April 28, 2010

The Power of Powder: Thomas Adès at the Royal Opera House, London

In 15 years, Powder Her Face has gone from new music cult hit to an opera of international significance. The Tempest notwithstanding, it’s Adès’s finest work. He’s gone on to fame, fortune and Los Angeles, but hasn’t quite recaptured the vitality of his early work. More recently, he’s revisited Powder Her Face, writing a suite based on it, so maybe that will reinvigorate his creative juices.

So cherish this wonderful production directed by Carlos Wagner. The production is every bit as much of a star as the Duchess of Argyll, who inspired the opera in the first place. In 1963, she appeared naked, but for a string of pearls, in photos which caused a scandal, because she was performing on naked men (one of whom was later revealed as Douglas Fairbanks Jr.)

“In your face” is probably an indelicate term to use in the circumstances, but it describes the magnificent staging well. There’s no way round the fact that the Duchess was destroyed by hypocrisy. In the small space of the Linbury Studio, Conor Murphy’s giant staircase overwhelms, but that’s the point: there’s no escape! It’s a brilliant piece of theatre in itself, because it changes character in each scene. In the end, Paul Keogan’s lighting turns it into a lurid neon sunset, the perfect coda to the Duchess’s life.

©BC20080607265-REBECCA-BOTT.gifRebecca Bottone as Mistress

The stairs also mean the cast can go up and down using the whole performance space, overcoming the cramped limitations of the small stage. Perhaps that’s a reverse metaphor for the Duchess, too. With her wealth and beauty she could have lived a charmed life, if she’d conformed. Instead she grabbed life greedily, imbibing to the full. The headless men in the notorious photos got away scot-free, as did the philandering, brutish Duke, but the Duchess’s reputation was destroyed. Defiant to the end, she cocoons herself away from a world that’s changing in ways she can’t understand (“Buggery, legal?” she exclaims.) Her end is sordid, but she keeps her dignity, at least in delusion. Larger than life personalities just don’t fit in grubby society.

The music’s remarkably inventive. Saxophones and jazzy clarinets evoke the glamour of 1930’s London. “They don’t know how to do parties now,” she wistfully tells a young reporter. Adès’ does luscious elegance, but undercuts it with sharp, dissonant edges. The luxury is illusion. Debutante balls were a meat market for the upper classes, nothing romantic. The Duchess buys sex from a waiter. “You can get anything with money,” she cries. But others have more money, and more power. The Courts condemn her, to the prurient delight of the “lower” class, represented by Bottone and Paton in dirty macs. And when the money runs out, the Duchess is evicted.

©BC20080609333-PATON-AS-WAI.gifIain Paton as Waiter and Joan Rodgers as Duchess

Adès weaves elusive sounds into his orchestra. At the beginning of the second Act, he starts with solo accordion, played in a mysterious, bluesy fashion.. It makes an excellent bridge between past and present. Later, accordion, harp and piano (Adès’s instrument and “voice”) combine, wheezing, wailing and tensely staccato percussive blasts. It’s surreal, like hearing the ghosts of the past dancing in Hell. At the end, sinister cracks and whirrs are heard. They’re the sound of fishing rods being reeled in. Like a fish, the Duchess has been caught and dies.

The opera is both diamond hard and brittle, but then, that’s the subject. The Duchess wasn’t a nice person even though she was a product of the circles she moved in, and the men around her are worse. Her sexuality is compulsive, and fundamentally unerotic. (It’s the role, not Rodger’s portrayal, which is superb.) Perhaps the maid gets more fun. Bottone’s high-pitched shrieks at the top of her register (an Adès’ trademark) are well deployed. She’s the voice of anarchy. Her voice rips apart the silky surface of propriety.

Anne Ozorio

image=http://www.operatoday.com/%C2%A9BC20080607158-JOAN-RODGERS.gif image_description=Joan Rodgers as the Duchess [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of the Royal Opera House]

product=yes producttitle=Thomas Adès: Powder Her Face productby=Joan Rodgers: the Duchess, Alan Ewing, Iain Paton, Rebecca Bottone (multiple roles), Timothy Redmond (conductor), Royal Opera House Orchestra and guest artists. Carlos Wagner (director), Conor Murphy (designs), Paul Keogan (lighting) Tom Baert (choreography). Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London. 26th April, 2010. product_id=Above: Joan Rodgers as the Duchess

All photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of the Royal Opera House

Posted by anne_o at 11:00 AM

April 27, 2010

Floyd’s Susannah in Boston

Susannah is an opera in two acts by American composer Carlisle Floyd, who wrote both the libretto and music. The story is very loosely based upon the story of Susanna and the Elders found in the Apocrypha. In the biblical story, Susannah is found bathing naked by two elders. They threaten to claim she is unchaste unless she agrees to have sex with them. Susannah refuses, is subsequently arrested and about to be put to death, when the prophet Daniel appears and proves her innocent.

Floyd’s version is much darker and leads to tragedy. He updated the story to the mid-twentieth century backwoods of Tennessee. Susannah Polk is an 18-year-old innocent girl who lives with her oft-drunk brother, Sam. When she is discovered innocently bathing naked in the woods by the Church Elders who are looking for a new baptismal site, they and their wives accuse her of being a sinner and pressure Little Bat McLean, her young friend, to lie and say that he was seduced by her. At a revival meeting, Olin Blitch, a traveling preacher, is unsuccessful in getting her to repent. He follows Susannah to her home to continue asking her to repent, but he ends up pressuring her into sex. Now knowing that Susannah was a virgin and that the charges against her are false, Blitch tries to persuade the townspeople to forgive her, but they refuse. Susannah’s brother Sam returns home. After he discovers what has happened, he kills Blitch and runs away. The townspeople try to force Susannah to leave the valley, but, rifle in hand, she drives them off. Only Little Bat remains. Susannah pretends to try to seduce him and then pushes him away.

Susannah premiered at Florida State University in 1955 with Phyllis Curtin in the title role. After many performances in America and abroad, it finally received its Metropolitan Opera premiere in 1999. Today, Susannah is second only to Porgy and Bess as the most performed American opera. It likely has entered the permanent operatic repertory. It is easy to see why. Floyd refers to his works not as operas but as music dramas. Fortunately, Floyd’s talent as a writer is equal to his talent as a composer. The end result is a perfect fusion of word and music that is universal, timeless, powerful and beautiful.

WPM$1E9F.gifAdam Canedy as Olin Blitch.

In mid-April, Floyd reunited with Curtin to be in residence when Boston University School of Music and School of Theater mounted a new production of Susannah. The two met and worked with students, took part in portions of the rehearsal period, and held pre-show discussions before the first two performances.

Although both are now well into their eighties, age has not diminished their acumen. It was also more than a “do you remember when” experience. Their comments were illuminating with Floyd, in particular, showing himself to be strongly opinionated.

In discussing the gestation period of the opera, Curtin recalled how Floyd had come to her with portions of the partially completed score to ask if she would be willing to sing the part so as to advance possible production of the work.. At that time, Curtin had the more established career. Curtin said that she readily agreed as soon as she saw the music. She also said “I had just finished performing Salome so I knew how to play a bad girl.”

WPM$6B65.gifAct II, Scene 5 - Susannah facing down the mob.

Curtin also recalled how, in the late 1950’s, she went to Floyd and asked him to write a concert piece for her. Floyd responded by writing an aria based on a chapter from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Curtin said that after the concert at which she sang the aria, the first thing asked was where is the rest of the opera. The end result was that Floyd then had to write the complete opera.

It has long been speculated that Floyd wrote Susannah in response to the McCarthy led witch hunts against communists and subversives in the 1950s — an operatic equivalent of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Floyd has always denied this, but in the question and answer sessions preceding the performances he softened his position. While continuing to deny a direct connection, he went on to say that, in writing Susannah, he obviously was subliminally influenced by the climate of fear generated during the McCarthy era. He then spent several minutes describing the reign of terror that descended upon Florida State University during this period, of the campus committees set up there and elsewhere to insure “correctness”, and how even the slightest suspicion was enough to destroy a career.

Floyd also revealed for the first time that he didn’t read the biblical story of Susannah until several years after he completed the opera. He said that he just took the short summary of an idea that a friend proposed as the possible subject for a new opera and went from there entirely on his own.

When asked why he had always written his own libretti, Floyd replied that that was the only was he could assure that he had total control as to the outcome of the work. He also said that writing the libretto was the more difficult part of the process — one that had become even more difficult for him in recent years, as a result of which he was currently not composing.

When questioned as to whether or not he had gone back and re-written any of his operas or if he wanted to, Floyd replied that, with the exception of one opera that was completely re-written for a specific purpose, he had never re-written or desired to re-write any part of his operas. “Why should I?” he said, “I’ve said everything that I want to say before I release a work for performance.” He also quoted Verdi who, during the difficulties he was experiencing in revising Simon Boccanegra, said to the effect that “When you rewrite your work it’s difficult not ending up with a five-legged stool.”

When asked what had surprised him the most since the debut of the work, Floyd referred to the role of Olin Blitch. “When I saw Mack Harrell in the role, I didn’t think that it could ever be played in any other way. I subsequently discovered that the role can be played in many ways.”

When Floyd was questioned as to what advice he would give to sopranos who sing the role of Susannah, he paused for a few seconds before saying “Don’t exhibit any self-pity. So much happens to Susannah during the course of the opera, the audience will fully be with you without your help.”

The Boston University production of Susannah double cast the roles of Susannah and Olin Blitch, with the remaining roles single cast. All are students at B.U. Soprano Chelsea Basler and baritone Adam Cannedy headed the second evening’s cast.

Chelsea Basler was simply superb in the title role. Floyd makes great demands of any soprano singing the role. The music of the opera appears deceptively simple but it is not. At times very lyrical in nature, at other times the brass and woodwinds dominate the music. Consequently, you need a soprano who can not only spin the lyrical lines and pianissimos of “Ain’t It a Pretty Night?” in Act I but also be able to shout down the mob in Act II. Basler met all of the musical demands of the role. She was also a singing actress, effectively portraying Susannah’s journey from the young, free spirit portrayed at the start of Act I to the embittered woman she is turned into by the end of Act II. Particularly noticeable was the intensity with which she approached the role. Her reaction to her persecution was simply heartbreaking.

Adam Cannedy made an effective Olin Blitch, with a sonorous and secure voice. The role was deliberately underplayed, making Blitch a more human figure as against a Burt Lancaster “Elmer Gantry” type. It is difficult to cast young baritones in this type of role as they won’t mature vocally for several more years. Also, in a role that has been defined by such singers as Norman Treigle and Samuel Ramey, putting a young singer in this role is like asking a 26-year-old actor to play Macbeth. Cannedy came close to meeting these challenges.

Clayton Hilley acquitted himself with full honors in the role of Sam, Susannah’s brother. He has a gorgeous tenor voice that was used to full effect. He also was successful in accomplishing the difficult task of portraying a character who is drunk most of the time he is on stage without turning into a caricature. The surprise of the evening was Omar Najmi portraying Little Bat McLean. Only a first year Master’s student at B.U., he gave a very strong, secure vocal performance while at the same time, from an acting standpoint, effectively communicating that Little Bat is mentally challenged.

The Boston University Chamber Orchestra was conducted by William Lumpkin. With thirty-seven members, I don’t know why it is called a “chamber orchestra.” The first performance indicated that the orchestra needed one more rehearsal. The orchestra was in secure form for the second night.

Sharon Daniels, who is Director of Opera Programs and the Opera Institute at Boston University, directed the production. A former soprano who sang the role of Susannah several times including twice with the composer as stage director, she was the one responsible for bringing Floyd and Curtin to B.U. for this production. Under Daniels’ direction, every singer, singing not only in English but in dialect, could be clearly heard and largely understood while on stage. The chorus was not a chorus but a group of townspeople, each not only having its own character but re-acting as to what is going on on stage. Daniels has long had that great ability to portray individuals on stage as real people in natural situations and not as actors or singers performing before the public. Daniels is both a major and unique talent who should be directing in much larger opera venues.

Credit must also be given to the student production team for the success of the performances. Many of today’s scenic designers meet Susannah’s challenge of ten scenes in two acts by giving audiences near empty stages decorated with a few pieces of ribbon and twigs. Scenic designer John Traub instead directly confronted the challenge, creating a natural, woodland glen framing individual sets for each scene while at the same time allowing for the rapid scene changes that today’s audiences, condition by television and film, now demand. He was matched in talent by Costume Designer Elizabeth McLinn and Lighting Designer Mary Ellen Stebbins, the latter providing nuanced lighting that subtly directed the audience’s attention to what was going on on stage without the audience realizing that it was being led.

With the advent of Peter Gelb at the Metropolitan Opera and the series of productions that are being “updated” in New York and elsewhere to great controversy, there has been an increase in discussion as to whether opera or realistic productions of opera has any future in America. If other academic opera centers are performing at or near the level exhibited by Boston University in this endeavor, then opera and realistic opera productions both have a strong future in America.

One last comment. God must have a special love for retired sopranos. Although Phyllis Curtin has now passed four score and eight years, she remains a very beautiful woman.

Raymond Gouin

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Susannah_BU.gif image_description=Chelsea Basler as Susannah [Photo by B.U. Photography] product=yes product_title=Carlisle Floyd: Susannah product_by=Boston University College of Fine Arts at Boston University Theatre Mainstage product_id=Above: Chelsea Basler as Susannah

All photos by B.U. Photography
Posted by Gary at 4:45 PM

Smut and loathing in Powder Her Face

By Barry Millington [Evening Standard, 27 April 2010]

If for no other reason, Thomas Adès’s and Philip Hensher’s Powder her Face will go down, like the Duchess of Argyll herself, for an act of dubious taste. The first blow-job on the operatic stage is administered by the “Dirty Duchess” (sadly based on a real-life celebrity), servicing a waiter in her hotel room.

Posted by Gary at 9:03 AM

Il barbiere di Siviglia, Arizona Opera

It is the first play of a trilogy that includes La folle journée ou Le mariage de Figaro, which was made into the opera Le nozze di Figaro by Mozart, and La mère coupable, which was set by Corigliano as The Ghosts of Versailles. Over the years, various composers of operas and singspiels have used it as the basis of their compositions. Ludwig Benda and Johann André wrote music to it in 1776. Johann Elsperger based a singspiel on it in 1780. Composer Giovanni Paisiello and librettist Giuseppe Petrosellini made Le barbier into an opera and it appeared first in Russian translation at the imperial court of St. Petersburg in 1782.

In 1783, The Barber’s story appeared as Die unnützige Vorsicht, a translation of the subtitle, The Useless Precaution. In 1794, The Spanish Barber by British born composer Alexander Reinagle was sung across the ocean in the brand new United States. It is said to have been a favorite of George Washington. In 1796, Nicolas Isouard, an organist from Malta who had moved to Paris to compose, set the story to music and it was presented at the Opéra Comique. When Rossini and librettist Cesare Sterbini chose that story and premiered their opera in 1816, Paisiello’s fans heckled the performance. At the second performance, however, the audience realized that Rossini’s version was well worth hearing, and from then on it became at least as popular as Paisiello’s work, which was also played for many years.

On April 24, Arizona Opera presented the last opera of its 2009-2010 season, a rousing rendition of Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, at Phoenix Symphony Hall. The traditional production was by Bernard Uzan with detailed and functional sets by David Gano. The costumes by Anna Bjornsdotter were flattering to the artists as well as correct for the time and place. With Artistic Director Joel Revzen in the pit with the excellent Arizona Opera Orchestra, everything was ready for a fine performance. The overture was played with clarity and translucence. It seemed that the players could go as fast as the wind and still play each note precisely.

Unfortunately, after the overture, and while the tenor was singing his most difficult first aria, ushers allowed latecomers into the hall and accompanied them with flashlight beams and whispers.

Tall, good-looking Brian Stucki is a wonderful new coloratura tenor who can sing the most graceful lines of Almaviva’s music in correct style. A good actor, he has all the essentials for comedic timing. As Rosina, Elizabeth DeShong sang with honeyed tones and quite a powerful voice. She also let the audience know from the beginning that she was not about to submissively obey her guardian, Dr Bartolo.

AZ_Barber_6.gifElizabeth DeShong as Rosina, Peter Strummer as Bartolo and Joshua Hopkins as Figaro

This was Joshua Hopkins’s first Figaro, but no one would have known it from his performance. He was an authoritative barber who sang with robust sounds and had both vocal and stage tricks up his sleeve. Bass-baritone Peter Strummer was thoroughly amusing as the self-righteous Dr Bartolo. His slow tones had polish. His patter was understandable and secure. As the conspiratorial Don Basilio, Kurt Link did not wear the traditional hat, but he was a great comic villain whose voice was redolent with colorful deep tones.

Grace Brooks was a Berta who thought both Dr Bartolo and Rosina were crazy. She is still in the AZ Opera Young Artist Program, but she is fast becoming a finished singer and her aria was a delight to hear. Although John Fulton did not have an aria, he portrayed both Fiorello and the Sergeant with thoughtful consideration of their situations.

The all male chorus led by Julian Reed sang with gusto and harmonized accurately. Reed also played the beautifully modulated recitatives on the harpsichord. This was a hilariously funny show and the laughter almost drowned out some of the music, but the Barber is a true comedy and it was good to see it so well appreciated by the Arizona audience.

Maria Nockin

image=http://www.operatoday.com/AZ_Barber_1%283%29.gif image_description=Brian Stucki as Almaviva and Elizabeth DeShong as Rosina [Photo by Tim Fuller / Arizona Opera] product=yes product_title=Gioachino Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia product_by=Figaro: Marian Pop (April 23, 25, May 2)/Joshua Hopkins (April 24, May 1); Rosina: Patricia Risley (April 23, 25, May 2)/Elizabeth DeShong (April 24, May 1); Almaviva: Victor Ryan Robertson (April 23, 25, May 2)/Brian Stucki (April 24, May 1); Bartolo: Peter Strummer; Basilio: Kurt Link; Fiorello: John Fulton; Sergeant: John Fulton; Berta: Grace Brooks; Notary: Cameron Schutza. Arizona Opera. Conductor: Joel Revzen. Director: Bernard Uzan. product_id=Above: Brian Stucki as Almaviva and Elizabeth DeShong as Rosina [Photos Tim Fuller / Arizona Opera]
Posted by Gary at 8:26 AM

Towards the light: Juilliard students present Poulenc’s Dialogues

A dramatic swath of red fabric dominated the stage in the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre and the Juilliard orchestra, lead by Anne Manson, launched bravely into the action.

In the first scenes, set in the home of the Marquis de la Force in the midst of Revolutionary Paris, tenor Paul Appleby sang with great dramatic and musical impetus as the Chevalier de la Force. He sounded at ease singing in French and was among only a small number of the cast able to carry off Poulenc’s syllabic vocal setting with both fluid phrasing and a clear line reading of the text. As his father the Marquis, Timothy Beenken looked and sounded out of place. A truly terrible wig did him no favors and, as can only be expected in a student production, he simply seemed too green for the role. This was also the case with Tharanga Goonetilleke as his daughter Blanche.

In an opera full of compelling characters, Blanche is the most crucial because, by inhabiting both the outside world and the sanctuary of the convent, she becomes the lynchpin of the action and the audience’s proxy. (Furthermore, as Poulenc was famously called a half monk, half delinquent by the Paris press, she also serves as a surrogate for the composer himself.) Her intense fears and ultimate moral and existential dilemma should evoke empathy, not sympathy. Rather than seeming troubled or conflicted, Ms. Goonetilleke seemed mercurial or even coquettish. Blanche need not be likeable, but her moods must follow the psychology of Poulenc’s vivid orchestration. From her awkwardly timed entrance, it was clear that Ms. Goonetilleke, while a competent and attractive performer and singer, needs more time to develop the sensitivity required for this role.

Poulenc’s opera is filled with moments of dramatic prescience that parallel a building musical foreboding. To create a compelling momentum in this opera of short scenes and tableaux, it is necessary for these moments to be connected in a sort of symbolic storyline that is as crucial as the actual plot. For example, in the interview between Blanche and the Old Prioress, it must be made clear that Madame de Croissy has taken the young girl’s measure not because the older woman is prophetic, but rather because she identifies with Blanche and shares her fears. As the Prioress, Lacey Jo Benter sang and acted well but the impact of her death was lessened by the pallid approach to her first scene with Blanche.

All of the singers, not just Ms. Benter, suffered from director Fabrizio Melano’s choice to connect the various scenes and interludes by stringing them together without blackouts. At best this was awkward for the singers left onstage, but it occasionally had confusing consequences, especially in the instances where two scenes set months or years apart became effectively elided. Furthermore, because the lights remained on in between scenes, the audience sat and watched as Ms. Benter walked onstage and climbed into bed immediately before the death scene in which the Prioress asks if she might finally be well enough to sit in a chair, bedridden as she is with her fatal illness. Her death, which should be excruciating to watch, was therefore a little bizarre.

Such inconsistencies aside, many elements of Melano’s direction served the drama well. The red curtain was particularly inspired as it subtly evoked not only the typical theatrical curtain, but also a patriotic flag and even the guillotine itself. The beam of light used to delineate the convent from the outside world was visually arresting, and the intense glare from the stage right entrance produced silhouettes on the convent wall – clear physical projections of the worldly illusions mentioned in the libretto.

Among the rest of the student cast, Renée Tatum and Haeran Hong made strong impressions as Mother Marie and Soeur Constance, respectively. Tatum imbued her role as the Assistant Prioress with the required gravitas and she used all of Poulenc’s generous musical substance as inspiration for her subtle acting. Not only did Ms. Hong perform with the same musical style and charm she exhibited during the Metropolitan Opera National Council Audition finals, but she also portrayed a fully realized character from the moment she entered as the young novice. She exceeded expectations of any student and could easily perform the role in a professional production. Both her voice and her face have an angelic beauty and she appeared both brave and vulnerable in the opera’s crushing final moments, when Constance is left alone as a single voice at the end of the Salve Regina only to be joined by Blanche at the last second.

In the end, it speaks to the level of the students at Juilliard that the school is able to present such a complex, demanding opera. But it is an even greater testament to the quality of Poulenc’s opera that only rare performers can truly do it justice.

Alison Moritz

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Carmelites_Compiegne.gif image_description=The Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne product=yes product_title=Francis Poulenc: Dialogues des Carmélites product_by=Tharanga Goonetilleke (Blanche de la Force); Paul Appleby (Chevalier de la Force); Lacey Jo Benter (Madame de Croissy); Emalie Savoy (Madame Lidoine); Renée Tatum (Mother Marie of the Incarnation); Haeran Hong (Sister Constance); Timothy Beenken (Marquis de la Force); Carla Jablonski (Mother Jeanne); Naomi O'Connell (Sister Mathilde); Javier Ernesto Bernardo (The Chaplain); Daniel Curran (First Commissary); Drew Santini (First Officer); Adam Richardson (M. Javelinot); Adrian Rosas (Second Commissary); Andreas Aroditis (Jailer); Timothy McDevitt (Thierry). Juilliard Opera and the Juilliard Orchestra. Conductor Anne Manson. Director Fabrizio Melano.
Posted by Gary at 7:53 AM

April 26, 2010

Der Fliegende Holländer, New York

We must be grateful for what we can scrounge, and Der Fliegende Holländer, Wagner’s Weber-like romantic fable of the vampire-like sea captain doomed to sail till he meets the woman faithful to death, in August Everding’s outsize production, provides some sumptuous music-making. Holländer, indeed, has grown sufficiently unfamiliar to New Yorkers that many members of the audience were outraged to find they were expected to sit still for two and a half hours without intermission (though you’d have to go back nearly forty years to find a Met production of the opera that did include intermissions), and several of them walked out during the second scene-changing entr’acte.

HOLLANDER_Gould_as_Erik_850.gifStephen Gould as Erik

The vocal standard of the evening was impressively high. Finnish bass-baritone Juha Uusitalo, who has been singing Wotan around Europe, gave us a suave, passionate Dutchman with a smooth, even, grateful sound. A tall man and a fine actor, he was got up to look pale, raven-haired, huge of eye and lofty of brow, rather like Wagner’s friend, King Ludwig of Bavaria — appropriately; the king drowned.

Uusitalo would have been the star of the evening had not Hans-Peter König been singing the bumptious Daland. König has one of those godlike basses (think Matti Salminen or Kurt Moll), clear and even from top to bottom, enormous but graciously so, never oppressive, never bellowed, as gently nuanced as if he were singing lieder. You will think: if there’s a God, he sounds like this. It was the A-list performance of the night.

Stephen Gould, an American tenor who has been singing Siegfried in Vienna to great acclaim, made his Met debut as Erik. An enormous figure on stage, Gould has a voice as sturdy as his linebacker build and a clarion delivery, but has a tendency to hurl it out brusquely when romantic gentility seems called for, especially in this dreamy role. His bark was not harsh but it was unfinished — which seems right for the half-savage Siegfried but not for Erik. When he sang, one pricked up one’s ears — but when Mr. König sang, pricking up of ears wasn’t necessary — the voice came out into the theater and seduced us. Russell Thomas provided an energetic Steersman, seeming a bit small-scale in such company.

HOLLANDER_Uusitalo_and_Voig.gif Deborah Voigt as Senta and Juha Uusitalo as the Dutchman

Deborah Voigt sang her first staged Senta. She looked good and hurled herself ardently about the room — at one point bringing the house to giggles, unintentionally one supposes: As Erik described his dream of the arrival of the Dutchman, she abruptly “assumed the position,” head back, legs spread, in anticipation. Her voice, though, was not in happy estate, stringy and unattractive for much of the night and occasionally flat. She nailed the “treu” on her final “treue als dem Tod,” but it was a bit late in the evening to rescue this heroic figure. Senta is a young girl with an earth mother coiled audibly within her, bursting out into thrilling cries. Senta — indeed Wagner — is not a good choice for Voigt’s instrument these days.

HOLLANDER_Thomas_and_Konig_.gifHans-Peter König as Daland and Russell Thomas as the Steersman

In the pit, Kazushi Ono, undeterred by occasional intrusive applause and the departure of those unwilling to do without intermissions, kept the oceanic rhythms of this nautical ghost story in driving motion. The only sounds one regretted were not in his department at all — the squeak of the metal gangway as it descended to the stage in Act I. It has indeed been years since its last use (seven by the story, ten at the Met), and we had an undesired squealing obbligato. This however had been oiled away by the final scene — good catch, Met crew!

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Voigt_Senta.gif image_description=Deborah Voigt as Senta [Photo by Cory Weaver courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Der Fliegende Holländer product_by=Senta: Deborah Voigt; Dutchman: Juha Uusitalo; Daland: Hans-Peter König; Erik: Stephen Gould; Steersman: Russell Thomas. Metropolitan Opera chorus and orchestra conducted by Kazushi Ono. Performance of April 23. product_id=Above: Deborah Voigt as Senta

All photos by Cory Weaver courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 5:03 PM

Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten

The program for Götterdämmerung omitted a credit for the role of Alberich (sung ably by Richard Paul Fink), requiring the inclusion of a slip of paper to amend the error. A larger inserted sheet advertised the upcoming three cycles of the Freyer production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, but the calendar of dates cited no month — time means little in the mythical world of Wagner’s masterpiece, one might propose.

Freyer is not an artist averse to rough edges, so these managerial slips would probably just amuse him. After all, as Brünnhilde sent the ravens off to Valhalla to tell Wotan of the end of his world, on Freyer’s set the raven cut-outs, located at either end of the stage lip, rose up to reveal two prompters, chest-high, backs to the audience but scores before them. Not long before that, a computer malfunction left the projected backdrop strewn with line after line of computer gibberish, but since one line of that was a time clock running down, perhaps it was part of Freyer’s design all along.

If Freyer’s climax disappointed (which it did), it wasn’t because of these intentional or inadvertent glitches, but because his invention did not match the boldness and incision seen in the earlier parts of this long, long show (and most of his other stagings of the Ring operas). Gibichungs on wires tumbling through the air behind a scrim of flames came off as more Cirque du Soleil than riotous or avant-garde. To the vociferous critics of Freyer’s work, it must be said that the mythic ponderousness seen in most stagings of Wagner’s work — a quality that those critics would insist is embedded in the libretto — holds little interest for Freyer. His vision is centered on identity, the no-man’s-land distance between what each character thinks of him or herself and what events reveal the truth to be. Thus, Freyer created the painted cardboard facades that characters carried before them, right from Das Rheingold until the end of Götterdämmerung. At that end, Linda Watson’s Brünnhilde couldn’t take the subterfuge anymore, and knocked not only her own flat representation to the ground, but those of the other characters then on stage. She had truly learned contempt for the ring, and the limitless avarice and ambition it inspired.

Surely Freyer’s sense of humor traumatized those most offended by his staging, especially the portrayal of Siegfried, a muscle-bound doofus who, nonetheless, came off as the only genuine, likable figure in the world. John Treleavan continued to make some of the more unpleasant sounds a tenor can make and still manage to create an appealing characterization that excused most, if not all, the barking and yelping. Most of the first two acts Watson seemed to holding back on the best part of her voice, its sheer formidable size, as if keeping a reserve for her monumental closing scene. In the event, her full power did not reveal itself even then, another factor that made the last 15 minutes of this five-hour extravaganza the least impressive section.

LA_gott_334.gifFront: John Treleaven (Siegfried), Back: Stacey Tappan (Woglinde), Ronnita Miller (Flosshilde), Lauren McNeese (Wellgunde) [Photo by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera]

Eric Halfvarson triumphed as Hagen, his gruff, imposing bass as frightening as his portrayal. Freyer’s work here (with costumes designed by himself and his daughter Amanda) is emblematic of the Freyer approach. Hagen wore a bright yellow jacket, and around Halfvarson’s waist were two limp, yellow-clad dwarf legs, while the singer’s lower half was a pair of black trousers with white chalk streaks (matching some of other design elements). When Hagen stood behind his facade, he could drape the legs over the front, making him look truly troll-ish. At other times, though, Freyer had no hesitance about having the singer stride the stage, the dwarf-legs dangling feebly at his waist. This sort of staging element drove some attendees crazy, as Freyer quite obviously had no interest in naturalistic representation. For those accepting of this theatrical compromise, nothing distracted from the complete portrayal of Hagen as detailed in Wagner’s libretto — ugly, scheming, manipulative, and ultimately doomed.

Alan Held as Gunther and Jennifer Wilson as Gutrune both sang impressively from behind their blank, infantile Gibichung masks — masks that were able to make Siegfried’s deception when he kidnapped Brünnhilde plausibly staged, for once. Michelle DeYoung joined Jill Grove and Melissa Citro as the three Norns, and Ms. DeYoung also made for a fine Waltraute.

The pit reconfiguration did dampen the sound a bit too much as James Conlon continued to lead the Los Angeles Opera orchestra with finesse and power. The horns in particular had a great, great day on Sunday. There were a small number of departures from the audience after the first act, but most stayed, and then lingered to stand through the final ovations, which rose to a peak of volume when Conlon appeared. The conductor is truly becoming the heart and soul of Los Angeles Opera, which may save it come the day that Placido Domingo no longer leads — ostensibly — the company.

Not to say that Conlon is perfect. He managed to find the funding for his Recovered Voices series, which undoubtedly has brought some exposure to some interesting work — that of composers whose careers were crushed by the Nazis. However, opera being the expensive enterprise that it is, your reviewer can’t help but wonder if compromised stagings of these rare (for a reason, too often) operas really fits the managerial profile of a company that operates out of the Dorothy Chandler, a 3000+ seat hall. The last performance of Shreker’s Die Gezeichneten on a Thursday night saw a house with decent attendance but far from a sell-out. Conlon’s devotion to this music is evident in the power and beauty of the orchestra’s performance. Schreker’s score, however, sounded like a never-ending striving for sensual effects, with no solid lyrical themes as a foundation. The harmonic language tended to the sort of overripe modalities of the score to a Cecil B. De Mille Biblical extravaganza. Schreker’s libretto is even more hopeless, an incomprehensible mish-mash of perversion and political intrigue, mostly told through interminable dialogues with next to no action actually seen on stage.

Director Ian Judge had to work around the revolving platform built for Freyer’s production, and Judge found clever ways to exploit his limited resources, including some tasteful projection effects (designed by Wendall K. Harrington). An interesting cast tried their best, with Robert Brubaker outstanding as Alviana Salvago, the hump-backed dwarf who searches hopelessly for love while finding ample opportunities for sexual degradation. Anja Kampe sounded great as Carlotta Nardi, Salvago’s obsession. A huge cast of other able singers strode on and off but your reviewer could not make sense of their motivations and stopped caring by the end of the second act. Even an orgy in an island grotto couldn’t make him linger.

At least partly due to the cost of the Freyer Ring, next season there will only be six main stage opera productions, and the Recovered Voices series will take a hiatus. Perhaps future ventures in the series should be staged in some alternative, more intimate home, where those who share Conlon’s passion for this niche can settle in comfortably for their dose of early 20th century Viennese perversity and pretentiousness.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/StigmatizedLAO.gif imagedescription=Martin Gantner (Count Tamare), Anja Kampe (Carlotta) in The Stigmatized [Photo by Robert Millard courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera]

product=yes producttitle=Richard Wagner: Götterdämmerung; Franz Schreker: The Stigmatized productby=Los Angeles Opera. Click here for production and cast information. product_id=Above: Martin Gantner (Count Tamare), Anja Kampe (Carlotta) in The Stigmatized [Photo by Robert Millard courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera]

Posted by chris_m at 12:18 PM

New ‘Figaro’ sparkling, beautiful

By John Coulbourn [QMI Agency, 26 April 2010]

As anyone who has ever enjoyed either Pierre Beaumarchais’ classic comedy or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera buffa adaptation of his play can tell you, The Marriage of Figaro is not exactly a marriage made in heaven.

Posted by Gary at 9:08 AM

Alan Rich, Los Angeles Music Critic, Dies at 85

By Allan Kozinn [NY Times, 26 April 2010]

Alan Rich, a critic whose eloquent and passionate writing about classical music in both New York and Los Angeles made him an important voice in the American musical world over a long career, died on Friday at his home in West Los Angeles. He was 85.

Posted by Gary at 9:00 AM

April 24, 2010

HAHN: Le Marchand de Venise

Music composed by Reynaldo Hahn to a libretto by Miguel Zamacoïs after William Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

First Performance: 25 March 1935, Paris Opéra


Antonio — a merchant from Venice; Christian
Bassanio — Antonio’s friend, in love with Portia; Christian
Gratiano, Salanio, Salarino, Salerio — friends of Antonio and Bassanio; Christian
Lorenzo — friend of Antonio and Bassanio, in love with Jessica; Christian
Portia — a rich heiress
Nerissa — Portia’s waiting-maid
Balthazar — a servant of Portia
Stephano — a servant of Portia
Shylock– a rich Jew, father of Jessica.
Tubal — a Jew; Shylock’s friend
Jessica — Daughter of Shylock, in love with Lorenzo; Jewess, converts to Christianity
Launcelot Gobbo — a foolish man in the service of Shylock
Old Gobbo — the father of Launcelot
Leonardo — servant to Bassanio
Duke of Venice — Venetian authority who presides over the case of Shylock’s bond
Prince of Morocco — suitor to Portia
Prince of Aragon — suitor to Portia
Magnificoes of Venice, officers of the Court of Justice, Gaoler, servants to Portia, and other Attendants

Synopsis of Play:

Bassanio, a young Venetian, of noble rank but having squandered his estate, wishes to travel to Belmont to woo the beautiful and wealthy heiress Portia. He approaches his friend Antonio, a wealthy and generous merchant, who has previously and repeatedly bailed him out, for three thousand ducats needed to subsidize his traveling expenditures as a suitor for three months. Antonio agrees, but he is cash-poor; his ships and merchandise are busy at sea. He promises to cover a bond if Bassanio can find a lender, so Bassanio turns to the Jewish moneylender Shylock and names Antonio as the loan’s guarantor.

Shylock hates Antonio, both because he is a Christian and because he insulted and spat on Shylock for being a Jew. Also, Antonio undermines Shylock’s moneylending business by lending money at zero interest. Shylock proposes a condition for the loan: if Antonio is unable to repay it at the specified date, he may take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Bassanio does not want Antonio to accept such a risky condition; Antonio is surprised by what he sees as the moneylender’s generosity (no “usance” — interest — is asked for), and he signs the contract. With money at hand, Bassanio leaves for Belmont with his friend Gratiano, who has asked to accompany him. Gratiano is a likeable young man, but is often flippant, overly talkative, and tactless. Bassanio warns his companion to exercise self-control, and the two leave for Belmont and Portia.

Meanwhile in Belmont, Portia is awash with suitors. Her father has left a will stipulating each of her suitors must choose correctly from one of three caskets — one each of gold, silver, and lead — before he could win Portia’s hand. In order to be granted an opportunity to marry Portia, each suitor must agree in advance to live out his life as a bachelor if he loses the contest. The suitor who correctly looks past the outward appearance of the caskets will find Portia’s portrait inside and win her hand.

The first suitor, the luxury and money-obsessed Prince Of Morocco, reasons to choose the gold casket, because lead proclaims “Choose me and risk hazard”, and he has no wish to risk everything for lead, and the silver’s “Choose me and get what you deserve” sounds like an invitation to be tortured, but “Choose me and get what all men desire” all but spells it out that he that chooses gold will get Portia, as what all men desire is Portia. Inside the casket are a few gold coins and a skull with a scroll containing the famous verse All that glitters is not gold / Often have you heard that told / Many a man his life hath sold But my outside to behold / Gilded tombs do worms enfold / Had you been as wise as bold, Young in limbs, in judgment old / Your answer had not been inscroll’d: /Fare you well; your suit is cold. His judgment captured by outward appearances, he is an unfit suitor for Portia and his bachelor life begins.

The second suitor is the conceited Prince Of Aragon. He decides not to choose lead, because it is so common, and will not choose gold because he will then get what many men desire and wants to be distinguished from the barbarous multitudes. He decides to choose silver, because the silver casket proclaims “Choose Me And Get What You Deserve”, which he imagines must be something great, because he egotistically imagines himself as great. Inside the casket, however, is the picture of a court jester’s head on a baton and remarks “What? A grinning idiot? Did deserve no more than this?” The scroll reads: Some there be that shadows kiss/Some have but a shadow’s Bliss/Take what wife you will to bed/I will ever be your Head — meaning that he was foolish to imagine that a pompous man like him could ever be a fit husband for Portia, and that he was always a fool, he always will be a fool, and the fact that he chose the silver casket is mere proof that he is a fool.

The last suitor is Bassanio. He realizes that the line “who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath” could be a reference to the fact that marriage is a tremendous gamble and could mean a drastic turning point in one’s life, and chooses lead. The speech he gives before opening the leaden casket proclaims “So may the outward shows be least themselves. The world is still deceived with ornmament.” Before choosing the least valuable, ostentatious, and meager metal, Bassanio, proclaims “thy paleness moves me more than eloquence and here choose I joy be the consequence.” He makes the right choice.

At Venice, Antonio’s ships are reported lost at sea. This leaves him unable to satisfy the bond (in financial language, insolvent). Shylock is even more determined to exact revenge from Christians after his daughter Jessica flees his home to convert to Christianity and elope with Lorenzo, taking a substantial amount of Shylock’s wealth with her, as well as a turquoise ring which was a gift to Shylock from his late wife, Leah. Shylock has Antonio arrested and brought before court.

At Belmont, Portia and Bassanio have just been married, as have Gratiano and Portia’s handmaid Nerissa. Bassanio receives a letter telling him that Antonio has defaulted on his loan from Shylock. Shocked, Bassanio and Gratiano leave for Venice immediately, with money from Portia, to save Antonio’s life by offering the money to Shylock. Unknown to Bassanio and Gratiano, Portia has sent her servant, Balthazar, to seek the counsel of Portia’s cousin, Bellario, a lawyer, at Padua.

The climax of the play comes in the court of the Duke of Venice. Shylock refuses Bassanio’s offer of 6,000 ducats, twice the amount of the loan. He demands his pound of flesh from Antonio. The Duke, wishing to save Antonio but unwilling to set a dangerous legal precedent of nullifying a contract, refers the case to a visitor who introduces himself as Balthazar, a young male “doctor of the law”, bearing a letter of recommendation to the Duke from the learned lawyer Bellario. The “doctor” is actually Portia in disguise, and the “law clerk” who accompanies her is actually Nerissa, also in disguise. Portia, as “Balthazar”, asks Shylock to show mercy in a famous speech (The quality of mercy is not strained—IV,i,185, arguing for debt relief), but Shylock refuses. Thus the court must allow Shylock to extract the pound of flesh. Shylock tells Antonio to “prepare”. At that very moment, Portia points out a flaw in the contract (see quibble): the bond only allows Shylock to remove the flesh, not the “blood”, of Antonio. Thus, if Shylock were to shed any drop of Antonio’s blood, his “lands and goods” would be forfeited under Venetian laws.

Defeated, Shylock concedes to accepting Bassanio’s offer of money for the defaulted bond, but Portia prevents him from taking the money on the ground that he has already refused it. She then cites a law under which Shylock, as a Jew and therefore an “alien”, having attempted to take the life of a citizen, has forfeited his property, half to the government and half to Antonio, leaving his life at the mercy of the Duke. The Duke immediately pardons Shylock’s life. Antonio asks for his share “in use” (that is, reserving the principal amount while taking only the income) until Shylock’s death, when the principal will be given to Lorenzo and Jessica. At Antonio’s request, the Duke grants remission of the state’s half of forfeiture, but in return, Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity and to make a will (or “deed of gift”) bequeathing his entire estate to Lorenzo and Jessica (IV,i).

Bassanio does not recognize his disguised wife, but offers to give a present to the supposed lawyer. First she declines, but after he insists, Portia requests his ring and his gloves. He parts with his gloves without a second thought, but gives the ring only after much persuasion from Antonio, as earlier in the play he promised his wife never to lose, sell or give it. Nerissa, as the lawyer’s clerk, also succeeds in likewise retrieving her ring from Gratiano, who does not see through her disguise.

At Belmont, Portia and Nerissa taunt and pretend to accuse their husbands before revealing they were really the lawyer and his clerk in disguise (V). After all the other characters make amends, all ends happily (except for Shylock) as Antonio learns from Portia that three of his ships were not stranded and have returned safely after all.

[Synopsis source: Wikipedia]

Click here for the complete text of the play. image=http://www.operatoday.com/Sully.Portia.png image_description=Thomas Sully. Portia and Shylock, 1835. audio=yes first_audio_name=Reynaldo Hahn: Le Marchand de Venise first_audio_link=http://www.operatoday.com/Merchant.m3u product=yes product_title=Reynaldo Hahn: Le Marchand de Venise product_by=Porti: Michele Command; Nerissa: Annick Dutertre; Jessica: Eliane Lublin; Shylock: Christian Poulizac; Bassanio: Armand Arapian; Antonio: Marc Vento; Gratiano: Leonard Pezzino; Lorenzo: Tibere Raffali; Tubal: Jean-Louis Soumagnas; Le Prince d’Aragon: Jean Dupouy; Le Prince du Maroc/Le Doge: Pierre Nequecaur; Le Masque/La Voix: Christian Jean; L’Audencier: Lucien Dallemand; Grand Venise: Alain Charles; 1st Venetien: Michel Maranpuis; 2nd Venetien: Michel Cadiou; 1st Juif: Jean Jusconte; 2nd Juif: Robert Paleque; 3rd Juif: Jean Degarras; Un Serviteur: Michel Taverne; Salarino: Henri Pichon. Choeurs et Orchestre du Theatre National de L’Opera. Direction: Manuel Rosenthal. Paris 1978
Posted by Gary at 3:44 PM

Shadowboxer, the opera

Opera Today is pleased to publish reviews of this work by five students of Dr. Olga Haldey, a frequent contributor to this site. Each of these reviews provides a unique perspective on the merits of the work and its performance. These reviews are:

Opera Today congratulates each of these writers and, of course, Dr. Haldey in affording them with an important educational opportunity. Writing about music generally, and opera in particular, is difficult because its essential task is to translate the language of music and to describe the elements of the theatrical experience into words that are meaningful to the reader. Critical reception of music, moreover, significantly shapes the cultural discourse. The teaching of informed critical writing, then, goes far in influencing our aesthetic values in the present and over time.

Additional details regarding this production may be found here.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/joe_louis.png image_description=Joe Louis
Posted by Gary at 2:14 PM

Shadowboxer — A Tormented Joe Louis

Directed by Leon Major and authored by librettist John Chenault and composer Frank Proto, this work will capture the imagination of opera lovers and sports fans alike.

Shadowboxer tells the story of Joe Louis, the African-American boxing legend who held the heavyweight boxing title from 1937 until 1949. Despite widespread racism in the United States during this period, Louis became a national hero. In his fights against German boxer Max Schmelling in particular, Louis’s life in the ring came to symbolize the larger political struggle between democracy and Nazism that was central to World War II. Thus many Americans tuned in to Louis’s fights in hopes that his victory in the ring could also signal a political and ideological victory for America and the Allies. His story came to symbolize something greater than one man’s journey, and the far-reaching significance of his life was what first captured the imagination of Maryland Opera Studio’s Artistic Director Leon Major.

Ask Major about the genesis of Shadowboxer, and he will inevitably recount his childhood memories of the famous 1938 rematch between Louis and Schmelling, during which Louis scored a knockout in the first round. Thus his fascination with Louis dates back many years. In fact, Major had been toying with the idea of an opera based upon the life of Louis for over two decades before approaching John Chenault and Frank Proto. Their creative collaboration spanned a period of roughly two years, and culminated with a series of performances at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center that began on April 17th and runs through April 25th.

Though Shadowboxer is based upon the life of a boxing legend, it is not confined to the boxing ring. Rather, it is a psychological drama that takes place in the landscape of Joe Louis’s mind. During the final moments of his life at his Las Vegas home, an elderly Louis is forced to confront a barrage of vivid and painful memories that become increasingly fragmented and incoherent as death draws near. The opera is a portrait of Louis’s final moments and the nightmarish fantasies that he must grapple with as he reflects upon his trials, triumphs, and failures. Chenault transforms the life of this American hero into a sweeping tale of human struggle, victory and defeat, suffering and joy.

The musical score of Shadowboxer is equally broad in its scope. Frank Proto drew upon his decades of experience as a composer and performer of classical music, jazz, and even Broadway show tunes to create a musical language that is as multifaceted as his musical background. Far from being a stylistic hodgepodge, however, Proto’s score captures the phantasmagoric nature of Louis’s consciousness and is an apt musical counterpart to the drama onstage. Shifting between a dissonant 21st-century idiom and a jazz-infused style that draws inspiration from American popular music of the 1930s and 40s, Proto’s score reflects the sounds of Louis’s heyday as they would be remembered in the murky recesses of the boxer’s deteriorating mind. Under the direction of conductor Timothy Long, the singers and instrumentalists of the University of Maryland give a compelling performance of Proto’s imaginative score.


The opera’s intriguing storyline and music should be enough to arouse curiosity in most music and sports lovers, but for those who are still not inspired to swing by the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center this weekend, Major’s staging of the production should provide further incentive. Major does not simply approach Shadowboxer using a traditional arsenal of production tools. Rather, he considers how the cinematic and visual “literacy” of today’s audience members make them particularly receptive to the use of multimedia technologies in the performing arts, and he incorporates those technologies with a discerning eye. Multimedia designers Kirby Malone and Gail Scott White join forces with scenic designer Erhard Rom, lighting designer Nancy Schertler, and costume designer David Roberts to create a synthesis between classic production techniques and modern technologies.

Rom’s deconstructed stage design functions as the ideal backdrop for Schertler’s expressive lighting, which is used to convey the variegated landscape of Joe’s mind. At times, Schertler spatters the stage with dispersed beams of light and shadow, which serve as a visual counterpart to Louis’s fractured memory. During other scenes, she envelops the stage in suffocating ashen shades that — combined with grey costumes and a choir of masked faces––project Louis’s isolation and confusion as he sifts through hazy memories and painful emotions. Especially memorable is the scene in which Louis’s wife Marva sings her heart-wrenching aria “I love the man who isn’t there” immediately after handing her husband divorce papers. Schertler captures the mental anguish of both characters by bathing the stage in an eerie red glow. As Marva sings over martial rhythms played by the orchestra, her towering shadow looms above Louis, a devastating reminder of the torment he caused her by his womanizing lifestyle.

The asymmetric shapes and contoured screens of Rom’s stage design also pair well with the digital projections of Malone and Scott White. Avoiding naturalistic backdrops in favor of expressive abstractions, Malone and Scott White create a living world of action onstage. Their projections function as settings, dreamscapes, and reflections of Louis’s mind. Cloudy images of black and white shadows communicate Louis’s mental confusion and muddled memory, whereas projected details of the boxing ring set the scene, without suggesting a concrete reality. Photographs and newspaper headlines from Louis’s fights in the years leading up to World War II are juxtaposed with scenes of the raging war in Europe, thereby indicating how his victories in the ring were perceived as political and ideological triumphs. In this manner, the projections become characters in their own right, commenting upon the action and communicating the far-reaching implications of Louis’s life in the ring.

Such incorporation of modern technologies in opera is likely to make most traditionalists uneasy, but Malone and Scott White leave no doubt as to their artistic integrity. Their incorporation of new media not only enhances the psychological drama onstage, but also helps to make the production contemporary and relevant to a 21st-century audience.

Finally, we turn our attention to those artists who breathe life into the score and libretto of Shadowboxer, the performers themselves. Composed primarily of singers from the Maryland Opera Studio, this cast of performers includes many vocalists who will likely have successful singing careers upon leaving the University of Maryland. This is certainly true of Jarrod Lee, whose portrayal of old Joe Louis is, without a doubt, the highlight of the show. With a rich baritone voice that seems to glide effortlessly through even the most demanding passages, Lee gives a performance that is both musically refined and poignantly acted. His sensitive portrayal of Louis is the crux of the show’s effectiveness as a psychological drama. University of Maryland faculty member Carmen Balthrop also gives a captivating performance and nearly steals the show with her stirring portrayal of Louis’s mother. Also noteworthy are Adrienne Webster (Marva Trotter, Louis’s wife) and VaShawn McIlwain (Jack Blackburn, Louis’s trainer), whose impressive vocal abilities are matched by their talent for dramatization. Less impressive is Duane Moody’s portrayal of young Joe Louis. Moody does not convincingly project the youthful vigor and tenacity of the heavyweight boxer. Furthermore, his performance emphasizes the boxing champion’s vices, but fails to effectively communicate his dignity and humanity.

In spite of this single shortcoming, Shadowboxer is well worth the trip to College Park, and one can only hope that its premiere at the University of Maryland will inspire future performances. In an era when opera must compete with mass consumerism and digital technologies, it is refreshing to see a new work that merges the performing arts with new media, and that explores timeless themes in more contemporary contexts.

Kate Weber-Petrova
University of Maryland

image=http://www.operatoday.com/_MG_3045.png image_description=A scene from Shadowboxer [Photo by Cory Weaver/University of Maryland - College Park] product=yes product_title=Shadowboxer: Music by Frank Proto to a libretto by John Chenault product_by=Joe Louis: Jarrod Lee; Young Joe: Duane Moody; Marva Trotter: Adrienne Webster; Max Schmelling: Peter Burroughs; Lillie Brooks: Carmen Balthrop; Jack Blackburn: VaShawn McIlwain; Julian Black: Robert King; John Roxborough: Benjamin Moore; Ring Announcer: David Blalock; Beauty #1: Madeline Miskie; Beauty #2: Amelia Davis; Beauty #3: Amanda Opuszynski; Reporter #1: Andrew Owens; Reporter #2: Andrew McLaughlin; Reporter #3: Colin Michael Brush; Joe the Boxer: Nickolas Vaughn; Joe’s Opponents: Craig Lawrence. Leon Major, director. Timothy Long, conductor. Clarice Smith Center, University of Maryland — College Park. product_id=Above: A scene from Shadowboxer

All photos by Cory Weaver/University of Maryland — College Park
Posted by Gary at 7:42 AM

Shadowboxer’s Left Jab

With music by Frank Proto and libretto by John Chenault, Shadowboxer culminated a twenty-five year old dream of MOS director Leon Major to bring Louis’s rags-to-riches-to-rags story to the opera house.

Longtime collaborators Proto and Chenault have written a challenging, provocative, and somewhat problematic work. It was skillfully produced, despite some writing flaws: Major and his MOS forces pulled out all the stops, with many saving effects that supported the sagging score. Chenault devised his libretto as a series of flashbacks the older Louis has after a heart attack. The main confusion arose with having three Joes onstage, often simultaneously. Older Louis watched as Young Joe (played by tenor Duane Moody) re-enacted his various flashbacks. Young Joe stood alongside older Joe during many scenes, mirroring his actions or even relating to him, and would blend in and out of the crowd. Two actors, playing Joe the Boxer (Nickolas Vaughn) and Joe’s Opponents (Craig Lawrence), mimed several of the famous boxing matches. The boxing actors brought to the stage the needed raw energy and passion raised during a fight. One wished for a single person to play Young Joe, who could also act the boxing scenes, or even one singer-actor throughout the show, rather than three. Luckily, Major imaginatively guided the interaction of the three Joes, so the confusion was less apparent.

Unfortunately, Chenault‘s solo lines for older Louis, which are certainly intended to be introspective, came across as rambling, and told rather than revealed the character’s thoughts. Proto’s angular musical lines did not aid these solo sections, but rather showed an accomplished instrumental composer struggling to set philosophical words. The result had too many moments of the older Louis singing challenging intervals, rather than well-crafted vocal lines setting a succinct script. Fortunately, Jarrod Lee (playing Old Joe) made music and drama out of the disjointed lines. What a relief near the end of Act II to hear Lee sing a real tune about life being beautiful!

Proto’s highly complex music includes a full pit orchestra, a 15-member singing cast and a choral ensemble, as well as the unique feature of an onstage jazz band. The jazz band adds the sound element of the era, not so much as period music, but as its musical descendant. Timothy Long expertly conducted the difficult score, and seemed quite at home directing the club-influenced method of throwing the tune back and forth between the band and the orchestra. Both ensembles played sensitively, and seemed at ease with the harmonic and rhythmic language of the score. When the full company was in action--reliving the fights or relating to each other--the entire production gleamed with energy.


Often wearing faceless, half-skull masks, the choral ensemble acted as a Greek chorus, singing Proto’s Swingle-Singer-influenced harmonies with confidence, and often, chilling beauty. They gave voice to Louis’s memories of the moment. Each singer sat or stood near a black chair, symbolically lifting it up, turning it on its side, or switching it to another angle to move in or out of the action. Some of the best music, and the most notable performances, came from three sets of trios surrounding Louis. (Need we mention the recurring jazz trio, or even trinity, theme pervading the script?) VaShawn Savoy McIlwain gave a strong, earthy, no-nonsense performance as trainer Jack Blackburn. Along with McIlwain, Robert King (Julian Black) and Benjamin Moore (John Roxborough) rounded out this strong trio of men guiding Louis’s career. The Three Reporters, representing the press (Andrew Owens, Andrew McLaughlin, and Colin Michael Brush), offered solid vocal harmonies and acted with appropriate slime as they either kept their racism in check or pounced on Louis when he lost. The Three Beauties, depicting the wide variety of Louis’s female companions and sung by Madeline Miskie, Amelia Davis, and Amanda Opuszynski, melted over both young and old Joe. Their supple voices blended well, often using a straight vocal tone more akin to musical theatre or jazz.

Strong lead performances were given by professor Carmen Balthrop, who portrayed Louis’s mother, Lillie Brooks, with inner dignity, and deep, maternal emotion; Adrienne Webster (Louis’s wife Marva Trotter), who gave herself completely to the role with powerful, emotional singing; and Peter Burroughs, who generated the necessary bravado for German boxer Max Schmeling. Jarrod Lee gave an outstanding performance as he embodied the aged and broken Louis. He sang nearly ninety-five percent of the opera wheeling around in a wheel chair. The logistics and energy of continuing that for two hours was a feat unto itself. Exhibiting excellent musicianship, he sang the difficult, angular vocal lines with a commanding, emotional baritone throughout the opera. Lee is certainly a singer to watch in the future.

Set designer Erhard Rom brought ringside flavor to his stage with an open floor, the moveable black chairs, and three angular screens suspended from the ceiling, hugging the up, left and right stage perimeter. Lighting, hung from crisscrossed girders, added to the angularity of the stage, the screens, and the musical lines. Spotlights were often boxing-ring square, rather than the customary round spots. Projection designers Kirby Malone and Gail Scott White chose images, such as boxing ring corners, old radios, and fight scenes, to enhance the subtext of the libretto. A memorable effect occurs in Act I: as the older Louis reminisces about various boxers, each boxer’s individual picture appears to fade in and out of a swirling fog on the left or right screens. Kirby and Malone added a moving-picture element several times when a photo would appear on each screen in sequence, as if it were a film. Often the cast sang against the actual film footage of scenes from World War II and boxing matches. This did not distract, but rather enhanced the words and mood with more of a background visual effect. Fight sound clips were also interspersed periodically. Near the end of Act II, Louis hears the voices of boxers Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali speak to him through an onstage solo sax and trumpet. Their words flash on the screen as the instrumental voices “talk.” A tighter conversational script for Joe would have given the audience a better chance to imagine the other boxers’ words. As it was, the instrumentalists appearing onstage weakened the dramatic effect.

The life of boxer Joe Louis inspires sober reflection upon the realities of living in a racist society, then and now. Chenault featured this topic prominently, and appropriately, throughout the opera. Proto, Chenault and the entire MOS team have certainly fulfilled Major’s dream to show the life of “a man who boxed for a living.” They have launched another complex hero for the opera world to celebrate, and to contemplate.

Deborah Thurlow
University of Maryland

image=http://www.operatoday.com/DSC_8040.png image_description=Duane Moody (Young Joe), Madeline Miskie (Beauty #1), Amanda Opuszynski (Beauty #3) and Amelia Davis (Beauty #2) [Photo by Mike Ciesielski courtesy of University of Maryland -- College Park] product=yes product_title=Shadowboxer: Music by Frank Proto to a libretto by John Chenault product_by=Joe Louis: Jarrod Lee; Young Joe: Duane Moody; Marva Trotter: Adrienne Webster; Max Schmelling: Peter Burroughs; Lillie Brooks: Carmen Balthrop; Jack Blackburn: VaShawn McIlwain; Julian Black: Robert King; John Roxborough: Benjamin Moore; Ring Announcer: David Blalock; Beauty #1: Madeline Miskie; Beauty #2: Amelia Davis; Beauty #3: Amanda Opuszynski; Reporter #1: Andrew Owens; Reporter #2: Andrew McLaughlin; Reporter #3: Colin Michael Brush; Joe the Boxer: Nickolas Vaughn; Joe’s Opponents: Craig Lawrence. Leon Major, director. Timothy Long, conductor. Clarice Smith Center, University of Maryland — College Park. product_id=Above: Duane Moody (Young Joe), Madeline Miskie (Beauty #1), Amanda Opuszynski (Beauty #3) and Amelia Davis (Beauty #2) [Photo by Mike Ciesielski courtesy of University of Maryland -- College Park]
Posted by Gary at 7:40 AM

Shadowboxer — The Rise and Fall of an American Hero

That idea came to fulfillment this week at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts. Major, director of the Maryland Opera Studio, gave this reason for the project’s prolonged genesis: “I knew that I wanted to do an opera on the life of this great American hero. The question was—when would I find the right composer/librettist team to make this work?”

He found that team two years ago. Inspired by the work of Frank Proto, composer-in-residence of the Cincinnati Symphony, he called Proto to discuss the project. Soon afterward, Proto and his librettist partner, John Chenault, were commissioned to write Shadowboxer.

The project that then began to unfold was one of enormous complexity. The initial focus, however, was a simple question: Joe Louis the boxer was an American hero, but was Joe Louis the man equally heroic? This issue is the focal point of the opera and the most poignant element of the production. Major, Proto and Chenault force the audience to ask itself the question: does this man deserve my admiration, or even my respect?

It is a powerful question to ask. The opera does indeed pay tribute to the life of a noble man, a man whom Major, Proto and Chenault all view as a hero. But their portrayal of Louis shows a battered, broken and unstable invalid, confined to a wheelchair for the duration of the piece. In fact, the opera begins with Louis having a heart attack. It then flashes backward in time as a cast of figures from Louis’s fragmented memory drifts gradually in and out of focus. This device reveals Louis’s weakness, not his strength. He becomes a fallen hero as Major forces us to redefine our sense of what a hero really is.

Chenault uses a variety of figures to add this new dimension to the character. Similar to the way in which Alice Goodman reveals the human side of Richard Nixon in Nixon in China, Chenault wants to show the personal side of Joe. The man had friends, Chenault states, from “all strata of life. He knew royalty, but he also knew the shoeshine on the corner of the street.” In Shadowboxer, we see how these different influences profoundly affected Louis as we follow two main character groups.

The first comprises real people, all of whom were close to Louis: his trainer, Jack Blackburn; his agent, John Roxborough; his manager, Julian Black; his wife, Marva; and his mother, Lillie. These characters force Louis to confront the human element in his life—how his actions, fame, and fortune affect those around him. We witness the true love of his mother and of his wife, and the loyal support of his entourage.

In contrast, Chenault also includes a large chorus, composed partially of different groups of caricatures representing the types of people who had a negative impact on Louis. There are three beauties, all of whom successfully seduce Louis and abuse his famous generosity. There are also three fickle reporters who capitalize on both his successes and his failures.


The contrasting elements in Louis’s life are echoed in Proto’s score. The music to Shadowboxer is extraordinarily challenging. When the singers received their first version of piano-vocal scores over a year ago, questions were asked: “Will anyone know if I don’t sing the right notes?” and even more importantly, “What are the right notes?!”

These questions arose because the score is mostly atonal, resulting in vocal lines that are difficult for the singers to navigate, tune and memorize. Chorus members have the added challenge of having to hold their parts against those of their highly dissonant neighbors. These parts often enter on a pitch that is dissonant with the pitches already being sung, without the benefit of an aural cue from the orchestra. The singers not only meet these challenges, but are able, despite the atonal crunch, to create a canvas of haunting beauty. The dissonance that pervades the music adds to the portrayal of the nebulous nature of Louis’s mind.

Apart from the musical difficulties that result from learning an atonal opera, conductor Tim Long faced the additional challenge of having to coordinate the normal pit orchestra, soloists and chorus with an onstage jazz band, offstage chorus, and onstage jazz instrumentalists. A single conductor (even with multiple monitors projecting Long’s image to the singers, both on- and offstage) proved insufficient, so assistant conductor Michael Ingram was called upon to conduct the offstage groups. Ingram had to watch Long on a television monitor and conduct — with a glow stick, no less — ahead of that image, in order for the alignment to sound correctly in the hall. After many rehearsals spent perfecting the timing, these different musical elements combine to form a wonderful tapestry upon which the Louis story is told.

Several of the soloists deliver noteworthy performances that deserve special mention. Carmen Balthrop is captivating as Lillie, Louis’s mother. She sings a gripping aria about the pain of a mother watching her son do battle in the ring. With stunning emotional power, Adrienne Webster (Marva) captures the audience in a fiery aria chastising Louis’s promiscuity.

Jarrod Lee is superior in both his singing and acting as Old Joe, the most difficult role in the opera. He portrays the frail Louis who watches all of the action, interacting with the figures from his past as he floats from memory to memory. Never breaking his intense focus, Lee provides visceral reactions as he gains insight into his own life. Especially during the second act, a large musical burden is placed upon the Old Joe character. Lee navigates the difficult singing with masterful skill, and brings depth and honesty to the role.

Equally compelling are Major’s directorial decisions. He deals with the parallel time-frames of the opera in two significant and related ways. First, he keeps the chorus onstage at all times. This chorus includes the soloists who portray the opera’s other major characters. Second, Major masks all of the ensemble members; they unmask only to assume a solo role. These devices allow Major to deploy a larger chorus, have characters drift into and out of Louis’s mind in a fluid fashion, and keep the idea of each of these characters present throughout the work. In this way, Major is able to manipulate time, seamlessly integrating the present with scenes from Louis’s past. Major’s masked chorus is an excellent solution to a difficult problem, and creates a clear picture for the audience.

This chorus creates an especially memorable first scene when it is seated onstage and Louis wheels his way among its members. As Louis passes, the masked figures turn and lean towards him, then slowly re-center themselves after he moves away. This places Louis in a type of purgatory where he is held by spirits. The journey that we then begin with Louis becomes a necessary one for him to regain understanding in his life.

The chorus is the first of a series of successful visual elements in the opera. Costume designer David Roberts artfully dresses each character in varied shades of grey. The only color is found in Louis’s red-checkered bathrobe—a subtle and constant reminder that the action takes place in Louis’s memory. The set is also a unique design that allows for three hanging screens along the back of the stage. Throughout the opera, the screens reflect commentary on the action as relevant pictures and video are projected upon them. Projection designers Kirby Malone and Gail Scott White display flashes of newspaper headlines hailing Louis’s boxing exploits, quotes from his competitors that added edge to Louis’s competitive fire, and swirling smoke during periods where he fights to regain clarity of memory.

The use of projection is sparing, though sometimes too overt. For instance, at the end of the opening scene described above, each of the main characters stands and unmasks while his or her name is projected above. The resulting introduction of the protagonists feels forced, especially given that Chenault seamlessly weaves character introduction and plot development in the scenes that follow. The projections are most effective when they add to the liveliness of Louis’s post- fight celebrations by flashing news headlines and photos of revelers in Harlem.

Frank Proto and John Chenault’s Shadowboxer pursues a noble social goal. Like another modern opera, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, it explores the question of race; like Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth, it examines the citizen’s relationship to the state. But at its heart, Leon Major explains, “It is not an opera about a boxer; it is an opera about a man who makes his living as a boxer.” In Shadowboxer, we are provided with a transcendent view inside the mind of a great, and fallen, American hero.

John Devlin
University of Maryland

image=http://www.operatoday.com/DSC_8112.png image_description=Jarrod Lee (Old Joe) [Photo by Mike Ciesielski] product=yes product_title=Shadowboxer: Music by Frank Proto to a libretto by John Chenault product_by=Joe Louis: Jarrod Lee; Young Joe: Duane Moody; Marva Trotter: Adrienne Webster; Max Schmelling: Peter Burroughs; Lillie Brooks: Carmen Balthrop; Jack Blackburn: VaShawn McIlwain; Julian Black: Robert King; John Roxborough: Benjamin Moore; Ring Announcer: David Blalock; Beauty #1: Madeline Miskie; Beauty #2: Amelia Davis; Beauty #3: Amanda Opuszynski; Reporter #1: Andrew Owens; Reporter #2: Andrew McLaughlin; Reporter #3: Colin Michael Brush; Joe the Boxer: Nickolas Vaughn; Joe’s Opponents: Craig Lawrence. Leon Major, director. Timothy Long, conductor. Clarice Smith Center, University of Maryland — College Park. product_id=Above: Jarrod Lee (Old Joe) [Photo by Mike Ciesielski]
Posted by Gary at 7:38 AM

A “CNN Opera” — Shadowboxer at UMD

The unexpected subject matter, juxtaposing the seedy world of boxing with the sophistication of opera, is bound to raise a few eyebrows. However, it contains topics typically found in opera: love, betrayal, sex and scandal. Every aspect of the show – music, lighting, costumes, staging, and audio-visual effects – is carefully designed to create a story which takes place in the abstract reflections of Joe’s memory. The unique subject coupled with Leon Major’s brilliant staging, an exceptional production team, and a crew of fresh, young voices, provides an intriguing and gratifying night at the opera.

The libretto, created by John Chenault, is not just a chronological biography of Joe's life; the story begins just before Joe's death. Continually jumping through time, the opera explores moments of triumph and the moments where the protagonist allows his demons to prevail. Through the journey, we are introduced to three Joe's: Old Joe in a wheelchair (Jarrod Lee), young, vibrant Joe eager to tackle the world (Duane A. Moody), and boxing Joe for the fight scenes (Nickolas Vaughn). On the surface, clear racial tensions are addressed, but there is more to Joe's story than the trials and tribulations of an African-American trying to succeed in a white world. From Joe’s perspective, we witness his vulnerability to women, his issues with the IRS, and the unjust title of democratic symbol the US media placed upon Joe during World War II. This “CNN opera” is much like John Adam’s Nixon in China, in that we see the real Joe behind the media portrayal, allowing the audience to formulate their own perceptions of Joe Louis.

As Old Joe's impending death draws near, ghosts from his past begin to haunt him. The stark stage, with large white panels and black chairs combined with a masked cast clad in gray, is very effective. The neutral palette not only enhances the ghostly quality of Joe's hazy memory, but it also allows the cast to become a part of the media machine; they become the black and white newspaper clippings that pop off the screen as Joe becomes a victim of propaganda. The cast’s recurring stage direction to freeze in time creates photographs frozen in place as Old Joe reflects on the event before him. The cast also behaves as ghosts; stoic figures that seem to float across the stage as wisps of Joe’s memory ebb and flow through his mind.

Time changing can be difficult to execute on stage; however, Leon Major and the production team accomplish it deftly. The dim lighting with swirling smoke effects places us in Old Joe’s disoriented dream-world; the impressionist-like music accompanying Old Joe, freely floating like Debussy’s Pelléas, adds to the atmosphere as he weaves his way in and out of the gray figures hovering through his mind. As soon as we are transported to a specific moment in the past, the stage lights up, masks are removed, the music finds a solid, upbeat rhythm, and the cast springs into action, just as quickly as a picture or memory can flash through one’s mind.

The stage can look quite cluttered at times; each member of the large cast has their own chair. However, besides adding to the image of Joe’s mind, cluttered with memories, the use of so many chairs is quite resourceful; they create the boxing ring and they symbolize the people in Joe’s life. As memories fade or characters pass on, the chairs are tipped over, symbolizing their departure. The clutter and confusion works particularly well during transitions into fight scenes. The movement of people and chairs, along with sound effects, cheering, and choreographed boxing fights emulates a real sporting crowd moving, shifting and alive with action.


The multi-media components are equally important in shaping the abstract images of Joe’s mind. Textured panels hung at angles provide a place to project video clips and photos, which are not merely plastered up on the wall; they are snippets of images taken from different angles. More importantly, the panels provide a backdrop for the lighting effects and shadows necessary to further express the meaning behind the opera’s title. The most effective shadow moment occurs during Marva's powerful aria in act two, sung by Adrienne Webster. As Marva expresses her frustration over loving Joe despite his infidelity, their shadows reflect her feelings even further: Joe has become a ghost to her. He is a distant and unattainable shadow of a man who used to be her husband, someone she now only sees in the news.

Marva’s stunning arias show her complete emotional breakdown as the relationship develops and falls apart. The first aria, sung in act one, is a sultry song of seduction; the lilting accompaniment with a slinky saxophone reflects Marva’s struggle between allowing herself to succumb to Joe’s sexual desires, while also trying to maintain her dignity. The second aria reflects her frustration and inability to let go of her womanizing husband. Both arias are based on the same music; however the second turns into an agitated cry with ascending chromatics in the orchestra, expressing her agony and rage about to bubble over. Her arias, much like those of Nixon’s wife Pat in Nixon in China, allow us to see the powerful and passionate woman behind the iconic man.

Other memorable characters include two sets of trios. The male reporters throw Joe on a pedestal when he’s up and kick him when he’s down. The writing, with its swagger and intense spit-fire text, underlined by angular pizzicato patterns in the strings, is reflective of a fast-paced news report, and the three singers, Andrew Owens, Andrew McLaughlin, and Colin Michael Brush, give stellar performances. Their line “You heard it hear first” appears many times throughout the opera, each time depicting a different period in Joe’s life: the excitement of his first fight, the disillusionment of his loss to Schmeling, the confusion surrounding Joe’s retirement, and the shock at his death. Three beauties (Madeline Miskie, Amelia Davis and Amanda Opuszynski) create the other trio and are omnipresent; they slither and snake around Joe, begging for sex and money. All six pressure and entice Joe, shaping both his public reputation and the personal choices he makes.

Additional noteworthy performances include Lillie Brooks, Joe’s mom, played by a member of the Maryland voice faculty, Carmen Balthrop. Clearly a seasoned professional, Balthrop sets a fantastic example to the students with her effortless voice and ownership of the character. Joe’s trainer, Jack Blackburn, played by VaShawn Savoy McIlwain, is another highlight of the evening. McIlwain is tough in every sense of the word: his look, his demeanor, his expression and his voice. The man personifies everything one expects in a world-class boxing coach – smart, demanding and intimidating.

The chorus plays a rather large role; at times it becomes a character, and other times it becomes part of the orchestra. Like the music in the entire opera, their part is extremely difficult to sing. There is very little repetition, the chords are highly chromatic, and the pitches come out of nowhere. Additionally, most of their material is sung on neutral syllables, which can be extremely difficult to memorize. Their role would rival Phillip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach where the singers repeat endless arrangements of solfege syllables and numbers. However, the repetitive minimalist nature of Einstein with clear diatonic sonorities has its advantages over the atonal harmonies sung by the Shadowboxer chorus. Many of the leads also need to use a dialect appropriate for their characters, as observed in operas such as Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Floyd’s Susannah. Learning this opera is no simple task, and the cast should be commended.

Despite its difficulty, I find the score to be quite remarkable as the musical layers unfold. When the balance between all the sections is right, the vocal color of the choir weaves in and out of the texture, reflecting Joe’s mind weaving in and out of insanity. The score is incredibly eclectic, combining elements of jazz, Broadway, and atonality, to name a few. In addition to the pit orchestra, Proto includes a jazz band on stage – a creative and welcome component to an opera paying homage to the time period in which Joe Louis lived. One of the many memorable moments with the jazz band includes an aria by Max Schmeling (Peter Joshua Burroughs), Germany’s propaganda puppet; it is ironic that Max’s music would be set to jazz, something the Nazis would have loathed. Like the saxophone used in Marva’s aria, jazz soloists emerge as characters as Joe continues to lose his mind in act two; he has a conversation with a trumpet and a saxophone, thinking they are former boxers talking to him from the grave.

Shadowboxer brings a fresh element to the stage. Sports fans will love the choreographed fight scenes; history buffs will enjoy the connection to social and political issues surrounding an epic American character; jazz musicians will appreciate seeing their art form performed in an uncharacteristic venue; and opera lovers will enjoy seeing dedicated, talented students perform this challenging and unique opera.

Kelly Butler
University of Maryland

image=http://www.operatoday.com/_MG_3273.png image_description=A scene from Shadowboxer [Photo courtesy of University of Maryland -- College Park] product=yes product_title=Shadowboxer: Music by Frank Proto to a libretto by John Chenault product_by=Joe Louis: Jarrod Lee; Young Joe: Duane Moody; Marva Trotter: Adrienne Webster; Max Schmelling: Peter Burroughs; Lillie Brooks: Carmen Balthrop; Jack Blackburn: VaShawn McIlwain; Julian Black: Robert King; John Roxborough: Benjamin Moore; Ring Announcer: David Blalock; Beauty #1: Madeline Miskie; Beauty #2: Amelia Davis; Beauty #3: Amanda Opuszynski; Reporter #1: Andrew Owens; Reporter #2: Andrew McLaughlin; Reporter #3: Colin Michael Brush; Joe the Boxer: Nickolas Vaughn; Joe’s Opponents: Craig Lawrence. Leon Major, director. Timothy Long, conductor. Clarice Smith Center, University of Maryland — College Park. product_id=Above: A scene from Shadowboxer [Photo courtesy of University of Maryland -- College Park]
Posted by Gary at 7:36 AM

Shadowboxer — The Inner Life of Joe Louis

Despite the countless articles on Louis’s life and career that appeared in newspaper sports pages and gossip columns of the 1930s through the 50s, his 1978 autobiography, My Life, was the only public statement the boxer ever made about his personal life. The nature of opera is to delve into human psyche, but we know so little about Joe’s innermost thoughts and feelings — how could it be possible to write an opera about one of organized sports’ most notoriously silent figures?

Composer Frank Proto, librettist John Chenault, and director Leon Major struck out to do just that. Shadowboxer is an opera that addresses the issues of racial stereotyping and segregation, the blessing and curse of modern celebrity, and one man’s struggle to overcome his inner demons to become a hero to millions of his fellow Americans. As an elderly Louis (a role split between Jarrod Lee as Old Joe, Duane Moody as his younger self, and Nickolas Vaughn as Joe the Boxer) looks back on his life, he remembers both the tragedies and triumphs he experienced as an African-American in a sport dominated by white athletes. The opera is comprised of flashbacks that occur in Old Joe’s mind, and many of these memories bleed into the character’s reality. These trips down memory lane focus on the boxer’s early career, Joe’s marriage to Marva Trotter (Adrienne Webster), and his famous bout with German boxer Max Schmeling (Peter Burroughs). Shadowboxer chronicles Joe’s philanthropic contributions to the US armed forces during WWII, the discrimination he experienced during his enlistment in the US Army, and his financial ruin at the hands of the Internal Revenue Service. The opera fast-forwards to Louis’s descent into substance abuse and madness and the revival of his celebrity status in his later years. Though he led a turbulent and somewhat sad life, Joe Louis’s ascension to the throne of the world heavyweight boxing championship made him a true American hero at a time when the country was firmly divided along racial lines.

Librettist Chenault sees the title Shadowboxer as having a double meaning: “[The term] shadowboxer fits with the boxing world… but in particular reference to Joe [it makes us ask] how do we peer behind the curtain, how do we move that aside and look at the interior life of Joe?” An exploration of the mind and spirit of such a well-known but private individual is both a confining and liberating task. To interpret the factual account of a life through the medium of opera is, in some respects, liberating; through music and words, Proto and Chenault create an emotional context for historical events. On the other hand, the distillation of a real person with complex emotions into an operatic performance of a few hours is somewhat constricting. Chenault, a poet and playwright, studied Louis’s autobiography, and much of his libretto comes from Joe’s own words. Proto, Chenault, and Major chose to place the 1938 Louis-Schmeling fight at the center of the work and present the rest of Joe’s story as an ascent to and decent from this historic event.

The music of Shadowboxer sets this work apart in the world of modern opera. Proto’s inclusion of an on-stage eight-piece jazz combo in addition to the full pit orchestra is unprecedented, and he uses this ensemble to great effect. It is not uncommon for jazz to inspire operatic music – composers like Max Brand and Ernst Krenek of the German Zeitopern tradition incorporated elements of jazz and popular music into their works of the 1920s and 30s, and George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess makes use of jazz rhythms throughout its entire score. Rather than taking on a secondary role, however, jazz exists side by side with traditional operatic music in Shadowboxer. Although this work does not feature any 1930s or 40s jazz standards, Proto says its music is “descended” from the music of the time when Joe Louis was in his prime, and the onstage jazz band takes on a life separate from its counterpart in the pit.


Proto’s imaginative score is a versatile vehicle for the University of Maryland Opera Studio. Featuring a cast of performers, including graduate students in the UM Opera Studio, undergraduate voice majors, Opera Studio alumni, invited guest artists, and UM faculty (Professor Carmen Balthrop is stunning in her role as Joe’s mother, Lillie Brooks) Shadowboxer is accompanied by student instrumentalists. This world-class production leaves no doubt in my mind that these musicians are professionals of the highest caliber. Webster and Balthrop give outstanding vocal performances, as does VaShawn McIlwain in the role of Joe’s trainer, Jack Blackburn. All of the soloists are extremely competent, although some have problems with projection. Proto’s choice to add eight extra instrumentalists on stage level places them in direct competition with the singers for that sonic space, and some do no project well over the jazz combo accompaniment. While Lee’s portrayal of Old Joe is beautifully acted and impeccably sung, he is sometimes overpowered by the instrumentalists. At times, the audience is forced to rely on the closed captioning shown on screens placed to the left and right of the stage to follow the dialogue. This necessity becomes distracting, and I found myself watching the screens during the scenes featuring Joe’s paramours (Madeline Miskie, Amelia Davis, and Amanda Opuszynski) to catch all the words. Balance issues aside, the cast members do an excellent job communicating with the audience through their commanding stage presence. The transcendent nature of this abstract work requires performers that connect with the audience, and this group rises to the challenge.

The production of Shadowboxer exists firmly in the tradition of modern opera. The set features a deconstructed boxing ring, complete with lights and ropes strung at odd angles, and the canvas is represented by three large white screens that hang at the back of the stage. In addition to providing context for an opera about a boxer, this set provides a backdrop for the projection designs of Kirby Malone and Gail Scott White. The practice of replacing sets with projections has been widely used in modern opera productions of the past decade, but director Major had a different vision for the incorporation of this technique. Rather than illustrating Louis’s life through a series of images, Malone and White’s projections serve as snapshots of his memory that support the singers and provide a context for the action. The projections contribute an element of realism by weaving familiar images (like the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Nazi occupation of Europe) in with Old Joe’s abstract recollections. Projections also facilitate an imaginary exchange between Old Joe and boxing legends Muhammad Ali and Jack Johnson. Ali and Johnson are represented by a trumpet (Brent Madsen) and tenor saxophone (Anthony Bonomo), rather than singers, and their words are projected on the screen backdrops. Bonomo’s and Madsen’s improvised solos are masterful and compelling, but their scene still seems out of place, as it has no parallel in the rest of the work. A return to the quasi-reality of Joe’s memory seems confusing after this unreal exchange. Even in an opera that takes place almost entirely in one character’s head, this sequence, in my opinion, is too abstract.

Overall, the UM Opera Studio has staged an excellent production. In the words of conductor Tim Long, “It’s really nice to be working on a new opera...because you don’t have to fit the mold of what people have done for centuries. We can create that mold.” This work is a breakthrough modern opera, and hopefully future productions will follow in the footsteps of the visionary artists who created Shadowboxer.

Jessica Abbazio
University of Maryland

image=http://www.operatoday.com/MG_3236.png image_description=A scene from Shadowboxer [Photo courtesy of University of Maryland] product=yes product_title=Shadowboxer: Music by Frank Proto to a libretto by John Chenault product_by=Joe Louis: Jarrod Lee; Young Joe: Duane Moody; Marva Trotter: Adrienne Webster; Max Schmelling: Peter Burroughs; Lillie Brooks: Carmen Balthrop; Jack Blackburn: VaShawn McIlwain; Julian Black: Robert King; John Roxborough: Benjamin Moore; Ring Announcer: David Blalock; Beauty #1: Madeline Miskie; Beauty #2: Amelia Davis; Beauty #3: Amanda Opuszynski; Reporter #1: Andrew Owens; Reporter #2: Andrew McLaughlin; Reporter #3: Colin Michael Brush; Joe the Boxer: Nickolas Vaughn; Joe’s Opponents: Craig Lawrence. Leon Major, director. Timothy Long, conductor. Clarice Smith Center, University of Maryland — College Park. product_id=Above: A scene from Shadowboxer

All photos courtesy of University of Maryland — College Park
Posted by Gary at 7:01 AM

April 23, 2010

Christopher Maltman, Wigmore Hall, London

The fourteen songs which comprise Schwanengesang (‘Swan Song’) were composed by Schubert in the year of his death, 1828. They do not form a unified sequence: there is no continuous narrative or singular mood. But, that is in many ways the strength of the ‘cycle’; for it is the variety of emotions and situations, often juxtaposed in surprising sequences, which accounts for the unsettling power of these lieder, many of which are themselves characterised by striking inner contrasts. Dark despair is followed by hesitant optimism; cynical irony by tentative hope. Maltman and Johnson did not always distinguish the full range of subtle emotional tones and shades contained herein, but their control of form — crafted melodic lines, flexible rhythms and well-judged tempi - coupled with impressive technical assurance, more than compensated for an occasionally limited dramatic palette. Opting principally for either a veiled, hesitant pianissimo or a bitter angry forte, Maltman’s reading of these songs was one of disquiet and despair.

Maltman’s tone is particularly beautiful in the upper ranges, and his focused, sweet lyricism was immediately evident in the opening song, ‘Liebesbotschaft’ (‘Love’s message’). Words were breathed rather than intoned, vigour and passion reserved for a sudden surge of emotion as the protagonist recollects the ‘crimson glow’ of the beloved’s roses. The baritone’s large range was immediately revealed in the following song, an authoritative reading of ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ (Warrior’s Foreboding’), where Maltman plumbed rich vocal depths to convey the horror of the death-laden battlefield. Johnson’s appreciation of musical drama was also revealed: the flowing ardour of the rippling brook of the opening song was here replaced by a tense, sprung, rhythmic dynamism, subtle rubati and acceleration highlighting the modulations between major and minor tonality which enhance the poignant and ironic contrast between celebrations of earthly love and recognition of inescapable death.

Similar masterly control of pace was evident in ‘Frühlings Sehnsucht’ (‘Spring Longing’), where the stanzas’ culminating questions - ‘But where?’, ‘But why?’ - unsettled the calm assurance of the preceding romantic visions of the natural world. A highlight of the Rellstab settings which form the first half of the sequence was ‘In der Ferne’ (‘Far away’), where the piano’s haunting introduction and subsequent echoes of the vocal line suggested an isolation and alienation which cannot be alleviated by the poem’s somewhat convention romantic imagery. ‘Abschied’ ends the Rellstab sequence, a surprisingly light-hearted ‘farewell’ to the protagonist’s home town as he sets out on his quest; the emotive inferences of Johnson’s between-verse phrases and, once again, the contrast of major and minor modes, undermined the spirit of optimism and prepared for the subsequent Heine settings, with their greater psychological complexity and unease.

In ‘Der Atlas’ (Atlas) the lonely bitterness of rejection was forcefully conveyed by the imposing strength of Maltman’s tone, laden with massive despair, and the frustrated undercurrents in the piano’s introduction and postlude. After such turbulence, ‘Ihr Bild’ (‘Her likeness’) presented a contrasting moment of oppressive stillness, although melancholy and loss remained paramount: sparse unison textures evoked the poet-speaker’s self-tormenting ‘dark dreams’, oscillating with the warm richer harmonies as the ‘wonderful smile played about her lips’. Such consolation was however tinged with woe and proved transient. Here Maltman’s control of the text was superb: the words floated into the ether, revealing the fragility of his hopes and visions. The light, barcarolle-like ‘Das Fischermädchen’ (The fishermaiden’) offered only a short-lived respite before the gothic hallucinations of ‘Die Stadt’ (‘The town’) and the sorrowful seascape of ‘Am Meer’ (‘By the sea’) engulfed us once again. Most impressive in these bleak, through-composed dramas was Maltman’s alertness to Schubert’s power of suggestion, and the performers’ recognition of an inferred narrative in Heine’s sequence; for instance, the harmonic progression which connects the bare low C at the close of ‘Die Stadt’ to the harmonic transition at the start of ‘Am Meer’ was skilfully controlled. The ‘narrative’ culminates in the extraordinary, harrowing song, ‘Der Doppelgänger’ where Johnson’s ominous repeating bass line and startling modulations provided an eerie bed for Maltman’s agonized free declamations, as the poet-speaker is forced to face the embodiment of his own misery and anguish.

The light-weight joviality of Seidl’s ‘Taubenpost’ (‘Pigeon-Post’), appended to the sequence by Schubert’s Viennese publisher, the enterprising Tobias Haslinger, makes for an odd conclusion; perhaps it was intended to provide symmetry — seven songs in each ‘half’ — or to alleviate the distress of the despairing ‘Doppelgängeer’, much as ‘Abschied’ (with which it shares rhythmic motifs and mood) lightened the distant shadows of ‘In der Ferne’? Whatever the reason for its placement, Maltman found scant genuine cheer and consolation in ‘Taubenpost’: clear in diction, sweet in tone, but emotionally reticent, Maltman’s light baritone suggested the insubstantiality of the protagonist’s certainty and hope.

Maltman’s intelligent performance was technically immaculate. Striving for extreme, unsettling contrasts, perhaps he and Johnson did not always capture the full range of emotional nuance; but this was a masterly and convincing reading.

Claire Seymour

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Maltman.png image_description=Christopher Maltman [Photo courtesy of IMG Artists] product=yes product_title=Franz Schubert: Schwanengesang product_by=Christopher Maltman, baritone; Graham Johnson, piano. Wigmore Hall, London. Tuesday 20th April 2010. product_id=Above: Christopher Maltman [Photo courtesy of IMG Artists]
Posted by Gary at 10:17 AM

April 22, 2010

Stephen Jaffe: an Interview by Tom Moore

TM: Your father was on the faculty at UMass, where you studied music. It doesn’t seem like the immediately obvious choice for studying music in Massachusetts.

SJ: I studied at UMass when I was in high school. My parents were both geologists, and moved around a lot. I was born in Washington DC, where they had met. They both worked for the Bureau of Mines, Department of the Interior. When President Eisenhower vetoed a pay cut for federal employees, my father took a job at Union Carbide, working for industry in New York, and then they moved to Massachusetts when Union Carbide planned to move the plant to Buffalo – where neither of my parents wanted to go to.

My father’s career ended in teaching, which is how I ended up in Massachusetts. I studied at the University of Massachusetts while I was in high school, with Frederic Tillis, a very interesting composer and poet. Nduma Eaglefeather is his poetic name – I just came across his poems at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida.

When I would have been entering tenth grade I went to Geneva, where my mother had lived until age thirteen. I went to the conservatory there, and studied with a composer named André Francois Marescotti, who remembered the earlier 20th century, when “les jeunes, on voulait Debussy: (“the young people wanted to hear Debussy”-with the implication that the established order didn’t want to program his music. Imagine!). When I came back to the US I studied a little more with Frederick Tillis before I went down to study at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, with teachers that I especially wanted to work with, notably George Crumb and George Rochberg. It turned out that Richard Wernick was also a wonderful teacher.

Throughout my teens, I studied a lot of piano, studied voice, sang in lots of choirs….

TM: How was the musical atmosphere different from that in the US in the seventies?

SJ: I can’t really say what the atmosphere was like in the seventies. I remember being excited by a bunch of things. I had a friend who went to study with Harry Partch, worked with him, and learned to play his instruments. I remember driving -- in a ‘63 Valiant with pushbutton gearshift--to hear Pierre Boulez conduct the New York Philharmonic and the Rug Concerts – George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children was on the program.Geneva was perfect for me at sixteen years old. First of all, it was a conservatory. Secondly, it had very active international concert life. Alberto Ginastera was there, because he had been exiled, I gather, from Argentina, and came with his wife, Aurora Narola, who was a cellist. Boulez came through with various orchestras. I heard lots of Stravinsky, all the Swiss composers. Honegger, lots of Berio – very interesting music all the time.

I had been composing quite seriously before I went there, with a whole concert of my music in Massachusetts, but when I got to Geneva, I didn’t have to go high school, except for University of Wisconsin extension courses, so I would either practice, or do solfege, or sing in a choir, or work on harmony. I would sit for full days in composition lessons with Monsieur Marescotti. If you can imagine one sixteen year-old kid, and the other students at the level of graduate students or post-graduate students from all over Europe, with pieces for guitar and string quartet, or orchestra pieces – they were very much in touch with what was going on. It was quite a wonderful atmosphere to be around. I could see quite deeply into what was going on. Even if my lesson was from 1 to 2 PM, I would stay for the whole afternoon and listen to a conductor talk about his orchestration for cello and orchestra of a Bartok Rhapsody, or see the latest piece by Andre Richard, who is now a professor at the Hochschule in Freiburg. It was great.

TM: So many composers born in the fifties come to classical music, to writing in the Western classical tradition, from a background in popular music, whether rock and roll, or jazz, or pop, which has an effect on their approach. But you seem to have come from a French conservatory tradition.

SJ: I played in a lot of rock bands, sure. The reason I went on to other music was because it was more interesting! I would say by the age of 13, 14, I was already doing both simultaneously, or had moved on to other things.

Abbey Road is from 1969? The Late Stravinsky albums with the Requiem Canticles and the drawing by Giacometti on the cover – those are from the same time, and that was really amazing.

Something which I think about often, which distinguishes American composers from composers who follow the traditional conservatory route, is that we really do live in a plurality of traditions. Certainly you have found that in Brazil – you travel in and out of popular music, and in and out of concert music.

That’s very much to be found in my family. My parents had said “you guys can enjoy music as children, but don’t try to make a living at it.” And so we have three musicians. My brother is a wonderful jazz pianist and composer, runs the Mass MoCA Jazz Festival, and teaches at Williams College. He can sit down and play anything, in any key. It’s quite something. My sister Marina is an oboist. We all did it, and so I have tried as a parent to avoid saying “You can’t do that” because it might turn out that they try to do it…..

TM: The Songs of Turning, which is on poems by Jewish writers, was written in response to a commission reflecting the heritage of J.S. Bach, which seems like a different perspective.

SJ: It’s not quite correct to say that it is a Jewish-themed work – it’s actually more ecumenical than that. Songs of Turning is a piece that was written for the Oregon Bach Festival in 1996. It’s for chorus and chamber orchestra, responding to a festival around “Bach and the Americas”, which was the brain-child of OBF director Helmut Rilling. Four composers and performers from across the Americas were invited to create new works. Osvaldo Golijov wrote a piece based on Neruda, called “Oceana”, for the Schola Cantorum of Caracas and the Bach Festival Orchestra. Linda Bouchard, representing Quebec, composed her “Pilgrim’s Cantata” for soloists and chamber orchestra. Robert Kyr composed a cantata called “The Inner Dawning”, and I wrote Songs of Turning.

Although I have done a lot of vocal music, Songs of Turning is quite exceptional in my catalog. What I wanted to do in writing this piece, in terms of reflecting Bach’s tradition, was to have the audience, and the chorus, and the soloists to be involved in a story with resonance in real life--as Bach sometimes explored in his cantatas (especially those associated with pietism). In preparation, I looked at all kinds of texts relevant to the Americas–-from the Civil Rights movement and from pioneer women’s narratives in particular, and I designed several of those as librettos. I finally settled on a three-part text stemming from contemporary life, and based on different ways, and manners of turning or spiritual reorientation. Thus, each of the three main parts of Songs of Turning (“The Letter,” “Last Instruction” and “Transformations”) deals with some aspect of turning. These are preceded by a Prologue uses a refrain which paraphrases the U’Netaneh Tokef prayer from the High Holy Days in Jewish tradition, which I translated as “Faith, prayer and action alter a harsh decree.” The Prologue’s music is very close to a mock-Bach cantata, with a long chorale tune present throughout. After a dramatic cadence, the music launches immediately into Part One, “The Letter”, for which the text for a soprano aria begins with what was actually a real letter to Ann Landers from a woman who has caused a terrible accident. It’s visceral, and quite real; she is a contemporary American. The writer is looking back at the scene from six years after the accident. I had discovered the letter in Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book, “Who Needs God?”-- and following the soprano aria, there is in fact sung text taken from Harold Kushner’s commentary by the baritone soloist, which ultimately leads to biblical texts in the chorus (from the Psalms and Jeremiah) when, like in Bach’s music, a chorale is heard. The text for Part Two of Songs of Turning uses Mary Oliver’s poem, called “The Buddha’s Last Instruction”, and is cast for baritone and a smaller ensemble of strings. As related in Oliver’s poem, the Buddha’s last instruction was “make of yourself a light.” Her poem also mentions turning, the moment of spiritual turning, which is a theme that has come up a lot in pieces of mine. (“Offering” for flute, harp and viola is another piece in which at least poetically evokes the moment of impulse when a human being is turning). In this case, the concern is spiritual turning. “Transformations” is Part Three of Songs of Turning. In it, I employ two poems: David Rosenberg’s modern paraphrase of Isaiah in a book called The Poet’s Bible, and a poem by Denise Levertov called Making Peace; following Levertov, the text for this movement asks: what it would take to make peace? Characters return from Part One; it’s as if the soprano who has intoned “The Letter” is looking back and asking “how do you live life, knowing that you have caused some terrible damage, or even knowing that your very existence could damage other people?”

I wanted a story where the chorus and soloists had an opportunity to participate in the story-telling, and every time it is done it has proven to be a very meaningful experience for people, not only the listening audience, but the chorus soloists, and chamber orchestra as well.

TM: I suppose it reflects the invitation by Bach to his listeners to put themselves in the place of Peter in the Passion, for example.

SJ: I was thinking more of the Pietistic cantatas – “I will carry the Cross”, “I was shipwrecked”, “My life was in tatters” ….until I found Jesus.” In contemporary practice what that is very similar to is gospel music, where you have religious testimony, with musical vamps, people coming up to the stage, body movements, clapping, bodies being taken over – it’s very powerful.

TM: To pursue a little further the contrast between the Christianity of Bach and the choice of Jewish texts, this was written in 1996, when scholars were starting to problematize the anti-Semitism of the text of the St. John Passion. It seems like an interesting choice.

SJ: What I was looking for, in Songs of Turning, was to create a piece that “purposefully and provocatively attempts to cross boundaries of sacred and secular.” It might be unusual to have aspects of the Yom Kippur liturgy standing side by side with the last words of the Buddha, but I was hoping in that regard to be provocative, both for those who consider themselves religious and those who don’t. That was what I was after in the piece.

TM: In a more general sense, it would be interesting to hear what meaning Bach has for you. Bach and Beethoven are the two fundamental figures of Western music, and perhaps Beethoven more so than Bach. We think of Bach as the consummate contrapuntalist, but that is certainly not all there is, and that is not what is most prominent in the cantatas. What special meaning does Bach have for you as a composer?

SJ: Bach is a touchstone for me. I heard the WTC and the instrumental music of Bach all the time as a child, and I continue to play the keyboard music a lot. Robert Schumann advised young musicians to play Bach every day. When I was waiting outside for my lessons at the University of Pennsylvania, very often George Crumb would be playing incredibly beautiful Bach, or Chopin, also one of the things he played, and I learned a lot from that. By osmosis!

Earlier, I had sung a few of the cantatas, but did not come to the cantatas as a body of sacred work until much later. That would not be the side of Bach, though I realize that it is fundamental to who he was, that I have spent the most time with.

I read an interview recently with John Cage, in which he was asked about what composers he would spend time with, and mentions various composers whom he would like to have a conversation with, but he said “If Bach were on the other side of the street, I would let him pass!” [Laughs.]

TM: An interesting take on Bach is the essay by Taruskin, which discusses the perversity of Bach, the quasi-Sadism, the intentional ugliness of Bach, the way he writes things in the cantatas which are impossible for the instrumentalists to play, precisely because it is in line with his theology that man is hopelessly sinful, and only redeemable through the sacrifice of Christ. This is something that you don’t get from the WTC, but rather through the cantatas. This must be part of what Cage is talking about.

SJ: ….but you would want to hear him practice!

TM: Linda Bouchard, your fellow composer at this festival said that “Bach is the music of these last centuries, the soundtrack for the modern age.” Do you agree? Disagree?

SJ: I assume she meant the contrapuntal tradition, the fact that his music has been so important for so many composers.

TM: So that what composers take from Bach is not expression, but pure technique.

SJ: No, not just pure technique. The technique is amazing, but what attracts us to the music is expressive geometry, the incredible architecture, the way that you build a fugue, or a cantata movement--and such amazing fingerprints, locally beautiful music that makes it seem that he was in touch with a deity, that he had a direct line. Any great composer that I have known, and I have met maybe four or five, has had stunning technique, but also has had ideas driving that; you could call a spiritual core, or a fire within. They all were in touch with things that were much bigger than just the notes – that is the job of the composer.

TM: You have said “I don’t work with any particular religion”. A huge part of Bach’s output was religious music. In the 21st century we have a disjunction between music with the highest aspirations in terms of expression and technique, and music that is written for service in church or synagogue, music for use. Is writing music for the religious service something that appeals to you? Is it possible to write meaningful and challenging music for the religious service in the 21st century?

SJ: There are composers, some who have studied with me, writing music that is usable in a liturgical setting, week in, week out. That’s not my aspiration.

All these things are very localized. There’s a wide variety of religious practice, to borrow from William James, and there is a wide variety of musical practice. Gospel music, which I have mentioned before, is an interesting practice in our area. There are churches and synagogues in New York, Boston, and other cities, with interesting music being written and performed.

In Songs of Turning, I was trying to deal with these religious questions as they apply to everyday life. That seems very important to me. One of the things that I value about art is that it will provoke and move you in certain ways, perhaps through its beauty, its passion, through an image, to think differently than you did went you went in.

You can aspire to a spiritual statement, to a life of passion and transformation, if you are an atheist, if you are religious, if you don’t know. What I have done in Songs of Turning is free of doctrine – that distinguishes it from Bach. This could also be said of pieces like Ligeti’s Requiem or Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony, pieces that call forth a religious attitude.

TM: Transcendence.

SJ: Yes.

TM: You have said that a “‘humane way’ of living may be enacted by or modeled in music”. Is this the mission of music? Lawrence Kramer writes in a new book about Why Classical Music Still Matters, and you might say that he argues that classical music teaches us important things that cannot be said any other way about what it is to be human. Should music be politically correct? Transgressive? How do we view composers who are not politically correct but have greatness, like Wagner?

Or to boil it down, what is the fundamental mission of music for you?

SJ: Something like “to sing the soul”. Almost nobody has succeeded in writing a singable manifesto. It’s been tried, and I have some students looking into that now.

I think the purpose of art is to make us feel more alive, more attuned to the moment, more attuned to intention, what it is that we want to do. Another of my pieces is called “Homage to the Breath”, and has a text by Thich Nhat Hanh. “Knowing I will get old, I breathe in. Knowing I can’t escape old age, I breathe out// Knowing I will die I breathe in. Knowing that I can’t escape sickness I breathe out”. ) There are some doctrinal ideas behind that which Thich Nhat Hanh has written about in a book called The Blooming of a Lotus.

I think that the purpose of art is make us feel more alive and aware of how the fires within, if you like, can lead to larger leaps of intention, decisions about what you do not want to leave out, and what you do want to leave in, what is really a touchstone, what is crucial. That doesn’t mean that art has to be serious, searingly serious all the time – lightness is also important in my music. But I don’t want to go to a concert or listen to a CD by someone who is giving me a lecture. The listener and performer are participants, the composer is a participant. That is vital, fundamental. If you are alive, there is no way that you can’t notice some terrible things going on, things which need to be changed. Some of those things may be out of your control – some you can address in the sphere of art, and some you can’t. Your politics, your religious beliefs, your every act, if you are a creative artist, whether a photographer, or writer, or painter, these are bound to come out in your work, and be very much at the fiber. It will be boring if it is only about ideas, absolutely boring.

NB: Stephen Jaffe has written about his musical background in the notes which accompany his recent CD The Music of Stephen Jaffe, Volume 3. (Bridge 9255), which contains Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, Poetry of the Piedmont, Cut Time, and Homage to the Breath: Instrumental and Vocal Meditations for mezzo soprano and ten players. Performers include: David Hardy, cello; Odense Symphony Orchestra of Denmark (Paul Mann, conducting); North Carolina Symphony (Grant Llewellyn, conducting); and the 21st Century Consort (Milagro Vargas, mezzo-soprano, Christopher Kendall, conducting).

Click here for program notes for Songs of Turning.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Stephen_Jaffe.gif image_description=Stephen Jaffe product=yes product_title=Stephen Jaffe: an Interview by Tom Moore product_by=Above: Stephen Jaffe
Posted by Gary at 12:14 PM

Micaela Carosi sings Aida in a new production at the Royal Opera House, London

“David McVicar has a vision that’s completely different”, she says. “He wants us to think about the origins of the characters and why they do what they do. It’s not just slaves, triumphs and so on. Instead we focus on motivations, on the human side of the story”.

“Aida is a princess, not an ordinary slave. She knows about political matters”, says Ms Carosi. When Amonasro is brought in as a captive, Aida’s first thought is for her father. “Tu! Prigioniero!” she says, with great feeling. But he whispers back “Non mi tradir!” (Do not betray me). “From that moment”, Ms Carosi says, “the drama changes”. Aida loves Radames, but she must protect her father and her country. “Duty first, love second. You do not often see this side of Aida”, she adds,”but it shows she has a very strong personality and a lot of courage”. Outwardly, Aida has to present the image of a slave. Inside, she knows her mission.

Micaela Carosi has created Aida many times, including with Franco Zeffirelli. There’s a wonderful photo of him kissing her on her website. She’s in full costume, having come right off stage after a performance at the Arena di Verona.

Verona is a large performance space, best filled with high drama. “I had to wave my arms a lot”, says Ms Carosi, gesticulating expressively. She must have been wonderful in performance. Zeffirelli also chose her to sing Aida at Teatro Verdi in Busseto during the Verdi centenary in 2001. The theatre at Busseto is small, with a different ambience. “I think that was one of the best productions ever. Zeffirelli really understands the difference, so he showed how to create the characters in an intimate way”.

Ms Carosi is looking forward to singing Aida at the Royal Opera House in London because it is a house which favours closely focused productions. “Usually you see the elephants, you hear the trumpets, but this time, McVicar wants attention on the personality inside the roles”. Radames, for example, which will be sung by Marcelo Álvarez, will return from battle covered in blood. “He’ll be a real warrior”, says Miss Carosi, who has worked with Álvarez several times in the past.

Aida of course will be presented as a woman of depth and intelligence, a characterization that comes naturally to Ms Carosi, who studied Modern Literature and Music History at the University of Rome. Her parents were artists, and taught the history of art. “In the conservatoire, you learn how to sing”, she says, “but I think we need more than just musical education. We need to understand the connection between all the arts and the time that they came from”. In Verdi’s time, theatres were smaller, often without electricity, so audiences were closer to the performers. Audiences were also passionately well-informed about opera, eagerly awaiting new works.

Micaela Carosi has created many major roles in the Italian operatic repertoire, and is deeply immersed in its aesthetic. Although she has sung Aida so often, she feels that each new production is stimulating because it opens new perspectives. She finds that being an artist means “being open. You can’t do the same thing by routine all the time. Every performance is an opportunity to learn something new and improve your understanding.” In London, she’ll be singing with a cast she knows well — Marcelo Álvarez, Marianne Cornetti, Marco Vratogna, Giacomo Prestia, Robert Lloyd and the conductor Nicola Luisotti. “The atmosphere is good”, she says, “It’s a “nuovo impresa”, a bold new venture.

Micaela Carosi sings Aida in a new production at the Royal Opera House London from 27th April 2010.

Anne Ozorio

image=http://www.operatoday.com/michaela%20carosi.png image_description=Micaela Carosi [Photo courtesy of the artist]

product=yes producttitle=Micaela Carosi sings Aida in a new production at the Royal Opera House, London productby=An interview by Anne Ozorio product_id=Above: Micaela Carosi [Photo courtesy of the artist]

Posted by anne_o at 9:15 AM

April 20, 2010

The Fairy Queen at the Wigmore Hall

By Hilary Finch [Times Online, 21 April 2010]

Conductors who flew in on the day were well and truly trapped under Iceland’s mighty plume of volcanic ash; but throughout London the show somehow went on. Purcell’s The Fairy Queen lost one harpsichord and a baton at Wigmore Hall; but I wonder if the presence of Matthew Halls would have been enough to galvanise this pallid performance from the Retrospect Ensemble in association with the Israeli Barrocade Ensemble.

Posted by Gary at 11:59 PM

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk on Blu-Ray

(and reviewed at Opera Today) has also been issued in Blu-ray, and this technology enhances further the production values of this particular recording. Visually the Blu-ray video is superior to the DVD release with regard to the refinement of the images and the clarity of presentation. The sharp definition allows the performers to appear immediate and accessible. Without exaggerating any details, the realistic images also reinforce the sense of immediacy, which is already present in the DVD version of this production.

At times, however, the blue-cast of the sets in the first act seems more pronounced in this medium, and this seems to color the resulting images in an unintended manner. At the same time, that blue-cast makes the flesh tones of the actors more prominent, an element which is essential to the gritty, realistic production that has some provocative displays of various sexual interaction. As a filmed opera, some aspects of the staging appear also seem more pronounced in the Blu-ray disc, as with the use of the flashlight later in the act. This detail may not emerge as clearly in the theater, where this effect depends on the distance and elevation from the stage. Here the blurring light of the flashlight has a welcome prominence in drawing the viewer’s attention to the scene. Overall the already fine visual presentation that is available on the DVD is heightened in Blu-ray, as is the sound, which is qualitatively clearer. The fine performance is transmitted with a sense of immediacy that is not always possible with opera videos.

More importantly the sound on the Blu-ray version is more details and clearer than on DVD. Granted, the sound levels on the DVD are excellent, some aspects of the performance emerge with greater clarity on the Blu-ray version of this video. The orchestra has a fine presence, with the dynamic levels nicely distinguished in this recording. At times the sound conveys the sense of a studio recording, an aspect of the release which also commends itself to those interested in an effective recording. Yet this sense of clarity also allows the voices to be heard more precisely, thus reinforcing the sense of immediacy that is part of the visual presentation in this medium. The sound quality is fine throughout the Blu-ray recording, but particularly effective in the final scene in the fourth act (disc 2, tracks 8-17), as the score buildings to its powerful conclusion. This is a part of the opera in which the visual and sonic details are only enhanced through this level of refinement.

The Blu-ray release contains the same supporting materials as the DVD version of this opera. The documentary by Reiner E. Moritz “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk: The Tragedy of Katerina Ismailova”, was already part of the DVD version, and it is included on the Blu-ray release. In fact, all the features of the original recording are found here, and given the qualitative differences in the sonic and visual levels, this version of the video is preferable for those who want to experience the opera almost as if they were in the audience for the production itself.

James L. Zychowicz

For this recording on standard DVD:

image=http://www.operatoday.com/OpusArteOABD7031D.gif image_description= product=yes product_title=Dmitri Shostakovich: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk product_by=Katerina Lvovna Ismailova: Eva-Maria Westbroek; Sergey: Christopher Ventris; Aksinya: Carole Wilson; Boris Timofeyevich Ismailov: Vladimir Vaneev; Sonyetka: Lani Poulson; Zinovy Borisovich Ismailov: Ludovít Ludha; Shabby Peasant: Alexandre Kravets. Netherlands Opera Chorus. Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Marss Jansons, conductor. Martin Kušej, stage director. Recorded live at the Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam in June 2006. product_id=Opus Arte OABD7031D [2 Blu-Ray DVDs] price=$49.99 product_url=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B0025XW96I
Posted by Gary at 4:49 PM

Leah Crocetto's Schwabacher debut recital on Sunday with stage presence big and small

By Cindy Warner [SF Opera Examiner, 20 April 2010]

Leah Crocetto, wry, affectionate, tender, warm, reverent and robust, sleek and full of stage presence with an air of earthy New York sophistication, gave her first recital at age thirty Sunday night at Temple Emanu-El’s Martin Meyer Sanctuary in Pacific Heights. The soprano is an award-winning Adler Fellow with San Francisco Opera. Was I the only one getting goose bumps and holding back tears at the end? Everybody else seemed elated and talkative, emerging into courtyard and the Pacific Heights dusk after witnessing history in the making.

Posted by Gary at 4:03 PM

Andreas Scholl, Barbican, London

By Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 20 April 2010]

Even in the 15th century, there were inveterate travellers. Oswald von Wolkenstein (c1376-1445) spent much of his early life exploring the furthest corners of Europe and beyond, from Spain to Tartary, Lithuania to the Holy Land - though his writings leave no mention of travel delays owing to medieval volcanic eruptions.

Posted by Gary at 3:13 PM

Aaron Copland's score for The City

Raised in New York City, Copland gained his greatest successes with scores that extol a rural, bucolic vision of American life. Appalachian Spring, Rodeo, Billy the Kid — compositions that present an idealized, perhaps even sentimentalized portrayal of a boisterous, green America, while containing enough musical sophistication and imagination to remain perpetually fresh. One of the composer’s early forays into film composition came when he was asked to score a 45 minute documentary called The City, which is in effect an advertisement for Lewis Mumford’s planned community, Greenbelt. Before the filmmakers (Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke) turn their film over to a rapturous hymn to Greenbelt, they set the stage by contrasting the virtues of country living with the veritable hell of city life, circa 1939 — the very city life that produced Aaron Copland.

The booklet essay by Joseph Horowitz calls this disc a sequel to the Naxos DVD containing The River and The Plow that Broke the Plains, two short documentaries for which Virgil Thomson composed the scores. As that disc did, this one contains a fresh, high-quality audio performance of the score by Angel Gil-Ordóñez conducting the Post-Classical Ensemble, along with the original performance (in clear but flat mono) by a studio orchestra. Copland composed episodes, not just the typical brief cues of most film soundtracks, with the film’s portentous narrative interspersed. It’s high-quality film music — entertaining and yet not overwhelming the film’s objective. A sequence of 1939 traffic jams gets a strangely jaunty theme, as if city boy Copland found something fun in the sight of these city dwellers desperate to escape on a weekend to some beach or picnic refuge. In fact, the most interesting music underlies all the city sequences, which the filmmakers work anxiously to make as repulsive as possible. The soft core religiosity of the Greenbelt section may make some listeners sleepy.

Inevitably The City brings to mind the film Koyaaniqatsi, only with better music (sorry, Philip Glass fans). The City also claims that modern city life dehumanizes us, while the “old ways,” recreated in Greenbelt, will restore human life to a paradise lost. The narration ranges from the didactic to preachy, with dips into the bizarre: “A little gossip or a friendly hand is good for the complexion.” A bonus feature has interviews with adults who grew up in Greenbelt as children, and they speak honestly about both the beauty of the experience and the reasons why Greenbelt never became more than an experiment. A sleepy but insightful interview, the other bonus feature, also offers pointed commentary on Greenbelt’s ultimate failure to truly be a workable alternative to the urban/suburban sprawl just getting underway in 1939.

A fascinating disc, and highly recommended.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Naxos2.110231.gif image_description=Aaron Copland: The City

product=yes producttitle=Aaron Copland: The City productby=Francis Guinan, narrator. Post-Classical Ensemble. Angel Gil-Ordóñez, conductor. productid=Naxos 2.110231 [DVD] price=$17.99 producturl=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B001LKLKKW

Posted by chris_m at 1:05 PM

Osmo Tapio Räihälä: An interview by Tom Moore

This was an epistolary interview via email.

TM: What was the musical environment when you were growing up? Did your parents or close relatives play music, as amateurs or professional?

OTR: I come from a very middle class family. My mum comes from Kaustinen in Finland. That doesn’t usually say a lot to people, but to people in the folk music circles worldwide it’s almost the same as what Haight-Ashbury is to hippies... However, in my mum’s close family there weren’t any professional or semi-professional musicians. My grandpa from my dad’s side was an active accordionist, who gigged a lot as a folk dance musician. But that all belongs to the past of long ago.

I was raised in a family where my mother listened to to classical music from records and from the radio. When I was seven, my parents sent me to piano lessons... and I hated it. I stopped as soon as possible! However, I couldn’t avoid hearing my mum listening to Mozart, Brahms, Sibelius etc. We lived in the countryside in Northern Finland, where I would never hear classical music live. I think I must have been in my teens (something like 15-16) when I first heard classical music live.

When I was 15 I got myself a guitar, and started a punk band. I was a rock musician for a few years (I was a singer; we played first punk, then heavy rock), and in my late teens I discovered jazz. I got interested in Bird and Trane, started playing a saxophone, and within a year or two in my early twenties, I first noticed that all those things that I was longing for in (progressive) rock music had existed for almost 100 years in classical music... when I heard The Rite of Spring.

Well, that’s the very obvious story, which I share with a million others. But I can’t help it. Thanks, Igor Fedorovich!

Having written my rock-group’s music, it was very natural to start thinking about writing art music. For a while I dreamed about a career as an opera singer, but I soon realized that only writing music myself would soothe my thirst for working in music.

TM: Where did you live in northern Finland? Was it a small town, or medium-size?

OTR: I lived in Suomussalmi, which is a large municipality in North-East Finland. The town where I lived in was called Ämmänsaari, which is a center for the municipality, with some 6-7 thousand inhabitants. Suomussalmi had something like 13 thousand inhabitants. The place is famous for the big battles that were fought there during the Finnish Winter War in 1939-40, especially the Battle of Raate, which practically stopped the Russian offensive.

TM: How long had the family been there? was your grandfather the musician from the same town?

OTR: My parents moved there in 1960, and I was born in 64. I had three elder sisters, and later had a little sister and a brother. My grandparents lived in western Finland, some 200 miles from our hometown.

TM: What was it that prompted you to start playing punk? What was the rock scene there like?

OTR: I didn’t get classical training. Suomussalmi wasn’t, and still isn’t, a hotbed of classical music. Starting a rock band was the natural thing to do if you wanted to play music. And being in a rock band is great when you’re a teenager.

Punk rock was something that just hit the right note with my generation in the late 70’s. The rock scene wasn’t very big, but there were a few bands and we were active locally. My band even released one self-published single, which has now become a punk collectors’ gem worldwide.

TM: Did your town also have active folk musicians? the group Värttinä and others had some international success... were they known in Finland?

OTR: Folk music wasn’t “the thing” in Suomussalmi. Groups like Värttinä appeared much later. The folk music boom started in the 90’s.

TM: How did you discover jazz? what did you listen to initially?

OTR: A fellow rock musician showed me Ross Russell’s “Bird Lives” and raved about bebop. I just got interested and started listening to Parker, Gillespie etc., and soon found cool, free, hard bop and so on. John Coltrane became a big favorite to me, and I still enjoy his music very much, as well as the fusion of the seventies, like Mahavishnu, Weather Report, Return to Forever, Al Di Meola et al. However, nowadays the best new jazz comes from Scandinavia and Finland, although few Americans know that.

TM: I would certainly agree with you that American jazz has been decadent in terms of innovation for decades now, as American pop has been, for that matter.

What was the path you took from punk-rocker and jazz saxophonist to classical composition? Where did you study? Who did you study with? Were there models which you wanted to emulate in terms of composition? What were you listening to after “Rite of Spring”?

OTR: Classical music was always there. My mum listened to classical from the radio and from records, and my older sister studied the piano very keenly until she quit when aged around 20. I “knew” composers by names; I had always been interested in them.

I got myself a tenor sax when I was nineteen or so, but it was too late to learn it properly. I graduated from the local high school in 1985, and moved with my girlfriend to Stockholm, Sweden. I became very interested in opera, and for a while I dreamed of becoming an opera singer. I lived three years in Stockholm, listened only to classical music, mainly romantic and early 20th century. I knew a fellow Finn, who had been studying in the university, and took theory lessons from him. I played the piano, studied counterpoint, harmony and all that typical stuff.

In 1987 I started at the University of Turku (Finland), majoring in musicology. There studying music theory, history etc. became more systematic. While living in Stockholm, I realized that I would never (want to) be a performing musician — that wasn’t my path. Rather, I wanted to write music myself. And once back in Finland and in university, I dived deep into modern music. My professor was himself a noted composer, and a scholar of contemporary music. At that point I still just wrote stuff myself, but didn’t actually study composing.

TM: What was the musical scene like at the University in Turku? In the city generally? Who was your professor? What was his pedagogical approach to composition and music history? When did you start to study composition? With whom?

OTR: Turku was a city with some 170,000 inhabitants, and as the former capital of Finland, there is a lively music scene, with a local philharmonic orchestra, conservatory and a few chamber ensembles. The local orchestra is a direct heir to the orchestra that was founded in 1790 — at a time, when Mozart was still alive. That orchestra also played Haydn’s symphonies already during the composer’s lifetime.

The faculty of musicology was (and is) very small, with only handful of new students enrolling every year. On the other hand, there is a Swedish speaking university in Turku as well, and the two faculties of musicology co-operate a lot.

The professor was Mr. Mikko Heiniö, who is a well known composer and a musicologist. At my time there, he was still in his most hectic period studying contemporary Finnish music, which was my main interest as well. We had guest lecturers every now and then, even from places like Paris (Ivanka Stoianova) or Berlin (Witted Szalonek) etc., but mostly the scene wasn’t very big.

I got my first public performances among the music student circles, but the music I wrote at that time was clumsy, since I was “blind”, and just finding my staggering feet. However, I think I was quite active, and around that time the biggest local newspaper asked me to start writing critics, reviews and previews of concert life. I did that for a couple of years there, until I moved to Helsinki in late 1991.

I organized a concert of my early works, and the manager of the Turku Philharmonic happened to hear it. Although my music was very badly written and rough, he commissioned a piece for string orchestra from me. It was premiered in ‘91, and the reception was ok, although I didn’t feel that I had achieved what I had wanted with the work.

Mr. Heiniö didn’t take any composition pupils, and my first and only composition teacher was Mr. Harri Vuori, who was/is a lecturer at the Helsinki University’s faculty of musicology. I continued my studies in Helsinki, and wrote reviews for Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest daily in Scandinavia for a year, until ‘92. Since then I haven’t worked as a critic — it is very hard, when you try to stand on both sides of the barricade, so to say.

I studied only two years with Mr. Vuori. The method was very practical: I wrote music, then he read it, asked questions, pointed at details and larger lines, and taught me generally “how to work as a composer”. Despite my many and lengthy discussions with him, I still consider myself mostly an self-taught composer, because most of the things that I’ve learned I’ve snapped up myself from reading scores, listening to music, talking to musicians etc.

TM: How would you describe your style in your works from the early nineties?

OTR: Hmmm.... Maybe “trying to find my feet” is still a good description of my early style. I admired modern composers, and wanted to become one. On the other hand, I knew that some of the craziest things and experiments in music had already been done

during the 60’s, and that it would be almost impossible to find something that had been unheard of previously.

TM: Are they still in your catalog? What work would you describe as your “opus one”, and why?

OTR: I don’t consider any work as opus 1, but the earliest works that have survived in my list of works are Five Characters for solo flute (1993) and Sarment for harp, marimba and vibraphone (1993), both of which have been performed quite recently, and maybe also the short orchestral piece Hinchcliffe Thumper — tha’ Bloody Intermezzo (1993). From there on, I think the next few works that are still somewhat worthwhile are from 96/97, so obviously 1993 was a good and productive year for me.

Hinchcliffe Thumper was my first piece for a symphony orchestra, and hearing it in the Ung Nordisk Musik (Young Nordic Music) festival in Malmö, Sweden, in 1994 was a big eye-opener for me. It is always terribly exciting to hear one’s own works for the first time played by living musicians, no matter how well notation programs like Sibelius playback nowadays. There are always surprises, pleasant and unpleasant...

TM: I note that the first string quartet in your list of works is no. 2. Was no. 1 withdrawn?

OTR: Well, not definitely. For years I’ve been a bit unsure whether I should revise the first in some way, but haven’t done so, because the music I wrote feels a bit out-dated.

TM: No. 2 is dedicated to Antonio Carlos Jobim, but such works must be rare. What is the story behind the string quartet? Did you visit Brazil? Or is there a friend of yours who did? I find it fascinating that a Finnish string quartet is dedicated to a giant of Brazilian popular music as is your no. 2 (Jobimao). I know of an as yet unpublished and unperformed piano concerto by a Brazilian composer also.

OTR: No, I just liked Jobim’s music a lot, and at some point got an idea that I should write a work in his style just to prove myself I could do it. If you listen to the 2nd string quartet at http://www.myspace.com/otraihala, you’ll notice that the first 5-6 minutes of the quartet sound like contemporary art music, and the final third is a straight bossa nova, but the material of the more modern sounding part of the piece is taken directly from the latter part and its melodies.

The quartet was once performed at the President’s Castle, where the president of Republic of Finland had her annual dinner with all of the foreign ambassadors who are based in Finland. I was present, although not among the dining guests, and the Brazilian ambassador sought me out to shake my hand! He was so thrilled that someone from Finland was honoring the music of his countryman.

TM: A question about compositional technique/practice. Composers often can be divided between two groups: those who have an “architectural” approach, designing the large scale scheme, and then filling the details, and those who have a more organic, or narrative approach, inventing the details, and then seeing what sort of larger schema those details grown into. How would you describe your approach?

OTR: Definitely “organic”. I have only ever written one work (a trio for clarinet, horn & violin titled “Spinoza’s Web”), where I made a strict structure first, and then filled in the “slots”. To me it’s natural to let the work flow relatively freely and act as a midwife, as Einojuhani Rautavaara put it. However, I want to control the overall structure, but not to forge it.

TM: Please talk a little about Rock Painting;. How do you combine the improvisatory sections with the composed portions? How much direction do you give to the players regarding the improvisations?

OTR: Well, “Rock Painting” was a big thing to me, when I wrote it in 2003, because that was the first piece where I openly wanted to integrate rock music into my own music.

Stravinsky is obviously a very important composer to me, especially his earlier output. As much as I admire Messiaen’s instrumentation, his way of thinking about music is too “religious” to me. It seems to me that all his music is more or less sacred, and I, on the contrary, don’t think there are any sacred things in life, and most certainly not in my music.

The first four or so minutes of the work are just creating a volatile soundscape, and when the 7/8 rock section starts, it is like, “what the hell is this”...I don’t really give any direction to the soloists for the improvised sections, other than that they can hear the supporting music played by others in the chamber orchestra, and can adjust their solos accordingly. Everything else is written in the score except the solos. In the recording you can hear the viola player has listened a lot to metal, and the flutist surely knows his Jethro Tull... the clarinet player played a solo that was a bit more jazzy, which suited me fine, since it was good to not have direct rock solos by all three players.

TM: Please talk about your work with Uusinta.

OTR: In fact I’m the original founder of the ensemble. In July 98, I dreamed at night that I said to a colleague of mine: “This can’t go on. We must form a band!” When I woke up, I called the viola player / composer Max Savikangas and said these words to him. He thought about it for a nanosecond (I think) and answered: “Yeah, let’s do that.”

In the beginning we called first and foremost composers who were performing musicians as well, but it very soon appeared that the interest from outside the composer circles was so big, that we by and by dropped the idea of an ensemble consisting of composers only. I was the manager of this ensemble until I started at my current position (producer for classical music and jazz for the Finnish National TV (YLE)) in 2005. Since then I have collaborated with the ensemble but from the “outside”. In 2000, Uusinta was made into a limited company, and we broadened our actions to music publishing and some record releases.

The Finnish word “uusinta” is a homonym, meaning “the newest” and “a re-run”. The idea behind the band was to premier new works and give these same works a second (3rd, 4th etc.) performance. It is not difficult to get a first performance, but already the second is very hard to get.

Uusinta has premiered and re-performed a few of my works, but it has not been my own “tool”. There are about dozen active members. I met my second wife, the violinist Maria Puusaari through working with Uusinta. Up to this date, Uusinta has premiered more than 100 works and played over 100 concerts in six countries, and published over 100 works.

I have to say that when I think about a new chamber work, I think first about whether Uusinta might perform it, although I try to think broader, and not intentionally restrict anything to suit only Uusinta.

TM: Would you like to talk about your recent orchestral works? Do you know of other orchestral pieces dedicated to football (or as the Americans call it, soccer?)

OTR: Sure. Although I don’t think other orchestral works than “The Iron Rain” (2008) are very recent... as for example Barlinnie Nine was written in 1999 and slightly re-worked in 2005 and Ardbeg in 2003. Most certainly there aren’t a plenty of contemporary music works inspired by soccer, although there are some, as can be read from this Guardian article (might be familiar to you already):


Strictly speaking, Barlinnie Nine isn’t inspired by soccer, but rather Duncan Ferguson the man himself. I don’t know Ferguson personally, but as I was a devoted fan of Everton FC, I proverbially spent many years with him. A person with a fantastic talent, that never fulfilled his promise, a hard man on the pitch with no comparison, who breeds pigeons, spends some time incarcerated for his troubles, yet all his fellow pros say he’s the nicest colleague you can wish to have... and a cult figure among the punters. One should be aware of the amazing scene that is English soccer world since the 1880’s to really understand why/how can a composer of so called contemporary art music get inspired to write a tribute to a soccer player...

Barlinnie Nine is a chain of stop-starts, an apotheosis of under-achieving.

Well, what could I say about The Iron Rain? It is like a picture, or a play, that “opens up” slowly. To me, music is part of visual arts. I “see” music as pictures, lights, shadows, points, lines etc. Iron Rain is like a picture that you may see at one glance, but when have a closer look, a lot of details appear; in some way it is like a Kandinsky painting. Of course the thing that a listener will remember of it afterwards is the string players quietly humming a vocalise in the closing bars.

“Ardbeg — the Ultimate Piece for Orchestra” — unfortunately I don’t have a recording of it, although making one with the Finnish RSO has been on cards for some time now. This 17-minutes work was written as an homage to the tiny Scottish island of Islay in the Inner Hebrides, where they make the best single malt whiskies in the world, its people, the sheep, and of course that one special malt called Ardbeg. I’ve visited Islay and its distilleries twice just because I’m a huge single malt fan. Ardbeg (the orchestral work, not the malt) is maybe the most easy-to-approach of my recent orchestral works. I wish I could get it performed in Scotland by a Scottish orchestra!

TM: Do you have plans to explore areas and genres that are new to you? What are some current and upcoming projects?

OTR: I’ve eschewed vocal music for a long time. Only recently I finished a six-minutes piece for a chamber choir (SATB, will be premiered next October by the Helsinki Chamber Choir), and within a short time I intend to write a semi-operatic work for a female solo voice and two accompanying instruments, and furthermore, later this year I’ll write a libretto for a chamber opera comprising short stories, to be composed in 2011. ATM I think it will be a series of absurd sketches in style of Monty Python…

In fact there’s a myriad of ideas teeming in my head all the time... I get approximately two or three divine ideas every week, and about every tenth of them materialize at some point. But that’s typical artist life, I guess.

TM: Any advice to young composers who are just starting out?

OTR: Dear me, what a terrible question. Well, if a young person wants to become a dull and predictable composer, then my advice is to follow all the famous names and try to emulate all what they’ve done... And that suits me, as a composer’s path is a constant competition with everybody else, even with your best friends...

My advice for a young composer, and for myself, would be: do whatever you feel is your honest call. That’s so bloody obvious, but I can’t help it. I think what is the difference between myself and most of my colleagues is, that I dare to say aloud that my music is some kind of prog. Not prog rock, but my ethos is that all good music is progressive and vice versa. I think most contemporary composers would be scared to admit that they’ve ever learned anything from jazz or rock, and yet I think amalgamating everything good is simply crucial (as long as it comes from yourself!). Along the lines of Gertrude Stein: “Good music is good music is good music”, never mind if it’s bossa nova, punk rock or Stockhausen.

TM: But haven’t we entered the ‘post-modern’ age, where nothing is new and everything is recycled? Is it still possible to progress, to move forward?

OTR: Of course we live in post-modern times now, and my conviction has been for a long time that it’s impossible to find anything completely new in art music, because since we have taken on board all kinds of unpitched/synthetic/whatever noises, nothing we write sounds completely new. We have to play with the toys we’ve got now — or re-define the meaning of music.

With “prog” I don’t mean exploring new sounds for the sake of it, but rather the ethos — that a constant change is needed, even if the steps of change are small. On the other hand, when a colleague writes a post-serialist work (which is still quite commonplace in Finland) or otherwise terribly ugly music (which is a norm in Central Europe, probably because of the unbearable weight of classical tradition in German-speaking world), it is in no way progressive, but rather regressive.

At the moment Carlo Gesualdo sounds more modern than 90% of the living “modernists”.

TM: I couldn’t agree more. Gesualdo is one of those figures who is outside time. Final thoughts?

OTR: Well, I don’t have any special declarations.

Tomorrow I will be moderating a seminar about music journalism at the Tampere Biennale contemporary music festival, and I have just realized that what you are doing right now is a most representative form of music journalism. The title of the seminar is “Music journalism — an impossibility?”, and one of the topics is, whether music journalism is possible, because everything extra-musical is also considered as music journalism. Another typical sign of times is that this interview will be online.

As a composer, I am an artist who believes that a piece of art is the reason and the consequence of itself, a piece of art has a self-value. I also believe, that “true” art is possible only if the artist (composer) MUST make the work into what it becomes; I believe a good piece of art (composition) is done “inconsciously”. If a composer models his/her work on some specific style, the composer doesn’t create new art. This leads to the notion that a new piece of art can be made from almost any materials or inspirations whatsoever, which I admit is a post-modern way of seeing things.

As a composer, I see myself as a progressive musician. Not that my music would sound like prog rock (that’s not my aim), but in the way classic prog could make a piece of art out of anything. And to me, Gesualdo is the most modern composer, and Stravinsky is the prog musician number one.

-An interview by Tom Moore

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Raihala.gif image_description=Osmo Tapio Räihälä product=yes product_title=Osmo Tapio Räihälä: An Interview by Tom Moore product_by=Above: Osmo Tapio Räihälä product_id=
Posted by tom_m at 8:11 AM

April 19, 2010

Christoph Prégardien, London

In the programme notes, Christoph Prégardien calls for a more realistic and trusting attitude towards death: “Today death has been pushed out of our life almost completely … this is the reason we have compiled our programme: so that people become a little more aware that death is always in our midst. That we cannot ignore it, but have to accept it.” If one feared that this programme — comprising a striking variety of styles and attitudes — ranging from the baroque certainties of Bach to the dark dreaming of the Romantics, from the hinteryears’ resignation of Brahms and Mahler to the existential Gothic terrors of Loewe and Weber — would be a melancholy and bleak affair, such concerns were allayed by Prégardien and his pianist, Michael Gees, for their commitment, consistency and composure throughout this recital was in itself consoling and reassuring. Through this meticulously constructed sequence of lyric songs, narrative ballads and operatic melodramas which ensued, the performers (who have spent two years selecting the songs which best portray man’s ‘quest for the infinite’) offered a unified and supremely controlled exploration of contrasting psychologies, situations and dramas of human existence.

Prégardien immediately established a mood of confident certainty in Bach’s aforementioned aria; his total control of line and nuance, complemented by a warm, secure tone, perfectly conveying the unshakeable convictions of the baroque age. The veiled quality of the second verse, delicately ornamented by the piano, suggested the composer’s awe and love in the face of the majesty of heaven; indeed, one of Prégardien’s most absorbing qualities is the gentle warmth of his pianissimo utterances — in particular, his tender but tangible mezza voce—which never stray into affectation or whimsy.

The Romantics had a very different relationship with death: and following such certainty of salvation came spiritual transcendence, in the form of Mahler’s ‘Urlicht’ (‘Primordial Light’) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and symbolised by the quiet clarity of Prégardien’s pianissimo floating octave arcs which suggest the desire for heavenly rest, where God ‘will light my way to eternal blessed life’.

For the wanderers who populate the songs of Schumann and Schubert, death is often not a welcome meeting with one’s God, but rather a blessed release from the unrequited torments of earthly love. Schubert’s ‘Schwanengesang’ (‘Swan Song’) allowed us to appreciate the rich baritonal range of Prégardien’s voice, while ‘Auflösung’ (‘Dissolution’) offered Gees the opportunity to explore turbulent realms in disturbing, deep arpeggio sweeps, underpinning the earnest colourings in the vocal line with which the tenor emphasised the ‘fires of rapture’ and bitter disappointment of the protagonist. ‘Stirb, Lieb’ und Freud’!’ (‘Die, love and joy!’) by Robert Schumann, tells of a young man’s anguish as his loved one chooses the hand of Christ over his own mortal hand; here Prégardien and Gees impressively inhabited the speaker’s spirit: the flowing regularity of the accompaniment disrupted by surprising modulations; the destruction of dreams conveyed by poignant contrasts between upper and lower registers; rubatos and syncopations revealing the painful yearning and despair of the speaker.

In contrast, Brahms’s ‘Feldeinsamkeit’ (‘Alone in the Fields’) presents a more soothing acceptance of human mortality. However, the same composer’s’ ‘Wie rafft ich mich auf in der Nacht’ (‘How I leapt up in the night’) reminds us that such tranquillity is the preserve of those who are unburdened by guilt — and here the piano and voice were true partners in the drama, for although Prégardien tenderly reassured us with a vision of the white clouds serenely passing across the ‘deep blue, like lovely silent dreams’ (‘Durchs tiefe Blau, wie schöne stille Träume’), Gees’s between-verse paraphrases powerfully conveyed the torment of the troubled soul. The enlarged dramatic canvas in this song initiated a passionate sequence which closed the first half, in which the sheer terror and ‘nothingness’ present in Loewe’s ‘Edward’ and Max’s recitative and aria from Weber’s Der Freischütz, which followed on without a breath, brutally swept aside the certitudes of salvation with which we had begun. Gees relished the challenge of capturing the orchestral sound-scape, producing a kaleidoscope of textures and timbres; and while Prégardien powerfully conveyed the tense anger of the protagonists, the more focused context, and his own intense concentrated delivery, prevented these Gothic dramas from straying into melodrama or bombast.

In the second half of the recital the figure of Death itself stepped onto the stage, summoned perhaps by the piano’s tolling invitation in the introduction to Hugo Wolf’s ‘Denk es, I Seele!’ (‘O soul, remember!). At first, all was calm and reassuring; Gees describes Wolf’s setting of Goethe, ‘Anakreon’s Grab’ (‘Anacreon’s Grave’) as ‘the heavy made light, in the simplicity of a serenade’ — and indeed, his gentle piano postlude echoed the touching sweetness of Prégardien’s evocation of the ‘turtle-dove calls, where the cricket rejoices’. Similarly, in ‘Der Jüngling under der Tod’ (‘The youth and death’) and ‘Das Tod und das Mädchen’ (‘Death and the Maiden’), Schubert envisages Death as an authoritative but gentle presence; but here the deep baritonal monotone of Prégardien’s enticement, ‘Give me your hand, you lovely, tender creature’’ inferred the ominous gravity of the invitation, and perhaps suggested the repressed violence which was abruptly released in Loewe’s ‘Erlkönig’ (‘The Erlking’). In Loewe’s dark, disturbing song, the performers enacted a truly Gothic visitation by a malevolent force which snatches life from its powerless victim: the final lines, describing the swift homeward journey of a bereaved father, his child ‘dead in his arms’, were simultaneously emotively nuanced in detail and chillingly dispassionate in stance.

Another dramatic triptych closed the second half. An impassioned rendering of Lensky’s aria from Eugene Onegin was followed by Schubert’s ‘Kreiger’s Ahnung’ (‘Warrior’s foreboding’). The emotional tension of the latter was poignantly revealed: for while the dead warrior yearns for the imagined comfort of his lover’s arms—his earnest conviction ably conveyed by the deep resonances of Prégardien’s lower range — Gees, hesitantly manipulating the cadences, tellingly emphasising the final ponderous rhythms, intimated the ambiguity which underlies the apparent certitudes of the text’s conclusion. It was Mahler who was allotted the final word: ‘Revelge’ (‘Reveille’) from Des Knaben Wunderhorn presents a desperate charge to an end which brings no redemption, transcendence or consolation — in the words of Gees, ‘This is real death, when no one recognises you any more’.

Twenty-two visions of death might seem a dispiriting and emotionally exhausting concept. But the masterful control of pace and mood, colour and nuance exhibited here by Prégardien and Gees, made this an evening to rejoice in human creativity and artistry, not to despair at its transience.

Claire Seymour

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Christoph_Pregardien2.gif image_description=Christoph Prégardien product=yes product_title=Between Life and Death: Songs and Arias product_by=Christoph Prégardien, tenor; Michael Gees, piano. Wigmore Hall, London. Friday 16 April, 2010. product_id=Above: Christoph Prégardien
Posted by Gary at 12:52 PM

Tosca at Torre del Lago, 2007

Thus, this recording of Tosca at the 2007 Puccini festival in Torre del Lago opens with a travelogue sequence, with beautiful shots of the lake and then film of the handsomely attired audience arriving for the show. The actual staging may not be to the taste of every potential opera tourist, but the ecstatic response of the live audience, as recorded, suggests that a good time is there for the having.

Igor Mitoraj’s sets aren’t much more than a few short pedestals and a canopy bed oddly situated in Scarpia’s office, all lain out in front of what appears to be an open backstage, clothed in darkness. As is typical in these minimalist set stagings, the costumes (also by Mitoraj) offer more visual interest, if not originality. Some may wonder why in act two, Tosca’s gown for the cantata features a red serpent pinned to her breast. These same wondering folk may ask why Scarpia’s henchmen are already on stage as the opera opens, ambling away casually as Angelotti, supposedly breathless, stands stock still. An opera as popular as Tosca leads directors to search out fresh approaches, but director Mario Corradi’s ideas mostly smack of desperation. He does manage a fairly nice twist with “Vissi d’arte,” however, with Scarpia leading Tosca onto his bed, from where she sings her prayer while he lounges next to her, patiently awaiting his sensual reward.

Antonia Ciffrone has all the physical attributes of a great Tosca - a wild mane of black hair, beauty and sensuality, a passion veering into the hysterical. The voice, while nothing special, manages the role’s challenges without too much stress. Even better is Stefano Secco as Cavaradossi. Handsomer men have taken the role, but Secco sounds like a major tenor here, keeping a lyric line and yet able to muster the power for the more violent passages. Scarpias often steal the show, but not here, with Giorgio Surian bellowing and warbling, while offering nothing new to the usual portrayal of the sadistic lecher.

The Festival Puccini orchestra, surprisingly, sounds tentative at times under Valerio Galli’s baton, especially the slightly sickly winds. They seem to be a smaller force as well, under-powered at key moments. The audio is clear and clean but with a flat perspective that suggests either amplification or the most perfectly placed microphones imaginable.

The market does not lack for greater versions of this Puccini masterpiece, but for those who love this opera, this DVD will still prove of some entertainment value.

Chris Mullins

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Dynamic33569.gif image_description=Dynamic DVD 33569

product=yes producttitle=Giacomo Puccini: Tosca productby=Floria Tosca: Antonia Cifrone; Mario Cavaradossi: Stefano Secco; Il barone Scarpia: Giorgio Surian; Cesare Angelotti: Riccardo Ferrari; Spoletta: Massimo La Guardia; Il Sagrestano: Franco Boscolo; Sciarone: Fernado Ciuffo. Orchestra and Chorus of Festival Puccini. Conductor: Valerio Galli. Director: Mario Corradi. Festival Puccini, Torre del Lago, 2007. productid=Dynamic 33569 [2DVDs] price=$39.49 producturl=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B002806TYG

Posted by chris_m at 11:38 AM

Mark Morris Dance Group: L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato

What fitter words to describe Mark Morris’s L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed Il Moderato which, 22 years since it first amazed audiences at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, still has the power to incite wonder, astonishment and joy.

Handel’s pastoral ode is a musical reflection upon Milton’s philosophical meditations on the gregarious, the introspective and the balanced modes of living. His librettist, Charles Jennens, (best known as the librettist of The Messiah), selected and assembled Milton’s poems sequentially, and added the text for Il Moderato; Morris re-arranges once again, moving continually but naturally between contrasting states, the frolicking lightness of L’Allegro tempered by the brooding melancholy and pensiveness of Il Penseroso; and he adds two movements from Handel’s Concerto Grosso Op.6 No.1 to serve as an overture.

Music’s power to express emotional states, or affekts, and to produce ethical responses in the listener, was an essential thesis of the seventeenth-century artistic and spiritual imagination, and one which continued to be upheld by eighteenth-century composers of opera seria. Here, Morris seems almost literally to lift the notes from the page as his dancers physically embody the rhythms, textures and figures of the musical score; his forms present a stunning visualisation of the way music can initiate or allay particular passions and sentiments. And, in so doing, Morris reveals his own, oft-remarked, innate musicality and, more especially, a profound appreciation of the architecture and ethos of baroque musical forms. Rigorous, mathematical choreographic structures are interlaced with ornamented mannerisms and deviant whirls; gestural cliché sits happily alongside surprising idiosyncrasy.

Morris is ably supported by his designers. The warm lighting (James F. Ingalls) effortlessly matches the modulations from light to shade, from clarity to opacity, of Morris’s sequence; it is complemented by Adrianne Lobel’s simple but purposeful conception of the literal and philosophical spaces suggested by text and score - the dancing arena now foreshortened, now extended, almost imperceptibly, by an airy array of descending drops and gauzes. Christine Van Loon’s costumes gladly conjure the pastoral simplicity of classical nymphs and shepherds, the muted pastels of ‘Part the First’ giving way to more vibrant tones in the latter half.

William Blake’s nineteenth-century illustrations of Milton’s poems are cited as a visual influence; but also evoked are the stained-glass windows of a gothic cathedral, panes of many and contrasting colours through which the light reverberates illuminating tales in rich tapestries — such windows as Milton himself described in Il Penseroso, ‘Storied panes richly dight’.

Mark Morris8_Shawn Gannon and Women from l'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. Photograph by Ken Friedman.png

Indeed, the intersection of the vertical and horizontal in Morris’s forms, and in Lobel’s shifting panels and flats, does suggest the meeting-point of heaven and earth, of spirit and flesh, as expressed in the perpendicular architecture of the seventeenth century. Most fittingly then, Morris combines narrative with abstraction for in so doing he combines qualities inherent in seventeenth-century verse, with its integration of the human and heavenly, with those of eighteenth-century music, with its preference for metrical regularity, abstract universality and conceptual clarity.

To focus overly on such weighty matters is, however, to overlook that in this collection of more than 30 dances, gravity is equalled and occasionally challenged by Morris’s trademark wit and irony. In an hilarious hunting scene, three leashed dogs pursue fleeing foxes, pausing momentarily to urinate under a tree; even in such wry fun there is beauty, as the changing landscape is simulated by dancers evoking gnarled branches which form and re-form almost imperceptibly before our eyes. Elsewhere seriousness is alleviated with irreverence, as Morris makes playful reference to the formal salutations and farewells of baroque custom and dance. Throughout there is effortless fluidity between change and stasis, speed and stillness.

The work comprises a rich assortment of solos and ensemble pieces, including a startlingly complicated ‘canon’ for three pairs of dancers — momentarily revealing the technical and choreographic complexity which underpins behind the deceptive simplicity of so much of Morris’s seemingly natural, ‘human’ movement. But ultimately this is a company piece, the group extended to 24 dancers; it is not surprising therefore that it is in the choral scenes where Morris’s invention and confidence is most powerfully evident. Most noteworthy are the final scenes in each Part: in the closing scene, to the celebratory accompaniment of vibrant trumpet fanfares, the 24 dancers form streams of colour, streaking and darting across the stage, conjuring startling pace, energy and joie de vivre — ‘These delights if thou canst give/ Mirth with thee I mean to live’.

Mark Morris9_ Dance Group perform L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. Photograph by Ken Friedman.2.png

The four singers, sopranos Sarah-Jane Brandon and Elizabeth Watts, tenor Mark Padmore and bass Andrew Foster-Williams, all projected the narrative superbly, blending convincingly with the stage drama, enhancing and receding as appropriate. Foster-Williams, in particular, delivered his airs with buoyancy and brightness. Jane Glover skilfully conducted the alert, energised members of the English National Opera Orchestra, bringing freshness and translucence to Handel’s score; the woodwind were especially impressive, exquisitely evoking the pastoral milieu, as when first a lark, and then a whole flock of birds, intricately twist and tumble in fantastic flight, their aspiring arcs symbolised by a scintillating soaring soprano. The New London Chorus were crisp and clear throughout.

The ‘imperfect, labouring’ bodies noted by Joan Acocella in her 1994 critical biography - and which once exemplified Morris’ preference for dancers who whose physicality captured the mortality and genuine ‘flesh-and-blood’ of the human form — were no longer so dominant, replaced by a sweet litheness of form and truly eloquent tenderness. Yet, Morris’s pastoral vision is not an ethereal or idealised landscape but an earthy dominion where the rich diversity of the human spirit is rejoiced. Capturing all the elements which have characterised Morris’s career — beauty and realism, levity and gravity, formal rigour and quirky invention — it remains utterly captivating and uplifting. It is, in the words of Milton himself, ‘linckèd sweetnes long drawn out. (L’Allegro)

Claire Seymour

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Mark%20Morris1_David%20Leventhal%20in%20L%27Allegro%2C%20il%20Penseroso%20ed%20il%20Moderato.Photo%20by%20Ken%20Friedman.png image_description=David Leventhal [Photo by Ken Friedman] product=yes product_title=Mark Morris Dance Group: L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato product_by=Soprano: Sarah-Jane Brandon. Soprano: Elizabeth Watts. Tenor: Mark Padmore. Bass: Andrew Foster-Williams. English National Opera Orchestra. New London Chamber Choir. Conductor: Jane Glover. Mark Morris: Choreographer. Adrianne Lobel: Set Designer. Christine Van Loon: Costumer Designer. James F. Ingalls: Lighting Designer. London Coliseum. Wednesday 14th April 2010. product_id=Above: David Leventhal

All photos by Ken Friedman
Posted by Gary at 10:24 AM

April 17, 2010

Why Can't a Girl Get a Head in Heidelberg?

For after the quivering soldier-as-executioner drops the axe in fright (at the moment the music tells us the head, not the axe, falls to the ground), a determined Herodias strides up to the kneeling prophet, switchblade in hand, and gruffly slits his throat with a spray of blood on the Plexiglas walls of the central cubicle-cum-wrestling-ring. That whole pesky “cistern” thing? Fuggedaboudit. Or anything remotely resembling the Oscar Wilde-Richard Strauss creation.

The entire design and directorial conceit seemed to hang upon a unit set which approximated, what, a circus ring? Amphitheatre? Upscale medical classroom? Downscale cruising bar? The performers sauntered on before the houselights dimmed and took their places remaining onstage until a) the opera ended, or b) they died, whichever came first. The semi-circle of steps and platforms also served as a wall on which Herodias relentlessly paced for what seemed like the first third of the piece, and frequently thereafter. Betchya didn’t know this was all about Herodias, now didja?

When Narraboth sings “wie schoen ist die Prinzessin Salome” we don’t really know who or where she is. We do see Lady H promenading prominently in the focal point looking oddly like Miss Manners, in a black, partially sequined gown that might be seen at a SoHo gallery opening. After praying that this (nonetheless handsomely mature) woman was not our heroine, all I could think was “wie alt is die Prinzessin Salome heute Nacht.” That fear was allayed — sort of — when we come to realize that indeed our young princess was someone else, and cozying up to daddy on a stair stage left. Our Salome looked like a Mall-rat, got up in black leg warmers, teal high-heeled boots to mid-calf and — well, what might have passed for a First Communion dress. Except, whoa, we hadn’t lived that part of history yet.

This box, this …this…’thing’ center stage “must have been about something.” Except I don’t know what. Nor did my well-read colleague who was seated next to me. Nor, in fact, did one of the principle singers in the production. No one knew what this rotating square platform with plexiglass walls actually was. In Euro-trash-circles, that can only mean one thing: it was gasp “important.”

All sorts of foolishness went on in this space. Salome and John squared off in as un-erotic a duet staging as I hope to never encounter again. Salome’s lascivious dance consisted of her dumping several buckets of sand in the middle of the square. Then she and Herod played in it like two demented pre-schoolers. They giggled, they built mounds of sand, they scattered the other’s creations, and then by golly, Our Gal Sal starting jumping up and down in it. Well, daddy was having none of that, so he packed sand around her feet so she Could. Not. Move. That showed her, by golly. There she was, dance music throbbing sensuously, cemented in place by three inches of sand. In fairness, she did break loose and came up with a veil. Okay, okay it was a triangle of cloth with which she blindfolded Herod, who wore what appeared to be a paper crown throughout, a look that was a cross between a Burger King hat and Bart Simpson’s hair-do.

Salome_008.gifPeter Felix Bauer as Jochanaan and Justine Viani as Salome

There was no end to the inventions. In lieu of Jokanaan’s voice booming from a cistern, he sang through a bullhorn, often from a fetal position tucked under a step. The Page is attired in a cocktail dress as a woman throughout, ditto the Slave Girl who, got up as the household’s maid, gets strangled by Herod. Guess she left one too many Windex streaks on the Plexiglas. Dead bodies were dispatched through a door in one of the stairs, not unlike the window seat in Arsenic and Old Lace (and twice as funny). How Narraboth dies is anyone’s guess. He was far upstage and seemed to smear something on his hand which he then stuck in…what…a socket? There was a little spark and then he fell down. I honestly thought the effect must have mis-fired, but while I was assured it hadn’t…it did. At least his means of death didn’t cause that pesky blood-flow that Herod complains about in the text. Oh, wait. Oh, damn. There was no blood. What was that Krazy King talkin’ ‘bout?

The throat-slitting leaves Salome without a head of her own, of course, so she plays with the one that is still attached to the dead body. And ooh, she gets nasty with it. By the time she actually straddles Jokanaan…what the heck? He comes back to life! And they roll around in a lip lock, groping and stroking. Ah, but this is all in her head, you see. (I think.) And when Herod orders someone to kill her, well, no one does.

For the record I should tell you that Aurelia Eggers directed this mess, and never has someone succeeded in making so little out of so much. I used to think Salome was so powerful it was fool-proof, but then I had failed to reckon with the foolishness of Ms. Eggers. Stephan Mannteufel’s set design at least had the benefit of cleanly professional execution. Andreas Rehfeld’s lighting missed nearly every opportunity inherent in the piece. Where was the sudden sliver of moonlight that reveals the debauched princess prompting her father to command her death? How could so little attention be paid to such things? The costumes from Veronika Lindner were all over the place, and while they were not overtly offensive, they were also not in any way helpful to the characterizations.

Happily the musical side of the evening was considerably more rewarding. From the very first phrase, Emilio Pons as Narraboth revealed a robust lyric tenor that was beautifully deployed throughout his vocal appearance. This was an especially commanding interpretation from this wonderful artist and it should open doors to major houses. Peter Felix Bauer is already a very fine Jokanaan, with a secure, buzzing baritone voice of ample size that speaks over the orchestra throughout the range. It is understandable that this young singer is still feeling his way through the mechanics of a phrase here, an interval there, but his is an exciting future in this role as his voice matures and he gets more experience in the part.

Winfrid Minkus also had a very good night as Herod, singing (and never once shouting) with clarity and good dramatic understanding. The goofiness of the staging held him back somewhat, but he offered good insights and a commanding presence. Ditto the powerhouse Herodias from company member Carolyn Frank. This was my first encounter with Ms. Frank but if ever there was a perfect match of vocal prowess and role, this was it. Her hurled declarations of “Meine Tocher hat recht getan” were bone chilling.

Sebastian Geyer’s light-voiced baritone was enjoyable as the Second Nazarene, but Wilfried Staber’s richly projected First Nazarene stole that scene and was a real highlight. I usually find the hectoring segment with the Five Jews something to be endured until we can get on with the story, but here it was very well sung by Young Kyoung Wan, Dagang Zhang, Sang Hoon Lee, Michale Zahn and, especially Tokuichi Toyota. Riveting stuff.

I would like to report that with title role debutante Justine Viani we had discovered another Birgit. But for all of her hard work, and considerable talent, I am truly sorry I cannot. For I liked her. I admired her pluck, and her concentration, and her stage presence, and her quite lovely soprano instrument. There was much that she sang that was sensitively phrased, and potentially affecting. But her unidiomatic German early on, and her lack of steely richness in the lower middle, robbed her performance of the impact that is needed in those long parlando exposition passages. By the time of the great final scene, she was not only pronouncing it well, but her voice was living vibrantly in the more grateful upper stretches of the writing. Despite the quite rapturous reception from the first-nighters, I don’t think Ms.Viani’s current gifts are an optimal match for this cruelly difficult part.

Conductor Cornelius Meister led a well-judged reading, cleanly executed by a beautifully rehearsed ensemble of musicians who were in top form. In a monster-piece like this, virtuoso playing is de rigeur and the Heidelberg pit did themselves proud. Maestro Meister is young, and surely time and experience will deepen his feeling for the piece. Like his Dutchman in Munich last spring, I felt that he conducts with consummate skill and control, but he does not yet get the orchestra to partner and support the drama. They need to be living it with the singers. He is supremely gifted. He has a bright future. And the opera world needs him. I would caution him that when he is in a continual spotlight, he should resist smiling proudly as the orchestra has played something to his liking — a boyishly grinning conductor does not quite mesh with lurid acts of necrophilia on stage.

Ja, ja, at the end of the night I felt numbed by the staging, but honestly buoyed by the high musical quality. The Publikum responded in kind with resounding approval for the soloists, conductor. and musicians, and well, they couldn’t even work up the energy to disapprove of the production with the usual hissing and booing. This tepid indifference is perhaps the best response. I mean, sure they turned Salome on its, um, head. But why bother losing ours over it?

James Sohre

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Salome002.gif imagedescription=Justine Viani (Salome) [Photo by Markus Kaesler courtesy of Theater der Stadt Heidelberg]

product=yes producttitle=Richard Strauss: Salome productby=Salome: Justine Viani; Jochanaan: Peter Felix Bauer; Herodias: Carolyn Frank; Herodes: Winfrid Mikus; Narraboth: Emilio Pons; Page: Christina Mueskens; First Nazarene: Wilfried Staber; Second Nazarene: Sebastian Geyer; Slave: Annika Sophie Rittlewski; Cappadocian: David Otto; First Soldier: Philipp Stelz; Second Soldier: Tokuichi Toyota; First Jew: Seung Kwon Yang; Second Jew: Young Kyoung Won; Third Jew: Dagang Zhang; Fourth Jew: Sang Hoon Lee; Fifth Jew: Michael Zahn. product_id=Above: Justine Viani as Salome

All photos by Markus Kaesler courtesy of Theater der Stadt Heidelberg

Posted by james_s at 2:52 PM

April 16, 2010

Placido Domingo returns to singing -- to prolonged bravos -- at La Scala

By Karen Wada [LA Times, 16 April 2010]

Lascala Plácido Domingo, always ready for a challenge, returned to the opera stage Friday night, less than two months after undergoing surgery for colon cancer.

Posted by Gary at 3:22 PM

April 14, 2010

Proserpina, Opera House, Wuppertal

By Shirley Apthorp [Financial Times, 14 April 2010]

Simulated sex is the order of the day. Klotho and Lachesis dry-hump Proserpina and each other in a giant high-heeled shoe, in a gynaecologist’s chair, on a hospital bed; various body parts are licked and sucked, orifices are penetrated. The Underworld is not treating Proserpina nicely. Neither Goethe’s text nor Wolfgang Rihm’s music quite cover it. So director Hans Neuenfels has filled in the blanks.

Posted by Gary at 9:49 PM

April 13, 2010

A Crusade of Seduction and Sorcery

By Anthony Tommasini [NY Times, 13 April 2010]

Renée Fleming has always made very particular and personal choices of operatic roles. Over the years, the managers of the Metropolitan Opera, fully appreciative of Ms. Fleming’s vocal artistry and star power, have been ready to accommodate her. The company has mounted house premiere productions of three strikingly diverse operas — Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah,” Bellini’s “Pirata” and Handel’s “Rodelinda” — specifically for Ms. Fleming.

Posted by Gary at 4:35 PM

April 12, 2010

Scottish Opera - The Adventures of Mr Broucek

By Carla Whalen [The Scotsman, 12 April 2010]

LIKE all good tales, Mr Broucek’s adventures begin in a bar. The “rosy-cheeked” protagonist, ridiculed by his fellow drinkers, takes a beer-fuelled nap and wakes up on the moon. Janácek’s clichéd instrumentation - delicate harps, dreamy violin solo and lone oboe - announces the lunar landing. As a moon-dweller in a spacesuit strikes up conversation with the startled Broucek, a low bassoon confirms the jocular undercurrents of the surreal scene.

Posted by Gary at 9:55 AM

April 11, 2010

Ailish Tynan, Wigmore Hall

A Prologue, ‘Tread Softly’, opened the door to the Irish imagination. Thomas Dunhill’s ‘The cloths of heaven’, a presentation of Yeats’ oft-set poem, skilfully captures the depth of the poet’s passion and the fragility of his dreams, in gently tolling chords and a delicately meandering vocal line. Immediately apparent was Burnside’s instinctive sensitivity to the rhythms and colours of Irish lyric poetry, quietly evoking both the shining ‘golden and silver light’ of heavens’ cloths and the ‘dim and [the] dark’ shadows of night.

Indeed, throughout the recital the piano played an integral part in the narrative: shaping and pacing the drama as in ‘The bard of Armagh (arranged Herbert Hughes); establishing the emotional ambience as in the cascading ripples and swirls which open Frank Bridge’s ‘Goldenhair’, with its delicate piano postlude, or the sweeping modal scales which convey the tempestuous deluge of Herbert Howell’s ‘The Flood’; drawing forth a particular poetic nuance, as at the close of Hughes’ ‘She weeps over Rahoon’, where the trickling piano descent perfectly evoked the ‘muttering rain’ which succumbed to raging flood in the subsequent song. Surprisingly, considering that she was on ‘home territory’, Ailish Tynan was initially less comfortable; her intonation was insecure in the opening song and took some time to settle, and she seemed ill at ease throughout the first half of the recital. Tynan’s voice is a powerful instrument and she worked hard to capture the pianissimo restraint of the tender lyrics, but her worthy concern to interpret and colour the text occasionally led her to over-emphasise a particular word or phrase producing an inelegant interruption to the melodic line, and at times threatening to enlarge textual nuances into disproportionate melodrama. Fortunately, Edmund Pendleton’s ‘Bid adieu’, which closed the first half, signalled a change in confidence and control: here Tynan relished the upward flourish of ‘Happy love is come to woo’ and evoked the warm, tender eroticism of ‘Begin thou softly to unzone/ Thy girlish bosom unto him’. She returned after the interval in a more relaxed mode, delighting in the characterisations and narratives, moving smoothly from energetic declaration to sweet yearning.

The first sequence of songs, ‘Lovers, Mother, Sisters’, opened with a slightly tentative rendering of one of Benjamin Britten’s most well-known and accomplished arrangements – his poignant setting of Yeats’ ‘The Salley Gardens’. Britten returned in the second half, ‘Avenging and bright’ and ‘The last rose of summer’ forming part of the ‘With your Guns and Drums’ selection. Both songs are characterised by the composer’s striking attention to detail, and in the former Burnside enjoyed the defiant flourishes, the running bass line and contrapuntal energy, which accompany the history of Conor, King of Ulster, whose treachery in putting to death the three sons of Usna is considered one of the greatest of tragic Irish tales. ‘The last rose of summer’, a setting of Thomas Moore, was one of the highlights of the evening: Britten’s ‘Screw-like’ harmonies evoke the unsettling loneliness of lover languishing after the death of her soldier-lover, and subtle changes of tempo and dynamic were expertly controlled by Burnside and Tynan.

It was the less familiar voices, however, who offered the real treasures in this programme. Herbert Hughes was a founder member of the Irish Folk Song Society of London in 1903, and he was represented here by both boisterous and tender settings of traditional Irish melodies. Unfortunately, although she conveyed the animation of the unruly sailor in Hughes’ lively arrangement of the ‘Marry me now’, Tynan forgot the words in the final verse, omitting four lines and thereby causing the lusty sailor to sound even more desperate in his final pleas for wedlock! Hughes’ setting of ‘The Gartan Mother’s Lullaby’ is a sad, sombre night-song, and here Tynan employed a warm lower register, conveying the darkness of the solemn evening and creating an effective contrast with the piano’s otherworldly evocation of the ghostly ‘rings of fog’ which wreath ‘the Green Man’s thorn’.

Hughes was also liberally represented in the second half of the programme, where a more relaxed Tynan powerfully captured both the bitterness of the drama of ‘Johnny I hardly knew ye!’ and the quiet despair of ‘Johnny Doyle’, the latter conveyed by secure and controlled octave unisons with the piano at the close: ‘You’ll send for Johnny Doyle, mother, but I fear it is too late,/ For death it is coming and sad is my fate.’ Three further Hughes’ arrangements ended the recital: ‘When through life unblessed we rove’, ‘I know where I’m goin’’, whose open-ended harmonic sequences suggest the certitude of the singer’s journey to her loved one, and the light-hearted ‘Tigaree torum orum’.

The Anglo-Irish composer, writer, collector and arranger, E.J. Moeran, spent the spring of 1948 living with a group of tinkers in south-west Ireland, assembling his collection Songs from County Kerry. The haunting harmonies and melancholy lyricism of ‘The lost lover’ are typical of his touching idiom, and in ‘The Roving Dingle boy, Tynan achieved a flowing naturalism.

Alongside these ‘conventional’ arrangements and song, Burnside had some surprises in store. The programme notes reminded us that Samuel Barber had a lifelong interest in Irish poetry, including the work of Joyce and Yeats; his Ten Hermit Songs set words translated from anonymous Irish texts from the early Middle Ages – thoughts, observations and poem which were jotted down on the margins of manuscripts by scholars and monks. The enlarged, ‘operatic’ scope of the third of these songs, ‘St Ita’s Vision’, appealed to Tynan’s sense of drama, and she effectively conveyed the forceful passion of St Ita, Bride of Munster, in her quasi-recitative declaration that she will accept nothing less than a baby to nurse. Both singer and pianist captured both the passion of St Ita’s commitment and the transcendence of the vision, Tynan’s sweetness – ‘Infant Jesus, at my breast,/ By my heart every night,’ – complemented by Burnside’s concluding suggestion of an ethereal choir of heavenly lyres. Similarly, the last song in the cycle, ‘The desire for hermitage’, offers an expansive emotional canvas, one which the performers exploited effectively. Even more unusual, and thought-provoking, was Burnside’s inclusion of John Cage’s setting of lines adapted from Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, ‘The wonderful widow of eighteen springs’, which, characteristically, involved some rearranging and preparation of the piano. The spare, still melody, enlivened by occasional leaps of a fifth, was accompanied by rhythmic tapping on different parts of the closed piano, producing a haunting ambience which successfully suggested the fragmentary reminiscences of the text.

Where does arrangement end and composition begin? This is a question Burnside asks in the programme notes, prompted by the inclusion of Hughes’ original composition, ‘She weeps over Rahoon’ – an intense setting of Joyce’s spare and stark evocation of the bleak rain plaintively falling on Ireland’s western coast. Composers may, like Hughes, seek to render these melodies faithfully as they have been heard for hundreds of years; or they may, like Britten for example, establish their own stamp on a familiar melody. For the performer, surely the same questions arise: how to engage with, and respect, a tradition, while offering something personal and new. Though a little unsure of her path at the start of the evening, Tynan had, by the end, found her way home, and her encore, a simple but fresh rendering of the traditional melody, ‘Marble Halls’, sent us all home happy.

Claire Seymour

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Ailish_Tynan.png image_description=Ailish Tynan [Photo courtesy of Intermusica] product=yes product_title=Ailish Tynan, Wigmore Hall product_by=Ailish Tynan, soprano; Iain Burnside, piano. Wigmore Hall, London. Friday 9th April 2010. product_id=Programme: Celtic Woman:
Prologue: Tread Softly
Lovers, Mothers, Sisters
Joyce’s Women
With Your Guns and Drums
Epilogue: The Blind Man he can See
Posted by Gary at 5:32 PM

Partenope, NYCO

Admirers of the company and the composer may look back with happy nostalgia upon Sills, Forrester and Treigle in Giulio Cesare, Carol Vaness and D’Anna Fortunato in Alcina (the mylar one), Lorraine Hunt and David Daniels in Xerxes, Daniels and Christine Goerke in Rinaldo (with exploding harpsichord), Goerke in the second Alcina (the one with the sexy trees), David Walker in Flavio, Bejun Mehta — his New York debut — in Partenope and, later, in Ariodante and Orlando, Sarah Connolly in Ariodante, Nelly Miricioiu in Agrippina, and Elizabeth Futral and Vivica Genaux (playing Marilyn and Jackie) in a madcap Semele. It is wise of the company to revive one of these works in its shortened season this year, to remind us of a specialty we’d come to appreciate on this side of the plaza.

The work chosen for revival was Partenope, an opera seria that combines the usual musings, tune by tune, on this or that aspect of love with a not-too-serious story of the founding Queen of Naples (a retired siren), her heart and hand sought by three altos and a tenor. Confusing matters only moderately (for a Handel libretto) is the fact that only two of the altos are male (castrati in Handel’s day, countertenors now); the other is a woman in disguise, pursuing the man who done her wrong — one of those very countertenors. At the evening’s climax, after multiple gyrations, each nuance of passion depicted in a da capo aria, Eurimene/Rosmira obliges Arsace — who has loved not wisely but too often — to fight him/her in a duel. This means Arsace has the choice of manner of combat, and he chooses — bare to the waist. I suspect that in Handel’s day Arsace did not tear off his shirt at this point, but what countertenor worth his salt would resist the hint? No matter: Rosmira, her bluff called, admits she’s not a man. Partenope takes the other countertenor, shy Armindo. They have a duet, lifted from another Handel opera (by Handel, actually).

Partenope is a silly piece despite its Handelian glories. If you have the singers to put it over it can be a delight, but it has its longueurs, and for those less than addicted to Handelian vocalism — for those who crave, for instance, two or three voices singing at once now and then in the course of an opera — three acts can exhaust the appetite well before that splendid duet. The duet is worth waiting for, but I know I’m not the only person who wishes one or two of the earlier numbers might have been omitted and perhaps the last two acts compressed into one. But these are forbidden thoughts, notions of our medieval Victorian forebears — the kind who trammeled that notorious Giulio Cesare back in the sixties — and they will find little favor among opera producers today.

Partenope0036.pngClockwise: Stephanie Houtzeel (Rosmira), Iestyn Davies (Arsace), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Armindo), Cyndia Sieden (Partenope), and Nicholas Coppolo (Emilio)

Francesco Negrin’s production, played in modern dress (color coded: blue for Arsace, changeable as water; red for Armindo’s repressed passions; green for the huntress Rosmira) against John Conklin backdrops that sometimes comment symbolically on the emotional content of the aria being sung, is chic and contemporary without forfeiting elegance or the courtly mood of the work being staged. Andrew Chown restaged it a bit since I saw it last (at Lyric Opera of Chicago), and has suited the actions of his cast to the physiques of the performers at hand — which is admirable.

All the singers sang with style, acted with brio, ornamented with taste in what is currently recognized as the proper baroque style — though none of them were flawless and, which may or may not have weight with opera-goers, the men were perhaps less tasty than other casts one has seen in this production. Welsh countertenor Iestyn Davies possessed the most beautiful voice of the night, an opulent, sensuous alto that easily filled the house, calling to mind both David Daniels and Bejun Mehta in its quality, ardor, intensity of emotional focus and mastery of fioritura — though for ornament, the great “Furibondo” aria that closes Act II still belongs to Mr. Daniels. A local boy making his debut, Anthony Roth Costanzo cut rather a skinny figure in the red costume in which Mr. Mehta made his celebrated debut. Though Costanzo’s instrument thins out on top and in recitative, he acquitted himself very well, especially in the rapturous duet with Cyndia Sieden that concluded the evening, to which both contributed the proper vocal delirium: Those of us who had waited all night wanted a rich dessert, and that’s what they gave us. Sieden, after a shaky start in the title role, got the measure of the hall and ascended her proper throne. Stephanie Houtzeel, the tallest member of the cast and one with a sizable, bigger-than-baroque mezzo, had little trouble pretending to be a man — once she had donned a false mustache that made her far more credible than other singers one has heard in this role. Nicholas Coppolo has a pleasant, agile tenor, if lacking the tragic sense that can give this defeated warrior some much needed dimension. Daniel Mobbs was effective as Ormonte — who often “walks on” without singing in this staging, in order to give this small character some presence in the wider drama.

Partenope0016.pngIestyn Davies (Arsace), Cyndia Sieden (Partenope), Nicholas Coppolo (Emilio), and Daniel Mobbs (Ormonte)

Christian Curnyn, making his debut with a cut-down baroque-sized orchestra in the pit, proved a splendid Handelian, dancing at one moment, tugging heartstrings at the next, and supporting the vocal flights of fancy of his singers at all times. He joins the ever-growing list of baroque specialists who are also great men of the theater.

I had hoped that the City Opera, under its new management team, would not forget its Handelian triumphs and would resume this beloved series. Clearly they still know how to cast them, and the only reasonable response is: More, please.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Partenope0009.png image_description=Iestyn Davies (Arsace) and Cyndia Sieden (Partenope) [Photo by Carol Rosegg courtesy of New York City Opera] product=yes product_title=G. F. Handel: Partenope product_by=Partenope: Cyndia Sieden; Arsace: Iestyn Davies; Armindo: Anthony Roth Costanzo; Ormonte: Daniel Mobbs; Rosmira: Stephanie Houtzeel; Emilio; Nicholas Coppolo. New York City Opera, conducted by Christian Curnyn. Performance of April 3. product_id=Above: Iestyn Davies (Arsace) and Cyndia Sieden (Partenope)

All photos by Carol Rosegg courtesy of New York City Opera
Posted by Gary at 4:34 PM

Highs and lows of the Salzburg Easter festival

By Hugh Canning [Times Online, 11 April 2010]

The Salzburg Easter festival stands at a crossroads. Founded 43 years ago by Herbert von Karajan as an eight-day privately funded event to showcase his deluxe band, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, in “exemplary” productions of Wagner operas — and specifically the Ring tetralogy — the festival has recently been rocked by financial scandal.

Posted by Gary at 10:03 AM

An Opera’s Very Long Overture

By Daniel J. Wakin [NY Times, 11 April 2010]

Locked away since birth, hidden from human society, ignorant of his fate: such is the story of Prince Segismundo. It is also pretty much the story of an opera about him, “Life Is a Dream.”

Posted by Gary at 9:53 AM

Franz Schreker's 'The Stigmatized' at Los Angeles Opera

By Mark Swed [LA Times, 11 April 2010]

It’s taken close to a century, but the ugliest man of Genoa has at last crossed the Atlantic. He is Alviano Salvago, who is also described as “an ugly hunchback, about thirty years old, with large shinning eyes.” He is stigmatized, branded, marked, drawn. He is weak and revolting in a society obsessed with physical pleasure. He also happens to own an island where there are all manner of nasty goings on from which he gets some sort of creepy vicarious thrill in the name of the classical pursuit of beauty.

Posted by Gary at 9:50 AM

Covert resistance to Hitler — Hartmann’s Simplicius Simplicissimus

Simplicius Simplicissimus is loosely based on H J Chr Grimmelshausen’s 1669 allegory. This was set in the Thirty Years War, a defining trauma in German history, barely appreciated in the English-speaking world. “Anno Domini 1618 wohnten 12 millionen in Deutschland” goes Hartmann’s introduction. “Da kam der grosse Kreig”. Thirty years later, only 4 million remained. Hartmann uses an alt Deutsch idiom but it’s obvious what he really means.

There’s a new edition, recently recorded by the Münchner Rundfunkorchester conducted by Ulf Schirmer. The singing too is way above average, which in itself makes this a top recommendation : Michael Volle, Christian Gerhaher, Camilla Nylund and Will Hartmann. It’s live, too, recorded in a small theatre, which adds to the atmosphere. This performance is vividly dramatic. Even if you don’t understand a word of German, the impact is clear.

Like the 1669 original, Hartmann sets the opera in tableaux, each act divided into different Bild or Speil subsections, like a series of stylized woodcuts. This formality creates an otherworldly edge to the horrific tale within. A thundering, brooding overture sets the mood of overwhelming chaos. Hartmann’s orchestration is spartan: simple trumpets, drums, pipes, a modernist battaglia. From this the male voices develop, chanting in goose-step rhythms.

Simplicius appears. “Ein kleiner Bub bei den Schafen, kannte weder Gott noch Menschen, weder Himmel noch Hölle, weder Engel noch Teufel”. Notice the pattern of opposite images, which flows throughout the opera. The text is set in rhyming couplets, typical of German tradition, and the music moves in a similar grave two-step.

Simplicius is a “Holy Innocent”, so pure he knows nothing of heaven or hell. In Tarot the Fool signifies someone who goes forth into the world without fear, facing danger but protected by his purity. Siegfried without the selfishness. Hartmann sets the part for high soprano though the role is male: Nylund’s lucid, clear tones are perfect.

“Beware of the Wolf” warns the farmer (Michael Volle, with solemn bucolic gravity). Wolf of course was Hitler’s nickname. Simplicius doesn’t know what a wolf is. so when the Landknecht (Gerhaher) appears he thinks the Horseman is the vierbeiniger Schelm und Dieb the farmer warned about. “Weiss nit, Herr Wolf” cries Simplicius but the Landknecht attacks the farm and kills the “!Knän, die Meuder und das kleine Ursele” (these archaic words give the piece a deliberate old world air). Nylund sings a long passage describing the horrors of war, which ends with !”O armes geknechtetes Deutschland”.

Now Simplicius has wised up and heads into the forest where he meets a Hermit (another Tarot figure). The Hermit (Will Hartmann) sings music like stylized monastic chant, wavering weirdly. He teaches Simplicius to sing Unser Vater (Our Father). Give us our daily bread”. Simplicius, incorrigibly naive, asks “auch Käs dazu?” (and cheese, too?) Eventually the Hermit dies, leaving Simplicius to face the world alone. Provocatively, Hartmann writes into the death music an echo of the Kaddish.

Another powerful intermezzo, swirling strings, plunging brass, depicting storm clouds perhaps, as Simplicismus is flown into the Governor’s mansion. The soldiers boast of their tyranny and blaspheme. This chorus sound like drunken communal singing in a beer cellar, also a reference perhaps to the Nazis. This time Simplicius pipes up “that’s no way to speak”. “Can you hear the Mauskopf piepsen?” shouts the Governor. And of course, Simplicius’s music is flute and clarinet. The Governer (Volle) recites rather than sings, not Sprechstimme, but oddly discordant. He can’t figure the simpleton out.

Then Nylund’s tour de force. Words pour out of her at a shrill rapid pace, almost no time to take a breath. Using speech instead of song was a deliberate device by Hartmann to confront the audience. Simplicius harangues the listeners, without music to soften the effect. As she finds her strength her words are supported by drums. A militant but not military march? Then suddenly her voice rises in song. Es dröhnt die Stadt, es stapft daher, schäumende bitt’re Jammersg’walt. She’s joined by the chorus now representing farmers, the victims of the Thirty Years War. “Gepriesen sei der Richter der Wahrheit!” (Blessed be the Truth) sings Simplicius, now transformed into a symbol of hope. Behind her muffled drums and cymbals, the choir now softly humming, and the Sprecher reminds us that by 1648, 8 million Germans were killed.

Significantly, Hartmann dedicated the 1955/6 revision to Carl Orff whose Carmina Burana used a similar fake medieval context, which the Nazis loved, though they missed the subversive undercurrents. Hartmann knew what it was like living in a police state. More double-edged meaning. Simplicissimus is also the title of a magazine that satirized all abuses of power, military, political and religious. It was based in Munich, where Hartmann lived. While the stylized formality presages Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Hartmann’s Simplicius Simplicissimus stems from the Weimar tradition of political theatre.

As a plus,there’s a half hour discussion with recordings of Hartmann’s voice on the second CD in this set. As a minus, this set falls down as there’s no translation. One might think that an opera where German-language speech rhythms are so important won’t need translation because anyone listening will be fluent. But many of the words are archaic, not that easy for non-native speakers to follow. And non-Germans need to know this opera, to better understand Germany, the experience of war and the role of modern music.

Anne Ozorio

image=http://www.operatoday.com/HartmannBR-Klassik.png imagedescription=Karl Amadeus Hartmann: Des Simplicius Simplicissimus Jugend

product=yes producttitle=Karl Amadeus Hartmann: Des Simplicius Simplicissimus Jugend productby=Camilla Nylund (Simplicius); Christian Gerhaher (Landsknecht/Sprecher); Will Hartmann (Einsiedel/Gouverneur); Michael Volle (Bauer/Feldwebel/Hauptmann). Die Singphoniker. Münchner Rundfunkorchester. Ulf Schirmer, conducting. productid=BR-Klassik 403571900301 [2CDs] price=$29.99 producturl=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B002MUQ9ZG

Posted by anne_o at 7:55 AM

April 10, 2010

Gluck: Orphée et Eurydice

By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 10 April 2010]

Gluck composed his most famous opera for Vienna in 1762 in Italian, later reworking and extending it for Paris in French, which is the version we hear in this live recording made last summer at Madrid’s Teatro Real. A third version, the one recorded 10 years ago by John Eliot Gardiner, is by Berlioz.

Posted by Gary at 10:00 AM

Lance Hulme: An interview by Tom Moore

We conversed on February 16, 2010 at Duke University.

TM: Did you have a musical family? Where did you grow up?

LH: I am the religious equivalent of an army brat – I lived in quite a few different places, but mainly grew up in Minneapolis in an environment which was arts-rich in general. My father was not a professional, but played very well technically. He had studied beginning when he was a small boy, and he hated it. It was a very odd combination. He was technically proficient, but had very little soul for it, as it were. He was a theologian, and would sometimes play for services. My mother is not musical but both her parents were. Her father wanted to be a professional fiddler. He was an Appalachian fiddler, and I still have his fiddler book, with the tunes written out, including some racist titles. We still have his fiddle. My grandmother was a pianist, but she didn’t like him going out at night, so he gave up music as a profession. All my brothers and sisters play instruments – we were all brought up that way. Once you could talk you were sat down at the piano, and you also took another instrument as part of your general education, a sort of nineteenth-century way of doing it. I think my parents are still horrified that I went into music professionally, since that violated the middle-class paradigm.

TM: What other music were you exposed to as a child?

LH: My family was very eclectic in their tastes – I remember that my mother just loved Cossack songs, all sorts of folk and protest music from the sixties and seventies, and lots of jazz, which I came to be very interested in.

TM: What do you recall from your piano lessons? What appealed to you?

LH: I was very fortunate. One of the local colleges had a professor of piano who would take three boys as students each year, and teach them on Saturdays, in addition to his college students. I was one of the three at his private studio. He trained me rigorously with piano technique, theory, and composition lessons.

TM: How old were you?

LH: I started at eight. I did very well, and leveled off at some point, because my interest in jazz took away the concentration that he was looking for.

TM: You mentioned other instruments. What was your instrument? Was there a whole string quartet in the family?

LH: It was not nearly so organized. I unfortunately chose the trombone, because I didn’t enjoy it very much. My sisters all took string instruments, and none of them pursued it beyond playing in the high school orchestra, with the exception of my elder sister, who was quite a good violinist. By playing trombone, since my high school had an orchestra, which didn’t have much need for trombone, I ended up playing a lot of French horn [sings typical horn part], and also timpani as well. I did play a little trumpet in the jazz band, and sang. I was always in the choirs.

TM: What was the general culture like in Minneapolis? What we often hear outside Minnesota is Garrison Keillor and not much else. What was the city like? You mentioned jazz.

LH: When I was about thirteen, I encountered jazz seriously for the first time. Miles Davis and Cecil Taylor really interested me. At that point my interest in pop music ended, and my focus went to jazz and classical music. I thought my career would have those two things in tandem. It was a really good jazz scene. When I was there working professionally it was vibrant – my band always got work.

TM: What years were these?

LH: The late seventies to mid-eighties. There were some pretty good players – very strange to meet jazz players named Petersen, though….

TM: With blond hair.

LH: Exactly. There was a big family of Petersens, and they were all jazz musicians. You know who Michael Johnson and Leo Kottke are – they were big members of the community, who played a lot in the coffee houses. I caught the very end of the coffee house experience as a little boy, and remember hearing regularly Leo Kottke and Michael Johnson playing together at the Coffeehouse Extempore.

The Minnesota Orchestra built a brand-new symphony hall, and had a huge resurgence after a down period in the late sixties and early seventies. Leonard Slatkin was their associate conductor, and they had a lot of young people’s concerts with new music on them. They had something called the Rug Concerts in the summer, where you brought a pillow, they took out the seats and you sat on the floor. They would play new music. I remember that Charles Ives’ Central Park in the Dark blew me away. They were pushing the envelope.

TM: You mentioned Miles Davis and Cecil Taylor. How did you come to appreciate these two figures?

LH: I don’t have a filter. I tend to like everything, as long as it has some integrity to it. Or maybe it’s better to say that my esthetic filter is broad. I also liked funk/fusion – my last band was a funk/fusion band - which I found quite exciting. One of the early eighties bands that excited me as a keyboardist was Jeff Lorber. I guess the answer is that I have no taste.

TM: Had you heard Davis and Taylor live in Minneapolis?

LH: No, not at all. In terms of big names, I heard Jon Faddis. Some middle-level people would come through, and do master classes. The high school I went to had a really good music program –we actually had a theory class. In all but name it was a school for the performing arts. There would be connections with whatever jazz festivals would be occurring. The band would go to the concerts, and meet with the artists afterwards. I remember Lew Tabackin, which was really exciting.

TM: Funk/fusion is an area that is almost completely forgotten at this point. Please say a little about your band.

LH: When I was in my early twenties, this was a way of making a living with the band. That was the period when “Thriller” came out, and there was a lot of pressure to play a sort Quincy Jones smooth studio sound. I was thinking that Chick Corea was pretty cool. I found it interesting, but I also see why it’s not interesting anymore. When I get in the car and I am going somewhere I put George Duke on almost instantly, as loud as possible. In the recordings there is a certain insipid quality to the music, and I don’t know why, because it didn’t feel that way at the time. Something about the recording technique….

TM: …has cut the edge off the top.

LH: Maybe it’s the fact that it has lost its sociological context. The dancing is not there any more. That kind of club scene is gone now. The clubs that I played in Minneapolis are all gone. They are sushi bars or upscale restaurants with no dance floors.

TM: Could you talk about your study of music at the undergraduate and graduate level?

LH: I should say up front that I never intended to be a musician. I didn’t think that I had the talent. I was going to be a visual artist. I had gotten some recognition in my teen years for what I was doing with visual arts, especially painting and sculpture. My high school had an incredible art department, and I was also doing art at what is now called the Museum of Science in St. Paul. But a friend showed a piano piece that I had written for her to her orchestra teacher, and he said immediately “This is very interesting – you have written this all wrong. How would you like to write a piece for the orchestra?” I thought “That’s a pretty good idea”, and wrote the piece, and he said “How would you like to conduct it?” That got the ball rolling. I took the theory class at the high school, and collected a series of friends whom I hadn’t known before, who were involved directly with the music school, and they encouraged me. I can blame it on a good friend who, sadly, did not become a professional musician, although he should have. We would listen to new music all the time, running the gamut from Parliament to Shostakovich.

I went to the University of Minnesota, and studied with Dominick Argento and Paul Fetler there. During that time I was playing constantly, and I am still amazed that I got a degree, because I was on campus so little. I never got accepted in the school of music, but I got a diploma from them.

I played a couple of years in various bands in Minneapolis. The band that I was in crashed, came to a stop, and I thought that maybe I should apply to graduate school in composition. At the same time I was involved with what was then the Minnesota Composer’s Forum – Libby Larsen, Stephen Paulus – was on the programming committee for that organization, which was still in one tiny office. So I went to the Eastman School of Music, and studied there with Warren Benson and Sam Adler, the usual combination. During that time I took a couple lessons with Joseph Schwantner, but he was gone. That was when he was going to the top.

TM: Could you talk about the approaches of Benson and Adler to teaching composition?

LH: They were very different. Warren would sit there, look through your piece, would be chatting with you, paging through the score, and you would think that he wasn’t looking at the music. And then he would stop, and go back and forth, and say “Right there!” And he was always right. Both of them were very generous. They had no proprietorial tendencies. When I got to Eastman I wanted to write an opera, and Warren said “OK! Write an opera.” I got about three-quarters of the way through it, and he said “why don’t you go talk to Richard Perlman now?”, who was the director of the Opera Studies program. “Why don’t you go show him what you are doing?” Perlman told me to stay and be Assistant Director for the various operas so that I would learn how opera actually works, and he would critique my opera. He said “By the way, you should meet Bob Spillman”. This was Robert Spillman, who was part of the piano department and accompanying program at Eastman, but also was director of Opera Studies at Aspen. Spillman said “Why don’t we do this at Aspen this summer”. This was the first composer residency at Aspen, and they did my opera out there. That’s how Eastman worked, and that’s why it was such a rich environment. That, plus the fact that you are sequestered in Rochester, New York….. [laughs]

Warren was always about getting your mind going, and threw ideas at you all the time. Sam had a distinct esthetic, and would focus on the specifics – this passage needed to be reworked, you needed to do this because this isn’t consistent – you might say that he was more Hindemithian. Everything was buchstäblich – set up very carefully. He’s a great guy – I thoroughly enjoyed having lessons with him.

TM: Was there ever a period of serial domination at Eastman, or was that a New York/Princeton story?

LH: No, it was never true at Eastman, and fortunately I came just a little by later. I had a friend, a musicologist, a little older than me, who had thought about being a composer, and said that he could not have been admitted to composition program at the time because he was not a serialist. But I didn’t encounter that. At the University of Minnesota, I studied with Dominick Argento, whose music had a wide spectrum, from key signatures to an extended tonality. At Eastman one or two of my fellow students occasionally would shame-facedly use rows, but they were passé by the time that I was there. The pervading voice was Joe Schwantner. We were listening to Jacob Druckman.

The composer Todd Levin and I were there at the same time – he was the class ahead of mine, though he is a year younger than I am.

TM: He did the famous disco piece for DG, which had some sort of scandal associated with it…

LH: …because it was the only time that the London Philharmonia held a vote, mid-recording, on whether to continue. Philip Glass had put up the money for it, or arranged the money for it, and it was a disaster. Todd became an art dealer in New York at that point. It’s too bad. I thought what he was doing was very interesting. Not that I liked or disliked it, but it was interesting. That was what was going on then – you had a wide spectrum. One of my favorite composers was Karl Witt – just a brilliant mind, very doctrinaire, craft-oriented. We were all very different. They encouraged that, encouraged you to be aware that you were one of many different types of people.

TM: After completing the program at Eastman, you moved to Europe. Had you met your wife in the opera world at Eastman?

LH: We got together at the Aspen festival. We courted, and had been married for two years before we lived in the same city. We both got Fulbright grants. I was in Austria, but hers was delayed. She got a Fulbright grant, but couldn’t take it, because she was at Chicago Lyric in their apprenticeship program. She was going to have to give it up, but Artis Krenek, who was director of the Opera at the time, called Paul Simon and managed to have the grant delayed, so that she could finish the apprenticeship program. She came to Europe, and I was in Vienna while she was in Heidelberg – Mannheim. I would take the midnight train north from Vienna.

TM: Along the beautiful blue Danube.

LH: She almost instantly won a coloratura contest, and the prize they invented for her was a year’s contract at the established artist level at the theater in Karlsruhe, doing solo roles already. It was an opportunity to live in Europe with a regular income, and there were things for me to do there as well, so we decided to live in the same place.

TM: There are so many well-known American performers who have emigrated to Europe, and very few composers these days who do the same, although for a long time it was de rigueur for an American composer to study in Paris.

LH: That’s true. In my case, Francis Burt came to Eastman and recruited me to go to Vienna. He was the chair of the department of composition at what is now called the Universität der Musik in Vienna. It does seem to be less common these days – I am not sure what I think about that. It does change your perspective a lot, and coming back to the United States after twenty years, as in my case, the lack of support for the arts is almost breathtaking. It is just astonishing that so little care is given to cultural heritage. A culture doesn’t survive without being cared for, especially in the case of high culture. You can’t eat it, you can’t plow the fields with it, you can’t drive it, you can’t feed babies with it – culture is a byproduct of the luxury which a society has to examine itself and care for itself. Our culture doesn’t seem to understand that as well as they do in Europe. In earlier times it was expected of good citizens rather than government to provide culture, but that seems to have broken down. You don’t see a Hewlett-Packard Orchestra. You don’t see the generosity of a Mellon or a Carnegie specifically for the arts. The problem isn’t that there is culture we should support, and culture we should not support. We should be supporting all of this. Instead of cutting the pie thinner, with thinner slices, when you want to be more democratic in your programs, more support should be found to do that, not less.

TM: The example which is prevalent is the musical “system” in Venezuela, which manages to have an extensive youth orchestra program, while the United States approach is so haphazard that one area may be well-served and another area not.

LH: American cultural heritage is not deeply-rooted enough to have developed patterns. There has never been a systematic drive to it other than the drive for acquisition. I don’t want to say that the way that the arts is done in the United States is entirely wrong. There is an enormous amount of cultural intransigence in Europe that is baffling, and had I not found a way around it, it would have stifled my career over there entirely.

A great story: you know my piece for orchestra, Stealing Fire, which won two major awards - the Lutoslawski prize, and the Nissim prize. Before it won those awards, I took it to Stuttgart, to Süddeutscher Rundfunk, to their new music studio, to the gentleman who runs it, an extremely nice man, but someone who has a stranglehold on new music, and has an extreme esthetic filter. I took the piece over to him, and he looked at the score, and you could see he wanted to dismiss it outright. But he said “Leave the score with me, and I will see what I can do”, and I thought “A gig!” The next week I got a letter saying that the piece was “bildschön” [pretty as a picture], extremely well-constructed, beautifully orchestrated, a thoroughly professional piece – but “we don’t do this kind of music”. Every year there are talks on the radio about how Donaueschingen is a disaster, that it no longer connects with the majority of listeners in the audience, even the audience that specifically comes for that - every year they beat their breasts about it, and nothing changes. This is the other side – when the arts are so tightly controlled from the existing political structures, there is a tendency not to allow fantasy to drive your arts. If you look at the period from 1946 to the present, European music does not change very much. For better or worse, there is a plethora of diverging styles in the United States. But we have one-seventh the budget that France has for the arts – what can you say to that? It is absurd, with a culture that is as wealthy as ours, that we don’t throw just a little money to the arts. It indicates a mindset that arts are extraneous, and that culture is extraneous – irrelevant as mechanisms that bind us together.

TM: I know that you did graduate study at Yale. Where did that fit in with your European stay?

LH: About five years into our time in Europe, my wife said “If you are going to do a doctorate, do it now!” so I did the world’s shortest doctorate at Yale, and studied with Jacob Druckman and Martin Bresnick.

TM: How long was that?

LH: Two semesters. I think I spent the minimum possible days on campus. I was assistant at the computer music studio for Jonathan Berger, now the department chair at Stanford, who is a marvelous man…..Yale is a finishing school. That’s the best way to put it. It’s a place for you to educate yourself. You work very hard, you just don’t do it in the classroom. No one holds your hand through the whole program.

Jacob Druckman and I really jelled in terms of teaching. If there is one composer with whom I would share a mindset, a synergy of ideas, how we think - it would be Jacob Druckman.

TM: Could you talk about two recent pieces.

LH: The big piece that has been the most successful is Stealing Fire. The music is self-organizing. I try to find something at the beginning that drives the piece forwards – a set of pitches, rhythms, timbres – something that is the impetus, the starting point. The piece is then generated from those materials, and usually spins out on its own. It sounds a little ethereal and Zen, but I sit at the piano, improvise, sketch a bit, until the materials are right. When that stage has come, I know it. Usually I do some other meditative thing – I would run, and the piece would come to me in the running. The rest is just scribbling, getting it down. Stealing Fire starts with a small set of pitches and rhythms and ideas – an idea of how things will flow forward. That idea was about iterations. It came because I was stuck in Stuttgart at the train station, and I just couldn’t read something in German that night – I had to read something in English, so I bought the only English novel that I thought that I could stand, which was Jurassic Park. It’s a terrible book, but it’s written as a series of iterations of a non-linear algorithm, and that fascinated me. The idea of having the same set of materials, having them spin out their natural order, and come to a conclusion – a new set of initial conditions, which then evolves in its turn. You have a series of miniature events, all driven by the same compositional rules, with an overall formal arc created by the succession of those iterations as they follow their initial conditions to their logical end. In the case of Stealing Fire, each iteration contained more and more complexity, until it reached a point which you could think of as fold-over, where the material is so complex that one gets a larger view. The complexity becomes a singularity, a simplicity, so much material that you can’t observe the individual details, but see it as one big whole. The contrapuntal movement is increasingly complex until there is so much that all that can come out of that is a single idea, and the orchestra begins a tutti.

This is a model that I use for a lot of my music. Modeling it on nature, if you want to think in those terms. Not directly using algorithmic thinking – I have tried it, and it doesn’t work, but the idea of an initial set of ideas, like a leaf. Each leaf is slightly different, and each leaf is different depending on where it is on the tree. That’s one way I look at creating music – the idea flows, comes to conclusion, but generates the next idea and its initial conditions. There’s very little transitional material in my music.

TM: You could connect this both with sonata form and total serialism.

LH: Certainly any composer my age has both of those things running concurrently in their head. You can say that sonata form evolves out of a natural set of argumental conditions which reflect behaviors which we can associate with organic behaviors. Development is a very organic idea. One of my problems with serialism is that you are stuck with the materials. They can’t break free.

TM: There’s no possibility of development.

LH: There’s also no possibility of surprise. Your piece essentially runs out of your initial conditions. One of the things that I build into my compositions, whether it’s conscious or unconscious, is a point where something hits the initial conditions. In Stealing Fire, the idea that drives it forward is that no melodic material can ever go in a straight line. It will always be aurally blocked in some way, forcing it to go somewhere unexpected. To me, “unexpected” is what makes music interesting, the tension between having a predictable pattern, and not fulfilling that pattern in a direct way, but in an indirect way.

TM: I am reminded of talking with Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, who in talking about his music, referred to the film “The way things work”, with a series of unexpected physical events, one leading to another.

LH: Unpredictability is an interesting thing, isn’t it, because you have to have it, to make music fresh, but if everything is unpredictable, you have no sense of continuity, and the fresh becomes unfresh. This is what happened and happens a lot in music from that period of experimentation – everything is so unpredictable that nobody can be bothered to pay attention.

TM: Current and future projects?

LH: Right now, I’m acting as General Manager for Skin, a new music ensemble made up of UNCG and NCArts faculty. I was going to set up my own group and Skin was looking for management, so I’m folding in my goals with theirs. There’s also a projected new music series in Greensboro with which I am involved.

I’m presently composing several smaller works for performer friends including a sax piece and a saxophone quartet. I’m revisiting my piano etudes “Bandaloop Dances”, editing and getting them back in my fingers. I’m also working on a real time interactive installation for improvising – I’ve applied for a grant for this. One of the things not mentioned so far is that I spend a good amount of my creative efforts working in music technology, from studio recordings to high-level programming. I’m collaborating with a digital visual artist and the second generation of this installation will include a visual component. There’s also a project with Greensboro Ballet in the making, but budget constraints may put this off a year or so. The big-ticket idea right now is an opera based on the John Fowles novella “The Ebony Tower”. This story is a trope or riff on a mediaeval lai by Marie de France called “Eliduc” which Fowles translated. I think it would make a delightful combination: two one-act operas, Eliduc first followed by the modern reframing of the underlying themes and story. I have a deep interest in and sometimes perform early music – my ensemble in Germany played quite a bit under its motto “700 years of new music”. It would be quite fun to draw on that resource for the first half. What I’m running into problems with, along with the difficulty of shopping an opera without having won a Pulitzer, is the adult theme. There’s nothing that would rate an R in an American film, but the story is decidedly about adults and adult passions and the companies I’ve talked to are looking for more, shall we say, educational approaches to opera.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Lance_Hulme.gif image_description=Lance Hulme product=yes product_title=Lance Hulme: An interview by Tom Moore product_by=Above: Lance Hulme
Posted by Gary at 7:14 AM

Anna Weesner: An interview by Tom Moore

She is a recovering flutist, and has produced works for ensembles such as Network for New Music, Music at the Anthology and the Cypress Quartet, and artists including vocalists Judith Kellock and Dawn Upshaw. We talked by Skype on February 9, 2010.

TM: Do you come from a musical family? Were your parents, or uncles or aunts musical?

AW: I sometimes think of composition as being a combination of my mother and my father. My mother was a piano teacher, and taught music in the junior high school, in the public schools. My father is a fiction writer - a novelist. There’s creative energy on both sides.

TM: You were born in Iowa, but grew up in New Hampshire. Do you identify more with Iowa or New Hampshire?

AW: New Hampshire [laughs]. I like the idea of Iowa — I have driven through Iowa. It’s very beautiful, and there’s a certain romance in it for me. I was born there because my father was at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. The childhood I remember was in New Hampshire.

TM: Were you in the northern or southern part?

AW: The southern part, near the coast. Durham — my father taught at UNH, and I grew up in Durham.

TM: How was the musical environment while you were growing up?

AW: We had a piano in the house, but my first instrument was the violin. It’s a bit of a regret of mine that I stopped playing the violin. I did Suzuki violin starting at about five years old, and my mother took me to all of those lessons. In about third grade I started to take some piano lessons, and played both instruments for a little while, and then stopped playing the violin. I went to a music camp as a pianist in the summer, when I was ten or eleven. I saw a girl playing the flute, and I thought she was fantastic…. and beautiful, and that the instrument was beautiful, and I wanted to play the flute. In the seventh grade I started to play the flute, and became quite serious about flute-playing. All through high school and into college, I was practicing a lot. The flute took over. I continued to play piano in a practical way, and to take some piano lessons, but the flute was my main focus and interest.

TM: Those three instruments have radically different cultures of teaching — you have Suzuki violin, which is highly regimented — you must do everything exactly like everyone else — you have piano, which produces people who practice seven or eight hours a day by themselves, and you have flute, which tends to be more associated with women than men (or girls than boys, at the primary school level). Did you find that those were different social experiences for you?

AW: Yes. One strong memory of Suzuki violin is my teacher trying to teach me to read music. Everything is learned by ear, initially, and in some ways that was quite free, and I found it daunting to have these notes in front of me suddenly. It felt imposing and difficult. As for the culture of flute-playing, I wish I had been able to think of it as a larger place to be - I wish I had had a different perspective on it. I really wanted to be an orchestral flutist. That culture is a rather narrow one in terms of practicing, in terms of lifestyle. I remember being at the Aspen summer festival as a flutist, working on the excerpt from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream , and walking down through the woods past the practice rooms, and hearing flutist after flutist after flutist practicing the same twelve bars of music, and starting to feel that this was a rather strange energy vortex. All this energy being poured into these few excerpts — there were hundreds of us. That culture turned out, in the end, to be one that was quite regimented, and which I couldn’t quite find my way out of, and finally I decided that it wasn’t for me. I think it is possible to be more creative about how you approach it. Lots of musicians are able to do the strict regimented routine, branch out and do other things, and not succumb to that narrow vision. I wasn’t sure how to do that at that point in my life. It was very competitive. The flute is beautiful — I loved playing, I had some great experiences, I loved playing in the orchestra — that was just magical.

Piano was always more of a general instrument for me. I never spent numerous hours practicing piano alone. It was more a practical, fun thing. I played four-hand music with my mother, which is a great memory — one of the most fun things I have ever done — I used to play Mozart with her.

TM: It seems bizarre that the flute subculture should have this nerdy/athletic edge to it, given that the repertoire for the instrument is larger than that for almost anything but the piano, but flute pedagogy ends up being limited to a tiny repertoire.

AW: When I talked earlier about regretting putting down the violin, it has to do with repertoire, because I think that if I had spent half the hours that I put into the flute into the violin, I could sit down and play quartets, and for flute there just isn’t the chamber music. To be able to play in a string quartet, that incredible repertoire, to be able to play loud and low…one of my neighbor’s kids plays the violin, and has been talking about wanting to play the flute, and I want to say “No! stick with the violin!”

The orchestral experience as a wind player is very special, and probably beats a violinist’s experience in the orchestra, generally speaking, but in terms of being able to just go on and play — it’s more violin music, for me.

TM: There are actually hundreds of quartets for flute and strings which are now becoming available from state libraries….but until now it’s been accessible.

To go back to southern New Hampshire, were you taking lessons in the Boston area?

AW: I started flute in the seventh grade, got into the New Hampshire Youth Orchestra when I was in the ninth grade, and when I was a senior in high school started going down to Boston on weekends to study with Lois Schafer, who was in the BSO, and with Kathy Boyd, who was at New England Conservatory. I was in the New England Conservatory Youth Chamber Orchestra, with Ben Zander.

TM: That must have been quite an experience. He is a charismatic guy.

AW: He would stand up and say “This is perhaps the most beautiful moment in all of Western music”. He said that any number of times, in many rehearsals, and he was right every time, I suppose.

TM: How did you decide that music was the thing, and that composition was the direction that you wanted to go in?

AW: I did some composing in high school, was playing a lot of flute, and focused on practicing. I also really loved my English classes, loved reading and writing. I had some exposure to composition in high school - there was a high school composer’s weekend festival at Boston University. You could submit a piece, and they would play it. I wrote a song, to a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, called The Fawn, and sent it in to that. I got to hear it, and that got me going, a bit. In the middle of sophomore year of high school I started going to Philips Exeter Academy, as a day student, and Martin Amlin, who is a pianist and composer, was teaching at Philips Exeter. I took some piano lessons and some composition lessons with him.

In terms of taking composition seriously, it wasn’t until quite a bit later, after I had graduated from college, and had realized that being a flutist wasn’t exactly the life that I was looking for [laughs]….

TM: Were you already interested in contemporary music as a high school student?

AW: My flute teacher in high school, Doug Worthen, a terrific flutist and flute teacher, had me play the Berio Sequenza — that kind of thing was a big deal. I loved Copland in high school, a far cry from Berio….but still, fairly recent music. When I think about composing taking root for me, it was not so much connected to any particular composers as it was to being excited about being able to write something down and hear it played.

TM: Were there genres that spoke to you outside classical music?

AW: Sure. I always listened to popular music. My mother had a big record collection that included a lot of classical, but also a lot of popular music. I heard all kinds of music all the time, and loved it. I loved rock and roll, I loved all kinds of pop music that was happening at that time. I never wanted to be in a band, or be some kind of pop star myself. That was never something that crossed my mind — but I did love and enjoy the music.

TM: How did you decide where to go to college?

AW: I thought about trying to go to a conservatory, and applied to conservatories as well as liberal arts colleges. I went to Yale in part because it was a great school, but also because I wanted to study with Thomas Nyfenger, who was teaching flute at the school of music. It seemed like the best of both worlds.

TM: As an undergraduate, studying flute would have been additional to the curriculum.

AW: As a matter of fact, they made a big deal about telling me that you did not take lessons for credit. There was a special situation where you could take one or two semesters, if they were deemed to be at a certain level. I loved the classes at Yale. I considered a double major in English and Music, but that turned out to be too much. The playing was great — great musicians, great chances to play chamber music — it wasn’t for credit, but that didn’t really matter.

TM: What year did you arrive at Yale?

AW: 1983-1987.

TM: Were you studying composition as a music major?

AW: I took a composition seminar during my sophomore year, as well as the music theory and music history sequence, and the other courses for the music major. I was playing a lot, and started to do some composing. It took a while for it to really take off — I didn’t write a lot. I loved the model compositions that we had to do for theory class, where you had to write a little piece in the style of Debussy, or in the style of Chopin, or Schubert — it seemed like that really got you inside the music, and there were clear boundaries. Working within them was great fun.

TM: What, when and where would you say would be your opus one as a composer?

AW: I went to graduate school as such a beginner in a way — bless them for taking me. [Laughs]. I had written a couple of pieces before graduate school — a movement for string quartet, a short piece for orchestra. I had been at the Aspen Festival, and had gotten these pieces played, but those pieces are long ago and far away. It was in grad school that I dove into composing. I just had a solo cello piece performed and recorded — called Possible Stories. The cellist Caroline Stinson recorded it for her solo CD. That piece I wrote towards the end of graduate school — 1994, 1995 — it’s a long time ago, I made a few revisions, but that’s a piece I can point to and live with. I also wrote a big piece that ended up being my dissertation for graduate school, a sort of chamber opera — a thirty-minute piece for one singer and chamber orchestra, that was an adaptation of a short story. That piece was a big landmark for me. It hasn’t been played again, but I think of it and know it, and it marks a time and a place for me.

TM: What’s the title?

AW: Ordinary Mysteries.

TM: Did you write the libretto?

AW: I adapted, on my own, a short story by Kate Chopin, called The Story of an Hour. I was very taken with this one, and made it into a little opera. There is one singer, who acts as a narrator, and also sings in the voices of characters.

TM: What was it that spoke to you in this particular story?

AW: It’s an incredibly melodramatic story. A woman’s husband is out working on a railroad, and she gets the news that he has been killed in an accident. What I was taken with is what the story describes as her reaction upon hearing the news. At the end of the story, one learns that there has been a mistake — that it was someone else — that her husband is alive. There’s a whole emotional trajectory she has — being struck by grief, but then realizing that she is free, and that her life has changed completely, and that it is hers to live. I was very interested in exploring that mindset, that emotional terrain. It seemed like a really fun thing to write music about.

TM: Does she feel liberated by this experience?

AW: Yes, she does [laughs].

TM: The guilty secret about married people.

AW: I suppose. I suppose there was a kind of feminist thing too — this was a story taking place in modern times, but some time ago. This was about an old-fashioned marriage, and a woman who clearly had a mind of her own, and was expected to do certain things inside her marriage. That mindset was interesting to me.

TM: I would be interested to hear how you approach writing for voice. Voice is one of those things that can be off-putting from the outset for the naïve listener. They hear an operatic soprano and think “Oh my God! I don’t want to listen to that!” To write something that is psychologically naturalistic, but for the artificial instrument that is the operatic voice is a difficult task.

AW: That’s true, and it’s something that I wonder about all the time, still. I am not at all resolved about the fact that the operatic voice is so foreign-sounding. It’s also so personal — each voice is so different. If you love a voice, there’s nothing better. Once you get into that world, it’s fantastic. But it is true that for most people the sound of an operatic voice is very strange, and artificial. A big influence for me in writing that piece came from Judith Weir — hearing her piece The Consolations of Scholarship. Judith Weir has an amazing ability to work with a certain degree of rigor and complexity, but at the same time to keep things very natural, very simple-sounding, straightforward — she strikes a great balance in that respect, so when I heard that piece, it opened a lot of doors for me. A big part of working with voice is working with words. There is a lot of fun to be had in finding rhythm in words. It is incredibly interesting to notice the rhythm of speech and then bring that to the world of a piece. Spoken words in some way carry more significance rhythmically than sung words. More and more my vocal writing has been pulling into smaller registers. It’s lower than it’s used to be, and that has to do with the fact that the extremes emphasize that foreignness of the operatic voice, and that’s troubling to me. I am not sure what to do with that.

TM: Where women choose to speak, whether over or beneath the break, is connected with gender roles. Women who choose a more modern role may tend to speak in a lower register, so when we hear women speak in a high voice, it connotes women who have chosen a more old-fashioned role gender-wise.

AW: I haven’t thought about it in exactly that way. I am often taken with lower-sounding voices.

TM: Think of Julia Child –that’s an operatic soprano.

AW: Singers are very different from each other. I had a great opportunity to write something for Dawn Upshaw, someone who has an amazing voice and amazing technique, but at the same time an earthy quality and the ability to sound “natural”.

I think that’s my ideal….

TM: Would you say that your mini-opera has had progeny in terms of more recent vocal works?

AW: Yes — I have always loved writing for voice. I have written some songs, and pieces where I have set poetry in a traditional way. I have also written a couple of songs where I wrote my own words, and I finished a piece this fall that combined poetry and my own words, and have been thinking dramatically again about voice. I have been thinking about writing for voice all along since I wrote that little opera, but recently I have had an urge to go back to telling a story, having characters and being more explicit about that. There is always a voice, always the sense of character — any good singer brings that to the setting of a poem in an art song. Yet I have been wanting to write pieces in which there is a more explicit sense of character and voice, and to play more with words.

TM: To follow up what you said about the blank slate and model compositions — at the moment there is an immense blank slate for the composer, who can draw on any idiom from any time period, and write for any type of ensemble — no one believes in the arrow of history anymore. You are free to write anything you like — but with that possibility how do you choose what style to write in?

Weesner-rehearsal2.gifIn rehearsal

AW: I think there is a basic urge to make a sound that is new. This doesn’t necessarily require coming up with a new system or a new language or even a new style that hasn’t existed before. The sort of classical music world in which I am interested is one in which there is a desire to say something striking and new—interestingly enough this is something that great performers do with interpretation of old pieces all the time. I think it is important and inevitable that a composer has an identifiable voice. To a large extent we must simply follow our ears, trust them, and push ourselves to respond to that desire to be expressive, to say something both new and true. There is a taste for the adventurous, for a sense of pushing limits a little bit, and this may be the result of how musical ideas are combined as much as what they are in the first place. Lately I have been interested in using very simple materials, very basic kinds of tunes and at the same time make use of some of the more systematic, process-oriented approaches that I studied in school in the music of other composers. I am interested in the close proximity of simplicity with complexity. I like to think of it all as being available. The guiding force, the thing that gives coherence, is the ear. In the end maybe there is some sort of test of honesty, with oneself, as a composer.

TM: To move to a different tangent — do you still play flute?

AW: No — about twice a year. I play Happy Birthday now and then for my family.

TM: So the flute does not have a particular place in your oeuvre.

AW: It doesn’t. In fact I have written very little for flute — it is almost as if I have avoided it. I think I prefer writing for other instruments, actually.

TM: Which ones, for example?

AW: I love writing for strings, for voice. I love the clarinet. For flute, because I spent so much time playing it, it’s hard to go there. There’s something sort of personal there.

TM: How would you characterize your style, if you were looking at it from the outside?

AW: I think that my music makes free use of tonal materials, without being tonal. When we talk about style, we prioritize harmony, but I think that rhythm is an easier, more obvious, and maybe more important thing to talk about. I love pulse, I love periodic music. The music tends not to be free-floating or suspended, but to have a big beat, quite often. It is melodic, and there are certain kinds of complexity. Somebody once said something about me using simple materials to make complex sounds, and that sounds on the mark to me.

TM: Perhaps you could talk about a recent piece that made an impact.

AW: I have just been hearing a piano trio that I wrote a couple of years ago for a group called Open End, played recently in Philadelphia by Counter)Induction. It’s different. It’s been an exciting piece for me, because there seems to be some degree of agreement about the idea that this piece works, about what’s exciting about it, and that’s gratifying. It’s about ten minutes long, it’s a little tighter structurally, perhaps, than usual. I tried to be very disciplined about keeping structure pretty tight. It has complexity of the kind I like and find exciting, alongside very plain harmonic language. There are sequences with triads that might have come out of a Radiohead song — they probably did come out of a Radiohead song. I love Radiohead, and have written some pieces that I can tell are connected to that. In this piano trio, the density and complexity on the one hand, and the simplicity, the freedom just to sit on a tenth in the cello, or have a very basic chord progression — those things are able to coexist in a way that is working for me.

TM: Could you talk about compositional process? Do you begin with a structure, like an architect, or develop a narrative from the details?

AW: My first impulse is to say that I work like the architect. I don’t start at the beginning and go, and see where it takes me. Generally I have some plan. The process of composing often revolves around having an idea for a moment, or maybe several moments, of arrival. The process is about making the piece that will allow those moments to speak. Those moments get created by working with some material. And here it is more like the novelist — the material is like characters who start out one way, and turn out to have other qualities, have something happen to them, and change — that kind of thinking is very important to me. I want there to be some surprise, but I also want there to be coherence, where there is a sense of arrival that comes from the presence of a coherent structure. And materials reappearing throughout. I suppose I am old-fashioned in that sense, that tunes might start one way, and return later in a different guise, and that that can be meaningful and beautiful and powerful. That’s important to me.

TM: Does it matter to your music, in terms of style, or in terms of what you want to express, that you are from Durham, New Hampshire?

AW: What is a girl from Durham, New Hampshire doing writing classical music? [Laughs].

TM: New Hampshire in general, or if you want to make it broader, Red Sox Nation, or New England?

AW: I do love sports. I tried to write a piece about hockey once. My brother played high school hockey, and I went to a lot of hockey games. I love being at a rink — it’s cold, and I love the sound of ice, and the sticks….I have a very sentimental thing about that. My brother played in a high school championship game, and later in life I asked him how often he thought about that moment, since he was a younger member of the team, was not a senior yet, was in the first line, and I asked him “How often do you think about that game?” And he said “Every day.” And I thought, “That is what I would like to write a piece of music about.” Those moments, where there are all those perspectives on time — the single collapsed moment that lives on forever, and has all of this space around it. Real time, made time, and the moment itself, with its infinite depth. And in the context of sports, there is a lot of rhythm in that.

TM: There’s your next opera.

AW: Your question brings up something that I am being cheeky about, but I really do wonder what it means to be in classical music, and yet to feel like a very ordinary person from Durham, New Hampshire. I want those worlds to meet and co-exist. I think classical music contains the ordinary and it gets thrown up into lofty realms, but where it is most exciting is where it is being connected to ordinary life.

TM: To connect that with another New England composer, the American composer who connects most clearly with everyday life is Charles Ives, particularly, but not only, in the songs — in his instrumental music as well. Do you have a sense of being a New England composer?

AW: That’s a good question. I love Ives. Once a friend told me I sounded like Ives, and I will be forever flattered. I love that association. I don’t know if I am quite so New-Englandy as Charles Ives.

TM: Nobody could be.

AW: My parents are both from the Midwest. In Ives there is that wonderful co-existence of the simple hymn tunes with these complex adventurous sounds that make you experience something that you have never experienced before. That combination of things is very resonant with me. If that’s a New England thing, then maybe I am New Englandy.

TM: To take it a little farther out, does it matter that you are a woman and a composer?

AW: Part of me wants to have a strong answer for that, and part of me wants to ignore it completely. It’s very difficult. There are times when you feel like you just want to write music, and you don’t want it to matter, and yet it seems to. That is, to be identified as a woman composer is to be set apart. I don’t want to be set apart. I just want to write music. I hear and appreciate music by men and women alike.

In terms of my work, I am not a politically oriented person. It doesn’t enter my consciousness as I am composing. I am not thinking about that. Does it matter? Sure. Does it affect my life? Sure. Do I want my work to reflect my whole self, which includes the fact that I am a woman? Absolutely. I think that is undeniable. I think there is a lot to talk about there. I am reluctant to go there when I am in my composing frame of mind, because it feels extraneous. When I am in my composing frame of mind, it’s a given — of course I am a woman. On the other hand, it certainly enters into the way things function out there in the world we live in. When I am asked to participate in something as a woman composer, part of me thinks “That’s great! I am glad you are making that effort”, and part of me sinks a little bit, because I wish we didn’t have to point out that distinction. One wants to feel that the music is valued for what it is, and not because it represents an identity.

TM: And to take it one step farther, what does it mean to be writing music as an American? Is there something about the music that is American? Is it something that comes to mind consciously when you are composing?

AW: That probably comes to mind more often than gender. I have had a couple of chances to do some composing in Europe, and I have loved it, because it has allowed me to have this different perspective on being American, and I find it very rich to be able to reflect on that. I am an American-sounding composer, I identify with a lot of American-sounding composers, I love Copland, I love Ives. That is undeniably part of my sound-world.

TM: Being outside the United States bring into question things day by day about how you speak to somebody, how you interact. Those are things you don’t get a window on until you leave.

Tell me about the big project for 2010.

AW: Lately it is lots of little projects. I am doing a CD of chamber music, getting some recording sessions together for existing pieces. I am finishing a small piece for big orchestra, so part of my upcoming agenda includes getting that finished and out there, trying to get that played. I have been working through this piece that I wrote this fall for Orchestra 2001 which is for three singers, and involved some text I wrote and settings of Emily Dickinson poetry. I have been making a choral version of it.

I am supposed to write a piece for the New York-based group Sequitur, and I am not sure what piece that is yet. I’ve also just been asked to write a new piece for the Lark quartet plus percussion. So there are some practical things on the table, and some looser content that is occupying me, and we’ll see how those things connect. I am on leave this year, or I wouldn’t be talking this way. I wouldn’t be so free!

TM: Feeling relaxed.

AW: A little more than usual.

TM: Are you satisfied with the way you have been writing, or do you see that there might be some way in which you would like to change your language?

AW: I don’t think I am the sort of who makes a big deliberate stylistic change — I just don’t work that way — but that being said, any new piece involves a reengagement with trying to make something that sounds new and cool and exciting and says what you want to say. Things have been changing. I don’t feel like I can make a prediction, but I am always, always trying to be ready and open for some new way of thinking that feels right and natural.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Anna-Weesner.gif image_description=Anna Weesner product=yes product_title=Anna Weesner: An interview by Tom Moore product_by=Above: Anna Weesner
Posted by Gary at 7:04 AM

Timothy Andres: An interview by Tom Moore

He recently moved to New York City after undergraduate and graduate study of music at Yale. We spoke via Skype on January 14, 2010.

TM: Could you talk a little about the musical atmosphere in your family? Was there an uncle who played the violin or a father who played the piano? I know you were born in Palo Alto.

TA: I spent my first five years in the Bay Area — Palo Alto, then Berkeley. Thereafter I grew up in northwestern Connecticut. Neither of my parents are musicians, but there’s certainly music and the arts go back in my family. On my dad’s side, my grandfather is a big music enthusiast. Back in the day, he was a contemporary music enthusiast — for him, contemporary music is Bartok and Shostakovich and Prokofiev and Stravinsky and those people who were avant-garde when he was growing up.

They always had music around when they were growing up. My dad and his siblings all studied instruments. My dad must have studied five instruments over the course of his life, but not as a professional. My uncle, his brother, is a professional accordionist, who lives in Seattle. He’s the only other professional musician in the family.

TM: What area of music? Does he do commercial music?

TA: More folk stuff. He has a klezmer band, a traditional French music band, does a lot of Irish folk music. He is very knowledgeable about traditional folk musics. On my mom’s side, my grandmother, my mom’s mom, is a professional actress. Her dad, my great-grandfather, was Gilbert Seldes, who wrote about the arts and especially about popular culture, in the twenties and thirties.

TM: Almost nobody is “from” Palo Alto, so I am assuming that your parents had not grown up there.

TA: They are both East-Coasters. My mom grew up in New York City, and my dad is from Baltimore.

TM: I only knew one person who had grown up in Palo Alto.

TA: When they were there, in the early eighties, was when Palo Alto was coming up. Over the course of their time there, it got more and more ridiculous, which is why we moved to Berkeley. Then the ’89 earthquake happened and they decided it was maybe not the best place to raise a family.

TM: Yes, indeed. They moved to a place with relatively few earthquakes.

TA: Connecticut is pretty boring in terms of possible natural disasters. There’s a tornado every fifteen years or so. We had major snowstorms and power outages while I was growing up.

TM: Speaking of Connecticut, you have a connection with Charles Ives. Is that something that goes way back? Did you visit the Ives museum in Danbury?

TA: I’ve never been there. For the fiftieth anniversary of his death I played the “Concord” Sonata in Danbury.

I got interested in Ives early on. My dad had always been into Ives, and he gave me a record of the “Concord” Sonata when I was in middle school or so. I thought it was just wild — it is wild — but I didn’t see the logic in it. I got the idea that I wanted to learn it when I was sixteen or seventeen. I worked it up for a year and a half, and ended up performing it quite a lot. I haven’t performed it since 2004, so I would like to work up that piece again.

Danbury is so different from when Charles Ives would have been in the area — it’s probably unrecognizable.

TM: There was a huge Ives boomlet…

TA: I like that….

TM: …as huge as Charles Ives booms can get, back in ’74, the centenary.

TA: That’s how my dad got into Charles Ives, since he was living in New Haven that year. He didn’t go to Yale, but was working in an architecture studio. Yale had a big Ives shindig.

TM: Since then he has continued to be present, but on a much lower level. How do you as a composer of the early twenty-first century see him speaking to you?

TA: He’s a singular figure. He’s like Abraham Lincoln for composers, in that both Republicans and Democrats like to claim Lincoln as their progenitor — it’s very similar with Ives, in that all types of different composers can get something out of him, and claim him as their own. He is a figure who is full of contradictions, and I think that he would have been totally OK with that.

TM: At the same time that he is in a sense the first “American” composer, he is also completely anti-canonical. I don’t imagine he is frequently taught in histories of music.

TA: No, he is glossed over as a historical curiosity. How do you encapsulate Ives in a couple of pages of a music-history text? You can’t possibly. His music isn’t neat and tidy — you can’t use it to sum up an era, because he was his own era. As part of a historical narrative he is not so useful. You could say that he is like Sibelius or Benjamin Britten — one of those composers for whom you can’t tie them to a larger movement. In those cases they were regarded as more conservative, while Ives was regarded as simply crazy or way ahead of his time. An outlier.

TM: Like Villa-Lobos, in the sense that Villa-Lobos is the national composer, but stands outside the European mainstream and the historical narrative.

Let’s rewind, and talk a little more about your path into music. You moved to western Connecticut, and rural western Connecticut at that. How did you wind up getting interested in music?

TA: I had always been interested in it, as far as I can remember, listening to records and tapes from a very early age, being entranced by them, but it didn’t occur to me that playing music was something that I could do until my dad brought an electric keyboard home when I was seven. It was a product called the “Miracle Piano Teaching System”, which hooked up to your Mac, with MIDI. It had an ancient program or HyperCard stack which would teach you how to play basic pieces. I started on that, and I believe we had a PowerBook Duo dock. That was my first musical experience. Soon after that I started writing things down, which seemed like something I should do. I could play music, so why not write music. I have been doing it pretty much constantly since then. I got a real human piano teacher pretty soon after that. I sang in a local children’s chorus from age nine through twelve. That was a big influence as well. There was one year where we had a good director and did interesting music, and the rest of the time we sang “contemporary Christian semi-denominational music”. I wrote two or three pieces for the chorus, and we performed them, which would have been my first publicly-performed works.

TM: What was the name of the chorus?

TA: The Litchfield County Children’s Choir. If I had grown up in another part of the country my first musical experience might have been playing in a marching band or a drum corps.

TM: Did you play music at your schools?

TA: I guess you could say that I was a bit of a problem child. My school was never very sympathetic to the idea that I wanted to spend a lot of time practicing piano and writing music, so I got into trouble a lot. I had some sympathetic music teachers who were encouraging. Early on I had started going into New York City for piano lessons, to study with Eleanor Hancock. She was my teacher from age 11 through 18. She was my only important piano teacher, since I only studied for a couple of years after that in college.

It is thanks to Eleanor that I am still able to play, since she gave me a solid technical foundation. I never really practiced as much as a pianist should.


TM: How much should a pianist practice?

TA: Knowing pianists in conservatories, they are all these total recluses — pianists are so weird socially.

TM: Obsessively focused on the piano.

TA: I think that it is from the solitary pursuit of long hours playing on a dingy practice-room piano — that can’t be good for you.

TM: And it doesn’t happen with other instruments by and large.

TA: Not so much, since they are instruments of the orchestra, or depend more on chamber music for their repertoire. Pianists, if they want to, can be almost totally solitary. That lifestyle never completely appealed to me.

The other thing about Eleanor is that she let me play whatever I wanted. When I announced that I wanted to play the Concord Sonata, this was not a piece that was in her repertoire, but she was gung-ho and learned it along with me. I recently saw her score of it, full of markings and passages she had worked out…by this time she was in her mid-seventies, and didn’t really play herself anymore. She was very dedicated, and let me explore what I wanted to explore, which was a great, freeing experience, and probably one that spoiled me for future piano teachers, who wanted me to start their way, and learn Mozart and Schubert….nothing against those composers, but I wanted play Ives and Rzewski and John Adams. It just didn’t match.

TM: Piano teachers always seem to want to teach Schubert.

TA: I love Schubert. I play Schubert for fun all the time, but it wasn’t what I wanted to spend my life doing.

TM: The number of teachers who would give you Rzewski rather than Schubert is minimal.

TA: Very few have even heard of Rzewski, although he is one of the great pianist-composers of our age. He is a terrific performer.

TM: Absolutely. What other music might you have been listening to as a teen? Or was it only classical?

TA: It was pretty much only classical. In high school I studied composition at Juilliard pre-college, so I was in this hyper-canonical sort of world. At Juilliard that was the early 20th-century canon. In high-school I would have been obsessed with Bartok, Shostakovich, Mahler, Prokofiev, Ives, Copland, Bernstein — orchestral hits. I didn’t even hear Steve Reich or Philip Glass until I got to college. They were just not on the menu at Juilliard.

TM: Because conservatories are usually fifty or sixty years behind the times.

TA: I guess so, and it takes even longer for that to filter down to the high-school programs, since I am sure they were known in the composition programs. In college that totally changed, with an explosion of influences and listening to new kinds of music that I had never heard before.

TM: What was the factor that impelled you to go to Yale?

TA: For a while I was thinking that I would go to Juilliard. I liked it a lot there, and had great teachers who were encouraging. But eventually it became clear that it could be a place where it might be stifling to be totally ensconced at. I applied to a few Ivy League schools, and had no idea what my chances were, since I was going to this tiny non-accredited performing-arts high school in northwest Connecticut. I took academic classes, but they weren’t what you would get at a real high school. I got in, and went to visit at these places a bunch of times. I had the nicest experience at Yale, and it seemed like there was more going on musically. I liked the idea that I would hang around with people who weren’t all musicians, and who weren’t striving for the same kind of thing that I was. In retrospect I am really glad that I made that choice — Yale was a great place for me, and opened me up to a lot of things to which I had not previously been open. I spent six years there, so it must have been good.

TM: And close to New York.

TA: People at Yale like to complain about New Haven — it’s a favorite pastime. After a while it can get stifling — I was definitely ready to leave at the end of last year. I had been there for six years, and done two degrees. I knew everyone. It’s a very tight-knit community, and that’s nice. Everyone is very supportive of each other, it’s not hyper-competitive even though it is a conservatory. The composition department is top-notch, although some of the other departments are a little old-fashioned for my taste, a little conservative. The composition department has a variety of different voices, and the student body was something that attracted me.

TM: Had you been doing composition during the years before you went to Yale?

TA: Yes. I wrote in a very hyper-emotional neo-expressionistic style — very overwrought, very dissonant. I wrote a lot of piano music, did a piano concerto which sounds like Bartok, a piano sonata which sounds like Prokofiev mixed with Copland….

TM: Is there a line you would draw between the juvenilia and op. 1?

TA: Yes, at some point in college. I had been working on a big symphonic piece influenced by Mahler, and spent a year and half writing it, and by the time it was done I was pretty sure that I didn’t anyone anywhere to play it ever. At that point I had begun to be exposed to a lot of new music. I heard minimalism for the first time in my life, and started listening to really interesting pop music that I had never heard before. I didn’t write a lot of music in 2004 and 2005 because I was spending a lot of time listening. I didn’t know where I was going with my own music.

It wasn’t a clean break, but there was certainly a before and after.

TM: Is there a piece that you would think of as your Opus 1?

TA: Probably the song-cycle called Transparence of the World, which I think is the earliest piece on my website now. That’s probably the earliest thing I would let anyone perform.

TM: What year was that from?

TA: From 2004 — I worked on it in the spring of my freshman year.

TM: Was there a composer at Yale who had a particular influence?

TA: I went through so many teachers as an undergrad, because there was a good deal of turnover in the department when I was there. At first I was studying with a great guy, John Halle, who left to go to Bard after a couple years. He definitely opened me up to a lot of new things, gave me a lot of music to listen to, asked provocative questions, and played devil’s advocate, which I think is the most effective thing that you can do as a composition teacher. Even if you don’t really mean what you are asking, it’s useful to have someone ask it to you. You have to learn to say “Thanks, but no thanks”, which is definitely something I do with composition teachers, and you have to. You can’t take everyone’s advice, because it all is going to be different. That helped me, because I had so many teachers — five teachers in four years of undergrad, and they all told me different things, so I eventually learned to not listen to any of them….They were great.

I studied with Matthew Suttor from New Zealand, who moved to the Drama School and teaches there now. They hired Michael Klingbeil from Columbia, and I studied with him a bit. Orianna Webb, a young composer who was at Cincinnati, and Kathryn Alexander, who has run the department for a long time. That doesn’t even count summer festivals…so many people.

In grad school I studied with four more teachers — Ingram Marshall, Aaron Kernis, Chris Theofanidis, and Martin Bresnick.

TM: There’s no overlap between the grad and undergraduate programs at Yale.

TM: Could you talk about some of your recent pieces? Perhaps about Some Connecticut Gospel?

TA: This goes back to my ongoing association with Ives, and to a friend I met at Tanglewood. She is a violinist, who was in the New World Symphony program in Florida, a training orchestra that Michael Tilson Thomas runs. They were doing an Ives celebration last year, because MTT really loves Ives, and basically will find any excuse to do his music. My friend initiated a commissioning program, which commissioned four composers to write chamber pieces which were in some way related to Ives. She thought of me since she knew that I played Ives and really loved Ives. I wrote in the fall of 2008, during the big ramp-up to the election. I was feeling really excited about that, and so it figures in the piece. I tried to imagine a sort of idealized Connecticut, the way you get it in a lot of Ives, especially the songs — idyllic, pastoral scenes — and idealized human qualities, very much in the way that I feel people tended to feel about Barack Obama — idealizing in a virtuous, “Americana” way. I got to thinking about the fact that Connecticut doesn’t seem to have many personality traits of its own. People don’t think of being Connecticutian in the way that they think of being Californian or being Texan, or even being a New Yorker. I was trying to bring a feeling of pride and statehood to a place where it didn’t really exist. Musically, the piece works in a way that I seem to fall back on often — a passacaglia or chaconne, bookended by two Ivesian, made-up parlor-song reminiscences. I like writing for medium-sized chamber groups. It’s where I am most free to try different things, to write what I want. In this piece especially I felt like the instruments themselves were real characters, and tried to treat them in a dramatic way — each instrument plays its own role. They come in gradually, and it’s not a coloristic thing — it’s like a character in a play. You wouldn’t have a character come on, say one word, and go backstage. I think musicians appreciate it when you write them parts like that. This was also precipitated by the fact that I actually knew a lot of people who were down at New World, and was able to pick the people that I would be writing for. I already knew their musical personalities and put them into the piece. I love doing that, rather than writing for a bunch of people that you don’t know. It’s nice to have a familiar musical touch that you are writing for.

TM: I noticed the gradual accumulation of energy, which is not a strategy that is frequently used.

TA: Quite the opposite, I’d say. It’s sort of clichéd — a Samuel Barber orgasm. I think it’s a little over-played, but it works. You can add your own spin to it. It doesn’t have to be the Adagio for Strings.

TM: Could you talk about Fast Flows the River [for cello and Hammond organ]? The very first thing that strikes me is the sound of the Hammond organ, which for me is very hard to separate from 1960s-1970s rock and roll.

TA: That’s funny — it’s partly a generational thing. I didn’t grow up listening to that stuff, and the Hammond organ is just a really fantastic-sounding instrument that I can use, and for me, not tied to anything in particular. There’s a very good Hammond B-3 module built into Logic. I originally wrote the piece with the idea that you would play it on a MIDI controller from a laptop. It ended up that the Music Technology Lab at Yale purchased a Hammond organ that spring, so I got to play, perform and record it on a real B-3 with a giant Leslie speaker cabinet. That’s the recording that is at the website. I love how it envelops the cello in a warm cushion of sound.

That piece is something I came up for my friend Hannah [Collins], the cellist. She wanted a piece without piano, so of course I came up with a piece with Hammond organ, something even less practical. It’s a setting of a folk-song, with the cello playing a drawn-out, hyper-extended version of the melody, a tune that I remember hearing as a kid, and have used several times. It’s a very straight setting — I fiddle around with the harmony, and there’s the short commentary at the end that makes it into my piece, rather than my setting of a folk song.

TM: You have a knack for evocative titles. Do the pieces take shape as response to an idea, or does the idea come afterwards.

TA: Some of each. It’s always different. Titles are one of my favorite subjects to talk about. I feel like so many great composers and great pieces have really awful titles. It’s the single biggest issue facing the acceptance of contemporary music — the fact that there are so many atrocious titles.

TM: What do you think of the punning titles from the Babbitt generation?

TA: When Milton Babbitt himself does it, it’s ok with me. What really annoys me is if you have a composer these days who writes a new piece and calls it a plural abstract noun followed by a Roman numeral. That is something that was so played out twenty-five years ago. I can’t imagine why you would want to do it now.

The other thing that annoys me is that I feel that there are these neo-Romantic generic, new-Agey types of titles — I won’t name names, since I know some of these people — which on the one hand are so unmemorable, and on the other hand sound like some sort of health-food drink….and these are smart people! I feel like they should realize this.

TM: I had a friend who figured to make a million dollars marketing “Gentle Massage” herbal tea….

TA: Like some sort of yoga compilation CD you would buy at Starbucks. Titles are something that I made a conscious decision to focus on several years ago. I keep a list of unused titles, or words and phrases that get stuck in my head. Sometimes they are useful, sometimes they just stay on the list. Sometimes I will come up with an idea as I am writing the piece. They always want you to explain the title in your program notes, and sometimes I just don’t have a reason for it. It’s always a challenge to come up with some sort of association. There’s no reason you should have to have one, but if you don’t, people will ask you.

TM: And you know your biographer will come up with a reason.

TA: I am struggling with that right now. I have to write program notes for a new piece that I just finished for the Albany Symphony. The title I gave it is Look Around You , which is named after a BBC comedy, a faux-educational video, the sort of science videos you saw in school, that always look like they are from the seventies, except that everything in it is blatant misinformation. I love the idea of something being presented to you as indisputable fact when it is hilariously wrong.

TM: Please talk a little more about the piece.

TA: It’s a concerto for violin and viola, except that they are played by the same person, who switches off between them. It’s a one-movement piece — it took me a real effort to write — I started it near the beginning of the summer, and I feel like I really had to tear it out of me. Usually I write faster than that. It’s less easy-going than a lot of my music. I tend to be a easy-going guy, but it was a period of major changes that I was making in my life, like being out of school for the first time ever, figuring out how to survive on my own, live in New York…my girlfriend of five years moved 2000 miles away to go to medical school, which was a big change. That worked its way in there, somehow — it’s not a piece about my personal experience, since I don’t really do that, but there’s some turmoil in there.

TM: When is the premiere?

TA: At the end of March. When they approached me with the commission, the music director gave me the option to write a concerto for whoever I wanted, and I wrote it for a good friend of mine from Yale, violinist Owen Dalby, who is also a great violist. He has played in about ten of my pieces, so he and I go way back. He’s a faithful collaborator.

TM: What’s the next big project?

TA: One thing I have to do is my first string quartet. That’s always a little intimidating, to take a crack at that. That’s for a group called the ACME Quartet, which is very active in the contemporary scene in New York City. That will be paired with an Ives quartet no. 2 and the Bach Art of the Fugue, so I am thinking about how I can work in those two influences which are not as diametrically opposed as they may seem. So the Ives association continues.

I am also working on an orchestral paraphrase of the music of Brian Eno, taking material from a couple of albums from the seventies, and working that into a nineteenth-century style orchestral suite, like you might have a transcription of a Wagner opera by Liszt. Not just orchestration, but a sort of fantasia if you will. Eno is a composer who I have been very interested in, who I had not been exposed to before I heard him at Yale.

TM: Tell me about your surname.

TA: It was chopped off when the family got to Ellis Island. We’re Ashkenazi Jews — I am about seven/eighths East European Jewish.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/T_Andres_01.gif image_description=Timothy Andres [Photo by Michael Wilson] product=yes product_title=Timothy Andres: An interview by Tom Moore product_by=Above: Timothy Andres

Photos by Michael Wilson
Posted by Gary at 6:51 AM

April 7, 2010

NPR's "50 Great Voices" and vocal technique

By Anne Midgette [Washington Post, 7 April 2010]

On Monday, I happened to hear the latest segment in NPR’s ongoing series “50 great voices,” this one honoring a singer I’d never heard of, Esma Redzepova. The series has cast its net laudably wide; I realized that, opera lover though I am, I was a lot happier to learn about Redzepova, a world-famous Yugoslavian vocal star, than to hear one more segment extolling some opera singer I already loved (so far, Maria Callas is the only opera singer the series has featured).

Posted by Gary at 12:19 PM

A traumatic Dionysian feast

By Shirley Apthorp [Financial Times, 7 April 2010]

There are good reasons for Daphne ‘s comparative obscurity. Of all Richard Strauss’s operas, it is arguably the hardest to stage. How do you show a woman turning into a tree? Add the dubious time and place (Dresden, 1938) of the world premiere, Joseph Gregor’s weak libretto, and the antiquated subject material, and you have plenty of reasons for avoiding Daphne .

Posted by Gary at 9:22 AM

April 6, 2010

Maxim Shostakovich — “I feel my father looking over my shoulder”

By Richard Morrison [Times Online, 6 April 2010]

Maxim Shostakovich, the conductor son of the great Dmitri Shostakovich, stares incredulously at me. At first I think he is outraged by my questions. He isn’t, he’s just distracted by something more interesting. Namely, my face.

Posted by Gary at 5:46 PM

Soprano Leah Crocetto’s Career Takes Flight

By Jason Victor Serinus [SF Classical Voice, 6 April 2010]

Last June, soprano Leah Crocetto won the first prize, Spanish Prize, and People’s Choice at the José Iturbi International Music Competition in Los Angeles. On March 14, she was one of five winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in New York City.

Posted by Gary at 5:39 PM

Lend Me a Tenor, Music Box Theatre, New York

By Brendan Lemon [Financial Times, 6 April 2010]

Some theatre lovers lack the musical-comedy gene, and others missed out on the Shakespeare gene. Still others - here I must raise my hand - sit in stony-faced silence each time something with slamming doors and lewd innuendo pops up on Broadway or the West End. Farce, in other words.

Posted by Gary at 5:36 PM

LA Opera finishes formidable Ring

However, the bravo’s — more sedately stated — were in the majority, and their enthusiasm declared the success of this first production of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen in the company’s 25-year history. (Price tag: $32 million.)

This does not imply, of course, total agreement even among Freyer’s fans. Indeed, intermission conversation was rich in questions on the director’s intentions and on the wealth of images that made his stage a continually shifting panorama often with little obvious reference to events in the libretto — questions that will continue to perplex the audience as the production now moves into three complete cycles set for May and June.

Yet this Ring, no matter how it is judged, is a landmark — especially for the United States where it is the first experience of radical Wagnerian Regieoper yet encountered. And even those who prefer traditional Wagner could not withhold their praise for an exemplary cast that under the director of veteran Wagnerian James Conlon who made this a memorable Ring from its beginning a season ago to its conclusion on the Easter weekend.

It’s clear that Conlon cares and that he was out to give Los Angeles — and the United States — a Ring to remember. The production is not only a singular triumph for Los Angeles Opera, it is further a milestone in the staging of Wagner in America.

The opening scene of Götterdämmerung with the Three Norns trying in vain to weave the fabric that guaranteed some kind of future for Walhalla and its now despondent residents brought few surprises to those who had seen the first three installments of the Freyer Ring. Wotan’s missing eye remained in evidence, and the Tarnhelm — a gilded top hat — was suspended above the stage. Lighted tubes in various colors remain Freyer’s top toy.

There was thus little in the director’s immense bag of tricks that the audience had not already seen, and the question was now how successfully Freyer might bring the cycle to a meaningful and satisfactory conclusion. Freyer reduced the Gibichungs to near-comic-book figures, singing for the most part behind huge cut-outs. The incestuous relationship between siblings Gunther (Alan Held) and Gutrune (Jennifer Wilson), now a given in most Ring productions, was hardly noticeable as attention focused on Hagen, now the master of evil in Götterdämmerung.

Of Hagen, deliciously sung by veteran bass Eric Halfvarson, Freyer made a paraplegic dwarf who rarely left his seat at stage right, where he operated something of a remote to cause things to happen on stage. Unable to stab Siegfried in the usual manner in Act Three he allowed a bar of yellow light to fall and bring down the hero. Hagen’s equally evil men, on stage throughout Act Two, framed Brünnhilde’s cry for revenge and made this the finest hour of the entire cycle.

gott_358.pngJohn Treleaven (Siegfried), Alan Held (Gunther), Eric Halfvarson (Hagen)

Linda Watson, a major Brünnhilde of the past decade, brought unusual anguish to the frustrating helplessness of a woman now bereft of divine powers. (And one wonders why Siegfried makes such limited use of the magic that he had acquired through Ring and Tarnhelm, which he had used only to win Brünnhilde for weakling Gunther.) As the wrongly wronged woman Watson was at her dramatic — and tragic — best in achieving the dramatic intensity that made this act breathtakingly engaging.

No procession carried the dead Siegfried from the stage. The mortally wounded John Treleaven walked rather from sight, while a black-clad figure — his soul? — collapsed at Watson’s feet. The Funeral March, although played with epic sweep by Conlon, was thus without its usual focus. Moreover the powerful Immolation, in which Brünnhilde puts the entire story of the Ring together, suffered from Freyer’s inability to control excess.

gott_559.pngBack: Michelle deYoung (Waltraute), Front: Linda Watson (Brunnhilde)

Flames, a horse rising at the rear of the stage and immense ravens flying across the scrim were more competition than Watson — and Wagner — could counter. Although the soprano’s delivery was belabored, Conlon evoked an exuberance from his spectacular orchestra that ended the performance with the metaphysical consolation that Nietzsche called the essence of Greek tragedy. Once one adjusted to the Harpo Marx curls that Treleaven had sported in Siegfried, he sang the ill-fated hero with stamina and lyric loveliness as the drink that had destroyed his memory wore off and he recalled the promise with which he had set out on his venture.

Highest vocal marks, however, went to Michelle DeYoung for her expression of Waltraute’s sisterly concern in her attempt to avoid impending tragedy. One of the great Wagner and Mahler interpreters of today, DeYoung also sang the Third Norn, joined in the opening scene by Jill Grove and Melissa Citro. Richard Paul Fink was a definitive Alberich.

Beginning with Wolfgang Wagner’s revolutionary Ring that re-opened the Bayreuth Festival in 1952 directors have attempted to de-mythologize the work, to make clear that these are not gods and giants, but confused humans like the rest of us. Achim Freyer has rather made a daring effort to re-mythologize the Ring — to elevate it beyond the every-day to a new level of metaphysical significance. His may not be a Ring for everyone, but it is not to be written off as missing the Wagnerian mark.

gott_603.pngAlberich (Richard Paul Fink), Eric Halfvarson (Hagen)

While in Germany it is Wagner’s Parsifal that dominates the Easter weekend, it was significant — if coincidental — that Los Angeles paired Götterdämmerung at the Opera with a stirring performance of Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony across First Street at the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Disney Hall. The two works, heard in tandem on April 3, made for an impressive weekend. Given the hype surrounding the appointment of Gustavo Dudamel as music director of the Philharmonic, it was important to hear the orchestra under another conductor — in this case guest Semyon Bychkov.

Soviet-born and -trained Bychkov, now at home with Germany’s WDR Orchestra in Cologne, is an elegant and able conductor who took, however, a largely understated view of Mahler’s 1904 score. This was classic Mahler, if one will, contrasting sharply with the Romantic — and often bombastic — view of the composer commonly encountered today.

Bychkov, Semyon_courtesy of Van Walsum Management.pngSemyon Bychkov [Photo courtesy of Van Walsum Management]

Fascinating was the manner, in which Bychkov kept one aware of that undercurrent of gnawing contradiction that is so much a part of Mahler — that saying “Now, this isn’t as overwhelmingly lush as it seems” that is the mark of a Mahler master. Bychkov was especially convincing in the delicate transparency that he brought to the brief Adagietto, a movement often reduced to near-trivia through its over-popularity. (It was the major theme of Lucino Visconti’s undoing of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice.)

Trumpeter James Wilt set the tone for the performance with the solo that opens the score, and — happily — Bychkov moved horn William Lane to the front of the orchestra for his seminal role in the sometimes rustic Scherzo.

It was, however, the Philharmonic itself that was the glory of the Mahler heard on April 3. This is obviously one of the world’s top orchestras, due in no small measure to the devotion brought to it from 1992 to 2009 by music director Esa-Pekka Salonen. It is hoped that Dudamel realizes the challenge in Salonen’s legacy and keeps the Philharmonic at its current level of excellence.

The Los Angeles Opera stages three complete cycles of Achin Freyer’s production of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen between May 29 and June 28, 2010. For information and tickets,1972-8001 or visit its web site.

Wes Blomster

image=http://www.operatoday.com/gott312.png imagedescription=Linda Watson (Brunnhilde) [Photo by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of Los Angeles Opera]

product=yes producttitle=Richard Wagner: Götterdämmerung productby=Siegfried: John Treleaven; Gunther: Alan Held; Hagen: Eric Halfvarson; Brünnhilde: Linda Watson; Waltraute/2nd Norn: Michelle DeYoung; 1st Norn: Jill Grove; 2nd Norn: Michelle DeYoung; 3rd Norn: Melissa Citro; Gutrune: Jennifer Wilson; Woglinde: Stacey Tappan; Wellgunde: Lauren McNeese; Flosshilde: Ronnita Nicole Miller; Alberich: Richard Paul Fink. Conductor: James Conlon. Director and Designer: Achim Freyer. Costume Designer: Achim Freyer and Amanda Freyer. Lighting Designer: Brian Gale and Achim Freyer. product_id=Above: Linda Watson as Brünnhilde

Except as otherwise indicated, all photos by Monika Rittershaus courtesy of Los Angeles Opera

Posted by Gary at 12:12 PM

April 5, 2010

Il Turco in Londra

As imagined by the directorial team of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, Turco recalls the heyday of 60’s Italian cinema, with images unashamedly evocative of La Dolce Vita, 8-1/2 et al, and comedy rendered in the vein of a rather ribald sitcom; I Love Lucy with a fully functioning queen size bed, instead of those two maddening twins, if you will. (Where was Little Ricky conceived in that chaste boudoir?)

Mssrs. Leiser and Caurier waste no time in jump-starting the action with (mostly) meaningful busy-ness that is (mostly) cleanly executed by the well-tutored ROH chorus under the direction of Renato Balsadonna. Amid much amassed rushing on- and off-stage, and much laying on of (mostly) primary colors on gliding flats, the all-important Pirandellian narrator Prosdocimo is dynamically introduced, and he immediately engages the audience directly in his quest to write the very opera we are viewing.

TURCO-100331_0436-LEE AS NARCISO-(C)BARDA.pngColin Lee as Narciso

The inventiveness never flags, and it is to the directors’ credit that they manage to (mostly) avoid upstaging stars and story with distracting business. And when they score (which is often), they score big. Can there have been a more spectacular star entrance than that devised for the white-clad Selim, back to us, atop the massive prow of a yacht that tracks into view upstage, complete with pop-up Turkish flag? As the bass turns around to let us size him up visually just before he sings, it completes a perfectly judged dramatic moment. The preening Narciso rides in on a motor bike, another telling character introduction. Would that Fiorilla’s rather weak entrance have had the same cheeky punch. Still, the lady gets to roll around on the afore-mentioned bed in a passionately madcap sex show with her horny Turk, that is, until Don Geronio lurches through the door effecting a highly comical ‘show-itus interruptus.’

Principals arrive for the meeting on the beach on all mode of transport, snazzy sedan, cheap compact, and the tenor-topped Vespa; and Selim’s subsequent making out with Zaida in the back seat was a goof that resonated with 60’s park-and-snog atmosphere. The cast was exceptionally well blocked and the whole evening was crafted with well-defined character relationships as evidenced by meaningful, varied stage business.

That said, there was an occasional mis-step. Or minced step. When the chorus does those supposed-to-be-funny-pattering-feet-run-abouts, well, we are drawn out of an otherwise honest evening by the falesehood of the movement. This Turco is so overwhelmingly funny and delightful because of its honest trust in the material, that such insincere applications matter. I would urge the team to re-look the staging to eliminate those few fleeting distractions. And an inherent problem in today’s’ opera world remains that the (clever) surtitles sometimes get the laugh in lieu of, or in advance of the singer/director. Maybe delaying the punchline projection would give the performer the advantage?

TURCO-100331_0079-PRODUCTION IMAGE-(C)CLIVE BARDA.pngScene from Il turco in Italia

The directorial duo was given stellar support in their efforts starting with an eye-popping, riotously colorful set design by Christian Fenouillat. The pleasing clutter and motion of flats at the top of One filled the space with a volatile, multi-layered geometric design, with floating blocks of color reminiscent of, say, Mark Rothko. While the texturing of the set pieces seemed a little rudimentary on occasion, there is no doubt that it functioned beautifully, constantly morphing into such surprises as the fold out bed room (complete with a painting of an erupting Vesuvius over the head board), and a 60’s Kitsch disco complete with mirror ball for the party scene.

Of equal quality were the well-gauged costumes by Agostino Cavalca. Fiorilla was got-up as a Gina Lollobrigida stand-in and her glamor knew no bounds. Va-va-voom. Narciso’s yellow Elvis-meets-the Pillsbury-Dough-boy pop-rocker jumpsuit was giddily prankish. And the manly, well-tailored costumes for the title character managed to make him look handsomely exotic rather than stock-issue-silly. Indeed, the entire ensemble of performers was clothed in character-specific attire in a well-calculated color palette. Christophe Forey’s spot-on (pun intended) lighting was a critical component in the over-all triumph of design.

As Selim, Ildebrando d’Arcangelo swept all before him with a commanding presence, good comic sensibilities, amorous abandon, and oh, yes, an imposing world class bass voice with the suavity and richness of a dark Godiva chocolate sauce. He must own this role right now, so definitive was his performance.

Young Aleksandra Kurzak had much to recommend her as Fiorilla: a secure, silvery lyric soprano with excellent agilty; a lovely physical appearance; a supremely confident stage demeanor; superior acting skills. This was a beautifully sung account, cleanly and effortlessly delivered, save for a bit of sraight-toned stridency that crept into the very loudest notes above the staff. However, unlike her other successful repertoire (Adina, Susanna, Norina), Fiorilla asks for that extra measure of Divadom that is not yet hers to command. This is a vehicle that cries out for the unique fire-power and charismatic gifts of a Callas, a Sills, a Bartoli. If only Ms. Kurzak could go the the Evita shop and buy a “little touch of star quality,” for she decidedly has all the other goods and then some. Ah well, she is young and gifted. My bet is that time and experience will find her growing ever further into this role assumption

If his securely sung and impersonated Prosdocimo is any evidence Thomas Allen’s illustrious career remains an evergreen joy. The buffo Alessandro Corbelli acquitted himself exceptionally well as the weary Geronio, missing nary a nuance as the demoralized spouse. Leah-Marian Jones was a lovely, and lively Zaida, her plummy vocalizing a wonderful complement to Aleksandra’s limpid soprano. Collin Lee’s light-voiced tenor had all the pleasing notes in place as Narciso, although there was occasional gear-shifting around the passaggio that made for a handful of clumsy musical phrasings. Jette Parker Young Artist Steven Ebel made an assured impression as Albazar.

On this occasion, the pit seemed off form initially with Maurizio Benini leading a rather scrappy overture. There was little fire or presence at the downbeat, and the horn solo was not only a hair under pitch but also sounded like it was well off-stage. It wasn’t until the jaunty string figure re-appeared that the band seemed to settle into a more inspired comic frame of mind. There were also some rhythmic mis-connects with the chorus getting ahead, then Geronio in his patter, then the chorus again, then Narciso, that are atypical of Covent Garden’s high standard. However, by a third of the way into Act One the musical ensemble settled down, and the whole thing began to sparkle. No doubt future performances will have righted these minor imperfections.

All told, London’s Il Turco in Italia is an engaging evening of witty stagecraft, rife with winning portrayals, and featuring secure singing from some of the day’s top artists. In short, ROH has served up a veritable Turkish Delight.

James Sohre

image=http://www.operatoday.com/TURCO-100331_0410-KURZAK%20AS%20FIORILLA%26D%27ARCANGELO%20AS%20SELIM-%28C%29BARDA.png image_description=Aleksandra Kurzak as Fiorilla and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Selim [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of The Royal Opera] product=yes product_title=Gioachino Rossini: Il turco in Italia product_by=Fiorilla: Aleksandra Kurzak; Don Narciso: Colin Lee; Don Geronio: Alessandro Corbelli; Selim: Ildebrando D’Arcangelo; Prosdocimo: Thomas Allen; Zaida: Leah-Marian Jones; Albazar: Steven Ebel. Directors: Patrice Caurier, Moshe Leiser. Set Designer: Christian Fenouillat. Costume designs: Agostino Cavalca. Lighting: Christophe Forey. Conductor: Maurizio Benini. product_id=Above: Aleksandra Kurzak as Fiorilla and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Selim

All photos by Clive Barda courtesy of The Royal Opera
Posted by james_s at 9:12 AM

April 4, 2010

No longer stigmatized

By David Ng [LA Times, 4 April 2010]

Smoldering passion. Graphic sex. Orgies. Franz Schreker’s “The Stigmatized” contains enough adult content that it might have garnered the dreaded NC-17 if the Motion Picture Assn. of America rated opera productions in addition to films.

Posted by Gary at 12:00 AM

April 3, 2010

Tyne Daly as Maria Callas, a diva in a 'Master Class' by herself

By Peter Marks [Washington Post, 3 April 2010]

The master class Tyne Daly conducts in her droll turn as Maria Callas has less to do with music than with the fine art of living portraiture. She’s every catty, thin-skinned, self-pitying inch the diva — a word all too overapplied — in “Master Class,” Terrence McNally’s engrossing study of the post-incandescent mind-set of the opera legend.

Posted by Gary at 5:18 PM

Hamlet, New York

Has it something to do with the coming to power of irresponsible corporate executives? The trend doesn’t make the works seem more immediate, more real to me — just tiresome to look at.

If you haven’t given a certain opera in 113 years, wouldn’t you want to sell the piece? Make it attractive to lure new audiences? I never want to see the Met’s production of Thomas’s Hamlet ever again, not if Melba returned in tip-top form to put it over — though in general, just say “obscure, once-popular overblown nineteenth-century vocal farrago” and I’m, like, totally there. (Robert le Diable anyone? But no — we can guess what modern directors would do with the ballet of Satanic nuns. Probably drag, and not even good drag.)

Hamlet_Petersen.pngMarlis Petersen as Ophélie

But Hamlet is supposed to take place in the Renaissance grandeur of Elsinore — and what do we get? Basement rooms in stained plaster, barf-green doors, bare brick pilasters, the ugliest battlements this side of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I don’t know where the designers went to school, but I’d be ashamed to put a sock hop in here, never mind the festivities of a new-married king. Hamlet’s self-dramatizing misbehavior doesn’t stick out in such digs — he’s no stranger than everything else, and Claudius and Gertrude are sordid in good company. The production is by some guys named Caurier and Leiser, borrowed from Geneva, whom we hope have outstayed their work visa and been deported. The dreadful sets are by Christian Fenouillat, the uncomfortable and unattractive costumes by Agostino Cavalca — well, at least they are better than Miuccia Prada’s swishing Attila shmattas.

The designers of the Met’s Trovatore and Tosca and Lucia — and Don Giovanni, for that matter — were similarly glamour challenged. The last truly elegant and appropriate set I can recall in a Met production was that for Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. And I don’t much like Roméo et Juliette, and no one who appears in that set ever seems to sing anything there but Gounod. It is very tiresome.

In Hamlet, we finally get an attractive stage picture in Act IV (yes!): Ophélie crouches in a grand upholstered sofa near a (lowered) crystal chandelier (representing a frozen fountain?), but as the scene calls for a pond in which she can drown herself, this, too, is puzzling. She spends the scene slashing her wrists and breasts with a knife and the chandelier rises to the ceiling, symbolizing her unlikely — isn’t suicide a mortal sin? — ascent to heaven. I’m not making this up, you know.

By 1868, the phenomenon of French grand opera was winding down, at least in terms of Paris premiers — though Verdi’s Aida, which topped them all, was still to come, and the grandest opera composed by a Frenchman, Berlioz’s Les Troyens, would not reach L’Opéra till well into the twentieth century. It was in 1868 that Ambroise Thomas, fresh from the triumph of his Goethe-based opéra-comique, Mignon, which would hold the stage for a hundred years, produced Hamlet, a late but at the time entirely successful gasp of grand opera.

HAMLET_Larmore_as_Gertrude_2133.pngJennifer Larmore as Gertrude

Hamlet has all the grand opera trappings: big star parts, big solo display pieces (well, at least one — Ophélie’s famous mad scene), unusual orchestrations, spectacular effects, small but effective minor roles (Thomas pounced on Shakespeare’s merry Gravediggers), and a ballet — omitted at the Met. Just as well: It’s a long evening, and with only one intermission in five acts, it feels even longer.

Hamlet was a great hit in Paris and elsewhere, but it has always had problems in the English-speaking world. We know Hamlet and we’re not sympathetic to changes in the plot that undercut the familiar story. The same attitude kept Verdi’s Macbeth a rarity hereabouts until the mid-twentieth century — Othello and Romeo and Juliet worked as operas for us because the stories were Italian melodramas to begin with and suited to operatic treatment. Too, Verdi had Boito for his Otello and Falstaff, and Boito knew his Shakespeare.

Thomas’s librettists, Carré and Barbier, who had already done the musical number on so many classics, retained the Ghost and the Gravediggers and the most famous soliloquy — they, and Thomas, knew enough to set “To be or not to be” as declamation and not make a verse chanson out of it — but they omit Hamlet’s wilder feats of mayhem, the murder of Polonius, the trip to England, the duel with poisoned swords. Laertes has been shredded and Polonius all but eliminated — Ophélie goes mad not because her lover has slain her father but merely for love — which Shakespeare might not think credible but is business-as-usual in opera. Then, in building up the soprano and mezzo roles to grand opera stature, the focus on Hamlet’s own dilemma has been watered down. Gertrude’s guilt is not, as in Shakespeare, ambiguous — here she states it, is obsessed with it. And the Ghost won’t stay dead — like a figure in an American horror flick, he keeps popping up, is even responsible for the slaying of his brother. So who needs Hamlet the prince?

A soprano vehicle back in the day — no one but Ophélie gets a major scena — Hamlet is not entirely without interest, and might even be a hit with attractive sets and if cast to strength, which it has not been. You can’t do grand opera on two stars and two fadeouts. It needs better than that. These are virtuoso roles, so designed. We’ve had such sleepwalking Aida casts over the years that we’ve forgotten how singer-driven grand opera used to be — and, at the Met, Aida at least has gaudy sets!

HAMLET_Keenlyside_and_Pittsinger_1298.pngDavid Pittsinger as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father and Simon Keenlyside as Hamlet

The finest singing of the night came, unquestionably, from the most unexpected player, Marlis Petersen, replacing an indisposed Natalie Dessay as Ophélie. Dessay was a prime mover and motivation to bring the opera here — no one else would have thought of doing it, and it has always been a soprano vehicle at the Met, for Sembrich and Melba in the old days. (The last time New York saw it, at the City Opera some years ago, it was a vehicle for Sherill Milnes, who performed the title role splendidly, a Shakespearean Trifecta with his Iago and Macbeth.)

Dessay’s abrupt withdrawal from a role she was planning to drop from her repertoire in any case turned out to be a happy occasion. Marlis Petersen has one of the most beautiful and accurate coloratura sopranos now before the public, a cool, clear, easy sound like a rippling stream. One or two top notes seemed forced, but in such a way — and at such a point, on both the broadcast and in the house three days later — as to suggest these were a characterization choice, meant to imply her gathering hysteria. Her trill is imperfect but her runs are ravishing; nothing is tossed away with that “I can’t be bothered to sing each note, I’m acting” shrug so common in this repertory. I would love to hear her in Lucia, Puritani, Sonnambula, Lakme — but, alas, she seems herself to prefer more modern music requiring far more precise musicianship, such as Lulu (which she will sing here in May) and contemporary operas by Reimann, Henze and Trojahn.

In the play, Queen Gertrude’s remarks tend to be brief and on target — her only poetic flights come in describing Ophelia’s death, of which speech she is robbed in the opera in order to turn it into the soprano’s mad scene. Nonetheless, a secure dramatic mezzo can make quite an effective thing of the queen here, and that Jennifer Larmore, still handsome and dressed to kill, did not do so must be attributed to a dullness, a tunelessness, that afflicted her in every register. There was nothing musical, nothing attractive, nothing precisely on the note in the notes she produced; she gave no pleasure. The old plummy Larmore sound was never in evidence.

James Morris, who has been singing at the Met for forty years, starting with Mozart, passing through Bellini and Verdi to Wagnerian triumphs, now suffers from an occasional wobble and a pervading dryness of timbre, but he still cuts an imposing figure, visually and vocally — when he sings, we know he’s there and we know he’s the king. Still, when David Pittsinger sang the Ghost’s music, I wished the brothers might exchange roles as they had exchanged crown and queen. Toby Spence was rather wasted on the small remains — a trio and a duel-duet — of Laërte, and glum Richard Bernstein and lyrical Mark Schowalter made their scene as the Gravediggers seemed far too brief.

In default of the regularly scheduled prima donna, Simon Keenlyside was the headliner of his Hamlet — as he deserves to be. Keenlyside’s voice can seem light and gracious in lieder recitals, then turn so dark and shadowy that the radio listener wonders if it is he or James Morris. We have not had him nearly as often in New York as we might like, but the raves that have met his Billy Budd, Prince Andrei and Rodrigo di Posa in London and on the continent may puzzle Met listeners. His voice, I fear, is not big enough for the house — his acting is too subtle for its spaces. He is never casual for a moment, each word and gesture are considered, and we are often riveted (when he is terrified of the Ghost) or unnerved (when he capers unpredictably before the king and queen), but the beauty of his singing in other roles was given short shrift here. The rumbustious drinking song with which he celebrates the king’s reaction to his strategic play-within-the-play did not ring out. It might be more interesting to hear his sound from upstairs, if one could do that while studying his fascinating portrayal of the character from closer up. I’d go to another performance of the opera if I could endure those awful sets again.

Louis Langrée, who leads the Mostly Mozart forces in his summer job, understands the machine that is grand opera: tight rhythms, driving power when the chorus is to be loosed upon us, and the supportive playing of a variety of tone colors by a variety of instruments required by the showpiece arias that give a work like Hamlet its texture and distinction.

John Yohalem

image=http://www.operatoday.com/HAMLET_Keenlyside_in_title_role_1580.png image_description=Simon Keenlyside as Hamlet [Photo by Brent Ness courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title=Ambroise Thomas: Hamlet product_by=Hamlet: Simon Keenlyside; Ophélie: Marlis Petersen; Gertrude: Jennifer Larmore; Claudius: James Morris; Laërte: Toby Spence; Ghost of Hamlet’s Father: David Pittsinger; Gravediggers: Richard Bernstein, Mark Schowalter. Metropolitan Opera orchestra and chorus, conducted by Louis Langrée. Performance of March 30. product_id=Above: Simon Keenlyside as Hamlet

All photos by Brent Ness courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 1:21 PM

Verdi’s Falstaff (Glyndebourne 2009) on Blu-Ray

Fenton is a private-first-class; Mrs. Quickly also wears a military uniform; the front yard of the Ford house is a victory garden full of cabbages. Insofar as The Merry Wives of Windsor is a sequel to the Henry IV plays, the post-war milieu makes a kind of sense: the Hotspur rebellion has recently been defeated—though World War II was a rather different kind of conflict.

I felt that this premise presented opportunities that were missed. The sense of half-exhausted rebirth, the lingering presence of the scarecrow army in 2 Henry IV, never made itself felt: instead the Windsor of 1946 yielded a few nice comical touches, such as Ford’s Dracula costume in Act 3, scene 2, and the Victrola that played the lute strumming that accompanies Falstaff’s wooing song in Act 2, scene 2, thereby making a charming effect of karaoke. This production might have been the first to find the Samuel Beckett opera that lies within Verdi’s and Boito’s work.

The singer who plays Falstaff usually dominates the opera, and so it was here. Christopher Purves moves inside in fat suit with uncommon grace—he dances his way through the opera, even trying to get Ford to follow his lead, as if Act 2, scene 1 were a big foxtrot. Purves is a splendid comedian, waggling his fingers like W. C. Fields, but without Fields’ resources of misanthropy—it would be better to say that this is the Falstaff that Benny Hill might have thought up, a Falstaff who leers with big eyes and gets shot in the buttock by a small boy with a slingshot. Bardolfo and Pistola are second bananas in carefully choreographed production numbers: after Falstaff praises his own paunch in Act 1, scene 1, they hold out their upturned palms to him as if inviting the audience to applaud his star turn. The sense of Falstaff as comedy revue is everywhere: Ford squirts himself with seltzer water and slaps himself silly; during the sneak-up to Fenton and Nannetta, as they kiss behind a screen in Act 2, scene 2, the stalkers form a line and each person slaps the person behind him.

The musical values of this production are less impressive than the carefully contrived dramatic ones. The singing is mostly good but not distinguished, with the possible exception of Marie-Nicole Lemieux’s deliciously baritonal Quickly: the woolly-voiced Ford of Tassis Christoyannis is satisfactory; Purves’s Falstaff is a little too light in timbre but finely agile; Dina Kuznetsova’s Alice is rich and vibrant, maybe too vibrant on the higher notes. Vladmir Jurowski conducts with sufficient briskness, but without the urgency or the pungent articulation of Bernstein or Toscanini.

In his excellent notes to this recording, Russ McDonald quotes a letter from Eleanora Duse to Boito: “How melancholy your comedy is.” Duse would not have written this if she had seen this pleasant, harmless production.

Daniel Albright

See below for the standard DVD version of this recording:

image=http://www.operatoday.com/OABD7053D.gif image_description=Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Falstaff product_by=Dr Caius: Peter Hall; Sir John Falstaff: Christopher Purves; Bardolph: Alasdair Elliott; Pistol: Paolo Battaglia; Mrs Page (Meg): Jennifer Holloway; Mrs Ford (Alice): Dina Kuznetsova; Mistress Quickly: Marie-Nicole Lemieux; Nannetta: Adriana Kucerova; Fenton: Bulent Bezduz; Ford: Tassis Christoyannis. Glyndebourne Chorus. London Philharmonic Orchestra. Vladimir Jurowski, conductor. Richard Jones, stage director. Recorded live at Glyndebourne Opera House, Lewes, East Sussex, June 2009. product_id=Opus Arte OABD7053D [Blu-Ray DVD] price=$35.99 product_url=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B0033A9IP2
Posted by Gary at 10:40 AM

April 2, 2010

Aleksandra Kurzak steps into Cecilia Bartoli's slippers

By Michael Church [The Independent, 2 April 2010]

It takes a bold woman to step into Cecilia Bartoli’s slippers as the sexually voracious heroine in a production of Il Turco in Italia created expressly for her, but Aleksandra Kurzak is unfazed. “I don’t think about comparisons at all,” says the feisty Polish singer. “And in any case, she is a mezzo and I am a soprano, so it will be completely different.” Ever since Placido Domingo singled her out in his Operalia festival 10 years ago, she’s been topping the bill wherever she goes, but the secret of her confidence goes much further back.

Posted by Gary at 5:24 PM

April 1, 2010

Otello (Salzburg Festival 2008) on Blu-Ray

The first is the soprano Marina Poplavskaya, a nearly perfect Desdemona, despite the fact that she’s in no way fragile, shy, or ingenuous. Her emotions span the whole Shakespearean range from extreme tenderness to subdued anger — she’s a Desdemona to be reckoned with. Shakespeare includes a wit-contest between Iago and Desdemona, a scene missing from the opera and often cut from the play, in which Desdemona shows a playful, even flashy side — Poplavskaya gives us this intelligence and more. And her singing is beautiful: during the last “Salce!” in the second verse of the “Willow Song,” she fines her voice down until it sounds like the English horn that’s about to echo it, as if you weren’t sure where the singing stopped and the soulless nymph in the orchestra began. (All the singing in this performance is beautiful, though Aleksandrs Antonenko, the Otello, and Carlos Álvarez, the Jago, are both somewhat stolid, monochromatic presences, one all hysterical impulse, the other all forthright snarl.)

The second reason is Riccardo Muti’s decision to include the rarely-heard 1894 Paris version of the Act 3 finale, in which Verdi thinned the texture of the choral-orchestral mass. This has the advantage that Iago’s instructions to Roderigo to kill Cassio can be clearly understood, but great disadvantage that the surge of energy, the urgent darkening that begins when Iago sings “Una parola,” never manifests itself — the familiar 1887 version is the more powerful experience. The director Stephen Langridge, in the Salzburg production, casts a green light over the actors in this scene, providing a Shakespearean touch missing from the opera: Iago tells Othello to beware a green-eyed monster, but Jago tells Otello to fear a dark, blind, living hydra — “occhi verdi” never appear in Boito’s text.

Langridge’s production is better to think about than to look at, though he provides a sort of framed mini-stage at the center, and it occasionally appears that Jago is showing Otello a slide show of infidelity — I like that. Langridge takes tremendous care with the choral scenes: “Fuoco di gioia!” shows some bawdy women nearly raping a young boy, as if Jago, all horned evil, were in charge of the staging even before the plot is hatched; and during “Dove guardi splendono” Desdemona is given first a conch, then a small plaster statue of Venus — Langridge was clearly remembering “Venere splende” in Act 1, Otello’s last words in the love duet. During the vengeance duet Otello will smash the statue; at the beginning of Act 4 Desdemona will try absently to re-attach the head. Iconoclasm is the basic modality of this production, appropriately enough in a play about the shattering of reputation.

In fact Langridge shatters the stage itself. During the storm, a vast jagged crack, like a cartoon image of an earthquake, opens in the floor; and at the end of Act 3, as Jago wonders what would stop him from putting his foot on Otello’s skull, he stomps on a low wide glass platform, which breaks in two — the rear half lifts in the air, and its huge sharp zigzags will brood over the rest of the action. Verdi and Boito disagreed about the handling of the Act 3 finale — Verdi suggested to Boito that he write verses about a new invasion: “Suddenly in the distance are heard drums, trumpets, cannon fire, etc., etc…“The Turks! The Turks! Populace and soldiers invade the stage. All are surprised and frightened! Otello recovers himself and stands erect like a lion”; Boito replied, “That attack of the Turks seems to me like a fist breaking the window of a room where two people are about to die of asphyxiation. That private atmosphere of death so carefully created by Shakespeare suddenly vanishes …” The Langridge fracturing of the glass platform is the fist breaking the window: to some extent it gives the effect that Verdi initially wanted; but the composer himself came to agree with Boito, that a certain claustrophobia was a better idea.

Daniel Albright

See below for this recording in standard DVD format:

image=http://www.operatoday.com/CMajor701504.gif image_description=Giuseppe Verdi: Otello [C Major 701504] product=yes product_title=Giuseppe Verdi: Otello product_by=Otello: Aleksandrs Antonenko; Desdemona: Marina Poplavskaya; Jago: Carlos Álvarez; Emilia: Barbara Di Castri; Cassio: Stephen Costello; Roderigo: Antonello Ceron; Lodovico: Mikhail Petrenko; Montano: Simone Del Savio; Un araldo: Andrea Porta. Salzburg Festival Children’s Chorus. Vienna State Opera Chorus. Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Riccardo Muti, conductor. Stephen Langridge, stage director. George Souglides, set design. Emma Ryott, costume design. Giuseppe Di lorio, lighting design. Recorded live from the Salzburg Festival 2008. product_id=C Major 701504 [Blu-Ray DVD] price=$35.99 product_url=http://astore.amazon.com/operatoday-20/detail/B0033II5EY
Posted by Gary at 2:46 PM