September 30, 2008

'Manon' gala makes spirits bright

Laura Emerick [Chicago Sun-Times, 30 September 2008]

When Manon, the heroine of Massenet's opera, extols the carefree life of luxury in the work's famous Act 3 gavotte, her joie de vivre virtually lights up the stage.

Posted by Gary at 9:14 AM

Classic 'Candide' is a vibrant season opener

By Valerie Scher [Union-Tribune, 29 September 2008]

Listening to Leonard Bernstein's “Candide” at the Birch North Park Theatre was enough to make you marvel at the composer's verve and variety.

Posted by Gary at 9:10 AM

Deborah Voigt's Bold Gambit

By FRED KIRSHNIT [NY Sun, 26 September 2008]

American soprano Deborah Voigt has had an up-and-down career over the last decade. Although some of her appearances at the Metropolitan Opera House have been powerful, especially her Sieglinde under both maestros Gergiev and Maazel, she has also disappointed as Elisabeth in "Tannhaeuser" and especially as Floria in "Tosca," where her rendition of Vissi d'arte on opening night was remarkably unmoving. At this point, she needs to prove herself at every appearance.

Posted by Gary at 8:44 AM

September 29, 2008

Les Pêcheurs de perles at the Washington National Opera

The 24-year old composer’s sixth and his second to be staged, this opera is a relatively little-known example of 19th-century French opera’s obsession with exotica. Its mostly Oriental stories are populated by savage primitives, and sexy virgin priestesses who in the course of the plot would invariably fall victim to forbidden love. In The Pearl Fishers, Bizet and his librettists were evidently feeling charitable: the guilty passion for once does not prove fatal for the soprano. Instead, she is saved by the villainous baritone, who belatedly discovers his inner hero, and of course gets himself shot for his trouble.

The 25 September performance was generally of good quality. The orchestra did well under the baton of Ciuseppe Grazioli. So did the chorus— when it was on stage and was able to watch the maestro’s baton, that is; the timing in the off-stage numbers was sometimes shaky.

Among the soloists, tenor Charles Castronovo as Nadir definitely stood out from the ensemble. His popular Act 1 romance “Je crois entendre encore” showcased the singer’s strong metallic timbre with excellent projection in all registers. His softly beautiful high notes might perhaps be criticized as too thin; I personally liked the pianos and thought they were stylistically appropriate for a French opéra lyrique, which really should sound different from middle-period Verdi, although it rarely does.

Baritone Trevor Scheunemann as Zurga offered a rich vocal timbre and good blending in the ensembles, of which the famous Act 1 duet “Au fond du temple saint” was a particular highlight of the evening. Scheunemann’s solos were solid, but not particularly memorable. It seemed to me that his concentration on the dramatic aspects of his part— specifically, his character’s inability to decide whether to play a village Count di Luna or Marquis di Poza of Ceylon— sometimes got in the way of sound production.

French soprano Norah Amsellem as Leila was another solid choice in casting. Despite her vocal excellence, however, the singer, like her colleague Mr. Scheunemann, also seemed trapped in the inner contradictions of her character. This time, the issue is not young Bizet’s inexperience as a dramatist, but rather the ideological “baggage” attached to the female lead in French Orientalist opera. Is she a virginal victim or an exotic seductress? One of these two favored clichés demands pure, crystalline high register and “floating” timbre with not much support; the other calls for a throaty, rich low and middle range, with rare but powerful highs. Although Ms Amsellem herself seemed to try charting some sort of middle ground, the casting of this singer, a dramatic soprano, indicates the director’s preference for the seductress image. As a result, in my opinion, this Leila often sounded much too heavy for Bizet’s delicate creation who, after all, is more Michaela than Carmen.

Pearl_9-08_2.pngNorah Amsellem as Leila and Denis Sedov as Nourabad

Bass Denis Sedov as high priest Nouraband cut an imposing figure, but despite occasionally powerful sound did not impress with either diction or articulation. In this production, however, the very tall singer’s towering physique was evidently more in demand than his vocal prowess. The stage director, Australian Andrew Sinclair, has attempted to both dramatize and modernize the story by superimposing a political intrigue à la Boris Godunov onto Bizet’s unsuspecting characters, with Mr Sedov’s Nouraband serving as the evil “old order” genius who masterminds the collapse of “liberal” Zurga’s rule. Since no one told the composer about this particular plot twist, there was little in the score to support it. Instead, it was delivered entirely via stage business, which required a lot of “extra-curricular” wandering about the stage from Mr Sedov who did manage to look suitably menacing most of the time.

Another directorial attempt to make Bizet’s dramatically challenging early work more palatable to modern audiences included the revamping of Act 3. It used neither the original love duet nor its common trio substitute, but did entail Leila partially disrobing, then getting assaulted during her duet with Zurga. Alas, the tedious scene was not at all improved by that spectacle. It did, however, allow Ms. Amsellem to showcase once again Leila’s fanciful costume of an orange sari wrapped around a classic “Oriental” ensemble of a skimpy pink top with bare midriff and the see-through harem pants.

The bright palette of reds, oranges, pinks, and turquoise greens dominated the vibrant décor by celebrated British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes. Among the often striking visual effects she created, enhanced by the excellent lighting by Ron Vodicka, particularly notable was the scene of Leila’s first appearance— carried on a live chariot by six men, immobile like a Buddha statue, her orange and gold veil spotlighted against deep purple backdrop. Rhodes’ design ideas were always vivid and always intriguing. What bothered me in her vision was the stylistic discontinuity between the sets and costumes. The latter were colorful, with a nod to geographic authenticity, and in tune with the production’s realist acting and staging. The former— deliberately perspective-less, two-dimensional, with fauvist-leaning color palette and a neo-primitivism-inspired images— were anything but “real.”

The designer’s closest stylistic ally in this production was John Malashock’s choreography, on display so much that it became almost as ubiquitous as Ms Rhodes’ sets. Indeed, even by dance-crazy French standards, ballet was often entirely superfluous, such as the number for what was evidently the “spirits of fire” that provided the background for the introduction to Leila’s Act 1 prayer. When staging The Pearl Fishers, Mr. Sinclair outlawed “proper” ballet as unsuitable for the subject; thus, there was not a pointed shoe in sight (or any kind of shoe, for that matter, as all the dancers performed barefoot). Rare nods to “Oriental” choreography were confined to women’s numbers, which unfortunately suffered from weak execution (this specifically refers to the quartet of Leila’s attendants). The male dances, in a counterpart to Bizet’s imaginary Ceylon, offered a picture of the “imaginary primitives” brandishing fighting pikes: their movements were athletic, aggressive, and purposefully inelegant, with ground stomping, angular hand and feet positions; pirouettes replaced by cartwheels. The Act 3 finale opened with a pas de trois in The Lion King-size animal masks— which was perhaps a little much, but it did save the director a major headache of having to come up with stage business for the endless choruses of this scene.

Pearl_9-08_119.pngNorah Amsellem (top, veiled) as Leila, Trevor Scheunemann (foreground) as Zurga

Overall, the Washington audiences were presented with a solid, colorful, mostly traditional Les Pêcheurs de perles, well performed (despite some misgivings on my part) by a consistently good cast. The production, which runs through 7 October, offers few vocal fireworks; nor can it boast a truly new word in staging. Yet, for an old-fashioned opera lover, after last season’s symbolist Dutchman and Nazi-fied Tamerlano, these realistic and suitably “Oriental” Pearl Fishers might be a welcome relief.

Olga Haldey

image= image_description=Norah Amsellem as Leila and Charles Castronovo as Nadir in Washington National Opera’s The Pearl Fishers (2008). Credit: Karin Cooper. product=yes product_title=Georges Bizet: Les Pêcheurs de perles product_by=Leïla (Norah Amsellem), Nadir (Charles Castronovo), Zurga (Trevor Scheunemann), Nourabad (Denis Sedov). Washington National Opera. Giuseppe Grazioli (conductor). Andrew Sinclair (Director). Zandra Rhodes (Set and Costume Design) product_id=Above: Norah Amsellem as Leila and Charles Castronovo as Nadir

All photos by Karin Cooper courtesy of Washington National Opera
Posted by Gary at 9:41 AM

September 28, 2008

Cool Cavalli at Covent Garden — La Calisto

No, this is not Berg or Birtwistle, nor some contemporary operatic essay on The Crunch, but the cool, clever and calculating Mr Cavalli and his “La Calisto”, first shown to the discerning and politically savvy public of Venice in 1651. Without a doubt, this production at the Royal Opera (Cavalli’s somewhat overdue debut) is a sizzling success, and shows that Covent Garden could and should embrace the genre of early opera (not to mention “mainstream” baroque) more whole-heartedly in future. If opening night audiences were on the thin side, especially in the more expensive seats, this was no longer true come the second and third performances – word of mouth (and print) has seen to that.

Véronique Gens as Eternity [Photo © Bill Cooper]Véronique Gens as Eternity
One of only two operas that Cavalli wrote with a mythological storyline, it is perhaps the best known today and has been revived several times, most notably by Raymond Leppard back in the 60’s at Glyndebourne. But since then early opera – or rather its interpreters – have galloped on, sometimes like a riderless horse, plunging on and off the track, but always seeking to find a permanent home in the stable of current repertoire. One of its greatest advocates on the stage is David Alden, director of many Handelian successes but new to Covent Garden, and with this “Calisto”, first shown in Munich, he has cemented his reputation for melding old music with modern sensibilities.

First and foremost, Alden is a collaborator. Not for him the roughshod riding of some European directors over text and musical line; rather, he works closely with his musical director (here the redoubtable Ivor Bolton renewing his acquaintance from Munich with the Torrente edition of the original threadbare score) , his long-time scenic associates Paul Steinberg (striking, colourful sets) and Buki Shiff (shimmering cat-walk quality costumes) and his rock-solid cast of experienced period performers led by Sally Matthews in the title role. This Calisto is sexy, cynical, funny and sad – you leave the theatre feeling both uplifted and a little wiser.

Ovid’s recounting of the story of innocent nymph Calisto’s seduction, abandonment, and final metamorphosis from a bear into a heavenly star system is well known, but Cavalli and his librettist Faustini brought in a whole raft of supporting mythic characters – mainly comic - and a secondary plot involving the apparently chaste goddess Diana and her earthly lover Endimione. The music is a roller-coaster of almost-speech, scatter-gun recitative alive with wit, tender ariosi and dramatic, textually replete song, all supported by and entwined with the artistry of the OAE and Monteverdi Continuo Ensemble, led by a visibly-involved Bolton on the podium. This is opera as complete team-work, from early rehearsal through to performance, and it shows.

The vocalists were period-perfect, all real actor-singers. Sally Matthews has an individual, robust yet light-footed soprano that was in wonderful form as Calisto. Her sparkling top was matched with a warm and agile middle voice, occasionally let loose in the second half with real depth of tone and volume to reflect her anguish and incomprehension – a totally human sound in contrast to her god-like tormentors. Chief of these is the eternally-lascivious super-god, Giove (Jove) sung by the very experienced baroque baritone Umberto Chiummo who uses his warm tone and natural agility to great effect. His long-suffering wife, Giunone (Juno) is a smaller part but sung with panache and aplomb by Veronique Gens, whilst the supposedly “chaste” Diana of Monica Bacelli is sung with a scampering delight in both text and music, shading her voice intelligently to reflect her inner conflicts. The only other human character besides Calisto is the rather dopey shepherd Endimione, love-lorn and languishing on various hillsides, and he is sung accurately but rather four-squarely by Lawrence Zazzo who doesn’t quite capture the elegiac elegance of what is Cavalli’s loveliest long-lined music.

Dominique Visse as Satirino & Guy De Mey as Linfea [Photo © Bill Cooper]Dominique Visse as Satirino & Guy De Mey as Linfea

Unlike the later Handel, Cavalli’s characters have strength in depth right down to the supporting minor roles and it is here that this production really rises above the merely good and becomes excellent – not to mention downright salacious and sexy. Marcus Werba as Giove’s oily side-kick Mercurio, Guy de Mey in hilarious drag as the sex-mad overweight nymph Linfea, Ed Lyon as a stomping Pane, and probably the delight of the evening, the ever-green Dominique Visse hilarious and repulsive as the randy half-goat Satirino, his athleticism and mellifluous braying (do goats bray? they certainly trill) a remarkable tour-de-force that had us in stitches. A whole raft of actor/dancers filled out the scenes, each beautifully and intriguingly costumed as mythological creatures – the eye was filled in a way that was matched by the interwoven magic of the words and music. If you’re tired of grey and empty sets, dark spaces lit by bare bulbs, come and enjoy opera as it should be – Messrs Alden and Bolton and their team will see to that.

Sue Loder © 2008

“La Calisto” at ROH, Covent Garden, continues on 1st, 3rd and 10th October.

image= image_description=Sally Matthews as Calisto [Photo © Bill Cooper] product=yes product_title=Francesco Cavalli: La Calisto product_by= Giove (Umberto Chiummo), Mercurio (Markus Werba), Calisto (Sally Matthews), Diana/Destinio/First Fury (Monica Bacelli), Endimione (Lawrence Zazzo), Linfea (Guy de Mey), Satirino/Nature/Second Fury (Dominique Visse), Pane (Ed Lyon), Silvano (Clive Bayley), Giunone/L'Eternità (Vèronique Gens). The Monteverdi Continuo Ensemble and Members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Royal Opera House. David Alden (Director). Ivor Bolton (Conductor). product_id=Above: Sally Matthews as Calisto

All photos © Bill Cooper courtesy of Royal Opera House
Posted by Gary at 1:07 PM

STRAUSS: Arabella -- Dresden 2005

Music composed by Richard Strauss. Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

First Performance: 1 July 1933, Sächsisches Staatstheater Opernhaus, Dresden

Principal Roles:
Count Waldner Bass
Adelaide, his wife Mezzo Soprano
Arabella, their daughter Soprano
Zdenka, Arabella's younger sister Soprano
Mandryka, a Croatian landowner Baritone
Matteo, an officer Tenor
Count Elemer Tenor
Count Dominik Baritone
Count Lamoral Bass
Fiakermilli Soprano
Fortune-Teller Soprano
Three Players Basses
Welko, Mandryka’s bodyguard Spoken Role


The impoverished Count and Countess Waldner seek a rich suitor for their eldest daughter Arabella, and have disguised their younger daughter Zdenka as a boy to save money. Zdenka is in love with Matteo, one of Arabella's admirers, and has written him letters in her sister's name. Arabella believes she will recognise 'the right man', and is curious about a stranger who has watched her outside the hotel. She agrees to choose a husband by the end of the Coachmen's Ball that evening, and leaves for a sleigh-ride. Beset by creditors, the Count has written to a Croatian landowning friend, enclosing a photo of Arabella. The friend's nephew and heir, Mandryka, announces himself. He is bewitched by Arabella's portrait and has come to Vienna to woo her. The Count accepts Mandryka's suit and a loan for the gambling tables. At the ball, Arabella and Mandryka are attracted to each other - he is the stranger she had noticed. He describes a village custom in which a glass of water is offered by a maid to her betrothed to drink. She agrees to marry him, but begs a few hours to bid farewell to her youth. Arabella is proclaimed Queen of the Ball by Milli, the coachmen's darling, and takes leave from each of her former suitors. Zdenka arranges an assignation with Matteo, luring him with a key to Arabella's room. This is overheard by Mandryka, who notes Arabella's departure and falls into a drunken fury, outraging the Countess with accusations of Arabella's infidelity. The Waldners leave the ball and the Count commands Mandryka to follow. Back at the hotel, Matteo believes he has met with Arabella in her darkened bedroom, but in the foyer she is baffled by his allusions. Mandryka has lost his trust in Arabella, and in the growing confusion challenges Matteo to a fight. Zdenka appears in a nightdress and confesses her love for Matteo. Arabella seeks forgiveness from Mandryka and asks her father to bless the union of Zdenka and Matteo. Mandryka, alone, contemplates his feelings for Arabella and sends a glass of water to her room. She brings it down for him to drink, as a symbol of their love.

[Synopsis Source: Boosey & Hawkes]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image= image_description=Angela Denoke as Arabella (Photo by Matthias Creutziger) audio=yes first_audio_name=Richard Strauss: Arabella first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Richard Strauss: Arabella product_by=Waldner (Alfred Kuhn), Adelaide (Christa Mayer), Arabella (Angela Denoke), Zdenka (Birgit Fandrey), Mandryka (Hans-Joachim Ketelsen), Matteo (Klaus Florian Vogt), Elemer (Martin Homrich), Dominik (Jürgen Hartfiel), Lamoral (Matthias Henneberg), Fortune-Teller (Andrea Ihle), Semperoper Dresden, Wolfgang Rennert (cond.)
Live performance: 24 June 2005, Semperoper, Dresden product_id=For best results, use VLC or Winamp.
Posted by Gary at 9:10 AM

September 23, 2008

The new opera buff

By Anthony Tommasini [The Scotsman, 23 September 2008]

IT HAD to happen. Nudity is coming to opera. In recent years, with all the talk from general managers, stage directors and go-for-broke singers about making opera as dramatically visceral an art form as theatre, film and modern dance, traditional boundaries of decorum have been broken. Opera productions have increasingly showcased risk-taking and good-looking singers in bold, sexy and explicit productions.

Posted by Gary at 8:43 AM

Fleming Gala Opens the Met’s Season

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 23 September 2008]

The Metropolitan Opera opened its 125th-anniversary season on Monday evening with a gala Renée Fleming showcase. Everything about the three-part evening was fashioned, quite literally, for Ms. Fleming.

Posted by Gary at 8:35 AM

A daring return to simplicity

By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 22 September 2008]

Tradition is the new concept. Tired of extreme productions that mystify or alienate audiences, opera companies are returning to a pictorial style that tells the story with minimal fuss. The change is not a whim of fashion.

Posted by Gary at 8:31 AM

September 22, 2008

Analyzing music the digital way

By Tom Avril [Philadelphia Inquirer, 22 September 2008]

Ge Wang was every bit the image of an orchestra conductor. Clad all in black, with a dramatic mane of shoulder-length hair parted in the middle, he used fluid gestures to summon forth an auditorium full of sound.

Posted by Gary at 4:29 PM

Paer’s Leonora from Bampton Classical Opera

Based, like its more well-known successor, upon Jean Nicolas Bouilly’s play Léonore, ou L’amour conjugal, Paer’s opera has many textual similarities with Beethoven’s drama of heroic rescue and noble sentiments. The faithful wife who disguises herself as a boy in order to reach and rescue her unjustly imprisoned husband forms the core of both works; yet, in Paer’s opera it is not Leonora but the flighty daughter of the jailor who actually releases him from bondage. Indeed, from the light-weight dalliances of the opening moments to the exuberant, self-satisfied moralising of the final sextet (echoes of Don Giovanni or Così?), Paer reveals himself to be more comfortable with the world of petty intrigue and human foibles than with the exalted idealism of Beethoven’s utopian aspirations.

Paer_Leonora4.pngMichael Bracegirdle as Florestano [Photo © Anthony Hall]
That said, this imaginative, focused production by Bampton Classical Opera, directed and designed by Jeremy Gray — and first presented under gloomy summer skies at Bampton Deanery on 18 July — made a strong case, both musically and dramatically, for this infrequently performed work. Act 2, in particular, revealed serious musical and dramatic intent, the dramatic momentum of the recitative and the emotional intensity of Florestan’s long opening aria of darkness and suffering, proving surprisingly progressive.

Paer makes little distinction between the music of the two female roles, Marcellina and Leonora/Fidele; both are high sopranos, but the star on this occasion was Emily Rowley Jones, who expertly conveyed the spirited passion, tempered by an essential kindness and innocence, of the jailor’s daughter. Rowley Jones possessed the stamina required of this demanding role, and her voice remained well-centred and sweet throughout; virtuosic flourishes were dispatched with apparent ease, and intelligently nuanced to serve the dramatic situation. She brought Mozartian grace and wit to the opening scenes; her movements on the small stage were well-choreographed and deftly executed. It was through the dynamic contrast between Marcellina’s unrequited passion for ‘Fidele’ and her impatient dismissal of Giacchino’s courtship that the drama gained vitality.

Both female roles demand a wide range and much staying power — Marcellina requires the compass of a Queen of the Night; in the title role, Cara McHardy initially seemed ill-at-ease, her breath control a little insecure and the more virtuosic passages not always firmly controlled. However, as the performance progresses she showed herself on occasion more than capable of rising to the challenges of the taxing coloratura and bringing both meaning and beauty to her interpretation. Unfortunately her lack of confidence dramatically was noticeable in the ensembles where she appeared uncomfortable and at times vocally subdued.

Paer_Leonora2.pngMichael Bracegirdle as Florestano, Cara McHardy as Leonora [Photo © Anthony Hall]

As in previous Bampton productions, Adrian Powter, as Rocco, revealed his instinct for the dramatic moment, moving confidently and establishing a strong stage presence. He injected appropriate weight and bluff into his boasting tirades, which benefited also from excellent diction. Samuel Evans, as the hapless prison janitor, Giacchino, similarly demonstrated sound comic timing and nuance, and together they significantly contributed to the dramatic momentum, which might have been hampered by the many long reflective arias and by the extensive duet for Marcellina and Leonora in Act 2.

The challenges of the twenty-minute aria for Florestan which opens Act 2 are many; but Michael Bracegirdle proved himself able to shape the various sections of his painful, desolate lament on his lengthy suffering in the darkness into a convincing whole, employing an extensive dynamic range and sensitive tonal variations.

Paer_Leonora3.pngJonathan Stoughton as Pizzarro [Photo © Anthony Hall]
Despite the foreboding guillotine and imposing dungeon walls which dominated the set, it was difficult for the cast to inject any real menace into Paer’s drama. There is no prisoner’s chorus to emphasise the themes of imprisonment and despair; and Pizarro, the prison governor, is a rather unconvincing stage-villain — his comic arrogance emphasised here by his Napoleonic cape and eye-patch. His bluster may be less than threatening, but Jonathan Stoughton sang securely if a little blandly. It was not Stoughton’s fault that, following a rather feeble confrontation with Leonora, Pizarro found himself cast in chains, and one immediately forgot about him. Indeed, there is a deflation of dramatic tension towards the close of Act 2: the arrival of Marcellina, demanding a marriage proposal from ‘Fedele’ somewhat dispels the threat of violence, and the arrival of Don Fernando, sung here with warm radiance by John Upperton, swiftly and effortlessly restores harmony and accord.

However, Paer’s opera does have many notable features, not least its strong melodic character. This is evident from the first bars of the overture, a seemingly simple medley of forthcoming themes, which has an original feature in the heroine’s romantic ‘motto’ theme, heard three times here and subsequently reiterated most effectively at crucial points in the action. Throughout the orchestration surprises and delights: while the rather clichéd trumpet call introducing the sinister dungeon setting and the three percussive chimes announcing the hour of Florestan’s murder may fail to send a shiver up the spine, overall the writing revealed some striking colours, exploiting unusual instrumental combinations, especially for the woodwind. The score was well-executed by the London Mozart Players. Situated behind the imposing set, conductor Robin Newton led them in lively fashion; indeed, he set off at a pace which left the singers somewhat trailing in the orchestra’s wake, anxiously glancing at the distantly-placed monitors; but secure ensemble was quickly restored and the overall balance between soloists and orchestra was well-judged.

Paer’s Leonora is an excellent example of its genre — a semi-seria opera, in which the frivolous and tragic co-exist and interact. It may be that the comic plot slightly overshadows the high drama of wrongful imprisonment and tyranny, but this intelligent, well-paced production by Bampton Classical Opera made a convincing case for the composer’s melodic lyricism and left this listener eager for another opportunity to hear this unfairly neglected work.

Claire Seymour

image= image_description=Emily Rowley Jones (Marcellina) and Samuel Evans (Giacchino) [Photo © Jeremy Gray] product=yes product_title=Ferdinando Paer: Leonora product_by=Rocco (Adrian Powter), Marcellina (Emily Rowley Jones), Giacchinno (Samuel Evans), Leonora (Cara McHardy), Don Pizzarro (Jonathan Stoughton), Don Florestan (Michael Bracegirdle), Don Fernando (John Upperton). The London Mozart Players. Conductor: Robin Newton. Director: Jeremy Gray
Performance of 16 September 2008, St John’s Smith Square, London product_id=Above: Emily Rowley Jones (Marcellina) and Samuel Evans (Giacchino) [Photo © Jeremy Gray]
Posted by Gary at 1:25 PM

Puccini's Il Trittico at Los Angeles Opera

The Bartok featured a spare set with ghostly lighting effects and puppets, and ended with Samuel Ramey's Bluebeard garroting Denyce Graves's Judith onstage with her flowing red scarf. Later, in his manic Schicchi, the bird puppets from the Bartok made a reappearance, linking the two productions.

In contemplating a full staging of Puccini's brilliant (if unwieldy in terms of length and staging requirements) Il Trittico, LAO decided to dispense with Friedkin's earlier Gianni Schicchi but to ask the director to create productions of the first two parts of the triptych, Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica. For the comedy, Placido Domingo realized a long-held desire to employ Woody Allen. This show opened the 2008-09 season, and as seen on Sunday, September 21st, it proved to be a successful venture, although with a striking difference in directorial approach between the two Friedkin sections and that of Allen.

Santo Loquasto's designed traditional sets for the first two operas, impressively scaled and detailed. Friedkin had a cramped front stage area for Il Tabarro, once Michele's barge has drawn up to the wharf. Without the option of theatrical effects, Friedkin proved to be a rather routine stage director, with nothing very imaginative in his handling of the actors. Licitra's Luigi stuck his thumbs in his belt like a member of the Lollipop Guild, and Mark Delavan's Michele looked ready to kill someone from the moment he barged off his barge. Anja Kampe, however, portrayed a truly touching Giorgetta, vital if not obviously young, and sensual without deserving the harsh judgement of her husband when he suspects her of adultery. Matthew O'Neill slightly overplayed the comedy of his drunken Tinca, if enjoyably so, but both John Del Carlo (actually luxury casting for such a small role) and Tichina Vaughn as the husband and wife Talpa and Frugola made an interesting dramatic contrast to the sordid triangle at the heart of the drama.

Besides taking the acting honors, Kampe also sang with a feminine power that suggests she should look into some other great Puccini roles. Licitra is finally gaining control of his spinto instrument, although when it came time for his final big moment on the folly of jealousy, his voice didn't ring out with quite the volume he had mustered earlier in the evening. Delavan had all the gruffness needed for the darkness in Michele, but the sad and lonely side that might evoke some pity hasn't developed yet. Friedkin did find a way to suggestively link his two operas, as he had done before: this time, when the songseller appears, two nuns join the crowd.

Tabarro1.pngIl Tabarro: Anja Kampe, Salvatore Licitra [Photo by Robert Millard]

Loquasto's convent for Suor Angelica had one somewhat original touch, a grated entrance for the appearance of the Principessa, which also provided a dramatic exit after her character has delivered her devastating news to Angelica and gotten the desired signature on a legal document. Larissa Diadkova not only had all the imperiously dark tones for the role, but also a forbiddingly dark visage from the rear, as she walked away from her prostrate niece. Otherwise this was Sondra Radvanovsky's show, and she triumphed. Her huge voice didn't float the highest notes, but her threading down of the volume had the desired effect. Radvanovsky's Angelica appeared sad from the start, so her suicidal impulse made sense, but the singer also did well by the tricky moment when Angelica realizes she has committed a mortal sin and begs Mother Mary to save her. Here, Friedkin went full out, with a Mary figure in flowing robes descending from the rafters, as the son of Angelica appears from the chapel. Freidkin even had another sister appear to witness the miracle. That went over the top for your reviewer, but the amount of sniffling and sobbing in the audience provided evidence that it worked for many.

After two settings presented much as they might have looked at the opera's debut, Loquasto, for Woody Allen, went for an updating of Gianni Schicchi. We were somewhere in mid-20th century, in a huge room with a metal-works circular stair leading to a loft with no ostensible purpose. There was almost no bare space for an actor to sit, with knickknacks and housewares strewn everywhere, not to mention the spaghetti noodles still in the pot where the will would be discovered (and that spaghetti, dangling from the will, became a classic running joke that went on past its effective date). Allen has directed for the stage before, and his films tend to be more talk than action as well, so it may not be a surprise that he proved more adept than Friedkin at moving the singers around and getting individual performances from each of them. Jill Grove filled out (amply!) a truly malevolent, and ultimately murderous, Zita. Andrea Silvestri's muscular bass pushed other voices to the side as his former-mayor character strutted around the stage. Best of all, Allen found a way to make the two lovers interesting. Saimir Pirgu not only sang with the sort of hormonally-charged tenor voice needed for Rinuccio, but managed to be quite funny as well. Even better, instead of being an airheaded "daddy's girl," Jennifer Black (subbing for Laura Tatulescu) slunk on stage as a very physical Lauretta, with hips to kill, and if they don't work, a stiletto in her garter. But Allen didn't have to end the opera with the two youngsters getting down to business, or "up" to it, at the top of the circular staircase.

Schicchi1.pngGianni Schicchi: Thomas Allen [Photo by Robert Millard]
At the heart of all this farcical nonsense was Sir Thomas Allen, dropping trou with the best of them as a Sicilian underworld figure, in a dark pinstripe suit, black "wife-beater" t-shirt under his silk dress shirt, all topped by an imposingly shined and buffed head of black hair. Sir Thomas didn't hold back, and as should be, once he strutted onto the scene, all eyes were on him. But if only he could have talked his director out of the misbegotten concept just before curtain, when the enraged Zita reappears and sends Schicchi to Hades with a knife thrust. Here special credit must go to the young actor who portrayed Gherardo and Nella's son, Sage Ryan. This blonde tyke got thrown around the stage a lot, and when he cried over the dying figure of Schicchi, we shared his regret more than enjoyed any intended comic twist.

Since he came on board 2 seasons ago, James Conlon has made himself beloved here in Los Angeles, and the dynamic energy and sensitive shadings he provided these three great Puccini scores are typical of his fine work with the now first-rate LAO orchestra.

Il Trittico makes for a show of Wagnerian length (almost four hours on Sunday), but with as many merits as this production offered, it should figure in the repertory more prominently than it does. LAO now goes onto Madama Butterfly, for the third time in about 5 seasons. Your reviewer hopes this Il Trittico makes a comeback before Cio-Cio-san does.

Chris Mullins

Cast Lists
Il Tabarro
Michele Mark Delavan
Giorgetta Anja Kampe
Luigi Salvatore Licitra
Talpa John Del Carlo
Frugola Tichina Vaughn
Tinca Matthew O’Neill
Song Vendor Robert MacNeil
Suor Angelica
Sister Angelica Sondra Radvanovsky
The Princess Larissa Diadkova
Sister Genovieffa Jennifer Black
The Monitress Tichina Vaughn
The Mistress of the Novices Catherine Keen
The Abbess Ronnita Miller
Gianni Schicchi
Gianni Schicchi Thomas Allen
Rinuccio Saimir Pirgu
Lauretta Jennifer Black
Zita Jill Grove
Gherardo Greg Fedderly
Nella Rebekah Camm
Simone Andrea Silvestrelli
La Ciesca Lauren McNeese
Betto Di Signa Steven Condy
Marco Brian Leerhuber
image= image_description=Sondra Radvonovsky as Sister Angelica [Photo by Robert Millard] product=yes product_title=G. Puccini: Il Trittico product_by=See body of review for cast lists product_id=Above: Sondra Radvonovsky as Sister Angelica [Photo by Robert Millard]
Posted by chris_m at 1:15 PM

Music for the Court of Maximilian II

All three composers were variously attached to the Habsburg court in the middle of the sixteenth century and the music of all three amply reveals both the richness of the mid-century style and the careful craftsmanship they brought to it. Cinquecento’s program is devoted to a mass and several motets from the Habsburg orbit by these three with an additional motet by Lasso. The program coheres not only through contextual proximity, but more significantly by the way the pieces reflect music’s function within a web of patronage. Some of the motets (Maessen’s “Discessu” and Lasso’s “Pacis amans”) explicitly name Maximilian, and these form a direct salute to the House of Habsburg. The text of Vaet’s motet, “Ascendetis post filium,” is dedicated in praise of Maximilian; he is not named in the text specifically, although the theme is one of monarchical succession, possibly written for his assuming the throne of Bohemia or Hungary. This salute to Maximilian is furthered in Galli’s imitation mass based on Vaet’s motet, and significantly, the salute to the patron also becomes a salute to Vaet, as well--a two-fold doffing of the compositional hat!

The performances are sublime. Cinquecento offers a sumptuous sound, exquisitely focused and yet rich in tone, as the opening motet, Vaet’s “Videns Dominus,” reveals from its very first notes. The contrapuntal style of the pieces is generally dense, although the ensemble’s lines are unflaggingly lithe, taming the density with clarity. And the suppleness of line is matched with a fluid sense of melisma, as in the flowing passage work of the “Benedictus” in Galli’s mass. Other moments are characterized by the ensemble’s finely crafted control, as in the “Et incarnatus” from the mass, or the beautiful stillness of some of the final chords.

The bass of Cinquecento, Ulfried Staber, sings with an especially gratifying sound, a delight in itself, of course, but also a sound that seems foundational for the ensemble tone as a whole. It is as though his sound is “pulled up” through the other registers, yet remains in place as both model and fundament.

The Music of Maximilian II is a splendid recording of music that is refreshingly little-known, sung with consummate skill and artistry.

Steven Plank

image_description=Music for the Court of Maximilian II

product_title=Music for the Court of Maximilian II
product_id=Hyperion CDA67579 [CD]

Posted by steve_p at 1:00 PM

September 21, 2008

STRAUSS: Arabella — Salzburg 1958

Music composed by Richard Strauss. Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

First Performance: 1 July 1933, Sächsisches Staatstheater Opernhaus, Dresden

Principal Roles:
Count Waldner Bass
Adelaide, his wife Mezzo Soprano
Arabella, their daughter Soprano
Zdenka, Arabella’s younger sister Soprano
Mandryka, a Croatian landowner Baritone
Matteo, an officer Tenor
Count Elemer Tenor
Count Dominik Baritone
Count Lamoral Bass
Fiakermilli Soprano
Fortune-Teller Soprano
Three Players Basses
Welko, Mandryka’s bodyguard Spoken Role


The impoverished Count and Countess Waldner seek a rich suitor for their eldest daughter Arabella, and have disguised their younger daughter Zdenka as a boy to save money. Zdenka is in love with Matteo, one of Arabella’s admirers, and has written him letters in her sister’s name. Arabella believes she will recognise ‘the right man’, and is curious about a stranger who has watched her outside the hotel. She agrees to choose a husband by the end of the Coachmen’s Ball that evening, and leaves for a sleigh-ride. Beset by creditors, the Count has written to a Croatian landowning friend, enclosing a photo of Arabella. The friend’s nephew and heir, Mandryka, announces himself. He is bewitched by Arabella’s portrait and has come to Vienna to woo her. The Count accepts Mandryka’s suit and a loan for the gambling tables. At the ball, Arabella and Mandryka are attracted to each other – he is the stranger she had noticed. He describes a village custom in which a glass of water is offered by a maid to her betrothed to drink. She agrees to marry him, but begs a few hours to bid farewell to her youth. Arabella is proclaimed Queen of the Ball by Milli, the coachmen’s darling, and takes leave from each of her former suitors. Zdenka arranges an assignation with Matteo, luring him with a key to Arabella’s room. This is overheard by Mandryka, who notes Arabella’s departure and falls into a drunken fury, outraging the Countess with accusations of Arabella’s infidelity. The Waldners leave the ball and the Count commands Mandryka to follow. Back at the hotel, Matteo believes he has met with Arabella in her darkened bedroom, but in the foyer she is baffled by his allusions. Mandryka has lost his trust in Arabella, and in the growing confusion challenges Matteo to a fight. Zdenka appears in a nightdress and confesses her love for Matteo. Arabella seeks forgiveness from Mandryka and asks her father to bless the union of Zdenka and Matteo. Mandryka, alone, contemplates his feelings for Arabella and sends a glass of water to her room. She brings it down for him to drink, as a symbol of their love.

[Synopsis Source: Boosey & Hawkes]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image= image_description=Lisa Della Casa and Anneliese Rothenberger audio=yes first_audio_name=Richard Strauss: Arabella first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Richard Strauss: Arabella product_by=Otto Edelmann (Count Waldner), Ira Malaniuk (Adelaide), Lisa Della Casa (Arabella), Anneliese Rothenberger (Zdenka), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Mandryka), Kurt Ruesche (Matteo), Helmut Meichert (Count Elemer), Georg Stern (Count Dominik), Karl Weber (Count Lamoral), Eta Köhrer (Fiakermilli), Kerstin Meyer (Fortune-Teller), Willi Lenninger (Welko). Chor der Wiener Staatsoper, Wiener Philharmoniker, Joseph Keilberth (cond.)
Live performance, 29 July 1958, Festspielhaus, Salzburg product_id=For best results, use VLC or Winamp.
Posted by Gary at 8:00 AM

September 19, 2008

Pergolesi’s Home Service Really Delivers!

The United States premiere of Pergolesi’s Home Service will be presented by The Chamber Opera of Memphis in cooperation with the University of Memphis Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music on Thursday, October 16 at 7:30 p.m. in Harris Concert Hall (3775 Central Ave.).

Posted by Gary at 2:51 PM

Pergolesi’s Home Service Really Delivers!

Admission is free.

What happens to a tiny little opera company in times like these, when the arts are no longer so generously funded? In Bent Lorentzen’s opera Pergolesi’s Home Service, Impresario Umberto Pergolesi has created a mobile opera company that will perform pint sized productions in your own home: Norma in your roof garden, Tosca in your dining room, La Traviata in your bedroom or even Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman in your bathroom. Pergolesi’s Home Service is a sophisticated new version of the Baroque Opera La Serva Padrona.

Composer Bent Lorentzen, one of the outstanding figures in contemporary Danish music, will attend the premiere. Lorentzen’s music resists categorization into conventional slots. He has flirted with various styles, but their impact has not deprived his music of its personality and individuality of expression. He often collaborates with Michael Leinert who co-wrote the libretto for Pergolesi. School of Music faculty member Susan Owen-Leinert wrote the English translation of the work.

German stage director Michael Leinert will direct the production. Susan Owen-Leinert is cast as Theater Director Umberto Pergolesi. April Hamilton, a graduate student at the School of Music, performs as Serpina, an opera singer. Moira Logan, Associate Dean and Director of Research and Graduate Studies for the College of Communication and Fine Arts, takes the versatile role of Vespone, an actress and mime. School of Music professor John Mueller plays the virtuosic trombone part. Mark Ensley, Director of Opera Studies at the School of Music and Music Director of The Chamber Opera of Memphis conducts from the keyboard.

The Chamber Opera of Memphis, founded by Susan-Owen Leinert and Michael Leinert, was created to establish a forum for contemporary and experimental music theater. Their 2007-2008 production of Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Medium was performed at the School of Music, at the Hamburger Kammeroper and the Robert Schumann Hochschule Duesseldorf in Germany, where they received great reviews and public response.

Located in one of the nation’s most influential musical cities, The Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music at the University of Memphis is a different kind of music school. Here, students and faculty are committed to the essence of performance that is so unique to the region. This essence, regardless of genre, is the creativity, originality, quality and entrepreneurial spirit that are central to the rich musical heritage of Memphis.

Accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music, the School offers 20 degrees in more than 24 areas of concentration, taught by 45 world-class faculty members who are recognized from Carnegie Hall to The Grammys®. With more than 250 faculty, student and guest performances each year, we are where the music is.

image= image_description=Pergolesi’s Home Service Really Delivers! product=yes product_title=Pergolesi’s Home Service Really Delivers! product_by=The Chamber Opera of Memphis in cooperation with the University of Memphis Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music
Posted by Gary at 2:43 PM

Oresteia at Miller Theatre

Now they are all grand old (mostly dead) men, and the public, which is as curious about new sounds in concert music as in popular music, having heard such sounds in the background of a hundred films, is no longer afraid of what they do not immediately understand. They are no longer being told that they should like it, or should ignore this or that from the past; they are freer to select and explore. We live in an atmosphere where the new no longer means just one sort of new (it never did, but it had that reputation); we have come to expect the unexpected, and appreciate it when it shows up.

Nowhere is this change in audience expectations and interest more startling than among the opera audience. This is good news for opera companies and for composers, though it may not be great news for traditional singers (few modern composers have their specific training or methods of expressivity in mind) and for the audience who loves the old-fashioned vocal style.

These reflections came to me after a spring whose chief Met Opera delight was Satyagraha, whose chief summer festival interest was Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten, and an autumn opera season commencing with Xenakis’s Oresteia. None of these are traditional operas performed in a traditional manner. None of them could easily fit into a typical opera house repertory season. And the audience, immensely various in age and style and attitude, has been tremendously enthusiastic for all three. Vocally they represent differing poles: Satyagraha provided some of the loveliest traditional opera singing of the year, showing that living composers can do this if they wish to, though some may carp that this particular drama was hardly of a traditional variety. (You could say the same about Parsifal, and Cosima Wagner did, come to think of it.)

Xenakis – like his fellows other than Henze – would have been reluctant to try to compose an opera of the traditional type, for performance by any traditional company. His setting of Aeschylus’s trilogy began life as incidental music for a performance of the three plays. Over the years, he set other sections of the play, responding to certain characters and situations within it. Only his death in 2001, at the age of 79, stopped his tinkering – who knows? Another twenty years and he might have completed an opera score. Most of the work as we have it is percussive background to scenes of the drama, or else settings of the choruses – there is only one solo singer, who declaims several roles.

To the ancient Greeks, of course, the chorus were always a principal character – indeed, the original one, chanting religious ritual and story, to which soloists enacting it were subsequently added. Many Greek plays take their titles from the chorus, who it represents (Suppliants, Bacchantes, Phoenicians, Knights, Wasps), and the puzzle over how they are to present the chorus, how their message is to be displayed to modern audiences more interested in the individual conflicts, is a stumbling block for modern revivals of the plays. It is less of a stumbling block when the plays are sung, as we are accustomed to choral singing, even drama in choral song, in ways we have ceased to accept choral chant.

In the performance of Oresteia that opened the thirty-fifth season of the Miller Theater at Columbia (an awkward place to stage any sort of theater, as the building was devised as a lecture hall, and sight lines for the stage – and, nowadays, surtitles – are not good), the chorus sat around the central stage with the orchestra high above them on three sides of it as well, and the central space was occupied by six dancers and one singer. In concert, as composed, this Oresteia might have been numbing to watch, but the acting out of the various legends under discussion by the six agile dancers held attention – as did the highly theatrical performance of the chief player of percussion on a tower stage right.

The actors, presumably, were giving us representations of the tales of Iphigenia’s sacrifice, Agamemnon’s homecoming and murder by his wife, Orestes’s vengeful homecoming and murder of his mother, and the Athenian compromise that allowed Orestes to escape the Furies aroused by his matricide – an Athenian mythic explanation of the replacement of primitive feud law (each murder causing another) with the rule of impersonal justice, and the sleep of blood lust sanctified by ritual remembrance and euphemism. Euphemism empowers what is too fearful to name, and in calling the Furies “the Kindly Ones” and libating to them on the family hearth, the Athenians paid tribute to the terror that remains below the surface, theoretically concealed and forgotten by the new dispensation.

When Ariane Mnouchkine staged the trilogy in Brooklyn a dozen years ago, she was asked why the chorus of feral dogs, representing unsatisfied blood lust, remained after the three Furies had departed, leading to an unforgettable final image as they leaped for the throat of their enemy, the defiant goddess of civilization, Athene herself, Mnouchkine replied, “Because they are always there.” Indeed, under the surface, the yearning for bloody personal vengeance does continue to lurk, unsatisfied by the artificial decrees of justice and the state. And in some places not far from Aeschylus’s Athens today, blood feud (after brief suppression in Communist times) has returned, and innocent sons of killers are forced to spend their lives in hiding rather than risk what their society still sees as necessary murder.


So Aeschylus’s tales are still relevant, and probably will remain so while the species endures. It is good to see them effectively staged, even if the staging was a bit of a puzzle. (There are operatic settings of portions – or all – of the trilogy; I have never seen Pizzetti’s Clytemnestra or all of Taneyev’s Oresteia.) At the Miller, I could never quite figure out which dancer was portraying which character, though I think the short, wiry, balding guy who did manic pirouettes was Orestes – perhaps if I’d been able to read the titles while the chorus chanted, this would have been clearer. In any case, their gyrations kept one rapt while incomprehensible sounds filled the air.

The singer was bass Wilbur Pauley, whom I have heard over the years in works of Handel, Kurt Weill, Meredith Monk and John Corigliano – Oresteia does not call on him for Handelian orotundity; more often he was obliged to leap between deep Agamemnon sounds to falsetto for Cassandra’s prophecies, and when he sang the lines of the goddess, he alternated both extreme registers. This was the third of three performances, and his falsetto was in trouble by the end of it, but his urgency and passion were always in evidence.

I did wonder if the men’s choruses (not the women’s shocking ululations, which burst in later, I think at Clytemnestra’s death) resembled the sound of the chants of the Greek Orthodox Church (which Xenakis would have known quite well), and in turn if that fabric derived from the ritual chant common to pre-Christian religions all around the Eastern Mediterranean, and then in turn if these bore any relation at all to the sounds Aeschylus heard at the premier of his trilogy. There is no way to know; my classicist and Orthodox friends do not think so – when the Christian liturgy was put together in Byzantine times, there was a conscious desire to break any link with the pagan past, and by that time the Greek tragedies were no longer performed; they had become a literary tradition. By the time the Renaissance intellectuals of Mantua attempted to reconstruct ancient tragedy, accidentally inventing opera in the process, they were over a thousand years removed from any memory of the sounds of tragedy, and two thousand years from the Oresteia. Like them, Xenakis invented his own style of play, and also like them, we can devise our own ways to make it theatrical for our sort of audience.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Scene from Oresteia by Iannis Xenakis (Photo by Richard Termine) product=yes product_title=Iannis Xenakis: Oresteia product_by=Wilbur Pauley, bass; David Schotzko, solo percussion; Oresteia Chorus, Young People’s Chorus of New York City, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). Directed by Luca Veggetti. Performance of September 17. product_id=Above: Scene from Oresteia by Iannis Xenakis
All photos by Richard Termine courtesy of Miller Theatre
Posted by Gary at 1:26 PM

Souvenir of a Golden Era: The Sisters Garcia

Now Decca re-releases Marilyn Horne’s “Souvenir of a Golden Era,” which does Bartoli one better by also honoring Malibran’s younger sister, Pauline Viardot.

No direct comparisons can be made between Bartoli’s “Maria” and the first disc of Horne’s “Souvenir,” as the discs covers different selections. Bartoli tends to focus on more obscure repertory (with the exception of “Casta Diva”), especially pieces that play to her strengths in speed and agility. Horne chose selections that primarily highlight Malibran’s key roles in Rossini, from Rosina’s “Una voce poco fa,” to Tancredi’s “Di tanti palpiti.” She also sings as Bellini’s Romeo, and most surprisingly, delivers the “Abscheulicher!” of Beethoven’s Leonore.

Horne sings impeccably on each of three tracks, her lows weighty, the highs with a soprano’s confidence and security. Your reviewer found her Rosina curiously flat, as Horne earned a reputation as a woman of great humor and vivacity in roles that required those attributes (and offstage as well). Perhaps the uninspired direction of Henry Lewis (with the Suisse Romande orchestra) deserves the blame. However, even in the ostensibly dramatic scenarios of Tancredi and Semiramide, Horne’s seamless production can give a sensation of disassociation from the text. As pure vocalizing the singing can’t be criticized, and yet these pieces should scintillate more than they do. Again, Lewis might be the culprit here.

The second disc, dedicated to Pauline Viardot’s roles, covers a wider range of repertory, resulting in a more entertaining listening experience. The disc starts with more Rossini, then moves to French opera - Gluck, Gounod, Meyerbeer — before a wild swing back to Italy and Verdi’s Azucena. In the lusher French pieces, Horne’s gorgeous tone pays big dividends, although she can’t save “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice” from the risible effect produced by Lewis’s frantic, “pop”-like pacing. As for that final track from Il Trovatore, with the mad gypsy woman’s two big arias jammed together, surely there are scarier Azucenas. In the context of this recital, however, Horne’s version has such musicality that the familiar music rings out with a welcome freshness.

With more inspired musical leadership, “Souvenirs of a Golden Era” would be an indisputably great recording. And for listeners who only care about voice, that qualification need not apply. For others, the best of the selections here, especially on the second disc, earn the recording a strong recommendation.

Chris Mullins

image_description=Souvenir of a Golden Era: The Sisters Garcia

product_title=Souvenir of a Golden Era: The Sisters Garcia
product_by=Marilyn Horne, L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Henry Lewis
product_id=Decca 475 8493 [2CDs]

Posted by chris_m at 12:25 PM

September 18, 2008

Dr. Ulrike Hessler First Woman Appointed Intendant to Semper Oper in Dresden

For the first time in its 169 year history, the Saxonian State Opera — home to world premiere performances of most Richard Strauss and several Wagner operas — has appointed a woman as its General Director.

Posted by Gary at 11:46 AM

Dr. Ulrike Hessler First Woman Appointed Intendant to Semper Oper in Dresden

Today Saxony's Secretary of Science & Arts, Dr. Eva-Maria Stange, announced the decision that Mrs. Hessler will lead the house starting 2010, succeeding current intendant Gerd Uecker.

Ulrike Hessler (52) has been working at the Bavarian State Opera since 1984, working her way up from assistant to the press spokesperson's to director for public relations and program development. When the Bavarian State Opera was without a GM during the 2006/07 and 2007/08 seasons, she formed an interim directorship with Music Director Kent Nagano, running the day to day affairs of the opera house.

Before working in the world of opera, Mrs. Hessler, who wrote her Ph.D. thesis about Bernard von Brentano’s literature of exile, worked as a free lance journalists for Bavarian Radio and a has written for Harper’s and Vogue. She is a frequent guest lecturer at Universities abroad and has been an Overseas Member of the Board of Governors der Tel Aviv University since 1990.

According to the Saxonian Ministry of Science & Arts, the factor deciding in favor of Ulrike Hessler was “the way how Mrs. Hessler thinks about the future of an opera house like this and how a very active repertoire- and ensemble theater with such a long tradition will successfully the tough international competition.” Another important factor was the vision with which Mrs. Hessler has developed ideas for sharpening the company's profile and the importance she places on better communications of the house both internally and externally. Not the least her extensive leadership experience at the Bavarian State Opera and her range of contacts to singers, directors, dancers, and musicians has played a role. The former Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, English National Opera, and Bavarian State Opera, Sir Peter Jonas, was among the advisers to the ministry in this decision. The famous tenor and conductor Peter Schreier welcomed the decision, describing his impressions of Mrs. Hessler as an “incredibly creative and decisive” collaborator.

image= image_description=Ulrike Hessler product=yes product_title=Dr. Ulrike Hessler First Woman Appointed Intendant to Semper Oper in Dresden product_by=Above: Ulrike Hessler (Photo courtesy of Creative Consultants for the Arts)
Posted by Gary at 11:41 AM

September 17, 2008

Lawrence Brownlee Expands Repertoire in 2008-09 Season

He is lauded continually for the beauty of his voice, his seemingly effortless technical agility, and his dynamic and engaging dramatic skills. His schedule regularly comprises a varied array of debuts and return engagements at renowned music centers for appearances with the world’s pre-eminent opera companies, orchestras and presenting organizations.

Mr. Brownlee’s 2008-09 season finds him firmly ensconced in the bel canto music for which he is so admired, adding a trio of new characters to his repertoire: two by Rossini and one by Donizetti. His first engagements are performing what has become his calling-card role, Il Conte Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia, in three of Germany’s leading houses. At Dresden’s Sächsische Staatsoper (August 28, 30 & September 8) he courts and slyly plans his elopement with the lovely Rosina (Carmen Oprisanu), joined on stage by Fabio Maria Capitanucci (as the enterprising Figaro), Michael Eder (as the overprotective and slightly lecherous Don Bartolo), and Kurt Rydl and Georg Zeppenfeld (sharing the honors as the oily Don Basilio); the production is by Grischa Asagaroff and Riccardo Frizza conducts. For the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin (Unter den Linden) he appears in the Company’s classic Ruth Berghaus production (September 16, 20, 26 & 30), donning various disguises in an attempt to fool his love’s guardian, in the company of Katharina Kammerloher, Alfredo Daza, Bruno de Simone and Alexander Vinogradov, with Julien Salemkour leading from the pit. For Mr. Brownlee’s first time at the Festspiele Baden-Baden (October 3 & 5) he treads the boards in the same Bartlett Sher Barbiere production in which he made his spectacular 2007 Metropolitan Opera debut. Here his colleagues are: Anna Bonitatibus, Franco Vassallo, Maurizio Muraro & Reinhard Dorn, all conducted by Thomas Hengelbrock. He participates in the Richard Tucker Music Foundation’s Annual Lincoln Center Gala (October 26) where he joins a starry roster that, as of this writing, includes: Maria Guleghina, Hei-Kyung Hong, Marcello Giordani, Željko Lučić and Paulo Szot, with Patrick Summers at the helm. (Mr. Brownlee’s has twice been recognized by the RTMF: in 2003, when he was the winner of a Career Grant, and in 2006, at which time he was the Foundation’s Award winner.) With the Opera Company of Philadelphia he appears as Lindoro in a Stefano Vizioli production of L’italiana in Algeri, conducted by one of his mentors, Company Music Director Corrado Rovaris (November 14, 16m, 19, 21, & 23m). Mr. Brownlee’s Lindoro ultimately escapes confinement and is reunited with his lady-love, the enterprising Isabella (Ruxandra Donose); Daniel Belcher (Taddeo) and Kevin Glavin (Mustafà) play Mr. Brownlee’s foiled rivals for the Italian lady’s affections. (His first OCP engagement was in November 2006 in Cenerentola.)

The tenor starts off the new year with a guest stint on a gala tribute to Plácido Domingo offered by the New Orleans Opera (January 17). Following that are three recitals, all accompanied by his long-time collaborator, pianist Martin Katz. January 24 marks his first time on the Spivey Hall Series at Clayton State University, outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Next is a joint-recital with soprano Sarah Coburn at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater (January 31) as part of the Vocal Arts Society’s series. (Washington has played an important part in the tenor’s career, having witnessed his artistry in: four recitals, including one as the recipient of the Marian Anderson Award; Carmina Burana with the National Symphony; as well as in three projects with Washington Concert Opera, La donna del lago, Tancredi & I Puritani). The final recital is for the University Musical Society in Ann Arbor, Michigan (February 7), site of his 2006 Tancredi with the Detroit Symphony. In Europe, Mr. Brownlee does another trio of Barbieres: for his return to the Wiener Staatsoper (February 12 & 15) in the venerable and much-loved Günther Rennert production with Michaela Selinger, Carlos Alvarez, Wolfgang Bankl & Janusz Monarcha, conducted by Marc Piollet. (His introduction to the Viennese public was in this same role in 2006); for a reprise run at the Unter den Linden (February 17 & 20), in which he joins forces with Katharina Kammerloher, Alfredo Daza, Renato Girolami & TBA, all led by Asher Fisch; and finally in a Gilbert Deflo production at the Staatsoper Hamburg (February 28) with Maria-Christina Damian, George Petean, Renato Girolami & Wilhelm Schwinghammer, with Alexander Winterson marshalling the musical forces. (The tenor’s Hamburg debut was in La fille du régiment in 2006, which he subsequently repeated in 2007). A new role follows, as Giannetto in La gazza ladra, for Bologna’s Teatro Comunale, March 22 – 31. (His initial time with the Company was in 2004 as Comte Ory). He performs this Rossini rarity with: Mariola Cantarero/Paula Almerales, Silvia Trò Santafe/José Maria Lo Monaco; Simone Alberghini/Luca Tittoto, and Alex Esposito/TBA; the director is Damiano Michieletto teaming up with conductor Michele Mariotti. Mr. Brownlee returns to the Metropolitan Opera, this time as a Prince, Don Ramiro in La Cenerentola (May 1, 6 & 9), reuniting him with his Met-debut conductor, Maurizio Benini, and Elīna Garanča as the rags-to-riches Angelina, his Rosina on their Sony recording of Barbiere. The remainder of the ensemble includes: Simone Alberghini (Dandini), Alessandro Corbelli (Don Magnifico) and John Relyea (Alidoro) in a production by Cesare Lievi. The last of these performances is part of the Met’s series of high definition transmissions to movie theaters around the world. Previously heard and seen in Trieste’s Teatro Verdi in Cenerentola, the tenor now brings his L’italiana Lindoro there, led by Bruno Campanella (May 29, 31; June 3, 9 [10]). He repeats a run of Barbieres in Hamburg (June 7, 20, 23 & 25) with a slightly different cast (Silvia Tro Santafé, Oleg Romashyn, Renato Girolami & Tigran Martirossian), before concluding his season in the U.S. with triple debuts: his introductory booking at the Caramoor Festival in New York, where he presents himself in two new roles: Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore (July 18) and Idreno in Semiramide, (August 1), both helmed by bel canto specialist Will Crutchfield. The remainder of the cast of L’elisir is still to be announced; Semiramide also features Angela Meade (as the guilt-stricken eponymous Queen of Babylonia), Vivica Genaux (as the warrior-prince Arsace) and Daniel Mobbs (as the murderous Assur).

The 2008-09 season sees the release of two of Mr. Brownlee’s most recently completed CDs, both on labels new for the tenor and centered around the works of Rossini: on Naxos, L’italiana in Algeri conducted by Alberto Zedda, taken from the live 2008 performances at the Rossini in Wildbad Festival; and, on Opera Rara, an exploration of the composer’s song output, for which he is joined by colleagues Mireille Delunsch, Jennifer Larmore, Catharine Wyn-Rogers, Mark Wilde and Brindley Sherratt, with Malcolm Martineau at the piano. The summer of 2008 saw the DVD release by Decca of a performance from the Covent Garden world premiere run of Lorin Maazel’s 1984, in which the tenor created the role of Syme.

For further information, please access Mr. Brownlee’s website at:

image= image_description=Lawrence Brownlee (Photo by Dario Acosta) product=yes product_title=Lawrence Brownlee Expands Repertoire in 2008-09 Season product_by=Above: Lawrence Brownlee (Photo by Dario Acosta)
Posted by Gary at 4:24 PM

John Adams: a composer as clever as he's courageous

Ivan Hewitt [Daily Telegraph, 17 September 2008]

A musician's memoir would probably not be your first choice for light reading, but make an exception for Hallelujah Junction, the memoirs of American composer John Adams, who last year turned 60.

Posted by Gary at 4:10 PM

September 16, 2008

A September Day Like No Other for a Downtown Family

By STEVE SMITH [NY Times, 16 September 2008]

Depicting the unimaginable on a theater stage is a daunting prospect. In the original production of the opera “Doctor Atomic,” the director Peter Sellars and the composer John Adams represented the detonation of the first nuclear bomb with an ominous countdown, a flash of light and a profound silence. For some viewers this solution was a striking evocation of an event literally too overwhelming for the human mind to process. Others found it a disappointing cop-out.

Posted by Gary at 3:03 PM

Prom 61 — Verdi's Requiem

This year it was the turn of the BBC Symphony Orchestra under their Chief Conductor Jiři Bělohlávek, along with the BBC Symphony Chorus, Crouch End Festival Chorus and a first-class line-up of vocal soloists.

What was truly remarkable, and frankly it should be something that can be taken for granted in high-profile professional performances, was the consistency in intonation and tone quality among the four soloists. They were big voices but there was not a wobble among them. The octaves between soprano and mezzo in the Agnus Dei were sung with such mutual sensitivity that the effect was almost one of a single voice (though ironically, the couple of bars where the two female voices are actually in unison revealed that they do not naturally blend). Joseph Calleja’s beauty and strength of tone made the Ingemisco searching and not in the least self-indulgent, while the pinpoint accuracy of Ildebrando d’Arcangelo gave the broken phrases of the Mors stupebit an authoritative finality which made the rests work at least as effectively as the notes.

Though Violeta Urmana's Libera me never quite sounded as though she was terrified for her mortal soul, the sheer power and accuracy of her delivery made for a hair-raising experience. Pace my reservations about this one-time mezzo’s ability to crown the orchestral sound with her top notes, even the quiet ones. Olga Borodina cancelled at short notice and was replaced by Michelle DeYoung, whose glinting mezzo in the Liber scriptus left the audience in little doubt that this WOULD be the fate in store for them.

For the Sanctus and Libera me fugues, Bělohlávek’s tempi were somewhat steady, perhaps due to the need to accommodate the substantial massed choral forces. As in many past performances of this piece, the trumpets of the Tuba mirum were arranged at various points throughout the Hall, with the third group being high up in the Gallery at the back; spatially it’s very effective, but musically it’s a mistake because of the sheer distance and resultant time-lag. They were never going to be in time with each other.

Generally, though, the orchestral sound was full and impressive, and the combined effort made for the finest and most powerful performance of the Verdi Requiem I can recall.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

image= image_description=Giuseppe Verdi product=yes product_title=Prom 61 — G. Verdi: Requiem product_by=Violeta Urmana (soprano), Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano), Joseph Calleja (tenor), Ildebrando d'Arcangelo (bass). BBC Symphony Chorus, Crouch End Festival Chorus, BBC Symphony Orchestra. Jiří Bělohlávek (cond.)
Royal Albert Hall, 31 August 2008
Posted by Gary at 2:20 PM

Prom 51 — St. John Passion

The centrepiece of the homage was a performance of the St John Passion, the shorter, tauter and more uplifting of Bach’s two extant Passion settings.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner was at the helm of this one, delivering a performance that was both exactingly schooled and dramatically compelling. Admittedly his firm-set ideas on historically-informed performance are a trifle predictable, and can be irritating after a while: the over-stressing of the first beat in every bar of the opening chorus was somewhat bothersome, as was the exaggerated running-through of the ends of phrases of the chorales wherever the text contains no comma.

The soloists were led by the experienced Evangelist of Mark Padmore, who always manages to convey a stark emotional connection with the music while still retaining a refined delivery. Other than Padmore, the singers were variable; Peter Harvey’s Christus was more than adequate, but the most interesting and dramatically compelling was the bass-baritone Matthew Brook as Pontius Pilate, whose role in John’s gospel is so much more prominent than in Matthew’s more detailed account.

Soprano Katharine Fuge sang with limpid tone, but her phrasing was short-breathed, and her voice is such a small sound that I wonder if she was audible at all in the further reaches of the Hall. I take issue with whoever came up with the idea for the ‘sobbing’ ornamentation in the B section of ‘Zerfließe, mein Herze’; it was the one really tasteless moment of the concert. Alto Robin Blaze was very uneven in his first aria, which is perhaps a little high-lying for him, but much more satisfying in his second, ‘Es ist vollbracht’ which comes at the moment of Christ’s death. Nicholas Mulroy and Jeremy Budd shared the tenor arias, Mulroy acquitting himself with more consistency.

The Monteverdi Choir, in which the soloists also participated, performed with vocal colouring and facial expression appropriate to each of the dramatic choruses. The choir were radiantly uplifting in the closing chorus and chorale, affirming Man’s confidence in the presence of a hitherto non-existent gateway to Paradise.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

image= image_description=J. S. Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann (1748) product=yes product_title=Prom 51 — J.S. Bach: St. John Passion product_by=Mark Padmore (Evangelist), Peter Harvey (Christus), Katharine Fuge (soprano), Robin Blaze (counter-tenor), Nicholas Mulroy (tenor), Jeremy Budd (tenor), Matthew Brook (bass). Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists, Sir John Eliot Gardiner (cond.)
Royal Albert Hall, 24 August 2008
Posted by Gary at 1:58 PM

September 15, 2008

Let's Go, Verdi! A Change-Up At Nats Park

By Teresa Wiltz [Washington Post, 15 September 2008]

Opera beamed into a ballpark has a distinctly different vibe than a concert-hall experience: It's T-shirts vs. tuxedos, baseball caps vs. opera glasses, chicken tenders vs. champagne, D.C. heat and humidity vs. central air.

Posted by Gary at 8:51 AM

'Bonesetter's Daughter'

Joshua Kosman [SF Chronicle, 15 September 2008]

"The Bonesetter's Daughter," which had its world premiere Saturday night at the San Francisco Opera, explodes onto the stage in a burst of circus extravagance: acrobats flying through the air, the nasal squawk of Chinese reed instruments from the balcony, elaborate visuals centered around elemental images of fire and water.

Posted by Gary at 8:48 AM

An Opera of an Epic, Composed in Stages

By ALLAN KOZINN [NY Times, 15 September 2008]

In his 11 years at the Miller Theater, George R. Steel has made creative programming an art form in itself and has constantly raised the bar. When he planned this season, his goal was to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the renovation of Columbia University’s old McMillan Theater and its reopening as the Miller Theater. As it turns out, it is also Mr. Steel’s valedictory season, though most of it will be in absentia.

Posted by Gary at 8:45 AM

Philip Glass: Confessions of a chameleon

By Fiona Sturges [The Independent, 14 September 2008]

As a child, the composer Philip Glass worked at his father's radio- repair shop in Baltimore, which doubled as a small record store. It was there that he was exposed to a huge variety of music, from Schubert and Bartok to Hank Williams and Elvis. "I liked nearly all of it," he said years later. "People forgot to tell me some stuff was better than others."

Posted by Gary at 7:57 AM

Expanding audiences and ambitions

By John von Rhein [ Chicago Tribune, 14 September 2008]

In its first five seasons of operation, the Harris Theater for Music and Dance has proved an enormous boon to its resident classical music groups, as well as others that use the acoustically admirable, state-of-the-art facility.

Posted by Gary at 7:54 AM

Why the critics swatted The Fly opera

Richard Ouzounian [Toronto Star, 13 September 2008]

There was an old lady who swallowed a fly.

Actually, It was a whole chorus of middle-aged male reviewers who did the dirty deed, but when they had finished with David Cronenberg and Howard Shore's opera of The Fly, which opened in Los Angeles last Sunday night, they had not only swallowed it, but regurgitated it onto the pages of the continent's papers as well.

Posted by Gary at 6:04 AM

Proms conclude with Last Night

[BBC, 13 September 2008]

The BBC Proms season has ended with the traditional Last Night concert in London's Royal Albert Hall.

Thousands of people also attended open-air events on big screens in Hyde Park, Belfast, Glasgow and Swansea.

Posted by Gary at 6:01 AM

Turandot, Hampstead Theatre, London

By Ian Shuttleworth [Financial Times, 11 September 2008]

Charm, wonder, beauty ... not words often associated with Bertolt Brecht. More often dour, didactic, dull. The Young Vic’s revival earlier this year of The Good Soul Of Szechuan impressed some but left many doubting whether there was continuing dramatic life to such works after the dismissal of communism as a global ideology.

Posted by Gary at 4:08 AM

September 14, 2008

The Second to Last Night of the Proms – Beethoven’s 9th Symphony

Wear a silly hat, wave a flag and maybe the cameras will spot you. Then Mom will see you on TV 10,000 miles away. The Second-to-Last Night though, is the “real” Last Night for music lovers and it’s traditionally observed with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Justly so, for there is no music more symbolic of the Proms ethos than this wonderful symphony. “Alle Menschen werden Brüder !” All men shall be brothers. No wonder it’s the theme song of the European Community. In these troubled times, Schiller’s message is even more relevant. Since this Prom is broadcast worldwide and available online, it will reach wherever technology permits – a universal experience that crosses boundaries, bringing people together for a moment of communal celebration.

A pity then that the performance was so lacklustre. If ever there was an opportunity to let a performance rip open with exhilaration this would have been it ! The City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus are so well versed they managed to create a frisson, but the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, under their chief conductor Giannandrea Noseda were rather laboured and sedate. The pressure of being so high profile must be intimidating, but this music is so vivid that it hardly matters whether it’s note perfect, as long as it conveys the sense of joyous, enthusiasm. One of the most interesting performances I’ve heard was by the West-East Divan Orchestra, some of whom are as young as ten years old. Technically they weren’t brilliant, but they understood the radical message of Schiller’s text and why Beethoven set it with such affirmation. The baritone Iain Patterson, was impressive, which is was good for his part dominates the other soloists despite the aesthetic that shapes the ensemble. His voice filled the stadium-like acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall with ease. Still, the Choral Symphony never fails to pack a punch and the atmosphere was so charged with a sense of occasion that when the capacity audience of 7500 people roared approval, it was quite an experience.

Wagner’s Prelude from Parsifal can create an aura, like dawn, before a large programme, but here it was too studied to create any sense of anticipation. This might be fatal in an opera performance, but at this Prom, it was followed by two true relative rarities, Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, segued without a break into Beethoven’s Elegischer Gesang.. Yet again, it was the music that made an impact, rather than the way it was realised. Noseda’s right and left hands rarely diverge, favouring slow, imprecise gestures that emphasise the stretch of lines rather than the structure. This worked rather well with the Penderecki piece with its prolonged low humming and circular “wind” themes, sounds that are eerie because they are mechanical and unrelenting. If the horror in the piece was lost, merging it with Beethoven’s lament “Sanft wie du lebtest hast du vollendet.” gave a rationale to the muted treatment. But surely no-one can possibly suggest that being blown up at Hiroshima was “a gentle ending” ?

Anne Ozorio

image= image_description=Ludwig van Beethoven (1820) by Joseph Karl Stieler product=yes product_title=Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony no. 9; Elegsiche Gesang
Richard Wagner: Prelude from Parsifal
Krzysztof Penderecki: Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima product_by=Emma Bell, Jane Irwin, Timothy Robinson, Iain Patterson, City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, BBC Philharmonic, Giannandrea Noseda (cond.)
12 September 2008, Royal Albert Hall, London
Posted by Gary at 8:06 PM

Vivica Genaux Focuses on Baroque Repertoire in 2008-09 Season

At all the major music capitals, she is consistently praised not only for the technical command and beauty of her distinctive voice, but also for her compelling stage portrayals.

Ms. Genaux balances her appearances worldwide with operatic engagements, concerts and recitals in new venues and countries, as well as returns to sites of previous audience and critical triumphs. This season she adds four additional roles to her pantheon of characters, one each by Vivaldi, Handel, Hasse and Haydn. She ventures into recording studios twice for Virgin Classics, first for a new solo-CD and then to complete a recording, begun in July of 2008, as Antiope in Vivaldi’s Ercole, which she subsequently performs in the theater for the first time. Her stage personæ now total forty, twenty-five of which are trouser-parts.

The 2008-09 season commences with one of three New York area performances, the first at Tannery Pond Concerts in the Berkshires, in a recital paired with longtime confrere Craig Rutenberg (August 30). Their program comprises works of Haydn, Loewe, Garcia/Viardot, Rossini, Serrano, Chueca/Valverde and Giménez. This is followed by a debut at the Festival de Fénétrange for a bill consisting of arias by Handel & Hasse with Concerto Köln (September 5). For her initial engagement at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, Ms. Genaux switches male attire and roles from her more usual eponymous hero to the villain, Polinesso, in Ariodante, with Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques (September 16, 18, 20, 22, 24 & 26). Her colleagues include Danielle de Niese (Ginevra), Maria Grazia Schiavo (Dalinda), Angelika Kirchschlager (Ariodante), Topi Lehtipuu (Lurcanio), Martin Mairinger (Odoardo) and Luca Pisaroni (Il Re) in this Lukas Hemleb production. Ms. Genaux participated at its 2007 premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. In a return to Madrid’s Teatro Real, where she has previously been seen and heard in Ariodante and Bajazet, she takes great “pleasure” in going “allegorical” as Il Piacere in a staged version of the Handel oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (November 2, 4, 6, 9, 11, 14 & 16) conducted by Paul McCreesh, their premier collaboration. The cast in this Jürgen Flimm-directed production also consists of Isabel Rey (La Bellezza), Marijana Mijanovic (Il Disinganno) and Steve Davislim (Il Tempo). Another role and festival debut await at the Ludwigsburger Schlossfestspiele in a Hasse rarity, as Salome in Sanctus Petrus et Sancta Maria Magdalena, coupled with the composer’s Miserere in D minor, with Michael Hofstetter at the helm. Ms. Genaux is joined by Kirsten Blaise, Heidrun Kordes, Jacek Laszczkowski and Terry Wey (November 23). The mezzo and Concerto Köln, an ensemble with which she often makes music, offer concerts in early-December in Cologne (3), Lyon (5) and Saarbrücken (12), after which she embarks on another recording project, for Virgin Classics, her seventh for the label.

As 2009 begins, Ms. Genaux, assuming the role of the proud and fierce Amazon Queen, Antiope, completes a Virgin Classics recording of Vivaldi’s Ercole sul Termodonte, the sixteenth of the composer’s forty-eight stage works, at studios in Florence with a starry cast which includes: Diana Damrau, Patrizia Ciofi, Joyce DiDonato, David Daniels, Philippe Jaroussky, Rolando Villazón and Topi Lehtipuu, with Fabio Biondi/Europa Galante. Back in the United States she concertizes with Andrea Marcon and members of the Venice Baroque Orchestra on January 14 at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall. In late-January she sings Ercole for the first time on stage at Vienna’s Konzerthaus (25) and then at Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (27) with the team of Biondi/Europa Galante, where her co-stars are Roberta Invernizzi (Ippolita), Emanuela Galli (Orizia), Stefanie Irányi (Martesia), Romina Basso (Teseo), Philippe Jaroussky (Alceste), Carlo Allemano (Ercole) & Filippo Adami (Telamone). In one of her calling-card roles, she plays the practical and quick-thinking Isabella in L’italiana in Algeri at Torino’s Teatro Regio (a Company debut) on March 4, 6, 8m, 11 & 15m, where her colleagues include Antonio Siragusa as her rediscovered love, Lindoro; Roberto di Candia as her would-be suitor, Taddeo; and Lorenzo Regazzo as the befuddled Bey of Algiers, Mustafà. The displays of vocal virtuosity and madcap antics are led from the pit by Bruno Campanella. For her initial engagement in Russia, at Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Concert Hall (April 8), she teams up with frequent recital partner Carlos de Aragon, here conducting the Musica Viva Orchestra, in a mixed-repertoire program. In her one-time hometown, at the Pittsburgh Opera, she once again dons Isabella’s traveling gear and shows the residents of Algiers what it means to tangle with an Italian Girl. Here her fun-loving colleagues are William Burden (Lindoro), Earle Patriarco (Taddeo) and Paolo Pecchioli (Mustafà), conducted by the company’s Music Director, Antony Walker (May 2, 5, 8 & 10m). Rejoining Concerto Köln, she intones her first notes in Brazil and Argentina with concert dates in São Paulo (May 26 & 27) and Buenos Aires (June 1 & 2). One more Festival debut awaits her in France, in St. Denis, with a Marian-themed program featuring Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and Handel’s Il pianto di Maria, in which she is paired once more with Maestro Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques (June 23). For her first foray with the music of Haydn, Ms. Genaux assumes the part of the aptly-named Costanza in a semi-staged run of L’isola disabitata, a tale of shipwrecked romance and mistaken identity. For Ms. Genaux, this represents a new role and orchestra collaboration with Jonathan Nott and the Bamberger Symphoniker (July 8, 9, 11 & 12). Her season comes to a close at New York’s Caramoor Festival where she portrays the avenging warrior-prince, Arsace, in Rossini’s Semiramide, here sharing the stage with another fellow bel canto specialist, tenor Lawrence Brownlee, among others (August 1). In this, her ninth engagement there (following on the heels of La Cenerentola, La donna del lago, Lucrezia Borgia, La gazza ladra, as well as two recitals and two concerts), she is reunited with Will Crutchfield, who has been a major force in her career from the beginning.

For further information, please access Ms. Genaux’s websites at: and

image= image_description=Vivica Genaux (Photo by Harry Heleotis) product=yes product_title=Vivica Genaux Focuses on Baroque Repertoire in 2008-09 Season product_by=Above: Vivica Genaux (Photo by Harry Heleotis)
Posted by Gary at 4:21 PM

STRAUSS: Die ägyptische Helena — Salzburg 2003

Music composed by Richard Strauss. Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

First Performance: 6 June 1928, Sächsisches Staatstheater Opernhaus, Dresden (revised version, Salzburg, Festspielhaus, 14 August 1933).

Principal Roles:
Helena [Helen] of Troy, wife of Menelaus Soprano
Menelas [Menelaus], her husband Tenor
Hermione, their daughter [role omitted in 1933 version] Soprano
Aithra, a sorceress Soprano
Altair, a nomad chieftain Baritone
Da-ud, his son Tenor
The Omniscient Seashell Contralto
Two Servants of Aithra Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano
Three Elves Two Sopranos, Contralto

Setting: Egypt, 1193-1184 B.C. (after the Trojan War)


In the Egyptian palace of the sorceress Aithra, the omniscient mussel (an all-knowing sea-shell left by Aithra’s lover Poseidon) sights a ship bound for Sparta. On board is the raging Menelaus who is determined to kill Helen for her faithlessness and for causing the death of so many Greeks. A storm is conjured up and the couple are shipwrecked near the palace. Aithra, with the help of some magical lotus juice, convinces Menelaus that Helen of Troy was an illusion of the gods, that the real Helen was faithful, and that they should be sent on a second honeymoon to an oasis beneath the Atlas Mountains. Helen and Menelaus are entertained by a desert sheik and his son, but the foursome find themselves trapped in a symbolic re-enactment of events in Troy that led to the death of Paris. As a result of this tragic psychotherapy Helen realises that thanks to Aithra's potion she will always be living as an impostor. She and Menelaus take a draught of remembrance and embrace the reality of their former love, sealed by the appearance of her daughter Hermione.

[Synopsis Source: Boosey & Hawkes]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image= image_description=Detail from El amor de Helena y Paris by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) audio=yes first_audio_name=Richard Strauss: Die ägyptische Helena
For best results, use VLC or Winamp. first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Richard Strauss: Die ägyptische Helena product_by=Helena (Deborah Voigt), Menelas (Albert Bonnema), Aithra (Elena Mosuc), Hermione (Martina Janková), The Omniscient Seashell (Annette Jahns), Altair (Falk Struckmann), Da-ud (Kresimir Spicer), Two Servants of Aithra (Vitalija Blinstrubyte and Anke Vondung), Elves (Silvia Colombini, Astrid Hofer, Adriane Queiros and Julia Oesch). Chor der Sachsischen Staatsoper Dresden, Sachsische Staatskapelle Dresden, Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg, Fabio Luisi (cond.)
Live performance: 29 July 2003, Felsenreitschule, Salzburg.
Posted by Gary at 2:55 PM

Film Music Classics on Naxos: Herrmann and Perry

These two discs from the excellent Naxos series dedicated to great film scores offer convincing evidence for this disparity in fame. Although not as individual as his work for Alfred Hitchcock, Herrmann's music for "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" and "Five Fingers" reflects both his professionalism and his talent for evoking a dark-tinged romanticism (perhaps best displayed in the score for "Vertigo"). On a very distant other hand, Perry's work for some PBS-produced adaptations of classic Mark Twain texts conforms to outdated forms, with minimal harmonic interest and predictable scoring (especially the expected banjo obbligato).

The gushing strings and muscular horns of Herrmann's music for "The Snows of Kilimanjaro" adheres to the conventions of a big studio Techincolor adventure/romance. The edgier quality Herrmann brought to his classic Hitchcock scores may be missed by some; they'll find some of the quality in the excerpts from "Five Fingers" (an overlooked gem of a film as well). All the music is well-served by William Stromberg and the Moscow Symphony Orchestra, who have done such admirable work in most of the CDs from this Naxos "Film Music Classics" series.

Perry_Innocents.pngComposer William Perry himself leads the orchestras in the disc of his music from films adapted from Mark Twain's writings. Yes, orchestras, as the Slovak Philharmonic, Rome Philharmonic, and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra all found themselves with the not exactly taxing task of performing Perry's music. Think of a hunk of Copland-esque music, with all harmonic interest and rhythmic vitality stripped away. However, in the disc's final selections, from "The Mysterious Stranger," Perry finally produces some passages with more tension and darker colors. That fifteen minutes or so, however, may not compensate for the drabness of the rest of the material.

The disappointment of the Perry disc aside, the Naxos "Film Music Classics" series has mostly presented treasures, and this disc devoted to Herrmann's music is one such.

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=Bernard Herrmann: The Snows of Kilimanjaro; 5 Fingers product=yes product_title=Bernard Herrmann: The Snows of Kilimanjaro; 5 Fingers product_by=Moscow Symphony Orchestra, William Stromberg (cond.). product_id=Naxos 8.570186 [CD] price=$8.99 product_url=
Posted by chris_m at 2:35 PM

Mozart, Rossini and Verdi at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino

Not the Falstaff. Luca Ronconi's staging moves the action up to 20th century Britain, with the housewives thoroughly middle-class, in costumes suggesting a 1950s' time frame. However, Falstaff's henchmen sport punk hair stylings and accouterments, and the Fat Knight himself is a rouged, bleached sleazebag, just another glass of potted wine away from total dissolution.

Christoph Wagenknecht's handsome sets for Die Entführung aus dem Serail have a kaleidoscope effect, with a mix of ornate Arabic designs adorning screens and lattices. The costumes of Catherine Voeffray have the imagination and detail of the best film costumes. But their work is let down by the pedestrian direction of Eike Gramss. Dialogue scenes stop time, with leaden pauses and perfunctory movement. The key casting of Entführung, oddly enough, is the non-singing role of the pasha Selim. If he does not have the power and charisma needed, the drama falls flat, and though Markus John is not wholly inadequate, his scenes never come to life. Rainer Trost's Belmonte makes for a very bland hero, both as actor and singer. Eva Mei sings wonderfully as Konstanze, her technique more than capable in this very difficult role. But she seems so reserved, or self-possessed, that the drama never engages. Patrizia Ciofi and Mehrzad Montazeri outshine their co-stars as the other couple, and Kurt Rydl hams it up amusingly enough as Osmin. Zubin Mehta gives the star performance here, leading the Florentine forces in a dynamic, exciting reading of this great score.

Tancredi_Fiorentino.pngBesides directing, Pier Luigi Pizzi designed the sets and costumes for Tancredi. His impeccable taste means that the production pleases the eye, with the off-white marble flooring and columns contrasting well with the red, black, and white spectrum of the costumes. The challenge of staging any dramatic Rossini comes with deciding how seriously to take the largely preposterous goings-on. Pizzi's decorous approach mostly skirts the risible without taking itself too seriously, although one silhouette effect of the hero (a pants role for mezzo) as he enters on a sailboat goes on a bit long and may prompt a giggle or two. An excellent cast delivers the bel canto goods, with Daniella Barcellona physically and artistically imposing in the title role, experienced tenor Raúl Giménez handling expertly the high line of his role, and Darina Takova moving her large voice around fairly nimbly. Riccardo Frizza and the Florentine forces keep the music moving without rushing.

Falstaff_Fiorentino.pngThe decorous and tasteful don't play a large role in Luca Ronconi's Falstaff, with sets by Margherita Palli and costumes from Carlo Maria Diappi. Some fans of Verdi's autumnal comedy will take offense at the updating (to a time-warp mix of late 20th century UK society, with the housewives in floral jersey dresses of the 1950s and Falstaff's henchmen in the studded leather and dyed Mohawks of the '80s and '90s). Ruggero Raimondi's portrayal will dismay some as well. Instead of the usual tubby charmer who may indulge a bit too much in ale and mead, Raimondi's Falstaff has luridly bleached hair, rouged cheeks, and the bulbous belly of an alcoholic. In other words, this is a Falstaff who truly deserves a comeuppance at the hands of the wives, even if they strut and scheme with a self-confidence that borders on the arrogant.

For those open to Ronconi's approach, this Falstaff will succeed in many ways. The set design enables a constant flow of fresh perspectives on the action, with the transformation to the forest in the final act a particular delight. The comedy now has the same edge and sharp pace of Verdi's miraculous score, and with that wonderful veteran Zubin Mehta back in charge, not a delightful moment is wasted. It's Raimondi's show, and he owns every moment, but his supporting cast is right there with him. Barbara Frittoli has never been more beautiful or vocally appealing as Mrs. Ford, and Manual Lanza makes for a properly stuffy and smug husband. Daniil Shtoda and Mariola Cantarero don't wear out their welcome as the lovers, and Elena Zilio's spinsterish Mrs. Quickly, clinging to her handbag, brings a fresh look to the role. Note must be made of the hilarious Gianluca Floris and Luigi Roni as Bardolfo and Pistola.

All three of these DVDs have deserving qualities. However, if the Opera Today reader has a dislike for the more risky stagings, the Falstaff may not be advised, no matter how much it pleased your reviewer. The Mozart and Rossini are safe choices for lovers of those two operas.

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=W. A Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail product=yes product_title=W. A Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail product_by=Eva Mei (Konstanza), Patrizia Ciofi (Blondchen), Rainer Trost (Belmonte), Mehrzad Montazeri (Pedrillo), Markus John (Selim Pasha), Kurt Rydl (Osmin), Fiorentino Maggio Musicale Orchestra. Fiorentino Maggio Musicale Chorus. Zubin Mehta (cond.). product_id=TDK DVWW-OPEADSM [DVD] price=$19.99 product_url=
Posted by chris_m at 1:13 PM

September 9, 2008

Prom 70 — St François d’Assise

As a centrepiece of the Proms centenary celebrations, this Netherlands Opera performance, more or less shorn of its Amsterdam production, was certainly a memorable occasion. It was disappointing that the audience was so small; in my naïveté, I had assumed that the rarity value alone would have guaranteed a large house, perhaps even a sell-out. The performance nevertheless received rapturous acclaim from true believers at the end of its well-nigh six hours (inclusive of two intervals).

There were many things to praise in this performance. The Hague Philharmonic Orchestra played very well, with especially valued contributions from its woodwind and percussion sections. The opening material, which returns throughout the opera, from awesomely synchronised tuned percussion was arresting, transfixing even, likewise the punchy wind ritornello that runs in parallel throughout the first scene. Messiaen’s huge woodwind — including seven (!) clarinets — and percussion sections — ten players in total — were throughout given their full head, nowhere more so than in the numerous auditions of the Gerygone ( piccolos, xylophone, and glockenspiel). The unusual seating, with strings on the left of the conductor and wind to the right underlined visually and audibly the sectional writing. Percussion ran along the back of the stage, whilst the three ondes martenot were positioned one immediately in front of the conductor, with the other two in boxes on either side of the hall, again providing a fine sense of spatial awareness. One case in which this truly paid dividends was in the bizarre scoring for low ondes, double basses and contrabassoon during Lauds. Nor should one forget the strings. The sequence of exultation and ravishing, transformative orchestral beauty (strings and ondes) upon the healing of the Leper was unforgettable, as was the Angel’s musical performance (strings and ondes again): ethereal, divine music. The brass section really came into its own shortly afterwards and for the final scene, depicting St Francis’s death. Here was true majesty.

The ritual basis of the work came across very clearly, never more so than in the opening exchanges between St Francis and Brother Leo, which put me in mind of those between Mime and the Wanderer in Siegfried. On the other hand, there were passages in which the music and drama — such as it is — dragged, most of all in the latter half of the long second act. Whilst Ingo Metzmacher’s direction was for the most part impressive, the length of this act and the preponderance — at least after the rejuvenated fourth scene depicting the Journeying Angel — of contemplative music prepares a trap of somnolence that is very difficult to avoid. Rhythms, especially when it came to birdsong, were commendably tight. However, I did not feel that the score had always been quite so internalised as on, say, Kent Nagano’s superlative live recording from Salzburg. I also felt that Metzmacher might have wrung more sweetness, even sickliness out of the strings, on certain occasions. (Simon Rattle’s Turangalîla still echoed in my mind.) Metzmacher and the other performers were not, of course, helped by the lack of staging. This is no fault of the Proms, but sometimes I missed what might have come from a fully staged performance. In many senses, Messiaen’s work is an oratorio of distinct scenes or frescoes rather than an opera as conventionally or even unconventially understood, yet it nevertheless appears to cry out for staging. We should be grateful to the Proms for its contribution, whilst petitioning our opera companies — above all, the Royal Opera — to carry out their duty.

The solo singing was good, although there was a lack of any truly charismatic ‘star’ performance, which might have elevated the dramatic experience onto another level. In the title role, Rod Gilfry’s performance was of a generally high standard, although he lost the competitive edge with the orchestra on a few occasions. He acted as much as he could, making me want to see him in a full production, in which what seemed to be an impressively detailed characterisation might shine more fully. One could forgive his tiring towards the end of the second act and in parts of the third, but at the same time one could not help but notice it. Messiaen said that he wanted the soprano Angel’s voice to ‘be almost as pure as Pamina’s in The Magic Flute’. Heidi Grant Murphy achieved this to some extent, yet there were times when her voice became quite tremulous. The principal problem with her performance was the diction. I was extremely grateful for the text and translation in the programme, since the proportion of words that were comprehensible was often small indeed. Hubert Delamboye presented a vividly characterised Leper, with notably more idiomatic French than some other members of the cast. Whilst Hank Leven’s Brother Leo was eminently credible in dramatic terms — even without any staging to speak of — his repeated statements of ‘J’ai peur’ suffered from surprisingly strange vowel sounds. His sweet yet vulnerable tenor otherwise seemed just right for the role. Although it is a relatively small role, I was probably most impressed by Charles Workman’s Brother Masseo, which in its combination of thoughtfulness, musicality, and palpable practical piety — if you will forgive the excessive alliteration — seemed to me in every respect beyond reproach.

Overall, it was the third act that left the most powerful impression, not least through the outstanding choral contribution. In a 1992 interview with Jean-Christophe Marti, Messiaen remarked: ‘The stigmata represent the supreme mark if divinity on man, and this mark is painful.’ The composer was certainly convinced of the literal truth in this respect concerning St Francis, and indeed others, pointing to ‘a volume of eyewitness accounts, Considerations on the Stigmata, [which] leaves us in no doubt as to the veracity of the facts concerning Saint Francis’. The burning quality — in more than one sense — of Messiaen’s conviction is unmistakeable in the seventh scene and was unmistakeable in the performance. The chorus truly came into its own, here speaking as Christ: ‘C’est Moi, c’est Moi, c’est Moi, je suis l’Alpha et l’Oméga.’ In one sense, one might think of the opening Burning Bush scene of Moses und Aron. However, the apocalyptic nature of Messiaen’s vision is powerfully conveyed not through contrapuntal means but through solid blocks of homophony. The ecstasy of the chorus at the scene’s close was so strong that the lack of staging was now totally forgotten. In the following scene, the final chorus of the work brimmed with apocalyptic fervour and brought the performance to an overwhelming conclusion.

St François should perhaps be understood a synthetic work, like Busoni’s Doktor Faust, although I am not sure that Messiaen’s opera, despite its confessional advantage, has quite the Aquinas-like sense of summation of Busoni’s, its unfinished state notwithstanding. There is something compendious to St François. As Messiaen himself observed, ‘it contains virtually all the bird calls that I’ve noted down in the course of my life, all the colours of my chords, all my harmonic procedures.’ And yet, there are sections in which variety does appear to be lacking. Messiaen’s assemblage, his trademark juxtaposition in place of development, does not achieve uniformly favourable results, especially when confronted with so vast a time-span. Eternity, so often the composer’s concern, is not at all the same thing as a long time; indeed, if it can be dealt with or even hinted at at all, it is often better treated in the twinkling of an eye. Comparisons with Wagner seem to me quite to miss the point, serving only to draw attention to the lack of plasticity in much of Messiaen’s material and a less than infallible dramatic sense. As I mentioned above, the lack of staging was something of a problem in this respect, although one should doubtless not exaggerate. At its best, however, St François d’Assise stands as a monument to the belief, imagination, and accomplishment of one of the great composers of the twentieth century. It also reminds us that he stood both close to and yet distinct from many of that century’s most central compositional concerns. This distance could sometimes be a weakness yet could equally be a strength; it undoubtedly testifies to the astonishing singularity of Olivier Messiaen and his music.

Mark Berry

image= image_description=St. Francis of Assisi by El Greco product=yes product_title=Olivier Messiaen: St François d’Assise (1975–83) product_by=Rod Gilfry (St Francis), Heidi Grant Murphy (Angel), Hubert Delamboye (Leper), Henk Neven (Brother Leo), Charles Workman (Brother Masseo), Donald Kaasch (Brother Elias), Armand Arapian (Brother Bernard), Jan Willem Balijet (Brother Sylvester), André Morsch (Brother Rufus), Chorus of The Netherlands Opera. The Hague Philharmonic. Ingo Metzmacher (cond.)
Concert performance, Royal Albert Hall, London, 7 September 2008
Posted by Gary at 11:32 AM

September 8, 2008

“Great Performances” remembers Pavarotti — What remains is the voice.

But the voice remains, and it’s documented — and celebrated — in “Pavarotti; A Life in Seven Arias,” a “Great Performances” presentation slated for broadcast by PBS on Wednesday (10 September).

“In a career that spanned four decades he defined what a tenor is,” says David Thompson, mastermind of the project that originated at the BBC. “And that’s why I decided to focus on the voice, for it’s the voice that is his legacy.” Thompson points out, moreover, it is extremely fortunate that these four decades, beginning with his first Bohème in Modena, his Italian hometown, are so richly documented in high-quality recordings and on film.

Thompson looks back on a long career in TV documentaries that embraces a wide variety of people and subjects. Music has been a central concern, and his bibliography includes programs on Aaron Copland, Gian Carlo Menotti and Francis Poulenc. “When the BBC approached me, they wanted this program to mark the first anniversary of Pavarotti’s death,’ he says. “And that meant that we didn’t have much time.”

To structure the 90-minute program the director decided to offer a retrospective of Pavarotti’s career by focusing on seven arias closely associated with his fame. “I thought this was the best way to make sense of his career,” Thompson says, recalling his 1979 tribute to Pavarotti “King of the High C’s,” also made for the BBC. “They trace his development and put it all together — and the performances present Pavarotti when his voice was at its best.”

The program opens with “Che gelida manina” from Bohème. The 1965 Modena performance features an equally youthful Mirella Freni as Mimi. Twelve years later Pavarotti sang Rodolfo opposite Renata Scotto in the first-ever live TV broadcast from New York’s Met.

“Pour mon âme” from Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment marked a double turning point in the tenor’s career, for this challenging aria with nine high C’s and the Covent Garden performance brought him together for the first time with Joan Sutherland and conductor-husband Richard Bonynge. Pavarotti identifies the Australian soprano as a major influence upon his development. “She taught me how to breathe and how to control my voice,” he says.

A sequence heavy in sentiment takes Pavarotti back to Modena to sing César Franck’s haunting Panis Angelicus with his baker father.

It was manager Herbert Breslin who launched the media blitz that moved Pavarotti beyond the opera house and designed the “Three Tenors” concerts that made Pavarotti’s name a household concept around the world. Clips from the first “Three Tenors” performance at the Rome 1990 World Cup document this collaboration with Placido Domingo and José Carreras.

“Questa o quella,” the Duke’s aria from Verdi’s Rigoletto recalls a further favorite role. It was, however, “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot that became Pavarotti’s signature aria — especially after the recording of it made at the World Cup.

From the tenor’s late years, when Tosca became his undoing, Thompson chose “E Lucian le stelle.” It was in this opera that Pavarotti made his final appearance at the Met in 2004. It was his last complete opera performance. The series ends — appropriately — with the “Ingemisco” from Verdi’s Requiem.

Thompson counterpoints the music with recollections by fellow tenor Kim Begley, Bonynge and Sutherland, director John Coply, critic Noman Lebrecht and Covent Garden wig and makeup artist Ron Freeman.

Surviving fellow tenors José Carreras and Plácido Domingo also pay tribute to Pavarotti’s greatness. Especially touching are comments by Juan Diego Flórez, a major Pavarotti fan. “Pavarotti had happiness in the voice,” the Peru-born tenor says. “His technique was based on clarity, on the words, on the vowels. “It is important — especially in a tenor — that the words come across and that you can understand them.”

Tracking down these singers was not easy for Thompson. “It was hard to find them and to find a time when they were available,” he says. “Monserrat Caballé was available in Munich for only one day, and Carreras could be interviewed only in China. For Domingo we had to arrange an interview in New York.”

Like millions for whom Pavarotti was a synonym for opera — if not for serious music per se — Thompson never heard Pavarotti live. “I was always busy with other things when he sang in London,” he says. “But I knew the voice well. It was a powerful voice, very even and lyrical. That’s what this program is about — his voice, not his personal life.”

“Pavarotti: A Life in Seven Arias,” a “Great Performances” presentation, airs on public television on September 10. Check local stations for local broadcast times.

Wes Blomster

image_description=Luciano Pavarotti (Photo by Don Perdue, © Thirteen/WNET)

product_title=Great Performances — Pavarotti: A Life in Seven Arias
product_by=Above: Luciano Pavarotti (Photo by Don Perdue, © Thirteen/WNET)

Posted by Gary at 3:41 PM

Cecilia Bartoli at the Musikverein Wien

In my many years of reviewing and observing operas I have often been privy to magnificent performances, and some not so great; however, the concert given by Cecilia Bartoli to a full-house at the Musikverein in Vienna has surpassed expectation and remains at the top of my list as a spectacular live performance

The air of anticipation outside the concert hall was monumental. Of course, posters and advertisements of Signora Bartoli’s lovely visage graced subways, street posts, and the concert district. All of Vienna seemed to be in a frenzy to welcome this most endearing and talented performer. The line-up for standing room tickets was unprecedented, and the concert hall was filled to its very core. In my many years of attending concerts, I have never felt such energy over one given performer, let alone in Vienna where musical standards are of high public interest.

For many months prior to the release of her new album, Maria Malibran: La Rivoluzione Romantica, Bartoli had given interviews and spoken publicly about her passion and devotion to the artistry of Maria Malibran, a young and talented singer who died at a young age, and perhaps before she had achieved the pinnacle of her career. Expressing a profound interest in musicology, Signora Bartoli has conducted a significant amount of research for this album, making it all the more interesting to listeners, fans, and scholars. Although her other albums have been successful, there is something more intimate about this album, not to mention that it marks her most superb singing to date.

As the Kammerorchester of Basel arrived on-stage, one noticed that the platform for the conductor remained empty. The audience was silenced and the concert began with a performance of the Overture from La Figlia dell’aria, written by Manuel del Pòpulo Vicente García, one of the forefathers of Italian singing technique. The piece exuded distinct 18th century attributes and grand dynamic shifts that were well controlled by the chamber orchestra. The typical melodic influx of classical style with underlying 16th note rhythms soared into the more than wonderful acoustic of the Großer Musikvereinssaal. The overture was a pleasant way to begin the concert. It set the stage for what was to be an emotional and exciting evening.

The audience, silent, waited for the stage door to open and out glided Signora Bartoli, in a beautiful crimson red gown. Already on their feet, the audience welcomed her with enthusiasm and love. Bartoli beamed with pleasure and welcomed them with as much endearment as they offered her. Not only did she take center-stage as the singer, she took her place on the conductor’s podium, facing the audience. On this evening, Bartoli was not simply the performer, but also the conductor. The orchestra began the music to the recitative, scene and aria, “E non lo vedo…son Regina. Bartoli’s colorito and the manner in which she uses her voice as an instrument is remarkable. Her impeccable use of sotto voce and the attention she pays to textual inflection is exuberant and emotionally captivating. She paces herself through each verse and mingles her voice with the orchestra in such a way that nothing ever seems out-of-place. In the middle of the aria, she began to employ her explosive fioritura, which is fiery and seamless. Her depth of range and approach to every vocal idiom she uses are, perhaps, technically perfect. Also affective, was the shift in mood she could create, from a happy one to one that exuded pathos. Her accurate and aesthetically appropriate singing is imbued with a generosity and genuineness that one must see and hear live, in order to fully appreciate the extent of Signora Bartoli’s talent. How brilliant is a performer who can stand and sing with such accuracy and emotion, and also listen simultaneously to every instrument in the orchestra and give them cues as to their entrances. Bartoli conducted the Kammerorchester with delicate and swift movements of her wrists to the amazement of the audience, who vocalized their feelings of gratitude.

Giuseppe Persiani’s Romanza from Ines de Castro, “Cari Giorni,” was perhaps the most moving performance of the concert. Bartoli’s opening lines, “Cari giorni a me sereni d’innocenza e di virtù,” brought many to tears. She thoroughly understands how to use the voice to express emotion, a trait that is paramount to her artistry. The ominous opening of the Romanza was lyrically accompanied by solo cello and harp. Bartoli never sings two notes in the same shape. She is constantly fluctuating and employing different colours, using straight tone and then spinning with such intensity that one could easily forget that this is a human voice. It seems metaphysical: of this world, but shared with a higher realm. A strong silence filled the hall before applause erupted with force.

After a short orchestral Scherzo by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, to provide a moment’s rest for the singer/conductor, Bartoli emerged to sing “Infelice” a scene and aria also written by Mendelssohn. The long and intricate text was moving and the orchestra was profoundly sensitive to Bartoli’s instructive gestures. Again, her lines are seamless and the coloratura that pours from her could be described as one continuous and linear expression of beauty.

“Her lines are seamless and the coloratura that pours from her could be described as one continuous and linear expression of beauty.”

Next, a moment of sheer excitement for the audience as Bartoli sang one of her famous arias, “Nacqui all’affanno…Non più mesta,” from Rossini’s La Cenerentola. I will go so far as to say that this is “exclusively” Bartoli’s aria. No one can perform it with the same intensity, brilliance, and sheer energy that she possesses. It is a tour-de-force. The sound that poured from her, the extensiveness of her range was nothing other than a magnificent gesture of joy and love. The audience called on her for five curtain-calls prior to the intermission, to cheer their hearts out for this singular woman whose voice and joyous presence filled the entire building, and the entire city with love.

The second half continued with Rossini’s “Bel raggio lusinghier…Dolce pensiero,” from Semiramide. Bartoli’s coloratura seemed even more surreal here, with her delicate shaping and long languid breaths. She once again showed herself to be una virtuosa. With pure Bel Canto technique at her disposal, she was able to shift the mood of each section of the cavatina, and used articulation as an expressive device, never disconnected from the text—a feat that is difficult in many Bel Canto operas because of the influx of vocal pyrotechnics. The cabaletta was fiery and an authentic example of an unprecedented virtuosic instrument. Her ornaments, which may or may not have been improvised, were all aesthetically tasteful and brilliantly formulated.

After an Overture from Il Signor Bruschino, Bartoli performed, “Assisa a piè d’un salice—Deh, calma” from Rossini’s Otello. Even through the lengthy text, Bartoli kept every eye focused on her. She was a spectacle all unto herself. The sensitive harp sequences married with her voice in lovely tranquil moments that moved many to tears. What is perhaps most endearing about Bartoli is her ability to make us believe. She is never fake. Everything she sings, she feels. Each piece was in a different style and yet, she melds them together in one brilliant ideal of expression.


Perhaps the most endearing moment of the evening came in Michael William Balfe’s, Yon moon o’er the mountains, which Bartoli sang with such affection. Although she did not sing one German number in a primarily German-speaking city, she sang this lovely strophic song with slightly affected English, but so beautiful was her attempt that the audience exploded in applause, as they had for every other piece, yet the applause grew in length and intensity as the concert came to an end.

Her final number was Rataplan, written by Malibran herself, which Bartoli performed with the percussionist of the Kammerorchester, who produced the sound of the marching drum. It was an absolute moment of energetic expression for Bartoli. She beamed with happiness as she completed the number to a magnificent standing ovation that seemed to last forever.

After acknowledging her audience, those who sat behind her, around her, up in the balcony and in the orchestral section, she turned and shook hands with every member of the Kammerorchester in a gesture of supreme grace. The work she has conducted on Malibran and her obvious understanding of this music, in the most detailed sense, culminated in this performance; and yet, Bartoli was not willing to take all the credit. She openly expressed her respect for these performers who were able to help her bring her project to life.

The applause continued for many moments, and even after having received numerous bouquets of flowers, she emerged again to sing part of Rataplan, but this was not enough for the audience of course, who began to push their way toward the stage. Those in the standing room were pushing their way into the concert hall, as well, from outside the house. Graciously, Bartoli sang Nacqui l’affanno again, and this time she purposely brought the orchestra to faster speeds to increase the speed of her coloratura. In a moment of genuine communication, she held a high note while putting her hands in the air and waving with both hands to the audience, who waved back at her with exuberance. The concert was over and the smiles and tears of this audience lasted out the door and into the night.

I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Signora Bartoli after the concert. After several hours of signing autographs, she emerged out the artist’s door with her mother, who has supported her and been her teacher and coach since a young age. With a smile on her face, Signora Bartoli graciously accepted my praises and we exchanged cordialities in Italian. My comment to her was one of great respect for the work she had done, but my comment to concert-going audiences is this: For many years Ms. Bartoli has been often criticised for the size of her voice, not being big enough, and it is my professional opinion that the voice does not need to be large in order to communicate expression, emotion, and musicality. There are those with voices larger than hers who fail to communicate as she does, and whose technique is far from what hers is. It is a voice that touches you in the most intimate emotional place, no matter where you are seated. Furthermore, I would argue that there is a significant amount of power in Ms. Bartoli’s voice and the technique is more than impressive. Oftentimes society is met with something that is out of the norm; immediately, certain individuals are quick to place ideas upon it that really have nothing to do with the truth because it frightens them or because they do not fully understand what it is. Ms. Bartoli’s talent is extraordinary and hers is a musical truth: to bring joy, to those who wish to feel it, through her voice. There were surely many people in that concert hall who had had a difficult day at work, or some who may have been suffering losses, and she single-handedly was able to change their mood and affect every single person there in a positive light. Although there are my talented singers in our midst, who all deserve accolades for their talents, Ms. Bartoli resides at the very height of them. Hers is a talent that will be documented for centuries as one of the truly technically precise, emotional, and devoted performers in history.

Mary-Lou Patricia Vetere, 2008

image= image_description=Maria - Cecilia Bartoli product=yes product_title=Cecilia Bartoli at the Musikverein Wien product_by=Cecilia Bartoli (mezzo-soprano), Kammerorchester Basel
Posted by Gary at 11:10 AM

Dessay conquers stage

By John von Rhein [Chicago Tribune, 8 September 2008]

Natalie Dessay creates entire operas around herself even when she's the only singer onstage. Such was the case at a packed Millennium Park on Saturday, when the alluring French soprano proved to be the brightest star of Lyric Opera's free showcase concert, "Stars of Lyric Opera."

Posted by Gary at 8:25 AM

The power and the glory of Messiaen's only opera

Tom Service [The Guardian, 8 September 2008]

If you hear only one thing this week, let it be this. Now, if you've no time for all six hours of Messiaen's only opera, St Francis of Assisi, you have to hear the final act. It's only a hour long, but you'll experience some of the most imaginative orchestral writing ever composed: the sounds Messiaen finds for St Francis's stigmata and his death and transfiguration are indelibly emblazoned on my brain after last night's Proms performance.

Posted by Gary at 8:18 AM

Opera in the Park enters its 35th year

Steven Winn [SF Chronicle, 8 September 2008]

They came with their blankets and binoculars, babies and dogs, long-stem roses and goose-liver pate. Spread out across Sharon Meadow in the fog-filtered sunlight of Golden Gate Park on Sunday afternoon, a larger-than-usual crowd estimated by the producers at 19,000 to 20,000 took in the annual September rite of musical and communal picnicking pleasure known as Opera in the Park.

Posted by Gary at 8:15 AM

Antonio Pappano: the unstoppable maestro

Rupert Christiansen [Daily Telegraph, 8 September 2008]

Tonight sees the opening of the Royal Opera's 2008-9 season - a performance of Don Giovanni for which the audience will consist of readers of the Sun who have bought tickets at knock-down prices, subsidised by the Helen Hamlyn Foundation.

Posted by Gary at 8:11 AM

Puccini With a Sprinkling of Woody Allen Whimsy

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 7 September 2008]

LOS ANGELES — Was Woody Allen trying to lower expectations for his directorial debut in opera? Or was he just being Woody?

For weeks, when asked how things were going with the new production of Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” that he was directing for the Los Angeles Opera, he talked down his suitability for the job. “I have no idea what I’m doing,” he told The Los Angeles Times. But “incompetence has never prevented me from plunging in with enthusiasm,” he added.

Posted by Gary at 7:09 AM

September 7, 2008

Prom 68 — Russian Fairy Tales from Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky

This Prom paired Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kashchey The Immortal with Stravinsky’s The Firebird, contrasting two resolutions to the fairy tale that’s captured Russian imaginations for centuries.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s short opera focuses on relationships. Kashchey is immortal, but he has a daughter, Kashcheyevna, who holds the secret to his death. She’s just as cold and conniving as he is but she falls in love with the Prince. The Storm Knight brings all four of them together, and the Princess’s love triumphs. Kashcheyevna weeps, and her tears break the spell that makes Kashchey invincible. Love conquers all, yet again. It’s simple but affords opportunities for lushly Romantic musical effects. Music as pictorial as this illustrates so well that meaning can be visualised even if you don’t speak Russian. Kashchey’s music is shrilly angular, evoking his harsh personality as well as the traditional way he’s portrayed, as a skeleton, the symbol of death who cannot actually die. The Storm Knight is defined by wild ostinatos, even though he’s more of a plot device than a character. Some of the most interesting music, though, surrounds Kashcheyevna. When she sings, there are echoes of Kundry, or even Brünnhilde. Harps and woodwinds seem to caress her voice, so when her iciness melts, we sympathise. While the other roles verge on stereotype, Kashcheyevna is more complex, and Manistina impressed.

Stravinsky’s The Firebird, written a mere four years after Kashchey The Immortal, inhabits an altogether different plane. While Rimsky-Korsakov’s music embellishes the vocal line, Stravinsky’s floats free. It “is” the drama. The ballet evolves from the music rather than the other way round. Music for dance has to respect certain restraints, so it’s necessarily quite episodic, but Stravinsky integrates the 21 segments so seamlessly that the piece has lived on, immortal, as an orchestral masterpiece. Vladimir Jurowski is still only in his mid 30’s but has established a reputation for intelligence and sensitivity. Watching him conduct this piece was instructive : he moves with the grace off someone who understands how this music connects to dance. His gestures were understated, yet elegant, his left hand fluttering to restrain the sweep of the strings and keep the tone transparent. This pinpointed how Stravinky wrote cues for physical movement into the music itself. Circular woodwind figures translate into shapes of curved arms, flurries of pizzicato into rapid en pointe. Dancers must hear levels in this music closed to the rest of us, but Jurowski’s intuitive approach helps us appreciate its depths.

The Firebird is a magical figure which materialises out of the air, leading te Prince to Kashchey’s secret garden. Unlike the ogre, the Prince is kind and sets the bird free. He’s rewarded with a magic feather. This time the Princess and other captives are liberated by altruistic love. It’s purer and more esoteric, and Stravinsky’s music is altogether more abstract, imaginative and inventive. Jurowski gets great refinement from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom he’s forged a very close relationship in only a year of being their Chief Conductor. The solo part for horn, for example, plays a role in the music like that of a solo dancer. Textures around it need to be clean as they were here, so its beauty is revealed with poignant dignity. The rest of the orchestra plays barely above the point of audibility, until the flute enters carrying the horn’s melody. Later there’s more magic, when the double basses and cellos are plucked quietly, building up towards the crescendos which sound for all the world like the joyous tolling of great bells. In the finale, trombones and trumpets hail the moment of liberation. The trumpeters stand upright, so their music soars above the orchestra, projected into the auditorium with superb, dramatic effect.

Anne Ozorio

Viktor_Vasnetsov_Kashchey_t.pngKashchey the Immortal by Viktor Vasnetsov

image= image_description=Léon Bakst: The Firebird (1910) product=yes product_title=Prom 68 — Rimsky-Korsakov Kashchey the Immortal; Stravinsky The Firebird product_by=Vyacheslav Voynarovsky (Kashchey), Tatiana Monogarova (Princess), Pavel Baransky (Ivan Korolevich), Elena Manistina (Kashcheyevna), Mikhail Petrenko (Storm Knight). BBC Singers. London Philharmonic Orchestra. Vladimir Jurowski (cond.)
5 September 2008, London Albert Hall, London.
Posted by Gary at 9:26 PM

WAGNER: Tristan und Isolde

The lovers giving excellent performances are René Kollo and Johanna Meier, and their teeth are not good, but if the production had not been televised (and now presented on DVD, with close-up feature — don’t hit that button) no one would notice or care. Back when Kollo and Meier were trained for the opera stage, photogenic was not quite the requirement it is today, and perhaps we had all better settle down to this new era.

Otherwise, a fine all-around Tristan, the staging informed by Freudian theory. Direction, scenery, costumes are the work of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, who has great ideas and not-so-great ideas. His sets are unified by a developing shape: the rising, phallic prow and root-encrusted ship’s cabin of Act I (somewhat disguised by diaphanous sail until the finale) grows into a tree in bountiful bloom in Act II; that in turn becomes the blasted, leafless tree of Act III’s wasteland. The gnarly plot is echoed in all three acts by the gnarl of the growing — or tormented — wood. The lighting of Act II progresses from effulgent garden to the stark black-and-white of torchless night to glowing colored shadows of the Liebesnacht’s supremely erotic climax to harsh, bleached-out concluding scenes. The costumes underscore mood and impulse, the yin-and-yang of it all: Tristan always in black (with a jet black wig) until bloody bandages supersede, Isolde always in white (with a crown full of blossom on which she vents her fury).

Some of Ponnelle’s take may be a bit too focused on tying it all together as ur-myth. We first see Isolde writhing in a smothering cocoon of silken cloak, her head crowned by a flowery basket — is she supposed to be a growing plant or queen of an insect colony? She serves Tristan the potion in a platter rather than a bowl — a saucer of tea? — and when he takes it, demands to share it. They drink from the thing together — which spares us the usual Tristan-rubbing-his-eyes-and-miming-“Wha?,” but on the other hand — have you ever tried to drink two at a time from a small pan? I mean, after the age of six did you ever try this? Did any of the liquid reach anybody’s mouth? The stage picture is interesting (the platter becomes a mirror in which the lovers see, perhaps, their inner selves — making them one doomed psyche: animus combined with anima), but I found it difficult to put the notion of six-year-olds spilling their milk out of my head.

More should be said of the acting because it is so very good, and the singers clearly worked intimately with the director on the details. Meier is not a pretty woman, and Ponnelle has almost emphasized this in Act I, giving her cold, angry, desperate movements while her singing is, frankly, harsh. In Act II we might be seeing (and hearing) a different soprano: long, unbound golden hair softens her profile and her every movement — from the moment she appears, at curtain-rise, almost dancing about the tree with the torch in her hand — is graceful, yearning, lyric eroticism. The voice, too, is softer, sweeter, almost coy — a trick far more famous Isoldes (Nilsson, notably) could not quite pull off. When Tristan finally appears, she is clinging, delirious, beside herself. Some stridency in the higher notes aside, she creates the illusion of an adorable Isolde, and Kollo’s Byronic Tristan matches her, ardent gesture for gesture, with a blank, anguished stare for the act’s end — though he saves the best for his madly capering hallucinations in Act III, which in this version takes place almost entirely in Tristan’s feverish head during the last instant or two of his life.

The entire cast is strong — the reason I would go no farther than “strong” will become clear as soon as the Liebesnacht is over, when Matti Salminen’s King Marke first opens his mouth. At once we are in the Golden Age of Wagner singing, and no one else around is quite up to this standard. Salminen — who sang his farewell to the Met in this part last winter, still sounding wonderful — was something godlike twenty-five years ago. Each note, each phrase is as beautiful as a bass can be, but he goes further, twisting the words, impelling the sadness, the self-disgust, the incomprehension of the man betrayed by everything he has honored and loved. When a Salminen — or a Kurt Moll — or a René Pape — sings Marke, he becomes the center of the opera despite its title; his anguish — how can a moral person betray all the standards of society? — and Wagner’s answer: when overcome by the power of love, makes the work’s philosophic point.

That point is underlined — perhaps to excess — by Ponnelle’s controversial staging of the end of the opera: Tristan, dying from his wounds, in his very last stunned, hallucinatory moments, seems to perceive Isolde emerging from the cleft in the stricken tree (where have we seen that shape before?) to sing her farewell and enlightenment to an immobile Tristan before he slumps to death — whereupon the stage goes dark, to come up on the tableau of the act’s beginning: Shepherd, Kurwenal, Tristan. Did he imagine all the rest of the act in his final instant of life? Is he finding surcease (as the libretto suggests) by accepting death by returning through the very organ that gave him birth? Then what did become of Isolde? Did she and Marke work out their troubled marriage, or did she die herself, as Kurwenal hints? Well, it’s food for thought and the images bring fascinating angles to the story without being either repulsive or ridiculous, as is so often the case with director’s opera in the era since Ponnelle.

Kollo’s sturdy full-throated singing is matched by his enthusiastic delirium as he tears off his bandages, and the blank stare with which he sits through Meier’s radiant final stanzas. Hanna Schwarz, as Brangaene, looks lovely as always but has trouble with the sustained high notes of the warnings, Hermann Becht is the sympathetic Kurwenal, and Helmut Pampuch effective in the greatly elaborated part Ponnelle devised for the Shepherd. After beginning a bit too brightly, hurriedly for my taste, Barenboim leads a winning performance that hits all the marks at the right moment and mood for this staging.

As a production, this must have been a performance to ponder and analyze; as a recording, this is a Tristan Wagnerians will return to, intrigued, and will share with pleasure.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde product_by=Tristan (René Kollo); Isolde (Johanna Meier); Brangaene (Hanna Schwarz); König Marke (Matti Salminen); Kurwenal (Hermann Becht). Chorus and Orchestra of the Bayreuth Festival conducted by Daniel Barenboim, recorded 1-9 October, 1983. Production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 073 4439 [2DVDs] price=$31.99 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 9:06 PM

The Coronation of Poppea

If the new company specializes in unfamiliar repertory – in this case the Italian seicento, terrific news if you’re a Cavalli or Scarlatti fan – and I am! – my cheers will be all the happier. If, on attending, one finds the house packed, the crowd excited, the dramatic values high and the voices exceptionally attractive, there is very little to do as a critic but spread the word and wish the company well.

For their opening production, Opera Omnia chose Monteverdi’s hardly unfamiliar swan song, The Coronation of Poppea (1641), choosing to perform it in a slangy English translation in order to make the stage activity (often complex, always highly motivated) more immediate as well as comprehensible to audiences who may not know the work.

I first heard the piece well over thirty years ago when the New York City Opera gave it a sumptuous staging with a large, nineteenth-century orchestra and large, nineteenth-century-style voices: a top-heavy bore, amidst which glamorous Carol Neblett distinguished herself with the first total nudity on a New York opera stage, and Barbara Hendricks distinguished herself in the tiny role of “Damigella” (the Maid) – the only memorable singing of the night. It has been thrilling to watch baroque performance style evolve over the years: today, young singers know what this sort of music is about, how to make a goat-bleat trill an effective piece of vocal acting, how to vary the pace of declaimed monologues, how to be sexy in the duets – and to hear performances like Opera Omnia’s, with a band of seven (two theorbos). (One of the best Poppeas I ever heard was sung over three strings and continuo.)

The staging was vaguely modern dress, with mixed gender assignments: Ottone was a male countertenor, Nerone a female alto, Arnalta – naturally – a campy tenor in drag (when has Arnalta ever failed to steal the show?), Valletto and Amore female sopranos in drag. None of this seemed to confuse anyone. Neither did the “allegorical” opening, the “bet” among Virtue, Fortune and Love over which one rules mankind – but the working out of the story confused the stage director: Ottone fails to murder Poppea not because the god of love appears and tells him to stop (as here), but because Ottone still loves the faithless Poppea and is therefore unable to kill her. This was the one major annoyance in the staging, which mercifully did not (as is often done nowadays) make a wild gay orgy of Nerone’s drunken carousing with the poet Lucano.

Poppea_OperaOmnia2.pngScene from The Coronation of Poppea

Not so long ago, filling so large a cast with young singers whose voices were beautiful enough to hold the modern ear through scenes of Monteverdian declamation would be highly unusual anywhere but in the finest music schools; Opera Omnia’s forces all sang with clear, grateful, seemingly effortless technique, appropriate to the music (no romantic vibratos), and were personable and ardent on the stage. I especially admired scene-stealing Marie Mascari as Fortune and the comic valet, Jeffrey Mandelbaum, who projected a very masculine countertenor, more tenor than alto, as Ottone, and John Young’s Arnalta, who got the laughs without falling into camp excess. Cherry Duke made a fine, unusually masculine Nerone, if not quite the adolescent punk the score implies (or is it just that I can’t forget David Daniels’ strutting, finger-snapping sex-lout in the role?). Steven Hrycelak held down the low end well – if not the very lowest notes – as the philosopher Seneca, whose gravity (in contrast to all the other characters’ frivolity) is underlined by his being the only really low voice; Molly Quinn, as the confused Drusilla, seemed to have two voices, a soubrette soprano and a darker alto; both fell pleasantly on the ear, but she should find a way to mix them in more suitable proportions. Melissa Fogarty was an insufficiently weighty figure as the bitter Empress Octavia – perhaps the suitcase she carried in her final scene distracted us from her tragedy. Hai-Ting Chinn sang the whorish Poppea elegantly, but without the deep sensual feeling that Poppeas like Troyanos have brought to this music. Still, her final duet with Ms. Duke’s Nerone was the perfect conclusion to waft us into the night in a cloud of erotic reverie: Ah yes, back in 1641, this is why opera caught on.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Scene from The Coronation of Poppea [Opera Omnia] product=yes product_title=Claudio Monteverdi: The Coronation of Poppea product_by=Nero (Cherry Duke); Poppea (Hai-Ting Chinn); Ottone (Jeffrey Mandelbaum); Drusilla (Molly Quinn); Octavia (Melissa Fogarty); Seneca (Steven Hrycelak); Fortune and Valet (Marie Mascari); Virtue and Maid (Melanie Russell); Love (Kathryn Aaron). Conducted by Avi Stein
Opera Omnia, performance of August 26. product_id=All photos by Matthew Hensrud courtesy of Opera Omnia.
Posted by Gary at 8:50 PM

Prom 64 — Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in Messiaen’s Turangâlìla-symphonie

At its première a critic heard only “a tune for Dorothy Lamour in a sarong, a dance for Hindu hillbillies”. At this Prom, Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic proved conclusively how inventive it really is.

Rattle paired the Prelude from Tristan und Isolde with the Liebestod. Often that’s a risk as it can leave you longing for the singing, but Rattle had thought the two parts through in orchestral terms. He makes a case for hearing the opera as "music", on its own terms. Here, the surging waves of sound "are" the message, not background. He shows how fundamental the flute part is, weaving throughout, commenting without words. The transition was particularly well blended, one part fading gradually into the next, like a fade in film gradually coming back into full color focus. It is cinematic – how Wagner might have loved the movies !

Wagner is an appropriate curtain raiser for Messiaen's Turangâlìla. As a young boy, Messiaen studied Pelléas et Mélisande, and also inherited the long standing French fascination for the exotic and "oriental" - think Pierre Loti, Ravel, Maurice Delage and the Impressionists studying Japanese painting. Wagner was by no means the dominant influence on Messiaen, but his oceans swells and undercurrents live on in Turângalìla, as Rattle so clearly demonstrated, stretching the string lines with soaring, surging magnificence. Messiaen's "trajectory", to use a favorite Boulez expression, comes not from conventional symphonic development but from thematic ideas, so this oceanic surge is important.

For the first time, I really understood the sixth section, Le Jardin du sommeil d'amour. It's slow, almost a relief after the hectic, inventive fifth section, and has its longueurs. But maybe that's what Messiaen was getting at. The lovers are together when they're asleep, in dreams, when the moon pulls the tides that create the waves in the ocean. It's not as spectacular as the glorious Joie du Sang des étoiles, but as with so much Messiaen. he's at his most profound when he’s quiet.

The Tristan und Isolde concept had even more personal meaning for Messiaen. He had fallen in love with Yvonne Loriod, but he was married, and, as devout Catholics, they could not marry until released by his wife’s death. He "was" Tristan and she Isolde, and Turângalìla is their mystical union. Hence the significance of the “paganism” in Turângalìla. Messiaen was fascinated by non-western music, adopting ideas such as the Indian deçi-tâla rhythms which feature in this piece. Anyone who’s seen Hindu erotic sculptures can appreciate the concept of sex as a form of spiritual enhancement, that breaks past the restraint of western moral convention. So Turângalìla isn’t meant to be polite “Good Taste”. Those sassy brass passages and almost Gershwin-like punchiness are essential keys to the spirit of the work. The famous "statue" theme on brass and clarinet "Flower" themes are "male" and "female". No wonder Rattle placed such emphasis on how they intertwine, flirting with each other, so to speak. Pierre-Laurent Aimard's piano and Tristan Murail's ondes Martenot form a second pair of relationships within the whole, connecting to percussion and winds, picked up by harp and strings. Aimard's long solo passages are the unspoken "heart", rather like the flute in Tristan und Isolde.

The Berlin Philharmonic played with extraordinarily beautiful, transparent textures – how the brass fanfares shone ! This orchestra can be relied upon for superlative orchestral color, so what was even more impressive was how the Berliners took to Messiaen, whose music is so very different to their mainstream core repertoire. Somehow Rattle inspired them so they played with free spirited exuberance, capturing the exhilarating intoxication so crucial to this composer’s idiom. The “bad taste” of Turângalìla may shock, but it’s the exaltation of spirit that connects mortals to the divine.

Turângalìla was commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky and premiered by Leonard Bernstein who hated the piece and refused ever to conduct it again. Perhaps it’s fortunate as he probably didn’t understand its internal architecture. Nagano and Salonen have a firm grasp of the energetic muscularity that animates the piece, but Rattle and the Berlin Philarmonic exceeded all expectations, marrying technical perfection to electrifying verve. This performance truly expressed how original and radical Messiaen really can be.

Anne Ozorio

image= image_description=Simon Rattle (photo by Sheila Rock) product=yes product_title=Prom 64 — Wagner Tristan und Isolde - Prelude and Liebestod; Messiaen: Turangalîla Symphony product_by=Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano), Tristan Murail (ondes martenot). Berliner Philharmoniker. Sir Simon Rattle (cond.)
2 September 2008, Royal Albert Hall, London.
Posted by Gary at 8:01 PM

Opera from the Greek

The other things he made me eager, even desperate, to find were recordings of Enesco’s Oedipe (yes, one exists!) and of Cherubini’s Médée (as opposed to the Italian revision — I’ve got that with Callas of course), for whose position among the supreme music-dramas Ewans makes a most convincing argument. My great regret is the number of masterpieces derived from classical drama that he does not deal with — such as Berlioz’s Les Troyens, or Handel’s Hercules, or Gluck’s Alceste, or Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex (which Ewans considers and coldly dismisses), or Gnecchi’s Cassandra, or Chabrier’s Briséis, or Taneyev’s Oresteia, or Xenakis’s, or the Latouche-Moross musical The Golden Apple (a spoof of Homer).

Besides the Enesco and Cherubini operas mentioned above, the works he does analyze in detail, from Greek epic or dramatic source through stage tradition to libretto to composed opera, are Monteverdi’s Il ritorno di Ulisse, Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, Strauss’s Elektra, Tippett’s King Priam, Henze’s Bassariden, and Turnage’s Greek.

Ewans’s take on these operas and their literary “lineage” is enlightening, in the literal sense of throwing light where obscurity reigns, and his two passions are classical drama (mostly Greek, but also Roman) and its position in classical society, and the operas derived from classical drama and the lessons opera’s creators (librettists as well as composers) have tried to convey. His field of study as a professor of classics has included both epics and plays (his translations of many Greek tragedies are standard), but here he discusses the context in which these works were produced, the intentions of the authors, the themes under discussion: the nature of the gods, the degree to which they interfere in human destiny, the rivalry of revenge and justice in the structure of society, the position of women in men’s worlds. This exploration produces a unique take on the interpretation consciously (or unconsciously) imposed on each text two thousand years later by the librettist and composer who transformed it into an opera — and these matters are seldom discussed in such depth when the operas in question are examined, much less when they are staged.

It is a truism that any myth worth its salt can and will be made use of in different ways, with often widely divergent meanings, by different cultures that fall heir to it. Consider, just by way of example, the interpretations of the apple tree myth from Genesis in Hebrew tradition, in Augustine’s invention of a theology for Satan, on Michelangelo’s ceiling, in Bock and Harnick’s musical The Apple Tree (derived from a Mark Twain satire).

Ewans, less satirically, compares Homer’s wily Odysseus to the Ulisse Monteverdi’s librettist, Badoaro, presented to a Christian audience: his obedience to the gods more formal, more unquestioning, more conscious of “sin” (not a concept in Homer’s Greek); his Penelope more aware of herself as a sensual being capable of imagining more choices for herself. Then there is Medea, as Euripides presented her: a woman trying to live by the standards of heroic male society (adopting the blow-for-blow ethics called for from males rather than females), channeled through Seneca’s Roman play in which she became a malevolent demigoddess, passing through Corneille and other writers who capitalized on the witchcraft aspect, to Cherubini and his librettist, Hoffman, who, wishing to return her to her original human predicament, created a far more genuinely tragic figure than the wicked witch she had by then become for most audiences.

Another revelation — or at least a hell of a good argument — comes in Ewans’s chapter on Strauss’s Elektra, a musico-dramatic synopsis of the opera, with notes about the orchestration and the arrangement of the leitmotifs to underline the drama — but he also takes a few pages to explain Sophocles’s political motives in presenting the story the way he did (in contrast to the very different treatments we possess by Aeschylus and Euripides), and the way brand new Freudian theory helped transform Sophocles’s play into Hofmannsthal’s, all as background to the achievement of Strauss. One does not understand one work of art — one understands three, with a glance at still others. We do not delve into one era of opera-creating history and the concerns of its audience and its geniuses, we are guided through several. One of Ewans’s themes, here and elsewhere, is how composers and librettists at honestly opposed purposes can underline or undermine each other’s “take” on the story.

In the section on Tippett’s Priam, we are given background notes to understanding the mastery (and occasional failures) of a highly intellectual not very popular British composer who wrote in “Jungian” style, then gave it up to create a more immediate “epic” drama here. In the section on Henze’s Bassariden, we are given not merely an account of Euripides’ most mystifying play, Bacchae, and the aspects of it about which commentators still do not agree, then how those themes mutated through the Christian outlook of Auden and Kallman to create the libretto, then how those themes were challenged, expanded or contraried by the communist outlook of the composer — illustrated from the argumentative correspondence between composer and librettists, as well as the work of published commentators on Henze’s oeuvre.

Opera from the Greek is a pithy (200-page) tour of music-drama. The number of ideas introduced in this brief book, and the degree to which Ewans explores so many so deeply will startle and excite anyone interested in opera, even operas quite different from those discussed here.

John Yohalem


image= image_description= Opera From the Greek — Studies in the Poetics of Appropriation product=yes product_title=Michael Ewans: Opera From the Greek — Studies in the Poetics of Appropriation product_by=Ashgate Press; 226 pages; 2007 product_id=ISBN: 978-0-7546-6099-6 price=$99.95 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 3:43 PM

STRAUSS: Die ägyptische Helena — Munich 1956

Music composed by Richard Strauss. Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

First Performance: 6 June 1928, Sächsisches Staatstheater Opernhaus, Dresden (revised version, Salzburg, Festspielhaus, 14 August 1933).

Principal Roles:
Helena [Helen] of Troy, wife of Menelaus Soprano
Menelas [Menelaus], her husband Tenor
Hermione, their daughter [role omitted in 1933 version] Soprano
Aithra, a sorceress Soprano
Altair, a nomad chieftain Baritone
Da-ud, his son Tenor
The Omniscient Seashell Contralto
Two Servants of Aithra Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano
Three Elves Two Sopranos, Contralto

Setting: Egypt, 1193-1184 B.C. (after the Trojan War)


In the Egyptian palace of the sorceress Aithra, the omniscient mussel (an all-knowing sea-shell left by Aithra’s lover Poseidon) sights a ship bound for Sparta. On board is the raging Menelaus who is determined to kill Helen for her faithlessness and for causing the death of so many Greeks. A storm is conjured up and the couple are shipwrecked near the palace. Aithra, with the help of some magical lotus juice, convinces Menelaus that Helen of Troy was an illusion of the gods, that the real Helen was faithful, and that they should be sent on a second honeymoon to an oasis beneath the Atlas Mountains. Helen and Menelaus are entertained by a desert sheik and his son, but the foursome find themselves trapped in a symbolic re-enactment of events in Troy that led to the death of Paris. As a result of this tragic psychotherapy Helen realises that thanks to Aithra's potion she will always be living as an impostor. She and Menelaus take a draught of remembrance and embrace the reality of their former love, sealed by the appearance of her daughter Hermione.

[Synopsis Source: Boosey & Hawkes]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image= image_description=Helen of Troy by Evelyn de Morgan, 1898 audio=yes first_audio_name=Richard Strauss: Die ägyptische Helena
For best results, use VLC or Winamp. first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Richard Strauss: Die ägyptische Helena [Revised Version] product_by=Helen (Leonie Rysanek), Menelaus (Bernd Aldendorf), Aithra (Annelies Kupper), Altair (Hermann Uhde), Da-ud (Richard Holm), The Omniscient Seashell (Ira Malaniuk). Bayerisches Staatsorchester. Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper. Joseph Keilberth (cond.)
Live Performance: 10 August 1956, Münchner Opern-Festspiele, Prinzregententheater, Munich.
Posted by Gary at 1:58 PM

September 5, 2008

Shadowless in Amsterdam

What made it so great? Well, for starters, the DNO had the excellent Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra in the pit under the superb leadership of Marc Albrecht.

One of the many assets of the Muziektheater house is that, with its thrust-like stage, it is wide but not all that deep. And while the orchestra never gets in the visual “way” of the show, the pit is somewhat shallow and therefore affords an “immediate” presence that, with monster scores such as Frau, seems to immerse the listener in the fabric of the sound. This was further heightened by placing the “offstage” voices at the finale somewhere behind the audience, enveloping us in those glorious soaring pages like no other rendition I have ever heard.

But then, the band offered sensational playing all night, with evocative reed work (all those bird cries so characterful, so anguished), a world-class unaccompanied cello solo in Act Two (he got his own roundly cheered bow at the top of Three), rich and throbbing string ensemble work, and some of the best brass tooting this side of heaven’s gates (especially the spot-on horn section). The proximity of the players to us spectators allowed us to revel in illuminating details of the score rarely heard with such clarity, even at the Mighty Met.

But then of course, Strauss’s wonderfully varied and complex score demands not only a virtuoso orchestra to make its effect, but also a commanding conductor who can pull such a performance out of them. And this DNO had in spades with Mighty Maestro Albrecht. Currently Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, he is not known that widely outside of a small musical axis in Germany and environs. He should be. Make that “he will be.” Or even “he must be.” He and the orchestra were the triumphant stars of the night, their ovation before the start of each succeeding act growing in intensity until a veritable shouting match of approval ensued at the final call.

On to the next “strength”: the singers could hardly have been bettered. As the Emperor, Klaus Florian Vogt, having just finished another run of Walther’s in Bayreuth showed off all those qualities that I had so admired in his Meistersinger: a clearly and evenly produced instrument, with just enough heft and bite in the tone to ride the large orchestra, but enough sweetness that you might yet want to hear him do one more Tamino. And, he is young, strapping, and handsome to boot. When is the last time you saw that whole package in this role?

My only regret about Terje Stenfold’s Barak is that it took me this long to catch a performance by this fine baritone, who has spent much of his long career in his home company the Norwegian National Opera. His rich Heldenbariton never barked, was always “easy listening,” and had the all the oomph needed to make this a memorable assumption. His charismatic smile and youthful demeanor were totally engaging, making his darker scenes of threatened violence even more powerful by contrast.

Gabriele Fontana (Die Kaiserin), Klaus Florian Vogt (Der Kaiser) [Photo: Clärchen & Matthias Baus]Gabriele Fontana (Die Kaiserin), Klaus Florian Vogt (Der Kaiser) [Photo: Clärchen & Matthias Baus]

Veteran mezzo Doris Soffel should surely own the role of the Nurse by now. If not I will put a down payment on it for her, for there seems to be nothing in this treacherous and rangy role that eludes her. It goes without saying that any successful interpreter must command powerful declamatory skills and consummate dramatic insights (and boyohboyohboy does she ever have those!), but what really took my breath away was her controlled legato singing, especially at hushed volumes. Out of full rant, she could pull back to caress a phrase with an unearthly beauty. Ms. Soffel’s performance was a study in pacing, technique, and a perfect marriage of her considerable talents with explosive material.

Petite Evelyn Herlitzius packs a wallop belying her stature as the Dyer’s Wife. I encountered her Brünnhilde a few years ago in a Cologne Götterdämmerung and was impressed “enough.” The reservations I had then about her often metallic tone seem to have been addressed by time and experience. Her voice has acquired a patina and good deal of roundness in those intervening years, with no loss of fullness or precision. She hurled herself into an impassioned performance that was one part bitterness, two parts frustration, three parts desperate longing, and four parts loving spouse. To me, the Wife has the greatest emotional journey, and she played her sort of like a tomboyish “Unsinkable Molly Brown” who loses the rough edges of her brash youth and who tames her consuming ego to defer to a true loving partnership. Ms. Herlitzius not only has the goods, she served them up (very) “special delivery.”

Even with having the last big solo scena, the Empress can sometimes pale a bit in interest with the rest of these colorful and demonstrative stage partners. Not so when embodied by radiant soprano Gabriele Fontana. There is a glow in her generous, womanly tone that could in fact melt an emperor-of-stone were it required. At the very start I thought she was maybe working a bit hard, especially with the staccato leaps, all of which landed but seemed more technical than musical. And then Ms. Fontana’s gifts just took off and never looked back, pouring out one melting Straussian phrase after another. I have heard this fine artist several times in this house, but never to better advantage.

Roger Smeets (Der Einäugige), Alexander Vassiliev (Der Einarmige), Terje Stensvold (Barak der Färber), Torsten Hofmann (Der Bucklige) [Photo: Clärchen & Matthias Baus]Roger Smeets (Der Einäugige), Alexander Vassiliev (Der Einarmige), Terje Stensvold (Barak der Färber), Torsten Hofmann (Der Bucklige) [Photo: Clärchen & Matthias Baus]

In smaller roles, tenor Jean-Léon Klostermann was honey-voiced and handsome as the tempting barefoot and bare-chested, white satin-suited Apparition of a Young Man; and soprano Lenneke Ruiten was an effective Falke among her other assignments. Only Peteris Eglitis’s slightly under-powered Spirit Messenger lacked the final vocal and dramatic fire that could have made the most of his brief but important appearances.

On to the last “strength”. . .well. . .let me just ask, when was the last time you heard a production teamed cheered to the rafters? Really and truly cheered? That it happened here was in response to the creation of a beautifully contemporary and conscientious, not “self-conscious,” work of art by director Andreas Homoki, set and costume designer Wolfgang Gussmann, and lighting designer Franck Evin. When the mechanics of the stagecraft so ably partner the thrilling execution of the music and ennoble the intent of the writers, this transcends the moniker “Regie-Theater,” and becomes “Musical Theatre.” (Although new, it is based on a production in Geneva in the early 90’s.)

I have had the privilege of admiring Herr Gussmann’s designs once before with DNO’s memorable Capriccio, an intimate piece. The vast scope of Frau demands so much more, and he has accommodated us with some stunning visuals.

The curtain rises to reveal a giant white wall, floor to ceiling, encrypted with well-spaced black hieroglyphics fronted by the Nurse (back to us) who is attired in a white gown and flowing outer garment with similar markings, her skull-capped head blended with white make-up, and sporting a sort of Kabuki look (an appearance shared by all the serving ladies). When she “parts” the thick wall in the middle, it reveals the basic structure: a raked triangular stage backed by two sharply angled walls that converge upstage, also white, with progressively denser “black-ro-glyphics” as the pattern moves upstage, ultimately becoming totally black where the walls join.

This beautiful unit-set-as-work-of-art with its smoothly moving front walls is effectively deployed with sort of old-fashioned “in one” changes, where action is played in front of the closed walls while the unit is re-dressed behind.

The Emperor’s realm is dominated by giant red arrows that are impaled in the set. At first, the regals (dressed in sumptuous midnight blue) are discovered asleep under a lone red shaft. As his plight becomes more intense, we discover randomly stuck arrows through which he stumbles blindfolded, then later, a loose “prison” of arrows encloses him, and finally he is in a tightly placed containment way upstage in the walls’ “V.” What colorful and meaningful abstractions these arrows are!

The commoners’ realm is started off visually by only the revelation of an enormous school-bus yellow box. Suddenly. . .BOOM. . .the front cover comes crashing to the stage floor and reveals the inhabitants inside among other varied yellow boxes which they proceed to place around the stage to create their environment. The rude costumes appear patched together with slight variations on the golden yellow, their signature color (and apparently the only one they use for their dying).

For the journey to the Dye” the Nurse strips the Empress of her blue coat, revealing her in a strapless, fitted white-’n’-squiggles variation. When they disguise themselves, it is merely with the addition of a yellow scarf (“N”) and short fitted yellow jacket (“E”). So simple, and yet, enough that we believe. When the Wife gives up her shadow, she is surrounded by gesticulating serving ladies who part to reveal her transformed into a sort of “white-ro-glyphic” cocktail dress with black farm boots and a skull cap, resembling the Nurse.

This stunning reveal is surpassed by the instantaneous change after the Empress’s climactic “Ich will. . .nicht.” The Nurse had previously removed her own long-sleeved cape-like covering and draped it on the Empress. At this point the soprano struggles to keep the walls from closing, like Samson between the pillars, and just as she cries out, there is a change to dim back-lighting, she falls forward with a thud, the walls close, blackout, the lights come right back up, and she is discovered prone in a gorgeous midnight blue strapless gown. Magic.

Perhaps the best visual coup is the mysteriously ominous white globe (with black symbols, natch) that descends at the end of Act II, retreats a bit in Act III, then when the stage is cleared, lowers fully and centers in place at the apex of the stage triangle to create a final memorable playing environment. Is it a planet? A kingdom? Life force? Human egg? Riddle? Deus ex machina? It allows us, and the characters, to speculate that it could be anything, everything, or even nothing. Powerful.

Mr. Evin made a tremendous contribution with his well-judged lighting, not only with effective isolations, but also with even and colorful washes well accommodated by the white set. I had briefly wished that the stage floor itself might have been black with white symbols which would have made the shadowless Empress effect easier to achieve (yes, there were some fleeting smallish shadows, but hey, we ran with it.)

All these dazzling visuals would mean little, had stage director Homoki not displayed such an unerring instinct for good singer placement and meaningful, well motivated movement. He used every inch of the stage with imagination and variety. This Die Frau ohne Schatten was overwhelming proof, should any be needed, that a production can successfully be cutting edge, contemporary, and hip while still telling the story and enhancing, nay respecting, the musical values.

This fine achievement gave me cause to reflect that in all the many years I have seen selected performances in this house, I can count on one finger the number of times I thought they missed the mark. Once! The Netherlands Opera has an enviable history of compelling theatre; highly interesting, vibrant, and polished. “Modern” art, yes, but not “Art” without regard to its audience.

Add to that the consistently high musical values here and . . .doink!. . .this seems to be my favorite place to attend opera, beyond the “Shadow” of a doubt.

James Sohre

image= image_description=Gabriele Fontana (Die Kaiserin), Doris Soffel (Die Amme) [Photo by: Clärchen und MatthiasBaus] product=yes product_title=Richard Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten product_by=Der Kaiser (Klaus Florian Vogt), Die Kaiserin (Gabriele Fontana), Die Amme (Doris Soffel), Der Geisterbote (Peteris Eglitis), Der Hüter der Schwelle des Tempels / Die Stimme des Falken (Lenneke Ruiten), Eine Stimme von oben (Corinne Romijn), Erscheinung eines Jünglings (Jean-Léon Klostermann), Barak der Färber (Terje Stensvold), Sein Weib (Evelyn Herlitzius), Der Einäugige (Roger Smeets), Der Einarmige (Alexander Vassiliev), Der Bucklige (Torsten Hofmann), Dienerinnen (Lenneke Ruiten), Anneleen Bijnen (Inez Hafkamp), Die Stimmen der Wächter der Stadt (Peter Arink), Leo Geers (Harry Teeuwen), Kinderstimmen (Tomoko Makuuchi, Jeanneke van Buul, Ineke Berends, Bernadette Bouthoorn, Hiroko Mogaki). Nederlands Philharmonisch Orkest. Koor van De Nederlandse Opera. Marc Albrecht (cond.). product_id=Above: Gabriele Fontana (Die Kaiserin), Doris Soffel (Die Amme) [Photo by: Clärchen und Matthias Baus]
Posted by Gary at 9:54 AM

September 4, 2008

HANDEL: Belshazzar

And yet it happened, and Handel’s 1744 oratorio Belshazzar with libretto by Charles Jennens was brought to vivid and entertaining life by the veteran Handelian maestro, Sir Charles Mackerras.

The real highlight was the singing of the Choir of the Enlightenment, which could hardly have been better. Unlike many of London’s high-profile professional choirs, they are selected on a concert-by-concert basis, allowing casting decisions to be made with regard to which singers will be right for the work in hand. The bright forwardness of the sound in their opening chorus, ‘Behold, by Persia’s hero made’, was refreshing indeed, setting the tone for the rest of the evening, and they performed with impeccable ensemble throughout, with clear dramatic definition between their various guises as the Babylonians, Persians or Jews. The chorus bass William Gaunt delivered a particularly fine solo recitative in the tiny role of Arioch. Only in the feast scene did the sound from the chorus sound too clean and English, rather short on Babylonian debauchery.

Paul Groves sang the title role with a pleasant enough tone, but it was rather monochromatic, and being primarily a Mozartian, he did not seem nearly as comfortable or well-versed in the Handel idiom as his fellow soloists. He was also the only one of the five soloists not to make any attempt at facial and physical acting to complement his vocal performance; Belshazzar is, after all, supposed to be a king, and a strong-willed one at that.

At the emotional heart of the oratorio is the struggle of Nitocris, Belshazzar’s mother, to oppose the son she loves and allow him to be conquered and killed by the invading Persians. Here we had the luxury of the lovely, unaffected sound, intelligent characterisation and expressive vocal colour of soprano Rosemary Joshua.

The countertenor Bejun Mehta was very strong but a touch strident as Cyrus, the leader of the Persian army, while fellow countertenor Iestyn Davies exuded calm and noble piety as Daniel, making a beautiful sound in the process. Although Gobrias is only a small role, it was given maximum value by the young bass Robert Gleadow, a graduate of the Royal Opera’s young artists’ programme, who delivered the almost pictorial falling scales of ‘Behold the monstrous human beast/Wallowing in excessive feast’ with dramatic relish.

Rembrandt-Belsazar.pngKing Belshazzar of Babylon by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

Mackerras conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in an account of the score which was robust, energetic and taut. There were several cuts — some, evidenced by gaps in the numbering in the concert programme, scheduled well in advance; others seemingly trimmed later in the day as there were several numbers and parts of numbers printed in the programme but absent from the performed version. In any case, it wasn’t only Mackerras’s brisk tempi which made the concert fly by in a full half hour less than the scheduled running time.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

image= image_description=G. F. Handel product=yes product_title=G. F. Handel: Belshazzar product_by=Paul Groves (Belshazzar), Rosemary Joshua (Nitocris), Bejun Mehta (Cyrus), Iestyn Davies (Daniel), Robert Gleadow (Gobrias). Choir of the Enlightenment. Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Sir Charles Mackerras (cond.)
Prom 41 — 16 August 2008
Posted by Gary at 10:32 AM

September 3, 2008


On the present occasion, it was the phenomenal virtuoso composition that is Osud that was delivered with panache and confidence by Bělohlavek and his forces. Bělohlavek had clearly lavished much attention on the score, for passages that could so easily have become jumbled, such as the complex choral opening of the final act, were models of lucidity.

Sir Charles Mackerras brought Osud to the attention of non-Czech audiences with his 1989 ground-breaking English-language Chandos recording (CHAN3029). The story is a fascinating one, featuring three main protagonists. The composer Živný has a complex relationship, and a child, with Míla. At the opening of Act One, they are estranged, and Živný has begun to compose an opera in which he therapeutically attempts to write out his jealousies and frustrations; by the end of Act One, they have effected a reconciliation. The third major character is Míla’s mother, who descends into insanity in Act Two, an act that ends in a double tragedy. The third act centres on Živný’s attempts to finish his opera (due for imminent performance). Tragedy again strikes.

Janáček’s music includes the polar extremes of unbearably poignancy and the bright-sunshine, carefree life of the opening scene (the latter set on the promenade of a spa resort). The composer’s ability to effect quicksilver emotional changes in a fraction of the blink of an eye needs equivalent quicksilver responses from the orchestra, and Bělohlavek indeed ensured that his was the case. The opera lasts around the 80-minute mark, and yet is still split into three acts (called, ‘novelesque scenes’ — the breaks between these were minimal).

The soprano Amanda Roocroft, who took the essential role of Míla, was simply stunning, both visually and aurally. Her voice tone can be meltingly gorgeous, while always suggesting the youth and emotional impetuosity of her character. The (relatively) long eleventh scene of Act One is a duet between Mila and Živný, and despite Štefan Margita’s clear affinity with his role (he has actually recorded it), it was Roocroft who was the clear star. Still, Margita found a real vein of lyricism in the first scene of Act 2, coupling this with expert pitching and remarkably clean slurs.

Talking of stars, the name of Rosalind Plowright seems like a stellar blast from the past. Plowright has lost none of her hypnotic stage presence. Her voice could be huge, with a wobble that was more impressive than off-putting, a cutting edge that was never unpleasant and a delivery of the key word ‘Fatum’ that was positively spine-tingling.

There were other stars of the evening, too. Verva (baritone Aleš Jenis) gave a memorable imitation of a child’s voice, his inverted commas as he did so never in doubt, while Ailish Tynan as Miss Stuhlá confirmed the positive impressions she left after Gergiev’s Mahler Eighth Symphony at St Paul’s Cathedral recently. Aleš Briscein was a confident Dr Suda.

The chorus (BBC Singers) was impeccably drilled, as were the many soloists culled therefrom (eleven named parts, plus sundry schoolgirls and teachers).

The first part of the concert consisted of the complete set of Op. 46 Slavonic Dances by Dvořák. Infectious music, to be sure, but a sequence of eight dances in a row seemed a tad too much of a good thing, too many bon-bons in one sitting to be good for the digestion.

Colin Clarke

image= image_description=Leoš Janáček product=yes product_title=Leoš Janáček: Osud [Fate] product_by=Štefan Margita (Živný), Amanda Roocroft (Mila Válková), Rosalind Plowright (Mila’s Mother), Aleš Briscein (Dr Suda), Aleš Jenis (Lhotský/Verva), Owen Gilhooly (Konečný), Ailish Tynan (Miss Stuhlá), Martina Bauerová (Miss Pacovská/Součková); George Longworth (Doubek as a boy); BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Jiří Bělohlavek (conductor).
Royal Albert Hall, London, 21 August 2008
Posted by Gary at 5:08 PM

September 2, 2008

Bayreuth Chooses 2 Wagners to Manage Festival

By DANIEL J. WAKIN [NY Times, 2 September 2008]

The guard has changed in Valhalla.

Two half-sisters, great-granddaughters of Richard Wagner, will jointly take the reins of the Bayreuth Festival dedicated to his music, officials announced on Monday, dashing an effort by a rival family branch working in concert with Gerard Mortier, the general director of New York City Opera.

Posted by Gary at 2:38 PM

Irish mezzo soprano leaves mark outside Gaiety

Genevieve Carbery [, 2 September 2008]

Renowned Irish mezzo soprano Bernadette Greevy said it was a "great honour" to leave her handprints outside Dublin's Gaeity theatre earlier today.

Posted by Gary at 2:34 PM

'Poppea' Has a Club Date

By HEIDI WALESON [Wall Street Journal, 2 September 2008]

The idea of presenting classical music in clubs has gained traction in recent years, particularly since cellist Matt Haimovitz played gigs at the now-defunct CBGB in New York.

Posted by Gary at 2:30 PM

Metropolitan Opera shuns Rufus Wainwright's French libretto

Henry Samuel [Daily Telegraph, 2 September 2008]

New York's Metropolitan Opera has turned down an opera by singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright because he wrote it in French and refused to translate the libretto into English.

Posted by Gary at 2:27 PM

Stresa Festival, Stresa, Italy

By George Loomis [Financial Times, 1 September 2008]

The most arresting sight on approaching the Italian village of Stresa by train, apart from the sheer beauty of Lake Maggiore and the mountains beyond, is that of the small islands whose separation from the mainland did not prevent development. It looks as if they could sink from the weight of their buildings, but those buildings have been there for centuries, a legacy of the Borromeo family of Milan, which gained control of Stresa centuries ago and is still around today.

Posted by Gary at 1:53 PM

Operatic Cargo of Tragic Love, Unloaded on a Brooklyn Pier

By VIVIEN SCHWEITZER [NY Times, 1 September 2008]

At first glance the stylized movements of the group of adults and teenagers attached to one another’s wrists with long crepe ribbons seemed to be some kind of avant-garde twilight tai chi. But these exercises on the Red Hook Marine Terminal docks in Brooklyn, against a striking backdrop of Governors Island and the Manhattan skyline, were part of preparations last week for the Vertical Player Repertory production of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann.” It opens on Friday in this picturesque outdoor spot.

Posted by Gary at 1:41 PM

Mozart's 'Magic Flute' Done Right in His Hometown

By JAY NORDLINGER [NY Sun, 26 August 2008]

SALZBURG, Austria — A few years ago, the Salzburg Festival had a production of Mozart's "Magic Flute" that was roundly disliked — disliked by the public. Even some critics risked being thought square by objecting. Then, the festival acquired a new production: by Pierre Audi, a Beirut-born British citizen. It was more like it.

Posted by Gary at 12:49 PM

An Uglified 'Rusalka' in the World's Most Beautiful Town

By JAY NORDLINGER [NY Sun, 25 August 2008]

SALZBURG, Austria — The Cleveland Orchestra is not very often found in an opera pit: They are a symphonic band, occupying the famed Severance Hall. But there they were in the pit of the House for Mozart, here at the Salzburg Festival. They were not playing Mozart: They were playing Dvořák's "Rusalka," the opera about a water nymph who longs to be human, gets her way, and pays a heavy price.

Posted by Gary at 11:57 AM

Christine Schäfer, Subpar but Great in Salzburg

By JAY NORDLINGER [NY Sun, 25 August 2008]

SALZBURG, Austria — It is a privilege to sing a voice recital at the Salzburg Festival — particularly a recital of German art song. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau did it, a lot. And, last week, Christine Schäfer, the German soprano, did it. She certainly deserves the privilege.

Posted by Gary at 11:02 AM

September 1, 2008

STRAUSS: Die Frau ohne Schatten — Covent Garden 1992

Music composed by Richard Strauss. Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

First Performance: 10 October 1919, Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna.

Principal Characters:
Der Kaiser [Emperor] Tenor
Die Kaiserin [Empress] Soprano
Die Amme [Nurse] Mezzo-Soprano
Geisterbote [Spirit Messenger] Baritone
Die Erscheinung eines Jünglings [Apparition of Youth] Tenor
Die Stimme des Falken [Voice of the Falcons] Soprano
Barak der Färber [a dyer] Bass-Baritone
SeinWeib [his wife] Soprano
Der Einäugige [his brother, The One-Eyed] Bass
Der Einarmige [his brother, The One-Armed] Bass
Der Bucklige [his brother, The Hunchback] Tenor

Setting: The Emperor’s palace, Barak’s hut, fantastic caves and landscapes


Act I

The Emperor’s gardens

The Nurse is visited by a Spirit Messenger sent by the Spirit King Keikobad to check whether the Empress has a shadow. The Empress is the daughter of Keikobad, who had given her a magic talisman enabling her to transform herself into any form she chose. It was while in the form of a white gazelle that she was hunted by the Emperor and struck down by his falcon. She regained her human form and they were married, but the talisman carried a curse, which she has forgotten, threatening that her husband will be turned to stone and she will return to her father if she fails to win a shadow, that is, become pregnant.

A year has passed and she has not conceived, as she and the Emperor are so wrapped in one another that they have not sought to produce children. The Messenger grants a delay of three days, but the Emperor tells the Nurse that he will be probably be absent for three days, hunting for his falcon, which had flown off when he wounded it in his anger at its attack on the gazelle/Empress.

The Empress laments her husband’s absence and her inability, since she has lost the talisman, to transform herself again. The lost falcon returns and weeps because, as it tells the Empress, if she casts no shadow, the Emperor must turn to stone. She now remembers that these were the words, carved on the talisman, and asks the nurse how she can obtain a shadow. With apparent reluctance, the Nurse answers that it is possible to buy shadows from mortal beings. Though she paints a grim picture of the world of men, she is unable to resist the Empress’ plea to take her there to find a shadow.

The Dyer’s house

The three deformed brothers of the Dyer are fighting, but when the Dyer’s Wife throws water over them, they turn on her. In answer to her complaints and threat to leave the house, Barak says that it is his responsibility to feed and care for his brothers. She is discontented and blames him for not having made her pregnant. He answers her vituperations calmly and benignly, but does not succeed in soothing her.

The Empress and the Nurse appear, disguised as serving maids, the latter pretending to be amazed at the beauty of the Dyer’s Wife, who is at first angry at this flattery, but becomes intrigued when the Nurse speaks of a bargain by which she can obtain her heart’s desires: if she will renounce her shadow, she will have slaves, fine clothes and many young lovers. The Nurse transforms the poor hut into a rich pavilion, summons slaves to adorn the wife and shows her her reflection in a mirror. She tells the wife that by renouncing the idea of child-bearing, of which she paints a gruesome picture, simply by selling her shadow, the wife will achieve a life of love and luxury. When Barak is heard returning for his supper, his wife says she will refuse to sleep with him, and the Nurse splits the conjugal bed into two parts and summons fish to appear in the pan, from which, strangely, the voices of unborn children beg their mother to let them in.

The wife tells the dyer that he must sleep alone, while her "cousins," who have come to serve her, will sleep at her feet. Although distressed, he takes it philosophically. Nightwatchmen bless the procreative love of husband and wife.

Act II

The Dyer’s House

As soon as the Dyer leaves for the market the next morning the Nurse offers to send a messenger for the Wife’s secret lover. Disconcerted because there is no such person, the wife confesses that she had once looked with interest at a young man she passed in the street. Using her magic arts, the Nurse summons the shape of a young man. The Empress, who had previously been eager to obtain the shadow, is now repelled by the means used to achieve it and distressed by the apparent corruptibility of mankind.

The wife is embarrassed at this granting of wishes she scarcely knew she had. The young man disappears when Barak returns, laden with food and followed by a troop of beggar children, whom he joyfully feeds, along with his brothers. Again he turns away with a mild answer the discontented reproaches of his wife.

The Emperor’s falcon house in a wood

The Emperor has found his lost falcon and followed it to the falcon house. He has received a message from the Empress that she will be spending the three days of his absence there, alone except for the Nurse. But he senses the aura of humanity surrounding his wife. Believing that she has lied to him, he thinks of killing her, but is unable to bring himself to do so and leaves sadly.

The Dyer’s house

Barak is at work and his wife and the Nurse impatiently await his departure. He asks for a drink and the Nurse gives a cup to the Empress who hands it to him. He falls asleep, but his wife is angry when she realises that he has been drugged, and tries to rouse him. She accuses the Nurse of spying out her deepest secrets and putting ideas into her head. Although apparently not averse to the idea of the young lover, she wants nothing to do with the Nurse’s machinations.

Nonetheless the Nurse summons up the young man and the wife seems inclined to listen to his wooing, but suddenly draws back and, assisted by the Empress, shakes Barak awake, blaming him for sleeping and leaving her at the mercy of thieves.

The Emperor’s bedroom in the falcon house

The Empress sleeps restlessly, haunted by the memory of Barak’s eyes, aware that she has sinned against him. She dreams that she sees the Emperor turning to stone, only his eyes crying for help, and blames herself.

The Dyer’s house

Although it is mid-day, darkness is falling. The Nurse realises that powers greater than hers are at work. The Dyer’s Wife finds the house unbearable, and Barak feels weighed down. The Empress, moved by his great humanity, decides to remain among mankind.

The wife tries again to provoke her husband, hinting at the adventures she has been experiencing and finally announcing that she will not have children, having renounced her shadow as a sign of this. As it is seen that she really has lost her shadow, Barak raises a sword to her and she falls at his feet, swearing that she has not sinned against him, only thought about it, but begging him to kill her. The Empress refuses to take the shadow, which has blood on it. A river rises, Barak and his wife are swallowed up by the earth and the Nurse leads the Empress to a boat.


An underground vault, divided by a wall

Barak and his wife are on different sides of the wall, unable to communicate, each regretting their estrangement.

A rocky terrace

The Empress and the Nurse are carried by a boat to the entrance to a temple, where the Spirit Messenger awaits them. The Nurse tries to resist, but the Empress knows that she is called to judgment by her father. The door leads to the Water of Life. The Nurse warns her against it, but she believes she has to sprinkle the Emperor with it, to save him from turning to stone. Declaring that she now belongs with mankind, she rejects the Nurse and goes through the gate. The Nurse is unable to follow her and vindictively misleads Barak and his wife as they search for one another. She tries to save the Empress from her fate, but is banished to earth and curses Barak and his wife.

The Empress awaits her father’s judgment, resisting the temptation to drink the Water of Life for the same reason as she rejected the shadow, because it has blood in it. She sees her husband turned to stone, but still has the strength to refuse to accept the shadow at the expense of the happiness of others. The spell is broken and the Emperor returns to life and the Empress throws a shadow. The voices of unborn children are heard calling to them.

A beautiful landscape

Barak and his wife can see one another, but they are on the opposite sides of a ravine. Her shadow turns into a golden bridge. Both couples rejoice and look forward to their children.

[Synopsis Source: Opera~Opera]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image= image_description=Anna Tomowa-Sintow audio=yes first_audio_name=Richard Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten
For best results, use VLC or Winamp. first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Richard Strauss: Die Frau ohne Schatten product_by=Der Kaiser (Paul Frey)
Die Kaiserin (Anna Tomowa-Sintow)
Die Amme (Jane Henschel)
Der Geisterbote (Robert Hayward)
Ein Hüter der Schwelle des Tempels (Judith Howarth)
Erscheinung des Jünglings (Peter Bronder)
Die Stimme des Falken (Jacquelyn Fugelle)
Eine Stimme von Oben (Gillian Knight)
Barak (Franz Grundheber)
Sein Weib (Gwyneth Jones)
Der Einäugige (Daniel Washington)
Der Einarmige (Roderick Earle)
Der Bucklige (Anthony Roden)
The Royal Opera Chorus
Chorus Director: Terry Edwards
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Bernard Haitink (cond.)
Live performance: 16 November 1992, Royal Opera House, London
Posted by Gary at 9:54 PM