By Linda Morris [Sydney Morning Herald, 1 December 2009]
Director Talya Masel calls a sudden halt to rehearsals and walks up to her two players stranded on a set of painted sand dunes.
By Elissa Poole [Globe and Mail, 30 November 2009]
Vancouver Opera’s production of Bellini’s iconic Norma is as conventional as it could be. Its mist-ridden, craggy peaks in an indigo sky and heavy walls in stone and timber are stock sets for gloomy 19th-century tragedy, and its costumes are vintage opera - dark gowns and cloaks, Roman military gear and Druid’s robes in layered, dishwater linens.
First Performance: 9 March 1868, Paris, Opéra.
|Claudius, roi de Danemark||Bass|
|L’ombre du Feu Roi||Bass|
|Polonius, grand chambellan||Bass|
|Laerte, fils de Polonius||Tenor|
|Gertrude, reine de Danemark et mère d’Hamlet||Mezzo-Soprano|
|Ophélie, fille de Polonius||Soprano|
Scene 1. A hall in the castle of Elsinore
Claudius is acclaimed King of Denmark and he and his Queen Gertrude receive the good wishes of the court. Hamlet broods that although it is only two months since the death of his father, his mother has already married her husband’s brother, Claudius.
Ophelia is grieved at his melancholy and reproaches him for neglecting her. He swears that he does truly love her, and for her sake renounces his plan of leaving the court. Laertes, about to leave for Norway on a mission from the king, comes to bid his sister Ophelia and Hamlet farewell. He commits Ophelia to Hamlet’s care.
To the derision of the carousing courtiers, Marcellus and Horatio announce that they have seen the ghost of the late king. They are looking for Hamlet to inform him.
Scene 2. The battlements of the castle
Hamlet joins Horatio and Marcellus. The ghost appears and reveals to Hamlet that he was poisoned while sleeping by his brother. Hamlet swears revenge.
Scene 1. A room in the castle
Ophelia is disturbed by Hamlet’s strange coldness. He appears but does not speak to her, confirming her worst fears. She begs the queen to let her retire to a convent, but the queen wishes her to stay, hoping that she may discover the cause of Hamlet’s distracted state and cure him.
The king tells the queen that Hamlet is mad, but she fears that his strange conduct may indicate that he has discovered their guilty secret. The king assures her that Hamlet knows nothing and tries to calm her as she becomes hysterical, having a vision of their murdered victim rising to accuse them.
Hamlet appears, rejects the king’s request to call him father, feigns madness briefly, then announces the arrival of a troupe of actors. Hamlet intends to have them perform a play which will recreate the circumstances of his father’s murder. He welcomes them with a drinking song.
Scene 2. A hall in the castle
The court gathers to see the play. Hamlet tells Horatio to observe the king. As the play is performed Hamlet describes the action. As the murder is committed the king orders the play stopped. Hamlet pretends madness, accusing the king wildly, to the horror of the court, including even Horatio and Marcellus.
A room in the castle
Hamlet, angry at himself for his failure to kill the king, watches him at prayer and holds back again, as he wishes to catch him with his sins unabsolved. The king, weighed down by his guilt, calls Polonius and Hamlet realises that Ophelia’s father was an accomplice in the crime.
The queen brings Ophelia to Hamlet, intending to have their wedding performed; but Hamlet, distressed by his awareness of her father’s treachery, spurns Ophelia. The queen reproaches Hamlet, only to be accused by him of complicity in the murder. Unseen by the queen, the ghost appears again. Hamlet, now calmer, bids his mother goodnight.
Open country, near a lake
Ophelia, driven mad by her despair, joins merrymaking peasants. She tells them she is married to Hamlet, distributes flowers and sings a song to the wili who, according to her, resides in the lake. She is accidently drowned.
Hamlet watches two gravediggers at work singing about the transience of earthly pleasures — except drinking. He has fled the court to escape being murdered, leaving Horatio to attend to his plans, and is aware of Ophelia’s madness, but not of her death.
He is joined by Laertes, who is aware of her death and blames Hamlet for his lack of care for her. He succeeds in provoking Hamlet to a duel but they are interrupted by Ophelia’s funeral cortege. Hamlet wishes to kill himself but the appearance of the ghost reminds him of his vow. He kills Claudius and then joins Ophelia in death.
[In the original version of the opera, Hamlet is acclaimed king at the end.]
[Synopsis Source: Opera~Opera]
We began with the court odes and theatre songs of Henry Purcell, interspersed with instrumental interludes from King Arthur, Abdelazar and The Fairy Queen. The torment and fear of ‘the black dismal dungeon of despair’ were powerfully evoked but gradually rejection and loss gave way to intimations of hope; that the pure sweetness of the ‘songsters of the sky’ and the refreshing beauty of ‘the blooming Spring’ might prove as lasting and transforming as love itself, until ‘Thus the Gloomy World at Last Began to Shine’.
Both Handel and Purcell employed an inventive palette of sound to affectingly paint the words, and Padmore effortlessly brought these exquisite colours to our attention — but he never once destroyed the legato line, or focused on an individual word at the expense of the story-telling. This was singing of an astonishing eloquence.
In ‘What Shall I Do?’ from Dioclesian, Padmore demonstrated an innate appreciation of how the da capo form perfectly captures the antithesis between resignation and determination, as the despairing lover converts lonely rejection to a glorious transfiguration in death. The poignant optimism of the repeated lines, ‘I will love more than man e’er lov’d before me;/ Gaze on her all the day, and melt all the night’, was underscored by a gentle frisson on ‘melt’, deftly conveying both the magnitude of emotion and erotic intensity. Ever aware of the theatrical origins of these songs, Padmore drew the audience into his emotional tussles, here lightening and brightening his voice for the final avowal to ‘preserve our delight’, ensuring that we shared his cares and convictions.
After the interval, we progressed from the anxious questioning of ‘Where are These Brethren … Remorse, Confusion, Horror, Fear’, from Handel’s Joseph and his Brethren, towards the consoling comforts of Elysian realms. Padmore coupled heartfelt imploring with blessed serenity in ‘Descend, Kind Pity’ (Theodora), leading us ultimately to the ‘azure plain’ in ‘Waft Her, Angels’ (Jephtha). This is repertoire in which he excels, but while his mastery and relaxation were ever evident, there was not a single moment when Padmore was not alert to the musical and dramatic nuances, seeking a true union between musical and verbal expression.
The English Consort, led by Nadia Zwiener, brought an additional layer of expressive depth to these interpretations, exploiting the contrasts between fast and slow, between duple and triple rhythms, and achieving convincing transitions between the diverse sections of Purcell’s instrumental overtures and symphonies; throughout there was a shared and sustained sense of ‘the whole’. This was understated but efficient leadership by Zwiener. She drew crisp, unfussy articulation from her players — particularly in Handel’s Italianate ‘Sharp Violins Proclaim’ from the Song for St Cecilia’s Day; but equally, the strings subtly pointed Purcell’s pungent dissonances, conveying at times urgency, then repose, and skilfully underpinning the ambiguous tension between cruelty and pleasure latent in the texts. And, there was some energetic, flamboyant playing from trumpeter Mark Bennett, particularly in the trumpet overture to Purcell’s The Indian Queen.
Throughout this outstanding performance, there was a genuine sense of partnership between soloist and instrumentalists, evidence of a shared vision and mutual delight.
Claire Seymourimage=http://www.operatoday.com/Padmore.gif image_description=Mark Padmore [Photo by Marco Borggreve] product=yes product_title=Mark Padmore at Wigmore Hall product_by=Mark Padmore, tenor; Mark Bennett, trumpet. The English Concert. Nadia Zwiener, leader. Thursday 26th November, 2009. Wigmore Hall, London. product_id=Above: Mark Padmore [Photo by Marco Borggreve]
Fiona Maddocks [The Observer, 29 November 2009]
Casanova, in his famously racy memoirs, instances a “foul orgy” in which half-a- dozen abbés and a bevy of pretty girls are joined in their sport by four castrati. These singing eunuchs were mutilated in their thousands before puberty, so that their voices could stay high and childlike within their chubby, gelded bodies. The best of them became rich and famous virtuosi. Many of the rest ended up in prostitution or poverty.
Tom Service [The Guardian, 27 November 2009]
That rarest of beers: a lager you can take in to the second act of the opera! Falstaff, to be precise, in Glyndebourne on Tour’s production at the Milton Keynes Theatre. In honour of Verdi’s and Shakespeare’s “globe of impurity”, the magnificently gluttonous Sir John Falstaff (sung and acted with brilliant, gleeful energy and insight by Johanthan Veira), I enjoyed a San Miguel during act two’s shenanigans, as Ford and the Merry Wives end up dumping Sir John in the Thames.
Why would Hugo Weisgall, a composer with no instinct for melodrama, want to write opera? And why would he write nine of them? The answer may be that there were many grants for such things in his heyday, the fifties and sixties, and academic prestige to be earned no matter how entirely they failed. And when his climactic work, the hope of his life, Nine Rivers from Jordan, crashed and burned at New York City Opera forty years ago, and he renounced the opera stage, how did he come to be lured back to compose the qualified success that is Esther?
It is less difficult to understand why the City Opera, in its present endangered state and in a truncated season of five operas, chose to revive Esther: The piece was enthusiastically received there at its world premiere in 1993 and it has never been revived. There was an existing production, there was buzz, there were eager customers — among them this writer — and the original star, Lauren Flanigan, a singing actress of formidable energy and ability, is still around to repeat her success. Though her performance is astonishingly youthful, and she plays a 17-year-old girl with conviction and some lovely naïve flutterings (though she had seemed decades older, too old for the role, when she sang the forty-year-old Vanessa a couple of seasons back), even Flanigan, in the nature of things, can’t go on forever; if we are to have Esther at all, sooner was better than later. Too — the consideration must have weighed with the powers that be — the story is Jewish, and that always brings out the culture-vultures in New York. Jews packed the Met revival of La Juive — the only easy ticket was the Friday one.
Too, the Christopher Mattaliano production is very handsome and, consisting mostly of projections that glide seamlessly from scene to scene in Jerome Sirlin’s designs, it’s probably pretty inexpensive to remount — there was hardly anything to build or paint. Persian carpets represent the harem or a courtroom, carvings from Persepolis become alleys and dungeons, and Joseph A. Citarella’s costumes, also, are evocative and colorful. The piece showcases not only the accomplishments of a large cast and a virtuoso orchestra under George Manahan, but also the chorus (of whom more below) and even, briefly, the corps de ballet. George Steel, the company’s manager, was clearly looking for vehicles to put all his (well-paid, unionized) forces on show, and in Esther he had just that.
The City Opera’s logic in reviving Esther is clear enough — it is Weisgall’s logic in sticking to a form for which he had so little gift that puzzles. As it happens, I attended Nine Rivers from Jordan all those years ago and walked out before Act III, which is very unlike me. Even then, tyro though I was, it was apparent that, aside from an ungrateful musical idiom, the composer was afflicted with a tin ear and eye for dramatic moments that cried out for musical exploitation. His foursquare rhythms would be deadening even if he could bring himself to permit melody to heighten his unleavened academic atonalism. With no melody for emotional expression and no rhythm to raise the dramatic pulse, all we have left is interesting combinations of orchestral sounds and voices — tones without point. No matter how beautifully they are made, these things are not opera, which is tones with dramatic point.
One fine scene of Esther shows what Weisgall could have done with more of a knack for operatic reality: a trio in which three contrasting female characters (Esther, Queen Vashti, Haman’s wife Zeresh) with contrasting voices (high soprano, mezzo, alto), offer contrasting soliloquies in a rich, disturbing clash of textures that focuses the voice-loving operagoer’s attention to the crux of the evening’s drama in their rival aspirations. It is a fine, an operatic moment when given, as here, to three fine singers. But it is the one purely vocal touch of operatic drama (other than the splendid chorales) in three acts.
It appears Weisgall hoped to write the great Jewish opera and, like the great American opera, this is not a field with many viable candidates. Halévy’s La Juive has an unpleasant protagonist, curdled by hate, and a titular heroine who is not Jewish by ancestry (though she thinks she is, and is put to death for it). Meyerbeer, who unlike Halévy or Mendelssohn, remained all his life a practicing Jew, wrote no operas on Jewish themes, though his operatic evocations of a Europe wracked by religious prejudice have a universal as well as Jewish validity. Goldmark’s Die Königin von Saba is based on Masonic myth. The best candidates, combining sublime music with thrilling drama of Jewish provenance, are such Handel oratorios as Saul, Judas Maccabaeus, Samson, Jephtha, Belshazzar and Athaliah — he also wrote an Esther — which were not composed for the stage at all (staging Biblical stories being illegal in Britain till after World War I), but have been staged in modern times with great success. But Handel was resolutely Christian — which makes his qualifications at least tendentious. (After all, the Great Spanish Opera, Carmen, was written in French and by a Frenchman.)
In fact, the failure of Nine Rivers drove Weisgall to devote his energies for many years to settings of Jewish liturgical music, including many psalms, and this experience shows in Esther: the most attractive and interesting music of the opera is written for choruses, generally from psalm texts, their many voices and eccentric harmonies superbly performed at NYCO. Handel may well have been among his models, and like Handel, Weisgall learned not to clutter the orchestration in such a way as to cloud the effect of voice, either choral or individual. But since he could not bring himself to indulge in melody to express emotion, individual states of mind of his characters are delineated only in the barest, most elemental and hackneyed ways. Weisgall’s characters are not individuals with personalities, like the great opera characters who can be interpreted again and again, and still present new facets by the medium of a new intelligence. Weisgall’s blustering Haman, the seething Vashti, the simple-minded Xerxes offer very little variety or depth. Only Esther’s state of mind changes, her moods, her resolve, her adventure calls for much in the way of challenge and change, but her moments of reverie, of internal consideration, are not given effective reality by musical means.
Lauren Flanigan gives a star performance. She does not quite look seventeen, but some of her gestures, her attitudes, her flirtations with the saturnine Xerxes bestow a girlish emotional charge on musical situations that might not otherwise possess it. Her voice can be astonishingly girlish, and in higher ranges has a wavery, silvery sheen very like the voice of Beverly Sills in the 1970s — a popular sound to make at NYCO. Loud sustained notes bring out a beat that verges on a wobble, but happily Weisgall, unlike many an atonalist, had learned not to demand long shrill high notes from his singers too often. The other ladies were a forceful but one-dimensional Beth Clayton as the deposed and imprisoned Queen Vashti and Margaret Thompson, a surprisingly interesting presence as Haman’s wife, Zeresh. Since she merely abets her husband and deplores his downfall, you wouldn’t think she’d make much of an impression, but Thompson’s solid, imposing mezzo was always vivid, demanding attention. She’ll be a terrific Amneris someday — soon I hope.
Stephen Kechulius made a meditative if effete King Xerxes, a man (in this telling) born to be ruled — by a woman — but unhappy with the one, Vashti, who has done so hitherto. Roy Cornelius Smith, as Haman, the “wicked wicked man” who gets the show on the road by plotting in a fit of pique to massacre the Jews, had, as one would hope, the most striking and imposing voice of the evening, a roaring basso, and like all the cast decent elocution — in his case marred by a disconcerting lisp. Such a voice and such a figure surely called for a grand cabaletta of despair at his condemnation and destruction, and Verdi or Handel would have given him one, but it doesn’t even cross Weisgall’s mind. James Maddalena makes a pensive Mordecai — the voice never overwhelmed, but the words and emotions were always clear and thoughtfully presented to us.
There has been much discussion of the change in the acoustics of the theater due to the remodeling of the house — now the David Koch Theater. It has certainly greatly improved, more human, more genuine than it was during the era of Paul Kellogg’s “sound enhancement” electronics. Those were “state of the art,” we were always assured — and I’m sure it’s true; I just don’t regard it as much of an art. The sound was a major reason why I seldom attended City Opera offerings during the last ten years, rendering voices unnatural and orchestra tinny — you never knew whether you were hearing an actual voice or not, and if that’s so, why not stay home with a good CD? Only in the seats in the orchestra just in front of the stage did one hear actual singing, and those were too expensive for frequent visits. On the present occasion, just under the overhang in the First Ring, I found the orchestra — admittedly in a percussion-heavy score — clear and forceful but never overwhelming the singers, all of whom were persuasive. Lower tones from both men and women had a particular impact, but nothing seemed to be lost, and the choruses were very fine, especially the lament of the Jews as the day of Haman’s vengeance draws near, “We are afflicted,” which attains a Handelian grandeur.
The opera’s message is humanistic rather than triumphalist, where the Biblical book of Esther is unashamedly the latter. In the opera, Esther, who could easily ignore the fate of her people since she holds the king’s love (and since Haman is mysteriously ignorant of her origins, or relationship to the man he most detests), chooses to risk everything to save her people — but she makes it clear that there is a mutual responsibility among all peoples to care for each other in the face of tyranny or disaster. The nobility of any ethical pronouncement is enhanced the more widely and less tribally it can be applied. Yet Weisgall’s Esther is uneasy — as the Biblical one never is — at the doom pronounced not only on Haman but also on his ten sons, for no known crime but merely for being their father’s flesh and blood and hope for dynasty. Inheriting guilt is not, nowadays, a cozy message, however much it appealed to the original writers of the Book of Esther.
John Yohalemimage=http://www.operatoday.com/Esther_Ricci.png image_description=Esther Before Ahasuenus by Sebastiano Ricci (ca. 1730-1734 [National Gallery, London] product=yes product_title=Hugo Weisgall: Esther product_by=Esther: Lauren Flanigan; Vashti: Beth Clayton; Zeresh: Margaret Thompson; Xerxes: Stephen Kechulius; Haman: Roy Cornelius Smith; Hegai: Gerald Thompson; Gravedigger: Branch Fields. New York City Opera chorus and orchestra conducted by George Manahan. Performance of November 19. product_id=Above: Esther Before Ahasuenus by Sebastiano Ricci (ca. 1730-1734) [National Gallery, London]
By Francis Carlin [Financial Times, 26 November 2009]
Whenever a composer sets a famous play to music, audiences are left wondering if and how it has been enhanced. And so it was when Peter Eötvös’s Le Balcon, based on the Genet play, opened the Aix festival in 2002.
By VIVIEN SCHWEITZER [NY Times, 25 November 2009]
“NO offense, but it’s a little like Frankenstein,” the director Bartlett Sher genially told the bass-baritone Alan Held during a recent rehearsal of Offenbach’s “Contes d’Hoffmann” (“Tales of Hoffmann”) at the Metropolitan Opera. Mr. Sher, referring to the menacing laugh that announces Dr. Miracle’s appearance in the second act, suggested that Mr. Held, who is singing the four villains, try a subtler approach.
By Heidi Waleson [WSJ, 24 November 2009]
Say “Philip Glass” and “opera,” and most listeners will think of the composer’s enormous, slowly unfolding early works like “Einstein on the Beach” (1976) and “Satyagraha” (1980). Yet many of Mr. Glass’s operas (there are more than 20) are smaller-scale chamber pieces based on source materials ranging from the films of Jean Cocteau to Grimm’s fairy tales.
Locke divides his investigation into two major parts, which may be characterized as 1) methodological, and 2) illustrative, the latter furnishing numerous examples starting with Händel and Rameau and extending through to current compositions including cinematic music.
In the first part Locke is careful to differentiate his position on exoticism and related terms vis-à-vis others who have approached this topic in the past. Locke’s introductory remarks, in which he elaborates on the meaning of “exotic” especially as used for Western music, set forth terms that he will use extensively in subsequent chapters. He broaches, for instance, an analytical paradigm which he terms “Exotic Style Only,” modifying this with his own “All the Music in Full Context Paradigm.” To be sure, both models receive full expression, with appropriate examples, in the following chapters. Yet the reader is here prepared for a critical discussion that will demonstrate Locke’s point that “exoticness often depends not just on the musical notes but also on their context as well as on other factors, such as the particulars of a given performance and the musical and cultural preparation of a given listener.”  Based on this assumption Locke seeks to broaden his readers’ understanding of the exotic in music while claiming that “musical exoticism is not “contained in” specific devices. Rather it arises through an interaction between a work, in all [author’s emphasis] its aspects, and the listener.”  Before closing his introductory remarks Locke reinforces such distinctions by reminding his audience of exotic environments or individual characters, often portrayed in opera, which are rendered by traditional, “non-exotic musical means.”  Examples of this tendency for Locke include Handel’s Tamerlano and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, both illustrating a culture or milieu in some way foreign to the potential audience. Neither work is composed entirely, or even consistently, of elements that would be identified as distinctly part of an exotic medium. The synchronization of the listener’s expectations with the composer’s means and intentions will then yield an exoticism that is, ultimately, a type of “reception.” 
In these issues marking his approach to the exotic in music Locke is able to draw on theoretical grounding in the work of fellow musicologists, e.g. Rose Rosengard Subotnik and Richard Taruskin. Here Locke is especially interested in approaches that are based not only on “musical analysis” alone but also those which consider societal components as well as extra-musical associations. This balance can prove to be difficult to maintain, even among those scholars who are suggested as leading proponents. As an example, the passage cited here from Subotnik’s work on Deconstructive Variations relies on the harmonic analysis of a Chopin score, reflecting a more text-based and traditional approach; only at the conclusion of the relevant chapter does the commentary move toward questions of music in society. Locke admits to the difficulty of submitting much of what he terms “Western art music,” e.g. sonatas, symphonies, quartets, to an overriding social analysis. It is surely then a logical first step in the revisionist approach to musical exoticism here taken that a number of Locke’s examples show a clear association with some “other” place and people. [20-21] This enables the author to establish categories of analysis for his “Full-Context” Paradigm, which may subsequently be applied to other musical examples or forms. Finally Locke considers the approaches taken in recent investigations with a specific focus on his chosen topic. Hence Jonathan Bellman’s and Timothy D. Taylor’s books are examined for their usefulness in the portrayal of musical exoticism, yet both are understood by Locke as functioning within the framework of an “Exotic Style Only” Paradigm, as found in the present study. Locke sets for himself the task of using the foundation already set by these previous scholars and of expanding the possible associations of exoticism with further “crucial and neglected issues.” 
In his proposed new definition of exoticism Locke relies on concepts such as “Here and There” and “home country or culture.”  Especially significant in the author’s new definition is a differentiation between the perceptions of listeners reacting during the composer’s day and those hearing a piece still performed many years later. As put succinctly by Locke, these latter “listeners may now be living in new and different cultural situations and may thus bring different values and expectations to the work.”  As an enhancement of suggestions first put forth by Dahlhaus, Locke assembles a “relatively comprehensive typology”  of stylistic features which have been typical in Western music perceived as exotic during the past few centuries. Here he considers not only matters of pitch and harmony or dissonance but also modal features and repeated patterns of rhythm or melody often derived from dance. Locke refers to variations on a number of these stylistic features in subsequent chapters when analyzing specific works and questioning how these might be perceived by a given listener in a given age as exotic.
In the second major division of his book Locke presents a disciplined survey of various musical forms from the beginning of the eighteenth century until the present day in order to arrive at a trajectory of the exotic in music. The section entitled “Handel’s Eastern Dramas” is intended by Locke to examine and compare the portrayal of various historical figures in the operas and oratorios with a relevant geographical anchor. Hence typical despots from the East, characters in Tamerlano and Belshazzar, are discussed from the viewpoint of ideological gesture, political message, and musical style. This depiction is then contrasted with a contemporary display of even greater geographical variety in Rameau’s Les Indes galantes. By using similar methods for analyzing musical-dramatic works from the same period Locke is able to develop, in gradually evolving chronological segments, an aesthetic of the exotic. This range of aesthetic and social concerns is then treated from Mozart’s Turkish style to the gypsy image in Carmen, emerging ultimately into twentieth-century works, a period starting with the exotic in Madama Butterfly. The reader and listener are then left — appropriately — with questions concerning additional works by those very contemporaries discussed, e.g. Gretry and Massenet, and how such pieces might be fit into the model as it further evolves. The extensive bibliography will serve, when combined with Locke’s suggestions for methodology, as a means to explore the topic of exoticism on many other musical avenues.
Like his production of Don Giovanni, the staging of Così fan tutte by the late Göran Järvefelt served the company well for decades before being replaced in September by this new take on the story by Jim Sharman. Sharman is one of Australia’s most invigorating stage directors whose earliest work was with Opera Australia (then called The Australian Opera) when, in 1967, as a twenty-one year old, he produced Don Giovanni, setting it on a huge chess board and calculating the Don’s progress to Hell like chess strategies. Sharman’s biggest claim to worldwide fame, however, is as director of the original The Rocky Horror Show and it’s subsequent film adaptation. In Australia he now counted among the country’s foremost directors with laudable stagings of classic and contemporary plays, musicals and occasionally operas. His staging of Britten’s Death in Venice was mounted for the 1980 Adelaide Festival, barely five after it’s premiere where it garnered favourable comments from local and international critics before being taken into Opera Australia’s repertoire where it still holds sway nearly thirty years later.
Like than early Don Giovanni, Sharman’s Così fan tutte sadly seems to be trying too hard. But by most accounts Così is a difficult opera to pull off. The partner swapping shenanigans and misogynist sentiment have stranded it as a kind of antiquated boulevard farce like Georges Feydeau set to music!
Henry Choo (Ferrando) and Hye Seoung Kwon (Fiordiligi)
Using a contemporary setting, Sharman reveals during the overture a wedding party, the couple, a Japanese Bride and Groom, arriving at the reception before freezing the action and transporting the Bride and Groom to either side of the stage where they watch the opera unfold before being transported back at the end of the opera to their nuptials as the cast sing the opera’s moral. Don Alfonso’s (José Carbó) bet appears to be a the result of a locker room brag as Ferrando (Henry Choo) and Guglielmo (Luke Gabbedy), under stylised showers, compare their respective fiancée’s virtue (rather, as one would imagine in a locker room situation, their physical or sexual attributes). The action unfolds in a white walled set, designed by Ralph Myers, with an arched floor where the stranded wedding organisers and guests act as chorus and occasional prop movers. Occasionally the wedding photographer appears with a live video camera to zoom in on characters during their principal arias and relay their image to a huge curtain interminably pulled back and forth throughout the long opera.
While the concept may be puzzling it works well enough until the second act where these directorial high jinks gloss over the searing bitterness as Fiordiligi (Hye Seoung Kwon) agonises over her situation and the two men agonise over the swiftness of their lovers infidelity. Unlike Brad and Janet in Sharman’s notorious The Rocky Horror Show, the partner swapping and sexual humiliation is far from funny. In fairness the fault lies with the opera itself it’s sexual attitudes are as infuriating to modern audiences as those of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and even the best directors have a tough job with either.
Sian Pendry (Dorabella), José Carbó (Don Alfonso) and Hye Seoung Kwon (Fiordiligi)
The opera is also sung in a modern English translation by Jeremy Sams that almost matches the famous, mid-twentieth century, Ruth and Thomas Martin translation for its lumpiness. While getting plenty of laughs for its up to date casualness (“I might forget myself or even wet myself” sing the men after Guglielmo’s ‘mustacchi’ serenade sends the ladies packing), Sams’s choice of words robs the open-vowelled flow of da Ponte’s Italian text. Nor does Sams even try to be literal about translating the original words, let along consider their singability “I have sinned my best beloved” is his substitution for Fiordiligi’s “per pieta, ben mio perdona”. Sams even suggests that the opera's ‘motif’’ “Così fan tutte”, when sung by Don Alfonso should be “That’s how God made them”. If an opera company must perform a work in translation (and spend good money on royalties for it) it should at least be better than this.
To their credit, the young cast sing even the most difficult passages clearly; nearly every word of the unfortunate text is audible. Henry Choo is a most stylish tenor; his voice has the heft to carry into the big auditorium without apparent force. He establishes a beautiful and limpid line through ‘Un’aura amorosa’ and is spot-on in the difficult runs in the act one finale. As Guglielmo, Luke Gabbedy’s light baritone could almost be mistaken for a tenor and a darker colour might be wished for in the duet with Dorabella (Sian Pendry) and the act two aria. The same applies to José Carbó’s as Alfonso, the voice seeming lighter than one would expect for the role. Of the ladies the most accomplished is Tiffany Speight as Despina. Speight is one of the company’s best Mozartians, her voice is silvery, carries effortlessly and her charming stage presence carries with the same clarity. Hye Seong Kwon handled Fiordiligi’s big moments with breathtaking ease, long phrases, octave jumps and embellishments all perfectly judged despite the impositions the English words placed on her. Sian Pendry handled Dorabella’s music with similar ease; hers is a high, light mezzo, rather like Gabbedy’s high, light baritone. Kwon and Pendry also make their first appearance in swim suits and spend the rest of the opera equally revealing costumes and both have catwalk figures.
Henry Choo (Ferrando) and Luke Gabbedy (Guglielmo)
Ollivier-Philippe Cunéo coaxed a period sounding performance from the orchestra, the strings occasionally emphasising that wiry sound that passes for authentic. Cunéo also adopts that peculiar practice of breathlessly playing the two opening chords of the overture (as evidenced in Arnold Östman's 1986 recording of the opera) and generally rushing things where a little restraint might have been better. The woodwind were often given a difficult time and the big moment when Fiordiligi finally succumbs (Mozart’s delectably sudden change from lurching chords to gorgeous runs on the strings) passed without the attention it deserves.
With chick costumes and attractive singers to wear them, this Così will certainly appeal to younger audiences. Sharman is obviously at his best when dealing amorous absurdities but the deeper musical and emotional content that is so unique in the Mozart/da Ponte operas are left buried.
Michael Magnussonimage=http://www.operatoday.com/Cosi_OA_01.gif image_description=Sian Pendry (Dorabella) and Luke Gabbedy (Guglielmo) [Photo by Jeff Busby courtesy of Opera Australia] product=yes product_title=W.A. Mozart: Così fan tutte product_by=Fioriligi: Hye Seoung Kwon; Dorabella: Sian Pendry; Despina: Tiffany Speight; Ferrando: Henry Choo; Guglielmo: Luke Gabbedy; Don Alfonso: José Carbó. Conductor: Ollivier-Philippe Cunéo. Director: Jim Sharman. Set Designer: Ralph Myers. Costume Designer: Gabriela Tylesova. State Theatre, The Arts Centre, Melbourne. 19, 21, 24, 27 November 3, 5, 9 & 12 December 2009. product_id=Above: Sian Pendry (Dorabella) and Luke Gabbedy (Guglielmo)
Rather like an old-fashioned steam train, slowing gathering its strength, this English countertenor’s career has been going steadily on the right track for the past three or four years, and at the Wigmore he arrived at an important station in that career journey.
The very fact that he was included as the only English representative in the Wigmore’s long-awaited (some might say too-long awaited) international series of recitals devoted to the best of the countertenor voice speaks volumes for his growing reputation. It will be fascinating to see how this series works out and how right Davies is when he predicts that, in the near future, the voice type will be finally recognised by all as possessing all the different fachs that it does: from the lower altos/haute-contres, through the mezzo-soprano range, up to what have been termed, somewhat disparagingly by some, as “sopranists”. He hopes that the generic term “countertenor” will be, before long, as useless to music directors, producers and conductors as is “soprano” or “tenor” when deciding on roles and recordings.
The recital was, in one way, traditional fare for a countertenor of any age — he stuck to the 17th and 18th century repertoire that included some elements he must have been familiar with from his early days at St. John’s, Cambridge where he was grounded in the ways of English collegiate choral singing at its best. Yet, in another, he was also essaying fresh ground by choosing some composers and works which, to put it kindly, aren’t on everyone’s CD player. Leo’s Beatus Vir, for instance, and the younger Scarlatti’s Salve Regina.
Another surprise, and even less welcome, was the size of the Concerto Copenhagen, directed by Lars Ulrik Mortensen, uncomfortably squashed onto the tiny stage, and sounding just too loud for that finely-tuned acoustic. Iestyn Davies’ first piece, the Alma Redemptoris Mater, by Hasse (another work truffled up from the archives) suffered from this aural imbalance as all the performers struggled for some compromise. Judicious culling of the instrumental line-up would have been advisable in the circumstances. His slight boyish figure and slightly worried expression did nothing to alter the feeling of him being slightly swamped — however his warm, technically secure and even tones gradually achieved a kind of balance, if not an ideal one. By the third section of the antiphon Davies was able to show some limpid phrasing and long-breathed lines, not to mention a beautifully judged messa di voce.
The band followed this with a concerto grosso by Locatelli, that many-skilled, well-connected jobbing composer more famous today perhaps for his woodwind works, and they skipped neatly through it nearly, but not quite, convincing us that this was not “baroque by the yard”.
Davies returned to complete the first half with some music that everyone in the hall could probably sing along to by now, it being virtually a right of passage for all young countertenors: Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, RV621. This was obviously a piece that Davies had lavished great care and thought on — his was a slightly stern reading perhaps, almost over-careful in the delicate ornaments, and certainly not a passionate rendering to engage religious fervour (or lay for that matter). Here, thankfully, the band were held in check by Mortensen and the score’s limpid transparency duly observed and the voice given its deserved place. An interesting programme note by Antony Burton revealed latest research as suggesting that Vivaldi did not write the piece for one of his orphaned girls at the Venice Ospedale after all — rather that it was commissioned in 1712 for a mainland church to be sung by either castrato or falsettist (or countertenor as we more agreeably know them today). Hopefully that information may quieten a few pouting mezzo-sopranos in the early music field.
After the interval, we were introduced to yet another undiscovered nugget from the archives, the Beatus vir by Leonardo Leo (first half of the 18th century). It might have had a religious source, but Leo’s operatic Neapolitan roots definitely showed with some florid writing and intricate rhythms interestingly at odds with the gentle calm of the text. Unfortunately, despite Davies’ best efforts, it left us unmoved and with a growing sense of puzzlement as to the programme choices. His effortless virtuosity, command of line and colour, begged for better musical meat. It was followed by the better-known Concerto in G minor, RV157 where Concerto Copenhagen and Mortensen showed their own virtuosity to excellent and loudly-applauded effect. Precision, excitement, risk-taking — it was all there. Somehow, this seemed only to point up what we craved from the vocal performer and weren’t getting.
The recital (the wrong term really, more a concert format) ended officially with Iestyn Davies giving his best with Domenico Scarlatti’s Salve Regina — a work less well known than most of the father’s vocal achievements, and although with some beautiful moments, not, frankly, in the same league as the better known settings of this text. It was also transposed down for the alto voice (and Davies’ voice is certainly in that category, seeming to sit most happily between A and D') which did nothing for the overall effect, losing the transparency and lightness which the original soprano would have given it — it is a fairly lugubrious piece to start with. Nevertheless, once again, the singer worked wonders with line and colour, wringing every note of the text for meaning and expression. His technical surety and warm evenness throughout the range, together with well-crafted phrasing, complemented the chromatic harmonies of Scarlatti’s sighing, weeping, score. His encore, unavoidably missed by this writer, was a short aria from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio — some say the best music of the night. However, that would not have surprised.
Having not heard Davies for some two years or more, this writer was impressed at how he has nurtured and burnished his vocal resources. What disappointed however was that, somehow, what should have been a real showcase of his undoubted talents, a setting out of his stall as a real contender in the world of top-flight countertenor singing, ended up too often as a pleasant, slightly academic, foray into musical might-have-beens. He spoke beforehand of how the voice-type has expanded and tested the boundaries: we didn’t see any of this on Wednesday night. He hopes for an ever-higher operatic profile (he has received some excellent notices already at ENO, in New York and in Europe) yet we saw little evidence of either a confident or beguiling stage persona. Hopefully, this type of “concerto seria” was something of a temporary siding en route, rather than a final destination.
We are likely to hear some very different, and hopefully more invigorating, fare as the series unfolds with Bejun Mehta, David Daniels, Lawrence Zazzo, Philippe Jaroussky and Andreas Scholl confirming what a golden age of countertenor singing it is that we live in.
Sue Loder © 2009image=http://www.operatoday.com/587.jpg image_description=Iestyn Davies [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt] product=yes product_title=Iestyn Davies opens “The Art of the Countertenor” series at the Wigmore Hall, London. Wednesday 18th November 2009. product_by=Above: Iestyn Davies [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]
[Daily Telegraph, 22 November 2009]
Elisabeth Söderström, who died on November 20 aged 82, was one of the most versatile and best-loved Swedish operatic sopranos from a country that, thanks to a combination of extensive royal and state patronage, has nurtured the likes of Jenny Lind, Nicolai Gedda, Birgit Nilsson and, more recently, Anne Sofie von Otter.
By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 22 November 2009]
Have you ever wondered what lies inside those gift-wrapped boxes that adorn department store windows in the run-up to Christmas? Their purpose is to entice consumers through the door but they work on the Russian doll principle. You unwrap layer after layer until you find there is nothing inside.
His meticulous technique produces a big, smooth sound, with the occasional odd tempo or excessively highlighted detail to keep things interesting, or at least mildy so. At home in the opera house, he manages to maintain his conductor’s profile and yet support the singers. Your reviewer couldn’t begin to define Maazel’s interpretation of Verdi’s Aida or Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, but both scores are exceedingly well-played in these performances, which return to the DVD format on the ArtHaus Musik label.
The two productions do make for an interesting contrast. Luca Ronconi directed the 1986 Aida, which boasts gi-normous sets by Mauro Pagano and costumes (also gi-normous in the case of Luciano Pavarotti’s Radames) by Vera Marzot. With all the subtlety of a Cecil B. De Mille technicolor spectacular, the essentially intimate story of love and betrayal that Verdi and librettist Anotnio Ghislanzoni conceived gets rolled over and squashed flat by ambulatory monuments and acres of fake stone and boulders (which also produce much audible stage noise whem moved). The Madama Butterfly, also from 1986, goes for a restrained approach, employing an authentic Japanese aesthetic of spare beauty. In the opening supers, dressed as Ninjas, construct the home Pinkerton and Cio-cio-san will briefly share; the wide space and raked rock garden effect of act one even suggest a precursor to Robert Wilson’s production, many years in the future. This handsome authenticity springs from the work of director Keita Asari and set designer Ichiro Takada, with costumes by the renowned Hanae Mori. Their staging manages an effective balance between stylization and realism, until the final image, an audacious but not entirely effective switch to a purely decorative portrayal - Butterfly’s suicide consists of her opening a white fan which turns blood-red, as supers unroll a red cloth beneath her.
Fans of grand opera spectacle can revel in the tacky pleasures of the Ronconi Aida, as cans fans of, frankly, tackiness. The ballets will provoke tittering in many, whether due to the female acolytes of Ptah appearing in blue caftans and turbans for a sort of morning stretching exercise, or the mostly nude bevy of pre-pubescent youth who bathe, for no clear reason, in the apartment of Amneris. Then there is the monumental splendor of Pavarotti as Radames, especially impressive as he stands astride a wheeled platform for the triumphal march, pulled by a very hard-working group of supers. Director Ronconi seems to have spent most of his time managing the movements of the singers so that they don’t get lost in the crowds or squashed by some errant, enormous prop. As Aida, Maria Chiara spends most of the performance with her arms awkwardly outstretched beseechingly. Ghena Dimitrova couldn’t be a more nefarious Amneris if she had a thin moustache scribbled on her upper lip. And Pavarotti is Pavarotti. The La Scala audience eats all this up, and why shouldn’t they, as the singing of the principals actually has much to offer. Pavarotti sings a beautiful Radames, lighter than many of his predecessors in the role but authoritative enough. Of course, some viewers may be distracted not only by his girth but also by his fascinating eyebrows, one of which continually rides higher than the other. Maria Chiara’s soprano may lack an individual profile, but she gives a strong, consistent reading of a difficult role. With her Afro and numerous jangly bracelets, she looks as if she is hosting a 1980s Halloween party - “Walk Like an Egyptian.” Although Dimitrova doesn’t sing with any more subtlety than she acts, when it comes to her big scene in act four, she delivers some excitement. The lower voices provide firm support, with Paata Burchuladze, near the beginning of his career, quite strong as the King, and Juan Pons an unlikely but impressive father to Chiara’s Aida. The great Nicolai Ghiaurov takes on Ramfis, and his voice shows his veteran status in ways both commendable (technique) and not so commendable (tone).
As a piece of dramatic music theater, Asari’s Madama Butterfly has it all over the Ronconi Aida. The portrayals are sharper, the visual element fresher, the impact stronger. The singing, however, doesn’t quite reach the same high level. A specialist of those years as Cio-Cio-san, Yasuko Hayashi has a surprisingly strong voice, though far from a beautiful one. She is a Butterfly who actually does better in the big moments at the end of the opera than she does with “Un bel di.” There isn’t much chemistry between her and her Pinkerton, Peter Dvorsky. He has a beefy sound, which is good enough for the strutting peacock of his early scenes, though not as pleasant in the long love duet or “Addio, fiorito asil.” Giorgio Zancanaro is a negligible Sharpless, while the effectiveness of an Asian Suzuki (a fine Hak-Nam Kim) is somewhat dimmed by having Italians play Goro and Yamadori (respectively, Ernesto Gavazzi and Arturo Testa).
The Aida set comes with a lugubrious “Making of” documentary, with a smattering of interesting background spread thin among 45 minutes of talking heads limiting themselves to mostly predictable and/or inane comments. It might have been nice to have some more information on the Asari/Takada/Mori Butterfly, but none is provided. Fans of Maazel, or mid-1980s La Scala productions, will enjoy the Aida, while the Butterfly can stand on its own, if without any claims to vocal splendors.
image=http://www.operatoday.com/ArtHaus100059.gif imagedescription=Giuseppe Verdi: Aida
product=yes producttitle=Giuseppe Verdi: Aida productby=Aida: Maria Chiara; Radames: Luciano Pavarotti; Amneris: Ghena Dimitrova; Amonasro: Juan Pons; Il re: Paata Burchladze; Ramfis: Nicolai Ghiaurov; Una sacerdotessa: Francesca Garbi; Un messaggero: Ernesto Gavazzi. Chorus and Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Milan. Lorin Maazel, conductor. Luca Ronconi, Stage Director. Derek Bailey, TV Director. Recorded at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 1985. productid=ArtHaus Musik 100 059 [DVD] price=$29.49 producturl=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B000JLQS7E
The libretto is taken from Dostoevsky’s plotless collection of “notes” from his years in a Siberian prison camp, anecdotes and word-pictures of the tedium and occasional horror and joy of that existence, lacking immediate effect but packing cumulative punch. Janáček, naturally, picked and chose among these brief tales, and there is no single character, single drama with which he (or we) identify or follow: his protagonist is humanity, guilty, often criminally guilty, but never to be denied the sympathy and pity Janáček had earlier so sublimely evoked for Jenufa, her murderous stepmother and her two selfish lovers.
There being no real story in the opera, the men sing mostly of nostalgia or of the crimes that got them into trouble, and Janáček’s score provides soaring, lyrical, nostalgic themes to mitigate the harsh, percussive, maddening rhythmic passages. This is the same method he had used to tell the stories of Jenufa and Katya Kabanova, but both those stories had heroines we could follow with bated breath. We know none of the men in From the House of the Dead nearly so well, and our pity is hampered by that queasy unknowing: what other side of their character are they concealing? The beautiful Daghestani boy, Alyeya, for example, who charms us with his wish to learn to read, took part in a murderous attack on a peaceful Armenian caravan, though Janáček leaves that story out. The message appears to be: Whatever they have done, and whether they deserve punishment or not, they are your fellow human beings and you will pity them, empathize with them. It is a very humane message, and relevant to every age.
But that very absence of specificity makes the opera difficult to stage except on intimate terms, and the enormous Met is not intimate. In an attempt to deal with this, Alyeya is always kept downstage right so we can remember who he is, and titles, in addition to appearing on the backs of the seats in front of us, are projected here and there on the stage — fine for the far-sighted, a nuisance for others, annoying to those who would like to concentrate on the score, and infuriating when (as happened several times opening night) the wrong title is projected too soon. It is doubtful that a tale at once so diffuse and so intimate could have been presented successfully at the Met at all without some sort of titling — the City Opera’s production a quarter century ago was a tedious failure, not played very well — but the stage pictures on this occasion, though performed with agility, did not always focus attention where it might have brought comprehension.
Or was my discomfort exactly the effect director Patrice Chéreau, in his company debut (greeted with standing ovation, as were the cast and orchestra), wished to produce? Chéreau is perhaps of the school that does not wish to comfort but disturb with opera, and this is an opera not intended to provide comfort. In that light, the decision to perform it in one intermissionless hour-and-a-half act is the proper one, musically and dramatically.
Willard White (kneeling) as Alexander Petrovich Gorianchikov in a scene from Act I of Janacek’s “From the House of the Dead,” with actors (left to right) Carlton Tanis, Collin McGee, and Marty Keiser.
It might be instructive to compare From the House of the Dead to Beethoven’s Fidelio. The operas have in common their setting in a prison full of not-quite-hopeless men (all the prisoners in both operas are men) justly or unjustly convicted but in either case denied a human existence by the condemnation and willful ignorance of the society to which they once belonged. These are men that even societies that take pride in their commitment to personal freedom can restrict, despise, ignore — as the example of the enormous prison population of the United States attests.
In Fidelio, the story is frankly ludicrous: a woman disguises herself as a man in order to seek her husband in the prison system, and is so convincing (though rarely so to us) that the jailer’s daughter falls in love with her. But this story from opera buffa sets off the true matter: the heroism of the woman, her determined success in rescuing her husband. We are seduced by the opening everyday comic scenes, despite their prison setting and such reminders of another world as the glorious Prisoners’ Chorus that another world exists. When we explore the horrors in Act II, the very fact that such ordinary, even ridiculous people can ennoble themselves to such heights, can challenge and even conquer tyranny, makes a case for the nobility of the human race itself, even for us mere spectators. It is sublime theater, with the symbolic, cathartic effect theater was originally intended to have.
In From the House of the Dead, we are given no such easy key to let us choose the “right” side, to let us admire the “heroic” figure. Janáček, though born in 1854, is modern in his outlook, and though he died before the Nazis came to power, he could see where the century was going. His naturalistic theater shows us not cartoons of the human soul but (even in fables like Matter Makropoulos) something much closer to the human bone. His figures are none of them cardboard: In From the House of the Dead, the sadistic Commandant repents, the prisoners suffer but they continue their tedious lives. Dostoevsky explains that they made money by various handicrafts, all (and the tools to make them) forbidden by the authorities, and sold them in the village nearby for money immediately spent (lest it be found and confiscated) on vodka, warm clothes or the local whores. The enormous, forbidding cement walls of Richard Peduzzi’s set were in fact quite unnecessary in Siberia — if a man escaped, especially in shackles (the Met cast wear shackles), he had nowhere to go and soon perished in the wilderness. But the set, if not Siberian, gives us the right symbol for staging a prison camp, and the spectacular scene change at the end of Act I (no, I’m not going to spoil it) is a jolt that makes the prisoners’ endless plight seem especially unnerving.
A scene from Janacek’s “From the House of the Dead” with Heinz Zednik as The Old Prisoner (left, holding eagle), Eric Stoklossa (on ground) as Alyeya and Stefan Margita (right) as Filka Morozov.
The staging puzzled me because it was unclear which character was which, or to remember him from earlier moments — costumes did not help, and faces were vague from Row W, an effect that can only have been enhanced upstairs. Too, the “mimes” the prisoners put on in Act II for an audience of visiting townsfolk seemed not at all the gently ironic variations on themes of obsession that such men might provide for respectable visitors, but heavily, brutally sexualized for the benefit of the twenty-first-century operagoer instead. It was not believable. If the men are capable of such ironic creativity, it puts their agony elsewhere in question. On four hours’ sleep a night, sleeping on planks with thirty other men (Dostoevsky’s description), would such rampant sexuality survive?
On the musical side, under the superb direction of Esa-Pekka Salonen, in his house debut, the Metropolitan Orchestra made a case for this work as an organic unity, its bitter percussion and soaring lyricism tautly held in a theatrically fulfilling symphony. This was music-making to cherish on every level, every rhythm crisp, every melody reaching for our heart and falling short only because it was in chains. Janáček’s humanity has never been more joyously in evidence. My desire to go to this production again had little to do with the staging and everything — besides Janáček’s own fine work — to do with Salonen and the Met Orchestra, and a yearning to hear such music again.
The singers were all able and so drawn into the acting of the piece that they seemed to take few “vocal” moments — they came across as presenting “conversational” drama. Willard White and Eric Stoklossa brought poignance to Gorianchikov’s tutoring of Alyeya — it is an interesting point, one neither Dostoevsky nor Janáček underlines, that when Alyeya is asked what miracle of Jesus he most admires, he mentions the tale of Jesus molding a clay bird and having it come to life and fly away — which connects in the opera to the image of an injured eagle, cared for by the prisoners and liberated in the concluding image. Although Alyeya is being taught to read with the Gospels, that story is not to be found there, but comes from the Koran, where Jesus is also an honored prophet; Alyeya, who is Muslim, heard it back home in Daghestan and never forgot it. Vladimir Ognovenko was effective as an apologetic, drunken, brutal Commandant, Kurt Streit an impressive Skuratov, and Kelly Cae Hogan displayed some wonderful contralto lines as a prostitute.
The star turn of the evening — which does not play as a star turn — belongs to Peter Mattei as Shishkov, so fine a singer one regrets when he turns to such unlyrical roles, so fine an actor that one hardly notices how brilliantly he is singing. Shishkov calls to mind the Yugoslav statesman Milovan Djilas’s comparison of Serbs and Russians — “Serbs are simple Slavs; a Serb will kill you. Russians are complex Slavs; a Russian will kill you and then weep.” He is haunted by the progression of evil deeds that led to his luckless marriage to the woman he then murdered — too, the man has obviously been drinking, bad vodka presumably — and his story, which occupies most of the last scene of the opera, holds us riveted as if Janáček had made that story into an opera, as he easily might have done. There is activity all about the stage during this narration, behind and around Mattei and in the high reaches of the monstrous set, but he never loses our attention for an instant, and his singing is as wonderful as his acting.
John Yohalemimage=http://www.operatoday.com/HOUSE_Mattei_as_Shiskov_220.gif image_description=Peter Mattei as Shishkov [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=Leoš Janáček: From the House of the Dead product_by=Filka Morozov: Stefan Margita; Skuratov: Kurt Streit; Shapkin: Peter Hoare; Shishkov: Peter Mattei; Gorianchikov: Willard White; Alyeya: Eric Stoklossa; Commandant: Vladimir Ognovenko; Prostitute: Kelly Cae Hogan. Production by Patrice Chéreau. Chorus and orchestra of the Met, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Performance of November 12. product_id=Above: Peter Mattei as Shishkov
Even so, there remain gaps that even these pioneers fail to reach — at which point, enter New Sussex Opera, in the first of what I hope will be a regular series of visits to the capital.
It is not widely known that Offenbach ever ventured into German grand opera, though a recording of Die Rheinnixen finally became available in 2005 thanks to the Orchestre de Montpelier (the disc was reviewed on this site). Though Rhine Fairies are most familiar in operatic terms because of Wagner, an audience at Offenbach’s opera would be forgiven for not realising there was any common ground. Offenbach’s Rhine Fairies are a hybrid of a number of different myths, from the Lorelei of popular legend to the jilted maiden-spirits of Giselle.
The English rendition of the libretto has its clumsy moments, and although some (such as switching between ‘thee’ and ‘you’ for the sake of a rhyme) can be put down to the translator, tenor Neil Jenkins, the majority of the unintentional humour is pretty inevitable. Cynics might say that singing in a foreign language covers a multitude of sins — and this is one of those operas where performance in translation serves to remove the only layer of disguise from the sheer ludicrousness of the plot. We have an amnesiac hero (thanks to a war-wound) who is shocked into recovering his senses on the spot, long-lost family relationships being revealed at every turn, and supernatural forces which overshadow the lives of the central characters. At the centre of it all is a saintly heroine so fragile that singing too strenuously almost kills her — an archetype which Offenbach took one step further in Hoffmann (and another metaphor for the dangerous power of female sexuality). That’s not the only thing which almost happens — a devastating Wagnerian ending is narrowly averted when, as the principal characters prepare to evade enemy capture by blowing up a strategically-placed ammunition dump with themselves in it, the Rhine Fairies lure the baddies over a precipice to their death and the goodies all breathe a sigh of relief and live happily ever after. The opera predates Götterdämmerung by more than a decade, but it’s difficult not to make the comparison.
A more than decent cast was assembled for the occasion: as the heroine, Armgard, Kate Valentine struck the balance of youth and maturity with a capable and sweet-edged lyric soprano and a firm and centred stage presence. As Franz, David Curry, made an ardent lover, though was occasionally a little pallid and strained in the top register, with a tendency to oversing. The more memorable performances were in the older roles, with Anne-Marie Owens supplying a dramatic centre in the pivotal role of Hedwig, Armgard’s mother whose past youthful exploits with the now enemy, Conrad von Wenckheim, bring about almost all of the plot’s developments. Quentin Hayes was a strong and masculine Conrad, and Daniel Grice was sympathetic in the role of Gottfried (here, in translation, Godfrey) — the true friend who never quite manages to get the girl.
The chorus sang idiomatically, and the smaller roles were taken more than ably by members of the amateur company. Conductor Nicholas Jenkins drew a clean and poised performance from the orchestra, and the score has plenty to recommend it. Offenbach inventively evokes a Germanic sound-world — Franz’s ethereal entrance-aria almost seems to prefigure the way Mahler used some of the Des Knaben Wunderhorn tunes in his early symphonies. The imagination in the rest of the score should not be underestimated, and would no doubt be easier to appreciate if Hoffmann had not remained so firmly in the repertoire while Die Rheinnixen was as good as lost for over a century. The composer reused so much of Rheinnixen in his later work that listening to it can be quite disorientating. It takes an open mind to think of the ‘Barcarolle’, and its introduction, were originally intended to depict not the hypnotic stasis of Venetian canals but the waters of a river which — thanks again to Wagner — most opera-lovers have come to associate with primeval E flat chords. The Rhine-Fairies themselves have the most obvious leitmotiv of the piece, a rising and falling chromatic triplet figure, first introduced in Armgard’s Act 1 aria.
New Sussex Opera has expressed a hope that some of its future productions — which, if an audience questionnaire included in the programme is anything to go by, might include Wagner’s Die Feen, Chabrier’s L’etoile and Gounod’s Mireille — might bring the company back to London. On this evidence, let’s hope so.
Ruth Elleson © 2009image=http://www.operatoday.com/Rheinnixen.png image_description=Die Rheinnixen [New Sussex Opera] product=yes product_title=Jacques Offenbach: Die Rheinnixen product_by=Armgard: Kate Valentine; Hedwig: Anne-Marie Owens; Franz: David Curry; Conrad: Quentin Hayes; Gottfried: Daniel Grice; The Fairy: Birgit Rohowska. New Sussex Opera. Nicholas Jenkins, music director/ conductor. product_id=
By Diane Haithman [LA Times, 15 November 2009]
What does a renowned, Harvard-educated, Pulitzer Prize-winning classical music composer say just after the standing-ovation world premiere of his new symphony at Walt Disney Concert Hall, performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the baton of its wildly celebrated new music director, Gustavo Dudamel?
Music composed by Gioachino Rossini. Libretto by Francesco Berio di Salsa after William Shakespeare’s play Othello, or The Moor of Venice.
First Performance: 4 December 1816, Teatro del Fondo, Naples.
|Otello, a Moor in the Serivce of Venice||Tenor|
|Desdemona, secretly married to Otello||Mezzo-Soprano|
|Iago, the pretended friend of Otello||Tenor|
|Emilia, confidant of Desdemona||Mezzo-Soprano|
|Elmiro, a Venetian patrician, the father of Desdemona and enemy of Otello||Bass|
|Roderigo, the rejected lover of Desdemona and son of the Doge||Tenor|
|The Doge of Venice||Tenor|
Synopsis: The opera deviates quite heavily from Shakespeare's original, not only in that it takes place in Venice and not on Cyprus, but also in that the whole dramatic conflict develops in a different manner. A recent Opera Rara CD of the opera even includes an alternative happy ending, a common practice with drama and opera at one time. The role of Jago is reduced to some degree and is much less diabolical as in the original or in Verdi's 1887 version. Rossini's Otello is an important milestone in the development of opera as musical drama. It provided Giuseppe Verdi with a benchmark for his own adaptations of Shakespeare.
[Synopsis source: Wikipedia]
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 14 November 2009]
After the Metropolitan Opera opened its season in September with Luc Bondy’s convoluted new production of Puccini’s “Tosca,” widely deemed a dismal failure, Peter Gelb, the company’s general manager, needed a comeback success.
By Norman Lebrecht [La Scena Musicale, 13 November 2009]
If ever you need to know what’s wrong with the Metropolitan Opera and its press puppet, the New York Times, look no further than the opening paragraph of last weekend’s puff piece for tonight’s production of Janacek’s From the House of the Dead.
Das Marienleben needs an absolutely top-notch singer to do it justice. Glenn Gould championed the work but in many ways also stymied its reception because he underestimated the vocal pert. Soile Isokoski is the first really big-name singer to make it part of her regular repertoire, and to record it since Gundula Janowitz 20 years ago. She sings with such fervent sincerity, that the cycle becomes a statement of the soul, as well as a great work of art.
Sensucht lies heavily on Das Marienleben: Instead of writing about Jesus, Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems focused on Mary. Her life may have been lived in the background,but her presence was crucial to the narrative of momentous events in the New Testament. Rilke’s poems bring out the human behind the divine, and are all the more moving for that. At the Wigmore Hall, Isokoski performed the 1948 version, in which Hindemith invested much time and effort. He was inspired by the Stuppach Madonna, painted by Martin Grünewald around 1518, when Europe was on the threshold of the upheaval of the Reformation. When Hindemith himself was forced into exile, the irony may not have been missed. He invested a great deal of time and effort in the 1948 revision, partly because of music theory, but also because he cared about the work. So much for the idea that musical “objectivity” precludes deep emotion.
This emotional commitment was the secret of Isokoski’s performance. She believes in it sincerely and communicates her love for the work and the ideas it represents. Hers is one of the loveliest voices around. She’s exquisite in Mozart and Strauss. She’ll be singing the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House in December. Despite her megastar status, Isokoski has always sung music she cares about, even if it’s not commercially viable, which is more than can be said about some of her rivals in opera! Obviously she sings Sibelius perfectly, but it was she who showed how interesting other Finnish composers, like Sallinen, Madetoja, and Merikanto can be. She created the market. Her recordings of Finnish hymns weren’t made for glamour, but because they’re dear to her heart.
Das Marienleben is much like Messiaen’s Vingt Régards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, not simply because of the subject, but because it unfolds contemplatively. The very first song, Geburt Mariã, was inspired by a passacaglia by Biber about the Resurrection, so the whole cycle is, in a sense, built around it. The beautiful first notes on the piano flow through the cycle, reminding us of the ultimate purpose of Maria’s life. The piano is reverential, but the voice soars with suppressed excitement at the miracle to come. Rilke’s texts are lovely, but wordy, so there’s no chance for easy strophic setting. Instead Hindemith makes a virtue of the long, flowing lines, often using breaks within the written line, rather than at the end, to create a sense of fluid movement.
Mariae Verkündigung describes the Annunciation. It starts with the same reverential pace that began the cycle, but grows to a crescendo of agitation when Maria realizes what the angel means. Then the calm figures return, and Isokoski blooms with confidence, “Dann sang der Engel seine Melodie”.
The more distinctive songs aren’t the obvious ones like Geburt Christi but those where Maria faces challenges, as in Rast auf der Flucht in Ägyptien, Vor der Passion and Pietà. Theologically, these are key moments, but Isokoski also makes them feel intimate and human. Her voice is naturally pure and lucid, but she colours her words with genuine emotion, to express the depths of Maria’s personality.When Jesus turns water into wine, Maria rejoices, but her tears of joy will soon turn to blood. Isokoski illustrated the words “Blut geworden war mit deisem Wein” sensitively, “geworden” curling on itself, “diesem” and “Wein” stretching outwards towards what is to come.
The pain of Vor der Passion and Pietà gives way to tender reconciliation when Maria meets the Risen Christ. Now, her destiny is fulfilled, so the three final songs form a sort of inner trilogy which rounds out the cycle. Some wonderful moments here, when Maria, alone, faces “O Ursprung namenloser Tränen-Bäche”. These vowels were sung with huge, open-hearted affirmation.
When Maria dies, Rilke describes her passing “wie ein Lavenderlkissen eine Weile da hineingeliegt,” (like a lavender pillow that leaves its scent even when it’s taken away). Hence the confident, bright key of the final song, Vom Tode Mariä III, and the adamant ostinato in the piano at the end. “Mann, knie ihn, und sie mir nachund sing!”. Maria’s body is dead but her soul triumphs.
Because Das Marienleben isn’t famiiar, most of the Wigmore Hall audience had their noses buried in the text, rather than listening. But as my friend commented, “it’s not like we don’t know the story”. Isokoski’s German is excellent, and easy to follow although the way the words are set on the page in Wigmore Hall format, it wasn’t easy to find your place in the middle of lines if you’d been listening and needed to look back. Also it’s a long cycle, and some of the songs are six or seven minutes. It was a good idea to pause after the birth of Jesus, and to darken the hall between his death and resurrection, because it gave helpful structure, to the performance, which reflects the structure in the music. Nonetheless the audience wasn’t as attentive as they could have been, which quite spoiled the mood of hushed mystery. Performance is interactive, and Isokoski may have picked up on the lack of attention.
Isokoski and Viitasalo have recorded Das Marienleben for Ondine Records. It’s magnificent, even better than the live recital, and will become the benchmark as it’s so far ahead of any competition. Unfortunately the translation used in the CD booklet was made in 1923, and is horribly mawkish. The translation used at the Wigmore Hall was by Richard Stokes, much more lucid and closer to Rilke’s style.
image=http://www.operatoday.com/isokoski.png image_description=Soile Isokoski [Photo: Heikki Tuuli 2007]
product=yes producttitle=Paul Hindemith: Das Marienleben productby=Soile Isokoski (soprano), Marita Viitasalo (piano), Wigmore Hall, London. product_id=Above: Soile Isokoski [Photo: Heikki Tuuli 2007]
By HEIDI WALESON [WSJ, 11 November 2009]
Beginning last Thursday, the New York City Opera staged its resurrection following a dark year, financial jeopardy and management disarray. With straitened means and only a few months to plan (George Steel, the company’s general manager and artistic director, started work last February), City Opera’s comeback season was pared to 30-odd performances of five operas, two this month and three in the spring. The company also hopes to get a lift from the acoustical and other improvements in its renamed David H. Koch Theater.
There is no greater name in lieder composition than that of Franz Schubert, and he desperately wanted to make a name for himself as a composer of opera as well. However, his operatic efforts met only with indifference or outright failure in his lifetime - as so much of his great body of work did. After his death, much of his chamber, symphonic, and lieder works achieved masterpiece status, whereas his theatrical works remain obscure.
In late 2005 the Zurich Opera House chose Claus Guth to stage Schubert’s setting of a libretto by Josef Kupelwieser, Fierrabras. Not only did Schubert never see this opera staged, but Richard Lawrence attests, in his abbreviated but informative booklet note, that the work remained unstaged until 1988. Lawrence attempts a brief synopsis of the plot, but neither the discs themselves nor the booklet have any kind of detailed synopsis, and truthfully, watching this very long opera, particularly in Guth’s abstract, uni-set staging, does little to communicate the narrative. Suffice it to say, we are in, as Lawrence writes, “a medieval never-never land,” and heroes suffer, their lovers suffer, the chorus suffers, until a joyful conclusion does what it can to erase the memory of all that suffering.
A libretto as hopeless as this gives a creative director a lot of room for innovative staging. Guth builds his production around a Schubert lookalike, both observing and sometimes interacting with the principals, with the drama played out in a parlor setting. Presumably that is Schubert’s piano for composition dangling from the ceiling. Dress is contemporaneous with Schubert’s era. Guth and set/costume designer Christian Schmidt manage to keep the stage picture varied and active, but in foregoing any sense of naturalistic action, the relationships and plot points get lost. The result is an elaborate concert presentation. At 171 minutes spread over two discs, it’s a long show, and some viewers may feel impatience with the static narrative and Guth’s stylization. The attenuated curtain calls suggest as much even for the live audience. As with his score to Alfonso und Estrella, Schubert’s melodic gift doesn’t reach the heights of his greatest pieces in Fierrabras, but the music is consistently appealing and often quite imaginative. Franz Welser-Möst emphasizes the drama of the score, perhaps trying to supply more excitement than the libretto manages to deliver. A little more variety of texture could be desired, but the Zurich Opera House forces play the score with expert authority.
Fans of rising tenor Jonas Kaufmann should not get too excited to see his name in the title role, as the character of Fierrabras disappears for much of the action, especially in the latter half of the opera. Nonetheless, his handsome presence and warm delivery give evidence of his appeal. Twyla Robinson and Juliane Banse both have to bewail their fates at extended length, with Robinson managing to do so with a more interesting voice of considerable size. Michael Volle as the Roland of legend and Christoph Strehl partner their ladies well. Lászlo Polgár strides the stage as the King, sometimes clambering onto an oversize chair as his throne. His voice provides sufficient regal command.
EMI Classics bare-bones packaging omits any track listing or information beyond the Lawrence essay and the usual “back cover” credits. Anyone who has gone begging for a DVD of Fierrabras, however, can’t be a chooser. This well-sung set, with take-it-or-leave-it direction, will have to do.
image=http://www.operatoday.com/EMIFierrabras.gif imagedescription=Franz Schubert: Fierrabras
product=yes producttitle=Franz Schubert: Fierrabras productby=Franz Welser-Möst, Zurich Opera House Orchestra, Chor des Opernhauses Zürich productid=EMI Classics 5099950096992 [DVD] price=$22.49 producturl=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B000UINP1S
By Donald Rosenberg [The Plain Dealer, 11 November 2009]
Art song recitals tend to be filled with pieces by the likes of Schubert, Brahms, Faure and other European masters. A vocal concert made up almost entirely of American music falls into the category of exception.
That production brought down the curtain on a decade that was a Golden Age for German opera at the HGO. During the previous dozen years Wagner was on stage at the Wortham in nine seasons and Richard Strauss in two.
There was a reason for this richness — and for the dearth that followed. Those were the banner years when Christoph Eschenbach was music director of the Houston Symphony. Not only did he conduct Wagner and Strauss at the HGO; he brought his orchestra into the pit at the Wortham for these performances. Years of transition followed that marked a period of maturation for both the HGO and the HSO. As they grew in quality and significance, the Opera was challenged to build its own ensemble.
Thus the production of Lohengrin that opened at the Wortham on November 30 was not only a “long-awaited return,” as HGO music director Patrick Summers described it in an erudite note in the Lohengrin program. It was further a milestone in the history of the company and in the career of Summers, HGO music director since 1989.
It was to Summers that the building of an opera orchestra was assigned, and — as was gloriously apparent in the new Lohengrin — he has done this with impressive success. Indeed, the hushed celestial silver of the violins that opens the Overture shimmered in warmth as they ascended to the unashamedly erotic heights that launch the first act of the work.
The profound feeling that Summers brought to the Overture and all that followed made it difficult to believe that this was the first complete Wagner opera that he has conducted. All this distinguished this new Lohengrin as a turning point in the history of the 54-year-old HGO. Evaluation of the production itself is a more difficult matter.
This was also the first Wagner for director Daniel Slater and designer Robert Innes Hopkins and one can only wish that their work had been on the same level as Summer’s achievement with the orchestra. Such — alas — was not the case. The two badly overshot their mark in an arsenal of effects the sum of which was far less than their collected value.
In this co-production with Switzerland’s Grand Théâtre de Genève, where the staging debuted in 2007, the British collaborators were perhaps a bit too eager to try their hand at what is known on the continent as Regieoper, the approach that allows the production team free rein in the liberties it takes with what the composer once regarded as a finished work. (The result is often summed up as “Eurotrash.”) Gone — along with the traditional swan — was the knightly medievalism that is traditionally the historic background of Lohengrin.
Simon O’Neill (Lohengrin) and Adrianne Pieczonka (Elsa)
Act One opened in a cavernous library, obviously long neglected. Uniforms — for those old enough to remember them — recalled Eastern Europe in its totalitarian bad days. Things get worse as troops viciously tore books from shelves, recalling — again for those with knowledge of early 20th-century history — the Nazi book burning in Berlin when Hitler came to power. (That conflagration was staged, incidentally, on the square adjacent to the Staatsoper on historic Unter den Linden.)
Simon O’Neill, whose grubby dress, hair and demeanor bore little resemblance to the man in shining armor that Lohengrin, this Knight of the Grail, is supposed to be. O’Neill was vocally disappointing as well, for — although his voice is of some power — it lacks warmth and shading. Indeed, his performance was largely monochromatic.
The Elsa was Canada’s Adrianne Pieczonka, praised throughout Europe today for her interpretation of the women created by Wagner and Richard Strauss. In Act One Pieczonka’s voice seemed a trifle two mature for innocent Elsa, but in Act Two she was a perfect match for Christine Goerke, whose Ortrud was the glory of this staging.
Although Goerke, long an established Wagnerian, might have sued designer Hopkins for the dreadful green cocktail dress in which she first appeared, she soon proved herself the strongest member of this cast, stressing that behind every evil man there is an even more evil woman.
Richard Paul Fink (Friedrich of Telramund) and Christine Goerke (Ortrud)
Richard Paul Fink, long the world’s most sinister Alberich in Wagner’s Ring and the creator of Mephistophelean Edward Teller in John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, was a natural as Ortrud’s partner in malice. However, one expected a more significant voice than bass Günther Groissbock brought to King Heinrich. Supporting roles were impressively sung by HGO studio artists.
Lohengrin contains Wagner’s greatest choruses, and HGO chorus master Richard Bado brought home that no American company has a better choral ensemble than Houston. Although the ludicrous aspects of the staging did not necessary detract from the musical excellence of the production, a concert performance by Summers and his forces would have been more satisfactory. The good news associated with this production is that the HGO henceforth promises a German opera — Wagner, Strauss or Beethoven — in each future season.
“Now,” Summers concludes, “HGO rejoins a perpetual journey into one of history’s true, if disquieting visionaries.”
image=http://www.operatoday.com/LohengrinHouston02.gif image_description=Adrianne Pieczonka as Elsa [Photo by Felix Sanchez courtesy of Houston Grand Opera]
producttitle=Richard Wagner: Lohengrin
productby=Simon O’Neill: Lohengrin; Adrianne Pieczonka: Elsa of Brabant; Günther Groissböck: King Henry the Fowler; Richard Paul Fink: Frederick of Telramund; Christine Goerke: Ortrud; Ryan McKinny: King’s Herald. Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Patrick Summers: Conductor. Daniel Slater: Production Stage Director.
product_id=Above: Adrianne Pieczonka as Elsa
Photos by Felix Sanchez courtesy of Houston Grand Opera
Ezio Frigerio, set designer, and Franca Squarciapino, costumes, must have collaborated closely. Frigerio’s mammoth revolving turret/stairwell features the same gold-flake detailing as the ample fabric wrapped around the singers. This island military outpost must be the most lavishly appointed in the Venetian empire. Graham Vick directed a top-rank cast, with Placido Domingo assuming the Moor for the (announced) final time, Leo Nucci’s veteran Iago, and the lovely Barbara Frittoli as Desdemona. The breakdown between conductor Riccardo Muti and the La Scala orchestra lies in the future — here his precise, taut reading is characteristic of the conductor at his best.
Perhaps because this DVD originated with a live broadcast the night of the premiere — although nowhere in the packaging is a recording date given — the performance feels unsettled, even slightly stiff. Each performer does their experienced best in their respective roles, but there is little warmth or sensuality between Domingo and Frittoli, while Nucci plays his Iago so relaxed and nonchalant that he makes Domingo’s Moor seem alternatively dim or hysterical. Lovers of operatic spectacle will surely appreciate the sheer beauty of the staging, but the tension and brutality of Shakespeare’s drama can’t break through the over-stuffed design.
The subtitles offer the usual stilted translation with the occasional blooper — such as “though he see me aimed” for “though he see me armed.” There are no bonus features. The star cast and ornate design will satisfy many an opera lover. Some others will regret the absence of the naked, raw passions that inspired Verdi’s great score.
image=http://www.operatoday.com/ArtHaus107090.gif imagedescription=Giuseppe Verdi: Otello
product=yes producttitle=Giuseppe Verdi: Otello productby=Otello: Plácido Domingo; Desdemona: Barbara Frittoli; Iago: Leo Nucci; Emilia: Rossana Rinaldi; Cassio: Cesare Catani; Roderigo: Antonello Ceron; Lodovico: Giovanni Battista Parodi; Montano: Cesare Lana; A herald: Ernesto Panariello. Milan Conservatory Children’s Chorus. Milan la Scala Children’s Chorus (chorus master: Bruno Casoni). Milan la Scala Chorus (chorus mater: Roberto Gabbiani). Milan la Scala Orchestra. Riccardo Muti, conductor. Graham Vick, stage director. Ezio Frigerio, set design. Franca Squarciapino, costume design. Matthew Richardson, lighting. Recorded live from the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, 2001. productid=ArtHaus Musik 107090 [DVD] price=$25.99 producturl=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B002ED6UZ0
[Bristol24-7, 10 November 2009]
The Welsh National Opera kicked off their stay at the Bristol Hippodrome last night with a stunning performance of Verdi’s La Traviata to a delighted audience.
By DANIEL J. WAKIN [NY Times, 10 November 2009]
Mona Webster, a lighthouse keeper’s daughter who lived in Edinburgh and died in August at 96, had a love of birds, and warblers in particular — of the human kind. She demonstrated that affection by leaving most of her fortune to the Metropolitan Opera and a nature charity in Britain.
By Tim Smith [Baltimore Sun, 10 November 2009]
A Kurt Weill song can’t be mistaken for anything else. There’s something tense in the warmest of his melodic lines, something pointed in the simplest of his harmonies. And that’s even before you consider the words. Weill was inspired by some remarkable lyricists — Bertolt Brecht, Ira Gershwin, Walter Mehring, Roger Fernay, Maurice Magre, Maxwell Anderson — who found fresh ways of addressing the old issues of love and loss.
Perhaps it’s a question of the difference between terror and horror? Should you aim to make your audience feel the evil, to imagine the chilling frisson of fear or pain; or should you force evermore gory excesses straight down their throats until they’re practically choking with nausea? Director Daniel Kramer clearly believed that unless shock followed blow followed repulsion, we might miss the point of this production … which was, presumably, to show that we live in gothic times, to paraphrase Angela Carter, whose own fabulous take on the myth, the short story ‘The Bloody Chamber’, is enriched by an ironic subversion entirely absent here.
What lies behind Bluebeard’s seven closed doors is a mystery, albeit one cloaked in disquieting rumour and dread. But the only moment of mystery and wonder in this production occurred in the opening filme noire ‘preface’: a single street lamp cast a mournful tinge of illumination on a solitary door, an invitation to venture into the unknown, into one’s own psychological darkness. (But, why omit Bartok’s prologue?) Clever use of a revolve whirled a passionate, eager Judith and her unpredictable new husband to the subterranean depths of his black, brooding mansion. Once there, all was revealed: this was a reconstruction of the ‘Amstetten House of Horror’, Josef Fritzl’s ghastly ‘playground’, a place of claustrophobic confinement, sexual cruelty, incestuous rape. And, if we were still in any doubt, the appearance of the family von Trapp, perfectly graded by height and representing Bluebeard’s ‘dominions’, sealed our understanding. It would be unfair to suggest that Kramer believes sexual perversion and pedophilia are peculiarly Austrian problems — Fred West and Jack the Ripper also insinuated their way into the picture — but you get the idea …
‘Bluebeard’, like so many ‘moral tales’, reveals the fatal effects of female curiosity. Here, Judith, performed by American mezzo soprano Michaela Martens, certainly began in Eve-like fashion, clutching passionately at the cold, forbidding Bluebeard. Martens was reliable and convincing, both musically and dramatically, and sang with a directness most fitting for Bartok’s folk-inspired style. Sadly, her articulation of the text was less particular. By contrast, every word of Clive Bayley’s expertly shaped and powerfully projected phrases rang true and clear. This was a wonderful performance; at times Chaplinesque in his self-delusions, elsewhere hinting at a rueful acceptance of his pathological isolation (which revealed the singer’s, if not the director’s, appreciation of the central aspect of the role), Bayley was transformed from unwilling husband to exultant dictator, as the doors which Judith insists on opening divulge the extent of his tyranny and power.
There was, however, little visual magic as the hidden recesses of this twilight world were disclosed; indeed, the whole revelation threatened to grind to a halt, when a stuttering sliding panel shuddered and jolted, requiring a helping hand from Bayley in order to expose a garden of graves. Blood dripped from the walls, Bluebeard raced gleefully about on an appropriately phallic miniature cannon, but it was left to the musical fabric to evoke an aura of ghastly awe and wonder as the ‘glories’ of Bluebeard’s sunken treasuries and torture chambers are laid before us. This was a scintillating reading by Edward Gardner of Bartok’s violent, graphic score — it told us all we needed to know about the psychological landscape before us. Expertly paced, the climaxes were judged to perfection; the blazing nobility of the off-stage brass conjured the dazzling majesty of Bluebeard’s territorial claims, even as the ‘Julie Andrews line-up’ punctured the effect. One could shut one’s eyes and appreciate all the nuances of human behaviour captured by Bartok, from cruelty to joy, from love to loneliness, a palette which was reduced by Kramer to sadism and sensationalism.
Despite these strong vocal and orchestral performances, the accumulation of visual excess eventually became tiresome; no wonder there was a stunned silence after the final tableau — Bluebeard, thrusting a gleaming phallic sword between the splayed legs of three prostrate prostitutes. Bluebeard’s crimes should gnaw at our own fears — that’s the point of Perrault’s seventeenth-century tale, to warn us of the consequences of indulging our darkest urges. But most people don’t imprison their children in sunless dungeons, or maim and murder for sexual gratification, and rather than a sense of unease and restlessness, this production simply left a nasty taste.
Claire Seymourimage=http://www.operatoday.com/Bluebeard6.png image_description=Clive Bayley as Duke Bluebeard and Michaela Martens as Judith [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of English National Opera] product=yes product_title=Béla Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle product_by=Bluebeard: Clive Bayley; Judith: Michaela Martens. Director: Daniel Kramer. Conductor: Edward Gardner. English National Opera, Coliseum, London. Friday 6th November 2009.
Raymond Gill [The Age, 10 November 2009]
OPERA Australia’s new artistic director Lyndon Terracini hopes to premiere Wagner’s Ring cycle in repertory in Melbourne from 2012.
And that is exactly what he did at San Francisco Opera just now where he is the incoming music director, and therefore can conduct what he pleases. No reduced orchestration for this maestro, the ninety-one players stuffed into the War Memorial pit made a mighty sound, a mighty opulent one.
Mo. Luisotti sought the sonic richness of this early Strauss score rather than its burgeoning sexuality and exploding nervousness. The psychological penetration that is Strauss’ discovery in Salome may not yet have become the orchestral maelstrom that bares Elektra’s tortured soul, nonetheless Strauss is dealing with a pantheon of unstable personalities who enact a very sexual, personal and finally very ugly story. Strauss obliges with music that is sometimes sensual and sometimes ugly, but always personal — after all it marks a difficult passage and consequent loss of innocence. Mo. Luisotti opted to make it all beautiful.
It is an unabashedly lush score, as Mo. Luisotti helped us discover as never before. He caressed its musical lines that evoked the opera’s evening setting, the rising moon and the overwhelming grandeur and power of the word of God. His lions roared and his dogs barked and Herodias raged. But Luisotti did not discover the delicate sensuousness with which Strauss enveloped Salome, nor the desperate lust and self doubt that tortured Herod, or the sense of impending doom that hangs on every word of the text.
Luisotti version of Strauss’ first great opera was supported by the production imported from the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, the stage a vista (open to view) when we entered the auditorium, the soldiers, Jews, Nazarenes, were milling around as they did the entire evening, making Salome’s sexual awakening a public spectacle rather than a personal drama. But these onlookers did not seem to know quite what to do or think as they stood around. We were kept waiting for them to react but they never did.
One of several daunting challenges facing a Salome stage director is the extended length of its dance of seven veils. The Opera Theatre of St. Louis production sought to solve this problem by engaging a choreographer, Seán Curran, to stage the opera. His solution was to impose an unrelenting formalized ritual, ten minutes of abstract choreography whose sensuality was limited to the flowing geometry of five or six squares of silk pulled through the air by a pair of eunuchs. The final shock of Strauss’ dance was eviscerated by completely covering Salome with silk veils so that, as we found out, she could make a quick change into a gold, vaguely Klimpt-essque gown for her orgy with John the Baptist’s severed head.
The setting too, by Bruno Schwengl, was unrelentingly geometric, a hard edge rectangular box disappearing into an exaggerated one point perspective that the supertitles called a vault and the libretto calls a cistern, but in this production it was really the most private part of the female anatomy, with an opening that expanded and contracted just like the real thing (honest to God). Gratuitously symbolic except that when the executioner entered it and Luisotti’s pit made its super exaggerated slicing noises the effect was a virtual hymenectomy. It was flat out gross.
But John the Baptist was not really inside the vault. When he was to have been heard from the cistern/vault he was actually off-stage down left singing through a sousaphone bell. His voice was weirdly loud over there on the side, very far away from where it was supposed to be (upstage center), and could have been had modern electronic technology been allowed to do its magic.
There were some fine performances on October 21 (the second one), particularly Nadia Michael as Salome, certainly one of the more resplendent of our current Salomes, her youthful figure able to embody a vocally well drawn character, with reserves of gorgeous tone sufficient to soar above the massive Strauss orchestral climaxes. We may miss the neurotic tinges awarded this complex role by Anna Silja and Maria Ewing, and the uncanny histrionics perpetrated by Leonie Rysanek (all former San Francisco Opera Salomes) but we did profit from Mme. Michael’s more even temperament as she did her best, a good trouper, to go along with this hapless production.
Reportedly in the fourth of the six performances her stamina waned, and she then bowed out of the fifth performance. Molly Fillmore was brought in at the very last moment from Arizona Opera where she is rehearsing the role (according to SFO general director David Gockley’s front of curtain announcement). While those of us there that evening must be grateful to Mme. Fillmore for the obvious heroics necessary to get through the performance, we can question San Francisco Opera’s lack of an adequate cover in what were foreseen circumstances.
Greer Grimsley gave his brief on-stage performance as Jokanaan splendidly, blinded by light delivering his confrontation with Salome with genuine fervor and horror, his curse ringing in our ears. Russian mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura gave a fully sung, lurid account of Herodias that was intense and chilling, as it should be and so rarely is.
British tenor Kim Begley is not a big enough performer to bring Herod as horridly alive as he should be. One remembers Mr. Begley as a fine, sympathetic Narraboth, this role in this production taken by Garret Sorenson who made no effect in what can be a most affecting role. Perhaps both Mr. Begley and Mr. Sorenson were betrayed by the conducting and production, thus exonerating them from blame for their pale performances.
With staging entrusted to a choreographer there was much smooth movement. Overall the effect was in fact choreography rather than staging, except in the complex ensemble scenes when staging reverted to textbook procedures.
image=http://www.operatoday.com/SalomeSFO.gif imagedescription=Nadja Michael as Salome [Photo by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera]
product=yes producttitle=Richard Strauss: Salome productby=Salome: Nadja Michael; Herodias: Irina Mishura; Herod: Kim Begley; Jokanaan: Greer Grimsley; Narraboth: Garrett Sorenson; A page: Elizabeth DeShong; First Jew: Beau Gibson; Second Jew: Robert MacNeil; Third Jew: Matthew O’Neill; Fourth Jew: Corey Bix; Fifth Jew: Jeremy Milner; First Soldier: Andrew Funk; Second Soldier: Bojan Knezevic; First Nazarene: Julien Robbins; Second Nazarene: Austin Kness; Cappodocian: Kenneth Kellogg; Slave: Renée Tatum. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti. Director: Seán Curran. Consulting Director/Dramaturg: James Robinson. Production Designer: Bruno Schwengl. product_id=Above: Nadja Michael as Salome [Photo by Terrence McCarthy courtesy of San Francisco Opera]
his long-standing commitment to the work of Harrison Birtwistle has served the composer admirably; and as a sensitive, skilful communicator of the nuances of narrative through music and words, Langridge’s performances of Vaughan Williams and Schubert are justly revered. This carefully chosen programme clearly had great personal meaning to Langridge; and the Wigmore Hall was a fitting venue to celebrate both his 70th birthday and the achievements and joy of a life in music.
Framing the recital with Schubert — excerpts from Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise — was a brave decision; as ever, Langridge’s diction was superb, but while he embraced the German language with ease and assurance, his voice no longer has the depth of tone and secure focus of old. Lyricism was exchanged for emotional intensity: the dynamics fluctuated rather wildly, as the tenor frequently resorted to a wispy head voice in the upper registers, an overly dramatic effect perhaps for these intimate songs. A few cracked high notes revealed the strain but, although the voice perhaps now lacks the bright flexibility of youth, there was no doubting Langridge’s emotional and dramatic engagement with the songs’ mournful narrative. Most successful were the sentimental, more restrained songs: in ‘Danksagung an den Bach’ (‘Thanksgiving to the Brook’) pianist David Owen Norris’s delicate but assertive rippling motif literally conjured the natural world and metaphorically tormented the young miller with its ambiguous murmurings. Owen Norris was a thoughtful, responsive partner throughout this recital, ever alert to subtle nuances, enhancing — through dynamic gradations, rubati and ever-changing textures and articulation — the melodic narrative. Occasionally the dynamic contrasts may have been a little too sudden or exaggerated, the sforzandi a touch strident, but the accompaniment matched the drama of Langridge’s delivery. Fittingly, a haunting delivery of ‘Der Leiermann’ brought the recital to a close; here, the subtle variations of tempi produced a tension between the rigidity of the piano’s droning, bare fifths, the coiling right-hand and the plaintive melancholy of the voice.
Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge found Langridge in more comfortable and relaxed mode. This was a bracing interpretation perfectly suited to the folksong derivation and ambience of Vaughan Williams’ striking Housman settings. Tempi were perfectly judged. The brisk eponymous opening song was propelled by the string tremolos and dynamic, rocking piano motif which launches the cycle, and this momentum was sustained in ‘From far, from eve and morning’. Alternations of instrumentation — first voice and piano, now strings, then full ensemble — introduced a note of poignancy into the third song, ‘Is my team ploughing?’, most apt for a song that reflects with gentle nostalgia on loss and love. The members of the Doric Quartet enjoyed the narrative role played by the instrumental lines, the elongated triplets of the inner strings enhancing the mood of yearning tinged with resignation. ‘Bredon Hill’ is the emotional centre of the work: with crystal clear intonation, the strings’ slowly rocking, divisi chords created a remarkable, icy serenity, capturing the stillness and transparency of the bleached landscape as piano bells echoed through the emptiness. The ensemble gradually built up to a frightening intensity and Langridge, bitterly defying the tolling bells, spat out the final words of the closing verse, ‘I hear you, I will come’. This was superb ensemble playing, as Owen Norris and the Doric Quartet magnificently supported and complemented Langridge’s varied palette of colours.
Langridge has a long association with Birtwistle’s music: in 1986 he created the title role the opera The Mask of Orpheus and also starred in the 2008 premiere of Minotaur. ‘From Vanitas’ was specially commissioned by the Wigmore Hall; a miniature for voice and piano, Birtwistle’s sparse, delicately crafted score follows the long, drawn-out lines and accumulating images of the text by David Harsent, his long-term librettist. Langridge’s sensitivity to the sinuous, unfolding poetic lines was superlative; voice and piano intricately interweave, as a rocking figure played by the piano grows ever more urgent, reaching a tempestuous climax before sinking to a deathly silence: ‘the window a mirror perhaps, the room a wilderness.’
Britten’s Who are these children? demonstrated why Langridge is considered a master of English song. The riddling rhymes of William Soutar’s poems, with their Scots dialect and angular rhythms, are not inherently ‘musical’ but Langridge brought melody and coherence to these lines. He doesn’t project the text at the expense of the musical line — there are no ugly exaggerations or distracting mannerisms; rather, a relaxed unfolding in which musical and dramatic narratives are truly one.
The deeply appreciative audience at the Wigmore Hall were not likely to let Langridge go without some ‘extras’. The first encore was a brief mock-tragedy, delivered with mischievous insouciance; this was followed by a boisterous rendering of a ditty from G&S’s ‘Utopia Limited’, oozing ease and charm and demonstrating why Langridge is such a natural on the operatic stage. Both performers clearly enjoyed themselves. This concert may have celebrated the passing years, but Langridge possesses the energy and spirit of a young man, and such musicianship and generosity was justly cherished by the warm, admiring audience.
Schubert — Die schöne Müllerin (selection)
Vaughan Williams — On Wenlock Edge
Birtwistle — From Vanitas (world premiere)
Britten — Who are these Children?
Schubert — Winterreise (selection)
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 8 November 2009]
With the New York City Opera’s production of Hugo Weisgall’s “Esther,” which opened on Saturday night at the David H. Koch Theater, this essential company, teetering on the brink of extinction not long ago, announced it was back. Not just up and running, but exuding purpose and confidence.
Paul Reitter [Times Literary Supplement, 4 November 2009]
Can a bad economy make for great poetry? Hugo von Hofmannsthal thought so. Indeed, he saw his own gift for lyrical writing and reflection as being, in a way, a consequence of the stock market crash of 1873. This self-understanding starts with the fact that Hofmannsthal was conceived at the very moment of the bust. His father, a banker, got word of it soon after arriving in Naples for his honeymoon.
Rodolpho (looking at her): Not for food.
and the climactic
Beatrice: I know what you want, Eddie — and you can’t ever have her.
— and both of these bits of dialogue have been lightly, delicately, musicked so that an audience will get the words clearly. (How would it go over in Italian, I wonder? A suggested Palermo production of the opera fell victim to that famously sticky Italian red tape. One would like to know how Italians take this very Italian but non-Mafia New World tale.)
At the Vertical Player Repertory production of the opera, in its tiny home on Court Street in Cobble Hill, set and theater were so small you felt scrunched into a claustrophobic kitchen to the point of explosion, just as the characters are on stage. Voices rather louder than you ever hear in your kitchen also suit this story — and these were very good voices. It made for thrilling theater, but left me puzzled how the piece plays on the stages of immense theaters like the Chicago Lyric and the Met. The next performances hereabouts will be a VPR staging in situ, on the docks in Red Hook in June, following the footsteps of their highly admired presentation of Puccini’s barge-side opera, Il Tabarro, in that venue. That performance will have a small orchestra — these indoor performances made do with two pianos in a carefully redacted arrangement.
A View from the Bridge gives the lie to the old law of drama that tragedy requires a ruling figure destroyed by his tragic flaw. Eddie Carbone is a longshoreman in Brooklyn in the era of On the Waterfront, and his word is law only to his womenfolk — but his code of honor is clearly stated, his tragic conflict simply presented, and his downfall feels as fated and piteous as any Greek hero’s. He lives with his long-suffering wife and her orphaned niece — and, having no child of his own, has delighted in the niece — but she’s not a little girl any more, and his feelings are more than protective. Now two poor cousins, illegal aliens, arrive from Sicily — the local code demands they be offered hospitality and secrecy — betrayal to Immigration will incur ostracism or worse in this close-knit community. And Catherine, the niece, falls for Rodolpho, the younger, prettier “submarine.” Eddie suggests Rodolpho is gay, “not right,” or selfishly seeking a green card marriage — but everyone sees, and fears to mention, the jealousy that’s really eating him. Will he break his own code of honor? Can he have any self-respect, any life, if he does?
All the play lacked was a chorus, awkward in modern naturalistic theater. Their place taken by Alfieri, a lawyer on the fringes of the action, sort of a Tiresias figure, warning Eddie, predicting disaster. (Would Tiresias the seer be a lawyer today — or would he be Bernie Madoff?) In an opera, of course, you can have a chorus — streets can talk, even sing — which leaves Alfieri very little to do. Keeping the community on stage, observing, commenting, participating, seems very Greek — Sicily, remember, was Magna Graecia, the wealthy western colonized New World in the time of the classical tragedians — and the skill with which they slide on or scuttle off into the cramped edges of the scaffolded VPR set is not the least extraordinary thing about Michael Unger’s vivid direction.
With their audience so close to the action and the instruments cut down to barebones pianos (Bolcom is the sort of composer who would much rather highlight a significant word or gesture than whelm the emotions in a wave of sound), you need a cast who can make big sounds while moving and acting with total commitment, and VPR had them. They put over a riveting account of the play, even to their eyes raging, lusting, and popping from the head, while singing with great big voices. The vocal style is more Verismo than Mozart, which suits the story down to the ground.
At VPR all the voices were big and in tune and hardly seemed “operatic,” so natural and intense was the acting. William Browning, in the unsympathetic but tragic role of Eddie, seemed especially in command of every vocal nuance and every gesture. He has a longshoreman’s barrel chest and a big, agreeable baritone, but he is also a presence: his slow burn was almost as loud as his vocalism. As Beatrice, Judith Barnes’s sizable soprano showed an edge when heated — sometimes approaching shrillness — but a calm, measured voice would have been a mistake for this unassuming woman driven to speak unspeakable truths. Valentina Fleer and Glenn Seven Allen made personable, charmingly vocal young lovers, and Allen’s “Lights of New York” aria, the prettiest and most memorable tune in the show, was a highlight — “I wanted to write him a Neapolitan canzone; I figured that’s the style Rodolpho would know,” says Bolcom — but both performers showed themselves actors of considerable weight as well. Branch Fields, as Marco, stopped the show with his bitter denunciation of hunger and the laws of immigration. As Bolcom retailed it, in an after-the-show talk-back, he felt Marco, all but inarticulate in the play, needed a vocal moment to himself — and on his shyly saying so, Miller, unquestioning, wrote the text for it in three days. Samuel Smith, as Alfieri, the lawyer commentator, showed a strong basso cantante but he should take care — his voice was the only one that displayed an unlovely beat when pushed. Longshoremen were all well cast, and the chorus sang effectively and got on and off stage in amazing style. I wish they’d give lessons on movement to the chorus at the Met.
I had not heard this score before, and while I am now curious to hear it with full orchestra am not sure it is music with the charm to pull me back again and again, as the great operatic works do. The play has largely been set in a conversational arioso style, that pauses tidily for set pieces like Rodolpho’s hymn to owning a motorcycle or a Christmas carol quartet for the longshoremen, but the music that underlies the dialogue tends to astringency rather than melody; individual phrases of music do not hold you — the whiplash of the play and its fascinating characters do. If three characters have something — even different things — on their minds, I’m old-fashioned enough to think a trio would be a nice way to get this across and pass the time. Bolcom seems to feel this would be intrusive; he’d rather home in on the dramatic action, and no one can doubt his success in doing so. I recall more tunes from the other Arthur Miller opera I’ve encountered, Robert Ward’s excellent The Crucible — but that one has never played the Met.
John Yohalemimage=http://www.operatoday.com/View_VPR_03.gif image_description=William Browning as Eddie Carbone [Photo by Ben Ehrenreich] product=yes product_title=William Bolcom: A View from the Bridge product_by=Beatrice Carbone: Judith Barnes; Catherine: Valentina Fleer; Eddie Carbone: William Browning; Alfieri: Samuel Smith; Rodolpho: Glenn Seven Allen; Marco: Branch Fields. Vertical Player Repertory, at 219 Court Street, Brooklyn. Performance of November 1. product_id=Click here for photo gallery of this production.
The 2009 Bienal, running from October 23 to November 1, includes an even dozen of concerts presenting works by composers throughout Brazil. It is supported by Ministry of Culture and administered by Funarte (the National Foundation for the Arts), with participating organizations including the department of culture of the State of Rio de Janiero, the Foundation for the Arts of Rio de Janeiro, the Universidade Federal Fluminense of Niteroi, the School of Music of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and the Brazilian Academy of Music. Over 400 pieces by 256 composers were submitted for consideration by the jury, and about a quarter of this rich harvest is included in the dozen concerts of the festival (one could easily imagine seven weeks of continuous nightly concerts!)
The Festivals generally open with a night of works for orchestra, and 2009 was no different in this regard. However, the five works heard were all created by recipients of a program of grants supporting creative work awarded in 2008 by Funarte. Performing was the National Symphonic Orchestra, directed by Lutero Rodrigues, an ensemble which is in residence at the Universidade Federal Fluminense across the bay from the city of Rio. The first work up was Pontos de Bifurcação by Felipe Kirst Adami, the second movement of a Sinfonia sistemica (2009). Evidently this is the slow movement of the work. It opened strikingly with material for the low strings alone — violas, celli, basses, developing motives of descending semitones, which continued at some length. Finally the voice of the trombone was heard, and the violins and other winds entered, leading to a discordant tutti (the outcome of all those semitones). This opened into a more active texture featuring the woodwinds, and finally the movement concluded over murky trills in the lower winds. The proliferation of ideas in the work more than anything else suggested an expansive Brazilian voice.
Next were two movements (II and III) from a five-movement work, Intervenções (2009), by Jose Orlando Alves, a mineiro, via Rio de Janeiro, who is now professor of composition at the University of Paraiba in João Pessoa. Alves, in contrast to the practice of Adami, is a composer who builds up an extensive structure based on an economy of materials. Here his basic building block was the tritone, heard in endless permutations. II began adagio, with the winds featured and engaging solo material for the harp, which reappeared several times, ritornello-fashion. Alves drew on bird-song as well as his tritones, and III moved to playful and good-humored pizzicati from the strings. The writing for the orchestra was transparent and masterful, one might say classical, in its clarity.
Closing the first half was O massapê vivo (2009), by Jorge Antunes, the most evidently "Brazilian" of the works for the evening. The title, which might be rendered as "The Living Clay", refers to the folk ceramic figures produced by the artist Mestre Vitalino, from the city of Caruaru in the state of Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil, the region which is the heart of the nation's folk traditions. The work began with a noisy roll on the big bass drum, with grumblings from the low brass, and developed into a potpourri (or in Brazilian terms, a feijoada), with folk tunes floating in a rich broth, so that the listener was taking in various unrelated blocks of sound taking place at the same time, an effect familiar in American music in the works of Charles Ives, who also worked with folk materials. Finally the orchestral mass thinned out, and the first chair string players began to sing the tunes along with the swinging percussion. The oboes left the stage and at the conclusion we heard the festive music moving farther and farther away. A wonderful evocation of a timeless Brazil, done in a thoroughly contemporary fashion.
Beginning the second part of the evening was Colapsos (Collapses) by Marco Siqueira, for string quartet and orchestra (featuring the Quarteto Radames Gnattali). Its title refers to the collapse of the wave form in physics, and the language of the work was highly advanced and abstract, with very little for the listener to get hold of. One might describe the sound as atmospheric, with substantial use of pitched percussion, and a fundamental substrate of noise, including mumbling/whispering by the orchestra while the quartet plays. Atmospheric, but from some planet with chlorine and methane to breathe. This is a work which is rebarbative in the extreme.
The concert concluded with a work in a far more traditional language by Eli-Eri Moura, also from the University of Paraiba, Uiramiri — Four Orchestral Scenes, which might be thought of as an updating of the pictorial symphonic poem in the Villa-Lobos vein. The movements were Forest, Fire, Spirits, and Phoenix. Forest was an effective rendering of the various sounds of the tropical forest (at least in the musical imagination), and interestingly enough used a motive in thirds identical to one heard in the work by Alves earlier in the evening. Fire presented the quickness and unpredictability of the flames, with runs from the strings and bites from the brass. The Spirits were decidedly unquiet with altissimo strings and disturbing figures from the winds. The closing Phoenix implies the possibility of rebirth and redemption, with a noble theme from the horns (certainly the only such all evening), but closes with darker material. A strong and attractive work.
The second evening of the 2009 Bienal focused primarily on electroacoustic music, both in its pure form (so-called "tape" music) and mixed with live performers. First up, for technical reasons, was a work with video by Alexandre Sanches, Density. Lamentably, technical problems meant that the piece (being played from a DVD) was begun about five times before starting in earnest with full-screen video. The work began with video and audio of soccer fans at a stadium being transformed little by little, and then moved to a piece built around the whooshes of passing vehicles (something done more memorably and with more panache by Paul Lansky some years ago). Not very original or very strong, the piece at least had the merit of being relatively brief. Next came a work, Contos Inacabados [Unfinished Stories] by a local young composer, Paulo Dantas, for a small chamber ensemble (clarinet, bassoon, piano, percussion) with its sounds miked and modified electronically. An extended adagissimo, with very little happening, but it was warmly welcomed by the audience. Sad to say, the rest of the first half was on an equally flat level. Que som é esse? [What is this sound?] by Vinicius Giusti began while the audience was still burbling, with an isolated whack, and its whacks and bangs did not impat much of interest. Ecolocação [Echolocation] by Daniel Puig had a promising premise, with soprano Gabriela Geluda alone on stage responding to the output of the various speakers distributed around her, and Geluda had a compelling presence, but the musical content was thin indeed. Worst of all was Outra hipotese para o fim de Jacques, o fatalista [Another hypothesis for the end of Jacques, the fatalist] for processed cello [Hugo Pilger], which was grossly longer than its content of ideas or structure should have permitted (two elaborate page-turns left me wondering how much more was left before the blessed arrival of intermission).
The second half moved into the realm of actual real art, with two very strong pure electroacoustic works — Five places to Remember, by Fernando Iazzetta, and A imagem e o reino [The image and the realm] by Washington Denuzzo. The Iazzetta demonstrated skill in invention of sounds and mutation of sounds, and a mastery in putting these into a compelling sound narrative. Denuzzo's vocabulary recalled underwater sounds above all, combined into an attractive piece. Original in its scoring was Cantiga by Aurélio Edler Copes [based on the famous collection of Cantigas de Santa Maria] — two accordeons and electronic sounds [accordeon=Portugal?] but the result was bland and uninteresting. Arthur Kampela's Happy days for solo flute and electronic sounds [the title refers to the Beckett play] was a virtuoso tour de force for carioca flutist Andrea Ernest, who ended the piece whimpering into the mouthpiece of the instrument. Marcelo Ohara's Prato único was an exploration of the sound world of a single cymbal (hence the name0, and the evening concluded with another mixed work, Open Field by Daniel Barreiro, with violin soloist Mariana Salles. An evening with few gems strewn among a wealth of dross, and which ended far later than it should have — for the dedicated only.
Sunday evening's program returned to more traditional media, and began on a high note with two sets of songs. The strongest work of the evening was the one which began the night, a set of three songs on poems by Fernando Pessoa each beginning with the imperative "Dorme!" [Sleep!] which were sung impeccably by soprano Maira Lautert — the words set beautifully by composer Flavio Santos Pereira, the syllables delivered with crystalline clarity by Lautert. The musical setting recalled the almost atonal expressionism of early 20th-century Vienna, and the piano accompaniment was rendered flawlessly by pianist Priscila Bonfim. A moment to treasure.
This was followed by four Lorca settings by Antonio Ribeiro, soulfully sung by contralto Carolina Faria, who can boast a beautifully produced and dark, dark, dark tone. The musical responses to the texts were effective and well-made — these songs, and those by Santos Pereira deserve to enter the repertoire immediately.
Third was a four-movement concerto for acoustic guitar and six percussionists by Roberto Victorio — Tetragrammaton XI. The guitar was considerably amplified, but even so there were issues of balance in combining the soloist with the band of percussion in the opening movement. Things were clearer in the two interior movements, the second of these a solo for the guitar. The performance by Paulo Pedrassoli, with the ensemble conducted by the composer, was simply brilliant. An very effective piece in a modern and attractive idiom.
After the sublime, we had a work by Clayton Mamedes about which I could exhaust my stock of pejorative epithets without yet doing it justice. This was the Paisagem bucólica ou jogo das longas variações [Bucolic landscape, or set of long variations]. The composer seems to have instructed the musicians to intentionally play out of tune, an additional poke in the eye with a sharp stick to the long-suffering listener, for the melodic/rhythmic content for this small ensemble work (flute, violin, oboe, viola, cello, percussion) was already banal without it. Dull, dull, dull — fifteen minutes wasted which will never again return.
The situation improved with the first two works on the second half — Yu, by Mário Ferraro, for flute, bassoon, horn, harp, contrabass and piano, deftly combining these instruments with wit, was warmly received, and two disparate movements from a Suite by Heitor Oliveira proved the most musically conservative of any of the works so far — first a set of little songs for soprano, flute, piano and percussion (titled Aperitifs) in a contrapuntal idiom, ably delivered by soprano Veruschka Mainhard, and then some completely tonal music for a sort of stage band (flute, clarinet, trumpet, sax, trombone, two guitars, piano, percussion) in a nervously Brazilian style — the sort of thing which would have been viewed as dangerously reactionary not so long ago. Well-done — I would be interested to hear more from Oliveira.
The evening closed with work equal in its dreadfulness to the Mamedes — the Paranambucae by Sérgio Kafejian, with some good ideas, perhaps [movements titled Space, Frequency, Duration] by with a musical content verging on the absurd — offensive and deafening screeching from the clarinet, childish banging on the piano. Simply awful, and far too long. A work I would pay to avoid hearing.
Monday night at the Bienal brought a second program of orchestral works (with one exception), bookended by pieces from doyens of the Brazilian compositional scene — Ernst Mahle and Ricardo Tacuchian. Performing was the Symphonic Orchestra of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) under the sure direction of conductor Ernani Aguiar (also a composer of note himself). The Abertura Festiva by Mahle was the platonic ideal of such a work, opening with a fanfare in slow triplets (such as immortalized in the music for Star Wars by John Williams), and quickly moving to a theme recalling, to these ears at any rate, a sort of frenetic 1950s modernity, though with a Brazilian tinge (the lombardic snap so often associated with popular music here). The overture then moved to a more reflective and lyrical theme, and the final chord was arrived at through a vigorous accelerando. Very conservative in style, but an effective work, and with a match between its material and extent (clocking in at around six minutes.)
Second was an extended work in one movement by Valéria Bonafé, Lagoa [Lake], depicting, I imagine (since program notes were lacking), a lake in the rainforest untouched by humans. The work began with a quiet cymbal roll and long tones from the solo first chairs of the string, with percussion (the various noises of the forest). After five minutes or so we hear something indigenous from the flute (unclear whether this is birdsong or native flute), and eventually there is a crescendo to fortissimo. One might have expected contrasting material, allegro, but to her credit Bonafé maintained the same affect throughout. A very accomplished work from a composer seemingly at the beginning of a promising career.
The first half concluded with a three-movement Orchestral Suite by Rafael Bezerra, fairly conservative in its idiom (though not as conservative as the Mahle), and displaying a skilled deployment of the resources of the full orchestra, with a particular affection for the boom/crash of the bass drum and cymbal. In the second movement the climax of the discourse was a moment for brass choir followed by the orchestal tutti. The third movement was big, bold, almost romantic in scope if not in sound, and the young composer received a loud ovation (he is presently a masters´ student in composition in Rio, and a professional singer to boot — not a usual combination). I expect we will hear more from both Bonafé and Bezerra.
The first work after intermission was quite a contrast — a work for solo viola, with the instrumentalist alone on the darkened stage. This was Obsessione by Arthur Rinaldi, an extended piece with a compelling shape (the note spoke of the "obsessive return" of material), concluding with a passage in altissimo, piano, which held the audience in rapt attention. A strong work given a very strong performance by violist Silvio Santoro.
The orchestra returned for three more works, first the Movimento Concertante [Concertante Movement] by Pedro Augusto Dias, with clarinetist Cristiano Alves as soloist. This was an amazingly virtuoso one-movement concerto, with an original sound, and yet one comprehensible at the first listening. Alves played with fluency and panache, undaunted by the technical demands of a work which exploits the entire range of the instrument (to the very top!), and which manages the prodigy of very full writing for the orchestra, which yet did not drown out the soloist. An exceptional moment. Bravo!
Next came Casa...magia...palhaço enfeitiçado by Joélio Luiz Santos [House...magic...enchanted clown] which I imagined as a pictorial sort of work that Disney might have included in Fantasia. This apparently made reference to a popular song in its rhythms (not one that I know, alas), and the motives sounded very bluesy (given to the brass), with a spooky moment late in the work for altissimo strings and harp. Very effectively written for the orchestra.
Closing the evening was another particularly Brazilian work, reflecting the magic of the rain forest, Filho da Floresta, by Ricardo Tacuchian, a senior figure in composition in Rio (retired from UniRio), based on a fine poem by Thiago de Mello, which was sensitively set and marvelously sung by soprano Veruschka Mainhard, whose instrument is Wagnerian in scope, lovely in tone, and intelligently used by its owner, who must certainly be entering her prime as a vocalist. She effortlessly matched the outpourings of the full orchestra in the work, which began with an adagio depicting the stillness of the forest, moved to an allegro with crashing thunderbolts, and returned to a slower movement in which the poet declaims "I am child of this generous realm...where men....though born consumed by the carnivorous flower of misery, are born wise, converse with the clouds...
The B material returns briefly, and finally the opening text, to close. A beautiful and moving piece, a fine end to an evening which moved from strength to strength.
Tuesday at the Bienal offered an evening devoted to percussion, in combination with other instruments, coordinated by young Carioca percussionist Ana Letícia Barros, and presenting twelve works — a long evening, due to the multiple resettings of the stage. First up was a intriguing work for solo violin and percussion (performed by Mariana Salles and Leo Souza respectively) — Enigma, by Pablo Aldunate, a piece in one uninterrupted movement but with four connected sections — a slow prelude with a regular harmonic rhythm and modal harmonies, a faster sections recalling folk music or jazz, with repetitive patterns in the marimba, a very spare section with long tones from the violin combined with ringing tones from the vibraphone (interspersed with material for the marimba), and finally a faster conclusion. No clues as to the nature of the enigma, or what the answer might be, but the search for the solution was in-drawing.
The following work, Viagem ao oco das coisas [Journey to the hole at the center of things] by Valério Fiel da Costa, was in complete contrast. This was scored for prepared piano, percussion, guitar (acoustic, but plugged in), and tuba. The result was a background of tinkling sounds from the rhythm section, joined by the outsize musing of the tuba. An interesting concept, and pattern, but with no development, so it wwas not surprising that it simply stopped abruptly.
Next was the Lai de bisclavret by Tania Lanfer Marquez, the program of which evidently had something to do with a French medieval lycanthrope (not that you could tell). The tenor sax and percussion seemed to belong to different worlds, especially given the microtones of the saxophone. Unless these are used for comprehensible and expressive purposes, the result for the listener is simply something that sounds out-of-tune, as they did here. The materials were very sparse, with little to hold the interest, and no perceptible shape or narrative.
Calíope by Celso Mojola for ensemble of flute/piccolo (Sofia Ceccato), trumpet (Nailson Simões), trombone (Jacques Ghestem), piano (Marcelo Thys) and percussion (Pedro Sá) was quite entrancing, with some blues tonalities (minor/major thirds), changing meters (including a passage in a rolling triple meter), some Messiaen-like harmonies, jazz-ish references very subtly interwoven, and the whole was exquisitely played by the ensemble. A work to bear repeated listenings.
The following Ciaccona by Edson Zampronha seemed to have nothing to do with the 17th-century dance, but belonged to the world of Eastern ritual — very quiet, slow, spare — recalling Japanese music, or perhaps Satie in its simplicity and clarity. This was followed by Falsas illusiones by Daniel Serale (played by the composer), the most explicitly intertextual work so far, which combined a set of toms, bass drum, and cymbal, with a tinnily reproduced recording of a work by Stravinsky. Each time the recorded work would seem to approach a resolution it was interrupted by a bash on the bass drum, and and then would restart. Little by little the interruptions and the reaction to them became more frequent and more complex. An interesting conceit, and a useful structure for a piece.
Luiz Carlos Cseko can always be counted on for something dramatic (in past years often accompanied by stage smoke). This year it was a work (Vermelho escuro [Dark Red]) for bass clarinet (and E-flat clarinet) and percussion, played in the light of three dim candles, with the houselights down, with multiphonic shrieks from the bass clarinet and spooky runs from the marimba. An entirely Halloweenish effect, and carried off with flair by reedist Paulo Passos and percussionist Joaquim Abreu.
The second half brought five more works, all quite rewarding. The first was Mitos [Myths] by young Carioca composer Nikolai Brucher (presently residing in Germany), a two-movement work depicting two figures from Brazilian folklore — the Iara and the Saci-Perere, the latter a sort of mischievous sprite or bogeyman well-known to Brazilian children, and particularly well-drawn here by Brucher in frantic and virtuoso writing for sax and marimba. Exceto, by Guilherme Bertissolo, for piano and two percussionists (Marina Spoladore, Karla Bach (non-tuned percussion) and Paraguassu Abrahão (vibraphone), was based around the harmonic series of the pitches C and F-sharp, with very effective writing for the piano (first-rate playing by the young Spoladore, as always for this artist), and a compelling shape leading to a beautiful conclusion.
Neder Nassaro, a member of the collective Preludio 21, based in Rio, has created some intriguing electroacoustic works, and has a flair for the dramatic gesture. His skills were in evidence in Circuito, for clarinet and percussion, with the clarinetist making extensive use of slap-tonguing and key-noise, and the percussionist drawing the maximum expression from a small and relatively soft-voice instrumentarium — blocks, triangle, reco-reco, snare, and cymbal. The performers shaped very effective gestures into a convincingly dramatic shape.
The penultimate work for the evening was Do éter ao carbono [From the ether to carbon] by Natan Ourives for an unusual combination of piano, clarinet, two cellists and two percussionists, drawing together disparate influences [if I don't misread it, the composer's note refers to all the possibilities facing the contemporary composer, in the ether, as it were], into a compelling structure, including sounds from the Quartet for the end of time (not inexpected for a work with clarinet, cello and piano). This piece had drama and swing.
The final work was Gestuelle (for violin, cello, clarinet, trumpet, piano, and percussion — Vinicius Amaral, Diana Lacerda, Marcio Costa, Nailson Simões, Marina Spoladore, and Eduardo Tullio) by Rodrigo Lima, and indeed it was so full of gesture and activity that I barely had a moment to scratch down a single note. The piece was virtuoso, with rhythmic verve and expression, despite a highly fragmented language, and the perfomance, under the baton of Roberto Victorio, was simply brilliant, bringing the evening to a spectacular ending. Bravo!
Wednesday at the Bienal focused on some more traditional chamber music genres, with two string trios, two string quartets, a work for violin and piano, and a set of songs with piano. First up was a set of seven miniatures or "character pieces" for violin and piano (Mariana Salles, Maria Teresa Madeira), the set of 7 peças Kurtags [Kurtag pieces] by Cristiano Melli, in the style of the contemporary Hungarian master. These (but for the last couple) were works with no great romantic affects or technical demands, but requiring a refined musicality from the interpreters. Salles has been prominent in the festival (though for an overheard listener she is an artist who doesn't quite belong to the "new music" milieu), and she has a highly developed techique, with laser-sharp intonation, and a tightly controlled tone. Madeira, a carioca, who is familiar from earlier Bienals, is a lively presence at the piano, with every phrase duly inflected. The duo made the most of these brief works.
The following work for string trio, Traces foullis gris pâle presque blanc sur blanc, by Tatiana Catanzaro, with a title which I would imagine belongs more properly to a work of visual art, began with quiet harmonics, gradually adding more activity and sound. This was a very original voice, one that grows on you. I would be interested to hear other works of hers. The next work, Amadeus, by Liduino Pitombeira, one of the rare Brazilians who has achieved some renown outside the country, was a compelling integration of materials from an unfinished string trio (K. Anhang 66) by Mozart with new and much more contemporary material by Pitombeira. The work, in three movements, can boast a slow movement which will haunt the ear of the listener with beautiful minor-key harmonies ending in block-chord harmonics which hang in the air, and a closing movement which successfully achieves a tragic tone, something rare. A work which deserves to enter the international concert repertoire immediately, and one of the highlights of the Bienal, convincingly played by the rio of Adonhiran Reis, Gabriel Marin, and Martina Stroher.
Next was a fine set of children´s songs by Eduardo Guimarães Alvares setting translations of poems by Brecht (translations by Paulo Cesar de Souza), bright, sparkling, spiky works exquisitely rendered by soprano Doriana Mendes (if Veruschka Mainhard is the master of operatic tone, Mendes is the master of the parlato) and pianist Maria Teresa Madeira, who had plenty to do and did it very well.
The first half closed with Teias, a work for ensemble of clarinet, trombone, double bass and piano (Marcos dos Passos, João Luis Areias, Alexandre Brasil, Marisa Rezende), which took on the task of integrating the disparate discourses of these four instruments, without ever quite fitting them into a single groove (the listeners here were notably disturbed by one of that tribe of deranged older women who insist on bringing large plastic shopping bags to concert and rustling them noisily throughout. The hall has a sign banning children under 5 for reasons of noise, but nothing to deal with this plague).
Opening the second half, almost by stealth (beginning simply a few seconds after the final signal for listeners to take their seats) was a setting of Psalm 23 by Danilo Machado. It pains me to have to report that the singing by the male quartet presenting the work was so poorly in tune that it was impossible to actually hear which intervals Machado had intended. The less said the better, alas.
Following was a simply brilliant work for string quartet, the Quarteto Circular (Circular Quartet) by Tim Rescala, so called due to the circularity of its themes. This was a work in one extended and always mutating movement, full of tension, with only a moment or two of lyricism for the viola and then the cello, leading to an extended and very difficult section in pizzicato for all four instruments, with a brief conclusion, arco. A marvelous piece which grabs your attention and never lets it go for a moment. The performance by the Quarteto Radamés Gnattali (Carla Rincon, Vinícius Amaral, violins, Fernando Thebaldi, viola, Paulo Santoro, cello) was electric.
The string quartet Texturas by Ronaldo Miranda, his first for the medium, was in four movements. The dialectic in Miranda's works is frequently between an innate romanticisim and lyricism and a modernism of means, and here between moments of dissonance and diatonicism. To my ears this work was quite successful in mixing its lyricism (verging on sadness) and more athletic moments (particularly the second movement, with a sound recalling the modernism of the fifties, and the fourth, with more characteristically Brazilian motives and a well-calculated slow boil to the final climax). Once more, a fine rendering by the Gnattali Quartet.
Closing the evening was a set of elegies by Mauricio Dottori for soprano (Doriana Mendes) and instrumental ensemble (Maria Carolina Cavalcanti, alto flute, Paulo Passos, clarinet, Marcio Sanches, viola, and Rodrigo Favaro, double bass) which achieved notably less success than the quartets preceeeding. The idiom was atmospheric and French, and not all the details told, due to problems with balance and issues with intonation.
The scenic and nostalgic trolley from the neighborhood of Santa Teresa was running slow, but I still managed to arrive before Thursday evening's program at Sala Cecilia Meireles, which started with Britannic punctuality spot on eight o'clock. The first work was Reflected Sight by Alfredo de Barros, for flute and piano, which had three movements listed, but which unfolded in one unbroken span. The flutist (Andrea Ernest) made notable use of both micro-tones (quarter-tones) and whistle tones (sounds almost inaudible to the audience, so soft that the human voice could not even produce them, more the ghost of a sound than anything else). Pianist Tatiana Dumas made use of percussion and speech in contributing to an eerie and extremely effective work.
Next came a Toada (the name has no exact translation into English, but can indicate an archaic sort of folk tune or song from the backcountry) by Calimério Soares, for violoncello and piano (Mateus Ceccato, Katia Baloussier). This was a very tonal work in an elegiac tone, featuring a cadenza for the cellist, and a characteristic arpeggiated flourish to close.
Following were three works featuring either members of, or the entire Quinteto Villa-Lobos (Antonio Carlos Carrasqueira, flute, Luiz Carlos Justi, oboe, Paulo Sérgio Santos, clarinet, Aloysio Fagerlande, bassoon, and Philip Doyle, horn). As soon as the trio of Carrasqueira, Santos, and Fagerlande began to play Yuri Prado's Five Carnavalesque Pieces, I realized that these three works would have an unfair advantage — the performers are simply at the very top of what they do. Since I am a flutist, I am particularly wowed by Carrasqueira, who manages to give the somehow contradictory impression that 1. his whole body is involved in the music-making and expression, and 2. he has such a mastery of the flute that only a fraction of his attention is really necessary to produce a tone of such beauty and expression that anyone else would have to give 110 percent. But indeed the other members of the quartet are at this exalted level as well.
Yuri Prado's pieces had no particularly carnivalesque references, at least not that were obvious to these ears, but were extremely effective for the combination. Harry Crowl's "Sapo não pula por boniteza, mas sim por precisão" [The frog does not jump for beauty, but rather because he must] (a reference to the author Guimarães Rosa) was one long (and successful) movement of intricate counterpoint in which all three high instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet) were equal in function (with no real bass line), and employed multiphonics for the oboe and clarinet. Again, no particularly explicit folkloric references.
Thiago Sias offered a one-movement Quinteto de sopros (Wind Quintet) which employed techniques rarely heard elsewhere at this festival — a pedal bass underpinning a modal sound which sounded rather grave and Slavic to me, a work which by and large was slow and lyrical, though with moments of greater intensity. The narrative was perhaps a little difficult to follow at first listening, but the ending moments were beautiful and sad.
The first half closed with a sextet for saxophones (soprano, 2 altos, 2 tenors, baritone), Aije, by Marcos Nogueira, which was beset by some perfomances issues (the soprano seemed overbalanced, the baritone too loud, and there were moments when I had my doubts about the intonation. The composer managed to bring the six saxes to a paroxysm of discordant overtones, before resolving the tension (a moment that will remain in the ear), but all in all this work perhaps had more potential than it achieved.
The second half looked brief on the page, but for better or worse, such was not the case. Superlative soprano Doriana Mendes was featured in three sets of songs, the last with cello as well, but of the three only the first was recommendable — Leibniz, from the Four Song-Fragments by Paulo de Tarso Salles, with a witty interaction of text and music. The Três cantos para espaços vazios by Paulo Guicheney [Three songs for empty spaces] had far too much space and not enough interest, and even less rewarding were the Canções dos Olhos by Paulo C. Chagas (I shuddered when one song concluded and it became obvious that another would follow).
Patience was rewarded with the concluding 14 Miniatures for piano by Almeida Prado, given a brilliant and sensitive performance by Benjamin da Cunha Neto, who if I am not mistaken, is a specialist in the composer's work. These works are inspired by the grandchildren of the composer, and there was a certain childish clarity and joy in these relatively diatonic and beautifully-made works, which deserve to enter the broader piano repertoire.
The arrival of the weekend with Friday's program at the Bienal meant that the program of orchestral and choral works could count on a substantially larger audience than the events midweek. The first work for the evening was a six-movement suite for string orchestra by Alexandre Schubert, a resident of Rio, but a native of the state of Minas Gerais. The work depicted the characteristic mountains of the state (first movement, in two parts), and five cities — Tiradentes, São João Del Rei, Prados, Mariana, and Ouro Preto — all of these places which could boast baroque splendor in architecture and music in the 18th century after the discovery of gold in the region. Schubert is a gifted composer who frequently writes in an idiom that recalls the work of Hindemith — relatively tonal, and free of spiky and irritating dissonances. The various movements were propelled by accomplished counterpoint, and the conclusion of the piece was greeted by shouts of approbation from the audience.
Next was Arpoador by Diogo Ahmed. The title literally means "Harpooner", as in one who harpoons whales, but presumably it refers to the rocky point at the eastern end of Ipanema Beach (which separates it from Copacabana). The subtext of the work certainly was something tragic — a drowning? a premature death? since this was one of the most unremittingly sad works I have heard in some time, in a predominantly tonal idiom and low register. Very effective.
Concluding the first half was the Little Concerto for Violin and Strings by Edino Krieger, one of the leading figures in the oldest generation of Brazilian composers. The work began strikingly with several slow phrases for unaccompanied violin (apparently using material from an unfinished work of Krieger's dating to the 1940s), and then moving to propulsively rhythmic material from the orchestra. The slow movement which followed was unabashedly romantic in character with a BIG TUNE for the first violins, and a deft and affecting close with shimmering high strings while the soloist ends low in his range. The work closed with a very effective allegro, and throughout the work the solo material was idiomatic for the instrument while nevertheless original in its content (if I am not mistaken, the violin was Krieger's first instrument). Excellent and assured solo work from violinist Daniel Guedes.
The second half continued with two more works for string orchestra, the Sinfonieta no. 2 by Marcelo Rauta, and Sem amor, por amor [Without love, for love] by Rodrigo Garcia. The Sinfonieta began with such a profusion of ideas that it seemed like the composer had problems with editing the outpourings of his creativity — the affect, meter, etc. changed every few moments — this, for a movement that the composer told us in his notes was in sonata form. Eventually the movement gained a certain stability (with what may have been the second theme?) The second movement was slow, in the minor mode, but the combination of melodies and harmonies often seemed too simple and not quite "right" — too much "wrong note" music here. The concluding quick movement had a very bizarre moment where the movement came to a halt, and we heard seemingly unrelated harmonics, solo, from the first chairs. A work which might point to interesting future work, but for the moment showed a composer far from mastery.
Much, much more distressing was the work by Garcia, also in the minor mode (where is all this angst coming from?), unremittingly loud and high-tension, pulsating rhythm in the bass, and a piece that my notes tell me went "on and on and on and on and on and on...." One of the works which might have profitably been replaced by one of the several hundred pieces not accepted.
My spirits drop when I see choral works listed here in Brazil on a classical program, because for all its advantages musically, Brazil's choral tradition is many notches below its achievements in soccer, let's say, with frequent deficits in the area of tuning and blend. Cantiga, by Guilherme Barroso, was an effective setting of poetry by Manuel Bandeira, which took advantage of what choruses can actually do well — simple modal harmonies, simple chromaticism, homophony — with hypnotic repetitions of the phrase "nas ondas" (in the waves), and framed the music with imitations by the singers of the whoosh of the waves rolling onto the sands. Less effective was the unconvincing idiom of the Ave Maria (in Portuguese) by Marco Feitosa. Both were performed by the Brasil Ensemble of UFRJ under the direction of Maria José Chevitarese.
Concluding the evening was a surprisingly brief (seven minutes or so) neo-baroque Magnificat by João Guilherme Ripper, scored for soprano, alto, and bass solos, chorus, plus string orchestra with trumpets. To my ears, the opening was too heavy, too ponderous (any composer setting this text must expect to be compared to the Bach setting), and the one continous movement became fleeter of foot at "fecit potentiam", in a quick 7-beat measure. Of the solo moments, only that for the soprano was truly effective (at "sicut locutus") — the bass was having a bad night, though it must be noted that he was replacing another bass who was indisposed due to illness. Ripper sensibly brought back the "fecit potentiam" material for his Gloria Patri (where Bach reuses the opening of -his- work). The work was greeted with enthusiastic applause.
The final two days of the Bienal offer two concerts each day, starting at 4 and at 8 PM — that is, about ten hours of contemporary music between 4 PM Saturday and 10:30 PM Sunday. Saturday afternoon began with a brief song from Mauricio de Bonis, Carta a uma jovem vibora [Letter to a young viper], with a novel and effective scoring for soprano, with piano and guitar. Much of the work was accompanied by plucked chords from both the piano and guitar, giving the effect of a powerful and oversize guitar. The music was slow and hieratic (unfortunately I couldn't catch the words), and it was nicely sung by young Caroline de Comi. The guitarist was the estimable Maria Haro, with the composer at the piano.
One of the real finds of the festival was the work which followed, Metafonia, for cello and piano, by Aluisio Didier, an extended work, rhapsodic, lyrical, in multiple sections, but beautifully proportioned, and marvelously played by cellist Antonio del Claro and the always impeccable Maria Teresa Madeira. This is a work to live with. Next came a Concertino by Ricardo Szpilman for harmonica and piano (José Staneck, Kátia Baloussier), one of the rare works at the festival with explicit Brazilian references, in this case, to the folk music of the Northeast. It was melodious and very attractive, and received an excellent performance by the duo.
The title of Em Verde e Amarelo [In Green and Yellow] by Rodolfo Coelho de Souza, for piano four hands, refers to the Brazilian national colors (green for nature, yellow for gold), and also to the work In White and Black by Debussy. I might have been more receptive to a different performance by a different duo, but here the impression was "main theme à la bang-bang", with bits of Debussy thrown in — a big, blowsy shapeless mass with no form, and pounded to death by the merciless hands of the two women who did it to death. Ouch! They were a little more gentle, but not much, in the attractive pieces by Murillo Santos which followed, the Homenagem a Villa-Lobos, in two pieces, Canto da saudade (in memoriam) and Tempo de Marcha.
Closing the first half, alas, was a simply dreadful work by Silvio Ferraz, Passo de Manoel Dias, theoretically a rewriting of colonial-era music by Brazilian composer Manoel Dias (hence the name, Passo de Manoel Dias), scored for long notes a floating, harmonically drifting string quartet, enlivened (ha!) by plinks from the piano.
The second half, likewise, was a mixed bag. It opened with two works by leading figures from the Rio scene, Marisa Rezende and Caio Senna (the former retired from teaching at UFRJ, the latter on the faculty at UNIRIO). Preludiando, by Rezende, was commissioned by the internationally renowned cellist Antonio Meneses, to serve as prelude for performances of the Bach Suite no. 5. There was no hint of a Bach flavor here, but the work successfully inhabited the tradition of the improvised instrumental prelude of the Baroque, in which the player warms up to the main work with a succession of scales and arpeggios, here played by Antonio del Claro once again. Senna's work, Das varias maneiras de se estar só [On the various ways of being alone], for clarinet quartet, began with the four players (Thiago Tavares, Walter Jr., Marcelo Ferreira, Ricardo Ferreira) arrayed in different places on the stage, who gradually gravitate to their stands for a lyrical and pensive piece, with memorable moments including one for solo clarinet solo over a held chord from the rest of the ensemble. Very fine.
Referências (also for clarinet quartet), by André Martins, began slowly (beginning slowly seems to be the "new black" at this festival, at which the preferred tempo marking seems to be adagio, or even slower), and picked up momentum with popping fifths, showing Martins to be a capable master of rhythm, and saved the best for last, with a beautiful ending (something not always at a premium).
The next two works should certainly not have been included in the Bienal — the first, by Salomão Habib, a forgettable piece of popular-style music scored for guitar quartet (Ritual Sinfonico), and the second, Toada, by Zoltan Paulinyi, written for and played by the composer on the viola pomposa (a five-string viola), a hermetic work with bizarre intonation and odd harmonic thinking (if one can be that generous), something that only the composer could play, certainly. Ugh! Were it a movie, I would have left the cinema.
Luckily, this was followed by one of the highlights of the festival, the Two Pieces for Clarinet Solo by Rio composer Guilherme Bauer, music difficult to play but not to listen to, music with moments of stunning virtuosity, and given a simply brilliant performance by clarinetist Cristiano Alves. Bravo! This is a piece that will remain in the memory. International clarinetists, here is a work to test your mettle and wow your audiences.
The concluding work was a set of two enticing songs in Spanish, Narciso y Adonis convertidos en flores, by André Vidal, scored for soprano (Veruschka Mainhard) and ensemble of flute (Laura Ronai), clarinet (Cristiano Alves, once again), viola (Fernando Thebaldi), and cello (Paulo Santoro), with the first song focusing on Adonis, the second on Narcissus, the first slow, the second quicker, with intricate and attractive figuration for the instrumental ensemble, the music very French in character (as one might expect with the flute taking pride of place), beautifully played, and beautifully sung by Mainhard. The only deficit was that the Spanish text did not come across clearly (something easily remedied with a printed text).
Saturday evening at the Bienal began with another work of explicit homage to the Brazilian who is still the only Brazilian composer known to everyone, a half-century after his death. This was Villalobiando, for quartet of violin, guitar, viola and cello (Ricardo Amado, Maria Haro, Gabriel Marin, Ricardo Santoro), with the guitar amplified (a bit too much for my taste — I never think it a bad thing for violins to play at a lower dynamic, rather than forcing other instruments to match them). The work started out tonally in a bouncy duple meter, and progressed episodically, mainly in a bright and happy mood, until entering a discordant, and consciously ugly patch, which led, accelerando, to a final cadence which was inconclusive. Nicely played by Maria Haro and accomplices.
Deflectere I by Alexandre Lunsqui was an excellent demonstration of what a gifted composer can make of restricted materials, with its undeviating focus around one tone or tonal center, with single-minded, perhaps obsessive returns, beginning with microtonal wobbles, expanding, and finally returning to the original material. The performance by violinist Ricardo and clarinetist Thiago Tavares was witty and right on the mark. Maria Haro then returned for a set of new serial etudes for solo guitar by Carlos Almada, attractive works, particularly the final study with its reiterated major chord.
The quartet of clarinets which had given such a good account of itself in the afternoon program (Thiago Tavares, Walter Jr., Marcelo Ferreira, Ricardo Ferreira) presented a very successful piece in several movements by Marco Lozano — Quarteto, the first movement with rhythm and swing, with trills and repetitive patterns in a floating tonality, leading to a fine strident climax. The second movement was contrapuntal, with a hypnotic quality, and the obsessive trills returned to close out the work.
The remaining works on the first half continued strong. First a beautiful, calm, lyrical but atonal andante lovingly interpreted by cellist Marcus Ribeiro and pianist Luiz Henrique Senise — this was the Rituais e máscaras [Rituals and masks] by Rodrigo Marconi. Fnally an exhilarating piece in quintuple meter (Duo in 5, also for violoncello and piano, this time performed by Lars Hoefs and Luciano Magalhães) by Marcelo Carneiro. This was a tour-de-force, with a highly active and very idiomatic piano part, so much so that it sometimes drowned out the cello [critics might complain that there was too much repetition, but it made its effect]. It was brilliant rendered by Hoefs and Carneiro, with vivid rhythms and precise ensemble.
The first work on the second half, Biologie litttorale des mer temperées, by Bruno Ruviaro, for solo cello, was a disappointment, juvenile, a patchwork of fragments from which it was difficult to extract a coherent narrative or shape. This was followed by an interesting and different work for Les Paul electric guitar with effects, and prepared piano (Marcos Campello, Cláudia Castelo Branco) — Poslúdio by Jean-Pierre Caron, in three movements, slow-fast-slow, with steady rhythm only in the central portion, with the composer blending harmonics and volume effects from the guitar with the creatively-altered timbres of the piano. Quite attractive.
The following work fell prey to miscommunication (scores not delivered), but we had a performance via CD — not the best of options. This was Caminhos, passagens e saidas by Gustavo Penha.
The concluding quarter of the program began with two very attractive movements by Renato Vasconcelos — Dois fragmentos — for violin, cello and piano (Ricardo Amado, Ricardo Santoro, and Kátia Baloussier). I was happy to hear, finally, a work that began in rhythm, and a composer who knows how to create and combine memorable gestures, without oversaying what he is about. He will certainly have more to contribute.
Gnusianas by Marcos Lucas (flute, clarinet, and piano — Maria Carolina Cavalcanti, Vicente Alexim, and Pablo Panaro) is named for the contemporary music ensemble at UNIRIO, and is a very dark work in three movements, with piano strumming and obscure clarinet rumblings to begin, and the mood becoming even darker, if that is possible, without a moment of respite, light or humor. A surprisingly Gothic work for bright and tropical city like Rio.
Closing the evening were four little character pieces by Luciano Leite Barbosa, Cinerário, brief, spare but effective movements for flute, clarinet, piano and guitar, with motives tossed back and forth among the members of the quartet (Márcio Angelotti, Alexim, Panaro, and Gabriel Lucena).
It had been a cloudy week during the Bienal, and Sunday afternoon was dreary, with steady rain falling. Those who have a tendency to nap in the afternoon would have had this tendency reinforced by the first half of the program, with little at a scintillating level of excitement. The program began with a work for piano four hands, Dualidade [Duality], in two movements linked by an interlude, and the whole thing rather too dryly contrapuntal for me to enjoy, though at least the fugal motives made reference to Northeastern folk music. The 5 canções de Ernesto Pachito, by Ernesto Hartmann, for soprano and piano (Luciana Costa e Silva, Ronal Silveira) were somewhat more enticing, though verging on the melodramatic (singer declaims, and most of the musical interest is in the detail of the accompaniment). The Sonata (Fantasia) by Mario Ficarelli, for cello and piano (Lars Hoefs, Luciano Magalhães) was large in scale, and traditional in form, if not in terms of content, with the tonality rather obscure and difficult. Not much to grab onto here, at least for these ears. The first half came to a depressing conclusion with Vales, for solo piano, by Maria Helena Rosas Fernandes, ably interpreted by Ruth Serrão (recently retired from the piano faculty at UNIRIO), but a work with an unremittingly grim view of life (the "valleys" depicted, we were told, are those of love, pain, and peace, but all three shared a common minor tonality and Sisyphean repetition).
Things picked up with the second half. This began with a work for solo clarinet — Feixe de luz, desolado e turvo, no anoitecer [Band of light, desolate and turbid, at nightfall], by Luis Passos, compellingly played by Vicente Alexim, beginningly lyrical and gradually picking up, a one-movement span, very well-written for the instrument. Adejo, for solo celo, by Cyro Delvizio, was much closer to the spirit of the unaccompanied Bach suite than the Preludiando of Rezende heard on Saturday afternoon, beginning with a long section moving quickly in irregular meters and perpetual motion, so long that one thought that this might be all the material in the piece. Delvizio then moved through several constrasting sections — slow and cantabile, a sort of recitativo, a return to an allegro movement. A long work to make hang together, but well-played by cellist Paulo Santoro.
The Ode to Blumine by João Svidzinski, for violins, viola, cello, and double bass (Fernando Pereira, Dhyan Toffolo, Diemerson Sena, Cláudia Grosso, Larissa Coutrim) was another of those works where I wished the programming committee had reconsidered. A composer that claims to do hommage to Mahler should have more chops than this — the work was incoheerent in shape, with no intelligible direction, and the writing for strings simply inept, a mass of almost naked homophony. If you have five string parts at your disposal, don't write two pairs of parts in unison.
The program concluded with a work, O enigmatico gato de rimas [The enigmatic rhyming cat], by Paulo Rios Filho, which employed the same string ensemble as the previous work, plus clarinetist Marcos Passos, and had the intriguing program of combining the Northeastern folk music of the repentistas (singers of improvised verse, often in pairs with one poet competing against the other) with Viking metal from contemporary Scandinavia, but neither the idiom of the repentistas nor the style of the rockers was much evident, and the only clear reference was a duel between violin and clarinet over sustained strings.
Sunday evening brought the final step in a marathon of twelve concerts in ten days, and another program featuring orchestral works, this time with a chamber orchestra put together especially for the Bienal by Aloysio Fagerlande and Mariana Salles, and conducted by Roberto Duarte. The opening work, however, was for solo piano, Sons voláteis [Volatile sounds] by Ticiano Rocha, another of those contemporary works with no steady pulse, nervously rhapsodic in character, and leaning toward the fortissimo end of the spectrum. Ingrid Barancoski elicits a large sound from a large-voiced Steinway, and was a fine interpreter for the work, which ends abruptly (I suppose that's what volatile things do).
Next up was a concerto, with Barancoski as soloist, by Paulo Raposo, post-modern in style in the sense that it seemed to refer to other musical styles, beginning as a sort of odd waltz, with prominent solos from the flute and the oboe. There was a slow movement in 4/4 (pom by the piano on the first beat, ta-ta-ta by the orchestra on 2, 3, 4), with a nice moment for wind choir, and then a scherzo. Very effective, well-shaped, music that held the interest without overstaying its welcome, and receiving a fine performance by Barancoski and the virtuoso members of the chamber orchestra, including four of the members of the Quinteto Villa-Lobos.
Eternidade a deriva by Bruno Angelo began quickly, but turned into a sort of slow night music, with a solo turn for cello. It was followed by a very striking work by Dimitri Cervo, from Porto Alegre, a veteran of other Bienals — the Concerto for guitar and chamber orchestra, op. 31, with soloist Paulo Pedrassoli. With the exception of the negligible guitar quartet by Habib, this was probably the only truly tonal work in the entire festival, in a luxuriant D major for all three movements, and very idiomatically conceived for the guitar, with the low E tuned to D to facilitate ringing chords strummed in the tonic. The slow movement featured lyrically beautiful solos for flute and oboe over accompanimental figuration from the soloist. The concluding fast movement returned to a quick dance topic, and throughout the figuration for the strings reflected the composer's study of the American minimalists. The work elicited shouts and whistle of admiration from the audience, though I imagine other composers may have been shocked by the audacity of the composer in writing something so direct, a work that could and should compete in terms of audience with works like the Concierto de Aranjuez or other popular classics. Sharon Isbin, here is something for your repertoire or your next CD.
Alexandre Espinheira's Meta: 1, alvo, mira (I won't try to translate the title), was the ultimate contrast to Cervo, highly dissonant, with multiple intersecting and complex lines, and climaxing with a huge discord. I can't imagine maintaining this language over a span much longer than the brief moment the work occupied.
The young Vicente Alexim (either still part of, or recently graduated from student life in Rio — he was greeted with a huge ovation from his friends in the hall) had been heard as soloist in other composers' works earlier in the Bienal, but here he shone as both composer and performer in the same work, a fine Chamber Concerto in three linked movements (Tense and mysterious, Slow and nostalgic, Violently). Alexim is a brilliant and unflappable soloist who performed his work from memory, a piece with impressive writing for the clarinet, and some nice moments for the orchestra, overall quite noisy and dissonant. Someone with this level of both technique and imagination should go far.
I had my doubts at the opening of the Estudo alquímico [Alchimical Study] by Armando Lobo, the very final work for the entire festival, as it began with an opening which seemed to throw in everything but the kitchen sink, with moments in very quick succession for piano, high strings, oboe multiphonic, tamtam, vibraphone, and brass. How could the composer make such a mish-mash cohere? Lobo moved to a more lyrical section with more extended solos for oboe, trumpet, flute and bassoon, and finally a noisy bang-boom finale, all suavely negotiated by conductor Roberto Duarte and his forces. The piece received long applause, partly due to its merits, but I think also in appreciation by the audience for the incredible amount of effort and passion represented by the entire Bienal, and with the knowledge that such a rich offering of contemporary music in one time and place would only come again in two years, with the 2011 Bienal.
Tom Mooreimage=http://www.operatoday.com/Rio_Christ.gif image_description=Christ the Redeemer, Corcovado, Rio de Janeiro product=yes product_title=The 18th Bienal of Contemporary Brazilian Music, 2009 product_by=A commentary by Tom Moore product_id=
Before setting off from London, however, ETO has chosen the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre — which, as the operatic home of the London Handel Festival, is the capital’s premier venue for Handel opera — to launch this ambitious project.
With four of the productions being revivals of recent stagings performed in the course of ETO’s ordinary tours, the Handelfest’s one original staging is Flavio, a piece which has never quite managed to find a foothold in the repertoire perhaps on account of its opera semiseria status which makes it something of a curiosity in Handel’s canon. The combination of serious drama and broad comedy, which is how it is often played here, doesn’t always sit easily; when our heroine’s lover, Guido, kills his prospective father-in-law, Lotario, in a duel, it’s difficult not to remember that the challenge came about as a result of his own father’s preposterous overreaction to a slap in the face.
Flavio himself is actually a relatively small role, though the machinations of the plot are precipitated by the eponymous monarch’s desire to overcome such minor annoyances as fathers and existing lovers and have his wicked way with a certain young lady of the court. Sung by Clint van der Linde in a flexible and penetrating countertenor, this was one of two characters in the opera which were given a light or comic aspect throughout. The pomp and circumstance surrounding Flavio’s position here manifest themselves in a series of self-consciously theatrical gestures, beginning with the red carpet that unfurls itself behind him as a train when he makes his first appearance, while his personal demeanour is debonair and more than slightly camp.
This and the comic bluster of tenor Joseph Cornwell’s Ugone (he of the aforementioned slapped face) were in vivid contrast to what is at heart a dead straight production. In costumes of Handel’s own period against a very simple midnight-blue set, the serious centre of the piece is represented by soprano Paula Sides as Emilia. A little acidity in the top notes notwithstanding, her soprano is characterful with a slightly covered and smoky timbre and she has real stage presence. As Guido, James Laing’s countertenor is not a robust or powerful sound, but it is clear and even and his delivery of the words eloquent, particularly in his confrontation with Lotario — the pivotal scene in which the opera’s serious and frivolous sides collide. Vocally, he finally allowed himself to shine in his slow aria (‘Amor, nel mio penar’) — and here the visual picture was at its most stark, with Guido alone and spotlit against the dark blue background, in contrast to the assortment of props and stage clutter that tended to accompany the more comic characters.
The dramatic middle ground is provided by the secondary lovers, Vitige and Teodata. A plum role for a juvenile female alto (even playing a member of her own sex — so rare in Handel!) it is Teodata who Flavio decides to win at all costs. Carolyn Dobbin captures her uncomplicated sexiness beautifully, with a relaxed and attractive presence and excellent diction. As the jealous Vitige, the Norwegian mezzo Angelica Voje had a voice which readily evoked that of a hot-blooded youth — light and flexible but still mettlesome.
The baritone Andrew Slater, though a little short of depth in his lower register, presented a credible account of the unfortunate Lotario — passed over for promotion in favour of Ugone, and slain by Guido.
Throughout the Handelfest several of the artists are performing and covering multiple roles, and the conductor of Flavio goes one step further — he is the countertenor Jonathan Peter Kenny, who is appearing as Polinesso in Ariodante. His conducting was sensitive to the singers, never overwhelming the lighter voices, and providing a base upon which the fuller lyric voices could bloom.
Two days later came a revival of Conway’s 2005 staging of Alcina. As in its original run, this production alters the shape of the work quite considerably due to the practical necessity of fitting it into a three-hour slot; there is no chorus (the soloists form an ensemble where musically necessary) and the treble/soprano role of Oberto is dispensed with altogether, an omission which is arguably authentic on the grounds that it was a late addition to the opera. Even so, that’s one high voice lost to the opera’s colour palette, and another is sidelined — Morgana’s opening aria is also consigned to the cutting-room floor, and delaying the only interval until the middle of Act 2 takes the emphasis away from her usually show-stopping Act 1 finale, ‘Tornami a vagheggiar’. The cumulative effect is a leaching of lightness from the piece.
Celeste Lazarenko, Nathan Vale and Natasha Jouhl from Alcina
It is possible that this was conceived deliberately in conjunction with the stage concept. Alcina dwells in a mouldering classical palace, its textiles threadbare, its chandelier crumpled on the floor and its splendid-looking harpsichord flooded with a pool of water. It is a stifling world. And Celeste Lazarenko’s Morgana was subtler than the usual sparkling soubrette: shy and nicely vulnerable, and she has plenty of warmth at the core of her elegantly poised light-lyric soprano.
That is not to say that the performance was short on lustre. Soprano Natasha Jouhl’s account of the title role was exotic, glamorous and fulsomely sung (and not in any way fazed by the shadow of the exceptional Amanda Echalaz, who sang it in the 2005 run). The other lustrous performance, albeit in a more conservative capacity, came from the Bradamante of Carolyn Dobbin, the one cast member common to both Alcina and Flavio, this time in a much more familiar Handelian archetype: the wronged woman in male disguise chasing her faithless beloved. This piece of cross-dressing, one of those things one is generally supposed to have read the synopsis in order to work out, is neatly explained by a staged scene during the overture.
Wendy Dawn Thompson cut a dashing figure as a hot-blooded and easily-distracted young man, but vocally was a frustrating Ruggiero, her pale tone failing to match the weight of the other voices and (especially) failing to engage with the virile masculinity of the orchestral and vocal writing in ‘sta nell'Ircana’ (‘Trapped by a hunter’). It was always a lightish voice, but at the moment seems hollow and dry, as if it’s going through a transition. I wonder if she might be looking at experimenting with some soprano repertoire?
Under conductor Robert Howarth, the orchestral palette was vivid and the playing brisk (the tempo of Oronte’s first aria especially so, tautly delivered by Nathan Vale) if not always refined.
The tour, with its versatile ensemble shared variously between the five operas, continues to Malvern, Exeter, Bath, Snape and Cambridge.
Ruth Elleson © 2009image=http://www.operatoday.com/Sides_Flavio.gif image_description=Paula Sides as Emilia in Flavio [Photo by Richard Hubert Smith courtesy of the English Touring Opera] product=yes product_title=G. F. Handel: Flavio; Alcina product_by=Click here for cast information product_id=Above: Paula Sides as Emilia in Flavio
Baroque is hyperbole, celebrating exuberance. Artaxerxes, set in ancient Persia, gave Arne an opportunity to create an “oriental” fantasy that would shock and awe. This production, by the Royal Opera House at the Linbury Studio Theatre certainly was spectacular in the true, over-the-top baroque manner, enhanced by modern technology.
Artaxerxes starts in silence. The Orchestra of the Classical Opera Company sits on stage in a brightly lit white pit. They’re wearing white too, which dazzles in the darkly shrouded stage. Gradually from the shadows emerges a truly magnificent golden throne, not like any story-book European king’s throne but an intricate golden web, 5 meters high. It references the Pharaohs —Tutankhamen meets the Peacock Throne of Persia..
The costumes (by Johan Engels) are amazing. They look vaguely 18th century yet are made of Japanese brocade and silk, lime green, neon pink, electric blue, colours that rarely exist in nature, with samurai-like shoulderpads and helmets. European, but with a distinctly alien flamboyance. This is the true magpie spirit of the baroque, an age when Europe discovered that worlds existed beyond anything they’d imagined. It didn’t matter if the influences were Japan or Persia, as long as they were exotic.
The servants who also act as guards, are mysterious, some wearing samurai helmets, but often simply swathed in black, like ninjas. This could be a reference to bunraku, the Japanese theatre tradition where puppets “act”, manipulated by black-clad puppeteers, meant to be semi-invisible. It could be a comment on how formal and stylized life in Court circles might have been. When the singers collapse emotionally, they fall down, held up by the “ninjas” who then become symbols of dark, inexpressible feelings.
The costumes may be hyper-real and the set minimalist, but that reflects the plot. It’s so convoluted it’s not easy to follow even if you’ve read up on it. Artaxerxes’s father Xerxes is assassinated by Artabanes, father of Arbaces, Artaxerxes’s best friend. Both young men are in love with each others sisters. Father frames son for the murder and condemns him to death. But the son is so loyal to the new king, that he kills the rebel General. In remorse, Artabanes confesses and Artaxerxes exiles his regicide future farher in law, restoring the son to honour and marrying the daughter.
Musically, Artaxerxes is surprisingly simple, with a small chamber orchestra, instruments doubled for volume. The continuos are harpsichord and cello. Some of the arias are familiar even though the opera itself is rarely heard. There are good moments for vocal pyrotechnics. Words are held for 10 or 12 measures amply decorated. Nonetheless, it’s not specially inventive as music.Artaxerxes will be much better known thanks to this production, but might not have quite the same effect in concert performance.
Very good singing all round. Christopher Ainslie’s Artaxerxes wasn’t so extreme as some countertenors can be, so he didn’t shake the balance of the ensemble but convinced as an intuitive young man who doesn’t do ruthless. Caitlin Hulcup’s Arbaces was so convincing that you had to remind yourself she was a mezzo. Elizabeth Watts’s Mandane, and Andrew Staples’s Artabanes were solid. Steven Ebel’s Rimenes was striking, his stage presence mature beyond his actual age.
Rebecca Bottone’s Semira was outstanding. Tiny as she is, she sings and acts with such intensity that it seems to shake her frame. It’s Semira who challenges everyone, and it is she who doesn’t accept that Arbaces is a killer. Left to his own devices the poor fellow is a bit of a wimp, despite being sweet. Bottone’s passionate portrayal was so strong that she was worth watching even when she wasn’t singing.
This was a new performing edition by Ian Page, who conducted and wrote additional music for the recitatives. Duncan Druce write the delightful finale, where all the cast sing before the golden throne. The original recitatives and finale were lost in a fire that burned down a theatre not far from Covent Garden in 1808, so it’s good that it should be restored and heard again at the Royal Opera House, not far from where Arne lived 250 years ago.
image=http://www.operatoday.com/ARTAX-5571-AINSLIE-AS-ARTAX.gif image_description=Christopher Ainslie as Artaxerxes [Photo by Richard Hubert Smith courtesy of Royal Opera House]
product=yes producttitle=Thomas Arne: Artaxerxes productby=Christopher Ainslie: Artaxerxes; Elizabeth Watts: Mandane; Andrew Staples: Artabanes; Caitlin Hulcup: Arbaces; Rebecca Bottone; Semira: Steven Ebel; Rimenes: Anthony Kurt-Gabel; Adrien Mastrosimone, Edward Mitton, Sebastien Rose: servants and guards. Ian Page, conductor, Orchestra of the Classical Opera Company. Martin Duncan: Director. Johan Engels: Design. Nicholas Michaletos: Lighting. Movement: Michael Poppe. Additional music by Ian Page and Duncan Druce. Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London. product_id=Above: Christopher Ainslie as Artaxerxes [Photo by Richard Hubert Smith courtesy of Royal Opera House]
At the Palais Garnier, a new production of Gound’s Mireille was unveiled in as lovely a “realistic” setting as could be imagined. Veteran set designer Ezio Frigerio proved he still has his magic touch, creating a wholly evocative and dramatically correct milieu for each and every locale.
The golden rolling field at curtain rise which filled the upstage recalled the realistic theatrical countryside of Dancing at Lughnasa with its practical footpath winding through the rows of vegetation. In a departure from the libretto, the second scene was also set here (not outside the Arles arena) but the addition of a farm wagon festively decorated and the hanging of pennants sufficed for the story-telling. The massive, roughly detailed stone wall lent ominous visuals in the Val d’Enfer, and the subsequent banks of the Rhone bordered a shimmering sheet of a river, glistening in the moonlight, and included a damn’ good sinking boat effect. (Shades of the Pirates of the Caribbean drop-off!)
Ramon’s substantial rustic farm-plus-house looked a bit more “Normandy” than southern France to me (yeah, like I am such a French farmhouse specialist!), but it was beautifully fronted by lush, green hills (once again, practical), and, oh, BTW did I mention all of the wonderfully atmospheric lighting contributed by Vinicio Cheli? Mister Cheli summoned up an unusally rich combination of illumination effects to establish time of day, season, climate, and emotional state of the characters. Merveilleux!
Indeed, the Crau Desert was a white hot curtain with an unforgiving sun as a rear projection, and a richly variegated ground cloth. The massive chapel steps stage right in the final scene provided a wonderful set of choral risers for the opening bars, and the pillar monument to Our Lady at their summit was effectively used as our heroine crawled her way up to embrace it in isolation during the score’s final moments (bathed in yet another effective lighting special). The appropriate and colorful costumes were designed by Franca Squarciapino.
Mais, zut alors! — no one revives Mireille for the scenery or the tech. It is mounted as a vehicle for a major soprano. And this Paris certainly had, in local favorite Inva Mula. Let’s cut right to the “chaise”: Ms. Mula has all the goods for this taxing role (it seems like she never leaves the stage). She is exceptionally lovely, petite, musical, well-schooled, dramatically engaged (and engaging), and …she is more than capable of singing the snot out of it.
All that said, I felt that she is still somewhat discovering how to more fully embody Mireille. This is not entirely her fault. The piece just isn’t done. While a soprano can find opportunities to sing and perfect Mimi in any number (like all?) of the houses in the world, this was probably Inva’s sole shot at this complicated role.
She has mastered most of it, to be sure. What a powerful account of the desert scene! The technique is solid solid solid, and she can float a pianissimo one moment, and crest the orchestra with real fullness the next. Her lower middle is (thankfully) carefully husbanded, and her coloratura is winning and accurate, if not done with real abandon, I find that while she is wholly successful on her considerable terms, she does not yet have the warm vocal sheen of a Freni, the deeply rich interpretive gifts of a Scotto, or a truly unique “sound.”
But such is her immense talent that someday…like Freni and Scotto…she will have. She is young. She is that gifted. I will follow the development of this wonderful artist with interest and enthusiasm and I urge you to do the same. You will be well rewarded.
We were even more fortunate with our Vincent, tenor Charles Castronovo, who is surely a (“the”?) leading exponent of this French repertoire now active. Mr. Castronovo gifted us with honeyed, ravishing tone all evening and as for the style, well, he just “gets it.” His melting sotto voce singing was matched by dramatic, arching outpourings that were affecting, beautifully judged, and achingly personal. A seasoned performer, he cuts a youthful and handsome figure on the stage with unforced, natural acting. He was a perfect musical and theatrical match for Ms. Mula and they displayed a winning chemistry. (Is anyone recording this? Sony? DG? Hel-loooo!)
Franck Ferrari made a distinctive impression with his sizable, well-modulated baritone as the odious Ouirras. Sylvie Brunet was bit too well turned out as Taven, and clearly this ersatz-crone did not need to use the cane in her hand, but her rich-hued mezzo gave much pleasure. Stalwart Alain Vernhes was suitably stern in a characterfully sung Ramon (the heroine’s dad) and he was well-matched by Vincent’s dad, Ambroise (aka Nicolas Cavallier).
Anne-Catherine Gillet displayed a lovely, limpid quality as Vincenette, and her duet with Ms. Mula was one of the evening’s many highlights. Exceptional, too, was Sebastien Droy in his brief but impressive solo as Andreloun the shepherd. This was in every way an exceptional cast, including the delightful Clemence (Amel Brahim-Djelloul), the portentous Ferryman (Ugo Rabec), and a pure, straight-toned Heavenly Voice (Sophie Claisse).
Conductor Mark Minkowski elicited gorgeous, beautifully shaped, rhythmically propulsive playing from the pit all evening, and the precision of the sonorous ensemble work was perhaps even exceeded by the first rate (and frequent) solo passages from the clarinet and oboe.
Director Nicolas Joel contributed unfussy, if unremarkable staging that at its very best kept the singers well placed to be heard to best advantage. This is a gift that not all opera directors possess, or even care much about, believe me!
So, I was quite willing to forgive the (more than one) pat operetta stances in the duets, the overall lack of dramatic specificity and detail, and the rather unmotivated ambling that sometimes passed for blocking. Less easy to excuse was the utter silliness when Ouirras’ required trident thrust obviously wildly missed Vincent, who then had to act mortally wounded. Ah, well, when you’ve got Castronovo and Mula, and a great supporting cast the best thing may be to just stay out of their way and let them thrill us with terrific vocalizing, and that Mr. Joel largely does.
In tandem with this beautiful new production, its first at the Paris Opera (can you believe that?), they have mounted a comprehensive Gounod exposition in a side hall to honor the work and its composer, with many artifcats and designs from the work’s first performance.
The next evening was no less thrilling in the Bastille house, as they premiered a stunning production of Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt (a time share from Vienna’s Staatsoper 2004 season).
The orchestra goes from strength to strength these days, and this night Pinchas Steinberg superbly paced the band in an incandescent reading that was by turns taut, expansive, lush, percussive, melodic, heart-rending and gut-wrenching in a definitive rendition of this too-seldom heard masterpiece.
Surely the principal hornist gave arguably the most dynamic musical performance of the night, not unnoticed by the Maestro who favored him with his own call. Over past seasons, I have begun to believe more and more that the Paris pit has at last come to rival Vienna, the Met, and Covent Garden for consistent quality. Bravi tutti!
While I had greatly admired Robert Dean Smith for his Bayreuth Tristan, as Paul he moved into an even higher league. He paced himself uncommonly well, and if he tired during this arduous evening of singing, he never showed it. To the end, Mr. Smith was able to caress soft lyrical phrases one moment, and pour out pleasing, full-throated phrases the next, all the while proving to be a consistent and committed actor. A certain brightness in his delivery not only helps to ride the orchestra, but also bespeaks a vocal health in his essentially lyrical tone production.
Perhaps it was because I had not encountered her gifts before, but Ricarda Merbeth knocked my socks off as Marie/Marietta. This was a warm soprano instrument of substantial size and weight throughout the range, and with a solid technique that can convey a fearlessness in dramatic delivery all the while being in total control. The last time I was so overwhelmed by a solo performance was in this same house last season with Eva Marie-Westbroek’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Well, move over Eva, Ricarda is here! Ms. Merbeth’s powerful portrayal definitely gets added to Jim’s ‘as-good-as-it-gets’ category.
Acting with great élan, Stéphane Degout’s burnished baritone and suave delivery made a fine impression as Frank/Fritz. Doris Lamprecht proved luxury casting with her opulent mezzo and its polished presence. The uninhibited quintet of revelers were all securely voice and included Alexander Kravets (Count Albert), Elisa Cenni (Juliette), Letitia Singleton (Lucienne), Alain Gabriel (Victorin) and Serge Luchini (Gaston).
Director Willy Decker’s original staging was re-mounted by Meisje Barbara Hummel to great effect. The ingenious scenery and costumes by Wolfgang Gussmann were strikingly lit by Wolfgang Goebbel.
The curtain reveals a somewhat plain box of a denuded sitting room with the obligatory portrait propped on a wall down left. Two overstuffed chairs complete the furnishings. Oops, wait, not quite. There are additional pieces of the portrait strewn about — an eye here, a chin there, a hair curl yonder — and a scattering of dried roses. Paul’s emotional lunar landscape, if you will.
The visual monotony does not last long as the ceiling twists and turns, the walls bend outward, and the floor slides. Poltergeist for opera lovers. The staging makes telling use of each minimal prop. The portrait is carried about, an upstage scrim reveals a duplicate smaller sitting room with character doubles (very Magritte), Marietta perches on and inhabits the chairs with feline precision.
In Paul’s Walpurgishnacht, Hollywood chorus boys in top hats and tails surround a gold lame-clad “Marie;” Brigitta, crucified on an angled white cross is rolled across stage by a living tableaux of penitents; houses of Bruges spin on stage out of control (Franz appears from within one). This was a Felllini-esque orgy of eye-popping visuals that not only heightened the musical glories of this performance but embraced them. The rowdyl cheering at Act One’s close was indication of how special the evening was going, and was yet going to be.
It is hard to over-praise the costuming. Marietta’s vibrant yellow day traveling dress with cloche hat and wrap afforded as lovely a diva entrance as can be devised. The carnival figures were in raunchily re-invented black and white Commedia garb by way of Beate Uhse. In a brilliant stroke Fritz, having been got up as “Gilles,” later puts the clown’s costume on Paul with the finishing touch of a white mask, a truly gorgeous and meaningful visual.
In another bold stroke, when ‘Marie’ steps out of the portrait, she first takes off her long hair wig and hurls it at Paul, then spends the rest of her Act Two time as a bald banshee tormenting him. The hair had been in a glass box reliquary, now re-introduced with the religious procession atop the floating houses. No less than the Pope (!) holds the hair aloft like the host, which gets passed under the scrim to Paul as His Eminence is revealed as nothing but a good-time chorus boy while revelers deface the portrait. (I will have to say ten “Hail Mary’s” just for reporting this.)
Of course, the madness subsides, the spell is broken, Paul is released and all is restored, but not before a sober reflection on all that preceded, and all that would follow for our hero. A slow curtain. End of show. Total silence.
And then one woman spoke for all of us as she simply uttered a heartfelt, awe-inspired: “Superbe.”
The place went nuts. The season was off and running. Not to be anti-climactic but mention must be made of Patrick Marie Aubert’s well-schooled chorus, who performed superbly both nights like the first rate ensemble they are.
image=http://www.operatoday.com/Clement-Frederic-Mistral.gif image_description=Portrait of the poet Frederic Mistral (1830—1914) by Félix Auguste Clément (1826 -1888) [Source: Wikipedia Commons]
product=yes producttitle=Charles Gounod: Mireille productby=Inva Mula: Mireille; Charles Castronovo: Vincent; Franck Ferrari: Ourrias; Alain Vernhes: Ramon; Sylvie Brunet: Taven; Anne-Catherine Gillet: Vincenette; Sébastien Droy: Andrelou; Nicolas Cavallier: Ambroise; Amel Brahim-Djelloul: Clémence; Ugo Rabec: Le Passeur. Paris Opera Orchestra and chorus. Marc Minkowski: Conductor. Nicolas Joel: Stage Director. Ezio Frigerio: Sets. Franca Squarciapino: Costumes. Vinicio Cheli: Lighting. Patrick Ségot: Choreography. Patrick Marie Aubert: Chorus Master. product_id=Above: Portrait of the poet Frederic Mistral (1830—1914) by Félix Auguste Clément (1826 -1888) [Source: Wikipedia Commons]