, ending in bed doing the deed.

They finish sex during “Belmonte’s” opening aria, and naked, portly, hairy “Osmin” proceeds to shower. No, really, shower. To go much further into all this depravity would be to dignify it with more importance than it deserves. Suffice it to say, whatever sexual kink you could think of, and several you wouldn’t, are on display.

“Constanze” is kept in a small rolling cage on a dog collar and leash. “Belmonte” is dressed up in drag to get him into the harem. Remember all that dialogue about his being an architect? Gone. Scantily clad “Blondchen” teases “Osmin” during her first aria, allowing him to lie on the floor and look up her skirt, and subsequently to take her from behind as she sings on her hands and knees. A drug addict, “Pedrillo” steals some of her Valium to spike “Osmin’s” vodka. Remember that important bit about the two bottles of wine? Gone. Now during “Vivat Bacchus” the bass shoots at the tenor until he wounds him in the knee.

During “Martern aller arten” our singing soprano is forced to watch “Osmin” snuff one of the extras, cutting her with a knife and slitting her throat after first straddling her and forcing her to perform oral sex. The violent kicking sound she produced as she was dispatched took the ginger out of those pesky melismas in the “incidental” aria, let me tell you.

“Pedrillo” and “Belmonte” shoot absolutely every extra in the process of their various sex acts in the “Love Modules” after “Ich baue ganz,” “Constanze” ultimately shoots and kills “Selim,” and “Pedrillo” takes out “Osmin” but not before the bass has tasted necrophilia with one of the dead extras. In the most despicably cynical moment of all, in the show’s last moment a spotlit, kneeling “Constanze” gets shot dead on the music’s final button by “someone.” So much for forgiveness and hope, huh?

Does it make you feel any better to know that the small house was only one third full on a Friday night in Berlin when it was the only opera in town? Or that a number of patrons defied the decision to play the piece without intermission by creating their own and walking out? Or that the silence at curtain was pierced by a “boo” and then tepid applause? Nope, me neither.

The tragedy is that the orchestra played wonderfully for young Stefan Klingele. The pliable, hard-working cast was peopled with fine, good-looking young singers. Edgaras Montvidas was a great “Belmonte,” singing with power and richness of tone. Christoph Spaeth was a fearless actor as “Pedrillo,” and he provided an accomplished comprimario reading. The tall and lovely “Blonde” of Mojca Erdmann was very well sung and shamelessly performed. Guntbert Warns’ psychotic, loose cannon of a “Bassa Selim” was embodied with great range and (literally) bare-assed commitment. The totally unsympathetic “Osmin” was nonetheless powerfully sung and acted by Jens Larsen.

The greatest achievement of the night might have been Brigitte Christensen’s “Constanze,” had we ever been able to concentrate on her fine singing, and not be distracted by the ugly stage business, and by an unflattering skimpy slip. What a shame for all these artists that they were pawns in a self indulgent ego display. It is curious that some intelligentsia promote the notion that opera needs to be “saved” from boring traditional production practices by provocative re-workings like this, when truth to tell, this Bieito version got even more boringly repetitive, annoying, and predictable after a very short period of time.

The most perverse act of fornication was the one saved for the audience who paid money to see what they thought would be Mozart’s immortal opera. In the future perhaps a little truth in advertising should say “loosely based on ‘Abduction from the Seraglio’” so that Mozart lovers can make an informed decision.

James Sohre

image= image_description=La Traviata - Christine Schäfer als Violetta Valéry Rolando Villazon als Alfredo Germont Staatsopernchor - (c) Ruth Walz product=yes product_title=G. Verdi: La Traviata, et al. product_by=Above: Christine Schäfer (Violetta Valéry) and Rolando Villazon (Alfredo Germont) with Staatsopernchor (Photo by Ruth Walz)
Posted by Gary at 11:43 AM

HINDEMITH: Cardillac

Unlike Hindemith’s other operas from the 1920s, like Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen or Hin und Zurück, Cardillac on the surface seems to be more traditional than those others, which reflect the Zeitoper-style that was popular at the time. After all, Cardillac is a story that takes place in a quasi-historic setting, rather than a libretto that derives from contemporary events. Yet the cynicism and irony at the core of Hoffmann’s famous tale is a potent foil for issues that had a certain relevance for Hindemith’s time. Cardillac is the famous goldsmith of Paris, who fabricates wonderful things and also retrieves them by theft and murder, and the plot revolves around the dilemma of revealing to the public that the beloved fabricant is also the criminal who made an entire city fearful. Surrounded by sympathetic characters, Cardillac neither recants nor confesses; rather, when his deception is revealed, Cardillac receives the murderous judgment of the crowd.

In such a violent story Hindemith found a means of exploring situations that Romantic composers chose not to pursue, and this allowed him to use a dissonant harmonic idiom to bring Hoffmann’s story to the stage. Dissonant, but not atonal, Hindemith’s musical idiom makes the doomed Cavalier’s aria, at the end of the first scene, effective. Likewise, Cardillac’s monologue at the opening of the second act establishes his character, which Hindemith could only suggest through various hints earlier in the work. As the work plays out, Hindemith used a combination of vocal and instrumental pieces to support the libretto, which is a faithful transformation of Hoffmann’s famous story. Like some of the made creators of fiction, the famous Rappacini of the nineteenth-century American author Nathaniel Hawthorne, the daughter is the positive counterpart of the father, and this character allows Hindemith to use some of his more effective music to underscore her image in sound. The more tonal and less dissonant sonorities associated with Cardillac’s daughter stands apart from some of the more frenetic music of her father.

In 1985 Jean-Pierre Ponnelle created a new production of the original 1926 version of Cardillac for the Bavarian Opera, and this DVD makes his inspired staging available to a new generation. Rooted in eighteenth-century costume and design, the staging sometimes distorts convention to reflect Hindemith’s modern idiom. At the same time, lighting effects sometimes suggest film techniques of the 1920s to intensify such scenes as the murder of the Cavalier. In fact, the shuttering light underscores the violent act through the discontinuous images that the audience must connect in perceiving the action. Other images, like Cardillac’s shop are fanciful enough to merit the kind of repeated viewing possible on DVD, an aspect of the production that is more ephemeral when viewed on stage in live performances.

This production benefits from the fine leadership of Wolfgang Sawallisch, whose direction gave shape to this infrequently performed score. His tempos serve Hindemith’s score well by allowing both the music and text to emerge clearly. He brings out details, but never lets any single element overbalance the others. A case in point is jazz idiom that Hindemith uses in a stylized manner near the end of the opera, and it intersects well with the dissonant counterpoint of the duet that follows.

Over all Sawallisch has created in this performance an idiom in which Donald McIntyre could make Cardillac’s complex character audible, as found in his monologue at the end of the second act, “Mag Mondlicht Leuchten!” McIntyre is, indeed the focus of Hindemith’s opera, a detail that sets it apart from Hoffmann’s short story in its reference to Madame Scuderi. Thus, the daughter, as sung by Maria de Francesca-Cavazza, is critical to the narrative through her relationship with the Officer, which Robert Schunk delivers admirably. Not simply determined to resolve the identity of the murderer, the Officer‘s duty is complicated by his familiarity with Cardillac’s daughter, and this is related well in the duet “Meine Lippen auf die Wunde,” which sets up the dénouement in the scene that follows. Schunk does well to counterpoise Cardillac, both dramatically and musically.

The other roles are also cast well, with Doris Soffel making the character of the lady (“Die Dame) in the first act, quite memorable. Josef Hopferwieser is her Cavalier, a brief, but crucial figure in the opening scenes of Cardillac. Yet beyond the solo performers, the chorus stands out a critical element that sets the tone at the opening of the opera and executes the resolution of the drama at the end. The ensemble is tight and clear – a model for the kind of clear and effective choral performance that must occur in this score.

While Hindemith’s opera Mathis der Maler may be nominally more familiar because of the well-known symphony its composer derived from it, Cardillac deserves attention as a powerful stage work. With such a convincing performance available on DVD, it raises the question about the place of this opera among Hindemith’s works and within the context of twentieth-century operas. A relatively short work of about ninety minutes, its concision is admirable, and it could benefit from more performances both in Europe and elsewhere. In fact, another performance of this work is also available on DVD, a recent production of Cardillac by the Paris National Opera, conducted by Kent Nagano, with a cast that includes such performers as Angela Denoke and Charles Workman. Yet those interested in Cardillac may wish to view this earlier performance released by Deutsche Grammophon because of both the fine execution of the score under Sawallisch’s direction and also the remarkable staging that Ponnelle contributed to the opera as a whole. .

James L. Zychowicz

image_description=Paul Hindemith: Cardillac

product_title=Paul Hindemith: Cardillac
product_by=Donald McIntyre, Robert Schunk, Maria de Francesca-Cavazza, Hans Günther Nöcker, Der Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Das Bayerische Staatsorchester, Wolfgang Sawallisch (cond.). Staged and designed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.
product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 073 4324 [DVD]

Posted by jim_z at 7:10 AM

WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde

With some of the finest performers of the time, it is a musically and dramatically strong recording that preserves an impressively effective staging of the work. With modern productions of Wagner’s operas sometimes split between conservatively traditional presentations and sometimes provocative modern ones, Ponnelle’s conception of the work is rooted in the conventional interpretation of the work in a quasi-medieval setting. At the same time, he does not avoid using visual and graphic elements to underscore the staging, as occurs with the almost blinding light at one of the climaxes in the prelude, which transfixes the almost mesmerizing seascape with the slow-moving fog that eventually dominates the stage. The use of fog offers a metaphor for the ambiguity that is essential to the story and Wagner’s libretto, where concepts of love, honor, responsibility, and fate blur to show how those ideas are not always precise and clear.

Like other Bayreuth productions of this opera, it is possible to trace its lineage to the innovative Inszenierung which Alfred Roller brought to that stage, a concept he had introduced in 1903 with Gustav Mahler at the Vienna Hofoper. Roller based his work on the theatrical theories of Adolphe Appia, who emphasized the important of lighting and other details made productions realistic to audience. Innovative in its day of painted flats and static canvases, Roller’s 1903 production brought modern staging techniques to this opera, with light and color characterizing each act. At the same time, Roller did not deny the medieval accoutrements in the details of that production, and neither does Ponnelle. In fact one of the images early in the 1983 production is Isolde in an overly large patterned robe, which resembles one of Gustav Klimt’s paintings, thus calling to mind the fin-de-siècle.

Just as Roller engaged his audiences with three-dimensional objects on stage, the various props in Ponnelle’s production function both as stagecraft and on a symbolic level. In the first act, for example, Isolde touches her crown when the libretto calls for it, she mangles it in anger and creates instead a bowl that anticipates that cup she would share with Tristan. That vessel later becomes the means for reflecting light back into the faces of the lovers to give their images a kind of magical glow. For an opera in which the image of light figures prominently, especially in the second scene of Act Two, lighting is an essential part of any production, and it makes Ponnelle’s staging stand apart from others. These and other elements in Ponnelle’s staging demonstrate the depth of his work in making this 1983 production of Tristan und Isolde memorable.

The performers are matched well, and offer fine readings of this familiar opera. As Isolde Johann Meier introduced a fine, almost personal intensity to the music, and Hanna Schwarz, who was relatively new to the stage, brought freshness to the role of Brangäne. A youthful and hopeful Brangäne makes some of the suggestions in the text seem natural and yet her voice has a fitting and resonant depth. The two work well together in the first two acts, with Meier’s ecstatic singing taking its naturally dominant role. The famous Liebestod is exceptional in this performance, in which Meier owns the stage, both visually and musically, and it is fortunate to have her Isolde captured in film and now released on DVD.

This production also preserves René Kollo’s fine interpretation of Tristan. Kollo’s ringing tones convey the sense of youthfulness and ardor that are necessary for the role and, at the same time, blend well with Meier’s singing. Of particular interest is Tristan’s monologue before Isolde’s arrival in the Third Act, “O diese Sonne,” which shows well Kollo’s involvement with the character and his intensive expression. As to the other characters, all are suited to the roles in this cast from Bayreuth. Schwarz, again, delivered a fine performance as Brangäne, with a deft touch in making her part in the second act serve the libretto well. Hermann Becht is equally effective as Kurwenal, and resembles at times Amfortas in Wagner's Parsifal in his sympathetic approach to the Third Act. Matti Salminen similarly creates a believable König Marke, whose understanding at the climax of the opera balances the passion his character has encountered earlier in the opera.

Barenboim’s interpretation of the score is dynamic in offering a variety of tempos that underscore the text. The finale scene of the first act seems more impetuous than some recordings, which can be overly solemn in the duet that follows the lovers’ reaction to the love potion. The relative briskness has its shortcomings, though, with the choral conclusion a little abrupt and seeming tacked on. Nevertheless, it is that kind energy that makes the opening of the second act memorable in Barenboim’s hands. His command of the orchestra emerges easily in the dynamic levels associated with the hunting horns and other elements that become quite vivid in this performance. Yet nowhere does the sometimes full sound of the orchestra every overbalance the voices. The intensity of sound fits the score well, and does just to the acoustics of the famed hall in which it was recorded, the Festspielhaus at Bayreuth.

The video is conveniently divided between two discs, with the first act on one, the other two acts on the other, and subtitles are available in German, English, French, Spanish, and Chinese. Unlike some DVDs that are issued without a booklet, Deutsche Grammophon wisely included a fine one that helps to guide the viewer through the tracking used on the DVD. The sound itself, is wonderfully resonant, and benefits from the studio-like use of Bayreuth for recording this production. While some might prefer a performance with an actual audience, it is difficult to imagine some of the close-ups and other nuances emerging from such a recording, which might have entailed placing cameras on stage, an awkward element found in recent concert recordings. Rather, this kind recording captures the performance on the stage intended for it, rather than takes the production into a studio, where the result is removed at least a degree away from the source. Those who have limited choices for DVDs of this opera may wish to place this particular recording high on their lists, if not at the top, as a fine production, well sung, and finely played. Anchored solidly in the traditional medieval setting of the opera, any modern innovations with lighting and props on the part of Ponnelle serve to underscore the fine performance that dates from almost a quarter century ago, and those familiar with Barenboim’s recent recordings of Wagner’s operas, including this one, may wish to include this DVD of Tristan und Isolde in their collections. It is a solid production on all parts, and one that demonstrates the enduring quality of the work in the hands of such a fine cast, led by Daniel Barenboim.

James L. Zychowicz

image_description=Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

product_title=Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde
product_by=René Kollo, Johanna Meier, Matti Salminen, Hanna Schwarz, Hermann Becht, Robert Schunk, Helmut Pampuch, Orchester der Bayreuther Festspiele, Daniel Barenboim (cond.). Staged and directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle
product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 073 4321 [2DVDs]

Posted by jim_z at 7:06 AM

May 20, 2008

La magie renouvelée de Glyndebourne

Robert Carsen[Le Figaro, 20 May 2008]
Le très chic festival anglais s'est ouvert dimanche avec une passionnante production du «Couronnement de Poppée» de Monteverdi, dirigée par Laurence Haïm.

Ce sont de drôles d'oiseaux, qui se retrouvaient dimanche matin dans le vaste hall de la gare ­Victoria à Londres. En smoking pour les hommes, en robes longues pour les femmes, ils scrutaient le tableau des départs en direction de Lewes, arrêt le plus proche de la demeure de Glyndebourne où se tient depuis 1934 un des plus prestigieux festivals d'opéra au monde. L'un des plus « décalés » également, célèbre pour ses pique-niques au milieu des moutons avant et durant les entractes.

Posted by Gary at 9:08 AM

Musiktheater: Das Leben ist grindig wie der Südbahnhof

Weberischen1_Klein.pngNORBERT MAYER [Die Presse, 19 May 2008]

„Die Weberischen“ sind in der Wiener Volksoper gelandet und kennen nur einen Star: Robert Meyer.

Und schon wieder ist Mozartjahr! Zwei Jahre nach den mehr oder weniger gelungenen Huldigungen zum 250. Geburtstag gibt es ein Wiedersehen mit einer leichteren Produktionen von 2006. Die Vereinigten Bühnen hatten damals mit „Die Weberischen“ großen Erfolg, einer Art Life Ball für Traditionalisten. Regisseurin Stephanie Mohr kam mit ihrer Inszenierung 2007 sogar zu einem Nestroy-Spezialpreis. Das Geheimnis des Erfolgs: Die gut zwei Stunden dauernde Show ist gefällig.

Posted by Gary at 9:00 AM

L’incoronazione di Poppea, Glyndebourne Festival Opera

Claudio MonteverdiBy Richard Fairman [Financial Times,19 May 2008]

In the 1960s Glyndebourne was one of the places that helped put Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea back on the operatic map. At that time the early music renaissance was in its infancy and the opera was lusciously re-orchestrated and staged, whereas now Glyndebourne has moved with the times.

Posted by Gary at 8:36 AM

Inspirations by Neruda, the Minutiae in Mahler

Kelley O'ConnorBy BERNARD HOLLAND [NY Times, 19 May 2008]

Peter Lieberson’s “Neruda Songs” puts its trust in the staying power of five consecutive slow movements, in this case five vocal settings of Pablo Neruda’s sonnets. With impregnable dignity and great variety, Haydn succeeded at much the same challenge in his “Seven Last Words of Christ.”

Posted by Gary at 8:18 AM

May 18, 2008

MOZART: Le Nozze di Figaro — Salzburg 2001

Music composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte after Beaumarchais’ play La folle journée, ou Le mariage de Figaro (1784).

First Performance: 1 May 1786, Burgtheater, Vienna.

Principal Characters:
Count Almaviva Baritone
Countess Almaviva Soprano
Susanna her maid, betrothed to Figaro Soprano
Figaro valet to Count Almaviva Bass
Cherubino the Count’s page Mezzo-Soprano
Marcellina housekeeper to Bartolo Soprano
Bartolo a doctor from Seville Bass
Don Basilio music master Tenor
Don Curzio magistrate Tenor
Barbarina daughter of Antonio Soprano
Antonio gardener, Susanna’s uncle Bass

Setting: Aguasfrescas near Seville, the Almavivas’ country house


Act I

A half-furnished room in the castle of Count Almaviva

Figaro's satisfaction at the location of the room assigned to him and his prospective bride, Susanna, is shattered when she points out that the Count (who has done away with his hereditary right to the first night with any bride on his estate, but regrets it) has designs on her and the location of the room will assist him.

Marcellina plans to marry Figaro, who has signed a contract promising marriage if he is unable to repay money borrowed from her, and Bartolo is eager to be revenged on Figaro by assisting her. Cherubino tells Susanna that the Count is sending him away because of his amorous inclinations. He hides behind a chair as the Count approaches. Susanna tries to avoid the Count's advances. He hides behind the chair when Basilio appears, and Cherubino hides in the chair. Basilio warns Susanna that the Count will be angry if she encourages Cherubino and the Count emerges from hiding and discovers Cherubino. The Count accepts the praises of his servants, led by Figaro, but postpones the crowning of Susanna as a bride. He assigns Cherubino a place in his regiment and orders him to leave at once.

Act II

The Countess' bedroom

The Countess is sad because her husband neglects her. She joins in Figaro's scheme to disguise Cherubino as Susanna, who is to agree to an assignation with the Count, who can then be caught in the act. But the Count arrives unexpectedly. Cherubino hides, but betrays himself by knocking something over. The Count is ready to break down the door, but when he goes to get tools, Susanna lets Cherubino out and he jumps from the window, and she takes his place, surprising not only the Count, but the Countess, who takes her time about forgiving her husband for his suspicions.

Figaro comes in to announce that all is ready for the wedding, but is confronted by the Count, who knows it is Figaro who has written an anonymous letter telling him the Countess will be receiving a lover in the garden (part of Figaro's elaborate plot). Antonio, the gardener, arrives with the complaint that someone jumped from the window into his garden. When Figaro claims that it was he who jumped, Antonio produces a paper which dropped from Cherubino's pocket, challenging him to idenfity it. With the assistance of the women, he does so - it is the page's commission. Marcellina, supported by Bartolo and Basilio, arrives to press her claim for Figaro's hand, as he has no money to pay her back.


A big drawing room

Urged by the Countess, Susanna pretends to agree to an assignation with the Count, but he overhears her telling Figaro of the success of the plan.

Marcellina and Bartolo arrive with a lawyer to demand that Figaro fulfil his contract, but it is discovered that he is the long-lost son of Marcellina and Bartolo. Susanna boxes Figaro's ears when she sees him embracing Marcellina, but explanations prove satisfactory to all except the Count, who storms out.

The Countess laments her sad life with a faithless husband. She gets Susanna to write him a note agreeing to a meeting in the garden, sealing it with a pin which is to be returned as his answer. Peasant girls, including Barbarina, Antonio's daughter, and Cherubino, whom she has dressed as a girl to hide him from the Count, bring gifts to the Countess, but the Count and Antonio appear and unmask Cherubino. The Count is about to send Cherubino away, but Barbarina, reminding him of promises made when he was making advances to her, successfully asks for Cherubino as her husband.

There is a double wedding ceremony - Marcellina and Bartolo as well as Susanna and Figaro. Susanna slips her note to the Count. Figaro is amused to see him prick his finger with the pin, but does not realise the note is from Susanna.

Act IV

The garden, at night

Barbarina, entrusted with taking the pin to Susanna, has lost it, and Figaro learns that it was Susanna who wrote the note. The Countess is to take Susanna's place in meeting the Count, and they have changed clothes. Marcellina warns Susanna that Figaro is hiding, planning to trap her, and she sings an alluring love-song, intended for him, but which he interprets as being directed at the Count. Cherubino makes advances to the Countess, under the impression that she is Susanna. Susanna intends to be revenged on Figaro for doubting her, but he penetrates her disguise and turns the tables, pretending to believe she is really the Countess and making love to her. Explanations and reconciliation ensue and, realising that the Count is listening, they resume the apparent love scene between Figaro and the Countess. The Count summons everyone to witness his wife's disgrace, ignoring pleas for mercy. He is silenced when the Countess herself adds her plea and in turn asks her forgiveness, which she grants.

[Synopsis Source: Opera~Opera]

Click here for the complete liberetto.

image= image_description=The Marriage of Figaro (Rafal Olbinski) audio=yes first_audio_name=W. A. Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=W. A. Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro product_by=Conte: Peter Mattei
Contessa: Angela Denoke
Susanna: Christiane Oelze
Figaro: Lorenzo Regazzo
Cherubino: Christine Schäfer
Marcellina: Helene Schneiderman
Bartolo: Roland Bracht
Basilio: Guy Renard
Don Curzio: Eberhard Francesco Lorenz
Antonio: Frédéric Caton
Due Contadine: Hannelore Auer, Karen Schubert
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Camerata Salzburg
Silvain Cambreling (cond.)
Live performance, 25 July 2001, Kleines Festspielhaus, Salzburg
Posted by Gary at 8:52 PM

Lincoln Center Raises Most of its $1.2 Billion Revamp Costs

lincolncenter.pngBy Farah Nayeri [Bloomberg, 16 May 2008]

May 16 (Bloomberg) -- New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts has raised two-thirds of its $1.2 billion renovation cost and is confident the rest will be found in time for the project's completion at the end of 2010, President Reynold Levy said.

Posted by Gary at 4:14 PM

Daniel Slater's new production of `Lohengrin' wins deserved cheers after opening-night boos

Lohengrin_Geneva.png(Photo: GTG / Mario del Curto)
By BRADLEY S. KLAPPER [AP, 15 May 2008]

GENEVA - Daniel Slater's new production of "Lohengrin" wasn't necessarily vintage Wagner, but it deserves praise as a thoughtful and tasteful take on the medieval legend — and certainly none of the boos it received on opening night.

Posted by Gary at 3:24 PM

A Salon With Britten and Mozart as Guests

Groves_paul.pngBy STEVE SMITH [NY Times, 15 May 2008]

Performances of chamber music and song in concert halls too large for the purpose are a fact of life in New York. As listeners we adapt; great performances happen anyway. Still, one historical aspect of the chamber music experience — the social element, in which performers and audience members do more than share space for a time — falls by the wayside. We shuffle into a hall, sit quietly, then head for the door when the last note is sounded.

Posted by Gary at 3:17 PM

René Pape in New York

By JOEL LOBENTHAL [NY Sun, 15 May 2008]

This Saturday night, German bass René Pape closes out the Metropolitan Opera’s season singing Banquo in Verdi’s “Macbeth,” an interpretation he introduced to New York audiences last week. The following afternoon finds him at Carnegie Hall singing Russian repertory by Mussorgsky with the Met Orchestra led by Valery Gergiev.

Posted by Gary at 3:11 PM

New York opera fans warily await arrival of Gérard Mortier

By Anthony Tommasini [Int'l Herald Tribune, 14 May 2008]

NEW YORK: To judge from lobby talk during performances by the New York City Opera this spring and continuing chat on opera blogs, there has been growing trepidation among the company's supporters over the coming of Gérard Mortier. The Belgian-born Mortier becomes the general manager and artistic director of the people's opera, as this essential company has been called, in 2009.

Posted by Gary at 2:31 PM

May 15, 2008

STRAUSS: Opernszenen | Scenes of Operas.

As such, the recordings provide a snapshot of Strauss performance during the latter part of the composer’s career, and also offer a glimpse at Böhm’s efforts as a young conductor. While Böhm first conducted at the Dresden Staatsoper in 1933, he was offered the position of conductor at this important house in 1934 and remained there for nine years. During that time he worked with some of the most important German singers of the day, and also came to know Strauss well. Böhm’s association with Strauss contributed to the special status of Dresden as a house that specialized in the composer’s operas, and various iconography associated with those performances are reproduced in the extremely fine booklet that accompanies this release.

The recordings themselves derive from two sources: the Stiftung Deutsches Rundfunkarchiv and the private collection of Jens Uwe Völnecke. While the selections reflect some of the more familiar, if not important, music from the operas they represent, they also preserve the interpretations of singers who were involved with the Dresden performances of the time. They include Margarete Teschemacher, Christel Goltz, Esther Rethy, Elisabeth Höngen, Josef Herrmann, Toster Ralf, and Mathieu Ahlersmeyer and while only some of the names may be familiar today, those singers were among the outstanding interpreters of opera in their day. The quality of the voices is immediately apparent in the first and third tracks, who excerpts from Der Rosenkavalier that involve Höngen and Rethy, In the vocal excepts from that opera on the first and third tracks, from the second and third acts respectively, the voices intersect well in conveying Strauss’s writing for sopranos voices.

Böhm’s tempos support the performance in fitting both the musical lines and the sung text so that both elements emerge clearly. In both cases, the voices seem close to the microphone, but not entirely at the expense of the accompaniment. It is possible to sample the fuller sound of the orchestra in the second track, one of the famous waltz passages from the third act. Böhm played the waltz music without introducing affections that stylize it, and this kind of approach characterizes much of his conducting in these selections.

Likewise, Barak’s aria “Sie haben es mir gesagt” from the first act of Die Frau ohne Schatten benefits from a discrete orchestral accompaniment. In this excerpt the baritone Joseph Herrmann is particularly clear, and the choral passages contain a resonance that sometimes escapes earlier recordings. This excerpt also shows a subtle shift in the dynamics of the accompaniment that emerges well in this transfer. It is a poignant moment in the opera, and Herrmann’s final phrase sets up the final orchestral gesture.

Similarly, Torsten Ralf’s recording of the “Falke” scene from the first act of Die Frau ohne Schatten is essentially an extended scene for his character of the Kaiser. In this recording the orchestral colors are distinctive, with the interplay between the upper woodwinds and the solo cello. Again, Böhm offers a fine pacing of the music, such that its lingering quality underscores the meditative nature of the scene in which the Emperor invokes the falcon-spirit and reveals to the audience more details of the plot. Ralf’s tenor sound is appropriate to the character both in terms of range and strength. His upper range is nicely rich and, again, works well with the cello music that crosses the vocal line in the same register.

The other two operas sampled in these recordings include Arabella, another work in which Strauss draws on Viennese culture for his setting and plot. Margarete Teschemacher and Christel Goltz play, respectively, the title character and Zdenka, and their interpretations are worth hearing. As with the music from Der Rosenkavalier, the voices seem quite close to the microphone and while that alters the kind of balance found in modern recordings that capture more the sense of the ensemble from farther away in the room, the acoustic allows modern audiences to hear the timbres of the voices clearly. With Daphne, these recordings brought to a wide audience music from a relatively recent Strauss opera. Represented by three excerpts, it is, perhaps, the last, the transformation scene of the title character, which conveys the style of work well. In that one, Teschemacher offers a touching vocal characterization of Daphne, with Böhm’s leadership allowing the orchestra to emerge subtly as the accompaniment depicts her metamorphosis into the shrub that bears her name.

In general, the sound transfer is quite good, with minimal hiss or distortion. Some extraneous sounds emerge from time to time, with the most prominent in the seventh track. Those unfamiliar with some of the recordings of his works that exist from Strauss’s lifetime may wish to hear this fine selection. Beyond the choice of music, the singers represent some of the finest of their generation and give evidence of the quality of singing found in German opera houses in the 1930s and 1940s, voices that Strauss also had in mind as he composed his late works.

James L. Zychowicz

image_description=Richard Strauss: Opernszenen

product_title=Richard Strauss: Opernszenen | Scenes of Operas
Edition Staatskapelle Dresden, vol. 27.
product_by=Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, Karl Böhm (cond.)
product_id=Profil Medien PH07039 [CD]

Posted by jim_z at 2:45 PM

Gotham Chamber Opera: Ariadne Unhinged

Only 350 patrons can fit into the Henry Street Settlement Theater at 466 Grand Street, a circumstance which creates an intimacy between performers and audience that is unlike any experience you will have uptown. Brenda Patterson—the title character on the May 11 performance of the Chamber Opera’s most recent production Ariadne Unhinged—created electric moments in this little theatre.

Ariadne Unhinged is not an opera in the traditional sense of the word; rather, it is a collage of three pieces, only one of which was actually drawn from an opera. Claudio Monteverd’s Lamento d’Arianna (from the now-lost 1608 opera Arianna), Franz Josef Haydn’s cantata for solo voice Arianna a Naxos (1790), and Arnold Schoenberg’s melodrama Pierrot Lunaire (1912) were stitched together into a genre-busting performance by Neal Goren, Artistic Director of GCO, along with director and choreographer Karole Armitage of Armitage Gone! Dance.

Ariadne_Unhinged6.pngFrances Chiaverini, Ryan Kelly and Brenda Patterson (Ariadne)
Ariadne Unhinged attempts to delve into the madness of grief that the mythological Ariadne experiences upon being abandoned by her lover Theseus right after she has saved his life and guaranteed him his crown. The palindromic structure of the work nestled the three sections (of seven songs each) of Pierrot Lunaire between sections of the Monteverdi and the Haydn.

All the music was well performed and the juxtaposition of dancers and singer onstage, which can be so awkward if the singer doesn’t move well, was extraordinarily well executed. Vera Lutter’s set design, along with Clifton Taylor’s lighting allowed for a number of transformations of the stage without ever interfering with the action or the continuity of the work.

With sections Monteverdi serving as “bookends” and the middle piece of the performance, I was inclined to regard these moments of monody as Ariadne’s most lucid moments, while the Schoenberg represented her at her most mad and delusional. What struck me as detrimental to the endeavor was a series of less-than-subtle props carted onto the stage for each of the twenty-one Pierrot songs. The props—including huge cardboard roses, two-foot long knitting needles, a “grotesque” violin bow and a fake violin, and a cardboard moon on a stick, among others—appeared so predictably for each that I started wondering what the next prop might look like instead of listening to one of my favorite pieces of music.

Ariadne_Unhinged2.png Emily Langford Johnson (Ariadne) and Ryan Kelly

It seems to me that Schoenberg’s music and Albert Giraud’s poetry (as translated by Otto Erich Hartleben) is so vivid and full of meaning that the addition of wooden props is not only unnecessary, but even injurious to the artwork. In particular, when the dancers came on stage crouched under wrinkled aluminum sheets the effect was only the creation of a major distraction due to the sound of the sheets crinkling and crackling during the entire song. Other parts of the dance were much more effective and added greatly to the experience, notably, the lovely duets that were danced while Ms. Patterson sang the sections of Haydn’s cantata.

The GCO’s orchestra was another highlight of the evening—each composer’s music had a different accompaniment: theorbo for the Monteverdi, piano for the Haydn, and of course, Schoenberg’s Pierrot ensemble for Pierrot Lunaire. All the instrumental music was impeccable, but the Pierrot ensemble brought a particularly enjoyable energy to the performance.

Ariadne_Unhinged7.pngBrenda Patterson (Ariadne) and dancers

Goren’s little company is doing big things for opera, and I eagerly await its next production.

Megan Jenkins

image= image_description=Frances Chiaverini, Ryan Kelly, Emily Langford Johnson (Photo by Richard Termine courtesy of Gotham Chamber Opera) product=yes product_title=Ariadne Unhinged—Music of Monteverdi, Haydn, and Schoenberg product_by=Above: Frances Chiaverini, Ryan Kelly, Emily Langford Johnson (Ariadne)
All photos by Richard Termine courtesy of Gotham Chamber Opera
Posted by Gary at 10:41 AM

May 13, 2008

Les Troyens in Boston

Written to his own libretto between 1856 and 1858 when Berlioz’ reputation was at its nadir among France’s musical establishment, the composer was devastated when the Paris Opéra, the only theater in Paris then capable of mounting the work, refused to mount the five act opera. In an effort to present the work elsewhere, Berlioz divided it into two parts, with the first two acts of the opera comprising The Capture of Troy becoming Part 1 and the last three acts comprising The Trojans at Carthage becoming Part 2.

Although in format written in strict conformity with the requirements of mid-nineteenth century French grand opera, Berlioz’ idiom was decades ahead of its time, and the composer met only very limited success in having the work staged — he lived to see only a truncated version of Part 2 performed in his lifetime. Thereafter, as noted by Hugh Macdonald in the BSO’s program notes, attempts to stage parts of the work were sporadic, and for nearly one hundred years the opera was universally regarded as more or less unperformable. So it remained until the fabled revival of Les Troyens at Covent Garden under Rafael Kubelik in 1957. Since then and aided with the publication of the critical score, the work has been recognized for the masterpiece that it is. It is now periodically performed throughout the world, as one of the Everests among operas, when the demands of the score can be met.

The Boston Symphony followed Berlioz’ revision in presenting Les Troyens in two parts. Three performances of Part 1 were given commencing April 22, and two performances of Part 2 given commencing April 30. The series culminated on Sunday May 4th when both parts were presented at 3 pm and 6:30 pm on the same day, allowing for a very civilized two hour break for dinner. This is a review of the Sunday performances.

This was the first time in the BSO’s 127 year history that it presented the complete work. It was also the first time that the orchestra gave two complete performances on the same day. Every effort was made to meet the demands set by the composer, with the work presented absolutely complete, the BSO’s normal player contingent increased by 27 players, and meticulous attention paid to Berlioz’ requirements for offstage bands.

The success of Part 1, The Capture of Troy, rested upon the shoulders of mezzo Yvonne Naef as Cassandra and the members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. It was announced before the performance that Naef was suffering from a serious cold, and when she wasn’t singing it was obvious that she was in physical distress. But none of this was reflected in her performance. As the daughter of Priam given the gift of prophecy but then cursed by the god Apollo so that no one will believe her, Naef fully met the stentorian demands of the role with a beautiful and luxuriously-toned voice that clearly and without apparent effort time and again soared over the orchestra and chorus. This is a voice to be reckoned with.

Les-Troyens---Michael-Lutch.pngTanglewood Festival Chorus and (l to r) Kate Lindsey, Jane Bunnell, Ronald Naldi, Marcello Giordani, Yvonne Naef, Dwayne Croft, Clayton Brainerd and Julien Robbins.
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus is made up of members who donate their services. Founding conductor John Oliver cannot be overpraised for his work in the preparation for these performances. Singing from memory without a score, the Chorus’ opening lines nearly blew the rear wall off of Symphony Hall, and that was just for a start. This is a large chorus that sang with clarity as a single voice. As with the orchestra, dynamics, shading, and suppleness were the watchwords of the day. One often pays lip service to the chorus as the other star on the operatic stage, but in this instance the designation was fully deserved.

Central to Part 2 are the roles of Dido, Queen of Carthage, that was sung by mezzo Anna Sofie von Otter, and Aeneas, hero of Troy and soon-to- be founder of Rome, that was sung by tenor Marcello Giordani. Von Otter is an accomplished and well respected singer who has sung the role of Dido elsewhere to acclaim, but she was overparted by the forces assembled in Boston. Even the fabled acoustics of Symphony Hall were unable to help. She was wise enough not to force her voice to meet the demands of the music, but that decision left her nearly inaudible when the orchestra played forte. This was frustrating because she was excellent when she could be heard. Von Otter’s performance was like going to a fine French restaurant for dinner. The food arrived exquisitely prepared and beautifully presented, but many of the portions on the plate weren’t large enough to satisfy.

Marcello Giordani gave an acceptable but not outstanding performance as Aeneas. While not a particularly long role, it has two major challenges that are critical to the opera. The first is in Part 1 when Aeneas interrupts the Trojans’ celebration to bring news of the death of the priest Laocoon, an evil omen requiring that they appease the goddess Athena by bringing the horse into the city. This scene should have the impact that Verdi later achieved with Otello’s “Esultate” and be a show stopper. Giordani barely slowed it down. In Part 2, “Inutile regrets” is one of the great dramatic soliloquies in all of opera. Here Aeneas debates with himself as to whether he should stay with Dido in Carthage or fulfill prophecy and sail to Italy to found the City of Rome. Giordani lacked the heroic ring that the scene requires and instead gave us routine. There was little if any evidence of French style, but even Italian style would have been welcomed if Giordani had been more involved in the proceedings. It is unfair to compare singers of today with those of the past. But the problem is, to be completely successful, the role of Aeneas needs the voice of a Georges Thill or Jon Vickers singing the part, or at least a tenor who seeks to emulate their type of voice, involvement, and passion.

Les-Troyens-%28Michael-Lutch%29.pngIn other roles, baritone Dwane Croft was outstanding in Part 1 as Cassandra’s fiancé , Chorebus; and bass Eric Owens sang well as the Ghost of Hector. In Part 2, mezzo Christin-Marie Hill performed with distinction as Anna, Dido’s sister; and bass Kwangchul Young sung the role of Narbal, Dido’s minister, with deep and dulcet tone. Iopas’ Part 2 aria can bring the house down, and so it did when sung by tenor Eric Cutler who was warmly applauded for his reverie. The qualities of Cutler’s performance were such that they made one wonder if he should have instead been singing the role of Aeneas. Tenor Philippe Castagner showed that, in the right hands, there is no such thing as a small role in opera. His few lines as Hylas, a young Trojan sailor longing for home, were exquisitely sung and he received a well deserved accolade from the audience at the end of the performance.

If you want to give James Levine an impossible task to perform, ask him to conceal his love of Les Troyens. This was in evidence during every moment of the performances. So was his knowledge and complete mastery of the opera. Conducting while seated on a swivel chair, one rarely witnesses such physical involvement from a conductor, and the orchestra and chorus responded in kind. Under Levine’s direction, every detail in the complex score was made clear while balance and perspective were maintained throughout. One of the difficulties when you have a large orchestra is that the sound can get mushy. It’s one thing to have eight double bass on stage. It’s another to have them play with millisecond accuracy as one instrument. But this is what Levine achieved. One must also note that the BSO is not an opera orchestra accustomed to playing for long stretches at a time. Consequently, the task of playing not only the ninety minutes of music of Part 1 but also the two hours and forty minutes of Part 2 on the same day was a daunting one. Not only did the BSO meet the challenge, every section of the orchestra played to perfection from start to finish.

This was a performance where the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. Opera lives because it joins the talents of the past with the talents of the present. Notwithstanding deficiencies among some of the soloists, these performances were a rare example where the genius of Hector Berlioz joined with the genius of James Levine and the individual members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra as well as the genius of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus to give us close to a perfect storm of Les Troyens.

Raymond Gouin © 2008

image= image_description=Hector Berlioz product=yes product_title=Hector Berlioz: Les Troyens product_by=Marcello Giordani (Aeneas), Anne Sofie Von Otter (Dido), Kwangchul Youn (Narbal), Kate Lindsey (Ascanius), Christin-Marie Hill (Anna), Eric Cutler (Iopas), Philippe Castagner (Hylas), Clayton Brainerd (Panthus), Yvonne Naef (Ghost of Cassandra), Dwayne Croft (Ghost of Chorebus), Julien Robbins (Ghost of Priam), Eric Owens (Ghost of Hector; Mercury), David Kravitz (Trojan Sentry 1), James Courtney (Greek Captain; Trojan Sentry 2), Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver (conductor), Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine (conductor). product_id=All photos by Michael Lutch courtesy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Posted by Gary at 4:04 PM

Ponnelle Clemenza remains a masterpiece

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1984 staging of La Clemenza di Tito that returned to the stage of New York’s Metropolitan Opera in May would be an obvious candidate for such preservation.

The opening scene of this production of Mozart’s last opera is sufficient to identify Ponnelle as a major master of his profession. Clemenza, the last significant work of opera seria, is a work mammoth both in its dimensions and its emotions. Ponnelle’s recreation of first-century Rome at its colossal height brings to mind Winckelmann’s characterization of the art of antiquity as “noble simplicity and calm grandeur.”

CLEMENZA_Iveri_as_Vitellia_.pngTamar Iveri as Vitellia
Ponnelle’s Rome — it fills the Met’s mammoth stage — is grand in its columns, arches, balconies and stairs, and if a certain amount of decay is evident, these fissures are only a reflection of the dysfunctional figures in this drama of treachery and treason, all more interesting as character studies than as living humans. For in opera seria it is the drama within that is of the essence, and arias are largely confessional. Play the first scene of Don Giovanni on an empty stage in street clothes and you have more absorbing action than in the entire three hours of Clemenza.

Happily Ponnelle understood this and designed sets and beautifully painted, luminous scrims that are drained of color and serve as a perfect environment for the half a dozen ill-focused people all seemingly in love with an inappropriate — or unavailable — mate.

Only recently has Clemenza, written for the 1791 Prague coronation of Joseph II of Austria as emperor of Bohemia, come to be regarded as worthy of staging. For over a century, scholars apologized for the opera — a by-product of The Magic Flute and the Requiem, a work written in great haste. Some accounts assert that Mozart composed it in 18 days and assigned the recitatives to his pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr. The fact that opera seria was already out of fashion when Mozart wrote Clemenza further complicates its place in history.

CLEMENZA_Vargas_as_Tito_151.pngRamón Vargas as Tito
All this was no problem for Ponnelle, who recognized the quality of the music that Mozart had written and took his cues from the score in making the opera an impressing experience on stage. For the revival the Met came up with an ideal cast that — no matter what the title says — was headed by Susan Graham, who — now in her late 40s — remains the reigning mezzo of her generation. As Sesto, Graham’s combination of vocal and acting gifts — plus her stature of almost six feet — makes it difficult to see this best friend — and almost assassin — of Emperor Tito as the weak-willed courtier described in opera guides.

Magnificent in everything she does, Graham stole the show in the packed performance on May 6 and no doubt did much to inspire those on stage with her. (For the Prague premiere castrato Domenico Bedini was brought from Italy to sing Sesto.)

CLEMENZA_Grant_Murphy_Iveri.pngHeidi Grant Murphy (Servilia), Tamar Iveri (Vitellia) and Anke Vondung (Annio)
Ramón Vargas, the Met’s Rodolfo of the season, brought baritone heft to his portrayal of Tito, whose ability to forgive even those who would have killed him gives the opera its title.

Most difficult figure in the cast is Vitellia, the rotten apple without whom there would be no story. (The worm at her core was planted there, of course, by Tito, who unjustly usurped power from Vitellia’s father.) For Georgian soprano Tamar Iveri the changing moods of the woman determined to kill Tito if she could not marry him were handled with enviable ease.

Servilia and Annio, the innocent young lovers who barely manage to stay out of the way of the machinations of others, were lovingly sung by Heidi Grant Murphy and Anke Vondung. Bass Oren Gradus brought dignity to Tito‘s advisor Publio.

Responsible for much of the success of the revival was the conducing of England’s Harry Bicket, a young man seen with increasing frequency in opera houses and with orchestras on this side of the Atlantic. Bicket, a leading authority on early opera, seemed to relish Mozart’s extensive use of the clarinet in the score. (The instrument was still largely alien to classical orchestras in this year of Mozart’s death.)

CLEMENZA_Graham_Vondung_119.pngSusan Graham (Sesto) and Anke Vondung (Annio)
As stage director of the revival Laurie Feldman was marvelously loyal to Ponnelle’s intentions.

The overall excellence of the Met performance sharply contradicts the opinion of Leopold’s Spanish-born throne-mate who at the premiere found Clemenza “German hogwash.” But above all it was Ponnelle’s wisdom in taking the opera at face value rather than trying to make of Clemenza something that it is not who deserves the highest praise of the success of the staging.

Wes Blomster

image= image_description=Susan Graham as Sesto (Clemenza di Tito) [Photo: Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=W. A. Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito product_by= product_id=Above: Susan Graham as Sesto
All photos by Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 3:21 PM

Nono's Prometeo at Royal Festival Hall

What we think of as music now stems from 19th century orchestral tradition, which suggests that music should fit standard formats, to be listened to passively, often as no more than wallpaper. Nono’s ideas were revolutionary, not just in terms of his politics, but because he wanted to challenge the way we listen to music. Nono addresses the very fundamentals of why we have music at all, and its role in civilization. To penetrate just how radical Prometeo is, we have to approach it on its own terms without prejudgement.

Prometheus brought fire from the gods to mortals. It’s no accident that Nono had been fascinated by the myth from his youth. The fire Prometheus brought to the world was enlightenment. The Gods were enraged because Prometheus had broken their monopoly of power, so they condemned him to suffer eternally. Prometheus is an archetype idealist, who is compelled to seek knowledge and share it with the world. But his fate is to be destroyed for doing so. What does that tell us about idealism ? What is the destiny of those who, like Prometheus are the bringers of change ? What is the role of music in civilization? What is the role of an artist in society ? Why do people persist in seeking enlightenment when there’s no reward? Why does civilization matter at all ?

Meaning matters in Nono tremendously. But finding meaning, whatever it may be, means listening pro-actively, engaging in what’s happening: this isn’t music to audit passively. Listening is part of the process by which it “becomes” intelligible and the more you put into it, the more that you get from it. The piece isn’t even something that can be judged in conventional terms because its impact depends so much on how a listener has synthesized what he or she has heard. We’ve become conditioned to assuming that music is something to be consumed, and categorized in judgemental constraints. Yet things weren’t always this way.

The South Bank’s Fragments of Venice series was very well planned because it placed Nono’s music in context with Monteverdi. Why Monteverdi ? That’s a good question. Nono came from Venice, a city where water, land and sky converge seamlessly. Moreover, in Venice the past co-exists with the present. Wherever you go in the old quarter, there are vestiges of Venice’s glorious past as a centre of the then “civilised” world. As a young man, Nono would listen to music in Venice’s ancient churches : an unworldly haven from the hot, bustling clamour outside. Long before the western symphonic tradition developed into what we know now, that was how Europeans experienced sophisticated music.

Prometeo connects directly to that pre-modern approach to music. The primary function of church music was to inspire heightened spirituality. Whether audiences were religious or not was (and still is) beside the point. Church going was a profoundly artistic experience. Elaborate gothic and baroque decoration served to glorify the message of God. Wealthy merchants paid, but the beneficiaries were ordinary church goers for whom the church was a dazzling blaze of colour, sound and scent quite beyond their grim normal lives. The Mass was theatre. So Prometeo follows that deeper tradition, cloaking deep spiritual content with music.

Medieval and baroque polyphony are also the seeds of Nono’s approach to text. Most of the congregation didn’t understand Latin, but all knew the basics of what the Mass was about. They didn’t need to know every single word verbatim, but instead, meditated on spiritual meaning. So Nono uses fragments of text in many languages, spanning centuries of cultural history, from the ancient Greeks to Walter Benjamin. He breaks words down into the tiniest fragments. Syllables and even single letters are intoned in different progression. Such “lines” as they are, are sung by different voices in layers, so sounds overlap and modify each other. This is deliberate. We have to listen more carefully than ever to what is being conveyed. It’s supposed to be a challenge. We’ve become too accustomed to assuming that if we “hear” something we know what it means : hence the deluge of trendy jargonese we hear so much today which sounds good but means nothing. Nono makes us concentrate intensely on what we hear, or think we hear. Words are only shorthand for conveying ideas often can’t be easily expressed. André Richard (spatial sound director) apologizes for talking in four languages at the same time, but that’s exactly what Nono is doing. It means forming ideas with more care and listening more intently, because there is so much more outside the box, beyond linguistics.

There are quotations from Hölderlin’s Schicksalslied, "Doch uns ist gegeben auf keine Stätte zu ruhn……” the fragments of sound curling over and over in restless turmoil. Then, brilliantly, Nono uses the images of water being hurled from cliff to cliff, shattering into spray and yet re-forming into waves which again shatter, endlessly, “blinding wie Wasser von Klippe zu Klippe”. They hurtle ever downwards, “Hinab ! Hinab !” This is powerfully expressed in the spiralling downward flow of the music. Indeed, the flow goes “underground” for a while emerging later, to be glimpsed in tiny snatches of “hinab!” or fragments of the word which occur later in the piece. Following with the text actually limits the understanding that comes from real listening. Conventional narrative this isn’t, but you need to know Nono to know.

This fragmentation also has meaning in itself. Prometeo works on many different levels. There are short, elusive references to other texts, other music embedded throughout. You certainly don’t need to recognise them all at once, but again, that’s the concept. Like pop ups in Windows, the references can lead you to read further, listen further and learn, far beyond the confines of the piece itself. It’s a panorama which opens other panoramas. Indeed, Nono even builds into the score comments and quotes which don’t appear in the performance, but exist to inform the performers about interpretation. His instructions even include marking some letters in capitals, even within words, like “HiNaB”. What you hear is only a point of entry. The deeper you go into Prometeo, the more there is to learn, if of course, you want to. We have a choice. When Prometheus brought light to mankind it was a precious gift, to be cherished. It’s important to approach Prometeo without any prejudgement, but once one is aware that there is meaning within, it’s not wise to ignore it. The explosion in information technology gives us tools, but do we use them wisely ? “Non spederla ! kei pleistôn (do not lose it, this weak messianic power!)” goes the First Interlude, which acts as a kind of commentary on what has gone before. Civilization wasn’t won easily, but can so easily be squandered.

Nono died before the revolution in information technology that is the internet. Nowadays anyone can play with a search engine and produce “instant erudition” which looks impressive, but is in fact superficial if not downright fraudulent. Instead of real learning, we have “google intellectuals” whose superficial expertise makes a mockery of the real business of learning, which is to assess and process, and create original ideas. So the Second Interlude is entirely instrumental, beyond words at all. Crucially it’s positioned between the Three Voices, where we’re reminded of the “la debole forza” (the “weak power”) of enlightenment, and the final Second Stasimon, which reaffirms Nono’s faith in the imperative of civilization. Words matter desperately, but words can also be noise. For a few minutes, they disappear, so when they return, we absorb them more effectively, remembering that their absence.

Much is made of Nono’s use of space. Again though, spatial arrangements aren’t an aim in themselves, but integral to the meaning of the piece. Nono is reminding us that sound is ambient, it comes from all around. It is up to us to process, from whatever position we may be in at any given time. This too subverts the conventional notion of music as a commodity to be consumed passively. Prometeo subverts the very idea that what we hear should be fixed in any given form. Rather it makes us realise that what we hear comes from one perspective among many. The four compact orchestras are placed in different places around wherever the performance is held. Each performance will differ according to where it takes place. There’s always an element of spontaneity, of using resources where they are found so there’s no “definitive” setting. On this occasion, the Royal Box provided an excellent place to position the string unit, between the main orchestra in the front, back and side. Other boxes were used for the euphonium, for the glass instruments, for the voices. These days when most of us get our music through recording, it’s easy to forget that recordings are only snapshots in time, frozen forever by mechanical means. Music, in the real world, is something far more alive and fluid.

What was impressive about these performances, particularly the one on the 10th, was the feeling that dynamic energy was flowing between the disparate groups of performers. Nono uses sound as sculpture. Although there are two conventional conductors, André Richard is the sculptor who pulls everything together, giving four dimensional shape to what we hear, from whatever position we may be in. The score is amazingly complex: the sheet music is a metre long and almost as wide, to incorporate the detail. There are sounds here made by unusual instruments, by unusual techniques and sounds which exist only in electronic mediums. Yet Richard made it possible for us to hear all the fragments, from the circular rubbing of the glass bowls to the faint but insistent tapping of bow on violin. Precision is important – the singers use tuning forks to keep them on pitch. Sometimes they cup their hands to extend their voices like miniature wind instruments, often they whisper barely above the threshold of audibility. Yet again, this quietness, throughout the piece, is its soul. There are moments where Nono marks the score pppppp, where the “music” reverberates in the imagination of the listener. Nono writes “islands” in the music and in the instrumentation, but islands don’t exist in isolation. It is Richard who creates the flow that keeps the islands connected. We don’t, yet, have enough music vocabulary to describe what he does, but it is a new dimension in sound creation, a new form of musicianship.

As someone in the audience noted, The Royal Festival Hall is a strange place to hear such disturbing music. The original performance was held in a disused church in Venice, which is now which is now closed to the public. The performers were placed in a huge wooden structure designed by the architect Renzo Piano like the inside of a violin, so the sound would resonate inside the structure, and then inside the church and beyond. At a workshop on Prometeo held on 4th May, Enno Senft, bassist of the London Sinfonietta, recalled how the shaky structure added to the performance because it gave a sense of danger, as if the structure could collapse at any time. Yet this, too, is relevant to meaning. Piano’s structure embodied the idea that civilization is fragile. Stability can’t be taken for granted. Health and Safety regulations now would make it impossible to recreate that first performance, so perhaps its memory should remain in our minds. The first performance remains as a ghost, just as the ghosts of ancient Venice live on in the present. Nono didn’t plan this strange juxtaposition of time and place, but it’s a valid way of thinking about Prometeo and its panoramic vision of human experience.

Prometeo’s subtitle is “The Tragedy of Listening”. This refers to the Greek notion of tragedy yet also to the modern sense of the word. Prometheus brings light to the world but suffers for having done so. Is the fate of Prometheus that of anyone who brings about innovation, even if it’s for the ultimate benefit of others? Are mortals fundamentally incapable of appreciating art, innovation and civilization? Or is barbarism inevitable? Yet for Prometheus and for idealists like Nono, there is no other choice. It’s their destiny to strive for enlightenment no matter what the personal cost. They are driven, like the forces that create the waves that shatter against the cliffs. The faint flame of faith in the ultimate value of learning is kept alive as long as there are those prepared top listen. “Ascolta ! Ascolta ! (listen ! listen !)”. We may not understand, and may never understand, but if we don’t even try, Prometheus’s gift and what it symbolizes, will have been in vain.

Congratulations to the South Bank for having the vision to make these performances possible. Prometeo isn’t easy listening, and it isn’t cheap to produce. But its cultural signifigance is very great indeed, and quite likely won’t be appreciated fully in our time. There have been 60 performances in Europe but this was only the first in Britain. Yet, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what popular reaction might be. Like Prometheus, it is enough that someone has enough faith in the fundamental value of art, whether or not it pleases mass audiences. This is why the South Bank matters. It has the courage and foresight to recognise Prometeo and bring it to Britain at last.

Please see the review of the recent Col Legno SACD recording of Prometeo.

Anne Ozorio © 2008

Reprinted from Seen and Heard with permission of the author.

image= image_description=Luigi Nono product=yes product_title=Luigi Nono: Prometeo, Tragedia dell’ascolto. product_by=London Sinfonietta, Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble, Synergy Vocals, Klaus Burger (euphonium), Diego Masson (conductor), Patrick Bailey (conductor),). Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London. 9 and 10.5. 2008 (AO)
Other contributors: Caroline Chaniolleau (narrator), Mathias Jung (narrator), André Richard (spatial sound director), Experimental Studio for Acoustic Arts, Freiburg, Michael Acker and Reinhold Braig (sound projection).
Posted by Gary at 2:32 PM

On Venetian Opera: a new edition of Monteverdi's Ritorno, and Eleanor Selfridge-Field on Time and Opera in Venice.

Eleanor Selfridge-Field. Song and Season: Science, Culture, and Theatrical Time in Early Modern Venice and Song and Season: A New Chronology of Venetian Opera and Related Genres, 1660-1760. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2007.

Monteverdi’s operas have reached new heights of popularity in recent years, exponentially exceding performances that occurred during his lifetime. L’incoronazione di Poppea has long been prized for its sensuality, musical flexibility, and depiction of the misuse of political power; acceptance of Poppea as a masterpiece, perhaps, has led to more performances of his other two surviving operas, and Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (Ulysses’ return to his homeland, 1640/41) has increasingly been the subject of new stagings. Two new editions have been issued during recent years, and they will greatly aid in the study and appreciation of Monteverdi’s penultimate opera. The newer of the two, that published by Bärenreiter, is the one under review here; in order to better evaluate its approach, I will briefly discuss two earlier editions, those of Gian Francesco Malipiero (1930) and Alan Curtis (2002).

Malipiero thrust Monteverdi’s name and music into prominence with his collected edition of the composer’s works (Il ritorno was published as volume twelve in the series). Malipiero’s edition transmitted the “original” notation of the manuscript score, but the noted composer and musicologist also made numerous editorial interventions such as were common during the early twentieth century; for the most part, these suggestions appear as tempo suggestions (in parentheses) along with “piano” and “forte” and crescendo and decrescendo instructions in the realized continuo part.

Alan Curtis’s much later edition of Il ritorno, published in 2002 by Novello, follows along the same lines of his earlier edition of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. Curtis’s preface, occupying some thirteen pages, covers the sources (one score, and twelve manuscript librettos), editorial procedures, and a wealth of performance suggestions. Curtis, in striving for accessibility to performers, regularizes bar lines (which were not consistent during the first half of the seventeenth century), and reduces by four the sections in triple time (originally notated with a basic movement of whole notes and half notes, now they move by quarter note). Curtis does not provide a realized continuo part, but he does occasionally suggest figures, and he helpfully places those already occuring in the manuscript in a box, thus clearly marking the separation between editorial and original figures. Finally, the sung text appears both in Italian and in English translation, with additional notes inserted in a smaller typeface to accomodate extra syllables in the translation. Curtis’s edition, then, is overtly modern in its presentation.

Bärenreiter’s new edition of the opera has been published in its Urtext series (editions featuring the “original” versions of musical scores). The edition, according to Bärenreiter’s high standards, is beautifully set, and easy to read. English readers have the benefit of the introduction as well as the critical notes appearing in English; a translation of the libretto into English and German is also included in the volume. Edited by Rinaldo Alessandrini, a performer and musicologist, the score provides a striking contrast to Curtis’s, precisely because it appears in the Urtext series. Alessandrini’s edition hews closely to the original manuscript both in terms of music and the libretto (many other editions of seventeenth-century opera modernize the Italian poetry; indeed, this will be the case in the new edition of the operas of Francesco Cavalli, to be published also by Bärenreiter). Outright notational errors have been corrected in the score, and the critical commentary (included at the end of the volume) provides the original versions as well as suggestions for other passages. In order to provide an “authentic” rendering of the score, neither the notation of the triple-time passages nor the barring have been modernized.

In his introduction (much briefer than Curtis’s), Alessandrini discusses seventeenth-century performance practice, and urges performers not to over-orchestrate the sinfonie and ritornelli, as Monteverdi’s late operas were conceived under patently different circumstances than those operating in Mantua for his Orfeo (1607), which featured a large and specialized orchestra (the orchestra for this opera features two violin parts, two viola parts, and a basso continuo line). For Ritorno and Poppea, small string orchestras with appropriate continuo instruments should be the norm (i.e., no organ, which has frequently been used in recordings over the past several decades). As Alessandrini does not explain the proportions that govern the movement from duple to triple meter, performers will have to judge for themselves–or seek out musicological advice–regarding proper tempi; performers using this and similar scores must, then, accustom themselves to the notion of fast-moving whole notes.

The most controversial feature of this edition may well be Alessandrini’s adaptation of the continuo line. While it does not contain a full realization, in some sections nearly every bass note sports a figure of some kind. Indeed, I have never seen such a continuo line for editions of this repertoire. While Alessandrini’s suggestions are enclosed within bold brackets, the distance between the opening and closing of the bracket is often more than a single system (sometimes as many as three systems), so that one almost forgets that the figures on the page are not Monteverdi’s. Many of the added figures are simply not necessary, especially those that follow a “picardy-third” cadence. On a related matter, Alessandrini claims that the figures have been added according to the practice described in theoretical treatises contemporary with Monteverdi, but the editor seems to have often erred in the direction of modernity; the figures often give more of a sense of “dominant” harmony than may be appropriate for this style of music, and on occasion, some of the figures just seem wrong. While the added figures presumably would make the realization more accessible to an inexperienced keyboardist, they lead to an incredibly cluttered page, and also suggest a more consistently rich harmony than may have been prevalent during Monteverdi’s time. In the vocal score, these indications have been transmitted to the realization, so that the page bears no clutter, but Alessandrini’s harmonies, rather than those most likely implied by Monteverdi, are guaranteed to enter the consciousness of the singers learning the roles.

The year 2007 also marked the long-awaited publication of Eleanor Selfridge-Field’s two related books, Song and Season: Science, Culture, and Theatrical Time in Early Modern Venice and A New Chronology of Venetian Opera and Related Genres, 1660-1760. The books appear under the series title The Calendar of Venetian Opera. Both books are the product of decades of research.

Song_Season.png Song and Season is a wide-ranging work that draws on a detailed examination of Venetian cultural and theatrical history and its intersection with concepts of civic and sacred time in the city. Selfridge-Field charts the different methods of time-keeping current in Venice, and the resulting effects on its well-known entertainments. For the first time we can clearly see the different theatrical seasons practiced in the city, and how different types of entertainment tended to be offered in different, short seasons (up until now we have tended to refer to the Venetian theatrical seasons as either autumn, Carnival, or Ascension). The author helpfully has a separate chapter devoted to each of the theaters active in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Venice. Moreover, she discusses reciprocity that occurred between Venice, the first great operatic center of Europe, and other regional venues associated with trade fairs in the Veneto such as Padua, Rovigo, and Vicenza. Selfridge-Field ably demonstrates how understanding the “seasons” of opera in Venice helps us to understand also how opera functioned outside the city and, indeed, outside of Italy.

In the third section of Song and Season, the author delves into issues regarding the chronology of the Venetian opera repertoire. Operas have previously been chronicled according to the dates that appear on their librettos. This can often be problematic, especially because Venice had two calendars: its own, which began on March 1, and the other, more typical one, which began on January 1 (standard “modern” style). Official Venetian documents used the calendar that began on March 1, while the Church usually used January 1 as the new year. Librettos might go either way, and, indeed, some had it both ways, bearing “Venetian” and “modern” dates on different pages of the libretto. Selfridge-Field’s exhaustive study of dispatches and news summaries, however, provides a much more accurate dating for nearly all of the operas mounted in Venice, and it shows that on occasion the dates that appear on librettos are entirely wrong as to the year of the performance. Thus, her research results in a “new chronology,” that which forms the basis for the second volume of The Calendar of Venetian Opera, A New Chronology of Venetian Opera and Related Genres.

New_Chronology.pngSelfridge-Field’s New Chronology goes far beyond what previous authors have been able to produce. She opens the book with an ample introduction that covers the basic principles argued in Song and Season, perspectives on the repertory, and a guide explaining the format of the book. For each decade in the chronology, the author provides an overview forecasting any change in trends or important political or meteorological events that may have affected the entertainment sector of Venice. Regarding the chronology itself, for each libretto listed she not only provides the librettist, composer, theater, and dedicatee (these items are usually the most that one can hope for in a catalogue), but she also gives a brief synopsis of the plot, and refers to any known archival documents that reveal the performers or any disputes that arose between the performers and the managerial staff.

Among the valuable aspects of the book are the numerous supplements that appear at the end of the book. They include unproduced and undatable works (because they are undated they cannot appear in the chronology itself); musical satires, intermezzi, private or special entertainments; works for ducal entertainments; works for academies, moral and sacred dramas; and dramas performed in Venice’s famed ospedali. The extraordinarily helpful appendices include a listing of leaders, including doges, popes, and Patriarchs of Venice (the head of the Venetian church); currency values; operas listed by theatrical venue; and operas listed by theatrical period. The later appendices let the reader gain a bird’s eye view by theater and season, whereas in the chronicle itself one gains the perspective of the year’s offerings. Perhaps even more importantly, the data from the supplements is interleaved into the larger chronology, so that we can get a sense of how these more occasional events fit into the theatrical system at large. Finally, a series of concordances facilitates the comparison of the Selfridge-Field chronology with those previously published for this repertoire.

Both books in this set feature handsome illustrations, and the endpaper of A New Chronology reproduces an old French map of Venice that includes the locations of the various theaters; these features add beauty and interest to the publications. The sources consulted for these volumes are numerous indeed, and many readers will find new books and articles to peruse. Inexplicably, Michael Talbot’s “Ore Italiane: The Reckoning of the Time of Day in Pre-Napoleonic Italy,” which has guided several generations of scholars through the complexity of Italian time-keeping, does not appear. Also missing are the works of some younger scholars of seventeenth-century Venetian opera such as Jennifer Williams Brown and Mauro Calcagno.

The volumes, unfortunately, are marred by a number of typographical and other sorts of errors. I would suggest that readers verify proper names (and bibliographical entries) in other sources before citing them in their own work. A number of factual errors evidently originate in works of previous authors; in these cases one presumes that Selfridge-Field did not consult the primary sources, or have the occasion to question some of the conclusions of these authors. In other instances, however, Selfridge-Field has misinterpreted primary documents that she herself has presumably examined. This happens especially regarding the opera papers of the impresario Marco Faustini, my own specialty. Moreover, in at least two instances, when introducing material previously unknown to the musicological community (regarding the entry for Orontea on page 83, and for Alessandro amante on page 91 of A New Chronology), Selfridge-Field has clearly misinterpreted the primary sources.*

To sum up, Selfridge-Field has given us two books of inestimable importance. They open up new vistas of understanding, and the sheer volume of information transmitted is astonishing. Her new chronology of opera presentations in Venice, based on eyewitness accounts, will help numerous scholars better comprehend theatrical trends and traditions in the city. Perhaps as a result of this massive attempt to include thousands of helpful details, a number of errors have crept into the text. I enthusiastically encourage all those interested in European culture and operatic history to study these volumes. I would also warn readers, however, that it will sometimes be hard to perceive the islands of error among the vast ocean of accurate and fascinating detail.

Beth L. Glixon
University of Kentucky

* The musician and archivist Duane Rosengard has kindly supplied me with a copy of the document in question regarding Alessandro amante, and my examination of it revealed a number of errors in Selfridge-Field’s interpretation of the document.


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Posted by Gary at 10:17 AM

May 12, 2008

John Brown lives again in Kansas City

Like the nursery rhymes of childhood, Dred Scott, Harper’s Ferry and John Brown are words that resonate only indistinctly in the minds of today’s elders; an ahistorical younger generation knows them not at all. Thus the astonishment that prevailed in the Lyric’s aged venue at the contemporary relevance — indeed, the urgency — of the story of the man determined to end slavery in this country — even by force, if necessary.

Although decades in the making Mechem’s monumental score — it runs slightly over three hours, less two intermissions — comes to the stage as racism rumbles beneath the surface of a major political campaign. Brown, if not totally a’mouldered, would turn nervously in its grave at the sight of current events.

Brown_Douglass.pngJames Maddalena as John Brown and Donnie Ray Albert as Frederick Douglass.

Mechem, author of the Brown libretto as well, has done his homework in his use of the archives in what is in many ways a documentary drama. Furthermore, for Mechem Brown is a family matter, for his historian father once attempted to tailor this story for the opera stage. Much to his credit, the younger Mechem, born in 1925, has resurrected Brown in all his ambiguity. At the very center of his opera is the confrontation between Brown and Frederick Douglass, the eloquent black leader who insisted upon abolition by legal and peaceful means. Brown, on the other hand, killed no one, but approved the murder of six men to achieve his goal. Thus questions of violence and terrorism, ghosts that lingers from the years of opposition to the Vietnam war, add weight — and darkness — to Mechem’s tale.

The Lyric could hardly have done better than casting James Maddalena and veteran black baritone Donnie Ray Albert as Brown and Douglass. Maddalena, on stage almost without interruption, makes of Brown a towering and commanding figure, and although Mechem portrays him positively in sometimes mesmerizing music, he never evades the complex issues encountered in Brown’s position. Albert makes Douglass, a man to whom ambiguity was alien, a veritable Rock of Gibraltar in the middle of this story. Indeed, this role must be a major triumph in Albert’s long and distinguished career.

Death_Oliver.pngDeath of Oliver at Harper’s Ferry: James Maddalena as John Brown and Patrick Miller as Oliver Brown.

Mechem adds a person dimension to Brown’s story with a sub-plot involving his family and the hesitation of those next to him to support his plans for the raid on the armory at Harper’s Ferry, the attempt to free slaves that failed and resulted in his arrest and execution. Son Oliver Brown, movingly sung by tenor Patrick Miller, and daughter-in-law Martha, sensitively played by soprano Jennifer Aylmer, underscore the human toll taken by history.

Mechem’s lush score abounds in moments of richness, such as the love duet between Oliver and Martha that opens Act Two, when Vanessa Thomas steps forth from the wings to read a letter by a young slave’s wife and when Oliver dies in his father’s arms. The score is often marvelous both in sound and emotion, yet it is always measured. It is tonal and lyric throughout, but never trite, and a major strength lies in Mechem’s experienced hand as a choral composer. In many especially moving moments he concludes a crucial scene with a chorus that never stands by itself, but is always an integral continuation of what has gone before. The choruses “I’m Free” and “Stoke the Fire” are as stirring as anything Verdi ever wrote.

Mechem makes no secret of the deep religious convictions that motivate Brown, who sees himself doing God’s work in fighting slavery. However, he treats this aspect of his hero’s character with reserve, never allowing him to seem a zealot — despite many Biblical references and the inclusion of hymn tunes in his score. There are points in the opera at which Mechem hauntingly recalls Bach’s passions in his portrayal of Brown’s agony. Lyric artistic director Ward Holmquist conducted members of the Kansas City Symphony to fine effect.

It is clear that John Brown, a commission that celebrates the Lyric’s 50th anniversary, should move on to other stages. Before it does so, however, revision is needed. The opera now runs over three hours; and, word from within was that considerable cuts had already been made.

The first act is totally absorbing in its dramatic force. The final act, on the other hand, wanders and lacks focus. It could end at a number of places, and the contribution of the post-scripted Apotheosis to the score is questionable. One knows by then what Brown’s fate is to be, and to have him swing visibly above the stage on the hangman’s rope is — well — overkill and even raises questions of taste.

Douglass_Cast.pngDonnie Ray Albert as Frederick Douglass with cast

The Lyric, set to move into a new performing arts center next year, has outdone itself in staging John Brown in its current outdated home. Book — and flag-burning — to mention only two special effects — are staged credibly. One does not often seek a message in opera, but there is one here and it is of particular urgency today. “One of the uncomfortable truths this opera asks us to confront,” writes director Kristine McIntyre in comments in the program, “is that most people, even when confronted with a great wrong, are simply afraid to stand up and be counted. We don’t want to be stirred out of our complacency and we aren’t ready to have our preconceptions challenged.”

Wes Blomster

image= image_description=James Maddalena as John Brown at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City product=yes product_title=Kirke Mechem: John Brown product_by=Above: James Maddalena as John Brown
All photos by Douglas Hamer courtesy of Lyric Opera of Kansas City
Posted by Gary at 2:01 PM

May 11, 2008

MOZART: Don Giovanni — Salzburg 2002

Music composed by W. A. Mozart. Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte.

First Performance: 29 October 1787, National Theater, Prague

Principal Characters:
Don Giovanni, giovane cavaliere estremamente licenzioso Baritone
Il Commendatore Bass
Donna Anna, sua figlia, dama promessa sposa di Soprano
Don Ottavio Tenor
Donna Elvira, dama di Burgos, abbandonata da Don Giovanni Soprano
Leporello, servo di Don Giovanni Bass
Masetto, amante di Bass
Zerlina, contadina Soprano

Setting: A Spanish town (traditionally Seville), in the 16th century


Act I

Scene 1. The garden of the Commendatore's house

A disgruntled Leporello keeps watch while Don Giovanni tries to add Donna Anna to his list of conquests. Don Giovanni runs from the house, followed by Donna Anna, who is trying to unmask him and calling for help. Her father, coming to her aid, challenges Don Giovanni and is killed by him. Don Giovanni and Leporello make their escape before Donna Anna reappears with her betrothed, Don Ottavio, whom she calls on to avenge her dead father.

Scene 2. A street near an inn

Don Giovanni and Leporello come upon Donna Elvira, who has been seduced and abandoned by Don Giovanni and who is pursuing him. Don Giovanni slips away, leaving Leporello to explain to her that she is but one of many.

Scene 3. The countryside near Don Giovanni's house

Don Giovanni and Leporello come upon a peasant wedding. Don Giovanni orders Leporello to distract Masetto, the bridegroom, while he attempts to seduce the bride, Zerlina. He is interrupted by Donna Elvira, who warns Zerlina and persuades her to come away.

Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, not realising that Don Giovanni is the villain they are looking for, ask for his help. Elvira appears again and accuses Giovanni of faithlessness, and he tries to convince the others that she is mad. As he leaves, something in his voice and manner convinces Anna that he is her attacker and the murderer of her father.

Leporello reports to his master that he has all the peasants feasting and drinking, and Giovanni orders him to ply them wine, as he intends to add to his list of conquests.

Scene 4. The garden of Don Giovanni's house

Zerlina manages to convince the reproachful Masetto that she has done nothing wrong, but he is again suspicious when she is alarmed by Don Giovanni's voice. Another attempt on Zerlina foiled by Masetto's presence, Don Giovanni leads the couple into the house.

Donna Elvira, Donna Anna and Don Ottavio return wearing masks. Accepting Leporello's invitation to join the party, they hope this will make their revenge easier.

Scene 5. A ballroom in Don Giovanni's house

As the guests feast, dance and sing, Leporello distracts Masetto again and Don Giovanni lures Zerlina into another room. When she screams for help Giovanni accuses Leporello. But Elvira, Anna and Ottavio reveal themselves and confront him with their knowledge of his villainy. He makes his escape in the confusion.

Act II

Scene 1. A street near an inn

Don Giovanni soothes Leporello's indignation with money. He has his eyes on Donna Elvira's maid and changes clothes with Leporello so he will look like one of her class. Elvira appears at a window and laments her continuing love for Don Giovanni. He answers from the shadows that he still loves her, while Leporello, dressed in his clothes, mimes in the street. Elvira comes down and Don Giovanni instructs the disguised Leporello to lead her away while he serenades the maid.

Masetto and his friends appear, armed and in search of Don Giovanni, who, pretending to be Leporello, sends the villagers off in different directions, then catches Masetto off guard and beats him. Zerlina finds Masetto and comforts him.

Scene 2. A courtyard near Donna Anna's house

Leporello has not managed to free himself from Donna Elvira, who still takes him for his master. Donna Anna, Don Ottavio, Zerlina and Masetto find them and accuse Leporello of Don Giovanni's crimes. Elvira tries in vain to intercede for her "husband" but Leporello reveals his identity, pleads innocence and succeeds in making a getaway. Don Ottavio's promises to avenge his beloved's wrongs.

Scene 3. A cemetery, where the Commendatore is buried

Don Giovanni and Leporello have escaped from their pursuers. Giovanni's narrative of a girl who took him for Leporello is interrupted by the voice of the statue of the Commendatore reproving him for his levity and libertinism. Undeterred, he orders the terrified Leporello to invite the Commendatore to dinner. The statue accepts.

Scene 4. A room in Donna Anna's house

Don Ottavio tries to calm Donna's Anna's grief by reminding her that they will soon be married, but she begs to him to delay their wedding.

Scene 5. A banquet hall in Don Giovanni's villa

Don Giovanni is interrupted at supper by Donna Elvira, who wants him to change his ways. He laughs at her and she leaves, but runs back screaming. Investigating, Leporello returns in terror: the statue has come. The Commendatore enters and, refusing to touch earthly food, invites Don Giovanni to dine with him. Don Giovanni accepts and is engulfed by the flames of hell, steadfastly refusing to repent.

The other characters sing an epilogue about how the wicked receive their just deserts.

[Synopsis source: Opera~Opera]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image= image_description=Thomas Hampson as Don Giovanni with Anna Netrebko as Donna Anna (Photo: Schaffler & Friese) audio=yes first_audio_name=W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni product_by=Don Giovanni: Thomas Hampson
Il Commendatore: Kurt Moll
Donna Anna: Anna Netrebko
Don Ottavio: Michael Schade
Donna Elvira: Melanie Diener
Leporello: Ildebrando d’Arcangelo
Masetto: Luca Pisaroni
Zerlina: Magdalena Kozena
Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor
Wiener Philharmoniker
Nikolaus Harnoncourt (cond.)
Live performance: 27 July 2002, Großes Festspielhaus, Salzburg
Posted by Gary at 7:56 AM

May 9, 2008

Canada’s Brueggergosman makes the most of Mozart

A mere 30, the soprano from “down East” in Canada, had sung little opera and no Mozart on stage. When she saw Elettra on stage in New York, however, she found the role “pretty much bee’s knees.” Elettra is the loser, the woman scorned, in this sub-story of the Trojan War. Brueggergosman liked Elettra’s fire and found her a woman “honest and visceral.” But why be prissy about words?

The Elettra that made Brueggergosman the sensation of the OA Idomeneo on stage in Toronto’s historic Elgin Theatre on April 29 was all guts and thirsting for the blood of those who had jilted her. She’s the fury in the cast, and as portrayed by Brueggergosman she’s a show-stealer. But there’s so much excellence and excitement in an Opera Atelier production that no show staged by the company is easily stolen.

OA, launched modestly in 1986, is an early-music enterprise devoted primarily to Baroque opera — to Monteverdi and his contemporaries. When Mozart composed Idomeneo in 1781, he was looking back, for the work is a return to the opera seria, the early 18th-century genre distinguished by sometimes static da capo arias that stress heroic emotions over the music. Therefore Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Zingg, OA founders and co-artistic directors, decided to stage Idomeneo as French tragédie lyrique or opera-ballet in the style of Lully and Rameau — or as if it were one the French operas with which Gluck set out to reform Paris.

Beyond this gloriously successful melding of epochs, in spirit this production was pure Sturm und Drang, a three-hour angst-ridden outpouring of passions both noble and destructive that left viewers exhausted but with sufficient energy to proclaim the production the finest work of this unusual company thus far. In addition to Brueggergosman — the staging had everything it needed to make this story of man caught up in the machinations of a god great music theater.

Designer Gerard Gauci set the opera behind a scrim that showed a giant tsunami wave; behind it beefy Canadian bass-baritone Curtis Sullivan, an angered Neptune, stirred his stormy seas. Idomeneo, the returning hero trapped into sacrificing his son Idamante, was regal Canadian tenor (amazing the names one finds among Canadians!) Kresimir Spicer, a tenor with the vocal weight of a baritone.

As Idamante, American Michael Maniaci made clear why he wishes to be billed as a male soprano and not as a countertenor, for — heard on recording — one would assume his to be the voice of a female. (In many productions Idamanate, originally for castrato, is sung by a mezzo.) Ilia, Priam’s daughter taken captive at Troy and now the great love of Idamanate, was gently and lovingly sung by Peggy Kriha Dye.

OA enjoys a long and happy alliance with Tafelmusik, the top early-music band in Canada — if not in the hemisphere — that serves as pit band for all company performances. Andrew Parrott, a pioneer in the pre-classical repertory, came from England to conduct.

Unique to OA is the concern for the role that dance played in early opera, and choreographer Zingg enriched the production with her long practical and scholarly experience in the field. For it was not with mere dance “numbers” that she enhanced the theatrical impact of this staging, but in the manner that she made dance an integral part of the action of the drama. A total of 16 dancers, some past and present members of Canada’s National Ballet, were in the ensemble.

Yet the total excellence of this Idomeneo was more than the sum of its many superb parts. Pynkoski and Zingg understand the interdependence of music and dance requisite to a spectacle such as this. Early musicians talk much of “authenticity.” At Opera Atelier it is simply — and unpretentiously — assumed.


The Canadian Opera Company took risks with the staging of Eugene Onegin on stage in its still-new Four Seasons Centre in April. Happily, the risk paid off, for the production, imported from Strasbourg’s Opéra national du Rhin, brought a searing edge to the melancholy of the story that Tchaikovsky drew from Pushkin’s verse novel. And although director Enrico De Feo took no fundamental liberties with the story, he told it in a way that added depth to it — especially to the Onegin-Lensky relationship. Tchaikovsky spoke of his score as a series of “lyric scenes,” tableaux more concerned with character study than with advancing the plot. Thus the usual division into three acts is arbitrary.

It was shrewd of De Feo, following no doubt closely in the footsteps of Strasbourg‘s director Marco Arturo Marelli to opt for a single intermission before the duel, which he brought a new twist to the plot. (Marelli was responsible also for design and lighting.)

But first the duet, which usually ends Act Two. As the two men raised their weapons, Lensky threw himself upon Onegin with a passionate embrace. A shot was heard, and Lensky fell. But how the shot was fired left the capacity audience in the Four Seasons Centre arguing. Did Lensky — in an act of suicide — pull the trigger on Onegin’s weapon or was it all an accident? The majority opted for an accident, which added to the senselessness of the duel.

This scene, staged in falling snow, was the climax of the opera, and — in a major departure from tradition — the party in the Gremins’ home followed without interruption. In traditional stagings years that Onegin spent aimlessly wandering about Europe stand between the duel and this final scene. Here, however, doors opened immediately after the duel, and guests dressed in mourning took their positions with slow steps on stage during the Polonaise. But there was no dance; the exuberant music was became a danse macabre [italics] that set the stage perfectly for the final confrontation between Tatiana and Onegin.

Here both characters were torn, frenzied and almost out of control in their confessions. This made Tatiana’s usually composed resolve tenuous, and Onegin’s frustration as he tore his hair near-hysterical. There were fine touches along the way. Onegin, for example, eyes-dropped on Tatiana as she wrote her confessional letter.

Giselle-Allen.pngGiselle Allen (Tatyana)

The entire opera played in a box tipped at a Caligari-esque angle; it served both as in- and out-of-doors, allowing for scene changes without curtain. Canada’s Brett Polegato was an ideal Onegin — young, aristocratic, suave — with just the right touch of ennui to make him irresistible to the young and innocent Tatiana of Giselle Allen, a beautifully youthful and graceful soprano from North Ireland.

She was a perfect balance — and foil — for Polegato’s Onegin. Allyson McHardy was an Olga more serious than most, while Danil Shtoda was an unfortunately bumptious Lensky. Alexander Kisselev was a moving Gremin. Conductor Derek Bate drew superb plays from the COC orchestra on April 26.

This was a staging that demonstrated how new dimensions can be brought to a familiar work without resorting to the extremes of Regietheater. Back, finally, to that name Brueggergosman. When Measha, born Gosman, married her high-school sweetheart, Swiss exchange student Markus Bruegger, the two decided to join their names as well. Putting “Brueggergosman” in lights might be a challenge, but — metaphorically — it’s already there.

Wes Blomster

Opera Atelier

Canadian Opera Company

image= image_description=Idomeneo at Opera Atelier product=yes product_title=Above: Promotional photo from Opera Atelier
Posted by Gary at 3:08 PM

Fort Worth Opera Festival features “Angels in America”

Traditionally, the Fort Worth Opera had spaced four productions throughout the usual music season. In 2007 the company grouped them in a four-week May-June festival that’s out to make Fort Worth a destination city for opera buffs. And it worked — it worked magnificently!

“Our model was the St. Louis Opera Theater,” says Darren Woods, FWO general director since 2001. “We wanted to make this a place that people like to visit — and where they can see four operas in only three days!” The festival gives Fort Worth an identity that sets it apart from neighboring Dallas. “We no longer have to avoid conflicts in dates,” Woods says. “We found last summer that people came over from Dallas and stayed. “They enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of downtown Fort Worth and appreciated the ease with which they could walk from good hotels and great restaurants to Bass Hall, our major venue.” (The city’s many museums, including the Amon Carter and Kimbell, make Fort Worth an antechamber of paradise for art lovers.)

Adding to the allure in 2007 was FWO’s very first world premiere: Frau Margot, a work that returned Thomas Pasitieri to composition for the first time in 15 years. The festival format encourages Woods to do the kind of programming that will enhance the reputation of his company. “With four operas in repertory we can mix the traditional with the unusual,” he says. “It makes the season easier to market, for we can sell the four as a package.” Only two of the four 2008 operas qualify as traditional: Puccini’s Turandot and Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti. The other two lay equal claim to the “unusual” label.

Some consider Of Mice and Men to be Carlisle Floyd’s finest opera. Yet, although it was premiered in 1970, it is not often encountered on stage today. “People don’t like the novel,” Woods says of John Steinbeck’s 1937 story of two migrant farm workers. “But it’s a very American work, and an American company should do it. “It’s breathtaking!” Woods’ pride is that he has been able to cast Anthony Dean Griffey as Lennie, the child-like innocent at the heart of the story. Tenor Griffey‘s portrayal of Peter Grimes in the Benjamin Britten masterpiece was a major event of the current Metropolitan Opera season. Canadian baritone Phillip Addis sings George.

But for Woods the coup of the season is this country’s first fully-staged production of Peter Eötvös’ Angels in America, premiered in Paris, where the Hungarian composer lives, in 2002. “It’s been done in a small house in Boston,” Woods says, “but this will be the first full-blown American production!” When he saw Angels in Paris Woods loved the opera, but he was not impressed by the production. “It was a European ‘take’ on a very American subject — AIDS in this country in the age of Ronald Reagan,” he says. “And no one really understood it. They just didn’t know how to tell the story.”

Eötvös’ will be in Fort Worth to work with the FWO during rehearsals of Angels. Turning to the two traditional works programmed for the summer, Woods points to the “dream team” he has engaged for “Lucia:” Elizabeth Futral in the title role and brilliant, young tenor Stephen Costillo, who sings Edgardo. “It’s a signature role for Elizabeth,” Woods say, “and Stephen has sung Edgardo at the Met.” Woods considers Costrllo his “personal discovery.” “We engaged him as Rodolfo in ‘Boheme’ in ‘06,” Woods says. “He’s one of the most promising young tenors of today.”

\Woods finds it ironic — and regrettable — that although the FWO stages the McCammon Voice Competition, a leading program in the field, the company has never cast winners in its productions. That’s being corrected this summer when Iowa’s Elizabeth Bennett and Korean-born Dongwon Shin sing the title role and Calif in “Turandot.” “They have big, gorgeous Wagnerian voices,” Woods says. “And Shin sang Calif’s ’Nessun dorma’ for our competition. “They have both sung these roles several times elsewhere.”

“Angels in America” will be staged in the intimate Scott Theatre in Fort Worth‘s downtown theater district; the other three operas, in Bass Hall for the performing Ars, the major home of the Fort Worth Opera. The Forth Worth Opera Festival opens with Angels in America on My 18 and concludes with the final performance of Of Mice and Men on June 8. The company has arranged a number of concurrent events to focus attention on the subject matter of Angels in America.

Woods_Darren.pngDarren K. Woods

More Life: The Art & Science of AIDS, involves a multitude of Fort Worth organizations in a community wide effort to focus attention on the current U.S. AIDS epidemic. On the calendar are performing and visual arts events, along with educational programs from AIDS service organizations. Participating social service organizations include AIDS Outreach Center, AIDS Resources of Rural Texas, Tarrant County AIDS InterFaith Network and Samaritan House. The HBO production of Angels will also be shown during the festival.

For information on the Forth Worth Opera 2008 Festival and season tickets from $50 to $412 each and single tickets from $17 to $145, call 817-731-0726 or toll-free 1-877-396-7372 or visit

Wes Blomster

image= image_description=Ava Pine as The Angel in Angels in America (Photo: Ellen Appel) product=yes product_title=Above: Ava Pine as The Angel in Angels in America
All photos by Ellen Appel
Posted by Gary at 2:40 PM

Spoleto USA revives opera, hall

Then the score retreats to libraries, waiting to be listed in the next edition of the Grove Dictionary of Opera.

Recent successes such as Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” and “Dead Man Walking” by Jake Heggie are happy exceptions. Thus it’s good news that Anthony Davis’ “Amistad,” premiered by the Chicago Lyric Opera late in 1997, is being revived by Spoleto USA, the Charleston, South Carolina, all-arts festival that has a special “feel” for unusual works. Now it’s being revived in a greatly revised version by the composer to re-open Charleston’s Memminger Auditorium, the city’s former arts venue that had fallen upon hard times until that Spoleto “feel” sensed its value as a unique performance space.

A gala performance of “Amistad” opens the 2008 Spoleto season and inaugurates the rebuilt hall. When Davis accepted Chicago’s commission to write “Amistad,” the mutiny of heroic Africans about to be sold into slavery was a story whose time had come. Steven Spielberg’s film version also appeared in 1997, and it led — in turn — to David Pesci‘s novel on the mutiny and the court case that was a first step toward the abolition of slavery in this country.

Yet in the original version of the opera Davis seemed — so to speak — to have missed the boat. Critics were not kind to the work. Davis and his librettist cousin Thulani Davis, some felt, had “leached” a great story of its energy. The Trickster God, an African folk deity, did too much of the talking, allowing one-dimensional characters little opportunity for meaningful exchange. The opera was too long; it was static and did not excite the audience. The Amistad case — the Spanish owners of the ship tried to claim the Africans as their property — had gone all the way to the Supreme Court. Yet, one observer wrote, the scene that focused on John Quincy Adams's courtroom defense of the captives was “a snore.”

Nonetheless Spoleto general director Nigel Redden saw “Amistad” as a work of particular relevance for Charleston and decided to bring it back to life in a theatrically and musically vital way. It would be ideal, he felt, for the inauguration of the re-built Memminger. “I was at the Chicago premiere,” Redden says, “and I thought of “Amistad” immediately when we started making plans for Memminger. “It’s important to me that people feel this is a theater for everyone, and I wanted a work that would attract a wide spectrum from the community.”

Although only minutes away from King Street, the Charleston’s major downtown shopping artery, Memminger stands in the middle of a very mixed neighborhood off the regular path of festival visitors. The city’s once-active and well preserved slave market is a horror of history close at hand. “ ‘Amistad’ was an obvious choice for Memminger,” Redden says. “It’s a work that belongs here.” Redden sat down with Davis, who gained early fame for his “Malcolm X,” and made suggestions for the revision of the opera.

“It’s a work that relates to a major issue in Charleston’s history,” says Spoleto director of opera and concerts Emmanuel Villaume, “and staging it in Memminger underscores the impact that Spoleto has — and has had — on the city.” Villaume will be on the podium for all six performances of “Amistad.” And Villaume is pleased that the opera is open minded and without a narrowly defined political position.

“Anthony had been hoping for a chance to return ‘Amistad’ to the stage,” he says. “He has put a lot of effort into the new version, shortening the work and making it more concentrated. “It’s now for smaller forces used more efficiently, and it’s far more intimate than it was in Chicago.” “‘Amistad’ will gain from the location and the legacy of Charleston,” Davis says. “It’s now shorter and tighter, and there will be a better balance between singers and orchestra.”

A totally new cast has been recruited for the Memminger production, which will be directed by Sam Helfrich with costumes by Kaye Voyce and an imaginative set by Caleb Wertenbaker. Leading the list of 21 singers are Gregg Baker, Stephen Morscheck, Mary Elizabeth Williams and Michael Forest.

Redden points out that 2008 is of particular significance for “Amistad,“ for it marks the bicentennial of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. “This brings a particular resonance to the Spoleto production,” he says. Spoleto has planned numerous events related to the opera, including artist talks and roundtables at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, guided tours of the newly-renovated Old Slave Mart Museum, followed by a walking tour of sites related to African-American history in Charleston and screenings of related films. The Freedom Schooner Amistad – a replica of the slave ship currently on an 18-month transatlantic voyage – will be docked at the Charleston Maritime Center from May 16 through the opening weekend of the season.


It is, however, not only Amistad that is getting a second chance at Spoleto this season. Memminger Auditorium, once Charleston’s major arts venue, has undergone a $6-million renovation, and will reopen on May 22 with a gala performance of “Amistad.” Designed by the Charleston architect Albert Simons, Memminger was completed in 1939 as a Federal Works Agency. It was home to the Charleston Symphony Orchestra prior to the opening of Gaillard Auditorium in 1968. It was also the site of high-school basketball games. Neglected after Gaillard was built, Memminger lost its roof in Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Emergency repairs saved the structure, which was filled with pigeons and cobwebs when Nigel Redden envisioned the ruin as the site for Spoleto extravaganzas. With makeshift air conditioning and miles of duct tape to save the audience’ clothes from splintered seats, Memminger reopened with a performance of Heiner Goebbels’ massive “Surrogate Cities” in 2000. Mahler symphonies and China’s “Peony Pavilion” — complete with a moat for live ducks — followed. The 2004 staging of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” was so successful that it was repeated in 2005. It also prompted the decision to rebuild Memminger as a black-box theater. “Memminger has an edge to it,” Redden says. “Frankly, it’s fabulous. It makes a very strong statement.”

Memminger-Balcony-%28before%29.pngThe balcony of Memminger Auditorium prior to renovations.

This season Memminger will also be home to Spoleto’s twice-daily chamber-music recitals, the most popular events of the festival, while the historic Dock Street Theatre is remodeled. Memminger is now handicap accessible and it has an attractive lobby with upgraded restrooms. The stage now has wings, and a garden will welcome audience members during intermissions.


The second opera of the 2008 Spoleto season is Rossini’s “La Cenerentola,” which opens in Gaillard Auditorium on May 23. Charles Roubaud, whose Spoleto credits include a shimmering “Lakmé” and a rollicking “Ariadne auf Naxos,” directs; Matteo Beltrami is the conductor. Sandra Piques Eddy sings the title role; others in the cast are Victor Ryan Robertson, Tim Nolen and Bruno Taddia.

For complete information on Spoleto USA, visit

Wes Blomster

image= image_description=Memminger Auditorium (Charleston, SC) product=yes product_title=Above: Memminger Auditorium
Posted by Gary at 2:05 PM

May 7, 2008

Glyndebourne: lust, greed -and some great tunes

Haim.pngIvan Hewett [Daily Telegraph, 8 May 2008]

This year Glyndebourne Festival Opera opens with a work in which the virtuous are punished, the wise are mocked, and the lustful and treacherous lavishly rewarded with riches and power - not to mention the best tunes.

Posted by Gary at 6:57 PM

A knight at the opera

falstaff_SNO.pngBy TIM CORNWELL [The Scotsman, 8 May 2008]

A BAWDY bedroom scene is playing on Scottish Opera’s rehearsal stage. Baritone Peter Sidhom, playing Sir John Falstaff – in a padded fat suit that bulges bizarrely from both his front and rear – is comically attempting to pin soprano Amanda Roocroft on the bed.

Posted by Gary at 6:55 PM

Latest mash-up: COC and hip hop

066TKasahara-srgb.png(Photo: Kevin Clark)
JOSHUA OSTROFF [Globe and Mail, 7 May 2008]

If you had to pick a pair of musical genres furthest apart from each other, opera and hip hop would be a fairly safe bet. One thing they do share is sizable purist fan bases, which, whether they use the phrase or not, prefer practitioners to keep it real. Nonetheless, these star-crossed genres are coming together in a performance called The Hip Hopera, a new collaboration by the Canadian Opera Company and the Royal Conservatory of Music.

Posted by Gary at 5:59 PM

Muti to CSO

muti_small.pngBy Sarah Bryan Miller [St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 7 May 2008]

It’s potentially great news for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: they’ve got a new music director, and he’s one of the best.

Posted by Gary at 5:06 PM

Carolyn Abbate Joins University of Pennsylvania Faculty as Professor of Music

abbate.png[7 May 2008]

( - PHILADELPHIA –- Carolyn Abbate, who ranks among the world’s foremost musicologists, has been appointed the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of Pennsylvania, effective July 1. Abbate comes to Penn from Harvard University where she is the Radcliffe Alumnae Professor at Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and the Fanny Peabody Professor of Music.

Posted by Gary at 5:04 PM

Conductor to skip vampire-themed opera

By Bradley S. Klapper [AP, 7 May 2008]

Acclaimed conductor Franz Welser-Moest will not take the rostrum for two scheduled billings of a vampire-inspired staging of "Die Fledermaus" at the Zurich Opera, the Swiss opera house said Wednesday.

Posted by Gary at 5:01 PM

Die Entführung aus dem Serail

What, then, is it?

Mozart was eager to make a splash in the music scene of Vienna, to which he had just moved, and in the opera scene of Central Europe under a discriminating and forward-thinking patron, Joseph II, and – not a little – as a figure in the Enlightenment, the shining of a new light of universal brotherhood and citizenship in which glow humanity would emerge from the prejudices and bigotries of old. With his delicious Seraglio, Mozart failed and he triumphed: during his brief lifetime, it was the most popular of his operas, a hit throughout the German-speaking world.

Joseph II, himself newly liberated from the restraints of his mother and “co-regent,” Maria Theresa, was seeking new ways to give unity to his disparate realms (from Transylvania to Flanders to Milan). Nationalism seemed a likely card to play and in that cause he created a German national theater in Vienna to which the most talented actors and playwrights were invited. That success inspired him to attempt a German opera company, replacing all the Italian stuff, perhaps building on the ballad-operas that an English import, The Beggars’ Opera, had spun off all across the land. This new plan was not a success – none of the contributions to it were very inspired except Seraglio, the last, for which both Mozart and Joseph had the highest hopes.

Here, as so often, Mozart got carried away: He paid his audiences the compliment of assuming they were intelligent enough to understand what he was up to. Upon a traditional escape-plot, with exotic music inspired by Janissary marching bands, he devised a fable of true love tested – and rewarded, thanks to an enlightened pasha who, alas, never gets to sing anything. But for the resourceful Belmonte and stalwart Konstanze, whose high birth must be demonstrated so as not to let the message seem too revolutionary, Mozart composed music as difficult to sing as it is wonderful to hear. Indeed, only a most Italian-trained singer could possibly get through Konstanze’s music in any decent shape – she may well be the single most difficult role in the dramatic coloratura repertory.

This was not at all the Germanic simplicity Joseph was looking for, and he was a little startled: “Too beautiful for our ears, my dear Mozart, and a monstrous lot of notes,” he is said to have commented. Those inclined to hoot at the monarch for his folly should try to sing either lead role before they do so, or listen to the hash most top-ranked divas make of Konstanze’s arias, whose demands Mozart enhanced to display the phenomenal agility of Salieri’s mistress, Caterina Cavalieri, who created the part. A soprano once told me, “They say ‘Martern aller Arten’ is the toughest thing to sing in the entire repertory, and it’s true – because ‘Ach ich liebte’ cannot be sung!”

Aleksandra Kurzak as Blondchen and Kristinn Sigmundsson as Osmin in Mozart's 'Die Entführung aus dem Serail.'Aleksandra Kurzak as Blondchen and Kristinn Sigmundsson as Osmin in Mozart's "Die Entführung aus dem Serail."

Diana Damrau made rather a splash last fall singing Pamina and the Queen of the Night in alternate performances of The Magic Flute – but Konstanze is a tougher part than either of those, and Damrau’s attractive but not abnormally agile soprano was simply not up to it: colorless trills, tuneless runs, desperate and ill-supported leaps at the pitch that one can’t really justify by reference to her desperate situation in the plot. There were some lovely triplet figures in “Ach ich liebte” and she got through “Martern aller Arten” honorably but not pleasurably. She was less “constant” than one had hoped.

Alexandra Kurzak, who has also made a success of the Queen of the Night, had a far easier time with the far easier role of Blondchen.

Matthew Polenzani has sung Mozart roles – including Belmonte at the City Opera a few years ago, but even more so Ferrando in the Met’s last run of Così fan tutte – with a grace, an elegance, an ease of phrase from top to bottom that place him among the finest Mozart tenors not only of this generation but previous ones – one thought of Wunderlich, Valetti and Gedda. But this time around his Belmonte was rough going – he hit the notes, but the sound was less than delectable, a gravelly quality creeping in. Far more pleasing was the tenor of Steve Davislim, a debutant, as Pedrillo; his preposterous “Moorish” serenade in Act III could have gone on for three or four more verses without wearying the ear. All four singers – despite a little shrillness from Miss Kurzak – reached their peak during the splendid lover’s quarrel quartet that ends Act II, the first “conversational” concertato in opera, from which so much was to develop.

Kritinn Sigmundsson, a witty actor with a fine, house-filling, orotund bass, was almost all one could wish for in an Osmin – the one character untouched by the “enlightened” multicultural benevolence, and therefore the one who makes that achievement seem as impressive as it is. Sigmundsson, alas, lacks the low F’s and E’s that a great Osmin requires – that Kurt Moll and Matti Salminen had – but gave such pleasure it was easy to overlook this flaw. Matthias von Stegmann seemed a bit effete in the non-singing role of the sentimental Pasha – he did wave those long-stemmed roses about a bit much. (Like many other admirers of this opera, I’ve always regretted that the Pasha does not sing – couldn’t we transfer an aria or two from Mozart’s unfinished other Turkish singspiel, Zaide? And maybe drop one of Belmonte’s four repetitive arias to fit it in?)

Matthew Polenzani as Belmonte, Steve Davislim as Pedrillo, Aleksandra Kurzac as Blondchen and Diana Damrau as Konstanze in Mozart's 'Die Entführung aus dem Serail.' Matthew Polenzani as Belmonte, Steve Davislim as Pedrillo, Aleksandra Kurzac as Blondchen and Diana Damrau as Konstanze in Mozart's "Die Entführung aus dem Serail."

The old John Dexter production is restaged at each revival; there is nowadays more beefcake on display (Dexter would have enjoyed that), but in general Max Charruyer’s revisions are sensible, coherent – and funny. David Robertson made rather scrappy work of the exquisite overture, and the flutes were rackety during “Martern aller Arten,” but this lovely little masterpiece’s many parts fell by and large neatly into place.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Diana Damrau as Konstanze in Mozart's "Die Entführung aus dem Serail." Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera. product=yes product_title=W. A. Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail product_by=Konstanze: Diana Damrau; Blondchen: Aleksandra Kurzak; Belmonte: Matthew Polenzani; Pedrillo: Steve Davislim; Osmin: Kristinn Sigmundsson; Pasha Selim: Matthias von Stegmann. Conducted by David Robertson; John Dexter production restaged by Max Charruyer. Metropolitan Opera, performance of April 30 product_id=Above: Diana Damrau as Konstanze in Mozart's "Die Entführung aus dem Serail."
All photos by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.
Posted by Gary at 7:41 AM

May 6, 2008

Karajan: The Music, the Legend.

The audio selections on CD along with the videos on the DVD represent Karajan’s legacy on various recordings issued by Deutsche Grammophon, for which the conduct led many fine performances, along with some materials not previously released. While some of the music is presented in its entirety, as with the film of Karajan conducting Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or the recordings on CD of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony and Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins (all with the Berlin Philharmonic), other pieces are self-contained. The Concerto for Two Violins, BWV 1043, is just one example of Karjan’s exploration of Baroque music. While it does not reflect the kind of performance-practice in use at the end of the twentieth century, the recording demonstrates the approach Karajan would use to bring this music to the idiom in which he worked. As such, it also brings to mind other recordings he made, including a memorable St. Matthew Passion and also the B-minor Mass. Those, in turn, evoke memories of his treatment of choral forces in various performances – at different times in his career – of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

All in all, this compilation serves Karajan well illustrating some of his fine work with the Berlin Philharmonic, the orchestra with which he was associated for many years and which he helped to shape during his tenure as its director. Likewise, the video selections capture some fine images of Karajan at the podium from various points in his maturity, including a spirited performance of the Scherzo from Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, which dates from 1973. The latter is just one example of the fine effort that Karajan brought in continuing the tradition of Romantic music, which he rendered with a sense of freshness and exuberance that made his concerts memorable.

As much as Karajan was a familiar figure in the concert hall, he was an equally impressive force in the pit of the opera house, where he led many fine performances of some of the major companies in the world. The DVD includes just two excerpts, critical scenes from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Wagner’s Das Rheingold, but he performed many works that are preserved on film, including some exemplary performances of operas by Verdi and Mozart from the Salzburg Festival. While those latter works are not found on this set – it would be difficult to include samples of everything Karajan did well on just two discs without lapsing into the proverbial sound-bite – various DVDs are available to illustrate his contributions to the recorded legacy, including some stunning performances of Don Giovanni and Don Carlos. Those interested in investigating or, for some, revisiting, Karajan’s operas on DVD will find some excellent choices in the selected discography that is included in this release. The selection found on the DVD is a reminder of the videos that Karajan made and for those who are not yet familiar with them, offer a fitting introduction. The scene from the end of Wagner’s Das Rheingold is an excellent example of Karajan’s sometimes tacit presence on impressive DVD performances, and those who find it compelling may want to seek out other such recordings that hold up well. Beyond the filmed operas listed there, the CDs listed include a number of outstanding recordings, such as his famous Ring cycle, along with a still remarkable Parsifal. A cursory examination of the discography included in the booklet will reveal a list of solid recordings that merit further attention.

Preserved by Deutsche Grammophon, the sound on both discs is consistently well recorded and the reproduction fine. This is evident in the 1963 recording of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony that dates to over half a century ago and which remains attractive and dynamic. Other tracks found in this commemorative release are equally strong examples of Karajan’s lifelong commitment to his art, an element that has become integral to the recorded legacy of a generation. By including both sound examples and video ones in this two-disc set Deutsche Grammophon has created a fitting tribute to Karajan, and it serves the conductor well by having enough examples of sufficient length to reflect several aspects of his craft.

James L. Zychowicz

image_description=Karajan: The Music, the Legend

product_title=Karajan: The Music, the Legend
product_by=Works by Beethoven · Brahms · Leoncavallo Rachmaninov · Suppé · Tchaikovsky · Wagner
product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 477 7097 [CD/DVD]

Posted by jim_z at 10:16 PM

Punch & Judy at ENO

ENO has one particular coup up its sleeve. There can be few singers as well-suited to the grotesque, tragic-comic figure of Mr Punch as the baritone Andrew Shore, one of ENO’s most distinguished regular guests and a first-rate singing actor. In full puppet costume, he is the cross between a naughty child, a vicious murderous thug and a sinister nightmare figure — a nightmare which eventually implodes on him with the full force of half-a-dozen Punch clones and the ghosts of his victims.

Giles Cadle’s set and costume designs go all-out to replicate the iconic ‘Punch and Judy show’ look, in primary colours that look slightly shabby and sun-bleached. The stage is a circus-ring with a canopy of brightly-coloured fairy lights. But at the back, a freshly-dug grave is a reminder of the macabre inevitability with which Punch’s serial murders will be carried out.

Ashley Holland strikes an imposing figure as the Choregos, a Greek chorus-like figure who acts as a master of ceremonies, a narrator and moral judge, but who falls victim to Punch just like all the others. It is the Choregos and his murder that first blur the distinction between make-believe and reality, an idea which Daniel Kramer’s staging takes further by stripping away the puppet-costumes from the protagonists as events progress and the moral themes of the piece are developed. Most — including the Doctor and Lawyer, played by Graeme Broadbent and Graham Clark respectively — reach this state of human nakedness at the point at which Punch kills them. As for Punch himself, by the time he comes to feel remorse for the murder of his baby — the first of his crimes — he is no more than a bald, half-dressed, vulnerable human being. Only Gillian Keith’s ringletted, hyperactive doll of a Pretty Polly remains in ‘character', a fantasy figure to the last.

Birtwistle’s brutally uncompromising score — which supposedly upset Benjamin Britten so much at the work’s premiere that he walked out of the performance — is usually subtle and understated, atonal but far from tuneless. It juxtaposes banal nursery-ditties with ‘Passion chorales’ and tragic monologue. The insouciance of the little motif with which Punch shrugs off each murder strikes a vivid contrast with the murdered Judy’s plea for Punch’s reform, sung by the versatile American mezzo Lucy Schaufer.

Credit is due to the cast for managing to get the majority of Steven Pruslin’s wordplay-filled libretto across, and to conductor Leo Hussain (sharing the opera’s five-night run with ENO’s Music Director, Edward Gardner) for maintaining such dramatic coherence in the music.

2204ashmore209.pngA scene from Punch and Judy

Ruth Elleson © 2008

image= image_description=Andrew Shore (Punch) / Lucy Schaufer (Judy) [Copyright Catherine Ashmore/English National Opera] product=yes product_title=Harrison Birtwistle: Punch and Judy
English National Opera, Young Vic, April 21, 2008 product_by=Andrew Shore (Punch), Lucy Schaufer (Judy), Gillian Keith (Polly), Graham Clark (Lawyer) and Ashley Holland Choregos. Music Director: Edward Gardner. Director: Daniel Kramer. product_id=Above: Andrew Shore (Punch) / Lucy Schaufer (Judy)
All photographs are copyright Catherine Ashmore/English National Opera
Posted by Gary at 8:24 PM

The Collegiate Chorale: Jupiter in Argos

I’ve delighted in their presentations of Weber’s Oberon (Lauren Flanigan as the Caliph’s daughter!), Dvorak’s Dmitry (Martina Arroyo as a Polish princess! — a line that brought down the house), Szymanowsky’s King Roger, and many of the Verdi works that give choral forces a workout. Handel might be a worthy choice for such a group — his dramatic oratorios are terrific music, terrific drama, largely unfamiliar to New York audiences, and give pride of place, not to say a spectacular starring role, to the chorus, though in my experience of Handel chorale, less is usually more, and a proficient choir of two dozen is more effective than a group of fifty or a hundred.

However, bypassing the superb dramatic oratorios heard far too infrequently (Saul, for instance, or Athaliah, or Susannah, or Belshazzar, or — when did anyone last perform Alexander Balas?), Bass chose this spring to give the American premiere of the recently unearthed Giove in Argos (Jupiter in Argos), a pasticcio — that is, a work cobbled together mostly from pre-existing music by contract to a company of musicians while Handel’s true creative attentions were elsewhere. For a group with the Collegiate Chorale’s credentials and Bass’s expertise — undoubtedly fine but with little experience in the once neglected, now tremendously popular area of baroque opera — it may not have been the wisest possible choice.

The choruses were pleasing, but they played a comparatively small part in the evening’s entertainment, while Bass made the drastic decision — defensible thirty years ago, but way out of line today — to snip nearly all the solo arias of their B sections or their da capo ornamented repeats. This may have pleased the unions, but far too often it left hearers unsatisfied by singers who were barely warming to their tasks of characterization and ornament when they were obliged to sit down. Our ears were left wobbling by holes that had been dug in the path and were never to be filled. It was tatterdemalion Handel, even allowing for the high quality of some singing and of many individual arias familiar from other works.

For the pasticcio plot, someone devised a properly pasticcio legend combining the Ovidian myths of two of Jupiter’s amours — Io (transformed into a cow, fled to Egypt, and identified by later Greeks with the cow-headed goddess Isis) and Callisto (transformed, with her son, into bears, and placed among the stars). Setting two myths at once allowed Jupiter (tenor Rufus Müller) to get himself caught by each lady wooing the other, with the usual sitcom shenanigans and a happy-ish end of his going home to his wife and leaving them both alone.

The delight of the evening was Kristine Jepson as Io/Isis; her cool, lovely, hall-filling mezzo was the reason I was glad to be at this concert and nowhere else in New York. She possesses both the crowd-thrilling agility of ornament for Handel’s fiery arias (jealous rage or cries of alarm), she can sing quietly of despair or yearning, the simple, pensive beauty of her perfect technique making time seem to stop. This is the quality all great Handel singers must possess — the ability to draw you within their hearts, to comprehend the emotions being expressed, and Jepson has it.

Elizabeth Futral was, as usual, the most elegantly dressed of the performers; she sang Callisto with her accustomed assurance, a pretty way with runs and ornaments, a light touch on the flowering vocal line. Heidi Grant Murphy’s voice always seems bland and ill-supported; her Diana lacked a goddess’s authority. Rufus Müller, as the hapless king of the gods, drew as much sympathy for his harassed facial expressions as for his facility with Handel’s tenor lines. Wayne Tigges sang a decent Osiris but Valerian Ruminski, whose rich bass rumble I have admired on bel canto occasions, seemed off his game or out of his proper repertory here.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=G. F. Handel product=yes product_title=G. F. Handel: Jupiter in Argos product_by=Callisto: Elizabeth Futral; Diana: Heidi Grant Murphy; Iside: Kristine Jepson; Jupiter: Rufus Müller; Osiris: Wayne Tigges; Lycaone: Valerian Ruminski. The Collegiate Chorale directed by Robert Bass. Avery Fisher Hall, performance of April 28.
Posted by Gary at 6:58 PM

French Opera highlights on Classics for Pleasure

Perhaps they own too many copies of the entire opera already but are attracted to one or two members of the cast on yet another set. Perhaps in a busy life, they really only ever have time or the desire to hear their favorite selections from an opera. And just maybe, in today's market, the complete set is no longer readily available.

Whatever the reason, lovers of French opera would do well to consider either or both of two sets from Classics for Pleasure's opera highlights series. The Gounod Faust, with Victoria De Los Angeles, Boris Christoff, and Nicolai Gedda conducted by André Cluytens, already enjoys a deservedly high reputation. CFP offers a generous 75 minutes of music, whereas the Puccini sets from this series recently reviewed here on operatoday had well under 60. Still, not that much is heard of Gedda in the title role until his big third act aria. In fact, nothing from the first act appears at all. As strong as Gedda is, having more of De Los Angeles's truly angelic Marguerite prompts no complaints. Some may regret an arguable lack of elegance in Christoff's Mephistopheles, but he certainly captures the character's demonic side. Ernest Blanc makes the most of Valentin's affecting music. The climatic trio loses some power when so abruptly excerpted, but all in all, this highlights set has ample evidence of why this recording has been so highly esteemed for so long.

Delibes_Lakme.pngThe Delibes Lakme set manages to be even more "French," with Alain Lombard leading the Paris Opéra-Comique forces and a cast of Mady Mesplé in the title role, Danielle Millet as her maid, and Charles Burles as Gerald, Lakme's English love interest. After Delibes's wonderful prelude, as enchanting as the best of his ballet music, this set takes the listener directly to the famous female duet. Mesple's sweet, high-set tone helps make the Indian princess a believable, not to mention attractive, character. She also manages the pyrotechnics of the "Bell Song" with a relaxed flair that benefits the music. The rest of the cast is able, but to be blunt, the score of Lakme, other than its just referenced well-known parts, tends to a generic craftsmanship. All the more reason to be grateful for this highlights set, then.

CFP provides track and cast listings, and a story synopsis tied to the tracks. Without any other notes of any kind, however, the booklet has to be called slim. But for a budget price, both of these sets can claim to be very fair value.

Chris Mullins


image_description=Gounod: Faust (highlights)

product_title=Gounod: Faust (highlights)
product_by=Gedda, de los Angeles, Blanc, Christoff, Berton, Gorr, Autran, Paris Opera Chorus & Orchestra, André Cluytens
product_id=EMI Classics for Pleasure 393 3762 [CD]

Posted by chris_m at 1:13 PM

THOMSON: The Plow that Broke the Plains

Naxos's DVD division has already released the performances on this disc of Virgil Thomson's scores for The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, as soundtracks for a re-release of the original films. That DVD (Naxos 2.110521) contained, as bonus tracks, the original musical performances. The additional investment for the DVD seems minor, considering the historical value of the films themselves and the other additional material (interviews with film participants and some comments from Thomson himself).

However, for the extremely budget-minded or those only interested in the audio experience, these performances by the Post-Classical Ensemble, led by Angel Gil-Ordóñez, merit a strong recommendation. In clear, crisp sound, Thomson's blend of folk material and mid-century orchestration present a sharp profile, unsentimental and yet affecting. Overall, the score for The Plow that Broke the Plains makes for a more cohesive listening experience than that for The River. The latter has one extended sequence of moody music ("Floods"); otherwise, the tracks feel a bit fragmentary. The music for The Plow contains a greater variety of mood and atmosphere.

Naxos's booklet essay, in the typical tiny font, has a fine essay on the composition of the scores as well as a track-by-track synopsis tying the music to scenes from each of the films. Joseph Horowitz, director of the Post-Classical Ensemble, composed the notes.

Again, the DVD offers a richer experience, but those who desire the convenience of the CD format will be grateful for this release.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Virgil Thomson: The Plough That Broke The Plains • The River

product_title=Virgil Thomson: The Plough That Broke The Plains • The River
product_by=Post-Classical Ensemble. Angel Gil-Ordóñez, music director. Joseph Horowitz, artistic director. Floyd King, narrator. Pare Lorentz, film director.
product_id=Naxos 2.110521 [DVD]

Posted by chris_m at 12:58 PM

May 4, 2008

Ned Rorem's Our Town

This occurred to me while attending Ned Rorem’s spare, elegant, uninteresting full-length opera (his first after a lifetime composing nearly every other sort of thing) derived from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a play as rooted in the poetry of the ordinary (pre-World War I New England variety) as the operatic form seems calculated to enhance and transcend it. Mr. Rorem himself has said that when he first took on this project (here receiving its New York premiere — the world premiere took place two years ago) he pondered whether Our Town called for operatic treatment, and whether he was the man to set it. My guess is the answers in both cases are clearly negative, but he blithely went right ahead.

Is there anything in Our Town, a play in which God is the most prosaic of stage managers (agnostic to boot, as Wilder was), and death is restfully preferable to even the pleasantest sort of living, that could be enhanced by song? Perhaps — but not the sort of song Mr. Rorem has provided, the through-composed recitative of mid-twentieth-century opera without those embarrassing tune thingies that bear unfortunate comparison with weak Broadway musicals. When Mr. Rorem requires a real tune — a hymn for the burial of Emily, his heroine, say, or her wedding march — what we get is a traditional hymn sung against ironic orchestral discords, or a few bars of Mendelssohn — because Mr. Rorem can’t really be trusted (by his librettist, J.D. McClatchy, or by himself, evidently) to come up with anything that would conjure the notion of “hymn” or “wedding march” on his own bat. The dialogue of the opera — or should I say play? — is offered without emotion either because the play does not call for much of it or because the idiom in use does not. (I wasn’t sure.) The most appealing and interesting portions of Mr. Rorem’s contribution were the few — very few — times he allowed more than one person to sing together: a trio of taunting baseball players calling “George!” when the hero pays too much attention to the girl he is sweet on, or the chorale of the dead that opens Act II. Otherwise, there isn’t much here here. If you’re going to make an opera, you really ought to let people let loose to sing a bit.

We do get singable vocal lines — after half a century producing beloved art songs, there isn’t much about writing graciously for the voice that Mr. Rorem does not know. It can’t be an accident that the large cast of Juilliard students with a considerable and varied level of experience all sounded able and grateful. The opera gives each one his or her moment — which no doubt will win it a future in the repertory of music schools if nowhere else. That’s too bad if it gets in the way of productions of better works for large casts, such as The Mother of Us All or The Ballad of Baby Doe.

The Mother of Us All gives us a hint about what went wrong in Our Town: Thomson took Gertrude Stein’s text, as he had the earlier Four Saints in Three Acts, and set it just as he found it, using the hymn tune background of his Missouri upbringing to create a nostalgic rather than referential score, full of original flavor. Rorem, though he comes from the same part of the country and, like Thomson, was educated in Paris by Nadia Boulanger, has self-consciously divorced himself from Americana and can find no way to link back to it. His hymn is not a charming in-the-style-of, but an intrusion. Nothing downhome permeates the background here. As for the play, it is typical of the libretto that the witty sidelong touches, geological and statistical “newsbreaks” quoted by one character or another, find no answering wit in Rorem’s music — they appear only in the surtitles. If the opera were produced without them, they’d have to go. Wilder’s balance of the quotidian with the eternal is unsprung, here and elsewhere. McClatchy and Rorem simply did not trust their material. Or (very likely) Our Town is a play requiring no song at all — it’s got its own, as much as it could ever need.

It was difficult not to compare Our Town to another American opera I’d seen recently: Philip Glass’s Satyagraha. Did this stage work respond adequately to, or even explicate, Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy? There’s no way for me, only vaguely familiar with that philosophy or that life, to judge, but what Satyagraha did do was concoct so pleasing a musical language for that life that audiences are drawn to contemplate its meaning and achievement, both of which are undoubtedly worthy of operatic grandiloquence — rather the way Stein and Thomson meditated on Susan B. Anthony’s achievement in The Mother of Us All. Our Town may or may not deserve musicalization on some level, but the musical language Rorem has provided is inadequate to draw us in, to make us think the question worth resolving. We simply don’t want to spend time with this music. We’d rather hear Mendelssohn straight.

The expert Juilliard cast was led by Jennifer Zetlan, who sang Emily at the premiere, whose unsettlingly bright smile when she meets the other dead folks in the graveyard was presumably approved by the composer, and whose big bright soprano seems destined to fill larger houses in the very near future. I especially liked the voice and poise of Jessica Klein as Mrs. Gibbs and Julie Boulianne as a nosey neighbor, Marc Webster and David McFerrin as the two fathers (both given charming, self-involved monologues), and Alex Mansoori’s regal calm as the almighty Stage Manager. If there was an unappealing voice in all the large cast, it passed me completely. Now if only they’d been singing something that needed to be sung.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Our Town at Juilliard Opera Center (Photo by Peter Schaaf) product=yes product_title=Ned Rorem: Our Town product_by=Emily: Jennifer Zetlan; Mrs. Gibbs: Jessica Klein; Mrs. Webb: Renée Tatum; Mrs. Soames: Julie Boulianne; George: Alex Shrader; Dr. Gibbs: Marc Webster; Mr. Webb: David McFerrin; Stage Manager: Alex Mansoori. Conductor: Anne Manson. Director: Edward Berkeley.
Juilliard Opera Center at the Juilliard School, performance of April 27. product_id=Above: Pictured are (seated, from left) Anne Manson, the conductor; J.D. McClatchy, the librettist; and Ned Rorem, the composer; cast members include (standing) Alex Shrader, Jennifer Zetlan, and Alex Mansoori. (Photo by Peter Schaaf).
Posted by Gary at 9:29 PM

La Fille du Régiment at the Met

The Met management opposed the idea (what next? setting operas in contemporary costumes?), but Pons was a diva of the old school, impossible to discipline or embarrass — she knew the wartime audience would roar and that Met General Manager Edward Johnson wouldn’t dare reprimand her. As for the opera — if a diva is cute and funny and has the high notes (Pons, we hear, scored on all three counts — so, in my own experience, did Sutherland and, at least in early years, Sills), then nothing can go wrong: Donizetti’s vehicle is a ’54 Chevy, handsome, unpretentious and unbreakable. Fill ’er up with high octane and she’ll take you where you want to go.

Too, since Pavarotti revealed the opera as a tenor vehicle as well, the boys get to share the limelight, and for the last few years (at least since Hermione Gingold began to camp it up — recent entrants include Montserrat Caballé at Covent Garden), the two-line speaking role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp has expanded like an accordion to become a major player. At the Met these days, Marion Seldes gets two scenes and two outfits, as many costumes as the prima donna.

Having heard last Saturday’s broadcast (full of audience giggle), I went to the Met’s new production of La Fille (shared with Covent Garden and Vienna) expecting to lean back and enjoy myself, and I did. So, as far as I could tell, did everyone else in the packed house. First of all, there’s the irresistible Donizetti fable, full of sentimental regret (during the reign of pacific Louis-Philippe) for the days of Napoleonic gloire, with march-time send-ups and regimental ditties (what does “rat-a-plan” mean? It’s not in my Larousse), as well as sentimental numbers that almost play themselves — the duet where Tonio and Marie “prove” their love to each other’s exacting specifications, the delicious trio of old comrades, “Tous les trois réunis” — all of it melodious, hilarious, touching by turns, a musical with good singing and no agonized American idols. La Fille couples lack of pretension with Donizetti’s deft, professional hand at achieving exactly what he wants to achieve: the characters do not surprise us — they’re much too straightforward for that — but they’re worthy of the happiness they want, and our hearts are warm when they get it.

Laurent Pelly’s production has a backdrop concocted by Chantal Thomas from nineteenth-century European maps that form a mountainous Tyrolean landscape on which Juan Diego Florez (who grew up in the even steeper Andes, right?) takes an occasional pratfall while otherwise twirling like a curly-headed Fred Astaire in lederhosen. If the guy, lately married in the cathedral of Lima, loves his new bride half as much as he loves cutting up for 4000 strangers she’s a lucky woman.

Natalie Dessay is charming when singing showpiece roulades while ironing longjohns, when advancing on the enemy while seated on the floor in a doll-like position, when striding about the stage with robotic gestures — the same gestures and movements that tickled us when she played Olympia in Hoffman and Zerbinetta in Ariadne. But the constant mugging, intentionally or not, distract from imperfect fioritura and breathless concluding notes, indeed from vocalism — you have to force yourself to pay attention to the singing to notice it is being done at all. I could have done without a great deal of the frenetic business — she never calmed down long enough to let us enjoy the beautiful music she and Donizetti might have made together. Charm is undercut by this level of aggression, and it is possible to charm, even in knockabout farce, without channeling Lucy Ricardo. Nor is it necessary to make invidious comparisons to the equally funny but musically richer performances of Sutherland or Sills (or Freni, who sang the loveliest, purest “Il faut partir” I’ve ever heard). Merely cast an eye on Florez for balance: yes, he gallivanted adorably, yes he sang eighteen high C’s — pure, even, perfectly produced high C’s at that — in order to provide an encore, and stepped out of character to bow when they were done — but when it was his turn to be Tonio, the naïve and ardent lover, and to be quietly sincere, then quiet sincerity is what he gave us. He knows when to turn off the spigot of farce and still be present. Dessay does not seem to know how to do this, and her constantly jokey performance in due course tired me out. Perhaps if she’d put a little of that gag energy into maintaining a bel canto line, we’d have real opera here.

When Florez first set foot on the Met stage a few years back, his rapture at having an audience to delight was like an electric shock passing visibly through his body and outwards to tingle everyone present, but though his Rossini technique was surely the most extraordinary of any tenor in a hundred years, the voice itself (as he admits) was gruff, unbeautiful, lacking sensuality. The instrument has lately grown larger and more lyrical, more capable of sustaining beautiful sound, with no noticeable decline in flexibility and an ease at filling an enormous theater that can only thrill. Too, he knows how to act like an oaf so as to win any and every heart. A perfect performance.

Felicity Palmer makes an elegant eldritch marquise (though why her German schloss of Berkenfeld has added a letter to become the English Berkenfield is a puzzle) and Alessandro Corbelli a stout, bald Sergeant Sulpice. After a scrappy slog through the overture, Marco Armiliato shaped up in the pit, and gave every sign of enjoying himself. Mention should be made of choreographer Agathe Mélinand, whose four housemaids polishing furniture while doing ballet exercises had us all in stitches, and who — I presume it was her idea — had the soldiers keep waltz-time with their helmeted heads to Florez’s encore.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Florez product=yes product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: La Fille du Régiment
Metropolitan Opera, performance of April 29. product_by=Marie: Natalie Dessay; Tonio: Juan Diego Florez; Marquise: Dame Felicity Palmer; Sulpice: Alessandro Corbelli. Conducted by Marco Armiliato. product_id=Above: Natalie Dessay (Marie) and Juan Diego Florez (Tonio)
Posted by Gary at 9:15 PM

MOZART: Don Giovanni — Salzburg 1953

Music composed by W. A. Mozart. Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte.

First Performance: 29 October 1787, National Theater, Prague

Principal Characters:
Don Giovanni, giovane cavaliere estremamente licenzioso Baritone
Il Commendatore Bass
Donna Anna, sua figlia, dama promessa sposa di Soprano
Don Ottavio Tenor
Donna Elvira, dama di Burgos, abbandonata da Don Giovanni Soprano
Leporello, servo di Don Giovanni Bass
Masetto, amante di Bass
Zerlina, contadina Soprano

Setting: A Spanish town (traditionally Seville), in the 16th century


Act I

Scene 1. The garden of the Commendatore's house

A disgruntled Leporello keeps watch while Don Giovanni tries to add Donna Anna to his list of conquests. Don Giovanni runs from the house, followed by Donna Anna, who is trying to unmask him and calling for help. Her father, coming to her aid, challenges Don Giovanni and is killed by him. Don Giovanni and Leporello make their escape before Donna Anna reappears with her betrothed, Don Ottavio, whom she calls on to avenge her dead father.

Scene 2. A street near an inn

Don Giovanni and Leporello come upon Donna Elvira, who has been seduced and abandoned by Don Giovanni and who is pursuing him. Don Giovanni slips away, leaving Leporello to explain to her that she is but one of many.

Scene 3. The countryside near Don Giovanni's house

Don Giovanni and Leporello come upon a peasant wedding. Don Giovanni orders Leporello to distract Masetto, the bridegroom, while he attempts to seduce the bride, Zerlina. He is interrupted by Donna Elvira, who warns Zerlina and persuades her to come away.

Donna Anna and Don Ottavio, not realising that Don Giovanni is the villain they are looking for, ask for his help. Elvira appears again and accuses Giovanni of faithlessness, and he tries to convince the others that she is mad. As he leaves, something in his voice and manner convinces Anna that he is her attacker and the murderer of her father.

Leporello reports to his master that he has all the peasants feasting and drinking, and Giovanni orders him to ply them wine, as he intends to add to his list of conquests.

Scene 4. The garden of Don Giovanni's house

Zerlina manages to convince the reproachful Masetto that she has done nothing wrong, but he is again suspicious when she is alarmed by Don Giovanni's voice. Another attempt on Zerlina foiled by Masetto's presence, Don Giovanni leads the couple into the house.

Donna Elvira, Donna Anna and Don Ottavio return wearing masks. Accepting Leporello's invitation to join the party, they hope this will make their revenge easier.

Scene 5. A ballroom in Don Giovanni's house

As the guests feast, dance and sing, Leporello distracts Masetto again and Don Giovanni lures Zerlina into another room. When she screams for help Giovanni accuses Leporello. But Elvira, Anna and Ottavio reveal themselves and confront him with their knowledge of his villainy. He makes his escape in the confusion.

Act II

Scene 1. A street near an inn

Don Giovanni soothes Leporello's indignation with money. He has his eyes on Donna Elvira's maid and changes clothes with Leporello so he will look like one of her class. Elvira appears at a window and laments her continuing love for Don Giovanni. He answers from the shadows that he still loves her, while Leporello, dressed in his clothes, mimes in the street. Elvira comes down and Don Giovanni instructs the disguised Leporello to lead her away while he serenades the maid.

Masetto and his friends appear, armed and in search of Don Giovanni, who, pretending to be Leporello, sends the villagers off in different directions, then catches Masetto off guard and beats him. Zerlina finds Masetto and comforts him.

Scene 2. A courtyard near Donna Anna's house

Leporello has not managed to free himself from Donna Elvira, who still takes him for his master. Donna Anna, Don Ottavio, Zerlina and Masetto find them and accuse Leporello of Don Giovanni's crimes. Elvira tries in vain to intercede for her "husband" but Leporello reveals his identity, pleads innocence and succeeds in making a getaway. Don Ottavio's promises to avenge his beloved's wrongs.

Scene 3. A cemetery, where the Commendatore is buried

Don Giovanni and Leporello have escaped from their pursuers. Giovanni's narrative of a girl who took him for Leporello is interrupted by the voice of the statue of the Commendatore reproving him for his levity and libertinism. Undeterred, he orders the terrified Leporello to invite the Commendatore to dinner. The statue accepts.

Scene 4. A room in Donna Anna's house

Don Ottavio tries to calm Donna's Anna's grief by reminding her that they will soon be married, but she begs to him to delay their wedding.

Scene 5. A banquet hall in Don Giovanni's villa

Don Giovanni is interrupted at supper by Donna Elvira, who wants him to change his ways. He laughs at her and she leaves, but runs back screaming. Investigating, Leporello returns in terror: the statue has come. The Commendatore enters and, refusing to touch earthly food, invites Don Giovanni to dine with him. Don Giovanni accepts and is engulfed by the flames of hell, steadfastly refusing to repent.

The other characters sing an epilogue about how the wicked receive their just deserts.

[Synopsis source: Opera~Opera]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image= image_description=Cesare Siepi as Don Giovanni audio=yes first_audio_name=W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni product_by=Don Giovanni: Cesare Siepi
Il Commendatore: Raffaele Arié
Donna Anna: Elisabeth Grümmer
Don Ottavio: Anton Dermota
Donna Elvira: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf
Leporello: Otto Edelmann
Zerlina: Erna Berger
Masetto: Walter Berry
Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Wilhelm Fürtwangler (cond.)
Live performance: 27 July 1953, Felsenreitschule, Salzburg
Posted by Gary at 8:36 PM

Minnesota Opera makes strong case for Rusalka’s greatness

As produced by Minnesota Opera to conclude its current season, the opera is a delight for both eye and ear. And it’s a unique work as well. Premiered in Prague’s National Theater in 1901, story and score are Romanticism in fullest flower. And, setting it apart from German operas of that era, is a gentle undercurrent of Slavic melancholy that makes its tragic content meltingly bittersweet. Although Rosenkavalier was then still a decade away, Rusalka has all the sensuality of Richard Strauss.

Over a century after its premiere, however, Rusalka remains peripheral to the established repertory. Indeed, the opera came late to stages outside its home community. Although Mahler, then head of the Vienna Opera, expressed interest in the score, Rusalka was introduced to Austria by a Czech company only in1910. In Germany it was first performed in Stuttgart in 1924, and it did not come to England until 1959, when it was staged by Sadler’s Wells. It arrived at the Met in 1993.

Language, of course, was part of the problem. Until Janáček became popular, no one sang Czech, and Dvořák’s refined feeling for the relation of words and music demands that Rusalka be done in the original language. (Elders recall the distant day when in this country Mussorgsky’s Boris was sung in — of all things — Italian.) It’s also of interest that Jaroslav Kvapil took his completed libretto to three other composers who turned it down before he approached Dvořák. (One of them was the elder composer’s student and son-in-law Josef Suk.)

All this, of course, is now water under the bridges of the Moldau, but it does leave one doubly grateful for the superb job that MO has done with this new production, seen in St. Paul’s handsome Ordway Center on April 20 in the last of five performances. Dvořák obviously knew his Wagner well. Aside from the famous “Song to the Moon” Rusalka is largely through-composed, lush in Leitmotivs, and rich in Wagnerian harmonies. The three Water Spirits, clearly younger sisters of the Rheinmaidens, tease gnome Vodnik much as the Wagnerian trio does evil Alberich. Beyond that influence, however, Rusalka is an autumnal evocation of Bohemia’s woods and forests colored further by a disciplined Weltschmerz that adds to the emotional enchantment of the score.

MO artistic director Dale Johnson — true to form — went all out to make this production, to be shared with Boston Lyric Opera, both moving and memorable. Erhard Rom and Kärin Kopischke — responsible, respectively, for sets and costumes — solved the problem of action supposedly under water through sophisticated projections by Wendall K. Harrington. The production profited further from sensitive lighting by Robert Wierzel.

The stage, rich in earth-bound colors in the outer acts, had the muted realism of late Romantic painting, while the second act played in the minimalist palace of the Prince. Animated projections added to the mesmerizing force of the music. As the water nymph smitten love for a mortal, rising American soprano Kelly Kaduce was a waif-like Rusalka, vulnerable despite her determination to follow her heart. Although a role debut, it was with the “Song to the Moon” that Kaduce once won the Metropolitan Opera competition.

In an interview during rehearsals Kaduce praised Rusalka for its long vocal lines, and she sustained them magnificently in performance. She spoke also of the contrast between the many references in the libretto to her being cold and without passion and the very passionate music that Dvořák wrote for the title figure of the opera. “And there is in my mind,” said Kaduce, “an immense difference between burning physical lust for another person and truly unconditional love. “That is the love at the heart of Rusalka with its heightened sense of human emotion.”

“Handsome” is an understatement when applied to lean and lanky Brandon Jovanovich, who makes a true fairy tale figure of the Prince. The Montana native is blessed with a mellow tenor voice of unusual resonance. (Jovanovich sings Pinkerton in San Francisco next season.) Chistin-Marie Hill was — despite her witchcraft — a strong and sympathetic Ježibaba. One felt her heart go out to Rusalka as the walls closed in upon her.

Rules of the nether world are, however, absolute and not subject to exceptions. Robert Pomakov sang gnome Vodnik with the immense voice of a seasoned Wagnerian, while Alison Bates brought fury to the other woman, the femme fatale who bewitches the Prince and takes him from ethereal Rusalka.

Librettist Kvapil assembled his story of the girl who, having fallen in love with the prince, wants life on earth, from the Romantic short story Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouquée and Andersen’s “Little Mermaid.” Indeed, MO billed Rusalka as “the Little Mermaid, but not with a happy end.”

Matthew Janczewski choreographed an ensemble of dancers from local ARENA Dances with a master’s hand, making the group an integral part of the story. The Polonaise of Act Two was of breathtaking beauty, and he designed suggestions of underwater movement far more successfully than those encountered in most performances of Wagner‘s “Rheingold.”

Robert Wood extracted magnificent playing from the MO orchestra, while Eric Simonson demonstrated both understanding of — and affection — for what Dvořák achieved a century ago.


A bonus of the late April weekend in the Twin Cities was the staging of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice in Minneapolis’ beautifully restored Plantages Theater. Although the work, only an hour in length, qualifies as a song cycle with words and music both by Gorden, it is wiser to place it in the larger — if vague — category of music theater.

Libretto for re-telling of one of the world’s greatest love stories was written while Gordon watched his then-partner die of AIDS. He wrote the text in a single nocturnal outburst of creativity; the score for soprano, piano and clarinet followed. Originally produced and presented by Lincoln Center for the Performing arts as part of the American Songbook and New Vision series, the work was premiered at Rose Theater in 2006.

Musicians for the Minneapolis performance were soprano Norah Long, pianist Mindy Eschedor and clarinetist Pat O’Keefe. A co-production of the Minnesota Dance Theater and Nautilus Music-Theater eight dancers were choreographed by Cynthia Gutierrez-Garner.

Long, with a full-bodied voice with of special color and grit, offered a gripping account of Gordon’s text. And — cleverly — she acted as a member of the dance ensemble, distinguished from her colleagues only by a flower on her simple dress. Rather than telling the story in any literal way the dancers reflected on and reacted music and text in large sweeping motions. The first half of the work celebrated the exuberance of great love. Only with death did the dancers turn to the plot as Euridice died in the arms of Orpheus.

Especially effective was the shadow play of the dancers as they moved across the Styx behind diaphanous screens. In this poignant staging the work, choreographed originally by Doug Verone for his New York troupe, was a further triumph for Gordon, who has found a home away from home in the Twin Cities.

Grapes of Wrath was successfully premiered by Minnesota Opera in February 2008. It was then on stage at Utah Opera; further performances are scheduled by Pittsburgh Opera, Opera Pacific, Anchorage Opera and the University of Indiana.

Some speak of Gordon as “the new Sondheim.” It is perhaps more valid to celebrate him as the first Ricky Ian Gordon. Orpheus and Euridice was recorded on a Records disc by the original cast: soprano Elizabeth Futral, pianist Melvin Chen and clarinetist Todd Palmer. In an expanded version that included a string quartet Orpheus was staged by Long Beach Opera in the city‘s Plaza Olympic Pool.

Wes Blomster

image= image_description=Kelly Kaduce is Rusalka (Act 3) in the Minnesota Opera Production of Rusalka (Photo © Michal Daniel, 2008) product=yes product_title=Antonín Dvořák: Rusalka
Minnesota Opera product_by=Rusalka:Kelly Kaduce; The Prince: Brandon Jovanovich; Vodnik: Robert Pomakov; Jezibaba: Dorothy Byrne and Christin-Marie Hill; A foreign princess: Alison Bates; A hunter: John David Boehr product_id=Above: Kelly Kaduce as Rusalka (Photo © Michal Daniel, 2008)
Posted by Gary at 9:33 AM