17 Nov 2009
Lorin Maazel conducts Verdi and Puccini at La Scala
In the mid-1980s (just before the Riccardo Muti era began), Lorin Maazel often ruled the conductor's roost at La Scala.
The Wigmore Hall complete Schubert song series continued with a recital by Georg Nigl and Andreas Staier. Staier's a pioneer, promoting the use of fortepiano in Schubert song. In Schubert's time, modern concert pianos didn't exist. Schubert and his contemporaries would have been familiar with a lighter, brighter sound. Over the last 30 years, we've come to better understand Schubert and his world through the insights Staier has given us. His many performances, frequently with Christoph Prégardien at the Wigmore Hall, have always been highlights.
On 9 January 2017 the London Festival of Baroque Music (formerly the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music) announced its programme for 2017. The Festival theme for 2017 is Baroque at the Edge. Inspired by the anniversaries of Monteverdi (450th of birth) and Telemann (250th of death) the Festival explores the ways that composers and performers have pushed at the chronological, stylistic, geographical and expressive boundaries of the Baroque era.
On Thursday 19th January, opera lovers around the world started bidding online for rare and prized items made available for the first time from Opera Rara’s collection. In addition to the 26 lots auctioned online, 6 more items will be made available on 7 February - when online bidding closes - at Opera Rara’s gala dinner marking the final night of the auction. The gala will be held at London’s Caledonian Club and will feature guest appearances from Michael Spyres and Joyce El-Khoury.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
In the mid-1980s (just before the Riccardo Muti era began), Lorin Maazel often ruled the conductor's roost at La Scala.
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.