April 29, 2009

Villazón to Have Surgery, Cancels Performances

By Dave Itzkoff [NY Times, 29 April 2009]

The tenor Rolando Villazón “needs surgery as soon as possible” because of a cyst on his vocal cords and is canceling performances until the end of year, his managers said Wednesday, according to Agence France-Presse.

Posted by Gary at 11:20 AM

Kwangchul Youn makes his long-awaited debut at the Royal Opera House, London.

“Only two entrances”, he says, “but it is very still, almost a capella”. He’s modest, for the part is critical to the structure of the opera. It has finely nuanced depths, compressed in a short space of time. Making a debut in the hallowed Festspielhaus is always a challenge, but to do so with such a role, exposed and alone, takes character as well as talent.

Since then, Youn has appeared regularly at Bayreuth. “It’s like my second home”, he says “after so many years, I know the house, the sound, it’s so nice”. The depth and authority of Youn’s voice lends itself well to Wagner bass roles. He’s sung Hunding, King Marke, Landgrave Hermann, Titurel, and in 2008, Gurnemanz in Bayreuth. This may be his first King Heinrich der Vogler in London, but it’s a role he’s sung many times before. Indeed, he’s come fresh from singing it at the Staatsoper in Berlin with Daniel Barenboim. “What Barenboim does with this music is fantastic”, says Youn. “He has so much experience working with singers, he understands how the singing works. He knows so much about Wagner. I love working with him”. Youn has worked with most of the leading Wagner conductors today, singing Titurel in the seminal Parsifal in 2004 at Bayreuth with Pierre Boulez.

The Royal Opera House Lohengrin is a revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s production created for the house in 1977. Visually, it’s lushly beautiful. Youn’s costume is heavily embroidered, with raised figures of kings and saints, stitched in gold standing out in high relief. What a pity the audience won’t be able to see such detail ! This is a costume which “acts” on its own accord, as stiff and formal as the pageantry of royal splendour. After that glorious introduction to Act Three, scene 3, Youn’s entrance will be spectacular. “Wie fühl ich stolz mein Herz entbrannt, find ich in jedem deutschen Land so kräftig reichen Heerverband!”. The enemy is outclassed, even before the battle starts.

Kwangchul Youn can create roles of magnificent gravitas even though he is not tall by the standards of many basses. He is living proof that stature has little to do with size. When he sings, he has such conviction that he commands respect. I first saw Youn as Fasolt in Kupfer’s Das Rheingold at the Liceu, Barcelona. He embodied the part with such conviction that I was convinced he was a giant. Vocal authority counts for much more than physical type.

Indeed, perceptive directors work with the voice, rather than external appearance. Some observers thought that Youn’s King Heinrich was one of the best things about the recent Lohengrin in Berlin a few weeks ago, conducted by Barenboim and directed by Stefan Herheim. Youn sang Gurnemanz in Herheim’s Parsifal at Bayreuth in 2008. Herheim spends a lot of time with the singers, developing their parts with them. “He can think about roles in different ways. He has unusual ideas, but they come from the score. He’s very aware of orchestration and how details like oboe or clarinet passages work to create the music.”

In Berlin this October, Youn will be singing Fiesco in a new production of Simon Boccanega, with Barenboim, directed by Federico Tiezzi. Verdi and Mozart naturally provide rich material for Youn’s voice. He’s sung nearly all the bass repertoire, including Aida, Don Carlos, Luisa Miller, Don Giovanni, Il Nozze de Figaro, Elektra, Les Troyens, Tosca, Fidelio and Robert le Diable. His range also extends from Schoenberg (Gurrelieder) to bel canto and baroque : he’s recorded Reinhard Keiser’s Croesus with René Jacobs and D’Albert’s Tiefland. He has long standing relationships with most of the leading houses in Europe, including Berlin, Vienna, Leipzig, Barcelona, Venice and Paris. In the United States, he’s performed several times at the Metropolitan Opera. London is now catching up.

Even in this age when air travel and telecommunications draw the world closer, commuting between Europe, North America and Youn’s native Korea is time consuming. Yet Korea is a country where there’s great interest in classical music. Many people play an instrument, or listen to recordings. Korean musicians work in orchestras and opera houses all over the world. In 1995, Plácido Domingo went to Seoul to sing with Youn, who’d won Domingo’s singing competition some years before. It was a gala event and must have been appreciated in a nation that takes its music seriously.

Anne Ozorio

Lohengrin runs at the Royal Opera House, London from 27 April to 16th May 2009. The cast includes Johan Botha, Edith Haller, Petra Lang, Falk Struckmann. Semyon Bychov conducts, Elijah Moshinsky directs.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/KWANGCHUL-YOUN—-FEB-09-.gif image_description=Kwangchul Youn [Photo by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of The Royal Opera]

product=yes producttitle=Kwangchul Youn makes his long overdue first appearance at the Royal Opera House, London. productby=An Interview with Anne Ozorio product_id=Above: Kwangchul Youn [Photo by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of The Royal Opera]

Posted by Gary at 10:11 AM

Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda” at La Fenice — Two Women in a Labyrinth

There are no cardboard Elizabethan “magnificent” halls and throne rooms; neither Piranesi’s grand jails in a bleak London Tower in the “finale”; neither a thick forest for the Royal hunt in the last scene of the first part. On the stage there is only a maze — indeed a labyrinth in granite where a fight is being fought by two tormented women in love for the same man — and also starving for the crown of Britain. The costumes have nothing to do with the XVI century; they are quite elegant but in a style closer to the high fashion of the 1950s (or slightly earlier) than to those of the historical period when the contest of the two Queens for the British crown actually took place. The plot develops today — somewhere in some country — but could have taken place even a few years ago or tomorrow. It is a perennial struggle in a-temporal setting and costumes.

A few conservative critics raised their eyebrows, but on April 24th — the opening night of this new production- La Fenice audience, not necessarily the cream of most advanced experimentalism in stage direction, loved it: the performance received a standing ovation. The just unveiled new production by Denis Krief , an Italian-based French-Tunisian director, is especially important because it is a joint effort with other major Opera Houses — Teatro Verdi in Trieste, San Carlo in Naples, Massimo in Palermo — where it will be shown starting next Fall. Krief is French-Tunisian but raised , as a stage Director, in Italy. However, the set, costumes and direction reflect the best experience of modern German opera production: Krief himself is a frequent guest director in the Federal Republic where he recently produced a successful “Ring”.

“Maria Stuarda” is the most frequently performed opera of the Donizetti’s trilogy about the Tudor Queens. The other two are “Anna Bolena” and “Roberto Devereux”. To be meticulous, the reviewer should include also “Elisabetta al Castello di Keniworth”, seldom seen on a stage and a “semi-seria opera” with a happy ending, quite distant from the tragedy atmosphere of the other three. In Anders Wiklund’s critical edition of the score, “Maria Stuarda” is compact (about two hours of music as compared to nearly three of “Anna Bolena” and “Roberto Devereux) and emphasizes the confrontation between the two Queens over the man each of them is longing for rather than the historical power struggle. As a matter of fact, Schiller’s play (the basis for the libretto) takes little notice of historical facts: Mary was 45 when she died (after 8 years in prison) and Elisabeth 53 (and had never been a beauty). Neither the Earl of Leicester appears to have been such a good looking fellow to cause such a bloody fight by two Queens. Wiklund’s edition emphasizes the sentimental and erotic tension rather than the politics surrounding it — key ingredient of the manipulated versions seen both until the mid-XIX century (when “Maria Stuarda” disappeared from the stages of the world) and from 1958 (revival in Bergamo) to the 1990s (a period when it was a war horse of Beverly Sills, Leyla Gencer, Edita Gruberova, Monsterrat Caballé and Joan Sutherland). This is, in my view, a justification for the labyrinth: it was a key element both in many a Shakespeare’s plays (as well as of gardening in that period) and quite a few Schiller’s plays.

Maria-Stuarda-1.gif

As in many Donizetti’s opera, orchestration is rather simple; it is meant to support vocal acrobatics by the main singers. Fabrizio Maria Carminati is well aware of it and his conducting is diligent and effective. The attention is to the two protagonist. Elisabeth must be a “mezzo spinto” with an excellent flare for ascending to acute; Sonia Ganassi is veteran of the role (there are some excellent recording) and on April 24 gave an extraordinary performance — both vocally and dramatically- especially if account is taken that, at the age of 43, Ms. Ganassi is five month pregnant of her first child. Maria is a “soprano assoluto” with coloratura arias sliding into declamation and vice versa. For Fiorenza Cedolins April 24 was the night of the debut of in the role. There was some trepidation that she would not have been able to cope with the highly difficult score; as a matter of fact, in her career she had started with coloratura but had then gone to “verismo” (Tosca, Butterfly), not the most effective way to prepare oneself sing a “soprano assoluto” with coloratura , as required by “Maria Stuarda”: some imperfection in the first part but standing ovation in the jail-confession scene of the second part and in the finale. José Bros has sang Leicester may times. Normally this good tenor with a high texture is good vocally but on the stage is a sexy as an umbrella. Miraculously, Krief makes him very sensual. With both Queens.

Giuseppe Pennisi

Maria-Stuarda-3.gif

image=http://www.operatoday.com/MaryQueenofScots.gif imagedescription=Mary Queen of Scots

product=yes producttitle=Gaetano Donizetti: Maria Stuarda productby=Elisabetta: Sonia Ganassi; Maria Stuarda: Fiorenza Cedolins; Roberto, Earl of Leicester: José Bros; Giorgio Talbot: Mirco Palazzi, Federico Sacchi (26, 29/4, 2/5); Lord Guglielmo: Cecil Marco Caria; Anna Kennedy: Pervin Chakar. Fabrizio Maria Carminati, conductor. Denis Krief, stage direction, sets and costumes. Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro La Fenice. Chorus Master Claudio Marino Moretti. product_id=Above: Mary Queen of Scots

Posted by Gary at 9:21 AM

Lohengrin at The Royal Opera, London

There were a lot of first-night nerves around, unsurprisingly given that King Heinrich, Telramund, Elsa and the Herald were all house debutants, but they all showed great star quality to match that of the more experienced Ortrud and Lohengrin. Semyon Bychkov elicited some of the most polished and exquisite playing from the ROH orchestra that I have heard in a long time; overall this was a wonderful evening, a shining example of what the Royal Opera House is all about.

The shimmering strings of the overture, so delicately shaped and daringly leisured in tempo, were somewhat compromised for many in the audience by the noisy actions of some latecomers, but the conductor sailed on as if surrounded by total silence. An aside, but what can be done about the appalling manners of some of the (supposedly) ‘great and good?’ It wasn’t just the noise—just to add insult to injury, as Lohengrin launched into ‘In fernen Land’ a man leaned over his wife to ask their friend, not exactly sotto voce, ‘So, where shall we eat after the show, then?’ Presumably these were amongst those like the bejewelled crinkly lady whom I heard complain loudly that she ‘got offered so many free tickets here that I just can’t fit it all in.’

The production is now 32 years old, yet it still looks fresh and logical for the work, with those prostrate nuns and gilt-encrusted icons reminiscent not so much of tenth century Brabant but ‘Old Mother Russia,’ and the muted colour tones of white and grey subtly contrasted with the splashes of red and gold. Some might consider the presentation of the swan as a projected motif underwhelming, but to me it was just right, with the Knight’s entrance via the trapdoor still producing a frisson—and let’s face it, this solution avoids any possibility of having to enquire ‘Wann fährt der nächste Schwann?’

More than any other of Wagner’s operas, ‘Lohengrin’ is all about the singing, and here this production excels. Johan Botha does not possess the ideally heroic stage presence for the title part, nor would he be accurately described as a Heldentenor, yet his singing is always expressive, finely phrased and sensitively shaped. Lohengrin is a rarity amongst Wagner’s major tenor roles in that his music is far more often marked to be sung mezzo-forte rather than forte, and Botha offers a hero more in the lyrical mould of a Slezak than a belter, and his characterization is all the better for it. ‘Mein Lieber Schwann’ was achingly poignant, reminding me of Rosvaenge’s recording of it, and ‘In fernen Land’ was as affecting as it should be, the gentle pressure on ‘Taube’ and the heroic strength of ‘Sein Ritter ich’ parts of a seamlessly dramatic whole.

LOHENGRIN-090424_0379.gifJohan Botha as Lohengrin and Edith Haller as Elsa

His Elsa was the beautiful South-Tyrol soprano Edith Haller, in a house debut performance which revealed a sweet, bell-like purity of tone, with the capacity to melt one’s heart in phrases like ‘Es gibt ein Glück, das ohne Reu’—‘Einsam in trüben Tagen’ was also a model of clarity and touching sweetness. At present, however, her voice is ‘merely’ lovely and crystalline, lacking in some colour and variety, and she found the last act a challenge in parts. Nevertheless, a notable debut from a soprano whom we will look forward to hearing in many other rôles.

Petra Lang’s Ortrud is a known quantity, yet she never ceases to surprise with the vehemence and commitment of her acting and the commanding quality of her singing. You half expect her to utter remarks like ‘Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts. Unsex me here!’ as she launches into one of her tirades, and I can’t recall having experienced quite so marked a shiver down the spine by anyone else’s singing of the phrase ‘der Rache süsse Wonne’ or quite so definite a frisson during her ‘Entweitert Götter.’ Her husband was the fascinating baritone Gerd Grochowski, who looks a bit too noble for the weak Telramund, but whose singing, firmly in the Fischer-Dieskau mould, was supple and expressive. Indeed, there were times when one felt more sympathy for him than one probably should.

LOHENGRIN-090424_0421.gifScene from Lohengrin

Two more house debutants gave impressive performances of the rôles of Heinrich I and the Herald. This was the first time I’ve heard the Korean bass Kwangchul Youn, whose sound may lack a little in volume but whose expressiveness and dignity were a joy—he may have missed a little of the king’s grandeur here and there, but he more than made up for it with the Prayer, with genuinely noble heft at ‘weil unsere Weisheit Einfalt ist.’ I look forward to hearing his Commendatore and Méphistophélès. Boaz Daniel’s Herald was another noble assumption, his proclamations of ‘Nun höret Mich’ true clarion calls.

The Chorus sounded a little underpowered at the beginning, but rose to great heights at ‘Wie fasst uns selig süsses Grauen!’ and ‘Wir steh’n zu dir.’ They were matched by orchestral playing of real majesty, the strings and trumpets especially covering themselves in glory. It’s now three years since Semyon Bychkov conducted here, and I hope it won’t be that long again before we experience his blend of absolute control and sympathetic support for singers.

A great evening—and mercifully delivered uncut, with further performances on May 3rd (matinee), 5th, 8th, 11th, 14th and 16th. It is an almost full house for each night, but there are a sprinkling of seats to be had as well as Day tickets—if you haven’t booked yet, you are strongly advised to do so now, to experience a ‘Lohengrin’ which comes as near to expressing what Wagner called ‘one of man’s earliest poetic ideals’ as I can imagine.

Melanie Eskenazi

image=http://www.operatoday.com/LOHENGRIN-0904240482.gif imagedescription=Petra Lang as Ortrud [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of The Royal Opera]

product=yes producttitle=Richard Wagner: Lohengrin productby=Herald: Boaz Daniel; Heinrich I: Kwangchul Youn; Friedrich von Telramund: Gerd Grochowski; Ortrud: Petra Lang; Elsa von Brabant: Edith Haller; Lohengrin: Johan Botha; Four nobles of Brabant: Haoyin Xue, Ji-Min Park, Kostas Smoriginas, Vuyani Mlinde; Four pages: Anne Osborne, Deborah Peake Jones, Amanda Floyd, Kate McCarney; Gottfried: Ishwar Maharaj. Conducted by Semyon Bychkov. The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, London, performance of April 27, 2009. product_id=Above: Petra Lang as Ortrud

All photos by Clive Barda courtesy of The Royal Opera

Posted by at 8:22 AM

April 27, 2009

Coronation revived by some great singing and a little restraint

By Ken Winters [The Globe and Mail, 27 April 2009]

Opera Atelier’s revival of its production of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea has undergone some subtle but fundamental and welcome changes since Toronto first met it in 2002 (after its 2001 premiere in Houston).

Posted by Gary at 11:28 AM

Glyndebourne's first ever semi-opera

[Crawley Observer, 27 April 2009]

This summer will mark Glyndebourne’s first ever staging of the semi-opera The Fairy Queen, marking the 350th anniversary of the birth of composer Henry Purcell.

Posted by Gary at 11:23 AM

Suffering Brünnhilde, Her Betrayers and an Unexpected Hero

By Vivien Schweitzer [NY Times, 26 April 2009]

Even by the standards of anguished operatic heroines, Brünnhilde suffers a particularly tortured journey of betrayal, humiliation and heartache in Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung.” At a matinee performance at the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday, the Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman offered a dramatically persuasive and vocally strong interpretation of this daunting role.

Posted by Gary at 11:08 AM

In Brooding Lieder, Gentleness and Drama

By Allan Kozinn [NY Times, 26 April 2009]

By its nature the bass voice is better suited for melancholy music than for cheerful, celebratory works. You can find exceptions — the bass part in the Beethoven Ninth Symphony and Leporello’s Catalogue Aria from “Don Giovanni,” for example — but a sepulchral growl, room-shaking power and a dark, soulful coloration are the truest hallmarks of a great bass, and composers are drawn to those qualities for the naturalness with which they evoke desolation, melancholia and terror.

Posted by Gary at 11:07 AM

Opera for the Common Man

By Keriann Lynch [Flathead Beacon, 24 April 2009]

In Missoula, a group of music enthusiasts have fomented an unexpected, but successful, marriage: Pabst Blue Ribbon and opera. Now, the odd couple is making its way north.

Posted by Gary at 11:05 AM

Lulu, Opéra de Lyon

By Francis Carlin [Financial Times, 21 April 2009]

Depraved, amoral, exploited, manipulated but also manipulating. Lulu fascinates because she’s so hard to pin down, leaving us unsure whether we should pity the fallen harlot who meets her sordid end at the hands of Jack the Ripper or conclude that she simply got her just deserts. This is, after all, a morality play.

Posted by Gary at 5:19 AM

April 26, 2009

Wolf-Ferrari: La vedova scaltra (“The Cunning Widow”).

With the men representing four countries of Western Europe, England, France, Spain, and Italy, the situation lends itself well to manipulating national elements within this Italian opera which uses, at times, Venetian dialect, that is, the idiom in which the composer was raised. The national element is also a foil for the libretto, which plays upon some cultural jibes in its cynical view of romantic love. Among Wolf-Ferrari’s thirteen operas, La vedova scaltra is not known as well as Il segreto Susanna (1909) or I gioielli della Madonna (1911; rather, it dates from 1931 and is the work he wrote immediately after his Shakespeare-based opera Sly (1927). With its conversational style, La vedova scaltra is not immediately as accessible as some of the composer’s earlier works, but the motives and themes gradually build as the drama itself takes shape and leads to its conclusion. The details contribute to the satisfying - and appropriate - ending of the opera, and this recording makes it possible to appreciate the work in this regard.

This production of the opera, filmed at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, on 13 and 15 February 2007 under the direction of Davide Mancini, makes use of eighteenth-century costumes and accoutrements to reflect the setting from Goldoni’s play. This gives a familiar sense to Wolf-Ferrari’s work, and this supports the score, which is anchored in conventional tonality, albeit with the kinds of dissonance found in his other operas. More than that, the self-conscious use of operatic convention contributes some post-modern aspects to the work, as does the inclusion of the character of Arlecchino, a servant who acts as an intermediary throughout the drama. The inclusion of this one figure from the traditional *commedia del’arte *pays homage to the theatrical traditional and also brings to mind the depictions of the character in other twentieth operas. Wolf-Ferrari’s is no mere copy of the others, and his Arlecchino stands out in the portrayal by Alex Esposito through his vocal abilities and his sense of physical comedy.

Wolf-Ferrari_Vedova_CD.gifAs Rosaura, the cunning widow of the title, Anne-Lise Sollied is vocally solid and dramatically convincing. Appropriate to her character, Sollied shows Rosaura to be aware of the consequences of her romantic choices, and her own concerns for mutual affection and fidelity. Sollied’s fine command of line and ornament is evident in her first, scene, the one in which she discusses marital prospects with her French maid Marionette. The duet with which the scene ends is a good example of the genial interaction with Elena Rossi, who plays the maid with the sensibility one would expect of Despina in Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Rossi shows her own vocal and dramatic skills well in the ensuing duet with Emanuelle D’Aguanno as Monsieur Le Bleu, the French suitor, who just happens to be Marionette’s countryman and thus, the preferred candidate for her mistress’s hand. Rossi is appropriately disarming in the ensemble at the end of the first act, the scene in which the Spanish suitor arrives with his entourage by gondola.

The entire cast works well with each other within the series of ensembles at the core of each act of the opera. The relationship between Rosaura and her maid Marionette resembles, at times, the one between the Countess and Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. Her engagement in the drama is direct, since she will be affected by the consequences of her mistress’s decision. Likewise, Rosaura is at first overtly equivocal about her prospects, and if it is fidelity which she values, the ruse she concocts to test the lovers is necessary for her to choose. Her Rosaura is an affable spirit, and most of all, sung comfortably and with appropriate style. She works well throughout the opera and is fittingly commanding in the concluding scene.

Among the suitors, the Conte di Bosco Nero whom Rosaura ultimately chooses, is sung well by the British tenor Mark Milhofer. His extended aria in the third scene of Act 2 “Quanta soave pace” is a fine example of his contribution to this production, and his duet with Arlecchino as sung by Esposito shows both men to good effect. As to the other suitors, each brings a distinctive style to his character. While none of the suitors entirely meet Rosaura’s standards at the end of the opera, the same cannot be said of their performances, which contribute to this enjoyable work. Again, this production of La vedova scaltra brings to light an unfamiliar score by Wolf-Ferrari, and while it may never supplant the place of The Jewels of the Madonna *or *The Secret of Susanna, it augments our knowledge of the composer’s music. The comments at the London premiere of Wolf-Ferrari’s earlier opera I quattro rusteghi, another Goldoni adaptation, are apt for La vedova scaltra: “It flows spontaneously; it has a touch of distinction which saves it from the obvious; it is technically modern yet picks up the opera buffa tradition of the eighteenth century with the utmost grace and learning; it has a vein of lyrical melodic and excels in ensemble.”

Naxos makes the performance Wolf-Ferrari’s La vedova scaltra available both on CD (8.660225-26) and on DVD. The sound of the CD serves the work well, and the availability of the opera on DVD preserves the live production which was given at La Fenice - the recording was made before a live audience, and so it conveys a nice sense of spontaneity. The DVD is nicely filmed, with some well-thought close-ups and angles that take advantage of the lighting. On a practical level, the banding of the DVD is similar to that found on the CD and, as such, is useful in finding specific scenes and parts of scenes within each act. This helps to make the relatively unfamiliar score of La vedova scaltra more accessible to those who want to return to specific parts of the work. It is good to see the efforts of Naxos in presenting this opera so sensibly.

James L. Zychowicz

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Wolf-FerrariVedova.gif imagedescription=Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari:La vedova scaltra

product=yes producttitle=Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari:La vedova scaltra productby=Rosaura: Anne-Lise Sollied; Milord Runebif: Maurizio Muraro; Monsieur Le Bleau: Emanuele D’Aguanno; Il Conte di Bosco Nero: Mark Milhofer; Don Alvaro di Castiglia: Riccardo Zanellato; Marionette: Elena Rossi; Arlecchino: Alex Esposito; Birif: Claudio Zancopè; Folletto: Luca Favaron; Un servo di Don Alvaro: Antonio Casagrande. Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro La Fenice, Venice. Chorus master: Emanuela di Pietro. Karl Martin, conductor. Massimo Gasparon, stage director. productid=Naxos 2.110234-35 [2DVDs] price=$39.99 producturl=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/Drilldown?nameid1=13165&namerole1=1&compid=280239&bcorder=15&labelid=5710

Posted by jim_z at 7:40 PM

Lost portrait of Handel’s librettist Paolo Rolli resurfaces in Todi, Italy

Not that he seemed much interested in that particular distinction. In 1749, on writing to his colleague Carlo Innocenzo Frugoni, a successful court poet in Parma, Rolli affected to consider his London librettos as mere “dramatic skeletons” contrived to meet the audience’s poor fluency in Italian, although he boasted that they brought him “200 scudi each” (about 150 pounds), plus the sale of wordbooks for his benefit — with the clear implication that he could further produce better work in Italy for less money. However, Frugoni lauded Rolli’s “sturdiness of frank style, strong colors of Poetry, and freedom of veracious and wise thought”, as opposed to Metastasio’s “sweet construction of lines both easy and noble”.

Until a few decades ago, Rolli’s surviving reputation rested mainly on a handful of short lyrics, notably “Solitario bosco ombroso”, a piece that any primer of Italian literature quoted as a model of classical perfection. In addition, his biographies emphasized his role as a cultural mediator between Italy and Great Britain, mentioning his activity as language teacher, editor, publisher and translator (his blank-verse translation of Milton’s Paradise Lost was reprinted several times since 1729). Nor did he lack social recognition in London: he taught Italian to various members of the royal family and the peerage, befriended (among others) Sir Isaac Newton, and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society — a title which he proudly inscribed on the title-pages of his literary publications since 1729.

The pendulum started swinging back in the 1960s, when the rediscovery of Handel’s operatic output fostered scholarly interest in one of his most effective purveyors of music dramas. True, the two men did not get along grandly. In 1719 Rolli was appointed as the Italian secretary of the Royal Academy of Music on an annual salary of 200 pounds. He prepared most of the librettos performed during the company’s first three seasons (1720–2), including Handel’s Muzio Scevola and Floridante, but he was dismissed in 1722 following a dispute with the directors and, apparently, Handel himself.

However, during 1726-7 he revised another three librettos for Handel: Scipione, Alessandro and Riccardo Primo. His publication Di canzonette e di cantate libri due (London, 1727) included three texts that Handel set to music as cantatas for solo voice and continuo. Rolli satirized the composer’s activities during the “Second Academy” period (1729–34), and in 1733 he became the principal poet for the competing Opera of the Nobility. For that company he wrote at least eight librettos until its collapse in 1737, most of them for Porpora. Later on, he prepared a few more dramas for London, including the remarkable libretto for Handel’s final opera Deidamia (1741) and some works for the Middlesex Opera Company. It has been estimated that he wrote or rewrote librettos for at least 34 opera productions in London between 1720 and his eventual departure for Italy on 12 August 1744. After settling in Todi, where he had received a patent of nobility in 1735, he had no further involvement in theatrical ventures.

Why just Todi? This lovely small town on the hilltops of Umbria, the “green heart” of Italy, was the cradle of his mother’s family. From here, Marta Arnaldi moved to Rome to become the wife of Philippe Roleau, later Italianized into Filippo Rolli, an architect and merchant from Burgundy. The couple had eight children. Last-born Paolo, who died unmarried, named heir usufructuary of his fortune a certain Samuel Right a.k.a. “Samuele Retti”, his British butler whom he quoted in his 1763 testament with marks of boundless affection and trust, even exempting him from the duty of showing his accounts to the legal heirs: nephews Carlo and Francesco and niece Isabella, barons Murena di Collalto.

Samuele, as Rolli stated, had served him from his early youth without a salary. Actually, according to a family tradition that crept into the Rolli literature since 1907, he was the poet’s natural son, which would explain their unusual arrangement. News is that Retti’s descendants are still living in Todi and nearby Foligno. “Until 1927” — says Professor Manfredo Retti, a retired teacher of humanities — “they enjoyed an enviable economic condition. Then my grandfather Gino, a bank cashier, went bankrupt because of certain wrong speculations. Away went the landed estates, buildings, old furniture and works of art — all gone”.

Well, not quite. On March 28, a group of three lucky explorers — Professor Retti, his friend Francesco Tofanetti and this writer — chanced to spot a Rolli portrait hitherto presumed lost. In 1911, it was photographed in black and white by the music historian Sesto Fassini and then published as the frontispiece of his seminal essay Il melodramma italiano a Londra (Turin, 1914). “Cavaliere Clodoveo Retti, the painting’s owner and Gino’s paternal uncle, died childless shortly after”, recalls Manfredo. “He may have presented it to Olinda Olivieri, a little girl from a neighbor family who often visited him. Olinda, who passed away in 1972, reportedly sold or bequeathed it to a school”. Details are still under investigation, but the school was found. The medieval nunnery of Montecristo, on a hill slope facing Todi’s northern gate, now hosts the “Istituto Tecnico Agrario Ciuffelli”, a college for farm advisors. And lo! here is Paolo Rolli, hanging on a wall of the principal’s office.

After a casual survey at the former convent weeks ago, professor Tofanetti (himself the retired principal of a high school downtown) warned his bucolic colleague Paolo Frongia that a seemingly familiar portrait was lying in a dark cellar. No wonder if he found it familiar. Back in 1968, Tofanetti graduated at Rome’s Università della Sapienza with a dissertation whose title hardly needs translation: I melodrammi di Paolo Rolli.

Professor Frongia had the portrait dusted and placed in front of his desk just in time for my announced visit to Todi. After a positive comparison with the old photo I had with me, a further expert was summoned from the nearby hamlet Montelupino: Marcello Castrichini, the owner of a dedicated publishing house, and a qualified restorer who for three decades has been working on important public commissions in Mantua, Rome, Parma.

New digital photos [see here and here] were taken and extended study sessions ensued, first at the City Archive, where director Filippo Orsini produced a wealth of original documents, then at Castrichini’s laboratory. Though research is still underway, many pieces of the puzzle seem to fit together remarkably well.

Rolli’s physical features are mainly known through a handful of drawings, engravings and caricatures, while two less traceable oils are reported to be extant in private collections. The Todi oil depicts a sturdy man wearing a round, Bach-like, wig. He bears a striking likeness to the Joseph Wagner engraved portrait after Jacopo Amigoni, published as the frontispiece of Rolli’s collection of poetry Rime (Verona, 1733) — only a bit older, more full-blooded, and/or less idealized, particularly in the shoe-shaped form of his nose.

There is good circumstantial evidence that the current frame is not original. An half-effaced Latin inscription on its reverse states that it formerly pertained to an icon of the Virgin’s Annunciation, solemnly installed on 10 December 1769 (thus after Rolli’s death) on an altar in Eremo della Canonica, a country church some ten kilometers west of Todi.

The canvas (excluding frame) is 92 cm. tall x 68 cm. wide. In the post-mortem inventory of Rolli’s goods, two consecutive entries list what seems a pair of twin portraits featuring a man “in veste da cammera” [dressing gown]. Their measurements, frame included, are provided as “three palmi tall, two and half palmi wide”. The palmo’s value differed widely throughout Italy; however, discounting the frame, the proportion seems roughly the same (1.2-1.35). The second entry — described as “Signor Paolo Rolli in dressing gown with a book [wide] open in his hands” — better fits the resurfaced painting, showing the Italian poet with an engraving labeled “MILTON” in his right hand. This portrait-within-the-portrait is a close, if sketchy, rendering of Jan Van der Gucht’s frontispiece for Rolli’s translation of Paradise Lost (Del Paradiso perduto […], London 1735, 1736). As a copy of the 1736 edition is also listed in the (much incomplete) collection of Rolli’s publications found in his own library after his demise, the exchange of the frontispiece for the whole book can be understood either as a venial slip of the pen, or a sort of pars pro toto shorthand.

PARolli_large.gifPaolo Antonio Rolli attributed to Don Domenico Pentini

“The painting’s state of preservation is excellent”, Castrichini says. “This may be due both to healthy storage conditions and the frugal use of a good-quality varnish that didn’t cause either a darkening of colors or any notable surface cracking”. As to the attribution, the expert’s choice goes to Don Domenico Pentini (1723-1784), a local priest-cum-painter who stayed tuned on Rome’s contemporary trends. “In his sacred subjects, four of which are preserved at the City Arts Gallery in Todi, he follows the grand neo-classic manner looking backward to Guido Reni. Nevertheless, he also paid attention to the lighter classicism of Carlo Maratti and Girolamo Troppa — the latter much active both in Rome and in the Umbria region”. Although the Rolli portrait seems rather nearer to Maratti’s Arcadian style, the color range of its drapery closely resembles that found in Pentini’s religious pageants — Castrichini means. The discovery may trigger further research on the output of the scarcely studied Don Pentini, more or less the only outstanding personality in 18th-century painting at Todi.

All in all, besides his long hegemony on the London operatic stage, Paolo Rolli enjoyed the esteem of sovereigns, Popes and Cardinals. He was on friendly relations with such astonishing polymaths as Marquis Scipione Maffei and the Habsburg general Eugene of Savoy, and had quarrels with Voltaire about the merits of Shakespeare, Dante and Ariosto. Are Todi’s denizens at large, and particulary the City’s government, aware of his intellectual influence at the outset of European Enlightenment? “Hardly”, sighs Professor Tofanetti after a final field survey at the poet’s homes downtown and his grave within the Gothic church of San Fortunato, bearing the sober (self-dictated) Latin inscription: Paolo Rolli’s ashes. “After a documentary exhibition and a concert featuring Porpora’s oratorio David e Bersabea, back in 1989, nothing else happened”.

Tofanetti, Retti and a politically bipartizan group of friends who are out for active citizenship are running a radio station and a cinema They are also organizing a Summer festival called “Todi notte”, lectures, international exchange programs between schools, and sundry cultural endeavors. Nevertheless, their proposal that the City Theater, opened in 1876, be named after Rolli did not yet receive attention from the Council.

Carlo Vitali

image=http://www.operatoday.com/PARolli.gif image_description=Paolo Antonio Rolli attributed to Don Domenico Pentini product=yes product_title=Lost portrait of Handel’s librettist Paolo Rolli resurfaces in Todi, Italy product_by=By Carlo Vitali product_id=Above: Portrait of Paolo Antonio Rolli attributed to Don Domenico Pentini
Posted by Gary at 6:07 PM

Don Giovanni at the MET with Peter Mattei

(Who else has been in that league? Treigle? Kwiecien? Pape? No one who’s sung it at the Met — as those three have not.)

Mattei is certainly a commanding figure, quite as tall as Erwin Schrott, though not at all good looking, and with — Mattei again — a large, handsome, easily produced sound that fills the Met and falls caressingly on the ear. His serenade was indubitably the evening’s high point, but the furious energy of the Champagne Aria was also a thrill. He can be intimate and suave to four thousand seats — no mean feat, and a major requirement for a successful Giovanni at the Met, but he does not slight the demonic factor. If Giovanni is too charming, if we find ourselves liking this creep, the moral message of the opera falls by the wayside, but if Giovanni is nothing but a thug (as, for instance, Bryn Terfel portrayed him — and also Ruggiero Raimondi in Joseph Losey’s movie), then we find the behavior of all the other characters inexplicable. Women (other than Anna, who hates him from first to last) should be charmed by this rogue until they realize their consent, and that only once, is the only thing that interests him. Some women are turned on by thugs — but two thousand?

Mattei pays attention to the full character: In the scene on the staircase at the evening’s opening, he was rather more obviously trying not merely to rape the unconquered Donna Anna, but also to keep his face averted so that she will not see it — an awkwardness in this production that Scrott failed to make convincing, and in which Mattei was ably abetted by Erin Wall. His occasional shock at seeing himself in the stage-height mirror — director Marthe Keller’s way of luring him to a doom of his own narcissism — indicated a self-doubt that Erwin Schrott never displayed — Schrott was just happy to see his handsome face any chance he got. Many moments that Schrott seemed to pass off casually — or use for opportunities to display his body — were part of the opera again in Mattei’s presentation.

This was a performance that left me wishing for more first-rate singers around Giovanni. The ladies began well, but faded. Erin Wall, the Donna Anna, a fine actress and a pretty woman with a secure soprano capable of expressing anger without growing hard or unwieldy, was first rate in the opening scene and “Or sai che l’onore,” and only ran into trouble in “Non mi dir,” that treacherous pit for any soprano, where the runs and twirls demanded more effort than, at that point in the evening, she still had in her. Barbara Frittoli, as the madcap Donna Elvira, was rather too sensuous all evening for this repressed, indignant figure (this may be the director’s miscue), but she sang Act I beautifully, and the crepuscular trio in Act II was poignant. Her “Mi tradi” was a shock — not a note securely placed, pitch all over the place, whole phrases haywire: an ugly business. Isabel Bayrakdarian, a puzzling singer, seemed to twitter her way through Zerlina — during “La ci darem” I thought she was singing triplets where Mozart had not written any, but no, it was just an unusually wide and quick vibrato. This was okay in “La ci darem,” but rather undercut the simple sincerity that should mark her two arias sung to Masetto. Too — this is Keller’s fault, not the singer’s — surely a peasant girl with a chance to marry a nobleman will want to be alone with him in his “casinetta” and not rip his clothes off in the street, behavior that will surely render subsequent marriage unlikely. (Rational behavior is not the average opera director’s strong point, is it?)

GIOVANNI_Frittoli_and_Matte.gifBarbara Frittoli as Donna Elvira and Peter Mattei as Don Giovanni [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]

Samuel Ramey perforce presented a Leporello who has been serving the family for generations (he looks and sounds old enough to be Giovanni’s grandfather), rather than the companion in lurid high jinks we have had in this production from Ildebrando D’Arcangelo and René Pape. Leporello is a buffo figure, whose music does not call for many sustained notes, so Ramey got through it tidily enough — but the core of the voice being irredeemably shot, every sustained note he did attempt was unpleasant to hear. This was all the sadder in that an ideal Leporello sound, dark and thrilling, was coming from Joshua Bloom, the young and spirited Masetto, who should really be promoted to the other role as soon as may be. At least Ramey’s appearance as Leporello left the Commendatore, a role he has occasionally disgraced, to the competent Raymond Aceto.

Don Ottavio was sung by Pavol Breslik, a Slovakian tenor who had made his New York debut the previous week. He is young and attractive, and his voice too is attractive — but either it’s a size too small for the Met or he has not yet got the hang of projecting it there. There was a nice sheen to his tone, but an audible strain to his line all evening — he is not a Met natural, as Messers Mattei and Bloom certainly are.

Known Mozartean quantity Louis Langrée conducted a swift-moving, delicately flavored Don Giovanni, danceable when dancing was at hand, dark when darkness fell in the score, and at all times careful to give the singers room and pace. One wished he had a second-act cast worthy of his efforts.

My sympathies for Mattei and Langrée were all the greater in that I, too, was surrounded by idiots, hummers, snorers, moaners, whisperers, people explaining the plot to their dates, laughing excessively at the titles, and fiddling with their Blackberries.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/GIOVANNI_Mattei_and_Bayrakd.gif image_description=Peter Mattei as Don Giovanni and Isabel Bayrakdarian as Zerlina [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=W. A. Mozart: Don Giovanni product_by=Don Giovanni: Peter Mattei; Donna Anna: Erin Wall; Donna Elvira: Barbara Frittoli; Don Ottavio: Pavol Breslik; Zerlina: Isabel Bayrakdarian; Leporello: Samuel Ramey; Masetto: Joshua Bloom; Commendatore: Raymond Aceto. Conducted by Louis Langrée. Metropolitan Opera, performance of April 20. product_id=Above: Peter Mattei as Don Giovanni and Isabel Bayrakdarian as Zerlina [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]
Posted by Gary at 4:04 PM

Walter Braunfels’s Die Vögel at Los Angeles Opera

Thanks to the support of Marilyn Ziering and the Ziering Family Foundation, Los Angeles Opera can bring to the stage operas otherwise unlikely to receive a production at a major house, although at one time most of the operas featured so far or planned for the series had that distinction. In fact, Walter Braunfels’s Die Vögel (The Birds) apparently enjoyed a fair amount of success before WWII threw a shadow over both the opera and its composer. Seen on Saturday, April 18th, that initial success and subsequent obscurity both became understandable.

An allegory adapted from Aristophanes’s play of the same title, Die Vögel begins with Good Hope (Brandon Johanovich) and Loyal Friend (James Johnson) on a search for Hoopoe, leader of the birds. The humans want to join the birds, finding their own species increasingly repugnant (an important aspect undramatized by the libretto). The birds, initially suspect, eventually accept the men, who then motivate the birds to establish a “bird civilization” in the clouds, to rival that of man’s below. This somehow upsets Zeus, as Prometheus warns the birds, to no avail. Zeus strikes the bird civilization with thunderbolts, and the men, realizing their complicity in the disaster, leave. Good Hope exits with a broken heart, however, as he had fallen in love with the Nightingale. There’s too little of Aristophanes’s stinging wit or satire, and most of the opera comes across as a feeble Magic Flute-wannabe, with Good Hope as an ersatz Tamino.

The first act, the shorter of the two, starts with some quite lovely music, including a vocalise for the Nightingale. However, the narrative’s lack of conflict or conventional development means that Braunfel’s score always seems to be excited or passionate about events that don’t warrant the emotional outpouring. The second act picks up the pace somewhat, and the last 30 minutes or so of the opera soars with the birds, as the humans wish to do. The intervention of Prometheus makes no sense, and probably isn’t intended to, but Brian Mulligan sang his set piece with dark gusto. After Zeus’s dramatic attack on the bird city, the birds gather on stage for a gorgeous ensemble, and as the men leave, the Nightingale, a high-lying role for coloratura, reappears, to sing as Good Hope takes his sad leave.

Conlon directed a fine cast, with Désirée Ranactore managing the challenging music of the Nightingale skillfully enough to make understandable Good Hope’s obsession with her. Martin Gantner as Hoopoe and James Johnson as Loyal Friend sang their thinly characterized parts well, but the star of the men was last year’s Richard Tucker winner, tenor Brandon Johanovich. His is a big, masculine sound, with an easy top at this young stage of his career. The opera world will probably be looking to have him sing some of the bigger tenor assignments. He already has a Turiddu and Cavaradossi or two under his belt. Hopefully he won’t be tempted to even larger roles, as his talent, if carefully nourished, should produce a long and rewarding career.

Darko Tresnjak, of the San Diego Old Globe Theater, directed this silliness probably as well as just about anyone could. Scenery designer David P. Gordon’s set oddly combined palm trees and a series of six or seven luminous cloud shapes, set up in three rows. The transformation to the bird city probably would have made more sense if it had been more than some tiny Greek temples affixed to stilts. Linda Cho’s costumes designs also seemed to go for a sort of silky Ancient Greek tunic look, except for the fairly contemporary look of the humans. As not a lot of sense was being made on stage, nonsense designs couldn’t hurt.

Braunfels’s score certainly received all the attention and love from James Conlon any conductor could lavish upon it. Despite the fine singing and superior orchestral performance, this run of Die Vögel hasn’t revealed a lost masterpiece. The afternoon had some delights, however, so opera lovers a bit jaded with the usual repertory have to be thankful for the exposure to a work of such rarity. Next season, the Recovered Voices series continues with Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/BirdsLAOpera01.gif imagedescription=Martin Gantner (The Hoopoe) [Photo by Robert Millard courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera]

product=yes producttitle=Walter Braunfels: Die Vögel productby=Click here for cast and other production information. product_id=Above: Martin Gantner (The Hoopoe) [Photo by Robert Millard courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera]

Posted by chris_m at 3:20 PM

VERDI: Don Carlo — Rome 1954

Music composed by Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901). Libretto by Joseph Méry and Camille Du Locle after Friedrich von Schiller’s dramatic poem Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien. French text revised by Du Locle, Italian translation by Achille de Lauzières and Angelo Zanardini.

First Performance: 11 March 1867 at the Opéra, Paris.
Revised version 10 January 1884 at Teatro alla Scala, Milan.

Principal Characters:
Philip II, King of SpainBass
Rodrigue/Rodrigo, Marquis of PisaBaritone
Don Carlos/Don Carlo, Infante of SpainTenor
The Grand InquisitorBass
Elisabeth de Valois, Philip's queenSoprano
Princess Eboli, Elisabeth's lady-in-waitingMezzo-Soprano
Thibault, Eisabeth's pageSoprano
The Countess of ArembergSilent role
The Count of LermaTenor
An Old MonkBass
A Voice from HeavenSoprano
A Royal HeraldTenor
Flemish DeputiesBasses
InquisitorsBasses

Setting: France and Spain, about 1560

Synopsis:

Act I

Scene 1. The tomb of the Emperor Charles V at the monastery of San Yuste

Don Carlo, son of King Filippo of Spain and heir to the throne, laments the loss of Elisabetta, daughter of the King of France, to whom he had been betrothed when a politcal decision was made that she should marry Filippo. As monks chant the obsequies of the emperor, Carlo V, his grandfather, he is struck by the resemblance of one of them to the dead emperor.

Carlo is joined by his friend Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, who exhorts him to help the Flemish people who are suffering under the Spanish yoke. Carlo confides that he loves his stepmother, and the two swear eternal friendship and dedication to the cause of liberty, while Filippo and Elisabetta kneel at the tomb.

Scene 2. A garden at the gate of the monastery

The queen’s ladies are gathered. The Princess of Eboli, accompanied by the page Tebaldo, sings a song. When the queen appears Rodrigo is announced. Along with letters from France he secretly gives her a letter from Carlo. He begs her to intercede with the king for Carlo, who is suffering from his displeasure.

Carlo appears and all withdraw to allow him to be alone with the queen. He begins quietly, asking for her help with the king, but becomes more emotional, lamenting his lost love and collapses at her feet. She is distressed, but when he wildly declares that he loves her, she answers indignantly, as becomes the wife of his father, and he rushes from her presence in self-loathing and despair.

The king arrives and, angry at finding the queen alone, dismisses the lady who should have been with her and orders her to return to France. Elisabetta takes an affectionate farewell of her and leaves.

The king detains Rodrigo and asks why he has never sought favor from him, though he has deserved it. Posa answers that he wants nothing for himself, but begs for peace for the people of Flanders. The king offers peace brought about by the sword, pointing to Spain as an example, but Rodrigo cries out that this is the peace of the grave. Filippo pardons his freedom of speech but warns him against the Grand Inquisitor.

He confides his fears that his wife and son are betraying him and authorises Rodrigo to visit the queen at any time to investigate.

Act II

Scene 1. The queen’s garden

Carlo has received a letter giving him an assignation, which he thinks is from the queen; it is really from Eboli, who is in love with him. Mistaking her at first for the queen, he greets her ecstatically, only to draw back in horror when he realises his mistake. She realises that it is the queen he loves and threatens exposure.

Rodrigo appears and, after trying unsuccessfully to convince her that Carlo is raving, tries to kill her to stop her from speaking. But he is prevented by Carlo, and she leaves, still threatening vengeance. Rodrigo asks the prince to give him any secret documents he has.

Scene 2. A square in Madrid

An auto-da-fé is in progress and the crowd acclaims the glory of the king, who emerges from church and repeats his vow to have the wicked put to death by fire and the sword. Carlo leads in a group of Flemish deputies who beg for mercy for their country, but the king angrily rejects them as traitors. Carlo then asks the king to allow him to go to Flanders as his deputy, but the king refuses, pointing out that he would then be able to seize the throne.

Carlo draws his sword to swear faith with the Flemish people and Filippo orders him to be disarmed. Only Rodrigo obeys and demands the sword, which is yielded by the stunned prince.

The auto-da-fé continues, but a voice from heaven promises peace to the victims.

Act III

Scene 1. The king’s study

The king broods that his wife has never loved him. In answer to his summons the Grand Inquisitor appears and Filippo confides his suspicion that the prince is planning rebellion. They agree that he should be handed over to the inquisition, but then the Inquisitor demands that Rodrigo be handed over as a far greater heretic.

The king refuses, is denounced by the Inquisitor and then tries to make his peace with him, though resentful that the throne has always to give way to the church. The queen rushes in demanding justice, as her jewel casket has been stolen, not knowing that it had been taken on Filippo’s orders. He orders her to open it.

The portrait of Don Carlo is revealed and she defends this on the grounds that he had once been her promised husband. When the king accuses her of adultery, she faints and he calls for help. Eboli and Rodrigo appear, the latter reproaching the king for his lack of self-control.

When the two women are left alone, Eboli confesses that it was she who betrayed the queen, jealous because she too loved Carlo, but in vain. The queen pardons her, but when Eboli confesses that she has been the king’s mistress, Elisabetta orders her either to a convent or to exile, leaving Eboli to curse the fatal gift of beauty which led to her downfall.

Scene 2. An underground prison

Rodrigo visits Carlo in prison and tells him that the papers he took from Carlo have been found in his possession and have proved him to be the leader of the rebellion. Rodrigo is shot by an officer of the inquisition and dies happy that he has been able to preserve Carlo to save Flanders. He tells him that Elisabetta will explain everything to him the next day at the emperor’s tomb.

Filippo, accompanied by grandees, appears and offers Carlo back his sword, but he accuses his father of the murder of Rodrigo, whose death the king also mourns. The people are threatening revolt unless the prince is set free. The king orders the gates to be opened and they surge in, but are subdued when the grand inquisitor orders them to kneel before the king.

Act IV

The tomb of Charles V at San Yuste

Elisabetta kneels in prayer at the tomb. She remembers happier days in France, and prepares to see Carlo for the last time. He tells her that honor has vanquished love and that he is ready to go to Flanders.

They promise to meet in a better world, but their farewell is interrupted by the king, with the Grand Inquisitor and officers of the inquisition. Carlo draws his sword to defend himself but is suddenly rescued, drawn into the monastery, apparently by Carlo V himself.

[Synopsis Source: Opera~Opera]

Click here for the complete libretto.

Click here for the text of Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien.

Click here for the text of Don Carlos, Infant von Spanien (English translation).

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Don_Carlos_Spanien.png image_description=Don Carlos audio=yes first_audio_name=Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlo first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/DonCarlo2.m3u product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlo product_by=Don Carlo: Mario Filippeschi; Eboli: Elena Nicolai; Elizabetta di Valois: Antonietta Stella; Filippo II.: Boris Christoff; Fratre: Plinio Clabassi; Inquisitore: Giulio Neri; Lerma: Paolo Caroli; Posa: Tito Gobbi; Tebaldo: Loretta di Lelio; Voce dal cielo: Orietta Moscucci. Coro e Orchestra del Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. Gabriele Santini, conducting. Recorded 1954.
Posted by Gary at 1:51 PM

Barbers in Baghdad and Seville

From the archives of the Cologne Radio — aka, Westdeutscher Rundfunk Köln — Profil has rescued a 1974 performance of Peter Cornelius’s Der Barbier von Bagdad. A protégé of Franz Liszt, Cornelius both benefited and suffered from the great man’s influence. Liszt promoted Cornelius’s work and conducted the premiere of his comic opera in 1858. However, by that point Liszt had already made a fair number of enemies, and they came to hiss down both the conductor and the opera of Cornelius. Only long after Cornelius’s death did his opera find some audiences, although it has never really threatened to enter the standard repertory.

Cornelius_Barbier.gifLothar Brandt, the author of the German program note which J & M Berridge translated into English, takes the interesting tack of arguing that the very old-fashionedness of both Cornelius’s music and the libretto makes Der Barbier von Bagdad “cool.” Cornelius barely makes any effort to introduce any “Oriental” aspects to his pleasant, very conservative score, and the story is a harmless bauble, adapted from The Arabian Nights. Apparently Brandt sees the opera as so “uncool,” it is “cool.” Maybe. It would take a ripping tune or two to make the score more memorable. With no texts provided, judging the success of the work dramatically will elude the non-German speaker. However, most of the scenes seem to have relatively little character interaction, and the comic energy that percolates throughout Rossini’s masterpiece on the “barber” theme raises not a crackle here.

Ferdinand Leitner, seemingly motivated by a sincere love for the music, gives it first-class treatment, along with an excellent cast. Hans Sotin brings comic flair to the title role, and as the requisite young lovers, Helen Donath and Horst R. Laubenthal make a sweet pair. The sound is clean. Profil needs to stop providing track listings only on the back of the jewel cases, a user-unfriendly arrangement.

EMI Classics, meanwhile, reissues in its Great Recordings of the Century series the Callas/Gobbi Il barbiere di Siviglia, conducted by Alceo Galliera. The opera has a rich recording history, but this set is special, mostly thanks to its two stars. Not everyone appreciates Gobbi’s vocal gifts, which can tend to the dry side, but his ability to characterize as he sings is unparalleled. This Figaro works his wiles with cunning charm.

And not everyone always appreciates Maria Callas, either, but here she is everything her besotted admirers claim her to be. The voice is steady, alluring, distinctive. She has full technical control of every aspect of the score. Even her somewhat calculated effects, like the ostentatiously delayed delivery of that “ma” in “Una voce poco fa,” can be tied to the character of Rosina, a young lady far smarter and in control that is sometimes portrayed. Callas easily posses center stage when her solo turns come, and just as importantly, she easily rejoins the ensemble as necessary too. For her alone, the recording earns its “GROTC” label.

Luigi Alva sings sweetly enough, although the arias don’t quite pull together. The tone eerily brings to mind at times today’s leading exponent of Almaviva, Juan Diego Florez.

Conductor Galliera supports the singers to the point of indulgence. The end of act one brings the best of his efforts, with a very theatrical, vivacious reading. Some other spots feel more studio-bound. The remastering is excellent, and EMI provides a very nice booklet, slim and yet with a bilingual text.

So the Cornelius makes for an amiable byway, and the Callas/Gobbi makes a well-trod path fresh again. Go which way you please, reader.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/BarbiereEMI.gif imagedescription=G. Rossini: Il Barbiere di Siviglia

product=yes producttitle=G. Rossini: Il Barbiere di Siviglia productby=Alceo Galliera, Tito Gobbi, Luigi Alva, Nicola Zaccaria, Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus, Philharmonia Orchestra, Philharmonia Chorus, Tito Gobbi, Gabriella Carturan, Mario Carlin, Maria Callas, Fritz Ollendorff. productid=EMI Classics 0094639204151 [2CDs] price=$25.99 producturl=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=187184

Posted by chris_m at 1:13 PM

Gounod's Roméo et Juliette at Salzburg, 2008

At one time, it might have seemed that Villazón would be the artist to drop out of the production, as in late 2007 he was beset with problems, apparently both personal and vocal, that led him to take an extended hiatus. While he returned to performing, Netrebko and partner Erwin Schrott decided to collaborate on a different production, a child, and the pregnant soprano cancelled her summer Salzburg performance. Who would — or could — replace her?

Nino Machaidze took on the assignment, and with the appearance of that Roméo et Juliette on DVD, the then-25 year old Georgian soprano establishes herself as a rising star. Initially a slight resemblance to Netrebko, both facially and in the dusky beauty of her instrument, may hinder an appreciation of the effectiveness of Machiadze’s performance. But just as Juliet develops from a flighty, free-spirited young girl to a serious, passionate young woman, Machiadze’s appeal grows. She never strives for either showy vocal or histrionic display — unlike her co-star — and her subtle approach draws in the viewer. She has adequate skills for her opening number with its coloratura aspects, and the fullness of voice for the role’s highlight, Juliet’s drinking of the potion for inducing suspended animation. Some may want a more exuberant and tragic Juliet, but for many Machiadze’s steadier approach will win their hearts more honestly.

Other than some passing hoarseness, Villazón shows few signs of his recent troubles vocally. He is a good enough actor that the manic edge he brings to his Romeo may be part of his portrayal, but at times some darkness around the eyes suggests he had not, at that stage, fully recovered his previous confidence. As expected, Salzburg provides an exemplary supporting cast, with Mikhail Petrenko’s relatively youthful Friar Laurence, Falk Struckmann’s ponderous Capulet, and an excellent Cora Burggraaf in what amounts to a cameo aria for Romeo’s page, Stéphano.

Bartlett Sher’s staging manages to be both handsome, energetic, and yet unaffecting. The rich costumes (by Catherine Zuber) and the stark, atmospheric set design (by Michael Yeargan) place the action in France, possibly mid-18th century. Sher employs the usual arsenal of contemporary stagecraft, with ample sex and violence (including a pantomime of a brutal rape during the prelude), singer/performers emerging from the audience, and detailed stage action that seems to give everyone some bit of business to do. Sher delineates characters skillfully, and the stage pictures maintain visual interest. Then why does it feel as if some spark went unstruck? The problem could lie in the material: despite a frequently gorgeous score, Gounod’s Shakespeare adaptation feels uninspired and unimaginative, sticking closely to the original (other than than the pointless expansion of the page character and the regrettable diminution of the Nurse).

Gounod’s music gets a taut, rhythmically propulsive reading from conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Mozartuem Orchester Salzburg. It’s unfortunate that the rather silly bonus features (mostly travelogue) don’t allow for some insight into how the conductor worked with the musicians and singers to produce such a fine performance.

Make no mistake, this DVD entertains, but it does not have anything like the impact of that 2005 Traviata, and wouldn’t have, it seems safe to say, even if Netrebko had not cancelled. View it to obtain an introduction to Nino Machiadze, an appealing new soprano.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/RJSalzburg08.gif imagedescription=Charles Gounod: Roméo et Juliette

product=yes producttitle=Charles Gounod: Roméo et Juliette productby=Nino Machaidze; Rolando Villazón; Mikhail Petrenko: Russell Braun; Falk Struckmann. Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsopernchor. Mozarteum Orchester Salzburg. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conducting. productid=Deutsche Grammophon 073 4518 [2DVDs] price=$34.99 producturl=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/Drilldown?nameid1=4643&namerole1=1&compid=35687&genre=33&bcorder=195&labelid=5813

Posted by chris_m at 1:07 PM

Il Piccolo Marat

Recordings of ancient performances exist, though, and everyone is really excited to hear it, with its blood-and-skullduggery-defeated-by-true-love French Revolutionary plot, and you gather your forces, and rehearse to a fare-thee-well, and then it happens: the lead tenor in the big title role withdraws due to a death in the family. Okay, hardly the first time that’s happened, there’s still two weeks, you can dig up another tenor, and you do. But then the baritone in the impossibly evil villain’s part (and in verismo opera, it’s the villain who makes the machine run, more than almost anything else), falls ill and cannot sing, and you have mere days to find a baritone capable of learning a long role, to say nothing of performing it Monday night. And you find one, and he can handle Scarpia, so he can probably handle this. And then, the day of the performance, the third male lead, another baritone, has to pull out … and there is no time for anyone to learn this thing now, and no one on earth knows it … but a young singer of no less than three other small roles says he’s been following the sick man’s music and he could give it the old Bastille try. And you give it to him, and smile when the audience shows up, and out of the corner of your mind, the sole corner that remains sane, you vow to rip the soprano’s head off if she so much as murmurs of her rampaging case of bubonic plague, but no, she is a lamb, she is in excellent health and ready to rock, and by all the Muses (but especially Thalia, comedy), the show goes on.

Would you have a stroke? Would you retire? Would you call Mel Brooks or Blake Edwards and try to get them to option this backstage screenplay, far too unlikely to occur in real life? Or maybe a skit on SNL?

And would the show go on?

On April 13, at Avery Fisher Hall, the show – Teatro Gratticielo’s concert performance of Mascagni’s Il Piccolo Marat – went on, and was greeted, at evening’s end, with a standing ovation.

The world premiere, in 1921, took fifty curtain calls. Why, then, did Marat become so rare? I’m told the Grove Dictionary of the Opera blames its failure to hold audiences on its Fascist librettist. This does not make sense when reading (and following) the libretto, which is as passionate a hymn to freedom from tyranny as Fidelio or Tosca. Too, there is a rather beautiful love duet, a melodious lullaby that recalls the peaceful Easter music of Cavalleria Rusticana, and a tense climax that lures the audience into the emotions of the three “good” characters as, desperately, they assault the unkillable Ogre (English for Orco, the character’s nickname – so that’s where Tolkien found the word!).

As is customary in verismo, a school that matured as the bourgeoisie seized political power and its echo in the arts from aristocratic predecessors, the chorus is a main character in this opera, easily swayed and ruthless in its bloodthirsty support of hero or villain by turns. The Cantori New York and the Long Island University Chorus howled gloriously under the direction of Mark Shapiro; we were right at home, ringside to mob rule.

As is also the rule in operas about the French Revolution (think Andrea Chenier or Madame Sans-Gêne), there were innumerable small parts – which proved convenient when one singer of three of them, Daniel Ihn-Kyu Lee, earned a needed promotion to the almost-lead role of the gentle Carpenter, not too sensitive to design death ships but queasy when the Ogre wants him to build them. Joshua Benaim was worthy and forthright as a Soldier sent to investigate the Ogre – a by no means easy role, designed for a Pertile or Del Monaco sound, to give heroic voice to the Revolution during the opera’s early scenes, when the title character, the Piccolo Marat, must conceal his real feelings to win the Ogre’s confidence. Alfred Barclift and Hugo Vera showed promise onstage playing offstage voices. (Versatility is the name of this game.)

Richard Crawley, in the title role, effectively concealed his noble self and warmed up the while in order to sing a passionate duet with Paula Delligatti, as Mariella, the Ogre’s unhappy niece, and then burst out like a Cavaradossi “Vittoria” when the time came. Brian Jauhiainen was less overwhelming as the monstrous Ogre. Neither gentleman indicated, however, by any hesitancy or misstep, how recently they had first encountered this music: these were trim, professional performances and we were all very grateful to have them. Delligatti has an expressive spinto, perhaps less than ideal to the explosions of a Butterfly or Tosca but probably ideal for Liú or Maddalena. Her lullaby, perhaps the opera’s only excerptable number (another reason for the work’s obscurity), was serene and charming.

Conductor David Wroe, who perhaps rehearsed with the singers who cancelled, rather bashed his way through the score. It’s a large score, all right, and the music should be loud, but not holding back in a hall as orchestrally focused as Fisher is a disservice to the singers, who were often inaudible at the opera’s high points.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/mascagni.gif image_description=Pietro Mascagni

product=yes producttitle=Pietro Mascagni: Il Piccolo Marat productby=Il Piccolo Marat: Richard Crawley; L’Orco: Brian Jauhiainen; Mariella: Paula Delligatti; Il Carpentiere: Daniel Ihn-Kyu Lee; Il Soldato: Joshua Benaim; Una voce basso: Alfred Barclift; Una voce tenore: Hugo Vera. Teatro Gratticielo Orchestra, conducted by David Wroe. Teatro Gratticielo at Avery Fisher Hall, April 13.

Posted by Gary at 8:40 AM

April 24, 2009

Prokofiev’s Semën Kotko Lands in Sardinia

It is the only proper opera house of Sardinia. Inaugurated slightly more than ten years ago, it has met the challenge of giving new life to the Sardinian capital’s musical life. Near to the theatre are a glittering modern hotel, a Church, a well-tended park and middle-class and upper middle-class housing developments. Opera is a wide, wild world that easily coexists with the “miracles” of urban planning and zoning regulations.

It is difficult to attract interest to an albeit elegant theatre in remote Sardinia. For the last ten years, the Cagliari Teatro Lirico has had a simple recipe: standard repertory (viz. Rigoletto, Bohème, Lucia) for most of the season but breaking news for the inauguration: an opera never previously performed in Italy (better still if seldom seen in the rest of the world) for a major opening to be scheduled in the Spring — not in December or January like in other Italian Opera Houses. The season’s inauguration coincides with the “Sant’Efision celebrations”, a local event that is nearly a national holiday (April 25th “Liberation Day” after the collapse of Nazism in Northern Italy). Thus, opera lovers flying to Cagliari can enjoy a little vacation and the late April sun on the lovely white sand beaches surrounding the town.

This year Semën Kotko [Semyon Kotko] by Sergey Prokofiev was chosen for the 2009 April event in a joint production with St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre. Until the mid-70s, Semën was little performed even in Russia. The opera was composed when Prokofiev, having returned to the Soviet Union after 17 years abroad, made an earnest attempt to develop a good relationship if not with Stalin himself, at least with his top bureaucracy. The plot is based on the then successful novel by Valentin Katayev — the star of popular Soviet writers. It deals with a brave young Bolshevik fighting in post-World War I Ukraine with horrid reactionary, stupid but sadistic Germans; the happy end is the arrival of the Red Army when all our “good folks” are about to be executed. Whilst the score was being composed, the brilliant stage director who had commissioned it, Vsevolod Meyerhold, fell out of Stalin’s favors and subsequently executed by firing squad. During rehearsal, the Russians and the Germans entered into the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (the Treaty of Non-aggression between Germany and the USSR), which led to the partition of Poland. Thus, the libretto had to be changed: the cruel Germans were replaced by the Czarist White Army. A few weeks later, Nazi troops invaded the USSR. Thus, a new change — to go back to the original libretto. In spite of all these efforts, and of successful première at the Moscow Stanislavsky Opera Theatre, the officialdom’s reaction was icy: the opera (and its author) were accused of “formalism”. Thus the patriotic music drama was withdrawn and was not staged until 1958 — not in the USSR or in any major western opera house, but in little Brno, Czechoslovakia. It appeared at the Bolshoi only in 1970

Semyon_Kotko04.gifScene from Semyon Kotko

The plot is puerile, but the score is intriguing. The vocal techniques range from pure speech (with rhythmic notation) to traditionally shaped melody, with every possible degree in between. There a Mussorgskian realism in the way voices overlap and different types of expressions are heard simultaneously. We are far away from Prokofiev’s nearly futuristic style, such as in The Love of Three Oranges or in The Gambler. The orchestration is rich. There is a strong, and apparently earnest, effort to follow “realistic socialism” aesthetics, which were incompatible with Prokofiev’s tendency toward innovation.

Semyon_Kotko02.gifScene from Act I

Does it work now? The Cagliari-Mariinsky production is, no doubt, an excellent effort: the stage direction is highly dramatic, acting is very good, a set of first-class tenors and basses (with a large gamut of varieties in their vocal specification), good conducting (Alexander Vedernikov), an intriguing stage set (Seymon Pastukh), and a stage direction (Yuri Alexandrov) that consists of 28 or so short scenes (post-World War I Ukraine looks like an immense garbage dump). In spite of these efforts, Semën Kotko fails because it is hampered by its inability to meet the demands of Bolshevist propaganda “despite [Prokofiev’s] best efforts . . . [to] bring it down to the level the Stalinist cultural establishment . . . required” [Richard Taruskin, Semyon Kotko, Grove Music Online ]. In light of the many attempts to please the powers-to-be and to experiment with a new mix of styles, it would have been well enough to have left this in the attic. Perhaps its principal significance is being a precursor to War and Peace, composed by Prokofiev a few years later.

Semyon_Kotko03.gifScene from Act II

Nonetheless, a trip to Cagliari is worth for the marvelous voices, especially of the tenors, rarely heard in the West.

Giuseppe Pennisi

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Semyon_Kotko01.gif image_description=Scene from Semyon Kotko [Photo courtesy of Mariinsky Theatre] product=yes product_title=Sergey Prokofiev: Semën Kotko [Semyon Kotko] product_by=Semyon Kotko: Viktor Lutsiuk; Semyon’s mother: Ludmilla Filatova; Frosya: Olga Savov; Remeniuk: Viktor Chernomortsev; Chivrja: Ekaterina Solovieva; Sofya: Lyudmlla Kasianenko; Lyubka: Tatiana Pavlovskaya; Mikola: Vladimir Zhivopistsev. Teatro Lirico Orchestra and Chorus. Alexander Vedernikov, conductor. Yuri Alexandrov, director. Semyon Pastukh, set designs. product_id=Above: Scene from Semyon Kotko

All photos courtesy of Mariinsky Theatre
Posted by Gary at 1:25 PM

April 22, 2009

Jenůfa at the Bavarian State Opera

It opened April 8 at Munich’s Nationaltheater as part of his second season as director. His program presents a mix of both traditional productions and concept-driven, edgy regietheater repertory. But “traditional” does not mean “old-school.”

Formerly director of Vienna’s famed Bergtheater, Bachler was aware of stage director Barbara Frey’s work and his invitation for her to stage Jenufa, her first opera, was a gamble that paid off. She took the story of lost love and infanticide to heart and her taut reading makes the story both searing drama and epic tragedy.

Based on a story, Jeji Pastorkyuna (Her Stepdaughter), by Gabriellla Preissova, it is a relatively early opera by Janacek but marks him emphatically as a master of musical drama and is now performed regularly on the world’s major opera stages. It is the story of a young girl, who gives her name to the opera, and her love affair with the town dandy, Steva. Pregnant with his child, she bears the child in secret while he sows his oats and avoids entanglements. Her high-strung, widowed step-mother, Kostenicka, increasingly unhinged, drowns the baby, which is later discovered by the townspeople. Jenufa is immediately accused but Kostenicka confesses and Jenufa goes through with her marriage to the hapless but devoted Laca.

The setting, an open house on stakes, was designed by Bettina Meyer, and served to concentrate the tension of this dangerously dysfunctional family drama. The crowds who appear outside with the discovery of the body of the love child in the lake, scramble over the forbidding rocks in this desolate landscape. Staging, costumes and lighting all contribute to the sense of desolation which permeates this drama. Slightly updated - wind turbine towers are in the background and a cheap TV is on the table - the small town claustrophobia is easily understood by contemporary audiences.

Bachler was generous with the assembled voices to bring this off. The blazing work of soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek has generated much press recently and, in the title role, her desperate love for a feckless young man, Steva, could not be more heart-wrenching. Gifted with one of the most passionate and powerful voices of today, her anguish was palpable.

There was a sure chemistry between her and her step-sister, Kostenicka, played to perfection by the veteran soprano Deborah Polaski. Watching these two professionals relate was the high-point of the evening. Canadian Joseph Kaiser, with a clear, expressive tenor, was convincing as young Steva. Tenor Stefan Margita, has made his disturbing, complex reading of Laca a simply indispensable part of this opera. It was a quartet of talent that created an intensity rarely experienced on the opera stage. The secondary characters, all excellent, including opera legend Helga Dernesch, now 70, as the grandmother. Sometimes wayward of tone, her character was theatrically on target.

Jenufa_Munich01.gifEva-Maria Westbroek and Deborah Polaski

It was a fine night also for Kirill Petrenko who lead the opera orchestra and chorus with a vivid sense of musical expression. His career is taking off in the last few years with major appearances in the pit at New York, Paris, Vienna and London and his galvanizing leadership contributed to the seamless night of high-voltage music making.

The opera is playing now at the Bavarian State Opera’s National Theater through April 27 and will be seen again as part of the Munich Opera Festival on July 9. Information, with pages in English, is at http://www.bayerische.staatsoper.de/.

Frank Cadenhead

Jenufa_Munich03.gifScene from Jenůfa image=http://www.operatoday.com/Jenufa_Munich02.gif image_description=Eva-Maria Westbroek and Joseph Kaiser [Photo by W. Hoesl courtesy of the Bavarian State Opera] product=yes product_title=Leoš Janáček: Jenůfa product_by=Die alte Buryja: Helga Dernesch; Laca Klemen: Stefan Margita; Stewa Buryja: Joseph Kaiser; Die Küsterin Buryja: Deborah Polaski; Jenufa: Eva-Maria Westbroek; Altgesell: Christian Rieger; Dorfrichter: Christoph Stephinger; Frau des Dorfrichters: Heike Grötzinger; Karolka: Elena Tsallagova; Eine Magd: Anaïk Morel; Barena: Tara Erraught; Jano: Laura Nicorescu; 1. Stimme: Mirela Bunoaica; 2. Stimme: Todd Boyce. Musikalische Leitung: Kirill Petrenko. Inszenierung: Barbara Frey. Bühne: Bettina Meyer. product_id=Above: Eva-Maria Westbroek and Joseph Kaiser

All photos by W. Hoesl courtesy of the Bavarian State Opera
Posted by Gary at 9:26 AM

April 19, 2009

Pfitzner and Strauss by Staatskapelle Dresden

This CD includes Pftizner’s Symphony for Large Orchestra in C Major, Op. 46, which was recorded in January 1941 and released on LP in March of that year. Conducted by Karl Böhm, this recording captures a performance by a conductor who knew the composer firsthand. This historic release benefits from nicely restored sound, which brings an exciting performance from a single recording session. If Pfitzner is known today more for his contributions to opera, particularly Palestrina, his efforts at symphonic composition are by no means insignificant. Among his three symphonies, the Op. 46 work in C major is certainly convincing. The heroic-sounding themes suggest a post-Romantic idiom, which certainly helped to keep this and other, similar works in performance during the Third Reich, when this recording was made. This Hänssler release presents the work in a single, continuous band, which could benefit from divided into three, in order to make the three movements of the Symphony more readily accessible.

The remaining pieces in this volume are works by Richard Strauss, a composer with whom Böhm had a long association. While Böhm’s later recordings are, perhaps more familiar to modern audiences, this reissue offers solid readings from the conductor’s younger days. Consistent with Böhm’s reputation for convincing performances, the recordings demonstrate his fine sense of pacing and dynamic balance, which is apparent even in these relatively early recordings. Don Juan contains a sparkle and verve that brings a sense of immediacy to this recording. The recording techniques for this 1939 recording have a nice, direct sound, with minimal hiss and nice ambience. The virtuosity of the Staatskapelle emerges in the fine ensemble and clear playing of this recording.

Another recording from 1939, the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Strauss’s opera Salome is, perhaps, more familiar from Böhm’s later recordings on Deutsche Grammophon. In the 1939 recording, the excerpt sounds as if it were taken from a performance of the opera. The band opens with brisk tempos and prominent percussion. If the winds sound at first somewhat close to the microphones, they eventually balance the full string sonorities found later in this cut, which are nicely incisive. The percussion, especially the xylophone fit well into the full texture of the piece, and Böhm distinguishes nicely between the agitated rhythmic figure with which the dance begins, and the more romantic motives that intersect the music almost schizophrenically. The performance has a nice drive, which sets up the ending effectively.

Böhm’s performance of Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche dates from 1941, and is another solid reading. This more extended piece by Strauss gives further evidence of the Staatskapelle’s fine musicianship and also its longstanding familiarity with the composer’s music. The sound is particularly effective, reflecting in some ways the kinds of sounds found in film scores of the day. Here Böhm is as engaging as he would later evince a solid connection with tradition.

The final selection, which dates from 1944, is a more popular-sounding work of Strauss, the Festliches Präludium, Op. 61. Conducted by Kurt Striegler, this work includes Hanss Ander-Donath, organ, in a work which is certainly less familiar than the other selections found on this recording. Recorded in Dresden’s Frauenkirche, the sound is more resonant than that found in the other selections, which were made in the Semperoper. The venue is appropriate for the inclusion of the organ, which can be heard, but sometimes merges into the mass of sound Strauss used in this work. With its nice combination of familiar works with less performed literature, this recording is more than an historic curiosity. The recordings are spirited and reflect the engagement of the musicians involved with them in works that drew audiences of period to concerts. This release certainly augments the ongoing audio-documentation of the Dresden Staatskapelle with these well-chosen selections made during the Second World War.

James L. Zychowicz

image=http://www.operatoday.com/0881488701029.gif image_description=Edition Staatskapelle Dresden Vol. 13

product=yes producttitle=Hans Pfitzner: Symphonie für großes Orchester C-Dur; Richard Strauss: Don Juan;Till Eulenspiegel; Salomes Tanz aus “Salome”;Festouvertüre op. 61
Edition Staatskapelle Dresden Vol. 13 product
by=Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden. Karl Boehm, Kurt Striegler, conductors. productid=Profil PH 07010 [CD] price=$16.99 producturl=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/Drilldown?nameid1=9401&namerole1=1&compid=13482&bcorder=15&labelid=5269

Posted by jim_z at 5:12 PM

Die Entführung aus dem Serail at Chicago Lyric

The result is a production that is both entertaining and respectful of the score and text, with a uniformly high level of singing as well as dramatic commitment. The Lyric Opera Orchestra is led by Sir Andrew Davis, who elicits crisp playing with, at times, broad strokes to suggest the forthcoming dramatic urgency, complications, and eventual resolutions.

Already during the overture to this production the traditional concept of a dramatic frame is used to highlight perspectives on the forthcoming action. As will be revealed during the opening numbers of the first act, Konstanze and her attendant Blonde have been captured at sea and are now held at the court of the Pasha Selim. For the present production, through the course of the spirited overture, the figure of an elderly man is seen picking up roses strewn on the ground; further, he seems to be caught deep in silent contemplation, perhaps musing on events of the past. As the overture draws to a suggestive close, the lighting dims on this figure so that he is obscured, shortly before a trap door in the center of the stage opens. The audience has been effectively transported into the reverie of the now aged Pasha, as he recalls his attempts in the past to force the affections of the captive Konstanze. Indeed out of the trap door now climbs Belmonte, the nobleman who, in the recollection of the Pasha, has come in search of his beloved Konstanze. In the leading tenor role of Belmonte Matthew Polenzani has found an ideal match for his vocal talents. The urgency of his emotional quest becomes immediately apparent as he climbs up onto the stage and begins “Hier soll ich dich denn sehen” [“Here I hope to finally see you”]. In this first aria Polenzani demonstrates the effect of his elegant vocal line, a requisite in Mozart’s extended arias composed for tenor in the Entführung. The seemingly endless flow of “Bringe mich ans Ziel” [“Help me to reach the goal”], sung here by Polenzani with admirable legato as he gazes at a miniature portrait of Konstanze, underscores Belmonte’s commitment to finding and saving his beloved. Of course all manner of obstacles will present themselves, such as the immediately following exchange with Osmin, lead servant of the Pasha. Belmonte persists in asking if he has truly come upon the palace, while Osmsin seems distracted by amorous determination with women from the harem. In the role of Osmin Andrea Silvestrelli projects an appropriate gruffness while negotiating the vocal line with considerable variety. In the first part of his duet with Belmonte Silvestrelli’s sonorous bass emphasizes Osmin’s self-absorption while ignoring the visitor’s queries. When Belmonte mentions the name of his squire Pedrillo, who was captured along with Konstanze and her maid Blonde, Osmin’s attention is quickly riveted to the immediate situation at court. He unleashes a spirited attack on intruders, in which he declares full awareness of their villainy. This diatribe is sung with comic lyricism by Silvestrelli, only losing some of the syllables in the fastest passagework. As Pedrillo enters for a happy reunion with his master Belmonte, the two hatch a plan to introduce the nobleman as an architect offering his services to the Pasha. In the role of Pedrillo the tenor Steve Davislim poses an ideal foil to his love-lorn and anxious master. From this point to the close of the first act Davislim encourages and cajoles, at once weaving between the threats of Osmin and the dignified grandeur of the Pasha. In his extensive parts performed in dialogue during these scenes Davislim’s idiomatic command of German adds to the effectiveness of his character’s portrayal.

abduction10.gif(l-r) Erin Wall (Konstanze), Andrea Silvestrelli (Osmin), Aleksandra Kurzak (Blonde)

Once Belmonte learns from his squire that Konstanze has survived and has remained faithful, he sings the well-known aria “O wie ängstlich, o wie feurig” [“O how anxious, o with what passion!”] in order to describe the feelings pulsing from his heart. Polenzani’s carefully projected legato and soft notes support a convincing interpretation with dramatic spirit. At first, he touches his cheek to emphasize a line (“Es glüht mir die Wange” [“My cheek is glowing”]), before he intones “feurig” (“fiery”) with decided conviction, repeating and varying the aria’s fist line. Once he and Pedrillo leave the stage, Konstanze enters in the company of the Pasha. In her response to her captor’s urging that she submit to his affections, Konstanze protests that she still loves Belmonte. In her aria “Ach, ich liebte” (“Ah, but I loved”) Erin Wall in the soprano role of Konstanze confirms her reputation as a fine Mozart singer. In this first aria Ms. Wall maintains firm control of the vocal line with notable decoration while investing great feeling in her intonation of the text. In this sense, she and Polenzani are well-balanced vocally as the lovers awaiting reunion beyond daunting obstacles. Konstanze is now granted only one day further by the Pasha in order to yield to his demands.

The final scene of Act I demonstrates not only the importance of ensemble in Mozart’s Entführung but also the success of Lyric Opera’s new production at rendering both drama and music in scenes involving groups. Once Pedrillo introduces Belmonte to the Pasha as an aspiring architect, a door lifts at the stage center symbolizing the entrance to the palace garden. Osmin stands guard and refuses admission to the two intruders as he sees them. During the following trio sung by the male principals, the slaves and members of the harem move about the stage with ballet-like effect, the door as symbol remaining a goal thoughout the weaving movements. As the act concludes, Belmonte and his squire escape into the garden while the moving chorus prevents Osmin from stopping them at the door.

Abduction16.gifMatthew Polenzani (Belmonte), Steve Davislim (Pedrillo), Erin Wall (Konstanze), Aleksandra Kurzak (Blonde)

At the start of Act II the comic scene between Blonde and Osmin sets the tone for their encounters during the remainder of the opera. Osmin’s commands to Blonde that she should immediately love him are met with indignant reminders that European women are not accustomed to such treatment. As Alexandra Kurzak in the role of Blonde reminds her pursuer with the words “Denen begegnet man ganz anders” [“One treats such women quite differently”], she begins her aria ‘Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln” [“With tenderness an flattery”] on a note of superiority. Ms. Kurzak had been unable to sing the first performance because of illness and was making her debut during the performance reviewed. Her impeccable diction and sprightly acting fit the character of Blonde admirably, while the line and vocal command shown here and in later arias and ensembles demonstrate the work of an accomplished Mozart singer. In the following extended scena Konstanze sings at first of her suffering and subsequently declares her intention to remain faithful to her lover until death. Ms. Wall performs this two-part scene with exemplary focus on the text, her repetitions of “Traurigkeit” [“Sadness”] in the first part addressed to Blonde being invested with a genuine communication of feeling. The staging at this point draws on poses and techniques reminiscent of eighteenth-century practice, with a simplicity underscoring the effective acting of the principals. After comparing her life to a “rose blighted” that “withers away,” Konstanze again faces the Pasha who reminds her that the deadline has arrived. Her response, the aria “Martern aller Arten” [“Torments of all kinds”] as the second number in this extended scene, is sung by Ms. Wall with dramatic flair and a confident, firm use of coloratura decoration. The well-deserved ovation given the performance of this vocal showpiece of the opera was a comment not only on the exquisite singing but also on the use of voice as an instrument in acting. During the aria a shallow revolving platform at the stage center kept the Pasha and Konstanze at a measured distance from each other; the rotating structure is used again later in the act when Pedrillo outwits Osmin and praises the power of wine.

The remaining scenes of the second act give rise to the hope of escape. Pedrillo appears in numbers together with his Blonde and with his master Belmonte. Both Davislim and Kurzak excel vocally in their solo reactions to plans hatched to free Konstanze. Ms. Kurzak introduces well-placed appogiaturas and dwells significantly on the word “Herzen” [“heart”]. Davislim uses his upper register to great effect especially when he sings forte on the phrases “Es sei gewagt” [“Let us dare the deed”] and “zum Streite” [“to the fight!”]. His comic scene with Osmin, the latter falling into a drunken stupor despite his protests, shows a firm sense of timing and stage gestures. After Belmonte’s re-entry the two couples are finally united. The quartet “Es lebe die Liebe” [“May love last forever”] brings to a close a series of alternating accusations and reconciliations, here supported by vigorous and tasteful orchestral playing.

At the start of the final act Polenzani delivers a memorable account of Belmonte’s final aria, “Ich baue ganz auf Deine Stärke” [“I build totally on the reliance of your strength”]. The use of pianissimo and extended notes, as seen in the performance of earlier arias, achieves a highpoint in the execution of this piece. As the men prepare to abduct Konstanze from the garden, while Pedrillo sings a vocal accompaniment, each character is trapped individually by the Pasha’s servants until the squire himself is caught as the last. The Pasha is at first surprised to learn of this deception at court, then indignant when he realizes that his trust in the alleged architect has been compromised. The duet performed by Wall and Polenzani as they swear to die together in love [“Mit dem/der Geliebten zu sterben”] features a lyrical and dramatic expression of their devotion that naturally follows from their earlier characterizations in this production. The Pasha relents when he admits to Osmin that one cannot force love, and that it is preferable to be remembered for one’s generosity. As all are permitted to leave, the four principals sing together with the chorus in praise of the Pasha’s enlightened rule. His reverie thus comes to a happy and satisfying close.

Salvatore Calomino

image=http://www.operatoday.com/abduction7.gif image_description=Matthew Polenzani as Belmonte, Erin Wall as Konstanze [Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago] product=yes product_title=W. A. Mozart: Die Entführung aus dem Serail product_by=Belmonte: Matthew Polenzani; Konstanze: Erin Wall; Osmin: Andrea Silvestrelli; Blonde: Aleksandra Kurzak; Pedrillo: Steve Davislim; Pasha Selim: David Steiger. Lyric Opera of Chicago. Sir Andrew Davis, conductor. Chas Rader-Shieber, director. product_id=Above: Matthew Polenzani as Belmonte, Erin Wall as Konstanze

All photos by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago
Posted by Gary at 4:45 PM

Cavalli’s La Didone at St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn

It wasn’t something I can summarize in the ways we were taught at the Space Academy. It was entirely outside the range of human experience in this department. The senses of “sight” and “hearing” don’t really cover the phenomena. Not all the phenomena.

There were monitors, Captain — monitors, everywhere! Two at the back of the stage showed a forgotten (well, I never head of it!) 1965 Italian sci-fi-horror flick dubbed into English, with cheap-o special effects and a predictable Twilight Zone-style switcheroo ending. And when I say they showed it on two monitors, I should mention that they had fixed it so one monitor showed it left-to-right, the other right-to-left (mirror images, you see), and they were side by side, so intimate scenes between two people seemed to involve four, and guys who were alone on the eerie planet seemed to have doppelgangers. Two other monitors near the front showed props that were seen, discussed, important to the story (swords, daggers, mirrors, anti-meteor colliders) but not actually present on the stage. When Queen Dido (did I mention her? Well, she was very much there, impersonated and sung by Hai-Ting Chinn, who has a lovely clear sexy soprano without that prissy baroque groove), overwhelmed with guilt, looked in a mirror, it was a monitor that showed her face decaying before our eyes (and, presumably, hers), that is: the mirror showed us what she was thinking!

In front of the monitors showing the movie (which was also performed by live actors), singers with genuine operatic voices (it was difficult to tell if they were enhanced or not — usually, I thought, not) performing Francesco Cavalli’s 1641 opera, La Didone. That’s right, Captain — arms and the man they sang. Aeneas, son of Venus, fleeing the destruction of Troy, crossed the seas on winds summoned by the vengeful goddess Juno (can immortal beings feel such wrath? — you tell me), to be shipwrecked near the city of Carthage, where he won the love of the widowed Queen Dido, aided her in a war against her rejected suitor, King Jarbas (driven mad by love), seduced her (with his brother Cupid’s help) during a wild boar hunt (shown), and then left for Italy, abandoning the poor lady (at Jove’s command, because fun’s fun but someone has to found the Roman Empire), whereupon Dido contemplates suicide. Happily (in this version, unlike Vergil’s, and Purcell’s, and Berlioz’s, with which you may be more familiar), the sword is only an image on a monitor, so Dido is rescued by King Jarbas, and they defy the Fates, the gods, the poets, and live happily ever after. (The ending of the background movie, Terrore nello spazio, or Planet of the Vampires, isn’t quite so happy, but it does tie in to the refugees-colonizing-the-locals theme.)

Stage right was a pit band — the usual suspects — keyboards, theorbo, accordion, electric ukulele, throbbing feedback that sometimes (especially when gods were singing — you know, Juno, Jove, Neptune — gods, goddammit!) threatened to drown out the music, but the gods all had microphones so in fact they could be heard through the jumble. Anyway who expects gods to be comprehensible? Even in outer space? And once, when Cupid took the form of Ascanius and sat in Dido’s lap, enabling him to wound her with the dart of love (for his brother Aeneas), an actor (Ari Flakos, who was also the starship captain) played the cherub while a soprano (Kamala Sankaram) sang his music in little-boy voice.

There were two sets of surtitles: one the text of the opera as it was being sung, the other the text of the movie as it was being spoken, looped, repeated, played with. The opera text, I’m glad to say, was sung “straight.” Sometimes singers spoke lines from the film (and even began to play characters in it); sometimes actors spoke lines from the opera (and even began to play characters in that). It was easy to keep the two sets of performers and the two sets of titles from getting mixed up, if you knew both stories. I mean, most of us read Vergil’s Aeniad in Space Cadet School, right? But who remembers that stupid movie? However, Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit, as Mrs. Shaw, my old Flight Training Instructor, used to say.

Among the singers, the standout was certainly Hai-Ting Chinn in the title role — I also have fond memories of her Poppaea last summer at the Poisson Rouge (that asteroid we landed on in Greenwich Village, Captain). She has a curiously vibrato-less sound in a voice of great beauty, and she is a fine actress — I would like to hear what she can do without microphones and over a real orchestra. Tenor John Young made a worthy, sexy Aeneas and Andrew Nolen’s voice, difficult to appreciate when he sang basso deities through microphones, was also well deployed as a love-maddened countertenor Jarbas. (I know countertenors all have deeper voices when not singing, but I don’t think I’ve heard one use both voices to sing in the same performance before.) Kamala Sankaram has a character soprano, more tricky than attractive, but she can play the accordion too. Other performers included Scott Shepherd as an identity-wracked spaceman, Ari Flakos as the pensive captain, Hank Heijink (what a great name!) as the ghost of Dido’s husband, and the Wooster Group’s ever-deadpan first lady, Kate Valk, strolling in and out of jokes and genres with her usual grave laughter. Jennifer Griesbach appears to have been in charge of the musical side of things, and there was so much beauty in the score that the distractions only seemed to enhance it.

The experience was enjoyable on many different sensual planes, but — this sort of thing could get out of hand. These creatures — do we understand what their intentions are? They may be feeding on our inner, human craving for opera in ways scientists do not perfectly comprehend. If we do not take a firm stand, they may absorb us, control us, rewire us, detach us from our original natures, create a new sort of art-work of the future. This could be the look of opera in ages to come. This could be the end of music-drama as we know it.

Fact is, Captain — I’m afraid. Do you hear something — strange?

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/La_Didone.gif image_description=Enea e Didone (Marte e Venere); affresco romano da Pompei, Casa del Citarista product=yes product_title=Francesco Cavalli: La Didone product_by=Dido: Hai-Ting Chinn; Aeneas: John Young; Neptune, Jarbas, etc.: Andrew Nolen; Juno, Anna, Voice of Cupid, etc.: Kamala Sankaram; Ghost of Sychaeus: Hank Heijink. With Ari Flakos, Scott Shepherd, Kate Valk and Judson Williams. Conducted by Jennifer Griesbach. Staged by The Wooster Group at St. Ann’s Warehouse, DUMBO (Brooklyn). product_id=Above: Enea e Didone (Marte e Venere); affresco romano da Pompei, Casa del Citarista
Posted by Gary at 3:35 PM

Die Walküre at Los Angeles Opera

So they are going to enjoy it. At the end of Sunday’s matinee of the always weird and sometimes wonderful Freyer take on Die Walküre, the ovations grew into what seemed for once to be a true standing ovation which went on for quite a long time.

The best features and worst flaws of Freyer’s staging cannot be separated. His conception, for better and worse, sees Wagner’s narrative as a playground for theatrical invention, with the characters not much more than archetypes. Thus the major characters often spend much time behind stationary facades, in the form of flat representations of their costumes. On Sunday the heart of act one, the growing sense of identification between Siegfried and Sieglinde, long-lost siblings, could not beat with life while Plácido Domingo and Anja Kampe stayed on opposite ends of the ring/disc on which most of the action takes place. Narratively, Freyer sees these characters as trapped in their conventional identities until forced to move beyond their ordinary sense of self by circumstance. When Domingo and Kampe could finally emerge from behind their painted fronts and interact, some narrative blood finally started to flow. This same structure hobbled the action of Das Rheingold as well, but Freyer’s commitment to the conception is starting to pay off. After a slow start, the rest of the opera developed into a gripping affair.

Domingo and Kampe were made up as mirror image figures, half blue/black, half gray. Other productions may have tried to cast two singers with a passing resemblance (see Peter Hoffman and Jeannine Altmeyer in the Bayreuth/Chereau/Boulez films). Freyer uses his highly stylized costuming and make-up design to get to the heart of the characters, with no concern for naturalistic depiction.

Jackets play a big role in Freyer’s scheme as well, with Hunding’s enormous plush red number making him somehow comic and yet still insinuatingly dangerous. Another more somber jacket topped with a tilted hat stands in for Wotan as Wanderer at times, and at the end of act three, yet another jacket, metallic this time, descended and enveloped Brünnhilde as she stood in suspended animation, surrounded by Loge’s fire. As Freyer’s designs appear and reappear, in various transformations, he is building up a total world view that acknowledges the essential “otherness” of the story’s time and place, while keeping something recognizably human at the core.

That is underscored by the most surprising development in Freyer’s staging, the growth of his presentation of Wotan. The excellent singer Vitalij Kowaljow floundered in Das Rheingold, kept far too much of the time behind his costume facade and getting almost no chance to project the complexity of the character. On Sunday, he was finally free to move about, and as a result your reviewer finally felt that Wotan was on the stage, in all his misguided aspiration and egotistical fury. The marital combat with Michelle De Young’s formidable Fricka raged like the epic battle of wills that it is, and when Fricka exited, waving her weirdly elongated arms in triumph, Freyer allowed Kowaljow’s Wotan the un-godlike but understandable consolation of sinking down in dejection on the small platform in the center of the disc. Then as Wotan’s monologue ensued, with Linda Watson’s Brünnhilde listening, Freyer brought onto the now revolving disc the characters who populate Wotan’s tale. Wotan was truly at the center of the universe, and yet still a lost and troubled figure.

lrg-328-walk__re_stage_228.gifCounter Clockwise begining left: Erica Brookhyser (Waltraute), Susan Foster (Helmwige), Buffy Baggott (Siegrune), Ellie Dehn (Gerhilde), Jane Gilbert (Grimgerde), Margaret Thompson (Rossweisse), Ronnita Miller (Schwertleite), Melissa Citro (Ortlinde) [Photo by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of LA Opera]

Technically, however, Freyer’s staging has many a bug to work out. The revolving disc creaked far too much, and at other times odd bangs and whistles could be heard. Far too often stagehands in black have to run on stage to fix this or that, with attempted but unsuccessful discretion. And the smoke that pours out seemingly throughout the whole show surely added to the usual rounds of audience coughing, at least in orchestra seating. At some points the frequently employed lightsticks that characters wielded seemed to have their own minds about when they should be on or off.

It’s a fascinating production and a frustrating one. Your reviewer would prefer not to be frustrated, ultimately, but not at the loss of the fascination.

Musically, Los Angeles Opera put together a fine cast, stronger overall that what your reviewer has heard of the singing in the Metropolitan Opera’s current run of the cycle. Kowaljow’s Wotan has power and heft, although he seemed a bit tired by the end of act three. Linda Watson almost managed the treacherous opening battle cries for Brünnhilde, with only that final high note escaping her vocal grasp. After that, she was in control, and Freyer obviously loves this character, giving Watson many opportunities to present her wildness and devotion to her father. Michelle DeYoung repeated her fearsomely obstinate Fricka, and Eric Halfvarson sang a fierce Hunding. Surely he wants to take that red jacket home.

Anja Kampe continues to impress your reviewer as one of the very best sopranos around, although she doesn’t get as much publicity as some others. The voice is secure to just about the top of the range, as well as being as beautiful or forceful as necessary. Domingo has owned the role of Siegmund for sometime, and he is not ready to relinquish ownership. From first to last, he sounded magnificent. A fine gaggle of Valkyries energetically whooped it up astride their bicycle-frame steeds. Strange, isn’t it, in how so many so-called traditional productions, nary a horse is to be seen in this scene.

James Conlon led his forces from inside a covered pit, which created the occasional odd balance but always supported the singers. Some of the grander moments of the score didn’t quite have the accustomed impact, such as the sublime transition to Siegmund’s “Winterstürme” or the concluding Magic Fire music, where Conlon chose a slower tempo. Overall the playing was secure and evocative.

Time will tell if the financial gamble of this risky project will pay off for Los Angeles Opera, and even artistically, it can’t be called a total success. With two more epic chapters yet to unfold (both scheduled for next season), however, Freyer’s staging of Wagner’s Ring cycle may prove to be the foundation on which LAO builds a future audience responsive to challenge and excited by innovation.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/lrg-327-walk_restage261.gif imagedescription=Vitalij Kowaljow (Wotan), Linda Watson (Brunnhilde) [Photo by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of LA Opera]

product=yes producttitle=Richard Wagner: Die Walküre productby=Siegmund: Plácido Domingo, Christopher Ventris (Apr 22 & 25); Sieglinde: Anja Kampe; Brunnhilde: Linda Watson; Wotan: Vitalij Kowaljow; Fricka: Michelle DeYoung; Hunding: Eric Halfvarson; Gerhilde: Ellie Dehn; Helmwige: Susan Foster; Ortlinde: Melissa Citro; Waltraute: Erica Brookhyser; Rossweisse: Margaret Thompson; Siegrune: Buffy Baggott; Grimgerde: Jane Gilbert; Schwertleite: Ronnita Miller. Los Angeles Opera. James Conlon, conductor. Achim Freyer, director and designer. product_id=Above: Vitalij Kowaljow (Wotan), Linda Watson (Brunnhilde) [Photo by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of LA Opera]

Posted by chris_m at 3:17 PM

Die tote Stadt: The Dead City Livens Up Palermo

The author was an “enfant prodige” when at the age of 23 , and with already two successful operas on his back, Die tote Stadt ( “The Dead City”) had the privilege of simultaneous premières in Hamburg and Cologne. It had been turned down by Vienna mainly because of a rift between Gustav Mahler (then, at the helm of the Staatsoper) and Korngold’s father, Julius, a well known (and very strong minded) music reviewer as well as co-author (with his son) of the terse libretto. The success was enormous. Also in Vienna, where it was staged a few months later.

Even before the first staging, Giacomo Puccini was so shocked by a piano performance by “young Erich Wolfgang” that, according to hearsay in many of his biographies, stopped composing the final part of Turandot. In the 1920s, Die tote Stadt was applauded in all main European opera houses. At the advent of Nazism, Korngold emigrated to the U.S. where he spent most of his life between New York and Los Angeles. He became a well known author of film music, winning no less than two Oscar Prizes.

After a long period of silence, Die tote Stadt found a new lease on life in the mid-1970s, with successful and almost parallel, albeit very different productions, in New York (at the City Opera) and in Munich. I loved the City Opera production when I was living in Washington; the music drama was being toured in the USA. It appeared quite frequently until the mid-1980s. Then a new phase of relative oblivion; it re-emerged in the late 1990 at the Spoleto Festival and in 2004 at the Salzburg Festival. The Salzburg production, staged by Willy Decker, had standing ovation; since then, it is in the repertory of the Vienna Staatsoper and has been seen in Barcelona, Madrid and several other major theaters; last February was in London at the RHO. In Italy, Die tote Stadt had his premère in Catania in 1996, was in Spoleto in 1998 and is now in Venice and Palermo in a new sparkling production — quite different from Decker’s.

The plot is base on a decadent late 19th century novel by the symbolistic writer and poet Georges Rodendach — also the basis, as a play, for a major box-office hit It revolves around the obsessions of young widower, Paul; madly in love for his past wife Marie. He thinks that she revives in a sexy dancer, Mariette, visiting Bruges (“the dead city”) to perform in the local opera house. To come to grip with his obsessive day-dreams, Paul has to kill Mariette and leave Bruges forever. The score includes a broad cross-section of all what was in vogue in Central Europe in the years around the First World War. It has reminisces from Wagner and Strauss but especially the opulence of Schreker. The listener can feel that Zemlisky was Korngold’s teacher, not only Schönberg. The complex vocal and orchestral score leaves also room to two set pieces — Mariette’s Lute Song and Pierrot’s Dance Song — easy to listen and frequently requested in German radio programs.

_DSC5390.gifA scene from Die tote Stadt [Photo by Michele Crosera]

The Palermo and Venice joint productions — two of the rare financially sound Italian opera houses — features a fascinating staging by Pier Luigi Pizzi. With a skillful use of mirrors and lighting, we are enthralled in a deadly atmosphere: Paul’s house opens on a decaying city in a dark swamp of stagnant water. The details are carefully described in James Sohre’s review of the Venice production published in Opera Today on 8 March. In Palermo, though, there is a different cast. The conductor Will Humburg digs into the score to show its modern approach as well the “virtuoso” efforts requested to some orchestra soloist. Very taxing the role of the protagonist, Paul, always on stage with a heldentenor pitch; John Trelaven is up to the required standard; in my opinion, a better fit than Stefan Vinke in Venice . Nicole Beller Carbone is an erotic Mariette, both vocally and dramatically. Good all the others.

The Palermo audience is gradually getting adjusted to more innovative opera seasons than those of the past and applauded warmly the April 16th opening night of Die tote Stadt in their beloved Teatro Massimo.

Giuseppe Pennisi

image=http://www.operatoday.com/1292zm_7265Die_tote_Stadt.gif image_description=A scene from Die tote Stadt, Palermo [Photo by Michele Crosera] product=yes product_title=Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Die tote Stadt product_by=Paul: John Treleaven; Marietta / Marie: Nicola Beller Carbone; Frank: Christopher Robertson; Brigitte: Tiziana Tramonti; Juliette: Mina Yamazaki; Lucienne: Julia Oesch; Fritz: Franco Pomponi; Counte Albert: Federico Lepre. Orchestra, Coro e Coro di voci bianche del Teatro Massimo. Will Humburg, Pierluigi Pizzi, director. product_id=Above: A scene from Die tote Stadt, Palermo [Photo by Michele Crosera]
Posted by Gary at 2:41 PM

Shagimuratova steals show in HGO’s Rigoletto

The cast boasted Eric Cutler in his role debut as the Duke, Texan Scott Hendricks as Rigoletto, and Houston favorite Andrea Silvestrelli as Sparafucile. While the men acquitted themselves well, none compared to the performance given by Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova as Gilda.

Houston patrons know Shagimuratova well, having heard her in previous seasons when she was a member of the company’s young artist program. Her Gilda, however, gave them a chance to see the soprano after her development—and what a development it was. From the first note of her duet with Hendricks, Shagimuratova sent a clear, full lyric voice into the house that spun line after line of legato with remarkable ease. Her “Caro nome”—the best I’ve ever heard—employed perfectly executed trills and just the right amount of ornamentation. Shagimuratova’s clarity was astounding in both the act three quartet and the storm trio, projecting easily over both the orchestra and the strong voices of her colleagues. Her acting was spot on, and she showed more sensitivity to her role than any of the other characters. Albina Shagimuratova’s Gilda was one to remember.

Eric Cutler, in his role debut, gave a solid assumption of the licentious Duke of Mantua. His voice remained the light instrument it was when he first burst onto the international scene, but he managed to add enough heft to his sound to get past the heavier orchestrated sections of Verdi’s score. Cutler seemed most comfortable in the lyrical sections, showing off a strong top in his act one duet with Gilda and later giving a seamless rendition of “Parmi veder le lagrime.” His Duke isn’t perfect yet; the tenor forgot at least two lines and needs to polish up his phrasing, but with time the role could prove strong for him.

Texan Scott Hendricks gave a mixed performance as Rigoletto. The San Antonio native has the range, heft, and legato for the role, but on opening night his vocal clarity too often gave way to an over darkened, muddy sound. His “Cortigiani” showed great pathos, but that was it—you got the feeling from Hendricks’ portrayal that he was simply imposing a romantic portrayal (from other roles in his repertoire, like Silvio or di Luna) on a father-daughter relationship. It didn’t always work, and was sometimes awkward. More work vocally and theatrically could greatly improve his portrayal.

Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli gave his usual effortlessly powerful performance. In a production that focused on shadows, fog, and darkness, Silvestrelli bounded in and out of sight, showing up at just the right times and portraying the assassin with just enough dark humor. The Italian’s powerful bass boomed throughout the house to great effect but with careful attention not to overpower his colleagues.

Octavio_Moreno_Ericz_Cutler.gifOctavio Moreno (Marullo) and Eric Cutler (Duke of Mantua)

Silvestrelli’s on-stage sister, Russian mezzo Maria Markina, gave a sexually charged depiction of Maddalena. Markina, a member of HGO’s young artist program, had incredible chemistry with Cutler—the act three quartet was one of the highlights of the night, with Cutler and Markina’s interaction bordering on soft porn while Shagimuratova’s Gilda looked on. Markina’s warm voice showed ample size for the Brown Theater; look for her to grow into larger roles with the company over the next few years. Of the supporting roles, Bradley Garvin as Monterone sang particularly well, projecting a large, ringing bass-baritone into the house in the curse scene.

The subtle production focused mainly on colorful backgrounds and timely scene changes. Several period paintings adorned the backdrops while the sets for acts one and two were sparse. The final act brought out a framed set for Sparafucile’s house which served the quartet action well. Director Lindy Hume could have worked with Hendricks a little more on his acting, which wasn’t so much non-existent as it was misguided and confusing at times. Hume provided some clever touches but mostly let the action carry on in a traditional way. Patrick Summers’ conducting was lethargic in the first act but came to life afterwards.

Scott_Hendricks_Albina_Shag.gifScott Hendricks (Rigoletto) and Albina Shagimuratova (Gilda)

If you’re wondering how good a Rigoletto can be without a perfect baritone, you need look no further than HGO’s production—with a soprano as Gilda who gave one of the most complete performances in recent HGO history combined with a solid supporting cast, the company has a sure hit on its hands.

Paul Wooley

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Scott_Hendricks_Rigoletto_H.gif image_description=Scott Hendricks in the title role of Verdi's Rigoletto [Photo by Felix Sanchez courtesy of Houston Grand Opera] product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto product_by=Scott Hendricks: Rigoletto; Eric Cutler: Duke of Mantua: Albina Shagimuratova: Gilda; Andrea Silvestrelli: Sparafucile; Bradley Garvin: Monterone; Maria Markina: Maddalena; Jamie Barton: Giovanna; Adam Cioffari: Count Ceprano; Octavio Moreno: Marullo; Faith Sherman: Countess Ceprano. Houston Grand Opera Chorus and Orchestra. Patrick Summers, conductor. Lindy Hume, director. product_id=Above: Scott Hendricks in the title role of Verdi's Rigoletto

All photos by Felix Sanchez courtesy of Houston Grand Opera
Posted by Gary at 2:04 PM

John Mark Ainsley Sings Schubert at Jerwood Hall, London

Ainsley has been singing and recording Schubert for some 17 years now, and in place of the youthful ardour which characterized his early performances we now find a deeper, more subtle understanding, yet still with his distinctive tenderness and perfect balance between ‘Ton und Wort.’ His recent major successes on the operatic stage seem to have informed his interpretations to a very marked degree, especially in the more tempestuous songs.

This carefully designed programme had enough of the more ‘charming’ songs to please the casual listener, yet the finest singing (and playing) came in those set to the intense, melancholy poetry of Mayrhofer. ‘Atys’ is an unjustly neglected song, its fervid telling of the story of the youth driven to madness, castration and suicide by the goddess Cybele not exactly ideal material for lunchtime, but in this performance the ‘unergründlicher Schmerz’ was made real in singing replete with subtlety as well as fervour. ‘Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren’ is one of Mayrhofer’s more serene lyrics, and Schubert’s exquisite setting of it drew from Ainsley the most perfect mezza-voce, secure legato line and sense of reverence for the music’s natural phrasing.

As a rule, I can live quite happily without tenors singing the likes of ‘Wilkommen und Abschied’ and ‘Auf der Bruck,’ but here we were treated to performances which concentrated much less on the hearty, ‘I—have—a jolly—horse’ aspects and much more on the dramatic narratives. The lines ‘Und Zärtlichkeit für mich—Ihr Götter! / Ich hofft’ es, ich verdient’ es nicht!’ (Tenderness, for me? Ye Gods! I hoped for that, but didn’t deserve it!’) in the former were sung with the kind of heartfelt openness which always endears a singer to an audience, and in the latter the intensity of the ride was finely assuaged with a last line in which the phrase ‘süsses Ahnen’ was given just enough intensity to make it moving, but without any false swagger or artifice. Roger Vignoles played the rapid chords as though they were the easiest music ever composed.

‘Die Sterne’ was for me the high point of the recital, with such perfect legato line, such sensitivity to the words and such, for want of a better term, ‘Innigkeit,’ that it’s hard to imagine a better performance of this wonderful song. We came back to Mayrhofer again for the encore, with ‘Erlafsee’ an ideal choice to close a programme so finely balanced between ‘wohl’ and ‘weh.’ This first in a series of Schubert recitals will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday May 12th at 1.00, with the remaining recitals performed on Thursdays April 23rd and 30th and May 7th.

Melanie Eskenazi

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Ainsley.gif image_description=John Mark Ainsley [Photo by Marc Eskenazi]

product=yes producttitle=Schubert Songs
Part of the Schubert Plus series, BBC Radio 3 product
by=John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Roger Vignoles (piano).
Jerwood Hall, London
product_id=Above: John Mark Ainsley [Photo by Marc Eskenazi]

Posted by at 1:54 PM

Iphigénie en Aulide at Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

A sleepy papal city of pilgrims and ruins within ancient walls was transformed into a modern bustling metropolis, pierced by railways and Parisian-style boulevards, its acres of glorious ruin gradually unearthed from a thousand years of protective soil cover. That theater was completely rebuilt (as the proscenium proclaims) in 1928, under tiny King Victor Emmanuel III and Benito Mussolini, the “leader.” The result, on Piazza Gigli, is a “futuristic” travertine box surrounding a tinsel horseshoe with an improbably grandiose ceiling mural — what opera features a charioteer mastering four fierce horses with one hand and a naked blonde under his other arm? The building contains memorials to Gigli and Del Monaco, but not to Callas — who, fifty years ago, famously snubbed the president of the republic from this very stage.

The urbane gentleman who shared the box with me and two girls from Oslo (who thought they were attending Gluck’s Orfeo) said, “You’re lucky you came tonight — it was probably your last chance — they’re about to go on strike.” “Which unions are striking?” “All of them.” He was, happily, wrong, and I got to a second performance.

In March, the only opera to be seen in Rome was Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide, under the baton of Riccardo Muti, naturally sung in the original French by a Bulgarian diva and a Russian supporting cast, and staged (conservatively, rationally) by a Greek director. Posters elsewhere in town announced Masaniello, but that was a new rock opera about the Neapolitan folk rebellion, and not, alas, Auber’s 1828 masterpiece.

Iphigénie would seem an unusual opera for an Italian audience — the dialogue is accompanied declamation, barely set off from the arias, and there were no full stops after fiery vocal display (there is little fiery vocal display in Gluck’s “reform” operas) to inspire audience demonstration. Indeed, though the ends of the acts and the conclusion of the opera were met with enthusiasm, the opera itself was only interrupted by applause on two occasions — an outburst for Iphigénie’s great Act III aria, “Adieu, vivez pour Oreste,” and another for Clytemnestre’s tirade, “Jupiter, lance la foudre,” near the evening’s end. Older Italian opera-goers may have been puzzled. As for the younger ones — at the Tuesday performance, there were two rows of children in the orchestra section, looking about ten years old, fully suited and party-dressed. I cannot imagine they remained awake for three long hours of Gluck’s declamation (there is one duet and one brief quartet in the entire work), but awake or asleep, their behavior was impeccable. If there was a fidget or a cough, it drew no attention.

Yannis Kokkos’s staging was elegant, spare, classic, and focused on the story. Sliding panels shut off or opened the space, so the chorus could abruptly reappear, having changed from Greeks into Myrmidons or back again (Greeks wore wigs, Myrmidons breastplates). Whether Greek or Myrmidon, the chorus sang with mimed gestures, illustrating the text in a somewhat hieratical manner. A broad staircase pulled back to permit the ballet, then slid forward so the singers could pose upon it strikingly, the Greeks in white Louis XVI wigs, the leads in yards and yards of flowing cloak of some glistening drape, tossed about passionately to express emotion more flamboyantly than Gluck’s stately verses permitted — since I’d spent the day observing mythic and/or saintly figures on the walls of the Villa Borghese tossing fabric about for the same purpose, this made perfect sense to me. But costume drawings from the company’s last production of this opera, in 1953-54, displayed in cases in the salon, looked more amusing: ballet boys with Hector helmets and ladies in revealing peploi.

Most of the singers started weak but became stronger. Alexey Tikhomirov, the Agamemnon (whom the company seems to favor, based on the number of photos in the portico of the house — and he is a handsome, commanding figure), is a Russian bass, with a serene growl and a kingly set to the shoulder, but the higher reaches of the part brought strain and a very different timbre; at the March 26 performance, he petered out during the soul-searching monologue that ends Act II. Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev sang a reassuring Calchas. Avi Klemberg seemed too light for Achille at first, on March 24, but he put some exciting force behind his desperate utterances in Act II. Pietro Pretti, Achille on the 26th, had a far easier tenor and was handsomer as well. Ekaterina Gubanova, the Clytemnestre, began slowly but built to terrific outbursts that galvanized the house — this is another of those operas (like Il Trovatore and Lohengrin) that are designed for the mezzo to steal, if she cares to, and has the power to sweep the soprano off the stage.

However, the star of the evening, in the title role, was Krassimira Stoyanova — little used in New York (where she has sung a thrilling Traviata and Donna Anna at the Met, plus Valentine in OONY’s Les Huguenots and, most excitingly, Anna Bolena) but a popular star in Vienna and Barcelona in such roles as Desdemona, Luisa Miller and La Juive.

Stoyanova has a creamy, pastel sound on which the tremors of Iphigénie’s doubts and terrors made a delicious effect, but she easily produced the power of the girl’s passionate affirmations of duty at the opera’s climax, when she goes willingly to the sacrifice that, in the end, the goddess does not demand for the very reason that Iphigénie has proved heroic. Like the rest of the cast, too, Stoyanova sang in quite comprehensible French (the surtitles were in Italian), and declaimed the drama with the dignity of the Comédie Française. There was a lovely moment when, having been presented with golden stalks of wheat by the welcoming Greeks, Iphigénie, in private, lets them fall, heartbroken, from her arms, and she was capable of taking part in the nuptial dances of Act II with dramatic gestures. Her sincerity, the attention she paid to whomever was addressing her, the rise of tension and strength in her voice as passion rose in the music, the way her voice blended with others on the few occasions this was permitted by the composer made for a most satisfying account of a long and sometimes shadowy part. Though not a great beauty, Madame Stoyanova looked appealingly pretty in white with a blue overmantel and her hair tied up à la Grecque. (She looked far handsomer in Rome than she did in that black shmatta in the Met’s Don Giovanni last fall.)

Kokkos is the sort of director who manages to get his singers to the lip of the stage whenever they have a lot to sing — a courtesy singers delight in, as it gives them a vocal advantage. It is to his credit that this usually did not seem unnatural, and the moving staircase permitted Agamemnon, for one, to be close to us and far away at the same time. The tiny goddess Diane who swung in on a moon-on-strings (rather the way the gods emerged from machines in Greek drama) was not impressive, the voice being thin and silvery and unworldly rather than powerful and godlike, but the ritual movement of the stately or angry choruses was very well managed.

Riccardo Muti cut the instruments down to something like the numbers Gluck must have employed, and his stately tempi supported the singers well and kept the event flowing at a stately, inevitable pace. He followed Gluck’s edition except in the final scene, where he substituted Richard Wagner’s revised ending of 1847, eliminating the wedding demanded by French formalists (in defiance of Homer and Euripides) in favor of Iphigénie’s transference to Tauris. This made a slight disturbance in the orchestral fabric of the occasion — from Gluck we are catapulted into something rather like the conclusion of Tannhäuser — but left those of us familiar with Iphigénie en Tauride more comfortable.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Iphegenia_Feuerbach.png image_description=Iphigenie by Anselm Feuerbach (1862) product=yes product_title=C. W. Gluck: Iphigénie en Aulide product_by=Iphigénie: Krassimira Stoyanova; Clytemnestre: Ekaterina Gubanova; Diane: Giacinta Nicotra; Agamemnon: Alexey Tikhomirov; Achille: Avi Klemberg (March 24)/Piero Pretti (March 26); Calchas: Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev (March 24)/Riccardo Zenellato (March 26). Teatro dell'Opera di Roma. Production by Yannis Kokkos. Conducted by Riccardo Muti. product_id=Above: Iphigénie by Anselm Feuerbach (1862)
Posted by Gary at 11:20 AM

Der Ring des Nibelungen

The pure and noble Rhine-gold Alberich seized, divorced it from the waters’ depth, and wrought there from with cunning art a ring that lent him rulership of all his race, the Nibelungen: so he became their master, forced them to work for him alone, and amassed the priceless Nibelungen-Hoard, whose greatest treasure is the Tarnhelm, conferring power to take on any shape at will, a work that Alberich compelled his own brother Reigin (Mime = Eugel) to weld for him. Thus armoured, Alberich made for mastery of the world and all that it contains.”

Thus Richard Wagner began his The Nibelungen-Myth. As Sketch for a Drama. Our current theme explores the four works comprising Der Ring des Nibelungen through which Wagner sought to present “the interplay of eternal forces affecting the relation of human beings to God, to nature, and to each other in society.” Donald Jay Grout & Hermine Weigel Williams, A Short History of Opera (4th ed. 2003), p. 451. Here, we traverse the Ring with Wolfgang Sawallisch’s 1968 performances in Rome.

  1. Das Rheingold — Rome 1968
  2. Die Walküre — Rome 1968
  3. Siegfried — Rome 1968
  4. Götterdämmerung — Rome 1968

image=http://www.operatoday.com/RichardWagnerbyCaesarWi.gif image_description=Porträt Richard Wagner, Biebrich, c. 1862 by Cäsar Willich (1825-1886)

product=yes producttitle=Richard Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen productby=

Posted by Gary at 10:00 AM

VERDI: Luisa Miller — Reggio Emilia 1976

Music composed by Giuseppe Verdi. Libretto by Salvadore Cammarano after Friedrich von Schiller’s play Kabale und Liebe.

First Performance: 8 December 1849, Teatro San Carlo, Naples.

Principal Roles:
Count Walter Bass
Rodolfo, his son Tenor
Federica, Duchess of Ostheim and Walter’s niece Contralto
Wurm, Walter’s steward Bass
Miller, a retired soldier Baritone
Luisa, his daugher Soprano
Laura, a peasant girl Mezzo-Soprano
A peasant Tenor

Setting: The Tyrol, in the first half of the 17th century

Synopsis:

Act I

Scene 1: A village

On Luisa’s birthday, the villagers have gathered outside her house to serenade her. She loves Carlo, a young man she has met in the village (Lo vidi e’l primo palpito / “I saw him and my heart felt its first thrill of love”) and looks for him in the crowd. Luisa’s father, Miller, is worried by this mysterious love since Carlo is a stranger. Carlo appears and the couple sing of their love (Duet: t’amo d’amor ch’esprimere / “I love you with a love that words can only express badly”). As the villagers leave to enter the nearby church, Miller is approached by a courtier, Wurm, who is in love with Luisa and wishes to marry her. But Miller tells him that he will never make a decision against his daughter’s will (Sacra la scelta è d’un consorte / “The choice of a husband is sacred”). Irritated by his reply, Wurm reveals to Miller that in reality Carlo is Rodolfo, Count Walter’s son. Alone, Miller expresses his anger (Ah fu giusto il mio sospetto / “Ah! My suspicion was correct”).

Scene 2: Count Walter’s castle

Wurm informs the Count of Rodolfo’s love for Luisa and Wurm is ordered to summon the son. The Count expresses his frustration with his son (Il mio sangue la vita darei / “Oh, everything smiles on me”). When he enters, tells Rodolfo that it is intended that he marry Walter’s niece Federica, the Duchess of Ostheim.

When Rodolfo is left alone with Federica, he confesses that he loves another woman, hoping that the duchess will understand. But Federica is too much in love with him to understand (Duet: Deh! la parola amara perdona al labbro mio / “Pray forgive my lips for the bitter words”).

Scene 3: Miller’s house

Miller tells his daughter who Rodolfo really is. Rodolfo arrives and admits his deception but swears that his love is sincere. Kneeling in front of Miller he declares that Luisa is his bride. Count Walter enters and confronts his son. Drawing his sword, Miller defends his daughter and Walter orders that both father and daughter be arrested. Rodolfo stands up against his father and threatens him: if he does not free the girl, Rodolfo will reveal how Walter became count. Frightened, Walter orders Luisa to be freed.

Act II

Scene 1: A room in Miller’s home

Villagers come to Louisa and tell her that her father has been seen being dragged away in chains. Then Wurm arrives and confirms that Miller is to be executed. But he offers her a bargain: her father’s freedom in exchange for a letter in which Luisa declares her love for Wurm and states that she has tricked Rodolfo. Initially resisting (Tu puniscimi, O Signore / “Punish me, o Lord”), she gives way and writes the letter at the same time being warned that she must keep up the pretense of voluntarily writing the letter and being in love with Wurm. Cursing him (A brani, a brani, o perfido / “O perfidious wretch”), Luisa wants only to die.

Scene:2: A room in Count Walter’s castle

At the castle Walter and Wurm recall how the Count rose to power by killing his own cousin and Wurm reminds the Count how Rodolfo also knows of this. The two men realize that, unless they act together, they may be doomed (Duet: L’alto retaggio non ho bramato / “The noble inheritance of my cousin”). Duchess Federica and Luisa enter. The girl confirms the contents of her letter.

Scene 3: Rodolfo’s rooms

Rodolfo reads Luisa’s letter and, ordering a servant to summon Wurm, he laments the happy times which he spent with Luisa (Quando le sere al placido / “When at eventide, in the tranquil glimmer of a starry sky”). The young man has challenged Wurm to a duel. To avoid the confrontation the courtier fires his pistol in the air, bringing the Count and his servants running in. Count Walter advises Rodolfo to revenge the offense he has suffered by marrying Duchess Federica. In despair, Rodolfo abandons himself to fate (L’ara o l’avella apprestami / “Prepare the alter or the grave for me”).

Act III

A room in Miller’s home

In the distance echoes of the celebration of Rodolfo and Federica’s wedding can be heard. Old Miller, freed from prison, comes back home. He enters his house and embraces his daughter, then reads the letter she has prepared for Rodolfo. Luisa is determined to take her own life (La tomba e un letto sparso di fiori / “The grave is a bed strewn with flowers”), but Miller manages to persuade her to stay with him. (Duet: La filia, vedi, pentita / “Your child, see, repentant”. Alone now, Luisa continues praying. Rodolfo slips in and unseen pours poison into the water jug on the table. He then asks Luisa if she really wrote the letter in which she declared her love for Wurm. “Yes,” the girl replies. Rodolfo drinks a glass of water then passes a glass to Luisa and invites her to drink. Then he tells her that they are both condemned to die. Before she dies, Luisa has time to tell Rodolfo the truth about the letter (Duet: Ah piangi; it tuo dolore / “Weep your sorrow is more justified”). Miller returns and comforts his dying daughter; together the three say their prayers and farewells (Trio, Luisa: Padre, ricevi l’estremo addio / “Father, receive my last farewell”; Rodolfo: Ah! tu perdona il fallo mio / “Oh, forgive my sin”; Miller: O figlia, o vita del cor paterno / “Oh, child, life of your father’s heart”). As she dies, peasants enter with Count Walter and Wurm and before he too dies, Rodolfo runs his sword through Wurm’s breast declaring to his father La pena tua mira / “Look on your punishment”.

[Synopsis Source: Wikipedia]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Friedrich_schiller.gif image_description=Friedrich Schiller by Ludovike Simanowiz (1759-1827) audio=yes first_audio_name=Giuseppe Verdi: Luisa Miller first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Luisa1.m3u product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Luisa Miller product_by=Luisa Miller: Mara Zampieri; Rodolfo: Gianfranco Cecchele; Miller: Giorgio Zancanaro; Count Walter: Carlo De Bortoli; Federica: Jone Jori; Wurm: Maurizio Mazzieri; Laura: Rina Pallini. Orchestra Stabile della Emilia Romagna. Ken-Ichiro Kobayashi, conducting. Live performance, 11 January 1976, Reggio Emilia.
Posted by Gary at 12:00 AM

April 12, 2009

WAGNER: Götterdämmerung — Rome 1968

Music and libretto by Richard Wagner.

First Performance: Bayreuth, Festspielhaus, 17 August 1876

Principal Roles:
Siegfried Tenor
Gunther Bass-Baritone
Alberich Bass-Baritone
Hagen Bass
Brünnhilde Soprano
Gutrune Soprano
Waltraute Mezzo-Soprano
First Norn Contralto
Secon Norn Mezzo-Soprano
Third Norn Soprano
Woglinde, Rhinemaidens Soprano
Wellgunde Soprano
Fosshilde Mezzo-Soprano

Synopsis:

Prologue

The Valkyrie’s rock at night

The three norns, spinning their rope of fate, relate how the world ash tree has withered since Wotan cut his spear from it and the spring at its base has dried up. He had the tree chopped down and the branches piled round Valhalla, ready for the final conflagration. The norns’ rope frays and they cannot see the end of the story of the stolen gold and the curse. The rope breaks and the Norns’ wisdom is at an end.

Siegfried leaves Brünnhilde to seek new adventures. He gives her the ring and she gives him her horse Grane. He sets off towards the Rhine.

Act I

Scene 1. The hall of the Gibichungs on the Rhine

Hagen advises Gunther that both he and his sister Gutrune should marry. He proposes Brünnhilde for Gunther and Siegfried for Gutrune, telling her that Siegfried will be sure to fall in love with her after he has drunk a magic potion, but not mentioning that it is a draught of forgetfulness, necessary to make Siegfried forget Brünnhilde. Siegfried will help Gunther win Brünnhilde, since only he can break through the wall of fire, and will receive Gutrune as his reward.

Siegfried arrives at Gunther’s court and is welcomed warmly. Gutrune offers him the drink and he forgets Brünnhilde, falls in love with Gutrune and agrees to help Gunther win Brünnhilde, using the Tarnhelm to make himself look like Gunther. Gunther and Siegfried swear blood-brotherhood but Hagen abstains. Siegfried and Gunther set off to win Brünnhilde and Hagen remains on watch, brooding over his plans to win the ring.

Scene 2. The Valkyrie’s rock

Brünnhilde is visited by her sister valkyrie Waltraute. She tells how she has found love and happiness, but Waltraute sadly tells her how Wotan, his spear shattered, has returned to Valhalla and sits there inactive. The only thing that can free the world from Alberich’s curse is for the ring to be returned to the Rhinemaidens, but Brünnhilde refuses to surrender Siegfried’s parting gift and Waltraute leaves sorrowfully.

Siegfried’s horn seems to announce the returning hero, but the man who bursts through the flames is a stranger. The disguised Siegfried drags the ring from Brünnhilde’s finger and claims her as Gunther’s bride. He follows her into the cave, preparing to spend the night there, with his sword between them, to keep faith with Gunther.

Act II

In front of the Gibichung hall, near the Rhine

Alberich crouches in front of thie sleeping Hagen, urging the destruction of Siegfried. Hagen swears that his schemes to win back the ring are working. Siegfried suddenly materialises, telling Hagen that Gunther is returning with Brünnhilde as his bride. Hagen summons the vassals and orders them to begin preparations for the wedding feast.

Gunther arrives with Brünnhilde and announces the double wedding. Brünnhilde is aghast to find that Siegfried does not recognise her and astonished to see on his finger the ring she thinks Gunther took from her. Gunther, knowing nothing about this, is puzzled also and Siegfried says he got the ring from Fafner’s treasure. Hagen declares that Siegfried must have taken it from Gunther by fraud.

Brünnhilde declares that Siegfried is her husband but he explains that he laid the sword between them, thinking that she is accusing him of usurping Gunther’s rights. He swears on the point of Hagen’s spear that he did not break faith with Gunther and Brünnhilde swears that he is lying.

Siegfried and Gutrune go into the hall and Hagen offers to avenge Brünnhilde’s wrongs. She tells him how Siegfried can be killed: when she made him invulnerable by means of her magic arts she left his back unprotected, knowing he would never turn his back on an enemy.

Gunther, at first objecting because he has sworn blood-brotherhood with Siegfried, is eventually persuaded by Hagen, who adds the lure of the ring to arguments that Gunther’s honor is at stake. They plan to kill Siegfried on a hunt and blame a wild boar for his death. Brünnhilde and Gunther vow vengeance while Hagen vows to regain the ring.

Act III

Scene 1. A valley on the Rhine

Siegfried, unsuccessful in his hunting, encounters the Rhinemaidens and they ask him for the ring. At first he refuses, then yields; but when they warn him that it will bring him ill luck he disdains the threat and keeps it.

The rest of the hunting party appears. Hagen invites Siegfried to tell his history. With promptings from Hagen, he runs through his life story to the point where he killed Mime, when Hagen offers him a drink which contains an antidote to the forgetfulness potion and he goes on to relate his winning of Brünnhilde, to the horror of Gunther. Hagen spears Siegfried through the back. Siegfried addresses a last ecstatic greeting to Brünnhilde and dies. His body is carried away by Gunther’s men.

Scene 2. The hall of the Gibichungs at night

Gutrune is uneasy. Siegfried’s body is brought in and Hagen tells Gutrune he was killed by a wild boar, but she does not believe him and accuses Gunther. He blames Hagen, who then admits to the deed. They quarrel over the ring and Hagen kills Gunther. Siegfried’s hand rises accusingly as Hagen tries to take the ring, and he falls back in horror.

Brünnhilde claims her right as Siegfried’s true wife to mourn him. She orders a funeral pyre to be built. All that has happened is now clear to her, and she knows what has to be done, telling the Rhinemaidens to take the ring from the ashes after the fire has burnt down. It will then be purified from the curse. She rides Grane into the flames. The Rhine overflows and the Rhinemaidens take back the ring, dragging Hagen to his death as he tries to stop them. In the distance Valhalla bursts into flames and is consumed, along with the gods.

[Synopsis Source: Opera~Opera]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Brunnhilde_flames.gif image_description=Brünnhilde into the Flames by Arthur Rackham (1867 - 1939) audio=yes first_audio_name=Richard Wagner: Götterdämmerung first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Gotterdammerung1.m3u product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Götterdämmerung product_by=1.Norn: Ruza Pospinov; 2.Norn: Helga Dernesch; 3.Norn: Elisabeth Schwarzenberg; Alberich: Zoltán Kélémen; Brünnhilde: Nadezda Kniplova; Floßhilde: Ilse Gramatzki; Gunther: Thomas Tipton; Gutrune: Leonore Kirschstein; Hagen: Gerd Nienstedt; Siegfried: Jean Cox; Wellgunde: Ingrit Liljeberg; Woglinde: Christa Lehnert. Coro e Orchestra di Roma della RAI, Wolfgang Sawallisch, conducting. Live performance, Rome, 1968. product_id=
Posted by Gary at 7:23 AM

April 10, 2009

Rigoletto at the MET with Diana Damrau as Gilda

I was delighted to see the Met filled, at so appealing a performance as that of April 9, with young opera-goers, many of them signifying (by questions about where to find standing room and how to get to the bathrooms) that they were new to opera, or new to the Met. There was, also — as I’d rather expected — a murmur of surprised recognition when the orchestra launched “La donna è mobile” (is there a better-known melody from opera? Wagner’s “Here Comes the Bride,” perhaps), and a general appreciation of the story, the excellent acting, the melodious score, the “classic” Otto Schenk staging, as the German tourists behind me described it — no prima donnas waving cell phones, no motorcycle helmets, no leather bustiers, and a street in Italy that looked like nothing so much as a street in Italy.

They encountered an excellent, well-balanced performance: A heroine to love, a villain to hate while admiring his panache, a protagonist who seemed entirely caught up in the proceedings and a thrilling performance of the score led by Riccardo Frizza, whose attention to detail and dramatic effect were just what Verdi could have desired. This was a very spruce performance, and made one eager to hear what Frizza could do with other familiar items in the Italian repertory.

Joseph Calleja is one of the new crop of exciting young tenors in the Italian repertory. A sturdy, masculine figure — taller than almost anyone else at the court of Mantua — he acted and sang the seductive Duke with careless elegance and athletic ease, with a fluid, forthright tenor and sudden diminuendos at moments for dramatic effect. It was a completely reliable performance if not yet quite so polished as (for example) Ramón Vargas ten years ago, but in that line and heading in that graceful direction.

Diana Damrau has a cool, refreshing voice, clear and house-filling, and she is an ardent actress. One could hope for a more precise trill, and — perhaps on the conductor’s insistence — she omitted optional high notes everywhere and the long trail-off with which Gildas used to leave the stage after “Caro nome,” but in this age of more realistic acting and “come scritto” singing, she is a first-rate Gilda. Too, she is a tiny woman and makes the right vulnerable impression beside a tall Duke and a tall Sparafucile. She can also seem to whisper (at such moments as her shamed entrance in Act II) when she is doing nothing of the sort, and then surprise us with the power of her protest at her father’s plans for vengeance. I’m sure the first-timers will remember her fondly at more ordinary Rigolettos.

RIGOLETTO_Calleja_as_Duke_1.gifJoseph Calleja as the Duke [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]

Roberto Frontali may lack the power to knock us out with “Cortigiani,” but he sings and plays a, convincing portrait of Verdi’s humanized monstrosity, a man eaten up by hatred of the world and of his own place in it, whose one soft spot is invaded and infected by the very viciousness he has himself encouraged in the corruptions of the court. His snarling contempt in the final scene for what he thinks is the corpse of his former master riveted the house, his horror brought shock (and a marked cessation of coughing). It made a solid, convincing centerpiece to an opera too easy to lose to the charms of an ideal Duke or Gilda.

Raymond Aceto’s Sparafucile rumbled on the low notes; he aroused great enthusiasm — who doesn’t love an unembarrassed professional villain? The smaller roles were well and enthusiastically handled all around, especially David Crawford’s nervous Ceprano, Kathryn Day’s firm-voiced Giovanna, and Viktoria Vizin’s Maddalena, determined that her legs should share the honors with her voice.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/RIGOLETTO_Damrau_as_Gilda_2.gif image_description=Diana Damrau as Gilda and Roberto Frontali as Rigoletto [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=G. Verdi: Rigoletto product_by=Gilda: Diana Damrau; Duke of Mantua: Joseph Calleja; Rigoletto: Roberto Frontali; Sparafucile: Raymond Aceto. The Metropolitan Opera. Conducted by Riccardo Frizza. product_id=Above: Diana Damrau as Gilda and Roberto Frontali as Rigoletto [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera]
Posted by Gary at 11:03 AM

Angels in Frankfurt

Peter Eötvös seemed to think so, and it was with excitement (tempered by trepidation) that I took my seat at the wonderful black box space of the Bockenheimer Depot to witness Frankfurt Opera’s admirable production of Mr. Eötvös’ operatic take on the Tony Kushner opus.

Excited because the source material (text adaptation by Mari Mezei) is generally numbered among the finest US plays of the 20th century, and the theatrical masterpiece of the 90’s. Apprehensive because the world-famous seven hour epic was already operatic in its scope and theatricality, and profoundly rich in its complex and detailed character development. How would it fare pared down to less than half that length, with the music further slowing and consuming what remained?

Mr. Eötvös, a Hungarian composer who has long made France his home, had widely variable success. It was difficult to know why he chose to have characters sing certain lines, and simply speak many others, straight out of the play text. The musicalized prose did not always seem to “sing” while some of the more poetic expressions ripe for song remained stubbornly grounded in normal speech.

Angels_Frankfurt_01.gifNina Bernsteiner (The Angel)

The piece was also clearly conceived to have the singers amplified, and they sported those head mikes that are the bane of every contemporary musical. While the sound design was quite fine overall, it has to be said there were (only a few) moments that the mixing did not flatter the singers. However, given the expanse of the Depot and the density of the orchestration, mikes were a grudging necessity.

The orchestrations and instrumental writing were masterful, arguably the most successful element of the composition. In addition to the usual strings, brass, and winds, Eötvös artfully deployed electric keyboards, saxophones and guitars; unleashed a veritable cornucopia of exotic percussion sounds; and even cleverly incorporated extra-musical elements like a siren, telephone ring, and recorded sound effects.

The vocal lines are interwoven with this pleasant wash of sound, but while they were most usually buoyed by it, they too often competed with it for interest. While I recall many wonderful instrumental effects, there is really only a handful of remarkable vocal expressions that I can summon up. This is not to fault the talented singers, nor is it meant to impugn the composer’s real skill at setting the text as idiomatic, generally intelligible American English.

As the drug-addled wife Harper, Jenny Carlstedt gave the performance of the night. Not only did her acting bring back favorable memories of Marcia Gay Harden in the show’s Broadway run, but her singing, by turns plangent or accusatory, was spot on. Doubling as Ethel Rosenberg, she arguably contributed the show’s most affecting moment in Ethel’s two scenes, sung with heartfelt, melting tone, and floating her lovely voice over the moaning, sustained lower string passages. Gorgeous.

Remaining in the “beautiful voice” category, young countertenor Jeffrey Kim was a revelation in his several roles. While the lowish tessitura of Mr. Lies’ first scene initially hampered crisp communication of words, his assumption of the nurse Belize was exceptional. Throughout, he sang with richness of tone. Peter Marsh, too, contributed handsome, well-schooled vocalizing as Louis (the tortured character who deserts his AIDS-afflicted partner). His wonderful lyric tenor was always perfectly placed, his diction was superb, and his acting was committed and natural. A fine artist.

Angels_Frankfurt_03.gifDietrich Volle (Roy Cohn), Nathaniel Webster (Joseph Pitt)

I also liked Michael McCown in the pivotal role of Prior Walter. He was personable and engaging, his stage manner unaffected, and his lyric voice had ping and polish. The role dominates the second act, and the frequent leaps up to outbursts of exposed high notes did seem to tire him a bit by work’s end. Still, this was a fine achievement, and his final moments built around the phrase “more life” were meaningful.

Glamorous Christin-Marie Hill possesses a rich, vibrant instrument which she used to good effect, most especially as Hannah, Joe Pitt’s Mormon mother. The crucial role of Joe was taken (sort of) by baritone Nathaniel Webster, whom I had so enjoyed as Britten’s Tarquinius last season. Sadly, the indisposed Mr. Webster was unable to sing the role, but rather acted it while tenor Kent Carlson voiced it from the pit. After a bit of compensatory mugging at the start, Webster settled down to a nice physical presentation. While Mr. Carslon’s singing was solid, his speaking voice came across as a bit effete and high-pitched for this sexually-conflicted Mormon lawyer-husband.

Nina Bersteiner worked so hard as the Angel that I wanted to like her a bit more than I did. The cruelly difficult range of the role, coupled with broken phrases and repeated syllabic vocal lines made her efforts at times seem, well, effortful. When her attractive soubrette was allowed to simply soar, it was a very enjoyable effect. Dietrich Volle worked hard, too, as Roy Cohn. Too hard, it seemed. In trying to be every moment “the cursing, vile, dirty bastard,” Herr Volle spent a lot of time barking vowels, and neglecting consonants. If you are old enough to remember White Fang’s comic gruntings on the “Soupy Sales Show” you would have some idea of the effect. Thankfully, Volle settled down considerably in the second half and his physical commitment resulted in a compelling death scene.

Forming the Vocal Trio, Anja Fidelia, Diana Schmid, and Leszek Solarski were just tremendous. They made major contributions throughout the evening, with flawlessly sung interjections, stylishly tailored phrasing, and superb background chorals.

Stefanie Pasterkamp’s simple and creative physical production capitalized on the vast expanses of the Depot by devising a large, steeply raked stage that mirrored the tiered audience seating, interrupted in the middle by the pit. White flooring in the center aisle extended through the musicians and up the center of a divided stage ending in a very steep, narrowing set of white stairs topped by a high platform.

Stage right had a quasi-excavation site, in the center of which was a monolithic plastic block of ice, with a richly upholstered chair at its summit. Stage left was dominated by a hospital bed which hovered menacingly far upstage until it was required as part of the action. In a startling effect, the nurse let go of the bed which started plummeting down the slope to the audience until an unnoticed rope stopped its progress with a violent jerk. The whole stage was unbounded by masking, legs, or backdrop, creating the effect of an austere island by capitalizing on the industrial structure of the Depot itself.

Ably abetted by Joachim Klein’s dramatically supportive lighting, Ms. Pasterkamp also provided character-specific costumes of considerable imagination and color. The only curious mis-judgment was the glam-girl look for the Old Rabbi at the top of the piece, with nothing remotely suggesting the Jewish cleric. It got us off to a rather odd start.

Johannes Erath’s clean stage direction was unfussy, focused, and efficient. He drew deeply internalized, and strongly felt performances from his cast. The device of having a naked male extra be the symbolic sexual magnet for Louis and Joe’s tenuous mating ritual in which they touched the intermediary as if in physical contact with each other, was poetic and meaningful. The pairings (and un-pairings) of the characters were supported by well-considered movement and groupings.

Fantasy scenes happily resisted going over the top. I liked the “concept” of having the Rabbi, the Angel, and the naked extra entering from the back of the house through the center aisle, but the reality of it was that until the characters got toward the very front of the audience, it was very difficult to turn back and see them. More effective was having the singers crawl up side ladders from the Depot floor to mount the stage, furthering a sense of collective improvisation.

A real problem with shearing the play down to libretto proportions is that much of the sardonic humor of the original text was lost. Well, really, make that “all.” Mr. Erath managed to inject a few lighter touches into the evening, such as the sudden appearance of the two garrulous theatre box denizens from Sesame Street. Otherwise, it was a pretty unrelentingly sober night about a sober topic.

Another problem with this musical realization is that the dissonant and disjointed twelve tone sounds are still foreign to most ears. Not unpleasing to be sure, just unsettling. It took me about a quarter of an hour to become comfortable with the musical vocabulary. That is not the fault of the truly excellent conductor, Erik Nielsen who displayed an awesome understanding of the score, and shaped it with loving skill.

There were AIDS-related displays in the lobby to further underscore the work’s message, and it seems churlish to criticize the effectiveness of such a thoughtful piece about a tragedy of such deep concern to all of us. Sadly, having had the AIDS crisis in our collective consciousness for almost twenty years now, I fear time has numbed us a bit to the horrors of the plague, and it has become perceived as a manageable condition rather than the virtual death sentence it initially was. I applaud all concerned for their diligent service to this production of Angels in America and for challenging us to keep engaged with solving this continuing health crisis.

But at the end of the night, it seemed that the audience responded more to the good intentions and the individual achievements, rather than to any soul-wrenching dramatic revelations or musical ravishments. While joining Prior Walter in fervently wishing us all “more life,” I also left wishing for “more musical drama.”

James Sohre

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Angels_Frankfurt_02.gif image_description=Jeffrey Kim (Belize, kneeling), Dietrich Volle (Roy Cohn, lying prostrate) [Photo by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of Oper Frankfurt] product=yes product_title=Peter Eötvös: Angels in America product_by=The Angel/Voice: Nina Bernsteiner; Harper Pitt, Josephs Frau/Ethel Rosenberg/Angel Antarctica: Jenny Carlstedt; Hannah Pitt, Josephs Mutter/Rabbi Chemelwitz/Henry/Angel Asiatica: Christin-Marie Hill; Joseph Pitt/Ghost 2/Angel Europe: Nathaniel Webster / Kent Carlson; Prior Walter, Louis' Freund: Michael McCown; Louis Ironside, Priors Freund/Angel Oceania: Peter Marsh; Belize, schwarzer Krankenpfleger/Mr. Lies/Woman/Angel Africanii: Jeffrey Kim; Roy Cohn, Rechtsanwalt/Ghost 1/Angel Australia: Dietrich Volle. Oper Frankfurt. Erik Nielsen, conductor. Johannes Erath, director. product_id=Above: Jeffrey Kim (Belize, kneeling), Dietrich Volle (Roy Cohn, lying prostrate)

All photos by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of Oper Frankfurt
Posted by james_s at 4:38 AM

April 8, 2009

The verdict on the 2009 Proms programme

By Neil Fisher [Times Online, 8 April 2009]

Planning a Proms season that pleases everyone is the great impossible of artistic programming.

Emphasise the contemporary and expect howls of protest from those who want the festival to serve as something of a starter pack for the classical canon. Play up the heritage, however - composer anniversaries, symphony cycles, world’s greatest orchestras - and be labelled staid or dutiful.

Posted by Gary at 12:39 PM

Cutting the Arts — Midlands Groups Struggle Amid Declining Support

By Ron Aiken [Free Times, 8 April 2009]

In Charleston, the symphony orchestra has reduced the salaries of its musicians and staff by cutting its concert season by two months. In New York, the Metropolitan Opera has slashed its 11 scheduled performances to eight. Plans for new museums in Nevada and Ohio have been put on indefinite hold. In California, the Sacramento Ballet cancelled the remainder of its 2009-10 season, while the Baltimore Opera has filed for Chapter 11 protection and, further north, the 67-year-old Connecticut Opera has closed for good.

Posted by Gary at 12:36 PM

An Opera Where Debauchery Reigns at World’s End

By George Loomis [NY Times, 8 April 2009]

BRUSSELS — Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Le Grand Macabre” is a modern opera with a theatrical zest as fresh as its music, which is one reason for the staying power it has shown since its 1978 premiere in Stockholm. This is no ordinary representational opera, with new music grafted on to a conventional novel or play, but an episodic, quirky, strikingly black comedy that appears to be headed toward the destruction of the world. Just what is at stake? Well, not so much, really — an ill-assorted cluster of characters whose preoccupations largely involve indulgences of the body, in particular, sex and drink.

Posted by Gary at 12:34 PM

Lohengrin, Staatsoper Berlin

By Shirley Apthorp [Financial Times, 7 April 2009]

There have not been more horned helmets in a Wagner opera since Bugs Bunny was Brünnhilde in What’s Opera, Doc?

Stefan Herheim’s Lohengrin for the Staatsoper Berlin is an orgy of Wagner clichés. Lohengrin appears in shining armour, the ladies wear floor-length medieval gowns, there are swords and shields and churches and castles.

Posted by Gary at 11:54 AM

Vibrant soprano brings many characters to life

By Gayle Williams [Herald Tribune, 7 April 2009]

The first of two Artist Series performances by soprano Malinda Haslett with accompanist Lee Dougherty Ross was everything an evening of art song should be — intimate, entertaining and just plain fun. Haslett is more than a superbly talented vocalist. She’s a gifted character actor and storyteller (in German, French, Italian and English!). Of course, this should be considered the norm for a highly trained professional singer of the classical style, but she carries it all off better than most.

Posted by Gary at 11:42 AM

Domingo sings Wagner

Together, the discs present a picture of what a full Domingo performance of the character Siegfried would be like, as well as offering what turned out to be a preview of Domingo as Tristan (he recorded the complete role a few years later for EMI). Here Voigt as Isolde joins Domingo’s Tristan for the act two love duet, with a wonderful concert ending that allows for the two lovers to finally achieve earthly bliss.

In the act three Siegfried duet, Voigt tends to dominate. She has announced intentions to perform Brünnhilde in the future. It may not be wise to take these performances as a guide to what her stage assumption would be like, as these recordings date back a few years, before her well-publicized surgery to reduce her weight. However, she easily bests Domingo, in an artistic sense, with the full feminine power of her voice in evidence. Domingo’s act three Siegfried is his least impressive singing of the set, giving off a strong sense of the singer with his face in the score, the role not yet fully in his possession.

The Tristan und Isolde selection, however, finds Domingo employing the darker colors of his voice to fine effect. His Tristan is as heroic in his lovemaking as he had proved himself to be on the battlefield. That romantic, arguably Latin tinge to Domingo’s tone works well in this music, although elsewhere a whiff of impersonation can be sensed. As mentioned above, Wagner re-composed the end of the duet for a concert performance, and this alone makes this Domingo/Voigt performance cherishable, as their voices combine ecstatically in the same music that Isolde usually has to her lonesome self at the end of the opera proper.

Disc two presents the acts one and two highlights of Siegfried’s music from the eponymous opera and Götterdämmerung. Domingo roars through a lusty forging aria, and the forest scene also boasts some lovely singing, capturing Siegfried’s wonder. Natalie Dessay “guest stars” as a very twittery Forest Bird. The more tragic Siegfried of the last Ring opera finds Domingo singing handsomely but with the drama somewhat forced, artificial. Violetta Urmana, the Brangäne on disc one, here assumes Brünnhilde, imposingly enough for her brief appearance.

The most consistent strength of both discs comes from Antonio Pappano’s leadership of the Covent Garden orchestra, an exciting blend of precision and drama. Sound is first-class.

EMI offers a note by Peter Branscombe that supplies some summary of the action; it is at least understandable that most people purchasing a set like this already have some familiarity with the material. Overall, a very entertaining set and at EMI’s new price point, quite the bargain.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/DomingoWagner.gif imagedescription=Wagner: Arias and Love Duets

product=yes producttitle=Wagner: Arias and Love Duets productby=Natalie Dessay, Deborah Voigt, Placido Domingo, Violeta Urmana. Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra. Antonio Pappano, conducting. productid=EMI Classics 3 97683 2 [2CDs] price=$12.99 producturl=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/album.jsp?album_id=176804

Posted by chris_m at 11:10 AM

L’elisir d’amore, Metropolitan Opera, New York

By Martin Bernheimer [Financial Times, 2 April 2009]

Three years have passed since the Met last plodded through L’elisir d’amore. Absence has not made the heart grow fonder. Not this black heart anyway.

Posted by Gary at 6:57 AM

Countertenor Brings Drama to Works by Bach and Handel

By James R. Oestreich [NY Times, 2 April 2009]

The English Concert, the respected early-music ensemble from London founded in 1972 by Trevor Pinnock and now directed by Harry Bicket, received top billing at Zankel Hall on Wednesday evening. But to judge from the extended warm reception accorded the countertenor David Daniels before he had sung a note, and the increasingly clamorous ovations that greeted his performances, many listeners were fixated primarily on him.

Posted by Gary at 6:07 AM

April 7, 2009

Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel

Drawing on the tradition of his father for innovative productions, Johannes Felsenstein has created a memorable staging of Hänsel und Gretel, which uses historic footage from the 1930s containing images of hungry children in breadlines and other, similar impoverished situations, to set the tone. The footage fades into the opening scene, which takes its graphic cues from that period for the costumes and decor. Not set in some undefined, romanticized period of German peasant life, this modern setting of Hänsel und Gretel provides tangible visual cues to establish the sense of poverty which is essential to understanding some aspects of the plot. The comments of Suzanne Schultz, the principal dramatic adviser of the Anhaltisches Theater Dessay found in her essay about the opera in the booklet that accompanies the DVD are particularly relevant in this regard:

The memories of one’s own childhood conjured up by the music is, at the same time, an encounter with a cultural past. By returning to archetypes and reviving our cultural inheritance, the opera not only pinpoints the ambience and problems of its own time. It also throws up questions that go far beyond the twentieth century and remain highly charged issues even today. Hänsel und Gretel is a work that inspires us to approach with a sense of remembrance and reflection with a conscience and a view to the past, those who are weakest and whose burden is greatest in times of hardship - the world’s children.

To this end Felsenstein also uses film later in his production, such as when the father describes the witch, with images of tanks from the Second World War and short battle scenes create a different effect than intended when placed in the context of this opera. In this context, the images imply that Hitler is the witch, which also suggests that the witch is more powerful than depicted in Bechstein’s fairytale, thus contributing some eerie connotations to the line about the witch throwing children into ovens, a connection that Humperdinck could not have imagined in his conception of the opera. Similarly, the idea of hunting the witch becomes even starker when the caricature of Uncle Sam coincides with the father’s statement to his wife that it’s important for both of them to seek out the witch (“Wir wollen ja beide zum Hexenritt”). This staging contributes an element of surrealism to the story and makes this staging into something more than a fairytale, especially with the images of riots and firebombed cities during the prelude to the second act. Still unseen at this point, the witch for this production is much more powerful than found in other, more conventional settings of Hänsel und Gretel. At the same time, it also sets off the childish behavior of the children, unaware of the dangerous world all around them. While the staging involves anachronisms that detract from a sense of authenticity, as do some of the attempts at realism, like the depiction of the father’s drunkenness.

The conclusion, when the other children the witch enchanted are returned to life is effective stagecraft for the opera house. Presented on video, though, it loses something in the visual translation, since the camera must move into the audience and blur the scenic world confined to this point on the stage, and shift to focus in the theater. The blue-toned images of the children approaching the proscenium from the theater call attention to the spatial differences, which are further accentuated by the shot of the conducting leading the children’s chorus. Yet the ending of the scene works well, with the children depicted as working their own magic on Hänsel and Gretel, which leads well into the final chorus and the conclusion of the opera.

This production of Hänsel und Gretel is also of interest because it is based on the new critical edition of the score by Hans-Josef Irmen and published by Schott. As familiar as this score is to many audiences, it is useful to have a performance based on the recently vetted edition, which lends authority to this already fine reading of the score. That stated, it is difficult to account for the decision of having the singer who portrays the father to take on the role of the witch. While this makes sense in the context of the production, which has the parents looking on as the children awaken, and then tease the children by singing the witch’s famous line about who is nibbling at her gingerbread house. From that point the father dons the kerchief (presumably of the mother) to carry out the scene with the witch. In this sense, the fantasy is part of make-believe in the home, and not part of the fairytale world found in the story as rendered by Bechstein or the Grimm Brothers. As stagecraft, this works, but in terms of the musical score Ludmil Kuntschew has used a head voice in various passages. Traditionally the role is sung by a tenor or, in some houses, the soprano who plays the mother, so the choice of the baritone here departs from practice.

The two women who portray the children, Hänsel by Sabine Noack and Gretel by Cornelia Marschall, are quite effective in their portrayals of the two characters. In addition to their fine command of the music, they evoke the children physically in their interactions with each other. Even in the comparatively plainer setting of the children’s passage through the forest, the reactions of Marchall as Gretel give a sense of elements she alone can see, and thus play upon the attentive viewer. Noack has captured the mannerisms of the boy Hänsel nicely, and at times it is difficult to imagine that she is playing a boy. As their parents, Kuntschew is convincing as the father, and Alexandra Petersamer delivers the role of the mother well.

All in all, though, this thought-provoking staging of Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel brings into the work associations which attempt to intensify the dramatic situations. The anachronisms from the Third Reich make this staging perhaps less accessible to younger audiences, who might be need some explanation of the newsreel footage that underscores some scenes. A regular part of the opera repertoire at many houses, since its premiere on 23 December 1893, Hänsel und Gretel retains its association with Yuletide celebrations, particularly in the final scenes, but this production contains allusions to other elements in German culture to set it apart from other, more conventional presentations. Yet enough traditional elements remain in the production to remind viewers of the associations of this work with Christmas, and some of the picturesque tableaux are visually effective, not only at the conclusion of the work, but also in the tender scene as the children fall asleep at the end of the second act, with the angels around them and the parents tucking the children into their beds. As strong as the visual dimension is in this production, the musical elements are well executed throughout, an aspect of opera that must be solidly in place to anchor any production.

James Zychowicz

image=http://www.operatoday.com/ArtHaus101321.gif image_description=Engelbert Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel

product=yes producttitle=Engelbert Humperdinck: Hänsel und Gretel productby=Peter - Ludmil Kuntschew; Gertrud - Alexandra Petersamer; Hansel - Sabine Noack; Gretel - Cornelia Marschall; Die Knusperhexe - Ludmil Kuntschew; Sandmännchen / Taumännchen - Viktorija Kaminskaite. Dessau Anhalt Theater Childrens Choir. Dessau Anhalt Philharmonic Orchestra. Markus L. Frank, conductor. Johannes Felsentein, stage director. Stefan Rieckhoff, set and costume design. productid=Arthaus Musik 101321 [DVD] price=$24.98 producturl=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/Drilldown?nameid1=5668&namerole1=1&compid=291753&bcorder=15&labelid=4357

Posted by jim_z at 3:20 PM

Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci at the MET

No one was under par but there were very few surprises, few thrills or chills. But each opera did conceal one surprise — one shock — one small but significant vocal revelation — that made the evening other than ordinary fare.

The spotlight on the curtain just before it rose on Franco Zeffirelli’s almost too-accurate Sicilian mountain village drew from us soft gasps of alarm, but it was just an announcement that José Cura, though suffering from a cold, would be singing both leading tenor roles in any case. (Domingo, his mentor, used to make such announcements all the time in the ’70s.) In the event, his opening serenade did indeed sound labored — but when was the last time you heard any tenor, even in the pink of health, sing that aria of sated love with an easy, leggiero line? For the rest of the night he was fine, a bit gruff — as he usually is — and with no ringing at the top, which some might miss. It’s a perfectly decent way to put these parts over. Gigli fans will mourn, but he’s been dead a long time.

Cav_Pag_Met.gifIldikó Komlósi as Santuzza and José Cura as Canio in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.

I was interested in the ladies of the evening. Ildikó Komlósi sang the most mellow-sounding Herodias of my experience last fall — no eldritch screamer but a chic, handsome hostess having trouble controlling her adolescent daughter — and I wondered how that enjoyable take on Strauss would translate to Mascagni’s tormented peasant. Komlósi is a fine actress, and hurled herself about the story and the stage, but her essentially lyric instrument (though she also sings Amneris and Eboli, which call for power) did not at first warm to its task, to the expression of desperation — Santuzza is always on the verge of hysteria, she says nothing calmly, she opens her mouth and her whole anguished life is in her utterances. Komlósi’s beautiful voice and Germanic (okay, Hungarian) vibrato are pleasing, but she did not become intense until the duets with Cura and Alberto Mastromarino’s dry, not very threatening Alfio pushed her to forget herself and go wild. Santuzza has tripped up many experienced singers; I did not feel she had it quite down, but she is a voice and an artist of interest.

No part is too small for Jane Bunnell to make it interesting — on such character performers do repertory companies rely, and her dignified Mamma Lucia was a pleasure. But then out came Lola, a youngster from the Met’s Lindemann Young Artists’s Program, one Ginger Costa Jackson, tall, slim, very pretty, a bit too whorish about the sashay (an error made by too many Lolas — she’s a respectable wife in a prudish small town, and no one but Santuzza suspects she’s anything else), but — the voice! No light mezzo here (as one is used to), but a deep, penetrating, perfectly produced contralto with exciting colors. She would make quite an effect in a range of Handel roles, trouser or otherwise.

CAV-Bunnell-and-Cura_6211.gifJane Bunnell as Mamma Lucia and José Cura as Canio in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.

The lady in Pagliacci — there’s only one, remember — was Nuccia Focile, a charming soubrette in the past (an adorable Despina in Cosí fan tutte), who sang a mediocre Nedda, the voice unsupported, the coloratura imprecise in both “Stridono lassu” and the play-within-the-play. The only time she rose to the demands of this curious, death-defying figure was during her impassioned love duet with Silvio — and here was the evening’s second surprise: Christopher Maltman. This striking and sexy British baritone, a noted lieder singer as well as a Billy Budd and a specialist in Mozart roles, filled the house with an easy, dark, focused, thrilling baritone and was an equally thrilling actor. Too, he sang with the most perfect Italian enunciation of the night. This is a voice with star quality and a rare musical intelligence, a singer one is eager to hear again in a dozen roles or in recital. Beside him, Cura and Mastromarino, the evening’s Canio and Tonio, sounded effective but ordinary — they wrung no sobs from me.

Pietro Rizzo had a firm hand on the dramatic flow of the evening in the pit; the resonant celli seemed especially to flower, and I clearly heard echoes of Wagner in Pagliacci, whenever Tonio was conniving. The Zeffirelli staging with all its animals and all its children and all its gradual dawn and sunset lighting changes and all its clowning extras gives audiences a notion of what grand opera used to be about, and why young directors have been so eager to change it. A ringing Canio, a gutsy Santuzza and a real Nedda would make it for me.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/PAG-Cura-and-Focile_6839.gif image_description=José Cura as Canio and Nuccia Focile as Nedda in Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci." [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=Pietro Mascagni: Cavalleria Rusticana
Ruggero Leoncavallo: Pagliacci product_by=Cavalleria Rusticana — Santuzza: Ildikó Komlósi; Mamma Lucia: Jane Bunnell; Lola: Ginger Costa Jackson; Turiddu: José Cura; Alfio: Alberto Mastromarino.

Pagliacci — Nedda: Nuccia Focile; Canio: José Cura; Tonio: Alberto Mastromarino; Silvio: Christopher Maltman.

Conducted by Pietro Rizzo. Metropolitan Opera, performance of April 2. product_id=Above: José Cura as Canio and Nuccia Focile as Nedda in Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci.

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera.
Posted by Gary at 2:36 PM

Reasons to be Cheerful

President Obama and Prime Minister Brown have been smiling from the front pages of all the newspapers after the G20 London Summit, and London’s parks are looking their vernal best in warm April sunshine. Enough to put even the dourest music lover in a good mood? Perhaps, but not remotely necessary after two consecutive evenings of exhilarating vocal accomplishment in the capital, and both times with singers with their careers still in front of them.

The ever-stimulating London Handel Festival has always been a launch pad for young singers just starting out on that difficult phase of their careers between graduate studies and professional contracts, and their annual opera at the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre this week, Handel’s Alessandro, this year came up trumps with no less than four very impressive young artists.

William Relton’s lively, almost cocky, production set in an Oxbridge in the mid 1930’s was full of sexual and political energy, not to mention tongue-in-cheek humour, and the young performers carried it all off with aplomb with some nicely detailed acting from both major and minor roles (the rugger scrums to freeze-frame strobes particularly effective). But with Handel it must always be the singing, the singing, and the singing that matters most and it was the high vocal standards that kept the very long first Act spinning along in a way that defied the clock.

At the bottom of the vocal scale was the warm, dark, yet agile bass baritone of James Oldfield, who brought both a calm dignity and emotional depth to his role as the loyal but morally-troubled captain, Clito. He was matched in vocal expression and stylish singing by the two rival princesses for Alessandro’s love, the sopranos Susanna Hurrell (Rosanne) and Sarah-Jane Brandon (Lisaure). Hurrell has a soubrettish clarity and pin-accurate style that revelled in the virtuosic coloratura, whilst Brandon displayed an impressively warm, creamy tone with power in reserve that will, with care, take her far.

These two soprano roles were of course sung at the premiere in London in 1726 by the Royal Academy’s famous “rival queens”, Cuzzoni and Bordoni, but they didn’t have all the hype and publicity to themselves as the title role was sung by the equally celebrated alto castrato, Senesino. The role of Handel’s soldier-king Alessandro (Alexander the Great whose empire reached to India in the east) takes some singing, and at first sight the young (he looks about sixteen, but obviously isn’t) American countertenor Christopher Lowrey seemed mis-matched to the role. That is until he opened his mouth, and started to dominate the stage. This young singer has that rare quality in this voice-type: a properly produced, strong warm tone, with no hint of that archetypal “English” hooty and constrained sound that is still too frequently found. His top seems limited at this stage, but his mid-range is well-supported and capable of some beautiful sounds. Perhaps just as important for any future operatic career is his obvious delight in being on stage and his ability to hold the eye – not always obvious in other young singers at this level. A Handelian star in the making one hopes.

SarahJaneBrandon&Lowrey&Hur.gifSarah-Jane Brandon (Lisaura), Christopher Lowrey (Alessandro) and Susanna Hurrell (Rossane) with cast [Photo by Chris Christodoulou]

The supporting roles were all competently and affectingly sung by Ben Williamson, Rosie Aldridge (a notable “revenge” aria in Act Two) and John McMunn, and the Chorus made the most of their rugby-as-warfare opportunities. All were supported throughout by the resident London Handel Orchestra under Laurence Cummings, who played with verve and style, notwithstanding some dynamic imbalance in the wind section in Act Two.


London Handel Singing Competition

Turning to singing as a blood-sport, each year Handel’s own church of St. George’s, Hanover Square, fills with a crowd of dyed-in-the-wool Handelians anxious to assess this crop of Finalists, and even more determined to match their skills against those of the official Jury. As ever, this included the cream of English baroque specialists past and present – John Mark Ainsley, Christian Curnyn, Catherine Denley, Gillian Fisher, Michael George and, as Chairman, Ian Partridge.

Ruby%20Hughes%20web[1].gifRuby Hughes, winner of the London Handel Singing Competition [Photo courtesy of London Handel Festival]

In recent years, the standard of singing has risen consistently with some outstanding young artists emerging to confirm burgeoning careers: Andrew Kennedy, Iestyn Davies and Lucy Crowe to name just three. This time around there was a fascinating imbalance in the voice-types reaching the semi-finals which may indicate merely a quirk of fashion, or may be something to worry about: where are all the tenors and baritones? We know that Handelian tenor roles of note are less than numerous, but surely there are ample opportunities for a good low voice to enjoy? This year it seems, the sopranos and countertenors ruled the roost.

Semi finalists:

David Allsopp counter-tenor
Michal Czerniawski counter-tenor
Gary Crichlow counter-tenor
Ruby Hughes soprano
George Humphreys baritone/bass
Anna Huntley mezzo-soprano
Annabel Mountford soprano
Sarah Power soprano
Alexandra Rawohl mezzo-soprano
Elinor Rolfe Johnson soprano
Kirstin Sharpin soprano
Luanda Siqueira soprano
Belinda Williams mezzo-soprano
Owen Willetts counter-tenor
Lisa Wilson soprano

Finalists:

Gary Crichlow counter-tenor
Anna Huntley mezzo-soprano
Ruby Hughes soprano
Luanda Siqueira soprano
David Allsopp counter-tenor

As it happened, on the night, all five singers had to work under some difficulty as there was an unfortunate sudden collapse of an audience member which necessitated urgent medical attention and held up proceedings for over 35 minutes. The eventual winner of both the Adair (First) Prize and the Audience Prize (for once there was no difference of opinion) was clearly not a difficult choice for the jury: young Ruby Hughes, soprano, showed a professionalism and vocal finish in her programme which stood out head and shoulders above her rivals. Her larger instrument, with a warm, bright tone that was even through the range, enabled an expressive delivery that drew every bit of drama from her choices from Theodora, Giulio Cesare, Jephtha and Samson. Anna Huntley, mezzo-soprano, was the worthy second prize winner and lacked just a little in volume and projection compared to Hughes, despite some lovely detailed work and judicious use of vibrato.

Sue Loder © 2009.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/ChrisLowrey%26SusannaHurrell0.gif image_description=Chris Lowrey (Alessandro) and Susanna Hurrell (Rossane [Photo by Chris Christodoulou] product=yes product_title=G. F. Handel: Alessandro (HWV 21) product_by=Alessandro: Christopher Lowrey; Rossane: Susanna Hurrell; Lisaura: Sarah-Jane Brandon; Tassile: Ben Williamson; Clito: James Oldfield; Leonato: John McMunn; Cleone: Rosie Aldridge. Laurence Cummings, conductor. William Relton, director. Cordelia Chisholm, designer. London Handel Orchestra. Adrian Butterfield, leader product_id=Above: Chris Lowrey (Alessandro) and Susanna Hurrell (Rossane [Photo by Chris Christodoulou]
Posted by Gary at 8:37 AM

April 6, 2009

Paris: As Good As It Gets

I found myself tuning in way late to the sort of intense, committed, brilliantly sung operatic performance that had me urgently asking “Who is this woman?” And “what is this stunning production?”

Well, the soprano was Eva-Maria Westbroek, and the work was Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in what seemed to have perhaps been a definitive staging by the adventurous Netherlands National Opera. Damn, to have missed it, although it is out on DVD. What must it have been like “live,” I was thinking.

And lo, the equally adventurous Paris Opera brought this very same mounting to the Bastille recently, with…the luminous Eva-Maria Westbroek in one of the finest performances I have yet seen. Having experienced her wonderful account of the Frau Empress last year, plus the bit of the televised Lady, I was already in her camp of admirers. But nothing prepared me for the visceral impact of her total immersion into the complex layers of Shostakovitch’s troubled heroine Katerina.

Clad most of the evening only in a satiny silver slip, our diva un-self-consciously threw herself into every dramatic (and usually, sexual) situation like a hungry tigress playing with her food. It does not hurt that she is a striking blond, and that she has a dramatic voice of substance, steely beauty, unerring technique, and stamina. The ear-splitting cheers that rained down on her at curtain call seemed inadequate praise for the definitive musical and dramatic journey with which she gifted us. So loud, so fierce, and so prolonged was the rejoicing that Ms. Westbroek was visibly moved by her reception. It was one of those rare bonding moments that only happen in live theatre when true artistic greatness and the audience’s deep desire to experience it collide. Ya shouldda been there.

Our diva was not alone in her accomplishment, oh no. Holding his own as Sergei, Michael König offered a securely sung performance of brutal power. Vladimir Vaneev had orotund sound to spare as Boris, and the dispiriting husband Zinovy was well served by Ludovit Ludha. The excellent Carole Wilson dominated the stage in her featured moment as Aksinya, fearlessly stripped down by her assailants and put on full display in no more than skimpy panties. Her dramatic commitment almost upstaged the fact that she sang very well indeed, and doubled in the role of the Female Prisoner to good effect.

Valentin Jar’s Schoolmaster, Alexander Vassiliev’s Priest, and Nikita Storojev’s Chief of Police were all solidly voiced. Lani Poulson provided a memorable impersonation of the rival Sonietka, and special mention should be made of Alexander Kravets’ willfully malevolent characterization of the seedy Village Drunk, savoring his momentary importance at having exposed the murder.

The Paris Opera orchestra rose to the challenge of Shostakovitch’s often knotty score with a reading of incomparable fire and melting delicacy as required. Rarely has this fine band been heard to such advantage in a house noted for its variable acoustic. I don’t know what more maestro Hartmut Haenchen can do to get to be the Critic’s Darling or the Queen’s Delight, but based on this evening’s thrilling result (and every other Haenchen performance I have heard) he is way higher up in my conductors’ pantheon than other more highly publicized baton wavers. The all-important chorus, well-prepared by Winfried Maczewski. made solid contributions all evening. Superb.

Stage director Martin Kušej has devised a “concept” production that really cooks. Starting with a big glassed-in room that is Katerina’s symbolic prison, and ending with a nightmarish realistic prison that sinks into the bowels of the earth, set designer Martin Zehetgruber came up with one startlingly correct image after another. The pair of them departed from some specific script locations, true, but…they told the story with clarity, passion, and highly creative visual imagery. The look of that endless row of women’s shoes (Imelda Marcos would be proud) at opera’s start in that expansive, barren, glassed-in room, was so simple and so right. Heide Kastler’s appropriate costuming, and Reinhard Traub’s sensitive lighting were icing on the gateau. This was opera as good as it gets.

Idomeneo_Paris.gifScene from Idomeneo

The riches continued with a beautifully realized production of Idomeneo across town at the sumptuous, and more intimate Palais Garnier. This is a perfect sized house for such works, and conductor Thomas Hengelbrock got fine results from his pit musicians, leading with rhythmic drive, exceptional color, and communicating well the arc of the piece. I would be remiss were I not to single out the superlatively inventive recitative accompaniment provided by Alessandro Pianu at the “clavecin,” a cogent dramatic partner to all that transpired on stage.

I was less taken with the physical production so let’s get that out of the way. Set designer Erich Wonder and director Luc Bondy have collaborated to present a framework idea of modern day refugees on a raked white sandy beach, almost a lunar landscape, that spilled over the pit to the audience box stage left. The built-in knolls allowed for variety of visual groupings, and it was dressed variously with a large bench, a pop-out black wall, rocks positioned diagonally, and most important, the omnipresent sea as backdrop.

The cast seemed to spend an awful lot of time regarding that omnipresent sea, although it was effective and, especially with the tsunami-like storm effect, beautifully lit by Dominique Brugière. Of course, Mr. Bondy has a well-deserved reputation for forging clearly defined characters, interactive relationships, and well motivated stage movement. His Idomeneo was largely successful.

Having Ilia initially bound to the bench by a really long rope attached to her boot was a meaningful visual which underscored her entrapment in an untenable emotional situation. The introduction of a switchblade as a prop was less sure, brandished as it was by Idamante who cuts Ilia’s rope, then sticks it in a dune (huh?), later to be plucked out by Idomeneo and stuck in another dune. There was a lovely picture of Ilia beginning “Zeffiretti lusinghieri” writing a letter, then discarding it and starting again, and then having the breeze gently blow the discarded letters across the sands. But then the effect went astray as beach trash joined the windy parade.

There was a rather odd pacing to the evening, as applause was generally discouraged. Then when it was called for, it didn’t materialize. At one point the chorus tromps on in two lines, surely meant to coincide with applause, but there was none. And there were some odd curtain drops, like the one that closed behind a soloist on the apron, then re-opened to reveal exactly the same set, except our hero had changed from black to red costume.

Overall, Rudy Sabounghi’s eclectic costumes were just fine. I quite liked Elettra’s “period’ black costume with farthingale, and her covering her face with a black veil, a device that is passed on to Ilia who wears the black veil later when she is further distanced from her happiness. And there was a well-judged moment of Idomeneo’s covering Idamante with a white scarf when he made to kill him, only to withdraw it as he later crowned him. But I have to say that overall, by evening’s end, we were seeing re-hashed situations, as though the usually estimable Mr. Bondy had simply run out of fresh ideas.

The singers could hardly have been bettered, starting with the meticulous Camilla Tilling as an unusually starchy Ilia. Ms. Tilling’s pointed, pure, lyric soprano is capable of great subtlety and flexibility. Surely she displayed the best vocal coloring and most emotionally rich recitatives I have heard in this role.

Parisian favorite Joyce DiDonato as Idamante was every bit the centerpiece that the show requires, assured at every moment, throbbing phrases balanced by haunting sotto voce expressions of despair and grief that were a model of their kind. Ms. DiDonato is well established here and received the evening’s largest ovation. This town loves her. And why shouldn’t they? Great.

Personally, I adore Mireille Delunsch. She has an unerring technique that is always in service to the piece at hand, witness her past successes as Iphigenie and Louise which I so relished. On this occasion, her Elettra started off just a little rough around the edges. She almost immediately gained in assurance, and knocked out her first great aria with as much vibrant tone and musicality as ever, and she made truly wonderful contributions to the ensembles. If “Oreste, d’Ajace” was slightly less memorable than other versions I have encountered (Studer and Vaness among them) it was at least partly owing to the slack and uninventive staging. (See “Bondy ran out of ideas,” above.)

For as she sang this great showpiece, our director had the entire assembled cast simply turned upstage and stand stock still, as she sang to a rock. A Rock. As …altar? Therapist? At the end Mireille ran off stage to total silence. Imagine! This may be the first time in operatic history that a major soprano successfully sang a great aria, and got not one iota of applause.

Paul Groves showed off his awesome technique with as much variety of expression as you are likely to encounter from anyone in the title role. His tenor, always secure and reliable, has lost a little of the brilliant sheen of his younger days, and there is on occasion a slightly veiled top note when approach with a leaping phrase. But Mr. Ford is surely one of the best Idomeneo’s currently on world stages.

As Arbace, Johan Weigel deployed his lyric baritone with conviction; Ilya Bannik’s Voice of the Oracle of Neptune was decent, if not overly imposing; and the other four soloists were very finely sung indeed (Two Cretans: Yun-Jung Choi, Anna Wall; Two Trojans: Jason Bridges, Bartolomiej Misiuda). The hard-working chorus was once again well tutored by Winfried Maczewski.

So fine were the musical accomplishments, and so congenial were most of the technical elements, would it be impertinent to urge Bondy to do a re-Luc at staging the last fifth of the show?

Werther_Paris.gifScene from Werther

Rounding out my visit, curiosity was high, and the air was rife with “ will he or won’t he?” — or rather — “can he or can’t he?” anticipation as the recently beleaguered Rolando Villazon was scheduled to take on a series of performances of Werther at the Bastille. Recent cancellations and rampant rumors of Mr. Villazon’s vocal demise aside, the truth is that Rolando did indeed sing, and sang very nicely, merci-beaucoups-messiuers-dames.

It is true that he is alternating shows with baritone Ludovic Tézier, on this evening the wonderful Albert but spelling Villazon on other nights as a baritone Werther. And while our tenor got all the high notes, he didn’t spend any more time on them than necessary, or perhaps prudent. There was a collective relaxation in the house after he made it successfully through his first big scene, and a momentary tightening of the buttocks as he subsequently sang rather hoarsely through a slight frog.

But Rolando Villazon deployed his lyric tenor sensibly throughout, and seemed to have reined in his tendency to over-sing phrases that most singers toss away, saving up energy for the money moments. Perhaps his voice is a quarter-size too light to be ideal as Werther but he is such a complete stage animal that he was impossible to resist. The rumors of his demise are happily premature. Vocally and dramatically he was highly affecting.

Susan Graham was in fine form, full-voiced, intelligent, and with more specificity in her dramatic posturings than is sometimes the case for this fine technician. Her French was spot-on. Over the years, Susan has developed an esteemed reputation in the City of Lights and she did not disappoint her public. Adriana Kucerova was a treasurable Sophie, who not only had all the youthful delicacy required, but also had some real bite that she incorporated into select phrases, suggesting a voice of considerable substance.

The production, shared with the Bavarian State Opera, wore well on me. Indeed, since having reviewed it in Munich last year with Garanca and Giordano, I think my appreciation of the staging has even deepened. For the record, Juergen Rose was the successful director, and also did the colorfully creative sets and costumes. Kent Nagano led an impassioned reading of the score.

But the evening was really going to rise or fall on Mr. Villazon’s contribution, and happily, this revival of Werther became a minor triumph.

James Sohre

image=http://www.operatoday.com/LadymacbethParis.gif image_description=Eva-Maria Westbroek as Katerina Lvovna Ismailova [Photo courtesy of Opéra national de Paris]

product=yes producttitle=Dimitri Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk productby=Boris Timofeyevich Ismailov (Vladimir Vaneev); Zinoviy Borisovich Ismailov (Ludovit Ludha); Katerina Lvovna Ismailova (Eva-Maria Westbroek); Sergei (Michael König); Aksinya, The female convict (Carole Wilson); The shabby oaf (Alexander Kravets); Sonietka (Lani Poulson); A schoolmaster (Valentin Jar); A priest (Alexander Vassiliev); The chief of police (Nikita Storojev). Opéra national de Paris Orchestra and Chorus. Conductor: Hartmut Haenchen. Stage director: Martin Kušej. product_id=Above: Eva-Maria Westbroek as Katerina Lvovna Ismailova

All photos courtesy of Opéra national de Paris

Posted by Gary at 1:24 PM

Benjamin Britten: Owen Wingrave

An adaptation by Myfawny Piper of a Henry James short story, Owen Wingrave relates the story of a young pacifist in a family of soldiers who tries to prove his bravery by spending the night in a room in the ancestral home supposedly haunted by two ghosts. In the morning he is discovered dead.

If that sounds like rather thin material for a full-length opera, it is. In two acts that run about 110 minutes, Owen Wingrave manages to feel much longer. Didactic and portentous, the libretto’s flat characters declare their positions in tedious, protracted arguments, only to reach a climax that strives for an eerie ambiguity but just feels unclear and unmotivated. The excellent booklet essay by Anthony Burton explains that similar criticism was made of Adams’s short story. Burton goes on to conclude that the opera is a “major personal statement” for Britten, which is all good and fine, but that doesn’t make it an artistic success. The score undoubtedly is “close-knit,” as Burton describes it, as it uses a few motifs over and over. Your reviewer cannot agree with Burton, however, that Britten’s music is “imaginative,” as it all sounds like music he had written, to greater effect, for other pieces. Besides the titles mentioned in the opening line of this review, strong echoes can also be heard of the Britten masterpiece Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.

However, any work by a major composer such as Benjamin Britten deserves a hearing, and this Chandos recording, one of the last conducted by the late Richard Hickox, brings together excellent singers to give the work a fighting chance - no pun intended - at winning converts. Peter Coleman-Wright wrestles with his conscience in the title role, employing a smooth, well-modulated baritone. In the thankless roles of Owen’s belligerent family, Alan Opie and Elizabeth Connell try their best to fill out their one-dimensional characters. Janice Watson and James Gilchrist also make fine contributions.

The Chandos sound has its fans and detractors. For your reviewer, the aural picture boasts remarkable clarity, but that comes at the cost of being set at a very low-level, even for a classical release. For anyone with somewhat weak hearing, that necessitates a high level of output. Louder sections then blast out painfully, and if somehow one forgets to adjust the setting for the next music one listens to, sudden deafness is a real possibility.

For the most committed admirers of Britten’s music, this CD captures a fine performance. For anyone else with the slightest interest in the material, a fairly recent film production with Gerald Finley at least gives the viewer of Owen Wingrave some visual stimulation to make the 110 minutes pass a little less “pacifically.”

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/CHAN-10473.gif image_description=Benjamin Britten: Owen Wingrave

product=yes producttitle=Benjamin Britten: Owen Wingrave productby=Peter Coleman-Wright - Owen Wingrave; Alan Opie - Spencer Coyle; James Gilchrist - Lechmere; Elizabeth Connell - Miss Wingrave; Janice Watson - Mrs Coyle; Sarah Fox - Mrs Julian; Pamela Helen Stephen - Kate; Robin Leggate - General Sir Philip Wingrave, Narrator. Tiffin Boys Choir. City of London Sinfonia. Richard Hickox, conducting. productid=CHAN 10473(2) [2CDs] price=$34.99 producturl=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/Drilldown?nameid1=1515&namerole1=1&compid=155666&genre=33&bcorder=195&labelid=45

Posted by chris_m at 1:15 PM

Nadja Michael as Salome and Tosca

Urmana carries herself with a poise that recalls old-time diva self-possession, and her gorgeous instrument bears a similar glamour. Michael, however, possesses a vocal instrument as slender it its own way as she herself is - lithe, even muscular, but essentially smaller in scale. Two recent DVDs of Michael in iconic roles for soprano - Tosca and Salome - reveal an artist made to be seen as well as heard - a skilled singer, an attractive woman, but most of all, a riveting stage presence.

Staged at the 2007 Bregenz Festival on its famous lake-side stage, millions world-wide have now seen at least parts of this Tosca production, as it was featured (in a confusingly edited action sequence) in the recent James Bond movie Quantum of Solace. It turns out to be a fairly spectacular visual staging itself, even without Daniel Craig hopping around, capping people. As a line in the booklet essay forthrightly admits, “Philip Himmelmann’s production had to allow for the enormous dimensions of the” Bregenz stage. The gigantic eye that dominates the stage backdrop, essay writer Gerhard Perché suggests, represents an interpretation of Sardou’s melodrama that sees Scarpia as big brother. Maybe, but the eye, which overlooks the action but of course cannot intercede, might just as easily represent the deity that Scarpia claims to worship and to whom Tosca prays in vain (and Cavaradossi declares non-belief in).

Phoenix801.gifAt any rate, traditionalists won’t care for any aspect of the staging. Dress is contemporary, with Michael as Tosca so sexy in her red power suit in act one and more contemporary gown for act two. Gidon Saks sports formal wear, and then removes much of it for what is most likely the first strip tease staged during the Te deum. Only Zoran Todorovic spends the opera in fairly dull clothes, even bespattered with his own blood (a stunt double takes a stunning inert dive into the waters in the last moments). Although the physical production looks like no other Tosca throughout acts one and two, most of the stage action remains fairly true to the libretto; for example, Angelotti hides away in a nook/”chapel” where later Scarpia finds a fan and empty lunch basket.

Act three, however, finds Mario imprisoned in the pupil of the eye, a precarious position requiring a visible tether. When Tosca appears, she perches high above him, standing on some ledge behind the top of the “eye” backdrop. Surely director Himmelmann designed this for the audience at Bregenz, where it might have made an impact, reinforcing the delusion of the reunited couple’s hopes for freedom. But cameras and editing dilute any such intended effect. Similarly, the jolt of seeing dozens of other imprisoned victims of Scarpia rejoicing at the news of his death only partially compensates for the distraction from the opera’s proper climax, Tosca’s leap (a filmed sequence projected onto the pupil).

Nadja Michael and Gidon Saks make any quibbles irrelevant. Neither is vocally perfect: Michael can be shrieky in her top range, and Saks sounds hoarse for quite a while. The greater part of their singing does well by Puccini’s score, and their performances do even better by the libretto’s characters. Michael’s Tosca is passionate, flamboyant yet unneurotic, and very physical - one more reason why the third act staging could have been rethought. And though Saks doesn’t bring much that’s new to Scarpia, the modern dress helps to give a fresh spin to his portrayal of the voraciously sexual sadist. Todorovic, as with many another Cavaradossi, manages an affecting third act aria, but otherwise his coarse, rough tone will win few admirers.

Ulf Schirmer gets a powerhouse performance from the Wiener Symphoniker (as opposed to the more famous Philharmonic). Sound and picture are first class. Be advised, however, that the singers all wear unobtrusive but visible mikes, almost in earpiece form, as necessitated by the Bregenz acoustic.

A few months earlier Michael had been in Milan at La Scala for a Luc Bondy staging of Strauss’s Salome, with Falk Struckmann as Jochanaan. Conductor Daniel Harding goes for a hard-edged, tense reading, ignoring Strauss’s arguably disingenuous proclamation that his score should be treated as if it were by Mendelssohn. The result may not be subtle, but it is often exciting, which helps, since Bondy’s monochrome set and purposeless updating don’t produce much of that quality.

A huge crack runs through the foundation of an outer area of the palace, and Jochanaan has been tucked away somewhere in its depths. Plantation shutters form one wall, and on the other side, a stadium-width passage leads to the interior of the palace. Occasionally TV director Emanuele Garofalo films the action from behind the plantation shutters, presumably for a “voyeur” effect, but merely interrupting whatever dramatic flow is in progress.

Susanne Raschig’s costumes neither seem to be biblical nor clearly of one particular epoch, though some look vaguely late 19th century, such as those of the soldiers. Why she clothed Peter Bronder as Herodes in silky cargo pants and tunic never became clear to your reviewer. Bronder, shorter by a good foot than his imperious Herodias (Iris Vermillion), camps it up like the comic relief in an operetta, diluting the dark undercurrents of the story (whose surface is dark enough, agreed). Despite the fine work of the supporting cast, especially Matthias Klink’s painfully deluded Narraboth, the first hour of this Salome drags itself along clumsily. Only with Michael’s dance do sparks of life appear, though mostly due to her efforts; the choreography offers nothing new. Michael manages to make Salome’s contempt for her step-father clear while still projecting the raw sexuality the twisted man desires to see. Vocally, she seems to have saved just the right amount of power in reserve for the long final scene, and it is better singing overall than she manages as Tosca. The wiry nature of her instrument proves deceptive as it fills out nicely for the climaxes. After making some fitful attempts at innovation and reinterpretation, Bondy strangely goes for the “crushed between the shields” for Salome’s exit, final evidence that no cohesive thought lies behind the production.

Neither of these DVDs is likely to earn general approval, but for your reviewer, from start to finish the Tosca at least held his interest, on which the Salome had a weaker grasp. They both serve, however, as strong evidence that Nadja Michael is one of the more interesting sopranos working today.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/DVWW-OPSALOME.gif image_description=Richard Strauss: Salome

product=yes producttitle=Richard Strauss: Salome productby=Salome - Nadja Michael; Jochanaan - Falk Struckmann; Herodes - Peter Bronder; Herodias - Iris Vermillion; Narraboth - Matthias Klink. Milan La Scala Orchestra. Daniel Harding, conductor. Luc Bondy, stage director. productid=TDK DVWW-OPSALOME [DVD] price=$29.99 producturl=http://www.arkivmusic.com/classical/Drilldown?nameid1=11683&namerole1=1&compid=2928&genre=33&bcorder=195&labelid=4145 Puccini, Tosca Phoenix Edition DVD 801

Strauss, Salome TDK DVD DVWW-OPSALOME

Posted by chris_m at 1:12 PM

WAGNER: Siegfried — Rome 1968

Music and libretto by Richard Wagner.

First Performance: 16 August 1876, Bayreuth, Festspielhaus

Principal Roles:
Siegfried Tenor
Mime Tenor
The Wanderer Bass-Baritone
Alberich Bass-Baritone
Fafner Bass
Erda Contralto
Brünnhilde Soprano
Woodbird Soprano

Synopsis:

Act I

Mime’s forge in the forest

Mime tries in vain to forge a sword strong enough for Siegfried to kill the dragon Fafner. Siegfried returns from the forest with a bear with which he terrifies Mime. He easily breaks the latest sword on the anvil. Mime reproaches him with ingratitude, reminding him that he has brought him up from childhood. Refusing to believe that Mime is his father, Siegfried manages to extract from him the information that his mother, Sieglinde, had died giving birth to him, leaving the fragments of his father’s sword, Nothung. Siegfried demands that Mime reforge this sword and storms out, hoping he may soon be free of the dwarf.

Mime knows he cannot forge the sword, but when the Wanderer (Wotan) appears and offers to answer any three questions on pain of forfeiting his head, Mime asks him only useless questions (about the races of dwarf, giants and gods). When the Wanderer demands a reciprocal question test, Mime is able to answer the first two questions but fails on the third: who will reforge Nothung? The Wanderer tells Mime that his head is forfeit, but he leaves it to be claimed by one who knows no fear.

Mime realises that this is one lesson he has failed to teach Siegfried and tries vainly to make up this omission, but Siegfried is unmoved, even by the mention of the fearsome dragon. Mime has to admit that his skill is unequal to the task of forging Nothung and Siegfried takes to the task himself, breaking all the rules of smithing, but succeeding, while Mime brews a potion he plans to administer to Siegfried when he has killed Fafner, so that he can kill him and seize the ring.

Act II

Deep in the forest, near the entrance to Fafner’s cave

Alberich waits near the cave, hoping that someone will kill the dragon and give him the chance to take possession once more of the ring. The Wanderer appears and, to Alberich’s surprise, professes no interest in the ring, but warns him that Mime is bringing Siegfried to kill the dragon. The Wanderer summons Fafner, who rejects Alberich’s offer to protect him from Siegfried in exchange for the ring.

Mime brings Siegfried to the spot, promising that here he will learn fear. Siegfried wonders about his mother and listens to the murmurs of the forest, in particular a bird, whose warbling he tries to imitate on a roughly improvised reed pipe. He gives up and blows a call on his hunting horn, which wakens Fafner. Siegfried kills the dragon; when he pulls out his sword, his hand is splashed with blood. As he sucks it clean, he finds himself able to understand the woodbird, which tells him to take the ring and Tarnhelm from the hoard.

Mime and Alberich meet and quarrel, watching with horror as Siegfried emerges with the ring and Tarnhelm. The woodbird warns Siegfried of Mime’s intended treachery and when Mime offers him the drugged drink, he is able to understand Mime’s thoughts and strikes him dead. The woodbird tells Siegfried of a bride awaiting him on a rock surrounded by fire and he sets off, following the bird.

Act III

A wild spot at the foot of a mountain

The Wanderer summons the sleeping Erda, once more seeking the benefit of her wisdom, but she answers that she now knows nothing, suggesting first that he ask the Norns (fates) and then Brünnhilde. She is horrifed to learn about Brünnhilde’s punishment. The Wanderer then says that he has no need of her advice as he has decided to accept gladly the end of his power; he will leave the world to Siegfried, and Brünnhilde will perform the redeeming deed.

But when Siegfried appears, he is impatient to find yet another old man standing in his path. His youthful brashness arouses the Wanderer’s anger and as Siegfried tries to go past, he interposes his spear, pointing out that the sword Siegfried carries has already been shattered by it. Believing that he has found his father’s enemy, Siegfried breaks the spear with his sword.

The Wanderer withdraws, no longer able to oppose Siegfried, who climbs the mountain and passes through the ring of flame which surrounds Brünnhilde. After some hesitation he kisses her awake and she greets him ecstatically by name. At first, however, she shrinks from his embrace, reluctant to lose her divine powers, but eventually responds to his passion and they triumphantly proclaim their love.

[Synopsis Source: Opera~Opera]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Siegfried.gif image_description=Siegfried by Arthur Rackham (1867 - 1939) audio=yes first_audio_name=Richard Wagner: Siegfried first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Siegfried1.m3u product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Siegfried product_by=Alberich: Zoltán Kélémen; Brünnhilde: Nadezda Kniplova; Der Wanderer: Theo Adam; Erda: Oralia Dominguez; Fafner: Karl Ridderbusch; Mime: Erwin Wohlfahrt; Siegfried: Jean Cox; Woodbird: Ingrid Paller. Orchestra di Roma della RAI, Wolfgang Sawallish, conducting. Live performance, May 1968.
Posted by Gary at 11:47 AM

April 2, 2009

Return of Ulysses in San Francisco

This 1998 production has been revived just now by Seattle’s Pacific Operaworks, using Mr. Kentridge’s original South African puppet collaborators, for performances in Seattle (March 11-21) and in San Francisco (March 24-29) in conjunction with SF Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition, William Kentridge: Five Themes (through May 31).

Mr. Kentridge’s art has been shown in many of the major modern art museums in Europe and America, at times in conjunction with performances of The Return of Ulysses, and these often with major musical collaborators. It was then obvious for Mr. Kentridge to take on Mozart’s puppet-like opera, The Magic Flute, which he did for Brussel’s Théâtre Monnaie in 2005, a production that made its way to the Brooklyn Academy in 2007. From there it is but a small step up (or maybe a giant leap) to Shostakovitch’s The Nose for The Metropolitan Opera in 2010.

Mr. Kentridge’s first ambition was to be an actor, though it soon became apparent that his greater talent was that of an artist. His vision though has remained theatrical. The San Francisco MOMA exhibition includes a series of large charcoal illustrations based on a version of Alfred Jarry’s absurdist Roi Ubu (1896) at Johannesburg’s Junction Avenue Theater Company, where he has often worked as an actor and director.

Mr. Kentridge’s is a man of the theater. His parents were lawyers and civil rights advocates in pre-Apartheid South Africa, thus Mr. Kentridge’s art is genetically imbued with the theatrics of domestic and civil politics, and his colors are black and white, with an occasional line or splash of primary color, usually red.

The SF MOMA exhibition includes Mr. Kentridge’s preparatory studies for The Magic Flute, and preliminary visual experimentation for The Nose. The Magic Flute exhibit is Mr. Kentridge’s model stage box, its surfaces illustrated by dark mini-video images for the Queen of the Night that contrast with the enlightened bright images of Sarastro (all the while accompanied by a medley from Mozart’s opera). Preparatory studies for The Nose are eight very large, black and white video projections on the walls of a large gallery (with only ambient sound, no Shostakovitch). Most striking of the impressive group were a Cossack dancer repeating a movement, and another of Mr. Kentridge (an Alfred Hitchcock look alike) walking in and out of a white space. The sense is that Gogol [author of The Nose] has met his match.

As Monteverdi’s two extant Venetian operas exist only in embryonic form when compared to modern opera scores, Ulysses and Poppea both require modern editions before they can be attempted by opera companies. Progressively these performing editions have moved to purer Baroque musical practices, contemporary audiences easily perceiving the integrity of the original musical and dramatic inspiration.

And at the same time we have had the good fortune to see these embryos developed freehand into very effective modern works — Raymond Leppard’s Poppea at one extreme, Luigi Dallapiccola’s Ulysses at another, Barry Kosky’s Poppea for the Vienna Schauspielhaus (actors who sing, piano and three cellos in the pit), and of course William Kentridge’s Ulysses, Monteverdi’s Baroque tapestry magnified into a focused delirium of the last one hundred minutes of Ulysses life.

In much of his art Mr. Kentridge is intrigued by simple mechanics, and certainly that of puppetry. Thus it is no surprise that his continuo (a small, non-specific group of instruments that accompanies sung text, the only accompaniment Monteverdi’s Venetian operas require) was a vista, make the players’ physical movements a part of the show. The continuo stretched across a slightly raised midstage platform. Led by Pacific Operaworks music director Stephen Stubbs on chitarrone (theorbo), the continuo was an additional theorbo, a baroque harp, two violins and a viola da gamba/cello. Maestro Stubbs and this combination of instruments provided a warm, smooth and sensual continuum of music, rarely disturbed by rhythmic punctuation or other coloristic intrusions.

The high back of the continuo platform divided the front stage from a more complicated upstage playing area, as the back wall of the orchestra platform allowed the nearly life sized puppets to be seen without their operators, animating them by sticks from below (see photo). On the front stage the vista puppeteers were silently one with their puppets, imbuing their movements with their own humanity, though the voice of puppet was a concert dressed singer, concentrating his gaze on the face of the puppet, and effecting the gestures of one of the puppet’s arms. The effect was a humanity of always profound and sometimes terrifying proportion.

If Monteverdi supercharged the intoned, impassioned speech imagined by Renaissance philologists as that of ancient tragedy, Pacific Opera Works took this heated musicality a further step by providing us a Ulysses who projected this text in inspired musical periods that were heroic, almost super human in musical effect, that grew into the sublime final duet with Penelope. The singer, Ross Hauck, is active in music ministry in the Northwest. Mr. Hauck was well supported by his Penelope, Laura Pudwell. The production’s star turn was Met singer Cyndia Sieden (Love and Athena), who was joined by five accomplished performers who enacted Penelope’s maid, Ulysses’ tutor, his son, and his rivals, and all hinted at the presences of the plethora of divine forces in Monteverdi’s original.

More a multimedia event than an integrated opera production, Mr. Kentridge’s Return of Ulysses was the combination of these musical forces with puppets animated by puppeteers (though the puppets were sometimes in solo, frozen movement, like comic book illustrations), plus a black and white video component projected on a large screen hung above the upstage playing area. As Mr. Kentridge’s Ulysses lies dying in a Johannesburg hospital this video takes us into his body through medical diagnostic imaging, at other times we see into his death delirium by the images in front of which his life plays back. Never a commentary, the video was always an immediate part of the momentary action. While these components remained a montage, changing focus for me was seamless though my experience will have been my own, not that of my companions. Yet in the end the montage did not build to a convincing apotheosis of love in death — and this was Mr. Kentridge’s attempted ending, not Monteverdi’s.

With this production (its first!) Pacific Operaworks has established itself as a national level producer of opera, San Francisco’s Artaud Theater has proven itself a fine theater for Baroque opera, SF MOMA has firmly established itself as an enlightened presenter of multimedia art. And Mr. Kentridge is on his way to the arguably enlightened Metropolitan Opera. The Nose will be an extraordinary event for the opera world.

Michael Milenski

image=http://www.operatoday.com/kentride_opera_event.gif image_description=Scene from The Return of Ulysses [Photo by San Francisco Museum of Modern Art] product=yes product_title=Claudio Monteverdi: The Return of Ulysses product_by=Directed by William Kentridge. Revival directed by Luc de Wit. Produced by Pacific Operaworks, Seattle. Musical direction by Stephen Stubbs. Featuring the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. product_id=Above: Scene from The Return of Ulysses [Photo by San Francisco Museum of Modern Art]
Posted by Gary at 12:40 PM

April 1, 2009

Rigoletto at San Diego Opera

Think of it as operatic comfort food, if you will, in stomach-rattling times. San Diego Opera seems to have gone further, deciding to present its operas in stagings that can remind its audiences of long past high-rolling days.

Ian Campbell at San Diego Opera apparently discovered a secret trove of older New York City Opera productions, entirely traditional and only faintly musty. Spare but practical settings of Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Maria Stuarda were used in recent seasons, and the program for this season’s Rigoletto offers the vague credit “Scenery and costumes created for New York City Opera.” Elsewhere Carl Toms is identified as the creator, but no year is provided.

It looks to be from the mid-1970s, possibly early 1980s. Scene one of act one gets a handsome setting, with a palatial staircase dominating the picture, along with an oversized statue of an unidentified royal figure. The back opens to a deep view of a nighttime sky, which might get a little chilly for the attendees of the Duke’s get-together but adds to the atmosphere. A very lengthy scene change produced a less impressive set for scene two, with Rigoletto’s quarters being not much more than an iron gate and a staircase to an off-stage residence. This configuration returns to the stage the convention of characters using a gate when they could just step around it. Act two, supposedly the Duke’s private apartment, simply removed the statue from the act one set. Act three, tricky to stage with its action in the inn combined with positions for Gilda and Rigoletto to eavesdrop, as well as a riverbank locale, came off fairly well, if looking a bit like something from the old Disneyland Pirates of the Caribbean ride. The evening’s one innovation came across as superfluous, if not baffling: brief title screens, as if from a silent film, appeared before each curtain, mostly declaring that Rigoletto is an evil figure - arguable but still an odd framing device.

Rigoletto_SanDiego_09_02.gifArutjun Kotchinian as Sparafucile and Lado Ataneli as Rigoletto

Lotfi Mansouri is just the director for such a production, as he favors the stock gesture and routine stage movement. For a tenor such as Giuseppe Gipali, the Duke, the result was a stiff, uncharismatic performance. And Gipali does not have the voice to excuse such dramatic weakness. His tenor refuses to project unless at the very top of his range, and it possesses no interesting colors. L’ubica Vargicová, however, revealed a keen identification with the character of Gilda, evoking her innocence and faith without seeming weak or foolishly deluded. Even better, Vargicová sings beautifully, managing the trickier parts with no evident effort (she is also a successful Queen of the Night), and dominating many ensembles with her penetrating sound. It wasn’t always beautiful, but it was mostly exciting, and the San Diego audience greeted her passionately at final curtain.

Lado Ataneli has not proven himself in the past to be a captivating performer, but his dark baritone is a top class instrument. He really gave himself completely to this role, and if he had been in a production with a bit more imagination, he could have had even more impact. At least vocally, however, he could dominate most scenes, and the end of act two, in the duet with Gilda, became the highlight of the evening.

Rigoletto_SanDiego_09_03.gifA scene from Rigoletto

Ian Campbell cast the rest of the opera from strength, with a very sexy Kristin Chavez as Maddalena, and the truly scary, rail-thin Sparafucile of Arutjun Kotchinian, his bass oozing out of him. Malcolm Mackenzie stood out in his brief appearances as Marullo, unctuous and self-satisfied, as did the tragic Monterone of Scott Sikon.

The capable Edoardo Müller did his usual efficient work with the orchestra, although the act three quartet lacked punch and cohesiveness.

The program featured photographs of previous San Diego Rigoletto productions, and the 2002 snapshots revealed a fresh, updated approach. Either it was a failure at the time, or Campbell just decided that staging is not what his audience is currently in the mood for. Which is fine, but traditional stagings need fresh approaches as well. Despite the fine work of Ataneli and Vargicová, some cobwebs remained on the set by the end of the evening.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/RigolettoSanDiego0901.gif imagedescription=Giuseppe Gipali as the Duke of Mantua and L’ubica Vargicová as Gilda in San Diego Opera’s Rigoletto [Photo © Ken Howard]

product=yes producttitle=G. Verdi: Rigoletto productby=Gilda: L’ubica Vargicová; Giuseppe Gipali: Duke of Mantua; Lado Ataneli: Rigoletto; Maddalena: Kirstin Chávez; Sparafucile: Arutjun Kotchinian; Count Monterone: Scott Sikon; Borsa: Joseph Hu; Marullo: Malcolm Mackenzie. San Diego Opera. Edoardo Müller, conductor. Lotfi Mansouri, director. product_id=Above: Giuseppe Gipali as the Duke of Mantua and L’ubica Vargicová as Gilda in San Diego Opera’s Rigoletto

All photos © Ken Howard

Posted by chris_m at 3:26 PM

Handel & Purcell on Special Offer at Covent Garden

There are plenty of die-hard Handelians in London, a lesser number (we may presume) of passionate Purcellians, and undoubtedly droves of those devoted to the dance — so one can only imagine the glee with which this project was seized upon in the board rooms of Covent Garden. With Dido running to just sixty minutes and Acis to ninety, together they made up a most satisfying sandwich of English baroque music at its most melodious.

Royal Ballet choreographer Wayne McGregor had already shown his work with Dido & Aeneas at La Scala in 2006, so it was only the direction and dance elements for Acis & Galatea that were actually new on the 31st March, and he had a starry cast of singers to work on both productions, as well as his colleagues from the Ballet. In the event there were disappointments as well as delights on the vocal front, and not a little puzzlement regarding the dance.

In Purcell’s Dido, Connolly’s technical assurance, (this role’s tessitura seems to suit ideally) and her total psychological immersion in the role gained from her recent performances and recording, should have enabled her to delineate every nuance of the doomed Queen’s journey from delight in her new love to the final, cathartic acceptance of his betrayal. However, an announced indisposition (a throat infection) prevented her from fully realising the role in a way that might have been expected. She struggled to colour and project in the first Acts, and only managed to give us a glimpse of what might have been in the final, celebrated “When I am laid in earth…” A full recovery in time for the succeeding dates is to be sincerely wished.

Lucas Meacham, baritone, as the perfidious Aeneas, managed to convey some of the vacillating aspects of his character, but his effortful singing and lack of period style was noticeable. In stark and welcome contrast was the stylish, agile soprano of Lucy Crowe who gave us a youthfully-blooming and bell-like Belinda which promises much for the later classical repertoire as well as further major Handelian roles. This dramatically rather ambiguous character’s music was delivered with intelligence. The lesser roles were again variable: Sara Fulgoni mangled the vowels of the Sorceress to a degree that really isn’t on with Purcell at this venue (she sang in the La Scala production where one assumes it wasn’t noticed so much) and didn’t convince as the evil manipulator of the whole drama. Her young witches Eri Nakamura and Pumeza Matshikiza sang brightly with better diction, but were costumed as if just off a London catwalk. Far too nice. Young English countertenor Iestyn Davies was a welcome newcomer to ROH, singing his twelve bars as the Spirit from off-stage somewhere, but with clean attack, good full-throated projection and clear diction. Anita Watson sang the one aria of the Second Woman and Ji-Min Park the Sailor’s; the latter with commendable style and tone. Throughout, the Chorus was excellent in both diction and ensemble and their essential role in this drama was not only underlined but showcased in an entirely proper way.

Dido_Aeneas_ROH_2009_02.gifSara Fulgoni as Sorceress & Eri Nakamura as First Witch & Pumeza Matshikiza as Second Witch

Seeing the added choreography for the first time neither added nor particularly detracted from the whole — the dancers seemed to be colouring-in the musical interludes and choruses rather than saying anything very much new about the drama. The classical, spare set worked well and gave all performers room to move and lighting filled in the nuances of the drama.

Less convincing were the choreographic elements of Wayne McGregor’s handling of Handel’s Acis. McGregor has, he says, tried to not just mirror the action of this pastoral masque, (or serenata), but to try to access the “meanings” of the drama through the use of dance-imagery — his famously angular patterns trying to elucidate the tensions between the “present” reality of the drama and a more fragile emotional reality. Each singer had either a single or couple of dancers (in as-naked body-stockings) as their alter-egos and it was necessary to accept this extra dimension to the operatic experience if one was to gain such insight. This writer couldn’t, but others may.

Acis_Galatea_ROH_2009_01.gifDanielle de Niese as Galatea & Charles Workman as Acis

It was good to see Charles Workman back on an English stage in the title role. His Handel, up to now, has been limited to just four roles as he’s been in demand on the continent for his Rossini and Mozart, but on this showing we might expect to see more of him here. Acis lies high in the lyrical tenor’s range, and Workman was indeed working hard from time to time, but his elegance of phrasing and good line in such deceptively difficult arias as “Love in her eyes sits playing…” was a delight. Even more noticeable, and welcome, was his ability to combine Handelian style with plenty of vocal power; his full and ringing tone was a highlight of the whole evening’s double bill and he also received the only spontaneous post-aria applause after a sterling “Love sounds th’alarm”. Matching him in the style stakes, if not the dynamics, was the veteran period performer Paul Agnew who wove lovely phrases around Damon’s bewitchingly melodic lines.

Acis_Galatea_ROH_2009_03.gifJi-Min Park as Coridon, Lauren Cuthbertson as Galatea and Paul Kay as Coridon

Workman’s fellow American, the glamorous Danielle de Niese, has built up a considerable (would it be churlish to suggest mainly male?) following in Handel in recent years. But Galatea is no Cleopatra, and de Niese was called upon to realise a very different heroine here. Curiously decked out in black and white, with a bright red scarf and peroxide blonde wig with plaits, she looked like a particularly exotic Heidi and occasionally acted like one. Her soprano is well schooled and flexible and in her middle range she approaches a really beautiful tone. Her carefully prepared trills and ornaments were beautifully placed and “As when the dove….” was prettily sung, but a hardness creeps in when she goes high above the staff. This can reduce the impact of such delicate and affecting arias as “Heart, the seat of soft delight” which is a shame as this is what this role is all about.

Another throat-sufferer pre-announced was bass Matthew Rose as the giant Polyphemus, who made his entrances along a curious but clever “Giant’s Causeway” of mock-basaltic rocks. His singing was not too badly affected and was rounded and smooth without any bark or growl. Whether McGregor’s direction of him worked is debateable. He seemed strangely awkward at times — and was required to walk off stage rather tamely after a perfunctory killing of the noble Acis with a very small rock. Ji-Min Park again sang — this time the one aria of Coridon — and again showed a pleasing tone and style.

Acis_Galatea_ROH_2009_02.gifMatthew Rose as Polyphemus & Danielle de Niese as Galatea

Also repeating success, and if anything surpassing themselves, was the Royal Opera Extra Chorus who had more acting to do and who sang with assurance and relish. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under veteran Christopher Hogwood presided at each “opera” — and after some initial intonation variations they settled down to give a polished reading of both, with Anthony Robson’s oboe particularly expressive and stylish. This wasn’t a cutting-edge period performance, but then neither were the productions. What Covent Garden’s first night full house certainly got was value for money — whether it’s the way forward for such baroque gems is another matter.

Sue Loder © 2009

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Dido_Aeneas_ROH_2009_01.gif image_description=Lucas Meachem as Aeneas & Sarah Connolly as Dido [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera House] product=yes product_title=Handel & Purcell on Special Offer at Covent Garden product_by=Dido and Aeneas: Dido (Sarah Connolly); Belinda (Lucy Crowe); Aeneas (Lucas Meachem); Sorceress (Sara Fulgoni); Spirit (Iestyn Davies); Sailor (Ji-Min Park); First Witch (Eri Nakamura); Second Witch (Pumeza Matshikiza); Second Woman (Anita Watson

Acis and Galatea: Galatea (sung by Danielle de Niese); Galatea (danced by Mara Galeazzi, Lauren Cuthbertson); Acis (sung by Charles Workman); Acis (danced by Rupert Pennefather, Edward Watson); Damon (sung by Paul Agnew); Damon (danced by Steven McRae); Coridon (sung by Ji-Min Park); Coridon (danced by Paul Kay); Polyphemus (sung by Matthew Rose); Polyphemus (danced by Eric Underwood)

The Royal Opera. The Royal Ballet. Christopher Hogwood, conductor. Wayne McGregor, director and choreography. product_id=Above: Lucas Meachem as Aeneas & Sarah Connolly as Dido

All photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera House
Posted by Gary at 12:06 PM