August 30, 2009

Gustav Mahler: Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn

Some of the most familiar of Mahler’s Wunderhorn Lieder, these are also among the most challenging. From the opening piece, Mahler’s setting of Revelge, the dynamic interaction between the two performers is evident. This is a vibrant rendering of Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn in the versions for voice and piano, a setting which requires the idiomatic approach Vignoles uses for the accompaniment and the nuanced tone Genz uses to evoke a sense of chamber music. Lacking the sonorous orchestral accompaniment, the singer is more exposed, and this allows Genz to display his vocal finesse well.

If the opening selection in this recording, Revelge, can be stentorian in some performances of the orchestral version, it requires the full-bodied intensity Genz uses to evoke the military music evoked in this setting. Here Vignoles’ lively approach to the accompaniment support’s the musical structure well, especially in the use of crisp articulation to suggest the percussive aspect of Mahler’s musical gestures. In contrast to this more extroverted song, the interpretation of Rheinlegendchen is wonderfully subtle, and Genz’s phrasing of certain lines is memorable for the nuances he brings to a song which deserves such attention to detail.

Vignoles makes use of a similar subtlety in Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen, a setting which benefits from the restraint the accompanist evinces, so that the vocal line can accumulate intensity in its execution. Here Genz’s sustained pitches are quite affective, and his sometimes hesitate approach to various lines is something difficult to achieve well with the full orchestra on stage. In the close ensemble with Vignoles, details like these emerge easily and to the benefit of literature that needs to be heard in performances like these. The delicacy Genz uses in the lines “Bein meinem Herzallerlieble” and “O Lieb auf grüner Erden” is touching, as is the warm intensity he brings to the sequential passage at the phrase “Sie reicht ihm auch die Schneeweiße Hand.” At the end Vignoles aptly bring out the reference to the folksong “Bruder Martin,” a reference wholly Mahlerian and yet absent from some performances of the piece.

Such synergy occurs in the Erlkönig-like setting of the poem “Verspätung” as Das irdische Leben (the counterpart of Das himmlische Leben, which became the Song-Finale of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony) With its perpetuum mobile accompaniment, Mahler brings out the reversal at the end, where the persistent child succumbs to the hunger its mother will not sate. In this performance Vignoles allows the accompaniment to bring details to the song, and thus supports Genz well. A similar kind of accompanying figure is part of the structure of the following song Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt, and the gesture in this piece reinforces the text in reference to recalcitrant audience of unrepentant fish, the metaphor for humanity’s failure to heed even the sermons of saints. In this performance the tempos are slightly slower than some take, and this allows a welcome clarity to come to the fore in the accompaniment - the vocal line benefits from the clear enunciation of the text, so necessary to bring out the irony of the piece.

Vignoles and Genz approach Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht? in a similar way, and in their execution effect some fine accelerandos that accentuate the text and culminate in an exemplarily clear and even rendering of the vocal line that brings the piece to its conclusion. The use of tempo modifications emerges nicely in Trost im Unglück in which Vignoles and Genz demonstrate a solid interplay necessary for the song. Tempo also affects the way in which Vignoles makes the dissonant tones of the accompaniment figures of Verlorene Müh’ serve as a kind of commentary on the text, which Genz, in turn, intones with appropriate earnestness. Genz’s vocality culminates in a persuasive reading of Urlicht. Removed from the context of Mahler’s Second Symphony, where it serves as a vocal prelude to final movement, *Urlicht *can be challenging. Yet this performance by Genz and Vignoles is a strong reading of the piece, which shows both performers well.

The sound quality of this Hyperion recording serves the performances well, especially in rendering the range of dynamics and articulations Vignoles achieves on the piano. The sometimes close recording sometimes catches a breath from Genz, but it also serves to bring out his fine diction and nicely sustained pitches. It is a solid contribution which deserves attention. As to the presentation itself, Vignoles notes are reminiscent of the informative ones he contributed to his set of the complete chansons of Gabriel Faure. It is good to see his reference to Goethe’s comments about Des Knaben Wunderhorn, an essay which connects the anthology to the generations before Mahler who enjoyed its contents. The texts of the songs are reproduced with translation in English, as found in the previous release of Mahler’s Lieder by these performers on this label.

James L. Zychowicz

image= imagedescription=Gustav Mahler: Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn

product=yes producttitle=Gustav Mahler: Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn productby=Stephan Genz, baritone, Roger Vignoles, piano. productid=Hyperion CD 67645 [CD] price=$23.98 producturl=

Posted by jim_z at 7:32 PM

Bellini: Il Pirata

At first the narrow spectrum evokes the aural equivalent of claustrophobia - the ears desperately desire some air around the notes. If a performance is decent or better, the ears soon adjust and even begin to imagine, as in an audio mirage, that the sound is better than it is. That happens here, thankfully.

Essentially a three-character libretto (by Felice Romani, uncredited in Urania’s paltry booklet of cast and track listings only), Il Pirata places a heroic tenor in the lead. Bellini provided his soprano with ample opportunity to shine, however, including an extended final scene bewailing the loss of her true love Gualtiero, the pirate, who is about to be executed for killing her husband Ernesto, who had blackmailed her into marriage. The loss of any synopsis in the booklet, in other words, can easily be compensated for by a performance than revels in the amplitude of Bellini’s music.

This RAI group does very well, despite the lack of starry names. Tenor Mirto Picchi doesn’t have either the sweetness of a lyric or the power of a spinto. His tone falls in the middle, which is not to call it “middling.” Think of him as a more human hero: the body of his voice strong if lacking any distinctive character, and the top securely accessed. Right from her entrance as Imogene, Anna De’ Cavalieri demonstrates that though her name may not be familiar, at the time of this recording she was very special indeed. The tone has a passing familiarity to that of Callas. But in 1958, De’ Cavalieri’s control and fluidity, right to an exciting top, mark her as her own artist. As has happened all too often, Il Pirata becomes another Bellini soprano vehicle with a performance such as this. As her despicable husband, Walter Monachesi growls appropriately.

The Torino forces of the RAI play well for conductor Mario Rossi, but the orchestra contributions are dimmed by the dismal sound. As mentioned above, Urania provides next to nothing in its fold-out booklet. For lovers of this opera, this admirable performance should be provision enough.

Chris Mullins

image= imagedescription=Vincenzo Bellini: Il Pirata

product=yes producttitle=Vincenzo Bellini: Il Pirata productby=Mirto Picchi; Anna De’ Cavalieri; Walter Monachesi; Tomaso Spataro; Miti’ Truccato Pace; Odoardo Spataro. Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Torino della RAI/Mario Rossi. Live recording: Turin, February 9, 1958 productid=Urania 22.366 [2CDs] price=$18.98 producturl=

Posted by chris_m at 4:29 PM

Central City Opera 2009

The rest of Donizetti’s over­wrought Lucia di Lammermoor is fluff, fun and filler — something to hum along with between those big numbers. That’s the way it was a generation ago when the opera was a major vehicle for super sopranos Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills. Without one of them in the cast Lucia was a ho-hum affair.

But now the Central City Opera has combined the talents of veteran soprano Catherine Malfitano as director and youthful Russian-born coloratura Lyubov Petrova in the title role to give the world a whole new “take” on the work. The result, seen June 27 in the performance that opened the CCO’s 2009 season in its historic mountain home, is stupendous, and the ovation shouted by the audience at its conclusion was the greatest heard here in years — indeed, perhaps in decades. For Malfitano it’s the psychological machinations behind the melodramatic events of the story that are of primary interest. She digs beneath the skin to make these characters human, not mere singing mannequins. Moreover, Petrova, a rapidly rising star on today’s opera scene, responds with sympathetic intelligence and a voice now with­out rivals in this role.

The trio of immortals mentioned above with their command of bel canto pyrotechnics poured fuel on the fire in Donizetti’s score. Petrova underscores rather the gentle and dreadfully wronged woman that Lucia was, chattel for her brother in his efforts to save the family. Since replacing an ailing Natalie Dessay as Strauss’ Zerbinetta at the Met in 2001, Petrova has awed audiences not only with the beauty of her voice, but also with the absolute control that she has over it. In addition she’s a superb actress. She sings Lucia’s post-murder “Mad Scene” on a winding staircase, moving up and down with the ease of an insect while relishing the imagined happiness that is now hers in a realm beyond this earth. Lucia remains, of course, a child of her time when there was no safe house for battered women. Yet Petrova portrays her with a vulnerability that makes clear her understanding of the injustice done to her. It’s something to behold.

Lucia345.gifRaimondo calms the angered crowd seeking revenge against Edgardo. Pictured (Center- L to R): Richard Bernstein (Raimondo), James Barbato (Normanno), Grant Youngblood (Enrico), and Andrew Owens (Arturo). [Photo by Mark Kiryluk courtesy of Central City Opera]

Several favorites return to the company to complete an enviably gifted cast. As Enrico Grant Youngblood brings depth to the usually one-dimensional scheming brother, Vale Rideout is the image of passionate suffering as Edgardo. Apprentice artist Andrew Owens displays tenor promise as ill-fated bridegroom Arturo in his brief appearance before he is felled by Lucia. But second best in the cast is one of America’s most versatile and gifted bass-baritones, Richard Bernstein. As the black-clad — and black-hearted — confessor Raimondo, he — Bible in hand — makes the corruption of the church palpable. He does this with a composed reserve that moves the figure beyond caricature. It’s Raimondo who breaks the horrid news about the murder and that he watches Lucia’s every move throughout the “Mad Scene” is a masterful “Malfitanoism.”

The director worked with designers Wilson Chin and Terese Wadden — sets and costumes — to create a production that takes full advantage of the intimacy of the CCO’s 550-seat house. Barren black trees amplify the ominous shadow that hangs over the hostile families of the drama, and — with the exception of Arturo, who suggests Disneyland on bargain day — plaids are largely subdued.

Lucia527.gifLyubov Petrova as Lucia [Photo by Mark Kiryluk courtesy of Central City Opera]

Lucia provides an opera chorus with a field day, and the ensemble has been perfectly prepared by Christopher Zemliauskas, a member of the University of Colorado faculty. Conductor John Baril makes magic with the CCO pit band, distinguished further by principal flutist Jessica Warren-Acosta as Petrova’s partner in the “Mad Scene.” No matter how you read the Sir Walter Scott’s novel that is the source of Donizetti’s libretto, Lucia is heavy stuff, and that encourages some to bring Wagnerian weight to the score. Not so Malfitano and crew who — stressing the marvelous lightness of Petrova’s voice — emphasize the transparency of the score and make it downright luminescent.

A triumph — in sum — for Central City, a company distinguished by its endeavor to excite and educate its audience. It is, of course, a coup that the company has been able to engage a young singer at the peak of her powers in Petrova.

CCO makes much of A Little Night Music

Stephen Sondheim once summed up A Little Night Music, his most popular work, as a mixture of “whipped cream and knives.” Only a master juggler can keep such conflicting ingredients in proper balance, and the Central City Opera has one in Ken Cazan, director of the production of the 1973 musical that opened July 4 at the company’s mountain home.

The CCO has profited often from Cazan’s genius, and here he outdoes even himself in the most difficult assignment he has yet undertaken at the nation’s second-oldest summer opera. Sondheim wove together a complex handful of influences in Night Music, beginning with Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 Smiles of a Summer Night, a film inspired, in turn, by the tale of alienated affections offered by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then there’s the obvious reference in the title to Mozart’s popular K. 525.

Although without any concrete evidence of the work in the drama, it’s with Mozart that Sondheim provides the director with instructions, for to succeed Night Music must have the effervescent lightness and transparency of this composer. Although it’s hard to imagine a three-hour musical written almost exclusively in three-quarter time, such is the sophistication of the work that one realizes this only when one stops to think about it — and senses therewith just a hint of Rosenkavalier in the score.

That’s the whipped cream. And the knives?

Night Music is the story of several people hopelessly entangled in sensuality. (Its profundity, however, is obscured by music of midsummer magic and melancholy, darkened by a certain sadness.) While they know brief hours of happiness in this garden of sensuous delights, little of this pleasure carries over into the quotidian, where they live lives of (self)deception. They might waltz, but actually they are engaged in the universal dance of life threatened by “Everyday a Little Death.”

They have a lot of growing up to do, and Cazan left Saturday’s enthusiastic audience thinking they have done so. Sylvia McNair is ideal in the central role of Desiree Armfeldt, an actress never quite sure of what role she is. Without dominating the cast McNair, who has left the opera stage to concentrate on teaching, makes this her show and her “Send in the Clowns” the “hit” of the staging.

Robert Orth, for decades a CCO favorite in comic roles, is at his best as Frederick Egerman, the lawyer ex-lover of Desiree unable to consummate his late marriage to youthful Anne, sung with engaging innocence by Sarah Jane McMahon. Theology student Henrik Egerman, troubled by his love for his stepmother, is played with adolescent unease by Matthew Giebel, who is troubled further by the appeal of worldly servant Petra, sung with earthy abandon by Stephanie Nelson. Jeff Mattsey suggests that he has won the decorations on his uniform on the battlefield; not in the boudoir. Sarah Kleeman is a delight as his unhappy wife. Myrna Paris plays a crusty Madame Armfeldt, a senior who has been there and done it all perhaps dozens of times — and yet is alone in her old age. (The role was created by Hermione Gingold, who sang it both in New York and London.)


Designer Cameron Anderson takes cues from the music with blocks of furniture that roll magically on and off stage against cloth panels that provide the background for Sondheim’s rapidly changing scenes. A special delight are the antique cars that bring the finale of Act One to the very edge of the CCO stage. Costumes true to the Sweden of a century ago are by Alice Bristow.

Conductor Christopher Zemliauskas has a fine finger on Sondheim’s score, and the apprentice artists who complete the cast of 18 underscore the quality of this long-established CCO program. “But where are the clowns,” asks McNair/Desiree. “Quick, send in the clowns,” only to conclude “Don’t bother, they’re here.”

But there’s much more to this work than its greatest hit. Clowns Bergman’s troubled characters might be, but Cazan sees to it that they are never mere caricatures, but always provocative humans. In comments on Night Music, however, Cazan stresses how essential it is that the lyrics be understandable. It’s thus a pity that the CCO did not offer its now-traditional titles.

Central City gets a handle on Handel

Ever wonder why many of today’s seniors feel strangely unfulfilled — haunted by the anxiety that they’ve missed something essential in their many years? Small wonder! It’s all because they never had a chance to see a Baroque opera — to say nothing of a Baroque opera exquisitely done, which is the case with the production of Handel’s 1711 Rinaldo that opened at the Central City Opera on July 11.

Rinaldo93.gifMegan Hart (Almirena) and Phyllis Pancella (Rinaldo)

Baroque opera lost its appeal with the death of the castrati that brought vocal splendor to it in its 18th-century Golden Age. Even as the early-music movement gained ground, it was slow to face the challenge of opera. It only when Marilyn Horne put on trousers — and armor — to sing those sword-swinging generals of Vivaldi and Handel that the world realized what it had been missing.

But Baroque opera makes new — and huge — demands on a company for which Bohèmes and Butterflies have long been the source of success. Happily, in Rinaldo the CCO has met this challenge head on! To start with, there’s the fact that Rinaldo calls for three countertenors! Fifty years ago there were only two in the whole world — Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin, and they were viewed with suspicion as surviving court eunuchs. Even Peter Schickele — a.k.a. P.D.Q. Bach — put them down as “bargain-counter tenors.”

Although countertenors now grow on tuning forks, the CCO has recruited two of the currently finest — David Walker and Jason Abrams — to sing the brothers Goffredo and Eustazio who are out to make the First Crusade (1096-1099) a blood-dripping success. Both are all-male males who sing with ease and immense vocal beauty. The third gender-bender in the cast, apprentice Tai Oney who sings heavily bearded hermit-magician Mao, lists officially as a male mezzo. With a voice of almost-baritonal timbre, he’s clearly headed for fame.

But these are only the trimmings!

The CCO made its first excursion into the Baroque in its then-74 years with its 2006 staging of Monteverdi’s Poppea. It was a sensation, and one knew that Rinaldo would be equally good when the company engaged three “stars” of that show for Handel.

Rinaldo145.gifJoshua Hopkins (Argante) with his court

In addition to Walker and Abrams mezzo Phyllis Pancella is back as the shining knight whose story this is. Rinaldo is a role of Isolde-like demands and dimensions, and Pancella took it all in stride, leaving the large opening-night audience with terminal goose-bumps. Even the bad guys in the cast sing so marvelously and with such fervor that one can only rejoice and thump one’s New Testament when they see the light and fall on their knees before the cross.

Baritone Joshua Hopkins, back from last summer’s Lucretia, makes evil-bent Argante a snarling fiend, and Kathleen Kim as his equally malevolent sorceress-mate (you can’t have Baroque opera without a witch or two!) almost steals the show. Realizing that she has been betrayed by both sides (in Baroque opera you can’t really trust anyone) — Kim pours a lust for revenge into her big aria that makes it the highlight of the show. It’s amusing to think of venom-spewing Kim, already a presence on the international opera scene, as Mozart’s bird-brained bird woman Papagena, a role she has sung at the Met.

Rinaldo409.gifKathleen Kim (Armida)

That in the midst of this fury one almost overlooks Megan Hart’s touching portrayal of Almirena, the gently loving innocent kidnapped by Armida and semi-raped by Argante, proves definitively that evil people are far more interesting than good people. (The tingle of sexual transgression is also essential to Baroque opera.) Hart too — a former CCO studio artist still at the outset of her career — is clearly another stellar vocalist on the rise, and one is delighted that in the final scene she gets her — well — man. (By this time even the most vitriolic gay-marriage opponent can no longer tell boys from girls with any certainty.)

But the person who really wields the sword that triumphs over story and score is youthful British Baroque expert Matthew Halls who in his American opera debut transforms the CCO pit band with its modern instrument into an ensemble that rivals any Baroque orchestra around in making this production authentic. CCO instrumentalists are effusive in speaking of their work with Halls and of what they have learned from him. (Among Halls’ impressive credits is his role as keyboard artist in Dutchman Ton Koopman’s complete recording of Bach’s cantatas.)

Rinaldo548.gifDavid Walker (Goffredo) and Phyllis Pancella (Rinaldo)

Not to be overlooked are the effectively simple sets of Caleb Wertenbaker and costumes by Sarah Jean Tosetti, all lighted with sophisticated sensitivity by David Martin Jacques.

Although this Rinaldo runs a full three hours, it never lags. Halls know how to handle (that word again!) the da capo arias that often make Baroque opera soporific. (It’s all about ornamentation, as he explains in a program-book interview.)

With the triumph of three new productions Central City has reached a new high of excellence and excitement in its 2009 season. As it was at its outset in 1932, the company is again a major player on the American opera scene and well on its way towards becoming the destination festival that it was in pre-Santa Fe days.

CCO announces 2010 season

It’s classic to contemporary works at the Central City Opera in 2010. Puccini’s Madama Butterfly opens the season in the production that brought famed soprano Catherine Malfitano to the company as director. Malfitano will also be on hand for the revival of the 2005 staging that set all-time box-office records at the CCO.

A Blast of Broadway, a revue that follows the progression of musical theater’s greatest triumphs, is the second production of the summer. It celebrates the CCO’s history, recalling the seasons from 1947 to 1974, when a Broadway “hit” was staged each August following the opera season. Walter Huston, Ruth Gordon, Neil Simon, Mike Nichols, and Francis Ford Coppola were among the stars on stage then in Central City.

Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, a modern chamber opera about the struggles of a famous actress and her two adult children, concludes the season. Written for Frederica von Stade and premiered at the Houston Grand Opera in 2008, the CCO production will celebrate the 40th anniversary of mezzo Joyce Castle, cast as Madelaine.

For further information, visit Central City Opera’s web site.

Wes Blomster

image= image_description=Lyubov Petrova as Lucia [Photo by Mark Kiryluk courtesy of Central City Opera]

product=yes producttitle=Central City Opera 2009 productby= product_id=Above: Lyubov Petrova as Lucia [Photo by Mark Kiryluk courtesy of Central City Opera]

Posted by Gary at 4:04 PM

Verdi's Macbeth at the Sferisterio Opera Festival

The stage at Macerata, however, is narrow and long, rather like that used at the Salzburg Festival. For his Macbeth, director and designer Pier Luigi Pizzi makes the most of this configuration. Two long, intersecting black ramps bisect the stage, each covered in red cloth. A large pedestal made of stairs sits off to one side; the thrones of Macbeth and his lady, in garish red, will sit atop that pedestal. All the costumes are in black, gunmetal, or red, usually in shiny fabrics. Verdi’s music for Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy explores the shifting psychological landscape of its twisted anti-heroes, and Pizzi’s dramatic color scheme and athletic use of movement makes this a most exciting staging.

None of the singers’ names may be familiar to U.S. audiences, and none may ever be so. They have all been cast well, however, and make potent contributiions to Pizzi’s success. Giuseppe Altomare sings Macbeth with a rough-edged baritone, but that element of forced bluster plays well for the character. Verdi and librettist Piave did not include the lines about Macbeth seeming too small a man for his royal robes, but Pizzi does have Altomare in a long jacket with train that seems to swallow him up in the last act. The biographical note in the booklet relates that soprano Olha Zhuravel has been singing a lot of Turandots, and has taken on Nabucco’s Abigaille. The voice would be what that suggests - sizable, but not beautiful, with more thrust than elegance. Her ghoulish makeup is a rare misstep for Pizzi’s production; it makes a performance that threatens to be unvaried vocally even less subtle. Zhuravel is strong, it should be said, all the way to her climatic scene, which lacks that touch of pathos the role’s greatest interpreters managed to produce. Rubens Pelizarri in the tenor role of Macduff blasts through his aria without tenderness or sensitivity.

Gheorghe Iancu’s choreography dominates the opening and, quite naturally, the extended ballet. Too much stomping and stamping mars the music in act one. The ballet comes off quite well, though. In its most striking image, the female lead dancer is lifted up and then one by one kicks down a row of soldier/dancers lined up on the ramp.

The Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana responds well to the energetic leadership of Daniele Callegari, although the horns don’t always agree on pitch. Fans of this opera definitely should give this Naxos set a chance. The better-known CD recordings all feature more impressive singing, but the visual power of Pizzi’s work here makes for a very strong Macbeth.

Chris Mullins

image= imagedescription=Giuseppe Verdi: Macbeth

product=yes producttitle=Giuseppe Verdi: Macbeth productby=Macbeth: Giuseppe Altomare; Lady Macbeth: Olha Zhuravel; Banco: Pavel Kudinov; Macduff: Rubens Pelizzari; Malcolm: Marco Voleri; Il medico: Luca Dall’Amico; Un domestico di Macbeth / I apparizione: William Corrò; Il sicario: Andrea Pistolesi; II e III apparizione: Velia Moretti de Angelis, Valeria Cazacu; Ecate: Anbeta Toromani; Fleanzio: Dario Vinciguerra. Coro Lirico Marchigiano ‘V. Bellini’. FORM - Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana. Daniele Callegari, conductor. Pier Luigi Pizzi, stage director, set and costume designer. Filmed at the Sferisterio Opera Festival, Macerata, Italy, 2-5 August 2007. productid=Naxos 2.110258 [DVD] price=$26.99 producturl=

Posted by chris_m at 3:08 PM

Fidelio at the Proms

The unimaginative and the plain uncomprehending are led to decry it and sometimes, quite staggeringly, to account it a dramatic failure. Even Wagner, who should have known better, could be dismissive, for instance telling Cosima that a German theatre would be better off opening with Weber’s Euryanthe — admittedly, a wonderful work, but certainly a problematical one — “rather than with Fidelio, which is much more conventional and cold.” Conventional? Hardly, given the boldness of substituting for the operatic expectations of conventional “characterisation” the instantiation of an unutterably noble idea, “freedom”, itself liberated from the confines of bourgeois expectations. Wagner either could not see, or did not want to see — the latter, I suspect, more likely — that the “rescue opera” was here both transcended and granted its enduring memorial. Cold? This work veritably blazes with heat, and it certainly did on this occasion, “occasion” being truly the operative word. Still worse, we read Cosima a few years later record, again contrasting the work with Richard’s beloved Euryanthe: “Then we start discussing Fidelio, which R. describes as unworthy of the composer of the symphonies, in spite of splendid individual passages.” Suffice it to say, however, that there were here many “splendid individual passages,” yet Fidelio was found not only to be worthy of the composer, but to speak directly of and to that all-too-real modern-day catastrophe to which the very existence of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra bears witness.

So much for what one might call the meta-performance, but what of the performance itself? Daniel Barenboim has rightly chided those who speak only of the context to this orchestra and not of its musical accomplishments. One cannot and should not forget the former, but the greatness of the enterprise shows in the extraordinary artistic results; disentangling the two is a fool’s game, and never more so than in a work such as this. I am delighted therefore to report that the expectations built up from the previous night’s two Proms (see here and here) were more than fulfilled. Indeed, the orchestral playing had a greater edge than it had during the first half of the first of those concerts. The strings once again demonstrated a depth that would be the envy of many a professional orchestra — at least it would, were the absurd authenticist fashion not to decry such tone. Occasionally the woodwind might have proved fallible, but so what? One does not expect Klemperer’s Philharmonia, astonishing in a different way. This work is about humanity, warts and all: just, in fact, what Beethoven is about. There were in any case ample compensations in the Harmoniemusik blend. The timpanist, a star from the previous night, once again shone brightly. The brass was often magnificent, nowhere more so than in those treacherous horn parts in Leonore’s first-act aria. They were not outshone by Waltraud Meier, which is saying something. And then, of course, there was that trumpet call. The thoughts and associations that rushed through one’s mind at that point were myriad, but I can certainly report that it brought tears to my eyes.

Barenboim’s direction was vigorous, unfailingly engaged, attentive to singers and orchestra, without ever letting concerns for the possible detract from the necessity of the utopian. Some of the overture — unwisely, I thought, Leonore III — was impetuous rather than climactic in a Furtwänglerian sense. (The performance these musicians gave of the overture “as itself” in Salzburg two years ago was manifestly superior.) But his remained a signal achievement, not least in terms of orchestral training, discipline, and of course inspiration. The other cavil I should register is with the version of the score employed. Messing about with Fidelio seems to be all the rage at the moment. The Paris Opéra recently commissioned new dialogue and re-ordered the opening sequence, beginning moreover with Leonore I. Barenboim did something similar, in eschewing almost all of the dialogue — is it really that bad? — and putting Marzelline’s aria before her duet with Jaquino (without, moreover, the tonal justification for this put forward by Sylvain Cambreling in Paris). But then, I realise that I was speaking above about confounding of expectations, so perhaps I am just lacking in imagination myself. There was, in any case, a reason for replacement of the dialogue, since it was replaced by Edward Said’s English narration for Leonore. On this of all occasions, to do so was quite understandable and it certainly provides a genuinely interesting and in some respects disquieting perspective upon the work. Hearing Leonore recount what had taken place from a chronological distance, and with clear implications that her hopes had since been dashed or at least significantly tempered, warns us against any move towards easy non-solutions. Don Fernando could never have put everything right.

Waltraud Meier, mostly recorded but also partly live, presented the narration vividly, in delightfully accented English. However, it was her vocal-dramatic performance that stole the show. She is of course a true stage animal; this shone through in her facial expressions, her gestures, as well as her voice. Yet, even though this was a concert performance, her performance was certainly not out of place. She actually brought us into the most important theatre of all, that of the imagination. And her account of “Abscheulicher! ... Komm, Hoffnung” was simply spellbinding. Simon O”Neill was an excellent Florestan. He could not efface memories of Jonas Kaufmann in that Paris performance last December, but to have hoped for that would have been entirely unreasonable. O”Neill proved himself fully capable of the testing demands of this cruel role and even brought the odd hint, if only a hint, of Jon Vickers to his timbre and projection. Gerd Grochowski was a late replacement for Peter Mattei as Pizarro. I have recently heard him both in Berlin and London as Telramund, and this performance was rather similar, evincing commendable attention to musical and verbal text, but remaining underpowered. This was undoubtedly exacerbated by the presence of Sir John Tomlinson as Wotan, sorry, Rocco. Tomlinson’s voice might be showing its age on occasion, but this is as nothing compared to the dramatic truth and commitment he shows. It was, however, somewhat unfortunate that Rocco should from the outset be so much more powerful a presence than Pizarro. Evil might or might not be banal, but we need to believe in the very real power this wicked man wields. The other parts were decently taken, Adriana Kučerová showing to good effect a beautiful voice, of which I should be more than happy to hear more. And it would be unforgivable not to mention the truly outstanding singing from the combined forces of the BBC Singers and the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir. Every note, every word, was audible, but just as immediate was the dramatic effect, whether of imprisonment, of hope, or of jubilation. The legendary Wilhelm Pitz’s Philharmonia Chorus for Klemperer is the gold standard here, but these musicians, if not so great in number — or at least that is how it sounds — have little to fear from such a comparison.

Wagner was doubtless right to prefer the Ninth Symphony for the laying of the foundation stone at Bayreuth. Yet the Ring, the sometime artwork of the future, is not the only nineteenth-century work that speaks immediately to our present condition. Fidelio does too (which is not, of course, to say that many other works do not). And so, still more so, does a performance of Fidelio such as this. Barenboim seems to me both right and wrong to say that when this orchestra comes together, politics disappear, since everyone must concentrate exclusively upon the music. For that coming together in the service of something far greater is unavoidably political. It shames those who create division and worse; it holds up an alternative. Such, after all, was the original intention of Barenboim and Said. To the orchestra, mere congratulations upon a tenth anniversary few, least of all its founders, could ever have anticipated, seem pitifully inadequate. And to Blair, Bush, Olmert, Ahmedinejad, Mugabe, Putin, et al., one wants, indeed needs, to say once again, with Horace, “Mutato nomine, de te fabula narratur” (“Change but the name, and the tale is told of you”). Even if we cannot quite bring ourselves to believe that present-day tyrants and war criminals will be brought to justice, we must hope — and hope that at least some of their victims will be rescued. Beethoven and these inspirational young musicians help us do that. “Komm, Hoffnung...”

Mark Berry

image= image_description=Ludwig van Beethoven product=yes product_title=Ludwig van Beethoven: Fidelio product_by=Leonore: Waltraud Meier; Florestan: Simon O”Neill; Don Pizarro: Gred Grochowski; Rocco: Sir John Tomlinson; Marzelline: Adriana Kučerová; Jacquino: Stephan Rügamer; Don Fernando: Viktor Rud; First Prisoner: Andrew Murgatroyd; Second Prisoner: Edward Price; BBC Singers, Geoffrey Mitchell Choir (chorus master: Tim Murray). West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (conductor), concert performance at the BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, 22 August 2009.
Posted by Gary at 2:48 PM

Manon Lescaut at the Festival Puccini di Torre del Lago

What set this production apart was the inclusion of a prelude to Act II that had been part of an earlier draft of the work, along with a scene of the two lovers living happily in Paris. Aside from being too similar to Massenet’s Manon (‘adieu à la petite table’), Puccini cut the scene to move directly from the lovers’ flight from Amiens to Geronte’s mansion where Manon, having abandoned the penniless des Grieux, luxuriated as Geronte’s mistress. The fully orchestrated prelude had gone unperformed until Chailly’s 1984 recording of rarely performed works (a recording that is currently difficult to find). With this production, Maestro Veronesi performed the prelude as an integral part of the entire work.

Manon-Lescaut_TorredelLago1.gifMartina Serafin as Manon

A minuet in form, the prelude, rife with melancholy, evoked the flame of the lovers’ intense, but short-lived affair. More importantly, the prelude evidenced Puccini’s mastering of 20th century musical theater that incorporated Wagner’s rich symphonic approach and anticipated Janáček’s use of repetitive fragments (“interruption motifs”) and of his orchestration, often with programmatic origins, “capable of great sweetness [yet with] a roughness caused by the unblended layers of orchestra and by the seemingly unidiomatic writing in individual parts.” [John Tyrrell, “Janáček, Leoš [Leo Eugen],” Grove Music Online]

Guided by Maestro Veronesi, the Puccini Festival Orchestra has matured significantly over the past five years. In this production of Manon Lescaut, the orchestra traversed the difficult score masterfully, both in supporting the singers (à la Verdi) and in performing program music (such as the intermezzo between Act II and Act III) with aplomb. It was difficult, however, to appreciate all of the orchestra’s subtleties in the upper rows of the 3,500-seat open air auditorium.

Passion, even carnal passion, paradoxically devoid of erotic love and desire, inspired Verdian melodrama. Manon Lescaut, on the other hand, returned erotic expression as a central element of Italian opera. The erotic aspects of Manon Lescaut are expressed with increasing intensity by the two principals, Manon and des Grieux, from the youthful aria “Donna non vidi mai” (Act I), to the duet “Tu, tu amore tu” (Act II), to the aria “No! no!, pazzo son” (Act III), to the desperate “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” (Act IV). Marcello Giordani and Martina Serafin executed these roles with perfection. Giordani’s wide register and power filled the auditorium, recalling the finest of performances by Domingo in the mid-1980s. Serafin, mostly noted for her performances of Wagner and Strauss, added a Wagnerian touch to “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” that aligned well with Veronesi’s conducting, her performance of the role being closer to that of Renata Scotto rather than that of the more lyrical Mirella Freni. Comprimario roles — Lescaut (Giovanni Guagliardo), Edmondo (Cristian Olivieri), Geronte (Alessandro Guerzoni) — were adequate, yet overwhelmed by Giordani and Serafin.

Manon-Lescaut_TorredelLago3.gifMartina Serafin as Manon and Marcello Giordani as des Grieux

Significant weaknesses of this production arose from the contributions of Paul-Emile Fourny (director) and Poppi Ranchetti (sets). Little attention was paid to the singers’ acting . And the staging included a crowd of mimes (ostensibly naked) and dancers, the relevance of which remained unclear. The set transformed from a Renaissance ninfeo by Bramante (a 15th century architect) to a villa near Rome that deteriorated in appearance from one act to another (seemingly intended to mirror the degradation of Manon and des Grieux), all having a bewildering effect.

Giuseppe Pennisi

image= imagedescription=Martina Serafin as Manon and Marcello Giordani as des Grieux [Photo courtesy of Festival Puccini di Torre del Lago]

product=yes producttitle=Giacomo Puccini: Manon Lescaut productby=Manon Lescaut: Martina Serafin; Lescaut: Giovanni Guagliardo; Des Grieux: Marcello Giordani; Geronte di Ravoir: Alessandro Guerzoni; Edmondo: Cristiano Olivieri; Il Maestro di ballo: Stefano Consolini; Un musico: Nadia Pirazzini; L’oste: Claudio Ottino; Un lampionaio: Stefano Consolini; Sergente degli arcieri: Veio Torcigliani; Un comandante di Marina: Claudio Ottino. Direttore: Alberto Veronesi. Regia: Paul-Emile Fourny. Scene: Poppi Ranchetti. Costumi: Giovanna Fiorentini. Light designer: Jean Paul Carradori. Orchestra e Coro del Festival Puccini. product_id=Above: Martina Serafin as Manon and Marcello Giordani as des Grieux

All photos courtesy of Festival Puccini di Torre del Lago

Posted by Gary at 1:35 PM

Lehär: Die Blaue Mazur

Of course, part of the interest lay in anticipating a work that might match the magic of The Merry Widow (1905). Premiering in 1920, Die Blaue Mazur had a nice run but has slipped into obscurity, where most of Lehär’s works keep it company. The booklet’s essay writer, Stefan Frey (as translated into English by Susan Marie Praeder), posits that the score featured a “new way of harmony and ultimate color appeal” that Lehär found in the music of Franz Schreker and Korngold. The orchestration has its moments, but as heard on this recording, Die Blaue Mazur sounds very much as one would expect any Lehär work to sound. Even by 1920, it must have felt dated.

Even Frey doesn’t attempt to describe the plot as anything but formulaic. It does begin with a marriage, where other stories might end. Undoing an inevitable misunderstanding between the newlywed Julian and Blanka, instigated partly by Julian’s former love Gretl, occupies the tired complications that ensue before the happy ending. As Julian, Johan Weigel’s pliant, lyrical tenor suits Lehär’s music well, but his character lacks one breakout number (the entire operetta does, actually). Johanna Stojkovich’s Blanka gets a wider range of emotions, and she puts them across attractively. A few unpleasant squawks do come from Jan Kobow in a minor tenor role. Otherwise, conductor Frank Beermann and the Singakademie Frankfurt musicians provide the most enjoyable work here. All three acts ends with finales where Lehär seems to be trying out any number of tunes. He never does find one great one, but a couple of them are attractive enough.

CPO provides no libretto. A comprehensive synopsis does feature tracks numbers that help the listener follow the action. Lovers of super-sweet Viennese trifles may find some pleasure in the set.

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=Lehär: Die Blaue Mazur

product=yes producttitle=Franz Lehär: Die Blaue Mazur productby=Johanna Stojkovich, Julia Bauer, Johan Weigel, Jan Kobow, Hans Christoph Begemann, Kamerchor der Singakademie Frankfurt, Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt, Frank Beermann productid=CPO 777 331-2 [2CDs] price=$34.98 producturl=

Posted by chris_m at 1:27 PM

Franz Schreker : Die Gezeichneten, Salzburg

Created for the specifics of the Felsenreiitschule in Salzburg, it was extremely expensive to mount. Chances are that its like will never be seen again. This film is a unique testament to visionary stagecraft.

In the early 90’s Decca did a series of recordings of Entartete Musik, music suppressed by the Nazi regime. It was an act of great commercial foresight because at the time much of this music wasn’t known outside specialist circles. The Decca series, created by Dr Albrecht Dümling, was truly visionary, extremely well curated, and the performances often so good they remain classics even now the genre is pretty much mainstream. This series is the benchmark by which all else is measured. Probably there won’t be another series of this breadth and quality.

Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten was part of the series, conducted by Lothar Zagrosek and the Berlin Radio Symphony who were behind many of the recordings. Entartete Musik was cherished in East Germany, where there was a performance tradition. On one disc there’s Matthias Goerne, barely out of his teens. Worthy as that recording is, it’s outclassed by the performance in Salzburg in 2005, when Peter Ruzicka was director. So a visionary performance, unmissable for anyone, interested in the genre or not. This puts* Die Gezeichneten *firmly in the mainstram repertoire.

The Salzburg production is so good that topping it will be a challenge no one has yet dared attempt. It was conducted by Kent Nagano, and the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin (where many East Berliners went to). The cast is absolutely top notch : Anne Schwanewilms, Michael Volle, Robert Hale, Wolfgang Schöne and Robert Brubaker in what must be the ultimate performance of his career. The director was Nikolaus Lehnhoff.

Lehnhoff’s penchant for massive constructions works wonderfully to express the meaning of the opera. The stage at first looks like it’s strewn with formidable boulders. Alviano Salvago has built Elysium, a secret world on a remote island off Genoa. These boulders are like the bastions of a frightening fortress, which is what Elysium really is, despite being dedicated to art, love and beauty. There are prisoners here, and unspeakable crimes which don’t get revealed until the end. Salvago himself is a fortress. He’s a hunchback, “the ugliest man in Genoa”, crippled by self-loathing. He’s built Elysium as an escape. It’s so perfect that it makes everything beautiful. It’s used by aristocrats for exquisite orgies, in which Salvago himself doesn’t participate despite the magical aura which makes hideousness beautiful.

As the lovely Overture unfolds, Brubaker is carefully putting on elaborate makeup. He’s dressed in a flimsy negligee. but his cropped hair and butch features make him look like a caricature drag queen. Immediately, the staging and acting conncet to the idea of psychic dissonance that is so much the soul of this opera. The boulders on stage are formed by a giant statue of a woman, but a statue collapsed and destroyed, only one arm, on hand still raised in a futile gesture to heaven. Most of the action in the opera unfolds on the statue’s body, so watch carefully how the body becomes part of the action. Sometimes its rounded curves nurture, sometimes they allow a place to hide, but they remain opaque, inpenetrable, unlike the island’s victims. The stage too extends to the walls around the auditorium, arches representing the many secret rooms in the grotto, yet also look sinister, like catacombs. The statue does not foretell the ending. It’s clear in the music and text all along that Elysium is an unsustainable delusion in the first place, and Salvago is not deluded. This is important because there are moral and social values in this opera. Elysium is a prototype of an ideal society, corrupted by people who don’t have ideals.

Salvago announces he’s giving Elysium away to the City of Genoa. An altruistic act, perhaps, but Salvago knows that the girls used in the orgies were kidnapped from the town. Schreker’s dwarf is an altogether more complex person than any of Zemlinsky’s. Zemlinsky’s dwarves fall in love with beauties, but accept their rejection on a relatively straightforward fairy tale level. Schreker’s Salavgo (note the name) is so screwed up he doesn’t dare look beyond himself and or even conceive of love. Fortress Elysium blocks out vulnerable feelings.

Schreker’s drama is more than fairy tale in other ways. Listen to the way Anne Schwanewilms creates Carlotta Nardi, the wayward daughter of the Podestà (Wolfgang Schöne). She’s a liberated woman, an artist who doesn’t follow rules, the personification of Der ferne Klang, the elusive melody in physical form. She paints souls. Listen to that wonderful passage where she sings about her dream. She sees a “small wretched wanderer” walk into the sunlight, and a miracle happens - he grows larger and larger. “So male ich eure Gestalt, Signor Alviano”. Watch Brubaker’s face twitch. This is truly masterful acting. He’s pouring out a flood of dammed up emotions, too powerful for Salvago to contain. Then she says, she still needs to see “trunkene Auge, darin all die Schoenheit sich gespeigelt”.

This line is critical. Can Salvago give her the “drunken eye” that mirrors beauty ? Brubaker pulls his butch black overcoat on again, hiding his soft pink negligee, and for a moment stands alone on the harsh boulders. The scene ends with poignant strings, the film projecting the statue’s blind stone eyes.

Salvago’s mirror image twin is Graf Vitelozzo Tamare, given a tour de force performance by Michael Volle, another high point in his career he deserves to be very proud of. Tamare is handsome, tall, virile. What body language! Yet listen to the music behind his description of Elysium, and its “Ein künstliche Grotto auf jenem Eiland”, the Eiland soaring, swelling lyrically. So it makes sense that Tamare, Alpha male that he is, unlke the other men, the one who discovers love. “There are men who see only the light, and darkness “ist ihrem Fremd”. Since he’s set eyes on the Carlotta with her mysterious, challenging smile, no longer can he be careless and uncaring, no longer can he be the prankster hero he used to be. Think Tristan. Pity Volle isn’t a tenor. Listen to the way Schreker builds echoes of horn calls into the music, as if he did hear the parallels. But it’s distinctively Schreker’s voice, “Ferne Musik und leise Gesänge” further invoked in the orchestral interlude that follows, where Lehnhoff has Schwanewilms start to seduce Brubaker.

Both Schwanewilms and Brubaker are encased in transparent black chiffon on naked flesh. When Schwanewilms talks off Brubaker’s hard, heavy boots it’s erotic and yet extremely tender. Watch Brubaker’s expressions carefully as he doesn’t have much to sing but his reactions are extremely important - thank goodness for close-ups in film! Yet seduction is just a simile for deeper intimacy. Carlotta sings of going out on s a sunny day, feeling sad without knowing why. Salvago realises someone has at last broken down his emotional walls. But that means he has to learn to give tenderness in return, for she, too is “ein gar gebrechliches Spielzug” She pulls off his pink dress, exposing him, but that’s it.

The most striking scenes in this production occurs as the interlude is played. Suddenly the auditorium is bathed in blue light, a reference to the light that makes the Grotto magic. The arches around the stage light up, and figures appear, in black capes. These reference the men of Genoa in their black, beetle-like attire and also longer dramatic traditions. Carlotta’s sensitivity is up against something too hard and too ingrained in society for her and Salvago to stand up to. Figures like vultures encroach on the stage as the Duke, representing power, persuades Carlotta that Salvago isn’t the man for her. Eventually, it’s Tamare she succumbs to, not unwillingly.

These groups of elegant but sinister figures, sexually ambiguous, with masks and feathered headresses, are Lehnhoff trademarks, but here wonderfully evoke things that can’t rationally be expressed - mystery, evil, death, power, perhap ? They prepare us for the terrible trial scene when Duke Adorno and the Council of Eight denounce Salvago, blaming him for kidnapping and corrupting the girls of Genoa. It’s a horrifying moment. Salvago squirms, helpless. The aristocrats who used Elysium are rounding on him for trying to end it. He must take the blame so they won’t. And he is to blame, even though he never laid a finger on anyone. His crime was trying to upset the natural order of things where beauty is beauty and ugliness ugliness. Salvago’s attempts to end the orgies on the island by giving it to the city are cruelly punished. Perhaps real ugliness is so powerful that dreams like Elysium can’t possibly work and Salvagos are destined to fail. And the rescued girls themselves blame him, for it was in his Elysium they were corrupted.

Then in the final interlude, the ground itself opens up, as Elysium is destroyed, revealing lots of children, half naked, some dead, their haunted eyes captured more accusingly on film than you’d ever see in the opera house. It’s horrible. In a corner, Carlotta and Tamare lie together as if dead. Then Volle sings. Even if he’s killed, it won’t change the fact he’s had the most blissful moment of his life. “Die Schönheit sei Beute das Starken”. In their final confrontation, Tamare tells Salvago in no uncertain terms why he’s failed. “Du sahst nur das Dunkle, die Scahtten, Gefahr und Sünde”. What’s worse, “ein freudlos Leben, ein langsam Seichen, oder ein Tod in Rausch und Verklärung rauscher in brünstg’r Unarmung ein selig Sterben!”. A death in rapture and transfiguration? Carlotta found the ecstacy, the “drunken eyes” she dreamed of so she died happy. Definitely, Tristan und Isolde.

But this is Schreker. Tamare recounts a tale about killing a funfair fiddler with his own violin. Carlotta awakes from her swoon and screams at Salvago in revulsion . “Gebt mir Wasser” she cries, “Nein, gebt mir Wein!” Salvago crumples into a ball as the music explodes into conflagration. This production is so good it truly deserves the tiitle “Festspieledokumente”.

Anne Ozorio

image= imagedescription=Franz Schreker : Die Gezeichneten

product=yes producttitle= productby=Alviano Salvago : Robert Brubaker, Carlotta Nardi : Anne Schwanewilms, Graf Andrea Vitelozzo Tamare : Michael Volle, Herzog Antoniotto Adorno : Robert Hale, Ludovico Nardi : Wolfgang Schöne, Konzertvereininigung Wiener Staatsopernchor, Deutsches-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, Kent Nagano: cnductor, Director : Nikolaus Lehnhoff, Stage design : Raimund Bauer, Director for film : Andreas Morell productid=EuroArts 2055298 [DVD] price=$26.99 producturl=

Posted by anne_o at 9:01 AM

Louis Andriessen De Staat at the Proms

At the BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall, it was wonderful to see the brass sections, carefully positioned at each side of the orchestra, catch the light, magnifying the blaze of sound. De Staat is so radical that it still sounds fresh after almost 40 years. Essentially, it’s a wild, almost savage piece that breaks all the rules of form and development that constitute formal music. But such manic, kinetic energy! Driving, compelling rhythmic patterns drive the piece forward. The patterns are circular, revolving on themselves relentlessly without beginning or end. Structurally, blocks of density are intersected by planes of sharp brightness.

De Staat is theatre, designed to be experienced live as its visual impact is very much part of the action. Thus two brass sections are positioned on each side of the orchestra, trombones and trumpets catching the light, so they shine in an ever more dazzling blaze. The harp is placed prominently, for it represents the plucked strings mentioned in the text.

De Staat is also interesting because it transcends text. It’s based on Plato’s The Republic where music is denounced as a form of subversion. The words matter. At early performances, audiences were given the text to read carefully before the beginning. so they’d retain the ideas rather than read them during performance. For De Staat transcends text. The singing is deliberately embedded into the music, almost abstract, like a cryptic code whose meaning goes deeper than surface words. Modern music doesn’t do simple word-painting. Meaning is absorbed, translated into abstract sound.

The texts are in ancient Greek, which most people don’t understand nowadays, which is all the more reason to focus on how the music itself expresses meaning, not just the words. The final chorus is illuminating for it quotes authoritarian dogma dictating what instruments and tonal modes may be used and which forbidden. “Musical change always invokes far-reaching danger. Any alteration in the modes of music is always followed by alteration in the most fundamental laws of the State”.

So Andriessen’s unremitting, hard planes of sound express extreme tension.This Proms performance, conducted by Lucas Vis, leading the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, celebrated the composer’s birthday, so wasn’t quite as distressful as some performances, where the relentless, pounding rhythms create severe anxiety. This is an ensemble for whom the work is basic repertoire - listen to the live recording, also by the Netherlands Wind Ensemble, from the 1978 Holland Festival, included as a CD in the book by* Robert Adlington, Louis Andriessen : De Staat* (Ashgate 2004).

This sense of fear and danger is important, for the driving repetitions represent the idea of enforced conformity. Hence the need for tight, disciplined performance. The very structure of De Staat is meaning. As Andriessen has said, “there is no hierarchy in the parts”. The chorus is only one of the several units in the piece that function in parallel, rather like society itself. . Voices may be suppressed in authoritarian states, but abstract music can still speak. This pertains to much of Andriessen’s work for music theatre and opera, where the action “is” in the music rather than the concept of opera as narrative singing with music..

Andriessen has written several operas, some of which are well known, such a Writing for Vermeer. He’s collaborated fruitfully with Peter Greenaway for several years, reflecting their common interests in music and film. in 2008, Andriessen’s “film opera” La Commedia was featured at the Holland Festival. An excerpt from the opera, The City of Dis, was premeired at the Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen.

This Prom program was extremely well chosen, placing De Staat between Steve Martland’s Beat the Retreat and Cornelis de Bondt’s Closed Doors. Martland’s piece mixes early English music with progressive rock. It’s a cheerful act of irreverent anarchy, written in protest against new government laws on outdoors entertainment. De Bondt’s piece, from 1985, starts and ends with a deep sonic boom that reverberated nicely in the Royal Albert Hall. It’s part of a much larger work that pivots different threads of music history upon each other. That’s why there were two conductors, not in itself any big deal (Charles Ives did it decades ago). Like De Staat, the material circulates, disparate parts that can’t meld although as a whole they make a statement.

The Proms are broadcast every day on BBC Radio 3 and are available online, on demand for seven days after the performance. See www/

Anne Ozorio

image= image_description=Louis Andriessen courtesy of Meltdown Festival

product=yes producttitle=Louis Andriessen: De Staat; Steve Martland: Beat the Retreat; Cornelis de Bondt: Closed Doors productby=Netherlands Wind Ensemble, Louis Vis, Bart Schneeman (second conductor). BBC Proms, Prom 58, Royal Albert Hall, London. 28th August 2009 product_id=Above: Louis Andriessen courtesy of Meltdown Festival

Posted by anne_o at 7:56 AM

August 23, 2009

Zelmira in Pesaro

Somehow there seems to be enough room for everyone in what can only be described as a Last Judgment atmosphere.

Though of minimal size (six million euros) and recent birth (1980) the Rossini Opera Festival has emerged as one of Europe’s great opera festivals. There is a simple reason for this pre-eminence — the great Rossini, and the complete Rossini, and this festival’s dedication to finding singers, conductors and stage directors who can bring this magnificent body of work alive.

This is not to say that the ROF always succeeds, and when it does not it is usually because of the delicacy of its task and not the quality of its work. When it succeeds we reach the absolute heights of operatic sublimity, and this occurred last summer in Daniele Abbado and Roberto Abbado’s Ermione. This summer even greater heights were achieved by Georgio Barberio Corsetti and Roberto Abbado’s Zelmira.

Last summer the huge Adriatic Arena housed two productions, Ermione and Maometto II, on identical back-to-back temporary stages that bisected this covered arena. This summer with Zelmira as its sole occupant, the ROF took advantage of the additional space to create a 1500 plus seat auditorium. This relative hugeness created the momentary impression that we had stumbled into Verona’s Roman amphitheater, but with the reverberation specifications of a gothic cathedral. It was a scary beginning.

Common to Ermione and Zelmira was conductor Roberto Abbado and the orchestra of Bologna’s Teatro Comunale, a superb ensemble wired directly to the sculptural musicianship of this extraordinary conductor. Abbado began with pure Rossini, and absorbed the mise en scène, souping up his Rossini to embrace and reinforce the sometimes strange, truly powerful and always beautiful stage images. This was post-modern opera, really a twenty-first century gesamkunstwerk based on a Rossini score.

Fifty-eight year-old actor/dramaturg/video-artist/stage director Georgio Barberio Corsetti, a bastion of the late twentieth-century Italian theatrical avant-garde (surely there is a new one by now), and for the last ten years an important presence on Italian opera stages was the metteur en scène. Sig. Corsetti had an opportunity almost unique in opera — a huge empty arena in which he could create his own made-to-order scenic machine.

It was in medias res (no overture for informed Rossinians to identify as the same one the composer had also used for this or that comedy). The villain Antenore, sung by American tenor Gregory Kunde, feigned dismay and sorrow in the first of the evening vocal flights, but conductor Abbado skillfully avoided allowing him his applause. In fact all opportunities for applause were evaded until the fifth scene when Zelmira’s loved and loving soldier husband, sung by Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez, returning from war greeted his homeland in a dazzling tenorial display. This evoked a nearly twenty-minute ovation (N.B. this was the applause at the August 12 performance).

IMG_7790_aldrich.gifKate Aldrich as Zelmira

The first spine tingling scenic revelation was the slow erosion of the sand partially covering three monumental sculptures lying on the stage floor. This while Zelmira, sung by American mezzo-soprano Kate Aldridge cradled her father Polidoro, sung by Italian bass Alex Esposito who, suckling her breast completed the trio with Zelmira’s nurse Emma, sung by Italian mezzo-soprano Marianna Pizzolato. And then the supine monumental sculptures took flight, becoming huge, suspended, twirling figures.

A huge, full stage mirror reflected Mo. Abbado and his orchestra, with the inclusion of the audience, vertically slashed by the three blood-red electric stripes that marked the aisles of the tiered seating at the rear of the auditorium. This mirror then tilted forward to reflect a giant sand box that covered floor of the arena, visible through the mesh floor of the raised stage platform in which a multitude of mothers suckled their babies. In another scene a bloody soldier was gently washed by his wife, and later wounded and dead soldiers were dragged from a battlefield, etc.

Other times the mirror reflected the action on the stage as well, doubling the presences of the characters, a visually impressive staging technique that attained the Baroque ideal of the scenic meraviglioso. This simple trick (well, hardly simple to achieve) wove notions of the real and irreale with the concept of theater (opera) itself, and immersed us into a metaphysical world, here the hyper-world of music, Rossini’s music.

Brilliant too was the punctuation created by the minutes we sat in darkness and silence taking us from one illusionary world, that of babies and battles, to another, that of politics and intrigue — a flat gold wall and a coterie of ancient priests.

The complications of the staging, the juxtaposition of a single stage image with the changing poetic images of the arias, and the technical brilliance of the vocal displays of the arias finally merged. Sig. Corsetti had the confidence to pit vocal artistry against theatrical meaning, insisting that singing meant to impress could leave deeper and broader impressions, and they did. We soon learned that the complex scenic backgrounds for the arias were not distraction.

_MG_4606.gifAlex Exposito as Polidoro

The first Zelmira was Mme. Colbran-Rossini, well past her prime, thus Rossini gave her only one small aria near the end of the opera. Kate Aldridge, a formidable artists distinctly in her prime, almost eliminated our frustration at Zelmira’s vocal banishment (after all she is the title role) by delivering the brief aria, finally, with virtuoistic bite and finesse. Though Mme. Aldridge leaves the impression that she may not be a genuine Rossini singer she brought a forceful tonality to Zelmira of filial, maternal, uxorial warmth that firmly anchored the Corsetti entanglement of conflicting masculine bellicose, political and dynastic urges into this sentimental, feminine world.

Rossini’s ensembles embodied these archetypal conflicts, Mo. Abbado sculpting the multiple perspectives into statements that soared above time and place into the sublime. And for extended periods. Meanwhile Sig. Corsetti knew to remain scenically silent during these intense moments. Of spectacular beauty was the first act Zelmira and Emma lament duet with solo harp and english horn, as was Rossini’s recall of this scene by restating this music in the tragic moments of the last act.

Opera casting is infamously difficult as reconciling vocal attributes with physical and dramatic presence is a precarious business. This ROF production achieved the near miraculous with top level Rossini artists who could embody their characters. The attributes of Juan Diego Flórez are well-known, Alex Exposito possesses an unusually beautiful bass voice well adapted to Rossini demands, mezzo-soprano Marianna Pizzolato delivered the fervent roulades of her second act invocation to the gods to guard Zerlmira’s infant son with such conviction that it earned the evening’s second biggest ovation. Gregory Kunde is a unique artist, now well into mid-career who can bring the heft, brilliance and presence — vocally and dramatically — to make a Rossini villain real. Baritone Marco Palazzi completed the cast of six principals as Leucippo, henchman of the scheming Antenore.

The Rossini Opera Festival typically offers three productions. This summer in addition to Zelmira was the early comedy La Scala di Seta and his last comedy Le Comte Ory, both mounted in the small, early nineteenth century Teatro Rossini. La Scala di Seta was a new production staged by Damiano Michieletto and conducted by Claudio Scimone. Sig. Michieletto, a young Venetian, allowed expediency to triumph over art in this prosaic TV sit com style production that fulfilled the Rossini Opera Festival’s obligation to expose the complete Rossini. Seventy-five year old conductor Claudio Scimone, founder of I Solisti Veneti, brought the famous first act quartet to a very modest Rossini boil, but did not succeed otherwise in resuscitating this minor, flawed Rossini.

Le Comte Ory was a revival of the ROF 2003 production by Catalan director Lluis Pasqual, conducted this time by Paolo Carignani, the former head of Frankfurt Opera. The Pasqual production makes Rossini’s French comedy into a parlor game, a concept this masterpiece wears passably but a bit uncomfortably. Mr. Pasqual’s staging is conventional, as are his designs, costumes and lighting. On the other hand conductor Carignani gave us dynamic, vintage Rossini, working with the excellent orchestra of Bologna’s Teatro Comunale, and a fine cast, notably soprano María José Moreno as Adèle, Natalia Gavrilan as Ragonde and Laura Polverelli in the pants role, Isolier. Roberto de Candia ably delivered Raimbaud. In the 2003 production Juan Diego Flórez was the Count Ory, a tough act for young tenor Vlhe Shi to follow. Mr. Shi proved himself a musical Count, and succeeded well enough in accomplishing his antics.

Michael Milenski

image= imagedescription=Rossini Opera Festival 2009

product=yes producttitle=Gioachino Rossini: Zelmira productby=Polidoro (Alex Esposito); Zelmira (Kate Aldrich); Ilo (Juan Diego Flórez); Antenore (Gregory Kunde); Emma (Marianna Pizzolato); Leucippo (Mirco Palazzi); Eacide (Francisco Brito); Gran Sacerdote (Sávio Sperandio). Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna. Maestro del Coro: Paolo Vero. Roberto Abbado, conducting. Regia: Giorgio Barberio Corsetti. Scene: Giorgio Barberio Corsetti, Cristian Taraborrelli. Costumi: Cristian Taraborrelli, Angela Buscemi. product_id=

Posted by Gary at 5:01 PM

THOMAS: Mignon — New York 2005

Music composed by Ambroise Thomas. Libretto by Barbier and Carré based on Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-6 ).

First performance: Paris, Opéra-Comique (Salle Favart), 17 November 1866

Principal roles:
Mignon Mezzo-Soprano
Wilhelm Meister, a student Tenor
Philine, an actress Soprano
Lothario, a wandering minstrel Bass
Laerte, an actor Tenor
Jarno, a gypsy Bass
Frédéric, Philine’s admirer Tenor or Contralto
Antonio, castle retainer Bass

Setting: Germany and Italy in the late 18th century

Act I

The courtyard of a German inn

Deranged by the loss of his daughter Sperata many years ago, the old harper Lothario enters the courtyard in search of her. The gipsy Jarno and his troupe arrive. Philine, an actress, calls her companion Laertes to a window to look.

After a gipsy dance, Jarno promises the egg dance, but when he rouses a young girl sleeping in a cart, she refuses to perform. Jarno beats her and Lothario comes to her aid, supported by a young man, Wilhlem Meister, who has just appeared. Philine throws the indignant Jarno a purse to compensate for his lost revenue and Mignon gives flowers to her deliverers.

Laertes approaches Wilhelm on behalf of Philine, who is interested in him and explains that the two of them are the all that is left of a troupe of actors, now out of work. Wilhelm explains that he is of bourgeois origin, just out of university and about to explore the world, and open to the charms of love. Laertes, a misogynist, warns him against falling in love with the vain and capricious Philine, but when she appears Wilhelm is smitten.

Amused, Laertes continues to advise him to escape, but Wilhelm is already trapped. The rescued girl thanks him, tells him her name is Mignon, but she knows little else about herself, not even her age. She has faint memories of a childhood in a springlike climate, among orange trees and a noble house, and remembers being seized by gipsies when walking by a lake. Wilhelm goes off to settle with Jarno, who is ready to let her go altogether for a suitable payment.

Lothario bids Mignon farewell, intending to follow the swallows which have already left for the south, and Mignon takes his lute and sings of the swallows. Upset by the sound of Philine's laugh, she pulls him away. Philine appears with Frederick, a long-time admirer, whom she mischievously introduces to Wilhelm.

Laertes appears with a letter from Frederick's noble uncle, inviting the actors to his castle to help celebrate the arrival of a prince. Interested in Wilhelm and wanting to put Frederick in his place, she invites Wilhelm to join them, and he accepts, despite another warning from Laertes. Mignon begs to be allowed to accompany Wilhelm and when he answers that he is not ready for the responsibilities of a father, she offers to dress as a boy, in his livery. It is only when she prepares to join Lothario in his precarious wandering life if refused, that Wilhelm consents.

The rest of the actors appear, Philine takes from Wilhelm the bouquet Mignon had given him — to the distress of Mignon — and all, including Lothario, set off for the castle.

Act II

Scene 1. An elegant boudoir in the castle

Philine, to the amusement of Laertes, is settled in very comfortable quarters, and is expecting a train of admirers. When Wilhelm appears, with Mignon dressed as a page, she is amused and Mignon listens jealously as she flirts with the infatuated Wilhelm. Left alone, Mignon paints her face at the dressing table and goes into the wardrobe to find a dress, tempted by the thought of appearing as a lady, like Philine.

Frederick appears, in search of Philine, and when Wilhelm enters, in search of Mignon, they quarrel, recognising one another as rivals, and are about to fight, when Mignon, now in a dress of Philine's, rushes out to separate them.

Frederick, amused at the transformation, declines to risk hurting her, and leaves, while Wilhelm, reminded of Mignon's age and sex by her change of clothes, realises it is unfitting for him to keep her as a companion. She is distressed, but agrees to leave him.

Philine, summoned by Frederick to see Mignon in her dress, is also amused, but Mignon tears off the dress in a rage, and Philine tells the surprised Wilhelm that Mignon is jealous of her. Laertes calls them to the play, and Philine leaves on Wilhelm's arm, to the rage of Mignon and Frederick.

Scene 2. The park of the castle

Mignon, suffering from pangs of jealousy, thinks of drowning herself in the lake, but overcomes the impulse. She is found by Lothario, and they commiserate with one another on their sufferings.

The sound of applause for Philine's performance in the play sends Mignon away in a burst of fury, wishing that the castle and all in it could be swallowed up in flames. Philine, with a crowd of admirers in train, sings of her impersonation of Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Lothario tells Mignon that he has carried out her wish and set fire to the castle, but when Philine asks her to fetch the bouquet she left behind, she agrees. Wilhelm rescues Mignon from the castle as it is engulfed in flames.


A gallery in the Cipriani palace in Italy

Wilhelm has taken Mignon to Italy, where he and Lothario watch over her in her illness. Lothario prays for her recovery and Wilhelm discusses with Antonio, retainer of the former Count Cipriani, the story of the count's child who had been drowned in the lake many years ago. The child's mother had died shortly afterwards and the father had left Italy forever, so the palace of the Cipriani is available for Wilhelm to buy, as he intends. The the name strikes Lothario, who goes off, trying to open long-closed doors.

Now aware of Mignon's love for him, which he has come to return, Wilhelm anxiously awaits her recovery. Antonio brings him a note from Laertes, warning that Philine has followed him.

Mignon appears, calling for Wilhlem and Lothario and puzzled by the familiarity of the palace. Now that she has recovered, Wilhelm speaks of his love, but Mignon. about to believe him, hears Philine's voice and refuses to be convinced, becoming feverish again and calling for Lothario, who is the only one, she says, who loves her.

He appears through a door left unopened for 15 years, dressed in fine clothes and in his right mind, welcoming Mignon and Wilhelm to his home. He gives Mignon a box containing a few souvenirs of his lost Sperata, including a prayer book.

Mignon starts to read a prayer but finishes it from memory, to be greeted by Lothario as his daughter; and she too remembers the past and recognises him. The joy of finding her homeland and her father are almost too much for her, and she collapses, but is revived by the assurance of Wilhelm's love. The two are blessed by Lothario.

[Synopsis Source: Opera~Opera]

image= image_description=Ambroise Thomas by Hippolyte Flandrin audio=yes first_audio_name=Ambroise Thomas: Mignon first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=Ambroise Thomas: Mignon product_by=Stephanie Blythe (Mignon); Massimo Giordano (Wilhelm Meister); Eglise Gutierrez (Philine); John Relyea (Lothario); Kate Aldrich (Frédéric); William Ferguson (Laerte); Charles Unice (Jarno); Rubin Casas (Antonio). Opera Orchestra of New York. New York City Choral Society. Eve Queler, conducting. Live performance, 7 April 2005, New York.
Posted by Gary at 3:12 PM

Boito: Mefistofele

Indeed, the original, no longer extant, version of this work was approximately six hours in length. Even in the severely truncated revised version, Mefistofele has always proven itself to be a serious work, with a libretto that (like Busoni’s Doktor Faust) has some real literary merit. Unfortunately, following the reigning spirit of Regieoper in Europe, director Miguel Del Monaco and set designer Carlo Centolavigna have all but denuded this great opera of its serious intent.

Opting for a 20th-century setting (which in and of itself is not a problem), the “creative” team behind this production has missed the central point of Boito’s (and by extension, Goethe’s) drama, namely, the age-old Platonic opposition of the real and the ideal, in this case, represented by the Margherita/Elena (Helen of Troy) duality. While the ever-reliable Dimitra Theodossiou is afforded the opportunity to continue the tradition of performing both roles, the intention behind this appears to be economic rather than dramatic.

Act I is set in Frankfurt during Easter Sunday, but it is in the Germany of the 1920s, not during Martin Luther’s time. This is at best a questionable tactic because the seemingly peaceful interregnum of the Weimar Republic had such terrible consequences in the following decades. Overloading the already heavily-laden symbolism of the Faust legend with the tragedy of modern German history helps to obscure Faust’s personal dilemma. Adding to the incoherence of the staging, Del Monaco then proves not to have the courage of his convictions by at least being consistent with the historical implications of his staging of Act I, and sets Act IV, the Night of the Classical Sabbath, in Las Vegas. Helen of Troy is reduced to being a showgirl in a tawdry stage show and her attendant Nymphs reminded me of the June Taylor Dancers who used to open the Jackie Gleason TV Show of the 1960s with overhead shots featuring kaleidoscopic choreography.

The ultimate consequence of this staging of Mefistofele is that the characters of Faust and Margherita/Elena are reduced to mere appendages of Mefistofele’s mercurial personality. One of the problems with this opera has always been the overshadowing of Faust and Margherita by Mefistofele. Del Monaco’s staging has exacerbated tenfold this dramatic disparity.

The one saving grace of this production is Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Mefistofele. His performance incorporates a spectacular bass voice with animated acting. The acting, at times, may appear to be a bit over the top, but it is forgivable given the imbecility of the staging. Indeed, Furlanetto’s performance helps to divert attention away from the visual and back to the musical, and for that we must be grateful.

To be charitable to the performers, I thought that the singers and orchestra performed rather well, but at times it was difficult to gauge this accurately since this DVD suffers from very poor balance. Even allowing for the recording difficulties inherent in a live performance, there is really no excuse in this day and age for a professionally recorded DVD to have such poor audio quality.

This DVD will have appeal mostly to fans of Ferruccio Furlanetto. My advice is to turn off the video and listen to the voice.

William E. Grim

image= imagedescription=Arrigo Boito, Mefistofele

product=yes producttitle=Arrigo Boito, Mefistofele productby=Mefistofele: Ferruccio Furlanetto; Faust: Giuseppe Filianoti; Margherita/Elena: Dimitra Theodossiou; Marta: Sonia Zaramella; Wagner/Nereo: Mimmo Ghegghi; Pantalis: Monica Minarelli. Stefano Ranzani conducting. Stage Director: Giancarlo Del Monaco. Live performance at Teatro Massimo, Palermo, January 2008. productid=Dynamic 33581 [2DVDs] price=$48.49 producturl=

Posted by Gary at 2:26 PM

Paul Hindemith: Die junge Magd, Op. 23, no. 2; Ernst Toch: Die chinesische Flöte, Op. 29.

In contrast to Mahler’s effort, Ernst Toch composed a three-movement work which makes use of Bethge’s title for its setting of three poems: “Die geheimnisvolle Flöte,” “Die Ratte,” and “Das Los des Menschen.” Among the recent selections in the series Edition Staatskapelle Dresden is a CD which includes an historic performance of Toch’s Die Chinesische Flöte, a setting of three of Bethge’s poems, from 22 February 1949 along with a recording from 15 September 1948 of Paul Hindemith’s Die junge Magd, Op. 23b.

Dating from 1922 Ernst Toch’s Die chinesische Flöte, Op. 29 is a substantially different work than Mahler’s more familiar setting of Bethge’s poetry. From the outset the spare timbres connote a different style. In contrast to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, in which chamber-music texts are part of the larger fabric of the work, Toch’s Chinesische Flöte is conceived for solo voice and chamber orchestra. Almost programmatically, the solo flute is prominent in the first movement, Toch’s setting of “Die geheimnisvolle Flöte,” and complements the voice throughout the work. Toch is sensitive to Bethge’s text, and allows the declamation to emerge readily in his sometimes spare orchestral textures. Likewise, he makes effective use of instrumental interludes to set off the verses of the poem and thus underscore the text, rather than render it all at once and thus risk losing the attention of the listeners. Inspired by the original text of Li Tai Pao, Bethge recreated in German the sense of remoteness to which Toch responded appropriately. Trötschel captures the sense of text well with her phrasing and intonations. Since the piece lies well for Trötschel’s voice, she is able to convey in this performance shades of meaning in the text.

The second setting in this cycle is a much shorter, somewhat ironic text entitled “Die Ratte” (“The Rat”), a metaphor for an obsession. Thus, the rapid-fire declamation that Toch uses is entirely appropriate to the verse, and serves as an excellent contrast to the sense of remote calm he achieved in the first piece. Again, Trötschel brings a natural kind of phrasing to the delivery, which is always clear and distinct. The third and final piece is “Das Los des Menschens” (“The Lot of Mankind”) a poem in which the summer season becomes a means of expressing something of the angst about human existence. Here Toch adapts from cliché sounds associated with the orient in the accompaniment in a setting with equal weight to the first. The instrumental music is more prominent than in the first movement and serves to punctuate the verses in this setting. Trötschel’s delivery brings clarity to this performance, which allows the text to be heard distinctly. The latter serves well for those who want to hear Bethge’s text, which is, unfortunately, not reproduced in the liner notes - for these pieces and Hindemith’s Hänssler offers the texts only in English translation, rather than the conventional bi- or trilingual presentation association with Lieder or chansons.

Composed around the same time, Hindemith’s song cycle Die junge Magd also makes use of a chamber ensemble for its accompaniment, specifically a string quartet augmented by flute and clarinet. The resulting timbres involve some of the composer’s distinctive style, which underscores the expressive dissonances he used in his settings some of the Austrian poet’s Georg Trakl’s verse The poems express some of the meaninglessness aspects of human existence, and Himdemith’s settings intensify them. Further, Ruth Lange brought out the introspective nature of the work with her idiomatic performance of the music. Performed in Germany shortly after the end of World War II, this work bears a further level of meaning, through a recording made during the rebuilding of a country which was at the forefront of modernism. The first poem of the cycle is particularly effective “Oft am Brunnen” and each of the succeeding five songs has something to offer. The recording is remarkably reproduced well in this CD, but it would be useful to have the texts reproduced in the accompanying booklet. As interesting as it is to have more background on the performers than usually occurs, the text is essential to pieces like this, which are available less frequently in recordings than other

James L. Zychowicz

image= image_description=Profil PH 07043

product=yes producttitle=Paul Hindemith: Die junge Magd, Op. 23, no. 2 and Ernst Toch: Die chinesische Flöte, Op. 29.
by=Ruth Lange, contralto, Elfride Trötschl, soprano, Staatskapelle Dresden, Joseph Keilberth, conductor; and Hans Löwlein, conductor. productid=Profil PH 07043 [CD] price=$16.99 producturl=

Posted by jim_z at 1:29 PM

The Full Monteverdi: A Film by John la Bouchardière

The development of opera in Italy is largely unthinkable without the madrigal. Although the madrigal was a highly sophisticated musico-poetic form featuring advanced harmonies and subtle texts of great literary value, it was, after all, a choral form meant for unstaged performance. Yet the dramatic power of the madrigal was such that monody—an early form of recitative--would eventually evolve from it. What director John la Bouchardière and the members of I Fagiolini have done is to demonstrate in a staged version the dramatic and rhetorical power of Monteverdi’s madrigals.

The Fourth Book of Madrigals for 6 voices (1603) is perhaps Monteverdi’s most famous book of madrigals because they were used by the composer to adumbrate the principles of the seconda prattica, that is, madrigals in which the composition of the music followed the lead of the rhetoric of the poetry. The Fourth Book is also notable for the high quality of the texts, consisting of poems by Giovanni Guarini (Il pastor fido) and Torquato Tasso among others. The 19 madrigals of the book share an emotional intensity expressive of the ebb and flow of a profound love. What the creators of this film have done is to pair each of the six singers with an actor and then to stage the performance as though it were six couples who coincidentally are having dinner at a contemporary restaurant. This allows each of the singers to have a dramatic foil, a person who is the object of the subjective text. This is a brilliant conceit and it works spectacularly well. What is even more remarkable is that this movie is a studio filming of the work that was originally performed live on stage. It is hard to imagine the concentration involved in performing highly chromatic madrigals with the performers not being in close proximity, and at time not even facing one other.

The film introduces a personalization of the intense emotional drama, alternating its focus among the various couples and even allowing for visual flashbacks as the music unfolds. Thus, we can be given the “back story” visually (for example, a past argument) as the couple in question grieves for a split up that is about to take place. Although they have no words to say, the task for the six actors is especially daunting as they must express the rhetorical and dramatic power of the madrigals utilizing only facial cues and body gestures and avoiding the overly melodramatic style of silent film acting.

Another aspect of this film that I found particularly satisfying is that a number of the madrigals are performed attacca. The elision of the performances of the madrigals heightens their poetic and dramatic unity, even when the texts of the madrigals are by different authors.

Madrigals of this sort were considered to be musica reservata, that is, music of extraordinary complexity and subtlety that was meant to be appreciated primarily by a highly educated and relatively small elite. As such, seconda prattica madrigals are often a tough go for the uninitiated and especially so for the typical college music appreciation student. This film makes explicit the drama that is inherent in the music and poetry and can, therefore, do a great deal to promote appreciation of Monteverdi’s madrigals.

The members of I Fagiolini sing with tremendous expressivity, flawless intonation, and amazing vocal technique. So convincing was their performance that it was not difficult at all to suspend disbelief at watching 21st century couples in a restaurant sing Italian madrigals while breaking up before the first course. This is a highly recommended DVD that should prove attractive to both opera lovers and early music devotees.

William E. Grim

image= image_description=The Full Monteverdi: A Film by John la Bouchardière product=yes product_title=The Full Monteverdi: A Film by John la Bouchardière
A Music-Drama based on Claudio Monteverdi’s Fourth Book of Madrigals. product_by=Featuring I Fagiolini: Anna Crookes, Carys Lane, sopranos; Clare Wilkinson, mezzo-soprano; Nicholas Mulroy, tenor; Matthew Brook, baritone; Giles Underwood, bass; and Robert Hollingworth, director. Actors: Pano Masti, Alan Mooney, Mark Denham, Katherine Peachey, Anna Skye, and Gina Peach. Written and Directed by John la Bouchardière. product_id=Naxos 2.110224 [DVD] price=$19.98 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 1:02 PM

Wagner's Tannhaüser at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden

Nikolaus Lehnhoff proved with his staging of Parsifal, preserved on DVD, that he can stay true to the core vision of a Wagner masterwork and yet bring new insights and a stark yet imaginative vision to the work. This Tannhaüser, filmed in 2008 in Baden-Baden, comes across as an over-designed, under-realized concept. Although the bonus feature of an hour-long documentary has a lot of talk - oh boy, does it ever - none of it really serves to make the production’s intents any clearer. The sets, the costumes, the lighting, are all spectacular. The viewer can admire all that effort and still feel unsatisfied, because the tone never becomes coherent. Does Lehnhoff see the opera as essentially silly? That nagging thought is the chief one his staging produced in your reviewer.

A huge spiral staircase/walkway dominates the set, the curve of which has a seductive, feminine shape. Waltraud Meier as Venus appears in the shadow of the curve, at first immobile in a huge hoop-skirt ballgown, and then stepping away from it in a more shapely black dress. The ballet almost never really works to suggest the erotic appeal of Venusberg, but Lehnhoff gets off to a very bad start here. In the choreography of Amir Hosseinpour and Jonathan Lunn, dancers in clunky, head-to-toe white leotards mime the wriggling movements of worms or maggots. It’s silly when not repellent. And the worms turn up again at the end, of course, to spoil one of the more successful scenes of the production.

With a full head of shaggy hair and looking a little like a 1980s’ Bono of the rock band U2, Robert Gambill enters. In a role known as a tenor-killer, Gambill offers a lot. He doesn’t seem to tire, and his enunciation of the text struck this non-German speaker as sharp. The core of Gambill’s voice is a husky, masculine sound, with an effective if strained top. He doesn’t really have either the vocal or personal charisma for a memorable assumption of the horny hero, but Gambill is about as good as we’ve got at this time.

Only a few months before this summer 2008 production, Gambill had been in the same opera with Camila Nylund as Elisabeth in San Diego, where your reviewer caught their performances. Nylund is a gorgeous woman, visually perfect as Elisabeth (but even more stunning when seen in street clothes in the aforementioned documentary). She can sing her role, as Gambill can sing his. It’s just the lack of any special color or imagination to her phrasing that keeps her assumption from affecting the audience as it should. At least she doesn’t have to endure the wig catastrophe that Meier does as Venus, with a weird fan-shaped hedge of hair across the top of her skull. Lehnhoff relies on Meier’s considerable dramatic reserves to put her characterization across, but he gives her very little to do. Even when outside the prison of that satin gown, Meier seems locked away.

In Wartburg things get very goofy. Most of the men wear gold lamé suits, while the chorus enters in black suits and helmets with short antlers, or are they insect antennae? When the song contest begins, the contestants stride onto a platform with a standing microphone, strutting and posturing like rock stars. Tom Fox as Biterolf really gets into it. But when Gambill’s Tannhaüser rushes up, shoves Fox off the stage and sings in praise of Venusberg, Lehnhoff’s interpretation makes him look like a spoiled, bratty jock. There’s no interest in his redemption from that point. If we still care about Nylund’s Elisabeth, that is due to the commendable efforts of Roman Trekel as Wolfram and Stephen Milling as Hermann, two first-class singers who manage to preserve their dignity amidst the silliness.

One of several hundred young conductors making their names known today, Philippe Jordan leads the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin in a technically precise but soulless reading. He has more interesting things to say about the music in the documentary than can be heard in the actual performance.

The booklet does feature a very fine essay by Reiner E. Moritz, who covers the opera’s creation cogently and also finds ways of describing this production that make it sound better than it turns out to be. But where in the booklet essay is the credit for the wig stylist? The documentary interviews reveal that both Gambill and Trekel got the benefit of that artist’s best work. Meier, unfortunately, did not.

Finally, if a production goes for the non-traditional approach as this one does, then the subtitles shouldn’t be as fussy and outdated as those employed here. A lot of creative energy went into this production. In the end, it comes across as all design, no depth.

Chris Mullins

image= imagedescription=Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser

product=yes producttitle=Richard Wagner: Tannhäuser productby=Tannhäuser (Robert Gambill); Elisabeth (Camilla Nylund); Venus (Waltraud Meier); Wolfram von Eschenbach (Roman Trekel); Landgraf (Stephen Milling); Walther von der Vogelweide (Marcel Reijans); Biterolf (Tom Fox); Reimar von Zweter (Andreas Hörl); Heinrich der Schreiber (Florian Hoffmann); Ein junger Hirt (Katherina Müller). Vienna Philharmonia Choir. Berlin Deutsches Symphony Orchestra. Philippe Jordan, conductor. Nikolaus Lehnhoff, stage director. Raimund Bauer, set design. Andrea Schmidt-Futterer, costumes. Recorded live from the Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden, 2008 productid=ArtHaus Musik 101 351 [2DVDs] price=$35.99 producturl=

Posted by chris_m at 12:17 PM

Santa Fe Celebrates Two Divas

Well, cogent, dramatically appropriate productions might have been nice. But more on that later.

Gluck’s Alceste had the great good fortune of having the aforementioned Ms. Brewer as its titular heroine. There is no warmer, richer, more beautifully deployed dramatic soprano voice before the public today. The instrument has the range, the solid technique, the stamina, and the firepower to meet every demand of this heroic role.

Temperamentally, too, Alceste is a good fit for the diva. Noble posturing, internalized grief, and stately control of motion are well within the performer’s capabilities. Since her well-publicized knee trouble began, Christine has lost a good deal of weight, and through inventive staging, she was allowed to be seated a good deal of the time (courtiers were frequently scurrying to bring their Queen a chair). If only the Met’s Herr Schenk had been imaginative enough to find similar solutions, their Ring may not have been robbed of the participation of the leading dramatic soprano of the day. Happily for Santa Fe-niacs, we got to experience a vocally towering Alceste at the height of Christine Brewer’s considerable powers.

Paul Groves was also in good form as the King Admète. Having just heard Mr. Groves as a powerful Idomeneo in Paris, I thought that perhaps he might have been slightly indisposed this night. The very top of the range seemed to be deployed with some caution at first, and he lacked his usual élan and spontaneity of phrasing at times. Nevertheless, his substantial lyric voice has taken on a bit more weight and ring over past seasons and he was a good match for Ms. Brewer, blending well with her in their duets.

Wayne Tigges sang an assured Hercules, though a little more vocal swagger and abandon (not to mention theatricality) might not have been amiss. Doubling as the Herald and High Priest, Nicholas Pallesen revealed a sympathetic and warm baritone, perfectly suited to this repertoire (his very first declarations might have had a bit more oomph). Young American Artist Tom Corbeil also did double duty as the Oracle and Infernal God, and his beautiful lyric tenor and magisterial sense of line served notice of an exciting new talent. Aaron Blake’s Evandre was securely sung, if a bit bland dramatically, while Coryphee was well-taken by Jennifer Forni. Matthew Morris posed prettily as Apollo.

_MG_3986.gifPaul Groves (Admète) & Christine Brewer (Alceste)

In the pit, Kenneth Montgomery led a reading of great stylistic pleasure, and made as good a case as is likely possible for this rarely performed piece. The chorus of (mostly) apprentices was meticulously prepared by Chorus Master Susanne Sheston. Both groups were roundly cheered at evening’s end for their nigh flawless accomplishments.

Alceste is mounted seldom enough that I wished it had been treated to a visually evocative production that was as exciting as the musical contribution. Not to say there wasn’t a good deal to enjoy here in the contemporary design. A huge semi-circular white wall, detailed with painted stones, formed the back-drop for the evening. Contained within this playing space was a curiously unattractive black “shoe box” with a beaded curtain of sorts, meant to be the chamber for the dying King.

This latter moved aside to reveal a handsome sculpture in the form of a big white globe, rent in the bottom half and revealing a blood red lining. Apollo appeared atop this ball to fine effect, especially in the isolated lighting effect by Duane Schuler (a wonderful SFO asset, he). Mr. Schuler conspired with set designer Louis Désiré to include a quirky but interesting base board of lights in the huge back walls. These same walls later closed at the front, bringing together two halves of a painting that, when joined, displayed a staircase to eternity. Nice visual image. These same walls did duty as death’s “gate” parting appropriately to reveal garish white lights embedded in the structure’s edges, and later, the entire amassed chorus, hauntingly down lit.

Overall, director Francisco Negrin’s intentions resulted in well-defined character relationships, good use of all areas of the stage, interesting pictures, and a decent amount of romantic chemistry between a King and Queen that were (it must be said) physically mis-matched. Crowd management was quite masterfully handled, although the twitchy gesticulating and pulsing the beat was self-consciously “busy.” Seeding the dance corps among the singers was a nice touch and created some real electricity, but I had the feeling we had seen Ana Yepes choreography before, derivative as it was of ancient dance posings (Martha Graham, anyone?).

There were, to be sure, some staging oddities. The ailing King, verging on death, was first helped on stage to a waiting bench, but then schlepped hither and yon in a sole attempt to create varied visuals. Mission accomplished, but to what realistic dramatic end? Hercules, who could have been such a colorful persona, seemed under-directed. A clumsy metaphor was attempted to parallel the King’s condition with the introduction of a small potted shrub, which later became a dying bush, and later still emerged again as a healthy, grown tree at the denouement.

And most curious of all, a mesh black cloth was unfurled and re-folded several times, bearing the words “La Mort.” Huh? Indeed, it was hard to make out the ending when our happily-ever-after principles sort of wrapped themselves in it and clumsily blended upstage right. Meaning, please, Mr. Negrin? Death comes for us all? Gluck is ‘deadly’ if not ‘improved?’ Plot Captioning for the Clinically Bewildered? Or?

Reservations aside, the next night’s Traviata made the Alceste staging seem a model of clarity. Laurent Pelly is one of my most favorite directors who has devised brilliant productions of Daughter of the Regiment, Platée, La Belle Hélène, to name but a few…comedies. Unfortunately, here he seemed content to continue to explore comedic, or at least downright silly elements of that laff-riot tale of a repentant courtesan who sacrifices true love and happiness and dies of consumption.

At rise, the stage is littered with a cascade of over-sized boxes (a waggish colleague dubbed it the ultimate “black box theatre”), mostly tumbling from up right to down left. Okay, okay, the lighting ultimately revealed they were subtly colored and variegated, but that did nothing to make them more meaningful or practical.

After the prelude, Violetta appears, jumping up from behind a box, in a day-glo pink ruffled number with matching high-heeled boots and garish short red-haired wig; a get-up that would have even been rejected for the Cher Comeback Tour. A long…long…pause, and then Ms. Violetta shrieked like a chorine banshee, the party music commenced, and she tenuously (if gamely) leaped down three feet to another box, and repeated the hooping and hopping and ruffle swishing. This may constitute a great start to “La Vie Parisienne.” It did little to establish the tone for one of opera’s greatest tragedies.

Character relationships sputtered to life. Alfredo and Violetta were so far apart much of the time that the growing infatuation and Brindisi went for too little. Throughout the night, the chorus appeared from hiding places with weak motivation and re-grouped on the boxes willy-nilly.

When Violetta and Alfredo did finally duet ‘privately’ they wound up reclining inappropriately on a box mid-stage, and instead of the hostess’ bidding farewell to her guests, Lady V remained prone as one big pile of tulle, until she finally sat up in this sea of pink for her aria.

Act Two’s garden raised hopes since it was more realistic with the addition of a long sloping hedge over the boxes downstage. But there were few places to sit, only one rock on which to write correspondence, and Violetta was costumed as a tomboy left-over from Pelly’s Regiment. Clad thus, when she ran into Alfredo’s arms at the top of the Act, one confused audience member whispered “I thought he liked girls?” (In a departure from tradition she remained on stage for his aria.) The great scene with Germont père found her spending an inordinate amount of time on the stage floor rolling around in grief or clutched in a fetal position.

The promise raised for more realistic settings was thwarted with Act Three’s return to those same damned boxes (designer Chantal Thomas is on the blame line), on top of which the chorus women “Gypsies” gyrated like floozies, and the chorus men “Toreadors” behaved like unruly school boys. It had all the fumbling sex play and elegance of a frat beer party in Oshkosh.

Our heroine (the red mop of hair still jarring) appeared here attired to her best advantage of the night (Pelly’s design), but it was evening wear that seemed more appropriate for an LA opening than Parisian high society. (Oddly, I found all his other costumes very elegant and attractive.)

At least the boxes were covered with white sheets for Act IV, although this made it even harder for an extraneous dance couple to leap around them and perform a rather lewd pas de deux as the revelers sang offstage.

It might be forgivable that the heroine was made to melodramatically clutch a bed sheet off a box as she staggered and sank dead to the floor, but no excuse can be made for the other characters, especially Alfredo, to have backed off stage, abandoning her to die alone in her selfless sacrifice. Show us some love, Laurent!

Conductor Frédéric Chaslin kept things very clean and forward moving, but too often he rushed through things, and his reading lacked gravitas when Verdi required it. Germont’s portentous entrance music was taken at such a zip as to handicap the set-up of that great duet scene. It was odd that Germont’s (oft-cut) cabaletta was included but not the final horrified group exhortations at Violetta’s demise. Mr. Chaslin did accommodate singers by keeping the volume of the orchestra in check, and maintained good ensemble, but overall his rendition fared better in facile party music than conveying emotional depth.

There was high interest in Natalie Dessay’s first attempt at the demanding role of Violetta, and with good reason. Ms. Dessay is a huge international star with a string of high profile successes, and a recent happy relationship with Santa Fe Opera. She is also as acclaimed for her acting as for her singing, and this role has ample opportunities to score at both.

Ms. Dessay cannot be faulted for whole-heartedly carrying out Mr. Pelly’s intentions, stage directions, and concept. Would that the talented pair had been able to do the same for Verdi.

And that our diva almost did with her vocal portrayal. She is a supremely intelligent singer and knows well what she can or can’t do. She couches her phrasing and husbands her resources to maximize her many strengths, including a solid technique second to none, thrilling work above the staff, accurate coloratura, and total submersion in the dramatic moment. These pluses are balanced against a fairly limited color palette, and a slight lower-middle register which she wisely chooses not to press too hard.

Having the ‘right’ voice for the outburst “Amami Alfredo” has been written about ad nauseum, and is over in seconds. More critically for Natalie is that so much of the great Act II confrontation — it drives the whole piece — lies ungratefully for her. Consequently, as she carefully voiced her way through it, all the while acting the hell out of it, the duet took on a conversational tone/volume that was more appropriate to Pinter than to Verdi.

This was always a wholly committed, sincere, engaging superstar performance. “Addio del passato” was truly among the finest I have heard. But, vociferous standing ovation notwithstanding, at this career juncture the role is a half-size too large for this otherwise glorious performer.

Laurent Nauori had a very fine night as Giorgio Germont bringing virile tone and pontificating presence to his assignment. He may sound more like an Albert than a Germont, and he may look too young. Still, taken on his own terms, he acquitted himself well. Much favorable press has preceded Saimir Pirgu, the boyishly handsome Alfredo. I liked the basic voice which at times had a nice squillo. At other times it seemed short on the top, such as the thin climatic note of his Act II cabaletta. He rose to deliver a fine denunciation scene in Act III, and has real promise. But in the company of seasoned professionals Dessay and Naouri, Mr. Pirgu seemed more a talented ‘work-in-progress.’

We were indeed blessed to have a wholly effective group of young American Artist soloists in the secondary roles. Wayne Tigges was back as a frisky Baron Duphol, abetted by Tom Corbeil’s well-sung Marquis and the vivacious Flora from Emily Fons. Harold Wilson (Dr. Grenvil) and Jennifer Jakob (Annina) made favorable impressions in their brief roles.

La Traviata is a co-production with Teatro Reggio Turino.

James Sohre

image= image_description=Natalie Dessay (Violetta) [Photo by: Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]

product=yes producttitle=Giuseppe Verdi: La traviata productby=Violetta: Natalie Dessay; Alfredo: Saimir Pirgu; Gastone: Keith Jameson; Germont: (through Aug. 17) Laurent Naouri, (Aug. 22, 26, 29), Anthony Michaels-Moore; Douphol: Wayne Tigges; Dr. Grenvil: Harold Wilson. Conductor: Frederic Chaslin. Director: Laurent Pelly. Scenic Designer: Chantal Thomas. Costume Designer: Laurent Pelly. Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler. product_id=Above: Natalie Dessay (Violetta) [Photo by: Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera]

Posted by james_s at 12:02 PM

Maconchy: The Sofa & The Departure

Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994) comes across here as a well-trained, skillful composer of music in the approved idiom of mid/late 20th century academic composition. She employs tonality ironically, for fractured waltzes, eerie lullabies and overripe romanticism. Around that music she weaves the familiar textures of twittering winds, cacophonous percussion outbursts, and scratchy strings.

The Sofa, Ursula Vaughan Williams’s adaptation of Le Sofa by Crébillion Fils, gives Maconchy the opportunity to compose arias, with several set pieces. Maconchy seems to want these sections to have inverted commas around them - “Here is your ‘aria’ for you.” But that is not inappropriate for the shallow, even dismal characters of this story. Prince Dominic, a “Duke of Mantua” wannabe, seduces women at his parties, frequently on the title furniture. His grandmother casts a spell on him, turning him into the sofa. He can only be brought back to human shape by having a couple make love on top of him (unknowingly, of course). This couple turns out to be the prince’s steady ladyfriend and an acquaintance. The prince returns to human form in outrage, and then realizes he needs to make a commitment to Monique to be happy. Operette and sermon over.

At about 40 minutes, this trifle could well make for an entertaining show, but the score doesn’t repay repeated listenings. The sour, acerbic setting makes its points early, and then often. Dominic Wheeler conducts the musicians of Independent Opera at Sadler’s Well, surely doing as creditable a job with the music as any other group, who cared to make the effort, would. Nicholas Sharratt as the Prince and Sarah Tynan as Monique, the girlfriend, sing with apparent ease music that may well be more difficult than it sounds.

The Departure is even briefer, at 31 minutes, but it feels longer. This precursor to the film The Sixth Sense has a woman wake to find herself both inside and outside of her surroundings - and as she sings with her husband, she realizes that she is dead and slowly leaving the mortal world. Librettist Anne Ridler doesn’t deepen her characterizations of husband and wife to develop some real interest in their predicament, and when the wife finally drifts off to her reward, we have ours as well. It’s over. At least one section for the husband finds Maconchy in imaginative mode, contrasting sweeter music for an ideal memory of past love with the sharper-edged tones depicting the weird circumstances. The rest of the score is predictable in its effects. Louise Poole as Julia the wife and Håkan Vramsmo as Mark the husband do sing attractively.

So two fairly dry pieces, of most interest to fans of mid-century British music or contemporary opera. As these two short pieces are unlikely to be staged, Chandos deserves commendation for preserving these performances.

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=Elizabeth Maconchy: The Sofa; The Departure

product=yes producttitle=Elizabeth Maconchy: The Sofa; The Departure productby=Independent Opera productid=Chandos CD CHAN 10508 price=$18.99 producturl=

Posted by chris_m at 11:00 AM

Stars Shine at Glimmerglass

Such was the case with the wholly exceptional Dandini from the exciting young baritone Keith Phares in Glimmerglass’s quite delightful Cenerentola One third into the first act of the Rossini (up to that point a wholly competent, if not yet quite sparkling rendition), Mr. Phares strode on through the door stage left, and did not so much inhabit the stage as take complete ownership of it.

His first few utterances — virile, vibrant, “present” — caused the audience to sit up as one with immediately increased interest. Indeed, having thrown the gauntlet of vocal excitement and dramatic commitment in his opening aria, he urged the entire evening to a much higher level. I have been a great admirer of this fine singer since I first encountered him in Miss Havisham’s Fire and Loss of Eden in St. Louis, December Songs in Houston, and (again at St.Louis) Una Cosa Rara.

But nothing in his excellent prior work could have prepared me for this star-making role assumption. His voice now had even greater point and focus, his lower range filled the house without pushing, his trip-hammer melismas were spot-on, and his sassy upper register had a thrilling ping. His acting, always finely detailed, was on this occasion a veritable tour-de-force, totally in charge and in your face, and characterized by wryly funny gestures and takes. He was just up there having a hell of a good time, and so were we. And it does not hurt that he is as handsome as a young Alec Baldwin.

What a joy to anticipate the doors that should now open to him at the world’s major houses. The buzz at intermission was “who is that Dandini?” Keith, I do believe you have “arrived.” A well deserved triumph for an artist with a great future.

Not that he was alone in his success. Julie Boulinanne had considerable, if qualified success as Angelina. There seemed to be a couple of different vocal approaches in play. I found the introspective phrases were (only) sometimes over-interpreted, with the sense of line occasionally weakened by a syllable-to-syllable approach reminiscent of the notorious Schwarzkopf master classes of her later years.

‘Non piu mesta’ was very decently sung, if not yet in the category of bravura vocalizing. Ms Boulinanne’s somewhat darkened voice and variable technique(s) don’t seem to let whole phrases ring out and sail with consistently focused tone (although any number of top notes were admittedly thrilling). She is petite and quite appealingly sympathetic on stage, although at first her characterization made the girl come across as “simple” thanks to a hangdog expression and a stoop-shouldered, straight-legged mincing walk. Once past that first mis-directed dramatic conception, our heroine had spunky appeal galore.

Aduardo Chama’s Don Magnifico was a polished offering: fun-filled, inventive, uninhibited, and spontaneous. If his slightly orotund voice sagged occasionally on repeated pitches in patter segments, and if he was a bit rhythmically imprecise at times, his well-schooled portrayal had the requisite fire, humor, and stylistic aplomb.

_MG_0540-copy.gifJulie Boulianne as Angelina and John Tessier as Don Ramiro [Photo by Richard Termine/Glimmerglass Opera]

John Tessier cut a fine figure as Don Ramiro. His bright lyric voice was a little more open than usual for this Fach, perhaps to instill some body and volume, although the upper extension lightens a bit as it turns over giving it a slightly different color. But he has definitely got the goods. Mr. Tessier offered good florid passage work, was blond and boyish, appeared at ease on stage, and maintained an excellent rapport with Dandini in their conspiratorial hi-jinks.

Other roles were drawn from the ranks of the Young American Artists. Alidoro’s Joshua Jeremiah was arguably a piece of curious casting. Although he acquitted himself well enough, he was in fact too young looking for the part, and his mellifluous voice wanted a little more heft. Clorinda and Tisbe were conceived as a ‘T&A’ duo (and I don’t mean ‘treble and alto’), a concept that was well embodied by (respectively) Jamilyn Manning-White (with an appealing hint of metal in her voice, sporting a pink formal with a huge bow highlighting her ‘T’ contribution to the equation); and Karin Mushegain (a rich-voiced mezzo whose green slit dress accented her, um, ‘A’-ssets).

In the pit, pride of place must go to Jonathan Kelly who contributed excellent work on the harpsichord. Conductor Joseph Colenari was another matter. For all his high-powered credits, on this occasion the maestro led a reading that was too often rhythmically dodgy in the sprightly ensembles, most notably resulting in a scrappy stretta section of the Act I quintet. Group cut-offs were raggy, and he occasionally pushed the singers past the speed limit, especially Magnifico. While the usually fine orchestra may have had its share of minor scrapes, not so the excellent chorus, wonderfully polished to precision by Bonnie Koestner.

_MG_0174.gifKeith Phares (left) as Dandini and Eduardo Chama as Don Magnifico [Photo by Richard Termine/Glimmerglass Opera]

The momentary lapses in tidiness are not be blamed on the fine stage director, Kevin Newbury, who staged the tricky ensembles with masterful positioning and controlled business so the cast could indeed watch the conductor. Mr. Newbury showed especial skill in deploying the chorus meaningfully, and with individualized personalities. Overall, his work with the principles was similarly inspired, honoring tradition but with barely a Rossinian cliche in sight. Clever, clever work.

Cameron Anderson gave his director a beautifully atmospheric, highly functional set design. Transplanting the tale to the 1930’s was a brilliant touch that put into high relief the contrast between the struggling impoverished populace and the monied, privileged few. The large expanse of Magnifico’s (now) sparsely furnished house with its walk-in hearth, mirthless staircase, and offstage kitchen, was backed by a bleak wall with a single bare window through which falling snow was glimpsed. Comic touches were injected with well- considered set pieces, for example, a bathtub gin wagon, that suitably lightened the proceedings, if not with the heady fizz of fine champagne, at least with the nose-tickling bubbles of tart ginger ale.

The paneled library in Ramiro’s palatial mansion was a handsomely sober location for the social climbing (and subsequent celebration) that is at the core of the libretto. The deployment of a large standing globe as focal point in several musical numbers was comically effective. Mr. Anderson made excellent use of an ‘in-one’ scenic device, in which the unemployed were served food by charity volunteers in front of a “No work available today” sign that was flown in.

Jassican Jahn’s lovely costumes (including the sisters’ T&A numbers, referenced above) served the concept well. She fashioned lovely ball attire for Angelina, which featured a nice solution to the usual veil by incorporating a sweeping feather that extended in front of her face from her hat. Regal men’s uniforms, natty formal attire, well-worn winter coats and hats, all of the clothing was exceptionally well-coordinated. Anne Ford-Coates contributed the meaningful hair and make-up design.

Rounding out the technical achievement, D.M. Wood devised a considerably varied lighting plot with nice area definition, good color filter choices, excellent mood enhancement, and plot-specific specials, like the requisite lightning for the formulaic storm scene. But I have to ask: thunder, lightning, and . . .snow? Well, something else to blame on El Nino.

At the end of the night, momentary musical glitches aside, this audience was mightily entertained, witness the cheering reception. Glimmerglass has a substantial hit on its hands.

Conversely, the next day’s The Consul was near musical perfection, but encountered some dramatic mis-steps. Conductor David Angus led a taut, clean reading of Menotti’s masterpiece that was beautifully shaped by an orchestra collaborating in top form. This is a rather lean (and imaginative) instrumentation, scored as it was to fit in a Broadway pit for the opera’s premiere. At times, perhaps, certain selections were a bit rushed (the Police Chief’s scenes might have captured a more measured menace), and a few moments sounded a bit “correct” as opposed to being emotionally “informed.” But overall, this was a tremendous musical effort.

The star performance of this production came from veteran Joyce Castle, a treasureable singer who always seems at the top of her game. Her experienced Mother was a model of well-rounded, theatrically rich impersonation, impeccably sung. She seems to bring even more to the role than Menotti conceived, and she finds the truth in even such potentially embarrassing moments as the peek-a-boo game with the baby, which has reduced many a mezzo to self conscious gyrations that come off as a tipsy faux granny. I am not sure how old Ms. Castle is (there is a 40th anniversary fete somewhere listed in her bio). But she is still singing with imagination, security, beauty of tone, and heartfelt phrasing. Joyce, I can only hope you give us another 40 years, enriching the opera scene as few do.

Consul_Glimmerglass_MG_0282.gifL to R: Robert Kerr as The Secret Police Agent, Leah Wool as The Secretary and Michael Chioldi as John Sorel. [Photo by Richard Termine/Glimmerglass Opera]

Magda is the leading character, of course, and it is her journey on which the melodrama rises or falls. We were fortunate with the very gifted Melissa Citro, a jugend-dramatisch soprano of distinction and promise. In the beginning I may have wished for a bit more Italianate temperament and warmth of sound — Menotti is a musical descendant of Puccini, after all. But I reminded myself that the demanding, wide-ranging “Paper Aria” has been co-opted by a number of dramatic sopranos. Eileen Farrell regularly included it on her recitals and Christine Brewer just recorded it. Vocally, Ms. Citro acquitted herself very well indeed, nailing all the big climactic moments like the world-class Sieglinde-in-the-wings that she is. It was arguably not her fault that she was allowed to appear a bit too robust, and sing too much on the surface to be wholly effective as such a disintegrating, imploding character.

Michael Chioldi (John ) has a richly pleasing baritone of substantial weight, but I wish he hadn’t turned the volume knob up quite so high on climactic high notes causing him to momentarily lose the center of the pitch. Leah Wool put her secure mezzo to good use in her traversal of the largely unsympathetic Secretary, although she failed to find much variety in the part even when opportunities presented themselves (and they do). David Kravitz sang competently as a rather droopy Mr. Kofner who could have taken the stage a bit more. Tenor John Easterlin enjoyed a minor triumph as The Magician, showing off a rich upper register, and flawlessly executing the myriad of entertaining magic tricks devised by Peter Samelson.

The Young American Artists again filled out the cast to good end. Jacqueline Noparstak contributed an attractive (if not yet distinctive) sound and too-cautious Italian as the Foreign Woman; Robert Kerr impressed as the Secret Police Agent with solid legato married to secure climatic high notes; Eve Gigliotti brought an interesting color and look to Vera Boronel; Valentina Fleer’s slim soprano had a shimmering clarity above the staff as Anna Gomez (and her look seemed to be channeling Penelope Cruz); and best of all, Kevin Wetzel understood and communicated every word he sang with hushed, intensely focused tone as a totally convincing Assan.

I greatly admire director Sam Helfrich, but here he did not seem to know what to do with the piece. And he was not helped by designer Andrew Lieberman’s ill-defined tiers of platforms, fluid floor plans, obstructive fences and posts, and an overall muddle of a playing space. The backstage wall, pockmarked with various doors and windows, could have been a factory or warehouse or bunker or housing project, or simply none of the above. The pair did not realize the (intriguingly) good intention of their program note which proposed to establish that the characters are inter-related in ways outside of the consul’s office. But, good intentions aside, in a piece that is all about confinement, limitation, and an unstoppable, tragic entrapment, there was no visual suggestion of this in the wide open scenic construction, nor in the confusing direction.

Kaye Voyce’s costumes attempted to be universal and from different periods, but ultimately they were not unified in their look nor character specific. Magda was greatly hindered by being attired like a clean-cut Wal-Mart shopper. Jane Cox’s competent lighting was at least utilitarian, although it, too, failed to do much to establish mood or to isolate important moments.

There was a damaging lack of chemistry between John and Magda and Mother, mostly owing to blocking that did not really arise from character motivation. Spatial relationships were confusing with the Sorel apartment expanding, shrinking, or moving at will. The Mother sings of seeing a neighbor wife clinging desperately to her husband who is being led away, but clearly is not placed in a way to be seeing them. The broken window “signal,” critical to the plot, is physically misplaced, and the actors simply ignore it.

Most problematic, Magda’s suicide (oops, sorry, now ya know!) is not only way too far upstage, but it is willfully unclear. She seems to just. . .expire. . .sitting up. . .after having oh-so-slowly torn up the damnable bureaucratic papers. Death-by-paper-cut just don’t make it here, Sam! Helfrich and company have ignored specific stage directions at their (and our) peril. Mr. Menotti understood well the melodramatic structure the piece needs. Future producers would be wise to indulge it.

A poll of my fellow B&B guests over morning repast revealed that one of them had fled after Act One and the other two followed suit at the second intermission. When a sure-fire, well-crafted piece like The Consul isn’t keeping people in their seats, especially one that is this musically excellent, it seriously deserves to be re-tooled.

James Sohre

image= image_description=L to R: Karin Mushegain as Tisbe and Jamilyn Manning-White as Clorinda [Photo by Richard Termine/Glimmerglass Opera]. product=yes product_title=Gioachino Rossini: La Cenerentola product_by=Angelina (Julie Boulianne); Don Ramiro (John Tessier); Don Magnifico (Eduardo Chama); Dandini (Keith Phares). Conductor: Joseph Colaneri. Director: Kevin Newbury. Sets: Cameron Anderson. Costumes: Jessica Jahn. Lighting: D.M. Wood. product_id=Above: L to R: Karin Mushegain as Tisbe and Jamilyn Manning-White as Clorinda [Photo by Richard Termine/Glimmerglass Opera].
Posted by james_s at 12:00 AM

August 20, 2009

Soprano Acclaimed for Wagner Roles

By Emily Langer [Washington Post, 20 April 2009]

Hildegard Behrens, 72, a German-born soprano who became one of the most acclaimed performers of Wagner’s epic operas, died Aug. 18 in a Tokyo hospital after suffering an apparent aneurysm. A former Washington area resident, she was in Japan to give a recital and master classes.

Posted by Gary at 8:03 PM

Siegfried/Götterdämmerung, Seattle Opera

By Martin Bernheimer [Financial Times, 18 August 2009]

Wagner’s Ring cycle came full circle, as it were, on Friday night, and in some ways not a cadence too soon.

Posted by Gary at 11:38 AM

August 17, 2009

Verdi: Luisa Miller

Such is the case with this Luisa Miller, staged at the Teatro la Fenice in 2006 and released by Naxos. The singers, in modern dress, perform on abstract sets dominated, for no clear reason, by photographic reproductions on flat columns. The title role is taken by Darina Takova, a hard-working singer but not a star. Her tenor, Giuseppe Sabbatini, has had some big nights in opera houses (and days in the recording studio) in his career, without ever quite establishing himself in the top rank. The rest of the cast even fewer may know of. The opera itself is not Verdi’s most consistently inspired score, though he was approaching his artistic maturity and the music always serves its dramatic purpose - as melodramatic as that may be in Salvatore Cammarano’s adaptation of a Friedrich von Schiller play. But it all comes together, under director Arnaud Bernard and conductor Maurizo Benini’s leadership (on stage and in the pit, respectively). It may not be pretty, but it’s an exciting, engaging Luisa Miller.

What director Bernard wanted from Alessandro Camera’s sets remains unclear - perhaps he simply asked for a prop-less space and had only the budget for the rudimentary backdrops that Camera provides. At least the Count’s home has more of a frame of reference, with the cool lighting (unceredited in the Naxos booklet) outlining a formal space, rather like an underpopulated hospital lobby. The first scene establishes Bernard’s style. As the chorus tries to awake the sleeping Luisa, she lies prone on the stage, with the chorus hovering over her. The vague ominousness of the image foreshadows the cruel and sad events to come, as Luisa is forced to lie and renounce her lover Rodolfo to save her father, because the Count wants his son to marry one Federica. To enforce his nefarious plan, the Count employs Wurm, portaryed with relish by the tall, glowering Arutjun Kotchinian (sene last season in San Diego Opera’s Rigoletto as Sparafucile). Kotchinian has the look, sure, but most importantly, he has the voice - a palpably dark and heavy bass. The La Fenice audience shows him its appreciation at final curtain.

They also warmly applaud Luisa’s father, handsomely sung by Damiano Salerno. All the darker voices impress: Ursula Ferri makes the most of her moments as Federica, and Alexander Vinogradov schemes impressively as the Count.

The leads get big hands too, of course. Rodolfo may be on the heavy side for Sabbatini, but at this point in his career he has the experience and colors to succeed. His act two aria, probably the score’s best known number, goes very well. Takova needs some time to warm up, and she has some challenging music in the first act. After that, she takes command. The drama of the last two acts suits her strong voice, and though she may not look like the youngest daughter the miller could have had, she gets to the heart of the role.

Maurizo Benini supplies tension and drive in the pit, and the Naxos sound - perhaps because the performance is spread over two discs - is remarkably clear and dynamic.

Some may object to the updating, and admittedly, the production can fairly be called drab. But the performance succeeds nonetheless, and as Luisa Miller doesn’t come around all that often, opera fans trying looking for some distraction this summer should check out this Naxos set.

Chris Mullins

image= imagedescription=Giuseppe Verdi: Luisa Miller

product=yes producttitle=Giuseppe Verdi: Luisa Miller productby=Luisa (Darina Takova); Rodolfo (Giuseppe Sabbatini); Il conte di Walter (Alexander Vinogradov); Miller (Damiano Salerno); Federica (Ursula Ferri); Wurm (Arutjun Kotchinian); Laura (Elisabetta Martorana); Un Contadino (Luca Favaron). Teatro La Fenice Chorus. Teatro La Fenice Orchestra. Maurizio Benini, conductor. Armaud Bernard, stage director. Alessandro Camera, set design. Filmed at the Teatro La Fenice, Venice, Italy, May 2006 productid=Naxos 2.110225 [2DVDs] price=$41.49 producturl=

Posted by chris_m at 4:55 PM

Mozart and Gluck — Mixed Results at Santa Fe

So it was with Santa Fe’s current Don Giovanni, which premiered in 2004 under the musical direction of Alan Gilbert with a stylish mise-en-scène and direction by the team of Zinn/Rader-Shieber, and a thoroughly first-rate cast.

This summer Don Giovanni is sharply different, and the problem starts with musical direction of Lawrence Renes, a young conductor from the Netherlands, who does not seem ready to conduct Mozart’s masterpiece. Success was also attenuated by a young lightweight cast, which had little chemistry as an ensemble, and few adequate voices. I am not one to linger over negatives, but some points need to be made. Renes was all motion and nervous energy on the podium, giving cues where none were needed, ignoring shape and elegance, elements that virtually define Don Giovanni. He spent much time shushing the orchestra, probably in favor of a small-voiced cast; too much energy was lost in the process. His tempo for the Champagne Aria was excellent, likewise the Act II Serenade; but like much of the rest of the score, he treated them as isolated events. Missing were both over-all sweep and sufficiently defined details of inner voices of the orchestra that create the aural excitement of this seminal Mozart. Bottom line: de-energized, boring music making, in spite of much fuss and feathers.

SantaFe_0080.gifSusanna Phillips (Donna Elvira) & Matthew Rose (Leporello)

This translated over the footlights to the stage, where little style and at times almost amateurish performances were evident. Lucas Meachem cast as a swaggering Don, did not swagger — histrionically or vocally. He has a pleasant, if mild musical comedy baritone that most of the time could not be heard; he offered minimal physical style, and little ‘edge’ for a man who likes to conquer women “just for the sake of the list,” (in Santa Fe’s translation): one was much puzzled that he was cast by Santa Fe. The same was true of the vocally lightweight, histrionically shallow Leporello of Matthew Rose, a young singer not yet suited to the big leagues, at least not on this occasion.

SantaFe_1049.gifKate Lindsey (Zerlina) and Corey McKern (Masetto)

The pretty Zerlina of Kate Lindsey was too slight of voice and something of a vamp, in a role that usually is more demure. In “Vedrai carino” she began her aria of consolation far from the battered Masetto, and slithered slowly, erotically across the wide stage, exposing and caressing her legs in what amounted to a vulgar re-seduction of her battered groom. The aria was all about her, not about comfort for him. This was likely not Lindsey’s doing — the discredit belonging to director Chas. Rader-Shieber, who seemed often inattentive to details in his revival production. It should be noted the Masetto of Corey McKern was well-enough sung and played, one of the stronger performances among lead singers.

Charles Workman was a competent Ottavio — his voice even-toned and pleasant, but as a player he was Clark Kent without benefit of telephone booth. His movements were stiff and clichéd, his two arias no more than well-routined.

SantaFe_1322.gifElza van den Heever (Donna Anna) and Charles Workman (Don Ottavio)

The news gets better with Donna Elvira and Donna Anna. Susanna Phillips is a proven good thing as a Mozart singer and she again made her marks with the opera’s most interesting character, the oft-betrayed Elvira. Phillips’ generous warm soprano easily dispatched the coloratura demands of the role, while her lyric singing was full-bodied and projected well. Perhaps not the greatest actor, she nonetheless was in the spirit of her role and commanded her music and all her scenes; most important, she could be heard! Elza van den Heever, the South African-born, San Francisco-trained ‘baby dramatic soprano’ (as she is called), turned in an intense, driven and rather unsympathetic Donna Anna — often powerful, with a hard-edged bright soprano that mined every note Mozart gave her. But the voice is dynamically uneven, swinging from loud to soft, with awkward transitions. Her tonal quality can be steely, and is rarely warm or especially attractive, yet with further refinement she could be a useful singer in the right roles, as she seems to possess good basic talent. At present van den Heever is house soprano in a major German company, an experience that may be beneficial. She is worth keeping an eye on.

Over-all the red-tinted production, which offers engaging play among many hues and tones of crimson — bright, outraged fuchsia for Elvira, black figurations with somber maroon for Anna — even red tinted trees, walls and windows, still surprises and offers favorable flow and good logistics. With improved musical direction, and a more mature cast, Santa Fe’s Don might recapture former glories.

Christophe Willibald Gluck’s 1776 French-language version of Alceste, the story of a self-sacrificing Thessalonian queen who would give her life for her husband’s, rises or falls on two factors: Dancing and strong dramatic soprano singing of the title role. Santa Fe had both.

_MG_3986.gifPaul Groves (Admète) & Christine Brewer (Alceste)

As the queen, Christine Brewer sang with powerful, often glowing tone, commanding a strong top register with unique richness in the mid and lower ranges — qualities that make an ideal voice for a part that is both feminine and heroic. As might be imagined, Alceste is not easy to portray on stage, and Gluck was not, frankly, much of a dramatist, though among the greatest of musicians and composers. Act I is largely lament for the dying king; Act II is lamentation for the dying queen, and Act III is about both, then with a happy quick ending due to the beneficent intervention of legendary strongman Hercules and the god Apollo. The story is a compound of ancient Greek myth and legends, later made into a tragedy by Euripides, then further compounded into a drama for 18th-Century audiences by Gluck’s librettist Calzabigi. It is the work of many hands and seems it. Fortunately the glorious music unifies all into a musical whole, if not dramatic success — it is simply too repetitious.

_MG_7612.gifTom Corbeil (The Infernal God)

Since Alceste is a stand-about opera, what do you do but dance! Santa Fe brought in a wizardly choreographer and solo dancer from Spain, one Ana Yepes, a tiny woman who twirls and whirls onto the stage with a troupe of seven dancers, and also some choreographed chorus members and even a dancing tenor or two, and stirs up a delightful mélange of movement, motion and gesture, representing — well, whatever you want: the divinities of Hell, the local folk observing the antics of royalty and gods, the moods of the characters and their music, even at one point a little swaying audience of dancing figures for the second verse of Alceste’s mighty defiance aria, “Divinités du Styx,” sung with thrilling power and musical accent by Mme. Brewer. Many a singer would not have allowed that distraction during her principal aria.

_MG_7548.gifChristine Brewer (Alceste), Paul Groves (Admète) & Wayne Tigges (Hercule)

What did it all look like? It is not easy to say — the Queen and her King Admète (handsome, musically stylish tenor Paul Groves), were in either stately robes or classic Greek attire; the chorus in non-descript low colored robes, save for the ones that danced who had a touch of color, and the dancers themselves in what I would call ‘comic-book gothic,’ close fitting garb, though another observer offered terms such as ‘Buck Rogers’ or ‘outer-space.’ Apollo was in gold, a bully Hercule showed a lot of skin, and stately Mme. Brewer, fortunately, kept her dignity while grieving mightily for her ailing husband in Act I, and herself in Act II. Happily in the final scene she showed us a beautiful radiant smile.

_MG_6994.gifMatthew Morris (Apollo) & Ana Yepes (Dancer)

The imaginative stage director Francisco Negrin had the audience looking into what could have been the open end of a stage-sized cornucopia, or perhaps a horn of plenty, which curved into to a vanishing point and was sometimes blue, sometimes white — impressionistic and useful as generalized background, with a large ovoid shape, cracked open in the middle and glowing red therefrom, that appeared now and then. An oracular site? The gate to Hell? Google is no help! What really counted was the emotional effect of the music and singing, and here the proponents were strong and convincing. One will not soon forget the beauty and expressivity of the dramatic soprano’s tones in her various arias; nor of the well-modulated chorus; or the orchestra’s elegant playing, so balanced and refined under conductor Kenneth Montgomery, Santa Fe’s long-time and admirable resident classicist. A beautiful, if basically boring opera, well achieved.

J. A. Van Sant © 2009

image= image_description=Lucas Meachem as Don Giovanni [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera] product=yes product_title=Mozart and Gluck — Mixed Results at Santa Fe product_by=Click here for information regarding Don Giovanni

Click here for information regarding Alceste product_id=Above: Lucas Meachem as Don Giovanni

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera
Posted by Gary at 4:45 PM

Verdi: Falstaff

For this is, according to the booklet, “Falstaff in a new version by Tony Britten,” with the director’s name in huge font and below, barely in letter-size a third as big, “based on the opera by Verdi and Boito.” But Verdi and Boito might not object, as they could fairly claim any success this film version has and shrug off its less worthy aspects. After all, that same Tony Britten not only rewrote the libretto, but reorchestrated the score for a small ensemble, as well as serving, of course, as director.

Again, this is a filmed version, with the singers moving their lips to the pre-recorded soundtrack. Britten has set the action in a suburban (or borderline rural) golf club. Sir John has planted himself at the tiny club bar, with his two “henchmen” Bardolf and Pistol at a table nearby. Fenton is the golf pro, and the housewives are dedicated to the sport. Britten’s skill with the camera and his actors makes the film initially quite entertaining. Characters are well-delineated, and the seedy ambiance of this far-lying, older sport resort suits the action well enough. Even as a librettist, while no Boito, Britten has a fine ear for matching English inflection to Verdi’s rhythm’s, and some of the updating is fairly witty (the merry wives refer to themselves as “desperate housewives”). By the time of Sir John’s first date with the ladies, however, a sort of adolescent, sniggering approach to sexuality, familiar to US viewers through, say, “The Benny Hill Show,” curdles the cream, as it were. Sir John, instead of being dumped in the river, gets dumped in a trash dump. He reappears with a soiled baby diaper stuck to his back, and then pulls the corpse of a furry varmint from his pants. Well, many people found “The Benny Hill Show” uproarious, so…to each his own soiled baby diaper.

Purists will undoubtedly object, but Britten’ reorchestration captures much of the inventive charm of Verdi’s original. A keyboard lays down the basic harmonic fabric, and a small group of chirpy winds supplies the light-hearted thrust of Verdi’s score. Only in the final credits is there a credit for music direction (Jonathan Gill). The singers, whom the director admits were chosen more for their acting ability than vocal prowess, range from decent (Ian Jervis’s Sir John, Jan Hartley’s Alice Ford) or acceptable (Julian Forsyth’s Ford, Andy Morton’s Fenton) to strained (Katie Lovell’s Nanetta, especially at her top) and hooty (Marilyn Cutt’s Miss Quickly). They all get the words across efficiently, which is good, since there are no subtitles in any language offered by the disc. Words do tend tend to blur in ensemble numbers, unsurprisingly.

The booklet has no information on the score or the musicians whatsoever, although it has room for the director to expound on both the opera and his vision of it. A tiresome “making of” documentary adds little to interest to the set.

So, this Falstaff is well-filmed, amusingly acted, and adequately sung for the most part. If Britten hadn’t resorted to the lowbrow humor, his “new version” of Verdi and Boito’s masterwork could have made itself an enjoyable “addendum.” But as said above, to those who have to hold their sides when “Are You Being Served?” comes on the telly, no such objection will interfere with the tittering.

Chris Mullins

image= imagedescription=Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff adapted by Tony Britten

product=yes producttitle=Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff adapted by Tony Britten productby=John Falstaff (Ian Jervis); Alice Ford (Jan Hartley); Francis Ford QC (Julian Forsyth); Doctor Cajus (Simon Butteriss); Bardolph: (Daniel Gillingwater); Pistol (Simon Masterton Smith); Mrs Quickly (Marilyn Cutts); Meg Page (Rosamund Shelley); Nanetta Ford (Katie Lovell); Fenton (Andy Morton). productid=Signum Vision SIGDVD001 [DVD] price=$23.49 producturl=

Posted by chris_m at 3:50 PM

And If The Song Be Worth A Smile — Songs by American Composers

Three of the six composers represented were born in the 1930s and continue to pursue their craft, while the other three are much younger (although how many knew that in just a couple years, Jake Heggie will be 50?!).

Soprano Lisa Delan delivers these songs in a bright, crisp voice, not unlike an excellent if somewhat anonymous Broadway singer (think Florence Henderson). Kritin Pankonin accompanies on piano, dealing as well with the sophisticated honky-tonk of William Bolcom’s Four Cabaret Songs as the fussy prettiness of Heggie’s Four Songs. Ms. Delan’s husband cellist Matt Haimovitz joins her in the songs of David Garner, Luna Pearl Woolf, and one of the Heggie numbers, his strong, centered tone making handsome contributions. A guest appearance by Susanne Mentzer brightens another of the Jake Heggie songs.

The songs themselves? Bolcom’s Cabaret songs find him in “popular” mode. Your reviewer would imagine that Harold Arlen’s classic work serves as the ideal here. Bolcom has the right ideas, but the texts by Arnold Weinstein are nowhere near Johnny Mercer or E. Y. Harburg in natural idiom or inventiveness. Gordon Getty composed the texts for his Poor Peter, three songs in faux-19th century folk mode, with touches of chromatic modernity in the accompaniments, more ostentation than inspiration. Delan’s top range gets stretched a bit here, not attractively.

Heggie’s Four Songs may only have a superficial beauty, but that is appealing after the Getty pieces. When Mentzer joins Delan, however, the words of Sir Philip Sydney get lost in “My true love hath my heart.” The three “American folk song” settings that follow combine preciousness with refinement. Not exactly “folky.”

An unfamilair name, David Garner, supplies three intriguing pieces set to the German poetry of Annette von Droste-Hülshoff. Garner composes for piano and cello, and his settings, in an idiom usually disparaged as “conservative,” manage to have freshness and beauty. Again here, however, Delan must reach into regions of her voice less secure.

The two pieces by John Corigliano, to ostensibly sardonic texts by Mark Adamo, mean to be witty and parodic. “Dodecaphonia” is a tiresome ballad about “Twelve-tone Rose,” in mock Raymond Chandler mode. Four and a half minutes crawl by. The ode to the I-Pod, “Marvelous Invention” goes on for 5 minutes, to no greater effect. In performance these two pieces doubtlessly prompt the sort of mirthless chuckle classical audiences emit when they realize something “humorous” is afoot.

The torpor of those pieces has nothing on the final track, composed by Luna Pearl Woolf to a Pablo Neruda poem. The “Odas de Todo el Mundo” requires over ten minutes of time, and repays the listener with several seconds of passable musical interest.

A hit-and-miss collection, then, but surely rewarding for lovers of “Songs by American Composers.”

Chris Mullins

image= imagedescription=And If The Song Be Worth A Smile — Songs by American Composers

product=yes producttitle=And If The Song Be Worth A Smile — Songs by American Composers productby=Lisa Delan with Kristin Pankonin (piano), Susanne Mentzer and Matt Haimovitz (cello) productid=Pentatone Classics PTC 5186 099 [CD] price=$19.99 producturl=

Posted by chris_m at 2:23 PM

Sir Harrison Birtwistle: Mask of Orpheus at the Proms

But Birtwistle’s early opera, “The Mask of Orpheus” isn’t narrative, but an intuitive experience. The full work has only been heard once in production, at the English National Opera in 1986. The recording on NMC was made at a concert performance some years later. At this Prom only the second Act was performed. In isolation, then, we were thrown into Orpheus’s journey in full flow. In some ways, it doesn’t matter so much that we don’t know the past or future. The act unfolds in realtime, so we’re experiencing it on its own terms. This reflects Birtwistle’s concept of different layers of time, identity and action, each operating semi-independently and in parallel.

Each persona has its shadows, Orpheus is both Alan Oke the “man” (whatever that might signify) and Thomas Walker the “myth”. Euridice is both Christine Rice the “woman” and Anna Stéphany (outstanding) as Euridice the “myth” and later Persephone, like Euridice, stolen from life by the underworld. In the original (and only) production, puppets were used, to further fragment the idea of persona. In myths, personas change. They are symbols, like images in a dream. Against these multi-faceted roles, Birtwistle juxtaposes multiple choruses, the Furies (Rachel Nicholls, Anna Dennis and Louise Poole), and the judges (Christopher Gillett, Håkan Vramsmo and Tim Mirfin) and a Greek Chorus of BBC Singers. Intricate patterns are embedded in their music too. The Furies’ and Judges’ lines waver in a rolling sequence of pitches, replicated on a wider scale by the chorus. Birtwistle is doing his puzzles and mazes thing again, his “secret geometry”.

Over the singers towers the Voice of Apollo, which Birtwistle describes as an aura. It is an invisible presence but infuses the whole opera with another, unearthly dimension, even when it can’t be heard. It’s a sound projection, created in IRCAM and here realized by Tim Dearden, who does so much of this work in London. The Voice boomed from beneath the towering dome of the Royal Albert Hall into the vast auditorium, an extraordinary use of space and physics as theatre. When the eerie Voice sounds, members of the orchestra greet it by holding up mirrors to catch light. Tiny particles of light project into the building, like extra-terrestrial fireflies. The mirrors are a pun on what’s happening in the music itself. This “mirroring” also captures the connection between Gods and mortals, between stage reality and artistic vision. Tim Hopkins’ semi-staging is intelligent, giving maximum impact with minimal effort, like myths themselves which expand in the mind though the original sources are but fragments.

Complex interrelationships suffuse the whole work. The only really distinct presence is that of Hecate, the ambiguous goddess of death and rebirth, wonderfully sung by Claron McFadden high in the orchestra loft, but even Hecate is a multiple figure, often depicted as a trinity. There are two conductors, Martyn Brabbins and Ryan Wigglesworth, for the overlapping threads in the orchestration. The small vocal choruses are echoed by the harps, mirroring the spirit of Orpheus and his lyre. The music for large chorus reflects the voice of Apollo. The semi-silent Song of Magic in the first Arch gives way to a “chorus of Hell”, a percussion ensemble that gradually dominates with noisy persistence. It adds important tension, like “reality” (whatever that means) banging on the doors of the dream. Indeed, the gradual awakening gives rise to some of the most striking passages in the whole work.

In the 15th Arch, Orpheus’s vocal line totally shatters into clipped fragments, heard against the impenetrable wail of chorus and sound projection. After a few seconds of silence it dawns on Orpheus that he isn’t going to bring Euridice out of Hades, for the forces against him are too great. All he can do is call out “Euridice!”, endlessly, extending the syllables as if making the word whole can draw her back. No wonder this is the “Arch of Ropes” where legato is broken, twined and stretched like rope: a strong image of connection, but a connection that is broken.

This is the moment Birtwistle freeze frames in The Corridor, the fifteen minute scena premiered at Aldeburgh in June 2009. It is the critical point in the whole saga. To miss its significance is to miss the whole point, which is why Birtwistle returned to it, 35 years after first embarking on his Orpheus odyssey. Indeed, “”The Corridor is “The Mask of Orpheus” condensed into sharpest focus :it is a much more powerful work than generally appreciated. Since “The Mask of Orpheus” is so difficult to stage and perhaps to follow, “The Corridor ” will stand as Birtwistle’s moment of lucid clarity.

Oke stands alone, at the top of the platform, while Apollo groans from the skies: a true moment of Greek tragedy. How amazing it must be in full production, after all the images of puppets and multiple personas, intricate musical patterns and elaborations.

The 17th Arch, the Arch of Fear is extraordinarily beautiful in its stark simplicity. Orpheus is in the “real” world again but he’s still unable to comprehend. “Did I build this stone shelter over the dark cave?” he asks. “Above my head is stone, Under my feet is rock”. Birtwistle sets the simple words with amazing cadences, leaping out of an almost staccato, half-spoken baseline. The words “rock”, “summer grass”, “stream” and “nightmares” jump outwards as if they had a life of their own. Then the Other Orpheus sings single words “Fear. Caught. Time. Lost”. Between each word, silence but for the rising sounds of the orchestra. Suddenly, this Orpheus takes off into shining lyricism: two words : “Tide moan”. Their meaning is too deep to express by rational logic.

Euridice calls Orpheus’s name, but the syllables break up, as if lost in transmission across the void that now keeps them apart. No more words. Only elusive music, possibly the Voice of Apollo. In the original, uhe plot is complicated, and Orpheus hangs himself. Here, instead, Alan Oke walks round the stage and into the audience, silently touching people on the shoulder, in an echo of the 9th Arch, the “arch of awareness. Meaning to touch”. Those who get touched in the orchestra and choir pass it on to others. This symbolizes the concept that life and death are a continuum. It also fits better with the idea that Orpheus’s spirit, which is music, lives on whenever people communicate. The suicide solution might have been an option in 1973/5 but in view of everything Birtwistle has done since then, it’s a cop-out. This new “ending” is aesthetically more satisfying.

The performance was preceded by Stravinsky’s ballet “Apollo” which was a good idea, for Apollo was Orpheus’s father, who gave him the Lyre and the gift of Music. It’s surprisngly austere Stravinsky, presaging his interest in classicism and the baroque. Not really so very different from Birtwistle, the “wild man” of British music, whose notorious image belies music of sensitivity and poise, which also harks back to early music. Apollo was preceded by Jonny Greenwood’s “!Popcorn Superhet Receiver,” which uses similar orchestration, and has the whole violin section standing to attention.

Anne Ozorio

image= image_description=Harrison Birtwistle

product=yes producttitle=Sir Harrison Birtwistle: The Mask of Orpheus
Igor Stravinsky: Apollo
Jonny Greenwood Popcorn Superhet Receiver product
by=Alan Oke (Orpheus the man), Thomas Walker (Orpheus the Myth,) Christine Rice (Euridice the woman Anna Stephany (Euridice the myth, Persephone), Claron McFadden (Hecate), Andrew Slater (Charon/Caller/Hades), Rachel Nichoills, Anna Dennis, Luoise Poole (the Furies), Chrsitopher Gillett, Håkan Vramsmo, Tim Mirfin (the Judges), Ian Dearden (Sound Projection)(, Tim Hopkins (Director), BBC Singers, Stephen Betteridge chorus master, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins, Ryan Wigglesworth (conductors)

Prom 39 Royal Albert Hall, 14th August 2009 product_id=Above: Harrison Birtwistle

Posted by anne_o at 12:41 PM

Bellini: Norma

It might even seem to be the Metropolitan Opera Norma, with James Levine conducting and Beverly Sills, Shirley Verrett, and Paul Plishka singing (tenor Enrico Di Giuseppe, born in Philadelphia, was more of a New York City Opera performer who, like Sills, also made Met appearances). However, the orchestra is the New Philharmonia, with the John Alldis Choir, and the 1973 recording dates took place in the UK. Bellini’s masterpiece can be found, unsurprisingly, in recordings with more idiomatic conviction, but for Sills’s fans, the rewards here trump any other concerns.

Sills’s characterization of the Druid priestess remains consistent right from the amazing opening scene until she joins hands with her erstwhile Roman lover Pollione and strolls into the flames. This Norma is a woman first, feminine and vulnerable behind her rage at her betrayal by Pollione. Sills does not possess the tragic grandeur of Callas, or rival Caballé for tonal beauty, or contend with Sutherland’s opulent sound (though Sills certainly has the chops for the role’s more athletic passages). To someone such as your reviewer with more respect than admiration for Sills, her Norma begins to feel underdeveloped as the opera reaches its climax - the finale is not the knock-out it should be. For her fans, however, the response will probably be very different.

Shirley Verrett’s Adalgisa does prompt both awed respect and admiration. She simply sounds gorgeous, and that makes her a formidable rival both as performer and as character. Unfortunately, both women seem to have fallen for the weak Roman tea of Enrico Di Giuseppe. Initially his lighter tone makes a pleasant impression, but the voice refuses to grow into masculine authority, and that surely drains a lot of energy from the drama. It may be an unrewarding role, but think how much Caballé gains in the famous Orange video from having Jon Vickers opposite her. Plishka’s Oroveso is competent, not much more.

The opening Sinfonia gets an aggressive treatment from Levine, with pounding fortissimos. He seems to be bullying the score, so that the martial music becomes overbearing, while the more lyrical passages provide little respite. The sound balances the orchestra and voices fairly well, with the odd result that they seem to be separate aural locations, and thus unblended.

Apparently the many fans of the soprano have anxiously awaited this first release in the CD format. They’ll be pleased, and indeed, anyone just looking for a good Norma probably won’t be disappointed. Unless, that is, later on they hear the Callas, or Caballé, or Sutherland….

Chris Mullins

image= imagedescription=Vincenzo Bellini: Norma

product=yes producttitle=Vincenzo Bellini: Norma productby=Beverly Sills; Shirley Verrett; Enrico di Giuseppe; Paul Plishka. John Alldis Choir. New Philharmonia Orchestra. James Levine, conducting. productid=Deutsche Grammophon 00289 477 8186 [2CDs] price=$18.97 producturl=

Posted by chris_m at 11:29 AM

August 11, 2009

Seattle to mount new “Tristan” in 2010

Sweden’s Annalena Persson will make her American debut as Isolde; Clifton Forbis will sing Tristan. Peter Kazaris, long a favorite Seattle tenor and now director of SO youth programs, will direct the production designed by Robert Israel. It is the first collaboration for the two artists.

Israel’s Asher Fisch, SO principal guest conductor, will be on the podium when the staging premiers in Marion Oliver McCaw Hall here on July 31, 20l0. Six further are slated through August 21. Others in the cast have sung leading roles in the current SO production of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen.

Greer Grimsley, its Wotan, will sing Kurwenal, and Margaret Jane Wray, Sieglinde and Third Norn, will appear as Brangäne. Stephen Milling, Fasold and Hunding in 2001 and 2005, returns as King Marke. Announcement of the new Tristan was made by SO general director Speight Jenkins on August 9, opening day of the first of three Ring cycles of the summer.

Wes Blomster

image= image_description=Annalena Persson as Isolde [Bilder ur föreställningen © Alexander Kenney / Kungliga Operan]

product=yes producttitle=Seattle to mount new “Tristan” in 2010 productby=Above: Annalena Persson as Isolde [Bilder ur föreställningen © Alexander Kenney / Kungliga Operan]

Posted by Gary at 2:34 PM

August 10, 2009

Opera being composed on Twitter

[BBC News, 10 August 2009]

The Royal Opera House is to stage an opera created through social networking site Twitter.

Members of the public have been invited to submit their “tweets” online - messages of up to 140 characters - which will form the new libretto.

Posted by Gary at 2:50 PM

August 9, 2009

Monteverdi: L’incoronozione di Poppea

Early baroque opera is always a challenge for the producing company since the musical language, artistic conventions, and vocal tessituras are so far removed from modern day practices. L’incoronazione di Poppea, ups the ante by portraying the Emperor Nero, one of history’s most barbaric tyrants, in a somewhat positive light, which, most likely was meant to be understood by its original audience as symbolic of the northern Italian disdain for Roman corruption and decadence.

Busenello’s libretto is largely based on Seutonius’ The Twelve Caesars and begins with a debate among Fortune, Virtue, and Amore as to who is the most powerful. Director Robert Carsen stages this Prologue as though Virtue and Fortune are actually members of the Glyndebourne Festival audience and even has the action begin in the pit and in English before quickly transitioning to the stage and the Italian. This works most effectively because it reinforces the idea that the action to take place hence is an opera-within-an-opera.

The action of the opera basically follows the parameters of the Aristotelian unities. Within approximately 24 hours Nero will exile his wife Ottavia, make Poppea his new empress, condemn his disapproving tutor Seneca to death by suicide, all the while showing kingly magnanimity to Ottone (Poppea’s former lover and would-be assassin [at the behest of Ottavia]) and Drusilla, the once and future lover of Ottone. By opera’s end, Amore has thoroughly triumphed over Virtue and Fortune. This triumph, however, is short-lived, as the historical record shows that within a year after the end of the action in the opera Nero kicked to death the then-pregnant Poppea.

The staging of the opera in large part mitigates the dramatic difficulties that the work presents. Taking advantage of the limited space of the Glyndebourne stage, the sets are minimal and easily flow from one scene to the next. Since a great deal of the action takes place in the boudoir, bed sheets become gowns. Although the staging abandons authentic Roman-era verisimilitude, the visual effect is one of an otherworldly milieu, not a vulgar deconstruction of the baroque. Indeed, the creative minds behind this staging are to be commended for not succumbing to the fashionable kitsch of Regieoper. Their emendations and interpolations are few and help to enhance the musical and dramatic effects of the opera.

Particularly satisfying was the choice not to sacrifice musical integrity for visual effect. Rather than transpose the opera to accommodate modern tessituras, singers were selected for the appropriateness of their voice, rather than gender. As such, this staging employs counter-tenors (Ottone), females performing male roles (Nerone), and males performing female roles (Arnalta). This is done, however, not for the sake of gratuitous gender bending, but to allow for the experience of authentic baroque vocal ranges.

Soprano Danielle de Niese’s performance in the title role is musically, dramatically and visually spot on. As a musical actress, de Niese is believable even in love scenes with Alice Coote’s Nerone. Also impressive are counter-tenor Iestyn Davies in the role of Ottone and bass Paolo Battaglia as Seneca. Although it is a secondary and somewhat thankless role, Tamara Mumford performed admirably as Ottavia, particularly in her Act I rage aria “Disprezzata regina.”

Conductor Emmanuelle Haïm directed from the keyboard and displayed a spontaneity and musicality that is often lacking in baroque opera. Her approach is authentic performance for the sake of musicality rather than authenticity for authenticity’s sake. In her hands, the performance was alive and was fully in synch with the drama and rhetoric of the libretto, as one would expect in a performance of a work by the creator of the secunda prattica.

This DVD has several additional features that are quite good, including a brief history of the Glyndebourne Festival, interviews with the creative team, and retrospectives of the 1962 and 1984 Glyndebourne stagings of Poppea. All in all, this is an excellent DVD that will be satisfying to both devotees of Monteverdi and baroque opera as well as those who are experiencing the genre for the first time.

William E. Grim

image= image_description=Claudio Monteverdi, L’incoronozione di Poppea product=yes product_title=Claudio Monteverdi, L’incoronozione di Poppea product_by=Poppea: Danielle de Niese; Nerone: Alice Coote; Ottone: Iestyn Davies; Arnalta: Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke; Ottavia: Tamara Mumford; Seneca: Paolo Battaglia; Amore: Amy Freston. Emmanuelle Haïm conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Glyndebourne Chorus. Stage Director: Robert Carsen. Libretto by Giovanni Busenello. DVD of live performance at Glyndebourne Festival, June 2008 product_id=Decca 074 3339 [DVD] price=$21.97 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 12:00 AM

Semiramide at Caramoor

These folks must warble to make all the racket worthwhile. The doubt about the proper number involves the tenor, whose runs, divisions, ornaments, floating lines are equal in difficulty to those of the soprano, the mezzo and the bass, but who is incidental to the plot — remember the plot? As the opera contains nearly four hours of music, it is rare to hear it unsnipped, and the tenor part — two major double arias — is where most producers start snipping.

Semiramide is an opera with everything: spectacular solos, awesome duets, intense ensembles, earthquakes, prophecies, ghosts, incest, insanity, coronations, murder in the dark — well, almost everything: In deference to Mesopotamian weather patterns, this is the rare Rossini opera without a thunderstorm. At Caramoor we very nearly got one anyway — it was a dark and stormy day. At intermission, I had to warn people to turn off their frogs. Frogs can’t resist a cabaletta — in the right throat, cabalettas sound like mating cries.

Sutherland and Horne used to make rather a vehicle-à-deux of this piece — the fraught Semiramide-Arsace relationship is the center of the drama — but the basso villain, Assur, who sings big duets with each of them as well as a coloratura mad scene, should be able to rattle away on their level. Sadly, Samuel Ramey, the first bass in modern times up to Sutherland-Horne bel canto speed, did not assume the role until after Sutherland had renounced it, but he made a memorable antagonist for Caballé and Anderson, when they were singing the title role, and Arsace belonged to Horne well into the ’90s. Today, Rossini technique is more widely studied — have the new crop of singers the chops, the musicality, the endurance to bring this exotic piece to life? The man who would know, methinks, is Will Crutchfield, and last week he led a very grand concert performance of damn near the whole score in Philip Gossett’s critical edition, in the Venetian theater at the Caramoor Summer Festival some forty miles north of New York.

The Semiramis legend, alas, has faded from the popular consciousness, perhaps because Gina Lollabrigida (who had the ideal maternal quality) never made a major Technicolor picture of it. In Rome’s Capitoline Museum, generally ignored in a long gallery of late Renaissance bric-a-brac, hang seven tapestries depicting the queen’s life and career. We see her, a foundling of unknown (perhaps divine) birth, nursed by doves; noticed (while leading an attack on Bactra) by King Ninus, eponym of Nineveh, who falls in love at first sight; sacrificing to Baal upon her husband’s death and her succession to his contested throne; building the Walls of Babylon; leading her armies to conquer Abyssinia or India; hunting tigers in the Pamirs (or wherever); and at last, her power broken by the appearance of her long-lost son, Ninias, the true heir, taking flight with the doves and vanishing among the clouds. It’s a glorious load of gilt-edged bushwah (the real Samu-ramat was simply queen regent of Assyria for a few years), and it’s a pity her story is forgotten, when once she held her own with such semi-mythical exotics as the Queen of Sheba, Cleopatra, King Arthur, Agamemnon and Roland.

Semiramis.gifSemiramis Receiving Word of the Revolt of Babylon 1624 by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, 1591-1666) [Museum of Fine Arts, Boston]

Voltaire, whose tragedies are only remembered now, if at all, as opera libretti, wrote his Semiramis, Rossini’s source, on themes purloined from Clytemnestra and Orestes: The queen has usurped the throne of her poisoned husband. After a successful reign, she yields to popular demand for a new king, choosing Arsace, a Scythian warrior far her junior — and offering him her hand. Before the misalliance can take place, the ghost of vengeful King Ninus interferes. It turns out Arsace is the long-lost Ninias, Semiramis’s son — and that Ninus was murdered by his wife and her then lover, Assur, prince and claimant to the throne. Complicating matters slightly, Assur, Arsace and an intrusive Indian prince named Idreno (that damned tenor) are all in love with Azema, a princess with surprisingly little to sing. Arsace lunges for Assur in the dark, kills Semiramis instead, and in this horrified state of mind is hailed by an exultant chorus as the king of Babylon. Irony intended. (Running time, uncut: roughly four hours.)

Semiramide calls for a dramatic soprano of range and power as well as endless breath control and virtuoso singing — stars like Patti and Melba long kept the piece alive, but even they worked it best when there was a spectacular mezzo as Arsace — a trouser role — to match them. Assur is a coloratura bass, Idreno a coloratura tenor, and the High Priest, Oroë, too, has some choice warbling to do in ensembles. The chorus parts are by no means negligible — Crutchfield’s forces were small but elegantly persuasive — and the orchestra is, for Italy in 1823, sizable and virtuosic. The overture is the best-known piece in the score, Rossini’s most elaborate treatment of themes from an opera as prelude and character portrait to date, only surpassed six years later in his last opera, William Tell. On the present occasion, heavy humidity did not some damage to timbre, the drums often out of balance or tune, the lyrical explosions of horn, bassoon, clarinet in generally decent form.

But you want to know about the singing of the four stars, don’t you? In fact, that’s the only thing you want to hear about, eh? Okay, here’s the report: Sutherland, Horne and Ramey they weren’t. But today they don’t need to be to put the opera over, and there were long stretches of delirious, generally excellent vocalism. They were cool at their work, and even showed signs of knowing what characters and situations they were playing. Everyone knew what Rossini was about, and was eager to show off what they knew. A lot of why we come to bel canto is to hear people show off, and they had all assimilated that. The only thing I seriously missed in the barrage of rapid-fire passagework from all hands was a genuine musical trill — there was no such thing all night, from anyone, which disappointed those who learned this score from the Sutherland-Horne recordings. Bel canto singers used to focus on their trills; perhaps they no longer bother.

semiramide2.gifSemiramide costruisce Babilonia by Edgar Degas [Museo d'Orsay]

Angela Meade is a young so-called dramatic coloratura — perhaps too young for some of the roles she is rushing into. At her Met debut — just last year — a last-minute substitution in Ernani, she seemed talented but mostly prudent, not risking anything in the first act or two in the way of volume or involvement so that she could be sure of having both for the concluding trio that pricked up the ears. It was a good substitution but not what an Elvira ought to be.

As the scheduled diva, in a major role like Semiramide, she still had problems warming to the task, the voice almost inaudible for the two quartets and uneven in her sortita, the famous “Bel raggio lusinghier”: sometimes a clear, lustrous phrase, sometimes a muddy one. The first duet, “Serbami ognor,” was also cautious, but by the time of the great Coronation-Apparition Scene where Semiramis must be seen — and heard — to command the court, the populace, the entire natural world — so that her terror when the ghost shows up is all the more striking — she was fully in charge, tossing phrases of good size and cool beauty through the crowd. Her duets in Act II were also lovely, very well supported. There were moments of sheer vocal gelato when Meade was singing circular arpeggios — up and then down and then up again — while Vivica Genaux harmonized with perfectly judged triplets against each of Meade’s swift, beautiful notes. It is easy to see why bel canto lovers like Crutchfield adore Meade’s voice, but she will have to work on getting into gear sooner and staying there. She may or may not have a major talent, but she is certainly not ready for the big roles.

Genaux, looking awfully pretty and not the least bit masculine, gave, as Arsace, the most finished performance of the evening, sounding remarkably like Marilyn Horne — not because she sang Horne’s music or in a similar style, but because of a striking similarity of timbre. If anything, Genaux has a richer, less reedy texture to her instrument. Those sitting close might be distracted by the wobbles of her lips during passagework (this may be problematic on video performances), but no one hearing the spectacular effects this habit gives rise to will have any objection to it. She was accomplished, smooth, elegant, indefatigable, warmly in character: the evening’s star — though some regretted the absence of masculine grit in the Horne or Podles manner.

Daniel Mobbs, the wicked Assur, displayed the least impressive instrument of the quartet, a voice without attractive colors, dry and, in the lower reaches, sometimes flat. The expansive threat that Ramey used to bring to the role was not here, nor the stage-grabbing hamminess appropriate to the mad scene. He is an able singer with impressive ease in passagework, but not a producer of fireworks; the adversarial duets lacked thrill.

Lawrence Brownlee had the thankless role of Idreno — but thankless it wasn’t on this occasion, as his arias were met with joy. Brownlee has rapidly become a favorite with American bel canto audiences, our homegrown lirico to set against Florez and Banks, and he tossed his smallish, pretty, plangent voice with total security up and down a very broad range (and very quickly, too), occasionally rising to some sizable and solid high notes where the other stars tended to duck them — probably because they are a modern stylistic whim. Brownlee also acted stern and displeased — suiting Idreno’s role of odd man out — which can’t have been easy considering the audience reaction he was getting.

Despite the rain and the trip and the frogs and the heat, this was a performance to remind us all what fun Semiramide can be, and should be, in the proper hands — and throats. Ending just before midnight, the end didn’t come too soon — but I think most of us were sorry it was a one-shot, that we could not go back later in the week to compare another such performance.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=A Babilonia by Cesare Saccaggi (1905) product=yes product_title=Gioachino Rossini: Semiramide product_by=Semiramide: Angela Meade; Arsace: Vivica Genaux; Idreno: Lawrence Brownlee; Assur: Daniel Mobbs. Bel Canto at Caramoor, Orchestra of St. Luke’s conducted by Will Crutchfield, performance of July 31. product_id=Above: A Babilonia by Cesare Saccaggi (1905)
Posted by Gary at 12:00 AM

August 7, 2009

Discovering Masterpieces of Classical Music — Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra

As with the other DVDs in this series, the contents of the disc are divided between an analysis of the work as its “Documentary” and a film of a performance of the work, and this combination makes the release particularly useful as a teaching tool. To the credit of Günter Atteln, who was responsible for it, the documentary nicely allows historical background to intersect with a description of the music. More than that, the use of iconography helps to give a concrete image of the composer and that is a fine springboard for the interviews with the conductor Pierre Boulez.

Going further, it is useful to have the musical passages illustrated at times with images of the notation, so that students who view the documentary can have some reinforcement of the connections between written music and audible sound it represents. This demonstrates the well considered presentation behind the series, which extends further into the well-written script, inviting narration, and fine pacing. Moreover, through its focus and concision, the documentation on Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra serves the work well through the balance it offers on biography, analysis, and cultural elements.

Moreover, it is useful for audiences to hear the esteemed composer and conductor Pierre Boulez interviewed apart from his presence on the podium for the performance of the work. Boulez’s authoritative voice demonstrates his fluency in German, and the subtitles are a solid way for audiences unfamiliar with that language to apprehend his comments without the artifice of dubbing or other such means. As such, the interspersing of the female narrative speaking idiomatic British English with the continental Boulez commenting in German also contributes a nice variety to the spoken work in that part of the DVD.

As to the performance itself, the concert of the Berlin Philharmonic was given at the Mosteiro des Jerónimos, Lisbon on 1 May 2003. This monastery provides a picturesque background for the performance with its soaring, Gothic arches giving a sense of spaciousness to the concert. The acoustics in this performance space serve the work well, with its clean resonance for the burnished sound of the Berlin Philharmonic. In fact, the performance itself is one which deserves attention its own merits, as a relatively rare presentation of this work on DVD. The apse of the monastery allows for some excellent sightlines for capturing Boulez’s conducting well, and the lighting allows for some fine shots of the orchestra which avoid the glare which sometimes occurs in films of concerts on stage. At the same time, the position of the orchestra and conductor on almost the same visual plane as the audience adds a further level of accessibility to audiences who may be less familiar with this work or other examples of concert music.

The visual images are clear and immediate, the sound rich and full. With subtitles available in French, German, English, and Spanish, it should be possible for people in various Western countries to enjoy this DVD. In addition, the booklet accompanying the DVD contains a brief essay by Wolfgang Stähr, along with a pithy timeline of Bartók’s career, and a glossary of musical terms in German, French and English. (For the latter, a three-volume alignment would have been useful for teaching purposes.) All in all, it is a welcome addition to the series and a fine tribute to one of the masterworks of Bartók. Such an introduction would allow new audiences to delve more deeply into the Concerto for Orchestra. From here it would not be difficult for those interested to move to other music by Bartók, including such fine works for the stage as the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin or the opera Bluebeard’s Castle.

James L. Zychowicz

image= imagedescription=Discovering Masterpieces of Classical Music: Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra — Introduction and Performance

product=yes producttitle=Discovering Masterpieces of Classical Music — Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra productby=Berliner Philharmoniker. Pierre Boulez, conductor.
Recorded live at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, 1 May 2003. productid=EuroArts 2056098 [DVD] price=$19.99 producturl=

Posted by jim_z at 12:48 PM

Donizetti: L'Elisir d'amore

The singers delivery professional performances, and rising conductor Edward Gardner treats Donizetti’s score to an energetic, vibrant workover. The greatest impression and delight, however, comes from Pelly’s cinematic detail and his natural, inspired work with the leads and chorus. This DVD could become a textbook chapter on how to make singers live in their characters whether singing or not, while supplying a stage picture that captures the attention without fussy activity or distractions. Possessing charm and sensitivity, and fantasy and realism, Pelly’s L’Elisir d’amore makes for a very fine show.

Pelly updates the action to a farm town sometime in the mid-20th century. With the two strawberry-haired American leads, Paul Groves and Heidi Grant Murphy, we might almost be in Kansas, Dorothy - especially with all the haystacks, a mountain of which feature in the opening and closing scenes. However, the language on the buildings and vehicles remains Italian. Pelly designed the costume himself, favoring simple print dresses for the ladies and keeping Groves’s Nemorino in worn khakis and a stained striped t-shirt throughout. In the warm aura provided by Jöel Adam’s lighting, the sets of Chantal Thomas appear real, lived-in.

Wearing a perpetually stupefied look on his wide face, Groves plays Nemorino as none-too-bright, as the libretto demands, and yet so sweet and lovestruck that Adina’s eventual turn toward him and away from the strutting bantam rooster of Laurent Naouri’s Belcore makes perfect sense. Adina doesn’t have a lot of choices in men, and maybe that’s why Pelly has her isolate herself, seeking refuge in the mammoth haystack pile to read her book under the shade of an umbrella. Grant Murphy doesn’t play it cute - her Adina has an edge, and surely part of Nemorino’s attraction stems from a realization that he will need a strong woman by his side. As usually happens, scenes get stolen by the singer portraying Dulcamara, the traveling salesman who provides the title libation that gives Nemorino the liquid fortification to proclaim his love for Adina. Ambrogio Maestri is a big man with a wonderfully supple comic face. His adipose-rich bass voice makes for the performance’s best singing.

Naouri barks a bit too much as Belcore, and neither Groves or Grant Murphy have the most alluring of voices. Groves has reached a point where the freshness of his lyric voice has been supplanted by volume. As a result, “Una furtiva lagrima” is not the showstopper it usually is. Grant Murphy also seems to be relying on projection more than agility to make her points.

At curtain call, perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest hand goes to young conductor Edward Gardner, who has led the forces of the Paris Opera with such tyro enthusiasm.

Donizetti and librettist Felice Romani’s work can be swamped by too much comic invention, and it can also seem too slight in an unimaginative traditional production. Pelly gets it right - the humor, the humanity, the heat. Recommended.

Chris Mullins

image= imagedescription=Gaetano Donizetti: L’Elisir d’amore

product=yes producttitle=Gaetano Donizetti: L’Elisir d’amore productby=Aleksandra Zamojska, Laurent Naouri, Paul Groves, Heidi Grant Murphy, Ambrogio Maestri. Paris Opera Chorus, Paris Opera Orchestra. Edward Gardner, conducting. productid=Bel Air Classiques BAC040 [DVD] price=$42.49 producturl=

Posted by chris_m at 11:11 AM

August 6, 2009

On deception at Sferisterio Festival, Macerata, Italy

Derived from the Spanish word engañar (to deceive), inganno (deception) is presented by new productions of Don Giovanni, Madama Butterfly and La traviata, by the world premiere of Matteo D’Amico ‘s Le Malentendu,by Handel’s oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo sul disanganno and by Ugo Betti’s play Corruzione al Palazzo di Giustizia.

The production of Don Giovanni was specifically designed for the Teatro Lauro Rossi, a 400-seat gem from the 17th century. Staging is simple: two black walls, three large Plexiglas mirrors and an oversized white bed. Two of the mirrors are placed so that the theater’s boxes and loggione become an integral part of the scene. The third mirror is suspended from above showing the stage and bed. The metaphor is clear: sexual drive animates the protagonist and lives in all the other characters, but it is also a motor to deceiving, and cheating on, one another. However, this choice is not meant to narrow everything down to sex and to the cheating and deception involving sex. Don Giovanni’s tragedy descend from his determination to achieve happiness and power only through deceiving and cheating by the means of sex, irrespective of how this is obtained . This staging requires young, handsome and athletic singers with, of course, excellent voices and experience.

Pier Luigi Pizzi’s direction demands, literally, an acrobatic performance for many singers but acting was always of very high quality. The singers chosen for the production are all accustomed to large theatres in Italy and abroad (e.g., La Scala and the Met) and not to a small theater such as the Teatro Lauro Rossi. As a consequence, they sang too loudly. A stentoreous Ildebrando D'Arcangelo (Don Giovanni) and a stubbornly passionate Carmela Remigio (Donna Elvera) were the stars. Both had perfect vocalisation and diction. Myrtò Papatanasiu (Donna Anna) tended to scream such that her diction was not understandable. Marlin Miller (Don Ottavio) had difficulties with the upper range. The remaining performers were good but not excellent. The music director, Riccardo Frizza, should have provided suitable guidance in establishing a proper balance. In addition, his conducting was deficient because of the lack of pathos and of the uncertain tempi throughout the performance.

Don-Giovanni_Macerata_Ildeb.gifScene from Don Giovanni

In the second opera in this series, Madama Butterfly, Pinkerton deceives little Butterfly by not taking his wedding vows seriously, by abandoning Butterfly and by subsequently marrying Kate. Performed at the open-air Arena Sferisterio di Macerata, Daniele Callegari, conducting the Orchestra Regionale delle Marche (the same orchestra as in Don Giovanni), evoked a remarkably better musical experience. We feel the subtleties of Puccini’s score (the familiar 1906 Opéra Comique version): from the Japanese folk melodies to the enthralling lyricism; from the matter of fact conversational pieces to the tragic denouement. The Coro Lirico Marchigiano “Vincenzo Bellini”, under the direction of David Crescenzi, ingeniously appear in Act II as a long procession on the 130-meter stage.

The sets and direction propose a “visionnaire” Japan – inspired by Pierre Loti’s blend of narrative and travelog. In front of the enormous wall of the Sferisterio is Butterfly’s white, spotless little house in a garden adorned by a cherry tree. By Act II, the verdant garden is transformed into a barren landscape. The widely-acclaimed Raffaella Angeletti performed the title role. Despite her petite physique, she possesses a powerful, yet delicate voice. She easily traverses the tonal range demanded by the role, her legato and phrasing being particularly noteworthy. Massimiliano Pisapia performed a credible Pinkerton with a generous tenor voice supported by a clear timbre. Although he is technically a “tenore spinto”, he has an excellent register particularly in the central tonalities. Claudio Sgura (Sharpless) and Annunziata Vestri (Suzuki) are deserving praise for their performances.

Madama-Butterfly_Macerata.gifScene from Madama Butterfly

The 61-year old Mariella Devia appeared as the protagonist in this production of La traviata, a role portraying a youngish consumptive. Nonetheless, she was magnificent, without the slightest sign of fatigue. She turned from bel canto in the first act, to hectic realism in the second act and to the pale voice of the third act. Alejandro Roy was an effective Alfredo with a big voice displaying good phrasing and a remarkable flexibility in the upper extension. On the other hand, the trim, athletic Gabriele Viviani was barely credible as Alfredo’s father, especially in the dramatic scene and concertato at the end of the second act.

Traviata_Devia-Roy.gifScene from La traviata

Violetta is on stage during the overture where the opera seemingly unfolds as a long flash back of the dying protagonist’s life. Her guests resemble ghosts. At the insistence of censors, the opera was originally set in and around Paris circa 1700. This production is set in Paris circa 1880-1890 (the Third Republic) not 1853 (the Second Empire) when the work was first performed. We smell the perfume (and the opium) of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past). It is not a realistic staging. For example, in the second act, Flora’s guests wore their large hats throughout the party—a symbol of the strong conventions of the upper class of the Third Republic. But this was not the custom at that time. Mariotti’s musical direction kept a good balance between the pit and the stage. It was effective, innovative and passionate in the first act overture and in the third act prelude. The remainder of the performance, however, was merely ordinary. Overall, this was not a noteworthy production or performance.

Giuseppe Pennisi –based on the July 23rd, 24th and 25th performances.

image= image_description=Madama Butterfly [Photo by Foto TABOCCHINI courtesy of Sferisterio Opera Festival] product=yes product_title=Sferisterio Opera Festival product_by=Click here for program and cast information product_id=Above: Madama Butterfly

All photos by Foto TABOCCHINI courtesy of Sferisterio Opera Festival
Posted by Gary at 5:10 PM

August 5, 2009

Undeniable Influence

By Barrymore Laurence Scherer [WSJ, 5 August 2009]

The Bard Music Festival in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., which begins its 20th season in mid-August, no longer needs an introduction. Under the provocative guidance of the conductor-scholar Leon ­Botstein, it has long been one of the most intellectually stimulating of all American summer festivals and frequently is one of the most musically satisfying. Each year, through discussions by major scholars and illustrative concerts often programmed to overflowing, Bard audiences have investigated the oeuvre of a major composer in the context of the society, politics, literature, art and music of his times. This year, Bard will turn its ­attention to Richard Wagner, whose towering music dramas are among the most influential and popular works in the operatic literature.

Posted by Gary at 4:11 PM

Les Huguenots at Bard SummerScape 2009

On those rare occasions, to be sure, when it is ever given. (The last New York performance — a wonderful concert by the Opera Orchestra of New York — took place in 2001; the last New York professional staging was in 1915.) But if you must do it, why stage it? Or anything else by Giacomo Meyerbeer? Isn’t he elephantine, dramatically chaotic, insanely expensive to produce, musically absurd? Isn’t he the guy Wagner despised — even more than he despised anyone better paid than he was? And who but wry, witty Leon Botstein of Bard and the American Symphony Orchestra would stage Les Huguenots as the centerpiece of a colloquium on the influences on, and of, Richard Wagner?

You don’t hear this sort of thing, this casual contempt, from all sides (especially not from those who have actually attended a Meyerbeer opera), but you do hear it. “I can’t go to Les Huguenots,” one Wagnerite friend told me — “the Meister would not like it.” Joe Volpe, who gave the Met trash like Sly and Cyrano, operas that were never popular anywhere, had a fixed prejudice against the composer of the first piece ever to achieve one thousand performances at the Paris Opéra. (That work was Les Huguenots, by the way.) Meyerbeer is usually just … dismissed. It is rare (and, I think, thrilling) to hear one of his airs in an opera audition or recital program — for no one at the dawn of the era of grand opera knew better than he how to display the virtuoso voice to advantage, often in unlikely combination with an obbligato instrument or two — basso profundo and piccolo, anyone? (That’s from Les Huguenots, too.)

But how could operas popular throughout the world for almost a hundred years not be worth hearing? How could they not appeal to audiences whose ears are, to an extent, what the nineteenth century made of them? After each of the four professional live performances of Les Huguenots that I’ve attended, people on every side were saying, “This is such an exciting opera! Why do we never hear it? Is his other music as good?” or words to that effect. They say this even before the end, usually, because these works are long and uneven, and the end often arrives after pleasure capacity has reached overload. Meyerbeer’s works are much of a muchness, and his habit of tossing in afterthoughts at the request of new singers does not render them less unwieldy. On the present occasion, there was tremendous interest — a couple of the Bard performances were sold out.

Huguenots_Deveria.gifScene from "The Huguenots" by Giacomo Meyerbeer by Achille Deveria [Boston Harbor Museum]

Botstein says Parsifal is slightly longer than Les Huguenots, but Parsifal doesn’t feel as long — Wagner knew how to do much more with far less melodic material, partly because he had Meyerbeer’s example to teach him what pitfalls to avoid: Keep the story tightly focused, and don’t dissipate musical energy by pausing between numbers — in fact, do away with individual numbers — that was the Wagnerian revelation.

Huguenots can be draining if untrimmed. It is usually trimmed — in Berlin in 1988, they dropped Act III and a great deal else, permitting Pilar Lorengar to sing Valentine, a role otherwise beyond her powers. At Bard’s Summerscape this year Botstein was determined to present all of it, or very nearly. A ballet or two may have gone missing between scenes of mass murder.

Mass murder, yes. Les Huguenots follows the grand opera plan concocted by master librettist Eugène Scribe, the dramatic style later utilized by Hollywood films of setting the romantic problems of a few tormented “little people” against the throes of some historical convulsion. Without Scribe there would have been no D.W. Griffith or Cecil B. De Mille. But for Meyerbeer, the drama was subservient to musical requirements — each major singer needed a major solo to establish character and a duet or two to confront others, and where De Mille could cut away to scenery or a bit of local color, opera has dance, ritual, daily activity set to music in some sensational way. (Les Huguenots contains a notorious “bathing” scene in an onstage pool.)

Marguerite_de_Valois_Clouet.gifMarguerite de Valois, dite La reine Margot by François Clouet (1572) [Bibliothèque nationale de France]

Les Huguenots concerns the agonies of a fictitious love triangle set against the St. Bartholemew’s Day Massacre of several thousand Protestants (Huguenots, in France) by the Catholics of Paris in 1572. There is one historical figure, Marguerite de Valois, sister of King Charles IX, whose marriage to the Protestant king of Navarre was the occasion for the bloodshed, an incident of the wars of the Reformation that ripped Europe apart for two centuries. Having endured that — and having realized that God just didn’t care who won — created the sentiment for religious toleration that is one of the happiest triumphs of Western civilization. The story of vicious wars among Frenchmen was, by 1836, exemplary: How far we’ve come! Thank heavens nothing like that could happen again! — or so Meyerbeer’s audience could tell themselves. Meyerbeer himself, a Jew from Berlin, mercifully died in 1864. Today, who can doubt that this tale of well-intentioned people trying to avert horror only to be destroyed by it in the end is relevant? As we know after the Holocaust, no nation is so civilized it cannot descend to barbarity.

The other reason, I believe, that Les Huguenots scares producers even more than other large-scale Meyerbeer operas, is its reputation, dreamed up by a Met press agent, as the “Night of Seven Stars” — you cannot put it on unless you have seven leading singers of spectacular attainment, plus a dozen capable minor ones. This is not quite true. While Meyerbeer wrote in a way that allowed singers of abnormal ability to show off their best shots, none of the seven lead parts is murderously long or difficult except those of Raoul and Marcel. Marcel, the gruff soldier whose voice plumbs the depths to affirm his bedrock Puritanism, sings a great warlike display piece (with piccolo) in “Piff! Paff! Pouf!” (that’s the sound of bullets shooting Catholics), a duet with Valentine, a trio in a besieged church, and he should be heard in ensembles, but it won’t kill any singer who has those low notes.

Raoul is another matter — a heroic but lyric tenor (Wagner imitated him with the far more unsingable Tannhauser) who must be romantic, flirtatious, outraged, stalwart and devout t by swift turns — and who must sing something important in each of the five acts. You can’t do Huguenots without a strong Raoul — don’t even think of it. Marcello Giordani boosted his career to the A-list by taking on Raoul in several productions.

In contrast, the Queen in this opera is a lesser figure (Valentine is the heroine) — Marguerite sings an enormous coloratura showpiece on her entrance in Act II, tossing out Es and Fs, but thereafter she barely appears — she can go rest her tonsils or change costume. The part is therefore a favorite with aging ladies who have kept a bit of top. I once heard Sills surf through it at length and with ease; Joan Sutherland, who had done it at La Scala (on horseback no less) at 35, could still sing it respectably a quarter century later in her final stage appearance.

Valentine, however, calls for a strong lyric soprano or a high mezzo, capable of matching the ardors of her Raoul. Urbain is a display role for mezzo-in-trousers, a high mezzo at that. Meyerbeer tailored his roles closely to unique singers, so that they sometimes fit awkwardly on ordinary ones; it is another reason why he was agreeable to writing new showpieces for new performers.

Then there’s a baritone, the Comte de Nevers, a suave French man-about-town who says no to friends plotting massacre. The Comte de St.-Bris is a caricature bass villain, needed for the curtain shocker: he has just slain three “Huguenots,” only to discover one is Valentine — his only child. Yes, Verdi knew this opera when he wrote Rigolettoeverybody knew this opera.

So: Les Huguenots is a crowd-pleaser, an erstwhile blockbuster hit, influenced everyone and has a story relevant to today’s headlines. It should be performed — with judicious snippage perhaps (because the music is of variable quality). Now, how did they do at Bard? To my surprise, surprisingly well — I’d give it a six and a half out of seven possible stars.

Michael Spyres has a lovely, liquid tenor, all honey for love duets and some metal for cries of outraged honor. His voice may not be large enough to sing this lyric but very long role in a major house — no way to be sure at Bard, where the Sosnoff Theater seats 900 — but it held up, remaining beautiful and on pitch well into Act V. You can’t do a Huguenots without a Raoul, and Bard had a winning Raoul.

Erin Morley sang the Queen, encumbered by preposterous costumes in gunmetal gray as if to emphasize her equivocal politics. She has a large, agile, clear soprano — no canary she, but then Meyerbeer knew how to spare his singers a fight with full orchestra — and her highly ornamented scene (rising to brilliant high F’s) was most gratifying. Alexandra Deshorties sang Valentine with supple phrasing and inexhaustible spirit. I have occasionally had the sense that this singer’s sizable instrument has a mind of its own, not fully under the singer’s control; there was little sign of that here. She can cut through a whole Meyerbeerian cast and chorus when necessary (as the only woman present — horrified — during the Oath of the Swords) but there were hints of a beat when she pushed too hard. She was tremendously affecting in quiet moments, such as her solo at the opening of Act IV or the trio in Act V, even manifesting a creditable trill. Marie Lenormand, looking no more masculine than do most trouser mezzos, tossed her bright, cocky soprano about charmingly, but lower notes gave her some trouble.

Andrew Schroeder gave a distinguished account of Nevers. A strapping figure with an engaging, solid baritone, he remained French in his insouciance and the ease of his singing. Peter Volpe scored a great success as gruff Marcel, always in character, agreeable if not startling with the famous low range of the role. His “Piff, Paff” would have been even more impressive if the director hadn’t undercut it. Jon Marcus Bindel, as Valentine’s wicked father, was the only singer who did not delight — when he sang with any power at all, they wobbled unpleasantly. The five Catholic nobles, all roles calling for high quality, were well cast, and the two gypsies in the Pré-aux-Clercs sang deliciously. It would have been nice to have a gypsy dance to the gypsy dance ballet that follows instead of a tawdry assault by Huguenots on girls in slips.

Meyerbeer’s orchestra is not enormous — he is notoriously kind to singers — but he needs power for the great explosions that cap the drama at its many high points. Botstein’s soloists accompanied the singers lovingly but sometimes lacked the concluding “button” that sets off applause — the audience did not always seem cued to apply it. The great scenes that build and include everyone — soloists, chorus, orchestra, the primal scenes of grand opera, were impressively carried off, at least when the staging did not distract.

The staging was by Thaddeus Strassberger, whose wrangle with the challenges of fitting it in the Sosnoff’s small but technically proficient stage was by turns inventive and perverse. The theme wasn’t exactly modern dress, but it was difficult to be sure what period it was set in — the women wore something old and bulky, the men something modern, the dancers something scanty. The Pré-aux-Clercs scene of Act III, set in a field near the Seine where Huguenots (forbidden to worship in churches) are holding a Sunday service beside the convent in which Nevers is marrying Valentine, was placed by Strassberger under the steel piers that support the elevated portions of the Paris Métro — far from bucolic or Renaissance, but intriguing for its echo of the nave of some great cathedral. The plot for massacre in Act IV filled a claustrophobic square of black leather chairs — and the sides of the set drew back when the conspiratorial chorus came to join in for the Oath. Indeed, the best of Strassberger’s work was his use of the great wooden panels that front the Sosnoff stage to segment the scene into smaller tableaux, allowing us to see what Raoul spies (and misinterprets) of Nevers and Valentine in Act I, or to give us a narrow glimpse of Marguerite’s ball in Act V.

But what beefs me, what gets me to want this guy barred from the opera house, is his lack of faith in the music. Naked wrestlers at a men’s stag party (while they sing of women and wine) — okay; but must they wrestle when Marcel is singing his great aria? If you know the piece, you’ll know enough to ignore the busyness upstage, but this is a piece strange to most of the audience. The eye will be caught, the ear will ignore. If Mr. Volpe were Pol Plançon, he’d refuse to sing until the wrestlers were canned, but nowadays singers don’t do that. The Oath of the Swords in Act IV, one of the great moments of Parisian opera, a scene that seldom fails to send chills by purely musical means, failed to chill on this occasion because of the bleeding naked fellow being attached to a chain in the middle (why? Do politicians usually have scenic tableaux while making top-secret backroom plans?) and the chorus dragging huge crosses across the stage. Yes — we get it — but we would get it from the music, if you’d let us listen to it. The great Act IV duet, a noble piece much admired by — yes — Wagner (and wittily parodied by Gilbert and Sullivan in The Pirates of Penzance — they knew their Meyerbeer, too), was building beautifully in its tight space from the ardent throats of Mr. Spyres and Mme. Deshorties, but Strassberger, musically oblivious, abruptly had his soprano disrobe so the tenor could demonstrate his ardor (was this the time, I ask you? with a massacre to prevent?) by singing a stanza while between her legs. You could enjoy the music anyway — but if you have to shut your eyes to take pleasure in an opera, why are we spending money on a stage director? Strassberger is of the school that believes music is the last thing anyone cares about in the opera house. If Botstein wants to give an obscure work a chance — a noble aim — can’t he find a team that believes the piece is worth it?

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Marguerite de Valois product=yes product_title=Giacomo Meyerbeer: Les Huguenots product_by=Marguerite de Valois: Erin Morley; Valentine: Alexandra Deshorties; Urbain: Marie Lenormand; Raoul: Michael Spyres; Nevers: Andrew Schroeder; Marcel: Peter Volpe; Saint-Bris: Jon Marcus Bindel. American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein. At Summerscape, 2009; Sosnoff Theater, Bard College, performance of August 2. product_id=Above: Marguerite de Valois
Posted by Gary at 12:29 PM

August 3, 2009

SCHUMANN: Scenen aus Goethes Faust

First performance: 13 January 1862, Köln (complete)

Click here for an analysis of Scenen aus Goethes Faust.

image= imagedescription=Robert Schumann

audio=yes firstaudioname=Robert Schumann: Scenen aus Goethes Faust firstaudiolink=

product=yes producttitle=Robert Schumann: Scenen aus Goethes Faust productby=Christiane Iven, soprano; Mojca Erdmann, soprano; Birgit Remmert, alto; Elisabeth von Magnus, alto; Werner Güra, tenor; Christian Gerhaher, baritone; Alastair Miles, bass; Franz-Josef Selig, bass. Netherlands Radio Choir. National Children’s Choir. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor. Live performance, 20 April 2008, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. product_id=

Posted by Gary at 4:08 PM

Vivaldi: La fida ninfa

This sad state of affairs is being rectified by the wonderful new series of opera recordings available through the Naïve label, part of its larger Vivaldi Edition project. Naïve’s most recent offering in this series is a concert production of La fida ninfa, a work which was premiered at the opening of Verona’s Teatro Filarmonico in January of 1732. One of the organizers of the event was the librettist, Francesco Scipione, Marquis di Maffei. Scipione was a Jesuit-educated aristocrat who specialized in Etruscology, dramatic theory, and classical philology — but still managed to find time to participate in the War of the Spanish Succession and, in his later years, write a famous theological tract attacking Jansenist doctrines. The poet’s most famous literary effort was undoubtedly his dramma, Merope, a work which served as one of the models for Voltaire’s tragedy of the same name. Unfortunately Scipione’s libretto for La fida Ninfa, an allegory on matrimonial love replete with love-struck nymphs, grumpy pirates, and multiple cases of mistaken identity, is less distinguished. While it is a credit to the composer that he was still able to create an impressive work from this clichéd literary material, the lack of a convincing plot line weakens the overall impact of the opera.

More significant for modern listeners, however, is the fact that La fida ninfa betrays the influences of the new musical style which manifested itself most powerfully a year later in the work of Pergolesi — La serva padrona. This new approach can be heard immediately in the overture of Vivaldi’s work, which features short, repeated melodic motifs, a decidedly homophonic texture, and the spare harmonic palette more typical of the mid-century style than the high baroque. This impression is only strengthened in the many beautiful solo arias and duets of the opera, where there is an unmistakable emphasis on simplicity and clarity of formal structures. Also indicative of this new style are the ensemble numbers which end each of the three acts: the remarkably beautiful trio finale of Act I (“S’egli è ver”), the quartet which concludes Act II (“Così fu gl’occhi miei?”), and the duet/choral conclusion of Act III (“Non temer”) sound much less like Vivaldi than they do Pergolesi or even Mozart.

Musical highlights of this recording include the restrained virtuosity of Verónica Cangemi as Morasto (her interpretation of the Act I aria “Dolce fiamma” is particularly fine), and the musicality of Topi Lehtipuu (Narete), who brings a relaxed and confident tone to all his solo arias. Vivaldi lovers will especially enjoy Narete’s beautiful lament (“Deh ti piega”) in Act II, where the very able conductor, Jean-Christophe Spinosi, creates an astonishingly sensitive interplay between the tenor and the orchestra. Lorenzo Regazzo is highly effective in his near-buffo role as Oralto, the spurned and highly irritable pirate, and Sandrine Piau portrays Licori, the faithful nymph, with great sensitivity and an impressive command baroque vocal technique. While there is no shortage of vocal fireworks in this recording (Cangemi’s virtuoso performance of “Destino avaro” in Act II verges on the unbelievable) the pastoral moments of La fida ninfa seem the most memorable: the haunting duets “Dimmi pastore” (Act I) between Philippe Jaroussky (Osmino) and Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Elpina) and “Pan, ch’ognun venera” between Lehtipuu and Jaroussky in Act III are spectacular. It is in these less hurried sections of the opera that Spinosi’s orchestra displays its wonderful musicality and attention to detail which are the hallmarks of the Vivaldi recordings of the Ensemble Matheus.

La fida ninfa is not one of Vivaldi’s better efforts. The music for the finale, which features a dialogue between Juno and Aeolus (competently sung by Sara Mingardo and Christian Senn), is artificial and uninspired. Even the Tempesta di mare which precedes the last scene is a disappointment (through no fault of the orchestra) and does not measure up to similar moments Vivaldi’s Seasons, for example. The fact that this opera was composed in great haste (Vivaldi was not even the first choice of the organizers of the theatre opening, having replaced their preferred composer, Giuseppe Maria Orlandini, at the last moment) is sadly apparent in some of the music. Even so, the Ensemble Matheus’ fine performance of this work is remarkable, and more than compensates for the occasional weaknesses of the composition and blandness of Scipione’s libretto.

Donald R. Boomgaarden
Dean, College of Music and Fine Arts
Loyola University New Orleans

image= image_description=Antonio Vivaldi: La fida ninfa product=yes product_title=Antonio Vivaldi: La fida ninfa product_by=Piau, Cangemi, Lemieux, Mingardo; Jaroussky, Lehtipuu, Regazzo, Senn. Ensemble Matheus. Directed by Jean-Christophe Spinosi. product_id=Naïve OP 39210 [3 CDs] price=$30.49 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 3:04 PM

Conjuring Mozart Themes and Sighs

By James R. Oestreich [New York Times, 3 August 2009]

The problem in starting a concert with a familiar opera overture is that if the overture is performed persuasively, what you may want to hear next is the rest of the opera, not other, unrelated music. So after Edward Gardner and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra’s taut account of Mozart’s “Zauberflöte” Overture at Avery Fisher Hall on Friday evening, you half-wanted Tamino to trip onto the stage with a monstrous snake in pursuit.

Posted by Gary at 2:24 PM

Puccini: Madama Butterfly

But within moments of Puccini’s music for Madama Butterfly starting, as that frantic first theme gets cut short by a sort of stumbling phrase, the real star of this set becomes apparent — conductor Antonio Pappano. The strings dart and glitter like a flight of brilliantly colored birds, and then the cellos and basses tramp through like thunderclouds. Elsewhere a wind detail flutters by, or the tempo slows precipitously, only to race forward again a moment later. Pappano drives this score like one of the race cars the composer favored, only with the technology and engineering of the 21st century. The ride exhilarates, leaving at the end the nagging question — is this about the story of Cio-Cio-San or about the conductor’s skill?

Not that Gheorghiu doesn’t shine as a star should in the title role. The natural beauty of her voice contains a muted sob, a shadow of pathos appropriate to much of the role. She can also darken the tone for the sudden depths of anger and despair found in the second act. She doesn’t try to sound 15, letting the music and the drama provide the broader aspects of the characterization. And in the recording studio, at least, she has the power for Butterfly’s final moments of tragic grandeur.

The rest of the cast may prompt either controversy or, sadly, indifference. Fabio Capitanucci’s Sharpless doesn’t quite become the conduit for the audience’s perceptions that the role does in its greatest interpreters. The voice is handsome enough. Unfortunately, the tenor here has a darker hue to his instrument, and at times, a similarity in tonal quality between the two singers arises. Jonas Kaufmann is a rising star, and he certainly comes across here as an intelligent singer with a masculine sound. He simply never convinces as Pinkerton. The top doesn’t have the easy swagger it needs, and when he lightens the voice in the love duet, he loses his manly appeal. Put it this way — he doesn’t sound American, and he doesn’t sound Italian. He sings well, but he doesn’t sing Pinkerton. Enkeledja Shkosa does well as Suzuki.

EMI provides the usual thick booklet, although it only consists of the expected essay, adequately penned by Stephen Jay-Taylor (if one forgives opening with a reference to the lame TV comedy Friends). The usual synopsis precedes the four-language libretto. A few nice photos would be even better if followed by biographical notes on the performers, or even their comments on their roles and the opera. Some bonus features are available through a program called OpenDisc on disc one, but your reviewer declined to fill in the survey information required for access.

The market for these expensive studio recordings has all but disappeared. As fine as the components for this Madama Butterfly set are, it seems unlikely to remind people of the long-lost days when such sets prompted excitement. For those who love Puccini’s great score, however, Pappano and the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia deliver enough of interest to warrant a recommendation. Your reviewer will return again to the De Los Angeles, Di Stefano, and Gobbi recording, conducted by Gavazzeni, when ready to revisit Puccini’s masterpiece.

Chris Mullins

EMI Classics - Puccini: Madama Butterfly Angela Gheorghiu - visit

image= imagedescription=EMI Classics CD 2 64187 2

product=yes producttitle=Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly productby=Raymond Aceto, Fabio Capitanucci, Jonas Kaufmann, Angela Gheorghiu, Enkelejda Shkosa, Gregory Bonfatti. Santa Cecilia Academy Rome Orchestra, Santa Cecilia Academy Rome Chorus. Antonio Pappano, conducting. productid=EMI 2 64187 2 [3CDs] price=$32.98 producturl=

Posted by chris_m at 11:32 AM

August 2, 2009

Paris: King Roger Goes Hollywood

And really, given the splendid musical effects, does anyone care?

This knotty dramatic piece with a loosely wandering libretto by Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, has largely languished on the sidelines of world stages until very recent years. I recall a very credible mounting in Amsterdam only a few years ago, in which the producers honored the rather mythical, metaphorical and medieval tone of the text, with settings and costumes that seemed grounded in the milieu of 12th-century Christian King Roger II of Sicily, who is enlightened by a mysterious young shepherd as the embodiment of pagan ideals.

Not surprisingly, the innovative (some would say ‘willfully provocative’) Paris Opera was having none of that, and the famous (some would say ‘infamous’) stage director Krzysztof Warlikowski, abetted by set and costume designer Malgorzata Szczesniak set the diffuse action in the world of Hollywood (or any-other-’wood) glitterati.

At rise we see what seems to be a large, empty swimming pool, with a dead woman’s body floating in the down right corner (we are able to view the corpse thanks to a Plexiglas wall on the deep end). Shades of Sunset Boulevard!

But it is not Norma Desmond who appears poolside but rather a scantily clad King Roger II and Roxana, as bored rich people killing time in their respective chaises. The garrulous archbishop here is a kvetching man-servant. The chorus, in spangled and twinkling evening wear, become complacent revelers at a de rigueur entertainment industry social event. And the pagan Shepherd (in quite a brilliant invention) is a gender challenged street person.

The dueling forces on display do not seem so much “Christian versus Profane,” but the “Have’s” contrasted with the “Have Not’s”. For our hero does not seem to start out worshiping Christ so much as Mammon. The duo of Warlikowski and Szcsesniak have succeeded quite spectacularly here by injecting vivid theatrical life into what could have been a thudding, pretentious oratorio. The fine character work served to create flesh and blood creatures out of the writers’ fuzzy symbolic figures.

Felice Ross’s wonderfully detailed gobos and lighting effects contributed mightily in isolating images, and suggesting a supernatural effect that informs the proceedings throughout the night. Denis Guéguin devised stage-filling video effects that somehow managed to illuminate the dramatic moments without overpowering the actors. As the chorus members (excellently tutored by Winfried Maczewski) posed snootily behind a scrim, the use of a hand held video-cam that traced the torsos and projected the choristers on a huge screen, ‘up close and personal’ from toe to crown was a clever invention.

Warlikowski carries the arching metaphor of the initially near-naked Roger who dons the trappings — and consequences — of fame to a natural conclusion, as he has the protagonist once again shucking his tuxedo and material encumbrances in time for the closing introspective musings. The King’s final paean to the rising sun is heartbreaking as a denuded Roger hallucinates even as the body of Roxana floats in the pool behind him, an eerie directorial invention that evokes the drug- and booze- prompted tragedy of many such a Hollywood gathering.

Only the final entrance of the Shepherd is grossly miscalculated, dressed as he is in a Minnie Mouse head and accessories, and joined by a small band of similarly got-up children whom he proceeds to lead in morning calisthenics. (No, I am not making this up.) Whether meant to be a goof on Euro Disney or popular culture, it misfires badly and takes us totally out of the otherwise stunning conclusion.

If you are going to spend almost one third of an opera looking at an unclothed baritone, you really can’t do better than the buff and handsome Mariusz Kwiecien. And he sings, too! Mr. Kwiecien is a known commodity at all the major houses (opera-, that is, not bath-), and he deserves the solid reputation he has built. The voice is warm, secure, and rings out in the large Bastille hall. Sometimes, perhaps a bit too much.

Since my first encounter with this world-class baritone was at a beautiful recital of Polish songs in an intimate hall in Warsaw, I was wowed not only by his command of the dramatic content of the text, but also by the fine gradations of interpretative effects. In the opera house, Mariusz is no less engaging, but his vocalizing at times seems more geared to producing quantities of booming sound. His artistry is always in evidence, to be sure, and his more hushed phrases were always intense, present, and affecting; but I thought that his winning performance might have benefited even more by occasionally moderating his volume at full throttle.

He was well-partnered by the supremely musical Roxana from Olga Pasichnyk. This is a fairly soft-grained voice for the role (think Cotrubas at her finest), and there were full orchestral phrases when I longed for more heft or point in the sound (maybe our baritone could loan her some!). But the public loves this artist and for good reason. She commands the stage, gives 100%, and, especially at the upper end of her instrument, pours out melting, limpid, silvery phrase after silvery phrase.

Even in this splendid top-tier company, the star turn of the night was indisputably that of Eric Cutler’s superbly sung Shepherd. Not only is this a substantial lyric tenor that ‘speaks’ throughout the range thanks to a secure technique and somewhat bright focus, but the voice is also capable of carrying out dramatic intentions with meaningful deployment of a good variety of colors.

Add to that his imposing presence and his willingness to collaborate with the (okay, slightly wacko) director, Cutler forges a believable yet fey characterization that is part Dr. Frankenfurter and part Liza-on-a-bender (dig the nail polish). One of the season’s truly memorable performances. Rounding out the exceptional cast, Stefan Margita was the solid-voiced Edrisi, and Wojtek Smilek’s Archbishop made a substantial and favorable impression.

Overseeing the proceedings from the podium, conductor Kazushi Ono paced his cast and orchestra with fine results. This haunting, melodic score with its oriental influences, has hints of Scriabin and Strauss, but asserts its own identity and stakes a claim as a masterpiece. What the libretto may lack in cogency and interest is more than compensated by the heartfelt, brilliantly scored music. Maestro Ono seemed to revel in each and every orchestral detail and effect, and he drew as fine a performance from his instrumentalists as I have heard from the Paris pit.

Musical excellence, coupled with a challenging mise en scène and a cast that was certainly up to that challenge, King Roger proved a fitting, high quality, love-it-or-hate-it-you-can’t-look-away-from-it finale to the Mortier regime. The King is dead. Long live the King.

James Sohre

image= image_description=Karol Szymanowski

product=yes producttitle=Karol Szymanowski: Król Roger (King Roger) productby=King Roger II: Mariusz Kwiecien (les 18, 20, 23, 28 juin et 2 juillet) / Scott Hendricks (les 25 et 30 juin); Roxana: Olga Pasichnyk / Margarita de Arellano (25 juin); Edrisi: Stefan Margita; The Shepherd: Eric Cutler; The Archbishop: Wojtek Smilek: An Abbess: Jadwiga Rappe. Opéra national de Paris Orchestra and Chorus.Conductor: Kazushi Ono. Stage director: Krzysztof Warlikowski. Sets and costumes: Malgorzata Szczesniak. Video: Denis Guéguin. Choreography: Saar Magal. Lighting: Felice Ross. Dramaturge: Miron Hakenbeck. Chorus master: Winfried Maczewski. product_id=Above: Karol Szymanowski

Posted by james_s at 1:16 PM

Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia

Lucrezia Borgia belongs to that latter group, and it might well have earned a place alongside Lucia and L’Elisir if Donizetti had been able to take more time in its composition (the booklet essay relates how the first rehearsals came only a week after Felice Romani had delivered the libretto to the composer!). Some of the music is uninspired, if professional, and the score’s most memorable numbers go to a relatively minor character (Orsini, a pants role for mezzo). The story itself may be fraudulent history, but it puts on stage an intriguing group of characters quite different from the formulaic romantic contraptions of many other mid-19th century operas.

Donizetti and Romani’s Lucrezia follows the historic portrait of a power-hungry woman who finds poison a useful way to protect and further her position. But she is also a loving mother, although she had to give the son she loves, Gennaro, over to an orphanage at an early age. Gennaro hates the Borgias, and his activities eventually draw a death sentence from Lucrezia’s husband, the Duke. She manages to save her son’s life once, but at the end of the opera she unwittingly poisons him (along with several others she quite wittingly intended to kill), and he refuses her antidote, dying in her arms after they have both sung at some length over the tragic turn of events.

The production Naxos presents originated at the Bergamo Musica Festival, in a recording compiled from November 30th and December 2nd 2007 performances. Angelo Sala’s set design employs stone columns and stairs, leaving most of the stage bare for appropriate props. More budget seems to have gone to Cristina Aceti’s costumes, of a traditional opulence. Lighting designer Valerio Alfieri casts much of the action in shadow and sickly blue light. It all adds up to a fairly conventional staging, but director Francesco Belloto has a good way with the singers, eliciting detailed reactions from not only the leads but from the entire cast, including chorus.

Dimitra Theodossiou, the Lucrezia, either hasn’t sought or hasn’t received many offers to perform in the U.S., but many a stateside opera fan would find her impressive. Not a conventionally beautiful woman, she has an old-time presence, self-contained , even regal. Without trying to judge the size of her voice from a recording, her soprano has that penetrating edge to it that usually carries well. The top can get steely, but she definitely has the notes. And when Donizetti wants the voice to move as nimbly as Lucrezia’s calculating mind does, Theodossiou doesn’t struggle a bit.

While acceptable, Roberto De Biasio’s Gennaro is not on her level. Before he warms up the intonation is not secure, and even once he is in control, the voice itself has little that is attractive about it. Enrico Giuseppe Iori makes for an impressively threatening Duke, and Nidia Palacios does well by the enjoyable music for Orsini. Efficient support comes from conductor Tiziano Severini and the Bergamo forces.

There are no extras on the Naxos disc. Paul Campion’s booklet essay is concise and informative, and there’s a helpful synopsis tied to the track listings, as well as the artist’s biographies. Anyone curious about this Donizetti opera should give this a look and listen.

Chris Mullins

image= imagedescription=Gaetano Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia

product=yes producttitle=Gaetano Donizetti: Lucrezia Borgia productby=Lucrezia Borgia: Dimitra Theodossiou; Gennaro: Roberto de Biasio; Don Alfonso: Enrico Giuseppe Iori; Maffio Orsini: Nidia Palacios; Rustighello: Luigi Albani; Gubetta: Giuseppe di Paola; Astolfo: Mauro Corna. Bergamo Musica Festival Choir and Orchestra. Tiziano Severini, conductor. Francesco Bellotto, stage director. productid=Naxos 2.110264 [DVD] price=$26.99 producturl=

Posted by chris_m at 1:10 PM

Verdi: La Forza del Destino

But the beauty expected doesn’t even go skin deep. While Verdi’s great score keeps La Forza del Destino in the standard repertory, the problematic libretto requires both sharp intelligence and inspired imagination. Sure, one can go back to the classic video with Tebaldi and Corelli, where the fabric of the cheap sets ripples every time a character brushes past. At least their singing mesmerizes, distracting the 21st century viewer from the 19th century production values. Despite the quality of the performers here, that magic act does not repeat itself.

To be fair to Nicholas Joël, the booklet credits state that the production was “restaged by Timo Schlüssel.” All that matters is that the result of the men’s work feels like an elaborately costumed concert performance. The chorus stand in blocks or move in unison. The actors usually occupy a small space near the front of the stage and seldom interact convincingly. The costumes of Franca Squarciapino, while well-made, all seem to have come straight from the cleaner’s. Even after a battle-scene the two Dons look immaculate. Ezio Frigerio’s sets barely distinguish between the opera’s varied settings, with the final scene being the lamest. Leonora’s mountain hideaway is simply a barred cage, like one would see at some dreadful old-time zoo. Working in such forlorn circumstances, even the most vibrant of performers would struggle. As commendable as their vocal efforts may be, these singers need more direction to be effective. Violeta Urmana is a very healthy Leonora, with that pitiful loaf of bread for her meal apparently having a substantial carbo load. Perhaps needless to say, the effort to make her convincing as a male produces laughable results. But close the eyes and the ears will hear a substantial voice that can meet all of the challenging role’s demands, often with attractive power. Carlo Guelfi delivers a “shades of black” interpretation of Don Carlo, Leonora’s vengeful brother, but again, he delivers the goods vocally.

Marcello Giordani comes across as more committed to portraying a character, and his Don Alvaro does have both nobility, pride, and the requisite fatalism. As is typical with this busy singer, the middle voice sounds as good as any tenor today, but the top range is variable - sometimes ringing out as tenor fans love, and other times turning hoarse, constricted. Julia Gertseva’s Preziosilla can be counted a success in so far as the character is not nearly as annoying as she can be. Roberto Scandiuzzi’s Padre Guardino and Bruno De Simone’s Fra Melitone fade into the grayness of the production’s dim inspiration.

Zubin Mehta doesn’t try to prettify the score, letting its occasionally crass martial music roar away. The singers are always well-supported, and the forces of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, where this performance took place in 2007 (TDK doesn’t give any more time information), play idiomatically.

And to get really picky, TDK could do a better job of graphically identifying which of the two discs is which, as they have identical faces except for very tiny lettering with the disc number tucked away under the copyright. Go for the Tebaldi/Corelli, if it can be found.

Chris Mullins

image= imagedescription=Giuseppe Verdi: La Forza del Destino

product=yes producttitle=Giuseppe Verdi: La Forza del Destino productby=Il Marchese di Calatrava: Duccio Dal Monte; Donna Leonora: Violeta Urmana; Don Carlo di Vargas: Carlo Guelfi; Don Alvaro: Marcello Giordani; Preziosilla: Julia Gertseva; Padre Guardiano: Roberto Scandiuzzi; Frá Melitone: Bruno de Simone; Curra: Antonella Trevisan; Un alcalde: Filippo Polinelli; Mastro Trabuco: Carlo Bosi; Un chirurgo: Alessandro Luongo. Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Chorus and Orchestra. Zubin Mehta, conductor. Nicolas Joël, stage director. Ezio Frigerio, set design. Franca Squarciapino, costumes. Recorded live from the Teatro Comunale, Firenze, 2007. productid=TDK DVWW-OPFORZA [DVD] price=$35.99 producturl=

Posted by chris_m at 10:51 AM

August 1, 2009

‘Opera Noir’ Entertains at Santa Fe

Santa Fe Opera has made it happen with William Wyler’s 1940 motion picture, The Letter based on Somerset Maugham’s 1920s short story and play, and now an opera. It may well be the sleeper of the Santa Fe season, unusual for a newly commissioned opera.

Within a dark toned sparsely furnished residential stage set, four collapsing palm trees grimly lowering in the background of a hot and smelly Malay rubber plantation house, a bored housewife is carrying on a torrid affair with a local dandy, her often absent and somewhat dull husband unaware. In the Wyler movie, the main feature of which is Bette Davis as Leslie Crosbie the erring wife, moments after the show opens we hear gunfire as her lover Geoff Hammond staggers across the verandah, Leslie emptying her six-shooter into him in a jealous rage. Bette Davis did it with fervor, and believe me, Santa Fe’s soprano Patricia Racette does the deed with equal vehemence. We were off to a strong start, and the intensity rarely lets up over the 100-minute opera.

SantaFe_MG_2458.gifAnthony Michaels-Moore (Robert Crosbie) and James Maddalena (Howard Joyce)

The Santa Fe team, led by composer Paul Moravec with librettist Terry Teachout, musical director Patrick Summers and stage director Jonathan Kent, took a chance patterning their new opera so closely on the ‘noir’ qualities of old movies, but that was exactly the tone they wanted to establish for this sordid little story, and they got it right. Even more successful is the musical score by Paul Moravec, a professor of music at Adelphi University. Worry not, this is no academician’s tepid exercise — it’s a rip-snorting adventure in high-class movie music with the likes of Bernard Herrmann, Eric Korngold and Max Steiner hovering in the background. Moravec’s music is fluent and beautifully orchestrated. The tonal score is through-composed, no pauses for arias or set pieces aside from brief moments, with a good sense of storytelling and excitement resulting.

It turns out Moravec, in his first opera, is a wise and able theatre composer who knows to keep his orchestra subdued for key passages of exposition and musical dialogue, but can unleash his violins and woodwinds in romantic mood music to evoke the sweeping “love me forever passages” of Leslie and Geoff’s affair. Don’t laugh, but when it comes to writing music and vocal lines that can narrate and sustain mood, Moravec impressed me as having it all over the cognoscenti’s current darlings, Kaija Saariaho or Osvaldo Golijov, also lately heard in new works at Santa Fe. Sometimes it feels good just to get down to storytelling without trying to make musical history.

SantaFe_MG_6114.gifJames Maddalena (Howard Joyce), Mika Shigematsu (A Chinese Woman) and Rodell Rosel (Ong Chi Seng)

Meanwhile, back at the plantation, Leslie has been caught out not only in her affair with Goeff, but his murder as well. Once she discovered Geoff was through with her, preferring his new Chinese mistress, Leslie popped him off, a woman scorned. But that’s not all: her husband Robert has to come up with a lot of cash to buy back a letter Leslie stupidly wrote to Geoff inviting him over the night she shot him, a piece of evidence that would convict the lady. The letter fell into the hands of Geoff’s mistress, and now the Chinese woman wants to cash in. Of course it will ruin husband Robert Crosbie, played and sung with great effectiveness by Anthony Michaels-Moore, using his life’s savings to redeem his adulteress wife. Sticky, eh?

SantaFe_MG_2300.gifRoger Honeywell (Geoff Hammond)

Coming to the rescue is Howard Joyce, Robert’s lawyer friend, who manages to buy and repress the letter, and convince a Singapore British jury to let Leslie off, claiming she was the victim of Geoff’s violent attempt to rape her. The one-act opera ends in a big mess, romance gone, careers compromised, and then in a coupe-de-theatre, Leslie takes matters into her own hands and resolves her dilemma. I’ll not reveal the quick denouement.

Ms. Racette, Michaels-Moore, James Maddalena as the lawyer, and assorted secondary role singers could not have been any better. Roger Honeywell, Rodell Rosel and Keith Jameson, all tenors, played key parts in the show’s success, with the Santa Fe Opera orchestra and conductor Patrick Summers wonderfully effective in their central role. Patricia Racette is a marvel; her full lyric soprano voice is in solid shape, used with skill and much dramatic effect. She has an expressive face, and is an actor of the first order. It was a pleasure to encounter her strengths in this prima donna role. For now, she owns the part. Others will soon want to.

The Letter may to some degree be a work in progress; it seems fairly well finished, if a few minutes too long. The intensity of the Maupassant-esque plotting with all its ironies is well maintained, with good rhythm and tempo, rhetorically and musically. But in a departure from Maugham and Wyler, Morevec added a short scene in which the Chinese woman (the fine Japanese mezzo Mika Shigematsu), comes to the lawyer to deliver the letter and collect her cash. Unfortunately she is given not only a voice in the proceedings with a short aria, but brings up issues that only obfuscate and delay. I hope the authors will rethink that scene. Much effect was gained by Wyler in keeping his mysterious Chinese woman quiet — a strong presence but generalized. There can be too many ‘specifics,’ sometimes in dramatic plotting, and The Letter has a few. In the main it is unusually engaging, well-paced entertainment, handsomely performed.

J. A. Van Sant ©2009

image= image_description=Patricia Racette as Leslie Crosbie [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera] product=yes product_title=Paul Moravec: The Letter product_by=Leslie Crosbie: Patricia Racette; Chinese Woman: Mika Shigematsu; Geoff Hammond: Roger Honeywell; Ong Chi Seng: Rodell Rosel; John Withers: Keith Jameson; Robert Crosbie: Anthony Michaels-Moore; Howard Joyce: James Maddalena. Conductor: Patrick Summers. Director: Jonathan Kent. Scenic Designer: Hildegard Bechtler. Costume Designer: Tom Ford. Lighting Designer: Duane Schuler. product_id=Above: Patricia Racette as Leslie Crosbie

Photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Santa Fe Opera
Posted by Gary at 12:50 PM