May 31, 2010

Mainly Mozart’s David Atherton: June Artist of the Month

By Valerie Scher [San Diego News Network, 31 May 2010]

Conductor David Atherton travels. A lot. With musical engagements around the globe, he averages 220,000 air miles per year. One of his favorite destinations is San Diego, where the 66-year-old Englishman is the conductor and founding artistic director of the highly-regarded Mainly Mozart Festival.

Posted by Gary at 2:45 PM

May 29, 2010

End-of-the-world opera

By David Patrick Stearns [Philadelphia Inquirer, 29 May 2010]

NEW YORK - If ever an opera could cause brain damage, it’s Gyorgy Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre. If ever the destruction of gray matter could be utterly pleasurable, it was Thursday at Avery Fisher Hall, when the New York Philharmonic staged this bizarre end-of-the-world comedy - an event that may signify several important cultural turning points.

Posted by Gary at 3:00 PM

May 27, 2010

S.F. Opera gets summer classical music season off to a sizzling start

By Richard Scheinin [San Jose Mercury News, 27 May 2010]

Anyone with ears will be in a quandary trying to prioritize this summer’s classical music programs, as there are way, way too many good things to do. A nice state of affairs.

Posted by Gary at 2:58 PM

Valencia Ring: Die Walküre

As with the release of Das Rheingold in this set, Die Walküre was recorded live at the Palau de les Arts “Reina Sofia”, Valencia, and makes use of the staging of La Fura dels Baus, Carlus Padrissa, stage director, with the international cast conducted by Zubin Mehta. From the outset of this DVD the concept and execution of the production meets or surpasses that of Das Rheingold as the usual sound-only orchestral opening of the first act is accompanied by film productions that set the tone in evoking Siegmund’s trek through the forest, with ominous trees and wild animal. This element blends well into the physical stage that appears just before Siegmund’s first lines, which Peter Seiffert delivers with conviction.

Seiffert commands the first act, especially in the “Wintersturm” scene with Petra Maria Schnitzer as Sieglinde. At times Seiffert’s vibrato seems overly pronounced on sustained pitches, but this is a minor quibble in comparison to his otherwise fine delivery and acting. In taking the lead Seiffernt exudes the confidence of the doomed hero, which becomes a foil for Sieglinde’s response with “Du bist der Lenz” and the passage that follows. The circumscribed space expands well as the two performers play off each other in the duet that follows. The projections of the enchanted springtime in which the lovers find themselves is entirely appropriate to the musical result as Seiffert and Schnitzer interact. Schnitzer is enthusiastically overt and, as the music calls for it, subtle, with the quieter moments captured well in the sound of the Blu-ray recording. The intimacy suggests the effect Wagner would achieve in the second act of Tristan und Isolde, a work whose gestation intersects this part of the Ring cycle. Yet the moment in which Sieglinde begins to suspect Siegmund’s identity is particularly effective, suggesting the intensity Leonie Rysanek would bring to this scene and articulated in her triumphant laugh when Siegmund would take the sword. Here the production reinforces the relationship between the siblings with their names running up and down the trunk of the tree that appropriately dominates this part of the scene.

The opening of the second act is similarly effective in execution, with the more intensive use of projections underscoring the familiar music associated with the Valkyries. The use of mechanical lifts adds a touch, even though the supernumerary who operates the device is part of the shots in which Brünnhilde is usually seen alone. As Brünnhilde Jennifer Wilson captures the spirit of the role well and sings with ringing tone throughout the two acts in which she appears. Equally effective are Anna Larsson and Juha Uusitalo as Fricka and Wotan, the roles the performers had in this production of Das Rheingold and which they continue in this opera. Their interaction is equally comfortable, with Larsson offering persuasive performance that is audible in her singing and reinforced by her facial gestures and body language, elements captured well in this video. Uusitalo brings a welcome clarity to the sometimes lengthy passages assigned to Wotan, and he also reacts well to Fricka. The circular projections are nicely ambiguous to suggest the space in which the two interact while also connoting the ring at the center of this work. Such effects are used with direction, and they fade into the background where acting must dominate, as in the latter part of the act, when Wilson is alone on stage for Brünnhilde’s soliloquy.

Another touch is the reprise of the setting for the “Wintersturm” scene in which projections of snow replace the birds seen earlier and, thus, suggest the tragic outcome of the relationship between Siegmund and Sieglinde. Likewise, the setting for the confrontation between Hunding and Siegmund benefits from the aural space as Matti Salminen utters his lines offstage and suggests a sonic depth in the musical score. The slow-motion action in which Hunding kills Siegmund is almost cinematic, with the steel-grays and blues suffusing to the red that denotes the death of the hero and culminate in Uusitalo’s murder of Hunding with a single, well-articulated word. Here, too, the mobile-like objects suspended over the stage recall the human figures that formed the bridge to Valhalla at the end of Rheingold. This offers a sense of the concision which inspired this production.

For the famous “Ride of the Valkyries’ the pendulum full of bodies, presumably of the dead soldiers the Valkyries collect for Valhalla evokes the mythological elements of the story. Projections of battle scenes, stage smoke, and other elements are effect. This presentation surpasses the sometimes awkward modern stagings that sometimes use trampolines, conveyor belts, and other devices to less satisfactory effect. More than that, the women in this scene have a solid ensemble that makes the familiar music sound fresh and exciting. As earlier, the use of offstage sonorities adds a spatial dimension to the sound in this deservedly popular scene. This establishes a fine tone for the act, in which the special effects balance the outstanding musical execution, and the scene between Brünnhilde and Wotan deserve attention for its music elements, which the production reinforces.

Just as Uusitalo interacted well with Larsson, he is also acts well with Wilson as Brünnhilde, as his love and sense of duty emerge in the way he resolves his daughter’s fate. The two own the stage for the latter part of the act in a memorable presentation of the work. The image of the spinning world, like the one before the final tableau in Das Rheingold, recurs here, before Wotan condemns Brünnhilde to her human existence and sets into motion threads of the story that will be taken up in Siegfried. Here, as throughout the opera, Mehta offers an intensive reading of the score in which the orchestra blends with clarity and depth. The quieter moments remain full, and the iteration of various elements is never out of place. The brass never overbalance the strings, and the entire orchestral is heard to excellent effect in the concluding scene which depicts Brünnhilde’s well-known “magic sleep.” To the end Wilson and Uusitalo remain intense and tireless, with the final scene conveying a sense of tender that contributes to the overall effect of this well-thought production. The close-ups of the video certainly make this more than filmed opera; rather, this is a conception that delivers the work well in this filming.

As much as the famous Met Ring conducted by James Levine remains a solid contribution to the legacy of recordings of this cycle, the present one by Mehta is equally sound for its well-though presentation and fine performances. It is difficult to recommend one over the other. Rather, the two productions offer two fine productions of the work, and the differences between the two conceptions of Die Walküre should not be taken in opposition, but as parts of a spectrum from traditional to innovation, where both benefit from unstinting execution. The modern elements offered by La Fura dels Baus are effective because they work well within the text of the work, rather than by creating a subtext of its own, and those interested in Der Ring des Nibelungen will gain a fine sense of this production from this video of Die Walküre.

James L. Zychowicz

image= imagedescription=Richard Wagner: Die Walküre

product=yes producttitle=Richard Wagner: Die Walküre productby=Juha Uusitalo (Wotan), Matti Salminen (Hunding), Peter Seiffert (Siegmund), Petra Maria Schnitzer (Sieglinde), Jennifer Wilson (Brünnhilde), Anna Larsson (Fricka), Bernadette Flaitz (Gerhilde), Helen Huse Walston (Ortlinde), Silvia Vásquez (Waltraute), Christa Mayer (Schwertleite), Eugenia Bethencourt (Helmwige), Heike Grötzinger (Siegrune), Manuela Bress (Grimgerde), Hanna Esther Minutillo (Roßweiße), Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana, Zubin Mehta, conductor, productid=Unitel Classica 700804 [Blu-Ray] price=$30.82 producturl=

Posted by jim_z at 10:30 AM

At Prague Spring, new works and a lighthearted farewell

By Frank Kuznik [Prague Post, 26 May 2010]

Last call to see Adam Plachetka, the handsome young singer who’s cut such a charming swath on Prague opera stages the past few years. After his Prague Spring recital at the Rudolfinum next week, he will be packing his bags for a two-year stint at the Vienna State Opera.

Posted by Gary at 12:00 AM

May 26, 2010

Betulia Liberata, Haus für Mozart, Salzburg

By George Loomis [Financial Times, 26 May 2010]

This is the third year at the Salzburg Whitsun Festival that Riccardo Muti has showcased music linked to his native city of Naples, a veritable fount of music and musicians in the 18th century.

Posted by Gary at 11:59 PM

Opera Lafayette's 'Sancho Panca'

By Anne Midgette [Washington Post, 26 May 2010]

Everyone should know his place. It’s a sentiment that has anchored European society for the last millennium or so — farmers belong on their farms, nobles in their castles — and it’s the motto of “Sancho Pança,” an opera from 1762 by François-André Danican Philidor that had what was alleged to be its modern American premiere at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater on Monday night.

Posted by Gary at 12:10 PM

The Last Superstar Tenor

By David Mermelstein [WSJ, 26 May 2010]

Surely every year is eventful for the seemingly indestructible and certainly indefatigable Plácido Domingo, who, at age 69, will sing the important role of Siegmund in Wagner’s “Die Walküre” beginning Sunday in Los Angeles. But even with 2010 less than halfway over, this year has been one of unusual activity and high drama for Mr. Domingo, the world’s only superstar tenor and a conductor and opera administrator to boot.

Posted by Gary at 12:05 PM

May 24, 2010

Lufthansa Festival, St John’s, Smith Square, London

By Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 24 May 2010]

It is 400 years since Monteverdi published his Vespro della Beata Vergine. We do not know when or where it may have been performed, or even by what design the various parts were gathered together, but the Vespers of 1610, as it is commonly known, ranks as one of the first great pillars to be erected in the pantheon of classical music.

Posted by Gary at 4:41 PM

May 23, 2010

Washington National Opera's 'Hamlet' done in Cold War style

By: Barbara Mackay [Washington Examiner, 23 May 2010]

If you haven’t seen the Washington National Opera’s production of “Hamlet” at the Kennedy Center yet, you might not understand how anyone could dream of setting Ambroise Thomas’ 1868 opera in “Denmark, fallen behind the Iron Curtain.”

Posted by Gary at 4:48 PM

Ottone in Villa

Tim Ashley [The Guardian, 23 May 2010]

Premiered in 1713, Vivaldi’s bitter little comedy Ottone in Villa was his first opera and stands, in some respects, at a tangent to its successors. At just over two and a half hours, it is short by his standards, while its taut dramaturgy precludes the sprawling quality that hampers his later stage works.

Posted by Gary at 4:46 PM

Orchestra’s Opera Gamble

By Daniel J. Wakin [NY Times, 23 May 2010]

The [New York] Philharmonic is presenting the New York premiere production of the earthily absurdist opera “Le Grand Macabre” by Gyorgy Ligeti, first performed in 1978, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. It is a risky gambit for the orchestra and its new music director, Alan Gilbert, who have invested a lot of resources and hopes in the production. They are framing the performances as the signature event of Mr. Gilbert’s first season and a harbinger of things to come.

Posted by Gary at 4:36 PM

James Conlon, Los Angeles Opera's 'Ring' master

By David Ng [LA Times, 23 May 2010]

James Conlon is in a hurry. At a Grand Avenue crosswalk on a recent morning, he is repeatedly pushing the button to cross the street. Tap, tap, tap, tap. His efforts don’t make the lights change any faster. He has to wait like everyone else.

Posted by Gary at 4:34 PM

Billy Budd / Così fan tutte, Glyndebourne, East Sussex

By Andrew Clark [Financial Times, 23 May 2010]

When Benjamin Britten wrote Billy Budd, he created great art, not closet autobiography. The main events of his opera unfold in 1797, at sea, on a man of war. All neat and tidy? If so, we may conveniently ignore the link between Britten’s homosexuality and the fact that two of the opera’s main characters, Captain Vere and John Claggart, have tortured feelings of attraction for Billy, the beautiful young man in their midst.

Posted by Gary at 12:43 PM

May 22, 2010

Imbrailo stars as Billy Budd in Glyndebourne

The cannons don’t get to shoot the Frenchies, Vere cannot resolve his conflicts, but inarticulate Billy overcomes huge obstacles and gets things done. He pays the price for inadvertently killing Claggart, but no-one intervenes. Captain Vere’s paralyzed by conscience, trapped in the fogs of scruple. Billy, though, is instinctive, physical, direct. Imbrailo lives the part in his body. No makeup can turn his face red so quickly, no costume can create the tense, twisted coil of his frame.

Imbrailo’s Billy is musically astute, as stammer is integral to Britten’s music. The mutiny, in Billy Budd, is in the music. So echoes of Billy’s stammer burst out in recurrent staccato in the orchestra, disruptive protests against the rigidity of naval life. The sailors don’t mutiny, but Billy’s stammer comes to affect the rhythms in other voices, even Claggart’s. Like Billy, Britten expresses himself in abstract sound, rather than relying on words alone. Orchestration as protagonist. In Billy Budd, Britten shows why he didn’t need to write symphonies.

Billy_Budd230.pngPhillip Ens as Claggart

Significantly, in this new production directed by Michael Grandage, what stands out most in Billy’s star aria, “Through the port comes moonshine astray” isn’t the usual lyrical magic but the phrase “I’m strong, and I know it, and I’ll stay strong!” Imbrailo’s “Beauty” isn’t a passive “Baby” but an assertive force of life.

Yet central to the whole opera is Captain Vere’s dilemma. He’s spent a lifetime trying to understand what Billy meant. What is “the love that passes understanding”? In this production, Vere recedes almost into the background. No “Starry Vere” here, fixed on a more rarefied intellectual plane, thinking of Scylla and Charybdis.Vere is tormented because he is a man who thinks.

Instead, this Vere is one of the boys. He doesn’t even wear a hat when he’s with the other officers. In the scene where Billy is hanged, he’s seen as an old man in a dressing gown, as still as a statue among the teeming crowd of sailors. Grandage is making a valid point, but this neuters Vere’s position. In this scene, Vere is still Captain, still capable of action, hamstrung as he is by his quandary. John Mark Ainsley sings beautifully, as he always does, but this production doesn’t make full use of his potential.

If Vere’s pivotal role is underplayed, Claggart, in this production, is developed unusually well. Philip Ens makes Claggart twitch with sexual tension. Like the mists that trap the ship, and the haze that shrouds the stage, this Claggart oozes poison so pervasive that just hearing Ens makes one feel unclean — he’s a great actor, and his voice twists and elides in a sinister way. How did this Claggart come to be who he is? This portrait of warped sexuality is almost too awful to contemplate.

This is an extremely dark production, in all ways. Definitely not a cheery sailor story! Christopher Oram’s set is claustrophobic. We’re inside the bowels of the ship, not on deck, and certainly not in the foretop, where Billy feels free. You can almost smell the fetid air, and feel the cramped, damp chaos. Psychologically, this is astute, but becomes oppressive in itself.

Billy_Budd090.pngJacques Imbrailo as Billy Budd (foreground centre).

The transfer scene, where Billy sings “Farewell to the Rights of Man” might have sounded more poignant if we’d “seen” the bright hope of the other ship in some way. Later, soldiers in brilliant red and white uniforms appear. They’re a delight to the eyes, but distract from the grimness of what’s happening. The real brightness in this opera is Billy, and his transfiguration. The set is also not flexible, despite intelligent use of lighting (Paule Constable), and works less well after the First Act. Also, the protracted tying of the noose within sight of the condemned man seemed excessive. The music at this point is so amazing, that we should be listening, not watching.

This was Mark Elder’s first Billy Budd. He conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra so the strong undercurrents of Britten’s music flowed well. In a production as dark as this, though, more sharpness of attack would have captured the edginess in the music, but Elder understood the recurrent “stammers” well. Dulled, pounding thrusts, as instinctive and direct as Billy’s stutter.

Billy_Budd433.pngJohn Mark Ainsley as Captain Vere, Jacques Imbrailo as Billy Budd and Phillip Ens as Claggart

“Rum, sodomy and the lash” don’t really fit in with Glyndebourne’s elegant, summertime ambiance, so it is no surprise that it’s taken 60 years to become part of the Festival. But it’s a measure of Glyndebourne’s artistic integrity that this particularly brutal production is done at all. This Billy Budd will be revived many times. The theatre at Glyndebourne is small, but the Festival reaches out all over the world, to a much bigger audience through broadcasts and DVD releases. Relatively few may attend in person, but the potential is huge, for Glyndebourne’s artistic standards are extremely high.

Hopefully, if they film this Billy Budd, they’ll do it with Jacques Imbrailo, who is so good that his star is very definitely in the ascendant.

Anne Ozorio

image= image_description=Jacques Imbrailo as Billy Budd [Photo by Alastair Muir] product=yes product_title=Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd product_by=Vere: John Mark Ainsley; Budd: Jacques Imbrailo; Dansker: Jeremy White; Claggart: Phillip Ens; 1st Mate: Michael Wallace; 2nd Mate: John-Own Miley-Read; Mr. Flint: Matthew Rose; Bosun: Richard Mosly-Evans; Donald: John Moore; Maintop: Peter Gijbertsen; Novice: Ben Johnson; Squeak: Colin Judson; Mr. Redburn: Iain Paterson; Lieutenant Ratcliffe: Darren Jeffery; Red Whiskers: Alasdair Elliott; Arthur Jones: Toby Girling; Novice’s Friend: Duncan Rock; Cabin Boy: Sam Honeywood; Midshipmen: Freddie Benedict, Alastair Dixon, Adam Lord, Oascal Tohouri, Joseph Wakeling. London Philharmonic Orchestra. Conductor: Mark Elder. Director: Michael Grandage. Designer: Christopher Oram. Lighting Designer: Paule Constable. Movement Director: Tom Roden. Glyndebourne Festival, Sussex. 20 May 2010. product_id=Above: Jacques Imbrailo as Billy Budd

All photos by Alastair Muir courtesy of Glyndebourne Festival
Posted by anne_o at 12:30 PM

May 21, 2010

Even the walls wept as Dietrich's spiritual heir sang auf wiedersehen

By John Shand [Sidney Morning Herald, 21 May 2010]

The New York-based Ute Lemper sometimes wears her Germanicism much as she wears her red feather boa: as a performance accessory.

Posted by Gary at 5:00 PM

Opera Cleveland presents a winning new "Lucia"

By Donald Rosenberg [Cleveland Plain Dealer, 21 May 2010]

Is it any wonder that Lucia goes off the deep end?

She’s in love with a tenor - surprise, surprise - who is unacceptable to her family. She has to sing a lot of tricky music, occasionally in tandem with an equally perky flute. And she often must contend with a concept that places the composer, Gaetano Donizetti, on the back bench.

Posted by Gary at 4:54 PM

'Rheingold' Glitters in Milan

By J. S. Marcus [WSJ, 21 May 2010]

Milan: Italy’s major opera houses were shut down this month, when unions, protesting government budget cuts, managed to cancel performances from Rome to Turin. The biggest casualty was the May 13 premier of Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” at Milan’s La Scala, meant to usher in a new Daniel Barenboim Ring cycle intended for both Milan and Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden, where Mr. Barenboim is general music director.

Posted by Gary at 4:51 PM

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Written by William Shakespeare. Incidental music by Felix Mendelssohn (Op. 61).

Dramatis Personæ:

Theseus, Duke of Athens
Egeus, Father to Hermia
Demetrius, in love with Hermia
Philostrate, Master of the Revels to Theseus
Quince, a carpenter
Snug, a joiner
Bottom, a weaver
Flute, a bellows-mender
Snout, a tinker
Starveling, a tailor
Hippolyta, Queen of The Amazons, betrothed to Theseus
Hermia, daughter to Egeus, in love with Lysander
Helena, in love with Demetrius
Oberon, King of the Fairies
Titania, Queen of the Fairies
Puck, or Robin Goodfellow
Mustard-Seed, Faires


Egeus orders his daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius; she refuses because she and Lysander are in love. Her friend Helena is in love with Demetrius, who once loved her but now does not. Under the law of Athens, Duke Theseus gives Hermia four days to obey her father on pain of death or confinement to a nunnery. Hermia and Lysander escape this harsh law by running away to the woods. Demetrius pursues them there, with Helena pursing him. In the woods, Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of fairies, have quarreled because Titania refuses to hand over an Indian changeling boy to be Oberon's page. Oberon instructs the mischievous Puck, Robin Goodfellow, to press the juice of a magic flower on Titania’s eyes as she sleeps; it will make her fall in love with the first being she sees on waking. In an attempt to reconcile The dangerous eroticism of the play, with a queen kissing a humble weaver who wears the ears of an ass, was further emphasized in Michael Boyd’s 1999 production, with Josette Simon as Titania and Daniel Ryan as Bottom, Demetrius and Helena, Oberon orders that juice should be put on his eyes whilst he is sleeping and she is near, but Robin mistakenly puts it on Lysander, who thus falls in love with Helena. She thinks she is being mocked. Love-juice is then placed on Demetrius’ eyes in order to rectify the mistake, but the result is that he too falls for Helena. The boys fight over her and the girls quarrel. While Titania has been sleeping, a company of Athenian artisans under the leadership of Peter Quince has come to the wood to rehearse a play for the ensuing wedding festivities of Duke Theseus and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Robin puts an ass’s head on Bottom the weaver and because of the love-juice Titania falls in love with him. Eventually all is restored to right and the artisans perform their comically tragic play of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’.

[Summary Source: RSC Shakespeare]

[Click here for the complete play]

image= image_description=Fairy Songs by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) audio=yes first_audio_name=A Midsummer Night’s Dream first_audio_link= product=yes product_title=A Midsummer Night’s Dream product_by=Oberon/Theseus: Martin Turner; Titania/Hippolyta: Melanie Jessop: Lysander/Flute: Alex Hassell; Demetrius/Starveling: Daniel Rigby; Helena/Snug: Catherine Bailey; Puck/Snout: James Garnon; Bottom/Egeus: John Paul Connolly; Hermia/Quince/First Fairy: Elena Pavli. Ladies’ Choir of the Enlightenment. Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Charles Hazlewood (conductor). Directed by Tim Carroll. Live broadcast, 10 May 2009. product_id=Above: Fairy Songs by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939)
Posted by Gary at 2:46 PM

May 20, 2010

Interview: Sir Andrew Davies - Conductor

By Ken Walton [The Scotsman, 20 May 2010]

EARLIER this year, Sir Andrew Davis made a rare reappearance in Scotland. Until then, the former chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra - through which he became best-known as the man in charge of many televised Last Nights of the London Proms, not to mention the thankless speeches that go with them - had hardly set foot north of the Border for decades, despite cutting his teeth back in the 1970s as a staff conductor with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Posted by Gary at 5:06 PM

Garsington Opera preview

By Nicola Lisle [Oxford Times, 20 May 2010]

For Daniel Norman, performing at Garsington has a huge advantage — he can just jump on his bike to get there. “There’s a lot of travelling in this job — a lot of the best-earning jobs are away, in mainland Europe,” he says. “So it’s nice to be able to do things on home turf and cycle, instead of having to get in the car or on a plane!”

Posted by Gary at 5:03 PM

Great Operatic Arias with Gerald Finley

In addition to Don Giovanni’s famous duet with Zerlina, several roles created by Finley on stage are featured in excerpt on this recording. Arias from Doctor Atomic by John Adams and The Silver Tassie by Mark-Anthony Turnage are performed here by Finley with great commitment, reminiscent indeed of his original live performances. One also has the opportunity to hear Finley in less accustomed repertoire by Weber, Donizetti, Puccini, and Wagner. Several of the excerpts performed are operatic ensembles or duets in which Finley is well supported by soloist colleagues and the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir. The London Philharmonic Orchestra provides accompaniment under the skillful direction of Edward Gardner.

In the earliest pieces composed and featured in this collection, the duet from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and an aria from Weber’s Euryanthe, Finley shows his characteristic ability to inhabit a role, so that he sings and acts with his voice as one. In both excerpts Finley communicates urgency and emotions that suggest a complexity of character. Lysiart’s aria from Euryanthe begins with a declamatory style at which Finley excels, his diction matching the soul-searching questions of the character. As the piece increases in melodic interest Finley’s approach gains intensity with full decorative force layered onto phrases such as “death and vengeance.” At the close of this scene, the longest in the collection, one has gazed via Finley’s interpretive singing into the conflicting sides of Lysiart’s character, the forces of destruction ultimately winning the upper hand. The duet from Don Giovanni, “Là ci darem la mano,” shared here with Lucy Crowe and performed as “There will my arms enfold you,” illustrates well the rich legato, which is a hallmark of Finley’s singing in such roles where it is appropriate. One can sense the voice performing the act of a seductive embrace as he allows the lines to flow with baritonal resonance.

In yet other styles Finley makes an equally strong impression, such as Robert’s aria “My only beloved Matilde I claim” from Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. In this piece, requiring a strong lyrical approach punctuated by dramatic accents Finley builds gradually in his contemplation of the mutual passion with his beloved. During the initial recitation the singer emphasizes Matilde’s name and its effect on Robert; here Finley intones the word “overpower” in order to give musical expression to his ardor. As often, it is refreshing to listen to Finley sing such words or phrases forte and in upper registers without giving the least sign of strain. Further accents on “her face” and “her eyes” lead to the acceptance of Matilde’s physical “perfection” — and its communication of emotion — with a carefully modulated coloration of the voice. In the repeat of the text’s first half the dramatic result is underlined by Finley’s sustained pitches on “like flame or like wine,” with which the aria effectively concludes.

In those contemporary operatic selections here included, which were originally composed to English texts, Finley’s performances set a standard for the repertoire. The aria sung by Harry from Turnage’s opera The Silver Tassie is performed just before the lead character must return to the trenches of World War I after having spent leave-time in his native Dublin. After a dissonant orchestral beginning each verse accompanied by a simple, repeating line serves as an understated reflection on service and the toll it takes on individual feelings or private loyalties. Finley approaches the overtly song-like nature of the piece as an exercise in variation. He sings the first four verses softly, nearly piano, in a melancholy yet determined resolve to fulfill his military duty while not forgetting the calls of the homeland. Although each line follows essentially the same pattern, the vocal decorations are varied subtly just before or at the point of the end-rhymes. The omnipresent mood of war is suggested by an orchestral intrusion starting at the mid-point of the aria and returning intermittently until the end. Finley responds to these reminders of conflict by inflecting his statements with controlled yet rising pitches, which essentially yield a disciplined variation of the opening lines. The old is confronted by the new, as inevitable change caused by the War is registered in the spirit of Harry and his generation. The second piece from this group is the aria “Batter my heart” from John Adams’s opera Doctor Atomic. Finley’s performance as Oppenheimer in this work has been celebrated in various productions throughout the operatic world, e.g. at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Here the justly chosen aria, based on a poem by John Donne, showcases both the music and Finley’s association with it. The dilemma of Oppenheimer in his work on the horrific weapon causes him to turn to God and to appeal for renewal in his feelings for humanity. Finley negotiates convincingly the undulating intonations in the first four verses and their repetition, as exemplified in the lyrics “three person’d God” and “break, blow, burn, and make me new.” These verses are surrounded by intricate orchestral colorings functioning almost as an interlude of contemplation for the main character. As Finley’s voice rises with intense expression on individual words (“never shall be free,” “except you ravish me”), the listener senses the inner struggles which continue beyond the moment of appeal.

As an example of Finley’s versatility in other repertoire we may look to Antonio’s scena from Linda di Chamounix — composed as an aria and duet sung together with the figure of Maddalena — during which the father’s fears for Linda are expressed. In the introductory aria Finley demonstrates a mastery of bel canto singing in his ideal combination of broad legato and carefully placed decorative melismas on key words such as “altar” and “father.” The accompanying duet shared with Anne Marie Gibbons illustrates Finley’s skill at participating in a vocal line with an emphasis on expressive ensemble singing. The remaining selections in this cd are well chosen and give indication of Finley’s potential future projects for both operatic stage and recording. Several of the translations used in this cd were recently commissioned or produced at the time of the recording.

Salvatore Calomino

image= image_description=Great Operatic Arias with Gerald Finley product=yes product_title=Great Operatic Arias with Gerald Finley product_by=Gerald Finley baritone. London Philharmonic Orchestra. Edward Gardner, conducting. product_id=Chandos CHAN 3167 [CD] price=$14.68 product_url=
Posted by Gary at 3:16 PM

La Fille du régiment, Royal Opera

First staged to glorious reviews in 2007, in fact this co-production with the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, New York, has seldom been ‘out-of-production’ during the last two years; but Covent Garden has reassembled almost all the members of the original stellar cast, re-uniting French soprano, Natalie Dessay, as the gamine, gambolling Marie, with Juan Diego Flórez’ charming, heart-winning Tonio.

Even by the standards of 1840s opéra comique, the libretto is wildly implausible. But Pelly relishes the improbabilities and excesses, envisaging Donizetti’s trifle as a Gilbert & Sullivanesque caper; his staging abounds with visual gags which inject much energy humour into the text, which is itself enlivened by some smart one-liners (‘It’s raining soldiers’) and a co-mingling of English and French which neatly complements the franglais accents on stage. Certainly, the manic visual stimuli — lines of dancing long-johns, balletic dusting routines, a coup de théâtre tank - deftly keep at bay any potential dramatic languors; but, while satire is undoubtedly a vital element of the genre there is perhaps a danger that Pelly’s farce indulges in just a touch too much self-ridicule — surely Donizetti is sincere in his flippancy and frivolity?

As the regiment’s adopted daughter/skivvy, Natalie Dessay is certainly committed: from her first entrance — stumbling beneath a toppling mound of regimental laundry — she flounces and flops, stamps and strops, wildly throwing herself around the stage in a ceaseless comic routine à la Chaplin. Not afraid to squawk and screech, she savours the dialogue, spitting out Gallic ‘Merde!’s a-plenty, and confirms her reputation as one of the finest actors currently on the operatic stage. This is fast becoming a signature role — and indeed it is hard to imagine this production without Dessay — but there some alarming signs of dramatic and vocal wear-and-tear. Her comic timing may be exemplary, with coloratura pinging perfectly to a twang of the braces; and the top Ds and Es may ring true and clear even as she is tossed and twirled by her military ‘daddies’; but the price to pay for such a breath-taking performance may literally be the taking of Dessay’s breath. On more than one occasion she seemed exhausted by her own exuberance and, worryingly, in quieter moments her voice became rather pale, on occasion fading completely. Punching out the regimental song as she darted up and down the map-inscribed mountains of Chantal Thomas’s Act 1 set, Dessay effectively captured the drive and ambition of the military milieu, but if familiarity breeds excess and exaggeration, there is a danger that her performance could become a caricature of itself.

If Dessay never quite attained a true bel canto lyricism, Juan Diego Flórez’ light, high tenor is perfect for this part. Nonchalant leaps to the 9 successive high Cs in ‘Ah, mes amis’ were more than matched, even outshone, by a moving, tender declaration of love in his Act 2 aria, ‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie’. Although the voice is a little unyielding, the homogenous, even beauty of tone is astonishing, and it was hard to believe that the sweet, tenderness of the daringly hushed closing phrase could fail to touch the heart of the daughter-denying Marquise de Berkenfeld.

LA-FILLE-BC20100514204-(C)B.gifDawn French as La Duchesse De Crackentorp and Ann Murray as La Marquise De Berkenfeld

For all Pelly’s attention to dramatic detail, there was however a disappointing absence of genuine ‘chemistry’ between the star pair. Fortunately, Ann Murray’s self-important Marquise and Alessandro Corbelli’s soft-hearted Sulpice more than made up for this lack of erotic spark, with masterly embodiments of haughty elegance and paternal indulgence respectively. Her voice may lack some of its former sheen, but Murray knows how to command a stage and her entrance aria, 'Pour une femme de mon nom', was instantly engaging and convincing. Amusingly accompanying Dessay at the piano during the singing-lesson scene, she more than matched the master Corbelli for comic timing.

Queen of TV comedy, Dawn French, in the speaking role of the Duchess de Crackentorp, reprised her Vicar of Dibley trademarks, eliciting laughs by the mere raising of the eyebrow and stopping just a whisker short of overkill. Donald Maxwell as Hortensius completed the ‘dream cast’. They were complemented by a superb male chorus, although their female counterparts, admittedly less busy, were not quite up to the rest of the regiment’s mark.

LA-FILLE-BC20100514024-CORB.gifAlessandro Corbelli as Sulpice Pingot

Bruno Campanella conducted a rather scruffy performance from the Royal Opera House orchestra: although the pit-stage balance was excellent, the tempi were a bit ragged, and cast and band were occasionally out-of-step. However, things tightened up in the second Act, and a stunning solo ’cello introduced Dessay’s ‘C’en est donc fait’.

Florez’ light elegance shows no signs of waning, but Dessay can surely not reprise this role indefinitely. Although her Marie is at times less hyperactive tomboy and more hysterical Lucia, this is not a show to miss. Grab a ticket — even if you have to mount a military campaign to hunt one down.

Claire Seymour

image= image_description=Natalie Dessay as Marie and Juan Diego Flórez As Tonio [Photo by The Royal Opera / Bill Cooper] product=yes product_title=Gaetano Donizetti: La Fille du régiment product_by=Conductor: Bruno Campanella;Tonio: Juan Diego Flórez; Marie: Natalie Dessay; Sulpice: Alessandro Corbelli; La Marquise de Berkenfeld: Ann Murray; Hortensius: Donald Maxwell; La Duchesse de Crackentorp: Dawn French. Director: Laurent Pelly. Associate Director/Dialogue: Agathe Mélinand. Revival Director: Elaine Kidd. Set Designer: Chantal Thomas. Costume Designer: Laurent Pelly. Lighting Designer: Joël Adam. Choreography: Laura Scozzi. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Monday 17th May 2010. product_id=Above: Natalie Dessay as Marie and Juan Diego Flórez As Tonio

All photos by The Royal Opera / Bill Cooper
Posted by Gary at 8:07 AM

May 19, 2010

Florian Boesch, Wigmore Hall

Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau presented Schubert and Hugo Wolf with Zemlinsky and Ernst Krenek.

Florian Boesch is very well regarded and a regular at the Wigmore Hall. Malcolm Martineau’s even more of a fixture, as his mother was page turner there years ago — his connections go back a long way. Together they are a draw you don’t miss, but this programme was something special.

Two versions of Goethe’s Prometheus, for example, Schubert D 674 from 1819 and Hugo Wolf, from1889. Both are naturally full of foreboding, for Prometheus defied the gods and was doomed to suffer for eternity. Yet both reflect the times in which they were written. Schubert’s version is powerful, but classically elegant. Wolf’s version could only have been written after Richard Wagner changed the way the world hears dramatic music. Wolf’s passionate outbursts sound almost demented, Boesch’s voice ringing with frenzy, Martineau pounding the keys in suppressed fury, less heavy on the pedal than he’d been in Schubert, but better for that.

Between the two versions of Prometheus, Boesch and Martineau pitted Schubert’s Gesange des Harfners songs (D 478, 480 and 479) with Wolf’s *Three Lieder to texts by Michelangelo *(1897). The latter are amongst the darkest pieces Wolf wrote, worlds away from the airy Mörike songs. Relatively few singers excel in them, for conversely, they need a certain lightness of touch to heighten the shadows. Boesch doesn’t have quite the same richness of colour Goerne can bring to these songs, but he’s reasonably flexible. The phrase, “Alles endet, was entstehet” was quietly sung, with delicacy.

Pairing Alexander Zemlinsky with Ernst Krenek was interesting, too. Zemlinsky composed a great many Lieder, and indeed may have polished Alma Mahler’s Lieder with her. His songs,though, don’t generally reach the imaginative heights of The Lyric Symphony. Die schlanke Wasserlilie, In der Ferne and Wand’l ich in dem Wald des Abends are among the best known. Had Boesch and Martineau paired Zemlinsky’s *Waldegesprache *with the version by Robert Schumann, the difference would have been telling. Few performances make Zemlinsky’s songs much more than pleasant, but it’s not necessarily for lack of trying.

The highlight of the evening were seven songs from Ernst Krenek’s Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen op 62 (1929). This is a remarkable cycle of 20 songs, a seminal work of the 20th century. Krenek’s opera Jonny Spielt Auf was notoriously modern, featuring jazz tunes and a black saxophonist: definitely “degenerate music” which horrified many at the time, including Julius Korngold, the arch-conservative critic.

Austria was now no longer a colourful polyglot Empire, but a truncated rump of German speakers, who weren’t German. This identity crisis was further compounded by modern change, new technology and new values. Thus Krenek left Vienna for the Alps, to find, if he could, the Austrian soul. “Ich reise aus, meine Heimat zu entdecken”. Throughout the cycle, there are references to “Technik Sklaven” (slaves to technology) to hardship, vulgar capitalism, dirty politics and the evils of war.

Krenek coats his songs with sarcasm, for the cycle is a savage indictment of modern society. Alpenbewohner, for example refers to “wilden Nomaden”, ie German daytrippers who tear around rural Austria on their motorbikes, drunkenly offending the locals. But the locals are poor, they need the income tourists bring and are powerless to resist. Krenek didn’t know, in 1929, how prophetic his observations would prove.

The final song, Epilog, is relatively upbeat. Krenek sees an old saying carved on a sign above a door, a very Austrian touch. We may not know when or how our lives may end but somehow we’re happy, it suggests. Krenek seems to conclude that change is inevitable, and must be faced, but doesn’t necessarily preclude happiness.

On their own, the seven songs from the cycle don’t really convey the full impact of the full Reisebuch, though they have been produced as a group in the past. Boesch and Martineau performed them very well, but it would have helped greatly if the programme notes had been up to the usual high standards one expects from the Wigmore Hall.

Anne Ozorio

image= image_description=Florian Boesch [Photo by Stefan von der Deken]

product=yes producttitle=Schubert, Wolf, Zemlinsky and Ernst Krenek productby=Florian Boesch, baritone; Malcolm Martineau, piano. Wigmore Hall, London 18th May 2010. product_id=Above: Florian Boesch [Photo by Stefan von der Deken]

Posted by anne_o at 12:45 PM

May 18, 2010

Opera News columnist takes music critics (myself included) to task over Leonard Slatkin fiasco at the Met

By John Terauds [Toronto Star, 18 May 2010]

For me, one of the joys of blogging has been the ability to muse out loud, to have a conversation (or, usually, a monologue — something I wish will change over time) about musical points of interest.

Posted by Gary at 5:10 PM

Robert Maggio — An Interview by Tom Moore

He recently moved to Lambertville, New Jersey, an erstwhile mill-town on the Delaware River, now a center for art and antiques, across the river from New Hope, Pennsylvania. We spoke via telephone on April 15, 2010.

TM: Thank you! It’s been a long time. The last time you were living down by the Delaware border.

RM: Now we live in Lambertville, New Jersey. It’s a beautiful community to live in — lots of painters, lots of artists….

TM: and a little closer to New York City.

RM: It’s been helpful, since I have been able to go to New York regularly. I have been involved in a musical theater workshop for four years now, going almost every week to present songs that I am working on for various musicals, and to hear other people’s music as well. It’s very nice — Lambertville is right between New York and Philadelphia, and in another direction, West Chester, where I teach.

TM: I recall that you grew up near the dreaded Somerville circle — you must drive past there all the time.

RM: Now I go over it.

TM: In listening to the works from the last few years at your site, it sounds like you might have made a change in direction compositionally. To get started…please talk a little about the piece Dos Visiones — was that a collaboration where you and Ana Lara wrote independent movements? How did that work?

RM: Yes, we wrote independent movements — three each, and chose similar themes — not musical themes, although we actually did share musical themes — but we started from concepts that we found at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California. After we started writing music, we started sharing our music with each other, and trying to embed, to quote each other’s pieces in our own. We intended at some point to write a movement together, but by the time we got there, the piece had reached forty minutes, which was our limit, so we didn’t get to write that movement together. I would have loved to have done that. Self-portraiture and national identity was one theme-group, another was humor and irony, and another was magic and magical realism.

TM: How did the collaboration itself get started?

RM: The American Composers’ Forum has a project called Continental Harmony, which began in 2000. The idea behind Continental Harmony was to link composers and communities, but beginning not with the composer’s vision of the project, but with the community’s vision. For example, each arts organization or community group devised a project that they felt they needed a composer for. Long Beach Symphony wanted a piece about the Museum of Latin American Art, and since their composer was Latin American, he wanted the piece to be performed in both Mexico City and Long Beach. He chose Ana Lara, since she is from Mexico City, and he knew her, and they had an open call for composers to apply, so they could write about how their skill-sets met what the orchestra needed, and how they could be an ambassador for their country and also for the Museum of Latin American Art. That’s how we got paired off, and they said “go to the Museum, and spend some time there”. We dreamed up the shared themes, and that we would interleave the movements.

TM: You had never met before?

RM: No. We both had been commissioned by the orchestra during the previous season. Once we signed onto this project, they wanted us both to get to know the orchestra, and wanted each of us to write an aria for tenor and orchestra on the life of Galvez, the explorer, whom neither one of us knew. We met at that point, and we met at the premiere of those works, and started planning this piece, a good two years out. We write very different kinds of music, so it was wonderful to put our pieces back to back. It was exciting to see how the styles played off each other.

TM: How would you characterize the two styles?

RM: My influences are largely American composers. I have been strongly influenced by Copland, Barber, Bernstein, more recently Adams –my colleagues, all the Americans that I know. In school what I gravitated towards was the American music, probably because my interests growing up were in jazz, and pop, and rock, and theater. Ana’s music is probably more influenced by Latin American music, and by music that is filtered from Europe through Mexico and Central America.

TM: Do you think there might be a future collaboration where you are working together on a piece?

RM: Anything is possible. It’s unlikely - most composers don’t like to do that.

TM: Could you talk about Simple, which was a commission from Pottstown?

RM: That was a commission for a short concert opener. I have been playing around for quite a while with using folk music as a means to replace the blank page — to try to make variations on something without necessarily revealing the theme. I took the theme that Copland made famous — Simple Gifts, the Shaker tune — and my goal was never to state that theme clearly, but just to use the rhythms and the intervals and the harmonies, and to reconfigure it entirely. It still has some of the same qualities of Copland’s melodies and harmonies and textures, but I don’t want someone in the audience to say “Hey, there’s that Shaker tune”. It doesn’t show up in any obvious way.

TM: One can think of other pieces with that strategy, but finally arriving at the gestalt by the end — the Britten piece for guitar which ends with the Dowland model that he started from.

RM: The funny thing is that I teach that piece. I just finished the variations unit in my composition class, and that is the only piece that we study as a model. It’s wonderful how hidden and submerged the thematic material is in all the variations. You can choose to have the theme appear, or not. It is certainly rewarding in the Britten when it arrives after all those variations.

TM: One realizes that what was inspirational was the primal quality of the Dowland, or for that matter, of Simple Gifts.

RM: There’s something appealing about being given the materials, and then being allowed to work with them. It’s like getting a bunch of ingredients — like the Iron Chef. Take these ingredients and do something with them. I want to come up with something that I want to listen to. If I stay too close to the Copland, I am recreating that. I am a reasonably good imitator to begin with, and there’s danger in that sometimes. I have to challenge myself to listen closely to my own instincts. By not allowing some thematic material to show up as a quotation, I am forced to make up new stuff.

I did quotation for a long time, going back through my music from graduate school in the late eighties and early nineties, and then began to do more of this kind of work, using one song or riff, and coming up with a whole bunch of music which doesn’t in any way sound like that thing. In 1996 I wrote a piece called Riversongs for wind octet, which is almost entirely built on patterns from the Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun — but it sounds nothing like it, and you would never notice it, ever. I would have to point it out to you. The point was not to make a reference to Here Comes the Sun — the point was to give myself a challenge — here are these ingredients: make something. Lucky Charms, pepperoni, whipped cream — go! There’s something fun about that.

TM: Some composers conceive of a metaphor or a structure for a piece, and then the work of composition is filling in the details. If you think of the architect Oscar Niemeyer you will see four or five lines or curves, and the architecture comes from that sketch. And some composers build up from the smallest gesture, almost organically, from there, so that they don’t have a sense of the large-scale structure until they have worked the material.

RM: I have worked with both, and sometimes with both in the same piece. Since I teach composition, I am always thinking about strategies. In helping students develop their own pieces, I have to be someone who has a big toolbox of strategies. Students come into my office every week with something, and I have to think what is the advice, what is the take-home message today? Sometimes it is the “be more organic” message, and sometimes it is “what is your concept for this” strategy. I have to apply that to myself as a composer, and I have had moments when I have being trying to work on something organically, from the ground up, and I have gotten nowhere. Then there will be some sudden conceptual strategy that appeals to me and I think “Oh my god! That’s what it is”, and I can fill it in. Sometimes having opposing strategies will get the piece going.

TM: Sounds like you don’t belong to the pre-compositional planning camp, though.

RM: I have had times when I have seen something visually — I have seen an art work and thought “that is what this piece will feel like” — that sort of structural idea. Or I watch movies, and get really interested in narrative structure. A movie might have a weird chop in the middle, or the end does something completely different than the rest of it, or there’s a strange flashback — I might think of that kind of game-plan too. It is always to get an emotional effect, because it will feel a certain way.

TM: What you said about images may be another compositional strategy. My wife, who is an artist, infrequently works from a blank page, but may have an image that she starts from, whether a photograph or something else, that may develop. This sounds like something that appeals to you as well.

RM: When I was writing Simple, it happened that one of my students went on to do work at Indiana, and she said that she was going to write a brass quintet, and the first thing her new composition teacher asked her to do was to brainstorm a dozen one-measure ideas — textures, gestures, shapes, rhythms — and then go back over them and see what really appealed, and then develop that. In a funny way that is how I wrote Simple. I remember taking that folk-song, and putting it in front of me, and thinking of more than a dozen things that I could do with it. I didn’t keep writing, but brainstormed a whole bunch of ways of starting an idea, and then started developing some of them that really took off, and began to put them together like a puzzle. I don’t usually work that way — it was an unusual approach for me.

TM: To move onto another piece, you have a recent piece called Color and Light, which perhaps connects with the Bucks County School, although Lambertville is across the river in Hunterdon County.

RM: It’s all Impressionism, really. There’s a lot about color theory, about sustaining tones — having one instrument play a note, and another instrument take up the same note, or a group of instruments play a chord, and another group sustain that chord while the first group moves onto another, creating afterimages — a soft color palette, a very slow-moving pace — there’s a lot of things which were from looking at the paintings that I see in town, at art galleries, and thinking about what they might sound like, and what they feel like — what the soul of those paintings is really about. There’s a fascination with the visual senses of color and light. There are easy translations into harmonies — harmonies have certain colors, colors from voicings of chords. I spent a lot of time thinking about what instruments were going to play this, in what register, at what dynamic level, and how they were going to articulate that chord, and were they going to have a crescendo — a ton of details on very little information. I remember thinking that it would be music that was going to be very spare — the challenge there was to “under”— write the piece, to try to do less, and see how much soul I could get out of one note — how beautiful can one or two notes be. The main motive of that piece is two notes.

TM: Almost Zen, you might say.

RM: I think so. Not so much what those paintings look like, but more what they feel like. There is something about living in a small town on a river that one wants to be a little Zen there.

TM: It’s not until you don’t have that river anymore that you realize how special a presence it is, not just the water, but the valley and the light and the nature.

RM: It’s actually very calming.

TM: Your music seems to be becoming more American, and perhaps less “uptown” in a sense, not that it was ever “uptown”, but farther from the idiom of uptown chamber music, and closer to this sense of what the Delaware Valley is — it’s not New York, it’s not Philadelphia.

RM: That seems fair. It wouldn’t surprise me if living in the environment that I do has an effect on the kind of music that I write. I actually wrote a piece that was about living in Lambertville, called At the River, and evokes a music that describes the place, the people, the architecture, the history, and since then I have written two more pieces for the same group in Lambertville, the Riverside Symphonia, and the players, playing the third piece, Color and Light, even though I think of it as somewhat different than the first two remarked that they thought that it, just as you said, had a kind of American pastoral sensibility. There’s a certain edginess that I may shy away from more. The most recent string quartet deals with Italian folk music, of all things. There’s some pretty edgy music in the second movement, but when I look at where the piece ultimately goes, it allows that to dissipate.

TM: Interestingly, the most “American” composers were both living in New York City — Charles Ives and Aaron Copland, evoking places from New York City.

RM: I am fan of theirs — if they were in Facebook I would be on their fan pages.

TM: I speak to more and more composers for whom Ives is important, even though he is not one of those people who is in the canon, and no one teaches him.

Could you talk about the Diabelli variation project?

RM: There are twenty-five composers involved with that, and nobody knows what anybody else did. They wanted one-and-a-half minute variations for three out of four instruments on the Diabelli theme. That was fun — I wrote three variations in one, going through the Diabelli theme three times, transforming it into something else — like putting it through a Diabelli variation machine. I was also trying to write something very playful. I think that theme is playful and very silly — it cried out for something fun and light and enjoyable. Hopefully the whole thing will be really wonderful, with twenty-five composers takes on that theme.

TM: I love that word “silly” that you use, because there are so few composers that have the balls to be silly, and to be open and upfront about it. Who is there? Poulenc, perhaps, and how many more? It’s wonderful and exhilarating when something can be outrageously silly. One thinks of the Minister for Silly Walks…but there’s very little music that goes that direction.

RM: Comedy is hard in music –it’s hard to be funny. There’s arch humor, with raised eyebrows…I think my recent forays into writing musicals have given me more license to have a good time. The other premiere coming up is Summer — 2 AM, which is a riff on Knoxville — Summer of 1915. I worked with someone who is a singer-songwriter, Mary Louise MacNamara, who has a wonderful sense of humor. She and I collaborated like a songwriting team on these, and we wrote eight songs for Laura Heimes to sing. When we first met with Laura, to ask her what the piece should be about, what she wanted to sing about - she was also going to be doing the Barber on the same program, which is one of my favorite pieces, one of the first classical pieces that I ever listened to, and which I just fell in love with — obviously I wanted to take Barber’s name off, put mine on, and say I wrote this great music- and I needed to stay a million miles away from it. I write that nostalgic stuff very well and very easily. Nostalgic, beautiful, sad, longing — I do that really well in music. When we started talking to Laura, her life had just been turned upside down by having a baby. Sitting there, trying to drink an ice tea, with Laura feeling constantly interrupted or distracted, we decided that that was what the piece would be about — about Laurie’s life change, from being a married singer without a baby to being a married singer with a baby. It starts off with a quotation from the Barber, and she is using that as a lullaby for the child, and it ends there, too. It goes on a seventeen-minute journey where she is coming to terms with her life being turned upside down, but it also develops her humor — it’s all funny. We allow ourselves one moment of “awwww…” , but everything else is funny.

TM: How did the project get started?

RM: They already had Laurie lined up, they already had Barber lined up, and then when they were working on the program, since I teach at West Chester, which is Barber’s birthplace, they thought of me, and of course I was very interested. I didn’t know Laurie — I had heard her before, but I didn’t know her. We just went from there.

TM: She is a wonderful artist.

RM: She has a sense of humor, so she can carry these pieces off. I wouldn’t have written it for anyone else. It largely came out of writing for the performer. She does opera, she does dramatic stuff? She’ll be great for this.

TM: Absolutely. She has a killer sense of humor. Do you have other exciting projects coming up for 2010 and 2011?

RM: Yes — both of them involve working with dance companies. It’s been a few years since the last project, with Matthew Neenan and Ballet X in Philadelphia. I have just been paired up with a choreographer in Lambertville where I live, Mark Roxey. He and I just got a grant from the American Music Center — Live Music for Dance. We are creating a piece together for next season based on some of the philosophical writings in Jonathan Livingston Seagull, of all things — a very beautiful inspirational text from the seventies, if anyone remembers it. I have been re-reading it, and there are some just beautiful fascinating ideas which will translate very well into music and dance. There are a couple of irons in the fire in dance projects, which I hope will come through.

TM: Looking at your oeuvre, it seems like there should be an opera there. Will there be one in your future?

RM: Yes — I am just waiting for that phone call. It seems like a no-brainer to me. I have been working on musicals, and understand a lot about musical dramatization at this point. I think I have the dramatic chops to do opera now, and the experience in writing a lot of vocal music, and a lot of orchestral music, and am someone who is fascinated by film and theater, and always was. Opera is definitely a place that I want to go.

I have a student right now who is just beginning an opera. We were just brainstorming plot and narrative — I was so excited to be talking about story. We weren’t talking about music, we were talking about storytelling. When I write an opera, that is what I want to focus on. I want to make sure that people really care about those characters, are invested in who they are. Some of my favorite opera has those qualities.

TM: Just a matter of hearing from a company with a commission.

RM: I am doing work on musical theater on spec — there’s only so much time to work on large-scale projects. Musicals, operas — these things take a huge amount of time. I want to know that it is going to happen, and I want to workshop it. To make a successful opera, you have to workshop it — you have to put it together piece by piece. We do that all the time in my BMI musical theater workshop — we put song by song up in front of everybody. You get great feedback, and the pieces grow from having been test-driven.

image= image_description=Robert Maggio [Photo courtesy of the composer] product=yes product_title=Robert Maggio — An Interview by Tom Moore product_by=Above: Robert Maggio [Photo courtesy of the composer]
Posted by Gary at 11:00 AM

Bellini's Norma at Gran Teatre del Liceu

Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, however, is not one such. Many would agree with your reviewer that the best choice is the famed recording made one windy night in Orange, with Montserrat Caballe and Jon Vickers. Neither sound and video for that version can be called excellent, but such is the power of the performance that allowances are easily made. Over three decades later, there is no real rival. And this latest recorded staging, from Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu in 2007, poses no real challenge.

Stage director Francisco Negrin does conventional work with the singers, who are trapped in the monolithic and monochromatic sets of Anthony Baker. Tradiotionalists will bemoan the lack of greenery for this story of the Druids under Roman control; indeed, Negrin and Baker see the Druid’s world as blue-tinged. After an opening chorus which seems to be taking place in some turquoise-tiled Turkish bath, the stage picture settles in as two or three intersecting stone walls sections of towering height. With almost no props — so that sleeping characters, as is becoming almost a cliche, repose on the stage floor — Negrin needs a cast of physical singing actors to bring the drama to life. He doesn’t have one.

Fiorenze Cedolins as Norma has the regal bearing, but both her vocalism and her characterization are one-dimensional. In her singing she offers a steady emission of sound, and for acting she lifts her head and peers down at the lesser beings around her. She evokes no sympathy. Sonia Ganassi makes for an attractive Adalgisa, and the famous act-two duet with Norma earns both leading ladies a happy Barcelona audience’s fervid applause at final curtain. Their rivalry and reconciliation might be more powerful if the man at the heart of the triangle were performed more charismatically than Vincenzo La Scola can manage. Negrin can’t do much more than let him grimace and stride purposefully, and the tenor’s instrument sounds dry, if powerful enough. Andrea Papi’s Oroveso barks at the moon like an old Druid dog.

The Liceu forces play beautifully for conductor Giuliano Carella, who does try to produce musically the dramatic force missing from the stage action, even getting a bit manic in the overture. Arthaus Musik spreads the performance onto two discs, but there are no special features. Caballe and Vickers in Orange remain the artists to go to for a powerful Norma on DVD.

Chris Mullins

image= image_description=Vincenzo Bellini: Norma

product=yes producttitle=Vincenzo Bellini: Norma productby=Pollione: Vincenzo la Scola; Oroveso: Andrea Papi; Norma: Fiorenza Cedolins; Adalgisa: Sonia Ganassi; Clotilde: Begoña Alberdi; Flavio: Jon Plazaola. Liceu Grand Theatre Chorus and Symphony Orchestra. Giuliano Carella, conductor. Francisco Negrín, stage director. Anthony Baker, set design. Jonathan Morrell, costume design. Recorded live from the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona 2007. productid=ArtHaus Musik 101465 [2 DVDs] price=$35.99 producturl=

Posted by chris_m at 9:00 AM

May 17, 2010

Valencia Ring: Das Rheingold

The production itself is a fanciful blend of innovative stagecraft and visual projections that works well to respect the traditional libretto and simultaneously explore the contemporary technology. With a bow to the athleticism of the Cirque du Soleil, the set makes use of spatiality that is not always possible in all of the houses that take on this opera. At the same time, the visual medium brings together the visual elements effortlessly, with a fine mixture of close-ups, full-stage views, and cross-cuts that call attention to the effects of stage designer Roland Olbeter.

At the core of this video is a solid musical execution led by Zubin Mehta. The True HD 7.1 sound offers a crisp and clear audio track, which captures the details of the orchestra effectively. At times the mix favors the orchestra sound at the expense of some of the stage sounds, as with the splashes of the Rhine Maidens in the first scene. Here the women perform from individual water tanks, which eventually suspend over the stage, and in this milieu they sometimes splash water at Alberich as they taunt him or spray water across the stage in gestures that accompany the fluid, mercury-like projects. This is quite effective, and works well in conveying the sense of the score. One detail distract, though, with the projection of an infant, at the presentation of the sword-motif resembling the free-floating space child depicted in the latter part of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey and anticipating too soon the conception of the redeemer in Siegmund’s son Siegfried — at this point in the opera, Alberich has not yet actually stolen the gold to set these events into motion. This image soon gives way to a more appropriate project of the color of gold that almost overwhelms the staging, and the crisp, sharply defined visuals bring this out well for the viewer, perhaps more effectively than in a live performance. At the end of the first scene, though, Alberich drains the tanks of the Rhine maidens, and in doing so, leaves them gasping like fish out of an aquarium. This is an intriguing concept in that the dwarf has just robbed the Rhine maidens of the gold that was the focus of their existence, and this offers a good parallel. Yet when some men come to tie up the impaired Rhine maidens and carry them away trussed like quarry, the gesture is disturbing.

With the second scene, the graphic element makes use of projects of plans, which enhance the text of scene, with its focus on the exchange between Fricka and Wotan about the construction of Valhalla. Here Juha Uusitalo is impressive with his sonorous and lyrical bass voice in creating a sonic image of the god positing the world he has put into motion. Fricka, as portrayed by Anna Larsson, is solicitous and engaging, as she prompts Wotan for her validly deeper concerns. Larsson is nicely lyrical in this role, as she shapes the phrases and thus supports the text convincingly. The use of movable construction lifts is effective in a scene which some directors envision statically, with Wotan and Fricka merely pointing to a painted flat of Valhalla. The constant motion might also challenge the principals, and as such, they meet the demands well, without being affected by the sometimes swift movement. Later in this scene, though, the image of child, now suggesting a kind of Buddha, dominates Wotan’s monologue.

The third scene is also provocative in its use of human bodies suspended from meathooks, like carcasses to be processed at a factory. Here Alberich, depicted by Franz-Joseph Kapellmann, gives a fine point to the role and Mehta revels in the music of Nibelheim scene. The staging conveys a sense the cinema with its use of multiple layers of details and appropriate colors. The close-ups are useful in offering a human side to the scene, while also putting the mechanistic elements into the background, akin to the way this was presented in the film version of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, especially when Alberich displays the oversize ring. The only image that is sometimes out of place is the placement of Loge on a Segue, which conveys mobility, but also seems easily datable. Yet the scene also contains an over-the-top evocation of the dragon with torches in the hands of each of the actors who are part of the contrivance that represents the beast. Similarly the visual effects at the end of the scene in the contest with Alberich as the toad, works wonderfully well in the film medium of the DVD.

The projections likewise move the viewer well from the end of the third scene to the fourth in ways that are not always so convincing. In contrast, the present production deserves attention for its effective combination of images with music. Even the spinning of the globe fits well into the tempos of the orchestral interlude which sometimes occurs in a darkened house. This sets the stage for the concluding scene in which the action sets into motion the destinies that will be worked out in the three operas that follow. Elements from this passage are also part of the scene with Erda, sung well by Christa Mayer, in a touching staging. Mayer has a silvery sound that works well in conveying the text, rather than some of the darker voices used for her role. Another effective performer is Stephen Milling, who brings fine shape to the role of Fafner in his distinctive approach to the role. Likewise, the elements of the opera come together well in the final part of the scene, as the dealings with the giants conclude and Donner’s solemn declarations allow the gods to complete their long-await entrance into Valhalla. The use of lifts, again, works well, with Ilya Bannik as Donner given the center of the stage and then moved away effortlessly, as the other characters are moved into the staging. The construct of Valhalla as a pyramid of figures ingeniously intertwined allows a human element to enter into this sometimes technologically dominated production.

All in all, this is a production of Das Rheingold that deserves attention for its solid conception of the work. If it is sometimes excessive, that aspect of the production fits well into the nature of Wagner’s work. The entire production shows a fine sense of imagination in terms of the imagery, visual space, colors, motion, and costume, which La Fura dels Baus delivers with excellent style. At times it the production of this famous opera remains something to enjoy visually, while also savoring the fine performances of a well-chosen cast, both of which are served well by the clear images and full sound of the Blu-ray medium. The clearly articulated text emerges nicely in the sound mix, and those who wish to use subtitles have access to the libretto in German, along with translations in English, French, and Spanish. More than that, those interested in the conception of this Ring cycle can pursue it on the documentary, which offers details about the production.

With its finely rehearsed orchestra, well-matched principals, and excellent sound, the DVD has much to offer. Those who are intrigued by this production may find it useful to return to various parts of the work, which are thoughtfully banded for easy reference. Ingenious in execution, it is musically satisfying, as Zubin Mehta contributes a fine video to the discography of Wagner’s Ring der Nibelungen.

James L. Zychowicz

image= image_description=Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold product=yes product_title=Richard Wagner: Das Rheingold product_by=Juha Uusitalo (Wotan), Ilya Bannik (Donner), Germán Villar (Froh), John Daszak (Loge), Franz-Joseph Kappellmann (Alberich), Gerhard Siegel (Mime), Matti Salminen (Fasolt), Stephen Milling (Fafner), Anna Larsson (Fricka), Sabina von Walther (Freia), Christa Mayer (Erda), Silvia Vásquez (Woglinde), Ann-Katrin Naidu (Wellgunde), Hanna Esther Minutillo (Floßhilde), Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana, Zubin Mehta, conductor, product_id=Unitel Classica 10064 [Blu-Ray DVD] price=$32.49 product_url=
Posted by jim_z at 11:08 PM

Elena Ruehr: An Interview by Tom Moore

We spoke by Skype on May 3, 2010.

TM: You grew up in Michigan in the Upper Peninsula. Was your family musical? Did they play accordion in the old country?

ER: My dad was a jazz piano player. He put himself through college — he was a mathematician. He went to college at the University of Michigan when he was sixteen. He worked from 3:00 P.M. TO 11:30 PM in the Ford Motors plant, making cars, went to classes in the morning, and worked in the jazz band on the weekends. I can’t believe he did it….He was a jazz pianist in the old school — loved Oscar Peterson, and loved Gershwin. My mother was a folksinger, and loved kids’songs. She collected all the great folksingers — Pete Seeger, Joan Baez — and was really interested in old folk songs. Joan Baez would have been modern for her. She used to teach me those old folk songs in the car as we drove around, with our tents in the trunk, camping from one place to another, all over the country. One of my mother’s grandmothers was a pianist who accompanied silent films for many years in Plymouth, Michigan. She grew up doing that in high school, and wanted to be a professional musician, but didn’t make it.

TM: Where was your father from?

ER: My parents were both from Plymouth and my dad worked at the Ford plant in Ypsilanti.

TM: I can’t imagine when your father had time to sleep. How did they come to move to the Upper Peninsula?

ER: My dad got a job at IBM, in Poughkeepsie, New York and my mom started going to state university in New Paltz where she went to Eleanor Roosevelt’s afternoon teas. My dad got tired IBM because he hated wearing ties. So he quit. One summer we lived in a tent by a lake. People called my mom a beatnik and a hippie because she sang and played the guitar, but she didn’t like that. They went off to this nowhere place in the Upper Peninsula where my dad got a job as a math professor. My mom became a rabble-rouser feminist politician and also taught at the university.

TM: When did they move?

ER: It must have been about 1967 or 1968. There was a little time in between — my dad finished his Ph.D at Ann Arbor, and worked in the Radiation Lab, where they did bomb research. He quit that, because he hated the bombs. By the time we got to the UP it must have been about 1967 when I was four years old.

TM: How big was the town where you lived?

ER: South Range had about 300 people. There was a university five miles away called Michigan Tech, in Houghton, and that was a town of about four thousand.

TM: That is small.

ER: Very small — you are right.

TM: Your father played piano –is that where your piano came from?

ER: We always had a piano. My mother was my teacher, but my dad played every night. After dinner he would play Gershwin songs, and my mom would sing. It was very sweet.

TM: How did your mother get involved in the folk scene? That was something very labor-left-wing-Jewish in the fifties.

ER: She was part of that scene and she was about a quarter Jewish. We have movies from 1961, where she has long hair in braids, and my dad has a beard, and she is singing and playing the guitar. I think it might have been in New York where there were cool arty types who introduced her to folk at school — she was in school while my dad was at IBM.

TM: This was just about the time that Bob Dylan arrived from Hibbing, but you went the opposite direction — from the metropolis to a town of 300. Did you go on to study piano with another teacher?

ER: My mom needed her piano tuned, so she called the local community college — Suomi, which is now called Finlandia, and the man there who tuned pianos, Melvin Kangas, who had a chicken farm in a town of 40 people, would come and tune our piano. She liked him, and he liked her, and he became my teacher. He had gone to the University of Michigan, and had gotten a masters’ degree in composition, studying with Leslie Bassett, who was a Pulitzer Prize winner in the sixties. Melvin had given up on big city life and had come home. He is a wonderful, wonderful guy, very smart, just didn’t like the nonsense. He taught me how to push the boundaries of the tonal music that I was writing with my mom as my teacher.

TM: Was there a Finnish colony there?

ER: There was copper mining in the Upper Peninsula, and there were Cornish and Finnish people who came to be miners.

TM: Were there musical ensembles at your school? Choruses and bands?

ER: We moved to Houghton when I was in the fifth grade, and I went to high school there, where we had a chorus and a band. Robert Nordeen was the conductor.

TM: Were you in the chorus and the band?

ER: Yes. I played the piano for the chorus, and sang as a tenor and sometimes an alto, and I played the flute in the band.

TM: When did you take up the flute, and why?

ER: When I was in the second grade, the teacher at the school in South Range asked us all what instrument we wanted to play. I went in and said “I want to play the drums — raaaaaah!” He said “Girls don’t play drums.” I said, “Oh! OK, I’ll play the flute.” So that’s how I became a flutist. I kept it up until I was twenty, when I gave it up because I had too much to do.

TM: And there were probably no boys whatsoever who played the flute.

ER: No boy flute players, and lots of boy drummers.

TM: And trumpeters, with no women who played trumpet.

ER: No, although we had women playing French horn.

TM: Was there an orchestra there?

ER: No orchestra — just band and chorus. No strings.

TM: Probably not a large Jewish population in the UP.

ER: There was one Jewish guy whom I dated briefly, and he was the only Jewish guy my age in town. There was a synagogue, which had about twenty members.

TM: You mentioned folk music earlier. Was there popular music you were listening to?

ER: I have two older brothers, and one was into heavy metal — he liked Led Zeppelin. I listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin because of him. My other brother was interested in indie bands — he got interested in Morton Subotnick, which was at one end, and The Doors at the other. My friends were listening to the B-52s, and Aerosmith, and everything in between. I liked Janis Joplin and loved Paul Simon — I had a crush on him….

TM: Was there live music in that part of the state?

ER: I dated a disc jockey named Dan Cunningham in high school, so I heard a lot of music through him. He was on a top-40 radio station. I played in a rock band, which did fifties songs, and a little jazz, and a little pop music. But mostly we heard recordings.

TM: What was the name of the band?

ER: I will not tell you — it’s that embarrassing.

TM: You played keyboards?

ER: I did, and sang a little bit.

TM: Did you have a Farfisa?

ER: I had a Fender Rhodes. I used to tune it myself, although eventually I messed it up completely.

TM: Keyboard, drums, bass — and a guitar?


TM: What did your mother think about your rock and roll?

ER: She didn’t like it, but I was a very headstrong girl. She used to date a drummer in a band when she was in high school, and she thought “she just has to work this out”. And I did.

TM: Do you still have recordings of the group?

ER: Someplace in my basement.

TM: When your papers are given to the institution of your choice, they will include the recordings of the rock and roll band.

ER: They will be burned….

TM: At what point did you start to think that you would be a musician? Were you starting to think about composition at that point?

ER: When I was in the ninth or tenth grade I started to have lessons with Melvin Kangas, and started writing piano music. On the one hand there was this pop music going on, but on the other my dad was listening to the Beethoven and the Bartok string quartets. He had a hi-fi system that he had built himself, and got all these reel-to-reel recordings of Bartok and Beethoven. I used to listen to them a lot. I thought Bartok was a girl, since her name was Bella. I was writing pop songs and piano pieces that were in the style of Chopin, Debussy, Gershwin. I didn’t know what I was going to do until I had to decide what I was going to major in in college. I had to make a decision — I got a call from a band that was touring the Midwest, a top-40 band, and they wanted me to come tour with them. It was bigger than anything I had done. And I had an offer to go to the University of Michigan and be a composer. I had gone to Michigan, and auditioned there, and had a wonderful moment where I was at the graduate student class — they had accidentally scheduled me for the graduate students instead of the undergraduates — and the class was talking about Berg’s Wozzeck. I had never heard anything like it. I was just completely astounded by the fact that music could be so deep and real and complicated. I didn’t understand it, but I felt like there was this huge place that I was never going to see unless I went there. So when the pop band called, I thought “No way! I am going to college! I am going to learn about this.” Little did I know that I would not earn as much money as I did that year for another twenty years…..

I was really taken by Berg’s Wozzeck — it was the thing that got me to college.

TM: In the UP you had never heard of Berg —

ER: nothing like it.

TM: Was there a public library with a collection of recordings?

ER: There was a library at my dad’s university, Michigan Tech, and my brother Fritz, who liked Morton Subotnick, and I used to go down there when we were kids and listen to the Well-Tempered Clavier over and over again, in the recording on harpsichord by Wanda Landowska. In studying piano with my mother, I went through all the John Thompson books, and then all the Classics to Moderns….

TM: Was your focus on composition when you got there to the University of Michigan?

ER: I was always a composer, right from the start.

TM: Who was the faculty in composition at Michigan at that point?

ER: Leslie Bassett and George Balch Wilson, who was my first teacher, and my main teacher there. Bill Albright was there, and Bill Bolcom, who became my teacher later.

TM: Where did Michigan sit esthetically? Was it conservative, musically?

ER: It was rather conservative, to be honest. I used to say to my friends that they don’t call it a conservatory for nothing. When I got there I felt that the performers (not the composers) were so encapsulated in the past. They were so deeply engaged with these ancient things that I didn’t have a connection with them. I would hang out with the art students, though as time has passed I have become more interested in history.

TM: Conservatories tend to be places that pass on from teacher to student a hands-on and not so analytical approach to music, so they can be extremely conservative places.

ER: I would say that Michigan was kind of in-between, because on the other hand, it was a university, and so the intellectual part of the experience was really engaging.

TM: How isolated was Ann Arbor at the time in terms of its musical life?

ER: To me it seemed like a Mecca compared to the Upper Peninsula. Then I went to Juilliard and saw the difference.

TM: What sort of music were you writing in your beginnings in composition at Michigan? Do you still have pieces from that period that you look back on fondly? Is there an opus one that dates back that far?

ER: I think I would leave out everything that I wrote as an undergraduate. I wrote a flute piece, I wrote a flute and vibraphone piece, a trio for strings, a set of songs, a pseudo-cello-concerto….most of that stuff I would call juvenilia.

TM: What was the idiom? What did they encourage you to write?

ER: They encouraged me to think less about pitch and more about form, and line - that was George Wilson. George was really interested in line, and how to make a form out of a long line. That has stayed with me all this time. He had me draw pictures of the piece, rather than pitches, and then put the pitches in. That was very interesting to do.

I did some set theory. I got interested in Dallapiccola — I liked Dallapiccola a lot. I was interested in smaller sets — the Babbitt idea. I was listening to minimalism. I was all over the place.

TM: Where did you go from there?

ER: I went to Juilliard, and I think I went there because I was sick of the small town, and I wanted to go to the city. I could have gone to Eastman, but I really wanted to go to New York. I wanted to study with Vincent Persichetti, and I was right about that. He was a great teacher.

TM: When did you get to Juilliard?

ER: 1985.

TM: The late eighties are an interesting time, because this is when you have the breakdown of the uptown school — it’s no longer sustainable to be writing uptown music. It’s rather like the collapse of communism, which took place at the same time.

ER: [Laughs] I remember talking with Milton Babbitt about that.

TM: The system collapses from within, and in a very short time, it’s gone — it has no more prestige — something that was there for decades, with an intellectual system. There was no possibility of serious work outside that system, and all of a sudden — zip. How was your experience of that moment?

ER: I remember that when I got to Juilliard, there was this weird time feeling — I felt like I was going back in time in terms of the esthetic. Looking back on it now, I think that they were looking towards the future. Serialism had already left Juilliard by the time that I got there, but it was still in place at Michigan. The situation at Juilliard was the way toward the future, but it seemed like the way of the past. It was very odd to be in this kind of neo-Romantic place. Nowadays neo-Romantic would be something much simpler than it was at Juilliard in 1985, when it just meant “not serial” and “expressive”.

TM: Did you also work with Milton?

ER: I knew Milton Babbitt, but he was not my private teacher.

TM: What were you writing at Juilliard?

ER: One of my most important pieces from Juilliard is on my CD, Jane Wang Considers the Dragonfly — a piece called Of Water and Clouds for flute and piano, which is my earliest recorded piece. I wrote a saxophone and piano piece, based on a six-note hexachord from Milton Babbitt, and was reading his Words about Music….something happened to me. I started studying early Stravinsky, and octatonic music, and wrote Of Water and Clouds, which is very much influenced by my work with octatonicism.

TM: Does that connect up with having been a flutist yourself?

ER: I wrote it for my friend Su Lian Tan, who is a flutist. She was my best pal — she wrote me a piece, and I wrote her a piece, and we played them at Alice Tully Hall. We played another piece by Daron Hagen.

TM: Does the flute have a special place in your imagination? What’s your take on the instrument?

ER: I know the high G, how it feels, how it sounds, how it speaks, how it’s different from the A-flat above it — when you play an instrument you get to know it so deeply that it’s in your head. And I have written several flute pieces that are hallmarks of what I do — there’s Of Water and Clouds, and The Law of Floating Objects, which for me was a moment when I captured something that I care a lot about. And another piece called Jane Wang Considers the Dragonfly, for the flutist Sarah Brady.

For me the flute is the instrument that marks my moment. The flute is a conduit for lyrical and vocal writing. When I write my string quartets, which I think are some of my strongest music, I am writing for four voices, really, and then I write operas, and vocal music, and choral music. To me the flute is a voice.

TM: Please elaborate on what you said about The Law of Floating Objects.

ER: To be very technical, it marked two different ideas that I had had. One was based on my dance experience, which I haven’t talked about, and my ideas about rhythm, and the other is my understanding of lyricism. It’s a piece for five flutes — I had been working for a long time on an idea called pattern music, which is the first movement of my first string quartet, as well as my piece called Shimmer, for string orchestra, and also the third movement of my third string quartet. A series controls everything that happens in the music, but instead of being twelve notes, it’s ten notes, and may be diatonic — so it’s not serial, but cycling. A little bit of Babbitt and a little bit of minimalism. That was the pitch content, but the rhythmic content was about creating a sense of cycle that is very, very fluid, so there are these circular patterns which happen throughout that piece that are tagged by perfect fifths. The fifths occur everywhere from every six eighth notes to every seventeen eighth notes, and they are constantly moving back and forth between these cycles, so there is a fluid sense of time, but it is still cyclical. Like waves crashing on the beach. That was a moment where I figured out how to do that.

TM: Listening to that piece I was listening to the fifths, and the wonderful sound of the bass flute, and the rhythm evoked something about Latin music, about Latin American dance perhaps.

ER: There is a fluidity in Latin American music that moves between threes and twos, and I think that is more natural than straight quarter notes. That is something that I like a lot, for sure. (on an aside, I think the threes and twos in Latin American music are more linguistic based—a kind of fluidity that has to do with the rhythm of speech, like African “talking” drums, and the fixed rigid strong/weak beats in mid-period European music are more movement based, from walking and marching to the formal dance styles of the period.)

TM: If I am watching television, Latin music is always used to signify sex or sensuality, or both. Something is going on in the American ear when it hears threes plus twos.

ER: I think it is a more natural rhythm — there’s a reason that it is sexy.

TM: Please say a little more about Shimmer. What was striking was the use of a combinatorial rhythm with a highly diatonic set of pitches. It doesn’t evoke another voice, but it is so diatonic that it recalls music of the fifties, perhaps.

ER: The story is that I got a commission from the Metamorphosen ensemble, which recorded it, and I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight, and they were all kids, and I thought “They’ll never do this” and they did (!). I wanted to write them something that was like “cutting-edge pop music meets string orchestra”, and I kept hitting a wall, because it all sounded like Beethoven’s Fifth with a drumset. In a fit of frustration I went to a shopping mall, and was walking around and heard Vivaldi playing, and thought “What would Vivaldi do if he had been transported by time machine to this shopping mall?” My idea was to create a piece that looked like Vivaldi on the surface, but was constructed in a modern way underneath. This is the opposite of writing rock music for string orchestra, in that mine supposed to sound old (on the surface), but it’s actually made in a new way, rather than being made in an old way, and sounding new (on the surface). It’s made with a five-note pitch set, combined with another five-note pitch set — they are both pentatonic scales, and are a whole step apart, so you can transpose them by keeping one set the same, and moving the other one. It was the most controlled piece I had ever written in terms of design and idea.

TM: The very first few bow strokes on the recording seems like the piece is not quite underway — it seems to emphasize the way the rhythm works.

ER: Scott Yoo and I talked about making it sound like early music, not a thick violin-y kind of sound, but rather a clean echo-y sound.

TM: Two schools of composers: one, architectural: think Oscar Niemeyer, a couple of curves, and everything comes out of the curves he draws, with the details filled in after. Or: a composer invents a motive, and that generates a counter-melody, and that generates a harmonic motion….and perhaps the large-scale form grows out of the material, so that the structure is generated by the details. Which school do you belong to?

ER: I do both, definitely. I constantly go back and forth. I find the gesture, I look at what the big picture is, I draw pictures of the big scene, I go back to the gesture — it’s all interrelated. All of my pieces start with a two-second, a three-second sound…maybe you could say I start with the gesture first, but the sound suggests the architecture, and the architecture suggests the development of the sound. I don’t think any composer could say that you can separate those two things out, actually. It’s where your focus is, which shifts all the time, for me.

TM: Narrative — do you think in terms of a drama, in terms of character in terms of building a large structure?

ER: There’s environmental — trying to create a sense of space — the Law of Floating Objects creates a sense of space. And then there’s story. All my string quartets are stories. They are all very deeply narrative. I really like narrative.

TM: Does the narrative come first? Or does it come along after the motivic material?

ER: The motivic material suggests the narrative, and the narrative alters. They coinhabit the same space.

TM: You have a brand-new CD of quartets out. What are some other projects for 2010 and 2011?

ER: I am writing a cello concerto for Jennifer Kloetzel and the San Jose Chamber Orchestra. I am writing a sixth string quartet. I am recording quartets 2, 5 and 6 next year. The most important thing though is that in 2011, on April 3, the Washington Chorus will premiere my cantata Averno, with poet Louise Glück I feel good about the music, but Glück’s text is extremely important.

TM: Avernus is the lake in southern Italy which is the entrance to the underworld.

ER: Louise Glück’s book is called Averno, and I chose eleven poems in order from the book, which has about fifty. The underlying principles are two. One is the story of Persephone and Demeter, which is the Avernus reference, but the larger metaphor, which is an understated but extremely powerful aspect of the poetry, is, as she says, humans’ relationship to the earth. It’s a powerfully dark story about the natural world and how humans have lived in it.

image= image_description=Elena Ruehr [Photo courtesy of the composer] product=yes product_title=Elena Ruehr: An Interview by Tom Moore product_by=Above: Elena Ruehr [Photo courtesy of the composer]
Posted by Gary at 4:27 PM

Mefistofele in Montpellier

Earlier this spring Jean-Louis Grimpa had a flock of chickens perform his Falstaff in Monaco, though just now messieur Grimpa resurrected his 2007 Liège (Belgium) Mefistofele in Montpellier (May 4) with actual homo sapiens to embody Goethe’s Faustian characters.

Not that these humans brought any deep humanity to Boito’s highly concocted version of the Goethe Faust as Jean-Louis Grimpa rendered this austere battle of the here and the hereafter as pure farce. Mr. Grimpa does have valid claim to knowing earthly pleasures as he was born in Monaco and is now the intendant of the Monte Carlo opera, his treatment of this Faust opera however quells speculation as to any possible spiritual credentials.

The Opéra National de Montpellier was a willing partner in the project, assembling a fine cast that brought added dimension to operatic farce, notably tenor Argentine Gustavo Porta as Faust who exploits the complete catalogue of tenor mannerisms in unrelenting spinto projection, and young American soprano Takesha Meshé Kizart as Margherita who shows herself a committed student of diva mannerisms that she is instinctively placing in the service of her fine Italianate instrument.

Boito’s opera gave these two singers ample opportunity to show their stuff and that they did, strutting as singers might but coming close to giving us the splendid, over-ripe vocalism that will flower in post Verdian opera. Mlle. Meshé Kizart delivered the vivid prison scene that heralds her salvation moving effectively between chest and head voice, and ultimately arriving at a qualified artistic salvation of her incipient diva mannerisms. Mr. Porta knew that he was artistically saved all along because we are all suckers for Italian tenors.

In its program booklet Montpellier pronounced the Mefistofole premiere to be in 1868 at La Scala, though what we heard was the much modified (and significantly shortened) 1881 version that pleased audiences who preferred real Italian opera and cared little about Teutonic philosophy. Like its reviled predecessor (Gounod’s 1859 version) its operatic heart winds up in the tempestuous Faust/Margarite encounter. Boito was however undaunted by the Goethe Book II which he incorporates in the last two of his opera’s seven scenes — Helen of Troy’s seduction of Faust and finally the salvation of Faust.

The oblique progression of Faust’s salvation and Mefistofele’s defeat in this final version lends itself to farce because its story became so simply told in such brief terms. Where Ken Russell’s brilliant metaphors deepened an audience’s intellectual involvement and thereby retained Goethe’s seriousness Jean-Louis Grimpa realizes Mefistofele as an arch-villain who materializes dressed in a red velvet suit and bathed in red light. He parades himself in front of the heavenly choirs seated on bleachers amidst floating clouds.

And from this moment on Mr. Grimpa with Boito demand that their Mefisto tower over every scene. The name of the opera after all is Mefistofele. That he did. Russian bass Konstantin Gorny made the Mefisto of your dreams, charming and seductive he exuded a irresistible commitment to pleasure that never flagged. His grandest moment occurred when, banned from the ancient world (because he did not yet exist) he exulted in Grecian beauty from the audience, perched on a balcony railing, legs dangling into the void.


Mr. Grimpa and his accomplices, set designer Rudi Sabounghi and costume designer Buki Shiff, are theatrically savvy indeed. The set was minimalism at its most eloquent, a downstage false proscenium made of worldly wood against heavens rendered by projected clouds and mists, and mirrors to make it infinite. Though Mefisto simply changed into a black leather suit to become Faust’s mentor chorus costuming was quite elaborate They were first white robed angels, then a huge variety of circus players, then black and white spirits later becoming toga draped Greeks, and once again white robed angels, a hundred or so of them. No expense spared to create this spectacle.

This witty costuming more than anything else created the farce, and the movements of the players effected by director Grimpa complemented these costuming abstractions. Mr. Grimpa consistently utilized extended diagonal movement that accelerated Boito’s already sketchy story telling. Faust’s seduction of Margarite as example was a masterpiece of stage direction interweaving Mefisto resisting Martha’s advances with Faust pursuing Margarite in movement that was linearly musical (in perfect step with Boito’s complex quartet) rather than theatrically dramatic.

The pit was entrusted to French conductor Patrick Davin who kept the massive choral and orchestral forces required by Boito in absolute control without neglecting the construction of the opera’s huge climactic moments. That these climaxes were rarely satisfying can possibly be blamed on Boito’s compositional naivete, as perhaps the thwarted musical resolutions of some of the arias can be as well. Or maybe Mo. Davin is just not Italian.


The stars of this show were the choruses, one hundred or so (the chorus from Wallonie journeyed down to join the Montpellier chorus) plus thirty or so singing cherubs. While Boito’s grand choruses did sometimes expose naivete, at other times he pulled out the stops to create complex choral structures, notably the giant fugue in witches‘ Sabbat scene, impeccably executed with appropriate glee. To the aplomb of this choral accomplishment you can add that of the children’s chorus, delivering difficult part writing never out of sync with Mo. Davin.

And finally, Faust saved, Mefistofele was driven from the scene, pelted with rose petals hurled [!] by three innocent cherubim, as clouds of rose pedals floated down from the Opéra Berlioz ceiling coating the audience with one last bit of heavenly fun.

Michael Milenski

image= image_description=Mefisto

product=yes producttitle=Arrigo Boito: Mefistofele productby=Mefistofele: Konstantin Gorny; Faust: Gustavo Porta; Margherita/Elena Takesha Meshé Kizart; Martha/Pantalis: Christine Solhosse; Wagner/Nereo: Maurizio Pace. Orchestra National de Montpellier Choruses of the Opéra National de Montpellier and the Opéra Royal de Wallonie. Opéra Junior Montpellier Children’s chorus. Conductor: Patrick Davin. Stage director: Jean-Louis Grinda. Set design: Rudy Sabounghi. Costumes: Buki Schiff. Lighting: Laurent Castaingt. product_id=All photos by Marc Ginot for the Opéra National de Montpellier.

Posted by michael_m at 12:51 PM

Keeper Of the Shrine

By Norman Lebrecht [WSJ, 17 May 2010]

The death of Wolfgang Wagner in March, mourned across Germany, severed a national artery. He was the last of Richard Wagner’s grandchildren and the longest ruler of the Bayreuth Festival, the annual rite during which Wagner’s operas are ceremonially performed in a theater designed by the composer for that purpose in an ornate Bavarian town. Wolfgang took over the festival in 1966, on the death of his more gifted brother, Wieland. Never much of an artist himself, Wolfgang carried on the family business in his grandfather’s name when, in fact, its existence and much of its character stem from the dark, controlling mind of the composer’s widow, the formidable Cosima Wagner.

Posted by Gary at 8:57 AM

Michel van der Aa : After Life at the Barbican, London

They’ve just died, but they must examine their lives, and pick one memory to take with them before they can journey on. One memory to summarize a whole lifetime? It’s not easy. Effectively, they’re pondering what their lives might have meant. It’s a powerful psychological concept, strikingly adapted as theatre.

At the premiere in 2006, Shirley Apthorp in the Financial Times described the opera as “The Gesammstkunstwerk of the Future”. Michel van der Aa mixes live orchestra with electronica, live performers with ordinary people captured on film. That’s not specially innovative in itself, but van der Aa takes the concept further, blending art and reality. Singers and musicians perform a score, while ordinary people speak spontaneously. Van der Aa abandoned the idea of script altogether: people simply turned up at his studio, and talked spontaneously. Ordinary people, but extraordinary lives.

Perhaps that’s part of After Life’s message too. More emotionally articulate people have more insight into what makes them what they are, but even the most mundane life has meaning.. What of those who are blocked in some way ? Mr Walter ( Richard Suart) looks back on a “so-so job, a so-so marriage”, where nothing seems to have mattered either way. Ilana (Margreit van Reisen) has had such a horrible life she doesn’t want to remember anything. But in the Afterlife, you can’t move on unless you can deal with your past.

That’s why the staff in the “waiting room” help people reconstruct their lives and memories. Sometimes it isn’t the grand gestures that create the best memories, but simple things. like hugging a loved pet, or sitting on a park bench and feeling you belong. Aiden (Roderick Williams) reveals that the staff themselves are people who are blocked and can’t proceed until they, too, learn the meaning of their lives. Aiden helps Walter, but by helping Walter, he finds his own release. In this strange Limbo, the authority figure, The Chief (Claron McFadden) may in fact be the person most trapped. Maybe the secret to passage isn’t what memory you carry with you, but how much excess baggage you’re prepared to leave behind.

Michel van der Aa’s music may be avant garde, and extended by electronic effects, but it communicates well. Van der Aa wrote one of the study pieces for After Life for the famous Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, hence the harpsichord-led purity of line. As he says, the music “has two layers, a direct, physically dramatic layer and another with more depth, that is more conceptual”. The opera deals with very unusual ideas, so this interplay between clarity and mystery is fundamental.

al.18generale.gifClaron McFadden (Chief), Margriet van Reisen (Ilana), Yvette Bonner (Sarah), Helena Rasker (Bryna Pullman), Roderick Williams (Aiden)

The vocal lines sweep up and down the scale, even within phrases, but don’t sound unnatural. McFadden, who has few equals in modern music, and has created the wildest Harpies, sounds soft and lyrical, actually quite sweet. Williams proves why he’s one of the most sought after character baritones in his generation. He’s a wonderful, expressive actor who moves as well as he sings. Yvette Bonner as Sarah, the other member of staff, has good potential.

Michel van der Aa worked with Louis Andriessen (Writing to Vermeer) who promoted the idea of anti-orchestra back in the 1960’s. The idea of multi-media, conceptual theatre is fairly well established in Europe. The Queen of the Netherlands attended After Life at the highly prestigious Holland Festival. Holland’s famous for its liberal, open-minded attitudes, but After Life is so good that it can export, even to more buttoned down. British psyche. After all, every one of us will one day make that journey, whatever may be on the other side.

Congratulations to the Barbican for bringing it to London, just months after the recent revival (with revisions) . I was impressed by the way the Barbican marketed this opera, which might have been a hard sell, given that it’s so modern. They set up a mini website, inviting readers to send in their own ideas of what memory they’d take into the unknown. After Life is about ordinary people, so it’s a good idea that “ordinary people” participate. While it emphasizes “ordinary” life, this opera poses questions about life, identity and emotional dexterity that make it a challenge. What you get from it reflects what you put in. A bit like life itself.

Anne Ozorio

image= image_description=Yvette Bonner (Sarah), Roderick Williams (Aiden) [Photo by Hans van den Bogaard courtesy of De Nederlandse Opera]

product=yes producttitle=Michael van der Aa: After Life productby=Roderick Williams: Aiden; Richard Stuart: Mr Walter; Yvette Bonner: Sarah; Margriet van Reisen: Ilona; Claron McFadden: Chief; Helena Rasker: Bryna Tessa; Juul; Flint; Bert: participants. Asko/Schoenberg. Otto Tausk: conductor. Michel van de Aa: director, video script. Robby Duiveman: costumes. Barbican Theatre, London, 15th May 2010. product_id=Above: Yvette Bonner as Sarah and Roderick Williams as Aiden

All photos by Hans van den Bogaard courtesy of De Nederlandse Opera

Posted by anne_o at 7:29 AM

May 15, 2010

Tristan und Isolde in Genoa

But not in La Superba’s famed old, bombed out Teatro Carlo Felice but in its post-war movie palace turned verismo temple, the famed Teatro Grattacielo. Since then Wagner’s love story has found its way into the Genovese repertory once each decade (except the ‘70‘s) and always in the hands of Viennese schooled conductors.

Until now, and barely in time for its once in-a-decade appearance, Genoa’s latest Tristan und Isolde is back in the hands of an Italian maestro, Gianluca Gelmetti, and back in the now bizarre post-modern decor of the reconstructed Carlo Felice.

Maestro Gelmetti’s Tristan (April 18) elevated Wagnerian music drama to pure melodramma, amplifying Wagner’s subtle, insidious musical continuum into a powerful voice that roared and whispered, grunted and snorted and joyously sang out this tale of love. The Wagnerian complexities were turned into pure emotional punch, bringing us forever to the edge, never of resolution but always of explosion. And like in real verismo there was a sudden, earth shattering blow, and release — the death of Tristan!

For this Italian maestro the northern shores of Cornwall (Cornovaglia in the supertitles) and the hull a Nordic ship were Tristan’s Isle of Circe where love seduces and ultimately destroys men. The maestro’s third act English horn (prominently seated just out of sight on the side of the stage apron) urgently sang out the Siren’s call, and a young boy stirred in the early morning light already magically drawn to her call. In the midst of Tristan’s delirium a Siren (a beautiful young woman in a white art nouveau gown) materialized in the upstage darkness, mimicking the now outrightly delirious English horn, bringing Tristan to climax and death. At Tristan’s release was the sudden coup de theatre — muscular, semi-nude young men materialized in the surreal shadow of the upstage black miming battle, the primal male force sacrificed to love by Tristan!

Fantastic music, fantastic theater and yes, great opera.

And yes, you have probably got it by now, this Tristan was staged by the maestro himself. But if ever a Tristan, Welsh tenor Ian Storey, and an Isolde, American soprano Jayne Casselmann, needed a stage director these were they. Neither artist, and they indeed are, are innate actors, or intuitive comedians. Left to their own devices neither could embody a Wagnerian hero (were Tristan’s hands actually in his pockets during the first act love delirium?), but they could sing.

Mme. Casselmann and Mr. Storey offered a gorgeously sung second act love duet, standing side by side downstage facing the maestro (actually holding hands), Wagner’s music fortunately dissolved into a vision in the black void beyond the stage of a semi-nude young male and female in rapturous embraces. Well it was glorious until Isolde was required to move above the staff, perhaps a domain once well within Mme. Casselmann’s reach but no longer.

Mr. Storey possesses a youthful voice of great strength and beauty that he used with considerable artistry throughout this daunting tenorial escapade. In this Tristan the third act delirium was more than contemplation or exposition of pain — it was at times chilling emotional outburst. And finally the maestro gave his soprano the unique opportunity of delivering the Liebestod not as a prayer but as a grand lament! Alas Mme. Casselmann does not have the means to exploit the Wagnerian line or the Gelmetti passion.

I[1]-1.Storey,-J.gifIan Storey as Tristan and Jukka Rasilainen as Kurwenal

The scenery and costumes came from the 1998 Carlo Felice production designed by Maurizio Balò. The primary image was the huge curving timbers of a timeless ship, the upper portions of which disappeared to create the second act garden and the horizon of the third act. The imposing celestial adornments of the 1998 production were left in the warehouse thereby exposing a heavenly void that would so effectively host Mo. Gelmetti’s apparitions.

The extreme cross-stage curve of the ship hull forced the always-forward-facing singers to stand with one foot higher than the other often resulting in distorted, crippled postures — an example of the hazards of recycling productions. As well this extreme curve forced a very restricted playing area down stage center, well serving the musical values of the production (singers’ gazes could only be directed onto Mo. Gelmetti) but limiting its dramatic perspectives.

Norwegian bass Frode Olsen rose to the occasion to make King Mark’s soliloquies far more passionate than eloquent. Romanian mezzo-soprano Hermine May was the most stage worthy of the afternoon’s artists in a beautifully drawn and sung Brangâne, eloquently proclaiming her guilt in creating this tragedy for which Mo. Gelmetti stopped just short of having Kurvenal, the rough voiced bass-baritone Finn Jukka Rasilainen, slit her throat. Italian tenor Roberto Accurso was the Melot, and more than any other of the artists suffered from poor costuming and lack of direction.

Conductor Gianluca Gelmetti delivered a unique reading of Wagner’s magnificent score that cried out for a production of equivalent daring. So let’s be daring — if we must recycle productions why not impose Pesaro’s super brilliant, critically reviled Zelmira of last summer onto the Gelmetti Tristan? Italian dramaturg and stage director Georgio Barberio Corsetti used a meshed floor, a sand covered under-stage, video projection and a giant mirror to move amongst real and irreale worlds, and confuse the confines between the pit and the stage. And Mr. Corsetti is a man of the theater who would have known how to stage those three incisive, shattering intrusions of King Mark into the psyches of Tristan and Isolde. One can dream.

ADDENDUM: April 28 performance

For some unpublicized reason Carlo Felice scheduled an hiatus of ten days after the third of its five Tristan performances. For the reprise on April 28 much of the cast had changed, most notably the Isolde, now English soprano Elaine McKrill. Mme. McKrill, a veteran of smaller roles in prestige Ring productions, is an accomplished and experienced artist who arrived in Genoa vocally and dramatically well prepared, and definitely rearing to give a fine performance. That she did.

While not a youngster Mme. McKrill is a youthful Isolde, her wiles more innocent than knowing, her musicality more urgent than considered. Thus she gave Mo. Gelmetti an Isolde more human than mythical — she was not the sorceress that Mo. Gelmetti might imagine if Wagner’s opera were only the Tristan tragedy. Mme. McKrill’s Liebestod was understood as a hymn to femininity, her tragedy felt as the impossibility of attaining the paramount feminine ideal. Both heroes of this Tristan were victims of love, Isolde learned that love was but a myth, Tristan understood that to love he would sacrifice his life.

Conductor Gelmetti again exploited the hair-trigger responsiveness of the Carlo Felice orchestra to give this Tristan an urgency that could only end in tragedy. But unlike most Tristans this Tristan was a deeply human experience and not just a grandiose celebration of Romantic love. The triumph of this production was its language, and that language was purely musical. Mo. Gelmetti’s means were a full-throated Italian orchestra as motor of this shattering tragedy, and in this performance a Tristan and Isolde who could voice its deeper meanings.

The scheduled tenor for this performance was replaced inexplicably by Ian Storey. The Kurwenal was again baritone Jukka Rasilainen. Mr. Rasilainen made an unobtrusive Kurwenal who structured perfectly the third act Tristan delirium without adding personal dimension. It was a superb and appreciated supportive performance. The balance of the cast seemed unconnected to the production. The Melot was an unforgivable black hole.

Michael Milenski

image= imagedescription=Ian Storey as Tristan and Jayne Casselman as Isolde [Photo by Patrizia Lanna courtesy of Teatro Carlo Felice]

product=yes producttitle=Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde productby=Tristan: Ian Storey; König Marke: Frode Olsen (Apr. 13, 16, 18) / Andrzej Saciuk (Apr. 28, 30 0; Isolde: Jayne Casselman (Apr. 13, 16, 18 ) / Elaine McKrill (Apr. 28, 30); Kurwenal: Jukka Rasilainen; Melot: Roberto Accurso; Brangäne: Hermine May (Apr. 18) / Monika Waeckerle (Apr. 28); A sailor: Antonio Poli; A steersman: Alessandro Battiato. Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Carlo Felice. Conductor: Gianluigi Gelmetti. Stage Director: Gianluigi Gelmetti. Set Design: Maurizio Balò. Assistant Director: Eleonora Paterniti. Moviment: Daniela Biava. Lighting: Luciano Novelli. product_id=Above: Ian Storey as Tristan and Jayne Casselman as Isolde

All photos by Patrizia Lanna courtesy of Teatro Carlo Felice

Posted by michael_m at 2:38 AM

May 12, 2010

La traviata in May, Royal Opera House, London

For a great many in the audience at the Royal Opera House on this occasion, it probably didn’t matter. Opera going is a great experience and La traviata is great theatre. I’ve never seen so many cameras popping, or people texting on their mobiles, even during the performance. Routine applause, for the sake of applause, deserved or not, inhibiting the flow of the drama. Opera has always been a social experience. Now it’s audience participation.

On the other hand, this performance was less than gripping musically. Since 1994, some of the greatest singers of our time have graced this production. Last year’s revival, with Renée Fleming, Joseph Calleja and Thomas Hampson, was magnificent. Courageous as they are, this year’s cast, with some exceptions, cannot help but seem eclipsed in comparison.

TRAV-2010_00289-HVOROSTOVSK.gifDmitri Hvorostovsky as Giorgio Germont

Perhaps it was first night syndrome that the First Act didn’t quite ignite — even the “champagne corks” didn’t pop as brightly as they might. The Royal Opera House chorus, usually one of the best in the business, sounded curiously unfestive, though later they redeemed themselves in the tightly executed scene at the gambling party at Flora’s House. Brisk, well-paced interplay between singers and dancers. The gypsies and matadors embody the life-force that’s ebbing away from Violetta. The shadows of the Carnival that loom over her deathbed are a poignant reminder of what might have been.

The Royal Opera House Orchestra is very good too, so Yves Abel was able to get strong playing. Indeed, some individual soloists were so good that they drew attention away from the singing. Abel seems to have a feel for the flow in longer instrumental passages, so it will be interesting to hear him conduct La traviata again in July.

Ermonela Jaho covered as Violetta for Anna Netrebko in 2008. She’s charming, but Violetta is a strong, complex role. She’s the kind of woman who can drive men to fight duels, yet has the nobility of character to impress Germont. Jabo sings pleasantly, and looks good, but needs greater depth.

Dimitri Hvorostovsky’s Germont has vocal authority, honed through experience in the role. Yet, when he sings “Pura siccome un angelo”, his timbre softens and glows. In “Di Provenza il mar”, Hvorostovsky captures the lilting melody so cannily that he creates the impression of a distant, happier world far removed from Parisian artifice. .Hvorostovsky fills the role, not just the costume. His Germont is a fully realized personality, more interesting, perhaps, than his son. Hvorostovsky’s “Dove’e’ mio figlio?” makes the confrontation feel intensely profound, his voice colouring expressively.

TRAV-2010_00069-PIRGU-AS-AL.gifSaimir Pirgu as Alfredo Germont and Ermonela Jaho as Violetta Valéry

Alfredo is a big part for a singer still under 30, so if Saimir Pingu impresses with youthful freshness, that’s no demerit. He has a future ahead of him. Robert Lloyd, as Dr Grenvil, has an illustrious past, but remains in excellent form at 70. Subsidiary roles were well cast, many of whom will also appear in the July series, with Angela Gheorghiu, James Valenti and Zeljko Lucic as principals.

Anne Ozorio

image= imagedescription=Ermonela Jaho as Violetta Valéry [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of The Royal Opera]

product=yes producttitle=Giuseppi Verdi: La traviata productby=Ermonela Jaho : Violetta Valéry, Kai Rüütel :Flora Bervoix, Changhan Lim : Marquis D’Obigny, Eddie Wade ; Baron Douphol, Robert Lloyd : Dr Grenvil, Robert Anthony Gardiner : Gastone de Letorières, Saimir Pirgu : Alfredo Germont, Sarah Pring : Annina, Neil Gillespie : Giuseppe, Dmitri Hvorostovsky : Giorgio Germont, Charbel Mattar : Messenger, Jonathan Coad : Servant. Royal Opera Chorus, Royal Opera House Orchestra, Yves Abel : Conductor. Richard Eyres : Director, Paul Higgins: Revival director, Bob Crowley: Designs, Jean Kalman : Lighting, Jane Gibson : Movement Royal Opera House, London, 11th May, 2010. product_id=Above: Ermonela Jaho as Violetta Valéry

All photos by Johan Persson courtesy of The Royal Opera

Posted by anne_o at 4:13 PM

May 11, 2010

'La Traviata' revival expressive, impressive

By Peter Dobrin [Philadelphia Inquirer, 11 May 2010]

An age-speckled, slightly tilted mirror looms over the action in the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s La Traviata, a second revival of the troupe’s original 1997 production.

Posted by Gary at 10:07 AM

May 10, 2010

Heggie’s Moby-Dick a whale of an opera

Heggie — assisted by his seasoned librettist Gene Scheer — has achieved something with Moby Dick that American opera has not experienced in a long time: they have created a work of quality that should garner itself an immediate place in the repertory of opera houses around the world.

Announcement of the commission — Dallas Opera’s first for the Wiinspear — raised eyebrows, for few could imagine a less operatic novel than Hermann Melville’s 1851 detailed account of sailing and whaling. Running 500 to 700 pages in standard editions, the book is often dark and diffuse — everything that an opera cannot be, if it is to reach an audience with its story. In a sense, of course, Melville made it easy for Sheer, for the many exegesis on whaling were easily excised as the librettist laid bare the soul of the novel in his focus on its characters.

As told in the opera Moby Dick is now a story that explores the raw basic forces of life, underscoring the darkness that drives men and sends them to perdition. The Great White Whale is only a means to that end. Indeed, Sheer’s Ahab, the man who has lost a leg to the animal upon whom he seeks revenge, is yet another Faust out to defy the less-than-benevolent god embodied in the whale.

It is this confrontation with “the basics,” the unembellished dark drives that send men on impossible adventures, that the audience feels first-hand in this three-hour opera. “Feels,” one emphasizes, for Heggie has written music — always accessible — that requires no major act of mediation through performers. The score speaks always with telling directness. There is never “time out” to be mere opera. It is visceral music; now and then one puts up one’s hand in defense. That’s why one is wrung out at the end of Moby Dick, for one has been through it all with the many sailors on the Pequod. The opera keeps attention riveted on the stage; the mind is not allowed to wander. Most amazing aspect of the opera is that there is no feeling of condensation or that anything has been left out. Heggie more than compensates in mesmerizing music for the liberties taken with Melville’s text.

Heggie’s progress as a composer is documented throughout the score, which is largely through-composed with arias and ensembles seamlessly woven into it. The orchestral interludes are destined to take their place next to the Sea Interludes from Benjamin’s Peter Grimes.

Moby Dick is a Dallas co-commission with San Francisco, San Diego and Calgary Operas and State Opera of South Australia, and one can only hope that the other companies have the high-tech facilities that enabled the Winspear to take full advantage of an awesome world of effects — photos, projections and sets — that added so much to this initial staging.


Director Leonard Foglia worked with the hand of a sorcerer to blend projection designs by Elaine McCarthy into an overpowering and effective whole with designs by Robert Brill and lighting by Donald Holder. Never did these visual aspects threaten the primacy of Heggie’s score, in which there is not one superfluous note.

Scheer achieved dramatic concentration by pairing Ahab — sung to perfection by veteran Ben Heppner - with first mate Starbuck — stunningly portrayed by Morgan Smith, a baritone at home in top German opera houses. They interlock with a second pairing: native and noble Queequeg, engrossingly portrayed by New Zealand Samoan Jonathan Lemalu, and Greenhorn, the young man out — Parsifal-like — to learn fear — so touchingly sung by young American tenor Stephen Costello.

Only in the final minutes of the work does Costello reveal that he is the man called Ishmael who opens the novel. He is of special interest as the one character who — in confronting fear — develops. The other three of this basic quartet remain what they were when the curtain rose.

Sole female in the cast was Talise Trevigne, whose touching incarnation of Cabin Boy Pip offered little hint of the successful Violetta, Lucia and Pamina that have made her famous in Europe.

Moby Dick is rich in powerful choruses — the major show-stoppers of the debut performance — admirable prepared by Alexander Rom.

Patrick Summers, Heggie perennial collaborator, evoked magnificent playing from the Dallas Opera Orchestra in giving birth to what is obviously a modern masterpiece of music theater.

(The opera will enlighten a young generation by revealing the source of the name Starbuck — even if it fails to explain the coffee company’s aversion to apostrophes.)

Wes Blomster

image= image_description=Moby-Dick [Photo by Karen Almond courtesy of Dallas Opera] product=yes product_title=Jake Heggie: Moby Dick. Librettist: Gene Scheer product_by=Captain Ahab: Ben Heppner; Greenhorn: Stephen Costello; Starbuck: Morgan Smith; Queequeg: Jonathan Lemalu; Flask: Matthew O'Neill; Stubb: Robert Orth; Pip: Talise Trevigne. Conductor: Patrick Summers. Stage Director: Leonard Foglia. Set Designer: Robert Brill. Projection Designer: Elaine J. McCarthy. Costume Designer: Jane Greenwood. product_id=All photos Karen Almond courtesy of Dallas Opera.
Posted by Gary at 5:15 PM

Canny tale of a femme fatale

By Martin Bernheimer [Financial Times, 10 May 2010]

Alban Berg’s ultimate masterpiece, Lulu, had its premiere in Zurich back in 1937. The Met finally acknowledged the opera 40 years later, thanks to the advocacy of James Levine. Although hardly a mass-audience favourite, the production - directed by John Dexter and designed by Jocelyn Herbert - has survived 33 sporadic performances, with Levine on duty on all but three occasions.

Posted by Gary at 10:15 AM

Antony Walker: Big things lie ahead for opera conductor

By Anne Midgette [Washington Post, 10 May 2010]

When Antony Walker, an Australian conductor, came to Washington in 1999 to make his U.S. debut at Wolf Trap, he was affable, slightly pudgy and, in this country, unknown. Now, having wrapped up his seventh season as artistic director of the Washington Concert Opera with Rossini’s “Cenerentola” on Sunday, he’s still affable, trimmer and considerably better known.

Posted by Gary at 10:10 AM

'Amelia': Seattle Opera embraces challenge on a grand scale

By Marc Ramirez [Seattle Times, 10 May 2010]

The set, loosely visualized in a basketball-gym-sized rehearsal space, evokes a 1980s-era North Vietnamese village. Onstage, through an interpreter, a man and wife tell a young American woman — the title character of Seattle Opera’s production of “Amelia” — what happened to her father years earlier.

Posted by Gary at 10:00 AM

Juan Diego Flórez, Barbican, London

By Richard Fairman [Financial Times, 10 May 2010]

With his star turn in Donizetti’s La Fille du régiment due for a repeat run at the Royal Opera House, Juan Diego Flórez is back in town. He will want to make sure his pealing runs of high Cs are polished up for the opening night and the Peruvian tenor’s warm-up routine included this solo recital with piano accompaniment on Friday.

Posted by Gary at 9:17 AM

Modern English Song Alive and Well

Everyone’s heard Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, even if they don’t realize it. He wrote the music for the films, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Far from the Madding Crowd and Murder On the Orient Express . He embraces jazz, cabaret and show tunes enthusiastically, yet he studied with Pierre Boulez for two years. The four Dream Songs (1986) are to poems by Walter de la Mare, catching the poet’s delicate magic. “Elf-light, bat-light, touchwood-light…in a dream beguiling in a dream of wonders in a world far away”.

Susan Bickley and Iain Burnside have been working with Bennett for many years, so this performance hinted at much greater riches on offer.

Bennett, though, isn’t by any means the only English composer writing art song. There are many others less well known but very good indeed. Bickley and Burnside chose a small sample from the iconic NMC Songbook. NMC is an innovative, independent company, dedicated to promoting the best in modern British song. The NMC Songbook won the 2009 Gramophone award for Best Contemporary Recording. It’s a window on what’s happening in British music.Such a range of composers and styles! Diverse as the scene is, it’s definitely creative.

John White’sHouses and Gardens in the Heart of England sets the text of a tourist brochure. It’s hilarious, playing with the self consciously stunted Officialese. Bickley sings with mock solemnity, Burnside brings out the free flowing liveliness in the piano part. This song is so good it should be standard repertoire. Jeremy Dale Roberts (b 1934) Spoken to a Bronze Head is an elegiac contemplation of the passage of time, well paced and elegant. Julian Grant’s Know thy Kings and Queens is an exercise in downbeat humour, while in Brian Elias’s Meet me in the Green Glen, plangent lines recall plainchant. Richard Baker’s Lullaby pits jerky staccato piano against voice in brittle irony. Not a typical soothing lullaby : this baby fights back!

Bickley and Burnside have also recorded Ivor Gurney songs, so it was good to hear them perform a selection live. Gurney was quintessentially “English”, only really happy in his native Gloucestershire countryside, but bucolic he is not. There’s an edge in his work which is universal. Bickley performed the famous I will go with my father a-ploughing as if it were grand opera, but was more idiomatic in the other songs, such as the tender All Night under the Moon.

But what to make of By a Bierside, where, in the first strophe Gurney mourns the loss of life, then switches to a strange celebration of death “It is most grand to die”, emphasized by a huge arching line after momentary silence. Bickley’s voice soars triumphantly, but what kind of triumph does Gurney really mean ? Gurney’s more ambiguous than he seems.

Bickley and Burnside ended their concert on an upbeat note, with William Bolcom’s 3 Cabaret Songs (1977-85) Each song is a vivid vignette. Murray the Furrier comes alive in Bickley’s characterization. Amor is joyously camp, a cheerful parody showing that art song can, after all, get an edge on pop.

Anne Ozorio

image= image_description=Susan Bickley [Photo: Samantha Ovens]

product=yes producttitle=Modern English Song: Works by Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, Ivor Gurney, John White, Jeremy Dale Roberts, Julian Grant, Brian Elias, Richard Baker, William Bolcom productby=Susan Bickley, mezzo-soprano; Iain Burnside, piano, Wigmore Hall, London 2nd May 2010. product_id=Above: Susan Bickley [Photo: Samantha Ovens]

Posted by anne_o at 9:05 AM

May 7, 2010

In a Laboratory, Turning Traditional Notions of Opera Upside Down

By ANTHONY TOMMASINI [NY Times, 7 May 2010]

In 1999, when Paul Kellogg, then the general and artistic director of New York City Opera, inaugurated the VOX project, a laboratory for new American operas, he asked George Steel, the executive director of the Miller Theater, to host the workshops there. The idea was to present sizable excerpts from new and recent operas, and in some cases works in progress, in concert performances. Mr. Steel, who had made the Miller Theater a hotbed of contemporary music, embraced the project. VOX was so successful that it moved to larger spaces for its later annual workshops.

Posted by Gary at 10:04 AM

May 3, 2010

Central City: the little opera company that can

For the staging that opens the 78th season of Central City Opera on June 26, the company has not only Korea’s Yunah Lee in the title role, but also Japan’s Mika Shigematsu as her loyal servant and soul-sister, Suzuki.

“Musically it makes no difference; they‘re both wonderful, sensitive singers,” says CCO general director Pat Pearce, “but in staging it’s one less obstacle to get through.” Lee, who makes her CCO debut as Butterfly, is currently singing the role at New York City Opera, on the heels of appearances in the role with a number of German companies.

Success of the Puccini favorite is further guaranteed by the return of veteran soprano Catherine Malfitano to re-create the production with which she made her directorial debut in 2005. “It was our biggest hit in a decade,” says Pearce, praising Malfitano’s focus on the drama itself. “You don’t have to fight your way through a forest of cherry blossoms to get to the heart of this Butterfly. Catherine makes the music work as Puccini intended.”

Chad Shelton, CCO’s Alfredo in La Traviata and Ottavio in Don Giovanni in recent seasons, sings Pinkerton. “Chad has a vulnerability that will add depth to this role,” Pearce says.

In another coup for the company, British Baroque expert Matthew Halls, who tutored the CCO last summer in Rinaldo, its first Handel opera, will conduct Butterfly. “Matthew wanted to do it,” Pearce says. “And after he played through the score on the piano for me, I knew that he was the man for the job!”

On July 3 the season continues with the CCO’s first-ever staging of Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, perhaps the greatest French operetta ever written. “It’s a wild, crazy piece and it‘s brilliant,” Pearce says. “And it’s a big work that will include all our apprentices in the cast.” Director Marc Astafan, the genius behind the 2009 Rinaldo, returns to put his stamp of genius on the staging.

Joanna Mongiardo, Baby Doe in the company’s 50th anniversary staging of the Douglas Moore classic, sings Euridice with Matthew Worth as god-of-all trades Jupiter. Joyce Campana, absent from Colorado for several summers, returns as Public Opinion. Martin Andre conducts the staging designed by Arnulfo Maldonado.

New to Colorado is the final work of the season, Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, set to open on July 10. The riveting story of the dysfunctional family of an aging Broadway star was written for Frederica von Stade, who premiered the work in Houston and has starred in it on several stages since then. “This will be the first totally new production of the work,” says Pearce, noting that it will star mezzo Joyce Castle, who celebrates the 40th anniversary of her career in opera this summer.

“Joyce is a great singing actress and this is a role she can really sink her teeth into,” says Pearce, stressing that the CCO is moving Heggie’s orchestra from the stage - where it was in Houston - into the pit. “Joyce will bring a harder edge to the score.” Heggie will be in Colorado for the premiere.

“It’s a great mix!” Pearce says of the trio of works chosen for this 78th CCO season. “There’s time-honored Butterfly and Three Decembers, which few in this region have seen. And in between there’s the delightful nonsense of Orpheus.”

Of course, at the CCO there’s still more: an apprentice production of Thomas Pasatieri’s Signor Deluso, derived from a drama by Moliere, Face on the Barroom Floor on site in the Teller House Bar, salon recitals, Opera a la Carte and family matinees. What’s amazing is that the CCO has come up with a new range of ticket prices that makes single performances available for as little as $32. A “super-saver” subscription for all three operas can be purchased for $90.

For information and tickets, call 303-292-6700 or visit

Wes Blomster

image= image_description=Scenic rendering of Central City Opera’s Three Decembers (2010). Set Designer Cameron Anderson

product=yes producttitle=Central City Opera — 2010 Festival productby= product_id=Above: Scenic rendering of Central City Opera’s Three Decembers (2010). Set Designer Cameron Anderson.

Posted by chris_m at 5:17 PM

May 2, 2010

Rossini’s Armida, New York

Armida, in her turn, is torn between sincere passion for Rinaldo and lust for vengeance when he returns to his quest — as he must, since he’s one of the mythic founders of the House of Este, and his distant descendant, the Duke of Ferrara, will be the patron of the poet Torquato Tasso, who invented both Rinaldo and Armida in his epic Gerusalemme Liberata.

Love or Duty? In Rossini’s day every literate Italian knew the poem and half the leading opera composers set the story. It has reached the Met previously as Gluck’s Armide (Enrico Caruso sang Renaud) and, more recently, as Handel’s Rinaldo (in which Carol Vaness’s Armida failed to bewitch Marilyn Horne in the title role, with Samuel Ramey making his debut as Armida’s wicked uncle). This is a magical story, and any production should dazzle. Fireworks (as in the Met’s Central Park presentation of Rinaldo with Horne) are called for.

ARMIDA_Brownlee_as_Rinaldo_.gifLawrence Brownlee as Rinaldo

Rossini’s version, which only reached the Met this April, is one of the nine operas he devised as principal composer for the San Carlo in Naples, then (and now) the only opera house in the peninsula that seriously challenged La Scala for size and grandeur. Rossini was expected to write appropriate vehicles for the local prima donna, Isabella Colbran, a spectacular mezzo soprano who eventually became his wife, and for several coloratura tenors under contract at once. In consequence, all these operas are tenor-heavy, and the writing is of an elaboration until recently long out of fashion; therefore none of these operas are terribly well known but many have had successful revivals lately: Beverly Sills made her Met debut in Le Siete de Corinto and Barry Banks has appeared at the City Opera in both Ermione and La Donna del Lago. Armida features a trio for coloratura tenors — surely the first time such a thing has ever been heard at the Met — and boasts six tenor roles in all. Some of these are short enough to permit doubling up in case of illness, which happened on this occasion — Mr. Banks sang his own role in Act III while gallantly replacing a colleague in Act I.

The Met’s production of Armida is by Mary Zimmerman. If she does not take the story quite seriously, well, who could believe in Rossini as a composer of sinister enchantments? The magical elements in this score (diabolic forest, orgiastic palace, ecstatic garden, transformations, bewilderments) are more Halloween parade than Pandemonium. In fact, these elements — including the changeable enchantress and the naïve invading soldiers who flirt with the ladies and carry a magical spear — seem to belong rather to Wagner’s Parsifal. Had Wagner read Tasso? Surely — Wagner read everything, and he adored Italy. Is his desperate Kundry an incarnation of Armida as well as Herodias? It seems likely enough. But Wagner’s music has a gift for the neurotic and despairing soul that Rossini never attempts — indeed, what Italian would have dared to depict such emotions in 1817? He’d have been lucky to escape with a lynching or a year in the galleys. Parsifal is also a fable — but a dark one. Armida is epic lite.

ARMIDA_van_Rensburg_Brownle.gifKobie van Rensburg as Ubaldo, Lawrence Brownlee as Rinaldo, and Barry Banks as Carlo

In Zimmerman’s entirely charming staging, wicked Armida’s garden of love is a nineteenth-century concert hall in which she declaims her great aria, “D’Amore al dolce impero” from an ornamental music stand, rather like a schoolmarm preaching intemperance. Her magic wand is a conductor’s baton. The enormously lengthy ballet of sinister delights is deliciously choreographed by Graciela Daniele as a send-up of an Orientalist orgy, with houris tempting Rinaldo with apples, enormous rat demons in ballet-skirted drag, and the entire Met women’s chorus in bellydance pantaloons. Richard Hudson’s set is a semicircular arena with many doorways revealing the Dome of the Rock in the first scene, a demonic forest at other times, and presiding deities (Love, Vengeance) a-spy over the top. This is the happiest, most enjoyable new production the Met has given us all year, winsome and welcome and attractive, suitable to the work, the interpretation and the audience.

The singing, alas, was not at quite so high a level, and the applause reflected this. Ovations at the conclusion were perfunctory; I did not join them. There were many thrilling moments, and it’s extraordinary that the Met or any opera house can present the work acceptably at all, but there were no individual performances to leave one dazzled and gasping — as there certainly were twenty-five years ago, when Handel’s Rinaldo reached the house.

Armida was presented in particular to suit the talents of Renée Fleming, who has sung the piece in concert with Opera Orchestra of New York. Fleming, gifted with one of the treasurable voices of her generation, has proved a controversial, often irritating, deployer of her gifts. In German, Russian and French works she seems to focus harder on giving us what the composer asks for, but in Italian roles she follows no compass but her own. Her first aria, her sortita, was typical of her recent style in bel canto: runs were casual and uneven, with no attention to individual notes, no grace, no focus on the melodic line, and diction as bad as Sutherland’s worst — but Sutherland sang the notes, with the evenness and point bel canto asks for. “D’Amore al dolce impero” found her more cautious, rhythmically and dramatically, lacking the fire of the famous Callas version of the aria and the precision and wit of Joyce Di Donato. In her duets she hewed tighter to the notes, meeting her partner (usually Lawrence Brownlee) on common ground, but when Armida’s despairs took center stage, notes seemed to come from — and be tossed out to — any old where. There was no logic to her ornaments. The style was not Rossini’s; it was Fleming’s. Admirers of the lady may be thrilled; admirers of the composer will have doubts.

ARMIDA_Manucharyan_and_Osbo.gifYeghishe Manucharyan as Eustazio (center, grey jacket) and John Osborn as Goffredo (far right)

It is unfortunate that Ms. Fleming (or the management) has insisted that she sing all the many performances of Armida given this spring and also next year — I’d love to hear how the opera would work with Di Donato or Diana Damrau or Ruth Ann Swenson, all brilliant coloratura technicians who tend to honor the composer rather than their own jazzy whim.

Among the six — on this occasion five — tenors demanded by an uncut performance of Armida (and at four hours, including two intermissions, you have to suppose that most of it was here), most were very good, none were over-the-top spectacular. John Osborn (Goffredo) and Yegishe Manucharyan (Eustazio) made little impression. Kobie van Rensburg, who specializes in florid music, brought a rather gravelly sound to the soldier Ubaldo, which made a pleasing contrast to the more lyric voices of Mr. Banks (Carlo) in their duets, and with Mr. Brownlee (Rinaldo) in the notorious trio.

Barry Banks was right to take on the suddenly vacated part of Gernando in Act I — he thrives on angry coloratura (as Oreste in Ermione at the City Opera, for example), and his singing had exciting force if lacking beauty. As the very different Carlo, he produced a more sensuous tone and he is an excellent actor.

Lawrence Brownlee has become an able actor, as was not originally the case, and handled Rinaldo’s transformations convincingly — he must fight a duel with rapiers, fall convincingly in love, suffer visible torments of his divided soul, and at last throw aside his pleading lover with visible regret. His voice is well produced and gifted with luscious high notes, but he lacks the great bel canto desideratum of evenness — runs that cross the octaves seem to be produced by different voices, from different parts of his body. The effect is impressive but not graceful or stylish. His best singing — like Ms. Fleming’s — came when he sang in duet or trio with others, holding him back from awkward individual flights. Bel canto was all about individual (as well as parallel) vocal flights — but that was back when singers could be expected to do it with proper taste.

A friend objects that Armida is a second-rate opera. True. But if second-rate operas did not permit, nay encourage, first-rate singing, opera would have died out centuries ago and small loss. Some of the greatest singing ever heard has come in second-rate operas, but not on the present occasion.

Riccardo Frizza accomplished the great task of getting through the endless and witty ballet without producing tedium — rhythms that depicted marching soldiers or languishing lovers or general mayhem were individually colorful, and Ms. Daniele’s hilarious dances had the solid ground of Mr. Frizza as their launching pad. In the opera proper, number succeeded number with an impeccable musical logic and impulsion that was not always clear in the libretto, and the Met orchestra sounded as if it was having fun with Rossini’s exquisitely varied effects. (Terrific otherworldly harp moment there.) The chorus sang that way, too — especially the men, soldiers in Act I and demons at other times. The ladies sang well but might let themselves go a bit when portraying Middle Eastern dance, even if Rossini’s rhythms are not appropriate to the stuff.

John Yohalem

image= image_description=Renée Fleming as Armida [Photo by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera] product=yes product_title= product_by=Armida: Renée Fleming; Rinaldo: Lawrence Brownlee; Goffredo: John Osborn; Eustazio: Yegishe Manucharyan; Gernando and Carlo: Barry Banks; Ubaldo: Kobie van Rensburg. Production by Mary Zimmerman. Metropolitan Opera chorus and orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Frizza. Performance of April 27. product_id=Above: Renée Fleming as Armida

All photos by Ken Howard courtesy of The Metropolitan Opera
Posted by Gary at 1:43 PM

No Elephants — Aida at the Royal Opera House, London

The blue elephant in Graham Vick’sTamerlano almost stole the show, but elephants were pointedly banned from this new production of Aida at the Royal Opera House, London. Instead, Verdi’s music takes pride of place, revealed in full glory.

Pre-performance publicity indicated that this would not be a stereotype production, but minimalist it certainly was not. Abstraction in many ways suits Aida, an opera of secrets and mysteries.

AIDA-©BC2010042169-ALVAREZ-.gifMarcelo Álvarez as Radames and Marianne Cornetti as Amneris

Large structures loom over the cast, for this is a drama where individuals are pitted against overwhelming forces. The simple, strong lines also permit a new kind of staging, created from light and colour.

No elephants, no circus. Instead the focus shifts onto Verdi’s music itself, revealing its magnificence without distraction. How glorious it is, heard as music! Indeed, it’s because Aida is so vivid orchestrally that we’ve become accustomed to associating it with grand panoramas. But music is in itself abstract. This time, the orchestral colours can be seen as well as heard. Shades of rose and ochre, scarab and peacock, amethyst and sand, glow iridescently, transforming as the music develops. Synaesthetes may overload, but this abstraction is surprisingly expressive, given the connection between visual image and music.

Nicola Luisotti conducted with flair..Tempi were on the fast side, but better that than too slow. Freed from the restraints of cumbersome staging, the orchestra’s pace matched the nervous energy in the drama. Violent moods, violent music. In the scene at the Temple of Vulcan, the Egyptians are working themselves up to a frenzy. Heightened emotion in the orchestra but less so in the dancing. The Rite of Spring style choreography would not have been out of place, but perhaps too much to expect. Strange, distorted shapes hang from the sky, like the corpses of the dead. When the prisoners shuffle in, they look like they’ve been in battle. As Aida (Micaela Carosi) reminds us, the Triumphal March may be triumph for some, but defeat for others.

In the third act, when Aida sings “Qui Radamès verrà,|” Carosi stands before a black and white panel, as stark as the dilemma before her. But when Micaela Carosi sings, the lusciousness of her music translates into washes of blue and green, evoking the dark, swift Nile and “cieli azzurri” above, her Egyptian present and memories of her native land. Carosi is a very experienced Aida. Her middle voice is secure, so the extremes in the part feel natural, rather than over-coloured. Aida is constrained, all around, by secrecy and the need for stealth, so she is a strong personality, and alert.


Marcelo Álvarez as Radames is a more conventional portrayal. He hectors, but then, Radames is a headstrong hero, eager for battle, but ennobled by the grace of love. His finest moment comes as he and Aida face death, when his voice softens and takes on a gentler tone. Marianne Cornetti was a forceful, forthright Amneris, and Marco Vratogna’s Amonasro suitably subdued.

Jennifer Tipton deserves much credit for designing the magnificent light show. David McVicar proves that abstraction does not mean minimal, and is just as valid musically as circus gimmicks.

Anne Ozorio

image= image_description=

product=yes producttitle=Giuseppi Verdi: Aida productby=Giacomo Prestia: Ramfis; Marcelo Álvarez Radames; Marianne Cornetti: Amneris; Micaela Carosi: Aida; Robert Lloyd: King of Egypt; Ji-Min Park: Messenger; Elisabeth Meister: High Priestess; Marco Vratogna: Amonasro. Actors, Dancers and Chorus of the Royal Opera House. Nicola Luisotti: conductor, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. David McVicar ;director, Jean-Marc Puissant: set designs, Moritz Junge : costumes, Jennifer Tipton : lighting, Fin Walker : Choreography, David Greeves : martial arts director, Leah Hausman : associate director. Royal Opera House. London, 27th April 2010. product_id=Above: Micaela Carosi as Aida

All photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera House.

Posted by anne_o at 9:00 AM