July 31, 2008

Mahler triumphant

Hugh Wood [Times Literary Supplement, 30 July 2008]

The long voyage is nearly over, and the great ship is at last approaching land. But we are not quite yet in harbour; for Henry-Louis de La Grange’s revision of Gustav Mahler: Volume One still awaits translation into English.

Posted by Gary at 12:49 PM

July 30, 2008

Don Carlo at Wiener Staatsoper

The Italian and French version, both equally interesting for their individuality, were offered simultaneously this season. While the subject of Schiller’s Don Carlo had previously been suggested to Verdi, he initially rejected it as a possibility, probably because German literature was frowned upon prior to the Italian unification in 1861. By 1865, he reconsidered the subject, setting it first in French. Verdi decided to add two scenes to the original drama, however, to enhance its marketability: the scene between Philip and Posa, and the scene between the Grand Inquisitor and Philip. By 1866, Verdi arrived in Paris with the completed opera, and began rehearsals at the Opéra de Paris.

Don Carlos received its Italian première in 1868 alongside Boito’s Mefistofele, but was not immediately successful. Albeit unsuccessful, Verdi revised the opera in an Italian version, which subsequently premièred in 1884. Interestingly, his revisions were to the French version, and so an authentic “Italian version” does not exist; it is merely an Italian translation of the revised French version. The Staatsoper’s simultaneous production of both versions in one season is intriguing and noteworthy.

Marco Armiliato steadily began the Italian version with a nicely interpreted and dramatic presentation of the Overture. The solemn introduction by four horns precedes the off-stage chorus and funeral dirge for Charles V. Janusz Monarcha sang the incantations of the Monk with clear and well-shaped lines, and a strong burnished sound. His timbre and eloquent legato combined to produce an ominous presence. He explains that Charles V was guilty of pride and folly. Kneeling, the chorus sings “Carlo, il sommo Imperatore,” to the sensitive and well-balanced support of the orchestra.

Marco-Armiliato.pngMarco Armiliato

Tenor, Franco Farina’s entrance left much to be desired. His orange-hued voice was large enough and suitable to the Verdian repertoire, however his lack of attention to the phrasing and shaping of his lines left his performance longing for beauty. Almost abrupt, his singing was heavy in the upper tessitura and rather than create squillo through good technique, his attempt at creating the Italianante sound of a true affogato generated more yelling than anything. Dramatic, however, in his scena of sorrow and anguish at losing Elisabetta, Farina displayed a passionate fervour.

Thomas Hampson’s Rodrigo was, for the most part, well performed if not over-sung in a few sections. Hampson’s voice sounds best when it is not forced, but the label of a ‘Verdian Baritone’ seems to demand a specific colour for him. Such labels are often not beneficial to singers. Rather than sing freely in their natural voice, it insinuates a manifestation of a sound that is rather pesante or pressato in order to sing these roles. Posa enters and is greeted by Carlo. He immediately launches into a description of the battle at Flanders, to which Carlo responds with his declaration of friendship. Their ensuing duet was memorable and well sung, except for a few sections in which Farina’s upper-register became too forced to remain sensitive to Hampson’s rounded lines. A beautiful orchestral fabric supported the final section of the duet, the cabaletta “Dio che nell’alma infondere,” sung shoulder to shoulder in well-effected thirds. Hampson’s Italian was well pronounced, although some Americanisms were obvious. Farina’s inability to blend rendered this energetic moment was still accepted by the audience, but not overly. Verdi’s melodramatic talent shines through as a procession passes by Carlo and Posa, who join in the chanting of the monks before a thrilling reprise of their cabaletta.

Thomas Hampson

Scene II brought a new stage setting, with large pillars and metal gates. The costumes for this production were traditional and ornate in royal hues. The female chorus, Elisabetta’s ladies-in-waiting, were not allowed in the monastery and amused themselves outside. Their singing, “Otto ai folti, immensi abeti” was well balanced and sung with accurate diction, and enthusiasm. Eboli, portrayed by mezzo-soprano Luciana D’Intino, sings her famous Veil Song, “Nel giardin del bello,” a two-stanza song with refrain. D’Intino’s voice is a more than noteworthy instrument, and her diction was offered with a strong accento puro. I will go so far as to promote that D’Intino will belong to the realm of great Italian mezzos like Simionato, Cossotto, and Barbieri. It is truly the voice a Verdian mezzo, unfettered. If a criticism is necessary, it is that the registers of her voice are not yet even, as is typically the technical issue with mezzos of this type, and at times it sounded like three separate singers. Ms. D’Intino’s chest register is tremendous, and deliciously rugged; even awesomely affective, however her middle-register was far removed from her chest timbre, generating a notable break in the voice. For a mezzo, her head register is also quite impressive, though she has to lighten the tone quite a lot to achieve it. Regardless, this singer is one to note for a bright future, especially for her dramatic and lovely presence. Her fioritura and ability to sing pianissimo was quite impressive.

Luciana-D%27Intino.pngLuciana D’Intino

A disconsolate Elisabetta appears, portrayed by Soprano Norma Fantini, followed by Posa. He hands the Queen a letter from her mother in which a letter from Don Carlo is secretly hidden. Elisabetta reads the letter while Posa converses with Eboli. Since Posa has brought the letter, Elisabetta believes she can trust Posa. Unfortunately, the conversation between Eboli and Posa was not impressive and displayed the inconsistencies in Ms. D’Intino’s registers. Her attempt to mix timbres with Hampson was almost disturbing because she brought her chest register extremely high in her range. Hampson breaks into his cantabile romanza, “Carlo ch’e il sol il nostro amore,” in which he explains how Carlo was rejected by his father and requests an interview with his new “mother.” In a fine display of artistry, Hampson is sensitive and dramatic in his explanation. Elisabetta agrees to meet with Carlo, and Eboli and Posa leave.

Norma-Fantini.pngNorma Fantini

The duet between Farina and Norma Fantini was moving. While Fantini’s voice has lovely prospects, the tone is often hollow. It is not the most attractive of tones, but her attention to language allowed for an interesting portrayal. The orchestra, in this section, was slightly overbearing, but Armiliato quickly regained balance. Farina gave some of his nicest singing in this scene, although Ms. Fantini’s acting left the scene lacking in realism. In one of Verdi’s attempts to match musical progress to spoken dialogue, he gives up his conventional four-movement form and allows the duet to move, instead, through a series of dialogues. Carlo asks Elisabetta to intercede on his behalf with Philip, who will not allow him to leave for Flanders. Elisabeth agrees; no sooner, Carlo loses himself and pours out his affections for her. As the scene ends, Elisabetta rejects Carlo’s advances, telling him that he can only gain her love by killing his own father. The scene lacked in passionate interplay since Farina was unconvincing in his passionate gestures. Although his best singing was not met by dramatic expression, the scene was successful because of Ms. Fantini’s acting.

Philip’s arrival was dramatic and electrifying for René Pape’s bold basso, ricco d’energia. His voice is well-balanced, even throughout, with the loveliest spinning lines, and seamless application. Angry that Elisabetta has been left alone, he orders her lady-in-waiting back to France. Elisabeth bids the Countess farewell, although Ms. Fantini’s tone became rather nasal in this section and her diction was unclear. Her romanza did not generate warm applause. Philip, left alone, asks for Posa to remain in his company.

Hampson recounts Posa’s devoted soldierly life in a lovely moment of musicality and sensitivity, after which Philip stresses a need for political control to curb Posa’s idealism. In this scene, Pape’s vocal prowess was captivating. It was one of the evening’s most vocally and dramatically well-presented moments. Verdi pins the voices, dramatically, by allowing them to represent contrasting idioms; then, he unites them by the end. Pape’s warnings, “Beware the Inquisitor,” were not only vocally impressive, but also physically affective as Verdi attaches massive solemn chords to increase the emotional value of the scene. His dramatic understanding of Philip allowed us to gaze at his character from different angles and see contrasting parts of his personality. Pape’s portrayal of Philip is a multidimensional sensation. As he confides in Posa, about his troubled feelings, Posa brings Philip’s character to a new level of interest. In this production, Pape stood high above his colleagues in terms of vocal production, and most certainly dramatic understanding.

The final duet is interesting in terms of form. Initially, Verdi had used his consistent four-part formula, but the revision brought a complete abandoning of this form. Instead, he replaces it with a fluid dialogue of the type he would use later in Otello. Whether his adjustment had anything to do with the non-conventional Mefistofele that premièred simultaneously, is intriguing and noteworthy.

Act II began with a set change, dominated by a hazy sun surrounded by the mist of disconcertedness. Philip’s coronation is to occur the following day. An offstage chorus sings to the accompaniment of castanets. The chorus, here, was accurate and impressive with their diction, as well as their dramatic presence. Elisabetta appears with Eboli, and since the Queen is weary of the ensuing celebrations, she decides to exchange masks with Eboli. As Elisabeth leaves, Eboli sings a small solo that recalls the central section of the “Veil Song.” Unfortunately, the scene between Ms. Fantini, and Ms. D’Intino was vocally unimpressive. In Don Carlo, Verdi requires the female relationship to be as profound as the one between Philip and Posa, yet the relationship between Eboli and Elisabetta did not attain equal emphasis.

In the following scene, Carlo enters reading a letter he thinks is from Elisabetta. The scene follows the conventional four-movement format; however, it suffered because of Farina’s lack of vocal control. His Italian is excellent, but his phrasing for this moment in Carlo’s character required more intense shaping. Eboli appears and Carlo breaks into declarations of love, thinking that she is Elisabeth. The duet between Farina and D’Intino was not pleasant. Her voice, in constant fluctuation, used an almost forced chest register, and paired with Farina’s heavy singing, made the scene vocally uninteresting. Once identities are revealed, Eboli realizes that Carlo loves the queen.

Hampson enters as Posa and initiates the trio “Al mio furor sfuggite invano.” The trio brought some of the best singing of the evening. Verdi sets the baritone and mezzo’s agitated rhythms against the tenor’s long impassioned melody; however, Farina failed to effect a legato significant enough to create this effect. Carlo restrains Posa from killing Eboli, after which she intones furious curses on Carlo. Ms. D’Intino’s chest register shone here and she demonstrated the full extent of her powerful instrument purely and dramatically. Her lower register is impressive. As she rushed away, Hampson and Farina were left to end the scene offering each other declarations of trust. Farina, again, forced the voice in the upper register and failed to match Hampson’s more lyrical and spinning quality. The scene ended, however, with much applause and support of the singers.

The final scene of Act II brought the grandiose. A large, regal unity planted itself onstage for the crowning of Philip. Filled with pomp and supported by the magnificent tonal palate of Maestro Armiliato and his orchestra, the stage filled with a significant chorus and a full procession, complete with crucifixes. Wheeled out and placed center stage, three massive crucifixes stood erect with suffering heretics attached to them. Elisabetta enters, with an elegant and regal red gown, to illuminate the entrance of the King. Kudos to the staging director of the production and the costume director, for effecting the necessary pomp that this scene requires. It was a large dramatic visual event, as well as musical.

Much of the musical bearing of this scene is attributed to Mr. Pape, who was exquisite in his commentary. Six Flemish deputies, escorted by Carlo, confront Philip. They kneel before the King and lead into a grand concertato movement in which all the principle voices join. Farina used even more force in his upper register as did Ms. Fantini, allowing for a somewhat harsh sound, rather than the more sublime block of sound that Verdi might have required. Farina approaches as Carlo, asking to be sent to Flanders. His volume, never lower than an f throughout, added to Farina’s conversational moments, lacking finesse. In a significant vocal moment, Philip refuses Carlo’s pleas, upon which Carlo draws his sword. Posa steps forward and demands Carlo to surrender. Hampson was brilliant in this scene and added to the dramatic inflection initiated by Pape. Carlo relinquishes his weapon and Pape, in a most brilliant tone, announces Posa as a Duke. The scene closes with a splendid orchestral and choral sequence, juxtaposed with a voice from heaven that speaks of future bliss. The tremendous applause offered to Pape on his bow was significant and showed this audience to be aurally and visually intelligent.

Act III began with a heartfelt cello solo that stirred the soul, eloquently played by the principle cellist. Philip, alone in his study, begins his soliloquy, “Ella giammai m’amo,” in which Pape surpassed any of the singing he had presented earlier. He took command of his character and suddenly a thrilling and affective pathos sizzled through the air of the Staatsoper, touching everyone. Pape’s phrasing was sensitive and the beauty of his voice was touching, in and of itself. Not one phrase was without shape and his extensive use of messa di voce, especially for a lower fach, was exquisite. A luscious spin and impeccable diction capped this most spectacular performance of the evening. His sotto voce to end Philip’s aria, was chilling and imbued the most profound pathos possible. The applause and yelps of “Bravo” continued for two minutes afterward, stopping the action.

Rene-Pape.pngRené Pape

The following scene brought the Grand Inquisitor, portrayed by Stefan Kocán, into duet with Philip. Kocán’s voice was interesting, because it seemed very light or high in timbre for a bass, although that is often the case with voices that are deep. The overtones often pick up and make the sound different when it travels through a large space. Nevertheless, Kocán had good rapport with Papè in this scene. The orchestral palate was exquisitely controlled by Maestro Armiliato, especially as Verdi places his concentration on the low strings, ostinato rhythms, restricted pitches, and sets the stage for the power struggle between the two basses. Philipp asks what to do with Carlo, but Verdi uses free declamation, allowing the Inquisitor to take control of the scene. The Inquisitor tells him that Posa is the more serious threat. Pape’s and Kocán’s artistry led the scene to an excited fervour, as the Inquisitor threatens Philip with a possible inquisition.

Stefan-Kocan.pngStefan Kocán

Elizabeth enters the next scene, which is conventionally structured, announcing the theft of her jewellery case. Ms. Fantini’s dramatic abilities were strong, although her singing rather throaty and heavy. Her singing in the higher tessitura was somewhat strident, and although squillo is necessary, here it lacked a certain fullness and roundness. Maestro Armiliato and his orchestra were brilliant in this section, where his sensitivity to the dialogue was delightful. Pape enters with intensity and produces the jewellery case, finding the picture of Carlo in it, planted by Eboli. Philipp accuses Elisabetta of adultery. Pape’s furiousness and dramatic prowess led Ms. Fantini in her portrayal. Philip summons Posa and Eboli, who enter and join in the four-part ensemble, “Ah! si maledetto, sospetto fatale.” At first dominated by Philip, whose gradual statements lead into a lyrical section, his melody should weave with Posa’s decision to take action, and Eboli’s remorseful statements. Unfortunately, the quartet lacked because of Ms. D’Intino’s inconsistent register switching and Ms. Fantini’s forceful singing that created some flat tones in the upper tessitura. Pape and Hampson remained consistent throughout.

Philip and Posa leave Eboli and Elisabetta alone. A sudden infusion of chromaticism surrounds Eboli’s confession. Ms. D’Intino’s singing here was quite exquisite, and her register changes far less abrupt. Upon her confession, Elisabetta orders her to leave the court. Upon her departure, Eboli sings “O Don Fatale,” in which she laments her fatal beauty in conventional major-minor fluctuations. Ms. D’Intino’s singing was well blended here, immensely dramatic with well-presented inflection, and phrasing. Her attention to detail and the mixing of her registers made this quite exquisite. In the major section, she bids farewell to the Queen with a sensitivity that affected the audience into a grand gesture of appreciation for Ms. D’Intino.

The final scene of Act III brings Posa to Carlo, where Posa bids farewell to him in an old-fashioned romanza. Hampson’s singing was lovely and lyrical, with good attention to diction. He warranted the significant applause of the audience. A shot rings out and wounds Posa. Farina’s acting here was rather removed from Hampson’s strong attempts to create pathos and convincing agony. Again, Farina’s singing was heavy, and forced. Posa reveals to Carlo that Elisabeth awaits him at the monastery and subsequently delivers a second romanza before dying.

Grand orchestral sweeps commence Act IV. The accuracy and the terrific palate of colours possessed by the Wiener Philharmonic were evident. Ms. Fantini enters as Elizabeth, who unfortunately was less interesting in this final act. Her aria, “Tu che la vanità” was competently sung, although she did not do much more to enhance Verdi’s writing. There was much similar inflection throughout. Her high tessitura was markedly strident and the audience recognized the contrasts of this cast, bidding her well with lukewarm applause. It should be mentioned, however, that Ms. Fantini has a lovely sotto voce, that was even fuller and warm in its application than her regular singing, possibly suggesting a more lyric application for her. While Valois is a difficult role, vocally, it also rests on dramatic prowess, and unfortunately, Ms. Fantini did not impress pathos for her character upon this audience.

The final scene has Carlo and Elisabetta in a moment of metaphysical love, where earthly love is renounced for love in the afterlife. Farina’s singing “Ma lassù ci vedremo,” was not impressive vocally, but dramatic. It should be an ethereal type of cabaletta similar to the closing of Aida, in its restraint. Maestro Armiliato created such an effect with his delicate orchestral fabric. Suddenly, Philip bursts in. Pape, illuminated and dramatic, attempts to offer his son to the Inquisitor, but Carlo runs to the temple of Charles V. The tomb opens as a Monk appears, wearing a crown and mantle. He gathers Carlo to him and brings him into the cloister.

Unquestionably, René Pape led this production with vocal prowess and dramatic intention, along with Thomas Hampson and Stefan Kocán. Ms. D’Intino should also be commended for her impressive mezzo instrument and honesty as Eboli. Ms. Fantini and Mr. Farina were the weaker of the performers, and the audience of the Staatsoper responded to these appropriately. Overall, it was an interesting and exciting visual production with some glimmering vocal moments. Verdi was born of the Bel Canto tradition, which is why singers, who attempt any other style of singing other than what is purely Italianante in style, will fail in his operas, where those like Pape, who remain faithful to the school of lyrical, legato, and purely understandable diction, will prevail.

Mary-Lou Patricia Vetere

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Franco-Farina.png image_description=Franco Farina product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlo [Italian version] product_by=Philip II (René Pape), Don Carlo (Franco Farina), Rodrigo, Marquis de Posa (Thomas Hampson), The Grand Inquisitor (Stefan Kocán), A Monk (Carlo V) (Janusz Monarcha), Elizabetta da Valois (Norma Fantini), Principessa Eboli (Luciana D’Intino), Tebaldo, a page (Laura Tatulescu), The Count of Lema/ A Herald (Gergely Németi), A Voice from Heaven (Simina Ivan), Flemish Deputies: Hannes Lichtenberger, Wolfgang Equiluz, Hacik Bayvertian, Hiro Ljichi, Gerhard Panzenböck, Mario Steller, Hermann Thyringer and Miachael Kuchar. Chor der Wiener Staatsoper, Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, Marco Armiliato (cond.). product_id=Above: Franco Farina
Posted by Gary at 11:30 AM

Grant Park Music Festival: Sibelius, Szymanowski, Tchaikovsky

The concert of both familiar and lesser known works was led by guest conductor Hannu Lintu. In the first half of the program the Grant Park Chorus was showcased in a performance of The Captive Queen, a cantata for mixed chorus and orchestra by Jean Sibelius. Also in this half of the evening the soloists Jonita Lattimore, Susan Platts, and Quinn Kelsey were featured along with the Chorus and Orchestra in a moving performance of Karol Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater. The program continued after intermission with Lintu conducting a sensitive and appropriately energetic reading of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony.

Both vocal works during the first half of the concert were being performed for the first time at the Grant Park Festival; indeed both are works that can be described as worthy of further discovery, here or at other concert venues, for they are featured infrequently in such programs. In Sibelius’s Captive Queen the political or national is wedded to both the dramatic and the lyrical through the media of text and music. Based on verses by the Finnish poet Cajander, the queen of the title symbolizes the Finnish language which had been suppressed under Russian domination. In the first of three parts as set by Sibelius the queen is portrayed as prisoner in a dreary and near lifeless castle. Ironically, only in the “calm of night,” when no daylight is perceived, can the plaintive song of the queen be heard in which she laments the loss of beauty and of freedom. Sibelius scored this part of the ballad, as termed in the Fesitval’s program, for an intricate sequence of full alternating with female chorus. Under Lintu’s direction the orchestra and mixed chorus established a believable mood of sadness punctuated by female voices recalling in somber tomes a happier past, when freedom and hope predominated.

Here the interplay of dramatic and lyric effects by the Grant Park Chorus was especially poignant, just as it set the tone for the narrative of the following two parts. At the same time orchestral solos enhanced the message of a yearning for earlier beauty, strings and flutes standing out especially. The second and third poetic divisions of the work give details of a wandering singer, a “prince of poets,” who heard the queen’s lament as he passed by the castle; the minstrel is inspired to take up his singing again and to create emotion through poetry. In the third part a hero, armed for action, arrives to liberate the queen and to begin a new phase of freedom in the life of the people. As possibilities of hope emerged in these latter two narrative sections, the Grant Park Orchestra gave an appropriately lush accompaniment to the chorus, night giving way to morning and to the future.

The evening’s second work, the Stabat Mater of Szymanowski, was indeed based on the medieval Latin sequence but set by the composer to a Polish adaptation by Josef Jankowski. Szymanowski worked on the setting during 1925-26, the piece having its first public performance in 1929. The soloists in the Grant Park performance stood out for their attention to textual detail and skill at presenting a unified approach in this twentieth-century adaptation of an ageless set of motifs. Each singer fulfilled a demanding vocal part while blending with the others to communicate a synthesis of religious dignity inherent in the text. After the slow, almost eerie, beginning in the strings Jonita Lattimore used her voice to great effect in order to establish the mood of the piece in the first part. Ms. Lattimore’s voice softened tenderly at the words indicating “where her Son was hanging,” while her expressive high notes stood out against a choral background in the text equivalent to the verse “Mother of the only-begotten Son.” In each of the six parts the soloists interacted seamlessly both with the chorus and with each other in depicting the Virgin Mother’s sorrow as well as the reaction of those in empathy with her grief. In the second and fifth parts Quinn Kelsey’s flexible baritone described the emotions of others who could not help but weep together with the Mother at her loss. While making use of a declamatory effect, Mr. Kelsey maintained a firm lyrical control, so that his lines remained both supple and highly dramatic. The mezzo-soprano Susan Platts sang together in alternating parts with Ms. Lattimore in the third and fourth divisions of the Stabat Mater. The rich and burnished tones achieved by Ms. Platts lent an appropriate contrast to the soprano part, and both voices merged effectively when accompanied by the chorus. In much the same way, the sixth and concluding part of the work allowed each soloist to give a final plea, upon individual death, to reach the “glory of heaven.” Ms. Lattimore’s heart-rending piano line was varied in equally moving performance by Ms. Platts and Mr. Kelsey as the piece came to an end.

In contrast to the first half of the program, the Sixth Symphony of Tchaikovsky has been part of this Festival’s repertoire for some seventy odd years. In the performance under Hannu Lintu the transitions between adagio and allegro in the first movement gave a natural and convincing impression. The effect of small melodic units interweaving and alternating with the full orchestra suggested a recurrent sense of melancholy. The middle two movements were led by a light touch where appropriate with sprightly rhythms punctuated by longer and carefully shaped phrases. In approaching the well-known finale of the third movement Lintu paced the orchestra with crisp tempos and growing intensity. The final movement recalled effectively the melancholic mood of the first part, its performance giving a sense of closure to both the Symphony and to the evening’s program.

Salvatore Calomino

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Lattimore.png image_description=Jonita Lattimore product=yes product_title=Jean Sibelius: The Captive Queen
Karol Szymanowski: Stabat Mater
Pyotr Il′yich Tchaikovsky: Symphony no. 6 product_by=Jonita Lattimore, Soprano; Susan Platts, Mezzo Soprano; Quinn Kelsey, Baritone. Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus; Hannu Lintu, Conductor; Christopher Bell, Chorus Director. product_id=Above: Jonita Lattimore
Posted by Gary at 11:17 AM

Foxy Chautauqua

And then there is the beautiful lake itself of the same name, the nearby charming town of Mayville, and the less charming Jamestown, which is nonetheless the birthplace of Lucille Ball and has given itself over to All Things Lucy, including two Lucy-Desi “museums.”

But checking out the opera was my top priority here and “The Cunning Little Vixen” did not disappoint, offering high quality lyric drama for about fifty bucks, less than half the cost of the best seats at other well known American summer festivals. Like those other festivals, Chautauqua has an established young artists program to help train singers as they embark on a career. Based on the quality of this summer’s ensemble, the future of opera is quite secure.

From this group of Apprentice Artists, kudos must go to Ryan Kuster, whose solid bass was deployed in outstanding service to his portrayal of the conflicted “Father Aloysius;” pleasant lyric tenor Vernon Di Carlo who was by turns self-assured and self-pitying as the “Schoolmaster;” and most especially the dynamic presence of Seth Carico, whose ringing baritone gave much pleasure as “Hypolit Harast,” aka the poacher.

Indeed, all of the minor roles were well taken with the three “Sunflowers” very well sung by Maria Fasciano, Lee Heinz, and Jennifer Hsiung. Amanda Tarver had personality, poise and a sound (slightly howling) take on “Lapaf, the Forester’s Dog.” All of the “Hens”-too- numerous-to-mention were charmingly done, laying their eggs comically and magically without a theatrical hitch, and dying on their backs with legs held up (very good for the thighs!) as the titular vixen offs them one by one.

But the whole show was cast from strength, starting with Sari Gruber as “Sharp-Ears, the Vixen.” My past several happy experiences with this wonderful soprano were now joined by this vibrant portrayal which featured a cleanly focused sound, ever secure musicality, and a thorough understanding of the role’s dramatic journey. If I found myself perhaps wanting a more silvery sheen in the introspective passages and on the floated high notes, well, small matter. This was a performance that would be welcome on any world stage.

In the all-important courtship scene, she was so ably partnered by the beautifully limpid singing from Apprentice Artist Elizabeth Pojanowksi (“Golden Mane, the Fox”) that it seemed a pity Janacek did not give her more to sing. She already possesses a luminous voice and presence, and she contributed affecting phrasing which ably complemented Ms. Gruber. While I did feel that the vocal technique is not yet quite “finished,” time and experience should ensure a good future for this appealing young mezzo.

This engaging pair was matched, and arguably surpassed by a tremendous performance from Philip Cokorinos as “Bartos, the Forester.” Mr. Cokorinos’ rolling, commanding baritone; his heartfelt outpouring of thoroughly internalized text; and his sympathetic demeanor didn’t just merely touch me, but rather became the heart of the piece, making the opera work for me in a way that no previous mounting had.

Ron Kadri’s set design worked much better than it looked. The basic structure featured a raised upstage platform that spanned the width of the stage, with a set of rustic stairs to stage level on each side. The rake allowed for characters to “disappear” in a shallow pit upstage between the stairs. Wooden cutout trees were tracked to open up the stage or trim it in, and other simple inserts were flown-rolled-carried in seamlessly as needed.

This was all so functional and appropriate, affording good blocking opportunities using levels and varied traffic patterns, that I wished that it had been painted with more care and detail. I just didn’t want it to look so. . .flat, but rather as fanciful as the clever and (mostly) colorful costumes by Nancy Leary. A highly important element to the look of the show was Georgianna Eberhard’s wig and make-up design which was evocative without being gratuitously over the top.

Mr. Kadri was superbly abetted by lighting designer Christopher Ostrom especially in such inventions as the large moon revealed by sliding panels up center, which incorporated a silhouette effect that was particularly haunting. There were simple gobos and isolated spots throughout that greatly enhanced the production. The white circular ground cloth to indicate the winter was augmented by atmospheric lighting and a falling snow, providing all the ambiance that was required.

Budget considerations may have mandated these scenic solutions, and certainly there was nothing about this economical design that was self-indulgent. Nonetheless there were many witty touches. One such example: the “Vixen,” having killed the chickens and having subsequently displaced the “Badger” from his lair, tears down the ratty cloth covering his seedy digs and replaces it with a wildly colorful drape with cartoon images of . ..chickens!

Jay Lesenger, the Artistic and General Director of Chautauqua Opera directed cleanly, and he was well served by the simple choreography devised by Maris Battaglia. Generally there were excellent character relationships developed with well motivated movement that served all the physical action required by the concise libretto, although there were a few slack lapses when characters were left standing and the time was not filled meaningfully until the characters came back to life as they sang again.

I had a little problem with the concept of the “animal” movement. Remember the classic “Far Side” where the cows are standing upright in a field until one of them yells “Car!”? The next frame shows them on all fours chomping hay, assuming a role for the benefit of the passing motorists. That is sort of how I felt here as the animals sometimes crawled on all fours, or hippity-hopped in crouching positions with “paws” extended, but more often than not they just stood up and walked around. I would have favored more of the latter approach.

Too, for all of the cleanliness of the choreography for the young (grade school to HS age) animal extras, “cute” was milked a bit too much. Of necessity, there was a simplicity and repetition in the steps that verged on being a very well-rehearsed youth dance studio recital, or school pageant. Still, such touches as having the “Little Foxes” (pace Lillian Hellman) poke their heads up one by one in turn over the lip of the upstage rake warmed my heart, and the entire pace of the entrance and exits, and overall traffic management of this large cast was meticulous.

Conductor Ari Pelto led a taut, rakish, and (at the right times) sentimental reading of this tricky score in a sanctioned orchestral arrangement by Jonathon Dove for nineteen players that features only six strings, winds and brass, percussion, accordion and synthesizer. This was a very interesting sound, bordering at times on Kurt Weill. What it gained in bite and tension, it sacrificed in lyric power for the soaring themes, and dramatic punctuation for scene endings. Indeed, the final stinging notes of the night were tamer than required.

The pared-down version also makes even more demands than usual on what is now a group of soloists. While the players were called upon for virtuoso playing and mostly met that call, there were a few spots of smudgy phrases in the exposed strings and some slightly dodgy overall intonation especially in the block chords periodically assigned to the horns/trombone. I must mention however, that it was extremely hot, which would certainly have further challenged these fine instrumentalists.

This production marked the stage premiere of the English translation by David Pountney. The excellent diction by all made a good case for this colloquial, hip, irreverent, and accessible stage version.

Overall then, how delightful to encounter such an enjoyable festival experience, and to find renewed joy in a familiar piece with Chautauqua Opera’s high quality mounting of “The Cunning Little Vixen,” cunningly staged and winningly performed.

James Sohre

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Vixen_2.png image_description=Leoš Janácek: The Cunning Little Vixen [Chautauqua Opera] product=yes product_title=Leoš Janácek: The Cunning Little Vixen product_by=Vixen (Sari Gruber), Forrester (Philip Cokorinos), Fox (Elizabeth Pojanowski) and Harasta (Seth Carico). Chautauqua Opera, Ari Pelto (cond.)
Posted by Gary at 11:04 AM

All That Glimmers. . .

First, you must dispel any thoughts that you are going to experience anything aurally that sounds like the master’s, well, masterpieces.

Framing “Das Liebesverbot” historically, this was Wagner’s logical extension of a lyric theatre tradition that audiences were currently experiencing from the likes of Spontini, Cherubini, and (fill-in-the-blank) other Italians. While you do encounter rare hints of the serenity of “Lohengrin” in this work’s prelude to Act Two, which morphs into bucolic forest sounds that somewhat foretell what is to come in “Siegfried” or “Rheingold,” in fact the whole shebang starts off with a wholly Italianate overture fronted by exuberant castanets and tambourines! Really, we can hardly believe our ears.

For Wagner was working here to get on the operatic band wagon employing then-current performance traditions and sounds, including cadenzas, “standard” accompanied recitative, and, my God, people have arias. With beginnings, middles and ends. Arias! It is true, “Friedrich’s” big, somewhat rambling aria presages some of the “Dutchman’s” somewhat rambling set pieces, but for the most part, this is pretty stock Italian stuff, albeit taken to Wagnerian (or Meyerbeerian) lengths . The score was in fact trimmed not only to accommodate the audience’s attention span, but also to spare the singers more daunting singing than was necessary to make the case. And quite honestly, what remained was quite interesting, often engaging, and plenty for me to appreciate that this was a jumping off point for greater achievements.

The other “hook” for the marketing plan this summer is that it is a “Shakespeare” themed season, “Das Liebesverbot” qualifying for inclusion since it is (oh so loosely) based on “Measure for Measure.” To my taste, that theme has perpetrated a set design mistake, prompting John Conklin to place a raw wooden, two tiered semi-circular structure on stage that is meant to suggest The Globe, as backdrop to all four productions.

I have never seen this one-background-fits-all attempt work for any other festival either (St.Louis and Savonlinna among others) and it doesn’t any better here. Whatever is put on stage in addition to that rather boring fixture just looks like it was done on the cheap, and “Das Liebesverbot” suffered a bit more from this than the others may have. Starting off with a black front curtain with colorful masks (think Nikki Saint-Phalle) lined up on the edge of the stage, this was the most interesting and cleanly theatrical “look” we would see all night.

Worse, the lackluster, industrial inserts and homely, if functional set pieces took way more time to shift and install than the visual pay-off merited, and it paced the piece in fits and starts, something that did it no favors. The one visual theme was that those colorful masks get put in a wire mesh rolling bin in scene one, which much much later appears in the rebellion scene suspended over the stage, until the masks are rescued and worn by the renewed randy revelers. I hope you were able to stand all the excitement of that revelation? ‘Cause it was about all there was.

It was difficult to settle in a time period. “Luzio’s” leather jacket and tight jeans, and the general ensemble attire suggested the 50’s, but then there were also modern day tasers in use throughout to control the rebels. Kaye Voyce’s costumes were mostly okay, frequently colorful, and sometimes downright inspired and playful as in the carnival scene.

Liebesverbot2.pngMark Schnaible as Friedrich and Claudia Waite as Isabella. Photo: Cory Weaver.
But when we first encountered our heroine “Isabella” in the convent, she was dressed so severely that she looked like Sister Mary Gertrude Stein. Considering that “Luzio” must go on and on about her beauty, it was a visual miscalculation, although not as bad as the purple skin tight, body-hugging, faux-slinky, glittery, gathered and pleated Spandex dress that she wore in her second entrance. I have never seen a diva more unflatteringly costumed. No, not ever. At least amends were made with her Act Two outfits. . .

Mark McCullough’s lighting was consistently good, artfully deploying movable colored lights, a Times Square-like “Corso” sign, tight specials and judicious down-lighting, all well cued and operated. The shadow screen for the plot’s important “wife exchange” (shades of “Figaro”) was a fine effect.

Nicholas Muni directed with imagination, and generated excitement and dramatic interest from a routine distillation of a romantic triangle plot that does not have all that much to inspire. I found the opening crowd scene way too rambunctious and almost hysterically loud, obliterating the charms of the still-playing overture. In addition to the tasers, there was so much gun waving by various and sundry principles and choristers that I wondered if the NRA was a primary sponsor.

Still, I always enjoy Mr. Muni’s stagings, and he moved the many large scenes around in a meaningful and efficient way, all the while instilling good character interaction. And a palpable sense of fun. Like the way “Isabella” rolled the reclining “Luzio” off her convent bed at the moment he expected sexual victory; the goofy twining legs interplay for “Brighella” and “Dorella” as they sparred on the floor; the concept of a drag “Brighella”-as-”Divine” in the script’s “Columbine” masquerade, were all welcome deft touches. One recurring bit that could be lost to the production’s credit would be all the lighting up of cigarettes and “smoking,” especially by “Luzio,” throughout the evening. Unless, as I also began to suspect, Phillip Morris was a major sponsor, that business could indeed go “up in smoke” and not be missed.

One other bit of staging invention that I would urge them to re-consider was the fabricated business of the birth of “Julia and Claudio’s” baby in the finale. Not only did the assemblage leave poor “Julia” just lying on the floor, but the holding up of the newborn resonated as a “Lion King” parody, and the visual and musical final button misfired in their coordination.

The singing (of some frequently difficult music) offered considerable enjoyment, tempered by a few shortcomings, with the men faring better than the ladies. Wagner did indeed write the role of “Brunhilde.” He did not, however, include it in “Das Liebesverbot.” Nor is the small Alice Busch theatre the Metropolitan Opera venue nor the Verona Arena. And that is at the heart of my concern with Claudia Waite’s “Isabella” as she simply over sang pretty much the whole night.

I admired her many fearless attacks and there was some truly good fioriture that began in the upper register and curled downward to resolution in compelling chest tones. At softer volumes, though, or at full Verona-esque Geschrei her tone seemed to lose the focused center of pitch. More’s the pity, because she nailed occasional high flying phrases with laser-like intensity that, when it happened, were just thrilling. Since this was the premiere, maybe Ms. Waite is still getting the unfamiliar piece settled in her throat.

Her colleague Holli Harrison (the wronged wife “Marianna”) was similarly afflicted with the compulsion to sing louder than needed. The beautiful duet these two sing in their very first appearance was marred by that very lack of a secure, true pitch. Frequently singing at full throttle, angular leaps up or down did not always land squarely on the note. These are two serious artists, with excellent intentions and good resumes, whom I would like to see work less hard and with less volume, to greater effect.

I have appreciated the talented Lauren Skuce before, most notably as “Ophelie” at St.Louis. Both her stature and her singing are a bit heavier than I recall, although she threw herself into her “showgirl” take on “Dorella” with abandon and clear, polished vocalizing.

Tenor Ryan MacPherson grew in strength as “Luzio.” His tone had plenty of mettle and I could see how “Don Jose” could be in his repertoire. But. . .as for his characterization here, well. . .constantly spreading his legs to show off his business, and/or standing in his tight jeans to show off his tight butt, and/or grabbing his package “Thriller”-like, do not necessarily convey sexiness or even loutishness. A more sinister sexual menace could have been communicated with encroaching proximity and sinuous ill-intent rather than all the James Dean gyrations.

Mark Schnaible showed off a very good young Heldenbariton as “Friedrich.” He developed a consistent, complex, and understated “villain,” and his afore-mentioned aria was memorably sung, especially falling as it did during a rousing rumbling thunderstorm which pelted the roof like an added percussion part. If the voice is just a little dry, it is ample and very well-schooled, and Mr. Schnaible displayed well-shaped phrases sung with considerable presence appropriate to the venue at hand. Fine work.

Richard Cox brought some impressive credits to “Claudio” but his tenor seemed a bit under the weather with a foggy passaggio. Still he crooned some of it very well, sang full voice with abandon, scored a couple of amazing high notes (if a little covered), and generally demonstrated nuanced musicianship. The wonderful buffo Kevin Glavin, looking like Oliver Hardy playing Hitler, married solid singing to a light-on-his-feet, game-for- anything physical performance that was very appealing.

Tenor Joseph Gaines (one of the Young American Artists) always makes a fine impression, and he relished every moment of his stage time (as did we) with a delectable character turn as “Pontio Pilato.” He has a pleasantly clear, well-projected voice, and very good German diction. A committed and concentrated actor, his honest and animated performance was blessedly cliche-free.

Two other YAA’s making fine impressions were Zach Borichevsky who revealed a secure, full-bodied tenor as “Antonio,” and Todd Boyce who treated his few lines as “Angelo” with a pleasing, firm baritone in his small final scene.

Corrado Rovaris conducted lovingly the whole night as if “Das Liebesverbot” were a jewel to be discovered, and his fine orchestra and dedicated cast responded in kind. If the opening ensemble may have been a bit too breathless, he calculated the overall shape of the evening with skill, and provided wonderful support and partnership to his soloists.

Handel’s often performed “Giulio Cesare in Egitto” was a whole other kettle of “Shakespeare.” (It’s a stretch, isn’t it, to lump it under that theme?)

First and foremost, the stellar performance of the Glimmerglass summer (and every season has one) surely has to be the “Cleopatra” of Russian Lyubov Petrova who I found quite effortlessly magnificent. “V’adore pupille” and “Piangerò” were just flat out sensational. “Si pietà” got off to a dodgy orchestral start, but our diva pulled it into rhythmic focus quickly enough. Ms. Petrova is possessed of a gleaming and substantial lyric voice, with radiant sotto voce capabilities, and a full arsenal of gleaming coloratura fireworks at her command. The soprano already has major Met credits on her resume and small wonder, for she is a major talent. Watch for her at an opera house near you. You will thank me.

I wanted to really like Laura Vlasak Nolan’s quite accomplished “Cesare,” really I did. She has a reasonably rich tone, with a resonant chest voice, a reliable and powerful if rather “white” top register, and she is a decent mistress of the role’s florid demands. However, there is something about her assured presence that was not sympathetic, and she seemed to bit just off the pitch on a number of occasions.

Countertenor Gerald Thompson was a spirited “Tolomeo,” but I thought that I had heard him sung more impressively (certainly more suavely) on another occasion. He is a committed performer with a distinctive sound and considerable gifts, but on this outing he seemed to sing a bit recklessly and it resulted in some scrappy melismas and strident tones.

French mezzo Aurhelia Varak’s “Sesto” was certainly securely sung, and portrayed with assurance, but her slightly covered sound and generous vibrato did not seem a natural match for this music. Several Young American Artists acquitted themselves very well indeed, beginning with the small role of “Curio” which was more beautifully sung than I can ever recall it by baritone Paul La Rosa. Anthony Roth Costanzo’s effective and bookish “Nireno” showcased a cleanly sung counter tenor and an omnipresent Radar O’Reilly characterization.

In spite of very promising vocal gifts, too-young Young Artist Lucia Servoni was over-parted as “Cornelia,” a role that is the realm of the Maureen Forresters and Stephanie Blythes of the roster. Jonathon Lasch’s “Achilla” offered some burnished bass tones, it is true, but suffered from varying pitch. The other soloist featured on stage was violinist Sue Rabut, who played the famous obbligato pleasingly in “Cesare’s” aria.

I had some tidiness issues with David Stern’s conducting. While he partnered the soloists aptly enough, the overall shaping of the opera seemed lacking, content rather to deal with one aria or ritornello at a time. There was a lack of clean lines in attacks and segues with the plucked instruments indulging in noodles and scales that compromised the cadences and resolutions. Most important, in spite of conscientious and lengthy tuning, there were significant overall intonation problems, especially with the horns tootling and blooping away at the end. It is days like this that make me wish for modern instruments.

Still, Maestro Stern held it all together well enough and really earned his salary when our star “Cleopatra” had her attention shifted momentarily during her final set piece and, unexpectedly disoriented, began imitating a determined mosquito for about six long seconds while Mr Stern cut urgent semaphores through the air.

That did inject some excitement into what was otherwise a rather workaday mounting by director Robert Guarino. First, the strange set and costume design by (yes) John Conklin and Gabriel Berry respectively, seemed to have Hollywood Soldiers of Fortune meeting Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra in an uneasy coupling. Indeed, the soprano’s B-movie Egyptian sex kitten costumes and wigs were reminiscent of Rita Hayworth. I have no issue with the skill of the designs’ execution, I merely question the choices.

Mr. Conklin’s added staircases and two large pillars were handsome enough, as artistically under lit by Robert Wierzel, who in fact turned in very good illumination work throughout. As for Mr.Guardino, he is on the blame line for some of the weakest stage violence I have seen in many a moon: blatantly missed stage punches, an obviously phony “knifing,” and an embarrassingly amateur stalking and gunning of “Tolomeo” by “Cornelia” and “Sesto.” Not to mention a danced fight sequence between the Romans and Egyptians during “Cesare’s” long aria interlude that was without motivation, or really, invention. Was all that intentional and did I just forget to take my Irony tablets?

Women fared poorly in Guardino’s “Cesare” and watching them being thrown around, hurled to the ground, held against their will, manhandled and debased lost its shock-value punch very very quickly. After an hour of this, I was rooting for “Cornelia” to place a jerked knee right in “Tolomeo’s,” um, melisma.

Still, whatever qualms I may have, Ms. Petrova’s “Cleo” was easily worth the price of admission all by itself, and the other musical successes were icing on that very rich cake.

James Sohre

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Liebesverbot.png image_description=Ryan MacPherson as Luzio and Lauren Skuce as Dorella. Photo: Cory Weaver. product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love) product_by=Friedrich (Mark Schnaible), Isabella (Claudia Waite), Claudio (Richard Cox), Mariana (Holli Harrison), Luzio (Ryan MacPherson), Dorella (Lauren Skuce), Brighella (Kevin Glavin), Pontio Pilato (Joseph Gaines), Antonio (Zach Borichevsky), Angelo (Todd Boyce) and Danieli (Robert Kerr). Glimmerglass Opera, Corrado Rovaris (cond.). product_id=Above: Ryan MacPherson as Luzio and Lauren Skuce as Dorella. Photo: Cory Weaver.
Posted by Gary at 10:02 AM

Baroque Oratorio Premieres in New Jersey

Finally, on June 22, at the College of St Elizabeth in Morristown, New Jersey, the Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey presented the modern day premiere of Alessandro Scarlatti’s brilliantly operatic oratorio La Giuditta, here in its earliest and most complete form. Maestro Robert W. Butts edited Scarlatti’s masterpiece from the original 1693 manuscript which is currently in the collection of the National Park Service in Morristown, New Jersey.

Scarlatti’s La Giuditta exists in at least two other versions and has been performed and recorded based on a later abridged manuscript. The more extensive March 1693 manuscript used for Sunday’s performance, was brought to the attention of Maestro Butts by Dr. Jude Phister, Chief of Cultural Resources at the Washington’s Headquarters offices.

Maestro Butts brought the score he edited to life, conducting with sensuality and passion while directing the fluid sounding orchestra through the magical ritornelli which concluded each aria. Soloists from within the orchestra were, in places, almost as memorable as the vocal stars. Most notable was concertmaster Michael Avagliano who played a duet with soprano Marjorie Berg on the work’s most extensive aria ma so ben. He performed several other solo parts in collaboration with other musicians of the ensemble.

Providing poignant and moving melodic interest was Nancy Vanderslice who soloed on oboe and English Horn. Bassoonist Andrew Pecota was also solid both in continuo parts and his few solo moments. Harpsichordist John Pivarnik, too, added much to the success of the performance, constantly on deck and supporting the singers perfectly.

Baritone Mark Hewitt filled in at the last minute after two previous singers pulled out. While it is true that Mr. Hewitt had some problems in voice projection of the lowest tones required of his role as Oloferne, he still delivered a performance of notable dramatic intensity. His interaction with Marjorie Berg (Giuditta) was passionate and believeable. The result was something to be genuinely greatly appreciated.

Marjorie Berg gripped the audience with an emotionally involved portrayal of the title role. Have memorized her entire part, she sang with authority and character, conveying equally well the seductive nature and determination inherent in the part.

Bass John Lamb is a familiar face to early music audiences in the area. He executed the relatively small role of Sacerdote in solid vocal form, displaying an even tone appropriate to the gravity that infuses the character. Both arias and recitatives were sung with conviction and style.

Mezzo Teresa Giardina made her debut with the orchestra as Ozia, the beleaguered prince of Bettulia. Recently graduated from Ithica, Ms. Giardina sang with clarity and emotional beauty in arias of great depth. She was especially memorable in the moving addio libertai of the second act.

Tenor Daniel Foran sang the role of the Captain. His voice produced grace and an elegant warm beauty which was especially winning. Mr Foran has been a frequent performer with the Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey and this performance showed how he’s blossomed in his art. His rendition of dalla patria at the end of Act I was truly unforgettable. Hopefully, he will make the aria a part of his concert and recital repertoire!

Harmonium Choral Society, directed by Anne Matlack, joined in for the final celebratory choruses, adding luster and power to create a rousing finale.

Hearing this deeply moving performance, one can only hope that other singers and ensembles will take this marvelous work into their concert repertoire. The work is filled with beautiful music and is deeply dramatic, practically crying out for a staged interpretation. It was presented here for the first time complete in the modern era. One can only hope it won’t take another three hundred years to hear it completely performed again.

Peter Stevens

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Alessandro_Scarlatti_young.png image_description=Alessandro Scarlatti product=yes product_title=Alessandro Scarlatti: Giuditta
Dolan Performance Hall, The Annunciation Center, the College of St Elizabeth, Morrsistown, New Jersey on Sunday, June 22. product_by=Marjorie Berg (soprano), Daniel Foran (tenor), John Lamb (bass), Mark Hewitt (baritone) and Teresa Giardina (mezzo-soprano), Harmonium Choral Society
The Baroque Orchestra of New Jersey, Robert W. Butts (cond.)
Posted by Gary at 9:49 AM

The Pilgrim's Progress at Sader's Wells

The centrepiece of this season, entitled 'Vaughan Williams: The Pioneering Pilgrim' were two semi-staged performances of the composer's Bunyan opera 'The Pilgrim's Progress' at London's Sadler's Wells Theatre, dedicated to the memory of the composer's wife Ursula who died last year. Conductor Richard Hickox has a real passion for English music, particularly opera, and it was heartening to see him championing such a rarely-performed stage work.

Devised as a depiction of a generic spiritual journey towards enlightenment rather than a specifically Christian one (the composer was an agnostic), the opera (or rather, as it's labelled, the 'morality') is nonetheless rooted in Biblical texts and Christian hymn-tunes. In fact it is reminiscent of Elgar's 'Dream of Gerontius' in its tableaux of the progression of a soul through trials and tests to its ultimate goal, and thus seems closer to oratorio or cantata than opera, with elements of the pageant and the mystery-play thrown in. In David Edwards' simple semi-staging, movement was kept to a minimum, with most of the more abstract characters moving in a slow, flowing manner as if the motion could be stopped at any moment to create a freeze-frame of an 'event' in the Pilgrim's travels. On the one hand, it is a shame that a full staging was not on offer; on the other, it is a naturally static piece and thus well-suited to this kind of half-and-half incarnation.

The ostensible narrator is John Bunyan, sung here by baritone Neal Davies: though he only in fact appears to frame the piece with a Prologue and Epilogue, it gives the impression that we are seeing everything through his own eyes and imagination. The staging had him discovered onstage as if asleep, ready for his opening line, 'So I awoke, and behold it was a dream'.

The cast was made up of a distinguished inventory of mainly British vocal talent, including most of Hickox's regular collaborators, led by Roderick Williams as the eponymous Pilgrim, and even extending to Hickox's son Adam as the (poorly amplified) Woodcutter's Boy. There were some welcome additions from guest artists in multiple roles, especially the menacing Gidon Saks as Lord Hate-Good (a disembodied voice over a speaker system from offstage). The single scene of sardonic comic relief was delivered with aplomb by Richard Coxon and Andrea Baker as Mr and Madam By-Ends.

Williams's central performance was remarkable; something about his stage persona is both innocent and timeless, and his singing was always assured – despite all the obstacles in his path, the Pilgrim never outwardly falters. His unfailingly beautiful singing was especially impressive in the role's emotional heart – the monologue based around a passage from Psalm 22, when the Pilgrim is in prison expecting death. Part-soliloquy, part-prayer, it is the only time we ever see the turmoil within the Pilgrim's soul before he realises that his means of escape has been within reach all along.

Hickox's conducting had a majesty and beauty which made as persuasive a case for the score as it is ever likely to get, while Philharmonia Voices – the orchestra's ad-hoc professional choral outfit – managed to go from being properly lively and vociferous (in the Vanity Fair scene) to radiantly angelic (in the heavenly passages).

Ruth Elleson © 2008

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Pilgrim%27s_Progress_first_ed.png image_description=Pilgrim's Progress first edition 1678 product=yes product_title=Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Pilgrim's Progess product_by=Roderick Williams (The Pilgrim), Neal Davies (John Bunyan), Matthew Rose, Richard Coxon, Matthew Brook, Timothy Robinson, Sarah Fox, Sarah Tynan, Pamela Helen Stephen, James Gilchrist, Robert Hayward, Graeme Danby and Philharmonia Voices. Richard Hickox (cond.)
Posted by Gary at 9:26 AM

July 29, 2008

The new Three Tenors

By Jessica Duchen [The Independent, 30 July 2008]

It's been 18 years since the Three Tenors proved that classical music could sell. In 1990, they appeared together for the first time at the Baths of Caracala in Rome the night before the World Cup Final: Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras captured the public's imagination in a way never seen before or since. Albums shifted in millions. We'll never see their like again.

Posted by Gary at 10:09 PM

History vs. Modernity in German Opera Season

By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN [NY Times, 30 July 2008]

BADEN-BADEN, Germany — Waltraud Meier topped a remarkable cast in Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” here the other night, although the current talk of the opera season in Europe is the promiscuous new production of Wagner’s “Parsifal,” not too far away, that opened the Bayreuth Festival on Friday: it comes a jackboot shy of “Springtime for Hitler,” but its ambitions soar, and so do many of the voices.

Posted by Gary at 10:03 PM

Don Giovanni

By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 29 July 2008]

Salzburg treats Don Giovanni in the same way that Mozart's protagonist treats women. There's an insatiable lust - the festival has gone through five productions in the past 20 years - but each is quickly discarded. That's not surprising. In spite of importing the best talent money can buy, the composer's birthplace has seen a poor run of interpretations.

Posted by Gary at 9:35 PM

On Second Thought: 'Einstein on the Beach'

Mark Swed [LA Times, 29 July 2008]

Since 1976, I have enjoyed the music of Philip Glass. Before then, I did not. “Einstein on the Beach” changed everything.

Posted by Gary at 9:24 PM

La forza del destino, Caramoor International Music Festival, Katonah, New York

By George Loomis [Financial Times, 29 July 2008]

Stylistic authority is the operative principle for the conductor Will Crutchfield’s opera performances at Caramoor, but without good voices scholarly intentions count for little. Happily, all was well on both fronts for Verdi’s La forza del destino, performed in the original 1862 St Petersburg version in a new critical edition by Philip Gossett.

Posted by Gary at 9:10 PM

'King Roger,' A Confounding Object of Desire

By Philip Kennicott [Washington Post, 29 July 2008]

The great 20th-century Polish opera "King Roger" is not about some great Polish king named Roger. It is not about much of anything at all, in the traditional narrative sense, but it unfolds as a series of sumptuous religious and regal tableaux. It is almost never staged and is only occasionally heard in concert or on recordings.

Posted by Gary at 9:07 PM

'Jerry Springer: The Opera' so wrong it's right

[AP, 29 July 2008]

WASHINGTON - How low can you sink and still achieve nirvana? You can find the answer in "Jerry Springer: The Opera," which, in Studio Theatre's thrillingly down-and-dirty production, brings an audience to something like a state of musical-theater bliss.

Posted by Gary at 9:05 PM

An Opera Critic Samples Bayreuth on the Web

By RUPERT CHRISTIANSEN [The Daily Telegraph, 29 July 2008]

On Sunday, for the first time, an opera performance was streamed on the Internet live from the Bayreuth Festival. Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" was made accessible to the first 10,000 people prepared to part with the sum of $77. Joe Public's chance of buying a "real" ticket for this event is virtually nil — the waiting list for Bayreuth runs into many thousands — so this is a significant extension of its outreach.

Posted by Gary at 9:00 PM

Nicole Cabell on making it in the opera world

By Mike Smith [Western Mail, 28 July 2008]

With the cheers from her Royal Opera House debut still ringing in her ears, the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2005 winner Nicole Cabell tells Mike Smith that if she can make it in the opera world, anyone can

Posted by Gary at 8:30 PM

Curtain Rises on 97th Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth

Rick Fuller [Deutsche Welle, 26 July 2008]

Bayreuth has often been described as the nerve center of the German nation and its culture. The images most familiar to the public are the yearly summer ritual of the motorcade to the Festspielhaus and the celebrities who disembark and wave to the crowd. Having come to see the music dramas, they themselves are first the object of attention.

Posted by Gary at 8:13 PM

Bregenz Festival excavates long-forgotten Krenek opera

[AFP, 25 July 2008]

BREGENZ, Austria (AFP) — While the opening night of the annual Bregenz Festival on Wednesday was one for the masses with a visually stunning staging of Giacomo Puccini's "Tosca", opera connoisseurs were in for a treat on Thursday with a rarely performed operatic gem from the 1930s.

Posted by Gary at 7:21 PM

Donizetti on Dynamic DVD

The label has always done well by bel canto operas, especially rarities. When the company ventures into the standard repertory, they put themselves up against the work of the world's major opera houses. Sadly, their Lucia di Lammermoor doesn't offer much competition to other versions of the opera on the market. But the Anna Bolena is another matter; though not attractively designed, the staging doesn't interfere with an impassioned performance of the opera, a smash in its today but seldom performed of late.

Dynamic_Lucia.pngBoth productions were filmed at the Teatro Donizetti di Bologna in October, 2006. Francesca Espositio directed and designed the costumes for both, with Italo Grassi in charge of the sets. Esposiito's costumes are rich and traditional for both operas, though the Lucia males could use more variety - the tartan "shawl" thrown over the shoulders of the leads and chorus makes a monotonous picture. Grassi's sets contrast with the familiar costumes by being stark. Most of Anna Bolena plays out in front of unadorned bleachers, with the odd touch of an oversized suit of armor, which looks like a miniature airplane hangar when lying flat. For Lucia, Grassi's use of huge blow-ups of the plot's letters and wedding contracts carries some dramatic weight, but the mad scene is woefully understaged. Désirée Rancatore , the Lucia, appears at the top of a roll-on white staircase, as from some cheap TV variety show. Instead of blood, she wears over her white nightgown a lengthy crimson robe. Apparently the budget didn't stretch to giving the Edgardo his own setting; he sings the opera's final scenes against that same staircase.

The cast simply doesn't possess either the charisma or vocal authority to make this Lucia special. Rancatore sings decently, with clean attack and some color. The lack of glaring flaws doesn't compensate much for the lack of individual phrasing or characterization. The audience roars for the Edgardo, Roberto DeBiasio, at the final curtain. A relatively slight man (for a tenor), he resembles a better-looking relative of the actor William Dafoe . He cuts a credibly romantic figure as Edgardo, vocally as well as visually. The audience's enthusiasm seems excessive, nevertheless. Luca Grassi, the Enrico, has a thin, haunted look (and and De Biasio slightly resemble each other). The voice is substantial enough, but his acting tends to the unsubtle. Conductor Fogliani gets, perhaps unsurprisingly, an idiomatic performance from the Bergamo Musica Festival Gaetano Donizetti forces.

Fabrizio Maria Carminati conducts the same musicians for the Anna Bolena, which spreads over two discs. In the title role, Dimitra Theodossiou furthers her growing reputation with a fierce, technically secure performance. She is not a natural actress, and she looks a bit dowdy. But that works dramatically, as Anna realizes she is being replaced in the affections of Henry (or, Enrico) by Jane Seymour, a beautifully dressed Sofia Soloviy . The opera's first act plays like exposition for the dramatic second act, when Anna realizes she must die to allow her husband to marry his new love. Riccardo Zanellato as Enrico has no opportunity to demonstrate the royal charisma; he's more the villain of the piece. Tenor Gian Luca Pasolini doesn't cut the dashing figure of the tenor in the Lucia, but his voice is much more appealing - a highly placed, very secure sound.

For lovers of bel canto, this Anna Bolena should be an enjoyable addition to any collection. The Lucia? Not so much.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Dynamic_Bolena.png image_description=Gaetano Donizetti: Anna Bolena product=yes product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: Anna Bolena product_by=Dimitra Theodossiou, Gian Luca Pasolini, Riccardo Zanellato, Sofia Soloviy, Orchestra and Chorus of Bergamo Musica Festival Gaetano Donizetti, Fabrizio Maria Carminati (cond.) product_id=Dynamic 33534 [2CDs] price=$44.99 product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/Drilldown?name_id1=3144&name_role1=1&comp_id=51821&genre=33&bcorder=195&label_id=7155
Posted by chris_m at 4:22 PM

Verdi on Classics for Pleasure, Opera Highlights

The composer’s first big success, Nabucco breathes fire in its lead soprano role, while elsewhere highlighting darker male voices. Il Trovatore, famously said to require the ‘world’s four best singers,’ bursts with so much melody that a highlights set seems like false economy. With Aida, the darker psychology and sharp orchestral color that would blossom in Otello and Falstaff appears.

CFP_Nabucco.pngRenata Scotto’s impassioned Abigaille dominates the Ricardo Muti-led Nabucco. In fact, Matteo Manuguerra in the title role is not heard until track 6, an ensemble at the end of part two. Perhaps CfP should have retitled the disc “Abigaille.” Scotto’s tendency toward some wiriness in her high notes plays to her advantage here, underscoring the character’s fierceness and ego. In the major bass role of Zaccaria, Nicolai Ghiaurov provides the other substantial voice to make this set worthy. Veriano Luchetti and Elena Obraztsova sing the roles of the young lovers, but the tenor and mezzo only briefly appear in the selections CfP provides. Muti, typically for him, drives the music with intensity and exactness, an approach that sometimes pushes excitement over insight.

CfP fills the Il Trovatore highlights disc with 70 minutes of music, and still it feels too brief. Surely the soldier’s chorus could have been included? That quibble aside, a set as exciting, if occasionally manic, as this, should make any Verdi lover ask for more. Conductor Schippers does set some brisk tempos, but the visceral impact cannot be denied. Franco Corelli in his prime dominates the set, a truly heroic sound, not just in volume but in sheer masculine tone. Gabriella Tucci , in a rare plum recording assignment, sings an imposing Leonora, feminine and yet with a core of strength. Robert Merrill may not be in best form here - the “Il balen” starts off somewhat stiffly - but the imposing quality of the instrument continues to satisfy. Rounding out a fine cast, Giuletta Simionato’s Azucena not only has the requisite tension and edge but also many moments of great beauty. On the assumption that finding the complete set of this recording may be difficult, lovers of this opera should find a way to grab this highlights disc.

CFP_Aida.pngThe Aida CD starts abruptly with Corelli’s emphatic delivery of the recitative to “Celeste Aida.” There has been some controversial over the diminuendo on the aria’s final note, but whether it was a trick of the knobs or authentic, the excitement generated is not fake. In 65 minutes, this highlights disc can’t truly capture the expansive greatness of the opera - despite the inclusion of the confrontations scenes between Aida and her father, and then that between Radames and Amneris. CfP goes in for longer slices, with only 10 tracks. It’s good to hear Birgit Nilsson’s Aida, her power wielded with tact and more than enough suggestion of pathos in her voice too (although sometimes that takes the form of suspect intonation).

Aida’s confrontation with Amneris is one victim of the music selections, which is particularly unfortunate considering how fine Grace Bumbry is in the role. Mario Sereni as Aida’s father makes less of an impression. Zubin Mehta leads the Rome opera forces in a performance as outsized as his two leads’ voices.

Your reviewer strongly recommends the Il Trovatore, but the other two sets have much worth hearing as well.

Chris Mullins

  

image=http://www.operatoday.com/CFP_Trovatore.png image_description=Giuseppe Verdi: Il Trovatore (highlights) product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Il Trovatore (highlights) product_by=Corelli, Tucci, Simionato, Merrill, Moneta, Mazzoli, Mercuriali, Rinaudo, Rome Opera House Chorus & Orchestra, Thomas Schippers product_id=Classics for Pleasure (EMI) 393 3752 [CD] price=£3.97 product_url=http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B000W7M1BM?tag=operatoday-21&camp=1406&creative=6394&linkCode=as1&creativeASIN=B000W7M1BM&adid=1Z0ZMS5Y5MKGET20GRC1&
Posted by chris_m at 3:25 PM

July 28, 2008

Along the Roaring River

That was late in life to set out on the career that has nonetheless taken him from Mao to the Met — and beyond, but that’s only one feature that makes Along the Roaring River, the singer’s account of his life, a fascinating book.

During his first American decade Tian sang a variety of supporting roles with Denver’s Opera Colorado. In 1988 he attracted a larger audience in an Aspen Wild-West staging of Verdi’s Falstaff that — prophetically — featured an almost all-Asian cast. He made his Met debut opposite Luciano Pavarotti in Verdi’s Lombardi 1993.

He was — among his many “firsts” — the first Chinese to sing Verdi in Italy and to appear in Beethoven’s Fidelio in Germany. (The problems that he encountered at the hands of make-up crews account for lighter moments in his story.) It has also been a career that took took Tian home to China and then made him a major figure in introducing new Chinese opera to this country. In 2006 he sang the premiere of Tan Dun’s First Emperor at the Met and two years later he was on stage in Central City as the Poet Li Bai in Guo Wenjing‘s account of the eighth-century author.

In Along the Roaring River: My Wild Ride from Mao to the Met, Tian, born in Beijing in 1954, tells of more than his life in opera, and that makes the book, written with the able aid of Lois B. Morris, a document of its time. Tian labels his Chinese roots “revolutionary military,” for his parents had been underground Communists back in the days when Chiang Kai-shek led the Chinese against the Japanese invasion that was a major chapter of World War Two. But his early life of privilege — better food, better clothing, better housing — did not last. With Mao’s Cultural Revolution of the 60’s, even this background was no insurance against suspicion. His parents were exiled from Beijing, and Tian went to work in the city’s boiler works, today a Chinese-American joint venture. Nonetheless he learned guitar and accordion and slowly built a second career in music while banging out boilers. Yet he had loathed early piano lessons and recalls the pleasure that he took in smashing the family’s records of Western music that were anathema to the ears of the “new” China. Thus the book is also a sorrowful report on a tragic chapter of history that witnessed, for example, the death of millions of Chinese through the mismanagement of Mao and his lieutenants.

These horrors are offset by the love story that is a further dimension of this report: Tian’s happy — and fortuitous — marriage to London-born Martha Liao, who left a major career in genetics to serve as producer, manager, gourmet cook and all around genius in helping the singer achieve the fame that he now enjoys. High on the list of Liao’s successes is the founding of Asian Performing Arts of Colorado, the organization that made Poet Li Bai possible.

In the most poignant moment in the book Tian recalls a day when Met rehearsals for Emperor were going badly. Everyone was tired and tensions were running high. At the piano Tian began playing songs from the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese colleagues from that era joined in, and the defeatist mood was broken. “Strange to say, for some of us there was magic under Chairman Mao,” Tian writes. “The creative fire was lit and fed in an environment that was inhospitable to anything but the party line. We had nothing. There was nothing to have. What was there was ours, a simple song in the mountains, a couple of stuffed dumplings, a glass of beer, a line of poetry, a back and forth about literature…. “How bizarre that I was rediscovering it all again among my Chinese Cultural Revolution peers in this bastion of high Western culture in twenty-first century America.”

New Yorker music critic Alex Ross provides a significant supplement to Tian’s book in his article “Symphony of Millions,” an account of musical life in China today, in the July 7 issue of that magazine. He tells of visiting Tian and Martha at their Beijing home and offers insights into Poet LiBai with — alas — no mention of the role of the Central City Opera in staging the work.

On September 13 Hao Jiang Tian sings Chang the Coffin Maker in the world premiere of Stewart Wallace’s Bonesetter’s Daughter at the San Francisco Opera. Amy Tan has written the libretto after her novel of the same title.

Wes Blomster

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Roaring_river.png image_description=Along the Roaring River product=yes product_title=Along the Roaring River: My Wild Ride from Mao to the Met product_by=Hao Jiang Tian, Robert Lipsyte (Foreword by) with Lois B. Morris
John Wiley & Sons, 2008 product_id=ISBN: 978-0-470-05641-7 price=$27.95 product_url=http://www.amazon.com/dp/047005641X?tag=operatoday-20&camp=14573&creative=327641&linkCode=as1&creativeASIN=047005641X&adid=1MQ12HQ01FQK85SJ7WN7&
Posted by Gary at 4:06 PM

July 27, 2008

MOZART: Die Entführung aus dem Serail — Salzburg 1975

First Performance: 16 July 1782, Burgtheater, Vienna.

Principal Characters:
Selim, Pasha Nonsinging role
Constanze, a Spanish lady and Belmonte's bethrothed Soprano
Blonde, Constanze's English maid Soprano
Belmonte, a Spanish nobleman Tenor
Pedrillo, Belmonte's servant and now supervisor of the Pasha's gardens Tenor
Osmin, overseer of the Pasha's country palace Bass
Klaas, a sailor Nonsinging role
Mute, Osmin's servant Nonsinging role

Setting: The country palace of Pasha Selim.

Synopsis:

Background to the story

This is the tale of Constanze and Belmonte, two young Spaniards of noble birth. Constanze, her English maid, Blonde, and Pedrillo, Belmonte’s servant, fell into the hands of pirates who attacked their ship. The pirates sold their captives at a slave market to Pasha Selim. After month of searching for them in despair, tormented by not knowing what had become of his beloved Constanze and the two servants, Belmonte sets out to find them.

Act One

Belmonte has arrived on the distant Turkish shore and approaches the high wall surrounding the seraglio. Here he encounters Osmin, the Pasha’s right-hand man, and questions him about the people he is seeking. Osmin, however, has not the slightest intention of giving this stranger any information whatsoever and sends him on his way.

Belmonte continues to look for a way to get into the seraglio.Through a prison window, he manages to catch a glimpse of Pedrillo. This confirms that Constanze and Blonde are also being held prisoner in the harem.

Pasha Selim has chosen Constanze to be the object of his affections. He visits the harem every day and does everything in his power to persuade her into accepting his suit. Constanze remains steadfast in adamantly refusing to succumb. She has no idea yet that her beloved Belmonte is so near.

Meanwhile, Belmonte has disguised himself as an architect an enters the First Courtyard of the seraglio. He teams up with Pedrillo and together they try to get past Osmin into the Second Courtyard.

Act Two

Osmin has taken a fancy to Blonde, but his persistent advances are met with resistance by the young English woman. The two of them are involved in constant battles of wit, which Osmin just can’t win.

Constanze makes it increasingly difficult for the Pasha to approach her and he finally loses patience. He threatens to punish her if she does not soon accept his suit.

Blonde learns about the plan for their escape from Pedrillo. Before they can put the plan into action, however, they first have to outwit Osmin. Pedrillo manages to persuade Osmin to help him empty a bottle of wine and the latter then falls into a deep sleep. The two couples are able to meet and plan their escape.

Act Three

Belmonte, still disguised as an architect, smuggles Pedrillo out of the Seraglio and they head for Belmonte’s ship. There they wait for night to fall.

Music composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791). Libretto by Johann Gottlieb Stephanie the Younger, based on an earlier libretto by Christoph Friedrich Bretzner.

At midnight, Belmonte and Pedrillo row round the coast to the foot of the harem. Pedrillo serenades his Blonde as a signal. Osmin discovers them in the boat and sends a fleet of ships out to capture them again.

The death penalty awaits them, but Pasha Selim decides to forgo revenge and sets the captives free.

[Synopsis Source: Bayerische Staatsoper]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Abduction_Salzburg_1975.png image_description=Scene from Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Salzburg 1975 (Photo by Steinmetz) audio=yes first_audio_name=Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Abduction4.m3u product=yes product_title=Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail product_by=Konstanze (Edita Gruberova), Blonde (Sona Ghazarian), Belmonte (Werner Hollweg), Pasha Selim (Kurt Heintl), Osmin (Fernando Corena), Pedrillo (Gerhard Unger), Wiener Philharmoniker, Leif Segerstam (cond.)
Live performance 31 July 1975, Kleines Festspielhaus, Salzburg
Posted by Gary at 12:28 PM

July 23, 2008

First Night of the Proms

Under their director Jiří Bĕlohlávek, the BBC Symphony Orchestra (with reinforcements from Royal College of Music Brass) opened the concert with Richard Strauss’s Festliches Präludium, a fine choice of overture for such an occasion, grandiose but joyful.

In the Mozart Oboe Concerto (K.314), soloist Nicholas Daniel was bright, witty and full of personality, with some beautiful pianissimi in the slow movement. The orchestral ensemble fell apart at the seams a little on more than one occasion, but overall it was a delight, not spoiled by the half-hearted applause between movements from somewhere in the upper reaches of the hall (which went on to mar the Strauss which followed).

Next on the bill were Strauss’s Vier Letzte Lieder, with a change of soloist: an indisposed Karita Mattila replaced by Christine Brewer. Brewer sings with the BBC SO fairly regularly, and she was a radiant Brünnhilde (in Götterdämmerung) last year at the Proms under Runnicles. Unfortunately, this time something didn’t quite come together – there was no sweep to the phrasing and her top sounded shrill under pressure. Finally in “Beim Schlafengehen” she found some complexity and ‘centre’, and for a few moments she cast a rapt spell... before heading off into “Im Abendrot” in indifferent, fudged German.

Although the Proms offer an eclectic mix of music spanning the breadth of the Western art music repertoire, with the occasional foray into other genres such as jazz, ‘world’ and folk, there are generally some threads to tie much of the season together. In particular, there is usually an attempt to celebrate significant anniversaries of composers’ births and deaths, and one such occasion for 2008 is the centenary of the birth of Olivier Messiaen – indeed, the Frenchman is virtually omnipresent over the course of the season, featuring in twelve more concerts ranging from solo organ works to a visit from the Berlin Philharmonic with the Turangalîla Symphony and a concert performance of the operatic magnum opus Saint-François d’Assise by the Nederlandse Opera.

To introduce the upcoming Messiaen-fest, the second half of the first-night concert was introduced by Wayne Marshall on the Royal Albert Hall’s mighty Willis organ in a fairly earth-shaking account of “ Dieu parmi nous”, the final episode from La Nativité du Seigneur.

Born just one day after Messiaen, the American composer Elliot Carter is still alive and – as far as I know – still composing, in his hundredth year. The UK première of his Caténaires was perhaps the highlight of the concert, a four-minute virtuoso perpetuum mobile for solo piano showing off Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s extraordinary ability. Prior to this, Aimard and the orchestra gave a light-footed and fresh performance of Beethoven’s Rondo in B flat major.

First_Night_Proms_2008.pngFirst Night of the Proms 2008

The Scriabin The Poem of Ecstasy, which concluded the evening was a well-chosen counterbalance to the opening Strauss – full of rich grandeur in brass and tuned percussion.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Christine_Brewer_BBC_Proms.png
image_description=Christine Brewer (Photo by Chris Christodoulou courtesy of the BBC)

product=yes
product_title=The First Night of the Proms: Richard Strauss, Festliches Präludium; Mozart, Oboe Concerto in C major (K314); R. Strauss Four Last Songs; Messiaen, La Nativité du Seigneur - Dieu parmi nous; Beethoven, Rondo in B flat for piano and orchestra; Elliott Carter, Caténaires for solo piano; Scriabin, The Poem of Ecstasy
product_by=Christine Brewer (soprano), Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Wayne Marshall (organ), Royal College of Music Brass, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiří Bělohlávek (cond.)
product_id=Above: Christine Brewer
All photos by Chris Christodoulou courtesy of the BBC

Posted by Gary at 11:59 AM

July 22, 2008

Gordon creates masterpiece in “Green Sneakers”

She was delighted — as were all those who heard the world premiere of “Sneakers” at Colorado’s Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival on July 15.

“I met Ricky two years ago,” says Zukerman, who as its artistic director had invited Gordon to be 2008 composer-in-residence at the Festival. “I had heard his Orpheus & Euridice, and he wrote me a flute obbligato for several of his songs. I was eager to have him in Vail and to commission a new work by him.”

In September, however, Gordon called Zukerman; he said he was working on a big piece and could not stop. “He read me the poems that were the libretto for the work,” Zukerman says. “They were gripping. I told him we would do it!”

Zukerman first contacted Gordon about a year ago, when he was in Salt Lake City for the second production of his opera The Grapes Of Wrath. At the time she suggested collaboration with the Miami String Quartet, an ensemble with a long Vail association. Gordon remembered a set of poems that he had written following the AIDS death of his long-time companion Jeffrey Grossi in 1996. He saw a new score taking shape on stage around an empty chair.

“I had a sense of the atmosphere that the work would have,” says the composer, who goes on to explain the title. There was a day after Jeffrey’s death when I was staring into our closet from the vast desolation of our bed,” he says. “These sad little green sneakers suggested a text about the day we bought them together. It poured out of me and ended up a cycle of poems that tells the story of that day and the period after it — all the way up to Jeffrey’s death.”

Jesse-Blumberg.pngJesse Blumberg
Gordon knew that the vocalist for Sneakers had to be Jesse Blumberg, the baritone who had created the role of Connie Rivers, the wayward husband of Steinbeck’s pregnant Rosasharn, for the premiere of Grapes a year earlier at Minnesota Opera. “In watching rehearsals of Grapes I noted Jesse’s artistry — his charisma, his honesty and his simplicity as a performer,” Gordon says. “Because of the honesty and intimacy of these poems I knew that a performer who was false in any way would kill Sneakers. It had to be a singer who was essentially an open vessel. Jesse is like that with his unusual combination of strapping casual masculinity and comfort in his own body. He’s unsaddled by any kind of ego that gets between him, the music he is singing and the words he is conveying.”

Gordon sent Blumberg the texts and asked whether he would be willing to perform Sneakers. “He wrote back almost immediately that he would be honored,” the composer says. “I am honored to have him.”

Gordon compares Blumberg with veteran mezzo Frederica Von Stade. “Like her, Jesse has a quality that many great singers have.” he says. “It is the inability to sing a single note without imbuing it with his entire personality, his opinion about life. Each note screams with life and dances.”

Green Sneakers originally ended with “Provincetown,” a poem that documents Gordon’s search for others who had survived the loss of a lover. But, once at work on the new score, he added as an epilogue “Sleep,” a poem (or lullaby) that he had once written for Grossi as a birthday gift. “I wanted to end the piece with a lullaby,” Gordon says, “and with a celebration of what we had together.” Grossi’s death is an experience that the composer had treated in his 2005 song cycle Orpheus & Euridice.

In Sneakers, however, the objectifying veil of myth is absent. Here Gordon faces Death head-on. The immediacy of the first person makes the narrative overwhelmingly direct. “I have questioned whether this was the right thing to do — to tell a story this baldly and to expose myself and my life with Jeffrey this way,” the composer says. “And my explanation is that after Jeffrey died I sought solace in reading everything I could find about grief. I was grateful to those who were generous enough to reveal in great detail the ways in which they endured loss and bore their own tragedies. So maybe there is a sense of mission here. Perhaps others have gone through what I went through and this might bring them some peace, identification, or understanding.”

Miami_String_Quartet-PMcGui.pngMiami String Quartet (Photo by Paul McGuirk)
It is amazing that in this his first work for string quartet Gordon has perfected an idiom that goes to the edge of tonality to create a microcosm of pain and despair that has all the markings of a contemporary Gesamtkunstwerk. Indeed, at the premier, members of the Miami String Quartet were no longer mere strings, but humanized voices that formed a seamless dramatic unity with Blumberg. Yet, despite its obvious personal intensity, Sneakers is in no way confessional.

Like Orpheus, but in its own way, the new work elevates its contents to the level of universality. There is nothing of “letting it all hang out” in the score. Gordon locates models in Handel’s cantata Lucretia and in Britten’s Phedre, pieces where one singer tells and lives the story simultaneously. Because of its intimacy I approached the story in a ‘classical’ way with a prologue, an epilogue and interludes throughout,” he says. “That not only gives the listener time to think and reflect, but also gives the performer space to gear up for the next event. Even the use of a string quartet felt like a slightly distancing formal device.”

Praised for his Monteverdi and Bach, Blumberg at the premiere made this story his own, singing with a richly nuanced voice and, at 29, the stage presence of a veteran actor. In the most wrenching moment of Sneakers he went to the piano and played a phrase before turning to the epilogue of Gordon’s libretto. “This introduces the epilogue,” Gordon says. “In the score, there are two versions. One is very easy, essentially for two fingers, which any singer could play. The strings come in softly under the piano and take over when the singer leaves the keyboard. There’s the harder version, which is the one Jesse bravely opted for. He played the introduction to the epilogue, which, if the singer had no piano skills, would be hard, but luckily, with Jesse, you get everything. That’s why I hope it is he who does many productions of this piece, because along with being a wonderful singer and artist, he is brave!”

On the printed page Sneakers is a traditional song cycle: 14 free-verse poems plus two instrumental sections. The total absence of stage directions calls for a director, whom Gordon found for the premiere in Jonathan Solari, whose previous experience has been largely in spoken theater. “It was my job to support what Ricky had written,” says Solari, who went to work on the piece with Blumberg in Gordon’s New York apartment weeks before coming to Vail. We pushed the furniture aside and sat down with the music to develop a staging that peers into the soul of the narrator,” he says. Solari focused on having Blumberg interact with the string quartet and he wanted the audience to have an image of Jeffrey in the vacant chair on stage.

Where does Sneakers leave Gordon, a dozen years after Grossi’s death? Is this closure? “No, it’s not closure,” the composer says, “but a kind of unbelievable fulfillment, as if I have made something out of an experience that was excruciatingly painful as well as exultingly joyous. For what kept me alive — and probably Jeffrey for longer than anyone expected him to live — was a tremendous love, for which I will always be grateful and treasure as my good fortune.”

With the repetition of “Sleep Dear,” the final words of Green Sneakers, one heard in Vail a distant echo of the “Ewig” that concludes Mahler’s monumental Abschied. For this is a song of today’s earth, a farewell lamentation that transcends death.

Wes Blomster

image=http://www.operatoday.com/RIGordon_Hannah.png image_description=Ricky Ian Gordon (Photo: Duncan Hannah) product=yes product_title=Ricky Ian Gordon: Green Sneakers for Baritone, String Quartet and Empty Chair
Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival product_by=Miami String Quartet, Jesse Blumberg (baritone) product_by=Above: Ricky Ian Gordon (Photo: Duncan Hannah)
Posted by Gary at 11:10 AM

July 20, 2008

The Coronation of Poppea

speight.png[Australian Stage Online, 21 July 2008]
Victoria’s state opera company, Victorian Opera, will begin its winter season on Friday, July 18 with five performances of Monteverdi’s extraordinary operatic endeavour, The Coronation of Poppea. This fully-staged production at the South Melbourne Town Hall will be conducted by Victorian Opera Music Director Richard Gill and directed by multi-award-winning Melbourne theatre director and now Artistic Director of Perth’s Black Swan Theatre Company, Kate Cherry.

Posted by Gary at 9:23 PM

Giasone, Iford Manor, Wiltshire

Cavalli.pngAnna Picard [The Independent, 20 July 2008]

Built in 1914, the cloisters in the Peto Garden at Iford Manor seat only 90 people. Ticket prices for Iford's opera season are high, around £90, though not high enough to cover costs. It should be a place for champagne picnics and corporate entertainment. Instead, it's a place for six-foot-tall lager-drinking rabbits, lustful squaddies, buxom blondes and tour guides welcoming us to Colchis, the "sun, sea and sex resort".

Posted by Gary at 8:58 PM

From frothy comedy to best of British, Buxton is a jolly good show

Buxton.pngHugh Canning [Times Online, 20 July 2008]

Almost 30 years have passed since the enchanting Derbyshire spa town of Buxton first hosted an opera festival. It opened modestly in 1979 with Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, but the following year it raised the stakes exponentially with Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet, starring Thomas Allen in the title role, and Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict, in which Ann Murray and her husband, Philip Langridge, sang the squabbling lovers.

Posted by Gary at 8:04 PM

Opera – the director’s cut

Wieland WagnerBy Martin Bernheimer [Financial Times, 19 July 2008]

Europeans call it Regietheater, or director’s theatre. Americans call it Eurotrash. It’s a matter of priorities and perspectives.

Posted by Gary at 7:51 PM

New York Grand Opera's 'Traviata' in the Park

NYGO_Traviata.pngBy Fred Kirshnit [NY Sun, 18 July 2008]
Summer in the city can be a difficult time for music lovers: The surging river of New York culture dries up to a mere trickle in a dry bed due to the mass exodus of the finest musicians to the comfort of the country and its wealth of interesting festivals. One of the few bright spots of the season is New York Grand Opera, which mounts fully staged productions of the Italian repertoire under the stars at the Naumburg Bandshell in our own verdant escape from urbanity, Frederick Law Olmsted's soothing Central Park. The audiences always overflow for these free events and invariably one runs into old acquaintances enjoying good quality performances in the sultry night air.

Posted by Gary at 6:37 PM

Geez, Louise

As re-imagined here, these are not the prettied-up and rather charming bohemians favored by Puccini, but rather a French verismo take on the lower class aspiring bumblingly to bourgeois values.

The production team chose not to set it at the turn of the century, but rather to the more drab, workaday mid-twentieth century, to good effect. I am not sure I remember any set design or more specifically, construction, as impressive as the colossal creations by Nicky Rieti. Every time the curtain was raised, another massive, detailed location was revealed to palpable audience response.

The opening expository scene was played out on sets of stairs wedged in a narrow vertical space between two low income housing buildings, trimmed in by masking, and which ascended from stage floor all the way into the flies above. This gave way to an oppressively realistic interior living/dining room that was the heroine’s “prison.” Setting the street scene on the Montmartre Metro platform was a winning and witty invention, especially as it was visually replaced by the Metro entrance with “Louise” departing it on her way to work. Her dress shop was a massive two level structure. which allowed the large female chorus ample room for interplay, and provided excellent opportunities for visual variety. The stage right windows on the stair landing opened to accommodate the passing parade and allowed “Julien” access to appear and take “Louise” away.

The libretto’s cottage overlooking Paris was replaced here by a contemporary rooftop structure that gave the lovers plenty of room to romp during the expansive love duet, and provided a more acidic visual commentary to counter-balance the sweetness of “Depuis le jour.” The subsequent scene in which “Louise” is crowned Queen of Montmartre in a mock beauty pageant was brilliantly set in a public space that appeared to be part music hall, part political rally, complete with a rudimentary proscenium stage and runway, and elevated galleries. The piece came full circle with the girl back in her hellish, mundane “prison” with her manipulative parents.

The apt costumes were created by Chantal de La Coste Messelière, who excelled with the colorful opportunities afforded by the “subway” denizens, as well as the beauty pageant participants and onlookers. The evocative lighting was by André Diot, who unapologetically used follow-spots to fine effect, witness the isolation of “Louise” after her mother convinces her to return home to her ailing father.

One reason that “Louise” may not be more frequently performed is that Charpentier’s score places enormous demands on the two principals who must convey youthful buoyancy but sing like jugend-Wagnerians. Happily, Paris came up with a terrific duo in Mireille Delunsch and Gregory Kunde.

Ms. Delunsch does not yet sing much outside of France and she deserves to. For hers is a very pliant lyric voice with a slight steely edge that not only meets the introspective demands of the role, but can ride the orchestra on the dramatic “money” moments. She does not have a highly distinctive sound, and the bit of metal might not charm those who have Renee or Beverly or Victoria irrevocably in their ear, but for my Euro she not only has the solid technique but also the pleasing stage presence to bring it off.

Mr. Kunde was a revelation to me, for he can not only melt the heart with his suave legato phrasings, but can also let rip with a gorgeous, generous outpouring of slightly weighted arching lines at full throttle. Thanks, too. to his sincere and affecting acting and ever-responsive musicality, this was the star turn of the night.

That is not to deny “mother” and “father” a place in the firmament. Alain Vernhes and Jane Henschel contributed solid vocalism and wonderful impersonations of their two unsympathetic, calculating parents. Even as they were consistently controlling, the two managed to mine every ounce of nuance out of their parts, and had their pitiable moments.

The large cast of minor soloists all made a fine contribution to the evening, with an outstanding tenor Luca Lombardo doing memorable double duty as “Noctambule” and “Pope of the Fools.”

André Engel was the fine director who created beautiful stage pictures through logical movements in the large scenes with the massive forces. He was equally adept at developing the complex character relationships, and addressing the ever changing dynamics between the four principals. There was nary a false move over the long evening, and the naturalistic blocking provided the loving clarity and illumination the piece needs. Only the expansive movement during the love duet on the roof seemed a but strained. While it mirrored the orchestral outpourings, it seemed a bit out of character even for two people in love who have discovered their freedom.

Conductor Patrick Davin struck just the right balance between stage and pit, and he and his orchestra seemed to revel in every detail and delight in this unjustly neglected work. If some of the atmospheric scenes amble a bit (the street people, the dress makers), it is never more so that in “Suor Angelica,” say and it is frequently more engaging and touching. In any case, Davin is a conductor to watch for. Excellent.

Paris Opera’s production makes such a strong case for “Louise” (if such proof were needed) that I would hope other companies might take note and plan a revival so their local patrons can similarly rejoice in its many pleasures.

James Sohre

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Louise_poster.png image_description=Poster of Louise at the Opéra-Comique in Paris (1900) product=yes product_title=Above: Poster of Louise at the Opéra-Comique, Paris (1900)
Posted by Gary at 5:35 PM

MOZART: Idomeneo — Munich 2008

Music composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Libretto by Giovanni Battista Varesco after Idomenée by Antoine Danchet.

First performance: 29 January 1781 at the Hoftheater, Munich
Revised version, 13 March 1786 at the palace of Prince Johan Adam Auersperg, Vienna

Principal Characters:

Idomeneo, King of CreteTenor
Idamante, his sonSoprano or Tenor
Ilia, Trojan princess, daughter of Priam, King of TroySoprano
Elettra, princess, daughter of Agamemnon, King of ArgosSoprano
Arbace, the King's confidantTenor
High Priest of NeptuneTenor
Voice of NeptuneBass

Time and Place: Sidone, capital of Crete, after the Trojan War.

Synopsis:

Act I

Scene 1. A room in the royal palace

Idomeneo, King of Crete, is expected home after the Trojan War. He has been preceded by his Trojan captives, including Ilia, one of the daughters of King Priam.

On arrival in Crete she had been rescued from a shipwreck by Idamante, son of Idomeneo, and the two have fallen in love, though not yet admitted this to one another. Ilia bemoans her fate as a captive deprived of her home and family, a slave in love with the son of her captor. She also fears that Idamante's affections have been won by Elettra (Electra), daughter of Agamemnon, who has fled from her home after the murder of her mother Clytemnestra and sought refuge in Crete.

Idamante tells Ilia that his father's ships have been sighted and announces his intention of setting free the Trojan prisoners. He confesses his love, but she rejects him, refusing to admit her own love and reminding him of the gulf which separates them. Elettra reproaches Idamante for freeing the Trojans. Arbace, Idomeneo's counsellor, reports that Idomeneo's ships have been wrecked in a storm and he has been drowned. All rush out except Elettra, who has perceived Idamante's love for Ilia and gives vent to her own jealous love for him.

Scene 2. A rocky part of the coast

Idomeneo has not been drowned. Washed ashore on the coast of Crete, he laments a vow he made to Neptune, God of the Sea, that if he was spared he would sacrifice to Neptune the first person he met on land. The first person he meets is his son, who is searching for him. Having been separated for 10 years they do not recognise one another at first. When recognition comes, Idamante tries to embrace his father, but Idomeneo rushes away in horror, leaving his son thinking he has angered his father. Joined by their wives and families, Idomeneo's troops rejoice at their safe homecoming.

Act II

Scene 1. The royal apartments

Idomeneo confides his predicament to Arbace and begs him to find some way of saving Idamante from the consequences of his rash vow. Arbace can only suggest sending Idamante away and Idomeneo seizes on the hope thus offered and decides to send his son to escort Elettra on her journey home. Ilia congratulates Idomeneo on his safe arrival. He begs her to shake off her sadness and confirms Idamante's action of setting the Trojans free. Ilia is comforted and feels that she has gained a new father in Idomeneo. He realises that she is in love with Idamante and grieves that his rash vow will prove the death of three people, as he and Ilia will die of grief at the death of Idamante.

Elettra is delighted when Idomeneo tells her that Idamante is to escort her, as she hopes he will learn to love her when he is parted from Ilia.

Scene 2. The port of Sidon

Preparing to embark, Elettra bids farewell to Crete. Idamante grieves at having to leave his new-found father and his beloved. They are prevented from embarking when a storm springs up and a monster emerges from the sea, a sign of Neptune's anger. When the people wonder who can have aroused the god's wrath, Idomeneo confesses that he is the guilty one, without explaining the details of his sin.

Act III

Scene 1. The palace gardens

Idamante tells Ilia that he now seeks death since his father has rejected him and she does not love him. She confesses that she does love him, even though her honor advises against it.

They are interrupted by Idomeneo and Elettra, both distressed, for different reasons, by the love between Idamante and Ilia. Idamante again begs his father to explain the reason for his sternness, but Idomeneo is still unwilling to reveal his vow. Arbace tells Idomeneo that the people are waiting to hear his intentions.

Scene 2. A public square

The high priest of Neptune begs Idomeneo to do somthing about the monster, which is killing innocent people. Idomeneo confesses his vow, explains that the victim is his son and promises to carry it out.

Scene 3. In front of the temple of Neptune

Preparations for the sacrifice are interrupted by Arbace, who announces that Idamante, seeking death, has killed the monster. Arbace feels that they are saved, but Idomeneo fears that the wrath of Neptune will be even greater.

Idamante appears, ready to undergo the sacrifice, glad that his father's apparent severity was only distress at the consequences of his vow. He tells his father not to hesitate to carry out the sacrifice, and commends Ilia to him, but she wishes to take Idamante's place as the victim. The voice of Neptune is heard, announcing that love has triumphed. He frees Idomeneo from his vow, but demands that he abdicate and yield the throne to Idamante and Ilia. All rejoice except Elettra.

[Synopsis Source: Opera~Opera]

Click here for the complete libretto.

Click here for a review of this production.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Idomeneo_Munich_2008_03.png image_description=Idamante (Pavol Breslik) and Ilia (Juliane Banse) [Photo: Bayerische Staatsoper] audio=yes first_audio_name=Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Idomeneo first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Idomeneo4.m3u product=yes product_title=Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Idomeneo product_by=Idomeneo (John Mark Ainsley)
Idamante (Pavol Breslik)
Ilia (Juliane Banse)
Elettra (Annette Dasch)
Arbace (Rainer Trost)
High Priest of Neptune (Kenneth Roberson)
The Voice of Neptune (Christian Van Horn)
Bayerisches Staatsorchester
Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper
Kent Nagano (cond.)
Live performance: 18 June 2008, Cuvilliés-Theater, Munich product_id=Above: Idamante (Pavol Breslik) and Ilia (Juliane Banse) [Photo: Bayerische Staatsoper]
Posted by Gary at 5:24 PM

Idomeneo and Doktor Faust at München Opernfestspiele

Some of what one hears there is as fine as any opera in the world today; the rest comes close. München’s July Summer Festival may lack the superstar glitz of neighboring Salzburg, but it offers wider repertoire in greater acoustical intimacy at one third the price—and, outside the door, the urban amenities are far more plentiful. This year I attended new productions of Mozart’s Idomeneo and Busoni’s Doktor Faust.

The Idomeneo was bound to be special, as it marked the 350th anniversary of the construction of the Cuvilliés Theater—a Rococo gem where Mozart premiered the work in 1781. (But not, strictly speaking, the very spot where he did so. The theater was dismantled during World War II to avoid Allied bombing that destroyed its original location in Munich’s downtown Residenz Palace. It was reconstructed after the war in an adjoining section of the palace.) The theater has recently been newly re-renovated with the attention to detail that epitomizes the Bavarian devotion to their past, including a delicate pastel-colored forecourt, now glass-covered, that magically shifts mood with the deepening summer twilight.

Idomeneo marked Mozart’s operatic liberation. The invitation to write an opera for München in 1781 freed the young composer from Salzburg’s provincial confines. For the first time, some of Europe’s best musicians were at his disposal. In the overture, Mozart’s pent-up energy explodes in bravura wind passages, sharp brass chords, and sweeping orchestral tuttis. The architectural anniversary was surely an appropriate moment to let the orchestra, led by München’s Music Director Kent Nagano, speak for itself.

It was not to be. No sooner had Nagano given the downbeat than dozens of soldiers dressed in football pads cum Star Wars Storm Trooper suits ran on stage to simulate Trojan War tableaux with a ruckus of splattered blood. And so it went. Dieter Dorn’s chaotic visual energy can be invigorating, but it is more often exhausting, burying Mozart under mayhem. He tends, moreover, to fall back on Regietheater clichés: the rear wall of the theater served as the backdrop, broken historical artifacts littered the stage, costumes confused time and place, crowds glared angrily at aristocrats, who in turn clutched the scenery.

Still, I have to confess I loved a few of Dorn’s concepts. During Elettra’s final showpiece aria, rather than having her squirm and twist in a torment of “serpents and adders”, as one conventionally sees, Elettra inadvertently calls forth slimy, blood-stained furies out of the floor, who pull her down to hell—a female Don Giovanni. It is high camp, of course, but it brings the text onomatopoeically to life. In a more realistic production, it would work even better: Someone should steal the idea.

Musically, this Idomeneo labors under two disadvantages. First, despite the charm and intimacy of the Cuvilliés, everyone sounds hoarse. Unflattering acoustics, it is said, are a result of a concrete shell irreversibly laid in the post-war renovation. Second, who decided to eschew the now commonplace mezzo Idamante in favor of a tenor, with its far less poignant Act III writing? (While we are at it, who decided, amidst an otherwise largely uncut Idomeneo--indeed, with the extra ballet music at the end—to excise the second verse of “O voto tremendo”, one of the most spine-tingling moments in all of Mozart opera?) We live, after all, in an era of great lyric mezzos. I hope the decision was not taken to profile the Slovakian tenor Pavol Breslik. He may be the hot young Mozartian in Europe today. But his heady, unsupported tone grated after a while and seemed not to promise a long career. Perhaps I just caught him on an off night or in unfavorable acoustics.

Far more impressive—the highlight of the evening vocally—was John Mark Ainsley in the title role. To be sure, the voice is on the light side for a role often assumed these days by heavyweights (even Plácido Domingo). But one hears every note come scritto and unfudged, with interpolations superadded—a spectacular achievement rare on stage. Juliane Banse, by contrast, sounded as if she may have outgrown Ilia, at least in small halls: Unevenness of color and weight undermined the nobility of her characterization. Rainer Trost’s Arbace had more weight and warmth, but the voice sounds worn. Young Berlinerin Annette Dasch made an exciting, good-looking, but vocally bland, Elettra.

Nagano’s approach was more relaxed and less idiosyncratic than in his 2004 Los Angeles performances, and the orchestra responded brilliantly. Yet one wondered why he was conducting Idomeneo when he might have waited one night and conducted the premiere of Busoni’s unfinished masterpiece, Doktor Faust—a score of which he is perhaps today’s leading exponent, having recorded it for Erato just a few years ago.

Instead we got Tomáš Netopil, a young Czech about whom no one knew much. Conducting Busoni is a difficult task: The polyglot composer cycles through an eclectic range of forms, which he deploys with a mixture of German modernism and Italianate post-Romanticism. Netopil‘s take on Busoni is impressive without being entirely convincing: He thins the orchestral sound to an impressionist shimmer, then punctuates it with harsh expressionist blasts. Despite the fuller acoustics of the National Theater, one feels the absence of Busoni’s sensuous Italian side, as well as any serious attempt to integrate the score into a compelling whole.

The rising young Wagnerian baritone Wolfgang Koch, making his house debut, strained at times to project over Netopil’s orchestra, but nonetheless handled the title role with clear tone and diction. Still, his is not a characterization distinctive enough to challenge memories of Fischer-Dieskau or Hampson. British tenor John Daszak did justice to Mephistopheles, if similarly without that extra touch of suaveness and assurance. The Duchess of Parma, by contrast, is a sure-fire soprano turn. She comes on midway through a “difficult” opera without other female leads: The setting is romantic, the character sexy, the music Busoni at his most Puccinian, and (in this production) she takes off most of her clothes. No wonder Californian Catherine Naglestad was an audience favorite. With shimmering Mozartian tone, she earned it honestly.

And what of the staging? Like Dorn’s Idomeneo, Nicolas Brieger’s production of Doktor Faust is constructed like a contemporary art work: a series of stunning, sometimes shocking visual tableaus that do not quite add up. The idea is to present Faust as mid-life crisis: a frustrated and solipsistic modern artist—a man stuck in a rut of sterile self-portraiture—gets in touch with his inner demons. The idea is hackneyed, even a bit silly, but some of his theatrical concepts are clever: The temptations of youth are bronze nude dancers hanging from the ceiling. Mephistopheles emerges from Faust’s ass as an evil twin biker in drag. The Parma scene ends with only the adulterous duchess’s wedding dress left standing center stage. Faust conjures up Helen of Troy in the form of large letters spelling H-E-L-E-N-A: an abstraction, rather than a reality.

Yet much else muddied the central concept: Why, in the mid-life crisis view, is Parma the land of Fascist bosses, pastel zoot-suits and tiny buildings? Why is Wittenberg filled with candles? Why is Faust an artist anyway? As often the case in director-led productions, moreover, visual pyrotechnics come at the cost of stage direction: Faust and the Devil grimace and fulminate, but rarely truly engage with one another.

At the end of the evening, the directorial team opted for neither of the available conclusions to Busoni’s unfinished score, but instead abruptly stopped the music where Busoni broke off his composition. Following the trail blazed by the San Francisco Opera, the final lines were spoken—an unsettling, enigmatic solution to a perennial problem.

Overall, Idomeneo and Doktor Faust were sophisticated and engaging near-misses. Uneven casting, odd conducting choices, and directorial overkill seemed to confirm rumors that the Bayerische Staatsoper is suffering from a crisis of leadership since the departure of former Intendant Peter Jonas in 2006. Local newspapers report that the arrival of Intendant Klaus Bachler from Vienna this fall may even place Nagano’s status in question. One hopes not, and that this excellent company will instead refocus its energy in the years to come. Even so, a few days at the Bayerische Staatsoper are always very much worth the trip.

Andrew Moravcsik

Click here for a photo gallery of Idomeneo.

Click here for a photo gallery of Doktor Faust.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Doktor_Faust.png image_description=Scene from Doktor Faust (photo courtesy of Bayerische Staatsoper) product=yes product_title=Above: Scene from Doktor Faust (photo courtesy of Bayerische Staatsoper)
Posted by Gary at 5:14 PM

Villazón on Deutsche Grammophon

Only recently he returned to the opera stage, earning cautiously positive notices at Covent Garden in the title role of Verdi's Don Carlos.

One signpost of his career's advancement before the crisis had been his signing with Deutsche Grammophon, often considered (rightly or wrongly) the premiere label for classical artists. So it was in March of 2007 that the tenor recorded the Italian recital disc, Cielo e Mar, and participated in live performances of La Bohème with Anna Netrebko in Munich the following month, which DG recorded.

The recital disc covers a wide range of 19th century Italian opera composers, including the Brazilian-born Antônio Carlos Gomes. The pieces reflect Villazón's questing intelligence, with the more well-known arias, such as the title "Cielo e mar," and two arias from Saverio Mercadante, as well as one from the afore-mentioned Gomes. Giuseppe Pietri's romanza from Maristella may not seem like a known item, but its warm melody struck your reviewer's ears as familiar. Some may claim to hear evidence of the tenor's coming crisis, but where exactly? The studio recording captures the tenor's instrument in strong, handsome form. The occasional resemblance to Domingo remains (including some tightness of high notes), yet Villazón's personality shines through - warmer, more romantic than Domingo's pained heroism. Daniele Callegari supports the singer well, with the increasingly busy Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi.

The live recording of Bohème does find Villazon's instrument a tad raspy, and the tightness a bit more worrying on the highest notes. It was a NYCO television broadcast of the tenor as Rodolfo that first brought him renown in the USA, and he still has the youthful, poetic soul for the role. Arguably the true star of this performance, however, is Anna Netrebko's Mimi. From start to finish, she is in fine form, full-bodied, sensitive, unapologetically gorgeous. Despite the fullness of her delivery, she still manages to characterize Mimi's growing fragility. DG assembled a cast of younger singers of note for the other Bohemians; the refreshingly smaller-scaled Musetta of Nicole Cabell, paired with Boaz Daniel as Marcello, alongside Stéphane Degout and Vitalij Kowaljow, doing excellent work as Schaunard and Colline.

Conducting the Bayerischen Rundfunk forces, Bertrand de Billy enforces some odd pauses, perhaps to facilitate aspects of the live performance. Whether to accommodate the singers or simply his own interpretation, he pushes the tempo a bit at times, possibly to effect greater excitement, then slows down to highlight the drama. It's not an erratic performance, and certainly the musicians play well. A listen to Beecham on his classic set might make some listeners wish for the same confidence from de Billy in Puccini's music.

The booklet note claims that this CD will also serve as a soundtrack to a film version. Your reviewer has no other information, but the photo stills in the booklet, if from such a film, suggest a very handsome production.

Many an opera fan may feel that his/her collection has enough sets of the Puccini classic. The recital disc contains enough that is rare, and is of such high quality overall, that any fan of fine tenor singing needs to give it a listen. As well as to wish Mr. Villazón continued good health.

Chris Mullins

 

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Boheme_Villazon_Netrebko.png
image_description=La Bohème (DG 477 6600)

product=yes
product_title=Giacomo Puccini: La Bohème
product_by=Mimì (Anna Netrebko), Musetta (Nicole Cabell), Rodolfo (Rolando Villazón), Marcello (Boaz Daniel), Schaunard (Stéphane Degout), Colline (Vitalij Kowaljow), Benoît (Tiziano Bracci), Alcindoro (Tiziano Bracci), Parpignol (Kevin Connors), Sergente dei doganieri (Gerald Haeussler), Un doganiere (Tiziano Bracci), Un fanciullo (Nicolas von der Nahmer), Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Udo Mehrpohl (Chorus master), Kinderchor des Stadttheaters am Gärtnerplatz, Verena Sarré (Chorus master), Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Bertrand de Billy (conductor).
product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 477 6600 [2CDs]
price=$33.99
product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=198501

Posted by chris_m at 3:32 PM

Mozart’s La Finta Giardiniera x2

In the most recent “Mozart year” (they seem to come around often), companies stretched out to find lesser known corners of Mozart’s repertoire, and La Finta Giardiniera found itself staged around the world, almost as if it had just been rediscovered in some dusty drawer. Both DVDs discussed here come with 2006 copyrights. Though neither cast features “star” performers, the Zurich staging might seem to have more prestige. Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt leads the Orchestra “La Scintilla” of the Zurich opera house, with soprano Eva Mei and upcoming tenor Christopher Strehl in the leads. In the Stuttgart version, Alexandra Reinprecht and Norman Shankle take on those roles. Both productions can fairly be called modern stagings, with the spare, pastel aesthetic your reviewer calls “Crate and Barrel.” However, the Stuttgart designers, perhaps surprisingly for a house with a reputation for boldness, stick to fairly traditional costuming. In Zurich, the singers cavort in contemporary threads.

What matters, however, is that both of these DVDs give fair evidence that La Finta Giardiniera has been unwisely neglected. Mozart’s melodic flair had not matured when he composed the score, but putting aside the lack of instantly memorable tunes, the music is always dramatically apt and frequently inventive. The opening of act three, in particular, has the sort of sweet, sad atmosphere of one of the great piano concerto adagios. And what once might have been considered the libretto’s weakness of a diffuse, confused scramble of mismatches and pained redemption, actually plays quite well in the 21st century — certainly better than the faux-religiosity of The Magic Flute.

Finta_Arthaus.pngThe Stuttgart production gives the back story in a pantomime under the overture. Count Belfiore had caught his beloved, Violante, in a compromising situation and assaulted her, with a knife yet. She recovered and fled, and he has gone in search of her. She calls herself Sandrina now, while working as a gardener for the mayor of a small town. A niece, a female servant, and a visiting knight are thrown into the mix, with the comings and goings at some points resembling the first act action of Don Giovanni — and La Finta Giardiniera is also called a “dramma giocoso.”

As directed by Tobias Moretti, the Zurich staging has much more “giocoso” than that in Stuttgart. In fact, the comedy gets played up a bit broadly, although Eva Mei’s stricken Sandrina manages to be affecting throughout. The clean white set features two beds of various cacti, a not too confusing symbol for the pain that has sprouted in these lovers’ hearts. Moretti goes in too often for silly pantomime skits between numbers, which partly explains why this is a two disc set, as opposed to the single disc for the Stuttgart version (Stuttgart also appears to have cut some numbers). Although the comedy gets a bit broad, this Zurich production overall features more impressive singing and the dynamic leadership in the pit of Harnoncourt. Unfortunately, the booklet note tends to the obtuse, and without a plot summary, some viewers may find the action confusing.

The Arthaus Musik DVD for Stuttgart delivers an exemplary booklet, with a fine essay on the opera, a summary, and artist biographies. Furthermore, as directed by Jean Jourdheuil, the action comes across with great clarity, although the set never really establishes any particular locale (neither does that in Zurich). Jourdheuil references the comedy when appropriate, but the emphasis is on the mental distress and confusion of the wayward lovers. When they all congregate in a darkened garden, they wear lighted goggles, and still fumble around in the dark, unable to really locate each other.

If only the cast were more interesting to listen to. A former member of San Francisco Opera’s Merola program, Shankle has a very pleasant tenor, though he hardly seems like the violently jealous type. Alexandra Reinprecht, decent enough, only makes Eva Mei look all the more impressive. The other voices make no special impression, excepting the annoying gruffness of Daniel Ohlmann’s mayor.

So true Mozart lovers who have yet to get to know La Finta Giardiniera should probably find room in their budget for both these DVDs. If that can’t be done, it’s a choice between better singing (Zurich) and a more comprehensible staging (Stuttgart). And opera companies looking to broaden their repertory (are there any such in the USA?) should give this early Mozart work another look.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/finta_zurich.png
image_description=W.A. Mozart: La Finta Giardiniera

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product_by=Eva Mei (Sandrina), Isabel Rey (Arminda), Liliana Nikiteanu (Ramiro), Christoph Strehl (Belfiore), Rudolf Schasching (Don Anchise), Julia Kleiter (Serpetta), Gabriel Bermudez (Nardo), Orchestra “La Scintilla” der Oper Zürich, Nikolaus Harnoncourt (cond.)
product_id=DVWW-OPFINT [2DVDs]
price=$34.99
product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/Drilldown?name_id1=8429&name_role1=1&comp_id=16751&genre=33&bcorder=195&label_id=4145

ARTHAUS MUSIC DVD 101 253

Posted by chris_m at 3:17 PM

Der Rosenkavalier highlights on Classics for Pleasure

But for Strauss and Hofmannstahl's classic Der Rosenkavalier, even a very full disc, like this one from Classic for Pleasure, can only contain about a third of the music. Nonetheless, CfP has done an admirable job of selecting scenes and sections that not only contain the most beloved music, but which also give a good sense of the story's rollicking comedy and nostalgic, sentimental core. The 22 tracks take the listener right from the erotic trumpeting of the introduction through to the ecstatic climax and ironic twinkle of the last notes.

The recording comes from 1991, with Bernard Haitink leading the Dresden forces and a cast of Kiri te Kanawa as the Marschallin, Anne Sofie von Otter as Octavian, Barbara Hendricks as Sophie, and Kurt Rydl as Baron Ochs. Richard Leech, still in good voice, has the tenor cameo role of the Italian Singer. They all give fine performances, but that last tinge of charisma and sharp characterization is naggingly absent. Kanawa in particular presents a much more detailed, moving performance on the Covent Garden DVD with Solti conducting. Hendricks would seem to be ideal casting for Sophie, but somehow hers and von Otter's voices do not blend ideally. Similarly, the final trio lacks the blossoming beauty of the best renditions.

Still, there's much to be said for the professionalism of the set, and for those who doubt they would ever have much time to listen to a complete recording, this one would be a very suitable alternative. A detailed plot summary is tied to the track listing.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Rosenkavalier_Classics_Plea.png
image_description=Der Rosenkavalier highlights on Classics for Pleasure

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product_title=Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier (highlights)
product_by=Te Kanawa, Hendricks, von Otter, Rydl, Powell, Grundheber, Dresden State Opera Chorus, Staatskapelle Dresden, Bernard Haitink
product_id=Classics for Pleasure (EMI) 393 3722 [CD]
price=£3.97
product_url=http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B000W7M1AS?tag=operatoday-21&camp=1406&creative=6394&linkCode=as1&creativeASIN=B000W7M1AS&adid=0573W0NVF0C56001T156&

Posted by chris_m at 2:12 PM

July 15, 2008

Samson at Buxton Opera House

Richard Morrison [Times Online, 16 July 2008]

Frank Matcham's masterly opera house is certainly getting a lively workout at this year's Buxton Festival. After the Teutonic whimsy of Lortzing's The Poacher on opening night, four more operatic rarities were staged on the next two evenings.

Posted by Gary at 4:58 PM

Revealing the best kept secret in opera

King_Roger_EIF_08.png(Photo: Marek Grotowski)
Michael Tumelty [The Herald, 16 July 2008]

The fact that Karol Szymanowski's opera King Roger, a great masterpiece by Poland's most neglected composer, will be staged at this year's Edinburgh International Festival is good news for connoisseurs. The fact this Polish production will be performed by St Petersburg's Mariinsky Opera Company, and conducted by Valery Gergiev, should guarantee an appropriately grand, serious and opulent performance.

Posted by Gary at 4:46 PM

Bohemians you can rely on

Boheme_ROH_08.pngBy Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 15 July 2008]

From the Wagnerian summit of the Ring cycles last autumn to the premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur, this has been a Royal Opera season that set its sights high. If it had not been for a series of cancellations by high-profile singers, it might have have ranked as one of the strongest for some years.

Posted by Gary at 10:15 AM

Singers Muster at the Drill Hall

Soldaten1.pngBy HEIDI WALESON [Wall Street Journal, 10 July 2008]

The technical wizardry of the Lincoln Center Festival production of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's "Die Soldaten" is spectacular. Initially produced by the RuhrTriennale Festival in Germany, the New York version is staged in the vast volume (200 by 300 feet, 80 feet high) of the Park Avenue Armory's vaulted Drill Hall. The set (designed by Robert Innes Hopkins), a 250-foot runway, bisects the room and ends in a T; the audience seating, on a bleacher structure that flanks and straddles the runway, moves slowly back and forth on tracks beside the playing area, sometimes bringing the spectators to within a few feet of the singers.

Posted by Gary at 10:10 AM

July 13, 2008

Die Soldaten

He was invalided out in 1942, but that was quite enough to give him a lifetime’s horror of the brutalities of war and what militarism does to society (especially German society). This was not a new idea, though the Nazi Era saw the worst, the apotheosis, of it, and there had been protests before — one of them, The Soldiers, an eighteenth-century play by J.M.R. Lenz, is a didactic fable that shows the notion of military glamour corrupting young people, relations between the sexes and between the classes, and politics.

Zimmerman turned the play into an opera according to twelve-tone principles but with many additional threads from other arts, intending, it seems, to outdo Wagner in its melding of different arts into “total theater,” with opera, a 110-piece orchestra with special percussion and jazz units, spoken theater, ballet, film, television, circus, electronic music, tape and sound techniques to tell a tight, unpleasant, unglamorous little story. Comparisons to Wozzeck are obvious — let’s just say Wozzeck is a whole lot shorter and more focused. (Wozzeck is also based on a far earlier play.) Die Soldaten premiered in Cologne in 1965. Having said what he had to say, Zimmerman killed himself in 1970.

Stagings of Die Soldaten must always be special events — the work is not for small companies or repertory productions. The singers have to be first-rate musicians and first-rate actors, the orchestra huge and expert, the special effects cannot easily be fudged. For this year’s Lincoln Center Festival, the Ruhr Triennial brought their 2007 staging to the Park Avenue Armory, home base when it was built in the 1880s of the most fashionable regiment in town and thus an ideal space for the purpose, both in terms of its block-long size and the military trappings, which have recently been spectacularly refurbished and will keep you agog for the intermissions of any event you attend there. (The City Opera hopes to use it for the New York premiere of Messiaen’s St. François d’Assise in 2010.)

As an event — as a theatrical experience — there can hardly be two opinions of Die Soldaten’s success: It is overwhelming, fascinating theater, a live performance designed with cinematic technique. The impossibly huge room (stretching from near Park Avenue to Lexington) was given a T-shaped stage — the crossbar at the Lexington end, the narrow centerpiece down the center to the seats. The orchestra played on one side, the percussion ensemble on the other. The audience, a thousand of us, sat on rising seats at the Park Avenue end, but our seats were on rollers on six train tracks. For close-ups on the crossbar, we were silently brought east to it; then we were silently moved backwards as scene after scene unfolded on the central stage, where characters were sang while walking, sometimes through each other’s “rooms” on a stage set with sparse evocative furnishings. A Turkish bath for the soldiers, a countess’s salon, a snowy street, the steppes of Russia’s battlefields were thus evoked. There was no interruption between scenes; the continuity made the swiftness of the sordid story of a young girl’s descent from innocently accepting presents from an officer, to his kept woman, to everybody’s whore, to freezing beggar all the more devastating and, at least in this version, inevitable.

No doubt the horrors of war (between men and women, as well as between armies) can be affectingly presented in melodious ways — Prokofiev’s War and Peace comes to mind, and few operas end with more quietly devastating effect than Tchaikowsky’s Mazeppa, as the heroine, having gone mad, lullabies a dying man she believes to be her lost baby. But war in the mid-twentieth century has been savage beyond the stretch of melody, and seemed to Zimmermann to call for unhummable music. Yet he did not make the mistake of many of his atonal contemporaries — his singers do not simply screech at the top of their lungs to express intense feeling, but use the full range of their voices so that subtler shades of meaning can get across. Conversations in this opera do not turn into set pieces — lovers sing at cross purposes, a trio for three arguing women never blends but leaves each of them in her separate world. This is naturalistic and appropriate, but leaves one sometimes wondering if opera is really the medium for Zimmermann’s vision — certainly not traditional opera, but then Die Soldaten is hardly a traditional opera.

It would be amusing to consider what a composer a hundred or two hundred years earlier would have done when setting Lenz’s play: Charlotte’s folk song of broken hearts in the opening scene would have a recognizable melody so that it could return as her sister’s life descended step by step on the social scale, from girlfriend to mistress to whore to beggar. The loutish soldiers’ reflections on the honor of women (or lack of it) would be a merry chorus instead of a collection of brutal shards of tone. Desportes, the “noble” lout who seduces Marie and gives her to his gamekeeper for rape when she becomes too importunate, would have time for a drinking song before Marie’s old boyfriend poisoned him (as, brutally, melodramatically, he does). The trio of three arguing women who never listen to each other would be sublime in the hands of a Mozart.

We can be touched by such methods, but Zimmerman didn’t want to touch us — he wanted to batter us, to shove our faces in it, to eliminate the distance that art necessarily allows for, to make us feel war. He wanted big faces on movie screens to demonstrate the horrors he’d scene at the Front. David Pountney’s production, though the lighting effects (by Wolfgang Göbbel) are subtly brilliant (wavering spirals over the action of a drunken party; shadows that swallow characters when the story has no further use for them), shoves us into, and among, its lurid story by having us zoom across the theater into the girls’ bedroom and the soldier’s mess, then pulling us back for scenes of perspective or of long walks or a nightmare “ballet” sequence in which the ever less clothed, less conscious Marie is tossed from one pig-masked black-tied brute to another. This cinematic variety of perspective makes it easier to notice, for instance, that Marie’s clumsy, childish walk in Act I has become a kept woman’s flounce by Act III, and for a devastating final image to have her — rejected in the snow by her father, who does not recognize her — staggering down endless, featureless streets into a steppe laden with snow-covered dead bodies, recalling Germany’s Russian campaign of World War II.

But what would Zimmermann have done with his brittle, savage, shocking style of composition if, by chance, any of his characters had agreed with each other? If two people had shared love, for example (all the yearning is one-sided here)? It’s difficult to see how that would work in his system, and one admires his cleverness in designing a libretto where it never happens: this is all confrontation, cross-purposes, asides and social cruelties. Verdi and Mozart and Wagner could set confrontation beguilingly, but that is not Zimmermann’s intention. The tonal texture did not outrage (some people left at the intermission — a pity, as the second half was the more exciting) but it did not please, soothe, appeal — it is not meant to. This is art designed to explicate brutality. I enjoyed the intrusive off-kilter atonal jazz band in the banquet scene; another effect of some charm was a percussive rumble like distant freight trains that turned out to be an uncomposed thunderstorm breaking on the Armory roof.

The singers sang with microphones (necessary in the Armory, and suggested by the composer). Microphones can cover lack of volume but not disguise other sins. Let it be said that none of them sounded as if this fantastically difficult music put them out unduly, and I’d be very interested to hear what they can do unamplified and with more gracious sounds to produce. Their acting was superb across the board, and went as far as the manner of movement, the stance adopted in different social situations (a countess alone does not move like a countess in front of social inferiors; a bourgeois boy stands differently when he has enlisted as an officer’s orderly).

Claudia Barainsky was Marie, whose descent is the trajectory of the opera, and her changeable, corruptible moods — innocent flirtatiousness, hauteur when criticized, wracked with jealousy, despair, numbness — guided every phrase as well as every step. As the opera opens, she is bursting with life; as it ends she is empty — and every step, every sound, is part of that picture. Claudia Mahnke sang her sister in a way to contrast at each step — echoing but adjusting her sister’s flightiness with caution, as if to show us that safety could have been an option. Helen Field was splendid as the countess willing to save Marie — as long as Marie agrees not to seduce the countess’s son.

Among the men, the most striking picture and the most interesting sounds, ingratiating, contemptuous, amorous, disgusting, came from Peter Hoare as the officer who corrupts Marie and — in the opera’s stagiest, most satisfying but unrealistic moment — is murdered by her old fiancé. Kay Stiefermann was almost sympathetic as a less amoral but less intelligent officer.

Steven Sloane, aided by a dozen close-circuit televisions, kept musicians and singers and machinery in step through a grueling night to the final shattering tableau.

Is this sort of multiple-effect total-art-work the wave of some budget-unconscious future? Is it necessary to abandon melody and the art of unamplified singing to achieve it? Such questions arise but do not interrupt the presentation of one of the world’s great theatrical and moral messages.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Soldaten_medium.png image_description=Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Die Soldaten product=yes product_title=Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Die Soldaten product_by=Marie: Claudia Barainsky; Charlotte: Claudia Mahnke; Mme Wesener: Hanna Schwarz; Mme Stolzius: Kathryn Harries; Countess de la Roche: Helen Field; Wesener: Johann Tilli; Stolzius: Claudio Otelli; Desportes: Peter Hoare; Major Mary: Kay Stiefermann; Count de la Roche: Andreas Conrad. Bochum Symphony conducted by Steven Sloane. Directed by David Pountney. Ruhr Triennial Production of 2007, restaged at the Park Avenue Armory, New York, for the Lincoln Center Festival. Performance of July 9.
Posted by Gary at 6:05 PM

MOZART: Idomeneo (Britten ed.)

Music composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Libretto by Giovanni Battista Varesco after Idomenée by Antoine Danchet.

First performance: 29 January 1781 at the Hoftheater, Munich
Revised version, 13 March 1786 at the palace of Prince Johan Adam Auersperg, Vienna

Principal Characters:

Idomeneo, King of CreteTenor
Idamante, his sonSoprano or Tenor
Ilia, Trojan princess, daughter of Priam, King of TroySoprano
Elettra, princess, daughter of Agamemnon, King of ArgosSoprano
Arbace, the King's confidantTenor
High Priest of NeptuneTenor
Voice of NeptuneBass

Time and Place: Sidone, capital of Crete, after the Trojan War.

Synopsis:

Act I

Scene 1. A room in the royal palace

Idomeneo, King of Crete, is expected home after the Trojan War. He has been preceded by his Trojan captives, including Ilia, one of the daughters of King Priam.

On arrival in Crete she had been rescued from a shipwreck by Idamante, son of Idomeneo, and the two have fallen in love, though not yet admitted this to one another. Ilia bemoans her fate as a captive deprived of her home and family, a slave in love with the son of her captor. She also fears that Idamante's affections have been won by Elettra (Electra), daughter of Agamemnon, who has fled from her home after the murder of her mother Clytemnestra and sought refuge in Crete.

Idamante tells Ilia that his father's ships have been sighted and announces his intention of setting free the Trojan prisoners. He confesses his love, but she rejects him, refusing to admit her own love and reminding him of the gulf which separates them. Elettra reproaches Idamante for freeing the Trojans. Arbace, Idomeneo's counsellor, reports that Idomeneo's ships have been wrecked in a storm and he has been drowned. All rush out except Elettra, who has perceived Idamante's love for Ilia and gives vent to her own jealous love for him.

Scene 2. A rocky part of the coast

Idomeneo has not been drowned. Washed ashore on the coast of Crete, he laments a vow he made to Neptune, God of the Sea, that if he was spared he would sacrifice to Neptune the first person he met on land. The first person he meets is his son, who is searching for him. Having been separated for 10 years they do not recognise one another at first. When recognition comes, Idamante tries to embrace his father, but Idomeneo rushes away in horror, leaving his son thinking he has angered his father. Joined by their wives and families, Idomeneo's troops rejoice at their safe homecoming.

Act II

Scene 1. The royal apartments

Idomeneo confides his predicament to Arbace and begs him to find some way of saving Idamante from the consequences of his rash vow. Arbace can only suggest sending Idamante away and Idomeneo seizes on the hope thus offered and decides to send his son to escort Elettra on her journey home. Ilia congratulates Idomeneo on his safe arrival. He begs her to shake off her sadness and confirms Idamante's action of setting the Trojans free. Ilia is comforted and feels that she has gained a new father in Idomeneo. He realises that she is in love with Idamante and grieves that his rash vow will prove the death of three people, as he and Ilia will die of grief at the death of Idamante.

Elettra is delighted when Idomeneo tells her that Idamante is to escort her, as she hopes he will learn to love her when he is parted from Ilia.

Scene 2. The port of Sidon

Preparing to embark, Elettra bids farewell to Crete. Idamante grieves at having to leave his new-found father and his beloved. They are prevented from embarking when a storm springs up and a monster emerges from the sea, a sign of Neptune's anger. When the people wonder who can have aroused the god's wrath, Idomeneo confesses that he is the guilty one, without explaining the details of his sin.

Act III

Scene 1. The palace gardens

Idamante tells Ilia that he now seeks death since his father has rejected him and she does not love him. She confesses that she does love him, even though her honor advises against it.

They are interrupted by Idomeneo and Elettra, both distressed, for different reasons, by the love between Idamante and Ilia. Idamante again begs his father to explain the reason for his sternness, but Idomeneo is still unwilling to reveal his vow. Arbace tells Idomeneo that the people are waiting to hear his intentions.

Scene 2. A public square

The high priest of Neptune begs Idomeneo to do somthing about the monster, which is killing innocent people. Idomeneo confesses his vow, explains that the victim is his son and promises to carry it out.

Scene 3. In front of the temple of Neptune

Preparations for the sacrifice are interrupted by Arbace, who announces that Idamante, seeking death, has killed the monster. Arbace feels that they are saved, but Idomeneo fears that the wrath of Neptune will be even greater.

Idamante appears, ready to undergo the sacrifice, glad that his father's apparent severity was only distress at the consequences of his vow. He tells his father not to hesitate to carry out the sacrifice, and commends Ilia to him, but she wishes to take Idamante's place as the victim. The voice of Neptune is heard, announcing that love has triumphed. He frees Idomeneo from his vow, but demands that he abdicate and yield the throne to Idamante and Ilia. All rejoice except Elettra.

[Synopsis Source: Opera~Opera]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/content/Neptune.jpg image_description=Mosaic of Neptune audio=yes first_audio_name=Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Idomeneo first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Idomeneo3.m3u product=yes product_title=Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Idomeneo
English version by Maisie and Evelyn Radford
Edition prepared by Benjamin Britten product_by=Idomeneo: Peter Pears
Idamante: Anne Pashley
Ilia: Heather Harper
Electra: Rae Woodland
Arbace: Robert Tear
High Priest: Paul Nemeer
Messenger: Peter Bamber
Voice of Neptune: Anthony Williams
Trojan Women: Alexandra Browning/Carolyn Maia
Trojan Men: Paul Wade/Peter Leemimg
Cretan Women: Erica Busch/Judith Stubbs
English Opera Chorus
English Chamber Orchestra
Benjamin Britten (cond.)
Live performance, 10 June 1969, Blythburgh Church (sung in English)
Posted by Gary at 5:23 PM

Troilus triumphant in Saint Louis …..

Walton and Christopher Hassall spent over six years laboriously crafting the libretto from nuggets of Chaucer, Boccaccio, and C.S. Lewis’s The Allegory of Love. The musical idiom likewise troubled Walton. He envisioned the opera as an heir to the bel canto tradition, but worried about strains of Wagner, Verdi, and Strauss always “popping their heads round the corner.” Casting problems dogged the 1954 Covent Garden premiere, and Troilus was ill-received at La Scala in 1956. Disheartened, Walton undertook major revisions for the 1963 Covent Garden revival. More revisions followed in 1976, including the alteration of Cressida’s original soprano tessitura into a mezzo-soprano vehicle for Dame Janet Baker. Despite these efforts, today Troilus and Cressida remains a relative rarity. Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s glorious new production is the first since Opera North in 1995, and the first American performance since the 1950s. Opera Theatre likewise premiered a new performing edition of the opera, which incorporates a revised orchestration and the original soprano tessitura. Beautifully sung and strikingly staged, hopefully this Troilus will encourage more frequent American performances.

In Behind the Façade, Susana Walton recalled her husband’s lament that he never found the right voices to sing Troilus. The role of Cressida particularly tormented him; Walton had written it for Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who never sang it onstage. Constantly trolling for the perfect Cressida, Walton even briefly tried to interest Callas in the role. Opera Theatre turned to gorgeous soprano Ellie Dehn, who truly dazzled as the Trojan priestess. Her Act II aria “At the haunted end of the day,” shimmered with mournful longing and finished with a gloriously resonant high C. Cressida’s music has some creatively creepy moments, such as Act III’s “O Tranquil Goddess.” Here Dehn’s excellent breath control helped delicately shape the piano high notes. The only vocal flaw lay in her diction, which was sometimes seemed a little lazy. Dehn’s greatest coup was her magnetic stage presence, proving Walton’s dictum that Cressida is the crux of the opera.

The role of Troilus was well served by Roger Honeywell’s puissant tenor voice, save a few oversung high notes. The quality of Troilus’s music, however, seems less consistent than Cressida’s. For Troilus’s main Act I aria, “Child of the wine-dark wave,” Walton composed a soaring vocal line with the standard love song signifiers of G-flat major and throbbing triple-time. Yet for all its obvious charms, this aria falls flat, through no fault of Honeywell’s. Dramatically, Honeywell and Dehn were a compelling couple, though Honeywell might tone down his occasionally histrionic gestures.

Tenor Robert Breault was stellar as Cressida’s pandering uncle Pandarus. His musical style famously parodies Benjamin Britten’s, with lots of falsetto, melismas, and odd repetitions. Pandarus is hard to judge; on one hand, he offers the only comic relief in Troilus and Cressida, and Breault certainly deserved enthusiastic applause for his fussily cheeky interpretation. On the other hand, I find a little of Pandarus’s music goes a very long way. By Act II, Breault’s well-executed melismas, such as the one on the words “embroidered satin,” just seemed annoying.

Walton noted in 1953 that Cressida’s servant Evadne “should be as good as we can find.” Opera Theatre seemed to follow his directive, given Elizabeth Batton’s beautifully creamy mezzo-soprano voice. Batton had terrific low notes, and her voice blended wonderfully with Dehn’s at the beginning of Act III. Bass-baritone Mark S. Doss imposingly interpreted Cressida’s rival suitor, the Grecian Prince Diomede. Doss’s voice is lusciously rich, with great diction. As High Priest Calkas, bass-baritone Darren K. Stokes was an amazing stage presence, but the voice didn’t carry particularly well.

The orchestra did a fine job negotiating Walton’s complicated score, and the revised orchestration certainly seemed both sufficient and transparent in a hall this size. Many of the short string solos were lovely, particularly Daniel Lee’s cello solos in Acts I and III. Act II’s famous interlude was properly full of yearning.

The sets and costumes were striking in their mix of austerity and sumptuousness. Director Stephen Lawless turned to wartime London for inspiration, particularly the claustrophobic “bunkers” of the Underground. Yet the stage looked less like the London underground than a mix of Downfall and Desert Storm. To some extent, the mixing of the modern and the antique is built into this opera, since Troilus’s original medieval story was transplanted to ancient Greece. The costume designer followed this bi-temporal impulse, with Trojan soldiers in modern metal helmets and the plumes of legionnaires. Cressida and Evadne’s beautiful Grecian dresses were covered with camouflage capes, and spears freely intermingled with contemporary military netting.

At times extraneous stage busyness detracted from the otherwise outstanding production. Walton consummated Troilus and Cressida’s union with an extended “pornographic interlude,” complete with action implied behind a scrim. Opera Theatre staged this beautifully, with Troilus and Cressida wrapping themselves in an enormous sheet and moving in suggestive poses. Paired with Mark McCullough’s splendid lighting and the crashing orchestral interlude, the onstage image was striking. Yet the directors added random “sidebar” interests during the interlude, such as someone being tortured stage right, Pandarus milling about, and finally soldiers crawling in to drag Troilus and Cressida offstage.

I was also mystified by changes to Troilus and Cressida’s dénouement. It took Walton and Hassall years of furious debate to decide the exact sequence of events, particularly concerning the deaths of Troilus and Cressida. Eventually they settled that Cressida’s father Calkas would traitorously stab Troilus in the back, causing the disgusted Diomede to banish him to Troy. Left alone onstage, Cressida seizes Troilus’s sword and stabs herself to end the opera. In Opera Theatre’s version, Calkas shot Troilus in the back. More bizarrely, Cressida ran offstage in the opera’s final bars. At the final drumbeat, an upstage door opened to reveal “Cressida” hanging in effigy from the walls of Troy, strangled by her red scarf. Not only did this significantly alter Walton and Hassall’s vision, the choice ultimately seemed to confuse the audience for no good reason.

Troilusone.pngRoger Honeywell as Troilus (center) with Robert Breault (seated) in William Walton's Troilus and Cressida.

These performances of Troilus were particularly poignant for Opera Theatre, given longtime Artistic Director Colin Graham’s passionate advocacy of Walton’s opera. Graham directed Troilus’s 1976 revival on a shoestring budget, and relished the idea of staging Troilus in Saint Louis. Due to his passing last year, Opera Theatre dedicated Troilus’s run to Graham’s memory. Let us hope Graham’s long-desired Saint Louis Troilus is only the first of many new productions.

Erin Brooks

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Troilustwo.png image_description=Ellie Dehn with Elizabeth Batton in William Walton's Troilus and Cressida. Courtesy Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Copyright 2008 Ken Howard. product=yes product_title=Sir William Walton: Troilus and Cressida product_by=Troilus (Roger Honeywell); Cressida (Ellie Dehn); Pandarus (Robert Breault); Calkas (Darren K. Stokes); Evadne (Elizabeth Batton); Diomede (Mark S. Doss); Antenor (Aleksey Bogdanov). Conducted Antony Walker, directed Stephen Lawless, sets by Gideon Davey, costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, musicians of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Chorus. product_id=Ellie Dehn with Elizabeth Batton in William Walton's Troilus and Cressida.
All photos by Ken Howard courtesy Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
Posted by Gary at 4:36 PM

CANDIDE – English National Opera, London Coliseum

It is set inside a giant television in America at some unspecified point in the 1950s or 1960s (though there are references to events spanning the past sixty years), one conceit of the production is that Candide's childhood home is the White House, and his adoptive parents the President and First Lady. Voltaire's imaginary land of Westphalia becomes 'West Failure', an overt joke at the expense of the US, and Pangloss's unfailingly 'optimistic' philosophical teachings become an all-too-recognisable depiction of a country whose administration prefers to brainwash its younger generation into acceptance and support of its professed moral and religious values while employing questionable (and often downright hypocritical) ethical practices both at home and in its foreign policy.

The overture is accompanied by a film depicting various aspects of American life, principally the ‘American Dream’. It was an inventive compilation with each new musical theme coinciding with a new theme in the film: the fast tune from ‘Glitter and be Gay’, for example, took us to the glamour of Monroe-era Hollywood, and the splash of the final cadence became an exploding Coca-Cola sponsorship logo. We are then introduced to Act 1 by a cartoon Voltaire giving a wink and a one-fingered salute in the manner of a Monty Python animation vignette.

The deeply cynical operetta juxtaposes sunny innocence and the worst excesses of human darkness right from the start, with Pangloss and 'Voltaire' (both roles played by the singing actor Alex Jennings) blithely recounting the young protagonists' encounters with military brutality, massacre and rape as though it were a natural progression from the privileged idyll of the opening scene. The characters hop from country to country, meeting appalling fate after appalling fate and somehow always coming out the other side. Almost all the characters have a surreal habit of surviving their own deaths on multiple occasions; all in all nothing much ever changes in the world, no matter how great the growth in wisdom and self-knowledge of its individual citizens.

Rumon Gamba's conducting was often rather pedestrian, but the cast was reasonably strong. In the title role, Toby Spence was soulful and likeable, his boyish blond looks and clear tenor ideal for the gullible hero. In appearance and character he was well-matched by Anna Christy's Cunégonde, though the amplification system was unkind to her very focussed glassy soprano and she was often shrill (though at least her American accent is natural; the rest of the cast had varying degrees of success with theirs.) Mairéad Buicke's Paquette was lively, and Mark Stone's Maximilian was the most attractive voice on offer. Beverly Klein supplied the best all-round value as the Old Lady; her tango number 'I am easily assimilated' was the most successful set-piece of the evening, more so even than the more obviously showy 'Glitter and be Gay'.

2217ashmore0354-copy.pngToby Spence as Candide & Anna Christy as Cunegonde

The main problem with the staging is that the concept – while supplying good value in terms of funny situations and surreal humour – rides roughshod over the wit and satire in the piece itself. A stab at 21st-century topical comedy – with a parade of five contemporary politicians lazing on inflatable mattresses atop an oil slick – fell absolutely flat, and should be consigned to the cutting-room floor before the production travels any further. Furthermore, the characters remained cartoonish and two-dimensional, and I never felt much sympathy for any of them – the plot relies upon each person being a blend of the positives and negatives of humanity. There were certainly a few real belly-laughs over the course of the evening, but ultimately it was a superficial affair.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

image=http://www.operatoday.com/2217ashmore0219-copy.png
image_description=Toby Spence as Candide (Photo: Catherine Ashmore and ENO)

product=yes
product_title=Leonard Bernstein: Candide
product_by=Toby Spence (Candide), Anna Christy / Marnie Breckenridge (Cunegonde), Alex Jennings (Doctor Pangloss/Voltaire), Beverley Klein (The Old Woman), Bonaventura Bottone (The Grand Inquisitor), ENO Young Singer Mairéad Buicke (Paquette), Mark Stone (Maximilian) and Ferlyn Brass (Cacambo). Conductor Rumon Gamba; Director Robert Carsen; Designer Michael Levine; Lighting Designers Robert Carsen/Peter Van Praet; Choreographer Rob Ashford; Costume Designer Buki Shiff
product_id=Above: Toby Spence as Candide
All photos by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of ENO

Posted by Gary at 3:33 PM

A Brescian Butterfly and a bewildering Hoffman at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

Yet like most composers confronted with such a setback, Puccini immediately set to work revising Madame Butterfly. The second version opened three months later in Brescia, this time to resounding acclaim. Puccini, however, modified the score yet again for Parisian audiences in 1906. Although this last rendition is now the most common, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis turned to the Brescian Butterfly for the 2008 summer season. Among other differences, the late Colin Graham stated in an August 2006 director’s note that this version allows the inclusion of scenes which “soften the friction between two cultures and the boorish attitudes of Lt. Pinkerton.” Yet rarely have I seen a Butterfly with such a distasteful Pinkerton. Perhaps unrelated to questions of conflicting versions and revisions, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s 2008 performance of Butterfly succeeded vocally and visually, but left for me a stronger than usual aftertaste of colonialist guilt.

Soprano Kelly Kaduce is a familiar favorite at Opera Theatre after turns in Suor Angelica and last year’s Anna Karenina. In Act I, Kaduce’s Cio-cio-san was sweet, understated, and insecure — all appropriate for the 15 year-old bride. Kaduce’s dulcet voice suits this role well, and lends youthful believability to her interpretation. Kaduce gained some additional scenes in this version, particularly a poignant final confrontation with Sharpless. Her acting appropriately deepened as Act II progressed; although Cio-cio-san’s unshakeable faith in Pinkerton still hinted of adolescent obsessiveness, Kaduce pulled off the culminating death scene with poised and powerful passion.

David Pomeroy sang Pinkerton rather loudly and passionately, with ringing top notes. His tenor projected very well, though he at times lacked dynamic and rhythmic nuance. Good-looking but completely callous, the English text only highlighted Pinkerton’s annoying range of jingoistic bluster and female objectification. Perhaps this takes Butterfly a bit too seriously, but this interpretation certainly emphasized the negative side of the tenor (anti) hero. For those who like a contrite Pinkerton sobbing over his misdeeds, Pomeroy’s performance isn’t for you. The audience seemed to agree, judging by the “joking” boos that Pomeroy received during the bows.

The rest of the cast was vocally solid, with Lindsay Ammann’s Kate Pinkerton getting a bit more to sing than usual given the alternate version. Ammann has a rich mezzo-soprano voice, with good projection in the lower register. Jamie Barton sang Suzuki with a creamy mezzo-soprano and excellent diction, and kicked up the pathos a notch with her devotion to Cio-cio-san. Lester Lynch’s ringing baritone portrayed Sharpless as a man tormented by ethical unease. The orchestra negotiated the difficulties of Puccinian rubato very well, with a few minor ensemble glitches. Margaret Stearns and Colin Graham’s translation eliminated many of the clunky stresses and archaisms of some other English versions.

This Madame Butterfly achieved a beautiful simplicity notably lacking in certain other productions from OTSL this season. The lacquered black floor, the clean lines of the latticed dividers, the simplicity of rice paper and truly gorgeous lighting meshed harmoniously with the flowered kimonos of the Japanese women and the fin-de-siècle attire of the American characters. Some of the furniture in this Butterfly wouldn’t look out of place in an IKEA store, but worked well when paired with the simple props of a tea set or a small devotional altar. Much was made of the movements of the singers themselves. Colin Graham cited the Japanese Kabuki theatrical tradition as his inspiration, where highly polished stages necessitate special styles of walking. All of the “Japanese” characters in this opera moved differently than the Americans, highlighting cultural difference’s role in this tragedy. This was the lasting impression of this production, a well-sung testament to the fact that in opera, love and imperialism don’t mix.


Jacques Offenbach: The Tales of Hoffman, edited by Michael Kaye and Jean-Christophe Keck.

La Stella/Olympia/Antonia/ Giulietta (Ailyn Pérez, Pamela Armstrong); Hoffman (Garrett Sorenson); Lindorf/Coppélius/Doctor Miracle/Captain Dapertutto (Kirk Eichelberger); the Muse/ Nicklausse (Jennifer Johnson); the spirit of Antonia’s mother (Susan Schafer); Offenbach/Cochenille/Franz/Piticchinaccio (Matthew DiBattista); conducted Stephen Lord; directed Renaud Doucet; sets and costumes André Barbe; translation Stephen Lord; musicians of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra; Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Chorus. A co-production in association with Boston Lyric Opera and Opera Colorado.

Hoffman2.pngAilyn Pérez as Antonia in The Tales of Hoffman. (Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis)
If Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s production of Madame Butterfly embodied the simplistic aesthetic, the 2008 production of Jaques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman offered quite the opposite perspective. Obviously Hoffman’s plot is convoluted in and of itself, with the tenor’s love interests incarnated as a single soprano but known as Olympia/Antonia/Giulietta/ Stella. The villains Lindorf/Coppélius/Doctor Miracle/Captain Dapertutto are also envisioned as a single bass-baritone entity, with a mezzo doing double duty as the Muse / Nicklausse. Offenbach’s death in 1880 likewise left the score a labyrinthine mess of sketches, revisions, and too much material for musicologists to resist. Literally thousands of pages of Hoffman have come to light in recent decades, all leading to newer versions of this opera, which will in all likelihood never reach a “stable” state. Stage director and costume designer Renaud Doucet and André Barbe admit that “ if everything found so far were to be performed in its entirety, the opera would be endless. This might satisfy the scholars but exhaust the patience of any audience!” Yet all this confusion somehow became a mantra for this new production. Doucet and Barbe ask: if Hoffman is a labyrinth, what if Offenbach himself is the one misleading us through it, hiding parts of the score and even inserting himself as a character? I equally wonder whether increasing the confusion of an already messy opera didn’t manage to likewise exhaust the audience’s patience.

This version begins with a twist, centered on the 1880 unveiling of Offenbach’s splendidly gilded memorial. A man (likewise gilded) comes dashing onstage, frantically snatching at music pages falling from the rafters. Voilà! Offenbach, a new character inserted into his own opus. His first appearance drew chuckles from the audience, but as the opera continued, these intrusions seemed more and more unnecessary and illogical. We see Offenbach mincing around Hoffman during the Prologue; he wanders onstage to “play” the cello at various points in the opera; he conducts with an enormous baton at the top of the set, peering down at his characters. Prior to Act III, Offenbach casually rifles through the pages of his score, selecting a few at random to hand to the conductor. Wounded in the jealous fray between Hoffman and Giulietta, the composer is eventually killed by his own character. Does all this meta-plot really take us any further? At times the intrusions were merely comical, but at others, Offenbach was extremely distracting. The “real” Offenbach saw Tales of Hoffman as his only chance at serious opera, making it a strange twist of fate that his small golden effigy is running around onstage diverting attention from his efforts.

The staging, sets, and costume design seemed to suffer from this same overabundance of riches. The overall conception mixed beautifully rendered historical references with a few needless grotesqueries. The Third Empire style loomed large in the Offenbach memorial and a gorgeous model of the Musée d’Orsay clock (which sometimes reveals a naked woman). The central motif of the labyrinth is present throughout, usually in M.C. Escher-inspired backdrops and flooring. Spalanzani’s house reeled with lime green cloaks, a dwarf robot, strange spectacles, tin machines, and the Orsay clock. What was more befuddling was Act II’s similar urge to excess. At the voice of Antonia’s dead mother, a huge doll appeared, eventually manipulated by six Dr. Miracles. The dead mother peered over this entire spectacle from the top right of the stage, encased in a picture frame. Needless to say, all this brouhaha slightly eclipsed Antonia’s death scene. With the appearance of Giulietta, the Venetian setting elicited an incredibly elaborate world of courtesans, sea-horse headdresses, and again the Orsay clock.

Despite the almost overwhelming visual and narrative choices of this production, the vocal element mostly supported this massive edifice. Soprano Ailyn Pérez (spelled by Pamela Armstrong for a few performances) was appealing and impressive in the four main soprano roles. She seemed most idiomatic as Antonia, with her impassioned but diseased character recalling Pérez’s 2007 OTSL turn as Violetta. Her voice soared in the central section of Hoffman, especially in the opening romance and the closing trio. As Olympia, Pérez was a stellar mechanical doll. Her costume was so outlandish it was almost distracting (especially the metallic décolleté), but her jerky movements properly amused the audience. Her Doll Aria was well-acted and decently sung, though some of the rubato seemed to stem more from technical difficulties than interpretive license. She lacked a truly bell-like tone, again sounding more at home in her lyric moments than as a coloratura. The audience found Pérez truly loveable, cheering her loudly at the opera’s end.

Hoffman_StLouis.pngGarrett Sorenson as Hoffman and Matthew DiBattista as "Offenbach" in The Tales of Hoffman. (Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis).
Garrett Sorenson’s Hoffman sometimes lacked necessary power, though Sorenson is clearly capable of nice open singing, evidenced by his song to Kleinzach and many of the scenes with Antonia. Sorenson’s main dramatic problem lay in his awkward stage movements, which tended to handicap any dramatic interest. Jennifer Johnson sang beautifully as the Muse/ Nicklausse, with a lovely tone to her mezzo. Unfortunately, Johnson sang the entire opera covered in heavy gilt makeup, stemming from her turn as the Muse (or an anthropomorphized statue from Offenbach’s memorial). Kirk Eichelberger’s villains were likewise occasionally sabotaged by stage silliness, such as the multiple Dr. Miracles and giant stage doll. As Dapertutto, he got laughs rather than chills as he stole the soul of Schlémihl. His voice had nice rich moments, particularly the second trio of Act II.

The chorus was excellent and really charmed the audience from their first appearance. The orchestra was generally good, although there were a few ensemble problems in the strings the night I attended. While it was exciting to hear an English version of the Opéra-Comique spoken dialogue, most of it fell flat due to stilted declamation by the singers.

This Tales of Hoffman has a gorgeous sweep and sparkle to many of the sets and costumes. The fantastic element really comes alive in the juxtaposition of Third Empire references, machines gone awry, and fearlessly vivid colors. Perhaps some of the production’s most distracting complexities will magically disappear prior to Boston Opera’s 2008 performances.

Erin Brooks

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Butterfly_Kaduce.png image_description=Kelly Kaduce as Madame Butterfly [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis] product=yes product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Madame Butterfly, “Brescia” version product_by=Lt. Pinkerton (David Pomeroy); Cio-cio-san (Kelly Kaduce); Suzuki (Jamie Barton); Kate Pinkerton (Lindsay Ammann); Sharpless (Lester Lynch); Goro (Daniel Fosha); The Bonze (David M. Cushing); Prince Yamadori (Elliott Madore); The Imperial High Commissioner (James Ivey); conducted Timothy Long; original production Colin Graham; director E. Reed Fisher; sets Neil Patel; costumes David C. Woolard; musicians of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra; Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Chorus. A co-production with Minnesota Opera and Kentucky Opera, with scenery and costumes by Minnesota Opera. product_id=Above: Kelly Kaduce as Madame Butterfly (Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis)
Posted by Gary at 3:12 PM

Rossini Opera Festival on Dynamic

On a single disc comes the very early, if not exactly first, stage work of the master, the one-act comedy La Cambiale di Matrimonio. Torvaldo e Dorliska just fits on two very full discs; called a "dramma semiseria," its music doesn't make it sound even "demiseria."

The characters of La Cambiale will be familiar to anyone who has seen one of the more popular Rossini comedies. There are the foolish parent/guardians trying to block the romantic intentions of their children/guardians, and a comic interloper central to the plot's inevitable happy resolution. The fun twist in La Cambiale comes with this latter character, here a Canadian named Slook who has signed a contract to wed the daughter of a European business partner. This early satire of New World brashness isn't subtle, but retains some freshness.

Cambiale.pngThis 2006 performance bubbles and blusters energetically, if with no particularly distinguished voices. As the "bartered bride" of a daughter, Désirée Rancatore's bright tone defines the character well but can prove wearing to the ear. Fabio Maria Capitanucci hams it up Canadian-bacon style as Slook. The idiomatic orchestra performance is led by Umberto Benedetti Michelangeli.

A cast of contemporary distinction benefits the Torvaldo e Dorliska recording. Soprano Darina Takova, tenor Franceso Meli, and a strong mix of baritone/basses (Michele Pertusi, Bruno Praticò, and Simone Alberghini) do their best with the material; without their efforts, this silly story couldn't hope to deserve much attention. An impossibly noble and pure couple, the title characters, must deal with the dastardly machinations of the Duca D'Ordow, who wants the lovely Dorliska for himself. Despite the high passions and violent effusions, Rossini's score often sounds as perky and even comic as that of La Cambiale . Which isn't necessarily bad, since Rossini writes delightful music. Without a moment's dramatic convention, however, the piece feels very long indeed.

Víctor Pablo Pérez conducts the Orchestra Haydn di Bolzano e Trento, the same talented group as in the other recording. A fine DVD exists of the comic one-act; it might prove even more entertaining than this decent recording to those with a interest in early Rossini. Unless OperaRara gets around to it, this Torvaldo e Dorliska will probably be the only option for this opera. Dynamic's sound in natural and detailed, without any of the intrusive stage noises that have marred some of their releases in the past.

Chris Mullins

 

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Posted by chris_m at 2:26 PM

Grant Park Music Festival: “20th-Century Masters.”

The first half of the program was devoted to those very works new to this venue: The Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for Strings by Ralph Vaughan Williams was followed by Les Illuminations by Benjamin Britten, here sung by Karina Gauvin with accompanying string orchestra. Both works were given thoughtful and well-focused performances under the direction of Carlos Kalmar, Principal Conductor of the Grant Park Music Festival. After intermission Béla Bártok’s Concerto for Orchestra added yet another dimension to the variety encompassed in this program of innovative works composed during the first five decades of the past century.

The soft beginning of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia indicated, from the start, a controlled and sensitive performance by the string sections under Kalmar’s leadership. The clarity of playing by individualized segments emphasized the effect of groups within a larger composition. In the first part of the piece the alternations between smaller string groups and full orchestra were seamless. As an ensemble, the players succeeded in emphasizing the harmonic complexity of Vaughan Williams’s own variations balanced against the theme derived from Tallis. During the middle section of the Fantasia the solo playing, especially by the lead violist and principal violinist, achieved a thematic counterpoint and repetition as echoed by other players with successive support from the whole orchestra. Just as individual lines were varied leading into the final segment, one could sense Kalmar’s shaping of the gradual descent into a distended conclusion. A final flourish of melodic repeat by soloists as well as the full orchestra moved with great effect toward the inexorable and fittingly delicate ending.

The following work in the program, Britten’s Les Illuminations, was noteworthy for its committed performances by both vocal soloist and accompanying players. From the first declaration of the repeated verse “J’ai seul la clef de cette parade” (“I alone have the key to this parade”) Karina Gauvin established a tone of authority and privileged vision of the world about which she sang. Set to a selection of texts derived from two poetic cycles by Arthur Rimbaud, Britten chose poems which move in tone from that of an ecstatic visionary to a mood of dejected resignation. Gauvin used her secure vocal range to stunning effect in order both to comment with the ironic distance of an observer’s voice and to fill out individual roles or types portrayed in the vision she narrated. After the introductory “Fanfare,” distinguished by Gauvin’s memorable phrasing and the violin’s solo, the extended section “Villes” (“Towns”) depicted humanity caught up in both progress and decay as a symbol of the contemporary city. As she intoned here the litany of contrasts between the ancient and the modern, Gauvin accelerated in tempo to catch the near breathless depiction of lyrical complexity. While hovering above society in the poem “Phrase” (“Strophe”), the soprano’s quiet introductory tones were capped by the impeccable high notes of the concluding “et je danse” (“and now I dance”). Gauvin adapts her voice to the spirit of each piece, so that she gave an, at times, bell-like rendition to the poem “Antique” (“Antiquity”), whereas softer, more lyrical phrasing was evident in “Royauté” (“Royalty”). The movements of a boat’s prow rising and falling in “Marine” (“Seascape”) were effectively matched by Gauvin’s effortless scales and runs, the piece ending with a single, emphatic note on the last vowel of “tourbillons de lumière” (“whirlpools of light”). The struggles between elemental nature and human efforts, foolish and tawdry, come to a resolution in the final two poems, “Parade” and “Départ” (“Departure”). In the first of these pieces Gauvin’s communication of emotion through song was illustrated repeatedly. Her skill at acting was also clear in a phrase such as “la grimace enragée” (“the furious grimace”), in which rage seemed to suffuse her glance. The song ended with Kalmar’s especially sensitive direction of the strings supporting Gauvin in the last repetition of the “key to this parade.” The concluding poem “Départ” gave the singer yet further opportunity to display lyrical differentiation as tempos slowed gradually toward a resigned statement of weariness in the phrase “Assez connu” (“Enough known”). It should be noted here that Gauvin sang the text of the entire work from memory.

The final piece of the evening, Bártok’s Concerto for Orchestra, was given a masterful interpretation under Kalmar’s direction. After a subdued start in the opening Andante, individual sections of the orchestra blended effectively without sounding overly controlled. The string section was brought to a shimmer before the dramatic ending of the first movement. In the second movement, Allegretto scherzando, the paired instruments played in skillful duets, the bassoons standing out here especially. The final three movements, each shaped in keeping with Bártoks’s markings, showcased individual groups of instruments as punctuated by sweeping phrases from contrasting sections of the orchestra. The intensification of the final movement was not only credible, it also brought the individual sections back to a unified orchestral force. The performance was a fitting conclusion to the evening as titled.

Salvatore Calomino

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Performance of 28 June 2008 product_by=Above: Carlos Kalmar, Principal Conductor
Posted by Gary at 2:10 PM

Duel lyrique de haute volée pour gentlemen

Villazon_AFP.pngMarie-Aude Roux [Le Monde, 9 July 2008]

Soirée d'exception au Théâtre des Champs-Elysées avec un électrisant duo de ténors latinos qui clôturait en beauté la série "Les Grandes Voix". D'un côté, le Franco-Mexicain Rolando Villazon (né à Mexico en 1972), ténor lyrique au timbre chaud et ardent, aux contre-ut puissants. De l'autre, le Péruvien Juan Diego Florez (né à Lima en 1973), ténor rossinien d'agilité, rompu aux vocalises du bel canto, aux contre-ré solaires.

Posted by Gary at 10:55 AM

Così fan tutte, Aix-en-Provence Festival

Kiarostami.pngBy Francis Carlin [Financial Times, 9 July 2008]

Producing opera is a serious job, not something to be undertaken just because you fancy doing it. This new Così marks the 60th anniversary of the festival, which started in 1948 with the same opera, and the operatic debut of Abbas Kiarostami, the 68-year-old Iranian filmmaker. It is, sadly, an amateurish flop.

Posted by Gary at 10:45 AM

Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 9; Richard Strauss: Tod und Verklärung

At the same time, Sinopoli was also a dynamic conductor, whose facility on the podium can be heard in recordings of concerts, such as the ones found on this recent release on Hänssler’s Profil series, which includes the performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (completed 1909) recorded on 6 April 1997 at the Semperoper, Dresden, and Strauss’s well-known tone poem Tod und Verklärung (completed 1888-89) that is based on concerts given on 10 and 11 January 2001. The pairing of the two pieces was not intended by the conductor, but is fitting for various reasons. While Strauss’s tone poem antedates Mahler’s last completed symphony by a decade, the two works capture both composers in their maturity. By 1909 Strauss had shifted emphasis in compositions to opera, while Mahler was pursuing the concert works that demonstrate the ingenuity of his late style, as found in the symphonic song cycle Das Lied von der Erde and the Ninth Symphony. The latter, though, was never performed by Mahler, but had its premiere a year after its composer’s death under the direction of Bruno Walter. If Mahler’s posthumous reputation was retrenched in the 1960s with the well-known revival of interest in his works that took place around 1960, the Ninth Symphony remains one work that benefited from a number of fine recordings in the intervening years. It is a work that demands much from the orchestra and its conductor, a challenge that Sinopoli addressed well in this live recording of a concert performance.

Sinopoli had recorded this very work with the Philharmonia Orchestra four years earlier in 1993, a performance released on Deutsche Grammophon and currently available in the conductor’s set of Mahler’s symphonies. The earlier recording merits attention for various reasons, and a similar case may be made for the later one, which reflects Sinopoli’s ongoing exploration of the composer’s music. As one of Mahler’s later works, the orchestral style involves a kaleidoscopic mixture of chamber-music-like sonorities which demand a precise and attentive ensemble. Sinopoli is effective in achieving this, with the sometimes transparent scorings emerging clearly and the lines seeming almost seamless. If Sinopoli’s sense of rubato is apparent in the exposition of the first movement, it is a tribute to his command of the Staatskapelle Dresden, which responded well to him. The sometimes sudden entrances of the horns in that movement are clear and never stridently out of place. Rather, the pointillistic sounds fit together well under Sinopoli’s baton in this recording. Likewise, the strings act as a unit and offer the full, rich sound that Mahler required in this score, a sonority the stands in contrast to the concertato-like effects in the winds an brass. In the expansive tempos of the first movement, Sinopoli seems to revel in the sheer sound of the music, as occurs in the reminiscence of music from the First Symphony. With such pacing, it is possible to perceive the timbre-based units that Mahler used to support the structure of the work.

The approach to the subsequent movements is equally solid, with a masterful Scherzo that involves a fuller orchestral sound. Some of the shifts of tempo may seem, at times, idiosyncratic, as with the rubato used for the trombone passage in the first section. Sinopoli indulges in a somewhat slower interpretation of the middle section of the movement than some conductors allow, but his command of the movement is evident. The interaction of tempos is essential to the articulation of the musical structure, and Sinopoli makes the most of bringing out the distinctions he deemed necessary for his interpretation of the movement, as if to underline the differences that should be immediately apparent to the audience. A similar case may be made for the Rondo-Burleske, which includes a similar approach to the timbral distinctions between sections. At times the Rondo-Burleske possesses a drive that is sometimes lost in a live performance, and such intensity is welcome. (Unfortunately the copy on the jewel-case includes the attacca marking along with the title of the movement to render it as Attacca Rondo-Burleske.)

With the final movement, Sinopoli offers a spacious interpretation that balances his approach to the opening of the Symphony. In the Adagio-Finale, the string textures are quite effective, with a resonant and warm tone. Here the Staatskapelle Dresden demonstrates its fine core sound in a movement that is essentially chamber music on a grand scale. In this expansive interpretation it is possible to hear subtleties that sometimes escape notice. The sound is close, as occurs throughout the recording, and Sinopoli’s interpretation benefits from this perspective. As in the first movement, the various shifts of tone color serve to underscore the structure, and Sinopoli draws on them for maximum effect. The movement flows convincingly, with the full expression the music requires.

After the monumental Finale of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony another work may seem anticlimactic. Yet Sinopoli’s nuanced recording of Strauss’s late tone poem Tod und Verklärung somehow works well. Just as he brought out various colors of Mahler’s score, Sinopoli used a similar approach to the sometimes more broadly scored passages of Strauss’s work. With its implicitly personal program, the reflective tempos that Sinopoli uses in this recording are effective. Again, the seemingly close proximity of the microphones allows details to emerge easily, and the result is a memorable recording of Strauss’s score. The brasses shimmer without dominating, and the woodwinds offer some fine ensemble playing. The percussion, so important to this particular work, fit well into the structure and the program with appropriate incision.

Part of the ongoing audio archive of some of the exceptional performances of the Staatskapelle Dresden, this is a welcome addition to the already fine body of recordings already available. The recording of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony preserves Sinopoli’s later interpretation of a score that fits his style well, and those unfamiliar with his approach to Strauss’s music will find an excellent example of his work in Tod und Verklärung, a recording made not long before the conductor’s passing.

James L. Zychowicz

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Posted by jim_z at 12:13 AM

July 9, 2008

How SFO Closed Its Season

(Photo by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera)
By DAVID LITTLEJOHN [Wall Street Journal, 8 July 2008]

From early last September to early December, the San Francisco Opera presented eight operas in rotating repertory. It then handed over the War Memorial Opera House to the San Francisco Ballet until early May. The company returned to the opera house for three more productions this summer.

Posted by Gary at 1:13 PM

July 8, 2008

Levine Wages Berlioz’s Trojan War

By ALLAN KOZINN [NY Times, 8 July 2008]

LENOX, Mass. — James Levine opened the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer season at Tanglewood here exactly as he closed its formal season at Symphony Hall in Boston, with a concert performance of Berlioz’s biggest, meatiest and most hair-raisingly passionate score, the opera “Les Troyens.” As a concession to its five-hour duration, he adopted a time-honored way of presenting it, with Part 1 (the first two acts, “La Prise de Troie”) on Saturday evening, and Part 2 (the final three acts, “Les Troyens à Carthage”) on Sunday afternoon.

Posted by Gary at 5:41 PM

`Soldaten' Moves 974 People but Not One Heart: Review

John Simon [Bloomberg.com, 8 July 2008]

July 8 (Bloomberg) -- The Park Avenue Armory is the site of ``Die Soldaten,'' Bernd Alois Zimmermann's 1965 12-tone opera in a gargantuan production imported to Manhattan from Germany for the Lincoln Center Festival. It fills out what used to be the Drill Hall of the elite Seventh Regiment, whose drills may have been more musical than Zimmermann's opera.

Posted by Gary at 5:35 PM

The Rake’s Progress, Royal Opera House, London

By Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 8 July 2008]

Did a more intellectual pair ever come together to write an opera than Igor Stravinsky and W.H. Auden? They gave The Rake’s Progress so many reference points to art, music and literature through the ages that Tom Rakewell’s story really does come across as a parable for all time.

Posted by Gary at 5:24 PM

July 6, 2008

Crossing the Sea, at Wilton's Music Hall

Deirdre_Gribbin.png(Photo: Eugene Langan)
Richard Morrison [Times Online, 7 July 2008]

To come across a new work that's carefully conceived for a mixture of different media - film, dance, theatre, a singer and a string quartet - is a rare and rewarding thing. With her husband, the theatre director Lou Stein, the Belfast-born composer Deirdre Gribbin has been exploring this genre-busting territory for some time. But if she writes another piece as haunting as Crossing the Sea - her “one-woman opera” had its premiere in the suitably elegiac dilapidation of Wilton's Music Hall - she, and we, will be lucky.

Posted by Gary at 9:31 PM

On the Right Track With 'Die Soldaten'

By GEORGE LOOMIS [NY Sun, 7 July 2008]

Any festival in a big city needs to offer something radically different from normal fare, or it doesn't deserve to be called a festival. This hurdle is surmounted triumphantly by the Lincoln Center Festival with its production of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's "Die Soldaten," or "The Soldiers," which opened on Saturday, not simply because it has chosen a complex, modernistic opera as its musical centerpiece but because it has staged it in the vast Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory.

Posted by Gary at 9:02 PM

San Francisco Opera summer season, 2008

Stefan Margita? Well he may not be a household name, even in the dwellings of opera lovers, but he dominated the production of Wagner's Das Rheingold, seen in the last performance of its run on Saturday, June 28th. Francesca Zambello's concept, first seen in Washington D.C., supposedly centers on an "American" perspective. Much more of what that might entail appeared in the program essay than on stage. Alberich carried a pickax, so he might have been a prospector. Since his discovery of the gold actually comes by accident, that profile made little sense. The Rheinmaidens looked much as they usually do, and the first stage set of ramps swamped by mist made an amorphous impression. Zambello resorted to rather trite imagery for the film screen back drop, including a mountain stream and space imagery right out of any number of corny science fiction films for the opera's prelude. The prospective tenants of Valhalla came dressed as Gatsby-era upper crust types, with gentlemen in pale linen (Donner carried a croquet mallet). For once, Wotan actually was dozing as Fricka woke him, but since she did it with a TV sitcom swap across the head, Wotan started diminished and really never showed any of the character's grandeur or strength. Mark Delevan, however, gave evidence that he has the voice for the role, and could well grow into a more impressive interpretation.

But the opera became Loge's once the elegant, obsequious figure of Stefan Margita slank on stage. Although his voice failed to carry well anytime he turned away from the audience, he had absolute command of the stage otherwise. And conductor Donald Runnicles sooner or later let the orchestra flood over all the singers. The best of Zambello's invention went to the giants, superbly sung and acted by Andrea Silvestrelli (Fasolt) and Günther Groissböck (Fafner). In an interesting twist, the Freia of Tamara Wapinsky apparently found, as Madeline Kahn did in Young Frankenstein, the "sweet mystery of life" with Fasolt, as she clung to him amorously after her abduction, returned reluctantly to her family, and then was inconsolable when Fafner went in for a little fratricide.

Zambello may yet fully develop the "American" perspective as the cycle continues in future seasons. On Saturday night, the production took a lower profile while the singers and orchestra carried the night.

The Sunday matinee audience for Lucia Di Lammermoor basked in the radiant star power of Natalie Dessay, and at least for the first act, her Edgardo, Giuseppe Filianoti, shone as bright. However, after singing with brilliant tone and force through the sextet, the tenor started to wane in the second act. By his great climatic scene, the voice had grown husky and strained at the top. Nonetheless, he was rewarded for the passion of his efforts with a healthy ovation at curtain.

But Dessay brought the crowd to their collective feet. She did not overplay the character's neurosis, and her mad scene truly put the emphasis on the music's depiction of the breakdown, rather than histrionics. The high notes carried a hint of scratchiness, otherwise, the performance almost appeared effortless. Not so that of Gabriele Viviani, the Enrico, whose stout baritone carried well but without any distinctive qualities.

The production, co-directed by Graham Vick and Marco Gandini, gave an atmospheric sense of the moors, especially in the final scene. Brooding skies and a single blasted, twisted tree served most of the other scenes, with sliding panels quickly establishing new locations. The most effective moment came with Lucia's appearance for the mad scene, a "slow reveal" that frankly acknowledged the central place this scene has in the opera's staying power. Conductor Jean-Yves Ossonce provided efficient, if characterless, support.

Unfortunately, OperaToday reviewers are not immune to transportation difficulties, and a slow leak (which should not a problem for a typical gasbag critic) from a tire prevented your reviewer from making the curtain for Tuesday's night's Ariodante . The last half of act one was caught from orchestra standing room, and then, exhausted, your reviewer slipped out of the War Memorial after act two. The conducting of Patrick Summers, routine to a fault, had not helped matters.

No blame for this whatsoever goes to the excellent cast. Susan Graham and Ruth Ann Swenson both sang exquisitely, with admirable support from Richard Croft and Eric Owens. As the villain of the piece, Sonia Prina hammed it up enthusiastically enough but looked fairly ridiculous. The sets and costumes came from Dallas Opera (direction by John Copley and design by John Conklin ). Tall marble columns slid into different formations for each scene, but it always seemed to be the same set. The lavish costumes only emphasized the barrenness of the staging. Some years ago a video appeared of an ENO production of the opera, featuring Ann Murray, which had much more wit and eroticism than this lame affair. Sadly, as your reviewer left after act two so did quite a few other audience members. Maybe they had tire problems to attend to as well...

So ends the 2007-08 SFO season. But the 2008-09 season premieres in just a matter of weeks, with stars such as Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Anna Netrebko lined up. Gockley should perhaps look into bringing back Stefan Margita soon as well.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Ariodante_Graham_SFO.png
image_description=Susan Graham as Ariodante (Photo: Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

product=yes
product_title=San Francisco Opera Summer 2008
Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold
Gaetano Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor
G. F. Handel: Ariodante
product_by=Above: Susan Graham as Ariodante (Photo: Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

Posted by chris_m at 8:50 PM

BELLINI: Norma

Beghelli makes no reference whatsoever to the particular performance preserved here. Instead, he gives a detailed history of the opera's early performances and singers, taking those facts into consideration in trying to explain what has made Bellini's opera such a vital force in the art form's history.

Unfortunately, as reviewers are apt to say, this performance only provides glimpses of that greatness, caught through a foggy veil of wayward bellowing and screechy theatrics. Andrea Papi sings a standard Oroveso, dark enough if not truly imposing. Vincenzo la Scola then struts on as Pollione, and quickly the dark clouds appear. His first scene finds the tenor forcing the volume and flailing for pitch. Thankfully, he improves, and the duet with Adalgisa (the fine Carmela Remigio) goes rather well, and he does some fine soft singing in the opera's closing scene.

Fiorenza Cedolins in the title role needs as much time as La Scola to warm up. But Norma's first scene carries a different weight in the opera, as compared to Pollione's. Cedolins has a large instrument, yet she manages to to find enough flexibility for most of Bellini's demands. However, the tone is often sour, and Norma sounds at times like a vengeful harpy even here, far too early in the opera. She manages some affecting moments in act two. The duet with Remigio suffers from lapses in synchronization between the two voices but otherwise goes well. The final scene, as with La Scola, finds Cedolins at her best, with one spectacular floated high note. In the end, Cedolins's Norma probably played best live in the house. As a recording, it veers too much to the side of over-emphatic histrionics.

The voices are very far forward in the super-clean digital mix, with next to no stage noise and only a couple breaks for applause. The conductor boasts a fabulous name - Fabrizio Maria Carminati. The Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana and the chorus perform with more subtlety than the two leads.

Collectors of Norma will want this one. Anyone else who already has a decent set can safely move on.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/002_2551-2.png
image_description=Vincenzo Bellini: Norma

product=yes
product_title=
product_by=Fiorenza Cedolins; Vincenzo La Scola; Carmela Remigio; Andrea Papi; Katarina Nikolic; Giancarlo Pava. Coro Lirico Marchigiano “Vincenzo Bellini”. Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana/Fabrizio Maria Carminati
product_id=Bongiovanni GB 2551/52-2 [2CDs]
price=$41.49
product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/Drilldown?name_id1=888&name_role1=1&comp_id=7408&genre=33&bcorder=195&label_id=290

Posted by chris_m at 8:37 PM

Unusual Fare at Opera Festival of St. Louis

But let’s begin with the “very very good,” shall we? The new production of William Walton’s “Troilus and Cressida” was remarkably fine. Above all, it was impeccably cast with vibrant, exciting young artists who were uncommonly gifted.

Roger Honeywell was a charismatic and impassioned “Troilus;” blond, strapping, and possessed of a fresh, well-schooled, ringing tenor that would be the envy of many a “Bacchus” I have heard. He not only has the requisite ping for the dramatic outbursts, but provided equally compelling, well-modulated phrases in a caressing voix-mixe. Like other tenors capable of stentorian singing, the tone can get a little wide and open on held notes around the passaggio and he seemed to take a bit of time to completely warm up, but overall Mr. Honeywell contributed an impressive evening of singing.

As “Cressida,” Ellie Dehn was no less compelling. Her free and easy top was always in the service of creamy lyrical outpourings, and she was equally capable of hurling thrilling climactic thunderbolts. Ms. Dehn has a beautiful warm, round sound throughout the range, although the initial expository demands challenged the soprano to deploy wordy lower middle passages against a busy and occasionally dense accompaniment. In spite of good vocalism and conscientious diction, this did make me look at the surtitles through much of her Act I set piece.

Nonetheless, her great scena of despair in Act Three (indeed, the whole of the act) could hardly have been bettered for musicality, dramatic purpose, ravishing sound, consistent characterization, and total immersion into the story. This is a very fine artist.

Robert Breault turned in a witty, commanding portrayal as the meddling “Pandarus.” Whether nailing the fussy melismas, making musical sense of the angular and long-winded phrases, or pouring out some plain ol' fine lyric tenor singing, he commanded the stage every moment with his thoroughly engaging performance. A major talent announced its presence as soon as Mark S. Doss’s “Diomede” pinned our ears back with his thunderous bass declamations. His fine vocalism was married to a handsome presence and a subtle portrait of a sinuously ill-intentioned Power Player.

Elizabeth Batton’s plummy mezzo, with awesomely rich chest tones, made the most of “Evadne’s” secondary part, and and she was captivating in her poised treachery. The opera’s opportunistic turncoat “Calkas,” was well managed by Darren K. Stokes, and Aleksey Bogdanov made a fine impression in his brief moments as “Anternor.” All of the minor roles were well-assigned to several of the highly talented soloists in the Gerdine Young Artists Program, who also provided the thrilling choral work under the sure hand of Sandra Horst.

The spot-on physical production was designed by the gifted Gideon Davey. A program note described that the team envisioned this as a claustrophobic, bunker-like tale of the inglorious side of war, and it was visually borne out by a slightly raked gray platform topped by a ceiling, both of which extended from up right to down left in a rather gaping perspective. On the triangular apron, a patch of reddish earth accommodated a make-shift shrine, later removed to create a pit for a miserable “Cressida” to grovel in. Impeccably selected decorations were complemented by simple drawn drapes at the back and sides, and cleverly designed panels which opened to reveal such things as a concealed library, a concealed chorus, and in a visual coup, a massive practical dirt-furrowed ramp that descended from the ceiling. The latter allowed for some stunning stage compositions.

Within this highly evocative playing environment, director Stephen Lawless worked some true theatrical magic with well-considered blocking, complex sub-text-rich character relationships that unfolded inevitably, and best of all, a keen knack for perfectly judged placement of the singers on the stage. I cannot recall a better grouping of assembled forces in any recent production than in the huge concerted number in the final act. Every single singer was where (s)he needed to be for maximum presence and musical effect. Masterful.

The opera’s pivotal scene was so well-judged it elicited gasps as “Cressida” first knelt to “Diomede” in supposed capitulation, then in one motion swept the red scarf off his shoulders and onto the adjacent “Troilus,” sealing their doom with chills-inducing imagery. Only the final visual of the piece produced a “huh?” moment, as a panel burst out of the back wall revealing a hanged corpse, with “Cressida” still in the process of exiting the stage. If the point was to prompt much discussion as to who it was or what it meant, it succeeded. For me, it was an unnecessarily confusing image after an evening of utmost clarity of purpose.

The beautiful, character-specific costumes were by the reliably talented Martín Pakledinaz (what a briliant touch incorporating the BDU material in the soldiers attire). All of this was was wonderfully complemented by an effective lighting design devised by Mark McCullough (especially fine were the unusual storm effects).

Maestro Antony Walker conducted the (Walton estate sanctioned) reduced orchestration with great attention to detail and considerable dramatic fire. I am not sure what was “lost” in the translation to this smaller band (and chorus), but it certain made for riveting listening to my ears. Owing to an unavoidable quirk of the physical set-up of the Loretto Hilton Theatre, it seemed to me the stage overhang and pit-mandated player placement did impose a reduced presence and brilliance in the lower voices. But this is a minor reservation in a evening so jam-packed with musical and theatrical riches.

On the evidence of this mounting, “Troilus and Cressida” deserves to be heard again and again, especially now that there are splendid singers who know it! Indeed, it is this production that should be deemed “A Rare Treasure,” but alas that name was already taken by the other St. Louis rarity, Vicente Martín y Soler’s “Una Cosa Rara.”

I felt there were two serious mistakes with this Soler production. First, designer David Zinn put an eight foot wide, twelve inch high platform running from upstage to down, bisecting the entire playing area with an obstacle that informed and disturbed every blocking pattern throughout the evening. Watching singers, especially women in heels having to hike up and over this thing was at best tiresome, at worst worrysome, lest someone misjudge the height in all the frantic movement.

Second, and more damaging, director Chas Rader-Schieber seemed to have little faith in the musical and dramatic material, overloading the proceedings with shtick that would have been been rejected by the “Carol Burnett Show.” I overheard a couple of company insiders chatting at the post-show social gathering to the effect that “oh, yes, Chas had to pull every trick to wrench something out of the show.” It begs the question: why do the material if you feel that you have to tart it up to make it palatable to your public?

“Una Cost Rara” is perhaps today famous only for being quoted in “Don Giovanni.” However, having premiered at Vienna’s Burgtheater on 17 November 1786, it rapidly supplanted Mozart’s operas in popularity and remained a solid hit for some decades thereafter. This must be owing not only to the simple and accessible melodies and arias, but also to the sassy plot of peasant love trumping royal aspirations.

Back to the production at hand, through much of Act One I was thinking this was more a college opera workshop production than a front rank festival offering. Only the fine baritone Keith Phares displayed the finished voice and presence of an artist in the (deserved) beginnings of a major career. Cutting a handsome figure, he managed to internalize the comedy and make us care about the shepherd “Lubino’s” plight, all the while singing with secure technique and beauty of tone.

The rest of the cast started more unevenly, saddled as they were with gamely performing director-imposed “funny” business. The program note proclaimed this approach to be farce but it was characterized neither by consistent pacing nor effortless clowning, seeming at most times forced. Or perhaps “farced?”

“Queen Isabella” as impersonated by Mary Wilson seemed a cross between a cigarette-wielding Bette Davis and Lucille Ball in search of a punch line. While she was an audience favorite, I felt that her first entrance lacked vocal star presence, and top notes sung at mezzo-forte turned thin. However, she grew in stature as the evening progressed and her full-voice singing in Act Two provided much pleasure, even if those pesky softer high notes remained a bit edgy to my ears. Her son “Prince Giovanni” was very well-taken by young Alek Schrader, who used his smooth lyric tenor to poured out some beautiful long-winded runs in a wonderful aria, reminiscent of “Il Mio Tesoro.”

Maureen McKay turned in quite a spunky performance as “Lilla,” a shepherdess whose clumsy “Bo Peep” owed as much to “Cinderella” in “Into the Woods” as it did to Soler. She gamely took pratfalls, goofed around in a Martha-Graham-gone-bad dance parody, and all the while sang very nicely. She lavished beautiful phrasing on her lovely (and blessedly still) second act aria, which could have been written for “Susanna” in “Figaro.”

The secondary Love Couple, the farmer “Tita” and his fiancee “Ghita” were embodied with tireless flouncing about and considerable vocal skill by bass Matthew Burns and soprano Kiera Duffy. The latter has played “Despina” elsewhere and well, the vocal writing is so parallel that she seemed to be playing it again here! Mr. Burns’ savvy second banana proved a good foil to his slightly vacuous buddy “Lubino.”

Paul Appleby (valet “Corrado”) and David Kravitz (mayor “Lisargo”) essayed their character roles with solid commitment. It must be said that all of the singers displayed excellent English diction in communicating Hugh Macdonald’s translation of Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto. Although laced with a few anachronisms, and sporting more than a few lame jokes, this English version was sensible, accessible, and singable.

Conductor Corrado Rovaris (who also played harpsichord) conducted cleanly, although the lack of brilliant instruments in the orchestration coupled with the muted presence of the lower strings (see above) seemed to make the accompaniment a bit joyless, something the serviceable, unfamiliar score could ill afford. The featured Mandoline accompaniment was artfully provided by Richard Salvino.

A stage director friend often talks about “The Distractor Factor,” that is, extraneous stage business, props, costumes, etc. that distract from the flow/intent of the piece and take us out of the moment. His “TDF” meter would have remained in the red for most of this show for it seemed nothing but distractions.

The background is a false proscenium askew with tilted windows and hidden doors. This textured wall is first lit in green, then lavender. The floor is covered with Kelly and Hunter green stripes. Oh, yeah, placed on top of this for some reason are numerous pink flamingos, used for weak sight gags way past their “sell-by” date. At one point, the soprano literally gives the “Prince” the bird. Six of them, in fact. An anachronistic bit with a gramophone “playing” the muffled off stage choruses missed the mark. Once the flamingos were unceremoniously toted off, pink chairs were lined up for a sort of Mad Hatter Tea Party effect, each seating a stuffed animal. The “Queen” takes a sock puppet monkey and caresses it at length. (There is a “spank the monkey” joke here somewhere that was mercifully foregone.)

Arias that were probably well sung and might have given musical pleasure were upstaged by more “funny” business:

“Ghita” pulls up carrots and cabbages while “Tita” solos. “Lilla” coarsely eats an apple, dropping bits and chunks all over herself and the stage as a sister soprano chirps on unnoticed. “Lubino” takes his shepherd’s crook and yanks stuffed rolling sheep on stage while he and “Tita” sing a duet to which no one pays attention. A garden gnome is plopped in the “vegetable patch,” a cumbersome piece that the servants later have to wrestle offstage. And these same extras assemble and dissassemble a picket fence in three sections to no great purpose, in front of “Lilla” as she sings an aria. As if this weren't enough, musical integrity, rhythmic pulse, and dramatic pacing were consistently compromised by self-inflicted, meaningless, just-plain-wrong pauses.

This, my friends, is “The Distractor Factor” elevated to an unprecedented art form.

I mostly liked the (mostly) garish camp costumes by Clint Ramos well enough, with the exception of the broad-rimmed straw hat on “Ghita” at her entrance which made her very hard to light well, and kept us at a distance from getting to know her. Otherwise, Mark McCullough’s lighting was again effective and well-cued.

I feel that there is a much much better piece in Soler’s gentle opus than we were allowed to experience. I kept thinking what it might be like with, say, Bartoli and Dessay and Damrau blazing through these pleasant tunes. Or if a university group cast it with their best and brightest and mounted it with the conviction that it is in fact a stage worthy piece. As it is, the St. Louis production team seemed not to have read the whole title:

“A Rare Treasure, or . . .Beauty. . .and Honesty.” Would that they had.

James Sohre

image=http://www.operatoday.com/PortraitofWalton.png image_description=Portrait of William Walton product=yes product_title=William Walton: Troilus and Cressida
Vicente Martín y Soler: Una Cosa Rara product_by=Above: Portrait of William Walton
Posted by Gary at 8:34 PM

'Faust' is reimagined in production by Richardson-based Living Opera

gregory_sullivan_isaacs.pngBy SCOTT CANTRELL [The Dallas Morning News, 6 July 2008]

Selling your soul to the devil: It's an archetypal notion. We usually mean it metaphorically.

Posted by Gary at 8:17 PM

So That’s What the Fat Lady Sang

Lotfi-Mansouri.pngBy ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 6 July 2008]

DURING a long career in North America, Lotfi Mansouri, the Iranian-born opera director and manager, ran two prestigious houses, the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto and the San Francisco Opera; commissioned works; directed scores of productions; cultivated singers; and still had time to make his mark in Europe.

Posted by Gary at 8:08 PM

Opera at the BBC Proms — the world’s biggest Music Festival

The Proms are the world’s biggest classical Music Festival. For eight weeks, they are a barometer of what’s happening in music. The BBC broadcasts every Prom worldwide, online and on demand. With this huge, international audience, the Proms are truly a worldwide celebration, bringing music lovers together wherever they may be.

The Proms have a formidable reputation for excellence. They’ve been running for 114 years, almost without a break. Most concerts take place in the Royal Albert Hall, a monument to the Victorian idea that culture advances human progress. Nearly every significant composer and performer over the last century has featured at the Proms, and the atmosphere is unique. To be in this spectacular building when 7000 people are cheering is an amazing experience, which the BBC captures remarkably well, supporting the broadcasts with many extras on its comprehensive website — they even tell you about the mysterious “Proms sub-culture” ! Many Proms are televised.

The Royal Albert Hall is famous for large scale orchestral music, but opera, too, is heard to advantage. This year’s big event is Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. It’s a concert performance of the Glyndebourne production, performed by the highly regarded baroque specialists, Emmanuel Haïm and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Glyndebourne is the epitome of “country house opera”, where top quality productions take place in glorious settings. The BBC Proms makes it possible for everyone listening to catch some of the magic. This isn’t one to miss — it’s on July 31st .

Puccini’s Il tabarro follows on August 11th, with Barbara Frittoli as Giorgetta and Lado Ataneli as Michelo. Jiřì Bělohlávek is at last being recognised as a superlative Janàcěk conductor, so Osud on August 21st will be another highlight, particularly as Bělohlávek’s work is seldom recorded. Even rarer is Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kaschey the Immortal on September 5th. Vladimir Jurowski conducts. He’s been a sensation at Glyndebourne and at the South Bank, and this is his kind of repertoire.

The Proms also bring Messiaen’s St Francis of Assisi straight from Amsterdam. It’s almost exactly the same cast, with Rodney Gilfrey as St. Francis, and Ingo Metzmacher conducts the Hague Philharmonic rather than the Residentie Orkest. This should be intriguing, as this 5 hour blockbuster is quite an undertaking. Again, unmissable ! James Sohre reviewed the original Amsterdam performance for Opera Today here.

BBC_Proms.png

These operas are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s also Verdi’s Requiem, Handel’s Belshazzar, Janàcěk’s Glagolitic Mass (conducted by Boulez), Bach’s St John Passion, and the massed choir spectacular that is Messiaen’s La Transfiguration de Notre Seigneur Jésus Christ. Among the singers who will be heard are Karita Mattila (Strauss Four Last Songs), John Tomlinson (excerpts from Boris Gudunov), and Angelika Kirchschlager (Schubert). The famous (or notorious, depending on your point of view) Last Night of the Proms is always an experience, but Beethoven’s 9th Symphony which always features before the Last Night. “Alle Menschen werden Brüder, wo dein sanfter Flügeln wielt”. People all over the world are brought together, wherever The Proms “wings” can reach. Nothing expresses the ethos of the BBC Proms spirit better ! And thanks to international broadcasting and the internet, the dream can come true, for a while.

The BBC Proms website with a link for listening may be found here.

Anne Ozorio

image=http://www.operatoday.com/proms_flag.png image_description=BBC Proms product=yes product_title=The 2008 BBC Proms season
18 July through 13 September 2008
Posted by Gary at 7:55 PM

MOZART: Così fan tutte — Wien 2008

Music composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791). Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte.

First Performance: 26 January 1790, Burgtheater, Vienna.

Principal Characters:
Fiordiligi, a lady from Ferrara, living in Naples Soprano
Dorabella, sister of Fiordiligi Soprano
Guglielmo, an officer, Fiordiligi’s lover Bass
Ferrando, an officer, Dorabella’s lover Tenor
Despina, maidservant to the sisters Soprano
Don Alfonso, an old philosopher Bass

Setting: 18th Century Naples

Synopsis:

Act I

It is early morning. Two young officers, Ferrando and Guglielmo, boast about the beauty and virtue of their sweethearts, the sisters Dorabella and Fiordiligi (“La mia Dorabella”). Don Alfonso, an older man and a friend of the two officers, insists that a woman's constancy is like the Arabian phoenix - everyone says it exists but no one has ever seen it (“È la fede delle femmine”). He proposes a wager of one hundred sequins that if they give him one day, and do everything he asks, he will prove the sisters are like all other women - fickle. The two young men willingly agree to Alfonso's terms and imagine with pleasure how they will spend their winnings (“Una bella serenata”).

Fiordiligi and Dorabella gaze blissfully at their miniature portraits of Guglielmo and Ferrando (“Ah, guarda sorella”), and imagine happily that they will soon be married. Alfonso's plan for the day begins when he arrives with terrible news: the young officers have been called away to their regiment. The two men appear, apparently heartbroken, and they all make elaborate farewells (“Sento, o dio”). As the soldiers leave, the two women and Alfonso wish them a safe journey (“Soave sia il vento”). Alfonso is delighted with his plot and feels certain of winning his wager.

As Despina complains about how much work she has to do around the house, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, upset by the departure of their fiancés, burst in. Dorabella vents her feelings (“Smanie implacabili”), but Despina's advice is to forget their old lovers with the help of new ones. All men are fickle, she says, and unworthy of a woman's fidelity (“In uomini, in soldati”). Her mistresses resent Despina's approach to love, and depart. Alfonso arrives to plan the next stage of his wager: he enlists Despina's help to introduce the girls to two exotic visitors, in fact Ferrando and Guglielmo in disguise, and is relieved when Despina does not recognize the two men. The sisters are scandalized to discover strange men in their house. The newcomers declare their admiration for the ladies, each wooing the other's girlfriend, according to Alfonso's design, but the girls reject them. Fiordiligi likens her constancy to a rock in a storm (“Come scoglio”). The men are confident of winning the bet, but Alfonso reminds them that the day is still young. Ferrando reiterates his passion for Dorabella (“Un'aura amorosa”), and the two go off to await Alfonso's further orders. Despina, still unaware of the men's identities, plans the afternoon with Alfonso.

As the sisters lament the absence of their lovers, the two “foreigners" stagger in, pretending to have poisoned themselves in despair over their rejection. The sisters call for Despina, who urges them to care for the men while she and Alfonso fetch a doctor. Despina re-enters disguised as a doctor and, with a special magnet, pretends to draw off the poison. She then demands that the girls nurse the patients as they recover. The men revive (“Dove son?”), and request kisses. As Fiordiligi and Dorabella waver under renewed protestations of love, the men begin to worry.

Act II

In the afternoon, Despina lectures her mistresses on their stubbornness and describes how a woman should handle men (“Una donna a quindici anni”). Dorabella is persuaded that there could be no harm in a little flirtation, and surprisingly, Fiordiligi agrees. They decide who will pair off with whom, and fitting perfectly into Alfonso's plan, each picks the other's original suitor (“Prenderò quel brunettino”).

Alfonso has arranged a romantic serenade for the sisters in the garden, and after delivering a short lesson in courtship, he and Despina leave the four young people together. Guglielmo, courting Dorabella, succeeds in replacing her portrait of Ferrando with a golden heart (“Il core vi dono”). Ferrando apparently has less luck with Fiordiligi (“Ah, lo veggio”); but when she is left alone, she guiltily admits he has touched her heart (“Per pietà”).

When they compare notes later, Ferrando is certain that they have won the wager. Guglielmo, although pleased at the report of Fiordiligi's faithfulness to him, is uncertain how to break the news of Dorabella's inconstancy to Ferrando. He shows his friend the portrait he took from Dorabella and Ferrando is furious. Guglielmo blames it all on women (“Donne mie, la fate a tanti!”), but his friend is not comforted (“Tradito, schernito”). Guglielmo asks Alfonso to pay him his half of the winnings, but Alfonso reminds him again that the day is not yet over.

Fiordiligi rebukes Dorabella for being fickle, but finally admits that in her heart she has succumbed to the stranger. Dorabella coaxes her to give way completely, saying love is a thief who rewards those who obey him and punishes all others (“È amore un ladroncello”). Left alone, Fiordiligi decides to run away and join Guglielmo at war, but Ferrando, pursuing the wager, tries one last time to seduce her and succeeds.

Guglielmo is furious, but Alfonso counsels forgiveness: that's the way women are, he claims, and a man who has been deceived can blame only himself (“Tutti accusan le donne”). As night falls, he promises to find a solution to their problems: he plans a double-wedding.

Despina runs in with a double-wedding plan of her own: the two sisters have agreed to marry the “foreigners,” and she is to find a notary for the ceremony. The scene is set for the marriage, and Alfonso arrives with the notary - Despina in another disguise. As Fiordiligi and Dorabella sign the contract, martial strains herald the return of the former lovers' regiment. In panic the two women hide their intended husbands and try to compose themselves for the arrival of Ferrando and Guglielmo. The two apparently joyful soldiers return, but soon become disturbed by the obvious discomfort of the ladies. When they discover the notary the sisters beg the two men to kill them. Ferrando and Guglielmo reveal to them the identities of the "foreigners.” Despina realizes that Alfonso had let her in on only half of the charade and tries to escape. Alfonso bids the lovers learn their lesson and, with a hymn to reason and enlightenment, the day comes to a close.

Commentary.

Così has been seen as revealing a dark side to the Enlightenment, an anti-feminist sadism (Ford 1991). Yet by any showing the most admirable character is Fiordiligi. The girls develop more than the men. Dorabella at least learns to understand her own lightness; and ‘Fra gli amplessi’ suggests that Fiordiligi has matured through learning the power of sexuality. There is little sign that Guglielmo learns anything in the school for lovers, even that those who set traps deserve to get caught, although his vanity is wounded as deeply as his purse. Ferrando, however, comes to live as intensely as Fiordiligi, and may appear to have fallen in love with her. To suggest that they should marry (leaving Guglielmo for Dorabella) is, however, still less satisfactory than reversion to the original pairings. The conclusion represents not a solution but a way of bringing the action to a close with an artificiality so evident that no happy outcome can be predicted. The music creates this enigma, but cannot solve it.”

Julian Rushton: 'Così fan tutte', Grove Music Online (Accessed 11 June 2006).

Click here for complete libretto.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/cosi_fan_tutte_poster.png image_description=Così fan tutte audio=yes first_audio_name=Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Così fan tutte first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Cosi3.m3u product=yes product_title=Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Così fan tutte product_by=Barbara Frittoli (Fiordiligi)
Angelika Kirchschlager (Dorabella)
Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (Guglielmo)
Francesco Meli (Ferrando)
Laura Tatulescu (Despina)
Natale De Carolis (Don Alfonso)
Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper
Riccardo Muti (cond.)
Live performance: 6 February 2008, Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna
Posted by Gary at 2:31 PM

Two Aida’s from TDK

The Metropolitan Opera’s database, for example, shows that it has been performed there more than 1,000 times since November 1886. The number of performances has declined in recent years, largely because of the work’s cost of production, the work’s vocal demands and the work’s relative conservatism. Nonetheless, Aida holds an important place in Verdi’s oeuvre and today’s repertoire. As Roger Parker has noted:

Aida remains the most radical and ‘modern’ of Verdi’s scores: its use of local colour. Aida, constantly alluding to its ambience in harmony and instrumentation, is the one Verdi opera that could not conceivably be transported to another geographical location. In this respect it was an important indication of the influence local colour would come to have over fin-de-siècle opera, and an object lesson on the delicacy and control with which this colour could be applied to the standard forms and expressive conventions of Italian opera.

Roger Parker: ‘Aida’, Grove Music Online (Accessed 25 June 2008).

Before me are DVDs of two highly disparate productions of Aida. One is a production presented at the Arena di Verona. Built in 30 C.E., the Arena is a huge open-air structure that seats 15,000.

The other production by the master of extravaganza, Franco Zeffirelli, comes from Teatro Giuseppe Verdi in Busseto, Verdi’s birthplace. Teatro Giuseppe Verdi barely seats 350; but this lovely theater is truly a small jewel.

Aida is a colossal work that brings out massive ideas in stage design. These two productions live up to that concept perfectly. So I will review these DVDs separately. But I invite the reader to keep in mind the contrasts between these productions as well as their similarities. Those very things are a tribute to the mastery of Verdi.

Teatro Giuseppe Verdi

Aida
Teatro Giuseppe Verdi, Busseto Italy
Performance: January 27, 2001 (the 100th anniversary of Verdi’s death)
Production designed by Franco Zeffirelli
Conductor: Massimilano Steffanelli
The King of Egypt Paolo Pecchioli
Amneris Kate Aldrich
Aida Adina Aaron
Radames Scott Piper
Ramfis Enrico Giuseppe Iori
Amonastro  Giuseppe Garra

Coached by Carol Bergonzi and directed by Franco Zeffirelli , this production cast young performers to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Verdi’s death. The size of the theater did not stop Zeffirelli from doing what he does best-spectacle. What actual sets there are look massive and fit the aura of what Aida is supposed to look like. Other dramatic views are achieved through the skillful use of painted or projected back drops. Albeit small, the orchestra was up to the task in the theater’s tiny pit. The flute solo was particularly notable.

The singers, who were then hardly in their 20's, are not well-known. Some may recognize a few of the names, such as Kate Aldrich and Scott Piper.

Piper possesses a nice tenor voice. As Radames, he tentatively tackles “Celeste Aida,” delivering a credible rendition of that monster. He can sing loud and with a robust sound, be it in victory or rejoicing, yet sings tenderly and softly in the last duet.

Kate Aldrich performs Amneris. One does not think of a mezzo tackling this role early in a singer’s career, but Aldrich makes Amneris believable. Although she does not bring the subtlety to it that a Zajick does, that is a learned attribute. Aldrich is sensitive, cunning yet able to demonstrate the insecurity of thinking her chosen man has given his heart to another. When she knows at the end of Act IV that she has lost Radames, her remorse is clearly felt.

It is a bit disconcerting to see the High Priest, the King, and Amanastro so youthful looking and sounding. They are nevertheless believable and refreshing.

Zeffirelli skillfully handles the “big scenes” on the tiny stage. He does not include the ballet for the most part. And the grand triumphal march is presented as a parade that the waving extras look on. We see their backs as they jockey for position to see the spectacle. The music is well played so we do not miss that triumphant moment. As the parade ends, Radames appears in the Temple where the victory ceremony is performed.

There are other nice touches. In Act III Aida sings of her country (“O Patria mia”) as she sits at the banks of the river and reaches into the water to touch it and bring her wet fingers to her face…….almost as holy water. Aaron sings this great aria convincingly.

My favorite portion of Aida is the ending duet. I want it to be tender and loving. These two young singers do it with aplomb.

The costumes are lush and lavish. Soft pastels and vivid reds are well presented. The colors darken as the tragic ending of the opera approaches.

I found this little production refreshing. I appreciated what it must mean to these young singers to work with the masters like Bergonzi and Zeffirelli and to be in a DVD that is in world wide distribution.

Aida at Arena di Verona

Aida
Arena di Verona
Performance: August 1992
Production directed by Gianfranco De Bosio
Conductor: Nello Santi
Aida Maria Chiara
Il Re Carlo Striuli
Amneris Dolora Zajick
Radames Kristjan Johannsson
Amonastro Juan Pons
Ramfis Nicola Ghiuselev

Aida_Verona_1992.pngThis massive production befits the location. Opera has been presented in the Arena di Verona since 1913. Production designers have been tempted by the vastness of the space available to them, and have often used live animals and enormous sets.

This production follows the traditions of this ancient arena. Huge sets depicting the temple, trumpeters high above the top of the sets and a cast of what seemed like thousands (but probably not quite that many!). There are live horses in the triumphal scene, but no elephants!!

All of the ballet music is there along with the dancers. Nothing is missing in this extravaganza.

Maria Chiara was arguably one of the great Aida’s of her time. She was the partner of many a great Radames, including Luciano Pavarotti. This time frame is late in her career but she still can carry off the role. There are a few rough patches at the top of her voice but not enough to really complain about. Her “O Patria Mia” is lovely and heart wrenching.

When this video was made, Kristjan Johannsson was just beginning his career, which led him to the Met as well as most of the opera houses in Europe. His style is rough and direct. His only voice level is loud. I hesitate to be overly critical in that the location could well be overwhelming and the tenor may have tried to over compensate for that. When a bit of a tender sound is called for, as in the final duet, Johannsson is just not able to produce it. His robust moments, however, are more appropriate.

Juan Pons as Amonastro is worth watching and hearing. He brings to the role the tenderness of a father and the regalness of a King.

Dolora Zajick is a force to be reckoned with. This voice is truly amazing. Her acting ability is everything one would want from this Amneris. She easily makes us hate her, empathize with her and in the end mourn with her. She is one of the great Amneris’ of our time.

Nello Santi is an old pro and the orchestra gets to show off all its skills as it traverses Verdi’s score. We all wait for the trumpets and brass in this opera; but there are some wonderful flute solos, as well.

This video is well worth the time to watch Aida as a huge spectacle and to hear some amazing singing by the women in the cast. With the exception of Pons, one must bear the male performers to enjoy this production.

Cheryl Dowden

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Aida_Busseto_2001.png image_description=Giuseppe Verdi: Aida product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Aida product_by=Kate Aldrich, Adina Aaron, Scott Piper, Orchestra e Coro della Fondazione Arturo Toscanini, Massimiliano Stefanelli (cond.) product_id=TDK DV-AIDDBM [2DVDs] price=$24.99 product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=145201&album_group=2
Posted by Gary at 2:28 PM