October 30, 2009

Tancredi by Opera Boston

The sands were running out. It is in this light, perhaps, that we may view the opera that made his reputation throughout Italy: young man in a hurry to show off everything he can do in the way of melody, declamatory recitative, duets both pathetic and passionate, and one of those soon-to-be-world-renowned Act I “Rossini” finales. That Tancredi was the giant step may surprise modern audiences, for the opera is not a comic one — at least not intentionally. Tancredi is serious — even tragic, if the alternate “Ferrara” ending rediscovered by Philip Gossett is used, as it was by Opera Boston.

Rossini is best remembered as a composer of comic operas like L’Italiana in Algeri (four months after Tancredi) and Il Barbiere di Siviglia (three years later). But it isn’t just the stories that tag him: his music has a tendency to bubble, to froth, even when the direst matters are under discussion or depiction. His thunderstorms never threaten the levees, you can dance to his martial choruses, and as for pathos — that relies to a tremendous extent on the gifts of the individual singer. Rossini’s orchestra won’t tug your heartstrings all by itself — they are present to accompany, perhaps to sympathize, with the singing actors of his day, who prided themselves on the subtlety of feeling they could express. Composers who used too many instruments, too heavy and participatory an orchestra, were generally reviled in Italy as “Germanic.” You know — heavy metal thumpers like Mozart — but also, later, Meyerbeer, Weber, and even Verdi. If the orchestra takes the lead role, who is the prima donna here? Who is accompanying whom?

Rossini lived to see the taste change, and his great serious operas — Tancredi, Semiramide, Otello, L’Assedio di Corinto, Mosé in Egitto — all but forgotten. Singers forgot how to sing them and audiences forgot how to appreciate them. They have returned to favor in the last generation or two, a phenomenon led by dynamic mezzo-sopranos who could do what needs doing with a Rossini trouser role or pathetic heroine: Giulietta Simionato, Teresa Berganza, Marilyn Horne, Lucia Valentini-Terrani. Tancredi was one of Horne’s great roles, and it was she who brought back the forgotten tragic ending. (Rossini’s audience insisted that the hero survive, and there’s no particular reason he shouldn’t.) Today Horne’s successors include Cecilia Bartoli, Vivica Genaux, Joyce DiDonato and Ewa Podleś. Tancredi is especially identified with the latter, and Boston Opera staged it for her at the sumptuous, exquisitely restored Majestic Theatre, where any spectacle is sure to seem more of a treat.

Podleś is not a singer to everyone’s taste. Her voice is idiosyncratic to a degree, with a huge range from plummy low notes to a sturdy upper register, exceptional coloratura technique and sometimes imperfect line. The ranges break and re-break, there are melting legatos with growly interruptions. Her dramatic commitment, however, is total, and her use of her skills — and her flaws — is canny and entirely at the service of dramatic presentation. A tragic monologue by Podleś is never just a collection of notes but felt emotion in beautiful song. Her tone is shaded with doubt or anguish, her cascades of ornament underline passionate resolve. A Podleś performance is what bel canto is about, and she has a passionate following, out in force in the Boston performances. They were well rewarded.

As a stage figure, Podleś is matronly but in trouser parts she carries her weight in a way that seems masculine, not laughable. The Bostonians were only close to laughter at one point, when for the umpteenth time Tancredi muttered that no one had ever suffered as he was suffering — laughable since he was suffering only due to his inability to believe his lover had not betrayed him — and that was the librettist’s fault.

It was a star performance in a star part, and at 57 Podleś shows no sign of flagging powers. Her death scene in particular, nearly unaccompanied and quite startling for the era, was intensely theatrical.

The plot of Tancredi is drawn from a Voltaire tragedy; boiled down to libretto form, it is one of those tiresome stories based on a silly misunderstanding. If the heroine would only say, “But I didn’t send that (unaddressed) love letter to a Saracen; I wrote it to Tancredi,” everything might be cleared up. She never does say this, for reasons perhaps clearer in the play. True, Tancredi is in exile, proscribed as a traitor by those who fear his popular appeal, and to have written to him at all makes Amenaide a disobedient daughter and citizen. It might even endanger Tancredi, who, unrecognized, is back in town to fight the national (Saracen) enemy, and who also accepts (but why?) that the intercepted letter must have been written to another man — hence our lack of sympathy with his unreasonable suspicions. Why does Amendaide never speak? Because it would end the opera too soon? That’s not a good reason. She never offers us another.

With a story of this sort, the watchword for the director should surely be a Hippocratic: First, do no harm. You can’t make it make sense; the singers will do that (or they won’t). But don’t insert subplots that have nothing to do with the action — you will only raise questions that no one will ever answer. This is just what director Kristine McIntyre has done. She has decided Amenaide is pregnant out of wedlock, and presents this to us by having her stripped to her slip at the end of Act I. At this point everyone on stage is singing something, but no one refers to the pregnancy. Why show it if you’re not going to talk about it?

Either Tancredi has been sneaking home pretty often or the pregnancy has lasted several years — or else Amendaide really is sleeping around. These are questions Rossini never raised and therefore does not address. Tancredi wears no mask — why does no one recognize him if he was in town two months ago? If he made love to Amenaide, why is he so quick to believe her faithless? Why is the government willing to put her to death, though any Christian regime would surely spare a pregnant woman, at least until delivery? And why does her father forgive her, as no Sicilian father would in this or any other era?

McIntyre’s reasoning appears to have been that her soprano, Amanda Forsythe, really is pregnant. The rational response would be to put her in a larger costume and ignore it. Shazaam! No inane unanswered questions.

It is also clear why McIntyre set the piece in 1935 — nothing to do with political resonance (as she claims), but because the costumes are cheaper to procure than those of twelfth-century Sicily would be. She make think fascism in Italy between the world wars was an important issue — it is — but it’s not an issue Rossini ever addressed, and it does not explain how a Muslim army could be besieging Syracuse in the 1930s.

This was not a staging to inspire pleasure. The sets, too: ugly brick walls.

Amanda Forsythe, a popular presence in Boston’s opera scene, sang Amenaide. She has a very sweet, rounded soprano and ornaments elegantly, but her voice is quite small. The high points of the performance were her duets with Podleś, who gallantly scaled her own voice down to match Forsythe’s, so that we reveled by the minute in their deliciously twining phrases: bel canto heaven. Yeghishe Manucharyan, as Argirio, her unsympathetic father, displayed impressive skill at Rossini passagework in a thin, unattractive tenor. His sound was stronger in Act II, but not enough to make me eager to hear this voice again. DongWon Kim was impressive in the thankless role of villainous Orbazzano, and Victoria Avetisyan revealed a pleasing mezzo as Isaura, who has a “sherbet” aria in Act I. Sherbet arias were inserts, often written by some student or hack, and there is no reason to include them unless the singer justifies it. The second such aria was too much for its second comprimario. Conductor Gil Rose accompanied the vocal flights with welcome restraint, and the Act I finale built very nicely, but he didn’t draw a very impressive “Rossini crescendo” from his players during the overture.

A friend points out that none of the oversexed castrato or trousered female roles in opera ever do actually father a child, in or out of wedlock — that job is left to a tenor, baritone or bass. (One exception: Cherubino fathers a child — but we don’t find out about it until Beaumarchais’ sequel, La Mére Coupable, which was sort of made into an opera in Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles.) Opera lovers are cool with a woman singing of love to another treble voice, but shouting “Daddy!” to an alto parent evidently pushes the barrier. No doubt modern opera composers will update this convention in short order.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Tancredi_Ferrara.png image_description=Cartel del estreno de Tancredi (Rossini) en el Teatro Comunale de Ferrara en 1813 [Wikimedia Commons] product=yes product_title=G. Rossini: Tancredi product_by=Tancredi: Ewa Podleś; Amenaide: Amanda Forsythe; Argirio: Yeghishe Manucharyan; Orbazzano: DongWon Kim; Isaura: Victora Avetisyan. Opera Boston, at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. Conducted by Gil Rose. Performance of October 25.
Posted by Gary at 3:16 PM

Verdi's ”Trilogy“ at Parma

Parma devotes the months to a major Festival, with other activities in nearby towns. Parma’s Verdi Festival aims at producing, by 2013, a boxed set of Teatro Regio DVDs with all Verdi’s operas in a special edition.

In Florence, the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino produced “the big three” — Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata — heard together on three successive nights. These were all entirely new productions by a young team, specialists in low cost but innovative work. This festival, a co-production with the elegant, classical Teatro Romolo Valli will continue in Reggio Emilio, “Verdi country”, but will not be heard in Parma.

TROVATOREmmf05.gifScene from Il Trovatore

Prices were quite low by European standards. The house was sold out in the first week of bookings, proceeds reaching € 600.000, about two thirds of the cost. As comparison, ticket sales in Italian houses cover, on average, about 12% of production costs. Nearly 25% of the audience was made up of young people under 26. Usually, the average of the audience is around 55 in Italian opera houses. For many of them, it was the first time they’d been in an opera house so they looked enthralled.

Ripa di Meana and his team (Edoardo Sanchi, set design, Silvia Aymonimo costumes, Guido Levi lighting). Guido Levi in charge of lighting.see the three operas as a single piece of musical theatre in three parts, viz. Rigoletto as a dark introduction in various shades of black and grey, Il Trovatore as a fantastic tragedy in blue and red, and La Traviata as a flowery dream.

This Rigoletto is “noir” rather than a dark introduction to the cycle. The entire plot is played in a bleak night. Very simple elements on the huge stage of the Teatro del Maggio Musicale:a movable wall squeezing the protagonists in a deadly tie, an oversized period car (a 1940s Buick?) where the Duke consummates his orgies, a small white doll house for Gilda, and old boat on the Mincio for the final scene. It is a tragedy without any glimmer of hope, not even in Caro Nome, or in the Love Duet.

Stefano Ranzani’s baton and the Maggio Musicale Orchestra (one of the very best orchestra in Italy for both opera and symphony ) were perfectly in line with this reading of the opera. Ranzani emphasizes the C flat and the D flat so that even the orchestra emanates a bleak color and atmosphere. Alberto Gazale was an excellent Rigoletto both dramatically and vocally and had a superb partner in Desirée Rancatore as Gilda; the opening night, (October 3rd), at the audience’s request, they had to encore the final scene of the second acts (“Sè, Vendetta, Tremenda, Vendetta”). It was harder to judge Gianluca Terranova who was called at the last moment to replace James Valenti as the Duke. He is a generous tenor, with an excellent acute and a strong volume, but uncertain phrasing — probably because he had to jump in the role without any rehearsal.

The following night Il Trovatore was played to a full house. On stage, there were no castles, no cloisters, no prisons, just a large early 20th century elegant living rooms with blue walls and a shocking red pyre (when required) or arches for the second act ‘s convent. However, the Count and Manrico (and their retinues) are in Medieval armour, whilst Eleonora, Azucena and the others in modern attire. The heightens the timeless reading of a plot where only Azucena is the character with psychological development. The others are stereotypes, almost a pretext for their arias, duets and concertatos. Some of the audience did not appreciated this interpretation of Il Trovatore, but at the end the applauses submerged the boos. Massimo Zanetti offered a carefully discreet conducting — in Il Trovatore the orchestra is mostly a support to the singers.

TROVATOREmmf03.gifScene from Il Trovatore

Juan Jesùs Rodrìguez, Anna Smirnova and Stuart Neill are well known serious, experienced professionals. Stuart Neill gave a vibrant high C at the end of “Di Quella Pira” without attempting to sustain it too long. The real surprise was the young Arkansas soprano Kristin Lewis; a true soprano assoluto with a very large extension, a pure emission, an excellent coloratura and the skill to go up quite naturally to the highest tonalities and go down, equally naturally, to the lowest. She lives in Vienna and sings mostly in Europe. It is easy to foresee that she will go far.

La Traviata had a single set: a large Art Nouveau living room with camellia flowers on the wall paper as well as in many vases and pots. Lighting provides various shades of green and of white on the walls. An oversize sofa dominates Violetta’s apartment in the first and third act; furnished in turn of the century style. The dreamy atmosphere is already in the introduction when Violetta is on stage longing for a bourgeois family life. But she really lives a Baudelaire’s environment where we nearly smell opium.

Conductor Daniele Callegari slowed the tempos gently — the performance lasts slightly longer than three hours, with two intermissions — in order to gently heighten the dreamy atmosphere.

Andrea Rost proved that her vocal instrument is still perfect even though quite a few years have elapsed since the seasons when she was the major star of La Scala . Her singing was passionate; she did not circumvent any of the traditional virtuoso, added (over the centuries) to Verdi’s original writing such as the B flat at the end of “Sempre Libera”. Saimir Pirgu is young (28 years old), and athletic. His Libiamo requires acrobatic skills. He is good looking; and his voice has thickened in the last couple of years. He is now a perfect Alfredo, especially for his tender phrasing. He should resist the temptation to take on tenore spinto roles, but he would be probably excellent in many Massenet and Gounod parts. Luca Salsi is a good Giorgio Germont but maybe too young for the role. It is not clear whether Saimir Pirgu’s Germont senior is just an old-fashioned Provincial country gentlemen or a hypocrite. Nonetheless, on a Sunday matinee, the audience was enthusiastic, applauding during the performance.

Giuseppe Pennisi


Production Staff and Cast

Franco Ripa di Meana, director. Edoardo Sanchi, sets. Silvia Aymonino, costumes. Guido Levi, lighting. Orchestra e Chorus del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Piero Monti, chorus master.

Rigoletto

Stefano Ranzani: conductor.

Gianluca Terranova:James Valenti; Shalva Mukeria: Il duca del Mantova; Alberto Gazale: Rigoletto; Désirée Rancatore: Gilda; Konstantin Gorny: Sparafucile; Chiara Fracasso: Maddalena; Giorgia Bertagni: Giovanna; Armando Caforio: Il Conte di Monterone; Roberto Accurso: Il Cavaliere Marullo; Luca Casalin: Matteo Borsa; Andrea Cortese: Il Conte di Ceprano; Miriam Artiaco: La Contessa di Ceprano; Vito Luciano Roberti: Usciere di corte; Elisa Luppi: Un paggio.

Il Trovatore

Massimo Zanetti: conductor.

Juan Jesús Rodríguez: Il Conte di Luna; Kristin Lewis: Leonora; Anna Smirnova: Azucena; Stuart Neill: Manrico; Rafal Siwek: Ferrando; Elena Borin: Ines; Cristiano Olivieri: Ruiz; Alessandro Luongo: Un vecchio zingaro; Fabio Bertella: Un messo.

La Traviata

Daniele Callegari: conductor.

Andrea Rost: Violetta Valéry; Milena Josipovic: Flora Bervoix; Sabrina Modena: Annina; Saimir Pirgu: Alfredo Germont; Luca Salsi: Giorgio Germont; Aldo Orsolini: Gastone; Francesco Verna: Il Barone Douphol; Gabriele Ribis: Il Marchese d’Obigny; Michele Bianchini: Il Dottor Grenvil; Leonardo Melani: Giuseppe; Salvatore Massei: Un domestico; Pietro Simone: Un commissionario.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/RIGOLETTOmmf01.gif image_description=Rigoletto at the Verdi Festival [Photo by Giuseppe Cabras/New Press Photo courtesy of Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino] product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata product_by=Verdi Festival, Parma product_id=Above: Rigoletto at the Verdi Festival

All photos by Giuseppe Cabras/New Press Photo courtesy of Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
Posted by Gary at 12:32 PM

October 29, 2009

Ned Rorem premiere at Oxford Lieder Festival

It’s strange that Rorem is relatively unknown outside the US, because there have been so many excellent recordings. There’s no excuse, Perhaps though this Oxford performance, by the Princes Consort, will put things right.

Evidence of Things Not Seen is a collection of 36 songs that flow together to form a whole greater than its parts. The first group of songs are optimistic, open ended. Rorem calls them “Beginnings”. “From whence cometh song?” is the very first line. The same questioning reappears throughout the cycle, expressed in Rorem’s characteristic rising and falling cadences.

“Middles” (the middle section) explores ideas more deeply, rather like development in symphonic form. There are some very strong songs here, such as ..I saw a mass, from John Woolman’s Journal. Woolman was a Quaker, and Quaker values infuse the whole 80 minute sequence. Indeed, the the title Evidence of Things Not Seen comes from William Penn. Rorem’s cadences are light quiet breathing, the way Quakers think things through in silent contemplation. Two songs to poems by Stephen Crane, The Candid Man and A Learned Man, provide counterpoint. The candid man blusters, using violence to impose his will.

Rorem chooses his texts carefully. Middles ends with a song to an 18th century hymn text by Thomas Ken which leads into Julien Green’s He thinks upon his Death. W H Auden jostles with Robert Frost, Colette with A E Housman. Mark Doty and Paul Monette write poems referring to AIDS. Jane Kenyon’s The Sick Wife poignantly describes a woman lost , still young, to some illness that keep her alive but barely sensate. In its own simple, direct way it connects to the final song, in which Penn reflects on the Bible. “For Death is no more than the Turning of us over from Time to Eternity”. Whatever the Evidence of Things Not Seen may be, following the journey in a performance as good as this is a moving experience.

The Oxford Lieder Festival often introduces performers and repertoire before they become mainstream. That’s why, for a small festival, it’s cutting edge, and one of the best ways to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in song.

Prince-Consort.gifThe Prince Consort

The Prince Consort are something of an Oxford Lieder discovery, although they have also appeared at the Wigmore Hall. This is a lively, flexible ensemble which brings together some of the most exciting young singers around. Many are already quite high profile — some have been heard at the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne and Salzburg. They were represented tonight by the founder, the pianist Alisdair Hogarth, and the singers Anna Leese, Jennifer Johnston, Nicholas Mulroy and Jacques Imbrailo (a former Jette Parker artist).

Their fresh, vivacious approach suits Rorem’s music well. The Prince Consort have just released a recording of Rorem’s On an Echoing Road. on the audiophile label Linn. It’s good. That cycle includes many songs showing the influence of English composers like Ralph Vaughn Williams and Roger Quilter, so it’s a good choice for the English market. The audience at Oxford was sparse, perhaps because those who don’t know Rorem assume that if he’s modern and American they might not like him. But Rorem is steeped in the European tradition and was associated with poets like W H Auden. Perhaps now England will be aware how Rorem has rejuvenated the genre of English song.

Anne Ozorio

[Note: The recording Ned Rorem - On an echoing road by Prince Consort is available for download here.]

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Rorem16.gif imagedescription=Ned Rorem [Photo courtesy of The Ned Rorem Website (http://www.nedrorem.com/)]

product=yes producttitle=Ned Rorem: Evidence of Things Not Seen productby=The Prince Consort, Oxford Lieder Festival, Holywell Music Room, Oxford, England. 25th October 2009. product_id=Above: Ned Rorem [Photo courtesy of The Ned Rorem Website]

Posted by anne_o at 8:14 AM

October 26, 2009

An Interview with Ileana Perez-Velazquez

Composer Ileana Perez-Velazquez was born and raised in the highly musical nation of Cuba, where she studied in Havana at the Escuela Nacional de Artes (high school) and the Instituto Superior de Artes (university-level). Later she took advanced degrees in music at Dartmouth and at Indiana University. She has a recent CD devoted to her work on the Albany label, and is presently a professor of music at Williams College in Massachusetts. We spoke on Sept. 11, 2009 via Skype.

TM: You were born in Cienfuegos, Cuba. Please tell me about your family, and about growing up there.

IP-V: My grandfather loved music, wasn’t a musician, but was connected to popular musicians from the Orquesta Aragon, which was famous in the fifties, sixties and seventies….

TM: It’s still famous.

IP-V: The Orquesta Aragon is actually from Cienfuegos. My grandfather had a business, a little food business, and the Orquesta Aragon used to rehearse next door. I had not been born yet. My grandfather became friends with them, and helped them when they were still unknown . They became very popular, and moved to Havana, where they had their career, and every time Rafael Lay and others visited Cienfuegos they would go to see him. My grandfather had strong connections with music, and loved it, but never studied it because he did not have the means. He wasn’t poor, but he couldn’t afford it.

He made my mother study piano, which she did for eight years, but she did not enjoy practicing. She didn’t want to be a professional musician, but she would play piano every afternoon at home. During the first two years of my life, she was playing, and I was totally in love with it. By the age of three I was sitting on top of the piano while she was playing, trying to learn something.

They had a deep influence on me in my early years. When I was learning my first pieces, my grandfather would sit down with me, and listen, and try to put some emotion in my playing, even if he didn’t know musically what he was talking about.

TM: What kind of music was your mother playing — classical, popular?

IP-V: Classical, although she also enjoyed playing from the Emilio Grenet compilation of Cuban popular music. When Orquesta Aragon moved to Havana, my grandfather was friends with Orquesta Los Naranjos in Cienfuegos, who were popular musicians, and once in a while my grandfather took me there to see them play. I had that popular influence, and classical influence from my mother.

TM: How far is Cienfuegos from Havana?

IP-V: These days it is three hours drive. It is a town in the south of the island, and it is absolutely beautiful with sea all the way around, inside a bay. The name means “One Hundred Fires”. It is not a small town, but it is not a big city either. In the fifties there was a very strong “Pro Musica” organization there supporting classical music. If you look at the number of musicians from Cuba at that time it is very impressive for a small island. My main composition teacher was Carlos Fariñas, who was also from Cienfuegos.

At any rate, when I was a child the trip from Cienfuegos to Havana was six or seven hours. There was no main highway through the island — everything was little back roads, and it would take forever to get to Havana when I was a child.

TM: A provincial town.

IP-V: Very much so. It is different now — I was there last August — but it is still provincial.

TM: How was it affected by the Revolution?

IP-V: Just as was the case everywhere in Cuba, a lot of people left in the early 1960s — well, not a lot, but those who were wealthy and were intimidated by the Revolution. It’s hard for me to say, since I was born after the Revolution, in 1964, and the Revolution was in 1959. What I remember was that my grandfather did not like the Revolution, and my father did, living in the same house. Luckily, my father was a very respectful man, and so would not argue with my grandfather.

My grandfather lost his business, because the Revolution nationalized everything. He was unhappy, because he had worked all his life building his small business, and then it was taken away. On the other hand, my father came from a very poor family that had nothing, and so he was very happy about it. The Revolution meant that my father could get an education, and go to the university. After graduating as an engineer, he died, when he was only thirty-seven years old. I was fourteen at the time.

To go back to your question, the Revolution affected people in an emotional way. Within the same family you could see people who had different opinions. Cubans are always passionate about their opinions, and get very emotional very quickly.

TM: Perhaps the Revolution did not have such an effect on the musical scene in Cienfuegos?

IP-V: The Revolution created a music school for children in Cienfuegos which I attended from the age of six on. It was a small school, but with good teachers. There was an excellent pianist, my teacher there, who had studied in Havana, and was very well-regarded, and she had happened to move back to Cienfuegos. She played beautifully. I still remember her playing the Revolutionary Etude of Chopin — very fast, very intense — she was a very good pianist.

TM: What was her name?

IP-V: Mercedita.

TM: Where did your family come from?

IP-V: On my mother’s side, my grandfather, who had the store, had come from the Canaries — not him, but his parents. His wife, my maternal grandmother, was one hundred percent Spanish, but I can’t say from what part of Spain, because they had been in Cuba for generations. She grew up among people who had supported the Cuban revolution against Spain. The woman who raised my grandmother, her aunt, was this amazing woman who was good friends with Máximo Gomez [1836-1905] and some of the important historical figures of the revolution. I grew up hearing all sorts of interesting stories about her bravery — she would go to a Spanish party dressed like the Cuban flag. That taught me that women could do a lot — she was an influence that showed me that I could do something with my life.

On my father’s side everything is less clear, because my father’s father also died very young — both of them died from cancer. Just a few months ago I asked my mother “Who was this guy, my grandfather?” He was a gallego, from Spain, from Galicia. My father’s mother was probably a Cuban for generations — I don’t really know.

I might have mulato ancestry on my father’s side, but I don’t know for sure.

TM: Not so unusual in the Caribbean.

IP-V: No, because we are a mixture of so many things. My sisters have blue-green eyes and dirty-blond hair, and I am nothing like that, although we are 100 percent sisters. Physically I don’t look anything like them. They take after the gallego man who was my grandfather.

TM: Were you brought up in a Catholic family? Was there a presence of the Church?

IP-V: That’s a very good question. My grandmother was Catholic — very much so, and on my mother’s side, they kept all their Catholic saints in the house, but because of the Revolution they could not go to church, because of repression against the church during the first twenty years of the Revolution — not physical repression, but if somebody wanted to go to the university, and he was a religious person, it would be more difficult to get in, because they thought it wasn’t a good thing. My grandparents were going to take me to be baptized, and when my father came in he was very upset and said that it wasn’t a good thing to be baptized, and so I was never baptized. But I was always curious about the church — I would go and look, but I wouldn’t go in.

That is something I have in common with many Cubans of my generation. A lot of Cubans ended up going to church later on. One of my sisters goes to church, and so does my mother. With the visit of John Paul II in the nineties things changed dramatically.

TM: Your mother played piano. Did you get started in music with piano?

IP-V: Yes. I studied piano all the way through to my college years at ISA — Instituto Superior de Artes. When I was there I was a double major in piano and composition. I practiced six hours a day, and performed the Stravinsky concerto. I like playing contemporary music — Stravinsky, Bartok — but I also like playing Scriabin, Chopin, Bach. I know the piano repertoire very well because I played a lot of it.

I started playing Bach when I was very little — Mozart, Beethoven, everything. I played mostly classical music, although I also played the music of Cuban classical composers, which in the last two centuries has been influenced by some elements of Cuban popular music such as rhythm and timbre.

TM: You went from Cienfuegos to Havana.

IP-V: From third to sixth grade I was studying in Cienfuegos. When I was eleven my father decided that if I were to be a serious musician I needed to study somewhere where there was a more serious school of music. In Cienfuegos I had a very good piano teacher, and very good solfege and ear training, but they only had instructors for four instruments. So I went to Santa Clara, which is north of Cienfuegos. At the time it was two hours drive. So by eleven I was no longer living at home, because I wanted to get a better education.

My father was studying at the university in Santa Clara, and I was studying at the school of music there. He was at a dorm, and I was at another, so he would visit me a couple of times a week, and I would go back home once a month. I studied there in seventh, eighth and ninth grade.

When I finished ninth grade there was a national competition in Cuba for admission to the national school of arts. I went to Havana for the audition, and was selected to continue in Havana.

At fourteen I started at ENA — the Escuela Nacional de Artes. Later the name was changed to the Escuela Nacional de Música. This is a school that is equivalent to high school level in the United States, but a school that is totally focused on music, a Conservatory. We did not study the sciences, but very deeply in music, literature, and history. My science background for electronic music I had to do on my own, later. That was a challenge!

After four years there I started at the Instituto Superior de Artes. Here people often start studying music in college, but there are no master’s or doctoral degrees in music in Cuba. We have music education at an earlier age.

TM: What was the musical environment like in Havana? Did you hear international popular music from abroad? A composer from Argentina or Brazil in the seventies or eighties might have heard Chick Corea or Yes or the Beatles. What did you hear in Cuba?

IP-V: People in the Communist Party would say that these influences were negative, so they were very much prohibited. People listening to this music were doing so illegally. I was exposed to it because I was at music school, and my friends would have recordings, but at home I couldn’t listen to it — my father would get upset. In that sense it was lucky that I wasn’t at home, so I could hear some. I did not hear as much as I would have liked to, but I did have some sense that those things existed.

Havana is more open. When I was in Cienfuegos and Santa Clara there was more of a small-town mentality. They were not open to anything like that — it was not supporting the Revolution. The artists and intellectuals lived in Havana so that made things more accessible. When I was at the Escuela Nacional de Artes I was exposed to jazz, the Beatles, and all of that. Again, not as much as I would have liked. Some of my friends would play jazz.

TM: What contemporary classical music did you play, did you hear in Havana?

IP-V: I had a wonderful group of friends in Havana who loved contemporary music. After school was over, starting at 10 PM, we would get together, and play all kinds of contemporary music. I had a friend, who also became a composer — she is now in Spain — Fernando Rodriguez. He became the president of this club. It was called the Club Federico Smith, with members a few years older than me — I was the little girl joining the group. We would stay up until 2 AM listening to “From the Canyons to the Stars” — pieces that the school didn’t play for us - the recordings probably came from Federico Smith, an American in Cuba, who had died — all kinds of contemporary music. We did not have the scores for a profound analysis of these works but I was exposed to a lot when I was fourteen.

I also read so much literature. All my grounding in poetry comes from those years. At the same time I was playing classical music on the piano, playing chamber music, singing in choirs.

Here anybody had a tape recorder — but in Cuba, oh no. Only a few had tape recorders to play anything. Not me. My family had nothing. My father had died by that point, and I had almost no money. All I had to survive at that point was the food that they put on my plate in the dormitory where I lived, and ten Cuban pesos a month which my mother would send, which was equivalent to almost nothing. So I had no way of having access to information not offered at school unless a friend liked me and shared it with me. I am not complaining because I had good teachers of classical music at school.

TM: When did you start to compose? What inspired you?

IP-V: I was always interested. At eleven I started writing little things, but I started in earnest at the school at fifteen with my teacher of harmony, who was a composer himself. His name was Enrique Berver. He had lived and studied in Paris for quite a few years, and had awareness of contemporary harmony. He would take me to his house and show me techniques that he did not present in class. And he told me I had talent. And I was like….Nobody would tell me that. Who was I? Nobody. When I was fifteen, all by myself, in the middle of Havana, with all these people. He was very encouraging.

I started, like anybody would, making short piano pieces, and then I got really into it. I loved it. I had always loved it, but before that there had not been anyone to say “Go ahead and do it!”

That’s important. I have a three-year old now, and as he grows, if I feel that he has the talent I will say “do it!”. A little person needs some support.

TM: What was the music that inspired you. You mentioned Messiaen. What else grabbed you?

IP-V: Stravinsky, Bartok — I totally loved Scriabin. Villa-Lobos, from Brazil. I loved Piazzolla. I wrote a piano trio with influences from Piazzolla in the second movement. Obviously it doesn’t really sound like Piazolla. Now I am more interested in other things, but I still recognize his value.

TM: With whom did you study composition at ISA?

IP-V: Carlos Fariñas. He was a great teacher. When I first came, I always had all these ideas, and they would change dramatically, very quickly — that’s my personality. He taught me that music needs time to convey the message. You need time to develop the motive so that it can later change into something else. He was trying to put some rigor into the way that I approached my compositions. He taught me skills. There came a time when I was ready for more, but he was still that way, but I am very grateful to have studied with him in my early years.

TM: What was his pedagogical background? Did he teach serial technique?

IP-V: He was very open-minded, and did not push any esthetics on me. I studied serialism, but never wrote serial pieces. I have never written serialism, and am not interested in doing that any time soon. [Laughs]. Maybe never!!! Of course I respect the value of it, but I never had to do it. I have heard that in the USA they forced students to do that in academia.

I was lucky I never had to go through it. I had it as homework, and I did my assignments, but it was not my creative work.

We were encouraged to find our own voices, a way to express ourselves. We didn’t have to follow a particular international school, where people said “This is what we should be doing”.

TM: In Brazil, which has some cultural similarities with Cuba, as a mulato country with a strong musical culture, composers consciously consider what there is that is Brazilian in their music. Is there a tension between writing music that is contemporary and music that is Cuban? Is this something that is important for you?

IP-V: It is — it’s still important for me. I don’t have to challenge myself to do it. I think it comes naturally.

TM: Anything you write is Cuban.

IP-V: It’s not Cuban in the traditional sense. A Cuban might say “Who says that’s Cuban”? A person from the street, with no musical background, would not see the connections, because they are not clear, but I think they are there.

In the seventies, when I was growing up, Cuba was closed to foreign influences, and none of that music would be playing on the TV or radio. We did not have an invasion of pop, as you did in other countries, where the industry came and took over, and quashed the authentic local music. They could not do that with Brazil, whose music is so beautiful and so strong.

We started to have that challenge in the eighties and the nineties, but I left in 1993. Now, when I go there, I see people doing hip hop mixed with salsa. Unfortunately I don’t like hip hop…I can see its value, but musically it doesn’t capture my attention.

In Cuba we were lucky to have intellectuals who were able to write a document to convince the government that we should be able to play contemporary music, for example. In Russia, the composers had to write for the people. In Cuba I could write my contemporary music, and we had international contemporary music festivals every year. Now, playing American music on the street was something else again. They didn’t want that.

With respect to being a Cuban composer, I can think of a friend who does this more intentionally than I do. My friend will actually take material from folk music, and work with these elements, so that they are more obviously present.

My music is different, because I try to avoid the repetitive patterns that are characteristic of folk music. It’s not that I don’t like folk music, but that folk music is there, and so strong, and so beautiful, and so wonderful. Why would I need to rewrite it again? It already exists. I am trying to do something that is my own, something that I would say is more creative, but I don’t want to offend anybody, so I will say something that is more able to express myself, rather than taking repetitive rhythmic and/or melodic patterns from folk music and throwing it into my music.

TM: You finished your bachelor’s in 1987, and came to do a masters’ in the US in 1993.

IP-V: In between I was in Bogotá, Colombia. In 1990 I decided that I needed to go outside Cuba. In 1988 I won first prize in a young people’s festival in Cuba, and the prize was to go to Hungary to the Bartok Festival. In 1990 I went back and met Ligeti. He seemed to like what I presented, and wrote a letter of reference for me. I couldn’t study with him, because by then he had already stopped teaching. He mentioned Donatoni. I wrote to Donatoni, who said he would be happy to have me as a student, but that I would need to find a scholarship, and of course Cuban money had no value outside Cuba, and I did not have any connections in Italy.

The next year, in 1991, there was an international electronic music festival, and Jon Appleton came. He heard my music, and offered me a scholarship to study at Dartmouth. I said “Great!” because I needed to go out and learn more, especially in the area of electronic music, because I had learned a lot about acoustic music, but we did not have much experience with electronic music because of lack of resources and information. Technology requires money.

I went to the US Embassy, but never got a visa, and ended up going to Colombia, where I taught at the national university, and helped to organize a festival to which we invited Jon Appleton. I suggested to them that they invite him, and luckily they listened to me. Jon went personally with me to the US Embassy, and finally I got the visa after two years, and came here to study in 1993. It was a long story.

TM: And Dartmouth was very different from Cuba.

IP-V: My goodness.

TM: Very cold.

IP-V: I will never forget the snow all the way up to my knees. Every night I would leave the studio at 1 AM after I had finished my work.

TM: And a long way from any city.

IP-V: Coming from Havana, and Bogotá, and going to Dartmouth, was like “Oh my God, what did I do with my life???” But just I worked intensively for two years, and then it was over. It was a cultural shock, too. People are very different, the weather is different…everything was different. People, instead of talking to each, would send emails. That was a shock. They were in the same room, and they would send emails to each other. And I thought “What’s wrong with these people? They don’t talk, or what?”

It was a cultural shock — it’s not so bad now, but it took me a while.

TM: You went from there to Indiana.

IP-V: After two years of one-hundred percent focus on electronic music, I wanted to do acoustic music.

TM: People I knew at Princeton referred to these as silicon- and carbon-based music.

IP-V: That’s right. I thought “Give me some instruments now! I need to write for instruments again.” Indiana also has a Latin-American Music Center, with Carmen Tellez there, and all her friends — it was a group of Latino people with whom I thought I would feel more connected from the human point of view.

TM: Please talk about the works on your CD [“an enchanted being, salty waters, and infinite stones”, Albany TROY 987], which has a variety of different ensembles. I thought the titles were quite interesting.

IP-V: I love poetry — when I have the time I write some poetry.

TM: For examples, Duendes alados [Winged sprites].

IP-V: Don’t ask me where it came from, because it’s from my imagination. Duendes are magical creatures, and with wings they are even more magical.

TM: When people write string quartets, they tend to think of abstract music — Beethoven, Bartok — but they don’t think of winged sprites.

IP-V: I didn’t mean to write a “serious” string quartet. In fact, I didn’t call it “String Quartet” — it’s just a series of pieces. Of course the four movements are part of one composition, but I never intended it to be a “great string quartet” in the serious classical way.

TM: Which is perhaps liberating as you are writing it.

IP-V: Exactly. It made me have fun in writing the music, and that’s what composition should be — something that we enjoy, not just when it is performed, but the process of composing the music. It’s not a party, but it’s enjoyable in the sense that it is satisfying, and we can enjoy the entire process, as opposed to having the painful obligation of writing something great.

TM: Was it a commission by the performers?

IP-V: By the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth, which has a series of commissions. Originally it was to be a percussion quartet, for the Amadinda Quartet, but I got a letter saying that Amadinda had dissolved, and that now it would be a string quartet! How do I go from a percussion quartet to a string quartet! I was happy to do it, and that’s how it came out.

TM: Some pieces have titles in English, and some in Spanish. Is there a reason for that?

IP-V: Our Sacred Space is in English, because it is a quote from a Buddhist who wrote in English, who said that we are always at the center of the universe, and we can always feel that we are in our sacred space. In other cases, sometimes it sounds beautiful in English, sometimes in Spanish

TM: Please talk about Encantamiento, with Sally Pinkas. She is an exceptional pianist….

IP-V: And a great friend. She is a lovely person. There is actually a new version of Encantamiento out by Pola Baytelman on a CD which she will release on Albany this year [released May 2009, TROY 1116] . It sounds like a different piece. I like both. The Baytelman version is slower in pace, but the polyrhythmia is so intense. Sally’s is brilliant technically because it goes faster, but perhaps the polyrhythms are not as clear….I love both versions — it is amazing that talented performers can do this with one’s music.

TM: Please say a little about Un ser encantado.

IP-V: That’s an older piece. I wrote it while I was still at Indiana. The poetic images from the titles of each movement are what I was thinking about in writing the piece. At the time I was very interested in timbre, so there is a lot of exploration of the sounds of the percussion instruments, mixed with the sound of the piano in such a way as to make an atmosphere that sometimes is transparent and sometimes heavier and more percussive.

It’s full of rhythmic contrasts.

TM: There seems to be a narrative focus to the works on your CD. This is often something that helps to make electroacoustic music work, since rather than being tied to instrumental techniques and motives, it can be more pictorial and cinematic.

IP-V: I think it is easier for the audience to perceive the piece that way, because especially if a piece is for tape, it is harder to make a connection with whatever is going on an empty stage. If there are just two loudspeakers there, and that is all, they have to close their eyes, and try to imagine what is going on. In both cases, titles are very important, because a title can help the imagination of a person who is listening to a work.

TM: Do you continue to work with both tape and instrumental music?

IP-V: I intend to do so. In recent years I have received commissions from ensembles who want to perform my music. Right now I am writing an acoustic piece for Continuum, but after that I want to write a piece for percussion and electronics for a wonderful percussionist here [at Willliams College].

Acoustic music, in my opinion, is more likely to be preserved forever, if it is good music. We have a heritage of centuries of music, so to produce something that is likely to last, it has to be more than excellent. But, so what! I will take the challenge.

But if I play the electronic music of the sixties to my students they say “it sounds like a really old synthesizer. Those sounds are not interesting anymore. I don’t like it.” They feel no connection because the technology has evolved tremendously since then. This is a challenge that electronic music faces from the passage of time. But if I play a Bartok quartet, the students still think it is the greatest. But for electronic music, even ten years makes a difference. In the eighties frequency modulation sounds were used, but nobody wants to hear that anymore. There are one or two pieces that are references, but only in classes, because they are not heard in concerts. This is a big challenge.

So, yes, I am interested in continuing to work in the field, but I am very aware of the challenges involved.

TM: Do you have another CD of your works in the pipeline?

IP-V: I have a couple of pieces in mind. At the moment there will be a piece of mine for mezzo and piano on an anthology of works by Cuban composers — Tania Leon, Sergio Barroso, Orlando Jacinto Garcia which will be released by Innova [scheduled for fall 2009].

TM: Please talk about your vocal works — songs, dramatic works.

IP-V: Nanahual, with two versions, one for soprano, one for mezzo. The original was for soprano, but a mezzo asked me for a version, and it turned out that the one which was recorded was the mezzo version. For that piece I wrote the poetry myself, based on Nahuatl legend.

After that I wrote a piece for Aguava New Music Ensemble, based on texts by Rabindranath Tagore, Like the subtle wings of love. Presently I am working an piece for soprano, and four instruments — violin, cello, clarinet, and piano, using poetry from a young Cuban poet who is now in Miami — Carlos Pintado, an emerging poet. I found his poetry to be expressive and beautiful.

I actually wrote an opera very early on, at ISA, but it has never been performed, and since so much time has passed, I would have to review it before it went before the public.

TM: What was the title?

IP-V: I called it Inmanencia. It is based on a Latin American legend, in a poetic version by a friend. Very poetic and full of symbols.

TM: A one-act opera?

IP-V: Yes.

TM: What is your next big project?

IP-V: I take my life one day at a time. I like writing music that I know is going to be performed, and of course it is harder to get good and multiple performances of music for orchestra and large ensembles.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Ileana.png image_description=Ileana Perez-Velazquez product=yes product_title=An Interview with Ileana Perez-Velazquez
Posted by Gary at 5:32 PM

The Turn of the Screw at ENO

‘You see, I’m bad, aren’t I?’ declares Miles, teasingly, at the end of Act 1. Indeed. The ‘evil’ which James desires that his readers should merely ‘imagine’ is unambiguously paraded before our eyes by McVicar: the children romp riotously in a frenzied nursery scene; Quint glints malevolently from the Tower, and brazenly challenges a hysterical Governess; Miss Jessel wails with bitter fury, grasping at Flora in a desperate bid for Quint’s attention; the Governess rampantly suffocates the children she professes to protect.

the_turn_of_the_screw011.pngCheryl Barker (as Miss Jessel a former governess) and Nazan Fikret (as Flora)

The dimly-lit stage suggests first the cold, charmless recesses of Bly, then the eerie expanse of the gardens and lake, as filmy, translucent screens shimmer back and forth, brushed evocatively by Adam Silverman’s subtle lighting. The occasional gleam glances on an iron bedstead, an ancient piano, a painted rocking horse, as McVicar assembles an authentically Victorian domestic world, faithfully to James’ original setting. In the shadows, servants scurry back and forth, their reflections caught in the rolling panes, hinting at other presences and snatched visions. Aware of the critical debates concerning James’ ambiguous novella, Britten declared that he wanted ‘real’ ghosts singing ‘real’ music – no symbolic groaning and shrieking! – but, one might argue that in this production the ghosts are in fact all too real: despite the presence of the sleeping Governess during their Act 2 Colloquy, these are genuine physical beings, not imagined phantoms or indefinite apparitions.

In this unequivocally corrupted world, Mrs Grose is certainly right to fear for the safety of her charges, Flora and Miles. And this was a magnificent performance by Dame Anne Murray, whose lyrical, eloquent cries convincingly conveyed the housekeeper’s heartfelt anxiety, motherly love and tremulous fear for the children’s welfare. In the ‘Letter Scene’, Murray’s clear, focused lines powerfully demonstrated her genuine concern when Miles is dismissed from his school; although the appearance of Quint’s uncanny celeste motif hints at the cause of Miles disgrace, Murray’s outpouring of relief that the Governess shares her faith that Miles cannot be truly ‘bad’ was truly touching.

Despite rather woolly diction, the Welsh soprano Rebecca Evans went from strength to strength as the performance progressed. The occasional ‘catch’ in the voice was evident in the opening scene, marring for example her telling line ‘O why did I come?’; but as her confidence grew she produced some beautiful, floating curves in the upper register, subtly lingering, abstractedly, and perfectly conveying the deluded romanticism of a dreamer whose unworldliness proves more dangerous than the actual horrors she imagines. Transfigured by a single beam of light, Evans’ final, chilling wail, over the body of the dead Miles was both poignant and emotionally piercing.

Cheryl Barker (as Miss Jessel a former governess), Rebecca Evans (as The Governess), Nazan Fikret (as Flora) and Ann Murray (as Mrs Grose the housekeeper)

The dual role of the Narrator/Quint was performed by tenor Michael Colvin. He projected well in the Prologue, carelessly flickering through the pages of the manuscript which holds that tale, his confident, warm voice aptly conveying the nonchalance, bordering on neglect, of the handsome guardian, and also foreshadowing the seductive charm of Peter Quint himself. Quint’s first vocal utterance, his unearthly nocturnal appeal in Scene 8, ‘At Night’, slyly crept in, oozing bitter-sweet charm and building to a commanding, hypnotic plea. However, Colvin did not always capture vocally either the pernicious seductiveness or menacing malevolence of the presumptuous valet. Certainly his actions leave little room for doubt: he whips the bed clothes from the sleeping boy’s bed, lures and urges him to embrace ‘freedom’. But, it was not until the Act 2 battle between Quint and the Governess that Colvin captured the truly forceful note of desperate evil as he implored Miles to steal the letter. Cheryl Barker, as Miss Jessel, was equally compelling: she avoided overstatement and dramatic extremes, balancing menace with lyricism, indicative both of her spurned love for Quint and her despair at his betrayal.

Completing a superb cast, Charlie Manton as Miles and Nazan Fikret as Flora were outstanding, never overshadowed or out-sung by their professional partners. Manton’s Miles was certainly a match for any of the adults: effortlessly evading their attempts to constrain and curtail his burgeoning individuality and maturity. His ‘Malo song’ was beautiful in its innocence and purity, the intonation perfect and the words delivered with unaffected clarity, as the cor anglais twined sinuously around the haunting melody. And, the Act II piano-playing scene was expertly pulled off, as the precocious young boy convincingly mimed his way through an increasingly piquant sequence of piano pieces, thereby distracting his guardians and liberating Flora to flee to the arms of Miss Jessel. A final-year undergraduate at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, Nazan Fikret is an experienced in this role, which she first sang aged twelve, and her confidence and accuracy suggest a promising talent.

Returning to conduct The Turn of the Screw in London for the first time since 1956, Sir Charles Mackerras created unstoppable musico-dramatic momentum in the pit, the sliding screens allowing him to maintain the expressive tension in the instrumental interludes, as each scene merged seamlessly into the next. This was both powerful ensemble work and impressive solo playing. Every colour and nuance was presented with precision and force; indeed, one would scarcely guess that there were only 13 players in the pit - the timpani outbursts were spine-shuddering. A curtain call presentation by current Music Director Ed Gardner to Mackerras acknowledged the latter’s achievement over 61 years, at this theatre and internationally; clearly there are no signs of a diminishing of the conductor’s dramatic insight or musical energy.

Britten’s opera is essentially an ‘intimate’, even private, work: 16 short scenes interspersed with tightly twisting instrumental variations enact a psychological drama presented by just 6 soloists accompanied by only 13 instrumentalists. Yet together, McVicar and Mackerras argued persuasively that the horrors and fears that this Jamesian tale reveals are vast and threaten us all.

Claire Seymour

image=http://www.operatoday.com/the_turn_of_the_screw010.png image_description=Cheryl Barker (as Miss Jessel a former governess) and Michael Colvin (as Peter Quint a former man-servant) [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of the English National Opera] product=yes product_title=Benjamin Britten: The Turn of the Screw product_by=Governess: Rebecca Evans; Mrs Grose: Ann Murray; Peter Quint/Narrator: Michael Colvin; Miss Jessel: Cheryl Barker; Flora: Nazan Fikret; Miles: Charlie Manton. Director: David McVicar. Conductor: Sir Charles Mackerras. English National Opera, London Coliseum. Thursday 22nd October 2009. product_id=Above: Cheryl Barker (as Miss Jessel a former governess) and Michael Colvin (as Peter Quint a former man-servant)

All photos by Clive Barda courtesy of the English National Opera
Posted by Gary at 4:09 PM

Ravel and L’Heure Espagnole at Covent Garden

Yet this is not an evening of dark cynicism: John MacFarlane’s front cloths for Ravel’s L'Heure Espagnole and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi for — a glimpse of busty cleavage, enticing coils of pasta — signal that it’s earthly pleasure and not divine punishment which is centre stage in these witty, delightful productions.

Macfarlane’s set for Ravel’s one-act gem is inspired. Frustrated by her husband’s prim devotion to his business affairs, and longing for more action in the boudoir, Concepcion, the frisky wife of the town clockmaker, Torquemada, is literally confined in the false proscenium. There are many clever touches; as when the embossed rose wallpaper and rich curtains are slyly transformed by Mimi Jordan Sherin’s slick lighting from shop décor to bedroom draperies. Torquemada’s weekly maintenance tour of the civic clocks offers Concepcion her sole hour of freedom, and the passionate poet, Gonzalve, is quick to take advantage. But, on this occasion, Torquemada has ordered Ramiro, a muleteer, to wait in the shop. The overwhelming number of ticking clock faces reminds us of just how little time Concepcion has to enact her plan, adding a tinge of hysteria to the frantic mood. And, there is plenty of opportunity for farce and slapstick, as first Gonzalve and then a second admirer, the banker Don Inigo Gomez, hide in the clocks, while Concepcion decides to spurn both, in favour of the brawny Ramiro.

The characters are parodies worthy of commedia dell’arte — the bloated banker, the idealist poet, the gullible youth, the frustrated housewife — and they are clothed in suitably garish costumes by Nicky Gillibrand. The Romanian soprano, Ruxandra Donose, is impressive as the aptly named Concepcion, fully convincing as she grows ever-more frustrated and desperate, and singing with superb projection. As the muscular muleteer, Ramiro, Christopher Maltman’s bright, golden sound is perfect. Maltman bounds with puppyish energy, happily heaving and twirling grandfather clocks at Concepcion’s whim, and showing both heft and lyricism in this detailed interpretation of the role. The hapless poet, Gonzalve, is sung by the French tenor, Yann Beuron, whose warm, passionate tone conjures a suitably dreamy air; Andrew Shore delivers a typically witty and well-timed cameo as the blustering Gomez.

Ravel’s score is rich and ravishing, almost too sophisticated for the ribald tale it illuminates. Pappano paced it perfectly, allowing us to appreciate how deftly Ravel eases between genres — here the lilt of a pasodoble, now a jazzy syncopation, next a pulsing habanera. Ravel is just as capable of musical irony as Les Six, and just as adept at pastiche and parody as Stravinsky. This is a dense, detailed score, with castanets, tambour de basque and sarrusophone supplementing just a few of the sounds supplementing the large orchestral forces. Drawing exquisitely refined playing from the ROH orchestra, Pappano reined in the forces at his disposal, never overwhelming his singers, while allowing the details to serve the stage incident.

A chorus of show-girls joins the cast for the final number on lust and love, the dazzling glitz and glamour both darkly ironic and lushly entertaining: we heed the moral, while relishing the rollick.

SCHICCHI-209-BENGTSSON AS LAURETTA&ALLEN AS SCHICCHI-(C)PERSSON.pngMaria Bengtsson as Lauretta and Thomas Allen as Gianni Schicchi

Long overshadowed by its tragic partners in Puccini’s triptych Il Trittico, Gianni Schicci is a delicious satire on avarice. Buoso Donati’s death prompts an anxious search by his presumptuous but down-at-heel family for his will: locating it, Rinuccio demands permission to marry the peasant girl, Lauretta, in exchange for handing it to his aunt, Zita. All are distraught to discover that Buoso has left his fortune to a monastery, but Rinuccio assures them that there is someone who can help — Gianni Schicchi, Lauretta’s father. Impersonating first a doctor who declares Buoso revived, and then Buoso himself, Schicci conjures a plan to ensure his and the lovers’ future wealth and happiness, while the Donatis make greedy grabs for their inheritance, torn between their avarice and their social pretensions.

Jones gives us quite a dark reading of this score: the grimy, drab 1950s décor, complete with peeling wallpaper, broken television set and rusting radiators, certainly enhances the Donatis’ mood of desperation. The large cast, including children and farceurs, are expertly choreographed throughout, in an astoundingly detailed, meticulous staging which demonstrates both imagination and an intelligent responsiveness to Puccini’s score. Not a movement, gesture or facial expression is misplaced: manic it certainly is, but never messy.

The cast are uniformly superb — a convincing portrait of collective greed. Yet each character is fully individualised through gesture. This revival featured many of the original cast, and they clearly enjoyed themselves, musically and dramatically. Mezzo-soprano Elena Zilio was outstanding in the role of Aunt Zita, confident and controlled; while Gwynne Howell made for a distinguished Simone, the head of the grasping clan. They were matched by fine performances from Marie McLaughlin (La Ciesca), Jeremy White (Betto di Signa), Robert Poulton (Marco), Alan Oke (Gherardo) and Janis Kelly (a hand-bag swinging Nella).

SCHICCHI-374-(C)JOHAN PERSSON.pngFrom left to right: Jeremy White as Betto di Signa, Gwynne Howell as Simone, Janis Kelly as Nella, Elena Zilio as Zita, Marie McLaughlin as La Ciesca, Robert Poulton as Marco, Thomas Allen as Gianni Schicchi

The celebrated aria, ‘O mio babbino caro’, is probably the only number from this dazzling score which is familiar to many in the audience. Here, rather than stopping the show, it was expertly incorporated into the dramatic fabric. Maria Bengtsson charmed and delighted as Lauretta; her powerful, affecting rendition was aptly supported by Pappano, who shaped the phrases sensitively and eloquently. Bengtsson was ably partnered by the American tenor, Stephen Costello who, as the dashing, aspiring young lover, both looked and sounded the part, his ardent tenor ringing out warm and true. In the title role, Thomas Allen gave a typically consummate musical and dramatic performance.

These two stylish, clever stagings offer an evening of light mischief, musical charm and dramatic froth. Delicious — not to be missed.

Claire Seymour

image=http://www.operatoday.com/HEURE-370-DONOSE%20AS%20CONCEPCION-%28C%29PERSSON.png image_description=Ruxandra Donose as Concepcion [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of the Royal Opera House] product=yes product_title=Maurice Ravel: L’Heure espagnole
Giacomo Puccini: Gianni Schicchi. product_by=Director: Richard Jones. Set Designer: John Macfarlane. Costume Designs: Nicky Gillibrand. Lighting: Mimi Jordan Sherin. Choreography: Lucy Burge. Illusionist: Paul Kieve. Conductor: Antonio Pappano.
L’Heure espagnole — Torquemada: Bonaventura Bottone; Concepcion: Ruxandra Donose; Gonzalve: Yann Beuron; Ramiro: Christopher Maltman; Don Inigo Gomez: Andrew Shore.
Gianni Schicchi: Thomas Allen; Lauretta: Maria Bengtsson; Rinuccio: Stephen Costello; Simone: Gwynne Howell; Zita: Elena Zilio; Betto di Signa: Jeremy White; Marco: Robert Poulton; La Ciesca: Marie McLaughlin; Gherardo: Alan Oke; Nella: Janis Kelly product_id=Above: Ruxandra Donose as Concepcion

All photos by Johan Persson courtesy of the Royal Opera House
Posted by Gary at 7:23 AM

Der Rosenkavalier at the MET

If it had been redesigned and restaged by Luc Bondy of this season’s Tosca, the rising curtain would not show us a splendid rococo bedroom with St. Stephen’s Cathedral subtly phallic in the distance but would be placed in an underground dormitory where three strapping stablehands would service the Marschallin whenever Octavian took a breather. No doubt we will live to see such a Rosenkavalier. For the moment, happily, we’ve still got the forty-year-old Nathaniel Merrill production on Robert O’Hearn’s sets, in which pretty much every action seems to take place synchronically with descriptions of or references to that action in Strauss’s score. How very Old Hat! (The hats — and gowns and wigs and uniforms — are probably less old, actually, though still in the proper style.)

Persson_Sophie.pngMiah Persson as Sophie

Last Monday, the production looked spiffy — how much of it is original and not rebuilt and repainted, I wonder? — and Edo de Waart led a sparkling performance of this most graciously autumnal of chestnuts. The comic business may be familiar, but it went off without a hitch, from the well-behaved lapdog and the wheezing lawyer in Act I to the dozen sword-waving hussars in Act II to the raucous children in Act III. Stage direction is credited to Robin Guarino, and there are some touches I don’t remember: Did the children always mistake Valzacchi and Faninal for their Papa and have to be rerouted? (That was funny.) Did the egotistical Singer (Barry Banks, in full satirical glory) always trample his music in disgust when leaving the levee? (So was that.) Did Baron Ochs always try to make out with another, more willing maid of the Marschallin when Mariandel proved elusive? Most interesting of all, maybe, did the Marschallin always totter about on an imaginary crutch when daydreaming of her future, aged self? Or has Renée Fleming come up with that bit in the years since she sang it last? She possesses comic chops she has scarcely used in her prima donna career — as has been true of many great stars.

What all this shows is the novelty that can be added, as casts change and work out new business, even in the most traditional stagings of thrice-familiar operas.

ROSENKAVALIER_Fleming_and_Graham_3750.pngSusan Graham as Octavian and Renée Fleming as Marschallin

As she has approached the Marschallin’s years (allowing for inflation of the youthful stage from the 1760s to our era), Fleming’s voice has grown thinner, less penetrating on top but fuller, more satisfying in the lower reaches, with less of the famous velvet cream that thrills her fans but annoys those of us who have found her phrasing inexact. These sins were always less noticeable in German roles anyway — Strauss keeps her on her mettle. She was humorous here, as suits a Viennese, and maintained hauteur without the goddess-like dimension Kiri Te Kanawa used to bring, perhaps inappropriately, to the final scene.

Susan Graham makes a more convincing bumptious boy than she does a graceful lady in certain other roles. While Fleming’s voice has lost some luster on top, Graham’s I find thinner, ungraceful, in the lower reaches, more inclined to the blundering quality of “Mariandel,” even when she is singing Octavian’s lines. Her acting is appealing in both the amorous scenes with Fleming and the “flirtatious” punches she gives the Baron whenever he grabs “Mariandel” inappropriately — but the dramatic peak of the night came when Graham and Miah Persson’s Sophie stopped dead, half bowing, eye to eye, infatuated at first glance at the presentation of the rose and seemed almost unable to continue in their aristocratic ritual.

ROSENKAVALIER_Fleming_Graham_Sigmundsson_Persson_4461.pngSusan Graham as Octavian, Renée Fleming as Marschallin, Miah Persson as Sophie and Kristin Sigmundsson as Baron Ochs

Miah Persson has a lively, energetic, easy high soprano, vocally lacking nothing called for by the part, but she lacked for me certain ideal Sophic qualities: there was less girlishness, less poutiness than with most. She was a woman, not a child — but Sophie is specifically a naïve fifteen. Her chatter on being introduced to the Marschallin was too calm for chatter, her breasts seemed awfully prominent and exposed for a girl fresh from a convent, and her grin is too wide; too, she is the tallest Sophie ever to grace this production — she has all the goods for Sophie, but she isn’t Sophie, at least not in this production. Perhaps they play the part more maturely in her native Sweden, a country sadly lacking in aristocratic convents.

Kristin Sigmundsson, tall even beside Susan Graham, made a grabby, sleazy, stingy, you-love-him-because-you-loathe-him Baron Ochs. His grainy voice is not what one would want in a lover in any case, and both his topmost and bottom notes were weak to inaudibility, but he inhabited the role to perfection. Hans-Joachim Ketelsen sang a fine Faninal, less dignified than some — but then, the man is a ridiculous snob, redeemed only because the piece is a comedy with Mozartean aspirations. Wendy White, as Annina, and Jennifer Check, as Sophie’s governess had the loudest voices on stage, though Jeremy Galyon’s policeman came close.

Some of the less well-judged cutenesses that afflicted recent revivals are gone, and the entire presentation is snappier. Either Robin Guarino or Edo de Waart should have most of the credit, but all hands win applause.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Fleming_Marschalin.png image_description=Renée Fleming as Marschallin [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier product_by=Octavian: Susan Graham; Marschallin: Renée Fleming; Sophie: Miah Persson; Baron Ochs: Kristin Sigmundsson; Italian Singer: Barry Banks; Faninal: Hans-Joachim Ketelsen; Annina: Wendy White. Conducted by Edo de Waart. Metropolitan Opera. Performance of October 19. product_id=Above: Renée Fleming as Marschallin

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 6:55 AM

Pascal Dusapin: Faustus, the Last Night

This version of Faust differs from others, since it eschews the traditional narrative which starts with Faust signing a pact with the devil, moves to the sometimes picaresque adventures of the ensorcelled Faust, and ends with the devil claiming his soul. Instead of retelling the story, Dusapin assembled the English-language libretto from various sources to create a text focused on the trials and temptations of Faust during the minutes before his fateful contract with the devil is due. In a sense Dusapin takes his cue from Marlowe’s climactic soliloquy from the end of his Tragical History of Doctor Faustus:

Ah Faustus,
Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then though must be damned perpetually,
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,That time may cease ad midnight never come!....
O lente, lente currite noctis equi!
The stars move still; time runs; the clock will strike;
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned. . . .
(Act 5, lines 57-61; 66-68)

In creating this work, Faust is not necessarily a character worth saving, with the inanity of his diabolic pact made painfully clear, and Mephistopheles characterized with the dimensionality which makes him more than a minion of Satan, but approaching the persona of Lucifer in challenging the nature of mortal existence. The conversational tone of Faustus, the Last Night may be traced to the kind of opera Strauss created in Capriccio, in the medium foregoes the depiction of physical action to result instead in a shift of thought and concept. (The concept is also used in Henri Pousseu’s Votre Faust (1969), which revolves around a discussion about the prospect of an opera on the subject of Faust.) The conversational aspect of Dusapin’s Faustusalso echoes some elements of early opera, which resulted in various settings of familiar myth. Akin to those early seventeenth-century works, music in Faustus serves as a means to an end, a way for Dusapin to convey the verbal ideas effectively. At times, too, the score functions as a kind of soundtrack in order to allow the work to shift between scenes smoothly and offer cues to mood and tone.

The performers as a whole conveyed the work effectively. The English-language text emerges clearly, and while listeners should not have a problem with the enunciation, subtitles are possible in the original language, as well as French and German. Since the libretto is not published with the DVD, those interested in exploring the text further may use the subtitles as a point of departure (future DVDs like this would benefit from the inclusion of the full text in the digital medium, as a matter of convenience for the user). As Mephistopheles, Urban Malmberg personifies the role. His command of the part is remarkable and serves as a foil for the doomed Faustus, as depicted by Georg Nigl. At times Malmberg and Nigl overlap their lines, as found in the score, and this underscores the blurring of their characters in this work. In Dusapin’s Faustus, Mephistopheles can be as absorbed in thought as Faust. In lieu of a stage devil who simply represents the diabolical forces, Mephistopheles offers some comments which can be as intriguing as the ones Dusapin puts into Faust’s mouth.

This resembles the interchangeability which occurs in modern productions of Don Giovanni in the singers who portray the title character and his servant Leporello sometimes switch their roles between performances. In this sense, Malberg and Nigl work well together in this work to create a good dynamic, and the other principals respond well to it. The angel is one of the more engaging of Dusapin’s characters, and Caroline Stein gave the role the level of definition to counterbalance Mephistopheles. The other two characters, Robert Wörle as Sly (derived from the character in the prologue to Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew) and Jaco Huijpen as Togod offer various perspectives on the dilemma in which Faust finds himself. Throughout the performance the conductor Jonathan Stockhammer allows the orchestra to support the singers deftly. His tempos reflect his sensitivity to the text, which emerges clearly in an engaging reading of the score for this new version of the Faust legend.

James L. Zychowicz

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Naive000898.png image_description=Pascal Dusapin: Faustus, the Last Night product=yes product_title=Pascal Dusapin: Faustus, the Last Night product_by=Georg Nigl (Faustus); Urban Malmberg (Mephistopheles); Robert Wörle (Sly); Jaco Huijpen (Togod); Caroline Stein (L’ange | The angel); Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon, Jonathan Stockhammer, conductor. product_id=Naïve MO 782177 [DVD] price=$??? product_url=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B000H0MH4A
Posted by jim_z at 12:18 AM

October 25, 2009

Baldassare Galuppi: Jahel

Had Burney visited Venice and the Incurabili short earlier, on May 24, he might have attended the premiere of Jahel, a Galuppi oratorio recently unearthed at the Zurich Central Library in Switzerland — probably a remake of the score already performed at the Ospedale dei Mendicanti in 1747 and 1748. By 18th-century standards, 23 years was quite a long time-span in the change of musical taste. Perhaps that’s why in 1772 Galuppi reverted to the same subject on a different libretto and with a larger cast of characters under the title Debbora prophetissa, but the core story remained the same, based on chapters 4-5 of Judges in the version provided by the Latin Vulgate Bible.

Actually, despite the triumphs gathered by his operas in London, Saint Petersburg and Vienna, nowhere did Galuppi enjoy more popular acclaim than as a composer of Latin oratorios on Bible subjects for the Ospedali of his native Venice. It is reported that his Tres pueri hebraei in captivitate Babylonis — premiered in 1744 at the Mendicanti — scored some hundred (paying) performances, a feat comparable to those of modern musical theater. Unfortunately, the 1770 version of Jahel is all we are left with in this genre, since two more oratorios surviving in musical sources (Adamo caduto of 1747) and Il sacrificio di Jephtha of 1749) are in Italian.

At the outset of the eighteenth century, the language of oratorios at the Incurabili became exclusively Latin, to remain so under the musical directorship of Porpora, Jommelli, Cocchi, Ciampi, and Baldassare Galuppi. A similar trend affected more or less the remaining three Ospedali. Although the librettists’ choice was for a simplified variety of Latin, aping at the stock imagery from contemporary cantata and opera seria texts, one wonders whether the traditional status of Venice as a target for multinational operagoers could account for such an unexpected association between Latin and bel canto on a scale even larger than in Catholic church-service proper.

Hearing those notes again within the Scuola Grande di San Rocco — the ‘Sistine Chapel of Venice’ studded with masterpieces by Tintoretto, Titian and Tiepolo — was well worth a trip. As to the actual merit of the performance, one might regret that a few arias were pruned of their da capo, or that a harpsichord was substituted to the organ stipulated in the continuo section. Nevertheless, the sparse period band Orchestra Barocca di Bologna, some ten instrumentalists led by Paolo Faldi, sounded well attuned to style requirements, with rhythmic stamina and accurate tuning generally deserving appreciation throughout.

Galuppi_Jahel_title-page.pngTitle page of Jahel [Zentralbibliothek Zürich]

Not all the six singing ladies would have deserved the same applause as their early counterparts, either out of lacking experience or worn-out voices (the latter was probably the case for Candace Smith in the role of Sisara). Yet both sopranos Pamela Lucciarini in the title role and Silvia Vajente (Debbora) delivered terrific amounts of passagework, competing on a tight edge as to projection and clarion notes. In the end, Vajente apparently won by a neck thanks to a clearer diction and to the sensuous rendering of her aria “Rosa et lilio”, accompanied by a pair of obbligato mandolins. As Barac, mezzo Elena Biscuola unsheathed lovely dark color, accomplished technique and dramatic panache. Her climactic duet with Vajente (“Fugato jam maerore”, just before the final ensemble) was also praiseworthy.

Patrizia Vaccari, a coloratura soprano of considerable experience, delivered a defiant rendering of “Non horret cor forte”, much in the vein of Constanze’s “Martern aller Arten”. The taxing ‘storm’ aria for Haber, “Pugnent nubes fulminando”, emphasized the good natural qualities of young soprano Laura Antonaz, such as sterling color and easiness in ascending to the highest pitches. Her coloratura technique needs further refinement, though.

Carlo Vitali

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Baldassare_Galuppi_Memorial.png image_description=Statue of Galuppi in Burano [Wikipedia Commons] product=yes product_title=Baldassare Galuppi: Jahel, oratorio in 2 parts (1770) product_by=Ensemble vocale Cappella Artemisia. Paolo Faldi, conductor. Orchestra Barocca di Bologna (with original instruments). World modern premiere. A Festival Galuppi production. Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, Italy. Performance of 3 October 2009.
Posted by Gary at 9:23 PM

La Fille du Régiment in San Francisco

Unlike the more serious Saturday night audience or the sleepy Sunday afternoon audience these aficionados are truly excited and ready to be entertained. At least a few, and maybe many in the Friday night audience (10/16) were able to make a direct comparison of Laurent Pelly’s live on-stage Fille du Régiment in San Francisco to the canned Live from the Met in HD version (there is a two minute delay) they saw at a movie palace near you last April.

Laurent Pelly heads France’s Théåtre National de Toulouse, and has quite a string of big time opera credits as well. He created this production of Donizetti’s opéra comique at Covent Garden in early 2007. Its heroine was none other than Natalie Dessay, in France nearly as prominent a national figure as Carla Bruni, and in the rest of Europe and America accepted as one of the greater divas of the moment. Mr. Pelly used Mme. Dessay’s manic personality and her former ballerina physicality to create Marie, the daughter of the regiment. It was, if you believe the manic British critics, a marriage made in operatic heaven, Mr. Pelly’s comic book fantasies sublimely embodied in a great diva.

Of course La Fille du Régiment is not just about Marie, because Tonio loves Marie and enlists in the Regiment to gain her hand in marriage. But what Tonio is really about are nine high C’s, and, well, later there is a D-flat to boot. Juan Diego Florez in lederhosen is the epitome of delightful comic book caricature, not to mention the epitome of bel canto style as well as the master of the thrilling and easy high C. Mr. Pelly’s production at Covent Garden (and a few months later in Vienna) boasted Mr. Florez’ high C’s, as did the Met Live in HD in April 2008, and just now has San Francisco!

San Francisco has had the additional good fortune to boast German soprano Diana Damrau as Marie, sparing us the adulation demanded by more famous divas, especially when they have accomplished a tour de force. It was very hard not to think of Mme. Damrau’s Marie as an imitation of Natalie Dessay, as she did everything exactly as had la Dessay. Except that Mme. Damrau is a very fine singer, not yet showing signs of vocal wear and tear, and is a far more convincing performer. It took most of the first act to allay the irritation of imitation (wishing that this fine artist could have created her own Marie), and be won over by Mr. Pelly’s style as realized by la Damrau.

The San Francisco performances have had much more to boast about. The Marquis de Berkenfeld of Meredith Arwady is a masterwork of a comic book personage. She provided a delicious caricature of the French language in the dialogues, her broad American twang apparent to all ears, and made her comedic joie contagious while her sizable low mezzo voice and presence commanded this role that must obstruct (but only briefly) the fulfillment of young love. Not to mention the fully satisfying, grand characterization of the spoken Duchess of Krakenthorp by an old opera broad, Sheila Nadler — not the peculiar insertion of ancient actresses that amused, maybe, audiences in London and New York.

Sergeant Sulpice was effectively enough rendered in San Francisco by Bruno Pratico who had sung the role in Houston, replacing Alessandro Corbelli who created the role at Covent Garden and appeared on the Met’s Live in HD as well. Jake Gardner was a careful and supportive Hortensius.

By the second act on the War Memorial stage Laurent Pelly’s production became less a star vehicle and more a coherent theater piece, perhaps due to a set that now at least established clear spacial perimeters in which Donizetti’s voice lesson could be drawn in detail, and Diana Damrau could show her considerable stuff as a bel canto heroine. Her red wig with its turned up fixed pigtail gave her the requisite character abstraction within Mr. Pelly’s intent to comically objectify Donizetti’s sentimental and, Mr. Pelly must have thought, corny story. In fact the ah gee isn’t that sweet factor that we would crave in a more straightforward telling of this silly story was replaced by groan of amused disbelief when Tonio and the regiment arrived to rescue Marie on a WWI tank.

The weakness of Mr. Pelly’s production was its setting, designed by his longtime collaborator Chantal Thomas, that did little to define or support his comic abstractions, offering confusing decoration in the first act (maps on the floor and walls) and a too simplistic outline of a house, like an uninspired theater set, in the second act. But Mr. Pelly’s clever, always tasteful stage antics, often enacted on the stage apron provided ample opportunity for his performers to amuse and charm the audience, and that they did.

In London the production was conducted by Bruno Campanella and in New York by Marco Armiliato, both recognized masters of bel canto. In San Francisco the conductor was Andriy Yurkevych, music director of the Ukrainian National Opera, who suppressed the soaring musicality and rhythmic vitality of the Donizetti score in favor of a square beat that deadened tempos and fostered musical drudgery. Otherwise this production could have provided some of the more splendid evenings of this San Francisco Opera fall season.

It is no contest as to what is the more satisfying medium, the big screen or the big stage. The stage allows a constant context within which characters musically and dramatically develop, and provides the distance needed to objectify the super size and overwrought musicality of opera. The big screen too easily forces a close-up focus that must move constantly to keep us visually involved, and thereby insists on personality rather than on character. The Met Live in HD was a big dose of Mme. Dessay. Of some comedic interest was the camera catching up with Dessay and Florez as they left the stage after the first act finale, and Mr. Florez’ revelation that he was wearing his own underwear.

Michael Milenski

image=http://www.operatoday.com/FloDam1CW.png imagedescription=Diana Damrau (Marie) and Juan Diego Flórez (Tonio) [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of the San Francisco Opera]

product=yes producttitle=G. Donizetti: La Fille du Régiment productby=Marie: Diana Damrau; Tonio: Juan Diego Flórez; Sulpice: Bruno Praticò; The Marquise of Berkenfeld: Meredith Arwady; The Duchess of Krakenthorp: Sheila Nadler; Hortensius: Jake Gardner; Corporal: Kenneth Kellogg; Peasant: Chester Pidduck; Notary: Keith Perry. Conductor: Andriy Yurkevych. Director: Laurent Pelly. Associate Director: Roy Rallo. Dramaturg: Agathe Mélinand. Set Designer: Chantal Thomas. Costume Designer: Laurent Pelly. Original Lighting Designer: Joël Adam. Choreographer: Karine Girard. product_id=Above: Diana Damrau (Marie) and Juan Diego Flórez (Tonio) [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of the San Francisco Opera]

Posted by michael_m at 6:20 PM

Ruxandra Donose stars in L'heure Espagnole at the Royal Opera House

L’heure espagnole is a rapid-moving farce, and Concepción is the pivot around whom all the action revolves. It’s a demanding role for she’s on stage all the time, carrying the action. “It takes a high level of energy to keep going like this for nearly one hour”, says Miss Donose. “I think it’s wonderful how Ravel gets the orchestration to create vivid details like the cuckoos in the cuckoo clocks,it’s so funny. That’s why this opera is done so often in concert, it lives through the music”. She has sung the role in two separate concert performances, but this Royal Opera House production is fully staged, which emphasizes the movement and drama in the plot.

“Concepción has only one hour in the week when her husband is away, so she has to squeeze all her frustrations into that time”, says Miss Donose, “She’s doesn’t get any attention from her husband, but when she tries to relieve her frustrations, she gets all this unplanned attention from other men so she’s frustrated again”.

Everything spins around Concepción, rather like the clockwork mechanisms all round her. “Timing and blocking mean a lot in this production. On the very first day, I was told that this production, by Richard Jones, is very difficult, because there are lots of very precise details and they might take a lot of time to get right. Actually, that went smoothly, but it was interesting coming to the character from outside to inside. There are gestures that don’t come naturally to me, but are part of this Concepción, so I have to make them my own. It’s a process like putting on a costume, you put on those hundreds of small details so they come naturally to you.so you slip into the role.and become the character”.

Because Ravel’s music is so precise, “The ensemble is very important”, adds Miss Donose, “the other characters are much more than caricatures. The poet Gonzalve (Yann Beuron) can’t stop making poetry, and the banker Don Inigo Gomez (Andrew Shore) is solid, like he’s stuffed with money. And the muleteer Ramiro, played by Christopher Maltman, is a strong fellow, who doesn’t do small talk. The clocks aren’t as heavy as they look but they’re bulky and Maltmann has to carry them up and down when he’s singing! ”

“Torquemada (Bonaventura Bottone) lives only for his clocks, they are his only passion, but Concepción is passion, and so direct” ! Just as Torquemada prefers objects to people, Concepción uses people as objects to get what she needs. “Husband and wife are on completely different planets. Concepción is very terre à terre, as the French say, she’s very down to earth so she’s extremely direct. She’s unhappy but determined to get what she needs. In this production, she’s like child who wants a toy and stamps her feet if she can’t get it”. Concepción’s obsessiveness is not so different from Torquemada’s after all. “I’m not like that”, says Miss Donose, “so all the detailed gestures helped me understand what to do with this character.who is much more single-mined and direct than most women”.

HEURE-743-MALTMAN AS RAMIRO&DONOSE AS CONCEPCION-(C)PERSSON.pngChristopher Maltman as Ramiro and Ruxandra Donose as Concepcion

Ruxandra Donose’s starring role in L’heure Espagnole reflects her status as one of the more expressive personalities among the rising generation of mezzo-sopranos. She’s reached the stage where she’s so technically assured that she can focus on developing the characters she portrays. She’s sung Marguerite many times, including with Nagano and Dutoit, and has done many Carmens, Charlottes and even a few trouser roles. Among her favorites though are the Composer in Aridane auf Naxos and Cenerentola. In the near future, she’ll be singing a lot of Mozart, Singing these roles is enriching. “It’s a great experience to embody someone you are not yourself, but can create. For a few hours you have a chance to live another life”.

Anne Ozorio

image=http://www.operatoday.com/HEURE-370-DONOSE%20AS%20CONCEPCION-%28C%29PERSSON.png image_description=Ruxandra Donose as Concepcion [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of the Royal Opera House]

product=yes producttitle=Maurice Ravel: L’heure Espagnole
Giacomo Puccini: Gianni Schicchi product
by=For more details on the Gianni Schicchi and* L’heure Espagnole *double bill, please see the Royal Opera House web site. product_id=Above: Ruxandra Donose as Concepcion

All photos by Johan Persson courtesy of the Royal Opera House

Posted by anne_o at 4:40 PM

Achim Freyer's production of Wagner's Siegfried at Los Angeles Opera

After all, those same freeways lead to the Music Center and its Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, home of Los Angeles Opera. Those commuters who made it to the house for the 5:30 curtain had their vehicular efforts rewarded. In the last of five regular season performances of Wagner’s Siegfried, Achim Freyer’s performance art aesthetic and conductor James Conlon’s mastery of the music and his orchestra combined for a riveting, charged evening of operatic theatre.

Freyer’s approach to Siegfried built on motifs and designs already established in the Das Rheingold and Die Walküre seen last season. A circular platform serves as the foundation for eerily costumed figures who play out the action of Wagner’s narrative in a limbo of archetypes (and their doubles). Outlandish limbs swivel like tentacles; giant heads top the dwarf figures; a furry jacket, embedded with keys and the size of a woolly mammoth, stands for Wotan’s enlarged ego. Wotan himself appears most often almost immobile in a stiff, dirty white-and-gray-barred outfit, as if jailed by his own ambition and hypocrisy. But when Wotan as Wanderer meets his match in Siegfried in act three, a shrunken double (perhaps a child?) straggles despondently across the stage, clutching the broken remnants of his “light-sabre” staff.

And Siegfried himself is literally the muscle-bound clown that many observers consider Wagner’s hero to be. With an outrageous blond wig of tight curls like so many pigtails and a blue muscle shirt chest above the furry pants apparently made from the bear referenced at his entrance, this is a Siegfried who may be laughable at times but who is always resolute in his focus. He wants to know who he is and where he came from, so that he can discern where he is going.

Freyer’s set seems inspired from a line near the end of the opera about “the race being almost run” (paraphrasing, obviously). So white lines divide the set into track lanes, and the singers often position themselves on starter blocks. This interpretation doesn’t really open up the opera to any new insights, but it does bring a degree of coherence to the action. What really matters is that Freyer’s imagination keeps the stage picture continually alive, a quality especially appreciated in an opera that takes a very long time to tell not really all that much story. A couple of moments disappoint, however. The crucial confrontation when Siegfried uses Nothung to shatter the Wanderer’s staff is awkwardly handled, with Wotan simply turning to a figure clad in a black leotard (one of several omnipresent staging facilitators) to exchange his long white light sabre for a clutch of fragmented light sabers. The dragon is played more for comic effect, with a Godzilla puppet that only reached to Siegfried’s knees. It’s funny, and considering Siegfried’s oblivious response to this supposedly mortal threat, that works. But when it comes time for the fatal blow, Siegfried turns to face the back half of the revolving disc, which has risen up with a small opening through which smoke billows. Siegfried casts his Nothung/light sabre through there, and the giant Fafner stumbles through, mortally wounded. It’s as if Freyer had two ideas for the dragon, both of which he liked so much he couldn’t choose one or the other. Well, better too many ideas than too few.

Where Freyer really succeeds is in making the connections between all the themes and characters. An impressive example in this Siegfried came at the end, when the huge Wotan coat stood in for the rock on which Brünnhilde slumbers (and perhaps her armor as well). Just as Siegfried the hero will break her free from her father’s domination, he pushed aside the jacket to release her. Their long duet became as much as hymn to freedom as an erotic celebration, producing the happiest moment in the cycle.

John Treleavan and Linda Watson have sung Wagner before for Los Angeles Opera, but neither was impressive in a recent season’s Tristan und Isolde. They both needed more beauty to their tones for the long passages of heroic lyricism of those doomed lovers. As Siegfried, Treleavan’s penetrating timbre, like that of a beefed-up character tenor, seemed fearless and inexhaustible (although he did eventually struggle with a final high note near the end of the duet). Watson doesn’t wield her substantial instrument with much subtlety, but she can make exciting sounds, and appearing only at the climax of the opera means a certain stridency in her delivery doesn’t wear out her welcome. Her upcoming Götterdämmrung appearance may be a different matter.

Vitalij Kowaljow continues to impress as Wotan. His costuming makes it all but impossible to evaluate him as an actor, but the voice has a most impressive combination of authority and attractiveness. His Wotan will be missed in the last of the cycle. Graham Clark has always been an athletic stage presence, and his hunched, big-bottomed Mime scrambled and sprawled across the stage. No one expects a Mime to sound pretty, and Clark probably couldn’t if he wanted to, but this is a characterization to treasure - repellent, and yet creepily sympathetic. Stacy Tappan’s Forest Bird sang from inside Wotan’s coat, with little claw hands grasping a branch. Her sweet-toned soprano has surprising resonance. Erich Halfvarson returned briefly as Fafner, sounding better when not over-amplified (as he was in his first off-stage lines). Oleg Bryjak will be back in Götterdämmerung as Alberich, and his solid performance Saturday night makes that a very good thing. Jill Grove’s Erda rose up from below stage in an inflating, globe-shaped dress, and Grove’s voice seemed as expansive as her dress. This scene can drag in a tepid production, but Freyer’s stagecraft and Grove’s artistry made it surprisingly exciting.

Hidden away in a closed pit, the Los Angeles Philharmonic performed like heroes and heroines for James Conlon, who conducted like a giant. He let the musicians loose for the instrumental passages, producing a rush of sound that would probably shake the rafters if the pit were open. Of course the singers were always supported, and Conlon’s theatrical sense of pacing contributed a great deal to the success of Freyer’s staging. This is world-class work, and more than makes understandable the LAO’s audience besotted infatuation with their music director.

The first two productions of Freyer’s cycle had many inspired moments, but neither evening quite pulled together as this Siegfried did. Anyone not sure about the complete cycles, to run in early summer next year, should be reassured - Freyer’s eccentric but potent vision is powerful theater, and should only get stronger in effect as all the performers get accustomed to his approach. Before that, in April, comes the first look at Freyer’s Götterdämmerung. Those few who left the Siegfried after the end of act one Saturday night - probably at the absence of an anvil - should return their tickets so that opera goers who love both Wagner’s masterpiece and an innovative, committed performance can grab onto them.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/LAOperaSiegried01.jpg imagedescription=Linda Watson (Brunnhilde), John Treleaven (Siegfried) [Photo by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of LA Opera]

product=yes producttitle=Richard Wagner: Siegfried productby=Graham Clark: Mime; John Treleaven: Siegfried; Vitalij Kowaljow: Wanderer; Oleg Bryjak: Alberich; Eric Halfvarson: Fafner; Stacey Tappan: Woodbird; Jill Grove: Erda; Linda Watson: Brünnhilde. Los Angeles Opera. James Conlon, conductor. Achim Freyer, director/designer. product_id=Above: Linda Watson (Brunnhilde), John Treleaven (Siegfried) [Photo by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of LA Opera]

Posted by chris_m at 1:04 PM

October 20, 2009

Opera star Bartoli explores music of the castrati

By Kerri Mason [Billboard, 20 October 2009]

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Cecilia Bartoli could have followed the path of least resistance. When the Italian mezzo-soprano burst onto the opera scene in the early ’90s with a standard repertoire of Rossini and Mozart, she looked like she could establish a career as a traditional classical artist.

Posted by Gary at 6:05 PM

Brilliantly Simple 'Tolomeo' by ETO

James Conway’s production is beautifully sparse, using only wood and sand to create the shore upon which the characters are tested, and the cast are with him all the way, turning in performances of authentic power and directness.

The plot centres upon the perfidy of Cleopatra, who exiles her eldest son Tolomeo, condemns his wife Seleuce to slavery, and raises her younger son Alessandro to supplant him: these three are shipwrecked on an island ruled over by Araspe and his sister Elisa, who fall in love with Seleuce and Tolomeo respectively. Instead of opting for a grandiose royal sing-off, Conway goes for humanizing the characters, making the lovesick sympathetic even in their cruelty, and the shipwrecked and love-lorn intensely believable. The message seems to be that this music gives voice to the plaints of all the wretched, separated and dispossessed — and the fusion of this approach with grand Handelian arias works wonderfully well.

Clint van der Linde impressed me with his Oberon when he was a student at the RCM, so it was especially good to hear him as a fully developed artist, his singing confident and powerful once ‘Cielo ingiusto’ was out of the way. He was completely convincing as the shipwrecked king, both noble and touching in his grief for his presumed loss, and his arias were sung with the assurance and expressiveness which mark out a real Handel singer — ‘Torna sol per un momento’ was superb, every phrase finely placed and sung with sweet poignancy.

Katherine Manley bears a passing resemblance to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and her singing is of almost equal intensity — she was a very credible and sympathetic Seleuce, her acting as committed as her singing was pure in tone, and ‘Fonti amiche, aure leggere’ could hardly have been more eloquently sung.

Rachel Nicholls was an articulate and richly-toned Elisa, James Laing a sweet-voiced Alessandro, and Neil Baker an exceptionally strong Araspe — the last is a complex character, not the usual blustering villain, so it made sense to have a somewhat lighter voice than the usual Handelian basso in this part.

Tolomeo_ETO_02.gifScene from Tolomeo

The orchestra — especially the wind sections — played with delicacy and verve under the supportive direction of John Andrews, and the production as a whole left you wondering why this beautiful music is not more often heard. If you live near Malvern, Exeter or Cambridge, you will be able to catch it on October 29th, November 5th and November 19th respectively — most highly recommended.

Melanie Eskenazi

image=http://www.operatoday.com/TolomeoETO01.gif image_description=Rachel Nicholls as Elisa [Photo courtesy of English Touring Opera]

product=yes producttitle=G. F. Handel: Tolomeo productby=Click here for cast information. product_id=Above: Rachel Nicholls as Elisa

All photos courtesy of English Touring Opera

Posted by melanie_e at 7:06 AM

October 19, 2009

'Macbeth' toils with brain, not heart

By Catherine Reese Newton [Salt Lake Tribune, 19 October 2009]

In some ways, Verdi’s “Macbeth” — with its witches, ghosts and buckets of blood — is a logical choice to open an opera season right before Halloween. In other ways, it’s a daring choice: There’s no love triangle, the central characters spend more time brooding than emoting, and almost all that blood is shed offstage.

Posted by Gary at 6:05 PM

'Death of Klinghoffer' at last

By Mark Swed [LA Times, 19 October 2009]

Nearly 20 years ago, Los Angeles Opera added its name to the list of commissioners of John Adams’ opera about terrorism, “The Death of Klinghoffer.” The company wrote a check and promised a Music Center production at some unspecified but not unreasonably distant time after the work’s premiere in Brussels in 1991.

Posted by Gary at 5:50 PM

German soprano Nadja Michael gives a staggering performance as Salome at S.F. Opera

By Richard Scheinin [Mercury News, 19 October 2009]

In Richard Strauss’ “Salome,” a teenage nymphomaniac princess discovers her inner necrophilia. At the opera’s conclusion, she kisses the crimson lips of the severed head of a prophet, John the Baptist, served to her on a silver platter. Top that, Quentin Tarantino.

Posted by Gary at 5:48 PM

Casting choices spin gold in Seattle Opera's 'Traviata'

By Bernard Jacobson [Seattle Times, 19 October 2009]

Unlikely as it may seem, given the presence of one of the world’s finest Violettas in what is traditionally called the “gold” cast, it was the “silver” lineup that transformed Seattle Opera’s first “Traviata” in 13 years from compelling to enchanting.

Posted by Gary at 5:45 PM

Tosca at Lyric Opera of Chicago

The opening night performance (seen here) offered the expected celebratory mood with festive dress, champagne, and the house itself decked out in appropriate splendor. The choice of this staging is also a celebration of operatic history: Zeffirelli’s original production for a Covent Garden Tosca with Maria Callas was acquired by Lyric Opera in time for its 2004-05 anniversary season and are used again now in this festive season opener.

Galouzine_Voigt_Tosca_Chicago.pngVladimir Galouzine as Cavaradossi and Deborah Voigt as Tosca

The principal singers in Lyric’s current run (a second cast will be featured for additional performances in January) include Deborah Voigt as Floria Tosca, Vladimir Galouzine as Mario Cavaradossi, and James Morris as the Baron Scarpia. In smaller yet significant roles Craig Irvin sang Cesare Angelotti, Dale Travis was the Sacristan, and John Easterlin portrayed Spoletta. As the curtain rose after a brief orchestral introduction, the former prisoner Angelotti staggered into the Church of Sant’ Andrea della Valle while seeking exile. Here and in the following scene Irvin showed a believable desperation, his athletic movements in line with Angelotti’s vocal utterances underscoring the conviction of his beliefs. The interior of the church as depicted seems appropriately cluttered for the mix of worship and artistic project underway in the first act. Once the prisoner hides, the sacristan enters and busies himself with cleaning as well as credible acts of devotion and prayer. The painter Cavaradossi interrupts the sacristan with a bemused look and the famous line, “Che fai?” [“What are you doing?”]. Galouzine delivered these lines with a tension signaling, on the one hand, his friendly encouragement, yet on the other his preoccupation with both worldly and personal matters. As Cavaradossi turns to unveil the painting of the Madonna, on which he has lately worked, the sacristan recognizes the features of a woman who has often come to pray. At this point Cavaradossi sings the well-known aria “Recondita armonia,” [“What subtle harmony”] in which he muses on the appreciation of beauty in more than one woman, his final thoughts of devotion settling on the beloved Tosca. Here Galouzine began with a warm, almost baritonal depth, his voice blooming into the full tenor range during the course of the piece and finally ending with pointedly steady and ringing high notes on the words “Tosca, sei tu!” [“Tosca, it is you!”] From this point on into the evening Galouzine commanded the stage in those scenes where his presence required vocal statements of emotional enthusiasm. As a foil to his passion and introspection, Deborah Voigt’s entrance as Tosca signaled both feeling and religious devotion, giving way alternately to suspicion, to ardor, and to faith in the ways of the Divinity. This complexity would then inform Voigt’s interpretation throughout the remainder of the performance. After her initial jealous outburst is calmed by Cavaradossi, she settled into an inspired love-duet, punctuated intermittently by Voigt with pointed emphases. At times the voice was pressed forte more than necessary, whereas at other moments, especially in her duet with Galouzine, a moving tenderness was communicated in a softer vocal delivery. After her departure and the painter’s reunion and hurried exit with Angelotti, the stage was again left to the sacristan. Mr. Travis maintained an admirably steady legato and, in his acting, was skilled at realistic portrayal without descending into the purely buffo characterization drawn on by some who have interpreted this role. His interaction with the children entering the church suggested a lilting respect for position and surroundings. Of course Scarpia’s appearance is calculated to change everything. As he and his police henchmen persevere in their search for Angelotti, the musical accompaniment becomes decidedly menacing.

Voigt_Morris_Tosca_Chicago.pngJames Morris as Scarpia and Deborah Voigt as Tosca

The Scarpia of James Morris is, in this performance, decidedly understated, at times lighter of voice than one’s expectations, yet also communicative through glance, gesture, and movement. As Tosca returned to the Church, the two engaged in a vocal and dramatic battle for dominance with Voigt showing full realization of both the danger and challenge of her position as she once again left. The conclusion of the act showcased Scarpia in the famous Te Deum scene, Morris again here blending into a fully populated stage without yet reaching a full crescendo of power and lust.

That very powerful characterization of Scarpia began its development at the start of the second act. Here Morris achieved a synthesis of volume and feeling as he contemplated with relish the possibilities of his amorous conquest. His address to Cavaradossi showed him to be the ruthless villain whose demise shocks but seems, ultimately, inevitable. As the trio of principals interacted during the middle portion of this act, Galouzine again stood out as his voice rang in thrilling declarations of “Vittoria!” [“Victory!”] Although his actual torture was cut short by Tosca’s divulging information to Scarpia, he still remains a prisoner. She must agree to give herself to the Baron in order to buy safe passage out of the city for Cavaradossi and herself. In her aria “Vissi d’arte” [“I have lived for art”] Voigt invested her delivery with peaks of emotional dedication in order to lend an expressive fullness to her interpretation. At times the voice responded to this approach, at others the aria was less effective especially when pitch or volume might have shown greater control. After Scarpia signs the document for their alleged freedom, Tosca commits the murder that leads to her suicide at the close of the opera. Sir Andrew Davis managed orchestral tempos here with a subtlety that gave a yet deeper impression of Tosca’s emotional struggle before she hurriedly closed the door while leaving Scarpia dead on the floor of his apartment.

In Act III of the opera Cavaradossi contemplates his impending execution until Tosca arrives to give him the news of their safe passage. In these solitary moments Galouzine’s performance of “E lucevan le stelle” [“And the stars were shining”] was assuredly a vocal highlight of this performance. When Tosca appears to tell of her plan and the price that she has paid, Voigt gives the impression of being in full control, not realizing of course that Scarpia has betrayed her trust. As Cavaradossi indeed falls dead from the bullets of the firing squad and Tosca understands the horror of her position, Voigt continues to display that dramatic control: she jumps from the parapet to her death only after pushing with evident force a pursuant officer and causing him to fall backward. As she declares, she and Scarpia will meet again before God.

Salvatore Calomino

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Voigt_Tosca_Chicago.png image_description=Deborah Voigt as Tosca [Photo by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago] product=yes product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Tosca product_by=Tosca: Deborah Voigt (Sept. & Oct.), Violeta Urmana (Jan).; Cavaradossi: Vladimir Galouzine (Sept. & Oct.), Marco Berti (Jan.); Scarpia: James Morris (Sept. & Oct.), Lucio Gallo (Jan.); Sacristan: Dale Travis; Spoletta: John Easterlin (Sept. & Oct.), David Cangelosi (Jan.); Sciarrone: Paul Corona; Jailer: Sam Handley; Angelotti: Craig Irvin; Shepherd: Angela Mannino. Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis (Sept. & Oct.), Stephen Lord (Jan.). Original Production: Franco Zeffirelli. Director: Garnett Bruce. product_id=Above: Deborah Voigt as Tosca

All photos by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago
Posted by Gary at 10:13 AM

October 18, 2009

BERLIOZ: Béatrice et Bénédict — Paris 2009

Music composed by Hector Berlioz. Libretto by the composer after William Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing.

First Performance: 9 August 1862, Theater der Stadt, Baden-Baden.

Principal Roles:
Héro Soprano
Béatrice Mezzo-Soprano
Bénédict Tenor
Don Pedro Bass
Claudio Baritone
Somarone Bass
Ursule Contralto
Léonato Spoken

Time and Place: Messina, Sicily, 16th Century.

Synopsis:

Act I

The townspeople of Messina prepare to celebrate the arrival of Don Pedro, general of the Sicilian army, who is returning from victory in battle. He is to be received, along with some of his officers, at the residence of Leonato, governor of Messina. A messenger brings news that the soldiers are about to arrive and Leonato assures his daughter Hero that Claudio is among them. Beatrice inquires sarcastically about Benedict, so Leonato (her uncle) explains that there is a “merry war” between the two.

Hero is in love with Claudio and is overjoyed at his return while Beatrice and Benedict resume their disdainful sparring.

Benedict, who had assumed Claudio was a confirmed bachelor like himself, cannot believe that now he admits to being in love with Hero and plans to marry her. Don Pedro and Claudio tease Benedict by suggesting that he, too, should consider marriage. He ridicules the notion of wedded bliss, saying that if he is ever so weak as to succumb, they should put a sign on his house: “Here you may see Benedict, the married man.”

Don Pedro decides that he will contrive a way to turn the war between Beatrice and Benedict into a love match.

Somarone rehearses the nuptial song he has written for the bridal couple, prompting Benedict into an outburst of regret that Claudio has joined the company of lovers. He hides from Don Pedro and Claudio but they spot him, giving them the chance to have him overhear a conversation with Leonato in which they talk about Beatrice being fiercely in love with Benedict. These words, said in apparent sincerity, work their magic: Benedict declares to himself that he will requite Beatrice’s love.

Claudio,_deceived_by_Don_John,_accuses_Hero_stone.pngClaudio, deceived by Don John, accuses Hero (Much Ado about Nothing), by Marcus Stone, 1861

Hero and Ursula, her lady in waiting, have played the same trick on Beatrice that the men played on Benedict. It is a beautiful night for Hero to reflect on her feelings of love.

Act II

The wedding festivities are in full swing, and Somarone improvises a song in honor of Sicilian wines. All are enjoying themselves except Beatrice, who is in a state of agitation; the trick has worked. She remembers that after Benedict left for battle she had nightmares about him coming to harm. She admits to herself that she loves him.

Hero and Ursula join Beatrice and all three share Hero’s joy on her wedding morning.

Benedict finds Beatrice and makes his feelings known to her, but she is unable to cope and the wedding celebration interrupts them. Claudio and Hero reveal love poems that Beatrice and Benedict have written about each other, so they both admit their love and agree to a truce—until tomorrow.

[Synopsis Source: Houston Grand Opera]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Berlioz_Courbet.png image_description=Hector Berlioz Gustave Courbet (1850) audio=yes first_audio_name=Hector Berlioz: Béatrice et Bénédict first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Beatrice1.m3u product=yes product_title=Hector Berlioz: Béatrice et Bénédict product_by=Béatrice: Joyce DiDonato; Bénédict: Charles Workman; Héro: Nathalie Manfrino; Ursule: Elodie Méchain; Claudio: Jean-François Lapointe; Somarone: Jean-Philippe Lafont; Don Pedro: Nicolas Cavallier; Léonato: Christophe Fel. Choeur de Radio France. Orchestre National de France. Colin Davis, conducting. Live performnce 7 February 2009, Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris.
Posted by Gary at 4:59 PM

October 16, 2009

Fervaal by Vincent d’Indy

Nineteen when Prussia tramped all over his beloved France in 1870, he became a passionate nationalist with all the excesses of the time and place: anti-Germanism became, for him as for many, a racial “Celticism,” and his Francophilia included royalism, anti-Dreyfusism and anti-Semitism. Yet he was too good a musician not to appreciate Wagner and be influenced by Wagnerian method.

As a composer of opera, d’Indy was part of that post-Wagnerian movement determined to find in local folklore ways to celebrate national glory, a movement that produced dozens of works from Ireland to Armenia, most of them long forgotten — Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel is a rare success and survival. D’Indy’s Fervaal, which affects to find in the druids a mythic antidote to sophisticated modern life, is d’Indy’s contribution. It had its premiere in Brussels in 1897 and reached Paris in 1913 — just in time for this sort of perfervid nationalism to cheer entry into World War I; Fervaal has not been fully staged anywhere since. That the hero, a druidic prince of divine descent vowed to chastity — though how that will preserve his dynasty is not made clear — is seduced by the love of a “Saracen” princess. Their doomed union prefigures the death of the old gods and the birth of a world based on love (sound familiar?). The Celtic-Saracen passion might appeal to multiculturalists in modern France, with its huge, disaffected Muslim population, but would probably not delight the aristocratic d’Indy and leaves the auditor puzzled.

Still, as a concert version presented by the American Symphony Orchestra under that indefatigable lover of obscure scores, Leon Botstein, made clear, Fervaal is extraordinary without being especially endearing. The great flaw is that none of the three principal characters has much personality — they declaim at taxing length but they never persuade us that they feel any of the emotions they announce. They do not persuade us that they exist — that they have inner lives, emotions that can be reached by other persons. None of their music possesses the charm d’Indy gives to his choruses, who are variously and convincingly warring tribes, exultant priests, sensuous Saracens, spirits of the clouds or natural forces moaning as storms or winds. D’Indy might have achieved success with a dramatic oratorio had he ever composed one — grand opera on the Meyerbeer or Wagner pattern does not bring out his best.

The opera’s enormous orchestra lacked (Botstein said) several instruments d’Indy requested that are no longer much played. There were an enormous variety of winds and brasses typical of the period, exquisitely deployed: contrabass clarinets, for example, and four saxophones to accompany the apparition of the cloud-goddess Kaito and her cumulonimbus attendants — an answer for those who have doubted the spiritual qualities of the saxophone sound. For orchestral color, d’Indy was clearly a master of the genre — he is perhaps best known for his set of orchestral variations on the legend of the Descent of Ishtar — played in reverse from most complex to least, as the goddess disrobes to her naked theme.

My heart went out to the three lead singers — especially to Richard Crawley, a last-minute replacement, who had to learn the title role (easily as long as either Siegfried) in two and a half weeks — for the acres of ungrateful declamatory singing they were obliged to hurl out at Fisher Hall all evening. That they could pace themselves and did not run out of steam is a tremendous tribute to the professionalism of all hands. Donnie Ray Albert may lack the Wagnerian surge and sonorous depths that d’Indy appears to have hoped for in Arfagard, the uncompromising druid priest and prophet, but his sturdy bass-baritone never lost authority. Deanne Meek’s clear mezzo-soprano probably has some sensuous notes somewhere, but she didn’t much display them as the Saracen princess Guilhen, though one would have thought “seductiveness” part of the job description. She, too, deserves points for unflagging industry. Barbara Dever sang the small but distinctive role of Kaito, whom d’Indy calls the goddess of the clouds — but he wrote it and she sang it in the style and intensity of Wagner’s Erda, a part she could obviously handle whenever called upon. Many small roles were ably covered and the Concert Chorale of New York were especially virtuosic, with the only really lyric singing of the occasion.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Vincent_d%27Indy_par_Antoine_Bourdelle.png image_description=Portrait du compositeur Vincent d'Indy (1851 - 1931) par Antoine Bourdelle au Musée Bourdelle. product=yes product_title=Vincent d’Indy: Fervaal product_by=Fervaal: Richard Crawley; Guilhen: Deanne Meek; Kaito: Barbara Dever; Arfagard: Donnie Ray Albert. American Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein, at Avery Fisher Hall. October 14.
Posted by Gary at 9:34 PM

On opening night, the sounds of success fill Winspear Opera House

By Scott Cantrell [Dallas Morning News, 16 October 2009]

“Joyfully we greet this noble hall/where only art and peace shall ever dwell.”

With the rousing Entry of the Guests from Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser the Winspear Opera House opened for business Thursday night.

Posted by Gary at 5:42 PM

The Truth about Love — unusual new work by young American singer and composer.

It’s quite an accolade for any young composer to have his work given such high profile coverage. It’s very ambitious, a 90 minute cycle combining Ebel’s own songs based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s Diary of a Young Poet with songs by Robert Schumann and Benjamin Britten.

Ebel is a singer as well as a composer, so his approach focuses on song, and the way three very different musical styles cam be juxtaposed to create a new, integrated whole. Composers who truly understand voice are less common that you’d expect, so this alone makes The Truth about Love worth attention. It’s certainly interesting, if parts of the staging distracted from the music.

Rilke is a difficult writer, whose works are profound discourses on philosophy,and the nature of art and life. But Ebel has conviction. “Rilke introduced me to myself… at least I was able to recognize myself as an artist after reading his work..From there I read all the books he recommended and thought I would look into what Rilke was doing and writing when he was my age. At that time I fancied myself a poet and wrote gobs of extemporaneous poems, a practice which seldom happens now, as I find more expressive language in my singing and my compositions. He is sort of the opposite of Proust: where Proust pointed his finger, Rilke pointed inside, to his soul and opened it up for the world. As someone who lived in a culture (mid-west) that is much more internal, where outward expression is difficult, I found that Rilke made me feel at home in myself and gave me a place, at least for my inner life.”

Having heard the piece at the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House on 13th October 2009. Rilke’s piecs make frequent references to other works, so the tripartite form of The Truth about Love stems from this idea. The three segments interweave surprisingly well, linked by richly harmonic piano writing. “The darkness and light of the text” explains Ebel, “are reflected in the music with harmonies moving from constant fluctuation, hinting at major triads and tonality, but it does not move into a real ‘tonal sounding’ texture until moments of triumph inthe arch of the piece.”. This sense of constant movement makes it possible for the Schumann and Britten songs to alternate, without in any way changing their character, It’s like listening to three different spheres of sound rotating. separately, but in harmony.

One of Rilke’s recurring themes is “Dig into yourself”.Frauenliebe und Leben describes a woman’s journey through life. The Britten songs, too, describe differents of human experience.. In this production, a sand bed stood which each singer in turn searched, discovering precious objects. Perhaps it’s a fairly obvious metaphor for what’s happening in the songs, but the image of shifting, elusive patterns in sand caught the spirit of the piece. I also liked the bowls of water and the set, but was less enthusiastic about the exaggerated make-up and costumes. Perhaps the idea was to bring out the surreal quality of a work that shifts between three poles, but perhaps in future productions the staging could be toned down.

Approaching Rilke takes courage. I asked Ebel how he’d come to terms with the project. “It is a process I have had to do a lot of over this past year or two. This has been more for my singing, I would say, than for my composing, which I think becomes richer as a result of my development as a singer. I am quite horrified often when I look inside. It can be painful at times, but a great peace comes over you when you look inside, listen to your emotions and thoughts, and live with them. A sort of peace comes, much like the end of the cycle. When working on the piece, I never struggled with ideas, it was always an arch, where it was going. I think I needed to grow in order to finish it…..it wasn’t completed until May of this year, after re-reading the book and letting go of my old ending for a more affirmative one, where all the voices came together, literally.”

It is unusual for a singer with a career as promising as Ebels is, to dedicate so much time to writing music as well as performing. “Learning my own songs is difficult, because I know them as a mental thing, but when I have to sing them, they become physical. Sometimes it takes a while for me to get them right, sometimes more so than other pieces of music, because I think I know how they should go… I would love to have more opportunities to compose and for other voices than mine.” Elisabeth Meister sang the Britten songs and Kai Rüütel the Schumann Songs, with enough character that the strange context did not distort them.

Ebel sang Victorin/Gaston in Korngold’s Die tote Stadt at the Royal Opera House in January 2009. Even as one of the ensemble, he stood out as he has natural stage presence and sings with clear, firm tone. He’s appearing later in the season in Prokofiev’s The Gambler. He sings regularly at Tanglewood where he sang Jimmy Mahoney from Kurt Weill’s *Mahagonny. *

image=http://www.operatoday.com/StevenEbel.png imagedescription=Steven Ebel [Photo by Richard H. Smith courtesy of The Royal Opera House]

product=yes producttitle=Steven Ebel: The Truth about Love productby=Elisabeth Meister (soprano), Kai Rüütel (mezzo-soprano), Steven Ebel (Tenor), David Gowland, Steven Moore (pianos). José Dario Innella (director and designer), Alejandra Espector (designer), Doinald Cox (lighting). product_id=Above: Steven Ebel [Photo by Richard H. Smith courtesy of The Royal Opera House]

Posted by anne_o at 2:54 PM

October 15, 2009

Aida at the MET

The dearth of grand Verdi sopranos and tenors from the current opera scene does not deter. This has led to some somnambulistic Aidas in recent years, but the current revival, spiffed up and to an extent restaged by Stephen Pickover with new choreography by ABT’s Alexei Ratmansky plus a new conductor, Daniele Gatti, makes it a more satisfying evening than many Aidas of recent years. To top it off — this should be basic, but in fact it’s rare — five good singers with great big voices perform the leading roles. How often does that happen?

One detail may indicate how rethinking little things can improve a whole performance. Act IV, scene 1, the Judgment Scene of Aida: Amneris sits stage front, all headdress and nerves — the man she loves, Radames, is just offstage, on trial by the priests for having betrayed Egypt. Not coincidentally, he has also betrayed Amneris, his fiancée, for love of the slave girl Aida, secretly daughter to the Ethiopian king. Three times, high priest Ramfis reads the charges … and Radames refuses to reply. “He does not answer,” Ramfis says, and the priests cry, “Traitor!” — to which Amneris responds with rising hysteria, ever more desperate to save the man she still loves — who is condemned to burial alive. A brief drum roll crescendo covers the space between each of Ramfis’s questions and the bald statement: “He does not answer.” Verdi assumed conductors would understand the excitement of the moment … and hold onto it as long as they could. James Levine used to drive me crazy at this point, always jumping the gun as if, knowing Radames isn’t going to answer, he saw no reason to wait for it. The reason to wait is because it’s drama — tension in the theater is gold, never something to toss heedlessly away.

In the current run, Daniele Gatti sits on those brief pauses over low timpani rolls for several jittery seconds, giving us time to sit up and chew our nails. Dolora Zajick, the Amneris, clutches an idol and twists her jewels, and we get the little jolt just as Verdi planned. Sweet.

AIDA_scene_Urmana_and_Guelfi_2463.pngVioleta Urmana as Aida and Carlo Guelfi as Amonasro

This makes up for some scrappy work from Gatti and the orchestra elsewhere, ill-balanced horns blaring in the prelude, a flute coming in a bar too early in the ballet — is the Met bored with this opera? They’ve given it over eleven hundred times and last Columbus Day (or Verdi Day, as William Berger has suggested it be renamed, to honor the composer’s birthday on the tenth) the Met was playing to a packed house. There was, however, a sense — on the third Aida of the run! — that Maestro Gatti had not settled matters of tempo with his singers or was still changing his mind. Phrases were sometimes rushed when the singers seemed to wish to linger, or held back while they barreled ahead. Johan Botha’s Radames did not find the music waiting for his voice on his Act III entrance and had to hurry along to catch it up. Also, though this is not Gatti’s fault but director Pickover’s, during the triumphal procession of Act II, the many squadrons of soldiery marathoned past Pharaoh at such a pace that there is no time to pause to bow to their sovereign on the reviewing stand. Were I the king, I’d send the whole lot off to the papyrus mines.

Despite these lapses, it was about as solid an Aida as may be heard on these shores nowadays, the sets monumental as ever, the enormous Met forces appearing even more numerous than they were (two horses lead the procession, plus another to pull the chariot), the five leading roles sung by big voices, each well able to fill the enormous room.

AIDA_Urmana_0127.pngVioleta Urmana as Aida

Violeta Urmana, the night’s Aida, has a sumptuous soprano with a warm glow to it — she doesn’t have to push to flood the house with sound, and she glides into lovely piano phrases of nostalgia for Ethiopia or when fading to death in the tomb. These perfect, purling phrases are not always to be depended upon, however — a line or two of “O patria mia” peeled paint and elsewhere she dipped into flatness, and she sometimes ran out of breath on a high note. Then, just as you thought she’s simply a soprano with a “short top,” she launches a flawless legato over the very roof of her range. Aida is a long role with a lot of high floating notes alternated with deep descent, and the leaps in dynamics from one emotion or range to a contrasting one, and these abrupt alterations appear to trouble her. Still, for long stretches of the night, she was the big, beautiful Aida the world yearns for.

AIDA_Zajick_1615A.pngDolora Zajick as Amneris

Dolora Zajick has sung seventy Amnerises at the Met — if the company still went on tour (and didn’t the provinces always demand Aida?) she’d be neck and neck with the champ, Louise Homer, who sang it ninety-seven times from her debut in 1900. Zajick’s clarion mezzo still soars, wobble-free, and in the Act II concertato she is louder than the massed populations of Egypt and Ethiopia. One wishes she could change costume to suit the change in mood between Acts III (wedding night) and IV (crisis), but the production now subsists on two intermissions instead of three, and probability must be sacrificed.

Johan Botha has both the voice and the girth to keep his ladies in their places. His fresh, stalwart, graceful singing is just a bit unvaried for some tastes, but I can’t remember when I last heard “Celeste Aida” sung or phrased so beautifully — that is, until the final fading pianissimo, which concluded in a bobble that, one fears, defused an impending ovation. As mentioned above, he began his love duet a measure or two late, but otherwise sang it persuasively if lacking dramatic fire. Verdi’s music may require a more throbbing emotional urge, and may not be quite as ideal for Botha as Wagner’s Walther or Strauss’s Apollo. Still, in so big and vocal an opera as Aida, it’s a pleasure to hear a tenor so well matched with his soprano and mezzo. His acting, however, is minimal and stiff, his instincts less than sure — do we need that basketballer’s upraised double-fisted “Yessss” when he is named to command Egypt’s armies?

Carlo Guelfi makes a sturdy Amonasro, if a bit rough and ready — but this is not a suave part. Roberto Scandiuzzi makes a dignified if not ideally sonorous Ramfis. Stefan Kocán, a debutante Pharaoh, sounds out of place and weak among these five mature voices. Adam Laurence Herskowitz sings an admirable Messenger.

Alexei Ratmansky has devised new dances for the ballets of Act II. The dance for Amneris is a well-played classic pas de deux that might surprise those used to girls in this lively bit, who thought men were barred from oriental harems — be generous: the boy might simply be a eunuch. The ballet for the triumphal scene fell rather on the Russian side of a compromise between traditional ballet moves — which do seem odd in a monumental Egyptian setting — and any attempt to be “faux Egyptian” or “faux African.” Both dances made much of Verdi’s striking rhythms, and the corps de ballet (as in last year’s La Gioconda) showed what a little attention from a genuine ballet master will produce.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/AIDA_Botha_1686.png image_description=Johan Botha as Radames [Photo by Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Aida product_by=Aida: Violeta Urmana; Amneris: Dolora Zajick; Radames: Johan Botha; Amonasro: Carlo Guelfi; Ramfis: Roberto Scandiuzzi; Pharaoh: Stefan Kocán. Conducted by Daniele Gatti. Metropolitan Opera, performance of October 12. product_id=Above: Johan Botha as Radames

All photos by Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 12:06 PM

October 13, 2009

Abduction from the Seraglio in San Francisco

This long ago April-May season embraced the lesser known and experimental repertory, premieres and advanced staging style looks at nearly anything that might be called opera.  And sung in English, the language of its audience.  Thus almost immediately (1962) Spring Opera gave San Francisco Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio — it readily qualified as lesser known, it was an experiment — Mozart’s own experiment into singspiel, and with its dependence on the spoken work it was not really opera.      

Spring Opera’s headier moments happened in its later years at the Broadway-style Curran Theatre, and among these moments again was Abduction (1975) this time in the hands of jack-of-all-theatre-trades Jack O’Brien (but that handle is now, back then it was his first, experimental foray into opera).  O’Brien’s first revelation was that Abduction was not about its story told in spoken words, it was about its music, thus he slashed its dialogues to the absolute bone, and let them sing.  One of Spring Opera’s slickest productions resulted.

BidRosTMC.gifAndrew Bidlack (Pedrillo) and Peter Rose (Osmin)

But these days Abduction is big-house stuff, not only in repertory weary San Francisco but around the world.  Just last March Lyric Opera of Chicago unveiled a new production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail that is currently on the War Memorial stage.  Only in Chicago the spiel was in German (well, there was one German in the cast) while in San Francisco the dialogues were mostly in American though the sing fortunately was in German — the one German in sight was a very important one, the young maestro Cornelius Meister.  This uncomfortable language duality left he ear confused.  It also gave rise to the trivial critical question as to whether Mozart's opera should have been entitled Entführung in San Francisco, or Abduction as preferred by the SFO program booklet.

But the answer is easy — it was an Entführung.   It all happened in the pit, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra rising magnificently to the occasion of the American debut of 29 year-old, wunderkind Cornelius Meister.  This fine orchestra responded to the warmth and to the joyous overflow of rare and new Mozartian colors imparted by the young German maestro, and played with a beauty of string tone that gave the evening (2/10) its considerable musical luster.   

Mozart’s simple singspiel has two monster roles, that of the abducted Constanze and her rescuer Belmonte.  Matthew Polenzani, an alumnus of Lyric Opera’s young artist program and now a highly credentialed Mozart singer, brought urgency, beauty of tone and perfect phrasing to the considerable amount of singing Mozart’s hero must accomplish.  Mary Dunleavy, a recent SFO Gilda, took on the fiendishly difficult Constanze and succeeded gracefully enough, appropriately displaying her quite beautiful voice, considerable technique and solid high notes in the opera’s grand soprano showpiece Martern aller Arten.

ChrMen_CW.gifAnna Christy (Blonde) and the Pasha's guards

Unfortunately Es lebe die Liebe, Mozart’s famous tour de force reunion quartet, did not succeed in musically uniting its four singers  —  though Anna Christy acquitted herself handsomely as Blonde throughout the evening, Adler Fellow Andrew Bidlack was over parted as Pedrillo, not yet a match for arrived artists.  Bass Peter Rose was a vocally pale Osmin, his smooth voice and soft presence an uncomfortable match to Mozart’s sharper buffo demands.  The Pasha of actor Charles Shaw Robinson made no effect.

While Mr. Rose’s Queen’s English inflected speeches were no more at odds with the character of the Turkish lecher Osmin than Hochdeutsch might have been, his Samurai wig was, as was his most fanciful Papageno-like costume, not to mention his retinue of little, bare chest Samurai eunuchs.  In fact one was not sure what was supposed to be happening on the Baroque stage within the War Memorial stage.

Accounts of the Chicago performances talk about an old Pasha who began imagining this episode of his lost youth during the overture, about a trap door that opened into the false stage where Belmonte then climbed out, and soon a young Pasha appeared as well, explaining that this was a performance within a performance.  None of this or anything else of the Chas Rader-Shieber Chicago concept made it to San Francisco.  What we saw in San Francisco was inexplicable.  

Besides Blonde’s jaunty yellow hat the quartet of lovers costumes were elaborately period, including Constanze’s wigs.  So it was costume opera, take it or leave it.  The crowd gamely took it, and applauded young Mozart’s Italianate attempt at singspiel that belonged in a much smaller theater, and cheered the appropriately attractive youthful cast and conductor. 

Michael Milenski

image=http://www.operatoday.com/DunPol2_CW.gif image_description=Mary Dunleavy (Constanze) and Matthew Polenzani (Belmonte) [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera] product=yes product_title=W. A Mozart: Abduction from the Seraglio product_by=Constanze: Mary Dunleavy; Blonde: Anna Christy; Belmonte: Matthew Polenzani; Pedrillo: Andrew Bidlack; Osmin: Peter Rose / Andrea Silvestrelli (9/29); Pasha Selim: Charles Shaw Robinson. Conductor: Cornelius Meister / Giuseppe Finzi (10/17, 10/23). Director: Chas Rader-Shieber. Designer: David Zinn. Lighting Designer: Christopher Akerlind. product_id=Above: Mary Dunleavy (Constanze) and Matthew Polenzani (Belmonte)

All photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera
Posted by michael_m at 3:38 PM

Turandot at ENO

He builds a bloody, Tarantino-esque fantasy plot around her and her surroundings, stepping in and manipulating the world he has created until the characters in his nightmarish scenario eventually become so real that they destroy not just the girl but the writer too.

The girl is Liù, the story Turandot, and the writer very likely Puccini himself (though no great effort is made to give actor Scott Handy the composer’s likeness). Puccini loved Liù as a character, and died after creating her death scene. Rupert Goold’s production ends with the dying writer (here, slashed through the stomach by Turandot’s sword just as Calaf overpowers her with a kiss) taking centre stage, while the triùmphantly united Calaf and Turandot are relegated to either side.

It wasn’t until an hour after the final curtain, when I sat down to draft this review after reading the programme notes in detail on my bus ride home, that the directorial conceit began to form a joined-up entity in my mind and I finally worked out — I think — what was supposed to be going on. While I was sitting in the Coliseum with it happening in front of me, it made no sense whatsoever, and that’s poor theatre by anybody’s standards. Turandot should be a garish nightmare, and this was — unfortunately, not always in the way the director intended. From the chorus, which looked as if it had been plucked from a generic modern-dress performance of Act 2 of La bohème (nuns, transsexuals, Elvis impersonators, dominatrices…), to the murderous dancers with chefs’ trousers and pigs’ heads, to the Emperor Altoum (eloquently sung by Stuart Kale) who was played as an eccentric old drunk that the ‘writer’ decides to use as a pawn in his story, to Turandot’s creepy little servant-girl (or familiar spirit?) in her First Communion outfit — none of it bore any relation either to the plot or to Puccini’s music.

Kirsten Blanck’s soft-grained voice and dry European consonants take away any real cutting edge from her soprano, but she has a voice that is more than adequate for such a big role in such a big theatre, and rides the Act 2 ensemble very effectively. It’s just a shame that her character is given no dramatic context whatever. In the first act, Calaf falls in love not with the real Turandot but with a giant ice-sculpture facsimile of her; from her first appearance ‘in the flesh’ in Act 2, she looks like a demented bride.

The vocal highlights of this production come from Gwyn Hughes Jones as Calaf and Amanda Echalaz as Liù. Hughes Jones sings gloriously, even if he sounds underpowered once the heavy orchestration of the Alfano ending is underway. Not a natural stage creature, he fails to create much of a character — like Blanck, he has next to no help from the director in doing so. Just why, exactly, does he fall instantly in love? And what is it about him that eventually melts the ice princess? He has vocal ardour in spades, but his physical presence is oddly dispassionate. As for Echalaz — after a few years of spectacular performances for smaller UK companies like ETO and Opera Holland Park, the South African soprano’s star is at last truly in the ascendant. It is a large voice and there is some work she could still do on some of the more delicate parts of the role, but she has a magnetic stage presence and (despite a truly horrible costume) gave a performance of real heart. The American bass James Cresswell was a sincerely sung, sympathetic Timur.

Turandot_002.gifAmanda Echalaz as Liù and Gwyn Hughes Jones as Calaf

In the pit, Ed Gardner is on top form, making the lyrical passages bloom and the brutal ones blaze, while the ENO Chorus produce a massive and impressive sound. Most of William Radice’s translation is pretty respectable, but there are a few obvious problems which really need to be ironed out: in one of the opera’s subtlest and most legato passages, the moon chorus in Act 1, the words are perversely set against the beat, while in Act 3 the principals are subjected to rather a lot of unkind ‘i’ and ‘ee’ vowels on climactic high notes. And Pang’s nostalgia for his ‘gardens near Kiù’ was always destined to raise an unintentional titter from a London audience.

Turandot_003.gifFull Stage

The trio of ministers was plagued by illness; Peter van Hulle replaced Christopher Turner as Pong, while Richard Roberts (announced as suffering from a throat infection but willing to sing anyway) croaked his way through the first act before yielding to understudy Gareth Huw John (singing from the side of the stage) for the rest of the opera. Fortunately Benedict Nelson, the Ping, was not only completely healthy but in particularly fine voice.

Turandot was really the last of the great repertoire standards to get an up-to-date production in London. It is not the nightmare-Chinese-restaurant setting (with sets imaginatively conceived by Miriam Buether) that ruins Goold’s vision of the opera but his willingness to allow many of the opera’s big climaxes to take second place to the point he wants to make about the composer’s relationship with the piece. As such, it is a frustrating experience.

Ruth Elleson © 2009

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Turandot011.gif imagedescription=Kirsten Blanck as Princess Turandot [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of English National Opera]

product=yes producttitle=Giacomo Puccini: Turandot productby=Princess Turandot: Kirsten Blanck; Calaf: Gwyn Hughes Jones; Liù: Amanda Echalaz; Timur: James Creswell; Emperor Altoum: Stuart Kale; Mandarin: Iain Paterson; Ping: Benedict Nelson; Pang: Richard Roberts; Pong: Christopher Turner. Conductor: Edward Gardner; Director: Rupert Goold; Associate Director/Choreographer: Aletta Collins; Set Designer: Miriam Buether; Costume Designer: Katrina Lindsay; Lighting Designer: Rick Fisher; Video Art and Design: Lorna Heavey; Translator: William Radice product_id=Above: Kirsten Blanck as Princess Turandot

All photos by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of English National Opera

Posted by Gary at 3:17 PM

‘10 for 10’ recital gets 10 out of 10 for performance and audience

The artists range from the stellar to the emergent, and if Saturday night’s recital is anything to go by, the standard is as high as the ‘usual’ Wigmore evening, but with the added excitement of a much younger audience demographic. Not that I object to an audience composed mainly of oldsters (that is, the 50-100s) such as myself, but it’s good to see a majority of the audience under 40 enjoying a finely balanced, deeply serious evening.

John Mark Ainsley has pretty much made a career out of being surprising: after all, this is an English tenor who never sounds ‘English’ in that dreaded Oxbridge sense; an elegant presence who never comes across as merely that; a Lieder specialist who hardly ever follows conventional ways with a song; and an opera singer who always provides a new and different perspective on a role. I have to admit that my heart sank on seeing the Heine ‘Schwanengesang’ settings as the central works, and grumbled that I would much prefer more Schumann (‘Dichterliebe’ for preference) since Ainsley is an especially sensitive interpreter of that composer, and anyway lyric tenors ought to leave the heavy stuff alone… and so on. However, I was wrong.

Howsoever you order them, the Heine settings are a demanding test for any singer, and Ainsley sang them with his customary subtlety and style, but was also able to produce impressive fortes in ‘Der Doppelgänger’ and ‘Der Atlas,’ the exposed, raw G at bar 34 in the former not so much a howl of outrage as an impassioned plea. The eerie calm created by Malcolm Martineau’s playing in the first part of the song was echoed by Ainsley’s quite chilling phrasing of ‘auf dem selben Platz,’ and his superb diction at ‘was äffst du nach mein Liebesleid’ made the song’s atmosphere all the more hectic. ‘Am Meer’ and ‘Ihr Bild’ provided more expected pleasures with beautiful tone and naturally easy legato line, although there was no self-indulgence with either, the tone’s sweetness readily discarded for a bitter one in ‘dass ich dich verloren hab.’

The Schumann group was a model of Lieder style, ‘Mit Myrthen und Rosen’ sung without any archness or sentimentality, the line ‘wie ein Lavastrom, der den Aetna entquillt’ proving that it’s possible for a lyric tenor voice to create a dramatically powerful statement, and the final ‘flüstern mit Wehmut und Liebeshauch’ caressed with aching tenderness. Liszt’s settings of Heine are of course much less familiar than those of Schumann, and Ainsley and Martineau brought out their melodic invention and rich harmonies, especially in ‘Du bist wie eine Blume,’ although the Schumann version sung as an encore reminded us of that composer’s greater sensitivity to Heine’s poetry.

The second half of the concert was all French music, Poulenc’s ‘Tel jour telle nuit’ revealing Ainsley’s deep understanding of the composer’s dictum that ‘calmness alone can give intensity to a love poem’ most finely shown in ‘Nous avons fait la nuit.’ Of Gounod’s ‘Cinq Mélodies,’ the highlight was certainly ‘Au rossignol,’ mesmerizingly played and sung with the kind of rapt contemplation and perfect diction which epitomize this singer’s art.

Melanie Eskenazi

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

product=yes producttitle=‘10 for 10’ recital gets 10 out of 10 for performance and audience productby=John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano) product_id=Above: John Mark Ainsley [Photo by Marc Eskenazi]

Posted by melanie_e at 3:13 PM

Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the MET

The complicated story was told clearly, the stage pictures were handsome and the set changes elegant, the funny business funny and to the point, the movement rapid. Even Rossini’s thunderstorm got laughs, as a projected starry sky was gradually effaced by clouds and real rain while the set spun around below. I wasn’t crazy about the barber’s updated costume and I could have done without the donkey — the donkey is the one item Mr. Sher retained. Figaro’s costume is back to tradition.

The Sher production does not get in the way of the storytelling (a major point! especially in a comic opera), does not introduce new sub-plots the composer never delineated (a defect of the recent stagings of Tosca, Sonnambula and Fidelio, among others), the stage pictures are attractive and will endure repeated viewing (unlike Tosca), the funny business is sometimes funny — and gives scope, as a comedy staging should, for funny performers to make it more so; there are inexplicable touches (what is that giant anvil in the sky, aside from a sign of Mr. Sher out of ideas? Why does Bartolo’s china closet explode?), and the movement is constant if not always logical. Seville, indicated in the previous production by the city’s famous white walls and a splendid conservatory in the courtyard of Bartolo’s mansion, is now implied by many, many doors and an orangery. At one point, the Count, playing a drunken soldier, makes a swipe at an orange tree with his saber — and appeared to slice it through — the best laugh of the night. I’d give the production a solid B, maybe a B-plus.

The most distinctive part of the Sher staging — aside from the moveable doors that comprise most of the set, and which are often used to delightful farcical advantage — is the platform around the orchestra pit that allows singers to leave the action and come warble to us intimately, duck out of busy action entirely, complain about how badly they are being used by other characters — or hand out business cards to the audience, as Figaro does during the curtain calls. This parade in front of the apron also allows a solid but underpowered cast to make a more powerful effect than they would if they remained center stage. There was certainly an improvement in sound quality when they stepped forward.

Among the singers last Thursday night, the smoothest, most elegant, most satisfying performance came from Bulgarian newcomer Orlin Anastassov, who possesses the requisite size, depth and legato for Don Basilio and is an amusing comic actor to boot. It is no surprise to see in the program that he is singing Boito’s Mefistofele elsewhere this year — that’s an opera that the Met could certainly use back in its repertory, and he’s a likely candidate to put over a role that calls for an agile actor as well as a remarkable voice.

BARBIERE_DiDonato_and_Banks.gifJoyce DiDonato as Rosina and Barry Banks as Count Almaviva

Rodion Pogossov, a showman of great charm and comic energy — you may well remember his Papageno — sang a most entertaining Figaro, with a seductive and self-seductive way of phrasing. John Del Carlo, a familiar and excellent buffo quantity, fudged the racing patter of “A un dottore del mio sorte,” as so many Doctor Bartolos do, but proved an effective foil for the antics of all the others throughout the evening. You can’t have a farce if the villain isn’t convincingly alarming — if he’s not, nobody else’s antics make sense. Del Carlo, tall as a Wagnerian giant, can be alarming while full of self-pity, which is just what we want.

Barry Banks is a comic actor the equal of any bel canto tenor going — his smarmy smiles as the feigned “Don Alfonso” were especial joys — and his coloratura technique is remarkable, but the quality of the voice itself was dry in “Ecco ridente” and rather hollow the rest of the night. Dramatic intensity (as Oreste in Rossini’s Ermione) and delirious self-parody (as Thisbe in Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream) are his fortes; romantic heroes are not.

BARBIERE_DiDonato_and_Pogos.gifJoyce DiDonato as Rosina and Rodion Pogossov as Figaro

Joyce Di Donato is a few years into an important career. She is an excellent comic actress — you listen to her, yes, but you also watch, just to see what madcap business she’ll come up with next. She works the manic fireworks of “Contro un cor” in the Lesson Scene into a simultaneous show of brilliant vocalism and stage hilarity like no other Rosina I’ve seen. When she dashes out on that walkway to deliver the evening’s few big phrases, her strong line suggests that many of the grander bel canto roles (Adalgisa, Elisabetta Tudor, La Favorite) would suit her nicely, but in some of her rapid-fire phrases in “Una voce poco fa” and elsewhere, she seemed too anxious to race up and down the scale to bother with the note-perfect ideal flow of a Horne, a Berganza or a Swenson. She seems to love to play this role and to be on stage with these other singers, but a little more technical focus (and you just know she could do it) would make hers an extraordinary Rosina instead of merely a very good one. Claudia Waite, the Berta, sang her “sherbet aria” with the shrill, ungrateful tone one expects of, well, Berta the laundress.

Maurizio Benini in the all but invisible orchestra pit kept the wheels turning precisely without calling attention to himself — it was not a Mozartean reading of the score but a reliable base for the farcical doings on stage. The whole evening seemed calculated in that direction, and it was gracious of him to be so self-effacing, but sometimes Rossini works well as a partnership.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/BARBIERE_DiDonato.gif image_description=Above: Joyce DiDonato as Rosina [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=Gioachino Rossini: Il Barbiere di Siviglia product_by=Rosina: Joyce Di Donato; Almaviva: Barry Banks; Figaro: Rodion Pogossov; Dr. Bartolo: John Del Carlo; Don Basilio: Orlin Anastassov; Berta: Claudia Waite. Conducted by Maurizio Benini. Metropolitan Opera, performance of October 8. product_id=Above: Joyce DiDonato as Rosina

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera]
Posted by Gary at 3:12 PM

October 11, 2009

Wozzeck in designer khaki : Salonen and Keenlyside in London

Alban Berg’s music is so visual that Wozzeck could lend itself extremely well to semi-staging, so this performance, at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank might have been a chance to see something truly innovative. Most of the action in this opera happens in the minds of the protagonists. So much is said in musical imagery that a concert performance can be inherently dramatic even without props. Berg builds patterns and mazes into his music, and the solo parts in the orchestra act as roles within a symphony of sound.

Unfortunately this performance turned out to be a lost opportunity. It was the final concert in an ambitious series titled “Vienna: City of Dreams 1900-1930”. Ostensibly, the concerts were part of a wider panorama presenting the music in the context of Vienna at a time of unprecedented developments, in music, literature, philosophy,art and psychology. Perhaps the message had to be blunted because the music of the Second Viennese School doesn’t promise box office success. So perhaps it was too much to expect a production that referenced the innovations in theater design that were part of Vienna’s significance. Musically, though, performances have been extremely strong. Esa-Pekka Salonen has proved his worth as head of the Philharmonia. He and this orchestra, arguably London’s finest, are an excellent match. Their performance of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder in February was exceptionally good and fortunately was recorded. The CD is now available.

Wozzeck demands great orchestral forces, so visual impact is already built into a semi-staged performance. A sensitive production could even have made capital of the situation, focusing on what happens in the orchestra,. Even the fact that there’s barely a yard between music and and singers is no disadvantage: Wozzeck is about tight corners and entrapment.

In this performance, there was a huge screen behind the orchestra on which were projected many visual images - oil on water transparencies, montages, close-ups of the singers. This could have worked very well in theory, because Berg was interested in cinema, and his music lends itself to expression in film. In practice however, what happened on screen was busy rather than focused, distracting from rather than reinforcing the inherent drama in the music.

In opera, singers are singing “about” something. Context matters. Just as orchestral musicians need a conductor, singers need direction. Katarina Dalayman has sung Marie so often that we know what she’s capable of when truly inspired. Here she sang well, but wasn’t challenged to show her acting skills, which are usually considerable.

This was Simon Keenlyside’s debut as Wozzeck, eagerly awaited by his many admirers. Although he’s a light rather than dark baritone, at the higher registers he can catch the tension in the part, which subtly connects to the shrill tenor parts around him, and contrasts well with the bass Doctor, sung by Hans-Peter Scheidegger. Keenlyside’s forte, though, is his naturally elegant bearing. He looks aristocratic, whatever he does, even his stubble looked expensively manicured. This was a Wozzeck in designer khaki. This could well have worked, because the opera isn’t about outward appearances. With suitable direction, Keenlyside could have created character wearing a tuxedo. Wozzeck’s world is surreal, after all. Perhaps Keenlyside’s talents will be put to better use in future, more complete productions.

With semi-staging, detail counts even more than in full production. So why did Marie’s child appear in the final scene dressed in beautifully pressed, emerald green silk pajamas? We don’t know what the child’s future might be, but the indications aren’t hopeful. “Ringel, ringel Rosenkranz” sing the taunting children, and the words “Hopp, Hopp” indicate a repetitive child’s game . Berg’s fascination with circular forms and patterns would also imply the child might well end up like Wozzeck. If emerald green silk means anything, it should have been supported by other images and from the music. I also didn’t understand why the children walk on dressed in funereal black, like a cortege, Marie’s son following behind. It isn’t necessarily wrong but without substantiation it doesn’t add to the drama or to the meaning of the opera.

This is the dilemma of all stage direction faces. Visual images are open to all kinds of interpretation. They operate on many levels at the same time, and can be seen in different ways. That’s why stage direction is controversial, there’s never only one way of seeing things. Visual literacy is a skill, too, but perhaps we’ve been conditioned to TV and movies for so long, it’s a lost art. That’s why semi-staged performances are important because they concentrate the mind on the essentials of dramatic meaning. This production, directed by Jean-Baptiste Barrière seemed like grand opera manqué rather than focused concentration on the fundamentals in the drama. But getting the basics right is the key to all good direction.

Anne Ozorio

image=http://www.operatoday.com/wozzeck.jpg image_description=Wozzeck by Jan Lenica, 1928- 2001

product=yes producttitle=Alban Berg : Wozzeck productby=Wozzeck: Simon Keenlyside, Marie : Katarina Dalayman, The Captain : Peter Hoare, Andres : Robert Murray, The Doctor : Hans-Peter Scheidegger, Drum Major: Hubert Francis, Margret : Anna Burford, Apprentices : David Soar and Leigh Melrose, Idiot: Ben Johnson, Soldier: Peter Wilman, Marie’s child : Louis Watkins,Philharmnia Voices, Aidan Oliver, chorusmaster, Philharmonia Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conductor. Jean-Baptiste Barrière, director. Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London, 8th October 2009. product_id=

Posted by anne_o at 9:44 PM

Don Carlo at Covent Garden

Bychkov’s was a controlled reading; but, while some may argue that he kept the leash too tight, he appreciated the need for contrast - now urgent, now relaxed. Moreover, he draw from the ROH orchestra a startling array of colours and textures, paying scrupulous attention to the exquisite details within the instrumental fabric and drawing the delicacies of the inner voices to the surface. A perfect canvas upon which to play out this drama of political violence and private trauma.

This is an opera about confrontations. From the first Fontainebleau scene - when indicatively the lovers’ triplet ‘resistance motif’ is introduced to the text, ‘The fatal hour is nigh’, against the jaunty, repetitious theme of chorus - an unremitting battle wages between Church and State, father and son, individual and society, love and duty. Such oppositions are enhanced by Verdi’s contrasting vocal roles - the bright baritone of Posa juxtaposed with the deep resonance of Philip, the indomitable fury of Princess Eboli distinguished from the vulnerability and near-hysteria of Carlos.

Cornetti.pngMarianne Cornetti as Princess Eboli

So, it is no surprise that it was the epic confrontations between the Spanish King Philip II - the real centre of this work, despite the precedence given to his son in the title - and first Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, and then the Grand Inquisitor which were the driving force of the opera. Ferruccio Furlanetto’s Philip II is a disturbed, troubled man. His struggle with Simon Keenlyside’s Posa, signalled by an electrifying outburst of orchestral thunder, provided the first moment of chilling dramatic intensity, a shocking insight into the fire of Inquisitional Spain, where religious fervour, political zeal and personal strife intermingle. This was a masterly conception by Furlanetto, every note, every gesture placed with consummate care and conviction. He released a beautiful stream of sound which did not diminish his steely authority, convincing us that this really was the man whose very name could make all of Europe tremble. This Philip has genuine regal gravitas; which makes his demise in Act 4 all the more astonishing and affecting, as the sonorous bass, underpinned by a beautiful ’cello solo, reflects on his loneliness and despairingly acknowledges his empty, loveless marriage. Having revealed his humanity, in Act 5 Philip faces the Grand Inquisitor, in a hostile confrontation between State and Church. John Tomlinson’s ghastly Inquisitor was certainly the -physical embodiment of terror in his blood-red robes, but did not always match the ominous visual effects with sufficient vocal intimidation and menace.

Does Italian opera need Italian voices? Perhaps not, but the other members of the cast, no matter how well trained in Italian technique, or schooled in language and diction, simply don’t possess the same innate sense of the tradition. Does this matter? Keenlyside may not have a truly Italianate sound but he brought a relentless energy and vibrancy to the role, perfectly conveying an obsessive fervour which really could sway the unworldly Carlos from idyllic love to political idealism.

Kaufmann_Opoplavskaya.pngMarina Poplavskaya as Elizabeth of Valois and Jonas Kaufmann as Don Carlos

Carlos himself was performed here by Jonas Kaufmann, a baritonal tenor who looked, acted and sang the part with impressive skill, sustained musicianship and stamina. Carlos is difficult role to pin down: is he a romantic dreamer, à la Werther, or a genuine political idealist? He’s certainly come in for some criticism … while it’s probably true that all Verdian tenors commit acts which lead to their deaths or to the deaths of those they love, Carlos has been attacked for his ‘inner paralysis’ which condemns him to inaction, for his self-destructive rage and empty threats, and described as a man who is ‘incapable of coherent political thought’. Part of the problem is the change of emphasis which results from the inclusion or excision of the opening Fontainebleau scene. If it is included, Carlos appears as a man of sensibility, living in a world of inner dreams. But, in this production, Kaufmann later chose to focus on Carlos’ political idealism, an aspect somewhat at odds with the romantic dreamer of the opening; and he never quite convinced that the passion for which so much is sacrificed is genuine and not self-delusory. Kaufmann’s Carlos is easily influenced by the fervent Posa, but he seems perhaps too ready to sublimate his love for Elizabeth to the ideological principles that define Rodrigo’s existence. Their Act 2 duet, a heroic hymn of brotherhood, suffered from the similarity of their vocal timbre, the rather passive direction and a tempo that lacked urgency: perhaps the problem is that the melody that embodies the warmth of their personal friendship also has to serve as an anthem of their political commitment to the liberation of Flanders.

That said, there was undoubtedly a dramatic chemistry between the two men, and this was a musically compelling performance from Kaufmann. In scene one, when the chorus have departed and fall silent, Carlos’ line disintegrates and in a breathless wavering over a coda-like orchestral elaboration of the chorus’s theme, Kaufmann used his mezza voce to great effect.

Marina Poplavskaya, as Elizabeth of Valois, could have made more liberal use of this sort of well-placed, controlled pianissimo. Confident and powerful, Poplavskaya rode the orchestral sound well, and created a smooth line in the upper register. Her bitter tirade after the dismissal of her lady-in-waiting for neglecting her duties when the Queen is discovered alone in the garden, demonstrated her frustration and anger, but there was little light and shade in this interpretation. Marianne Cornetti has the necessary weight for Princess Eboli but the coloratura in her Act 2 Veil Aria was hopelessly imprecise and some unsubtleties in her portrayal drew some unfortunate laughs.

The large Chorus made an imposing sound; the Act 3 auto-da-fe scene seemed less cluttered and busy than when this production was first aired, but still created an impressive spectacle. However, Hytner’s largely naturalist reading and the period costumes were rather at odds with designer Bob Crawley’s somewhat stylised sets; the stark colours, from glaring silver of ice and birch tree in opening forest scene, to glowing red of Spanish sun glaring down on conical pine trees as women gather in piazza, evoked a fairytale ambience which did not accord with the realism of Hytner’s vision and diminished the opera’s grandeur.

Despite the frustration of hearing the text sung in Italian rather than French, this was a persuasive performance, musically and dramatically, and one which achieved the necessary balance between political epic and private passion, between the grand sweeps of history and personal intimacy.

Claire Seymour

image=http://www.operatoday.com/KeenlysidePosa.png imagedescription=Simon Keenlyside as Rodrigo [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of the Royal Opera House]

product=yes producttitle=Giuseppe Verdi: Don Carlo productby=Don Carlo: Jonas Kaufmann; Elisabetta di Valois: Marina Poplavskaya; Rodrigo: Simon Keenlyside; Philip II: Ferruccio Furlanetto; Princess Eboli: Marianne Cornetti; Tebaldo: Pumeza Matshikiza; Grand Inquisito: John Tomlinson; Conte di Lerma: Robert Anthony Gardiner; Carlos V: Robert Lloyd; Flemish Deputies: Dawid Kimberg, Changhan Lim, David Stout, John Cunningham, Daniel Grice, Lukas Jakobski; Voice from Heaven: Eri Nakamura. Director: Nicholas Hytner. Designs: Bob Crowley. Lighting Design: Mark Henderson. Movement: Scarlett Mackmin. Fight Director: Terry King. Conductor: Semyon Bychkov. product_id=Above: Simon Keenlyside as Rodrigo

All photos by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of the Royal Opera House

Posted by Gary at 9:15 PM

Rigoletto at ENO

It’s doubly refreshing this season to have Miller himself back to direct the revival, as he did last season with his Barber of Seville. It is in the detail that his influence is visible; the character inter-relationships are complex and clearly drawn, and for the first time I can recall, James Fenton’s classic translation is delivered in authentically-accented New York-ese instead of generic English RP. It all makes a difference.

The sets are looking a little dated (recreating the shapes and colours of the 1950s through 1982-tinted spectacles) and the lighting could do with a revamp. Both the backstreet outside Rigoletto's tenement block and the seedy riverside bar where Sparafucile makes his nefarious living are reliant upon lighting for their atmosphere, and at the moment it's all looking a bit dull and disinterested. But it remains a strong, tightly conceived show, with seemingly plenty of life left in it.

rigoletto_005.jpgKatherine Whyte (Gilda)

In the title role was the evening's real star turn: Anthony Michaels-Moore, too long absent from London’s stages and far, far too long absent from the Coliseum. Compared with some of his predecessors in this production whose physical presence have enabled them to dominate the stage overtly, Michaels-Moore is much more subtle; his Rigoletto is a grubby little man with an undercurrent of spite, embodying everything that is wrong with the world in which he lives. And his singing is just spectacular — a masterclass in Verdian line and phrasing.

In a trend becoming increasingly prevalent in ENO’s casting, the conductor and two of the key principals were imported from the other side of the Atlantic. (Don’t British singers have few enough home-grown opportunities as it is?) As Gilda, the young Canadian Katherine Whyte is a charming performer with a lovely limpid soprano and the ideal physique du role, but her voice is a good couple of sizes too small for this house and these colleagues, and instead of soaring over the top of ‘Si, vendetta’ (‘Yes, revenge’) and ‘Bella figlia dell’amore’ (‘If you want a faithful lover’) she was lost in the orchestral texture. I would very much like to hear her in this role again (well, really for the first time!) with one of the UK’s medium-sized companies, or perhaps here at the Coliseum again in a more sparsely scored opera — I see that most of her forthcoming work is in baroque and early classical repertoire.

rigoletto_003.jpgIan Paterson (Monterone) and Anthony Michaels-Moore (Rigoletto)

As the Duke, 25-year-old Michael Fabiano (from the USA) was a great deal more successful; a bright, brash, virile tenor with confidence and macho swagger in abundance. Only his very top notes had a tendency to be too bright, almost detached from the rest of his voice.

Company regulars took the other roles, with Brindley Sherratt’s darkly malevolent Sparafucile particularly outstanding. ENO Young Artist Madeleine Shaw was a credible Maddalena. Bass-baritone Iain Paterson (perhaps the brightest star to have emerged from the Young Artists’ Programme) is a little on the high side for Monterone and he didn’t quite manage the strength and firmness of tone which we are used to hearing from him.

rigoletto_011.jpgAnthony Michaels-Moore (Rigoletto) and Katherine Whyte (Gilda)

Stephen Lord, another American, conducted tautly and with brisk tempi for the most part; the only misjudgement was allowing Fabiano plenty of rubato in ‘La donna e mobile’ (‘Women abandon us’) — not an issue in itself, but inconsistent with Miller’s famous take on it whereby the Duke calls the song up on Sparafucile’s jukebox.

Ruth Elleson © 2009

image=http://www.operatoday.com/rigoletto_002.jpg image_description=Anthony Michael-Moore (Rigoletto) and Michael Fabiano (Duke of Mantua) [Photo by Chris Christodoulou courtesy of English National Opera] product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Rigoletto product_by=Rigoletto: Anthony Michaels-Moore; Duke of Mantua: Michael Fabiano; Gilda: Katherine Whyte; Sparafucile: Brindley Sherratt; Monterone: Iain Paterson; Marullo: Daniel Hoadley; Borsa: Peter Van Hulle; Ceprano: James Gower. Conductor Stephen Lord; Director Jonathan Miller; Designers Patrick Robertson, Rosemary Vercoe; Lighting Designer Robert Bryan; Choreographer Tommy Shaw; Translation James Fenton. product_id=Above: Anthony Michael-Moore (Rigoletto) and Michael Fabiano (Duke of Mantua)

All photos by Chris Christodoulou courtesy of English National Opera
Posted by Gary at 8:10 PM

NICOLAI: Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor — Berlin 1943

Music composed by Otto Nicolai (1810-1849). Libretto by Salomon Hermann von Mosenthal after the play of the same name by William Shakespeare.

First performance: 9 March 1849 at Königliches Opernhaus, Berlin.

Principal Characters

Sir John Falstaff Bass
Herr Fluth Baritone
Herr Reich Bass
Fenton Tenor
Junker Spärlich Tenor
Dr. Cajus Bass
Frau Fluth Soprano
Frau Reich Mezzo-soprano
Anna Reich Soprano

Time and Place

Windsor (England) during the reign of Henry V (1413-1422).

Summary

Act I

Scene One

Setting: A court.

Frau Fluth informs her friend, Frau Reich, that she has received a letter from the fat knight, Sir John Falstaff. Mrs. Reich received the same letter. Outraged, they plot revenge against Falstaff. They leave.

Herr Fluth and Herr Reich enter along with two would-be suitors of Anna Reich, Junker Spärlich and Dr. Cajus. The penniless Fenton enters proclaiming his love for Anna and asks for her hand. He is summarily rejected.

Scene Two

Setting: Herr Fluth’s home.

Frau Fluth awaits Falstaff. She and Frau Reich have sent an anonymous note to Herr Fluth informing him of the meeting with Falstaff. A large basket is brought in. A frightened Falstaff is later stuffed into the basket and dumped into the Thames.

Act II

Scene One

Setting: A tavern.

Disguised as one Herr Bach, Herr Fluth visits Falstaff at the Garter Inn. He seeks Falstaff’s assistance in gaining the favor of Frau Fluth. Fluth discovers that Falstaff had been at his home the previous day and that Frau Fluth had invited him to visit her again that afternoon.

Scene Two

Setting: A garden.

Junker Spärlich and Dr. Cajus plan to meet Anna during her daily walk. When Fenton appears, they hide. Anna and Fenton reaffirm their love for one another.

Scene Three

Setting: Frau Fluth’s room.

When Falstaff arrives, Frau Reich tells him that Herr Fluth is approaching. The women disguise Falstaff as an old woman, a relative of Frau Fluth’s maid. Herr Fluth has forbidden her presence in his home and beats her mercilessly. He then searches for Falstaff without success.

Act III

Scene One

Setting: Herr Reich’s home.

The wives have informed their husbands of Falstaff’s letters. Herr Fluth has been forgiven his unwarranted jealousy. They devise another trick to play against Falstaff. There is to be a masquerade. Falstaff is to meet the wives costumed as Herne, the legendary hunter. Frau Reich gives Anna a costume of a red elf to wear so that Dr. Cajus will recognize her. After Frau Reich leaves, Herr Reich enters with a green elf costume for Anna to wear so that Junker Spärlich will recognize her. Anna decides to give the costumes to Dr. Cajus and Junker Spärlich to wear. She will run off with Fenton.

Scene Two

Setting: Windsor Forest.

The townspeople, disguised as spooks and spirits, await Falstaff. Falstaff appears as Herne with large antlers on his head. Frau Reich and Frau Fluth arrive. When the ghosts approach, the wives run away. Terrified, Falstaff tries to hide. However, he is pinched, stabbed and mocked. Falstaff repents. The masqueraders reveal themselves. All are in merriment.

Click here for the complete libretto.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/content/merry_wives_of_windsor.jpg
image_description=Merry Wives of Windsor

audio=yes
first_audio_name=Otto Nicolai: Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Die_lustigen1.m3u


product=yes
product_title=Otto Nicolai: Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
product_by=Wilhelm Strienz, Georg Hann, Ludwig Windisch, Walther Ludwig, Hans Florian, Edwin Heyer, Irma Beilke, Marie Luise Schilp, Lore Hoffmann, Chor der Städtischen Oper, Berlin, Berliner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester, Artur Rother (cond.). Recorded 3 May 1943.

Posted by Gary at 8:00 PM

Il trittico in San Francisco

Both light-weight works remained on the fringe of the Puccini repertory for most of the twentieth century, though in recent years they have been exploited in opera’s attempt at repertory expansion.

In San Francisco La rondine reappeared in 2007 in a lackluster production made splendid by the magnetic Rondine of Angela Gheorghiu. Il trittico was in the 1923 and 1952 SFO seasons (though parts of it have appeared in many other years), and just now it has dared the War Memorial stage once again, and succeeded as one of its truer artistic ventures!

The by-now enormous vocal resources of SFO triumphed, led by Merola and Adler Fellow alumna Patricia Racette as all three heroines — Giorgetta, Suor Angelica, Lauretta, supported by fifteen other past and present Merolini and Adler Fellows, notably mezzo Catherine Cook as Frugola, Monitor and La Ciesca. And not the least of whom was conductor Patrick Summers, a most distinguished Merola alumnus. Three singers only, of the thirty two singers who performed the myriad of roles across the three operas, validated the company’s international pretensions, Italian baritone Paolo Gavanelli as Michele and Gianni Schicchi, Polish contralto Ewa Podles as the Princess, and Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli as Il Talpa and Simone, thus delicately spicing the otherwise all American brew.

Verismo as an operatic term is applied to the Puccini oeuvre though verismo per se is much purer than any Puccini opera ever wanted to be. Puccini was far more entralled by horror theater, the infamous Grand Guignol, like the blood bath that concludes Madama Butterfly, her two-year-old son looking on, and particularly in the revelation of Luigi’s mutilated body in the triptych’s Il tabarro. Not to mention Suor Angelica’s on-stage suicide under the gaze of the Virgin Mary, and the Gianni Schicchi heirs’ horror that their arms be reduced to stumps.

Schi_LomRac.gifDavid Lomelí (Rinuccio) and Patricia Racette (Lauretta) in Gianni Schicchi

Paris’ Theatre du Grand Guignol, the world’s original horror theater (20 rue Chaptal), finally petered out in 1962, the public no longer titillated by the contemplation of the gruesome. But it was going strong during and after the first world war, and fashionable for the fashionable. Puccini was a man of his times, a true Italian with his finger on the pulse of style, and all style was Parisian just then. Voilà Il trittico.

Nowhere on earth do opera audiences seem partial to high style. Thus when West Virginia born stage director James Robinson conceived this fairly high concept production for New York City Opera in 2002 he was careful to imbue its original cutting edge style with adorable, witty images. The first was even a caricature, a super-endowed and sexually overripe female alone on the empty stage slinking alongside a mostly submerged hut. Puccini’s Seine flowed as bored time and there was little hint of a Parisian dockside, it could have been near a coal mine as well, but where was not the point as long as it was dark and low.

Robinson stripped la Frugola of her usual pathos, instead we saw a happy, giddy floozy with her homey fantasies. Luigi was a lanky American boy, not smart enough to keep his hands off the boss’s wife, Giorgetta, who was aching to be touched in her little girl, Butterfly voice, and strangely dismissive of her baby’s death. At last Michele blew-up in nearly buffo terms leaving Luigi dead, hanging from his arms like a Michelangelo Pietà.

Robinson rendered Suor Angelica’s seventeenth century convent as a twentieth century children’s hospital adorable in its sterile detail. Its diseased and maimed occupants were quietly eating lunch while its custodians chattered about trivial spiritual concerns. The maiden aunt arrived in supercilious Protestant outrage and the resulting suicide was somehow rendered by all this clutter into terms that were softly personal, and heart wrenchingly tender. The final, blurred vision of an Asian-American boy (Trouble, now seven years old?) was super witty, hardly maudlin at all.

Robinson made Buoso Donati’s home with a view a shiny white high rise hospital room, so shiny that its patterned black and white marble floor was perfectly reflected on the walls and ceiling, the heirs attired in oh-so impeccably fashionable black and white. Lauretta was a daddy’s valley girl who got finally everything she wanted, save a good view of Florence as set designer Alan Moyer’s Duomo dome ruthlessly blocked most of it. Nothing’s perfect.

And so the more delicate sensibilities of twenty-first century audiences were titillated by wit rather than horror. And greatly so by the superb individual performances of the entire cast. Patricia Racette, without doubt the world’s reigning Butterfly, was in magnificent voice (9/30). She applied the wiles of the complex Butterfly role to Puccini’s quickly drawn triptych heroines with contagious gusto. Though Il trittico had its world premiere at the Met in 1918 (with three different sopranos), the Met jumped the anniversary gun by introducing a new production by Jack O’Brien in 2004. Odds are that even the new, enlightened Met with its reprise next year (with la Racette) cannot one-up this low budget NYCO production as it was incarnated just now at SFO.

Notable among many fine performances was American tenor Brandon Jovanovich, already an SFO Pinkerton (2007), whose rendering of Luigi as a down-and-out itinerant worker willing enough to appease Giorgetta’s animal needs was down-right real. Mexican tenor David Lomelí, an Adler Fellow, brought solid voice, stolid presence and just about enough stature to fill the shoes of Lauretta’s fiance Rinuccio. Impressive indeed was the contralto voice and performance of Merola alumna Meredith Arwady as the Abbess and Zita.

And finally Paolo Gavanelli stepped off the stage onto the apron to have the last word, and beg applause for his vivid performances of two of opera’s most sympathetic villains, Michele and Schicchi, and for Puccini’s kitsch operatic novellas of heaven and hell, and purgatory too. There was a mighty roar, particularly for the responsive, hyper-sensitive conducting of Patrick Summers who got Puccini just right for this heady concoction.

Michael Milenski

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Suor_Rac1.gif image_description=Patricia Racette (Sister Angelica) in Suor Angelica [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera] product=yes product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Il trittico product_by=Click here for cast list of Il Trovatore product_id=Above: Patricia Racette (Sister Angelica) in Suor Angelica

All photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera
Posted by michael_m at 7:43 PM

Czech Opera Treasures on Supraphon

The set of The Bartered Bride comes from 1952; The Cunning Little Vixen was recorded in 1957. Many releases from those years offer fine sound, and in some cases (think the Mercury Living presence series), quite excellent audio — warm and yet detailed.

So the first thing to be said about these two sets must be that the recording quality ranges from poor (the Smetana) to just acceptable (the Janáček). The constricted mono sound of the 1952 Bride recording gives the impression of a microphone set up not in the same room as the musicians and singers, but possibly just around the corner. Aural claustrophobia sets in early and never really leaves, despite the thoroughly idiomatic performance. The Prague National Theater orchestra and chorus perform under the baton of Jaroslav Vogel, all sounding spirited enough to really make it all the more unfortunate that they can’t be heard better. The singers tend to be a little more up front in the mix, and though none come across as major talents, they all inhabit their roles naturally. Fans of this opera, which never seems to have caught on very well outside its home region, may want this set for its historic value. Others would probably do best to find the opera in German on EMI, with a first-rate chorus and clean, clear sound.

333_3981.jpgThe sound quality of the Vixen dismays the ears initially, but this is a case where one soon adjusts and settles into the mood of the performance, putting side the qualified audio experience. That excellent conductor Václav Neumann leads the same ensemble as in the Smetana, and here their virtuosity and knowledge of the idiom shine through. Rudolf Asmus sings a masculine, wise Forester, and Hana Böhmová employs a boyish soprano to vivid effect as the Vixen.

In the slim-line cases of these lower-price editions, Supraphon provides a booklet with the usual credits and then a combination track listing and synopsis, in Czech and English. More information on the artists would be appreciated, though the lack of the usual essay retreading Wikipedia-style data on the composer and the opera prompts few regrets. The better-recorded Mackerras set of Janáček’s masterpiece remains essential, but this Supraphon edition deserves a listen as well.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/3333980.jpg imagedescription=Bedrich Smetana: The Bartered Bride

product=yes producttitle=Bedrich Smetana: The Bartered Bride productby=Milada Musilová; Ivo Žídek; Karel Kalaš; Oldrich Kovár. Chorus and Orchestra of the National Theatre in Prague/Jaroslav Vogel. Recorded at Domovina Studio and at the Rudolfinum, Prague, March 24, 28 & 29, 1952 productid=Supraphon MD 3980 [2CDs] price=$24.98 producturl=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B001QVCERE Smetana’s The Bartered Bride and Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen

Smetana: SU 3980-2 Janáček: SU 3981-2

Posted by chris_m at 7:07 PM

Donizetti's Maria Stuarda at the Sferisterio Festival

A summer event, the festival setting, a classic amphitheater, can be seen under the opening credits of this DVD. This brief segment sets the mood for a good opera evening, as the crowd settles to view the action on the long, relatively narrow stage. Pier Luigi Pizzi directed an atmospheric Macbeth for the festival (search the archives for the review here). The same design principles that enhanced that Verdi opera do not work as effectively for Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. Once again, there are ramps, staired pedestals, a pitch black background, and simple, spare props. Costumes are heavy and detailed, with so much fabric in the ladies’ gowns that some produce annoying rustles with the slightest movement. Pizzi, who designed sets and costumes besides directing, must have decided he’d get more “budget bang” out of how he dressed his singers than in where he placed the action. Here he strands his performers in unatmospheric, dark surroundings, making the already sketchy drama seem portentous as well.

The weak structure of Maria Stuarda doesn’t help matters. Act one takes about 30 minutes to set up Elisabetta’s hatred of Maria Stuarda, not for political/religious reasons but because Elisabetta feels that Maria stole the Queen’s man, the Earl of Leicester. Maria only enters her eponymous opera in act two, where she is begged to tamp down her temper when Elizabeth visits, in hopes of a reprieve from her death sentence. But in the scene that keeps this opera alive, Elisabetta and Maria tear into each other with claw and fang. Understandably condemned, Maria then spends act three, after a futile attempt to change Elisabetta’s mind, exhibiting tragic nobility as she awaits her fate beneath the ax. The great choral number at the end serves as the audience’s reward for enduring Maria’s protracted leave-taking.

In a recent La Scala production on DVD, Anna Caterina Antonacci as Elisabetta and Mariella Devia as Maria put on a master class of vocal technique and committed acting. This Sferisterio production suffers from lacking a potent Elisabetta. Laura Polverelli scowls appropriately, and Pizzi certainly employed his skills to make her both as regal and as unattractive as possible. But Polverelli sings monotonously, with little color or insightful inflection. Maria Pia Piscitelli fares better as Maria, especially in the final scenes. As an actress she doesn’t possess much range, but her instrument at least can meet Donizetti’s challenges and retain some degree of appeal. She is thoroughly adequate, as are Roberto De Biasio as Leicester and Simone Alberghini as Talbot.

Ricardo Frizza and the Orchestra Filarmonia a Marchigiana play crisply, though not with immaculate tuning. Though the Naxos booklet comes only in English, it deserves praise for offering a full track listing, credits, essay, synopsis, photographs and artist biographies. Many booklets from larger companies don’t offer all that. Still, for Maria Stuarda on DVD, go for the La Scala.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/2.110268.gif image_description=Gaetano Donizetti: Maria Stuarda

product=yes producttitle=Gaetano Donizetti: Maria Stuarda productby=Elisabetta: Laura Polverelli; Maria Stuarda: Maria Pia Piscitelli; Anna Kennedy: Giovanna Lanza; Roberto: Roberto De Biasio; Talbot: Simone Alberghini; Cecil: Mario Cassi. Coro Lirico Marchigiano ‘V. Bellini’. Marchigiana Philharmonic Orchestra (FORM). Riccardo Frizza, conductor. Pier Luigi Pizzi, stage director, set and costume design. Sergio Rossi, lighting design. Recorded during the Sferisterio Opera Festival, Macerata, Italy, 3 August 2007. productid=Naxos 2.110268 [DVD] price=$29.49 producturl=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B001U1L9NU

Posted by chris_m at 5:17 PM

Orfeo at La Scala

Had the Kent Nagano pit not been appallingly lackluster perhaps some chance illuminations of the Strauss score might have been struck, as was Mr. Wilson’s intention.

Just now, 22 years later Mr. Wilson has struck out again, this time with Monteverdi’s Orfeo, a few distinguished early music singers exercising abstracted hand and arm gestures and stilted dance movements, and a well-known Wozzeck screeching Orfeo in whiteface. Had Rinaldo Alessandrini not been in the pit there would have been no flashes of the Monteverdi genius, and as it was these were reduced to a very few.

The Alessandrini Monteverdi trilogy at La Scala has been eagerly anticipated, particularly after his sublime cycle of Monteverdi madrigals (complete) at the Edinburgh Festival two years ago. Mo. Alessandrini brings a restoration to these old scores much as faded and mutilated Renaissance paintings are imbued with vibrant original line and color through restoration. In the visual arts this is accomplished by complicated scientific process, in the spheres of music Alessandrini must rely on his dramatic intuitions.

He finds infinite colors and timbres to the narrower tones of old instruments and to the whiter production of the human voice. He hones the vowels, carves the consonants and sculpts the phrases of a pristine Italian, and he drives its rhythms and tempos to embrace larger periods. He generates the precise moment when emotion bursts into syllable and sentence. Under Alessandrini’s baton the Monteverdi word does indeed become the Orphic moment.

Robert Wilson is an architect. The art of architecture, it is said, is frozen music. He chose a Titian painting, Venus with Eros and an Organist, as his visual metaphor for the world’s first great opera. In the painting two small forests of cypress trees nearly converge in a strong perspective that carries our erotic imagination suggestively beyond the foreground dominated by a lush female nude scrutinized by the male organist twisting around from his keyboard.

5orfeoz.jpgScene from Orfeo [Photo by Marco Brescia - La Scala Photographic Archives]

In Wilson’s version exactly twelve perfectly shaped trees are carefully frozen into a perspective space through his characteristic hard edge, sculptural lighting. Wilson replaces Titian’s sumptuous foreground nude and the leering organist with his Orpheus who dominates the foreground, rushing back and forth across the stage apron. Titian’s pastoral nudity was replaced by the off-white costumes (the flesh color of Titians’ Venus) that generically covered the shepherdesses and made the shepherds comically plumb-shaped rather than sveltely swain-shaped.

The familiar characters of this well-known myth were presented as elaborately dressed Renaissance mannequins who moved from frozen gesture to frozen gesture, Monteverdi’s tumbling torrents of words stopped in their tracks by Wilson’s motionless visuals. The Messaggera who delivers the emotional account of Euridice’s death was Sara Mingardo, known for her fine recordings with Rinaldo Alessandrini and his Concerto Italiano that have earned her the reputation as the Maria Callas of early music. But for her extended second act monologue she was straight-jacketed by the staging and by a formless black dress, Alessandrini’s simple organ continuo unable to breath life into this great moment of early opera, sadly lost in the vast spaces of this huge theater.

Austrian baritone Georg Nigl was Orfeo. Though a credentialed early music singer he is better known on major European stages as a Wozzeck. He has a sizable voice and persona that is well able to fill large theaters. He lacks both a beautiful voice and a sympathetic presence, thus he was unable to project the strong humanity that overflows much mannerist art and particularly these emotionally heightened Monteverdi monologues. Uniquely, Wilson afforded him the only dynamism allowed on the stage, keeping him prominently moving in the foreground of the stage picture. His positioning on the stage apron sometimes activated acoustical quirks in the Scala auditorium, creating echos that heightened the freakishness of his detached note ornamentations.

Left to his own devices, Alessandrini shone in the sinfornie and the orchestral ritornelli, and very nearly got the extended madrigal that closes the second act into the spheres of great music. Other than the discomfort apparent in Mr. Nigl’s delivery of the Italian language, much of the beauty of the language was present in the otherwise Italian cast, though the finely detailed Musica of early music star Roberta Invernizzi was lost in the Wilson staging and in the vastness of La Scala. The Pluto of Giovanni Battista Parodi and the Proserpina of Raffaella Milanesi made no effect, while the Caronte of Luigi de Donato was buried under a silly costume. Only among the solo shepherds were there occasional glints of real, live performances.

Robert Wilson made important theatrical discoveries, and his innovations have enlivened our ideas of theater. He established his moment in the last third of the twentieth century, and is now working to preserve his legacy through the creation of his foundation. Given the formidable scope of his upcoming projects it is apparent that the foundation has become his atelier, and that projects like this Orfeo are stamped out in his mold. The sense of theatrical discovery that was once at the heart of his work was not present in his staging of this opera.

Rinaldo Alessandrini is the man of the moment, his discoveries of new depths in old music have uncovered musical vistas yet to be explored in both old and new music. This new sense of music theater deserves an original staging, one that hears this music, a staging that explores the excitement of Mo. Alessandrini’s discoveries rather than forces them into a dated mold.

Michael Milenski

image=http://www.operatoday.com/FrontispieceofL%27Orfeo.jpg image_description=Frontispiece of L’Orfeo, 1609 Venice edition

product=yes producttitle=Claudio Monteverdi: Orfeo productby=La Musica: Roberta Invernizzi; Orfeo: Georg Nigl; Euridice: Roberta Invernizzi; Messaggera: Sara Mingardo; Speranza: Sara Mingardo; Caronte: Luigi De Donato; Proserpina: Raffaella Milanesi; Plutone: Giovanni Battista Parodi; Eco: Roberta Invernizzi; Apollo: Furio Zanasi. Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro alla Scala. Conductor: Rinaldo Alessandrini. Staging, Sets and Lights: Robert Wilson. Costumes: Jacques Reynaud. Director’s Collaborator: Giuseppe Frigeni. Collaborator on Sets: Serge Von Arx. Lighting Designer: A.J. Weissbard. product_id=Frontispiece of L’Orfeo, 1609 Venice edition

Posted by Gary at 4:55 PM

Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

And well they should - most of the productions get filmed in the house but without any audience, allowing for immaculate recording. This 1999 Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg couldn’t be more precise in its camerawork or detailed in its sound picture. On the audio side, that means that the excellent performance Daniel Barenboim elicits from the Bayreuth forces can be wholly appreciated — all the joyfulness, nobility, and good spirits of Wagner’s miraculous score come through.

The cast gathered for these performances does not shine with starry names. Often that does not mean at all that the performance lacks for either first-class singing or charismatic portrayals. However, in this case, it rather does. Robert Holl’s Sachs seems much more a part of his community, to the extent of blending in with the others. In the sharpest portrayals, the wisdom and intelligence of this character make him more distinct. Holl’s instrument manages all the music without really engaging the emotional core of the role. Andreas Schmidt as Beckmesser comes across as entirely petty and unpleasant, which makes the end inevitable - and in an opera that takes over four hours to reach its end, that drains a lot of fun from the proceedings. Peter Seiffert, standing taller (and a bit wider) than his lower-voiced comrades, sings a very fine Walther. His voice is handsome more than beautiful, but in 1999 it still had a pleasing freshness. He does come off as more than a bit pompous, however. Emily Magee is an attractive Eva, but without much charm, and the voice tightens unpleasantly at the top. A young and cute Endrik Wottrich has ample opportunity to steal his scenes as David.

Wolfgang Wagner designed the stage and directed. As director he goes in a bit too much for choreographed movements that don’t feel natural at all, such as Schmidt’s many bits of business in act three as he snoops around Sachs’s workshop. The sets are handsome, traditional, but almost like a Disneyland version of Nürnberg - rather too pretty and neat. However, the last scene, done in shades of green from the lighting to the projected backdrop, has an eerie beauty.

Despite the fine work from Barenboim, the better option for anyone wanting a Bayreuth Meistersinger on DVD would be the earlier release with a capable Horst Stein conducting a fine cast led by Bernd Weikl and Hermann Prey.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/MeistersingerBayreuth1999.jpg image_description=Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

product=yes producttitle=Richard Wagner: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg productby=Peter Seiffert, Jose van Dam, Petra-Maria Schnitzer, Orchester & Chor des Opernhauses Zürich, Franz Welser-Möst. productid=EMI 997369 [2DVDs] price=$21.97 producturl=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B0007D0AVE

Posted by chris_m at 4:15 PM

Toscanini: In His Own Words

The cover photograph seems to be a head shot of Arturo Toscanini, with the title below his chin: Toscanini: In His Own Words. The back cover script states that “private tapes…[and] excerpts from his letters…form the basis of this unique film.” Some might believe that this “film by Larry Weinstein” is a sort of documentary. But look closer — a cast listing gives the names of actors in the roles of Toscanini, his family and some associates.

What Weinstein has done is write a script (with Harvey Sachs) in which Toscanini is seated in a parlor area, possibly having after-dinner drinks, and reminiscing about his life and career. His thoughts are prompted by comments and questions from his family and friends, seated around the great man. These frequently stilted interjections (“I’m curious, can you remember your first love?”) produce anecdotes accompanied by authentic still photographs or film footage. Many of these stories and quips will be familiar to anyone who has read much of anything about Toscanini. However, Barry Jackson, who impersonates Toscanini, does a mostly commendable job. Perhaps once or twice his accent takes on the corny flavor of caricature, but overall he captures the sad dignity of the man. The other actors have not much else to do but to stare admiringly at Toscanini/Jackson.

So what we have here is a fiction film that employs documentary footage. Indeed, a “unique film.” For the many fans of Toscanini, the illusion that the great man has actually been caught by the cameras in moments of both joyful and sad recollection may be attraction enough. At 70 minutes, the film certainly does not wear out its welcome. No new depths are explored, but it is certainly amusing to hear Toscanini call Umberto Giordano “stupid” and Wilhelm Furtwängler a “big clown.”

Surely the best exploration of what Toscanini was all about can be found in his many recordings. Still, a project like this has its place in a total picture of the legendary figure, especially in filling out a human dimension often lacking in other perspectives. Tentatively recommended.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/3077928.gif image_description=Toscanini In His Own Words

product=yes producttitle=Toscanini: In His Own Words productby=Arturo Toscanini: Barry Jackson; Walter Toscanini: Joseph Long; Wally Toscanini: Carolina Giammetta; Anita Colombo: Jennie Goosens; Wilfrid Pelletier: Michael Brandon; Iris Cantelli: Valentina Chico. productid=Medici Arts 3077928 [DVD] price=$22.49 producturl=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B001QJXBRI

Posted by chris_m at 3:55 PM

Giordano: Marcella

Umberto Giordano’s Marcella certainly qualifies as rare - a one-act opera in three episodes, under 70 minutes in length. This mid-career work came after Giordano’s early successes (notably Andrea Chenier), and according to Paul Campion in his fine booklet essay, it “did not appeal to its early audiences,” and later audiences had next to no opportunity to see it at all. One later performance, given “shortly before the Second World War,” might well have been the one to show the work at its best advantage - the cast featured Magda Olivero in the title role with Tito Schipa as her partner.

The Dynamic/Naxos cast, caught at a 2007 staging at the festival Valle D’Italia, pose no threats to the memories of Olivero and Schipa’s careers. Serena Daolio as Marcella must strike us as an unworldly, even timid woman who finds herself passionately and helplessly in love with Giorgio (Danilo Formaggia). Giordano’s compositional style had not progressed much from his more famous work of previous years. Marcella and Giorgio both require ample, rich voices who can pour out their romantic exultations and trauma tirelessly. Without distinctive voices, the effect becomes tiresome, and neither Daolio nor Formaggia have much character to their instruments. She tightens at the top, and he has a darker timbre prone to weak intonation.

Even singers such as Olivero and Schipa probably couldn’t do much to make this opera a success. The story feels both unoriginal and overextended, even at 66 minutes. The first episode takes place in a lively restaurant, rather too schematically designed to have a choral number and some other character interaction before the opera comes down to its essential two-character core. Marcella runs in, scared by some inappropriate behavior (very vague in nature) from a crowd outside. Giorgio comforts her. What she doesn’t know is that Giorgio (in a plot twist too reminiscent of operetta librettos) is a prince in disguise, out to see the world away from the pressures of the court. Giorgio and Marcella fall in love; he idly dreaming that he can escape his responsibilities indefinitely. But he can’t, and Marcella makes a tearful goodbye, realizing she could never be his consort. Improbable and yet uninteresting, this narrative provides very weak support for Giordano’s overheated style, and his melodic invention never catches fire.

Director Alessio Pizzechi tries to bring the piece to life, including having some ladies of doubtful repute traipse in their undergarments through the restaurant. Michele Riccairini’s sets look best in the wooden simplicity of the country home Giorgio and Marcella repair to in the last two episodes. Manlio Benzi conducts the Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia, producing a warm, excited sound suitable to the score.

If any fan of Giordano’s must have this piece, the DVD has sound as good as the CD, and at least some modest visual appeal. But Marcella the opera is unlikely to have any happier fate that its title character endures.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/2.110263.gif image_description=Umberto Giordano: Marcella

product=yes producttitle=Umberto Giordano: Marcella productby=Marcella: Serena Daolio; Giorgio: Danilo Formaggia; Drasco: Pierluigi Dilengite; Clara: Natalizia Carone; Raimonda: Angelica Girardi; Eliana: Mara D’Antini; Lea: Maria Rosa Rondinelli; Vernier: Marcello Rosiello; Barthélemy: Giovanni Coletta; Flament: Graziano De Pace. Slovak Chamber Choir. Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia. Manlio Benzi, conductor. Alessio Pizzech, stage director. Filmed at the Palazzo Ducale, Martina Franca, Italy, on 4-6 August 2007 as part of the 33rd Festival of the Valle d’Itria, Italy. productid=Naxos 2.110263 [DVD] price=$9.99 producturl=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B0020MST9U

Posted by chris_m at 3:36 PM

Los Angeles “Ring” continues to amaze

The audience that packed 3,600-seat Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the September 26 afternoon event, was even more wildly enthusiastic about Feyer’s work than it had been at the end of Rheingold and Walküre that launched this $32-million project last season. (True, there were “boos,” but they were almost totally inaudible against the bravos heaped upon Freyer and his production team.) Yet one must ask whether Freyer’s Wagner is as great as it seems. Has the director, whose theory of theater was shaped in his native East Germany in Bert Brecht’s Berlin Ensemble, really found a — if not the — key to Wagner’s genius or has he rather created a spectacle that awes his audience into breathless admiration?

Although Freyer is clearly a winner, the bigger question is how well Wagner fares under his hand. Every director — even in this age of overheated Regieoper — claims to do what the composer wanted done to realize his intentions. Let’s start with Freyer’s most obvious triumph: he leaves one with the desire to see the segments of this Ring again — an opportunity that will be available when LA Opera stages three complete cycles of the tetralolgy in 2010. Freyer brings an immense amount to Wagner; he makes every moment an overlay of meanings involving symbols impossible to absorb and interpret in a single exposure. Yet his approach to Siegfried, compared to his two earlier installments of the cycle, is relatively minimalist. The stage is uncluttered, and largely absent are the mammoth doubles of the major characters. The staging relies heavily on effects achieved through sophisticated lighting.

Siegfried, although rich in event with the forging of the sword, the slaying of Dragon Fafner and the launching of the love story that will dominate Götterdämmerung, is by far the most difficult of the Ring operas to stage. Wagner, viewing the four-part work as a symphony, suggested that this third chapter is a scherzo, and that has prompted some directors to introduce all sorts of funny-bone nonsense into the staging. Freyer — happily — goes in another direction. Nothung, the sword, is forged vocally without the trappings of the Village Blacksmith, and Siegfried runs Fafner through with only a blue-lighted tube. Indeed, the dragon that dwarfs the stage in many productions is an understated Disneyesque dwarf in top hat.

LAOpera_Siegfried02.jpgScene from Siegfried [Photo by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of LA Opera]

One is relieved at the removal of such hackneyed attempts at “realism.” Freyer keeps a tight lid on the scherzo idea. Humor in Wagner? One recalls the waggish observations that Pfitzner’s monumental Palestrina is Parsifal without the jokes.” The one line in Siegfried that gets a laugh in this age of surtitles is the hero’s observation as he removes Brünnhilde’s armor: “That’s not a man!” Wagner hardly expected to split sides with that!

Young Siegfried is — like young Parsifal — a pure fool with everything to learn and only four hours to do so. It’s a heavy trip, and Freyer offers all the help he can in hints and images to get the hero to his goal. It’s the goal — Siegfried’s awakening of Brünnhilde and the great duet that follows - that is most problematic in this staging. Brünnhilde, despite heavily incestuous intimations on the part of Father Wotan, is still a virgin. In terms of sexual enlightenment, however, she is light years ahead of Siegfried who has spent his early years tumbling about the woods with only bears as companions. In the duet a huge distance is yet to be covered in only half an hour of music. It’s here that Freyer offers so much help that Wagner’s music suffers.

The wealth of imagery, lighting effects and those “invisible” imports from Kabuki drama that move slowly about the stage are a study in excess. Text is all important here, and as the curtain fell one wished for a concert performance of the duet to underscore this fact. Freyer’s decision to hide Brünnhilde in a haystack — plus a towering Afro and billowing gown — offered little help. Indeed, although Freyer is out to illuminate text and explain the story, he often detracts from the musical excellence of this production. That excellence is largely the work of music director James Conlon who knows this score note by note and has built an orchestral second to none to do his bidding. His cast, furthermore, is without weak links. True, John Treleaven and Linda Watson, his Siegfried and Brünnhilde, are best viewed as adequate singers, who work with intelligent sensitivity to realize Freyer’s intentions.

Superb, on the other hand, is Graham Clark’s portrayal of Siegfried’s guardian dwarf Mime, a role to which he has claimed almost sole ownership for two decades. As Wotan disguised as the Wanderer Ukrainian Vitalij Kowaljow makes his mark as the most promising young singer to tackle this role in recent seasons. Jill Grove’s Erda is definitive.

What is most strange about this Siegfried is that it is without emotional impact — and perhaps Freyer wants it that way. His teacher Brecht, after all, was out to put feelings on ice and make people think in his didactic theater. The viewer is all too absorbed by Freyer’s approach; he keeps one thinking — or guessing at least. He is demanding, and it’s impressing that the audience responds as positively as it does. Yet an occasional goose bump would provide welcome relief.

A final observation: Freyer grew up secured from the decadence of Hollywood by the Anti-Fascist Protective Wall (the official East German designation for that structure). Yet in Los Angeles one is always aware that Hollywood is right next door, and there is much in Freyer’s Ring — the streaming of colored patterns, the choreography of lighted tubes — that brings that proximity to mind. On the other hand, had Wagner had this technology at his fingertips, he — like Bach at a Bechstein — would have gone bonkers. He would have abandoned his insistence upon “real” trees and rocks and lost himself in the imagination in which Achim Freyer indulges himself perhaps a bit too freely.

Wes Blomster

Götterdämmerung, which completes the Los Angeles Ring, plays from, 3 to 25 April, 2010. Three cycles of the Ring will be on stage between May 29 and June 26, 2010.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/LAOpera_Siegried01.jpg image_description=Linda Watson (Brunnhilde), John Treleaven (Siegfried) [Photo by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of LA Opera] product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Siegfried product_by=Graham Clark: Mime; John Treleaven: Siegfried; Vitalij Kowaljow: Wanderer; Oleg Bryjak: Alberich; Eric Halfvarson: Fafner; Stacey Tappan: Woodbird; Jill Grove: Erda; Linda Watson: Brünnhilde. Los Angeles Opera. James Conlon, conductor. Achim Freyer, director/designer. product_id=Above: Linda Watson (Brunnhilde), John Treleaven (Siegfried) [Photo by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of LA Opera]
Posted by Gary at 3:16 PM

Johann Strauss: Das Spitzentuch der Königin

Wrong! The “spitzentuch” of Das Spitzentuch der Königin turns out to be a lace handkerchief, which belongs to a queen. The plot synopsis relates a tale of dubious complexity, built around not only the spitzentuch but a truffle pastry that sabotages a honeymoon, as well as Miguel Cervantes in disguise as an innkeeper. Even with dialogue the two CDs in this CPO set don’t reach 95 minutes in length, and how all the story gets told in that time prompts more curiosity than the tale itself.

So CPO would have done just as well to cut the dialogue and produce a one-CD set of the music, because this is Strauss at his best — ridiculously tuneful and irresistibly toe-tapping. The booklet essays by Ernst Theis (who also conducts the Staatsoperette Dresden) and André Meyer, while stuffed with background detail, make unwarranted and extravagant claims. This is no “forgotten masterpiece.” If, as they both suggest, the libretto let the work down when it first premiered, it continues to do so. But the music! Strauss built one of his most famous pieces, “Roses from the South,” from the score, but there are many delights. Just program your player to omit the dialogue and get ready to kick up your heels.

Ernst Theis obviously loves this music, but he respects it as well — the performance dances, of course, but it also finds the sweetness in the occasional lyric moment. The cast come off as experienced operetta performers, if not the finest singers imaginable. Jessica Glatte sings the Königin of the title. By her booklet photograph she looks the part. The voice, however, tends to warble and lose color at the top. The König is a pants role, and mezzo Nadja Stefanoff gets one of Strauss’s great tunes, which she delivers with more enthusiasm than flair. Tenor Ralf Simon gets another instantly familiar tune in the romanze of Cervantes in act two. He does just well enough to make one wish one could hear a recording of Fritz Wunderlich in the same number.

Some less than ideal vocalizing, however, cannot seriously dampen the charm of the piece. Grab onto this Königin’s spitzentuch for a very pleasant hour — minus the dialogue.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Spitzentuch.png image_description=Johann Strauss: Das Spitzentuch der Königin

product=yes producttitle=Johann Strauss: Das Spitzentuch der Königin productby=Nadja Stefanoff, Jessica Glatte, Elke Kottmair, Ralf Simon, Markus Liske, Hary Brachmann, Gritt Gnauck, Chor & Orchester der Staatsoperette Dresden, Ernst Theis productid=CPO 777 406-2 [2CDs] price=$34.98 producturl=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B001RX3KQA

Posted by chris_m at 2:52 PM

Siegfried Wagner: Der Schmeid von Marienburg

They retain essential control over their great ancestor’s festival theater in Bayreuth, and their squabbles, successes, and failures make headlines with regularity. The line might well have died out if Richard Wagner’s son Siegfried had not decided late in life that he needed to marry and produce heirs - although even the booklet essay of this Marco Polo recording of the thirteenth of Siegfried’s operas makes no compunction about calling Siegfried a homosexual. His marriage to Winifred produced the desired children, but Peter P. Pachl’s notes, translated by Keith Anderson, claim that Winifred blocked further performances of her husband’s works after his passing, and burnt his uncompleted compositions.

All that drama, historical and psychological, proves more interesting than Siegfried’s actual work, unfortunately. Marco Polo’s booklet in the set for Der Schmeid von Marienburg provides no libretto (an internet address is given for a German libretto only), but it does have notes on the opera’s production, the historical background of its story, and a biography of the composer, all by Rupert Lummer, besides the Pachl note. Lummer maintains that Siegfried’s operas “are very different from those of his father,” tying Siegfried’s development to his teacher, Humperdinck. Yet Humperdinck famously helped with the music to some transitional passages to Parsifal, and many have heard the influence of Wagner’s style in the score to Hansel und Gretel. In the Siegfried opera here not only does the title resemble that of his father’s great comic opera, but both are set in the Middle Ages. Plot details otherwise differ, it’s true, but to listen to the music of Siegfried’s opera, especially of acts one and two, is to hear many passages resembling the earlier work of father Richard, especially from Lohengrin or Tannhaüser. Long monologues dominate the narrative, and the idiom of swooping horns and anxious strings invites comparison to those earlier Richard Wagner scores. Act three does have some music that suggests Siegfried’s talent did not only lie in producing work that, to put it as nicely as possible, honored the memory of his father’s creations. If only he had pursued an artistic route distant from his father’s achievements, Siegfried’s operas might be more than curiosities.

Der Schmeid von Marienburg provokes little interest, despite being a curiosity. The detailed plot synopsis baffles more than clarifies, and just one line from one scene of one act should serve to catch the general flavor: “On the square in front of the Marienburg, Muthart explains how the army’s defeat at the Tannenburg was caused by the treacherous Lizard Knights of Kulm.” Besides Lizard Knights, watch for a devil-figure called The Lame Wanderer” (who gets the best music), secret tunnels, a “newly-forged” helmet, and much more. Too much more, if fact, and yet not enough recognizable human psychology, which Richard Wagner always had, even in his most far-fetched action. Wagner also had a supreme gift for memorable melody, which his son, sadly, did not inherit. But Siegfried was not an incompetent composer. The orchestration holds together a loose fabric of themes and motifs. It just never breaks free often enough into an individual style.

This live performance originated from essay-author Pachl’s June 2008 production at the Filharmonia Gdańsk, with Frank Strobel conducting the Baltic Philharmonic Orchestra. Without a libretto, following the action and identifying particular roles becomes all but impossible, especially as Marco Polo divides each act of over an hour into just a few tracks; act two on disc two has 64 minutes of music and only 5 tracks. The cast list gives 17 roles. The men fare very well, but one of the sopranos, possibly Maacha Deubner but more probably Rebecca Broberg in the role of Friedelind, has the sort of big, heroic voice that strays fairly often from pitch -a quality admittedly not unknown in performances of Richard’s work.

For a live recording, the sound is admirably clear and spacious. Followers of the never-ending Wagner family saga may want this, or any lover of early Wagner who would like more of the same - and yet, less.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/8.225346-48.gif image_description=Siegfried Wagner: Der Schmeid von Marienburg

product=yes producttitle=Siegfried Wagner: Der Schmeid von Marienburg productby= productid=Marco Polo 8.225346-48 [3CDs] price=$30.98 producturl=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B001U1L9PI

Posted by chris_m at 2:37 PM

Oxford Lieder - Britain's top Song Festival

In only eight years, the Oxford Lieder Festival has established itself as the foremost art song festival in Britain, with an international reputation for innovation. Oxford is an ideal setting because art song works best in small, intimate settings with perfect acoustic. The Holywell Music Room, where many concerts take place, seats barely a hundred people, but the atmosphere is unique. The Holywell was the first purpose built public performance space in Europe, built around 1740. As a young boy Mozart played on this very platform : Handel and Haydn visited and may have played here too. The streets nearby are still cobbled, and the pub across the way dates from 1200. The Holywell isn’t open to the public, so recitals at this Festival are always a special experience.

The Festival’s first weekend (18th and 19th October) features the complete Britten Canticles in a special series curated by Julius Drake, The Canticles on their own are too long for a single concert, so here they are spread over two days, supplemented by other works. Hearing them together is like following Britten as he develops over the course of his life. These concerts take place at the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building, in a beautiful gardens, with a view over the Oxford skyline. Refreshments will be available for a mini Glyndebourne atmosphere.

Oxford Lieder has always championed interesting repertoire. Ned Rorem’s Evidence of Things Not Seen, receives its European premiere on October 25th. Rorem is one of the greatest American art song composers, so it’s a major event. the cycle is ambitious, written for four voices and piano, in all combinations. Some songs are humorous, others sad and some plain fun !

“It’s a huge privilege for the OLF to be hosting this performance; the first time this extraordinary piece has been heard outside of America. And we couldn’t hope for a better, more dynamic group of artists to present it that the Prince Consort.” says Sholto Kynoch, the charismatic Artistic Director of Oxford Lieder. The Prince Consort are well regarded, and their recording of The Songs of Ned Rorem is about to be released by the audiophile label, Linn Records.

The Festival also showcases unpublished, unknown songs and duets by Felix Mendelssohn, including many from Eugene Asti’s new Bärenreiter Edition.. Some of the manuscripts are in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, very close to where the recital will take place, preceded by a talk by Asti and Richard Stokes. “Some of these songs are wonderful” says Stokes, well known for his translation of French and German song.

The Festival features recitals by major European singers like Wolfgang Holzmair, Andreas Haefliger, Werner Güra, James Gilchrist, Roderick Williams, Joan Rodgers and Christopher Maltman. Nonetheless, an important part of the Oxford Lieder mission has always been to encourage all aspects of song performance. Central to the Festival is a fortnight long residential masterclass. It’s a rewarding experience as participants benefit from excellent teaching and performance opportunities and take part in all the concerts and activities the Festival has to offer. There are study days and workshops and special programmes that reach out to young singers in local schools.

Membership of the Oxford Lieder Festival includes free membership to priivate dining clubs and special hotel packages. The Oxford Lieder Festival is a lot more than an excellent series of concerts, it’s a wonderful experience.

Anne Ozorio

image=http://www.operatoday.com/holywellfront.jpg imagedescription=Rendering of Holywell Music Room

product=yes producttitle=Oxford Lieder Festival: 16th October to 31st October 2009 productby=Above: Rendering of Holywell Music Room

Posted by anne_o at 2:16 PM

October 10, 2009

Dresden’s Gain is Munich’s Loss: Thielemann Signs With Staatskapelle

by Jens F. Laurson [WETA, 10 October 2009]

Earlier today it became official: Christian Thielemann has signed a contract to be the next Music Director of the Staatskapelle Dresden starting 2011. This does not come entirely unsuspected—the orchestra and conductor have been considered a natural and likely fit since the news of Thielemann’s contract not being renewed in Munich first broke.

Posted by Gary at 6:42 PM

Opera Singer Fees Revealed

by Frank Cadenhead [Scena.org, 10 October 2009]

In an remarkably candid interview yesterday, October 9, in the French newspaper, Le Figaro, Roberto Alagna talks about two subjects of particular interest. He confirms his separation from Angela Gheorgiu and speaks candidly about the money he earns and spends. The French daily takes the occasion to make separate report about singers fees in general. Below is a rough translation of the latter article.

Posted by Gary at 6:05 PM

October 9, 2009

Tosca at the MET

Mattila plays the prima donna Floria Tosca as an over-the-top old-school diva, all self-dramatizing nervous energy. This is dangerous, as the events of the last day of Tosca’s life would excite a buried Samuel Beckett heroine from torpor into frenetic activity: Tosca endures jealous frenzies, first soothed and then confirmed, a command performance before the queen, the torture of her lover, then betraying him, a brutal seduction, a hot-blooded murder, her lover’s apparent salvation, his actual death, and a desperate leap to her own.

If none of this penetrates her self-involvement, perhaps the business with Scarpia isn’t really so bad — she just gets carried away. You know: divas! Certainly the final scene of Act II in the Luc Bondy production is a tasteless mistake — Mattila’s Tosca seems neither stunned nor shocked by having been driven to murder. She plots it beforehand, hides the dagger, arranges her dress so as to incite him, kicks him off the sofa afterward to present a better “stage picture,” and in describing the event to Cavaradossi later, she acts it all out — clearly enjoying every moment spent in the limelight of her imagination. If Tosca is too self-involved to be touched by murder, if she looks upon it as just another chance to seize center stage, why should we care about her? why credit her with any genuine feelings?

While Mattila is performing, though, such thoughts seldom intrude. She whirls about the ugly barn of a church like a Roman dervish, she seizes her lover’s paintbrush to alter the Magdalen’s eyes; she exposes her legs for Scarpia’s rape; and she insists that Cavaradossi rehearse his “fake” execution with her. She cannot be still for a moment — and the payback is her “Vissi d’arte,” when, drained by Scarpia’s brutality, she goes pale and empty, lets her voice float stunned into the theater. She does not remain crushed — nothing but death will stop this woman’s playacting — but the moment itself is riveting, and the rest of Mattila’s Tosca seems designed to draw our attention to it. Since this is not the heart of the opera — Puccini reportedly found the aria a bit dull — her focus highlights Mattila’s errors elsewhere. Tosca must grow from the flibbertigibbet of Act I to the desperate adventuress of Act III, and Mattila’s Tosca does not make such a change. Her reaction to getting blood on her hands? She puts on purple gloves.

TOSCA_Mattila_Alvarez_4557.gifKarita Mattila in the title role and Marcelo Alvarez as Cavaradossi [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera]

Mattila’s voice is not Italianate — as everyone has been saying since she took up Manon Lescaut a few years back. Her Manon Lescaut indeed lacked the opulent young sound of that teenage sensualist — but Tosca is a mature woman, and Mattila sings her with full-throated sensuality, passion without wilt or waver. I’ve seen Toscas of a dozen nationalities, and her sound is more idiomatic, and more beautiful, than many others of the “Nordic” school — Behrens, Nilsson and Vishnevskaya come to mind. More important is that she feels, and lives, the notes of this extreme character.

Marcelo Álvarez (an Argentinian) sings a very Italian Cavaradossi, suave and romantic in “Recondita armonia” and the love duets. He lacked vocal finesse only in “E lucevan le stelle,” which was not the honeyed reverie many tenors give us. Álvarez seemed so involved in acting the words — each one clear — that the anguish of his situation choked him up. The elegiac scene that followed, however, found him Mattila’s match for power and expressive beauty.

Carlo Guelfi sang a gruff, barking Scarpia, brutally effective in Act I, but the nuanced slime of Act II was missing — and was missed. Part of the problem may have been the intrusion of three prostitutes fooling with him at the opening of Act II, and this is typical of the director’s initiatives in adding nothing to the show but unanswerable questions. Scarpia is explaining the trap he plans to set for Tosca — and why: he enjoys sex when the lady resists — and these women don’t take the hint — not at all. Are they the sort of persons in whom Scarpia would confide? No — he’s not the type to confide in anyone, least of all a woman — he’s an egotist who opens himself in soliloquy. So why are the dames here? If we’re not supposed to think about it, or to wonder why they’re hanging around, why their presence and those questions being shoved in our faces? Does Mr. Bondy not understand the words Scarpia is singing? Similarly, if the enormous church is built of unpainted brick — this is Rome? — why is Cavaradossi painting his Magdalen in it?

Tosca is a finely-crafted machine, every effect calculated to a hair; set it in motion with the proper fuel (voices and orchestra) and it will run smooth as a Lamborghini. Each entrance gives us the character: Tosca’s sensuous piety (in a theme that will come back in “Vissi d’arte”), Cavaradossi’s romantic idealism, Angelotti’s desperation. The first appearance of Scarpia is the most terrifying entrance in all opera — because Puccini set it up to be, thrusting it into the midst of a rollicking (but thirty-second-long) children’s scene. We are never supposed to relax after that, whenever Scarpia is around — and that tension pays dividends as Tosca takes her time suspecting what we feel in our skin: this man is setting his trap for her. Why are those whores getting in the way of our focus on a monomaniac evil?

Then there’s dawn amid the bells of Rome, gentle precisely so that it can be interrupted by the grim preliminaries of an execution. To rehearse the firing squad during this serene music does not bring us to the proper frame of mind for a jolt — on the contrary, it gives us a preliminary jolt that undercuts Puccini’s. We should relax until the jailor summons Cavaradossi — but try resting with all that pointless activity on Mr. Bondy’s stage.

To this ugly and irritating concept, the familiar Met forces under Joseph Colaneri brought a symphonic grandeur: the pounding strings rising to climax in Tosca’s scream as Scarpia corners her, the surge of life around the organ processional that ends Act I, the subtle flicks of this instrument or that to comment on character or story or the very real world in which the opera was set — all reminded us of how fine a contraption of interacting parts Puccini devised, even as Mr. Bondy was tearing them apart and flinging them to the winds. I liked Mattila’s abruptly blank face during “Vissi d’arte,” and Joel Sorenson’s (Spoletta’s) look of frustrated, “You’re going to let her get away with that?” during Scarpia’s interrogation, and the way Álvarez was always gazing at, and admiring, his lover — but these touches were probably invisible to most of the house.

The problem with this school of direction is that its practitioners seem to regard the score like music in a film, as an afterthought, mere accompaniment to action. It is not. In opera, the music is the main event — or as much of it as the action is. Action need not be invented to fill up spaces where there is merely music — the spaces of mere music are there for dramatic reasons. To change things without justification is not very good theater.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/TOSCA_Mattila_0156a.gif image_description=Karita Mattila as Tosca [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Tosca product_by=Tosca: Karita Mattila; Cavaradossi: Marcelo Álvarez; Scarpia: Carlo Guelfi; Spoletta: Joel Sorensen; Angelotti: David Pittsinger. Production by Luc Bondy. Conducted by Joseph Colaneri. Metropolitan Opera. Performance of September 28. product_id=Above: Karita Mattila as Tosca [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of Metropolitan Opera]
Posted by Gary at 3:32 PM

Tristan und Isolde — Christof Loy and Antonio Pappano's stark production of Wagner's opera is a haunting triumph

Bernard O’Donoghue [Times Literary Supplement, 9 October 2009]

In The Perfect Wagnerite, Bernard Shaw said his preferred way to watch the Ring would be sitting with his feet up in a box with his back to the stage, to avoid the distraction from the music that the machinery and clutter of productions tended to entail. So he would probably have been pleased to face the stage in this very uncluttered, stark version of Tristan und Isolde directed by Christof Loy and conducted by Antonio Pappano.

Posted by Gary at 2:14 PM

Tristan und Isolde — Christof Loy and Antonio Pappano's stark production of Wagner's opera is a haunting triumph

Bernard O’Donoghue [Times Literary Supplement, 9 October 2009]

In The Perfect Wagnerite, Bernard Shaw said his preferred way to watch the Ring would be sitting with his feet up in a box with his back to the stage, to avoid the distraction from the music that the machinery and clutter of productions tended to entail. So he would probably have been pleased to face the stage in this very uncluttered, stark version of Tristan und Isolde directed by Christof Loy and conducted by Antonio Pappano.

Posted by Gary at 2:14 PM

October 6, 2009

Imogen Cooper's Birthday at the Wigmore Hall

Imogen Cooper is a superlative artist, so it might seem unfair to comment on her appearance, but she looked truly radiant, her face lit up with heartfelt happiness. Few deserve a tribute like this more than she, for she’s formidably dedicated. She could easily have chosen a programme to showcase her skills as soloist, with a special gift for Schubert, Schumann, and Mendelssohn. Instead, she chose to highlight others with whom she’s worked with. “I didn’t feel like working too hard”, she joked, in typical self effacing manner.

Imogen Cooper was a child prodigy sent to Germany, France and Austria, where she developed her formidable technique. Being isolated, she turned to Romantic poetry and song. Her affinity for Lieder was formed at an early age and is highly intuitive. Wolfgang Holzmair used to say he couldn’t imagine working with a pianist who didn’t instinctively live the texts as well as the music. Then he met Cooper and the rest is history. Theirs is one of the most enduring partnerships in the Lieder world.

It would be almost impossible to imagine an Imogen Cooper tribute without involving Holzmair in some way.Together, they’ve pioneered the songs of another great Lieder relationship, Robert and Clara Schumann and have mnade a notable recording. The two sets of songs by Robert Schumann chosen here date from 1840, the year Robert and Clara were finally able to marry, which inspired an explosion of song. Lieder aus dem Schenkenbuch Im Divan I and II (op 26 nos 5 and 6) are droll songs about getting drunk and louche, performed with folksy humour. In Venezianisches Lied I and II *(op 25 nos. 17 and 18), Cooper’s playing evoked the gentle rocking of oars steadily pacing through lagoons, as Holzmair sings of gondoliers and serenades on moonlit balconies. Clara’s songs *O Lust, O Lust *op 23 no 6) and *Die stille Lotosblume (op 13 no 6) have less obvious character, surprisingly as Clara was the first great female pianist to have an international career. Nonetheless, Holzmair and Cooper presented her songs with conviction.

As a treat, suitable for the party atmosphere, Holzmair and Cooper did a playful encore - a song from an operetta of the 1930’s by Robert Stolz. It’s a joyful ditty about dancing and happiness. Stolz was a lavishly lucky man who made and lost and remade several fortunes. At the age of 60, bald, broke and exiled, he was arrested in Paris when the Germans occupied. A few weeks before, he’d met a beautiful 19 year old heiress, who promptly sprung him from prison and married him. She still lives in Vienna, keeping his flame. Another reason to celebrate !

imogen-cooper.gifImogen Cooper [Photo by Benjamin Ealovega courtesy Askonas Holt]

Cooper’s partnership with Mark Padmore is more recent. Holzmair and Padmore sang Mendelssohn duets for tenor and baritone (op 52, nos 1,2 amnd 3) followed by Wasserfärht (op 50 no 4), where the voices bob up and down, like waves on the open sea while the piano melody surges forth like the ship in the poem. Padmore followed the set with four songs from Schubert. I’m very fond of Padmore’s work in baroque repertoire, but in Lieder he’s rather understated, though on an evening as genial as this it didn’t matter. Cooper provided plenty of vigour and personality. In *Die Sterne *(D939) she played the twinkling “starlight” motifs vividly, and the song came to life.

Imogen Cooper and Sophie Wieder-Atherton played a group of Janáček and Schumann pieces for piano and cello. The combination brought out the folk tunes both used, but in very different ways. Most of these pieces favoured the cello, so Wieder-Atherton took the lead, Cooper provided sensitive support.

Getting together a group of musicans like this was a wonderful opportunity to present repertoire normally beyond the scope of a song or conventional piano recital. This was a rare chance to hear Schubert’s Auf dem Strom (D 943). Voice, piano and cello weave together in counterpoise. Imogen Cooper and Paul Lewis then played the four hand Fantasy in F minor (D940). Both works arevery late Schubert, both performed in the composer’s presence. Schubertiades were intimate, friendly affairs, where people got together to enjoy good music in a convivila mood : perfect for a celebration like this.

Appropriately the encore brought everyone together. It was Brahm’s Liebesliederwalzer no 3,. “I wonder they we thought of that?”, quipped Cooper with a cheerful smile. Then Holzmair and Padmore began to sing. “O die Frauen ! O die frauen ! wie sie Wonne tauen. Wäre lang ein Mönch geworden, wäre nicht die Frauen !” (Women are bliss, if not for them, we’d be monks)

Anne Ozorio

Program:

Mendelssohn : Ich wollt’, meine Liebe ergösse sich, Abschiedslied der Zugvögel, Gruß, Wasserfärht
Schubert : An die Laute, Abendstern, Daß sie hier gewesen, Die Sterne
Clara Schumann : O Lust, O Lust, Die stille Lotosblume
Robert Schumann : Lieder aus dem Schenkenbuch im Divan i and II, Venezianische Lieder I and II
Janáček : Pohádka no 1, 2 and 3
Robert Schumann : Stücke im Volkston 2 and 3
Schubert : Auf dem Strom, Fantasy in F minor for piano duet

image=http://www.operatoday.com/imogen-cooper2.gif image_description=Imogen Cooper [Photo by Sussie Ahlburg courtesy of Askonas Holt]

product=yes producttitle=Imogen Cooper 60th Birthday Concert productby=Imogen Cooper (piano), Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone), Mark Padmore (tenor), Sophie Wieder-Atherton (cello), Paul Lewis (piano). Wigmore Hall, London 28th September 2009. product_id=Above: Imogen Cooper [Photo by Sussie Ahlburg courtesy of Askonas Holt]

Posted by anne_o at 8:00 AM

October 4, 2009

Il trovatore in San Francisco

This fall season, besides programming only composers and operas that everyone has heard of, he seems to have targeted two other rather large groups — those who would not be caught dead in an opera house and those who are hard of hearing.

Verdi’s blockbuster Il trovatore opened the SFO fall season on September 11. The War Memorial’s familiar gold curtain flew out to reveal the production’s show curtain, a detail of one of Goya’s Disasters of War etchings, dampening the festive mood of the inauguration of the company’s eighty-seventh season. The Met and Chicago Lyric had conspired with San Francisco Opera to create this new production of Verdi’s first mega-opera. We can hope that it will not end up in SFO’s warehouse to be revived every five or six years, or ever again.

Verdi blockbusters are not fodder for little league opera. The great big San Francisco Opera had the goods. A big style, knock-em dead, real Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti, the company’s incoming music director; a real Italian tenor, Marco Berti (a recipient of the Giuseppe Verdi Gold Metal), Sondra Radvanovsky, an American soprano who brings real push to “spinto;” the mezzo Stephanie Blythe, Musical America’s (the major trade publication) current Singer of the Year; and Dimitri Hvorostovsky (who needs no introduction) as the Count di Luna. It was a lively contest as to who could sing louder, clearly at the urging of the maestro. It was loud, very loud.

The most beautiful singing of the evening came from Hvorostovsky in the second act reverie of his love for Leonora, though the effect was betrayed by the maestro who too aggressively drove Verdi’s delicate orchestration. Stephanie Blythe heaved the rantings of Azucena from her chest throughout the evening, leaving her vocally exhausted at the end, and arousing our concern for her on-going vocal health. Mme. Radvanovsky was busy with strange operatic acting accompanying her impressively goosed up, later in the evening bleating vocal production, evoking concerns for her eventual vocal health as well. Marco Berti squarely hit the high C (though not for very long) in Di quella pira, actually a high B as the whole aria had been transposed down to accommodate this show-off high note infamously interpolated by tenors.

At the September 25 performance many of the audience rose to their feet when Azucena appeared for her bow, then the balance stood when Hvorostovsky took the next bow (Azucena had just sung her guts out in the final trio while the Count di Luna merely looked on, one might have thought she would have taken the later bows in turn with Leonora and Manrico). Then la Radvanovsky got huge, the hugest applause, probably because she had the softer, prettier arias, followed by the title role, Manrico, who was well appreciated as the most genuine performance of the evening (no one expects sincerity from a tenor, so its lack was not a problem).

Scottish stage director David McVicar got the whole thing wrong. Il trovatore is not about infanticide or bloody revenge (or Napoleonic wars), it is about singing. Famously victimized as a bad libretto Il trovatore is a succession of set pieces that tell what has happened over a thirty year period. There is very little in Il trovatore of what is actually happening at the moment. Each of its eight scenes needs a specific mood to be set within which the story-telling takes place, and it was any attempt to create these moods that this production lacked. Unfortunately this led to a painful absence of poetry in this musically and theatrically over-blown production.

McVicar, as a good director thinks he should, attempted to make a dramatic whole, over-laying a larger mood or concept — the horrors of the Napoleonic wars. Il trovatore is far less than a national or social tragedy, and these larger horrors were quite pale, indeed unnoticeable beside the vicious personal dramas of Verdi’s characters. To the hopeless task of imposing a dramatic unity McVicars and his designer Charles Edwards developed a revolving set that could instantly move from one locale to another, one story to another, with no time for the Verdi’s moods to dissipate and then radically transform themselves. Put this together with the pushed-to-the-hilt conducting of Luisotti and it became opera that hit below the belt.

The performance on September 19 was beamed simultaneously to the digital scoreboard of AT&T ball park where a reported twenty-five thousand people converged to participate in this contest of who could sing loudest. More than opera, Opera at the Ball Park is a San Francisco happening that entices just about everyone to join in the sport of opera, if not the art of opera.

Michael Milenski

image=http://www.operatoday.com/HvoRad_CW.gif
image_description=Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Count di Luna) and Sondra Radvanovsky (Leonora) [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

product=yes
product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Il trovatore
product_by=Click here for cast list of Il Trovatore
product_id=Above: Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Count di Luna) and Sondra Radvanovsky (Leonora) [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of San Francisco Opera]

Posted by Gary at 12:30 PM

John Gay: The Beggar's Opera

As the excellent Burkhard Dersch booklet essay, translated into English by Hugh Keith, states, with The Beggar’s Opera librettist John Gay and composer Johann Christoph Pepusch “created a new type of musical theater…” Indeed, the work came about at least partly, if not wholly, as a satiric response to the then ruling popularity of the elaborate foreign entertainment known as Italian opera, the most famous proponent of which being Georg Frederich Handel. In Gay’s work, quite a hit in its time, the lower class of England takes the stage, speaking in elevated language about the seedy goings-on in their lives, and occasionally breaking out into song, primarily of a simple, folk-based nature. Perhaps the best way to get to know the essence of this work is to turn to the 20th century adaptation by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, The Threepenny Opera. The tunes are certainly better.

In 1983 the BBC hired Jonathan Miller to film Gay’s work with a strong cast of singing actors, with the exception of the role of Macheath, where Roger Daltrey of The Who proved himself to be a very effective acting singer. Bob Hoskins has a minor role at the work’s opening and closing as he and a “Player” (Graham Crowden) break the fourth wall and discuss the action before and after it takes place. Fans of the sort of British comedies PBS replays for US audiences may recognize Patricia Routledge. All the cast perform with the sort of detailed professionalism one comes to expect from British artists, and they sing well enough, considering the light demands of Pepusch’s music. They have excellent support, at any rate, from The English Baroque Soloists under Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s leadership.

The film has been well preserved, both in visual and audio terms. The appeal, however, will probably be limited to those with a keen interest to what turned out to be a passing fad. The success of The Beggar’s Opera seemed to put an end to Handel’s career, but he bounced back. And The Beggar’s Opera then slipped, or perhaps oozed, into obscurity, while eventually Covent Garden returned to being a first-class presenter of Italian opera.

Miller’s film does well by the work, no doubt, but it’s a long two hours. The song interludes are mostly very brief, and none of the characters has much appeal. For the ears of your reviewer, the high-pitched caterwauling of most of the female cast and the tongue-swallowing mumbles of many of the males became tiresome very quickly. Strangely, although most of the dialogue is produced with clarity, the English subtitles provided differ much of the time, being not just shorter but having divergent vocabulary. That becomes a distraction in itself, so better not to have the subtitles on, even at the risk of losing a phrase or two to inaudibility from time to time.

There’s a reason this once very popular work seldom returns to the stage, even in the UK. Nonetheless, this BBC film makes an excellent testament to its historical importance.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/ArtHaus102001.gif image_description=John Gay: The Beggar’s Opera

product=yes producttitle=John Gay: The Beggar’s Opera productby=Macheath: Roger Daltrey; Peachum: Stratford Johns; Mrs. Peachum: Patricia Routledge; Polly Peachum: Carol Hall; Lucy Lockit: Rosemary Ashe; Beggar: Bob Hoskins; Player: Graham Crowden; Filch: Gary Tibbs; Lockit: Peter Bayliss; Jenny Diver: Isla Blair. The English Baroque Soloists. John Eliot Gardiner, conductor. Jonathan Miller, producer and director. productid=ArtHaus Musik 102 001 [DVD] price=$26.99 producturl=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B0009JY4U4

Posted by chris_m at 9:04 AM

Zandonai: Francesca Da Rimini

Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca Da Rimini, one such opera, received an expensive staging at the Metropolitan Opera in 1984, with Renata Scotto and Placido Domingo, and promptly fell out of the Met’s repertory again. However, word is that the opera will, some 25 years later, reappear at the Met in a coming season. The Sferisterio Festival beat the Met to the punch in 2004, with a production both gorgeous musically and visually. For this opera to have any chance of working, it needs a spectacular staging, as most of the action happens off stage. Three great singers should be on hand as well, to add their vocal charisma to a musical mix potent in its colorful orchestration but woefully barren of memorable melody.

Then there’s the Tristan und Isolde problem, well covered by Richard Eckstein in his booklet essay (translated into English by Alan Seaton). In a medieval setting, a fiery woman of high rank is forced into a marriage she does not want, while the man she truly loves pursues her despite the risk to them both. In Tito Ricordi’s adaptation of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s verse play, in place of the Wagner opera’s dignified King Marke we have Giovanni, the elder brother of Francesca’s true love, the handsome Paolo. Giovanni stomps on as a warrior and brings the opera to its inevitable, and rather drawn out, end when he catches his brother with his wife and dispatches them both. More than in the narrative details, the similarity to Tristan und Isolde derives from the shared theme of an all-consuming love that overtakes two people. The significant difference in the depiction of that theme comes in comparing the complexity of Wagner’s lovers to the shallow, two-dimensional figures of this work. Here, two pretty people get caught up in each other’s prettiness and don’t see the threat of the ugliness around them. Soap opera dynamics take the place of the philosophical undercurrents in Wagner’s masterpiece.

Zandonai’s score keeps this work alive. There is the subtlety of color of Debussy mixed with the brash masculinity of Respighi. There is not, however, anything like the melodic inspiration of Puccini. Even one decent tune might have helped the opera find a less precarious place in the repertory.

The artists of this performance give the score every chance. Conductor Massimo Barbacini works wonders with the orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana. Although they do not appear much in the U.S., Daniela Dessi and Fabio Armiliato as Francesca and Paolo, respectively, have star power. Her soprano tends to tremble under pressure and his tone lacks personality, but they both inhabit their roles fully. As the dastardly Giovanni, Alberto Mastromarino grimaces and growls a lot, but he can’t erase memories of Cornell MacNeil tearing into the role in the video of the Met production.

Massimo Gasparon directed and also designed the sets and costumes. His direction provides no surprises but supports the almost decadently opulent atmosphere of the music, as does the gorgeous set of marble and gold leaf and the silky, brocaded fabric of the costumes. The staging is as beautiful as the lovers - if with no more depth.

Hardcore fans of this work should be thrilled by this performance, no matter how much they already love the earlier Metropolitan video (see below). Your reviewer finds the work hard to take seriously, but when produced with the commitment and, frankly, the expense that it receives here, some operatic pleasures can be had.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/ArtHaus101363.gif image_description=Riccardo Zandonai: Francesca Da Rimini

product=yes producttitle=Riccardo Zandonai: Francesca Da Rimini productby=Francesca: Daniela Dessì; Paolo: Fabio Armiliato; Samaritana: Giacinta Nicotra; Giovanni: Alberto Mastromarino; Ostasio: Giuseppe Altomare; Garsenda: Rosella Bevacqua; Adonella: Sabrina Modena; Altichiara: Francesca Rinaldi; Biancofiore: Roberta Canzian: La schiava Smaragdi: Angela Masi; Malatestino Dall’Occhio: L’udovít Ludha; Ser Toldo Berardengo: Francesco Zingariello; Il giullare: Domenico Colaianni: Il balestriere: Alessandro Pucci; Un prigioniero: Michelangelo Brecciaroli. Coro Lirico Marchigiano ‘V. Bellini’. Marchigiana Philharmonic Orchestra. Maurizio Barbacini, conductor. Massimo Gasparon, stage director, set design, costumes and lighting design. Recorded live from the Sferisterio Opera Festival, Macerata 2004. productid=ArtHaus Musik 101 363 [DVD] price=$26.99 producturl=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B001QUL6UQ

Posted by chris_m at 8:50 AM

October 3, 2009

Tristan und Isolde more rooted in tradition than meets the eye

After the revival of the Ring in 1877, Wagner himself said “Next year we’ll do things differently”. To him, what mattered was the drama not the packaging. Even arch conservative Houston Chamberlain saw merit in Appia’s ideas but Cosima could not be swayed from her narrow concept of what Wagner had to be.

BC20090924249.gifBen Heppner as Tristan

The sets for this new Royal Opera House production directly reference Appia, even to the detail of tall arched windows in the background. Throughout the opera, Wagner contrasts night and day..Yet central to this opera is the idea of illusion and delusion . The colour scheme starts with clean black and white contrasts but nothing in this opera is quite as black and white as it seems. Thus the gradual predominance of myriad shades of grey which adapt to changes in light and shadow. The greys are elegant, like silver, silk, suede, marble. The luxury of King Marke’s court is evoked by elegant, minimalist allusion. .

BC20090924018.gifNina Stemme as Isolde

The stage was separated into foreground and background, so the drama is concentrated on the foreground without distraction from the essential drama. Tristan und Isolde isn’t about furnishings, it’s about ideas of life, love and death, and how people respond to them. Indeed, it’s clear from the libretto that Tristan and Isolde reject material things. Tristan doesn’t want to inherit the kingdom of Cornwall. Isolde knows from experience what power struggles can mean. She may be a prize of war, but she’s not a shallow trophy wife: Marke doesn’t dare touch her. Thus in this production Nina Stemme walks decisively away from the banquet in the background, removes her stilettos and sits with Brangäne (Sophie Koch) on simple folding chairs. What she sits on hardly matters when she’s overwhelmed by a love so intense it can overcome death.

Tristan und Isolde is an epic tragedy, so this production connects to ancient traditions. In Greek drama, there’s no set at all: actors move to the side when they’re not doing anything. The concept of elaborate staging is relatively recent. Because most people have been brought up on TV and movies, it’s easy to become attuned to the idea that visual images have to be literal so you don’t have to think too much about what’s really going on. In art theatre the opposite holds. It’s the drama that counts, however it’s realized.

BC20090924603.gifFrom Left to Right: Nina Stemme as Isolde, Ben Heppner as Tristan, Richard Berkeley-Steele as Melot, Michael Volle as Kurwenal, Sophie Koch as Bragäne and John Tomlinson as King Marke

Although Nina Stemme has sung Isolde many times, this may well be one of the defining performances of her career. She moves as if Isolde lives within her: this is method acting at its best. When she sings, her voice rises with utter conviction, so attuned is she to what this Isolde represents. Throughout, her singing and acting were so attuned that it shows how involved sahe was in this production. Like actors, singers need to know how their part fits in with the whole. From the evidence of Stemme’s performance, she’s definitely on message.

Ben Heppner, too, was convincing. Tristan’s heroism was like emotional chain malil, a displacement activity for suppressing his inner demons. So Heppner’s Tristan was a vulnerable, sensitive personality, all the more sympathetic for that than if he were a cocky but shallow young blade. Thus the tenderness between Tristan and Isolde in this production is genuinely moving, and a very important part of the concept. In a world full of treachery and danger, their love is the one thing they can count on. When Stemme and Heppner embrace, there’s real tenderness, all the more intimate because they’re surrounded by vast open space.

So strong are the dramatic dynamic in Loy’s production that Tristan and Isolde aren’’t the only ones experiencing new emotions. I had wondered why a singer of Michael Volle’s stature would be singing Kurnewal, but he turns it into a very major part. Just as the theme of night and day infuses the opera, Tristan and Kurnewal are like night and day. Volle’s Kurnewal is such a forceful character he might match Isolde for mettle. This adds a deeper element to their relationships. Volle’s Kurnewal is so strong that like Isolde he’s fiercely protective although he doesn’t really relate to Tristan’s complexities. When at last it dawns on him what Tristan is about, Volle’s Kurnewal undergoes a kind of transfiguration., lower key than the principals, but a chnge nonetheless. Volle sang with such authority that he almost gave John Tomlinson’s King Marke competition. Tomlinson’s voice is showing signs of strain, but as Marke. that gives his portrayal an edge of world weariness, which is perfectly apt.

BC20090924052.gifSophie Koch as Bragäne

Sophie Koch’s Brangäne isn’t the elderly nag some productions would have but a lively young woman. We don’t know what Brängane will go onto do, but Koch’s energy might indicate that, like Kurnewal, she will go on with life with greater understanding. Richard Berkeley-Steele sang Melot with deceptive smoothness. He wields his knife with lethal swiftness.

Good operas operate on many different levels, revealing their depths only with time and experience. So too, this production, which hints at a lot more than meets the eye .Eventually, the men in the banquet are shown falling asleep, as if drunk, just as Tristan and Isolde were intoxicated. Slowly, as if in freeze frame, the men rise up and stab each other, as Melot had stabbed Tristan. This happens in the background, and doesn’t impinge on the main action, so is glimpsed rather than made explicit. Perhaps this extends the drama into the outer world, where power games and treachery abound, and it makes the men of Marke’s court more human than the ciphers they sometimes are. Visual images, by their very nature are elusive, so if we can’t grasp them straight away, it’s no demerit: they fall into place in time.

This was uncommonly musically literate production. With all trappings removed the emphasis is on the music, from which all the stage action evolves..Gestures, footsteps, angles take their cue from the music, blocked almost as if choreographed. Stemme walks diagonally from the back to the foreground, her progress sustaining the tension in the music.. All focus is on how the music moves, so the pace unfolds as the music does. Here the music was the “star” just as present as the singers. Apart from a few moments in the First act, easily corrected later, the orchestral playing was of a high standard as is usual at the Royal Opera House. Not every conductor is a Furtwängler, nor should we expect anyone to be, but Antonio Pappano is good and reliable, and gets the best from his musicians.

BC200909260858.gifBen Heppner as Tristan, Nina Stemme as Isolde, John Tomlinson as King Marke and Sophie Koch as Bragäne (At the back: Ryland Davies as Shepherd and Dawid Kimberg as Steersman)

And the Liebestod? Stemme seemed to glow from within,, even when she was singing prone on the floor, in Heppner’s arms. They remain entwined as long as possible. Throughout the opera, different levels of reality have been in play. Stemme goes and sits in the chair where Tristan had sat earlier when he’d confronted his demons, and where Kurnewal came to understand. Throughout this opera, Wagner stresses that all this are mutable. The chair is temporary and it’s frail but what it symbolizes is powerful. Material things mean nothing at all in the face of love so intense that it can overcome death.

The boundaries of life and death no longer exist. Tristan and Isolde are united for eternity on some transfigured plane. Isolde may not have healed the wound made by Melot’s knife, but Tristan’s real wounds went much deeper. His wound was in his soul, and that wound she did heal, through love.

Anne Ozorio

image=http://www.operatoday.com/BC20090924661.gif image_description=Sophie Koch as Bragäne and Nina Stemme as Isolde [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of Royal Opera House]

product=yes producttitle=Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde productby=Nina Stemme (Isolde), soophie Koch (Brangäne), Ben Heppner (Tristan), Michael Volle (Kurnewal), John Tomlinson (King marke), Richard Berkeley-Steele (Melot Ryland Davies (shepherd), Dawid Kimberg (Steersman), Ji-min Park (Sailor). Royal Opera House Chorus, Renato Balsadonna (chorus director), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Vasko Vassilev (concert master). Antonio Pappano (conductor), Christof Loy (director), Johannes Leiacker (designs), Olaf Winter (Lighting), Marion Tiedtke (dramaturg). Royal Opera House, London. 29th September 2009 product_id=Above: Sophie Koch as Bragäne and Nina Stemme as Isolde

All photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of Royal Opera House

Posted by anne_o at 12:00 PM