October 31, 2008

Lucia di Lammermoor at the MET

This was true in the autumn revival (the cast will change again come spring), but some of the dopier director’s touches have been toned down a bit, and to top it off, there was a major set malfunction at the Saturday performance: the great spiral staircase that is the center of the action in Act III was a no-show, and the chorus and soloists were obliged to invent new business on a bare stage on the spur of the moment – which they did, improving markedly on last year’s skit.

The stars of the night – who brought the audience to its feet, and kept them cheering, though it was already half an hour past midnight – were Diana Damrau and Piotr Beczala. Damrau is a full-voiced dramatic coloratura, a type we haven’t heard much of late (who was the last one? June Anderson, perhaps), and her cool, beautifully straightforward soprano is carved from golden ore not unlike Joan Sutherland’s. She imitated that lady in several Mad Scene touches, and though lacking a genuine trill and a perfectly secure top, gave a credible version of her style of Lucia, adding many dramatic touches, perhaps just because she was feeling the part and the occasion. She can certainly improvise on stage, never one of La Stupenda’s skills.

Item: During her first cabaletta, “Quando rapito in estasi,” when her luscious high legato was being amusingly shushed by Michaela Martens’s Alisa, Damrau occasionally sacrificed flawless phrasing to cute little jokes. This gave us an idea of Lucia as a person, a Scottish girl with a sense of humor – but as that is not the Lucia she played in later acts (or that Donizetti wrote), I couldn’t quite see the point of it, and would have preferred more of that easy, purling legato.

Item: Damrau showed rather more fire in confronting brother Enrico – Dessay played a feather in the wind, with no fight at all – but the music says “fire,” and Damrau played fire. But I think it an error to have her palm a dagger at the end of the scene – she is not planning bloodshed; she will do it on the spur of the moment.

Item: She did not seem oblivious to everything around her during the sextet, as Dessay did. That never made any sense. (Wouldn’t Arturo notice?) Damrau tried to keep an eye on the violence while posing for the photographer. She sang it beautifully, too. The photographer was not so obtrusive as last year, but still unnecessary – Zimmerman put him in because she thinks there is nothing happening when people are merely standing about singing. That is fundamentally not the case in bel canto opera, or we wouldn’t be at the opera – in bel canto, singing is the action, is the point. Zimmerman was the person who shouldn’t be here. Neither should the photographer. Or the ghost. Or the doctor in the Mad Scene. Or the distracting servants changing the scenery when Raimondo sings his cabaletta. But mostly Mary Zimmerman.

LUCIA_Damrau_1229a.pngDiana Damrau in the title role of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

Item: The shocked turn of the head when the flute solo intrudes in the Mad Scene, Sutherland’s signature, was well achieved, and the craziness was lower key, more integral, than Dessay’s, but what really thrilled in this long stretch of bravura singing was the dramatic variety and color Damrau brought to Lucia’s mad changes of mood: elegiac (with a truly ghostly glass harmonica accompaniment) during the wedding hallucination, cries of grief defending herself to the imaginary Edgardo, and then, after (in this production) the doctor has injected her with a sedative, singing the second verse of the cabaletta in an ever more woozy, weavy way, like an exhausted bird spiraling down to the floor. It was a complete characterization.

Damrau’s voice, large, suave, cool, lovely, after a few wooden phrases in the lower ranges in her opening scene, filled the house with no trouble at all, and turned into glittering silver cascades at Lucia’s dreamy moments. It was the prettiest Lucia at the Met since the heyday of Ruth Ann Swenson, and first-rate bravura acting as well.

LUCIA_Beczala_0435a.pngPiotr Beczala as Edgardo in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
The evening’s second star – by a hair (and because Donizetti designed the opera for prima donna) – was the Polish tenor, Piotr Beczala. He has a rich, liquid tenor of exceptional quality, top to bottom, with a never overstated sob when necessary, and urgency when the dramatic moment demands. Too, he fills the house with it, without pushing or barking. Edgardo is a plum for the tenor who knows how to seize it, and Beczala did not waste anything. Withal, he cuts a slim, handsome figure, is a good actor, and his Italian diction is impeccable. It was easy (if a pity) to shut one’s eyes and enjoy oneself whenever the direction demanded he do something stupid. The one thing I might have wanted that was not here, vocally, was a bit more maddened forza during the famous Curse after the Sextet, a moment that can make or break a tenor’s reputation.

Vladimir Stoyanov’s baritone sounded a bit hollow in the opening scene, but he sang it, not screamed it, and that is a good thing. He warmed up by Act II, but (aided by a plain face and an unattractive pre-Raphaelite haircut) he always remembered he was the nasty in this opera. Ildar Abdrazakov used his height and sturdiness to enhance the impression his singing gave that Raimondo is the still, sane center of this damnfool family. Sean Panikkar – much too tall and strapping for a fellow who is knocked over and dispatched by a slip of a girl in thirty seconds flat – sang a promising Arturo, matching the impression he made as Edmondo in Manon Lescaut last year. (Don’t blame Donizetti for the folly of this: it was Zimmerman’s idea to cut the murder to thirty seconds by having bride and groom climb the staircase at the scene’s opening. Donizetti and his librettis, Romani, would never have been so dumb.)

LUCIA_scene_Damrau_9249a.pngA scene from Donizett’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” with Diana Damrau in the title role.
Damrau seemed especially delighted to run off stage during the curtain calls to bring on conductor Marco Armiliato; she hugged him, and he waved a bit of bloody veil at us. Doing a staircase Mad Scene impromptu, with no staircase, calls for reliability in the pit, and he was happy to stand in for the rickety stairs. Certainly he propelled things capably, kept cool while those on stage invented, and the ghostly orchestral effects that can fade for lack of attention were on this occasion exceptionally noteworthy, moody and striking.

The crowd, rather small for a Saturday night, stuck it out, and responded with enthusiasm. You have to wonder what the effect on the audience would have been with such a first-rate cast if they had been performing in a decent, old-fashioned staging of an opera that, after 175 years of success, really doesn’t need a tyro director’s helping hand.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/LUCIADamrauStoyanov0703a.png imagedescription=Diana Damrau in the title role and Vladimir Stoyanov as Enrico in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]

product=yes producttitle=G. Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor productby=Lucia: Diana Damrau; Edgardo: Piotr Beczala; Enrico: Vladimir Stoyanov; Raimondo: Ildar Abdrazakov; Arturo: Sean Panikkar. Conducted by Marco Armiliato. Metropolitan Opera; performance of October 18. product_id=Above: Diana Damrau in the title role and Vladimir Stoyanov as Enrico in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera

Posted by Gary at 1:08 PM

Don Giovanni at the MET

(Not only for Mozart – his libretti for Martin y Soler and Salieri are generically similar, their characters similarly self-aware.)

Take, for example – and I will explain my reasons for bringing her up in particular – Donna Anna. As Brigid Brophy notes, in Mozart the Dramatist, we will never know what passed between her and Don Giovanni in the moments before the curtain rises – people have been debating it for two hundred years, and each age, cynical or idealistic by turns, guesses what it wants to guess from the evidence. We first meet an Anna outraged at Giovanni’s attack – which is still in progress – and only her own furious resistance prevents his easy success, and then commences her unappeasable rage at her father’s murder. In contrast, there is her tenderness for Don Ottavio in the prayer trio, and in “Non mi dir” – such slight moments we might overlook them, as those who don’t like Ottavio much tend to do – too, we are a bit tired by the time “Non mi dir,” the opera’s last aria, rolls around. Yet surely these are the normal Donna Anna, the Anna who existed before abnormal events, assault and murder, released a new, furious figure on Seville, and her life and relationships – not least, her relationship with herself. That she asks Ottavio for another year to ponder the events of the last 24 hours before she weds him always raises a snicker nowadays (it certainly does at the Met), but that she wants some time to breathe, to think, to understand the outrages that have transformed the orderly world she was raised to believe in seems entirely within character. Will she hold out for a full year of formal mourning? Will she break down and elope – with Ottavio or someone more dashing? Will she ever bring herself to yield to the too-courteous Ottavio? Mozart and da Ponte preferred to leave us uncertain – they liked us like that.

Some analysts – especially stage directors – do not agree: Frank Corsaro insisted Anna was after the “Big O”; having had her first sexual encounter and craving more – which seems to me most unlikely for this formal, uptight woman in response to rape. It is nowadays a cliché (perpetuated in Marthe Keller’s vulgar and ugly Met staging) to have Anna yielding to Giovanni at the end of the opening trio, falling into his arms right there on the ground, but no note of the music or word of the libretto justifies such an interpretation, and the scene was never presented this way until quite recent times. This view of Anna’s motivation is not itself modern – in a celebrated tale of E.T.A. Hoffman. a bare generation after Mozart’s time, the real Donna Anna appeared in Hoffman’s box during a performance of the opera and explained that her anger was all an act, concealing true love. This is not the way modern directors see her either – they tend to regard Donna Elvira as the devotee, Anna as a neurotic, a creature of artifice, of propriety, incapable of – or at least out of touch with – genuine feelings. And G.B. Shaw (a man without sexuality himself, whose creations seldom have much of it) made his Ann the self-conscious mother of the future Superman, seeking the proper father for such a being – which still does not explain why she would choose Shaw’s sexless and misogynistic Jack Tanner for the part.

GIOVANNI_Schrott_Leonard_04.pngErwin Schrott in the title role and Isabel Leonard as Zerlina in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”

Anna’s emotions must be examined because the music supports any and all of these interpretations: Donna Anna must be in control of a voice’s ornamental capacities both when howling for revenge and when expressing dulcet sentiments to her faithful fiancé. She must be capable of seizing our attention with the rages of her initial trio and duet, of holding us through the long accompanied recitative of her narrative of assault and resistance, of performing “Non mi dir” at the shank’s end of a long night, and of still singing beautifully in the final sextet. (Some directors finesse that by omitting the finale entirely. If the Anna is not a brilliant singer, they will even cut “Non mi dir.”)

So it is that though I have heard perfect Don Giovannis, perfect Leporellos, perfect Ottavios and Zerlinas and even (not often) Elviras, I have never encountered, on stage or on recording, a perfect Donna Anna – one who made the role complete, explicable, musical, at once beautiful and irresistibly exciting. As with Norma or Tosca or Isolde, I do not expect ever to hear one singer draw all the threads, the possibilities, the range of this character into a single portrayal, and make it a thing of beauty besides.

GIOVANNI_Graham_3752.pngSusan Graham as Donna Elvira in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”
I bring all this up because the Met’s most recent Donna Anna, Krassimira Stoyanova, comes about as close as I ever expect to hear. My date said, “95 percent,” which I’ll accept; an older friend said, “No one as good since Eleanor Steber,” whom I never heard, but whose Mozart technique as recorded was nonpareil. My best Anna to date was that of Carol Vaness in the early ’80s at the City Opera, beautiful, fiery, classy, but lacking the tenderness, the occasional vulnerability Stoyanova gives us at those moments when Anna is alone with her own soul and need not put on an act.

Stoyanova, who is the toast of Vienna and Barcelona (her superb Desdemona, Luisa Miler and Violetta can be heard on webcast from those houses), possesses one of the most beautiful soprano voices before the public today. In the prayer and in “Non mi dir,” it was impossible not to focus on each note – one did not want to miss any one of them; one did not want the moment to end. And yet it was not the beauty of the voice but its range of color, the forceful statement of each phrase that riveted us during the narration of Giovanni’s attempted rape that leads up to “Or sai che l’onore.” She was all steel here, without sacrificing beauty of tone: every word, every phrase meant something. Without eliminating the possibility that Anna is covering something up while speaking to her lover, she gave us a woman outraged, stirred and alarming, even to herself. Her ornaments were tasteful and, as her Anna Bolena for Queler demonstrated, capable of expressing rage and inner torment – but there were turns in “Non mi dir” (where so many Annas come to grief) that were less than ideal – her only such moments, and it was still a “Non mi dir” that deserved – and got – the loudest ovation of the night. The duet with Polenzani’s Ottavio during the finale could have gone on all weekend for my money: I would never say hold, enough! This is a singing actress of the rarest quality, as a vocalist and a performer, and it is a tragedy for us in New York that the Met doesn’t appreciate her.

GIOVANNI_Stoyanova_3153.pngKrassimira Stoyanova as Donna Anna in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”

I had never heard Erwin Schrott before, and concur that he has the swagger, the elegance, the wit, and the solid top-to-bottom lyric bass for the role. He tends to play the charming Don rather than the brutal Don – an ideal Don must be both. Somehow, Schrott has such fun acting the role that he does not put his energy into singing its vocal high points. His arias passed almost without notice – there was no sweetness in the serenade, little exuberance in the Champagne Aria. I cannot remember if it is Keller’s idea to have Giovanni without a mask in both the opening scene (which obliges Anna to contort herself so as not to see him) and in the scene with Masetto’s friends, when a mere hat would do. Was Schrott afraid to conceal his pretty face? Or did the director fear audiences would be confused by his disguise as Leporello? What confused me was how Anna could not recognize him, and how a high collar could disguise him from Masetto.

Considering Scrott’s formidable height and muscularity, and that of his voice, this was a surprisingly insubstantial Giovanni.

GIOVANNI_D_Arcangelo_0198.pngIldebrando D’Arcangelo as Leporello in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”
Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (and, in the next performance, Ildar Abdrazakov) seemed to be having the most fun of the evening. Keller seems to like Leporello so much and to dislike Giovanni so much that she has given the valet all the good moments. Scrott and D’Arcangelo played like vaudeville partners, mugging and traipsing and interacting, and their delight was infectious, but though this is certainly the most intimate relationship of Giovanni’s life (in the libretto we often see one of the pair imitating the other, or protecting, or cautioning), as played here it did not allow much room for the ladies or the plot. They would play a good skit on Don Giovanni; I’m not sure this allows us a view into the opera as a serious drama.

Matthew Polenzani is one of the finest Mozart tenors now before the public, and he has emerged as a favorite with Met audiences as well; his “Dalla sua pace” was strong, but his breath control was not quite up to “Il mio Tesoro.” For me, his finest singing all night was the five minutes of duet with Stoyanova in the finale, when his, warm, supportive sound acted like a ballet cavalier to his lady.

Susan Graham’s mezzo had no problem with the (slightly lowered) music of Donna Elvira, and she wielded her height to make the scenes with Leporello comic, but the instrument itself lacks the soprano sheen one recalls of the greatest Elviras. It’s a pity that the Met has so many mezzos on hand they have seem to have lowered this role as a regular habit.

I don’t often approve of mezzos Zerlinas either, although that can pass as long as this flirtatious but demure peasant bride is not a slut sticking her rear end in the air in the middle of the public street, as Keller (and too many other recent directors) demand. Isabel Leonard was in some trouble on the tenth, and was replaced in Act II by Monica Yunus, who also replaced her in the performance on the fourteenth – a short, pretty woman with a bright, easy soprano of no obvious individuality. She seemed able enough on stage. Both Zerlina and Masetto are obliged to do rather complicated steps, mimicked by dancers, in their entrance duet – an assignment Leonard and Yunus and their Masetto, Joshua Bloom, handled with style. Bloom has a winning presence and a voice of great character and, well, bloom – I look forward to his Figaro and Papageno. Here, after slamming Marthe Keller, I must insert a word of praise: the scene in the Act I finale where Leporello and Giovanni manage to separate Zerlina and Masetto, usually so inexplicable, is very cleverly handled here, as Leporello sics a peasant girl on Masetto, and she refuses to leave him alone.

Louis Langré, the head of the Mostly Mozart orchestra, demonstrated who his favorite composer is, drawing out the light, luscious touches that make every Don Giovanni as much a revelation as one’s first. He will return with the production this spring, with Peter Mattei’s highly praised Giovanni.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Schrott1.png image_description=Erwin Schrott in the title role of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” (Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

product=yes producttitle=W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni productby=Donna Anna (Krassimira Stoyanova), Donna Elvira (Susan Graham), Zerlina (Isabel Leonard/Monica Yunus), Don Giovanni (Erwin Schrott), Leporello (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo/Ildar Abdrazakov), Don Ottavio (Matthew Polenzani), Masetto (Joshua Bloom), Commendatore (Phillip Ens). Conducted by Louis Langré. Metropolitan Opera, performances of October 10 and 14. product_id=Above: Erwin Schrott in the title role of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”

All photos by Marty Sohl courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

Posted by Gary at 10:05 AM

October 30, 2008

Portraits of Domingo and Pavarotti

Both tenors were blessed with distinctive, appealing instruments, and if the inclination might be to find Pavarotti’s voice more beautiful, Domingo often got the credit for being the more dramatic, impassioned performer.

Pavarotti_Story.pngDecca’s The Pavarotti Story covers the singer’s career amply, with one disc dedicated to his studio recordings of the great tenor arias, another full of Italian song and such sacred favorites as the Bach/Gounod “Ave Maria.” Two “bonus” discs fill out the set; one is a 37 minute interview with a John Tolansky, whose obsequious style can be deduced from the first track quotation, “Luciano Pavarotti, you have been a legend in your lifetime…” The second bonus disc begins with the first 5 recordings Pavarotti made in a studio, released on an EP in 1964 (Decca had already released these tracks on the earlier compilation, “For Lovers Only.”) That disc is comprised of tracks, mostly duets, that don’t do Pavarotti’s “legend” much credit. The “Pearlfishers” duet with Nicolai Ghiaurov should have been a winner, but the slow pacing makes for a lugubrious tone. “Nessun dorma!” with Carreras and Domingo, from the first “Three Tenors” affair, becomes a scream fest. And better to pass over the tracks with U2, Elton John, and even Frank Sinatra (at the end of his career) in silence.

Ah but the first two “non-bonus” discs confirm the legend. In Bellini and Donizetti, the voice has a delectable sweetness, whether punching out the high C’s in the Fille du Regiment aria or silkily spinning out the long legato lines of “A te o cara.” The Puccini arias have a sensuous masculinity; the Verdi selections showcase Pavarotti’s beefier side (including a credible “Nium mi tema.” And those who fall asleep in Idomeneo need to listen to the gorgeous, detailed “Fuor del mar.”

True, the arrangements on the songs disc get a bit tacky (especially those with Henry Mancini), but no one will ever quite spin through Rossini’s “La Danza” as Pav did, or make “O sole mio” sound so fresh again.

The set comes with one lavish booklet with a biography and track notes, and another with a full discography.

Domingo’s disc, Pasión Española, presents 13 selections in a popular Spanish song form called “copla,” according to the booklet essay. Although the disc credits 5 composers, no distinctive voice emerges. Most of the tracks feature extensive instrumental introductions, with many a familiar gesture of rhythm and melody, like a cartoon setting up a Spanish locale. The lyrics tend to trite expressions of frustrated or ecstatic love, and much bitter jealousy.

A whole disc of coplas, in other words, goes a long way. But if listeners were to hear a track or two individually, they might well be caught up in the conviction Domingo brings to the project. No, he doesn’t sound like a young man, but age seems to have only deepened the bourbon-hue of his tenor (often called “baritonal”), and for sheer vocal production Domingo makes the disc enjoyable.

Miguel Roa and the Orquesta de la Communidad de Madrid provide the professional accompaniment.

If somehow an opera lover needs one set of Pavarotti at his best, they can be satisfied with either “For Lovers Only” or this “The Pavarotti Story.” For all but his most devoted fans, there are better recordings in the Domingo library to enjoy than Pasión Española.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/DomingoPassion.png imagedescription=Pasión Española

product=yes producttitle=Pasión Española productby=Placido Domingo, Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid, Miguel Roa productid=Deutsche Grammophon 477 6590 [CD] price=$15.99 producturl=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/Drilldown?nameid1=13722&namerole1=2&labelid=1068&bcorder=26&nameid=156868&name_role=1

Posted by chris_m at 3:28 PM

STRAUSS: Die Liebe der Danae

Charles Mackerras leads the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Opera Chorus, and a very “BBC” cast, with American Arlene Saunders joining Norman Bailey, Kenneth Woollam, and Rosalind Plowright.

Palmer explains how this opera’s inspiration had come earlier in Strauss’s career, when he was working with Hofmannstahl. The story of Jupiter and his many loves was put aside at that time for story of the Egyptian Helen. Eventually Strauss returned to the idea, after the death of his first great librettist, combining the mythical “gods and goddesses” angle with a favorite Strauss theme of connubial strife leading to connubial bliss, as the Danae of the title convinces Jupiter to allow her to resume her happy married life with husband Midas.

The relative obscurity of this opera probably can be laid at the feet of the libretto, which lacks narrative drive and fully fleshed-out characters. Palmer also points to the punishing tessitura of much of the music, but that is true for many of Strauss’s more successful operas as well.

As a purely audio experience, however, the score glitters and frolics, with the “rain” music as Jupiter seduces Danae sparkling in a way not dissimilar to Wagner’s fire music. Strauss was never the best self-editor, and some of the passages go on long past their point of inspiration. The lengthy last scene between Danae and Jupiter would probably be exasperating in any production that didn’t have two very fine singers in the roles.

Mackerras does. Arlene Saunders doesn’t seem uncomfortable with the demands of her role, singing with appropriate beauty and passion. Her Jupiter, Normal Bailey, has the sort of rich and thick bass voice perfect for the role of the arrogant god. The rest of the cast is able, and Mackerras gets a surprisingly vivid and lively reading of the tricky score from the BBC musicians.

It remains unlikely that Die Liebe der Danae will finally find its place in the standard opera repertory, but for those who love their Richard Strauss, a recording as good as this one, for Gala’s price, must be a real find. The Midas touch strikes again.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Gala794.png imagedescription=Richard Strauss: Die Liebe der Danae

product=yes producttitle=Richard Strauss: Die Liebe der Danae productby=Arlene Saunders; Norman Bailey; Kenneth Woollam; John Dobson; Rosalind Plowright; Emile Belcourt; Elizabeth Gale; Alison Hargen; Patricia Price; Linda Finnie; Bernard Dickerson; Stuart Kale; Alan Watt; Geoffrey Moses. BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Opera Chorus/Sir Charles Mackerras. productid=Gala GL 100.794 [2CDs] price=$12.99 producturl=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/Drilldown?nameid1=11683&namerole1=1&compid=27352&genre=33&bcorder=195&labelid=262

Posted by chris_m at 3:15 PM

Opera by Martin Halpern at Music School Playhouse

[Brooklyn Eagle, 30 October 2008]

A two-act chamber opera by Martin Halpern of Brooklyn Heights, The Siege of Syracuse, receives its world premiere this weekend at the Brooklyn Music School Playhouse, 126 St. Felix Street (around the corner from the Brooklyn Aacademy of Music - BAM).

Posted by Gary at 3:13 PM

Composer John Adams' biography is as lively as his music

By Michael Upchurch [Seattle Times, 30 October 2008]

“Shaker Loops” … “Hoodoo Zephyr” … “Short Ride in a Fast Machine” — the titles alone of John Adams’ musical compositions suggest he’d make a lively, witty prose writer.

Posted by Gary at 3:11 PM

October 28, 2008

Parsifal, Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia

By George Loomis [Financial Times, 28 October 2008]

The filmmaker Werner Herzog, who has staged operas periodically over his long career, has mentioned two things that appealed to him about directing Parsifal in Valencia: the presence there of a relic with a plausible claim to be the Holy Grail and the remarkable Santiago Calatrava-designed opera house, now two years old.

Posted by Gary at 7:09 PM

Oakland Opera does Stravinsky

Joshua Kosman [SF Chronicle, 28 October 2008]

The odd proportions of the Oakland Opera Theater’s scrappy new all-Stravinsky double bill begin to make perfect sense once you think in culinary terms. The show, which opened over the weekend in the company’s bare-bones warehouse space near Jack London Square, comprises a 70-minute main course followed after intermission by a quick 25-minute dessert.

Posted by Gary at 7:07 PM

A fight at the opera

By Jonathan Brown [The Independent, 28 October 2008]

With a forthcoming programme of events including Freddie Starr, a stage psychic and an evening of Queen covers as performed by the former Stars in their Eyes winner Gary Mullen, Manchester’s Palace Theatre is light years away from the rarefied atmosphere of London’s Covent Garden.

Posted by Gary at 7:04 PM

October 27, 2008

Women dominate battle of sexes

[Financial Times, 27 October 2008]

Make love, not war. The slogan had not been coined when Rossini wrote Matilde di Shabran for Rome in 1821, but it is surely what he meant when he subtitled his opera Bellezza, e cuor di ferro. What the brilliant young composer was saying between the lines of his melodramma giocoso was that the only war of significance is the battle of the sexes - and it’s one that every man is predestined to lose.

Posted by Gary at 1:16 PM

In a Floating World, Enter Heartbreak and Puppets

By STEVE SMITH [NY Times, 26 October 2008]

Two years ago Anthony Minghella’s new production of “Madama Butterfly” served as a calling card for the newly arrived general manager Peter Gelb’s vision of the Metropolitan Opera as a place not only for great singing but also for theatrical innovation. Minghella, a gifted English filmmaker who died in March, offered a gorgeous cinematic spectacle. Dancers and puppeteers made for a lively bustle, but Michael Levine’s spare, elegant sets focused attention on the principals by surrounding them with vast, empty space extended with a mirrored ceiling.

Posted by Gary at 12:18 PM

October 26, 2008

Ian McEwan on his debut opera, For You

Robert Sandall [Times Online, 26 October 2008]

As a novelist set to make his debut as a librettist — with the tale of an egomaniacal composer/conductor who starts off publicly humiliating a young cellist prior to bedding her — you might expect Ian McEwan to lead with his classical credentials. Not a bit of it.

Posted by Gary at 10:07 PM

Boston Baroque opens with Handel's 'Xerxes'

By Jeremy Eichler [Boston Globe, 25 October 2008]

Boston Baroque has taken to opening its recent seasons with semi-staged opera performances. And so it was last night in Jordan Hall, when Martin Pearlman and his ensemble delivered a strong, richly detailed performance of “Xerxes,” Handel’s tale of lovelorn royals complexly entangled in romantic yearnings beyond their control.

Posted by Gary at 9:17 PM

Seattle Opera's "Elektra" resounds with tragedy

Maia Jannele [SeattlePI.com, 25 October 2008]

Richard Strauss’ opera Elektra based on Sophocles’ ancient Greek tragedy, is a harrowing portrayal of betrayal, revenge, and despair. The tormented Elektra paces the castle floors nightly, calling out to her deceased father’s spirit in a rage. The murder of King Agamemnon, orchestrated by his wife, Klytamnestra, and her lover, Aegisth, sends his eldest daughter into a demented state. She recounts the details of his bloody murder and decries revenge upon his assassins.

Posted by Gary at 9:13 PM

STRAUSS: Intermezzo — Vienna 1963

Music composed by Richard Strauss. Libretto by the composer.

First Performance: 4 November 1924, Sächsisches Staatstheater Opernhaus, Dresden

Principal Roles:
Hofkapellmeister Robert Storch, a composer Baritone
Christine, his wife Soprano
Anna, the chambermaid Soprano
Baron Lummer Tenor
Der Notar [Notary] Baritone
Frau des Notars Soprano
Kapellmeister Stroh, a conductor, and skat partner of Storch Tenor
Ein Kommerzienrat, and skat partner Baritone
Ein Justizrat, and skat partner Baritone
Ein Kammersänger, and skat partner Bass
Franzl, the Storch’s son Spoken Role

Setting: Vienna and Grundlsee during a 1920’s winter


The composer Storch is leaving for a conducting tour, and his wife Christine helps him pack, arguing and nagging along the way. Seeking relief from lonelinesss she goes toboganning and collides with a skier, a young Baron who befriends her. They dance together at a ball and she arranges for him to lodge in the house of her notary. The friendship is soured when the Baron asks Christine for financial assistance. She opens a letter, supposedly for her husband, from a lady arranging an assignation. She immediately telegrams Storch demanding they part for ever. In tears, she seeks solace in her son's bedroom but he defends his father. Storch is playing skat with friends in Vienna when the telegram arrives, and is bewildered by the accusations. Stroh, a conductor friend, admits that he knows the lady and surmises that his and Storch's surnames must have been confused. Christine visits the notary to demand a divorce, but he is unwilling to pursue the matter. She sends the Baron to Vienna to gather evidence of infidelity. Packing to leave, she receives a telegram from her husband saying that Stroh will explain the misunderstanding. Even after Stroh's visit she is reluctant to accept the truth.Storch returns home, and an argument ensues. The Baron arrives with evidence that Stroh rather than Storch had indeed known the lady and Christine dismisses him, assured that her husband is blameless. Storch forgives her anger and teases her about her dalliance with the Baron. Husband and wife declare a renewed love.

[Synopsis Source: Boosey & Hawkes]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Strauss.png image_description=Richard Strauss audio=yes first_audio_name=Richard Strauss: Intermezzo first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Richard Strauss: Intermezzo product_by=Anna (Anny Felbermayer), Baron Lummer (Ferry Gruber), Christine (Hanny Steffek), Der Notar (Alfred Poell), Ein Kammersänger (Ludwig Welter), Franzl (Peter Rille), Frau des Notars (Judith Hellwig), Justizrat (Alois Pernerstorfer), Kapellmeister Stroh (Waldemar Kmentt), Kommerzienrat (Oskar Czerwenka), Robert Storch (Hermann Prey). Chor und Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper. Joseph Keilberth (cond.)

Live performance: 1 May 1963, Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna
Posted by Gary at 8:32 AM

October 24, 2008

O’Leary Succeeds MacKay At Opera Theatre Of Saint Louis

[Webster-Kirkwood Times, 24 October 2008]

Timothy O’ Leary, who came to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL) as executive director in January, succeeded Charles MacKay as the company’s general director on Oct. 1 when MacKay became general director of the Santa Fe Opera.

Posted by Gary at 2:36 PM

Seattle Opera Transforms Seattle Into Ring City

[Huliq News, 24 October 2008]

Under the leadership of General Director Speight Jenkins, Seattle Opera has become known as “America’s Bayreuth,” drawing worldwide audiences to its acclaimed productions of all of Richard Wagner’s major works, especially sold-out performances of Der Ring des Nibelungen, the composer’s cycle of four epic operas—Das Rheingold, Die Walkure, Siegfried, and Gotterdammerung.

Posted by Gary at 2:33 PM

Falstaff at Pimlico Opera, Cadogan Hall

There are many concessions which have to be made when touring on a budget, and nothing about this Falstaff was as big as it normally is. The score, which had several cuts, was performed in an (uncredited) arrangement for an orchestra of fewer than 30, and no chorus (the principals making up the vocal ensemble wherever appropriate). At London’s Cadogan Hall there is nowhere to put a backdrop, and all that survived of the adaptable touring set was a versatile set of blocks which transformed into the various different settings with the addition or subtraction of panels or furniture. The scene changes — given that Cadogan Hall has no curtain — were entertaining to watch, almost little scenes in their own right.

Daniel Slater’s production (revived by Hazel Gould) was performed in modern dress, and Act 1 Scene 2 used one of the favourite generic settings for contemporary productions, the luxury health club complete with sun-loungers. It was colourful but not very original, and the possibilities of the setting were ignored — why couldn’t Act 2 Scene 2 be set there too, with Falstaff being dumped in the swimming pool at the end? But no, for that scene we were in the traditional setting chez Alice, with the Thames running past the back door as per the original stage directions. At least there was one bit of business which utilised the unusual layout, with the orchestra to the right of the stage area; Falstaff hid from Ford by crouching next to the band and attempting to blend into the violin section.

Falstaff himself was also on a smallish scale, with minimal padding, but while the young Swiss baritone David-Alexandre Borloz lacked physical bulk, there was nothing insubstantial about his vocal resources, which were if anything a size too big for the intimate venue. James Cleverton’s Ford was also impressive. Rebecca Cooper’s neat, classy Alice was vocally secure, but dramatically she was upstaged by Emma Carrington’s sardonic Quickly and Margaret Rapacioli’s Meg with her wonderfully expressive eyes.

As Fenton, Patrick Ashcroft’s tenor was rather monochrome and lacked bloom in his lovely Act 3 aria, but he had a natural and charming stage manner, while Verity Parker’s Nannetta was a vocally appealing and believably youthful girl-next-door (though I couldn’t work out why was she made to wear a black cloak over her white fairy costume — she would have looked far more effective without).

Falstaff205.pngDavid-Alexandre Borloz (Falstaff) and James Cleverton (Ford) in The Garter Inn. Pimlico Opera 2008.

Alice Farnham conducted with vigour, but the limitations of the reduced score were evident throughout — the lack of richness in the opera’s musical texture was a significant loss to the piece. It was just as well that Verdi’s final opera (not, as the programme stated, his only comedy) is virtually indestructible, and that the cast was a more than solid ensemble. The joy of the final fugue could not have come across more effectively on the stage of a major international house.

Regrettably, the audience, too, was pared down — the small hall was far less than half full.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

Falstaff274.png(L-R) Verity Parker (Nanetta), James Cleverton (Ford), Rebecca Cooper (Alice), Patrick Ashcroft (Fenton) and Margaret Rapacioli (Meg) Act 3, Scene 1. Pimlico Opera 2008

Click here for an excerpt via YouTube.

[Editor’s Note: It is with deep regret to note that David-Alexandre Borloz (age 32) died in his sleep on 19 October 2008]

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Verdi-Falstaff-Poster.png image_description=Poster of Verdi’s Falstaff

product=yes producttitle=G. Verdi: Falstaff productby=Falstaff (David Alexandre Borloz), Ford (James Cleverton), Alice (Rebecca Cooper), Nanetta (Verity Parker), Quickly (Emma Carrington), Meg (Margaret Rapacioli). Fenton (Patrick Ashcroft), Pistol (Hyalmar Mitrotti), Caius (James Scarlett), Bardolph (Gareth Morris). Grange Park Opera. Conductor: Alice Farnham. Original Director: Daniel Slater. Revival Director: Hazel Gould. product_id=Above: Poster of Verdi’s Falstaff

All photos by Alistair Muir

Posted by Gary at 1:22 PM

BACH: Mass in B minor

Jos van Veldhoven’s stunning performance with the Netherlands Bach Society will quickly convince, however, that there is room for one more. Van Veldhoven’s reading is unusually invigorating, often with significantly quick tempos: the “Cum sancto” dazzles and the “Et resurrexit” sizzles, while the “Pleni sunt coeli” is buoyantly Terpsichorean. Even the “Sanctus” elegantly unfolds with a fluidity that underscores its “dance.” Fast tempos elsewhere also help to make the decorative layers feel ornamental, as in the florid violin obbligato to the “Laudamus,” brilliantly played by Johannes Leertouwer. Speed for its own sake, of course, offers little reward, and there is never a trace of that here. An unusually accomplished ensemble of concertists—Johanette Zomer, Dorothee Mields, Matthew White, Charles Daniels, and Peter Harvey—never let the speed sound anything less than naturally fluent. The result is again an invigorating reading that underpins its brio with a strong sense of dance and decorative texture.

The texture of the ensemble is compellingly deployed, as well. Van Veldhoven adopts a concertists-ripieno approach that features the interplay of one-to-a-part singing and a fifteen-voice ensemble, creating color shifts and climactic shapes along the way. The interpretative reading is thoughtful, as well. For example, in the “Qui tollis” from the Gloria, the continuo bass line is inflected with a novel degree of sharp articulation. A bit jarring at the first listen, it seems to paint the “taking away the sins of the world” with a degree of sting. Tellingly, then, in the later “Crucifixus,” there is also a degree of similar bite that might underscore the intrinsic connection between the two texts.

The expressive range of the Mass is a challenge to all who take it on, but here the contemplative movements are as compelling as the animated sections. Charles Daniels’s sensitive “Benedictus” and Matthew White’s elegiac “Agnus Dei,” for instance, affectively explore the shadow side of much of the work’s exuberance with deeply moving grace.

This recording was produced with a lavish companion book containing, of course, some of the expected essays, but in large part devoted to beautiful photographs of liturgical art in the collection of the Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht. They and a number of images showing both Reform and Roman Catholic liturgies offer a rich visual context for a hearing of Bach’s monumental work—a stunning, collaborative counterpoint. (This same collaboration also appears in the Netherlands Bach Society’s recordings of the Christmas Oratorio and St. John Passion, both from Channel Classics, as well.) In every way, this is a recording to savor.

Steven Plank

image=http://www.operatoday.com/BminorVeldhoven.png image_description=J. S. Bach. Mass in B Minor

product=yes producttitle=J. S. Bach: Mass in B Minor productby=The Netherlands Bach Society; Jos van Veldhoven, Director productid=Channel Classics CCS SA 25007 [2 SACDs] price=$49.99 producturl=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/Drilldown?nameid1=527&namerole1=1&compid=311&genre=93&bcorder=195&nameid=59989&name_role=3

Posted by Gary at 10:43 AM

Paris Opera’s new production of The Cunning Little Vixen has a lot going for it.

From the delicate solo work, to the numerous chamber music moments, to the whole large ensemble in full cry, the orchestra turned in a revelatory reading under Maestro Davies’ sure hand.

That said, balance with the stage was problematic at times. But then, the Bastille can be a problematic house, acoustically. Surely, the openness of the set (more to come on that) with few reflective surfaces did not help the lighter voices project.

Elena Tsallagova certainly has the physique du role for the titular fox. She is petite, sexy, energetic and agile, and threw herself into the action with commendable results. While she can pour out ample silvery top notes that easily ride the orchestra, Ms. Tsallagova’s early scenes found her lower voice covered at times by the orchestra. Thanks to the surtitles, we found ourselves initially reading her performance more than hearing it. Still, from the courtship duet on, she was perfection and the audience rewarded her with a resounding ovation.

Hannah Esther Minutillo proved an exciting match as her foxy suitor. Tall and lean, “he” affected a gangly presence, and deployed an essentially lyric voice with just the right hint of steel to command the scene (and win the girl). Her evenly produced mezzo and fine control of arching line brought a lovely Mozartean sensibility to this key role.

“The Forester” was well-taken by Jukka Rasilainen and his final scene was solidly presented, with his substantial baritone filling the house. The tone is a little straight to my taste, and maybe that is why I didn’t wholly warm to his interpretation. I could have done with less surface presentational technique and far more compassion. In the small role as his “Wife” veteran Michele Lagrange (doubled as “The Owl”) provided secure vocalization, and as “The Hen,” Natacha Constantin did all that was required (if no more).

The men had more vocal opportunities to shine, and generally they made the most of them. Paul Gay offered a decisive take on the poacher “Harasta,” Roland Bracht impressed with his dark bass “Priest,” and best of all, David Kuebler made a secure-voiced, pitiable “Schoolmaster.” As for the rest of the soloists, they have so little to sing that it is difficult (although not impossible) to make much of an impression. I did prefer the few that were usually audible (“Mosquito,” “Dog”) to the many who who simply weren’t. A couple of the children were especially cruelly swamped. Overall, this was wildly uneven vocal casting for a company of this stature.


The production too had its problems starting with the omnipresence of a railroad track running from left wing to right wing (I guess, vice versa, too, huh?). It was backed by a few stylized hills filled with fanciful sunflowers. The kids-dressed-as-forest-creatures appeared from among these yellow fields, from a trap door down left, and simply from offstage.

The act curtain was a joyous design with cartoon characters evocative of the comics upon which the opera is based. I wish it had been somewhat better lit, but it was charming. It rose to reveal a “snail” poking along the track, soon to be joined by a frog, a deer, a caterpillar flying a blue kite (nice image but over-used), and…well, you get the idea. The kids were cute enough, but by the time the hunter comes in and falls asleep (perchance to dream) right on the tracks, you have to start being truly distracted by what this railroad bit might actually “mean.”

Things get no clearer as the “Forester’s” house is revealed to be a dead-end railroad building on some siding or another, complete with a sort of freight loading platform and security wall. The “Dog” (decently played by Letitia Sigleton) is housed in a leftover cement culvert. The scene with the chickens (here a deliciously frowzy and blowzy lot of worn-out floozies) is almost fail-safe, but it never quite takes off.

And by this point I was beginning to understand why. For all of the professionally crafted sets (Nicky Rieti) and witty costumes (Elizabeth Neumuller), director Andre Engel has come up with perfectly acceptable movement and physical business, but has completely missed the tale’s heart. The emotional connection of “Forester” and his vexing-but-beloved “Vixen” is just not there. The tenderness in the courtship scene is in the orchestra, and in the vocal technique of the two star “Foxes,” but it is only touched upon in the staging. The shooting of the “Vixen” that usually shocks an audience into breathless sorrow, here was so limply staged as a hide and seek on the exposed railroad tracks (like, just where was the creature going to “hide”?) that the killing was almost inevitable instead of being the startling surprise it should be. By the time the “Forester” came back on for his moving scena, we had moved on ahead of him. As the oh-so-cute-”animals” came back to the tracks yet again, something evil deep inside me wished that French Rail would come barreling across the stage and send the little critters scampering. Now there would be a fresh and startling surprise!

As it is, there have been far more convincing Vixen productions done with far less, witness the total charm of the well-sung, heartfelt production at Chautauqua last summer. Oh, sure there were some beautiful pictures here in Paris, such as the juxtaposition of imagery as the field of sunflowers is being lit by the full moon and later, the desolation of snow-covered barren tracks. And there was one very funny moment when the “Vixen” runs off stage right in the middle of the Great Chicken Slaughter, and a huge burst of feathers bursts forth (which we were however then stuck with for the rest of the act), but these were in short supply.

Perhaps the rather “small” story of The Cunning Little Vixen would have fared better in the more intimate Palais Garnier, with its superior acoustics. As it is, even with two star performances from The Little Foxes, at the end of the day the production on stage was out-foxed by the superior effort from the pit.

Things were on much surer footing the next night with a winning Rigoletto. For those who relish a “traditional” production, Michel Lebois’s set design delivers the goods, especially as peopled by performers clad in the deliciously rich period court costumes devised by Jacques Schmidt and Emmanuel Peduzzi.

If Mantua had a “Baths of Caracalla,” it would look like this. A massive cracked-and-crumbling stone walled structure evoked a morally decaying society, ancient Italy, and plot-specific places all at once, thanks to a massive, clever “unit” which made good use of the turntable. The wonderfully detailed and textured stonework, and the atmospheric frescoes provided the perfect playing atmosphere for Verdi’s (and Hugo’s) dark tale. Adding to the dramatic focus was the well-judged area lighting by Alain Poisson, although lighting designers everywhere should remember that the rather bright lights of the pit can too easily trump too subtle on-stage nighttime lighting effects. The marauding courtiers in Act One were barely visible, while the brass section was in high relief. But, I digress…


Some excellent scenic moments: Two serving maids make a bed revealed through a curtained upstage arch, preparing it for the Duke’s rape of Gilda, carried in blindfolded and placed upon it like a sacrificial animal. That the Duke’s immorality is so basely sanctioned, heightens (or rather lowers) the deprivation of the court even further. The upper level of the inn allows for good variety in the quartet, and indeed all of Act Four. The courtyard chez “Rigoletto” was a wonderful open playing space, with the requisite staircase to a level above, and a secondary gate to what must be a boat landing below, used for the Duke’s escape. Having three abductors on lantern signal, shimmying down ropes, Zorro-like, from a tower high above was a chilling and terrific effect.

Musically, things could hardly have been bettered. Conductor Daniel Oren led a taut, zippy reading, never once languishing in bathos, although he sensibly indulged “Caro Nome” with expansive phrasing. Within Maestro Oren’s fiery dramatic interpretation, soloists were nevertheless conscientiously accommodated, and musical effects were perfectly judged, witness the breathtaking accelerando which tumbled inevitably to the crackling final chords of Act Two. I had never heard “Corteggiani” seethe and spark like this, and throughout, the myriad orchestral detail on display made me revel in Rigoletto as if it were my first hearing. And…Paris opera assembled as fine a cast as can likely be found today.

Ekaterina Syurina is arguably the finest “Gilda” of my experience. Not only does she boast a full-bodied lyric top that rides the large orchestral climaxes with ease, but she is also capable of spinning sweet filigrees of floated pianissimi replete with well-calibrated ornamentations. Listen to her hold a high note, swell it from a mezzo forte to forte, and then back down to piano with no evidence of changing gears, and you know you are in the presence of a very special talent. On top of that (or “bottom,” actually) Ms. Syurina has a rich and communicative lower voice not usually found in proponents of this Fach. And, she is a beautiful, petite woman — the kind that any Duke (or Prince or King) might fall for. No wonder Ms. Syurina is in demand at Salzburg, the Met, la Scala, you-name-it. The Parisians roared their approval at her curtain call. (Me, too.)

Stefano Secco’s lyric tenor served the “Duke” well. He, too, boasts a solid technique, and a fine command of “messa di voce.” His committed portrayal was well-framed within his vocal means, with only the final sustained note of “Parmi, veder… “ breaking up a little as he pushed it a little fuller than it wanted to go. Overall, his gleaming sound carried well and was intelligently deployed.

Varduhl Abrahamyan was a visually and aurally effective “Maddalena,” her smokey, responsive mezzo seducing us with ease. Kristinn Sigmundsson scored with a more three-dimensional “Sparafucile” than is the norm, and with a clearly produced and commanding bass.

Ambroggio Maestri in the title role was giving his first performance in the continuing run of this revival. Mr. Maestri has a very beautiful, slightly covered tone (think Milnes hooking the top notes), evenly produced throughout the range, and powerful enough to encompass all of the part’s demands. He spun out line after arching line of Verdian phrasing that could stand as a model of its kind. He certainly had the role in his voice, if not on this occasion, in his body. His aloof acting made even Caballe at her most placid look like Faye in “Mommie, Dearest.” His reaction to discovering his murdered daughter in the body bag was, well, almost non-existent. (“Hmmmmm,what’s this? A body? My daughter? Oops, better concentrate on that high note now … .’aaaaaahh’. . “) But rather than lay this only on Mr. Maestri, dramatic flaccidity was fairly pervasive.

For all its musical glories (and they were fabulous), and for all the beauty of the design concept (ditto), I kept having the feeling I might be seeing an “instant opera” staging at a secondary company, where the soloists were jobbed in and given a few general rehearsals. Alejandro Stadler is credited as remounting Jerome Savary’s original direction. I’d like to believe it was once more grounded in dramatic truth.

I have never seen such a half-hearted effort between the taunting courtiers and “Rigoletto” in the run up to “Corteggiani,” with no visual tension whatsoever. Duet pairings seemed to find participants coming together, separating, pacing individually, and then repeating that formula with too little regard to specific dramatic motivation. Too often soloists planted their feet, faced front and sang, with scant reference to the person they were “conversing” with. One major exception was the “Caro Nome.” I could be wrong, but I suspect the radiant Ms. Syurina brought her experience in the role to bear, and here was a fully motivated, beautifully realized staging, full of dramatic meaning and appropriate movement. As she spun girlishly in a circle like Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music” while tossing off spot-on staccato octave leaps, well, here was a staging moment that came alive with invention.

These gripes aside, we were nevertheless treated to a world-class Rigoletto as well-sung and -played as is available on today’s world stages, and it was showcased in a truly gorgeous design of the type we hardly ever see anymore. I would only urge the company to re-charge the dramatic batteries to elevate this proceeding from the “highly enjoyable” to the “unforgettable.”

The Bartered Bride’s spunky overture under Jirí Belohlávek promised much, with the orchestra in fine form and all the busy noodling very cleanly done. The painted act curtain featured a stylized road winding in perspective to a distant village, all in vibrant reds and yellows and oranges. When the curtain rose, it revealed the same, up close and personal stylized village houses (boxes with roofs, really, devoid of detail) with a carnival roller coaster and ferris wheel set up behind them, trimmed with rope lights.


Little did we know at the outset that this handsome design by William Orlandi was to be our unit set for the whole show. Oh sure, there were some orange banquet tables added, with yellow straight back chairs, a realistic roadster or two drove on and backed off, and a ringmaster’s round platform got installed, but the look of the show did not change. Mr. Orlandi’s period costumes were functional though devoid of any charming folk influences that might have made for a cheerier presentation. Poor “Mařenka” was especially plain in her upscale off-white house dress that was subtly variegated with pale blue.

Christiane Oelze made a decent vocal impression in the title role. Although her soft-grained voice did not possess much heft in the lower stretches, the many high arching lines gave much pleasure, infused as they were with pristine clarity. However, the role does not seem a wholly congenial match for her. She is a handsome woman who looks just a bit too mature, and I felt that she doesn’t have the touch of metal in her sound that could make “Mařenka” a good sparring partner for the ringing “Jeník” from Ales Briscein.

Mr. Briscein looks young, blond, and chipmunk-cheeked, and was handsomely got up as Billy-Bigelow-as-a-Young-Man. His bronze-hued, pointed lyric tenor delivered all the goods and then some in a part that has been the provenance of such luminaries as Gedda and Wunderlich. He had been announced as being physically limited by an accident, but it was not evident in his stage presence or movement, and certainly not at all in his wonderful vocal production.

We were not so lucky with our “Vašek” as assumed by Christoph Homberger, who was quite light of voice for the part. Both he and Madame Oelze were out-parted in their duet when the orchestration thickened. Too, our tenor was got up as a moussed blonde Baby Huey in a cream Buster Brown suit, and appeared with a green helium balloon, and sucking his thumb. Hmmmm…maybe this idea sounded funnier than it played, cause even for a public that loves Jerry Lewis, there weren’t no laughin’ goin’ down.

“Reliable” is as good word as any to describe Franz Hawlata’s “Kecal.” There were no surprises since, as usual, I found the voice wanting at the very top and a little short on the very bottom, with the rest in between having good ping, savvy comic delivery, and winning, animated stage presence. I keep getting the feeling, though, that his is a competent vocal instrument that has somehow ended up in a major career. “Reliable” is a good quality, I suppose, so …?

Stefan Kocan contributed a burnished bass-baritone and tasteful phrasing as “Mícha,” Oleg Bryjak’s “Krušina” was solid, and Pippa Longworth’s “Ludmila” had a plummy top voice but a less present bottom. Venerable comprimario Heinz Zednick went through some well-studied motions as the “Ringmaster” but lacked spontaneity (man, did he sleepwalk through the curtain call — “this finished yet?”). But perky soprano Amanda Squitieri and talented young bass Ugo Rabec livened up their scenes as “Esmerelda” and “The Indian.” Helene Schneiderman’s well-schooled mezzo had every note in place for an excellent take on “Háta.”

I quite liked much of Micha van Hoecke’s folk based choreography which was filled with spirit and imagination. But the talented corps de ballet struggled as red-nosed, moppety clowns in the circus scene, where the styles of Bob Fosse and Twyla Tharp collided with disappointing results.

Gilbert Deflo’s stage direction left something to be desired. Like, well…stage direction! There is a lot to be said (and I frequently say it) for unfussy, well-motivated blocking that reveals the characters. Here, I found only the “unfussy” part to be true, with inspiration lacking, and relationships only generalized in their outward expression.


The well-schooled chorus (director, Winfried Maczewski) contributed mightily to the musical proceedings, although the ensemble between stage and pit was a bit dodgy in the opening. In fact, although Maestro Belohlávek clearly knows this piece thoroughly, and was mouthing every single word along with the singers, there were several instances over the course of the afternoon where things got slightly (but only slightly) out of sync.

Truth to tell, there was a glorious sunny fall day outside the matinee doors, and it would have taken a fully-committed Bartered Bride to make me glad to be cooped up. Midway in Act II, I found my attention wandering to admire the gilt proscenium arch. By the middle of Act III, as I was reduced to assessing the relative attractiveness of various pit musicians, I knew that this “marriage arrangement” was on the rocks.

James Sohre

image=http://www.operatoday.com/CunningParis1.png imagedescription=Scene from The Cunning Little Vixen [Photo courtesy of l’Opéra national de Paris]

product=yes producttitle=Leoš Janáček: La Petite Renarde rusée [The Cunning Little Vixen (Přihody Lišky Bystroušky) ] productby=Le Garde-chasse (Jukka Rasilainen), Sa Femme (Michèle Lagrange), L’Instituteur (David Kuebler), Le Prêtre (Roland Bracht), Harašta (Paul Gay), La Renarde (Elena Tsallagova), Le Renard (Hannah Esther Minutillo). Orchestre, Choeurs et Atelier Lyrique de l’Opéra national de Paris. Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine/Choeur d’enfants de l’Opéra national de Paris. Direction musicale: Dennis Russell Davies. Mise en scène: André Engel. product_id=Above: Scene from The Cunning Little Vixen

All photos courtesy of L’Opéra national de Paris.

Posted by Gary at 8:48 AM

October 23, 2008

Turandot without the trimmings

Thus the Turandot staging new at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper this season is an eye-opener of quite another kind: Turandot make her entrance dressed in black from head to toe and with face veiled. She mourns the injustice of earlier generations that continues to dominate life in the undefined present, in which Lorenzo Fioroni has set the production.

With a minimalist single set by Paul Zoller Fiorini makes Turandot, performed with Franco Alfari’s long-traditional conclusion, a play-within-a-play, and it’s the people who — as in German Expressionist drama of a century ago — are the downtrodden mass hero of the story as he tells it. Aged Emperor Altoumi and his partners in power look down on the stage from a director’s box high on the rear wall. The people, clad in Goodwill-type glad rags, sit as spectators in rows of folding chairs facing the audience.

The bloodletting of repeated beheadings is the opium with which Altoumi manipulates them and keeps them in line. They cry out for yet another head to role, unconscious of the cruelty and senseless abuse of power involved.

Turandot and Calaf engage in their riddle game seated eye-to-eye at a small table downstage. For Fioroni it’s a TV quiz game. Interesting, but does it make sense? It does — even if traditional Puccini fans no doubt miss at first the Orientalizing excesses of familiar stagings.

What is new — and the real eye-opener of Fioroni’s production is the double patricide that concludes it: Turandot and Calaf each cut down the father responsible for the generations of horror inflicted on their people.

Yes, yes, yes. Calaf’s father Timur was deposed somewhere along the line, presumably — it is always implied — due to great injustice. Here one feels that alcoholic Timur lost out rather because the other guy had more toys. When the chips are down and the play is over, Timur sit down at the side of the stage — back to audience — and takes out a bottle from his camel-hair coat.

Many who see Turandot are troubled — to be sure — by the torture and suicide of Liù, the only truly good person in the opera, for it is only she who knows what caritas, a truly selfless love, is. So is Fioroni, who suggests that with Liù Puccini composed himself into a corner and — unable to find a way out — left the opera unfinished. For him her sad fate hangs literally over the opera: her lifeless body is suspended above the stage in the hour of resolution.


“These are people caught up in boundless hysteria,” Fioroni writes in the exemplary program book of the Deutsche Oper. “None of them is in a position to see the situation with a clear eye.” How otherwise can Calaf witness Liù’s pain and still ruthlessly pursue an obsession that guarantees the continuation of the status quo? At the risk of sounding sit-com, can her meaningless death nourish happy love forever after? To keep the audience thinking with him, Fioroni eschews a Broadway finale and has the chorus sing its final “big number” off stage.

Undisputed star of the October 18 cast was Mario Zhang who stepped in for an ailing Carlo Ventre as Calaf. The Canadian tenor sang the role at Dresden’s Semper Oper early in the year and was immediately engaged by other European companies. His rich and robust voice, employed with ease even at the most demanding moments, suggests that he could be the tenor the world waits for.

Lise Lindstrom, who laid the foundation of her career with regional companies of her native America, is a near-ideal Turandot. Tall and lean, she is happily free of the mannerisms that can bring this role close to parody — and, of course, Fioroni’s approach leaves no room for brightly painted feline fingernails. While Lindstrom’s somewhat metallic voice underscores Turandot’s initial frigidity, greater warmth would have been welcome later. Yet she sings with power and enviable accuracy in all ranges.


Without capitalizing on the sympathy that an audience always feels for Liù, Balkan soprano Inna Los is an especially strong presence in this cast. (Yet one cannot stop wishing that Fioroni had been able to make his point without her corpse on stage for such an extended period.)

Paata Burchuladze, the Timur of the evening and still a major bass on the international opera scene a decade ago, has clearly reached retirement age, while Peter Maus, Altoumi in the cast and veteran of many years with the Deutsche Oper, remains an impressive tenor.

Ping, Pang and Pong, well-oiled cogs in the wheels of power as Fioroni sees them, were satisfactorily sung by Nathan Meyers, Jörg Schörner and Paul Kaufmann.

While Zoller’s designs intelligently supported Fioroni’s concept, his video projections were more movie- than opera-house and detracted from the strong story line of the staging.

Attilio Tomassello conducted an ensemble that now ranks high among Berlin’s many large symphonic ensembles. The chorus was superbly rehearsed by William Spaulding.


“An end with horror,” says Thomas Mann following the murder of the dictatorial manipulator in “Mario and the Magician,” his psychological short-story study of Italy in the early days of Mussolini. “Yes, but a liberating end nonetheless,” he concludes. In this sense Fioroni liberates Turandot and Calaf and the people whom they will now lead from darkness into light.

This is a Turandot obviously to be taken seriously.

Wes Blomster

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Turandot01.png imagedescription=Scene from Turandot [Photo by Deutsche Oper Berlin]

product=yes producttitle=G. Puccini: Turandot productby=Turandot (Lise Lindstrom), Altoum (Peter Maus), Calaf (Mario Zhang), Liù (Inna Los), Timur (Paata Burchuladze), Ping (Nathan Myers), Pang (Jörg Schörner), Pong (Paul Kaufmann), Ein Mandarin (Hyung-Wook Lee), Prinz von Persien (Ho-Sung Kang), Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin. Musikalische Leitung: Attilio Tomasello. Inszenierung: Lorenzo Fioroni. Bühne: Paul Zoller.
product_id=Above: Scene from Turandot

All photos courtesy of Deutsche Oper Berlin

Posted by Gary at 5:07 PM

Cervantino pays homage to Catalonia

Indeed, when in “Don Quixote” the knight’s books are burned, a priest spots the volume and calls it “a treasure of enjoyment and a gold mine of recreation.”

That very quality placed the tale of the White Knight’s crusade against the Turks threatening Constantinople at the center of a constellation that made it the central event of the 2008 International Cervantino Festival in Mexico‘s historic Guanajuato. The 36th festival season subtitled — not coincidentally -“Cataluña in Cervantino.

The dramatic appeal of Martorell’s medieval novel was spotted by Calixto Bieito, the Catalan theater genius who has become the enfant terrible of European opera in recent seasons. Since Bieito’s impact has not yet been felt in the States, a sample of European critical reaction indicates just how radical a presence he is on a scene that has for years seemingly known no extreme.

“It’s one thing to set Macbeth in a mall from hell, with the secretaries drinking from that famous devilish cup, a Starbucks Grande,” a reviewer for Opera Chic writes. “And yeah, a nutty ‘Don Giovanni’ with Leporello in a red + blue azulgrana soccer jersey (for Calixto’s beloved Barcelona) & Don Ottavio in a Superman costume, OK, it’s a dramma giocoso so we’ll pretend it’s more giocoso than dramma anyway, and DaPonte was one horny bastard so the naughtier the better — maybe.

“Insane as he may look, Calixto has been blessed (by Satan, clearly) with an uncanny sense of dramatic tempi, and a great eye, and a quick mind.” Yes, like him or not, Bieito is here and he’s not going away. And he is a genius and his work fascinates, as was clear from the enthusiastic reaction to “Tirant” at the Cervantino.

In 2007 Bieito, relying on the immense talent of his Barcelona Companyia Teatre Romea turned the novel into an orgiastic three-hour music-theater spectacle, first seen in conjunction with Germany’s Frankfurt Book Fair in 2007. In October at the Cervantino Beito mounted the production on a runway that extended far beyond the stage of Guanajuato’s cavernous Auditorio del Estado.

CCC_0319.pngScene from Tirant lo Blanc

Bieito’s account of the White Knight’s heroic and amorous adventures makes the “Satyricon” look like Little Orphan Annie. It’s an exercise in excess that mixes Fellini and Pasolini, Wagner and Madonna in a raucous romp through nudity and nonsense, through seduction and seriousness.

“‘Tirant’ may be the greatest book ever written,” said Cervantino general director Gerardo Kleinburg. And Bieito has shown us another way of reading a classic. “The staging is rich in issues extremely sensitive today. It is totally non-conventional and somewhat risky, but that makes it healthy for the festival.” “It underscores the social relevance of art, which is essential to the mission of the festival.”

Bieito has made “Tirant” a panorama of a society torn by contradictions, obsessed with splendor and devoured by depravity and decadence. The contemporary relevance of the production was overwhelming. The musical score — performed partly on tape, but largely by an on-stage organist, is by Charles Santos and Bieito himself. It offers a hint of Michael Nyman, Orff and Messiaen.

Performed for an audience seated on stage on either side of the runway, the three Cervantino performances featured almost the entire 2007 original cast, an ensemble distinguished both as actors and singers headed by stellar — and handsome — Joan Negrie’. One reservation: True, the world is still peopled by prudes; nonetheless — well over a century after the Victorian age — a certain advance has been made in popular perceptions of human sexuality.

In “Tirant” it was almost a given that any character who appeared would be stripped to the skin within minutes, and one poor fellow played a great part of the three hours in the buff. It gets a trifle sophomoric after an hour or so. And, in addition, there’s a practical problem. “Tirant” was amplified throughout, and there’s no obvious solution regarding the placement of a body mike on a person wearing Jockey’s — or less.

“Catalonia is a region with a very strong cultural identity,” said Cervantino general director Gerardo Kleinburg regarding the theme of the ‘08 season. “The region is rich in incredible modern artists in all fields.”

He stressed further a strong feeling of kinship between Mexico and Catalonia, due to the thousands who fled to Mexico from that region between 1936 and 1939. “New generations have grown up here,” said Kleinburg, for a decade director of Mexico’s National Opera. “They strengthen the feeling that we are part of the Iberian peninsula.”

An opera in the intimate opulence of Guanajuato’s 1908 Teatro Juárez recalls scenes from long-ago films in which the aristocracy indulged itself in the arts. It’s an experience beyond the every day, and Cervantino made it special with a co-production with Mexico’s National Opera of “Manon Lescaut” that honored Puccini on his 150th birthday.

Vargas.pngRamón Vargas

The all Latin cast was headed by Chile’s Verónica Villarroel in the title role. Although too mature today to be convincing as the virginal, cloister-bound Manon of Act One, Villarroel is a formidable singing actress who was impressive and convincing in the remaining three acts of the work. Brasilian Richard Bauer as Des Grieux and Jesus Suaste as Brother Lescaut completed the cast.

Hero of the emotionally intense production, however, was veteran Italian conductor Guido Maria Guida, who brought rarely heard emotional intensity to Puccini’s score. Earlier in the day — October 12 — Guida conducted an expanded Sinfonietta Ventus, a Mexican chamber ensemble of international stature, in the gilded splendor of Guanajuato’s Templo de la Valenciana, the city’s handsome Baroque cathedral.

Guida, a key figure in the educational wing of Bayreuth’s Wagner Festival, offered a translucent reading of the “Siegfried Idyll,” follow by a spellbinding performance of Schoenberg’s early Chamber Symphony, No. l. Op. 9. The Schoenberg performance touchingly laid bare the deep Romantic roots of this first fully modern composer. Orchestra and chorus — both superb — came from the National Opera’s home bass in Mexico City.

Nothing makes a festival more festival than the return of a native son who has achieved fame beyond his country. All the joys of homecoming were felt when Ramón Vargas came on stage in the Teatro Juárez on October 9, the first full day of Cervantino ‘08. Vargas, one of the world’s leading tenors for 25 years, was given a hero’s welcome, and he responded with equal warmth.

Despite his excellence in both the bel canto and Italian repertory, it was in the music of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff that Vargas overwhelmed the audience in the packed theater. The emotion that he brought to “Kuda, kuda,” Lensky’s valedictory, pre-duel aria from Eugene Onegin,” touched the heart, and his work with two soul-searching Rachmaninoff songs was equally moving. Outstanding also was his accompanist of many years, Georgian-born Mzia Bakhtouridze.

The Cervantino remains the outstanding all-arts festival of Latin America. It remains — alas — yet to be discovered by Americans.

Wes Blomster

image=http://www.operatoday.com/CCC0082.png imagedescription=Scene from Tirant lo Blanc [Photo courtesy of Festival Internacional Cervantino]

product=yes producttitle=Festival Internacional Cervantino productby=Above: Scene from Tirant lo Blanc

All photos courtesy of Festival Internacional Cervantino

Posted by Gary at 4:27 PM

Chaslin Chats About Wuthering Heights

Frédéric Chaslin has, for some years, been juggling with the title Composer-slash-conductor. Appearing on major podiums around the world, this Paris-born maestro is looking to find a better balance for his two ambitions. Composer/conductors are more common than you might think - Bernstein, Furtwangler, and Mahler readily come to mind - and the list is extensive. A few years ago, Esa-Pekka Salonen took a sabbatical from his Los Angeles duties to devote the maximum time to his opuses. Others try to get something done during summer vacations.

Chaslin is looking to make a major mark as composer as he nears completion of his opera, Wuthering Heights, large parts of which he recorded Mid-September in Valencia, Spain. Chaslin, often composing on stolen weekends at his houseboat on the Seine, is looking to increase his composition time and is in the process of thinning his future appearances. “Look at (Lorin) Maazel and his first opera, 1984, which I rather liked,” he argued. “Now that he is in his 70s, did he wait too long to start? I’m now in my mid-40s and when do I start getting serious? Now I am in the process of trimming my future schedule to give me more time to compose.”

His new opera is unapologetically neo-romantic. He is on record with his belief that Twentieth Century classical music went off the rails into serialism and dense atonality. Even though he was, for a time, associated with Pierre Boulez (another composer/conductor) and the Paris contemporary music group Ensemble Intercontemporain, his book, ”Music in Every Sense,” takes modern music to task. “Music should always engage the audience,” he emphasized to me. The music for Wuthering Heights is so accessible that there was some debate at the inception of the project on whether to frame it as a “musical.” After most all has been committed to paper, he clearly sees it as operatic in every sense and the scope and drama of what was heard clearly support that view.

He has found a passionate advocate of the Emily Bronte novel in his librettist. Paula Heil Fisher is a writer, Broadway producer of musicals, filmmaker and head of Millennial Arts Productions who is developing this particular project. Clearly devoted to the classic novel of love and revenge she describes reading the novel as a child - one of her first novels - and the strong impact it had. She sees the author in all of the strong characters, an oblique protest against the limited power for women of Bronte’s time.

In the almost two hours of of music recorded in the spectacular Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia, Chaslin found a “responsive, eager” house orchestra, the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valencia. Built with the help of Lorin Maazel, finishing his last season as conductor of the New York Philharmonic and Valencia’s current musical director, the top young talent (the average age is around 30) was selected from auditions around the world. This orchestra, only two years old, has already established itself as one of the more important in Europe.

Chaslin_Valencia-Recording.pngFrédéric Chaslin

Young too are the leads, both of whom are ready for their close up. Long haired lanky American tenor Andrew Richards seems an ideal heartthrob as Heathcliff playing alongside the stunning young soprano, Olga Peretyatko, as Cathy. Both have already made waves on major stages, are very committed to this project and are names to note.

What chunks were heard during the two days at the recording session would certainly suggest the complete opera would likely qualify as a major event on the world’s musical calendar. The mature Cathy’s aria, the love duet with Heathcliff and the haunting music accompanying the Moor’s Chorus (with the London Philharmonia Chorus imported for the occasion) were particularly well-crafted and moving.

While the particularly lush orchestration during the arias will certainly be balanced in the recording studio, one can only wonder (as some of the singers do) how the balance will be achieved in the opera house. The reported three hours plus of music also might need some scissor application. However, walking to lunch, this critic, who has sat through uncounted new operas, was surprised to find him whistling a tune from the music. How often has that happened? I can’t remember the last time.

[Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in PlaybillArts. It is reprinted with permission of Millennial Arts Productions, the rights holder.]

image=http://www.operatoday.com/chaslin.png image_description=Frédéric Chaslin

product=yes producttitle=Chaslin Chats About Wuthering Heights productby=Above: Frédéric Chaslin

Photo by chaslin.com

Posted by Gary at 3:39 PM

I Capuleti e i Montecchi at Grand Theatre, Leeds

Geoff Brown [Times Online, 23 October 2008]
One indication of a testing night at the opera is that the only bright splash of colour arrives with the curtain calls. The director Orpha Phelan, responsible for this new Opera North staging, bounced on wearing what appeared to be a map of the world, and I was glad. That blue ocean, those pink continents: such a friendly change from the black and grey jackets, the glowering balaclavas, that clothed most of the background characters in Bellini’s early opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi, a bel canto, non-Shakespearean take on the story of Romeo and Juliet.
Posted by Gary at 10:44 AM

The Metropolitan Opera Joins With Leading Technology Providers to Launch the First HD-Quality Performing Arts Subscription Service

[MarketWatch, 22 October 2008]
NEW YORK, NY, Oct 22, 2008 (MARKET WIRE via COMTEX) -- Today, the Metropolitan Opera debuts its subscription-based online video experience, making its extensive catalog of historic performances and recent high-definition productions available online.
Posted by Gary at 9:49 AM

October 22, 2008

Stealing the show at the festival

Michael Dervan [Irish Times, 22 October 2008]
BACK IN 1965 when his second opera, The Mines of Sulphur, was premiered at Sadler's Wells in London, Richard Rodney Bennett, not yet 30, was one of the young hotshots of British music.
Posted by Gary at 9:21 AM

Challenging 'Lulu' remains a great story

By Bill Gowen [Daily Herald, 22 October 2008]
In two weeks, Lulu will be back in town, in this case Austrian composer Alban Berg's mid-20th century opera "Lulu," coming to Lyric Opera of Chicago for just the second time in the company's history.
Posted by Gary at 9:16 AM

Tutti in maschera, Wexford Opera House, Ireland

By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 21 October 2008]
With just three operas per festival, unveiled on consecutive nights at the start, Wexford quickly knows whether it has notched up a vintage year or an ordinary one. With the new opera house stealing much of the limelight, the 58th festival may go down as the most successful of all. Everyone has commented not just on the building’s intimacy and immaculate sightlines, but also on how finely finished it is: there have been no inaugural hitches.
Posted by Gary at 7:26 AM

October 21, 2008

Oedipe, Théâtre du Capitole, Paris

By Francis Carlin [Financial Times, 21 October 2008]
With the decline of new works, disinterring forgotten operas has become an intendant's sacred mission. So many resurrections, so few genuinely interesting works. George Enescu's Oedipe , first performed at the Paris Opera in 1936 after a long gestation spanning 20 years between 1910 and 1930, is the latter, a staggering example of unjust neglect.
Posted by Gary at 4:44 PM

The Elemental Power of Ewa Podles

By Anne Midgette [Washington Post, 21 October 2008]
BALTIMORE -- Ewa Podles, the Polish contralto with a three-octave range and a cult following, has appeared in Washington with some regularity over the years, thanks to the Vocal Arts Society. She has also appeared in Baltimore, where she and the pianist Garrick Ohlsson were presented by Shriver Concerts on Sunday afternoon; and in other opera houses and concert series around the country.
Posted by Gary at 4:33 PM

Wagner's 'Rienzi' takes a cartoon-like turn

By George Loomis [Int'l Herald Tribune, 21 October 2008]
BREMEN, Germany: History has assured that politics are inextricably bound up with the artistic output of Richard Wagner, but only one of his operas focuses on a political leader. The title character of his early grand opera "Rienzi" is the tribune of the people in 14th century Rome, and the way he works a crowd is almost frightening. Hitler saw a performance in 1953, when he was 15 and was transported to "a state of complete ecstasy and rapture," according to the recollection years later of a friend, August Kubizek, who accompanied him.
Posted by Gary at 4:28 PM

Glimmerglass Opera appoints new company Music Director

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. - Glimmerglass Opera has appointed David Angus as the company’s Music Director, effective November 1, 2008. Angus’s appointment comes after a two-year search period following Stewart Robertson’s departure as Glimmerglass Opera Music Director in 2006.
Posted by Gary at 4:25 PM

An interview with Scott Lindroth

Composer Scott Lindroth has been teaching at Duke University since his arrival in North Carolina in 1990. In 2007 he went from being chair of the Department of Music to being the Vice-Provost of the Arts. His 2001 work for band, Spin Cycle, has been recorded several times, and has joined the standard repertoire, with dozens of performances nationwide. We spoke in his studio at Duke on March 17, 2008.

TM: Where do you come from musically? How did you get started? What were your family influences?

SL: I started late compared with most people who go into the profession — I started taking piano lessons when I was ten years old. My folks told me that I had wanted to start earlier, when I was five or six, but I was having a lot of trouble in school, and teachers in those days thought that music would be an unwelcome distraction, that I should get my act together before I took on another project. We would probably think differently today, but that was the wisdom of the early sixties.

My father played violin as a child. I had his violin, but I never heard him play, and he was never active in any way as a musician that I recall. He was a music lover, with a pretty good record collection, both classical music and some jazz of the forties and fifties, as well as pop — lots of Sinatra. For me, I remember that I always wanted to be involved in music in some way. From the time I started playing piano at ten I just could not wait to get going. I was also in a boys’ choir. Once I started I was very intense about my participation, practicing endlessly, and not long after I began to compose, when I was twelve or thirteen. I don’t know that I was conspicuously talented, but because I put in a lot of time, word got out in the community. I was very eager to do anything I could as a musician.

When I was in seventh grade, I started to play saxophone, which was a way to have some kind of communal music making, as opposed to the isolation of being a pianist. It was a revelation to be playing a large ensemble — both concert bands as well as jazz ensembles. It was probably my exposure to jazz that helped bring some focus to my work as a composer. Earlier I had tried imitating pop music of the day, without knowing much about what I was doing.

Jazz had an enormous appeal to me. I loved the complexity of the improvisations, the richness of the harmony, the incredible virtuosity of the musicians. Even though there was a format that was followed, it seemed to invite endless diversity — you could do anything, within the constraints that the medium imposed. Looking back at it, I reveled in a sense of freedom. Anything that I could hear, or imagine, or challenge myself to hear, I could find a way to express that through the jazz idiom.

The first pieces of mine that really began to sound like anything were for jazz ensemble. I got to high school, and had a very ambitious band director who just pushed me into writing things where I had no idea what I was doing, but he gave me an opportunity to try my hand at it. Initially, I brought in a Count Basie-style chart that I had written when I was in tenth grade. It took him completely by surprise, but it was based on all the Basie arrangements by Sammy Nestico that I had played through middle school and was playing in high school. It sounded pretty good — there were some things that were a little hard for a high school group, but he immediately made me write more. He said “it’s already publicized — there are going to be two pieces by you!”, so I did.ving a lot of tr

It was a joy for me to be doing that. I was beginning to explore improvisation, as a saxophonist, but especially as a pianist, which I regard as my primary instrument. I was beginning to study classical repertory as well, but I saw that more as a way of acquiring technique, rather than feeling like it was a viable channel of personal expression. I loved Bach, I loved Brahms...I couldn’t play Beethoven or Mozart very well. I loved listening to those composers, but jazz was really where I felt that I could focus my creative energy.

I wrote lots of arrangements for jazz ensemble, had my own group, a quartet, which I would compose for, do arrangements for. We would play gigs around town, I would play with society bands, and do that kind of work as a musician. That’s what you did. I was immersing myself as much as I could in the kind of music-making world that existed in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin — a small town of 30,000.

There was a harmonic complexity and composition density in jazz that I felt I could explore, that I was instinctively attracted to. I went to music camps in the summer, including one that focused on arranging. It was there that I met people who worked professionally, in New York, in Hollywood, as well as in universities in the Wisconsin area. There were people who had studied at the Arranger’s Holiday at Eastman, musicians from Henry Mancini’s orchestra who were some of the clinicians there, people who had played with the Temptations — an amazing mix of professional musicians and composers. I learned so much — anecdotal advice on how to find cool, interesting chords, ways of thinking about orchestrating for jazz ensemble that would make the ensemble more three-dimensional. I had been finding my way instinctively, but here I was getting concrete advice from people for whom this was their daily bread.

A faculty ensemble that consisted of all the guest artists read one of my early jazz ensemble pieces. I sat in front of them while they were sight-reading, and was completely in awe. I had never heard my music played so well before. It was stunning — all the trumpets were hitting the high notes, the fast sax figuration — they were just reading it down. When it was over, I was completely exhilarated, and then they went around the room and tore me to shreds. “There’s no place to breathe!” “I can’t read your manuscript!” — one thing after the other. I wasn’t that upset by it, because I was riding high from hearing the piece played so well, but got a dose of the reality of the practical side of being a composer — what you can do to get the musicians on your side — what are the best registers on an instrument, how much time do they need to breathe....

That moment of being able to get a peak artistic experience along with practical advice was just tremendous. If my work as composer has distinctiveness it was forged in that setting — being able to think idealistically, but understanding that there are practical concerns.

I wanted to go to music school, and my folks were wonderful through all this, although they were not musicians themselves, and didn’t have any idea what being a professional musician would mean. They were always completely supportive of what I wanted to do. I applied to Eastman, University of Michigan, and to University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh.

I was admitted to Eastman, much to my surprise. I went to the interview, and did not know anything of contemporary music, and little classical music. My portfolio at the time was several jazz band charts, and a Rodgers & Hammerstein medley that I arranged for the concert band with the boys’ chorus that I had sung in when I was ten, and a few original pieces where I was trying my hand at a more classical style without really knowing what that meant. They liked my work, and wanted me to go to Eastman. It really floored me.

So I began to try to learn not only what classical music was, but also contemporary music. I went to the public library and checked out LPs of Stockhausen and Varese, and picked up an LP of Pierrot Lunaire, and the John Cage string quartet, at the local record store. On the flip side of the Cage was George Crumb’s Black Angels, and the first time I listened to that I thought that there was something wrong with the stereo. It begins with the ffff onslaught, and goes to something that is barely audible. I had never heard anything like it before, and I can’t say that I understood it. With Varese there is some kind of visceral connection. I was totally puzzled by the Schoenberg. I picked up Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon, the original Nonesuch recording, which I thought was fascinating. I liked the sense that there was a world with people writing music that I didn’t understand, but somehow they wrote it. There had to be a way to understand it.

I liked jazz because there was a complexity, a density, something to stretch your ears and your imagination, and here I was discovering another kind of music which took that to a higher order of magnitude. I can’t say that I loved it, but I was fascinated by it. For me the musical experience has to include this sense of wonder. I was fascinated music that is inscrutable but utterly absorbing. It doesn’t tell you how to listen to it, but you have to figure out what are the things that you are going to pay attention to.

I began to see that contemporary music offered this opportunity, which was quite different from what I had been doing. I was thinking socially, about pieces that are needed, what people like to listen to, what people like to play....I was thoroughly indoctrinated in that. I didn’t resent it at all — it was fine. To see that there was another world that didn’t play by those rules was very intriguing.

TM: Jazz is one of those words that means many different things — a stage band at a high school, or Henry Mancini, or John Coltrane, or Sun Ra. According to the canonical histories, the early seventies was a terrible time for jazz — fusion, the nadir of American jazz, at least according to the Marsalis school. What was jazz in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin in the early seventies? I think of 1972-1974 as John McLaughlin, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Miles Davis at the very limit.....

SL: I listened to a lot of bands in those days. There was a move to try to bring jazz into the public schools, which gave new life to a lot of old bands, everyone from Woody Herman to more progressive voices, being able to tour to high schools and colleges, and publishing their charts for performance by school bands. I listened to Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson’s band was very big at the time, Stan Kenton in the music education field, with mixed meters, all these wonderful Hank Levy charts that we played by him.

I also listened to some stranger things, Don Ellis, who was the West Coast hippie version of a jazz band, experimenting with technology and psychedelia, which was hard to get a handle on from where I was. Buddy Rich &– he played in our high school gymnasium, if you can imagine such a thing. That was the repertory that I knew, and when our bands played in state festivals, that is the music that you heard. It was exciting.

As a keyboard player I saved up my pennies from working at McDonalds to buy a Fender Rhodes, which is what you had to buy in those days.

TM: Do you still have it?

SL: It has been sold. I left it with my parents. I wish I did still have it.

As a keyboard player the fusion world was emerging. I listened to a lot of Herbie Hancock, both in the context of the Miles Davis Quintet, which I adored, and then with Headhunters. The musicianship is just unbelievable — it’s not Spyro Gyra, for example, which I would say is a late decadent manifestation of fusion. Return to Forever — I liked Chick Corea’s playing but the loud, electric stuff was hard to listen to — I much preferred when he played with Gary Burton on acoustic piano. Herbie Hancock I found exciting no matter what he played — he is just such an amazing improviser. The things that he does on albums like Nefertiti, for example, just thrilled me, or his albums before Headhunters....

TM: Mwandishi....

SL: Just an amazing band. Chick Corea’s quintet with Joe Farrell and Woody Shaw — that was the stuff I really loved. The harmonic syntax — you couldn’t find too many ii – V – I progressions in that music, let alone anything based on blues. That kind of free-floating approach to harmony and melody I found exciting, and inspiring.

Weather Report was a group I really liked — Wayne Shorter I continue to adore as a sax player.

That was the world in terms of more adventurous jazz. I knew some of the late Coltrane, but didn’t really get a handle on that until later, when I began to fill out my historical knowledge of more classic jazz.

TM: Once you got to Eastman, how did you make the transition from mainstream big-band jazz to contemporary music? What was the compositional environment there like in the seventies?

SL: I arrived at Eastman in 1976. Contemporary music was beginning to go through a period of reassessment. George Rochberg’s work was questioning the historical necessity of twelve-tone music. Eastman itself, just by its location, halfway between the Midwest and the east coast, was in some ways removed from the situation where serialism was a mainstream in university music departments (if it was). That certainly wasn’t the case at Eastman. Howard Hanson was alive. He wasn’t teaching, but I remember going to a concert that he conducted. There was an idea of an American school of composition that was somewhat independent of the cutting-edge trends. This left more room for students to explore what they wanted. The composition faculty at the same time included Sam Adler, Joe Schwantner, who was the Young Turk, had just been at the school for a couple of years, was in his early thirties, and Warren Benson. Even among those three the stylistic range was enormous. Sam brought a combination of Piston and Hindemith with an interest in Schoenberg. Schwantner was the modernist, but at the same time was beginning to composer works that made use of tonality, though conceptualized as trichords that were manipulated systematically, but nonetheless evoking the idea of tonal music and quotation. Warren Benson was a composer of vocal music, with a deep sensitivity to text, and using that as a way of thinking quite speculatively about how music might be conceived. He could do anything from writing a straightforward band piece, to things that are quite strange and odd and hard to pin down, because he is thinking in terms of metaphor and imagery which he is struggling to capture in music.

There wasn’t an “Eastman sound” at the time. I didn’t know what was what in terms of contemporary music. I studied with Joe Schwantner as a freshman, and at my first lesson, in his very small studio, he said “I have got to go make a phone call. Here, listen to this new piece by Mort Subotnick”, and puts “Until Spring” on the record player, with the volume cranked up. The piece terrified me, but at the same time I was absolutely thrilled by it. My first composition lesson ever, and this is what is being presented. He gave me ten pages of repertory to learn, and it was all post-1945. I methodically spent time going through Babbitt, and late Stravinsky, and Carter, and Rochberg, Dallapiccola -all composers who helped define the postwar landscape. Certainly the emphasis was on the European modernist school, rather than Barber, or Ned Rorem, or other very capable composers. It became the soundtrack to my life at Eastman, and it was a real challenge to try to come to grips with this. My first piece was something like Prokofiev, a woodwind trio, a march, with tonal qualities to it, but more dissonant and chromatic than anything I had done at that point. I thought I was at the edge there, given what I had done before. It was clear to me that Schwanter was eager for me to move on to other things. I remember spinning my wheels on a chamber ensemble work — everyone was playing key clicks and breath sounds — and he wasn’t excited about that either.ano at ten I just co

A friend of mine, another composer, played Le Marteau sans Maitre for me, which totally knocked me out. It was the first modern piece where I was just utterly captivated by the sheer beauty of the music. The vocal writing was a little tough — but the instrumental writing was just absolutely gorgeous. There was a sensuous beauty that I found exquisite, and exciting, with a rhythmic vitality and energy. It spoke to me in an immediate way, without having to understand anything about the constructive procedures involved. It just hit me.

My response was to compose a piece scored for flute, cello, xylophone, vibraphone and piano. There’s an overlap with the Marteau ensemble, but differences as well. I had rhythmic scaffolding or patterns that I would work with, a way of being able to find notes that would give me sonorities that I wanted to use, allowing me work in a methodical way in exploring uncharted territory for me as an artist. Most importantly the piece sounded great, and achieved everything that I had hoped it would, the colors I was going for, the textures I imagined — it all spoke right away at the first rehearsal. The piece was extremely difficult to play, but people seemed to get it, that there was a colorful world here, that all these disjointed and complex rhythms would make sense in that context. The experience of hearing this piece played very well by a group of freshman musicians at Eastman began to give me the confidence that I could navigate this world of contemporary music, that here was a way that I could speak authoritatively as a composer, with real accomplishment, a definite artistic point of view, that helped me gained a foothold. This was the next formative experience, where I got a glimpse of what my artistic identity as a composer could be, something that I could build on.

TM: In American contemporary music it seems now that everything is possible — you don’t have to write serial music, it’s not like the Soviet Union where you had to write socially useful music, there’s no impetus to write nationalist music. How did you find a voice that appealed to you as a composer in the late seventies and early eighties?

SL: The idea of a voice for me is a little tricky, because I always bristled at the idea of having just one voice. I had so many different kinds of musical interests — I didn’t feel that I had to find a way to reconcile jazz with Boulez. Why? Jazz was fine on its own. At the same time I was excited about trying to find a way to work speculatively with music. To be fascinated by music, to be absorbed by a composition was something I valued as much as being moved by a composition, and I continue to feel that way. Both of those experiences are hugely important to me, and they lead to different kinds of voices.

People might listen to my music and say “yes, it’s all cut from the same cloth”, but I wanted to feel like I could go off in any direction I pleased, regardless of the track record I had, or what my interests were supposed to be based on earlier works. At Eastman at the time there wasn’t an orthodox “Eastman sound”, so it left room for different kinds of voices to emerge. The piece I mentioned — I was an eighteen-year-old, studying with Joe Schwantner, at the time a hard-core modernist. I thought “yeah, I want to try my hand at that”. When I started working with Sam Adler, who has much more of a neo-classical training, my interests would change as well. Imagine trying to reconcile Walter Piston with Morton Feldman. These were interesting problems. When Rothko Chapel came out, it was one of the most beautiful pieces I had ever heard. I traveled to Buffalo to hear the Steve Reich Ensemble play Drumming at the Albright-Knox Museum, with fifteen people in the audience. A total revelation — where did this music come from? It was music from another planet as far as I was concerned. These were powerful aural images in my mind, in addition to the things I was studying in my coursework at Eastman.

I tried to find a way to cultivate a speculative world, exploring novel musical territory, imaginative territory, and reconcile that with ways that musicians could play something they would enjoy playing, that would sound well in a more-or-less self-evident way — that was a preoccupation that began to emerge then.

Having a single voice is still a problem for me. I like to feel that a composer can speak many languages, that that is a viable way of being an artist today.

TM: From Eastman you went on graduate study. Who did you work with? What was the esthetic? How does the dynamic of speculative vs. social continue to play out?

SL: I almost didn’t go to graduate school. Right before I left Eastman I was working at a planetarium in Rochester. They had a job for a composer/sound engineer. They produced their own shows, and had a little studio with a mini-Moog, a Rhodes, a Farfisa, a big sound effects library. I wrote music for their shows. They would hire someone like Leonard Nimoy to read a narration. I wrote kids’ shows, and the script would say “25 seconds. Do a supernova”, and I would write music that would do that. They would synch the visuals to my music, which was great! I had taken film music composition classes at Eastman, so I had been thinking about going into the commercial industry as a way to make a living as a composer.

I wound up being accepted at Yale, and what made me go there was a summer at the Norfolk Contemporary Music Seminar, where Jacob Druckman, who was teaching at Yale at the time, brought together Joe Schwantner, Morton Feldman, George Crumb, Seymour Shifrin. I thought that anybody who can get along with all these people must be a remarkable man, and that this must be a remarkable program. Again, it was important that there wasn’t going to be a single institutional style.

It was very exciting. The other students that I met from Yale had incredible chops, real professionalism and sophistication, musically and imaginatively, that I didn’t see at Eastman.

After a year at Yale, I planned to take a leave of absence and try my hand at film music, but ultimately I stuck around. There I worked with Earle Brown, Bernard Rands, Roger Reynolds, and Jacob Druckman, who was the only Yale faculty member I studied with. Yale had a policy that you studied with as many teachers as you possibly could — you did not have an apprenticeship. This was an opportunity for a composer to be exposed to widely differing artistic points of view, and you had to figure out how to navigate that yourself.

That was a challenge, but an exciting one, and one that was valuable for me. In the end I had to figure how I would make my way as a composer, and what kind of music I was going to write. On the one hand, it was like being in a pinball machine, bouncing from one composer to the next, but they were all extremely provocative, with strong points of view, and not always in agreement with each other. It reinforced the idea that you had to find your own voice.

My classmates at Yale were David Lang, Aaron Kernis, Michael Daugherty, Michael Gordon. Having classmates as ridiculously talented as these people were was intensely stimulating. You learn as much from interaction with other students as you do from your weekly lessons. There is more continuity there, since these are the people that you see every day, as opposed to the seminar teacher who comes in one day a week from New York.

TM: You have a work on a Bang on a Can Live CD [Bang on a Can Live, vol. 1, issued on CRI in 1992]. The press buzz that Bang on a Can produced (at least for me, living outside New York) was that it managed to combine the transgressive excitement of rock with classical contemporary music. Tell me about this esthetic.

SL: As you said, the publicity for Bang on a Can was “these are people who grew up listening to rock and roll, and why shouldn’t that be a part of music...”

That formula has always driven me crazy. It may have been true, and was true for the members, but I don’t know that that was the musical objective. At least early on, the idea was musical radicalism — why shouldn’t musical radicals co-exist, why should boundaries defined by institutional affiliations or stylistic interests separate radical, imaginative musical thinking. So really the idea was not so much fusing contemporary music with popular music or rock, but having a concert where a piece by Babbitt could be followed by a piece by Steve Reich, which is exactly what they did in that first festival. They were determined to get Babbitt and Steve Reich in the room at the same time, and even get a picture of them next to each other, with their pieces programmed back-to-back. Or Cage, who was also in attendance at that concert. Bang on a Can sought out the most daring and accomplished composers regardless of their aesthetic differences.

That was the idea of Bang on a Can, and in that context, Babbitt sounds incredible. You don’t listen to it with the rhetoric of Perspectives of New Music in mind. Philomel is a stunning piece, all the more so when it is followed by Four Organs, another stunning piece. Why do you have to separate these things? Putting the music in this context underscores the courage and individuality of these composers, rather than hearing them in a context where they are the most accomplished practitioners of a particular school of composition. Why can’t we hear all of this at once? Why do we have to go one place to hear Babbitt, another place to hear Reich, and yet another to hear Cage? That was what was exciting about Bang on a Can, at least for me.

One thing that Bang on a Can became known for, and which I didn’t know I was doing at the time, was the idea of a post-minimalism, perhaps informed by more chromatic harmony, more complex rhythms than the pulse-oriented music of Reich. Louis Andriessen was the huge figure for the Bang on a Can composers &– he was a composer who could combine European modernism with the visceral energy of minimalism, somebody who brought these seemingly disparate worlds together in compelling music.

That’s how I understood the spirit of that festival, and was very excited about that myself. The piece that’s on that recording, Relations to Rigor (a terrible title, but what can I do...) has a long history, in that it started off as an impossible-to-play piece for youth orchestra, and then morphed into a piece for fifteen instruments that the Yale contemporary ensemble attempted to play, but could not. I was so discouraged that when a friend invited me to work at the electronic studios at CalArts, over winter break, I made a MIDI version of the chamber work. Of course, everything in the music was now in place, but it was completely drained of any life-blood, and I thought “how am I going to rescue this piece?” I composed new music for a Pierrot ensemble to play along with the MIDI transcription, and that was the version that finally worked, and got a lot of performances. It travels very easily, and even though there are only six instruments on stage it sounds like there is a whole army playing. At the time, it allowed me to explore instrumental virtuosity enhanced by an electronic world that I was trying to come to grips with as well.

In 1992, Bang on a Can curated a concert at the Holland Festival, and programmed Relations to Rigor with the Netherlands Wind Ensemble. The Wind Ensemble called me and said “this piece only has two wind instruments. Do you have anything with more winds?” I said “I have a version for fifteen instruments....”. I recall that David, Michael and Julia were not happy about that, since they had heard the original piece, and thought it had problems. But the Wind Ensemble nailed it. They played it beautifully, the way it was supposed to go. Everything that I had been trying to do in that piece was in fact in there. I liked it better in some ways than the piece for sextet and tape. I thought “Gosh, if I had heard this performance first I would never have gone to the trouble of rewriting it for MIDI.” But beginning to explore that medium turned out to be fruitful in other ways. It’s interesting how contingencies of performance can have a dramatic effect on my work as a composer.

The pieces from that period have various kinds of number games going on, especially with regard to rhythm. That piece on the Bang on a Can CD is entirely based on phone numbers of friends in New York at the time — the idea of the arbitrariness of the numbers was appealing to me. How can I make these make sense? How can I make a musical statement that has direction and form even though the numbers have no inherent meaning in themselves? I still find it exciting to work this way, although in those days I was determined that every note in the piece would have a reason for being there. I was always more flexible with pitch, but I was very interested in structuring the rhythmic life of a piece. That kind of thinking brought me to the post-minimalist school, or my version of it.

TM: You have a solo CD [Human Gestures] on CRI with a number of different media. Let’s start with Light from 1993, recorded by D’Anna Fortunato, a Boston mezzo, with Dinosaur Annex, a Boston ensemble. What were the circumstances of the commission? Did you choose the subject and the text?

As a listener what struck me was the “Messiaenic” quality of both the instrumentation and the musical style.

SL: Light was composed for a festival in the Midwest — friends of mine from Yale who were living in Minneapolis organzied a festival of contemporary music, and had engaged the Milwaukee-based ensemble Present Music to play new pieces. That dictated the instrumentation. The first version was for countertenor, and the text was by William James. The piece had spoken passages. The text was from James’ late writings, a gloss on Henri Bergson found in “A Pluralistic Universe”. It is an ecstatic vision of life that I found beautiful and moving, life as a process in which you are inventing yourself from moment to moment. Creativity happens by throwing yourself into a situation and adapting to it.

I tried to set the text to music, and some of it worked beautifully, but the spoken parts did not. Present Music wanted to do the piece again, and I decided to rewrite it with. As much as I loved the William James text, it was just too cumbersome to sing. In reading Hildegard, the text has a circular quality which creates an ecstatic spiral, which comes to a focal point of a vision of Christ. I was able to rewrite the vocal part to accommodate the new text.

Dinosaur Annex performed it a few times, and then recorded it. One can hear Messiaen in this piece — I have always gravitated to the colorful harmonic texture in his music. It may also go back to my admiration of Boulez.

TM: You remark in the notes for Human Gestures, if I can paraphrase, that the string quartet is a fraught medium in terms of its historical antecedents. In listening to your String Quartet for the Ciompi Quartet from 1997, I hear aspects of computer music, of minimalism, and of French music. Where did you come from in creating a voice for this piece?

SL: You have singled out all of the things that I was interested in. The piece is in two movements — a short introductory movement followed by an eleven-minute main movement, which is what I composed first. It took me a long time to find my bearings in the medium of the string quartet. The repetitive and textural aspects were very important to me in that piece, but at the same time I wanted it not to have the “aloofness” of minimalist music, but to have the expressive richness that a string quartet can do so beautifully. I wanted to find a way to use a limited gestural language, with repetition, but to bring a richness of sonority and shape to the phrases, an ebb and flow to the music that is idiomatic for the string quartet. I was also concerned with pacing over a long period of time — starting calmly and serenely, gradually beginning to simmer, and then heat up to a rolling boil. I wanted to bring together minimalism with a more romantic concept of having music unfold gradually, and taking its time in doing so, accumulating intensity and expressive urgency over time.

At the same time, after pieces like Relations to Rigor, which is speculative in a formal sense with its number games — I thought “another kind of speculation is engaging with history”. How can a composer engage with earlier models? I think this String Quartet welcomes influences from tonal music, and other string quartet writing. These influences co-exist with the post-minimal world that I was exploring.

The first movement was an after-thought. It was a sketch that I was trying to use in the main movement, but couldn’t find a home for. After working many months on the second movement, the first was written in about two weeks. After “proving myself” in the main movement, I could then write melody and accompaniment — nothing more.. It was such a pleasure to feel that I was connecting with something that I did not understand as coming from within me, that I constructed in a conscious way. The piece just led me along. I followed it, and wrote it down. It sounds starry-eyed, but that is what it was. For a composer those are wonderful moments, when everything is flowing, and comes out right the first time, or if not, you know how to fix it. That feeling is something that I hope I can recapture in everything I write.

TM: In conversing with composers, I can see that there can be a myriad of approaches to composition, but that one is what one might call architectural, where you know what the overall shape will be, where the arches are, and then you fill in the details, and another is a “novelistic” approach. Writers are notorious for creating characters which then take control of how the architecture of the book will work out, so that the writer doesn’t know the shape of the work until the characters tell him.

SL: I am very much more of the second school, or perhaps there is a third one. I am a “bottom-up” composer — I can’t really work in a top-down way, where I set up the whole architecture of the piece. I did do that once or twice — it was interesting, a little tedious too...I felt like I was dutifully filling in the blanks. I am much happier when I am discovering musical ideas, and trying to figure out what they want to do, and just letting them spin out over time, finding a way that they will somehow fit together — you always do find a way. That’s much closer to my temperament. Even the second movement works that way. These days, when I begin a piece, it’s not necessarily at the beginning of the piece — it’s something that may be used, but I have to figure out if it’s the opening or not.

My music usually isn’t long enough to be novelistic, but certainly the idea of being bottom up, and responding to the details and having them assemble themselves into some kind of form is closer to the way I work.

TM: Biological, you might say.

Somehow the duo for two like instruments seems to be a nineteenth or even eighteenth-century medium, not something that has been especially cultivated by contemporary composers, though there is a wonderful duo by Birtwistle for two flutes. It seems too connected to the world of amateur music-making, I suppose. How did you come to produce this Duo for Violins [also on Human Gestures]? It’s almost too small a medium for a chamber music concert.

SL: It started off as a piece for violin and piano, and the piano writing was always so similar to what the violin was doing that I thought, really, this is a piece for two violins. There are minimalist influences, with hocketing, closely-alternating triple stops, with enormous sonorities from two instruments...the idea was to create the idea that it was a much larger ensemble than two violins.

This was 1990, the first piece that I finished after I arrived at Duke, the first piece where I engaged with history in a way that took me by surprise. You mentioned the eighteenth century — Corelli, Vivaldi, this tradition of mechanistic violin writing, incredible virtuosity — the figuration in that music was very much on my mind, as well as Janacek, a composer I adore. His string quartets, especially the first, the Kreutzer Sonata, with its frantic, impassioned string figuration with lots of repetition, and nervous energy, whether ecstatic, or violent... I found this enormously appealing.

I wanted to use triadic sonorities because they would ring well on the instruments. As I worked on it, I realized that I was drawing on historical models in a way that I never thought I could do, or would do.

I regard this piece as a real breakthrough, in terms of musical ambition, expressive ambition, getting things down on paper that I had never really managed to before.

TM: You talked earlier about the social function of music. Music in the United States has all these tribes, and one tribe, which doesn’t speak to many of the other tribes, is band music. Another tribe is church music. You have people who are church music composers and don’t write anything else. You have very successful band composers, who don’t write anything else.

Spin City, which has been recorded a number of times, is a piece for wind ensemble that doesn’t sound “bandy” — it’s not drawing on fixed ideas of what bands can or can’t do. It’s a piece of contemporary music that is written for band.

SL: You are right about these tribes, though it is changing a little bit. There are original new band pieces by Chen Yi, Michael Torke, John Corigliano. Band directors are excited about this.

I had been away from band music so long that I was coming to it with a different perspective. The work was a commission for the University of Michigan — from Bob Reynolds, his last commission as music director of the symphonic band at Michigan. The original idea was very different, with several tempi going on simultaneously, though all notated in a single tempo. There was a long, meticulously noted accelerando throughout the piece, even though the pulse stays the same....

I was really interested in all this, but at some point I thought “this is going to be hell to play”, so I set it aside. I sat down at the piano, and came up with the opening figure for Spin Cycle, and off I went.

It’s very difficult, but in a different way — everything does line up, people can anticipate where the difficulties are going to come, they can play their passage and have a moment to recover before they do something else. It was a great deal of fun to compose &– it has number games, but used locally, rather than globally, as well as my other musical fingerprints. There are some nods to band music [plays a bit at the piano]… I would never have done something like that in my string quartet. When I played the MIDI version for Michael Haithcock, who conducted the premiere, he just started laughing at that point...but when a band plays it, it sounds totally plausible.

A lot of music is ruined by good taste. A composer winds up holding himself back and not going all the way, to be genuinely daring. Music can absorb almost anything. I realized “this is the sound of bands. It is going to sound fine....” It flows right by, and you don’t think “what a cliché!”

You can’t find people who are more eager to play contemporary music, not only the conductors, but the instrumentalists themselves. They really get excited about playing new pieces, they really want to serve the composer well. It’s exhilarating to be working with people like that, who will put that time and care and energy into your work.

TM: Let’s talk about your recent and forthcoming works.

SL: Over the last seven to eight years I have been concerned to seek out collaborative projects, perhaps out of some frustration in my concert music, but also to understand about how music comes to mean something to people. When you are working with a dancer, or a visual artist, or a theater director, they are keenly aware of how music indexes meanings, and creates meanings. These things were on my mind. I have always avoided the feeling that music had to have a particular meaning. I was perfectly happy with the world of absolute music, that the meaning could be left up to the listener.

My collaborative projects were an attempt to test those assumptions by working with artists in other genres. I did a choreographic work with Clay Taliaferro, who recently retired from Duke; I wrote incidental music for Mao II, an adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel by Jody McAuliffe in Theater Studies, which features a continuous soundscape; and out of that came a collaboration with Bill Noland for video and music, that developed excerpts from Mao II into a separate video piece; most recently working with Anya Belkina, a visual artist who is now at Emerson College, but who taught graphic design, painting and computer animation here at Duke. This was a 45-minute work in several movements that began with a setting of Rumi, a long poem called Nasuh, which I set for soprano and string quartet, but with new movements added for the ensemble Zeitgeist in Minneapolis, with live electronics, which I played. Taking Rumi as a theme, I transcribed Koranic recitations, and used that as musical material. The idea of bringing in something external to my normal musical concerns and using that as a point of departure was very different, and very exciting. Trying to bring that music to the ensemble was extremely invigorating, and I think that is something that I will continue to explore. -

I am working on a trio, a small piece for flute, viola and guitar. I will have another piece for Dinosaur Annex in a year or so, and hopefully another large ensemble work coming down the pike. Those are the things that I have cued up for the future.

image= image_description=Scott Lindroth product=yes product_title=An interview with Scott Lindroth
Posted by Gary at 4:08 PM

Idomeneo in San Francisco

But Munich was certainly aware of operatic life in the big city, and did its best to compete, doing so by the commission of an opera called Idomeneo to a bright young composer, an ascending star, W.A. Mozart.

Idamante1.pngAlice Coote as Idamante

No one would know then that this little opera with its big aspirations could become a mainstay of current big house repertory, though truth to tell it sits there a little uncomfortably. While it has the big chorus scenes Paris loved, even the sine qua non ballet that opera companies do not even attempt these days, not to mention the scenic spectacular that universally wows, it inevitably also has the Mozart genius that goes well beyond these old opera stories and their splendid vocalism. It is music that heads straight for the heart and the mind. The Marriage of Figaro is just beyond the horizon (five years away) as immediately after Idomeneo Mozart begins exploring the more nuanced world of comedy first with a singspiel and then two small, unfinished buffa’s.

But meanwhile the serious Idomeneo is built on an already dead operatic irony. To save his own life Idomeneo must sacrifice another life, and to save his people he really has to do so, even though Idamante, his son and his victim, has saved the people from the terrible sea monster that Neptune unleashed when Idomeneo was reluctant. Opera seria is big and bold and improbable. Rossini would again make it so only a few years later, but not the Mozart of Idomeneo, a valiant child of the Enlightenment.

This early Mozart indulges the women who love Idamante in delicate and passionate personal expressions of their love. Mozart places his father in quiet, deep torment, and even his son (in Mozart’s Munich the castrato Vicenzo dal Prato) voices real grief in his often above-the-staff, male-soprano showpiece. And these are only the seeds of discovery for the exposition of human souls in his greatest masterpieces, the Da Ponte comedies — these Idomeneo creations soon enough will become his Countess and Elvira, his Count and his tongue-in-cheek castrato, Cherubino.

IdomeneoArbace.pngKurt Streit (Idomeneo) and Alek Shrader (Arbace)

San Francisco is no longer the big city operatically speaking, certainly not the New York of the renewed Met, or even Munich for that matter, and in the case of the current edition of Idomeneo, San Francisco does not even try to compete with big operatic thinkers, as it did in the 1977 when Jean Pierre Ponnelle made the first San Francisco Idomeneo. Instead San Francisco Opera dusted off its twenty year-old John Copley production, cast it with relatively unknown stars-in-the-making, and entrusted it to the broad musicality of its music director, Donald Runnicles.

The Copley production does indeed provide a comfortable background for this minor Mozart masterpiece. Its settings designed by John Conklin delicately reference antiquity, its costumes coolly incorporate tunics and togas for its choruses with rich, courtly seventeenth century dress for its protagonists. Mr. Copley makes his actors’ movements flow with the music in naturalistic ways, motions that are continuously choreographed, that echo the naturalness of the music rather than illustrate or impose the artificiality of the opera seria genre. Mr. Conklin’s visual images flow in the same fashion, seemingly in continuous movement as the aria follows aria. The entirety of the staging was like a beautiful wallpaper that surrounds voice and music.

Maestro Runnicles brought the entire second act to a timeless, sublime musicality, the departure trio dangling its hopes and fears, the arias melting with emotion. The great third act quartet unfolded grandly, then four graphically magnificent horses rose gracefully from the sea (masking any sort of terrifying sea monster). And the music never faltered. Well, only once — a small moment of real drama when the cue for the deus ex machina was a trifle late and we all had a fleeting moment to laugh at the ridiculousness of such things. This evening in toto was like a perfect recording, we knew the music need never end.

Tenor Kurt Streit provided a fine Idomeneo, his well-produced, clear voice able to encompass the huge range of emotions inherent in this difficult role. The Idamante of mezzo-soprano Alice Coote amply filled the musical, vocal and even histrionic needs of this complex role, a perfect Idamante for this Copley exercise in musical flow. Genia Kühmeier sang beautifully as Ilia, glorious pianissimos flowing into passionate outpourings. Even the smaller scale of the spurned Electra of Iano Tamar seemed perfectly at home in the calm flow of this production. Bass Robert MacNeil was adequate as the High Priest of Neptune, less so the Arbace of Adler fellow Alek Shrader.

Michael Milenski

image= image_description=Kurt Streit as Idomeneo [Photo by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera] product=yes product_title=W. A. Mozart: Idomeneo product_by=Idomeneo: Kurt Streit; Idamante: Alice Coote; Ilia: Genia Kühmeier; Elettra: Iano Tamar; Arbace: Alek Shrader; The High Priest of Neptune: Robert MacNeil; The Voice of the Oracle: Kenneth Kellogg. San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Donald Runnicles. Director: John Copley. product_id=Above: Kurt Streit as Idomeneo

All photos by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera
Posted by Gary at 3:20 PM

Rimsky-Korsakov: the forgotten centenary

Tom Service [The Guardian, 20 October 2008]
It's the forgotten classical music anniversary this year: not Vaughan Williams (50 years since his death in 1958) or Olivier Messiaen (100 years since his birth) - both of whom have been firm fixtures of festivals, orchestras, and even opera houses this year - but Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who died in 1908.
Posted by Gary at 2:40 PM

Alessandro Scarlatti: Il Trionfo della Santissima Vergine Assunta in Cielo

Indeed, among the giants of Baroque music immediately prior to Bach and Handel, Alessandro Scarlatti has long been the most appreciated composer in the academia, although his works were performed less than his successors’. Now the pendulum, largely thanks to Grout himself, has swung so far that even Alessandro Scarlatti’s lovely oratorios are staged both at opera houses and in churches.

Despite the lamentable shutdown, half a decade ago, of the Scarlatti Festival in the composer’s native Palermo, interest in digging up his forgotten vocal works remains strong in Italy. One spearhead in the process is Fabio Biondi and his ensemble Europa Galante, whose 2004 recording of the Oratorio per la Santissima Trinità (Oratorio for the Most Holy Trinity) is a must for Baroque collectors. Another is the Siena-based ensemble Il Rossignolo, which this year chose Il Trionfo della Santissima Vergine Assunta in Cielo (The Triumph of the Most Holy Virgin Received into Heaven) as the centerpiece for the first instalment of “Festival Contemporaneamente Barocco”, a much promising series featuring a variety of events connected to music, drama and cultural heritage at large.

The church of Sant’Agostino, among the innumerable historic landmarks in downtown Siena, enjoys the distinction of an 18th-century interior redesign by Luigi Vanvitelli, the same architect who projected the royal palace at Caserta by Naples, the Italian response to Versailles. Vanvitelli’s grand style provided the proper framework for Scarlatti’s Trionfo, a sacred drama which had no less than five productions between 1703 and 1710, in Rome and elsewhere, each time with a different title and changing contents. Such a success was probably due to the high social standing of its librettist -- none less than cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, a distinguished patron of the arts who counted Scarlatti, Corelli and Handel among his many protégés.

The libretto he wrote for Scarlatti, however, is a rather dreary one. Not much happens other than a clever discussion among the disembodied principals (The Bride and The Bridegroom, Love and Eternity) on Catholic dogma about the Blessed Virgin. A sparse touch of drama is provided by allusions to the then-ongoing War of Spanish Succession and the general yearning for peace.

Martellacci-(Eternita')_Vaj.pngAlto Gabriella Martellacci as Eternity (left) and soprano Silvia Vajente as the Virgin Mary

It took director Alessio Rosati a good deal of imagination to sexy-up the script for the benefit of a contemporary audience, hardly conversant with either theology or early-modern history. Rosati’s flamboyant costumes for Love and Eternity, inspired by the French engraver Nicolas de Largillière, were a major resource. The mesmerizing body language of their characters conveyed by turns hope, thoughtfulness, mourning and pride, up to armed confrontation with overlong swords tainted with blood. It was all on a hyperbolic scale, more godly than human.

In contrast, the Bride and the Bridegroom (both played by women) wore timeless white robes and enacted the tender gestures of any married couple, even as they were symbols of the Almighty and the Virgin Mary. When asked about the rationale for that, Rosati ruled out any allusions to same-sex marriages, maintaining instead that he had in mind such a time-honored theological concept as God’s Motherhood. Fascinating, if a bit esoteric. A swarm of silent buth otherwise extremely active kids (God’s children?) added a touch of innocence; very few antics -- such as a throne, a spring mattress, some floating veils and little else -- rounded up the minimalist staging, which, in the end, was balanced and attuned to the music’s pace.

The score actually contains in its scarce hour-and-a-half duration a real bel canto treasure chest, with many up-tempo major-key arias and an astounding variety of formal devices: siciliano and tarantella rhythms, ostinato bass lines, chromaticism, ubiquitous obbligato string solos and a finely wrought duet for the finale. Not less impressive is the instrumental writing. An unusually rich orchestral palette, including trumpets, oboes and a flute, enhances the concise but compelling introductions to both acts in the abridged form of concerto grosso, as well as a number of martial flourishes (quite predictable for this oratorio in times of war) and brief incidental ritornellos, to end up with several of Scarlatti’s signature showstoppers: arias featuring voice-and-trumpet or voice-and-cello runaways. The mercurial cellist Jean-Marie Quint and gentle Marica Testi at the flute provided moments of virtuoso panache in the many obbligato passages stipulated by Scarlatti for their instruments. Both as a whole and in separate sections, the orchestra bravely accompanied the singers under the joint lead of its founder, virtuoso harpsichordist Ottaviano Tenerani, and of its young first violin Luca Giardini. The latter’s energetic bowing, combined with rapid embellishments and sensitive phrasing, was admirable throughout.

Trionfo-SSma-Vergine-Assunt.pngFinal scene

In the singing company, sopranos Maria Costanza Nocentini as an authoritative Bridegroom and Silvia Vajente as a shy and passionate Bride displayed elaborate coloratura, firm intonation, clarion tones easily piercing the church’s immense space. The rocky female alto Gabriella Martellacci (Eternity) and her male counterpart Francesco Ghelardini (Love) built an equally delectable contrast of vocal personalities: majesty and dignified disdain on her side, sensuous mellowness with a shade of effeminacy on his.

Before it comes to some postmodern arguing about gender bending, it should be noted that the original cast was entirely made up of castrati from the Papal chapel…

Carlo Vitali

image= image_description=Alessandro Scarlatti product=yes product_title=Alessandro Scarlatti: Il Trionfo della Santissima Vergine Assunta in Cielo product_by=A Festival Contemporaneamente Barocco production
Chiesa di Sant’Agostino, Siena, October 11, 2008 product_id=Above: Alessandro Scarlatti
Posted by Gary at 2:34 PM

Partenope — English National Opera, London Coliseum

The costumes and settings are directly inspired by specific examples of art photography from the period, with the programme illustrating a number of iconic photographic works which are clearly recognisable in the production.

Partenope_010.pngJohn Mark Ainsley as Emilio

The opera is set in a devastatingly chic salon (realised by Andrew Lieberman, with costumes by Jon Morrell), all cream walls and curved lines, the home of Rosemary Joshua's glacially glamorous socialite Partenope (done up, as illustrated by a Man Ray photograph in the programme, as Nancy Cunard). It is a place where the idle and moneyed artistic intelligentsia gather for a spot of highbrow theorising over a cocktail or two, and where the great realities of love and war are relegated to the rank of insignificant little playthings. It is not an obvious breeding-ground for sympathetic characters.

Neither, to be fair, is the libretto, cribbed by an anonymous writer for Handel from an original book by Silvio Stampiglia, and here delivered in a coarsely colloquial translation by Amanda Holden. Though the opera is named for Partenope, she is a character to whom one does not easily warm; though her enemy/rejected lover Emilio (John Mark Ainsley) is clearly supposed to be the primo uomo, he is drawn so sketchily, and takes such small part in the opera's core emotional intrigue, that he fades into the background. Alden's production seizes upon this, resolving the issue of what to do with him by giving him more of an observer role. In the context of the production's arty milieu, Emilio is characterised as Man Ray, with the often bizarre situations between the characters being set up and captured by him on film. At the start of the opera, the production exacerbates the problems caused by this detached characterisation; at the first interval I was dreading the prospect of a further two hours of empty posturing and artistic pretension, with any inconsistencies in the dramatic development being explained away with the blanket excuse that it's all in the cause of surrealism.

Fortunately, there are also characters we really care about, and it is they who sustain the story long enough for the development of dramatic interest and a bit more emotional realism in the second and third acts. First there's Arsace (Christine Rice), the spoilt cad who has won Partenope's heart, having conveniently forgotten to mention the lover whom he abandoned and still hankers after. Then there's Rosmira (Patricia Bardon), the abandoned lover in question, who (despite having been instantly recognised by Arsace) has disguised herself as a warrior by the name of Eurimene and followed him to a foreign land in search of both reconciliation and retribution. She is, by some margin, the most complex and sympathetic of the protagonists, and her central obsession with the feckless and unworthy Arsace is the source of some of the opera's most rewarding music. Finally there's Armindo, the diffident bumbling youth who is Partenope's best prospect for genuine happiness but who doesn't have the guts to say so.

As John Mark Ainsley's role contained some thanklessly unmemorable music, and Rosemary Joshua's coloratura and intonation were wayward at times, the three subsidiary characters also supplied the best value in terms of musical satisfaction. Rice's all-guns-blazing revenge aria at the close of Act 2 was delivered with pinpoint accuracy and a gutsy warmth of tone, and her puppyish arrogance was thoroughly convincing. What the score lacks in grand Handelian tragic arias, it attempts to compensate with some shorter episodes of heartfelt and honest music for Rosmira and occasionally as well as for Arsace; their third-act duet is one of the musical high points. Bardon suffered a glitch of some sort at the start of her Act 1 aria, but otherwise gave a well-rounded and musically sensitive performance. And it was fitting that Iestyn Davies gave the best and most memorable (if not the flashiest) vocal performance of the evening; it is his clarity, assurance and straightforwardness which at last succeed in winning Partenope.

Partenope_005.pngFull company

It was a decent ensemble cast, in a score which contains more multiple-voice numbers than are normally found in Handel, and all was held tautly together in the pit by ENO débutant Christian Curnyn, more usually found at the artistic helm of the Early Opera Company.

As hit-and-miss as the production concept is, it underlines the inexplicable and bizarre ways in which seemingly poised and sophisticated people are driven to act in the pursuit of love.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

image= image_description=Rosemary Joshua as Partenope [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of English National Opera] product=yes product_title=G. F. Handel: Partenope product_by=Partenope (Rosemary Joshua); Rosmira (Patricia Bardon); Arsace (Christine Rice); Armindo (lestyn Davies); Emilio (John Mark Ainsley); Ormonte (James Gower). English National Opera. Conductor: Christian Curnyn; Director: Christopher Alden. product_id=Above: Rosemary Joshua as Partenope

All photos by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of English National Opera
Posted by Gary at 2:06 PM

La Traviata at the Washington National Opera

The score, with its Mozartean transparency, magnifies any musicianship misstep – a single wrong note! – tenfold. Its blend of vocal virtuosity and realistic, if maudlin, plot leaves few creative options to the director (if there are any “modern” traviatas, I’ve never met them…), and demands that the principals merge traditionally “operatic” vocalization with heavily Stanislavskian acting, so often detrimental to sound production. Yet Verdi’s 1853 war horse is a perennial favorite with audiences: the fast-paced, and despite its familiarity and our modern cynicism still heart-breaking melodrama is, above all, eminently watchable. This arresting quality of La traviata may often insulate its troupe, assuring success despite the inevitable mistakes that creep into any live performance, and even larger issues of miscasting and under-rehearsing. Sooner or later, Verdi’s vivid characters take over the most jaded critic, forcing her to set aside her quill. But the assurance of success breeds complacency: all too often, opera companies are happy to rest on Verdi’s laurels, forgetting how difficult to crack this old chestnut of his really is. When I finally caught up with the Washington National Opera’s La traviata (co-produced with the Los Angeles Opera) on October 2nd, that amnesia – whether inherent in the production or brought on by the end-of-the-run fatigue, I cannot say – was painfully in evidence.

Traviata_9_08_85.pngArturo Chacón -Cruz (foreground) as Alfredo and Lado Ataneli (background) as Giorgio Germont. Washington National Opera (2008). Photo: Karin Cooper.

Elizabeth Futral as Violetta has clearly learned her arias; the set pieces were technically proficient, sounded well, and deserved their applause. But in the faster-paced declamatory scenes the singer seemed distracted by the demands of the acting and had significant projection troubles. On occasion, Ms Futral appeared to be making a visible, physical effort to push the sound out, which, ironically, made her look like a consumptive patient struggling for breath. Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Alfredo had no problem being heard: he was consistently and almost annoyingly loud; to me, much more nuance was called for, but the audience loved it. The singer, however, seemed mostly in love with himself. He appeared to be having great difficulty tearing himself away from the proscenium long enough to acknowledge the love of his life stationed behind him, or any other characters with whom he was supposedly interacting. As a result, Chacón-Cruz came across as an old-fashioned “tenor” – thankfully, a dying breed among young singers these days.

Clearly, both leads had issues with staying in control of either the vocal or dramatic aspects of their roles. Conductor Dan Ettinger, for his part, was in full control and delighted in exercising it, for instance, by holding each fermata in the score for twice its usual duration. Yet his tempi were often questionable – either too slow, creating additional obstacles for the singers already struggling with projection, or too fast, as in the opening scene, in which both the chorus and the orchestra had tremendous trouble keeping up. The chorus recovered by its second appearance in Act 2 Scene 2; the orchestra, however, did not. Indeed, throughout the performance it exhibited deficiencies in pitch, rhythm, sound quality, and balance inexcusable in a professional ensemble, with the horns particularly problematic.

Traviata_9_08_1#7E05.pngElizabeth Futral as Violetta. Washington National Opera (2008). Photo: Karin Cooper.

The most successful aspect of the performance I witnessed was the production itself. Marta Domingo offered traditional but mostly unobjectionable staging, with the single puzzling exception of what was presumably the Spirit of Death lifting and twirling Violetta around the stage during the Act 3 carnival chorus. Giovanni Agostinucci’s sets and costumes were spectacular, particularly Flora’s gorgeously crimson multi-level bordello, the sight of which made the audience break into spontaneous applause. Neither the designs nor the direction were created for WNO, however: they have been seen in LA, and are featured on the 2007 Decca DVD recording of the opera with Renée Fleming and Rolando Villazón. The exception is an updated version of the not-so-little black dress that Violetta wears to Flora’s bordello party – and it is stunning! Ms Fleming clearly got cheated in the wardrobe department. As for the rest of the production, which closed on October 5th, the fact that my readers will not be able to see it for themselves may be a blessing: for the glorious visuals and the equally glorious sound, I do recommend the DVD.

Olga Haldey

image= image_description=Arturo Chacón -Cruz as Alfredo, Elizabeth Futral as Violetta. Washington National Opera (2008). Photo: Karin Cooper. product=yes product_title=G. Verdi: La Traviata product_by=Violetta Valéry (Elizabeth Futral), Alfredo Germont (Arturo Chacón-Cruz), Flora Bervoix (Margaret Thompson), Giorgio Germont (Lado Ataneli), Annina (Micaela Oeste), Gastone (Yingxi Zhang), Baron Douphol (Nathan Herfindahl), Marchese D'Obigny (Grigory Soloviov), Doctor Grenvil (Oleksandr Pushniak), Solo Dancer (Eric Rivera). Washington National Opera. Conductor: Dan Ettinger. Director: Marta Domingo. product_id=Above: Arturo Chacón -Cruz as Alfredo, Elizabeth Futral as Violetta. Washington National Opera (2008). Photo: Karin Cooper.
Posted by Gary at 1:30 PM

A complicated beast

Nicholas Wroe [The Guardian, 18 October 2008]

The published version of Ian McEwan's libretto for Michael Berkeley's opera For You became a collector's item even before its launch in June. There is a signed limited edition hardback, but the standard paperback contains the same bibliographic oddity: on the first page, it proudly announces that the opera received its first performance on "31 May 2008 at Theatr Brycheiniog". It didn't. The opera will be premiered at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio later this month, having been postponed just a few days before the planned premiere in Brecon, an event that should have been one of the highlights of this year's Hay festival.

Posted by Gary at 1:06 PM

Salome at the MET

To the evangelists, Matthew and Mark, she was not a personality at all; they do not even give her a name – she’s just the daughter of wicked Herodias, a child with no character, will or desires of her own, or a figure (as they tell it) in anyone else’s desires. Herodias, Princess of Judaea – as always before Wilde – was the villain of the piece, and she’s angry that a hermit from the desert has dared to criticize her marital rearrangements.

SALOME_Komlosi_as_Herodias_.pngIldikó Komlósi as Herodias in Richard Strauss's "Salome." Photo: Marty Sohl courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

Oscar Wilde did not get his plot from the Bible – he got it from Flaubert’s Orientalist novella, Herodiade (also the basis for a ghastly Hollywood movie starring Rita Hayworth and Judith Anderson), into which he tossed the wild (sic) card of his sympathy for innocents corrupted when they acknowledge the sex urge. This neurotic and personal vision – which had not yet worked itself up into tragedy in his own life, as it soon would – is the Salome he wished to behold on stage: himself as naïve young thing. Salome is aware of her power and her beauty but innocent of desire. The sight of the incongruous Baptist, so unlike the elegant decadence of her native milieu, so much cleaner in his filth, and so ready to taunt the mother she hates frees Wilde’s Salome to understand her own body – and to desire another’s. The story then could go either way: she could renounce sensuality to follow the saint (as she does in Massenet’s Herodiade) or yield to it and destroy him – and thus her own guilt-wracked self. That is what Wilde presented in his scandalous play – written en Français for Sarah Bernhardt, who never risked playing it – the piece could not be given in England at all, as Bible stories were forbidden on the stage at that time. (Saint-Saens’s Samson et Dalila was given in London as an oratorio. Herodiade did not appear at all. Strauss’s Salome was long banned in England, as it was at the Met.)

SALOME_Begley_as_Herod_1600.pngKim Begley as Herod in Richard Strauss's "Salome." Photo: Marty Sohl courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

This sexless, unaware child not the Salome we usually get in the opera house. Strauss may or may not have approved of the lost-little-girl hypothesis, but he wrote her music for Wagnerian pipes, and few indeed are the singers who can hurl it over a hundred-instrument orchestra while impersonating a prepubescent. Too, Salome is nowadays (unlike in Strauss’s day) expected to do her own dancing without a ballerina body double, and childish restraint is seldom a feature of these solos. (Teresa Stratas, who sings, acts and dances a credible nymphet in my favorite film of the opera, would never have risked so heavy a role in a theater.) We go to Salome expecting to suspend disbelief about a great deal more than a papier-mâché head.

SALOME_Uusitalo_as_Jochanaa.pngJuha Uusitalo as Jochanaan in Richard Strauss's "Salome." Photo: Marty Sohl courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

When Mattila first sang the part at the Met in 2004, her performance was stunning but dangerous: the gorgeous silvery sheen that we have loved in her Jenufa, Katya, Lisa, Elsa, Eva, Chrysothemis, Elisabetta was in trouble, pushing her close to the edge of control. She did not sing the part again after that run, anywhere, until this season, and she has rethought her approach. You can sing Salome on the high part of your voice or on the low, and she has – wisely, in my opinion; but this is a singer who has always known exactly what she was doing – reconsidered. There was the safety of her instrument for one thing (now that she is crowding fifty); too, there is the HDTV audience to consider, the closeup factor far from incidental to any singing actress as perfectionist as Mattila: these performances will be broadcast around the world this Saturday, will live on on television and tape.

Now she sings the music low. The notes are the same, but they are formed, I think (I do not have vocal training) in a different part of her diaphragm, and they sound different, heavier, deeper. The light, silvery glamour of the voice that sang Jenufa is represented here only in her idle musings on the moon (“she is like a virgin … I’m sure she is chaste”), when, drunk on too much wine in this production, she lets her head fall back and gazes ecstatically skywards. (There is no visible moon – we are to imagine that the terrace faces west, and the moon is setting across the fourth wall. At the opera’s end, the sky turns pale behind the singers, and clearly the sun is about to rise there – the new era Jochanaan has been talking about.) The silver returns again, a touch of sarcasm (broadly hinted by Strauss), when she tells Herod what she wants as a prize for dancing.

There are many grunts and grumbles in the way Mattila puts out Salome’s consciously outrageous teasing of Narraboth, Jochanaan and Herod – and they are all conscious choices of the singer. She is playing a spoiled teenage brat, who finds the formal manners of grownups boring. Her great monologues, too – the attempt to seduce Jochanaan, the final song to the head – are lower, meatier, darker; their sinister imagery more ominous when sung from this angle. In 2004, she sang Salome as an aspirant diva; in 2008, she’s a brat.

Her acting, too, had acquired detail: she portrays a girl who has been tasting champagne for the first time and had far too much of it, and at the first performance (but not the second I attended, so I imagine it was impromptu), when the amorous Syrian she has driven to suicide (an impressive Joseph Keiser) fell on the path in her way, she hopped over him as if he were some embarrassing accident. Too, at the conclusion of the opera, where Wilde (and Strauss) called for her to be unaware, crushed by the shields of Herod’s soldiers, and the Flimm staging instead has the executioner approach her, machete drawn, Mattila jumps up, pulling open her robe, as if conscious of defilement and eager to have it flayed out of her. The new, lower-focused voice risks less on the soaring Straussian curves, but it’s very beautiful and fills the house with ease and assurance. The dance, on the other hand, I continue to find over the top, and the loose seat of men’s trousers do not suit her voluptuous, utterly female body. But this is a Salome to remember, to hold as a standard for others, as Lubitsch and Nilsson were so long the standard for all Salomes.

SALOME_Mattila_Uusitalo_132.png(Left to Right) Juha Uusitalo as Jochanaan, Karita Mattila as Salome, and Keith Miller as the First Soldier in Richard Strauss's "Salome." Photo: Marty Sohl courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

She is surrounded by an exceptional supporting cast. Ildikó Komlósi reminds us that Salome’s role as belle of the royal feasts is new, that mama has been holding this corner for quite some time – and like many a queen bee, she is torn between pride and jealousy of her newly aware, nearly grownup daughter. Komlósi is more society hostess and, later, droopy drunk, than the sinister monstrosity of so many productions, and she sings with a juicy, full-throated mezzo that should have a grand time with Ortrud and the Amme. Juha Uusitalo, though a bit stout for a man on a diet of locusts, sings Jochanaan’s sermons with brute intensity and correctly refuses to glance in Salome’s direction. Kim Begley makes a suave, corpulently lecherous Herod – in his willingness to play the fool for a good time, he reminded me of Nikita Khrushchev. Morris Robinson sang an impressive Nazarene, and the many small but notoriously difficult small roles were well handled. Patrick Summers has a wicked way of conducting Strauss, insinuating, hissing snakes rather than roaring lions, and the orchestra played like a dream for him – the many subtle cues for the entrance of this or that character timed to perfection, so that the motif seemed to rise like moondust from each actor’s feet.

Jürgen Flimm, whose Fidelio was at once ugly and irrelevant, though not when Mattila was on stage in it, sets Salome in something like a modern Emirates resort hotel on the desert’s edge – the gowns, aside from Salome’s shimmering silver, seem to be Vegas outrageous; while the soldiers are in Arab headgear and fatigue kilts. Flimm brings on huge winged angels of death (isn’t there just one?) to sit on the dunes silently whenever fatality is imminent, and Jochanaan is awkwardly raised and lowered on a makeshift elevator. What five Orthodox Jews in earlocks are doing at such a party, and why the Nazarenes, who are not invited guests at all (would they come?), are strolling about the desert is unclear – no doubt Flimm wishes he could discard them altogether in favor of the silent females in cocktail dresses who were not in Flaubert, Wilde or Strauss. Like so many modern directors, Flimm gets a few clever ideas and then runs out of them with half his opera unaccounted for. He may charm Madame Mattila (and I willingly kowtow to her desires, however – in Flimm’s case – perverse), but he doesn’t appeal to me, and I doubt his staging or Doug Varone’s choreography of the Dance will serve other sopranos half so well.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Karita Mattila in the title role of Richard Strauss's "Salome." Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera product=yes product_title=Richard Strauss: Salome product_by=Salome: Karita Mattila; Herodias: Ildikó Komlósi; Herod: Kim Begley; Jochanaan: Juha Uusitalo; Page: Lucy Schaufer; Nazarene: Morris Robinson. Conducted by Patrick Summers. Production by Jürgen Flimm. Metropolitan Opera. product_id=Above: Karita Mattila in the title role of Richard Strauss's "Salome." Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 12:58 PM

La Gioconda at the MET

You recall the plot of La Gioconda, I’m sure: Barnaba (hateful spy of the Ten) lusts for Gioconda (street singer), who loves Enzo (prince in exile), who carries a torch – literally, in Act II – for Laura, unhappily married to Duke Alvise, capo of the Ten, secret dictators of Venice. Barnaba persuades an incendiary mob that Gioconda’s mother, La Cieca (the blind woman), is a witch, but she is saved by a mysterious masked lady (Laura, of course), who has noticed La Cieca muttering to her rosary. In gratitude, La Cieca gives her the beads. Therefore (in Act II), Gioconda is flummoxed when she corners Enzo’s secret inamorata, only to have the hussy pull out – yes! – that very rosary! Gioconda then saves Laura (who saved her mother from burning), and confronts Enzo. But Duke Alvise, warned by Barnaba, is heading their way with a small, fast fleet. Desperate, Enzo tosses that torch he’s been carrying into his Dalmatian pirate vessel, which should go up in smoky, fiery fury as the curtain falls, with two whole acts of this foolishness still to come. In previous seasons, over forty years of the Met’s splendid, old-fashioned and scenic production, the exploding ship was always a hit, even when Enzo forgot to hurl the torch. But on October 6, at the Met, the ship merely glowed slightly red, as if embarrassed to be presenting such a farrago in the present day and age without the full-blooded singing and intense performing that alone can justify it. (Dear irate Ponchielli fans: I agree it’s a wonderful score – but you have to really do the thing, hurl yourself in the mouth of the wolf, to put it across.)

GIOCONDA_Anastassov_0668_MS.pngOrlin Anastassov as Alvise in Ponchielli's "La Gioconda." Photo: Beatriz Schiller courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

The fizzling ship may or may not have been intentional, but those of us who love La Gioconda and think it embodies the grandest operatic traditions if given half a chance (which is to say, with at least three of its six principals sung by impassioned and technically competent individuals), could hardly help but see the misfiring yacht as emblematic of the state of what used to be basic Italian rep: Aida, Norma, Trovatore, Forza, Cavalleria Rusticana, Tosca, Ernani, Butterfly, Chenier – how do you cast these once necessary operas, when hardly anyone around can sing the parts, much less four to six stars at a go? Like Laura on her catafalque in Act III, the corpse may still be breathing, but you can understand why so many visitors are quietly leaving flowers, their thoughts on better days.

My ever-declining tale of variably unsatisfactory Giocondas since this production was new has included Tebaldi, Bumbry, Arroyo, Marton, Dimitrova, Millo, Urmana and now Voigt. Tebaldi, past her heyday, knew how to wallow in distinguished misery; Bumbry could flirt with suicide, and commit it with menace hissing in her tongue; Arroyo floated those high notes and give them an edge of despair; Dimitrova was loud; Marton could act for six, as she proved on the disastrous – but thrilling! – night of Carlo Bini’s unscheduled debut and Patané’s unscheduled farewell.

GIOCONDA_Machado_1906.pngAquiles Machado as Enzo in Ponchielli's "La Gioconda." Photo: Cory Weaver courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

Urmana made beautiful sounds, but was duller than Debbie Voigt – however Voigt has never been an Italianate singer (her Aida was stiff), though she occasionally turned out phrases in the later scenes of Gioconda that implied some notion of what the part ought to contain. Her “Suicidio” was an effort in the right direction, if hardly draped in foreboding shadow. Instead of floating, her “Enzo adorato” wobbled like a balloon on a windy day. Her higher voice – the voice that used to sing Ariadne – is now seldom to be relied upon; her lower range is passably supported but without much depth or character, even if that had ever been her gift. I don’t know what – temperament or surgery or fach – is Miss Voigt’s problem, but as her Isoldes last year suggested, she may soon pass the point of getting through major parts effectively. Like Millo, who also failed of great initial promise, she will become a fallback singer, nobody’s first choice.

Olga Borodina has a golden age voice, dark and plummy, and the rare gift (among Russians) of singing French and Italian roles beautifully, in something resembling proper style. Not only individual phrases of her Laura but her duets with Voigt and Machado (and the lovely trio with both) were happy times for everyone present.

GIOCONDA_Scene_9328_MS.pngA scene from Ponchielli's "La Gioconda." Photo: Beatriz Schiller courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

No one has ever publicly explained why Ewa Podleś, who made an outstanding Met debut in Handel’s Rinaldo (a killer role) a quarter century ago, and who has been an international star ever since, was ignored here throughout the Volpe era. Madame Podleś is a contralto of striking idiosyncrasy – this is not a voice to blend in or be ignored, but one that sticks out, that must lead or be cut dead. In the embarrassingly small role of La Cieca, she was not only audible over the great Act III ensemble (usually, who even notices La Cieca is on stage at that moment, much less hears her?), she convincingly acted a blind woman throughout the evening (in marked contrast to the singer who strolled through the part two years ago), and her solos were weird, booming, echoes from the pre-digital age of untamed sound. That she would triumph was a foregone conclusion; that she would shame the house that has scorned her uniqueness was breathtaking.

Aquiles Machado looks like a Velasquez dwarf but struts and frets as if he were tall and lordly – an illusion Mesdames Voigt and Borodina did all they could to enhance, standing two steps down, leaning on his shoulder to sing, like the colleagues they are – but his pretty tenor has little passion in it, and when he pushes it, a wobble makes an unwelcome appearance.

Barnaba’s disgusting desires are the engine that drives the crazy plot. Carlo Guelfi’s Barnaba, however, is more bureaucrat than demon – his singing is dry, without gloat or drool, much less sharpened fangs. His final cry of exasperation (Gioconda having stabbed herself to escape his lusts) was – a cry of exasperation: “You filled in the wrong form, you fool!” (is not the proper text). When Cornell MacNeil sang Barnaba, even in nearly voiceless old age, his naturally ugly voice was filled with contempt and oily intimacy, his final frustrated snarl expressed four acts of desperate lechery. He was like an exploding ship.

Orlin Anastassov made a stolid Alvise, more worried about his hair-do than his wife’s betrayal, and he shrugged when one of his party guests turned out to be an enemy bent on vengeance.

GIOCONDA_Voigt_Podles_Borod.png(Left to Right) Deborah Voigt as Gioconda, Ewa Podles as La Cieca, and Olga Borodina as Laura in Ponchielli's "La Gioconda." Photo: Beatriz Schiller courtesy of Metropolitan Opera

Under Daniele Callegari, the Met orchestra often reminded us of the score’s many felicities, but one couldn’t help thinking that if the tuba player is too bored by the oom-pah, oom-pah of his part in the ballet to stay in tune, he may have chosen the wrong instrument for his career. The chorus seemed unusually cardboard in their movements – can they simply not be persuaded that Gioconda matters? – and the revised stage direction, if it avoids some confusions (the correct characters are masked in the proper scenes, as has not always been the case), creates others: Act III now ends with the blind woman taking a pratfall center stage, Gioconda having disappeared – traditionally, it should end with Barnaba driving the old woman off (to drown her, we learn later), while the music underscores the tragic isolation of Gioconda, unloved and now orphaned, front and center, searching desperately. (How many other operas have mother-daughter duets? I can only think of I Lombardi, Mazeppa, Elektra and The Medium.)

And what happened, you are wondering, to the Dance of the Hours? Or did Walt Disney make that up? No – it’s here all right – in Act III, scene 2, at Duke Alvise’s party, appetizer for the pièce de resistance, croque madame (or, hostess in aspic). (Laura, like the opera, isn’t really dead – Gioconda has slipped her a potion – in Act IV, she runs off with Enzo to Dubrovnik. I’m not making all this up, you know.) At the Met, Christopher Wheeldon has devised a winsome extended pas de deux for Letizia Giuliani and Angel Corella, based on clock hands stiffly telling the hours while Letizia and Angel, anything but stiff, whirl and leap and sizzle between tick-tocks. They got the biggest hand of the night. They were on fire.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Olga Borodina as Laura in Ponchielli's "La Gioconda." Photo: Beatriz Schiller/Metropolitan Opera product=yes product_title=Amilcare Ponchielli: La Gioconda product_by=La Gioconda: Deborah Voigt; Laura: Olga Borodina; La Cieca: Ewa Podleś; Enzo: Aquiles Machado; Barnaba: Carlo Guelfi; Alvise Badoero: Orlin Anastassov; Dance of the Hours choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and danced by Letizia Giuliani and Angel Corella. Conducted by Daniele Callegari. Metropolitan Opera. product_id=Above: Olga Borodina as Laura in Ponchielli's "La Gioconda." [Photo: Beatriz Schiller/Metropolitan Opera]
Posted by Gary at 11:58 AM

Le Roi d’Ys at Avery Fisher Hall

Like Massenet, Fauré, Reyer and Debussy, he had been dazzled by the achievement of Richard Wagner, and like them he was anxious to find a way to create an opera that would not owe too much to Wagnerian technique; imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is not the best way to create stage works with lives of their own. Too, in a France still smarting from the Franco-Prussian War, it did not do for anyone hoping to succeed to be too German.

So he took a folk tale about a magical city that sank beneath the waves off the Breton coast, a city supposedly so marvelous (says my old Guide Michelin) that another city named itself “like Ys,” Par-Ys. In the opera, Ys is saved at the last minute, thanks to the intervention of St. Corentin and the pagan self-sacrifice of wicked but repentant Princess Margared, who opened the floodgates in the first place; in the legend, the city was lost, but its bells can be heard in the surf and it will rise again should mass ever be celebrated in the cathedral. (Try chanting and sipping wine while under water. Go ahead, try.) Debussy made that story a tone poem, La Cathedrale Engloutie, but Lalo, after the grand stage spectacle of a city being engulfed, saved it again. (Reminiscences of Der Fliegende Hollander are perceptible in the story and audible in the score.)

If Brittany were a nation (and the inhabitants will assure you that it is), Le Roi d’Ys would be its national opera – if it were in Breton and not in French. The characters are cardboard – the only one with any personality is Margared, a powerhouse mezzo (Dolora Zajick would have fun with it), mixing Ortrud with Senta. The orchestral textures (in which the chorus takes enthusiastic part) give the piece its not inconsiderable charm – the scene-painting of Breton occasions (a wedding, a storm, a flood) is masterful, but the only part of the work that is well known or striking is the matinade, the tenor’s wedding day aria from Act III, which turns up on many a recital disk and, in performance, stands as the one knockout hit in the score.

Leon Botstein insists that the work is a second-rank masterpiece, like Ariane et Barbe-Bleu and Le Roi Arthus – of which his performances, in my opinion, also failed to convince or excite. (His presentations of The Wreckers, Genoveva and Die Ferne Klang were far more persuasive. May one request Spohr’s Jessonda, Chabrier’s Briséis or Janacek’s Excursions of Mr. Broucek for his next novelty?) Except for some messy brass work, the presentation on October 3 –probably the first in New York in thirty-odd years (it was last given here by Opera Orchestra of New York, but some ad hoc company or other actually staged it at the Beacon Theater in (my) living memory) – was propulsive and enjoyable work in the many virtuoso parts of this intriguing score.

The singers were young and, for the most part, impressive and promising. Dana Beth Miller, hitherto a soprano, has made the best of a transition to a lower fach; her Margared, full of hysterical threats, remorseful asides, and heroic repentance, strayed only once – at a moment of shock when a saint’s statue came to life in her face – into the extramusical; otherwise one appreciated her cool control of a sizable and richly colored mezzo in a long, various and demanding part. She was ably supported by Frédéric Antoun, who gave a light, delectable account of Mylio’s matinade that made one eager to hear him in the Offenbach, Mozart and Bellini roles he’s been doing here and there, and Georgia Jarman was charming, as Margared’s bland but happy sister. Curtis Streetman ably held down the small title role and Andrew Nolen introduced the story as a Breton sidekick, then intruded portentously as the saintly statue come to life, both duties that became him well.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Saint Corentin, évêque de Quimper product=yes product_title=Edouard Lalo: Le Roi d’Ys product_by=American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Botstein, on the Great Performers Series at Avery Fisher Hall. product_id=Above: Saint Corentin, évêque de Quimper
Posted by Gary at 11:37 AM

Manon at Lyric Opera of Chicago

In Prevost’s novel and in opera after opera (at least five of them) she comes to a bad end after many colorful adventures. Parents can safely bring their daughters, sure of a moral message; the daughters (and sons) will enjoy Manon’s taste for enjoyment, as gaudily illustrated by Massenet. It took two hundred years for someone to think up a way to end the tale happily: in Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and the Broadway show and Hollywood movie based upon it, the dizzy heroine gets the louche career, the diamonds she needs, the boy she loves and Paris. Moral: Arkansas rears ’em sturdier than Artois.

Manon_Chicago_03.pngManon (Natalie Dessay) and Des Grieux (Jonas Kaufmann) have fallen in love. Act I, Manon. Photo by Robert Kusel/Lyric Opera of Chicago

Massenet’s Manon is irresistible to any diva possessing charm, decent acting skills, some coloratura technique and a trim figure – zaftig Carmens we can endure, and charmless Isoldes, and plump Mimis and Marguerites were already a cliché by 1910, but Manon has got to seem adorably frail, likely to float away on the breeze if she is not weighed down by sin and her Act III gown (any diva’s gaudiest). Natalie Dessay, an actress, a charmer, a Frenchwoman, and a slender slip of a thing was born to play it, and triumph with it.

I must put in a good word about the wigmaster’s work – though I don’t know which of the three sponsoring companies’ wigmaster is to be commended – in designing a long fall for the hoydenish Manon we first meet in the inn at Amiens, an upswept coif for the elegant courtesan of Act III, and then leaving her with close-cropped curlicues (to prevent prison lice) for her pathetic death scene – visual cues for us, to which Dessay plays with a detailed, complex impersonation of a clumsy adolescent (not unlike her Fille du Regiment), a leman in love, a lady of fashion and a pathetic, dying castaway. Similarly, she sang like a lost girl in Act II, torn between her love, genuine if skin-deep, for Des Grieux and her yearnings for the great world and its treasures, the laughter she deliciously mimicked in her coloratura in the Cours-la-reine, the doom she ultimately faced with something like a Parisian shrug. This is a superbly detailed, perfectly thought out, ideally interpreted performance, one to be held as a standard for any other Manon.

Jonas Kaufmann sings far too rarely in the States – his matinee-idol looks, slim figure, ardent acting and caressing tenor are mainly familiar from DVDs made in his home base, the Zurich opera, where he is renowned for such weighty roles as Don José and Parsifal. In Chicago, he may have been suffering from a cold (he had cancelled an appearance at a pre-season star gala), but in any case I had the feeling he was not filling the admittedly huge house until the demented outbursts of the last two scenes. His singing was beautiful and seductive, but sometimes drowned by Emmanuel Villaume’s orchestra – which never threatened Madame Dessay.

Christopher Feigum, whom I last saw as Lescaut in Puccini’s opera, hardly had to change a thing but language to play the role in Massenet’s. His sturdy, likable baritone and bullying attitude always entertained. David Cangelosi neatly struck the difficult balance (missed on the DVD from Barcelona) between the ridiculous and the nasty in Guillot de Morfontaine: this is one of the most intricate of comprimario roles, its layers insinuating themselves into every aspect of the story (Guillot is wealth, old age, ugliness, vanity, and a sore loser into the bargain), and Cangelosi made the most of them. The other small roles were trimly done, giving the proper impression of a cruel, frivolous world that loves Manon when she’s in clover and discards her without a tear when she’s used up. The three actresses she admires in the opening scene clearly have their priorities on straight: Manon may not have a deep heart, but she has one; they don’t even pretend to.

It’s not a pretty story, let’s face it – it’s a tawdry, “way of the world” story – and in McVicar’s staging, the pretty costumes do not disguise the ugliness. (Or the lack of costumes in the Hotel de Transylvanie, a casino where an awfully large number of the guests, especially well-built young men, seem to have lost their shirts.) McVicar’s unit set represents a decrepit bull ring, or perhaps an operating theater – I don’t quite get the significance of this, or of having his heartless chorus looking on at every scene, as if Manon’s story amuses but bores them, a too-familiar sit-com. McVicar has far too many people on stage, spying on all the most intimate scenes except the very last – I’m not sure what is gained by having so many people observing the intimacy of Act II, though there may be a clue in its end, when Manon, uncertain what she really wants (as usual), has allowed her lover to be kidnapped without warning him. As she gazes about in despair, half a dozen ladies with fans approach her, applauding her “performance.” (Beverly Sills, my first Manon, would throw herself tragically on her bed – and Bretigny, her rich new lover, would enter and dangle a sparkling necklace in the air to stop her crying – as indeed it did.)

I had the advantage (or disadvantage) of having seen this production of Manon, on the DVD from Barcelona, which also stars Madame Dessay. The Chicago performance was undoubtedly better – small roles (such as Guillot and the Comte des Grieux) were far better cast in Chicago, chorus and ballet were just as elegantly absurd, I prefer to rest my eyes on Mr. Kaufmann than the equally able Rolando Villazon, and several of the most vulgar touches in the DVD were ameliorated by Chicago second thoughts (or third thoughts – the production originated at ENO). The orgy at the Hotel de Transylvanie gets out of hand on the DVD – or maybe the cameramen were overexcited by it – and onstage defecation, a Barcelona opera signature, does not feature in Chicago.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Natalie Dessay as Manon [Photo by Dan Rest] product=yes product_title=Jules Massenet: Manon product_by=Manon: Natalie Dessay; Des Grieux: Jonas Kaufmann; Lescaut: Christopher Feigum; Guillot de Morfontaine: David Cangelosi; De Bretigny: Jake Gardner; Comte: Raymond Aceto. Lyric Opera of Chicago. Production by David McVicar. Conducted by Emmanuel Villaume. product_id=Above: Natalie Dessay as Manon [Photo by Dan Rest]
Posted by Gary at 10:49 AM

Wagner's Great-Granddaughter Gives Rienzi Wigs, Glitter, Hoover

By Catherine Hickley [Bloomberg, 13 October 2008]

Oct. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Richard Wagner's early opera ``Rienzi'' is an historical oddity, rarely staged, and for good reason. Putting the eponymous character in glittering lame and an Ozzy Osbourne-style wig and strapping an industrial vacuum cleaner to his back is no way to make it more accessible.

Posted by Gary at 10:29 AM

Armide, Muslim Sorceress, Falls for Christian Crusader in Paris

By Jorg von Uthmann [Bloomberg, 13 October 2008]
Oct. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Louis XIV took a dim view of marital fidelity, yet stayed faithful to his court composer: Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) had a virtual monopoly on French stage music.
Posted by Gary at 10:28 AM

Stunning victory for long-awaited War and Peace

Robert Everett-Green [Globe and Mail, 13 October 2008]
The Canadian Opera Company welcomed a new boss this month (the German-born Alexander Neef, who started work on Oct. 1), but the late Richard Bradshaw is still guiding the company's repertoire this season. On Friday, his long-awaited production of Prokofiev's War and Peace reached the Four Seasons Centre, and it's a stunner.
Posted by Gary at 10:26 AM

Von Stade sounds out the Broad Stage

By Mark Swed [LATimes, 13 October 2008]
The Eli and Edythe Broad Stage, newly added to Santa Monica College, had its semi-public tryouts over the summer and a gala last month with singer Barbara Cook, who was amplified. But the opening night concert Saturday, a recital by mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, was the first real tryout of the 499-seat hall's acoustics, which were designed by JaffeHolden.
Posted by Gary at 10:24 AM

Lorin Maazel, Fostering Artistry at Home

By Anne Midgette [Washington Post, 13 October 2008]
CASTLETON, Va. -- The building looks like the setting for an opulent '80s television drama: stucco and lavish plantings; the driveway that sweeps up to the entrance; the cat crouching by the double glass doors. Inside, the decor does not dispel that sensation. You pass life-size wax figures of Tchaikovsky (reading in an armchair) and Bach (poised at the keyboard) at the top of the stairs. Then you enter a perfect miniature theater, paneled in warm wood that wraps you in sound, packed to capacity with 100 to 150 elegantly clad people. And only on TV, you might think, would a scene like this contain world-class music.
Posted by Gary at 10:22 AM

Vienna director sick, but good music saves opera

By GEORGE JAHN [AP, 12 October 2008]]
VIENNA, Austria (AP) — Damnation was the dominant theme Saturday in a new Vienna State Opera production of Charles Gounod's Faust. But redemption triumphed in the form of wonderful singing and a powerful orchestral performance.
Posted by Gary at 10:20 AM

Partenope, Coliseum, London

By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 11 October 2008]
Love is a battle. It causes no end of conflict, torture, rage, hate. Its weapons work like poisoned darts. It unsettles everything.
Posted by Gary at 10:18 AM

New Hands Detonate ‘Doctor Atomic’

By MATTHEW GUREWITSCH [NY Times, 10 October 2008]
AS love duets go, this one places an unusual premium on the life of the mind. A wife recites Muriel Rukeyser. Her husband comes back with Baudelaire. He pushes her down on the bed. She tugs his tie. Then he notices the time, adjusts his clothes and leaves for work.
Posted by Gary at 10:17 AM

New Opera? Great Idea. Good Luck!

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 10 October 2008]
I HAVE seldom been as rattled by a question as I was last month, when I visited an arts criticism class at the University of Southern California. A thoughtful student asked me why I dislike most new operas.
Posted by Gary at 10:15 AM

October 20, 2008

STRAUSS: Salome — Covent Garden 2008

Music composed by Richard Strauss. Libretto by the composer based on Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation of Oscar Wilde’s play

First Performance: 9 December 1905, Hofoper, Dresden

Principal Characters:
Herodes, Tetrach of Judea Tenor
Herodias, wife of the Tetrach Mezzo-Soprano
Salome, daughter of Herodias Soprano
Jochanaan, a prophet Baritone
Narraboth, a young Syrian Tenor
A Page Alto
5 Jews 4 Tenors, 1 Bass
2 Nazarenes Tenor, Bass
2 Soldiers Basses
A Cappadocian Bass
A Slave Silent Role

Setting: Palace of Herod at Tiberias, Galilee, c. 30 C.E.


Narraboth, the Captain of Herod’s guard, is fascinated by the princess Salome’s beauty. When she enters onto the palace terrace the voice of the prophet Jokanaan is heard from the cistern where he is imprisoned. She orders him to be raised up and Narraboth eventually surrenders to her will and disobeys Herod’s decree. Jokanaan emerges into the moonlight and denounces the incestuous union of Herod and Salome’s mother Herodias and demands that Salome repents and follows Christ. Equally apalled and mesmerised she is increasingly overcome by desire, praising his body, hair and mouth. Narraboth is distraught and kills himself, but Salome steps over his body in pursuit of her passion. Jokanaan curses her and returns to his prison. Herod emerges from the palace with Herodias, seeking Salome who ignores his advances. Stepping in Narraboth’s blood — a bad omen — he seeks relief from his nightmare visions. The voice of Jokanaan is heard again and Herodias demands that he be delivered to the Jews, provoking a religious debate about the true nature of the prophet and of Christ himself. Herod’s attention is solely focused on Salome who he begs to dance for him and swears an oath to grant her any wish. She performs the Dance of the Seven Veils and tells the horrified Herod that her payment will be the head of the prophet. She waits nervously at the edge of the cistern until the executioner delivers her prize on a silver platter. She ecstatically kisses Jokanaan’s lips, achieving fulfilment at last. In disgust, Herod orders her death.

[Synopsis Source: Boosey & Hawkes]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Salome.png image_description=Salome with the Head of John the Baptist by Titian (1550) audio=yes first_audio_name=Richard Strauss: Salome first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Salome2.m3u product=yes product_title=Richard Strauss: Salome product_by=Salome (Nadja Michael)
Herodias (Michaela Schuster)
Page to Herodias (Daniela Sindram)
Herod (Thomas Moser)
Narraboth (Joseph Kaiser)
Jokanaan (Michael Volle)
First Nazarene (Iain Paterson)
Second Nazarene (Andrew Mayor)
First Soldier (Christian Sist)
Second Soldier (Alan Ewing)
First Jew (Adrian Thompson)
Second Jew (Martyn Hill)
Third Jew (Hubert Francis)
Fourth Jew (Ji-Min Park)
Fifth Jew (Jeremy White)
A Cappadocian (Vuyani Mlinde)
Slave (Pumeza Matshikiza).

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Philippe Jordan (cond.)

Live performance, February 2008, Royal Opera House, London.
Posted by Gary at 7:38 PM

Works on the Theme of “Greeks Bearing Gifts”

  1. BERLIOZ: Les Troyens
  2. PAISIELLO: Fedra
  3. STRAUSS : Elektra
  4. SACCHINI: Oedipe à Colone
  5. PACINI: Medea
  6. GLUCK: Alceste
  7. LULLY: Alceste, ou Le triomphe d’Alcide
  8. GLUCK/BERLIOZ: Orphée
  9. GLUCK: Paride ed Elena
  10. MOZART/STRAUSS: Idomeneo
  11. TRAETTA: Ippolito ed Aricia
  12. ROSSINI: Ermione
  13. MARTÍN Y SOLER: Andromaca
  14. CHERUBINI: Medea
  15. VINCI: La Partenope
  16. JOMMELLI: Fetonte

For best results, use VLC or Winamp.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/AthenaGilded.png image_description=Goddess Athena product=yes product_title=Works on the Theme of “Greeks Bearing Gifts” product_by=Above: The Goddess Athena
Posted by Gary at 4:21 PM

Works by Jules Massenet

  1. Thaïs
  2. Manon
  3. Werther
  4. Cendrillon
  5. Esclarmonde
  6. Le Cid
  7. Marie-Magdeleine
  8. Chérubin

For best results, use VLC or Winamp.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Massenet.png image_description=Jules Massenet (1842-1912) product=yes product_title=Works of Jules Massenet
Posted by Gary at 4:03 PM

BACH: St. Matthew Passion (excerpts)

Among Bach ensembles, few can rival the Bach Collegium Japan for clarity and control, a control that is unflaggingly maintained, though best heard here in stunningly beautiful soft passages. Two chorales, the emblematic “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden” and “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden,” emerge here not as familiar pauses between events, but as moments of depth, deepened through the breathtaking control of the rendition. Sometimes the control has a shadow side: for instance, in the canonic duet with choral interjections, “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen,” the solo lines lament Jesus’s being led away captive while the choir, in their role as the crowd of onlookers, exclaim their objection: “let him go, stop, unbind him!” Here the choir seems rather too controlled and soft; the objections become more like furtive comments among the crowd than forceful attempts to intercede. More’s the pity, as in other instances like the chorus “Sind Blitze, sind Donner,” the ensemble has fury and force in ample proportions.

If the ensemble is distinctive in its control and cultivation of the soft dynamic, the soloists are sensitive in this way, as well. The soprano aria, “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben,” sung by Nancy Argenta, is exquisite in its intimacy, and both Peter Kooij as Jesus and Gerd Türk as the Evangelist also show consummate ease in the full dynamic range of their roles—the dramatic force of certain passages is keenly exciting, but it is, I think, the soft passages that are the most memorable.

The excerpt format of the recording invites one to consider the selections as self-standing moments rather than part of the dramatic flow. And in that light, the alto aria, “Erbarme dich” is easily one of the high points of the recording. Counter-tenor Robin Blaze is at his best here with a soaring high range and compellingly engaging sense of line. And the rich interplay with the ornamental violin playing of Natsumi Wakamatsu makes for especially rapturous counterpoint.

The recording is not problem-free, however. In the imposing chorale fantasia on “O Mensch bewein dein Sünde gross,” the treble cantus firmus adds the sound of children’s choir, a well-considered echo of Bach’s scoring of the opening chorus. However, here it is precisely echo that is the problem. The cantus firmus sounds as though it is being sung somewhere else, and that somewhere else seems to have an exaggerated reverberation at odds with the main acoustic of the performance. The effect is both surprising and jarring.

Another problem surfaces in the excerpt format of the recording itself. Apart from the economic attraction of a one-disc affair, it is difficult to see the gain and easy to perceive the loss. In a number of the excerpts, there is a clear intent to provide a degree of cohesion, and that is welcome. But in other instances arias are severed from their immediate surroundings, which leads to disjuncture, ambiguity of reference and context, and the loss of the characteristic ebb and flow of declamation and lyricism. Instead, the isolated moments emerge as independent “favorites.” If one wants to listen to one’s favorites, the CD format in general makes that an easy thing to do. The record producers do not need to devise excerpt recordings to make this convenient. And in devising recordings of excerpts, they invite the listener to consider the work shorn of its beauty of integration. That’s a sad loss.

Steven Plank

image= mage_description=J. S. Bach. St. Matthew Passion (excerpts) product=yes product_title=J. S. Bach. St. Matthew Passion (excerpts) product_by=Gerd Türk, tenor; Peter Kooij, bass; Nancy Argenta, soprano; Robin Blaze, counter-tenor; Makoto Sakurada, tenor; Chiyuki Urano, bass; Bach Collegium Japan; Masaaki Suzuki, Director. product_id=BIS-SACD-1500 [SACD] price=$19.99 product_url=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/Drilldown?name_id1=527&name_role1=1&genre=94&label_id=73&bcorder=619&comp_id=10087
Posted by Gary at 2:45 PM


The close-ups and intimate settings that are part of the staging make visual sense and support the music well. Based on the staging used at the Hamburg Opera, this recording from 1968 is of more than historic interest. Rather, the unique perspective from this television production conveys the appropriate immediacy to the work that sometimes escapes live performances on stage. The ensemble "Mir ist so wunderbar" becomes here an aside for the principals who are able to step out of the action momentarily to reflect on the situation, and their carefully placement on stage anticipates their roles in the drama as it resumes, notably with Leonore/Fidelio in the forefront, and Rocco in the center.

The cast is uniformly strong, with all the roles cast with some of the finest singers of the day. Anja Silja created a believable Leonore/Fidelio, and her costumes suggests a plausible disguise for the wife who seeks her long-imprisoned husband. Vocally, Silja offers a strong performance in this demanding role. In the aria "Abscheulicher," though Silja's lighter touch allows for security in the upper register of this demanding number. She is, perhaps, less anxious than Karita Mattila in the more recent film of the modern staging presented at the Metropolitan Opera. Likewise, the studio-style sound is a little less immediate in this number, which benefits in stage performances from the intersection of the voice an winds in various passages of this turning point in Fidelio. Most of all, the clarity Silja brings to this aria is noteworthy in itself, and throughout the film Silja's stage presence emerges within the studio performance.

In addition Lucia Popp stands out as an intensive and smart Marzelline, the daughter of the jailer Rocco. Popp's resonant voice is memorable, and the ensembles in which she participates stand out in this recording. Those who did not have the opportunity to hear Popp in performance have the opportunity to see her interact well in this production. Likewise, Richard Cassilly delivers a fine performance as Florestan, which involves not only the vocal inflection necessary for his role as the long-imprisoned husband, but also suggests the confinement in his movements and facial gestures. His Ernst Wiemann is a solid Rocco, a role that sounds at once familiar and believable. The other cast members are fine, particularly Theo Adam, who performed the role of Pizzaro into the mid-1980s.

The production itself makes use of traditional settings effectively, and the intimacy that comes from close-ups enhances the drama. The scene with the entrance of the prisoners is particularly effective, as the ensemble emerges as a body and reacts simultaneously to the rare opportunity to be in the open air. It is unfortunate that the television production did not begin with the play of light that occurs in the middle of the number. Nevertheless, the blocking that accompanies the "O Freiheit" section creates a fine effect and the subdued intonations among solo voices are remarkably effective in this staging.

The events in the second act work well in this film, as the set design and director create a sense of depth in the scene that involves Florestan. While conventional stagings laudable present the scene in various, creative ways on stage, the medium of film allows for the illusory effect of being within the prison and removed from the more light-filled action of the preceding act. As in earlier, scenes, the camera allows a sense of intimacy such that Leonore can communicate with Florestan, even while Rocco is occupied with his task, and this contributes to the tension that leads to the dénouement, where Leonore reveals her identity and stymies Pizzaro. Silja fulfills the promise she expressed in the previous act, while never upstaging Richard Cassilly in his role as her spouse. Both performers work well together in the final scene, which is also laudable for its faithfulness to the Spanish setting of the opera.

Arthaus deserves credit for restoring and making available this and other television productions of operas from 1968 and 1969. Unlike the operas televised in the United States, which often brought the stage to the small screen, this series of broadcasts from Germany reconceived productions from the Hamburg Opera for the idiom. In a way the American broadcasts from Wolftrap aired in the 1970s owe a debt to these groundbreaking films by Lieberman. Some, like the production of Penderecki's Die Teufel von Loudon brought new works to a wide audience, while others, like this one of Fidelio, preserve a conventional staging with an excellent cast. While Arthaus acknowledges that this DVD and others are restorations, the imperfections are relatively minor and should by no means detract from appreciating the efforts. This is a fine Fidelio that deserves attention not only for historic interest, but also on its own merits.

James L. Zychowicz

image_description=Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio

product_title=Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio
product_by=Richard Cassilly (Florestan), Anja Silja (Leonore), Ernst Wiemann (Rocco), Lucia Popp (Marzelline), Erwin Wohlfahrt (Jaquino), Theo Adam (Don Pizarro), Hans Sotin (Don Fernando), Chorus of the Hamburg State Opera, Hamburg Philharmonic State Orchestra, Leopold Ludwig (cond).
product_id=Arthaus Musik 101275 [DVD]

Posted by jim_z at 8:10 AM

October 8, 2008

Cavalleria rusticana/Pagliacci — English National Opera, London Coliseum

Cavalleria rusticana, or 'Sicilian Revenge' in Sean O'Brien's translation, was psychologically insightful and dramatically compelling. The whole piece took place sometime in the 1940s inside a tiny village hall, with murky walls and an oppressive low ceiling, an uncomfortably intimate microcosm of a community in which everybody knows each other's business. All human life was here, from the illicit out-of-hours assignation between Turiddu (Peter Auty) and Lola (Fiona Murphy) to the village women preparing an Easter dinner. The importance of this central space was underlined by the centre-stage presentation of the Siciliana at the start and Turiddu's graphically brutal murder at the end, both of which Mascagni envisaged occuring in the distance. Only Jane Dutton's rejected Santuzza, fidgety and obsessive, remained on the periphery, coming into the central space for her pivotal scene with Roland Wood's threateningly masculine Alfio.

Ed Gardner's punchy conducting complemented Auty's red-blooded ardent tenor especially well, and brought out the opera's almost constant sense of raw heightened emotion which the piety of the Easter Hymn and the calm respite of the Intermezzo serve only to accentuate.

The addition of a mentally-disabled brother for Turiddu could so easily have come across as a cheap theatrical cliché, but his one line announcing Turiddu's murder, normally reserved for an offstage woman's voice, had devastating impact.

The English translation was somewhat hit-and-miss, but the only real problem — and it was a big one — was the incongruity of the drab indoor setting with Mascagni's lush Mediterranean score. Jones's production was a riveting piece of theatre in its own right, but the music seemed almost incidental to it.

After the interval, a surreal repeat of the 'Cav' curtain call heralded the descent of a new, bright orange curtain. We were thrown into the environs of a British provincial theatre sometime in the 1970s, about to welcome the stars of a TV sitcom for a week-long run of a cheesy bedroom farce.

This ingenious production was The Comedians, a genuine and coherent contemporary take on Leoncavallo's opera, a behind-the-scenes portrait of a clutch of outdated entertainers whose popularity is based on a façade of cheap laughs and in-jokes. With the exception of the bird aria, which didn't make a lot of sense out of its natural context, the whole affair worked extremely well and was in a completely different class from your average half-hearted opera 'modernisation' which tends to be riddled with inconsistencies. Lee Hall's English-language version was again more a reinvention than a translation, designed specifically in conjunction with this staging, renaming the characters to suit the context. These were recognisable characters, in equally recognisable sordid liaisons and public breakdowns against the backdrop of an impeccably-realised backstage environment by the set designer Ultz.

Cavalleria_rusticana_and_Pagliacci_008.pngPeter Auty as Turiddu

Although the characterisation was uniformly excellent, the singing, it has to be said, was variable; Geraint Dodd's Kenny (Canio) had a softer-grained, less focused tenor than is ideal in this role, while Christopher Purves's Tony (Tonio) was put under some vocal strain in the Prologue. Mary Plazas's Nelly (Nedda) and Mark Stone's Woody (Silvio) were far more vocally consistent, with strong support from Christopher Turner as Brian (Beppe).

Cavalleria_rusticana_and_Pagliacci_009.png Trevor Goldstein as policeman, Mary Plazas as Nelly

In a stroke of genius the final scene was given on a split stage, as if the on-stage theatre had been spliced at the proscenium arch and opened out like a book. Thus we got to focus on the audience's reactions as much as the on-stage action. The sense of unease and horror was expertly ratcheted up, and when Kenny had killed Woody and Nelly and turned his gun towards the audience, the onstage audience's collective dive for cover kept much of the real audience laughing right up to the last moment, until Kenny delivered his devastating closing line and turned the gun on himself. Suddenly, nobody was laughing any more. Absolutely brilliant.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

Cavalleria_rusticana_and_Pagliacci_014.png Mary Plazas as Nelly, Christopher Purves as Tony

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Dutton_Santuzza_ENO.png image_description=Jane Dutton as Santuzza [Photo by Robert Workman] product=yes product_title=Pietro Mascagni: Cavalleria rusticana
Ruggero Leoncavallo: Pagliacci product_by=Cavalleria rusticana: Turiddù (Peter Auty); Santuzza (Jane Dutton); Mamma Lucia (Kathleen Wilkinson); Alfio (Roland Wood); Lola (Fiona Murphy)

Pagliacci: Nedda (Mary Plazas); Canio (Geraint Dodd); Tonio (Christopher Purves); Beppe (Christopher Turner); Silvio (Mark Stone)

Conductor: Edward Gardner. Director: Richard Jones. product_id=Above: Jane Dutton as Santuzza

All photos by Robert Workman
Posted by Gary at 3:20 PM

October 6, 2008

VERDI: Requiem / Quattro pezzi sacri

It is a logical pairing that brings together two works that fit well together in representing Verdi’s major efforts in sacred music.

Originally recorded in the Sofiensaal, Vienna, Solti’s recording of the Requiem is a durable performance that serves as a touchstone for modern Verdi performances. The performing forces represent the finest of the day, with Requiem involving the Chorus of the Vienna Staatsoper, the Vienna Philharmonic, and soloists who would command the international opera scene for the decades that followed: Dame Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, two women who had just begun to work together in reestablishing bel canto opera; Luciano Pavarotti, the tenor who would become a household name for fine singing worldwide; and Martti Talvela, the Finnish bass who had worked with Sir Georg Solti in recording the monumental Ring cycle for Decca. Solti himself would lead the Chicago Symphony in taking its reputation into international circles. These are remarkable forces to approach any work, and they are all the more impressive for creating one of the finest recordings of Verdi’s Requiem.

Solti’s interpretation of Verdi’s Requiem remains an essential accomplishment of his recording career. In approaching one of the best-known choral works of the nineteenth century, Solti introduced the precision that was part of his genius. In addition, his sense of drama made the famous “Dies irae” section into an awe-inspiring tableau not just through the volume of the forces involved, but in the timing that allowed Verdi’s syncopations to jolt the listener. Not only could he create such grand effects, Solti could establish the sense of intimate, almost chamber-music effect, that other parts of the Requiem demand, as in the “Lacrimosa.” In this piece, the mezzo accompanies the tenor in some passages, and Solti allows the women of the chorus to support the mezzo later in the movement and achieve a similar delicacy. When the full chorus enters, the result is impressively moving for its balance. The diction is always clear, with articulations appropriately unified, and this is evident in the opening of the “Libera me,” one of the defining sections of this outstanding work that brings an almost operatic idiom to the religious text. The close miking of Sutherland in this piece stands in contrasts to the somewhat distant reprise of the “Dies irae,” a distinction that sets a studio performance like this one from a live concert. More importantly, details like these are readily accessible in the remastering of this performance. Improvements are subtle and support the overall effect, which has always been impressive. In some ways this CD release allows the character of the solo voices to emerge clearly. Thus Marilyn Horne’s vibrant voice has a sense of immediacy, like the resonance that distinguishes Martti Talvela’s rendering of the bass parts in this work. Moreover, those familiar with the later recordings of Luciano Pavarotti should appreciate the tenor’s exceptional performance in this relatively early release, which stands as testimony of his unique talent.

In addition to this exceptional reading of Verdi’s Requiem, this release includes Solti’s performance of the Quattro Pezzi Sacri that was he recorded approximately a decade later. Albeit with different forces than he used with the Requiem, the Chicago Symphony Chorus and Orchestra are equally impressive in this release. In assembling these pieces from the latter part of his career, Verdi combined three Marian prayers, “Ave Maria,” “Stabat Mater,” and “Laudi alla Vergine Maria,” along with the ancient Ambrosian hymn “Te Deum.” A text that is associated with the liturgy of the hours, Verdi’s setting of the “Te Deum” stands alongside those of such composers as Haydn, Mozart, Berlioz, Dvořák, and Bruckner. In Solti’s hands, the dramatic power of Verdi’s setting is apparent, yet always fitting into the structure of the music. This is similar to the way in which Solti treated the “Stabat Mater,” a challenging piece in itself because of the variety of textures and timbres, as well as the expressive demands. Verdi’s Te Deum is even more demanding, and Solti’s efforts are admirable. Dramatic and intense, it remains impressive, and those who have not heard it recently will find easy access to the performance in this appropriately entitled “Legendary Recording” rerelease of Verdi’s Requiem.

James L. Zychowicz

image_description=Giuseppe Verdi: Requiem / Quattro pezzi sacri

product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Requiem / Quattro pezzi sacri
product_by=Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Luciano Pavarotti, Martti Talvela, Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker, Chicago Symphony Chorus, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Sir Georg Solti, conductor.
product_id=Decca 00289 475 7735 [2CDs]

Posted by jim_z at 8:18 PM

MONTEVERDI: Combattimento

Her dramatic bent is well in tow in this anthology of vocal chamber music from Monteverdi’s seventh and eighth book of madrigals, the Scherzi Musicali and assorted anthologies from the 1620’s and 1630’s. The eponymous work on the recording, the “Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” is imposing in its length and operatic theatricality and the most impressive performance on the recording. A treatment of a scene from Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata in which Christian hero (Tancredi) fights and slays his Saracen beloved (Clorinda), who is traveling incognita in the armor of a male warrior, the work gives ample room for Monteverdi to display both his innovative stile concitato (agitated style), bringing the sounds of battle to life through rapidly articulated tremolos, and his sensitive touch in the dying words of Clorinda. The narrator, Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón, is stunningly dramatic with an Orfeo-like expressive range and responsiveness that both touches and invigorates. And Patrizia Ciofi’s rendition of Clorinda’s last words are movingly poignant and sublime.

In some pieces, however, the intense dramatic singing characteristic of the
Combattimento serves less well. The airs “Si dolce è ‘l tormento,” “Perchè se m’odiavi,” and “Maledetto sia l’aspetto” seem overwhelmed by singing that is too vibrant, too inflected, and too intense, where a simpler naturalness might have served the melodic airiness better. Admittedly, the texts are poems of cruel love, and there is much that might invite the dramatic touch, but at the same time, too much drama can rob a beautiful melody of its tuneful grace. This seems to be the case here. And the tenor duet, “Tornate, o cari baci,” has a vibrancy that rather hints of nineteenth-century sound ideals, an echo perhaps of Villazón’s mainstream opera career. Where high drama and intensity of expression are wanted, the two tenors have a great deal to offer. However, with simpler, more tuneful pieces, a less vocally and dramatically encumbered approach would be more compelling.

The instrumental playing is superb. The concitato passage work is thrillingly energized, while elsewhere the characteristicly wafting lilt of sculpted phrases invites one into a richness of sound that is unflaggingly captivating (as in the opening sinfonia of “Tempro la cetra.” Additionally, the opening sinfonia to “Si dolce è ‘l tormento” is a wonderful display of plucked string sound that, too, has unyielding allure. Haïm deploys her diverse forces schematically in a way that well serves the unfolding of the text, an operatic instinct perhaps, and one that is a particularly rich aspect of the recording.

Steven Plank

image_description=Claudio Monteverdi: Combattimento

product_title=Claudio Monteverdi: Combattimento
product_by=Le Concert d’Astrée; Emmanuelle Haïm, Director. Rolando Villazón and Topi Lehtipuu, tenors; Patrizia Ciofi, soprano.
product_id=Virgin Classics 0946 3 63350 [CD]

Posted by steve_p at 8:08 PM

The Barber of Seville — English National Opera, London Coliseum

Jonathan Miller’s durable production of Rossini’s most popular opera has returned almost every second season since its 1987 première, and though it has its longueurs (as does the opera itself) the thing that has kept it fresh is its straightforward attractiveness and humour. The company’s casting department has a large part to play in its enduring success, too – Tanya McCallin’s straightforwardly functional period set is normally populated by a combination of company veterans and fresh and promising young artists, with the result that it always feels like a successful ensemble piece with an eternal spark of life.

One thing which wasn’t new was Andrew Shore’s Bartolo; he has become a fixture in this production, to the extent that on the advertisement posters scattered around London’s transport system it is his name alone that is emblazoned next to the title of the opera. His gift for delivering words when singing in English is quite unequalled, and he plays the staging’s physical comedy to maximum effect. Sometimes in the past this has resulted in an imbalance, because with Shore as Bartolo it takes a particularly strong and characterful Rosina to convince the audience that she could credibly get the better of him. Fortunately the young Swedish mezzo Anna Grevelius was his ideal foil; a beautiful girl who always had a glint in her eye, and whose warm and rounded tone and lovely sense of bel canto line were combined with pinpoint accuracy of pitch and diction.

The Canadian tenor John Tessier, making his house début, made an extremely personable and youthful Almaviva. If he was rather superficial, this was the production’s idea rather than his own; Rosina is seduced more by the idea of being swept off her feet by a romantic young man than the reality of what life might actually be like afterwards. He showed off his lovely light, easy and secure tone with some stratospheric ornamentation, though conductor Rory Macdonald would have done well to give him a little more space to prevent an occasional stridency and unevenness which crept into some of his fastest runs. He demonstrated a gift for comedy and character acting with both his disguises, and served equally well as an ardent romantic hero when required.

Of the major principals, only Garry Magee’s Figaro disappointed; the eponymous barber needs charisma and charm, and his entrance aria should be filled with unshakeable masculine confidence and panache, but often it felt as though he was just singing the notes.

The_Barber_of_Seville_005.pngJennifer Rhys-Davies (Berta) Anna Grevelius (Rosina) Garry Magee (Figaro) John Tessier (Almaviva) Andrew Shore (Doctor Bartolo) Brindley Sherratt (Don Basilio)

Brindley Sherratt’s oleaginous Don Basilio was a sinister delight, Julian Hubbard’s Fiorello was superbly sung, while Jennifer Rhys-Davies and Peter Kerr offered solid if slightly nondescript support as Berta and Ambrogio.

Two factors put this into a class above what could have been a run-of-the-mill revival of an ENO warhorse. Firstly it would appear that the original director, Jonathan Miller, might have had more of a hand in this revival of his than in any earlier run I can remember; various long-absent details have been restored, while much of the sillier business which the staging has acquired over the years, such as Ambrogio’s constant yawning and Berta’s incurable sneezing, has been mercifully consigned to the dustbin. More to the point, the cast had a real chemistry together, filled the stage with life, and looked and sounded as though they were really enjoying themselves.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

image=http://www.operatoday.com/The_Barber_of_Seville_013.png image_description=Anna Grevelius ( Rosina ) John Tessier ( Almaviva ) [Photo by Alastair Muir] product=yes product_title=G. Rossini: The Barber of Seville product_by=Figaro (Garry Magee); Rosina (Anna Grevelius); Count Almaviva (John Tessier); Bartolo (Andrew Shore); Don Basilio (Brindley Sherratt); Berta (Jennifer Rhys-Davies); Fiorello (Julian Hubbard). Conductor: Rory Macdonald. Original Director: Jonathan Miller. Revival Director: Ian Rutherford. product_id=Above: Anna Grevelius (Rosina) John Tessier (Almaviva)

All photos by Alastair Muir courtesy of English National Opera
Posted by Gary at 7:33 PM

Macbeth at Bavarian State Opera

As long as Zeljko Lucic and Nadja Michael take the lead roles as Mr. and Mrs. Mayhem, that response should be divided more or less equally between delight and disgust.

Delight at the athletic, seductive Lady Macbeth who, in Michael’s ravishing (almost cloyingly so) interpretation, becomes Salome’s English sister with a penchant for conspiracy as an (a)rousing activity. From limber acrobatics in the lowered chandelier to her particularly detailed rhythmic articulation to her dramatic, wildly vibrating yet piercing voice (neither incapacitated by a cold, as Intendant Klaus Bachler had announced, nor quite as ugly in tone as Verdi had intended) she was a Lady Macbeth to die — or rather — to murder for.

Disgust at the band of extras and chorus members that director Martin Kušej sends downstage to micturate all over the place at the opening of the third act, and for no less than an astounding three minutes. (Though maybe the audience was merely jeering because choreographed urination is such a clichéd element in European Verdi direction.) When 13 topless playboy bunnies with pink wigs (undoubtedly the wind spirits) appeared shortly thereafter, a smart aleck yelled “bravi”, creating an unusual amount of merriment during a performance of as dark an opera as Macbeth.

At about this point, the show was at the verge of being hijacked by the audience; laughter, lusty boos from every tier, and blatant chatter created a casual, irreverent atmosphere rarely encountered in modern opera houses. Slightly rowdy, perhaps, but quite enjoyable in its way.

Enjoyable like Zelijko Lucic, the Serbian baritone who sang Verdi, instead of pushing it, his voice ringing effortlessly through the round of the Staatsoper, more impressive even than the very fine Banco of Roberto Scandiuzzi whose severed head would became the play-toy of Lady Macbeth.

And enjoyable like the homogenously playing Bavarian State Orchestra under Nicola Luisotti who got a salvo of boos, but deserved the many more bravos for his nervous, restless reading that had all the accents in the right places and made great music of what Verdi supplied him with.

Kušej (whose Salzburg La Clemenza di Tito is my measure of direction excellence) and his stage designer Martin Zehetgruber created many fine views: the vast field of skulls over which the protagonists climb the entire time and the walls of plastic sheets (á la Guy Ritchie’s Snatch) all make good, unsubtle points.

Macbeth_-Sonnambulismo-Szen.png Nadja Michael in a scene from Macbeth

But too many ideas seem unfiltered and crass, as if Kušej’s team had had no time to filter out the unnecessary ones, or distinguish between the obvious and the obscure. The handful of blond children (modeled after Village of the Damned) that variously represent the witches, fate, and murdered innocents. The obsession with Banco’s severed head. The constant dressing and undressing of the chorus (nakedness, medieval costumes, grimy underwear). It all veered between gratuitous, pointless, and too dense. It made for a production worthy of praise and mockery alike — a curious (in the best and worst sense of the word) opening for the new Bachler regime at Germany’s most important opera house.

Jens F. Laurson

Macbeth_Lucic.pngZeljko Lucic in a scene from Macbeth

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Macbeth_Szene-Luester_Micha.png image_description=Zeljko Lucic and Nadja Michael [Photo by Wilfried Hoesl] product=yes product_title=G. Verdi: Macbeth product_by=Macbeth (Zeljko Lucic), Banco (Roberto Scandiuzzi), Lady Macbeth (Nadja Michael), Dama di Lady Macbeth (Lana Kos), Macduff (Dimitri Pittas), Malcolm (Fabrizio Mercurio). The Bavarian State Orchestra. The Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti. Stage Director: Martin Kusej. product_id=Above: Zeljko Lucic and Nadja Michael

All photos by Wilfried Hoesl courtesy of Bayerische Staatsoper
Posted by Gary at 5:19 PM

On The Bonesetter’s Daughter

“The trouble with this book,” said the little girl, “is that it told me more about penguins than I really wanted to know.” The cartoon comes to mind as I assemble thoughts on The Bonesetter’s Daughter, the opera by Stewart Wallace and Amy Tan that premiered at the San Francisco Opera in September.

I jest, of course, for I am grateful for the immense amount of information at my disposal about the new work that I saw at its third performance in the War Memorial Opera House on September 25. My “homework” began with Tan’s bestselling 2004 novel, from which the author extracted the libretto for Bonesetter’s Daughter. It’s a large book — and a good one, and I wish that everyone would read it before seeing the opera. This is not to say that the opera is a series of sins of omission, for Tan has ably done what must always be done in reducing a big book to a libretto. She has worked with Wallace to create a work that, while new, is faithful to the novel.

She has, above all, preserved the truth of the book, the truth that unites three generations of Chinese women so seamlessly that they function at times as a single individual.

These are the things
These are the things I know
These are the things I know are true.

With those lines daughter Ruth, ageing mother LuLing and Precious Auntie, a ghost from an earlier China, open the score. They return in the course of the work.

Ruth_LuLing.pngZheng Cao (Ruth Young Kamen) & Ning Liang (LuLing Liu Young)

Reducing a novel to a libretto is an act of creative transformation, and the challenge differs with each work. I think, for example, of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Grapes of Wrath, premiered two seasons ago by Minnesota Opera. The Steinbeck classic, I thought, would defy such transformation. Wendell Korie, however, caught the epic sweep of the novel in his libretto. Korie, Wallace’s librettist for Harvey Milk, offered extensive advice to the creative team of Bonesetter’s Daughter.

Rather than generalizing about the process of transformation, a comparison of the task at hand says more about both operas. Korie had an easier job, for Grapes has essentially a group hero — the Joads — and Steinbeck follows them for a relatively brief time on their journey from Dust-Bowl Oklahoma to the — they hoped — greener pastures of California. The narrative line is simpler — and straighter.

ActI_Scene.pngJames Maddalena (Art Kamen), Rose Frazier (Fia Kamen), Zheng Cao (Ruth Young Kamen), Ning Liang (LuLing Liu Young), Madelaine Matej (Dory Kamen), Valery Portnov (Marty Kamen), Catherine Cook (Arlene Kamen), Qian Yi (Precious Auntie)

Tan’s story extends over the better part of a century and moves from America to China, whence this family came in the years after World War Two. Much disappears from Tan’s novel on the way to the opera stage. Only those who know something of the horrors of Mao’s Cultural Revolution will respond to mention of that age of repression in the libretto. And what American knows enough about calligraphy to appreciate what was involved in making ink for this ancient craft? This was the business of Precious Auntie’s family in China.

But back to reading. I am grateful that Ken Smith has documented the genesis of the new opera in Fate! Luck! Chance! Amy Tan, Stewart Wallace, and the Making of ‘The Bonesetter’s Daughter’ Opera (San Francisco, 2008. $24.95). Smith, long a respected music critic, has, with wife Joanna Lee, become the major mediator between American and Chinese music in this age of cultural cross-pollination. His book — rich in photos — records a creative process largely unique to opera, for Bonesetter’s Daughter is the product of a collective headed by Tan and Wallace that included director/choreographer Chen Shi-Zheng and the several musicians whom the two came to know on their several trips to China. Indeed, as I read about the many influences upon the work during the three years of its genesis I began to fear a collage of cultural fragments lacking specific identity. Happily, Bonesetter’s Daughter is anything but, and that is due largely to Wallace’s ability to assimilate what he experienced and express it in a voice that is totally his own.

Chang_Coffinmaker.pngHao Jiang Tian (Chang the Coffinmaker)

A Chinese-American opera; an American-Chinese opera? Just what is the work? It is decidedly American, and in Smith’s book Wallace defines his idiom in recalling his effort “to write music in my own language that felt Chinese without sounding ersatz Chinese.” He explains further: “You can hear this in the timbre and texture, but also in terms of the space between the notes that lets the music resonate with a sense of ritual.” That says it all and accounts for the newness — for the freshness and transparency of the score.

At 2 hours and 40 minutes, Bonesetter’s Daughter is nonetheless an engagingly intimate work exuberant in emotion. I felt at the end that it is a good work, not great perhaps, but good in its human authenticity.

Fate! Luck! Chance!, a documentary on the making of the opera, will be shown on public television in early 2009. Smith’s book includes the complete libretto of Bonesetter’s Daughter.

Wes Blomster

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Ruth.png image_description=Zheng Cao (Ruth Young Kamen) [Photo by Terrence McCarthy] product=yes product_title=Stewart Wallace: The Bonesetter’s Daughter product_by=Ruth Young Kamen (Zheng Cao), Luling Liu Young (Ning Liang), Precious Auntie (Qian Yi), Chang the Coffin Maker (Hao Jiang Tian), Taoist Priest (Wu Tong), Art Kamen (James Maddalena), Arlene Kamen (Catherine Cook), Marty Kamen (Valery Portnov), Dory Kamen (Madelaine Matej), Fia Kamen (Rose Frazier), Chang's First Wife (Mary Finch), Chang's Second Wife (Natasha Ramirez Leland), Chang's Third Wife (Erin Neff), Acrobats (Dalian Acrobatic Troupe), Suona (Wu Tong / Zuo Jicheng). San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Steven Sloane. Director: Chen Shi-Zheng. Set Designer: Walt Spangler. product_id=Above: Zheng Cao as Ruth Young Kamen

All photos by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera
Posted by Gary at 4:30 PM

October 5, 2008

STRAUSS: Capriccio -- Vienna 2008

Music composed by Richard Strauss. Libretto by the composer and Clemens Krauss.

First Performance: 28 October 1942, Staatsoper, Munich.

Principal Roles:
Countess Soprano
Count Baritone
Flamand, a musician Tenor
Olivier, a poet Baritone
La Roche, director of a theatre Bass
Clairon, an actress Contralto
M. Taupe Tenor
Italian Singer Soprano
Italian Tenor Tenor
Major-Domo Bass

Setting: A drawing-room in the Countess's chateau near Paris; May 1777


In the Countess Madeleine's château, the composer Flamand and the poet Olivier listen to a rehearsal of Flamand's newly written sextet. They are both in love with the Countess, and argue the relative merits of music and words. The theatre director La Roche, waking up from a nap, explains that without impresarios their efforts are but lifeless paper. They leave to rehearse Olivier's new play, written for the Countess's birthday the following day. The Count enters, teasing the Countess that she is identifying Flamand with her love of music, while she retaliates that his love of words mirrors his admiration for the actress Clairon. While the Count enjoys fleeting encounters, the Countess desires long-lasting love but cannot choose between Flamand and Olivier. Clairon arrives and she and the Count read the latest scene, culminating in a love sonnet, before leaving for the rehearsal in the theatre. Olivier declares to the Countess that the sonnet is intended for her but, to his horror, Flamand sets it to music and sings it. Olivier is summoned to make cuts to his play. Flamand declares his love and the Countess asks him to meet her in the library the following morning when her choice will be revealed. Refreshments are served while the guests are entertained by dancers and singers. La Roche describes his planned birthday entertainment, the allegorical Birth of Pallas Athene followed by the spectacular Fall of Carthage. He is mocked, but defends his faith in the theatre, challenging Flamand and Olivier to create masterpieces that speak to humanity's heart and soul. The Countess commissions them to collaborate on an opera, and the Count suggests the theme should be the events of that afternoon. The Count and Clairon leave for Paris with the theatre company. With moonlight streaming in through the windows, the Countess learns that Olivier as well as Flamand will meet her in the library to learn how the opera is to end. Torn between them, she sings the sonnet that represents their inseparability. She consults her image in the mirror to decide the opera's ending. The major-domo provides the answer: 'Dinner is served'.

[Synopsis Source: Boosey & Hawkes]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Fleming_Capriccio.png image_description=Renée Fleming as the Countess (Photo: Wiener Staatsoper) audio=yes first_audio_name=Richard Strauss: Capriccio first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Capriccio1.m3u product=yes product_title=Richard Strauss: Capriccio product_by=Die Gräfin Madeleine (Renée Fleming)
Der Graf, ihr Bruder (Bo Skovhus)
Flamand, ein Musiker (Michael Schade)
Oliver, ein Dichter(Adrian Eröd)
La Roche, der Theaterdirektor (Franz Hawlata)
Die Schauspielerin Clairon (Angelika Kirchschlager)
Monsieur Taupe, Souffleur (Peter Jelosits)
Eine italienische Sängerin (Jane Archibald)
Ein italienischer Sänger (Cosmin Ifrim)
Der Haushofmeister (Clemens Unterreiner)

Das Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, Philippe Jordan (cond.)

Live performance: 7 June 2008, Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna product_id=For best results, use VLC or Winamp.
Posted by Gary at 2:29 PM

October 3, 2008

Korngold opera the “Hair” of its day

The obsession with it reached an early high point in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting of wife Elizabeth Siddal as Beata Beatrix and came to a late conclusion in Erich Korngold’s 1920 opera Die tote Stadt, which opened a 6-performance run at the San Francisco Opera on September 23. Paul, central figure of the story, is a man of only 30 who has made of his home an altar of worship to his dead wife Marie, and his continuing adoration of her focuses upon a heavy lock of her hair that he keeps at his side.

In the current age of sanitized death many who attended the superb SFO production first seen in Salzburg in 2004 found the story morbid and were cheered that the opera ended with Paul’s realization that he must put an end to this life-in-death and return to the real world. That ending, however, is the work of Korngold and it prompts one to go back to the 19th century — to the days of divine decadence and sultry symbolism — and to retrace significant steps — that led to this sumptuous score.

For a look-alike of the deceased Marie, designer Wolfgang Gussmann turned to John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Miss Elsie Palmer, an 1890 oil-on-canvas now in the Colorado Springs Art Center. A huge reproduction of the painting was on the SFO stage and smaller versions of it were projected on the walls of Paul’s salon from time to time. To be sure, Palmer was a beautiful woman and since she was only 17 at the time of the painting Gussmann’s choice of it suggests early and unjust death. But would not Rossetti’s rendering of his wife as Dante’s guide into ethereal realms have been even more fitting — or are we embarrassed by the excesses of the decadent imagination of his age? For it was Rossetti who entered fully into the esthetic of this age.

Siddal, although painted by many, is remembered almost solely through Rossetti’s pre-Raphaelite masterpiece, and the role played by Beatrix’ ample red hair points directly toward Die tote Stadt. When Siddal died a mere two years after their marriage the distraught Rossetti tucked into her hair a book of his unpublished verse and had it buried with her. Alas, thereupon his creative well ran dry. What to do but have Siddal exhumed to retrieve his poetry? Approval was given by the courts, and the exhumation — Rossetti was not present — was carried out at night to avoid attracting attention.

Korngold’s Paul would have understood — and have been far more captivated by the muted pain of Beatrix than by the innocent plainness of Elsie Palmer. The heavy, slightly stifling hothouse atmosphere aura of Rossetti would also have appealed to that great father of decadence Joris-Karl Huysmans, who wrote the basic guide to this life style in his 1884 À rebours (or Against the Grain).

This is the “poisonous” but unnamed book that so fascinated Dorian Gray and that Oscar Wilde was later forced to name at his trial. Huysmans knew the art of his day and paid incensed tribute — above all — to the achievement of Gustave Moreau, whom he praised for his several opulent paintings of Salome. “Des Esseintes saw at last the Salome, weird and superhuman, he had dreamed of,” Huysman writes of his esthete hero. “No longer was she merely the dancing girl who extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle of her quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs; she was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old ice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs the flesh and steels her muscles.” Here one encounters full force the irresistible sensuous appeal of the femme fatale, of whom Korngold’s Marie is a late descendent.

Korngold found the story of Hugues Viane — the composer rechristened him Paul — in George Rodenbach’s brief 1892 novel Bruges-la-Morte, a near-forgotten work found worthy of a new translation by Mike Mitchell, published with a perceptive introduction by Alan Hollinghurst by Dedalus Press in 2004.

Bruges in its moribund medieval majesty served Rodenbach not only as background, but as a character in the novel as well, for in the stasis of its beauty it reflected the continuing presence of Marie — dead five years at the time — in Paul’s life. Indeed, Hollinghurst describes the book as a study of passion whose other principal aim is the evocation of a town, not merely as a backdrop, but as an essential character, associated with states of mind, counseling, dissuading, inducing the hero to act.

In its proximity to the worlds of Wagner, Baudelaire and Freud, Bruges-la-Morte is a significant work and it seems a shame that Korngold felt called upon to return Paul to an active life. Why deny him the Liebestod that was so rightfully his? And is he really going to be happy back in the 9-to-5 world?

Was Korngold, who later found greater fame in swashbuckling scores for films starring Errol Flynn, pre-programmed to favor the happy end then traditional in Hollywood? Be that as it may, the composer’s “mélange of Straussian modernism and Viennese schmaltz,” as one critic has called it, stands as a major achievement of David Gockley’s beginnings as the new general director of the San Francisco Opera.

Die tote Stadt is a good — not a great opera — and fully deserving of the affection lavished on it in this staging.

Wes Blomster

Click here for a review of San Francisco Opera’s production of Die tote Stadt.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Beata_Beatrix.png image_description=Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1864) product=yes product_title=Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Die tote Stadt product_by=Above: Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1864)
Posted by Gary at 4:08 PM

Die tote Stadt at San Francisco Opera

Korngold’s third opera Die tote Stadt premiered in 1920 in Cologne, the composer a mere 23 years old. Back then, opera remained a living art form, with the likes of Strauss and Puccini keeping the public excited about new works. The Met, not wanting to miss out on any of the excitement, immediately grabbed this odd piece for its American premiere only a year later. Korngold’s next opera Das Wunder der Heliane premiered in Hamburg in 1927 but its generic musicality and moralistic satire failed to ignite enthusiasm on either side of the Atlantic. Never mind though, it was time to write movie music.

After its initial Met performances, Die tote Stadt had to wait more than fifty years to again seduce American audiences with the heavy nostalgia that permeates Korngold’s score. This time it was a brave excursion into rare but revered repertory by America’s only adventurous company of the time, the New York City Opera, where the 1975 Frank Corsaro staging remained in its repertory until 2006. San Franciscans had to wait even longer for Korngold’s enigmatic work.

Die tote Stadt is a masterpiece, at least in the hands of a stage director able to superimpose the real and the imaginary, of an indulgent conductor able to sustain its unending waltzes and revivals of a single tune, of a tenor able to sing loud and long and high, and of a soprano able to do the same as well as impersonate a cabaret dancer. All this the San Francisco Opera brought over to us from the Salzburg Festival where it originated in 2004, with a brief stop in Vienna to pick up soprano Emily Magee.

Die tote Stadt is a tour de force for everyone involved. The formidable role of Paul, the bereaved husband of the dead Marie, belongs these days to Torsten Kerl, who continues on to London with this superb Willy Decker production. Frank, Paul’s friend and finally rival for the attentions of the dancer Marietta, is the third of the opera’s formidable roles, particularly as it is tied to the Pierrot song and antics of Fritz who taunts Paul in Marietta’s cruel commedia dell’arte improvisation on death and resurrection. The staging of this complicated scene (as well with the entire opera) was entrusted to and effectively realized by Meisje Hummel, an assistant for the Salzburg premiere.

Marietta.pngEmily Magee (Marietta)
There is no doubt that the piece casts its spell from the first note. The San Francisco audience gave its immediate and full attention to Korngold’s rich sound, conductor Donald Runnicles lovingly pulling forth its thick and weighty sonorities from San Francisco Opera orchestra. The big tune from the opera, “Marietta’s Lied” comes fairly early but it is really a duet for Paul and Marietta (though it is far better known as a stand alone concert aria for soprano), and this tune comes back many, many times, finally as Paul’s wrenching farewell to his dead wife.

The message of Die tote Stadt is simple – there is no resurrection. It is a plain statement, unadorned with philosophic and religious implications, forcefully presented with the full resources of the post Romantic orchestra with expanded percussion. The Willy Decker production assumes equal proportion in a conception that sometimes juxtaposes and other times superimposes Paul’s present upon Paul’s past, resulting in a confusion of life with dream that brings a whirling corporealness to what is cold and dead. These are the brilliant designs of Wolfgang Gussmann whose black boxes and shadowy abysses inhabited by Decker’s real people and by their shadows. The production means are both enormous and delicately expended.

TroupMarie.pngPaul and troupe

Donald Runncles resonated mightily with Korngold’s over-the-top sonorities. Torsten Kerl is justifiably famous for the role of Paul. Emily Magee brought impeccable musical taste and character dimensionality as the nemesis of the dead wife. San Francisco Opera’s particular contributions to its performances of the Decker production were adequate. The Frank of Lucas Meachem fulfilled the formidable needs of this role, though it lacked the weight as antagonist to counter balance the musical and dramatic personalities of the production’s protagonists. The Brigitta of Katharine Tier was similarly out of balance. The well-performed commedia scene added enormously to the many pleasures of this production.

Michael Milenski

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Paul.png image_description=Torsten Kerl (Paul) [Photo by Terrence McCarthy] product=yes product_title=Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Die tote Stadt product_by=Paul (Torsten Kerl), Marie/Marietta (Emily Magee), Fritz, Frank (Lucas Meachem), Brigitta (Katharine Tier), Juliette (Ji Young Yang), Lucienne (Daniela Mack), Victorin (Alek Shrader), Count Albert (Andrew Bidlack), Gaston (Bryan Ketron), Paul's Double (Ben Bongers). Conductor: Donald Runnicles. Original Director: Willy Decker. Revival Director: Meisje Hummel. Production Designer: Wolfgang Gussmann. product_id=Above: Torsten Kerl as Paul

All photos by Terrence McCarthy
Posted by Gary at 10:21 AM

Tom Moore Interviews Mark Engebretson

He is presently professor of composition and director of the Alice Virginia Poe Williams Electronic Music Studio at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. We talked at the Music Library at Duke University on August 24, 2007.

TM: Let’s start with the basic biographical stuff — where you were born and raised, what was the musical environment that helped to shape you, the places you grew up. Memoirists are happy to talk about Lake Wobegon, but composers tend to be more focused on the latest great thing.

ME: I was born in California, but by the time I was three, my family was living in Minnesota, and I grew up in Alexandria, which is the “Birthplace of America”.

TM: Please explain….

ME: There was an ancient Norse rune found near there, with a story of 12th century explorers, there was a bloody encounter with the Native Americans they found — the story is engraved on the stone. Apparently legitimate historians feel that it is a hoax, that an illiterate early 20th-century farmer managed to carve these long-extinct glyphs….who knows whether it’s true or not… but we have a huge statue of a character called “Big Ole” right downtown in Alexandria, with horns, spear and shield — thirty feet tall.

So Alexandria calls itself the “Birthplace of America”.

I grew up in Alexandria until the end of 9th grade, and then my family moved to North St. Paul, Minnesota, a suburb outside of St. Paul. At that time I was (and still am) a saxophonist. I got into music playing in bands. My father, earlier on, had a big band, so I went to big band gigs when I was in junior high school.

TM: What instrument did he play?

ME: His main instrument is clarinet/saxophone. There was a real natural connection — I was taking up one of the instruments that he played, and we could go to gigs together.

TM: Did he have a day job in addition to the gigs?

ME: His day job was being a doctor, but he was a good amateur musician. Now that he is retired he has put all his energy into being a band leader, with a band called Doc’s All-Starts, which is playing all over the place in central Minnesota these days.

TM: How did he get involved in music?

ME: You need to go back to my grandfather Herman, who was a banker in a town called Lowry, MN, a town of about 250 people. He was a clarinetist, and was in the Army band in WWI. He was a very passionate amateur musician, so my father and his sister, who is a very fine pianist, grew up playing music. My dad played a lot of big-band music when he was going to college at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.

I was a saxophonist. For one year I went to St. Olaf College, and then transferred to the University of Minnesota.

TM: St. Olaf’s is famous for its choir.

ME: And the band program is out of this world. They have a terrific orchestra, too. I wanted to be in a more urban environment, where music was more a part of the fabric of the experience.

TM: Rather than being part of the university.

ME: At the University of Minnesota, there were a lot of big-name people who came through, but there was the whole urban scene as well. I majored in saxophone.

TM: Was there a church musical environment you were part of, or were you primarily involved in big bands?

ME: I did go to church — I’m a Minnesotan, so of course I’m a Lutheran. I was in the youth choir in high school, and even sang a role in Jesus Christ Superstar, but it wasn’t central to what I did. As I got older and became more professional, going back to Alexandria, or to my wife’s church (she’s also a saxophonist, Susan Fancher) in Albion, New York, to play — it’s still part of what I do, but it’s not what got me into music in the first place.

TM: Was sax your first instrument, or were there other instruments you played as an adolescent?

ME: I don’t know if I should admit this, but I played piano first, and I hated it. I really did not enjoy the piano, much to my regret now, because now I love playing, but I’m horrifically bad. When the band program started, I actually started in percussion, but I tried the saxophone, and it immediately clicked.

TM: Alto sax?

ME: I started on alto sax, like most kids would. At various times the focus of what I have played has been either alto or soprano, and during the years I was in the Vienna Saxophone Quartet I played more baritone than anything.

TM: Let’s talk about the intersection of sax and contemporary music. The sax is so strongly associated with jazz and big band music, and perhaps less strongly with contemporary music. Orchestral instruments like the violin, for example, don’t have this “vernacular” performance tradition, the idioms, the vocabulary….

ME: I wouldn’t agree that saxophone is less associated with contemporary music — in my own experience, at some point, I realized that it wasn’t jazz that I was interested in, but “classical” music. There the saxophone has a very poor literature — only a handful of pieces in the romantic tradition, from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, so people who compose have been very busy over the last hundred years creating a literature. “Classical” saxophone is, by and large, contemporary, and the literature is enormous. This is the music that gets played. If you do happen to play the violin, you can play Engebretson, or you can play Beethoven. It’s a rough go…(laughs…).

TM: It’s always interesting to hear what influences people bring to their composition, because they are so various. What were the formative things you were listening to as an adolescent? Jazz? Avant-garde? Cage? Ives? Bubble-gum?

ME: There was classical music and jazz in my house, since my father was interested in both as a listener and a player. For myself, I remember very distinctly getting out a whole stack of 45s with my sister, and trying to decide what my favorite song was. I don’t remember the group, but the tune was “Little Willie”.

As an adolescent, I loved Boston’s first album — “More than a feeling”, “Long time”….in fact, I have long since lost the album, but I downloaded it for my daughter and she loves it — just dances all over the place. That particular album is really well-crafted.

I remember being interested in some of the Christian rock of the day, and probably my first real attempts at composing were sitting at the piano and trying to bang out some kind of tune, singing along. My friends and I tried to form a band…

The real thing that got me going was classical music studies. I was playing music by composers who might be unknown to most people — Eugene Bozza, Paule Maurice — staples of the older French school. I started to think (I don’t why I thought this) — “I could make some music like this”, and started to write music to emulate these composers, and it wasn’t really too bad. I got a lot of encouragement, especially from Eric Stokes, who was a composer at the University of Minnesota, from the American experimental tradition, very interested in found sound, experiential music, community playing. He loved Ives and Henry Cowell. In our new music ensemble we played Scott Joplin as well. A terrific figure. He said to me “You have some talent. You should keep composing”, which totally blew my mind.

TM: You were at Minnesota for undergraduate school. What was the musical environment like there?

ME: I was a saxophone major, so I practiced like mad. I worked very, very hard and tried to achieve a superior technique. I couldn’t really pursue composition studies, but Eric was there, and so were Paul Fetler, and Dominick Argento, and Alex Lubet, who is still there. It was a rich environment for composers. For my part I was very focused on playing.

TM: When did you make a turn toward composition, or was it a gradual process?

ME: Gradual. I began composing with some seriousness at that time. With Eric Stokes’ encouragement I started learning about extended techniques — multiphonics, quarter-tones. I was interested and still am in those kinds of things.

I went to France after that, to study in Bordeaux, and the intention was to study saxophone, but by the second year I really wanted to take advantage of the fact that I could speak French pretty well, and could enroll in other classes. I studied composition with Michel Fuste-Lambezat, whom we called “Maître”, of course, and we had French-style master-class instruction. He would come in, and whoever had written some music would present it to him (with great fear). He would put it on the stand, study it pretty hard, play through a little bit on the piano, and make pronouncements about what was working and what wasn’t. There were always four to eight of us learning together.

After that I returned to the States, and decided to move to Chicago. I had met Susan Fancher, who is now my wife, and we decided to get married. Needing something to do in Chicago, I thought about going to Northwestern, and asked whether I could do a master’s in saxophone and in composition. They said I could do both, and so I did. It was one degree with two majors.

This was when things began to go the other way in terms of composing. Of the pieces which I let out, the earliest is from that time.

TM: The microcultures of musical institutions can vary so much. What were things like at Northwestern? I imagine things had begun to loosen up by that point.

ME: Northwestern was a great place to be for composition, and still is. My training is as a modernist, not to say that I learned a lot of serial techniques, but more in the sense that there was always an interest in the development of musical language, that progressive quality that modernists believed in. During those years at Northwestern I studied with Jay Alan Yim, with Stephen Syverud, later with Bill Karlins, I studied with Alan Stout, though I only had one lesson with him…it was a great lesson.

I found the experience to be very mind-opening. The emphasis on inventiveness, on how you can make connections and build connections, construct a universe, was very powerful. I find it powerful to this day, though lately I have been calling myself a recovering modernist.

TM: Who were the icons held up to you as compositional models? Boulez? Stockhausen? Penderecki? If you go to Symphony Hall in Boston, there above the stage is the name of Beethoven. I don’t suppose that you would find “Penderecki” in a similar spot anywhere outside Poland. Who might it have been when you were in graduate school?

ME: There was actually a list that Jay Yim gave me for my master’s exam, with about 15 names on it. The task was to be able to identify any score or recording by these composers, and to be able to write a detailed essay on their life and artistic milieu. Some of those composers were: Giacinto Scelsi (I discovered Scelsi at this time), Donatoni, Penderecki was not on there, but could very well have been, Xenakis….

TM: High modernists.

ME: Ligeti, who I later wrote my dissertation on, Nancarrow was there, and some others who might seem more off-beat in comparison — Morton Feldman, Louis Andriessen, and a lot of the doubly high-modernists — Brian Ferneyhough, Harrison Birtwistle, Michael Finnissy, Kaija Saariaho, Henze, Poul Ruders.

TM: It is interesting to see who is on the list for a particular generation. Soviet composers for decades were lower than scum. Shostakovich was considered to be compromised; Prokofiev was worse, other composers with a huge presence today were completely off the radar screen, Arvo Pärt, for example, and other East Bloc composers.

Why were these composers that you mention iconic, and not others?

ME: By the way, Schnittke and Gubaidulina were also on that list. I think a lot of those composers had developed highly-individualized personal languages — Scelsi, Feldman, Xenakis, Elliott Carter.

TM: You completed your masters’ at Northwestern, and….

ME: And then I lived in Sweden for a year and half.

TM: An interesting choice. Was it the saxophone?

ME: I was following my wife. Susan got a gig with a full-time saxophone quartet called the Rollin’ Phones. She went to join the group and I went along. I started teaching saxophone, clarinet, and got a half-year job with a professional wind symphony in Linköping. I began doing professional composing in Stockholm, and then we moved to Vienna to join the Vienna Saxophone Quartet, where I got lots of commissions from the Austrian Ministry of Culture, and began to see myself as a composer.

When we left Vienna, we went back to Northwestern, where we both did doctorates, Susan in saxophone, and I did mine in composition. We continued to play with the Vienna group for another four years, commuting from Chicago, but my studies by this time were all about composing.

TM: Who were your professors at this point?

ME: My dissertation adviser was Jay Alan Yim. I studied with Bill Karlins, and also with Pauline Oliveros and Marta Ptaszynska, who is now at the University of Chicago, and with Mike Pisaro

TM: What did you bring from your activities as a professional saxophonists to your approach as a composer? So many composers come into composition as pianists, or from the organ, and now there are some who come in from the guitar. It’s less frequent to see wind players taking this route.

ME: Early on I was very interested in extended techniques, and the saxophone is a champion instrument for those kinds of things. I brought an openness to sound. These days I am a little interested in multiphonics and so on. Certainly they are usable in a musical context, but I have been trying to explore other areas. An openness to sound combinations.

Secondly, as a single-line player, I think that the interest in line is really strong in my music. To this day, it is a lot harder to imagine writing for a pianist, one person who does many things, than it is to imagine what an orchestra can do, which is many players each doing one thing. I can imagine individual lines on a large scale, and how they will combine, but the physicality of many things at once is something I don’t do myself.

My experience improvising with Anders Åstrand in Sweden was important. We would improvise entire concerts and say something like “Let’s play for a while, and when we all get to A, we’ll stop”, and we would play, and get to A, and make an ending. Or we would say “Let’s play a fast one”, or a slow one. No score, but we really listened to each other, and created (I’ve got the recordings to prove this) really coherent musical compositions, with motivic development, themes and sections, and so forth, and I learned a lot about how sounds can be combined. In particular, that any sounds can combine with any others, and sound beautiful. And that we feel form in a very natural way. It might seem trite to distill things down to this, but the golden section is something that we would do without even thinking about it, or structural shapes related to that, or that sound very satisfying. I thought “that’s really natural”, and I should try to compose music that has that element.

TM: You might say that everyone improvises in speaking before an audience, in conversations, and we don’t think of this as something difficult or abstruse, for which we have to have incredible technical preparation. In our Western classical tradition, we so often tend to be tied to notes on the page, and think that music is what is on paper, and not the notes in the air.

ME: I remember expounding the philosophy that “music is for listening”. Music is the thing that flies through the air, a wonderful and beautiful and mysterious thing.

TM: “If it sound good, it is good”. And if it doesn’t sound good, it isn’t good, and it doesn’t matter about the theoretical structure if you can’t hear it.

ME: I always admired Xenakis in that respect. There’s someone who sat and spun out equations, and formulas, and probabilities. One of his best pieces is a saxophone quartet, Xas, which has curves like those which he designed for the Philips pavilion with Corbusier. It sounds great, but it’s based on an intense intellectual construct.

TM: Moving on from Northwestern, you have continued on the academic track, rather than the touring professional track.

ME: I had my chance to be a real musician in the real world, and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. It was a great experience, but there was something else that I wanted to do. After Northwestern, Susan and I moved to Buffalo, where she got a position with another full-time saxophone quartet, the Amherst Saxophone Quartet, which had its 25th anniversary when she was there. They played half of the time, and were in residence at SUNY Buffalo for the other half of their activities. I sent out resumes feverishly, and got hired as a theory adjunct at SUNY Fredonia, and then got a position in composition at the University of Florida at Gainesville. I met some wonderful people — James Paul Sain and Paul Richards, and then went back to Buffalo, teaching at Fredonia and Eastman. Those were the work experiences that prepared me for my current job as assistant professor of composition at UNC Greensboro.

TM: Let’s talk about your recent compositions. Is there an esthetic commonality between the works, or do you take each one as it comes?

ME: I think and I hope that I have a voice that is mine, that people will recognize. One of the things I am most interested in today is interactivity, by which I mean, on the one hand, combining the computer, using Max/MSP, with live performers, and also trying to get the computer to behave in a way that is more like human performers. We can’t achieve artificial intelligence yet, but we are trying to simulate that somehow. My colleague at UNCG, Alejandro Rutty, said “Max is nothing but a big reverb machine”.

When it deals with live audio input, it has a tendency to take the input, do something to it (very quickly, mind you), and spit it back out, doing some kind of reverberation. Live players don’t work that way in an improvisational setting. One player can suggest something, or anticipate another, or things can happen simultaneously. If you compose a piece you can work out connections, since you can think out of time. The computer is less good at things like this.

I am working on ways to make it feel and appear as if the computer is acting more like a human player. There should be variations in performance, within constrained parameters. A computer piece should be identifiably the same piece from one performance to another, with more variation than you would find in a piece by Beethoven, but within parameters, so it’s not so wildly different that you might not recognize it as the same piece. The computer is good at doing things exactly the same way, or wildly different. I am trying to get it play the way a human would.

TM: The iconic composers you mentioned create a personal language by reaching a level of abstraction that excludes local particularities. If you look at Copland, he studied in Paris, and yet in the 30s he is working at creating something that is recognizably American. The high modernists are creating things from some other place, some other planet. You don’t think “England”, “France”, “Germany”. For some composers this national inflection is still present and something that they strive to cultivate. You are an American from Minnesota, living in the South? Is your music American? Is this present when you think about your musical language?

ME: There are European musicians who have told me that my music is insufficiently American. “You are American, you should sound like John Adams!” But on the other hand, in the States, my music is perceived as being colored by European experiences, especially the pieces like the Energy Drink, which are horribly difficult, and which were difficult for me to compose. Those things seem to be more European than American.

The short answer is that I don’t really think about this very much. I do know that having lived in different places, one finds oneself responding to the musical environment. The pieces I have composed are somehow inflected by the places that I have been. In Vienna, if you wrote something with a tonal background and triadic harmonies you would have been laughed out of town — you just couldn’t do it. It was perfectly safe to smash and burn and make a lot of noise.

In certain ways, the music of the last few years is more conservative. I want the surface to shine and shimmer, whereas before I wanted it to grate and grind.

TM: It sounds like the anxiety of influence — that the weight of triadic music is so great in Vienna.

ME: It’s not like that at all [in Vienna]. My friend Wolfram Wagner, who is Viennese, a very fine composer, refers to the influence of the “institutionalized avant-garde”. That is what made it impossible to write triadic harmony. It’s not Beethoven who looms over compositional life in Vienna. At that time you had to project your avant-garde and modernist credentials to get the money I was talking about.

TM: But the reason for the avant-garde to have this esthetic is that in their institutional life they are so well-behaved.

ME: I don’t know that they are well-behaved — I have been to concerts with people and booing and stomping out.

TM: But they probably wait for the lights to change before they enter the crosswalk.

ME: There is a certain amount of civility that we sometimes lack here on the other side of the pond.

TM: You had the institutionalized avant-garde in Vienna. What was the spirit of the scene in Chicago and Buffalo?

ME: Chicago I experienced as a student, to my dismay the second time, since I felt like I was a professional composer. In the fabric of musical life in Chicago there is an improv scene that is very strong — Ken Vandermark, Gene Coleman, Jerry Ruthrauff. I would go and play concerts in bars with friends. I did that with Pauline Oliveros, and that was a lot of fun. We weren’t connected to the University of Chicago scene. There is a huge distance — physical, spiritual and philosophical between University of Chicago and Northwestern. It’s not the personalities. Marta is down there now, and she is a wonderful composer and a friend. It’s a long, long way between them.

I do remember the Chicago Symphony doing a Birtwistle piece. I tried to go one night, when it was paired with Tchaikovsky and it sold out, and I didn’t get in. And the next night they canceled the Birtwistle. They simply weren’t going to play that again.

In Buffalo, you mention Feldman and Foss, and in that time there was an association with the Symphony which is no longer there, but the tradition is carried on by the folks at the University of Buffalo. As a composer I was not so active at that school, but I spent a lot of time going to UB, going to concerts. They have huge audiences, and they are doing high-modernist music. It’s a tribute to David Felder, Cort Lippe, Jeff Stadelman and Jonathan Golove who built that.

TM: North Carolina is spread-out. We have urban centers which are not impossibly far from each other, but yet not so close. It’s hard to connect with what is going on in Winston-Salem, or Greensboro, or the Triangle, or east of the Triangle. What does it mean to be a composer in North Carolina?

ME: There are good programs run by the North Carolina Council for the Arts, and the local arts councils. There are funding opportunities. I was invited by Rodney Waschka to do half an evening of my music at NC State [in Raleigh] last year. This year we will do something similar at Chapel Hill. I have some association with the composers at Duke. I also started a new music festival, which is in its fourth year at UNC Greensboro. Last year I invited a number of composers from North and South Carolina, including Scott Lindroth, Reg Bain, John Fitz Rogers from South Carolina, trying to bring the community together by bringing people to Greensboro. This year I have folks coming down from Richmond: Judith Shatin, Ben Broening, Ico Bukvic and a pianist, Amy Dissanayake from Chicago.

The idea of the festival is trying to bring people together, to our house, so we can get together, hear each other’s music, talk a little. These places are really active, and there are super musicians, composers and performers all over the state — we’re just a little too far away from each other. That’s the disadvantage that we are all dealing with. On the other hand, the state has a healthy economy, there is support for the arts, for orchestras and ensembles.

TM: Tell me about Edges.

ME: This is from 2002. There was a competition at the Jacksonville Symphony. It placed, so they gave it a public reading, and it was performed again last year at UNCG. It has a really simple form — ABA’. For the first A, I made a number of harmonic fields, which I numbered, but presented them in a different sequence — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 1, 2, 6, 7, 3, 8, 9, 4. They were overlapping, so the experience of listening to this part of the piece is somewhat disorienting. It doesn’t seem to quite make sense, because the fields are out of order, and slammed up against each other, in an unpredictable way. The middle section is strings only, and I took a motive from the first part, and just wanted to write a beautiful middle section, without thinking about it too much. When the A returns, what was jumbled is in a straight line. My notion is one of clarifying form, where things make more sense as they go along.

TM: Reminiscent of Britten’s Nocturnal, where the preexistent music crystallizes out by the end. What else is new for you?

ME: There’s SaxMax, an interactive piece. This piece is for saxophone and Max/MSP, and was written for Susan Fancher and Jim Romain, who gave the first performances, she on soprano sax, and he on alto sax. I devised a part for the computer so that someone could “play” the computer. It was played about 11 times in the first year. I played the computer part for many but not all of the performances, so that was another challenge I set for myself — transportability of the piece. It’s a duo for saxophone and computer performer. The computer performer has a number of samples which can be called up by pushing keys on a MIDI keyboard, and has the ability to manipulate those samples with faders and knobs. This can also be done with a mouse and a computer screen. There is some granular synthesis performed on the sound of the saxophone. In some parts of the piece, the saxophone performer can tell the computer to listen — to record or not record on demand. In other parts the computer is listening and processing all the time.

I don’t really have pieces that are straight electro-acoustic, and I doubt that there will be. I wrote some straight tape pieces as a student, but that has never been satisfying to me. I always thought that I was right about this, that we have to use live performers, but I talked to Paul Lansky, who I consider to be a very smart person — most people do — and Paul says that in his work he divides these things, between just acoustic and just electro-acoustic, and wants to focus on the specific properties available in those environments.

I thought “I may not be right”, but that is the choice for me. I love performers. I love the possibilities that computer music gives us, but I like combining that with people.

TM: What else is upcoming?

ME: I am finishing a piece for orchestra which is supported by a grant from UNCG, which is called “Mysterious Voices of Wind, Moon, Trees and Dreams”, a smallish work for large orchestra, about 12 minutes or so. I am trying to find a kind of music which fits with each of these ideas. The title was suggested by a dear man and arts supporter we called Colonel Jim, who died, unfortunately, last spring. The other piece I am working on is an interactive piece following SaxMax. This one is for contrabassoon and Max/MSP, called ContraMax.

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Posted by Gary at 9:25 AM

Tom Moore Interviews Alejandro Rutty

His trajectory has taken him from Buenos Aires through Illinois, New Mexico and Buffalo, by way of rock, jazz and tango. We spoke on Oct. 12, 2007 at Duke University.

TM: Tell me about your family. Were your grandparents, parents, cousins, musical? What was the musical environment like?

AR: In my immediate family there were no musicians that I had interactions with. My father is a physician. I have an uncle who played violin in his youth, but that was not something I actually witnessed. My father studied piano like many children. My grandparents played as amateurs, and my great-grandparents were musical connoisseurs. Music is something that belongs to the family as European immigrants - something that was present, but which got lost in the day-to-day of South American life. Depending on whom you ask, one branch of the family came from Switzerland to the jungle, and it is from that province that my father came to Buenos Aires.

TM: Which province?

AR: Chaco, northeast, very hot.

TM: Buenos Aires is one of the great world cities of immigrants. The Italian immigration to Buenos Aires is famous, the Jewish immigration as well. Where did your family come from in Europe?

AR: Both sides have a mix - one side is half-Spanish, half-Italian, the other is half-Spanish, half-Swiss. In Italy, from the south, and in Spain, Catalonia and Galicia. A pretty standard mix - anyone you meet on the street has a mix that is similar to that. I know very few people whose families have been in Buenos Aires for more than three generations.

TM: You grew up in Buenos Aires. What was the cultural situation in Buenos Aires in the seventies? What was present in your life in terms of music?

AR: The soundscape of Buenos Aires, as I perceived it as a child, was one on the one hand, classical music - I remember being taken to the symphony a few times, to the opera - very traditional, Teatro Colon - and on the other hand, the music of the old - the black and white TV, performers with toupees, and flowers in their lapels, tango, something very old-fashioned and kitsch, a decadent tango. And also folk music, a sort of countryside music, guys in ponchos, singing in three-voice harmony with their guitars.

TM: In the USA you had a pseudo-folk music in NYC associated with socialism. Was there a political character to this folk music?

AR: This was after the beginning of the dictatorship in 1976, so there is nothing leftist that can be out in the open. These were traditional folk artists singing about the moon, and the town that they left --- pretty boring for me as a 10 year-old. Once you get to the eighties, that is when you get nationalistic folk with political messages, something that was a lot more alive, and interesting for someone who is young. The other thing was international rock music, which is what I listened to the most, except for a few classical pieces - Beethoven, the Nutcracker. My first LPs were Pink Floyd, Yes, all of that - British progressive rock.

TM: Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

AR: And other things that were even more obscure - Van de Graaf Generator, Gong.

TM: All those groups that are now completely out of fashion.

AR: Though now they are seen less negatively than they were a few years ago. That's what really got me - that you could make music with electric guitars that was not "sha-la-la".

TM: Very complicated.

AR: And very pretentious. Some of them were pretty accomplished. I remember trying to figure out some of the counterpoint in Gentle Giant, and thinking "those guys went to school. They really know how to write music, or they wouldn't be able to do this." Once in a while I hear one of those tapes and I realize why I liked it, that Peter Gabriel was an interesting artist. There was something in it. It completely captivated me - that was what drew me into music. In the eighties, you had the end of the dictatorship, I became a teenager, lots of music that was prohibited before comes in, and for a variety of reasons there was a boom in Argentine rock, which was boosted by the war with England for the Falkland Islands. Suddenly the military thought "what are we doing? All the music on the radio is in English. We need music in Spanish." So they had to start supporting Argentine rock, which had been underground, and it started to be mainstream and to get top-notch production. I had a trio with a guy who played piano and a guy who played saxophone, and I played electric bass. The weird thing is that before I knew how to write music I was interested in composing. I distinctly remember being in the shower when I was thirteen, and having in my head this extremely elaborate composition, and thinking "This is great! This is really good music!" (which at that moment took the shape of some kind of progressive rock). Everything was clear in my head. And I realized that I had no chance at all to write it down or to play it or to transmit it to anybody, and so the music went down the drain along with the water. I wanted to invent - it wasn't that I had a musical talent or practice, and out of need to invent grew the necessity of writing - I really wanted to compose, in the same way that I would write stories, or invent (unsuccessfully) machinery, such as a music stand that turns the pages with a foot switch, and doesn't make noise…. As I started studying, modern jazz came along - Chick Corea, Weather Report - The first piece which really made me a fan - in the classical repertoire - was Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, which was the eye-opener. In Buenos Aires in the sixties there had been the Instituto Di Tella. They were some sort of IRCAM, and they had Rockefeller funds. Everybody who was anybody came through - Nono, Xenakis, Copland. From everywhere in Latin America they would go to study at the Di Tella. Everything that was out there was at the Di Tella. Later it was closed partly because the funding stopped, and partly because of opposition from the military. In the eighties, after the dictatorship, twenty years later, there were people who had been part of the Di Tella when they were young, and who were now heads of some of the competing camps in the Argentinean new music scene.

TM: These camps were divided by esthetic questions? Were they affiliated with institutions in Buenos Aires?

AR: Curiously enough, I don't think that they were not associated with the main institutions. The Teatro Colón was a conservative institution with no new music going on. There was one guy who was a serialist, who had a position at a research center, but he had not come from there but from the Di Tella. He kept the equipment that used to be at their electronic studios. There were two other independent figures, each with their area of influence and their followers. If you studied composition, in addition to your work at the university, you had to belong to one of these camps.

TM: You studied at the Catholic University.

AR: The music school there was founded by Ginastera.

TM: This is the Pontifical University.

AR: Yes. The music school was small, and not a performance school. All we had was composition, conducting, and musicology. They set the bar very high to get into the school. Imagine something in the US that would start with your junior year in college, and end at your masters. To enter you needed to have solid counterpoint, prepare a piano program. On top of your secondary school you had to study music for two or three years. There were people who went to the conservatory and then moved over to the university. At the time I was there the dean was a composer, Caamaño, solid, but very traditional. Later I came to suspect that the school had partly used the program of the Schola Cantorum in Paris. I had ten semesters of composition, eight semesters of orchestration, ten of music history, Gregorian chant, and then conducting. Up through the sixth semester of composition we were only allowed to write for piano. If you weren't a pianist, at the very least you needed to know how to write for the instrument. It was very obsessive. We were only allowed to write some sort of Mendelssohn/Schumann/Brahms….and then in the last two years of the program you could do your own thing. Most composers who wanted to be part of the avant-garde had to study with one of the new-music composers outside. If you stayed with the conservative curriculum, when you graduated you had no idea what to write. I belonged to the "club" of Gerardo Gandini, an extremely good pianist, very good composer, very intuitive, very imaginative.

TM: Was he a serialist?

AR: There was a time when he was Crumb-like, a time when he was post-modern, referring to earlier styles - he wrote pieces based on Schumann's piano works, re-ornamentations of Frescobaldi….all sorts of things. He, among the three independent figures, was the one who had some media presence and savvy, would organize concert series where an orchestra would only play 20th-century music. That was where I first got to hear the big pieces of the 20th-century repertoire.

TM: Where did they take place?

AR: At a big theater - he had substantial sponsorship. On the other hand, he also had a small basement theater where he did chamber music by young composers - he was a great help. The group of young composers which he led would have its pieces performed by his friends, who were really good players. People would come to listen to new music, and the music by these young composers. It felt like being part of something, belonging, as opposed to the situation in the States, where most new music seems to be inside campuses and outside society. New music in Buenos Aires was in theaters - small theaters, big theaters, places where the general public was present.

TM: Part of a continuum with modern dance, theater…

AR: There was a sense of being part of the larger scheme of things.

TM: Let's rewind the tape a little. You have mentioned art-rock, international rock, Argentinean rock - what was the presence of jazz in Buenos Aires?

AR: What I remember is what everyone was listening to at the time. You had to have your Return to Forever LPs, Paco de Lucia, John McLaughlin, Chick Corea - that was the thing to be listening to. A few years later Pat Metheny was the biggest jazz figure in Argentina It was a shock when I came here and found Pat Metheny LPs in a record store for thirty cents each. I realized that the reality was different.

TM: How did you move from the trio with which you were playing to studying at the Pontifical University?

AR: That trio led to a fully-equipped rock band playing very pretentious instrumental music, which then broke up, and we became avant-garde performers. I had switched from bass to piano, and when I was leaving high-school, career choices needed to be made. I don't know how explicit it was, but there was a sense of my family saying, if you are going to be a musician, be a serious musician - don't just have long hair and play acoustic guitar. I didn't feel it as an imposition - coming from a middle-class family, it seemed appropriate to me, to have your credentials in order. It also seemed very exciting. The possibility of a career as a composer was very attractive. I was already obsessed, like a typical seventeen-year old, with which pieces were more musically advanced than others.

TM: Who were the prominent figures in composition from the world scene in Argentina at the time?

AR: Each teacher would have a favorite, but there were no figures that were directly influential. The composition teacher at the university was a big fan of Bartok - he had premiered Bartok's music in Argentina in the forties. He tolerated Messiaen - nothing beyond that. The serialist was stuck on hyper-analyzing Webern's op. 27, and the other guy was into Italian composers, having himself studied with Dallapicola.

TM: Where did you go from study at the Catholic University?

AR: Halfway through I decided that only composing was leaving me unhappy, because of the nature of the program. There was composition, history, harmony, counterpoint, but where was the music-making? There were no ensembles to play with. I was starting to worry about how to make a living. On top of my composing, I started doing choral and orchestral conducting, learning music from a different perspective, which was very, very helpful. Suddenly I could make music with others. Conducting helps a lot if you want to be dating. It was a change from walking in a crouch, with long hair, long beard, glasses, to hanging out with musicians, and going for drinks after the rehearsals. I started making my living primarily by conducting choirs, and I also had a semi-professional orchestra, which gave me some more visibility. The choir scene is different there - it is not church-oriented, but socially-oriented. There are singing groups, and they often need conductors. Sometimes they become big organizations.

TM: Are there corporate choirs there?

AR: There are a few. Banks often have choirs. I was a student of someone who had one of the best choirs in the country, and also conducted the National Bank choir. A large bank, and they only had to pay one part-time salary to a conductor, and all their employees would go and sing on Thursday nights. Great for morale, great for PR, and gives a musician a job. And then there are groups where everyone chips in ten bucks, and it is enough to get a conductor. I did a lot of that.

TM: Did that come from German culture with the Singverein?

AR: I have no idea where it comes from, what the roots are. This is how the choral scene works in most of Latin America. It was really refreshing. Just as the string orchestra let me get to know all of the Italian repertoire for strings - Geminiani, Corelli, Torelli - this was a way for me to enter into the choral repertory. And there the choral people really preferred unaccompanied choir music. Outside of the big pieces with orchestra, a capella is the real singing, and piano is evil. It was good for me to get excited about finding repertoire, which was difficult, given the state of the libraries. I remember going to a library looking for 16th-century canzonets, maybe Vecchi, and the librarian said, "there are some boxes over there. You can check them out. We used to have a card catalog, but it's gone." Things may have changed a bit, but that was my experience at the time. I would conduct, and once in a while would have one of my compositions performed. This was already 1991, 1992. We had hyper-inflation beginning in 1989, things were tough, and people were looking for a way out. My composing/conducting career was stagnant, so I thought it would be a good idea to study, find out what was going on elsewhere. Whatever the first opportunity with a fellowship would be, I would check it out. This was pre-internet. A lot of mail to places that I didn't know that much about. I looked for places in Italy, Spain and the USA. I got admitted to programs in Fiesole and Barcelona, but couldn't secure funding. The first thing that came through was a masters in composition at Illinois State. I knew that the university in Illinois had a good reputation, but I didn't know that there was more than one. I arrived, and for a variety of reasons, I moved to New Mexico, where I had a good opportunity as graduate assistant of the conductor. I had a great time, lots of podium time. I love Albuquerque - every time I can I go back. At New Mexico I made some good friends in the theater department among the faculty. They always needed live music for the shows, and I was the only one willing to write music on the spot, with one day's notice, and put together a band. It was very good experience, very enlightening - all the curse words I know in English I learned at the basement of the theater department. It was a lot more colorful than at the music department. It was here that they told me to write an opera that they would somehow manage to produce. It was my sense that whenever I was conducting I was thinking about composing, and whenever I was composing I was thinking about conducting. I did a little bit of both. The next step was my doctorate in Buffalo. An Argentine composer, Erik Oña, was there, and highly recommended the program. It was the moment in which my adult compositional language began to be formed, rather than some sort of student mix, thanks to the sharp mind of David Felder.

TM: You have mentioned a variety of very disparate influences. Does your language bring these together? How would you identify the elements in the mix?

AR: One of the things that happened is that what had been the music of grandparents began to be rediscovered. In the 70's singers had been singing the tangos from the 1930's and 1940s, but with less style - cheap crooning, a Barbara Streisand kind of tango, but worse - the type of thing that I just don't like at all - old ladies' music. But then you have the music of Piazzolla, who made his career through escaping the traditional tango, becoming a sort of jazz musician around the world at jazz festivals. He comes back, becomes a sort of classical composer because he writes for strings. Conservatory students in Argentina get to play Piazzolla because "it's cool tango, it's not this old thing with the vibrato", and partly because of these young players tango begins to reappear. People listened to Piazzolla, and then to tango standards, and they began to realize that the traditional repertoire is even more interesting than Piazzolla, a lot richer. Piazzolla effectively simplified the complexities of traditional tango into some things that are very identifiable, and could be played by anybody, whereas the traditional tango is so rhythmically subtle and nuanced and complex, rich and interesting, that you cannot play it if you don't know it. You have to be part of the tradition - someone has to tell you how to play it. The scores are just quarter notes and eighth notes - but it floats. You count one, two, three, four and you don't know where you are, because the bass player is never playing quite there. It's very difficult, and very interesting. This re-discovery of traditional tango was happening in Argentina while I was gone. In the States - my wife is a good singer, and it's an expatriate thing - we started doing some small tango shows, which grew into large tango shows, and we brought bandoneón players from New York, from Miami. We did a show in Buffalo where the symphony plays, in the ballroom for 800 people, and then we played in Pittsburgh for 3000 people at a festival. Suddenly we were playing tango. I had the good fortune of meeting Pablo Aslán, who is a tango bass player, who lives in New York, and was my neighbor in Argentina, though we didn't meet back then, he is the person who knows the most about tango in the States, and who knows who is where and who does what. He knows everybody. When Yo-Yo Ma did the world tango tour, he went with him. He is from my generation, so he is musically bilingual. I started learning from him, but also from the older bandoneón players. One of them didn't read very well, but he was phenomenal. You would tell him the song, tell him the key, and he had everything by memory. You started to figure out how do you do an ending, what type of pattern do you play, what do you do in the right hand, what do you do in the left hand. This started growing on a separate track. At some point in Buffalo I realized that I didn't like where my music was going. I wanted to start from scratch. I said "the next piece I will write will be just a melodic line." I had been just piling elements on top of elements, and everything was so complex, with different layers. No more layers, no more anything. I just need to write a line - no harmony, no counterpoint, just a line. And this line would have to be so good that it would be enough, and I would build from there. At that point I was listening to a lot of French baroque music - Charpentier, Rameau - and I liked the way that they did ornamentation. I was also listening to Arabic music from North Africa, and I liked the ornamentation there as well. And I was listening to tango. Somehow I started doing music that would be just melody, but rich with a tremendous amount of ornamentation. Tango-style, but also French baroque, and Middle-Eastern with bends….I liked that. And I thought "what do I do with this music?" Because it can't be just melody, and I didn't want to do counterpoint. I realized that in many of my previous pieces I had been doing music based on mechanical processes. What if, in order to create the larger acoustical space that I need, I can process this melody with a reverb, not with a real reverb, but with a reverb that I write into the score? That was the beginning of how I started to create a melodic style that I felt was mine. I started playing with other effects. What if I use a phaser here? A little chorus? If I try to detune this one? There's a quartet, Artificial Resonances, which I wrote, in which each of the three movements has a different process, different specific things from a machine that would produce what I was writing. Of course, once I get started writing, I don't care about how realistic the reflection of the process is, I care that it gets me to write something that sounds interesting. David Stock, in Pittsburgh, saw a tango show that I did, and saw me a few months earlier at an SCI conference, with a string quartet that I had, and asked for a piece for tango quartet and large instrumental ensemble, since some of his students had a tango quartet. So I wrote Tango Loops. He wanted a tango concerto grosso, but I couldn't figure it out, so I tried to do this: I composed tango pieces as if they were old tangos, and then mixed them up with the orchestra as if I were a DJ who was trying to make some loops out of those pieces. In the lobby, during the intermission, the tango group would be playing…

TM: those tangos.

AR: That started this latest phase, in which I include tango as part of the mix, and now it's not only reverb, I am working on looping, not looping melodies, but complex sound events. When you loop something that you take out of a CD, you have the melody, the accompaniment, the pspspsps - you have everything. I am trying to see how I can put that together with actual instrumental groups. Now I am trying to see how I can get out of tango. I am trying a couple of things. There's one piece now that has a Balkan style-Gypsy wedding sound, as seen by a tango player. I did a piece after I came back from studying batucada, a piece for flute and cello, which is basically an imitation of a batucada, a weird notion for those instruments.

TM: We are all over the map here. What impelled you to look at batucada? This is something that seems completely separate both from American experience and Argentinean music.

AR: In Argentina we have this fascination, this love/hate relationship with Brazil. When I was teaching at Hartwick College, you could propose courses which were three-week long study-abroad trips. As a way to escape from the winter of upstate New York, I thought "where could we go?" Argentina would be too boring. How about Brazil? It's a nice place to go. I had friends there who could help me out. We took a group of students to see how Carnaval gets prepared. We went in January, before it starts, but when you already have the Escolas doing the technical rehearsals. I knew a percussionist at UFF who knows everything about….

TM: Did you look at a particular school?

AR: We went to rehearsals at Mangueira, and were supposed to go to Viradouro, but couldn't make it. We went to this guy's studio, and lined up as if were were an escola, he taught us all the patterns….. Then we went to Salvador, where a good friend plays with Olodum. He helped set up the same type of thing there. We would get together in Pelourinho, and start to play, with the tourists taking pictures of us, as if we were locals, which we clearly weren't. It was completely attractive. There's nothing like it. Those patterns are so interesting.

TM: Tell me how that is being reflected in your next pieces.

AR: What I am doing, and which I did in Tango Loops II, is that I went back and rescued some of the music which I had forgotten. I had the rock band, then a duo, then another rock band, and even living in the States every time I went back home I would compose tunes with friends. I wrote tons of music for theater, songs….I didn't want to have all that material just lost. I write them into the pieces I am putting together.

TM: Music that you wrote for your rock band in 1991…

AR: …ended up in Tango Loops II.

TM: Do you have an archive of scores? Or are they recordings?

AR: Recordings. So I have to listen to them, and write them down in the new, sophisticated way. The esthetic problem that I am dealing with now is that I created this Rutty-style melody, and my version of processing those melodies, but I want to make sure that there is something visceral in it. I sometimes fear that all this compositional pyrotechnia might prevent something that is emotionally direct from entering.

TM: Too much cerebration.

AR: Too much playfulness. I want to make sure that the other element is also there. I think that rescuing these things which were completely direct and unpremeditated in the way that they were composed, in the way they were used - a song that you wrote to play in nightclubs - brings something to the table. And it is way to repossess things that otherwise were lost. What else am I going to do with these songs?

TM: The quality of nationality, of brasilidade is always present in Brazilian music making, which is not true for music in the USA. Is this question of nationality present on a conscious level for you?

AR: This is not the case in Argentina. Brazilian identity is very strong. It never faded. They went from samba to MPB, and it was always mainstream. In Argentina in the eighties rock bands were more international. I don't have this built-in need to be national in any way. As an expatriate, those things sometimes are played out a bit differently. I don't see the need to make musical statements about nationality. The ornamentation thing that came from improvisational tango - it's natural, but if you aren't from there you wouldn't have figured it out. Now that I am doing tango pieces, it helps that people have an image of it, but that is not the essence of my music. It is like a found object. It just happens to be an object that I know from the inside. Recovering the old music helps to make sure that whatever music I write now is more representative of the whole thing; it's the whole me that gets poured into the next piece, not just "now I am writing dodecaphonic duos for contrabassoon and piccolo". The orchestral piece I am writing now - anything that I like in music somehow gets to be in the same piece. That is what I am looking at - making sure that the music is not compartmentalized. It can be a good piece, a bad piece, people can like it or not, but it has to be me.

TM: What's the next big project that you are working on?

AR: Two things. One is an orchestral piece commissioned by the MATA festival in Boston, which Boston Modern Orchestra will play in March, and in April in New York. It's a piece which includes some old tunes of mine, and all sorts of weird things - loops of flamenco, tango ….I don't know what the final piece will be like, but I am very happy with how it's shaping up.

The other thing is a piece I have been trying to write for ten years, and I just failed in my fourth attempt. When I was in Buffalo, I had a musical group dealing with live poets as performers, music based not on the text of the poem, but on how it was spoken. This brought us into contact with the avant-garde poetry scene in Buffalo, which is very strong. Michael Basinski wrote a poem called City of Webs, which is thirty-nine minutes long. Two pages, but he takes thirty-nine minutes. Mind-bending, phenomenal - it changed how I see text, poetry, everything. At first I tried to do a piece for choir and recording of his voice - without him doing it there is no point - and I failed. Then I tried to do an instrumental piece, and failed. At the new music festival at UNC Greensboro, I was going to present the new version, but I failed. I am pretty sure that I will finish it up as recorded instrumental music plus Basinski, as opposed to electronics. It is tape, but with actual performers. That is the next big thing for me, because it is a large piece. I trimmed the poem to twenty-two minutes, but most of the meat is there.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/rutty.png image_description=Alejandro Rutty (Photo by Betsy Busch) product=yes product_title=An Interview with Alejandro Rutty product_by=Above: Alejandro Rutty (Photo by Betsy Busch)
Posted by Gary at 9:07 AM

October 1, 2008

Zurich train station temporarily becomes opera hall

DPA [Earth Times, 1 October 2008]

Zurich - Zurich's main train station was transformed into an opera hall for a special production of the opera La Traviata. Tuesday night's three-hour production, sponsored by Swiss television, was viewed by train station patrons, but was also broadcast on Swiss television and Arte, a French-German cultural television station.

Posted by Gary at 9:06 AM