January 30, 2010

Bass-baritone eager to sing at home, in English

By Anne Midgette [Washington Post, 31 January 2010]

Eric Owens enjoys singing in English. “I always get so jealous of Italians and native Germans,” says the opera singer. As an American singing opera, “even if you get really fluent, there’s always a certain amount of disconnect, because you didn’t grow up with the language,” Owens says. “When I sing American music, it’s really satisfying to identify and connect so well with the text.”

Posted by Gary at 11:59 PM

PURCELL: The Fairy-Queen

Music composed by Henry Purcell. Libretto anonymously adapted from William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

First Performance: 2 May 1692, Queen’s Theatre, Dorset Garden, London.

Roles:
Drunken Poet Bass
First Fairy Soprano
Second Fairy Soprano
Night Soprano
Mystery Soprano
Secrecy Countertenor
Sleep Bass
Corydon Bass
Mopsa Soprano/Countertenor
Nymph Soprano
3 Attendants to Oberon 1 Soprano, 2 Countertenors
Phoebus Tenor
Spring Soprano
Summer Countertenor
Autumn Tenor
Winter Bass
Juno Soprano
Chinese Man Countertenor
Chinese Woman, Daphne Soprano
Hymen Bass

Synopsis:

Act 1

The first scene set to music occurs after Titania has left Oberon, following an argument over the ownership of a little Indian boy. Two of her fairies sing of the delights of the countryside (“Come, come, come, come, let us leave the town”). A drunken, stuttering poet enters, singing “Fill up the bowl”. The stuttering has led many to believe the scene is based on the habits of Thomas d’Urfey. However, it may also be poking fun at Elkanah Settle, who stuttered as well and was long thought to be the librettist, due to an error in his 1910 biography.

The fairies mock the drunken poet and drive him away.

Act 2

It begins after Oberon has ordered Puck to anoint the eyes of Demetrius with the love-juice. Titania and her fairies merrily revel (“Come all ye songsters of the sky”), and Night (“See, even Night”), Mystery (“I am come to lock all fast”), Secrecy (“One charming night”) and Sleep (“Hush, no more, be silent all”) lull them asleep and leave them to pleasant dreams.

Act 3

Titania has fallen in love with Bottom (now equipped with his ass’ head), much to Oberon’s gratification. A Nymph sings of the pleasures and torments of love (“If love’s a sweet passion”) and after several dances, Titania and Bottom are entertained by the foolish, loving banter of two haymakers, Corydon and Mopsa.

Act 4

It begins after Titania has been freed from her enchantment, commencing with a brief divertissement to celebrate Oberon’s birthday (“Now the Night”, and the abovementioned “Let the fifes and the clarions”), but for the most part it is a masque of the god Phoebus (“When the cruel winter”) and the Four Seasons (Spring; “Thus, the ever grateful spring”, Summer; ”Here’s the Summer”, Autumn; “See my many coloured fields”, and Winter; ”Now Winter comes slowly”).

Act 5

After Theseus has been told of the lovers’s adventures in the wood, it begins with the goddess Juno singing an epithalamium, “Thrice happy lovers”, followed by a woman who sings the well–known “The Plaint” (“O let me weep”). A Chinese man and woman enter singing several songs about the joys of their world. (“Thus, the gloomy world”, “Thus happy and free” and “Yes, Xansi”). Two other Chinese women summon Hymen, who sings in praise of married bliss, thus uniting the wedding theme of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the celebration of William and Mary’s anniversary.

[Synopsis Source: Wikipedia]

Click here for the complete libretto.

Click here for the complete text of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Prelude to The Fairy Queen — Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment Conducted by William Christie:

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Midsummer_Rackham.gif image_description=A Midsummer-Night's Dream by Arthur Rackham audio=yes first_audio_name=Henry Purcell: The Fairy-Queen first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Fairy_Queen.m3u product=yes product_title=Henry Purcell: The Fairy-Queen product_by=Pamela Coburn, Soprano; Lynne Dawson, Soprano; Elisabeth von Magnus, Alto; Paul Esswood, Countertenor; Neil Mackei, Tenor; Robert Holl, Bass. Concentus Musicus Wien. Arnold Schoenberg Chor. Nikolaus Harnonocurt. Live performance, 8 July 1992, Stefaniensaal des Grazer Congress im Rahmen der “Styriarte 1992”.
Posted by Gary at 12:41 PM

In perfect harmony

By Allan Moses R. [The Hindu, 30 January 2010]

French soprano soloist Marion Baglan and pianist François-Marie Juskowiak evoked a thunderous response from a packed audience at The Alliance Française in a concert recently.

Posted by Gary at 9:16 AM

January 29, 2010

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s The Merry Widow

Paris in the opening years of the twentieth century is evoked in shifting venues from the Petrovenian embassy in Act I to the widow’s mansion and to Maxim’s in Acts II and III. The widow Hannah Glawari is sung by Elizabeth Futral in a performance ranging from touching sentimentality to lyrical purity and joyous sparkle in duets and ensembles. Her suitor from the past, Count Danilo Danilovich, as portrayed by Roger Honeywell moves convincingly from the pleasure-seeking rake to the man who still loves Hannah despite circumstances that interrupted their earlier courtship. A secondary romantic involvement is pursued between the married Valencienne and her admirer Camille de Rosillon, sung and acted plaintively in this production by Andriana Chuchman and Stephen Costello respectively. A large supporting cast is drawn into the comedic and wistful resolution of Hannah’s fortunes and amorous interests.

Futral2_MW_Chicago.pngPaul La Rosa, Elizabeth Futral and David Portillo

After a spirited orchestral introduction led by conductor Emannuel Villaume the first act of Lehár’s operetta introduces both celebration and conflict. This scene, as staged in Lyric Opera’s new production, communicates an appropriate amount of business, replete with arrivals, wooing, and worries over the homeland. Baron Zeta broaches this latter topic by accepting congratulations in behalf of the Petrovenian head of state while at once lamenting the precarious financial issues of the homeland. In his portrayal of Zeta, Dale Travis assumes a Central European accent and delivers an effective mix of enthusiasm and anguish. After summarizing the economic concerns, he insists that the recently widowed Hanna Glawari must remarry a Petrovenian citizen so that her inheritance might remain in the domestic treasury. During Zeta’s distracted narration of such details his wife Valencienne is subjected to the repeated attentions of the nobleman Camille de Rosillon. Although obviously flattered by these advances, Valencienne expresses her irritation when Camille writes “I love you” on her fan. In the duet “Listen please” Valencienne reminds him of her intentions to remain faithful to her husband Zeta and suggests that he marry another. Chuchman and Costello fulfill the individual roles of Valencienne and Camille admirably yet their vocal and dramatic talents seem transformed to a still higher level when they sing together. In this first duet they epitomize the conflicts of love and duty as their voices blend to communicate a convincing emotional fervor.

Costello_Chuchman_MW_Chicago.pngStephen Costello and Andriana Chuchman

Once the young couple leaves, the widow Hanna Glawari appears, trying to deflect the repeated attempts at adulation from men who wish to curry her favor. In her first aria (“Gentlemen, how kind”) Ms. Futral strikes a balance between a woman who demonstrates a vocally receptive sense of being flattered and the realistic widow who suspects any suitor of opportunism. As Hanna, for the present, leaves and repeated calls for Danilo’s needed presence are sounded (“Affluent widows double in charm”), the bachelor enters a near-empty stage. While staggering in apparent inebriation from the top of a staircase Roger Honeywell portrays Danilo not so much as dissolute but rather as one avoiding the confrontation of daily responsibility by losing himself in the swirl of activity at Maxim’s. In his aria “Oh, Fatherland” Honeywell muses with wistfulness on the duties of a minor nobleman that he fulfills for his country, but activities of the evening cause a suspension of the sense of homeland. When Hanna reenters she finds Danilo, in utter exhaustion, asleep on a divan. Ms Futral attempts to mask the surprise of Hanna, just as Mr. Honeywell’s Danilo can only appear confused while he recovers his composure. A renewed attraction between the principals, interrupted by the realities of an earlier, societal marriage, is evident for a moment before distance again sets in. Danilo insists that he will never express love for Hanna, while others vie for a dance with the widow. When she suggests such a dance with Danilo, he offers it to any other man for 10000 francs. Hanna is incensed and Danilo seems, at first, resolved in his sullenness. Yet Honeywell shows his character softening, and both agree finally to the proposed dance. As the act concludes Hanna and Danilo, as portrayed here, seem temporarily reconciled, if only for the evening, in a dance and song that bears a glimmer of more for the future.

In Act II of the operetta the action takes place in the garden of the widow’s Parisian home. Hungarian dances are performed first to celebrate the ruler’s natal day: in Lyric Opera’s production both colorful costumes and skillful choreography assure a lively introduction to the celebration. As an extension of these festivities the widow sings the traditional Hungarian song of the vilja. Ms. Futral performed the justly famous song of the wood-sprite, or vilja, with moving emotional force. As she described the feelings of the huntsman who becomes enamored of the sprite in the forest, Ms. Futral’s character itself seemed to bloom, so that buried emotions could again be kindled. A further encounter with Danilo, who arrives to participate in the widow’s reception, contributes to renewed confusion and bruised emotions, with both characters stomping away in opposite directions. The scene is then left to the naïve pair Valencienne and Camille, who both avail themselves of the solitude to discuss openly the state of their love. Despite the protestations of Valencienne, Camille serenades her with the aria “Just as the rosebud blossoms in the light of May.” Mr. Costello flourished here as an ardent lover in the solo aria in which his vocal modulations and use of legato were especially well received. The two withdraw into the garden’s pavilion in time for Valencienne’s husband Zeta to return and peer curiously into the enclosure. Although he at first believes that he sees his wife with Camille, Hanna changes places with Valencienne in order to save her reputation. The widow and Camille emerge from the pavilion declaring their intention to marry, an announcement which confuses Zeta and irritates even further Danilo. Mr. Honeywell gave convincing expression to his pique in the aria “Fall in love often,” as he rushed off at the close of the act to console himself in diversion at Maxim’s.

Futral3_MW_Chicago.pngRoger Honeywell and Elizabeth Futral

It is indeed here at Maxim’s that the numerous conflicts and emotional tensions are ultimately settled during Act III of the operetta. After the mood is set by an orchestral introduction including strains from the “Merry Widow Waltz,” we see the various girls of the club along with Valencienne dancing to entertain Danilo. Further communication from the homeland prompts the widow to admit that she never intended marriage to Camille and that her motives consisted in the protection of another woman’s honor. At this Danilo admits his love for Hanna, and they sing the duet “Strings are sighing.” Futral and Honeywell express their bond, leading eventually to the consent of marriage, in touching unison as they conclude aptly on the lines “We’ve gone soaring to the heights” and “It’s you I love alone!” Only the breach between Valencienne and Zeta must be repaired. When the jealous husband discovers the fan on which Camille had written of his love, Valencienne convinces Zeta to read the declaration on the reverse: “To my loving husband from his adoring wife.” All is now well in the emotional world of The Merry Widow, as depicted in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s delightfully musical production.

Salvatore Calomino

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Futral_MW_Chicago.png image_description=Elizabeth Futral as Hanna Glawari [Photo by Dan Rest courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago] product=yes product_title=Franz Lehár: The Merry Widow product_by=Hanna Glawari: Elizabeth Futral; Danilo: Roger Honeywell; Valencienne: Andriana Chuchman; Camille: Stephen Costello; Baron Zeta: Dale Travis; Njegus: Jeff Dumas; Raoul St. Brioche: David Portillo; Viscount Cascada: Paul La Rosa; Pritchitch: Larry Adams; Kromov: James Rank; Bogdanovich: Bernie Yvon; Sylviane: Mary Ernster; Praskovia: Ann McMann; Olga: Susan Moniz. Conductor: Emmanuel Villaume. Director: Gary Griffin. Set Designer: Daniel Ostling. Costume Designer: Mara Blumenfeld. Lighting Designer: Christine Binder. Projection Designer: John Boesche. Chorus Master: Donald Nally. Choreographer: Daniel Pelzig. Ballet Mistress: August Tye. Wigmaster and Makeup Designer: Richard Jarvie. product_id=Above: Elizabeth Futral as Hanna Glawari

All photos by Dan Rest courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago
Posted by Gary at 1:00 PM

January 28, 2010

Simon Boccanegra, New York

Simon Boccanegra excited his particular ire: he would waste three or four paragraphs trying to figure out the plot and then toss out the name of a singer or two. How many people do go to a Verdi opera for the sake of the plot? I hoped he was the only one — but the other night, on the bus down Broadway after this latest Met Simon, I heard a couple of opera-goers complaining that they found Simon more incomprehensible than Trovatore (I find Trovatore crystal clear, by the way), and an old friend said, “How come Fiesco, after twenty-five years in disguise, just happens to become the guardian of an orphan who just happens to be his lost granddaughter?” This is, of course, a stumbling block, what the French call, translating another Verdi opera, La force de la coïncidence. You should do what Verdi did with such absurdities: Ignore them and focus on the music. The plot is not what the opera is about — not this opera.

What Simon is about — besides the father-daughter theme (here also grandfather-granddaughter) always explosive in the operas of the childless Verdi — is color. The prologue, for instance, set in an alleyway in fourteenth-century Genoa, includes confrontations among four characters, not one of them of a higher voice than baritone. Even the offstage women’s prayers for the dead are offset by a basso Miserere. All the murky political and personal doings are shrouded in shadow, and this shadow only dissipates in Act I against the shimmering dawn-over-the-sea music of Amelia’s aria, yet even her happiness at the beauty of the scene and at finding true love is intruded upon by minor-key forebodings. The whole opera is prevailingly dark, with only the shimmer of the sea, the warmth of the glorious father-daughter duet and the occasional beacon of the one soprano voice in the great crowd scenes that end Acts I and III.

I call this Verdi’s “light-in-the-darkness” period, a series of experiments he made in tonal color by setting a single soprano to shine out over massed crowds of dark sound. Thus we have Leonora’s “Vergine degli angeli” in Forza, Oscar’s high melody in “E scherzo od e follia” in Ballo in Maschera, the Celestial Voice in Don Carlos, the priestess in Aida. The effect is to make the drama personal, to remind us that amidst the mobs carrying us along in life’s big events, the individual soul is suffering individual anguish. Leonora de Vargas isn’t just joining the monks in prayer — she has her own guilt to expiate, her own questioning of God’s purpose; Oscar is not merely apprehensive at the witch’s prophecy, he is a believer in her powers, which suddenly seem to threaten his beloved sovereign; the priestess does not merely hope for the triumph of the choral manhood of Egypt, she seems to be making a direct appeal to “immenso Ftha” for divine favor.

BOCCANEGRA_Pieczonka_as_Amelia__0829.pngAdrianne Pieczonka as Amelia Grimaldi

In Simon Boccanegra, God is not the problem; politics are — to the point that Amelia’s personal problems could be overwhelmed in mob violence, here vocalized. But all politics are local, and Verdi presents the individual point of view by having her soprano trill through the dark concertato that ends Act I, her descending arpeggio of mourning riding free beside her father’s deathbed in Act III. Verdi has evoked the darkness of grim scheming and civil conflict, but Amelia’s voice reminds us of individual experience and personal loss.

My Amelias go back to Gabriela Tucci and have included Maliponte, Arroyo, Te Kanawa, Mattila, Guryakova and Gheorghiu — all superb except the last, whose voice seemed small for Verdi in a room the size of the Met. On this occasion, Amelia was sung by Adrianne Pieczonka, a handsome woman whose voice is cool, lovely, and sizable without audible effort, but her “Com’e in quest’ora bruna” was uneven, with a swoopiness whenever she leaped above the staff that was also present for the rest of Act I. In her duet with Domingo (is there a lovelier father-daughter duet in all Verdi?), she was better when leaps were not required of her, but the great trill in the concertato was mud. She warmed up in Act II, and the arpeggios that must gleam at Simon’s deathbed did so. It was not clear whether the Canadian soprano was having a difficult night or was simply miscast. The Met needs a Verdi soprano with a voice this big and beautiful, but she should be in better control of her instrument.

Plácido Domingo’s decision to take on the baritone doge’s role (not his first such exploration at the Met — he has sung Gluck’s Oreste here) was surely the reason the Met was packed, and the crowd was so unfamiliar with the opera and with the baritone color in which he sang that they failed to greet his initial entrance with intrusive applause — bravos all round for that! The applause (and flowers) at evening’s end made up for that to be sure. His performance was more than satisfactory — from a tenor-out-of-water at nearly seventy, it was a far more finished a vocal interpretation than, say, José Cura’s Stiffelio. Domingo has always been a baritonal tenor — to the frustration of those tenor-lovers who like the near-desperation certain voices make in attaining high notes. Domingo recorded bits of Rossini’s Figaro and Verdi’s Posa long ago, but Simon is one of Verdi’s signature baritone parts. There was a sense that the lower depths, the baritonal resonance, the depth and echo, were not well served, that he does not resonate there — but he was on pitch and in character, clearly enjoying his interactions with old friends like James Morris and James Levine.

BOCCANEGRA_scene_Act_III_Morris_Pieczonka_Domingo_and_Giordani_1391.pngPlácido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra, Adrianne Pieczonka as Amelia Grimaldi, Marcello Giordani as Gabriele Adorno and James Morris as Fiesco

Marcello Giordani sang like a god in Act I and grew a little sloppy thereafter, though without the strain and pitch problems that have sometimes dogged him in Donizetti. Verdi is the right place for him.

James Morris no longer sings Wotan or Hans Sachs, but his Fiesco reminds us that in his early decades he was known for his Mozart and bel canto. No longer having great caverns of voice to draw upon, he husbanded his resources well and sang on the lighter side of this dark role, without wobble and without disgrace. Patrick Carfizzi made an appropriately histrionic Paolo, the slimy fixer of Genoa, catching the character’s inner torments and rages with a serene Verdi line. Paolo is often an apprentice Simon, as Ford is an apprentice Falstaff, and Carfizzi should be interesting when he takes up the title role.

In James Levine’s capable hands, all the parts of this subtle score interacted smoothly whether the singer was staring only at him — as Domingo usually did — or not. The music of the great duet seemed to breathe with the surf rolling into Genoa, and Verdi’s intricate games with strings and winds created a sense of symphonic mood, a pervading unease highlighted by the thundering brasses he would use again and again in the operas that followed.

Giancarlo del Monaco’s production in Michael Scott’s colorful sets does not clarify the complicated plot, beginning as it does in fourteenth-century Genoa (as Verdi desired) and then apparently lurching to seventeenth-century Venice in the Council Chamber scene for no reason except that Tintoretto on the ceiling looks pretty and nobody knows what the Genovese council chamber did look like. Peter McClintock has elided some of Del Monaco’s more hamhanded bits of direction — crowds move naturalistically, a happy change, and Fiesco no longer draws a sword to rush at Simon three times in the course of the opera; only once. Still, as he never does lay a paw on him, these madcap outbursts tend to make Fiesco look ineffectual at best. Verdi intended Fiesco to possess a dignity evidently beyond Del Monaco’s narrow imagination.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Domingo_Boccanegra.png image_description=Plácido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra [Photo by Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product-title=Giuseppe Verdi: Simon Boccanegra product_by=Simon Boccanegra: Plácido Domingo; Amelia Grimaldi: Adrianne Pieczonka; Gabriele Adorno: Marcello Giordani; Fiesco: James Morris; Paolo: Patrick Carfizzi; Pietro: Richard Bernstein. Metropolitan Opera chorus and orchestra, conducted by James Levine. Performance of January 25. product_id=Above: Plácido Domingo as Simon Boccanegra

All photos by Marty Sohl courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 9:39 AM

New Music Director for Opera Orchestra

By Dave Itzkoff [NY Times, 28 January 2010]

Eve Queler, the founder and longtime music director of the Opera Orchestra of New York, who has seen the institution through recent financial struggles, is preparing to step down. The orchestra said in a news release that it had appointed Alberto Veronesi, the Italian conductor, as music director starting with its 2011-12 season.

Posted by Gary at 9:17 AM

January 25, 2010

Le Poème Harmonique

By Allan Kozinn [NY Times, 26 January 2010]

Emilio de’ Cavalieri, though hardly known today, was a friendly competitor of the Florentine Camerata, the group of musicians and theorists whose ideas about text setting and drama led to the creation of opera around 1600. The Camerata’s style came to represent early Baroque vocal music as we know it. But Cavalieri’s music offers a fascinating glimpse of an alternative approach, and the performance of his “Lamentations of Jeremiah” by the French early-music ensemble Le Poème Harmonique at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin near Times Square on Saturday evening captured his distinct, sometimes exotic accent.

Posted by Gary at 11:59 PM

War and Peace, Theatre Royal, Glasgow

By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 25 January 2010]

It is a popular misconception that masterpieces arrive in fixed form, like a gift from heaven. Some of the most successful operas - Carmen, Don Carlos, Boris Godunov , to name but three - have extremely messy histories, and until recently no one bothered if the edition was bowdlerised.

Posted by Gary at 5:52 PM

Florida Grand Opera's Eglise Gutiérrez lifts `Lucia di Lammermoor ' to modern heights

By David Fleshler [Miami Herald, 25 January 2010]

As traditionally performed, Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor is 2 ½ hours of Scottish castles, mist-shrouded lakes, swordsmanship and tragedy.

Posted by Gary at 5:46 PM

London’s Rambunctious Rake

First and foremost, the Royal Opera House’s Rake boasts an A-list cast that is as fine as can currently be assembled. Of especial interest to me was young bass Kyle Ketelsen’s role debut as Nick Shadow. He definitely did not disappoint. Mr. Ketelsen always offers a consistent, rich, and suave tonal delivery and he is possessed of one of the most secure techniques of any voice heard before the public today.

His is a sizable instrument which can easily ring out in the house one minute, and scale back to a hushed, intense sotto voce the next. He bought his usual intelligence and superb musicianship to bear in what has to be considered a major role assumption in his growing repertoire (and reputation). As wonderful as is his vocalizing, Kyle also scores big — make that waaaaaay big — as an actor. In fact, I would be hard pressed to think of any male singer active that is his equal for stage presence, character delineation, vocal color, uninhibited movement, and dramatic understanding. The card scene could have served as Masters Class in theatrical nuance.

Repeated performances and even more experience will only deepen his already commendable interpretation. You heard it from me: Kyle Ketelsen will be the Nick Shadow of choice for future productions. I am not alone, the entire audience roared its approval with a vociferous ovation.

Happily, he was in great company. Toby Spence as Tom Rakewell served up splendid, secure singing all evening, and he managed to touch me deeply in his final scene as no one has before. My previous outing with the staged opera was limited to two disparate but troublesome productions in Aix and Salzburg respectively, but both starring the late Jerry Hadley in one of his best roles.

Although Jerry had more squillo in his voice, the concepts sadly kept him on the surface of the role. Mr. Spence was able to delve deeply into the character’s psyche, and while he appears and acts suitably boyish, his real-time maturity has been deployed effectively in defining Tom’s life journey and descent into madness.

He is a highly accomplished lyric tenor to be sure, but like many such well-schooled light voices, the artist can be counted upon to deliver more in the area of consistency of pleasing tone, than can be easily offered in terms of varied dramatic utterance. It is to his credit that he used his considerable acting skill to create a plausible illusion of varied tonal color.

ROH_00014.pngToby Spence as Tom Rakewell and Rosemary Joshua as Anne Trulove

Another brilliant lyric voice and vibrant stage presence was on hand in the person of Rosemary Joshua’s Anne. This wonderful artist goes from strength to strength and she, too, has an awesome arsenal of technical skills at her command. Just listen to her soaring fearlessly through the most angular phrases and meandering melismas, and then turn around to melt our hearts with utterly focused limpid singing of the first order. Kate Royal had been advertised for the part, but while Ms. Joshua offers a slightly more mature take on the role, she is slim, lovely, and still has the Wow Factor for me, as when I first heard her Cleopatra in Miami and said “Wow, who is this fabulous soprano?”

Patricia Bardon, a veteran of the 2008 mounting of this production, returned as Baba the Turk and successfully managed her rich bottom range and ringing top to deliver a fully committed traversal of one of opera’s most unique characters. She looked smashing, too, pulling off the difficult task of being bearded but yet seeming alluringly sexy. Stalwart comprimario Graham Clark treated us to a vocally secure and theatrically vibrant turn as the auctioneer Sellem, and company principal Jeremy White was solid of voice and stature as Trulove. Frances McCafferty seemed game to do anything (and did) as a randy Mother Goose, although there were a few frayed notes at the extremes of the range.

The orchestra had a remarkably fine night, not only playing the rhythmically challenging score cleanly, but also investing Stravinsky’s masterpiece with all the vibrant panache and passion it needs to make its mark. This can be attributed to the controlled baton of Ingo Metzmacher. I have encountered the maestro’s work on several occasions now. He is never less than inspired, and his musical stewardship is never less than remarkable. It is pleasure to watch his star on the rise.

ROH_01157.pngKyle Ketelsen as Nick Shadow

Stage director Rober Lepage is always preceded by his large reputation, and for once it is a reputation founded on thoughtful experimentation informed by a respect for the original work. Mr. Lepage’s interpretation of this challenging piece is never less than hugely entertaining and ultimately it is enormously affecting. He has managed to find the honesty in Auden’s dark humor, and delivered some well-calculated laughs all the while retaining the underlying serious narrative. He was ably abetted in this fanciful pursuit by the witty set design of Carl Fillion; the colorful, characterful costumes by François Barbeau; and the evocative lighting devised by Boris Firquet. (It should be noted that Sybille Wilson has directed the revival, presumably with fidelity to the original staging.)

The production team has loosely devised their vision around a concept of Hollywood in its (now-) glorified heyday, with nods to such iconic films as Sunset Boulevard, The Snake Pit, Destry Rides Again, A Star is Born, among others. Nick Shadow is presented as an old school film director, a veritable Cecil B. De-vil, often riding herd and riding high over the proceedings from a camera crane and therefrom controlling the fates of his players.

This decidedly allowed for many images of great resonance, and some wholly engaging set changes which we came to anticipate with relish. I will never forget the slow inflation of Tom’s blow-up Hollywood star dressing trailer, or the disappearance of the lasciviously poised Goose and Tom as they sunk through the center of the red draped bed to the depths of the trap door, nor Anne’s goofy convertible car ride with scarf billowing in the breeze.

However, it has to also be said…it didn’t quite work as a totally integrated piece of theatre. At the end of the day, had I not read the program notes I might not have grasped this overall conceit until we were well into the piece. Unlike the recent Fanciulla in Amsterdam that established its intent early on to tap into Old Hollywood images, this Rake apparently began on a flat plain with an oil derrick in …where? Texas? Oklahoma? I was willing to go with that, but it soon seemed a red herring of sorts. When we finally start to get it, we wasted some time and attention playing catch-up in retrospect.

ROH_00705.pngPatricia Bardon as Baba the Turk and Toby Spence as Tom Rakewell

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that The Rake’s Progress was a highly diverting, conscientiously considered, and wholly professional evening at the opera. By assembling a world class cast and pairing them with its usual awesome musical and theatrical assets, the Royal Opera House has once again reminded me that it is Europe’s premiere company.

James Sohre

image=http://www.operatoday.com/ROH01341.png imagedescription=Toby Spence as Tom Rakewell [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of the Royal Opera House]

product=yes producttitle=Igor Stravinsky: The Rake’s Progress productby=Trulove: Jeremy White; Anne Trulove: Rosemary Joshua; Tom Rakewell: Toby Spence; Nick Shadow: Kyle Ketelsen; Mother Goose: Frances McCafferty; Baba the Turk: Patricia Bardon; Sellem: Graham Clark. Royal Opera. Conductor: Ingo Metzmacher. Director: Robert Lepage; Revival Director: Sybille Wilson; Set Designer: Carl Fillion; Costume designs: Francois Barbeau; Lighting Designer: Etienne Boucher; Video: Boris Firquet; Choreography: Michael Keegan Dolan. product_id=Above: Toby Spence as Tom Rakewell

All photos by Johan Persson courtesy of the Royal Opera House

Posted by james_s at 2:33 PM

Stirring Storytelling and Amorous Rapture

By Steve Smith [NY Times, 25 January 2010]

Ask any serious vocal enthusiast to provide a list of the finest singers currently working, and the chances are good that Bernarda Fink, an Argentine mezzo-soprano, will figure in. Here in New York, where Ms. Fink has appeared infrequently, her renown stems primarily from her performances on CD, including opera recordings conducted by René Jacobs and highly desirable recital discs on the Harmonia Mundi label.

Posted by Gary at 1:01 PM

Kerry Andrew — An Interview

TM: Where were you born and raised?

KA: I was born and raised in High Wycombe, which is a nondescript town in Buckinghamshire, outside London.

TM: What sort of music were you exposed to in your family as a child?

KA: My parents aren’t musicians, and don’t play instruments, but my dad was always interested in singing. Once I was about ten, I joined the church choir with him. I lived in Canada, when I was very small, for three years, and my parents got into a lot of country music. I listened to a lot of classic country, like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.

TM: When did you go to Canada?

KA: When I was very small, age three to six. Not old enough to take much in, I don’t think.

TM: Where did you live?

KA: We lived in Toronto.

TM: Was it a shock to move there from the London area?

KA: It was more of a small culture shock coming back. Not for very long, because I was still tiny. My Canadian accent was dispelled pretty quickly. I have never been back, actually — I would love to go back to Canada. I have always meant to, and haven’t quite made it.

TM: So your father sang in the church choir.

KA: I joined quite soon after him. I sang for ten years.

TM: Was this Church of England?

KA: Catholic. And Catholic choirs in the UK are pretty bad! You get much better choirs at the Church of England than you generally do in Catholic churches. Nobody is paid to sing in a Catholic choir except for in very posh Catholic churches in London, so it’s often rather amateur. But I learnt to sing in parts there, which was hugely valuable.

TM: The same is true in the United States, with the best music at the Episcopal Church. You must also have explored other musical areas as a child.

KA: Nothing out of the ordinary. I went to school, and like many school kids, at least then, I learned two instruments - first the flute, then the piano. I got a scholarship at a weekend music center, which I went to from the age of 10 to 18 — so every Friday night and Saturday morning I was doing extra music, mostly classical.

This was in High Wycombe, at a music center that is still going. You got to do choir, theory, musicianship, a couple of instruments, and wind orchestra or orchestra, depending on what you were playing. It was really good, really good. Without all that extra weekend activity I am sure that I would not be a musician now.

TM: For those of us in the USA the English educational system is a mystery. What sort of schools did you go to?

KA: I went to a very ordinary state primary and middle school until the age of 12, and in Buckinghamshire, you did the 12+. If you passed you went to a grammar school, so I went to a girl’s grammar school for the next six years, up to eighteen. It works in different ways all over the country, so you can have non-fee-paying grammar schools, but you still pass an exam to get there. There are private schools, independent schools, and state schools.

TM: To have a public school that is just boys or just girls in the USA is very unusual. What was the music like there?

KA: It was quite traditional, but very good. I was the only one, when I was sixteen to eighteen, who was picked to do two music A-levels — I did theoretical music and practical music. The exams were quite intense, actually, but I was given one-to-one tuition to do that.

TM: You were singing, and playing flute, and piano. Do you still play flute and piano?

KA: I play quite a lot of piano. I am a bit of a jobbing piano player — I couldn’t give a concert, but I play piano in one of my bands, and for all of my teaching. I should pick up my flute. One of my New Year’s resolutions last year was to pick up my flute again, and I played it once, on about January the fifth! I am just too busy.

TM: Did you listen to pop, or rock, or jazz? World music?

KA: Jazz: not until a lot later. I listened mostly just to pop music, influenced by what was in the charts. When I was ten I was into Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan! By the time that I was sixteen, it was lots of British indie bands and a bit of hip-hop. I was a slow developer — you get a lot of prodigious talents who are listening to Berio at age seven, or John Coltrane at age nine… I was just not like that!

TM: When you left grammar, you went on to university.

KA: At York University. It has a fabulous music department — I will praise it to the hilt, because it’s brilliant, and I had the time of my life there. I did a degree in music, and stayed on and did a Masters in Composition. Then I did a Ph.D in Composition, first part-time, while I was living in London, and then I went up and finished it off full-time. All in all, I was at York for about nine years. So I must really like the place!

TM: We Americans have no sense of scale for England. How far was York from London by train?

KA: Just under two hours.

TM: It seems like it must be impossibly far north, if you think of Michael Palin and his Yorkshire accent.

KA: It’s a great city. For me moving from a slightly dull town to a bijou city was a really good move. There was just enough culture there for me to ease myself in — it would have been a shock if I had moved to London straightaway.

I think the department is starting to change now, actually. For a long time you could choose all the modules that you wanted to do — you didn’t have to do a rigorous training in theory and orchestration and music history — you went straight in and did loads of practical, fun projects. You could choose a project a term, from Popular Music to studying Debussy, from Electroacoustic Composition to Community Music — you could mix and match, and tailor your degree to suit you.

TM: Which did you choose?

KA: I did Popular Music early on, and did a hip-hop project. I have always really loved hip-hop. I revisited it for my MA, and did a seminar on the history of hip-hop, or the way it was then. I did Debussy, and Music Education which was very valuable, because I do so much music education now. I did a lot of composition, and I ended up doing a lot of music theater — experimental music theater, not musical theater — as director, producer, or musical director, and sometimes a performer. And I ended up singing. I have never really had any singing lessons, although now a lot of my living is singing. I was exposed to so much there - being in choirs, and singing a lot of new music — that it got me to where I am now.

TM: At what point did you decide that you wanted to be doing composition?

KA: At sixteen. I wanted to go to a college, like the Royal College of Music, and was encouraged not to by my music teachers, who thought that a university department with a real spread of musical activities would be much better for me than just having a composition degree. I wouldn’t have ended up singing had I done composition at the Royal College, had I even been given the place.

There are great composers teaching at York: Roger Marsh, Bill Brooks, Nicola LeFanu, who has just retired recently. Roger Marsh was my teacher for quite a few years, and he was a big influence.

TM: Could you say a little more about those two?

KA: Nicola LeFanu was the head of the department when I started. She writes very beautiful, often quite detailed contemporary classical work, which has included several operas. Roger Marsh has written experimental music theater works, music using interesting texts, and music drawing on Japanese music, which is something that I have gotten into as well.

TM: Were there particular models of composition that he was imparting?

KA: No, it was quite open. You studied a lot of twentieth-century music, and eventually you wrote your own pieces. What was great about York was that there was such a strong culture of not just writing new music, but playing and performing it, so students were willing and ready to try out your work. It was a fantastic environment for trying out new ideas.

TM: What choirs did you sing in at York?

KA: They had a chamber choir and a larger university choir. The chamber choir split so that there was an extra small chamber choir just for performing new music, and I was quite involved in that one. There is now a really good ensemble called The 24 which solely performs new music, and that is run by the great tenor John Potter, who is a great influence on the group that I am in, juice. He’s been instrumental in developing the new music side of the vocal department at York. He’s recorded John Dowland songs with the likes of double bass player Barry Guy and saxophonist John Surman, he works extensively with Gavin Bryars, and has an ensemble called Red Byrd — he’s fabulous.

TM: Yes indeed. Perhaps you could talk about your choral music. So much sacred music is in such poor taste, and your works are fresh and different, but still drawing on the English choral tradition. What would you say are the sources for your inspiration?

KA: Although I sang in a church choir for many years, it was a Catholic choir, and we weren’t singing wonderful pieces by Howells [said with a smile], or Stanford or Parry, or anything like that. I did sing quite a lot of good sacred music once I was at university.

The choral music I write comes from a mixture of the little church music that I have known, but mostly from listening to much more experimental vocal ensemble music or choral music by people like — I know you won’t think it from listening to dusksongs — Berio and Xenakis and lots of Meredith Monk. At university I didn’t write traditional choral music — I wrote quite experimental works. The reason that I have ended up writing a lot of decently successful choral music is because I entered a piece in the Temple Church Choir Composition Competition, and won. From that Oxford University Press, who are my main publishers, asked me to write a piece, and it’s just developed from there. The commission from the Ebor Singers for dusksongs came from my having established myself with the OUP publications, and the fact that they know me from York, since it is a York-based ensemble.

I am interested in vocal music generally, so although I have written a lot of sacred choral music, it’s because I have been asked to. Even though I grew up in the Catholic Church, I am a total atheist now, quite emphatically so.

I am really interested in words as well. I am interested in vocal music because I love writing, and have always written poetry, some of which has been published in small presses. I have written lots of lyrics. What I always enjoy doing, and this is also true for the sacred music, is just responding to the words. That’s the most important thing. I try to find a way to make words as interesting and illuminating as possible.

TM: To go back a little, what piece was it that won the competition?

KA: A piece called maranatha. It was for the first of the Temple Church Choir Composition Competitions in 2002. They gave a number of texts that you might want to set for a five-minute choral work. The first text was just one word — maranatha. It is Aramaic, and means “Lord, come!” or “The Lord has come”. At the time, at university, I had been getting into setting really small bits of text, splitting them up, using just tiny bits of words, and exploring their sonic possibilities. I decided to choose that word, maranatha, because it was the shortest, along with the fact that it has these two meanings. I explored the sounds of the mmm — aaa — rrrr aaa—naa-tha. The piece won, and Faber Music decided to publish it. It was a good start.

TM: What came next?

KA: O lux beata Trinitas, which Oxford University Press asked me to do, to be included in a book of anthems, for quite competent choirs; from the suggested texts I chose a lovely Latin one. I like to combine languages, so there was Latin and English, with the two going alongside each other. Paul Gameson got the Ebors to perform it, and they liked it so much that they thought they would create a commission using this as a starting point. And so the Compline Mass, dusksongs, has O lux beata Trinitas as its final movement.

TM: You have various other venues as a performer. Could you talk about juice?

KA: juice (www.juicevocalensemble.net) is a trio that I co-founded with Sarah Dacy and Anna Snow. We all went to York, so we have all come from that brilliant vocal department, and been influenced by the likes of John Potter, and all the music we were exposed to — Berio, John Cage, Meredith Monk. We had sung together a little bit at university and found that we had a rapport, and when we all moved to London in 2003 we officially formed the group. We are an experimental vocal trio coming from a contemporary classical tradition, which is still our core, but we are also really interested in singing elements of folk music, world music, jazz and pop, as long as there is something a little bit twisted or experimental about it. We try to put quite eclectic programs together. We’ll do music with electronics, or electronics and visuals, a little bit of music theater, sometimes collaborations…

TM: Is there a CD out yet, or is that on the way?

KA: This year hopefully! We’re part of a loose alternative classical scene in London, with other groups like ours mixing contemporary classical with elements of pop or electronica. Other groups are the Elysian Quartet, Sarah Nicolls, a pianist who does a lot of stuff with electronics, and Gabriel Prokofiev, who is a composer and DJ, and runs the ‘nonclassical’ label, which we should be on in 2010. We hope to start recording soon, and it will be out at some point later in the year.

TM: Music for just voices?

KA: It’s still undecided, actually. Gabriel’s initial albums on nonclassical were his own string quartets, for the Elysian Quartet, where you would have a four-movement quartet, which he would get DJs and producers to remix, so you have a part-acoustic, part-remixed album. That’s generally the format of the nonclassical releases so far. Gabriel and juice are trying to decide if it will be just a cappella, or juice and electronics, or a cappella pieces and remixes.

TM: You mentioned the various influences on juice. How do these filter into your life? Do you seek them out?

KA: It’s a real mixture. It’s from recommendations, it’s me finding artists on MySpace, searching around online….All of juice’s ears prick up when we hear a group or a vocalist doing something new and exciting with their voices. We’re big fans of Zap Mama, who are quite an influence on us. Do you know them?

TM: They were big in the United States.

KA: A lot bigger than they were in the UK.

TM: They were huge — everybody knew who they were.

KA: Their first album was a big influence.

TM: Tell me about your alt-folk thing.

KA: I have been working on my own solo stuff for about a year, under the name You Are Wolf (www.myspace.com/youarewolf). I wanted to explore folk music, because it was something I had listened to for the last fifteen years — English folk music in particular. I have been arranging English folk songs using a loop station, which enables me to perform basically solo, feeding my voice into the loop station, and building up vocal layers around the songs.

TM: You mentioned enjoying twisting music with juice. How do you twist around the folk music?

KA: The first song on my soon-to-be-self-released EP is called “All things are quite silent”, which I picked up from an English folksong book, just the melody and the words. I have never heard a recording, so I didn’t come to it with any preconceptions. I learnt the tune, and developed a layered vocal version, where I take a couple of bits of the beginning of the folksong, and create loops out of those that go on underneath. I explore treating my voice, making it sound like the sea, bleeps, whistles, and cracks, and I tried to turn it into a very dark song. It’s about a girl losing her man to the sea — he’s gone off to be a sailor. The last verse is faintly optimistic, where she hopes he will come back soon. I sing those words, but underneath I produce all these cracking, creaking, nasty-sounding effects from my voice which suggest that …

TM: …he’s not coming back.

KA: There’s a lashing sea and wind…I guess that’s a good example of twisting it up.

TM: How do you integrate Berio and Xenakis? I know the Cries of London by Berio, but I wouldn’t have thought of Xenakis as having much connection with the vocal world. It seems like it takes someone with extensive experience with the voice to write effective choral music.

KA: I agree — that is usually the case. I say Xenakis because I studied his piece Nuits which is a really good choral work with lots of microtonal writing, all in these lovely little blocks. It was an influence on me because I have been interested in having lots of vocal lines doing very similar things all at once.

I teach a lot of projects on composing for voice with juice, and we always say “sing your music”. Even if you are not a singer, don’t sing in a choir or in public, it’s all about getting it in your voice. Sometimes you get composers who write difficult, angular things for the voice that don’t feel very natural. That’s not to say that you can’t write difficult, angular material for the voice, but some work better than others. I always recommend singing your parts, just to see if it generally feels natural, works with the words, and works within the range of the voice.

It’s very useful to be in juice, and have so much experience about how a vocal ensemble works. Knowing how voices relate to each other when you haven’t got any backing, any piano or organ or anything else, knowing about voice-leading and tuning. I am lucky that a lot of that comes naturally to me because I have done so much of it. That said, I can’t write a string quartet to save my life! It’s what you know.

TM: The composers who take this route to composition are few. In 1500, in England, if you were a composer, you were a singer, but not anymore.

Frequently there seems to be a connection between the scene for early music and the contemporary music scene, with musicians who may not do much in between doing both sixteenth and twenty-first century music, for example. Is there a connection for you between the early music scene and what you do?

KA: Not really!

TM: Though you mentioned John Potter.

KA: John Potter is someone who makes that connection, both as a soloist with his John Dowland work for example, and in his previous work in the Hilliard Ensemble. Trio Medieval are another ensemble who sing mostly early music, but do some contemporary music as well. If you sing early music you have a straighter voice which, perhaps, suits a lot of contemporary writing. It depends.

I quite like listening to early music, and I personally love a straight vocal sound, both in choral music and in solo or small ensemble singing. But juice doesn’t sing any early music — we are all about the now!

TM: Are there other areas you are moving into or would like to explore further?

KA: I am in two other bands, actually. I sing with a group called Metamorphic, who are a jazz sextet, doing original jazz. I also co-founded DOLLYman (you can hear us at myspace.com/dollyman). Until recently we were a four-piece group, all from York at some point, with me singing and playing some piano, melodica and glockenspiel. We have James Lindsay, a cellist who also sings and plays keys, Matt Dibble who is a fantastic clarinet and sax player, and Lucy Mulgan, who is a bass player. We have spent a couple of years having a lot of fun. It’s not professional, it’s just fun. We all write material for the band which is sort of jazz……..ish. There’s a bit of jazz, a bit of experimental classical music as well, a bit of pop. And now we’ve got a drummer, Pat Moore, so we feel more like a proper band - ha!

TM: Is there a CD in the offing?

KA: We are talking about recording this month or next month, but I can’t make any promises!

TM: What sort of jazz does Metamorphic play?

KA: The pianist and band founder, Laura Cole, would say Kenny Wheeler, Moondog, Bjork, Radiohead, Keith Jarrett and many more. And we are doing some recording this year as well — I can’t keep up with it!

TM: I’m at a loss for words. Your projects are so various. Is this something true for your generation? Or is it just your path?

KA: There are lots of people in my age group who are doing a lot of different musical activities. I could name my friend Laura Moody, who is the cellist in the Elysian Quartet, but who has developed solo leftfield pop for cello and voice, and also plays cello in the West End. Gabriel Prokofiev is another — he’s a DJ, a contemporary classical composer, a producer — he produces a grime artist called Lady Sovereign who is on the UK’s celebrity Big Brother at the moment.

I don’t know if it is because you have to be multi-disciplinary these days to be successful, or just because you simply enjoy being that way. I just love all sorts of music, and slowly over the last ten, fifteen years I have been finding my way through that. You just keep following your path until another opportunity appears, and then you follow that one, and you might have a few paths you are going down in the end. I also think that it is practical as a professional musician today to have fingers in lots of pies — you never know what will take off and won’t.

TM: This seems immensely different from the generation of Birtwistle and Davies.

KA: Birtwistle hates pop music!!! He hates it! [laughs]. It is a different generation. There is a problem with kids not being exposed to any classical music or creative music making, or at least hardly any. Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies came out of a time when they did do a lot of that in school, and that’s fantastic.

It’s just the way the world is. You are exposed to so much music. I have the shortest attention span. I can listen to half a track on MySpace and say “yeah. Next! Next!” But I think it’s awful to damn pop music. Most people listen to just pop music, and there’s a reason for that. Lots of it is really great, and gets you going [looks serious and nods head] or [mock-cries] or [dances] or a doing bit of all of those. You shouldn’t dismiss it.

TM: You mentioned no string quartets, and I presume there’s no solo piano music from your pen yet. Do you see moving in that direction at some point, or is that of no interest?

KA: It would be of interest….I did a lot of vocal music at university, and it’s been like a stone gathering moss as it rolls downhill. I often regret that I haven’t, alongside that, been writing loads of orchestral works and chamber music…but that’s just the way it is! If a string quartet asked me to write one, then I would!

Some of the music that I have written for DOLLYman would fit happily into a contemporary classical music concert, so I have made my own opportunities, I suppose. I would love to write more theatrical works, and ask instrumentalists to be part of that.

TM: If you look ten years down the road, where would you see yourself, musically?

KA: I would hope that all of the things I am in involved in at the moment were ten times as successful as they are now.

TM: Who would you like to have commission you?

KA: I have become so used to linking performance and composition that just thinking of myself solely as a composer can be hard… The absolute ideal would be Bang on a Can All-Stars, because they are interested in the sort of music as I am. The Elysian Quartet. I would almost be more interested in being commissioned by the fantastic Scandinavian pop group Efterklang, or Antony Hegarty, or Björk — people interested in the outer limits, but still within pop music.

TM: Are there other activities you would like to mention?

KA: Keeping up with tradition of Britten, Maxwell Davies and co, I do a huge amount of educational and community work. This is both as a workshop leader, performer and composer, with organisations like Wigmore Hall, Trinity College, Drake Music, Creative Partnerships, Live Music Now and others. It feels valuable, and it’s good to be delivering some high-quality musical experiences to kids.

I also curate an occasional experimental vocal night, Gobsmack, in London, through the music networking organization Music Orbit. And I’m a keen blogger — both on my own cultural life (http://de-composing.blogspot.com) and sporadically on football (www.feverbitch.com)!

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Kerry%20Andrew%20%282%29.png image_description=Kerry Andrew

product=yes producttitle=An Interview with Kerry Andrew productby=By Tom Moore

Posted by Gary at 12:27 PM

War and Peace at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow

By Richard Morrison [Times Online, 25 January 2010]

It was a British opera company — Sadler’s Wells, in 1972 — that presented the first complete staging of Prokofiev’s Tolstoy adaptation. Now a remarkable Scottish-Russian collaboration has led to the world premiere of this epic masterpiece in its original version. And it is startlingly different. Where is the ear-splitting choral roar that usually opens the work? Or those tractor-thumping anthems to indomitable Russian peasants and their saintly leaders?

Posted by Gary at 9:10 AM

Dido and Aeneas by Les Arts Florissants

Producers of opera certainly wish it, for they turn to Dido all the time, in every sort of production and circumstance. Dido, brief and elementary as it is, is a complete work, even “grand” (as William Christie suggests in this DVD’s supplemental film), in the range of emotions it takes us through, the completeness of the story we are asked to feel, the “Shakespearean” variation (as director Deborah Warner suggests in the same film) between heroic tragedy and madcap humor. Dido repays every sort of effort, from amateur to elitist.

Les Arts Florissants are more familiar from their grandiose productions of such works as Lully’s Atys, Charpentier’s Medée, Rameau’s Les Boréades and Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno di Ulisse, but Dido might have almost been composed with their gracious style in mind. Deborah Warner’s production plunks the characters down in a girls’ school (the site of Purcell’s original commission), and leaves the girls such duties as mimed history, shrieking courtiers, masked demons and so on, which they acquit with brio. An inserted prologue presents actress Fiona Shaw reciting (and enacting) Ted Hughes’s version of “Echo and Narcissus” and some bits of Eliot and Yeats on love affairs gone awry, just to put us in the mood for Arcady and broken hearts in lieu of an overture. (Purcell’s, if it ever existed, is lost.)

What follows is always delicious to watch: muscular tumblers writhing together while suspended from the ceiling represent a visible thunderstorm, the sorceress demonstrates her evil by puffing a cig, while her goth attendants snort cocaine in Madonna lingerie, the “spirit” they invoke gives Aeneas’s valet a talking seizure, and Dido takes poison and goes blind, reaching for Belinda’s hand, and fading away in her arms. The set is classic, court and pool and glade, against a shimmering curtain of metallic beads, filmed in Paris’s sumptuous — but not dauntingly enormous — Opéra-Comique.

Delicious too the performances: Malena Erdman’s delicate Dido, each phrase sweet with ardor or drawn out in pain, bustling Judith van Wanroij’s Belinda the motherly confidante, Christopher Maltman’s robust (if sometimes wobbling) Aeneas, Hilary Summers’s louche and envious Sorceress. The English diction of this international company is exceptional: you won’t need titles, even for the choruses. An orchestra of twenty ranges emotionally over the cues of Purcell’s music and Tate’s libretto.

The supplementary film interviews Christie (in French) on the edition of Purcell used and where and why enhanced or revised (it is unclear whether the score as we have it is complete, or exactly when or why it was composed), Warner (in English) on her inspiration from the girls’ school idea and the body of “Arcadian” myth and poetry that Purcell’s audience would have known, but requires a refresher for most modern viewers — so that she and Christie and Fiona Shaw came up with the classically referenced prologue and other references within the staging, to Dido’s earlier widowhood, to Troy’s fate, to Rome’s destiny, and to Diana and Actaeon.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Dido_FRA.png image_description=FRA Musica FRA 001 product=yes product_title=Henry Purcell: Dido and Aeneas product_by=Malena Ernman (Dido), Judith van Wanroij (Belinda), Hilary Summers (Sorceress), Céline Ricci (First Witch), Ana Quintans (Second Witch); Christopher Maltman (Aeneas), Marc Mauillon (Spirit), Damian Whiteley (Sailor). Prologue: Fiona Shaw. Les Arts Florissants, conducted by William Christie. Directed by Deborah Warner, sets and costumes by Chloe Obolensky. Produced by Opéra Comique in cooperation with De Nederlandse Opera and des Wiener Festwochen. Film by François Roussillon. Supplement: A vision of Dido and Aeneas, with William Christie and Deborah Warner. FRA Musica and Opéra Comique. 66 minutes, subtitled. Film: 23 minutes. product_id=FRA Musica FRA 001 [DVD] price=$26.99 product_url=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B002QXI2N6
Posted by Gary at 8:47 AM

January 24, 2010

Opera review: Long Beach Opera stages 'Good Soldier Schweik'

By Mark Swed [LA Times, 24 January 2010]

Robert Kurka’s “The Good Soldier Schweik” is a sassy opera. Long Beach Opera is a sassy company. So there was never need to wonder whether this plucky American cult opera from the 1950s should suit the American opera company known for its profuse pluck. Of course it did Saturday night in an entertaining production at Center Theater of the Long Beach Performing Arts Center that will be repeated in Santa Monica on Saturday.

Posted by Gary at 5:42 PM

January 22, 2010

Fischer, NSO mine the beauty in 'Das Lied von der Erde'

By Anne Midgette [Washington Post, 22 January 2010]

The tenor begins with a drinking song and ends with a drinking song. The mezzo-soprano begins and ends with one of the most haunting oboe melodies in the orchestral literature.

Posted by Gary at 6:13 PM

Il Mondo della Luna (The World on the Moon)

Haydn is often considered the father of the symphony, the string quartet and the piano sonata, but he is seldom mentioned in an operatic context. That’s not because he wasn’t any good at it — he was often very good. But he was seldom consistently good at opera, and he never found — or sought, maybe — the sort of mature libretto that would display his talents as Lorenzo da Ponte displayed those of Mozart, Salieri and Martin y Soler. Haydn’s operas seem a series of amiable misfires with charming moments — but I’ve only attended seven of them, and none were his grand operas, Armida and Orlando Paladino, which may play differently.

As the operatic world scours forgotten and therefore fresh scores, Haydn, a familiar name, is bound to seem appealing even without Maria Theresa’s imprimatur (“Whenever I want to hear good opera, I go to Esterhàza,” she said, probably as much to goad the management of her court theater back in Vienna as to compliment her host). Haydn’s style is familiar to us, all modern opera singers being trained to perform Mozart, and the forces required are seldom large.

Carlo_Goldoni.gifCarlo Goldoni, librettist

Il Mondo della Luna, using a popular libretto by Goldoni that was set by everyone from Galuppi to Paisiello, is a typical buffo tale of a rich old fool, Buonafede (“good faith”), opposed to the marriage of his two daughters and their maid to the three impecunious men they love, with the sly twist that the old coot has a hobby: astronomy. One of the boyfriends, Ecclitico (“ecliptic”), is a charlatan astrologer who pretends to transport the old boy to the moon. Buonafede, presented to the lunar emperor, is dazzled by Lunatic mores and court etiquette (Maria Theresa probably loved this part), but he regrets his womenfolk are missing the fun. Quicker than you can say, “May the farce be with you,” they arrive! — beamed by transporter, one presumes. The emperor marries the venal maid, Lisetta, and his chamberlain and master of ceremonies wed the two daughters. Wedding hymns are sung in the Lunatic tongue. Buonafede is puzzled that the girls already speak it so well, and though furious when he learns he has been bamboozled, accepts the fait accompli. In the full libretto, he reflects philosophically that you really need to travel to get the right perspective on life back home — but the moral was one of Gotham Chamber Opera’s omissions.

Gotham has created one of the more dazzling entertainments of the New York season by presenting this nonsense in the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History, replete with instrument panels, space suits (the elegant and witty costumes are by Anka Lupes), globular space helmets, acrobatic “moon nymphs” and above it all, on the 180-degree dome, shooting stars, exploding galaxies, shots of earth and the moon, and the wildest light show since psychedelia fell from fashion. Viewers of a certain age (mine) may recall The Saint in its heyday, but the music was better at the planetarium and the show a lot shorter. The whole run has sold out, and it’s hard to imagine anyone attending who would not gladly go again.

The one exception I would take is, in fact, to the evening’s brevity. Over-anxious not to bore, music director Neal Goren and director Diane Paulus may have left too much out. Over half the opera was omitted — on the grounds, Goren says, that the cuts were less than top-drawer Haydn. That may be true, and no one wants more secco recitative “dialogue” than we absolutely need, but confining most of the singers to one aria apiece means the characters are one-dimensional, silhouettes of slight interest or humanity. You cannot tell the sisters apart, for one thing — from the synopsis in the program, I’m not sure which one marries which lover — and you do not know or care if their feelings are sincere. In a farce, someone ought to want something sincerely or the crazy shenanigans aren’t as funny; there’s no contrast. You need Kitty Carlisle as a backdrop for the Marx Brothers.

In Il Mondo della Luna, Gotham goes for constant entertainment rather than letting the drama merely rest, at any point, upon the skills of the singers, the beauty of the often wonderful music. This is a current trend, and those of us who like singing may find that, fun as it is, it can go too far in an MTV direction. On the plus side, it sure was fun.

It would be difficult to single out any performer among the seven flawless players of this ensemble cast. Marco Nisticò seemed to be enjoying himself as the bubbling blowhard Buonafede, and he had the most to do, swinging hips as he ornamented his arias. Nicholas Coppolo gets special notice for being so slimy a phony as Ecclitico and then leaping seamlessly into the role of ardent lover to sing a rapturous duet with his Clarice (Hanan Alattar — or was it Flaminia, Albina Shagimuratova? Well, each one had an aria, and both were excellent). Rachel Calloway, as pert Lisetta, demonstrated the swagger of a chambermaid is exactly the right style for an empress. Timothy Kuhn sang an alluring love song to himself — director Paulus’s idea, not Haydn’s, but charming in context, and Matthew Tuell triumphed as the spunky valet who ascends to the lunatic throne. This was far and away the best all-around cast I have encountered in a Gotham production, each of them worthy at the very least of another aria or one of the omitted da capos. They were also all Lucy-ready farceurs — though a very little “disco” dancing in eighteenth-century costume goes a long way, and after an hour of it one wondered if director Paulus had run out of ideas or was simply bored by the characters. The Gotham orchestra played music that was always pleasant and sometimes heavenly.

Impossible to discuss the event and not mention Philip Bussmann, credited with Video and Production Design, who made a charming evening a spectacular one. And the Gotham team for dreaming this up, and the Museum of Natural History for recognizing a major opportunity when it came their way.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/IL-MONDO-Photo-1-small.gif image_description=Nicholas Coppolo and Hanan Alattar [Photo by Richard Termine courtesy of Gotham Chamber Opera] product=yes product_title=Franz Joseph Haydn: Il Mondo della Luna (The World on the Moon) product_by=Clarice: Hanan Alattar; Flaminia: Albina Shagimuratova; Lisetta: Rachel Calloway; Ecclitico: Nicholas Coppolo; Cecco: Matthew Tuell; Ernesto: Timothy Kuhn; Buonafede: Marco Nisticò. Gotham Chamber Opera at the Rose Center Planetarium, American Museum of Natural History, conducted by Neal Goren. Performance of January 20. product_id=Above: Nicholas Coppolo and Hanan Alattar [Photo by Richard Termine courtesy of Gotham Chamber Opera]
Posted by Gary at 10:56 AM

Respighi — Works for solo voice and orchestra

Among his works for solo voice and orchestra, are settings of texts by the English poet Shelley, Aretusa [“Arethusa”] (1910-11), and La Sensitiva [“The Sensitive Plant”] (1914). (Respighi composed a third piece with a text by Shelley, Il Tramonto [“The Sunset”], a work with string quartet, even though it is sometimes performed by string orchestra, but it is not included in this recording.)

This recording of La Sensitiva is an engaging piece because of the florid vocal line and the evocative accompaniment. The sonorities are reminiscent of some of his tone poems, with solo wind timbres and richly scored strings. As full as the orchestra can be, Respighi never allows the scoring to obscure the voice, and in this recording Damiana Pinti offers a fine reading of the text. Her voice is resonant and textured, as the singer uses various shadings to color the line. As clear as her middle and lower registers are, Pinti has a clear and even upper range, which serves the piece well. Moreover, in the sustained passages, Pinti’s tones have a fine shape, which underscores her carefully enunciated text. While Respighi is known for his instrumental piece, those familiar with his music may wish to hear this vocal setting, which serves Shelley’s text well, which is served well through its translation into Italian. Yet the accompaniment not only supports the voice in this piece, but reinforces the mood and sense of the text. If some aspects of Respighi’s programmatic music emerge in this work, it is not unwelcome, but certainly another means of appreciating this extended piece for solo voice and orchestra.

A similar piece, Aretusa, is equally colorful, as the orchestral accompaniment serves to reinforce the meaning of the text. These somewhat programmatic gestures offer some contrast to the relatively declamatory vocal line. Pinti offers as expressive a reading of Aretusa as she does in La Sensitiva. Here, here the sometimes rich and dark shadings are impressive, and Pinti is good to shape the line through her pacing and dynamics; likewise, Marzio Conti provides solid leadership of the orchestra. With music like this, where the accompaniment intersects the vocal line, the clean entrances and precise releases are crucial to executing the pieces well.

The other work on this disc is the ballet La Pentola Magica (1920), one of the composer’s five ballets, the best known being La Boutique Fantasque, (1918), which is based on music originally composed by Gioacchino Rossini. La Pentola Magica, translated as “The Magic Plot” is work in two parts, which conveys a fable about a Russian princess who longs for a handsome young prince to relieve her of her boredom. Despite attempts to entertain the princess, she is enchanted by the song of a Russian peasant. The peasant dances around a purportedly magic pot, and the princess wants it, since it appears to have supernatural properties. Ultimately the peasant will surrender the pot for kisses from the princess. The court astrologer shows the czar what is happening, and he throws a shoe at his daughter. Yet after she repulses the peasant, the peasant reveals himself as a handsome prince, and the work ends with the princess weeping for her loss.

La Pentola Magica contains some engaging music, not only in its evocation of the Russian court, but also in the entertainments for the princess, as found in the dance of the Armenian slave. Respighi used the opportunity to create some colorful episodes. While Respighi makes use of chromaticism, his harmonic structures remain solidly tonal; dissonances occur, sometimes to offer some color, but the music is never atonal.

All in all, the three pieces found in this recording offer a different side of Respighi than found in the more familiar tone poems about Italian subjects. While it is possible to find some contrast to those tone poems in the suites of Ancient Airs and Dances, the settings of poetry by Shelley are good examples of Respighi’s vocal writing. At the same time the ballet La Pentola Magica demonstrates yet another side of the composer’s musical imagination, which is given a convincing interpretation by Conti and the Orchestra Sinfonica del Teatro Massimo di Palermo. The sound on the CPO recording is clear and distinct, and this supports the colorful scoring that characterizes Respighi’s music.

James L. Zychowicz

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Respighi_Pentola.gif image_description=Respighi: La Pentola product=yes product_title=Ottorino Respighi: La Pentola Magica, La Sensitiva, Aretusa. product_by=Damiana Pinto, mezzo soprano, Orchestra Sinfonica del Teatro Massimo di Palermo, Marzio Conti, conductor. product_id=CPO 777-071-2 [SACD] price=$16.99 product_url=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B000GQL8O0
Posted by Gary at 9:07 AM

January 21, 2010

Netrebko and Hvorostovsky, Royal Festival Hall, London

By Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 21 January 2010]

It has been a very odd winter for celebrity concerts in London. There was Cecilia Bartoli flouncing around in velvet breeches pretending to be a castrato, Bryn Terfel whip in hand as the devil, Angela Gheorghiu trailing a little-known Romanian tenor and a fleeting appearance by Renée Fleming that was over almost before it had begun.

Posted by Gary at 9:29 AM

Monteverdi, 1610: Vespers to Usher in the Baroque

By James R. Oestreich [NY Times, 21 January 2010]

As Monteverdi’s magnificent 1610 Vespers gathers momentum in its inexorable march through a big anniversary year, it quickly becomes evident that comparisons, however odious, are inevitable. This vast canvas from the dawn of the Baroque — formally, the “Vespro Della Beata Vergine” (“Vespers of the Blessed Virgin”) — offers such a rich ground for competing scholarly views and conjecture that performances differ radically, one shedding light on another.

Posted by Gary at 8:31 AM

January 20, 2010

Norma, Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris

By Francis Carlin [Financial Times, 20 January 2010]

Meet Amy Winehouse’s double as she joins her friends at the Charenton asylum and gives Norma the Marat/Sade treatment.

Posted by Gary at 9:27 AM

January 19, 2010

For Verdi, Masquerading as a Baritone

By Anthony Tommasini [NY Times, 19 January 2010]

In 1959, when he was 18, Plácido Domingo auditioned for the National Opera in Mexico City as a baritone. The jury was impressed but told Mr. Domingo that he was really a tenor. Two years later he sang his first lead tenor role, Alfredo in Verdi’s “Traviata” in Monterrey. And so began one of the great tenor careers in opera history.

Posted by Gary at 5:12 PM

Simon Boccanegra, Metropolitan Opera, New York

By Martin Bernheimer [Financial Times, 19 January 2010]

Most singers spend their autumnal days pasting carefully censored clippings into their scrapbooks and boring their grandchildren with exaggerated tales of distant triumphs. Domingo, who celebrates his 69th birthday tomorrow, knows nothing about resting on laurels. In fact, he knows nothing about resting.

Posted by Gary at 5:08 PM

Operatic Italian

Pulling operatic libretti from Mozart to Verdi, Thomson introduces the student to word-for-word translation, grammatical concepts, and the natural pronunciation and cadence of the language, while unfolding this intricate language in a practical and applicable manner.

Thomson’s main premise for using libretti as source material is that the language of the libretto is filled with literary, poetic and old-fashioned vocabulary devices. The current language learning paradigm found in university language courses aims to teach the student vocabulary and grammar to survive and thrive in that particular modern country. Basic themes include food, travel, and paying for a bus ticket. While practical information for the average Italian learner, music students would be hard-pressed to find an opera entitled Dovè la mia valigia? with which to apply this knowledge.

Operatic Italian is well organized and direct, introducing each libretto example with it’s corresponding musical score, IPA translation, English word-for-word translation, and marked accents for atypical words. Thomson’s goals for the student are to 1) recognize parts of speech 2) understand verb tenses and their functions 3) develop an understanding of grammar peculiarities found in literature. Chapter topics of particular interest to the music student include pronunciation and developing an Italian accent, understanding what is lost in translation from Italian to English, what to appreciate in libretti, and Dante’s influence on Italian literature (opera libretti included).

Operatic Italian would make a fantastic textbook for a conservatory or university where opera students are required to develop a working knowledge of this language. This text also would serve as a fantastic source for seasoned musicians or opera-lovers to deepen their understanding of the language from a literary standpoint, and bridge the gap from their rudimentary knowledge of Italian to a fuller understanding of the richness and depth found in classic Italian literature.

Sarah Luebke

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Operatic_Italian.gif image_description=Operatic Italian product=yes product_title=Operatic Italian product_by=By Robert Stuart Thomson, Ph.D. Godwin Books, Victoria, Canada. 2009 product_id=ISBN: 0-9696774-7-2 price=$35.00 product_url=http://www.godwinbooks.com/howtoorder.html
Posted by Gary at 8:57 AM

January 18, 2010

La Boheme at the Grand, Leeds

By Hilary Finch [Times Online, 19 January 2010]

If you really do wish that it was Christmas every day, then tag along with Opera North’s winter tour, and you’ll get lashings of snow and Father Christmas right up to March. The gentlemen with the long snowy beards prance around the Café Momus, adding to the scarlet, white and black of Phyllida Lloyd’s still handsome 17-year-old production, now revived, somewhat patchily, by Peter Relton.

Posted by Gary at 11:59 PM

Henze weekend, Barbican, London

By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 18 January 2010]

Having fallen from the public eye in Britain in recent years, Hans Werner Henze basked in the limelight of this two-day tribute involving the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Frankfurt-based Ensemble Modern. With two substantial UK premieres, plus a cross-section of symphonic, piano and vocal music, the weekend did credit to everyone - not least the 83-year-old composer, looking frail but alert as he stood to acknowledge the hefty applause.

Posted by Gary at 5:14 PM

Stiffelio at the MET

You can’t say the composer was at the height of his powers, because he got better still. But there are stumbling blocks along any path to greatness, and Stiffelio long appeared to be one of them.

Verdi had great hopes for the piece. He was gradually renouncing the hackneyed traditions, seeking out new ways of expressing drama and new sorts of drama for Italian opera to express. A play about the love life of an evangelical minister — a married priest — struck him, as it would strike any discerning Italian of the day, as deliciously original — unfortunately, the Italian audience of 1850 simply found it weird. The minister in question, Stiffelio, is not only married, he’s the lead tenor in an Italian opera — stranger still. His wife has been seduced by a bounder — which means, in any Italian opera, the tenor ought to kill the fellow and perhaps his wife as well. The audience expected no less — on the stage — though in private life, even then, married couples often simply agreed to live apart with their subsequent partners and sometimes, in Verdi’s time and circle, managed to divorce. But Stiffelio, as a man of the cloth, much as he might want to kill, cannot do so. In the end, he cannot even fail to forgive his wife, on the advice of Jesus in re the matter of the woman taken in adultery and casting the first stone. The multiple ironies were precisely what tickled Verdi and led him to compose Stiffelio — but they went too far for the Italians, even the sophisticated audience of Trieste (polyglot Austro-Hungarians, not peasants). The opera failed. Verdi revised the score as Aroldo, but that only removed the priestly tang that made the opera interesting to begin with.

Stiffelio, says Julian Budden, is “worthy to stand beside its successor,” Rigoletto. Not exactly. Stiffelio’s a sturdy piece, full of attractive numbers and fascinating scenes, great fun for any lover of Verdi — but it is deeply flawed. Verdi threw out two early acts of the play on which he based the opera, and the personality of his villain went with them. The heroine’s motivations for her lapse are never clear either — Verdi focuses on her morbid regret. Stiffelio is the only rounded character, and him too we see only from the outside, never examining his own feelings — as Rigoletto does, and Violetta, and Otello, and King Philip, and even the Count di Luna and poor Master Ford. We see Stiffelio is torn, we feel his pain — but Verdi doesn’t prove he is worth our comprehension. The new musical language that would suit this new sort of drama did not come to him — he was still inventing it.

The opera, then, is rough-hewn — vigorous but shallow, workmanlike. Rigoletto, in contrast, is nothing of the sort — each of its pieces fits into place as tightly as a jigsaw puzzle, the characters tell us exactly as much as we need to know to care about their fate (or dislike them intensely), and yet the music is never businesslike for want of beauty or beautiful without attending to business. Stiffelio is an interesting experiment; Rigoletto is a miracle.

STIFFELIO_Cura_and_Radvanov.gifJosé Cura as Stiffelio and Sondra Radvanovsky as Lina

But good Rigolettos — and even decent Luisa Millers — are so frequent in any Verdi-lover’s life that a run of Stiffelio makes a pleasing variation. The Met’s production of Stiffelio was originally given to permit Plácido Domingo to add another tenor lead feather to his well-furbished cap. That ensured a sold-out run, and the sets were handsome and distinguished enough to attest to Domingo’s prestige, now that he merely conducts the opera. They are handsome, gaunt dark-wood veneers and furnishings, a romantic graveyard with ample space for duels, a stormy sky, a church somehow gothic on the outside (Act II) but eighteenth century within (Act III). David Kneuss has revised Giancarlo del Monaco’s direction, to the production’s decided benefit — there is now something like human psychology on the stage. (Del Monaco’s showy but often absurd stagings should be manhandled whenever possible.)

Sondra Radvanovsky, who has impressed me as Luisa Miller, Leonora (Trovatore) and Elena (in Vespri Siciliani), is a technically accomplished singer with a Met-sized voice; too, she is a slim, handsome woman and an ardent actress — a pleasant change in this role from the bovine Sharon Sweet. Radvanovsky’s Lina is very fraught, on the edge of depressive hysteria, which is as Verdi wrote her. Her voice has an interesting vibrato and expresses passion well. But there is something about its color that does not give pleasure. It is not a voice to relax with. She does not lack body or sensuality, but she lacks velvet — there is a metal, clash, a hardness, that makes her appearances thrilling but never ravishing.

José Cura sings Stiffelio. He is a pupil of Domingo’s and, like him, a conductor, and like him, a tenor with a baritonal approach. This suits Stiffelio better than most Verdi tenor roles — the part sits low, the high lines come only at emotional climaxes, and Cura does emotional climaxes well. His meditative moments are pleasing, his more passionate ones edge into growling lack of clarity. He does not always thrill at moments designed to thrill.

STIFFELIO_Dobber_as_Stankar.gifAndrzej Dobber as Stankar

Andrzej Dobber sings Stankar, a stock Verdi aggrieved father figure. When Juan Pons (in the Eve Queler Aroldo) sang this music, in the word “vergogna,” “shame,” you could hear the bile boiling up in his throat. Dobber does not attain such realism, and either he or Maestro Domingo got lost in his great Act III aria, but he sang with a clean, unforced line and a fine though dry command of Verdian legato. You can’t do Verdi without decent Verdi baritones; the world seems to be suffering a shortage, and Dobber generally holds his own. Phillip Ens sang the rich if unvaried bass role of Jorg most impressively, and Michael Fabiano made what could be made of the half-sketched-in figure of Lina’s caddish seducer, Raffaele.

For students of Verdi, the orchestration of Stiffelio gives the opera much of its interest. Maestro Domingo seemed to have trouble holding things together during the overture, but thereafter, especially in the concertato movements of the score and also in the rich scene-painting Verdi bestows on the graveyard scene, he generally kept things together and brought out the charming shades of this curious score. Still, singers sometimes had trouble following him and I remain unconvinced that conducting is among his many gifts.

John Yohalem

I returned to Stiffelio for the performance of January 19, the only cast change being the appearance - in her first major role at the Met - of Julianna Di Giacomo as Lina. Di Giacomo has a sweeter, more well-rounded soprano than Radvanovsky; if somewhat less powerful, still pleasurably audible over orchestra and ensemble. She is a young singer (early thirties), and lacks the full vocal body for later Verdi heroines just yet, but she has the intensity and the grace with ornament that his earlier roles demand. A short woman, on the plump side, she gave evidence of strong theatrical instincts, standing up for herself when Stiffelio suggests divorce, and sobbing on the ground at the conclusion of the opera in emotional exhaustion rather than stretching herself in theatrical supplication as Radvanovsky appeared to do. I had heard her before only in I Due Foscari for Opera Orchestra, an exciting night. She had a great success in Stiffelio and I would be eager to hear what she could do with Amelia Grimaldi, Luisa Miller, or the more dramatic roles of Donizetti.

Cura’s Stiffelio seemed muffled to the point of flatness, generally below the note, throughout Act II on this occasion, though his voice brightens at the top of his range. Dobber’s Stankar, his singing forceful and beautiful, gave the most constant pleasure of the night - plainly he and Maestro Domingo had sat down since last Thursday to work out the timing of that double aria. —J.Y.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Cura_Stiffelio_Met.gif image_description=José Cura as Stiffelio [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Stiffelio product_by=Lina: Sondra Radvanovksy; Stiffelio: José Cura; Stankar: Andrzej Dobber; Raffaele: Michael Fabiano; Jorg: Phillip Ens. Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, conducted by Plácido Domingo. Performance of January 14. product_id=Above: José Cura as Stiffelio

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 4:10 PM

Phaedra at the Barbican

Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep
He has awakened from the dream of life

He is a portion of the loveliness
Which once he made more lovely…

(P.B. Shelley, “Adonais”)

Oh, those androgynously desirable hunter-heroes, shattered to death by their own horses, gored on a Boar’s tusks or eaten by their own hounds… what right could they do, trying to appease horny step-mothers and adoring goddesses all at once? Henze’s latest opera (his fourteenth) feels like a story that just had to be set to music like this, the first part telling the tale of the death of Hippolytus as related by Euripides, and the second based around the Ovidian myth of the god reborn as a part of the Universe.

Those of us who grew up with The Golden Bough are in our element here, the setting of Henze’s work dealing respectively with ancient Greece and the area of Italy around Nemi (close to the composer’s home) associated with the cult of Virbius, the ‘twice man’ who is restored to life at the behest of the goddess Artemis. The merely delightful L’Upupa was going to be Henze’s last opera - ‘I think that (13) is enough’ but in 2005 he was inspired to create a new piece on the subject of the love and death of Phaedra and her stepson Hippolytus, finishing the first act before a near-fatal illness brought about an hiatus during which his partner nursed him back to health, then himself died at only 63. Henze then went on to compose the life-affirming second act, in which Hippolytus is not dead but has ‘awakened from the dream of life.’

You can’t escape the autobiographical element - Henze lost his near-lifetime’s companion soon after almost dying himself (‘The coffin was ordered, the death notices printed’) so a Romantic work concerning the links between desire and love, between art and nature and between the living and the dead, was a natural outcome. For me, hearing Phaedra took me back to the Five Neapolitan Songs and the cantata Whispers from Heavenly Death; - these are much earlier works but they seem to inhabit the same area of the psyche, and deal with similar existential concerns, the setting of ‘Darest thou now, O Soul / Walk out with me toward the unknown region’ from the latter work very much springing to mind during the third part of the second act of Phaedra.

The music is above all spare yet Romantic, minimal in resources (only 23 players) yet often colossal in impact, and makes wonderful use of extraneous sound devices, especially in the scene depicting the earthquake - in fact you could hardly ask for more of that sense which Beethoven describes as uniquely Handelian, ‘of achieving great effects through little means.’ The techniques asked of the singers range from outright speech through Sprechgesang to coloratura, always in the service of the text. Lehnert’s libretto ideally partners the other-worldly sense of the music, and even when the sung voice is absent the orchestra still seems to be singing, as when the flutes and horns announce the naming of Virbius in phrases which seem full of ‘Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth.’

Ainsley_Phaedra--001.gifJohn Mark Ainsley as Hippolytus and Maria Riccarda Wesseling as Phaedra in the original Berlin production.

The performances are, as you would expect, world-class: this is after all the original cast and instrumental ensemble, and under Michael Boder’s direction they give as authoritative an account of the music as one could wish for, and which must have delighted the composer, who was present for the occasion. Maria Riccarda Wesseling was a gripping, sensual, passionate Phaedra, conveying not only her character’s cruelty and self-absorption but also her overwhelming vitality - when she was taunting Hippolytus you could almost feel the energy crackling around her.

The role of Hippolyt was written for John Mark Ainsley, and he inhabits it with absolute mastery, in sovereign voice throughout, his authority in the first act as commanding as his vulnerability in the second is touching. ‘Ich bin hier in meinem Anfang’ sings Hippolyt / Virbius after his rebirth, and the sense of both fragility and awe was superbly conveyed. This was as complete an assumption of an operatic role as you are likely to see on any stage.

Axel Köhler’s Artemis displayed similar commitment, in music written to test the counter-tenor range to its limits - it’s typical of Henze that this character should be set for this voice type, since doing so both confounds expectations and neatly links the music to Henze’s influences in the Baroque. Marlis Peterson was a fluent, statuesque Aphrodite, her avowal of vengeance with Phaedra one of the high points of the evening, and Lauri Vasar’s silky baritone was the ideal vehicle for the Minotaur’s sonorous reflections.

Will Phaedra become a staple of the repertoire? As a ‘Chamber Opera’ it requires fairly minimal forces, but its demands are such that those forces must be of the very best - indeed it is difficult to imagine the work being sung by anyone other than these artists. Its timing makes it problematic to programme, although one could envisage a performance alongside Britten’s cantata on the same subject - however it is staged, it is a beautiful, delicate work whose ambiguities may not have wide appeal. Henze is apparently working on a new piece at the moment, so we can hope that Phaedra may well not be his swan song.

In keeping with the sense of looking forward, this evening was not only the culmination of the Barbican’s Henze weekend, but it also represented the first instalment of the 2010 ‘Present Voices’ series, which showcases contemporary operas. The series continues on March 26th with the UK premiere of Peter Eötvös’ Angels in America (based on the play by Tony Kushner), and ends on May 15th with the UK premiere of After Life by the Dutch composer Michel van der Aa, a work which, like Henze’s, presents us with characters who are at a point between Earth and Heaven.

Melanie Eskenazi

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Henze.gif image_description=Hans Werner Henze

product=yes producttitle=Hans Werner Henze: Phaedra productby=Phaedra: Maria Riccarda Wesseling; Aphrodite: Marlis Petersen; Minotaur: Lauri Vasar; Artemis: Axel Köhler; Hippolytus: John Mark Ainsley. Ensemble Modern. Conductor: Michael Boder. Libretto: Christian Lehnert.

Posted by melanie_e at 4:01 PM

Winter Opera focuses on singing in 'Werther'

By Sarah Bryan Miller [St Louis Post-Dispatch, 18 January 2010]

Winter Opera St. Louis — formerly New Opera St. Louis — put its focus squarely where it belongs, on the music, in last weekend’s production of Jules Massenet’s Romantic tragedy “Werther,” staged at Missouri Baptist University’s theater.

Posted by Gary at 3:36 PM

'Il Trovatore' casts show convoluted plot's versatility

By Sumi Hahn [Seattle Times, 18 January 2010]

The absurd plot of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” is a distraction best left unexplained and unexcused. Put simply, the opera concerns a romantic triangle between a woman and two men, one of whom is a mama’s boy.

Posted by Gary at 3:34 PM

VERDI: Macbeth — Vienna 2009

Music composed by Giuseppe Verdi. Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, based on the play by William Shakespeare.

First performance: 14 March 1847 at Teatro La Pergola, Florence.

First performance (revised version): 21 April 1865 at Théâtre Lyrique Impériale, Paris.

Principal Characters

Duncano, Re di Scozia Silent
Macbeth, Generali dell'esercito del Re Duncano Baritone
Banco Bass
Lady Macbeth, moglie di Macbeth Soprano
Dama di Lady Macbeth Mezzo-soprano
Macduff, nobile scozzese Signore Fiff Tenor
Malcolm, figlio di Duncano Tenor
Fleanzio, figlio di Banco Silent
Domestico di Macbeth Bass
Medico Bass
Sicario Bass

Synopsis

Act I

In a wood amid thunder and lightning a group of witches discuss the mischief they have perpetrated. Macbeth and Banco enter, generals in King Duncano's army: by way of prophecy, the witches greet Macbeth as Thane of Glamis, Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland, and Banco as the father of kings. They are disturbed, especially Banco, who is horrified by the veracity of the witches' predictions when the King's messengers announce that Macbeth has been made Thane of Cawdor.

In the castle Lady Macbeth reads the letter in which her husband tells her of his meeting with the witches, and she reflects that, in order for the prophecy to come true, King Duncano will have to be killed. She incites Macbeth to commit the crime, although he is the victim of terrifying visions. Duncano, spending the night in the castle as a guest, is assassinated. In the morning Macduff goes to wake Duncano and comes back horrified by what he has found. Everyone rushes to the scene to condemn the act of treason.

Act II

Since the witches predicted that Banco would be the father of kings, Macbeth, seeing this as an obstacle to his own ambitious plan to rise to power, decides to kill his friend together with his son Fleanzio. He entrusts the task to a group of murderers who ambush them while they are going through a wood, but they are only partially successful: Banco is killed and Fleanzio manages to escape.

Meanwhile in Macbeth's castle a banquet is being held, whose festive atmosphere is interrupted by the arrival of a murderer with blood on hs face. When he recounts what has happened, Macbeth is alarmed and starts to rave: Banco's ghost appears before him, his hair soaked in blood. He speaks wildly to it, denying his guilt, to the terror of the guests; Lady Macbeth exhorts him to compose himself, but shortly after the ghost reappears. Macbeth resolves to go and question the witches again.

Act III

In a dark cavern the witches are gathered around a cauldron. Macbeth arrives to question them and they call up a series of apparitions. The first tells Macbeth to beware of Macduff, the second that no man of woman born will harm him, the third pronounces him invincible until he sees Birnam Wood moving towards him. Then eight kings file past, Banco's offspring who will rule: Macbeth tries to attack them, then faints. Witches and aerial spirits revive him and he spurs himself on to increase his power.

Act IV

On the borders of Scotland and England the Scottish refugees lament the fate of their country now that it is at the mercy of a bloodthirsty tyrant. The victims of Macbeth's latest massacre are Macduff's wife and children. Malcolm and Macduff prepare the revolt against Macbeth: every soldier will advance towards the castle with a branch in his hand.

Inside the castle Lady Macbeth, watched over by a doctor and a lady-in-waiting, reveals her crisis of conscience every night by reliving the brutal deeds in her sleep and trying obsessively to wash the blood from her hands.

The enemy troops are attacking Macbeth's castle when the Queen's death is announced. Even this news does not shake him, but when he learns that Birnam Wood is moving towards him he shouts that he has been deceived and, seizing sword and dagger, confronts Macduff declaring he has no fear of him. Macduff tells him that he was not born, but untimely ripped from his mother's womb. Macbeth is mortally wounded and dies.

Click here for the complete libretto (Italian).

Click here for the complete libretto (English translation).

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Macbeth2.gif
image_description=Macbeth

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first_audio_name=Giuseppe Verdi: Macbeth
first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Macbeth2.m3u

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product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Macbeth
product_by=Macbeth: Simon Keenlyside; Banquo: Stefan Kocán; Lady Macbeth: Erika Sunnegårdh; Dama di Lady Macbeth: Donna Ellen; Macduff: Dimitri Pittas; Malcolm: Gergely Németi; Medico: Alfred Šramek; Three Witches: Ariana Holecek, Christina Exner, Yoko Ueno; Duncan: Peter Leutgeb; Fleance: Leonid Suchon. Conductor: Guillermo García Calvo. Wiener Staatsoper. Live performance, 7 December 2009, Vienna.
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Posted by Gary at 2:10 PM

Neal Goren of Gotham Chamber Opera: An Interview

Gotham Chamber Opera (www.gothamchamberopera.com) in New York has existed for ten years because it has been led by Neal Goren, who founded the company in 2000 and has conducted its acclaimed productions of Mozart’s Il Sogno di Scipione, Martinu’s Les Larmes de Couteau, Sutermeister’s Die Schwarze Spinne, Handel’s Arianna in Creta, Rossini’s Il Signor Bruschino, Respighi’s La Bella dormente nel Bosco, Britten’s Albert Herring, Haydn’s L’Isola Disabitata and, coming up, Haydn’s Il Mondo della Luna (The World on the Moon), which will be given at the Hayden Planetarium, January 19-28.

John Yohalem, for Opera Today: How did you decide to perform Haydn in the Planetarium? How did you get the Planetarium?

Neal Goren: Well, it’s big for chamber opera, true. It’s big in the sense that – Diane Paulus is directing, who directed the revival of Hair in Central Park and on Broadway and has done a lot of opera for Chicago Opera Theater, Mozart, all three Monteverdi operas.

But I’ll tell you the genesis for this. When I was thinking about the opera, Haydn’s Il Mondo della Luna, I looked at the orchestration and the chorus and realized it could never fit in the pit at Henry Street. Where could we do this piece? I was thinking of alternative spaces, empty space, you know? Some cool place. Diane did her version of Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Donkey Show, in an old defunct disco on the West Side some years ago. And I thought, The second act supposedly takes place on the Moon, the first act in an amateur’s home observatory – let’s see about doing it in the Hayden Planetarium. And Diane is working with the engineers from the Rose Center [for Earth and Space] – so at the point when the characters go to the Moon, the audience is going to go to the Moon, as well – we’re going to have video projections on the 180-degree dome that were produced by NASA and the museum, we’re going to have it go to the music.

JY: Who did you call at the Museum of Natural History?

NG: We started at the top. That’s the only way, is to start at the top.

JY: They probably don’t read letters like that every day.

NG: We’re taking the opera and cutting it down. I cut the Handel a lot, too. As I think you mentioned in your review of L’Isola Disabitata, Haydn often has problems with the dramaturgy. Less so in L’Isola, which only has four characters, but most Haydn operas are quite long, including Il Mondo della Luna – also, the music is of variable quality. There’s probably an hour and a half of great music, probably an hour of good music, there’s probably two hours of really formulaic Haydn. So we’re cutting the piece down to an hour and a half. Rather than presenting the Haydn opera, it’s really more a celebration of the technology, an event using Haydn – but great musical values; we’ve got some unbelievable singers for it, full orchestra and everything. We thought we’d do better making it a successful evening for the audience, interesting dramatically, and cutting the opera and making it concise – than presenting the whole opera and making it a bore.

IL-MONDO-Photo-3-small.gifPictured (left to right): Timothy Kuhn, Matthew Tuell, Albina Shagimuratova, Hanan Alattar

JY: How would you define chamber opera?

NG: It’s a variable term. If it’s something the composer wrote for a chamber orchestra, then it’s a chamber opera. That can vary from a handful of instruments, a pocket opera – eight instruments, say – that’s about as small as I can think of – all the way up to Respighi. The minimum we could do the Bella dormente nel Bosco that we did was thirty-two or thirty-four instruments, and so for him that’s “chamber.” Whereas with Respighi’s La Fiamma, there’s ninety-five or something. But I think anything within that range would qualify as a chamber opera. If you’re talking about Handel operas being paradigmatic chamber operas – well, they vary – from Acis and Galatea, which was composed for a private theater, while Giulio Cesare calls for trumpets and timpani – you need enough other forces to balance them.

So what is a chamber opera? It’s something that can fit in one of the theaters that I’m performing in – in the pit or on the stage. There’s your answer.

Albert Herring, for example – no chorus, orchestra of thirteen. Definitely a chamber opera. But the cast is gigantic – twelve big solo roles. When you think of twelve big solo roles, you think of big opera – Meyerbeer or something. So everything is a little askew there. I think if it’s a chamber orchestra and fits in a theater with a thousand seats or less, then it’s a chamber opera.

JY: I get the idea, reading the lives of journeyman composers, that they wrote for whatever forces were available.

NG: Exactly. There are always these questions – especially in the eighteenth century. When we did Mozart’s Il Sogno di Scipione, I think there was only one number that the bassoons were included in. Why? And another number with oboes, too…

JY: They’re both double reeds; perhaps the same musicians were expected to play both.

NG: No, I think the bassoons were expected to double with the celli and the bass. Not all the time, but most of the time. So it was up to the composer – these days to the conductor – to decide when to let them sit down, when they want that added color – and they only put in a special bassoon part when it was a special bassoon part in addition to the cellos. And oboes would play with the violins. Things like that. So it’s infinitely expandable – if you didn’t have this instrument, you’d use that instrument. You know – when Lohengrin was premiered – Weimar, was it? Under Liszt? – the orchestra was less than forty. Something pathetic. Can you imagine? Even in the prelude, with four first violins?

JY: The singers must have been happy.

IL-MONDO-Photo-4-small.gifPictured: Marco Nisticò

NG: You make the most of what you have.

JY: What was your initial impulse in starting the company?

NG: My background was mostly as a pianist. I came up with the idea in 2000, our first production – Il Sogno di Scipione – was in 2001. By that time I’d become relatively disenchanted with being an accompanist. For many years before that people had perceived me as a conductor. I was not ready to accept that yet, but when I was living in London, I was playing auditions for the Italian Cultural Institute – for orchestra members and also for singers in the chorus, for Rome Opera, Firenze, La Fenice. And whoever was there, at the end of the auditions, said, “Oh, would you like to come – there’s a job for an assistant conductor, and eventually working your way up.” And I said, “Oh no, I’m not a conductor.” Then the same thing happened at the Berlin Opera, when I was doing auditions for Porgy and Bess, when they were doing it for the first time at the Theater des Westens a hundred years ago. Everyone was saying I was a conductor. I was playing rehearsals for Bernstein when he and Thomas Hampson were making that incredible recording of Mahler songs, and Bernstein said, “So, maestro, where are you conducting?” and I said, “I’m not a conductor, I’m a pianist,” and he said, “It’s time to reconsider that. Everything about you screams Conductor.”

That led to an internal dialogue, because it’s a very different thing seeing yourself as an accompanist and seeing yourself as a conductor. One is essentially a follower, the other is a leader. But as the years went on, these seeds having been planted, I became more and more dissatisfied with being an accompanist. I was often playing for people who were great, but they were the ones calling the shots. When I no longer found that terribly interesting, I decided I would explore conducting.

Then a friend of mine became head of the music at the Henry Street Settlement. He said they had a theater there that I should see. I fell in love with the space. And I realized what New York needed was an opera company for a smaller venue, because we have two of the great companies in the world for big operas. So the theater was actually the impetus for the company. I could use that as my laboratory as a conductor, but it was also a company the city needed.

Of course I started from the musical angle. I had been assistant conductor at the Mostly Mozart Festival, which in most such situations means a glorified rehearsal pianist, and they had done Il Sogno di Scipione with Pamela Coburn and Renée Fleming, in 1991 or so. I thought it was an amazing piece but dramatically inert – to say the least. I remember looking at the score and thinking it was a terrifying piece, and the tenor parts – just impossible. For the leading tenor, you need a heldentenor, but you need to have a great low C and a great high C and be able to do the fastest sixteenth notes in the world. But I thought, I know enough singers who are young enough, hungry enough and anxious to prove themselves that they could do it.

IL-MONDO-Photo-5-small.gifPictured: Marco Nisticò (center)

Now, I thought for a kickoff we’d need a director who would have some legitimacy, who had been around. So I called Christopher Alden whom I had worked with and told him about the project, and he was extremely apprehensive, he said, “No, no new opera companies, and what was it we wanted to do?” and I told him the books all say Il Sogno di Scipione is unstageable, and he said, “What! There is no such thing. Send me the score right away.” So he took up the challenge and there you go!

But how do you pay for it? So first thing Christopher did was, he talked to each of the designers we wanted and we found out what was the least amount of money that was needed for the designers to be proud of their work. So I said, If I’m unable to raise that amount of money then we won’t do anything – because the only thing worse than no opera is bad opera. From the very beginning, it was about the proper quality. Not lavish. The bottom line is that every designer be proud of their work. If we can go above that, all the better. That’s what we’ve stuck to.

It was very, very difficult, as it always is pushing a stone uphill. But the first season I asked everyone I knew if they knew anyone who might be able to help. I compiled a list from the patrons, the donors of the Met, the City Opera, BAM, the society pages of the Times, and we narrowed it down to ten or fifteen people whose names kept recurring. I asked everyone I knew if anyone knew these people – because I’d spent my whole life either in the practice room or on stage. And, No, no, no, no, no – until I found one person who knew one person – and introduced me to her. And the network began. And we raised just enough money in the first production to cover expenses, and that’s how it’s been essentially every year.

The good thing is that we’ve never had a line of credit. Because we’ve never had a line of credit, we’ve never been able to overspend. We’ve never had the luxury of overspending. Therefore we’re not in the hole – and we still exist – unlike a lot of other companies right now who relied on a line of credit on the assumption that future donations would equal or surpass present donations. What we’ve always seen as a terrible disadvantage has turned out to be in our favor, and the reason we still exist.

JY: You have spoken of getting some help – around the Martinu and the Sutermeister operas –

NG: Yes, we learned quickly about raising money. What Gotham has to offer is different than what the Met has to offer. The Met has a glamour level that we could never offer. Ours is a boutique company. So from the beginning it was apparent that the people who would support us would be real opera lovers that come because they love the music, they love the product. We went for depth, for substance, or people who appreciate what we do.

I remember early on, after the Martinu, one of our major donors – I had gone to have lunch with him to do a fact-finding session on the production – this is an example of the sort of donors we’ve had – and he said, “I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t like the music. It didn’t appeal to me on any level.” He said, “The production was fine. I’m not so interested in the productions; I’m interested in the music. The singers were terrific. I wasn’t so interested in the music, but I’ve decided to raise my donation by ten thousand dollars.” I said, “What!” and he said, “Because New York needs your company. And if you choose to do that music, it should at least be done this well.” That’s heaven. That’s someone who really appreciates what we’re doing, what we’re trying to do, and the quality that we aim for and hopefully achieve.

But with most philanthropic types, it’s a question of marketing – they’ll support operas they know, but how many chamber operas does anybody know? Those are pieces that we aren’t going to do. Other places can do them. So after that it’s easiest, it’s possible to find people to donate to productions that have an important name attached to them.

JY: Such as Mark Morris (L’Isola Disabitata) or Basil Twist (La Bella dormente nel Bosco)?

NG: Basil Twist. Rossini. Haydn. Mozart. People know that if it’s by Mozart, it’s going to be pleasant to listen to. Rossini is pleasant, too.

JY: Whereas Sutermeister is trouble.

NG: Sutermeister is trouble. So when I decided to do the Sutermeister piece – I had played some Sutermeister songs in London, then I got to know Die Schwarze Spinne, and from the very first I wanted to do it. So I went to the Swiss consul here in New York, and he agreed to hold some fundraisers at his home for Swiss, and I thought that would be a foot in the door; if I had the support of the Swiss consul that would open other doors – and it did. The same idea with the Czechs – the Czech Cultural Institute was helpful with the Martinu. We’ve never had anyone say, “Here’s a check to do whatever you want with,” or to do an entire production, but if you’ve got a name attached, it’s much easier.

Our repertoire choices have been based on two things: First, do I like the music? And does David Bennett like the music? – he’s been our managing director for four years, and technically he covers the business side of things, but besides his MBA he’s also had a career as an operatic baritone, so we make the artistic decisions together.

And second, feasibility, if the orchestra we have to have can fit into the pit at our disposal. When we were at Henry Street, that limited the choices enormously – the biggest we could do comfortably would be twenty, and that would be if there was no percussion whatsoever, and the maximum of one double bass. Really comfortable, it would be a matter of fifteen or sixteen. When we did Albert Herring there, we had the piano outside the pit. It didn’t fit in. We used an orchestra of fourteen – it actually calls for an orchestra of thirteen, but Britten assumed the percussionist and the timpani would be the same person. But it was so small there was less space for the person to get from one to the other, so we had to have two people in there in order to accomplish it. Except one day there was a snowstorm, and the only person who couldn’t make it was the percussionist, who couldn’t get in from New Jersey. Half an hour before the curtain, I sat down with the score and the timpani player to decide what he should play, so that there would be enough time for him to sort of leap over the timpani to get to the percussion part of the pit, and then back to the timpani – what was expendable. We made the choices and it worked. That’s to illustrate: you work with what you have. With a very limited pit, you have a smaller orchestra, and that means very few repertoire choices. This last production [L’Isola Disabitata] that we did at John Jay – that’s a much larger pit. Not exactly capacious, but larger.

Then you find pieces that you like, that will fit, and then it’s a matter of finding ways to pay for them. If I wanted to do Falstaff by Salieri – which would be a really cool thing to do – people only know Salieri as the “Not Mozart.” I’m afraid people aren’t going to pay for Salieri. Maybe in a few years the company will be successful enough that I can venture a little further than I have, but it’s not been in the cards quite yet. It’s a matter of having an important name attached to the production, whether that be the composer, or the director, or – I don’t really have “name” singers yet.

JY: Beth Clayton was one reason I wanted to see Die Schwarze Spinne. And opera aficionados know her.

IL-MONDO-Photo-6-small.gifPictured: Marco Nisticò

NG: And wasn’t she fantastic? But she’s not a household name – yet. And Takesha [Takesha Meshé Kizart, who sang in L’Isola Disabitata] already has a huge following. But I have to have some way in which to raise the money because the reality of chamber opera is the productions are expensive. A set does not cost much less in a small theater than it does in a big theater, especially since we work with unions – always. The revenue possibilities are far, far, far less – we have a theater at Henry Street of 325 seats, at John Jay of 600 seats, versus the City Opera or the Met. So there’s no way there’s a good feasible financial model for this. Which is a long way of saying that ticket prices, even with sold-out houses, never pay more than twelve to fifteen percent.

JY: Ouch.

NG: Ouch. So the rest has to come from donations, either from foundations or from individuals. It’s never easy, but people respond to quality, and I’m not going to sacrifice the quality. I’ll reduce the number of productions – which I’ve done – but I won’t reduce the quality. That’s what foundations respond to – and government as well. When Bloomberg had all the arts agencies in the city reevaluated for the first time in decades, the amount of money we got from the city grew exponentially all at once. Prior to that, the amount you got from the city was based on how long you’d been around. So we went from a few hundred dollars to many thousands in one fell swoop, because they got rid of a lot of companies and rewarded the ones they considered did work they wanted to continue.

But it’s a lot of money to raise, every year and for each production and we have no endowment, we haven’t been around long enough – our tenth year is 2011. It takes a while to build things up. Our donors have been very, very loyal. We’ve lost very few, and gotten a lot more donations at the lower and middle levels. I think people in my income bracket have perceived the danger to the arts and are doing their part to keep projects that they care about afloat. So financial considerations are huge for us. We must choose our repertoire on all of those factors.

JY: I thought La Bella dormente nel Bosco was one of your triumphs. I took my mother –

NG: Did she like it?

JY: Loved it. How could anyone not love it?

NG: I’d been to see Basil Twist’s production of Petrushka at Lincoln Center and loved it. I’d known about puppet opera – in theory. Something rang a bell, and I thought, I’d love to collaborate with this guy.

JY: Haydn’s Baucis und Philemon.

NG: The other way around – Philemon und Baucis. But yes – that was one of the pieces I considered, actually. I researched it, and among the pieces that had been conceived for puppets was Respighi’s Bella dormente. So I researched that, approached Basil about doing it, but then reading the score I realized this was going to be big – no way could we raise the funds. That’s when I went to Nigel Redden at Lincoln Center Festival about co-producing it with him.

JY: Whom you knew through Mostly Mozart?

NG: No. I didn’t know him at all. I just wrote him a letter. And he called me and we discussed it, and he pursued it. After he’d looked into it further, he realized that even Lincoln Center couldn’t afford it on their own, so he brought in Spoleto Festival USA. It became a production of Lincoln Center Festival, Spoleto USA, in partnership with – I can’t remember the exact wording – Gotham Chamber Opera. So they paid by far the lion’s share of the costs – which were enormous. Basil did a fantastic job, the marionettes were amazing. We have another production planned with marionettes.

JY: I’m delighted to hear that. Should I ask what it is?

NG: Sure. This is for early autumn of 2010. Montsalvatge’s El Gato con Botas – “Puss in Boots.” We decided it would be best served by humans doing the human characters and puppets doing the non-human characters, such as the ogre and – obviously – the cat, whereas, in Bella dormente, there were life-size marionettes of human characters as well as the non-human characters. Blind Summit, who did the marionette in the Met’s Butterfly, are going to do the many puppets, and Moisés Kaufman will direct the human characters, so it will be a co-production with his Tectonic Theater Project. Moisés’s first language is Spanish, he’s deeply musical as you probably know if you’ve seen 33 Variations. The production will have two casts, a Spanish cast and an English cast, and we’re designing it to travel.

That’s one way we’re facing the present economic crisis – because we want each production to be at least as wonderful as the last, but with less financing what do you do? You can’t let the audiences down. One solution is co-productions. We’ve wanted to do co-productions for a long time but two things militated against that. First, we weren’t on the radar of the big companies that had money. And another thing, the big companies that had money – had money! They weren’t interested in co-producing with anybody. But times have changed. Those companies have less money, and we’re more on the national radar. So a few are really interested, and we’re in discussion about partnering for every production from now on – for a while.

JY: And some things would travel.

NG: Presumably.

JY: I kept thinking, at Bella dormente – though were plenty of kids in the audience –how much they would love it – as we all know, they’ve cut the exposure of kids to classical music in the schools –

NG: So many companies have been interested in reviving Bella dormente, and there’s nothing we’d like more. But it’s totally impossible financially. Thirty-something in the pit, a chorus of – maybe you can do sixteen – and seven world-class singers plus the puppeteers for every performance. It was designed only to be done in a small theater, with revenues of next to nothing. So it’s physically impossible. All these companies have wanted to do it but can’t.

Whereas, El Gato con Botas has a small orchestra and no chorus, so it’s designed specifically to move around. I mean, it’s not going to be bare bones. It will require a certain number of puppeteers, and I’ve got to do it with a certain number of players in the orchestra. But it’s possible, it’s not impossible.

We’re only going to be able to do two productions this year, but our goal at some point is to get it to three. I think that’s all I can do and still have real quality control. For each solo role, I probably hear fifty people? Till I hear exactly what I want. So it takes a lot of time to do it properly.

JY: There are that many able singers around? How do they live?

NG: Oh, absolutely! A couple of weeks ago, I went to the finals of the George London Competition, and there were about thirty singers or more. And next week are the Richard Tucker auditions, and that’s only by nomination, and it’s two full days, so there are going to be about sixty singers. There will be some overlap. I used to be on the board of the Tucker Foundation, so I’m involved with that organization. I always go to the Met semi-finals, and every summer I hear the young artists at Caramoor, Glimmerglass, Santa Fe – there’s a network. There are other conductors whose opinions I trust, and we let each other know who’s terrific.

The most we’ve ever done is three productions in a season. This year we have another Haydn [Il Mondo della Luna], and then Puss in Boots in early fall.

IL-MONDO-Photo-2-small.gifPictured (left to right): Matthew Tuell (back), Albina Shagimuratova, Marco Nisticò, Hanan Alattar

JY: I’m sorry to hear about the cutting back, but it’s the era we live in.

NG: I think it’s a better solution than doing three productions poorly.

JY: They were doing Il Mondo della Luna last year when I was in Trieste, but in Paisiello’s setting of the same libretto Haydn used.

NG: That’s interesting! It’s much briefer, because he wrote that for Catherine the Great, and didn’t she say that she only wanted operas that ran an hour and a half? So all those St. Petersburg operas are brief. But ours is going to be brief, too.

My theory about, say, the Handel operas that can go on and on and on, you have two choices: If each singer is so wonderful that you can’t wait to hear the next aria they sing, then it’s a fabulous evening. If you hear the first aria and think, Oh God, do I have to listen to that all evening? then it’s interminable. He wrote those things for singers; if you’ve got the right singers, the evening flies by. If not, then it’s torture. It’s that easy. Did you see our Arianna in Creta? I wrote the ornamentation myself – with the singers. If they’ve got great high notes and the middle voice isn’t so great, then I put in lots of high notes – and vice versa.

JY: As every composer in history has done.

NG: Right. I mean, my job is to show off the singers – and the composer. If I accomplish that then everybody’s happy.

I’m lucky. I love what I’m doing. When I talked to Bernstein about being a conductor, he said, “Get the best people, and let them do their job.” That’s what I try to do. Because somebody who’s dedicated their life to being a lighting designer knows more about lighting design than I do. And directing, and whatever. The only time that that’s a problem is when there’s a conflict between one person doing their job and another person doing their job. Then it’s time for me to step in. But that doesn’t happen very often. I don’t think there’s been a single person who’s worked with Gotham who would not be delighted to come back. I go out of my way to get people who have a collaborative spirit, singers or designers or whatever.

JY: And you’ve sung in such small spaces, you haven’t had to compromise to get a huge voice.

NG: But there’s the opposite problem. In L’Isola Disabitata, Takesha had to hold back all evening. She’s much happier singing in big houses. She was very concerned about singing in John Jay. She sings Trovatore; she’s a big Verdi voice. Did you hear her in Forza at Caramoor? It was heaven.

IL-MONDO-Photo-7-small.gifPictured: Marco Nisticò (center)

The other thing – I don’t cast entirely by myself, I always cast with the director by my side because the director’s not paid well – nor am I – so it’s very important to me that the director be as excited about the singers as I am. So I always cast with the director, and in most productions there were singers I was excited about and the director said No, and sometimes there have been singers they were excited about and I said No. But there’s always a way to make it work.

I learn from it. I remember being offered a job conducting operetta, and telling my partner, “I don’t like operetta, I can’t see myself doing this,” and he said, “Neal, you’re not a conductor when you’re sitting in the living room.” And he was right. I took the job and I was really wise to do it. Because operetta stuff is really hard to conduct. There’s a lot of underscoring, and you’ve got to figure out the timing so you’re done by the time the dialogue is done and you’re about to start the aria. There are all these timing issues you’ve got to work out. And huge balance issues. Lots and lots of rubato. So I really respect people who do that and make music out of it. It was good experience for me.

GOTHAM CHAMBER OPERA,
in partnership with
the American Museum of Natural History,
and in association with American Repertory Theater,
presents

IL MONDO DELLA LUNA

(The World on the Moon)
An opera by Joseph Haydn

At The Hayden Planetarium
Rose Center for Earth and Space
American Museum of Natural History
West 81st Street
(between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue)


January 19 - 28, 2010
Tuesday, January 19 at 7:30pm (Opening Night)
Wednesday, January 20 at 8pm
Monday, January 25 at 8pm
Tuesday, January 26 at 8pm
Wednesday, January 27 at 8pm
Thursday, January 28 at 8pm

Credits

Conductor: Neal Goren
Director: Diane Paulus
Video and Production Design: Philip Bussmann
Costume Design: Anka Lupes
Hair and Makeup Design: Hagen Linss
Associate Director: Andrew Eggert

Cast

Clarice: Hanan Alattar
Flaminia: Albina Shagimuratova
Lisetta: Rachel Calloway
Ecclitico: Nicholas Coppolo
Cecco: Matthew Tuell
Ernesto: Timothy Kuhn
Buonafede: Marco Nisticò

image=http://www.operatoday.com/IL-MONDO-Photo-1-small.gif Image_description=Nicholas Coppolo and Hanan Alattar [Photo by Richard Termine courtesy of Gotham Chamber Opera] product=yes product_title=Neal Goren of Gotham Chamber Opera: An Interview product_by=By John Yohalem product_id=Above: Nicholas Coppolo and Hanan Alattar

All photos by Richard Termine courtesy of Gotham Chamber Opera
Posted by Gary at 12:39 PM

Elektra at the Barbican

The LSO’s Elektra under Gergiev really had only one problem, which was that the orchestra was frequently too loud, and when you have a team of singers amongst whom only the Clytemnestra, the Oreste and the Second Maid actually manage to ride consistently over it, you have a somewhat unbalanced evening. It was bound to be so - Strauss’ orchestral requirement is huge, and the band really must be in a pit or there must be some other way devised to protect the singers from it.

This is not to say that distinguished playing was absent - far from it, since the LSO under Gergiev gave a searing performance, often responding to their conductor as though their lives depended on it, and achieving the all too rare distinction of making one hear parts of the music anew. If this was at the cost of a less lyrical, less poetic interpretation in parts, then it was a worthwhile one.

Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet’s Elektra was new to me, and she certainly chewed up the carpet in histrionic terms, gyrating all over the place and generally giving her all, but her voice frequently had trouble in surmounting the vast sounds coming from behind. Her finest moments were in the address to the shade of Agamemnon, ‘die um sein hohes Grab / so königliche siegestänze tanzen!’ projected with bitter ecstasy, and her almost hypnotic incantation of ‘Der ist selig, der seine Tat zu tun kommt’ to her brother at the crucial moment of decision.

It surprised me that Matthias Goerne was singing Oreste, not because his voice isn’t right for the role, but because it’s such a small part for him - perhaps his Speaker in Die Zauberflöte has given him a taste for tiny yet significant roles. This was an Oreste of brooding presence and stentorian authority, and even if we did miss a little of the more moving qualities of the recognition scene, it was a nobly conceived interpretation.

Angela Denoke certainly has what most would term ‘a Strauss soprano voice,’ and she used it most movingly in ‘Eh ich sterbe, will ich auch leben!’ providing both a tonal and dramatic contrast to her sister - the final cries of ‘Orest! Orest!’ though, could have been more gripping. Felicity Palmer’s Clytemnestra is now a classic interpretation, her grim delivery and absolute mastery of the characterization in a world of their own - why, one almost felt a grudging sympathy for the frightful old bat as she sang of her terrible nightmares.

Ian Storey did what he could with Aegisthus, but it’s never really going to work if the character simply strolls off when he dies - another problem with this kind of staged opera. The Maids were a strong group, with Ekaterina Sergeeva the most expressive and forceful, and Vuyani Mlinde’s Servant / Companion further enhanced his status as one of our finest bass soloists - he first impressed me at the RCM in 2005, and he has not disappointed since.

The audience was as crammed in the hall as the orchestra on stage, so much so that the LSO chorus had to occupy one of the side aisles, with surprisingly little diminution of the intensity needed during that final cleansing of the House of Atreus.

Melanie Eskenazi

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

product=yes producttitle=Richard Strauss: Elektra productby=Elektra: Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet; Chrysothemis: Angela Denoke; Clytemnestra: Felicity Palmer; Orestes: Matthias Goerne; Aegisthus: Ian Storey. London Symphony Orchestra. Conductor: Valery Gergiev. London Symphony Chorus. product_id=

Posted by melanie_e at 7:47 AM

January 17, 2010

Carmen at the MET

Nearly everything else is on display, from the legs she bathes shamelessly while singing the “Habañera” to the shoulders she bares — in daylight hours? in Spain? — in her ruffled Act IV gown. As the Latvian mezzo soprano is a beautiful woman, a fine actress and dancer with a voice of great warmth and sheen — and fill-the-house power when she chooses to unleash it — no one could object to her performance as Bizet’s eternal Gypsy. True, she is on the sexually aggressive side among Carmens and I find more convincing the casual approach of Olga Borodina, unimpressed by the ogling men around her. Borodina’s Carmen seemed her own woman, making her own choices, one of which might be love. This seems a less cliché way of playing the character. Most Carmens work too hard, as if men’s opinions mattered to them, and Garanča, though with her looks she hardly has to work — anyone would stare — edges towards that sort of show-off Carmen. I presume she does things like snap her cleavage from stage center because she has been directed to do so and because the performance was the camera-dress, the last before the live high-definition telecast.

>Kwiecien_Escamillo.gifMariusz Kwiecien as Escamillo

Nor did Garanča’s self-conscious sex appeal get in the way of her singing: The “Habañera” was a parade, the “Seguidilla” intimate, the dance for Don José very hot, the fortune-telling very earthy — crouched over her cards, lacking any sort of glamour, she held every eye and ear in the house. She was not only the centerpiece but the only vocally irreproachable star of the performance. Roberto Alagna, who used to be a first-rate Don José, sounded strained, flat on exposed notes (such as the last of “Dragon d’Alcala”), and ill-adjusted to register breaks, though of course he had the best French of the evening. His acting was passionate, and he pulled himself together for a murderous final confrontation. Barbara Frittoli had trouble placing her notes in the Act I duet with Alagna, sounding uncertain and lacking force, though she brought down the house in Act III. Mariusz Kwiecien looked elegant as Escamillo, but sang with that rough bark he often uses these days, instead of the wonderful — often wonderfully sinister — leggiero sound he makes when singing Mozart. Small roles were filled ably and, in the case of Keith Miller, a commanding Zuniga, rather better than that.

I’ve been bitching for some time about new Met productions that are not only weird but whimsically so, so that future performers will be straitjacketed into their weirdness; so when a new production like this comes along of one of the repertory staples, a production that could easily be inhabited by the varying interpretations of many singers, I’d be rank ungrateful to complain that it lacks a point of view. Richard Eyre has chosen to tell Bizet’s story — not his own irrelevant story — in handsome stage pictures with no interpolated funny business, and I applaud. Even posing for a photographer in Act IV comes at a moment when it does not interrupt the music and the character — Escamillo — might believably pose for a photographer.

CARMEN_Frittoli_and_Alagna_.gif Barbara Frittoli as Micaela and Roberto Alagna as Don José

What did irritate me a bit — but this is part of the standard approach to the classics in our era — is that the direction has tightened the screws of sexual and other kinds of brutality. Soldiers cannot casually flirt with naïve Micaela — they threaten to rape her the moment she appears, and she narrowly escapes. The smugglers do not gallantly tie Zuniga up in their den — they torture him a bit just for the hell of it, while singing the gallant phrases of the superb Meilhac and Halévy libretto. The period of the piece has been advanced, it seems, to the era of Spain’s Second Republic, just before the Civil War, and perhaps we are to understand the tension between soldiers and civilians, smugglers and the law, as a foretaste of the horrors to come — I don’t know.

Don Giovanni, portrayed as a town of gray and red brick. The period is not a great one for showy costumes, and even the toreadors don’t shine much — one sees more elegant suits of lights on Halloween. Carmen’s Act IV number with its trail of ruffles on the floor seems designed solely so that Garanča can look helpless the when groveling Alagna pounces upon it — an effective moment that did make us gasp.

CARMEN_Alagna_and_Garanca_1.gifElina Garanča as Carmen and Roberto Alagna as Don José

Two dancers, perhaps representing archetypal Male and Female or Yang and Yin or the infertile stage director and his Muse or a desperate attempt to give Christopher Wheeldon something to do, make a nuisance of themselves during the preludes to Acts I and III.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted with terrific verve and snap, and I would have preferred to concentrate on his music-making when those dancers were making such a spectacle of themselves. The Act III prelude, in particular, is such a lovely, graceful mountain pastorale and leads so perfectly into the scene of shattering bliss that follows that staging it seems wildly intrusive.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Garanca_Carmen_Met.gif image_description=Elina Garanča; as Carmen [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=Georges Bizet: Carmen product_by=Carmen: Elina Garanča; Micaela: Barbara Frittoli; Don José: Roberto Alagna; Escamillo: Mariusz Kwiecien. Production by Richard Eyre. Metropolitan Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Performance of January 12, 2010. product_id=Above: Elina Garanča; as Carmen

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera.
Posted by Gary at 2:43 PM

La Fille du Régiment in Montpellier

Its recent holiday offering (December 28 - January 7), Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment directed by Davide Livermore and conducted by Jean-François Verdier, was not among these finer moments of France’s liveliest opera company.

Davide Livermore is an Italian stage director of accomplished technique well able to create a slick production, and that he did in this production originally staged at the Teatro lirico Giuseppe Verdi in Trieste, and just now remounted by Mr. Livermore in Montpellier. Unlike his superb Don Giovanni unveiled in Genova several years ago that boasted a smart concept on a brilliantly designed set, this Fille displayed an arbitrary concept in its staging on sets that seemed a textbook exercise in design.

Designer Pier Paolo Bisleri constructed a full stage platform of stolid geometric symmetry and solid color, its two halves reversing direction and splitting to offer an interior for the Berkenfeld manor and then re-reversing for the finale. That was it save for the addition of a dead center formal chandelier flanked by two very grand, very symmetrical neoclassical columns for interior scenes. Neither the platform nor the columns and chandelier responded to the pretend rusticity of the Donizetti story and the sentimental nature of its music.

The formalized setting instead was merely a platform for formalized comedy, updated commedia dell’arte in aspiration. Certainly the inclusion of a great plentitude of lazzi (little tricks incessantly performed, sight-gag after sight-gag so to speak) referred the Livermore staging to the primitive comic stage traditions that had been well surpassed by the time Donizetti was experimenting with larger contours of comedic expression.

This late Donizetti French experiment is a sophisticated spoof of nineteenth century class struggle and imperial ambitions with strongly felt sentiment in music that is meant to be above all else beautiful. Bel canto is elusive. It strives to transcend earthly realities where in fact everything is not beautiful and to escape into a musical realm where everything is.

Bel canto soars when this escape is achieved, but it is as delicate as it is elusive. It needs the hands of specialists to succeed. Instead the Montpellier Opéra placed its Fille in the hands of a novice conductor, Jean-François Verdier, a winner of conducting competitions here and there and perhaps a promising opera newcomer but with no documented previous bel canto encounters. Had the Montpellier Fille taken musical flight perhaps Mr. Livermore’s slick production would not have seemed so cold and boring.

fille_GMA3723-1.gif

There were some outstanding performances, notably the Duchess of Crakentorp played in drag by actor Gilles Yanetti, for once this larger than life presence in Donizetti’s comedy was in fact definitely larger than life. François Harismendy was appropriately convincing as Sulpice and Bulgarian baritone Evgueniy Alexiev was the polished servant Hortensius who labored valiantly to realize Sig. Livermore’s idea of funny antics. Swiss mezzo Hanna Shauer was over-parted as the Marquise de Berkenfeld, with neither the temperament nor voice apparent to inhabit a large comic character.

Italian soprano Monica Tarone as Marie and Argentine tenor Manuel Nuñez Camolino as Tonio made a cute romantic couple that Sig. Livermore rendered as brazen urchins, and that was fun for a while. But Marie had to work too hard to keep it up and we soon tired of her personality. Both Madamoiselle Tarone and Mr. Camolino are accomplished singers. We were deprived however of the pleasures of bel canto in their extended duets and arias maybe by the inexperience in the pit, perhaps by the over-wrought comic processes on the stage, more probably by their roles begging for more nuanced singers.

filleGMA4224-1.gif

Stage colors were primary, with lots of white in the soldiers’ costumes. The lighting, attributed to Mr. Livermore, was striking indeed, popping the characters out into high visual relief and sculpting the chandelier and bas-relief columns in quite beautiful, impeccably balanced stage pictures. Theater artifice seemed Mr. Livermore’s primary objective. His staged tableaus flashed during the overture, with firecrackers precisely timed to the music, promised charm and fun. Neither materialized. And finally the Opéra National de Montpellier simply did not provide sufficient musical and vocal resources to salvage Donizetti’s mid-nineteenth century social comedy.

Michael Milenski

image=http://www.operatoday.com/content/donizetti.png image_description=Gaetano Donizetti

product=yes producttitle=Gaetano Donizetti: La Fille Du Régiment productby=Marie: Monica Tarone; Tonio: Manuel Nuñez Camelino; Sulpice: François Harismendy; La Marquise De Birkenfeld: Hanna Schaer; Hortensius: Evgueniy Alexiev; La Duchesse De Krakenthorp: Gilles Yanetti. Conductor: Jean-François Verdier. Stage Director And Lighting: Davide Livermore. Scenery: Pier Paolo Bisleri. Costumes: Gianluca Falaschi. product_id=Photos by Marc Ginot for the Opéra National de Montpellier

Posted by michael_m at 9:27 AM

January 14, 2010

A Space Opera in a Proper Galaxy

By Matthew Gurewitsch [NY Times, 14 January 2010]

IN 2001 Gotham Chamber Opera opened its doors at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with what was billed as the American stage premiere of the teenage Mozart’s moral allegory “Il Sogno di Scipione,” set in the Temple of Heaven. Now, after nine years spent establishing a repertory of rarities from Monteverdi to Piazzolla, the company is preparing its next space adventure. The vehicle this time is Haydn’s comedy “Il Mondo Della Luna” (“The World on the Moon”), to be presented, with unassailable if quixotic logic, in the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History beginning on Tuesday evening.

Posted by Gary at 3:43 PM

Immolazione, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome

By Shirley Apthorp [Financial Times, 14 January 2010]

Hans Werner Henze himself heralded his 2003 L’Upupa, or the triumph of filial love as his last opera. Opfergang (Immolazione/The Sacrifice), given its world premiere in Rome on Sunday, follows 2007’s Phaedra. At 83, Henze is still composing. The 2003 health scare proved a false alarm. Thank goodness.

Posted by Gary at 3:41 PM

Britten: Peter Grimes

That polite inquiry seems to have been on the mind of David Pountney as he came to the Zurich Opera House to direct Benjamin Britten’s masterpiece, Peter Grimes. Chairs dominate the set design of Robert Israel. White-washed, stiff-backed chairs — tilted, upside-down, atop pillars, empty and occupied, placed here, there, everywhere.

The concept veers between the intriguing and the irritating. Perhaps Pountney sees the confined nature of village life as being as punishing and restrictive as being forced to sit like a schoolchild. Or does the director see the villagers’ prejudices as “deep-seated”? Any number of interpretations may present themselves, but without any coalescing around a theme pertinent to the opera, in the end the chairs just seem like a staging gambit — one not especially visually appealing, either.

Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes are the expected — a wooly, dark-hued sweater for Grimes, prim dress for Ellen Orford, and grays and blacks for the villagers, except for the “nieces” of Auntie. Mixing an abstract setting with traditional costumes has become ubiquitous, most probably because it may forestall the complaints of the traditionalists, while giving a production some claim to freshness. In this case, the compromise wears away at any sense of insight or incisiveness.

A more interesting contribution comes from conductor Franz Welser-Möst, who leads a reading of sharpness, even astringency, making Britten’s basically tonal score sound like a stepchild of Berg’s Wozzeck. The famous interludes have a fierce power; even “Dawn” has intensity and trepidation. A decent cast sings well, though without the individual profile Welser-Möst brings to his conducting. Christopher Ventris has the voice but not the presence to make Grimes tragic or complex. He doesn’t seem worth either Ellen Orford’s conflicted devotion or the villagers’ unmodulated animosity. Emily Magee’s strong vocals and sturdy presence as Ellen make the character seem less fragile than self-deluded — a viable option, but one that mutes the opera’s terror. The rest of the cast is able.

EMI Classics provides no bonus features and a bare-bones booklet. The 150-minute performance also spreads out over two discs. It’s a too cool presentation of what should be a shiver-inducing opera.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/PeterGrimesZurichEMI.gif imagedescription=Britten: Peter Grimes

product=yes producttitle=Benjamin Britten: Peter Grimes productby=Magee, Nikiteanu, Trattnigg, Chuchrova, Kallisch; Ventris, Muff, Schasching, Angas, Zysset, Davidson, Murga. Zürich Oper. Franz Welser-Möst, conductor. productid=EMI Classics 50999 5 00971 9 7 [DVD] price=$22.49 producturl=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B000UINP2C

Posted by chris_m at 12:50 PM

January 13, 2010

Collection of Italian Opera Libretti Now Accessible at Harry Ransom Center

AUSTIN, Texas — A major collection of Italian opera libretti is now accessible through an online database at the Harry Ransom Center, a humanities research library and museum at The University of Texas at Austin.

Posted by Gary at 9:43 AM

Collection of Italian Opera Libretti Now Accessible at Harry Ransom Center

The opera libretti database can be accessed online.

The collection of 3,421 items was donated in 1969 by New York rare book dealer Hans P. Kraus. The collection consists primarily of texts of Italian operas but also includes Italian cantatas, serenatas, oratorios, dialogues and Passions.

The collection, which dates from the 17th through the 20th century, documents musical performances by Italian, French, German and Austrian composers performed in numerous Italian cities and elsewhere.

“This extraordinary collection gathers in a single place rare and, in some instances, unique testimonies of the evolution of Italian opera from its origins in the 1600s to the 20th century,” said Guido Olivieri, a musicologist in the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music at The University of Texas at Austin. “The study of these libretti is of the utmost importance to the history of vocal music. It offers to musicologists and opera historians the possibility of analyzing the relationship between text and music and comparing different versions of the same libretto. It also provides valuable details on the organization of specific events and crucial information on the context of their production.

“The collection, however, is also a precious resource for Italianists and cultural studies scholars to reconstruct the transformations of Italian language and narratological structures, look at the evolution of theatrical and social conventions, and examine the broader cultural contexts in which these works originated.”

By the late 19th century, libretti were printed for audience members at almost every musical production, and they became a detailed and reliable source of information on the performance of individual operas, as the libretto was often the only surviving record of an opera’s performance. A researcher could glean from a libretto, for example, information about the date of the production, the size and composition of the orchestra, the composer, the poet, the singers, the director, the impresario, the scene designers and various other members of the stage staff.

Researchers can also learn about how libretti of important librettists were treated in a variety of performances, the popularity of given works and the musical activity at the courts, theaters and oratories of such centers as Venice, Milan, Rome, Florence, Naples, Palermo and Bologna.

Significant individual items in the Kraus libretti collection include the first edition of what is generally considered the earliest opera, “Ottavio Rinuccini,” and Jacopo Peri’s “La Dafne,” performed in Florence in 1600, published in 1597. Also present is the first edition of Rinuccini’s “L’Euridice,” produced in Florence in 1600 for the marriage of Henry IV of France and Maria de’ Medici and the earliest opera for which music is preserved. Other important works include Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Fidelio” (Rome, 1886) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Il Flauto Magico” (Milan, 1886) and “Il Don Giovanni” (Florence, 1818).

The collection also includes works by poets Apostolo Zeno and Pietro Metastasio and composers Giuseppe Verdi, Domenico Cimarosa, Giovanni Paisiello, Saverio Mercadante, Gaetano Donizetti, Johann Simon Mayr and Gioachino Rossini.

The Kraus libretti collection joins other music holdings at the Ransom Center, including an opera collection that consists of biographical materials on operatic performers from the 1880s through the 1950s. The careers of about 1,000 performers from this period are documented with photographs, clippings, prints, programs and playbills. The collection also includes production photographs relating to operatic works produced for the American stage and materials documenting the history of prominent opera companies in the United States and in Europe.

The Ransom Center also holds the library of bibliophile, collector and concert violinist Edwin Bachmann, which includes first and early editions of music by major western European composers (with particular strengths in Beethoven, Mozart and Frédéric Chopin), early treatises on music and a few copyist’s manuscripts, including works by Joseph Haydn, Mozart and Giovanni Battista Viotti.

The Carlton Lake collection contains manuscript scores by Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, Maurice Ravel, Paul Dukas and Albert Roussel, as well as works by Franz Liszt, Camille Saint-Saëns, Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky and Giuseppe Verdi.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Kraus_libretti.gif image_description=Title page of the libretto for Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini’s “L’Euridice,” Florence, 1600. [Courtesy of University of Texas] product=yes product_title=Collection of Italian Opera Libretti Now Accessible at Harry Ransom Center product_by=Above: Title page of the libretto for Jacopo Peri and Ottavio Rinuccini’s “L’Euridice,” Florence, 1600. [Courtesy of University of Texas]
Posted by Gary at 9:33 AM

January 8, 2010

Quality opera just round the corner

Typically seating 200 to 600, offering reduced seasons of just a few popular titles, hosting strolling companies and partly drawing from semiprofessional forces as to orchestras and choirs, they worked as an efficient low-entry circuit nationwide, so that young talents might be discovered and acquire stage experience, while mature professionals could age gracefully while waiting for retirement.

That pattern went nearly lost during the following decades, as growing travel opportunities on one side, and multimedia diffusion of grand opera productions on the other, compelled many a minor house to shut up shop. However, part of it is resurfacing in a more sophisticated form. Aware of unavoidable competition from opera DVDs and cheap live beaming in neighborhood cinemas, provincial opera theaters now reopen under the aegis of local Councilors for Culture and Education, putting a premium on artistic quality rather than on business, albeit within the constraint of limited public budgets.

Padua’s Teatro Comunale, named for Giuseppe Verdi, is one such example. “Less is more” is the motto for this small but savvy house that offers two productions a season, with fashionable directors, elegant but essential sets and emerging musical talents from the world over. Coproductions with its peers in the area, Rovigo and Bassano del Grappa, multiply the impact and grant Padua denizens the experience of live opera just round the corner — for ludicrous investments. This lovely production of Trovatore, for example, did cost the local taxpayer a mere Euro 105,134.06 — all included.

Trovatore_Padua_02.gifAnna Smirnova as Azucena

It updates the action from Medieval Spain to some unspecified episode of modern class warfare, or, according to the director’s notes, to the days of Resistenza, the anti-Nazi guerrilla in Italy during the 1940s. While the consistency of this metamorphosis remains questionable under several viewpoints, it allows director Denis Krief — in charge of costume design as well as of sets and lighting — to contrast the rival parties by outfitting Count di Luna and his troopers in military uniforms resembling an early version of today’s Italian Polizia di Stato and Manrico’s forces (including the hard-working Gypsies) in casual civilian clothing. Simple, clear and low-budget enough. Both Leonora and her lady-in-waiting Ines wear elegant evening gowns befitting their social rank; as to Azucena, she stands midway between a punk star and the German diva Brigitte Helm featuring the Whore of Babylon in the 1927 cult movie Metropolis.

Even though the stage is rather large, Krief uses the space well and moves his people within the framework of a gigantic book, whose wooden pages, around 5.50 meters tall, are meant to remind that Verdi’s gloomy narration is both historic and a fairy tale. Their diversely carved surfaces, turned by the stagehands after each scene, also provide an ever-changing enhancement to the hall’s acoustic. Sound wizardry through a frugal technology not involving any electronic equipment.

Trovatore_Padua_04.gif Vitaliy Biliy as Conte di Luna, Walter Fraccaro as Manrico and Kristin Lewis as Leonora

Conductor Omer Meir Wellber clearly appreciates how fine an orchestrator Verdi was, as I heard many woodwind colors that often go overlooked, while the strategic role of the offstage choir and band was given due prominence. The young Israeli maestro, still in his late twenties, is a wonderful talent. His debut at Padua, in late 2008 with Aida, got him no less than the Toscanini Award from the Italian association of music critics. A similar story to Kristin Lewis’, a budding soprano from Little Rock, Arkansas, whose appearance as Aida on said production won her a row of international invitations for the same role. From her first phrase as Leonora she gave the impression of an almost ideal Verdian performer — indeed her ample, soft-grained lyrical tone and generous chest notes made her singing the delight of the evening.

As Azucena, the Russian mezzo Anna Smirnova impressed with her vast range of vocal color and dramatic accents of uncommon intensity. Ferrando, a somewhat perfunctory character who opens the opera by explaining the background that sets the plot in motion, then practically disappears, was impersonated by Roberto Tagliavini. With his big, solid voice and strong stage presence, he offered a preview of the vocal treasures he has in store, leaving me with the desire to hear more.

The two leading men, tenor Walter Fraccaro as Manrico and Ukraine’s baritone Vitaliy Biliy as Count di Luna, are both good singers who interpret their roles with much ardor. Both have some dramatic shortcomings, though. In Biliy’s case the problem lies in acting. Even though he’s tall and commands the stage as a military leader should, his gestures are stock, failing to convey the character’s moments of doubt, brief repentance, and final desperation.

Carlo Vitali

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Trovatore_Padua_01.gif image_description=Kristin Lewis as Leonora and Walter Fraccaro as Manrico [Photo by Michele Crosera courtesy of Teatro Comunale, Padua] product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Il trovatore product_by=Conte di Luna: Vitaliy Biliy; Leonora: Kristin Lewis; Azucena: Anna Smirnova; Manrico: Walter Fraccaro; Ferrando: Roberto Tagliavini; Ines: Natalia Roman; Ruiz: Luca Casalin; Old Gipsy: Antonio Marani; A Messenger: Antonio Feltracco. Orchestra Filarmonia Veneta “G.F. Malipiero”, Coro Lirico Li. Ve. Denis Krief, director. Omer Meir Wellber, conductor. Teatro Comunale, Padua, Italy. Performance of 27 December 2009. product_id=Above: Kristin Lewis as Leonora and Walter Fraccaro as Manrico

All photos by Michele Crosera courtesy of Teatro Comunale, Padua
Posted by Gary at 12:28 PM

An interview with Hilary Hahn

Her discography began in 1997 with a CD of the second half of the Sonatas and Partitas of Bach, and also includes a disc of Bach violin concertos with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Except for the Bach solos, and a disc of Mozart sonatas with piano, she has appeared as a concerto soloist, so her most recent release is a radical departure. Her vocal collaborators are not known as early music specialists, but the continuo section includes three figures with extensive work in the area — Naoki Kitaya, harpsichord and organ, Rosario Conte, theorbo, and Kristin von der Goltz, violoncello (a former member of the exceptional Freiburger Barockorchester, directed by her older brother Gottfried.

We spoke by telephone on January 6, 2010.

TM: In the context of a disc of Bach arias, it seems to make sense to ask “Were you brought up Lutheran?”

HH: Yes.

TM: So this repertoire fits in with what you heard as a child.

HH: Absolutely. My dad sang in a church choir, so there was a lot of this music around the holidays. I was familiar with the vocal ensemble repertoire from an early age.

TM: I know this a project you have been thinking about for quite some time. Did you build the program around the texts of the arias, or were they chosen more for musical reasons?

HH: I wanted to leave the decision about what arias to include with the singers. I like all of it, and wanted to do what the singers were particularly excited by. It’s so rich. We began to narrow it down since there is more than could fit into one album. I became more conscious of the words as I learned the music. In this repertoire I have to make the violin match the vocal parts, but also remain true to the instrument. It doesn’t work to just copy what the vocalists are doing — it has to be translated into a violinistic context, to make it work musically without the words. It was important to learn the notes first, and then the words, and then put it all together.

TM: Bach’s musical interpretations of these fraught texts are fascinating. So many of the texts in your CD are similar in tone to that from BWV 158 [Der Friede sei mit dir] — “Welt, ade, ich bin dein müde” — “goodbye, cruel world”, to put it in modern terms. Perhaps this has to do with the way that Bach looks at the violin — a heavenly sound, in that sense. The arias are so tightly focused on death. Was that present for you, as you went through the project?

HH: I can look at it from the perspective of the words, or from the perspective of the notes. The words don’t determine everything about my interpretation. For a singer, the tone and articulation are determined by the consonants and vowels in a word. It’s less so for the violin, but I have to know that they are in order to match the singers. I was involved with interpretation from the literary, but also separated from that to go back to just the notes.

TM: You remarked in your video on the project about how singers sing, how singers phrase, and how singers relate to other musicians. Could you expand on that a little?

HH: Singers are very close to their instruments — you can’t switch your instrument — you’ve got what you’ve got. You live with that instrument and know it inside and out, it’s part of your body. It’s a different relationship with the instrument than an instrumentalist has. You can leave your instrument for a day, and go out and do something else. For singers the limitations of the human voice have much to do with how things are written for the voice, what the repertoire is, what singers take on. The voice that a singer has determines what kind of musician they become. A man can play a violin, and a woman can play a cello, but a woman can’t sing bass. On the interpretive side the singer has to think about getting the meaning of the words across, and the meaning of the notes. An instrumentalist has technical things to keep in mind as you play, but for singers you have a combination of theater and musical interpretation, theater in the sense of projecting the words in the right way. We forget how often we hear things in languages we don’t know in classical music.

Hahn_DG.gifHilary Hahn [Photo by Olaf Heine courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon]

TM: Christine Schäfer remarks that Bach’s vocal lines are almost unsingable because there is no space for a breath. Do you find things that are similarly awkward in his writing for violin?

HH: Absolutely, though not something as basic as that. It is tricky to play Bach well, because it is exposed and complex — that combination can be treacherous, but at the same time it is extremely rewarding. You have a lot of options as well. You can play it any which way, as long as it is convincing for the listener. There are many different styles of performance for Bach, and they all have their place.

TM: Bach survives best from the baroque because he is so open to modern performances, much more so than his French contemporaries. There are certainly pieces where Bach is writing against the instrumentalist, as Richard Taruskin has written about. A good example can be found in the St. John Passion, where he writes two baroque flutes in unison in a difficult key, in order to show them that this is something they just can’t do. Even if they try, it will be uncomfortable. Were there moments where you found he was writing against your best intentions?

HH: There are ways of playing the arias that are easier than others, and that has to do with tempi, and bowings. Sometimes what works best for the voice doesn’t work best for the instrument, but in that case the singer should take precedence. I wanted to make sure the singers did things the way they wanted to, because I could always adjust.

There are certain passages that seem easy enough listening to them, but they are awkward — awkward at a certain speed, awkward with a certain interpretation. But it’s that way with everything. I don’t think there is a single piece I have played that just fits like a dream. You figure out how to make it work for you, how to bring it across to the audience effectively, and there is a certain amount of molding yourself to the piece that goes on. Once you do that, then you can feel comfortable with it. I feel that if it feels awkward and weird and uncomfortable, maybe it’s not there yet — maybe there is another way to work it out. It may not be a way that you do naturally, so then you have to learn it, and then you can go to the next level with it.

TM: This is perhaps what makes him German, rather than Italian. Italian music tends to be written with the instrument in mind, what it can do, what it can’t do, rather than to give it an idiom that is intrinsically difficult.

HH: I like that challenge, though, because it makes me question how I approach the instrument and the music, and it will give me references about how to approach something that might be problematic in the future. The more I am challenged, the more solutions I come up with, the more I feel I know my instrument. If everything fits that well, I wouldn’t feel like I had gone to some limit and pushed a little bit past it.

TM: You have said Bach has a spiritual effect on people.

HH: No matter where I am playing, at a school, at a Q& A session, in a concert hall, whether it’s solo, or chamber music, or a concerto, it changes the feeling in the room — everything gets really focused. The music changes people’s states of mind. There’s a meditative focus.

TM: Can you step back from the music and observe what is going on?

HH: You can tell what is happening in the room. Bach takes a lot of concentration for an architecturally sound interpretation, so there is that kind of focus, but I can tell what kind of response there is.

TM: Is there one of these arias in particular that changed your approach to Bach?

HH: It was more of a development than a series of “ah-ha!” moments. I have always thought of the Bach solo violin repertoire as vocal.

TM: Your training comes from the Russian and Franco-Belgian schools, but this repertoire has been informed by those using period instruments. Was this something that was in your ears in making the CD?

HH: I am sure — I have heard so much Bach on period instruments, and I have so much respect for that tradition, the scholarship on performance, but I haven’t been trained in it, and I am not one to jump into something with knowing what I am doing in the area. I learned a lot from the musicians on the project who come from that approach. They were amazing, and answered a lot of questions I had, and helped me with decisions on interpretation. It’s been influential for me, but I don’t play in that style because I have enough respect for not to simply jump in.

TM: Is that something you see in your future?

HH: I would have to stop and study it for a few years in order to have that knowledge. I don’t see it happening, logistically. I take what I like from what I hear, and my preferences change as I change.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Hahn_CD_cover.gif image_description=Bach: Violin and Voice product=yes product_title=An interview with Hilary Hahn product_by=By Tom Moore product_id=Deutsche Grammophon 477 8092 2 [CD] price=$13.99 product_url=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B002SSZ7E6
Posted by Gary at 9:58 AM

January 7, 2010

An Interview with Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon

He studied composition with George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania, where his fellow students included Jennifer Higdon and Osvaldo Golijov. We spoke via Skype on December 15 and December 17, 2009.

Part 1:

STM: Please talk about growing up in Guadalajara.

RZ-M: My father was an architect, and my mother, who is still living, is a psychologist. I was not extremely consistent with my musical interests as a kid. I started the guitar around the age of six, quit, did some piano, was just sort of bouncing back and forth. At home the listening was very erratic – my father liked folk music from Mexico, and would sing it to his own accompaniment on the guitar. He also listened to a lot of modern music, from the Beatles to early Led Zeppelin. My mother is an amateur pianist, and I remember her playing Chopin polonaises and mazurkas, also Scarlatti – I remember those things quite well. I wasn’t so furiously interested in music – it was something that I enjoyed, but didn’t see as my future. From all indications, I was supposed to go into the sciences, or architecture or whatnot. When I became a teenager, 12 or 13, I realized that the way to the hearts of young ladies in Mexico was through the guitar, and so I started studying again, this time with a very peculiar teacher. He was a very good guitarist, but frustrated with everything. One of the things that he would do to work out his frustration was to make arrangements of very strange things. For example, he made a fugue on the theme of “La Cucaracha” for the guitar. He was also transcribing Beethoven’s Fifth for the guitar. I would listen to these things and think that they were normal. The bad side was that his idea of guitar pedagogy was to run the students through this horrendous method by Julio Sagreras, something designed to make you quit the guitar, really. And I discovered that while the acoustic guitar was good for serenading, what really got the attention of young girls was if you played the electric guitar. Following my reproductive instincts, I bought a black Stratocaster, and started a band. It sounded horrendous at first, because it was just a bunch of friends who were interested in music. I remember that for the first half hour of every rehearsal I was trying to tune everything while the drummer was banging away, and people were making a lot of noise. Eventually the band got a little better, and actually Carlos Sanchez became the keyboard player. Those were our golden years! This went on for two or three years, and we actually had some moderate exposure in Guadalajara. This was a time when there were a lot of bands. I was playing all kinds of things. We would do covers of Dire Straits and Pink Floyd, and I was writing a lot of songs, which was what I most enjoyed. The lyrics of these songs have, thankfully, been lost, and probably the music as well, but it was an important thing for me, because it was a way to get into composition without really thinking that it was anything very serious. It was just fun to do it. I spent a lot of time making arrangements. We had a singer who had problems with pitch, so we ended up adding more and more instrumentals, which meant that I had to compose these arrangements to keep things interesting. By the time I was of an age to go to college, I was playing quite a bit, but I thought it would be a hobby. So I went into architecture for a little while – a semester at ITESO, a private Jesuit university in Guadalajara,. I had some “encounters” with the Jesuits, because I came from a family that was very unreligious. My religious education at 13 was a book that my dad gave me by Bertrand Russell, Why I am not a Christian. After a little while in architecture I quit the school thinking that I was taking a break, and started working for my father, who was a very well-known architect. That convinced me that I really didn’t want to do it. So I spent about a year and half in my dad’s apartment playing scales and etudes , trying to get my guitar chops to somewhere decent, and then I went to the US, to UC San Diego, mostly by accident. They had a very good guitar program - the Romeros were there, and also it was very heavily into composition, so that was a crucial move for me, although not really one that had been planned.

STM: A very important center for contemporary music.

RZ-M: There was hardly anything from before 1945 that was worthy of their attention, and so I had a very odd education. I came from playing the guitar repertory, mainly, which was not very important in the classical period, and then jumped into the twentieth century, where Bartok was normal, John Cage was normal….When I saw the guitar majors there I realized that the level was just astronomical, with very, very good players. I was very clear that I was going to go into composition, but it was important to practice seriously at a decent level for a few years.

STM: Rodney Waschka, another guitarist, said to me that he believed that there was a close connection between guitar and electro-acoustic music, since the popular guitarist is always playing with the details of the sound. Would you say that was the case for you?

RZ-M: You have to understand that Guadalajara at the time was a real backwater of the pop music world. It’s a very large town, but it was difficult to get instruments. We had to travel to the US. We drove for thirty hours just to get instruments – it was an adventure. I had a few pedals, very noisy things, echoes, and all sorts of stuff like that. But I wasn’t so interested in that. I was more interested in the guitar as an instrument rather than what I could do with it in terms of sound manipulation.

STM: Tell us a little more about moving into composition at UCSD.

RZ-M: I was clear that I wanted to do composition, but I didn’t see myself as someone who would be composing for orchestras – I didn’t feel much of a connection to that part of the musical world. I saw myself as someone who would go back to Guadalajara after several years, start some kind of group, and do music that would be in between the cracks of jazz, pop, classical ….Carlos and I had a plan that we would start this group and really try to make a living from it….so my interest in composition was very strong but I didn’t have a lot of formal background – it was mostly entering that world through side doors, something that has its advantages and disadvantages. You are very free, but ignorance was something that I had to try to solve. I didn’t know the orchestral repertory well, I didn’t know music history – so I worked very hard in those years in an environment that was not really very structured, which probably was good for me. I was anonymous, just doing my thing. If I had gone to a conservatory, it would have been more difficult for me to enter that world with that kind of background. But at San Diego I did fine in classes – there were all sorts of people, and composition, because it was so focused on the twentieth century, and being creative, and doing crazy stuff – it was not intimidating, actually. It was much more intimidating a couple of years down the road, when I got it into my head that I wanted to write fugues and inventions and sonatas, and it hits you like a sledgehammer what that really entails. It was an interesting place, full of crazy people. Most of the faculty was composers. There was only one music historian.

STM: San Diego is famous for being the largest American city on the border with Mexico. Did you feel the presence of Mexican culture there?

RZ-M: La Jolla was so American – very wealthy, mostly white people, the University was a place that looked very first-world – and in fact there were very few Mexicans in that environment. I was a kind of oddball – perhaps there were two or three Mexican guitarists, because Mexico is always exporting guitarists. It was mostly a graduate program – of the undergraduates I believe that only two of us in my generation went on to do music professionally. The undergraduate program was very badly put together – a collection of courses that didn’t make much sense. I did a lot of independent study, with the orchestration professor, the theory professors – there was an amazing Frenchman, Jean-Charles François, who was a percussionist/pianist/composer. He was very important for me. He had a wonderful way of teaching composition. I had a yearlong course with him which combined composing with ear training, all sorts of theory – it was just do, do, do, do, do. Every week you wrote and wrote. By the end of a couple of years you had some chops.

STM: Who else was important for you at San Diego?

RZ-M: There was also Will Ogdon, who was a theorist and composer. Bernard Rands, who taught an interesting course on musical analysis (my first encounter with Berio’s music). I did not study composition with him, but of the composers who were there, his was the kind of music that I could relate to immediately. I was listening to contemporary music full-time – to hear Mozart was very rare. There was a contrabass ensemble with Bert Turetzky. I would go to this concert and hear eight contrabasses, and I thought “that’s normal”. Then I would go to a John Cage concert, and that was normal, too. All sorts of strange things….

Keith Humble was very important. He was an Australian composer who would come to UCSD for one quarter of every year. He got me to work with more discipline, looking at Bartok’s Mikrokosmos – that became my learning tool. He was very, very good and had a wonderful sense of humor. The guitar studio was important, although I never really felt part of it in the sense that I knew that I would not be a guitarist. It was a place where I had some friends, and would go to master classes with Pepe Romero. I studied for some time with Celin, who is one of the brothers. It was inspiring to see the level there, but the guitar repertory was something that I never really loved – I think that is one of the reasons that I went into composition.

STM: Do you have pieces in your catalog that date from your undergraduate years?

RZ-M: The only thing that I still feel some affection for is a piece that was a sort of piece d’occasion. There was going to be a celebration for the 85th birthday of Ernst Krenek. A lot of people at UCSD at the time had been his students. The director of the orchestra, Tom Nee, with whom I had studied orchestration, asked me to write a little birthday greeting for Krenek, and he told me “make it last five or six minutes, because he has to walk from his seat in the audience to the stage to get a big cake, but he’s very old.” I took “Happy Birthday” and made variations on it that were very strange. At the end there was a strange harmonization that the public would sing for him. It was the first time that I had written for a large ensemble. I was delighted! But other than that, no.

STM: And you then went directly on to graduate school at Penn.

RZ-M: I didn’t know what I was going to do, and someone said “Why don’t you try for a master’s somewhere?” One of the composers that I really admired was George Crumb. I was in the library, someone gave me a score by Crumb, and I couldn’t believe the way it looked. I went to listen to it, and I thought “this is great!” It was the first time I had heard recent music that I thought was full of magic and full of life in a way that other pieces didn’t have for me. A lot of music seemed intellectual, and listening to it was a duty, like music by Carter was “well, OK, I have to…” Crumb was different. My immediate assumption was that he was dead, since I thought that someone that good must be dead and buried… A year or two later someone pointed out that he was teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, so that was one of the places I applied. One morning someone called me and said that I had a fellowship to go study there, with everything covered. I thought it was a friend making a prank call. I was on the way to school and thought “Yeah, yeah, thanks a lot!” Somehow we straightened it out, and I went to Philadelphia for the master’s. I didn’t think I would do a doctoral degree, but when I was finishing the master’s my adviser said “Look, why don’t you start taking some courses in the doctoral program just in case you want to stay.” So I did. And I found a wonderful woman that I wanted to marry, and realized that I needed to have some kind of job some day, so I decided to finish the doctoral degree to see what I could do with that.

STM: You started at Penn in 1986.

RZ-M: Yes. At the time people were taking longer to graduate than today – maybe we were less evolved. There was very good funding – I never had to worry about it. I was funded for four or five years, and then there was another year where I was asked to teach music for non-majors. I had a lot of fun with that, which was a revelation. I finished in about ’92, ’93.

STM: You studied with Crumb. Who else was on the faculty?

RZ-M: With Crumb, and a semester each with Richard Wernick and Jay Reise. Most of my studies were with Crumb. I did my dissertation under him. It was a stroke of luck to have studied with him, because he was very encouraging, very gentle. The impression I had coming out of lessons was “this was great!” I just wanted to write music. I was struggling a lot – it was never easy. It was coming very slowly, but Crumb never made it feel like this was a bad thing. I know in other environments it can be very high-pressure, like at Eastman, where if someone is not producing a lot of music, eyes start turning toward this person…it’s tricky. Conservatories have a very different kind of mentality, because there is so much performance going on. At Penn it was more independent. If you wanted to compose a lot, that was fine. If you did it more slowly that was fine.

One of the great things at Penn was that I went “backwards” in my studies at that point. Crumb would teach a seminar on Chopin, for example, and we had to write mazurkas. I took a seminar on Brahms, a seminar on Mahler, all with him. He was very interested in traditional repertory. It got me to fill gaps that I had that other people had filled years before.

STM: Things that had not been addressed at San Diego.

RZ-M: At San Diego anything I got in traditional repertory was through my own initiative, but that was very haphazard. I was interested in Beethoven, so I would study that, I was interested in Bach, so I would study that…but Brahms was never on my radar, Mozart only a little bit….so I had very odd areas that I knew very well, and others that were problematic. I was never part of an orchestral culture in that sense.

STM: Were there institutions outside the university, musical groups in the city that were influential?

RZ-M: Mainly the Curtis Institute, which had a tremendous level of performance, and free concerts three times a week, so I started to go often to hear whatever they would play. The Philadelphia Orchestra, except that you have to remember that tickets were very expensive, and for student tickets you had to rush there and hope to get in at the last minute. I did see a lot of their concerts, and went to some impressive rehearsals – one where Lutoslawski was invited to conduct a whole program. He did “Mi-parti”, one of the symphonies, and the cello concerto. What was most important for me, in addition to Crumb, was that my generation had very good composers in the student body. There was David Crumb, the son of George Crumb, who is teaching in Oregon, Michael Fiday, who teaches in Cincinnati, Osvaldo Golijov, who is now a superstar. Jennifer Higdon came a year later, Pierre Jalbert, who teaches at Rice University, also a wonderful composer.

So the concerts of what used to be called the Penn Composer’s Guild were really, really good. They were events – you had all these young guys, and you didn’t want to be the ugly duckling, with a horrendous piece. I remember being in the practice room composing all day, all day, all day – I don’t know how we managed with courses, because the routine was you would get there in the morning, they had these horrible practice rooms, David would be in one, I would be in another, someone else in a third, we would compose all morning, and then go and look at what the other guy had done, laugh a little bit, go have lunch, come back, compose, take a seminar. It was very concentrated. There were very few distractions, not a lot of performances. It was a time to really go inwards. I found it very productive.

STM: I recall that computer software such as Finale was just beginning to be developed at the end of the 80’s. Twenty years later composers have such facility in using such programs, and get instant feedback with midi performances of the files. The period you are describing was before that divide, yes?

RZ-M: I remember when some of my older colleagues began bringing in these scores that looked pretty primitive by today’s standards. My friends slowly started going in that direction, but I kept doing everything by hand, because for me it was part of the process. I would get the piece to a certain stage, and then start copying. Sometimes there were things that were not finished, or details that were not decided, and copying gave me a focus. I did very careful copies – Crumb was the ultimate goal, but he was just too good. I started using Sibelius only about two years ago. I don’t use it all the time, but for large pieces it is very helpful. I have found that playback is something that I have to stay away from, because it is so tempting, and so misleading even after all these years of composing. You start writing and orchestrating things in a way that actually can get you into trouble, because it doesn’t make mistakes, it doesn’t take any time – it’s a machine. Not being a good pianist really forced me to be sure that I could hear every note that I wrote, that every note had meaning for me. I knew that I had to copy this stuff by hand – I didn’t want to [any] include any note that would suck. With these programs it is much easier to be wasteful – concentration is difficult if I am working with the computer.

STM: The end result can sometimes be something that seems hardly intended for human beings. I heard a chamber music premiere that I thought was wonderfully performed, and the composer said “it wasn’t anything like the MIDI!”

RZ-M: A friend said to me “It’s misleading for students, but it’s fine for an experienced composer.” I don’t quite agree, because I think that it puts you in a different frame of mind. It’s very easy to stop hearing internally, to think that some kinds of synchronizations are going to work – and they work very differently than they do in reality. For me I have to do it by hand. I use the piano a lot. I like Sibelius, because once you put it there any corrections are a piece of cake. My wife gave me an ultimatum a few years ago: “No more parts!” She was helping me with these, and it was getting crazy. She said “That’s it!” So I started using Sibelius. “Sibelius saved our marriage”.

STM: When did you meet?

RZ-M: In Philadelphia, in my first year. It was my first performance of something I considered a real piece, my first performance at Penn, in ’87. I had seen her – she was an undergraduate – but I hadn’t had a chance to meet her. She had come to listen to a piece by Osvaldo, because she and her friends knew Osvaldo. He had a piece on the same concert. She heard my piece, and liked it, and came to tell me afterwards, so I quickly asked for her phone number. It was a very nice place – I got a degree and a wife.

STM: Does she teach at Rochester?

RZ-M: We have two adolescent boys. She performs occasionally, and now that the kids are teenagers she will perform the Goldberg Variations. I am writing a piece for her, for the first time, a kind of concerto grosso for harpsichord, mandolin, banjo, harp, and guitar, and two string quartets, each with a percussionist and a contrabass.

STM: What would be a characteristic piece from your time in Philadelphia?

RZ-M: A song cycle, which was at the suggestion of Jay Reise. I wasn’t writing any vocal music. I loved vocal music, but it was always folk music. Opera was always so foreign, with a few exceptions. It was not something which tickled my fancy. When I thought of vocal music in the classical tradition, I thought it was something that was just not for me. He suggested that I do it, because I was getting bogged down working on technical things. He thought, and rightly, that writing for the voice would open something up. I took texts from a pre-Hispanic tale of a figure called “Quetzalcoatl”, both a mythical and a historical figure. I remember walking through the campus and hearing things –with the words I was imagining music. I asked a sister of mine, who is a writer, to set these in poetic form, and she made three little poems. I added another one that I found. It took me a long, long time to set these. I chose an ensemble that was two percussionists with a large battery – marimba, vibraphone, etc. – piano, flute, clarinet, cello, and baritone voice. I went to the Accademia Chigiana at the time and studied with Donatoni, which was very important for other reasons. I became a bit discouraged about the piece, and came back and showed it to Crumb. I said “I don’t know if I want to continue with this piece”, and he said “If you throw it away, tell me where!” and I felt so flattered!

I continued working on this, and it was performed at the Curtis Institute. The pianist was Pierre Jalbert, the flutist was Jennifer Higdon, the cellist was John Koen (now with the Philadelphia Orchestra) and the conductor was Osvaldo Golijov – we were very good friends at the time. It was insanely difficult to count. Osvaldo said “Look, I will do the little drawings in the air, and you listen and tell me if everything is right, because it is too difficult….” It doesn’t sound difficult – just that the notation was very odd. It was a big success for me. I had a piece where I felt there was a lot of personal expression, even though of all my pieces it is the one that has the most affinity with Crumb – it has a lot of sounds that I took from him. I can see a lot of influence now on the way it was composed, with small particles. I made an arrangement of it for violin, percussion, soprano and recorder, and sent to friends in Holland, who had an ensemble. Upon rehearsing it they disbanded, because they got into all sorts of fights….it was accepted at the Gaudeamus week, the big contest for young composers. That was a piece that helped me to grow, and brought me a lot of other opportunities, since it was an exotic-sounding work. It was hard to compose anything that I liked for a couple of years after that – I felt like I would never be able to do something like that again. It was a weird feeling – eventually things started to click. That was “Flores del Viento”. We just recorded it last May, after all these years.

STM: What happened when you left Penn?

RZ-M: I had a residence in the fall of 1992 at the Camargo Foundation. At the time they were already in contact with me from Mexico. They were going to open a new, high-level conservatory in Guadalajara, and they wanted me to be in charge of theory, and eventually composition. I went to France, came back, taught at Penn (as a T.A.), and finally moved to Guadalajara, but like many things in Mexico, this never materialized. Nothing happened, and someone from Guanajuato, a beautiful colonial town in central Mexico, offered me a job teaching theory and composition. I had nothing else – we were back in Mexico, I had no job, I had a kid, who was born in France in 1992. We moved there, and that’s really where I learned to teach – harmony, counterpoint, analysis – everything you could imagine. It was low stress in the sense that the expectations were not very high, but high stress in terms of the number of things that I had to do. I started a music festival with a crazy colleague that I had there. We brought Crumb, Steve Schick came – there were all sorts of things – electronic, acoustic. I did that for a few years, until I got fed up with the place. A Guggenheim fellowship miraculously materialized for me at the end of 1995. I never expected to get it. I wanted someplace to be that was outside Mexico. I had met Mario Davidovsky, who was at Harvard, and he kindly sponsored me as a visiting scholar. He taught two days a week, and I could use his office the rest of the time. It was fantastic! We were in Cambridge, we took the kids, and spent a year there, composing and enjoying Boston. This was during all of 1996.

STM: A good place to be. Was Golijov already at Holy Cross?

RZ-M: I called him, because he had gotten a Guggenheim the same year. We met a couple of times, but he was getting very busy by that point. That was about the last time that I saw him. He had a big shift in style and outlook in his last years at Penn, and has done incredibly well.

Part 2:

STM: Tell me about the origin of your compound surname.

RZ-M: When I came to the University of Pennsylvania, at my first lesson with George Crumb I was very curious about why they had accepted me as a student. He told me “Well, it was your name, Ricardo!” It was a Zen moment.

It is an odd combination – my father was an Austrian Jew, and came to Mexico when he was eight years old, with his parents. They managed to get out in 1938. From what he tells me, Jewish immigrants couldn’t really get into the US at the time – it was very difficult. They had a choice of Mexico or Shanghai.

They came to Mexico, where they had a relative. A lot of the family managed to immigrate to Mexico. My mother’s side of the family were immigrants from Ireland who had arrived in Mexico much earlier. My mother was born in Mexico, but her Irish side, the Muldoons, was very strong. In Mexico, the father’s surname comes first, and then the mother’s. Everyone has two last names, and the mother’s last name is lost in the next generation. When I came to the States, I had to hyphenate it, or else I would have been Mr. Muldoon.

STM: So your father is Jewish?

RZ-M: He was – he died in 2000. He was a very secular person – agnostic seems too timid a word. When I was thirteen, my Jewish friends were having bar mitzvahs, and my Catholic friends were having their first communion, and I wasn’t getting anything. I asked him “What about a party?” He said, “I will give you religious instruction”, and bought me that Bertrand Russell book [Why I Am Not a Christian]. It was a personal choice of his, but it was also a generation that was very humanistic. Jean-Paul Sartre has an essay about the Jewish question, and the contrast between Jews who had a more universalist outlook, and those who said that we had to go back to a more orthodox Jewish view of the world to survive. But my father was not religious at all, at all.

STM: Would you say that Jewish culture had an effect on how you think about things?

RZ-M: It’s hard to know, because I didn’t grow up with it at all. My house was very strange. I had the feeling that we were different from other people, partly because we were not Catholic, we were not religious, and partly also because my father’s work ethic was very, very strong, and on my mother’s side as well. My mother’s father had studied at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York State. He was an engineer, and the US seemed very welcome in their household. There was always a sense that we were Mexican, but with some component that didn’t quite fit. I never saw my father drink, except for socially. Many of the parents of my friends would have drunken parties – my father was very temperate, and worked very hard, always at the office doing his architectural work. That was his passion.

I don’t know what part of this was Jewish, and what part was Germanic, since they were Austrian Jews. There was a big love of the arts, of reading. But I never learned any Jewish songs, and didn’t know anything about any of the services. I came to the US, and met Osvaldo, who had very strong Jewish roots. He invited me to a seder, and I had no idea what it was about. I learned about these things in the States, at the University of Pennsylvania, where there was a big Jewish population. I have never really felt part of the culture, but in a tangential way I have an affection for it.

STM: Marriages between Jewish fathers and Irish mothers was something that they wrote about in the US in the Twenties. There’s a famous play called “Abie’s Irish Rose”.

RZ-M: In Mexico there are not so many Irish, and the Jewish population is less strong than it is in Argentina, for example. In Guadalajara the Jewish population was very much a mercantile group that did very well. My dad was the odd man out, since he was a professional and an architect. Mexico City was very different, with a lot of intellectuals and artists who have Jewish names.

I have always felt at home in the US, because it seems like everyone else is just as disoriented as I am.

STM: And it is also the most Jewish of countries with the exception of Israel.

RZ-M: I have friends who are Jewish to varying degrees, some very Orthodox, some mildly religious, but definitely the sense of identity is much more present here than it was in Mexico. In Mexico, perhaps because the country is so Catholic, there was a tendency to not play up these things too strongly. Here, on the contrary, Jewish identity is very strong because there is so much competition among groups of differing ethnicities….. I have never really been part of a Jewish community, so to speak. I know it’s in my culture.

RZ-M: To finish talking about Boston – we went there for a year. Thanks to the Guggenheim fellowship I was at Harvard writing music. I was in Davidovsky’s office, and had some contact with him, but not study, mostly social. While I was there I applied for a couple of jobs in the US. I had a couple of interviews, and the one from Cincinnati came through. I started there at the beginning of ’97, since I wanted to finish the Guggenheim year. I was there for five years, from 1997 until 2002, when I came to Eastman.

STM: What would you like to say about Cincinnati? Is there a memorable piece from that period?

RZ-M: I suffered. It was a very good opportunity for me to teach things that I had never taught – analysis of twentieth-century music, analysis of romantic music – I had a lot of classroom teaching, which I enjoyed, because it is like performing for those large classes, and there is an element of humor which is very difficult to have in a seminar setting. When there are a lot of people, you can say something funny and the whole class lights up.

It’s a very good conservatory, which was then in a transitional period, with a generation that was retiring, and new hires every year. The theory department grew a lot. We were all bundled together – theory, composition, musicology.

There was a lot of classroom teaching, exams, administration – all the DMA’s had to write full-fledged dissertations. And for anything that was remotely Spanish-sounding I was assigned as a reader. No one asked you. The dean made the assignments – it was a quasi-military thing. Even a dissertation about medieval music from Spain….it was Spain=Ricardo, who is the token Latin-American. It was exhausting.

In order to get a raise, I needed another offer. I was very annoyed, since I prefer not to feel like a tomato in the market, you know? I am worth what I am worth. So I applied to Eastman, and when I met my colleagues, and saw the students, I was extremely impressed with the place…However, I was afraid to move my family – the kids were already in school, but the crux of the matter was that I needed more time to write, and they were unable to do that for me at CCM. So I left for Eastman.

I was writing as much as I could at CCM, but it was difficult. It was a time of struggle, learning a lot about teaching, a lot about the faculty culture here in the U.S., and composing when I could, which was tough. There were no sabbaticals.

It was, however, an important period in my composition, because in those years I wrote several pieces based on the book Pedro Páramo, by Juan Rulfo. These include Páramo, for Pierrot plus percussion, Sangre, for guitar string trio and tenor, and several others. In my last year at CCM I finished the first version of a “scenic cantata”, Comala, which integrates all these works. Comala is an hour long, and growing still. It is some of the best music I have written, and where my “personal voice” really consolidated.

STM: So now life is paradise at Eastman.

RZ-M: It’s amazing! There’s the weather, which we don’t talk about, but other than that….It is a really amazing place, because the culture of new music is very strong here. There is a lot of interest from the students, a lot of activity that is not even generated from the composition department, and I think it is because the school had Howard Hanson from the very beginning, and composition was always part of the idea of the school.

My position opened up, and then the next year there was another position that had to be filled, and Carlos got it. He was this element that was missing in my life – the connection to Guadalajara and all these crazy people. So the craziest of them came here [laughs]. We grew up with all the same people – he knows my family, I know his – it was a very odd juncture that I never thought I would have in the US. This guy is a really old friend. I have been composing more, and having a very good time. I do feel guilty about it, but not too much.

STM: Jewish-Catholic guilt.

RZ-M: Thousands of years!

As I get to be middle-aged, I have noticed that I write a lot for ensembles that are strange. I am writing now for harpsichord, banjo, mandolin, guitar, harp and string quartet. I wrote another piece with some songs by Carlos’s brother, who is a very talented songwriter – a piece for him singing, with cello octet and symphony orchestra. It’s very weird. I took that route very early on, something typical of my generation – you wrote for what you thought you could do better. And lots of vocal works.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Zohn-Muldoon.gif image_description=Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon product=yes product_title=An Interview with Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon product_by=By Tom Moore product_id=Above: Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon
Posted by Gary at 10:32 PM

Juliane Banse / András Schiff, Wigmore Hall, London

By Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 7 January 2010]

In András Schiff’s hands the east wind blew up and down the keyboard in the first of Mendelssohn’s Suleika settings - though nothing like as gustily as the polar gale that was bringing snow drifts to the UK outside and stranding a quarter of the Wigmore Hall’s sell-out audience on Wednesday at home.

Posted by Gary at 10:34 AM

Cendrillon in Marseille

One of the more notable recent revivals occurred at the Opéra National du Rhin (Strasbourg) in 2003 in the mise en scène of French born director/choreographer Renaud Doucet and Canadian designer André Barbe. The production is well traveled, including a stopover at the New York City Opera two years ago, and just now it was again revived in a splendid evening in Marseille (December 29.)

This staging team is far better known in the U.S. and Canada than in Europe, in fact the entire 2009-2010 four opera season of Florida Grand Opera (Miami) consists of stagings by Messieurs Doucet and Barbe. Was it not in the 1950’s that the exodus to Florida began?

The Doucet/Barbe Cendrillon looks backwards at the fabulous American 50’s, our out-sized and shiny kitchen appliances, our long and sleek automobiles, the giant juke boxes and the big screens for our Hollywood movies. Like all French glances at the U.S. this one too is vaguely anti-American, rubbing it in that though we may have all these flashy contraptions we do not have royalty and titles — i.e. breeding, that which money cannot buy.

Thus at the center of the Doucet/Barbe production is the American princess, Grace Kelly whose kingdom, Monaco, is just down the road from Marseille, and whose fairy tale royal marriage filled the giant black and white movie screen suspended from a branch of Massenet’s giant, magical third act oak tree. The coloratura incantations of Cinderella’s fairy godmother had brought the Prince and Cinderella together for a vocally sumptuous if chaste seduction scene at the drive-in movies.

The Doucet/Barbe production wore its concept like the skin-tight, low-cut gown of the 1953 Calendar girl hanging above the juke box. Cinderella, here named Lucette, emerged scrubbing, from the oven of a giant Admiral [brand name] stove, the giant kitchen radio expelled first the magical tones and then the personage of her fairy godmother. Per the fairy tale the dream soon vanished. Lucette awakened among endless rows of the cracker-box homes of an American subdivision, only to find herself soon again at the Prince[ton] ball (get it? — he had a P on his varsity sweater).

In Marseille conductor Cyril Diederich made Massenet’s marvelous score move seamlessly from the opera buffa fantasies of Lucette’s father and her stepmother and stepsisters to the late nineteenth century style opera seria heartrending outpourings of Cinderella, from the musical banality of balletic processions to the kinetic brilliance of above-the-staff singing. You had to pinch yourself to keep from believing it to be the most delightful Rosenkavalier you could possibly imagine. After his initial downbeat Mo. Diederich’s Cendrillon never touched ground, vindicating Massenet’s score as the most magnificent of French musical confections after Hoffmann!

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The stage was in fact seen through the distorted lens of a crystal ball, somethings huge, somethings small, nothing as it really is. The costumes were fabulous exaggerations too, only Cinderella was left in a plain, gray skirt and sweater. But were those the colors (pinks, purples and greens) and shapes of the 1950’s? Certainly Messieurs Doucet and Barbe did their research, and certainly knowingly threw in some of the electric colors of the 60’s, and a pure 60’s Cadillac grill at the drive-in movies to boot.

Singing is solid in Marseille, and this Cendrillon was no exception. Canadian born, Juilliard trained mezzo soprano Julie Boulianne was Lucette, her beautifully even, bronze-hued tone was easy to imagine as the ideal singing voice of the regal Grace Kelly, plus she possesses a fine upper extension able to project Massenet’s very occasional sentimental exuberance. Her studied polish however betrayed her artistic youth. Prince Charming was Canadian tenor Frédéric Antoun who trained at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute and is a veteran of the New York City Opera production. He is handsome, brooding and accomplished, and just right for twisted takes on the heroes of his fach (Almaviva, Tamino, Nemorino, etc.).

Baritone Francois Le Roux took Pandolfe (Lucette’s father) well beyond the caricature of his costume to the highest level of later buffo style, magnifying ever word and smallest feeling to truly human proportion. Lilana Faraon was the Fairy Godmother of your dreams, her coloratura impeccable, her diminutive figure irreale and her energy indefatigable. Veteran Marseille mezzo soprano Marie-Ange Todorovitch made hay of singing a comic role for once (she is most often the stalwart heavy-duty mezzo in Marseille), and Julie Mossay and Diana Axentil were truly believable Miami Beach adolescent females.

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Choreographer Doucet’s production requires four zany ballerinas and three beautiful female jugglers, and a lively small chorus that does not mind executing a few dance steps, not to mention a brief pas de trois by the stepmother and stepsisters. In Marseille the Doucet/Barbe production achieved a near perfect balance of real and irreale, of humor and sentiment, and of spoof and beloved fairytale,

Massenet’s original Prince Charming is a soprano trouser role to be sung by a so-called Falcon soprano, a dark-toned French soprano voice, though in modern productions it is most often transposed for a male voice, satisfying current, particularly French sensibilities. The 1983 New York City Opera production though used a female Prince Charming (Suzanne Marsee) to reportedly wonderful effect.

This same 1983 NYCO production marked the first use of supertitles in the occidental world. Then NYCO general director Beverly Sills had seen supertitles used in Chinese opera in Peking and thought it might be a good idea to let her audiences know what was happening in this unfamiliar opera while it was happening. Now, a mere twenty-five years later, in spite of the excellent diction of the all Francophone cast, even in Marseille this Cendrillon was supertitled!

Michael Milenski

image=http://www.operatoday.com/content/Cendrillonmedium.png imagedescription=Jules Massenet: Cendrillon

product=yes producttitle=Jules Massenet: Cendrillon productby=Cendrillon: Julie Boulianne ; Madame de la Haltière: Marie-Ange Todorovitch; Fairy Godmother: Liliana Faraon; Noémie: Julie Mossay; Dorothée: Diana Axentii; Prince Charming: Frédéric Antoun; Pandolphe: François Le Roux; Superintendent of Pleasures: Patrick Delcour; Prime Minister: François Castel. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra de Marseille. Conductor : Cyril Diederich. Stage Director/Choreographer: Renaud Doucet. Scenery and Costumes: André Barbe. Lighting: Guy Simard. product_id=Photos by Christian Dresse courtesy of Opéra de Marseille.

Posted by michael_m at 8:44 AM

January 3, 2010

Spoleto will showcase historic Dock Street Theatre

By Steven Brown [Charlotte Observer, 3 January 2010]

After three years of polishing, one of Charleston’s gems will be back on display during this year’s Spoleto Festival USA.

Posted by Gary at 5:31 PM

That Daring Gypsy Strikes Again, and Anew

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 1 January 2010]

We all know Bizet’s “Carmen,” or think we do.

Its familiarity is the greatest challenge to any company presenting it. The acclaimed English director Richard Eyre made this point repeatedly in interviews before the opening of his new Metropolitan Opera production of “Carmen.” Without resorting to gratuitous touches and provocative changes to the opera, he said, he wanted to subvert the familiarity so that audiences would leave shocked and awed yet also touched by this 1875 masterpiece.

Posted by Gary at 5:29 PM

WAGNER: Das Liebesverbot

Music by Richard Wagner to his own libretto after William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

First Performance: 29 March 1836, Stadttheater, Magdeburg.

Principal Roles:
Friedrich, the King of Germany’s Viceroy in Sicily Baritone
Luzio, a young nobleman Tenor
Claudio, a young nobleman Tenor
Antonio, their friend Tenor
Angelo, their friend Bass
Isabella, Claudio’s sister Soprano
Mariana Soprano
Brighella, captain of the watch Bass
Danieli, an innkeeper Baritone
Dorella Soprano
Pontio Pilato, a bawd Tenor

Setting: Palermo, 16th Century.

Synopsis:

Act 1

The town square

An unnamed king of Sicily leaves his country for a journey to Naples and hands over to the appointed Regent Friedrich full authority to exercise the royal power in order to effect a complete reform in the social habits of his capital, which had provoked the indignation of the Council. The servants of the public authority busily shut up or pull down the houses of popular amusement in a suburb of Palermo, and carry off the inmates as prisoners. The populace oppose this first step, and much scuffling ensues.

Luzio, a young nobleman and juvenile scapegrace, seems inclined to thrust himself forward as leader of the mob, and at once finds an occasion for playing a more active part in the cause of the oppressed people on discovering his friend Claudio being led away to prison. From him he learns that, in pursuance of some musty old law unearthed by Friedrich, he is to suffer the penalty of death for a certain love escapade in which he is involved. His sweetheart, union with whom had been prevented by the enmity of their parents, has borne him a child. Friedrich’s puritanical zeal joins cause with the parents’ hatred; he fears the worst, and sees his only hope for mercy if his sister Isabella, by her entreaties, can melt the Regent’s hard heart. Claudio implores his friend at once to seek out Isabella in the convent of the Sisters of St. Elizabeth, which she has recently entered as novice.

A convent

Isabella is in confidential intercourse with her friend Marianne, also a novice. Marianne reveals to her friend, from whom she has long been parted, the unhappy fate which has brought her to the place. Under vows of eternal fidelity she had been persuaded to a secret liaison with a man of high rank. But finally, when in extreme need she found herself not only forsaken, but threatened by her betrayer, she discovered him to be the mightiest man in the state, none other than the King’s Regent himself. Isabella’s indignation finds vent in impassioned words, and is only pacified by her determination to forsake a world in which so vile a crime can go unpunished.

When now Luzio brings her tidings of her own brother’s fate, Isabella’s disgust at her brother’s misconduct is turned at once to scorn for the villainy of the hypocritical Regent, who presumes so cruelly to punish the comparatively venial offense of her brother, which, at least, was not stained by treachery. Her violent outburst imprudently reveals her to Luzio in a seductive aspect; smitten with sudden love, he urges her to quit the convent for ever and to accept his hand. She contrives to check his boldness, but resolves at once to avail herself of his escort to the Regent’s court of justice.

A courtroom

Several persons are charged by the sbirro captain with offenses against morality. The earnestness of the situation becomes more marked when the gloomy form of Friedrich strides through the inrushing and unruly crowd, commanding silence, and he himself undertakes the hearing of Claudio’s case in the sternest manner possible. The implacable judge is already on the point of pronouncing sentence when Isabella enters, and requests, before them all, a private interview with the Regent.

In this interview she behaves with noble moderation towards the dreaded yet despised man before her, and appeals at first only to his mildness and mercy. His interruptions merely serve to stimulate her ardor: she speaks of her brother’s offense in melting accents, and implores forgiveness. Friedrich can no longer contain himself, and promises to grant her petition at the price of her own love. Filled with indignation at such villainy, she cries to the people through doors and windows to come in, that she may unmask the hypocrite before the world. By a few significant hints, Friedrich, with frantic energy, succeeds in making Isabella realize the impossibility of her plan. But a few words on her part suffice to transport the Regent himself with ecstasy; for in a whisper she promises to grant his desire, and that on the following night she shall send him such a message as shall ensure his happiness.

And so ends the first act in a whirl of excitement.

Act 2

A prison

Isabella visits her brother in his cell. She reveals Friedrich’s shameful proposal to him, and asks if he would wish to save his life at the price of his sister’s dishonour. Then follow Claudio’s fury and fervent declaration of his readiness to die; whereupon, the unhappy man declines from a state of melancholy to one of weakness. Isabella hesitates in dismay when she sees him fall in this way. Disgusted, she springs to her feet, and declares that to the shame of his death he has further added her most hearty contempt.

After having handed him over again to his gaoler, her mood once more changes swiftly to one of wanton gaiety. True, she resolves to punish the waverer by leaving him for a time in uncertainty as to his fate; but stands firm by her resolve to rid the world of the abominable seducer who dared to dictate laws to his fellow-men.

She tells Marianne that she must take her place at the nocturnal rendezvous, at which Friedrich so treacherously expected to meet her (Isabella), and sends Friedrich an invitation to this meeting. In order to entangle the latter even more deeply in ruin, she stipulates that he must come disguised and masked and fixes the rendezvous in one of those pleasure resorts which he has just suppressed.

To the madcap Luzio, whom she also desires to punish, she relates the story of Friedrich’s proposal, and her pretended intention of complying with his desires. This she does in a fashion so incomprehensibly light-hearted that Luzio yields to a fit of desperate rage. He swears that, even if the noble maiden herself can endure such shame, he will himself strive by every means in his power to avert it. And, indeed, he arranges things in such a manner that on the appointed evening all his friends and acquaintances assemble at the end of the Corso, as though for the opening of the prohibited carnival procession.

Outside Friedrich’s Palace

At nightfall, Luzio appears sings an extravagant carnival song by which means he seeks to stir the crowd to bloody revolt. When a band of sbirri approaches, under Brighella’s leadership, to scatter the gay throng, the mutinous project seems on the point of being accomplished. For the present, however, Luzio prefers to yield and to disperse his followers, as he must first of all win the real leader of their enterprise: for here was the spot which Isabella had mischievously revealed to him as the place of her pretended meeting with the Regent.

For Friedrich, Luzio therefore lies in wait. Recognizing him in an elaborate disguise, he blocks his way and, as Friedrich violently breaks loose, is on the point of following him with shouts and drawn sword when, on a sign from Isabella, who is hidden among some bushes, he is himself stopped and led away. Isabella then advances, rejoicing in the thought of having restored the betrayed Marianne to her faithless spouse. Believing that she holds in her hand the promised pardon for her brother, she is just on the point of abandoning all thought of further vengeance when, breaking the seal, to her intense horror she recognizes by the light of a torch that the paper contains but a still more severe order of execution, which, owing to her desire not to disclose to her brother the fact of his pardon, a mere chance had now delivered into her hand, through the agency of the bribed gaoler.

After a hard fight with the tempestuous passion of love, and recognizing his helplessness against this enemy of his peace, Friedrich has in fact already resolved to face his ruin, even though as a criminal, yet still as a man of honor. An hour on Isabella’s breast, and then — his own death by the same law whose implacable severity shall also claim Claudio’s life. Isabella, perceiving in this conduct only a further proof of the hypocrite’s villainy, breaks out once more into a tempest of agonized despair.

Upon her cry for immediate revolt against the scoundrelly tyrant, the people collect together and form a motley and passionate crowd. Luzio, who also returns, counsels the people with stinging bitterness to pay no heed to the woman’s fury; he points out that she is only tricking them — for he still believes in her shameless infidelity. Fresh confusion; increased despair of Isabella; suddenly from the background comes the burlesque cry of Brighella for help, who, himself suffering from the pangs of jealousy, has by mistake arrested the masked Regent, and thus led to the latter’s discovery. Friedrich is recognised, and Marianne, trembling on his breast, is also unmasked.

Cries of joy burst forth all round; the needful explanations are quickly given, and Friedrich sullenly demands to be set before the judgment-seat of the returning King. Claudio, released from prison by the jubilant populace, informs him that the sentence of death for crimes of love is not intended for all times; messengers arrive to announce the unexpected arrival in harbor of the King; it is resolved to march in full masked procession to meet the beloved Prince, and joyously to pay him homage, all being convinced that he will heartily rejoice to see how ill the gloomy puritanism of Germany is suited to his hot-blooded Sicily.

[Synopsis Source: Wikipedia]

Click here for the complete libretto.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Isabella_MfM.gif image_description=Isabella by Francis William Topham (1808-1877) [Source: Wikipedia] audio=yes first_audio_name=Richard Wagner: Das Liebesverbot first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Liebesverbot.m3u product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Das Liebesverbot product_by=Friedrich: Raimund Herincx; Isabella: April Canielo; Lazio: Alexander Young; Claudio: Ian Caley; Mariana: Ilse Wolf; Brighella: Lawrence Richard; Antonio: Neil Jenkins; Angelo: William Elvin; Danieli: Leslie Fyson; Dorella: Elizabeth Gale; Pontio Pilato: David Lennox. BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra and Singers. Edward Downes, conductor. Live performance Manchester, May 1976. product_id=
Posted by Gary at 4:39 PM